By Aiden Dufort
As she got up at 7 am, Detective Ashanti Lewis jumped to her desk, booting up her Lenovo ThinkPad without brushing her teeth. Having typed her login password, she rubbed her eyelids. The image of the dreadful tiger that appeared in her dream was still drifting in her cloudy eyesight. The tiger looked the exact same as the howling tiger tattoo on the right arm of rising Cuban-American female boxing star Isabella Lopez. Ashanti woke up a number of times last night due to this tiger, growling and exposing its bloody fangs at her, multiplied like ameba in the darkness of her dreams. Clicking on the Google Chrome icon with her trembling fingers, Ashanti said to herself, “I must have seen more than one tiger in that video. I must have overlooked something when I was watching this video with my colleagues at the police headquarters.”
YouTube’s search engine immediately suggested the video Ashanti was looking for. It was a pre-fight press conference between Isabella Lopez and her opponent Katie Emmanuel, held in Las Vegas last month. Both were featherweight world champions. Ashanti fast-forwarded the footage to the face-off scene of both fighters. Isabella, wearing a flamboyant Gucci mink coat and blue-shaded sunglasses, raised her right fist toward the opponent’s chin. Katie pushed her shoulders back. Isabella immediately fired back with her left hook, but the promoter standing between them stopped her. The camera slightly wobbled. A storm of the spectators’ uproar swept the stadium. Ashanti stopped the video, enlarging the face of Katie’s trainer, who stood right behind her and stuck his tongue out at Isabella. Although his voice was not audible, he seemed to have said something offensive toward Isabella.
“I’ll pack you up!” Held back by the promotor wearing a pinstripe suit, Isabella shouted at this trainer, flashing her eyes. “After I knock out that hoe,” Isabella pointed at the opponent Katie Emmanuel, and then twitched her arm with the tiger tattoo toward the trainer, “I’ll smash your ugly head in and add your teeth to this diamond necklace.”
Isabella raised her fan-shaped necklace toward her own lips, kissing it. The 30-carat diamond embedded in the necklace was encircled by bloody teeth. Isabella had posted this necklace on her Instagram three days before this press conference. All the teeth were her past opponents’ teeth that she’d smashed out of their mouths with her power punches during the fights. Isabella’s professional boxing record was 34 wins, no losses, and 33 KOs.
The video of this press conference immediately went viral on social media. Boxing journalist Michael Underwood retweeted and commented that this was the best trash talk show of the year. The next day, the video resurfaced. Katie’s trainer was found dead outside his home. The killer shot him when he parked his BMW in the garage and opened the door. Subsequently, the killer extracted his central incisor with pliers. The blood-smeared tooth was found in the mailing box of Isabella’s house the next morning.
Of course, the murderer was not Isabella. She had an alibi. She was in a sauna club near the Las Vegas Strip. Michael Underwood tweeted that “some say it may be Isabella’s crazy fan who killed Katie’s trainer and delivered his tooth to her.” He also shared the link for his online article entitled “The Murder Mystery Before the Fight of the Decade” for boxing fans. Isabella replied to Michael on Twitter. “My beautiful fans won’t deprive me of the opportunity to punish them!”
Ashanti replayed the video of the press conference. She felt she’d seen another tiger tattoo. When the video reached 10 minutes from the beginning, Ashanti gasped and stopped it. For a split second, the camera captured the wave of groupies wearing T-shirts with Isabella’s face standing around the stage. Ashanti clapped her hands on the keyboard. The bloody tiger tattoo was dancing on the heads of these spectators. Ashanti enlarged the video. A silver-haired white man wearing yellow-rimmed glasses stretched up his right arm. The tiger tattoo was drawn on his arm in the same location as Isabella’s.
Ashanti’s intuition told her that this guy having the same tattoo as Isabella’s might be the killer. This groupie seemed to be crazy enough to kill somebody for Isabella. But no evidence substantiated her claim. Ashanti sighed. She took a screenshot of this guy’s face and sent it to her phone. As she shut down her Lenovo ThinkPad, her phone rang.
“Ashanti, come to the following address right now!” Ashanti’s boss in the police shouted. “There was a 911 call from Isabella Lopez. Her boyfriend was murdered in her house.”
Isabella was crying in the drawing room, putting her tattooed right arm on the emerald felt of a billiard table. Her boyfriend Jared Fried lay supine on a burgundy carpet. A gunshot pierced his head, smashing the glass showcase containing Isabella’s feather-weight champion belts. The scattered glasses smeared with his blood were shining like corals at the bottom of the showcase. Ashanti crouched down beside Jared’s body, settling her eyes on his half-opened mouth. She turned on her phone’s light to see the inside of his mouth. An upper lateral incisor was missing. The streak of blood was still trickling down the upper jaw from the tooth ridge. Ashanti gasped. The suspect must be the same person who killed Katie Emmanuel’s trainer.
“It’s my fault,” fifteen minutes after the police’s arrival, Isabella started to collect herself and speak. Still, she covered her mouth with her palm as if she was about to throw up. “I started working out in the gym at 3 am today. I have a routine to work in the early morning while my opponents are sleeping! Then, I broadcast my sparring session via Instagram Live from 6 am. So, the killer knew I wasn’t at home.”
“Don’t feel that way, Isabella. This is not your fault at all,” said Isabella’s trainer, caressing her back. “Stay strong. Jared would love to see you pull this through and win the next fight.”
“We shouldn’t exclude the possibility that the killer broke into your house to steal something,” said Ashanti, squinting at the muddy footsteps on the carpet. “It seems your boyfriend ran to the showcase from the garden. Is there anything stolen, ma’am?”
“Yes,” Isabella shouted and knocked the billiard board with her fist. Ashanti swallowed hard. Pointing at the showcase with her trembling hand, Isabella said in a trembling voice. “My necklace is missing.”
“Necklace? What kind of necklace?” Ashanti’s eyes darted to the broken showcase that Isabella pointed to.
“The necklace containing the fake diamond and teeth of the past opponents I collected during my fights,” spluttered Isabella.
“Fake diamond!?” Ashanti snapped. “That was fake?”
“Yes. It was nothing more than a marketing strategy to get more haters. I discussed it with my promoter. Some fans will buy tickets to my fight just to see me lose,” said Isabella, gritting her teeth. “So, I lied to Jared because I wanted to impress him with the diamond. When he noticed somebody break into my house, he must have come to this drawing room to protect it. He was killed because of my lie!”
As Isabella puffed herself up and tears poured down her face, her trainer cloaked her head with a towel as if to hide her face from a flock of paparazzi.
“How much is the real diamond supposed to be worth?” the lieutenant standing beside Ashanti asked in an icy voice.
“My promoter told journalists that it cost five million dollars,” Isabella burst into sobs.
The lieutenant tapped Ashanti’s elbow and whispered. “So, this murder is all about money. The foolish killer stole that fake diamond. Five million dollars is enough to kill somebody. Extracting his tooth must’ve been camouflage.”
“Welcome to our show, the number one, pound-for-pound female fighter, Isabella Lopez! Isabella, great to see you again. Let me begin with this question,” said boxing journalist Michael Underwood, smiling and raising his mustached chin slightly. Michael, wearing a purple tie and sitting in a TV studio covered with a wallpaper of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, squarely stared at the camera. “Why didn’t you cancel your upcoming fight against Katie Emmanuel after all of these tragedies?”
“First off, I’m not just number one among female fighters, Michael. I’m the best among all the fighters in the world,” said Isabella crossly. She sat in front of her PC in her house in Las Vegas. The olive-colored curtains were tightly shut behind her. “Real champions don’t surrender to any pressure. My job is the same, no matter what. I’ll knock out the next opponent in the ring.”
“I’m glad to see how strong you remain, Isabella. Because of these serial murders, you suddenly got under the limelight. So many boxing fans got to know about you for the first time and are looking forward to your next fight,” spluttered Michael in a sharp voice. “Could you tell us where you come from?”
“I was born in Las Vegas. My father came from Cuba and was also a professional boxer. But he died when I was sixteen because of damage on his brain he suffered in his career,” said Isabella, her face purpling. “It doesn’t matter where I come from. Ask me questions about boxing and my career.”
“OK, I love seeing a new American fighter rising to stardom. But I noticed some conspiracy theories about these murders on social media,” said Michael viciously. Suddenly, an icon of a female professional boxer’s Twitter account popped up on the screen for viewers. Isabella raised her eyebrows. Michael read the tweet. “So, this is the tweet from your past opponent you knocked out six months ago: Lopez finally became famous thanks to these serial murders. It’s difficult not to think that somebody on her side pulled the strings behind these crimes.”
“What a joke!” shouted Isabella indignantly.
“No matter what, this is your lifetime opportunity, Isabella,” said Michael, his eyelashes flickering. “All the tickets have been sold. Celebrities are expected to show up in your fight. A crazy fan bet 50 million dollars on your knock-out win. All of these commercial successes come from…”
“Come from me!” Isabella reached her hand out to the camera of her PC. “I’m the biggest cash cow, the most exciting fighter in the world. You’ll know that next Saturday! I’ll knock out Katie Emmanuelle within four rounds!”
Isabella clenched her fist, showing off her tiger tattoo toward Michael and all the viewers. The bloody tiger seemed to howl, shaking the air.
Swiping the touchscreen of her phone, Ashanti turned off the YouTube application. The battery of her phone was below 40%. This was the interview filmed and broadcast yesterday. Ashanti read the clock on the dashboard of her Ford F-150. It was 2:20 am. She glanced out the window. Above the high, gray wall where rotating security cameras were welded, Ashanti could see Isabella’s bedroom on the second floor, facing the elliptical swimming pool, still alight. Ashanti was in charge of protecting Isabella through her upcoming mega-fight — she also thought the serial killer would show up and attack Isabella at night. One hour ago, Isabella came back from jogging with her bodyguards. Ashanti squinted at the balcony beside her bedroom. Opening the French door, a ghostly figure in a bathrobe stepped forward, letting her ebony hair drift in the breeze. Glancing down at the swimming pool for a while, she suddenly whirled back and picked up her phone. It was Isabella Lopez. She waved her hand to Ashanti, raising her phone to her mouth. Ashanti swallowed when her phone on her lap rang. Isabella was calling her.
“Hi Ashanti, I can see you’re there.” said Isabella in a calm voice. “Can you come to the drawing room? I might know who killed Jared and Katie’s trainer.”
The drawing room was immaculately cleaned up. They had gotten rid of the broken showcase containing her champion belts. Instead, there was a mahogany table and a vase of silk roses on it. The wall beside the billiard table was covered with posters that depicted Isabella crawling up on the ropes of a boxing ring. Behind Isabella, who was screaming at her fans, her opponent lay supine, passing out like a dead body.
“That’s the moment I became a featherweight world champion,” said Isabella, standing behind the billiard board and pointing at the poster. As Ashanti sat down on a leather sofa, Isabella flipped a piece of parchment off toward Ashanti, using the tip of a billiard cue stick.
“What’s this?” asked Ashanti, catching the parchment with her fingers.
“Just read it. It’s a letter delivered to my house a month ago.”
Ashanti spread the parchment out, flattening its wrinkle. Purple letters in a strange font were printed out on it.
Dear Isabella Lopez,
This is a letter from your father. The late former professional boxer Juan Lopez, who you believe was your father, was not your real father. He may have taught you how to box. But he didn’t give you anything genetically. Trust me … I am your real father.
God knows you’ll be a superstar in boxing very soon. I am God. Your enemies will be eradicated by God’s lightning. Listen to my prediction. The sheep you will face in the ring will lose her shepherd. The weasel who approaches you for money will lose his life.
You must be the greatest champion and the best star because you are my creation.
I’ll see you in the stadium on fight night.
Your dad with the tiger tattoo.
Once she finished reading the letter, Ashanti looked at Isabella with a startling gaze.
“This guy predicted all of the murders,” shrilled Ashanti. “Who do you think is this guy?”
“I have no idea. But I once saw a fan who had the same tattoo as me in the pre-fight press conference,” said Isabella, scratching her head. “Once I was freed from a flock of journalists surrounding me, about to get in a car, the guy wearing yellow-rimmed glasses followed me and gripped my arm. And he said, ‘Remember me, I’m your creator. I’ll make you a superstar!’ When I pushed him back, I saw the same tiger howling on his arm.”
The image of the crazy groupie she’d seen in the video of the press conference passed through Ashanti’s mind. She turned on her phone and showed Isabella the screenshot of the guy.
“Yes, that’s him!” Isabella whistled. “He always purchases ringside seats for my fight. I once saw him from the ring during a post-fight interview. His yellow eyeglass is recognizable.”
“Do you think he’ll show up in your next fight?” Ashanti asked in a quiet voice.
“Definitely. He may kill somebody again, I don’t know,” said Isabella, raising her eyebrow. She stood up and took an envelope placed on the mahogany table, handing it to Ashanti. “I’m giving it to you.”
“What’s this?” Ashanti opened the envelope. It was a ticket for Isabella’s upcoming fight. The seat was next to the main concourse in the stadium.
“It’s not a bad seat to search for the killer, detective.” Isabella smiled.
Inside the last 30 seconds of the third round, Isabella landed a solid left to Katie Emmanuel’s chin. Katie dipped her head, trying to clinch her. Isabella jumped back, hitting the right hook on her ear. As Katie felt the floor lurch in the explosive pain in her head, she saw the tiger drawn on Isabella’s arm growl at her. Katie fell on the canvas, both arms stretching out. As 10,000 spectators rose to their feet and roared, Isabella started to dance in the center of the ring. As the referee counted to seven, Katie stood up, licking the blood trickling down from her eyebrow. Isabella swirled back, meeting Katie’s fierce gaze.
At that moment, Ashanti was running to the east side of the ringside seat rows. Between rounds 2 and 3, a Hollywood star sitting on the ringside seat was displayed on the screens of the stadium. Ashanti never overlooked the silver-haired white man with the yellow-rimmed glasses sitting behind him. As a ripple of uproar ran through the crowd, he raised his necklace over the Hollywood star’s shoulder. It was Isabella’s stolen necklace. The fake shining diamond was encircled by bloody teeth in the necklace. What a psychopath. Ashanti said to herself, reaching behind the suspect’s seat.
“Hi,” Squeezing through the crowd, Ashanti tapped the silver-haired man’s shoulder. “Can I see your necklace, sir?”
As the suspect turned back, the spectator behind him yelled at and pushed back Ashanti. “What are you doing? I can’t see the fight!”
The suspect stood up, meeting Ashanti’s burning gaze. Sizing her up for seconds, he jumped up from the seat, knocked her down and ran toward the exit. Ashanti scrambled to her feet, running after him. The security guards standing at the exit just saw them rush past them.
Jumping into a gold-hued elevator, the suspect smiled back at her. Its door closed as Ashanti reached it. She read the direction of the elevator. It was going to the underground garage. Ashanti rushed down the staircase and went out into the garage, which was filled with a stagnant gas smell. She heard a footstep behind the pillar in front of the elevator. She recognized the suspect’s shadow behind a parked Toyota. Ashanti unsnapped her holster and aimed her gun, striding forward. From the darkness behind the Toyota, the suspect’s vicious laughter reverberated.
“If you want, I’ll give it back to you!” The silver-haired man showed up from the back of the Toyota, taking off the necklace and tossing it to Ashanti. It dropped in front of her feet.
“Did you kill Katie Emmanuel’s trainer and Isabella’s boyfriend?” Ashanti blurted out, aiming her gun at him. The man with the yellow-rimmed glasses raised his hands. Ashanti wasn’t sure if he was surrendering or teasing her. She saw him nod with malicious laughter in the darkness.
“Why did you kill them?” Ashanti barked.
“It’s because I am the creator of Isabella Lopez. I’m a biotech scientist and a friend of her father, who passed away nine years ago,” spluttered the killer as Ashanti crouched down to pick up Isabella’s necklace. “Twenty-five years ago, Isabella’s father Juan Lopez came to my laboratory. He lost his life-changing opportunity in pursuing the American Dream — he challenged a world champion. Although he succeeded in outboxing his opponent, he lost because of a corrupt decision by bribed judges. Then, his career was over. He was no longer an undefeated fighter. One day, he came to volunteer for an experiment in my laboratory in L.A.”
The killer held out his arm toward the ceiling of the garage as if he was holding the sky. Ashanti put forward her gun. Suddenly, a Tesla Model S entered the garage, and its taillight illuminated them. Ashanti saw a gun placed in the killer’s pocket.
“Juan Lopez’s dream was to give birth to the physically strongest son possible to become a future world champion. I supported him by creating a genetically engineered baby — a physically gifted child with his altered DNA,” growled the killer, his eyes flashing. “However, I couldn’t control the gender of his child. When a girl was born, he looked disappointed. But I’m delighted to see Isabella Lopez become a world champion and superstar. She’s my creation. She’s mine. I’ll never forgive anyone who prevents us from succeeding. By killing the opponent’s trainer and her filthy boyfriend, I drew the attention of the whole world to her. Isabella is shining because of God’s will. Do you understand?”
Suddenly, the killer crouched down as if he’d fainted. Ashanti sensed he was playing possum. The killer stretched his tattooed arm to the gun in his pocket. Ashanti aimed the gun at his head, pulling the trigger.
When the gunshot reverberated in the underground garage of the stadium, Isabella was trapping Katie in the corner of the ring. As Katie jabbed, Isabella whirled to the left, hitting a counter on her chin. Just like a robot running out of electricity, Katie fell supine, her eyes rolling uncontrollably. As the referee made the gesture of ruling a KO, Isabella jumped up on the ropes, waving her right arm with the tiger tattoo to the roaring crowd.
Bio: Aiden Dufort is a writer living in St. Louis, Missouri. His short fiction has appeared in the Piker Press (2023) and is forthcoming in Close To The Bone and Schlock!
He can be found on Twitter at @AidenDufort and on Instagram at @AidenDufort.
Read More Detective Stories on The Yard: Crime Blog