Jim Hayes had a problem. Actually, he had several on his plate right now, but the one in front of
him was the largest and most immediate. Ron Engels was six-three and a solid 240 pounds, and it
wasn’t for nothing that people often mistook him for a certain wrestler-turned-actor, from the shaved
head on down. Engels had the attitude that made him dangerous on the training mat, but also made
him very effective as an operator for Odin Security Services. He had the skills and training to back it all
up, and even though he and Jim were friends, Engels didn’t let up when they were on the mat.
“Had enough, old man?”
Jim was leaning over, hands on knees, sucking in breaths and trying to avoid thinking of how his
artificial knee, just six months old, might not exactly appreciate this type of thing. Problem was that
the knee wasn’t the only body part telling him to get off the mat before anything broke. He had a couple
inches of height on Engels but was a good fifteen pounds lighter. Also, older. “I’m fifty-four, and that’s
only ten years older than you are,” he told Engels. The younger man threw his head back and laughed.
Sweat glistened his ripped upper body, and the man’s thighs were straining his gray sweatpants.
Engels had tossed his tee shirt aside early in the workout, disdaining the company rule that required
all employees to wear something above the waist, at least outside the locker room.
Jim decided to buy a little more time. “My brother won’t appreciate it when I tell him you’re
going topless again,” he said.
Another laugh. “Don’t pull that brother-card shit on me,” Engels said. “I know he’s the boss, but he’s upstairs and we’re down here, so quit your stalling and let’s go. You said it would be two out of three, and we’re even up.”
Indeed, they were, but Jim suspected that Ron had been taking it easy on him, allowing him to score a point in the sparring match within sixty seconds of the start. Engels had come back on him with a stepped-up degree of intensity, and Jim had to yield a point when he couldn’t block a turning side kick. Luckily, Ron had pulled the kick just enough to avoid cracking a rib. Now, the next clean punch or kick would settle the matter, or if it went to the mat, a submission would do it. Jim definitely didn’t want to go down there with Engels, with the knee not quite yet at a hundred percent. His orthopedist probably would’ve fainted if he saw Jim right now. He didn’t need the doc to tell him that another injury would be a calamity; a month from now, he’d need that knee, both of them in fact, at a hundred percent for the trip. For a moment, he thought about quitting the match. Why risk it?
You need to be ready, a voice told him. You need to show Gina you’ve still got what it takes, and show yourself, too.
Jim shook his head, silencing the voice. That was happening far too often lately. Was it his conscience? His “inner Jim” voice? Whatever, he was getting tired of it. He stood up straight, took a breath, dropped into gyoroogi seogi, a classic taekwondo fighting stance, and brought up his gloved hands. “All right,” he said, “let’s see what you’ve got.”
They met in the center of the mat, touched gloves, and Engels spun to his right, launching a turning sidekick that would’ve broken multiple ribs had it connected. Jim’s block deflected the kick just enough so that Engels’ bare foot barely grazed Jim’s side, giving him an opening to strike back at his opponent’s exposed butt or back. But this was a competition, not a street fight, and those targets were out of bounds today. Instead, Jim stepped around him and next to his planted left foot, brought his hip up against Engels’, pulled the extended right arm—bad form, Ron should’ve kept it close in—and pushed into the space between the shoulder blades, levering Engels over the hip and down onto the mat with a crash. Ass over tin cup, as Jim’s late father might’ve said.
Engels looked stunned, and Jim took a step forward, bending over, ready to go down and put an arm bar on him, but Engels suddenly reached back and grabbed Jim’s right ankle. Too late, Jim realized what was happening, but he couldn’t stop it. Engels pulled hard and Jim’s legs flew out from under him. He crashed down on the mat, taking most of the impact on his tailbone, but his shoulders and head took some, too. Enough so that one small part of Jim’s brain, the part still able to function without being distracted by the pain, knew that in a street fight it would be all over now, Gina would be a two-time widow in another few seconds.
“You okay?” Engels stood above him, extending a hand.
Jim allowed himself to be hauled upright. Engels hardly seemed to be making an effort. The man’s strength was legendary among the OSS operatives and now Jim knew why. He might be taller than Engels by a couple inches and five pounds heavier—well, closer to ten, these days—but the younger man was definitely more powerful. “Didn’t mean to bring you down so hard,” Ron said.
Jim wondered about that, but said, “It’s okay.” He tried to straighten himself, felt a shooting pain through his buttocks. Cracked tailbone? That would be just great. Those things were a bitch to heal. Maybe it was just a bruise.
Engels stepped to the edge of the mat and retrieved his shirt. “Let’s call that one a draw,” he said. “Good hip throw, there. Were you thinking arm bar after that?”
“Yeah,” Jim said, taking a couple tentative steps. “But thinking and doing are often two different things.” He placed his hands on his hips and stretched backward, then forward, clutching his buttocks. “Ouch!”
“Looks like you’ll have to tell Gina that playing grab-ass is out for a while,” Engels said, laughing.
“Right.” Jim shook his head, feeling the touch of anger. That wouldn’t be a problem. Not these days.
The drive home normally took about a half hour, but tonight Jim had to stop at a convenience store for gas and a gallon of milk. Taking the extra fifteen minutes or so was okay, considering there’d probably not be a lot waiting for him at home. Gina had told him she’d be working late again tonight. The hospital in Burlington was keeping her busy, lately very busy. Lots of staff turnover for her to manage in the nursing department, she’d said. She planned to have it straightened out in a few weeks when some new people would be up to speed. He hoped so. They were due to leave on their trip in, what, a month? He took out his phone, touched the calendar app and saw that June 12 was their departure date. Five weeks from tomorrow.
The flight would be brutal, with three legs, a total of ten hours in the air, plus a couple of layovers. They wouldn’t reach their destination till almost dawn, local time. Flying was certainly far from his favorite thing, but he was okay once he got to where he was going. He much preferred driving, but that certainly wasn’t going to happen, not on this trip. At least the jet lag wouldn’t be as bad as it was going to Europe. The time difference was only an hour. He’d never done a north-to-south jaunt like this one, but the time thing would certainly help.
The pump dinged and Jim replaced the hose, capped the tank and closed the lid without thinking about it, even as he kept an eye on things, making sure there wasn’t a spill, that the cap was tight, the lid properly shut. He locked the car, glanced around the parking lot quickly and headed inside. Locking it and checking the surroundings were two things that he did automatically. Security, always security. You never knew who might be watching, figuring that any guy who drove a Lexus SUV would have a few bucks, and whatever was in the rig would be worth stealing.
The store was like dozens of others he’d been in, bustling with people, food everywhere, tempting him with doughnuts and brownies and double cheeseburgers. He walked past all of it to the milk case, picked out a gallon of skim and got in line behind four other people, right next to the carefully positioned hot food stand. “What the hell,” he muttered as he snagged an egg roll. He went back to the dairy case, got a pint of chocolate milk, and returned to the checkout.
The sun was low in the sky as he turned west for home, munching the egg roll, the Classic Rewind channel pumping The Knack’s “My Sharona” through the Lexus’ speakers. Damn, but this rig had a great stereo system. He reached for the volume knob to turn it up, then decided against it. His hearing wasn’t what it used to be, and he didn’t want to make the long decline even steeper. That song was big at the end of his senior year of high school at St. Francis, the small Milwaukee suburb where he’d grown up. Ah, those were the days…except, of course, for the state championship game. Two free throws to win the title for the Mariners, at least one to force overtime…and he missed them both.
His tailbone hurt where he’d come down hard on the mat. Shifting in his seat, trying to ease the pain, Jim wondered idly why he had to think of that game again. It was a helluva long time ago, after all. Twenty-six years. He’d avoided class reunions after his first wife’s death in ’05. There were still one or two guys from the team who had never gotten over that last game, and the subject always seemed to come up. Without his wife there to hold him back, Jim didn’t trust himself to stay calm when the inevitable drunken reverie turned borderline insulting. He couldn’t blame them, in a way; after all, he’d been on the team as a freshman in ’76, when the Mariners won it all, but the rest of the guys from the ’79 team didn’t have that to fall back on. For them, their only chance for the gold trophy ended when Jim air-balled the free throw that would’ve taken them to OT.
He could understand the lingering resentment, but sooner or later you had to move on from those things. He’d done his best to do that. Yeah, the misses had not only cost St. Francis the title, but probably kept him from getting a ride to a Division 1 college. So, he’d gone to UW-Platteville, where his career ended with a knee injury during his freshman season. Six months later he met Suzy, and his life changed so much for the better that it wasn’t even funny. Marriage, a daughter…none of that would’ve happened if he’d made those stupid free throws.
He sighed. It had all turned out for the best, but even so, he’d been thinking of that championship game more than a little in recent months. It didn’t do any good to rehash it, of course. He couldn’t go back in time. A few months ago, he’d told Gina about it and she kind of dismissed it, saying, “What, are you late getting to your midlife crisis?” Jim never figured out if she was kidding or serious. She muttered something in Italian after that but wouldn’t tell him the English version. He suspected it wouldn’t be very complimentary.
But maybe she’d been on to something. It was going on three years now since he and Mark had gone into Serbia to rescue Sophie from that war criminal. The mission was a success, and as for the guy who’d caused all the trouble, Mark left him on that island in the Danube with a hole in his head. Jim always wondered if he would’ve had the guts to do that. The mission, though…that was one of the best times of his life. What a team they’d made, Mark and the German captain, Krieger, even old Paul, the retired Brit SAS officer, men of accomplishment and courage, true warriors, and they’d welcomed Jim into their presence, treated him as an equal. It was a rush like nothing he’d ever felt, better than hoisting the gold trophy with his teammates in ’76, better than getting his black belt, better than winning that tournament grand championship in Rice Lake on the day he and Gina first got together.
But that time, short and intense, was receding into the past every day. As satisfying as his job was, as his marriage was—or at least as it used to be—nothing approached what he’d felt on the mission to rescue his sister-in-law. Was it the excitement? The danger? The chance to prove himself alongside two highly decorated combat veterans? His knee had kept him out of military service, one of his life’s great disappointments, but he’d proven himself in Somalia and then alongside Mark and Krieger in Serbia, hadn’t he? Yes, he had, and he reveled in that feeling of comradeship, a feeling that working for OSS helped keep alive, even if it was far less dangerous than those tense days and nights in the Balkans.
He thought of the company now, as he drove west on State 173. The OSS building was two miles behind him, on the outskirts of Zion here in northeast Illinois. Home was about twenty-five miles to the west and north, across the Wisconsin line to Camp Lake, outside Wilmot. He didn’t mind the commute, not really. Traffic was usually mild, and it gave him time to decompress from his day. Working for OSS was certainly the best job he’d ever had, but it got to be intense sometimes. There was a lot of testosterone in the building, a lot of alpha dogs who had to be kept on short leashes. Even the women were hard chargers. Mark was very good at managing it all, which was to be expected, since he had twenty-plus years as an officer in the Army to fall back on. Jim had always worked in offices where women tended to run the show, and it was far different now. He had to admit, he liked it this way. The women at OSS didn’t seem to mind, either. None of them were shrinking violets, and the workplace was disciplined and organized. A lot of that had to do with Mark’s leadership, and the caliber of people he recruited.
Jim hadn’t been too sure about working for his younger brother, but Mark proved to be a fair and supremely efficient boss. His responsibilities at the office and at home kept him occupied. His wife, Sophie, had given birth to a girl, who was coming up on her second birthday in a few months. Elise was a little doll, but Jim well remembered how much time an infant—a toddler, now—demanded from her parents, and he certainly didn’t hold that against Mark. But he also remembered how good it had felt to have a brother again, after so many years of that bond being strained by distance and jealousy. Most of that was Jim’s fault, he’d acknowledged that long ago, and one of his great joys was becoming close again with his brother. Jim’s mission to Somalia in ’11 started the healing, and they’d grown even closer after the Serbia operation a year later. Recently, though, they seemed to be drifting apart again, and that bothered Jim. Just one more thing to add to his ever-growing list of things to think about…
An Alfa Romeo sports car zoomed past on his left, swerved effortlessly back into his lane and accelerated away. It was a beauty, silver, maybe a 4C, looked new. Italian, like Gina. He remembered the first, and so far only, time he’d been to his wife’s native country, on their honeymoon tour three years ago. Man, that had been great…right up until the incident in Capua.
He’d met Gina a year earlier at a martial arts tournament, when she was living way up in Washburn, almost as far north in Wisconsin as you could get. They started seeing each other just a few weeks before he went to Somalia, the trip that almost cost him his life. He shook his head. Had that really happened? Yes, it had. The book he wrote about his fight to escape the terrorist camp had been a modest success, and for a time there was talk that Netflix would make it into a movie. Then the political climate changed after the election, and American heroism wasn’t quite as fashionable as it had been a few years earlier among the Hollywood set. So, the TV part of his dreams would almost surely never happen.
But the Gina part sure had. He vividly remembered their first night together at that hotel in Rice Lake, almost as far north as Washburn. Jim had driven up there from Cedar Lake, not too far from where he lived now, to compete in a martial arts tournament. She was there, a familiar face from a competition earlier in the year. The evening after the tournament they went back to the hotel. Jim had already checked out of his room, but then they planned to have dinner together and she offered him the use of her room to change, suggesting a dip in the hot tub to unwind from the intense action of the grand championship, which Jim had won over a much younger competitor. His first sight of her in that dark green bikini, walking over to join him…he couldn’t believe how good she looked, a woman in her early forties who’d had twins twenty years earlier. Her mother had named her after another Italian, the actress Gina Lollobrigida, and Signora Russo was right on the money with that one. Jim’s Gina was as strikingly beautiful as her namesake, and three inches taller to boot.
Gina had a shorter commute, only thirteen miles north from the lake to Burlington. The job had started right about the time she made the move south from Washburn three years earlier, just before their wedding. It provided them with much-needed financial security as the Illinois OSS branch got organized and Jim was without income for a couple months. Jim had never begrudged Gina her success, which was long overdue after years of struggling as a widowed mom, but she’d been working a lot of hours in the last few months. There was a dojo in Burlington, and he’d urged her to check it out. She also practiced kyudo, the Japanese art of archery, or at least used to. Her bow was gathering dust at home. Yeah, the job was taking up a lot of her time.
At least, he assumed it was the job taking her time…
Another memory, not nearly as pleasant as their Italy trip, drifted in. That, too, had been happening more often lately. As he crossed the border into Wisconsin, he couldn’t keep himself from bringing it back, in living color. He knew that he shouldn’t, that he should push it aside and focus on the present, but here it was again. He sighed, and gave in.
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