Ain’t Over Till It’s Over
Version 2.0 (2017–01–29)
“So there I was, pitching for the Mud Hens against the Tigers in an exhibition game. It was the top of the 13th, score tied, 4–4, no outs, bases loaded, when the manager called me in to pitch. I was the bottom of the barrel and knew it. But he’d used up all his other pitchers.
“‘What the hell,’ I’m thinking as I trot out and warm up, trying to generate enthusiasm. ‘At least I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren I pitched against Al Kaline.’
“‘This will be painless, kid,’ Kaline said to me as he came to the plate.
“With the infielders in for a play at the plate, I threw my best fastball, tight and low. Kaline swung and drove a sinking line drive down the left field line. The third baseman, close in for a play at the plate, caught it just before it hit the ground. One step took him to third, for out number two. A sharp throw to second got out number three, when the runner slipped getting back to the bag.
“I couldn’t believe my luck. Teammates swarmed me as I raced back to the dugout. I figured I was done for the day.
“‘Get out there, kid! You’re up to bat,’ the manager hollered at me. He replied gruffly to my disbelieving stare. ‘Got no more pitchers,’ he said. ‘You gotta bat so you can pitch next inning.’ This was before the days of the designated hitter. So I looked around for a bat, and the bat boy finally came up with one for me.
“For some reason, the Tigers manager had brought Mickey Lolich in to finish off the game. He looked relaxed and confident and smiled at me. Perhaps too confident. His first pitch came right down the middle of the plate — not where you want a pitch to go, even with a second-rate pitcher at bat. I just swung as hard as I could, made good contact, and watched the ball sail over the right field fence for a walk-off homer.”
Norm’s fork, with the chunk of rare steak, froze halfway to his mouth, an astonished look on his face. He shook his head yes! yes! yes! while he listened to the baseball story coming from the next booth.
“Now what, Norm,” muttered his wife, Gerry, sitting across from him in Le Pont d’Avignon. “I don’t like it when you get that look. No work tonight.”
“Shhh,” Norm said, his voice low. Pointing over his shoulder at the booth behind him, he said, “It’s Dutch. That story he’s telling — I know where I’ve heard it before.”
Gerry gave up. Their weekly romantic evenings at Maasdam’s one fancy restaurants usually went well, but occasionally his private investigator brain locked onto some idea and she knew the evening was over.
Norm’s thoughts were back in Columbus in 1975. It was then, as an undercover cop, he had heard the story before.
He had tailed a drug-dealer to a bar on North High Street. The guy was in the next booth, reporting in a high-pitched voice to someone Norm hadn’t got a look at. After the dealer finished, the higher-up ordered drinks and started telling baseball stories. As he finished the story Norm had just now overheard, a fight broke out in the bar. The crooks disappeared during the disruption.
Later the police found the body of the suspected dealer in the alley behind the bar, with a bullet in the back of his head. It turned out that the guy was an informant for the police. Duane Fedders worked with a detective named Jason Franklin. The police never did figure out who the hit man was, but they figured it was the guy in the booth. Jason always blamed Norm for what happened.
Gerry touched his hand. She knew about Norm and Dutch. She occasionally tried to convince him that it was a vendetta he should drop. It wasn’t consistent with loving his enemies. But for Norm it wasn’t a vendetta. It was about justice.
Later, as they left the restaurant, Dutch Vander Molen was standing near the door, smoking. “Ev’nin’, Norman,” he said. With dark hair and eyes and the lanky body of someone who would have had a half-way decent fast ball, Dutch was always well dressed, always careful to look the successful businessman rather than the gangster.
“Ev’nin’, Stanley,” replied Norm. Bald with a gray fringe, Norm was fit and muscular at seventy. He always called Dutch by his given name because Dutch hated it. “Heard you had surgery.”
“Yeah. They did somethin’ to my heart. But don’t get your hopes up. Take more’n that to get rid of me. You come up with any more dirt on me lately?”
Norm and Dutch went way back — to one of the first days in kindergarten, when they got into a fight. They had been antagonists all the way through high school; after high school their paths separated. Norm had gone off to Calvin College and then the Columbus police. Dutch had signed a baseball contract and started working his way through the Tigers’ farm system till he ended up with the Mud Hens. In 1980 they both moved back to Maasdam, Norm to start his PI business and Dutch to start building his own organization.
Dutch knew that for 35 years Norm had been trying to get the goods on him, and Norm knew that he knew. Early on, one of Norm’s contacts was murdered; Norm was sure Dutch was responsible for the murder. But there had been no solid evidence. Over the years he watched in frustration as Dutch’s criminal career dodged the law.
Now, as she drove home, Gerry said, “You look like you just swallowed the canary.”
“Yup,” said Norm.
She didn’t press further. He left her to enjoy the Christmas lights on the drive through town and through the Maasdam College campus, while he considered how he could use what he had heard.
Gerry parked in the garage of their 1950s ranch-style. Normally they would have continued their date; tonight Norm headed straight to his study in the third bedroom. He was mad for not having recognized Dutch’s voice that night so many years ago. But, of course, it had been fourteen years since they had crossed paths.
Norm’s study was his hermitage. He did all his thinking and reading here. Gerry rarely came in and the cleaning service never. Clients came to his office. The Steelcase desk, top-of-the-line in 1980, still looked good, but the vinyl on the “executive” desk chair had popped its seams in a number of places. The desk was bare except for a photo of his daughter and her family. A police scanner sat on a shelf over the desk. He had several drawers of old files from the pre-computer days.
He rummaged through the files till he found his old notes on the Fedders case. He also pulled out his bulging file on Dutch and studied it for a long while. His notes on the recent Pantlind Hotel murder particularly bugged him, since the D.A. had been unable to convince the Grand Jury of Dutch’s connection with it.
He called Carlos, an old buddy from the Columbus police. “I need Jason’s phone number.”
“Yeah, I got it here somewhere. Hang on a minute . . . What’you want to talk to Jason for? He won’t be happy to hear from you.”
Norm hadn’t talked to Jason since leaving the force. He wasn’t eager to talk to him now, but he knew that Jason was better connected in the Department than he or Carlos.
Carlos gave him the number. They chatted for a bit, then he called Jason.
“Norm, what an unexpected displeasure.”
“Sorry to spoil your evening. I’ve got something on the old Duane Fedders case, and I knew you’d want to be the one to do something about it.”
“This better be good. I’m in the middle of a romantic evening.”
“If you want to call me back in the morning . . .”
“No. Tell me now. It just better be good.”
When Norm finished, there was silence on the line. “That’s it? You’re telling me that some silly baseball story proves that this Dirty Dutch Vander Molen guy did the hit on Fedders?”
“It doesn’t prove anything. But what’s the chance that two different people would tell that same story?”
“Oh, come on. Vander Molen heard the story from someone else and liked it, so now he tells it as if it were about him.”
“Sure, that’s possible. But Dutch did pitch in the Tigers’ farm system, and he probably did have a stint with the Mud Hens. If you need me to, I can confirm that for you online.”
“Now you’re saying I can’t do that online research myself?”
“Not saying that at all, Jason. I know you’re a good detective. Just offering to make sure it’s a good lead for you.” Norm knew which buttons to push.
“OK. I’ll talk to some guys in Homicide and see what they want to do with it. Now can I get back to my lady friend here?”
“Go for it, Jason.”
The next night Norm got a call from Dutch. “Norm, be careful you don’t go too far. I’ve put up with all your Boy Scout spying on me. But this nonsense about a baseball story . . . Don’t do stuff you’ll regret.”
That’s interesting, Norm reflected. Dutch wouldn’t react that way if there was nothing to this. Impressive that he learned about it so quickly. The guy’s got a good organization. Including apparently at least one person in the Columbus PD.
In the morning he didn’t go to the office. He talked to Carlos, who reported that apparently nobody in the Columbus PD was very excited about his “lead.” Apparently Jason had passed it on but as a joke, mocking Norm.
Norm sat in his study. He put off the client who wanted a progress report on an infidelity case. He pounded the desk. Come one, come on! We’ve got him now! He pulled out his file on Dutch. What do I have on Dutch in 1975? It wasn’t much. He had begun his file on Dutch after returning to Maasdam. Now he was mad at himself for not having filled in more about the years before 1980.
He filled pages of scrap paper with scenarios that would “get” Dutch. Each got wrinkled up and tossed at the recycle basket in the corner. None went in.
Trace the gun that killed Fedders to Dutch. Slim chance that Dutch would even have that gun, after forty years. Even if he did, absent stronger grounds for a search warrant and knowing where the gun might be kept . . .
Put someone undercover in Dutch’s organization. Who? Would have to be someone from out of town. Would take a heap of money to do that. No guarantee it would come up with anything. Gerry would never go along with it . . .
Fill in his information on where Dutch was, who he was working for, pre-1980. Where would the info come from? A lot of people who would know were dead. Others, contemporaries of Dutch, probably knew better than to talk very much. And even if he could establish that Dutch worked as an enforcer, that wouldn’t tie him to this particular murder . . .
About five o’clock he told Gerry he wouldn’t be home for dinner and went down to the Cottage Bar. As he expected, Phil, a defense attorney for whom he did work, was there along with some of Phil’s friends. Over Four-Alarm Chili and beer he vented. They threw out some ideas, none of them better than his discards. Around nine, only just sober, he left the Cottage on foot and walked around Maasdam for a half hour before getting home. Gerry was asleep already. He went to bed and lay awake for most of the night.
Norm’s frustration was building like an impending thunder storm. The next day, he sat in his study all day, alternately staring at the wall and reading Raymond Chandler. Late afternoon, Gerry persuaded him to go with her to the Smithton Mall to do some Christmas shopping.
As he and Gerry were coming out of Smithton Mall, laden with Christmas purchases, they passed Dutch on his way in. Dutch said nothing but just flashed a big, smug smile. Norm only made it halfway to the car before he burst out, “God damn that son of a bitch. I’m going to nail him if it’s the last thing I do.”
“You’ve been playing this game with Dutch for years,” Gerry said. “Why are you getting so upset now?”
“It’s not a game! He’s been getting away with murder all his life. Literally.”
“It’s not your problem.” Gerry sounded exasperated. “Just forget about him.”
Norm had nothing to say. Gerry was right, but, really, she wasn’t right. She just didn’t understand.
The next morning the Maasdam Crier reported that Stanley “Dirty Dutch” Vander Molen had died during the night — heart attack.
Norm stared at the photo of Dutch, while eggs and bacon got cold on his plate. He knew he shouldn’t feel so cheated.
— — — —
I’ve been working on this story for a while. It seemed appropriate to publish it on the anniversary of Yogi Berra’s death.
Another Maasdam Murder & More tale. See my pubs at https://medium.com/@ehb2013ehb