I watched as Dane sped off, and tried to stand up straight. I took a breath, and the world spun around me, my stomach coiling. I have not needed to eat food in the better part of a century, but there is still a phenomena I’m familiar. When you grow hungry enough, your stomach will hurt. In some cases, this can reach a point where it is difficult to tell whether you’re hungry, or ill. The body links the two experiences together, making you nauseous when you consider eating, despite the fact that eating is the only way to fix what is wrong with you.
I was surrounded by men, bubbling with Yang energy. The swirl of conflict and anger made it rush. The smell of blood was thick in the air. The fear and passion stirred it in a way that was equal parts appealing and disgusting.
There is another metaphor that springs to mind. Imagine that you are terribly dehydrated, and your only source of water is a firehose.
I did not want to drink from the firehose. But the power that channeled through me would help Dane. I needed to give her power, a way to strengthen her for the fight ahead. I took several deep breaths through my nose to steady my nerves, to calm myself. Then I opened my mouth, and tried to inhale slowly.
I woke up. The last thing I could remember was the world lurching underneath me, and the ground rushing up towards my face. The inrush of violent chi had been too powerful, and too pure. There was a reason I didn’t tap into ambient chi. It was dangerous and unfocused. I preferred the warm passion of chi that had been brought up to body temperature by a human, then shared with me willingly, through touches, through intimacy, through shared whispers. The kind of chi that I was, in fact, inhaling right now.
I opened my eyes, and groaned in a kind of anticipation. I woke up stiff as sin most mornings, nowadays, my Yang chi bled off and Yin chi filling my bones with lead. It took me a moment or two to realize that I was in no pain whatsoever. In fact, I felt rather good. I blinked away the crust on my eyelashes. A couple of hours had passed, according to the clock. And a young man sat beside me. A familiar young man, in fact. I smiled up at Officer Blanski. “Well, good morning, young man. I appreciate you watching over me, though I don’t know if it was-” My eyes dropped to the gun in his hand. It was pointed towards me. “Necessary.”
“I’m sorry about this, Detective,” he said, his face impassive. “You got stabbed in the chest with a switchblade two hours ago, and you didn’t even have a cut on you when we brought you in here. You’re involved with all of this, somehow. Detectives Hector and Marco thought that it’d be best to keep an armed guard on you.” His eyes were hard. “What are you?”
Ah, the detectives. It made sense that they would want me to be watched. I was empowering their superior, and it was clear that they were friends. Leaving me with too much leverage wouldn’t be wise. People in the big city couldn’t get by on trust. I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. There- I could still feel the slow wash of chi from out of my own body, aiding Dane. That was something to be grateful for. It meant that she hadn’t murdered the young man with the cursed knife or died. I couldn’t control her through the bond- I was not well enough, not strong enough, and never motivated enough to lay such strictures on her. The only caveat I’d been able to include was an escape clause.
She was taking in quite a lot of Yin energy. That was a relief, and no doubt part of why I was feeling so much better. I stretched my arms, and heard Blanski shift. I remembered the gun. “Oh. I’m sorry. I am a Jiangshi.” He raised an eyebrow. “A Chinese hopping vampire.”
“Oh, please, Blanski, you watched a man stop bullets with a knife earlier today. Have a little credulity, will you?”
He paused for a moment, and then reached out, pressing his hand against my forehead. It was very, very warm. He slowly nodded. “Your body’s room temperature. You are, as far as I can tell, a corpse.”
“Oh!” I flushed, and began to channel some of the Yang chi. “I’m sorry. It’s been very hot lately, so I haven’t been bothering to keep the biological processes in movement. It seemed like an awful waste.”
“So… You’re a monster.”
I gave him a sharp, reproving look. “That is an extremely impolite thing to say to a lady. I am a human being, who… became something else, when she died.”
“How did it happen?”
“Are you sure you want to know?” I smiled. “I only tell the story to men I am very fond of.”
“And I would like to tell you the story.” I reached out, resting my hand on his, the one that was not holding the gun. “You’re an interesting man.” He looked like he was about to swallow his tongue. “Well, let’s not make any commitments. For the time being, let’s just focus on what I am. I was born Li Fang Fen, in the Fujian province. When I was eight years old, my parents, a doctor, and a midwife, moved to America. Seeking out the better life San Francisco offered.” I chuckled softly. “I was a willful child. When I was eighteen, I moved to Buffalo. I was… unfortunate. A mugging went wrong.” I smiled nostalgically. The memory of the sharp knife, rendered icy by the bitter winter, flashed through my mind. The memory barely even tickled anymore. What stuck with me was the sight of the street lights, so strange and beautiful, bright and steady, hovering above my head as I bled out.
“Ah, it happens to us all, doesn’t it? Death, that is.” I gave him a smile. “I awoke, seven days later, as the snows thawed. A young man had found me, and was trying to awaken me. His touch returned life to my corpse. Mind you, he was infertile for a few weeks after that-”
“What?” Blanski’s eyes widened, his legs pulling together a bit. “You can do that?”
“Ah, I don’t do it intentionally. I am a Jiangshi. I was born because I died far from home. It is a uniquely Chinese affliction- Those who die far from where they were born may find themselves brought back, in order to return home. I am told that is how my kind eventually dies, by returning to their place of birth to be buried.”
“God- Wait.” He frowned. “How long has it been since you died?”
“About 90 years.” I smiled. “I have not yet found any interest in dying peacefully. Maybe someday I will, but in the time being, life has an infinite variety to offer me. But yes, I am undead, which means I feed upon the bodies of humans. We are a far more… abstract breed than most, as our taste is to Chi. A friend of mine often theorized that belief was a major aspect of the nature of Jiang-Shi. If I were a man, or at least much more masculine, my body would overflow with Yang Chi, bereft of Yin Chi. I would be in danger of snapping, and turning into a feral animal, unless I fed on the Yin Chi of women. I am a woman, so I am much less dramatic. Without the warmth and Yang Chi of men, I become a corpse again. Empty, and cold.” I waved a hand through the air. “I decided to join the police. I have worked with law enforcement since then. And, from time to time, I make pacts with humans who I think are worth my time. In exchange for their Chi, their life force, I give them a mastery of their own body.”
“Sounds kind of like a deal with the devil,” he said, giving me a doubtful look. His hold on his pistol hadn’t relaxed.
“No, no. The way it works… Well, most humans are imbalanced. Too passionate, too passive. I prefer those who are overwhelmed with passion, whose Yang chi rages out of control. There is a recurring idea among humans that everything must be a zero-sum game, but think of plants. Humans produce an excess of carbon, and take in oxygen. Plants produce an excess of oxygen, and take in carbon. Both need one another to survive, yes?”
He frowned. “I think that it’s not quite that simple… But sure, I get what you’re saying. Symbiosis. Both parties get what they need.”
“Yes!” I smiled brightly. “Exactly so! I am not a parasite. I am a symbiote. I choose humans who do good, and I help them!”
“And that knife? And Jack and Jill?”
I paused, and looked down. “I am not sure, precisely. The knife is… an enigma, to me. It was never human, I am certain of that. The idea that a mere object could become something that powerful… it is a bit frightening. But as for Jack and Jill…” I was silent for a few seconds. “Just because I have a sense of who is right and who is wrong for a relationship, does not mean that every supernatural entity does. Whatever gives those two their power, it clearly does not care about whether they hurt people or not.”
He was silent for a couple of seconds. He opened his mouth reluctantly, and-
Dane stood in the door. She frowned down at the two of us, her eyes shifting to Blanski. He saluted her with his free hand, pulling it away from mine. His other hand remained on the gun, keeping it aimed towards me. “Deputy Inspector-”
“I think she’s on the level. No need to keep a gun on her. Thanks, Detective Fang Fen.” She eyed me. “Whatever power I was getting from you, it did the trick. Johnny’s in the holding cells back at the station.”
“And the knife?” I asked, frowning.
“Somewhere safe. Shouldn’t be getting out of any more locked evidence lockers. Why don’t you get Miss Li back to the station, and we can figure out our next move. Detective, you think you can get any information out of him?”
“I can try,” I said, bowing my head. I slipped out of the bed, and stretched, letting out a sigh of relief as my joints did not lock up, and my muscles did not collapse. It had been a long time since I’d had a good meal. “If you would be willing to drive, Officer Blanski?”
As the two of us sat in the car, he had a contemplative expression on his face. “You have more questions?” I asked, with a smile. “That is good. Inquisitive mortals are always my favorites. They help me to learn more about the world. Why do you think I became a police officer?”
“A few questions, yeah. When was the last time you had a pact?”
I frowned. “Fifty years ago. It did not end well. I have been… reluctant, ever since. In honesty, if it were not for outside circumstances, I might still be refusing to make pacts. But, well, we need a relationship when we are at our weakest.”
“Yeah. You collapsed earlier. Was that normal?”
I paused. “What I’m about to tell you… It’s a weakness, Officer. It’s a vulnerability, it is something that is dangerous for me to share.”
“You think I’d use it against you?”
“I think you could use it against me. But I’m going to tell you anyway. So think of it as a vote of confidence.” I winked at him.
“You barely know me, ma’am. Is this wise?” He frowned towards the traffic ahead of us, his eyes never leaving the road.
“No. But that ties into the weakness.” I tapped my fingertips on the armrest. “I broke my word, officer. I had sworn to uphold the law, and I sacrificed that obligation. I lied, I broke faith, I betrayed my superiors. I could talk about the reasons I had. My morality can justify what I did as right. I did it to save someone I truly believed was innocent, and to protect a friend who had put her life on the line to prove that innocence. But it doesn’t matter how moral what I did was. My word is now worthless. And…” I sighed. “I am imbalanced. Overwhelmed with Yin chi. It makes me hunger more than I would otherwise. By breaking my word, I have torn apart my own ability to feed, and put every human around me in danger. If I were to…” I paused for a moment, trying to think how to phrase it. “Feed, in the way I normally prefer to feed, I might kill someone.”
“You mean…” He turned his head towards me for just a moment at the stop light, an eyebrow raised.
“Yes. So, I have been very careful about feeding. I have tried to avoid more than casual touches and the occasional embrace.” I turned towards the far window, staring out. The air conditioning made me feel like a corpse. Lights twinkled before my eyes, swirling in gentle patterns that made up the traffic. “Someone offered me the chance to make things right. To bring two criminals to justice. That’s why I’m after Jack and Jill. If I can get my hands on them, if I can stop them, I can be whole again. My word will mean something among my kind once more. I’ll be able to embrace human beings again. And as I am, the pact is one of the best ways for me to feed. It allows me to bleed off the overwhelming Yin polluting my body, and gives me an avenue to take in Yang without risking someone’s life.”
“I see.” We were silent for the next few minutes. He gave me a silent nod as I walked down to the cells.
Johnny lay on a cot. His eyes opened as I approached, and he jerked up before sagging when he recognized me. “Oh. It’s you.” He narrowed his eyes, full of ragged teenage petulance. I gave him a soft smile.
“Good afternoon, Johnny. Are you doing well?”
He rubbed his jaw. His lip was split, and several stitches were visible on it. “I’m not the one who got stabbed. Not for lack of trying, though.” I noticed one of his teeth was missing. “You’re okay.”
“More or less, more or less. It takes more than a quick shank to make me lie down and die. That was extremely rude of you, though, Johnny.”
“I don’t like to be touched.”
“Well, next time, use your words, not your knife. I can’t help but notice that whatever trick you pulled to get Jack into your hands the last time you were in captivity doesn’t seem to be repeating itself.”
“Yeah. Jack’s got someone else, now. She doesn’t need me anymore.”
“So you’re Johnny, again? Not Jack?”
“Yeah. I guess so.” He chuckled softly, and groaned. “I wasn’t worthy. Got my ass kicked. Felt like I was on top of the world for a few precious minutes, then I just… crashed.”
“Addiction can do that.” I pulled a metal folding chair to sit in front of the bars. “Do you mind if I join you?”
“It’s a free country. Well, not for me, obviously, but…” He smiled, and it wasn’t a very happy one. “So, I guess I’m going away for a long time, huh? No need to tell me that you told me so.”
“It would be both impolite, and somewhat self-evident, yes. You know, Johnny, I knew a man, once. He did wrong. It enraged me, infuriated me, because he’d been such a noble man all the time I’d known him. To see him corrupted, to see him fall from grace… I wanted to punish him. I wanted to see him suffer, to ensure that he would never do it again. I thought that the only option was punishment. That when he was done, he would be the man he used to be.”
“Yeah? What happened?”
“He was stabbed in the shower a week into his sentence. The world doesn’t give a shit about our plans, or our dreams. And I would rather you not experience the same.” I leaned back in my chair, and watched as his expression grew haunted and drawn. “In the past twenty-four hours, we’ve received reports of at least twenty murders in lower Manhattan. That’s about as many as there are in a month, most years. Slashings, hit-and-runs, breaking and entering. And there have been no apparent motives or suspects for any of these. Do you understand why I am concerned by this? This goes beyond violence induced by an unusually hot summer or copy-cat killers. This must be supernatural.”
“Jack… She doesn’t talk much to me about plans. I’m not strictly sure she makes plans. I usually need to carry her around for her to do anything, but she called the police-”
“Ah, yes.” I took out a folder from the bag I’d grabbed on my way down. “The call. A young woman alerted the police to your knife being there, and suggested you’d come back. She didn’t give her name.”
“Shit.” He lowered his head, staring down at his hands. He opened and closed them slowly, as if eager for something to grab, to throttle. Some way to get his anger out. “I don’t know. She didn’t tell me about any plans. We were traveling through Ohio, going from town to town, doing some itinerant work. I stopped at a town with a big bus station, and…” He seemed to go into a private reverie, his head turned down. “There were cherry trees there. It was a beautiful day, I remember. I think that’s why Jack seemed so aggravated. She didn’t want to be somewhere that calmed me down that much. She told me… That we should go to New York City. That in such a big city… We’d never be spotted…” He frowned. “But… that doesn’t make any sense, does it? It was easier… God, she pushed me right into it.”
“From what I can tell, Jack Knife is prone to such behavior. She has a fondness for the powerful, the noble, and the dangerous. I suspect that she was looking to trade up. I’m sorry, Johnny.”
He nodded, and rubbed his cheeks, his eyes heavy-lidded and exhausted. “We… We came to the city about five days ago. I spent most of my time in the Lower East Side-” He frowned up at me. “What?”
I realized that I’d had a frown on my own face. “Sorry. Just… The location is a bit odd. Why were you there, in particular?”
“Just… felt right.” He frowned. “Jack was less angry when we were there. She screamed at me less. She was nicer, even. Seemed like she was under less tension. Whenever we went somewhere else, she started getting angry, started getting really quick to draw. You think that matters?”
“When it comes to physical illness, there are two kinds of causes. The first is an imbalance in the body. Chi, humors, genetics, in any case, it is a fundamental warping in the body’s functions. The second is an imbalance in the environment. Whether it be germs, heavy metals, ultraviolet radiation, or excess acids in the air, it is disease caused by where you are. The same is true of mental illness. Maybe you’re born with something that makes it difficult for you to empathize with others, which makes you think that murder is an appropriate response to small slights. Or maybe…”
“Maybe it’s something that’s forced on you from without,” whispered Johnny.
“I suspect that it’s much like what happened with you. You killed people, Johnny. But you were, perhaps… not in your right mind. That makes a difference.” He lowered his head. “Thank you. You really have helped me here, and I will do everything I can to ensure that you are treated the way you should be. You’ve done wrong, Johnny, but that doesn’t mean that you should die.”
“If you really think that…” He looked up. “There’s something you should know. I think Jack wanted to end up in Dane’s hands. I think…” He was quiet for a few seconds. “I think that it was Jack’s plan all along, to wind up in the hands of someone like her. I think that he’s going to try to corrupt her. I think that you need to keep a very goddamn close eye on her.” He shivered. “She nearly cut me open. She didn’t, but she wanted to. Badly. Keep an eye on her.” He looked at the bars. “She doesn’t seem like a very stable person.”
“I suppose I can agree.” I stood up. “If you think of anything else, please tell me, Johnny. I’ll do my very best to make sure you’re safe.” I stood up, and bowed my head, troubled. I examined my connection with Dane. It hadn’t changed. Still a steady trickle of Yang energy from her, still a torrent of Yin energy from me. I was helping to keep her in balance, and she was- to a lesser extent- doing the same for me. It was about what I would expect from a healthy connection. Certainly, there were no sudden cuts in the flow of energy that suggested something awful had happened. I decided instead to make my way down to the shooting range and express my emotions to the paper cutouts therein.
I paused at the entrance to the shooting range. Three men stood in a huddle. Two of them were familiar. The detectives who had been there when Johnny had broken out, and a taller man. They turned towards me, and their faces went neutral as I approached. “Gentlemen. I hope that I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Nah. We were just… talking.” Detective Marco frowned at me. “What do you need?”
I sighed. “To get laid. In more general terms, I need to accomplish something in this city. What I want, though, is to ensure that we can all work together. I am reliant on the aid of more mortal law enforcement while I am here, like yourselves. I must say, you are surprisingly competent in handling the supernatural. How does that happen?”
The older man in the back of the three grunted. “We all had encounters with strange phenomena. Things that just didn’t jive with our established view of existence. So we decided to do something about the boogeymen. We called it the Neighborhood Watch. The cops who saw strange things, who had run-ins with the supernatural, banded together to go out and hunt it. Make sure it was clear that it wasn’t welcome in our city. We were pretty good at it, did it for a while. Dane led us in the whole thing. Kept us on an even keel, kept us alive. As best as she could, anyway.” He frowned down at his hands. Knuckles popped as he opened and closed them.
“That sounds like a fairly admirable goal. I’m surprised you were able to engage in such vigilante actions for long without the city government finding out, though.”
Hector smiled. “They knew.”
I frowned at that. “What?”
“We told them what we were doing. They explained that they couldn’t officially support us, but that they’d look the other way while we were doing it. We got the impression we weren’t the first group of hotheads to try something like this. We accomplished…” He looked up, and I realized his eyes were going towards Dane’s office. “Well, I like to think that we accomplished something. We made it a little safer for people to walk the streets at night.”
“Until you stopped.” I frowned. “Why?”
Marco frowned. “Dane sort of… lost her nerve. She didn’t want to see us keep going out there at night, unsupported. She said there was no point. With Betty around, it was kind of a moot point anyway. We weren’t really in a position to say ‘Hell no, let’s keep fighting’, anyway.” Marco ran a finger across his tattered ear. “It ain’t a safe life out there, y’know?”
“She doesn’t seem like the person who would give up because of something like that. In honesty, she seems like she was looking for a good opportunity to leap into the fray. She certainly made a pact with me quickly enough.”
“Yeah. Yeah,” said Hector, frowning. “I don’t know why she’s so reluctant about calling in Betty. That’s not like her. I mean…”
“This Betty,” I said, frowning. “The goddess?”
“Sure. I mean, we saw her do some pretty impressive stuff. Well, heard about it. We never actually SAW any of it, per se, but… I mean, you don’t think she’s faking, do you?” asked Marco, frowning over at Hector. “I mean, they SAY she did all that stuff, but what, the most we saw her do was distract that disease guy, yeah?” Hector shrugged.
Personally speaking, I doubted it. I had met two goddesses in my life, or at least the closest thing to that lofty title. They’d been… a profound disappointment, all things considered. Whatever they were talking about, I doubted it was anything more than a particularly predatory and powerful fairy. Not that that was any safer for me, but I wasn’t going to let myself get spooked. “Dane said that Jack and Jill were looking for Betty.”
“I heard something about that,” said a voice from behind me. I turned, and brightened. Blanski stood there, his cap under one arm. “Detectives.” He nodded his head. “I hope you don’t mind my joining in the conversation.”
“Feel free. But what’d you say about hearing something about that?”
“You might not have heard it. It’s been a kind of hectic 24 hours. Last night, Dane and I ran into Jill the Ripper. She was fast. Scary fast. Like, ‘dodging bullets’ fast. And she made some kind of… spooky prophecies. Said that we’d meet her again. Told me…” He paused, and shook his head. “Well, I think it was just her bullshitting, but it still worried me.”
I nodded slowly. “How many people could get in touch with this Betty?”
“Well,” said Hector, leaning up against the firing range drawer, and pressing a button to bring the target clip forward. “All things considered, she’s not a very easy person to get on hand. You’d need to talk with Horace Creed, and he’s not easy to find. Dane could probably get him to pick up the phone. Or that Harold Schmooli guy. They’re pretty tight. Other than that… Well, guy doesn’t have a lot of connections.” Hector frowned at me as he attached the paper target to the clip. It pulled back slowly, first twenty five feet, then fifty, then one hundred. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that we need to hunt down those guys, and they need to hunt down Bastet. If they’re not going for Deputy Inspector Larson, then who else are they going to be able to target?”
“Aw, shit,” said Marco, frowning. “We’ll need to let him know. I think he lives on the Upper West Side, now. He bought one of the hospitals the Church of the Survivor lost, he’s been renovating it into a homeless shelter with the profits. Dude could be in some really serious trouble.” I nodded slowly.
“As for Dane, she might be targeted by them again. We should keep a close eye on her. I have to be honest, I’m a little bit concerned how quickly she took me up on my offer. She seems like a proud woman, and a noble one. Those aren’t necessarily good things when it comes to power, though. There are people in this world who’ll do terrible things for the right reasons, and they won’t think twice about it.” I walked over to the quartermaster, and smiled. “May I get a few more targets?”
“You use a gun?” asked Marco, an eyebrow raised. “That seems a little, like… classless, y’know? Most of the supernatural stuff we’ve met is pretty big into hand to hand combat.”
“Oh, yes. I always found all of that terribly stereotypical. Besides, I’m not particularly tall, which gives me a poor reach. Add the occasional arthritis, and martial arts aren’t my bag. Besides, as a great fellow once said, God made man and woman, but Samuel Colt made them equal.” I reached into the bag.
“Sure,” said Marco, “but most of the things that we run up against tend to shrug off bullwhat the fuck, lady!”
John and Hector turned to look, and burst into laughter as I held up the gun. I smiled sweetly. “Just a little something for self defense, you know?” I lifted the obnoxiously large revolver into the air, and pulled the hammer back. It could be fired double or single-action, but single action was more reliable in the hands of one of the dead, like myself. It was also safer. If you’re wondering what the difference is, single action requires you to pull the hammer back manually, and a double-action lets you pull the hammer back by pulling the trigger. Quicker in a pinch. It didn’t look nearly as cool, though.
I pulled on the earplugs and muffs, waited for the others to do the same, and fired the Smith and Wesson 500 five times. It kicked like a mule each time against my braced arms, but I controlled the recoil, letting the trajectory rise with each shot placed at exactly the right moment. One shot through the groin, one through the solar plexus, one through the heart, one through the throat, one through the center of the forehead. I nodded with satisfaction as the paper target came back.
“Damn,” muttered John, as the humans crowded around. I gave a modest smile.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Practice shooting for a hundred years, and you’ll be this good too, someday.”
“I don’t think I’m ever going to be insecure enough in my manhood to be carrying around one of those,” said Hector, an eyebrow raised.
“Man, I don’t think I could afford it. I looked up one of those bad boys, back when I was doing the Night Watch thing. The ammo must be plated with gold for what they’re charging for it,” said Marco. I let out a soft laugh.
“There are advantages to being old. Compound interest becomes quite the force. You get to afford nice things. If you want to shoot it sometime, Marco, just ask.”
It was nice. Being among these humans. Men who knew what I was, who knew what I could do, and who were not afraid of me. Who could trust me. I did not know if I had ever experienced that back home. In Binghamton, people either did not know me, or they feared me. Among the Undead, my reputation for honesty, and then for dishonesty, had kept me at arms length. Among the other supernatural beings there, I’d barely even passed, preferring to keep on my own. And as for the humans… Atina was a kind soul, but she’d always seemed slightly disappointed in me. Always thought I should do more. I was starting to think that she was right.
I looked up sharply. Blanski caught my expression. “Jack and Jill?” he asked, his voice strained, tense.
“I’m not sure. But I can’t feel Dane’s Chi anymore.”