CHAPTER 1: PURSUIT

How long had she been running? It seemed like forever, though she knew it had only been one day. It was almost 24 hours since the incident at the bank where she worked.

Mai crossed the street, glancing furtively around for signs that anyone was watching. She'd been walking aimlessly all day. She didn't dare go back to her apartment. She'd tried around dawn, creeping along the back streets and alleys, and had nearly stumbled into the unmarked car on a side street, the one with two people in it staring at the front entrance of her building. Mai didn't need a neon sign to figure out that they were waiting for her to come home.

How had things got so crazy so fast? She'd just been minding her business, clearing up her desk area at the bank, waiting for the manager to get off the phone so she could ask him about changing her vacation days when the stranger knocked on the glass doors. She'd barely looked up when the security guard hurried over to the doors to tell the stranger that the bank was closed for the night. The shots had come as a complete surprise. She sat at her desk with her mouth open, her heart suddenly pounding in her chest as the wild eyed, unkempt man pushed his way in, past the guard's body crumpled in the doorway. He'd pointed his gun at the manager, screaming for money.

Mr. Hiroshi had dropped the phone, and raised his hands above his head, trying to placate the man, to calm him down, but it only seemed to make matters worse. The man kept screaming, and then he shot Mr. Hiroshi in the chest. This time, Mai had jumped at the sound, and that movement brought her to the wild man's attention.

Bank robberies were supposed to happen in daylight, when the tellers were at their stations, behind the front counter. Mai hadn't trained for this. There was no alarm button at her desk, just at the tellers' workstations, and when she saw the gun pointing her way, she panicked.

There was a heavy metal sculpture hanging on the wall across from her desk. Her instincts took over, and she let loose the power that resided within, the ability or curse that made her different. It was a power she'd resisted using for years. She didn't want to be different, didn't want to think about what that ability said about her, about what she was. A freak. Hiding it, not using it, had been easy. Until now.

With a screech of protesting metal, the bolts holding the metal sculpture to the wall came out. As the man tried to aim the gun at her with shaking hands, the rough metal sheets, that always reminded her of crumpled linen on an unmade bed, came crashing down on him, crushing him to the floor. A pool of blood began oozing out from the pulpy mass that had once been a human being. She could see parts of the man still protruding from under the fallen sculpture.

Mai was shaking so hard that she accidentally shoved her coffee mug onto the floor. It seemed to her that the crash as it broke, was louder even than the sculpture's fall. Regardless, it galvanized her. She forced herself to move to Mr. Hiroshi, who'd fallen against his desk. His eyes were open, staring vacantly at the ceiling. She'd known he was dead, but forced herself to check his neck for a pulse. He was still warm, but he was very dead. She'd nearly vomited then, but choked it back. Coming around the tellers' stations, she crossed the floor, carefully not looking at the mass of body parts and metal in the middle of the bank, and tried the guard. He was dead too.

Not knowing what else to do, she'd trailed back to the teller stations and hit the silent alarm. Still shivering from reaction, she'd put her coat on, crossed her arms, and sat back down at her workstation to wait.

The police had come, taken her statement, and made her stay for hours. They'd photographed, poked, prodded, viewed the security tapes, and asked her even more questions. One of the detectives began looking at her oddly after coming out of the security office where the videotapes fed in. When another detective had offered to drive her home, he'd stopped him. Mai had asked to use the ladies room then, and as she passed the detective who'd prevented her leaving, she overheard him opening his cell phone, and asking to speak to someone in the STNJ.

Mai did an abrupt about-face in the hallway and walked rapidly out the back entrance, masking her retreat by joining a group of crime scene workers wheeling the body of the security guard on a gurney out the back way to the coroner's van.

It was fully dark outside by then, and she'd lost herself in the dinner crowds, jamming the sidewalks on their way to the many restaurants in the financial district. She kept walking among the people until the crowds thinned out, and it would have been too conspicuous to be walking alone anymore. Then she'd found a park on the edge of a residential district. Not knowing what else to do, she'd found a bench secluded by a tree, and slept there.

In the morning things had seemed, if anything, worse. The day she'd been dreading ever since childhood when she first realized she was different, had come. They knew. They had to have figured it out when they saw the security tape. There was no way that sculpture could have pulled itself off the wall, levitated horizontally, then dropped on the bank robber. Mr. Hiroshi and the guard being dead at the time, and the robber unlikely to have done it himself, especially considering the outcome, the only one left who could have done it, was her.

She'd been able to move, even manipulate and bend, metal objects since she could remember. Her mother had discovered her secret and made her promise to hide it. So she had, at first to please her mom, and then later when she'd grown up enough to realize the dangers of being 'different', for simple survival. But now the secret was out.

Once she realized that, she knew that her life was over. Job, friends, family, all of it was lost to her. She didn't want to see the fear in their eyes when they realized what she'd done, what she could still do. She didn't even want to think about what she'd done either, but her rebellious memory kept flashing back to it, and a small, insistent part of her kept remembering how it had felt. Oh, it was horrible, to be sure, frightening also, but there'd been that dark little corner of her soul that had gloried in it. She'd wanted to pay that slimy drug crazed criminal back for shooting the security guard and her manager. She'd wanted to kill him before he could kill her, and she'd done it.

But what now? She'd taken her purse with her, so she used some of her cash to buy breakfast after her abortive attempt to return to her apartment, then had spent the rest of the day hiding out. She went to two museums, had lunch at a crowded noodle bar, and wandered until it began to get dark again. She couldn't seem to come up with a plan. Putting her friends or family in danger was out of the question, besides, the police or that mysterious STNJ were probably watching them in case she showed up.

She'd wandered so far she was down at the port district now. Coming down the street was a police patrol car. So lost in thought was she, that she almost didn't notice it until it was nearly alongside of her. Turning her face away, she darted into a shop, waited until the police car drove past, and then walked as far away as she could.

From that point on, every stranger was a possible enemy. She found a crowd of businessmen exiting a subway station, and followed them down to the sea. They were on their way to a ferry. She got in the pedestrian line with them, moving slowly past the line of cars waiting to board the boat. Buying a ticket, she got on. The line had been long, and it worried her that other people had joined the line after her who'd not been among the group from the subway. In particular there was a woman with layered blonde hair in a bright green top who seemed inordinately interested in the people in line. Mai kept her head down and moved immediately to the railing of the ferry, her back toward her fellow travelers.

The ferry disembarked with a shudder, and began steaming away from the port. Car doors opened. Behind her, she heard people getting out, moving inside the cabin for coffee, ending their normal days, on the way back to their normal homes and families. A sharp pang of envy stabbed through her. She watched the white foam on the waters, black now in the dusk, washing away from the boat.

A man in a dark raincoat came up to the railing and stood beside her. She stole a quick glance at him, then another longer one when he remained where he was. He was tall, stern featured, yet young with longish black hair that hung against his cheekbones. Sensing her gaze, he lifted his chin and looked back at her.

He put his hand under the lapel of his jacket, and she knew in that instant that he had a weapon there, that he'd waited until he was close to her so he could take it out without anyone else seeing.

For an instant, she couldn't move, couldn't react at all, and then, as in the bank, instinct took over. A car, parked on the upper deck, lifted by itself, and began flying toward them. Mai realized, even as she called it over, that she, along with the man who was the car's target, was going to be hit by it as well, but she didn't care.

Then his arm was around her waist, and he'd pulled both of them over the railing and away from the car. Mai, falling, opened her mouth to scream, just as the car passed inches overhead and plunged into the sea, hitting the water at almost the same moment she did.

Water filled her mouth, and she choked, sinking beneath the salty liquid and the weight of the man, who'd fallen on top of her. She was caught in his coat and kicked wildly, stroking away from him, but he wasn't pursuing her. In fact, he just lay face down in the water, and then his body rolled and began to sink. Meanwhile the boat was steaming quickly away. Mai could hear yells and commotion, but the boat hadn't stopped, at least not yet.

The man was completely motionless, his sodden clothes weighing him down as hers were. His face was pale, turned upward, and in the starlight she saw a gash bleeding profusely, on his forehead. It reminded her of Mr. Hiroshi, and the gaping hole in his chest. All that blood, pouring out and staining his shirtfront, and she'd done nothing to stop it. She'd let him die.

"Not this time." Mai muttered to herself. Kicking off her shoes, she dipped under the water and shook her coat off. Surfacing, she saw the man had turned again and was nearly submerged, only the top of his head showing. She dove, got the crook of her elbow under his chin, and pulled him to the surface.

It took a long time to swim back to shore, pulling him along with her left arm hampered her, but she made it at last, cutting through the seawater, fouled with gas slicks and floating junk. A small beach bordering a road built up on a berm, became her goal. When the bottom came up, she stood, and dragged the man as far up the sand as she could, until he lay in the shadow of the berm. She put her chilled hand over his mouth. He wasn't breathing.

Mai had taken the employee first aid seminar, but she'd never performed CPR on a human being. Shaking off her trepidation, she knelt in the sand next to him, checked that he hadn't swallowed his tongue, and began breathing into his mouth. He had a pulse, so she didn't have to compress his chest.

After a few minutes, he retched. She moved back, and pulled him over so he could cough out the seawater without choking. When he moved, she saw that his head wound was still bleeding steadily. Past any false modesty, she grabbed her blouse and opened it by ripping the buttons off, shrugged out of it and massing it into a wad, fashioned a compress.

The man was still coughing and hacking, when she got behind him, and grabbed his shoulders, turning him gently back so his face was to the sky. He continued to cough intermittently. She leaned back against the seawall that supported the road above. Cars went by, oblivious to the scene on the beach. She pulled him up so his back and head rested against her chest, and pressed her makeshift compress against his head wound. He hissed, so it must have hurt. Mai gave an incomprehensible murmur of sympathy, but kept the compress on. When he put his arms on the sand and tried to lift himself up and away from her, she simply tightened her knees on either side of him, and said,

"Stop it, lie still. You've lost a lot of blood."

That seemed to quiet him, and he gradually relaxed against her. She began to worry.

"You may have a concussion. You should try to stay awake."

"I'm fine."

He was certainly a terse one. Mai couldn't tell if his head wound had stopped bleeding or not, but she wasn't going to take any chances on the concussion.

"Even so, you should talk or something to stay awake."

"What about?" His voice was low, suspicious.

Mai said the first thing that came to her mind. "Are you with the STNJ?"

His body stiffened.

"What do you know about the STNJ?"

"Nothing, really, I just heard the detective at the bank calling them. I think he was calling them about me. You are STNJ, aren't you?"

He didn't reply, so she went on. "What does the STNJ do exactly?"

The silence went on for so long, that she thought he wasn't going to reply, then he said, "We hunt witches."

"Oh." So there it was. He knew about her. So she was a witch? She didn't feel like one. How could she be one and not know it? All she'd ever known was that she was different, freakish. Mai cleared her throat and asked quietly, "Why? Why do you hunt witches?"

"It's my job."

Period, end of statement, complete thought. Mai could tell that for this man, it was enough. That was the only answer he'd ever give. It was in the tone of his voice, a finality of thought. She sighed. Her knee bumped against a metal object in his coat.

"You still have your gun, don't you? Are you going to kill me?" In this bizarre conversation, shivering in the cold night air, sopping wet, holding a bloody compress to his head, it didn't even occur to Mai to be afraid. She felt numb, distanced from it all. "Will it hurt?"

"No. It's a tranquilizer gun." the man's gravelly voice came calmly. "You'll be turned over to the factory."

Mai shifted a little, the rough creosote smelling planks at her back were uncomfortable. "What happens at the factory?"

This time the man didn't answer.

"I really don't want to know, do I?"

He made an involuntary sound in the back of his throat, but didn't reply directly. Mai took it as an assent.

From across the water came the sound of a speedboat. It was beaming a search light to and fro up the shoreline. Mai watched it absently.

"They're looking for us, I think."

"Yes."

She sighed. "Is it your friends? The STNJ?"

"We don't have boats. They probably called in the coast guard."

"Oh." A thought began forming in the back of her mind. It was a way out. "I'd better make sure they find us."

She could feel his start of surprise as she eased him forward so she could get out from behind him. Away from his warmth, she felt goose-bumps form all over her. He really did have a concussion, because he continued to lie in the sand, supporting himself on his elbow. She walked to the left toward the water, and began waving her hands over her head. The search light caught her immediately, and the boat came in close. A man on a bullhorn shouted "This is Lieutenant Yamada with the coast guard. Remain where you are, we will be with you shortly."

Mai fought the urge to laugh. How polite and formal they were. Imagine introducing yourself in a situation like this. Still, she supposed it was only right to return the favor. Extending her right arm out behind her toward the man lying on the beach, she concentrated, and used her special ability to call his gun out of his coat.

It landed with a satisfying 'smack' in the palm of her hand. The weight and heft of it was stronger than she'd expected. It was no ordinary gun, but it was gun shaped and would have to do. She gripped it, and stepped further into the searchlight so the coast guard would be sure to see her.

"I'm Mai Izuki, and in five seconds I'm going to kill this STNJ agent."

She heard two muffled oaths, one from the man on the beach behind her as he tried to scramble to his feet, and the other one from the coast guard boat. She'd read somewhere that the coastguardsmen were required to carry weapons and get tested at the firing range just like regular policemen. She was gambling on it being true.

"One, two," She almost made it to three when the shots rang out. It felt like being punched, hard, in the shoulder. She flew backward and landed on the sand, and the hot pain spread out across her chest. 'This is how Mr. Hiroshi must have felt' she thought to herself, and then the wounded man was at her side. He pulled her to him, and placed a wad of fabric, her blouse, she realized, against her chest. It hurt so badly, she wanted to cry.

Drops fell on her face. She couldn't tell if it was seawater from his hair or if he was crying. She tried to lift her hand to see, but couldn't raise it more than a few inches off the ground, so she let it fall back onto the sand. "Don't cry." She managed to say. "It's better this way."

She closed her eyes and willed herself to drift away. Now she wouldn't have to face her family or her friends. As her last shred of consciousness faded, she felt him place his hand gently over her eyelids, as if giving a benediction.

"I never cry." He said, and then everything went truly dark, and she was gone.