The score in the state volleyball championship match stood at two sets apiece. The Lady Eagles had pulled ahead by one point, 25–24, in the tiebreaker set. Fifty-some socially distanced fans rose from their seats, chanting until the Eagles’ captain set the play in motion with a punishing jump serve.
The Griffinettes’ libero pancaked the ball, popping it up to the setter, who pushed it outside to their power hitter. That player shot up two feet into the air, preparing for a crosscourt kill over the outstretched arms of two Eagles’ blockers as tall as a mountain ridge.
The hitter connected with the ball, hurtling it 40 miles per hour towards the sideline, where it slammed the gym floor.
The line judge’s red flag popped straight up. Out, was the call.
To be truthful, I hadn’t seen where the ball landed. I’d been marveling at players today and their athleticism, mesmerized by the heights these super-tall female athletes now reached through specialized training. When I played high school volleyball, a fifteen-inch vault on a hitter was rare, even from a big outside hitter like me. I had power back then. But nothing approaching a 24” vertical.
With no recourse left, I threw up my arms, confirming the line judge’s call—OUT.
“That ball was in!” the Griffinettes’ coach screamed.
While the Lady Eagles hugged each other in a huddle of winners’ tears, the hitter who’d been cheated out of a kill to tie the game crumpled to the gym floor in defeat. She and her valiantly scrappy teammates had lost the state championship to the reigning volleyball powerhouse on a questionable line decision, one I’d upheld.
A Griffinette fan stormed to his feet. “Hey, ref? Crap call! How blind are you?”
The vitriol was always unleashed on the up ref.
“You stink!” a woman hollered. “You lummox.”
“Retire, old bag,” another man threatened, presumably one of the losing team’s fathers, stepfathers, or drunk uncles.
Since I couldn’t reverse the call, the old bag who yesterday celebrated her fifty-first birthday, climbed down from the stand toward the media table to collect my manila envelope—the soul perk of this sideline lately.
While I waited for my pay, one of the assistant coaches waggled his finger in my face, threatening, “That kill shot was in. You’re incompetent. You’ll never ref another game in this state.”
Rattled, I whipped out my cell phone. “There’s a law against harassing refs. With one call, you could rot in jail for two years.”
“Just try it,” the coach snarled into his mask. “Nobody’d give you credence based on that call.”
Another fan jostled me as he passed by, knocking me off balance. I grabbed the edge of the table to remain upright.
Yes, retaliations against refs could get someone locked up these days. But I’d already accepted this would be my last PIAA payday. My inattention had cost the Griffinettes their last best chance to fell Goliath. It was past time to hang up the striped knit polo. I’d lost my edge.
I picked up my 30 pieces of silver and drifted toward the exit, trailing a fashionably-dressed black woman toting a large patent-leather bag, with perfectly coiffed hair, high heels clicking against the gym floor.
“Laura!” someone called.
The black woman turned and waved. Though an N95 obscured most of her face, she looked somehow familiar, important.
I’d just filed through the gym doors when an unmarked van with dull white paint screeched to a halt in front of the exit. Two characters dressed like boogeymen piled out and grabbed the curly-haired woman. They threw a burlap bag over her head and stuffed her into the back.
I raced to the van and grabbed the rear door handle, throttling it. “Stop! Stop!”
When the driver gunned the gas, I fell to the concrete, banging my chin and scraping my elbow.
“Oh, god,” shrieked another witness to the kidnapping. “That was the governor’s wife.”
I struggled to my feet, clutching my forearm, yelling, “Call 9-1-1.” Then I hobbled to the Toyota parked in the first space on the right—judge’s privilege. Hands trembling, I fumbled with the keys for what seemed like an entire game. Finally, I unlocked the truck and hurled myself into the bucket seat, engaging the ignition. As I peeled out of the parking lot without securing my seatbelt, the Rav4 began its shaming-by-dinging ritual. The white van was in view, clipping down the right-hand lane of Carlisle Pike.
Though most of Route 11 was zoned commercial, the west end had an industrial park vibe, filled with sprawling businesses rather than fast-food joints— a tractor supply, a used car dealership, and a trucking company. They could effortlessly seal up Laura in an empty trailer and let her freeze to death, or starve to death if they were taking her there.
Though I’d let my focus lapse during the game—worthless ref that I’d become—I paid rapt attention now and gave chase. I was gaining on them. They were about four car-lengths ahead. If I floored the truck, I could pass them on the left and push them into the berm. I glanced at the side mirror. The next second, the van hooked a hard right, disappearing from view.
I needed to know where they had taken Laura Barton and why.
After a bitter presidential election replete with threats of lynchings and other acts of treachery, legislators on the right branded the black governor a Nazi (of all things!) for enforcing sweeping COVID-19 restrictions. Did they think they could kidnap the only black first lady in the state’s history with impunity?
The best I could figure, they’d turned into Knickerbocker’s Event and Party Emporium. Were they planning to waterboard Laura under a wedding fountain? Only one way to find out.
One advantage of the hybrid was its “stealth” mode. A friend once joked it was the perfect vehicle for a drive-by shooting because the target would never hear me coming.
Noiselessly, I eased the Rav4 into a parking space out front and crept out the driver’s side.
I had to arm myself for whatever I would face.
In the trunk, I’d packed a reverse umbrella, a cheap plastic snow shovel, three road flares, and a metal lamp with a thin tapered column and a heavy square base I’d forgotten to take to the second-hand store.
Was there anything inside the party store to be weaponized? A balloon arch in three shades of lavender? A deluxe pack of paper plates emblazoned with pink ponies? No, the table lamp had to serve. I tucked two road flares into my waistband for the heck of it.
A quick casing of the building’s exterior revealed a lighted area at the employee entrance. An “inside” job. I approached the window with my head down, first listening for voices.
“See this?” a man croaked. “You’ll do whatever we tell you to do.”
See what? Was he showing her a knife? A gun? I lifted my head over the windowsill briefly. It was a break room, sparsely furnished, with a table and a couple of folding chairs. One of the boogeymen dangled a noose in the face of the first lady, pinning her in a chair with his knee.
“You’ll never get away with this,” Laura Barton was saying.
Another boogeyman cackled. “You’re ugly and an idiot. Look at our special outfits.” He ripped off her mask and coughed on her. “Everyone will think we’re antifa and blame it on them.”
The men tossed their heads back, howling with laughter.
Lately, right-wing protesters acted like they were above the law, like friends in high places would pardon them for crimes committed against the “radical left.”
They were going to hang her. The police were nowhere in sight. Hadn’t that lady called them? I reached for my cell phone, which I always kept in my back hip pocket. That is unless I’d inadvertently left it at the press table, rattled from the bullying.
The rusted metal door to the back entrance looked too unwieldy for me to slip inside unnoticed. The latch would clack when it engaged, and the hinges likely creak.
I had to rescue Laura. The dull white van was parked to the left of the back entrance.
I hated to go down this road. I mean, what if I encountered a road emergency? Ref, this was an emergency. I set the lamp down, scavenged some dead brush and leaves, cradling it in my polo.
I crept over to the van, opened the driver’s side door, and threw the brush on the seat. A gas can lay on the floor of the passenger side. So, they weren’t going to just hang her. They planned to immolate her while she swung from a noose. Or watch her go up in flames inside this junker.
I unscrewed the lid of the gasoline can, letting the fumes waft into the cab. Then I pulled a flare out of my pants. Gently, I peeled back the wrapping on the flare to remove the cap. I struck the metal tip of the flare with the striker. Nothing.
My dad had always told me to try it a few times, not to be timid. Give it a good scrape. So, I scratched the cap against the flare tip one time—game. Two more times—set. Third time—match. It lit up with a whoosh. I tossed the flare onto the front seat and ran like hell back to the window, arming myself with the lamp.
I counted down from ten as if watching a NASA liftoff. At about T minus 4 seconds and counting, the van exploded into a riotous blaze. Inside the “antifa” bellowed, racing out the back entrance. While they circled the van and racked their guns, I ducked inside and grabbed Laura Barton.
“You don’t know me, but you have to trust me.”
“You’re the ref with the bad call on my niece.”
Her niece? Figures. That decision would haunt me forever. “I have a truck parked at the front of the store.” I grabbed a ceiling hook off the table, which they’d likely planned to use to secure the noose from the ceiling. I gashed apart the duct tape binding her hands.
“Are you all right? Can you run?”
I dug into my pocket and shoved my keys into her palm. “Get out. I’ll fend ’em off. White hybrid SUV.”
“I don’t—” she gulped, “know how to start a hybrid.”
“Put the key in the ignition. Gently give it a quarter turn to the right. It’ll hum to life in a second. It’ll be so quiet, they won’t hear you trying to escape. Now, go. Before they realize why their van is burning. Don’t wait for me,” I called as she raced through the baby shower/birthday aisle.
I yanked several bunches of weighted party balloons off the back counter and set them at the door frame between the break room and the retail area. Any event store worth patronizing had to have stanchions. Hurriedly, I surveyed the end rows and corralled four stainless steel posts, which I hid behind the balloons.
As expected, the kidnappers got tripped up by the Mylar barricade and stumbled over the stanchions, which clattered to the linoleum. One of them fired off a round of ammo toward the front entrance. As I dove for cover under the sales counter, Laura was speeding out of the lot, disappearing onto Route 11. She would get help—she was the governor’s wife, after all. I just had to stay alive until the cavalry arrived.
They had automatic weapons. I surveyed the store for a weapon or something to protect myself with. A baker’s rack, perched at the end of the aisle, stacked with dinner plates, porcelain mugs, gold chargers, and two copper kettles.
I crept out from under the counter, tip-toed behind the rack, and put down the lamp. I grabbed the wrought-iron frame with both hands. I’d once heard that adrenaline surged under stress, resulting in supernatural strength. If that was just urban legend, that mistruth might as well be my death sentence.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” one of them taunted.
First as a player, and later, when I still could ref, I knew how to steel my nerves for the task ahead. I clenched my hands into fists, waiting.
Heavy footfalls one aisle over. A man in black reached the endcap. I exhaled and began counting. On three, I shoved the rack forward. The kidnapper was knocked to the floor, clobbered by an arsenal of dinnerware. The kill shot? A porcelain mug had shelled him in the back of the head. I grabbed the lamp and sprinted to the back of the store to escape the way I’d come in.
The other man was pacing the next aisle over. He’d overtake me before I’d get out the back door.
I stopped short, cracked the other flare open, struck the cap, and hoisted a blazing cudgel that hissed choking bile in his path.
“You’re dead!” he railed, then coughed violently.
I flipped the lamp upside down, covering my mouth to stifle my cough. I raised my right arm overhead. As he rounded the corner, I started my three-step approach and swung that lamp with as much power as I could muster in an arcing downward blow, slamming the base into his head. He collapsed like a rag doll, blood gushing from the side of his scalp where the metal edge had crushed it.
Notch another kill for the old bag.
Breathless, I staggered to the wall phone at the balloon station, clicking the receiver several times for a dial tone.
“Hello, hello! Can you hear me? Help!”
I punched in an 8 for an outside line. Then a 9. Then a 7. Just as I ran out of numbers, a police car screamed into the parking lot, its flashing lights strafing the plate glass.
Two officers stormed the door. Hands over head, I shuffled toward them. “Don’t shoot.”
The kidnapper on the wrong side of a baker’s rack lay still. One officer knelt, checking his pulse and shook his head; the other approached.
I shrugged. “I think I killed them both.”
The next day, Section D of the Harrisburg Patriot ran six column-inches on the Lady Eagles winning the state volleyball crown yet again. The losing coach blamed their loss on a bad decision. He vowed to make the PIAA institute a review system.
However, on the front page of Section A, top-of-fold, appeared a story about a former mid-state volleyball star and ref-turned-hero who saved Pennsylvania’s first lady with cunning and grit.
“The kidnappers’ brother, a state senator, owned the store. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.” The reporter concluded her piece, saying, “Based on the referee’s actions and the perps’ injuries, it appears she both started and will finish her volleyball career as a powerful outside hitter.”