By Shannon Page and Chaz Brenchley
Of course Karen was the best woman for the job. That went without saying. In fact, if Melanie had claimed it, Karen would certainly have argued her own case. In front of Grant, if necessary. Karen wasn’t afraid of Grant. Not one little bit.
But that wasn’t how it had gone down. Instead, Melanie had taken it upon herself to get the chains and the knife and the reinforced table, had secured the warehouse and the whiskey, had even lured the man from his downtown hotel at midnight and dismissed his driver. Okay, fine, carry on.
Then, without batting a false eyelash, Melanie had handed the knife to Karen.
Who had not hesitated, not at all. No. She was competent, well prepared and—what was the word—unflappable. She was unflappable, yes. Not susceptible to flap. Which meant handling what came, whatever came, however unexpected or unrehearsed.
Like the knife. That was unexpected.
Not to mention unpleasant.
Afterward, while they were cleaning up—rinsing hairs and blood off the blade, hosing down the table, picking stray gobbets of offal off of each other’s clothes—Karen struggled with her emotions. It took her a while to even figure out what was bothering her, exactly. Melanie had handled the situation flawlessly, all the way through to the end there. And putting an end to it had properly been Karen’s task; she was senior, after all. It was just . . . well, there was something more than insidious, inappropriately dominant about the way Mel had slapped the knife into Karen’s hand and stood back, hands on hips, that sly show-me grin on her face.
It made Karen mad all over again just to remember it.
At least the grin had vanished, once the blood began to splatter.
“What?” she grunted, holding the knife two-handed as she tugged it down from sternum to groin. “You weren’t expecting blood?”
It was hard to cut cleanly the way she’d been trained, when he was bucking and writhing beneath the blade and the point kept catching on what must be vertebrae deep inside. Still, she lifted her eyes from her work just for a moment, just to see Melanie’s mute shake of the head.
She grunted again and made the transverse cut, and thank God he was lying still at last; her hands were all-over slimy now, and she struggled to keep any kind of grip or direction on the knife. She’d been aiming to slice straight through his belly button both ways, and missed both ways. Not by much, though. And she felt the moment when the blade severed his spine; function mattered more than form.
Now he was just meat. Rank meat, spoiled. And smelling like it. She was glad to let the knife fall and step away from the table.
Melanie was still stuck on that question Karen had flung at her. Rubbing her spattered arms mechanically with a tissue—no, one of those moistened hand wipes, the chemical scent of it burning even through the reek of slaughter—she shook her head. “I didn’t, no. Not blood. I thought, I thought they were . . . not human anymore. Not on the inside.”
“Bodies don’t change, just because something else possesses them.” Karen uncapped the whiskey, reached out a long arm, and poured a libation into the man’s gut, where she had opened him up so extremely. It was a gesture, but not meaningless. Tradition matters. They hacked the spirit out of him; they poured the spirit into him.
Did she imagine the hissing scorching sound, as spirit met flesh? Perhaps. Perhaps she did.
She tipped her head back, lifted the bottle, poured a steady dribble down her own throat. Didn’t imagine the fierce bite of that, spirit on her own flesh, oh no.
“Oh, that’s good.”
She held the bottle out to Melanie. Waited a moment, nudged the other woman’s shoulder with the butt-end of it. It was tradition again, this ritual drink after.
Melanie still didn’t move to take the whiskey. She shook her head against a question not asked, muttered, “I’ve never killed a man before. Not, not a human man . . .”
Lady, you still haven’t. Aloud, Karen said, “Melanie. Take a drink.”
# # #
She did, at last. And then they cleaned up, and Karen reran it all through her head and got mad again, and then cocky again, the taste of triumph like the taste of whiskey, hot and savage inside her— I did this —and then shrugged all of that away. Cocky or angry or defiant—none of that would do a body any good at all. Or a spirit, either. Not when it came to facing Grant.
Time to put the bottle down, and turn her mind to water.
They left the body for Colin and his team. Wanting a shower, Karen let her mind drift as Melanie drove the van through the night streets. A sheen of moisture clung to the pavement: not quite mist, heavier than fog: a strange clammy dew, slick under the worn tires. Even the weather was shifting, it seemed. Laying something down, skin on skin, like a declaration: What passes for normal, lady? That’s not normal now.
She knew it. If it had been possible only to know one thing, that would have been the one. As it was—well. She knew too much. And had done either too much—way too much—or else too little, depending.
It’s usually a mistake, she thought, to peer beneath the skin of things.
Melanie had slowed almost to a crawl on a narrow road overhung with trees darker than the city night. They loomed above, vehicles of emptiness, leaning across to touch one another like shadow-memories of shape.
“Where is it?”
“Grant’s?” Karen stared out the windshield. Where were they? “Southside. You know that.”
“No. The proof. You were meant to gather the proof. Where did you put it?”
Questions tumbled in Karen’s startled mind like oils in turbulent water, clouding everything: How did Melanie know about the proof? And what did she want with it here, now? Or at all?
This wasn’t the time to challenge her. Karen was uncomfortably aware that Melanie had reclaimed the knife.
There wasn’t time to be clever, either. There never is.
“Oh, fuck it. I just . . . There was so much mess everywhere, y’know? I just forgot. Do you want to go back?”
“God, no,” Melanie said, shuddering. “No, I don’t. Besides, someone might be there by now.” It might be Colin. “We’ll just have to ‘fess up and hope that Grant will trust us.” It’s your head on the block. She said that too, or she tried to—but it’s harder to lie in body language. There was something else that concerned Melanie, and it was nothing to do with Grant.
After a minute, she shrugged and drove on: a little slowly, a little distracted. Karen took careful note of turnings, and of street signs as soon as there were any. Just in case it turned out to matter, later.
They had to cross the river to get to Southside. Halfway over the bridge, Karen said, “Pull over a second.”
“Just do it. There’s no traffic; we’re safe enough. Right here, over water.”
She could feel it, the flow of it deep inside her like a bass note thrumming, copper at the back of her tongue. Her skin tingled.
Melanie stopped the van, turned in her seat: her turn to stare. Karen held her hand out.
“Give me the knife.”
“Wait, what? No! No, it’s my—”
“It’s got my fingerprints all over it.”
“No, we wiped it.”
“Not literally.” Numbfuck. “The steel remembers. Do you think any blade ever would forget what we—what I just did with that knife? Come on, give. Grant will buy you another.”
Blankly, Melanie handed over the knife. Blade first, like a threat. Karen pricked her finger as she took it, then opened the door and stepped out, went to the railing, and tossed the knife over.
Black water glimmered, too far below. Between the dark and the distance and the reflected city lights, she hadn’t a hope of seeing the blade break water. Even so, she felt it. She thought she did. Felt something, at least: a satisfaction.
Perhaps it was only relief—but steel remembers, and steel is only an expression of water. Water has a long, long memory.
“I don’t get it.”
That was Melanie, driving them away.
“Call it an offering. Or a debt repaid.” Or just a precaution. Next time, I’m bringing my own knife. “Best not to forget who we work for.” And then, a sharp response to bewilderment, “Oh, for crying out loud! Do you think we’re some kind of free agents? Rebels on the edge? Down these mean streets a girl must walk who is herself as mean as they come? Get real, Melanie. We’re clerks, is all.”
“We work for Grant.”
“Grant is just a bureaucrat.” A bureaucrat with connections, but still. “It’s the big picture that matters, is what I’m saying.”
And whose picture you chose to stand in, and whether you had a foot in one frame and a foot in another, and . . .
“. . . And you brought the proof, of course?”
Karen didn’t want to guess how much Grant had paid for the desk. Really, she thought, he should fit it with a glass top. Something that would wipe clean.
“Of course,” she said, smiling, hoping that Melanie would see it reflected in his shades. “How else would you know it was the target that we killed, and not some poor innocent regular guy?”
She reached into her pocket—these coveralls were so foul already, nothing mattered—fished out the revolting thing, and tossed it very deliberately onto the pristine oxblood leather surface of the desk.
You shouldn’t have doubted me. Old man.
If he was old. If he was a man. Who could tell?
Behind her she could almost feel Melanie’s silent gasp, and the hot anger close on its heels. Karen let the smile linger on her face as she lifted hand to mouth and sucked the index finger slowly.
Grant’s eyes widened; Melanie lost it altogether. Karen drew the finger out of her mouth and swallowed, relishing the sharp tang. It was mostly her own blood anyway, from the knife-prick on the bridge. “Don’t get any on my shoes, please.”
Doubled over, Melanie emptied the contents of her stomach onto Grant’s Kashmir carpet.
Karen took a small, deliberate step away and turned back to Grant. “So, about payment . . .”
The gray-haired man gazed at Karen a moment longer, then brought forth an oversized white handkerchief trimmed with a thin line of embroidery. He unfolded the cloth slowly, almost making a ritual of it, engulfed the slimy thing in fabric, and drew it up.
Blood soaked immediately through the white cloth. Was a fine linen barrier enough to protect him? Karen didn’t know; the depth of her own ignorance hit her like a punch to the stomach.
Or perhaps that was just the sound—and the reek—of Melanie’s misery behind her.
Karen shook her head. No distractions: not here, not now. She must focus on Grant. He was lifting the thing, bringing it closer to his face. His fingers seemed to absorb the ooze as soon as it touched his skin.
She had wagered wrong, then.
Just as well she had thought to add her own blood to the mix. She might actually live to see the dawn.
“Very interesting.” Grant turned the bloody mass in his hand, glancing over at Karen. The dark glasses hid any expression, but his hand trembled. Age? Weakness? Or the other thing, too much power, barely controlled?
Or . . . was her own power somehow finding a way?
She blinked back at him, covering her thoughts as best she could. Melanie moaned. Karen could almost feel sorry for her.
There was so much pretense in this room, masks beneath masks. Karen pretended to be baseline-human, normal, mercenary. Melanie pretended to be competent, experienced, loyal—though she’d given herself away quite thoroughly by now, and not only on Grant’s rug. Karen hadn’t forgotten that detour into unfamiliar streets, or the abortive demand.
And then there was Grant. The gray hair, the dark glasses, the thousand-dollar suit—he might be anything, almost, except what he appeared to be: a mature businessman with clean hands.
The only honest thing they had between them was the proof, that little worm of pseudoflesh he’d masked in his handkerchief. That at least was nothing more than it seemed to be.
When the public talked about worms, they meant the victims, the possessed: They worm their way amongst us, seeming human, seeming just like us. Corrupt, demonic, deadly . . .
You could always trust the public to confuse themselves and each other, blame the victim, burn the innocent. This time, though, burning the innocent was unavoidable, Karen’s own job. There was no cure for the possessed. These twists of matter she cut out were a residue, a seedcase, something left behind; excision was always fatal. She’d stopped trying to be careful. Quick was better. Whether anything of the host abided, some deep-buried sense of horror, she had no idea. And no way to learn. Grant’s people were presumably experimenting—why would they collect these proofs so assiduously if not to find out what they were, what they were made of, what they signified?—but Grant would never tell her anything. Whatever else he was or might be, he was an old-fashioned bureaucrat at heart: giving orders, sharing nothing, keeping his juniors in ignorance.
It was her private pleasure to be keeping her own secrets. He no more knew the truth about her than she did about him. Less: he didn’t even know that there was more to learn.
She hoped he didn’t know. It would be folly to underrate him.
He said, “I have another task for you. You’ll be paid when it’s done.”
Of course. There was always something more. A mask beneath the mask, a task beneath the task.
Still. Every man contained his own proof. It was only a matter of finding it within him.
She said, “What do you want of me this time?”
At least he didn’t make her bring Melanie. Karen drove the van back into the city, wondering if she’d ever see the other woman again. Carpets could be cleaned; it was the stained soul that was more problematic. Grant understood that.
She turned off the highway into side streets that narrowed into lanes. Here were trees again; she was miles from Melanie’s detour, but here too they edged into the roadway, their wide roots cracking the sidewalk, their branches dropping leaves and seeds onto parked cars.
Trees. Why was she noticing trees so much? Because they are another expression of water, fool. Tonight was all about water, and what it brought. The icy depths of the river; the invasive fingers of the mist; the tap she and Melanie had run and run, to clean up after the extermination.
Near the end of the block, she slowed the van, searching for a number. There it was: a small pale house cowering underneath a huge and ancient willow. The tree with the closest affinity to water . . .
She left the van at the corner, blocking a fire hydrant. Let them try to give her a ticket.
A voice whispered from the shadows, “Ill met on a dark night.”
Karen didn’t shift her head or her pace. “I am not here to meet you, minion.”
The house was only gently protected; she barely felt the touch of power as she climbed the steps, put her hand on the doorknob, waited three breaths and went inside.
Colin nodded at her from where he waited before the fire.
“No,” Karen whispered. This was wrong, and more wrong. “Not you.”
He was on his feet fast, his hands in her hair, his tongue in her mouth.
Her mad hot dumb lust flared up as it always did, every single goddamn time.
She didn’t even fight it anymore. What was the point? It would only take longer, and she’d lose anyway. Moaning, she leaned into his body, pulling him close.
He kissed her harder, then reached for the buttons on her coveralls.
It was only then that he noticed all the blood.
Karen had to swallow down a smile as he pretended not to recoil. It was drying now; he didn’t get much on his own clothes, but she could feel the revulsion in him, in the hesitation of his hands. Then he shrugged quickly and bit into her mouth again, masking it with lust of his own.
Just for a moment there, he had made her think of Grant again; but pretense became reality again soon enough, as their bodies followed well-worn pathways in the firelight. This was Grant’s opposite, all down the line: urgent and immediate, naked and truthful and exposed. Nowhere to hide, and nothing left worth hiding . . .
Karen buttoned up the rank denim garment without washing herself first. Whatever she might take away from this, whatever she could keep: she knew its value. Long past any plans or dreams—only keeping her eyes open, her back covered, her mouth shut—all she could do was collect what might be useful, and try to stay ahead of the falling blade.
Mike . . . All unbidden, his sweet, uncertain face came back to her as she reached for her boots. She pushed the image away—and thought how strange it was that she could do that, where she couldn’t thrust aside her simple animal need for Colin, her thrall to his desire. Mike was opposite again, orthogonal to this whole dark world of hers; and he would only stay safe so long as she kept him so. And that meant keeping on as she was going. Never pausing. Never doubting.
Colin came back from the bathroom, buttoning his jeans. Not a word from either of them about what had just passed: some moments lay outside words, beyond reason.
“So,” Karen said. “What did you do with him?”
Colin nodded to the darkened hallway at his back. Karen could see water-stained lavender wallpaper, curling up where the seams didn’t quite meet. A door ajar, halfway back. Now that she was paying attention again, there was a low, fetid smell.
“Do I even need to look?”
He shook his head.
“All right.” She was on her feet now, boots laced as tightly as her soul. It was all about control, in the end. Exposure and control. What you showed, and to whom; what you kept for yourself.
She drove slowly through the predawn streets, aimless, worried. Not about Grant. He would be angry, perhaps, that Colin had gotten to the body first, but it was hardly her fault. She’d been following procedure; he was the one making changes, late, too late. She thought likely it was blood that he wanted. He’d just have to look elsewhere. There was enough of it about, for pity’s sake, in this city these days.
Pathways of information were as convoluted as city streets; she wanted a map, and didn’t believe there was one. Any more than there was a single city, that a single map could chart. What Grant knew was not what Colin knew, far and far from whatever Mike might know.
And then there was what she knew herself, layers beneath layers. . . .
She drove without purpose, just keeping the van on the move, winding through the streets. After a time, she pulled over and parked, rubbed her eyes, sighed. Only then did she realize what she was about: waiting for the sun to rise. Not returning to Grant while the night sky held sway overhead, cold and compressed. While the streams and eddies of power favored his kind, and not hers.
First light of dawn would be soon enough, to go to him. No matter that she was lost, and killing time; she wasn’t too proud to admit even to herself that she was only roaming the streets at night for fear of . . .
Fear of what? Something indeterminate, something inchoate in the back of her head, in the corner of her eye: a whisper in the fog, a shadow astray, a touch of chill. She couldn’t tell, except that there was something. It had been nagging at her all night: more than Melanie, surely, though thinking of the other woman made Karen mad all over again. Had it all started with the knife, the way Melanie had just handed it to her?
No, before that: when Grant had sent the two of them to do one woman’s job in the first place. Belatedly, Karen wondered if she was meant to be training Melanie. Of course Grant wouldn’t come right out and tell her so: she might think she was training her own replacement. She might be right. . . .
Karen felt a faint tingle at the back of her throat and glanced out, suddenly aware of her surroundings. She was on the west side of the city, down by the river, after passing warehouses and parking lots and rusty, abandoned cargo containers with weeds growing tall around their bases. Dawn would be here soon, and she was a good twenty minutes from Grant’s.
She turned the engine back on, hauled the van into a wide U-turn across the deserted quay, and drove.
The guards seemed hesitant, or distracted; or perhaps that was just Karen’s night mood carrying forward into the cold gray sunless morning. She noted it and disregarded it, nodding back to them as she drove up the long lane to the main house. Just one more piece of information, useless without context.
Useless like her side of the bed tonight, her pillow, empty next to Mike. That had a context, but it was all evidence of absence.
Useless like his gentle sad sigh when he awoke alone—again!—that she could almost hear, clear across town.
She shook away the thought as she killed the headlights before they could shine in through the front windows of the house. Sentimental! Moping over Mike. As if that would do either of them any good. There was no room for sentiment here. For weakness. For doubt.
She hesitated, though, on the wide front porch, her hand already on the doorknob. Something was different; something made her doubt.
A new scent in the air.
A female scent.
Here? In the seat of Grant’s power, his control . . . ?
Stifling a sudden urge to flee, Karen stood taller and opened the door.
Well, at least the smell of vomit was gone.
In here, though, it had been replaced by the deep and pungent reek of blood. Not just any blood: the terrible, sour tang of the old ones. Grant’s own, unless she missed her guess.
Well, that was information.
She stood just inside the front door, easing it closed behind her, keeping alert. Seeking. Listening, smelling, tasting the air.
Her eyes showed her only the palatial and familiar house, beautifully decorated, unthinkably expensive. A veneer over an ugliness beneath, fooling nobody. The broad, high-ceilinged atrium in which she stood gave off into a double set of hallways. Leftward lay Grant’s private rooms, a focus of rumor and ignorance, the breath of fascination and the breath of terror intermixed. Karen had never been that way, and didn’t need to go there now. She could follow her nose into familiar territory, rightward, to Grant’s office suite.
Her nose didn’t actually want her to go that way, wise nose; nor did any other part of her anxious, rebellious body. Her feet were very much against it.
Still. Here too there was fascination, as well as terror. All her life she’d been drawn toward the screamingly dangerous; why else would she do this job? For Mike’s sake, she was meant to be working on that, but . . .
Putting her pricked finger in her mouth, Karen bit down hard and tasted blood, fresh and vigorous. Salt is the taste of life, the taste of hope; salt and water are the prime constituents of the tale of blood; and water—well. Water has a memory of shape.
Karen pulled an air of confidence about her and strode down the right-hand hallway toward Grant’s office.
The door was closed. Oddly for such a private man, that was new. He used to keep his secrets within his skin. Now the heavy, fetid smell of death and possibility lay everywhere; the air was gravid with it.
If she once let the door check her, she would never find the nerve to open it. She didn’t pause, then—just worked the handle and walked on in.
Melanie stood behind Grant’s desk. Karen began to sigh with relief—Oh, only her—before she understood any of what else she was seeing.
Grant’s body lay sprawled on the floor before the desk. The Kashmir carpet was history by now, to be sure; a great quantity of his dark oily blood had saturated it and was no doubt soaking down through the floorboards. And that was somehow easier to look at, easier to comprehend than the remade woman who was, no, not only Melanie, not that at all. Melanie entire, all falsehood stripped away: smiling at Karen, mocking her silently, glimmering almost with an aura of focused knowledge, of terrible strength.
She leaned forward, resting the palms of her hands on Grant’s desk. Smearing it deliberately with the gray man’s blood, making it abundantly clear that she had slain him with her bare hands. Which meant that the ritual mattered to her as much as the slaughter, and maybe more. Which meant . . .
“No,” Karen whispered—not because it could not be true, rather because it made all the sense in the world. All the sense in any world. All she really wanted to deny was her own naivete: tricked by the apparent foolishness, the sudden eagerness to stand aside, the squeamish reaction to a little spray of blood. Why in the world—in any world—would Grant have employed such a woman on such a task?
Karen had been too caught up in her own annoyance to see it. Stupid. Fatally stupid.
“Yes,” Melanie said, enjoying herself thoroughly. Letting her own true self show through, a rippling power like Damascus steel at the core of her. If she’d only had the time, Karen could have run through the catalogue to find the place where Melanie fitted—night witch? necromancer? something on that order, surely—but time was a luxury, out of reach. Courage too, perhaps.
Unless . . .
Karen shook her head, banishing the thought. She would not throw her lot in with this . . . woman. Some fates were quite literally worse than death.
At least death brought an end to suffering.
Sparing a moment of rank envy for Grant, Karen stared back at Melanie. The sorceress was watching her with faint amusement. “You might want to rethink that,” Melanie said, seeing altogether too clearly what Karen had not even dared whisper. “Working for me might not be pleasant, but it is certainly better than the alternative.” Her eyes flicked down beyond Grant’s desk, to his marauded body.
It was that glance that decided Karen. Under Melanie’s rule there would be no benefit, no reworking of the power in the city . . . no healing from these desperate wars.
Had Melanie merely been waiting for the lesser powers to wear themselves out destroying one another before stepping up to harvest what remained?
Karen swallowed, trying to chase down the terrified lump in her throat.
And tasted her own blood there, from her bitten finger . . . and something else.
Oh, she thought, Colin . . .
Something of himself he had left in her. Residual, essential, seminal.
Something to work with, that was not her own.
There were two of them in this fight now, and that made all the difference.
Water holds a memory of shape, and a man is mostly water, after all. . . .
Karen dropped her shoulders into a slump, dropped to her knees in ritual humiliation.
“Hold, there.” Karen watched through her eyelashes as Melanie stepped out from behind the desk. The witch’s clothes were clean, unstained, though her hands remained ostentatiously blood-soaked.
“There,” Melanie went on, standing over her. “Go ahead. I just wanted to watch you from here.”
Karen lowered her body, arms spread out in a token of submission. She was hanging just above Grant’s sprawled corpse, the slick foul nastiness of him. Cold now, the blood, the fluids: she could feel that, so close she was. Too quickly cold, inhuman.
She waited, breathing. Gathering.
After a long, heavy moment, she felt the pressure of a hand on the back of her neck. Melanie’s sticky fingers pushed her down until her own hands had no choice: they had to lie in the gore of Grant’s spillage.
Again that touch of something more, the memories of water. Three of them in this fight now.
She wondered if Melanie would force her all the way down, rub her face in foulness: but not, apparently, or not today. The cold hand left her neck; the cold voice said, “You may rise.”
Karen drew herself up, seeing Melanie’s satisfied smile, not a trace of anxiety around the corners of Melanie’s eyes. Confidence never thinks to look for betrayal: not until the blow is landed, the city fallen, the queen unthroned.
Karen rose up, up and up; and the blood her hands were dabbled in, all the leakage of Grant’s death—all that chill wet came with her.
Blood is mostly water, after all.
Karen was given to the water, long ago. Only hours earlier, she had given the knife to the river, to the dark shapes stirring under city glimmer; given it with her own blood on the blade, and kept that small cut open, fresh and wet.
Water holds a memory of shape. The knife was in her hands now, shaped of blood, all the weight of a man’s life held within it. Another man’s strength behind it, in her body, through and through; and her own power to drive it home, her will, her willingness to act.
The blade of the blood-knife took Melanie in the gut, where she was wettest.
Flesh is just a bridge above a river.
Steel and blood, they are only expressions of water.
Blood is a blade.
Blade seeks the darkness, down and down.
Something down there is waiting. . . .
A hot rush over Karen’s hands, liquid body, death exemplified. Melanie and Grant, foul together, dead together. Wet together, fluids intermingled: he’d keep the witch down if she tried to rise.
Karen cleaned up as best she could, gave up as soon as she wanted to, took the van and was gone. The guards on the gate waved her through; she waved back meaninglessly. Driving home through the morning fog, she sucked on her finger and thought of a hot shower, thought of Mike.
He was right. She really needed to get a different job.
# # #
©Shannon Page & Chaz Brenchley