Chapter 17: The Curse

“I talked with my sister, up in Albany. She said she’d love to see us. She invited us up for the long weekend, we can be up there by tomorrow morning.” Paula smiled up at Ryan as he pushed her wheelchair down the ramp. It was late Thursday. The sun was just setting. Paula had a clean bill of health. They were going to get out of this goddamn city. “I can’t believe we’re getting out of the city. This is going to be so much fun! I can show you the swimming hole I used to visit when I was a kid.”

“It’s Albany, not rural Georgia, you can’t seriously tell me there were swimming holes.” He gave her a smile, although it was hard to make it feel genuine.

“Hey, most of the waterways in this great nation are not filled with moray eels and pollution.” She grinned. “We can go for a swim together. I bet I can still fit in my bathing suit from when I was a kid.” She winked at him, and then her expression became a little concerned. “How did work take the news?”

“They okayed the month off. ‘Me and my girlfriend were attacked by a serial killer and I had to go on the run from the law’ turns out to be a pretty strong excuse. The senior partner told me that I’d be welcome back when I was ready. I don’t want to push that, but…” Ryan went quiet, as he pushed her onto the sidewalk.

“You’re still thinking about that bastard?” She looked up at him, and smiled. “Ryan, you outwitted him.” She raised one of her hands, slightly shaky, and placed it on his. “You saved me.”

“Mmmm.” He lowered his head, shaking it softly. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“I understand.” She squeezed his hand, and smiled, as the two of them made their way down to the cab. He helped her up out of the wheelchair, and she sat very close to him on the ride back to their apartment. Stuyvesant Town was its same old self. It was as though the nightmares of the past few days were gone. With the sun setting, the light cut off halfway up the buildings, creating a brilliant contrast. The small display on the back of the driver’s seat flashed news about Broadway shows and a thousand other distractions from what had happened to them. It filled the back seat with a soft blue light.

“God. It feels strange coming home. It’s more like it’s been a month than a few days.” He shook his head, and frowned, peering out the window. “Awful lot of pigeons around, aren’t there?”

“Oooh. I always liked pigeons.” Paula giggled softly. “They’re such funny, arrogant little birds, strutting everywhere. Like penguins of the city.” She rested her hand on his, and squeezed it gently. He turned back towards her, and looked into her deep blue eyes.

It was only the reflection of the display, the blue background making her eyes look blue for a second, his brain scrambling to process the signals. Unfortunately, that realization came only after he’d jerked away from her, nearly cracking the window with the back of his head. Her brown eyes were full of tender concern as she squeezed him. “It’s not him! Look at me, honey! It’s not him! Okay? We’re safe.” He shivered, and nodded.

Paula paid the somewhat edgy cabbie. The elevator ride up to their apartment was quiet. “Oh, for christ’s sakes,” muttered Ryan. “Somebody must be feeding the damn things.” Half a dozen pigeons were cooing and strutting through the halls. They quickly sashayed away as he approached the front door, frowning in distaste at a pile of crap on the ground in front of the neighbor’s door. “This is just disgusting.”

“Come on, honey. We’ll have a night in, order a pizza, be out of this city first thing in the morning. It’s going to be okay. We’re out of the woods.” She smiled, and squeezed his hands.

“I’m sorry about freaking out in the cab.”

“You’ve had a kind of shitty week, honey, we’ll get through this. You didn’t give up on me. I’m sure as hell not going to give up on you.” She planted a soft kiss on the inside of his jaw. Her breath was warm, and her hair smelled like honey. She hadn’t showered since she’d been in the hospital, she should be a mess, but she still smelled so sweet. It made his heart shake a little bit. That simple intimacy was enough, for the moment, to drive away the fear and the uncertainty. It was like Dane had said. The supernatural was rare. If you didn’t go looking for it, it wouldn’t go looking for you. All he had to do was relax for tonight. The two of them could have a nice time. He smiled.

“Footage has surfaced of the murder of David Crenshaw. Deputy Inspector Dane Larson apprehended Crenshaw late last night without a warrant, and kept him in custody. Seen here with two unknown individuals-”

“God. I can’t believe there’s more of this shit. When are the police going to learn they can’t do this kind of thing anymore?” Paula sighed, resting her head against his chest.

“She’s… That’s Dane Larson. She’s the one who…” Who really saved you, he wanted to say.

“She’s the one?” Paula frowned. “The one who stopped Jack Black?” He nodded, and she frowned. “So, what, this Crenshaw guy’s supernatural too?” The video cut out as Dane lunged at the man with a switchblade. “Seems hard to believe.”

“Dane Larson’s history is similarly checkered. While she was responsible for the discovery and apprehension of the terrorist weapon in 2015’s Church of the Survivor incident, her tenure as a deputy inspector has been marked by unusual strategies and oftentimes strange treatment of prisoners, raising the ire of civilian oversight committees. With this latest incident, she has been stripped of her rank in the NYPD, and is currently being sought for questioning. If you see her, do not approach her. She is armed, and extremely dangerous.”

The doorbell rang. Ryan sat up carefully, extricating himself from Paula’s embrace, and went to the door. The pizza deliveryman nodded sleepily, and stepped away. Al, the neighbor next door, stepped out of the elevator. “Hey, Al.” Ryan smiled warmly.

“Oh. Ryan.” Al swallowed nervously. He was an overweight man, with salt and pepper hair and a worried but good-natured face. “Uh, good to see you back. Heard about the news. Crazy week, huh?” He stepped quickly past Ryan, the words left behind him like a trail of breadcrumbs as he grabbed his front door handle. Ryan reached out to him.

“I just wanted to say-” Ryan’s hand settled on Al, and the overweight man spun, jumping away from him. “Sorry. I just wanted to say, I saw some pigeons flocking around in front of your door. Someone might be feeding them on the floor or something, just thought I’d let you know.”

Al suddenly went white, his eyes turning towards the door. “I, ah… I better talk to the superintendent.” He smiled weakly, and disappeared through the door.

Ryan and Paula ate the entire pizza between the two of them. “God.” Paula rubbed a bit of garlic off of her lip, and smiled. “It’s amazing how good some grease and meat can taste after you’ve spent three days on a liquid diet.” She looked down at herself, frowning. “You don’t think I’m going to get fat, do you?” He responded by wrapping his arms around her and planting a kiss on her neck, a conversational gambit which had never failed him yet. The two of them adjourned to the bedroom, and the bed was so soft he could barely keep awake.

Paula let a hand run down his side. “Ryan?” she asked, her voice soft, breathy, warm. He stiffened in more ways than one, as she slowly planted a kiss on his ear. “I really do admire what you did for me. Like a knight. So…” She giggled softly, and in the warm darkness of the room, shades drawn, he could feel her shifting. One of her hands slid down his side, to slowly rest against his groin. “I feel as though I should do something special for you. A little gift. A princess thanking her shining knight.”

“Ah…” He shivered a little bit. “I don’t know if I’m quite up for that, honey. I’m sorry.”

“What’s the matter?” she asked, her voice soft. “Do you feel like you’re not worthy? Because you know that you didn’t really do anything? Because you know that you’re a fraud, that I’m going to find out, and I’ll leave you?” She laughed softly. “Oh, honey.” The light flickered on by their bedside table. Paula’s shadow as thrown across the wall, monstrous and huge, clawed and terrible, and she laughed, her eyes bright blue, a knife in her hand. “I’m going to stay with you till the day you die!”

He jerked up out of the bed, fumbling for the light. It took three tries before his shaking hands could reach the switch. He flicked it on, and the room was searingly bright, his eyes aching. Paula groaned softly, soft brown eyes flickering open. “Honey?”

Her voice was like a rasp. Working on his nerves, sending angry little sparks of pain down his spine. It hurt to hear her talk. The honey-sweet smell of her hair was making him nauseous, his stomach turning as he pulled on a shirt. “I- need to go for a walk. Just feeling-” he shook his head, and stepped out, unable to bear the worried look in her eyes. The way her compassion and concern grated on his skin like sandpaper, rubbing him raw. He grabbed his phone from its charger and took the elevator down to the lobby.

At this time of day, it was almost bearable. The humidity made everything dank and clinging, but the temperature wasn’t smothering. Five AM, and the first traces of dawn were visible in the east. In the west, the nearly full moon hung on the horizon, kissing the skyline, on the verge of sinking out of sight. He took out his phone, and scanned through the news.

*Nearly thirty hours since the last murder, outside of the unfortunate death of David Crenshaw in police custody. While the Police Commissioner of the NYPD continues to recommend caution, it seems that the plague of violence that has been terrifying New Yorkers for the last several days may be at an end. Dozens of theories have been raised about the strange crimes, and the fact that only two successful arrests were made. Nearly eighty people have died in the course of this violence, and the blame has been leveled on everything from the summer heat, to the upcoming full moon, to the new Shark Belly Longfish sandwiches. But we can all hope that things have calmed.*

He sighed, closing his eyes, and frowned. The pigeons were thicker than ever. Half a dozen of them were perched on the bench with him, cooing softly. Their beady orange eyes swiveled and fixed on him, heads tilting. “I don’t have any food for you,” he murmured. One of them hopped onto his lap. To his great relief, it did not defecate there. Instead, it cooed softly, staring up at him, claws hooked gently into his pants.

“Ryan?” Paula’s voice was soft, but it still sawed a bit at Ryan. He winced, looking down at the pigeon as she approached. A number more of the birds were flocking after her, running around her heels. She was dressed in a pair of shorts, and sneakers. “What’s the matter?”

“I didn’t save you, Paula. I ran, and I was terrible at it. This horrible, supernatural thing happened, and I was completely at my wits end. I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t save you. I couldn’t even be with you.” He pulled his arms closer around his chest. It hurt, burning inside of him, the bile and the anger threatening to bubble up over his lips, nausea rolling through him. “He threatened to take away everything I love. My dog. My life. You, most of all. He was going to just rip it all away, and there was nothing that I could do to stop him. I can’t… Even when I was offered chances, I couldn’t rise to them. Even knowing you were on the line. I was scared of losing everything. I was a coward.”

“I understand, Ryan. I understand.” She placed a hand on his shoulder, and the pigeons scattered away, fluttering to roosts on windowsill and streetlights. “You know, William Shakespeare once said a great line.”

“I didn’t know you were into Shakespeare.”

“Well, you don’t know everything about me. But he said, some are born great. Some achieve greatness. And some have greatness thrust upon them.”

He looked up. Paula’s bright, deep blue eyes shone, and she smiled.

“No.”

“Oh, yes, Ryan.” Jack Black laughed softly. Ryan’s heart pounded. His head was throbbing. This wasn’t fair. This wasn’t right. He’d escaped. He’d *escaped*.

“How the fuck are you here?” he asked, breathing hard, hands opening and closing. Jack Black had been so fucking strong. Strong enough to overpower him easily. He’d only escaped because the killer had been playing games with him, and even then he’d depended on others to save him.

“Well… I guess you’re just cursed.” Jack Black laughed long and hard. “It was funny, really. They’d had me in that fucking room for three nights and days, the lights on all the time. Wouldn’t even give me a sleep mask in case I used it to create a shadow. Then one of the guys comes down and explains that Dane went murder-happy on some jackass. They decided that my conditions were inhumane. The officer turned off the lights.” Jack Black shivered, and arched Paula’s back. She was dressed skimpily, which was only making Ryan’s nausea worse. “I considered murdering him, you know, the whole ‘whoops you helped the wrong person’ thing, but… I just couldn’t get my heart into it.”

“So you’re here for me?” Ryan’s eyes widened. “Paula.”

A surge of adrenaline filled him. His hands grabbed one of the planks of the bench. He rose, almost unconscious. There was a wrenching metallic shriek, and the plank came free of its bolts in a single movement, spilling the pieces of metal onto the ground. Twenty pounds of wood pressed into Jack Black’s throat, and before Ryan was completely aware of it, he was on top of the serial killer, the wood pressed into that pretty throat hard enough to crack the larynx. Jack Black laughed, and it was a strained, distorted sound, even as those feminine fingers turned white with the effort of holding it up, arms braced on the ground. She spoke, and it was hissed, warbling strangely through the compressed voicebox. “Well, well. Greatness thrust upon you, huh?”

“I’ll kill you I’ll kill you I’LL KILL YOU I’LL FUCKING TEAR YOUR THROAT OUT-” Jack Black twisted, and a knee struck Ryan in the groin hard enough to send him rolling to the side. Pain blossomed in his world, but it was strangely muted. Ryan had taken one or two shots to the groin in his life before. Each time they’d left him nauseous, barely able to breathe. This one had been harder than those, but the sensation barely registered. He grabbed a loose paving stone, and ripped it out of the ground, swinging it at Jack Black’s head. The serial killer dodged, but the backswing caught him squarely. The shapeshifter fell to the ground, and lay very still, blood trickling down from his forehead.

Paula’s forehead. The stone dropped from Ryan’s hand. Paula’s face, covered in blood, throat distorted. His world swayed dizzily around him, and he took a couple of steps back. Pigeons scattered as he moved. They had gathered into a circle around them. Then Jack Black was moving, leaping to her feet at him.

A hand wrapped around hers. “Hey.” A tall, dark-haired man with an eyepatch frowned. “Time and a place for that.”

Jack Black hissed, pulling her hand free. A pale Asian woman stepped through the birds, growling little curses as she took a kick at one. The creature let out a pitiful coo as she sent it sprawling across the ground, its wing crumpled. Another pair of men walked through the birds, one thin and tall, one- “Al?”

“Jackal,” said the tall, thin one. “Your beneficiary.”

“My-” The memory hit him. The touch in the hallway, and then the anger later that night. “The one who’s creating the serial killers.”

The tall, thin one smiled. “The city is an abomination on this world. It is an unnatural state of affairs, where human beings are pressed much too close together. It is a pressure cooker, which tests human beings to their limits. And all it takes is a very small push. Jackal’s power gives them so much more. It is what he makes people. He gives them the force of inevitability, of fate. He makes them into heroes.” He paused for a moment. “Confessedly, not in the modern sense. But in the sense that matters. They are heroes. You’re one too, now. You weren’t afraid, were you?”

“Jesus,” Ryan whispered, staring down at his hands. Trickles of blood were visible on them. It was so bright and colorful, a red that seared.

“No, the savior’s probably not going to get involved in this one. I’m sure he’s got bigger fish to fry. But we can’t stay here for long. Join us.”

“What?” Ryan frowned, looking up. “Why?”

“Why-?” The thin one frowned. “Because we’re going to change the world. Because we’re going to kill everyone who stands in our way. Because we are RIGHT!” His voice pitched up into madness, his eyes glittering in the predawn.

“I don’t want to kill anyone.” Ryan took a deep breath. “I’m happy. I’ve got everything I need in the world. I don’t want things to change. I want you to fucking take this away. What the fuck did you do to me?”

“It’s the moon,” said Al- Jackal, looking down at his feet. “Keep out of the moon for a day or two, and you’ll be-” He cringed away from the tall thin one, as the man spun and directed a ferocious glare at him, teeth shining and feral.

“Hey. Hey, that’s right. Come on, give me another taste of that. I want to feel that rush again!” Jack Black grinned, stepping towards Al.

“I- I really don’t think that’s a good idea-” began Al, but the tall thin man took out a small vial.

“No need for direct contact anymore. I have his essence. But first… I think you’ll have to prove you’re worth another shot. Kill that-”

“That sounds like the sort of thing that would set me against you,” said the man with the eyepatch, smiling indulgently. His arms were crossed, his head tilted to one side. A gun was visible in one hand. Ryan would’ve sworn it wasn’t there before. “Twice now, he’s been threatened, and he still wants to live a normal life. The man’s devoted to what he has. He has something worthwhile. Isn’t that what we were all searching for? Isn’t that what we all want so desperately? To be able to live a happy life?”

“So why the fuck should he get it?” the Asian girl asked, more curious than anything.

“Well, y’know how it is. You kill enough things, it gets boring. Blase. Sometimes, it’s a little more thrilling to spare someone. You’re free to go, boy.” The man flicked a switch on the gun. “Unless one of you would like to make an issue of it.”

“That’s it?” Ryan asked, breathing hard. “I can go? Stay out of the moonlight, and I go back to normal? I can live my life again?”

“Oh, yes,” said the man with the eyepatch. “Of course, in this world, things happen once, but not twice. You’ve had this dumped in your lap twice now.” He chuckled, his eyes flashing wildly. “I can’t wait to see what the third time will look like.”

Ryan backed away from them, slowly. The great sea of pigeons around them fluttered and cooed. “What the fuck is with these birds?” asked the thin man, frowning. Ryan took that as his cue to turn, and run. He wasn’t strictly sure it would help him if they changed his mind, but right now, he wanted nothing in the world so badly as he wanted to wrap his arms around Paula and never, ever let her go.

“Ryan?” She groaned softly, as he rested his hands on her side. Her voice rasped, but he didn’t care. Her touch was like sandpaper, and he held her close, squeezing her. He planted a soft kiss on her forehead. “It’s still a couple hours till our bus,” she murmured, rubbing at her eyes. “Somethin’ wrong?”

“No. No. I don’t think so. Just… I love you. Okay?”

She smiled. “Of course you do. I’m great.” She yawned, and turned on her side. She was asleep again in seconds.

He returned to the kitchen, and opened the window. He had no idea if this would work, but he owed it to her. He owed it to them. “Ariel.”

“You again? I thought you were leaving town.”

He spun, clutching at his heart. She tilted her head to the side, still dressed in that Metallica t-shirt. “I am. I just wanted to tell you something.” He took a deep breath, and then paused. “Dane… She didn’t kill that man for no reason, did she? She… She had to. Right?”

“It was… complicated. He hurt someone she cared about. Badly. Might have broken her, in fact. It was his third strike. I could have stopped her, but…” She shook her head. “Sometimes, people make it so that it’s always a bad idea to stop them. They just keep maneuvering things so it becomes harder and harder to stop them if you’re smart. Sometimes, you have to do the stupid, violent thing. It’s not very elegant, but it’s the best way to deal with someone smarter than you.” She sighed. “But he’d talked over a dozen people into suicide, and intended to keep doing it forever. She was in the right.”

Ryan nodded. “The apartment next door. 6B. One of them was in there. And Jack Black is free. There are six of them, and they said something about making heroes. They said they’d made me into some kind of… serial killer hero. That I could get rid of it by staying out of the moon for a day or two, go back to normal.”

Ryan had heard of people’s pupils contracting when they were frightened, or angry, or disturbed. He’d seen it in movies. Ariel’s pupils were gone entirely. He wasn’t sure if her eyes had changed color, or were always like that and he hadn’t noticed. One was blue. The other was green. Her fist clenched so tight her knuckles popped and whitened. And her lips spread into a broad smile. “Well, well. You just made my day, Ryan.”

“What?”

“They broke the rules.” She laughed. “God, this is going to feel fucking amazing. Thanks, Ryan. Get out of town as soon as you can.”

He nodded. He didn’t ask any questions. He didn’t want the answers.

Paula and Ryan only carried a couple of duffel bags on their way to Port Authority. It might have been Ryan’s imagination, but it seemed like there was a storm coming in, the wind whipping through the streets at a surprising pace, the sky gray and cloudy. They were quiet for the entire three and a half hour bus ride. Paula lay with her head against his shoulder. He thought of the memory of her, bloody-faced and blue-eyed, and shivered. The warning stuck with him. Twice he’d fallen afoul of the supernatural world. Twice he’d turned away. Because he had her. Because he had something worth more to him than all the power in the world. He put his arms around her, and that memory was enough to force the anger and the pain and the suffering away. And as they left the city behind, the rasp became nothing more than a gentle hum in the back of his mind.

They stepped out of the bus, and it was immediately obvious that the heat was less oppressive. The humidity was lower, the air clearer and cleaner, a cool wind blowing over the city. He let out a soft sigh. “Paula… I didn’t save you.”

He repeated the words he’d told Jack Black. It wasn’t as terrifying this time. It could hardly go as badly as it had the last time. At the end, she smiled. “Honey, I knew about all of that. You still saved me. You had help, but you kept running. You did everything you could. That’s all I’ve ever wanted from you. You’re a good man, and you know how to hold down a job, and you’re cool under pressure. Being able to fight off psychotic serial killers who leap through shadows was never part of the agreement.”

“I wanted to protect you.”

“You came back to me. You didn’t accept their offers and leave me behind, going into a world where I could never stay with you. You came back.” She smiled. “That’s the kind of hero I want. Now, come on, my sister is waiting to see us.” She paused for a moment. “If she brings up the oni in the attic, don’t encourage her, okay?”

He nodded, smiling, feeling like something besides a fuck-up for the first time since the nightmare had begun as they walked down towards the car. Then his lips turned downwards, his brow furrowing. “What’s an oni?”

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