I studied the map for the third time, my eyes running across it, trying as best as I could to focus. New York City’s reservoir system was one of the largest in the world, and covered an area several times that of the city itself. Consisting of several reservoirs and aqueduct systems to the north and west of the city, some of the most massive infrastructure projects in the world had been driven by the need to keep New Yorkers from dying of dehydration. There were comparatively few places that it could be accessed. The Jacqueline Onassus reservoir in Central Park was no longer giving anyone water. The same was true of the Jerome Park Reservoir. The closest was Hillview Reservoir in the far Bronx, but there were over a dozen other access points that might be involved, and no way to tell which had been chosen.
I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes, trying to concentrate. Then my flip phone rang loudly, and I resisted the overwhelming urge to smash it against the wall of the apartment. I picked it up, straightened my back, and put a smile on my face as I answered. “Yes?”
“Detective Li,” said Tod Blanski, a welcome voice. “Are you okay? Are you somewhere you can talk?”
“Of course, Tod. What’s the matter?”
“I think that there’s something you need to know. The man Larson apprehended a couple days ago remembered something, and provided the information to his guard. I can’t promise you that it’ll tell you anything, but I wanted to get in touch.” There was a pause, and he continued, his voice a little tense. “Are you okay? I know that the commissioner has put some pressure on the chief inspectors to find Dane, but people are reluctant. She and her father, her grandfather, they’ve all been famous cops. She’s got a lot of support among the police.”
I turned, and gave Dane a sidelong look, where she was talking with Jack Knife and Tonfa. “I’m sure she’s fine. Let’s meet somewhere, Tod. Give me an hour or so, and meet me at, let’s say, Chelsea Piers. Alright?”
I hung up the phone, and stood up, stretching my neck to either side, letting it click as it loosened.
“What’s the good word?” asked Tonfa, grinning cheerfully.
“Officer Blanski has information for me. I’m going to go meet him, find out what I can, and while I’m at it, I’m going to get out of this dull piece of shit and find an outfit that actually looks half decent. Do you want to come along and find something nice, Dane, or are you happy playing with your toys?” I gave her the broadest Cheshire Cat grin I was capable of, and she returned an utterly deadpan stare.
“I think I’ll be fine wearing Kevlar to the serial killer-infested water system, thanks.” She waved. “I’ll be here playing with my toys.”
“Just don’t overdo it. You’ll grow hair on your palms.” I gave a wink, and stepped out of the apartment, grabbing an umbrella from the closet. I had a long walk ahead of me, and plenty of sun to contend with. While Ariel was away, we would stay here, where the information was on hand. I did not feel guilty about walking away from the board. I had gone over the information there, and it was not yet clear where our targets might be. The time out of the apartment was time for my hindbrain to work at the problem undisturbed, and for me to prepare myself for a confrontation.
When I had died, I’d found an entirely new world. The shadows contained creatures which were wholly supernatural. Undead, fairies, demons, they all played their elaborate games in the background, thinking themselves masters of their destiny. They believed they had found the truth which lay beyond mortality, and they were arrogant because of it. Heaven knows I had been arrogant because of it.
Then, I found this. There was more to the world than the dead and the corrupt. There were gods and goddesses, terrible and mighty, and things that even went beyond them. There was power granted to humans that I could barely understand, levels of power and intrigue that went beyond anything I knew. I was a happy little koi who had been swimming in her pond for the better part of a century, and who’d found herself in the deep, dark ocean. I wanted nothing more than to swim back to my pond and spend the rest of a very comfortable eternity there.
But I had to see this through, first. I did not know whether I could even still retain my honor. In truth, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I certainly didn’t if it meant betraying the people who I had met here. I had always been prone to sentimental behavior. And after seeing Ariel break down… Age and power, it seemed, were still not enough to shield one’s heart from the world. There was something soothing in that, to see that Ariel, for all of her power, all of her worldliness, could still feel fear, and gratitude. I just wished there was more I could do to help her, but Dane and I would just have to do our best.
The small vintage store was much like most of its kind in the East Village, surviving off the meager handouts of those with more retro nostalgia and money than sense. It would take a particularly strange person to emulate the fashion of a long-dead era with any sense of grace and style. I selected one of the flapper dresses from off of the rack, examining it with a critical eye. It was transparently new, using synthetic fabrics that had not been in existence when I was seventy, let alone when I was a teenager, and more based off of stylized remembrances of the fashion of the era than the actual fashion. It was perfect.
I smiled as I stepped out of the changing room, tugging on the white opera gloves, adjusting the headband, balanced on the heels. It was not a practical garment, but I’d had decades to practice wearing high heels, and if I was going to walk into a slaughter, I would do it wearing white. My next stop was a corner store in China Town, where I picked up a delicate yellow chrysanthemum. An old woman who could have been my daughter smiled at me. “You sure you want that? Not really a happy flower, yellow mums. I’ve got a nice red one here for you-”
“No, no.” I smiled. “This one will do just fine.” I bowed my head. “I’m expecting a funeral.”
Officer Blanski was standing on the corner, watching in the opposite direction as I approached. He looked nervous, bouncing on one heel, a folder under his arm. I approached in the heels, with the silence of years of practice, and rested a hand on his shoulder. He jumped a bit, turning towards me, and his jaw dropped. Over a hundred years, and I could still make a man’s mind turn into a pudding when I really wanted to. He shook his head, and coughed. “I brought the fi-mm.”
My lips pressed against his. There was a rush of Yang chi as his heartbeat sped up, and he flushed. The kiss held for a long moment, warm and satisfying. If I was going to die, it was certainly not going to be without having one last decent kiss with a young man. That was the kind of thing that could help the dead rise again. I rested a hand on his shoulder, and smiled. “What do you have?”
He coughed, and opened the folder, taking out the file. “Here. The details he could remember. Apparently, he was in Yonkers for a business meeting when the feelings started kicking in. I’m not sure if that helps you…” I checked over the file, and read the address. I closed my eyes, remembering the map, and the smile spread across my lips, a mile wide. “I’m guessing you know where they are?”
“Yes,” I said, giving him a wink. “Thank you.” I let my eyes drift down for a moment, letting him grow red again. “I’d show you exactly how appreciative I am, but I don’t think that I can afford to lose track of time, just at the moment.” I let a hand linger on his shoulder, and smiled. “It will just have to wait until tomorrow. A good incentive to survive.”
“I can leak a tip to the police. Get the place under surveillance, we can hit it with everything we’ve got.”
“That might be a good idea, but it needs to be timed properly. There are going to be a lot of very dangerous people in that building. If the police rush in, it will be a slaughter on both sides.” I took a deep breath. “Midnight. Call them in at midnight. I’ll let you know where they are, and by then, either we will have won, or it won’t matter anymore.” I smiled softly. “Let those who are bulletproof take the lead on this one, Tod. ” I rested a hand on his chest, my expression growing a little more melancholy. “I don’t know how many times I can stop death.”
“Once is more than enough,” he said, and smiled. “Thank you, Detective Li.”
“Please.” I stepped a little closer, and smiled. “You can always call me Fang Fen.” I gave him one more gentle kiss on the cheek, and then walked away. Always leave them wanting more.
I checked my watch. It was about 11 AM, which left me time enough to check out my hunch. The meeting had been at a small restaurant on Hillview Avenue. Quite close to the Hillview reservoir, the last stop water took before entering the main tunnels into the city. It was one of several places where the toxin could have been introduced, but there was something strangely appropriate to it. These were not patient people. They were on a spree, and they would want to hit as hard and as soon as they could. I made my way towards the subway, and got onto the 2 Train, leaning back. The trip was one of the longest in the city, taking me out through the furthest reaches of the Bronx, and into the desolate wasteland that was Yonkers.
I don’t know what the hell everyone else found objectionable about the subway systems in New York. Personally, I loved them. Lots of people crowded around close together meant a virtual buffet of chi, there was no sunlight to contend with, and on a day like this, they were almost hot enough for me to reach body temperature with no expenditure of my Yang chi. The ride was a quite pleasant one, and I had a nice chat with an older woman who had a lot to say about politics, and whose accent was so indecipherable that I only had to smile and nod along to keep her happy.
The walk was a calm one, the sun hanging high in the air, the umbrella creating a small area of quiet. I would stand out like a sore thumb, but that was hardly new. I stopped on Hillview Avenue, and looked down at the artificial lake. Sparkling and blue in the summer sunlight, it was beautiful. The fence encircling it kept the casual prowler out, and I could see the primary pumping facility. A line of white cut from one side of the lake to the other, cutting it almost in half, representing the gating mechanism that let the city regulate its water intake.
I took out a pair of binoculars, and held them to my eyes, peering down at the pumping facility from several hundred feet away. A few smears of blood were visible on the ground. Several dozen cars were parked there, far more than there should be at any time. And a man stood on the roof, crouched down low, something dark and long in his hands.
I smiled. It was more than enough to confirm my suspicions. Then I spun, drawing the gun. A part of me had half-expected an attack, some sudden complication, a hand going around my mouth. I’d already sent a text to Dane with my suspicions, so it would’ve had very little impact on the planned raid, but it was about the look of the thing. There had been a cold little chill running across my shoulders, as though I was being watched. But when no serial killer materialized to make a spirited attempt at silencing me, I sighed, and began the walk back to the subway station. It had been a paranoia-inducing week. I would allow that to hold the majority of the blame for my edginess.
“I’m just saying, it’s a little strange to have those kinds of feelings when you look like my father when he was young,” said Dane, as I opened the door. “I mean, you’re handsome, don’t get me wrong, and hey, Fang Fen, ha, hah!” Dane tried to smile, her face visibly flushing. It was a good look on her, far more appealing than her usual scowl. “How much, ah, how much did you hear?” She, Jack, and Tonfa were sitting around the table, each of them with a bottle of beer in front of them.
“Dane, he’s not your father. He’s merely an object who belonged to your father, who gained a personality much in accordance with your father, and who holds such an intense sense of loyalty to you that he defied death in order to protect you. It’s perfectly natural to be attracted to him. Now if you want to see daddy issues in action, you need only look at the emotionally unstable switchblade black widow who sits in the chair next to you. I myself am an ancient corpse which spends every day resisting a vague impulse to hop a plane to Mainland China so I can finally be buried. This is the life you chose for yourself.”
“Chose, hah,” Dane said, taking a sip of the beer. “Like any of us got much choice in this.”
“You chose to live it, rather than giving up,” I said, giving her a cheerful smile. ” I do much the same. I could give up, but it’s too much fun, and there are too many happy days to ever want it to end, no matter how bad it gets.” Then I grew more serious. “I confirmed our target. The Hillview Reservoir. They had a sniper on the roof with what looked like a hunting rifle of some kind, probably bolt-action.”
“I don’t know if I can do this,” murmured Jack, her eyes down. “I don’t… I can’t kill again.” She glanced down at her hands, and scrubbed at them. They were red, wet, shining in the modest light of the kitchen’s solitary bare light bulb. “I can’t wash off the blood that’s already there with more blood. I don’t want to kill anyone else.”
“If worst comes to worst, I won’t use you, Jack. But you can fight without killing. When Johnny broke his way out of the police station, he took down twenty armed officers and didn’t kill any of them.”
“He’d also been wielding me for years,” said Jack, frowning. “He was also so exhausted from that that you managed to kick his ass.” She coughed softly, and lowered her eyes to her hands again, wringing them together. “No offense. But it’s an act of desperation. You could burn, trying to pull that off with this many people. They’re all heroes. And with Jack and Jill there…” She shivered. “I don’t think I can do it.”
“You can,” said Tonfa, his arms crossed, grinning. “Just have to find your temper, girl. You think I’ve never taken a life?” He shook his head softly. “Sometimes, people die. But not unless you choose that.”
“It’s different for knives,” murmured Jack.
“Actually,” I said, taking a seat across from Dane, “I don’t think it is. There’s always a choice. Any weapon, with sufficient skill, can be used to disable without killing. Sometimes without even wounding. With sufficient skill.” I reached into my purse, and withdrew the Smith and Wesson, setting it on the table. “Observe this gun. One of the most powerful handguns in the world. But generally speaking, only one in three people die from a gunshot wound, from what I’ve read. On top of that, we are dealing with men and women who fate is protecting.”
“I’d be careful about suggesting it’d be easy,” said Tonfa, frowning. “It’s a bad cop who forgets that a weapon’s lethal.”
“Oh, this won’t be easy at all. To stop a criminal without killing them is one of the great challenges in justice.” I smiled. “But it’s also a bad cop who forgets that you can preserve two lives, rather than just one.”
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Dane. “This is just like Thanksgiving dinner back when-” She closed her mouth, and looked down, smiling. “God, it’s amazing how quick you forget all the good times, isn’t it?”
“Like when your dad threatened to arrest your first boyfriend?” asked Tonfa, grinning.
“Not really, no. You remember that?”
“Sure. I was with your dad for most of his career. Your grandfather had me made for him as a graduation present. Christ, the things the two of us did. We made the world a better place, you know? Even when he went out…” Tonfa shook his head. “If I’d died, if I hadn’t been able to hang on, and the last thing I’d done was save your life, my only regret would’ve been leaving you alone in this world, Dane. If you have to die, though, dying to save someone you care about is a pretty good way to do it.”
Jack watched the two of them, her hands slowly wringing together. She looked away, and her eyes settled on me. I smiled. “Makes you a bit uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Seeing people flirt.”
“Jesus!” said Dane, giving me an annoyed look. “Do you have to do that?”
“Knowing you? Yes, I do. Look, I can hope for you to find a happy life just like anyone else. Humans weren’t made to be on their own. Even the loneliest hermit depends on his tools.” I winked, and turned back towards Jack. “You want to make things right?”
“I don’t know if I ever can. I could spend the rest of my life saving people, being good, I could be destroyed, and none of that would be enough. It would never bring back even one of the people I killed. I don’t think there’s any redemption for me, I don’t think there’s any hope, I…” She sniffled. “I just want to make things right, and I can’t.”
I nodded sympathetically. “I suppose so. There are some things that we can never make up for. Betraying your sworn duty, in my case. I think I have come to accept that I will never overcome the stain on my honor. We cannot change the past, only the future. So, there is a more important question for you. If you could make the difference, and stop someone from dying, would you do it? Knowing that it would not make you whole, that it would not restore life, that it would not make you a hero, but that it would mean there was one more person walking around in the world than there was before, would you do it? Would you sacrifice for it?”
She bit her lip. “I don’t know. Does that make me bad?”
I placed a hand on her shoulder very gently. “No. It makes you just like all of the rest of us. Neither angel nor demon, but a self-interested creature with a sense of morality. It’s progress, at the very least. I can’t ask you to come with us if you don’t believe you can help. But I’ve seen the power you wield, Jack Knife. You can do great things in this world, good or bad. I think that you’ll make the right choices in the end.”
“I don’t even know who I am,” whispered Jack.
“Three things for you, then.” I held out my hand, three fingers raised. “Who are you, what are you, and why are you. When you know those three things, maybe you’ll feel more prepared to deal with the world. There’s few things in this world so important as understanding yourself.” I softly clapped her on the shoulder. “In the meantime, you can sit this out.”
“No,” said Jack, shaking her head. She looked up at Tonfa, and frowned. “You probably think you’re some hot shakes, but if I sent Dane out with no one but you to protect her, then she’s going to get killed, and that would be my fault. I may be a bad person, but I’m not going to be a bad knife.”
Tonfa held up his hands. “Hey, I’m not complaining. The more the merrier, right?” He grinned. “You’re the old hand at this whole ‘weapon of myth’ thing. I’m just a simple stick.”
“Do you know what you can do?” I asked, my head tilted.
“Not yet. I can feel the power in there, but it’s… How to put it. It’s like a muscle. I can clench it, I can feel it move around inside of me, but I have no idea what it’s moving. I suppose we’ll find out when instinct calls for it.”
Dane frowned, looking askance at him. “You’re not just hiding it for dramatic effect, are you? I hate people who do that.”
“Nonsense!” he said, grinning cheerfully. “You love people who do that. But no, I’m not. I feel like I’m healing, though. Like…” He pointed towards his arm. “I stopped a bullet here, once, when your father got jumped. Total luck, but it chipped out a bit of the wood. It’s growing back, now. I’m… alive.” He paused for a moment, and stared into the middle distance. “Funny. I never knew what it was to be alive. I never really had thoughts, I just sort of soaked up everything happening around me.” He grinned, flexing his fingers. “Feels fucking awesome. Pardon my french.”
I nodded, and frowned. “Funny. Ariel still isn’t back.” I stood up, and sighed. “What do you want for your last meal, Dane?”
“Ugh. I’d say whiskey, but that would greatly increase the chance of it being my last meal.” She stood up, and emptied the rest of the beer out in the sink. “Shitty fucking light beer anyway. I’m going to… I don’t know. Take a nap. Get ready. Meditate in preparation for battle.” She shook her head. “What the hell else can we do?”
I nodded, and slowly sat back in my chair. “In that case… I think I’ll watch some TV.”
I sank into the chair, and watched out of the corner of my eye as Dane lay down on the couch, curling up. After a couple of seconds, Tonfa took a seat in front of her. Jack sat at the other end of the couch, giving both of them occasional looks, her lips twisted into a frown. She didn’t seem to know how to deal with the idea of such a close relationship. If I didn’t know better, I’d think there was a touch of jealousy there.
The time passed glacially. As the sun set, around nine PM, there was a soft rush of wind. Ariel stood in the room, her expression set in a fierce determination. Dane sat up immediately, her eyes hard, the reactions of someone who had been faking sleep with no real ability to achieve it. “Is everyone ready?” Ariel asked. I nodded.
We were no longer in the apartment. In a single great rush of wind, we stood atop the building I had seen earlier that same day. I took two steps forward, and before the man could get to his feet or cry out, I fell upon him. My arm went around his neck, squeezing tight. He struggled, trying to headbutt me, but my stance pressed against him like a boa constrictor, holding my elbow clinched tight around his throat, until he eventually went still. I did a five count, and then released him, standing up straight.
The full moon had risen over the building. The city glowed softly, lights all around us in the distance, the lake a shimmering reflection of the sky. No clouds, which meant that the lake was transformed into a black pit dappled with the occasional star that somehow managed to make itself seen through the haze of light pollution, more through stubbornness than any amount of apparent magnitude. Ariel leapt lightly from the roof down to the ground, landing next to the door. She opened it a fraction of an inch as Dane and I carefully lowered ourselves, Tonfa and Jack Knife in Dane’s belt. The wind rustled through the trees surrounding us, and briefly made peaks on the lake, hissing and swaying through the air. She nodded with satisfaction at the two of us.
“What can you feel?” I asked softly, keeping my voice to a whisper.
“Mmm. One hundred and…” She frowned. “Eight.” I raised an eyebrow. “I cannot feel the servants of the Horsemen directly, but they are there. I can smell them, but not see them, if that makes sense. They must be deeper in the facility. The heroes are arrayed throughout the building in different numbers. Maybe… three or four smaller rooms, where they’ve gathered in groups. They’re moving almost constantly. Pacing. Like caged tigers.” Ariel frowned. “I think that I should go-”
Dane cut her hand across the air. “I told you. We’re not going to make you do that. We can do this. I can do this.” She took a deep breath, and blew it out. “If anyone has to die tonight, it’s going to be because I fucked up. I’d rather have it be me who pays the consequences.”
“Goodness, what a noble sentiment. Taking the risk on your own head, your own soul.” The voice whispered out of the darkness, and was followed by a young woman. Her skin was dark, and she wore a simple white toga. She smiled around at us, as Dane and I tensed, my hand on my gun. “Isn’t that always the way, Ariel? They are so kind when they try to spare our feelings on these things. But whether we kill, or allow someone else to kill, it doesn’t feel quite right. It always feels as though we could have done more.”
“Sometimes we don’t get that choice,” said Dane, frowning. “Let me guess… Pearl?”
“No,” the young woman said, smiling. “Heather.”
Dane’s expression turned down a little further. “You’re the compassionate one. Water. I didn’t think there was much for you to do, here.”
“Didn’t you?” Heather laughed softly. “Pearl heard what you said. The pledge you made. You don’t want to kill anyone. You regret the lives you’ve taken in the past. You wanted to protect my sister from hurting anyone. You didn’t think that would matter? You didn’t think anyone was listening, that anyone approved of such a measure?”
“I…” Dane frowned, shaking her head. “It’s just words. I didn’t do anything yet.”
“Yes. That’s the entire point. That’s what we do. We turn words into deed. You set an impossible task for yourself, stopping a building full of murderers without taking one life. That is the kind of goal I can respect. If you want to stop them without killing them…” She smiled. “You know the story by now, don’t you? A blade placed in the water cutting only that which it desires to cut. The control you need, to preserve that which must be preserved, and cut that which must be cut. You are not a tiger, Dane. You are not a wild beast. You are a human. You choose.”
“I… If it was anyone, I thought it’d be Pearl.”
“Your strength isn’t in your rage, Dane, in your passion. It’s in your compassion.” Heather winked, and tilted up on her toes, giving Dane one chaste peck on the cheek. Then she was gone, the taste of salt spray washing through the air.
“Do you feel anything?” I asked, frowning.
“Yeah. I think so,” said Dane, smiling. “I think this is going to be easy.”
In a single smooth movement, she spun, and slammed her heel into the door, throwing it open. Then she was in the thick of it, and I followed after.