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By Larry Stephens
Glen Hutchinson—Hutch, rolled his brawny shoulders and rotated his thick, corded wrists as he gazed absently at the bright orange sun peeking above the roiling Atlantic.
Hutch enjoyed mornings here in Wilmington, North Carolina, especially when September rolled around. The seas were always tumultuous and the air often thick and damp, and surprising thunderheads would spring up seemingly out of nowhere, signaling heavy storms were on their way.
A sparkling glass wall separated Hutch from the winds and the spray of the surf and the soggy, humid air; the east-facing wall of his huge house that contained all of two bedrooms and three bathrooms, one massive training room, and a couple of needful things, such as a kitchen. That was all Hutch needed, but oh that training room!
A variety of heavy bags, focus bags, speed bags; a boxing ring; throw dummies; weights galore, treadmills, stationary bikes, rowing machine; the array of equipment was dizzying, and it was where Hutch essentially spent most of his time.
Training. Turning himself into a weapon; a fierce force of lethal destruction and his obsession was relentless.
On this fine September morning, Hutch was annoyed.
A very close, underground ‘friend’ of Hutch’s forwarded a streamed mixed-martial-arts fight to Hutch late last night with a cryptic message of, “Ya gotta see this Hutch.”
Such a message was unusual, and so Hutch opened the stream on his tablet and watched the beginning of a match between what looked to be two heavyweights. At first, Hutch was bored, even dismissive.
Two younger guys, punks really, all tatted up with stupid-looking trunks and hair poking up all over the place, and one guy had a ridiculously long beard. As if. What kind of an idiot would get into a match sporting that nonsense?
The bell rang and the two squared off, then began exchanging; first light jabs and quick snap kicks to the opponent’s legs. Nothing serious or even worthy of Hutch’s time, and Hutch vowed to lay into his friend for wasting his time with this dreck.
But then things amped up between the two combatants. The bearded guy scored cleanly with a left cross then rushed in to swing wildly at the staggered opponent.
But it looked like the guy who was staggered was sandbagging, and as the bearded guy came in whaling away, the clean-shaven warrior delivered a wicked left hook, followed with a devastating right uppercut, snapping beard-boy’s head back like it was on a rope.
Beard-boy staggered back, reeling and then the sandbagger ripped off a spinning heel-hook kick to beard-boy’s temple that was so fast that Hutch completely missed seeing it at first. One second beard-boy was reeling; an eye-blink later sandbagger’s heel was slamming into beard-boy’s temple. The crunching sound of the blow told a grim story for beard-boy. Damn!
Hutch rewound then stepped the video forward, frame-by-frame, and even there, the sandbagger’s foot was a blur.
Hutch stopped the stream and snagged his phone, an eerie gleam in his eyes.
The phone rang, incessant, demanding immediate attention; the Vincent Price laughing ringtone mocking and taunting Ben Schofield as he sat in his dumpy studio apartment with the blinds drawn on a sunny Pennsylvania morning. Ben ignored the damned phone.
The Fight replayed for the super-zillionth time in his head in slo-mo. Ben knew that he suckered his opponent in by faking a stagger, but again he chastised himself bitterly. The two punches were enough to finish the fight; the guy was out on his feet, eyes glazed, breath whistling through his open, gasping mouth. He was beaten, no doubt.
But that wasn’t good enough for Ben, no siree. He just had to follow up with that heel-hook kick, and he knew just as sure as Ben knew he’d won the fight, that he’d severely hurt the man. Hell, he felt his heel actually sink into the man’s head!
Ben was utterly shocked to discover that he’d killed the man.
His license was immediately suspended, so no more fighting, but that wasn’t the worst part of this nightmare. The worst part was that his opponent had a wife and two kids; toddlers, both boys, and Ben Schofield—in one swift and thoughtless move—wiped their daddy from the face of the living.
Depression swamped over Ben again and tears leaked silently from his burning eyes.
Vincent Price started laughing again and Ben vowed to get rid of that damned ringtone just as soon as he could get up enough energy to give a damn. He snared the phone from the coffee table in front of him and eyed the display. It read ‘Marky Mark’ and Ben thumbed ‘Decline.’
Marky Mark was his trainer and fight manager, but Ben had zero interest in talking to the smarmy asshat. The phone immediately piped to life in his hand and a nameless rage surged within Ben. He thumbed ‘Accept,’ then, “What?”
“Don’t call me that, shitball.”
“Look Ben, tough break on that fight, huh?”
“C’mon dude, crap happens!”
“Mark,” Ben paused, heaving a deep, exhausted sigh. “Mark, I killed the guy.”
Mark’s usual ebullience was subdued. “I know—”
Ben was on the verge of breaking down and Mark was the last person Ben wanted to see that. Another sigh, then, “So what the hell am I supposed to do now?”
“No worries, Ben. We can get you licensed in another state—”
“Nevada will license you.”
“No they won’t.”
“Well look, I maybe got some good news for you.”
“Do tell. The suspense is killing me.”
“Cheer up, Ben. This one’s a big payday!”
Ben paused, then, “‘One’? Another fight?”
“Listen Schofield, you take this one and you’ll be set for a few years to get up on your feet somewhere and make a life for yourself. That’s a lot more than most fighters your age.”
Ben thumbed the red icon and dropped the phone.
“Come in. You’re Ben, right?”
“Yeah, and you’re freaking gorgeous.” Ben stepped through the double doors, eyeing the tall, slender blond with the painted-on micro-dress. “I never knew a woman who dressed like you’re dressed, unless they were a pro.”
She turned and smiled at Ben, her teeth gleaming. “I’m not a pro, Ben, and I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.”
Ben looked at his feet, suddenly uncomfortable. She pushed her hand out to him. “I’m Brenda. Brenda Hutchinson.”
Ben was surprised. “Missus Hutchinson?”
She laughed. “God no. I’m his sister. I can’t imagine anyone marrying that man. Come in, I’ll show you your room. Hungry, thirsty?”
“Don’t go to any bother, please. I hadn’t planned on staying. Water is fine.”
“Nonsense. You’ll need a place to rest after your travel and to get ready. Follow me, Ben.”
Night had fallen over North Carolina, but the surf outside pounded and thundered, and jagged shards of searing light punched through the gloom. Ben could not sleep, not a wink. So he rose from his place on the floor beside the sumptuous bed, wearing sweat pants with no shoes or shirt, and stepped out into the massive training room. The owner of the place, Glen Hutchinson, still had not made his presence known.
The floor-to-ceiling glass wall facing east over the raucous ocean drew Ben to stand before it and gaze into the pitch that was punctuated by chaotic whitecaps. It was an awesome vista and Ben drank it in, thinking about how timeless and ageless is the sea, when he gradually became aware of another presence off to his right. Ben turned to see a middle-aged man, also shirtless and shoeless, staring at the ocean. A jagged split of lightning illuminated his craggy features and long, unkempt hair. He turned to face Ben and smiled. It seemed a genuine smile with warmth, and Ben liked it.
“It’s wondrous, don’t you think?”
Ben eyed him askance. “I don’t get to see stuff like this very often.”
“That’s because you’re stuck in the Appalachians. Binnacue, right?”
Ben studied the man—Glen Hutchinson. His bare torso looked as if it were chiseled from a block of iron; rippling cords of muscle stood out in relief across the man’s thick chest. His neck appeared to be an extension of his back; the jaw, set and square; receding hairline with gray at the temples. Ben guessed him to be in his mid-forties, but he could have been in his sixties just as easily. “Yeah, Binnacue, Pennsylvania.”
Ben turned to face Hutchinson. “Why don’t we cut the crap and you tell me why you dropped one-hundred large to get me here?”
“You’re a fighter—”
“Was a fighter.”
“No. It’s in your blood. You’re a fighter.”
“Yeah. So what?”
“I saw your last fight.”
Ben said nothing, glaring bullets at the man. “I saw what you did to your opponent.”
“I killed him. What about it?” he growled.
“It isn’t that you killed him, it’s how you killed him. I’ve never seen a kick move so—”
“Fuck off!” Ben turned away from the window and away from the lunatic that wanted to dredge up all the horrible memories.
Powerful fingers clutched Ben’s shoulder. “Hold on. Let me make you a proposal.”
Ben shook himself free. “What?”
“Let’s you and I fight.”
Hutch dropped silently into a cross-legged seat on the floor. “We fight. You win, you get my estate. I win and…”
“That’s it! I win.”
Ben shook his head. “You’re out of your mind.”
“Sit with me for a minute.” Ben paused, staring at the man, shrugged, and then sat across from him. The two men stared at each other while the weather beyond the glass wall grew in intensity.
“Do you know me, Ben?”
“Why would I?”
“Exactly. Why would you? I’ve made it a point my entire life to stay out of the public eye.”
“I’m not bragging when I say this Ben: I’m the best hand-to-hand fighter in the world.”
Ben stared at Hutch for a beat, then two, then he laughed; a sharp bark of a laugh that was more derision than humor. “You really are nuts.”
Hutch stared at him. He stood abruptly, water flowing upwards. Ben stood as well. “My proposal is on the table. You have until tomorrow at this time to take it or leave. One more thing, Ben…”
“It’s to the death.”
“What do you say?”
Just then Brenda stepped into the room, clad only in a man’s dress shirt, and Ben saw her as inhumanly beautiful. “Glen, we should think about evacuating. The storm—”
“Forget the storm, Brenda.” She seemed to shrink within herself a bit at his retort, but yes, the storm outside was intensifying.
“I want her.” Brenda gasped.
Hutch stared at Ben. Then, “Okay. You win, you get Brenda and my estate. I’ll be dead anyway so who the hell cares. We go at this time tomorrow.”
“Let’s go now.” Ben began rolling his shoulders and other light stretching. Hutch immediately dropped into a left fighting stance, a gruesome smile planted on his face. He began circling Ben slowly, measuring each footstep.
“My attorney already has the proposal I made to you drafted and ready to go. You win and you get it all.”
Ben responded by lunging then backing immediately out of range. Hutch laughed. “Damn you’re quick boy.” A blast of thunder punctuated Hutch’s observation. The skies were beginning to go from pitch black to steel gray and the wind ballooned to a constant roar.
Hutch moved in, arms tucked in to his sides, hands up, palms out; classic Muay Thai, daring Ben to strike. The man’s shins were shiny with scar tissue and Ben knew to avoid those else he’d be clubbed senseless. Hutch jacked up his front knee and lunged; Ben slapped the knee and side-stepped. Hutch followed with a chop that was masked, but Ben saw it coming and ducked, sweeping his foot out to hook Hutch’s back leg.
It was like hooking a stanchion.
Hutch leaped over the hook and flashed a back-kick aimed at Ben’s head; he rolled away from it, then leapt high, whipping a spinning heel hook kick at Hutch’s head, who countered with a forearm block. That hurt Ben more than Hutch and he staggered as he landed awkwardly.
Hutch surged in throwing calculated, precise strikes that Ben was able to block, but the blows were powerful and fast. One slip and Ben would be out of it.
Which maybe wasn’t such a bad thing.
Hutch leaned left, Ben launched himself straight up with his left knee striking squarely under Hutch’s jaw. The crack drew a gasp from Brenda and left Hutch reeling backward. Ben bolted in on Hutch and slammed both elbows on either side of Hutch’s neck, dropping him to his knee, but then he rapid-fired two hard strikes into Ben’s right knee.
Searing pain erupted in Ben’s damaged knee and he fell backward. Both men hesitated, collecting themselves, when the storm exploded seemingly right over their heads.
The glass wall was blasted into shards by the thundering sea, inundating the entire training room and engulfing all three in a surging tide that hammered them first against the wall of the house and then yanked them mercilessly out to sea, their little drama dwarfed by the unimaginable fury of the storm.
Ben battled to break the surface of the raging sea, bursting through with a gasp and sputter. He struggled to tread water against the tides and his ruptured knee. But he was able to clear his vision and take stock a bit.
Perhaps one hundred feet away from him, someone was struggling to swim, and judging by the splash, it was Hutch. Ben began side-stroking toward the man who was no longer splashing. As he hove into view, Ben could see streamers of blood mingling with the whitecaps and Hutch’s head barely breaking the surface. Then his head sank and didn’t rise again.
The house was utterly demolished, debris littering the sea all around Ben, and he latched onto timber and slow-kicked himself to shore where he found Brenda, barely alive with a jagged chunk of timber sticking out of her chest and a glittering shard of glass protruding from where her eye should have been.
Ben crawled on shore, aided by waves that battered him and flattened him to the sand. He raised his head, roughly wiped hair from his eyes. “I won, you lunatic bastard. I won.”