Friday – May 10, 2019
Olivia Strickland ripped a double into left field, and two runs scored, which gave the Flames a 2–0 lead. Her father, Ben, stood and clapped along with the other parents and gave her a thumbs-up as she stood on second base.
Yet all Ben could think about was killing the man who sat in front of him.
No one would miss the shiny-domed, way too tight black T-shirt wearing, middle-aged scumbag. If Ben were promised to never be caught, he’d have a hard time not following through with murder.
“Why the fuck are you here?” Ben asked in a hushed tone as he leaned forward and pretended to be focused on the game. He couldn’t allow the other parents to listen in. All it took was one to hear their conversation and Ben’s wife, Carrie, would receive a text within minutes. Nosy parents reigned supreme in town.
The man half turned around and grinned. “Relax, bro. I just want to watch Olivia kick ass.”
Ben’s fists clenched when the man used Olivia’s name. The bastard was never setting foot near his thirteen-year-old daughter, and if he did, he really would kill him. He’d use a gun. The man could snap Ben’s neck in half if they ever got into a physical altercation, but a weapon would give Ben the upper hand. He’d catch him off guard and boom, dead.
Ben had spent close to twenty years at the mercy of Kevin Hughes. Ben reluctantly did everything the man asked, and in return, Hughes kept his mouth shut.
The obvious answer was to go to the police. End the blackmail then and there. Put a stop to the sneaking around and all the lies to his wife. But that meant finally telling her the truth. He couldn’t do that. Plus, informing the authorities didn’t necessarily mean he or his family would be safe anyway. The police couldn’t protect them 24/7.
So, he continued to play Hughes’s game.
Appearances from Hughes were inconsistent. He could go months or even years without showing his face, only to then show up twice in a one-week span. Ben lived in perpetual fear of a Hughes phone call, text, or unexpected appearance.
“How’d you find me here?” Ben asked Hughes while doing his best to show a “we’re totally having a normal man-to-man conversation here” face even though he was terrified and seething on the inside.
Ben shushed Hughes when he asked a little too loudly.
“It’s not hard to look up her team info online. Got my eye on next week’s game over in Bridgewater.”
They normally carried out their business in out-of-the-way locations. A park near Ben’s office. The food court at the mall. Walking the grounds of a plant nursery. To see Hughes at the softball field was brutally unnerving. Ben had to usher him out and usher him out quickly.
“What do you want this time?” Ben strategically asked while the crowd cheered after one of the girls on Olivia’s team hit a triple.
Hughes ignored the question. “Is Carrie coming soon? Would love to see her again.”
The “again” hurt Ben. Carrie had met Hughes once, the first time Hughes resurfaced and proceeded to send Ben’s life into a tailspin.
Ben briefly returned to his murder fantasy. He filed the thought away. “She’s not.” Carrie had a work function and wouldn’t be able to attend. Ben finally had a little luck on his side.
“That’s a shame. She’s a great woman. Hot as hell, too.” Hughes grabbed Ben’s knee and squeezed when he said it and then pushed himself off the bleachers with both arms and maneuvered up next to Ben. “All I really want is a night of softball and the cash you owe me.”
Owe you? I owe you nothing. If you were wiped out, you man-child, I could get back to a normal life with Carrie and the kids. “Let’s do this in a few days, away from here. You know I can’t do this now.”
Hughes raised the volume of his voice. “Don’tcha like hanging with me, dude? We always have a good time. Let’s watch the game and take care of things after.”
Ben had some money in the glove compartment in his car. He made sure to always be prepared. He never knew when Hughes would strike next. The cash was stuffed in an envelope, sitting inside the car’s user manual. That was his go-to spot. Carrie and the kids would never venture there. “How much? I can’t do this anymore.”
“Relax. We’ll take care of the finances in a bit. Until then— ” Hughes stood up and urged the crowd to join him. “Let’s go Flames! Let’s go Flames!”
All heads turned when Hughes launched into the chant. A few heads remained turned when they didn’t recognize the chanting man. Ben fake-smiled and pretended to go along with it until their gazes returned to the field.
Ben grabbed Hughes’s shirt and tugged on it. “Sit down. People are staring. They’re gonna ask questions.”
Hughes sat down. “You’re so uptight, Benjamin. You need to learn to relax, bro. Tell ’em I’m the weird uncle. And by the way, it’s only a grand this time.”
How about I stab you in the temple, bro?
Ben kept an eye on Olivia to see if she was watching him and Hughes chat. She seemed consumed with adjusting her face mask. He leaned in to Hughes. “I’ll give you some now and then the rest at the end of the week. I’ll let you know the place.”
Ben hopped down the bleachers and pretended to go the bathroom in the porta potty adjacent to the parking lot. Once he confirmed that Olivia was preoccupied and no parents were watching him, he snuck to the car and grabbed the envelope. He casually returned to the bleachers and sat next to Hughes.
“Here’s what I got. The rest later this week. Can you leave now?”
Hughes nibbled on Ben’s earlobe and let out a quiet yet menacing laugh. “Yes sir. We’ll do this again soon.” He then brought back the louder voice, with the intention of others hearing him. “Maybe we’ll head back to that strip joint you liked so much. Remember that chick with the big ones.” Hughes made the hand gesture for added effect. “I’ll even pay for the lap dances this time.” One of the fathers nearby smiled.
Ben ignored Hughes and descended the bleachers towards the dugout. Olivia was on deck, taking practice swings.
“Keep your eye on the ball, just like last time,” Ben said, out of breath.
“I know, Dad.”
Ben had no desire to school her on hitting mechanics. He wanted to be near her and protect her. “I love you.”
She said nothing back.
Olivia stepped up to the plate. Ben looked over his shoulder and saw that Hughes was gone. Olivia didn’t seem to notice the unwanted visitor. She struck out and refused to look towards him. He said nothing and returned to his spot on the bleachers.
The years of payoffs and sneaking around with Hughes were slowly destroying Ben. He never slept well and often resorted to alcohol for assistance. Ben was never present; the current softball game was the perfect example. Olivia was growing up, and he was missing it. He longed for the day when it would end, but he had no clue how to make it end.
Hence the murder fantasies.
“Were you guys talking about the club Night Moves? I love that place. The women are the best there.” Smiling dad had cozied up next to Ben.
“No, no, that was all a joke. My friend likes to do that to me. Never been to one of those places myself.” Ben wanted to run and hide. He sensed others were now listening in on his conversation with horny dad.
Inquisitive dad was mortified. “Never mind. Pretend I didn’t say that.”
Ben opened an app on his phone. He scanned the betting lines for the night’s games and did some cursory research. He placed three bets through his online account and hit submit while pretending to watch the game. He needed some way to recoup the money he had just handed over to Hughes.
Ben jumped and almost dropped his phone. Olivia was staring at him from the bottom of the bleachers.
“Yeah, um, was texting with Mom about dinner. What’s going on? Why are you done so early?”
Olivia was annoyed. “We beat them by the mercy rule. It was thirteen to one. The game is over. What’s for dinner? And why are you asking Mom? Isn’t she out to dinner?”
“Um, yeah, but I needed to know what we had in the house. You walk ahead to the car, and I’ll be right there.”
Ben returned to the gambling app as he trailed Olivia. He placed two more bets. Before he could put his phone away, he received a text. He expected it to be from Carrie looking for an update on the game.
Jim: That was fun. Send me her schedule. I’ll come to another game
“Jim” was the fake name Ben assigned to Hughes.
Ben: When does this end?
Jim: Never. We’re buds for life bro
Ben scanned the lot and saw that Hughes had yet to leave. Hughes waved to him.
Ben: What if I refuse? What if I go to the cops?
Jim: You won’t. You’re not stupid. Those dudes will hunt your ass down.
Ben: I don’t believe you
Jim: No? Check this shit out my friend
Hughes texted him a video. Before getting in the car, he hit play. He gave Olivia the “one minute” sign.
The video was shaky, and it was difficult to discern what was being said, but it was clearly in a gym. Ben could hear the groans and clanging of metal weights. After a few seconds, a short and stocky man appeared on-screen. He was shirtless and covered in tattoos. He flexed for the camera. After he was asked a question, which Ben couldn’t make out, he screamed, “I’d kill him with these bare friggin’ hands. I don’t fuckin forget.”
The video ended.
Jim: BTW, the question on that video was from me. I asked what would happen if he found out who did it. Scary, right?