Author: Chris Cook
"I used to think that I knew what we needed,
Tara let her voice continue the song alone, and turned her mind to her audience. Since coming on stage she had had a nagging feeling that she was being watched - which was obviously true, the club was nearly full, but despite her natural shyness Tara had never found herself uncomfortable singing in front of an audience. This was different, and disturbing - a pair of eyes were on her that she didn’t like the feel of. She scanned the faces turned to her around the room. The songs she had chosen tonight were quiet, introspective, and Harry, Tony's assistant manager on duty tonight, had decided to forego any dramatic spotlights. With the club lit normally, Tara had a fair view of the diners.
She saw Harry at the bar, his gaze alternating between her and the musicians as he talked quietly with the barman. One of the club's regulars, a sweet young businessman who had sent Tara a bouquet after her first night on stage, was at his usual table near the front, enjoying dinner with his wife. A party of men in sharp suits had turned their chairs around for a better view of the stage, and were nodding in time to the music. A beauty with red hair was sitting alone, just watching her and listening to the song - she blinked and looked away for a moment as Tara's gaze passed over her. A pair of wealthy-looking middle-aged men were deep in conversation at the table behind her, leaning close and whispering so as not to disturb their fellow diners' entertainment.
And there, at the bar - Tara looked away, but caught herself before her voice faltered on the song. A heavy-set man in a long coat was watching her steadily, but not with an ear for the music. Tara's instincts told her that this man was trouble. But the Shadow had said she would be safe - she probably had one of her anonymous agents keeping an eye on her right now. Perhaps- no, Tara told herself, this man wasn’t here to keep her safe, his level gaze wasn't that of a caretaker, and she didn't see a glint of metal or a green jewel on the large hand wrapped around his glass on the bar. Tara kept watching the man, out of the corner of her eye, as she went through her songs. He didn't speak to anyone, didn't move from the bar, rarely took a sip from his glass. He wasn’t here for entertainment.
"Harry-" Tara began, coming off stage and finding the assistant manager waiting for her, still with a drink in his hand from the bar.
"That's some voice you got," he interrupted, "hey, listen, message from Tony, he says can you handle a three o'clock instead of the matinee, only he's having some work done in the morning and they might not be cleared up in time for the regular matinee show?" Harry always talked fast and ceaseless, as if using separate sentences was a luxury.
"Sure, okay," answered Tara. "Harry," she called as he nodded and turned to leave, "do you know the large man who was at the bar tonight? Wide shoulders, long coat, a couple of seats up from you?"
"That guy, nah, don't think I've seen him before, how come?"
"Oh, n-nothing," Tara said thoughtfully.
After changing out of her stage dress, Tara made her way back through the club, preferring the main entrance to the side door. She smiled courteously as a handful of patrons turned in their chairs to pay her compliments as she passed, and stepped out into a warm evening. The unsettling man at the bar had been absent, and she was relieved to think that she may just have been imagining things.
But as she looked around for a taxi, she caught sight of a shape in a long coat striding away down the pavement, clearly having just left the club himself. She was instantly sure it was the same man - his build, and the way he carried himself, matched her recollections exactly. Without really thinking Tara began to follow him at a distance.
"What on Earth are you doing," she muttered to herself. But the man wasn't looking back at all, and the street was well-lit and full of people on their way home, or enjoying the evening. A week ago Tara wouldn't have thought twice about walking home on a night like this - but then again, a week ago she hadn't been abducted by gunmen just last night. 'Still,' she thought to herself, 'it's not like if they wanted to kidnap me again, they'd expect me to follow this guy. And I can turn back whenever I want.' She paused in the shadow of a doorway as the man waited to cross the street.
"What on Earth are you doing?" said a voice in the darkness. It was calm and quiet, but still Tara jumped at hearing it. She peered into the gloom, to find the green eyes of the Shadow looking back at her.
"That man," she explained, "he was watching me. In the club, tonight. I got a bad feeling."
"I know," said the Shadow, "I was watching him."
"Well," Tara went on, "I thought, maybe, if I saw where he was going to..." she trailed off. On reflection, it hadn't been the most well-thought-out plan.
"His car's parked across the street," said the Shadow. "I'll find out what he's up to. Go home, you'll be safe-"
"I'm coming with you," interrupted Tara. The Shadow's eyes widened and stared at her. "I'm hardly going to feel safe just sitting at home while you and these people chase each other around me. I-I'd rather know what's going on," she said, mustering as much authority as she could under the circumstances.
"Most people would rather not know," said the Shadow. Unexpectedly, she sighed behind her mask. "But I see you're not most people. Come on, then." The dark figure led the way to the street corner, where her car was parked. Tara noticed that, although no-one paid any attention to the Shadow's strange appearance, the pedestrians around them seemed to wander out of her way without realising it.
"What do they see?" asked Tara, as soon as the car door had closed. "The people, I mean. No-one ever walks into you, as if you were invisible, but not."
"They see no-one of consequence," said the Shadow as she pulled out onto the street and slowly followed the black car Tara's watcher had got into. "A nondescript businessman. A newspaper boy. A homeless man. I don’t know. I just tell them that they don't need to pay any attention to me. Their minds do the rest. It's very easy to convince people not to pay attention. Most of them do it all the time anyway."
"I know what you mean," said Tara, half to herself. Since coming to the city she'd occasionally found herself starting to take things for granted - not looking at the faces around her, not seeing the light reflecting on the windows of the buildings, or the sunset turning the clouds golden. Whenever she noticed it happening she went to the park and spent a while just watching the trees swaying in the breeze, or birds playing on the lake. She snapped out of her quiet reverie when she noticed the Shadow's eyes watching her in the driver's mirror. She offered a quick smile, and the figure inclined its head and returned its eyes to the road.
The pursuit led the Shadow and her passenger to an old warehouse near the waterfront. The Shadow brought the car to a halt outside the dilapidated chain fence surrounding the warehouse's grounds, and turned in her seat. The black car they had followed was parked beyond, its occupant presumably inside the building. One of the big wooden doors was open, and light shone from within.
"Okay," said the Shadow, fixing Tara with a level stare, "now you stay here. I mean it. I won't be long. No matter what happens, do not leave this car. Yes?"
"I promise," said Tara, a little reluctantly. She was in no hurry to risk herself in a warehouse frequented by thugs and Goddess-knows-what - but that was exactly what the Shadow was doing, and Tara didn't like the thought of someone else risking their life for her sake. Still, she nodded and stayed put as the Shadow left the car. Her form clouded and vanished as she approached the chain fence.
The Shadow concentrated on maintaining her invisibility as she crept closer to the big freight-loading door of the warehouse, that was still slightly open. She had no idea how many people were inside, and if it was many - and if they were watching out for intruders - it could become a strain, clouding so many alert minds. She thought of Tara, waiting in the car, and half-regretted bringing her along.
'Well,' she thought to herself, 'what was I supposed to do? Leave her standing on the street corner? That's real nice.' Sure, she argued to herself, bring her to the docks and leave her in the car, alone, a few hundred metres from a potential gunfight. Very romantic. Why had she thought that? As if the girl was going to be interested in a vigilante with a scarf over her face. She's probably not even-
'Hello,' she chastised herself, 'you are in the middle of sneaking into a possible criminal hide-out. Can the relationship-type thoughts possibly wait a few moments?' Secretly, she wished her thoughts would be as ordered and precise as the persona she adopted. Focus, she told herself.
Inside, the warehouse was cluttered with machinery at its perimeter, but the majority of the floor in the centre was open and empty, lit weakly from above. A pair of stairways at the far end of the building led up to a set of offices, one of which was in use. The silhouette of a man showed against the light in the office’s grimy window. Quickly and silently, the Shadow set off across the floor, towards the stairs.
"Welcome, Shadow," said a deep female voice that seemed to echo out of the air. The Shadow spun around, then looked down. She swore under her breath - the edge of her coat had caught the light of one of the spotlights, casting its shadow on the ground. She quickly stepped back, away from the light. She saw movement from the lit office window - a new silhouette was there, not the bulky man she had been following. This shape was slim, tall and feminine.
"Tell me, Shadow," the silhouette said, and again her voice seemed to come out of the very air, "How fast can you run? Not fast enough, I think." The silhouette moved its arm, as if turning a handle. To one side of the Shadow there was a mechanical clank as something moved in the gloom.
She thought quickly, which saved her life. Even as the silhouette was moving, the Shadow let herself become visible, and put all her concentration into a potent skill she rarely used, and had never truly mastered. Bolts of electricity leapt from generators hidden in the machinery by the walls, filling the warehouse with a web of crackling power. The electric tendrils lashed at the Shadow, but slithered off a shield she held around herself, her outstretched fingers mere inches from the deadly power. The effort was incredible. She looked ahead, and behind, but in both directions there was only a sea of lethal charged bolts. She knew she couldn't muster the energy or the concentration to move her shield that far, yet if she stayed still it was only a matter of minutes before she was exhausted. She tried to cry out above the noise of the sparking, crackling energy, but the drain of the magic she was using was too much, and she couldn’t make a sound.
"Goodbye, Shadow," said the silhouette’s voice. It chuckled to itself, then the shape vanished from the lit window. The Shadow dropped to one knee, holding her arms out desperately. She looked around, frantic, trying to find a way out, but there was nothing. Already she was feeling sick, from calling too much magic through herself in such a short space of time. Her vision started to blur.
A crash from behind her spun her around. The big wooden door shattered in a hail of splinters as her car came through it, knocking empty crates aside. It skidded to avoid the electricity and slammed sideways into the piles of machinery opposite the door, sending the rusting components cascading over each other. There was a deafening crack, a shower of sparks from somewhere within the gloom, and the electric web vanished. The Shadow pushed herself to her feet and scrambled towards the car. The passenger door swung open, and she staggered in. Tara was in the driver's seat.
"Go," the Shadow gasped to Tara as she pulled the door closed. She shifted into reverse and the car lurched back out of the shattered door. With some grinding from the gearbox, Tara put the car in gear and swerved around the fence onto the road, and sped away from the warehouse.
"Oh Goddess, are you hurt?" asked Tara as she drove. "W-where do I go, a hospital?" The Shadow shook her head.
"House," she gasped, "corner of West Avenue and 41st." She coughed and gathered her composure. She was still weak, and felt like hell, but her vision was clearing.
"I thought I told you," she said, her voice raspy, "to stay put." She was glad to see Tara grin sideways at her.
"I stayed in the car," she answered. The Shadow laughed weakly. "I heard you call me," Tara continued, her voice serious. She steered one-handed, while her other hand found the Shadow's and squeezed it tightly.