“Hey! I paid good money for that dance.”

His voice was indignant. Clearly he wasn’t a man who was used to not getting his way. We see a few of those in here from time to time; the men, and women, who think the power they wield out there means a damn thing in a place like this. I spare a brief glance at the metal clad fingers he has wrapped around my upper arm, and he hurriedly withdraws them. I contemplate my next move, and catch Mama’s eye. She gives me great freedom, but she has already warned me that she won’t tolerate any more scenes. I shrug off my drunken admirer and motion to Angeline to take my place. ‘Angel’ may look like a delicate little flower. She’s anything but. He smiles, and so do I. He has no idea what he’s in for.

I turn away, already bored by the interruption. My attention is on the attractive brunette drowning her sorrows at the bar. I could always spot them. Mama says I have a gift for misery. Not that there’s much need for such a gift now. Misery is all around us. It has been for the last thirty years. That’s when the world ended, and this rank cesspool of civilization began.

I was just a kid then. I’ve always wondered if that was a blessing or a curse. Maybe it was better to not be able to fully understand what was going on, but then that was no way for a child to grow up. I had always heard talk of war. My father was paranoid, believing that it was just a matter of time before China, or North Korea, or any of the other nations surreptitiously developing nuclear arms, would launch a blistering attack on us. As it turns out, he should have been more afraid of his own country.

They called it Mutagen X13. They should have known it was an unholy number. Our own scientists developed it. It was supposed to change the course of war, if such a need ever arose. Instead it wiped out most of the planet. I didn’t understand what it was then, but I do now. Mutagen X13 was a chemical agent cleverly hidden within a virus. Ordinarily, the mutations caused wouldn’t be seen for years, but they found a way to speed up the process. I don’t know the specifics.

Ironically, it was one of the very scientists who developed it that became its first victim. He died after three agonizing days of having his body wage war with itself. It seems that, in their haste to win the biological warfare race, they had forgotten this simple fact. A super-virus designed to mutate the human body could easily mutate itself. That’s just what it did, at a rate that rendered futile any attempt to create a functional antidote. They thought it could be contained; that it would kill out its victims too quickly for it to actually spread. They were wrong. Nothing could stop it. Nothing could contain it. It could travel in virtually any medium. Countries shut down their borders in an effort to quarantine themselves. It still found a way in.

It was then that one unexpected little detail made itself known, although there weren’t enough scientists left for it to do any good. It appeared as though a very small percentage of the population had a natural resistance to the virus. In some, it simply slowed the progress such that they were actually able to live for years after being infected. In others, like my mother and I, it killed the virus before it could do any damage. My father and baby brother weren’t so lucky. None of my other family was.

What followed was an evil time. My mother was a strong woman and it was her strength and determination that protected me from the worst of it. Once again, humanity turned against itself. For a while, those like us were hunted down like animals. Soldiers wanted to cut us open, desperate to find a way to save themselves. Cults wanted to drink our blood, convinced that it was the secret to our immunity. Eventually they all fell to the virus and we were free of them, but not free of each other. With no laws in place, chaos reigned. Eventually an uneasy truce was called when communications failed and we realized that we would have no one to rely on but ourselves.

There weren’t enough of us then to ensure that our way of life remained the same. There weren’t enough of us to keep the technology going. So it died. Luckily, the survivors consisted of a diverse group and some were able to keep the electricity stations operational. Turns out the coal mines were our savior, although lord knows we could do without this damned smog. I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the world.

A new generation is coming up and it appears that our immunity has been passed to some of them. Our numbers are growing little by little. We managed to salvage some books that were spared during the riots and the elders are doing their best to educate the younger ones. Perhaps one day there will be hope, but there’s very little hope in here. This is where people who are old enough come to forget what they’ve lost. This is where those young enough to not mourn the past come to forget what a messed up world they’ve inherited.

I look down and adjust my corset, even though I know I don’t need to. The eyes on me are proof enough of that. Mama is always after me to wear black, like the other girls, but I prefer blood red. My ruffled skirt reaches down to the floor. It moves when I move, creating a mystery instead of a festival of the flesh. Her attire is more masculine, with skin tight leather pants and matching vest. One leg is hanging down from the stool and I can see that she has driven some sort of silver rivets into her boots. Her bare arms are adorned by elbow to wrist tattoos and a single, ornate band. She turns as I approach, and I am instantly captivated. Eyes as blue as the oceans I’ve seen in one of Mama’s books are staring back at me.

“What are you drinking?” I refrain from asking her what she’s doing here. It would be a pointless question.

“Whiskey, on the rocks.” She motions me to sit, as I knew she would.

“Sounds good.” She beckons the bartender and he pours me a double. Alcohol has little effect on me and I’ve never seen the point, but it appears to make people feel better to not drink alone.

She doesn’t seem to want to talk. At least that’s what most people would think. I’m not most people. I can see through the charade. I know she’s just unsure of how to ask. But her mind is made up. She just doesn’t know how to take that first step. She’s never been in a place like this before.

“Are you sure you want to be here darlin’?

“I am.”

“And you know what you want?”

“Yes.” She hesitates a little. She might know what she wants, but she doesn’t know me.

“I could get one of the other girls.” I could see some of them eyeing her already, but this one was mine.

“No. You.”

“What did you do sugar? What are you seeking absolution for?” I’m curious. She’s not like our regular, run-of-the-mill patrons.

“I killed a man.” My eyebrows rose, but not by much. You hear all kinds of stories in here, and killing a man wasn’t that big a deal, not given the wasteland we live in. I just wasn’t expecting it of her.

“Did you enjoy it?” She looks surprised at that, as though she had never considered it.

“He was a fighter and it took longer than expected. I had to use almost all my bullets. I felt great pleasure in hearing him beg after I was done with him. I put that last bullet through his brain anyway.”

“Was he a bad man?”

“The worst. He preyed on innocence. He needed to die.”

“Well then I say good riddance.” And I mean it too. That was one of the few crimes which might lead a mob to forcibly divest you of your innards. “You have nothing to feel guilty about.”

“I do.” She shrugs “I let him get away with it because I was too blind to see until it was too late. I believed in him when I should have believed others. I should have acted sooner. Maybe he wouldn’t have had a chance to do what he did.”

“You did what you had to do.” There isn’t much more I can say to that.

“And now I’m so tired. Vengeance was the only thing keeping me going. Now I have nothing left.”

“Well, that I can help with. I’ve got a big old bed upstairs that’s been empty for quite a while.”

“How much?” She looks me up and down, as though she’s trying to figure me out.

“For you sugar?” I match her stare. “It’s on the house.”

I can do that. It’s one of the special privileges that Mama affords me. Every once in a while I get to choose someone for myself. I’m the best at what I do and everyone knows it. People come here especially for me and my talents…and they pay handsomely. I suppose you could say that I’m the star attraction. I’ve got to make sure that my skills are up to par, so I occasionally pick a partner to practice on.

I stand up and reach out my hand. She takes it without question and follows me up the stairs. My room is the last one down the hall; the biggest room in the building besides Mama’s. I push the door behind us and it closes with a soft click.

“You want it fast or slow?”

“Make it last. I deserve that much.”

She sits on the edge of the bed as I reach for my bag of tricks. When I’m done I turn to her and I see a hint of trepidation in her eyes at the sight of all my toys, neatly laid out in a row. I take pride in my work. I give her one last chance to change her mind, to just up and walk away. No hard feelings. But she wants to be here. I sit next to her and I take a moment to look at her. Just look at her. Her eyes say that she’s been through hell. Mine must too. It’s a shame really. Someone this beautiful shouldn’t have to face such ugliness.

I kiss her. It’s an impulsive action, something I’m not known for, but I can’t help myself. Her lips are soft, softer than any other woman I’ve kissed, and there have been many. Something stirs within me. It’s been so long that I’m not even sure what it is. I move to straddle her lap and feel her muscles move beneath me. She’s strong…very strong. I like that. She won’t submit to me easily. She’ll tell herself that she won’t scream. But she will. They always do.

Hours pass before I let myself out of the room and head downstairs. We never officially close but some times are slower than others. There are only two men at the bar but the sounds coming from upstairs are a clear indication that at least some of the girls are busy. Mama is there, counting the day’s tally. I know she feels my presence, even though she doesn’t acknowledge it openly.

“You done? I’ll send up the crew in a few minutes.”

“No need.” That makes her look up.

“She’s alive?”

“Sleeping.”

“You didn’t…” Mama furrows her brows in confusion. “I thought…”

“You thought right. That’s what she came for. I gave her the pain she was craving but I couldn’t do more.” I look away. It’s the first time in seven years I’ve ever had to say that to her.

“Don’t tell me you’re going soft on me girly.” Mama meant to sound annoyed but I knew better. I could hear the concern in her voice.

“Hardly. I still love what I do, but this one’s different. She’s got a spirit in her I haven’t seen in here before.” The truth is she reminds me of the past, of what little I could remember when I was just a girl. She can be ruthless, but there’s still a hint of naivety about her that I just want to drink in. I can’t let that go to waste.

“I hope you know what you’re doing. But I raised you right and I trust your judgment.” Mama went back to counting her money. She was a hard woman. She had to be. But she had her soft side too. I moved around her to get to the cupboard, but not before giving her a quick peck on the cheek, too fast for anyone to see. I picked up some antiseptic and bandages and headed back upstairs.

People come here looking for all sorts of things. Some come for sex. Some come for other sins. And some come to die, at my hands. This ain’t an easy world. It ain’t that easy to die anymore. Mutagen X13 took care of that. Our cuts normally heal in seconds. Shoot a bullet through someone and they’re liable to start healing before it comes out the other end. It takes a skilled hand to make use of that; to invite death and make it linger until the last second. It takes an artist really.

I don’t ask their reasons. Most of the time, I don’t care why they come here. I just do my job. I’m good at it. It makes me happy. What does that say about me? That I’m sick? That I’m twisted? How about that I’ll do whatever it takes to survive? And I’ll do it with her by my side. We’re kindred spirits, she and I. Kindred artists. Kindred killers.

The End