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Seattle's Key Arena buzzed with the energy similar to an electrical storm. The fans roared their excitement as the women's professional basketball game steamrolled to its final minutes.
Naomi Venable looked up at the oversize electronic game board as a time-out was signaled by the coach. Sweat covered her body. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. Nothing beat the heady rush of the last two minutes of a close game, especially when her team, the Chicago Ladybugs, led at 88-86. She couldn't help the addiction to this juggernaut to the nervous system even if it was only an exhibition game in post season.
The crowd revved themselves into a cheering war vying for each team. Naomi quickly scanned the seats. Good to see so many young girls enjoying the game. The league's efforts to reach out to them appeared to have had a positive effect. Washington had delivered with a large, boisterous fan base.
The referee's whistle blew. Time-out over. Naomi joined in the huddle chant before reentering the game. Exhibition or not, her effort remained consistent warrior tactics prevailed. After sizing up her opponents, she decided quickly on whether she had to be a bulldozer and push them aside or if she could put the drills into action and outmaneuver with quick footwork. One way or the other, she was getting to the hoop. A little spilled blood was all part of professional women's basketball, well, according to her rules. She accepted the pass from her teammate and scanned the preset formation for an opening. The six-foot guard slid into position to slow her progress. Naomi grinned. Game on.
Tiny, her rookie teammate, moved into view. Her name was actually Tina, but her small stature had earned her the nickname. Naomi didn't acknowledge her. The final formation to end the game had been determined in the huddle. No one went rogue without a darn good reason. Naomi lowered her shoulders, preparing for a driving rush to the net. Tiny, obviously, had other ideas as she waved madly from her position on the line. Naomi shook her head. She signaled to the other player to shift. What the heck was this rookie doing?
"Looks like you've got a wild one on your hands, Venable," the other team's guard commented.
Naomi grunted her frustration. Off-court many of the women shared friendships, hanging out together with their families. The rookies, however, went through an initiation period where they had to earn the respect of the older teammates. Tiny didn't have a humble bone in her body. She continually tested Naomi, coming up short each time. But her losing record with Naomi didn't seem to slow down her daredevil mentality. Tonight was no exception.
"Why don't you teach her a lesson?" The guard taunted.
Naomi dribbled the ball down court. Seconds had slid off the time with only ten left before the game ended. Two players from the Seattle Storm crowded her, pushing against her body, looking for any weakness to strip the ball. They'd have to wait for a snowy day in hell.
Three-pointer, right here, right now, and she'd shut down the competition with an exclamation point.
Or she could risk passing to the rookie and deal with another risk as Tiny went for the layup.
Her decision took one second. She pumped her arms to take the shot. When the players guarding took the bait and jumped to block her shot, she spun around their bodies. Her shoes squeaked across the floor. Naomi didn't slow her momentum, instead using the power to contort her body to shoot a hard pass to the rookie.
Tiny's eyes widened in surprise, but then the competitive hunger shifted into place with a steely squint and hard line of her mouth. Her small hands clamped around the ball. In a fluid move, she turned, dribbled the ball toward the net and leaped into the air with a powerful burst. All she needed was a superhero cape and nifty outfit to complete the athletic move. She dunked with the flourish of a seasoned veteran, swinging in an unladylike way from the rim before letting go. Her grin spread across her face. Naomi admittedly loved the guts on this young woman. Tiny didn't go for the easy layup. At the beginning of her career, she'd have done the same thing, probably with more in-your-face flourish, yet ending with a technical foul. Tiny represented her past. Her thoughts about her basketball career felt like a final showdown.
The buzzer closed the game. The team had already begun celebrating off to the side. With another shot, Tiny had effectively shut down the game. Naomi hugged her teammates, accepting their congratulations for a great pass.
A win was a win. She caught the bug and joined in the infectious hoopla. Coach wouldn't be happy with the impulsive change-up. No doubt they'd pay for deviating from script. They could all expect a lecture, at a minimum.
Naomi hugged Tiny. She understood the desire to prove her worth to the team. Not too much in life was a solo event. She had had to learn that in the league, with her sorority sisters and was still learning in her personal life. When the opportunity popped up, you followed your gut. She high-fived the rookie. A player had to have that hunger and passion to survive the professionally honed skills of the league. What troubled her lately was that her own love and passion were diminishing.
"Thanks, Naomi. I didn't think you would pass to me."
"You're lucky, I almost didn't." Naomi nudged Tiny, adding a grin to soften her response.
"But then she realized that her old ass couldn't see the hoop to make the three-pointer." The guard from Seattle's team swatted Naomi on the back of her neck.
"Takes one to know one," Naomi quipped. The guard touched on something that she was keenly aware of. The life of a professional player, especially a woman, carried a fast trip to the end. Many players quit the game as they struggled with marriage and children against the brutal schedule and travel. Few returned to have successful careers. Naomi wasn't married and didn't have children, both stages of life she dearly wanted to experience. Would she leave this life to seek the other? In her heart, she didn't want to straddle the two worlds. She headed for the dressing room before they left to repeat this routine in another city.
Naomi showered and dressed in her usual sweats. The others had already left the dressing room to get on the bus. They'd ride through the night and head down to California for the next three exhibition games. She had to admit that going toward the warmer and drier climate would be welcomed, rather than the rainy, cool days in Washington. Sitting for hours on a crowded bus, however, didn't excite her. She treasured her quiet times, even if it meant mindlessly playing with her computer games.
"Do you want me to wait for you?" a teammate called after her.
"No, I'm fine." Naomi waved her teammate on. "Just don't drive off without me," she joked.
She emerged from the dressing-room area and headed toward the exit. One of the arena personnel stopped her for an autograph, which she happily provided.
"Miss Venable, could I get you to meet my brother?"
"He's outside. He's in a wheelchair."
"Did he see the game?"
"Yeah, but my mom took him out early because of the crowd. It would have been a hassle if she'd waited until everyone was leaving."
"I can imagine." Naomi followed the woman, hoping that her brother wasn't too far away. Since none of the other teammates was in sight, she figured that she was the only one waiting to board.
They emerged into the cool October night. The ground shone from a recent downpour. Naomi wrapped her arms around her body to ward off the chill.
"Here he is. This is Ben."
Naomi saw the young boy being pushed toward her by an older version of the uniformed woman standing next to her. She immediately forgot about the cold temperature and hurried toward the child. Despite his small stature, he had a bright, eager disposition.
"Heard you came to the game, Ben. I hope you weren't disappointed." Naomi stooped to talk directly to him.
"It was a lot of fun." He grinned. His excitement to meet her warmed her heart.
"I'd love to give you an autograph. Let me check in my bag, I also may have a towel for you." She dug through the bag. In a side pocket, she found one of the many towels that she normally tossed to waiting fans. "You lucked out. This is all yours."
"Thank you. I like you the best because you visit lots of kids."
"I appreciate that, Ben. My teammates not only visit other children, but many have summer camps for children. I think you'd enjoy yourself at a camp."
"I can't," he said with disappointment. "I have to be in a wheelchair."
"That's not a problem." She pulled out a business card and wrote two phone numbers. "I'll give this to your sister. She can call this number and tell them that you spoke to me. There are really good camps for everyone."
Ben's face lit up with a warm smile. His joy made Naomi happy to be in his company. She ruffled his hair and wished him good luck.
"Thank you so much. You're awesome," his sister added.
Naomi waved off the compliment. "I love talking to children." She looked at her watch. "Now I must get going. Can I reach the tour bus from here or do I have to go back through the building?"
"You can go through the building or just walk around to your right."
"I'll take the walk. It'll allow me to stretch my legs for a few minutes longer before I have to board that bus."
Naomi shook hands. She took off at a brisk pace, noting how quickly the parking lot had emptied. Although the major streets surrounding the arena carried heavy streams of traffic, it didn't affect the eerie quiet of the parking lot as trees and massive fencing divided the two areas.
As she finally approached a corner of the arena, she had to rethink her strategy. Maybe she should have cut through the building. Although the parking lot was well-lit, there were a few black holes where no lights reached. She was never comfortable with the dark. Even her condo had soft lighting that was on throughout the night.
She broke into a slow jog, wishing for the bus to be right around the corner. No such luck. The parking lot had a few cars, but certainly no buses.
A scream ripped through the silence.
Naomi froze. She looked around, waiting to see if another scream would follow. After a bit, she wondered if she had imagined it. Maybe her imagination was being influenced by the creepy area.
A small number of uniformed personnel emerged from a door, laughing and chatting. They headed for the few cars in the lot. Naomi wanted to approach them, but what could she say? She couldn't even tell from what direction she'd heard the scream and if the person was a man or woman.
Misty rain started to fall, increasing her discomfort. She rounded her shoulders, tilting her head against the annoying onslaught. Her mood soured as dampness seeped into her clothes.
"Help. Stop. Please "
Imagination or not, Naomi didn't try to figure it out. The pleas eerily served as a call to action. She ran toward the source, not caring that her pursuit took her away from the arena.
She listened for further signs of distress. Naomi wiped the rain from her face in a futile attempt to focus into the darkness. Then she noticed movement.
Large, shadowy figures moved in and out of their circular formation around a smaller figure writhing on the ground. Three to one did not make an equal fight. Now close, Naomi discerned that the victim was a woman.
Memory of being mugged years ago revved her sense of injustice. The savage men who attacked her had never been caught. Suddenly one of the men dropped on his knees and reached out to pin the woman with his thick hands. He turned and nodded at his friends. She used that anger to charge toward the group occupied with their vicious act.
His eyes shifted to Naomi upon her noisy approach. But his discovery did nothing to tame her battle cry as she launched herself onto him. Her shocking entry provided the advantage in knocking him over.
"Run!" Naomi ordered as she and her opponent hit the ground hard and rolled.
The girl, equally startled, stayed motionless for several seconds. Then she rolled over to her knees.
"Get out of here." Naomi squeezed out the request, fighting to detach herself from the brute.
If the girl didn't move faster, she'd have to drag her; she wasn't leaving without her. The girl stood on shaky legs, teetering with arms outstretched for balance. Her clothes hung off her slim frame, evidence of the men's vicious intentions. Naomi hoped she had enough stamina in reserve to keep fighting. They were not out of danger.
A rough hand grabbed Naomi, yanking her head back, pulling her off balance. Pain spread over her entire head. She screamed for as long as she could through the painful tugs. Another burly man stepped before her.
"So you want some too?" His silver lip ring mocked her.
Naomi locked eyes with him. She wanted him to know that he didn't have a willing victim. Her leg kicked out but only connected to his knee. Nonetheless he buckled, but then righted himself. Outrage bristled like fierce static charge from his body.
Whoever had hold of her head released his grip before joining another in his effort to stop the girl from escaping. Naomi cried out when she saw the girl pulled to the ground again.
Now the young girl's cries rang loud and shrill. Her temporary escape seemed to have given her the will to fight. Good.
Naomi turned to help her, hoping that together they could finally escape. But her attacker caught her again; his hand closed around the hood of her jacket. She shot her elbow into her attacker's stomach. His foul breath ushered out in a loud whoosh of pain. She hit him a second time; his grasp on her hood slackened enough to allow her to squirm free. Freedom seemed to be a slippery illusion, since she was still only a few feet from her attackers. Exhaustion flooded her system, battling against the need to keep the adrenaline pumping in her limbs.
She ran toward the woman again. They needed a plan. Sheer desire to escape wasn't enough.
"Don't leave me." The young woman reached out to her. Her eyes wild with fright.
Naomi's hands balled into fists. Not that she could take down all these men, but she refused to surrender.
Her fist shot out. The punch landed on the first guy's cheek with a blunt thud. Needles of pain fired from her balled-fist up to her wrist. Her hand throbbed. Her fingers remained curled unable to open. No doubt she'd sprained her hand. Well, she had another.