Chapter Thirteen III
One has to be indifferent-to health, to loneliness,
to what people say or do not say, indifferent to success or no success,
indifferent to authority.
“Master Chris has entered the dojang, charyot!” the class turns, snaps to attention.
“Kyungrae,” and they bow to Chris as is appropriate when a Master enters the training area. I join Chris at the front and clap my hands, calling the class to attention.
After the initial warm-ups and demonstrations of sparring combinations by belt, the class splits into advanced and beginner. I begin leading a smaller group of advanced women in their new form, Keumgang, sometimes translated as strength, or diamond. At one point it calls for putting both hands into what’s called a mountain block, like grasping an invisible bar just over the head, hands clenched into fists, then twisting the fists sharply so that they face inward. The snap of my wrists causes the sleeves of my uniform to slide down, exposing my forearms. My head is turned to the side to observe the students following along behind me.
There are two adult Asian students staring at my arms. With no hesitation, they both drop to the floor, kneeling, palms flat on the floor, foreheads touching the back of their hands. The entire class freezes, trying to decipher what the two women saw that caused this reaction. I lean down and take the women by the hands. Speaking in a low voice in Chinese, I ask them to please stand. They do, heads bowed, apologizing in Chinese for not recognizing a priest. I murmur to them, they bow again. Class resumes, no explanation is offered. Naturally, the women are inundated with questions in the locker room.
They had seen the marks on my arms. To them, I am a holy woman who commands reverence. The women are steeped in their tradition. I am a Shaolin priest, not merely a disciple or monk, I bare the marks, tiger and dragon. I had been ordained, an entirely different matter from merely practicing gung fu somewhere. On their way out, the they stop and bow yet again. They promise to light incense every morning and evening for my health and safety. I speak softly to them, bestow my blessings that their families should have good health and a long life. The women murmur in Chinese backing out of the dojang. They would think it rude to turn their backs to a priest.
When they leave, I mental, Well, that was different.
Master Sung would be proud, you handled it most admirably. He will smile when I tell him of this moment.
I bow to Janah, sincerely, thanking her silently for her kind words. Chris watches the exchange with the Asian women, then Janah and I with each other.
She thinks to herself, ‘Man, there’s no keeping up with these two. My daughter is a Shaolin priest, whose heart and soul is some sort of being who is who knows what, and now they are the same, and...’
Chris stops herself, ‘Quit babbling silly woman. Better to be like Susan who takes it all in stride. She’s happily in the office, diddling around on the computer until the girls from a galaxy far away are ready to leave. Learn from her.’
Much of the class has hung around, the curiosity too much, wanting to see what other interaction might take place. Most leave when the two women do, a few stay around, unsure of whether to congratulate me or bow or to talk at all. Some chose congratulations, I accept them with thank yous, there is nothing to do except be who I am.
We shower at the dojang, empty except for the moms, then walk home. Chris relays the story to Kara and James while we changed into shorts and t-shirts.
Susan, “I don’t know what anyone expected to happen, she couldn’t keep her arms covered in class forever. It was a bit dramatic with the Chung’s there. At least it’s over.”
Kara says to no one in particular, “The effect on the others, I wonder if they’ll be any fallout?”
James, “Good question. You’ll find out soon enough, what did you think Daphne?”
“It was inevitable. I didn’t want it to be a thing. I can hardly say I would have taken a Shaolin priest in stride if I had happened on one in Master Kim’s class years ago.”
Chris, “Me neither.”
“Ain’t no thing but a chicken wing on a string at Burger King,” I quote from a years ago movie, White Men Can’t Jump.
James laughs, “Typical Shaolin response.”
Chris ponders to herself, ‘Then Daphne bows reverently to Janah, acknowledging her status, and the class was really quiet.’
She says, “At the very least you guys provided some conversation starters. Maybe it will bring the class closer, a unique kind of, I don’t know, feeling, bond?”
Janah, “Perhaps there will be a chance to let them appreciate the real beauty of your arts, as a way of life.”
Chapter Fourteen III
When the student is ready, the master appears.
Tuesday afternoon, we visit Chapmans. School is out, although a fair number of students are still around. There are always at least two security people in the building. One is the same woman who had been there for years, and a young woman I hadn’t seen before.
The old hand, Marjorie, makes introductions, “Janah and Daphne, this is Nikko Murakami.”
She continues to Nikko, “They are former students and have been away.”
Janah and I bow to Nikko, who bows in return. I notice that Marjorie isn’t sure what to make of that, but she keeps her peace.
Janah, You two look like bookends, she’s more oriental, but remarkably similar.
Janah excuses herself to go find Lacy I stay to chat with the girl, who is barely twenty one it turns out. Her family immigrated from Japan when she was five, and settled in Brooklyn. She speaks both fluent Japanese and unaccented English; maybe she speaks Japanese with an American accent. No way to tell, I decide. I make small talk while she continues her rounds. There is an immediate kinship. Nikko tall, exactly my height, and whisper thin. I’m a little more filled out, couldn't be five pounds difference though.
Nikko, I intuit, isn’t shy; she is reserved. She takes the oriental approach of making light general conversation that would eventually reveal areas of common interest, or not. That I had quickly shifted to the more cautious Japanese style of getting to know someone impresses her. Nikko never adopted the American way, more openness upfront. She has no puppy dog need to be liked.
I compliment her for having been selected by the security firm. I know it to be far more intense than the typical fat guy with a gun outfit. There are no guys, fat or otherwise; every woman is trained in weapons, defensive driving and escape, kidnap prevention, martial arts and how to stay out of the way unless they are needed. The security firm Lacy uses, Paladin Group, is particular about personnel. Any employee could serve as anything from a personal bodyguard to a skilled driver. Unusual to see a woman so young with the company, at least I never had. I’d been at or around Chapmans for years and the women who worked for Paladin were mostly over thirty.
I excuse myself, go to the gym and look over the familiar ground. Chris and Susan had been teaching the taekwondo classes, naturally everything is in order. I change into a dobok and begin to practice alone in the gym while Janah is with Lacy. I work my way through advanced TKD forms then began gung fu kuen. Nikko passes the gym, I feel her watching unobtrusively. After an hour, I am drenched, shower in the empty locker room, pack my dobok, then head down the hall to the elevator. I mental Janah I’m on the way, she hops up and lets me in. I heat tea, kneel next to Lacy, who is propped up on a bolster and a couple of pillows.
“Went surprisingly well. I mean, we were only gone a week, and I did stretch a bit while we were in Boston, nothing like a formal session. Today we worked up to the more complicated poses and it felt fine.”
“Good, I hate to break up the visit, I’ve got to get Ange Blanc home and fed.”
Hug Lacy, back to the condo.
Janah, “You may want to explore the girl we met coming in…”
I grin, “Yeah, I got that vibe too. There’s something. Not just the girl thing. Something more.”
“Get to know her. We’ll see where it leads.”
Chapter Fifteen III
Life is what comes along, deal with it.
Saturday. This is the part where there should be a few lines about a stunningly azure blue sky, wispy strings of infant clouds, scattered sparingly, or slipping lazily between the massive concrete and steel monoliths that make Manhattan….well, Manhattan. Or some such literary pretension. Fact is, none of that has any bearing on the story. Let’s not bore each other with it.
What’s more productive is an explanation of how the Society is structured.
Our area is Social Skills, refocusing, as in, ‘Mr. Asshole, you need to work on your social skills. We’re here to help you refocus your energies, so you will cease being an annoying putz.’ Sometimes we call it attitude adjustment.
Others do the pre-planning, learn target's habits, document bad behavior. We deliver the message and keep targets occupied so innocents can be extracted and relocated.
Opportunities funnel into the Identification Group, which decides if the problem rises to the level calling for a closer look. It’s their job to investigate circumstances, verify information, make sure it’s not embellished or overstated. The Society’s sources don’t advertise themselves in any way, they just hear stories. The stories are independently confirmed by Surveillance, which gathers physical details, what the target is up to, is the reported behavior accurate. They follow the target, get his routines, suggest the most logical time and place for the refocusing. We may override suggestions based on the situation. With few exceptions, Social Skills teams don’t appear until show time.
Each arm is critical to the mission, Surveillance has to be more devious than Social Skills, they have to be on the ground near the target without raising suspicion. For that reason, it’s made up of the most innocuous people imaginable. No trench coats or private eye types, instead manned primarily by seniors, men and women. Often the targets themselves are quite helpful in providing information leading to their own refocusing. Nobody thinks twice about a nosy old lady. The men, expert at adopting a kind of slow dopey drawl, pretend to perfection that they could barely remember the answer to their last question. The old guys ask the same stupid questions two or three times. How could a guy who can’t remember two seconds ago be any kind of threat? The success of the Society is based on the premise that people see what they expect to see and act accordingly. It would be a long stretch for targets to connect a barely noticed old lady a month earlier with my fingers in their throat today. Targets lack the imagination.
Transportation and Travel arranges flights, cars, lodging. They deliver fake driver’s licenses, passports or other ID, a valid license saying Janah is a brain surgeon if it came to it. There is so much work in the states, international travel isn’t a part of it. Passports do come in handy as alibis. The Society could supply a passport verifying that we were in Venezuela, or Paris, or Uzbekistan if we were ever charged with anything. Additionally, Travel arranges rooms to park targets if we need them quiet for a while. It is up to Social Skills to convince them to go there.
Extraction removes any innocents and takes them to wherever they need to go to be finished with the target forever. Extraction details what will be done for them, and what won’t. Running back to the place they came from is a choice, but there wouldn’t be another offer to escape. The Society concluded that the only convincing that they would do is to convince the target to quit being an asshole. If the innocents couldn’t get a grip and take advantage of the chance for a new life, they aren’t considered innocents any longer. They become accomplices in their own misery. C’est la vie.
Placement sets up the innocents in new locations, new jobs, gets them needed medical or psychological care. Placement never sees them, never sees the new employers or landlords. They might be ghosts for all anyone knows. Placement personnel don’t know they are Placement personnel. They don’t know why they are setting up jobs, or apartments, arranging to buy used cars or calling for doctor’s appointments. They don’t have a clue about the Society or any of its activities. They work individually from home, off a set of online instructions. One might set up a job, another person across the country might arrange to buy a used car, someone else schedules medical appointments, a fourth arranges for an apartment. Once their role in the process is done, the site they log into disappears. When it’s time for them to do another job, they’re contacted, given an online address with a new set of instructions. They are paid very well, in cash. None of them complains about their employer. None of them have the slightest idea who employs them. They are told they are working for a company that provided the services they are asked to perform. Despite the answer being completely circular, the rate of pay trumps any curiosity.
Compliance, also called Minders, monitor targets for whatever time it takes to ensure the refocusing is effective, no less than a year, sometimes longer. Compliance personnel are also older, retired. No one asks why they aren’t at work or school, or how they can just hang out all day. Targets are followed from time to time. They get an occasional postcard reminding then to be a good boy, a phone call with a similar message, a note stuck under a windshield wiper.
If the target moves, they get a call or a note within a day or two after settling in. There is no place to run unless they leave the country for good. People think about doing that, they mostly don’t. Too much new language, finding employment, even illegal employment, is a problem. In movies, people move around the world like everything is as simple as a plane ticket. It isn’t.
The Society incorporated a new millennium solution. If it thinks a target has the means or the intent to bolt, it supplies Homeland Security with information that the target is involved with terrorists. Now he’s on a watch list. He’ll never get a passport, if he has one it will be revoked. Moving out of the country is not an option unless they wanted to be an illegal in a far less friendly country.
No Society department knows anything about the members of the other departments. Teams within departments don’t know other teams. There are four Organization people. Planning calls one of the four Organization personnel. Organization contacts Travel and Extraction. Once details are sorted out, they’re put on an encrypted site, which is what Janah ultimately reads. Social Directors, such as the Epsteins, each have their own Social Skills team. Only the Epsteins know Janah and me. If a Social Skills team needs something at any point during the job, we call an encrypted answering system from a sat phone with a scrambler. We leave a message with requests and get a message when the requests are fulfilled. Transportation and Travel handle these requests. Request is polite terminology, Social Skills teams get whatever they ask for in superhuman speed. There is no second guessing requests, no chain of authority.
In the case of Demetrius, there were six young girls to extract and another half dozen drug dealing kids, some of which were likely to argue about it. That took two days and four extraction teams. It worked because while I was explaining the new rules to Demetrius, extractions were underway. The job was finished before Demetrius got out of the hospital. By the time he hit the street, he had no underage hookers, no drug dealers, three-quarters of an ear and fresh stitches on his balls. His office had been cleaned out, including $80,000 from his safe, money that would help resettle the kids. He didn’t call the cops. He brooded for a few weeks. He beefed up security and thought about starting up a new string of girls. Then he got a note on his BMW, the very one guarded by his fresh security, from someone called Flaming Vodka Bitch. Instead, he ran his pool hall and tried to keep his one good testicle in working order. He put the word on the street that he’d decided selling drugs to kids was evil and he would personally deal with anyone he found doing it. He got into the adult prostitution business. He kept the drug business, by adults to adults, for the simple reason that it let him keep control. If he dropped it altogether, someone would move in. If they sold to kids, Flaming Vodka Bitch would blame him. It made his groin ache hurt to think about it.
Nothing is hard, if you're harder.
Chapter Sixteen III
If the chemistry is there, go with it.
We’re at Chapmans, I’m teaching today, going to practice forms and hang out. Janah’s going up to yoga Lacy. I kiss her as I break off for the gym, Nikko rounds the corner a few seconds later.
“Hey, I was just coming to look for you.”
Nikko, “And I, you.”
“Who goes first?”
“I asked around about you. I’d heard about the white haired girl and her companion. May I go directly to the point?”
“I am a black belt in Shotokan. The school I am in is just average, a standard karate school. There is no one pushing, encouraging, only a lot of ego, although some instructors try to do a good job in class, none is exemplary.”
“It sounds like a common school. Nothing terrible, nothing great either.”
“And your question?”
“You are a master of taekwondo, a Shaolin priest, therefore a gung fu master. You are a black belt in hapkido, I’ve discovered. It would be an honor to learn from you.”
“I’ve never taken a student personally. There hasn’t been time.”
“I understand. If you will give me a few lessons, or even spar with me for a bit, you can decide if I am worth your time.”
“You want to spar?”
“Yes, if you will.”
“Let’s do it.”
We change into doboks, giving me a chance to see the tall slim girl in the flesh so to speak. She is slim, almost slight, tall as me, taut. She has long graceful legs, tight curve of muscle. Her stomach ripples as she pulls the top of the uniform over her head. She takes a long look when I slip off my dress. Her expression reveals little, I see her pupils dilate. It makes me warm.
As we walk into the gym I tease, “I don’t know if I want a student pestering me.”
Nikko doesn’t drop a stitch, “I don’t know if you are a master worth pestering.”
She bows, a foot flashes, stopping short of my chin by a distance too short to see. I don’t blink, my head doesn’t move.
I spin, heel stops a hair’s length from Nikko’s ear.
“Shall we begin?”
Nikko’s foot lashes out to my abdomen, I sidestep and the kick snaps past. My knee catches her calf before she can withdraw her leg, then I use the same raised leg to roundhouse her in the abdomen. Nikko couldn’t dodge supported by only one leg, she did fold into the kick which reduces the impact. I am testing her, not going full force, just to see what she can do. I’m going to let my guard down, she demonstrated her speed and composure. I go easy, not stupid.
Nikko tries a front kick onslaught, I back up around the gym floor. She does a nice move, after the 5th or 6th front kick, spinning and letting loose a back kick with speed that I hadn’t seen except for one or two at the temple. This girl is quick, that will bear some attention. The kick grazes my chin. I drive my fist into her hamstring as it passes. She won’t be using that leg for high kicks anytime soon.
Nikko gasps, I’d put a knot in the back of her leg. She turns and slowly stretches the muscle, using the heel of her palm to press it out, her eyes never leave mine. It must hurt to massage so deeply, I admire her silence. She’s not only fast, she’s tough. She tries a variety of low kicks, I move only far enough to avoid the quick feet. I decide to let her get something for her trouble, when she shoots a roundhouse at my ribs, I let her connect. The kick is strong, nothing like a shot from Chris or Master Kim, still, good power born of speed. She tries the other side, with the same result, a hard fast kick that I simply absorb. While her face is impassive, she is shocked, her kicks knocked bigger, thicker, men back before, even put them down.
She front kicks me in the abdomen, once, twice, a third time, with no noticeable effect. I intercept the fourth, catch her foot in my hand, twist it and send her crashing to the floor. To her credit, she rolls and leaps up immediately. I close the distance between the time Nikko hit the floor and popped back up, my heel barely touching her lip. Had I finished the strike, she would have gotten a dose of smashed teeth and a broken nose.
She bows and steps back. She bows low again, acknowledging superior skill, I accept her acknowledgement.
“You have some skill.”
“Thank you Master Sylk.”
It’s not a wisecrack. Nikko realizes that she’s very much the student here. The distance between her and your humble narrator is measured in light years.
“I’m grateful you stoop to spar with me. I’m not worthy to be in the room with you, much less in the ring. Master Sylk, will you please accept my incompetent self as your student.”
Despite some minor flirting, she means every word. I’m impressed, recognize potential. I’d been wrong not to question the girl more thoroughly before agreeing to spar with her.
‘Live and learn,’ I think. I’d been too willing to accept the girl’s confidence. Still, there was no danger of anyone getting seriously injured, leave it there. No blood, no foul.
“You are a skilled martial artist, Nikko.”
“Not skilled enough.”
“You have good instincts and superior speed. You focus well. How long have you trained?”
“I started late, fifteen, I’m twenty one now, first degree black belt only. My instructors say I have natural speed, and that I learn easily, that my instincts are good. I practice 3 times a week.”
“What do you wish to do?”
“To be your student.”
“I know what you say you want. How much do you want it?’
“Take me as a student. I will do as my master instructs.”
“If I take you as a student, you won’t have to exactly start over. For now, you will learn taekwondo. If you show diligence, I may teach you.”
“May I ask, how did you become Shaolin?”
“Perhaps one day you’ll get the whole story, basically it was love.”
“Tell me what I must do please.”
I give her the address of Chris’ school, “Three times a week is not serious. Every day is serious. Go to this school. They aren’t accepting new students, they’ll let you join. There won’t be any fee. You must start there as a beginner. Wipe your slate clean. Even though you clearly have skill and know basic karate, I want to see your practice habits. If they’re satisfactory, we won’t spend time just doing repetitive forms. We’ll be combining disciplines for the most efficient combat. I used to practice like that at the Temple. My training partner is still there. You can take his place, maybe, if you work as hard as he did.”
I continue, “My moms will give you the best martial arts training in the city, perhaps anywhere. Before I accept you as a personal student, I’ll observe. Be at class tomorrow. Be at every class, there are four a week, then let me see you practicing here at Chapmans. If you demonstrate good attitude in six months, I will consider you my student, not before.”
Nikko bows, “Thank you. I am going to be Master Sylk’s first personal student. I can hardly believe it. I will not fail you.”
“Tell no one, never refer to me as your master around others. You need not do so even privately, then only, you may do as you wish.”
Nikko is silent for a moment, then says coyly, “With your permission, as I am going to be your first personal student soon, would it offend you if I called you mistress? Privately of course. For me, it seems natural. I would hope it makes our relationship unique.”
“If it pleases you, then I accept. Only between us, that includes Janah of course. We have no secrets.”
“Then it’s settled. Domo, domo arigato….mistress,” she bows low.
We practice forms for over an hour more, shower, swap shampooing each other. She dries my hair and brushes it out. Then she starts on her own. While Nikko dries her hair, I take time to admire her other assets, the golden silky skin, long, long legs and firm curves. I particularly like the hard ripple of her abdomen. She is comfortable in her nudity, not shy, at least not with me. When she finishes her hair, she turns, lowers her eyes, flirting, “Do I please you, mistress?”
My fingers raise her chin, looking into the black eyes, I step forward, kiss her lightly, my tongue tracing the moist lips, letting my fingers drift over narrow smooth hips and tight tummy. We dress, Nikko heads home, me to my other.
Janah, “Don’t waste time do you?”
“Life is short.”
“She got the right stuff, physically and mentally.”