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He slipped into the empty building before anyone else. Fitness is big business in LA, so it must have still been dark, hours before the overachievers got there.
The killer knew his quarry well. The patterns would not have changed, even in America. The master-soon-to-be victim-would pad quietly into his training hall hours ahead of anyone else. He trained fighters, but a sound business was a diversified business, and he had branched out into general fitness and health. It meant a big jump for the bottom line. His school was clean and upscale, with a reception area and account reps who kept the budget fed, smoothly enticing the hesitant and recording it all on the PCs that sat like putty-colored fetishes in the office cubicles. For the master, even after fifteen years in America, it was, ultimately, a distraction. The noise, the coming and going, the lack of focus that was LA-all made it harder and harder for him to find time to pursue his art. And he was, despite all his success, still an artist at heart. Which was why, increasingly, he found himself before dawn, alone in the training hall, pushing himself further and further, in fierce pursuit of the moment when he and his art became inseparable.
His name was Ikagi, and he had been training in karate for over forty years. He had the tubular build of martial artists-all those movie fighters look like weight lifters because that's what they spend most of their time doing. Ikagi was a professional of the old school. In his time in LA he had led and harassed legions of aspiring black belts into his demanding vision of the martial arts. And he was no less strict with himself. Photos of him over the years showed a man who looked like a human howitzer shell. Even that morning, at fifty-eight years of age, his workout would be grueling. His fingers were thick and strong from countless sessions of tameshiwari-board breaking. His feet were tough and dry from hours of work on the hardwood floor of the training hall. You could see the calluses clearly in the stark contrasts of the crime scene shots taken later-they stood out as white patches, even with all that blood around.
Ikagi had come in off the street and changed into the white uniform of the karate student. His belt had become tattered and ragged over the years, but it still made a crisp black contrast to the pure white of the karate gi. He probably knelt and faced the small shrine at the head of the training hall. His students said that this was his usual pattern. Then the warm-ups and stretches would begin. Before dawn, Ikagi would be lost in a daily fine-tuning of his art: the punches moving faster and faster, a faint white blur in the predawn light; the kicks precise, balanced, and focused.
His attacker could have jumped in at any point, although the medical examiner's report suggests that the master wasn't dead for more than an hour before the building manager found him at five-thirty. Ikagi had probably just begun his routine when the challenger appeared.
The evidence suggests that Ikagi knew something of the threat by this time. Some faint rumbling was coming from Japan. And it quickly became clear to the sensei just what the intruder wanted. Ikagi was a little bull of a man, and he would have demanded to know why. Whether he was surprised to learn the reason, whether he was surprised to see his old student there in the flesh is anyone's guess, although they say some of the really good masters have a type of sixth sense about this sort of thing. Ikagi didn't mention anything to his family or friends beforehand, but that's no real due. If you look at pictures of people like him, even when they're smiling, the eyes give you nothing.
Ikagi could have known that death was waiting that morning, but he said nothing to anyone.
The ritual of the challenge was almost certainly performed. The attacker enjoyed the symbolic trappings. The ritual was important. He was most probably dressed in street clothes-it's a bit hard making your getaway dressed like an Asian assassin, even in LA-but he most certainly would have followed all the Japanese etiquette: the bows, the ritual introductions and presentation of training pedigree, the request for a "lesson."
When the fight was actually underway, it was nothing like anything most of us have ever seen. In the first place, it was fast. Fighters at this level of proficiency, going for the kill, do not waste time. The more time you spend, the more fatigued you get. The more opportunities for error. For the killing blow.
These two opponents knew more about unarmed fighting than most people alive. It wasn't just that the blows uncoiled like a viper's strike. The reflexes at this level are so accelerated that feints and counterfeints occur with a subtle speed that means most people wouldn't even notice them taking place. There was some minor lividity on the victim's hands and feet, but they were so callused that it doesn't really tell us much. Ikagi was a karateka, though, and he probably unleashed the arsenal of kicks and punches that formed the heart of his art.
He got as good as he gave: his forearms and shins were bruised from parrying attacks. He had scuff marks on the shoulder from rolling on the hard floor, which means that they used everything they could think of, from strikes to throws. Ikagi must have tried a choke hold at one point. You can tell, because he had the telltale bruise on the top of his hand between the thumb and first finger. He tried to slide in the choke and the opponent defended by lowering the jaw, using the bone to protect the potentially vulnerable artery in the neck.
The cops dusted the floor of the training hall to get a sense of how things went. The two fighters ranged all over the surface, lunging, tumbling, breathing hard in a feral type of ballet. Ultimately, they ended up near the weapons rack. I think the attacker panicked. Maybe it was doubt, rising like smoke in the heat of the contest. Maybe the jet lag. Ikagi was not just good, he was one of the best, and the whole thing was probably not turning out as planned. So when they tumbled into the corner, there were all those wooden staffs, stacked up like spears in a medieval castle. It must have seemed to the attacker like the answer to a prayer.
Ikagi probably smiled to himself when his opponent grabbed one of the staffs. Only the master would know that these were the beginner's weapons, made of inferior wood, which he could snap in two with little effort. And we know that, at some point, he did. Tiny wood fragments were found along the ridge of the palm-exactly where you would expect them if you broke something with a sword hand strike. The attacker, wielding what he thought was a potent weapon, must have been momentarily stunned when the power of Ikagi's attack snapped the staff in two.
But the recovery was equally sudden. The staff became a spike.
The first strike must have been almost instinctual-a straight thrust, hard and quick, into the midsection. The pain must have been intense for Ikagi, but the blood trail shows us he didn't collapse. After that first, electric jolt, the gasp as the point was driven home, Ikagi pressed the attacker for some time.
Did the jagged end of the staff stay buried in Ikagi's guts, or did the attacker yank it out right away? It's hard to tell. Eventually, the loss of blood slowed the master down. The floor was growing slick. And then the attacker finished it.
He plunged that spike into the old man, perforating the abdomen repeatedly. There was massive trauma there. It went beyond functionality. Did the attacker enjoy it? The gasp each time as he drove the point home? The growing sense of domination? Did he smile even as Ikagi's lips were yanked back in a rictus of pain?
These are questions for the shrinks. That morning, it didn't matter. It was over. Ikagi lay there, agony dulled only by a lifetime of discipline. He attempted to reach the phone, slid in the fluids pouring out of him, and faded away. As he slipped out of this life, his athlete's heart pumped faithfully away, the pulse growing faster and threadier as shock set in and he died.
The killer paused long enough to leave a clue as to what he had become. And a warning. He dipped his finger in the blood and wrote in Japanese on the wall. The photo of it was mixed in with all the others, and even with the morbid fascination of Ikagi's death captured from all angles, the calligraphy was crude yet effective, demanding attention.
"Ronin." The characters read. "Wave Man."
A masterless samurai.
You could usually hear a pin drop in that room. The slanting rays of the sun came in through the high windows. The angle was acute enough so that you never had to worry about being blinded (an important thing in a place where people hacked at each other with oak swords), but it showed the dust motes dancing around. Less wary students had been distracted by them. We had all been with Yamashita Sensei for a while, however, and that morning when he strode onto the floor, all eyes were riveted on him.
Yamashita was a small person: in street clothes he probably would have seemed surprisingly nondescript. In the martial arts dojo, his presence was palpable. It wasn't just the way he was dressed. Most of us had been banging around the martial arts world for years and so were pretty much used to the exotic uniforms. Yamashita was usually dressed like any other senior instructor in some of the more traditional arts: a heavy quilted top like the ones judo players wore and the pleated split skirt/pants known as hakama. The wide legs of his uniform swished quietly as he knelt in front of the class. Even in this small action, there was a decisive precision. He gazed at us, his round head swiveling slowly up and down the line.
Other than his head, nothing moved, but you could almost feel the energy pulsing off him and washing over you. He was the most demanding of taskmasters at the best of times, but today we were all tremendously apprehensive.
Yamashita was wearing white.
In Japan, white is the color of emptiness and humility. Many of us had started our training in arts like judo or karate, where the uniforms known as gi were traditionally white as a symbol of humility. Most mainline Japanese instructors I knew frowned on the American urge to branch out into personal color statements with their uniforms. The message was clear: a gi is not an expression of individuality. People wanting to make statements should probably rent billboards and avoid Japanese martial arts instructors. They are not focused on your needs. They are concerned only with the pursuit of the Way. You are free to come along. But your presence is not necessary.
You have to get used to that sort of attitude. In the martial arts, nobody owes you anything, least of all your teacher. The assumption is that you are pretty much worthless and lucky to be in the same room with your sensei. You do what he says. You don't talk back. You don't ask rude questions. You don't cop an attitude-that's the sensei's prerogative.
In the sword arts Yamashita teaches, only the high-ranking teachers are eligible to wear white. Yamashita could. He had done so in Japan for years. But he didn't do it much here. If he was wearing white today, it meant that he was symbolically adopting the attitude that he was the lowliest of students. Humility is nice, of course. The only drawback here was that, if Yamashita was being humble, it meant that, as his students, we were somewhere way down in the crud with other lower forms of life.
As we sat there eyeing him warily, I heard some very quiet sighs up and down the line: we were in for a rough workout.
You don't get in the door of this particular dojo without having considerable experience and martial aptitude. In the first place, it's hidden in Brooklyn among the warehouses down by the East River. We occasionally have trouble with our cars being broken into and stuff like that, but then a few us go out and spread the word that Mr. Yamashita is beginning to get annoyed. He's been in the same location for ten years and has had a number of "conversations" with the more felonious of his neighbors-there are people walking those streets whose joints will never work correctly again.
The neighborhood is dirty and smelly and loud. Once you get inside the dojo, however, the rest of the world disappears. The training hall is a cavernous space. The walls are unadorned grayish white and the floor is polished hardwood. There are no decorations on the walls, no posters of Bruce Lee or the Buddha. To one side there's a small office area with a battered green metal desk and two doors leading to the changing rooms. Other than the weapons racks, that's it. There is absolutely nothing to distract you from the task at hand. It also means, of course, that there is nowhere to hide, either.
We don't do a great deal of conditioning. What we do is basics.
Yamashita's idea of basics, of course, is bewildering. He thinks basics are essentially illustrated through application. This is where the bang and crunch comes in, but with a difference. Anybody can slam someone into submission-take a look at any tough-guy competition or kick-boxing match. Yamashita is after something different. He thinks that the essence of any particular technique should be demonstrated by its effectiveness. He doesn't separate form from results. He doesn't even admit they are two separate things. He likes us to destroy with elegance.
There are technical terms for this in Japanese. They can isolate ji-the mechanics of technique-and ri-the quality of mastery that allows you to violate the appearance of form yet still remain true to its essence. It's hard to explain how they differ and how to separate them, since most of us have spent years in pursuit of ji and are pretty much conditioned to follow its dictates. Yamashita doesn't seem to have much of a problem, however. He prowls the floor like a predator correcting, encouraging, and demonstrating. And woe to the unlucky pupil whose focus slips during the exercise: Yamashita screams, "Mu ri,"-no ri!-and slams you to the floor. It's a unique pedagogical technique, but it works for him.
So, beyond the sighs of anticipation, once the lesson started, none of us spent much time worrying about how tough things were. In the dojo of Yamashita Sensei, the only way to be is fully present and engaged in the activity at hand. The unfocused are quickly weeded out and rarely return. The rest of us endure, in the suspicion that all this will lead to something approximating the fierce skill of our master.
Excerpted from SENSEI by John Donohue Copyright © 2003 by John Donohue
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted August 27, 2011
The characters and plot were well thought out and written. I would highly recommend it. I wish his other Conner Burke novels were available on the Nook, I would buy them in a second!
3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 24, 2012
if you like mistery, oriental martial arts and a good plot, this book is for you, and it´s worthwhile to have.
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Posted November 3, 2011
Posted September 14, 2011
Posted March 23, 2003
Connor Burke was a college teacher with a passion for the martial arts. His brother, Micky, was an NYPD detective on a murder case and asked for his help. Someone calling himself 'Ronin' was murdering Masters of the martial arts in America. Connor and his sensei began following the killer's trail only to find it all went further than anyone had ever expected. .......... **** Author John Donohue knows his stuff! This is a suspense filled story that tackles a field that is seldom seen in a thriller novel, the world of martial arts. .......... The author was able to teach me SO MUCH about the culture without me even realizing I was learning. Those, like myself, who know very little about this topic will NOT be hindered. The story flows evenly and all is spelled out so you can easily understand. For those of you, like my husband, who DO know the topic, do not worry. The author does not insult your intelligence. You are likely to find yourself nodding while you read. However, the author does not write unnecessary details so you will not feel the need to begin skimming pages. Recommended reading.
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Posted May 23, 2012
character development was very good and the story was solid. The build up to the excitement was captivating and it didn't let down when the action occurred.
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Posted November 2, 2011
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Posted April 3, 2013
I LOVE THIS BOOK! ! !
I love how the book teaches us gaijin a little bit about martial arts stuff. I love the sudent/sensei relationship. :D
Posted April 1, 2012
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Posted December 4, 2011
Posted November 4, 2011
Very good storyline which I enjoyed, my only criticism is that the content could have been beefed-up a bit more to make it a longer read which in turn would have made it more enjoyable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 3, 2011
The author delved into a culture through the martial arts and explained a lot of the personality of the Japanese culture. The plot was interesting and the characters real. It is an interesting mystery and I enjoyed reading it. And the use of the English language and not four letter words was wonderful!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 31, 2011
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Posted October 16, 2011