In the interest of not stretching this out needlessly, simply because some algorithm tells me this post isn’t long enough or readable enough or whatever, I’ll just launch right into the story, okay? Like you have a choice about that, huh? 🙂
“Ain’t no one leaving this world, buddy
Without their shirttail dirty
Or their hands a little bloody
Waist deep in a big muddy…”
One February night, I dreamt I was a police officer again. I drove my patrol car around like it was some kind of lordly chariot. I blessed the peasants of the city with my presence. I dismissed their cries for help, as my time was too valuable and not to be wasted on trivial matters.
I drove and ignored the citizens lining the streets. They held their hands out to me, begging for attention, for service, for protection.
The radio in my car chirped incessantly but I disregarded the drone of voices.
When I took the time to look at them, the citizens had no faces. Only chins and eyebrows framed every empty countenance. Some of them pointed their fingers at me. Soon, the rest joined in, until all of them were pointing at me as I drove past.
I guided my cruiser into a large empty parking lot and rolled through the entrance to Joe Albi Stadium. The conquering hero returning home after battle. Trumpets blared my arrival as I parked at the fifty yard line. The rotators atop my patrol car washed the green turf with red and blue light. When I stepped out of the car, the trumpets faded and were replaced by boos and angry mutterings from the faceless crowd.
The voices on the patrol radio grew and fell in rhythm with the crowd. I strained to make out the words. They were incomprehensible, but I knew what they meant.
You killed Amy Dugger.
She was six and you could have saved her. But instead, you killed her.
That’s what the voices on the radio accused me of.
That’s what the faceless masses screamed.
That’s what a disembodied Amy Dugger whispered in my ear. The soft pitch of her little girl’s voice rang and echoed like thunder as all the others fell silent and stared.
A jagged blade of regret and guilt ripped through my chest. I didn’t bother to protest against the accusation, because they were right.
It was my fault.
I woke and stared at the ceiling, not knowing who to curse.
I didn’t plan on getting kicked out of the hockey game. The whole thing was stupid, really. A grown man in his thirties, scuffling in the stands like a high schooler or some soccer-crazed European. I should have known better.
The game couldn’t have started out worse. I sat down after beautiful renditions of both O Canada and The Star-Spangled Banner sung by a gorgeous twenty-year-old girl. The fans gave her some of the loudest applause I’d ever heard for the national anthems. She smiled graciously and waved as she walked off the ice. Rock music blasted out the PA as the players skated around and waited for the staff to remove the long red ice rugs.
Once the ice was clear, the players slowly drifted into position as the referee skated to center ice with the puck. The hometown River City Flyers sported their home whites, fringed with orange and black. The visiting Creston Otters wore their teal uniforms, trimmed with white and red.
“ARE YOU READY FOR SOME HOCKEY?” the rink announcer’s voice blared from the PA. The crowd cheered.
I sat in my cheap seat, which I’d splurged on, full of bittersweet excitement. My grandmother had been the hockey fan. She’d managed to pass along the love of the game to me, along with a few choice phrases in Czech. I couldn’t afford to go to many games these days, but when I did, it was at these moments, full of anticipation and promise, that I missed her even more.
The referee raised his arm and checked with both goalies before dropping the puck between the two opposing centers.
“Somebody hit somebody!” a voice boomed from behind and to my left. I didn’t bother looking. I knew what kind of idiot I’d see as soon as I heard the pocket of supportive laughter.
The Creston center was a tall, thin kid and he beat the River City center clean on the draw, pulling it back to his defenseman. The d-man slid the pass cross-ice to his defensive partner. The Creston defenseman with the puck held up for a moment, then zipped a pass up the boards to a streaking winger. The winger gathered in the pass and poured on the speed. The kid was fast. NHL fast.
Too late, the River City defenseman responsible for that side realized he’d been beat and scrambled to get back. He didn’t stand a chance, though. The speedy winger flew past him and bore down on the goalie.
“C’mon Beaves,” I muttered at the goalie. “Make the save.”
It was no contest. The winger dipped his shoulder and Beaves dropped to his knees, biting on the fake. The winger pulled the puck to his right, then quickly to his left and snapped it into the top corner of the net.
A displeased murmur went through the crowd. Beaves angrily fished the puck out of the net and sent it skittering toward center ice. The Creston players gathered at the faceoff circle to his left and embraced in celebration, tapping gloves and helmets. The defenseman who blew his coverage skated back to the bench with his chin on his chest. He hadn’t even swung a leg over the boards before the assistant coach began chewing him out.
The rink announcer gave out the details of the goal in a muted voice and a few scattered boos erupted from the crowd. I glanced down at my program and looked for the goal scorer’s stats.
“Kill Creston!” yelled the same voice as earlier. This time, I turned around and looked. A group of three sat a couple of rows back and half a section over. Each had a plastic cup of beer in his hands and another in the cup holder in front of him. Two had mullets and the third was trying for one.
“Beat their asses!” one of the mullet-bearers yelled and his flunkies laughed at his cleverness.
I shook my head and turned back to the game. Idiot fans are the same in every sport.
The second goal came less than three minutes later. One of the River City players took a hooking penalty and found himself in the penalty box. Creston went on the power play and cycled the puck around briskly, keeping the defenders constantly changing direction. Finally one of the defensemen let go a booming slapshot. The puck hit someone in front of the net and the re-directed puck got by Beaves for a goal.
Two to zero, less than four minutes in. It was going to be a long game.
“You guys suck!”
I glanced over my shoulder. Mullet-man stood up and gave the team a thumbs down. His buddies quickly joined him and the three started chanting, “You suck! You suck!”
“You suppose he means the Flyers or the Otters, eh?”
I turned to the guy in the row directly in front of me. He was heavy set and I guessed him to be somewhere in his late forties. He wore a black jacket with a small Creston Otters logo on the chest.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “I don’t think he knows.”
The man chuckled, making his jowly face jiggle. “Every rink has one or two. Up in Canada, we have some rinks that only hold five hundred people, but there’s still always one or two.”
I nodded. “You with the team?”
“Yah-huh. I drive the bus and help with equipment.”
“Your starting left winger is fast,” I said with a nod toward the ice.
“He’ll go in the first round at this year’s NHL draft. Maybe early second round.” He smiled proudly, then turned back to the game.
The Otters continued to dominate. The Flyers just couldn’t get anything going. As soon as they developed a little flow, there was a penalty, or a stoppage of play. Or a Creston player broke things up with a big hit or a takeaway. I sipped on my Diet Coke and shook my head as the frustrated Flyers made mistake after mistake.
After the fourth unanswered goal, the head coach pulled Beaves with seven minutes left in the first period. The backup goalie, his mask white and unpainted, skated past to the crease and dropped to the ice for a quick stretch.
“Your backup any good?” asked the Creston bus driver.
I shrugged. “He’s a rookie, so I don’t know.”
It didn’t take long to find out. Less than a minute later, the same winger who scored the opening goal took a long pass and had a breakaway. Instead of deking, the winger teed it up in the slot and blasted a slapshot right past the goalie and into the top half of the net.
“Holy Smokes!” said the bus driver, standing up and clapping. He looked back at me. “Did you see that?”
“Hell of a slapper,” I admitted.
“He’ll definitely go in the first round with a shot like that.”
I nodded my head. The bus driver sat back down. Just as he was leaning back in his chair, Mullet-man yelled, “Creston sucks!”
The bus driver’s body tensed, so I knew he’d heard it. But he didn’t turn around or look back, only stared ahead at the game as the puck was dropped again.
“Creston sucks!” Mullet-man yelled again.
I looked around for a section leader, who was supposed to be on hand to take care of loudmouths like this one. I spotted her two sections over, a teenage girl flirting with another section leader who might have been a year or two older. The two were oblivious to the game and the crowd.
The bus driver’s shoulders sagged slightly.
My jaw clenched. I fixed my gaze on Mullet-man. His face bore the broad smile of self-importance that all jerks carry. Anger sparked down in the pit of my stomach and brewed into rage.
Mullet-man noticed me and gave me a hard stare. “What are you looking at?”
I shrugged. “Some guy showing off for his boyfriends.”
Mullet-man’s face dropped in surprise and then anger. There were a few scattered “oohs” to add to his embarrassment.
“What did you say to me?”
“You heard me fine.”
“I’ll kick your ass!” he yelled.
I gave him another shrug. “Saying ain’t doing.”
His cronies made a half-hearted effort to restrain him as he crawled over one row of seats and clambered toward me. If the section leader had been watching, security would have been on him in about three seconds. Of course, she was still two sections over, giggling with some pimply sixteen-year-old kid.
Mullet-man brushed past an old couple and hopped another row of seats. He was athletic but not skilled, clearing the seats easily but landing heavily on his feet.
“Don’t worry about it, eh?” the bus driver said from my right. “Like I said, every rink has a few.”
“Too late for that,” I muttered as I watched Mullet-man advance.
I remained in my seat as long as I could so that all the witnesses would see that it was him coming after me and not the other way around. As he reached the row directly behind me, there were a half-dozen empty seats and he picked up speed, already cocking his right arm. I waited until he reached the back of my seat and started to throw his punch before I moved.
Pushing forward with my good leg, the right, I moved to my left and brought up both hands. Mullet-man’s fist whizzed by my ear. I turned, reached out and grabbed his wrist and forearm, pulling him over the row of seats and into my row. He landed awkwardly and his ribs smashed into the back of the bus driver’s seat.
Mullet-man grunted. I thought for a second he might be through, but he snarled a curse at me and stood up. I didn’t wait for him to get his balance, but stepped forward and whipped two quick rights into his face. The first landed flush on the tip of his nose and snapped his head back. The second caught him full in the mouth as his head was coming forward again. The warmth of battle flooded my body.
He gave another grunt after the second punch, but didn’t quit. Instead, he grabbed onto my shoulders and pulled me into a clinch. I pulled back, but he leaned into me. I tried to brace myself against him, but he twisted to his right and I had to plant my left leg to remain standing.
My left knee is pretty much worthless, so we both crumpled to the ground. Pain shot through my leg.
I heard his rattling breath and felt a mist of hot wetness on my cheek. His nose was bleeding. I tried to roll left, then right, but the rows of seats were too close together. I brought my right knee up sharply, aiming for his groin, but it landed somewhere on his upper leg.
Mullet-man’s grunting became a continuous drone as he clutched me, trying to win the fight by simply holding me in place. I worked my right arm up between our faces and slid it down to the side of his throat. Once I thought I had his carotid artery pegged, I pressed hard with the knife edge of my hand.
“Fuck you,” he wheezed at me and let go with his right hand. I tucked my left elbow in tight to my body, knowing what was coming.
The punch landed up high on my arm. I exhaled sharply. He was strong and had gravity on his side. My left arm and shoulder screamed at me in shock and pain, but I kept it in place. I increased pressure on the side of his throat, hoping the technique would work. On patrol, years ago and a lifetime away, I once put a burglar out using only one side of his throat, but that guy had a skinny throat. Mullet-man’s throat was thick and he was more muscular than I thought.
His second punch hurt more than the first, landing in almost the same spot. I held in a yelp and drove my knee upward again. All that succeeded in doing was striking his buttock and sliding him upward. My face ended up buried in his chest and the force of my carotid technique slipped.
Mullet-man delivered a third punch and this one crunched into my shoulder. I tried to roll again, but he had me pinned. I could smell old popcorn and the sticky sweet odor of soda. In another punch, maybe two, he would pound my head into the concrete floor.
I relaxed the knife edge of my hand and curled my fingers around his throat. With my thumb, I dug into the front of his neck. If I couldn’t cut off the blood and put him out peacefully, then I’d have to go for wind.
His breath caught for a moment when my thumb found his windpipe, but he recovered quickly and drove another punch into my shoulder. His fist skipped off the point of my shoulder and grazed my eye. I kept my chin tucked to my chest and squeezed.
Suddenly, he disappeared, his weight lifting away from me. I looked up and saw a giant in a green polo shirt lifting him in the air and pulling him away.
Two huge hands grabbed my shoulders and yanked me upright. I held in another yelp.
“Let’s go, pal,” the voice that belonged to the hands growled in my ear. “And no more bullshit, either.”
He didn’t have to worry. I didn’t have any bullshit left.
Now is that a tantalizing taste of crime writing or what? 🙂
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