I never got the chance to see my father’s corpse. My mother told me she didn’t want me to remember him that way. I’d imagined it, had nightmares about it even, but they remained distant and blurry, more feelings than actual images. I’d always felt I had a terrible visual imagination, and it was a blessing where my father’s body was concerned. I’d imagined claw marks, gore, blood, things that would haunt me forever. Sitting here, now, in my desk, I realized that there were worse fates than being splattered with red food coloring and modeling clay like a horror movie extra. My father’s body probably looked like the tonfa he’d given to me. A simple, broken thing.
I ran my fingertips along the lacquered wood, and tried not to cry. The attempt was a miserable goddamn failure, like most of the things in my life. Heaving, wracking sobs ripped up out of my throat, making my stomach clench. I felt sick, and the image of the wood splintering under the blow kept roiling in my head. Watching that goddamn knife cut into the only thing I really had left of my father, and splinter it. Ruin it. I would never be able to fix the tonfa. It had broken messily, splinters flying everywhere. Using wood glue would just make it into an accident waiting to happen. Even keeping it on display felt too morbid, like keeping my father’s bones over the mantle of a fireplace.
I stared down at the knife, and came to a decision. I grabbed it, and flicked out the blade. Then I stood up, flipped it upside down, and hammered it into the desk. The oak parted easily around the blade it as it found the groove, sinking in all the way to the hilt. I lifted one booted foot, and delivered a sideways kick as hard as I possibly could into the protruding hilt, putting horrific amounts of pressure on the place where the blade met the handle. The knife spun out of the gouge, and struck the far wall. It did not, however, break.
“Oh, god, oh god,” came a soft, moaning voice. Where the knife had landed sat Jack. She was Asian. She might have been pretty, once. Delicate features had been abused to the point of being nearly unrecognizable. Her nose was broken, and blood streamed down onto her upper lip. Her face was covered in bruises and contusions. She wore a torn leather jacket, cuts and scars visible underneath. Maybe half her teeth were still there. There was not a single hair left on her head or her face, all of it torn out, leaving her face looking strangely childlike. “Please, hit me more, I’ve been such a bad knife, Mistress.”
I stepped over towards her, feeling the anger flare inside of me. The desire to hit her. To punish her. I knew that it wouldn’t hurt her, that it wouldn’t cause her any permanent damage. The knife hadn’t even been chipped from the abuse I’d put it through with the kick. I also knew that it wouldn’t make me feel any better. I knew that she was doing this in order to provoke me. In order to make me angry. To make me do things that I would regret. You started by abusing something that looked like a person, it became a lot easier to do it to someone who was a person. I lifted my boot anyway.
“She only does it because she loves me, officer. I shouldn’t have done what I did.”
I turned away, covering my mouth, a little acid spattering against the back of my tongue. I swallowed and choked a couple of times, getting my bile back under control. When I turned back towards her, she was whole again. She was still not pretty. That crooked nose, battered cheeks, old scars on her face. And she was annoyed. “Well, you’re not much fun at all, are you? What, did you beat up your girlfriend? Maybe your dad took out his anger on your mom, huh? Didn’t expect that whole routine to get to you so much.”
“I don’t have to have experienced that shit first-hand to find it loathsome. It happens enough when I’m working.” I placed my hand down on the desk to fight the vertigo. “You’re a bad fucking piece of work, you know that?”
“I know, I am. I really am.” She smiled sweetly. “I’m a victim of circumstance. You know how that can be, don’t you? None of us get so much choice in what happens to us. Some of us just find bad coming to worse, and before you know it, everyone thinks you’re a monster. But I’m not a bad person. I don’t WANT to hurt people. I want to be a good tool, something that helps people. You need help, don’t you?” She giggled softly, and her eyes stayed fixed on me. “You’re a protector. A noble knight. I bet in your hands, you’d be able to resist all those bad urges. You’d know how to make things right. You could use me to do good, and force me to be good.” She approached closer, her hands gently slipping around one of mine. They were wet. I looked down, and jerked back out of her grasp. Her arms were covered in blood. “Please?”
“You must think I’m really fucking desperate,” I whispered, my voice hoarse, “to think I’d ever consider picking you up.”
“Oooh, you’re gonna hurt my feelings, talking like that.” She pouted. “Come on. I’m a knife. How much agency do I have? The most I can do is open up, you know?”
“You nearly killed Johnny.”
“Hey, Johnny wanted to die. You wanted to kill him. All I was doing was trying to anticipate needs.” She shrugged her shoulders. And slowly, red hair began to sprout out. Elegant and straight at first, it began to tangle, and mat, working into knots and frays. It was as red as blood, and looked vaguely wet. “But like I was saying, I’m a thing. I was made to do a job. And a knife is made to cut. You can’t expect it not to cut. You just have to be careful with it.” She smiled. “You can’t think of anyone in this world that you really, badly want to cut?”
The image of Jill rose behind my eyes, uncalled for. I shuddered. I’d seen the aftermath of what Johnny’d accomplished with Jack Knife. And he’d been nobody.
“I don’t need you.”
“I read that book, y’know. Schmooli kind of sold you up, didn’t he? From what I hear, you didn’t accomplish a whole hell of a lot. Got some guys hurt. No surprise, though. You’re only mortal.” She tilted her head. “Got to really burn you, knowing that you could only beat me with the help of that undead bitch’s help. You know? That you had to cheat to win. That you couldn’t hack it on your own.”
“I don’t give a fuck who I work with to-” I stopped, staring at her, and snarled. “Fuck! You really love fucking with heads, don’t you?”
“Nah, not at all. You know, I wasn’t kidding. I was once a holy blade. The Celestial Bureaucracy gave me as a gift to a great warrior, as thanks for what he had done. He was even made emperor. But over time, his rule became hard, and cruel, as he forgot the things he’d once fought for. He used me to slay his foes, and buried me in blood. I was corrupted by him, turned into a foul thing, when I should have protected him. I was made to serve him, and he used me unjustly. Can you blame me for testing my future wielders? Can you blame me for wanting to make sure that I’m only held by the worthy? That I don’t want to be buried in blood again?”
“How many of those stories do you have?”
“Oh, come on, Mistress. You think I’d lie to you?”
“Don’t call me Mistress. I’m not interested in owning you.”
“Then why’d you grab me, huh? Why haven’t you locked me away in the evidence locker?”
I turned towards her, expression very calm. “Because as long as you’re here, I know where you are, and that’s not in the hands of someone who’s going to do harm.”
“Whatever you say, boss. Whatever you say.” She smiled sweetly.
“You want to know the kind of power I want?” I asked, hissing. “I looked a god of the sun and of sickness in the eye. I saw it get ready to surge into the world. I saw it worshiped by thousands, powered by millions. I felt the rays of the plague moon poisoning me. I watched a goddess of protection fight it. I saw an immortal snake break the neck of a rat deacon. Do you think that you can give me that kind of power? The power to stand up to gods?”
Jack smiled at me. “You know, there’s a saying about weapons. The great artifacts, the legends. Excalibur, Durandal, so on, and so forth. These were normal weapons once, according to the saying. Taken from some slain foe to replace a broken weapon. By happenstance, the wielder survived the battle, kept them, sharpened them, and kept fighting, growing more powerful with each battle. More experienced. And as their legend grew, so too did their weapon. Until a simple piece of iron becomes a hill-cleaving legend. That’s how gods are made. Why should weapons be any different, hmmm?”
“And I take it you’ll claim to be one of those weapons, huh? What happened to being a holy sword?”
“Didn’t you say that was a lie, mistress?” she asked, fluttering her eyelashes at me ass he dragged her matted red hair out of her eyes. Her bright white teeth glimmered in her mouth, and for a moment, I caught a hint of gunmetal gray. “I can give you power, Mistress. Power to challenge gods. If you’re worthy of it. If you can earn it. All you have to do is be stronger than that worthless bastard who used to own me.”
I looked down at the tonfa. My father’s legacy. Would he have wanted me to sell my soul?
Would he still be alive if he had done the same?
The door slammed open. The commissioner stood there, his face grim. Jack disappeared at the same time. My eyes dropped to the desk, and I saw the knife inside one of the drawers. I stood to attention while surreptitiously shutting it. “Dane, do you have a bottle of whiskey in that desk.”
“No, sir. Of course not.”
“Goddamn shame. I could do with it.” The commissioner took several steps forward, pulling out the chair, and sat. “Sit down, Dane.” His voice was soft, and gentle. That was my first clue that something was terribly wrong. I usually had the commissioner in here once a week, screaming bloody murder about this or that. It was a kind of ritual between the two of us. Familiar, even pleasant. We found some kind of common ground, and he left me certain I’d get at least another week to fix things. This didn’t feel like one of those.
“I apprehended the suspect, sir, and he’s in the holding cells-”
“I know, Dane. Good job. Damn good job. You’ve done a better job than anyone could’ve asked of you.” He stared down at his hands, folded in his lap. “You’ve inherited some pretty tough responsibilities at this precinct. I know. You’ve done a lot for the city. I know that, too.” He lifted his head. “But we both know that a lot of the things you’ve accomplished can’t be shared. That breakout this morning… That was a fiasco, Dane. A dozen injured officers. A wrecked cruiser. All from one man with a knife.” The commissioner stared at me. “What is it?”
“I’m still trying to figure that out, sir.”
“There have been more violent homicides in the past week than in the rest of the year to date, Dane. And no suspects. No arrests. Why the hell can’t anyone get a hold on this? The whole reason we looked aside when you started the Neighborhood Watch, the whole reason you were promoted to deputy inspector of this precinct, was because you were getting results. You played a major part in stopping a terrorist plot, Dane, even if you treated me like a goddamn moron when you did so. What kind of hell-spawned weirdness are we dealing with now?”
“I’m not sure, sir.” I lowered my head. “I’m following up on inquiries. I know that Li Fang Fen is interrogating a suspect down in the cells right now. We’re going to stop this, sir.”
“The press is making up nick-names already. The Central Park Bicycle Slasher. The Mad Max Cabbie. There are, according to some sources, at least six Subway Stranglers. Do you know how disturbing that is, Larson? The city’s in a panic. It’s not the same kind of bad that we had with that cult, but a handful of people can have one hell of an outsized effect on a city this size. The mayor’s been breathing down my shoulder about this, and he doesn’t think you’re the right person for this job.”
I was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry, commissioner?”
“We’re handing over the investigation to the FBI. They’ll have their guy here in a few days. The mayor doesn’t think there’s anything supernatural involved in this case, and he’s not happy having you on the case. The papers are talking. Getting nervous. Suggesting it’s a repeat of the Church of the Survivor fiasco.” He stared at me. “Is there any evidence that this is something like the Church of the Survivor?”
“I don’t think so, sir. It’s… smaller scale. It’s about people, not about gods. I think.” I looked down, feeling terribly guilty. “I just don’t know, sir.”
“Yeah. Yeah, Dane.” He nodded quickly, and stood up. “Well, no one could blame you for not knowing.” He reached over, and patted my shoulder. “You thought about taking some vacation time, Dane? It’s not good to let this job become your spouse, it never cooks and the sex is lousy.”
I laughed, and tried to keep it from sounding too bitter. “I’ll consider it, sir.”
“Alright.” He stood up, and nodded. “Alright, Dane. A few more days.” He turned, and walked out the door.
“Doesn’t seem entirely fair, does it?” asked Jack, tilting her head. “You know this is supernatural.”
“Do I?” I asked, frowning at the young woman as she sat on my desk, one leg elegantly crossed over the other, hob-nailed boots clicking together. “What flavor of supernatural, then?”
“It’s…” She was quiet for a few moments, her lips twisted. “You know how sometimes, you have a choice of two destinations. And you don’t care which one you go to, so you choose one at random. But then, as you set out, you find yourself beset by problems. Everything seems to get in your way. Far too many things go wrong, and you wind up going the other way, because it’s just easier? It was like that. No one was telling me where to go. I didn’t feel drawn to come here against my will. It was just… easier to come to New York City than to do anything else.”
“And what did you find here?”
“It was… soothing. I can be irritable. Tense. The longer I go without taking a life, the more aggravated I become. The less I can manage my own behavior. Given enough time, and I become harsh, angry, insulting, difficult to be around.” She sighed softly. “But you know what they say. If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t-”
“Yeah. So, it was different here.”
“Yes. It was like every day, I’d just killed someone. An atmosphere of violence and murder.” She sighed, leaning back on the desk, kicking her legs out, arms spread. “Can you imagine anything better? And it had… other advantages. I certainly thought Johnny was dead, when he went up against those police. I was already plotting how to get into someone else’s hands. But he found something… incredible, hidden within me.” She stared at her own fingernails, brown-red crusts of blood beneath them. “Whatever is behind this must be powerful. I imagine I could find it. If only you would embrace me, Mistress. Take me up.”
“You’re a corrupter.”
“You read stories, don’t you? Stories are full of corrupters. Terrible temptresses, foul demons, liars, villains, and cads.” She smiled. “All of them, so very vulnerable to the purity of a true hero. Why, in the stories, purity is far more corrupting than sin. And I’ve told you what I am. A soft-hearted maiden, pushed onto the wrong path. I was not responsible for this evil. Please, won’t you help me?” She laughed softly, ruby lips plush. “You’re a hero, aren’t you, Inspector Larson? Isn’t it your duty to save a maiden from a grim fate?”
“I realized, a long time ago, that I’m not a hero,” I said, but my voice was soft. I stared at her. I wanted to wrap my fingers around that pretty little neck of hers. More anger that she was counting on. I set my hand down on the tonfa’s broken halves, and took a breath.
‘I– belie– in you–”
I jerked back, my hand yanking off the tonfa, sending it spinning across the desk. The words had sounded like my father, though breathless and cut off. I couldn’t think of any time he’d specifically said he believed in me, though he’d supported me many times. Jack gave me a perturbed look. “Wow, I didn’t think I was getting to you that easily.”
“I… Did you hear that?”
“What, the wind?”
I frowned, and turned my head. There was, indeed, a distinctive sound in my office, the whoosh and rustling of leaves caught in a storm. I turned towards the window of my office. The trees were visible outside, standing entirely still. The cloying summer heat was sitting across the city like a great dome, leaving the air dead and heavy. There was no wind there. I stepped towards the window, and unlatched it, resting my hand on the sill.
“Don’t,” whispered Jack.
I threw it open. Nothing happened, although Jack jerked slightly. I frowned, leaning out the window, and peered around outside. The streets were full of parked cars, but I didn’t see anyone suspicious. I turned back towards my desk, and nearly leapt backwards out of the window.
“What is it about power?” asked Ariel. I recognized her from Ryan’s story. She sat on the chair where the commissioner had been a few minutes earlier, and she was unmistakeable. Bright blue and green hair, one eyebrow dyed blue, the other green. She rested with her boots up on the table. Jack had jumped off of the table, and retreated behind me. Her delicate fingers pressed into my arm as she stared over my shoulder at the young woman. I opened my mouth to ask her what she thought she was doing, and thought better of it. I decided to settle for clarification.
“Yeah. You humans, you crave the stuff. You know? You’re aware of all of the downsides of power, all of the pain it’ll bring you, and still, some of you just can’t resist the addiction to the stuff. Making deals with things you shouldn’t. Taking on burdens you can’t hold. Playing with knives.” She stared at me very hard. “Why did you take the knife from Johnny?”
“So he couldn’t cut me.”
“Why did you take it with you to the station?”
“So I’d know if he tried to take it back.”
“Why do you still have it?”
“Because she still has answers.”
“How many more excuses will you be able to think of to keep her in hand? How long will it take you until you decide that you must take up the knife, because the consequences of not doing so are simply so high? How can you humans continuously fall for the same old trick? The world is put in peril, and you are offered ever darker paths towards the power you think you need to save things.” She crackled her knuckles slowly. On most people, I would’ve found the action a pointless affectation. A petty attempt at intimidation from someone who’d watched too many action movies. When this petite young woman did it, I felt my spine stiffen and my bowels turn to water. I realized it had been nearly a minute since Jack had spoken.
“So- You’re-” I swallowed, my voice dry and squeaky. I continued, tone slightly less comical. “You’re planning what? To waltz in here, grab her, and leave me high and dry, with no clue about what’s happening in my city?”
“She can’t,” said Jack, seeming to gain some courage from my words. “She is constrained. She can’t take me from you. She can’t even harm you. She can threaten you, make dire warnings, but that-” Ariel turned her eyes towards Jack, and then towards me, silencing both of us. I thought I had a pretty good hard look. I knew I did, in fact. But when I looked into Ariel’s eyes, I was brutally reminded that I was a human with a few scant decades of experience sitting in front of something… Incredible.
“I won’t take her from you without your permission, Officer Larson. If I did so, it would mean that somewhere, down the line, forces of great evil and absolutely no pity would use it as a bargaining chip, to allow them to cause heartache and suffering. However many lives I would save by forcing you to give me Jack Knife, they would take sevenfold.”
“That’s… a hell of a ratio,” I said, frowning. “You couldn’t negotiate that down a bit?”
“Haven’t you experienced that, Dane Larson? Preserving life, repairing a thing, these things take a much greater investment of time and energy than the opposite.” She waved her hand towards the tonfa. “Case in point.” Then her eyes flicked up to Jack, and the slightest smile was visible on her lips.
“So, you’re telling me that I should willingly hand Jack Knife over to you. What would you do?”
“Shatter her. Hurl her into the interstellar winds. Carry her off to the farthest edges of the world, places so remote that she will never, ever be found. It all depends on my mood, but I am capable of all of those things.” Sitting there, I believed her. The woman radiated power, burning with it. She reminded me…
Well, she reminded me of Betty, at her most fearsome. And that was frightening. But it gave me hope, too.
“Help us,” I said, my voice soft, hoarse. “Help us fight what’s happening here. Do you know what’s happening?”
“I know everything. Who is responsible, how, and what they hope to accomplish.” My jaw dropped, staring. “I know the culprits, the plot, the entire bloody story as it is being written out.”
“And if you told me…”
“Then something worse would be the reward.”
“You sound pretty fucking useless.”
“For fuck’s sakes,” whispered Jack. Ariel stood, and the lights dimmed. Her eyes flashed, and my connection with Li Fang Fen was gone. No trace of the link that held the two of us together. My wounds ached, and my head throbbed. My temples pounded, and I staggered under the weight of the sudden loss of the connection. Ariel stepped up, and shoved the desk aside with a single careless movement. It squealed across the wood, and fetched up against the wall. That desk weighed the better part of two hundred pounds.
“I feel pretty fucking useless,” she hissed. “Can you sense that? The powerlessness? The knowledge of being so close to being able to do something, and at the same time, knowing that you never, ever can? Do you feel terrified and helpless in the face of something that could snuff you out in an instant? Does your life feel meaningless and paltry, because you know that at any moment, forces greater than you could decide that you have to die, and there is nothing you can do to stop them?” She leaned forward, her hands on the desk. “That is how I feel every moment of every day.”
“Hu- Humans”, I managed, gasping, my head spinning. “You- You’re talking about humans. What you said to Ryan-”
“I don’t want humans to die. Jack does.”
“Hey, I don’t WANT humans to die,” said Jack. She winced under our combined glares. “Okay, I’m not bothered by it either, but still.”
“My enemies do. And in the heart of humanity, it seems that humans do, too. That is what frustrates me most. It is what makes me angry. It is what drives me to take your breath away. Your kind embrace your death. You think that you deserve it. You long for it. And you don’t think for even a moment what that might cost me.” She shook her head slowly.
“You sound like someone who’s helped an awful lot of people. Assholes can’t get that jaded and cynical. That takes real disappointment.” I gestured towards the chair. She crinkled her nose, and took a seat. “You’ve obviously helped people before. How?”
“There is… a process. I carve out a part of my soul. I grant it to a human. They gain power. I can make humans into heroes.”
I frowned. “Like Li Fang Fen.”
“Most supernatural creatures can do something like that. Few can do it on the scale that I can. The merest sliver of what I am would be an order of magnitude more power than what Li Fang Fen could give you.”
“… And-” I frowned. “If I put things together, you can confirm, right? It’s that usual bullshit where, as long as I could figure it out, you’re allowed to confirm my guesses?”
She rolled her eyes. “God, I hate this part. People are bad enough about using me as a sounding board without a supernatural mandate to do so. I’ll try not to answer any questions that I think will be used to justify the horsemen’s atrocities.”
“Hah.” I frowned. “So, Li Fang Fen thought Jack and Jill were given power by something. Your enemies, whatever they are. Are they demons?”
“You could call them that.”
“But she wouldn’t.”
“Then all of this… It’s part of their plot, isn’t it? Whoever these enemies of yours are, they can give people power, too? And if you act directly to stop them, then it gives them the chance to do worse elsewhere. So you can give me power-”
“It doesn’t work that way,” she said.
“Oh, Christ. Is this about sexual compatibility again?”
“No. Not that that would matter. I’m the wind, I don’t get laid.”
“Undoubtedly part of your issues,” muttered Jack.
“Okay, so, why can’t you give me some power? In exchange for Jack, or hell, just as a show of good faith?”
“Because you have lived your entire life in this city. You have never challenged yourself to go far from home. You have never left behind the things that you care about. You are weighed down heavily by connections, by the past, by your father, by your career. And I don’t think you could give them up, which is what I demand.”
“What, so you’re going to-”
“This is not a matter of choice. This is not a matter of debate. This is not a matter of negotiation. I cannot give you my power, because of that. You are not worthy.” Her eyes flicked down to the knife. “And I say this fully aware that it may tempt you to take up Jack.”
“That reminds me.” I frowned, and looked down at Jack, then back up at Ariel. “If Jack Knife here is one of your enemies, or working for one of them… Isn’t it dangerous to be doing all of this in front of her? If she gets away, she could give up the information, get you in trouble, get you completely fucked.”
Ariel only smiled.
“Unless… Oh. Oh, that is good.” I grinned. “Manipulative as hell, and cruel, but still. I’m guessing that knives can be held by their word just like anything else, huh?”
“There are only a handful of beings I know who aren’t. Even my enemies take oaths seriously. Though often, it is because the penalties would be extreme for them. And the same can happen here.” She turned her head towards Jack. “So there are your choices, Tsukumogami. You can swear, on pain of destruction, that you will not tell anyone what we said here. Or you can demonstrate your willingness to betray Dane right here in front of her, and give her a very easy choice.”
“Please,” said Jack, frowning. “This sounds like horseshit to me. I’m certain that if I were a part of some great mythological struggle, someone would have told me. Besides, I haven’t heard anything worth betraying anyone over.”
“Swear it,” I said.
Jack growled. “Fine. I swear to the aforementioned yadda yadda.” I gave Ariel a look.
“Is that enough?”
“This isn’t a court of law. If she breaks her word, I’ll kill her. Now, she’s clear on that fact. I have her permission to do so, which means that my enemies cannot claim a price in return.”
I nodded, and looked at Jack. “Three or four days. That’s how long I have until this case is no longer in my hands. In that time, I think I need all the help I can get. Which means Jack Knife.” Ariel’s eyes narrowed. “So, I’m going to make a deal. Four days. At the end of that time, I give you Jack Knife, regardless of what’s happened. You get to decide what’s done with her at that point. She can pay for however she’s wronged you.”
“Agreed,” said Ariel.
“Only four days to convince you not to give me up, hmm?” Jack smiled. “I’ve done more with less.”
I shuddered. “I’ll be looking forward to handing her over. But speaking of that, can you undo whatever you did to cut off Li Fang Fen? I’m going to need her help.”
“Ah. Of course.” Ariel coughed, looking a bit embarrassed. “I don’t want you to read into this. I need to give you back your breath, and there’s one way that breath is given.” Then she stepped closer, and kissed me.
All things considered, it was a very chaste, very refined kiss. More of a peck than anything else. No tongue, nothing especially intimate about it. No embraces, no pounding of the heart. Just a soothing sensation of being made whole again, and feeling Li Fang Fen’s power returning down the connection. Which really didn’t make it any less embarrassing when the door slammed open to reveal Li, John, Hector, Marco, and a patrol officer, all with guns drawn. I stepped back quickly, and coughed, cheeks going very red. Ariel’s teeth were clenching, a look of annoyance on her face. “I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming.”
“Well, I was going to ask if everything was alright, but we seemed to be interrupting,” said Li Fang Fen, an eyebrow arched. “You are not making any unwise deals, are you?”
“That’s the only kind I can make, I think,” I said, and sat down. I checked my watch, and sighed. “It’s been a long damn day, everyone. Tomorrow morning, we’re meeting here. We’ve gotten ourselves a whole haul of dots. It’s time to start connecting them.” I wiped my mouth, and spat into the trash can. “Jeez, Ariel, you taste like black licorice.”