“And now I’m late. Ugh. This guy better die quick.”
Hope’s Beretta fit snugly back into her jacket. But now her arm dripped with blood from the evening’s warm up. Asshole thought he’d mug me? Yeah, not likely bud. She wiped off the gunshot wound with her opposite hand and shook her head. This was her favorite leather jacket. Why did muggers insist on interrupting her? Clearly she wasn’t human. Hello, no response to the injury, no oh-my-god-I’m-in-pain. What were they going to do? Kill an assassin?
As she climbed the textile mill’s escape ladder, she felt her heart thump in her chest, hard and quick. Wait. This is new. Hope looked down to her arm. Nope, no change. Still bleeding a bit but that was it. This other thing she was experiencing was completely alien. Her palms were slippery, her breath short, and her skin taut, what was this?
The hundreds of other hits had been easy and utterly unmemorable. How did she suddenly feel like her chest was going to explode? How did she feel at all? Something wasn’t right, and it was pissing her off.
At the roof, Hope stood with her back pressed against the brick wall. Okay, time to focus. She could hear dripping from a pipe at the end of the alley, and the street lamp down at the corner flickered and buzzed.
She reached into another pocket and pulled out a small dart gun. Hope fired a small probe onto the lamp post. It blinked red for a moment, then pulsed, and fell to the ground. The lamp flicked off and lay dormant the remainder of the evening.
“Such a handy little thing,” Hope whispered to herself, as she sunk to her knees and lay on her stomach. She reached out her hand and found the large but thin case she had placed there the night before. She pressed her thumb to the fingerprint scanner, popping the lock. Hope swung the top over, smiling down at her favorite toy. She pulled her Savage 110 BA out and switched on the laser sight, her hand perfectly surrounding the custom grip. The rifle was a work of art and cost just as much. She had to hunt it down, during a not-so-amusing trip to an arms dealer in NYC. As she peered inside the scope, she lined up her target and adjusted the focus.
“Just like taking a picture.” Hope padded around inside the case, just able to see in the dark of the alley. She pulled out her headset and wrapped it around her ear. With it in place, she could hear inside the small office, where her mark worked.
Before completing her job, she went through her routine. She double checked the mark in her scope with the file marked O’Connor, Ciaran Patrick and examined the room for witnesses or obstacles. The space she could see was lit with a yellowish glow from a small lamp. The mark was sitting, feet up on his desk, reading an old book. It looked like it was removed from time, separated from the harsh speed of the city. Hope could only see the top of his head, behind the cover of the dense text.
She couldn’t fire until she saw his face. Body shape and hair said yes, but Hope was nothing, if not a professional. As he turned a page, the one behind it tumbled to the floor. In her headset, Hope could hear him sigh and say, “Every time I turn a page, one falls out.” He reached down for it, his head disappearing behind the desk. Hope followed him with her scope. His deep voice echoed in Hope’s headset. It made her feel like she’d been drinking too much whiskey, all loose and dizzy.
“Damn it, sit up, you bastard. I’ve got shit to do.” Her finger tightened. Hope glanced at the blurry, black-and-white photo. Whoever took this must have been fighting the shakes. If it weren’t for this tattoo, I never would’ve found this guy. Hope readjusted her gaze, as he sat back up.
Something was still off about the situation. Hope could sense it as if she could smell or taste a difference in the air around her, which was ludicrous. She shook her head and caught a glimpse of the Celtic sword tattoo on the mark’s shoulder. It snuck out from under his tight Hanes tee. Makes sense, he is Irish. As he returned to his original position, he lowered his book to the desk and Hope could finally see his face. His eyes were dark and deep, penetrating. His strong features were fierce but beautiful.
“The picture doesn’t do you justice,” Hope said surprised. She stared into his eyes, and her grip on the rifle loosened. She couldn’t look away, barely blinked. A pounding in her chest finally got her attention. She looked down at herself and placed her hand over her heart. She could feel the thumping inside her ribcage. Omaeriku. Ciaran. Omaeriku? Oh gods no. This can’t be happening.
Hope’s panic rang in her head. She heard her heart thump and the loud cracking of her ribs, or was that something else? She had no clue, it was all spinning and strobe lights. With one final surge, her heartbeat slowed. Hope looked around the roof. The cracking she’d heard was, in fact, her rifle tipping off the bipod. It was hanging precariously on the ledge and Hope groped for the stock of the gun.
Across the alley, Ciaran stood up, as a voice in the other room called him. Distracted, she watched as he hit his knee on the underside of his desk.
“Ahh, son of a bitch,” Hope could hear Ciaran’s voice screamed in her headset as he winced.
Hope hugged her knee close to her chest, just as Ciaran did. It felt so strange, and she didn’t particularly enjoy the feeling, it was hot and sudden and sharp. She collapsed from surprise, bumping her rifle, yet again. Hope strained to reach it, but still in the grips of omaeriku, she missed the stock, and it launched off the side of the building. As the rifle fell, it landed with a shattering crash in a metal dumpster, the sound loud enough to overcome every other in the alley.
She watched as Ciaran spun around, ran to his window, and looked down at the street.
“What the hell was that?” Ciaran yelled. When he couldn’t see the source on the ground, he looked across at the textile mill. Oh fuck. She ran across the roof and out the gray door.
Running down the stairs, her rifle case bounced on her leg.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! This is so not good! Fuck!” She grabbed the door frame and swung herself around the side, “Why? Why now? After all this time, all the work? Fuck!” She ran down to the alley, sticking close to the wall. Thank god her black clothes blended into the darkness, this escape was a little messier than she had planned. The alley smelled of urine and decaying food. Hope tried to take shallow breaths to avoid retching. She whipped off the headset, desperately tried to untangle it from her hair, and finally threw it into her bag.
She bent over and scanned the ground for her rifle. After finding the most expensive piece of weaponry she had in a puddle, she cursed and put it back inside the safety of its case. Omaeriku, omae-fucking-riku. I can’t believe this.
Hope thought of the bond and the hatred she had for it. Her madru’s words echoed in her head. Hope could picture the last time she saw her. Her mother had soft blond curls framing her face, and her amber eyes glowed in the sunlight. Her warm features always seemed odd, juxtaposed to her cold temperament.
“I’m leaving Hope. You know how our people are. The pain you’ve already felt. You’ll be better off alone, remember that. As soon as you learn to live without me, without anyone, you’ll be fine. Don’t get attached, the pain will kill you,” her mother’s soft voice burned in her mind.
She was right. One time, when Hope was young and sort of bonded with her mother, she had felt the pain of a toothache. At least, that’s what her mother had told her. Hope couldn’t remember, for all she knew, it never happened. But the story had instilled terror, and that was her madru’s goal.
Her people may have been social, a community, but one of men and children. The Chakal women always left. No one ever said anything about it. One day, they just disappeared. Hope thought it was a fair trade. The idea of pain was so disturbing, so threatening, lack of sensation seemed reasonable.
But it was too late. The bond had formed. There was nothing except death that would break the connection and death she was good at. She just had to hit her mark, before the bond had a chance to fully develop and problem solved. But how? She couldn’t just barge in, guns blazing.
How could this be happening? One look and I’m fucked? That’s total bullshit. I don’t even believe in this crap, and here I am fighting against it. And it had to be my fucking mark?! I… really? This seems all too convenient. But then again, Omaeriku has never been predictable. And I do spend all my time at work, so, of course, I’d find my “one and only” on the job. Well, fuck this! Fuck all of this. I’m getting my hit.
“Ugh, I hate changing plans,” Hope kicked the wall behind her, as she spoke to herself. She looked down at her case, now parked under the ledge of the building where it was dry. She reached inside and pulled out the profile folder. Hope leaned back, one foot up and began to read. Ciaran’s life spilled open:
Subject: Ciaran Patrick O’Connor. Born: October 18, 1984. Location: Newborn City, NY. Summary: O’Connor relocated to NBC from NYC. Underground fighter for NYC’s Inferno Club. O’Connor is aggressive, strong, well-trained, and well-funded.
“Oh yeah, that’s why I wanted to shoot him from a distance. Damn it.” She remembered trailing him by keeping tabs on his car. The POS sedan was easy enough to follow, just listen for the muffler. This small office was his private security business. Use your natural talent to make some dough. Fair enough. Hope smiled, as the answer came to her.
“Piece of fucking cake, just hope I can act.” Hope laughed, weird using her name in a sentence. She believed her madru gave it to her, as some sort of cruel joke. Hope, to want for something that wasn’t going to happen. Yeah, fucking funny, mom.
Hope grabbed the case and walked the three blocks to her car. The 1969 Aston Martin DBS was a thing of beauty, and every time she saw it, she sighed a little. Hope was extremely proud of her Bond car, even though it was less than subtle. Especially, since it was fire engine red, but she just couldn’t help herself.
She placed the silver case gently in the back seat and patted it softly, “Sorry for dropping ya. Fucking genes, you know?” She turned around in her chair and started the ignition. The engine purred for her, and she took off, grateful for the speed.
“Like lightning” hardly described how fast Hope sped away from the mark’s office. She was running on auto-pilot and flew down to the turn for CR-33. The trip home took around an hour and a half on a normal day, but today Hope made it in 55 minutes.
She never ran into cops, either, thanks to the scanner in her car, and knew the trip like the back of her handgun. She was smack dab in the middle of 76 and Bradley Creek road. There wasn’t a soul for miles. Before the Dawning, there had been farms and families, but the increased demon population had taken care of that. It was perfect.
The house wasn’t a mansion, by any means, but it was off the beaten path, and it served its purpose. The small cottage looked cozy and unimpressive from the outside and did well hiding the high-tech gadgetry inside. Most passersby would think some old lady and her cats lived there, instead of a well-funded assassin.
Hope pulled the car up to her garage and ran her hand across the underside of the driver’s seat. She pressed the hidden button to deactivate the security system and then opened the garage door. She bounced her leg as she waited.
She pulled the car in smoothly and closed things up. Hope watched in her rear-view, as it shut and didn’t open her car door until it finished. She pressed the button under her seat again and heard the reassuring chirp of the alarm coming back online. She walked up to the garage door and opened a large padlock connected to the bottom. Hope hooked it to a ring bolted to the floor. Not accepting visitors, no soliciting.
With fingers curled around the handle of the door to the house, Hope paused, while the fingerprint recognition realized it was her. The door finally opened, and with a sigh, she stepped inside. The house was large and open. Every room and surface could be seen from anywhere. The massive kitchen gave way to a vast expanse of hardwood floors. There was a couch in the middle and a couple of chairs. They were all low-slung and leather. A glass coffee table sat in the center. It was almost entirely empty, aside from the remote to her colossal TV. In the corner, a tall, wooden bar sat expectantly. Hope walked over and pulled out a glass, plus her favorite whiskey, Glen Garioch. She poured a couple fingers and swung it back. As the glass clinked against her lip rings, the chestnut liquid caressed her throat. She could taste smoke and chocolate.
“Ahh.” Hope set her glass on the coffee table. She plopped down and kicked off her boots, resting her feet on the table. The house was dead quiet, and Hope could hear her breath move in and out of her lungs.
“Well, that’s enough of that,” Hope said as she reached for the remote, “Come on, clicker. Find me something good.” The news flash on the screen.
“Next, next, next, oh god next,” Hope flipped through CNN, sports, some sitcom, and a televangelist, “Crap, crap, and more crap. So much for TV.” Hope switched off the giant let down and padded to her bedroom.
She waited another long five seconds, as the security knob on this door read her prints. She flipped the lights and closed the door. Hope stood inside the door for a moment and waited for the sound of the knob relocking. As the click-click rang through the room, she went to her bed.
Empty, Hope put her whiskey glass on the nightstand. As she reached her hands up to take off her jacket, Hope felt resistance from the leather, as it broke free from her dried blood. She had forgotten all about the bullet graze. It was probably a good idea to take a shower. She slid her jacket off and tossed it on the bed; the fabric barely stood out from the black satin sheets. As she took off her tank top, her skin glowed in the soft lamplight.
The room served its purpose, and yet, it was the one place she let a little of her personality shine. The silky sheets, deep red walls, hardwood flooring, gently softened by a Chinese rug, all so warm and decadent. But here the room was triple-bolted, protected by a dual alarm system, and held a small panic chamber in the closet.
Hope shrugged out of her tight pants and let them fall. She pushed off her socks and stepped out of the pile she had created. Her fingers must have been cold because could see the tips were red. Hope wondered what goosebumps felt like but quickly dismissed the thought. She slipped her bra straps off and tossed the garment aside. As she slid her panties off, her back cracked loudly, and she was even more excited for the shower.
Hope stared down at her body and took note of the lack of scarring. After all the scrapes, she still looked pristine, skin like she was born moments ago, minus the piercings and tattoos, of course. The metal all over her shone in the lamplight. It created an outline of her form, like a constellation, a glint alighting on each shoulder, all over her face, the tips of her breasts, the center of her stomach and on each hip.
The master bathroom was enormous with a stand-alone shower and a massive Jacuzzi tub, his and hers sinks, even though there was just her, and beautiful tile work everywhere. The floor was unchanging under her feet, thanks to the heated coils, which ran underneath, and the air was sort of warm. The thermostat read 87 degrees, but it felt like nothing to her. Hope walked up to the gorgeous shower and stepped in through the glass door.
The black marble and stainless-steel fixtures gleamed in the overhead light. As Hope pushed the square button in the center, the shower program was initiated. The hot water burst through eight different spouts in the wall, and the water was instantly steaming.
After only a few seconds, Hope could see that the heat was raising her blood pressure enough to make her wound bleed again. As she cursed softly to herself, she stepped to the corner out of the warm spray. She knew she had to get any shrapnel out now before the wound started closing. Shot? Omaeriku? Can’t really decide which is worse. Oh, wait, yes, I can. Omaeriku hands down. If this Maker forbidden bond fully forms, I’ll feel this shit.
Hope pushed her fingers deep inside the wound. She could feel the pressure a little but nothing else. Like someone touching her arm on the inside. Which, she supposed, is just what she was doing.
What plagued her was the sensation she got on the roof, the strange, sharp feeling in her knee that seemed to vibrate her very bones. The change in texture inside the wound brought her back to what she was doing. She pinched the hard fragment in between her fingers and pulled it out of her flesh.
It was so small but left in her arm it would continue to cause damage, creating horrible scar tissue that could possibly hinder her movements. No fucking doubt, that baby was definitely powerful. She had learned that lesson before.
Hope stepped back into the hot water. She rinsed off the wound and began to sense the accelerated healing that her body was capable of, now that the bullet shard was removed. Once she was thoroughly rinsed, she pressed the square button again, and all the water was coming out of the handheld sprayer. Hope took the nozzle and sprayed the warm water all across her skin. She watched the hot beads run down her body, falling from her shoulders, across her butt and thighs, around her legs.
She could sort of feel the extreme heat, but the path of each droplet was lost on her. Often, she would get dressed before she was completely dry, simply because she couldn’t tell she was wet or drop a freshly opened beer because she couldn’t feel the condensation. That one was a bitch.
And Hope wasn’t an idiot. She watched the world, and she knew what she was missing. The sensation of a hair tickling your back, of a breeze, of someone’s fingers. She couldn’t feel any of it. Extremes were a little easier, but never complete. Boiling hot water felt barely warm, freezing cold felt maybe cool, excruciating pressure felt like something must be touching her, and that one, she almost… liked.
Hope angled the nozzle at herself, sprayed her breasts, hips, and then she let her arm relax and the warm water sprayed between her legs. She could sort of feel something and could almost discern it as pleasurable, but as soon as the sensation was there, it was gone. Hope sighed and hung the sprayer back up. She pressed the square button twice, and the water turned off.
She stepped out and walked to the sink, opening the cupboard and pulling out a medical kit. She patched up her arm, placing a large bandage over the wound. The graze had already begun to close.
In the mirror, Hope examined herself. The wound was covered nicely, and all the blood washed clean. She didn’t look that bad. As she turned to leave, Hope caught a glimpse of red on her shoulder. Had she missed a spot of blood? Hope turned back to the mirror and saw the source of the red. She had burned herself, again. She thought about putting something on it, but the damage was already done.
Hope lay down, after the shower, and stretched out, trying to get her body to relax. She barely slept, usually only a few hours, and that was when she wasn’t freaking out. She kept running her plan through her head. If she was going to pull it off, she needed to rest. She needed to look rested, at least. Getting into Ciaran’s office was going to be a challenge, and if she looked like a mess, making him comfortable with her was going to be harder. Ugh, enough already. Just sleep.
She closed her eyes and tried to stop the endless procession of words in her head. As time dragged on, she was left with one lingering thought. What would being touched feel like?
Hope dragged her fingers across her skin, pushing hard on her flesh. She could imagine the pressure. Her nerves guessed at what must be there. She pulled back, pushing lightly. The faintest echo of sensation skittered across her skin. She let her fingers drift across the bare flesh at her core, silently begging to feel something, anything. She wanted that thing humans and demons talked about.
As her fingers brushed the soft skin, Hope’s brain kicked up a haunting image. The bright blackness of Ciaran’s eyes shown inside her mind. As she saw his stare, she felt a tiny jolt of electricity under her fingers, right at the very core of her.
Hope shot up in her bed, sweating and gasping.
“Oh, fuck no! I’m not letting myself be manipulated by fucking omaeriku… Shen-fucking-dara! I’m not doing this. I don’t need it. It’s so not worth it.” As she lay back down and fought against the vision, an unrecognizable sensation quickly passed through her thigh. It was almost similar to the feeling she had in her knee on the rooftop. But as soon as she started to zero in on the sensation, her body took over, and Hope fell asleep.