Author: Chris Cook
"I'm perfectly happy with life-"
Conversations stopped. Heads turned. All attention in the Hurricane Club was suddenly on the stage.
"-my lips mime these real words-"
Only a single, dim light shone on the woman there, illuminating nothing save the golden hair that fell over her face, and her silhouette as she swayed gently to the music. Her voice flowed hypnotically around the room, as the movements of the diners ceased and the floor lights dimmed.
"-but they feel like they are wired to my jaw.
Her audience couldn't help but jump in their seats as the stage lights slammed on, revealing the singer in all her glory. Throwing her head back, her hair blazing like sunlight, clad in a simple, elegant white gown, she lacked only a pair of wings to be angelic. Her voice, once tentative and quiet, now filled the room like an orchestra in full flight.
"But oh! Where's this thing over the rainbow?
Ten minutes and three songs later she gave her cheering audience one last, warm smile as the curtains closed. She stayed still for a moment, toying with the small handful of roses from her appreciative fans, as her smile faded into something more private and temporary. From beyond the curtains a soft tune drifted in, as the musicians took up their regular repertoire and the buzz of conversation resumed over the tables. She sighed and ducked into the corridor leading to the dressing rooms, waving to the club's manager as he paced backstage.
"Maclay!" he called, "great show, knocked 'em dead!"
"Thanks Tony. Y-you still want a matinee on Thursday?"
"You betcha. See ya then, kid. Take care."
Tara Maclay sat in her dressing room and gazed at her reflection. She was tempted to feel sorry for herself, and was not at all comfortable with the temptation. After all, there were plenty worse off than her. People who had come to the big city full of dreams, and found themselves waiting tables. And here she was, after only six months, with a steady if modest paycheck from a good, reputable club, doing something she loved for a living. There were even posters up, advertising to passers-by that Tara Maclay would be performing at the Hurricane. Reviews had been encouraging, and the Times had even found space for a small picture of her alongside its piece. The future looked bright. Under such circumstances, feeling down seemed self-indulgent.
Still, six months, and no-one she could really call a friend. Oh, she was on good terms with a couple of the other performers, but they lived in a different world. Parties, boys, fast cars - all that jazz. Her neighbour, across the hall from her apartment, was quite amiable, though Tara had spent her first couple of months worrying that he was going to make a move on her, and she would have to turn him down. It hadn't happened, but still they had never become real friends, and as often as not would simply smile and pass each other in the hall, rather than stop and talk.
'How about that,' she thought to herself, 'you get a job where guys throw roses on the stage for you, and still you wind up lonely.' She grinned humourlessly at herself in the mirror. 'That'd make a good song.'
Not too much later Tara Maclay, now wrapped in a raincoat, left the side entrance of the Hurricane Club and hailed a taxi. The car swooshed to a halt in front of her just as the rain started to pick up again, and she quickly ducked inside, keeping an eye on her coat to see that she didn't catch it in the door.
"Garden and 23rd," she said, leaning towards the driver's seat in front of her. The taxi accelerated and Tara leaned back into her seat - and only then realised that she wasn't alone. She jumped involuntarily as she saw the shape of a man on the seat beside her, hidden in the dark and a large trenchcoat.
"Oh, I'm s-sorry," she began, "I didn't-" And then she gasped in shock, as the streetlights flashing by outside reflected off the barrel of a pistol.
"Keep still," rumbled the man. The gun was held casually, facing across his lap, but it was clearly pointed at her, clearly menacing. Tara shrank back against her door.
"I-if it's money," she began, trying not to choke on a sudden impulse to cry, "I don't have much, you c-can have it, just-"
"We don't want your money," interrupted the man, "just stay quiet and calm, and no harm'll come to you."
Tara nodded, helpless. 'Oh Goddess,' she thought, 'why did I have to come to the city, why couldn't I have just stayed at home, it wasn't really that bad- well, okay, it was miserable, but this guy's pointing a gun at me! This is what I get for feeling sorry for myself without a good reason. Well, now I've got a good reason, am I happy now?' She sniffed back a sob as her thoughts retreated from the danger in front of her.
"What the hell?" the man growled, and Tara tore her eyes from the glinting gun barrel to see his face, suddenly - and she wouldn't have believed it - even more afraid. But he was facing forward, and the driver was leaning on the horn. Trying to keep her movements inconspicuous, Tara glanced ahead. The lights in front of the taxi had turned green, but the one other car on the road, in front of them, hadn't moved. The driver swore to himself and began to pull out, intending to overtake the stationary vehicle, but its engine suddenly gunned to life and it swerved around, coming to rest sideways across the street, blocking both lanes.
"Take care of it," said the man beside her to the driver. "You, stay quiet and don't move," he added to Tara. The driver smacked his steering wheel in frustration and got out of the taxi. Tara watched through the windshield as he approached the driver's side window of the other car, one hand in his pocket. 'Get away,' Tara silently wished the occupant of the other vehicle, 'he's got a gun, get out of here!' The driver came to a halt in front of window, leaned down to look into it - and then straightened up again, looking back at the taxi, a confused expression on his face. He turned back to the other car, reached out and yanked the door open, and as the streetlight shone inside, Tara could see that the seat was empty.
Something dark and indistinct passed in front of the driver, and he fell back as if he'd been hit. He staggered to his feet, drawing his gun, but the street around him was empty. The man beside Tara stirred, watching as his driver swung the pistol around, retreating back to the taxi. Again something blurred in front of him, and this time he was lifted up off his feet, landing with a crash on the taxi's hood. The man beside Tara growled and pushed his door open, leaving Tara alone in the car. She watched, too scared to move, as the man moved cautiously over to his comrade and failed to bring him back to consciousness.
An eerie, low chuckle drifted across the street, in through the open door of the taxi, chilling Tara. The man spun around, his pistol cracked, but the bullet sailed away harmlessly, striking sparks off a far away lamppost. The shot jerked Tara back to awareness of her own immediate situation and, seeing her captor with his back to her, and his attention elsewhere, she stealthily reached behind her and pulled the lever on the taxi door. There was a low click as the mechanism disengaged. She glanced over her shoulder - nondescript buildings, an alleyway - was it too far? If he chased her, could she elude him in the dark?
The taxi rocked as the man suddenly slammed into it, and Tara half jumped, half fell out of the door as it swung open behind her. She scrambled to her feet, but found herself facing the wrong way, towards the wide, open street. A yell from behind her spun her around, and she was suddenly looking down the barrel of the pistol, as her captor aimed at her across the taxi's roof.
"I told you to stay still," he growled. Tara saw his thumb move behind the pistol, heard the click as its hammer locked back. Something grabbed her by the arms and swung her down and away, there was a shot, and Tara was sprawled out, leaning against the side of the taxi, looking up at a dark figure above her. A gloved hand came up, holding a single finger to where its lips would have been, if she could see them in the darkness beneath its wide-brimmed hat - silence. She nodded. The figure nodded back, then before Tara's eyes it clouded, faded, vanished completely. She heard almost-silent footsteps to her right, and turned to see the faintest hint of something, like a heat-haze in the gloom.
Then much more solid footsteps from her other side drew her attention, and she saw her captor surge into view around the front of the taxi. His gun was pointed at the ground, away from her - where she would have fallen, she realised, if he'd shot her. He barely had time to see her crouched against the side of the car before the a cloud of darkness enveloped him. For a split second Tara could see the dark figure clearly, knocking the man's pistol out of his grip, then it was a cloud again, then solid, landing a punch on his jaw, then a phantom, shimmering beyond the clumsy blow he aimed at it in return. It clouded into being again behind him, holding him around the neck.
"You've been a bad boy," it said in a whisper, then the man was flung away, his head cracking into a lamppost, leaving an echoing ring in the air as he slumped to the ground. Tara stared at the figure that had saved her - and yet still, frankly, scared her. Its build was slight, beneath the black coat which had billowed behind it, and which now settled around its body. Half its face was hidden by a dark scarlet scarf, tight over its mouth so that only the nose and eyes were visible beneath the hat. He- no, Tara realised, as the figure strode towards her and offered her an arm, it didn't move like a man. She took the offered arm and let herself be pulled to her feet.
"You're safe now," the figure said - a woman's voice, quiet but quite at odds with the chilling whisper she had heard a moment ago. The stranger led her to the other, empty car, and held open the back door.
"Get in, I'll take you home." Tara hesitated, but only for a second. Whoever this was, she had almost certainly saved her life, and more importantly, Tara no longer felt afraid. Her instincts, which she had long ago learned to trust without question, told her than this frightening figure was no threat to her. The stranger closed her door and took the driver's seat, closing the door behind her. They left the empty taxi and the two unconscious thugs behind them.
"I saved your life tonight," the stranger said to Tara, never taking her eyes off the road.
"Y-yes," said Tara, "thank you! I mean, I can't think how to repay you-"
"The occasion might arise," said the stranger. "For now, take this." She held the wheel with one hand, and with the other held out a small, silver ring. Tara reached forward and took it - there was an emerald set in it, glinting like it was alive.
"Never take it off," the stranger said. "Never tell anyone what happened tonight, unless they're wearing one of those too. People who wear those rings are," she paused, as if choosing a word carefully, "trusted."
"But," said Tara, "I'm very grateful, for you saving my life I mean, and I'll do whatever I can to help you, if there's anything I can do, but-"
"How do I know I can trust you?" asked the stranger. Tara nodded. "Instinct. You're home."
Tara looked out to see that the car had pulled up outside her apartment block. Her door swung open, and Tara was half-way out of the car before she stopped and summoned her courage to voice the question she had been thinking all along.
"Who are you?"
The figure in the driver's seat tilted her head slightly, which made Tara think she was smiling to herself. She nodded towards the door, and Tara obediently left the car. The door closed by itself. Tara turned back at the sound of the window sliding down. The stranger's green eyes shone for a moment in the darkness inside.
"Call me the Shadow," she said. The window slid up again, replacing her hidden face with reflections of the streetlights, and the car pulled away and was gone.