RELEASE POINT

            Grace Monroe laid her cork-covered tray on the Home Run sports bar, where she offloaded two empty glasses, three beer bottles, and a pair of horn-rimmed eyeglasses.  The bartender looked at the eyeglasses, then at Grace.  “Another one for the lost and found, Charlie.”  Charlie tossed the glasses into a box beneath the bar and shook his head.  Grace just smiled and turned her attention to the widescreen TV over the bar.  Her waitressing job at the Atlantic City Rialto Resort and Casino had one major benefit over her second job at the Blue Moon Bar out on the Boardwalk:  ESPN on the above-bar television, all day, every day.  Not that she could get away with standing there staring at the baseball games all night, but a stolen glance at the scores as she filled and emptied her tray kept her mostly up to date.  As much as she adored her boss Tony and the fun at the Blue Moon, Tony didn’t believe in televisions to attract customers.  She grinned.  No, he used Grace for that instead.

            “My boys’re gonna beat up on your Mets tonight,” she said as she turned away from the preview of the night’s Game of the Week matchup.

            Charlie wiped down the bar and snorted.  “I don’t think so.  For one thing, it’s supposed to rain tonight, and besides, it’s gonna be hard to get anything out of the infield with your boy Dante out of the lineup for the next fifty games.” 

            Grace’s eyes went wide.  “Dante?  Why?  What happened to him?”  Her heart rattled a little.  Paul Dante was the best hitter on the Philadelphia Pioneers, and in six more homers, he’d be a viable candidate for Cooperstown.  Not to mention he was pretty damn easy on the eyes.  Not that she paid attention to that.  Grace knew from past experience that ballplayers equaled trouble.  Hell, it was practically written in her DNA.  Still, the Pioneers’ center fielder was the kind of fire she wouldn’t mind playing with.  The very thought of those broad shoulders and tightly muscled arms were enough to make the hairs on the back of her neck stand at attention.  And when he smiled…

            Then she reminded herself that she was thinking about a sports celebrity as if she even stood a chance of getting within a mile of the guy without a ticket in her hand.  Time to get a social life, she told herself for the three hundredth time. 

            “He got suspended.”

            Grace gasped.  “No!  Why?”

            Charlie’s quasi-evil look put a knot in her stomach.  “You didn’t hear?  He got caught.  Steroids.”

            “What?  Charlie, you’re full of crap.  Dante wouldn’t take steroids.”  She paused a moment, considering the mention in the previous night’s game that he was just six home runs away from five hundred, the unwritten Magic Number between a baseball career and a plaque in the Hall of Fame.  What if those home runs weren’t all his?  Other accused steroid users’ careers hadn’t exactly ended in a blaze of glory; more like a crash and burn.  And Dante had come back fast after that shoulder injury just before the All-Star game.  Still, he wouldn’t take drugs.  Would he?  “When did this come out?”

            “About an hour ago.  Now what do you think of your pretty-boy home-run hero?”  Charlie’s brow cocked high.  “Six weeks left in the season.  Let’s see your Pioneers take the pennant now.”

            Grace growled and took her tray and turned back to the casino floor.  “Yeah, well, the Mets are still in last place.”  Over her shoulder, she heard him laugh.

            She shook her head and tried to reconcile how the Pioneers would fare without their ace cleanup hitter.  Then she smiled to herself, not quite sure why she still followed baseball so closely.  Maybe it had something to do with being able to calculate batting averages before she could spell her own name, or earning a merit badge by explaining a suicide squeeze, the infield fly rule and the balk rule in one breath.  She had Danny Monroe to thank for that.  Because of her father, baseball was more than just the Great American Pastime to her.  Baseball was his greatest passion, and even after he’d left Atlantic City and his family behind, his passion for the game still lived in her.  She couldn’t shake it, despite her mother’s repulsion for anything to do with baseball.  Elizabeth Monroe had never understood why a man would find a game more important than a family.  Grace hadn’t fully understood that either, but she did still love baseball.  It was her last connection to the father she’d grown up without. 

            Or maybe she’d just undergone too much bartender psychology over the course of her thirty years, working two jobs to keep from going crazy looking at the same four walls in her apartment. 

            She scanned the sparsely-populated aisles of slot machines, dancing a solo samba to Marc Anthony’s “I Need to Know” filtering down from the casino speakers.  For an average Thursday afternoon, gaming wasn’t that heavy.  She walked up to a couple holding hands as they played the bonus round on the Pink Panther machines.  “Can I get you folks anything?  Beer?  Water?  Coffee?”  They shook their heads, and she smiled and turned to dance along another aisle.  “Okay.  Good luck to you.”

            Maybe it’s time to try again, she thought as she glanced over the gaming tables, pretty evenly populated, most already served.  Thirty teams in the big leagues; Danny has to be working for one of them.  He’d rather die than walk away from baseball.  I’m living proof of that. 

            She shook her head, hoping to shake the idea out of her head.  Danny had been gone twenty-four years already.  If he hadn’t tried to get in touch with her by now, he never would.  Finding him would only open a can of worms she couldn’t close again, even with her mother gone. 

            Of course, Danny didn’t know she was gone.  He’d want to know his wife had died, right?  Or that he still had a daughter who wondered–

            Grace snorted to herself and turned a corner.  Whatever.  He’s probably forgotten about both of us by now.  Twenty-four years is a long time.  She’d grown up just fine without a father in her life.  Sure, she worked two jobs and had no personal life to speak of, but things were good.  Comfortable.  Predictable.  Why fix it if it isn’t broken? 

           

            Rain pelted the roof of the Mustang like bullets, rattling against Paul Dante’s already frayed nerves.  He pulled the car into the shelter of the valet garage at the Rialto Resort and Casino and breathed easier in the sudden flood of silence.  With a desperation that saturated his bones, Paul hated the sound of the rain.  Rain during the season stole a day from him when he could have been playing baseball.  Just the sound of falling rain made him feel like someone had tied his hands behind his back. 

            As unnerving as the rain’s noise had been, the sudden silence in the car’s cockpit was almost worse, because then he could hear the voices in his head loud and clear.  The ones that reminded him that it wasn’t just rain that kept him from the game this time.  The difference between then and now was, eventually rain stopped.   

            A skinny teenager in a wet tuxedo pulled open the driver’s side door.  Paul unfurled his six-foot-two-inch frame from the car and put the key into the kid’s hand along with a twenty dollar bill.  “Thanks!” the kid said, then blinked and stood stock still, that “I know you” expression frozen in his eyes.  Paul reached into the back seat for his bag, slung the strap over his shoulder and walked away without a look back.  The last thing he needed was to get mugged for an autograph.  For this week at least, while the news was still hot, his John Hancock would draw twice as much on eBay as it had a week ago. 

            When he got his hands on the son of a bitch who leaked the news that he’d been suspended for testing positive for steroids use, he’d likely be up on murder charges, too.  Finding out how he’d tested positive was something else altogether.

            Ten minutes later, the hotel desk clerk handed Paul his room key-card.  “Enjoy your stay, Mr. Dante.”  The petite blonde’s smile showed off pearly white teeth, and her pretty blue eyes twinkled invitingly.  Paul smiled back and made a mental note to come back to the front desk if the rest of the night went south. 

            Like his career.

            Get drunk and get laid, he told himself, fighting off any and all thoughts of baseball.  Nothing like getting a little ass to make him forget his troubles.  He prayed the casino didn’t have a baseball-themed slot machine, or even a television in the bar.  The bar where he could get shit-faced drunk and forget what a world of hurt he was living in at the moment.

            His head throbbed, his chest burning hot.  He hadn’t even seen it coming.  The morning had been like any other since the season began.  He’d had breakfast and practically counted the minutes ‘til he could get to the ballpark, work out on the machines, take batting practice, and talk to the trainers about how his shoulder was healing after the dislocation back in St. Louis.  Before he could finish tying his cleats, the General Manager called to speak to him.  An hour after that,

he was in the car with the GM’s Notice of Suspension on the passenger seat and no idea how in the world he’d tested positive.  Suddenly the rest of his life loomed ahead of him like an approaching storm.  His contract was up at the end of the season, and the suspension would carry him like a tidal wave into the end of the season, too.  Innocent or not, no team GM in his right mind would sign a guy with a rep for steroid use tailing him.  Unless the guilty party popped out of the woodwork and confessed to doping him up, Paul was pretty sure his career was over.  The only thing he’d ever pursued, heart and soul, since the time his father first put a bat in Paul’s hand.  He’d never given much thought to what his life would be like after baseball.  In a way, he’d almost been hoping there wouldn’t be life after baseball. 

            Could this casino possibly have enough women and booze to keep him from thinking about that?

 

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