We had nothing but peace at the Lion’s Paw for as long as I can remember. Ted Parros was a connected fellow, and he looked the part, with matted white hair and a face that rarely smiled. He used to frequent the place, now and then doing business deals in the back poker room, and he didn’t want some punk causing a fuss and drawing any unwanted attention.
He never had to get physical with anyone, but he made damn sure that any troublemaker knew who he was. All it took was a sharp glance, or a tap on the shoulder.
Kenny Heachem was the exact type of guy Ted didn’t want around. He was a bit of a rowdy fellow, but not the loudmouth drunk type that I’ve seen over the years. On occasion, Kenny would wander into my establishment buying rounds of drinks and throwing money all over the bar. He’d place bets with strangers, which wasn’t abnormal at the Lion’s Paw, but he’d want people to put down their earnings for the week, and such a thing rattles the room with all kinds of commotion.
From what I knew at the time, aside from the bets at the Lion’s Paw, Kenny wasn’t involved in any illegal activities. But there was something peculiar about Kenny. He was a large, soft looking man, and he had a shuffle when he walked. The peanut shells on the floor would collect around the tips of his shoes. And whenever I served him drinks he’d give me a long look as if he was waiting for me to say a little more to him. I never let it bother me though. He was a generous tipper, polite enough, and I’d be fine with twenty more customers just like him.
I knew for sure that Ted didn’t care for Kenny. He was quite vocal, once saying, “That piece of shit makes any more noise I’m going to find a way to sew his mouth to his barstool.” Ted said it loud enough so that Kenny would hear it, but Kenny just turned around and looked back at Ted with a laugh.
And there was also that night in the spring, when Kenny sat at the bar drinking some scotch, watching baseball on the television monitors over the bar. A young patron, likely from the college just up the road, sat in the only empty seat in the house, which to his luck happened to be right next to Kenny.
“Do you care for baseball?” asked Kenny.
“I don’t mind it,” said the college kid. “I used to play in high school. I follow it enough I suppose.”
“What do you know about this game, Yankees and Indians?”
“I know the Yankees are going to win. They have Tamada pitching.”
“But the Orioles have this new kid dealing. Pichardo.”
The college kid shrugged. “I don’t know much about him, but his triple-A numbers don’t look all that impressive. They called him up because Crangle got hurt.”
“Well I’m a bit of a believer in this Pichardo. I’ll even bet you on it. Yankees are big favorites, but I’ll give you even odds.”
The kid tipped his head from side to side. “I don’t have all that much to bet you. Maybe a twenty.”
“A twenty? But you think the Yankees are a lock.”
“I do. It’s just all I have really.”
”You can’t dip into your college fund a little?” Kenny said, and he gave the kid a playful nudge on the shoulder.
“No, sir. I can give a call to my father. He likes playing the ponies, and he loves baseball. He might be willing to put up some money.”
“Well, sure. Go on and give him a call.”
“Like hell,” said Ted as he walked up to the bar between the two of them. He pointed a finger close to Kenny’s face. “You can go ahead and bet the kid twenty, but like hell you’re going to let the kid go on and tell his dad about it. His dad could be chief of police for all I know.”
“He isn’t,” said the college kid. “He’s a factory worker.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Ted keeping his focus on Kenny. “Don’t do it, and I’m not going to tell you again.”
Kenny nodded, but as Ted walked away he shrugged his shoulders and turned to the kid. “I’m fine with keeping it a small bet. I’ll even sweeten the deal. I bet you Pichardo throws a no hitter against these Yankees.”
The kid nodded with a smile as he put his twenty on the bar. Kenny put his twenty on top of it, ordered a beer for the kid, and a whiskey for himself.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the game. The bar started to fill with more people, coming in from the concert around the corner that just ended, and damned if my hired hand, Jen, didn’t call in sick to have me all by myself for serving the customers.
I really only noticed the change to the atmosphere when someone shut off the jukebox in the corner, and when all the bikers stopped playing pool to look up at the TVs.
“This bet still going?” I asked.
“Sure as hell,” said Kenny. “Bottom of six.”
“They’re swinging at bad pitches,” said the college kid.
The ballgame continued, and as it did, the bar got real quiet.
“Last hurrah for the Yanks,” said Kenny.
With two out, and two strikes, the Yankee shortstop ground his cleats into the dirt of the batter’s box. Pichardo dealt a perfect curve that arched through the strike zone, and down and away from the batter. The shortstop swung a big hack over top of the ball to end the game.
The silence and tension inside the Lion’s Paw broke and the room erupted with cheers. Everyone but the college kid celebrated with drinks. Kenny picked the two twenties off the bar, and the kid laughed, shook Kenny’s hand, and walked outside for a cab.
That’s when I saw Ted lean in and say something into Kenny’s ear. I couldn’t hear what, but Ted asked me to come to the back room after he returned from taking a piss.
When he left the washroom, I headed to the back poker room. “You stand guard outside the door,” said Ted.
I closed the door and rested my head on it so that I could hear their conversation. In all honesty I was worried Ted was going to kill him right then, and I felt anxiety about the thought of a bloody crime scene to clean up.
“How’d you know that guy would pitch a perfect game?”
“I didn’t. I only said a no hitter.”
“Let’s not get cute with the answers. I don’t know if anyone’s told you who I am—”
“They haven’t, but I’m well aware.”
“Very good. So I will be direct with you, and as a courtesy, I ask that you do the same.”
“So how did you know the kid would pitch like that?”
“Wasn’t certain he’d pitch a perfect game, but I know he’s a good pitcher.”
“Bullshit,” said Ted. “That college kid said the guy was a no good bum.”
“I see you make a lot of bets in here, and I don’t recall you ever losing one.”
“I just do it for the fun of it.”
“Well, I don’t do anything for the fun of it without getting paid. You’d be wise to do the same.” There was a long pause in their conversation, and I was tempted for a moment to peak in through the doorway, but I didn’t.
“We got numbers,” continued Ted. “Did you already know that?”
“You could make a lot of money. You could either work for us or against us. I wouldn’t recommend working against us.”
“Like I said, I just like having a little fun.”
“If it’s for fun,” said Ted, “then you keep it for pennies like they do the poker games in here.”
The door opened behind me and I stumbled back into Kenny as he shuffled his feet out of the room. I looked back and Ted put an unlit cigar to his mouth, looking down at the ground as if it would give him some answers.
It was a Sunday afternoon and there was no one in the bar except for a few of those bikers playing pool. Ted walked in with a dark-skinned, tall kid who looked no older than about twenty-two.
I walked to the table as they sat. “Any drinks or food I can get you guys?”
“Get the chef to do up some of those fish and chips for my friend here,” said Ted.
“Certainly. And a drink?”
“Agua,” said the young man.
“That’ll be water,” said Ted. “Get me a Cutty.”
I put in their orders to the chef and returned to watch as Ted and a couple of his pals spoke to the kid.
The kid seemed able to understand English, just not as comfortable with speaking it.
“We just want to know how,” I heard Ted say. “It was impressive is all.”
I could have smacked my head off the brass bar rail for being stupid, not realizing that it was Luis Pichardo, in my bar, just days after he threw a perfect game for the Indians.
Kenny shuffled in the front door, but he stopped when he saw Pichardo. I thought maybe he was dumbfounded, star struck, something like that, but then he raised a flabby arm at the table. “Luis. Don’t bother with these guys. Don’t listen to any of their bullshit.”
He went to the table, and Ted and his entourage stood. He took Pichardo by the arm trying to pull him out of the seat, but Pichardo didn’t budge. “You don’t listen to anything from these guys. Bad guys. Malo.”
“And how the fuck do you happen to know him, Kenny?” asked Ted.
“Not important. He needs to come with me.”
“Like hell he does. He wants to enjoy the Lion’s Paw’s finest foods.”
“Luis, I’m going to be just over there,” said Kenny, and he pointed over to the bar.
“What are your chances on winning another game?” asked Ted.
Luis held up a thumb.
“You’re not tired or anything?”
Pichardo shook his head dismissively.
Fifteen minutes later I brought over the fish and chips, and Pichardo ate in silence. Ted didn’t say much to him, he just flashed a few smiles, which was weird to see coming from him.
After Pichardo finished eating, Ted shook hands with him, and had one of his pals drive him home.
Ted scrambled toward the bar as Pichardo left. I don’t think I’ve ever saw him so angry. His face was tense as he yelled into the back of Kenny’s head. “Just how the hell do you know Luis so well?”
“He’s an old friend of mine.”
“You have an obvious inside edge you never told me about. I asked you a few days ago and you were all mum.”
“He’s an old friend is all.”
When Kenny up and left, saying he had to go to work, Ted asked me to do him a favor. I’d never done a favor for him before, and I never had the inclination to do so. But I obliged with him being him, me being me.
Since his pals were gone, he asked that we get in my car and follow Kenny to his work. Ted sat in the passenger seat real low so that his eyes could peer just above the dash. I tailed Kenny by letting a couple cars move up ahead of me. It was only a ten minute drive, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed behind a wheel, that includes those snow storms so white where you can’t see the lines in the road.
Kenny pulled into some warehouse, passing the security at the front gate with a wave out of his window. I pulled up and parked across the street as Ted leaned over my shoulder, watching Kenny walk up the stairs. As he opened the door, we noticed the small, rusted sign that said, Tumbler Robotics.
“He ever tell you what he does for a living?” Ted asked me.
“Not that I can remember. He might have told me he was an engineer, but I can’t quite remember if that’s right.”
“Your girl, the buxom brunette, Jen, she told me he worked in sales.”
I started remembering. “Yeah, I did hear that once. He went to school for engineering, but he’s a salesmen.
I guess you need to know what you’re selling for those robotics.”
“Pull on up there.”
“Through the gate?” I asked. “I’m thinking you need to work here.”
“Pull on up. I’ll do the talking for you.”
I drove up and stopped before the candy striped stick. A guard in a blue shirt leaned out of his little box. “Are you here to see someone?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said Ted. “Kenny.”
Ted poked me in the arm. “Kenny Heachem.”
“Hmm, I’ll call on in.”
“No need to do that,” said Ted. “We’d like to surprise him. We’re old friends of his.”
“We always need auth’.”
“Authorization. It’s a secure area.”
“Why so secure?” asked Ted.
“With the robotics and all. They worry about people seeing what they’re not supposed to.”
“Well,” said Ted, “I don’t think we need to bug him. We’ll just catch up with him later.”
Ted had us all dressed up in black — me, him, and four of his pals. He gave us balaclavas, trench coats, and crowbars. I told Ted real plain that I’d never done such a thing before, but he said not to worry, that it was easy work. He said I was already in part way, and once you’re in part way, you need to go all the way.
To be honest I just wanted to get it done and over with, because Jen was texting me on my cell phone about how she wanted to duck out from her shift to meet up with her boyfriend. I said I’d be quick. I figured a break and enter was meant to be quick.
Ted told us that he paid a drunk to harass and distract the night security, and that put my mind at ease a bit.
I held the crowbar, but never used it. Ted and his boys did all the prying to get that door open. An alarm tripped, but it beeped only once and the tallest of Ted’s guys put a stop to it by pinching something along the door frame.
“Keep moving,” said Ted.
We walked through the corridors, through the confusing layout of the building, and it looked like they were renovating. Someone had ripped up all the floors, and tore down all the walls. It was nothing but concrete and a wooden frame.
We saw blueprints lying about all over. Ted picked it up and unrolled it, looking like some pirate searching for gold treasure.
“Do you know what it is?” I asked.
“Some lines,” he said. “I don’t know what they mean. All these calculations.” He looked at the man who silenced the alarm. “Can you make sense of this? Is it electrical shit?”
The man looked at it and sort of sniffed, but maybe only because of the dust. “I can’t say what.”
We continued on, finding the end of the corridor until it opened to a large room.
Ted was up ahead, and when he reached the room I saw him open up his arms and look to the roof.
“Sonofabitch,” he said. “Look at all this shit.”
There were stacks of metal, wires, all kinds of tools. They were messy, like kids playing with toys but never bothering to put them away.
I walked over to a pile of them and took a knee. They were made of solid material on the inside, and real spongy, wire pieces over top. They were all different colors and some were stacked together like a pallet of rainbows. The metal bent in to v-shapes when I picked them up. There had to be near a thousand of those things.
“What are they?” asked Ted.
“Nothing I can tell,” I said.
Ted picked one up and looked at it with his eyebrows kept low. He put one up on top of the sleeve of his coat, letting the bend in it align with his elbow. I don’t know a hell of a lot about anatomy, but those pieces sure seemed to look like bone and muscle fibres. “What do you think? Maybe arms?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Explains how Kenny knows Pichardo. You think that guy has one of those under his skin? Is it throwing his pitches for him?”
“Could be. Would make sense, wouldn’t it? How that kid, that dreadful pitcher, threw a game like he did.”
“Shit. That’s too much.”
Ted shut it down for the night. He took the blueprint, but made sure we left everything else as is. And we did, finding our way back out through the winding corridors.
Business at the Lion’s Paw had been slow all week for some reason. People seem to go away with their kids in the summer once they get out of school. Ted was there all day, every day, which I didn’t mind so much, he kept me company, but I was nervous about why he was there.
He was waiting for Kenny to show his face and that made me nervous. My back stiffened every time the door made a little creek like it did whenever it took a strong gust of wind, or if someone entered from the street. When it opened it was nobody in particular, just the other regulars, out to have a few beers or whiskeys after work.
Ted seemed bored of my place, and he paced around the joint, hands in pockets, looking at those brown dress shoes of his.
“Why don’t you just let me give you a call if he comes here?” I asked. “Or we could take a run down by his work again.”
“I want to see his face as soon as he walks through that door. And I want him in here, in a nice private setting, in that back room of yours. It’s not ideal for us to start lurking around his workplace again.”
Maybe Ted didn’t trust me, I’m not too sure. Or maybe he was just a guy who thought it was best to do a job right by doing it himself. I know I’m not too different in that respect.
Kenny showed up about a week and a half later, only fifteen minutes before close. There were about a half-dozen people in the place, and Jen, thankfully, was with me, needing to pick up a shift for some extra money to cover her rent.
I thought Ted would be in Kenny’s face as soon as he stepped to the bar, but Ted hung back at his table, watching Kenny as if he wasn’t all that interested.
Jen poured Kenny a drink and I walked up and talked with him. “Any bets for tonight?”
“No, no,” he said. “I’m a bit burned out from work, just looking at getting a drink and relaxing.”
I saw Ted nod at me and walk to the back room. “I think Ted wants to speak to you,” I said.
“I figured as much,” Kenny said. “Just let me finish my drink. Tell him I’ll be a moment.”
I stood by the door again, waiting for Kenny, who seemed to be taking his time. I could see he gave Jen a nice tip since she batted her eyes at him. He shuffled over toward the back room. “I won’t make you wait long,” he said to me as he passed.
I leaned my head on the door again to listen.
“How much do you know?” asked Kenny.
“I have this,” said Ted, and I imagine he showed Kenny the blueprint. “I’ve had people in the know give it a look.”
“And you have two choices. You cut us in on the operation you’re running, and we protect it, or you let us know who else you’ve given this treatment to. You let us know when we should be making some heavy bets in our favor.”
“I can’t do that,” said Kenny.
“Correct. I can’t do it. I know what you’re all about Ted, but you don’t know what my people are all about.”
“Secret government agencies.”
“What kind? CIA and all that? Don’t think I don’t know a few.”
“They’re ones you’ve never heard of. Getting major leaguers to use it is just the trial run. They want military, soldiers with super strength, unlimited endurance, stuff beyond the human body’s normal capabilities. They want an army of these guys. The ability to win any ground battle. Absolute accuracy with weaponry.”
“Yeah, but I know one guy who’s using it now. I can out him. Then your whole technology is out there. I could sell it to the Chinese if I needed to.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Kenny. “I’ll overlook that and forget that you said it, but you need to let this one go.”
Kenny was true to his word and he kept the conversation brief. I had a feeling I wouldn’t see much of Kenny around the bar a whole lot after that.
Ted wouldn’t let it go. I’m not sure if he ever had a time where he didn’t get his way. Before he left for the night, Ted scrawled his number onto a napkin. “He comes in here again, you give me a call.”
But I was right, I never saw Kenny again. And I never saw Ted again either.
In the fall, Pichardo was all over the news. The Indians were in the World Series, and there was discussion about him having a chance to win a CY Young award, although he had competition from the other pitchers on his team. The rotation had set all kinds of historical records for earned run average and strikeouts.
A man came in to the Lion’s Paw the night of the first game in the series. The man wore a dark coat and had a face that drooped down into his beer. He watched Pichardo take the mound while he sipped his drink.
“Did you hear the story about that guy?” he asked keeping his eyes fixed on the game.
“Pichardo?” I asked. “What about him?”
“He’s supposed to have an arm made by a machine.”
“Yeah? Go on then.”
“Well, the story goes, his Tommy Johns surgery didn’t replace no ligament like it’s supposed to. They replaced his whole damn arm. They peeled the skin up like a banana peel, took out all his bones, all his muscles, and they threw in a fake prosthetic. But not no ordinary prosthetic, one that he had lots of control over. One that the medical reports can’t detect.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Some guy I work for over on Euclid. Forget performance enhancing drugs. That’s a thing of the past. Cyborgs like him are the future.”
“Well,” I said, “explains how he pitches like he does, I guess.”
“Damn right it does. But that’s not all.” He stuck his elbow against the bar and pointed his finger at the T.V. screen.
“What else then?”
“This Mafioso looking guy — he’s been around the city — he comes looking for Pichardo with a bunch of goons. He starts asking him all kinds of questions, about his arm, about how he needs someone to protect him. But Pichardo gets all defensive, saying he knows nothing about it.”
“What did this guy look like?”
“I dunno, typical. They start getting into a fight right in the street. The Mafioso guy hauls him into this back alley, but my boss, he keeps an eye on them. The Mafioso guy reaches for his gun, so Pichardo puts his arm up, his pitching arm, and he put his hand on the guy’s neck. He uses all of that strength from his arm and pushes the guy up against the wall.”
“Yeah, shit is right. He chokes him right there with his cyborg arm. He squeezes the life right out of him, as they say. And he drops the guy and leaves him for dead, clipping them goons with some heavy punches that knock them silly. He books it around the corner hoping no one saw it. Except my boss, Kenny, did. Imagine that, mafia kingpin,” the man snapped his fingers, “dead like that. Killed by a pitcher with a robotic arm. Can you believe it?”
“Quite a tale,” I said.
He looked me in the eye, solid, the way Ted used to look when he meant to get his point across. “It’s no tale.”
Before I could answer — not that I knew what to say, and maybe it was better that I didn’t say anything — Jenny leaned over, lifted up the man’s drink, and wiped the ring from under it. “I’ve heard bigger nonsense in this place.”
I looked at the other customers toward the back of the bar. They didn’t seem like baseball fans. They were all dressed in dark clothing. I realized that the Lion’s Paw had a new clientele.