Over the years I’ve watched a lot of sports: baseball, not my favorite; softball, a different version of baseball; football, too slow; hockey, too fast; basketball, Yes. And soccer, you bet! Love, love, love me some soccer. Make that fútbol to everyone outside the U.S. Ah, yes, soccer has replaced basketball as my favorite watchable sport. I’m not sure why because a last minute fluke can mean the best team doesn’t necessarily win. And those sudden death tie breakers have caused many a painful night reliving what might’ve/could’ve been.
I must confess that sometimes during those long hours of sitting on unforgiving bleachers I’d give my mind a change of pace and allow it to wander into the Land of Make Believe. Create my own team, teenage boys in this instance. Make that a select travel team, the kind every teenage soccer player aspires to play on, the kind every player’s parents aspire for their son to be Numero Uno. Parents, you gotta admire or fear them, those over-the-top super ambitious parents who will do whatever it takes to help their son achieve his fullest potential. To eventually earn an athletic scholarship to a major university.
Dream on, which I did. And wound up with a group of talented soccer players on a team called Pegasi United, coached by a power-hungry guy who learned how to work the system to his advantage. Add to that a recently widowed soccer mom—she feels obligated to take over where her late husband left off, all for the sake of their son coping with grief while trying to honor the memory of his dad. It all came together in a mystery entitled Lethal Play.
The year is 2009. The place, St. Louis, which everyone knows is in Missouri, the Show Me State. Read on. I give you the opening chapter of Lethal Play.
The night was too quiet, laboring under a murky sky that offered momentary glimpses of February’s moon. It cast a faint light over Missouri’s Show Me Soccer Park, deserted except for a St. Louis County Police car cruising through the stark winter landscape of the complex. The vehicle turned onto a narrow service road that ended behind the main field and parked on a large rectangle of asphalt. Two uniformed police officers exited their sedan, strolled over to a nearby SUV, and inspected the vacant interior with their flashlights.
“Rex Meredith again,” said Officer Raymer. “He must be somewhere around here, probably designing some amazing new strategy for his team.”
“Since when do soccer coaches work in the dark?” asked his sidekick, a probationary officer with barely two weeks under his belt.
“Good point, Baker. I’ll switch on the lights; you check out the field.”
While Raymer headed for the utility building, Baker walked a hundred feet or so to where he stood beside the pitch, a field of turf that enthusiasts of youth soccer considered the finest in the Midwest, perhaps the entire country. He waited another minute before the area transformed from a silhouette of geometric forms and eerie shadows to a panorama of bright lights which seemed out of sync with the unnerving calm. He took his time scanning the entire pitch, starting with the south goal and ending at the north, whereupon he did a double take, shifted his stance, and then looked again, allowing the distant scene to finally register within his brain.
“Holy Mother of God,” he managed to yell in a voice shaking with disbelief. “We have a huge problem over here.”
“Rookies. Dear god, why me.” Raymer shook his head but still came running.
He stood beside Baker and squinted, trying to adjust his eyes to the glaring lights before addressing the north goal. There, hanging from the crossbar was the figure of a man swaying with the slight breeze. He appeared to be wrapped in mesh, probably stripped from the goal post. White socks covered his feet dangling fifteen inches above the ground, and nearby an orange water cooler lay turned on its side.
“What now?” the rookie asked, his voice reduced to a quiver that made Raymer wanted to haul off and stuff some guts down his throat.
“For starters, don’t piss your pants,” Raymer said. “Instead, get your ass to the car and call for backup. While you’re there, grab a roll of yellow tape and meet me at the goal.” He hurried onto the field, yelled from over his shoulder. “And make it snappy, Baker.”
One look at Rex Meredith told Raymer the man was beyond saving. Raymer figured the rope squeezing Meredith’s neck must’ve been the same one used to anchor the net to the post. His neck was stretched like that of a dead bird, head bent to the side, his face swollen and battered, a deep gash cutting a diagonal across one eyebrow. Blood had oozed from his nostrils and both corners of his mouth. His eyes were wide open, locked into a sightless expression, of what—disbelief, desperation, regret? The stench of feces and urine sent a message to Raymer, urging him to toss his coffee and donuts, an invitation years of discipline had taught him to ignore. Still, observing the aftermath of violent death never came easy, especially with the victim someone he once knew. As did most everyone connected with youth soccer in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
“Baker, dammit where are you,” he yelled.
“Right here, sorry.”
Where, dammit. He jerked around to see Baker stopped within two feet of the goal, his head leaned back for a better view of the deceased, like some hayseed gawking at a piece of museum artwork. Raymer waited for the anticipated reaction and Baker didn’t disappoint him. The rookie doubled over, hands to his mouth and seconds away from tossing his donuts.
“Dammit, Baker, don’t even think about contaminating this area,” Raymer said. “Take your business elsewhere, and be sure to mark the site after you’ve finished.”
As usual, Baker obeyed. He stumbled over to a patch of frozen grass where he emptied his stomach with four gut-wrenching heaves, and then sectioned off the area with tape. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he said on his return.
“Quit apologizing and help me tape the crime scene. You did call for backup, didn’t you … never mind.”
Raymer already had his answer. The sound of sirens wailing into the night announced the arrival of two more police cars plus an emergency van carrying the paramedic unit. One of the paramedics checked the victim’s vital signs, confirming what everyone already knew: Rex Meredith, the illustrious coach of St. Louis’s nationally-ranked boys soccer team, was indeed dead. His body continued to hang from the crossbar while a team of crime scene investigators collected evidence, starting with one of them snapping photographs, first an overall view before moving in for medium range shots, and finally, close-ups of the deceased. The investigators tagged every scrap of paper, every bit of fiber, strand of hair, footprint impression, and scruffy dirt pattern before depositing their findings into paper bags and cardboard boxes.
Two CSI worked in respectful silence as they unwound the netting from Meredith’s body. After releasing his body from the crossbar and onto a stretcher, they wheeled it over to a woman with arms crossed over her chest and boot-laden feet stomping the frozen ground. Having already observed Rex Meredith from a suspended position, Dr. Hannah Cooper now spent a few minutes studying him from a lateral perspective.
“This must’ve been some fight,” she said through puffs of cold air, “one-sided, judging from the lack of trauma to his hands or knuckles.” She leaned in closer. “What’s this on his left pec? The tattoo of a winged horse in flight, how befitting for the coach of Pegasi United.”
She touched her fingertips to her lips, as if to say goodbye.
“I take it you knew the deceased,” said one of the first responders.
“You’re standing in my light, Detective.”
“Sorry, Doc.” He moved three feet to the left.
She slipped on a pair of surgical gloves and began her preliminary examination while the offending detective hovered with no further comment. He waited a good five minutes before opening his mouth again.
“Is it too soon to ask?”
The coroner ripped off her gloves, stuffed them in her coat pocket. “The body’s still warm and rigor mortis hasn’t started yet. Given the outdoor temperature, I’d set the time of death around ten forty-five, give or take a few minutes.”
“Life and death minutes,” he said. “Raymer got here around eleven.”
“A tough break for Rex.”
“So, how well did you know him?”
She lifted one shoulder. “He coached my
kid some years ago, but only for one season. According to Rex, our David didn’t have what it takes; he’d never meet the standards of an elite soccer team.”
“Too bad, it must’ve been a real downer.”
“Nah, we got David on another team right away. He’s still playing with the Dynamos and loving every minute. My husband never misses a game. I see as many as my work permits, which puts me in the category of a lackluster soccer mom.”
“That’s a bad thing?”
“Not in my book. Poor Sunny, she’s Rex’s wife … widow, the epitome of soccer moms—such unwavering dedication. I don’t envy the detectives who have to make that home visit. As for me, I’ve done all I can, at least for now.” Looking around, she raised her voice. “Anybody from CSI?”
A squat woman in her mid-thirties answered the call. “Right here,” Fran Abbot said. “Can we bag the hands yet?”
“Be my guest.” This time Dr. Cooper patted the deceased’s shoulder. “Dammit, Rex, I hate seeing your life end this way.”
“You think he offed himself?” Fran asked while securing a paper sack around Meredith’s right hand.
“After the beating he took and all that netting, it seems doubtful,” Dr. Cooper replied. “Still, at this stage anything is possible. I’ll know more in the autopsy room.”
Fran moved to secure the left hand. “Whoa, you said something about the deceased having a wife.”
“Yes, there’s a problem?”
“No wedding ring on his finger.”
“So maybe he didn’t wear one,” the detective said, holding up his left hand. “I don’t.”
“So maybe he took it off, leaving a telltale band of white in its place,” Fran said. “As is the case with certain husbands inclined to fool around.
End of excerpt.
Lethal Play is available through Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, and other eBook distributors.