Shade V1 C9 May I Have This Dance

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“So, I have to ask,” Alex began over the swinging of surprisingly tasteful R&B. “You’ve never exactly struck me as the fun and flirty type. What’s with the sudden confidence?”

 

“Confidence?” Jessica balked. “Ha! I’m scared out of my mind right now. I feel more comfortable in a BDU than a dress, but this is called habituation.”

 

Alex raised an eyebrow, and she rolled her eyes, smiling.

 

“Psychology speak for diving into your fears, big guy.”

 

She wasn’t sure whether to be comforted by the fact they were lost in crowd, or worried that she was probably making a fool of herself and no cared to point it out. At least then she could get some constructive criticism and learn how to dance in a way that wasn’t just wantonly throwing her hips around to the beat. Alex, for his part, didn’t seem to mind.

 

“What about you, altar boy? You seem to be holding your own here.”

 

Alex shrugged, effortlessly spinning out of the way of a stumbling drunk. “I used to hang out with the guys after games. Until, you know, I blew my knee and suddenly I wasn’t so popular anymore. But hey, at least I learned how to not look like a dumb jock on the dance floor.”

 

“You know, Socrates said something along the lines of you’re only unwise if you fancy you know what you don’t know. Speaking of knowing…”

 

With a deft move that surprised herself, Jessica spun into Alex’s arms, offering up a coy smile. He didn’t miss a beat leading her into a second spin, but his face probably wouldn’t have looked any different if she had pantsed him in front of everyone.

 

“Uh. Speaking of… knowing?”

 

“Do you know what you want with me?”

 

Either Alex was really mulling over his answer, or he had nothing to say.

 

“Relax big guy, I’m not asking you to elope with me. I just wanna, hmm, see where we stand.”

 

He pulled her out of the way of an aggressive dancer.

 

“You should watch where you’re standing. But, we’re all good. Look, I trust you Jay. You’d be out there with Mouse again if you weren’t trying to better yourself.”

 

“That’s good,” she said with a nod. “Because you, and Izzy, and Quinn, and even Fritz… You’ve been my only real friends. As in, ever. And maybe I’m coming on a little strong here, but being alone sucks. I really do appreciate you guys.”

 

“Aw, that’s sweet,” he remarked with a laugh. “Fritz is going to hear that though. And, if you wanted to know, you do look good. Even with the…” he looked over her false face. “Yeah.”

 

“Tsk tsk, just looking at my face?” she teased. Leaving Alex with that thought, she began to take in the place in more detail. If the club had been trashy under prior ownership, it certainly wasn’t now. The place had been renovated in Hamilton’s (or Hades, whatever he was calling himself)  image in record time, all black and orange with fire projections and gargoyles. On the overlook above she had only caught a glimpse of the man once, smoking a cigar in a dapper pinstripe suit and fedora. Couldn’t have been less obvious if he screamed ‘mob boss’ at the top of his lungs. Mouse was nowhere to be seen.

 

“Let me take a little look around,” she said, patting Alex’s arm. He muttered an ‘oh’ before she faded into the crowd. There were a few rooms in the back of the place, and what they were for she couldn’t say, but given they were guarded by four men it was probably something shady. They weren’t getting in there without a distraction. A flash of white hair caught her eye, off to the right. There, at the bar, was that…?

 

It was. A far cry from the disheveled, bloodstained drug lord she’d once been, her old gang boss had transformed into a member of the business elite. The albino stood by the bar in a well-fitted three piece suit, wearing a black shirt and dark magenta vest and tie. They locked eyes. Slowly, Mouse took a sip of her martini, then turned around to get the bartender’s attention. The way the man snapped to attention for her definitely made it clear that she wielded some form of power around the place. And that, combined with her gesture Jessica’s way and the bartender’s hasty nod, meant she’d probably just bought her a drink.

 

For the briefest of moments, Jessica seized up. Was Mouse – was she hitting on her? At least the disguise was working, but that was disturbing and not how she wanted this to go. It was an opening, through, and she couldn’t just pass that up. She fought through her reservation quickly and offered up a smile, then a finger. It placated Mouse, allowing her to slip back through the crowd and to Alex. She waved Isabella, who was regaling some very concerned patrons with an excitable story, over hurriedly.

 

“You good, Ms. Napier?” questioned the woman curiously. “Something come up?”

 

“Uh, yeah. I need to get this out fast, so – I’m going to occupy Mouse’s attention, by… flirting with her.” She sighed when Alex and Isabella exchanged a look. “Yeah. Dirty business. But I need you-” she pointed at the latter “- to use your voodoo nonsense to seek out any criminal documents of hers and you-” she pointed at the former “- to distract security if Izzy needs it. I need to go now so get to it!”

 

“Real quick, before you go… which one’s Mouse?”

 

“The one even more pasty white than me.” And with that, she hurried back over to Mouse. The bartender nodded to the screwdriver he’d left there. She looked at the drink hesitantly for a moment. When she felt Mouse’s gaze return to her, she took a breath and politely pushed it back.

 

“Thanks, but I don’t drink,” she said, turning to Mouse as she did. “Stomach problems.” Why did she have to pick the reason Hitler didn’t drink? “But, I could use some company…”

 

Mouse gave her a strangely genuine smile as she slid her empty glass to the bartender and signalled she didn’t want another. “I can respect that. Be true to oneself first and foremost, yes?” Offering up a hand, the executive nodded her head towards the club at large.

 

Jessica followed along, doing her best to mentally block out the fact that this was Mouse, and just let herself move with the music.

 

“Of course. You don’t get a lot of honesty here in Blackburn. So what about you? Is what we all saw during the Incident trials the real you?”

 

“Mm, a concerned citizen, then?”

 

“Something like that.”

 

“I can’t say I’ve lived the cleanest life, but I put my past behind me. I suppose the real question is: what do you hope to gain here? Knowledge? Status?” Mouse pulled her into a waltz grip, taking the lead position, and grinned crookedly. “Something else entirely?”

 

Man, oh man, did karma have a way of winning out in the end.

 

“A little bit of all of that, I suppose,” she replied, keeping her expression cool and collected. “This city brings out something special in us, doesn’t it? The good, the bad and the ugly. Frightening and liberating at the same time.”

 

“Mm, that is one way of looking at it. I rather like that, actually. Ah, but I’m really a terrible hostess. Might I get your name, madam?”

 

Oh my god this is so gay. She’s staring into my eyes, why?

 

“That… is something you I’ll leave you hanging on for now,” she purred back. That caught Mouse by surprise, though not in the way Jessica had hoped. It seemed to embolden her. She pulled them into the crowd, expertly weaving through the chaos towards the inner ring of the dance floor, where few people deigned to tread.

 

“As you say. Do you get out often? It may seem a little forward, but you don’t feel like the socialite type. I’m leading the dance, here, after all, maybe a little moreso than one would expect. Not that I mind, I find inexperience to be quite charming.” God, she had forgotten that Mouse could be such a creep. What the hell was with that expression? Smiling at her like they were three years into a relationship or something? “Then again, shyness is a desirable quality in a person, at times. The greatest thinkers are those who only share their opinions at the appropriate opportunity. Wouldn’t you say?”

 

Speaking of appropriate opportunities, they jostled slightly as Isabella bumped into Mouse’s back, dancing with Alex. “Oh, sorry! I’m, like, such a clutz. Sorry, sorry!” apologized the woman, hanging onto her dance partner, cheeks flushed in embarrassment. Mouse simply chuckled, shaking her head.

 

“So, tell me… Since you seem to be interested in the events of the past, what do you think about the sentence handed down from on high? Seems all of us involved got off pretty easy, no?”

 

Jessica exaggerated a crooked eyebrow. “Really now? If you ask me, the kind thing would have been to hang Rebecca. Having to live like she is, with the whole city burning her in effigy. A life sentence was a cruel mercy.”

 

That got a laugh out of Mouse. “An idealist. Maybe if we’d had more of your kind on the Department of Justice, we would have had a lot more executions. I get the feeling that you take more than a passing interest in current events. Are you, perhaps, a reporter? Looking to get some inside information from someone who’s been, well… on the inside?”

 

Could she have handed her a more perfect opportunity if she had asked for it?

 

“Observant. I wouldn’t mind if you let a few things be known.” Hardly had the words left her mouth than Mouse was dancing her through the crowd again. Once they’d breached the outer perimeter, she switched to linking her arm through Jessica’s, leading them to a back room. They sat opposite one another on the cushy leather couch that ringed the circular room. Unbuttoning her jacket, Mouse frowned slightly, patting herself down, but the expression passed in moments.

 

“Ask away. I have nothing to hide.”

 

“So, what have you been up to since the Incident?” she asked, trying to get more comfortable than she felt. “You’ve kept a low profile for an ex-gang leader.”

 

“I felt it wouldn’t be prudent to try and capitalize on the infamy I accrued thanks to my involvement in the Incident, unlike a few other people. I’m doing secretarial work now, actually. No one wanted to hire a criminal like myself until I received an extraordinarily generous offer from Mr. Hamilton. He understood that I have an adeptness when it comes to numbers and organization, as well as a certain drive for success. I hold no illusions that perhaps I was misusing my talents before. My current work is highly satisfying, however.”

 

“And this… Mr. Hamilton. Why do you think he chose you?”

 

Mouse shifted in her seat, lacing her fingers together in her lap. “Why do talent scouts choose anyone? I fit the job. Real estate is a cutthroat business, and he doesn’t have time to keep track of the little administrative deals when he’s slogging through the legal red tape at every turn. My duties have… grown, somewhat, but that’s to be expected as a business expands.”

 

“Grown,” Jessica repeated, trying not to snort. Were they even trying to hide it? “Hmph. Edgerrin Hamilton must be a special fellow. He can’t be anything but, given how he’s helped rebuild the city since the Incident. Tell me, what drives him?”

 

“Vision. The free market is a fickle beast. It takes one of especially illuminated foresight to handle it. I-” One of the security detail poked his head into the room, cutting her off.

 

“Ms. Verion, we have a situation you may need to attend to.” Mouse glared at the man, but stood nevertheless. She buttoned her jacket up again, hand lingering in the inner pocket, then smiled.

 

“Perhaps we can finish this another time. You know where to find me.” And then she left.

 

Before Jessica could even think of snooping around, the guard escorted her out. She didn’t need to. After a few minutes of loitering in a corner, waiting for Isabella or Alex, she got a text from the former.

 

<Izzy: hey were r u, time 2 go>

 

Thank fucking God. She hurried out the front door, grabbing her jacket off a coat rack as she went and not turning back. Across the street she spotted her friends signalling her to come.

 

“What’d you do, pull the old pickpocket trick on her?” she said as she approached Isabella, half-smirking.

 

“Yeah, Cousin Aurora showed me some cool stuff a while back. Suits are super easy. I dunno what all I got off there, but here you go, Ms. Napier.” Isabella held out a USB with a micro attachment on one end and a normal attachment on the other. “Courtesy of someone I know.”

 

“Uh.” She turned it over in the streetlight. “What’s this thing? I thought you took her phone.”

 

“I did. I, like, plugged that into her phone and it downloaded a copy of everything. You think I was just gonna take the phone with me? Her phone? Ms. Napier, I saw the kinda stuff that’s on there. No way, dude. It’s with the bartender. I may have, uh, dropped it in a glass of whiskey to cover my tracks.”

 

“So you cloned it, then?” She made a facial expression roughly equivalent to ‘hmph’. “That’s rather tech savvy, for you. Good work. What’d you find?”

 

Isabella shrugged. “Dunno, it was all really quick. Couple bits here and there I managed to catch were, like, all jumbled up. There may be some sorta torture porn on there, though… Saw a few photos of people, and they weren’t all put together, if you catch my drift. Uh, when you’re done with that, I’ll need it back clean, cuz it’s just on loan. Let’s go back to the office?”

 

***

 

At around eight that evening, Hamilton retreated to his personal quarters. The opening nights of the Styx had exceeded expectations. Clearly Blackburners welcomed the change of pace that came with a man of class operating a nightclub. When they were first cleaning the place out after strong arming it from Stenhouse, Buggy claimed to have found used condoms and lines of coke in the bathroom stalls. It was that sort of depravity that he had come to have very little patience for. He had enough of that for one lifetime.

 

A quiet knock on his door alerted him to someone seeking to gain entry. And since that someone knocked quietly, it was most likely Nisa. He hated how she did that. He tried telling himself that it had nothing to do with him, that she was so reticent because of the horrors Salazar had inflicted upon her, but he couldn’t help but feel something close to disappointment. Just give it time, he thought as he went for the door.

 

“Nisa, what’s up?” He waved her inside, gesturing at a plush chair in front of his desk. “Heading home for the night?”

 

“No, sir, I just wanted to stop in and congratulate you.” The woman set a bottle of wine on his desk with a smile, taking the offered seat primly. “It was a little rocky, but the Styx is now officially a successfully started business.”

 

“Failure ain’t in my vocabulary.” He retrieved two glasses from the nearby liquor stand and slid one her direction. “And it’s not hard to succeed when you open up an inventive venture. Limited supply creates great demand. Just one of those paradoxes that our world runs on.”

 

“Hardly a paradox, sir, it’s simple economics. ‘If you build it, they will come’.” Nisa uncorked the bottle, pouring them both a glass of crisp white wine. “Apologies for the relative weakness of the beverage, but it was the only one of sufficient quality I could find downstairs.” She sat back down, sipping at the glass with a distant look on her face. That was unusual, for her to wear any weakness on her countenance like that.

 

“Something wrong?”

 

Nisa shook her head, brows slightly knit. “No, no. I’m just… Tonight was a little more eventful for me personally than I am accustomed to. Anymore, at least.”

 

For once, he wasn’t sure what to say. “Personally? I mean, it’s good that you’re being open with me, but – what happened?”

 

“Nothing too terribly exciting, sir. The event went off without a problem, which I suppose is just making me a little wary.  I will need to replace my phone, but that serves me right for leaving it at the bar in the first place. Shouldn’t have let that reporter catch my attention…”

 

“Reporter?” He chuckled. “I hope you didn’t give them too much information. ‘Back of the Styx soon to be supervillain lair’. I can see the headlines now.”

 

Scoffing, the albino took another drink. “Hardly, sir. You know I don’t let pleasure come before business. She seemed… strangely familiar, though I’m sure I’ve never seen her before.”

 

He set his glass aside. “You sure? The look in your eye says otherwise.”

 

“I’m positive. I have a certain… penchant for women of her type, I would remember having seen her before. I…” She paused, uttering a quiet ‘hmph’ as if quoting someone. Her eyes widened. “Oh… That’s… no, that can’t be.”

 

“Uh oh.”

 

“That bitch!” Nisa set her glass on his desk and leapt to her feet, heading to his office bathroom and washing her hands vigorously. “Goddamnit, how the hell did she do that? Son of a bitch, she was right there, I could have just… Gah!” The pale woman paced angrily murmuring under her breath. “I can’t believe it… Played like a damn fiddle!”

 

Hamilton caught himself laughing, if only in confusion. “What, some old flame of yours? I’m sure we can just buy you another phone.”

 

“No, it’s not the phone… It was her! All that talk about her whore of a mother and her ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude… Marcus had mentioned that Mitchell had arranged a deal with a blonde before I got ahold of him. It had to be her, but… her face was so different! Damn it!”

 

It didn’t take long for the puzzle pieces to come together quickly in Hamilton’s mind. Once again Shade had proven her skill, and gotten a step ahead of them. But he wasn’t infuriated. Instead, he found the situation just too damn funny.

 

“Hahahaha! Oh, oh wow, that’s fucking rich!” He wiped at his eyes merrily, nearly tipping the wine bottle onto the floor. “She knew exactly what you wanted, huh? Don’t tell me you kissed.”

 

Nisa nearly doubled over, gagging. “Edgerrin, that is not an appropriate comment to make! Jessica is my sister! I have no idea what she was doing there, but she must have been running a smokescreen operation. I’ll have to double security vigilance to ensure she doesn’t do anything rash. Ugh! Why doesn’t she just leave well enough alone?!” complained the woman angrily, stamping a foot.

 

All that did was provoke him further. His bellowing cackles stopped Nisa cold, but he really didn’t care. He couldn’t help but find himself impressed at Jessica’s cunning. And the thought of Nisa giving the dark vigilante puppy dog eyes was just hilarious.

 

“Haha, okay, okay, I’m done now! Oh, man. Come on, you gotta admit, that’s funny as fuck!”

 

Flopping into her chair, Nisa rubbed at the bridge of her nose. A slight grin cracked her visage, almost imperceptible. “A shame that trap didn’t go as planned…”

 

“Oh don’t worry, we’ll get her eventually.” He reached for his glass that was nearly knocked off the edge, choking back another bout of giggles. “Just double up security, chance will take her out sooner or later. She’s not that good, if she got beaten by her forty-something mother.”
“It’s not fair.” Nia drained her glass, sagging into the chair. “She knows I like blondes. Next time we catch her, I want the first hit.”

 

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Shade V1 C8 Bad Feeling About This

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Eddy oversaw his men rearranging the interior of Stenhouse’s club – soon to be known as The Styx – with a contented smile. Business meetings and bargaining was fine and all, but this is where he truly felt at home, in the trenches, where people could be real.

 

Nisa had created an inventory and ordered the few things they needed before he had gotten there. Efficient as always. As he kept an eye on his boys finishing painting the walls a glossy black and orange, he rolled a shot glass around in his hand, lost in its intricacies. Someone out there had molded it and its thousand angles from hot sand. A lot of things were like that glass, he imagined. Anything was possible if one had the right mix of talent, will, and a lot of fire. He turned to his assistant and rolled the glass in the light.

 

“Did you know I never drank out of a glass until I was in my twenties? When I was a boy, I thought apple juice in a styrofoam cup was the greatest luxury on God’s green earth. Wasn’t until college that I realized just how hard my momma had to work for basic necessities, bless her heart. But, all the fine wines, all the Hennessy in the world don’t mean nothin’ if you can’t enjoy it in good company. Trust is… very important. Even in our line of work. Especially in our line of work.” Nisa nodded dutifully, her pose neutral. He frowned. “Why did Mitchell happen?”

 

“Sir?” she queried.

 

“He was a greedy, unscrupulous, duplicitous son of a bitch, yeah, but he only screwed us because we failed to see it. I failed to see it. Our financial problems, it’s on me, I’m the boss. And it was you that nailed his ass. Why didn’t I see the signs?”

 

“…Sir, Mitchell was incredibly careful about covering his tracks. He knew how to game the system. I ran his numbers and he managed to go about his business for months.”

 

He sighed, setting the glass down and adjusting his jacket. “Always seeing the trees, but never the forest. I’m talking big picture here, Nisa. As kingpin of this crew, it’s my job to thoroughly vet personnel, make sure we’re not initiating fools or rats. I didn’t see him for what he was.”

 

Musing on it for a time, she shrugged. “I suppose all we can do is remember our mistakes for the future, so we don’t repeat them.”

 

Eddy took a deep breath before nodding. “Yeah. I suppose you’re right.”

 

“Mr. Hamilton.” Stone wandered into his line of sight and crossed his hands. “Grigori would like to speak to you.”

 

“Grigori?” Eddy immediately peeled himself off the bar. “What for?”

 

“He didn’t tell me, sir, but Artyom was insistent.”

 

Stone led him to a back room, empty sans a ring of chairs surrounding a table and a video screen hooked up to the wall. When Eddy had entered, Stone turned on the screen and left. There, as irritable and coarse as ever, was Grigori. “Hamilton,” he acknowledged. “You are late with the paying of the full amount, as we discussed. Must I send collectors to get my money?”

 

“Grigori, Grigori, things have come up,” he insisted, putting his hands out. “We had a rat problem. It’s dealt with now, but we’re going to have to extend the timetable. I can pay you almost fifty thousand now, that leaves us with just three hundred K. You can give me a bit more time, right?”

 

The russian sat back in his comfortable looking leather chair, sipping from a metal cup of (probably) vodka. “How am I to be trusting you? This time you only pay a little bit. Next time, what, another little bit? I am a businessman, I must make my business.”

 

Trust? Says the guy who ran back to Russia…

 

“If you’re a businessman, then you did your background checks before choosing business partners. You know I’m a man of my word, and so does everyone in the Lodge.”

 

“Hrm…” Leaning to the side, Grigori addressed someone behind the camera in Russian. They spoke at length before he settled himself in his seat again. “Here is what will be happening, Hamilton. I am generous man, I will give to you… two months. In return, you will give to me three hundred and seventy five thousand American dollars. Da?”

 

“It’ll be sooner than that, I assure you,” Eddy said, perhaps to reassure himself more than Grigori. “I don’t let temporary setbacks be anything more than that.”

 

“Make it so, Hamilton. I do not give third chances.” The russian leaned forward and fiddled with his device, ending the video call.

***

 

One wouldn’t think that folks would get used to a superhero living next door, but they did, and fast. No one paid Jessica any mind as she slunk through her apartment’s main entrance, clutching her shoulder, in cape and all. When she got to her door, however, she was surprised to see Alex waiting outside, leaning against the wall.

 

“Oh! Hey, Alex, what’s up?”

 

“The news said you got in a little trouble with the police, but they let you go without charges, so I just… You know.” He shrugged, trying and failing to keep a neutral expression. “Wanted to make sure you were okay.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, it’s just – let’s talk inside, okay?” They entered her apartment/office, where her assistant was sitting in the middle of a chalk septagram, holding a bowl of what appeared to be blood and staring into it determinedly. Isabella didn’t even register their presence, so involved was she with… whatever the hell it was she was doing. Jessica could almost hear Alex’s heart skip a beat, and his jaw hit the floor.

 

“Uhhhhhhh.”

 

“Oh, right, Isabella. Probably should have warned you… She’s my assistant. And, uh. A witch.”

 

He turned to her, unable to formulate an expression beyond dumbfounded shock.

 

“She’s good people, I swear! A little – or a lot – weird, but good. Come on, you don’t strike me as one of those fire and brimstone type Christians. Be a little open minded. Though, if she doesn’t clean that chalk off my carpet, I might give her a one way express ticket to hell myself.”

 

At that moment, the woman emerged from her trance with a heavy breath, shoulders slumping. She set the bowl down in front of her carefully before stretching her arms overhead. Spotting Jessica and Alex, however, startled her. “Yaagh! Ms. Napier! I-I thought you’d still be out! Oh jeez, I’m so sorry, let me clean this up… Jeez.” She picked up the bowl and took it to the kitchen, returning with a damp paper towel to get the chalk dust out of the carpet.

 

“Yeah, uh, what were you doing in here? Oh, and this here is Onyx. Keep that on the down low, though, he doesn’t like the spotlight.”

 

Alex, having fallen back to earth, looked between Jay and the septagram. “I hope you know you two are going into my prayers tonight.”

 

“Hey, this Wicca stuff ain’t my bag,” she replied, retrieving her mask from her belt and tossing it into her closet, followed by her cloak. “It’s no less bogus to me than your religion. No offense guys.”

 

“None taken, I know you can’t help yourself,” Alex replied, probably half-serious. Not that she blamed him – it was true.

 

Glancing up to them, Isabella quirked a brow. “Wicca and witchcraft aren’t the same thing, Ms. Napier. I just like Wicca because it feels good, but witchcraft’s not a religion.”

 

“Whaaaaaatever.”

 

“And I was spying, like you asked. It’s a really long story that you probably don’t wanna hear the details of, but I found some stuff out. Like, for instance, Aunt Giorgia said she’s been going to this club a long time and suddenly she got an email from the owner saying they’ve got new management.” Right, maybe she’d spare Alex the Mafia bit. “Two guesses for who it is, since I’m bringing it up.”

 

“Donald Trump?”

 

“Uh, no, I don’t think sentient oranges buy up trashy nightclubs. Try again.”

 

“Trashy? Oh, wrong president. Must be Bill Clinton then.”

 

Isabella sighed in defeat, scrubbing up the last of the chalk. “Hamilton. And word around her circles is that he got it for a steal. Maybe literally…”

 

“Hmph. Using it as a front, you think?” She plopped down a nearby chair, trying not to groan in pain.

 

“You alright Jay? You hurt? You never did tell me what happened,” Alex questioned, growing concerned.

 

“Yeah, I will, just a minute.”

 

“Want me to go fetch you a hot towel, to ease the pain?”

 

She smiled. “Yeah, thanks big guy.”

 

“Um, Ms. Napier, not to, like, be a jerk, but who the heck is that?” whispered her assistant once Alex had left the room. “Like, okay, he’s Onyx, I get that, but you guys seem friendlier than ‘we did superhero stuff together’. Is he friends with the creep who broke in?”

 

She snorted. “Creep? Says the one spacing out into a bowl of blood. But yes.”

 

“Oookay then.” Isabella seemed a little more reticent with her information all of a sudden, fidgeting with the paper towel in her hands.

 

“Oh, come on, you know I’m just messing with you,” she said, lightly ribbing her. “I’m an ass.”

 

Sighing quietly, the woman crushed the napkin in her fist, opening it after a moment to reveal the napkin was gone. “I did some scrying. Won’t go into the details of what or how, but there’s some unrest with that guy’s people. I sorta messed up the spell so I didn’t get anything clear, but there’s a lot of worry about the future and… I dunno how to describe it. Like, the feeling that you’re in hot water and you gotta scramble to fix it, you know?”

 

Speaking of hot water, Alex returned at that moment with the towel. Jessica placed it on her shoulder and instantly felt much better.

 

“Hmph. Think the crap with ZBT has anything to do with it?”

 

“ZBT?” asked Alex. “Didn’t they just get shot up by the cops?”

 

“Eddy’s cops.” Alex looked a little taken aback, then scrunched his face. “Yeah. That’s who I got into a fight with. Dallas and Jeff got me off the hook.”

 

“Wait what? He has cops? Like… on payroll?” Isabella queried in shock. She nodded. “Jeez, this is so messed up. I guess I can go back and talk to Cousin Rodolfo, see if he’s heard any rumors circulating in the PD… I didn’t even think to ask him about that.”

 

“So, no on the ZBT thing?”

 

Isabella blinked at her. “Oh, uh… no. I didn’t find anything on them. Like, at all.”

 

“Hmm…” Jessica leaned back in her seat, closing her eyes for a moment. “Has Hamilton been seen in that club personally?”

 

Nodding, Isabella sat back, supporting herself on her arms. “Him and his secretary. They’re redecorating.”

 

“Well, it looks like I know where I’m going next!” she chirped. “You guys wanna come with?”

 

Alex, suddenly sheepish, rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh. I mean, I guess if I have nothing else going on.”

 

“I can keep wearing the costume, if that’s what you like,” she said with a wink.

 

He blew out a breath. “You’re really trying to test my piety, aren’t you Jay?”

 

“Yep!”

 

“… I’ll pass,” said Isabella. “I’ll just do some more research and, like, get dinner. You guys have fun.” She gave them a lingering, uncomfortable look before heading into the kitchen.

 

“Well, I was asking Alex more than you, Izzy. Sorry, but if I have to start being more sociable, so do you. And, you know I might need a distraction. I think you’ll look stunning in blue!”

 

“Oh no. Do I have to wear a fancy dress? I hate those…”

 

“Fancy?” Jessica clicked her tongue as she got to her feet. “I can’t afford black tie shit, but I haven’t gotten a chance to dress in anything nice since… I think ever. But I am prepared! Bought a black dress just in case I ever needed to go all James Bond. And that weird facial disguise, so don’t get freaked out when I’m suddenly blonde, Alex.”

 

“Well, I still have my suit from my college ball days, so uh, guess I’ll see you guys back here in an hour?”

 

“Sorry for roping you into my crazy life again, bye!” she said with a wave.

 

Isabella did not look happy, glancing down at her scruffy clothing. “Seriously, this is some butt, Ms. Napier. I really like these clothes…” Face screwing up in a frown, Isabella chanted under her breath, hands clasped together over her head, and then brought them down. Like a waterfall, a ring of black cloth traced her form to her ankles, leaving her standing there in a long, blue cocktail dress. “Ugh…”

 

“Well, that’s very… Italian. But you look great!”

 

“We don’t know one another until I get to change out of this piece of junk…” pouted the woman, arms crossed over her stomach.

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Shade V1 C7 Trust No One

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For the umpteenth time, Jessica repeated herself. “I want to speak to Cardozo and Higgins.”

 

The detective assigned to keep an eye on her, Kowalski, sighed, spinning his pen around in his hand. “Fine, but they’re out on a robbery right now. And when they get back, we’re heading to that clusterfuck of a bomb threat turned shooting. Are you sure there’s nothing you want to tell me now? I can’t promise you that Cardozo doesn’t want to wring your neck.”

 

Jessica leaned back in her seat, sticking the corner of her mouth up. “I want to speak to Higgins.”

 

Shaking his head, Kowalski left, leaving her to pass the time by drumming her fingers against the table. It was all she could do, given the fact she was in handcuffs. Just a precaution, they said. God, it was a good thing Alex probably didn’t follow the news that closely…

 

It took a good half an hour, but, finally, Jeff came plodding into the room and quirked his brow at her.

 

“Jessica?” he said, blinking like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “I knew you were having problems, but I didn’t expect to see you in here this soon.”

 

Jessica offered her best fake smile. “Hi, Jeff! Doing the old good cop bad cop routine, huh?”

 

Jeff glanced to the side and then back to her. “Wasn’t really planning on it.”

 

“Hmph. If this were the old days, you guys would have to have dragged me in here kicking and screaming. I came voluntarily because I trust you.”

 

She looked up at the camera snuggled in the top corner of the room. “Am I being recorded?”

 

“Well, yeah, we wouldn’t have the camera if you weren’t,” Jeff answered, shrugging. “So if you trust me, what do you want exactly?”

 

She straightened her back. “I need to go to the bathroom.” Jeff paused, but came around to uncuff her. “When I get back, you won’t have started recording yet, right?” she whispered.

 

“Uh. Sure,” Jeff said, lips pursed a bit, but nonetheless compliant.

 

When she returned, Dallas had joined them, and as expected, was livid. He exploded on her before the door was shut.

 

“What in the actual fuck Jessica?! You come back and within a week you’re brutalizing cops? That cape cutting off the blood to your brain or something?”

 

“Okay, look. Do you guys remember what he said when we first met?” she began, pointing a finger at Dallas as she retook her seat. “Something along the lines of half the police department wanting to join up with my mother. Well she’s locked away now, but do you really think all that corruption just vanished into thin air?”

 

“So that’s how you’re justifying this?” asked Dallas. “Conspiracy theories about dirty cops?”

 

“Why would I just randomly beat up on some SWAT guys? I was there because of a lead. You guys took my belt, right? Well the evidence is in my cell phone. I was tracking Zo Bwa Tet. I don’t know where this bomb crap is coming from because they were just loitering. I got a tip I figured was a trap, but it wasn’t from them. They may have been criminals and douchebags, but they shouldn’t have just gotten gunned down like that.”

 

Dallas balled his fingers and rested his chin against them. After a few seconds, he threw up his hands. “Jeff, were you following that call?”

 

“Yeah, the guy was pretty clear that Zo Bwa Tet were gonna plant some kind of bomb,” Jeff said, scrunching his brow with thought. “I mean, I know they’re volatile, even as gangs go, but maybe she’s got something here.”

 

“Yes! So let me finish here. The supposed tip I got claimed to have information about Mitchell’s murder. I don’t know if that was some sort of sick taunt, but have you guys figured it out yet?”

 

“It was an anomaly, we’ve figured that much,” Dallas replied, furrowing his brows but following along. “But there weren’t any witnesses, at least none willing to come forward, and the murder occurred out of view of nearby cameras. No DNA from the perp, either. Whoever it was, they were professional.”

 

“Yeah, because I think it was probably Mouse. When I fought her at the end of the Incident, she was on Blueshift, about clawed my eyes out.”

 

It was at that point that Jeff’s expression changed from a thoughtful squint to pure urgency. “Dallas, she’s definitely onto something. We should investigate further.”

 

“Wait, wait, let me finish!” Jessica insisted. She had to get this all out before the other detectives became suspicious at the wait. “You can take my word here or leave it, but when I took all those guys out, a voice came through on the other end of their radio. He was a bit garbled and he was using a codename, but it was Edgerrin Hamilton.”

 

Dallas snorted. “The businessman?”

 

“Yeah, the businessman. Mouse is in his employ, you can look it up. They’ve certainly switched their radio frequency back by now, but if any of your guys had a ‘radio error’, well…”
The ideas were rolling around in their heads, she could see it in their eyes. But time had run out for her. “Look, I’m not asking you to go arrest Hamilton right now, but when you get out there, you’ll find something is fishy, and I’m not the bad guy. And after that, well, you won’t have reason to hold me, and I can dig up more dirt.”

 

Dallas looked back and forth at nothing in particular, slammed his hand down, and got to his feet.

 

“Goddammit, she’s making too much sense. Are we going crazy here too or what, Jeff?”

 

“I really don’t think so, but I do think we oughta move fast.”

 

Jessica exhaled deeply. That went better than she thought it would. School had done wonders for her oratory skills.

 

“Right. Send in another detective so I can get some recorded bullshit in your system, but I’m trusting you guys.”

***

 

Whatever spell that damned ginger had cast on him, it was really fraying Dallas’ nerves. As soon as he saw the seven bodies splayed out across the concrete, he got nasty flashbacks to the clean-up of the Incident. It was like one of those videos they showed in high school health class, where baby chickens were ground to make meat. He was pretty sure he got a bit of intestine stuck on his shoe.

 

“Any of those weapons been discharged, White?”

 

The CSI officer looked up from her fingerprinting work. “Uh, no, don’t think so sir. No powder residue or shell casings. I guess it’s a good thing they didn’t get a chance to.”

 

“Right.” He shot a look at Jeff and took a few steps to a private area. Jeff followed suit.

 

“Don’t you think they’d have fired at least a little?” Jeff asked, though, it wasn’t really a question. “If they were looking for trouble?”

 

“Yeah, they didn’t get a single round off? Not one?” Dallas glanced around at the bomb squad guys still packing it up. No explosives had been found. “I mean, I find it hard to believe some real estate tycoon is moonlighting as a mobster, but…”

 

“Wouldn’t be the weirdest thing we’ve seen in this town. And Jessica’s been right before.”

 

“And it happens right in one of his construction sites. Here’s another thing.” He gestured around, pointing at every dark ceiling corner he could. “Do you see any cameras?”

 

Jeff glanced around the room, looking at both the corners and center of the ceiling.

 

“No, none,” he said, shaking his head. “Fishier and fishier.”

 

“Right, so here’s what I’m thinking. ZBT manages to piss Hamilton off one way or another, and he knows Jessica is on his trail, right? So he figures he can take them both out at the same time, tells the Haitians to meet him here for a deal or something and sends a fake tip to Jessica. Calls in a fake bomb threat, gets his goon squad sent in, and, knowing there won’t be any witness or cameras to prove otherwise, has the Haitians shot and tells his goons to claim self-defense.”

 

Dallas laughed, but there was no humor in it. “Which means we’re fucked here. Their word against dead gangbangers.”

 

“Well, we’re not gonna get anywhere with Hamilton, sure, but maybe we can at least help Jessica. We haven’t found anything to suggest she did something wrong yet.” Jeff started out of the hovel they’d been using to talk, waving for Dallas to follow. “Come on, we haven’t looked at everything yet. Kowalski’s upstairs.”

 

“Yeah, I don’t think the prosecutor’s going to move forward with charging her. Try and crucify the town’s savior over this shitshow?” Dallas shook his head. “No, they’ll probably just transfer those guys and sweep this whole mess under the rug. Probably gonna get a nice severance package from Hamilton too.”

 

On the second floor Kowalski was bent over Elifort’s body, taking notes down about something or another. Dallas thought for a few moments before pointing at the corpse’s chest.

 

“Kowalski, what’s the grouping of those shots looking like?”

 

“Looks like it was from mid-range, about ten yards out. You thinking this is fishy too, or…?”

 

Dallas chose his words carefully, doing his best to shrug nonchalantly. “Who knows. We’ll probably be kicking this up to IA. Just gotta ask.”

 

“Why’s he up here and not down there?” Jeff asked, eyes darting around the room.

 

Kowalski took a step back from the body, fiddling with his gloves. “There’s a small puncture in his jacket, but it doesn’t go more than maybe two centimeters deep. Probably Shade’s grapple hook. Tell you what, I’d love to have gotten my son one of those things for Christmas.”

 

Jeff exchanged glances with Dallas. “That doesn’t really answer the question.”

 

“Nope, it doesn’t. Just what we need after all that crap with Cerberus, bad press for the BPD.” Kowalski sighed, pocketing his notepad. “So, what’s the bet, administrative leave or transfer?”

 

Jeff didn’t answer the question. Instead he headed back down to ground level, waving for Dallas to follow. He took out his phone and dialed Captain Doyle before putting it on speaker.

 

“Hey, it’s Higgins. Me and Dallas went to that ZBT scene, and it’s looking like we’re not gonna be able to pin anything on Jessica.”

 

“So, what, is SWAT lying? Did a bunch of metal bars slip and hit them all upside the head? We can’t just have these vigilantes assault peace officers and walk away, Jeff.”

 

“The more we investigate, the less the story adds up, captain,” Jeff insisted. “And why would Jessica turn herself in if she just wanted to go around assaulting officers?’

 

Dallas could hear Doyle lighting up a smoke. It was really making him want to as well, but all this crap was why he quit. If he smoked every time he got stressed out, he’d be six feet under already.

 

“Fine. I’ll – tell the prosecutor. Get the damn woman out of my sight. But what exactly do you think happened, detective?”

 

“Well, I’m not really sure myself, but it definitely seems like the SWAT guys were a little too trigger happy.”

 

Doyle took his sweet time on his next drag. “I see. Well, if there’s anything that comes up, you need to tell me. Understand?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Jeff answered before hanging up.

 

Dallas fidgeted, and suddenly his shoes felt several sizes too big. “Goddammit, Jeff, we’re in one of your stupid noirs now. You happy? Having to lean on a private eye because we got a promotion and suddenly can’t trust anyone. Great. I just love this city.”

 

Despite everything, Jeff smiled at him.

 

“I’m just happy you remember my noirs,” he chirped.

 

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Shade V1 C6 Triple Play

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It shocked Jessica how quickly the cases started coming in. Her agency had only been up and running for a few days and she was already being forced to choose which cases to pursue. Perhaps fame had a few perks. Truthfully, most of it wasn’t that interesting. A man suspected his wife of cheating on him with his brother, a woman was looking for the deed to her grandmother’s estate, Democrats wanted her to spy on Republicans and Republicans wanted her to spy on Democrats. Usual Blackburn shit.

 

She decided to roll with a case that only seemed boring on the surface: Scholz Enterprises wanted her to dig up information on their rival, Lorenzo Security and Electronics. She might have gone looking for that deed instead, but the thing was, Wilbur Scholz had called her for her services personally. Guy seemed alright on the surface, smooth and straightforward with his German efficiency, but he had an odd habit of long pauses whenever she told him she wasn’t capable of this or that. Rich boy probably wasn’t used to being told no in his life, but whatever. He was going to pay her handsomely for creating a file on Lorenzo, so it must have been important. God knew she needed to stock her cupboards with something besides ramen.

 

She worked through Lorenzo’s financial reports and her tenth noodle soup of the week at the same time. Seven, eight, nine figures – this kind of money was way above her. Lorenzo was the premier cybersecurity company in the country, after all, having capitalized on the craze started after the NSA spying debacle. And it looked like their fight with the government went beyond that: they were paying way less in taxes than they should have, even considering all the usual loopholes. Perhaps they were competing with Scholz by opening up European subsidiaries?

 

“Hey, Ms. Napier?” called Isabella from her office. “I, uh… Just got an email. The sender’s a bunch of letters and numbers, but they’re saying they got info on the whole Mitchell drug deal thing. Included an address and a time, too.”

 

Corporate espionage would have to wait. Jessica stuffed her face full of noodles before dumping the rest out.

 

“That address public?” she asked after a minute.

 

“Uhhh…. No, it’s private property. I Googled it, looks like it’s a construction site.”

 

“Oh boy, another trap,” she grumbled, heading to the closet. Isabella half-raised a hand.

 

“So, like, if you know it’s a trap, why are you going, then?”

 

“Simple,” she remarked, making sure her cell phone was in her belt. “Take a picture of the suspects, call the cops. Problem solved.”

 

***

 

Zo Bwa Tet had one sick sense of humor. According to a sign, the construction site belonged to Hamilton Industries. They were either really ballsy, really smart, or really lucky, because for some reason all the workers had gone for the evening. The gang members themselves were hanging out on the first floor, in plain enough sight for Shade to snap a clear photo of each from the edge of the second.

 

Dumbfuck7.jpg saved. Well that was simple enough. Thanks for interrupting my dinner for this, you pricks. I get those hostages to testify and you’ll be eating worse than me in prison.

 

Whhaaaaaaooooooooaaaaaaaoooooooo

 

That siren – it wasn’t continuing down the street. Two police vehicles pulled up to the curb – not cruisers, but armored SWAT vans. About eight officers, clad in black like agents of the Reaper, piled out, retrieved their rifles, and without missing a beat, marched in formation into the construction site.

 

“BPD! Put the guns down! Put the guns-”

 

The gangsters were doing so. The officers didn’t care. They focused their fire, and a torrent of bullets cut through the gangsters like the Reaper’s scythe. She had milliseconds to swallow her shock, whip out her grapple gun, and fire it at the thug who appeared to be the leader. The heavy, bearded man didn’t struggle a bit as she fished him over the edge. And it was no wonder, because he was bleeding out from two gut shots.

 

“She’s up on the second floor!”

 

“Secure the building!”

 

Shade fumbled for a back belt pocket, hands shaking. She wasn’t able to fit much in her utility belt, so the best she could do was dress the wounds in a compress bandage.

 

“Shit, shit, stay with me man, stay with me…”

 

The bearded man’s eyes flickered open before settling on the opposite staircase. They were coming for her next. She felt for a smoke pellet, set it off, and rolled it forward.

 

Ssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss

 

A chorus of coughs cut through the smoke, the officers waving their hands in front of their faces.

 

“I can’t see jack man! Gotta’ve heard us coming!”

 

“Shut up and check your corners!”

 

One unlucky officer had the sense to look up. Shade bodily plunged onto him, laying him out onto the concrete. Like clockwork, the SWAT team swiveled back and forth, searching for their target. It did them no good. She choose a target close to her and disarmed him with a double palm strike. Before his rifle had hit the floor he was in a chokehold, and her other hand held her tranq pistol. Two other officers advanced. There was only a small amount of skin around the neck she could target. She had to keep them talking, get a good shot.

 

“Don’t move, I’ll brain this son of a bitch!”

 

The two officers twitched, rocking on their feet.

 

“Easy there Shade, we don’t want-”

 

Twip twip!

 

She slammed her hostage to the ground. Next was a man with a shield. To his visible surprise she rushed him, sliding forward with one foot outstretched, and took his feet out from under him. As he stumbled and fell onto the shield for balance, she snapped back to stance and wrested it from his grip. One good whack to the helmet and he was down for the count.

 

A loud burst sounded from the back, and her head was thrown forward. She blinked rapidly to regain her focus as her cloak was torn away. Spinning around, she caught the butt of a rifle and staggered back. Before he could level his rifle for a better shot, she spun kicked him to the ground.

 

Two more to go. One was somewhere to her right. She bent down for her cloak and clipped it back on, unloaded a rifle’s magazine then whistled for his attention. When his head appeared from the smoke she whipped the magazine into his jaw, stunning him just long enough for her to suplex slam him to the ground.

 

As the smoke began to fade, she made sure the men still staggering were put down with darts. That left just one unaccounted for. She stepped out of the cloud, glancing around for the scumbag.

 

“You guys are some vile shitbags, I want you to know-”

 

Hot air was caught in her throat. All of her muscles spasmed simultaneously, as if she been struck by lightning. To her alarm, as the final officer stepped into view, it turned out that’s exactly what happened. Crackles of magenta zig-zagged from his fingers, sizzling through the air.

 

The lightning only came when he made a specific gesture. She tried to command her feet when he took a breath the first time, but she collapsed forward instead. Another zap elicited a powerful scream. Her fingers curled into fists, and she wasn’t sure if she had done that, but during the next break she rolled free. A few jumps and rolls and she closed the gap, socking him as hard as she could across the jaw. He zapped her leg and she fell forward once more, but not before grabbing his vest and tossing him to the ground. He pushed her away and she fell onto her rear. She went for her tranq pistol, but he blasted it from her hands. Throwing her cape in front of her to absorb the next bolt, she stomped over and kicked him in the face until he stopped moving.

 

Shade collapsed back onto her knees. As she caught her breath, counting the seconds, the gravity of the situation began to descend upon her. Below her were dead men, slain by men who swore to uphold the law. Men entrusted by the citizens of Blackburn who lay beaten and bloodied by her hand. What in God’s name had just happened?

 

She remembered the gang leader. Stumbling, she made her way back to him. He still clung to life, if only by the childlike wonder that shown in his eyes.

 

“What… what are you?

 

“Hey, hey. Why were you here? Who did this to you?”

 

The bearded man gargled on his blood.

 

“Huh- Hamilton. Edgerrin Hamilton.”

 

Shade lowered her head.

 

“Give me something I can use. Anything. Hey, hey!”

 

The life in the man’s eyes grew dim. Shade was left kneeling in his blood, watching the pillars oscillate between red and blue.

 

The anomaly’s radio crackled.

 

“This is Hades, come in.”

 

Shade got to her feet, and without hesitation, snatched the radio.

 

“Hades my ass. You can cut the bullshit. Did you do all this just to kill me?”

 

“Hahahaha! So, you’re still kicking, then? I must admit, I’m impressed. The stories were true. But no, Jessica, not just for you. You see, I never make a move with a singular goal in mind. My men may have failed to kill you, but Elifort was rapidly becoming a thorn in my side. His death was a show of power.”

 

“These cops… they’re your men?”

 

“Yeah, exactly. You wouldn’t believe how easy they were to pick up when their plan on joining Cerberus fell apart.”

 

Shade clutched the radio so hard it creaked. “What’s this all about? I’ve done nothing to you.”

 

“Not yet. I’m just taking precautions. It’s nothing personal, Jessica. I find your self-righteous crusading childish at best. Thinking you can save a dying dog by picking fleas from its back. Blackburn will never change. You realize that, don’t you? The only way to win the game is to play it. All there is is the will to power. But, I think Mouse is right about you. What can I expect from a little girl playing superhero in purple pajamas?”

 

The radio clattered onto the concrete. Shade steamed for a moment. She couldn’t think straight, she had been put into check and they had just gotten started.

 

“Goddammit!

 

She paced back and forth, considering her options. She had brutally assaulted those cops, there was no getting out of that. Killing them – she wouldn’t even entertain the idea. Her best option would be to spin the events in her favor, buy time to take Hamilton down before charges were pressed.

 

Deja fucking vu…

 

She called Isabella and began to pace back and forth. “Hey, Ms. Napier. You all good?” questioned her assistant, nerves audible in her voice.

 

“No, no, not good, not at all. It was a trap alright but sprung by the wrong person. Look, listen, I need you to start digging real deep on Eddy’s business dealings, alright? Can you do that for me?”

 

“Uhhh…. I mean, yeah, I can probably do some snooping, but, like…. He does alot of business. What specific stuff are you wanting?”

 

“Anything! I – I don’t know.” She went to rake a hand through her hair, forgetting she was wearing a mask. “Shit, fuck, he made me beat the snot out of cops. They massacred his rivals, just like that. I don’t know who this guy is but we’re punching way above our weight here. Goddammit all. I’m going to the precinct soon, I know two detectives I can trust.”

 

There was a long pause. “I dunno if that’s such a good idea, Ms. Napier… What if there’s more people on his pay at the station? I mean, if he just played all this stuff at the drop of a hat, isn’t it kinda, like, risky to just walk into the metaphorical lion’s den?”

 

“Maybe. But I’m not in the mood to go on the run. That’s not who I am anymore. And even if I did, that would just put you in the crosshairs. Trust me, okay?”

 

“Okaaaaay… Ms. Napier, just so you know, if this all goes real bad… It was fun.”

 

Shade shook her head. “Jeez, don’t talk like that. You’re gonna scare me more. I’m not even close to done with this asshole. But… thanks.”

 

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Shade V1 C5 Perfectly Legitimate Businessman

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The following morning Jessica stood staring at her corkboard, following the connections over and over again with her eyes. At least, what few connections she had made. Whoever this Edgerrin guy was, he was damn good at covering his tracks. Despite hailing from the South-East End, he had no criminal record to speak of, or at least nothing as an adult. His juvenile records were almost certainly sealed, and she couldn’t find a damn thing in any crime articles from the late 90’s or early 2000’s.

 

It would appear as if the man had simply popped onto the business scene one day with his doctorate in hand. Of course, not even the most nobly-intentioned businessman could get anywhere in Blackburn without shaking the right hands. And clearly Edgerrin was shaking a lot more than hands. Sooner or later he’d slip, and she’d be there.

 

“Hey, Ms. Napier, I got you some bagels and stuff,” called Isabella from the entry. “You in? The mail guy handed me some bills and stuff for you.”

 

“I’m in the second office,” she called out. “I was up half the night getting not much accomplished.”

 

“Guess it’s a good thing I picked up some java on the way, huh?”

 

Jessica sifted through her mail. Bill, bill, chinese restaurant ad, bill…

 

“Hmph. Good thing Quinn’s paying the rent for the next six months…”

 

“Who?” Isabella set a box down on a clear section of folding table near her, along with a travel carrier with two cups of coffee in it. “You got, like, a sugar momma, Ms. Napier?”

 

“What? God, no,” she scoffed, shaking her head. “I probably shouldn’t have let that slip, but. Quinn is Chiroptera’s real name. She agreed to pay for my college and my rent until I got my feet so long as my GPA was a 3.2 or above. Not out of pocket, of course, Scott left quite a will behind.”

 

“…Oh. Wow. Oh wow, that’s crazy, dude! So, like, she’s really your teacher and stuff? Man, that’s totally bananas.” Helping herself to a bagel and some cream cheese, Isabella smeared it on with a distant look. “What was that like? Working with her?”

 

Jessica scratched the back of her neck. “I wish we could have met under less dire circumstances, and I wish I wasn’t so much of a bitch at the time, but it was cool nonetheless. She’s basically become my mother figure since my real mom, you know, committed crimes against humanity. A little stiff, but she’s good people, knows her stuff.”

 

“Did you get the full American Spirit tour? See all the super cool gadgets and tanks and costumes and stuff?”

 

“Yeah, I saw Scott’s costume. And I saw his father’s costume too, Kyle’s. Back when the Mavericks were fighting Nazis and the Mafia. I’m not too cool to admit that was pretty awesome.” She smiled at nothing in particular, then turned to Isabella. “No offense.”

 

Her assistant scrunched up her nose in confusion for a moment before it clicked. “Oh! Dude, none taken. It’s not like I’m excusing them for doing shady stuff. Why d’you think I wanted this job? Helping people like you help other people is where it’s at.”

 

That begged the question.

 

“How did you even find my office anyways? We didn’t really talk that much in college, and I hadn’t begun advertising my first day. And please, don’t say magic, or I’ll have to fire you.”

 

“Uh… Can I say ‘mumbo jumbo’?”

 

“Fuck you.”

 

“We don’t know each other that well, Ms. Napier. Plus, like, that’s super unprofessional,” Isabella teased. “Sorry, I used magic. Just don’t come over to my place unannounced if you don’t wanna be creeped out. I saved a ton of newspaper articles and stuff from the Incident and I knew you were gonna do something with your degree once we graduated. Pretty easy to put that together, you know?”

 

“Wow, double standards. Double fuck you.” Jessica took a long, exaggerated sip of coffee. “But you’ve got a point there.”

 

She turned her attention back to her mail. More bills, useless junk, a weird letter…

 

Wait, what? There was no sender address, or even a recipient address. Someone must have dropped it in her box manually. She tore it open, and took a step back. It was like something out of an old noir. Individual letters, cut out of newspapers and magazines, were glued onto a looseleaf piece of paper.

 

wE hAVe HosTaGEs, cOmE ALonE. waReHOusE OfF 655 HoMEsTEad sT.

 

“Oh, goddammit!” Jessica shouted, shoving the letter into Isabella’s hands. “Come on, grab your jacket, we’re heading out.”

 

“Uh… Ms. Napier? It says come alone. Won’t me coming along, like, endanger the hostage?”

 

“I’ll do what I do best!” she shouted, rushing into her closet. “Make it up as I go along.”

 

***

 

The warehouse off 655 Homestead Street was out in Olympic City, not too far from the Port of Blackburn that was a favorite spot for gang members. Olympic City was foreboding, sure, with its salty air and rusted buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in Cleveland, but the view of Vicio across the bay reminded Jessica that at least the place hadn’t gone full post-apocalyptic yet.

 

Jessica pulled her jacket tighter around her shoulders to ward off the chilly night air blowing in from the bay. This was definitely the place. She entered the warehouse, finding it too dim to see, save for a spotlight in the center with four shabby looking hobos tied to chairs. The hostages. She stepped into the light, only for six thugs to enter opposite her, led by a dreadlocked man.

 

“Hahahaha! I thought you would at least put up a fight! I told my men to expect some tricks, told these gutter rats they wouldn’t live to see tomorrow. But this? Pathetic. Kill her!”

 

The men opened fire, horribly inaccurate. Jessica slumped to the ground after taking several dozen rounds to the torso, much to the men’s visible approval. Then a mocking laugh echoed through the rafters above. Pushing herself up onto an elbow, the redhead grasped her chin and pulled away a mask, revealing instead a dark, curly haired Italian woman.

 

“Dude, you need to, like, stop smoking so much crack.”

 

Bang!

 

The gangsters yowled in agony, doubling over at the sudden pulse of light. A purple blur descended from the rafters, sending the hostages to the ground with a kick. One man, dribbling spittle onto his chin like a rabid animal, still had sense enough to level his rifle at the blurry vigilante. Only, he couldn’t see where she had gone. One moment she was there, the next, vanished. He spun around, aimed at the hostages, and let out a burst. His bullets all struck the ceiling. Shade wrested his weapon away and bashed his skull with its butt.

 

She hurled the weapon into the corner before jump kicking a second thug. A third gunman, not caring for the safety of his comrade, fired in her direction wildly. Despite her jumps, flips and using her legs to choke him out, she was shot in the shoulder.

 

The gunman crashed backwards thanks to the impact of his buddy, both going sliding into the darkness. Isabella and another gunner locked eyes. He raised his gun to fire, she mimicked him, and then suddenly the gun was in her hands instead. To his credit, the man recovered quickly and charged her, only to drop like a rock when she struck him in the throat with the buttstock. “Oh, shit, sorry dude!”

 

The last two gunmen, deciding to cut their losses, fled without a fight. Apparently one of them was the leader, given Shade couldn’t find his unconscious body amongst the goons. Oh well. He got the message. She picked the chairs back up and began untying the hostages.

 

“Sorry about the kick, had to keep you guys out of the line of fire.”

 

“You kiddin’? That was Zo Bwa Tet! Them guys is all kicks of wack. You saved our lives.”

 

“Hmph. Don’t mention it.”

 

Isabella blinked repeatedly. “Wow, hey uh, boss? That was pretty crazy, you taking out all those goons by hand and all. You alright?”

 

Shade moved her right arm around. “Yeah, I’m good. Got hit in my bad shoulder but I’m good.”

 

Isabella raised an eyebrow. “You want me to, uh, enchant your stuff like mine?”

 

“I’m good. After I got stabbed during the Incident, I got Scott’s buddy, the Blacksmith, to re-design my costume. This isn’t the nineties anymore, so cloth and body armor has been phased out for an experimental nanotech bodysuit. Not bulletproof, but a hell of a lot more bullet resistant. And it compliments my figure.”

 

“Lookin’ good!” said one of the hostages, giving a thumbs up. Isabella shot him a dry look. Really, guy?

 

“Now come on, let’s head back before I have to drop some more exposition. You guys, stay off the streets for a while, don’t go anywhere near Little Haiti.”

 

***

 

If you didn’t understand Blackburn, you weren’t going to last long in it. The city was ruthless, and fish who tried to fight for feed were less likely to get full and more likely to get dead.

 

Eddy liked to think of himself as a big fish. But he didn’t operate like a mindless animal. He knew the key to survival wasn’t mindless brutality, because there was always a bigger fish. Smart criminals thought with strategy, not fists. They held their cards close and played the long game, played the big fish against each other. And more importantly, they showed proper respect to big fish.

 

Clearly Jimmy Stenhouse wasn’t aware of that. Eddy hoped that, with every strike of his blackjack, he was getting closer to the idea. After a swift strike to the collarbone (didn’t want to leave bruises after all), Eddy took a long puff on his cigar.

 

“That hurt, Jim? It’s okay, you don’t have to say anything. That’s just Synapse doin’ what it’s supposed to.”

 

He savored a long drag, smoke billowing from his mouth as he laughed. “You’re a pretty tough cookie Jim. But you don’t understand pain like I do. Have you ever fired a piece before? No? I have. Many times, in fact. First time, I was eleven. Got mugged at knifepoint for a pair of Air Jordans I was selling, was cut on my leg in three places. So I took my homeboy’s nine, took my J’s back, took my money, and took his knee. I’ll ask again, Jim…”

 

He put his cigar out on an ashtray and straightened his tie.

 

Crack! Crack! Crack!

 

“Where’s?! My?! Damn?! Money?! I don’t think you want to play tough for much longer! The last guy who Mouse gave that concoction to ended up in the tile room.”

 

“Alright, alright!” Jim blurted up, lips quivering as he slunk lower in his seat. “I, I’m a little behind on rent but I can make it work! You’ll get your damn money, Hamilton!”

 

“Hahahaha! You won’t have to worry about that brother, I’m taking the club too. Stone! Take Jim back to his club. And if he don’t got my money in fifteen days, I want you to go back there with some of the boys and get it with interest. Be careful around the furniture though, I might keep some of it.”

 

With that business taken care of, he slipped his jacket back on and ventured out into the halls. Or at least, what were to become halls. Soon he’d be able to stop doing his dirty work at his own construction sites.

 

“Nisa, time to go… Nisa?”

 

Putting her fingers up over the receiver of her cellphone, the woman mouthed ‘Just a moment, sir’. “Listen, I don’t care about your misuse or ineptitude. You purchased arms from us and failed to utilize them effectively. That isn’t our fault. I fail to see the purpose in you pestering me further.”

 

That fucking worm Elifort… He should have known better than to deal with unhinged islanders. He extended his hand out to Mouse and beckoned for the phone. “I’m transferring you to Mr. Hamilton. Watch your mouth,” she bit out before acquiescing.

 

“What seems to be the problem here?” he demanded.

 

Dammit li nan lanfè! One of my men landed a shot on that witch and it did jack shit! I don’t know if she upgraded her armor, or, or what, but this cannot stand!”

 

“And what exactly is the reason you called us, Elifort?”

 

“Shade is as much our problem as she is yours! We need heavier firepower. You have RPGs, yes?”

 

Eddy couldn’t help but chuckle. “What, you want them at a discount or something?”

 

“Yes! It would make up for your inadequate sale.”

 

“Hahahaha!” He took the phone from his ear, shaking his head at Mouse. Was this fool serious? “Yeah okay. Listen, L’Ouverture, how about we set up a meeting and I refund you fifty percent, huh? Then you can buy an RPG directly from Grigori and go ghost hunting.”

 

“… Fine. Be there on time.”

 

Eddy mouthed the word ‘motherfucker’ before hanging up.

 

“You’re not really considering his terms, are you, sir?”

 

“‘Course not. Russian Santa would put coal in my stocking if I sent that crazy cat his way. No, no one’s going to be making any deals with Elifort ever again. Or Jessica Napier, for that matter.” He started to punch in a phone number. “Hope you’re not sentimental. Two birds one stone, y’know?”

 

Nisa was quiet for a moment, brows drawn as she stared at the floor. “Of course not, sir. Excellent idea.”

 

He stopped before he made the call. “You sure? We can deal with Jessica another way, this plan is off-the-cuff and all.”

 

“She made her choice and I made mine, sir. There’s no argument to be had. Not with that one.”

 

Previous Chapter    Next Chapter

 

 

Shade V1 C4 Tuck Your Shirt In

Previous Chapter    Next Chapter

Oops, I swore I had posted this on Friday! My bad guys.

Jessica sat in her bedroom recliner, bouncing her leg. Despite what she had told Isabella, she had barely read ten pages. In the corner of her eye, sitting unopened on her end table, was an envelope. She tried to keep her eyes forward, but Holden Caulfield’s troubles just weren’t keeping her attention. The letter had caught her attention and wouldn’t let go.

 

“Oh, goddammit…” She closed her novel and grabbed the letter. It was the third her mother had sent in the last thirty days. She had been responding to less than half of them since they started appearing in her mailbox. Every time they appeared she felt her stomach knot up. They were a constant reminder of an innocence that was growing ever distant, an echo that she now had to strain to hear.

 

Sooner or later she was going to have to let go. It would make things so much easier if she could hate her mother. But that was just another dark hole she had to avoid – she was walking on a tightrope as it was. If he mother was damned, if she put her in the pigeonhole with the Martins of the world, then she was damned too.

 

She ran her finger over the sender’s address. When it reappeared, she ran her tongue over her false tooth and felt that pain all over again. No. She hadn’t the strength today. Setting the letter aside, she returned to her reading.

 

Or at least, she tried to. Within minutes she could hear Isabella yelling in the office. “Wh-Hey! Dude, what the heck?! You need to get outta here before, like, my boss shoots you or something!”

 

“Aw,  she wouldn’t do that to little old me,” came a second, familiar voice. “We’re in good together.”

 

“I wouldn’t?” She had gotten up and was leaning against her door frame. “That door is steel-reinforced. How did you get in here?”

 

“Oh, you know, a little wriggling here, some elbow grease there,” Fritz said, shrugging with a cheeky smile. “But that’s not important right now.”

 

“Yeah? And what is?”

 

“Alex!” he enthused. “You guys have some talking to do. He’s ready if you are.”

 

“Oh hell no!” she turned and began retreating into her bedroom. “Nope, no, uh uh, not doing this, this is not happening dude.”

 

“Oh, quit being such a girl.” Fritz rolled his eyes, but didn’t make any effort to go after her. “Come on, you guys have to work things out, you know it and I know it and everyone knows it.”

 

“He doesn’t have to work anything out,” she insisted, returning and jabbing a finger in Fritz’s direction. “I’m an asshole and he deserves better, that’s the long and short of it. Now please stop reminding me of this.”

 

“Nope, nope, nope,” Fritz said, shaking his head. “Gonna have to remind you of it until you stop sulking and talk to him. He wants to see you and I know that you want to see him again. Plus, you’re good for each other, trust me.”

 

“Are you sure about that? Last time we spoke he couldn’t seem to get rid of me fast enough.”

 

“Ah, that’s how all good relationships start. He’s just nervous.” He gave her a pleading smile. “C’mon, Jessica, you’re just gonna abandon your friend like that? Kinda shitty of you, don’t you think?”

 

Jessica groaned, childishly throwing herself into a nearby swivel chair. If Fritz thought Alex was nervous, he had no idea what was going on in her head at that moment. But, if she had learned anything during the Incident, it was that she was going to have to face her fears sooner or later. Best to rip the band-aid off quickly.

 

“Okay, fine. But I don’t think you realize just how badly I fucked up, funny man.”

 

“Sure, I do,” Fritz chirped, making for the door. “I just don’t care ‘cause that’s not what’s important.”

 

“Don’t let it hit you on the way out, asshole.” She waited until his frame was halfway out. “And Fritz? Thanks.”

 

Fritz did a double take and looked back at her.

 

“Why, Jay, I didn’t know you had it in you,” he laughed. “You’re most welcome.”

 

“Don’t get used to it!”

 

Isabella stared at the door for almost ten full seconds after it had closed before turning to her. “Who the heck was that weirdo, Ms. Napier?”

 

Jessica shook her head. “A very strange guy.”

 

***

 

“So wait, Fritz got past your security systems, told you to call me, then just left?”

 

“Eeyup.”

 

She still remembered Alex’s tics: when he looked off into the distance, furrowing his brow, someone out there was getting psychically scolded.

 

“Yeah that’s Fritz alright.”

 

A second tic: the awkward, long pauses. Oh, right. She took an equally long breath.

 

“You’re still mad at me about the thing, right? The thing that happened in the Poltergeist?”

 

Alex, seemingly defensive at the suggestion, shook his head. “Jay, I’m not mad-”

 

“Okay fine, mad as you can get. Relatively speaking, you big teddy bear,” she retorted, poking him in the stomach.

 

Alex paused again. Every time he did that it made her a little more conscious of just how damn cold her Floridian ass perceived sixty degrees to be.

 

“… Maybe a little. I mean, what am I supposed to tell Dawn about your absence? What have you been telling everyone?”

 

“That I’ve been getting my life straightened out. That’s what I should be teaching the kids, right? Listen to your elders, stay in school, don’t almost shoot cops during armed robberies. Besides, what have you been doing, hmm?”

 

Alex shrugged. “The usual. Sweeping the restaurant, keeping Fritz in line, punching burglars in the face.”

 

“Sounds like you could use a little more excitement. I could always use a second hand at Shadowed Eyes, if you want to keep me in line.”

 

“Thanks, but no thanks,” he groaned, shaking his head. “Excitement around here usually means murder. Lots and lots of it.”

 

“Wow Alex, such a morbid mind,” Jessica teased. “Offer’s still on the table.” She stuck her hand out when they rounded the corner and arrived at a modest one-story building. She had to laugh a little when Alex flinched a little. Not bathed in saccharine neon like most buildings in Midtown, The Shamrock probably came across to an outsider as a shifty hole-in-the-wall, with its peeling brown paint and emanating rock music, but it was no less safe than the rest of Midtown.

 

“Come on big guy, it’s just a little rough around the edges,” she insisted, waltzing inside. Other than a few television sets and a neon green clover above the bar, The Shamrock was in perpetual dim lighting, but no one would mistake it as unpopulated. Over the clacking of billiard balls and raucous laughter she signaled down the bartender.

 

“Hey, Mary! Get the man here whatever he wants, I’m trying to get on his good side. I’ll take a thing of buffalo wings and some water.”

 

The woman, pale, black-haired and even more Irish than she was, slowly looked Alex over.

 

“Well if she’s actually going to buy from my tab, no objections. What’ll be big man?”

 

“Uh, Miller Lite and a chorizo burger.”

 

Mary raised an eyebrow before fetching his drink.

 

“So, you don’t drink huh?” asked Alex, starting on his beer.

 

“You saw what it did to my mother, right? I’ve got enough vices to deal with.”

 

“Yeah, like that. Self-loathing. Look, I’m not mad at you so much as I’m mad about your actions. It obviously stems back before that mess, and you’ve got to correct your attitude, but beating yourself up about it isn’t going to help anyone. If it wasn’t for me you would’ve done it, yeah, but if it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t have gotten wrapped up in the whole mess at all. You can either play the what if game, or look forward. Up to you.”

 

Jessica let out a long sigh, not in annoyance, but in relief. “Thanks, I probably needed that.”

 

“No kidding. You’re the most Catholic atheist I’ve ever met! Now tell me what you’ve been up to since the Incident.”

 

What had she been up to, indeed? “Well, it’s been a pretty eventful week, now that you mention it. I’ve picked up an assistant with weird, quasi-anomalous powers, ventured into South-East to save a kid poisoned by a drug dealer then found said dealer beaten to death. So yeah, how was your week?”

 

Alex let out a chuckle. “Oh man, I probably shouldn’t have laughed there, but you’re making me really glad I just cook and sweep.”

 

The next few hours passed faster than Jessica would have liked. They were also very mundane. They talked about normal things: what Alex and Fritz had seen holding down the fort, Jessica’s schoolwork, crazy customers at the Cachaca, bills, and so on. But God only knew when the last time she could open up about things to anyone was, and it sure as hell felt good.

 

***

 

Nisa adjusted her collar slightly, waiting for her boss to finish browsing through the files she’d provided him. Despite having been under his wing since her release from prison (his doing, of course) a little under two years ago, she still had trouble staying collected in the face of his, well, lack thereof. Certainly, he had a face. Edgerrin Hamilton had the kind of face one attributes to a real go-getter: shrewd eyes, refined brow, a sharp jawline. She’d just never met someone who betrayed absolutely no facial tics or habitual gestures while their attention was wholly focused on something.

 

She took a quiet sip from her mug of coffee as her eyes wandered to scan the coffee shop for what felt like the fifteenth time since they’d arrived. That was another aspect of him that surprised her. For all his wealth and status, Mr. Hamilton was never too good for little places like this. Or maybe he was, and liked to lord it over them? Nisa genuinely didn’t know. They certainly struck an odd pair, two executive types, one pale as snow and the other a dark brown, in crisp three piece suits coming into a hipster’s haven for snooty business type activities.

 

The urge to over-explain kept pushing at her tongue, but she kept her jaw clenched shut. No way was she going to make that mistake again.

 

“Not going to lie, Nisa. It’s not looking good. I stopped running the numbers in my head when I reached six figures six times over. We still have solid profits from stocks and the Vicio rebuild contracts but it’s going to take months to recoup our losses. Folks are going to come knocking soon, looking for their pieces of pie.”

 

Nisa swallowed quietly. “We have other ventures we could pursue, Mr. Hamilton. Other venues of business that would help cushion the blow. I’ve begun talks with several business owners to see if any would be suitable candidates for us to partner with, or… merger, if necessary.”

 

Mr. Hamilton leaned forward, steepling his hands. “That’s all well and good, but you and I both know there’s only so much money that we can make off of those ventures without the government coming and knocking on our door.”

 

“Our alternatives are much higher risk, sir. I do have plans in place if you want to go forward with that, of course, but after suffering such a significant loss, I don’t feel it’s prudent at this time.”

 

Just like that, the lines of Mr. Hamilton’s face softened, and he broke into mirthful laughter. “You always have been too cautious. You know what they say about omelettes. We can’t rest easy on the throne, not yet. If a little birdy gets out there, singing on the streets that we’re soft, well…”

 

The coffee shop’s bell rang. Nisa’s eyes were drawn to a gaunt man in a poorly fit suit, who quickly slunk over to Mr. Hamilton. Her boss’ face contorted in disgust.

 

“First of all, Buggy, I told you not to interrupt my meetings. Second of all, tuck your damn shirt in, this ain’t no audition for a Li’l Wayne music video. You embarrass yourself. Apologize to the lady.”

 

Buggy hastily did as he was ordered. “Yes sir, so sorry Miss Verion. You got a, a important offer from a potential partner. I wouldn’t bother you if it wasn’t important sir.”

 

“Yeah, I know, ‘cause no one’s that stupid.”

 

Buggy gulped. “He’s outside, in the van.”

 

If she was wary, Buggy was downright skittish around their employer. Frankly, the man got on her nerves. It was one thing to show a healthy respect for power, it was quite another to roll over and show one’s belly at the slightest drop of a hat.

 

“Would you like me to take those files back to the office, sir?” she asked Mr. Hamilton, pointedly ignoring the intruding third party.

 

“After we hear out this proposition.” Mr. Hamilton got up, picked up his fedora hat, and plopped a hearty tip down on the table. Buggy led them a black SUV with tinted windows, and before taking the driver’s seat said: “It’s Elifort.”

 

Mr. Hamilton signaled Nisa to take the passenger’s seat before sitting in the rear. She caught a brief glimpse of the man beside him: stocky, bearded and with dreadlocks, dressed presentably but not nearly as well as her or Mr. Hamilton.

 

“Let’s cut to the chase here Eli, my time is valuable. What’ve you got for me.”

 

“My boys are upset Eddy,” Elifort began in a thick Haitian accent. “Your man Mitchell had the best product on the streets. Now he’s dead, and we aren’t buying from the Cubans. One of my men was with Mitchell shortly before he died. Shade was there.”

 

“… You think Shade killed Mitchell?”

 

“We all know how many lives her mother took. Who’s to say she’s so different?”

 

Nisa watched as thoughts danced across Mr. Hamilton’s face. That wouldn’t have been beyond Jessica, of course. The woman was known to be violent. Hearing that she’d put on the cowl again after her time away in college didn’t shock her as much as she’d thought it would. Probably got bored with all the ‘normal’ activities, couldn’t resist the call of her blood.

 

“Sure. I see. You want me to kill her, then?”

 

“No, we can handle it. Besides, having her be blown away by us bangers is less suspicious than having her disposed of your way, hmm?”

 

Mr. Hamilton chuckled, and she swore he rolled his eyes. “Yeah, okay. But do you want?”

 

“Weapons. You have connections to the Russians, no?”

 

“As much as anyone has a connection to an angry bear, I suppose.”

 

“We’ll pay you a hundred and fifty percent what you paid for forty rifles. Some to kill the ghost with, and some… extra.” That got Nisa’s attention. That was a thirty thousand dollar investment they were willing to make at the drop of a hat.

 

She cleared her throat politely. “And how much ammunition would you be requiring?” she queried, keeping her voice neutral.

 

“Ten mags a gun should do it.”

 

Ten magazines at thirty rounds a mag, times forty guns… Less of a sound investment, only two thousand extra dollars. “That seems fairly lean, don’t you think? These weapons are full-auto enabled. If your boys are skilled at reloading, they could use all ten magazines in under two minutes.”

 

That struck Elifort speechless. She caught a twinkle in his eye as he turned to Mr. Hamilton, who confirmed it with a nod.

 

“Fifty mags a gun then.” Nisa pulled her phone out of her inner jacket pocket, sending in the order.

 

“Wonderful. That will be forty thousand eight hundred and fifty five dollars.”

 

“My men will bring the cash at the time of sale. You know the spot.”

 

“Buggy, drop the man off at the corner here.”

 

The van came to a halt at the red light, and Elifort stepped out.

 

“Good luck with it!” called Eddy before Buggy took off. Nisa smirked, drumming her fingers on her thigh. It always felt good to con people out of their hard stolen cash.

Previous Chapter    Next Chapter

Shade V1 C2 Bread Crumbs

Previous Chapter    Next Chapter

 

“Sorry, I haven’t seen anything.”

 

“I’m not here to help you get your fix, lady.”

 

“Thomas didn’t do nothing, why you beefing with a man on his grind?”

 

“Just call the cops.”

 

“Fuck you! Rebecca killed my dad, you clone bitch! Get out of my face!”

 

Jessica groaned loudly, about ready to throw her notepad down the storm drain and take a job at Burger King. She wasn’t getting anywhere with these people. This was Blackburn, alright. No one saw anything and if they did, they wouldn’t tell you. The fact that some ignorant jackasses thought she was an acceptable target for their rage against her mother wasn’t helping matters.

 

“Hey, Jay, you holding up alright?”

 

That deep, masculine voice. Alex? Down the block, her old friend was standing outside the Cachaça. How long had he been watching her?

 

“Alex!” She quickly stuffed her notepad away, running up to greet him. “Hi, hey! Long time no see. How’s uh, how’s work been treating you?”

 

“Fine enough. Keeping my head down, keeping the bills paid. How about you? You seem frustrated.”

 

“Yeah, it’s just – Blackburn. You know. I’m on the case.”

 

“What’re you looking for?”

 

“Oh, that? It can wait. You got a few minutes? You know, to catch up and stuff.”

 

Alex glanced back into the shop, corner of his mouth quirking down. “Sorry, I got a pile of dishes to take care of. Don’t wanna keep pops waiting.”

 

Jessica craned her neck slightly, getting a view of the kitchen from the clear glass storefront. It couldn’t have been that bad – she couldn’t see any piles over the counter, at least. It was her turn to frown.

 

“Oh. Okay. Um, I’m looking for a man named Thomas. Tall, African-American, silver tooth. Seen him?”

 

Alex shook his head.

 

“Alright. Well what about any drug dealers, have you seen any?”

 

“Oh, of course. Some down by Fisher Avenue, some at the intersection of Kingston and Blake -”

 

“Any groups that sell anything, you know, odd? Unusual, not coke or meth?”

 

Alex pursed his lips, looking off into the distance. “Hmm… Actually yeah. I’ve heard word of some guy named Mitchell dealing in exotic drugs around Locksley Avenue, but I haven’t gotten around to, you know, shadowing him, if you catch my drift.”

 

“Don’t. I’ll take care of it.” She jotted down the location before looking back up at him. “Catch coffee tomorrow morning, maybe?”

 

“Maybe,” he replied, scratching the back of his neck. “I gotta get back to it. Stay out of trouble, Jay.”

 

Jessica half-heartedly gave a smile and a wave. Great, he still thought she was a punk too. But could she blame him? The only reason she didn’t end up just like her mother was chance. No, it was because of him. He had every right to run from the hideous person she was inside.

 

I told you I’m no hero, Isabella…

 

Sighing, she tucked her notepad away again and began walking back to her office. If she was going to get anywhere with this Mitchell fellow, she was going to have to let that hideous person take over for a while.

 

***

 

“Are you totally sure about this, Ms. Napier? I mean, I’ve done this sorta thing before, but, like… I really don’t wanna mess up your face.” Having returned to her office and summoned Isabella, Jessica sat in a chair while her new assistant hesitantly applied a cold putty to her face. “Oops, hair, one sec… Okay. I mean, like, why aren’t you just busting up the place as Shade? This seems riskier. Not that I know better than you!” she corrected herself hastily with a nervous laugh.

 

“Who do you think Mitchell is more likely to open up to? A potential client, or a vigilante with a reputation for feeding guys like him their own arms?” She shivered a bit at Isabella’s touch. “What is this stuff anyhow?”

 

“That’s a good point… Uh, Mimi taught me this spell. She used it a lot to get in and out of parties she wasn’t invited to, back in the day. She called it Argilla dell’Infinito. I don’t speak Italian, so I dunno what it means, but yeah. Um, do you want a different eye color? Also what color do you want your hair to be? And, like, the length…”

 

Jessica had to rack her brain for a moment. For as much as she had been teased for her bright orange hair, she never considered dyeing it. Gingers had a notoriously hard time with dye as it was.

 

“Uh. Hmm… Let’s go with blonde, I guess. It’s disarming.” She stuck a hand halfway down her stomach. “Let’s go to here. No one will suspect I’m disguising my hair by making it longer. And as for eyes, do green.”

 

“Can do. Let’s just raise the cheeks a bit… Uh huh. More pronounced brow. Less crook to the nose. Okay, that part’s done. Hold still. Like… don’t even breathe for a couple seconds, seriously.” Isabella put a finger to her forehead and chanted more gibberish. “Okay, cool. Can you tilt your head back a bit?” She focused her gaze on Isabella’s first two fingers, which hung poised over her head. Two droplets of emerald liquid appeared on her fingertips, summoned by a quick phrase. “Keep your eyes open, please.”

 

The drops splashed into her eyes, stinging terribly, but her vision cleared in seconds. Isabella had already moved on to her hair, gathering it up and working her hands through it systematically. “Straight or curly?” asked her assistant distractedly.

 

“Curly,” Jessica answered, wiping at her eyes. “Where did you learn all this anyways? I’m sure scientists would pay good money to learn how you make the laws of physics your bitch.”

 

“Learned it from here and there. From what I understand, it’s sorta like how the whole anomaly thing works, but… not? Mimi didn’t really speak very good English and a lotta what she told me was superstitious mumbo jumbo. Some people can use magic, some can’t. Some people shoot light beams from their eyes, some don’t. Most of the time, though, us spooky guys end up with our heads blown off for trying something too ambitions and, like, karma smacking us a good one.” A long strand of curly, blonde hair fell in Jessica’s face, though Isabella’s arm reached around to grab it again. “My parents really don’t like that I practice. ‘Your Mimi turned herself inside out for being too ambitious, mia figlia. Leave that stuff alone!’ But I figure if I got the touch, like, I should be using it for good, right?”
“Yeesh.” It certainly didn’t sound like any anomalous ability she’d ever heard of. Perhaps the workings of such things were beyond the scope of human knowledge for now. “Sorry about that. Was she a friend of yours or something?”

 

Isabella moved around her, grasping her chin gently and pulling away a thin mask from her face. Just like that, the hair in her periphery was red again. “Whew, it came off… Uh, yeah, Mimi was my gramma. We were super close.” She gestured to the mask, holding it back to Jessica. “Okay, it’s done. Any time you wanna change identities, just, like, put it on. It should come off when you want, too. Go check it out, see if I did an okay job with the face sculpt.”

 

Jessica nodded and headed towards the bathroom, trying to avoid looking at the mask as she went. It was beyond uncanny, like Isabella was some deranged serial killer cutting people’s faces off. When she got to the mirror she pressed the mask back on. Just like that, she was a totally different person.

 

“Impressive. You think you could use your magic to fix the rest of my mommy issues?” she shouted into the office space, tilting her head at different angles.

 

“Not if you wanna stay out of an insane asylum when your mind turns to mush,” came Isabella’s response, not at all joking in tone. “What was she like anyways? Your mom, I mean. All anyone knows about her is the crazy that the news portrays. Who was she for real?”

 

Jessica let out a long sigh at that. “Complicated. Mother never saw the good in people, so all she ever saw was criminals rotating in and out the system. She punched people down but they got right back up. She wanted things to be handled permanently, wanted it to be done. And she never considered the fact she’d have to apply her totalitarian ideology to everyone. Even me. I don’t know, maybe Scott just took his axioms for granted and that set a bad example for Chiro. You have to make the choice to follow your own principles every day.” Jessica shook her head and wiped at her eyes. “She has the rest of her life to think about it in prison. I just hope she finds peace.”

 

No response came from the office for a time, but eventually Isabella sighed. “Man, that’s rough. So all that stuff she confessed at trial was true? You were a soldier as a kid?”

 

“Yeah, I – don’t like to talk about that.”

 

“I get it. Or… well, I get why. You want a hug, dude? I know you’re my boss and all, but, like, rough is rough.”

 

“Oh, goddammit…” Jessica shut the lights off, shuffled over to her assistant, and let her hug her. “You’re fucking diabetes, you know that right?”

 

“Hey, man, at least I’m not stabbing you right now, right? I hate shots.”

 

Jessica squirmed away. “Speaking of which, I need to go find out what our boy Carl was shooting up. I’ll be back, hopefully in one piece.”

 

Slapping her forehead, Isabella rushed over to her canvas shoulder bag and pulled out a beat up old Nokia. “Hey, hold up. Before you go, lemme, like, give you my number. Call me if you need anything, you know?”

***

 

If there were any rules in Blackburn, the first you learned was this: at night, Blackburn becomes a different beast. The blinding light of the Florida sun hurried away, replaced by blue and green and orange neon signs advertising cars and jewelry and drink and body. The working men had thinned out, replaced with gluttonous masses overstuffed by material greed. It was easy to lose yourself amongst the crowd. If there was a second rule of Blackburn, it was that no one cared who you were. A blessing and a curse. No one bothered you, even if you lay dying in the gutter, gasping for your last breaths but choking on sewage. She’d seen it more than once.

 

Locksley Avenue had some of the least foot traffic in Midtown, situated close to Dixon Park. Jessica slipped into her third narrow alley of the night, this one lit solely by a liquor store. Tellingly, there were even less people here. Six men loitered by a back entrance on the left side of the alley, all holding bottles wrapped in brown bags. It was immediately an odd group since there was only one white guy, and he looked like he was either in charge, or holding everyone’s interest. One of his compatriots nodded over his head in her direction, a tall man with a forehead scar. That must have been Thomas.

 

“Lost, sweetheart?” called the white guy, pushing off the brick wall and approaching her casually. He was middle aged, didn’t work out enough, and had a receding hairline. Typical white dealer build. Definitely Mitchell.

 

“Oh, sorry, Carl must have sent me the wrong address,” she said, feigning annoyance as she glanced down at her phone.

 

Blinking in surprise, the man tossed a glance over his shoulder. Through some unspoken signal, the others plodded away, leaving him alone with her. “He never was good with directions. That’s okay. He say who he was looking for? I know the area pretty well, could probably give you the correct address.”

 

Jessica blew up a non-existent text. “Uhhh… Mitchell? Says he wanted to introduce me to an old friend.”

 

“Yep, wrong address. The place you’re looking for is between Stillington and Haylock. The old tennis court behind Edgeline Apartments.” The dealer, for there was no doubt that’s what he was now, took another swig of his beer. “You should swing by there tomorrow evening, around ten.”

 

“Ten, got it.” Jessica pocketed her phone, glanced over her shoulder, and left. Mitchell had bought it hook, line and sinker. If she could just get her hands on Mitchell’s product, the case would be a wrap. Sketchy? Maybe. Illegal? Definitely. Necessary? Absolutely.

 

The following night, at nine fifty-five, she made her way to Edgeline Apartments. Even before she got to the court, Jessica could tell something was wrong. It was too quiet, for one. Not enough foot traffic in the area. For two, the apartment buildings all had their curtains drawn. Every room that faced the court. Three, the corpse itself.

 

It was a grisly murder, that much she could discern even at a distance. Splatters of blood flecked the dull green surface of the court itself, as well as the concrete around it and even a few places on the wall. Based on body shape, she was able to discern that the deceased was Mitchell, but his head was a ruined mess of pulped flesh and skull fragments. Notably, the blood was still wet. It couldn’t have happened more than an hour ago, then.

 

She took a breath to focus herself before really buckling down to find relevant clues. The murder weapon was one of the posts from the net, which meant this was impromptu. A hot blooded crime of passion. Judging by the bend in the aluminum pole, the assailant had really gone at it. Jessica crouched beside the corpse to take better stock of the injuries. Right arm broken in three places, right knee shattered, several ribs. By tilting her head, she could see that there were signs of more trauma on the back as well. Mitchell’s clothes were splattered with blood, both from his wounds as well as left behind from being struck by the murder weapon.

 

Wasn’t this just lovely? With her lead as dead as Mitchell, her investigation needed to take a different approach. Sighing, she peeled off her mask, tucked it into her jacket, and called 9-1-1. Homicides were always police matters, and though she could assist, she was going to be outside of whatever they learned about Mitchell.

 

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

 

“A homicide victim on the tennis courts behind Edgeline Apartments. Local drug dealer named Mitchell, looks like he got brained with a blunt object.”

 

“Are you or anyone else in any present danger?”

 

“No ma’am, not that I’m aware of.”

 

“Please stay nearby, officers will be responding to the scene shortly.”

 

And shortly it was. Not five minutes later a patrol car parked nearby, and two beat cops hopped out. Elliot and Lopez, their nametags read.

 

“Holy cow, Shade, is that you?” Lopez asked, adjusting his cap. “Wow, it’s such an honor to meet you! My father was on Vicio during the incident. You saved his life.”

 

“Hmph. Don’t mention it.” She gestured towards Mitchell – or what was left of him. “I didn’t witness the murder, but I know he was a bad dude. Might have been a hit.”

 

“Yeah, we heard. Major Cases are on their way. If you have anything, anything at all, talk to the responding detectives.” And with that, Elliot and Lopez began taping off the scene.

 

Five minutes after that, an unmarked police car rolled up beside the first. A 2018 Dodge Charger, from the looks of it.

 

Not as nice as my Lancer, but sheesh.

 

As chance would have it, the occupants were none other than Detectives Cardozo and Higgins, from the Incident. Dallas was dressed like he was straight out of Miami Vice, with a light jacket, hawaiian shirt and khakis. In stark contrast, Jeff wore a tan trench coat and matching fedora with suit pants.

 

“You boys get a promotion, huh?”

 

At the sight of her, Dallas stopped in his tracks, throwing up his arms.

 

“Aw, you’ve gotta be shitting me. We have to deal with the crazy redhead too?”

 

“Oh, come on, Dallas,” Jeff pleaded. “We’ve dealt with lots worse than this.”

 

“We’re not talking about the alligator rape case, Jeff.”

 

“I wasn’t even thinking of that. But that was a lot worse, you know, maybe we should both be thankful.”

 

Dallas fetched his own note pad, shaking his head. Never change, boys.

 

“So, you didn’t see anything, but you knew who this guy was. What are you doing around known drug dealers, Jessica?”

 

“It was for a client,” she insisted, putting her hands out. “Just keeping tabs on the guy.”

 

“Uh huh. You know how I can tell when you’re lying?”

 

Jessica frowned. “No.”

 

“When you do that. But, Jeff likes you, so I won’t inquire any further, de-tect-ive.” Dallas smirked when her frown deepened. “Blunt force trauma, Jeff?”

 

“Sure looks like it,” Jeff said with a nod, approaching the corpse. “Jeez, someone really wanted to kill that brain of his.”

 

“We got a murder weapon?” Dallas continued. Jessica gestured towards the pole. Dallas was taken slightly aback.

 

“Hey, uh, Jeff? Can you give me a guesstimate on how much that pole weighs?”

 

“Uh. A lot? Fifteen pounds?” Jeff suggested, gritting his teeth.

 

“And they just yanked it out, then beat this guy so hard it dented? We’re either dealing with someone really strong, or super strong.”

 

“I wouldn’t know about any of that,” Jessica remarked, “And I can’t disclose my client’s identity, but they may or may not be from South-East. And my case led me to finding out that Mitchell had clients of his own in South-East. If that makes a difference.”

 

Dallas raised an eyebrow before jotting it down. “So a bunch of brothers from the hood were buying from a middle-aged white guy in Midtown. You may be weird, but you’re not a liar. That’s… not a typical thing.” He snapped his fingers. “Let’s go see if we can’t find any witnesses, Jeff. And you.” He pointed a finger at Jessica. “Stay out of trouble.”

 

“That I can’t promise you, Cardozo.”

 

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