Bird of Prey
Shadows of the Mind Collection Part One
By Mandi Jourdan
Marks like this one were the reason Ravenna sometimes regretted the path her life had taken. Maybe she could have been a writer, like her mother. A police officer, like her father. She could have been like Aunt Clarisse, who had worked for President Hartley and been forced to drop off the radar after false accusations and scandals. At least with any of these, Ravenna could have said she had made a decision to be proud of. Her mother told stories she loved and shared them with the world; her father strived to protect people; her aunt had done the noble thing, taking the fall for a government fiasco, preserving the reputation of her employer and close friend.
Instead, Ravenna thought as she drifted through the sidewalks of Chicago, her black jacket pulled tight around her in the cold drizzle, I ran. I was selfish. She liked to believe selfishness wasn’t what had driven her to leave, but that was wishful thinking. Had she not been selfish, she would have gone home by now.
Ravenna glanced over the street as a passing pair of hovercar headlights cut through the darkness. In the instant of illumination, she caught sight of her quarry. The woman was several yards ahead– far enough for Ravenna to remain concealed.
The mark’s name was irrelevant. In fact, Ravenna was making a concentrated effort not to remember it. If she saw them all as humans, it would be a lot more difficult to convince herself to kill them.
Even when she had left home, she hadn’t imagined herself becoming a killer. After all, death was what she had fled to escape.
Her head snapped upward at the sound of the cracking ice, her focus torn from the skates on which she waddled unsteadily toward the lake. Her brown eyes fell on her brother. He looked to her in panic. A moment later, he slipped through the ice and into the dark water beneath.
The image was as clear to her now as it had been on the day it had happened. She used to pray that it would fade from her memory, at least a little, but the scene had returned to her in her dreams or in a crowded classroom or out with her friends, without fail. Eventually, she had stopped praying altogether. She could survive on her own.
I needed to get away, she told herself now as she turned a corner, losing sight of her mark for only an instant. I would have gone insane.
Just last week, she had taken down three marks in the course of two days. The first had been a drug dealer, and judging by the sum of money she’d received for putting a bullet through his skull, her employer had been one as well. Not that she’d asked. A certain level of anonymity was required in the business of murder, and the less everyone involved knew about one another, the better. It was harder to be double-crossed if personal information was kept to a minimum.
The corner of Ravenna’s mouth twitched up into a cold, bitter smile. Of course she knew this now, but it would have been much more helpful ten years ago.
Chicago should have been more like New York, Ravenna decided as she wandered the city for the third night since her arrival, alone on Navy Pier. The buildings were tall and the city was crowded, with its chrome towers and layers of hovercars claiming the streets, but it wasn’t home. Lake Michigan was beautiful; she watched the dark water ripple just off the pier, and glint in the moonlight that fell from overhead, but it wasn’t the Hudson River, where she had often gone boating with her family as a child.
You chose this, she told herself, shaking her head and zipping up her pale green jacket to shield herself from the wind. You aren’t allowed to complain.
Ravenna yawned, turning away from the dark water and starting toward her temporary home a few blocks from the pier. Living in a hotel hadn’t been the plan, but for now, it was good enough. She watched the hovercars pass and wondered how many people lived here and how many had done so all their lives. She wondered if she would ever stop feeling out of place.
“Presenting the future of robotics technology,” a smooth female voice announced from a screen in a store window to Ravenna’s left, “the seventh generation Adam and Eve from Genesis Tech.”
Ravenna paused to glance at the screen, where a blond man and a red-haired woman smiled at the audience. As they approached the camera, their movements were fluid and realistic. They were dressed in a closely-tailored grey suit and dress, respectively, and while Ravenna remembered the last generation of Genesis androids being rather stiff and inhuman, she thought these two could pass well for a living man and woman.
“Arriving Fall 2218,” said the announcer’s voice. “Each model can be purchased for the unbelievably low price of–”
Ravenna’s mouth went dry, her muscles tensing from a sickening pang of fear. The voice was at her ear. She hadn’t been paying enough attention to notice anyone approaching. She said nothing. Strong arms enclosed her and pulled her backward. A hand slipped over her mouth and she felt the cold barrel of a plasma gun pressing into her side. Her first instinct had been to scream for help, but if she made noise, she would certainly be shot. She thought she knew enough about self-defense to attempt to fight, but she couldn’t think clearly enough in her panic to form a plan.
Her captor hauled her into a nearby alley and shoved her hard against the wall of an apartment building. He eyed her up and down, and a wicked grin curled his lips. He pressed his forearm across her throat to pin her to the wall, and as a choked breath left her lungs, she glanced down to see the gun only inches from her face. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears, and she couldn’t think. His free hand ripped the zipper of her jacket downward, and her stomach twisted.
“Please,” she gasped, reaching up to attempt to pry his arm from her throat.
He wrestled her jacket from her shoulders as she struggled against him, and in a moment of pure panic, she kicked him hard in the shin. He hissed in pain and pressed the gun to her temple, his dark eyes filled with malice.
“Shouldn’t have done that.”
A gunshot echoed through the alley, and Ravenna realized only several seconds after the sound had faded that she had closed her eyes tightly. She forced herself to open them, and she registered slowly that there was no longer the suffocating pressure on her throat, and the pounding in her ears was the only remaining sign of her terrifying predicament. Except, that was, for than the man lying at her feet. He was facing the ground, and a plasma bolt had landed perfectly in the center of the back of his head.
Ravenna dropped to the ground, her head in her hands as she struggled to get her breathing back under her control. Her hyperventilating nearly drowned out the sound of feet clamoring down the ladder across the alley and rushing across the pavement toward her.
A hand rested gently on her elbow. “Are you hurt?”
Ravenna lifted her face to see another man crouching beside her. Unlike the first, his eyes were not malicious. They were green, and while there was a sense of severity about his face, his expression made him seem like someone who had witnessed a lot of suffering, not one who enjoyed inflicting it. Regardless, his shot suggested a practiced marksman.
“I’m fine. Um… thank you.” Ravenna inhaled deeply and let out her breath in a sigh, trying to rid herself of her shock and nerves. She was safe. Probably.
The man nodded. “You’re lucky he was such an ass. If he hadn’t done this and worse a million times, I wouldn’t have been hired.”
“Hired?” she repeated blankly, not understanding.
“Come on. We’ll talk when we’re farther away, if you want.” He offered her a hand, and after a moment’s hesitation, she took it.
It might be insane, she thought as he helped her to her feet. He just killed a man. But he also just saved my life. And I don’t want to be here when someone finds the body. She followed the man out of the alley, pulling on her jacket once more to shut out the cold night air and keep herself from shivering more than she already was.
“I’m Roman, by the way.”
She looked up at him. Roman had dark brown hair that was still several shades lighter than hers, and he was dressed in black. He appeared to be a few years older than her; he might have been in his early twenties. His clothing and the deftness of his movements suggested that he was accustomed to blending into the darkness around him.
“Ravenna,” she said simply in introduction. “Why were you hired?”
Roman smiled. “You sure you want to know?”
“You saved me. You got my attention. I want to know.”
“I get paid to kill people who deserve it.”
Ravenna frowned, folding her arms over her chest as she considered his words and worked to keep pace with his longer strides. She had always viewed murder as undeniably wrong and those who committed it as irredeemably guilty. But Roman had saved her.
Roman said nothing immediately, and when Ravenna looked up at him again, his brows were pulled together thoughtfully. “I’ve seen a lot of people get away with things they shouldn’t have.”
Perhaps, Ravenna thought now as she walked more quickly to close the distance somewhat between herself and the woman she had been hired to kill, she had decided to follow Roman’s path in order to punish herself. She felt responsible for the death of someone she cared for, and there weren’t many people to care for, in the life of an assassin. Roman was the only one she had ever been close to, since she had left New York. He had taught her everything he knew– how to aim and fire a plasma gun, how to remain hidden, how to judge whether she had been tricked into pursuing a target she did not feel justified in attacking.
Just as Roman had, Ravenna had elected only to pursue marks who had committed crimes. She had turned down countless potential employers over the last decade who had tried to hire her to kill for personal reasons. Estranged spouses who wanted insurance money or revenge, politicians who wanted more power… Ravenna wanted no part in petty hits. She saw herself as an agent of justice, or at least of karma, and once in a while, this allowed her to sleep at night.
This mark, though, wasn’t exactly one of her normal targets. The woman had been accused of embezzling a large sum of money from a banking firm to an illegal organization Ravenna hadn’t been able to gather much information about, but in her tailing of the woman for the last several days, she had not seen any evidence of her guilt. The woman didn’t appear to be involved with the organization at all, and though she kept expecting evidence to turn up to the contrary, nothing happened.
Her employer must have been talented at forgery. The ledgers and transfer documents, Ravenna concluded, had been falsified. She turned a corner and abandoned her pursuit.
“Are you sure about this?” Ravenna glanced nervously over her shoulder, certain that she and Roman were being watched.
“Yes. I’m not going to take out a mark who isn’t guilty, Rae. Wait here for me, and I’ll be back in a minute. And remember: if I’m not–”
“I get the hell out of here and I never met you.”
“Right.” Roman grinned, reaching out to squeeze Ravenna’s shoulder before turning away and making for the corner of Elston and Chestnut, several buildings away.
Sighing heavily, Ravenna reclined against the wall she stood beside and surveyed the area through her dark sunglasses. The man he had been hired to kill had, Roman determined, not been guilty of the crime of which he was accused. The employer had insisted Roman meet him in person, and Ravenna had anticipated something going wrong instantly.
She glanced to her left to see that a black-coated woman had arrived and was speaking with Roman. The woman’s face was calm, and neither moved much as they spoke. Roman was accustomed to avoiding attention, and Ravenna suspected the woman was, as well. Ravenna looked away at the sound of a barking dog from her right, and she allowed herself to smile for a moment as she watched a small boy lead a very large yellow lab while his parents followed.
A gunshot pierced the moment of calm observation, and Ravenna whipped around to face the street corner where she had last seen Roman.
Clutching his chest, he fell to the ground as the woman disappeared around the corner. Ravenna whipped out her gun as she hurtled toward her friend. She crouched beside him. The plasma bolt had hit him in the chest, and he was struggling to breathe. Pushing herself to her feet, she ran at full speed after the retreating, black-coated woman, gun drawn. She stopped in her tracks as the wail of police sirens reached her ears. Two Chicago P.D. hovercars approached, and as her heart plummeted sickeningly, she realized how bad this would look. She was running from the scene with a gun. Sighing in frustration and helplessness, she returned to Roman, who was coughing blood onto the sidewalk. Ravenna crouched beside him.
“Roman. Come on, I’m going to lift you and we’re going to get out of here.” He opened his eyes and frowned at her. “Run.”
“I’m not leaving–”
She had barely managed to escape before the police had converged on the corner. Every day since, she had wondered what had become of him and had been unable to find out.
Now, as she ascended the steps to the apartment her current employer had told her to visit if there was a problem, Ravenna wondered if Roman would be proud of what she had done since she had last seen him. She had continued punishing the guilty, and today, she had spared one who was potentially innocent, just as he would have done.
Maybe I’m not completely selfish, she thought as she knocked on the door. I could have just done it and taken the money.
The door opened, and Ravenna trained her eyes on the welcome mat. “I couldn’t complete the hit.”
“Why not?” Her employer’s voice was cold and female, just as it had been on the phone.
“She was innocent.” Sighing, Ravenna looked up to meet the woman’s eyes at last, and she froze, unable to speak.
It was the woman who had shot Roman.
“I pay you people to kill, not to make judgments.” The woman glared, and she reached into her coat. Ravenna saw a glint of silver within.
Ravenna pulled her own gun from its holster and fired, hitting the woman squarely in the forehead.
She turned away without pause and started down the stairs. No amount of money could have compared to her satisfaction.
About the Author
Mandi Joudan studies Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Her prose has appeared in four anthologies by Sinister Saints Press, Coming Around Again by the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers Group, Quickfic, Beyond Science Fiction Digital Magazine, 9Tales from Elsewhere, Theme of Absence, the 2015 and 2016 editions of Grassroots Literary Magazine, and the Kaskaskia College Scroll. She has stories forthcoming in 9Tales, Digital Science Fiction, and the 2017 edition of Grassroots Literary Magazine. She can be found on Amazon and on Twitter (@MandiJourdan), or at Whatever Our Souls (whateveroursouls.com), the literary magazine she co-edits.