The Clapper Napper Caper — Finding It: Chapter 9
In as much of a hurry as anyone else to find a warm, dry place, I followed the team back to the fieldhouse and quickly deposited my clipboard in the coach’s office before heading back outside to the concession stand. It closed early due to a lack of business. Even though it was a little ahead of the plan, I figured it would benefit the timetable for Mick and Jim if I accelerated things a bit.
After navigating the victory bell through the muddy sideline and across the iced-over cinder track that ringed the field, I wrestled it through the glazed-over grass around the back of the concession stand and positioned it outside the backdoor in as shadowy an area as I could manage. Then, as best I could, I hurried through the slushy, muddy mix to the grandstand where I ascended the stairs, risking fate as I climbed toward the press box. I slipped at times, nearly busted my ass twice, glad that I had decided to wear my knee brace for the night, just in case. When I arrived, the welcome heat of a kerosene space heater warmed me as I stepped inside and out of the frigid drizzle.
Mr. Hackman was talking with one of the Springfield Sun’s sports reporters, someone who I didn’t know at the time but soon enough would. Maybe I would have recognized his by-line had I been introduced. I was unimportant, just a functionary part of how things worked behind the scenes at Countryside. They both chuckled at the sight of me shivering in the doorway dripping wet. Icy cold water splattered and sizzled as it dripped off my clothes onto the space heater, vaporized in an instant, created a thin wisp of mist that rose from it, and mingled with the combined condensation from everyone’s expelled breath.
From behind the door, I procured the long, extension pole that was used for reaching the light switches for the banks of field lights, but I lingered for a bit. “Let me get warm first.”
“That may take some time,” the reporter said.
“By early next spring, I should finally thaw out,” I said.
The others laughed.
“What I really need to do is get home and into some dry clothes,” I said. “I’ll get the lights so at least we have that out of the way.”
“I’ll meet you at the concession stand in a few minutes,” Mr. Hackman said. “You can help me get that damned bell inside. I’m sure it’s muddy as hell.”
“It’s messy down there,” I confirmed.
As I finally departed and descended from the press box with the lighting pole in hand, I saw Mick and Jim were already wrestling with the bell. There was nothing I could do. I’d lived up to my end of the deal. Mr. Hackman was already behind his usual schedule, which was a bonus. However, the rusty nut was proving more of an impediment than they imagined.
“Isn’t like you didn’t warn them.” Carlos chimed in.
Certainly, the weather was anything but helpful. At least Mick listened to me and brought a pipe for additional leverage. I could see it was already in use. I hoped it was long enough, but then, I descended far enough that my line of sight was obscured. They were completely on their own.
Reaching the field, I started turning out the lights. Purposely, I went immediately to the left of the grandstand so that the area behind the concession stand grew darker, offering Mick and Jim better concealment of their clandestine operation. I knew Mr. Hackman would soon descend from the press box. More than likely, he would see them if they were not deeply shrouded in shadow.
As I continued around the field, stretching, reaching the pole to trip each toggle for the banks of field lights. The rain dripped from my hands and wrists down my sleeves and trailed along my arms to my shoulders, where it soaked my back, chest, and stomach, pooling at the elastic band of my underwear only to be wicked into the cotton. I doubt there is anything more miserable than wet underwear on a frigid night.
I kept checking in the direction that Mick and Jim would have to depart, hoping they were done and that they were not going to be caught.
Finally, just as I was rounding the far end zone, I saw the pair hurrying away, Mick appeared pregnant with the burden he stashed under his full-length, black trench coat.
At the fence, a black van awaited just outside the gate that Bart intentionally ‘forgot’ to lock. Four guys, also dressed in black with black ski masks pulled over their faces, issued from the van to accept the bell from Mick and Jim who, having fulfilled their part of the mission, hurriedly walked away in the direction of the main exit and the parking lot.
According to plan, the four co-conspirators from the van would place the bell into a black garbage bag, ostensibly for concealment, and set it in the back of the van before hopping inside and closing the doors behind them. I couldn’t see any of that but assumed it had been executed flawlessly as the van was already pulling away from the gate.
From the shadows of the fieldhouse, Bart emerged, looking back toward the grandstand, checking to make certain that no one other than me might see. He closed the gate and locked it. Then, he turned and ran as fast as I had ever seen him move back to the fieldhouse, slipping on the sleet-covered sidewalk and barely catching himself before scurrying to the door where he stepped inside.
“No magic,” I thought.
“That’s what you think,” Carlos responded. “Where do you think that storm came from?”
“So, now I can affect the weather?”
“This cold front arrived just in time. Serendipitous, wouldn’t you say?”
“How did I do that?”
“Lots can happen when you’re connected on the inside.”
“What does that mean?”
“Dreams, even the ones you don’t remember after you wake.”
“So, I control things when I’m asleep?”
“I wouldn’t call it control. Look around. You haven’t practiced enough to manage things properly. I was merely stating a fact.”
From the corner of my eye, I detected the certainty of movement. Mr. Hackman began his methodical descent down the grandstand steps from the press box.
He was tall, better than six-foot-five, having been quite a basketball player in his day — so I’d heard. He took long strides. He had taken care of himself and retained the trim physique of an athlete.
A few years before, when my sister Jean was just starting school at Countryside, I attended a charity basketball game pitting the Countryside faculty against The Cleveland Browns football players. During that game, future Hall of Fame wide receiver, Paul Warfield, then a member of the Browns and later a member of the perfect season, World Champion Miami Dolphins, came down hard on Mr. Hackman’s Achilles tendon. It snapped like an old rubber band, causing the athletic director to go down on the floor in excruciating pain. Since then, Mr. Hackman was forced to succumb to the evidence of his aging body. He slowed down — but only a bit.
By the time he reached the bottom of the grandstand, I was beginning to shut down the final grandstand side endzone lights. He pulled out the small flashlight that he kept in his coat pocket. I could see its illumination spilling out from along the side of the concession stand as he turned toward it. As soon as he shined it around the back of the structure, he would know the truth. In only a few moments the ‘theft’ would be discovered. I made the crossing of the near sideline and shut off the last bank of lights that remained.
As I approached, Mr. Hackman called out to me.
“I’ll be right there,” I promised in response. He was going to need help. He said as much when we were in the press box. Even on dry nights, he needed my help lifting the wheels on the base of the bell stand across the concession stand’s threshold. So, it was nothing unusual for him to call out to me. But I suspected he was already aware of the missing bell and was going to interrogate me first.
I needed to remain calm and play everything perfectly as if I knew nothing.
He stepped in front of the bell stand blocking my view as I rounded the corner. He looked directly at me. “When did you bring the bell over here?”
“Right after the game. Why?”
“I went to the fieldhouse with the team, like always. I left the clipboard on the coach’s desk and then came out here. Why?”
“Right before you came up to the press box.”
“Why did you come up to the press box?”
“I don’t know. I’m soaking wet, and I’m in a hurry to get home and get out of these clothes, especially my underwear…and socks. What say we put the bell away and get out of here?”
“That’s just it,” he stepped away and shined the flashlight on the empty stand.
“Where’s the bell?”
“That’s what I want to know.”
“Did that rusty old bolt finally snap?” I grabbed the flashlight from his hand and shined it all around the ground. “Let me turn some of the field lights back on so we can see better.”
“I’ve looked already. It’s not here. It was here when you rolled it over?”
“Then someone stole it.”
“Stole it? You don’t think Cincinnati…”
“I don’t know what to think. I’ll call their athletic director on Monday, but I really doubt they’re involved. They left out of here some time ago.”
“Then who could have stolen it?”
“I don’t know, but I intend to find out. I’ll get it back. You can rest assured of that,” he said as he wheeled the much lighter stand and frame into the concession stand and slammed the door shut, locking it before he realized that I still had the pole for the light switches.
“Gimme that,” he said, snatching the fully telescoped light pole from my hand, and then he fumbled as he tried to collapse it down to a more manageable length. I stood by as he fished his keys out of his pocket again, opened the door to set the pole just inside, leaning it against the wall. “Let’s get out of here,” he said as he closed and locked the door again.
“You don’t seriously think that maybe one of our students would have…”
“Look,” he paused and stared right at me. “You do the newspaper thing. You get the word out right quick. Whoever did this had better fess up to it or there will be severe consequences.”
“And so, it begins — everything I warned you about.”