It was two minutes until game time at the antique wreck of a baseball park whose official title was CornAmerica Stadium, but which had been known locally and for years as The Great Beyond. Almost everyone with any talent who had ever played there had been dead at least four decades. The poor old park languished in shameful disrepair at the edge of the city limits of Des Moines, Iowa, a brontosaurus succumbing to a tar pit. Among the good folk of Des Moines, there were many who wished the slumping catastrophe torn down, or perhaps pushed into the Skunk River, whose desperate and malodorous waters it overlooked.
But it was a landmark, and Des Moines, a city pitifully in need of any tangible sign of distinction, had maintained it, although it was a fire marshal’s nightmare and no insurance company would touch it. The place had long been kept afloat by anonymous donations from local baseball fanatics whose adoration of the stadium’s mostly mythical past was limitless and whose common sense was every bit as fictitious as the legendary feats that had supposedly occurred there.
In all fairness, it was fairly well established that Connie Mack had passed through, as had The Babe and Mel Ott and and Three-Fingered Brown and John McGraw and some of the guys who threw the 1919 World Series. Traditionally, however, it had been safe to say that no one still living had been around to see whatever good baseball had once been played there. Like the Romans tolerating their crumbling Colosseum, everyone assumed that great things had happened here once, but no one knew for sure just what those things might have been.
Having it torched and building condominiums on the site occurred to the city fathers from time to time, but the local arsonists were as expensive as good relief pitchers, and the fathers were nothing if not parsimonious. The Great Beyond stood.
Attendance had always been sluggish at The Great Beyond, but since Nick Artery began making a run at the home run records—most home runs in a season, and most convicted felons executed by home runs in a season—the home team had recently started drawing sellout crowds, whose members ranged from gifted and prematurely retired career investors who were too rich to work and were now out on parole, to a sizable contingent of intoxicated retirees who took advantage of the Early Bird Senior Citizens Special. The first five hundred souls to haul their sorry carcasses to the ticket office every night got to sit in the bleachers for a buck. They enjoyed sitting close to the scoreboard, where the executions occurred. The rest of the stands contained the usual conglomeration of the unemployed and the unemployable, truant and expelled teens, drop-outs, panderers, disillusioned algebra teachers, unemployed lead guitarists, gambling addicts, coke addicts, nookie addicts, failed journalists, shattered hard-hats who’d gone to work without their hats once too often, predators on the prowl, retired assassins, and some strange fellows who simply enjoyed good, simple-minded entertainment at an affordable price. All gathered at the old wreck of a stadium for a glimpse of the great American pastime.
Game time was 7:00, and Nick Artery, clean-up hitter and home run king of the Des Moines Lightning Bugs, a minor league affilitate of a team that had never been any good and showed no signs of improving, showed up at 6:58. Cooties Lumbago, the wizened old full-time misanthrope and almost full-time manager who had hired Nick a few years ago, was there to greet him. Cooties sipped from an ancient flask which he swore contained apricot brandy, but which Nick was pretty sure held napalm spiked with Everclear.
“Complacency is death to the soul of a true executioner,” Cooties said as Nick approached his locker. “You don’t even have time to warm up today. You’re losing your edge, kid, and an executioner without an edge is tits on a boar-hog to me.”
Cooties stood about five-foot-four and was pure meanness. He was 77 and looked 110, thanks to a painstakingly inadequate diet, oceans of whiskey, and the foul chewing tobacco which filled his gums, his complexion and his view of the world, not to mention his soul. It was called “Black Dog,” and smelled like the gates of hell. Cooties was devoted to it. Even now, standing before Nick just moments before show time, Cooties had a plug of the godawful poison locked firmly into his lower jaw, and was happily fingering a new wad still in the can, his fingers poking around in the stuff with an agility the rest of his appendages hadn’t displayed in decades.