Please enjoy this excerpt of my novelette SLUGGERHUNT, in which the New York Yankees hire the famous French hitman Sébastien to kill Alex Rodriguez. Buy the full copy on Amazon or directly from me through Paypal. If you’re not satisfied, e-mail me (damon.agnos at gmail) and I will refund your 99 cents!
Alex Rodriguez stares into the spinning wheels of the pitching machine. He wears fitted sweats and an Alex Rodriguez t-shirt jersey and waves his bat slightly. Behind the machine, Barry Bonds spins wheels of his own: clad in spandex, he pedals away on a stationary bike. He holds up a ball, so Alex will know it’s coming, and drops it into the machine. Alex swings and fouls it off. Barry holds up another ball and drops it in. Alex swings and misses. He steps out of the batter’s box, holding his hip.
“I guess this is forty,” he says.
Bonds whips a ball at Alex, drilling him in the hip.
“Ow!” yelps Alex.
“What are the rules?” asks Bonds.
“No complaining and no puns.”
“I’m just not the same without the juice,” says Alex. “I’m worried that at this point in my career, I need it.”
Bonds steals a quick glance at a stack of boxes in the corner. They have “Barry” written on them in black marker. Alex notices but says nothing.
“Stop looking for elixirs,” says Bonds. “It’s your mind that’s weak. You need to look within.”
It’s 5 o’clock, but there’s no shadow on the faces of the two men in the secret underground temple, unless you count the shadow of worry on their brows. They shaved in the antechamber, as required by the teachings of their father. The smoke of incense fills the air.
“Have you ever noticed,” asks Hank Steinbrenner, “how when he digs into the batter’s box he kicks the dirt backward instead of forward, because that’s what a centaur would do?”
Angrily, Hank taps his ring—a tiny horse-head in a diamond-encrusted horseshoe, a souvenir from his days running the family’s horseracing business—against his other palm. It makes a light smacking sound.
“No he doesn’t,” says Hal Steinbrenner.
“And all that BS about the doctors, like we hid his injuries from him,” continues Hank. “He disrespected us.”
“I know,” says Hal, his temple pulsing at the memory.
“Goddamn, I hate him. We should just be able to fire him. This is un-American.”
“You’re the one who gave him the contract.”
“Jean said if he retires because of injury or death, insurance will reimburse us for the remainder of his salary.”
“If he tests positive,” adds Hal. “Then we don’t even need to be reimbursed.”
“You heard Randy: The testing’s too tight now, and he’s too paranoid,” says Hank. “We tried that already.”
“Victims of our own success.
“Hal,” says Hank. “We should do it.”
“If we get caught, it’s going to be a lot worse than when Dad had Howie dig up dirt on Winfield,” says Hal. “We’re talking serious repercussions.”
Hal turns to the giant oil portrait of their late father, George Steinbrenner.
“What do you think, Dad?” He sprinkles the air with Brut, George’s favorite aftershave, and turns back to his brother. “Let’s give it five minutes with dad.”
“Good idea,” says Hank.
They close their eyes.
About three minutes in, Hank whispers, “Hal, can I ask you a question.”
“Does it bother you when people call Bruce Springsteen ‘The Boss’?”
“Yes, it does.”
A couple minutes later, Hank breaks the silence again. “Let’s do it,” he says.
Hal takes a deep breath: slow in and slow out, very controlled.
“Okay,” he says. “Let’s do it.”
Sébastien leans into the handlebars of his rented Kawasaki Ninja, leans into the wind. There will be no recoiling from action for Sébastien, the number-one hitman in France and maybe the world. He parks the bike, removes his helmet, and walks toward the designated bench on the rusty waterfront.
He can see them waiting. Their wispy plumes of breath make him nostalgic for gun smoke.
Yankees executives Brian Cashman, Jean Afterman, and Randy Levine sip coffee from paper cups as they watch him approach.
“He sure looks the part,” says Afterman, the former thespian.
Sébastien carries a motorcycle helmet. His brow is heavy and his stubble thick. A scar runs the length of his left cheek. He walks like a boxer.
“I am Sébastien,” he confirms.
Cashman, Afterman, and Levine introduce themselves.
“We represent a powerful syndicate that is prepared to compensate you very generously for achieving this objective,” says Cashman.
The terms are simple: they’d prefer that it look like an accident. They will pay Sébastien $200,000 up front. They will pay another $200,000 upon completion of the job. An additional $500,000 if it is not ruled a homicide. Finally, nine months later, when neither the Yankees nor any of its owners, employees, or executives appear to be under investigation, they will give him $1 million. A little insurance.
“We’ll be meeting with Alex later today,” Afterman explains. “We’ll have him turn over his phone at the front desk, part of our ‘new policy of prohibiting recording devices during sensitive meetings.’ That should be enough time to install spyware so you can eavesdrop on his conversations and track his movements.”
“So you have planned some ideas for how I should go about this,” Sébastien says.
“Hardly,” says Afterman. “We’re just trying to be helpful. You make the decisions on how to approach him. This isn’t Cyrano de Bergerac.”
“A great movie,” says Sébastien. “The French one.”
“I agree,” says Afterman. “I love it.”
“So do I,” says Levine. His curly blond hair is strangely off-kilter, like a botched scalp transplant from Gene Wilder.
“We all do,” says Cashman.
He laughs. They all laugh.
“It feels so good to laugh again,” says Afterman.
Alex sighs as he falls back into the cloud-soft leather of the waiting limousine, his 230 pounds giving the suspension a bounce. His lawyer, Jim Sharp, seats himself gently on the other side.
“Whew,” says Alex, theatrically loosening his tie. “It’s a relief to have that done.”
He’s just spent 90 minutes apologizing to the Yankees’ brass for everything from his steroid use to lying about his steroid use to suing the team doctor. He told them he intended to bring them three championships in the last three years of his contract. Brian Cashman asked him if he’d seen the roster.
“I need to unwind,” he declares as he surveys the well-stocked mini bar. “I’m going to have a seltzer with lime. Do you want anything?”
Sharp waves him off.
The driver, Tony, rolls down the divider.
“Where to, boss?”
“I would like to go to the Elite Mogul Day Spa.”
“Will do,” says Tony. “Mr. Sharp?”
“Just the hotel please.”
“You got it. Anything else I can do for you?”
“Could you play the new Taylor Swift?” asks Alex.
“Sure thing, boss.”
Seconds later, 1989 pumps through the limousine’s speaker system. Alex bobs his head and smiles. He gives a thumbs-up as Tony rolls up the divider.
“Did you see that, Jim?! Did you see that?!” Alex asks. “When I gave him the thumbs-up, he was rolling up the window. But it could have looked like I was going down. From Tony’s perspective, that probably looked a lot like the end of Terminator 2!”
“I’ll have a scotch,” says Jim. “Just pick one.”
As the limo cruises down the FDR, the only voice in the limo is Swift’s. Alex maintains a subdued dance, shrugging and jiggling his broad shoulders. Sharp sips his scotch and looks out the window at frozen Manhattan, where steam seems to seep off of everything. Neither notices the Kawasaki Ninja that blurs past them at a dangerous speed.
They’re halfway through 1989 when Tony pulls the limo to the curb. “Here we are, boss.”
Alex hands Tony a twenty through the divider, says goodbye to Sharp, and hands a ten to the bellman who opens his limousine door and rushes ahead to open the door to the Elite Mogul Day Spa.
A beautiful young woman in a slim-cut, EMDS-monogrammed polo shirt welcomes him.
“Mr. Rodriguez, what a treat to see you this time of year! I wish I had known you were coming; I would have set aside the HM 5000 suite.”
HM 5000 is industry shorthand for HandsomeMan 5000, a special tanning bed that doubles as a massage chair. It’s Alex’s favorite.
“Is the HM 5000 in the Tycoon Lounge available?”
She pokes at a tablet and looks up with an admiring smile. “It is,” she says. “Please follow me.”
The stone walls of the hallway double as fountains; water trickles musically on either side. I bet this is what Moses felt like, thinks Alex.
They arrive at a door with a tasteful cursive sign that reads, simply, “Tycoon Lounge.”
Alex walks through the door and then through the velvet privacy curtain. The room is as well appointed as he remembers—flat screens, fruit plates, unlimited spritzes of fine colognes—but there is one surprise, seated in a plush recliner, wearing a bathrobe and slippers and reading a newspaper:
Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots.
Alex and Kraft hit it off at a sex party in 2013 and have been friends ever since.
Alex congratulates Kraft on another Super Bowl title as they shake hands. “Don’t let Putin have this ring,” he jokes.
Kraft laughs. “Not a chance.”
Alex puts his dukes up. “If he knows what’s good for him, he won’t be Putin his hands anywhere near it.”
They laugh harder this time, Kraft so hard and long he begins to cough. Alex slips into the locker room to change. He nods at the employee folding towels, a silent man in an EMDS uniform, a large scar down his left cheek. Alex emerges in the spa’s bathrobe and slippers.
“Are you tanning today?” asks Kraft.
“You know, I was supposed to get the HM5000, but you just won the Super Bowl. I think you should have it.”
“Oh, Alex, I couldn’t.”
Kraft’s smile—white teeth against orange skin—is like a cross section of Creamsicle.
Each man passes through the curtains to his respective cabin. (The beds in the Tycoon Lounge are separated by curtains rather than walls to allow the tycoons to converse.) Alex removes his robe and stands before the mirror, assessing the heft and sag of his physique. He frowns, shrugs.
“Happy tanning, Alex,” Kraft calls through the curtain.
“Happy tanning, Bob.”
Alex settles into his bed. His machine hums softly, but the HM5000 next door is not so quiet. Alex allows himself to be lulled by the vibrations and thumps that punctuate Kraft’s pleasured moans.
BZZZZT. It sounds like a bug flying into a zapper. Kraft’s moaning stops. Alex sniffs the air.
“Bob?” he calls out. “Bob? Are you okay? You smell crisper than normal.”
Kraft doesn’t respond, so Alex slips out of his bed and into his robe. Kraft’s room is filled with a thin, pungent smoke. Alex lifts the cover of the bed, looks to the heavens, and falls to his knees.
“Not Bob!” he sobs.
Elite Mogul Day Spa Staff find Alex on the floor, in a puddle of tears, whispering, “He died doing what he loved,” beside the HandsomeMan 5000 that serves as a deathbed for Robert Kenneth Kraft.
Alex is despondent, and also hungry.
He gives Tony an address in the West Village.
“It’s a tony spot,” he says, trying his best to chuckle through the tears. “I’ll save you some leftovers.”
A nameless restaurant, discreet. Still, Alex isn’t taking any chances with the paparazzi. At Alex’s direction, Tony makes some evasive maneuvers with the limo, changing lanes, going around the block, signaling the opposite way he plans to turn – real high-level stuff. Meanwhile, Alex pulls his golf cap low, slides on some shades, and affixes his mustache. He hopes his dining partner will be similarly discreet.
It would cause quite a stir, Alex Rodriguez dining with Taylor Swift. Normally, he’d welcome the attention, but right now he’s gotta stay low profile, get in shape, get his swing right—get back to being A-Rod, basically.
Swift is out of his league and he knows it. But he’s newly single, and she’s beautiful and fun, and for some reason she seems to find him amusing.
The restaurant is in the basement of an old ivy-covered brownstone, accessible only through a gated alley. Alex buzzes in, whispering his name so no passing pedestrians will hear.
Swift waits undisguised, sipping a chardonnay at a candlelit table. She bursts into laughter when she sees him.
“What on earth are you wearing?”
“It’s to avoid the paparazzi,” he says. “I feel like they’re everywhere. Damn parasites.”
“Oh, Alex. We’re safe here.”
“I’ve had a terrible day,” he says, as he removes the hat, sunglasses, and mustache, the latter causing him to wince as it sticks to his skin. His eyes are red from crying. “Robert Kraft died.”
“OMG, Alex—that’s awful! What happened?”
“He got electrocuted by a HandsomeMan 5000. And I was the one who was supposed to be in it. I think I have PTSD.”
“I am so sorry. You should order a drink.”
Alex flags down their waiter and orders a gin and juice.
“What type of juice would you like, sir?”
Alex furrows his brow in contemplation. “Apple,” he says.
Alex doesn’t notice the busboy with the scar down his left cheek, or at the very least doesn’t place him as the man he saw just before Kraft got fried at the Elite Mogul Day Spa.
Despite the scar, Sébastien is a master of disguises, a smooth talker who can insinuate himself into almost any situation. However, in this case, he simply bribed the busboy to give him the uniform and a plausible story of how he was sent to fill in from a sister restaurant.
Sébastien has his special bottle, the highly pressurized one that will discharge its cork at three times the speed of the fastest store-bought champagne. Accuracy is a challenge, but that’s why he spent all those hours at the range. He’s perfect because he has to be.
Sébastien buses tables and keeps an eye on Alex and Swift as they eat their dinners—an organic quinoa salad for Alex, whole wheat spaghetti with free range meatballs for Taylor. Sébastien is waiting for the right moment to pop the cork, to aim it at the base of Alex’s skull, hit the brain stem, lights out.
Swift tries a sip of Alex’s gin and apple juice.
“That’s a fun drink,” she says. “I should’ve ordered a piña colada.”
“Do you like piña coladas?” he asks.
“And getting caught in the rain?”
Swift and Alex commence the chorus to Rupert Holmes’ “Escape”. The other diners laugh and sing along with them. That’s just how it is with the rich and famous.
Sébastien figures the general chaos of the moment is good enough. And he’s had enough of the damn song. “Sacre bleu,” he mutters, as he tilts the bottle.
Alex is really getting into his part. It’s cathartic, to cut loose like this with Taylor, and with all these other people who don’t care what he’s injected or who he’s threatened to sue, who aren’t wondering why he’s not hitting and if his hips have anything left. Like a conductor, he swings his arm to begin the chorus anew—and knocks his fork off the table. Just as he bends to pick it up…
Alex feels something graze his shoulder. The diners yelp and giggle, and then shriek. When Alex returns to upright, fork in his hand, he finds Taylor face down in her spaghetti.
“Taylor?” he says. He grabs her by the shoulders and gives her a little shake. “Taylor? Taylor?! Shake it off!”
Everyone gathers around the table. Everyone except Sébastien, who slipped out the back door.
Slowly, Taylor comes to, moaning.
“Oh, my nose.”
“Goddamnit,” says Hank Steinbrenner. “He fries Bob Kraft in a tanning bed and breaks Taylor Swift’s nose? Is he working for us or the gossip rags?”
“Bob Kraft was one of us,” says Hal. “Dad respected him.”
The brothers pace back and forth in the meeting room, while Cashman, Levine, and Afterman sit and squirm.
Hank points to the mahogany imbroglio of the Yankees logo on the wall and glares at each underling, one at a time.
“You told us this guy was the best,” he says. “Where did you get him? Pierre’s List?”
“Tell him to finish the job,” says Hal. “And tell him that if this goes down within sniffing distance of Spring Training, I want Girardi in our office or box when it happens. I don’t want to risk having him anywhere near the action.”
“I’m losing it, Barry,” Alex is going through his pre-workout mobilization drills, the stretching and rotating that look funny to the unfamiliar eye. He wears his Yankees uniform from 2007, his last MVP year, to get himself back in the frame of mind to dominate. The fit is snug in all the wrong places, reminding him that he’s not quite in MVP shape.
“First Bob goes down in the HandsomeMan 5000, and then, when I get together with Taylor and it seems like everything’s coming up roses, the cork guns or whatever come out and we get this spaghetti incident.”
Bonds leans over from the exercise bike and double-slaps Alex, forehand and backhand. “Enough with the fucking puns!”
Alex rubs his face. “Okay, okay,” he says. “But it really feels like someone out there has it in for me.”
Barry glares at him. “You’re just realizing this now?”
Alex shrugs and looks glum.
“Of course they have it in for you,” Bonds says. “That’s what happens when you’re great. Me? They had it in for me! Jesus Christ? They had it in for him! The only ones they don’t have it in for are the fake greats like Jeter.”
Alex nods. “Good point.”
“Greatness is a decision,” says Barry, his voice now calm and measured. “Like buying a car or masturbating before bed. You have to decide to be great—whatever the cost.”
“Whatever the cost,” Alex repeats. Before they begin the session, Alex excuses himself. Stealthily, he examines those boxes in the corner with Barry’s name on them. He pries open a flap. Syringes. Loaded up and ready to use. He palms one and disappears into the bathroom.
“Goddammit,” says Levine, playing the heavy. “You fry Bob Kraft in a tanning bed and break Taylor Swift’s nose? Are you working for us or the gossip rags?”
Levine, Cashman, Afterman, and Sébastien stand around the same waterfront bench at which they’d met just days earlier. It’s even colder today—pushing single digits—so they stamp their feet to stay warm.
“We heard you were the best,” adds Afterman, almost pleadingly.
Sébastien sighs. This job is turning into a real headache. He takes a last drag of his Gauloises and flicks it aside.
“You said you want it to look like an accident. This increases risks. But I will complete the job.”
“It may have to wait until Tampa,” says Cashman. He gestures to the dirty snow and abandoned factories around them “I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed to leave this.”
Sébastien actually will be disappointed to leave New York. His decade-plus of killing across continents has made him something of a cosmopolitan, and he’s enjoyed his stay in New York – perhaps a little too much. Sure, the failed attempts look like dumb luck and probably were, but maybe if he’d spent a few more hours practicing cork shots instead of browsing exhibits at MOMA or laughing at the jokes on Broadway, he’d have succeeded.
The truth is, Sébastien is getting tired of killing. Every assassin who’s lucky enough reaches this point. He just can’t believe it’s here already. It feels like it was just yesterday, he had his first kill, a clean shot in a café in Tangiers…
There’s another possibility. In spite of himself, Sébastien is beginning to wonder if Rodriguez may be l’enfant invulnérable, the mythical, unkillable figure in French assassin lore. Sébastien has always dismissed the concept as superstitious nonsense, but Rodriguez’s luck makes him wonder.
Sébastien snaps back to the moment. “I am a professional. I don’t care where I go.”
“One more thing,” adds Cashman. “If you do it at Spring Training, make sure Girardi is in our offices or the owner’s box when it happens.”
Sébastien raises an eyebrow, skeptical.
“Capiche?” asks Levine.
“Yes, I capiche,” says Sébastien. “Your bosses must be fond of him.”
Alex is back in Bonds’ workout facility, shorts pulled below his ass and syringe in hand, when his phone rings. It’s his lawyer, Jim Sharp.
“Jim,” he says, trying to sound like one of those self-possessed tycoon types, like Pat Riley. “Talk to me.”
“You need to write your apology letter to the fans,” he says.
“Oh, man, I forgot. I’m not using Jeter’s site, though.”
“No, you’re going to handwrite it.”
“What am I going to say?”
“Check your e-mail,” says Sharp. “And if the police try to talk to you about these incidents with Bob Kraft or Taylor Swift, call me right away.”
Alex jabs the needle into his ass and depresses the plunger. He moans softly.
“Yeah, Jim, I’m here.”
“You ever wonder if you were the target? If someone has it in for you?”
“Of course someone has it in for me. Did you ever think otherwise?” Alex can feel it now; he’s really hitting his groove. He paces back and forth as he raises his voice, holding the phone directly in front of his face so he can shout into it. “Welcome to the top, Jim! Enjoy the view!”
Alex feels a set of eyes on him. He turns to find Bonds in the doorway, wearing workout sweats and looking disgusted. Bonds shakes his head and walks away. Alex looks down and realizes that his shorts are still hanging off his ass, from which protrudes the exhausted syringe.
It’s a brilliantly sunny March day at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa (address: One Steinbrenner Drive). Bats are cracking, gloves are popping, and the hopes of the faithful are as high as the midday sun. It’s too early for the armchair doctors to diagnose the Bronx Bombers with bloating of the salary and anemia of the offense. At this moment, every team is a contender, even the Yankees.
Sébastien doesn’t care about that. He just wants to finish this job—or rather to sit back and watch this job be finished. He has changed out of his Yankee staffer uniform and now wears tourist gear: khaki shorts, Hawaiian shirt, Yankees hat. Munching on peanuts in a right field box seat, he looks like just another fan.
Sébastien has already done his work, replacing Alex Rodriguez’s favorite bat with a bat that looks and weighs the same but is filled inside with explosives, rigged to go off on impact. He’s tested out several prototypes and examined the remnants; with the bat’s springs and reinforced walls, it should appear to those CSI goons that Alex was looking for a little extra pop and just got greedy.
Sébastien laments the coming fate of the umpire and the catcher. Certainly unfortunate, but c’est le mort. He laughs at his joke.
The Yankees brass are gathered in the owner’s box: Hank, Hal, Cashman, Afterman, and Levine each hold a glass of white wine.
“To the Yankees,” says Hal.
“To Dad,” says Hank.
“To Jeter,” says Cashman.
“To Rivera,” says Afterman.
“To A-Rod,” says Levine.
A brief pause, and they all laugh hysterically. Levine doubles over. Afterman spills some wine.
“It feels so good to laugh again,” manages Cashman.
A knock at the door interrupts their merriment. The staff should know better than to bother them right before the first pitch. Hank struts across the room and yanks the door open.
There stands a large blond man, late middle-age, with a bulbous nose. He is sloppily but expensively dressed: His silk shirt is buttoned only halfway, and strains at the bulge of his gut. He wears short pants and fine leather sandals.
Hank squints. “Who are you?”
“I’m Gerard,” says the man, smiling. He has an accent.
“That’s Gerard Depardieu,” announces Afterman. “The actor.”
“I was told to come up here,” says Depardieu.
“Who told you?” asks Hank.
“I don’t know his name, but he contacted my publicist. He paid me $15,000. He said I was to make the appearance.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Depardieu,” says Cashman. “I think there’s been a bit of a mix-up.”
Depardieu eyes the spread and rubs his belly. “Shrimp and white wine,” he mumbles. Then, louder: “May I stay here and watch the game anyway?”
“Sure,” says Hank, before the brass can confer. “Why not? We like movies.”
Depardieu pours himself a glass of wine and makes his way to the shrimp. Hank sidles up beside him.
“So,” he says. “You’re from France.”
“I am,” confirms Depardieu. “At least originally. And I love my homeland—”
“Homeland,” interrupts Hank. “Hell of a show. You know Mandy P?”
“But,” continues Depardieu. “I renounced my citizenship.”
“Why’d you do that?” asks Hank. “I mean, I’d probably have done the same thing if I was French, but still.”
“The taxes are ridiculous,” says Depardieu. “There’s always some no-good bureaucrat looking to punish the success of great men.”
“Sounds a lot like Major League Baseball,” says Hank. “Greedy communists.”
“Oh, no!” blurts Afterman. “We told him Girardi and he heard ‘Gerard D.’ Probably because of our discussion of Cyrano de Bergerac.”
“I was in Cyrano de Bergerac,” says Depardieu, through a mouthful.
The mood in the room is instantly tense, as everyone but Depardieu realizes that death is on deck.