A Crime Mystery by Fred Tingler
By Fred Tingler
1 Sunday Night
A glint of moonlight ran along the needle like a captive spark as Frank admired the fluid in the syringe. "Falling off the wagon is always easy," he muttered. "It's the long climb back up that takes it out of you." He killed the truck’s interior light and wiped his wet cheeks with the back of his hand.
Frank sank the needle into his arm and pushed the plunger. The venerable heroin rushed into his bloodstream as the empty syringe landed on the passenger seat. His eyes drooped. "Ah, divine voices. Gentle voices. Come comfort me. Quiet my mind." He deeply breathed the cool night air. His mind whirled and his eyes closed.
Something slammed into his chest. He screamed as he was yanked out the window.
2 Monday Morning
Weeds snapped. Expensive black leather shoes sank a half inch into the soft dirt as Detective Marty Richter scoured the hillside near the body and talked to himself. “What were you doing out here, Frank?” Marty bent to pick up a potential piece of evidence. “Nope.” He tossed the sun-bleached box of smokes into a trash bag. “C’mon, Frank. What were you doing?”
His cell phone rang. “Richter.”
“Marty,” the voice on the phone said.
“We found the vic’s ID.”
“Right.” Marty continued scouring.
“Well? Aren’t you curious?”
“I already ID’d the guy, Boss.”
Marty bent to pick up a broken piece of soda bottle. “I know the guy. Frank Abbatecola. Went to high school with him.” He dropped the glass into the bag and continued his search.
* * *
James Shoviak leaned back in his leather office chair and ran a thumb down the weekly department newsletter obituaries. "Retired three years—retired for . . . two-and-a-half . . . five, there’s a big one. Retired two. Unimpressive stats."
His rugged looks and thick gray hair revealed all of his fifty-four years. He ran the side of a finger over a cheek speckled with pock marks from a relentless case of teenage acne. "Post-retirement plans. That's the key." Ah, but for the great release from this obscurity. No one would miss the invisible man. James tapped his free hand on a small stack of brochures on his desk. “Germany first, then—”
Hardy burst into the office. "We got one, Boss!"
James grabbed his coat and was out the door before the discarded newsletter made it to the floor.
Hardy's wide frame parted the sea of cops as he headed for the office of the Tehachapi Chief of Police. Hardy pushed his Diamond Head hat more firmly onto his shaved head and adjusted his black tie as he and James burst through the ornate door.
Chief Bradley Rowland hung up the phone as James and Hardy entered. "How the heck did you hear already? I just got the call.” He clenched his teeth. “Looks like another bear mauling. It's in the foothills near Pasadena, just north of Altadena." He furrowed his brow. "You'll be on the move, I suppose?"
James nodded. "Just like we did here."
“Humph. I'm not gonna miss ya."
James smiled. "You are going to miss me all right. You know you love me. It will be just like when your kids leave home." James and Hardy made for the door. "When we're gone, you'll roam the halls lamenting the great times we had." The last word was cut off by the closing door.
* * *
Maggy smelled the sweet morning air. Her pastel blue skirt swayed as she almost skipped on her way to work. She thought, "Hating Paul is no good. Even jerks deserve forgiveness." At twenty-seven, she was familiar enough with the consequences of life. “He’s going to reap what he's sown. His life will come to ruin or prosperity regardless of what Maggy Richter has to say.” She stopped and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. She took a deep breath and pulled her long brown hair back as if in a ponytail and let it fall. “Three weeks of crying and ranting is hard to let go of, but I forgive him.”
After two quick breaths, she resumed her saunter and avoided thinking about the new graffiti on Paul's car. “I guess I'll have to seek his forgiveness?”
Maggy altered her normal route to walk by the park. The birds were active, singing and flitting between the trees. As she drew in and expelled a full measure of fresh morning air, she noted dozens of birds bursting from one of the park's more picturesque hedges about a hundred feet away.
With her attention focused on the hedge, she witnessed a young homeless man stagger out and crash to the ground. She whispered, “What the—?” The man deftly sprung to his feet and dusted himself off. His head darted from side to side, and he jogged off toward the north. Like a distant memory, he was gone.
She continued past the park, her previous rhythmic saunter replaced by a more subdued, yet still happy, gait. “What kind of night would some nut have that would end with him sleeping in a bush? Interesting.”
* * *
Detective Tamar Shakhar watched the group ascend toward the crime scene. He turned to a fellow detective and pointed in the direction of the visitors. "The crew with the beige, leather jackets? That’s the Yellow Jackets I told you about. James in the lead. The big black guy is Norman Chaney, James’s right hand. The tiny Chinese woman is Mei Guo.” He smiled. “Mesmerizing woman with steely eyes. The last one I don't know, but that's the biggest white man I've ever seen." Tamar's broad grin was framed by a thick, black mustache and goatee. His ample Middle Eastern nose cast a blunt shadow across his recently-whitened teeth. The bright sun glistened on his tightly curled, short, black hair. He smacked the other detective on the shoulder. “They call themselves the Culebra Task Force. James does not like to hear the term Yellow Jackets.” When the party neared, Tamar approached them. He used a heavy Egyptian accent, saying, "Hello, Dr. Jones. Terribly nice to see you."
James rolled his eyes. I hate that nickname, and he knows it. "Shouldn't you be blowing something up in the name of Allah?"
Tamar pretended shock and dropped the accent. "Dude, that's not a polite thing to say to an Episcopalian."
Squinting from the bright sun, James surveyed the foothills known by locals as the Haunted Forest. "All right. What do you have, Camel Jockey?"
Tamar adopted a surfer accent, out of place for a thirty-nine-year-old. "Huh. That's Wave Jockey to you, Old Dude." Dropping all accents, Tamar turned and headed up the hill. "As all these stories begin," he gestured up the rise, "a couple of hikers found the body. They were coming down from a trail farther up and ran across this mess. They saw some wildlife chowin' on the victim and thought it was a dead animal 'til they saw a hand." As the hill leveled, other detectives and park rangers came into view, all muddling around something.
James squinted at Tamar. "I presume you were called in to rule out homicide, and it was you who thought of calling me."
"Ah, yes. You are correct. You taught me what to look for." Tamar led them toward the scene. “Excuse me, folks. Clear away from the body, please.” The rest of the law enforcement representatives dispersed. "As I said," Tamar opened his hands, "it's a mess. We don't know where he was killed, but it wasn't here."
James stopped. "Mine are always killed on the scene."
Tamar motioned James to resume following. "I know, but there are other reasons I had you called. He was killed elsewhere, but he was ravaged here. The bites and other marks are consistent." Tamar coughed. “Gaa. You never get used to this smell.”
As they made it to the body, James crouched at its side. Hardy glanced at the corpse and continued north. Norm and Mei investigated the ground around the victim.
Tamar pointed to the body’s chest. "See the bites along the cavity? There was more cutting than ripping and tearing. You said bites like that look more like an omnivore than a carnivore." He paused. "Any sign of normal footprints may have been obliterated by the scavengers, but the absence of a sizable pool of blood makes me certain he was killed elsewhere, but there's no sign of dragging. If this is your guy, he would have had to carry the victim in."
James nodded. "Which means the footprints would be deeper, which makes it even more odd that—"
"That the guy left no footprints," Tamar finished.
“Exactly." James saw Hardy coming back. “Our guy rarely leaves footprints. Darndest thing."
Tamar nodded. "And he never kills in one place and eats in another?"
"No." James shook his head. "Quite puzzling." As Hardy returned from the trees, James gave him a sideways glance. "You find it?"
"Yeah." Hardy's deep voice boomed. "About fifteen feet up. No lower branches."
James sighed. I don’t like change. It means we know less than we thought, but Hardy found it. That was the clincher. “This is one of ours."
Tamar looked at James, but pointed at Hardy. "What exactly did he find?"
James stood and looked around. Tamar's detectives were out of earshot. "He found blood on a tree.” James held his hand up to indicate altitude. “Our guy jumps high into a tree and wipes blood on the bark and branches."
Tamar elevated his hand. “A fifteen-foot jump?” No one responded. “What makes you think it’s a man?”
Hardy stood like a huge pillar. "Handprint."
Tamar chewed his lip. “A man could jump that?"
James raised his eyebrows. “He did."
"Assuming that was achievable—.” Tamar shook his head. “Wait. If you've got a handprint in blood, you have fingerprints."
"Yes.” James nodded. "But our boy is not in the system." Seeing Tamar's look, James turned to Hardy. "Show him."
Hardy's eyes widened in protest.
James held up a hand. "It’s okay. Show him. Treat him," he looked around again, "like a member of the team."
Russell Hardy frowned, but nodded and motioned Tamar to follow. They marched through brown grass until they were three hundred feet away from the body. Just as they reached the thin tree line, Hardy pointed halfway up one tree as he continued moving.
Tamar looked up as they drew near. “Is that the blood?”
Hardy stopped near the base of the tree. "James says treat you like one of the team. I don't know why, Detective, but here goes." Hardy pointed to the discoloration. "It's usually to the north of the mauling." He looked at Tamar. "James prefers we call them maulings to folks outside the team." Hardy spoke softly, unhurried and with directness. "There are almost always one or both handprints on the opposite side. Usually partials. The bark is very lightly scarred where he gets a foothold, and sometimes superficial scrapes where he wipes his face and bites the tree."
As Hardy spoke, Tamar circled the tree and examined the details as they were described.
Squatting, Hardy motioned toward the dirt. "Usually I find more of these on the ground." With his other hand, he pulled from his pocket a plastic evidence bag containing several bloody pieces of bark.
Tamar looked at the wooden shards, then back up. "You buy James’s theory?"
Tamar turned to Hardy and stared into the big man’s eyes. "Even though it is the most outlandish thing anyone has ever heard?"
"Yes." Hardy's face was like stone.
Tamar shook his head.
Hardy did not move. "Detective, I've been with James for two years. I've seen over a dozen of these and the evidence from others. Nothing else fits. I've seen things that have no explanation." He pointed to the stain. "Do you have an explanation?"
Tamar looked up. "No." He tisked. "But my Christian beliefs leave no room for a human's transformation into any animal. Let alone a wolf."
Motioning Tamar to follow, Hardy walked twelve feet north of the tree. He crouched and pointed to two small depressions in the ground. They were the width of a human foot and approximately four inches long. "He jumped from the tree, landed on the fronts of his feet, and pushed off to continue forward motion." Hardy pointed to the north. "There are no other footprints."
Tamar looked at the small craters and their divots, then the great distance to the tree.
Hardy grunted, "Your Christian beliefs leave room to explain this?"
Tamar shook his head. "They certainly do not."
* * *
James hammered away on his laptop in the back seat while Hardy drove the black Lincoln Town Car away from the hills. James accessed the local phone directory. "Cops, cops, cops. Where the heck? Oh, it's under police. Who the heck would do that?"
Norm Chaney's bright, white teeth contrasted with his chocolate brown skin as he laughed. The large, muscular man sat in the front passenger seat eyeing a stoic Russell Hardy. He punched the larger man on the arm. "C'mon, Russ. That was funny. Laugh, man. You never laugh."
James dialed his cell phone, put it to his ear, and lied. "Yes, hello. My name is Chief Rowland. I am the chief of police over here in Tehachapi. Could you connect me to your chief, please?" James nodded at the phone. "I see. I see. Could you please tell him it is a matter of grave importance?" Pause. "Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Very well. I understand. And your name?" James’s eyebrows rose. "Smitty? Excellent. How formal.” James nodded mocking approval. “Smitty, I would really appreciate if you would put me through to your boss. Let me say again, it is a matter of grave importance." Another pause. "Totally. I see your point, Smitty. All right, then. Now, take a message you can give him a little later? When it's more—convenient?” James smiled. “Ready? You have to write this down, Smitty. Okay? Now I'm going to go slow. Ready?
"Chief Rowland requests a special meeting between Chief—wait. What's his name?" James nodded. “Okay. A special meeting with Chief Clepper, Buck Clepper, and a gentleman I'm sending there right now." Norm laughed. James continued, "Got all that, Smitty? Good, good. Now, I want you to do two things. First, look up grave importance and figure out what it means. Second, I want you to tape the message to your chief's door. I do not want it to get damaged when my guy gets there. Do you understand, Smitty?" James did not smile. "No?” He held his hand to his chest in feigned shock. “How would it get damaged?" He waved his hand in dismissal. "Oh, that. Well, if I am not talking to Chief Clepper Buck Clepper, in about 45 seconds, my guy is going to drive his car right through your desk, and I am afraid that little piece of paper might get lost in all the commotion."
Norm laughed louder.
James nodded. "Yes, I'll hold."
* * *
James smiled at the luxurious, brand new office of Altadena's chief of police. Approaching the large oak desk, he held out his hand. "Chief Clepper, I am Federal Investigator James Shoviak. That’s show-vee-ack." The fifty-five-year-old Clepper continued to scowl. James retracted his hand. "Awfully kind of you to see us, sir. I think I’ll just take a seat."
Norm and Hardy flanked the door, looking like enormous black and white chess pieces.
James said, "I work with a federal task force under the umbrella of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." No need for small talk. "Your offices are situated within the area which I currently need to explore. I come outfitted with my own team and weapons. I ask that you provide me with an office for myself and space for my six investigators. I will verbally request resources when I see fit, but I expect that to be kept to a minimum."
Chief Clepper rolled his eyes, leaned back in his chair, and rubbed his slightly graying temples. He then demonstrated his proficiency with profanity. The verbal torrent ricocheted around the room, then rang silent. He scowled at his guests. "What, precisely, gives you the authority to threaten my employees?"
James sighed. "If you are referring to Officer Smith at the front desk, he has already been counseled on proper telephone etiquette as well as maintaining formality." James removed his hat. "In addition, as the son of a career sailor, I can assure you that your language neither offends nor impresses me. I would, however, recommend we maintain at least minimal professionalism during our initial meeting." James plucked at his hat. "I have in my possession special orders which—"
"I know all about your special orders," Chief Clepper barked. "After you impersonated a chief of police with your call, I got ahold of Brad to find out what the—"
James clapped his hands. "Oh, Brad? So you two know each other." He smiled. "This is fantastic. Chief Rowland must have already filled you in. So I'm like family already."
Chief Clepper gritted his teeth. "I know about your special orders. I know why you are here." He leaned forward. "And I recognize your name."
James feigned concern. "Not from bathroom walls, I hope. I find the poetry creative but somewhat vulgar."
Buck Clepper leaned further forward and scowled. "You're the Werewolf Hunter?"
James said, "No." He shook his head. "There are so many ridiculous stereotypes from such a title. I am merely a humble investigator, trying to catch someone who commits murder in a consistently bizarre and fantastic way."
"But you do think you're hunting a werewolf?"
James shook his head. "Chief, you are now in a position to become privy to classified information that is for your eyes only as far as your department goes. Unfortunately, it's also need-to-know, and there's not much you need to know at this point."
Clepper's face turned red. "I see." He leaned back and clenched his jaw. "How then, sir, may I help you?"
James smiled. “I will attempt to add as little gray to your magnificent hair as possible. I need solitary access to your crime lab on an as-need basis. I will share as much data with you as I can, but I anticipate that it will not be much." His tone turned more serious. "I will ask that your homicide department discontinue investigating this case and turn over any pertinent evidence and information to me as well as observing media silence on this entire issue."
Clepper tightened his mouth. "Will that be all?"
"I doubt it." James rose.
"Brad said you were a royal pain." Clepper scowled. "He said you had a chief removed for lack of cooperation."
"True and false. I am a pain. And it was obstruction, not uncooperativeness."
"Tell me one thing that makes you think we're dealing with a freak here."
James sat down and looked into Clepper's eyes. "For you only?" Clepper nodded. James continued, "All of the victim's hearts were eaten. On the spot. Right out of the body. The marks on the chest cavities," James paused, "are from human teeth."
Clepper closed his eyes for a moment. "I don't believe you."
James rose to leave. "I don't blame you." He walked out the door.
Chief Clepper's scowl followed the retreating man.
Norm stepped forward. "Chief, I'm Special Investigator Norman Chaney." The gigantic black man towered over the desk. His charming smile suggested absolute friendliness. "We'll have other briefing materials for you as soon as we get moved in. We typically try to keep the local police chief apprised of developments."
"Thank you." The chief gritted his teeth. "That will be all."
Norm said, "May I make a query, Chief?"
The chief grunted. "You may."
"Chief, you didn't ask to see the special orders."
Clepper rolled his eyes. "Chief Rowland told me all I need to know."
Norm smiled at the chief. "I recommend you read them, sir. They not only grant Federal Investigator James Shoviak certain powers and privileges, but they also grant you certain rights."
Clepper fiddled with a pen. "All right. Have a copy on my desk by 0800."
Norm shook his head. "I'm sorry, sir, that won't be possible. We are not allowed to copy these documents. I'm afraid you can only access them from and read them in the presence of Federal Investigator Shoviak."
Clepper sighed. "That so?"
Norm nodded. "Afraid so, sir."
Clepper rolled his eyes. "Then for now I'll make do with what Chief Rowland has told me and kindly ask you to get the heck out of my office."
* * *
Hardy was already out the door as Norm responded with a slight bow. "Yes, sir. Thank you for your time, sir."
Norm followed Hardy out of the office, out of the building, and into the car where James waited.
James shuffled paperwork inside his briefcase. "You give him the spiel about reading the orders?"
"Yes, sir," Norm answered.
"Didn’t want to see them, sir."
"They never do." James continued rifling through his briefcase. "They never do."
Norm turned to Hardy. "You get us hooked up, big man?"
"Yeah. There're places in Altadena that look good. I'd like to stay out of Pasadena, if possible. Too much traffic.” He handed Norm a sheet of notes, put the car in drive, and pulled out.
Norm surveyed the notes and saw Hardy arranged the living accommodations as usual. He grouped the rest of the team close together in a similar area and himself off somewhere more distant.
Hardy said, "You know how I like my privacy." And really high ceilings. The higher, the better.
* * *
Maggy almost skipped as she left work behind. Passing by the park, she stopped and stared at the hedge she remembered from the morning. What a scene. That bizarre young man staggering forth from the hedge. Very odd. She stared a moment longer and resumed her journey home.
Maggy had a nice two-bedroom apartment with a nice view. Arriving home, she was greeted by the nice sound of her ringing phone. As she shed her purse, shoes, and watch, her own voice wafted from the other room extolling the virtues of leaving a message on the answering machine. She recognized the caller's voice. “Sis,” the depressed voice muttered, “call me when you get home. I can't believe this. It's awful. Gimme a call.”
"He sounds upset." She looked at the clock. “Guess dinner will have to wait.”
Morning saw James, Hardy, and Norm back in the Haunted Forest. Hardy used a rope ladder to climb the tree where the bloody marks were found.
Twenty minutes later Detective Tamar Shakhar trod up the hill and called out to his old friend. "I figured you'd be back up here nice and early."
"Well,” answered James, "this guy doesn’t seem to sleep much, so neither should we."
James squinted at him. “Why are you here? You didn't bring us croissants and lattes."
"No." Tamar pulled out a notepad. "We got a bio on the vic. Frank Abbatecola, had quite the record in Temple City and Pasadena. High schoolers used to come up here and drink all the time. Maybe he was reliving his childhood. His yellow Toyota pickup was found in a parking area down the hill. We found some drug paraphernalia and an untouched six-pack of expensive beer. No real sign of struggle and no blood, but the windows were down and the doors were locked. Looks like he was pulled out the window." Tamar looked around. “I know you're taking the case over, but I have some of my guys searching between here and the truck to see if they can spot where he was killed."
"That's fine," James said.
Tamar cleared his throat. “And I've got a slight problem. One of my guys refuses to cede the case. Went to high school with the vic. Says he was working on him."
James raised his eyebrows. “Working on what?"
"Evangelizing him. Drawing him to God."
"Oh. Evangelizing him." James rolled his eyes. "Then the poor guy probably committed suicide."
"No matter how you look at it," Tamar waved his hand, "my guy ain't goin nowhere. Says he'll take leave and investigate it on his own if he has to."
James smiled thoughtfully. “Oh, does he?"
"Yes, he does. Says he was so close with this guy. Feels determined to solve the murder."
"Hmm." James nodded. "I respect that." James nodded again.
Tamar also nodded. “Yeah. There's a lot to respect about this guy.”
“He sounds very promising.”
“Yeah,” Tamar agreed. “I'm sure he'll start rocketing up the chain once he sets his mind on it.”
James continued to nod. “Sounds like he would be an asset no matter where he worked.”
Tamar's eyebrows went up. “Whoa, James. Don't go thinking you can steal this guy. He's one of my best."
James chuckled. “Well. Now that you made him seem so . . . unattractive." He stroked his chin. “Tell you what. Have him come to my new office, provided by the affable Chief Clepper, Buck Clepper, at 1500, and I’ll have a talk with him."
"You steal this guy and you'll have my boot up your backside."
James laughed. “Now is that any way for a polite Episcopalian to talk?"
Off in the distance they heard, "James!" Both twisted their heads in the direction of the excited cry. Hardy yelled from his rope ladder perch. “Another one!" Norm was already running in the direction Hardy pointed.
"What?" James was off running. Tamar followed.
* * *
James got to the deceased male just after Norm. About one hundred yards from the location of yesterday's body. Gaping chest hole, empty cardiac cavity, unmistakable. “Another anomaly. Two victims in two days. Same location." He told Tamar, "My guy has never killed with less than a month since the previous. Usually more than a month. Sometimes a year."
Huffing, Tamar said, "And there's no large pool of blood."
Norm finished the thought. “So he was killed elsewhere?"
"Maybe," said James. "Copycat?"
Norm shook his head. “No way, Boss. You know we got the lid tight on this. No one could get all the specs."
James threw up his hands. "Well, we’re missing something. This is too different."
James knelt to examine the body. Putting on a glove, he probed the wound. “Everything is consistent on the chest hole. What am I missing?”
Hardy huffed and puffed up to the group. James noted Hardy's face was speckled with blood. "What the heck did you get into, boy?"
Hardy wheezed. “Fell. Rope. . .ladder. Ina. . .hurry. Missda. . .rung. Hitda. . .dirt. Hard."
"C'mon, boy," James exclaimed. "What—-"
Hardy held up his hand to stop the questioning as he regulated his breathing. “I found another tree."
"What?" James was exasperated. "I guess this is ours." He cursed.
* * *
Maggy peripherally watched Steve approach. I'm sure I won't like whatever he has to say. She pretended not to notice him as he came and stood by her desk.
Slightly disheveled and hopelessly out of fashion, Steve looked tired and awkward. As the director of the Pasadena Office of Juvenile Probation in Altadena, he had seen it all, dealt with it all, heard it all, and it was all still there. “Uh, Maggy?” Steve fidgeted. “I have a special favor to ask of you." He fidgeted some more. “Child Protective Services called and asked for some help. They're trying to remove a child from a home and the mother is being combative.”
Maggy shook her head. “And. . .? How does this involve me? I'm a juvenile probation officer, not a CPS rep.”
“I know,” he said. “But they are in the same building as us and they called asking for your help.”
This can't be good. “They asked for me?”
“Well." He continued to fidget. "It seems the mother is refusing to let go of the child. They don't want the kid getting hurt, and the mother keeps screaming, 'Jesus save me! Jesus help me!' So CPS thought maybe you could talk to her.”
Maggy sat up straight. “CPS thinks I'm Jesus?”
Before Steve could respond, she interrupted. “I mean, I am totally flattered and everything, but I can't possibly fill those sandals. I mean, Jesus was God and everything. Where did CPS get the idea I was God? Because they are way off.”
Steve ignored the sarcasm. “No, Maggy. They were hoping that you could deal with her on a more personal level. You're familiar with all the God talk stuff, so maybe you can calm her down. It's real important to get the kid out of there because the older sibling is dealing drugs out of the house and the mother is refusing to listen to reason, and we can't go to the police.”
Maggy sighed. This is wrong. She sighed again. Maybe I can help. I'm always asking God to use me. Be careful what you ask for. She extended her hand toward her boss, never making eye contact, and accepted the written directions to the dysfunctional household. This is ridiculous. I should hit him with a religious discrimination claim. No, that would be even more ridiculous. She looked at the directions and noted a ten-dollar bill under the paper. “This my raise?”
“No." He walked back to his office. “I'm buying you lunch. I appreciate you helping out.”
She chuckled. Sometimes he surprises me. He better not make me respect him. That'd really make me mad.
* * *
Peter Cabrillo bowed before his idol and lit several small candles atop the altar. He ignited a tiny ceremonial cauldron filled with his own concoction. Cedar, frankincense, pine needles, granular resin incense, sandalwood, cinnamon, sage, myrrh, and charcoal tablets for a good flame.
He bowed again, then stretched his hands over his head as he stood. He went up onto his bare toes as his spine and shoulders cracked from the elongation of his six-foot frame. Bringing his hands and heels down, he bowed again. With a tiny set of tongs he extracted a chicken heart from a jar of oil, shook off the excess fluid, and dropped it into the cauldron. It immediately burned a bright orange, almost blinding in the dimly lit room. He breathed in the pungent fumes. "Let us dominate the hearts of the cowards."
His unbuttoned cotton shirt slid easily down his arms, and he tossed it aside. He leaned and stretched to his left, He admired the tattoo alongside his substantial bicep of an animal being attacked by a pack of wolves. Peter stood at attention, spun his back to the altar, and dropped to the ground and did one hundred pushups. The first thirty were so vigorous, his hands left the ground. When he finished, he held the up position for a moment and went down for one more. On the way up, he flung his upper body away from the floor, tucked his feet under, and popped up straight.
He turned back to his altar, approached, and bowed. Retrieving the tongs, he extracted a cat's heart from the oil. His sweat rolling down the tongs, he placed the meat into the cauldron. The sputtering and crackling echoed throughout the empty dojo. "Let us destroy the hearts of the unworthy."
Still breathing heavily, he leaned and stretched to his right and admired yet another tattoo. A wolf clutching the back of a lion, sinking its teeth into the lion's neck. The helpless lion was rearing up and twisting, blood flinging as it tried in vain to dislodge its attacker.
Peter stood at attention, spun his back to the altar, and dropped to the ground in a ball. He rolled to his back and began a furious set of fifty crunches, then fifty sit-ups, followed by fifty crunches. He lay flat on the ground, heaving to get oxygen into his starved lungs. Quickly regulating his breathing, he raised his feet, kicked, and flipped himself upright.
He turned back to his altar, approached, and bowed. With the tongs, he extracted a chunk of meat from the oil. He approvingly rotated the piece and looked at all sides. "Ah. So easy to find, yet so difficult to acquire.” He savored its look and color. He dwelt on the moment, perspiration dripping from his face. He then dropped the piece of human heart into the cauldron. He deeply inhaled the smoke into his recovering lungs. Exhaling with force, he groaned. “Let us feast on the hearts of our enemies!"
He squatted in front of his altar, extending both arms while flexing. As Peter tightened every muscle in his back, its artwork took on a most magnificent and frightening look. The massive tattoo of a wolf's head covered his back. The fiery, sinister eyes narrowed as Peter's shoulder blades protruded. It bore its great red fangs which dripped saliva as it scowled at unseen prey. Peter stood and brought both hands behind his head. He synched up the hair-tie securing his thick, black locks. Dropping his arms, he pivoted, presented his back to the altar, flexed again, and began his routine.
His sequence of drills were angry and lengthy. Peter substituted growls, roars, and barks for the traditional "Kiah" that other martial artists voiced when performing their power moves. His routine was filled with hate for his imaginary opponent. He was fearsome, tenacious, and strong. More than anything, he was fast. The maneuvers lasted forty-five minutes.
His routine completed, Peter stood in the center of the room with his back to the altar. It was a few minutes before his heart rate and breathing were close to normal. He pivoted like a soldier and marched toward his altar, stopped, bowed, and knelt.
"Dear god, gracious bestower of wisdom and power. Grant me insight. Grant me strength. Grant me power. Grant me victory. Transform me. Transform your servant."