Chapter One

Friday, December, 11th, 2015

Sasha detested the mask over her mouth. It blew in and out with each of her exhales and obstructed her peripheral vision. In her line of work, any movement or distraction could mean the difference between life and death. That included such trivial things as her mask.

She sat at the roof’s edge, crouched low enough to not be seen but still able to turn at a moment’s notice. It was not a far drop, only about three stories. Sasha would have preferred a taller perch, especially given the strings of light stretching from roof to roof across the street. If she straightened up at all, she would run the risk of being spotted and the newspapers would have another unfortunate photo of The Crimson Shade to run tomorrow. The streets were too bright.

She was a young woman, only twenty years old, and aggravated. Her thighs were cramping, which was problem enough, along with that cynical voice in her head telling her that she should not have been cramping yet. It had only been two hours.

She was thin in the extreme, visible despite the thick Kevlar vest and chainmail leggings she wore. Her steel-toed boots were laced all the way up to her knees. Everything she wore from the tip of her turtle neck sweater to her feet was black.

Her mask, on the other hand, was not.

The scarf was easy enough to procure. It was deep red but completely nondescript in every other way. It was pinned to her shoulders and wrapped around her mouth, nose, forehead, and hair, revealing only her eyes.

Hated it.

At exactly 11:30 p.m. the string of lights went dark. Sasha smiled. It was the moment she had been waiting for. No sooner had the town gone to sleep that she stood, bringing herself to the ledge.

The hunting ground was nearly empty, save for a few cars rushing home and the nearby shop owner, who had turned off the lights. Sasha did not try for either of them. Instead, she waited. And she watched.

This street was one she had never hit before. It was quiet; for now, too quiet. Not at all like the last one she had occupied. The last was deeper in the city and constantly being walked, even in the early hours of the morning when Sasha liked to prowl. She did not mind. What she minded was an empty sidewalk.

The axe hanging over her back felt especially heavy. She had come too early to stalk the people below. It was a mistake she was unaccustomed to making but one she swore she would never make again. Her fingers probed the handle of her weapon, prepared to unsheathe it at the first notice of fresh meat.

The Crimson Shade was becoming quite infamous in whatever town she had meandered into tonight. After the first five or six victims, she was known only as a petty thief, but as reports of the same robber in the same red mask grew into the double digits, they had branded her with a name. Personally, Sasha was not fond of it. But, it was better than being caught again.

She was lucky. They came soon after the lights went out. It was a couple, she assumed by the laughter floating up to meet her. The man was loud and drunk but his female counterpart seemed fairly sober. She led him down the sidewalk and into Sasha’s line of sight.

She yanked at the double-sided battle axe, removing it from its sling. The beautiful blade glinted in the weak moonlight. She could not wait to use it.

The couple was getting closer. Sasha counted down the seconds before she would pounce. Five. The man bent over, halting his partner. Four. He collapsed to his knees. Three. A long stream of vomit erupted from his mouth. Two. Sasha winced. How vile. One.

Despite the height of the building, she threw herself over the edge. The wind whipped up around her for what seemed to be a split second, sending the ground swirling up to meet her. She landed in a crouch mere inches from her prey.

The heaves pouring from the man drowned out the sound of her arrival. As Sasha straightened up, she circled them.

“Too much to drink?” she inquired, swinging her axe playfully from side to side.

The girl rubbed his back without looking up. “He’ll be alright.”

Sasha grinned. “I would not be so sure.”

The girl’s confusion was clear. “Excuse me…” Her mouth froze as she looked up and into her hunter’s icy blue eyes. Confusion quickly turned to fear, making her shake and her jaw dropped, opening for what Sasha knew would be a scream.

Sasha lunged.

One of her hands held tight to the handle of her weapon as she dove for the girl but the other was open and curled. Like a snake, it struck her jugular, knocking her back and into the building’s brick wall. She choked, grabbing at the bricks to remain standing. The man remained unaware.

Sasha stepped closer, wrapping her fingers around the stranger’s neck. Tears welled up in the girl’s eyes and she cringed when Sasha’s teeth came within snapping distance of her nose. She whimpered, “Is this a joke?”

Sasha laughed under her breath. “I think it is rather funny.”

“What do you want?”

“The usual, I am sure you already know,” she continued leisurely with a light Czech accent. “Money. Jewelry. Valuables.”

“I don’t have any money.”

“Do not lie to me.”

She squirmed as Sasha’s grip on her throat got tighter. “I swear! I spent it all at the bar!”

From her right, Sasha heard the light sound of the woman’s pathetic companion beginning to stir. “Jen?” the man slurred, “what’s going on?”

Without breaking her grip on Jen’s throat, Sasha turned and kicked the man back to the ground where he belonged, first with a strike to the gut, then to the chin.

“Mark!” the other shrieked before Sasha covered her mouth.

“Shh,” she demanded without sparing a glance at the unconscious man. “None of that. Scream again and I will cut the flesh from you bones.”

The girl cried. Sasha’s hand muffled her voice, but she swore she could hear, “Please, don’t hurt me,” bleeding through the cracks between her fingers.

“Do not move. I will make this as quick as possible.”

The body before her went as stiff as a board, even when Sasha probed her jean pockets and the bulges of her jacket for something of value. The jacket pocket was hard. A wallet.

Sasha’s face opened into a sinister smile. Jen had stopped breathing. The wallet was not empty, far from it. Cash in twenty dollars bills lay flat and neatly folded within. “Did you forget this?”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she pleaded.

“Honest mistake.” Sasha pinched her cheeks. “I want you to do something for me.”

She nodded feverishly.

“I want you to give me your cell phone.”

Jen hesitated. “I don’t have one.”

There was a loud, melodious crack when Sasha’s fist met her face. She released the girl’s throat, allowing her to fall to the ground in a heap of limbs. As Jen struggled to regain her bearings, Sasha shoved the wallet into the waistband of her pants. “I told you. Do not lie to me.”

She stooped beside the unconscious man, probing him for a wallet as well. She found it, and the pitiful collection of change collected there. There were a few credit cards and gift cards wedged inside but they were useless to her. She could not allow herself to be traced. Nevertheless, she stuffed them into her clothes, too.

Jen moaned. Sasha rolled her eyes, swinging the axe again. “Shhh.”

The girl’s eyes zeroed in on the blade and filled with tears. Her lip quivered and she whispered, “Help me. Help me. Help me.”

Sasha shoved the axe in her face, barely slicing the skin of her forehead and cheek with either blade. Little beads of blood surfaced from either cut.

Her whispers turned into frantic wails. “Help me! Help me! Help me!”


The girl stifled herself, eyes round and unwavering from the glint of the axe.

“No screaming. No talking. Okay?”

She gave no response.

Sasha pulled the wallet from her pants, grabbing for the I.D. “Cedargrove? What a pleasant street. If I hear anything about the police, I will be sure to visit.” The man groaned, coming to enough to blink. “Your friend, too.”

Tears continued to stream down the girl’s face.

“Do you understand me?”

She nodded in the affirmative.


Sasha turned her back on them, strolling down the sidewalk and swinging her axe. Behind her, she could hear the sobs of her victim grow softer and softer. She smiled.

The walk to her motel was long and dark, especially when she reached the shady neighborhood it occupied, bordered on both sides by brick walls stained with spray paint. It was completely devoid of streetlights and police, both of which Sasha enjoyed it for.

There was no one, no one, more dangerous on this street than her.

She swung that axe until she stood before the door to her motel room. The lights were on but weak, as usual, so she did not worry much about being seen. No one around here would be trying to attract the attention of the police anyway. The place was garbage and full of unscrupulous characters such as herself, but at least it was cheap.

She entered swiftly and locked the door behind her. Her clothes fell in a pool around her, along with the wallets, and she yanked the scarf from her head to free her lank, strawberry-blonde hair. Sasha breathed a long sigh of relief. The uniform was very hot.

She waded through the clothes, picking out the wallets and her cell phone, which she always kept in her shirt. There were no missed calls. No messages.


She threw the phone on the bed, ignoring the dejection turning her face red. The wallets provided a much needed distraction but it did not take long for Sasha to count out two hundred dollars. Forty dollars a night would buy her some time with a roof; food was another story. She would need to go out tomorrow.

That was not a problem. It was the only fun she had now.

She had lived an exciting life. She had been sent to every continent, seduced foreign dignitaries into bed, where she promptly put bullets in their heads, stolen money from underground vaults and now she was reduced to mugging people on the streets of New Jersey. If she was not positive that no one from her previous life would ever grace these dirty sidewalks with their presence, she would have been embarrassed.

Sasha prepared for bed. The routine since she had become holed up in this trash can was to cover every inch of skin—the bed bugs did bite here—turn on the air conditioner despite the chilling December air, and place her cell phone on the nightstand, wishing it would ring. It always used to ring.

Tonight, like so many others, as she drifted off to sleep, it did not.


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