By John Mahoney
Therese Masters cursed, abandoning a fifth attempt to call Sally, then tossed her smartphone into her black Nike-brand gym bag. “Just keep leaving me hanging,” she grumbled, squatting to zip the bag, before slinging it over a shoulder and using her other hand to grab her rented racquet from the polished floor of the racquetball court. Therese stormed to the clear door leading to the hallway of the fitness club, shoving it open with more force than was wise.
Impact shuddered up her left arm as a pained grunt breached her ears. From above her head. Venturing the look she’d wished she’d taken a moment ago, Therese stared up at proof the Greek Titans existed. Not really, of course; but an inarticulate flighty instinct declared she’d never experienced a better time to remember urgent business elsewhere. The man was enormous, no less than six and a half feet tall and every ounce of three-hundred pounds, if not more. A loose blue t-shirt made his physique difficult to pinpoint, but her mind assigned him a blend of muscle and fat that could crush her bones after running her down like a terrified antelope.
No. She was not afraid, she assured herself; her mental RAM erased the small step she’d taken in retreat. She was a grown woman and she’d hit this fellow with the door; indeed, a hand larger than her foot was pressed to his right eye. The other burned in fury, which lightened into assessment, then brightened with interest, all in the span of two heartbeats. His eye was beautiful, a part of her noticed, deep green with shards of copper; her more sensible remainder could see in the self-closing door’s reflection what that eye appraised. Therese visited Ricochet Racquet to exercise without the risk of heat exhaustion; her choice of gym shorts and a white wife beater over her sports bra was reasonable when she’d decided it. Now her clothes felt like a mistake, an invitation she didn’t intend to broadcast. God had made plenty of curvier women, but none of them were being ogled by Atlas Slugged.
She swallowed the tangerine suddenly lodged in her throat. “I’m so sorry,” she said, proud of the calmness in her voice. No cowering dames here. “I didn’t see you. Are you hurt?”
Shoulders broader than her body was long, from her neck to her navel, shrugged. “I’ll live,” he said. Far from the bass rumble of the dragon featured in the Hobbit movies, his voice was soft. Reserved and mild, as if he’d grown up wading through a cloud of people who insisted he make a minimum of ruckus. Jerking a thumb half the width of her wrist at the court’s glass door and equally translucent walls, he added, “How’d you not see me?”
Therese didn’t miss the lilt he’d laced into the last word. She supposed large people spent their walking lives in resigned vigilance; they inherited blame upon collision with smaller folks who couldn’t be relied on to know their surroundings. A problem Therese, at 5’3”, had seldom considered during the teenaged years she’d spent secretly hating her taller friends. She felt her face heat. But she wasn’t going to keep apologizing like a remorseful parrot with a Repeat button. “I wasn’t paying attention,” she admitted. She gestured toward his less than gorgeous face, wondering how much of the disparity between handsome and not was her fault. “Let me see.”
After a brief hesitation, the wounded animal’s reluctance to show its belly, his meaty hand lowered. Therese winced. Already a shiner glowed beneath an eye without a trace of white; the sclera was so bloody it deserved a spiderweb of yellow tape, and his eyelids twitched as if under scrutiny from a supervisor at their first day of a new job. “Well, you’re not bleeding,” Therese offered; the only positive thing she could think of. “You’re right, you’ll live.”
A light chuckle escaped his slightly chapped lips. “Y’know, they sell bedside manners in those,” he said, inclining his massive head toward the pair of vending machines to his left and her right.
Therese found herself smiling. Remarkable how quickly men progressed from meeting a woman to thinking of bed. “Then I’ll save a dollar,” she countered. “I’m a cop. Hospice is the first thing they teach in the academy when you have lady-parts.”
Flinching wasn’t what she’d expected from her joke, and he definitely tried to hide it. But even a woman untrained in observing people might notice sudden spasms in a talking tree. Her smile faded. Fifteen years ago, when she’d been a meek rookie, informing a man who signed her paychecks earned her several minutes of polite yet sometimes offensive questions; plus the occasional request for her number. Or at least another, not entirely unwelcome once-over. A second-over. Twice-over?
Now the citizens she’d sworn an oath to protect instantly hated her. Looking closer at the giant, Therese saw what she’d assumed was a tan to be discrepancies in skin tone; his forearms, face and the backs of his hands were all different shades. His closely cropped beard was reddish-brown, while the mustache and chin – designated goatee parking – were blond. A mixture that resembled the curly, thinning mess atop his head. Not the usual coloring of white people, particularly when she factored in his almost girlishly pretty green eyes; well, eye. One of his parents may have been raised to distrust the police while the other was not. And choking on today’s anti-cops climate, who knew what this man might think? Or do? Therese lifted her arms, palms facing him. “Look, I didn’t mean to hit you. Really. I was distracted.” She lowered one hand while proffering the other. “Therese.”
Another awkward moment inched by before he shook it. At least he no longer stared like a bear in a trap, watching the hunter aiming his rifle. His massive hand smothered hers, but very gently, as if she were made of matchsticks instead of the same flesh and bone. Irritation gripped her as he pulled away. “I have to ask,” she began. “Are you speaking to a person right now, or a Pig?”
His throat jittered before he said, “A person.” Very deliberately, he confined his gaze to her own; she could tell only because she’d never seen such behavior before. That had to be it.
“Then you should know the part where you tell me your name goes with the handshake,” she advised, lifting her eyebrows. “You can’t be nine feet tall and bashful.” She waited. “If I have to come up with something, it’ll be a G-rated insult. That’s best-case scenario.”
Whatever enforced his silence cracked, then crumbled, and he smirked, shaking his head a little as if banishing unpleasant thoughts. “I have a lot of names,” he said. “One more won’t hurt. Do your worst.”
Therese pursed her lips. So she wasn’t hearing a name? Person, indeed. She pretended to think, then announced, “M&M.”
The behemoth frowned. “Like the candy?” When she nodded, he said, “I give up.” He patted his abdomen. “I don’t think I’m that round.”
“Man Mountain,” she corrected, using a finger to trace the letter twice in the air.
“Not bad,” M&M said with a small laugh. “What color am I?”
Therese agreed that was a good question. She peered at his eye. “Red.” The chocolates didn’t sell a black-eye variety, after all.
“Fair enough,” M&M allowed, dipping his head in mockery of a gracious nod. “Since we’re asking questions, who stood you up?”
Therese started. “How the hell –” She cut herself off with a lady-like throat clearing, then tempered her voice. “What, uh, what makes you think that?”
M&M grinned. He had decent teeth, only a tad crooked; the smile of someone who’d neglected the retainers once braces were removed. “You’ve got a racquet, bag, Nikes and the workout get-up,” he said, ticking each item off on a thick finger. “But you’re alone, not sweating, in a gym. You didn’t see me ’cause you’re in the sort of fit women get when they wanted to have company and maybe get sweaty. And the way you reacted, well, you told on yourself.”
“Okay.” Therese snorted. “Wow. For somebody who doesn’t like cops, you’re one detection away from a pay raise and your own office. How do you know I didn’t get a call? You know, get pulled away for something important?”
“’Cause you’re still here, talking to me.”
Therese laughed. She couldn’t help it. And why was she still here? She threw up her hands in surrender. “You got me. My girlfriend’s supposed to have been here half an hour ago. We meet up every Saturday and go a few rounds. This is the third time she ditched me. Not even a B.S. excuse text, either.”
“I’ll play with you,” M&M offered. Therese blinked, and he quickly added, “In there,” pointing at the room she’d left.
“Uh-huh,” Therese murmured, keeping her tone non-committal. “We kinda just met.”
Tapping the darkening skin under his eye, M&M said, “And in two minutes you gave me a black eye, a nickname and a promotion to detective. Imagine what could happen in an hour.”
Therese was trying not to, but her lips were quirking beyond control. Finally she said, “Screw it. I didn’t drive here to not play. Let’s go.” M&M’s smile unleashed hers as he pulled open the clear door and stood aside. She pressed a hand to her cheek in faux astonishment. “The guy who won’t tell me his name is actually a gentleman?”
“Nope,” he replied as she passed. “You’re just not touching this while I’m around.”
Guffaws reached a new level of unflattering due to the quirky acoustics of a sealed-in court; Therese could confidently inform The International Racquetball Federation that forty feet in length, and half as much in width and height was ideal in terms of game play, but inadequate for dissipating embarrassing sounds. Similar criticism could be voiced regarding the squeaking of sneakers, but Therese enjoyed the clean, somehow piney scent of the polish used to keep the floor of the court shiny. She unzipped her bag and thumped it down near the door after retrieving a firm new racquetball, the same red as M&M’s eye, two and a quarter inches in diameter. The words “Sky Bounce” bordered by a cloud had been rendered in black on the ball’s surface.
Therese dribbled it as she stepped onto the court. “I’m assuming you don’t know the rules too well,” she remarked.
M&M held his hand palm-down, wiggling it in a so-so gesture. “Why’s that?”
“First rule of racquetball is you need a racquet,” Therese said in a monotone. “They loan ’em at the desk up front.”
Eyebrows narrowing, M&M said, “I only look like a big dummy.” Then he cracked a little smile. “There’s no better rule to break than Rule Number One.”
“Are you wasting my time?” Therese demanded, hefting her racquet but conquering the urge to hurl it at him. “I didn’t come in here to play this sort of game.”
He only smiled wider, lifting a finger to point at the front wall. “Says the person –” he accentuated person now – “holding the ball and flapping her mouth.”
Grinding teeth was something vexed people did in novels she deleted from her eBook app, so Therese needed a moment to process that she belonged in a digital wastebasket. And another to stop doing it. She strode to the service box, red lines on the court’s floor that delineated where a server must stand, behind which was the five-foot rectangle where a served ball would be considered short. M&M stood well beyond the short line, his stance casual, empty hands at his sides. Flapping her mouth, was she? “I won’t hold back,” she warned.
“And stalling is different from holding back, how?” M&M retorted.
Women generally did not give a man everything he asked for within five minutes of meeting him, but Therese was ready to violate a different Rule Number One. She bounced the ball against the floor and used her racquet to swat it in mid-air with all her might. A fine, straight serve; in the time it took her to turn her head to see his reaction, the ball had ricocheted off the front wall and bounced past the short line, nearly reaching him. She smiled to see that his flatfooted posture had morphed into sporting alertness; some respect at last.
His right hand rose with swiftness she could barely track. Palm met ball, and an unfamiliar thwack assailed her eardrums. The racquetball shot to the front wall, following the same trajectory as her serve, so it came right back to her. But much lower; it struck no more than two inches from the floor. Her mind, at least, caught up where her body could not, calculating that the red sphere would hit the court less than a foot away from the wall; a kill shot. Were she not paralyzed, diving forward to save the ball before it bounced a second time might have been possible. Stuck as she was, it rolled between her feet, legally irretrievable, long before she came to her senses.
“How?” she breathed, watching M&M walk to the rear of the court to pick up the ball as if nothing unusual had happened. What physics class had he taken, and how much was the tuition?His hand had lifted from his side, rising palm-up to strike a ball speeding toward him at a descending angle; instead of being sent upward, the resulting smack launched the ball down into a kill shot. M&M strolled to where Therese stood poleaxed. Tossing the ball to himself, he held her gaze as if expecting something from her. “How did you –”
“I thought you don’t like wasting time,” M&M interrupted, a smug smile creasing his lips. He gestured toward where he’d been when he proved Newton a fraud. Her blood boiled. He was literally putting her in her place. But what could she do? Short of swinging her racquet and completing his improvised raccoon disguise, of course. Therese didn’t feel quite so guilty about his darkening eye anymore.
Still, this tension tightening her limbs and twisting her belly wasn’t anger. Sally was nowhere near the competition she faced now. Therese trudged to the red receiving line, not giving M&M the indulgence of a reply, several delicious flavors of dread washing through her. A first-time bullfighter who’d trained by waving his cape at a caffeinated goat would understand why her hands were shaking. This game would not end well.
It didn’t. Therese managed two points before M&M reached fifteen; she only scored them because her enormous adversary twice sent her serves to the floor instead of the front wall. Once he found his rhythm, she was slaughtered like a lamb. His methods were actually simple, but a counter-strategy flummoxed her.
For herself and Sally, racquetball was a game of speed, and in that, she certainly outclassed this brute. He used it against her. He played with skill, likely honed with the experience that any opponent he battled would be faster than him. Using either palm, he launched the ball toward wherever she wasn’t. When Therese favored the front of the court to save the kill shots he excelled at, M&M hit the ball high so it would sail over her head, obliging her to sprint to the rear of the court to reach it; numerous times she was forced to abandon the pursuit, lest she slam into the glass walls like a bird on a window. If she was to the right, he’d send the ball left, and vice versa. The big bastard’s wingspan and precision allowed him to practically stand still while sending her scurrying in all directions like a panicked squirrel in traffic. Thus, he economized his movements, saving stamina while she expended her own, just to have her posterior handed to her.
Therese avoided his gaze and any triumphant expression he might cast her way as she rummaged in her bag for a towel to dab away some of her sweat. “Run it back?” M&M called to her. She raised a thumb up, adding profanities in her head.
Shutting out an opponent meant achieving a winning score without allowing him or her to earn a single point. If pride were a living creature, an earnest knee to its testicles would equal the feeling she suffered as the victim of such a defeat. Dammit, even with his size, her reach with her racquet was greater; he should have been at a disadvantage. And he was. Despite pacing himself, his shirt was drenched with perspiration, and he puffed like a tugboat’s foghorn. She’d wear him down, then even the series out. Talent wouldn’t save him when his humongous body shut down.
Her own silver bullet occurred to her near the end of the third game. She was losing by nine points when a low shot she saved struck the front wall at an angle that propelled it to the right wall; from there it flew directly to M&M, who missed his swing and released a rather amusing yelp as it thumped against the side of his ribcage. She realized that every rally between them had involved only the front wall. The rules allowed for a ball in play to touch any number of the walls, including the ceiling, as long as it eventually struck the front wall without hitting the floor; M&M either didn’t know this or couldn’t defend against it. After she next served, she angled the ball to bounce off the left wall; M&M’s strike sent it horizontally, rather than to the front wall. Her point. She smiled.
He never scored again. Therese rocketed to victory in the fourth game too, tying the series. M&M was an excellent contender, however. He was learning on the fly, gradually teaching himself to recover her angled shots. He was also tiring; his massive frame was too heavy, especially now that she had him moving in ways he was unaccustomed to.
And she had figured out why. The reason behind his command of the front wall and difficulty with the other surfaces. At the serving line, her back to him, Therese called, “I get it now. Why you play the way you do, and why you won’t tell me your name.” No answer reached her, but the air suddenly felt more dense. “Where you learned, this game’s called ‘handball,’ and you’re not allowed to use a racquet, or hit sidewalls or the ceiling, right?” Silence. She dribbled the ball, framing her words. “No wonder you didn’t like hearing that I’m a cop.” She gripped the ball, squeezing it. “What’s your state number?” After only an instant’s pause, M&M recited a seven-digit numeral; one such was assigned to every prisoner, which they were required to remember and use to identify themselves with while incarcerated.
Several tense moments passed. “It’s been fun,” M&M said, his voice a murmur. She heard retreating footsteps.
“What did you do?” Therese demanded, still not turning. She didn’t want to look at him.
All was briefly quiet. “I killed someone. Not a woman or child.”
Therese snorted. Convict morality. “Accident?”
“No,” he answered, more softly. “Jury felt bad for me because I was a teenager, and the judge only gave me twenty. Got out on parole last month.” He sighed. “I thought if you knew, you’d lock me up.”
Therese turned her head, surprised. “Why?”
His face was averted. “’Cause you hit me with the door.”
“So, so I –” Therese sputtered, incredulous, dropping the ball. “So I’d set you up to cover my ass? Like you resisted, or attacked me?” He nodded. “I wouldn’t!”
His shoulders heaved a listless shrug. “How could I know that?”
Concocting an answer a felon would accept was beyond her. Some of Therese’s co-workers had done things like he described. They considered it a public service, getting criminals off the street. He resumed walking toward the door. She took a steadying breath. “Ball in!”
M&M froze. “What?” His voice quivered.
Therese bounced the ball, turning to face the front wall. “No one’s leaving without a tiebreaker,” she announced, swinging the racquet.
Expecting a timid or tepid game was a mistake. For all his unease and his winded gasping, M&M played with agility she’d never seen, and could barely believe, plus the ferocity of a striking snake. Every trick in her arsenal was enough to maintain a gradually increasing but stalemated score, with alternating turnovers. Therese found herself cheating, calling hinders and faults where none had occurred, exploiting his ignorance of racquetball rules. The part of her that abhorred his assumption of treachery frowned upon this petty deception, but she refused to let him triumph.
Finally the last point was scored, and M&M collapsed to a cross-legged sitting position on the floor, his head hanging as he struggled to reclaim his breathing; kicking him into a lake would have gotten him no wetter, so drenched was he with perspiration. Therese was scarcely among the living herself, but she managed to tweak her staggering steps into a saunter as she approached. “Got you,” she panted, slinging the racquet over her shoulder.
Still hyperventilating, M&M pressed his palms to the floor and bowed. He tamed his breath enough to sing, “I fought the law, and the law won.”
“Don’t feel bad you lost to a girl,” she said after a laugh. “I’ve been doing this for years. I’ve been told I’m at pro-level.”
“I see,” M&M said, his soft voice strained. He looked up at her.
Her racquet clacked to the floor and the ball bounced away, both released from hands she’d lost track of. Her jaw sagged. M&M gazed at her with only his left eye. The one she’d slammed with the door had swelled shut into an angry purple mass. “You, your –” she stuttered while her brain rebooted. “How long?”
“Third game,” he answered, his voice quiet and neutral. When you started winning, went unsaid. During the games she almost always had her back to him or he to her, so she hadn’t noticed.
Therese plopped onto the floor, staring. M&M said nothing. He only watched her watching him. At last, she found words. “Is your parole officer hard on you?”
M&M waggled his hand in an indifferent gesture. “Could be worse.”
Finding her legs was a challenge, but she stood, looming over M&M. “Sounds like he’s not supervising you closely enough.” The huge man’s features wilted and he shied away. She jabbed a finger in his face. “From now on, report here every Saturday morning.” Therese smiled. “I want to keep an eye on you.”
Bio: John Mahoney is an aspiring author living in one of New Jersey’s less cheerful locales. His short stories “Height Advantage” and “Asylum” were published by The Yard: Crime Blog, Pinky Thinker Press, and Etched Onyx magazine. He is a graduate of Long Ridge Writers Group’s “Writing for Publication” course. Highlights magazine published a joke he wrote before he knew Santa Claus wasn’t real.