Spymaster Wang clasped his right fist in his left hand and made a slight bow as Sergeant Li reciprocated. Immediately the two men began a series of slow arm and body motions that might have been those of ordinary men and women at their morning taijiquan (Tai Chi) exercises that could be observed in a park in any Chinese city. As they moved around each other in the bare, medium-sized room that served for the Spymaster’s weekly test for his readiness in hand to hand combat, the pace of their movements grew until these were so fast that fists, arms and legs were all a blur.
Sergeant Li made several flying and spinning kicks, at times even using a wall or two for leverage or positioning. His blows were aimed at particular pressure points and, had these landed precisely, would have inflicted varying degrees of pain. Some of them could have maimed or even killed the Spymaster. The Sergeant’s footwork was sure and no observer would have doubted or mistaken the force behind his feet, fists, and knuckles.
The Spymaster forced his mind to empty itself of all thought.
Act without desiring the results of your action!
Japanese Zen Masters taught this. Chinese Chan Masters had taught the Zen Masters, and they themselves had learned somehow, somewhere this kernel of insight that pre-dated Lord Buddha himself. But there were so many thoughts that demanded his attention, quite apart from a lifetime of deep and disciplined thinking that distinguished the Spymaster from most of his predecessors and peers. Nevertheless, for now, this was the imperative of combat. Thought might make man wise, but thinking while in close combat would very likely also leave him dead. The combatants relied on instinct, intuition, “muscle memory”—“the Force.”
A swift thrust from Sergeant Li connected, barely missing one of those pressure points as his target moved slightly, just a small sideways jerk and at the last second; the Spymaster winced even as he continued the whirring ballet of combat. His movements could not compare in speed and athleticism with those of the Sergeant’s; he moved more economically, mostly to deflect the thrusts and kicks that the Sergeant sent in a ceaseless, apparently effortless, barrage. Once or twice the Spymaster whipped out a jab or slashing blow; he usually connected though never yet at the intended target points. Sergeant Li grunted at those few instances.
Why am I doing this?
The thought burst through the Spymaster’s grimly controlled consciousness of nothingness. But this thought was now only a dangerous distraction; nothing could exist for either man except for the ebb and flow, and eddies, of their movements, so fast as to be a blur--balletic, potentially lethal.
These weekly bouts were observed by no one. Few even knew that they took place. Commander Chen of a nearby army corps, who had been asked by the Spymaster to find him a sparring partner and had searched among those who trained his own men in hand to hand combat until he found and recommended Sergeant Li, was one who did. The Commander was among the handful of men that the Spymaster really trusted; they had been school mates for a decade and the bonds forged between ages five and fifteen survived subsequent decades of separate political education and military training. Very occasionally they had called on each other for favors, usually when survival was at stake and such favors critical, maybe perilous, acts. Finding and recommending Sergeant Li had not seemed to be such a favor—until the Commander learned that the Sergeant had a well-concealed obligation to a Comrade Commissar Wu, someone known to be trying to replace the Spymaster with a protégé. When he learned this, the Commander immediately relayed the information to his friend and was stunned that the Spymaster chose to continue the weekly exercises. The two men could not yet find a convenient occasion for discussing this distressing matter.
The Sergeant also concentrated on keeping his mind from distracting his body. He was fully confident in his skill as the best trainer in hand to hand combat in Commander Chen’s army corps and, even though he had never defeated the Spymaster in the two years of their weekly training sessions, he knew he had the edge in strength and speed. He also knew that he usually recovered by the next day from each session while the Spymaster occasionally showed signs that he had yet to recover from a prior week’s encounter. What distracted him most, however, was that he had received word from Comrade Commissar Wu a month ago that it was now time to kill or cripple the Spymaster--but he did not yet know how he could physically or morally do this.
He drove the Spymaster into a corner of the room with a series of kicks and knuckle jabs; the Spymaster deflected this barrage with a graceful combination of arm sweeps and pivots away from the attack, then suddenly he swept back in with a forceful knuckle jab of his own. It was the only one of his blows that completely missed the Sergeant who twisted away and launched himself up one wall, then crossed over to the other so that he landed perfectly positioned to send a flying kick directly at the Spymaster’s sternum. This time the Spymaster could not block or twist away as he had every other such occasion; his misjudged jab had left him off-balance to do either. He barely had time enough to brace himself and catch the Sergeant’s attacking foot, stopping it barely an inch from his chest. Without thinking, the Sergeant swung his other foot away so as to build momentum sufficient to wrench his foot out of the Spymaster’s two-handed grasp. He landed far away enough that it signaled the end of the combat exercise.
Both men remained in control of their breathing and bowed slightly to each other.
“Thank you, Sergeant. It was an excellent exercise.”
“Thank you, Spymaster. I am honored.”
“You let me off three times during our match.”
“Actually sir, it was five times. But you let me off twice.”
The Spymaster smiled grimly and said, “Perhaps I am getting too old for this.”
The Sergeant also smiled, a small smile, and replied, “I know of no one of the Spymaster’s companions who could have lasted as long in this room.”
“Next week, we shall meet in another place. I shall let you know where, but you should come as if to this room.”
The Sergeant understood the significance of this request; he was to be unarmed. He was not worried for he knew that his life had always been in his trainee’s hands for the Spymaster commanded resources against which a dozen armed men would not prevail, perhaps not even a dozen armored divisions. But he closed his mind to these thoughts—his fate would be decided between the Spymaster and the Comrade Commissar.
The Spymaster on the other hand now allowed himself the luxury of thought as he left the combat room and made his way briskly to his office. He would shower and change on the way and also stop briefly at the infirmary for the usual balms, poultices, whatever, as well as the usual scolding from his old school teacher who now served as his chief medical officer.
Is it time for a bodyguard?
What to do about Sergeant Li?
How to engage with Comrade Commissar Wu?
Prepare for the Politburo Committee on Public Security meeting in two days.
--Especially in light of the new activity in “Operation Kashgar.”