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Chapter 2 -- Risky Shopping
Copyright © 2002 Chris Gonnerman. All Rights Reserved.

The meeting with Natomi hadn't taken very long, so I decided to do some shopping. "Mark, do you know where I might be able to buy practice staves for Mara and myself?"

"A martial arts store, I guess," he answered. "I drive by a place on the way to work every day that sells stuff like that." A few minutes later he had found not only the store, but a streetside parking space as well. We went in.

The establishment was much larger than I expected; evidently it was once a warehouse, and few interior walls had been added. Besides a fully stocked (as far as I could tell) weapons and equipment shop, there were also two large spaces outfitted for practice and training sessions. One such space was occupied by a group performing Tai Chi exercises, and the other was unused.

"Over here," called Mark, and I stopped gawking about and went to him. He was pointing out the varieties of bo staff on display there. The bo is tapered slightly at the ends, making it very similar to my extensible staff; so it seemed a natural choice.

I picked up one of a length similar to my extensible staff, and examined it, feeling its weight and balance in my hands. "This staff feels pretty good," I said. "Much more natural than my metal staff. I like it." As Mark nodded absently I picked up a second staff of the same size and headed for the checkout.

I saw then what had Mark's attention. A short, muscular Oriental man was leaning on the checkout counter, obviously trying to flirt with the pretty blonde clerk. She was just as obviously ignoring him, and she gave me a big smile (of relief I'm sure) as I approached. "Did you find everything you needed?" she asked brightly.

"Yes, I think so," I said as I handed her the staves. She quickly rung them up as I fumbled for my wallet.

"You any good with those?" asked the smirking stranger.

"I am," I answered. "I was trained in the use of the quarterstaff, but I also know the use of the bo."

"Bet you can't take me," he said. "A hundred dollars says you can't."

"You're on," I said immediately. I was looking forward to the workout.

"Hey, that's against the rules here, Cheng," said the clerk. "I could get in a lot of trouble!"

He turned to her. "Hey, it's just practice if you don't see the money, isn't it?" he asked. "I'll even pay his rental." He pulled out some cash and paid her, and reluctantly she rang it up.

It turned out that Cheng had his own staff there already; I later learned he was an employee. He led me to the unused practice area, and I sat down to remove my shoes and socks before stepping onto the mat. "What are the rules of this contest?" I asked him as I did so.

"Three falls. The first to put his opponent on the mat three times wins." He waited less than patiently for me to get up, twirling his bo like a baton. It was a longer model than I had selected, but that didn't worry me. Maybe it should have.

I picked up one of the staves I had just purchased, and faced off against him. He bowed, and I emulated him; he assumed a defensive stance, and again I did likewise. Then we began in earnest.

He was fast, far faster than I ever expected of such a muscular man, and it was all I could do to keep up with him. I'd like to say I let him take the offensive, but he took it whether I wanted him to or not. In a few moments I was on the floor, tripped by a very unfamiliar move.

He stepped away, smirking again, as I stood up. Again he came at me, but this time I was more aggressive, and the match became more even.

Shortly I was on the mat again. Mark called, "Hey, no fair!" as I fell. I had not considered that he might use his feet as well as his staff, so I fell easily when he swept behind my knee with his foot while bearing his staff down against mine.

Only my pride was bruised. I got up slowly, taking his measure as if seeing him for the first time. Behind that arrogant smirk was a true warrior, and I had to treat him that way.

As I stood up I saw that some of the other customers had gathered around and were watching us; it made me a bit self-conscious, but then I realized I couldn't afford to let anything distract me.

A third time we went at each other, and this time it was obvious that no quarter would be asked or given. I avoided the tripping maneuver this time, and he said a word in Chinese (I assume) which I took to be a curse word. We battled on for what seemed an eternity, with every strike by either of us blocked or avoided by the other.

Finally I saw a chance. He seemed weak on the left side; The more we fought the more obvious it became. I began to concentrate my attacks to his right, then just as he began to fall into a rhythm of block, attack, block, attack I ducked low and swept my staff to his left. I hit his leg just above the knee and he fell.

I stood up, and waited for him. He came to his feet with a maneuver I had seen on television and assumed was fiction; but by now I was ready for anything, so he did not surprise me. His pride was bruised now, I could tell, for he came at me like an angry lion. I decided then to play a game with him.

I pretended I was tired, and that his attack was so fierce that I could not deal with it. I let him drive me backward, and we circled the mat that way, with him savagely striking at me and me barely blocking his strikes.

This time I waited until he swung at me with the right end of his staff at a high angle, an attack he used infrequently but with bone-jarring power. Instead of blocking it I deflected it with the right end of my staff, stepping to my left as I did so, and then I turned and brought the other end of my staff into his legs.

Again he fell. Now the score was tied.

This time he got up slowly, taking my measure. In that long moment I realized I had learned several maneuvers watching him fight, maneuvers I would have to practice later. Now, though, it was time for the endgame; he came at me again.

He fought more thoughtfully now, his smirk forgotten, as we probed at each other's defenses. I didn't have to pretend to be tired anymore. To list all the strikes, blocks, and dodges would be tedious in the extreme, and it was more by chance than skill that I found an opening and felled him again.

I offered a hand to help him up. His smirk stayed away as he counted out the twenties to me, the clerk's view blocked by Mark. I folded the bills in my hand and looked him in the eyes. "Cheng, you are a true warrior. It could have been either of us on the floor that last time. I cannot take your money." I placed the folded bills in his seemingly nerveless hand, stepped back, bowed to him, and quickly walked into the now-dispersing crowd.

"What did you do that for?" asked Mark, looking irritated. "He cheated!"

"This was a battle, Mark, not a game. He fought cleverly."

"Whatever," he said, unconvinced. I sat down on a chair near the practice area to put my shoes and socks back on, and carefully checked my invisible staff to ensure the sections were not loose in the clips. Careless of me to forget them.

Before we left, I approached the clerk. "Say, miss," I said, "do you sell those practice mats here?"

"Yes, sir," she answered. "How many do you need?"

"Well, I have a patio fifteen yards square; I'd like to cover at least a ten by ten area of it." She worked some figures on paper, then consulted her computer.

"I'm sorry sir, we don't have anything in stock that will work. Would you like to custom-order?" I agreed, and made arrangements to have the large mat sections delivered. She told me that I could expect delivery in about a week.

As I turned around to leave I saw that Cheng was gone. I wondered if I had embarrassed him by returning the money; sometimes even now I forget how much customs change in thirteen thousand years.

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The Adventures of Solo Jones Last Updated 07/18/2005