It’s some sort of a space-time vortex or a wormhole. Call it what you want; I’m no expert. All I know is I’m here, while Lance Rey is no doubt sitting on his deck with that panoramic view of Los Angeles and the sea beyond, drinking some sort of rare whiskey that I’ve never heard of.

He’s safe. Comfortable. Gathering glory for himself. The brilliant writer.

Meanwhile, I live in constant danger.

Wonder if his wife gave birth yet? Does she know what he is? Don’t worry; I won’t harm the innocent.

Rey was here once, where I am. He did some bad things. But now…

Like the piggy man said: what’ll it be, Natasha?

Warming myself by the fire while listening to the winds moan across the steppe, I spare a thought for who I once was.

***

Up until the night of the Moon Wars wrap party, my life had been predictable. I got up at 6AM, went running, took a shower, brushed my teeth, and got dressed for work. I fed my cat, Seti, made sure it had enough water, walked out of my little house in Topanga Canyon, and got into my Honda Accord. I drove the tedious journey through traffic to reach the dentist’s office in Beverly Hills where I worked as a receptionist.

On this day, instead of driving to the gym to train after work, I was meeting my friend, Hannah. She’d convinced me to go to this stupid party. She claimed to have some connection and said we could get in. That didn’t happen.

I wasn’t a groupie, but I confess I was a bit excited to get a glimpse of Phillip Chu. He was the actor playing the hero, Stryker Gunn. A brilliant martial artist that I highly respected. Besides which, he was gorgeous. They say half-Italian and half-Chinese and what a combination. There were posters of him everywhere. Standing bare-chested, sweat highlighting every exquisite line on his perfectly-formed, copper-colored body. Long, black hair woven with feathers framed his noble, intensely alive face, slightly-slanted eyes on fire with passion, nostrils flared, mouth set in a determined line.

There’s no way I wanted anyone at the gym to know what I was doing that night. I would never have lived it down. Thing is, I’m a boxer. Or, I was, until that night.

I got into a lot of trouble growing up. I had this manic energy that didn’t fit into the normal confines of school life. If I had to sit for longer than a few minutes, I felt like I’d explode. Sometimes, I did. I don’t know why I was like that. Maybe I was born in the wrong century. Like, if I’d been a Viking, I would have blossomed.

Like I’m blossoming now.

After a day of being shunned at school, I’d go home and watch martial arts movies. I worshiped Bruce Lee. I practiced his moves over and over. I even taught myself some Mandarin. Next to Lance Rey, my favorite author was Jack Vance. While other girls were reading romance novels, I was reading Vance’s Planet of Adventure series. It made my imagination run wild.

When I was 13, I got into it with a girl named Jessica and was thrown out of school. Jessica was one of the “good” girls, from a rich family, always wearing designer clothes, perfect make-up even at that age. She got straight As, of course, and volunteered once a week at a homeless shelter. But she was a weasel; I’m sorry. She had perfected the façade, the goody-two-shoes image and then, when no one was looking, bam! She’d taunt me, brush up against me, elbow me out of the way, toss her long, blonde hair in my face, and always, under her breath, she’d say things like, what’s that smell, or we’re praying for your sinful soul at church, but it’s a lost cause.  Finally, after taunting me for weeks, she tripped me in the gym and I fell flat on my face.

Next thing I knew, Jessica was the one on the ground, howling, blood pouring from her nose. I tried to explain to the authorities that “she started it,” but, of course, nobody cared about that. She was the one on the ground, after all, not me. She had to go the emergency room and my parents had to pay her medical bills. And I just have to say, whoever fixed her broken nose did a fucking amazing job. It looked better afterwards than it did before.

The day after the fight, my dad marched me down to the local boxing gym, handed me over to the coach, and said, “Do something with my daughter. My dad was a wise man. Both my parents are Russian Jewish immigrants. Both were doctors in the U.S.S.R., but here, they had to work as lab technicians. Although my behavior confused and confounded them, I have to say they always loved and supported me. Another oddity, since in all honesty, I could never blame my upbringing for my behavior.

Once I started training, my world changed. Suddenly, I was channeling my pent-up energy into an activity that resulted in positive progress instead of trouble. I stopped being a bully at school and learned to focus on goals and all that good stuff. Not that I fit in any better. That was never going to happen. But I learned how to control myself.

By the time I was 20, I’d competed in a slew of amateur boxing and kickboxing competitions and won them all. I trained in every kind of weaponry imaginable: sticks, knives, swords, archery, you name it. Female fighters, it was a new thing. I’d climbed up the ranks—admittedly, there weren’t a lot of us—and was just about to go pro with a highly publicized Vegas fight.

This wasn’t the first time in my fighting career I’d faced seemingly unsurmountable challenges. One gaffe almost sent me to prison. I managed to get out of it and thought my life was back on track.

I almost called Hannah and made some excuse not to go to the wrap party that night. But I knew how much it meant to her and I didn’t want to let her down. Hannah was a struggling, though talented, artist, and married to a piece of shit wannabe rock star. I kept telling her to leave him and it seemed like maybe she finally would. She’d told me about a new guy she’d met.

“Don’t leave one guy for another,” I told her.

But that was Hannah. She needed a man by her side.

I picked Hannah up and we headed for the restaurant. Luckily, a parking space was waiting for us just a few blocks away, and we hurried to take our places amongst the crowd. With a few well-placed nudges, we managed to make it to the front by the ropes, close to the entrance. Hannah was wearing high heels, a short skirt, and a tight little T-shirt that said “Load Your Gunn” above a picture of a shirtless Stryker Gunn. She looked adorable.

I, on the other hand, had changed from my work clothes into jeans, a plain blue T-shirt, and sneakers. I had on a Dodgers baseball cap and dark glasses just in case I ran into anyone I knew.

Suddenly, Hannah clutched my arm. “Oh my God, they’re coming.”

A wave of anticipation swept the crowd, murmuring voices swelling to a higher pitch of excitement as on cue, necks craned in the same direction. The first limo arrived, followed by a train of others, the crowd showing good-natured enthusiasm for the occupants, while saving the big welcome for Chu. Only Lance Rey, the reclusive and eccentric author of Moon Wars, caused a sensation exiting a Silver Cloud, his breathtakingly beautiful and very pregnant wife, Lana, on his arm. The author led her down the carpet without a smile or a glance to the left or right, his bald head shining above dark glasses, long black silk coat flowing behind him, soft shoes like ninja slippers on his feet.

At last, the moment came that everyone was waiting for. A stretch limo pulled to the curb and the door swung open, revealing first a pair of long, shapely legs, followed by the body and head of a woman wearing a shimmering cream-colored gown so sheer it might as well have been see-through, the front cut so low her voluptuous breasts seemed ready to fall out but never quite did. Blond hair, shiny as satin, cascaded down to her shoulders like Lauren Bacall’s in Key Largo. She struck a pose and a few bulbs flashed, but the paparazzi was waiting for the person who would exit next: Phillip Chu.

And then he did.

I removed my dark glasses for a better look, as a single swelling gasp of appreciation rose from the crowd. The woman, however luminous she had seemed a moment before, paled in comparison to the glory of the movie star who materialized before us. He paused for a moment so we could take him in, long black hair pulled back in a ponytail, coppery skin and slanted eyes glittering like an airbrushed god. He was tall and elegant in his Armani suit, yet emitting a magnetically animal charisma, as if at any moment he’d tear off the suit and prowl amongst his fans, a panther surveying his prey. I bet that any one of the men or women pushing against the ropes would have gladly submitted to a thorough ravishing right then and there.

Phillip Chu posed a moment longer, cameras flashing, the high cheekbones, long nose and sensual mouth a study in smoldering passion. Then he took the arm of the woman and they moved in unison down the carpet. Insanely, in those few moments when the actor was so close I could almost reach out and touch him, as close as he’d probably ever be, I had eyes only for his cream-colored companion. Who was this woman and how had she secured her spot beside him? As the couple came abreast to me, they paused for another camera moment, and for an instant, my eyes locked with those of the woman before she looked away again, flicking her hair back in an arrogant gesture.

As she glided on, her profile with its absolutely perfect nose was displayed and I thought, I’d know that nose anywhere, that thing she does with her hair…

Holy shit…it was Jessica, the girl I’d beaten up in high school, that perfect girl who had so infuriated me because she’d known exactly how to do it. And here she was, doing it again.

At the restaurant door, the couple turned for a final smile and royal wave, and then they were gone, followed like a swarm of killer bees by the paparazzi, the other cast members and all the hangers-on who had somehow bamboozled their way into the premiere.

It was uncanny how quickly the crowd dispersed after that. Hannah tried going up to the door, claiming to the security guard that she knew so-and-so, but we were pushed back.

“Well, that’s fucked up,” said Hannah.

I thought she might wind herself up into a state, so I firmly guided her to a bar across the street, thinking I needed a drink, too, but knowing Coach would kill me if I dared since I was in training. Deflated, depressed, and completely out of sorts, I only half-listened to Hannah’s dissertation on the meaning of premieres and what motivates people to stand like we had and watch other people walk by and why we shouldn’t have been embarrassed to do it. After a couple of martinis, she was feeling much better. I made some excuse saying I had to leave. Hannah pouted a bit, but her friend Sarah was on her way to meet us and could take her home, so we said good-bye.

It was dark by now. I walked in front of the restaurant where all the beautiful people, Phillip and Jessica chief amongst them, were sealed inside and having a fabulous time, or so I surmised. As I passed the restaurant, a movement caught my eye and I saw that someone was smoking in the semi-darkness at the far end of the long, narrow alley adjacent to the restaurant. More importantly, about halfway down the alley, three hooded figures all but blended into the shadows, crouching behind a large trash bin and watching the smoker.

This was getting interesting and I quickly melted into the shadows myself to see what would happen next. Sure enough, a stealthy advance ensued, the flash of a knife appearing in one of their hands. The knife-wielder let the others move ahead, and I calculated that maybe when their prey had been loosened up, he’d execute a little carving, the artist of the group. Whatever the case, I was on to them, every muscle taut for combat.

Anyone can learn the skill of fighting. But the heart of a warrior is inherent. I love to fight. It’s in my blood. It’s the best way to understand your enemy and yourself. By the end of a fight, you know if you won or you lost. You don’t have to wait years and be in suspense about the outcome. By the end of it, there’s only one winner. And that person has to be me.

I call it the “Killer Gene.” The ability to inflict pain and death without fear or remorse.

I went first for the one with the knife. It took less than five seconds to break his arm and send the blade clattering to the ground. I snatched the blade and came at him, but he was on his knees, crying with pain, posing no threat. My attention turned to the other two who had brought the smoker down and were so busy kicking him, they hadn’t noticed me until the cries of their companion made them pause and turn. Before their turns were complete, I had kicked the closest thug in the kidney. As his accomplice tensed, a look of stupid surprise on his face, I punched him in the nose with the blunt end of the knife, sending him staggering backward, clutching his face as blood spewed between his fingers.

Terrified understanding registered in both their eyes as I swung the knife, while behind me, the other one ran away, clutching his arm. In another five seconds, all three were gone. Rats in the dark.

I turned my attention to the man huddled on the ground.

“Here, let me help you,” I said.

I reached down and he scuttled away on his butt, face hidden in the crook of one arm. “It’s okay,” I said reassuringly, advancing once more.

“Get away!” he said, proceeding to stand up.

Whereas only moments before, he’d been lying on the ground being beaten and crying for mercy, he now attempted a shaky karate pose. Profanities spewed from his mouth in my direction, as if he thought I was his enemy.

I blinked in shock. My jaw fell open.

“Phillip Chu?”

His chin rose arrogantly, while he kept his eyes on the knife. “Stay away or I’ll kill you.”

“Oh yeah?” I said, sarcastically. “Here, take it.” I tossed the knife at him and I must say, he caught it deftly. All show. No substance.

Incredibly, he brandished the knife at me. “What do you want?” he demanded.

I just shook my head. I couldn’t believe this.

“If it’s some kind of reward, speak to my manager,” he said, lowering the knife at last. He glanced around as if expecting the manager to miraculously materialize. “Where the fuck is he? Well?” He glared at me as if I should know.

“You’re an asshole,” I said.

Fortunately (because that conversation was leading us nowhere good), the alley door to the restaurant flew open and a pudgy little man burst out, calling, “Phillip?”

Jessica was right on his heels.

Jessica looked back and forth between me and Chu, her big violet eyes narrowing. “What’s going on here?”

No doubt Chu had given her plenty of reasons to think he’d cut out of his own party to fool around in a dark alley with a strange woman. And I was a stranger to Jessica, since she gave no indication of recognizing me. Marching up to Chu, ready to lay into him, her expression changed to one of horrified concern when she saw his face.

She turned on me. “Did you do this?” she demanded.

I hoped she’d lunge at me so I’d have the pleasure of breaking her nose again. No such luck. The pint-sized man took her by the arm and steered her away, advising her to calm down.

She glanced back, and her eyes went wide again. “Hey, aren’t you—?

I didn’t hear the rest because a small crowd was now gathering in front of the alley. Within seconds, it had swelled, as if the universe had magically informed all interested parties that this was the place to be.

Cameras and microphones materialized in front of Chu’s face.

“What happened?” Everyone wanted to know.

Chu never even looked at me. With the spotlight on him, his transformation was instantaneous, becoming the star once more, nobler and more impressive than ever, if possible, thanks to his developing shiner. He told an incredible story, and I must say his acting was superb.

I listened in fascination as he recounted how he’d been attacked from behind and had single-handedly fended off not just three but six gangbangers. His theatric voice faded as I allowed myself to be pushed to the back by the jostling crowd. I turned to walk away and almost collided with the pudgy man, pale, piggy eyes viewing me with shrewd intelligence.

“Name’s Manson, Terri Manson. You are?” He extended his hand to shake mine.

“Natasha Rivkin,” I said hesitantly, refusing the handshake.

He smiled coldly.

“I’m going to make this fast, Ms. Rivkin, because I don’t have a lot of time. Nothing happened back there that you know anything about, if you understand my meaning. You do understand my meaning?”

My smile was no less frigid. Between the two of us, we could have stopped global warming. “Not sure I do, Mr. Manson.”

He put his face close to mine and said in a menacing voice, “Don’t mock me.”

I closed the gap by an inch. “Okay,” I said and walked away.

Back home, I flipped on the television, unsurprised to find that every station showed Phillip Chu recounting the story of how he’d been attacked by six knife-wielding psychopathic gangbangers and how he’d disarmed them. At the end, it zoomed in on him talking to the police and them taking the knife as evidence.

It was a PR moment made in heaven and Chu’s celebrity status skyrocketed. I know this is hard to believe, but it’s absolutely true; the press went so far as to suggest Phillip Chu should run for president. And he did a public service ad for the L.A. County Police.

I couldn’t believe it. I’d saved him, actually saved Phillip Chu. The greatest martial arts actor in history, who wasn’t a martial artist at all but a coward and a fake. Imagine what would happen to the Moon Wars franchise if the world knew the truth? How he’d been lying there in a fetal position begging for mercy?

The icy stare of Terri Manson loomed before my eyes.

I was fucked.

***

For all installments from Luminaria, 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