Six

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Dave Connor wasn't the only one wandering those streets late at night, but while his excursions were largely aimless and meandering, Cookie Marquette was on a mission. It was a mission of a lifetime. Known by various names - the Dark Hunter, the Queen of the Night Brigade, the Force - Cookie was out there almost every night, seeking and invariably finding what she sought. She was a small person, short and slight but her lean build was strong and there was no one who would sensibly mess with her. From her fresh face, sparkling black eyes, and quick movements you could place her age anywhere from fifteen to forty-five, and your highest guess would still be ten years short.

She had never been uneasy about her essential transgender nature. Born Julie, and later known as Jim, it was easier to go by Cookie, a name she'd picked up on a ship's mess hall in the Navy, than to try and determine which of her aspects you were talking to. She was fluent in both female and male as needed. She kept her black hair short, always dressed in turtleneck, jeans and boots, and sometimes wore a railway engineer's cap for hoots. Her great-grandmother had stoked a steam engine in her day, and Cookie was ever proud of it.

She was legend in Spring Hill Lake, single-handedly establishing the Homegrown Mission soup kitchen that operated out of St. Filbert's Cathedral in the heart of the old waterfront neighborhood that once had been the center of the city, but now was mostly blighted and bereft of business. From there she squeezed out pennies from the powerful, and made the most of the little she had to work with. A firm, even staunch, non-believer, her decision to ally herself with the Church stemmed from the knowledge that while politicians come and go, the Church at least abides. She could count on its commitment more than that of any other institution or individual.

She had established a small staff of professionals and a cadre of volunteers to run the day-to-day operations of the kitchen and adjacent shelter, leaving her mostly free to pursue her real calling, hunting and gathering the lost and the needy. She patrolled at night since the hidden were more active then, and were easier to locate amid the sparser background field. She knew where they were apt to go, and when, and carried a large sack across her back, stuffed with fresh-baked loaves, containers of hot soup, newly knitted scarves, socks and sweaters, pencils and paper, items she knew from practice to be likely to come in handy in her task.

She rose from an early evening nap around midnight, put together her kit, and struck out into the dark, equipped also with a flashlight she kept taped to her wrist, and a switchblade tucked inside her belt. She carried no cash but lately had been convinced by friends to lug a cellphone around in case of emergency. She had rarely come across a situation she could not handle alone, but she didn't meddle where she didn't belong. She was not the law and would intervene only to protect an innocent.

Some called her Saint Cookie; they said it with derision and she knew it. She was no angel, only doing her job, according to her calling. Other people seemed to feel compelled to climb up corporate ladders. Still others had no idea at all but worked wherever they could. Some had a passion, for teaching, for medicine, for law. Cookie had a passion for concrete, immediate aid. It was the only thing that satisfied her. Some called her limited; she called herself 'practical'.

Cookie Marquette was something of a bloodhound at her work. When she caught the scent of her kind of prey, she hunted it down, and when she found it, she helped it if she could. It was very late one night when she first picked up a hint of Dave. It was the smell, of course, quite literally, the mixture of decaying flesh and eau de toilette. It was something entirely new to her nose and she detected it in a cold and blowsy wind. She could not tell the direction of its origin but she stopped in her tracks and sniffed, and sniffed again. It was out there, it was different, and it was on the move.

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