AUTHOR: Nolan Sweetwater (a pen name)
TITLE: “Schmitt Happens” (a Prologue)
GENRE: Contemporary Adult Fiction with a Thriller/Mystery Vibe
by Nolan Sweetwater
Las Vegas, Nevada
It was a few minutes before midnight when Phillip Valentine emerged from the side door of the hotel-casino he ran with an infamous resolve. For a guy who survived on four hours of afternoon sleep and a regimen of macrobiotics, Maalox and testosterone injections, the darkly handsome and impeccably coifed Phillip Valentine was always ready for his next close-up. Each crease was perfect, sharp as the steak knife he once used to terminate the employment of a cheating Pai Gow dealer.
Or so the rumor held.
An Armani-clad bodyguard the size of a small industrial refrigerator kept a respectful space behind, his eyes scanning the perimeter with quick, bird-like movements. No one looked back. Not tonight, not ever. He didn’t sense, much less see, that two men dressed in black were emerging from the cover of bougainvillea planted near the door. Didn’t feel them approach-ing from behind. Didn’t hear their breathing when they were close enough to hear his.
As was protocol, the big man opened the rear door of a Towncar waiting at the curb near the VIP entrance. Valentine got in, sliding to the far side to make room. Neither man cared or even noted that this was a different limo than the one normally at their disposal. They often used a service when their car was down. Shit happened in this business, and Phillip Valentine had learned not to sweat the small stuff.
It was then that the bodyguard felt the cold muzzle of a gun kissing the back of his neck. Right before something horrible and all-consuming was irrevocably clamped over his mouth.
The door slammed shut before the arena football castoff could climb in, and in that instant Phillip Valentine knew he was immersed in some very deep shit. This status was confirmed when he saw that the barrier behind the driver was raised and locked, something that was definitely not protocol, even in this business where everyone had something to hide.
The car bolted into the false sun of the Las Vegas night. Everything with a button or a handle was locked. The windows were tinted black on both sides, a coffin lined in Corinthian leather, a concession to the kinkier preferences of celebrities who often rode here. He checked his mobile, only slightly alarmed to see the words No Service, probably the result of a short-range signal blocking device similar to those found in his casino.
Someone had an unhealthy sense of humor. If they thought they could intimidate him with cheap theatrics they were sorely mistaken. Phillip Valentine and his business were untouchable, and everyone knew it. Those who didn’t were soon made to com-prehend the consequences of their misjudgment.
After a diversionary thirty-minute ride through the city, the car passed between the hallowed gates of the Scotch 80’s
community, home to the mayor and a plethora of old money Vegas names, many of whom shared dark secrets with Phillip Valentine.
The door swung open to reveal two shaved skulls mounted on dock pilings, both wearing satin warm-ups straight out of a P-Diddy video. They climbed in from both sides, one holding Valentine’s wrists while the other tied a nylon bag over his head. As they led him away he began hearing a sharp sound that repeated every few seconds, a cracking noise not unlike a gun firing. Metal kissing something solid. Frustratingly familiar, yet elusive without an accompanying visual.
They stopped near its source and the bag was removed. He was standing on a tennis court behind a massive house with Tuscan pretensions, facing a neon-blue swimming pool fed by an illuminated waterfall composed of synthetic rock.
He again heard the sound and turned. Behind him was a batting cage paralleling the court, at one end of which was a pitching machine. A stocky man in his sixties stood astride a portable rubber home plate in an awkward batting stance, shorts too tight and too short, thick legs black with coarse hair. Sweat flew from his face as he swung the bat, an action which, despite the resultant line drive, lacked any semblance of athletic grace. It reminded Valentine of his golf buddies who, after years of lessons, still swung as if they stowed a bag of tees in their rectum.
“You like baseball, Phillip?”
The guy had east coast city hair, shaped and fixed with enough product to lube a small motorcade. Valentine had never seen him before, which, along with the fact that he was all of five-six, made him nervous. The shorter the caricature, the bigger the bat. Phillip Valentine, who was a proud five-foot seven himself, knew this all too well.
“What the fuck is this?”
“Greatest game in the world,” said the batter without re-moving his eyes from the pitching machine. “You got, what, two girls, right? Twins. Ten or so. Got their mother’s looks.”
Something twisted in Valentine’s stomach.
The next pitch was fouled away, which seemed to piss the little man off. He regrouped quickly, reassuming the stance.
“I got two boys. Nolan and Ryan. Ever heard of Nolan Ryan, Phillip? Greatest professional athlete in history.”
“Jordan and Gretsky don’t think so.”
“No disrespect. But shit, seven no hitters? Fifty-seven hundred K’s? Excuse me all to hell, nobody comes close.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
Valentine suddenly sensed a slight movement beyond the cage. A bulky figure sitting in shadow, watching them.
A swing and a miss, followed by a spitting profanity.
“Who the fuck I am don’t matter,” said the host. “What the fuck I want, now that matters. You know what the fuck I want, Phillip? I’m betting you do.”
Valentine did indeed. He had been fielding offers from shady operators for years. Lately the usual suspects had been presenting what appeared to be squeaky-straight deals, easy financing for off-shore properties that promised mutually satisfying returns, with a few discreet favors thrown in on the side. So far he’d heard nothing that interested him.
He knew all that was about to change.
The stocky little gnome of a man emerged from the cage, pausing to press a button on a remote control hanging next to the entrance, the machine winding down to an eerie, idling silence. He then held the netting open as one of the thugs went behind the cage to a guy sitting in what Valentine now realized was a wheelchair. The occupant, about the same age as their host, had distant eyes and was soft about the chin, wearing penny loafers and a Lakers jersey. Baby Huey in NBA knock-offs.
The wheelchair was pushed inside the batting cage. The chubby fellow sitting in it smiled, happy to be here. Clearly, nobody was home.
“Check this out,” said the host, holding the remote up so Valentine could see as he cranked the dial. “Ryan threw, what, ninety-nine? Hundred on a good day? Clemens and Randy, too. The big fucking unit. Those guys, they got fitter as they got older. And you know what? They got smarter, too. Like you and me.”
“Is there a point anywhere on this horizon?”
The host pursed his lips, as if considering options.
“Point is, nobody hits a hundred-twenty mile-an-hour fastball. It hits you. You feeling me here, Phillip?”
The man in the wheelchair was mumbling the theme from a McDonalds commercial. Two all beef patties and a sesame seed fastball.
Valentine closed his eyes, comprehending the point.
“Sure you do. I think you don’t miss a beat. They say you’re one tough sum-bitch, which I respect. So in a roundabout sort of way, this is all your fault.”
“Just cut to it, you’re boring me.”
The man’s expression went blank as he said, “Happy to.”
He pressed a button on the remote. A moment later a blur of white flashed from the far end of the cage with an audible buzz. The ball, more like a bullet now, struck the wheelchair-bound man’s temple. It sounded like a watermelon hitting the pavement from three stories.
“Jesus!” yelled Valentine, involuntarily stepping backward.
The other goon caught him, two strong hands gripping his face to force his gaze upon home plate. The wheelchair guy’s head hung limply to the side, his eyes rolling back to reveal only white. His tongue protruded, searching for words.
The little man leaned close, his voice softer than before, his breath stale bourbon and garlic.
“So far you’ve turned down four offers to avail yourself of my services. You get one more. I suggest you take it.”
Another ball exploded from the machine, this one hitting the fallen man’s mouth, imploding teeth while nearly severing the wagging tongue. The ball came to a rest a few feet away, stained with spots of blood.
The host stared down at it, biting at his lip. He hesitated as he gathered his thoughts.
“Skip and I were kids, in the neighborhood. Back in the day. I promised his mother I’d take care of him, and until the day she died. I did that. I always do what I say I’m gonna do.”
He looked up at Valentine again.
“You noticing a point on the horizon now, Phillip?”
“You sick fuck…”
The man with the remote control just smiled.
The next ball crushed an eye socket. The fellow in the wheelchair no longer moved.
“Skip’s mother expired yesterday.”
The two men locked gazes.
“I’ll send a card,” said Valentine.
“No, listen, you got it wrong. I cared for him like a baby brother. Fed him, got him laid, paid his medical bills. Even put him in a pricey bullshit school for the learning-impaired. Bastards did nothin’. I figured, his mother dead and me having wiped his ass all these years, he owed me. So this morning over waffles, I ask Skip, you wanna help me make a point today? An important point? He said sure.”
Valentine closed his eyes as the next 120-mile-an-hour knuckleball crushed the dead man’s throat.
“Sooner or later,” said the man with the bat, “everybody says sure.”
“Looks like you’re even,” said Valentine, trying to free his head from the grip, which had tightened.
The host watched Skip, nodding slightly, perhaps even sadly. Then his attention snapped back to his captive guest.
“The point is this, you smug little prick. If I’d do this to someone like Skip here, innocent as a fucking kitten, someone I’ve loved and protected since I made my first buck… if I would do this to someone like him…”
He paused, his head cocking like a dog that had just heard its name called.
“… then imagine what I’d do to someone I don’t even know.
I mean, if it gets me what I want. You feeling me now, Mr. Phillip Big Shot Valentine? I think you are.”
The next ball impacted Skip’s shattered skull with a squishing sound and an ensuing arc of crimson. The host then shut down the machine, commencing an ominous quiet against the soothing backdrop of water rushing over synthetic rock.
Valentine couldn’t breathe.
The thug released his hold on Valentine’s head. As a personal touch he added a slight shove, strong enough to put Valentine on his knees.
“I got your girls, Phillip. You know the drill – no cops, no press, blah blah blah. You sweat it a while, then you get to write the ending.”
He withdrew a photograph from the pocket of his shorts and tossed it to the ground in front of Valentine. It was wrinkled and moist, landing face up.
“Have a nice day.”
The stumpy little man walked away, hands pocketed, whist-ling Skip’s McDonalds jingle.
Phillip’s twins were smiling directly at the camera, little brunette femme fatales in training, wearing matching UNLV cheer-leader outfits. They were sitting in the back seat of the same car that brought him here.
“You’re dead!” screamed Valentine, but the man wearing the shorts and batting gloves didn’t turn back. He just raised a nonchalant hand to wave as he turned out of sight.