Short Stories by Rick Jankowski

Speculative and Sensitive Fiction

Switching Sides

by Rick Jankowski

Nathan glanced at the flat-screen TV above the packed bar, then at Jimmy’s fat, white outstretched hand.

Jimmy wriggled his fingers. “Pay up, Nathan, me boy,” he said. “Your lookin’ at the TV ain’t gonna change the score, and your coverin’ the team on the wrong side of town certainly ain’t gonna change the score. We won again.”

Nathan sighed, slid his hand into his pocket, and extracted two crisp bills. Elbow on beer-stained wooden table, he rolled his eyes and waved the Alexander Hamiltons toward Jimmy. With thumb and forefinger, Jimmy plucked them from his hand and smacked them against the brim of Nathan’s White Sox cap.

On screen, a bearded giant in a blue Cubs hat explained how he had struck out the side in the ninth to preserve the win.

Jimmy swiveled in his chair, held up an empty beer pitcher and caught the eye of a long-legged waitress in micro-shorts and a blue pinstriped baseball shirt with the top three buttons strategically unfastened. He beckoned her with an index finger. She squeezed through the crowd, avoiding pinches and gropes, and flashed teeth and cleavage as she bent to take Jimmy’s order.

“Alexis, me dear,” shouted Jimmy above the raucous crowd, “this round is on me good friend, Nathan.” He deposited the two bills on her tray. “He’s tied his fortune to the wrong team this year, but we’re gonna turn him into a true-blue Cubbie believer yet.”

Alexis retrieved their beer pitcher. “Quite a year,” she said, smiling at Nathan. “Great new manager, great team, great for business.”

“Buy yourself a shot with that extra bill,” said Jimmy.

The bill disappeared between her breasts. “If you don’t mind,” she said, “college is expensive.”

Jimmy ogled her bottom as she wiggled away, then he turned his attention back to Nathan.

“I don’t get it,” said Nathan. He took off his cap and ran fingers through his long dark hair. “If the Cubs were bringing in new talent, it would make sense. But it’s the same payroll with the same mopes from last year. And now they’re sixty games over .500? How does that happen?”

“Don’t know,” said Jimmy. “Don’t care. Stop being a reporter. This manager just knows what he’s doin’. He’s gettin’ the best out of ’em. No more lovable losers! Maybe it’s magic. Maybe it’s voodoo. Who the heck cares! They’re beating the pants off everyone. They’re the best team in baseball, the best team in years. World Series, here we come!”

He stood and his belly jiggled. “C’mon, Alexis,” he yelled. He held an empty beer stein aloft. “Winning makes me thirsty!” He leaned back, opened his mouth and wailed, “Go Cubs go, go Cubs go! Hey Chicago whadda ya say, the Cubs are gonna win today!” He waved an arm at the crowd. “C’mon, everyone, sing it so Harry, Jack and Stevie Goodman can hear, wherever they are!”

“Go Cubs go, go Cubs go! Hey Chicago whadda ya say, the Cubs are gonna win today!”

The glass in the windows reverberated. Nathan stuck his fingers into his ears and slowly shook his head. The Cubs the best team in baseball? This can’t be happening, he thought. This is just plain wrong.

* * *

“A sports hypnotist, Tom?” said Nathan. “Really? That’s how they’re doing it?”

“That’s what Bauer says.” Tom pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and scratched the top of his bald head. “And Bauer should know. He’s covered the Cubs for years. Why do you care anyway?”

Nathan picked a stack of papers off Tom’s desk chair and plopped down. “You’re the editor and I’ll cover what you want, but something’s going on. This doesn’t make any sense. Plenty of sports teams have tried the hypnotist route. It might work for a guy or two like it did for that Bear’s quarterback, Tomczak, when I was a kid, but not for a whole team. No way.”

“It’s not the whole team,” said Tom. “There’s still a guy or two not hitting.”

“A couple of guys? There’s a dozen players hitting over .300. The team could win 120 games. When has that ever happened? Never. And these guys? C’mon? None of them have ever shown any potential. They’re bottom feeders. Let me dig around. I smell some kind of — I don’t know — steroid scam, maybe. We break this story, we’ll get a year’s worth of Internet traffic in a couple of days. Think what it’ll do to our advertising rates.”

Tom’s lips ticked upward.

“Same old Tom,” said Nathan, a dimple in his right cheek. “I knew that would get you.”

Tom scratched his head again, leaving red streaks across his dome. “Okay,” he said. “You’re right. This stinks. The whole town is so excited about winning that no one is thinking ‘scandal.’ You got one week. See what you can find. Talk to Bauer. He’s got that hypnotist’s name. Start there. Dig around. See if he’s ever been involved with steroids or illegal injections.”

* * *

While the slender, brown-haired man sitting behind the desk finished his phone call, Nathan swiveled in his seat and glanced around his office. On one wall were signed and framed pictures of football and basketball stars. Beneath the pictures was a glass case filled with autographed baseballs. Along the other wall were two blue stadium seats with metal frames and wooden slats. A plaque on each declared that they were from the original Yankee Stadium.

Wow, thought Nathan, authentic and expensive.

Behind the brown-haired man was a tall window with a view of a small suburban lake and a side wall of diplomas attesting to the credentials of one Dr. Scott Bennett, a psychologist and hypnotist. Two days of digging had turned over no dirt on the good doctor. Nothing. No drugs and no involvement with athletes on drugs. He seemed squeaky clean.

Dr. Bennett finished his phone call, placed his cell phone on the desk in front of him and raised his eyes to look at Nathan. He had a thin face, a narrow nose and warm, liquid brown eyes.

“Sorry,” said Dr. Bennett. “My clientele are rich, important and demanding. When they call, I answer.”

“I get it, Doc. I know what professional athletes are like. I appreciate your spending a few minutes with me talking about your work with the Cubs.”

As if in prayer, the doctor tented his fingers and touched them to his lips. He gazed at Nathan and his eyes seemed to grow larger, more moist. “I saw you admiring my Yankee Stadium chairs. I wanted something to really finish off my office. I found them in an antique shop on the near North side. Odd little place called Seifer’s. Couldn’t believe my luck. The place was empty. I think it’s gone now. It was obvious that business was bad.

“I had a devil of a time dickering with the owner, a weird, eccentric guy named Lou, but we eventually worked out a deal. Those chairs mesh perfectly with what I do, and my clients really appreciate their history, their tradition: the New York Yankees. The greatest sports franchise ever. Forty World Series appearances, twenty-seven World Series championships. When I work with the Cubs, I have the players sit in those seats.”

“Sort of like walking in their shoes?”

“Exactly, there’s a vibe, an aura of winning embedded in those seats.”

The doctor stood and glided to the seats. He touched one reverently. “I want the Cubs to feel they’re Yankees.”

Nathan turned toward the doctor. “But they’re not Yankees, are they? They’re still Cubs. Losers. And they haven’t won a championship for over a century.’

“I think,” said the doctor, his voice like warm oil, “we’re going to change that this year.”

Nathan stood and walked toward the doctor. He stopped and touched one of the seats.

“I don’t feel any vibe,” he said. “Don’t see any aura either.” His right cheek dimpled.

“They do smell kinda smoky though. Kinda sulfuric. Guess that’s from all the victory cigars the Yankee fans lit.”

Dr. Bennett smiled. “You’re being flippant,” he said. “But what I do works.”

“And what is it you do that works?”

“I change the Cubs into better versions of themselves.”

Nathan stared out of the window at the lake for a moment and then he narrowed his eyes and looked at the doctor. “Really, Doc, hypnotism does that? A little hocus-pocus and they’re winners. I don’t believe it. But I think steroids might do that. Maybe some new drug combination that the tests can’t check?”

Dr. Bennett continued to smile. “I’m clean,” he said, “and so are the Cubs. Check my background. Give them drug tests. You’re not going to find anything.”

“I’ve already checked into you and the league has checked into the Cubs. There’s nothing there.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Something’s going on. I’ve been a reporter long enough to know that. And I think you’re at the bottom of it. But I’m a fair guy. I’m here because I like to meet my quarry. Give ’em a fair chance before I expose them. This is your fair chance, Doc. You got anything to tell me?”

The doctor’s smile faded. He looked away from Nathan and glanced at the Yankee chairs, then he looked back. “Dig all you want,” he said.

Dr. Bennett’s cell phone vibrated and he placed it to his ear.

“Yeah, Mary,” he said. “We’re done in here. Send Leon in.”

Nathan tilted his head. “Leon? Leon Martinez? The Cubs catcher? Calls a good game, but can’t hit. He here to get hypnotized?”

“Yup,” said the doctor. “He’s the last hold-out, but the pennant drive is on. And now, if you’ll excuse me...”

The door to the doctor’s office banged open and its frame was completely filled by a crew-cut man with a scar on his left cheek.

“Hey, Doc,” the large man’s voice boomed, “let’s do this. I decided I wanna join the .300 club.”

The doctor introduced Nathan, who watched his hand disappear into the larger man’s grip. “Nice to meet you,” said Nathan, rubbing his knuckles. “Good luck with the rest of the season.”

“Don’t need no luck if Doc here does his job right,” said Leon, his voice deep and strong.

* * *

As Nathan exited the building, he glanced back. No one watching, he thought. Good. He scooted around the side of the building and retrieved a small rubber and metallic object from his pocket, then he stepped into the bushes that lined the office’s outer wall.

He worked his way to a tall window, peeked inside and then jerked his head back. Yup, he thought, the window to the good doctor’s office. He positioned himself so he would not be seen by Leon and the doctor, then he firmly pressed his metallic object against the window. He tugged at the round rubber suction cup that secured it. Perfect, he thought.

Nathan backed away and then hurried through the bushes to his car. Once in the car, he lifted the lid of a laptop, powered it on and navigated to his spy camera software. I warned the good doctor. I always warn ’em before I strike. This camera is so good I’ll be able to count Leon Martinez’s nose hairs.

On screen, the doctor’s office appeared in high resolution. No sound, thought Nathan, but if the doctor sticks a needle into Leon, it’ll all be recorded. Don’t want to hear him squeal anyway.

The doctor leaned forward in his chair. Across from him, Leon seemed to be listening intently.

The doc’s probably discussing how many cc’s of steroids the big lug will need, thought Nathan. That’s easy, just give him the same amount you’d give a rhino.

In high resolution, Leon rubbed his scar thoughtfully, then he nodded and stood. While he did this, the doctor reached into a drawer and retrieved a long metallic container.

Bingo! thought Nathan, the moment of truth. There’s probably needles and a vial of steroids in there.

He watched as they both walked to the Yankee chairs. Leon sat while the doctor stood in front of him and opened the container. Nathan leaned close to the screen. C’mon, Leon, he thought, roll up your sleeve so the doc can poke you.

The doctor set the empty case on the chairs next to Leon. In his hand was...

Darn, thought Nathan. It’s a pocket watch.

The doctor began to wave the watch slowly in front of Leon’s face. The watch picked up speed as it rhythmically arced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Leon’s eyes followed the watch, and soon his face turned waxen and then slackened. The doctor continued waving the watch for a few seconds, then he stopped. He slid the watch into his pocket, placed his fingers directly in front of Leon’s face and snapped them. Leon didn’t move, didn’t blink. The doctor snapped again. No reaction. Then he turned, picked up the metallic case and sat on the seat next to Leon.

Why’s he doing that? thought Nathan. Then his eyes grew wide. He placed his face within a few inches of his screen. “Stupid Bluetooth,” he said. Everything in the middle of the screen was becoming pixelated. Leon, the doctor and the chairs wavered and turned to tan, brown and navy lines. The lines broke into dots, the dots shimmered, the entire screen became cloudy, and the dots disappeared.

“What the heck,” said Nathan, his voice a hiss. He swatted the laptop with the back of his hand. “C’mon, where’s the signal!” He smacked the screen again. The cloudiness began to dissipate, the screen wavered, the dots reappeared, streamed and gathered into lines. Then the lines coalesced and Leon, the doctor and the chairs blinked back in high resolution.

Finally, thought Nathan. I must need a new cam.

On screen, the doctor stood and snapped his fingers. Leon’s face animated. He blinked rapidly and then rubbed the scar on his right cheek. The doctor said something. Leon shrugged, stood and shook the doctor’s hand. The doctor nodded and they walked out of Nathan’s range of vision. When the doctor returned into camera range, Leon was gone and the doctor held a check in his hand.

Heck, thought Nathan, that’s it? The whole session took what, five minutes and nothing really happened. How could this be helping the Cubs? How could it help anything? Maybe I missed something. Let’s take another look.

He moved his cursor to the play bar and pulled it all the way to the left. The scene replayed. Nathan frowned, his brow furrowing. When the replay finished, he stared at the screen and shook his head.

This can’t be, he thought. I gotta be wrong.

Twice, he replayed the video. Each time, the lines on his face grew deeper.

Okay, he thought, I’m either going crazy or... Let’s check one more time.

He moved the scroll bar back to the beginning. On screen, Leon sat across from the doctor, leaned forward and rubbed his scar. Nathan froze the picture, clicked twice and Leon’s face filled the screen. Large forehead, dark set eyes and scar on his left cheek. He clicked again and Leon’s face grew small.

Nathan sped through the video and stopped just after he’d lost the Bluetooth signal. The pixelated faces had returned to normal. He took a deep breath, double-clicked and the faces on the screen expanded.

Nathan’s head shot back and air shot out of his lungs. “No way,” he said. This can’t be! It can’t be. When Leon first sat down, his scar was on his left cheek. After the Bluetooth malfunctioned, it switched sides! What in holy heck is going on?”

* * *

Nathan turned the steering wheel and his car bumped into place along the curb. Moonlight filtered through the driver’s side window, casting half of his face in light and half in shadow. He rummaged through a small black bag on the seat next to him and extracted a pair of driving gloves and a small leather case. Snapping open the case, he revealed a set of flat metallic tools with narrow points on the end.

When you’re a reporter, he thought, you’ve got to be a jack of all trades, including a lockpicker. He selected two of the tools and slipped them into his jacket pocket. Exiting the car, he strode briskly.

The sidewalk was wet from the recent rain and a humid, moldy scent permeated the air. He turned the collar of his jacket up and glided down the block, past the front of Dr. Bennett’s building, along the side wall to the tall window. Once there, he slipped on the leather gloves and inserted a pick into a small lock that secured the window.

A spider scuttled from inside the lock. Nathan pressed a gloved finger against it, crushing the life out of it. He wiped his glove against the window, leaving a translucent trail of blue ichor smeared on the pane, and then he returned to his task.

After a couple of seconds, he heard a small click and the lock opened. He grasped the sill, tugged and the window slid noiselessly upward. He returned his tools to his jacket pocket and stepped inside.

His pupils dilated after a few moments, and he could see the doctor’s desk a few feet to his right. On the desk were two manila-colored folders and the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper was turned to the back page, which proclaimed, “Last to First — Cubs’ Climb Continues!”

Nathan pushed the paper aside and opened a folder. Inside was a photo of Leon, his dismal hitting statistics, and a copy of a check. Nathan pursed his lips. Wow, twenty grand was a lot of money for five minutes of the doctor’s hocus-pocus.

Nathan opened the other folder. What the heck is this, he thought. His dimple-cheeked face stared back at him. Why’s he have my LinkedIn photo? What does he want that for?

He closed the folder and slapped it back on the desk. Then he bent and tugged open the desk drawers. Pens, note pads, business cards, envelopes. Hmm, he thought, where’s that silver case?

He stood and surveyed the room. Of course, the Yankee chairs. He paced across the room and, bending to one knee, checked the seats. Nothing there. Okay, he thought, I gotta figure out what to do next. Rising, he placed his bottom on one of the seats and slid back.

He wrinkled his nose. There’s that smell again. Sulfur? Then, his vision seemed to blur and his stomach grew queasy. He grasped the metal arm of the chair. Odd, it felt warm. After a moment, the queasiness subsided and his vision cleared. He shook his head to clear it.

All this humidity, must be my sinuses, he thought. He got to his feet and brushed off his pants. As he did, he glanced toward the doctor’s desk. It can’t be, he thought. He balled and un-balled his fists, his attention focused on the top of the desk.

The newspaper was still there, but the two folders were gone! He glanced quickly around the room. The door to the reception area was closed and the window was just as he’d left it. He strode to the desk and walked around it. No files anywhere. He picked up the newspaper from the desk and his hand quivered as he read the article:

First to Last - Cubs’ Plummet Continues

How the mighty have fallen! The most storied team in the annals of baseball, the Chicago Cubs, have hit on hard times. The Cubs, the winners of twenty-seven World Series Championships in thirty-seven tries, were swept in interleague play this weekend, by the lowly Yankees, the perennial doorstop of the major leagues.

Our men in blue seem to get worse as each game passes. Today, it was the mighty Martinez’s turn to join the ranks of the lowly. Until now, he had seemed to be the only player immune to the contagious disease that seems to be sweeping through the team. Two passed balls and four strikeouts...

Behind him, Nathan heard a cough. Looking up, he saw the door to the reception area was open. Two figures stood in the doorway.

“Doc,” said Nathan. “Imagine meeting you here.”

The doctor stepped into the room. In his hand was a steel grey revolver.

“I did. Imagine meeting you here, I mean. You’re a reporter and you’re curious. I figured it’d only be a matter of time before you came back to snoop. Which is why I’m here tonight - and I brought a friend.”

A slim man with dark hair and a White Sox cap stepped from behind the doctor.

“What the heck is this?” shouted Nathan. “This ain’t funny!”

“No, it’s serious, and it’s big business. But where are my manners? Nathan meet Nate.”

The man next to the doctor smiled and a dimple appeared in his left check. He proffered his hand. The doctor swatted it. “Probably best you two don’t shake hands. I’m not sure what will happen to the universe if you touch. Maybe nothing, maybe...” The doctor shrugged his shoulders.

A deep scarlet flush ran up Nathan’s neck and spread across his face. He pointed an index finger at the doctor. “What are you up to? I know there’s some kinda scandal brewing, but...”

“But I told you what was going on when we first met.”

“You what?”

“I told you exactly what was going on. Remember, I said, and I quote, ‘I change the Cubs into better versions of themselves.’ I said it and I meant it.”

“Yeah... I remember.”

“I wasn’t talking about hypnotism though. I was talking about the multiverse. You know what that is?”

Nathan frowned and the lines in his forehead deepened. “You’re talking about some kinda parallel universe?”

“I’m talking about an infinite number of parallel universes.” The doctor smiled. “Imagine again. But this time, imagine a parallel universe in which the Cubs are the best team in baseball and another in which they’re the worst. Nate’s and yours.”

Nathan glanced at the Chicago Tribune, then at the doctor, and then at Nate.

“And then imagine,” the doctor said, “methodically swapping the players from one universe to the other. If he played it right, a man who could do that could become rich, don’t you think?”

Nathan glanced at the Yankee chairs and the doctor’s eyes followed his gaze. When they did, Nathan lunged. He brought his fist down on the doctor’s arm. The doctor groaned and his gun clattered to the floor. Nathan swung his other fist into the doctor’s midsection. Air shot out of the doctor’s lungs and he collapsed to the floor, gasping for breath. Nathan turned frantically, his eyes searching the floor.

“This what you’re looking for?” asked an eerily familiar voice.

Nathan looked up into a reflection of his own face and the barrel of a revolver.

“The doc made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” said Nate, shrugging his shoulders, “and there’s only room for him and me on the Yankee seats.”

* * *

Nathan glanced at the flat-screen TV above the packed bar, then at Jimmy’s fat, white face. “Hot dang,” he said. “One more game and we got the Series!”

Jimmy smiled. “I told you, me boy. And sure enough, if you didn’t listen. How much money have you made wagerin’ on the Cubs?”

Nathan waved a couple of bills over his head. Alexis glanced his way, smiled and undulated toward him. She bent, exposed her cleavage, and kissed him moistly on the lips. “This round’s on the house, Nate,” she whispered and there was a hint of things to come in her husky voice.

When she had wiggled away, Nathan answered, “Enough to start life over, Jimmy, me boy! Enough to start life over. And since I’m starting over, please call me Nate. I think it fits my new persona better.” A dimple creased his left cheek. He tugged on a Cubs’ cap and raised a glass in song: “Go Cubs go, go Cubs go! Hey, Chicago, whadda ya say, the Cubs are gonna win today!”