Kenzie circled to her left and stayed just barely within his reach, tempting him. Her sweat soaked the tee shirt she wore under her dobok, but she didn’t care. A quick flip of the head cleared the droplets that threatened to slip into her eyes. She focused just below the solar plexus of the lanky man opposite her, her peripheral vision sufficient to monitor his hands and feet.
The only sounds that reached Kenzie came from her feet gliding over the padded floor, and his breathing.
Her sparring opponent wore a green belt to her red. A newcomer to the martial arts studio, he moved smoothly, despite being more than twice her age. Around them, the advanced students of the dojang knelt and watched in silent assessment. She feinted a front kick with her left foot, designed to pull his block to the left and open his body. Instead, he slipped closer, switching to a left-handed fighting stance and his lead fist, encased in a heavyweight sparring glove, flashed toward her.
Without thinking, Kenzie reacted with her left arm, technique perfect with the hand rotating as her whole forearm swept across her body. She stepped back with her right foot to accelerate the block with a snap of her slender hips. The impact through her glove jarred her and, at the edge of her vision, she noted surprise briefly lit the man’s eyes. A roundhouse kick followed the punch, but the man delivered it too slowly; she retreated to safety.
Mr. Green Belt dropped his hands slightly, then his shoulders raised. She recognized the signs of the impending attack, his shifting of weight to the rear leg. In the same instant, Kenzie seized the opportunity to slip past his guard, get inside his defense where his length would work against him.
Simultaneously with his front foot lifting for a kick, Kenzie attacked. She knifed in and launched a roundhouse kick of her own, leg arcing high over his fists, toes pulled back.
At the last instant, she realized that the man, not anticipating that she would aim for his head, mistakenly moved into the kick instead of evading.
Too late, she tried to slow, stop, the kick.
She felt the ball of her foot crunch into her sparring partner’s head with a sick thud, just behind the ear, below the protective head gear. Mr. Green Belt snorted as his head snapped sideways, and his eyes glazed.
“Break!” The command from Jules, the sabomnim who owned the studio, came over the shocked murmur of the other students.
Mortified at breaking the cardinal rule of the dojang, Kenzie began to drop her gloves, but the man, eyes still glazed, launched a hard straight left jab. She jerked her head back and the fist passed close enough that she felt the air move, felt the snapping of the man’s jacket, heard the crack that accompanied the snap.
Wide-eyed, she tried to retreat, but the man launched another attack, the slowness from the sparring drill gone. Her gaze darted up to his face, saw eyes unfocused. A nervous chill touched the base of her spine, and she backed out of the sparring ring. Students scattered to get out of the way, several of the older boys rising to their feet, uncertain on how to intervene.
The blows came fast, and he used both hands and both feet, in combinations. It was like fighting a well-trained but berserk octopus, blows arriving from every direction. The touch contact from the drill disappeared. These attacks meant to harm.
She swept her right arm down to block a low round kick. The block arrived in time to stop the strike, her forearm slamming into his shin bone. Pain radiated up her arm, and the force knocked her sideways.
He’s so frackin’ strong, she thought as she ducked away from a whistling back fist attack that would have shattered her jaw if it landed. She pivoted low to spin away, to find some space, to escape.
Jules strong hands grasped the man from behind. The fourth dan black belt, a powerful woman who stood just an inch shorter than the man, did not try to control the man’s body when he whirled to face the new threat. Instead, Kenzie saw Jules clasp the fleshy part of the shoulders to make contact through the fog in his head.
“Break, Robert.” Jules voice dropped in volume but carried the iron authority of the master. She stared into Robert’s eyes. After an initial surge against her hands, he leaned back, giving his head a hard shake as though attempting to settle the various interior pieces of a mixed up jigsaw into the proper spaces.
Robert slowly dropped to a knee. Jules knelt beside him.
“All the way down, Robert. Sit.”
He did as instructed, with a faint groan. He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them and stared right at Kenzie.
“You ’kay?” His words slurred and his eyes still did not possess a normal perceptiveness, but at least somebody was home now.
Nervous tremors racked Kenzie’s arms and legs, but she nodded. He nodded back with an expression of relief.
Kenzie faced Jules, body still reacting to the adrenaline surging through her veins.
Jules didn’t shout. Her voice held an icy neutrality.
“Go to my office.” She pointed. “Wait.”
Kenzie stared at her instructor and abruptly shook her head.
“Yes, ma’am,” she said, trying without success to keep anger out of her voice.
She got a stern nod from Jules as the woman turned to administer aid to Robert.
She turned, walking stiffly across the mats to the gap in the low wall that split the studio, the students in the workout area, and the parents in the small section given up to spectator seating. The other students averted their eyes. They shifted to the floor or over to the trophy case, anywhere but at her. Kenzie strode through the loose circle, chin up and lips pursed, holding her features in a hard mask of indifference. From the corner of her eye, Kenzie could see the image of an angry teenager—herself— stalking beside her, sharply delineated in the full-length mirrors that lined the front wall. She could also feel the pressure of all those eyes on her back. She resisted the temptation to shrug.
Only when she stepped into the office, behind the protection of a wall, did she let her guard down. Flopping into a straight-backed chair, she closed her eyes, envisioning the hard strike again and praying for a way to stop it, knowing that in stepping into the attack, she committed fully.
She drew a deep breath, and her head dropped. She put both hands up to her face to cover her eyes and pressed her fingertips hard on her eyeballs until the red bled into her vision. The acrid stink of her own fearful sweat wrinkled her nose.
The final instant before impact refused to fade, even as the red behind her eyelids turned into white hot sparks.
Kenzie waited in a stony silence while the class did form drills instead of sparring. The muscular twitches slowly dissolved into a simmering resentment and the body odor faded to a faint reminder as her sweat dried. On her arms, dull red weals rose. She rubbed them gingerly.
A shadow passed the doorway, and she glanced over her shoulder to see Robert, changed into street clothes, leaving with his gear bag hanging heavy in his hand.
He regarded her way with a combination of sympathy and embarrassment.
“Me too,” she said. Her voice cracked. She heard the door open, the sound of the street traffic invading the quiet of the studio before it faded back to calm when the door swung shut.
With a start, she realized that the chatter of the kids in the class that Jules had ended the lesson. The voices mixed together, subdued compared to the energetic cheerfulness that infected the youngsters—the afternoon lesson was mostly kids—as they got ready to leave.
Some left, still dressed in their martial arts uniforms, talking with friends until they got beside the doorway to the office, then falling silent until they left out the door. Most refused to acknowledge her.
Jules' voice carried over the hubbub, reminding them to practice, saying goodbyes, just as she always did.
Kenzie didn’t budge.
Deep silence dropped into the studio. Rustling sounds reached her ears as she tried to track Jules, but she kept her eyes fixed on the pictures that the instructor had on the walls. Amongst the usual pictures of tournaments sat a black and white photo of Jules, sitting cross-legged in a meditative pose. The woman in the photograph was a much younger version of her instructor. That Jules was pretty, despite the severe lines of the uniform, maybe in her twenties. Instead of conveying peacefulness, Kenzie sensed subtle anger emanating from the image, and, deep inside herself, an echoing anger.
And something else, unfamiliar . . .
The ‘something else’ sent shivers down her spine, so Kenzie averted her gaze from the picture.
That’s better, she thought, but her breathing stayed fast and shallow.
She had her eyes closed when the faintest rustle of cotton informed her that she wasn’t alone. Her head jerked up as she located the source of the sound.
Jules settled into the rolling chair behind the desk, resting her elbows on the black armrests, hands loosely folded in front of her. The chair barely creaked.
Kenzie focused on the hands. They were thicker than average but not unusually so. She had watched those same hands shatter concrete paving blocks. While her thoughts swirled about in her head, she noted that Jules wore clear polish on her nails. A build-up of calluses at the knuckles provided the only clue to the force her instructor could unleash.
Kenzie could feel the weight of the older woman’s gaze on her, filled with reproach. When she litfed her face, Jules' face was composed in neutral planes though her eyes were doing an inspection of the angry red marks on Kenzie’s skin. Satisfied, the woman made eye contact.
Kenzie blinked at meeting Jules gaze. She lost control of her features, brows knitting and her lips twisting into a grimace that she tried to stifle.
Jules spoke first.
“You could have been very badly hurt.” She said the words quietly, and waited.
Kenzie gave a hard shake of her head, the ponytail swinging. Her eyes searched the surface of the desk, flicking back and forth as she unperceptively squirmed.
“Robert is okay?”
Jules leaned forward in the chair, the loose cuffs of her sleeves falling open as she shifted her elbows to the top of the desk. “Look at me.”
Kenzie switched from the neat piles on the desk to Jules.
“You stunned him a bit, but there’s no sign of a concussion.”
Her astute gaze sharpened. Kenzie saw the assessment of the bruises forming on her arms.
“You could have been badly hurt,” Jules repeated.
Like she couldn’t restrain them anymore, the words spilled from Kenzie.
“I could have hurt him.” Her chest tightened painfully, and her eyes grew bright and liquid. “He moved and I tried to pull back,” she said, her voice pleading, “but I couldn’t stop and then I hit him and his eyes—”
“You could have killed him,” Jules said, interrupting the torrent from Kenzie. Her tone was blunt, again with a soft voice, but filled with irresistible conviction.
Kenzie’s eye widened as she stared at Jules. Shame and fear fought for supremacy; fear won. Her hands began to shake again. She eyes were riveted to her instructor.
Jules' countenance showed a hardness, but also concern.
“Your technique is solid, Kenzie.” Jules paused, considering her words. “What you lack is control. You get lost in your emotions.” Jules pointer finger moved a fraction of an inch. “Control isn’t just being able to stop a kick an eighth of an inch from somebody’s nose. You’ve done a good job of training your body, you’ve worked hard. Physically, you are gifted with good reflexes and coordination, and, for a small woman, powerful.”
Kenzie sat, confused at the compliment, and uncomfortable but pleased at being called a woman. Most adults assumed that a small statured fifteen-year-old was still a child and treated Kenzie that way. It pissed her off.
Jules studied her, a sharp going-over that pinned Kenzie down in her chair, mute and unmoving.
“That’s actually too bad.”
Kenzie eyelids fluttered at the sudden sting of the words.
She clenched her jaw tight as Jules got blurry. She turned her head and blinked rapidly until her vision cleared.
Kenzie saw a frown cross Jules face, smoothed over in an instant. Her instructor’s voice became hesitant, as though unsure how much to reveal.
“You have a tremendous . . . ,” she started, before tapering off.
Jules took a deep breath, tilting her head to peer at Kenzie.
Her voice took on a confiding tone.
“You’ve trusted me to teach you how to defend yourself. There’s more to the martial arts than just the movements and self-defense.” She tapped her forehead with a finger. “Will you trust me now when I say I can teach you how to tap into your strengths here?”
Kenzie nodded once, more to say that she’d heard the words even if she didn’t quite understand what Jules was suggesting.
“You’re not mad?”
“I’m furious,” Jules replied, “mostly with myself. I should have had better control of the exercise. I saw you baiting him. I didn’t realize how aggressive Robert was to press an advantage. Two quick people out of control is dangerous.”
Kenzie listened with embarrassment, both at being caught enticing the attack to take advantage of her speed and from the assumption of responsibility by Jules for her own actions. She didn’t trust her voice not to crack but spoke up anyway.
“I was the one that screwed up.”
Jules sighed. “It was a team effort, Kenzie.” She took a deep breath and made a decision.
“A man that is hurt and wounded is far more dangerous than an over-confident man. When you hit Robert, you triggered his fighting reflexes.” She stopped to make sure that Kenzie understood. “He wasn’t sparring. He was in survival mode, fighting mode. We can’t have that happen again, ever.”
They sat in silence for a minute as the words sunk in. The door to the studio opened with an inrush of traffic noise as the first student in the next class entered.
“Hi there, Eric,” Jules said, acknowledging the young boy coming in.
Kenzie swallowed. Without thinking, she reached up to rub a particularly painful bruise on her upper arm.
Jules saw it. “Call your dad,” she said, standing up. “I don’t want you running home today, okay?”
Kenzie stood, but didn’t agree. She turned to leave the office, but Jules glided forward and intercepted her, blocking the doorway.
She put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder, then pulled her into a brief hug.
“I’m sorry,” Kenzie mumbled into the folds of Jules jacket. The smell of the cotton was comforting. It had been years since she’d hugged Jules, outgrowing it somewhere between being a little kid and a confused teenager.
They separated, and Jules left the office. Kenzie followed her out, but instead of going back onto the training floor, headed for the open shelves where the students threw their bags. She had two bags on the lowest shelf, one for her school books, one for her clothes. She dug through the second bag. Buried under her running shoes, Kenzie finally found her phone.
She checked the display. A dozen or more texts, and a couple of instagrams. She hesitated, feeling anxious. Her body, already on chemical overload, wanted a hit of endorphins, the kind that came fifteen minutes into an easy lope, not so slow to be jogging but nowhere near racing.
I need to run.
She glanced at Jules. The instructor was watching her in the mirrors that lined the length of the wall. She frowned when Kenzie put the phone away. Kenzie sidled away. Dropping into a low crouch, she pulled out her running gear, then slipped into a changing room. She was carefully not to face Jules again. A scant two minutes later, she stuffed her uniform into the clothes bag, picked up both bags, and placed them by the door.
She was ready.
She had one hand on the door when Jules spoke.
I could just go, she thought, but turned around.
Jules stood by the low wall. Understanding filled the woman’s eyes, and concern.
“Did you call your father?”
Kenzie shook her head but held onto Jules gaze.
The black belt sighed.
“Be careful. I’ll let your father know what happened.”
Kenzie winced, already envisioning the coming lecture. She gave Jules an acknowledging nod, then she slid out the door, onto the sidewalk. Instead of the famous Seattle gray, a brilliant blue with sharp white clouds decorating the sunlit skies greeted her.
In three steps, Kenzie was running, but the expression in Robert’s eyes chased her no matter how fast she ran.
Mitch cussed as the bolt slipped from his grease-covered fingers, clinking and clanking as it dropped into the engine compartment of the Camaro.
He waited for the metallic sound of steel on concrete, but there was no ringing sound.
Crap, thought Mitch. If it didn’t land on the garage floor, it must have lodged somewhere in the compartment. He peered into the dim recesses around the motor and below the partially installed fuel pump. He didn’t see where it could have landed.
He gave an irritated sigh and, with both hands, threw the full weight of his lanky body onto the front fender of the car, rocking it on the worn-out suspension. Decades-old dust rose to mix with the smell of oil and grease. He wrinkled his nose.
He kept rocking the car, staying with the same type of rhythm he used as a kid on a swing. The hood squeaked, and Mitch checked it. The latch held. Then, he gave the muscle car an especially hard shove at the bottom of the oscillation. The car bounced, and at the back came the sound of plastic hitting the concrete and shattering—and the tink of the bolt, dislodged by the violent rocking, falling free to the concrete slab.
He got down on his elbows and knees and ducked his head sideways to scrutinize the area underneath the frame.
How did it get there? he thought, spotting at the bolt. It sat on the far side of the car, throwing a shadow from the light spilling in from the open garage door.
Mitch had the dented metal door run up, savoring the unexpectedly bright sunshine, so unusual for Seattle in the early spring. As a bonus, the sun warmed his back as he strained to get the wayward part.
He stretched to the full extent of his long arms. Three inches out of reach.
He withdrew his arm, and in a graceful movement, swung his legs up at the same time he pushed off with his hands, landing in a crouch, then rose up to his full height. He took two steps and curled around the passenger side of the car. From here, it took just a second to retrieve the bolt.
As he stood, a glimpse of hot pink caught his eye. His attention shifted from his project car next to a girl running down the steps at the far end of the narrow cul-de-sac.
Her feet flicked at the steps, landing just long enough to get the next leg down, like she was skipping.
His assessment shifted upward from the feet, past the hot pink shorts, the loose baby blue shirt, to her face.
And noticing the motion under her shirt, realized she wasn’t twelve as she appeared at first.
The girl reached the bottom of the steps, and the skipping motion smoothed out.
Next door, Mrs. McFurkin’s yappy dog yipped at the intruder, interrupting Mitch’s appreciative thoughts. Mitch glanced sideways across the yard, annoyance crossing his face. The mutt, a designer dog, three-quarters fuzzy Pomeranian, the remainder the annoying bits of a Chihuahua, who answered to Muffles, was bouncing in excitement and trying to back out of his collar.
Not a real dog, he thought as a distant memory tugged at him. Labs don’t bounce when they bark!
Mitch stepped back into the garage before the girl could see him, and leaned against the car. He continued to watch the girl as she came down the sidewalk on the far side of the street.
A low, sleek black car silently slide into the driveway of the older, decrepit two-story house across the street, the rear bumper blocking the sidewalk.
The girl, closing fast, started to dodge when she was five yards from the car. At the same time she left the walk for the grassy planter strip, the driver and passenger doors of the car sprung open and two men, dressed identically and incongruously in dark clothes and sunglasses, jumped out.
The passenger ran around the back of the car, into the street, like a defensive end cutting off a running back on a sweep. The other man closed on the other side of the girl, who skidded to a stop at the pincer attack.
Mitch watched it happen. It took a fraction of a second for the shock to wear off, and he launched off the Camaro.
Muffles barked at them all.
Mitch sprinted into the street, chasing the car’s passenger.
In front of him, the helpless girl shied away from the driver, and evaluated at the other guy. Mitch saw her glance at him, dismiss him. Breathing heavily, she backed diagonally away.
The assailants didn’t say anything as they stalked her. Mitch saw the goon closest to him had something in his hand, saw the arm swing up.
With relief, he realized it wasn’t a gun.
Without warning, the girl darted toward the driver. Mitch watched as her bare left leg lashed out, straight and fast while her tiny hands came up into a defensive position. The ball of her foot snapped into the driver’s groin, leaving a waffle pattern from the sole on the black trousers.
Sprinting, Mitch still managed to wince.
The driver let out a guttural “unnn” as his body collapsed into a fetal position, the orbs of his eyes showing white all the way around.
Mitch got a clear picture of the second one as he barreled at the assailant.
A mean-ass dude with a stun-gun and a crappy crewcut. Big.
Mitch’s gut twisted.
The girl spared a glance at him and, discounting him, reset her feet. The soles of the running shoes gripped the grass and didn’t let her pivot to meet the new threat. Fear and anger flared on her face as the second man, closed fast, but with caution, heeding the lesson his buddy learned the hard way.
Everything moved soooo slowly.
As seconds stretch, Mitch estimated the time to close the last ten yards.
How long it would take for the mean-ass kidnapper—they had to be kidnappers, nothing else made sense—to zap the girl.
The time for the runner to finish her turn.
The math didn’t work; he was going to be too late.
At the last moment, he sensed rather than saw, Muffles. The pom-chi-pom-pom that Mrs. McFurkin doted over had successfully slipped his collar and chased him into the street. The next instant, Muffles attached himself to Mitch’s pant leg, grrrring ferociously, as though it made any sort of difference. Mitch pitched head-first into the air.
Why do I only crash and burn when I have an audience, he thought irrelevantly, and straightened and swung his leg out to avoid kicking the stupid frickin’ fur ball.
The world turned topsy-turvy, but Mitch could see the man pause at the sounds of the dog behind him. The math changed. Mitch’s body rotated like a dart headed for a bulls-eye. He was on the way down and, from instinct born of frequent practice, he braced for the impact with the ground.
He hit the side of the man’s leg just below the knee. The fabric of the pants abraded his cheek as Mitch managed to get his head out of the way.
Always protect the brain bucket.
His shoulder took the brunt of the collision. White pain flared in his brain, a double crack echoing in his ears at the dude’s knee gave way at the same time as Mitch’s left collar bone. The man started to topple as Mitch’s momentum carried him under the man, then he was sliding on the damp, fragrant grass on his back.
The stun-gun flew from the man’s hands, falling under the girl’s leg, already raised in attack position. Mitch saw the leg extend, catch the guy in the lower ribs, expected to hear another crack. Instead, the ribs folded in as the man’s fall robbed the sidekick of its effectiveness.
The stun gun clattered on the sidewalk and slid into the overgrown shrubbery, and Mitch slid face up and headfirst into the bottom of a maple tree. His skull exploded in red waves as skin peeled away on the bark, the back of his head riding up the trunk until his neck buckled sideways. He came to a stop when his broken shoulder arrested his movement.
Time reverted to normal speed, and with it, pain engulfed his body. He tried to lift his head, but shockwaves from his shoulder caused his whole body to shudder. A moan escaped his lips before he clamped them shut.
The girl, is she okay?
He lifted his head again, suppressing the wracking signals sent by the nerve endings in his shoulder, his scalp.
He saw her standing, hands raised, eyes narrowed. Like a startled doe, she stood poised to take flight. The sunlight framed her body with a faint halo, and when she took stock at him, he saw the same golden light in her eyes.
He stared at her as she took one reflexive step toward him. Her small fists opened, and one hand went to her mouth. He tried smiling as her eyes took an inventory of the damage, flitting from head to shoulder, down his long, lanky body.
“You’re hurt,” she said. Her voice held dispassionate calm. The glow in her eyes seemed to increase.
Thanks for noting the obvious, he thought. He didn’t say it out loud, though—no sense in offending pretty girls.
“Hi,” he said, easing away from the damaged side as he struggled to sit up. If he folded his left arm over, and used his right elbow for leverage . . .
His vision went dark around the images, and he had to take several rapid breaths. He managed to get disentangled from the maple, crushing red blooming tulips in the process. Damaged petals added their scent to the air.
While he moved, she moved, too. He saw her legs slip into his narrowed field of vision, femininely fit and muscular, as she dropped to a knee next to him. He looked up to her face, and the eyes that seemed captivating before pulled him in. When was the last time he was this close to a girl other than in a physics lab?
“I’m okay.” He forced the words out and smiled. His face felt twisted and, from the disbelieving shake of her head, gathered the girl disagreed.
She reached out a hand, tentatively. On her arm, he saw fresh bruises. The welts sparked an unreasoning anger inside, as he remembered other arms that bore similar marks.
She didn’t speak.
The hand touched his chest, fingertips first. With gentle pressure, she forced him back down prone on the grass.
Mitch let her.
She leaned over him, the pressure on his chest from her hand grew, and he found it hard to breathe. The aura around her returned, and Mitch saw the small hairs, loose from her ponytail moving on a breeze that he couldn’t feel.
Warmth flowed outward from her hand, from his chest, filling his core, extending to the shoulder. At the base of his neck, a tingle started and grew.
She spoke with quiet force. Just one word, one that he didn’t recognize.
The tingle turned into a torrent, white light filled his brain, streaks of rising fireworks into the darkness of the pain. He clutched at the hand on his chest.
The skyrockets split and burst, recombined, and he heard himself moan, except it wasn’t him.
The pressure from his chest disappeared before he could capture the hand, fingers grasping at air. The world around him went gauzy, and he blinked. The girl stood over him, staring, and backed away.
His last sight was the girl bounding away as his arms fell across his chest.