Morning sun lit up the windows as Mao approached the locked door. The servant stood up from the chair he'd been sitting in and handed over the key. The deadbolt slid back and Mao opened the door, Joe's words echoed in his head, he wondered if by chance the room would be empty despite the assigned watchman.
Light from the hall spilled into the darkened bedroom. Under the covers Spike had barely moved from the night before. His arm still dangled off the edge. The blankets rose and fell in a soft rhythm. He was still in a deep sleep.
Mao crossed the room and bent down, touching the boy's shoulder.
The reaction was a grumbled moan as Spike pulled the dangling arm up and burrowed deeper under the covers, hiding his face in the blanket.
This lazy child was supposed to be trouble? The notion seemed laughable as Mao tugged the blanket edge back. "It's time to wake up."
Spike's eyes cracked open. With a wide yawn he stretched and took his time sitting up. He sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his eyes with the back of his still chalk covered fingers. His stare rather blank.
Mao turned and walked toward the door. "Follow me."
A few steps outside the door, the squeak of his shoes on the floor announced that the boy was indeed behind him, following at an easy pace through the hallways and out onto the path through the garden. Outside, Mao slowed and waited for Spike to keep pace beside him. His hands in his pockets, Spike gazed around at the terraced garden that filled the courtyard of the villa style mansion. Wysteria, orchids, and lilies bloomed beneath the cherry blossom trees. A large lake gleamed in the reddish morning light.
They made their way toward a pair of conjoined buildings a fair distance from the mansion. Mao opened the sliding door and gestured for Spike to go in. He approached the door, did a cursory glance, and then stepped inside.
In the center of a large room with a padded floor a man stood dressed in a green gi embroidered with a rearing bear, a soft smile on his face. The walls of the room were lined with banners painted with words of wisdom and shelves full of equipment. Mao stepped to the edge of the mat and gestured Spike forward.
Idly, Spike stepped onto the mat, his eyes that strange half lidded expression that made him difficult to read. The same expression that had fooled Mao into the pool hall con. Mao folded his arms, now to see what Sensei Leonard thought of this new prospect.
Spike stopped, bringing his feet together in a slouched posture about twenty feet from Leonard. Neither one moved. Curious. Most of the new arrivals walked up and tried to shake the sensei's hand. Or addressed him in some way. As if he suspected something, Spike kept a reserved distance, no sound except for his breathing.
Leonard, on the other hand, was completely silent. His practiced breathing utterly soundless as he stood, studying the boy. Until after one inhale, Leonard's whole body lunged.
The delay would have taken a stopwatch to gauge. Leonard had only taken one step before Spike backpedaled. His eyes opened wider as he stumbled, clearly realizing Leonard's incoming assault was faster. Spike instantly switched tactics into a sloppy cartwheel, carrying him at an angle and just out of the grasp of the charging master's hands. Landing a bit unsteady, Spike's shoes lost traction. He glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the sensei's open palm coming his way. Hastily, Spike ducked and rolled.
It didn't end. Leonard pursued him.
Instead of leaving his back exposed as he lost ground, Spike turned and faced him, backing up. But the pace was fast, driving him to scramble. Unable to glance behind, he backed into a wall.
The mistake had a price. With nowhere left to go, Spike shot his hands forward in a hasty attempt to catch Leonard's incoming fist. The blow landed into his cupped hands with a solid SMACK! He rolled it slightly off to the right side. Unable to deflect it completely, Leonard's strike pushed his hands into his hip. He winced, but didn't waste his breath with a cry.
That was quick, Mao sighed to himself. Only to cock his head. No, it wasn't over.
Spike pushed the fist off his hip with a grunt. He threw a wild strike that glanced off Leonard's shoulder and rolled out of the way, evading Leonard as he attempted to grapple. Spike's shorter strides twisted and turned as if he were debating a flat out run or facing the assault.
The debate was over the minute Leonard launched a kick at his gut. Spike's hands came up and caught it, but he didn't have the weight to resist the impact. His efforts managed to soften the blow, but sent him tumbling across the floor. He flipped into a hand spring and landed on his hands and knees immediately facing Leonard who closed in on him, with a downward punch aimed at his exposed back.
Spike released a yelp and tucked his elbow, throwing his weight into a twisting roll that ended up with him on his feet. He tried to turn his back and run. But once more Leonard's longer reach abolished that tactic. Forced to face him in a pelting rain of blows, Spike took a shambling step backward as he held out a weak guard in front of his hunched over torso. But it was insufficient. One out of every four landed in a expulsion of air. Thankfully Leonard always held back for this, at full force those fists would crack bone.
He didn't go down. His stance widened as he grit his teeth. When Leonard paused, Spike kicked and ducked, dashing past him. Leonard's hand seized the collar of the vest, bringing Spike's retreat to jerking halt, his feet carried up into the air. Before Spike even came back down, he squirmed and stretched his arms up, popping out of the vest as though he'd pulled that trick before. This gave him the chance he needed. The moment his feet hit the floor he made a mad dash and vaulted up onto a high shelf, throwing himself up into the shadows. A few pieces of equipment clattered down onto the floor.
Leonard stood in the middle of the room holding the vest in his hand at his side. An amused expression on his face as he stared into the corner where the boy had vanished. The truth was, the boy never stood a chance of winning the spontaneous bout. That was never the point of these introductions. Unlike some of the others, he hadn't surrendered.
From where he stood, Mao could see the slight eye shine in the dark where the sun from the window caught it. Panting echoed in the silent dojo.
Leonard bowed to Mao. "He's raw, but that little bastard is tough. He can take a punch like someone taught him how. His attacks hold little strategy, but that spirit doesn't give up, no matter how hopeless I made it. You have a good eye, Mao. With no family ties, this kid is perfect."
Mao grinned. He had hoped Leonard would see what he had.
Spike emerged from the shadows, hands gripping the shelf he looked down through his sweaty hair, gasping each breath.
At Mao's side, Leonard lowered his voice just between the two of them. "However, the boy is severely malnourished. Are you certain he is twelve? I never would have guessed it."
Mao nodded and replied quietly, all the while watching as Spike kept his eyes locked on them. "I am certain. I managed to find the record of his birth in Deseado."
"Death Trap Deseado." Leonard crossed his arms. "That partially explains what I just witnessed. He's agile, but lacks speed because of his stride length. He is small for his age, behind the others in weight and muscle. There's not an ounce of fat on him, which leaves him with nothing in reserve. It's a miracle something hasn't cut him down, considering the lack of resources in that crater." He rubbed his chin. "And that makes him a survivor. Those instincts are not something developed overnight. They run too deep. That takes time and experience." Taking a step toward the shelf, Leonard extended an open hand. "Come on down, boy. I won't hurt you."
Between breaths Spike spat out, "Yeah, heard that one before. No thanks. S'alright with you, I'm gonna stay right here."
Leonard chuckled. "I apologize for that, but it's the best way for me to see."
Spike shook his head. "Shitty way to say hello … but I'm used to that. So, screw you and your apologies." Slowly, Spike came to crouch on the edge of the shelf, his feet still under him primed to jump. He spared a quick acidic glare at Mao, then his eyes didn't leave Leonard as he reached into his jean pockets and pulled out a rumpled pack of cigarettes and a cheap plastic lighter. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, the shaking of his hands still evident. Well, who wouldn't be rattled after that?
Locked on the glowing ember, Leonard's eyes narrowed. "That explains why he reeks of a bar room floor. Let me guess, that was where you purchased him?"
Mao nodded, the idea close enough.
"Alright," Leonard tossed the vest onto the floor between them and sat down, crossing his legs as he addressed Spike. "Stay up there, if you like. I have some questions for you."
"Whatever." Spike once more resumed the half lidded eye stare.
Good, his confidence seems to be returning. Mao let out a long breath.
"You tell me if I what I say is true, Spike." Placing his hands on his knees, Leonard met his gaze. "You are a petty thief."
He laughed, the cigarette almost falling from his mouth. "I wouldn't call it petty, but yeah. I guess you could say I'm a thief."
"Occasionally in the alleys of Deseado someone would catch on."
Leonard waited a moment. "Interesting, so you managed to lift a good deal … "
"Don't want to brag or nothing, but … "
"And yet I wonder, what did you do with it all? You hardly look well off for someone as accomplished as you claim."
Spike fell silent, under Leonard's searching gaze he looked away, eyes suddenly restless.
"Leads me to guess that everything you took went somewhere. Like perhaps buying a decent meal?"
At that Spike recoiled, taking refuge in the shadows a bit more.
Leonard's eyes narrowed. "Where did it all go?"
Mao cleared his throat and waited for Spike to glance his way. "Everything went to Joe, didn't it."
The nod was slow, barely perceptible in the dim light.
Mao steeled himself for the next question. "And did he give you anything in return?"
Spike's gaze fell to the floor, his arms wrapped around his legs. He didn't even shake his head. "No … he just … didn't kick me out. I had to get everything for myself."
And that told volumes. Whether or not Joe had a price for the boy attempting to keep something for himself, it didn't matter. He'd clearly insured a sense of indentured servitude on Spike. Peanuts, pretzels and beer could not have kept him alive for six years. Which left the boy to scavenge.
Leonard sighed. "Tough competition in those alleys for mere scraps. No wonder you can take a hit. How often did you get jumped?"
The bravado completely abandoned him as unfocused eyes stared through the tangled hair. "I didn't keep track. Just tried to stay out of the thick of it. Filched what I could and ran. Sometimes I got away, and … "
"Sometimes you didn't. Which explains your evasive instincts."
Spike lifted his head and came to the edge, his eyes narrowed. "Well I taught a couple of those bastards a lesson! Should have seen their faces, they thought they had me. I ran them right into the path of that cop. They hadn't noticed I'd slipped a little gift in their pockets. Not until the cop found the drugs. Straight to lock-up they went. Never saw their asses again. Ate in peace that night."
Leonard smiled. "What about the rest of them?"
That bravado was short lived.
"Spike, did you have anyone to watch you back? Any friends?"
His cigarette had burned down, he barely noticed as he once more became captivated with the floor. His voice barely audible, "No one will miss me."
Turning to Mao, Leonard looked up and lowered his voice. "I'm not so sure about this one. He's pretty feral. Been a loner for a good number of years. We'll need to specialize his diet to help him catch up. He's undisciplined, or rather the only discipline he's experienced is the result of getting cornered in a alley. There's no way I can put him with the others until he can hold his own, or he'd have better odds on the streets of Deseado, and you know how abysmal those are."
"The raw talent … ?"
Leonard lifted a shoulder. "Is there in spades. But it's very raw. He doesn't know what to do with it."
Staring at the boy, Mao made up his mind. "I've brought you raw recruits before, I want you to train him."
"Anything he will learn. I'll leave his path up to your judgment."
Leonard addressed Spike once more. "Can you read?" That was something they had found in various states among the incoming boys. Some could, most were completely illiterate. Mao doubted that Joe had bothered.
Spike glanced at one of the banners on the wall, his voice tripped over the words as he slowly quoted it, "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. "
Mao rubbed his chin. "Surprising. How did you learn?"
He shrugged, "Fetching liquor bottles from the storeroom. Had to know what they were."
"Spike," Leonard pointed at the banner he'd read, "do you understand what that means?"
His eyes narrowed, following the letters a couple of times until Mao assumed he could not answer. Instead, Spike locked eyes with the sensei still seated on the floor waiting patiently. "It means you better know what the fuck you're getting into or your ass is gonna get beat one way or another."
Leonard's grin widened.
A long silence filled the room. Eventually, Spike climbed down from the shelf when no one had moved. His wary eyes watched as he edged his way towards the discarded vest that lay between them and picked it up. He carefully shrugged back into it. The only possessions he had, the ill-fitted clothes on his back.
Leonard extended a hand to Spike. "Let's have a talk about a technique called Jeet Kune Do, I think that will suit you nicely. But first, how about we clean you up and uhhh … wash those clothes."
Something was different today. Vicious lurked in the dorm doorway staring through the strands of his hair. The other boys, ages ranging from eight to sixteen, confined to this place wasted their time perched on their bunks playing silly games and chatting.
All a waste. They should be in the dojo, drilling. His fingers pulsed into a fist. He longed to hit something, no … someone. To feel flesh and bone damaged beneath his assault. It's what they were here to learn. To kill. Not to sit around chasing a hollow victory playing War with cards.
The rules, ridiculous as they were, commanded that no one was to fight outside of the dojo, without the sensei's strict permission. And yet, Vicious eyed the fellow students, his mind running through every weakness each boy possessed. Four years of training under the sensei. Four years honing the true Art of War. Four years forced to live among these worms all for the promise that one day he would be released from these endless mock battles and be called to serve.
That day would not come from idle games.
The pounding of shoes down the hall caught his attention. Vicious peered around the doorjamb to find Kieran, a boy two years younger dashing toward them. He'd been gone for a half hour on orders from Vicious to find out why their sensei had canceled lessons today.
Breathless, Kieran leaned against the wall, gripping his sides. The others gathered around, abandoning their activities as they fixed their attention on him.
Vicious grabbed his shirt and pulled him close. "Well?"
Kieran gasped in a few more breaths. "Another."
He pointed down the hall. "I saw another boy."
Another boy? Well, that didn't take long to replace the last failure. His blood had barely been mopped from the dojo floor. "How long ago?"
Kieran shrugged. "I saw master Yenrai take him through the garden. Didn't look very old. You've been here longer than most of us, Vicious. How soon til he joins us?"
Vicious scowled and released Kieran, shoving him aside. Over a dozen boys drew back as he stalked through the dorm passing by the empty cot that would soon hold yet another to be tested. Another for the sensei to waste his time training. He drew his nails along the metal frame, dislodging paint chips.
That question wasn't worth the answer. The real question was what would they do to welcome their new dorm mate. To let him know immediately where he stood in their ranks … and what place he'd be staying in.
See You Space Cowboy