Murder in the Dojo: Chapter One


Suburban moms like me don't usually go to Boulder's Hill after dark. The Hill is university terrain, having evolved over the years from a shopping mecca of the 1950's for the well-dressed college student to a hippie center of drugs and riots of the ‘sixties. Ever since, the place has battled between gentrification and decay. Decay keeps winning.

And yet, here I was, wandering up the long, sloping streets, searching for the address on Callahan's business card. I wasn't looking for any more confrontations - I'd had enough of that today. Lucky me, tonight the Hill appeared dead. Odd, for a party land of off-campus housing. Odd, for a Saturday night, three weeks before spring break.

Then a clang and a yowl erupted out of the distant shadows. I gripped my duffel bag tighter and hurried up the middle of the cracked sidewalk, staying as far away as possible from bushes or parked cars, where thugs could hide. Relax, Nell, I told myself. It's just a cat.
In Boulder, Colorado we didn't have a serious crime problem. A few mountain lions, maybe. And sometimes cast-off couches got torched, but still... In this neighborhood, I was clearly outside of my suburban comfort zone.

Comfortable? Who was I kidding? Practically ancient at forty-five, I had a failed marriage, a husband who'd bailed, and a half-page resume. I had to make a living somehow - that's why I'd ended up here, with nerves on edge. And I had a teenage daughter to raise, even though she thought the raising was all done.

My friends took my problems in stride because, after all, Boulder is a city of support groups. What they'd never been able to handle, however, was two years ago when I got my black belt in American Freestyle, a non-traditional version of Tae Kwon Do. There's no support group for the mad housewife turned karate kid.
I found the address. From the outside, Callahan's Karate looked like somebody's family home, a bungalow built of sandstone from the era of the 1920's. With all of its original mortar and shingles. No benefits of yuppie restoration practices here, I thought, clambering onto the wooden porch.

Light shone through the beveled glass panels of the front door. I knocked, then waited a few minutes, studying the way the door stood slightly ajar. No one came, so I pushed it open and stepped into a foyer. A locker-room smell of moldy socks hit me in the face.

The foyer opened onto an empty studio, a long and narrow floor space interrupted in the middle by an archway. A thin, faded carpet of sea green and dust drew the hollowed-out rooms together. The floor rippled from the buckles of nearly a century of settling. This place was the opposite end of the scale from Master Hwang's state-of-the-art studio where I'd trained - until the money ran out.

I called into the empty space. "Mr. Callahan?" My new boss. I still felt dazed by today's turn of events that brought me here. It didn't make sense that he'd chosen me for the job. Not that I was complaining.

A thud sounded from the back of the house, then floorboards creaked. From the shadows of a curving passageway, a low, male voice asked, "Rick?" Then his hulk filled the hall's opening, and I relaxed.

He was dressed in a white uniform, rumpled as if it had been wadded at the bottom of Terra's laundry basket for a month. A crisp brown belt, tied incorrectly, hung around thick hips. He looked dumb-founded, his innocence all the more pronounced with a baby-face. His top gaped open in a "V," exposing a sparse crop of chest hairs among a field of inflamed pimples.

"You're not Rick," he proclaimed, reaching into a bag of potato chips.

"No, I'm not," I agreed.

"Look, lady, we're closed tonight."

I watched, too shocked for words, as crumbs sprinkled onto the carpet. How could anyone show this much disrespect to his uniform and the workout floor and still earn such an advanced rank as his? It would be quite a leap for him to achieve the next promotion.

I cleared my throat. "Is Mr. Callahan here?"

He snorted. "Naw."

"I have an appointment with him," I said.
"I ain't seen him."

I glanced around myself at the scuffed interior of the studio. "Then, I'll look around a little while I wait."

"Does Rick know about this?" the over-grown kid asked.

"I really have no idea." I removed my shoes and placed them along with my bag into one of the empty racks beneath the stairs. In case Callahan wanted me to demonstrate my abilities, I would be prepared. Then with a bow of courtesy, I stepped onto the workout floor.
"I don't think it's such a good idea," the kid said. "Rick won't like it."

Sighing, I gave up. "All right, who's Rick?"

His eyebrows shot up like two spastic, wooly worms. "You don't know?"

I shook my head.

His potato chip bag rattled, falling to the floor. "Hey. I know who you are. I heard about you." His eyes narrowed, maybe with understanding, maybe something more. He studied the length and breadth of my body with the assessment of a man far more mature than himself.
The force of his examination made me take a step backwards, toward the front door. Something about his manner told me that I was an uninvited guest at his private party.

"Rick is the instructor here," he said.

I stopped, stiff with surprise. "Mr. Callahan will be here any minute, and he'll clear up everything."
The illusion of the boy's maturity vanished as he chortled. "You don't know much, do you?"

Mothers of teenagers never knew anything, I started to point out, but something clanked and hissed about that time. I glanced up.

"It's just the furnace," the kid said with a grin.
I summoned a stony look to turn on him.

"I was supposed to lock up," he said, smirking, "but I guess Mr. Callahan can do that, if he's coming here like you say. I've got to split, and anyhow, the two of you probably don't want me around." He winked. "If Rick shows up, tell him Eugene - that's me - couldn't wait. I'll see him over at Kim's." He snatched his potato chip bag from the floor. "By the way, don't tell Callahan that's where we're going."

Kim's Karate? I felt my veins tighten at the memory of Mr. Kim, the man who'd organized the demo earlier today - along with my humiliation. But so what? I'd ended up the winner in the long-run, getting this job, never mind that the circumstances puzzled me.

Before I could refuse to commit to any promise to Eugene, he disappeared back down the hallway from which he'd emerged. He was a confused student, the first of many challenges I would probably face. Apparently, I'd just replaced "Rick" as head instructor here.

Liking the sound of my new title, and liking it better with the kid gone, I closed the front door and glanced at my watch. The air smelled dusty, and I was glad I'd kept on my socks as I returned to the carpet. I turned in a slow, wide circle, taking mental notes of the tasks ahead of me. Fresh paint. New mirrors to hang on the barren walls. The Korean and U.S. flags. Displays to cheer up the place - framed certificates, different colored belts, and the glass case Dad had built for my kamas.
The case would fit perfectly on that strip of wall between the mullioned windows.

I'd been carrying my kamas with me today in their velvet-lined travel case as a sort of talisman. They must've worked, because here I was. I hurried back to my duffel bag and carefully lifted a kama in each hand. One of the martial arts weapons that originated from farmer's tools, they looked like a pair of stubby sickles.

Macho-men would die for this set that I owned. They had blades so sharp they could shave my legs just by looking at them.

The steel blades made them top heavy, and I gripped the leather-wrapped handles tightly, for I had no desire to lose any bodily appendages. These weapons were just for show - they were far too deadly for a non-showy martial artist like me to actually perform with them. Just holding them gave me an extra boost of power. I struck a stance, and their power flowed into me. Then I carried them over to the wall space between the windows and held them up for size. Here, they'd make a great focal point. A power point. For me.

A distant clang sounded outside, breaking the spell. Through the window beside me, I saw something move in my peripheral vision. Callahan? Branches scritched against the panes of glass. The wind was picking up. Probably had blown over someone's trash can in the alley out back.

Then a floorboard creaked overhead. Maybe my new boss had been upstairs all along. But I couldn't imagine why he hadn't responded to my calls. More than likely, the house was still settling after a century of use.

I put my kamas away, then padded up the wooden stairs in my stockinged feet to check out the creaks. On the landing at the top of the stairs, I paused before a closed door, scuffed and scratched. This was apparently the apartment that would become Terra's and my new home.

I tried the knob. Unlocked. "Mr. Callahan?" I said, pushing open the door. Inside, blank, canary-yellow walls faced me. A smell of stale beer permeated the air, and pizza boxes from Tío Tito's littered the hardwood floor. No furniture. Good. I had plenty to bring over from the suburbs.

Dust bunnies rolled across the floor toward another door, as if someone's recent passage through here had stirred them up. Chasing the bunnies, I explored a bedroom facing the street and another one overlooking the alley. I found a pile of women's lacey underwear, monogrammed with a curly "M," but no Callahan. Where in hell was he?

A new sound, one that didn't come from creaking floorboards, or the furnace, or upset trash cans, suddenly broke into my daze. Something mewled outside, like the unearthly hisses of cats poised to fight. I expected another eruption of yowls and clawing sounds, but the silence that followed was even more ominous.
Then something squeaked - not the sound of a house settling - and thumped - nor branches scraping against the exterior.

Maybe a mountain lion had come down from the foothills and cornered its prey. There were always several encounters per year with the cats around here. After all, this town jammed up against the base of the Rocky Mountains.

Maybe its prey was Callahan.

I bounded downstairs and hurried across the workout floor. Down the narrow hall where Eugene had disappeared, I followed the curving passageway to where it ended in an old kitchen. A sleeping computer resided there now, covered with sticky notes and surrounded by a mess of paper. A linoleum floor, looking like a checkerboard, led me out to a screened-in porch.

The mewling sounds had stopped by now. My nose pressed into the musty wires of the screen door. Bushes rustled from somewhere out there in the dark, beyond the house.
Groping along the plaster dust of the wall, I felt a light switch and flipped it on. An outdoor floodlight illuminated a small patch of yard with overgrown and dried-out grasses surrounding the house. At the edge of its ring of light, a small shed sagged by the alley. No mountain lion. No Callahan.

Across the alley rose the jagged outline of a student apartment building, haphazardly ablaze with a few squares of light. Someone, I thought, must've had too much to drink at a college party and was being sick in the bushes of the alley.

I could almost hear Terra's protest, "Mo-o-om," in my head.

So I waited for the noise to come again. It didn't, but the door of the shed in the back yard heaved. A gust of wind slammed it shut, as if the shed were something alive, breathing.

Okay, maybe I was wrong about the drunken college student. Could my new boss be out there, in trouble? He'd said he needed a caretaker for the place, which hinted at possible problems. What had I gotten myself into? Whatever it was, I'd agreed. I'd shook on it. My word was as good as a contract. I hadn't signed one yet, but now I had to see this through.

I pushed against the screen, swinging it open, and tip-toed onto the back porch step. Another blast of wind found its way under the loose tail of my oversized work shirt.

I was accustomed to going without shoes, but not outside in the dark in unfamiliar territory. Goosebumps tickled the back of my neck. If Callahan was out there, needing help, I couldn't afford the delay of going back for shoes.

My socks gave me enough protection from loose pebbles on the flagstone path that led from the porch to the shed, but I wished I had something more. A flashlight would've been good. Maybe a weapon, too. I scrabbled around on the ground for a handful of gravel that I could fling into a surprise attacker's face if necessary, then slipped into the shadows beyond the reach of the floodlight.

Callahan wasn't being mugged, I told myself. This was Boulder, after all. Safe and snug. Not the big city. As caretaker, I would have to secure the door. That was my job. That's all it was. Doing my job.

Still, I paused to let my eyes adjust to the dark. Master Hwang had trained me to observe my surroundings. Not to march blindly up to any banging door without knowing what might await me from within.

Then I spied a small window and inched toward it. Dirt and grime coated the glass pane. Something inside the shed glowed. This wasn't a shed, I realized, but a garage that faced onto the alley. A car sat inside, nearly filling the interior. Not just any car, but a sporty little model, something my errant husband would've lusted after. The driver's door stood open, giving off the glow of the car's interior light. Something dangled out of the open side of the car and touched the dirt floor of the garage. It was an arm. An arm in a purple sleeve. It wasn't moving.