When you reach a certain age, waking up resembles flying a plane. First, there is the awareness of the price that you have paid simply to reach the cockpit. Every night you go to sleep knowing it may be the last time. Waking cannot be taken for granted. Second, there is the preparation. You need to set a trajectory, to plan a course, because without that, your flight may take a terminal direction. And third, there is the pre-flight checklist. Every joint must be checked, every muscle tested, because if any part of your body is not in absolute prime condition, you may crash on takeoff. I went through the movements smoothly, checking for weakness, for tension, and heaved myself up out of the hotel bed.
My knee went *click*, and my entire body stiffened. I let out a short, sharp scream, and hit the ground, my knee collapsing beneath me in a passable imitation of my life and standing. I hadn’t even made it off the runway.
Several minutes passed as I breathed hard. Every attempt to move my knee sent a stab of pain through my leg, temporarily evaporating my ability to think. I blinked back tears, trying as hard as I could to calm myself. When was the last time I had eaten? I’d considered it on Saturday, after meeting with that young man, what’s-his-name, Ryan. But I’d wound up blowing off the chance for a meal with him or anyone else. Yesterday… Yesterday had been full of investigation, traveling from scene to scene. Half a dozen slashings, hit-and-runs, and subway murders. It hadn’t been what you could call a romantic atmosphere. I had gone without a meal for too long, and my body was seizing up. The overabundance of Yin chi in my body was turning me back into a corpse.
“Miss Fen?” asked a concerned voice. A concerned male voice. I said a little prayer of thanks to whatever deities might still be looking out for me, after all I had done. “Are you okay?”
“Ah, no!” I added just a little quaver to my voice. “If you could come in, please, I would appreciate it, my knee has given me some trouble!”
The young hotel worker entered the room, and gallantly helped me to my feet. Just the touch of skin against skin was enough to get me back in working order. He was a rather handsome young man. Perhaps his ancestors had come from Naples, or Sicily. He was just an American, though, his accent that nebulous mush of melting pot syllables I’d always appreciated so dearly. I smiled sweetly at him, encouraging him to be close. He was young, full of raging hormones, an imbalance of Yang chi that made him overly passionate and prone to moodiness, like most young men. For the next week or so, he would experience an unusual calm, and likely find his studies progressing more effectively than they had in some time. He might even find a nice girlfriend. I accepted his kind help in changing into the dull white cotton t-shirt and generic jacket that I’d bought for my trip to the city.
My name is Li Fang Fen. I am one of the Jiangshi. Some refer to us as zombies, some as vampires, some as ghosts. I am physical, which rules out the latter. I am sapient, and even wise when I’m having a good day, which rules out the former. And I do not feed on blood. There is no native word for what I am in English. And yet, English is a flexible language, moldable and capable of finding meaning wherever it needs to. So I can be called a Jiangshi, and there are an appreciable number of English speakers who would understand exactly what I am. I feed on chi, the life essence of humans. As a woman, I must feed on Yang Chi. I also ramble, because I am very old, which is only occasionally the same thing as being very wise or very powerful. If I were wise, I would have avoided the set of circumstances that brought me to this city. If I were powerful, I would not be so nervous as I set out down the elevator, chi rebalanced.
New York City is a mecca in many ways. It is the heart of transport, of industry, of culture, of finance. It is the gateway to the New World. From where my hotel stands, I am a few short blocks away from a view of the Statue of Liberty, one of the greatest icons in western civilization of the values I cherish most. Acceptance, embracing, the willingness to take those who will fight for a better life. I left China close to a hundred years ago, and I have never regretted my parents’ decision. I don’t know if that is stubbornness or patriotism. At this point, the difference between the two seems academic.
But, as I stepped out into the sweltering summer day, I was eminently aware that I was not welcome here. The city was hostile to supernatural creatures. I’d heard theories as to why. The sheer press of humanity’s strongholds drove away supernatural creatures. The prosaic nature of city life made it uncomfortable for mythological beings. The sheer population meant that it was too dangerous for monsters to feed here. I’d heard every excuse, every wild theory, bandied about in my home of Binghamton. All spoken in the hopes that it would replace the truth.
Something dwelt in New York City. Something terrible, and powerful. Undead, Fairy, or Demon, you did not enter the Empire City. Those who tried to make a home here quickly left. Those who refused to do so disappeared.
An illustrating point: Across the bay lies Jersey City. One of the two largest sources of old-world vampires in the world. The Notte Nostra, a criminal enterprise run by the Strix. There are those among their number who can sow chaos enough to bring cities, nations, to their knees. There are thugs among them who could cut me apart with their bare hands. They never come to New York City for more than a few days, and even then unwillingly.
You may ask, then, why I came to the city. The reason was straightforward. I worked in the forensics department of the Binghamton Police Department. I also was a prominent part of the undead community there. Nine months before, I had found myself involved in a case. I’d broken my word, broken my code of honor. It had all been for the right reasons, but these things had consequences. There was the metaphysical, which was why I’d fallen and nearly been unable to get up this morning. And then, there were the social, which was why I was two hundred miles from home, in a city that was notorious for causing the deaths of my kind on a regular basis.
“The Natural Born Killers-” I began. One of the police officers raised his hand. I raised an eyebrow. “We’re three seconds into this briefing. You already have a question?” A round of laughter filled the room. To the young man’s credit, he didn’t blush or lower his hand. He just nodded. “Alright, then. What’s your question, officer…?”
“Blanski. I saw that movie. The killers wind up surviving the whole thing, and winning in the end. I mean, not to sound superstitious here, but…” He paused for a few moments, frowning. “It doesn’t exactly seem like a good omen. Why not, shit… I dunno, Jack and Jill the Reaper or something?”
I smiled. “I understand what you mean. And these two aren’t going to get away. That’s why I’m here. But it’s important to understand the kind of people they are. These two have been active, so far as we can tell, for the last decade. They’ve killed nearly sixty people, between the two of them. They’ve struck in over a dozen countries. And they do not follow the usual rules. Most serial killers target the helpless. Women, children, the sick and elderly, vulnerable individuals who can’t protect themselves.” I tapped the canvas projector screen. “Every verified victim of these two has been responsible for the death of another. They favor hitmen, soldiers, and other serial killers, but they’re all too happy to murder police officers. That’s why there’s been such a response to them. You have to understand, these two are dangerous. If you think you’ve run into them, if you think you’re even remotely close to them, call it in. SWAT teams are being prepped for them, and they’ll have a better chance than you will.”
Blanski raised his hand again. He was inquisitive. A rare trait in a beat cop, he combined it with actual wit, which made him very nearly unique. I pointed towards him again, and he stood once more. “We’ve all been hearing about the rumors. How many murders are they responsible for here in New York, so far?”
“As you know, there have been twelve unexplained deaths in the last week. The only one we would definitively trace to…” I briefly made eye contact with Blanski, and smiled. He smiled back. A genuine expression of warmth. He wasn’t trying to fuck with me out of a sense of department politics, or because of other aspects. He just wanted the facts. I made a mental note to talk with his supervisor and figure out his patrol schedule. “Jack and Jill, the Reapers, is a John Doe we found earlier today. A middle-aged Caucasian male in Hotel 17. He entered the country as Benedict Scapelli, salesman for a small Italian technology firm. He had half a dozen IDs on him, and two extremely illegal ceramic-composite weapons. We suspect him of being a hitman, here on an unknown assignment. He’s precisely the kind of target that Jack and Jill favor. He was killed by penetration of the ocular cavity with a hotel pen.”
“I’m sorry,” said one of the others, without taking the time to lift his hand or wait for me to take a break. “You’re saying that a hitman got stabbed in the eye with a pen?”
“Yes. ‘Jill’ is a master at hand-to-hand combat. We know she’s of oriental- sorry, Asian descent, and young. She first started working with ‘Jack’ about 6 years ago, in Korea. We believe her to be between sixteen and twenty-two years of age. Please keep in mind: Mister Scapelli likely knew about her. Jack and Jill are bogeymen among the circles of hired killers throughout the world. He was prepared, and fired three shots. She overpowered him, and killed him. Learn from his mistake: Do not confront them directly. ‘Jack’ is equally dangerous, although he favors sniping positions and ranged combat, with a focus on small caliber handguns. These two are extraordinarily dangerous. They may be operating anywhere throughout the city. Their hallmarks are a lack of trace evidence. They favor methods that will leave a crime scene mostly bare. There was no trace of spilled blood or lost hairs in the Scapelli incident.”
“Doesn’t seem very helpful, killers that don’t leave traces,” said the interrupter.
“I don’t know about that,” said Blanski, before I could interject. “Crime scenes with no traces stand out a lot.” I nodded, and smiled as I continued.
“I’ve been studying these two for the past six months, tracking their movements. They’ve been focused, lately. Tokyo, Beijing, Istanbul, Athens, Lisbon. Tracing out a path.” I frowned. “We don’t know why they’re in the city, who they’re targeting specifically. But these two kill people wherever they go. They’re murderers, and skilled ones. We’re here in the hopes that we can stop them.” I took a deep breath, and looked around the room.
“I won’t lie. Our profession has taken a beating. Scandal, corruption, violence, backlash. We all know what it’s like. There’s been a lot of shit coming down on the forces of law and order. A lot of people who see us as the bad guys. A lot of people who think of us more as enemies than allies. I trust every officer in this room to be straight, but it’s a big goddamn force, and some bad people get involved in police work. It’s reflected poorly on us, and I know how badly that hurts. Trying to be a good cop in a world that seems certain that you’re bad. Moments like this are why we joined the force. To try to make things right. To try to show that there’s a reason for law and order. To prove that we’re not just repression. To show that when the things in the dark start preying on good, decent people, we’re willing to take a stand. You wouldn’t be on this task force if you hadn’t volunteered, and I know the bonus pay is shit.” A round of laughter filled the room.
“You make this sound pretty damn dramatic, ma’am,” said Blanski, frowning. He hadn’t joined in the laugh. “What are these two?” I paused, and thought about the question. What. Not who. A slip of the tongue, or did he know something?
“They’re murderers. Cop-killers, serial killers, and bastards. They do this for thrills. They’re not ideologically motivated. They think they’re predators in this world, and that the human race is their prey. They think that they can murder people without consequence. They’ve traveled across the world, and nobody’s proved them wrong yet. This is, so far as anyone is aware, the first time they’ve visited New York. This is a chance to show them that their confidence isn’t earned. To remind them that they’ve been a big fish in small ponds, and they just swam their way out into the ocean. I don’t want to give them a chance to leave this city. I want to help you, all of you, to put them into jail. They’re going to spend the rest of their lives regretting the day they set foot on this island.”
I listened as the men cheered. Two people didn’t respond. Blanski sat with a contemplative look on his face, more troubled than enthused. And in the back of the room, one of the deputy inspectors was leaned against a wall, staring at me with an uncomfortable fervor.
The room cleared out. People were eager to be out on the streets. I’d done my job well. Deputy inspectors and captains thanked me, clapping me on the shoulder. Like any person, they wanted to feel like they were doing the righteous thing. Humans always fought like tigers when they believed they were in the right, and a pair of serial killers could make a lot of kinds of people feel like they were in the right. Humans were terrifying when they got in that mood. A single short life, and they burned it carelessly. I just wished that was worth a damn in the face of what I was tracking down.
When you involve humans in your business, you have to be careful. I am a century old Chinese vampire, and a single human with an assault rifle could severely inconvenience me. Any five of these men could stand a good chance against me if they knew what I was, through sheer force of numbers. If they got a taste of the supernatural, they might start wondering why this strange Asian woman didn’t always sweat under pressure, or why her breath did not fog in the cold night unless she was concentrating. The hints that I was giving them might someday be turned against me.
I did not like to prey upon humans. I wanted to live in harmony with them. They were my kin. That was why I tried so hard to give at the same time as I took, as I had with the kind young man at the hotel. If I was a lion, I dwelt among water buffalo, and they outnumbered me six- sorry, seven billion to one.
“Miss Li?” asked the blonde. I shook my head. I’d fallen into a trance. It happened more often than I’d like to admit. When you got old, your thoughts became deep. They were comfortable, like bathwater. You could be tempted to lounge in them for longer than you should, as I’d just done. I gave her a polite smile.
“I’m sorry, I was miles away. What did you say?”
“Why are you in my city?”
I froze, horrible guilt in my stomach, until I realized what she was asking. “I’m…” I coughed, trying to stop my voice from squeaking. “I’m sorry, Deputy Inspector. If I’ve caused offense or stepped on your toes, jurisdictionally speaking. I’m not here in any official capacity. I hope I can help as an expert-”
“You are a monster,” she said, and the world froze around me. I stared at her.
“Are you the thing-” I stopped again, my voice high and squeaky. I coughed a couple of times, clearing my throat. “My kind have… died here. Disappeared here. Are you the one who did it?”
“No. She’s not in the city at the moment, or she’d probably have gotten to you first.” A melancholy expression crossed the blonde’s face. I took the opportunity to read her badge. Dane Larson, Deputy Inspector of Precinct 13. “I heard the propaganda. But who are these two, really?”
“Killers.” I raised my hands as she turned a cold glare on me. She had a way with her eyes. “I’m not trying to be funny here. That’s what I know. About seven months ago, I was hired by an individual. She asked me to look into these two, and to do what I could to track them down and apprehend them. I’ve been on their trail since then, and everything I said in this room was the truth. I’m…” I swallowed. “I’m not in much of a position to tell falsehoods or break promises, at the moment.”
She frowned. “Is that so. In my experience with the supernatural, they’ve not been the most law-abiding.”
“You say you know the creature which has made this city verboten. Every sane, law-abiding supernatural creature I know has been reluctant to come to this place, because of that. Is it really so strange that you might have a skewed perspective on my kind? We both know what this job is like. When you see only the worst that the world has to offer, you begin to think that’s all it has to offer.”
There were another few moments of silence. The room had cleared out, a fact for which I was grateful. Larson did not seem the kind to be shy about bringing up the supernatural in front of others. Some humans gained strength from preserving secrets. Others gained strength from revealing secrets. I would place her firmly in the latter camp.
After a long few seconds, she nodded. “You know Ryan Harovitch?”
My eyes widened. “Is he okay?”
She gave me another slow, calculating look. “What would it matter to you, if I said no?”
“I…” I looked down at my feet. “I met him, on Saturday. I tried to help him. I had little I could do. I am old, but poorly fed. I wanted to help him, but he was not willing… Not able, to pay the costs for it. I helped him in the small ways that I could.” I thought of him. Such horrible things, happening to someone who didn’t deserve it. Hot tears prickled at my eyes, even as I tried to hold them back “He… didn’t make it?” I asked.
The deputy inspector watched me for a few cold seconds, and then she sighed. “Ryan’s fine. I’m taking him to see his girlfriend later today, and she’s expected to make a full recovery. I suppose you’re at least a good actor.” She waved a hand towards one of the seats arrayed in the briefing room, and we both sat together, a couple of seats between us, providing a demilitarized zone. “I’ve met a few strange things. Not many of them bothered being good liars. They were either too strong, or too inhuman.”
I smiled. “I am a good liar. I will confess that, in the hope that it gives my caveat greater strength. I am not lying when I say I want Jack and Jill captured, arrested, and stopped.”
“What are they?”
“Human, I’m given to understand. Wizards. Of a kind.” I tapped my fingers together. “What do you know of wizardy?”
“I know a guy who takes care of a goddess, and who learned to cast spells from an apartment. Is it the same thing?”
I frowned at her, staring at her poker-faced expression, trying to make out any sign of mockery or lies. She wasn’t giving me much of anything. “I… Broadly. Though on a greater scale than I know. They made an agreement with something… terrible. I think it’s a demon.”
“A demon.” She didn’t sound impressed.
“Something that feeds on the souls of men, at any rate. She’s never been beaten in hand to hand combat. He’s never missed a fatal shot. I don’t know what the pact was with precisely. It was strong, I’m sure.”
“A pact. Like the one you offered Ryan Harovitch?”
“In loose terms.”
“What did you offer him in exchange for his soul?”
“What the fuck do you think I am?” I asked, sharply, glaring at her. She met my glare, even and cool. “I am a Jiangshi. I am the walking dead, but I was once a human, and I will always remain akin to humanity. I am not a demon. I am not one of the Fae. I do not take souls. I do not damn anyone. I am a Jiangshi, and when I take, I give! I offered him the mastery of his own chi! A natural ease with his own body that would give him the power to stand face to face with the nightmares in the dark! I chose, nearly a century ago, to live with mankind, and nothing in that time has changed my mind! How dare you make such an accusation!”
“Would you make an agreement like that with me?”
I opened my mouth, and closed it, studying her. Trying to bleed away the anger at the insult. Taking the question seriously. Examining her, down to her core. She stared into my eyes, and I did likewise. I’d never found something supernaturally meaningful in eye contact. That might have been a reflection on the spirit world. It was more likely a reflection on me. I shrugged. “I prefer men.”
“What, only men can be… wizards?”
“It’s a simple matter of Chi. Masculine energy is Yang. Feminine is Yin. It’s one of the basises of Taoism, the philosophy on which my existence is based. You’re passionate, a bit more Yang than most women have, but it’s still…” I paused. “Ryan is safe? You kept him safe?”
“I broke Jack Black’s arm, and ground his face into the floor.” She stared at me, her shoulders set. “I’ve seen the gods and monsters of this world. The protector of New York City told me that I did better than she expected. I’ve faced the Ateroleum, sailed on the ocean Yam Hamawet whose name brings terrible motherhood. I’ve looked Nergal in the eye, and spat in it. This city is under assault, and its protector is off fighting a greater battle. I’m standing up to the darkness, to remind them that there’s more than one thing to fear in the night.”
I slowly opened my mouth, and closed it. “That is… an impressive resume. I shall keep you in mind.” I stood up. “I’m after these two. I will give you what help I can against them. As to your war…” I frowned at her. “I’m afraid I’ll have to wish you good luck on that.” I made for the door as quickly as possible. I knew passionate humans. This woman seemed to come closer to the side of madness. But I couldn’t rule out the possibility of needing her help. Madness was a power all its own, in the hands of humans.
I needed a break. A chance to be with someone sympathetic. Someone who could give me the passion, the appropriate chi, to regain my bearing. I wanted to seek out Blanski. He was clever, sharp-witted, and attractive in the way that fed the most base animal aspects of the chi. But I had something to do, first. Play came after work. If I wanted to ever regain my honor, my ability to be a part of the human world, it would have to.
I sat in the Starbucks. It was like all of its kind. There were nearly 300 of this franchise in the city. Each one held the familiar green and white logo. Each one was a bustle of activity, caffeine and sugar passed out over the counter. Each one was manned by people who could barely afford to live close enough to reach their place of work. They worked on the edge of collapse, fighting to keep the city functioning.
Caffeine is one of the few true nootropics in the world. Humans are obsessed, first and foremost, with their own minds. Caffeine sharpens their senses, makes them faster and more capable of recollection. Its costs were minor compared to its benefits. Coffee and tea had remained two of the most precious commodities afforded to civilians over the last five hundred years. I lifted the cup of tea, and blew across the pale yellow-green surface. Even picked and packaged by a factory, even served by those with little left to their souls, the strength of the tea remained.
“Detective Fang Fen.”
I looked up, and met the eyes of the woman who had hired me. She sat across from me, one leg crossed over the other. Her hair was so black it was almost blue, that peculiar inky darkness that turned into color, almost defiant of the absence of light. Her face was pale, but with a hint of saffron that marked her as Asian. Her features did not hint, though I knew. It didn’t matter. She was the one who was paying my bills, and the one who had promised me redemption. “Lady.” I gave a delicate inclination of my head, just enough to offer respect without submission.
“Your methods are somewhat suspect. You don’t know who might get involved with this investigation. Are you prepared for that?”
She was condescending. Arrogant. Her cheeks powdered white, red lipstick making her mouth stand out against that artificial background. She didn’t want to be identified easily. I could understand that. I had my suspicions about who she was. An elder Fae or Undead, one of the ancient Sokushinbutsu. I knew she was Japanese, which rankled. I remembered what they had done to my motherland, even if I had long forsaken it by then. She had the kind of arrogance I so often saw on their faces. Nonetheless…
“I am. The two of them stole a sword from you, and murdered someone you care about. They will be imprisoned for their misdeeds, and the property taken back from them.” I tapped my fingers across the arm of the chair where I sat. “And in return…”
“In return, your word will mean something again. The duty you forsake, the justice you dishonored, will be made whole again through your effort. Things will be right.”
I slowly nodded. “The chase is drawing to a close. I have a few questions for you. Illustrating points, if you wish.” I leaned forward, and frowned. “You knew something of who these two were, didn’t you? From the beginning, I mean. That they were supernatural in their nature. What, exactly, did they do to you?”
“They killed my brother. And that alone was enough to tell me they had help. No normal mortal could have done it.” She paused for a moment, and then grimaced, as though there was a sour taste in her mouth. “In the manner they did it, at any rate.”
“I see. Is there any chance of my beating them on my own?”
“If they are together? Absolutely none. If they are apart, slim to none. I cannot recommend it. Use the mortals as your shield. They are chaff, but enough chaff may jam the combine, if inserted in the right places.” I gave her a long, hard look. “You disapprove of my attitude towards mortals. The choice is yours, whether to prioritize their survival, or yours. I know the choice that I would make.”
“There are a lot of killings happening in the city right now. Is it connected?”
“No. These two have only each other. They do not work well with others, practically by definition. The other killings are a distraction, a sideshow. They don’t matter to me.” I nodded. That was not the same thing as it not mattering to me. “At any rate. The two killers will seek out their prey. When they find that prey, they will move on. You have until that happens to stop them. I would strongly suggest you hurry.”
“Fine.” I tapped my right knee. It felt tight again. Worrying. I really needed to eat more. “I’ve met a human with… unusual talents, and an exceptional resume. Do you mind if I coordinate with her? I suspect she might be helpful.”
“If you wish. I know the one you’re speaking of. Chaff like the rest, but perhaps a bit more resilient than the others. I do not know if you should trust her, but that is more because of what she is than what she has done, or what she is like. Humans are not useful confidants.” I nodded, and stood up, grabbing my tea in its tall, Styrofoam container.
“Well, as always, Lady De, you’ve been both cryptic and not very helpful. When I track them down, I will be sure to alert you.”
Her hand lashed out, and tightened around my wrist. Her fingers were thin and elegant, and her grip was harder than steel. The cup of green tea fell from my hand, splattering across the floor, drawing momentary stares from people around the room. They immediately returned to their own ongoing issues, content not to interfere. “There is one more piece of information I will share, then.”
“My, I feel blessed.”
“In this city, at this moment, there is a being. She is more dangerous than anyone else you will meet while you are here. She does not care for your kind. And she is a betrayer. She has sold me out once in the past, and it cost me much. I suspect you will know her when you meet her. I suggest you not accept her offer of help.” She released my hand. I stared at her for a few moments. “You have your leave.”
“Are you speaking of the predator of our kind?” I asked, lips dry.
“No. Something worse.”
I walked out of the restaurant, rubbing my wrist. At least I knew that the gruesome feeling I’d had since I’d entered the city wasn’t just paranoia. I missed home. I missed Atina. I missed routine.
But you didn’t keep vital by sticking to routines. I tugged gently at the cheap white T-shirt’s collar, and held a hand out for a taxi.