129

KUNG-FU THE HARD WAY

PART ONE

I heard the trouble long before I saw it; you couldn't miss the raw angry voices of people who'd fallen in love with violence. Their shouts and curses were a symphony I'd grown used to over the years of dealing with such verbal terrorism.

This isn't to say it doesn't scare me; fear is normal and you never outgrow it, what a martial artist does is make fear work for them. Even so I felt unease, anything could happen, I might lose.

So why was I getting involved and putting my looks and health on the line? The answer was that my help had been requested by the victim one look was all it took, the fear-filled eyes sending a message as eloquent as oratory, help me for god sake please do something.

Okay I thought if I must get involved then so be it, I had the fitness and the skills, I was in the right location and it was time to do just one thing, "Kick ass!"

She was a smartly dressed brunette in her early thirties, brown jacket with a matching knee-length skirt, high heels and with the professional grooming so a good job. Very pretty I remember thinking in fact somewhat glamorous for this neck of the woods and I felt offended that such a fine apportioned woman was being subjected to this abuse.

The hostiles were street toughs in cheap market clothes with regulation shaved heads, tattoos, the stink of booze and faces twisted into ugliness by lives of lack and frustration.

They were shoving the lady around in the most ungentlemanly of ways trying to cop a feel. Another guy who ran to help her (too short no combat skills and arms down), took a short, vicious uppercut to the jaw that put him flat in a heap, he was out cold and wouldn't be taking any further active part in this show. I did think to go to his aid to apply my rudimentary medical skills but another scream from the woman deflected me with its strident terror, a gut-wrenching noise that tugged at the heart strings.

Slap! The woman fell silent and slumped down the wall stunned by the vicious aggressive urban predators, a pack of two-legged dogs that barked and bit like rabid pit bulls. They stood over the woman breathing hard, one spat on the ground displaying his macho credentials then reached for his fly zip; it was clear how this story was going to end.

With a weary sigh I slowly clapped my hands as if applauding the thugs, in truth I was doing nothing of the kind I just wanted their attention and I got it. They glared at me with obvious hatred because I was interrupting their pleasure and nobody was meant to do that. But as my client was the slapped woman there was little choice other than to spoil the show.

"Walk away," I said giving them a peaceful option I knew they wouldn't take, but as a natural diplomat I had to make the offer. Filthy words flew back at me, I was told where to go and how to get there, useful tips but not original. I advanced altering my breathing pattern and relaxing my shoulders, they gazed at me with macho smiles but I could tell they were faking it, these boys were spooked because I was just too calm, people ran away from them or made excuses I didn't do either.

A few meters short of them I stopped, "This can end in two ways," I said. "You can run or you can fly."

More curses, who did I think I was some kind of (insert your own profanity of choice)? Nice I thought how perfectly delightful, I wasn't any of those derogatory things I was a teacher who imparted grains of hard-earned wisdom, some folk listened and a few like these pilgrims didn't.

A collective decision was made and they came for me a snarling pack of wolves, I relaxed more drawing on the energy low down in my belly and then when they were in range I struck.

"You'll be fine," I told the slapped woman. "It's over now." Blinking at me in confusion she gripped her rain streak, mascara smudged face and looked around, how could it be over with three barbarians on the rampage? Then she saw the inert bodies, each lying in its own pool of widening red spillage. She blinked at them amazed then her focus returned to me, did you do that? Smiling at her I nodded, yes I had and with some venom. I raised a fist it was slightly discoloured with scratches to two knuckles from the short snapping punches that had dispatched number one. My ankle was sore from the side thrust kick that taken out number two and my elbow was skinned from breaking the nose of number three but hey that's kung fu for you.

"They just wouldn't listen to reason I'm afraid."

She kissed me. I wasn't expecting her to, maybe it was a shock reaction but she gave me a huge wet smacker right there amidst all the urban decay her tongue licking her teeth and her hands gripping me tightly in a big sexy thank you. Well she was welcome. "You're amazing," she said.

"I'm a martial artist," I told her not wanting to get above myself. "And they were boys out of their depth."

She looked at her husband as he bled and moaned his heroic status had taken a nosedive.

"Do you want to move in with me?" She asked. "I can pack his bags in ten minutes."

Flattering but we'd only just met so I gave her my business card WHITE DRAGON KUNG FU KWAN.

"White dragon," she questioned?

"It's the type of kung-fu I teach; there are different styles and this is mine."

She blinked in surprise not knowing about different styles; then again most people were unaware of the fact.

"Is it good, is like in the movies?"

I grinned at the very idea, "I think it's good but no it's not like the movies," real fighting bore no resemblance to celluloid heroics.

She gave me her card which said DAISY CARROWAY MEDIA CONSULTANT, I don't know which of us was the more impressed.

"I'm Daisy Carroway," she said forcing a smile, "I own the agency," she looked again at the stiff bodies, "You fight well."

"I should hope so I've been training long enough," fifteen years but who's counting?

"Maybe we could meet up for a coffee some time," she offered and it was an opening I couldn't miss.

"Sure that would be great," I didn't know about her but I was single and had been so for too long plus Daisy was easy on the eye and like all successful women had that aura about her that said she'd be interesting company and someone I'd enjoy getting to know better.

Accessing the internet with my phone I checked the lady out, with a degree in marketing she had graduated from a leading drama school and become an actress at least for a time. Then she did 3 years with an advertising agency before starting her own firm. Amongst her clients were a smattering of showbiz types, a couple of singers, a local MP and some minor corporate players.

Impressive I thought someone I'd like to get to know better. Rather out of my league at the moment but that might change. My only employment was somewhat less enterprising but after a spell inside it was all I could get.

"One-two-three," I shouted at the neat lines of black-clad colourfully belted students assembled in the church hall each with a sweaty face after half an hour of hard work. A mix of orange, yellow and green belts with two browns they were picking up the style with admirable speed, but just how many would stick with it I couldn't tell beyond the two browns.

I taught the dragon system of Kung Fu from Southern China, it was mostly hand moves such as punches, chops, claws and elbows but there were a number of kicks such as front snap, side thrust and inward crescent. On average it took about 4 years to reach black belt, if you worked hard.

A flag bearing the white dragon logo was pinned to the biggest wall, fittingly enough it featured a huge Chinese serpent with the title white dragon in English and Cantonese underneath. I'd also put up a poster for a forthcoming tournament I wanted some of my people to enter and a framed portrait of my old master his name was Yang and he was the reason I was teaching the art in the first place.

My classes were never easy, I'd come up the hard way with lots of reps and effort and it was all I knew; to soften the pie now would be to cheat my students of an important lesson (kung-fu like life is tough) and I'd never do that, the harder the training the easier the fight is a maxim I live by.

"Four-five-six," They blocked and punched for all they were worth. "Eyes front, don't lose your focus because the other guy won't."

I moved between them correcting an arm, a knee and raising a fist. "Punch straight and true, don't cheat on yourself. You get one chance in a real fight and it's not a generous opportunity so you've got to make the most of it."

It was a smaller class than usual just 23 of them that night, that said 23 was totally acceptable it was more than my rivals could muster and believe me I kept tabs on them.

A girl looked at me and winked, yeah you get that everywhere oestrogen rules the universe. She was early twenties at a guess with a great figure and lustrous blond curls; fulsome boobs straining the front of her black t-shirt making her pure eye candy.

Trying to ignore her (yeah as if) I went over to a tubby kid having problems his block was too high, his fist too low and his stance wobbled. "Root your feet Kevin," I said. "Knees bent and toes in, push the hips forward, blocking hand open and stiff, counter on target." I tapped my own nose. "Make it work in here and it'll make you work outside."

I was preparing these people for real fighting in the real world they had to get their heads around the fundamentals.

"Okay," I said. "Combination four, step." They stepped blocked, elbowed and back fisted. Most did it right but problem kid got it wrong again, I went over to show him, elbow to the chest, fist to the eye socket. "Use your hips more, breathe out on the last strike."

Oestrogen winked at me again, how could she think of that during a class? She had a pleasant open face with a puck nose covered in freckles, bright cobalt blue eyes and bright silver stud sin both ears.

Making myself turn away I went over to a chunk of a girl puffing and spluttering like a fish on a rock. I told her to relax and she sagged like a bag of air, there was no point in her killing herself stamina came in time.

"The rest of you turn," they turned and did the moves. "Add a front heel thrust kick," I said, "And inverted punch. One," they moved as a mass following my instruction. I moved with them walking parallel to the line noticing everything because that was my job, they were paying me to iron out any kinks and I saw plenty. "Flow more and don't be so stiff the techniques should be fluid or they won't work." I sighed, "Turn into combination five."

They spun around knee block, high block, palm strike and side elbow. Not bad I thought, I was knocking this bunch into shape and after three months the club had a healthy expanded feel. It hadn't begun very promisingly though, just four souls on the first night and a couple more next time, but I'd stuck at putting up posters everywhere, flyers through letter boxes and using the internet yet it was word of mouth that had made the real difference, that and me beating this thai-boxing guy outside a local pub one night.

He's been a cocky sod a chunk of muscle with a big mouth who bragged he could floor me in one second so I let him take his best shot, a stiff leg round kick to the head which I easy dodged before putting my shoe into his bollocks. He didn't get up for ten minutes after that but it earned me a rash of new students, including friends of his.

One of them Tom was now a purple belt in my system and doing well, he inspired the others with his speed and energy. I nodded to him as I moved past but he didn't break concentration once; powering through his moves.

Turning to walk back down the line I saw a figure framed in the doorway, long leather coat, tree thick arms folded smooth head on one side watching proceedings in a languid, half-interested kind of way that I knew to be a very polished act. "Take a breather," I said to the class and made my way over to the man I knew as Shooter wondering what he was doing back in my life after all this time.

Shooter peeled off the wall and slapped my raised hand then we gripped fists in a kind of street salute used by tough guys, in his case it was the truth he was tough.

We'd come up through the ranks of Master Yang's studio together – a tough apprenticeship let me tell you – we'd sparred, competed in tournaments, broken a lot of wood and few faces. Shooter had been a friend and I hoped he still was as he'd inspired me back then a kind of older brother.

"Been too long," he said to me and he was right why had we never kept in touch? "Nice place," he remarked. "Not as much blood and pain as back in our day."

He was right about that our education had been brutal, sometimes too much.

I'd met Shooter is Kingsbrook; he'd been doing a 5 stretch for assault. The truth – he was attacked by four armed guys for no reason, he fractured the skull of one and turned into a vegetable (more of one maybe), so the judge made an example.

Me – I was doing 3 years for the same offence. I'd been attacked by a psychotic 22 stone bouncer after looking at his girlfriend the wrong way. The mad bull rushed me with fists the size of planets and I kicked him – too hard in the wrong place. He ended up in a wheelchair and I got sent down; so much for self-defence.

"They still have to earn their grade," I said.

"Oh I bet," he responded. "Good to see you in top shape; I'm afraid I've let it slide a bit."

I did not believe that for a second, he looked sleek and muscular to me, every inch the black sash unbeaten champion of some years back.

"Well if you want a workout," I offered and he flashed those bit pearly whites of his before saying.

"Let's talk outside." Not waiting for any objection he eased through the door giving me no chance to follow.

"Forms," I told the class hoping this wasn't going to take too long. "Pete, Marcie, help the others." Pete and Marcie were two of my top grades whom I'd taken further into the system than anybody they were brown belts with black tags.

Shooter lit a cigarette and puffed hard on it, he'd given them up during our training days now he blew smoke at the community centre sign.

He made my guts churn with his next words, "Tommy's back in town." He turned his head and looked at me with narrowing eyes to gauge my response; I hoped my face didn't look as scared as I felt. Tommy was bad news, seriously terrible news, the worst in fact...

"He's in the nick." I said.

"Got out early," Shooter explained.

"He's a psycho."

"Yeah well maybe he's polished his act," said my friend.

"Tommy's a head the ball, he isn't fit to be anywhere other than a zoo."

Shooter inhaled again and it was clear why he was back on the fags, he feared and hated Tommy as much as me and with good reason, between us we'd destroyed Tommy's evil club and helped put him behind bars. Now he was out he'd have one priority – to get even and nothing would stop him.

"Have you seen him?" I asked.

Fishing in a pocket Shooter took something out and handed it to me, the card was laminated and three-tone. I recognised it at once as belonging to the kwoon where he'd all learned our craft; it was one of Sifu's old greetings cards. On the back was scrawled 'blood, sweat and tears'.

This was Tommy's way of saying expect trouble boys because it's coming and soon.

"Where is he now?" I asked.

"A room over the Blue Badger," said my friend. This was a sports club cum hangout for low life, a pool hall come gymnasium for fighters, a breeding ground for urban thugs and a fertile pasture for someone like Tommy.

"I'm not going there," I said, the place was full of violent, drunken scumbags and decent people kept away if they had any sense even those trained in the martial arts. "But maybe we don't have to," there was a mobile number on the card and taking out my own Nokia I rang this. After a long pause a gruff voice answered, after all these years I recognised it.

"Tommy its Neil Davies we have some unfinished business and I think you know what I mean."

His chuckle told me he did and that he was looking forward to it.

"Why don't we get it sorted out today," I asked?

"You know where I am mate why don't you pop along for a drink first."

Nice try I thought but you must be joking, "I prefer a neutral location Tommy, no offence but I don't like the company you keep these days."

"Okay if you haven't got the balls to come here then where?"

Looking up at Shooter I saw him shake his head slowly – no thanks mate but not my place, that left only one possible location so I gave it and rung off. You're crazy said my friend's features, brave but crazy.

Shooter said, "Are you sure you want to fight Tommy here, in your own club?"

"Where better," I didn't really want to fight Tommy anywhere but there was no avoiding the man unless I up sticks and ran for the hills but that would be the end of my career and self-respect.

"What about your students," he asked, with any luck they wouldn't be around,

"The place will be empty soon," I said not intending to put innocents at risk, "And for me its home turf so where better?"

He shook his head, "Suit yourself mate," he said.

"Want to stick around," I offered him the chance to salvage some of his courage?

"Would you understand if I said no," he said?

My shrug was noncommittal but I couldn't totally mask my disappointment, it would have been nice to have a little back up. Suit yourself said my nod and went back into the club, almost everyone was doing the first form 'three step arrow punch', this was our white belt form and the most important really because all the others grew out of it.

'Three Steps' wasn't a long kata but it was full of fast, complicated little moves and difficult angles. It was mostly done in a boxer's crouch, the hands shooting out to deliver jabs, claws and one knuckle punches.

"Okay do it with me," I said resuming my place at the head of the class. "No tension this time we'll just blitz through it, focus on the stances and make sure you get the hand shapes right." I held up my right hand showing them the one knuckle fist, spear hand, crane's beak and palm heel thrust then we got started.

"Carrie Atkins," she said once we'd finished and people were drifting away back to their ordinary lives. Not as catchy as Oestrogen I thought but at least I know who you are now.

Cute, shapely and about 5.6 in height with a trim waist and wide hips, the accent local but a bit more polished than most. I remembered her walking into the kwoon about three months earlier and looking around at the flags, posters and wooden dummy in the corner saying, "hey pretty cool," like she was totally familiar with them.

"Sorry for staring," she added but I didn't think she really was. "But you're so good at this stuff like you've been doing it all your life."

Okay it was a come on line but so what, I'd used a few in my time and it was nice to receive a compliment now and again, there hadn't been many since Lulu dumped me.

I had been training since the age of twelve I took up traditional Karate to begin with as it was the only thing available back then it was a tough traditional Japanese style with lots of conditioning, sparring and a hard-nosed attitude, getting a green belt in that I'd moved onto Korean Tae kwon Do a more flowing style with lots of flashy kicks and some pretty girls in the club which didn't hurt.

I did that for about 2 years rising to red belt and thinking I was pretty shit hot at the martial arts that I knew what I was doing - then I met Master Yang and he opened my eyes to a whole new ball game.

Yang was a calm almost serene guy with a shaved head and a stud in his left ear, he ran a club called White Dragon Kung Fu Kwan – a small but growing presence in the martial arts community. Little did I realise then how much impact Yang would have on my life and that he would teach me moves that made my old training obsolete.

"Kung-fu keeps me fit," I told Carrie Atkins blandly not wanting to recite my entire CV to a total stranger even if she was easy on the eye and friendly. "What about you?"

"What about me," she threw back the shrug cool and elusive expression.

"You've obviously done martial arts before," I said, "I can tell that by the way you stand and move, your timing and power," she was good for a girl one of the sharpest I'd ever seen and I'd seen a lot.

I guessed that she'd done karate or some other hard style but it was none of my business.

"Maybe," she admitted.

"There's no maybe about it," I wiped my face on a towel, "You're good a senior grade I'd say, your sparring is first-rate and your punches have lots of snap."

That earned me a broader grin and I thought what lovely teeth she had so even and white.

"Thanks, that means a lot."

"You don't have to tell me of course, it won't affect your status here."

This earned me a frown, "My status," she repeated as a question.

"You have an orange belt in my system but you're clearly better than that, a brown or even a black belt I'd guess."

It was an educated guess to based on all the fighters I'd trained with over the years including some fine champions.

"Wow praise indeed," she gasped like this came as a total surprise.

"Just credit where it's due," I tossed back thinking that if she wanted to be mysterious that was fine by me, she didn't owe me anything certainly not her life story although I was willing to bet it was damn interesting.

Then she shocked me to the core with a question straight out of left field, "Who is Tommy?"

This caught me off my guard, had she been ear wigging my conversation with Shooter?

"I beg your pardon?" I threw back, unsettled by her knowledge how the hell did she know about Tommy?

"I'm sorry I've always been nosey but I overheard you and the black guy discussing him, he's bad news isn't he I mean he's going to cause trouble?"

It had nothing to do with this girl and if she was smart she'd keep her neck out of it, Tommy liked hurting girls especially pretty ones. I didn't want her around when he turned up here because it was going to get ugly and he might not be alone, Tommy often came team-handed.

"You want me to mind my own business don't you," she said? "Well I would under normal circumstances but something tells me he's big trouble and isn't coming here discuss old times, you may need some back up."

Talk about bold I was completely thrown, was she referring to herself when she said back up? What did she think she could do against a violent psychopath like Tommy and his equally moronic mates?

"I'm not sure that's a good idea," I said politely and her chin rose a fraction look becoming challenging.

"Don't you think I can handle myself," she asked with a sharper edge to her voice.

"In training maybe, in sparring certainly but this is different," as in nuclear war raw and feral.

"You'd be out of your league," I told her.

"I've done a fair bit of real fighting myself Neil," she said.

"Maybe you have but Tommy is a maniac and he may not come here alone."

Eyes widening Carrie touched me on the arm in a way I liked although I wished she hadn't done it, "All the more reason to have some help," she said.

"The two of us," I said sarcastically?

"Have you anyone else in mind," she demanded and the smile was gone?

"Look Carrie I don't mind risking my own neck but I'm not putting yours on the line, you don't know what you're getting into and I couldn't live with myself if you got hurt, badly hurt I mean or even killed."

Standing back and resting both fists on her hips she gave me an appraising look which said give me a break with her lips she said, "Don't underestimate me, lots of people have done that and come to regret it. I may be a girl but I can fight like a savage."

If that was the case what was she doing in my class, I mulled it over she looked fit, good muscle on the gut and arms, long legs, confident eyes so she was at least athletic?

"I appreciate the offer," I began half a second before her right foot had shot up to deliver a kick to my nose that had missed by a whisker, but it had missed that was the point and I hadn't seen it coming much less blocked it; I wasn't sure I could block it nor was I sure I could kick that fast myself.

Foot down Carrie smiled at me the point had been well and truly made.

"Where did you learn to kick like that," I asked some of the smugness knocked out of me?

"I'll tell you," she said, "After we've dealt with Tommy."

"You're no beginner I can see that, in fact your kung fu is of a higher order than what I teach here."

Most of my people were green belt or below so advanced beginners, I had only two who were better and I didn't want either of them tangling with Tommy either.

"Decent of you to say so," the reply had an edge of mockery to it.

"I think I could learn a few things from you but the warning still stands, Tommy is…" But the time for conversation and debate was over, snuffed out like a candle in the wind.

A shadow fell across us, talk of the devil and he shall appear, there stood my enemy and he wasn't alone he had a back up team of four and they were ugly, pig ugly, psychosis ugly but none of them could match Tommy in the 'scary monster down a dark alley' stakes because he looked exactly what he was – a creature that mashed up faces and broke bones.

Well over six-feet and with a barrel chest he had arms as thick as my legs, a neck that wasn't a neck at all but a tree trunk of muscle, his thrust out jaw and squashed nose were topped by two, dark hate-filled eyes. Bald now he had extra tattoos – a snake, a devil and a blood stain; Tommy was sheer class as he stood there in a white T-shirt and tracksuit pants.

His mean gaze flicked around the kwoon taking in the big yin yang symbol, the white dragon motif, the posters about forthcoming tournaments and class times. Giving a sniff like he wasn't impressed he drew his cobra-like gaze back to me and the girl.

"Get lost," he told Carrie giving her an exit if she wanted it but credit to her she didn't even look as though she wanted to take it.

Standing her ground hands on hips she gave him an equally mean look in return, "We're a team," she said bravely and Tommy looked at her in surprise, however he didn't offer another chance to leave.

"A team," laughing the word "You want to stay?"

"I do," Carrie's defiance impressed me my god she had some nerve in her/

Tommy sniffed, "Close the door," he told his mates and they did so bolting it as well then one of them drew shutters over the windows.

"Hello Neil, no other mates willing to back you up, not even that gobby nigger?"

I parted my arms he could see I was alone apart from the girl, two of us against five of them not good odds not with Tommy involved he was like a nuclear weapon he just blew up in your face.

"He lost his bottle," I said.

"But you kept yours I see, impressive, stupid but impressive." He was trying to psyche me out play an old game that in kung fu is known as spooking well it wouldn't work because I was already spooked.

"Let's get on with it Tommy, you came here to kick ass so go ahead try and kick some."

He chuckled and looked at his mates who chuckled back, Tommy waved and they moved around us coming in like surf on a beach and giving us no real space.

There were three of them all refugees from a bad road movie and all Tommy clones with their shaved heads and tats but there the similarities ended.

One was squat and thick necked, imagine a white Mike Tyson if you can and you've some idea. Next to him was a taller ape with black painted lips and psychotic green eyes, he reminded me of the actor Rutger Hauer, you know he was in the original 80s version of The Hitcher.

The third guy was mixed race maybe human and baboon, he was all muscle a real gym bunny with a nasty sneer and scars on both cheeks like someone had taken a cheese grater to his face.

"Soften him up for me," Tommy said. "Don't break too many bones tenderise him a bit."

Three of them, could I handle three; well I was about to find out. Who did I hit first because if I didn't attack and steal the initiative they'd overrun me. When facing multiple opponents you have to attack first, something Yang had taught me and he was good against teams of racist thugs, I seen him flatten more than a few on a Friday night when cowards full of ale and curry thought they could handle a lone 'chink' and soon learned the hard way that they couldn't.

What happened next amazed me, it amazed Tommy to and his lads as it was so unexpected and so very effective.

Carrie took something from her waistband put it to her lips and blew, the sound made the inside of my head explode and I dropped to a knee gripping myself, more importantly so did the apes.

The anti-rape whistle was piercing and paralysing, I'd never experienced anything like it in my life.

Without pausing for a heartbeat Carrie stepped forwards into the throng of agonized men and kicked Tyson right in the face, the ball of her shoe hit his jaw his jaw in a brilliant kayo. Without putting her leg down she side kicked Hauer on the temple sending him skittering sideways with glassy eyes and a slack jaw, then pivoted and with the same leg delivered a round house kick to the Adam's apple of baboon. Hauer picked himself up shook his head and pulled out a blade, nothing big just a wicked looking curved thing with a sharks tooth point perfect to filleting C Thomas Howell I thought but Carrie had other ideas.

Not even pausing she jumped, spun in mid air and hit him with a flying back kick to the centre of the chest knocking him flying back into some stacked mats; he slid down these with a look of agonized disbelief.

The guys she'd hit were getting up, closing in angrily and looking for payback their eyes gleaming with malicious hatred at being humiliated by a chick.

I lunged at Hauer drilling him with my fists landing at least half a dozen rapid mantis punches to the stomach, neck and face these were thrown from mid chest and only travelled three inches but they were cumulative and brain numbing slamming into pressure points and joints with devastating effect.

Then I spun and nailed Tyson with a sideways elbow jack to the chin poleaxing the guy who sank without a whimper. Looking over at me Carrie nodded and smiled, not bad said the smile you've got potential.

Then she turned to the guy she'd jump kicked because he was coming back, he was just in time to take a leading hand punch to the kisser, a reverse punch to the liver and a front snap kick in the teeth. He didn't go down though so Carrie spun and leg swept him hacking his pins from under him so that he crashed onto his back with a sickening crunch.

One pilgrim was coming back, closing in on him with a hop I double kick and double punched him, a move from the brown belt form and he hit the earth like a sack of shit at Tommy's feet.

Gazing down at the wreckage Tommy sniffed, chewed some gum and folded his arms.

"Am I meant to be impressed," he said making it sound like he wasn't but I knew he had to be? "Flash moves don't make a good fighter," he said, "This does."

The next thing I knew something thunked into the wall by my head making the wall shake and windows rattle, I turned to look at an evil silver spike about 4 inches long vibrating in the plaster – a Chinese throwing dart like those girls in ENTER THE DRAGON had used to hit fruit in mid air. Jesus I thought he could have taken an eye out with that or hit me in the throat, I'd have been dead before I hit the tiles.

Carrie was looking at Tommy hard her fists clenched and knees bent, "Prick," she told him and he actually laughed.

"Come on Neil," he said. "You and me let's see how much you remember from Yang's classes." Uncoiling something from around his middle he threw it at my feet and it lay there like a satin snake with the head cut off.

"Yeah that's your old sash the one I took off you when I beat you that time, I said you didn't deserve a black sash and you didn't," he pointed. "You still don't sunbeam," he kicked the sash. "Well come on then you coward prove me wrong," he spat out his gum. "Coward then and coward now more like a yellow sash."

Carrie looked at me not understanding but Tommy understood and so did I, the monster raised his right fist and kissed it like a lover.

"Remember how hard I hit you last time well this time it's going to be even harder," and he threw some short vertical punches into the air five or six ending with a shout that made me jump.

"Kung fu has to be real or its nothing," he sneered. "I've no time for poses and dances, ancient rituals and all that bowing. I teach fighting and I practise it to, so how about you Neil what's your solution?"

Tommy had humiliated me in front of the entire kwoon that night we had fought with no rules full-contact a challenge match. I felt sure I could beat him that I was faster and more skilled, that I had the moves to beat his amazing strength and homicidal sadism but I had been wrong, dead wrong.

Later as he drove me to A&E I had seen the disappointment in Yang's eyes and I knew I had let him down that his protégé, his friend and possible successor had fucked up royally. Things were never the same between him and me after that, we were distant and cool.

Tommy never returned to the kwoon and soon after I stopped going to, unable to face Yang too ashamed to show my face if I'm honest. I had lost, in fact I'd been thrashed and it's hard to get over something like that when your self-respect has been beaten into slime before everyone you know.

I went into an immediate ready stance from my system, legs bent with weight on the rear foot and hands raised. Not bothering with a stance he lunged at me, he was fast for a big man way too fast for me to get out of the way and as he crashed into me I lost my footing and with went much of my composure.

Smashing my guard aside he closed his thick arms around me, lifted me into the air and the next thing I knew I was crashing onto the floor, the wind evacuating my lungs in an agonized rush.

It was a wrestling slam and very effective as it rendered me pretty much helpless.

Lying there limp and winded I looked up at my nemesis through watery eyes, he was laughing at me his huge hands knotted into fists and eyes gleaming with triumph.

Then he staggered, tumbling to one side and grunting with pain. A foot had smashed into him - no two feet, he had been drop-kicked and the drop-kicker gave a shriek of fury.

When the brute didn't go down she kicked him again, a round house to the ribs but this time Tommy was ready and he caught her leg, wrapping his biceps around it and holding on tightly. Hopping on one leg Carrie hung there with a look of horror on her face, she had suffered the worst indignity a martial artist could suffer the notorious leg-grab and Tommy was making the most of it moving around forcing her to hop with him.

"You silly little girl, Neil isn't worth risking your looks for, are you Davies?"

Climbing back to my feet I wished I could do something to help Carrie but I could barely help myself.

Then with contempt he threw her aside, tossing her towards some matting upon which she landed with a sharp grunt. His attention then returned to me and his features bulged into a mask of loathing.

I couldn't let him overwhelm me again nor could I leave Carrie to cope with him alone, so I flew at Tommy and hit him with anything and everything I could – my fists, knees, elbows and head.

Stumbling back under my impetus he grunted with each impact and it was gratifying to see bruising and blood appear on his face where my blows made their mark, at least I had the power to hurt him and if I could hurt him I could beat him.

But when he retaliated it was impressive speed and force, with a level of skill I could not match, I felt it but I didn't see it and consequently I couldn't block it. It was like being hit by a speeding car and something very hard slammed into my chest, there was so much power behind it that I was sent spinning back with a cry; knocked right off my feet.

The floor came up to greet me again, this time I rolled across it rather than crashed into it and also this time Tommy came after me with a roar like an enraged bull. He intended to finish me off to kick me or stamp me or go for a choke, and there was nothing I could do until…

Crashing into the long staff was a total fluke I hadn't planned it in fact I'd forgotten the staff was even there, it was a five-footer and used in a couple of forms I taught. As it fell onto me I caught it instinctively with both hands; gripping it as it should be gripped and thrusting it upwards in a vicious stab.

One blunt end impaled Tommy in the solar plexus finding a soft spot and digging in deep, at once he came to a halt, gulped, doubled over and his face turned white absolutely bloodless.

Gripping himself he fell backwards and brought his knees up and this time he was paralysed with pain, hit in just the right spot and rendered helpless. I wanted to get up and finish him off but was in no state to, this task was left to Carrie who went over to the retching, heaving brute and jabbed her fingers into his neck on the left side, hooking them in to find and probe the jugular vein. Tommy couldn't stop her and I saw his eyes roll up, his thick limbs flop and his wide body go limp within seconds he was out cold, switched off like a car engine. He lay there in the middle of my gym like a piece of refuse as harmless as a baby.

Carrie ran to me, checked me over and nodded her head as though no dreadful injuries had been inflicted. Taking the pole off me - she twirled it, "You're a star," she said then added, "You were also lucky."

Yes I thought but there had been a degree of skill involved to I was well trained with the pole it had been Master Yang's favourite weapon.

"Can you get up," she asked?

"I'm not sure," I replied.

"That was some head butt he caught you with."

I looked at her amazed having never been head butted to the chest before, "My sternum feels like it's been caved in," I said, "Oh nice pressure point technique by the way."

Telling me I was welcome she helped me up then asked me what I wanted to do with Tommy, we couldn't leave him sleeping here because when he woke up he'd be in a foul mood?

"Help me carry him outside to my van," I owned a small Bedford. "I'm going to take him for a little ride out onto the moors, they can be very parky at night and he isn't exactly dressed for it."

Smiling her agreement Carrie took our opponent by his ankles and the pair of us heaved him outside, my god he weighed a ton and we had to rest several times but eventually we got him into the back of the van which wasn't parked too far away.

"He'll get off the moors eventually," said my fighting partner, "What then?"

What indeed I had no idea, all I knew for sure was that I hadn't seen the last of this big oaf and now he had more reason than ever to hate me, to hate the pair of us.

PART TWO

Carrie took me to meet her teacher two days later, two days of fear and dread in my case as I expected Tommy to turn up at any moment and cave my head in with a baseball bat but he didn't there was no sign of him maybe he was busy licking his wounds; his pride badly dented I hoped so.

"Goh is very choosey," Carrie told me, "He doesn't just accept anyone as his student he doesn't have to, it took ages for me to convince him I was good enough to join his club."

I frowned, "Why should he accept me then, I mean I don't know the guy."

Saying she would vouch for me and that everything would be 'cool' Carrie dismissed the subject with an airy wave.

What style does he teach," I asked?

"Tiger," she replied, "The Fukien tiger boxing system to be precise."

Picking me up in her small white Ford van Carrie drove me across town to east side where she worked for a florist and on the side of the van it said Pink Carnations the name of the shop and contact details, the inside of the van smelled of flowers and fragrance and I found this most pleasant. Carrie had changed her hair style and put on a little make up and these changes were pleasant to, but she was still poised and alert like any true martial artist.

She'd told me her teacher was not unlike me and he taught a different system, but having seen her fight I knew it was more northern Chinese the type of style that used jumping and spinning kicks which my style didn't.

"You'll pick things up quickly," she said, "If you want to I mean you don't have to train with my Sifu."

Always on the lookout for new ideas and new moves I knew I was going to, my training had become stagnant in recent years I hadn't added to it for ages and this is always a mistake.

The fight with Tommy had shown up my shortcomings, I needed to get fitter, stronger, faster and better in case we clashed again and something in my gut told me we would that he wouldn't let this go, his pride and ego were just too big.

Soon we arrived outside a solid white walled 3 floor building on the edge of China Town, the ground floor sold herbs and potions the second was for bone setting and acupuncture but the top floor was where all the action took place; I noted the dragon, tiger and white crane designs on the windows and the lights on behind them.

"Come up," said Carrie, "He'd love to meet you."

"Is there a class," I asked not wanting to disturb it or be in the way?

"Private students only on Wednesdays," she said, "That's how I started as a privateer," she laughed; "and then I graduated to the main class on Friday."

To bypass the lower floors and get straight to the KWOON we used a back staircase and soon I was entering a long, fragranced room with mirrors down one side, hanging kick bags, a wooden dummy man and a strong varnished floor perfect for training on; I'd say the place was about sixty feet by forty with overhead bar lights and a small silver Buddha on a shelf at the far end. There were around seven people in black pants and yellow tops doing various things with varying degrees of skill to my eye some were rank beginners with poor balance and coordination, another couple were getting it together with their stances and hand moves.

Directing them in an all black outfit was a lean, muscular looking oriental guy of around 34 with an easy smile but hard eyes, want to know a really good fighter then look at the eyes they tell the whole story and this fella's orbs had that deep, hard venomous sheen that said been there and done it for real.

With receding dark hair and broad shoulders he didn't come over at once as he was helping this girl with her form so Carrie said, "Master Goh has helped me a lot over the years with self-confidence and a crippling back problem she showed me special qigong exercises to strengthen the spine."

"So why did you come to my club Carrie if you've got this guy?"

"You have a reputation; I wanted to know if it was genuine or just hot air."

"And am I genuine," I asked interested to know the truth?

She rolled her eyes, "Of course I've been very impressed by the way you teach and how you fought Tommy's goons," but not Tommy himself I was willing to bet still sore and stiff from that wrestling slam.

Then Master Goh was approaching us with an outstretched hand that I took and at once I felt 'it', the 'it' being a burst of inner power that all real masters have, an electricity that shoots up your arm and pows you in the chest. Fakes don't have it, most westerners don't either but Goh did and it marked him out as someone of importance. I gave my name and system he listened patiently then I said Carrie had brought me and a smile formed.

He had an interesting tattoo on his neck that I couldn't see clearly but from what I could see it was an insect or arachnid something with long legs and a pincer.

Carrie said, "I thought you could help take Neil to the next level sir, he's very keen but just needs a little polish."

My face burned at this remark, I had thought myself one hot potato when it came to kung fu a good fighter and decent coach but I'd always known by training was far from complete, Yang had disappeared out of my life too soon and I needed a replacement.

Goh looked me over with interest, "You used to train with Master Yang," he said and my cheeks burned.

"We parted company," I didn't want to say why and hoped he didn't press the point it was a sensitive subject and still left a sour taste in my mouth. Luckily he took the hint.

"Show me something," he said in good English, "One of your forms," so moving to one side I did the third kata in my system which is needed for orange belt it is called 'five fists of the dragon', a long sequence which contains some good combinations and more kicks than the others, mostly low side and roundhouse kicks plus some double punches and double claw strikes with a neat jumping spin at the end. Doing it left me breathless and sweating, my shirt sticking to my back but Carrie applauded.

Goh rubbed his chin and made a sighing noise like he was sort of impressed but not totally won over.

Then he looked at Carrie and they swapped a wink he saying, "Bit like one of ours," and to me, "Let me show you one of mine."

Getting some space he exploded into a rapid and eye melting sequence of unbelievably fast hand moves and lethal low-line kicks done in four directions with some flare when it was over I was blown away what the hell had that been?

"Fantastic," I said, "How high up is that in your syllabus?"

Carrie said, "That's number 4 in our system done at green belt."

"Incredible," I said, "Do you know it?"

She nodded then Goh came over to me and told me to get into my usual stance, very soon he was correcting my leg position, hand shape, body posture and breathing. He told me to do my best punch which I did pretty proud of it until he took it to pieces telling me what was wrong with it, too much shoulder not enough hip, not enough snap, I needed to sink the shot in and relax more let it flow. All good advice and I had to admit that when I did things his way they were a hell of a lot better.

"You're not bad," he said, "But all your chi is in the upper body you need to sink it," he slapped his own belly, "Western people are always like this their power is too high, to be good at kung fu you have to sink, kung fu comes from the ground up not the head down."

Goh smiled to show he meant no offence but I wasn't offended I was honoured, he said, "Dragon's fire comes from the belly the Tan Tien."

Yes I thought what the Japanese call the Hara it was something I'd tried to develop but had never quite managed it.

"Keep kicks low," he said, "Never kick high, it works in the movies but rarely in real life unless you're a gymnast like her," he nodded at Carrie.

"Tae Kwon Do," she told us and Goh wrinkled his nose like he didn't much care for the Korean system, I was adept in it myself but decided not to mention this. I'd seen Carrie in action she could kick like a demon so it couldn't be all bad.

"Come back," said Goh, "Do the regular classes, you can learn our forms, qigong and applications."

That sounded brilliant to me and I made up my mind to pay this place another visit, "How long have you been training sir?"

He thought about it then said, "Since the age of 3."

Well I couldn't match that it was a lifetime of dedication, I looked at his private students and asked what they were doing, Goh told me and most were working on basic drills or the early forms. The basic two kata were the core of the system from which all the others developed, other forms were just variations and extensions of these two and this was common to many family styles including my own.

The early forms were known simply as 26 movements and 36 movements; the sets that came after were of course longer but based on the same lines – fast hands and low kicks. "You'd pick them up quickly," Carrie told me, "You have a good memory. For some people learning forms is very hard because it's so alien but you'd be fine."

She demonstrated 26 and 36 for me and they didn't look too difficult once you got over the stylistic variation to what I knew, they both moved in a straight line back and forth, the numbers referred to strikes and as some techniques were blocks there were obviously more than just 26 motions or 36 motions.

Goh bowed to me he had to get back to his students; bowing back I followed Carrie out of the gym and back towards her car it had been a most interesting experience and I had found a new master to follow, a new string to my martial arts bow.

"Thanks for introducing me," I said and she smiled back that I was welcome.

"I train here about twice a week now," she said, "I used to do a lot more when I first started because I was so keen but I've mellowed a bit," she laughed at herself, "Well maybe mellowed is the wrong word."

Having seen her in action I could only agree there was nothing soft or mellow about my new student, or was I now her student?

Shouting raucous voices drew our attention away from pleasant matters to something uglier like the huddle of hood wearing yobs ringing my car drinking from cans, swearing and kicking at my chassis. Oh no I thought not again I honestly didn't want to get into another fight so soon after Tommy and that slam my back and ribs ached.

I threw Carrie a look as much as to say do you want to get into this but she was already heading in the direction of the mongrels like she hadn't a care in the world and I realised something in that moment Carrie enjoyed fighting she actually looked forward to it and wasn't scared of getting hurt even when the odds were against her.

The mob sensed her approached and turned, a cheer went up and the lager cans lowered as the animals moved away from my car with something more interesting to occupy them. I counted a dozen of them made brave by numbers and booze; they obviously didn't rate us and weren't scared of some short girl.

When they clocked me some of the grins faded a bit, "Oi mate this your tart," one asked and several crude remarks followed about what we'd been up to and what this lot wanted to do to Carrie, it was water off a ducks back to me I'd heard it all before but I wondered how Carrie would cope?

"Maybe she'd fancy a real man for a change," said one of the apes like he was actually a man in disguise, "Not some old poof like you."

Ignore it I told myself, they're just words and they don't mean anything.

"What's wrong poof," I was challenged, "No bottle?" Just ignore it and stay cool you don't want another fight and words can't hurt you.

They did though they stung and I felt adrenaline burn its way through my veins.

Strolling up to the two nearest yobs lads aged about 17 or 18, big lumps with low foreheads and long arms, Carrie smiled it was the smile of a predator about to feed not that these idiots knew that.

They thought she was interested in them and one tried to grope her chest this was a big mistake, instantly parrying the lad's arm she went into a spin hitting him to the face with her elbow smacking home a telling blow that sent him flying over the hood of my car with a blank expression, not even pausing she back kicked the second lad on the jaw and I saw his eyes switch off instantly before he dropped into the gutter face down.

A roar went up from the others a mixture of anger and outrage as cans were tossed aside and bodies moved in on Carrie, I sprinted across the road as fast as I could my heart in my mouth knowing there was no peaceful, diplomatic solution to this now so what was the point in holding back?

I launched a jumping scissor kick (legs splaying in mid air) that took out two of the incoming bodies knocking them into the middle of the road but as I landed the rest surrounded me hatred and loathing in their eyes they were out to avenge their mates and there was only one way to do this by smashing me into jelly.

Not waiting for the inevitable rush I lunged forward to punch one jaw, kick another, spin and sweep a guy's legs away. The rest reared back horrified and amazed that I'd taken the fight to them and not cowered away begging for mercy like most folk would have.

Vile curses vomiting from their lips they regrouped wondered what to do the herd instinct confused, Carrie leapt over a car bonnet to deliver a dropkick to the side of one head sending it to the cobbles, this decided matters because the few survivors who were not heroes or real fighters in any sense sped away up the street, their lager-fuelled courage well and truly evaporated.

Carrie looked down at the bloody bodies then up at me she raised her right hand and I slapped it with my own, my first high-five this was turning into an evening of firsts.

PART THREE

I didn't expect to hear from master Goh again at least not until I returned to his club but he sent me an email saying how much he'd enjoyed talking to me and could I meet him at a Chinese owned café later that day called 'Jade'.

By 2pm I was there and the pleasant lady behind the counter seemed to know who I was she directed me to a table in the corner that was unoccupied; she looked surprisingly like the master so I asked who she was.

"Goh is my uncle," she admitted to my surprise. "My name is Lara Chen."

Lara was in her twenties with a pleasant, open face and long hair tied back into a bun she had blond highlights and a ring in just one ear she reminded me of a student, lots of them came to my club for self-defence classes. "You don't look like a martial arts enthusiast," said Lara.

"I teach the stuff," I replied. "A different style to your uncle, I only met him yesterday."

Placing a cup of mint tea before me Lara sat down in the chair opposite, "Look," she said, "You seem like a really nice guy so I think I'd better warn you that uncle mixes with some really heavy people, nasty types who I don't think you'd much care for. I'm not saying uncle is a villain himself but sometimes they ask him to do jobs for them, violence and he does it he uses his skill to help them."

Deeply disturbed by this information I sipped at the mint tea thinking I was in the wrong place mixing with the wrong people yet again.

"Are you serious," I asked but I could tell from her expression that she was, "You're telling me that Goh beats people up for money?"

"I've seen him do it," she added, "I watched him break a man's arms in the yard out back."

My gut tightened with alarm this was the last thing I wanted to hear, "Why did he do it," I enquired?

Lara sighed seeming to be ashamed of the memory, "The poor fool had a gambling debt; it was only about fifty quid."

"And Goh broke his arms," I could hardly believe it?

"Plus several ribs and his nose," Lara added, "He has a fierce temper and is not a very nice person. I'm surprised you want anything to do with him."

Odd thing for a niece to say but I appreciated the candour, Carrie hadn't mentioned any of this assuming she knew it and how could she not?

I said "Goh teaches a girlfriend of mine and I just thought he was a kung fu master I didn't know he was involved with the triads."

Drawing in a sharp breath she reached across the table to rest a hand on my arm, "I can't tell you what to do," she said, "But be careful don't let uncle talk you into doing anything that seems wrong, he can be very persuasive he even got my husband to go along with him on a job and Tony was badly hurt he wasn't ready for it and couldn't handle it."

Well there was no way Goh was talking me into getting involved in triad business or punishment beatings I wasn't interested, my martial arts training was for self-defence and personal improvement I wasn't a hired gun that gangsters could pay to harm people they didn't like. Lara seemed about to say more when she jumped up and snapped, "I hope you enjoy your tea sir," in a cold voice.

Goh was stood behind us staring at us intently especially her, he was smoking a cigarette that he stubbed out in an ashtray shaped like a fish. Lara forced herself to smile, "Uncle," she said, "How nice to see you again it's been too long, I'll get you some tea." Off she scooted as fast as she could go, which didn't seem fast enough.

I waited for Goh to come to me when he didn't I stood up and took my cup to him he said, "Tara keeping you entertained?"

Not willing to drop the girl in it I merely nodded in a noncommittal sort of way, "What do you want to talk about," I asked?

Goh looked at me probingly for a few seconds then he dredged up a smile but it was hard work, "Not here," he said, "Let's go sit in my car it's more private."

Not waiting for his tea or letting me finish mine he went outside, I hung back until Lara reappeared which she did through some streamers, be careful her face was still saying watch yourself.

"Thanks for the tea," I said.

"You're welcome, what did he say?"

"He wants to talk in his car," I replied.

"Don't let him charm you into anything, just use common sense."

I liked Lara she seemed caring, open and honest, brave to if she was willing to open up to a total stranger about her uncle; I didn't want to leave her but I had to Goh was waiting.

Two big surprises awaited me first the car, it was a Rolls Royce a brand new one based on the plate; bright metallic blue with a personalised number plate, the second shock was Carrie sat on the back seat as Goh hadn't mentioned her at all so why was she present? Getting behind the wheel he waved me to sit next to him and I did saying hi to the girl, who just smiled back routinely.

"Nice car," I remarked enviously wishing I could afford something like this not many could, Goh was earning serious money from somewhere and this tended to confirm his niece's warning.

If he was in with the triads then of course he'd have plenty of cash; they paid well for services rendered and my blood ran cold at the thought of this guy beating people up.

"Yes not bad is it," he said disinterestedly, he clearly hadn't invited me here to talk about his roller.

"Business must be booming," I said with a joviality I didn't feel, I'd never had anything to do with the Chinese underworld as it was closed and vicious.

"It is," he agreed without smiling, "So much so that I'm in a position to make you an offer."

Oh god here it comes I thought and knew I needed to offset Goh to put him straight, sooner rather than later.

Taking the bull by the horns I cleared my throat knowing he wasn't going to like what I had to say, "Look sir I've no interest in working for the triads I don't care how much they pay."

He took it well the look on his face remained serene and unruffled but there was also a deep coldness in those eyes of his a malice he was not a man to mess with. He had looked skilful and powerful before now he struck me as dangerous and poised to strike had I said the right thing?

"I didn't mention the triad," he responded, "What made you think of them?"

Don't drop Lara in it I told myself don't mention her name or look back at the cafe or he'll suspect, maybe he would anyway.

"Well don't you," I threw back waving around at the plush leather seats?

"I could be a successful trader," he snapped, "I could run my own profitable business."

"And do you," I threw back challengingly?

But it was Carrie who spoke next in a high pitched almost sing song voice, "Triads," she said, "What do you mean by that?"

Her words were light and humorous but that cold glint remained in Goh's eyes, he looked ready to explode in my face.

"You insult me;" he said softly, "What makes you think I have anything to do with those people, not all Chinese are into the triad."

"So what is this about," I asked, "Why all the cloak and dagger, why can't we talk in the café?"

He shrugged like it was no big deal but it was Carrie who said, "We just wondered if you'd be interested in taking part in a tournament Sifu is organising, a mixed style martial arts event."

That was a turn up for the book me in a competition, I hadn't done one for years.

"Why think of me," I asked, "I'm a bit old these days?"

"Rubbish," said Goh with a wave, "You are a brilliant fighter Carrie has seen you in action and last night I did myself against those yobs, you fight like a champion and would bring honour to the name of kung fu."

"Thanks very much I'm flattered but when you say mixed style, what do you mean?"

Goh said, "Karate, tae kwon do, other non Chinese systems. I organise these events every other year and this year we're a bit short on good kung fu artists it made me think of you at once."

"Don't you have enough good people in your kwoon," I asked thinking of the people I'd seen?

"Carrie and maybe one other at the moment," he said, "But that isn't enough what I need is an exceptional kung fu man a master who knows the art inside out and who isn't afraid when the chips are down, who can give and take who is hard." Goh laughed on this last word.

"Are you taking part," I asked and his geniality wavered a bit?

"I never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn't do myself," he said with an edge.

"When is this event," I enquired only half interested?

"Next week," said Carrie and it was a jolt, this was very short notice as you needed to prepare to get in shape and build stamina.

"Impossible," I told them. "I'm not fit not match fit, I haven't done any road work or beefed up on protein, I'd need more notice than a week or even a month, I used to prepare for events six months in advance."

Goh looked sullen his face a cloud as though I'd offended him personally but what did he expect did he take me for a fool, nobody goes into a tournament with only a week to prepare because you're up against black belts, champions, pro fighters at the peak of their powers.

"How does £500 in cash for each win sound," he asked suddenly and I caught my breath in amazement, £500 was a lot of money to me in those days and it was more than I'd ever earned before.

He added, "I know things are tight for you, that you have debts I'm sure you could use an injection of cash," he wasn't kidding I was desperate for a new income stream.

"Who isn't hard up these days," I was trying to sound casual but didn't sound convincing to my own ears.

"I'm not," Goh said flatly, "I can afford to be generous, nobody else will pay you 500 for one victory."

He was right there, "What if I lose?"

"You won't," he sounded totally assured, "I've seen you in action you're good, one of the best."

Maybe but I'd be up against other experts, black belts and seasoned fighters, "All I have to do is win," I asked?

"Nothing else, I'm not hiring a hit man," he smiled, Carrie did to but I was serious.

"I might get injured," it was a certainty all fighters got injured even the winners.

"I will cover any medical and dental bills you incur," Goh was quick to assure.

"Come on Neil its easy money for a guy with your skills," Carrie took over flattering me batting those eyelashes of hers.

"Will you be competing," I asked?

"Sure I will I can handle myself against anyone," I'd seen how true this was Carrie was a ferocious kicker not many girls would best her.

The master said, "It is important you help me Neil I think you are the kind of man who could tip the balance, my association has never before lost in this event because we have always had the best fighters, but this year they are thin on the ground people have let me down."

Sorry as I was to hear this I wasn't risking my life and health for a total stranger so I said I'd give it some thought and get back to him.

"Soon," he urged, "It must be soon so I can register your name, if I don't do that the others will accuse me of cheating."

"These others your rivals just how good are they, what kind of talent can they muster I mean are they good regional fighters, national champions or what?"

Carrie said, "Run of the mill black belts who train twice a week not up to your level, most aren't even very fit."

"Are you competing," I asked?

"Of course it's an honour to be asked I wouldn't miss it for anything."

"What are the rules is it full, semi or points?"

Goh and the girl swapped a look then he said, "There are no rules the aim is to win."

I didn't like the sound of that what did he mean no rules there had to be some kind of structure, "Explain."

Carrie said, "Full power blows with no quarter, the fights are realistic and final they always end in a kayo."

That meant people got hurt maybe quite seriously, "Sounds brutal," I said, "And illegal."

Goh was quick to shake his head, no he insisted no laws were being broken everyone was covered by insurance but I didn't believe him this felt all wrong it felt nasty and unofficial like bare knuckle boxing.

I said, "I'll think about it, that's all I'm prepared to say at this stage."

Goh looked angry, Carrie folded her arms in frustration but getting out of the car I looked back and said. "My health is more important to me than anything," and I walked away determined not to get dragged into this not after what Tara had said.

Back in my kwoon I trained hard going through the second form in my syllabus which you needed to go from yellow to green belt, it was twice as long as the first set and moved in different directions (left, right and two diagonals), there were also some kicks and spins which gave it a more flamboyant feel. Our forms did not look spectacular you wouldn't see them in a movie, but they were full of useful techniques. SAAM JI KUEN had sliding punches, double punches, back fists and finger jabs to eyes, throat and groin covering most angles.

My students learned this set after six months of doing the first one, then they didn't learn another form for another six months, form 3 was more complex still and I'd been made to work on that for a full year. Yang's system had six hand forms and just two weapons, it wasn't complex but it was demanding.

It had just shouted on the last move when I became aware of a presence, as the kwoon was locked this seemed unlikely but when Carrie moved into the light I knew she had a way of defeating locks maybe Goh had taught her that to they seemed very close.

"I like it," she said smoothing her tan jacket, around her throat was a red kerchief.

"I won't ask how you got in but I'd appreciate you not doing it again, without permission."

Ignoring the rebuke she offered me a wintery smile and nodded saying, "Silk reeling energy, "You do your forms in a most advanced way."

I did them how Yang had taught them and he was a hard task master, hard but honest.

"Good quality teaching," I said.

"You're an exceptional martial artist," she flattered, "Too good to waste your talents here in some back street rented room."

I knew when I was being played when a woman was stroking my ego so I chose not to respond.

"Goh is looking for teachers as well as fighters and he could set you up in a much better place than this."

Oh nice try I thought feeling slighted, "Come to give me a sales pitch to soften me up," I enquired?

She smiled, "Of course I have Neil you didn't think we'd just give up and let it go do you?"

Honesty at last I said, "You'll get my answer when I'm ready to give it I won't be pressured or seduced, attractive though you are Carrie."

Her smile was demure and flattered, with a cute smile she moved closer to me.

"I think you're holding yourself back," she said, "Limiting yourself because you don't think you deserve more, lots of people do that they deny themselves they hide behind excuses and embrace their comfort zones it's so sad especially when there's a better way."

Not bad I thought good pitch neat angle it worked on the ego buttering me up, "Goh's way," I said?

"You could do a lot worse," she said.

"Straight question Carrie – is he triad, if you lie I'll know?"

She thought about it and lowered her gaze for a moment then she said, "Okay yes he is, Goh belongs to the biggest triad in this area the Black Serpent."

I'd heard of them everyone In Chinatown had they were a vicious crew running most of the drugs, whores and protection rackets and not averse to gratuitous violence – cutting off fingers, hands even genitals.

I felt a deep wave of regret as I said "Please leave," I grabbed a towel. Staying put defiantly she met my gaze, not a girl who was easily intimidated.

"He may be triad but I'm not," she said.

Not good enough, "You're his student his spokesperson, you might as well be triad. I don't deal with them."

She shot back, "Was your master so pure so innocent, what his name – Yang, did Yang never do anything wrong?"

It was a frosty day about a week before Christmas and the last class of the year, so there weren't many of us in attendance just a few diehards like me grinding through our forms or weapons half-heartedly. Yang was distracted that night not fully focused on us so he didn't ride us as hard as he might have. A plump man in his late 30s then with receding hair he was as agile as a monkey and missed nothing, he had inherited the style from his uncle, a man whose portrait hung on a wall above us looking down unforgivingly.

Something was wrong with sifu but I couldn't put my finger on it, he wasn't his usually joking self nor did he attempt to spar with us which he always did at Christmas showing us how little we really knew about kung fu, he wasn't even practising the advancing breathing or five animal forms and this was unheard of. None of us knew this inner-door sets as we hadn't earned the right to at that stage and some of us never would.

Then in they came and the moment I saw them I knew there was going to be trouble, they were from the lakeside tae kwon do school, I knew that because of their club logos, their cockiness and the fact I'd seen them there breaking wood and doing flashy kicks. They hated us as much as we hated them and it was unheard of for them to just walk in like this unannounced, or maybe they had announced it to sifu hence his distance.

The moment he saw them Yang took off his jacket under it he wore a grey vest his fighting vest as it was known, his thick rock solid arms bulged out of this Yang looked fat but he wasn't and he could move with cat-like speed. The tae kwon do boys gazed at him like he was a bug and their leader Franco gave an arrogant leer, he was built like a body builder and had acted in a couple of low budget movies he thought he was a real hotshot being a third degree black belt.

"Class over," Yang told us but that was pretty obvious.

"Damn right," said Franco who had a TV part coming up, "It's over for good China boys."

I hated the sight of him and wanted to say something but Yang threw me a look that said keep out of this I know your hot temper, he went to face Franco being smaller, older and without much obvious hope of winning.

Squaring up to him, Franco threw a few kicks into the air to show us how supple he was, how he could easily hit our sifu in the head. Just bowing to him Yang went into a ready posture, the sam chien stance that we used for sparring. Regarding this with contempt the 3rd Dan laughed to his mates who laughed back, what a load of nonsense our style was no match for Korean karate.

Not bowing F attacked with a vicious sidekick back fist combination meant to take Yang out swiftly and easily, when it didn't he threw an inward crescent axe kick hard enough to split a man's skull open then threw a couple of punches. Evading these easily Yang circled around the back of him, not turning F kicked hard to his rear but Yang curled around the leg like it wasn't even there flowing into his opponent like water then he hit him, it was hard to see what he did and if you didn't know our style you'd never work it out but I knew what they were, the deadly scorpion punches the most vicious techniques of all aimed at nerve centres, Yang wasn't messing about he was going to finish F once and for all and leave him a cripple, I couldn't believe it this went against all the philosophy of our art, never use scorpion punches we had been told no matter what the enemy does you have no right to put him in a wheelchair, but Yang was doing it now and I heard F scream in agony just before he fell.

I looked at Carrie unable to answer her question, ashamed by the truth because she like Yang had touched a nerve. Emboldened by my reluctance she smiled at me, "Goh isn't a bad man," she said, "In fact he can help you in all sorts of ways just like he's helped me, is it too much to ask to take part in one last tournament in which you're light-years ahead of the other fighters and will probably win easily?"

"Goh is a crook," I responded flatly.

Carrie's eyes widened, "How do you know that, who told you, how can you be so sure?" She took a deep breath, "Some of his friends and associates are dodgy I'll admit but he isn't, he doesn't get involved in that side of things, he's a legitimate business man who owns several clubs and an import/export company."

Importing what I wondered but realised I didn't want to know.

Features flushed she added, "Why is your mind so closed "You aren't even giving him the benefit of the doubt."

If he was triad then no doubts remained in my mind how crooked he was, their power and influence had spread like a cancer in the Chinese community with threats, beatings, fires and several unexplained disappearances.

I said, "I don't have to I'm a free agent, I can mix with whomsoever I choose."

Thinking about that for a moment she softened her tone, "£500 a win is good pay, who else would reward you like that."

Nobody I thought and £500 was a lot of cash especially to me, "I get by," this was barely true.

"Why put up with getting by when you could have a better life style with money in your pocket," she moved closer, "I know you have debts you can't pay that you're quite hard up."

This touched a nerve, I owed 3 month's rent and was about to be turfed out on my ear.

I needed a cash injection soon or life would get really hard either more students, a good job or...an offer like Goh's.

"I'm not taking triad money, drug money," I said proudly.

"Why not cash is cash where does it matter where it comes from and who gives it to you, don't be so stubborn."

The trouble was it did matter I hated drugs, I'd seen what they did to people both inside and outside the nick, they destroyed lives, families and communities.

The triad dealt the hardest of the hard stuff, smack, crack, meth and designer drugs popular in clubs with the young and trendy.

"You don't get it do you Carrie or maybe you just don't care, the triad deal in human misery in suffering and death."

But she wasn't deflected that easily, "They supply a demand, its market forces. If they didn't somebody else would, don't be naive."

I wasn't naive and nor was I blind, there was some truth in what she said but that didn't excuse triad tactics or violence,

"Tell me something how did you get involved," I was curious, "How come you're such a fan of Goh?"

Now she looked away becoming a little coy even self-conscious her cheeks colouring, "That's personal, deeply personal."

Ye sit was but this seemed to be a day for revelations, "Does he have a hold over you, do you owe him money?"

The pink cheeks turned scarlet and when they came back the eyes were blazing, "It's none of your business."

"But my life is your business," I countered, "You know I have debts so you've been sniffing around, asking questions maybe talking to my landlord."

She didn't deny it, "I know you've been inside."

There it was the elephant in the room my 3 years locked up, "I fought a 22 stone man who was trying to kill me he was high on something and built like a brick shit house."

Hands up she became contrite; "I'm not judging you."

Yes she was; everyone did. The moment people learn you've done time they think the word 'con' it's a stigma you never lose, it never goes away once a con always a con.

"I did my time Carrie I'm not doing anymore not for Goh and not for you, I'm straight now I'm clean."

She sighed, "I am your student and I hope your friend to, do you trust me at all?"

That was a tough one she'd been Goh's student before she met me and she still was, and she was involved in his tournaments so maybe she was involved in other things to of a less savoury nature.

"Well, do you," she insisted with a sharper tone of voice? "Oh great well thanks," Moving away from me like I'd slapped her she assumed a wounded, defensive look of more than mild disgust.

"Actually," I said, "I do like you."

"But you don't trust me – right," she challenged?

"You're very close to Goh."

She said, "He isn't my lover and he never will be I don't fancy him and to be honest I'm not his type either."

"I meant business associate; you obviously work together and have for some time."

"So in your view that makes me dodgy to does it tarred by the same brush, well thanks a lot?" She turned and made for the door, I almost called after her to apologize and try to compose an excuse but I didn't.

Reaching the door she opened it but instead of going through it she stood aside and 3 smartly dressed fit looking Chinese men entered one of them was Goh, the others were younger and bulging with muscles when Carrie shook her head to Goh he gave a grunt and looked at one of his two heavies.

I didn't like this the air was rank with threat and menace and I knew I was in big trouble, would I have to fight these lads?

One took something from under his coat it was short, L-shaped and black without any preamble he raised it and squeezed, there was a soft hiss and a plop then I felt a sharp piercing prick in my right bicep. Looking down I saw something small sticking in me, it was a barb or dart. Then the room spun madly and everything went blurred.

PART FOUR

It was a room festooned with martial arts symbols and regalia – fight posters, adverts for uniforms and weapons, form charts, medicine balls, hand grippers and over to one side a large wooden dummy man. I lay on some foam mats my body stiff and a rank metallic odour in my mouth, the dart had gone but my arm throbbed and the flesh bore a small red swelling. When I tried to sit up my head almost fell off my shoulders and I dry retched, for one moment fearing I was going to heave my guts up. Happily this didn't happen but it was a nasty moment then I heard a voice, it belonged to Carrie she asked me if I was okay.

"Not really," I shot back angrily knowing I'd been drugged and kidnapped and was now a prisoner of these people. "I want to see Goh," I said, "Right now."

"Maybe later," Carrie said soothingly, was she in the room because I couldn't see her?

"What the hell are you playing at treating me like this; you can't force me to fight?"

"Please Neil don't be difficult, you'll only make things worse." She sounded almost contrite like she was embarrassed but I found that hard to believe, the scheming little cow.

"Right now the only people I want to hit are you and Goh."

"Understandable," she replied, "You've every right to be angry, I think Goh was bang out of order doing this but I had to go along with it he is my sifu after all."

Did she always do as her sifu told her, was she a robot with no mind of her own?

"Then help me to get out of here," I said.

"I can't," she said, "Even if I wanted to Goh would punish us both especially me, you have to do what he wants and fight in this tournament."

They were assuming a hell of a lot, "What if I lose what then?"

"You won't," she said a little too quickly.

"You can't know that."

"I know you," she replied and I shook my head – no girl you don't because if you did you wouldn't be pulling this little caper.

"Okay so what's the plan to keep me locked up in here until fight day. Where am I by the way?"

"It's a property owned by Goh and I can't tell you where it is, don't worry you'll be well looked after."

She had to be insane, "You can't just abduct someone Carrie this is illegal, people will miss me; what about my own kwoon?"

She said, "We've put a sign on the door saying you've gone away and will be back at the end of the month."

"What about my landlord?"

"Your rent has been paid including the arrears so he won't cause any trouble and we've asked him keep the apartment free for you."

Asked him - told him more like if I knew the triad and made it plain what would happen to him if he displeased them.

That just left my low paid rather dreary day job, I doubted my employer would be so understanding but Carrie said, "Goh will get you another job a better one."

Why should he go to so much trouble on my behalf? "This is still breaking the law, what's to stop me going to the police?"

She was silent for a while then came back with, "You'd better not do that Goh wouldn't like it, he'd punish us both."

Why should he punish her and frankly how could he punish me? I got up, swayed a bit then staggered over to the door banging on this with both fists it was pretty solid and locked from the other side.

"Neil, don't," she pleaded.

"I need the loo, is there one in this place?"

Silence then a male voice English with a Chinese lilt, "Stay cool man we'll be down in a second."

I moved back from the door ready to hit the first guy who came in, sure there'd be more than one, I felt a bit ropey and my fists were like blocks of stone but I'd do my best. But when the door opened and I made my move I just fell into their arms, two of them grabbed me and one stood back with a smirk on his face he was the punk who'd darted me and he was full of himself. Mid-twenties, lean, hard eyes and a sharp fringe with a scar trailing from the left side of his mouth down to his jaw, he wore a T-shirt that bore the legend KWOK IMPORTS and had the thick, conditioned knuckles of a guy who hits a wooden dummy on a daily basis.

"You want to piss here man then stand up properly," he sneered, "Take him to the can and hold his dick for him, he doesn't look like he could even find it."

The other guy laughed as they dragged me down a narrow tunnel to a set of doors; the toilet was the last door along.

"I can manage," I told them as they bundled me inside a very small room.

"Can you stand or do you wanna sit like a girl," scar asked shoving me at the toilet seat, I told him to fuck off and he laughed in my face saying Goh might rate me but he and his mates didn't.

I said, "Join me I might need a dump and you've got a big mouth."

The grins disappeared and fists came up, I was called some ugly names then the door slammed. Bladder fit to burst I looked around for a way out but the window was too small, there was another door but this just led to a store room containing a mop and bucket.

Using the loo I pulled the flush and stood back, I was stuck in this place for the time being with no obvious way out and no friends I certainly didn't trust Carrie. Someone banged on the door and scar said, "You finished yet little dick?"

"No will you come and wipe it for me darling?"

The door crashed open and there he stood giving his best Bruce Lee impression, he looked very tough backed up by his friends.

"I could take you myself," he bragged, "You don't look much to me some soft old Gwailo."

Facing him I smirked but I was in no shape for a fight, my blood still poisoned with that drug and my head full of cotton wool. "How about some tea," I said.

"Fucking cheek," he threw back at me.

"Goh wants me in good shape doesn't he, why else are you housemaids here?"

The scowls deepened but these were errand boys, low level thugs only good enough for babysitting. For all his posturing scar didn't strike me as dangerous or he'd be out busting heads, so I said.

"Tea and something to eat and I don't mean a pot noodle."

Cocking a thumb scar send his mate to get me and drag me back towards the room that was obviously going to be my prison cell for the duration.

The food they brought me was modest to say the least, a beef and tomato Pot Noodle, two stale donuts and some lukewarm heavily sugared tea. Scar smirked down at me as I wrinkled my nose, he was enjoying my discomfort no end.

"You're lucky to get that," he said like it was a feast. "Oh by the way I pissed in your pot noodle, just to add a little favour."

I wanted to hit him more than anything in the world but he had three bully boys with him and I didn't think I could take them all on. Then somebody else entered and the thugs stood aside respectfully, "Get out Kwok!" Carrie snapped at scar and he swung towards her like an angry viper as though about to argue, she met his steely gaze with one of her own. He backed down first – interesting.

"Come on," he barked at his boyfriend and the two of them left with ill grace. I nodded at the pot noodle, "Is this the food of champions," I offered to her, she took it, sniffed and put it aside?

"I'll get you something better from the kitchen, sorry about Kwok?"

I didn't know if she was or not and it made no difference, he and I were going to settle our differences without the need for mediation.

"Do I have to be stuck in this shit hole," I asked?

"I'm sorry but it won't be for much longer, the event begins in the morning."

In other words the fighters would arrive and I've have to take them on, "Will I be allowed to watch?"

She nodded, "You can even warm up if you like, not here obviously."

"Some sparring would be nice I haven't done any for ages."

She thought about that, "How about Kwok?"

Now that was such a good idea that I broke into a wide grin yeah Kwok would be ideal, I owed him for the pot noodle.

"Are you competing," I enquired?

"I always do every year."

"What's the opposition like this year?"

Carrie shrugged like she either didn't know or didn't care but this was an act I could tell, she'd be nervous everyone always is before going into battle whoever it's against.

"You know," she said, "This could really work out in your favour you could get a lot out of this in terms of prestige if you win, good fighters are never poor or unemployed there's a huge market for talent."

"Is that how Goh got hold of you," I demanded and saw her flinch as though I'd hit a nerve, uncomfortably she avoided my gaze for a moment.

"Don't try to figure me out Neil, it's not that simple."

"Oh I think it is I think it started with him flattering you telling you how good you were then convincing you to compete in this event, and once you did he owned you from that point onwards."

Her cheeks flushed and eyes hardened, the whole posture becoming defensive and outraged in dozens of small and not so small ways that I'd learned to read.

"You don't know anything about me," she said hotly.

"So tell me your story," I replied, "I'd like to know more after all I've got nothing else to do tonight."

She seemed tempted like she wanted to talk to unburden herself to someone who'd give a sympathetic ear, but at the last moment she pulled back maybe losing confidence or deciding it wasn't wise to bond too closely with me in case I got trashed tomorrow.

"I'll get you some food some lamb and chicken with a decent soup and some bread rolls," she said.

My sigh was weary and cynical, "He'll dump you," I said as she turned to leave. She spun back features pinched and gaze hot,

"What did you say?"

In for a penny I thought it was time to be honest, "Goh – he'll dump you once you're no longer of any use to him once you lose."

Like hell he will said her burning eyes and clenched fists, what do you know about it anyway? But I was on a roll,

"You're young and pretty but there's always someone younger and prettier, someone who fights a bit better than you so what then, where will you go, how will you live, can you tolerate being his number 2 girl or his number 3 girl?"

"It's not like that," she cried but in her anguished tone I read the truth.

"You're on thinner ice than me Carrie, why do you put up with it? You've got the brains and ability to make more of yourself."

"Trying to convert me Neil, playing mind games to get me to help you against Goh? It won't work."

"Because you're loyal or scared," I probed.

"I'm not scared," she told me in her best I'm-tough-and-grown-up kind of voice but she wasn't fooling me not anymore.

"Yes you are," I said softly, "Because you're too smart not to be."

The eyes bored into me like twin lasers and seemed lost, she wanted to leave and she wanted to stay, she wanted to agree with me and she wanted to issue a heated denial. In the end she raised a fist and lightly punched the wall.

"I won't betray him," she said in a voice riddled with contradiction and uncertainty.

"Why not, how loyal is he to you, what has he given you that's so great," I asked eager to understand their relationship where they associates, partners, lovers?

"He's got you involved in kidnapping and abduction god knows what will come next."

Facing me hands on hips and back straight she was actually shaking with emotion, "Nothing I can't handle," she said bravely.

"How about murder," I threw back sure that was coming next, "After all if I don't cooperate Goh will have to dispose of me."

"He's not a murderer," she almost shrieked this but somehow it wasn't totally convincing. In my mind the man was capable of anything and so where his thuggish employees.

"Wake up Carrie; why are you taking his orders what's he got on you?"

She gave it some thought then, "I had nothing," she said before getting a grip on herself. "No you don't get inside my head that easily Davies."

Standing up I went over to her in a non-threatening way, "Why can't you see the obvious," I said, "You've no future with Goh or anyone like him?"

Pulling away with a shake of the head she backed out of the room but the eyes were damp, the cheeks pale and the posture diminished I had done more than merely touched a nerve I'd found the real Carrie and planted a seed that would grow, she wanted more out of her life than this she wanted to get away from Goh and be a different person, like most of us what she really wanted was to be free.

PART FIVE

Kwok was up first to fight and I was delighted to see this, with any luck he'd take a beating or at least reveal any weaknesses in his combat skills I could exploit later. With him was his mate of before a surely faced rough in a gold t-shirt. Kwok's opponent was some lean black kid in a flashy outfit with the words TUFF ENUFF on the back, he looked about 19 and had a shaved head no doubt some punk from a slum estate whose daddy beat him every day until he learned martial arts to hand out his own beatings. He wore a purple sash and did a lot of jumping about and a few stretch kicks, as he didn't have his style emblazoned on his jacket I had no idea what it could be probably LAU GAR I thought as most of the kids around here did either LAU GAR or WADO RYU.

Tuff had an entourage of three black youths all about his age, they looked subdued and out of place.

Cool as a cucumber Kwok faced the kid and saluted in a tight, routine sort of way making no bones about it like he had no respect and wanted to get this over with quickly.

Goh took the mike from Carrie who stood beside him pensively, "The rules are simple," said Goh, "There are no rules," a cheer went up from both camps, "You fight until one of you is knocked out or quits, if you quit you don't get paid."

Glum faces greeted this but nobody complained or said anything, they all knew better than to argue with Goh who was the main-man here and someone to be feared.

He stood back, raised a whistle and blew it this was the signal for the first bout to begin which it did with a rush from the kid who was all wind milling legs as he tried to kick his way to victory, some of the kicks were even good but sadly for him he had no real sense of timing or distance and all of them missed their target.

Kwok let him come then evaded at the last moment BANG, the fight was over in a heartbeat as the kid crumbled hit by a blur of fast punches, back fists and elbow strikes; Kwok's hands were a blur of motion and unlike the kid he was accurate and on target with smashing home to head and body with sickening force.

Very neat I thought realising that his kung-fu was of a very high order, and whilst I still didn't like him I had to confess he was no slouch. The whole thing was over in under 30 seconds and the kid lay in a heap bleeding copiously. Turning away Kwok gave an arrogant leer that was probably aimed at me; I deliberately ignored it hoping my face was unreadable. OK so he was shit hot, big deal so was I and my kicks didn't miss.

Silence greeted the kayo as though nobody could believe it, smiling Goh went over to pat his hero on the back and give him a check, he said well done and then he looked right at me and the look said your turn next.

Getting up I strolled onto the floor, eyeing me arrogantly Kwok thumbed his nose. "Pussy," he said but I wasn't fighting him my opponent was some burly guy in a white uniform with black trim a Korean stylist which meant he was a kicker, flat nosed and Caucasian my man wore a black belt with 3 red tags he had swollen rock hard looking knuckles and missing lower tooth.

He danced towards me, strutting his stuff I was told his name was Hal and that he had been in over 45 competitions, he wasn't young but he did seem muscular and his confidence was unshaken by Kwok's devastating win. Hal looked right into my eyes, grinned and gave a thumbs down which the away team absolutely loved they were a motley collection of Chinese, Korean and Thai stylists from the look of them a real mix of belts and ages mostly male.

Hal went into a back stance with a high guarding block to confirm his system then he bobbed my way. I knew what I was going to do but took my time doing it as I didn't want to miss. Go on Hal kick me, Hal kicked it was high right leg turning kick to the face with knockout written all over it pure taekwondo but nowhere near Olympic standard.

I ducked, went inside the leg, steeled myself and threw a phoenix knuckle fist to the meridian moving up from the groin. It sank in hard and with a cry Hal gave a loud fart before his knees buckled and dumped him on the mat where he lay with trembling legs, his face as white as snow as his hands gripped his belly and his teeth chattered.

Knockout with one shot I had bested Kwok (20 seconds to his 30) and he didn't like it, his thunder stolen. I let him see my fist, this is for you buddy any time you want it I even kissed the mother.

Goh had to force the smile but meeting my eyes he nodded, nicely done very cool.

He came over to hand me a cheque for £500 and my hand shook as I accepted it, this was a hell of a lot of money for me and the easiest I had ever earned. I actually felt guilty accepting it but didn't hand it back with any excuses about nobility.

My god I had money in my pocket for the first time in a while, £500 to spend on anything I wanted. I felt high without taking any drugs, euphoric and meeting Carrie's gaze I couldn't keep a smile off my face.

Goh brought me back down to earth with a bang, "Next time it will be tougher," he grunted like he had someone lined up for me who would last longer than 20 seconds and I wondered who it could be; Kwok perhaps I'd enjoy wiping that arrogant leer off his lips.

Carrie was up next against a much taller half-caste girl with a bare stomach; the black bra and red pants marked her out as a Thai stylist maybe free form I couldn't be sure, the afro hair was bunched on top of her head by a band and she wore skin tight pro mitts with wrist bands. She was rangy and muscular with very long legs and wide shoulders.

Going into a stance Carrie just waited for the storm but the tall girl was cautious after what she'd just seen she wasn't going to rush in like a fool and get nailed, she tried a feint with her lead leg once or twice then threw a jab, she danced sideways and threw an exploratory round kick before stepping with two head punches. Quick as a flash Carrie avoided these and hit back, but the tall girl scooted out of range on the balls of her feet.

Roars of encouragement came from her corner but she was no fool and kept circling looking for an opening, Carrie went after her feinting several times and going for a body shot but the tall girl avoided her efforts then smacked her in the face once, twice, not hard punches but they clearly hurt. The hook kick certainly did as it hit Carrie on the side of the head and put her down.

Goh was frowning, shaking his head, he looked at Kwok and Kwok's expression was dubious, his side were two-nil up but maybe that was going to change. Carrie got up but she was badly shaken anyone could see that she needed a rest to collect her wits, instead she went straight back into the fray and that's just what her opponent wanted. Left punch, right hook, back fist, sidekick – all of these smacked home driving her back, her face bleeding and left eye shut.

But as her rival went in for a finishing punch Carrie hit back and landed with two body shots that stopped the other girl in her tracks, closing in to grab her and hip throw her to the mat but she didn't follow it up and her rival was able to roll away and stand up holding her middle clearly winded. Go on I thought end it take her while she's weak.

That was when Carrie walked onto the final kick, a front snapper to the face that landed right on the jaw and sent her to the mat pole axed she was out before she landed and a huge roar went up, it was 2-1 and the away team had hit back nailing a favourite from our side who normally won but hadn't this time.

Kwok turned away in disgust, Goh stood there stone-faced and nobody else did a thing so I ran to Carrie to check her over. Nothing was broken she hadn't lost any teeth although her face was pretty banged up. Carefully I massaged the twin points on the side of the neck to ease the concussion and restore chi flow to the brain, if you don't do that there is a risk of brain swell or even a fit. Carrie groaned, she moved her head, one eye opened the other was swollen shut and discoloured.

"You're going to be fine," I told her but this didn't stop a tear spilling from her open eye and running down her puffy, bruised face to the cut lips.

"I lost," she sounded astonished.

"She got lucky," I said kindly but Goh wasn't having that his face was like thunder.

"No you were sloppy," his voice was razor sharp.

I threw him a look which said back off then added tersely, "Anyone can have an off day Goh."

"Not my students," he said grimly and I feared for Carrie in that moment, wondering what he was going to do if he'd punish her, he looked like he wanted to.

"She needs a medical check up," I said knowing how dangerous concussion can be.

"Later," Goh didn't seem too concerned.

"No now," I insisted and his bored into me with fury don't give me orders remember where you are.

"She'll be fine," said Kwok.

"Thank you Dr Dildo," I shot at him wiping that cocky look off his face.

Advancing on me he snarled, "What did you fucking say?"

But Goh touched his thick bicep and shook his head, "Go get Nurse Lee," he said softly and with great reluctance Kwok turned and stormed away but not before issuing a threat.

"You're mine you white fag," and he punched the door on his way out.

"Bad temper hasn't he," I said to no one in particular then I hugged Carrie gently rocking her to and fro. She shook in my arms so I tried to reassure her with platitudes but the cold hard glint in Goh's eyes told me her bad luck was only just beginning he looked cruel and unforgiving.

"Just breathe deep in your belly, don't try to move just relax and breathe."

She did as I told her and soon the shaking stopped as her body began to warm up, through my hands I gave her healing.

"She needs to lie down; some hot sweet tea might not be a bad idea after all."

Goh ignored me so I repeated this to the nurse when she showed up, a pretty little thing with an almond shaped face and quite sexy legs. She agreed with me after checking Carrie over. Picking Carrie up in my arms I followed Nurse Lee away from the fighting area watched by Goh and Kwok, who didn't look as though they could care less.

"Nice guys," I said out of earshot and Lee flicked me an anxious look.

"You shouldn't antagonise them," she whispered obviously frightened but it was too late for that and I didn't care anyway. I was going to make them both pay before I was finished.

"Are you a real nurse," I was curious as to what she was doing here?

"A student at St Martin," that was a medium sized NHS trust south of the river.

"Is that close by," I asked with an innocent expression but she was no fool and just smiled back at me oh nice try before leading me around a corner.

"She can rest in here," I laid Carrie carefully down on a couch; "I'll get the tea."

"Thank you," I said before she left at least somebody here was remotely human. Cheeks flushing she almost said something but thought better of it and departed.

We ended up in a small bedroom just off the tournament area and Carrie was laid onto a mattress, a sheet was produced then a duvet. When I asked about the tea an oriental girl said it was on its way.

Once we were alone Carrie admitted, "I have disgraced myself," like it was her fault she had lost; a harsh judgement.

"There's no disgrace in being beaten," I said thinking how good the Thai Boxer girl had been; maybe she was a champion in her own sport she was certainly good enough.

"I should have won," the words were hot and bitter, "I've let the side down."

Screw the side I thought they didn't exactly leap to your defence. I could still see Kwok and Goh, what a bloody pair of charmers they were; neither had displayed much concern and where were they now?

"Listen Carrie, did it ever occur to you that maybe you're on the wrong side," I asked and the bruised face regarded me.

"You don't understand a thing," the reply was sullen and resentful.

"I know what I saw and your so called friends did nothing as you lay out there bleeding."

"It's the code," she sobbed, "The warrior's code."

Did she really believe that, was it what Goh had brainwashed her into thinking?

"I've had enough of this," My words were soft but rang with every ounce of determination I was capable of.

"What does that mean," propped on her elbows now she was regarding with some alarm?

"You'll see," I replied as the tea arrived.

"Neil, talk to me," Carrie hissed.

"I'm going to face Goh next," I said flatly and horror surged from every pore of her.

"He'll kill you, you can't do it; Goh is a master a ruthless fighter."

So was I hadn't she realised that by now, "There's no other clean way out of this for both of us."

"No please," she was pleading with me now begging me not to do this but I had to, then Kwok was in the doorway, thumbs in his belt, chest puffed out like his favourite game boy hero.

"You're fighting next," I told him.

"I don't think so old cock," he snickered.

"Yes you are lad, you're fighting me."

The smile disappeared from his face faster than truth at a political convention.

"We're on the same side you idiot," he tried to bluster but it didn't quite come out right.

"I've never been on the same side as third rate little wankers like you," I told him grimly, "Now get back on that floor and face me."

At first I thought he might refuse, make some excuse or call for back up but he actually nodded like an in-car toy and slapped my arm. Not only was he up for this he was looking forward to it – almost as much as me.

"Oh by the way before I knock your stupid teeth out use them to tell Carrie how sorry you are she lost."

PART SIX

Silence descended upon the fighting area and Kwok and I re-entered it and took up positions facing each other, the look on Goh's face was a portrait; no gob had ever been more smacked.

"No," he began to object but my glare cut him off.

"First laughing boy here then you," I said, "Because when I've finished mincing him it's going to be you and me Goh."

A cheer went up at the sound of this and very soon sporadic approval became a deafening chorus of anticipation.

"You could never defeat me," he said for the benefit of the audience but I could tell he was rattled, that he was faking his confidence. As someone who's done that more than a few times myself I can always tell.

"I'm going to teach Kwok a lesson then you," I said, "Then Carrie and I walk out of here with no comebacks."

Eyes widening he regarded me, "Carrie stays," he said flatly but I knew that if she stayed she'd be punished, made an example of for losing.

"No she leaves with me - that's the deal," I said flatly.

"Carrie is mine," Goh might have been talking about a favourite CD or a piece of furniture, "I own her."

Did he really believe that, did he think that people were property?

"You own nothing Goh," certainly not me I mused.

"We shall see," interest in the debate lost he signalled for the fight to begin.

I faced Kwok knowing what I was up against, fast hands, he was what I call a machine-gun fighter he used blitzkrieg tactics to win attack and destroy; okay let him try.

As the sound of the buzzer he left his mark and…..I swear he never even saw my front kick. Exploding into his gut like a nuclear laxative it doubled him over and a damp stain appeared where his nappy rash used to be. Gulping and gasping like an astronaut with no air tank he hugged his pain tightly and stood there shakily while I lined him up for the finisher, a roundhouse kick with the other leg right in the kisser and I didn't hold back on the shoe leather. I booted that cocksucking little twat as hard as I could so that if his teeth didn't go into space then there was no justice.

Nobody bothered to check if Kwok was alive or dead, nobody cared; they were all looking at Goh and Goh was studying me very closely.

"You are good," he told me making his way into the combat area with slow deliberation like any good pro, "In many ways a worthy opponent," he admitted, "But you're out of your league against me I'm not some big mouthed kid with more hormones than brains."

No I realised, you're an altogether different kind of predator but still scum just scum with more class.

"I win and I walk," I said, "Agreed?"

He nodded an okay but there was an addendum.

"Carrie to," That brought him up short.

"She's mine," he purred.

"Not anymore," I corrected wondering if Carrie would leave even if she could?

"Why should she wish to walk away from me," Goh chuckled.

"What is there to stay for, you don't like losers and she lost?"

He thought about that then threw a look at the Thai Boxer girl – taller, younger and still unbeaten.

"It's true that Carrie is now soiled goods," he confessed, "Maybe I don't need her anymore so okay if you win she can leave to – but first you have to beat me and nobody's done that in years."

He was trying to psyche me out, a traditional tactic, make the opposition think you're unbeatable even supernormal. I had no illusions this would be easy but I doubted Goh was unbeatable and of the two of us, I was more motivated to win.

Before we got started the bloody, pulpy remains of Kwok were removed and the stain mopped up then Goh went into his ready stance all cash and flash the great sifu about to defend his turf against the heathen invader. Yes he did have a look of Jimmy Wang Yu, in a poor light. Who did I look like – someone equally impressive I hoped?

I wasn't underestimating Goh I knew how lethal he was, he was a pro but then so was I and a pro never 'bigs up' any opponent before a duel, to do that is to invite defeat because then you're giving him all the power. You have to focus on yourself and what you can do, how good you are, how fast and experienced.

Goh extended his lead arm his bridge arm as it's called in kung fu, it was a thick, hard looking thing with a strong wrist and meaty fingers, thankfully my own matched it in the brawn department. Our wrists hovered an inch from each other in the classic twin-dragon ready position.

Breathing deeply Goh seemed wound up he wasn't totally calm, but then he had seen me toast Kwok and others so he knew he wasn't up against a mug.

I decided to spook him, suddenly I bent my knees, tensed my torso and flicked my lead hand my dragon hand.

His reaction was totally out of proportion to this, he shouldn't have moved at all but instead he jerked and that jerk told me he wasn't the nerveless fighting machine he wanted everyone to think. My next move was for real, a good lunge – lead hand, lead leg, and elbow.

Blocking them all Goh gave a little gasp as the elbow bruised his forearm. He came back at me close quarter, fast-hand stuff aiming to ribbon my guard, smash his way through it and overpower me.

My side step took me out of range, when the line gets too hot leave the line it's a simple rule but inferior fighters never seem to get the hang of it they back up and back up and…fall off a cliff.

Not keen on cliffs or heights I changed my angle and kicked Goh catching him mid thorax, making him grunt, cave in and bit and back off. He gave me all the room I needed for a round kick and it bounced off his face bruising his right cheek, my foot went down and slammed into his thigh to deaden it but Goh was better than that.

Taking the shot well he pushed me back off balance with both hands to create space that he filled with a sidekick. Ouch I almost went down, I was winded and while I was winded he caught me by the ears, tugged, twisted and brought his knee up.

My palms slapped it just in time and thank god but the knee still had enough dig to drive my palms up under my chin and stun me.

I dropped my weight, body punched him to break his grip (it didn't work), uppercutted him to the side of the ribs (this did work) then swung his left elbow roundhouse style at his face.

Rearing back away from it Goh lost his footing for a moment just a moment but it was enough for me to kick him Thai-style low and with a cry he almost dropped, maybe he should have but because he didn't my next kick went into his chest and propelled him into the audience. They caught him, held him and pushed him back.

"Hey Goh you losing this one or what," one of the visitors sneered. Spinning around Goh back fisted him hard in the mouth then ran at me, face contorted with rage.

The cooler calmer man I took myself to that place where warriors find their deepest reserves, it has no name in west or east but it is timeless, featureless beyond fear or hate.

When Goh attacked my body responded it knew what to do, it was on autopilot now, blocks met strikes, deflected kicks, avoided head butts, my shins also blocked jamming his legs back or to the side. My blows forced him to block in the same way but he didn't block every single one so I cut his lip, blacked an eye, bruised an ear, and broke a rib.

Our high speed exchange seemed to go on and on, back and forth but in reality probably only lasted seconds.

Goh broke off first panting hard, mouth bloody, arms vibrating with effort with chi.

Circling me with caution now with respect he looked for some way through my cast iron defences, he wouldn't find one I wouldn't permit one to exist. I thought of Carrie and how he treated her, the men he employed and the way I'd been brought her like so much meat to take part in this my own views totally discarded.

Then his vision left Goh for a moment to take in a section of the crowd who had parted for a newcomer, a big man elbowing his way to the front, a man full of self-importance and arrogance. He wasn't Chinese he was a giant, a monster, tattooed and bald with a massive chin and hate hungry eyes – Tommy, it was Tommy; what the hell was he doing here?

Ooooph the air rushed out of me, I'd been caught napping, eye off the ball, ouch Goh punished me again when he tried for a third strike I nailed him high, low and high again.

"Come on Goh, do him," Tommy's voice was the loudest, the coarsest you could hear it anywhere in any crowd because nobody dared try to drown it out.

Goh feinted, came in with two hard kicks that missed by tiny fractions then tried to take my head off with a double hand chop a real killer a mantis special.

Ducking this I butted him in the chest (more Rhyl front than Ram style) but it worked and falling back fighting for air he couldn't stop me from inward crescent kicking him to the face, a lovely shot that I enjoyed so much I brought the foot back outer crescent to slap the other side of his face.

Goh dropped straight down, he sat on the floor head down, and shoulders slumped. Had he given up was this the end of our duel, had he lost the will to go on thanks to those two kicks?

"NOOOO", the roar made me jump back and there was Tommy stood close by, not audience anymore but in the fighting arena. He looked furious and very disappointed, the look he gave Goh was chilling (you'll pay for this); it was not a look you wanted off anyone much less Tommy.

Not returning it Goh sat there bleeding and gasping and I suddenly realised what was going on, who Goh worked for, who had set this whole thing up in the first place and why I was here.

Facing Tommy I threw him a defiant stare, no more games, if he wanted to take me he could do it himself.

"Forget about Goh," I said, "This is personal."

Too right his chilling crazy-psycho eyes told me and stepping out to face me he raised those gigantic gorilla fists of his.

"I thought these gooks would soften you up Davies, I can't tell you how disappointed I am. You may not know this but our old Sifu Yang and this boy here," he thumbed at Goh, "Used to train together, they were buddies, how else do you think I found Goh?"

This was all news to me, "Are you still in touch with Yang, Tommy; do you know where he is?"

The big head shook, "Long gone, he's retired from all of this and looking at Goh I think he should throw in the towel to. This is a game for the young, the strong and the fierce."

It was obvious this was how he saw himself and sliding one foot back he aimed his knuckles at me, "How young are you Davies, how strong, how fierce?"

I wasn't as young as I used to be but I still felt strong, as for fierce he should ask Goh and Kwok.

I was ready for another fight though knowing Tommy wouldn't just let this go, he had to beat me up to regain his reputation; no way could he just let me escape unscathed.

Yet as he steamed in I heard this odd whooshing clicking sound and Tommy broke off to grip his right leg at the back, something was stuck in him like a nail or a…..

Carrie stood there holding Kwok's dart gun, the one he'd sedated me with and she'd used it on Tommy.

Tearing the barb from his muscle Tommy glared at it then at her, you bitch said his expression you'll die for that and he ran at her getting about three or four strides before the chemical hit his bloodstream big time and dumped him face down on the deck like a dead dinosaur.

Going to the girl I took the gun, "Thanks, nicely done by the way," it was time to split to run for the hills. I knew I wasn't finished with Tommy that he and I would settle our differences but not today; it was a pleasure deferred.

PART SEVEN

"Hi it's Daisy Carroway," the name meant nothing to me I didn't know anyone called Daisy then she added, "You saved me from those street thugs last week, my knight in shining armour."

It came flooding back the smart, professional woman who'd almost been mugged in the middle of the street.

"Oh of course, how can I help you," we'd swapped business cards but I'd never expected to hear from her again?

"Can we meet up," she asked, "I've got a problem and you may be the guy to solve it."

That was flattering, "I don't know anything about your line of work Ms Carroway."

"Daisy please," she insisted, "And it's your fighting prowess I wish to employ," she paused, "I'm willing to pay of course."

The magic words paid employment, something I desperately need now the Goh option had gone up in smoke.

"Shall I come to your office," I had nothing on that day?

"How about a neutral location, let me buy you a coffee," she named a place an expensive chain I normally avoided and we agreed a time.

"Who was that," Carrie had snuck up behind me without making a sound we were sharing an apartment as she had nowhere else to go, she was flat-hunting but it was a slow process?

"Someone who wants to employ me," I said letting her see Daisy's card. Eyes widening in surprise Carrie read the print on this.

"Is she in trouble?"

More than likely I thought if she wanted my fighting prowess, "This could be quite lucrative," I said, "She runs her own firm and based on her designer clothes and heels she must be worth a fortune."

"Where are you meeting; at her office?"

"Kofi Plus," I said and her eyes rolled, the cheapest drink there was £9 and that was an unsweetened black coffee, small size.

"I hope she's paying."

So did I and said I'd tell her all about it when I got back.

"No way I'm coming with you," Carrie grabbed a jacket, "I can wait in the car or find somewhere cheaper, I want to see Ms Media for myself."

Dressed in a peach coloured jacket and matching skirt with a lemon blouse showing just a hint of cleavage Daisy looked a lot calmer and more composed since the last time we met. Hair flowing freely on her shoulders and with two sparkling diamonds in her ears she waved me to sit down.

"I ordered for you, is latte okay?"

It was premier sized to I tried not to think how much it had cost and how poor I was compared to this stylish, successful woman.

"Perfect," I kept my tone even noticing the other attractive, well heeled people in the place having business meetings, skyping or just chilling. All wore designer labels and plenty of bling was in evidence, I'd never felt so out of place.

"Are you OK," obviously picking up on my mood Daisy studied me?

"Fine just fine," I lied and she followed my gaze.

"Don't worry about them, some aren't as rich as they appear or it's their parents money," she dismissed, "I started my agency from nothing and built it up with sheer hard work."

I'd checked her out online, she had some impressive clients and was number three in her sector, "So what can I do for you Daisy," best to get to the point, "I can't see any threatening yobs in here."

Smiling at this she touched an earring, could Carrie see it from across the road; I looked forward to hearing her opinion of my first real client.

"I've had a visit," said Daisy losing her smile, "Some guy came to my office on North Side demanding money, he called it insurance against unforeseen damages then he smashed up one of my PCs."

I blinked it sounded like a very old scam, "How much did he want?"

"200 a week," she swallowed, "To begin with."

Protection I thought not totally surprised as it was a common scam in this city although never on North Side before an upmarket, salubrious area of IT, recruitment and media businesses.

"Did he hurt anyone," I asked feeling my chest constrict, "Are you all right?"

"Next time," she shivered, "He said he'd mark me, my PA was totally freaked out, I haven't seen her since and my typist has given notice."

"When is he coming back," I asked?"

"That's just it I don't know and I'm terrified, he could come back at any time even today."

"Can you describe him," I asked but she could do better than that and took out her smart phone,

"I managed to snatch this," it was video footage and showed a big guy with a deep baritone voice side kicking a Dell computer off its perch. So he had martial arts training, a lot of modern thugs did. Dressed in a blue jacket and white pants with an open necked shirt and thick arms the brute swore several times, called Daisy a bitch and demanded his 200.

When she whimpered that she had nothing in petty cash he kicked over two chairs and swept some files to the floor, he said 'fuck' one more time and the footage ended.

"Nasty," I said, "Play it again," the second time I made out more details – the way he moved, his kicks, his mannerisms and his voice...I knew that voice.

"Should I go to the cops, he told me he'd kill me if I did?"

There wasn't much the police could do; they hadn't the resources for 24 hour protection.

"What you need is a bodyguard," I said.

"Would you do it," she jumped in quickly, "Would you protect me," she hugged herself, "I feel sick with fear, nothing like this has ever happened to me before."

I sat back inwardly seething but also terrified, I'd never seen myself as a bodyguard before it was a full-time commitment shadowing someone all day.

"I'd pay you of course," she added quickly, "The going rate."

I didn't even know what this was, "You want me to guard you at your place of work," I asked?

"I want you to guard me full stop, work, travel, home."

I held up a hand, if I did that I'd have to put my entire life on hold – my teaching, my demos, I was shooting a kung-fu video then there was Carrie, how could I just abandon her?

Reading my eyes Daisy said, "I know it's a lot to ask and that you have a life of your own but I'd make it worth your while – cash, food, a place to bed down," she flushed slightly, "I'll cover any expenses."

It was a big 'ask' and I'd have to think about it, talk it through with Carrie and consult my students.

"You need to think about it," she sighed, "I understand that, but this is rather urgent."

I recalled the man in the video, the man I knew only too well and he wasn't patient by nature.

"Give me an hour," I said, "I'll call you," when I got up so did she taking my right hand in both of hers and squeezing it imploringly. How could I turn down such a beautiful woman, on the other hand it was a tough assignment and we'd be living in each other's pockets.

"Thank you," she was trembling as she looked into my eyes, "I don't know where else to turn."

I found Carrie in the car where she sat open mouthed as she listened to the proposal, a job offer but also a lot more. It could be lucrative, it might open all sorts of doors as Daisy was well connected but it was also one hell of a risk.

"You know this punk don't you," Carrie said?

"We both do," I sat back my guts tightening.

"Who is he?"

I met her gaze, "Tommy."

Her intake of breath was followed by a shake of the head, "That psycho?"

Yes I thought the very one, there didn't seem to be any way to avoid the inevitable confrontation between us, me and Tommy had unfinished business and this looked like how it was going to play out.

"Say no," Carrie told me, "You don't need this hassle."

Yes I could decline Daisy's lucrative offer, I could shake my head and walk away but if I did I wouldn't be able to live with myself or face my students or even remain a martial artist in any real sense of the word.

I would have chickened out, run away and lost my bottle in a pretty major way and that wasn't acceptable. If I let Tommy beat me this way I was a coward, and no matter what excuses I made I'd feel like a coward until my dying day.

"I can't Carrie I'm sorry," I said but she didn't yell at me or play up she actually smiled and patted me on the arm.

"Atta boy," she said, "I knew you had guts."

"You think I should stick it out and face Tommy," I was surprised?

"What's the alternative, to hang up your sash I know you'd never do that you're no quitter?"

The shadow of the big man loomed over me dark and menacing, how was I ever going to beat him?

"Just one thing," said Carrie, "I think I should join you on this job."

"What do you mean?"

"Two bodyguards are better than one."

Would Daisy agree to pay a second wage, "She only asked for me."

"I'm sure she did," said my partner, "But think about it can you watch someone 24/7 and what if Daisy wants to go somewhere men aren't allowed?"

I had to concede that this was a good point, "I'll need to run this by her," I said, "She's only expecting me."

"A female back-up makes good tactical sense."

Yes it did but Daisy was the employer so it was her call, she was after all paying the wages, "I'll call her now," I said, "To make the suggestion," I had a feeling Daisy would say no to Carrie, who was somebody she didn't know but I was in for a surprise.

It was an amazing place but then I figured it would be, the whole ground floor level was a garage with the house being built on top of this. There were two stories with an annexe at the back. Daisy's massive lounge took up almost the entire lower story being enormously wide, long and deep. An internal balcony ringed it with steps leading down at three points to an oasis of sofas and soft chairs. She didn't just have one but three huge plasma TVs and said one was linked to the security system so she 360 degree vision around her home.

Wow said Carrie's face as she circled the lounge taking in the light blue walls, thick crimson rugs, amazing TVs, reproduction Picasso's and display of media awards Daisy had won.

Yes I thought it is incredible and I wondered if she'd designed it herself or bought it off someone else. Good manners prevented me from asking as our hostess brought a tray of iced drinks down to the lower lounge, I'd asked for fresh orange juice, Carrie for a diet coke and Daisy was having a gin and tonic her usual after-work tipple.

"Been a sod of day," she sighed sitting down on a huge cream armchair that was three times her size and made her look like a child. She'd been fine about Carrie, even agreeing it was a great idea to have a girl. She'd wanted us to begin at once and although I didn't feel totally ready I had agreed.

"I looked you up online I hope you don't mind," I didn't and my shrug said so, I'd have thought less of Daisy if she hadn't checked me out. She went on, "You've been a martial artist for 23 years is that right?"

Good grief had it really been that long? I'd just been a kid when I started, wet behind the ears and knowing nothing a fan of Hong Kong movies.

"Yes that's right, I started at 14."

"You trained with a guy called Yang, am I right?"

I could see his face now thin and stern yet with a warmth to his Jade coloured eyes that could frost over when he got mad.

"He took me to black belt in his style," I admitted.

"Then you quit or walked away, you left his association."

Tommy's face replaced Yang ugly and sneering, "There was an incident, we parted company."

"Can I ask what happened," said Daisy, "Or is too personal too painful?"

It was but she deserved the truth, "The man whose tapping you for protection money I know who he is, he and trained with Yang for a time. There was a challenge match, I challenged him and lost it cost the master some respect and in shame I walked away."

"Who is this guy," she wanted to know leaning forwards with widening eyes.

"Tommy Cross, he's a real psycho. He got sent down for putting some poor guy in a wheelchair."

"Why did he do that?"

"The guy owed Tommy's boss at the time some money, Tommy was a collector an enforcer he punished bad debters."

I saw her go pale under her foundation and wondered if I'd said too much if I'd been too honest. Did she really need to know how crazy Tommy was? Well yes she did for her own safety.

"Jesus," she muttered clasping her hands tightly, "He sounds off the scale."

"He is," I agreed.

"Can you take him," she had a slight tremble in her voice? Good question could I beat Tommy, did I have what it took to put him down? I'd never beaten him before; Carrie had saved me twice without her...

"I can take him and I will," I said firmly hoping she didn't see through the lie.

Then Carrie jumped in, "Was Tommy alone when he threatened you? We didn't see anyone else on the video but they could have been out-of-shot."

"No he wasn't alone," Daisy confessed coming clean.

"He had guys with him," I said my stomach as tight as a knot?

"One guy," she swallowed, "He was Chinese."

The knot rose into my throat, "Can you describe him?"

"Oh I can do better than that Tommy used his name he called him Goh."

Shit this was just what I didn't want to hear, Tommy and Goh together in business – partners.

Carrie and I swapped a look, neither of us had been prepared for this and she looked as freaked out as me.

Catching on Daisy said, "You know this man?"

"We've met," I replied, "Goh is a kung-fu teacher," I did not add he had taught Carrie and that he was triad which meant Tommy most likely was to.

"I'm sorry I should have told you before but I was afraid that if I did," she looked away red cheeked.

"That I wouldn't bite," I finished, "That I'd walk away."

"You still can of course," she added quickly and I considered getting up and walking away. It would keep me healthy and alive and poor, dog poor. Without this job I might lose my flat, my car and a lot more.

"I'm not walking away," I said with more confidence than I felt.

"Are you sure? I feel like I've deceived you and I don't like myself for doing that."

Tommy and Goh; it was the worst possible news a psycho and a master, twice the danger.

"If you did I can understand why," I said reasonably.

"Do you want time with your partner to discuss this," Daisy offered? I met Carrie's gaze, it was clear she was unhappy.

"It changes things, ramps up the pressure but I'm prepared to stick with the job," I said, "I can't speak for Carrie of course."

So we both looked at the blond to gauge her reaction. I wondered what I'd do if she got up and walked out; could I stay on my own to face two deadly fighters both of whom might be better than me?

"I'm staying to," Carrie finally said although she looked far from happy about it, in fact she seemed to have serious misgivings and who could blame her.

"Thank you," Daisy touched my arm as she said this to emphasis just how grateful she was and how relieved, "I don't know who else to turn to, I'm not used to violence and threats. This kind of thing doesn't happen in my world or it didn't until now," close to tears she lowered her head and I felt sorry for her this rich successful woman who was everything I wasn't.

"Not many people are," I admitted.

"May I ask how you got involved in it," she responded quickly and my mind drifted back to a time when I was a humble green belt.

I'd gone for a takeaway like most of the people there that is apart from Fred and Jerry, the two racist big mouths who sauntered in with the usual swagger and started having a go at the young Chinese girl behind the counter.

Mai was only 15 and didn't know how to handle a couple of toilet-mouths like these two, very soon I saw her lip tremble and eyes glisten with tears. I thought Fred and Jerry would pack it in then but they didn't; if anything their insults got worse and more profane – I had to do something.

Standing up I approached the counter saying in a reasonable voice that maybe they should shut their fucking mouths and leaving a 15 year old girl alone.

The glares they threw me made it plain there was no chance of that, they were on a roll and the tiny pupils hinted at more than a little chemical stimulation.

I knew I was going to have to fight these guys, that there was no way out of the land of violence. As they moved to flank me (an old trick and one I'd handled before) I decided to pre-empt their villainy with some of my own.

Putting my right elbow into Fred's ugly mush I heard the satisfying snap of his nasal bone just before the gush of red stuff. Without pausing I drove my knee up into Jerry's bollocks good and hard as I didn't want him punching me with all the nasty rings on his fingers.

A third guy (I'll call him fatso) launched himself at me from the bench where he'd been sat texting and farting with equal enthusiasm. Before I had time to get into a proper stance or throw a kick he slammed right into me and drove me hard into the counter emptying my lungs totally as he applied a crushing bear hug with all of his 17 flabby stones.

My kung-fu was useless I couldn't do a thing not even squeak. Fatso was suffocating me and nobody was coming to my aid, Mai had fled into the back weeping and screaming. Choking on BO and fart gas I felt sure I was going to die which was when two hooked fingers jabbed into fatso's neck finding his carotid and pressing it shut.

He hit the deck like a beached whale, farted one last time and lay still. Yang regarded me with a raised eyebrow which seemed to say 'you fucked that up didn't you' and he was right I had.

Even so he led me safely away to his car offering some pearls of wisdom about street fighting and how it was a lot different to sparring in the kwoon.

"If you want some proper experience of real fighting why don't you come with me one night," he said.

"Where to," I asked naively thinking he taught every night then applied traditional Chinese healing to a raft of private clients?

"I bodyguard a few select people, not all Chinese, and violence is not uncommon. You soon learn to read a room, scan people, select trouble makers and create your own space. It's vital experience for a martial artist who wishes to apply his art in the real world."

So that was how I got started dogging master Yang, and he was right – fighting in reality was very different from the kwoon.

When I finished telling Daisy this she sat back with a smile then her gaze alighted on Carrie and they seemed to hold the same question. Carrie's answer was shorter, blunter and to the point.

Growing up on a sink estate with one (mostly drunken) parent she had learned at a young age to fend for herself on the street and in the school yard, taking on bullies of all sizes and both genders.

"I was a small kid so I usually went out armed, anything sharp or failing that something firm that I could shove into a throat or an eye. Sorry to be so graphic but that's the reality of street fighting. I took up taekwondo at 13 and kung fu 5 years later."

Absorbing with a sage nod Daisy finished her drink, "Good god it's so different form my own childhood, I was so lucky and so pampered. My folks had money so I grew up in a big house, had a pony, went to a private posh school and was given everything I wanted – except maybe love but that's another story and I'm not complaining."

"A rich chick," said Carrie with some disparagement and making no attempt to deny it Daisy smiled.

"You never married," I said noticing the absence of any ring or photos of Daisy with some guy?

"I did actually his name was Giles and he managed a stud farm in Warwickshire, like me he came from money and thought he was entitled."

I noted the past tense, "It didn't work out?"

"Giles had a wandering eye and couldn't resist a pretty smile, after 3 years of him fucking everything with ovaries I walked out. I got this," she waved around at her home, "A decent settlement and the cash to start my own agency, which is doing well."

"Where is Giles now," I asked?

The wrinkling of her nose and the downturn of her lips suggested she couldn't care less, with some young girl most likely one of a long line, "Monaco it's just far enough away."

"So you're single," Carrie made it sound very casual?

"There was someone, but it didn't work out," getting up to terminate the discussion Daisy went over to a cream topped bureau and opened a drawer, "Indian or Chinese," she asked, "My treat, it's the least I can do given the risk you're both taking and I can't cook worth a damn never could."

It was a lovely meal I had chicken tikka masala, Carrie tucked into lamb bhuna and Daisy enjoyed her shish kebab. We swapped small talk and watched some TV, although I couldn't tell you what the programmes were.

My mind was full of the forthcoming showdown with Tommy and Goh and how I was going to handle it. To be honest I wasn't sure as they were both top class fighters and in Tommy's case a psychopath. I had no doubt that this encounter would be decisive; Tommy would be out to kill me his pride would allow no less.

Would they come here or waylay Daisy at her office? If they came here we'd see them in advance thanks to all the CCTV and could prepare ourselves. The office was different; it was smaller and more cramped with larger windows to be thrown through.

"You're miles away," the voice made me jump; I was in the kitchen loading the washing machine. Stood frame din the doorway Daisy was regarding me with an odd smile, one hand on her hips in a slightly provocative posture.

"Sorry, just thinking about tactics and options," I closed the machine with a shove.

"Are you scared," she didn't pull her punches just coming straight out with it, "I wouldn't blame you if you were, I am," she admitted.

"Tommy and Goh are good," I replied.

"Better than you and Carrie," she edged into the kitchen?

"I'd say we're about equal," I fudged hoping this was true.

"Can you take them or do you need extra help, only there are people I can call," she offered.

"No more bodies won't make a difference," hell I wasn't sharing my fee with a bunch of amateurs.

"So you think you can handle Tommy, only he's a scary guy," I hardly needed reminding of that.

"I think so," inwardly I was quaking.

"Okay," she sauntered over coming very close too close, "So you and Carrie," she smiled and I wondered how much she'd had to drink with her meal, she'd been putting the G&T away a bit whilst we stuck to water?

"What about us," I said knowing exactly what she meant?

"Are you lovers," a hand stroked my chest and began to move down. I caught it before it got too naughty.

"We're colleagues," I amended.

"Oh so you aren't sleeping with her," this seemed to please Daisy and I knew I was on thin ice, she was coming on to me rather strongly and I knew it wouldn't take much to tip us both into the same bed – a complication I hardly needed.

Carrie's arrival was timely, she'd been upstairs checking out the sleeping arrangements, two single beds, "Excuse me," she said and Daisy jumped back colouring, eyes furtive. Thank god I thought just before things got out of hand, I hadn't wanted to offend the client by rebuffing any sexual advance.

"Yes," I said easing around Daisy and sidling over to Carrie, "You take first watch, I relieve you at 3am," that way we'd both get some sleep. Carrie's gaze jumped from me to Daisy and back full of big questions but I didn't want to talk about it.

PART EIGHT

Nothing happened overnight, Daisy went to bed and stayed there, I relieved Carrie and she got some sleep. The next day we both went with Carroway to her office which was small and ultra modern with some flash computers and loads of photos of Daisy with clients – rising stars in sport, politics and business. She had a lovely PA called Marcus, who was camp, funny and full of bitchy gossip about industry rivals. There was also a cleaner called Mavis, a squat old bird in her sixties with a neat perm who moaned about her gout, sciatica and the government.

Bringing us two delicious coffees from her Nespresso machine Daisy said she had client meetings all day.

"In here," I asked?

"Mostly," she said, "One wants to go to his place of work he's a footballer."

"I'll tag along; you can call me a chauffeur if you like."

Grinning her approval Daisy said this would be fine but Carrie was frowning, "What about me," she asked, "Shouldn't I come to?"

I gave it some thought, wondering how we'd explain away 2 strangers. I could pass as a driver but what could Carrie be, "You could follow in the jeep," I said, "But keep well back we don't want to spook the centre forward."

"If Tommy's going to make a move this place seems the best bet, he won't want any witnesses," Carrie had a point.

"Yes I agree but he might intercept Daisy on her way to the meeting; we can't rule anything out."

Then Marcus drifted over he was about thirty with blond stick up hair and pierced ears, he preferred tight leather pants and pink shirts, "So are you guys the muscle," he asked in a mock horrified voice, "I was here yesterday when the Neanderthal turned up, Christ he was horrible – all that shouting and threatening, kicking the furniture around."

"And yet," said Carrie pointedly looking Marcus over with a wry grin, "You're back at work."

Lowering his voice three octaves the PA hissed, "My CV is with a dozen firms as we speak, I'm not staying here to be physically assaulted."

So much for staff loyalty I thought, although knowing Tommy I couldn't really blame this weedy looking gay bloke he was no fighter.

Noon came and went, hanging around was boring but at least we had plenty to drink and Marcus was good company with his endless anecdotes about the gay club scene, dating and the foibles of clients some of whom were high maintenance and pretentious in the extreme.

"Lunch," Daisy announced she'd been on the phone for hours to an actor, an MP and some woman at the town hall caught up in the midst of a scandal.

"I'm fine here," said Marcus patting a large Tupperware box, "All the butties, pies and pasta I can eat."

Daisy's gaze fell on us, "Right let's go to Las Gringos, it's close, tasty and there will be lots of people around. On a nice sunny day like this we can eat outside."

Sat in the middle of an oasis of food stores, take outs and stylish cafes Las Gringos was a lake side eatery with mostly outdoor tables, all but two taken when we arrived the food was a mix of Spanish, Italian, Mexican and seafood dishes.

Having scanned the other diners, and seen nothing untoward, I willed myself to relax but that little nagging voice at the back of my head was screaming at me something's wrong this doesn't feel right get out of here now. Yet I could detect no threat, see no sign of Tommy or anyone remotely hostile looking.

Touching my arm Carrie asked a silent question to which I shrugged and said, "I dunno just nerves I think."

This wasn't anywhere near good enough, "You think they'd try something here," she was incredulous?

No I thought it would be insane in front of so many witnesses, "I guess not," I said but the nagging little voice wouldn't give up.

Ordering nachos Daisy let us make our own choices, I went for the spag bol something simple I could understand, Carrie opted for Cajun chicken, none of us bothered with alcohol opting for mineral water.

"You seem tense," having picked up on my mood the boss gave me a questioning gaze, "Anything wrong?"

On the surface no there wasn't I couldn't detect a single threat, even the weather was ideal a blue sky with no clouds and no chilly breeze.

"Paranoia," I tried to make a joke of it, "Occupational hazard."

"Maybe Tommy saw you and thought better of it," she offered. This made me grin, if Tommy spied me he'd be more likely to see it as a challenge and try something.

"Had a good morning," I asked to change the subject to something safer.

"Irritating, time consuming and money wasting, I deal with some pretty fragile egos."

"What do you do for them," said Carrie, "If it isn't confidential?"

Waving this aside and sipping some water our host said, "Teach them how to present themselves on camera or in print, what to say, what NOT to say, basically how to conduct any media appearance to put themselves in a good light."

I was intrigued, "Where did you learn this stuff?"

Her gaze became dreamy, "Drama school," this was followed by an eye roll and deep sigh, "I wanted to be an actress, how original, so I did a 3 year course that ended doing about 2000 auditions. Acting sucks, trust me on this, 9 out of 10 drama graduates go nowhere including me so I decided to put my knowledge to some more profitable use."

Carrie said, "Did you never act in anything?"

Studying her painted nails Daisy said, "2 commercials, a voice over, an audio book about penguins. I was so naive back then; I thought TV companies would be falling over themselves to hire me, that I'd be the next Hermione Norris."

My neck was throbbing, there was nothing I could do but look around but all I saw were people eating, waiters and some small boats cruising past on the river.

"Am I boring you," Daisy's voice had an edge to it?

"No sorry just nerves, I couldn't find work either when I came out of prison nobody hires ex cons."

"Nobody hires – full stop," said Carrie with feeling then added, "I wanted to be a journalist even did a course then spent the next 3 years serving drinks, burgers, busking and..."

I cut in, "Busking, you were a busker," I couldn't imagine her with a banjo outside some supermarket.

"I was a singer and not bad either, I did various cover versions of Cher, Nelly Furtado, Katy Perry and others."

Now that was something I'd like to see why had she never told me, was she ashamed of it, busking was cool some buskers got 'discovered' and went on to great things.

Our order arrived steaming on a huge silver tray held by two strong masculine hands, no sign of the girl who'd taken the order some stick thin blond.

My eyes rose and rose, he was huge, broad, muscular and didn't look like any waiter I'd ever seen before. Following my gaze Carrie le tout a gasp, noticing us Daisy looked around and all the blood drained from her cheeks.

Tommy's smile was feral and triumphant, "Hi folks just to let you know that my weekly fee has gone up to 400, that's a response Daisy to you hiring these two losers."

None of us spoke, I personally found that my throat had dried up and my tongue was paralysed. I should have leapt to my feet and confronted him but found myself incapable of doing anything.

Serving us our food Tommy gave one last victorious smirk and sidled away, his point well and truly made.

It was Carrie who recovered first, "What do we do now," she asked a very good question?

"I'm going back to the office, I can't eat this - my appetite is well and truly dead," said Daisy. Mine too had dried up.

"Carrie will you go with Daisy," I finally regained the use of my vocal cords.

What the hell are you going to do - said her look, "If you're going after Tommy I'm coming with you," she said.

"First priority – look after the client."

"Shouldn't we both stay with Daisy," Carrie was edgy keen to do more than babysit?

Tommy had drawn a line in the sand and it was time to cross it, a defensive campaign wasn't going to work just sitting around waiting for him to attack was pointless.

"Time to take the initiative," I said but she caught my arm.

"What does that mean, where are you going?"

There was only one to go, "If Tommy is in league with Goh then I've a good idea where to find them both."

"The kwoon," she gasped, "You're going to Goh's place in Chinatown?"

I was, in fact I should have gone there as soon as I knew he was involved.

Looking between us Daisy stood poised by the table, her hand was shaking I noticed and she still hadn't regained her colour; she reminded me of a trapped animal.

"What is this kwoon," she asked?

I said, "It's where Goh and Tommy train and where I'm going to fight them."

Looking at me as though I were insane she clutched her bag, "Is that wide, what if you lose?"

That was simple, if I lost I'd be dead Tommy would pulverise me and enjoy doing it.

"I need to come with you," Carrie insisted, "You'll need back up 2 against 2."

Much as I wanted her there and needed her support she had to stay with Daisy, "What if Tommy isn't at the kwoon Carrie, what if he decides to ambush Daisy... we can't leave her unprotected?"

She thought about this not liking it but not seeing a chink in my logic, however Daisy could.

"Why don't I just come with you guys to this kwoon, if you win fine if you don't then I guess I'd better hand over the first 400."

We swapped a look boggled by the notion. I'd never thought Daisy would have the nerve to confront the bad guys it just didn't occur to me.

"Good idea," Carrie was all for it, I wasn't.

"Wait a minute Daisy you've no idea how ruthless Goh can be."

"With respect," she threw back, "I think I have and I don't want to hang around waiting to hear if your body has been found in a ditch," phone out she rang the footballer to reschedule their meeting. He wasn't happy but Daisy was in no mood for any tantrums, he could always find another media agent.

Goh didn't seem all that surprised to see me, he even produced a rather humourless smile. The smile frosted over when he saw Carrie and vanished altogether when he saw Daisy.

"Ms Carroway this is a surprise," and not a pleasant one I thought seeing his brow crease. There were no students in the kwoon and no sign of Tommy but I figured he wouldn't be far away.

"You're extorting money off me Mr Goh, I thought I'd come and check out your place – you've already seen mine."

Inclining his head he turned to me, "Coming here was very foolish Mr Davies, you won't find it so easy to leave."

Guts in a knot I forced my voice to remain even, "I've no intention of leaving until this matter is resolved and Ms Carroway is free of your clutches."

The crease in his brow deepened, wiping his hands on a towel he clapped and through some streamers stepped Tommy decked out in black kung-fu pants and a black t-shirt with a white serpent printed on the front.

His arrogant swagger and smarmy grin made my legs turn to water but also ignited a burning fury within me he was such a bully, a thug and a detestable human being.

He said, "I think I'm going to up your weekly payment to 600 after this Daisy," his eyes were riveted on me when he said this.

"She isn't paying you a penny," I barked back.

"Oh is that right," he threw a glance at Goh, "Going to change my mind are you, come to negotiate?"

"No Tommy we both know why I'm here," undoing my buttons and removing my jacket I edged closer to him not taking off my shoes or showing any respect to the kwoon.

Watching me come he nodded slightly, "Well at least you haven't lost your balls – not yet anyway."

Even Goh smiled at that; I looked forward to wiping the smiles off their cruel faces.

"This tie," said Tommy cocking a thumb at Carrie, "Nobody interferes; it's just you and me."

Nodding I faced him across the mat noting how big his muscles were even since the last time we met, "I won't need any help Tommy," brave words – did I believe them did I think I could take him? It was too late to pull out now it was shit or bust.

"Good luck," Daisy called out.

"He'll need it," Tommy drawled cupping his right fist in his left palm; I did the same not taking my eyes off him not for a second. I remembered how he liked to start fast and hard he was all attack with no mercy.

No hesitating I attacked at the same time he did, I kicked his left shin bone glad I was wearing shoes and hearing a loud crack.

With a bellow of pain he juddered to a halt his hands dropping, just as I'd figured they would. My fists exploded over them rapping out a tattoo on his face. The first punch split his lip, the second cracked a tooth, the third popped his nose and the fourth knocked his head right back.

Tommy though was nothing if not tough he could take a good shot. Pain exploded through my ribs, instantly I lost the ability to breathe whatever he'd hit me with it was fast, lethal and effective.

My legs were gone from under me like they'd been amputated and I hit the mat hard air whooshing out of my mouth. Roll I told myself, roll out of the way he's going to...

The stamp only just missed me, all his weight was behind it. Rolling sideways I came up holding myself; I was fast but not fast enough. The sidekick sent me reeling, the following up spinning back kick doubled me over and grabbing my ears he pulled me towards a vicious rising knee cap.

Not resisting I propelled myself in his direction head down and butted him in the solar plexus hearing him grunt, gasp and curse. He let go his thick fingers falling away but I was too weak to exploit the situation as I was winded to and sank onto a knee for a second's respite.

Not willing to give it he kicked out at me, his instep smacking my left ear and making my nose bleed. Punching up from my kneeling position I felt my fist squish his balls, he wasn't wearing a cup bad move Tommy.

Howling with pain he fell away gripping his manhood. Launching myself off the mat I jump front kicked but was just out of range so I turned one kick into another sending him careering into some mats still holding his testicles.

Not smiling now Goh looked concerned; the massacre he'd expected was not happening, Tommy had not destroyed me in a few seconds indeed he was in a bit of a bad way.

Needing a breather I took it giving him a cruel smile didn't even know you had any balls.

Limping back towards me he raised his fists; it's hard to kick with sore balls and I should know he'd bashed mine enough times.

My crescent kick slapped his ugly face to the right opening a small cut on his cheek then the follow up round house kick made his ribs crunch; I hoped I'd broken a few.

The back fist was a nasty shock. Tommy still had something left in his tank and the blow made me see stars, blood spraying from my mouth in a wide arc to dampen the nearby wall.

I bent over with a gasp hit just under the floating ribs then he grabbed me by the ears again. He had something about ears there was no doubt about it but it did mean that both his hands were engaged he couldn't use them to strike or block.

I double punched him - left to the neck and right to the belly then before he could knee me I kneed him putting my patella where I thought it would do the most harm somewhere low and soft.

He let go and a she did I landed two round house punches to jaw and temple, bounced my elbow off his sternum and spun around letting my foot arc around and upwards to connect with his face.

Landing on his back a meter away he squirmed and groaned; nobody had hit Tommy this hard in a long time, it was rare to see him felled by anyone with anything. Goh went over to the edge of the mat his face stricken, "Get up," he sounded hoarse with shock, "Get up and fight back."

Tommy sure wanted to but he was badly hurt, stunned and losing the red stuff. I'd hit him as hard as I could with my best moves; I loved the spinning hook kick.

With a snort of disgust Goh went over to a glass fronted cabinet, unlocked this and studied the vicious looking implements inside, a mix of bladed and hooked weapons from Chinese history, a most impressive collection.

Removing a sabre he brought it over and dropped it next to Tommy, who blinked, spat blood and gazed at it.

"Use this," said Goh coldly.

"I don't need it," Tommy grunted.

"Yes you do," said the sifu.

"Hey that's cheating," Daisy objected but ignoring her Goh toed the sabre.

"Pick it up," he snarled and doing so Tommy sat up wiping his nose and mouth, turning the weapon over in his hand he gave me a cruel grin.

Reaching into her shoulder bag Carrie took something out which she threw to me, I caught it one handed.

It looked like one of those telescopic truncheons the cops used, and it was...with a few refinements. I shook my wrist and the truncheon trebled in length.

Back on his feet my opponent regarded it, hoisted his sabre and chuckled," I win," he said.

Maybe I thought shaking my wrist again five cruel barbs jumped from the blunt end of the truncheon turning it into a mace.

Smile vanishing Tommy looked uncertain now, I'd trumped his ace.

"Attack him," Goh bellowed, "Do it Tommy."

Limping heavily Tommy closed the gap; he took a practise swipe then lunged at me cutting in and down.

Dodging away from the lethally sharp blade I jabbed with my own weapon forcing him to parry. Blade met spikes in a series of loud clangs and blue sparks jumped into the air.

Tommy attacked and I defended, circling around him and keeping my chin down. His blows were fast and accurate, I was surprised at how good he was with the sabre as the only weapon I'd seen him use before was a long staff.

After 5 slashes in a row by him I jabbed with the mace catching him in the stomach, the barbs ripping through his t-shirt to draw blood. Crying out in pain I lashed back and I felt a red hot brand across my left bicep.

We had both scored, both inflicted injury. He tried again using chopping blows and thrusts trying to impale me through a major organ spleen or lung.

I jabbed at him hoping to have a second success but he was wary now, weaving back out of range his t-shirt and pants wet with moisture. With a loud scream he came in trying to chop my head off but dropping to my knees I went under his blade and skewered him with my spikes.

Goh caught his breath, Carrie brought both hands to her mouth and Daisy utterly a low cry she had gone very pale.

So had Tommy, the blood draining from his enflamed cheeks as his eyes bulged, his mouth flapped open and he looked down at the stainless steel barbs that had ripped into his lower belly.

I pulled them out with a ripping sound and liquid slashed into my face hot and sticky. On the end of each barb was a chunk of meat, a couple were twitching like fat worms.

I stood up as Tommy fell to his knees, the sabre clattering onto the floor as he hugged his entrails, red slime oozing between clenched fingers. It looked a bad wound, if not fatal then certainly bloody and painful. Falling onto his side Tommy held his guts in as a stink of blood and shit filled the air.

Carrie ran to me to check on my arm which was going numb, but my gaze jumped to Goh as I wondered what he would do now, if he'd pick up the sabre and carry on where his minion had left off.

He didn't, he hardly moved at all; his gaze riveted on Tommy who lay there wheezing and leaking.

"This need stitching," said Carrie.

"So does he," I said nodding at my beaten rival.

"Call an ambulance," Carrie shrieked at Goh but he didn't move so Daisy took out her own phone.

"Are we done," I asked Goh as his dark, pitiless eyes covered the gap between us?

Turning with disgust he walked away but my voice followed him, "Daisy Carroway is off limits Goh, I'll be back if any harm comes to her."

A door slammed and a lock turned.

EPILOGUE

"So do you think I'm safe now?"

It was two days later and Daisy met me in a cafe of my choice, smaller, cheaper and nearer to where I lived. Enrico didn't serve posh coffee just coffee with or without milk.

Having dressed down in jeans and a caramel overcoat Daisy still looked ravishing and too high class for this establishment. Eyeing her with interest several males interrupted their fry ups to catch aid. Even Enrico eyeballed the new girl, giving me a 'thumbs- up' of approval.

Carrie was at a job interview, "I'm not fussed but at least they've agreed to see me."

Having wished her luck and texted another good luck message I sat facing my ex client and considered her question.

What were Goh's options really – to come after Daisy alone himself, to send some other goon, to make telephone threats, to take me out of the game.

One was unlikely as Goh wouldn't dirty his own hands, two was possible but who could he find who was more psychotic than Tommy and who could best me, the telephone was a coward's way and despite his many failing Goh wasn't a coward so that left...

"You are Daisy I'm not sure about myself," I knew the triad tendency for gratuitous revenge in the name of honour.

"You think Goh will try to harm you," her hand found mine cool yet also oddly warm, my flesh tingled and the breath caught in my throat. Easy I told myself, she's out of your league it can only end in tears.

"He might," I hedged still wondering if I could take him in a straight one-on-one, "Or he may just cut his losses and write this off to experience."

Her eyes probed mine, her lips kissably close and very tempting, who wouldn't want to kiss Daisy?

"Fighting Tommy was incredibly brave; I've never had anyone go into combat for me before."

"He and I had unfinished business, I was going to have to lay that ghost to rest one day anyway," that was me playing it cool and almost succeeding.

"So how do you feel now," her hand caressed mine in a way that made my entire nervous system zing with excitement, oh stop please on the other hand don't.

"Able to get on with the rest of my life," I said breezily.

"And what will that entail, what are your plans?"

I didn't have any; I just hoped there would be more clients after Daisy that she'd recommend me to her mates.

"Flexible," I fudged wondering if I should have gone with Carrie to the agency to see if they had any vacancies I could fill.

"You could always work for me," there it was the cat was out of the bag; my nervous system shuddered with fear and pleasure.

"In media," I knew nothing about it?

"As my head of security," this threw me.

"Do you need one?"

"I might," she moved those dangerous lips closer, "My business is expanding, diversifying that means more travel and greater risk, I need someone to cover my back that someone could be you."

More travel and risk, watching Daisy's back and maybe her front to. It sounded more appealing than door work, waiting tables or teaching kung-fu twice a week.

The lips were so close now I could almost taste them, cherry and plump sweet and intoxicating.

How long was Carrie's interview?