Intro To A Thriller
By John Donohue
Note: “Intro To A Thriller” is
the first of two excerpts, the Prologue and Chapter 1, Ronin, from
Donohue’s new martial arts thriller, “Sensei.” It
is the first of a two part series of excerpts from the book. Watch
for excerpt two, “Heiho”. Donohue has previously contributed
to FightingArts.com on the subject of kendo. “Sensei” is
available in our
Also read Christopher
With what I know now, I can pretty much make sense of the whole thing.
It's taken a while. Like making sense of the first file Micky showed
me. The crime scene pictures, the coroner's report, the notes from
the investigating officers initially seemed disconnected: a wealth
of jumbled facts that didn't hang together. Random acts. A scene of
But the accretion of facts, the stories spun by witnesses, build on you.
And then you can say, here is where it begins. It's not that things
are inevitable; they just look that way in retrospect. What you are
left with is the sense of something that builds over time, the result
of a thousand small and seemingly insignificant events. You can ask
why. And to answer you can point to any one of the facts you uncover.
But isolated out in clinical explanation, it's not very convincing.
We're all looking for answers of some type. And we search for them in
different ways and along different paths. We hope that knowledge brings
control. But life reveals this as a comforting fiction.
It's like explaining a storm. Waves are spawned by the dance of gravity
and wind and tide. They gain strength and momentum until they hurl
themselves at us, standing surprised and stupid on the shore. It's
a hard lesson. Meteorology provides faint comfort to the survivors.
Ronin (Chapter 1)
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 over
achievers got there.
The killer knew his quarry well. The patterns would not have changed,
even in America. The master--the 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 receptionist 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, 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 become
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 work-out 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 callouses 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 pre-dawn 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 5:30. 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, 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 clue. 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 joined 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 counter-feints
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 calloused that it doesn't really tell us
much. Ikagi was a karateka, though, and he probably unleashed the arsenal
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 tell-tale 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. He could snap them 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 here. 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."
Watch for the second excerpted chapter
from the Book "Sensei" by
John Donohue, "Heiho."
About the Author:
John Donohue, Ph.D., is a long time kendo practitioner and a black belt
in Shotokan karate who has studied various other Asian martial arts disciplines
such as judo, aikido, iaido, and taiji over the last 25 years. A nationally
recognized authority of martial arts, he is an Associate Editor of the
Journal of Asian Martial Arts and has also written four books involving
the arts: “Herding The Ox”, “Complete Kendo”, “Deshi:
A Martial Arts Thriller” and “Sensei.” Donahue has
also been a featured speaker at national and international conventions,
as well as on radio and TV. For FightingArts.com he has contributed an
in depth article on kendo. A Ph.D. in Anthropology, Donohue is a Professor
of Social Science and VP for Academic Affairs at D'Youville College in
Buffalo, NY. Previously he was a Professor of Social Science in the Department
of Social Sciences at Medaille College, Buffalo, NY, where he also served
as a tenured professor, teaching anthropology, General Education, and
other courses in both undergraduate and graduate programs. He lives in
Youngstown, New York with his wife, the artist Kathleen Sweeney, and
their two children.
Sensei is available in the FightingArts.com Estore
By John Donohue
(258 Pages, Hardbound)
(Plus $5.00 Shipping Within US)