"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."
–Henry David Thoreau
Jaden Michaels splashed the last of her best Merlot into the only clean glass in the kitchen. Presentation didn't matter when a woman only needed to rinse the taste of a poor lover from her lips.
And poor he'd been. She'd almost been able to catch up on her sleep as he bounced rhythmically. But the indulgence would've cost her a source of invaluable information.
Bouncy-boy reported to another in the criminal food chain, this one with enough clout to bring her closer to her target.
She swirled the wine in the glass and her mind flashed with timeless, bloody memories. She tossed it back and imagined the day when she could rest. She prayed this life would break the cycle.
The wine at last relieved her of the stale taste of her informant. He needed advice in the sex department, but Jaden wouldn't waste her time. She'd probably serve him better by teaching him to defend himself against the wrath of dissatisfied women. On the off chance one of them would care.
She stripped the sheets from her bed, unwilling to sleep amidst the smells of a sweaty bar fly. Cocooning herself into a clean blanket she closed her eyes, willing her elusive quarry to behave himself tonight.
Then the crying began. The frightened, jittery tears of an innocent child pushed into a new world of horrors. Naturally, he couldn't be less than the demon he was.
Jaden had tried for years to tune out the echoes of pain and terror that sounded in her mind each time he struck. She'd even grown cold enough to sleep through the attacks occasionally, if the new victim happened to be too shocked to do more than whimper. But she knew anyway.
Her body harbored the same residual grief in the morning. It's what fueled her to keep slugging her way through the bottom dwellers, the middlemen, the lieutenants and bodyguards until she could take the head off the beast–permanently.
The cries escalated as the current victim panicked. "No sleep tonight."
She rolled from bed and crossed her apartment to work off her useless fury.
This unbreakable connection between the demonic entity living as the Honorable Stewart Albertson and her would only cease when he did. And he wouldn't cease his perverse brand of torture without her help. Her violent, fatal brand of help.
Jaden punctuated each thought with a kick or punch into the bag. Not a fan of the technical marvel of today's electronic sparring partners, she kept an antique, sand-filled bag of 120 kilos. She liked the challenge it gave her body, the technology would've spoiled her. Besides, if she needed a sparring partner, she could just hit the streets.
She lunged into an uppercut, sending the bag swinging. Then the girl shrieked and Jaden froze. But the bag finished its arc and knocked her to the floor.
"Damn you," she hissed, rubbing her head where the weighted canvas connected. "You'll pay for this Albertson. The moment I find you, this time you'll pay with your soul."
Wasn't that the same thing she'd been vowing for centuries? To make him pay for all the evil he'd committed against her and countless others. The same evil she'd failed to dispatch for all these centuries.
In every life she'd come up against him. Never really knowing him until it was too late. Until she was the girl screaming for mercy. Until she was the woman too terrified to whisper. Until in the lacy light of predawn she recognized an ageless predator; recognized her greater purpose and vowed to expose him. To exact justice.
"For all the good that's done."
Here she sat, a martial artist bested by a sandbag, while he continued to wreak havoc on innocence and purity. Nearby, if the volume in her head was any indicator.
She'd searched the neighboring warehouses and failed to find his current house of horrors. She knew his home address. She'd snuck into his chambers at the courthouse more than once. She'd even had opportunity to cut him down, but had hesitated.
Jaden stood, knowing the lie for what it was. Frustration and fatigue. Moving her body through a soothing yoga routine she reviewed the facts.
Her hesitation had not stemmed from cowardice. Sure, an armed deputy had accompanied him, but death wasn't a scary unknown to her. She'd aborted her rash attack at the sight of his daughter. How much should one child suffer?
"Dunno? How much?"
Jaden whirled, furious that she'd spoken aloud, more so that she hadn't heard the 'friendly' intruder.
"Cleveland." Her heart slowed at the sight of the pale, narrow face. "How'd you get in here?"
"I used the key you gave me."
"I didn't give you a key," Jaden said, glaring at her not-so-reformed burglar friend.
"Does it really matter? I'd never rip from you, kid."
"Thanks. I think."
His bark of laughter made her jump.
"So how much should one child suffer? And why do we wanna know?"
Jaden ground her teeth. "Children shouldn't suffer at all." Innocence should be guarded, especially in this wide-open, free-for-all time.
Cleveland gave her a wide berth as he walked through the kitchen toward the wall with a fire escape to the alley. "A little late for that, don't ya think?" He jerked his thumb to indicate all the societal injustices within easy view.
"Whatever. It's late, what d'you want?"
"Got a live one here, Jade."
She shrugged and filled a glass with water, trying not to notice the murky color. She'd lived how many lives? A little pollution wouldn't hurt. Not much anyway.
"C'mon, babe. Show a little interest?"
"Fine. Spoil my fun. But he's got cold cash and a bunch of frightened mules."
Cleveland knew just what button to push. Regardless of the Common Era's perceptions, Jaden acted from a view of right and wrong molded by centuries of experience. Anyone less fortunate deserved her help, but especially the female side of a population. She'd witnessed countless sacrifices made by women determined to survive and protect the next generation.
This era 'juiced' its men with a human growth hormone cocktail for war's sake and women from all walks of life suffered from the physical iniquity. Jaden gave her time and expertise in an effort to balance the scales.
Employing the combat conditioning she'd originally learned at the turn of the twenty-first century, she taught women how to protect themselves regardless of physical differentials.
"What are they afraid of?"
Cleveland barked another laugh. "Him, probably." He walked over and tucked the business card into the strap of her tank top. "Nah, more like the rivals. Someone's making a move and all the little people are worrying."
"Like that'd help."
"Look, if you want more money to stuff your mattress, make the call."
Cleveland left as quietly as he'd come, only this time via the fire escape.
Jaden shook her head. She wanted more money all right. But not to squirrel away. She wanted money to fund her research into the perfect weapon to dispatch one particular evil entity. And paying the rent on time wouldn't hurt, either.
After the interruption, Jaden tried to meditate to clear the girl's pain from her psyche. Successful at last, but unwilling to risk sleep, she resumed her Internet search for legendary weapons.
Swords, axes, stars, and blades of every metal and configuration. Guns small and large, silver bullets valued only because of an early author's imagination. Rare and common poisons delivered in a variety of ways.
She sighed. The piece she needed had to be somewhere.
Scrolling through the sludge of information she already knew, a surprising teaser popped up. It advertised a new acquisition on display at the Museum of Natural History.
A bitter laugh spilled from her.
She was on display. Or rather, one of the earlier versions of her. A distinct shiver ran down her spine as she faced her past.
This woman's rare brand of true compassion during the Victorian era hid an alternate personality, not unlike Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Though it would seem from her diary that this fair lady sought to avenge wrongs rather than wreak havoc...
Naturally the article continued, for a modest fee, or interested parties could visit the exhibit in person. Jaden didn't need to read on. She knew the darkest of the details intimately. But a personal visit...well, that could be worthwhile. Especially knowing she wasn't the only Chicago resident familiar with the true motives of the long-dead woman on display.
Donning her black catsuit and a cloak to guard against the night chill, Jaden strapped on matched daggers at wrist and ankle. Securing the electronic code-breaking card at the small of her back she felt ready to face the jungle of the street.
She'd had ample time to wonder precisely when her perpetual opponent gained his past life memories. At the moment of attacking her? Or at the moment she struck him down?
In this most recent incarnation, her increased sensitivity forced her to consider that his skills might be changing too.
The new and improved elevated train rumbled along above her, but she preferred the street for moods and tasks like hers tonight. And she'd never quite trusted the el, having seen it constructed all those years ago. Jaden stumbled as the flash of old memories veiled her current reality.
"Watch it witch," a raspy voice threatened from the gutter.
Close enough, she thought, in both his advice and labels as she walked on.
"You need an escort."
She ignored the bogus offer, focused on her destination and purpose.
"Wasn't a question," the street rat persisted, falling into step beside her and earning Jaden's full attention.
She knew she could take him, or any other challengers. But something in his stance, his eyes, made her wary on another level. A flash of familiar came and went. A closer look only showed he wasn't stoned and the normal haze of scorn for a stranger was absent.
"I'm good. Just passing through."
"There's a price for that."
She knew all too well there was a price for everything. Just stepping outside could cost anything from a cell card to a life these days.
She turned to face him. "And you're the collector?"
He shrugged and sneered. "Seems like."
"So state your fee or get outta my way." She wanted that diary before her cursed nemesis destroyed it.
"In a hurry, pretty girl? Hmmm." He eyed her lazily. "Guess I should tag along and take my cut from whatever you want so bad you'll risk the street to get it."
She thought of killing him.
One sweep of hand to throat and he'd be gurgling in the gutter where no one would give half a damn when they found him in the morning.
She thought of using him.
A bold, sober, and not entirely stupid man might be helpful tonight. Quickly she rearranged her original break-in plan.
"If you can keep up, you can claim one item."
"Oh, baby, how can I refuse?"
He ran a grimy finger over her shoulder and she squashed the urge to break his arm, instead resuming her course. He'd soon learn she wasn't on the list of his possible 'rewards'.
As they approached the museum, her companion earned an ounce of Jaden's respect. He was smart enough to keep quiet. But when his steps slowed, putting him directly behind her, she spun around and instinctively dropped into a defensive crouch.
"Ease up, baby." He raised his hands slowly. "I'm just looking for the easy way in."
Jaden stood up, impatient with every moment of delay. "This is my game. You're only along for the ride."
"Don't I know it." He leered at her breasts. "But–"
"Nothing," she finished for him. "I'll get you in, and out if you're quick about your decisions."
"I've decided." He stepped closer and reached for her.
She whipped her foot out, connecting with the inside of his knee. Following him to the ground, she muffled his pained cry with her hand on his mouth and her knee on his chest.
"I pulled that kick. You're not permanently damaged." His eyes grew wide and wild. She tried not to enjoy his panic. "I have business here. I'll open the door. You walk in, choose your piece and get out. We'll have three minutes. If you're not out before me, you'll be on trial by eight and in jail by noon."
At least some things improved with time. The courts and prisons were still over-crowded, but this society dealt with 'Clear Crimes' swiftly. Cops processed evidence in real time, on scene. Finding this street rat in the museum would be enough for an instant conviction and thirty days of behavior modification injections.
"You afraid of needles?"
He shook his head.
"You will be." She hauled him to his feet, granting him a moment to find his balance. "Three minutes."
Following the shadows around the loading docks, Jaden readied her code breaker. She waved the card in front of the scanner and waited.
Yet another minute ticked by, giving her ample time to cross this particular 'hack-rabbit' off her good list. If his codes were old, or worse, compromised, she'd be hard pressed to avoid a month of needles herself.
If she lived through dispatching her enemy this time, she just might champion prisoner rights and the call to do away with the cruel needles. There were better delivery options...
The lock clicked, whirred and the door slid back on hushed tracks, putting the prized possessions of history at her fingertips.
And gimpy boy's too.
She cringed, inwardly, hoping he was in too much pain to take anything priceless. She disabled the remaining alarm systems to prevent any surprises from security.
"Better hustle," she advised, dashing off on her own.
Her cape billowing behind her, Jaden loped through the various galleries to the nearest marble stairwell, taking the steps two at a time.
Exercising restraint, she stayed her course despite the siren's call of the Medieval Weapons and Armament gallery. She could always return as an ordinary citizen during standard business hours and pore over each curator's note and battle-scarred blade. Again.
She rounded a corner and praised heaven to see the diary still in place. The dress and trunk, which bore a previous life's initials, didn't warrant more than a fleeting glance. She needed the book. It might hold clues that could save her months of research. And every day saved meant another girl spared.
"Now that's worth my while."
Startled from her private hell, Jaden turned to see her unwelcome companion eyeing a case of jewelry. He could have it. It hadn't done her any good then and she had no need of it now.
"One piece," she reminded him, using a dagger to pry open the diary's case. "Clock's ticking." She smiled at gimpy boy's dread and ran for her freedom.
And her cause.
She paused at the security panel only long enough to reset the alarm systems. Rubber soles squeaked on the marble floor somewhere inside, but she had other business. Outside, she took her first real breath and then made the call.
* * *
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Genre – Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy
Rating – PG-13