I poured myself a whiskey and took a big gulp. Forget my training.

What should I do, go to the police? I groaned at the absurdity. No one would believe me.

And I’d been warned, oh yes, the piggy man had warned me big time.

Amazingly, after a couple of weeks I almost convinced myself the whole thing had never happened. Between work and training, I barely had time to think about anything else. One night at the gym, I heard someone say the police had caught the knife guy. I checked the news when I got home, and sure enough, it was all over the place.

That’s when the piggy guy called, nice as could be, and invited me to lunch at a private restaurant in Little Tokyo.

He was already seated when I got there and rose to greet me, his smile puffing out his cheeks and sinking his small eyes further into his head, making him look more piggy-ish than ever. There was no way this man could ever be genuinely nice, I thought with distaste.

After ordering a fortune in miniscule helpings of artistically-presented sushi, he said, “We got off on the wrong foot, Ms. Rivkin.”

“Call me Natasha,” I said.

He nodded, encouraged. “Lovely Natasha, so young, your whole future ahead of you. And that future’s looking very promising right about now.” Deftly and at a stupefying rate, he popped food into his mouth with the chopsticks, never pausing in his conversation. “Five people know what happened that night. Besides you and Phillip, two are nowhere to be found and one’s the knife-wielding criminal who’s been caught. Maybe he’ll say something and maybe he won’t. But if he does, it’s a lie. Isn’t that right, Natasha?”

“How would I know?” I said testily, reaching for a piece of salmon, only to have him snatch it first.

“Your sarcasm isn’t flattering in a young woman. Very unfortunate the police found the little hoodlum before we did.” I didn’t ask what had happened to the other two. Manson might resemble a pig, but he was beginning to scare me.

“It’s only a matter of days before the police find you, Natasha, and that’s not in our best interests. Nor in yours.”

He was right, damn it.

“That’s why we’re making you an offer you can’t refuse. We’d like to send you on a little vacation.”

“Like what, forever?”

He wheezed in and out, a form of laughter. “No, no. Nothing like that Natasha. We’re not monsters here.”

I added my own sarcastic laughter, way too loud for the discrete setting, and he stopped eating to frown at me. I took my chance and popped a piece of sushi into my mouth.

When I looked up again, his expression had changed to one of almost fascination. It gave me the creeps, I can tell you. “We have a place in mind,” he said. “I think you could say it would be your dream come true.”

I didn’t like the sound of any of this. “You must be crazy. I have a job, a career.”

He winced. “We know all about your mediocre day job and fighting hopes.”

He leaned forward, eyes glinting maliciously. “We checked up on the little incident with the boyfriend and his trainer. Lucky to get out of that one, Natasha.” He sat back again with a shrug. “But who am I to judge?”

The “incident,” he called it. The man had done his homework.

My boyfriend, seven time world champion kick boxer Danny Lada, a living legend in the ring but useless at anything practical—like paying the rent—stumbling toward me in a drunken and drug-induced paranoid craze, long, thin kitchen knife in hand, accusing me of cheating on him with his trainer, Mickey.

Yeah, can you believe it, cross-eyed Mickey? Me, wrestling the knife away and Danny falling forward onto the blade. Always made sure those blades were sharp and so it went in clean, easy, flesh made of butter. Dead center in the heart. Dead all right, no chance for survival. Mickey bursting in, knowing nothing of what had happened, seeing Danny lying on his side, knife sticking straight out as if we were all in the middle of a horror movie, and Mickey thinking, and why wouldn’t he, that I’d killed Danny.

Mickey, who hated me, rushing forward with his knife, the one he always carried on his hip, screaming he was going to kill me—too many knives around that night—and me pulling the blade out of Danny and just like that, fast, instincts kicking in, dodging Mickey’s thrust and coming back, slitting Mickey’s throat, watching him crash down, blood spurting out. Self-defense. Danny was a big, strong guy. It was him or me.

It wasn’t until later I realized I was bleeding. A long slash to my left shoulder. Nothing serious but at least something to take away, a trophy of sorts.

And that’s how I knew, right then and there, I had the Killer Gene.

I didn’t feel remorse, guilt, or even shock. I felt exultant. Victorious. A rush like no other. My world, my element, the only “right” being to get them before they got me. I had done what I needed to do. I had won the fight. They were dead.

I was acquitted, but not after the process had taken a couple years of my life, every salacious and horribly exaggerated detail about me plastered all over the news. They even made one of those tacky TV movies about it. I’d tried to disappear into the woodwork after that, and I finally did, once the hype had died. Fortunately, there’s always a new scandal to replace the old one.

And now, here I was, doing my best to live a quiet life, sitting behind a window every day at the dentist’s office, thinking enough time had passed that I could make a comeback.

Who had I been kidding?

“You listening to me?” The little creep was jabbing at my arm with his chopsticks. My eyes cut to him so sharp, just like those knives, he actually stopped his jabbing, uncharacteristically subdued. Of course, his recovery was quick and he continued his speech.

“You see, Natasha, you can go this way,” he pointed left with a chopstick, “or you can go that way,” he pointed right with the other one. “Make the right choice and your future is wide-open. A movie career might even be awaiting you upon your return. Make the wrong one and you’ll be sorry.”

“Why do I get the feeling I don’t really have a choice?”

He sighed. “What’ll it be, Natasha?”

I hated the way he kept repeating my name. I wanted to cut out his tongue. Instead, I said, “Can you elaborate about this supposed vacation?”

Surely now he’d laugh, a camera would appea,r and someone would yell it was all a joke. But none of that happened. He just stared at me, deadpan.

I sighed. “All right, I’ll take the vacation.”

“Excellent choice. You leave tonight.” He glanced at his watch. “Now, in fact.”

He couldn’t be serious. “I need to go home first.” Maybe I could figure out a way of escape, once I got to my house.

“Nope. Police might show up at any moment.”

“What about my cat?”

“It’s been provided for.”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. “You’ve been in my house?”

He looked offended. “Not me personally.”

“What about a visa? Wait, I don’t even have a passport. Where am I going? Don’t I at least have a say in the matter?”

“Relax, Natasha. We’ll take care of the details.” He motioned for the waiter, who hurried over, and Manson signed the tab and got up. I followed him out of the restaurant. His black convertible VW Bug—who would have guessed—was already waiting for him.

He didn’t shake my hand. Before getting in the car, he said, ominously, “Someone is coming to pick you up. I’m sure you’ll stick around.”

I watched him drive off, aware that two bulky men now stood a slight distance from me, one on either side.

I knew enough about powerful people to realize that the whole “you have a choice” speech was bogus. There was no “this way” or “that way,” there was only “his way.”

A town car pulled up and the back seat window rolled down to reveal, of all people, Jessica.

“Get in,” she said.

I did.

The car drove away and we sat in silence for about a minute.

At last, she said, “You were a real asshole in school.”

“So were you.”

She smiled. Even in her sweats, no makeup, and hair pulled back in a ponytail, she looked gorgeous. “What the hell were you doing at that wrap party?”

“Just a lowly fan.”

“No shit.”

Hearing Jessica swear was shocking. She’d been so straight-laced in school.

“Wrong place, wrong time,” I said.

“Phil’s a prick, but I don’t want him dead, so I owe you one for saving him. He’s a good martial artist, just not a real fighter. His body is insured for a lot of money, you know. He takes lots of meds for his back pain, his phobias. Basically, he’s a mess.”

She paused and I could feel her looking at me, but I was staring out the window. “Anyway, I need him. I’m going to be the love interest in his next movie.”

I turned at that, and said jokingly, “Does that mean I’m forgiven for my school antics?”

Jessica didn’t smile. “After you beat me up, nothing was ever the same. I wasn’t popular anymore. Kids made fun of my nose job. You learn everything about life in school and none of it is good, not really. I hated you, dreamed of all the things I’d do to get even. But time goes by…”

She looked at me thoughtfully. “I was really scared of you. Even when I was being a bitch, I was scared of you. I guess I wanted to see which one of us was stronger. You were. I’m pretty good at getting my own way now, though.”

“You were always good at it, Jessica, much better than me.”

“I clawed my way up, the way women are supposed to, with good old-fashioned sex. But you.” Her violet eyes grew wide. “You killed two men. My God! What’s that feel like?”

She had turned her body to look me full in the face and I saw she was actually wearing skillfully applied makeup, but not skillful enough to completely cover the black and blue mark by her right eye.

“So you’re his punching bag, Jessica?” I said softly.

Her eyes dropped, guard down for just a second. “Just tell me what it’s like. Please.”

I almost felt sorry for her, almost. “There’s a reason why the suicide rate is so high for vets—and they’re supposed to be considered heroes for killing, given medals for it. But they’re just ordinary people, like most everyone is. Killing fucks people up. It would fuck you up, too. I’m different. For me, it’s like fulfillment. It’s like I’m God. I don’t say that to be arrogant or anything. It really is, actually, like that.”

She pursed her lips stubbornly. “So you’re a psycho. You didn’t hate yourself afterwards, just a little bit?”

“Why should I hate myself? I was fighting for my life. I obliterated someone who was trying to hurt me. In the samurai tradition, as Musashi says, I don’t fear death, for myself or my opponent. It’s an honor to fight. It brings meaning.”

Her brow furrowed, and I could see she was thinking deeply about what I had said. She nodded at last, as if she’d reached some important conclusion. “Okay. I feel like I’m doing the right thing then.”

A coldness settled on me. “What do you mean you feel like you’re doing the right thing?”

Jessica just shook her head.

“I haven’t asked where I’m going because I’m sure you won’t tell me. You don’t know anyway, do you?”

She shook her head. “No, I don’t know. Not really…but it’ll be fine, don’t worry.”

“Okay, then, why don’t you come with me?” I challenged. “Don’t go back to him. Make it on your own.”

Her body recoiled and, suddenly, I was right back at school with the spiteful girl making snarky comments. “I’m not a fucking Wonder Woman like you. I told you. I’m fighting the good old-fashioned way. I’m using Chu for everything he’s worth, and when I’m done, I’m going to spit him out and crush him.”

“Ouch. And if it doesn’t turn out like that?”

“You’re the one who should be thinking about how things didn’t turn out.”

The car stopped and the door opened. The two big men stood there and I supposed they had followed behind us in another car. I was getting pretty sick of their silent mugs. The driver got out and came around as well. Three big guys, all packing heat.

I was about to get out, but Jessica grabbed my arm, I suppose in some kind of last ditch attempt to justify herself. “Just remember, you’re as much in a cage as I am. You talk tough, but you obeyed Manson and did what you were told, like everybody does. And for all your fighting ways, I saved you. Remember that! I convinced them to let you go, or you’d be floating in the L.A. River—if there was any water in it, that is.”

She smirked now, beginning to feel better thanks to her own pep talk. “The difference between you and me is by the time you get back—if you get back—I’ll be the powerful one. Real power, not the pathetic kind you’re talking about. You punch someone and you end up in jail, or if you do it in the ring you get a few thousand bucks: so what? I sleep with the right guy, take a few punches, and if I’m smart—which I am—I end up with money and influence beyond your wildest dreams. I’ll go for that any day; shit, you don’t even have a man, abusive or otherwise, do you?”

What could I say? Nothing. So, I kissed her on the mouth. Savagely. And for a moment, I felt her submission before she pushed me away.

“Get the fuck out of my car,” she said, her voice shaking.

I did, realizing I was in front of a café I’d been to a few times, down a little side street off Hollywood Blvd.

I’d forgotten the name of the place, but I saw a small sign lit up in purple: Le Relais Basque. It was closed, the windows dark. The men propelled me towards the front door and we all went inside. Out of the shadows at the back of the café, a figure stepped. I thought it would be Chu, or maybe Manson.

It was Lance Rey.

He came toward me, beaming, and extended a hand to shake mine.

“I am so honored to meet you,” he said, exuding a ferocious energy.

And I thought, we are alike. He, too, has the killer gene.

He slapped his thigh and the sound ricocheted like a bullet. “I’d give anything to have seen you humiliate Chu. He’s one fucked-up bastard, but what artist isn’t? And despite his lack of practical fighting skills, he is an artist. No one else could have played the part of Stryker Gunn.”

“So, what…” my voice trailed off. I was baffled by all of this.

Rey looked around the room, as if suddenly seeing how it must look to me. “Oh, this?”

He motioned me to follow him to the back of the café. I hesitated. For all his smiles, three men with guns stood behind me. I wasn’t here because I wanted to be.

I tilted my head toward the gloom. “Why would I go back there?”

His voice resounded more melodiously than Chu’s. Like Richard Burton, except with a very slight Slavic accent. “Let’s say you could walk back out the front door and return to your ordinary life. Would you do it?”

“The question’s meaningless since I don’t have that choice,” I said.

“But you wouldn’t take it. Choices are illusions. For you, there is only destiny.” He gestured toward the darkness.

I wondered if the man was insane. Whatever was going to happen to me, I wished he’d spit it out, so maybe I could figure a way to escape. I’d thought they’d send me out of the country. Give me some money. This wasn’t what I’d expected.

As if reading my mind, he said, “You don’t want to escape from this, I assure you. Embrace it, as I did all those years ago.”

“Come,” he commanded in his Richard Burton voice.

What else could I do? I walked forward, every muscle taut, ready to react. I now stood with Rey in the small hall at the back of the restaurant. There was a door on each side and a steep stairway at the end. I suppose I could have bolted up the steps, maybe gotten out onto the roof. Who knows? But something happened and I forgot about all of that.

Rey handed me a small black box, and the next thing I knew, I had opened it.

Darkness fell, an actual thing wrapping itself around me like thick snakes, so I couldn’t move away if I had wanted to. After a few seconds, I noticed a penetrating blue light rising from the box that I still held in my hands. I blinked and stared as a miniscule, perfectly-formed, and glowing firefly, made of what looked like some kind of metal, rose out of the box.

A voice spoke in my ear, Rey’s voice, and as he spoke, I felt the pulse in his temple and it kept time with my own pump, pump of blood. “I can’t go with you. I did some things last time…got into a bit of trouble. Send me a story from Oran and we’ll work out a royalty deal. I’m a fair man. Give me an adventure! You can come back when the Chu drama has blown over.”

Oran. The planet in Rey’s book Moon Wars. 

Rey’s voice went on. “Beware those hypocritical fanatics who peddle the Blue Moon. That’s what got me into trouble. Run a sword through Ith Daktar, if you can. You’ll get extra points for that. Goodbye.”

And then, the darkness lifted slightly and Rey was gone.

I was in some kind of in-between, waiting place; I don’t know why I say that, it’s just the feeling I had. It looked like a narrow country lane, with high hedges on either side, tendrils of slithering vines all around me. A leaf fluttered past, brushing against my face before floating away. Every so often, a shadowy form whipped by before disappearing down the end of the lane, trailing a streak of blue light.

The firefly fluttered in front of my face. I tried to grab at it and it whisked past my hand. I felt it enter my ear and start burrowing into my head. My brain exploded in an agony of pain. I screamed but no sound came out. I was swept off my feet and propelled down the lane, moving faster and faster until I lost all connection to myself as separate to space. The pain disappeared as suddenly as it came, and I immediately forgot all about it. For a split second, or maybe an eternity, I was at one with the universe, as expanded as infinity, both outwards and inwards.

I would gladly endure that pain again, for the consciousness it afforded.

And then, I was through, thrown to the cold, hard ground of this desolate place.

***

Once upon a time, I used to drive to work at the dentist’s office every day, take a lunch break, and read Moon Wars. I fantasized about fighting alongside Stryker Gunn.

Now, I sit before a campfire on the steppes of Oran with the warrior himself. We are plotting our strategy with a band of rebels. Above us, the Blue Moon of pleasure and the Red Moon of torture hang on opposite ends of an ink black sky. The Vishku Sun casts a pale glow without warmth during these short winter days. Before us lies the road to Aarabaythia.

Beware the Blue Moon fanatics, so Rey warned me, and now I know why. Gunn has told me of Ith Daktar, who occupies the highest seat of the council and controls all of Oran. An untouchable foe. Once we reach Aarabaythia, the long journey to Sumar Palace will begin.

Oran is a harsh and wondrous place. There is no great technology. The only strange site are great ships that sail in the sky, and I am not sure what powers them. It is these ships that transport people back and forth to the Red and Blue Moons. People work hard in fields, mine for minerals, cook by fires, and live in simple dwellings. They are all committed to the Vishku Way, which brings balance between the two Moons. Any deviation is met with severe punishment.

This is what Gunn and his little army fight against. They deny the religion of the Vishku Way. This in itself is punishable by lifelong banishment to the Red Moon. These rebels demand freedom to live as they please. They seek to upset the balance by killing off the wealthy and hypocritical lords and ladies who run the government. So far, it has been impossible to get past the magic that surrounds the religious leaders to do them any damage.

Gunn has heard rumors of a sorceress who is imprisoned on the Red Moon and holds answers to this dilemma. But perhaps it is only an old myth; he isn’t sure.

I’ve joined in full force with Stryker Gunn. He’s told me everything that happened between him and Rey. We talk long hours by the fire about our two worlds and how they are different, but ultimately the same. I am forming a strong bond with this courageous army.

Yes, Rey, you were right in one thing. I’m glad you sent me here. But I don’t like it that you had such control over my destiny. Now, like Gunn, I want control over yours.

Hell, if I’m going to be the living inspiration for Rey’s sequel, I might as well make it a blockbuster by doing him in at the end.

What’ll it be, Natasha?

I’m coming back, Lance Rey, and I’m bringing your worst nightmare with me.

Stryker Gunn.

That is my destiny.

And yours.

***

For all installments from Firefly Lane, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Chapter 1: Come to Me — Lana
  2. Chapter 2: The Proposition — Hannah, Part 1
  3. Chapter 2: The Proposition — Hannah, Part 2
  4. Chapter 3: Killer Gene — Natasha, Part 1