Ray made his way around the court, back to where Larry was waiting for him.
“So, what do you think?” asked Larry.
Ray looked about the arena. “It’s a damn joke. You have half a team—maybe. But they don’t know what they’re in for. I don’t know if they’re up to it.”
“We don’t need a win, remember,” said Larry. “We just need a contest. The extraction team is ready to go.”
“Even so… look at them. The Iranians might buy it, but the Russians will smell the stink on this a mile away.”
“Well, what do you suggest?” said Larry.
Ray glared at him. He looked at the players—just kids. “It needs to look legitimate.” He looked down and shook his head, then conceded in a low voice, “We have to bring in Zdunowski.”
Larry grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. “Now you’re talking! We’ll get you on a plane tonight.”
“Come on!” shouted Carl at the far end of the court. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”
The generic encouragement inspired no extra effort in Troy and Jay, who continued their casual jump shots. Carl, however, seemed pleased with himself, clapping his hands and pumping his fist in the air.
“I’ll need him to come with me,” said Ray. “But he has to think it’s his idea.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” said Larry. “Hey Carl!” He waved Carl over.
“Let’s go Dunk Force!” Carl cried, then jogged across the court. “What’s up?” he said, joining Larry and Ray by the bench.
“The Colorado option we discussed—” said Larry, “Ray likes it. I’m sending him out there tonight, but he thinks Zdunowski is going to be hard to convince.”
“No problem,” said Carl. He turned to Ray. “I’ll come with you. You make the introduction, and I’ll make the sale.”
Larry turned to Ray. “What do you think?”
Ray raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, okay. Good idea. Thanks Carl.”
“Hey,” said Carl. “It’s what I do.”
While the new, diverse Dunk Force squad continued its scattershot training session, Ray took a walk. He paced alone through the dim corridors of the athletic centre. He passed the dormitory where the players used to sleep while they were in training camp. The bunks were still there. Ray didn’t go in. Making his way upstairs, he entered the old gym, untouched in twenty-five years. Rows of benches, weight discs, barbells, dumbbells, rowing machines, exercise bikes, punching bags, aerobics steppers, treadmills—it was all outdated now, but state of the art in 1996. From there, he walked down the hall to a wide, bare room with a padded floor and two-feet-thick concrete walls—the combat training room. It had been installed as a precaution—better to be safe than sorry. The players had learned some basic self defence before the first game in 1983. What a game that was. After that year, all players were required to know a selection of Judo manoeuvres, pressure point attacks and how to disarm an opponent wielding a knife. They also completed regular firearms training sessions. Looking around the room, Ray rubbed his hand over his right upper arm, dimpled with scars. Back in 1985, during the second game in Beirut, the Lebanese point guard repeatedly sliced him with a razor concealed in the sweatband on his wrist. With victory slipping away, and his own life in danger, Ray resorted to a move he had learned in the combat training room. As a missed American shot leapt up off the rim, and all eyes focused on the contest for the rebound, he positioned himself next to the opposition point guard. With one hand he grabbed and twisted the guard’s forearm, and with the other he gave a short, sharp strike. In the second it took the Lebanese centre to snatch the ball from the air, Ray had broken the point guard’s elbow. The guard screamed and accused Ray, but neither the Lebanese team nor the referee had seen a thing. The game had to go on. It ended up a three-point win for Dunk Force, and six American hostages were freed.
Ray left the combat training room and looked down the hall. There was one more door, at the very end. Ray stared at it for a long time, then inhaled a deep breath and approached it. He stopped in front of the grey steel door, and for a moment he could not move. Finally, he reached out and placed his hand on the door handle. As the handle turned and clicked, an icy chill shot through Ray’s body. With his jaw trembling, he pushed the door forward and stepped into the old medical treatment room. The new team did not use this room; they had a makeshift medical room downstairs. This old room would never be used again. Ray flicked the light on. It flickered and buzzed, then shot a bright glare throughout the cramped space. There were no windows in this room. Two massage tables filled one side, while the other contained a desk and a chair, and wall lined with shelves. Ray examined the shelves. His breathing raced, but he kept silent, as though the slightest sound would awaken a ghost. The shelves were full of pill bottles and plastic containers, ointments and bandages, medicines and syringes. Except the top shelf. The top shelf was empty. On Ray’s very last day in the Dunk Force training facility, the day they closed it down, government officials had confiscated everything on the top shelf. As he studied that bare high shelf, his eyes drifted to a distant stare. After a minute, he exhaled a shuddering breath and wiped a tear from his eye. He turned to leave, and his foot knocked an empty orange bottle on the floor and sent it spinning out in front of him. Ray knelt and picked up the small glass bottle. He pushed back the curled-up label on the side and read what it once contained: Progonoxyol 251. Ray’s hand trembled. The bottle fell from his grasp and smashed on the floor. The sound might as well have been a gunshot. Ray jumped and raced out the door. As he rushed back up the hall, he looked back and saw the medical treatment room door ajar, and the light on inside. He looked ahead again and kept walking, muttering curses under his breath.
© 2021 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED