Chapter Six


Shade parked her car in a dark alley only a block away from where she had agreed to meet Marcus. She pulled its passenger side close to one side of the alley, tucking her shadowy coupe in behind a couple of battered dumpsters. When she opened the car door and stepped out she was greeted with a rush of cold air from the night that ran through the alley, playing with her long strands of brown hair as it passed. She shivered a bit as she went to the trunk, retrieved her leather jacket and slid into it. She liked the weight of it, how it settled on her shoulders and made her upper body feel armored.

With a vigilant glance up and down the alley she stuffed her hands in the jacket pockets and began a steady stride toward the far end of the alley. The towering apartment buildings with barred windows on the first two floors that the alley opened up into, along with the burnt husk of what used to be an automobile resting on blocks nearby, reminded Shade of what part of Bergstad she had ventured into. Inwardly she raised her defenses, sharpened her focus as she turned down a sidewalk littered with kicked-over trash cans and the debris that spilled out of them, being scattered abroad by the playful wind.

From the corner of her eye she noticed the occasional curtain being pulled away from lit windows as her presence was detected by the watchful inhabitants who were prisoners in their own homes. She paid them no heed as she continued marching to her promised rendezvous.

Within minutes Shade reached another dark alley which she cautiously entered. After wandering about halfway down the alley she stopped, looked around to make sure no one was watching, then jumped up to take hold of the last rung of a hanging fire escape ladder that stretched down from the six-story building that made up one side of the alley. She pulled herself up one rung at a time until her dangling feet were able to reach up and secure her hold on the ladder, then she climbed effortlessly to the landing outside of a second-story window. Starting up again on the iron stairs that zig-zagged up to the next landing above she repeated the process until she reached the flat roof of the building.

The chilling wind was stronger on the roof, pushing hard against Shade's leather jacket in random bursts but failing to get inside. She spotted Marcus across the roof, propped up on one leg near the edge as he peered out over the darkened rooftops of neighboring buildings with little to no regard for the distance between him and the ground below. She approached him without any acknowledgement of her presence from him as he stared off intently in a specific direction.

"There," he pointed, as she walked up next to him.

Shade followed his outstretched arm and zeroed in on the spot his extended index finger directed her to. Two buildings over, on the fourth floor, a row of lit windows. She studied the location, trying to see everything above and below. All she could really see though was the poorly lit main entrance of the building down near the street which was guarded by two large thugs.

"That's where it is," Marcus confirmed, still without looking at Shade.

"You're sure?" she questioned.

"Positive," he answered with no doubt. "After Reggie and his boys jumped me for it, I followed 'em back to that building. It's an old office building that was gutted a long time ago. Reggie's been livin' on the fourth floor and..."

Marcus stopped talking when he finally turned to Shade and noticed the old familiar jacket. He smiled fondly at it. "Now that brings back memories," he remarked.

Shade smirked briefly at his comment, then prodded him on. "You were sayin'..."

"Yeah...Reggie," Marcus turned back toward the building,"he's been usin' that old building as headquarters for his new operation." Marcus huffed at the thought, then shook his head. "Can you believe that twirp is runnin' these streets now?"

Shade just shook her head in disbelief too.

"I mean, I heard that Viktor kinda up and disappeared a while back, but I never thought Reggie woulda been his replacement," Marcus said, throwing a look at Shade.

The mention of Viktor covered Shade's features with a fleeting veil of satisfaction that the night hid from Marcus as she remembered his grim fate.

Marcus wandered away from the edge of the roof as he changed gears with his thoughts. "Now here's the plan. I figure we got a better chance of gettin' in if..."

"Marcus." Shade said firmly with an imploring look that made him pause.

"Yeah Shade?"

She stepped near him so he would be able to read the determination in her dark eyes which she kept locked onto his. "Marcus, I need you to trust me now, more than you ever have."

"What...what are you talkin' about Shade? You know I trust you," he attested.

"I know Marcus, but tonight I'm gonna have to put that trust to the test," she replied.

"What are you talkin' about Shade?" he asked with a little agitation growing in his voice.

"I need you to stay right here, on this roof, while I go and get what Reggie took from you," she explained.

Marcus stared straight-faced at Shade for a moment as he considered what she'd said, then his face broke up into a wrinkled brow of confusion and a slightly gaping mouth of disbelief.

"Wait, what? Stay here while you go and..., Shade, are you crazy? Don't you..."

"You have to trust me Marcus, it's the only way," she interrupted.

Marcus went silent again as his eyes roved all over Shade's resolute expression. He searched for some sign that she was joking, but found her demeanor to be unwavering. He shook his head as he raised his arms between them and began to wave off her proposal.

"No way Shade, no way I'm lettin' you go over there alone. It ain't happenin'," he argued.

Shade sighed as she lowered her head seemingly in disappointment. Marcus continued to rant about how her idea was crazy, about how he would never allow it. His tone had become scolding.

"I'm sorry Marcus," Shade muttered quietly to herself. While he continued to scold her for even suggesting such a thing she peeked up at him from her lowered head, then punched him in the jaw with a lightning fast jab that left him bleary eyed and staggering for a brief second before he fell over. She caught him, lowering him gently to the roof in an unconscious heap.

She rose to take a final look at Reggie's building as she secured her brown locks behind her head in a ponytail with a rubber band. Walking back over to the edge of the roof she unzipped the jacket to reach in and pull out a black mask dotted with gold sequins, the kind of mask usually worn at masquerade balls. She had found it in a trunk tucked away in the basement of Allender Manor when she was just a little girl and kept it in her room ever since. When she put it on, adjusting its cloth straps as she tied them behind her head, it covered most of her forehead and everything down to her upper lip. Her dark eyes faded away into the black mask, giving her face a soulless look.

Reaching into one of the jacket pockets she pulled out a matching pair of brass knuckles. Sliding her fingers through the hard loops of each pair she clenched her fists. After taking a deep breath she was ready.

Shade snaked her way back down the fire escape then snuck off toward Reggie's building. She scoped out the two thugs guarding the entrance from the darkness of another alley across the street. They were hefty fellas, tall and broad. Their heavy winter coats made them appear even bigger. One was texting with his cell phone while the other leaned back against the building, trying to look cool.

After watching the guards for a few minutes through her mask to familiarize herself with their motions Shade glanced down both sides of the street that divided them. The coast was clear, no one else was around. She looked back at the two guards, fixed her gaze on their exact locations, then decided on a course of action.

In little more than a couple of seconds she zoomed across the street in a blur, cleared the few steps leading up to the front door, and slammed her brass knuckle-covered fist into the leaning thug with all the momentum she had generated before he ever knew what hit him. He went down instantly, for good. The other thug dropped his cell phone in surprise, as well as his mouth.

Shade turned to him with an inviting smirk creeping up into her mask. He shook off his stunned look and started toward her like a bull rushing a matador. She zipped to him with a kick that landed in his gut, knocking the wind out of him as he bent over. With his head lowered closer to her level, Shade drew her fist back then delivered another knock-out blow. He fell over hard into a heavy mound. She quickly looked around to see if she had been noticed. Nothing but the wind stirred so she carefully opened the door and went inside.

The distant sound of guys laughing and swearing filled the inner parts of the poorly lit first floor as Shade quietly found the door leading to the stairs. Upon opening the door she was met by another one of Reggie's boys who was half way down the steps from the second floor when their eyes met. Before he could do anything more than widen his eyes in surprise Shade shot to him in a flash, rendered him unconscious with a blurred uppercut, and lowered him quietly to the steps as he fell toward her. She glanced up to the second floor landing, saw that it was clear, and proceeded up the stairs to the fourth floor.

Easing out onto the floor from the stairway, Shade took careful glances in all directions through her mask. The fourth floor was well-lit, and seemingly unoccupied. Vast empty spaces where cubicles once resided reached out across a sea of torn carpet to a once important conference room which no longer had a door to ensure private meetings. Shade approached the room cautiously.

Inside the room, sitting proudly in the center of a table littered with empty beer bottles and stained food wrappers from various fast food restaurants was what she'd come for. The priceless artifact stolen by Marcus from one of Bergstad's wealthiest citizens for a shady buyer was on display like a trophy, and looked grossly out of place amongst the rubbish of Reggie's domain. She let the brass knuckles on her left hand slide off into the jacket pocket, then lifted the ancient object from the table with a sure grip. She turned to leave but was stopped by Reggie when he appeared in the doorway with a pistol pointed directly at her.

Looking with an annoyed expression that fluctuated with brow-raising wonder, Reggie took in Shade's appearance, noticing first her mask then the brass knuckles decorating her right fist. "Who...or what are you supposed to be?"

Shade didn't answer. She only stared intensely at him, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Agitated further by her silence and drawing confidence from the gun in his hand, Reggie demanded with a raised voice,"I said: Who are you? Who sent you?"

Shade still didn't answer. She stood perfectly still like a masked mannequin. Reggie went to emphasize the point that he had a pistol aimed at her by extending his arm toward her when she bolted at him in a sonic blur, planting the brass knuckles into his forehead which sent him flying backwards out of the doorway as the gun dropped from his hand. He landed with a thud several feet from the conference room and the pistol fell at Shade's feet. She kicked it out of the way, walked over to Reggie, and looked down at his motionless form with a pleased smirk before making her way back to the stairs.

Back on the roof where she'd left Marcus she found him sitting up, dazed and nursing a sore jaw. Her mask was gone, as well as the brass knuckles, but he still stared in bewilderment as she approached him with the artifact. He stood up, a little wobbly, then fluttered his astonished gaze between the artifact and Shade's boasting grin.

"What did you...get that?" he stammered.

Shade extended the object out to him with her usual smirk. "It doesn't matter, just take it and be grateful."

"Of course I'm grateful, but how?" he wondered as he took the object, examining it closely.

"You can have this too," Shade said as she took off the leather jacket. "It doesn't fit me anymore," she concluded.

Marcus nodded his understanding as he took the jacket from Shade's hand. She turned to leave then looked back after taking a few steps. "I hope this was your last job Marcus."

"It was Shade, it was. And thanks," he said solemnly.

Shade looked back toward the fire escape and started walking again. Marcus kept his eyes on her until she disappeared over the edge of the roof. He let the jacket droop beside him as he lowered his arm, but he noticed something white contrasting sharply against the inner lining of the black jacket. Setting the artifact down gently he reached in the jacket and pulled out a thick white envelope with his name on it. Opening it he discovered a bundle of cash, more than he'd seen in a long, long time. He looked back at the fire escape, humbled by such a friend as the one he had in Shade.