In the late 1980s, Travis Lembeau, a freshman catcher trying to make his college baseball team, meets Nicholas “Pooch” Shepherd, a brilliant, ambidextrous pitching prodigy. The two become fast friends and decide to work out together to earn a spot on the rotation. But Pooch has a love of the drink and a talent for sabotage, and one cool February night in 1989, he embarks on a night of drunken violence that leaves Travis in the hospital.
Almost a decade has passed, and the two have gotten on with their lives. Travis has married his college sweetheart and works for a small-town newspaper, and Nick Shepherd, no longer calling himself Pooch, is a recovering alcoholic, ten years sober, who cares for his ailing mother and teaches baseball to the local kids. It would seem that the terrible days of Pooch are long gone … but sometimes the past is never where you think you left it.
Through a quantum anomaly, the demon that Nick used to be--the vicious Pooch circa 1989--claws its way across the portals of time to stalk Travis and harass his family. After Travis suffers another beating at Pooch's hands, he fears the worst--that Nick has fallen off the wagon and returned to his violent ways. But Nick is still very much sober and has an even greater reason for concern. For if this thing really is Pooch, if Pooch has somehow come out of the past to torment the present, then every atrocity committed by Pooch will leave a trail leading back to Nick.
Working together and apart, and enlisting the aid of a mysterious time-traveling transient, Travis and Nick set out to stop Pooch and send him back to where he came from … before Pooch’s madness destroys everything they love.
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By Matthew Krause
BALBOA PRESSCopyright © 2012 Matthew Krause
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThat cool February morning in 1989, the last good pitch we had together, Pooch Shepherd finally told me his origins. It was the question he got asked a lot anyway, at ball practice, at parties, whenever someone caught wind of the special things he did when standing on the mound. How'd you learn to throw like that, Pooch? was really shorthand for Where the hell do you come from? or What on God's green earth makes something like you? and Pooch used to laugh in the face of strangers, misting their faces with stale breath. "Don't you know who I am?" he would ask. "I'm the anti-Christy."
Just like that. Not the anti-Christ, but the anti-Christy.
The anti-Christy was something Pooch had dreamed up after watching a show on the Discovery Channel about the legend of Merlin the Magician. In Arthurian texts, it seems, Merlin came about when the demons in Hell decided they needed to make something on earth that would do as much evil as Christ had done good. So a demon was sent to the mortal coil to plant its seed in the womb of a virgin that she might give birth to the anti-Christ. The first big snag in the plan came when the intended virgin turned out to be pure of heart and devoted to God. Her innate goodness canceled out the demon seed, and her boy Merlin, though granted with demonic powers, grew to use them for guidance and healing.
"That's what happened to me," Pooch liked to tell his enthusiasts at parties. "That's why I'm the anti-Christy."
Christy, of course, would be Christy Mathewson, one of the first five inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. From 1900 to 1916, Christy Mathewson pitched for the New York Giants (and one season for the Cincinnati Reds), racking up a total of 373 career wins (3rd all-time), thirteen 20-win seasons, four 30-win seasons, and a lifetime ERA of 2.13. He also pitched 29 shutouts, won the National League Pitcher's Triple Crown twice, was the ERA champion five times and the strikeout champion five times as well.
But the numbers weren't important, not to Pooch Shepherd (We're gonna break those numbers, he used to say; Some day, Travis, you'n me). No, what chapped Pooch about Christy Mathewson was the Hall-of-Famer's impeccable character. Often dubbed "The Christian Gentleman" by the sportswriters of his day, Christy Mathewson's talent as a ballplayer was only matched by his graceful manners and reverence for God. In fact, much like Olympic runner Harold Abrahams eight years after Mathewson's retirement, Christy refused to compete on Sunday, a matter of principle to which he held firm.
"Everything about the boy was Ward Cleaver," Pooch used to say. "Even his name—Christ Matthew's Son. I'm tellin' you, the man was Jesus in a Giants jersey. That's why they had to make me."
They? his inquisitors would ask.
"The demons," Pooch said. "The ones in the pit. They got it in their heads they needed a quality pitcher in the rotation to match up with Christy Mathewson. So they cast their lots in a pool of dried sulfur, and the loser had to come to earth to lay wood and shag balls with a baseline groupie."
Pooch did not have many friends. Only one, in fact, that I know of, and he's talking to you right now. So as his only friend, it is no surprise that at some point in time I would be the one who would get the truth out of him. Not that I asked him or even cared, but on rare moments of solace, like that February morning back in 1989, sometimes the mask would crack and Pooch would be struck by a different kind of slump, the kind that left him slouched and weary in the seat of that old Impala convertible of his, staring through the windshield into a vacuum.
"My mom and dad met in this car," he said. It was a cool morning one month shy of the solstice. We had the top of the rag-top up, of course, and our breath was starting to form icy mist around the borders of the windshield. "Mom was sitting right where you are now, Trav."
"Were you conceived in this car as well?" I asked, grinning.
Pooch shook his head. "I was born on the 19th. They met on the 21st."
"Two days old," I muttered. "How'd it happen?"
"You wouldn't buy it, rock-star. It's almost as crazy as the slump-buster story. I wouldn't believe it myself if my dad didn't back it up. He may be an idiot, but he's not crazy. Not in the same way my mom is anyway."
"So tell me."
"Promise you won't laugh, rock-star?"
"Hey, it's me, man. Give it your best pitch."
And so he did.
* * *
In the summer of 1970, Vernon Shepherd, the man Pooch called Dad, loved two things: his car and the family business. A valedictorian infused with the old man's work ethic, Vernon more or less took over for his father right out of college at the splendid age of 23, assuming the managerial duties of Shepherd's Sports. Shepherd's was a family-owned sporting goods outlet that stayed in the black by designing and ordering team uniforms for the local high schools, but when Vernon came aboard in 1963, he had big ideas about how to increase the profits. His father stayed out of the way, and in less than two years, Vernon opened a second Shepherd's on the west side of Topeka. Two years after that there were stores in Lawrence and Manhattan catering to KU and K-State. By late 1969, the modest mom'n'pop sporting goods store was a full-blown Kansas franchise, allowing the old man to retire and Vernon to take control of the operation.
When Vernon first began riding high, the women were always there. Most of them were fleeting beauties with pliable figures, doing everything and asking nothing. Vernon liked it that way. By the time he was 30, he was a man about town, a confirmed bachelor with enough money to afford a lifestyle emancipated from broken hearts. He scoffed at the institution of marriage and believed the idea of love at first site was a myth. Faith in love assumed faith in God, and Vernon never had time for "priest-talk."
All of that changed in the wee small hours of a summer Sunday morning.
In the summer of '70, June 20 fell on a Saturday, and Vernon Shepherd spent most of his day at the Shepherd's Sports outlet in Manhattan, putting out fires that had been set three years prior by the store's incompetent manager. After terminating the man, Vernon exhausted the better part of seven hours in the store's back office with a ten-key adding machine and a stack of monthly green sheets dating back to the LBJ years. By late evening he had the books sorted out. He dined alone at a small downtown café, and probably should have gone back to Topeka right after. If he had, perhaps the story I am about to tell you would not have happened, for had Vernon left for Topeka directly after his supper, he would not have been on I-70 seven miles east of the 177 junction shortly after midnight, which, as it turns out, was right where he was supposed to be in the early morning of June 21, 1970.
After his meal, Vernon was restless, so he decided to drive to Aggieville, a small two-block shopping district adjacent to the local university's southeast corner, and nurse scotch-and-sodas at a bar called Kite's Bar and Grill. He spent the next four hours at Kite's drinking and looking for company, but it was mid-June, most of the students had gone home for the summer, and the action was sleepy. At 11:45 p.m., Vernon Shepherd persuaded the bartender to sell him a six-pack for the road, and by a quarter past midnight he was taking the cloverleaf off of 177 and heading east on I-70 back to Topeka with ragtop down and wind blowing in his sandy brown hair.
He was seven miles down and nursing his second beer when he saw the woman.
She appeared as if from a mist, darting out of the tall grass along the southern edge of the road and into the arc of Vernon's headlights. She wore a pale tan coat with a fold-over collar and fat belt around the waist, but her face and bare legs were so sallow that they seemed to reflect light like porcelain mirrors. Vernon yelped and swerved into the passing lane to miss her, slamming the brakes and screaming his tires across the asphalt. The Impala skidded inches past the woman, and for a moment as she glided past the shotgun edge of his front end Vernon swore that the woman had no eyes at all, just hollow black sockets like auger holes in her head. Vernon cut back hard into the right lane and skated the car onto the gravel shoulder, spraying dust and pebbles everywhere. In his rearview mirror, he could already see the woman running toward him, crimson in his brake lights. She clutched something to her chest, wrapped it under the lapel of her coat as if trying to hide it. Before Vernon could protest, she opened the passenger door and crawled in beside him.
"You almost wrecked my car," Vernon said.
"Go," the woman said, looking straight ahead. "There's something out there."
"What's the matter?" he asked. "Some kind of trouble?"
The woman's head snapped like a bolt locking in place. "You didn't hear me," she said. "Something is coming. You don't want to wait for it."
"What do you got there, lady?" Vernon demanded, looking for the first time at the lump in her coat. It would be just his luck to pick up some crazy woman with a gun. "What's that you got?"
The woman's body began to tremble, and her cavernous auburn eyes—quite beautiful, Vernon realized, even in the moonlight—flickered with their first hint of fear. "Please," she almost begged. "Help us."
And at that moment, Vernon saw something that would change his life forever.
Off in the darkness, deep in the grassy hills south of the interstate, something moved toward them. It was hard to determine its size or distance for it seemed to be made a harsh and murky kind of light, a clot of phosphorus fog that sucked all other light away. It reminded Vernon of a movie he saw his 18th summer at the old Chief Drive-In back in 1958. The double feature had been The Fly and Night of the Demon, but he and his date had been too busy necking to watch much of The Fly. At some point during the second feature the two had sat up for a breather and actually watched part of Night of the Demon. It was just one scene: Dana Andrews walking through an ominous forest, footprints of a monstrous invisible beast forming in the soil behind him, and a menacing ball of smoky light weaving through the trees above his head. Vernon never admitted it, but that one scene scared the hell out of him—gave him nightmares in fact—and now here on the shoulder of I-70 it was as if the smoky light-thing that stalked Dana Andrews was somehow out of the movie and making its way across the Kansas plains.
The woman in the seat next to him stole a look over her shoulder and lost two notches of self-control. She stifled a screamed, then whirled on Vernon Shepherd. "We've got to go," she said. "Now."
Vernon barely heard her. His eyes were locked on that glowing fog-ball as it darted and weaved over the scenic Flint Hills, casting oily shadows from the power lines that dissected the meadows, making its way steadily toward them.
The woman pulled back the lapel of her coat then, all the way off of her chalky white shoulder. The motion caught enough of Vernon's attention to drag his eyes away from the fog/light-ball, and he saw her right breast round and swollen, pulsing slightly by the dashboard light. For a moment, in spite of his terror, he felt that twinge of a thrill—she had been naked all this time under her camel-colored coat. Then he saw what she had been hiding in the coat's folds, and it sobered him faster than a cold shower.
The infant in her arms was maybe six pounds soaking wet, and its naked flesh shivered when exposed to the night air. It suckled at its mother's breast with eyes closed, tiny fists pressed against his face as if hiding from the world, and even in the soft dashboard light it was the most beautiful thing Vernon had ever seen.
"It wants him," the woman groaned. "Something in the night wants to hurt him."
The last part was sucked away as Vernon jammed the stick shift into drive and darted the Impala back out onto the highway. "Put that belt on!" he growled like a drill sergeant. "Cover up that kid!" And he lay his foot hard on the gas
The Impala roared beneath them, rocketing east away toward Topeka. In the rear view mirror, Vernon saw the glowing fog-ball curling its way across the highway with shiny tendrils like oil in water, and for a moment he thought it was gaining on them. But this was a Chevy Impala, no ordinary car but a 350 engine block with a 4-barrel carburetor and a chassis stout enough to break everything it touched. Within seconds the glowing ball of fog and light grew to a tiny dot behind them until it was gone completely.
Fifteen minutes later, when the woman had calmed, Vernon pulled to the side of the road and put the rag-top back up. He popped the trunk, found an old blanket, and brought it back to the front seat to drape over the semi-naked mother and child. Despite the warm wind of a Kansas summer, both were shivering.
In seconds they were back on the road again. On the radio, the Jackson 5 ordered him to stop because the love he saved may be his own. But Vernon did not want to stop. There were questions in his head, tinkering at his brain with picks and shovels, but every time he thought to ask them, he stole a glance at that child and they all seemed to dissipate. Was this a dream? He had put them away well back at Kite's in Aggieville, but surely he wasn't that drunk. He was only 30, and he held the stuff well, and besides, he was a lot of years and a lot more beers away from the kind of DT's that made a guy start seeing things like glowing balls of smoke.
What had that thing been? He wanted to ask the woman, but each time he looked at her and she looked back, he could think of nothing but how it might feel to run his hands through that raven hair of hers. Her eyes were black-ice now, barely visible in the dashboard lights, but she was still lovely and desperate, like an injured doe at the side of the road. Vernon felt a sudden devastating desire to protect her.
"I want to thank you," the woman said. "You are very kind. A beautiful man."
He felt himself blushing in the darkness. "Name's Shepherd," he said, fighting the instinctive urge to reach for a business card. "Vernon Shepherd of Shepherd Sports."
"My name is Samantha," the woman said. "And this is my son." She folded back the lapel of her camel-hair coat just enough for Vernon to see. "His name is Nicholas."
And that was how Nicholas "Pooch" Shepherd was inflicted on this world.
Chapter TwoUnless you're a die-hard St. Louis fan, you probably don't remember Luis Ibarro in 1998. Mention Luis to all but the most rabid Cards fan and you draw a blank stare, even though he batted .571 in his seven plate appearances as a pinch hitter. He even got two homers in the mix, one against the Giants in June and another versus the Astros in July. Still, few remember him. Luis was a bullpen catcher that summer, warming up guys like Mike Busby and Juan Acevedo before they took the mound in relief. As inflated as .571 looks, it still amounted to only four pinch-hits in seven plate appearances. It was easy to miss that in 1998. So much else was going on: David Wells' perfect game in New York; Kerry Woods' 20 strikeouts in Chicago; Cal Ripkin ending his iron-man streak in Baltimore; Craig Biggio going 50-50 in doubles and steals for the first time since Tris Speaker; and of course, the season-long home-run derby in which Luis's teammate Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa chased the ghosts of Ruth and Maris.
As McGwire was a Cardinal, Luis's four hits were lost in the 1998 season, but he was still part of the team. Surrounded by history, Luis wanted to share his good life with someone, and who better than his best friend, the guy he had introduced to Tom Lampkin and Eli Marrero that summer as his "Vietnam buddy," even though we were both still in grade school when Saigon fell?
The last Monday in August, Luis called me at my desk at the Emporia Gazette from a hotel in Miami, where the Cards opened a three-game set with the Florida Marlins that evening. Luis was not scheduled to start, of course, not with Lampkin and Marrero in front of him, but he loved road trips and was in good spirits.
"Need you to talk to your wife," he said. "Ask her about Monday night."
Excerpted from Pitch by Matthew Krause Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Krause. Excerpted by permission of BALBOA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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