Rain followed the steel down from the sky, turning a poisoned orange as it collected in murky pools ringed with rust. It tracked down rutted concrete, following well-worn paths stained a shade darker where decades of run-off disappeared into storm drains and overwhelmed gutters. Stanchions and guard rails cut up the constant glow of passing headlamps, generating a pulsing lighthouse fuelled by the rush hour snarl.
Idling engines made a bassline, rumbling underneath the tinkle of water on metalwork and the rhythmic thump of wipers against glass.
She breathed the stink of corrosion, gasoline and garbage in deep. It stung the back of her throat. Tasted like an urban sprawl distilled into its base elements. Tasted like Atlantic City.
Angels with blank faces worn smooth by time and fouled by traffic fumes gave her some cover from the rain, hanging out from the corners of the apartment block on spiralled buttresses. Utility cables bolted to the brickwork cut up the skin of the building into patches, running in pale tracks like stitching. All the more conspicuous where paint added to roll back the years hadn’t quite reached underneath the runs.
Muzak tinkled and jarred against the groan of cabling under weight as the elevator brought her up to the fifth floor. The hallway was clean and sterile and she stopped in front of a generic print of a sailboat that had never existed, sailing down some impossibly idyllic river. Its artist might have been trying to pass the effort off as minimalist but the lack of detail, definition - passion - just spoke a clear truth.
Half-hearted. Corporate. Soulless.
She was followed by a silhouette all the way up to the door of Apartment #14, courtesy of buzzing fluorescent lights in tarnished, brass-plated fittings that made a trailing shadow around the corner all the more obvious. A creaking floorboard underneath the plush purple carpet made for an impromptu warning, an urban rattlesnake tail, and she worked the groan with the point of a cherry-red heel. The shadow retreated and didn’t come back.
Light spilled out from underneath a door subtly reinforced with metal plating, making it that much harder to stove in. Unlike the sailboat, a real, heartfelt, authentic product of Atlantic City. She pressed a palm against the buzzer. It rang out muffled and tuneless behind.
Moments passed heavily, stale air hanging in the seconds between the trailing echo of the buzzer and the almost inaudible footsteps betrayed by an approaching shadow that blotted out the light.
Unimpressed and dishevelled, with her tangled mess of thick red hair fallen into a disparate side part, Amber Ryan couldn't have appeared more unimpressed if she tried.
With slightly bloodshot eyes and a lazy half-smile, she regarded the stranger on her doorstep expectantly.
"I'm not buying any Jesus."
Anyone showing up on her doorstep unannounced had balls. Titanium. The kind that would leave the average man bow legged perhaps- whether it was ignorance or arrogance that brought them here was almost irrelevant.
Fifteen seconds, give or take, before things started to get vitriolic. It was an unspoken rule and Amber had already started her count.
A brilliant smile. Bright and practiced and as authentic as the sailboat. “Miss Ryan? Good …”
She trailed off for a second, the smile wavering as she leaned slightly forward to not-so-surreptitiously sneak a glance inside. Then, back to respecting distance. Perfect teeth back on display. “Good Evening. Are you ready to go?”
"Go? Oh fuck. Don't tell you're the reaper… man this is really disappointing. I was expecting black cloak, scythe, bony fingers reaching out to send me to hell…" Amber gestured indecisively, a raised eyebrow only confirming the deliberate nature of her sarcasm and vocal disappointment.
"Feel like I'm gonna be writing a Yelp review or something about this… is that a thing in Hell? Probably. Seems like it would."
Making absolutely no effort to move, if in fact more a shift in weight so that she might lean further into the door frame- Amber regarded the overly cherry female with a thinly veiled apathy. If there were an invitation indoors expected- then at least Amber wouldn't be the only one left wanting.
“I’m very much focused on life,” She replied. “The affairs of unearthly realms aren’t really my speciality. I stick with public affairs. Much more predictable …”
She glanced, head askew at Amber’s tousled hair. “Speaking of predictability, that’s why I’m here. Or the lack of it. I assume you haven’t been keeping a particularly close eye on your emails?”
Forcing a sickly sweet smile, Amber leaned in a little only to find herself briefly assaulted by the heady aroma of perfume. Thick. Earthy. Floral.
"I have a tendency of forgetting such things- consider it a side effect of actively trying to ruin everyone else's day." The reply came dripping with insincerity, the countdown now long past as Amber found herself intrigued just enough to participate at the barest minimum level.
"... And judging by the fact you are still on my doorstep with little more than a smile and a backhanded snark about my time management, you seem to know that gift all too well."
“I do,” She nodded, “But maybe I should have called ahead. You’re certainly very talented at what you do, a bombshell in every definition of the word but there’s a feeling that, when you’re not competing, your brand could benefit from a little more positive engagement. The company is very keen to support you in building better links with the community and of course, monetising to the benefit of all of us. We are nothing without our fans.
She smiled again and held out a hand. “They’re our ecosystem after all. Helping us grow and bloom. My name is Cassiopeia Mare - and I’m your new Talent Relations Officer.”
Amber could have sworn the air leaving her lungs was deafening, her chest feeling as though it might collapse under the strain. Cassiopeia. A girl in a flower dress. Had the temperature dropped five degrees?
Coincidence. It had to be- this woman, in a her virtuously optimistic glory bore no resemblance, nothing about her had given the redhead pause for thought before now. A name was just a name.
So why did it make Amber feel like she wanted to be sick.
"Unusual name." Amber managed to choke out, hoping that the sudden distress wasn't as obvious as it felt. "The kind never found on any crappy novelty items growing up I suppose."
“You can just call me Cassie, Miss Ryan,” She replied without breaking eye contact. Passive, no flicker of suspicion or reaction on her face. As placid and smooth as the wrinkle-free, matching red dress she wore. “My Dad told me I was named after the stars, apparently ..”
Clutching a purse against her belly, Cassie shrugged her shoulders up in an exaggerated display of disarming nonchalance. “So - if you’re not up to our dinner date to talk strategy, maybe I could come inside instead?”
Normally a parental figure would be the one to educate about never inviting strangers in- particularly ones with overly chipper attitudes and a proper mannerism that just felt off. However Amber, a contrarian by nature, simply stepped out of the door frame and back into the depths of her apartment.
No mention of invitation however no decline of trespass into her sanctuary either. A test perhaps, although Amber wasn't particularly sure which outcome she preferred.
Linoleum met carpet as a barely used kitchen met an open plan living area lacking anything resembling life beyond a faint divot on one side of the couch cushions. Amber, still trying to swallow the bile that had collected at the back of her throat scraped out a chair at a kitchen table used for storage and dropped into it like an oversized ragdoll.
Cassie stepped straight through, sweeping her gaze around the apartment as she sat opposite Amber, perched on the very edge of the plastic seat with her palms folded flat in her lap. The table between them was bare except for a single, oversized ceramic bowl and a set of car keys dropped inside. She ran a palm across the shiny, metallic tabletop. The surface was smooth, no tell-tale microscratches or gouges caused by inevitable, daily wear-and-tear.
The brass handles fixed to the front of each kitchen cabinet were uniformly polished. Shiny. No dulling caused by time and the repeat application of grasping fingers. The smell of new plastic hung in the air from white goods still sporting protective films across their control panels. This wasn’t a place lived in very often. It was no home.
“They say home is where the heart is, Miss Ryan,” Cassie began. “The key to building your brand and that authentic connection is to understand where your heart is. What makes you … Well, you. It’s all about personalisation. Choosing the right opportunities that fit. My job is to know you, so I can sell you.”
Another bright smile. “Metaphorically, of course.”
That fucking bright smile was like the sun peeking through the window when you had a hangover. Inevitable and yet entirely unwelcome. A twitch under Amber's left eye triggered as the half smile blossomed into something a little more considered.
"See, here's the thing… Cassie." Even just the name tasted like ash on her tongue. "It's a well known fact that my selling point- and the reason that we are in fact sitting here now… is from what I go out there and do in a ring. Way I see it, the less the big wide world knows about my private business, the happier everyone seems to be. It's proven. It's profitable."
Amber wasn't usually one to flex her business chop, never much one for politicking or promotional nonsense. However it also didn't make her oblivious to the shifting of gears and how easily they might become jammed with a word out of place.
"There are far bigger problems to fix… than just my shitty outlook."
A noncommittal shrug. Almost an act of spite disguised as a peek beyond the otherwise car crash façade.
The smile diminished, lips drawing in. Cassie looked contrite. “Public Relations has moved on in recent years, Miss Ryan. Once upon a time, it was singularly focused on exploitation of the resource, namely, you. Unfortunately, the nature of this business is for talent to burn brilliantly for all too brief a while. Less a star and more a supernova. Such a short window to extract value before time or the audience’s tastes move on. It’s why there are so many burned-out, used-up, embittered veterans crowd-funding for surgery to give them back the ability to walk without hurting …”
For a second, Cassie’s attention diffused - gaze less on Amber herself and more straight through and out the other side. That smile faltered, until she refocused. “Those days are in the past. Now, we look after our resources because they’re people. With stories and tragedies and adversities all overcome. Miracles make money, after all. We don’t just monetise, we humanise.
Cassie tucked a lock of blonde hair back behind her ear. “I’m not just here to fill your calendar with behind-the-scenes exposes or trips to support the Young Farmers of America. I don’t just solve the company’s problems. I solve yours. It works as it is now. For sure, you’re profitable now …”
She leans closer across the table, exuding energy, with just the slightest upward curl of her lip adding a little smirk to that smile and risking a full-blown grin. “It can work better, and I will make it work better for you.”
Amber regarded her like a vulture circling a meal that was still moving a little too much. Cautious, but with little patience. Another twitch at the edge of her lip faded as she ran her fingers back through her hair so that it might fall away from her face.
"I can appreciate the sentiment. However you might just be barking up the wrong tree… what if, heaven forbid, I like being that embittered veteran, that decrepit internet darling who should have given it up five years earlier- but still claims they still have one good run left." Amber leaned in across the table, fingers drumming silently at the edge.
"It's all well and good to stand on my doorstep and talk a big game. That's just wrestling at it's stupid finest, you know?
If you think though for a second that I'm just gonna surrender my image and everything I've built then razed to the ground- to you… cause reasons?"
Re-releasing the chuckle that had bubbled at the back of her throat, Amber draws herself back to her full height seated.
"I get it, I'm a bit of a problem child. I say, act and do without much thought or concern. Impulsive maybe. Blatantly disrespectful probably.
I'll be honest, I don't really give a fuck about my 'problems' so why should I believe you would… outside of a pretty penny in your pocket and a bump to your reputation."
Cassie folded her arms across her chest, creasing bright red material underneath. A smile never left her ruby lips, but the tone shifted abruptly. “Miss Ryan, I hope you’re not mistaking my easy-going personality for naivety. I - well, that is, the company - know exactly what elements of your image we do and don’t own. This isn’t a power-grab. Besides, I understand all-too-well how successful you are outside of competition. No doubt there’s a high powered team of lawyers ready to swoop in from your side at any time …”
She shook her head. “No, this isn’t about taking anything that’s rightfully yours. Only about maximising it to the benefit of both parties. That isn’t necessarily monetary; it’s personal. Mental. A happy champion is a profitable one. Or at least …
“ … A less-fucked-up one?” Cassie said with a laugh. Sweet and bright. “Besides - as good at this as I am, and I must be if they’ve given me the challenge of, well, you … I’m no miracle worker. I leave that to the Lord and his good graces. My aim is to smooth out some of the rough edges of your life. Not reshape it.”
“I’ve got some more colourful metaphors about sunshine over rain if that swings it?” She asked, this time with a full-blown smirk.
Amber feigns a retreat, throwing her hands up theatrically.
"Oh, a religious one. Great. Fantastic even- you know, I always figured I'd get struck down for my sins but never thought I'd have my ashes getting vacuumed out of my own carpet." Amber commented luridly as she leaned further back into her chair.
"I can appreciate that you know how to use buzz words in context and that you take me for slightly less of an idiot as I no doubt come across as."
Clearing her throat, Amber pauses to allow the silence to swallow them whole while she reflexively half-smiles with narrowed eyes.
"If you'll allow me to be blunt- and if not, then might I suggest simply leaving, we both know that corporate doublespeak is for those not willingly throwing themselves in front of a bus every other week." Leaning in, Amber examined the woman as though hoping the outwardly optimistic demeanour had a hairline crack- anything that might prove she was more than the manifestation of a HR think tank, LSD fuelled brainstorm.
Perhaps the lack of distinguishable chinks Amber found in the armour was becoming far more concerning.
"Besides… this all just feels like a formality. You're here to tell me that this is just something that's happening and I'm just gonna go along with it cause otherwise I look like more of an asshole than usual. Right?"
"If you're gonna sit there and continue to bullshit me, at least maybe be honest about it."
Cassie pursed her lips and looked up at the featureless, porcelain-coloured ceiling plaster. “Let me be equally candid with you, Miss Ryan, and cut the bullshit neither of us really wants to hear. The company makes more in a week than you do in ten years and you earn more in a month than I’ll earn in my entire, working life. There’s definitely a mismatch here, a hierarchy, but I can assure you I’m at the bottom, looking up.
“I suppose if I do extraordinarily well with you I might see a bonus,” She continued with a shrug. “Make no mistake, though, that anything I see reflected in your willingness to be only ten miles from toeing the company line pales in insignificance compared to the commercial rewards you’ll see. I’d like to think I’m very good at my job, but I’m eminently replaceable. You’re a much rarer commodity. A somebody.”
She smiled, but her eyes didn’t light up the same. “They can terminate me tomorrow and find ten just-as-qualified replacements. You’re much harder to replace. Not impossible, mind you … But a lot harder. So you’re right, but not for the reasons you think.”
“If you don’t go along with it,” Cassie said, “You’ll look like an asshole for either making me look like I can’t do my job or just plain causing me to lose it. I don’t make the company money; you do. I just help you to do that.”
Cassie swung one leg over the other, tugging the hem of her scarlet skirt down. “In my humble experience, Miss Ryan, the Lord doesn’t always punish sinners directly. He’s a little more ingenuitive than that. A pastor of mine once said if you kill ‘em, they won’t learn nothin’ … Well, words to that effect. I think he meant better to punish those around the sinner, visit misery on loved ones and things. Karma, if you’ll pardon the religious ambiguity.”
Her eyes found Amber’s for a long second. “I’d wager the very little I have to my name that even someone as destructive and unforgiving as you, Miss Ryan, has something they love. Or loved. Everyone has that sort of anchor.”
“Even hurricanes have a direction.”
Resting her elbows on the formica tabletop, Amber's smile grew into something harsher and more genuine. Caustic with meaning. A sudden honesty in the face of rising odds and an insurmountable sarcasm- the coincidences were uncanny. A different body housing a similar soul.
"Here's the thing…" The curl in Amber's lip gave her smile that acerbic splashback. "It's not about the finances, money is the root of all evil, no?
If I cared a moment for beautiful things, then we wouldn't be sitting here having this conversation."
Amber studied the woman across from her for a moment, the casualness in her body language a juxtaposition to the underlying determination to prove herself in her words. It was as though she wanted, needed perhaps, Amber's approval in the same way Amber needed to keep the world 5 miles out of the blast radius at all times.
"Maybe there would be more just like you- but I get the sense you aren't here cause of a short straw. I get the sense you're used to being collateral damage, that what might terrify others out of an opportunity is just an average Tuesday.
It isn't so much you like the challenge, the inevitable fall… but be damned if you don't like hanging out on the edge of the precipice tempting fate to do it'd worst."
Something resembling a soft chuckle emanates from the back of the redheads throat, accidental and far more significant because of it.
"Who we love… or have loved, becomes irrelevant in that case cause they know you're the one that will lose it all."
Cassie mulled the words over, pushing a cheek out with the edge of her tongue. She tapped her teeth loudly together. “There’s truth there, you’re right. God loves a trier, Miss Ryan - but he much prefers the martyr. So maybe I can do both; maybe won’t but still end up with a little of his grace for the effort.”
“We’re all just killing time until it kills us,” She said. “Like flowers in a vase, right?”
Suddenly, Cassie broke back into that smile. “Still, we can’t get too philosophical. This is Atlantic City, after all. Casinos, Concrete and Car Chases. So tell me, Miss Ryan …”
She leaned forward on the points of her elbows. “Are you going to make my average Tuesday?”
Flowers in a vase weren't quite the same as flowers on a dress. Somehow they'd wilted all the same. That roaring optimism was unhealthy, although Amber couldn't quite ascertain for whom, and the smile seemed to feel a little too… anything. Everything. Just… something.
Porcelain maybe. Painted on like a doll.
Amber cocked her head to the side slightly, the blue-green of her eyes shifting like the murky waters of the Boardwalk.
"Only if you're willing to accept martyrdom. Mine or yours. Doesn't seem fair otherwise."
“The Lord works in mysterious ways, just like you Miss Ryan,” Cassie mused. “Like I said before though - maybe unlike you - he loves a trier. I think we have an agreement.”
She patted her lap. “I’ll incrementally improve your life in some useful ways or let you ruin mine trying.”