The police were the last to arrive. Five patrol cars. They got out of their vehicles, some of them with pistol in hand, and quickly regrouped on the stairs leading to the Los Angeles Opera.
By that time, the curious onlookers were already there. Most of them were upper class. Exclusive spectators who, just half an hour earlier, were watching the world premiere of Macbeth, and were now chatting amongst themselves, speculating on the incident that had just taken place.
The journalists were there, too. As soon as the news leaked, on-call editors came out charging and were now banging on the main door, armed with their cameras and microphones. Their group included a young journalist fresh out of college reporting on the occurrence for a local television station.
“It appears that another robbery has taken place. This time, at the Los Angeles Opera. Owned by multi-millionaire Marissa Grossman, the Empress Diadem has disappeared. For the time being, there are no witnesses. The thief’s identity is still unknown, but it is believed that he may be…”
“Look!” shouted someone from the group of curious bystanders. They were pointing toward the rooftop of the Opera.
There he was: dressed in a form-fitting black suit, a hood covering his head and his face hidden behind a silver mask with a smile frozen in place. Like a shadow blending into the dark of night. Not a soul was unaware of who the unknown man with that arrogant gaze was or what he had done over the past few months. Even so, his presence provoked a certain strange fascination that immediately drew everyone’s interest and attention.
“That’s him! Yeah, that’s him!”
Murmurs of alarm quickly rose up from the crowd of onlookers and the journalists pointed their camera lenses toward the Opera rooftop, trying to snap the most perfect picture possible of the mysterious individual. The police were the last ones to react and, at first, the only thing they managed to do was bring order to the impromptu crowd.
The dreaded one-hundred-million-dollar thief. The same one who had spent the last six months stealing objects of countless value. A slippery ghost who committed impossible robberies and disappeared without a trace.
Nobody knew his real name, because his true identity was a mystery. The media had christened him as “Zero” because the name was the closest thing to what they knew about him: nothing. Since they hadn’t come up with anything better, the police kept using the nickname. Now, everybody called the shadow the same thing.
“We need more forces! Tell all units in the area to come immediately. Get moving!” shouted Lieutenant Brown. A hoarse voice came from his throat, annoyed by the humiliation and anger. Once again… Once again, he had managed to slip past them… How was it possible?
The day before, the police station had received a message sent by Zero himself, telling them that his next target was the Empress Diadem: a sparkling 16th-century diamond, ruby and emerald tiara. But he didn’t say when or where the robbery would take place. Like always.
It wasn’t the first time the Lieutenant had received one of these warnings. The only difference was that, this time, he had moved heaven and earth to stop it. He had sent his best men to escort Marissa Grossman to the bank where she kept the diadem and then back to her mansion. He also assigned surveillance patrols and sensors with alarms all over the house. He was convinced that if the robber wanted to commit the theft, he could only do it at the Grossman’s house where, in theory, it would be easier.
But he never showed up. Zero didn’t come. The Empress Diadem remained safe and sound and the officers went back to the station, where they were received with cheers and applause. For the first time, they had prevented one of his thefts… Or at least, that’s what they thought until the Opera director had called them to say that the jewel had vanished from its owner’s head during the second act of Macbeth. Under Marissa Grossman’s seat, they found a silver coin: the robber’s unmistakable signature.
From the rooftop, Zero contemplated the scene unfolding at the building’s entrance. He was totally calm, delighting in the confused look on the police officers’ faces. He hadn’t the slightest doubt that they must be wondering how he had done it and what plan he had come up with this time to take off with the Grossman family’s valuable relic in a place so full of people, without getting caught. They could keep on speculating.
They would never find him out.
Five minutes, he calculated. That was how long it would take the officers to pounce and trap him. He had just enough time to slip away before they surrounded him. After that, Lieutenant Brown and his men would search the city, like they always did. They would go into the surrounding homes. They would search the few businesses that still remained open. They would create quite a stir, trying to find him. When they were finished, Zero would already be far away. Maybe peacefully sleeping in his bed, as if he hadn’t the slightest to do with the fact that he would be the day’s most important news tomorrow.
Just that easy. Just that simple.
Another impeccable robbery. The twentieth one in less than six months. Not too bad. Not bad at all, in fact. He stepped away from the edge of the roof and put the Empress Diadem away inside his suit for safekeeping.
Only then did he realize that he wasn’t alone.
A silhouette stood between him and his only escape route, blocking his flight.
“We finally meet face-to-face.”
They didn’t need to get any closer. Or for the moonlight to illuminate the newcomer’s face, hidden behind a strange shadow. Zero was fully aware of who he was. He would recognize that raspy voice anywhere. His name? Dimitri Cooper. The best detective in Los Angeles and officially responsible for his capture, specifically entrusted with the task by the Government.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Detective,” said the robber, as if their meeting, far from being a setback, was an excuse to have a pleasant chat. Dimitri didn’t answer. He removed his pistol and aimed at Zero.
“I’m afraid this will be our first and our last meeting. I had a hard time finding you, although I finally did.”
Zero was unfazed when he saw the gun was aimed at him.
“We could say that I’m not too friendly with the police.”
“You’ve been stealing from innocent people for half a year, and you still have the gall to make those jokes of yours.” Dimitri motioned for Zero to move toward him, and held his pistol more tightly. “You can come over here so I can cuff you now. And don’t try any funny stuff.”
“What funny stuff would I try?”
“Just put your hands in the air!”
“Now, start walking if you don’t want to get shot.
For a fraction of a second, the robber glanced at his suit’s right-hand pocket. He could see the outline of a small, rounded object inside… He made no move to grab it. He just stared at it, as if thinking about something.
“Let’s get a move on!” brayed Dimitri.
He brought his attention back to the detective and slowly walked toward him, calmly analyzing his rival’s appearance, so different from his own: his emotionless countenance was chiseled in stone, with metallic gray eyes that looked like they could drill through him. He was wearing a trench coat that reached his knees, his police badge hanging from one side of his belt while his pistol holster hung from the other.
He stopped just a few feet away from him.
“Good. It’s over. Finally.”
“I’m afraid not.”
Before Dimitri could move, Zero rushed the distance between them and kicked his pistol. Dimitri couldn’t hang on to it and it was lost in the darkness. In the blink of an eye, Zero rose up like a giant behind the detective and grabbed him by the neck, immobilizing him. He had moved so quickly that it seemed as if time had stopped and he was the only one able to move from one side to the other.
“I think I remember you mentioning something about me being trapped, or something like that.”
“I wouldn’t be the one-hundred-million-dollar thief if I wasn’t.”
“That’s true. But you’ve got a defect that trumps your speed.”
“Oh, I do? And what might that be?”
“You’re too sure of yourself,” Dimitri said while closing his fist and then, forcefully, punched his enemy’s stomach. Zero hissed out in pain and surprise. He doubled over, instinctively releasing the police officer. Now he was the one without time to react.
“Did you really think it was going to be that easy?”
The robber’s eyes gave off a sinister glint that made the hair on the back of Dimitri’s neck bristle. He moved back. They had never been so close. In fact, he doubted that anyone had ever managed to get so close to the legendary criminal. But now that there were just a few feet between them, now that he was right in front of him, he felt like running away and escaping.
He had been on the force for too long to be intimidated by a criminal who wasn’t even armed. And yet…
There was something different about him. His presence. His mere existence. Whoever he was, this robber gave off…a strange aura. He wouldn’t even know how to put it into words. How he moved and the power he held was disturbing, frightening. Attractive… but as gloomy as the Los Angeles nighttime sky.
While Dimitri was lost in thought, Zero took the opportunity to recover from the blow and counterattacked. Just as swiftly as before, he pounced on his rival and grabbed his arm, spinning around and throwing him over his back. The officer fell on his side and, for a few seconds, the only thing he could see were stars dancing around inside his head.
His brief period of reflection had cost him dearly. “You shouldn’t have gotten in my way.”
“My duty is to arrest you. You, and everyone else like you,” Dimitri groaned. His entire body hurt. And he had a broken rib. Or two. For sure.
“I’m not like everyone else.”
“Yeah, I think I’ve realized that tonight.”
“You’d better stop chasing after me. You’ll be the one who ends up getting hurt.”
“There’s an easy solution for that. Stop robbing, turn yourself in, and I’ll quit bothering you.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. I…”
Zero’s words were left hanging in the air. Something drew his attention away. A small black object, fallen at the detective’s feet. His gloved hand shot like a lightning bolt to his right-hand pocket. The circular object that was there before had disappeared and, in its stead, there was a remnant of ripped fabric, shredded on the side. His shoulders tensed imperceptibly.
“What’s wrong? Looks like you’re worn out from fighting,” Dimitri mocked him.
He stoically bore the pain and stood up. He couldn’t afford to sit in a corner and nurse his wounds. He had to stop this criminal he had been chasing for months. Moving forward, his heel drew dangerously close to the object under the robber’s gaze.
The police officer froze, bewildered. He looked down at the object at his feet. Intrigued, he bent down and picked it up.
“Now what might this be?”
“Don’t touch that.” Zero wasn’t acting as calm as he had been before. One could almost feel the tension emanating from his body.
“Put it down!”
Like a cat, he jumped at Dimitri. He moved too abruptly and the object slipped from the detective’s hand. It arced through the air before plunging to the ground.
It hit the rooftop, cracking like a whip in the air. Almost at the same time, Zero let out a piercing shriek. A metallic taste filled his mouth and something liquid started spilling out over his chin. Blood. He let out a groan and closed his eyes to contain the sudden pain punishing every part of his being.
“Meddling policeman,” he muttered. His head was spinning as he staggered.
Dimitri held him up, not understanding what was happening. The pain he saw shooting from the robber’s eyes was no performance act. Zero was hurt, but how? He remembered banging into him, but not hard enough for him to be in such a state…
No matter what, he had to do something. He wanted to catch him, and that had been his goal for six months now. But he didn’t want his death on his conscience. Not his death, or anybody else’s. He couldn’t leave him like that. He took a radio from his trench coat and started giving orders, never leaving his prisoner for even an instant.
“Attention, this is Officer Dimitri speaking. I need a medical team. I repeat. I need a medical team. I have an unconscious civilian on the Los Angeles Opera rooftop.”
“Who are you calling unconscious?” mumbled Zero. The object that fell from his pocket was just a few feet away. He tried to take a few steps toward it. Dimitri stopped him.
“Don’t even thing about moving.” He held on to his arm more tightly and added, “I already told you that this would be our first and our last meeting.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Have you seen yourself? I highly doubt you can escape with the state you’re in.” Dimitri couldn’t help but appreciate the irony of the situation. Before, Zero had given him the chills.
His presence was almost supernatural. Now, he looked like a helpless, vulnerable kid… His gaze came to rest on the silver mask. It perfectly fit its owner’s factions, hiding his face from the hairline to the chin. After so many weeks chasing him down, so many sleepless nights because of him, he still didn’t know who was hiding behind the disguise.
He hooked his fingers behind the titanium hooks holding the mask to Zero’s face. Zero started to squirm as soon as he understood his intentions.
“Don’t touch me!”
“Are you afraid I’ll find out the truth?”
Dimitri released the titanium locks and the silver mask fell from its place, revealing the famous thief’s identity. They observed one another in the darkness. Two enemies, finally face-to-face after countless chases and escapes. Neither of them spoke a word. They merely regarded one another. The detective couldn’t believe what he saw. As far as he was concerned, Zero felt a wave of anger rising up in his throat, consuming his pain and turning it to fury.
They had found out his secret… They had found out who he was…
“That’s impossible…” whispered Dimitri. “I know you…”
Zero grabbed the tranquilizer dart gun hidden on his leg. Before the detective could utter his name, before he could even say one syllable, he shot him in the neck. The officer immediately dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes.
The thief bent over and picked up his mask. He put it on again. But he knew full well that it was too late now.
Six officers burst onto the rooftop. Lieutenant Brown was with them, anxious to avenge how ridiculous Zero had made him look at the Grossman’s house, at any price. They aimed their guns at him.
“Put your hands where we can see them!”
Zero ignored the order and looked for the circular object that he had lost. It was too close to the police officers. It would be impossible to get it back without getting riddled by bullets while trying. But if he left it behind… If someone touched it… He hesitated. What should he choose? He knew that no matter what he decided, he would regret it. So he opted for the lesser evil.
He took out one of the smoke bombs he only used when urgently needed and threw it to the ground. A gray cloud spread over the rooftop, covering everything under a dense fog.
When it had cleared, the circular object was right where it was before. But Zero had disappeared