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I lay as flat as I could on the carpet of old pine needles, my rifle hugged close against my cheek. The world smelled of soil and gun oil and sweat. I kept my breath soft, my hands steady. In the crosshairs, Chogyi Jake crouched beside a huge pine tree, one hand on the rough bark to steady himself. He had a rifle of his own, held low against one hip. The sun was setting behind me. If he looked in my direction, the light would dazzle him. From my perspective, it was like God was shining a spotlight on him. The targeting site magnified his familiar face. To someone who didn’t know him, who hadn’t spent over a year day-in, day-out in his company, he might have looked fine. To me, he radiated the same physical exhaustion I felt. I let the crosshairs drift down to his body. Shoot for the center of mass, I told myself. Go for the biggest target.
Gently, I put my finger on the trigger. I breathed out as I squeezed. My rifle coughed, and a wide swath of bark two feet above Chogyi Jake’s head bloomed neon green. He looked up at it, and then out toward me with an expression that said Really? That was your best shot? just as three sharp impacts drilled into my side. Baby blue splotches marked my autumn-leaves camouflage fatigues. Aubrey’s color. I rolled onto my back and said something crude.
“Okay, Miss Heller,” Trevor said in my earpiece. He always called me Miss Heller instead of JaynÉ. I had the impression that even after he’d heard it pronounced correctly—zha-nay—he was afraid he’d refer to me as Jane or Janie. “I think we’re calling it a day.”
I fumbled with the mic. Somewhere in the exercise, I’d pushed it down around my collarbone.
“Got it,” I said. “I’ll see you back at the cabin.”
I lay there for a moment, the wide Montana sky looking down at me through the trees. The setting sun turned a few stray wisps of cloud rose and gold. The ground under me felt soft, and the sting of the paintballs faded. A breeze set the pines rippling with a sound like something immense talking very gently. I thought that if I closed my eyes, I could fall asleep right there and dream until the bears woke up next spring. My muscles felt like putty.
I felt wonderful.
I’d gotten Trevor Donnagan’s name from a cop friend of mine in Boulder. He’d said that Trevor was hands-down the best place to go if you absolutely, positively had to train yourself into a killing machine in the minimum possible time. A former Green Beret and five or six different kinds of black belt, Trevor had spent the better part of his life meditating on how to dislocate joints, shatter bones, and immobilize bad guys without having the same happen to him. His cabin sat on eight square miles of fenced-off woodland, and he was charging me enough for a month of private, intensive training to pay for eight more. Considering the shape my life had taken in the last year, it was cheap.
I’d been coming up on my twenty-third birthday when my uncle Eric died. I went to Denver knowing that I’d been named his executor. I didn’t know that I was also his sole heir, or that he had more money than some small countries. Or that he’d made his fortune as a kind of spiritual fixer, dealing with any number of parasitic things from just outside reality that could take over people’s minds and bodies and do magic a thousand times more powerful than a normal person could manage. Vampires, werewolves, shape-shifting demons. The generic term was rider.
Now I was almost a month into twenty-four, and several times in the past year, my learning curve had approached vertical.
Aubrey walked up from my left. I knew from the sound of his footsteps that he was at least as tired as I was. I turned my head. His camouflage was smeared with Day-Glo yellow over his right shoulder and left hip, meaning that Ex had gotten the drop on him at least once during the day. His sandy hair stood at ten different angles, and a smear of mud darkened one cheek. I raised my left hand. He took it and hauled me up to my feet. I followed through, collapsing against him a little, my forehead resting in the comfortable curve where his shoulder met his neck. I felt his chuckle as much as heard it.
“I have never been this tired in my life,” he said, threading his arm around me. “I’m getting too old for this.”
“Poor ancient man,” I said. “Can’t keep up with his bouncing baby girlfriend.”
“My poor childlike sweetie looks like she could use some rest too.”
“I’m fine,” I said, leaning against him a little more. “Just lulling you into a sense of safety.”
“Besides, I’m not that old.”
“Men’s physical peak is, like, twenty-five,” I said. “You’re ten years past that. Your teeth should start falling out any minute now.”
“You keep me young,” he said with a mock sourness, and spun me back toward the east and our walk to Trevor’s cabin. The sun blazed on the horizon, glowing like a fire among the trees. The shadows of the low, rolling hills splashed against the landscape, and the green and yellow of the cottonwood trees nearest the cabin standing out against the evergreen pine. It was at least a half-mile walk, down a long, gentle slope to the path that curled around to the north. We walked together, our rifles slung over our shoulders, our paint-stained uniforms glowing in the twilight like we were veterans of the battle of Playskool Ridge. The wind cooled. The sky faded from blue to gray, darkness creeping up the eastern sky. Missoula was an hour-and-a-half drive away, and not even a smudge of backsplash on the nighttime clouds.
The cabin itself was two stories of stained wood and black iron with a wide, flat expanse on one end like a military parade ground and a barn in the back that was really a gym and dojo unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Our rented minivan squatted beside a dusty three-quarter-ton pickup truck. His bumper stickers suggested Trevor was unlikely to vote for a Democrat. Inside, warm, thick air carried the scents of curry and fry bread. A sudden near-raging hunger hollowed my stomach. Trevor stood in the doorway to the kitchen, nearly blocking out the light behind him. The man was built like a refrigerator.
“Soup’s on in twenty, Miss Heller,” he said. “Should give all of you a shot at the showers.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“You can leave your weapons in the case there. I’ll get them stripped and cleaned.”
I knew I should have objected, should have insisted on doing it all myself if only to prove that I wasn’t just some poor little rich girl hauling her male friends on some kind of weird Outward Bound retreat. I let the fatigue win.
“Is Ex already here?” I asked instead.
“Upstairs,” Trevor said. “Jake’s there too.”
Aubrey tilted his head like he’d heard something strange.
“Is something wrong?” he said.
Trevor crossed his massive arms and looked uncomfortable.
“Nothing we can’t talk about after dinner,” he said. “Twenty minutes.”
On the way up the stairs, Aubrey exchanged a silent look with me. It hadn’t been so long since I’d been in a more traditional learning environment, and even though I knew I was the one paying Trevor, part of me got nervous at the thought that teacher was pissed off about something. At the head of the stair, we split, Aubrey heading down the left-hand hallway while I went to the right. Alone in my little monastic cell of a room, I stripped off my fatigues and sweat-soaked T-shirt. As the only woman, I got the cell with the private bathroom; an undersized toilet crowded against a tiny sink, with a shower the size of a postage stamp. The closest I had to an amenity was a soft towel and a full-length mirror. After I’d washed the bits of pine needle and dirt out of my hair, I paused and took stock of my new bruises. There was a nasty one, blue-black on my left hip where I’d landed wrong when Trevor threw me. Four light ones across my back, legacies of paintball failures. Or five, if I counted the one hidden by the half-finished tattoo at the small of my back. A raw, red patch on my shin from slipping during a fast scramble up a stony ravine. And with the scars I had on my side where a possessed man had shoved knifelike fingers into my ribs last August, and the long, white-pink mark where a voodoo God had split my arm open in the spring, I looked pretty beat-up. Well seasoned, Trevor called it.
As soon as I was dressed again—blue jeans, Pink Martini T-shirt under a wool cardigan, white sneakers—I headed downstairs. Aubrey wasn’t at the dinner table yet, but Ex and Chogyi Jake were. Ex was in his usual priestly black even though he’d dropped the whole Jesuit gig long before I’d ever met him. His white-blond hair was tied back in its severe ponytail. Chogyi Jake had skipped his usual sand-colored linen shirt for the kind of white sleeveless T-shirt my big brother used to call a wifebeater when our parents weren’t around. His scalp was freshly shaved and shining, his smile as genuine and enigmatic as ever. I pulled out a chair and sat down. Our rifles were, I noticed, already disassembled, cleaned, reassembled, and put away with nothing more left behind than a slight hint of gun oil under the curry.
“Holding together?” I said.
“We’re fine,” Ex said.
“It’s a more vigorous lifestyle than I’m used to,” Chogyi Jake said, “but I have high hopes that the training effect will kick in.”
Aubrey clomped down the stairs nineteen minutes after we’d gone up, and Trevor emerged from the kitchen with the food a minute after that. Pineapple chicken curry with saffron rice. Fresh nan bread. Sag aloo. Trevor grinned as we all made appreciative noises. If he’d brought out cheap, greasy drive-through burgers, I probably would have thought it was the best-looking meal ever. This was like something out of a very good dream. Trevor sat at the head of the table and bent his head to say grace. Ex and Chogyi Jake did likewise, Ex with his eyes squeezed hard and Chogyi Jake with the polite air of following someone else’s form. I didn’t bow my head, and because I didn’t, Aubrey didn’t either. When Trevor opened his eyes, we ate for half an hour straight without pausing to talk.
Afterward, we students cleared the dishes, Ex brewed a pot of CafÉ Du Monde French roast and chicory, and with our coffee cups in hand, we walked down the cold, dark path to the barn. Stars filled the sky like flakes in a snowstorm.
Trevor waited for us by the practice mats. He wasn’t in his gi, for which I was secretly thankful. I had hired him to kick our collective ass into shape, but having at least part of a night off sounded very, very appealing. He had an old monitor hooked up to a cheap DVD player sitting on a folding table at the edge of the mat.
“All right,” Trevor said, crossing his arms. “What did you see out there today?”
We were all silent for a moment. Chogyi Jake spoke first.
“I think we focus too much on JaynÉ.”
“You do,” Trevor agreed. “The morning session, you practically ignored Aubrey. There were three times you could have taken him out, and instead you focused fire on her. And you”—he pointed at Aubrey—“put yourself in harm’s way each time in order to protect her.”
“I . . .” Aubrey said, then sighed. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Ex, on the other hand, was just the other way around,” Trevor said. “Focused too much on taking Aubrey out of the picture. You people have to play the whole board. And we can work on that. What else?”
I raised my hand.
“I can’t hit the broad side of a barn,” I said. It was the truth. I’d never been good with firearms, and I didn’t seem to be getting much better. The only time in my life I’d even gotten close to hitting my intended target, it had been point-blank range with a 30–06, and the wizard I’d been shooting at caught the bullet anyway.
“No,” Trevor said. “You really can’t.”
I was a little embarrassed that he’d agreed so quickly. There’s something awkward about being self-deprecating when everyone around you thinks you’re stating the obvious. I looked down at my hands, but Trevor had already turned to his DVD player.
“And the shooting is only part of the problem,” he said. “This is the training session from yesterday.”
Ex and Aubrey both glanced over at me, nervous on my behalf.
“I am sorry about that,” I said.
“Don’t be,” Trevor said. “Just watch.”
I popped into life on the screen. The camera had been set up at the corner of the practice mat we were all sitting on now, high on a tripod so that, through its glass eye, I looked even smaller than I actually was. The audio feed scratched and echoed. We weren’t going to watch the whole session, then. Just the bad part. On the screen, Trevor stepped toward me.
Even with the camera angle, he looked big. We circled each other, Trevor lunging in one direction, me scrabbling to get away from him. Now that I was watching from outside, I could see what he meant about my needing to keep one leg strong, even when I was moving fast. He shifted, and the JaynÉ on the screen side-stepped toward the wall. I squinted and held my breath.
Trevor paused the frame.
“Look here,” he said, pointing at my legs on the screen. “See how her hips are behind her? And her elbows are in at her sides. She’s like this.”
He took an awkward stance that I thought exaggerated my position, but the others nodded.
“Defensive,” he said. “She’s trying to engage the fight, but she’s also trying to back away from it. Women do that all the time. Hardest thing to teach a woman is to stop being nice in a fight. So all this? It’s normal. Now—”
He took off the pause. On the screen, Trevor rushed me. I danced back a step, my arms pulling into my body, and then he was around behind me, one thick arm around my neck, the other digging into my spine while he bent me back.
“I’m pushing her here,” he said. “Making her uncomfortable.”
In the moment, it had felt a lot more like he’d been trying to kill me. The on-screen me flapped her arm, trying to tap out, give up, say uncle. I could see the fear in my expression. And then I dropped, curling to the side. On-screen Trevor grunted, the arm that had been around my neck suddenly at a strange angle. I hammered an open palm into his side twice, making him yelp on the second strike. And then he was airborne, crashing into the barn wall hard enough to make the camera shake. It was over in less than a second. I felt chagrined, watching myself hurt him. And maybe a little pleased. Trevor paused again, backing up frame by frame until he was once again choking me as I bent backward.
“There,” he said, then shifted to the next frame forward. I didn’t see any difference, except that maybe in the second frame I looked a little more angry than scared. “Right there. That’s where she changed. See how her knees bend? She gets her center back. Her feet dig into the mat. Right there, she goes from a white belt fresh off the street to someone who can kick my ass. And that, ladies and gents, is not normal.”
“What do you make of it?” Chogyi Jake asked, leaning forward.
“That she’s a typical girl white-belt until she feels directly threatened, and then turns into someone else?” Trevor said, shaking his head. He let the action play out, watching himself go flying like it was a puzzle he wanted to solve.
“Adrenaline rush,” I said. “That’s not weird, right?”
“That’s not adrenaline,” Trevor said. “That’s technique. And I can’t train it.”
We all knew—meaning the four of us who weren’t Trevor—that Uncle Eric had left me with more than just money. He’d put some kind of magical protection on me that meant I was better in a fight than I had any right to be. I was also harder than your average bear to track down using magical means. Sort of an instant ninja package. Chogyi Jake had been disquieted that we never found references in any of Eric’s places to what exactly he’d done or how exactly it worked, but this was the first time I had a hint that its mere existence might be a problem.
“Can’t you train the white-belt me?” I said. “The early one?”
He turned off the monitor. The image died, leaving all of us reflected in the dark glass.
“Miss Heller, I don’t mean any disrespect, but I don’t train with people I can’t trust, even if that just means trusting them to be inexperienced. I’ve been at this for more years than you’ve been breathing air, and nothing I’ve seen matches what I saw there. I can train these guys, no trouble. I can help you with strength training. Flexibility. But I’m not getting in the ring with you again. I’d be stupid if I did.”
Trevor went on for half an hour, going over the recordings of Aubrey, Ex, and Chogyi Jake taking their turns. It turned out Chogyi Jake had had some previous training. Ex and Aubrey were just about the same as I had been in the first part of the recording. I drank my coffee and felt like a balloon with half the air sucked out. I understood exactly what Trevor was saying, why he was saying it, and I still felt rejected. It might have been dumb of me, but that didn’t keep it from being true.
When they were done, we walked back to the cabin, rinsed out our coffee mugs, and Trevor headed up for bed. I sat at the dinner table, looking out at the night. The clock on the wall was manufactured to look old; fake black cracks ran down the white face. It was only a quarter to eleven. It felt way past midnight. I heard Ex walking down the stairs, heard him hesitate when he saw me alone, and then come the rest of the way into the room. I knew he had a little crush on me, and I hadn’t found a better strategy than to ignore it with the same ferocity that he did.
“Hard night,” he said. He’d let his hair down, a soft, near-white flow draping to his shoulders. It softened his face.
“Disappointing, at least,” I said.
“Are we going to stay?” he asked.
“It depends,” I said. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea for you guys to get some training. It’s not like hanging out with me doesn’t put you in danger sometimes. But part of why I wanted to do this was—”
“Hey,” my dead uncle said from the front room. “You’ve got a call.”
I headed for the door. The leather backpack I used instead of a purse hung on a wrought iron coatrack. The side pocket was glowing.
“You really need to—” Ex began.
“To change that ringtone,” I finished. “I know. I know.”
I didn’t recognize the number. The area code was 312, not that it meant anything to me other than it was probably somewhere in the continental United States. Very few people called this number, and even fewer expected to find me on the other end of it. I’d changed the voice-mail message to an explanation that Eric had passed on, and that I was his niece, so that I wouldn’t have to go through it all in person again. For a moment, I thought about letting this call drop. But then curiosity won, and I thumbed it on.
“Hello,” I said.
“JaynÉ? Is that you?” It was a woman’s voice, tight and controlled and serious. She’d pronounced my name correctly. It took me less than a breath to place it, and then my heart ramped up. Aubrey’s ex-wife. The one who’d still been his wife the first time I slept with him. The one who’d confessed to me that she still loved him. The one who, in spite of everything, I kind of liked.
“Kim,” I said. “Hey. What’s up?”
© 2010 M.L.N. Hanover