Mastered - 1


Lorelei James


“SO this is where you’re learning to kick some ass.”

Amery scrutinized the front of the restored historic brick building. At six stories it was the tallest structure on this end of the block. On the street level, iron bars covered the few windows that hadn’t been bricked over. The signage on the glass door read BLACK ARTS with a phone number below it.

She craned her neck to look up. Had to be a killer view of the river and the city from the top floor.

“Uh, Amery? What are we waiting for?”

“A welcoming party of ninjas to rappel down from the roof? Any less than a dozen masked killers brandishing swords and I’ll be sorely disappointed.”

Molly laughed nervously. “Um . . . well, maybe next time. But we should go in. Class starts in five minutes and we were warned to be on time.”

Amery bit back a sigh. She really didn’t want to be here, but she’d suck it up and do it, even if only out of solidarity.

Her stomach twisted into a vicious knot every time she remembered the phone call from the police last month, after her sweet-natured employee, Molly, had been attacked by homeless guys in downtown Denver. Poor Molly had defined introverted even before the incident; the attack had pushed her further into her shell. So when Molly asked Amery to accompany her to a women’s self-defense class, Amery had agreed.

But looking around this sketchy neighborhood, she’d be surprised if they weren’t jumped after class. Maybe that was part of the training. Seeing if students put the moves they learned to good use as they fought their way back to their car after dark.

Amery must’ve seemed reluctant, because Molly said, “If you don’t want to do this . . .”

She plastered on a smile. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to be in an enclosed space with a bunch of macho martial arts guys who like to beat the crap out of each other for fun.”

Molly’s eyes narrowed.

“Kidding, Mol. Let’s hit it. Wouldn’t want you to be late for your first day.”

Inside the building, the entryway split into two hallways, one that pointed to the men’s and women’s locker rooms and the other to the classrooms. They headed to the main entrance.

A bald-headed, heavily tattooed guy in what resembled white pajamas manned a small cubby that looked like a cross between a ticket booth and a coat check.

“Good evening, ladies. How may I help you?”

Molly cleared her throat. “I’m here for the women’s self-defense class.”

He picked up a clipboard. “Name?”

“Molly Calloway.”

Mr. Tattoos had to be bald by choice since he appeared to be under twenty-five. He checked the list, marked off Molly’s name, and looked at Amery. “Ma’am? Your name?”

“Amery Hardwick.”

He frowned. “You’re not on the list. You signed up for the class?”

“Technically? No. I’m here as a bench warmer to support my buddy Molly.”

“I’m sorry, that’s against our policy.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re only allowed into the dojo if you’re a participant in the classes. We do not allow spectators. Or supporters.”



Amery looked at Molly. The poor girl blushed crimson. Then Amery focused on the bald-headed gatekeeper. “You don’t allow parents or guardians inside to watch their kids beat each other to a pulp?”

“No, ma’am.”

Well, that was stupid. And she said so.

“It’s all right, Amery,” Molly whispered. “This was a dumb idea. We can just go.” She grabbed on to Amery’s arm.

“Hang on a second.” Amery pulled her black-and-white cowhide wallet out of her purse. “How much is the class?”

“This isn’t a movie theater where you can just show up and buy tickets at the door. You have to be approved in advance before you can even register for the class. Those are the rules. I don’t make them. I just enforce them.”

Amery tapped her fingers on the counter. “I understand. But these are extenuating circumstances.”

He scowled.

“Maybe you oughta just get your supervisor, because I’m not leaving.”

He hesitated about ten seconds before he reached for the phone. He turned his back so they couldn’t hear the conversation. Then he faced them again. “If you’ll have a seat, someone will be right out.”

Molly looked mortified, which made Amery more determined to make sure she took this class.

Less than two minutes later a big blond guy, about mid-thirties, dressed in what resembled black pajamas, stopped in front of them. He offered Amery his hand. “I’m Knox Lofgren, the dojo general manager. How can I help you?”

Amery explained the situation, adding, “I would’ve officially signed up for the class ahead of time had I known that was required. It’s not fair to penalize Molly.” She leaned closer and whispered, “Ever since the attack . . . she’s jumpy and avoiding all social situations where she doesn’t know anyone. She won’t start the class if I’m not here. You don’t want that on your conscience, do you, Mr. Lofgren?”

The man studied Amery as if she was lying. Just as she was about to crack and back off, he said, “Fine. I’ll squeeze you in. But understand that you two will not always be paired together in class. You’ll both be expected to train with others.” He focused on Molly. “Will that be a problem for you?”

“No, sir.”

“Good.” Then Knox handed Amery a clipboard. “Also, we alternate Tuesdays and Thursdays for this class. Next week class will be Thursday night. The following week Tuesday evening, and so on.”

Don’t ask why, Amery.

“Just fill in the basic details on the application. Will you be paying by credit card or check?”

“How much is the class?”

“One hundred and fifty dollars.”

Seemed high but she’d pay it. She slid her credit card from her wallet and handed it to him.

“I’ll get your receipt.”

“Thank you.” Soon as she finished scrawling her information, she glanced up at him. This Knox guy could intimidate on size alone. He had to be at least six foot four. Although he had the rugged all-American-boy-next-door good looks, he was . . . just slightly scary.

“I’ve included a description of the class and the schedule. Make sure you follow all the rules—”

A teenaged boy raced in. “Shihan? We’ve got blood in the fourth ring.”

Shihan or Knox or whoever he was bailed immediately.

Tattooed Bald Guy said, “Ladies, step through the far door. Put your bags on the conveyor belt. If you’re bringing weapons to class, I need them out of the bag. If not, you can proceed through the metal detector.”

Metal detector? Amery was having a hard time wrapping her head around this much security in a place that should be swarming with killer ninjas.


She just about let it lie, but curiosity had always been her downfall. “Level with me. Is this some secret military training camp?”

“No. Why?”

“Why the extra security for a teaching facility?”

The guy shrugged. “Weapons are part of the training. Swords, knives, sticks. We have to check and approve all weapons that are brought in.”


Molly nudged her toward the door.

After they were cleared through security—still sounded bizarre—he pointed to a stocky guy, and that guy waved them over.

As they approached him, Amery checked out the joint. The place had clean lines and neutral colors: gray carpet and white walls—where there were walls. Some of the training rooms were separated by Plexiglas. Since there weren’t any windows along the entire side, the walls were mirrored, creating a fun-house effect. In the center of the room was a guard tower that overlooked the entire space.

The stocky guy did a quick bow to them and offered his hand. “I’m your instructor for the women’s self-defense class. We do use formal titles at Black Arts, so you can call me either Sandan or Sandan Zach.”

Molly introduced herself first.

When Amery gave her name, he frowned. “I don’t remember your application.”

“That’s because I’m a last-minute addition.” She nudged Molly. “I was supposed to be here for support only, but that somehow violates the dojo rules.”

“The rules are . . . precisely the way Sensei wants them.” Zach gestured to the area behind them. “There’s nearly fourteen thousand square feet of training space on two floors, so we can have all student levels training at the same time if we choose. Some of the rooms are open like these. And some on the backside, for the more advanced students, are semiprivate.”

Molly pointed to the watchtower in the midst of everything. “What’s that?”

“The Crow’s Nest. Sensei Black can observe the classes.”

Amery had an image of a grizzled but wise and agile Asian man sitting up there muttering to himself about the lack of discipline in today’s youth.

“We’re happy to have you both at Black Arts,” Sandan Zach said, without looking away from Molly. “Your class is over here. Set your bags along the back wall.”

Their fifteen classmates ranged in age from younger than Molly to a woman in her mid-sixties and all sizes and ethnicities.

One other thing Amery noticed? All the women wore white shirts and black sweatpants or yoga pants. A few stared at her jeans and short-sleeved white blouse.

Sandan Zach clapped his hands. “Listen up, ladies. I’ll do a brief overview of the class, but first everyone needs to remove socks and shoes.”