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Intro To A Thriller

By John Donohue

Editor's 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 on the subject of kendo. “Sensei” is available in our
Estore. Also read Christopher Caile's review.


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 senseless violence.

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. Or satisfying.

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 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 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 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 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."

A masterless samurai.

Watch for the second excerpted chapter from the Book "Sensei" by John Donohue, "Heiho."

This excerpts is reproduced on with permission of the publisher and the author. Excerpt one: Intro To A Thriller. Excerpt two: Hieho.

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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 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 Estore


By John Donohue
(258 Pages, Hardbound)

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