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Standing in the Strike Zone
About the Author: Steve Liskow's stories have appeared in Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and several anthologies. The first two-time winner of the Black Orchid Novella Award, he has been a finalist for both the Edgar Award and the Shamus Award.

By the sixth inning, I couldn’t decide whether Mulaney, the umpire, was getting paid or getting laid. Or both.

Sure, there are always a few calls that go against you in a game. A strike on the corner, a ball that’s foul by an inch, a close play at first, but every close one went against us that day, and it was getting to my pitcher. I was catching, so I had to keep my mouth shut or it would get even worse.

But in the top of the sixth, I came up with two out and a runner on third, one run behind. Grayson, the other pitcher, had a curve that gave us enough trouble without the umpire. I managed to foul one off and held off before another dove into the dirt in front of home plate.

The next pitch damn near peeled the letters off my jersey. I stepped back and tried to decide if Grayson would throw his curve again or try to beat me with heat. He glanced at the runner, then his arm resembled a Ferris wheel before the ball streaked toward me. Heat, and I let it go by.

“Strike two,” Mulaney bellowed.

“Seriously?” I glanced back at him and tried to keep my voice casual. “I couldn’t have reached that one with a flagpole.”

“Looked good from here.”

I knew better than to reply. Now I had to worry about the next pitch. If it was less than a foot off the strike zone, I’d have to go after it. I stepped out of the batter’s box and checked the outfield. Pretty much straight away, no shift. Jerry, the runner on third, was the fastest guy on our team. If I got the ball past the infield on the ground, he’d score easy.

The next pitch was another fast ball, definitely a strike. I was a hair late and fouled it off. The one after that was so far inside I felt the breeze on my chest.

“Strike three!”

“Aw, gimme a break!”

Mulaney aimed his finger at me.

“Another word, I’ll toss you, Charlie. You’re out. Suck it up and let’s play some more ball here.”

It was the league championship, and the only reason Dalton Chemical was leading was they had an extra player on the field—Mulaney. Their best hitter came up with one on and one out and I signaled Art for an outside pitch because I knew the guy would chase.

“Ball one.”

“You kidding?” I turned to Mulaney. “That was six inches closer than the strike you called on me last inning.”

“Last warning, Charlie.”

We tried another outside pitch, over the corner, and Mulaney called it a ball again. I went out and talked to Art. We decided to try one on the inside corner for a change.

“What if he calls that one a ball too?” Art was three inches taller than me, and about six years younger. Sweat gleamed on his forehead and beaded in his eyebrows. A woman in a red T-shirt, Dalton’s colors, cheered and clapped.

“Then we’ll have to try heat for a strike, then a curve,” I said. “He’s taking away everything on the corners.”

“Yeah,” Art said. “But not for them.”

Sure enough, Art’s pitch caught the inside corner and Mulaney called it ball three. I bit my tongue, but I wanted to turn around and pound the guy into the ground like a tent stake. I called for a fast ball, and the batter lined it between our left and center fielders for a double.

The next batter walked on two beautiful strikes, and I turned to Mulaney again.

“Whose girlfriend is paying you off? Or is it the bat boy?”

Mulaney pointed at me, then swung his arm toward the bench.

“You’re out of this game, buddy.”

Art and our third baseman escorted me off the diamond before I swung at the guy. We lost five to four, and it looked to me like my replacement tagged the winning run at home before the umpire called him safe.

We lined up and slapped high fives with the other team and ignored Mulaney, who had the good sense to fade into the background. I wondered if he’d come back after we left and have a beer or two with Dalton Chem, but I returned to our side of the field and helped pack up our gear.

This story appears in our JUL 2023 Issue
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