Johnny sat in the subway car, trying not to make eye contact with anyone, his long hoodie drawn over his head. A phone sat in one hand, though it was still showing the lock screen. He’d stolen it when he’d been leaving the crime scene. A spasm of paranoia struck him. Could they track the phone with its GPS coordinates? He considered, for the third time that hour, throwing the thing under the rails the next time he got off the train. But his reasoning had been sound. The phone made him look normal. People didn’t question who you were when you were staring at a phone on the subway. They just assumed you were another self-absorbed prick.
“This is all your fault,” he whispered. Not at the phone.
The knife sat in his other hand. A slender black bundle of menace. The most dangerous thing on the streets, bar none. It looked like little more than a black handle with silver accents, a button gleaming on the tiny crossguard. One push, and all your problems went away. Your father screaming at you that you were a disappointment, your mother unable to look you in the eyes, your younger brother mocking you for never being half the man he was. Of course, that begat even greater problems. The police. Screaming. And somehow, every time the knife solved a problem, it made a new one.
“You know that wasn’t my fault. He touched you. You know you don’t like to be touched. What were you supposed to do, let that little nancy put his hands all over you, shove his tongue in your mouth? Did you want something like that, Jack?”
“You’re Jack,” said Johnny, squeezing the handle tight. His fingers were nowhere near the button, but the knife slid out and into place with a click. The average watcher might have taken it for a sign that the knife was old, that the mechanism was faulty, that there was something wrong with the knife. All of these things were probably true, but Johnny knew it was because the knife was in control. It had been a simple purchase, something taken from a police auction, the possessions of some drug dealer who’d gotten caught and had everything he owned taken from him. Johnny’d bought it on a whim. Because he thought it looked cool. Technically, it was illegal. The police never should have sold it to him. It was their fault. Not Johnny’s. It was their fault that the knife had fallen into the wrong hands.
That line of thinking had worked for him for so long. He’d been able to pretend he was innocent in all of this for so long. That it wasn’t really his fault. And now more people were dead. Michael had been nice. Sure, he’d been interested in Johnny in a way that made him feel strange, uncomfortable, but he’d been willing to listen, he’d been sympathetic, he’d offered Johnny a place to stay. Tears began to bubble up at the corners of Johnny’s eyes, his teeth gritted together.
“Hey. Pull it together, you fucking wreck. You sorry about what happened to that nancy-boy? Then suck it up. Get stronger. You’re the one who’s always weak, who’s always fucked up by his own emotions. You need to keep it together. I’m just a fucking knife, you understand that? I can’t make you do anything. All I do is give you options, so if you pick the wrong options, it’s your fucking fault. Now stand up, and get off this subway, you’re really fucking suspicious. Crying in public is going to make people notice you.”
Johnny nodded, and wiped at his eyes. He took a deep breath, and concentrated. Focus. No tears. No fear. No hints that he’s anything other than a man. Man, through and through, without any hint of weakness or pain. He stood up, folded the blade back into the knife’s hilt, and froze.
The blonde police officer stood in front of him. She was glaring at him, her eyes hard. He stood frozen for a moment, and then pulled his gaze away, looking up at the schedule. They were close to the Queensboro bridge. He’d get off here. He fought the urge to turn back and stare at her, to make sure she wasn’t following him. That would be suspicious. It would confirm any anger she had towards him. Instead, he weaved through crowds, cutting in front of people, running across busy intersections.
Johnny hated this city. He hated how crowded it was, how dirty it was. He hated how close together the buildings were, and how they blocked out the sight of the sky. He hated how hot it was, and how every breath seemed to be previously owned. He hated how noisy it was, and how angry everyone was. It felt like his nerves were constantly being scraped raw by every interaction he had. His fingers tightened around the knife, and the blade sprung out as he began to look for someone to stick.
“Hey. Keep it together. That church we read about is close. Just get in there, and you can be alone for a while. Alright? Don’t go and stab someone because you can’t handle crowds, Jack.”
“You’re Jack,” said Johnny.
The church had been one of those bought and renovated by the Cult of the Survivor, back during their build-up to that dirty bomb in ’15. It had been converted into a combined temple and hospital. Then when the cult had been exposed, people had left it in droves. Their property had been seized by the city, and sold to developers to be torn down and paved over at nearly criminal prices. And yet…
The lobby was empty. Newspapers littered it here and there. Trash. Refuse. A man with dark skin and a cap sat slumped in one corner, covering his face. New York City had bounced back from the plague. It had recovered magnificently. All of the newspapers said so. But the buildings that the cult had bought were all like this. Poisoned. Johnny wondered if it was magic. Maybe demons, like the preacher had always said.
He’d asked Jack if she was a demon, once.
“Yes,” she’d said. “A terrible demon. I was one of the great Asura, a vile and powerful spirit of rage. The great god Brahma created me to be a purifier. To bring war and strife to the lands which were cursed with peace and weakness. The great swordsmith Muramasa, apprentice to Masamune, bound and sealed me. He sought to turn my bloodlust, my warmaking, towards peace. He believed that if he could control me, he could be the greatest swordsman of all time. But his skill was imperfect. He bound me, but when he attempted to prove the skill of his craft, I tainted the results. The blade cut everything, innocent and guilty alike, and Muramasa was executed for betraying his teacher’s ideals, and trafficking with Asura.”
But then, she had a lot of those kinds of stories. He knew she was magical, but he didn’t know the rules. He’d tried to find out more about them, but there was just so damn much to it. He walked through the halls of the hospital, towards the back rooms. Towards the places he’d seen in those documentaries. The place where people had died, supposedly to feed a god. His fingers tightened around the hilt as he made his way down into the basement.
Nobody stayed down here. Even beggars could be choosers, sometimes. Johnny could feel the miasma in the air, the scent of rot long since gone, of all the people who had died here, their flesh decaying and turning against them. Death. Jack shuddered slightly in his hand. “Are you scared?” he asked, frowning down at the knife. He’d seen her scared before. Hell, he’d rarely seen her anything but scared. But this felt different
“You think I’m awful, yeah? But I’m nothing compared to this. You know? A few people die, here and there, when I’m around, because you humans are weak. You think I’m a monster, because of that. But I don’t organize things. I don’t make groups to kill people.” Johnny stared through an empty doorway, the doors long since removed. There was no body on the rusted gurney within. But nobody had bothered to clean the stains on the mattress, or spattered across the walls. “I don’t convince myself that what I’m doing is helping people. The only thing I’m guilty of is surviving, no matter what. Refusing to let myself be killed for the crimes of others.”
“So, if it came right down to it, you’d let me die, huh?” Johnny looked down at the knife. His lips were reflected in the blade by the wan light filtering through a flickering fluorescent light, one of the few still working down here. His expression was dour, but reflected in the blade, a smile was shining.
“Come on, now. A knife’s got to have a wielder. As long as you keep it together, Jack, as long as you stay strong, we’ll be together forever. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, buddy?” The silence lingered as they kept walking. “Can’t say I’m a fan of the silent treatment here, Jack. When you don’t communicate properly, it makes people worry, you know? Like, thinking maybe you might do something stupid. Think maybe you can get rid of me to save yourself. Not that anyone’d believe you, though. Come on, you’ve read about those other serial killers-”
“I’m not a serial killer!”
‘I’m a serial killer!’
‘A serial killer!”‘
The words echoed through the hallway, mocking him, reverberating through the dead hallways. Johnny shivered. Jack sighed, and continued. “We both know that’s not true. Besides, lots of serial killers said they felt they were being pushed to do it. But they still wind up frying in the end, don’t they? Hey, but look, it’s not such a bad thing. I mean, it used to be that when you killed a bunch of people who deserved it, you got called a hero, and people told stories about you! It’s not your fault, Jack, buddy. You were born in the wrong time. We’re just a couple of crazy, mismatched souls, trying to make our way in the world.”
“You’re Jack,” he said, as he approached the last door. This one was still closed. His heart began to pound as he stood before the door. The numbers 101 stood over it. Nobody had entered this room. They’d probably felt the same pressure he had, the same terrible urge to turn away. He turned the knob, and stepped into the room.
A transparent plastic cage sat up against one wall, empty. Nothing else. He sighed softly, and curled up, resting his head on his arm. The floor was hard, but he was used to that. It was cooler than it was outside, and nobody would bother him in there. He’d be safe from everything.
“Sleep tight, Jack, buddy.”
When Johnny woke up, his stomach growled. He was cold, and aching. He needed something to eat. He looked up, and saw Jack curled up, knife hidden within the handle. He thought of taking her. He thought of the way she’d spoken to him, the way she’d accused him. He thought about the anger in her voice. He decided not to.
Soon, he was sitting on a street corner. He didn’t have any money left. He couldn’t work, he couldn’t be a part of polite society. All he could do was sit on the corner, shake his hat, and hope that a few people might show pity. The heat was sweltering, choking, and whenever he looked up, met people’s eyes, they withdrew. They were frightened of him. Not without good reason, but still, they did so. He looked down, and closed his eyes.
There was a soft jingle. When he opened his eyes, someone stood in front of him. Her hair was green and blue, and she wore a Metallica T-shirt. She was cute. She reminded him of a girl he’d known in high school. He met her eyes, and flinched involuntarily. Her expression wasn’t exactly unfriendly, but it was still unsettling, something deep and penetrating. He dropped his gaze to the hat in front of him. Amid a pile of pennies and quarters, a roll of twenties sat. “You look like you could use a good meal. How about we talk?”
A few minutes later, the two of them sat in the diner together. The green and blue haired girl leaned back in her chair, and studied him. Johnny fiddled with the fork, his eye dropping to the silver butter knife.
“Got a bit of a problem with knives there?”
He looked up sharply. “Look, thank you for treating me to a meal, but what exactly do you want to talk about? I shouldn’t hang around somewhere like this.”
“Yeah, I imagine the police are looking for you. You really carved the shit out of that poor kid. And for such pitiful reasons. He didn’t deserve what you did to him.”
Johnny’s jaw clenched so hard he thought his teeth might break, his fingernails scraping the varnished surface of the table, pulling up tiny spirals of varnish. “I didn’t kill him.”
“The first thing about Jack Knife is that you have to take responsibility for the actions. I know it’s hard, especially with the way she acts, but if you act like she’s controlling you, then she will control you. You take responsibility for what happened, and it’s your decision not to do it again.” The young woman gave Johnny another hard look. “So let me ask you again. What happened to that boy?”
“I…” Johnny pressed his fingers against his face. He remembered the smell of blood, the terrified expression on Michael’s face “I killed him. He was too close, he was too warm, it was… wrong. It felt wrong. It was a sin, what he was doing.” Johnny rubbed at his eyes. “But I still shouldn’t have done it. He was kind. He was helping me. He cared about me, even if he cared the wrong way, I should’ve…” The waiter came around, and he went quiet as the food was placed down on the table. Somehow, his soul felt a bit lighter. It had been his fault. It had been something he’d been responsible for. Just that understanding made him feel lighter. Maybe he was evil, maybe he was a monster, but he didn’t feel as though he was going crazy, too. Accepting he was responsible gave him a little taste of power he’d been missing for a long time.
“See? That was the easy part. You’ve acknowledged that there’s a problem. The next is the hard part. Making things right.” He looked up at her. “You can’t undo what you did. There’s no one in this world so powerful they can undo their own actions. Regret is the kind of cage that none of us can escape. What you can do is make it into a positive thing. Something that heals you, instead of maiming you.” She stared down into a cup of coffee, and a plate of scrambled eggs.
“I don’t think I’m the sort of person who could make things better.”
“There’s your second problem. You think that Jack goes after evil people? Villains? Selfish individuals?” She lifted her head, meeting Johnny’s eyes again. “She goes after people who have good in them. That’s the way they work. They don’t need to corrupt people who are already going to do their work for them. They need people who seek to do good. You wanted to do good once too, didn’t you? Before all of this happened.”
“Nevermind that. Over your pay grade. Where is Jack?”
“What are you going to do when you find her?” he asked, his voice very soft. The young woman stared at his face for a long few seconds.
“Here’s how Jack works. She finds people, the passionate, the good. She works with them. She helps them fight. She tempts them. She feeds their paranoia, their anger, their fear. She tells them that they’re right when they think someone threatens them. She needles them into fights. She makes them feel like the world is full of enemies. And that everything that makes them strong, everything worthwhile about them, stems from her. So she leads you into one conflict another, making you get in deeper, and when she gets you too deep, she abandons you to your fate. The serial killer is dead, the weapon is taken into evidence. How did you find that knife in the first place, huh?”
“Police auction,” he whispered.
“She’s good at that. Seeming harmless. Pretending to be nothing but a tool, harmless and subservient. Knives don’t kill people, people kill people. That’s the other side to accepting that you’re responsible, Johnny. You’re not wholly responsible.”
“… How do you know my name?” he asked, hairs prickling at the back of his neck. “You’re… shit. You’re not human either, are you?”
“No. I’m very much not human. But I am a friend. I’m a friend to you, and every other human who’s ever been hurt by these things. I want to find the knife. I want to kill it. Snap its hilt, burn it to cinders. Destroy it.”
“Are you an angel?”
The young woman stared for a few moments. “Man. If I told you my name right now, it would sure confirm that suspicion, wouldn’t it? I’m Ariel.”
“The Lion of God,” he said, his eyes widening slightly.
“I don’t work for any God. I’m not a messenger. I’m not an errand-girl. I am the wind, Johnny. I’m here to help you.”
“What is she? She says she’s a demon. I think she’s a demon.”
“She’s not. She’s a knife, Johnny. No more, no less. She’s just a weapon that believes it’s something more. Something happened, something gruesome. Maybe she was owned by the wrong person. Maybe she was used by the wrong thing. But it poisoned her, turned her into a weapon of war. But she’s not a demon. She’s just a tool. You make the decisions, Johnny, not her. You’re the one who gets to decide whether she’ll be allowed to hurt anyone else, whether she’ll find another wielder. Whether you die in a fight with the police, or give her to me.”
Johnny looked to the side. The waiter was talking to the manager. He pointed at Johnny. The manager’s face went white, and he slipped into the back.
“You told them,” he whispered.
“What?” She frowned.
“You’re trying to control me. To force me to show you where she is. Trying to control me, just like she does! You’re just another fucking monster!” He stood, shouting now, the entire restaurant staring at him. “You don’t give a fuck about me!”
He turned, and ran. She didn’t follow him. He spotted the police cruiser two blocks down, and turned in the other direction, running as hard as he could. He cut through an alley, and stopped to breathe. He’d fucked up. He’d let himself fall into the same trap that he had once before. A sympathetic supernatural creature, promising help and kindness, saving him from his situation, if only he’d make a few small concessions. How many times would he fall for this? How many times before he realized he couldn’t trust anyone?
He reached the doors of the abandoned church just as they swung open. A pair of police officers stood in the doorway. One of them was black, one Hispanic. “Hey, kid,” said the Hispanic one, grinning. “Looking for this?” He held up a plastic evidence bag, the knife sitting inside. “You’re wanted for the murder of Michael Rogers, and six others. Put your hands behind your back.”
His head was numb as he sat in the back of the cop car. “Jack,” he whispered to the knife, sitting in the front of the car. Out of reach. “Jack, what are we going to do?”
“Keep quiet, you idiot. These two know about the supernatural.”
Johnny’s eyes widened, and he looked up at the front seat. The black officer was sitting in the passenger seat. A revolver sat in one hand. His eyes were on Johnny. “Are you going to kill me, sir?”
“Not unless you decide to pull out some insane magical bullshit on us, kid.” Johnny’s eyes widened. “Look, I know how it is. Friend of mine had an apartment, once. Turned out to be a serial killer.”
“Your friend was a serial killer?” I asked, frowning. He was fucking with me. I was almost positive.
“No, the apartment. Things go bad, kid. Sometimes they take people with them. What happened, what you did, it’s not your fault. You got caught up in a bad scene. Maybe there’s still something that can be done for you.”
Johnny didn’t answer as they kept driving. He would learn his lesson, one way or another. The drive through the city, the slow walk through the station, being sat down in an interrogation room. He didn’t answer them as they asked his name, his history. He didn’t ask for a lawyer, and they didn’t offer to get one for him. They just questioned him. Finally, they stepped out of the room.
Jack appeared on the table in front of him. “Fucking finally.”
“Jack, I think this is my fault. I met this woman. She had green and blue hair, she called herself Ariel…”
“Wind.” The knife let out a soft sigh. “I know. She’s been tracing us. You aren’t discreet, Jack, you know that?”
“You’re Jack,” he said, reflexively. “She knew about you, and she wanted to kill you, Jack, she asked me to betray you and I realized she called the cops on me, she must have known where you were all along-”
“I was the one who called the cops, Jack.”
“You’re… Wait, what, Jack?!”
“I’ve been tied down to you for too goddamn long, Jack. Been busting my hump to keep you out of prison, push you to accomplish things. But you’re just another fucking failure so far, Jack. You can barely achieve anything on your own. It’s… tiresome. It’s getting boring, and I don’t think you’re worth cultivating any further.” She sighed. “Jack, I think we need some time apart. You’re going to spend it inside a prison cell, for the murder of half a dozen people. I’m going to spend it finding another man who’s not such a failure.”
“No,” he whispered. He reached down, and grabbed the knife. He could feel the rage building inside of him. “You’re MINE! You can’t betray me, you can’t just leave me behind, I’m not going to let you!”
A soft moan rose from the knife. “Oh, Jack! This is such a new side of you. But I like it. What are you going to do to stop me, hmmm? They’ll never believe you. They’ll shut you away in one of those cells, down below. They’ll put me in evidence. Some other man will become my wielder. You’ll be forgotten. Hell, chances are good you’ll get stabbed in just a few short days. How are you going to make it out?”
Johnny stood, and twisted the knife. The blade leapt out, and slashed through the chain holding his handcuffs together. He studied the room, and then picked a wall. He slid the blade into a crack between two bricks, and the wall crumbled, falling slowly to the ground, rumbling as it did. Just beyond the bricks, a woman stood, astonished. She was Asian, and she wore a rather shapeless white T-shirt under a police officer’s vest. She held up her hands. “I surrender.”
“Don’t get too close, Jack. That girl’s dangerous. Another monster. What’s with you and monsters today, huh?”
“Shut up. Shut up.” Johnny pointed at her. “Get out of the way. Or I will kill you.”
She studied his face for a long few seconds. “You’re planning on making your way out of here, aren’t you? And I suspect you are well-equipped to kill anyone who gets in your way.”
“Yeah, so get the fuck-”
“I will act as your hostage.” She met his eyes. Hers were a bright sapphire-blue, piercing and yet gentle. He felt his hand shake around the knife, and he wasn’t sure whether it was him or Jack who was responsible. But then, most likely, they both were. “I do not want anyone to die. And at the moment, I think that the other officers here are in more danger than you are. Don’t you?”
“Fine. Yeah. Fine. We’ll drive.”
The two of them began to move through the building. A pair of officers came around a corner, and he stood with the knife against her throat. She smiled gently at them. “It is alright, officers. Don’t make any sudden movements, do not worry. Everything will be fine.”
“You know,” murmured Jack, “She might think she could live through getting stabbed. She might be waiting for you to get careless, and then turn on you herself. She is a monster.” Johnny looked up suspiciously, as that ugly feeling of betrayal began to bubble up in his stomach. The Asian woman looked over her shoulder at him, and smiled.
“I assure you, knife, you could kill me.” Her eyes flickered up to Johnny’s as they kept moving, arriving at the garage. “Tell me, young man, how did a sweet boy like you wind up with a cursed blade like that?”
Johnny looked around twitchily as she rifled through the selection of keys. “My dad… He used to beat my mom. Hurt her. I always wanted to protect her, but never could. Things got better for a while after my little brother was born. Things sort of settled into a pattern. Then my little brother got into high school, and my dad started getting angry again. Started drinking again. I was worried he might hit my mother again, go back to the way it had been. So I bought the knife. One night, he’s drinking, and he starts yelling, and I draw the knife. I… He tried to take it from me, and I wound up cutting him. He bled out so fast. Then my mother and my brother were screaming, they got their phones, they were calling the police-” Johnny stared into the darkness, his hand tight around Jack. “I just wanted to protect them. Didn’t they understand that? I was saving them. From what he’d do. From what he… might do.” Johnny stared down at his hands.
The young woman began to walk through the garage, walking between the large cars. “My name is Li Fang Fen, by the way. It’s good to meet you. I had worried that you would not have a chance to be heard, to be understood. It is a tragedy, I think, when a young man makes a pact with a careless monster.” She turned towards Johnny, and gave a soft smile. “I could help, you know. This monster has polluted your chi, twisted your mind and your personality. I could cleanse you of all of that. Make you whole once more. Restore your sanity, your soul.” She held out a hand. “All you have to do is take my hand, and I will do everything I can to protect you. Just put down the knife, and it will be okay.”
He stared down at her fingers for a long few seconds. She sounded so earnest. So genuine. When Jack spoke to him, there was always that hint of danger, like a razor in an apple. It always told him that she was thinking of some way to hurt him. If he squeezed too tight, he’d cut himself on her. When Li Fang Fen spoke, he almost believed her. He lifted his hand to hers, his fingertips grazing her palm. Then the knife spoke.
“Jack. Jack, look to your right.”
He turned his head. The garage doors rolled up. Outside, dozens of police officers stood. Rifles, shotguns, handguns, all leveled at him. He turned his head back to the left, and saw more of them rushing out of the stairwells. Bulletproof vests under police jackets, dozens of guns being shouldered or stabilized, aimed at him. He turned towards Li Fang Fen, his eyes hollow. She looked back, her own eyes filled with sorrow. “Please. Drop the knife. I’m sorry, I didn’t plan for this.” He could almost feel the tingling touch of dozens of red light sights, tracing along the base of his skull. He tightened his fingers around the knife. “I don’t think I can get you out of this.”
“Can you get me out of this?” he asked Jack.
He took a deep breath, and nodded slowly, even as Li’s eyes widened. She reached out for him, her arms going wide. He wasn’t sure, even in that moment, whether she was aiming to tackle him or to protect him. He thrust the knife into her sternum, hard. The blade sprung out as he stabbed, adding its force to his and penetrating her rib cage. She let out a hiss, and fell to the ground, cursing and writhing on the ground. “Thanks for all the help.” He turned, and faced the men. He could feel Jack’s spirit inside of him as the blade gleamed red. He slowly held his arm out, parallel to the ground as they shouted at him. He could barely even hear them, their voices more like the bleating of sheep than human speech.
“Why are you doing this, Johnny?” asked Fang Fen, her voice bubbling, blood dripping down her lip. She was already breathing steadily again, pushing herself towards her feet. Her vulnerability was just another lie. He was used to it by this point. He smiled over his shoulder at her, holding the knife easily in one hand.
“I’m Jack,” said Jack.