Hollyhock takes me back to her home. With no grace or ceremony, we lie on her bed. She curls into a ball, holding her pillow to her chest like before. She’s asleep in seconds. I’m envious of this ability of hers, to suspend her thoughts of the day and just...rest.
I stew on all that I’ve learned, including the undead man I met today.
‘Who could’ve done that? And why?’
There are a few magicians I know of that could perform such complex magic, but I can’t think of any logical reason for them to do so. If they ever left Ironhenge, I can’t imagine them coming here just to resurrect an alcoholic bike thief.
Though it’s unlikely that someone from one of the other Arcanniums did this, it’s more unlikely that there’s a powerful magician on their own out here.
I can’t think anymore, my head hurts.
I turn on my side to look at Hollyhock as she rests. Lying so still.
‘Did she learn to sleep like this? What advantage would that serve in her line of work?’
I scan down her form, the curve of her collarbone, where her chest barely rises and falls to let air into her body. Over her heart, or rather, just right of where it is, lies a tattoo. I can just make out the scar it covers. Long and thin, like a stab wound from a blade. Next to it, written in cursive are the words “Close, but no cigar.” With a smoking cigar covering it.
‘Life has been so hard on you, Holly. And yet you still turn it around with humor.’
I almost reach out to touch the scar but think better of it.
Lying on my back I look at her ceiling.
“Maybe I should make a sleep potion,” I say softly.
I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I can feel that I’m in my third R.E.M. cycle. Or maybe it’s my fourth, I lost count after my second. It’s a strange imagining wherein I’m on a cliffside that I don’t think exists. The sun is low. I can’t tell if it’s rising or setting.
Very near the edge of the cliff stands a figure with their back turned to me.
Though I’ve only known her for a day, I recognize the silhouette as Hollyhock. She’s holding a gun in her right hand, and a bouquet of flowers in her left. The flowers are those of her namesake, vivid orange hollyhocks.
She turns back to look at me. Thick black smoke rises from where her neck should be in lieu of a head.
The headless Hollyhock readies her gun and grips the flowers tighter. Though she has no eyes, I feel her staring at me.
“So what’s it gonna be?” She asks.
I think the sun is rising.
I wake up but keep my eyes closed as I hear metal clanking and Hollyhock grunting. I slowly open one eye to watch her lift a bar of some kind with large black metal discs on it.
I don’t know how much it weighs, but the way it shakes the ground as she puts it back on the rack I’m guessing it weighs a lot.
She stands up and walks over to a thick cylinder bag hanging from the ceiling and chained in place to the floor. Hollyhock rolls her shoulders for a few moments then begins assaulting the bag with a barrage of punches. She gives a sharp exhale with each impact, hitting the same spot over and over. The impetus she possesses shakes the bag and the chains violently.
I examine her body as she exercises, wearing a tight black crop top or maybe it’s called a sports bra, I don’t know. Her orange shorts are tight on her juicy ass. The assassin bounces on her feet, staying on her toes. Despite being wrapped in muscle, she moves like she’s lighter than air.
My eyes are drawn to the power of her arms, the strength of her back, the length and the thickness of her legs. Wearing so little I can see more of her tattoos, but there are still more hidden from view under her clothes.
I push away the thought of pulling off what little clothing she has with my teeth.
‘Keep it cool witch-bitch.’
I watch her in silence as she delivers a few kicks.
The assassin pulls an earbud out and without turning to look at me says,
“I can practically feel you undressing me with your eyes.” With my ruse revealed I sit up to more fully see her.
‘Didn’t think my gaze was so heavy.’
“Hmmm, I think I went a bit further than that,” I reply with a tilt of my head. She pulls out her other earbud with a smile crossing her face.
“Care to share?” The velcro of her gloves tears into the air while she takes them off.
“Where’s the fun in that? I’d rather you guess,” I answer. A chuckle escapes her.
Hollyhock calls me over with a gesture of her pointer finger. Sliding out of her bed, I approach the assassin.
“If you want to watch me work out, you should get a closer look,” she says in as sensuous a voice she can make. “You ever throw a punch before?”
“Never needed to. Magic is very useful, and keeps my hands clean.”
“Hmm, I don’t doubt it. But.” She pulls me closer by the hips. “Out here that’s not exactly an option. As much as I’d like to see you shoot a fireball at a guy, I think you should do something more lowkey. I wanna teach you some self-defense.”
Hollyhock maneuvers behind me.
“Hold up your arms and make a fist.”
I oblige. She takes my hand and adjusts it.
“Put your thumb outside your fingers, not tucked between or under them. You can dislocate your thumb if you punch something like that. Now, punch as hard as you can.”
My fist hits the bag, barely moving it.
“Power comes from more than just moving your forearm,” she instructs. Her rough hand goes over mine. Her strong arm overtakes mine. “First, make sure your hand is in line with your wrist.” She points with two fingers. “It lets the force of the impact travel down your arm.” From my shoulder, her hand glides down to my hip. “You should turn in to the punch with your whole torso.”
Hollyhock presses herself against my back.
“You gotta use your hips, that’s how you get a longer reach.” Her words tickle the back of my neck.
I don’t understand all the social cues of this world yet, but I’ve been around the cauldron enough times to know when a woman is flirting with me.
So, of course, I let her do it.
I feel the curves and lines of her body as she presses deeper against me. All the softest and hardest parts of the assassin that I want to run my hands over embrace me.
“Try again,” she says.
I punch again and notice the difference.
“Now that’s how you throw a punch.”
“Well, you’re an excellent mentor, very hands-on.” I turn around to face her. “I learn better by example.”
“Well then,” she leans in closer. “I got a few other things I can teach you.” I wrap my arms around her waist so that our bodies meet.
“I have a lot more I could teach you,” I flirt back. She follows suit, wrapping her strong arms around my waist.
“Will those lessons be hands-on as well?” She says in a low voice, inching closer to my face.
“I only hope you can keep up, otherwise you’ll need supplementary assignments.” I get close enough to feel the heat from her face radiate into mine.
“I don’t know any more school euphemisms, so I’ll just…” The assassin leans in to close the small gap.
Just then her phone rings and the irritation on her face matches mine. She walks over to answer it.
‘Why do I even bother? Fate clearly amuses itself with these interruptions. How’s a witch supposed to get some when the mood keeps getting ruined?’
I fix my hair a bit.
‘If Floribunda was here she’d probably laugh her head off.’ A twinge of sadness pulses through me at the thought.
The assassin stands, silent, listening to whoever it is that called.
“I wanted to know if you’re well enough for a job,” the voice of Tamara says to me. I instinctively reach for where I was shot earlier. There isn’t any pain at all, not even a dull ache.
‘Magic is scary.’
“Yeah, I’m at a hundred percent. You couldn’t get another Bay Leaf for this?”
‘Tamara has the worst timing in the world.’
“I could, but a job like this requires...what’s the word? Precision. That’s something you’ve always excelled in. Things will play out better if this looks like an accident.” On the phone, she sounds like a little girl, which is always weird to think about when she tells me to kill somebody.
“And how’s that?”
“You do this right, and we can have the DeadNettles having a problem with the Purlanes, from there we can pull a few strings. See who wanted you dead.”
“Good. Come in for details and gear.” She ends the call. I tuck the phone into the waistline of my shorts.
“Aight, I have a job to do, so we’ll pick this up later,” I say to Witch-Hazel. I start mentally counting all the weapons here in case Witch-Hazel explores the place.
“Okay, won’t take me long to get changed,” the witch replies. I pause at the implication.
“No, this is a solo kinda thing,” I explain.
“...Did I ever mention I kill people for a living? I feel like I made that pretty clear. This isn’t some nine to five office job. This is dangerous shit I deal with.”
“How exactly do you plan on teaching me about this world if you hide from it? You and what you do is intrinsic to this world, and I’d like to see it,” she counters.
I narrow my eyes at her for a second.
“I’m sorry if this sounds rude as fuck but there’s no other way to ask this. What’s wrong with you?” She leans back and raises an eyebrow at me.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, are you one of those people that are like attracted to serial killers or something? Like, do you have a mental or personality disorder that attracts you to danger or something? You can tell me. I won’t be mad.”
The witch has a look of surprise, then she starts laughing.
“Gods and Goddesses! WOW! Okay. Do you always imply someone has a disorder when they’re around you?”
“I’ve told you mad times that I’m an assassin. I’m a trained killer. And yet you’ve been acting like everything is roses and sunshine. Why aren’t you scared?”
Witch-Hazel scoffs a bit.
“Yes, I’m aware of what you do. You’ve made that clear. But I don’t think you’re as ruthless as you say. You haven’t tried to kill me yet.” I don’t miss her emphasis on the word ‘yet’. “But, and I’m sorry if this sounds rude, I’m not afraid of you. I don’t find you that threatening,” she says.
I can’t hide the shock in my voice, “Excuse me?”
“I’ve met creatures beyond your comprehension, so a nonmagical human isn’t something I’m worried about. Plus the first time I met you, you were bleeding out. Maybe you’re not as dangerous as you think you are,” she taunts. I know it’s a taunt, a dumb one at that. But knowing that doesn’t stop the rage building inside of me. A clash of my pride in what I’m capable of and common sense saying I don’t have to prove myself to her wars in my brain.
‘Do not bring her on an assignment.’
Magic is real, all logic I have is useless.
“Get dressed quick, I can’t keep the boss waiting.” I turn around to look through my dresser when I hear a WHOOSH of air. Witch-Hazel is fully dressed in one of the outfits she picked yesterday.
“Get dressed quick, can’t keep the boss waiting,” she throws back in my face. I can’t help but laugh a bit.
After I get dressed I meet Witch-Hazel in the car.
We drive in silence for a while before I find something to fill it.
“How’d you get here? To Oleander City, I mean. Did you teleport?”
“No, you can only do that to places you’re familiar with. Besides, that would take too much energy, the distance is too great,” she explains.
“Where’s Ironhenge in relation to here?”
“I have no idea really. From what I’ve worked out, it’s somewhere in the Eurasian Steppes but that’s a needle in a huge fucking haystack.”
“So if you didn’t teleport, how’d you get here?”
“I traveled via Ley lines. It took a couple of stops though, I got turned around in Brazil for a bit.”
“What’s a Ley line?”
“They are areas laden with magical energy, they’re all over the planet. They encompass the globe in a complex net. Some go all the way around, some only for a few hundred miles. Some are weaker than others. Performing magic on one rich with energy is much less draining, as you can draw from the earth,” she explains.
“How does that let you get to the other side of the world?”
“There’s a spell that, should a Ley line be deep and rich enough, surrenders your physical form and travel along it in whatever direction you face. You just have to know when to get off.”
“Like a subway?” She shrugs.
“Sure. If a subway makes you lose all sense of self in an infinitely dark yet blinding way.”
“That’s exactly what a subway is.”
“Oh, then yeah. It’s like a subway.”
“Where do Ley lines come from?” I ask, curious about the subject.
“They’ve always existed. The earliest records of them call them different names, but only recently has anyone begun to look into why they exist.”
I make a sharp left turn.
“What’s the most accepted reason?” I ask. I’m not sure what good it’ll do for me to know this stuff.
“There are two popular theories. One suggests that the entire planet, being a living thing, has an aura.” She sticks her hand out the window.
“And that Ley lines are parts of it that we can perceive and even draw from. Some go as far as to say that auroras are visible pieces of Earth's aura. That they’re so potent, they can be seen by the non-magical eye.”
“So we’re all just leeches then?”
“Basically. The other theory is for the more pragmatic sorcerer or warlock. It suggests that the electromagnetic field that protects Earth from solar flares and such chips away from time to time, falls and gets absorbed into the earth and that’s where Ley lines come from. Personally, I think it’s far fetched and there’s very little evidence to support it.”
“So I’m guessing you’re leaning to the other theory then.” Someone honks their horn at me and I wave a middle finger at them.
“I honestly haven’t thought about it much. But it certainly has a sense of balance to it, y’ know?”
“No, not really.” I stop at a crosswalk with a lady who looks like she’s a hundred years old walking by herself. “Life, to me, has just been a series of chaotic fuckin’ whirlwinds. That includes you too. If there is a balance to this, I don't understand the scale,” I comment.
“Maybe you’ll face a tipping point soon. I could be your lucky charm,” the witch says with a giggle. I scoff but can’t hide my smile.
“Think I’d rather have a four-leaf clover.”
“Does a four-leaf clover heal your wounds?”
I finally pull up to Bay Leaf headquarters.
“Stay here, I won’t be long.”
She opens her mouth to protest but I point at her.
“I’m serious. I already shouldn’t bring you, so you’ll stay in the car.”
“Fine,” Witch-Hazel pouts.
“Thank you.” I exit the car and enter the den of assassins. Someone I haven’t seen in awhile is leaning back in a seat while juggling three grenades. Being as clumsy as she is, this isn’t something she should be doing. I grab two out of the air and look her up and down.
My skin isn’t exactly a blank canvas, but she collects scars like they’re going out of style. The ones that I can see are from all manner of things. Blades, bullets, she has a pretty nasty burn near her elbow, and something I suspect to be the bite mark from a dog.
All of us Bay Leaves have dangerous lives, so the amount of scar tissue might suggest she’s particularly unskilled. But the truth is that she’s impossible to kill. Nothing seems to be enough to stop her.
She gives me an annoyed look.
“Why do you always have to ruin my fun, Hollyhock?”
“Because I don’t like exploding first thing in the morning.”
“Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.”
A bear of a woman with pale white skin, a short crop of blond hair, and startlingly blue eyes make up this Bay Leaf. She has a bruise on her left eye like someone punched her in the face.
“Nice black eye, Susan.”
“I got it from a sucker punch. Stabbed the guy in the dick, then the neck.” She pulls out a knife and starts twirling it between her fingers.
Susan is an anomaly, not just because she’s physically incapable of feeling fear, but because I’ve been led to believe she had a completely normal upbringing. Her parents are alive, she knows them, and they’re normal people. How she fell into this line of work is beyond me.
“Nice. Listen, I’d love to swap kill stories with ya, but the boss wants me.”
“Please,” she does a wave of her hand. “Don’t let me keep you.” I place the grenades on the table next to her.
“Catch ya later.”
Walking into Tamara’s office, I find her standing in front of an old, large cork board that she only takes out while on a warpath. In true conspiracy nut fashion, she has red strings linking different photos to each other. The sticky notes she’s put on there are in at least three languages. I don’t know if this was intentional.
“Someone had a fun night,” I comment.
“Hmmm took me a while to find red string. All I had was green for some reason.” She briefly turns to look at me before returning to her board. “I hate green. Anyway, here’s the first string to pull.”
Tamara pulls a photo from the board and hands it to me.
“This is Jeremiah Bastian.” The photo shows a young man in his mid-twenties maybe, sitting on a red sports motorcycle. Black leather jacket with an arrow pin in the lapel. He’s smiling at whoever took this picture. The number one is painted in white on the side of his bike.
“Jeremiah here runs a speedy smuggling business for the DeadNettles. Mostly around Oleander City, but he does business out of town occasionally. Money, drugs, weapons, sometimes diamonds, and sometimes V.I.P’s. If they want something somewhere quickly,” she flicks the photo. “They call him. And they have.” I follow Tamara as she walks over to a map of the state.
“Source says he’ll be going to Lantanas City later today. He prefers long roads to rush down so he’ll take Hyperion Drive.” She points to a long highway. “You’ll kill him here.”
Her voice is clinical, she’s no longer talking about a living man, he was dead the moment she handed me his photo. I just have to make him realize it.
“There will be ‘construction ahead’ which will keep away any prying eyes. This has to look like an accident so that the DeadNettles think that it was us. The Purlanes will think it was someone else and we work from there. Digit has the gear you need for the job downstairs. Jeremiah has also been known to take a few hit jobs also. So he’ll likely be armed, make your move first and make it first,” she instructs.
“Always,” I reply.
Tamara turns her attention back to her board. Before I leave her office she stops me with a question,
“What’s going on with you and that girl? Hazel?”
My hand is on the doorknob and my grip gets tighter when she finishes her question.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean are you friends, friends that fuck, are you her sugar mama, or is it something more substantial?” She hasn’t turned around to face me yet.
“I’m more of a glorified tour guide, actually,” I clarify.
‘That sometimes flirts with her.’
“Just remember we don’t get to live normal lives. The people out there,” she gestures to the stained glass windows. “They get to go on dates, sit at a coffee shop and talk about...taxes or whatever. What we do eclipses everything, there is no room for anything else.”
I’ve heard her give this sermon many times over the years. Not always addressed to me, but meant for my ears as well. I’d ask why she’s giving this speech now but I know the answer.
Tamara adjusts something on her board.
“Just because she saved your life doesn’t mean you get to-” she stops for a moment. “Have to spend it with her.”
If I didn’t know her any better, I’d think there was a shade of regret in her voice. But I do know her better.
“Okay, you have someone to kill and I don’t pay you to listen to my rants. Get outta here.”
The door opens before I do anything, standing before me is six feet and three inches, two hundred and twenty pounds of woman all wrapped in a periwinkle three-piece suit. Her long black hair rolls down to her shoulders. A deceptively kind face with gentle features smiles warmly at me. Light brown skin and honey brown eyes with lines cut into her thick eyebrows. You’d never think she’s a seasoned killer.
“Ahh, Hollyhock, mea aloha. Morning,” Koki’O greets me.
If Tamara is the brain of the Bay Leaves, then Koki’O is very much the heart of us. For whatever that might be worth. While the rest of us are cold, calculative machines that Tamara has created, she’s a...well, human being. A warm one. What she’s doing here, let alone acting as the right hand of Tamara is one of life’s biggest mysteries.
“Hello, Koki’O.” I look her up and down. “Nice to see you dressed.” The pictures she sent to the woman at the board behind me spring to mind. She’s very sexy, but I’ve never felt the urge to get with her. Which, for me, is very strange.
If the tree of a woman feels embarrassed, she doesn’t show it. A playful smirk goes across her face actually.
“Do you want me to hurt you?” She asks sweetly. A very violent memory surfaces from when I was younger and sparring with Tamara. I wanted a different opponent and thought that Koki’O would go easier on me. I was wrong. Very wrong. I don’t know what it is about her that makes her punches hurt more, but they just do.
“No, I don’t. So, excuse me.” I get out of her way.
“Tamara! Ko aloha makamae e ipo!” She greets the boss affectionately.
“Hello, Koki’O,” she replies cooly. Why Tamara doesn’t accept Koki’O’s advances or flat-out reject them is an enigma to me.
‘I mean, is she straight or something?’
And why Koki’O flirts with her and only her is also confusing. I’d ask what she sees in her but I’m not sure I really want the answer.
I head downstairs to the basement, where our more specialized gear is kept.
I walk past Kevlar vests, a spool of fabric that should distort thermal imaging, several laptops tracking various things, and a special chemical compound that I don’t understand and have given up trying to.
Towards the back, Digitalis is hunched working on something. At a glance, it’s some kind of explosive. He briefly looks up to one of the monitors on his table before continuing his work.
He takes a long drag from his cigarette, then addresses me. The fact that he smokes is proof of his significance within our organization.
The boss doesn’t let any of us smoke anything. Mostly due to health risks, but she also just hates the smell. Digitalis here gets to smoke because he’s irreplaceable. Our mechanic, doctor, techie, and most importantly: our tattoo artist. He makes sure we can get our jobs done in the best of style.
“Heya, Holly. Heard about your brush with death and how someone patched you up. You ain’t cheating on me, are ya?” He rubs his face and scratches at his five o’clock shadow.
“Maybe if you went outside more you could’ve saved me.”
“No fuckin’ way, me being in this crypt keeps you motherfuckas alive.” He puts out his cigarette. “Lemme see your injury.” He gestures with his hand.
“Not much to see, to be honest.” If any other man asked me to lift my shirt I’d break his neck, but Digit has proven his disinterest in other humans many times. I oblige and he comes closer in his rolling chair.
The dark skin of his thin, lanky fingers goes over my abdomen with a trained manner. This close I can see a little cut on his slightly pointed nose. His hair is dreadlocked and orange. I never asked if it’s natural or not. His dark eyes seem to look through everything.
“You said you got shot right?” He asks.
“I say lots of things.”
“I don’t see any sign of a gunshot or anything. What kinda healing did you get?”
“Magical.” If you can’t come up with a lie, the blunt truth will suffice. He lights another cigarette.
“Whatever. Anyway, you got a guy to kill so check this out.” He gets up and walks me over to a table with a number of half-finished projects. “Here’s the first part.” He picks up a tool that resembles a gun but the barrel is too big, long, and there’s no hammer.“This is a pneumatic air gun. Think ‘harpoon gun’ but we’re not shooting spears. Bit of compressed air, this shoots a projectile fast and relatively silent. But,” he hands me the air gun.
“This is what you’ll have to shoot.” He holds a long, thin black cylinder for me to see. “This is a tungsten alloy core, with a carbon-fiber casing. Practically indestructible.” He bends it to no avail, then hands it to me. It’s much heavier than it looks. The carbon fiber makes it easy to grip. “You know what to do with that, right?”
I nod and tuck the air gun and rod in my jacket pocket.
“Make sure you bring it back. Wasn’t cheap. You’ll find a bike in the lot, it’ll fit your needs. Bring that back too if you don’t mind.” Digitalis tosses me the keys. “I’ll call when he’s getting there.”
“See ya later, Digit. By the way, I need you to do a treatment on my jacket.”
“Drop it off later,” he replies, bored.
I exit through a hidden stairway that leads to the parking lot. A jet black sports bike, ready to go, is the first thing I see when I get up the stairs. There are two helmets waiting on it. This is either a happy coincidence, or someone knew I was bringing Witch-Hazel.
I hop on, turn the key, and the engine roars to life underneath me. The constant rumble is a promise of its speed. It handles well enough, but I can feel the tenuous relationship it has with balance.
I pull up to the front of the building where Witch-Hazel is patiently waiting in the car for me. I half expected her to run off somewhere and get into trouble.
“Hop on,” I tell her while offering the helmet. She comes around and sits on the bike like it’s a bench. “Put your leg on the other side and hold onto me.”
“For safety or you want me to cop a feel?”
I lurch the bike forward and she almost falls off.
“Two things can be true. Put on your helmet.” She obliges and we take off.
Rushing past buildings, zipping between cars and disobeying several traffic laws. We reach the outskirts of Oleander City and head towards Hyperion Drive.
As Tamara promised, there are roadblocks in front but no actual construction workers in sight. I speed between them and go down this long and empty road. With no other cars around, it’s easier to appreciate the natural beauty of the highway. Redwood trees rise high into the sky on both sides, there’s something total and domineering about them. These wooden skyscrapers make you feel tiny like this is the loneliest road in the world.
But then, Witch-Hazel holds onto me tighter.
‘I’m not alone. And I have a job to do.’
A few miles into the road, I pull over and stop, parking the bike behind one of the trees. I ready the weapon, loading the cylinder into the barrel. Witch-Hazel lifts her visor.
“These trees are gorgeous! They at least have to be at least a thousand years old.” She exclaims.
“Yeah, probably.” I shrug. “Wouldn’t really know.”
“What are we doing here?”
“I’m here to kill someone. His death will help me figure out who tried to kill me.” I check the sight on the weapon. It’ll suffice. “Sorry, I didn’t drag you out here for an impromptu nature hike.”
“Hollyhock, have you considered the possibility I don’t need something from you to keep me interested; that I simply enjoy spending time with you?”
I think on that for a second.
“No. I hadn’t.”
“Well, you might want to give it some thought.” She gets up and takes off her helmet, shaking her long hair free. “When’s your target supposed to show up?”
“Not for a while, but we’ll hear him coming.” I check my phone and it amazingly has a signal all the way out here. “This is the worst part of the job: the waiting.”
“I’d figured, if anything, it’d be the fact you could be killed,” the witch retorts. I disagree with the wave of my hand and a scoff.
“You can get killed doing any job. And most don’t even offer health insurance.”
“You keep saying ‘health insurance’ like that’s a real thing but I don’t believe you. I’m honestly expected to believe that people willingly refuse medical attention because they can’t afford it?”
“For the thousandth time, yes. Needing a doctor costs a lot of money in this world.”
“That’s fucking insane, how do people live that way?”
“One day at a time I suppose. I don’t want to talk about the nightmare that is the American healthcare system. Talk to me about anything else.”
It’s strange, having a casual conversation while I wait for a man to show up so I can kill him. Even on the few occasions that I worked with others on a job we never talked like this. I can’t help but wonder how much of my life Witch-Hazel is going to change.
As we talk, she tells me about a magical creature called a guliti. A unique creature that goes through a rapid evolutionary process, starting its life in the water. It sees creatures on land and decides it wants to do that too. The fish crawls up on land and forces its body to breathe air and walk. After this, it sees the creatures of the air and wishes to fly as well. It changes its body and takes to the air. They live the rest of their days flying high in the air, never coming down until they die. Gulitis always die in mid-flight and land back in the same body of water they started in.
“Do they do that on purpose?” I ask Witch-Hazel. She shrugs.
“Some druids say it’s just in their nature. That they always end up where they belong.”
The phone rings and I answer immediately.
“Target is two minutes out from the road,” the gruff voice of Digitalis says.
“Okay.” I hang up. “He’s about to be here so step back.” The witch gets back on the bike and holds onto me.
“Just drive. I promise I won’t slow you down.”
I open my mouth to protest but I can tell this is another thing she won’t back down on. I rev the engine to life and wait. I hear a powerful motorcycle rushing in our direction. I peek out the side. At the speed he’s going at, he’ll reach and pass us in no time.
“Hold on tight!” Witch-Hazel has a death grip around me as I twist the throttle and the engine beneath us screams its power. We take off like a bullet and I pull us alongside the target.
With a number one painted on the side and the same leather jacket with the arrow pin he was wearing in the picture, that’s all the confirmation I need to know this is the right man.
At first, he doesn’t notice us, his attention is on the long road ahead of us. He does a double-take when he finally looks over.
I don’t need to see his face to know he’s deciding between flight or fight. But these few moments are all I need. My eyes go to his front wheel and I watch the spokes cycle as the world slows down around me. I ignore everything that isn’t relevant. The sensation of speed, the wind pushing against me, the feel of the handlebars in my hands, the pressure of the woman holding onto me. All that matters is the speed of his wheel and my distance to it.
‘With Witch-Hazel on the bike, if he decides to speed up, I won’t be able to catch him. If he takes out his gun, things will get complicated quickly.’
But I’m not one of Tamara’s deadliest assassins for no reason.
Before the neurons in his brain can fire off a signal to his muscles to grab his gun, I've already drawn mine and aimed it at his front wheel. If I miss this shot, this all goes to hell.
So I don’t miss.
I pull the trigger on the air gun and the tungsten cylinder flies out. It goes halfway through his wheel before a spoke catches it. The spoke carries it to the fork and from there: his death is finalized. I swerve away to avoid getting caught.
The clank of metal against metal is drowned out by the engines going but soon it’s only one.
With his front wheel stopped, his bike goes up, him along with it. Jeremiah meets the pavement first before his bike meets his body in a disastrous manner. Though it is brief, the sound of bones snapping is unmistakable. The cacophony of a human skidding across asphalt is nothing compared to that of a motorcycle crashing. It skids in defiance, wanting to speed along effortlessly but its velocity dies. The bike stops.
I carefully slow down so that I don’t leave any skidmarks. Maneuvering the slowing bike back around, I pass the destroyed one and stare at the destroyed man.
“Stay here,” I order. Dismounting the motorcycle, I approach Jeremiah in his dying moments. His left arm and both his legs broke on impact, the bones pierce the skin, exposing them to the open air.
He’d be screaming in agony if it weren’t for the wet coughs. A sign of blood filling his lungs. No doubt punctured on a broken rib. His helmet has broken open, revealing his bloodied face as he looks up at me.
Jeremiah tries to focus through the pain to give me his best angry look. A pathetic attempt to spit at me ends with blood dripping down his chin. But that’s just to distract from what his right arm is doing. Miraculously, his gun has landed within arm’s reach.
His fingers are swelling up in the body's misguided attempt to protect itself. I’m not big on giving false hope. Or taking chances. I put my boot on the gun and slide it out of his reach.
“Fuc- fuc….” his last insult drowns in his mouth. I watch the light fade from his eyes, his body grows stiller, and the man dies. After seeing a sight like this so many times, I don’t feel anything about it.
I pick up the gun, remove a messenger bag the corpse was carrying, and call Tamara.
She answers immediately.
“Target had a bag, what should I do with it?”
“What’s inside?” I check the contents,
“Bags of heroin that have burst open and some money,” I answer.
“Get rid of it,” she commands. “No need for that shit to get out there.”
“Got it.” I hang up and walk away from a job well done.
I’m trying very hard to keep composed after watching this series of events unfold. Perhaps I was in denial this whole time. Hollyhock said what she was, what she does, but some small part of me didn’t believe it.
It’s not the death itself that disturbs me necessarily, or even that she directly caused it but the way he died. Choking on his own blood, I could hear it from here. The sound makes my skin crawl and brings to mind a memory I want more than anything to forget.
But this is reality washing away the fantasy I made in my head about life without magic. In my world, there are creatures that can only exist on the periphery; that due to their nature cannot live in the majority. Predators, beasts, monsters, whatever they’re called they serve a purpose.
Hollyhock and the Bay Leaves may live this world, but their entire existence is reserved for the places out of sight, for the shadows. And knowing what I know about her, Hollyhock didn’t have much other choice but to live this way.
She may know her world, but she’s on the outside looking in. This is where she truly lives. On the outskirts. On a long lonely road without much room for anything else. This is what she does to survive.
I suppose it was absurd to think I could enter this world in any normal capacity. If I want to be here, I’ll have to live on the edges as well.
I look up at Hollyhock as she watches a man die.
‘If she can live her whole life this way, I can survive a month or two.’
The assassin recovers the black cylinder she shot into the wheel. It doesn’t seem to have any damage.
“What’s with the bag?” I ask to distract myself from the dread settling in my stomach. I can only hope that my voice came out steady.
Hollyhock is unfazed by the life she snuffed out, or the gore she caused.
“Gotta get rid of it. Thinkin’ about burning it but then I need a mask for the fumes and that’s a whole thing. Maybe I’ll just-”
I take the bag from her hands and concentrate.
‘Anything to take my mind off… Concentrate Hazel.’
I throw the bag up as high as I can. Before it begins its descent I send a ball of fire from my hand; the heat can be felt even as it flies away. The bag is incinerated, not even a fiber is left.
“Will that do?” Hollyhock is still looking at where the bag was.
“Uhhh yeah. That’ll do.” Her gaze comes back to earth. “Sometimes I forget you have magic, then you do something like that.” She tucks the stolen gun into her jacket pocket. “You okay?” Genuine concern is in her voice.
She’s the same Hollyhock as before, it’s me that had to fully realize what she is.
The assassin. The woman who cares about kids. Who gave me a place to stay. Who shared her tragic story with me. Who’s put up with my ridiculous requests.
I nod. The dread I feel is slowly dispelling.
“The way he died just reminded me of something.”
‘Something. Is that all Floribunda is to me now? Just a memory?’
The assassin solemnly nods. Death may no longer bother her, but she knows it can bother others.
“Ain’t a good way to go.” She looks back at him. “But the drugs he smuggled hurt a lot of people. And the people he worked for have hurt even more.”
She gets on the motorcycle and drives us to where we were waiting before. Hollyhock brushes the dirt the bike disturbed to erase any trace of our presence.
“Let’s go home,” she says. We drive off, leaving this stretch of road behind.
When we get back into town Hollyhock stops at railroad tracks while a train comes along. We’re the only ones on this side of the track. It blocks the sun as we wait.
“I remember you said you’ve seen someone die before. But you never said how or why,” she observes.
Floribunda comes to mind. Whenever death is mentioned she always appears in my thoughts.
“You don’t have to talk about it now if you don’t want to. I don’t know if talking about stuff really helps. But if you ever want to, you know where to find me.”
“Bleeding out on some stairs somewhere?”
That gets a laugh from the assassin.
“Oh sure, not in the apartment you’re not paying rent for.”
“Ironhenge sounds like a paradise.”
We sit in silence and watch the train go by.
“I know that this isn’t the tour experience you were hoping for. Abandoned churches, back room meetings, and orchestrating accidents in isolated roads. But that’s how this world operates. And these might be bad people, but I don’t enjoy killing them. I never have. It’s never been personal, and now that it is...I still don’t. I just wanted you to know that.”
I hold her tighter.
“You don’t have to defend yourself to me. Not now, not ever. I don’t have the right to judge you. I just wanted you to know that.”
The train passes. The gates rise. The sun lands on us again.
“You ever have a cheeseburger?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Let’s get a couple.”
Hollyhock revs the engine and we go back into Oleander City.
Ch. 7 End.
Bio: I’m a young writer from NYC I want to be a professional writer someday and hope I look good while doing it. I like writing action and romance and even exclusively either. Follow me on Twitter and Tumblr for updates and bug me about my stories!