The alley was immaculate. You've never seen such a spotless alley. Not a single piece of litter anywhere. No drink cups or cardboard boxes. Not even a single cigarette butt. Other than that, it could have been just about any urban alleyway anywhere in the world. Painted cinderblock and brick buildings with dented metal doors and barred windows lined both sides of a stretch of asphalt. Recessed doorways and a couple of dumpsters could provide cover for someone up to no good.
I smiled as I walked casually along the center of the graying blacktop. I was supposed to be sneaking, but I wasn't. The game we were playing called for me to make my way down the alley while reconnoitering for a potential ambush, then signal the rest of the team to close-up if the way was clear. Typical Urban Warfare Tactical Training Exercise. Or maybe in Armyese it would be Tactical Warfare/Antiterrorist Training, which would have made a more amusing acronym.
I should have been wearing one of those standard-issue Urban-camo uniforms with the black, white, and gray splotches that matched nothing and stood-out against everything, but fortunately (and typically) the quartermaster hadn't been able to produce one in my size. Instead, I was wearing a gray, seamless sport-top and a pair of black, stretch, low-rise, boyshorts which was a much more reasonable outfit for someone out taking exercise in this Georgia late-summer weather. The black, crepe-soled cross-trainers on my feet and the no-particular-color-at-all fanny-pack riding my hip completed the ensemble. My black and grey color-scheme did match the official camo colors, if only by coincidence. My argument that a girl in jogging attire was more in keeping with the spirit of the thing than one clumping along with a full-pack load-out and carrying a Heckler and Koch MP5-SD had been met with some reluctant grunts, but no real disagreement. I'd expected more of an argument from the non-com running the exercise, but he hadn't yet figured out what to make of me, so he was erring on the side of politeness.
I did get some static about the amount of exposed skin. I'd dressed as I did because I hadn't understood the use of the term 'exercise' in the schedule they handed out. I thought we were going to be doing some 'physical training' (their term), so I dressed accordingly. To be fair, the static was more of a warning about how much the simunition (wax bullets mixed with blue dye) would hurt if I got popped with one. I countered with the argument that in the real world a hit like that would probably kill me and if the exercise taught me to avoid that occurrence, then it would be well worth it. Faced with that bit of macho bluster, the static faded fast and I even saw a couple of flak-jackets get surreptitiously ditched.
This was the first scheduled event and no one here other than the few guys I'd met before had a clue what to make of me. We'd all just arrived at Fort Benning the night before and none of us had had a chance to chat. As a result, I was still the official eye-candy for most of the rest of the campers as well as the locals.
Nothing new there. I've been gawked at before. When you are female, 5' 1", 105lbs, and your measurements are 48-18-28, you're going to get some stares, especially from a bunch of mostly military and police jocks with more testosterone than plasma running through their veins. If no one had tried to hit on me yet, it was only because it was 8am in the morning and they weren't yet entirely sure I was real.
Mind you, I was actually sort of looking forward to getting hit on. From what I could see, most of my fellow campers were close to being perfect physical specimens of the human adult male. Not a paunch or a stoop among them and probably not a single IQ under 120. Most were young, not many over 30, and those that were had much of that same rigid, commanding presence that Colonel Brock typified.
Oh yes, my favorite Colonel, Brock-the-Brick was here, along with two of his Sigma 7 operators, Jonas Matuchek and Evan Cochran. Evan had been around for a while now and I suspected that he had been assigned as my permanent shadow — someone to either make sure I didn't get into too much trouble, or to rescue those poor unfortunates unlucky enough to seriously piss me off. The latter I knew to be something Brock was concerned about since my style of dealing with problems tended to be flashier than he was normally comfortable with. What can I say? Flashy comes with the territory for your average superheroine. And that brings us to me. I'm Samantha Draco, aka The Dragon.
If that name doesn't ring any bells, then you haven't read a newspaper or watched TV in the last few months. I'm what you call 'famous' or maybe it's 'infamous'. What little footage there is of me in action gets trotted out whenever there is a slow news day or some editor decides to goose their ratings. I heard a rumor that the Discovery Channel was planning a special on people with super-normal abilities. I'm going to watch that to see if they manage to find someone else like me. I sure hope so. This stuff gets lonely sometimes.
Not that I don't have friends. I do. Just not many who know my secrets. One who does is my best friend and partner, Neeka. She's here too — somewhere. They split the tech-people out and sent them to another part of the base to put them through a series of seminars on the latest mil-tech advancements.
I see I'm explaining things inside-out again. Sorry. Bad habit. What happened was — we were looking forward to getting back to what passes for our normal lives after our last adventure when we got a call from our favorite bureaucrat, asking if we'd like to attend a special summer-camp.
Now, I hadn't been to camp since I was twelve, so I was keen on the idea from the start. Neeka was reluctant, until Mr. Solomon explained that she'd be spending the whole time buried in a bunker with all the other uber-geeks, playing with a load of ultra-high-tech computers and spy gadgets. Her hesitance vanished at that point and shortly afterward, so did she, while she was being processed for some level of clearance the name of which is never mentioned and knowledge of which is grounds for permanent surveillance. I got the better deal. I got to go off and play with the best-and-brightest members of every counter-terror, hostage-rescue, elite-police, special-warfare, and black-ops team that wasn't otherwise-engaged for the week. This was a summer camp for heroes and I was extremely proud to have been included.
All right, 'summer camp' isn't what they called it, but that's what it amounted to. The idea was to get people together from as many of the diverse special operations groups as possible and let them hang out for a few days, doing 'refresher courses' on tactics and running through exercises on the local MP, Ranger and Sniper facilities. I suspect that this was mostly an excuse to let people who normally couldn't say squat to anyone about their jobs relax in an environment where everyone else was more or less in the same situation. We still couldn't divulge the specifics of certain operations, but shop talk was otherwise encouraged.
I tried not to let the fact that these guys were mostly of the seriously-studly persuasion influence me in any way, but I could feel their eyes on me as I made my way down the fake alley and I confess that did make me strut just a teeny bit.
I was also very worried about not screwing up. I had volunteered to be on Point for this exercise — something I knew darn well was a cardinal sin in the military. But I wanted to prove as quickly as possible to anyone who might doubt my qualifications for being there that I was capable of doing the job. Now I was practically reciting it as a mantra with every step - "don't screw up, don't screw up".
I was past the first couple of recessed doorways to either side. They couldn't have provided much cover and I was sure none of the local guys who would be playing the OpFor — the Opposing Forces, as Sgt. Wilkins called them — or The Bad Guys, as I thought of them, would be dumb enough to try to hide there.
I thought the best cover for someone trying an ambush was either the dumpsters or the narrow gap coming up on the right between two of the buildings. The gap seemed a poor choice. Even I could see that someone shooting down the length of it could easily cut down an entire squad before they could escape out the other end. No, the best place to hide would be behind the standard, commercial-sized, green dumpsters. They were free-standing steel boxes on pairs of thick skids and their positioning left enough space for three or four people to either hide behind, or between one and the building next to it.
If I was wrong and the ambush team was around the corner of the building, then I would look foolish. But if they decided to take advantage of my mistake, the bad guys would have to show themselves to get at me and I would be on the other side of the dumpster when they did, putting them in the line of fire from my teammates a half-block behind me.
I inhaled deeply and then let it out slowly, the better to hear any noise the opposition might make. I practically tiptoed, my crepe-soles making my steps noiseless. When I was close enough, I put my right shoulder down, jogged three steps diagonally toward the dumpster and gave it a shove. Maybe I shoved a bit too hard. The dumpster moved with a loud screeching-scrape sound. It slid about three feet before stopping a foot away from the wall of the building. The lid, which had been propped up, fell down with a big-time clang. Barely audible under the noise of the dumpster were a few "oof"s and some small clanks of something solid hitting the other side.
Pressing my advantage, I quickly ran around the corner of the big metal box. On the ground were two OpFor guys, just getting their feet under them. The one closest to me had an AK-47 in one hand. I reached down and grabbed it and twisted it out of his grasp. I used the butt to shove him back on his ass before tossing it over my shoulder to land out of reach on top of the dumpster, then I jumped over him to land on the second guy's rifle, pinning it to the ground just as his hands closed on the wooden stock.
Now disarmed, but facing an obviously weaker opponent than they had expected, both guys jumped at me and grabbed hold of my arms, trying to wrestle me to the ground. They seemed surprised when things didn't work out that way.
I just love it when that moment of "gotcha" that my opponent feels once they have their hands on me, turns into "uh, oh". That's exactly what happened this time. I gave them a split-second of joy, then I slammed them together hard enough to loosen their fillings, but not hard enough to break anything. They both went down and stayed there, no doubt trying to remember the license number of the truck that had just hit them.
A moment of digression here: I don't dislike guns. I'm just not a 'gun person'. Guns have their place. If you want to make holes in people, a gun is the way to go. But having a gun in your hand in a combat situation narrows your options down to shoot or don't shoot, which is analogous to having only a hammer and thinking that everything looks like a nail. I prefer unarmed, close-quarters fighting because I can apply the precise amount of force — courtesy of Master Li's training — that is necessary to achieve the desired effect. That effect can then be anything from a mild slap on the wrist to something much messier than a few small-caliber holes.
I stuck my head out from behind the dumpster and gave the come-ahead signal. The rest of my team jogged down the alley, looking sharp as they covered every angle from the roof to the manhole cover in the center of the alley. I swallowed guiltily as I realized that I hadn't considered either of those hiding places. It was two-dimensional thinking on my part, and just the sort of lesson we were all here to re-learn. I mentally awarded myself a kick in the butt for missing that.
I hadn't met any of the other members of my team before. We'd been picked out according to some random (or not) method that only Sergeant Wilkins knew and I'd only caught one or two names. As they ran up and secured the still-limp ambushers, I expected Wilkins to blow his whistle as a signal that the exercise was over. That he didn't meant there were still members of the OpFor yet to be accounted for.
I was just starting to look around, thinking that we had been suckered by decoys, when I heard a muffled, plaintive voice from the narrow gap between the dumpster and the brick wall of the building.
"Little help here?" it said.
One of my team, who I took to be FBI, based on nothing I could explain, and I stuck our heads into the gap. Sure enough, there were two other OpFor members trapped in there.
"Give up?" I asked.
"Yes! Please get it off," the voice said with more than a touch of claustrophobic panic.
I discovered that Wilkins had come up behind me when he blew his damn whistle right in my ear.
"Lend a hand, people!" Wilkins barked, and I realized from his protective tone that the trapped men were almost certainly his own best-and-brightest whom he intended to showcase to the campers and possibly get them seconded to one of the elite organizations represented.
"Wonderful!" I thought. "Now I've gone and made them look bad and probably honked-off Wilkins. I don't need to be making enemies here."
The dumpster must have been stuck, or it was heavier than I thought. Three burly guys had their shoulders against it and hadn't managed to budge the thing.
"Oh, frikkin' great!" I thought. "This is getting worse by the second."
A faint sound from behind the dumpster could have been someone trying to breath in a constricted space or it might have been a whimper. That tore it. A flash of mad mixed with frustration and exasperation swept through me and I grabbed the metal trash-box and yanked it up and away from the trapped men. I knew as soon as I did it that I had messed-up ... again.
The dumpster sailed across, hit the wall of the opposite building and spun away down the alley like a square pinball to finally come to rest ten yards away.
"Crap!" I said.
"Shit!" the supposed FBI guy said.
"What the fuck?" Wilkins said.
"Ooof!" the freed OpFor members said as they gratefully slumped away from the brick wall.
Wilkins ignored them to continue to stare at the dumpster before turning to look at me with one of 'those' expressions.
"Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!" I said, hands in the air, indicating that I was the one who messed up.
Up the alley with the rest of the campers I saw Brock looking on. I couldn't read his expression because he had his hand over the lower half of his face, not that he ever had much expression to read. His eyes did look a bit crinkly, though.
Not feeling the need to hide his amusement at my antics, Cochran wore a really big grin that showed most of his teeth.
"At least someone is enjoying this," I thought sourly.
Of course that tore it. The first exercise on the morning of the first day and I'd managed to blow my cover. I felt humiliated. I wanted to go back to the BOQ and hide under my bed.
I was surprised when it was Cochran, not Brock, who came to my aid. Wilkins was just about to frame a coherent question to me when Evan stepped up and spoke up.
"Sergeant, you didn't see that," he said, absurdly.
Sergeants must get a lot of dumb orders. Wilkins jerked to attention and snapped, "See what, sir?"
Evan waved a hand at the still-gasping OpFor guys and Wilkins gratefully lost his brace and went to see to them.
Everyone else immediately assumed an air of 'nothing going on here — everything perfectly normal', for which I was fantastically grateful. I wanted to kiss every single one of them. When I looked at Cochran, it was with fresh eyes. I'd suspected that his job was to clean up or cover up my mistakes. Now I realized that it was a task little better than the one of following behind the elephant in the circus parade with a shovel and a sack.
The problem was still that everyone had seen that, and no amount of verbal stuffing could get the cat back into the bag. All that had been achieved was to establish for everyone present that I was another one of those items on the no-doubt long list of things that they weren't allowed to talk about. It wouldn't stop them from thinking about it though, and it was going to color their attitudes toward me for the rest of the week.
It occurred to me that maybe this was for the best. Getting it over with now might save greater embarrassment later on and now I didn't have to try to walk on eggshells all week.
After the OpFor guys caught their breath, we went back to the staging area to reset for the next team to have a try at taking the alley. For me it was anticlimactic until one guy got shot in the ass when he turned his back on a hiding-place. That got a big laugh from the gallery and I was certain that was because everyone felt relieved that it wasn't them out there with the blue spot on their butt. I laughed too, because while I'd messed-up, I hadn't failed the exercise by getting myself simulated-dead.
After everyone had a chance to clear the alley of Bad Guys, we moved inside to participate in a presentation on the latest in Unarmed Combat Techniques. This was held in a new facility that looked like it had been designed for the purpose. It had a large square room with a resilient floor that I was sure would be much appreciated by anyone coming here for training. The first thing they teach you in martial arts is how to fall without breaking anything because you will be doing a lot of it while you are learning. I was sure our hosts weren't likely to try to coddle this bunch.
Our instructor was a former Israeli commando who said his name was Uri Cohen and who looked very much like a smaller version of Colonel Brock. He had the same economy of movement, the same slab-like muscles, and the same limited range of facial expression. He was obviously a man who took his vocation seriously.
Cohen gave us a thickly-accented five-minute explanation of his fighting style (the name of which I will not mangle by trying to spell it here). Basically, it boiled down to "do it quick — do it dirty — and don't let up until they're dead". No Marquis of Queensbury rules for Mr. Cohen. No 'equal force'. No rules at all, really. I didn't see how something that had no rules qualified as a combat style, but I'm always open to learning something new so I paid close attention.
When we filed into the room, I had hung back so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone. I was still pissed at having showed-out like I did. I ended up in the back of the crowd, peeking around a guy so big that he probably hadn't even noticed I was behind him.
When Cohen finished his explanation of the philosophy of his technique, he took out a blue-rubber practice knife and asked for a volunteer.
This was old stuff to me. I knew whoever stepped forward was going to get clobbered and then Cohen would spend several minutes explaining how he'd done it before moving on to the next sucker, er ... volunteer to repeat the process.
I was surprised when Evan Cochran stepped forward. He'd always seemed smarter than that to me.
Cohen handed Evan the fake knife and stepped back into a defensive posture. Evan did a shuffle and faked changing hands with the knife before lunging forward for a throat-slash. Cohen blocked and grabbed, stepping inside Evan's guard to deliver a knee to the groin and an elbow to the throat. Evan hit the padded floor hard and rolled to one side with his eyes closed. Cohen hadn't pulled the knee very much, if at all.
Mr. Cohen didn't even look down while he explained again how a devastating attack trumped finesse and style every time and this is what made his technique unbeatable. He took his time doing it, which was just as well, since it allowed me time to take several deep breaths and lose most of the mad that had every muscle in my body tensed and twitching. When he finished and was about to ask for another victim, I was front and center in a flash.
"Me," I said.
"Sam," Brock said, sweetly. He didn't have to finish with "don't kill him", I knew what he meant.
I ignored the interruption except for squaring my shoulders and flexing my back muscles, bringing then into sharp relief under my tight top for the benefit of the audience behind me. Brock fell silent. Evan rolled off the mat and was dragged to one side to recuperate.
Cohen was unsure how to handle this. He had a room full of beefy types to humiliate and now he was faced with someone half his size and clearly the wrong sex. He looked around the room for an alternative as I bent down to pick up the rubber knife Evan had dropped.
"Is this one of your American jokes?" Cohen asked the crowd. No one answered. No doubt everyone was remembering the dumpster ricocheting down the alley.
"No joke," I said simply. "Show me your technique."
"I do not fight little girls," he said in an insulted tone.
I flipped the rubber knife at him and bounced it off his forehead. His hand came up far too late to ward it off.
This enraged him. I had insulted him physically, something he certainly never allowed a man to do. He took a step toward me and I fell into my fighting stance, feet apart, weight centered and balanced, arms loose, my situational and kinesthetic awareness expanding to the point where I could almost tell you where every one of the forty or so people in the room were standing without turning my head. I felt like I was channeling the spirit of Bruce Lee. "Do not let your anger fight with your body," I remembered Master Li quoting, "We need emotional content. It gives you power. But you must feel it." I looked it up. Lee died in 1973. If he had lived four more years — long enough to see Star Wars — I was sure he would have pointed to George Lucas' invention of The Force and said, "That's what I meant!"
Cohen recognized the classic Kung Fu posture. His thick, black eyebrows knit themselves together into a single monobrow. Suddenly, almost before I could blink, he rushed me. His arms windmilled in a wild torrent of blows. I stood my ground and blocked left, then right, then turned my arm and executed a palm-strike to the center of his chest. Two inches to the right and a good bit harder and I would have burst his heart inside his chest.
Cohen was jarred back. If he was surprised at my successful defense, he gave no sign. I was sure the fact that my feet had not moved was not lost on him. He came on again. This time I did move my feet. I waited for him to commit his inertia and then spun to one side while sweeping my arms up and over and down, blocking his strike and pushing him past me.
Suddenly finding me behind him, he jerked to a stop and spun in place, coming to a halt in a Karate stance.
"And so the unbeatable technique is abandoned," I thought.
I was only partly right. Cohen, too, believed in using whatever worked to defeat an opponent. Recognizing that I couldn't be taken by the bull-rush, he shuffled forward and threw a kick at my leading leg, aiming for the knee. I raised my leg and caught the kick on my shin, then straightened it and returned his kick by aiming my heel at his groin.
Of course, my leg was too short to connect, but it scared him into a brief retreat, after which he decided to bite the bullet. Cohen stepped into contact range and started throwing a flurry of blows with his hands and feet, any one of which would have been deadly had it landed. None did. This was what Neeka and I practiced several hours a week — fighting at top speed — pushing the limits of coordination and anticipation until my body moved by itself in response to things I wasn't even aware of seeing.
I easily blocked him blow for blow, and when he hesitated, I returned his hail of blows and kicks, matching him one for one. Several times I had to wait for him to get an arm in place to block. It was tempting to smack him a good one and end the fight right there, but I intended to get my money's worth out of Mr. Cohen.
Cohen tried to regain the offensive that was the foundation of his style. Every time he tried an attack, I blocked and countered. After a bit, he must have known I was playing with him because all my counters were just tap-and-slap, not the crushing responses I could, and should, have delivered. Still, he kept coming, getting slower and weaker every time until I thought it must be obvious to everyone that I was carrying him — practically holding him upright.
Finally, he couldn't keep going. His shoulders slumped and his heels dropped to the mat. His arms quivered with exhaustion and he could hardly keep his guard up. Cohen had punched himself out.
I skipped to one side and lined up for a flashy finale — a big side-kick at full extension. Even though I telegraphed it terribly and pulled it to the point of it being done in slow-motion, Cohen still couldn't stop it. I caught him with the flat of my foot right in his center of mass and I shoved rather than kicked because a kick with the force I intended to use would have caved in his sternum. As it was, the kick lifted him into the air and flung him up against the wall with a satisfying WHOOM. The sheetrock gave way and he stuck there, embedded in the wall.
I turned to face the crowd.
"And that," I announced with finality, "concludes the section on unarmed combat. I hope you were all taking notes. There will be a test later."
I will not bother to describe the cheering and applause. I didn't deserve it, but it sure felt good. When I looked for Brock, to see what he'd thought of my little exhibition, he actually almost cracked a smile. I mean, I saw his lip twitch. It was quick, but it was there.
A couple of the locals peeled Mr. Cohen off the wall and a suspiciously-convenient medic checked him over. I doubted I'd broken or ruptured anything, but he was going to have one huge collection of bruises the next day. A few whiffs of smelling salts brought him around, but he still had to be almost carried out of the room.
While this was going on, the crowd fell into shop-talk mode. Groups developed as guys began to network. It was inevitable that some would want to talk to me. I was watching Cohen limp away when the guy I had earlier assumed to be FBI came over.
"Your Kung Fu is strong," he said, smiling.
It's an old joke and anyone who is into martial arts has heard it. It's one of the funnier translated lines of dialog in a lot of the low-budget Kung Fu films made in Hong Kong.
"Thank you," I said, with more lip-movement than was necessary. I tried to simulate a poorly-dubbed translation to show I'd got the joke.
"Hank McGuffin," he said, holding out his hand.
"FBI?" I speculated, shaking with him.
"How'd you know?"
"You guys must all go to the same barber. You've got that 'clean cut' look perfected."
"Part of the image," he said.
Evan joined us, along with several other guys, but not Brock. The Colonel had been recognized by some of the military types and was being introduced around. As one of the few living and still active Medal of Honor winners, he was perfectly entitled to the celebrity.
"You OK?" I asked Evan.
"Gonna be walking like John Wayne the rest of the day, but otherwise I'll be fine," he said, then added, "You didn't have to do that."
"Yes I did," I said sharply. "I get cranky if I don't beat the crap out of someone every few hours."
That got a laugh, for which I was grateful. Now that I was over being mad, I wanted to downplay the whole thing.
"So who do you work for?" Hank asked, innocently helping me change the subject.
As innocent as it was, it was one of those questions I couldn't answer. Sigma Seven was one of those groups that seriously didn't exist. 'Black' wasn't a dark enough color for them. The members of it who were here, weren't "here", if you get my meaning.
Evan watched me closely, no doubt ready to slap a chloroform-soaked rag over my mouth if my tongue got too loose.
"I free-lance," I said.
McGuffin looked at me like I'd just admitted to being a ring-tailed lemur from the jungles of Madagascar. "You what?" he asked.
"I go where I'm needed," I said, and then realizing that I'd dropped my end on the introductions, I said, "I'm Samantha Draco. Call me Sam."
"Well, Sam," Hank ventured, "I hope you can come work with us at the Bureau sometime."
"Be happy to, Hank. I'll give you my phone number before this is over. Oh, wait..."
I pulled my fanny-pack around and dug into the small outside pocket for my stack of business cards. Solomon and other past business contacts had kept me well-supplied with identities and covers and I had something of a collection going of pasteboard with my name and number on them. I'd flipped through FEMA and a couple of others that, due to the explicit company logos, wouldn't be appropriate in this or many other settings when I realized, judging by the level of eagerness that began to appear, I was going to need more cards than I had on me.
"I'll get back to you on that," I said.
The disappointment was almost palpable. I was sure it wasn't professional interest that brought that on, just a bunch of guys who had missed-out on getting my phone number.
That improved my mood. I smiled around at everyone to show I was on to them.
"Where did you train?" asked a guy wearing utilities with no insignia I could see. His haircut and bearing screamed Marine, but I though it was more likely he belonged to one of the SEAL teams. I briefly wondered how wide a net had been cast to draw them in, then dropped it when I remembered who I was here with.
"I worked with Xaiolong Li," I said. "He teaches a style called Jeet Kune Do. Actually, it's not so much of a style as an approach. It's finding and perfecting whatever works for you, not learning something flashy like Prancing Crane or Mincing Moose."
"Mincing Moose?" someone laughed.
"You made that up!" Hank said.
"Yeah, but that's my point. Your abilities are your abilities. Overlaying them with some artificial style isn't going to help you defeat your opponent. If you noticed, even Mr. Cohen fell back on other things when he found that his primary technique wasn't going to work."
"Would anything have worked?" Hank asked, in a moment of insight.
"No," I admitted, dropping my voice to a stage-whisper. "I cheat."
That got them thinking in entirely the wrong way about how I had managed to beat Cohen, but with entirely the right effect. My argument that you should use what works was totally correct. I used what worked for me — speed and strength. If I hid the true extent of my speed and strength behind the veneer of a specific martial art, then that was technically cheating. It was analogous to hiding a horseshoe in a boxing glove.
That was too subtle for one guy, who had to ask, "How do you cheat in a fight?"
"Easy," I said, "you break the rules."
"But Cohen said there were no rules."
"There are always rules," I argued. "Rules of engagement that specify the amount and type of force that can be used and when. Explicit rules like 'don't shoot until you can see the whites of their eyes'. Implied rules like don't bring a knife to a gunfight; or the reverse, don't drop The Bomb on someone until you know if the threat they represent justifies it and you're willing to accept the collateral damage."
Evan opened his mouth and closed it again. His lips became a thin line. I knew he had started to say something and I was sure I knew what it was.
"Go ahead, Evan," I said, "spit it out."
"Sam is The Bomb," he said with a grin.
Someone murmured, "No shit" and I assumed they took Evan's remark for slang. I knew what he meant, though, and I knew he was playing my conversational game of layering more than one meaning onto things. I usually did it as a way of salving my conscience when I was forced into a lie, but sometimes something was just too delicious to pass up.
Hank didn't think it was slang at all. He'd been standing right there next to me when I tossed the dumpster and he knew quite well that I'd done it almost casually, in a fleeting fit of pique. I could tell this from his thoughtful expression that the wheels were turning under his neat-and-clean haircut.
"The secret," I went on, "is to go beyond what your opponent perceives the rules to be. For the movie buffs among you, I can point to the scene in Speed where Dennis Hopper has taken Keanu Reeves' partner hostage and is using him for a shield. To put a stop to that, Reeves shoots his own partner in the leg. If there is currently a written rule against shooting your partners, I bet there wasn't before then.
"Doing the unexpected can be just as effective as tossing a flash-bang into the room. It confuses your opponent and slows their ability to react. Strategically, it forces them to rethink while you gain the upper hand. In a fight, it can be as simple as allowing your opponent to think you are weaker than you are."
That got several nods of agreement. I decided to shut up while I was ahead and save my summary analysis of Sun Tzu's The Art of War for another time.
Someone asked if I would demonstrate some of the things I'd used against Cohen, and being the incurable show-off that I am, I said I would.
Back on the mat and back in the spotlight, I felt very comfortable. Even with an audience as elite as this one, I felt I was in my element. I might not know an Army broom from a Navy broom or either from an M134, but get me within striking distance of someone and their ass is mine.
I dragged Hank McGuffin onto the mat with me as punishment for thinking too much.
"Just stand right here," I told him. "I promise not to knee you in the groin. Although it is an inviting target."
That got a laugh, which encouraged me.
I said, "Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"
Hank reached down to self-consciously pluck at his pants leg and I shot my right foot up as quickly as I could. Stopping a fraction of an inch from his face, I tapped him on the nose with the toe of my sneaker.
"There is no such thing as 'unfair advantage'", I told them, keeping my leg extended and my foot in Hank's face. "In case any of you think that I somehow proved Mr. Cohen wrong about anything but his threat-assessment skills, you can forget it right now. Everything he said was perfectly correct."
I slowly lowered my foot and then snapped it back up under Hank's nose and then kicked 1-2-3 at his throat, his solar plexus and his groin; coming a fraction of an inch from making contact in each strike. Hank flinched each time, the net effect making him fold up like I had actually hit him. He recovered with a sheepish look toward the audience.
"There is no such thing as 'overkill'," I said. "If you have decided to use lethal force against an opponent, do not stop when you 'think' they are dead — make sure. There's no such thing as 'too dead'."
If any of them thought that trading me for Cohen as instructor was in any way going to lessen the value of the time they were spending, I was determined to prove them wrong. I had a lot of opinions on the use of force and this was the perfect platform for them.
I dragged one after another of my fellow campers onto the mat with me and I ran them through example after example of what I was talking about. I led them through a variety of situations and I ran my mouth endlessly about situational awareness, reaction times, rehearsed responses, over-thinking, and practice, practice, practice.
To keep their attention, I put on a running demonstration of my speed and my long-sought, hard-won control. I got as flashy as I liked, since that's what they wanted to see and no one was around to rag on me for showing off. Spinning kicks, blind strikes, jump-kicks, back-flips, speed-runs and a few things I made up on the spot. I did it all while keeping up a running commentary and critique of everything they or I did.
By the time I ran down, I'd sparred with most everyone and had myself a great workout. Standing there trying to think of anything I might have overlooked, it dawned on me that many of the guys I'd been working with had really been trying to tag me as hard as they could, not just going through the motions for the sake of the demonstration.
I hadn't twigged because when I sparred with Neeka, she did her best to smack me, knowing that the chance of her actually injuring me was vanishingly small. The burden of not getting hit and not killing her was all on me, so I had become very adept at ducking, dodging, blocking, leaning, and generally not getting creamed while dispensing less-than-lethal taps to mark an infrequent score. Neeka, of course, had one great advantage that these guys didn't — she could read my mind and knew exactly what I was going to do and when. Spar with that handicap enough and you become a phantom — something that can be seen but not touched. Eventually, I had learned to eliminate my prefrontal cortex from the equation. Fighting for me was more a state of mind than a cognitive activity. Simply put, the trip from my fist to your face doesn't go through my head.
"I don't know about y'all," I said, sliding into my native Southern drawl as sometimes happened when I got tired, "but I've worked-up something of an appetite. Which way to the mess hall?"
Actually, it was more like a school cafeteria than the chow-line I had expected. No mystery meat or brown-glop or chipped-beef, just simple meat-and-three stuff and as much of it as you wanted, provided you observed the "you take it, you eat it" sign on the sneeze-guard. When I saw someone ahead of me in line hold up two fingers and get two good-sized steaks, I thought, "This is my kind of place!" When it was my turn, I did the same. The cook balked, probably assuming my eyes were bigger than my stomach, but the guy ahead of me (I'd refused to let them push me to the head of the line) spoke up for me.
"You better give it to her," he said. "She just kicked the crap out of all of us. If you make her mad, I hope your insurance is paid up."
The cook started to laugh, but reconsidered when he saw that no one was laughing with him. He served me a second steak without further discussion.
If there was any formal seating arrangement, I didn't notice. I just sat at one of the long tables at random, pulling an ankle up under my butt so I would be high enough to keep my chest out of my food. I didn't even look up to see who I was sitting with until the fourth or fifth bite.
The food was good. Not the best I've ever had, but perfectly acceptable chow. I was so hungry I would have eaten it even if it had been marginal.