I don't know what I was thinking when I partially outed myself to Pablo, asking that DPD cover my Supers Insurance premiums.

Okay, that's not really true. I was thinking: Assholes killed my friend . . . it's never going to happen again! But I hadn't thought it out; I had no idea what I was actually going to do.

All I ever wanted was to be normal or as normal as possible anyway. Now? Well, not I have to admit that I'm not normal, and for all my pretending to be normal, I have powers that are meant to be used. Well, that's what my elders and cousin Tommy have been telling me. But just what am I supposed to do? And hell, what am I supposed to wear while doing whatever I'm supposed to be doing? That's not a frivolous question. It's not like I can wander around kicking ass wearing my sneakers and some DU sweats.

Well, maybe I could, but then everyone would know the lovely library science grad student is a mutant, and I'm not keen on letting people in on that little secret.

Looking through the meager collection of clothing I own, I feel a sense of frustration building. I own several pairs of jeans and one pair of dress pants. I own a dozen blouses, two skirts, three dresses, four polo shirts, and a turtleneck. Besides my sneakers, I have two pairs of pumps to wear with the skits and dresses. Oh, and a pair of beautiful black, nearly knee-high deerskin boots with moccasin soles that had been a Christmas gift from my family my first year back in the States. Sometimes, very rarely, I'll wear them with the fuller, patterned skirt, which is predominantly black.

Biting my lip, I get up, go to the bedroom closet, and pull a large box from the shelf above my head. I carry it to the middle of my tiny living room, set it on the floor, and stare at it for a long time.

I know exactly what's inside. And just knowing what's in there makes me tear up a little. It's the last birthday present Jared ever gave me.

Finally, I kneel beside the box and remove the top. Inside are the perfectly pristine leather pants and jacket he bought for me to wear when I rode with him on his motorcycle. I'd long since given the helmet away, but it was hard parting with such finely-made clothing as the leathers. So, they'd stayed in their box, moved from one closet to another while the box gathered a layer of dust over the past two-and-a-half years. I pull both items from the box and drape them over my knees.

Running my fingers along the seams of the leather pants, I stare for a moment at my boots . . . then shift my eyes to the black turtleneck half hanging off the sofa. It's still too warm to wear the jacket; it'll be another month before the nights are cool enough to warrant it. And I don't think I want the "biker chick" look anyway. No, I know I don't want the biker chick look.

I get up and drop the leathers and the turtleneck on the bed, among all the other items I've pulled out of the drawers. Pulling one last item from the closet — the black-on-black vest that goes with the full skirt — I nod. This will do for a start. I like the idea of a vest, but I may have to ask Mama to make me something a little more practical. Hmm, well, it would probably be Aunt Alicia doing the work: she's got much more experience working with leather.

I dress quickly and look at myself in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. It's . . . okay, I guess. The vest definitely needs replacing, but I suppose it will do for my first night out.

But what the heck and I supposed to do with my hair? Even if I grab my staff — which I will — I still look . . . fashionable? Well, almost. Certainly, nothing like someone wandering the back streets and alleys of Denver ought to look if they're planning on protecting anyone from anyone else. For goodness sake, I look like a sorority sister! Well, almost. If I put on a little makeup, I definitely would.

But then I have an idea. An awful idea. A wonderful, awful idea.

I grab two of the elastic hair ties I use when putting my hair up for fancy occasions. Parting my hair in the middle, I braid each side and secure them with the ties. It's a widespread look among my People, but one I really don't care for. In fact, I rather loathe it . . . with a passion.

Which is precisely what makes it so perfect. I'd never wear my hair like this. I'd never wear my hair like this, even for Halloween and all the money in the world. But I'm not going out into Denver's back streets and alleys tonight, am I? No. Someone else is.

Ah, but who?

I wander over to the closet again and pull my staff out of the corner where I'd tucked it when I moved in. Then I go back to staring at myself in the mirror.

I can't help thinking that I look . . . strange. Like a conglomeration of cultures and stereotypes, which is actually kind of funny because . . . Well, aren't I? Not the stereotypes, I hope, but certainly a conglomeration of cultures. And given my skills, given the Curse I bear, shouldn't the name I choose reflect one of those cultures? Not my own, because that's another bit of distance I should be between myself and whoever I'm becoming.

Heh. I'd almost look like a ninja if I wore black gloves and a hood.

Wait . . .

Hey, why not?

I mean, I don't actually possess all the skills of a ninja, but how many people really know about ninjas — and how many people just think they know about ninjas? More of the latter, I'll bet, rather than the former.

All right then. Ninja it is.

I glance at the tiny digital clock stuck to the mirror above the sink and almost burst out laughing. I've completely lost track of time, which I rarely do outside my practice time. If I don't get out into the streets soon, it's guaranteed to be a dull night.

Of course, getting out into the streets is a problem all on its own. Rather, getting out into the streets unseen would be the problem. Most of my neighbors are twenty-somethings, just as I am. At one in the morning, there will still be at least two or three people in the hallway and stairwells. I look at the window facing the alley and grin. On the other side of the alley is a grocery store.

Sure, King Soopers is open all night, but the point here is that there aren't any windows on the side of the store facing our apartment building. Their loading docks aren't on this side of the building, and there aren't even any doors. It's just a long, blank brick wall that stretches half a block.

And I've finally found a reason to be thankful for my first-floor apartment — getting in and out the window won't be a problem. Well, yes, I do need to remove the locks that don't allow the window to open more than four inches. No problem. I think they're a safety violation anyway, aren't they? What if there was a fire? I suppose removing them with the screwdriver is better than just ripping them out of the wood. It will be easier to replace them when I move out and make the landlady less annoyed.

Though, if I'm going to close the window behind me, I can only open it about halfway anyway. A milk carton left in the alley will come in handy in the future. Rolling one of the dumpsters over just isn't an option. Sure, moving it over here wouldn't be a problem. But the smell! Who'd want that anywhere near their window?

I drop to the ground, reach up to close the window most of the way, and head down the alley toward the back of King Soopers. It's not hard to keep to the shadows and the alleys and side streets. There isn't much activity of a nefarious nature going on close to campus, which is a little surprising, so I venture farther afield. I wander for nearly an hour, heading north for the most part.

Just when I start to think Denver might be the safest town in Colorado — despite knowing better — I pick up the sound of whispered voices. Even I can't distinguish the words from this distance, so I move closer, silently walking down an alley in Cherry Creek. It's a charming little neighborhood full of fancy bistros, an elegant shopping mall, small homes worth more than I'll make in a lifetime . . . and a couple of young criminal wannabes. Apparently, they're looking for someone to relieve of their hard-earned cash and other possessions. Hmm, given the neighborhood, the cash might not be hard-eared; it could just be spending money from daddy.

Tsk. Kids today. I stay hidden in the shadows, listening to them.

"No, man! We gotta wait for the right one. That guy's only playing at being rich. Check out his shoes," says the first voice.

"Yeah? What about them?" asks the second voice.

"They're all scuffed up, man! And check it out . . . they don't match the rest of his outfit!"

I raise an eyebrow. Fashion tips from the criminal set? Who knew?

"Whaddaya mean? They're shoes," whispers Clueless.

"He's wearing black pants, dumbass," responds Fashion Critic, "and his shoes are brown. Someone with money ain't gonna make that mistake. They'd wear black shoes with black pants."

Well, he does have a point. But you don't need to be rich to know that, though.

"We'll wait for the next one," says Fashion Critic.

"Whatever you say, man," Clueless says, sounding disappointed.

I just wait. So far, their only crime is skulking in the dark — which isn't a crime, or at least it better not be, as I'm doing the same — sharing fashion commentaries. That's not a crime, either. However, I can see qi patterns of violence and anger surrounding them, so . . . I just wait. Fortunately, I don't have to wait very long at this time of night, as most of the fancy establishments serving alcohol are starting to close down for the night.

I hear an oompf that sounds like it comes from Clueless.

"There!" hisses Fashion Critic.

"How do you know? Besides the fact that his shoes match his pants?" Clueless asks sarcastically.

"You want me to teach you the ropes, or you wanna just get lost now?"

"No, no . . . worry. Please, continue."

Ooh, Cluess is a snotty one. I like that in a person. Hmm, well, I think the person I'm becoming out here likes that in a person. Too bad he's part of the criminal element.

"See how he's walking like he owns the whole world? And twirling his key ring while whistling? There's our mark, man."

And . . . that's my cue to get a little closer.

"Okay, what's the plan?" asks Clueless.

"Right before he gets to the alley, you stagger out—"

"Hey! Why me?"

"Because I'm better at picking pockets, dumbass!"

Clueless just grumbles. I move even closer.

"Now, you stagger out, looking sick . . . like you have food poisoning or something. I'll slip out, come up from behind, and get his wallet."

"That's gonna work?"

"Sure, why not? You don't look like no bum. That's why I told you to wear decent threads."

"I don't think it will work," I whisper from behind them.

Clueless shrieks, almost making me giggle, but I manage to keep it to just a smile. Fashion Critic yelps and says, "What the fuck?"

Their mark crosses to the other side of the street and starts walking faster, looking over his shoulder.

"Hi, boys," I say brightly. "Aren't you up a little past your bedtimes? Curfew was an hour ago." Okay, they're probably both over seventeen, although Clueless could pass for fifteen if he wanted.

"Bitch, what the fuck are you doing here?" inquires Fashion Critic in a rude and hostile tone.

"Oh, such language! I should wash your mouth out with soap. Shame on you." I shake my head while never taking my eyes off them. They have the qi of unpredictability wafting off them.

"Who the fuck are you? You ain't got no right telling us what to do! Get outta here before you get hurt." Fashion Critic pulls out a switchblade. I manage not to snicker at it. And him.

"Good heavens, what is wrong with the education system in this country?" I bemoan. "Swear, swear, swear . . . and your grammar is atrocious!" I look at the knife and then back at Fashion Critic's face. "Really? You think you can hurt me with that teensy thing? Maybe the education system isn't to blame. I suppose it could be your IQ."

Hmm. Apparently, this new persona is the insulting type, too. Good to know.

"Hey, Sean, let's get outta here, man," says Clueless . . . who's starting to sound like the brighter bulb in this lamp.

"Shut up! No bitch gonna tell me what to do!"

I sigh. "Sean, Sean, Sean . . . listen to your little friend, okay?" I don't really want to crack their skulls, at least not right off. It's better to try reasoning with people first, right? "Just go home and give up this life of petty criminal activity."

Sadly, Sean decides not to heed his friend's advice or my warning and lunches at me with the knife. I merely step to the side, grab his wrist, press a couple of pressure points that cause him to drop the knife, and help him continue down the alley using his own momentum. I stoop to pick up the knife, then grin to myself. First, I pull my sleeves down, so my fingerprints don't get transferred to it, then snap it closed and tuck it into my back pocket. And it's all done at an accelerated speed.

Clueless is staring at me slack-jawed; Fashion Critic Sean pulls himself into a sitting position, cradling his wrist.

"You hurt me, bitch!"

"Oh, come on. Would you rather I crack your skull open?" I ask as I tap my staff on the pavement. "I don't think so," I continue, not giving him a chance to respond. "And what did I tell you about your language, young man?"

I can see the slow flashing of blue lights starting to ease up Second Avenue. So, the good citizen and intended victim was alarmed enough to call the police to report the disturbance. And they say people just don't care anymore!

"Come on, children. You're going to explain yourselves to the nice police officers."

Fashion Critic spits in my general direction. "Fuck you!"

I sigh again. "Children, the only crime you've committed here has been an attempted assault on my esteemed person. In fact, Potty Mouth, your slightly brighter friend, is actually free and clear of all charges I could think up, which I will be happy to explain to the approaching police officers. He did try talking you out of your stupidity." I pause. "Oh. Unless you'd like me to mention your plans to relieve departing restaurant patrons of their personal belongings?"

"Sean!" Clueless whispers desperately. "Come on, man. We can beat this!"

At that moment, two of Denver's finest step to the mouth of the alley.

"Okay, everyone out here," says one of them. "Nice and slow. Right now. I want to see your hands."

Clueless is already moving. Definitely the brighter of the two. Neither of the officers has weapons drawn, but I can tell by their stances that they're fully prepared to do so.

"Come along, little Potty Mouth. Do you need help up?"

"Fuck you, bitch!" he says as he stands and makes his way out of the alley.

"I'll take that as a no," I mutter as I shake my head, following and making sure both of them exit the alley. Then I lean a shoulder against one wall while watching the officers . . . who, of course, are eyeing me rather suspiciously.

"We got a call about a disturbance down here," says the officer, who appears to be the senior of the two. "Somebody want to tell me about it?"

There's just silence. I can read the auras of the officers, so I know exactly how much patience they have for this game. Just before the time is up, I say, "Sean? Don't you want to tell Officer . . ." I glance at his name tag. ". . . Wright what he wants to know?" Yes, a normal person couldn't see that far to read it, especially at night. Well, there's Stop One: admit I'm not normal.

"Fuck you, bitch! It's all your fault!"

I look at the officers, the picture of innocence. Okay, maybe, except for the outfit and staff. But other than that, I'm sure I look like an innocent bystander.

"Dude!" hisses Not So Clueless After All. "Shut up, man!" Then he looks at Officer Wright, also presenting the man with a visage of complete innocence. Of course, neither Wright nor his partner — she's farther away, but the tag looks like Agars — are buying his act. That's okay; he just needs to stick to the truth and leave out anything resembling nefarious behavior. Oddly, I have more confidence in his ability to pull that off than when I first heard the two of them whispering.

"Um, yeah, so, like, my buddy and I were just chillin', you know, and talkin' about stuff, and then, like, all of a sudden, she snuck right up on us and, like, you know, startled us, so I guess I kind of yelped, you know? And then we was just all talking, you know?"

I raise an eyebrow at him; that was a hell of a run-on sentence. Then I notice Wright look in my direction and just stare. I think that means I'm supposed to make a statement as well, but I check his aura anyway. He might just be staring for the intimidation fact. Not that it'll work on me, but he doesn't know that. However, it does appear he wants my statement.

"Indeed. Despite the young man's desecration of the English language, his facts are substantially correct. I did happen to come upon them in the alley. They were, in fact, conversing. And, due to the silence of my movements, I'm afraid I did startle them. We proceeded to have a conversation."

"Uh huh," says Wright skeptically. "And you are?"

"Ninja. New Super in town." I see Agars moving toward the patrol car, presumably to check out my bona fides. "Just took up the staff this week," I call to her. "Don't know if all the information has trickled down yet." I look at Wright again, still relaxed and leaning against the wall. "If you need a reference, you can check with Detective Garcia."

"Pablo Garcia?"

"That'll be the one."

Wright grunts. "Known him for years. Damn good cop." He eyes me for a moment. "Knew his partner, too." His voice has an edge to it, verging on rage.

I return the look, all humor gone, as I stand up straight. If this guy knows Pablo and Denise . . . Well, I'm more than a little surprised that I've never met him before. I don't show any of that, however. I'm every bit as serious as Wright is angry.

"She's why I'm doing this now."

"No bullshit?" he asks harshly.

"No bullshit. I owe them both a lot; I'm doing this for her."

He just looks at me for long, tense minutes. Then he looks back at his partner, who shakes her head. He seems to look right into my soul as he turns back to me. Finally, he says, "I'll spread the word through Patrol. I take it you're a night owl?"

I shrug. "I'm just getting started, so we'll see. But I do prefer the shadows to the spotlight if you catch my drift."

He nods. "I do." Then he looks at the two potential petty criminals. "You two have somewhere else you need to be?"

Potty Mouth Sean seems to want to continue his personal version of a conversation, but his buddy grabs his sleeve and pulls him along. "Yes, sir. We need to be getting how now. Thanks for being so understanding, officers."

Well. So, the lad does know how to speak proper English. What do you know?

As they pass me, I pull my sleeve down over my hand again and pull Sean's knife from my pocket. "You dropped this when you tripped, buddy," I say, pressing it into his hand. Then I lean closer to him and whisper, "Stay out of trouble because I'll be watching for you, young man."

He actually refrains from swearing or saying anything else, for that matter. I lean on my staff as we watch them walk up Second Avenue and turn down Fillmore.

"There's more to that story, isn't there?" Wright asks. Oh, he's a sharp one, he is.

"Them?" I shrug. "Yes, but would you rather have arrested them for something piddly, waste all that time on the paperwork, just to see them walk out the station's doors before sunup? This way, there's a chance at least one of them won't come under your radar again."

He nods. "Nipping the problem in the bud is always better than letting those problems get a foothold." He moves toward the squad car but pauses, looking at me again. "Just when did you decide to take up the staff, as you put it?"

I give him a look that, I hope, conveys the fact that I know exactly what he's asking. "Monday night."

His expression becomes hard and virtually unreadable while his aura flares with pain. "The day her family pulled the plug."


He looks at me with that blank expression while he works hard to pull his emotions back under control. He must have known Denise well to have this much pain. I'm not surprised; she was well-known and well-liked by most of the patrol cops in Denver. Finally, he nods.

"Welcome to Denver, Ninja."

I return the nod. "Thank you, Officer Wright."

I watch them get back in their car, turn off the flashing blue lights, and head up Second toward Josephine. I find myself a little . . . agitated. Not by the encounter but by the need to take such a close look at my memories of Dense. That pain will stay with me, but I need to keep it tucked away while I'm out on the streets. In fact, it's probably best to keep Andrea things completely separate from Ninja things.

I continue heading north, sprinting — which would like like a full-out run for most folks, I suppose — across the more well-lit streets and cutting through Cheesman Park.

Where I receive an education that I most assuredly did not need; thank you very much.

Yes, I've known since shortly after moving to Denver that Cheesman Park is Cruising Central for the gay boys. Now, I know that Cheesman Park is Cruising Central. Some things, once seen, cannot be unseen. And some things I definitely did not need to see.

At the first opportunity, I exit the park on the west side and continue my journey north. From random comments over the years by GSA members, I know there's a bar up on Colfax that plays host to entirely too many random acts of violence. Said GSA members, of course, claimed to have heard things from people who knew things, but IDs are pretty darn easy to fake.

Well, perhaps I can stop some of those random violent activities. If not tonight, then in the future.

Coming up Emerson, it's easy to see the parking lot where most patrons leave their cars. There's a single dim street lamp on Emerson; the only other light the parking lot receives is the ambient lighting from Colfax Avenue and the bar's small sign at one corner of the lot. Since the sign is nearly beneath the street lamp, it's not exceptionally helpful for patrols crossing the lot to find their vehicles. But it's not a large lot, and one would expect that people will remember what their cars look like.

Some lovely trees at the edge of the lot, against the neighboring house, provide perfect shadows for me. And as long as I stay still and quiet, I won't alarm the folks who belong to the two cars still parked this far away from the bar's back entrance.

Watching the qi ebb and flow around the bar is instructive; it's easy to see why it's such a popular place. Mostly, there's a feeling of happiness, fun, and frivolity. Granted, in any establishment like this, there's going to be a spark of despair, another of jealousy, and another of nearly painful longing. But, on the whole, Charlie's seems to be a charming place to hang out, which would explain why so many of my friends in the GSA had fake IDs.

I close my eyes to watch the qi; I'm not concerned about anyone sneaking up on me. I can hear the people's footsteps on the bar's back patio. I hear the snoring of a man inside the building behind me and the whimpering of a child having a bad dream. And beyond all that, I can see the movement and patterns of qi surrounding me. There are a few disturbances worth noting: a flare of anger followed by what I suspect is an apology from someone else and the slow seeping away of anger. It's a relatively peaceful setting, really.

And it stays that way for quite some time . . . an hour maybe? It's not quite closing time for the bar, but not too far off, either. Two people exit the bar; they're only slightly tipsy. They chat away about what a great time they'd had and how sad it was their partners had to work and weren't able to join them. They note they'll certainly have to come to Charlie's again.

They obviously don't hear the cracking of hard heels running across the pavement toward them, coming up the alley from 14th Avenue and across the parking lot. Those footsteps don't belong to a person with peaceful qi.

I move silently to intercept the runner but don't quite arrive in time. I'm in the shadow of a van when the unpeaceful person in noisy shoes reaches the two happy revelers.

"All right, faggots, hand over your wallets!" The voice sounds low and menacing.

The two revelers yelp in surprise and stand absolutely still.

I move to the end of the van to survey the scene. The three of them are perpendicular to me, so they won't see me unless they turn to look this way. And it seems highly unlikely, given that the Bad Person is holding a gun on the other two. That's a point in my favor. They're standing in the tiny alleyway that separates the bar from the parking lot, beside the tall wooden fence that encloses the secluded patio. At this time of night, at this time of the year, there's nobody out there, although the bartenders will probably begin their cleanup soon enough. The two potential crime victims are clutching one another's arms, definitely not heeding the impolite request from the Bad Person. Two empty parking spaces and a nondescript sedan separate me from the three of them.

"Did you faggots hear what I said? Hand over your wallets!"

Impatient little creep, isn't he?

Now, I don't pretend to know much about guns, but I have seen the guns Pablo and Denise carry. Damn it. Carried, in Denise's case. But the firearm the Bad Person is pointing at the other two looks less like their service weapons and more like some of the guns Pablo showed me that one time he took me to the firing range. Unlike their Glock 21s, Bad Person's gun has a thumb safety.

So . . . interesting fact about guns: They're hard to fire when the safety is on. And by hard, I mean impossible.

Which is the case with the gun held by Stupid Bad Person. I shake my head and begin moving closer.

The two potential crime victims seem to be acting out a scene from a comedy movie, jostling each other, dropping their wallets, and knocking their heads together when they bend down to pick them up. By the time they both have their wallets out and firmly in hand, I've reached the other side of the nondescript sedan. Not only that, I'm half-sitting on the passenger side of the hood, both hands on my staff that's upright between my feet.

"Well, you might as well put them away again, fellas," I say calmly. "I don't believe the gun-toting citizen needs your wallets as much as he needs some lessons in etiquette."

The bar patrons yelp again, and one of them drops his wallet. Again. The Stupid Bad Person points the gun at me.

"Who the fuck are you, bitch?"

I sigh. "You know, I'm already tired of the foul language you people of the criminal class want to toss at me. It's distressing that you don't seem capable of conversing without the use of curse words."

The wallet has been retrieved, both wallets have been put away, and one of the patrons whispers to the other, "We should tell Charlie to call the police."

"Excellent idea, gentlemen," I say, keeping my eyes on the man with the gun. "Please do that."

Once they've gotten back to the bar's safety, I raise an eyebrow at Stupid Bad Person. "I don't suppose trying to talk you out of your hobby of criminal mischief would do any good, would it?"

"Who the fuck are you? And what the fuck are you doing here? I should just shoot you right now!"

"Oh, come on!" I say with exasperation as I stand. "Are you serious? You're going to shoot me? That would really annoy me. And I was just hanging out, minding my own business, until you showed up all rowdy and thievery and pointing a gun at people." I shake my head. "You're the one with the problem, my friend."

The lout has the audacity to pull the trigger!

Obviously, civil discourse is a lost art.

Stupid Bad person seems just a little confused by the fact that his gun didn't force any bullets in my direction. From the corner of my eye, I see a head pop up over the top of the fence. "I called the cops. They're on their way!"

"Thank you! Very kind of you!" I call out as Stupid Bad Person pulls the trigger again.

What is wrong with these people? Do folks just pick up guns and learn how they work from watching movies?

"Gun broken there, champ?" I ask, despite knowing the answer. It doesn't occur to me until later that maybe I shouldn't go taunting the bad guys. Maybe that's part of my new persona, too? We shall see, won't we?

Aside from standing up, I haven't moved much, but I can see frustration and anger building in the qi flow around this guy. That doesn't bode well. For him. I adjust my stance so movement will be equally efficient in any direction.

Stupid Bad Person finally looks at his gun to see the problem and notices that the safety is on.


He slides the safety off and brings the gun back up . . . or starts to bring it back up, for I've already got my staff in motion. It cracks down on his wrists, and the gun goes skittering under the car. He yelps in pain but rushes at me anyway.


I step ninety degrees to the side and a step back, and he clutches air as he slides down the pavement face first.

Ooh, that's gonna hurt.

This time, the patrol car uses the siren and the lights and moves considerably faster than the one in Cherry Creek.

Stupid Bad Person looks like he's trying to get up, and his qi certainly gives the impression that he wants out of this neighborhood before the nice police officers arrive. Now, if he weren't so stupid? And if he hadn't been so intent on shooting me? Well, I might have been lenient and given the guy a break. But trying to shoot me? Really??

I can only imagine how fierce the itching from healing that would be! Oh, I'd be cranky, for sure.

I saunter — and by saunter, I mean it looks to others like I'm zipping pretty quickly — over to him, put a knee in the small of his back with light pressure and twist an arm behind him. If he fights it, he'll find himself hurting more than he already is. If he just relaxes, well, he'll just have some scrapes from the pavement slide.

I hear the squad car pull up behind us, and two doors open. Then I hear a chuckle.

"Figured we'd see you again, Ninja. Just didn't think it would be tonight."

"Didn't figure on seeing you tonight again either, Wright. You want to take this idiot off my hands?"

Agars is there with cuffs out and relieves me of the idiot. "Nice job," she says quietly.

I stand, pick up my staff, and look at the crowd gathered by the back door and the heads peeking over the fence. Some of them start applauding. As I walk toward the squad car, I shake my head and roll my eyes.

"You and Agars cover the whole city, Wright. This is awfully far from Cherry Creek."

He grunts. "Budget cuts. They whittle away at us a little more every year. Our beat's Alameda to Colfax, Colorado to Broadway."

I whistle. "Damn big area for one car."

He shrugs. "Graveyard actually has two cars in this area. You lucked out getting us both times. Six cars each on the other two shifts."

I nod, then point to the sedan. "His gun's under the car. Cracked wrists are my doing; anything else is his own stupidity. Need anything else from me?"

He shakes his head. "Don't think so, but I assume contacting Garcia will work to get you a message if we do?"

"Until I can wrangle a phone or pager out of DPD, yep."

"Good enough then. Thanks for the assist."

"Not a problem. I hate to see people getting picked on, you know?"

He grins and looks at the gathered crowd. "Charlie's regulars are good guys, even if they swing in a way I don't. The drop-ins are generally peaceable, friendly folks, too. It's the outsiders and the nuts we usually have to deal with over here."

Agars has the idiot secured in the back seat, has fetched the gun from under the car, and calls out to her partner. "We gotta roll . . . report of domestic violence with shots fired. South Sherman off Ellsworth. Henderson and Reyes are still tied up with that fight at Sports Alley."

"Bloody hell," Wright mutters. "You'd think it was a full moon instead of the new." He heads back to the squad car. "We'll see you around, Ninja."

I watch as he gets in the car and puts it in gear, then I start to head back south when I hear a voice call out.


I turn to see a guy who looks enough like a young John Wayne to be a clone. I'm sure he works on the look since clones aren't a real thing. I wait.

He smiles broadly and holds out a hand. "Charlie Nelms, owner. Thanks for what you did here tonight."

I shake his hand and return the smile. "Just glad I happened to be in the neighborhood. Any particular nights you think I should just happen to be in the neighborhood?"

"This time of year? Halloween will get hairy, and I'm not talking about the bears." He chuckles at his joke. "Other than that, it's really pretty random."

I nod. "Then I'll see about finding myself some shadows on Halloween and randomly wandering through the neighborhood at other times."

"You're more than welcome to come in, of course."

I smile more broadly. "I'm just starting this gig, so let's see how things work out, okay?"

He nods and starts to turn away, heading back to his bar. But he stops and looks back over his shoulder. "Real glad we finally have a Super in Denver."

"Real glad to be here, Charlie. And if you want to spread the word that Ninja's looking out for the underdogs, that would be fine, too."

"Yes, ma'am . . . I'll do just that."

I slip back into the shadows, just watching until the crowd disperses. And then I run most of the way home, just slowing down in areas where I might be seen. Once I reach my apartment building, pushing the window open with my staff is a simple task; pulling myself up to the ledge after tossing the staff in and clambering in myself is just as easy. So. Getting in will be easier than heading out, and I'll definitely want some sort of step to ensure the window is closed before the freezing weather gets here. Just because I can keep myself warm when it's cold doesn't mean I don't like taking advantage of a well-functioning heating system.

The following Wednesday at dinner, Pablo slides a small package wrapped in black paper across the table to me, then looks toward the other side of the room. The restaurant's kitchen can't possibly be that interesting.

"It's from the new head of Homicide."

I'm more than intrigued and pull the paper off while Pablo pretends he's not in the same room with me. Curious.

Well, it is until I open the box. Inside is a cell phone of a design I've never seen before . . . a slim and sleek black flip-phone by Motorola. I look up and see that Pablo is still pretending to be elsewhere, so my question is left unasked. Under the phone is a simple laminated card with the Lloyds of London logo and a number. Under the card is a folded note.

I've been keeping tabs on Garcia for a few years and think he's a damn fine cop. That he figured out I was the person who could make things happen says a lot about his detective skills. That he asked his question so obliquely that I had to actually go look through county records to get the appropriate information to Lloyds of London says a lot about his respect for you.

The phone is a model that won't be available to the public for another year. I trust your discretion. Many people in the area can use your help but don't bite off more than you can chew. My number is already programmed into the phone. Text me when you're ready to move beyond the City and County of Denver.

Good luck and best regards,
Captain Rodrigo Sanchez

I stare at the note as I tuck the phone and card into a pocket. I almost feel a little teary-eyed. Maybe more than a little. I blink several times to make sure my eyes are tear-free and refold the note, putting that in my pocket as well. After making sure there's nothing else in the box, I push it aside.

"Okay, you can come back now, Chief."

He pretends to glare as he looks at me. "You know that drives me crazy, right?"

I grin at him. "Why do you think I do it?"

© Kelly Naylor