“You’re surprisingly spry for a dead woman.”
The line of her shoulders hikes up. She doesn’t turn, and I take the chance to glance around the room and note the exits. Just as a precaution. My crew have them covered. I heard some of them laughing earlier, doubtful that this frail, beautiful woman is one of the most dangerous people they’ll ever encounter. They think I’m exaggerating, too close to retirement to risk going after the big boys.
At last, she turns. Her braided hair slides off her shoulder, down her back. Her lips curl. “I do try.”
My earpiece fizzles and pops dead as I approach her. I smell metal in the air, as potent as blood. The last time we met, we were dangling off a rooftop in London. She fell. Watching it happen brought me a strange feeling of horror – the horror that something I thought unshakable had come loose and the terrible tide of change had crashed on our shores. I was irritable for months afterwards, until there was a break-in at a garage in Edinburgh, a garage which, as it so happened, was holding a lucrative supply of firearms. The security cameras stopped working and in the black-out the firearms went missing. I knew it was her. I always know.
Soon after, I found out about the girl. The twelve-year-old being held captive in a dark bunker over a hundred miles outside the city.
“Drink?” The Masked Lady says, after a beat, sliding a finger of whiskey my way.
I ignore it. She wouldn’t poison me. I simply avoid alcohol due to my acid reflux.
I sit beside her and let my gaze linger on the curve of her mask where it covers her cheekbones. There is no shortage of masked wannabe heroes and eccentric villains nowadays – kooks with powers of invulnerability, flight, or super speed – but she’s the only one who holds my attention.
There’s a crackle in my ear. A faint, “Boss…” and then static.
I take the earpiece out and put it on the counter between us. “I was promised this would be unhindered by your talent. Regardless, my men will still be able to hear me. All I need to do is give the command and thirty armed soldiers will converge on this building.”
She bats her lashes. “Thirty? Just for me?”
“Don’t distract me.”
“Don’t get distracted.” She faces me. Her eyes are as dark as a freshly dug grave. “We’re here about the girl.”
I can picture the child clearly, see her shuddering in her bonds and choking on her gag. It’s been three days since she was captured. She’ll be hungry by now, and mindlessly desperate for rescue.
I shift so I’m parallel with the Masked Lady. “How much?”
Her eyelids flutter, insulted.
“You must be willing to barter, otherwise neither of us would be here.”
She jerks to her feet. The stool groans as it scrapes across the vinyl floor.
I grasp the gun at my belt, but I don’t draw it. A bullet through her chest will achieve nothing. She paces in front of the entryway, her leather boots scuffing the carpet. She won’t leave – not that way, at least. She would take the fire exit. I let go of my gun and return my arm to rest on the countertop. I press my knuckles against the hard quartz until my bones pop.
“Forgive me,” I say, “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
She looks sharply at me. “Do you know how many electric pulses are running through your body right now?”
Under her piercing stare, my chest starts to ache.
“Because I do,” she says, “I can feel every one of them.”
The ache swells.
“How would you like it if I switched them off one by one?”
Suddenly it’s as if I’m sitting on nothing, made worse with my feet dangling above the floor. I brace my palm against the counter and slide off the stool. Somehow, I don’t stumble. A single shout will have my crew raining gunfire on her, but then I lose the only thing worth negotiating for.
“If you kill me…” I hiss, “She dies too.”
The effect is immediate. Feeling returns to my legs. The ache is gone.
She steps back as I straighten. “I want to hear her voice.”
“I thought you’d say that. I’m happy to oblige,” I take my phone from my jacket pocket, “that is, if you don’t mind reducing your influence for a minute.”
She blinks. Darkness ripples along the ceiling lights, and I smell the hot spark of ozone. The TV above the bar switches on, though muted, and on the counter, my earpiece gives a pathetic hiss. Without her sphere of electronic interference, I’m able to call my captain. I press my phone to my ear. Captain answers after two rings.
“Put the girl on.” I don’t wait for a reply. I put the phone on speaker and hold it out. A second passes before there’s another sound.
Lady snatches the phone off me and hugs it against her ear, switching to Spanish to murmur her soft, breathy reassurances. I pick up the odd phrase but find myself distracted. What does her skin feel like under her mask?
I allow thirty seconds before I hold my hand out. She takes a breath, ends the call, and places the phone on my palm. The lights above our heads crackle. Her anger is as satisfying as spotting a lightning flash.
“How much,” I say slowly, “are you willing to give for her safe return?”
“Using a child.” She bares her teeth. “How devious.”
“I’d expect the same from you.”
“You could have kept her somewhere warmer than a basement.”
“I wanted her in my office, but she kept blowing out the lights. If the heating is malfunctioning where she is then she only has herself to blame.”
She glares. She must be oh-so tempted to stop my heart now. “Don’t be coy. You wouldn’t have met with me if you didn’t already have a price in mind. Name it.”
Her eyes narrow. “Is this a partnership or enslavement?”
“I’d rather it be a partnership, but I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.” I settle onto the stool again. I brace my lower back against the edge of the counter. “The girl inherited your power, but she’s not as practised as you. Your little stunt in Edinburgh was particularly amusing. You’re a fine thief, but we both know playing Robin Hood isn’t your calling.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says, “I enjoyed seeing your face when you had nothing to sell to those terrorists.”
My jaw tightens. “Don’t play the hero. There are plenty of red capes in this city and you’re not one of them. Your methods aren’t palatable enough.”
“And if I agreed, what would this partnership entail?”
“Safety. For you and your daughter. You do know why it’s called The Family, don’t you?”
“I assume it’s good PR –”
“– but that’s not what I asked.”
I raise my palms, conceding. “Your work will be like it is now. I’ll let you empty bank accounts, level corporations, and collect firearms, but you’ll take what I tell you from who I tell you to take it from.”
“Why me? There have to be other people with powers like mine.”
“Your superpowers aren’t what make you valuable to me.”
“Then what does?”
I pick up the glass she’s been drinking from all night and breathe in its aroma. Charred caramel, with a hint of oak. Her black lipstick marks the rim. I cover it with my mouth as I swallow what remains of the whiskey. It’s important to know what your partner likes to drink after all.
“Have you ever looked at someone and known immediately that you could be friends?” I swipe my thumb up and down the glass. I have a scar just below my knuckle. She gave it to me. “This person, they’re… admirable, talented, charismatic. Perfect. Have you ever known anyone like that?”
“Once. We didn’t end up friends.”
“And why should we settle for that?” I heft a sigh and put the glass down. That effortless connection is addictive, desirable, and utterly impossible for someone in my position. When I retire, I want someone I can be weak with.
She folds her arms. “Maybe I should have tried kidnapping their child.”
“She shouldn’t have been so easy to kidnap. She practically wandered into my care.”
The dark-haired, skinny girl is so unlike my Masked Lady, I can hardly believe they’re related. Maybe she takes after her father, though there is no way to know. I found him between two beds of tulips at Howe Bridge Crematorium.
My Masked Lady doesn’t dispute me. She glances at the stain-glass windows. It’s beginning to rain, pattering on the glass. A wailing police siren in the distance makes us both twitch.
“Alright.” She drops her head. “I’ll rob your banks, steal back your weapons, or whatever else. Just leave my daughter out of it.”
“Excellent.” I rise, smiling. I hit redial on my phone. “The captain will be glad to hear he’s no longer baby-sitting.”
The phone continues to ring. I frown. Captain usually picks up straight away.
Lady smirks at me.
I take the earpiece off the counter and slot it back in my ear. I’m wearing a microphone wire underneath my shirt. “Get a message to Captain,” I say to whoever is listening, “Tell him to bring the girl to Balderstone.”
“Balderstone?” Lady raises her eyebrows.
“A twenty-minute bus ride from your home. You can thank me later.” I pause, considering that enticing curve of fabric she uses as a disguise. My heart hums as I reach for her mask. “Or you can thank me now.”
She flinches, a fraction of a movement.
I laugh. “I know who your daughter is and where you buried your husband. You’re already unmasked. This –” I hook my fingertips behind the wings of the mask, where intricate swirls of silver cross over each other, “– is just pantomime.”
A voice crackles through my earpiece, “Boss?”
I sigh. I trail my fingers along the bottom edge of her mask and down her cheek. Reluctantly I step away, speaking softly. “Make it fast.”
“It – it’s the captain, boss. The boys found him on his face in the dirt. He’s breathing but… The girl, boss. She’s gone.”
She’s gone. It rings out like a death toll. I glance to my Masked Lady, to her grave-brown eyes, void of worry yet alight with pride.
“You were right,” she says. “My daughter doesn’t have as much practice as me. But she gets the job done.”
I stare at her, agape.
She bows, raises her head, and winks. “I told you not to get distracted.”
Then the room plunges into darkness. When the lights come back on, she’s gone. No trace of her remains but an open window.
There’s a hand on my elbow. Another on my shoulder. I blink, dazed with fury, and only after shrugging the hands away do I realise my crew had burst in when the lights had gone out. They usher me into my car, me in the middle, two soldiers on either side of me, and one in the front passenger seat.
“Boss?” The one to my right says, passing me his phone, “Word from the warehouse. Captain’s awake. No sign the girl nicked anything, but they found this.”
On the screen there’s a photo of a black masquerade mask with silver interlocking swirls. Different from the one donned by my Masked Lady, but a near perfect replica.
“And she took nothing?”
“I don’t get it,” says the man to my left, “why’d she do that?”
I do. It’s a gift. Proof that our partnership is still viable. I take a steadying breath and press the back of my skull against the headrest.
As the car turns off the main road and under a bridge, the dashboard display flickers. The driver frowns, slams it with his palm, and mutters, “Must be a faulty connection.”