The YMCA wasn’t far from my apartment. A twenty-something kid, who obviously did not take advantage of the free membership his employment gave him, buzzed the door. As I pulled it open, my nose was assailed by the smell of chlorine from the pool. I stopped mid-stride, staring at my bags. I didn’t even really remember picking up the one with the sword, but there it was.
“You okay, man?” the kid said.
“Alarm’s going to go off if that door stays open longer than a minute.”
I stepped in and let it click shut behind me.
In the locker room, I changed into sneakers and sweats and pushed the big duffel into a locker. Grabbing the other bag, I turned to leave.
“Where are you going, Trav?” called a voice.
At the end of the row of lockers, a guy about my age stood with a pleasant if quizzical look on his face. He was a little shorter than me but about twenty pounds heavier, carrying the extra in a barrel-shaped midsection.
He wore a Bulls tank top over a white t-shirt and shiny black shorts that just covered his knees. His black hair showed no touches of gray but was midway on its journey to the back of his head. He pushed a pair of black-rimmed glasses back into alignment with one finger. His other hand held a narrow bag like mine.
“You’re going to class, right?” he asked.
“Did someone start an underwater fencing class and not tell me?”
It was only then I noticed the sign above the door I was just about to open read Pool.
“Uh…” I shook my head. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in the pool.”
“Are you kidding? I’m a terrible swimmer. My car has better buoyancy than I do.”
By this time, I had started back toward him. He stuck out his glasses-adjusting hand.
“Missed you last week,” he said as we shook.
I shrugged. “Work.”
As we released hands, I snuck a glance at a white tag attached by a cord to the handle of his bag. J Correa.
“Ready?” he asked. I let him lead me out the correct door.
About fifteen people warmed up in the Y’s multipurpose room following the movements of the instructor, a wiry woman who looked to be in her early sixties. Several of the class members waved as my companion and I entered the room.
J Correa unzipped his bag so I did the same, still unable to shake the feeling that I had never done so before.
I resolved to take it much easier on the vodka in the future.
J drew a sword out of his bag, so I followed suit. His was a standard fencing épée. But it looked like a toy compared to mine. A thick, slightly curved blade reflected the room’s ceiling lights. A filigree was etched into the steel. The grip was covered by a basket-style guard.
“Nice!” J exclaimed with an admiring look. “Where’d you get it?”
“It’s…new.” Which did not answer his question, but he didn’t appear to notice.
A couple of the other students joined us. This attracted the attention of the instructor. She frowned and gave me an uncertain look.
“Planning to storm the castle?” she asked. “This is a fencing class, Trav, not Game of Thrones. I can’t allow you to use that in class.”
“I…Wait.” I suddenly remembered there had been something in the case besides the sword. Handing the blade to J, I rummaged inside, drawing out a stainless-steel sleeve matched my blade’s slight curve exactly. Retrieving the sword from J, I slipped it over the sharp side, securing the sleeve into place with a cork top at the tip and a hook-and-eye catch at the hilt.
Cynthia was unconvinced. “This is a beginner class.”
“C’mon, Cynthia. He obviously went to a lot of trouble,” said J.
“That’s enough out of you, Joseph,” she said primly. “I’ll consider it. For now, let’s just see if you can get through the warmup without slicing yourself open.”
She clapped her hands. “All right, everyone, let’s get going.”
We gathered in three loose lines in front of her. The rest of the class held their épées by the handle and point. I followed suit.
“Forward!” Cynthia barked. Planting her left foot, she executed a lunge with her right. We copied her motion.
This went on until we had pretty much hit every position on a clock face. We then repeated the operation with the other foot. Cynthia lunged so far her trailing knee nearly touched the ground. I could barely get halfway down, although my hamstrings did loosen somewhat by the end of the exercise.
We worked our way through a warmup that involved pushups, side-jumps, and other calisthenics. Then we retrieved our blades and went back to lunges, sword arms extended. Cynthia barked out instructions and corrected our form. I quickly discovered that holding my arm straight out, elbow down, was harder than it looked. Of course, holding a sword twice as heavy as any of the others didn’t help.
“Doing okay, Trav?” Cynthia asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, I guess it’s your lucky day. I found you a sparring partner who doesn’t mind your penis-compensating blade.”
She nodded toward the door where a man had just entered. He pushed a safety mask into place as he walked.
“That is so not what I am compensating for,” I muttered as I grabbed a mask from a table.
Like me, the new guy carried a sabre, although his was a practice blade, thick-edged and blunt.
We each raised our blades parallel to our masked faces in salute and went into the en garde position.
He lunged. I attempted to parry but was far too slow. With a negligent flip of his wrist he sent my sword flying.
I won’t bore you with the play by play of the rest of the demonstration. Because that was what it was. It certainly wasn’t a contest. You would have thought it was the first time I had ever picked up a sword. By the end of fifteen minutes, I was a sweaty, gasping mess. Finally, he backed off and gave me a salute I didn’t deserve. I pulled off my mask, grabbing the front of my t-shirt to wipe my face. My opponent pulled his own mask off and I saw his face for the first time.
“Had enough?” asked Leon Martin.
He shifted his sword to his left hand and stretched the other one to me.
Leon Martin was in his early fifties but looked ten years younger. His gray hair was cropped astronaut-close. There was only the barest hint of a middle-aged paunch at his waist. A pair of glasses, rimless to the point of invisibility, was one of the very few concessions the captain made to his age.
He had been my dad’s partner and my mentor on the force. He’d given me a medal last year.
No, that wasn’t right. If that were the case I’d still be a cop, not working in a bar. No, now a memory of being fired swam up from whatever mental depths I’d pushed it into.
All this barely registered with me because as I shook his hand the sweat in my eyes must have blurred my sight. For just a minute, in place of his glasses I could have sworn I saw a pair of green-tinted swim goggles and his wiry hair invisible beneath a navy-blue swim cap.
“What?” he asked. “Is there something on my forehead?”
“No. It’s just…” I wiped my eyes again and the vision vanished. “Never mind.”
“Nice sword,” he said. “Do you mind?”
I handed it over. He unclipped the blade guard and gave it a couple of test flicks.
“Impressive. But overkill for this class, isn’t it? Or do you have a castle to storm?”
I was already sick of that joke. “You never know.”
He whipped the blade a few more times, making sure he was well distant from me or anyone else in the room.
“I’m glad that you’re keeping up with the fencing,” he said, offering me the handle.
I put the guard back on. “Not that you could tell today.”
“Takes a while to get used to a new weapon,” he observed. “I’d be happy to help you work the kinks out.”
“I’m not sure that would be a good idea.”
He shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
We stood there in awkward silence before Leon cleared his throat.
“Trav. It’s probably good I ran into you…”
“I just thought you’d like to know we’re pretty much at a dead end on your friend.”
I rocked backward, assaulted by memories that welled up in a tornado of mixed up images and fragments of conversations that didn’t seem to connect.
Sam looking up from his computer, smiling tolerantly. “Like I said, no backsies.”
Sam somehow older than he should have been. “They made their choice.”
Sam frantically pushing and swiping at his tablet as I lunged at him.
“Trav, are you okay?”
Willing away the melange of contrasting images, I opened my eyes to see Leon frowning at me.
“Yeah, fine,” I said through clenched teeth. “Uh, thanks for letting me know.”
“I’m sorry, Trav.”
I shrugged. “Who’s on it?”
“Monroe and Randon.”
“Well, if anyone can get make headway with it, it’s them.”
“They could use some help.”
“What kind of help?”
“It appears that Sam had been manufacturing meth in his lab at the school.”
“You just said Monroe and Randon were good men. Do you think they made up the report?”
“No. But there has to be another explanation. Sam has never gone anywhere near drugs.”
“You never know what people will do for money,” he said quietly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Leon’s eyes turned hard. “It means that we both know who runs the drug business in the Tri-States, Trav. And you’re working for him.”
“Are you saying I had something to do with Sam’s death?”
“I’m saying it’s a little bit of a coincidence that your friend is killed right after you go to work for Anton Kaaro.”
“I see.” I looked around on the floor for my case. Locating it, I slid the sword inside. “Anything else?”
“Trav. We can use your help. Sam can use your help.”
“There’s nothing I can do to help Sam. As far as helping you, I’d be happy to.”
“Trav, that’s grea—”
I held up a finger before he could continue. “I’ll be happy to come down to the station, Leon. With my attorney. And after I see a warrant.”
Leon’s mouth snapped shut. “If that’s the way you want it, I suspect I’ll probably see you before too much longer in any case.”
“Is that a threat, Captain Martin?”
He shrugged. “Seems like we end up with most of Kaaro’s thugs downtown at one time or another.”
“A thug. Nice. Have a good day, Leon. I need to get to work.”
“Trav, wait. I didn’t—”
Not letting him finish, I stormed past the other members of the class. The Y showers were the last place I wanted to be right now so I just grabbed my stuff out of the locker, pulling my jacket on over my sweaty t-shirt.
Leon’s disappointment in me raised an ache in my chest way more painful than any of his sword touches. And being questioned about Sam’s death was just one more item now added to a growing list of things I didn’t remember.
But what was more disturbing was a clear memory I did have.
It was the sight of watching Sam Markus’s body jerk as a hail of bullets tore into him.