NVS – Chapter One

NINJA VS SAMURAI

G M Whitehair

GRADUATION

Sensei Buck Daniels was as cool as the other side of the pillow.  I’d never known him to be otherwise.  He was always in control.  Always calm.  Always confident.

Why should tonight be any different?

The rest of us, a half-dozen of Daniels’ students, stood in a circle around him, gear in hand, the sweat of a hard night’s work still glistening upon our brow.  We dared not move or make a sound.  We could only stare in silent, open-mouthed horror at the dying ninja Daniels cradled in his arms.

How did we know he was a ninja?  He wasn’t dressed like a ninja.  At least, not in the way that you might expect.  Except for the fact that he was covered in blood, he looked very much like the rest of us.  Jeans, t-shirt, sneakers.  The everyman’s ensemble.  So, how did we know?  Well, as it turns out, we are ninja too.  We’d been sought out for that very reason.

It was the last Friday in September — graduation night at the Capital City Ninjutsu Guild.  Three nights per week Daniels rented one of the small wrestling rooms at the MVP Athletic Club.  There we studied a modernized adaptation of Ninjutsu crafted by he and his predecessor, Shidoshi Eddie Hamm.  The last Friday of each month was always reserved for testing and promotion.  It was supposed to be a night of celebration and camaraderie.  A celebration of our art.  Camaraderie among those whose dedication and hard work had finally paid off.  Like me.

Quite a few students had tested tonight and so it was later than usual when Daniels locked the doors.  The seven of us were the last to leave.  We were walking out together, me with my brand new black belt slung over my shoulder, when the ninja staggered into our midst.  Chas was happily recounting one of his many tales from the First Gulf War — one we’d heard no less than a thousand times.  He stopped abruptly and shrieked.

The rest of us froze.  All save Daniels.

The ninja appeared from nowhere.  He must’ve been hiding within the row of ragged arborvitae that feebly served to shield the MVP’s dilapidated tennis court from the parking lot.  How he’d managed to remain undetected until now was unclear, except that he was a ninja, of course.  It was anyone’s guess how long he’d been waiting.  He would’ve crashed into us had Daniels not caught him.

Daniels lowered the ninja to the ground and immediately set upon checking vitals and the severity of his injuries.  Jenna, a permanent fixture at Daniels’ side, took a step back to give him space.  It was a cold and casual gesture.

“Oh my God!”  Cried Andy, rushing to Daniels’ side.

The ninja was badly beaten and bleeding from several deep wounds.  What kind of weapon had caused his wounds was difficult to say, but if I had to guess I’d say it was a blade of some kind?  I’m no expert.  I’d never seen so much blood.

The ninja looked up at Daniels.  He appeared to recognize Buck-sensei and relief spread across his ashen face.  He was of Asian descent, and based on my experiences living in Tokyo as an exchange student during middle school (the catalyst for my fascination with all things ninja) I guessed that he was Japanese.  In his hand he clutched a small, yellow envelope.  It was tattered and worn and stained with blood, but sealed.

Blood was pooling on the ground beneath the two of them and I didn’t see as how the ninja had long to live.  He reached up with his free hand and pulled Daniels close, speaking in hushed tones.  I cocked my head and strained to hear but the ninja spoke much too softly.  He held out the envelope which Daniels accepted with a subtle bow of his head.  The expression that Daniels wore was grave.  The ninja’s arm fell limply to his side.  And then he died.

Silence reigned.  It was a moment frozen in time.

I looked around the circle.  The look on everyone’s faces mirrored my own feelings.  Except for Jenna.  She gave no impression that she cared, or had even taken notice at all.  I felt sick to my stomach.

It was Andy who finally broke the silence.  “Sensei?  Do you know him?”

Daniels didn’t take his eyes off of the dead ninja.  “Yes, I know him.  He’s a…we’ve trained together.  His name is Kenji.”

“Kenji.”  All of us whispered in unison.  Almost reverently.

“We should call the police.”  Andy said, his face hidden beneath a mop of blonde hair.  He was bent over, examining the ninja’s wounds as if he knew what he was doing, when in fact, he did not.  No more than I did anyway, but I wasn’t pretending.  I couldn’t do anything.  I was transfixed by the corpse at my feet.  None of the training I’d experienced, none of the trials I’d ever faced, could’ve possibly prepared me for something like this.  The world was in shambles, and my life was no different.  But it had always been about me.  Until now.

The weight of what was happening set in.  I’d never even seen a dead body before, well, except for my grandparents at their funerals.  And on TV.  But never like this.  This man had just died before my very eyes.

“Leah, are you okay?”

I jumped at the sound of my name.  I didn’t know who was asking.  I felt dizzy.

“She’s gonna go down.”  Someone said.

“Grab her!”  Another voice cried.

A large hand grasped my shoulder and steadied me.  It was Chas.

“You okay, honey?”  He boomed.  He was the loudest person I knew – a fact people never failed to remind him of, to which he always balked.  He was born to be a ninja, born in black, he would say.  The baddest ninja of them all.

Chas was certainly resilient, I give him that, not to mention stout and with fists of granite.  He was an Army veteran, a father of two, and a former Golden Glove boxer.  He’d been training under Daniels for years, and yet, in spite of his size and power and his prowess in fisticuffs, his ground game suffered when compared to the other Shodans, myself included.

I nodded meekly.  “Yeah. Fine.”

Daniels looked up at the brothers, Chas’s boys, Jayson and Shon.  They were standing quietly behind their father.  I’d forgotten they were there.  “Jay, will you please call 9-1-1?  Tell them our location and that we’ve discovered a man who appears to have been assaulted.  Inform them that he has died and give them any details they ask for, but tell them there are only five of us.”

Jay glanced quickly at each of us.  His lips moved soundlessly.  I could tell he was counting.  “Five, Sensei?”

“Yes.  Five.  Go over by the front doors when you call.  That way they won’t hear any chatter.”

Jay nodded once and vanished.  Daniels had that effect on people.  He was soft-spoken, but firm.  His delivery commanded respect, and compliance.

“Shon,” Daniels continued, “I need you to call Sensei Vigo and let him know what’s happened.”

Donnie Vigo was Daniels’ co-instructor.

“Isn’t he still teaching in Japan?”  Shon asked.

“It should be about noon there, so he might be in class.  If he doesn’t answer, leave him a message and tell him to call me as soon as he can.  Say nothing else.”

Shon nodded and stepped away.

Daniels pulled his own mobile phone out of his duffle and made a call.  The fragments of the conversation that I could hear informed me that he was talking to Gunnar — Jenna’s older brother and legal guardian.

“No, no, she’s fine…but I do need to get her out of here quickly…no, that’s not necessary…I’ll get her home to you…I’ll send someone I trust…Leah…I’m sending them now.”  Daniels snapped his phone shut and stood up, turning to face me.  “Leah.”

I looked at him blankly.

“Leah.  I need you to take Jenna home.  Right now.”

That was the nudge I needed.  It was not only that I was unable to refuse an order from Daniels, but that he said it in a way that inspired confidence.  His tone suggested that I was about to take on one of the most important tasks he’d ever assigned to me and that he knew, without a doubt, that I would succeed.  I suddenly felt like a soldier graduating from boot camp while their country was in a state of war.  No time for congratulations and patting each other on the back.  We’re shipping out tonight.

I looked at Jenna.  She was looking at her feet.

She was pretty, about twenty-five or so…a couple of years older than me.  She had long, thick blonde hair that she always wore in a single braid that fell just shy of her ankles.  She had the brightest blue eyes I’d ever seen on a person – eyes so blue they didn’t look real.  She was thick, but curvy, and tall for a woman at five-foot-ten.  Her height always made me a bit self-conscious since I have more of a ninja’s build:  shorter and slender.  Like Daniels, she was in excellent physical condition.  I’d heard she participated in a lot of walks or runs or marches, for local charities or something like that.  I can’t recall exactly.

Jenna was also somewhat of a social outcast.  She rarely spoke and she was often absent from class for extended periods.  When she was present, she never left Daniels’ side.  And that was the strangest thing about her — the manner in which everyone treated her.  Daniels was oddly protective of her.  Everyone else in class tended to give her a wide berth, except when actively sparring with her, though many of us preferred to avoid that as well.  And where many of us had forged strong friendships during our training, she had not, nor did she seem interested in doing so.

With exception to Daniels, she was the best martial artist at the CCNG.  Hands down.  Her speed and stamina were legendary among the other students.  She never missed a beat.  She always executed every technique with masterful precision.  I’d never once witnessed her tap out and it seemed there was nothing she couldn’t do.  Weapons, striking, grappling, tumbling, you name it.

She didn’t smile often, or show any emotion for that matter, though I do recall one instance.  It was during the randori, or sparring phase, of Andy’s Shodan exam – Shodan loosely translates to black belt.  She’d tied Andy in a knot and had done so in less than a minute.  He so vigorously tapped out that the attendant at the front desk came running down the hall to see what was the matter.  She was positively glowing as Andy crawled away.

At the end of each class, Daniels would personally escort her out to the parking lot where Gunnar would be waiting to pick her up.  That their parents had divorced several years ago and that she lived with Gunnar was the extent of my knowledge of their family.

Daniels’ voice snapped me out of my trance.  “Leah?”

I blinked and looked at him.  “Okay.”  I knelt and started rummaging through my handbag for my keys.

Daniels put his hand on my shoulder.  “Gunnar and Jenna live over by the high school.  Just past it.  The third house on the right.  Do you know where that is?”

“Yes.”  I said, nodding robotically.  I was still a little shaky, but I felt better now that I had a purpose.  I stood up cautiously, mindful of the nagging dizziness that refused to abate.

“Gunnar will be waiting for you.  See that Jenna gets home and meet me at my apartment at one-thirty.  Talk to no one.  You and Jenna were never here.”

I nodded again, looking down at my own feet now.

“Shodan.”  Daniels said sharply.

I looked at him again.  “Yes, Sensei?”

“Do you understand me?”

I cleared my throat.  “I understand.”

“I know I can trust you.”  He said with a small smile.  He ran a hand through his short, reddish-brown hair.  Andy was still kneeling next to the dead ninja.  Chas was leaning next to them.

“This is crazy.”  Chas bellowed.

“You think?”  Andy replied sarcastically.  “What would you like to do, Sensei?”

Daniels looked at both of them.  “Calm down, Chas.  Let’s try not to make a scene.”

“Yes, Sensei.”  Chas replied, casting a sideways glance at Andy.

We heard sirens wailing in the distance.

“The rest of you stay here.”  Daniels said.  He took Jenna by the arm, grabbing her bag with his free hand.  He glanced at me over his shoulder.  “Let’s go.”

We walked quickly to my van — a big, ugly, green conversion van I’d inherited from my dad.  It was one of the last things he’d given me before our falling out.  As much as I’d have loved to get a new car, it just wasn’t in my budget.  Daniels opened the passenger door for Jenna and she climbed inside without a word.  I tossed mine and Jenna’s bags unceremoniously in the side door and when I closed it Daniels was standing there, his expression stern.

“Take her home.  My place.  One-thirty.  Go now.”

Without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked back to the others.  Not wanting to waste any time, and with the sirens growing louder, I skipped around to the driver’s side and hopped in.  Jenna sat in silence as I started the van and backed out.  I managed to get out of the parking lot before the authorities arrived.  Fortunately for us, Jenna’s place was in the opposite direction from which they were coming.

The ride to Jenna’s house was quiet.  I asked her if she was okay but she didn’t reply.  I asked her what she thought about what happened.  Again no reply.  I asked her if she’d like to listen to some music.  Silence.  She stared out the window wordlessly.  I supposed that was fine with me.  My mind was still racing and I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for small talk anyway.  I was sure the image of the dead ninja would haunt me forever.

Jenna’s neighborhood was an older one, populated mostly by elderly folks.  You could tell by the neatly manicured lawns, landscapes littered with birdbaths, ornamental stone deer and garden gnomes.  I swear every house had a porch and a swing.  Gunnar was standing at the end of the driveway which made their house easier to find.  I came to a stop at the end of the drive without pulling in.

Gunnar started for Jenna’s door but she beat him to it and climbed out on her own.  She wasn’t physically disabled.  Far from it.  I didn’t understand why everyone treated her like she was made of glass.  He threw his arms around her and hugged her.  She hugged him back.  It was the first real affection I’d ever seen her show toward anyone.

Gunnar was friendly enough, and aside from being male and a good deal taller, Jenna looked very much like him.  Same thick blonde hair and blue eyes.  Though his hair was shorter and his eyes didn’t shine like hers. He always looked exhausted and I’d only spoken with him on a few occasions, usually one of Jenna’s promotions which he always attended.  The exchanges were pleasant, but always short.

I got out of the van and walked around the front just as Jenna slipped out of Gunnar’s embrace and walked toward the house.  Gunnar turned to me and smiled.  “Thanks.  I appreciate you bringing her home.”

I grabbed Jenna’s bag from the van and handed it to Gunnar.  “No problem.”  I said, closing the door again.  “You need anything else?”

Gunnar smiled again.  It was a warm smile that brightened his face in spite of his haggard appearance.  “No, thanks.  Besides, I’m sure Sensei is expecting your return.”

I found it strange that Gunnar referred to Daniels as Sensei.  He said so in a reverent tone, with the same respect that myself and the other students might say it, but as far as I knew, Gunnar wasn’t a student.  And how did he know that Sensei wanted me to meet him?

I looked up at the house.  Jenna had already gone inside and so I smiled politely to Gunnar and turned to leave.  I climbed back into the van and waited for Gunnar to go inside before starting it up.  I glanced at the clock on the dashboard.

10:37 PM

Three hours until I had to meet with Daniels.  And the others, too, I presumed.

Slowly I pulled away from Gunnar and Jenna’s and turned around at the end of the street.  Their house was dark when I drove back by.

I was starting to feel a little queasy and so I pulled into the parking lot of the high school.  It was football season but the school was deserted.  An away game perhaps?  Too bad, I thought.  A large crowd would have been better cover.  I parked the van in the back and shut off the engine and lights.

My breath was uneven and my hands were shaking.  I was at a loss as to what to do with myself in the meantime.  So much for being prepared for anything.  I mean, that is sort of a ninja’s modus operandi.  Some ninja I was.

What if I wasn’t as deserving of my new rank as I’d believed just an hour ago?  Then again, Daniels was fond of reminding us that the rank of Shodan isn’t the end of our training.  It is the beginning.  All I’d really proved to him tonight was that I understand the fundamentals of our art and that I possess an affinity for memorizing various techniques.

I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes.  I tried desperately to relax.  I focused on my breathing, counting slowly in my mind with each breath.  Breathe in.  Hold it.  Breathe out.

Rinse and repeat.

 

 

(this chapter, from the book Ninja VS Samurai, is just a glimpse into a novel that started small, grew out of control and has since been shelved — maybe I’ll revisit it again one day)

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