Birds in the Night
There’s nothing simple about the Agency’s resident magpie girl.
Magnolia lay on the edge of the tall building, the stiff breeze cooling her exposed legs and ruffling her short dress – she half-expected to be blown over the edge, and almost welcomed the challenge. She stared at the club below – it was just a standard observation, taking note of the general numbers and any notable names that entered or exited the establishment.
Far below, the bouncer scratched the red pebbled skin on the back of his hand, then quickly replaced the black leather glove as a group of clients approached. For a moment after they were ushered in, the glamour on his face shuddered – his concentration must have been strained – but stablised a moment later.
He pocketed a few of the bills in his hand, then recorded the rest on a small ledger.
A club for dancers.
More accurately, demons.
Though there was the unspoken masquerade – the want to keep the majority of humans unaware – broken only occasionally by the power hungry, it was only the Agency that bothered to use the alternate terms. It was understandable though – screaming “demon” in public would turn heads, raise questions and lead to trouble; screaming “dancer” on the other hand, would only turn the heads of a few, and when they didn’t see someone dancing for tips, they would go back to their ordinary life, and forget about their near miss.
‘My child,’ said a voice – further cementing her opinion that the less people knew the truth of the world, the better – it would lessen the number of wretched halfbreeds in the world. Halfbreeds whose parents had nothing better to do than to ruin the life that they carved out for themselves.
She ignored the spirit on the ledge in front of her, keeping her eyes fixed on the ground below. The bouncer looked straight up at her and gave a nod of acknowledgement – it was one of fealty, of cooperation, each of them were only doing their jobs, and so long as their paths didn’t cross, they had no reason to bother each other.
‘There’s no one down there,’ the old magpie said, her taloned feet slicing into the concrete ledge.
‘You don’t even know who I’m looking for, mother,’ she said. She tensed her leg and felt the comforting closeness of her favourite knife – even if she used it, it wouldn’t keep the spirit down for long, but knowing it was there did a lot to centre her world.
The old magpie walked back and forth along the ledge, her black and white form stepping in and out of the small pools of light, creating more of a shadow play than even she had likely intended.
She gave up on trying to complete her duty, stood and hopped down from the ledge, brushing the dust and concrete chips from her legs. ‘What do you want?’ she demanded of her mother. As she waited for the old spirit to answer, she required a black ribbon and tied back her white hair, not grimacing in the slightest as the feathers in her hair were pulled and crushed by the ribbon.
Her mother’s beak faded away, leaving behind a nominally human face – albeit one that was covered in feathers and was somehow the wrong shape, it was never something she could put her finger on, and she suspected it was somewhat deeper than the skin that her mother’s glamour projected.
‘Why are you wasting your time here?’
‘I’m on patrol, mother,’ she said, hoping that this wasn’t going to be one of the longer encounters with her mother.
‘Trying to get yourself killed again?’
She stared at her mother, wondering how the spirit even knew of the injury that had nearly claimed her life – then again, she wouldn’t have been surprised if the magpie had been overhead, laughing at her plight with a dozen other offspring. ‘I didn’t die, mother.’
The spirit shrugged. ‘You’re going to die soon.’
‘Soon for you is not soon for me, mother,’ she said, hoping that it was the truth – she had no wish to live the extended like of a half-fey; she didn’t wish to live past her years as an able fighter – and with her commander’s promise in place, there wasn’t even a guarantee that she’d live to the end of any given day.
‘I wonder,’ the spirit said, a burbling sound erupting from her throat, ‘if you’d have sought out a pie if I’d made you like your brothers.’
‘That’s blackbirds, mother,’ she said, ‘and you’ll never know, since you cursed me with this form instead. I’m human.’
The old magpie snapped her head toward her. ‘Don’t say that, don’t lower yourself to their level, you aren’t one of them, not matter what you would like to believe.’
‘I’m closer to them than I am to you.’ Her watch beeped and she gave up the pretense of being able to finish her observation. ‘Now leave me alone,’ she ordered – a useless gesture, the old bird showed up when it suited her, oddly enough, these times always coincided with a patrol, a mission or a rare moment of downtime; always inconvenient, always awkward, and always lingering – even after her mother disappeared, she could always feel her presence for hours afterward.
The thought that she was being watched led her to acts which were sure to enrage her mother. Depraved carnal acts on the roof of the Agency with other recruits, which angered her mother as it was seen as servicing the enemy. Shooting members of her own extended family – any magpies that happened to fly too close; if she was lucky, she was able to pull a two-for-one deal. Unfortunately, requiring a gun and shooting members of a protected species during an intimate encounter often inspired a lack of performance in her partner so she would be forced to finish the job herself.
She turned from her mother and slid down the fire ladder to her waiting bike. It was a beautiful machine that was, above all else, firmly grounded. It gave her a connection to the ground, and every time she rode it, it helped to further her from the occasional of dreams of flying. Dreams that always ended with her plummeting to her death.
Something skulked in the shadows beyond her bike – it was an unfortunate pool of shadow that hadn’t been there when she’d parked – the streetlight above had blown. It was one thing to say that you operated in the shadows, and during operations, that was the best way to be, but it was irresponsible to be in danger more than necessary. The three seconds it took to mount or dismount a bike could be very costly.
She closed her eyes – a necessary evil, and restarted the streetlight with a single thought – light flooded the dark alley and she opened her eyes, merely squinted instead of temporarily blinded.
The skulking shape was a monster, there was no other word for it. It had no form that she could readily identify. It was huge, hulking, and covered in blood. In its huge clawed hands was the arm that – judging by appearances – had come from a human, presumably one of the city’s homeless. It stared at her, its fight-or-flight reactions in obvious conflict, compromising by snarling at her.
‘Agency,’ she stated, in an attempt to make her upper hand all the more obvious. She tensed her leg again, ready to grab the knife in a split second – she had dodged thrown weapons and all manner of fey attacks, one lop-sided monster was not going to prove to be a real threat. ‘Identify yourself.’
The thing growled and dropped its meal. It used the back one hairy hand to wipe the blood from its mouth, still staring at her with eyes that almost seemed to glow in the dim light afforded by the streetlight. ‘You won’t stop me.’
‘Identify,’ she ordered again, her hands on her hips. It didn’t answer, so she moved her hands behind her back and required a gun. The familiar weight landed in her right hand and she gripped it tightly, ready to fire at any second.
‘Was it self-defence?’ The question was necessary – their job was to keep order, not to needlessly persecute. The fact that he had begun to eat the vagrant was certainly not in his favour, though taking advantage of one who intended to kill you was par for the course for some creatures.
‘Hungry,’ the monster replied, ‘always hungry…’
It was as much of a confession as she needed. She lifted the gun and fired – the bullets caught the creature in the chest, but it merely stared at her. She jerked her left and tugged the knife from the sheath in her boot, ready to attack it if necessary. She fired off another two shots, and the monster simply lifted its hand to its chest and stared at the blood that leaked out onto its palm.
‘Die,’ she whispered as she lifted her leg and withdrew the knife, her boot scraping on the concrete as she made a move to run toward the monster. A dark shape falling in front of her stopped her – her mother, interfering again.
She shoved the older magpie in an attempt to get to the monster, but she stopped when her mother laid a hand on her shoulder. At this range, with physical contact, the spirit’s influence was impossible to deny – the feathers on her back stood up, and she felt more spring from her shoulders, under her mother’s hand.
Her heart fluttered, and the urge to leap from something high had her staring back to the top of the building.
‘He’s mortal, like you,’ her mother said, a soothing bubbling noise coming from her throat, ‘why are you persecuting him?’
She fought for control of her body, and her mind. The feathers in her hair tugged, trying to fly free of their thin cotton bonds, and for a moment, her feet twitched and grasped, like talons.
‘That thing was human?’ the question came unbidden from her mouth – she never wanted any information from her mother; what was offered freely was often lies. The possibility that he was a leech though made his strange, awkward shape fall into place – their journey always mutated them away from their original form.
‘Still is, daughter,’ her mother insisted, her sharp fingers digging deeper into her shoulder. ‘Can’t you see through glamours?’
‘If it killed someone, it loses all rights!’
‘You are all just the dreams of dead gods.’
‘Are you calling me human now?’
Her mother shrieked, and she felt her soul shake. ‘It is what you choose to act like, but you will never be one of them. You will die what you are: trapped.’
She looked past her mother’s body – the man, the monster; whatever it was, was gone. ‘You don’t know what you’ve done,’ she said to the spirit as she turned to stare at the bike, its reality helped to ground her, and quell thoughts of flying. She looked back to where her mother had been, but only a swirl of feathers remained.
She mounted the bike and gunned it into the night, and broke four speed laws and committed half a dozen moving violations on the way back to Agency.
She swiped her all-in-one ID thrice; one to get into the Agency garage, and once to get into the lift. Once up on the fifth floor, she did her best to avoid the other recruits – they were more capable than the field recruits, of course, but they were still barely more than organ donors in training. She had no wish to get to know them, not more than a name, or beyond what we needed to coerce them up to the rooftop.
She went into her room – each recruit had a two self-contained unit with and-a-half rooms, a large bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchenette. She paused in front of the mirror to adjust the feathers in her hair, retrying a few with black cotton. All of the less-observant recruits were under the impression that they grew out her hair naturally, like she was some sort of damn doll; instead of out of her back, where they scratched and got caught on her lacy clothes until she had time to clip them, which was always painful, and very nearly always bloody.
She shook her head, and turned to her bed. Require: cabonara. The desired pasta appeared on her bedside table, small wafts of steam coming from it. She reached for it, having no worry about burning her hands on the bowl – required food and drinks always compensated for that.
Slowly chewing through the pasta, she worked out the rest of her schedule for the night – there was nothing special about the night, so she’d simply do any reports that her commander hadn’t finished, then sleep until morning training.
As she chewed on a piece of bacon, she meditated on how to kill a spirit, something she meditated on often, yet ideas still refused to come. There were no reliable ways to kill them, as all of the known ways required weapons that the Agency didn’t have access to – not that they’d give her the go ahead to kill her mother in any case.
She finished off the bowl of pasta and required a bottle of water, which she slowly drank as she wrote down scratch notes of her own report, so that she didn’t forget any of the details. She drained the last of the water, ran a slim finger around the pasta bowl for any remaining sauce, then required them both away – she liked to have her quarters tidy.
The dress she’d required a few hours ago had suited its purpose, it had been simple enough and short enough for battle, but back home in the Agency, she could indulge in a little more lace and a few more ribbons. She required a new dress, though it kept the same black and white theme as the one it had replaced.
She tugged at the ribbon around her waist and tied it tighter, pulled up her striped socks and ran her hands over the short skirt, making sure that it was up to her standards, and of course it was, they always were. Short, lacy black lolita dresses were the furthest thing from the standard uniform – a utilitarian military outfit, or even the dress uniform – a suit, but they were a freedom she allowed herself. She enjoyed the range of movement she had in them, and the shock it caused her enemies when she began to attack them.
Her sense of style also served another purpose – so much as her loyalty was absolute, as a mortal, and more importantly, as a halfbreed, some form of rebellion was expected. It bothered her commander when mortals acted outside of parameters, so this kept him appeased, and made their spars a lot more interesting.
The combat floor was still quiet when she stepped back out, not that this was surprising, she knew where the other recruits were, which ones were on patrol, which ones had scheduled downtime, and which ones should be preparing for late-shift observations. Memorising the schedule was simply part of her morning routine now, and more often than not, her colleagues asked her what shift they were working, or which mission they were being placed on – she would strike them, remind them of where the assignments were posted, then tell them anyway. Not all of them were good at learning, some were simply weapons to be aimed.
The footsteps of her heavy boots echoed down the hall, providing the only sound on the floor. Above them, she knew that there’d be field recruits wasting their time, and even further above them, the scholars doing what they did best – working at odd hours to provide the minor technical backups, or information.
She required her hair into a bun as she knocked on her commander’s door. After waiting precisely two and a half minutes, she opened the door and crossed Taylor’s office, the lights coming on as soon as they detected her presence.
A pile of half-finished reports were splayed across his desk – presumably waiting for her. It wasn’t something they spoke about, she would just silently finish his reports, then return them for him to sign off on them and send them on to wherever they had to go. She’d started not long after her recruitment, when the pile in his ‘In” tray had been tall enough to stare back at her. Even when she was wearing heeled boots.
She quietly scooped them up, and sorted the loose pages into their appropriate folders. There were some photos, pieces of old reports, tech department analysis – all of the run-of-the-mill information, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing sensitive. It was only the occasional report that was marked as “Eyes Only” that she would leave on his desk. She knew her place, and her security clearance, and no intention of overstepping her boundaries.
The light was off in his private gym, but the occasional guttural grunt and thump of a punching bag told her that he was in. The lack of light wasn’t unusual, even given the building’s automatic reaction to light whatever room you were in. He often fought in the dark, sometimes even temporarily blinding himself, all in the name of training himself to fight better.
She wished she had his discipline, but she couldn’t – she was mortal, and he wasn’t, there was a level he could go to that she would never reach, no matter how hard she tried. So, until the day he executed her for failing to live up to his standards, she’d simply have to do her best. There was no question that he knew she was there, but since he hadn’t demanded her presence, or recognised it in anyway, he obviously had no need her.
She hugged the files to her chest and left his office quietly, shutting the door behind herself. There were only about a dozen folders in the pile, it wouldn’t take her long to-
‘Since you’re not busy with him…’ a voice behind her began.
The voice reached her ears, and she took a moment to put a face to the name. The face registered, quickly followed by a feeling of disappointment. She turned her head toward him, a lock of white hair falling from her bun as she did.
She shook her head at the stocky recruit behind her. ‘You’re a shit lay Mitch, I felt sorry for you, so you got a piece of ass. Do yourself a favour and hire some whores so you aren’t a disappointment to the next girl you sleep with. Or consider batting for the other team, you’re good at lying there like a bitch.’
‘Whores,’ Mitchell said, ‘are better than sluts.’
She turned to face him, curled all of the reports under her left arm, balled her right hand into a fist and broke his nose without blinking. He stumbled back in surprise, giving her time to place the reports on the ground. She punched him again, wiped his blood onto his shirt, grabbed him by the neck and brought her knee up to where his legs met. He gurgled in pain, and began to slump – as he did, she brought his bleeding face down to meet her knee.
After this, she let him slip to the floor, muttering to himself.
She crouched in front of him, grabbed a handful of his messy hair and forced him to look at her. ‘It’s just your nose, get the fuck up.’ He went to argue, but appeared to reconsider it when he saw the look in her eye. He slowly stood, holding his nose with one hand cupping his sore crotch with the other. ‘Salute me,’ she ordered through gritted teeth.
He took his hand from his nose and saluted, rubbing blood over his forehead.
‘You’ve only been here a month, so you might not realise how things work. There’s me, then there’s Taylor, then there are the gods. Now go run laps in the gym until I tell you to stop. There’s cameras in there, and if you take a break, I’ll recommend that you serve your jail sentence instead. Now what do you say?’
‘What,’ she said, curling her fist again, ‘do you say?’
He nodded and limped off for the gym. She required a handkerchief and wiped the blood from her hand and knee before picking up the reports.
The voice came from the door she hadn’t notice open. ‘Sir?’ she said as she turned, standing to attention.
‘Yes sir,’ she said as she followed him through his office, leaving the reports on the desk she’d gathered them from – and into his gym. He attacked her without warning – there was never any warning, they weren’t his style, they weren’t part of the route.
The next few minutes were a blur, he was testing her, as he always did, but there was something more than that.
She spat blood onto the gym floor and waited for the next blow. There was always another blow when she fell. “Kick them when they’re down” was something Taylor drilled into every one of his recruits. Kick them when they’re down, and kick them hard. Kick them so hard they won’t want to get back up.
There was a sharp pain in her back, then she pushed herself up. The black and white gingham on her bodice was already stained with blood – usually he didn’t draw blood until at least twenty minutes into a training session.
Something was bothering him.
He was angry.
Taylor was always angry. There was always cause for him to be upset about something, even if it was just he persistent existence of recruits. Tonight, however, he was that special kind of angry that usually got someone thrown through a window. Most of the time they were all right.
She managed to duck a blow, only to step into another one. She took a deep breath and screeched in his face – her mother’s side came into handy sometimes. The agent stepped back, dazed for a moment, and she hit him. Hitting him was an exercise in masochism – it felt like punching a brick wall, and he always hit back twice as hard.
It didn’t matter though, their whole relationship – if it could be called such – was an exercise in masochism.
One day, he was going to kill her. He told that her every day.
‘Sir, something wrong, sir?’ she asked as he landed a solid punch.
‘You’re here to train, not talk,’ he snapped.
‘Yes sir,’ she said as she jumped back from his next blow.
Training was the last thing she needed. Her mother had abandoned her before she’d hatched, her father not long after that. She’d needed to learn how to protect herself a long time before the other kids had even learned the meaning of “grievous bodily harm”.
Grievous bodily harm was now an every day occurrence, whether she was inflicting it, or dealing with it.
She felt a rib snap.
They had no signal for a time out, even if she stopped, he would keep going until he knew she wasn’t going to get back up. He pushed her hard, and it made her good.
She got to go the best missions, black ops missions so dark the other recruits didn’t even know they existed. She’d single-handedly killed entire groups of Solstice, assassinated some prominent figures and been asked to advise on missions at other Agencies.
She fell to the floor, enjoying the cool of the polished wood on her face.
He kicked her.
One day, he was going to kill her. He told her that every day. That’s why she loved him.