David Levien

Where the dead lay


The morning was gray, and a cool that wouldn’t last. Frank Behr steered his Toronado across East Prospect and appreciated the empty streets at 5:45 A.M. His neck still throbbed from a guillotine choke he had barely escaped a day ago, and he was having trouble turning his head to the left, but at this hour the city was his. He had a jump on the world, and that felt good. As he drove, he tried to leave his mind distant and unfocused. Better not to dwell on the soft bed he’d just left, or on the physical challenge that loomed.

Pummeling, clinches, fire feet and sprawl drills, takedowns, guard escapes, and technique work. Topped off by lunge walks with a hundred-pound ground and pound bag on his shoulder. It was enough to cause a replay of last night’s dinner, and that was just for openers, before they began to “roll,” which was what they called sparring at Aurelio Santos’s Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Academy.

Behr cut right on Sherman. There wasn’t much traffic, but whatever cars were out at this hour would be along 74, so he avoided it. Behr trained alone with Aurelio himself, and because of that he made damn sure he was on time for their six A.M. starts. It was a matter of respect. Behr had tried the normal group classes in the evenings at the academy, but leaving the hardest thing of the day until the end was exactly the opposite of how it worked for him now. The specter of it tended to hang over his entire day. It was a concession to his age, he figured, which was a little chunk on the wrong side of forty, but nowadays he needed to clear the physical effort first.

Aurelio charged him the regular fee of a hundred and fifty bucks a month despite the private lessons that should have cost that much per hour. For that, Behr figured, he owed Aurelio plenty. He had to consider, though, that it might not be a straight-up favor. Behr had a habit of accidentally breaking people. Six foot plenty and two- fortyish was a handful for the recreational martial arts practitioner, and Behr had caused some unintentional injuries to various training partners during the decade and a half he’d studied karate, boxing, and kickboxing before taking up jiu-jitsu. Regular-sized, civilized, often white-collar folk, plying techniques on someone of his mass and dimension, tended to lose faith in a system when the moves suddenly didn’t work. Even those of a much higher belt rank weren’t immune. It wasn’t unheard of for someone to quit outright and not come back after practicing with him. Plain and simple, Frank Behr could be bad for business. Maybe Aurelio had gamed that out.

Behr hit a string of green lights along Campbell, letting the big car drift around some potholes, and then steered toward the academy on Cumberland. He felt it before he saw it, as he rounded the corner and clicked his right-turn blinker: there was too much activity in the parking lot, which should’ve been quiet. His eyes zeroed on a pair of patrol cars, done up in graphite and black, the color scheme for Indianapolis Metro PD since the consolidation with the Sheriff’s Department, which still wasn’t the norm in his mind after all those years of taupe and brown. There was also an ambulance in the lot. The ambulance had its flashers on, no siren. The patrol cars were split and parked in a wedge, one directly in front of the academy, the other at the door of the neighboring check-cashing establishment.

That doesn’t make much sense, Behr thought, as he pulled in and parked and saw that the metal grate over the door to the check-cash place was securely closed and the lights turned off. Then his eyes found the door to the studio, which was swung wide open.

Who the hell robs a martial arts school? he wondered. That is no kind of score. Anyone who’s ever been inside one could guess the office would contain only disorganized paperwork, out-of-date liability waivers, moldy addresses, and instead of a safe to break there’d be a petty cash envelope holding fifty dollars maximum. Not even worth the trouble.

Maybe somebody hit the studio hoping to go through the wall into the check-cashing place, Behr considered, shutting off his car.

If that was the case, and Aurelio had arrived to discover a thief with the bad fortune to not be finished… Well, Behr supposed, that would explain the ambulance. He opened the car door. He wore sweats over shorts and a rash-guard top and automatically grabbed for his gear bag, which contained mouthpiece, towel, and dry clothes for after, and walked toward the studio. No workout today, it occurred to him, knowing too well how long the bullshit paperwork with the cops would drag on, until the morning class started to arrive. Then his experience reminded him that burglaries didn’t happen at six A.M. very often. He quickened his pace.

• • •

The air inside the academy was thick with it. It was unmistakable. Behr stepped through the door and saw it in tableau. Two EMTs sat back on their haunches, idle and staring at the walls. A pair of cops stood, arms crossed, heads down. Silence. Between them, on the ground, was Aurelio, his face and skull blown away from his neck like a snapped off match head. Dark blood spattered the blue mat. The once supremely powerful and intelligent body lay there, simply turned off, now just a pile of bone, sinew, and other dumb tissue.

Behr edged closer. What stared up at him from the ground made him go cold: death, still and final. He felt his stomach knot and threaten to turn over. He bit back on it hard and held his mud. It was the least he, the living, could do.

Then, even as he stood there, stunned, not saying a word, his eyes began to work, undirected. Aurelio’s fists were clenched, the knuckles raised and purpled, as to be expected after his fourteen-year mixed martial arts career. There were damp patches on the mat. Water or sweat? The few pieces of furniture in the studio- chairs and a table-were upturned. A chunk of drywall was caved in. On another wall were a few small, round holes, buckshot pellets lodged in them. The blood streak on the mat grew chunky with solid matter as it neared and stopped at the body.

It came together in an instinctive rush in his mind: Aurelio had been shotgunned under the palate. It had been an interrogation finished by an execution, but not before a struggle. No two men he’d ever met could’ve held Aurelio down. A gun changed any equation, to be sure, but Behr’s gut reaction was that there had to have been three, at least. The body had been dragged a distance, but then abandoned.

“Ah, goddammit,” he breathed. It just slipped out. Behr cursed himself for the words. He could have used an extra few seconds to take in the details.

But now one of the cops turned to him, “Regan” printed on his nameplate. “This is a crime scene. You can’t be here. Who are you?” The kid in uniform was blond, maybe twenty-five, but his blue eyes were already going flat and probably only lit when his son or daughter was around. It was what happened.

“Frank Behr. I train here.”

“Behr. You used to be over on the Near Northside?” the other cop, a dark-haired, dark-eyed thirty-year-old said. His tag read “Dominic.” “My uncle Mike’s said your name.”

“That’s right. A while back,” Behr said, and tried to think. “How’d the call come in?” They gave him the courtesy.

“Bread truck delivery driver went by on Cumberland. He saw a flash in the window. Didn’t think much of it at first, but it stayed with him enough to call nine-one-one farther on along his route,” Regan said.

“Don’t suppose he saw anybody or any cars in front?” Behr wondered.

“Nah. Course not. Detectives are on the way to question him anyway.”

“You know this?” the second cop asked, gesturing to the body.

Behr bristled, but nodded. “Aurelio Santos.”

“Like the name on the sign.”

“Yeah. It’s his place.” Behr heard the defeat in his own voice. He’d seen enough of them to know that this was one cold crime scene. It looked icy. How many dozens of prints and partials would be all over the place thanks to the student traffic? And no witnesses either. A grim, hopeless feeling looked for a place to grab hold in his belly at the waste of it, at the empty hull that was now all that remained of a man.

Then anger settled on Behr, hot and familiar. He felt his breath come in short stabs, a bellows of fury working deep within him. He tried to control it, to not be a “belly breather,” the way Aurelio had taught him when an opponent had knee-on-chest and was going for full mount and every cubic centimeter of oxygen left in the lungs

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