Ryan Shanks looked at his reflection in the mirror, studying the lines of his musculature. An average-sized man in better than average shape, he maintained a rigorous excercise schedule. Blotches of red adorned his neck and shoulders from the gi abrasions of last night's training. He rubbed his aching collarbone for the thousandth time. Even though it appeared perfectly normal in the mirror, it had been hurting on and off for weeks now. He grimaced. Was it a hairline fracture? A weak ligament? He had no idea. The pain remained hard to localize, and some days it didn't appear at all. Yet every time he decided it was gone for good the discomfort returned.
"Getting too old for this shit," he said, smiling at his reflection. He had heard the line on some old TV show or movie and had been using it for years, not really believing it. He didn’t go to the doctor because he’d say what doctors always told him: quit karate. Don’t grapple with people twice your weight. Start exercising like someone your age. Ryan didn’t want to hear that crap, he’d been ignoring it for a decade now.
Ryan grabbed a tank top and his gym bag, heading out for the studio. The evening rush hour traffic lingered despite the fact that it approached seven o'clock. He arrived fifteen minutes later, noting an empty parking lot.
He exited the car gracefully, aware of the fact that at his age, climbing out of a low sports car could become a task. He prided himself in fighting off the encroaching feebleness of aging as best he could. He shook his right arm, wondering if it was up to strength yet. It had taken a little nerve damage when he busted another disc in his back while grappling months ago. That made two back injuries for him so far.
The karate studio occupied several thousand square feet in a business district of San Jose. Located on a side street it didn't get much traffic, but the lack of exposure didn’t matter. The clientele that his instructor, Christos Vikrates, catered to were fairly exclusive. The setup wasn't the usual money-factory type of school: Ryan owned the property and let Christos operate there without charging rent. Christos, for his part, didn’t need income from his instruction since he had enough to live on as long as he didn’t have to pay rent for the dojo and his apartment above it. The result was a well equipped workout area with a small group of dedicated practitioners. The place ran by invitation only. They visited classes at other schools and brought in people who showed a particular dedication or talent.
The pseudo-school was one of the rewards Ryan afforded himself for being a successful engineer who found his fortune in a start-up company during the tech bubble of the late twentieth century. He probably would not have rated high enough in skill to make it into the class on his own, but being the one who ran the place let him workout with some of the best. He also accumulated a lot of injuries; he dealt with them as best he could, and never gave up. To Ryan, this wasn’t work. Work was spending sixty hours a week in front of the computer trying to get it to run boring business software.
He found the door locked. He fished for his keys in the gym bag and then let himself in. Christos must be running late, he thought.
The lights were off. Ryan flipped the switch, illuminating the workout floor. A small office occupied the corner nearest the door but the rest of the first floor stretched out open, covered in mats. Mirrors lined one wall to allow people to target their techniques at their own reflection. At the far end, stairs led up to a spacious apartment. Christos occupied it as part of his compensation for running the club.
Ryan decided to limber up with some stretching and warm-up exercises before Christos came down. Stretching and practice rolls gave way to a heavy bag workout as the minutes rolled by. He forgot about Christos and focused on the workout. Although Ryan preferred sparring and grappling to drills, it still felt good to deal out an old-fashioned beating to the heavy bag.
Ryan came to realize that he had been working out for some time and Christos simply wasn't showing up. This had never happened before. He shrugged the slight annoyance away and concentrated on his workout. Everyone was allowed a stumble now and then—the man had been reliable for years, and Ryan decided there wasn't anything to be said about a single missed class. He finished up with some crunches and pull-ups, then threw his gear back into the bag.
Christos remained absent. Ryan wandered back to the locker room behind the office and showered. He wondered about the absence of the instructor. Christos was too good to be gone without a reason. Probably a family emergency, he decided.
He emerged from the locker room to see a tall, well-dressed woman peering in through the glass door. He saw at first glance that she was gorgeous, with long legs springing from a dark skirt and the ample curves of her chest making a significant impact in her silhouette, even through her business suit.
He subvocalized a few words of appreciation and wiped his brow as he walked around the mat towards her.
As he walked closer she became more impressive. He found her face striking, constructed of perfect features and framed with a blonde mane of long straight hair. Despite the good looks, Ryan’s first impression was that he didn't like her. She looked arrogant, like a rich woman who estimated herself as someone above most of society. Something about the way she held herself, he thought.
Ryan unlocked the door, opening it wide so she could enter.
“Hello?” he said, putting on a slight smile.
"Adrienne. You're expecting me, I believe," she said, walking in.
Ryan opened his mouth to answer her in the negative, but Adrienne stepped very close and put her hands on his body. He stood in disbelief as she slipped one hand under his workout shirt and felt his hard stomach.
"Not bad," she said. "We might as well get started right away... if that suits your mood. Your school is nice. I trust things are going well with it.” She pushed the door shut and relocked it.
Ryan quickly revamped his analysis of her from total bitch to something slightly more amenable. "Get started? Just like that?"
Suddenly the idea that this woman was some sort of hired escort struck him, but he rejected it almost as quickly. Christos wasn't the type and this woman acted more like royalty than a hired girl. Things were happening too quickly for him to figure out just yet.
She laughed and stepped away, walking a slow circle on the mat and examining the studio. Her idle walk had Ryan mesmerized. He eyed her body in the few seconds that she faced away. Was her original comment some kind of joke? Why did she run her hands over him?
"Three months of matching work... I'd hardly call it 'just like that'." She laughed again. "But I know what you mean... some prefer a little time to get used to it. This is my third time, though, so I'm a little more goal oriented by now, understand?"
"Uh, sure." He had no idea what she was talking about. Some kind of internet matching service?
"Oh, don't worry, I intend to make it interesting. I didn't say that I don't think it'll be fun. You do find me attractive, don't you?"
Ryan brazenly examined her from head to toe as she watched. "Of course I do," he said. "You're beautiful." She had to know the answer. Any woman that beautiful knew how hot she was. She couldn’t be ignorant of her effect on any healthy male nearby.
"Yes of course. You don't need to flatter me."
"I mean it sincerely," Ryan said, genuinely confused now. "I mean, ah—"
Adrienne tossed her purse aside and sank to her knees. She clutched at his waist, undoing his jeans and pulling them to the floor. Ryan gave one last thought of the trouble he now headed into, before her hot breath at his groin swept the worry away. His body reacted rapidly.
Her tongue flicked him where he thrust up above the band of his underwear. Anticipation hit him like a heart attack. Some part of him wanted to stop her. An opportunity like this might never come again this lifetime, he thought. He told himself he would have been able to resist a normal woman... but Adrienne was perfect.
He drank her in with his eyes, unable to believe and afraid of forgetting how beautiful she was.
They fell onto the mat and rolled together while arms and legs intertwined, exchanging kisses and caresses. They stormed along for several moments, shedding clothes with each revolution. Finally the nascent lovers stabilized at one end of the room with Ryan on top of her, pinning her arms up above her head.
Adrienne clutched onto him from below. "Do it. Do it now, I can't wait," she demanded.
Ryan put aside his surprise at her quick readiness and slipped into her. He abandoned himself to the primitive pulse of life, driving into her with only one goal in mind. All the while part of him stood back and watched her, awed by her perfection, stunned by the suddenness of their coupling. He paused a few times, unwilling to bring such a thing to a sudden end. Adrienne seemed to appreciate his attempts at prolonging his body's response to her amazing magnetism, but she took the initiative when he let up, leading their lovemaking into different courses.
Each time she seemed to step up the urgency of the act, escalating to the point of near violence as he drew the session out.
When he could wait no longer, he lifted her up and carried her across the mat, slamming her none too gently against the wall. She emitted an appreciative sound and wrapped her arms around his neck to support her perch. Ryan wrapped his arms under her knees and pinned her against the wall, pressing himself into her urgently. Her breasts jostled against him as they moved, constant reminders of her feminine splendor.
Somewhere in the back of his head he felt his shoulder complain beneath the empowering adrenaline. The thought lost itself amidst the instinctual wave of lust that drove him into her again and again until he locked against her in a rictus of completion.
As his frenzy ended, he experienced a mild crisis of weakness, realizing that he would soon have to let her down. Although slender and trim, her well-muscled body produced a nontrivial load. He released her legs one at a time, and she pushed him back. He rolled to one side to lean on the wall while she watched with a playful smile on her face.
She regarded him with eyes that made his laboring heart skip a beat.
"I'm a spatial perception contributor," she said cryptically. "That and eyes I guess... You're weak today. Is something wrong?"
Ryan hesitated, taken aback. Had this naked woman before him, who he had just made love to, just said that he was weak? None of what she said struck him as typical after-the-act conversation.
"Collarbone's broken," he said by reflex. "I've, ah, been taking it easy lately."
Adrienne nodded and smiled. "Ah, that explains it. You look strong enough. But you didn't feel all that strong today. Doesn't matter, as long as you've got the material I don't care if you're a little below the weather right now."
Ryan changed the subject. "Good eyes, huh? Well I saw that when you walked in. Your eyes are magnificent."
She laughed. "Well, thanks, but I doubt that's what the arbiters had in mind. I beat twenty-twenty by quite a margin."
She walked out back onto the mat to collect her clothes. Ryan stared, unable to shake his sense of awe. Her miraculous backside made the breath catch in his throat. So damn perfect, he thought. Remember what you can, because this one's not hanging around.
She seemed oblivious to her stunning beauty. Ryan wondered if it was all an act. She must know, he thought. She's just used to guy's jaws falling open when she walks by.
Adrienne dressed. The simple act captivated Ryan as if she were performing ballet on stage. She grabbed her purse last, just as Ryan broke his eyes away and began gathering his own clothing.
“I’ll send you an e-mail and apprise you of our success,” Adrienne called to him. She headed for the door.
Ryan wanted to call after her to find out what she meant. He recalled her words about being matched to him. What was she talking about? Could she simply be some swinger that came to the wrong address? Ryan frowned at the thought but then he remembered she mentioned the school. She knew where she was. Maybe she had mistaken him for Christos. He shook his head, regretting his actions already. Would Christos be mad? But she couldn’t be his steady girlfriend since obviously she would know what he looked like.
If only he hadn’t allowed himself to be tempted by her extreme beauty. That wasn’t like him to act so irresponsibly. It had been a while... but that didn’t fully explain it. Ryan decided that he was just tired of living life the same old way. Must be his mid-life crisis. He chuckled at the thought.
“Life is too short,” he told himself. “I’ll never forget that. Jesus.” Having shed some of his guilt, he tried to move on.
Ryan dressed as he recovered. He gathered everything together, and even checked his wallet in a surge of paranoia. Everything seemed fine. He moved towards the exit, veering to hit the light switch on the way out.
A nagging thought entered Ryan's mind. He supposed that since Christos was missing, he should at least make an attempt to see if something had gone wrong upstairs. He hesitated for another moment, asking himself if he worried needlessly. He decided it wouldn’t stop bothering him unless he checked it out. Was the appearance of Adrienne and the absence of Christos somehow connected?
Ryan sighed. He always gave in to these weird paranoid impulses. He left his bag on the border of the mats and went for the stairs in long strides. His legs noticed the steps, having just incurred a double workout.
At the door he knocked loudly. When nothing happened he knocked again and called out.
“Christos? Are you there?”
Still no answer. Ryan fished out the key and hesitated again. Ryan decided he would just peek in and call for him. Then if Christos just wanted some privacy, he could say he was busy and Ryan would high tail it out of there.
Ryan unlocked the door and opened it partway, sticking his head into the apartment.
"Christos? It's me, Ryan," he called out. He stepped farther into the hallway, his worn sandals scuffling across the hardwood floor.
"Shit," he said under his breath. Should he go farther in? Would Christos be upset that he had gone into the apartment? Even though Ryan was the owner, he didn't want to intrude on the man's privacy. He decided to go in just a bit further.
He stepped around the corner to the kitchen. Immediately his eyes locked onto a dark shape hanging in the air above him.
Christos hung from a rope. It took only a moment for Ryan to realize he was dead. Ryan blinked in shock and stepped back.
Ryan's heart started into high gear as he gaped at the corpse. It looked fresh. Though the blood that drenched Christos' simple clothes no longer ran, it had dried only along the outer rim of the pool that had formed at the man's feet. A massive gash ran across the throat, almost from ear to ear. The wound looked rough, as if the throat had been torn open, not cut.
For a moment Ryan considered feeling for a pulse. He decided that would be ridiculous. With a wound like this, if his instructor's heart still beat there would be streams of fresh blood running out. No, Christos was dead.
“Holy shit, Christos. The bastard must have caught you by surprise.”
He thought of Adrienne again. Could she have anything to do with this?
Ryan stared for a moment longer then decided to call the police. He looked around at the kitchen thinking about a phone until he remembered that Christos always used his cell phone and had no regular house phone. Ryan didn’t know where the cell might be. He turned and walked back to the stairs. He would use the phone in the office downstairs.
As he walked down the stairs, he searched for signs of blood. Whoever cut Christos open might have left some clues, and he didn’t want to destroy any evidence. Somehow it all seemed surreal. He reached the first floor and set out across the mat towards the phone.
“Shit, I must be crazy,” he said out loud. He gathered himself together. How much should he tell the police? Would the woman who called herself Adrienne be a suspect? Ryan didn’t really want to mention her, but the reality was that anyone who had been in here, including Ryan, would be questioned for possible involvment in the murder.
As he moved over to the phone, he spotted Christos’ laptop sitting behind the front counter. There might be clues on it... about the murder, he told himself. The police would want it to search for clues. He stopped for a moment, wondering if anything incriminating would be on it. He shrugged. Whatever they might find, he wasn’t a murderer. If they brought some minor charges against him that would be survivable compared to murder. But there were probably other answers there, too. People who Christos dealt with that might have killed him. And if Adrienne thought he was Christos, then there would be e-mail from the wondrous visitor. He felt a guilty rush of desire to learn more about her.
Ryan grabbed the laptop and turned from the phone. He could take the computer out and put it in his car before calling the police. He wanted to look over Christos’ files and see if he could find some answers. He told himself he could always provide the laptop to the police later if he found some evidence on it.
He walked outside into the bright sunlight. He squinted, turning to shut the door. Then he walked carefully out towards his car, barely able to see yet.
“Excuse me, sir.”
A polite but firm male voice. Ryan looked up.
Two police officers were facing him, not ten feet away.
“Ah... yes?” A sense of dread gripped Ryan inside.
“We’d like to ask you a few questions... are you the owner or... a customer here?”
The policeman speaking looked young. He had short blonde hair and stood very straight. Ex-military, maybe, Ryan thought. An irrational feeling gripped him that the policemen would be able to tell that he had just had sex with a stranger and found a dead body.
“I own this place. I mean I own the property, I don’t run the school.”
“Ah, yes, this is a martial arts studio,” Ryan said. Should he tell them about the body now? While he was walking away from the scene, without having called the police yet? They’d think he was making his escape...
“May we see some identification, Mr...?”
“Mr. Shanks. Here, ah, just a moment.” Ryan set the computer down on the pavement and grabbed his wallet. Meanwhile, the officer started talking again.
“We’re investigating a report from next door about some suspicious activity here last night. The neighbor thought maybe there was a break-in. Did you notice any damage or missing property while you were in there?”
Ryan hesitated. He had only a second to think before replying. He couldn’t tell them anything, he hadn’t “officially” found the body. If he told them about Christos now, it would appear as if he was fleeing the scene.
“No, everything looked just fine. Nothing missing or anything.... the guy who lives here isn’t around right now, I guess. He lives upstairs there.”
“Uh huh. Who’s that?”
“Christos Vikrates. V-I-K-R-A-T-E-S.”
The cop nodded. He looked over Ryan’s driver’s license carefully and made a note of it. The other officer, also a young man but with a slight gut, spoke up in the interim.
“If you could give us his number, we’d like to follow up with him. Just to make sure that everything’s okay.”
“Sure. I’d like to find him myself, now that you’ve mentioned this. The land line number here in the studio is 555-7644. Here in San Jose. He also has a cell number, 650-555-8901.”
The first man wrote this information as Ryan spoke, and then handed the license back.
“Alright then, let us know if you discover anything missing. We get a lot of calls like this, so it could have just been some kids horsing around, or an over imaginative lady next door. Once we talk to Mr. Vikrates we’ll know for sure. Thank you.”
“Thank you,” Ryan said, retrieving the laptop. The policemen turned and walked slowly back towards their car, which Ryan finally noticed. He had been so distracted and blinded by the sunlight that he hadn’t even seen it. He took a deep breath and tried to let his heart slow down. Here he was, completely innocent of the crime, but he felt like a murderer who had narrowly escaped the law. Technically, he had done very little wrong, he told himself. Snooping around on a dead friend’s computer is what he contemplated. As far as anyone else knew, he hadn’t gone upstairs and discovered the body.
Not yet, he told himself. Once I have a look at this computer, I can act like I got worried and went in there and found him. They might remember the laptop, so I will have to come up with some reason why I had it.
Ryan strode across the rest of the parking lot and got into his car. He saw the police cruiser pulling out and heading down the street.
“This is gonna suck. Now I’m going to be nervous if they question me, and they’ll think I killed him.”
Ryan sat for a moment lost in thought. He should have called the police at his first opportunity. It had just been bad luck the way the police were there just as he walked out! If he had told them then, they would have wanted to know why he was leaving, without having called the police from inside like any normal person would have done after discovering a body. He would have had to explain that he just wanted to snoop on the computer, find out about what Christos was involved in, find out about the woman, and that he was going right back inside to call. That would have been very suspicious, he thought.
Ryan put the laptop on the floor in front of the passenger seat and went back into the school, making sure to lock the car behind him. He walked around the mat, thinking about everything that had happened.
He asked himself what he really knew about Christos. The man had phenomenal strength, a solid weightlifter's strength that came from natural talent and years of training. It was unusual that the man only had to lift weights once every two weeks to stay in top shape— something that Ryan had always found amazing. He himself had to struggle to maintain his failing strength at age thirty-four, by lifting three times a week when he could. Injuries always seemed to get in the way, a result of his training ideologies.
So he knew that Christos had it easy when it came to working out. One of those people who grew muscles just by thinking about it. The man also enjoyed fast reflexes. It seemed that a career in martial arts instruction was a logical choice for someone with those attributes.
He walked around the mat and into the tiny office. A few official documents were framed on the wall: the usual assortment of declarations of completion for this and that training course or announcement of rank in certain schools. Or so he thought. This time, Ryan's eye caught the letters "Ph. D." on one hanging in the corner, and walked over to take a look. This particular paper proclaimed an advanced degree in physics from a university in Copenhagen.
"Physics?" he murmured. Christos had seemed like a reasonably bright guy, but somehow he had never considered the possibility that the man was truly gifted upstairs. As he thought about it, he realized that the limited interactions he had had with Christos probably just didn't reveal this side of him. All they had ever done was discuss the weather or class schedules, and of course the vagaries of grappling technique.
Ryan opened a file cabinet drawer and thought about going through the papers. Would the police be able to tell if he went through everything? Maybe he should leave it untouched. They would be going through Christos’ apartment from top to bottom, and he didn’t want to target himself as more of a suspect than he already would be.
“I wonder if Adrienne was a student here at some point?” he asked aloud. He considered the possibility slim. She didn’t strike him as anyone who had been at the school before, although it was only a feeling. The laptop could answer that question. He would be able to search all the records on the computer easily just knowing the first name; with the hardcopies he would have to look through everything to find a specific first name.
Ryan carefully went through Christos’ desk, looking for suspicious business cards or notes of some kind. He didn’t find any cards or writing with Adrienne’s name on it.
Against his better judgement, Ryan grabbed his gym bag and returned to the upstairs apartment. Christos body still hung, frozen in time. Ryan walked carefully by it as it afraid of disturbing the dead. He walked into Christos’ room and started poking around.
He realized with some consternation that his fingerprints probably shouldn’t be found in the bedroom. He thought for a moment about going downstairs and getting a towel from his bag, then considered going home for proper gloves. Then he remembered that Christos used weightlifting gloves from time to time.
He remembered that Christos kept his workout clothes in a separate place from his regular stuff to make it easy to organize. He walked over to a large armoire that sat next to the closet. Using the top of his knuckle, he pushed the armoire door open.
“There you are,” he said, spotting the gloves. He grabbed the pair and put them on. The gloves were a little loose but they would do, he told himself.
A quick scan of the whole room revealed that there were few paper records but he found two small firesafes, one below the bed and another in the closet. They were both locked.
Ryan eventually found the keys in a spare drawer of the dresser. They had been hidden in an old prescription bottle, wrapped in cotton. Extras? He fiddled with the find until he could match the keys to the safes.
The first safe contained a loaded gun. Ryan frowned but then decided it made sense. If you had to lock up a weapon, might as well use a fire safe. He put the weapon back and tried the other container. It held documents and computer CDs. The papers all seemed to be tax documents. Christos seemed to have sources of income not related to the school. That didn’t surprise Ryan—Christos did what he did because he loved it, not because he had to.
Ryan looked through the CDs. Each one bore a label with a date on it. The most recent date was six months past.
“Ah! Backups? Couldn’t hurt.” He took the discs and put them into his gym bag. He put the safe back and searched the floor of the closet, rifling through a pile of martial arts paraphernalia.
Ryan stood back up, straightening his stiffening back. The pain caused him to grimace.
“Screw this stuff. The computer has what I need, anyway,” he said.
Ryan turned and left the apartment, retaining the gloves. He resolved to find out what secrets the laptop held.