Chapter 1: Punisher

            Selene DiSilva crouched in a narrow alley between two run-down apartment buildings, watching the street. When she’d begun her vigil hours before, the smells of roasting chicken and frying plantains had wafted from the surrounding apartments.  Families laughed and bickered, doors slammed, cars honked.  But in the small hours of the morning, the only scents were those from the trashcans overflowing nearby, and the street before her lay nearly deserted.  Even in the city that never slept, there were quiet corners like this: a forgotten neighborhood perched at Manhattan’s northernmost tip.  Here, most people obeyed the ancient human instinct to seek refuge from the dark.  But not Selene—and not the man she’d been sent to hunt. 
            A single dark SUV rolled by, a wave of Caribbean hip-hop pouring through the open window to briefly shatter the silence.  From her hiding place, Selene peered at the driver, but let him pass unmolested.
            Later, a group of swaggering young men strolled along the street, laughing and shoving as they claimed the sidewalk for themselves.  Selene watched them carefully but didn’t move.  Then two women passed her alley, speaking in slurred Spanish, their eyes purple with fatigue.  She felt no empathy—as usual, she’d slept all day and only awoken with the moonrise.
            Finally, a solitary figure appeared at the far end of the block.  Long before she could see his face, Selene knew him by his stride.  Chin forward and shoulders high like he’s looking for a fight, she thought, but only with someone he’s sure he can beat.
            She glanced at the apartment building across the street—a wide 1920s façade, its art deco grandeur long since gone.  A window on the third floor flickered blue behind thin curtains.  Jackie Ortiz was awake and watching TV, just as Selene had instructed. 
            She stood up slowly as the man approached the building.  Mario Velasquez.  Medium height—shorter than her own six feet—but broad across the shoulders, his muscles bulkier than hers.  He wore a rhinestone-studded cross on a thick gold chain around his neck and kept his hands shoved into the front pocket of his sweatshirt.  She couldn’t be sure if he was armed or not, but she’d find out soon enough.
            She could see his face now, the same one she’d been stalking for a week: high cheekbones and a neat goatee, dark skin that made his light blue stare all the more alluring.  Once again, she thought, a woman falls for a pair of pretty eyes and never bothers to find out what’s behind them.
            Mario stopped opposite Jackie’s building.  Looking up at her window, he pulled a cell phone from his pocket.  Selene couldn’t make out his murmured conversation, but she recognized the aggravation in the rising pitch of his voice.  It wouldn’t be long before he started throwing punches. 
            She let the tiniest of smiles cross her lips.  She was, after all, going to enjoy this. 
            Mario stepped into the building’s small vestibule.  Through the cloudy glass of the front door, Selene watched him jab repeatedly at the buzzer for Jackie’s apartment.  Next to him stood a doorman’s podium.  Just for show, Selene knew.  No lobby guard would appear to protect Jackie from her boyfriend.  Her only defense was a weak lock on the building’s inner door and the woman she’d hired to strike Mario down.
            Selene crossed the street and waited just out of Mario’s sight.  Come on, Jackie, she urged silently.  Be brave.  The young woman appeared in the vestibule, closing the inner door behind her so that Mario couldn’t get upstairs.  Selene tensed, ready to spring forward.  But not yet, not yet.  
            Jackie, short and skinny, looked even younger than her twenty-two years.  She’d made a vain attempt to cover her swollen black eye with a smear of turquoise shadow.  One hand nervously twirled a lock of dyed blond hair.  She held her other arm across her body like a shield. Mario flashed her a smile and sneaked a quick kiss on her neck.  Jackie shuddered—whether with delight or fear, Selene couldn’t tell.  Then he took a step closer, and the woman put a hand on his chest, pushing him away.  He kept coming, backing her into a corner, still smiling despite Jackie’s protests.  He rested one hand possessively on her neck and hooked the other around the white leather belt at her waist, pulling her against him.  Jackie struggled in his grip, her eyes darting back and forth, searching for Selene. 
            Just a moment more, Selene thought, so the police have evidence.  Then it happened, quick as a snake bite: Mario slapped Jackie across the face. 
            Selene yanked open the outer door and put a light hand on Mario’s shoulder.  Still holding on to Jackie’s belt, he turned to the intruder.
            “Hey, Mario,” Selene said with her best attempt at casual courtesy.  She didn’t want to antagonize him until Jackie was safe.
            “Who the fuck are you?” 
            “You don’t recognize me?”  Selene gave him what she hoped was an alluring smile.
            His defensiveness dissolved as quickly as it had appeared.  He made a low sound of pleasure, like a man savoring some succulent morsel.  Jackie slipped from his loosened grip as he turned all of his attention toward Selene.  His eyes traveled appreciatively over her body, seeing past her loose cargo pants to the long, lean legs underneath.  “If I’d nailed you, I think I’d remember.”  Unnoticed, Jackie scurried back through the inner door and pulled it shut behind her. 
            “Perhaps.”  Selene nodded with exaggerated thoughtfulness.  “But considering the number of women you’re currently sleeping with, perhaps not.”
            “What do you know about—”
            “Lyla?  Miriam?  Fatima?”  She ticked them off one by one on her fingers.  “Raquel?  Yolanda?  And, of course, Jackie.  Although you don’t sleep with Jackie so much as beat her up, so I’m not sure I should count her.” 
            Mario put his hand in his sweatshirt pocket and didn’t draw it back out.  A knife, Selene decided.  Hopefully not a gun. 
“You a cop?” he asked. 
            “Not at the moment.”
            “Then back away, lady.  Mind your own business.” 
            “It’s my business to keep you away from her.”
            He smirked.  “And how you going to do that?”
            Selene drilled a right hook into his face, spinning him away, then a left into his kidney.  With great satisfaction, she watched a line of bloody spittle drip from his mouth onto the floor as he doubled over. But Mario recovered quickly, coming upright with a long, serrated hunting knife in his hand.  He barreled toward her.  She sidestepped him easily, thrusting out a foot to send him stumbling forward into the opposite wall.  Before he could regain his balance, she jabbed an elbow into his spine, bringing all her superior height to bear.  Mario grunted and dropped the knife but stayed on his feet.  Faster than she’d anticipated, he spun toward her and kicked her hard in the knee. 
            Biting back a yelp of pain, she fell, slamming the injured knee into the ground.  He kicked again, striking her in the jaw.  Her teeth sliced the inside of her cheek; she tasted blood.  Cold panic rushed through her veins as a third kick smashed into her ribs, knocking the breath from her body.  Vision wavering, she reached across the floor toward the fallen knife—Mario beat her to it, bringing the blade down in a slicing arc toward her face.  She moved her head just in time to prevent losing her nose; the knife whistled through the air beside her ear and struck the tiled wall with a sharp ping. 
            “You’re going to wish you hadn’t gotten in my way, puta.”  He kicked her backward and kneeled over her body, pinning her in place.  For decades, she’d been dreading this moment—the fight she couldn’t win, the woman she couldn’t protect.  Have I finally grown so weak that a mere man can defeat me?
            “Who do you think you are?” he demanded, raising the knife once more. 
            Selene grabbed his upraised wrist.  “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she gasped, her arm shaking with the effort of holding him off. 
            “Try me.”
            A hundred names came to mind, whispered in long forgotten tongues, but she couldn’t lay claim to a single one.  Not any longer. 
            Mario laughed at her silence and waved the knife just out of her reach.  “Don’t even know your own name, huh?  Guess it’s true—the hot ones are dumb.”
            One look at his grinning face burned away Selene’s self-pity.  As he leaned forward, ready to strike, his rhinestone cross swayed above her.  The symbol of everything she’d lost, everything she despised.  She allowed herself a quick second to imagine grabbing it and punching it through his pretty blue eye.  Then she hooked the base of the doorman’s podium with her foot and brought it crashing down on Mario’s head instead.
            He collapsed, unconscious, on top of her.  
            Jackie rushed back into the vestibule.  She stopped a few feet away from Mario, her hand to her mouth.  “Did you kill him?”
            “Unfortunately, no,” Selene wheezed from beneath his bulk.  To her dismay, it took Jackie’s help to free her from the dead weight. 
            She slipped a length of wire from her pocket and tied Mario’s wrists together.
            Jackie stared at Selene’s face, wincing.  “Damn, you okay?” 
            Selene raised a hand to her throbbing jaw, wondering just how bad it looked.  
            “I already called the cops,” Jackie went on, as if that would make Selene feel better.
            “I told you to wait until I was gone,” she said, more angrily than she’d intended.
            “I saw him kicking you.  Then I saw him holding that knife over you like he was going to slice off your eyebrows.”  Jackie put her hands on her hips.  “Was I supposed to just let him carve you up?”
            “Yes, that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do.  I make myself the target so you don’t have to.”  She looked at the red handprint on Jackie’s cheek.  “At least…not anymore.”
            “The cops will be here in five minutes.  They’re bringing an ambulance.  You sure you shouldn’t get your face looked at?”
            “Don’t worry about me.  Just make sure to tell the cops that this time, you’re pressing charges.  And tell Mario that if he ever threatens you again, the police are going to be the least of his worries.”
            Jackie looked down at her boyfriend.  “He’s not going to be a vegetable when he wakes up is he?”
            Selene just shrugged.
            “I mean, I didn’t think about that before, but the podium made this sound when it hit his head…like a thunk, like a wet thunk.
            Selene stared at the young woman for a moment, a scowl creasing her forehead.  “What’re you doing?”
            Jackie looked up.  “I just—”
            “You’re worried about him.”
            “He’s not just a—”
            “Have you already forgotten our agreement?”  Selene couldn’t keep the acid from her voice.  “I protect you, just like I protect all the women who come to me.  And all I ask in return is two promises: you won’t tell the cops about me, and you won’t hook up with assholes again.”  Jackie opened her mouth to protest but Selene cut her off.  “You want to get down on your knees and tell him you’re sorry.  I can see it in your face.” 
            Jackie huffed indignantly.  “I asked you to get him away from me, not to tell me what to feel.”
            Selene tried to summon the fury that had once defined her life.  Instead, she just felt tired.  She’d heard it all before—thousands of times over thousands of years.  “If you go near Mario again, you’re on your own,” she said wearily, opening the door.
            Limping down the sidewalk with her head down and shoulders hunched, she listened to the approaching sirens.  She ran her fingers along the swollen bruise on her jaw and the tender spot on her ribs where she’d been kicked.  The pain in her knee flared with every step she took.  In the moment before she knocked the podium into Mario’s head, she’d been in real danger, as vulnerable and helpless as the women it was her duty to protect.  If he’d had a gun instead of a knife, Selene would be the one waiting for an ambulance. 
            And what would happen then? she wondered.  If a man put a bullet through my skull, would my tenuous hold on immortality finally rip free? 
She looked up at the moon, a hazy crescent just discernable between the buildings, heading toward its daily oblivion beneath the horizon.  And if I die—so what?  The goddess Artemis vanished a long time ago.  What’s left of her is nothing but shadows and memories.  Both disappear with time. 
            Maybe I should too.
Then, despite the balmy air, a sudden shiver crawled along her arms, as if from a distant shriek more felt than heard. 
            In another age, she might have recognized the sensation as a summons.  She might have listened more closely to the prayer upon the wind.  She might have heard the anguished cry of a woman in mortal danger, far away on the other side of the city, calling out for the goddess who might save her. 
            Now, Selene merely grimaced and zipped her leather jacket a little higher beneath her chin. 

Manhattan has many secrets.

Some are older than the city itself.

The city sleeps. Selene DiSilva walks her dog along the banks of the Hudson. She is alone—just the way she likes it. She doesn't believe in friends, and she doesn't speak to her family. Most of them are simply too dangerous.

In the predawn calm, Selene finds the body of a young woman washed ashore, gruesomely mutilated and wreathed in laurel. Her ancient rage returns. And so does the memory of a promise she made long ago—when her name was Artemis.


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