Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost. – Dante’s “Divine Comedy”
My boots are almost silent on the wet street. The night air is damp with the smell of ozone; another storm is coming and soon. I’ll always love the rain; it washes the earth clean again. The smell reminds me of home, of magic, of happier times. The sound of my jeans rubbing between my thighs and the steady thump of my messenger bag slung across my chest clash harshly with the eerie silence of the midlands. The nine inch blade I keep strapped to my right thigh I find especially comforting in times like these.
Burned and broken buildings, tumbling and falling, collapsing under the weight of disrepair and time are everywhere. Funny this feels like home now. I’d spent my first three weeks homeless and living in buildings like these when I’d first made it to Baltimore. Their brilliance long faded, like my own. I feel a kinship to broken and twisted things now. Some of the buildings are still intact, but those seem completely out of place, they don’t belong here anymore, like a ghost that won’t move on.
Stripped cars, parts taken as needed, someone had set most of them on fire; their burned and charred shells sprinkle the streets. Mother Nature is obviously trying to reclaim the land with weeds sprouting through the cracks in the concrete and asphalt that paves the ground. I don’t think she’s making much progress to be honest.
There are no street lights in the midlands. Power lines and most municipal services are in disrepair. I doubt there’s a work order out for them.
My night vision is shit, always has been. Still better than the best human’s, but on the supernatural scale I’d be classified as legally blind. A half vampire half succubus who can’t see in the dark, the shame of it all. I sigh and keep moving.
So why is a daemon walking the five miles through the midlands? Because the walk is soothing under the waxing moon, just enough to light my way, and I missed the bus, yet again. I’m still a couple miles out, but this is the most dangerous part of crossing the abandoned city streets between the new Baltimore City Proper and the County Fringes that circle it.
Daemon Kindred, or the Kindred for short, are a group of mix breed supernaturals that govern the full blood supernaturals; vampires, lycanthropes, the Fae and others, many others.
We’ve been around for centuries. Guarding the lore, holding judgment over those that would break our laws set down for us by the old gods. We handle disputes between the different species all to keep them from going to war, again.
I’d walked away from my kin, on the lam, the run, afoot. I’d dared to choose my own destiny and have been punished for it, thoroughly. I’m a rogue daemon now. To be hunted and killed, being Kindred is a lifetime commitment, no one gets out alive.
We are worse than the things that go bump in the night, we bump back. Are we good? Are we evil? I’m not sure, some believe there is a clear line that says this region is evil, this region is good. I know the truth; there are endless miles of murky in between that most souls get lost in.
I miss home, some nights I miss it enough to play with the idea of going back, but then I remember, there are some things worse than death. Missing home does not give me enough motivation to want to face those things again. It’s not my kind’s way to be away from other Kindred for so long. My life feels like a twelve step program, one day at a time, one step at a time.
The lighted wall is up ahead that marks the City Proper, keeping it safe. Stone blocks built high between two older buildings keep the haves safe from the have-nots. Every street that leads into the City Proper is gated or closed off. The worst of the debris has been cleared in the area leading to the gate. It’s lush green grass now, no trees circle the walls. There are even street lights here closer to the gate. So I can see you and shoot you easier my dear, my inner succubus warns. Yeah, I know. But the tension between my shoulder blades eases at the sight of the City Proper nonetheless.
Yup, I hear a voice inside of my mind, an actual separate psyche; it’s not as bad as it sounds, most days. She saved my life.
One of the guards I actually consider my friend is at the metal gate that closes off the midland sidewalk from the much safer City Proper sidewalk. Peter Robinson, a little on the short side for a man coming eye level with my five foot eight frame. He’s cute, still boyishly handsome, a long ago broken nose giving him a bad boy flair. His skin is tanned all year round, like it’s just his skin complexion. It may be, I don’t know. Maybe it’s from spending so much time outside on the walls year after year. A small crinkle around the eyes and lips shows his years. Smile lines, but that easy smile hides more than a man that yells and barks and bites. It’s his eyes, those brown, weary eyes. The eyes always tell the truth, and my well-adjusted CNAE officer, isn’t as happy as he makes himself seem.
At early thirty-something Peter’s been in the CNAE (Central Network Agency Enforcement, “c-nay” for short) since he was eighteen. The CNAE is the police force, government and military for the United States after the collapse of man, post-com. There is no such thing as Federal or State. It is all one ball now. More cost efficient I believe. If you’re not born in one of the City Propers, you don’t get in… unless you join up.
He’d joined the CNAE for the medical benefits, he told me one night over shots of vodka and cheap beer. His mom had gotten very sick some years ago and they couldn’t find a way to pay for her care. When he found out the benefits the CNAE have would extend to his Mother, he’d signed up the day of his eighteenth birthday. Peter Robinson is a good man, and I’m proud to call him my friend, one of my very first human friends.
“Jae, I’ve told you not to walk the midlands after dark!” He yells it but there’s a shit eating grin slapped on his face.
Jae, nicknamed for Jaevia Knightley or Janice Smith depending on who you are and where you know me from. For Peter, it’s Janice Smith: the name I’d taken when I’d come to the human world.
There are buses that run between Baltimore City Proper and the County Fringes bringing in the low class work force and taking them back to where they belong at the end of the day. I could get a car, but I’m trying to blend in and a young girl living in the fringes doesn’t own a car, usually. Most people stay where they belong, walk where they need and catch the shuttle buses if they have to.
“And I’ve told you that I’m the biggest, baddest motherfucker in the land!” I yell the slogan of The Big Bad Wolf, our favorite pit beef-slash-drinking hole.
“OOOwwwww! OOOOOOwwwww!” He howls out to me. My laughter is as light as I want my heart to feel for a second. He’d probably shit bricks if he ever found out they are actual werewolves that hang there and Big Mike, the owner, is actually the biggest, baddest werewolf for miles around. Even post-com – Collapse of Man – the human population still has no clue about the supernatural world. It’s got to be the longest running gag ever.
The wolves love Peter at Big Mike’s, which does a lot to further cement my acceptance of the guy. Lycanthropes can sense deceit and bad intentions; lies and evil intent stinks like rotting flesh to them. I think it’s a survival thing for lycanthropes.
It’s hard to drink a werewolf under the table, but there is a story he’d come close, up against Big Mike himself. I still haven’t figured out exactly how he’d survived the alcohol poisoning I’m sure came after he passed out on the bar floor. Or what had driven Peter to try. But a human that can hold his own against a werewolf is tough enough to hang with me any day.
“Hello Officer Robinson,” I grin, seeing the busted lip he’s sporting from yesterday’s sparring. I have a nice sized bruise on my hip from me landing wrong. We’ve been sparing together now for a few months. It’s a good workout, even if he’s a human and I’m Kindred.
“Missed the bus again, huh?” he says, walking through the door cut out from the metal bars.
It’s our usual routine. He comes out this side of the wall were he can be himself for a second, or forget who he is maybe. Handing me a cigarette, I meet him and match his stride angling towards our usual smoking spot against the wall. Yeah cigarettes kill, but so do bullets.
Both of us lean on the wall taking sectors of the midlands to scan. Smoke break doesn’t mean get stupid. Getting robbed or attacked in the midlands happens all too often, I should know, I make it my business to police the area every now and again when I need something to hurt. I light the end of my cigarette and inhale..
“No,” I lie. “I needed the exercise.” He just looks at me and laughs.
“More like you were hoping for someone to try you.” His brown eyes clear and crinkle in laughter looking at my T-shirt. “What the hell Jae?”
“What?!” I guess every one doesn’t get the irony of my deep purple cotton T-shirt that has a cat with his paw swatting at a fish in a tank. It reads ‘I’m gonna get you sucka’ in black block letters under the picture. Guess you need a refined sense of humor to find it funny.
“I thought it was hilarious! And purple is my favorite color.”
“Yeah well, that goes without saying.” He says, smiling behind his cig.
The shirt does match perfectly with my eyes and their deep lavender irises that have a black-purple outline. I usually wear some shade of purple. People always do a double take the first time they see my eyes. I can change them of course with a little glamour, but I don’t. I do think it prudent to hide the small onyx corkscrew horns that sprout from atop my head. I don’t think people will overlook them as easily.
My eyes are even more unusual because my skin is an even coffee with extra cream complexion. Everyone thinks I’m half white, half black; which I am, in a weird, convoluted, distant sort of way I suppose, maybe. But the Kindred do not recognize skin color as a race; what you are – vamp, wolf, panther, fae, human – that is your race. It has nothing to do with the color of your skin.
“Oh shut up, Robinson, you and your black tight T-shirt for all occasions fashion sense isn’t allowed to give me advice,” I say in a pretend huff.
He makes some weird hybrid snort almost laughter sound. “Keep talking shit. The more you talk…”
“Yeah, yeah. The more you’ll fuck me up on Saturday.” I cut him off before he can finish his threat. “I’m still waiting for that to happen,” I mumble just loud enough for him to hear me.
Peter can’t outlast me in a foot race because I’m a supernatural and he’s a granola, plain old human blood. But he can match me blow for blow and it hurts if I’m not quick enough to dodge it. I know he holds back with his strength just like I do with my speed. But still, it’s a good workout in my book. He’s helping me to become a much better defensive fighter, rather than the, I’ve-come-to-kill-you style I’ve trained in with the Kindred.
“I came pretty close yesterday. Don’t tell me you’re getting old, Jae.”
“Never fear, I still have years of ass kicking left in me.” I’m immortal, unless someone chops off my head or causes more damage than my body can repair with whatever power I have stored in my Chi. Does that still mean I’m immortal? Maybe semi-mortal is a better word, or just a hard-to-kill mortal, nontraditional-methods-of-death-necessary? No, that’s too long.
I flick my cigarette, grinding it under my boot as I straighten up from the wall.
“Beers on you tonight?” We both end our shifts around the same time.
“Can’t tonight, I’ve got to find Johnson. His ass didn’t show up for his shift today and I can’t cover him for another.”
Eric Johnson is a new recruit; young, barely past eighteen. Peter had personally vouched for him to get him in the CNAE. I know that their mothers are friends. And Mrs. Johnson had a hard time keeping Eric on the right path. Not that he is a bad kid; he’s just restless, angry, like so many of the young men in the fringe.
He probably is passed out at some girl’s house or at a bar. I’ve helped Peter yank his ass back to the wall on more than one occasion. Although CNAE guards aren’t supposed to make unsanctioned visits to the fringe, they all do.
As long as nothing happens most of the commanding officers look the other way. But being a new recruit and missing your shift repeatedly could get you discharged out of the CNAE. Something I’m sure neither Eric nor his mother can afford. Sometimes you have to save people from themselves, a tiring and unending task at best.
I blow out a breath, “I’ll go with you. And don’t worry about it,” I add as he tries to object. “You can buy the first round to make it up to me.” I smile thinking of free beer. I’m poor and proud of it. What I earn is what I earn; I’m my own woman, finally.
“When’s your shift over?” He tosses his cigarette and walks with me back towards the processing area. We should really get a bucket of sand to put out here.
“I can call in, no biggie; my boss isn’t going to complain. Well, he will, but I’ll ignore him as usual.”
Yes, even supernaturals have to earn a living, especially when you’re on the run from the Kindred. So what if I ring up aspirin, butt cream and condoms for a living at a convenience store? I make an honest living, it pays the rent and it’s mine.
We are about five feet from the gate when I hear the scuffle of shoes on the wet cement. Peter doesn’t turn, he must not have heard it. I sniff the air, whoever it is doesn’t smell like a supe. But whoever it is, it’s trying hard to be quiet, sneaky. Which in my book means up to no good.
I don’t remember smelling this scent at all before. Maybe I’ve gotten to good at tuning out the heightened sense of smell I have. It’s a real drag most days smelling sweat, tears, despair, and human bodies all around. I hear the scuffle of a second pair of shoes.
My inner alarm is blaring red. I can’t ignore it. I have to know who it is now. The gate to the City Proper isn’t far. My breath comes out shallow my muscles are tense. I don’t want to run, I want to fight. It’s been weeks since I’ve had a chance to fight someone for real. To make someone cry out in despair. I roll my neck.
“Peter, someone is close. I think they’re following me.” He shifts his head a little trying to listen for a sound that doesn’t belong.
“You want to call it in?” he asks.
It’s standard procedure that he should follow. The fact that he’s asking me lets me know he won’t mind looking the other way if I go to beat the shit out of someone. It’s grand to have friends that understand you.
“No. Just turn around like you’re saying goodbye and I’ll lead them further away if they’re following me. They may just be coming for a nice visit to the city.”
They are still pretty far back; they haven’t reached the cleared grassy area. The fact that they haven’t come closer, sticking to the debris and shadows of the midland screams, “I’m up to no good”.
Peter turns and laughs, coming forward and taking me in a hug. What the hell? We barely ever hug and my body naturally stiffens in reaction; he catches me off guard with this stunt.
He uses the closeness of our bodies to whisper in my ear, “I’ll be right behind you.” He thumps me on my back once and turns walking right towards the gate. Well that was weird and awkward; he shouldn’t quit his job for an acting career. He’d get booed off the stage. Or maybe I’d be getting the boos… I’m sure that it’s my body language that looks out of place. Affection isn’t really my thing.
I shake my head and turn, making my way back towards the midlands that separate the Baltimore City Proper and the Fringe. I still can’t see anyone but I know they are there. I feel it. Snuggling into my leather jacket a little more, I stuff my hands in my pockets. Yeah just a little girl, all alone, walking through the midlands, easy pickings - come and get me.
I keep walking, almost out of sight of the City Proper wall. Still nothing, but I know they are shadowing my movements. One definitely knows how to move a lot quieter than the other. Still, neither makes a move. Maybe walking on a main road isn’t making it easy enough for them. There’s an alley a few feet away. If a lone girl walking down the alley in the midlands isn’t enough to rouse their courage, they’re chicken shit and I’ll just have to go on the offensive. Either way, I want to know who is following me… or more importantly, why?
The Kindred always bring home the lost. The little voice in my head warns me, but I already know and that’s what I’m afraid of. What if the Kindred has finally caught up with me? Then these steps I take are either my last as a free woman, or my last period. But I have to know, and I have to draw their attention away from Peter; the Kindred will not blink at killing a human to keep our existence secret.
I slip down the alley and pick up my pace a little. Come on, come find me. It’s pretty clean for an alley. Only a bit of discarded trash. But there are fallen bricks everywhere and it’s taking too much of my concentration to keep from tripping over them. Luckily, the heavy rains must have sent the rats to ground. Those things are the size of cats and scare the hell out of me.
My night vision isn’t great but it must be better than theirs. I hear one of them trip on something, probably a brick, not far behind me. They have to be human; there’s no way the Kindred would send someone as blind as me to bring me home or kill me. They would send someone faster, stronger, better. It would only be logical.
The steps behind me pick up the pace, matching my own, and then a splash as one of them stomps into a puddle. Amateurs. I don’t think they’re even trying to be quite anymore. Another scuffle, heavy breathing. Someone cussing under their breath.
I hope Peter doesn’t follow us down the alley. This is a stupid idea. I’ve lost control of the situation. The alley spills out onto a real street up ahead. I’m pretty sure they can’t see me; I turn to scan the alley behind me, I can’t see them. More storm clouds must have come in, the bit of moon light that was here a few moments ago is gone now and I’m having a hard time seeing any damn thing. I can call the power I hold to my eyes to help me see better, but it will make them glow purple like a beacon in the night, lighting me up like a sleazy stripper joint neon sign. I dodge into one of the abandoned back yards. Time to go on the offensive, there’s no other option.
Grass as high as my knees covers the yard. I stoop down behind an overgrown bush and take off my messenger bag. This is a good of a place as any to make a stand. I just hope no rats come out to say hello. I hate rats.
I sniff again, still human. I hold my breath as their boots pass right in front of me. The one on the left is big, standing at least six five, probably the better part of three hundred pounds. Why does it have to be all muscle? The one on the right is still tall, although his slight frame next to the larger man seems to make him look gaunt. Surprisingly the larger fellow is the one that’s been light on his feet. Like he practiced being quite since he was so large. I don’t see weapons in either of their hands. Doesn’t mean they don’t have them. I pull my own nine inches of don’t-fuck-with-me out its thigh sheath, slowly, quietly. Taking another breath, I step back out into the alley. The smaller man must have heard me. Or felt something. He pauses and turns.
“Looking for me boys?” I ask snidely.
At that, the larger man turns also. The big one on the left shifts his weight to his front leg like he wants to charge forward and overwhelm me. The right one slips a wicked looking blade from his jacket. I guess it’s going to be a fight. Blood lust thrums through my veins at a heady pace. Heart thumping, not from fright, but adrenaline, blood lust, anticipation; my nerves are on end, synapses crackling and firing. This is what I don’t feel sparing and exercising: the heady edge of danger and knowing I’m the dangerous one.
“I don’t suppose you would like to tell me why you’re following me before we get to business?” I shift my left leg back, spreading my weight evenly.
I’m about to kick some ass, glad I have on my favorite pair of chunky soled black boots. The silver buckles come up to the top of the ankle high boots keeping me perfectly supported. Not good to run in, but I bet they hurt when I’m kicking someone’s face in. Yeah, they’re ass kicking boots, better believe it.
“Can’t say, bitch, but if you let me have a go I won’t let my partner here fuck you up… too badly.” The smaller man leers towards me. The big one grins. It’s the kind of smile that lets me know he killed puppies when he was a kid.
I’m standing here in a fighting stance with a blade in my hand, and he wants to fuck me? Why does no one take me seriously?
“That’s not going to happen, so let’s dance.” I reverse the grip on my blade so the blade runs along my forearm, sharp edge out, of course. I don’t want to poke. I want to slice. I want to cut them shallow, a thousand times. And as they lay on the ground wet with their blood, I’ll grant them death. I’ve always been a kind and generous Mistress.
They both move towards me together. If the big one lands a punch it could knock me out. My new life mission is to never let those meaty fists make contact. I run forward jumping and kicking out with both feet into the big one’s chest. He doesn’t even budge. I feel the shock vibrate through my legs, chunky boots or not. I twist and roll regaining my feet in a sweet ass move. Tumbling is a lost art. The big one laughs and then drops. Left in his place stands Peter with a brick in his hand. Where the fuck had he come from? The brick is bloody.
The smaller one sees his buddy lying on the ground, looks at Peter and then does the dumb thing, running towards me thinking I’m the easy prey. Well my last move must’ve not instilled the proper amount of fear. He makes a move to grab me. I easily dodge under his arm and turn, coming back to my full height beside him. I really want to stick him with the pointy end, but instead I thunk him on his right temple hard with the pommel of my knife. His body collapses; I easily side step, letting his head bang against a brick on the ground, adding insult to injury.
Ok this fight was a little less fulfilling than I thought it would be. I’m pretty sure Peter knows I’ve killed before but it doesn’t mean I want to do it in front of him.
“Fuck, Jae, what were you thinking coming down a dark alley? Trying to invite Jack the Ripper to your Prom?” Peter asks as he reaches down to check the big one’s pocket. Coming up with nothing, he moves to the second one.
“They weren’t making a move and I was tired of waiting. I figured a dark alley would be too much for them to resist,” I grin at him, sliding my knife back into my thigh sheath. I guess the second one doesn’t have anything else on him either. Peter straightens from his bent position empty handed.
“Do you want me to call it in? Press charges? I’d like to scan their wrist find out who they are. But it will make a log of it and I’m assuming you don’t want that kind of attention?” He asks, going back to check the big ones pulse. He’s out cold. Guess he doesn’t have a thick skull, or Peter hit him pretty hard. I hope it’s because Peter hit him pretty hard.
ID chips from the VRB, or Vital Records Bureau, are in everyone’s wrists. You can go nowhere, buy nothing, without one. You quite literally don’t exist without it. Short wave radio frequency chips are embedded in the left wrist at birth or for the Kindred, if and when we choose to come earth side. Every bit of what you are or have ever been is on them.
I have my own, although I’d had it reprogrammed since I’m on the run. My own chip reads Janice Smith, a nice normal, human name; I still make everyone call me Jae for short. Even Peter doesn’t know my real name. I hate lying to him, but the truth would kill him, literally.
“No, I don’t want to explain why I was here and I know you probably don’t either. I think they’ve learned their lesson, Officer Robinson,” I say smiling at him. He only shakes his head standing up.
“Let’s go then, my car is a block over…”
I interrupt him. “Hold on, so here I am defending my life and you go to get your car? And change your clothes!?” I say with outrage seeing he’s changed out of his fatigue pants into some blue jeans. The army boots have been switched out for biker boots. I like the boots.
He only laughs. “Yeah, defending your life? The only reason they’re even alive is because I’m here, so don’t give me that shit. I’m defending their lives if anything.” I didn’t see a point with arguing the truth so I go to collect my bag from the abandoned yard instead. It’s true; I would have killed them both and done the world a favor, maybe even enjoyed it a little. Bat shit crazy.
“Let’s go find your friend, o protector of the weak, defender of public safety,” I say, laughing.