The Dojo is sixty feet long and thirty feet wide, its walls covered in mirrors, its floor made of polished wood. Master Gustafu Pope, fifth-degree black belt and former karate champion of Argentina, turns to his ‘Bushi’ warriors, all seated along one wall in a lotus position. ‘Richard Rappaport. Andrea Smith.’

Hearing her alias, thirty-one-year-old Dominique Vazquez jumps to her feet. Like the rest of Master Pope’s students, the ebony-haired, Hispanic beauty is dressed in full Bogu -protective armor. Her chest and stomach is covered by the Do, her waist in the Tare, her hands and wrists by the Kote gloves. She slips the headpiece known as the Men over her long ponytail, the heavily padded base protecting her face, throat, and the sides of her skull.

In her hand is the Shinai, a sword consisting of four staves of bamboo, joined together at the handle and tip by leather straps. Designed to flex as it strikes an object, the Shinai, though infinitely safer than its predecessors, the Fukurojinai and Bokuto, is still a weapon that can kill.

She takes her place across from her opponent. Rich Rappaport is bigger, stronger, and more experienced than Dominique, but lacks her tenacity.

Master Pope calls out, ‘ Rei.’

The two student combatants face each other and bow.

‘On your marks.’

Bracing their bamboo swords, each moves into a crouching posture.


Dominique attacks, shouting out, ‘ Men!’ as she launches an overhead blow to her opponent’s head. Rappaport blocks the strike, but the woman’s furious barrage continues, her Shinai a blur as it lashes out at the man’s forearms and chest. Dominique calls out body-part names before each strike, her brown eyes focused intently on her fellow Kendo student through the bars of her headpiece.

‘Oosh!’ Master Pope awards Dominique a point for a strike to the top of the head.

The two students return to their spots.

‘One to zero. On your marks… begin!’

‘ Kote! ’ Dominique prances ahead, her Shinai raised to strike Rappaport’s forearms ‘ Men! ’ as the tip of her opponent’s sword strikes her in the throat.


Dominique drops to one knee, swallowing hard against the throbbing pain.

Master Pope bends to her. ‘Can you continue, Ms. Smith?’

She nods.

‘One to one. Back to your marks.’

She hustles back to her place, her blood pressure seething.

‘And… begin!’

Dominique is an erupting volcano, her anger raging, her arm and shoulder muscles bulging beneath her armor as she whirls the Shinai at the retreating Rappaport – who deftly blocks each of her strikes, then slices her across the midsection.

‘Oosh!’ Master Pope signals to Rappaport. ‘Two to one, point and match. Rei to me, to each other… and shake hands.’

Rappaport offers his hand, his face expressionless in victory.

Dominique shakes his hand, avoiding the eyes of the senior student.

‘Ms. Smith, may I see you?’

Dominique tucks her headpiece into her gym bag and joins Master Pope in his office. ‘Yes, sir?’

‘How’s your throat?’


Master Pope smiles. ‘It’s good you were wearing Bogu or you’d be speaking out of a second mouth.’

She nods politely, her cheeks flushing beneath her Hispanic complexion.

‘Andrea, you’re an excellent student, truthfully, I’ve never met anyone who trains so hard as you. But in battle, technique is not everything. Kendo teaches us to observe our opponent and devise the appropriate strategy in order to achieve victory. You fight with anger, you fight to kill, and in doing so, you reveal your weaknesses to your opponent.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘The Way of the Sword is the moral teaching of the Samurai. The art of Zen must go hand in hand with the art of war. Enlightenment is the realization of the nature of ordinary life.’

Ordinary life? Ha. I’d give my right tit to have an ordinary life

Master Pope stares at her as if reading her mind. ‘The teaching of Ai Uchi is to cut your opponent just as he cuts you, to train without anger, to abandon your life or throw away your fear.’

‘Do I seem afraid to you?’

‘What I perceive is not important. Each of us has his demons, Andrea. I hope Kendo will help you to one day face yours.’

Dominique changes into an old Florida State tee shirt, shorts, and her cross-training shoes, then stuffs her equipment bag into a locker and heads for the weight room.

Chris Adair, her personal trainer, is waiting for her by the rack of dumb-bells, his dreaded clipboard in hand. ‘How was Kendo?’

‘Good,’ she lies.

‘Then it’s time for a little pain.’ He sets the bench press at an incline, then hands her the two thirty-five- pound dumbbells. ‘I want twenty reps out of you, then we jump to the forty-fives.’


Dominique emerges from the gym two hours later, her freshly showered and massaged body still trembling with fatigue. The gym bag filled with wet clothes and equipment causes her right shoulder to ache, and she leans on the heavy bamboo cane for support.

The older woman with the burnt-orange hair pulled into a bun is standing by her Jeep, the grin of a cultist pasted on her face. Her eyes are shielded behind the wide wraparound sunglasses preferred by seniors.

Dominique approaches warily, gripping the handle of the bamboo cane tightly in her right hand. Concealed within its false bamboo outer casing is a Katana, the double-edged carbon steel blade of the Japanese sword deadly sharp.

‘Hello, Dominique.’

‘I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else.’

‘Relax, my dear, I’m not going to hurt you.’

Dominique remains at sword-striking distance from the older woman. ‘Is there something you want?’

‘Simply to talk, but not here. Perhaps you could follow me to my home in St. Augustine.’

‘St. Augustine? Lady, I don’t even know you. Now if you’ll excuse me-’

‘I’m not a reporter, Dominique. I’m more of a messenger.’

‘Okay, I’ll bite. Who’s the message from?’

‘Maria Gabriel. Michael’s mother.’

In her peripheral vision, Dominique notices the two Homeland Security agents approaching, one from each end of the parking lot. ‘Sorry, I don’t know anyone named Michael, now I have to go.’ She turns and walks away.

‘Maria knows you carry her unborn grandsons in your womb.’

Dominique freezes, the blood draining from her face.

‘Maria’s energy force reaches out across the spiritual world to contact you. You are in grave danger, my dear. Let us help.’

‘Who are you?’ she whispers. ‘Why should I trust you?’

‘My name is Evelyn Strongin.’ The older woman removes her sunglasses, revealing bright azure-blue irises. ‘Maria Rosen-Gabriel was my sister.’

Dallas, Texas

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