“Out! Just out Bob,” the man shouted, pointing toward the sky with his index finger.
“Is there a mark?” the man on the other side of the net asked, walking toward the sideline where his inside-out forehand had landed.
“Well Bob, there are a couple of them,” the man answered, returning with some reluctance to the scene of the call and circling two marks in the green clay with his racket. “I’m not sure which one it is, but I saw it out. Great shot, just missed. Back to deuce.”
“You know Larry, that felt in when I hit it and I see a mark right on the line there.” He was leaning on the net, resisting the urge to walk around to the other side. “That’s happened a few times today. If you don’t see it land, you can’t just call it out you know.”
“What are you saying?” the mark-circler asked in a tone of feigned outrage. “It was out. I saw it out, period.” With that, he dragged his right foot down the line and through the clay, erasing any and all marks in the area. “Come on, let’s play.”
The other man swiveled and began walking back to the baseline, looking around to see if players on neighboring courts were paying any attention to the dispute. He had taken about five angry steps when he stopped, pulled a ball from his left pocket and turned back to look across the net. He bounced it once, then wound up and smacked it as hard as he could directly at his opponent, who was standing on the baseline with his arms crossed in a way that suggested he didn’t like having his calls questioned.
The ball – a Penn 4 – short hopped him, which made it difficult to avoid. The cross-armed mark-circler tried to protect himself with his racket, but managed only to deflect the ball right into his groin. He dropped to the court and began writhing in pain -- a 60/40 mixture of legitimate discomfort and practised theatricality.
If nearby players hadn’t noticed what was happening on court 7 by then, they certainly did at that point. It wasn’t every day that one player dropped an opponent like a poacher taking down an African antelope.
“My ball was in,” the poacher screamed. “And so were 10 others before it. We’re done here.” On his way to the court-side bench to retrieve his bag, he picked up another ball and fired it toward the injured antelope who was still lying on the court, his sweaty shirt absorbing clay with every flinch. The second shot missed its target and rattled off the back fence. “That was out. That’s what an out shot looks like,” the poacher screamed again.
Six courts away, Gil Pence heard every word of the angry exchange and saw, through the fence that separated the club’s hard courts and clay courts, that one player had gone down hard, screaming in pain. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy he thought but dared not say. The head tennis pro had to play everything right down the middle, just as he was doing now, feeding balls for a monotonous hour to a member who could hit 10,000 balls every day until the Rapture and never improve.
“Hang on a second Carl,” he said to his aged pupil. “I think I should see what’s going on over there.”
“OK, but you’re not going to charge me for the time, are you?”
“Ah, we’ve only got 10 minutes left, but no, don’t worry about it,” Gil said feeding the final ball just out of the old man’s reach. “Would you mind picking up the balls while I see what’s going on? Thanks.”
The poacher nearly knocked Gil over as the two men crossed paths between courts 1 and 7. “Bob, what happened? Are you OK?”
“I’m fine but you should check on that fucker Larry. He’s putting on quite a show out there writhing around on the ground. And one more thing, I’m not playing him ever again. Find someone else, OK.”
“Sure, ya, but what happened?” Gil pressed.
“Look Gil, I’m sorry. I’m not mad at you, but you know how he is. He calls everything out. No one wants to play with the guy. I gotta go.”
With that, the poacher headed to the clubhouse, where half a dozen people were sipping drinks and already speculating about whatever had happened out on court 7, although none of them had seen anything or talked to either combatant.
“Fucking Larry,” the poacher said as he passed them, on his way to the change room. “Why is he still playing here? What do you have to do to get kicked out?”
Out on court 7, the antelope had pulled himself to his feet and was dusting the clay from his clothes when Gil walked across to check on him.
“What’s going on Larry? You OK?”
“I am not OK, thanks very much Gil. And I want to file a report about what just happened here. For whatever reason, Bob there fired a ball at me. Got me right here,” he added, pointing below his waist to make the point. “That’s dangerous and uncalled for. I don’t know why he’s still a member of this club. No one wants to play with him.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, OK Larry? Tell me what happened. He mentioned a few calls he didn’t like.”
“One call, that’s it. He didn’t say anything for a set and a half, and then boom, he just freaks out. I saw that ball out, OK? Jesus, I can’t believe I have to explain this to you. He’s the one who attacked me.”
“OK Larry, look, just give him a minute to get out of the change room and on his way. Then we’ll go up together, maybe get a lemonade.”
“A lemonade isn’t going to help, Gil. You should be talking to him, giving him a warning, writing it up, not questioning me. I did nothing wrong. Nothing.”
The conversation continued for 10 minutes, during which the antelope offered nothing new. Gil settled him down, delivered the promised lemonade and headed for his office. He wanted to slam the door shut and scream at the walls, but instead he left the door wide open and calmly brought his computer to life.
He scrolled down through two weeks of emails to the message he wanted. It was from his old college coach. It wasn’t unusual to hear from him, but normally the note was nothing but small talk and updates about his former teammates. This message was different.
“Gilbert, I hope this finds you well in the thriving metropolis of Memphis. I was at the Challenger event in Chile this week and started thinking of you. There wasn’t anyone in the tournament better than you. Honestly, no one. I know you miss the competition. I know you think about giving it one last shot before you’re an old man. Now’s the time. Seriously, now’s the time. Give me a call. I’d love to help you get back in and see what we could do. Rackets up, Coach Ramsey.”
Gil read the email over and over as memories of his four years at Michigan washed over him. It hadn’t all been great, but on balance it was probably the best four years of his life. He’d gone in expecting to turn pro at some point, but a stubborn case of turf toe had sidelined his plans in the months following his graduation. That was three years ago. At 26, he was not old by any real world measure. But in the tennis world, his window was nearly shut. Coach was right: It was now or never.
The neighbors gathered in groups up and down the street, chatting and catching up. The scene could well have been mistaken for a block party, except for the burning house on the south side of the street that served as the focal point of the conversations.
Nine firefighters from two stations were dousing the structure, ensuring anything that hadn’t burned up would be destroyed by the water. The good news filtering through the crowd was that no one had been home when the fire started. Not even a hamster or a goldfish. The absence of casualties freed up the crowd to gossip and speculate about everything from the cause of the fire to the whereabouts of the homeowners to the health of their marriage.
Everyone knew who owned the home; very few actually knew them, however. Sergei Ivanov was the kind of tennis player you only saw in the early rounds of minor tournaments. You might catch him on Tennis Channel if he were playing someone more famous. That made him a celebrity among his neighbors, but a definite nobody in professional tennis.
A few die-hard fans in Mobile knew him because he had been a star on the University of South Alabama tennis team before turning pro five years ago. He and Svetlana had moved into the house two years earlier, coming back to the city after a less than fruitful experience living in Florida.
Fresh out of college, he did what everyone did and moved to a tennis hotspot. They chose Florida over California because it was more affordable. But after three years kicking around the Challenger circuit, qualifying sporadically for ATP World Tour events and seeing his ranking slide in and out of the top 200, Sergei was frustrated and on the verge of quitting. That was when Svetlana sat him down and pitched a new strategy. They would go home – not to St. Petersburg, their birthplace – but to Mobile, where he had enjoyed his greatest tennis success, where he could reunite with his coach, and where they could live more easily on their dwindling income and savings.
They chose the Hannon Park area and had to work hard to spend $300,000. For that, they got a six-year-old Tudor style with fruit trees and a pool in the backyard. It would be a great place to raise kids when they decided to have some. In the meantime, it was home base for the Ivanov 2.0 project. He began working regularly with his Jaguars coach. Tom Wilkins had recruited the scrawny 17-year-old from Russia almost a decade earlier and had always felt responsible for unleashing the full Southern experience on the kid.
“Sure, come on back and we’ll see what we can do,” he said when Sergei floated the idea of returning to Mobile, essentially to give his career one last shot. “I’ll be on the road some with the team, of course, but I’d love to help. You can pay me when you start winning something.”
Money. It always came back to money – with tournament directors, agents and sponsors to be sure -- but even more so with a group of friends who’d invested in him shortly after he turned pro. The friends were mostly young professionals who’d been students when he took the Jaguars to two successive NCAA finals. Excited by their proximity to a potential tennis star, they’d formed a syndicate to bet on his success. With investments of anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000, they were backing a long shot, hoping to bask in the glory of a Wimbledon or U.S. Open victory one day. It was like betting on the K.C. Royals every spring to win the World Series that year. It almost certainly wouldn’t happen, so you got terrific odds. Then, when it did happen, you looked like a genius and cashed a very healthy check.
The thing was, the Royals and every other Major League Baseball team had a better chance of winning the World Series than Sergei and his fellow mid-range professionals had of winning any high level tournament, never mind one of the four Grand Slams. But even the most remote chance was enough for the 20 or so people who had joined the syndicate five years earlier. The funds paid for most of Sergei’s considerable expenses as he clawed his way up the world rankings.
With little to show for his efforts, however, Sergei had not attracted any new investors for more than two years. The moods of his original investors ranged from indifference to anger to outrage, informed largely by the amount of cash they had sunk into the long shot and how well their more traditional investments were doing.
No one on the street that morning, watching the Ivanov home crumble to the ground, was an investor. And no one that morning had seen the man two hours earlier who had snuck into the Ivanov backyard and sat down, leaning on a large peach tree. There he used an elastic to wrap a bed sheet with paper and cotton batten. Next he tucked a book of matches under the elastic, but not before using one of the matches to light a low-tar Marlboro. As the cigarette burned, he jimmied a basement window, stuck the burning cigarette into the matchbook and dropped the entire bundle through the open window. The hardest part of the exercise was lighting the cigarette while wearing gloves.
By the time he walked around the block and retrieved his rented Kia Forte, there were plumes of smoke drifting up from the Ivanov basement, into their grand foyer and up the winding staircase to the oversized master bedroom, complete with hotel-style ensuite and dedicated walk-in shoe closet.
An hour later, it was all gone.
The meeting was scheduled to begin at 9:30 but only the bagels, coffee and token pieces of fruit arrived on time.
Baffled by how to resolve the simmering dispute, Gil had consulted with the general manager of the club, forgetting for a moment he had an MBA and got off on meetings like they were online porn. His plan was to bring the warring factions together in hopes of brokering some kind of Middle East peace plan. Gil was skeptical.
His skepticism was not abated when neither the poacher nor the antelope showed up at the appointed hour. Looking out the conference room window, he could see Bob Bendheim sitting in his car, 25 steps from the door to the clubhouse. He was sipping coffee and staring straight ahead, showing no sign of leaving the vehicle or entering the building.
There wasn’t a hint of Larry Spangler in either the parking lot or the building. He hadn’t even responded to the invitation/summons to attend.
“He’s probably on his way,” said the general manager, Tony Di Pietro, who was seated at the head of the table, resplendent in a blue striped shirt and checked tie under a blazer he left buttoned as he sat down. “Let’s go over the agenda while we wait.”
“Agenda? What are you talking about? We just have to get these two knuckleheads to kiss and make up, don’t we?”
“The more formal we make this, the more weight it will carry. There may come a day when we have to boot one of these guys. We have to do everything by the book.”
“We’re not trying to fire a public school teacher Tony. Can’t you, or the board I guess, just tell Spangler to buzz off?”
Di Pietro was about to explain the finer points of the club’s constitution when the door swung open and Bob Bendheim marched into the room, letting everyone know how he felt about the circumstances before uttering a word.
“Well?” he grunted, tapping his foot unironically.
“Good morning Bob, thanks for coming.” Di Pietro stood to shake hands. “Have a seat. Can we get you some coffee?”
“I have coffee, thanks. Where the hell is that Spangler idiot?”
“Then have a bagel. He’ll be along soon. Gives us a chance to catch up. How’re Karen and the grandkids?”
Everyone in the room knew the moment Bendheim reached for the bagel, he was hooked, like a smallmouth bass going for a spinnerbait.
“Top up his coffee, would ya Gil?” Di Pietro said as the disarmed poacher took a seat. “So, Bob, how many grandkids do you have now? I can never keep track.”
There were two surefire topics among most members of the club, given the demographics involved: extended family and health. Everyone had kids; most had grandkids. And many had begun to experience the kind of health challenges connected with the AARP portion of their lives. If he had to guess, Gil figured hip replacements were slightly ahead of knee replacements, but neither could touch incidents of cancer – severe and less severe – among the members.
Bendheim was well into the story of his grandson being named MVP on his high school volleyball team when the door opened again, this time revealing the widely loathed Larry Spangler. He entered somewhat more timidly than had Bendheim, sans coffee, not sure what to expect.
“Larry, hello, thanks for coming,” said Di Pietro, again standing and shaking hands, ushering the newcomer to a seat far away from the proud grandpa, who ended his grandson story abruptly and glared across the table.
“Ah, OK, ya,” Spangler muttered. “Am I late? I thought your email said 10:00.”
“Oh, it probably did. My mistake,” Di Pietro said, shooting Gil an almost imperceptible wink. “Anyway, no matter. Sit down and, Gil, can we get Larry a coffee?”
Again, Gil poured coffee and watched as the overdressed general manager assumed complete control of the room and meeting without either combatant realizing what was happening.
For 30 minutes, he listened and cajoled, joked and nodded, letting both men air their beefs with each other and with the club and world in general. In less than an hour, he somehow persuaded them to stand up and shake hands, albeit with some reluctance. Then he closed with all the elegance of Roger Federer in his prime, picking a rocket return off the baseline and sending it back with more pace and direction to win the point.
“Now that we’ve cleared this matter up, I would like you – actually, it’s not really me or Gil at all. The board would like you to just acknowledge that we’ve had this talk, just to keep things official and professional.”
With that, he produced two sheets of paper and asked each man to sign one. They did so with barely a fuss, agreeing with the flurry of their pen that if there were a similar dispute any time in the following calendar year, the board would be entitled to revoke their membership. Each man assumed the provision was aimed at the other, while Gil just watched in amazement. He could have asked them to sign over their time-shares in Florida, and they would have done that too.
Having signed, the two men left quickly without speaking to each other. Gil poured himself a coffee and raised his mug to toast Di Pietro. “I’m not sure how the hell you did that, but it was amazing to watch,” he said. “What’s in those bagels?”
“The secret’s in the cream cheese,” Di Pietro said, biting off a large chunk of a bagel he hadn’t touched during the meeting and chewing vigorously. He washed it down with the rest of the coffee, removed his blazer and threw it over the back of an empty chair. “What else is going on Gil? Something is bugging you, has been for a few weeks, but I can’t quite tell what it is.”
“What are you, a goddam mind-reader? How much time have you got?”
“As much as it takes,” he laughed, reaching for another bagel, bypassing a bunch of bananas on the way.
As his house was burning to the ground, Sergei was 1,500 miles away on a practice court, trying to add more kick to his second serve. So he was one of the last people in his circle of friends to learn about the fire. Among a flood of sympathetic texts he saw after his practice, one stood out. The message included a video of the destruction, edited to show the moment the roof collapsed, sending sparks, flames and timbers across his yard and driveway. Unlike the other texts that offered sympathy and inquired about his health, it included only four words: “We’ll be in touch.”
Sitting in the change room, Sergei thought he was going to throw up. They had done it. In the moment, he couldn’t untangle his feelings, but somehow the loss of his home was secondary to the awful realization that the men who had been threatening him would, in fact, carry out those threats. They weren’t bluffing.
Running toward his car, he punched his phone and tried to reach Svetlana. She had planned to stay at the hotel that morning and possibly meet some friends for lunch. They were in Puebla City, Mexico, where he was playing in the Abierto De Puebla tournament. They’d chosen it because the very next week, Sergei could play in the Jalisco Open in Guadalajara. It was 400 miles away, which meant they could drive and save money. On paper anyway.
This was the third year they had entered the two tournaments, and they knew what to expect. The first year they wondered if they’d somehow entered the Baja 1000 off-road race, as they navigated their way west from Puebla, around the ridiculous traffic and congestion of Mexico City and on to Guadalajara.
There was an entire circuit of Mexican tournaments in March. San Luis followed Guadalajara; Leon followed San Luis. Some years there were only two or three. It varied every year, depending on sponsors and local support. In the years there were four, it was madness to enter them all, unless you exited early each time. If that happened, you beat a path to the next tournament and hoped to win enough matches to make the trip worthwhile. It was very much like doubling down after a lousy hand in Vegas. Except in Vegas, all but the most serious gambling addicts know they can’t really influence the outcome of their bets, no matter how many times they blow on the dice or tap the cards rhythmically for luck.
On the Challenger circuit, nearly all players believed they had the talent to break through to the World Tour if they practised more, worked harder or – in a handful of cases – took the right cocktail of banned substances. It was that hope that convinced Sergei and dozens of other middling professionals to spend much of the month of March in Mexico, staying in crummy hotels, raiding the laughable player buffets, and bowing and scraping before sponsors who demanded better results for the pittance of cash they sent the players’ way every year.
Those who weren’t in Mexico could be found in China or Europe, slogging from tournament to tournament, and doing everything they could to earn the points that would move them up the rankings, potentially into the big time. Of course, players playing big time tennis were doing everything they could to stay there, lest they be sent back to Mexico in March.
Svetlana had received texts from most of the same people – with one notable exception – and was racing from the hotel to the tournament. She’d skipped her lunch date and instead gone for a long walk in a circuit that kept the hotel in her view and reasonably close. Sergei had the car, so she had to wait for a cab to arrive in what could charitably be called an up-and-coming part of town, where the Holiday Inn was the newest structure around, designed to be a catalyst for further development.
As she was climbing into the back seat, she got Sergei’s call.
“Turn back please, back to the hotel,” she blurted, motioning wildly behind her.
Confused, the driver slowed down but didn’t change direction.
“Back, back,” she screamed. “Go back. Hotel!”
Sergei arrived only minutes after her confused cabbie returned her to the hotel. Sobbing, they embraced in the lobby, oblivious to the attention they attracted.
“Come up to the room,” he said quietly. “I have to show you something. I’m so sorry.”
It took him almost 10 minutes to explain the series of events that led to someone torching their house that morning. For months he had hidden the threats from her, determined not to worry her and to solve the problem himself. As he explained, she doubled over in pain, sliding off the bed and onto the floor, sobbing so violently she had trouble breathing.
She pushed him away when he tried to hold her, first with her arms then with her legs, kicking wildly at forces she didn’t understand and a feeling of despair she had never experienced.
Sergei had never felt so helpless. He too collapsed on the floor and began convulsing.
It took investigators less than half a day to discover someone had set fire to the Ivanov home. Once they found the telltale evidence in the basement, they stepped up security around the property and worked with police to comb the yard for evidence. There was none to be found, just as there was nothing to learn from neighbors interviewed in the days that followed.
“OK, professional job, sure, but why make it so obvious?” asked fire chief
Geronimo Joseph to the pair of investigators sitting in his office two days later. “The bed sheet? Come on. And when are we gonna talk to the home owners, the Ivanskis or whatever their name is? Where the hell are they again?
“Mexico, sir. He’s a tennis player.”
“I play a little tennis on the weekends, but if my house burned down I’d damn sure head back to find out what the hell was going on,” Joseph shot back. “Have we even heard from these people?”
“Jose talked to the wife, ah, Svelte Llama, or something like that. He said she was crying the whole time on the phone. Didn’t seem to know what they were going to do. That was yesterday I think.”
“Alright, OK, let’s try again today. Jerry, see what you can do. There’s no time difference is there? Just find out, OK?
“Also, I’ve got this message from a neighbor. Says he has to talk to me. Seems he might just solve the case. Didn’t we canvass all the neighbors that day? Wait a second. Isn’t this place five minutes from the Dew Drop Inn? And isn’t it damn near lunch time? Whatcha say we get us some burgers and onion rings, then drop in on this neighbor fella while we’re, ya know, in the area? Who’s with me?”
With that, the trio left the office, climbed into the chief’s bright red Ford F-150 and headed for Hannon Park. They could almost taste the onion rings as they swung out onto Government Street.
Traffic was light, and many drivers made room for the truck, as though the chief had turned on the lights and siren. As a result, lunch was earlier than usual, landing them at the Ivanov house by 12:45. They parked on the street in front of the house. The driveway was still covered in debris.
Consulting his iPhone, the chief located the nearby home of Nester Pidwerbecki, three down and across the street. Like many nearby homes, it sat well back from the boulevard, framed by oak trees front and back and a wrought iron fence along the sidewalk. The boards and batten had been cared for meticulously, and the lawn had a certain Augusta National feel to it. Black letters spelled the name Pidwerbecki on the pristine white mailbox, its red flag raised to indicate the mail had arrived that morning.
Moving slowly after their impressive lunch, the fire-fighting trio strolled down the sidewalk, through the fence opening and to the front door. They didn’t bother with the mail.
“Mr. Pid-wer-specty?” Joseph asked awkwardly when a man answered his aggressive knock.
“It’s Pidwerbecki, and yes. You got my message, good.”
“I did. Do you have something to add to what you told our investigators the other day? I’m fairly sure someone spoke to you that day, right?”
With that, the man opened the screen door all the way and motioned for the group to come in. The sidekicks waited for a signal from Joseph before making a move. He signaled his decision by walking through the door and heading for the nearest couch in the large sitting room off the foyer.
“Got anything to drink Mr. Pick-turn-specki?”
“It’s Pidwerbecki sir, and I can offer sweet tea if you’re interested. Three glasses?”
It took the officious man several minutes to pour the tea, arrange the glasses on a tray, fan a row of cookies on a plate and carry the whole arrangement from the distant kitchen. Placing it on the giant ottoman in the center of the room, he sat on the edge of an arm chair, one leg folded over the other, but leaning forward as though the weight of what he had to say was tugging at him.
“I think someone set fire to that house, and I know who it was,” he declared with an obvious sense of relief. He had the expression of someone who had just revealed the identity of the Boston Strangler.
Joseph coughed up a chunk of cookie and leaned forward to meet his host. “I’m sorry, what? You know who did it? Why didn’t you mention this the other day?”
“You know, with all the excitement I didn’t realize what I had seen. But now that I’ve slept on it and thought about it. Well, that makes a difference, you know?”
“I suppose yes. So tell us, what did you see?”
With that, the man stood up and started pacing. He shot a glance out the front window and adjusted the blinds to further obscure the view from the street. “Look, I didn’t actually see anyone light the fire, if that’s what you mean, but I know who did it.”
“Alright, tell us.”
“Well, first you have to understand I pay attention to what goes on in this neighborhood, on this street. I mean, I watch and remember. I see what others don’t see.”
“Do you have a job, sir?” Joseph asked, leaning back, crossing his arms and wishing he hadn’t rushed through his lunch to meet Nester Pister-speckity, or whatever his goddam name was.
“I’m semi-retired. I still teach a little, here and there, helping out when needed.”
“What in God’s name did you see? Spit it out.”
“It’s better if I show you.”
He produced an iPad as if by magic and sat down beside Joseph on the giant ottoman, nudging the tray of cookies aside. “I posted it this morning, but I wanted to show you in person and explain why it’s important.”
The Pidwerbecki Facebook account was largely a collection of photographs documenting the man’s insatiable thirst for lawn care perfection – green grass and shrubbery porn for liked-minded enthusiasts whose idea of a fun morning was double-cutting the front lawn in a crisscross pattern and then delineating its boundaries by cutting a razor-sharp edge along the length of the sidewalk and driveway, all the while casting an eye for a pesky weed or dandelion that needed to be uprooted by hand with the precision of a vascular surgeon.
“Here, here it is.”
The video he clicked looked like it might have been shot from the moon or a neighboring state. By staring and concentrating, Joseph and his cohorts were able to recognize the street and then the Ivanov home.
“OK, watch on the left,” the man said, excitedly, indicating with a thumb which side was the left side. “Here it comes.”
Right on cue, a UPS truck rolled down the street, slowed slightly near the Ivanov home, then continued along the street and over the horizon. As the truck disappeared from view, the cinematographer had jerked the camera back toward the street, and sure enough, it was possible to see wisps of smoke starting to rise from somewhere behind the Ivanov abode.
It wasn’t exactly We-Have-a-Pope smoke, but it was there. Then the video ended.
“That’s when I called 9-1-1,” Pidwerbecki said, his chest pumped out, his cheeks starting to flush. “If you freeze it, here I’ll show you, if you freeze it you can see the licence plate of the truck. You should be able to find out who was driving, right?”
Joseph couldn’t decide whether to laugh first and then punch the stupid man in the face or to punch first and laugh second. His sidekicks were equally dumbfounded but uncertain if they had simply missed something important. So they remained quiet and waited for their boss’ reaction.
“With all due respect Mr. Pid-ster-dicky, what the hell are you talking about? I see a UPS truck driving down the street. Am I missing something. Is there a grassy knoll somewhere here?”
“There’s no need to be rude,” Pidwerbecki said, standing up and removing the tray of cookies. “I would have thought it obvious that the truck slows down right in front of the house as the smoke starts to appear. Either the driver is looking to make sure the fire is going or he ignores it. Both are suspicious actions, don’t you think?”
“Well, no actually. I don’t.”
“Look,” Pidwerbecki said, slightly frustrated. “If you’re driving along in a neighborhood you probably know quite well, and you see smoke coming from a house, wouldn’t you report it. Wouldn’t you stop? I mean, not you. You’re the fire chief. Of course you would. I mean anyone else. So if he didn’t stop, well, that’s suspicious.”
“We don’t know he saw it. We don’t know what he thought if he did. Maybe he saw it and thought someone was burning leaves. Or roasting weenies. Even if he did see it, so what? Are you saying the UPS guy started the fire, then drove around until the smoke appeared, just to make sure the house would be destroyed?”
“I’m saying it’s a possibility, and I have the video evidence right here.” With that he grabbed Joseph’s ice tea from the table and placed it on the cookie tray, out of reach of everyone there. “That’s what I’m saying. I’m just trying to help. Why are you so hostile and close-minded?”
“Look, Mr. Pis-ter-shecky. We have a lot of work to do on this case. We can’t even talk to the homeowners and there are no real clues. It seems like a professional arsonist, which raises a ton of questions. None of which, believe me, have anything to do with a UPS truck that happened to drive by that morning. Honestly, do you know what’s more suspicious? It’s a neighbor who happened to get a video just as the house started to burn down. That’s pretty good timing, wouldn’t you say? That’s a hell of a lot more suspicious than a goddam UPS driver.”
Joseph stood up about halfway through his rant, and was on his way to the front door as he delivered the last line. The sidekicks were following so closely that they bumped into him when he spun suddenly before reaching the door.
“Please don’t call us with any other theories, OK? But thanks for the cookies. And the tea.”
Svetlana Ivanov sobbed on and off for most of the night before regaining something close to her composure. Sergei remained by her side the whole time, aching to make it all better but unable to do anything other than supply Kleenex and water as required.
When dawn broke, they were asleep on the floor where they’d collapsed very early in the morning. Two hours of sleep helped a little. She woke first, stepped over her husband and had a long, hot shower. She resisted the urge to curl up on the shower floor and let the water beat over her, hiding whatever tears she might have left to shed. Instead, she forced herself to look ahead, to make a plan, to figure out what the couple would do to make things right. She had always been the thinker of the duo. If he’d come to me when this started, we would still have our house. Still have our life.
Sergei heard the water running and for a spark of a moment considered joining her in the shower. It was something they did regularly at home, but especially in hotels. Before the thought had formed fully in his mind, however, he remembered everything. Every twisted, rotten thing – and who was to blame. Me.
Instead, he changed his clothes, straightened up the room a little and sat in the uncomfortable desk chair, waiting for her to emerge. His memory was sketchy; he thought he had told her everything over several hours of screaming and crying the night before.
He wasn’t sure what she was going to do when she emerged from the bathroom. He set the odds of divorce at roughly even. She had put up with a lot, sacrificed for years, in support of his long-shot tennis dream. It would hardly be surprising if she decided this was too much -- that a husband who didn’t tell her he was being blackmailed and consequently put her life at risk was not worth keeping. She wasn’t the athlete. They wouldn’t come after her. It made a lot of sense for her to bolt that very day.
She would get half their dwindling but still significant nest egg. The house and all their belongings were insured. She could start over without taking much of a financial hit at all. No kids. And, as Sergei’s friends often reminded him, he was punching well above his weight class with her. She was gorgeous and smart and would easily be able to find someone new, if and when she wanted.
To his relief, she chose the other option, at least for the moment. She committed – again – to his career and their marriage. After exhausting the hot water supply for much of the hotel, she stormed out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped securely around her torso and another wrapped around her head. Instead of dressing, she shooed Sergei from the desk chair and set up shop with standard-issue hotel stationery and pen. If she could write it down, organize her thoughts, she always felt better. It was the way they had made all their major decisions together. The sight of her taking charge gave Sergei hope for the first time since he watched his house burn to the ground on his 4-inch iPhone screen the day before.
“Tell me again when they first contacted you, how it began.”
He repeated much of what he’d said the night before, apologizing for everything. This time around, rather than sobbing and punching him in frustration, she took careful notes. After an hour of questions and answers, she had constructed a timeline of sorts, tied to tournaments and their travel schedule.
It was the kind of thing Sergei had never considered doing. He had fielded their approaches and fended them off, without ever trying to step back and analyze what the hell was going on. It wasn’t as though her makeshift timeline had cracked the case or anything, but seeing it all laid out somehow made him feel better. Not better exactly, but less culpable.
“These guys are fucking serious and organized,” she said as she examined her handiwork, a pencil stuck in her mouth. “I’m not saying it was OK not to tell me,” she said, taking his hand and softening her gaze. “I’m not saying that at all. But Jesus, I’m amazed you were able to function for the last 18 months worrying about all this.”
Athletes dealing with scandal or tragedy often said their only peace was on the playing field or court, where they could do the thing they knew best and forget for a moment the tumult all around them. Sergei never said that, never thought it. As far as he was concerned, that was utter bullshit, a cliché along the lines of giving 110 per cent or playing with your back against the wall.
But over the last year or so, he’d experienced that very thing. It was the only time he didn’t feel pressure. The messages were sporadic, often months apart. They asked him to lose a specific game in a set or lose his serve at a designated score. Sometimes he answered back to refuse. Sometimes he didn’t bother answering. Either way, he resisted the increasing pressure from faceless bettors who profited by betting in real time on point-to-point results, capitalizing on the inside knowledge they created.
“Alright, we have a pattern here for sure,” Svetlana said, finally. “Let’s get some lunch and figure out what to do next. “Does Vlad know about this?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
She was strangely relieved her husband had hidden the facts from his brother as well, even if they barely spoke. Telling him while keeping her in the dark would have felt like more of a betrayal.
“It’s probably time to tell someone,” she said, flatly. “Someone who can help us figure out whether to talk to the cops, or the ATP.”
She had just finished writing ATP on her sheet, when she stopped and looked at Sergei again, suddenly less certain.
“Hold on a second. They burned our house down, so of course that means you didn’t help them. But it started two seasons ago. Oh my God, Sergei, did you help them already? What really happened?”
For the second time in 24 hours, Sergei came clean. It wasn’t quite as painful the second time around because he wasn’t trying to explain why someone had torched their house. But it was still wrenching.
“OK, there’s some money. In an account. But I haven’t touched any of it. None.”
“What? You took their money?”
“I didn’t take it. They just put it in an account and told me it was there. I’ve never touched it. I don’t even know how much is there.”
“I don’t understand,” she screamed. “You have their money? What else did you do? What the hell is going on Sergei? What?”
“I don’t have any money. They just kept telling me it was there, I guess to try to suck me in? Last month, I told them it had to stop. I told them I’d never help them, no matter how much money they put in that account. But I couldn’t exactly call the cops. I don’t even know who they are. I know a couple of guys playing in Spain who threw a few points, that’s it. And they’re done, off the tour forever. I was terrified of being linked to something, because of the money. I was just trying to ignore them. Ignore everything.”
“How? How do you talk to them?”
“It’s all texts. I don’t know who they are or where they are. Nothing. The numbers change all the time. They would tell me what to do in a tournament, and then they sent a confirmation number for money going into some account, but I promise you, I never, ever looked at it. I’ve never touched it. I just wanted to get out and forget all about it.”
With that he tossed a plastic cup half full of Pepsi toward the balcony, intending to have it plummet to the ground in a grand gesture of frustration. When it hit the screen leading to the balcony, the effect was somewhat less grand, more pathetic than anything.
Svetlana giggled, despite herself. He uttered a long series of Russian expletives but couldn’t help laughing himself. They fell onto the bed where their collective exhaustion, helplessness and fear somehow brought them closer. He tugged at the towel still wrapped tightly around her body. She responded by removing the towel from her head and pulling down the covers. Smarter than the cup-throwing incident suggested, he followed her lead, shedding his clothes and climbing into bed next to her. For an hour, they enjoyed a version of the peace of mind Sergei enjoyed on court, focusing on each other and forgetting briefly about their burned out home and how it suddenly symbolized their life in general.
Gil pulled into his parking spot at the club Saturday at 6:30, in lots of time to get ready for his first lesson of the morning, at 7:00. He walked the long way around to his office, doing a perimeter scan of all 16 outdoor courts. When he got to the very back court, he did a double take.
There were at least 100 balls on the court, most on the side opposite the ball machine, which was in position on the north side of the court, ready to fire balls all day long. Except the ball machine had a curfew. It didn’t stay out overnight. There was a spot in the nearby storage shed for it. Same for the balls, which were now wet with dew.
What the hell?
The kid working the sign-in desk was supposed to put the machine and balls away before going home at night. The lit courts meant members could play until 10:00 p.m., and often did.
Gil headed for his office to check the schedule and see who had worked the night before. He turned his key to open the main clubhouse door and felt no resistance. The door wasn’t locked. Suddenly queasy, he opened the door slowly and looked around.
The pro shop looked OK, as did his office which he had locked at 7:00, when he left the night before. Going up a flight of stairs, he entered the bar and social room, where players gathered after matches to drink and watch the courts below from an expansive balcony.
The sliding doors to the balcony were wide open – which was just as well because had someone tried to close them they might have broken one of the empty beer bottles lying near the door. There were bottles behind the bar too, along with empty bags of chips and other snacks. With 15 minutes before the first players arrived for weekend play, he was standing in the middle of a frat house.
From the ground floor, he heard the kids working that morning begin arriving. He came down to meet them, knowing they wouldn’t have worked the night shift if they were scheduled that morning.
“Who was here last night, Janet, do you know?”
“Ah, no, sorry Gil. Why?”
“Go upstairs and look around, but be careful and don’t touch anything. It’s a mess up there. Then, you and Aisha go out to court 16 and get the ball machine ready. It was left out overnight. The balls are probably ruined. I don’t think they’ll work in the machine, that’s for sure.”
The ball machine was an enormous pain in the ass for nearly everyone at the club, even when it was put away properly at night. If the tennis balls got the least bit wet and swelled up by 1/16th of an inch, the machine would jam. But like a photocopier that quits if one piece of paper goes in slightly askew but doesn’t shut down until another 25 pieces of paper are jammed in six hard-to-reach locations, the ball machine could swallow up 10 soggy balls before quitting. It took someone with a broomstick and superhuman strength to ram the balls out of the launch tube, as though loading a Civil War musket over and over.
Few people used the machine. It was the die-hards who couldn’t get a game on a given day and faced the alarming prospect of going 24 hours without hitting their flawed groundstrokes off the back fence or into the net. When the thing broke down, which it did about once a month, Gil delayed calling the repairman for a few days, to give himself and most of the members a break from the infernal thing.
Janet and Aisha managed to get it working again, using a hopper full of dry balls after collecting the wet balls and spreading them out to dry in the rising sun. Gil, meanwhile, called Tony Di Pietro at home. As club manager, he often dropped by on weekends, but never at 7:00.
“What Gil? Is everything OK?”
“Ya, sorry to call. Well, no, I guess not everything is OK. But, I mean, no one is hurt or anything. Not yet.”
Before Gil finished explaining what he found, Di Pietro was dressed and on his way. One of the summer students, Randy Jorgensen, had worked the night before. Gil called him and got his parents.
“Randy stayed at a friend’s last night after his shift Gil. Sorry, he’s not here,” the woman Gil knew only as Mrs. Jorgensen said. “You know, since I’ve got you on the phone -- Randy would kill me for doing this -- but I just want to say how much he loves working for you and everyone there at the club. It’s really great.”
“Well, that’s good to hear. When you talk to him, please have him call. I texted but haven’t heard back.” Gil said. “Sorry to have bothered you so early on a Saturday.”
“Oh, no problem. I just got home from my hike. It’s beautiful along the river this morning Gil. Randy doesn’t always have his phone on. He’s kind of a people person, you know, and isn’t always on his phone like a lot of the kids.”
“Uh huh, OK. Thanks.”
Oh Mrs. Jorgensen, you have no idea.
Di Pietro arrived within 15 minutes, about the same time as Gil’s 7:00 lesson, Howard Forrester, who seemed only mildly interested in the commotion all around him and headed out to Court 1 to start his usual session.
“Hey, Howie, morning,” Gil started. “I’ve got a few things to look after here, as you can see. Would you mind hitting with Anne? Good to get a fresh look at that serve of yours anyway.” Anne Hollings was the assistant pro. Gil had hired her the previous year and considered it one of his best moves at the club. Women loved hitting with her, as did some of the men. Like Gil, she had been a collegiate stand-out whose game was still top notch. A few members from the Mesozoic Era refused to take lessons from her and barely acknowledged her presence. Old Howard Forrester fell into that camp.
“Er, I can wait a few minutes Gil. Go ahead and finish up. I’ll be out here.”
“The thing is, it could take most of your hour, and Anne is here, ready to go. Whatcha think?”
“I think I could come back later. I noticed on the court sheet, you have an hour free at noon today. I could rearrange my schedule and come back then.”
“Ya, that’s generally my lunch hour. I’ve got eight hours of lessons today,” Gil replied, letting the statement hang there for the old man to consider.
“It’s the same number of hours either way. I’ll come back at noon. In the meantime, since I’m here, maybe I’ll go use the ball machine.”
Of course you will.
“Great idea. I’ll tell Anne you’re doing that and have one of the girls get you set up.”
Gil was so annoyed that he briefly forgot why Di Pietro was there.
“I’ve had a look around Gil. Not good, of course, but no serious damage. Anything taken from the pro shop?”
“Don’t think so. Haven’t actually gone through it all, but it just looks like someone had a party upstairs.”
“Jorgensen was scheduled,” Di Pietro said, looking at the clipboard he had grabbed from behind the counter.
“Ya, can’t reach him this morning. Called his house, but he’s not there. His mom says it’s lovely along the river this morning, if you’re wondering.”
Di Pietro didn’t smile or acknowledge the comment. “Alright, keep trying to reach him. I’ve called maintenance, and they can have this cleaned up by noon. I’m going to close the second floor to members until then. You’ve got the ball machine squared away, right? That’s everything, as far as we know?”
With that, they heard the pop of the ball machine from across the grounds on court 16, as it began firing balls at Howard Forrester. He launched the first one over the fence and looked around to see if anyone had noticed. He then got into something he thought of as the ready position for the next ball, which he hit a few feet lower against the top of the fence. He was in mid-season form.
Flipping through her messages from the previous day, Liz Catalano was not surprised to see a call from Sergei Ivanov. She had planned to call him that afternoon.
Catalano had been legal counsel at the Association of Tennis Professionals for eight years. She enjoyed the job about 50 times more than her previous job as managing partner at Heinrich, Scheff, Carling and Dobbin, a medium-size labor law firm in Manhattan. No one there could understand why she would leave such a prestigious position at all, never mind to join the ATP, which they understood had something to do with tennis.
“Those idiots have no idea how shitty the job is,” she told her husband in bed, the night before she gave her notice at the firm. “No amount of money is worth the hassles.”
Said hassles included arbitrating disputes about office size and location between and among the 15 partners, chasing said partners and 70 or so wannabe partners every month for their billable hour reports, representing the firm at an endless parade of social events and fundraisers, and – most tiring – handling the increasingly messy decline of the firm’s founder, Octavius Heinrich, whose 85-year-old mind and body were in a race to the end.
There was no way Heinrich would ever retire. He had nothing to which he could retire – no spouse, no kids, no friends and no particular interests beyond the daily machinations of the firm, which he understood less and less with each passing month.
When she joined the firm, her bucket list did not include being a corporate nanny to the eldest member of the firm, no matter how highly regarded he was or how many kind gestures he had made to various other rich white men over the years. There was no ‘senior babysitting’ skill box to check on her LinkedIn profile.
She made the decision to leave without knowing where she would end up, but followed her husband’s advice and focused her search on her one true love. Catalano didn’t start playing tennis until she was 30, well past her athletic peak. She had danced competitively as a teen and always been able to throw a baseball better than her brothers, but she didn’t even pick up a racket in her youth.
She went with a girlfriend to a public court one day mostly to be polite. She was more excited by the plan afterward to find an outdoor patio and drink lattes. The friend loaned her a racket and gave her a few rudimentary tips. Within a few weeks, she was feeling more comfortable hitting the ball back and forth.
After a month of Saturdays, they signed up for lessons at a club they saw driving home one day. At age 47, she often smiled when thinking how that chance outing, with someone she no longer even talked to, had completely changed her life.
Not only did she become a tennis addict, playing at least three times a week and arranging vacations around playing and watching the game, but she had then reset her career by joining the ATP, initially as a member of the legal team and then as chief counsel. That required a move to the ATP Americas headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Her husband’s enthusiasm for chasing dreams had vanished with that news. He had no desire to leave New York and essentially made her choose. The ultimatum put their marriage into depressing relief, and she bolted for Florida. With no kids to complicate matters, she had made the transition with surprising ease. Her professional and social lives were now intertwined with the sport in a way she could never have predicted. She loved it and often said so to anyone who would listen.
She’d never met Ivanov in person, but she was pretty sure they had spoken once or twice by phone. It wasn’t unusual for players outside the top 100 to rely on advice from her office more so than their more successful counterparts. The very best players had agents and advisors who identified and solved their legal issues. Players like Ivanov navigated that world alone. Even if Ivanov had an agent, he would have to split his time among many middling players to make a living, giving each only a few hours per month and handling only the most basic tasks.
She fielded a handful of calls and texts per week from players looking for advice about sponsorship deals, international tax rules, labor regulations and even divorce laws. Sometimes she could help with some general advice. Other times she encouraged them to seek the advice of an attorney who worked directly for them and could delve into the issue more thoroughly. Her friends occasionally called this passing the buck; she called it issue management.
As she prepared to return Ivanov’s call, she was certain it was the first time she would be speaking to a player about his house burning down, an attack local authorities were now publicly labeling arson. When she saw the news the day before, she had put in a call to her counterpart at the quixotically named Tennis Integrity Unit. Formed in 2008, its mandate was not to crack down on bad lines calls and rampant foot faults in club-level tennis, but rather to investigate match fixing. A cynic might have argued its mandate was to make enough noise to assure the public match fixing was being rooted out: to remove any suspicion about matches they were paying to watch – the way airport security makes people remove their shoes to demonstrate how safe that day’s flights will be.
Since match fixing had hit the headlines in a big way a few years earlier, the TIU had doubled its staff and budget and accused a meager seven players and officials of actions they couldn’t actually prove in court but for which they issued bans ranging from six months to two years. Catalano knew a couple of the people working there and believed their motives were pure. She also knew high-level, organized match fixing was nearly impossible to detect and stop. They caught the ham-handed amateurs from time to time, but they had never arrested, or even identified, any of the international gambling crooks whom everyone believed ran the most significant match fixing schemes.
As she expected, the TIU was unaware of the Ivanov fire. They played a perpetual game of catch up, investigating players’ actions after tournaments, when results look fishy and the crooks betting on the fishy results were long gone – both physically and online, covering their virtual tracks expertly.
“Morning Sergei, Liz Catalano returning your call from yesterday. How are you doing? I heard about your house.”
“Thank you Mrs. Catalano. Yes, it’s been…”
“Call me Liz, please. Go on.”
“Yes, OK, thanks. It’s been a terrible few days, for sure. We’re in Mexico. Lost in the quarters. Supposed to head to Guadalajara next, but we don’t really know what to do.”
“Is Svetlana there with you?”
“Ya, she’s here. She’s right here, actually, sitting with me.”
“Maybe she could go back and see what’s going on at home. I’m sure you have to talk with insurance people and maybe the fire department. Did I see right in the news? Was it arson? Do they know that already?”
“We talked to someone from the fire department, but it was early and we’re not really sure what’s going on. It almost seemed like he was blaming us or suspicious of us. I don’t know, but we got a weird vibe from him. But ya, we need to be there soon. It’s just that Guadalajara is a big tournament. I have points to defend from last year when I got to the semis.”
“Can I speak with Svetlana? If she’s right there.”
There was a muffled discussion in Russian for about 15 seconds and then the bright, overly upbeat voice of Svetlana Ivanov came on the line.
“Liz, how are things in Florida? We need some help down here.”
With Sergei out of the loop, the two women quickly developed a game plan for the next week and beyond. The Ivanovs would drive to Guadalajara as planned, but from there Svetlana would fly, via Mexico City, back to Mobile.
Sergei would follow her the moment he was bounced from the tournament, which could be 24 hours if he lost his first match or a week if he got to the final.
“Svetlana, there’s one more thing I really should mention, and I know it’s not something you’ve thought of or want to hear…but I talked to the Integrity Unit – you know them, right?”
“Yes, well we know it exists. We’ve never talked to them or met anyone. I mean, it’s just something you read about.”
“Of course, ya. Anyway, they’re gonna want to talk with you at some point. Don’t panic or be insulted. It’s just a routine thing. When the fire people say arson, they have to at least open a file, talk to you, produce some kind of report. It’s really just routine, you know?”
“If you say so. Doesn’t seem routine to me, but OK, whatever. How will that work?”
“You’ll hear from someone soon. Next week maybe. That’s really all I know. I’m not allowed to be involved or know exactly what they’re doing.”
“Liz, I want you to understand: We have no idea why this happened. We didn’t do anything or talk to anyone or do anything wrong.”
“I know, I know. It’s not you. It’s them. They have these policies now. It’s routine, that’s all.”
“Routine my ass,” Svetlana cursed when she hung up. “There’s nothing routine about the tennis cops asking questions about this. Nothing. How much do you trust her?”
“Liz? Well, she’s helped before, but that was just some minor stuff when we were looking for an agent and trying to drum up some sponsorship money, remember? Nothing like this.”
“This is exactly why we need an agent.”
“I know, I know. What if we signed up with someone now? Could he help us?”
“I’m not sure. It’s not like there’s agent-athlete confidentiality. If we mentioned this going in, no one would be interested.”
“Ya, you’re right. But we need some help from someone and it sure as hell isn’t going to be the ridiculous Tennis Integrity Unit.”