THE COLLAGE • by Richard M. O’Donnell, Sr.

Sensei Kove filled the west wall of his dojo with photographs of the families of the people he had killed. When he taught, he stood in front of this gallery. This forced us would-be-assassins to practice under their accusing eyes. The sensei himself was an ordinary, middle-aged man with an unassuming demeanor. Yet when he spoke, it was as though he wore the collage as a second skin.

When someone asked him why it was there, Sensei Kove ignored the question. This was our cue to figure it out for ourselves. No matter what topic we bandied about after training, the conversation always came back to the collage.

“Sensei wants us to learn to empathize with our victims,” one would say. “So we never lose our humanity.”

“We’re not psychopaths after all,” insisted others. “We serve a higher purpose.”

“It is a show of weakness,” concluded another. “A true assassin must be cold blooded.”

I listened to these arguments and remained taciturn. I practiced becoming invisible even among my contemporaries. I believed that if you scratched an assassin, you would find a sociopath growing under the skin. Only once during my first year did I suggest another possibility. “The pictures are the trophies of a serial killer.” That evening while I meditated someone knocked me out from behind. After that, I kept my opinions to myself.

Years passed. Most of my classmates were killed in the line of duty. A few went to prison. A couple ended in the insane asylum. I was fortunate. I attributed my longevity to the fact that I knew I was a sociopath. By following Sensei Kove’s teachings, I walked the line between normalcy and insanity. Perhaps this was why he chose me to be his uchi-deshi, his live-in apprentice and bodyguard. I acted as the liaison between the dojo and our main clients, the private mercenary firms around the world.

I did learn one of Sensei Kove’s secrets. He enjoyed sipping cappuccinos at sidewalk cafés and watching the people go by. Every Friday morning, he rolled a die with the days Friday, Saturday and Sunday written on it. On the day the die selected, he would pull a name of a café out of a jar. Only then would I drive him to the destination. Once there, we sat quietly opposite each other for hours. He never talked, and I had enough sense not to start a conversation. Though tedious, the time spent was better than sitting in the lotus position at the dojo while the families of his victims stared down at me.

Eventually, I came to enjoy people-watching, the predictability of it. Any irregularity stood out, such as a would-be pickpocket, a disgruntled employee, a person in love. That’s why in the fall of 2019 a woman in a gray power suit caught my eye when she sat down at the table directly behind Sensei Kove. There was something very familiar about her… the oval face… the upturned nose… the brown eyes with the gold flecks…  She noticed my gaze and smiled. Then she gave the waiter her order. I did not return the smile. Instead, I surreptitiously scoped out the street for signs of danger. Nothing. I racked my brain. I had seen her before… But where?

Sensei Kove noticed the change in my body language. I always drank tea and a silver teapot sat between us. He reached over and poured a bit of tea into his cappuccino, and then he set the pot down on the table in such a way as to allow him to see who was behind him in its reflection. That jogged my memory of a birthday picture in the right-hand, lower corner of the collage. A little brown-eyed girl caught mid-breath was about to blow out eight candles. Her face was ablaze in the orange flames. This burned her image into my mind. I knew without a doubt that the child and the woman were the same person. I also knew she was here to kill Sensei Kove.

Our eyes locked. Then hers narrowed. She reached for something under the table when a poisoned dart swished into her neck. Sensei Kove had shot a tiny dart from a gun under his arm using only the teapot’s reflection to aim, amazing. The woman’s face hit the table with a smack and heads turned.

Sensei Kove stood up, and with a doctor’s calm, he checked her carotid artery with his index and middle finger. At the same time, he deftly palmed the dart. “Her heart has stopped,” he told the crowd. “Does anyone know CPR?”

Several good Samaritans stepped forward and Sensei Kove and I stood aside in the crowd. Meanwhile half a dozen gawkers pulled out their digital devices and recorded the heroics. The EMTs came and did their best, and a police officer questioned the Samaritans. Another officer found a small Smith & Wesson in her handbag and put it in an evidence bag. Only then did he begin to collect the cell phones. This caused the crowd to disperse and we left with them.

Driving home, I thought of the collage and I realized I remembered every face. Then it struck me, Sensei Kove was an assassin, not a serial killer. “You recognized the woman,” I said.

“Yes, she was Donna Clover from Farr Creek. Her mother was a government contract.”

“That’s why you put up the collage,” I said. “So we could memorize their faces should any of them seek revenge.”

“Of course,” said Sensei Kove. “What other reason could there be?”

Richard M. O’Donnell, Sr., MFA, is the co-founder of the Oberlin Writers’ Group, the MindFair Poets and the founder of the Infinite Monkey Sci-fi/Fantasy Writers group. His works have appeared in many venues including Every Day Fiction, Every Day Poets, A Long Story Short, 365 Tomorrows, Flash Fiction Magazine and the North Coast Review to name a few. The Ohio Arts Councils has awarded him two Individual artist grants for his fiction.

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