She watches the city burn bright in fluorescent, artificial day – a composite of anti-collision strobes pulsing on construction cranes and skyscrapers, late-night workers in ribbons made from office lights and the winding glow of street lamps quivering in a breeze. Grumbling traffic spills greasy high beams through the gaps, bouncing against polished metal and glass and making the grey belly of the clouds overhead shine.
Somewhere high above, the Moon fails to make an impact and night is pushed back to make some sickly twilight by the hand of Man. From here, she can hear the river lap and ebb against the concrete pierside, occasionally crashing hard as the odd barge struggles against inertia through water sporting a multicoloured sheen.
It is not much of a view, but Masque is not interested by what is in front of her; only what – or who – is about to pass. A mook running short on smarts, the desperate or the stupid, any of them might think the redhead scuffing her soles against the winding asphalt path up ahead was lost in thought. Distracted. Vulnerable.
Masque knew better. At some level, base, animalistic, Amber Ryan was never truly disengaged. An instinct to reach out, grab and break clean was never far from the surface. A prowling, patrolling instinct of self-defence honed through a life spent on the attack. A predator.
A living weapon, given just a little more encouragement. The safety was so close to being released now, a round chambered and ready to detonate. So close.
“You should be careful …” She said out loud, voice sing-song in cadence and unmistakable. “This is a dangerous place to be.”
Perched on the very edge of a bench, green paint flaked and faded, she cocked her head to the side. “Not for you …” A pause, and Masque tipped her plastic face up towards the cityscape on the opposite bank. “ … For them.”
Unamused by the triviality, Amber watched the little shards of gravel she was trying to displace finally break free. Having burst from the surface like it didn't belong, another pinnacle targeted for simply being.
Amber didn't respond immediately, that echo fading from the street long before it sunk beneath her surface. Resonating. It was as sickening as it was enlightening. To be willed, to be allowed to simply… react. Not bound by expectation for just a little while… freedom for a caged animal outside the occasional synthetic enrichment.
She felt as dead as she did alive.
"You say that, but no one really gives a fuck… Too busy doing anything else. Being anywhere else… to worry about us." It wasn't really directed anywhere, the musings falling in time with footsteps as worn sneakers padded across concrete and asphalt as her winding path drifted. Meandered. A river of chaos without a definable place left to go.
Standing up from the bench, Masque tucked a long spool of blonde hair back behind her ear with a single, blue leather glove. The plastic fingers of her prosthetic flexed and twirled of their own accord, just visible beyond the cuff of her thick coat. The curious woman walked onto the twisting path as Amber passed, falling into step beside the Bombshells’ Champion.
“We have both had the same experience but I think we have drawn different lessons,” Masque said as they walked. “We each find ourselves back to relying on our own kind, our tournament partners having …”
The tone of her voice got higher, singing, again. “ … Failed to provide a bark to match their bite.” And she laughed. “I took from my defeat affirmation – that only kindred spirits can be relied on outside of yourself. But you, my Hurricane …”
She tipped her mask up, as if musing. “I suspect you have taken a different lesson. I think you learned again how tenuous the centre of your everything truly is, and how it can all be taken from you by someone else’s inadequacy.”
“Of course I watched …” She nodded. “Could you have done more to save him? Perhaps, at the expense of your legacy, but why did he not save himself? Because he was weak. And so he made you weak by association. So we see that even when you are moving the entire Earth as a Titan, you must also apparently reach up into the stars with an entire world on your back and take care of the Moon, rather than expect a helping hand …”
For a second, she stopped walking to stand still. “And if you are not all-powerful; unassailable. Untouchable. Unbeatable … If you have a bad day, or a bad life … You will lose it all. Then they will crow and mock – this miserable city and everyone in it – and denigrate you, disrespect everything you have achieved …”
“Unacceptable,” Masque said, simply. “ So … What if we made them give a fuck?”
Extending her prosthetic towards the cityscape over the riverbank, she cocked her head to the side. “It is time for me to help you find the strength you will need to make them beg for mercy …”
… And we are not feeling merciful tonight,” Masque added. turning to look at the bright lights before she glanced back at Amber. “ … Are we?”
The building had fallen on hard times long before these harder times had come calling; tougher than diamond. Thick green tufts of plant life grew vibrant on torrents of rainwater gushing free of broken guttering; entire sections sagging to make creaking crosses over filthy windows that marked the whole place as closed for business. It was impossible to tell what colour the brickwork might have been, originally, now stained black by traffic smog and mottled grey by pulverised mortar washed down towards the trash-strewn streets.
It stunk on the inside, an overwhelming conglomeration of rat droppings, urine, damp and the ever-present, eye-watering tang of alcohol – and not the good stuff. They passed a wall of letter boxes for clients long since gone or worse, all broken open and ransacked, names scored out or graffitied over. Climbing the stairs, Masque paused for a second as one of the steps creaked loudly near the top of the next floor. Balancing on one foot – the banister looked less than trustworthy – she rocked backwards and forwards and made the wood groan.
“Do you recognise the sound?” She asked, continuing upwards. “Do you remember how he used it?”
She stopped, turning her mask back towards Amber a little behind. “It is important you prepare yourself. You will be very angry, but it must be focused.”
Another laugh. “ … At least for a little while. Until the screaming starts.”
When they stepped onto the landing, Masque gestured towards a wooden door immediately to the right, dominated by a broken glass pane. The door had been painted a dark brown but years of neglect had made it flake away, creating a mosaic of blotches courtesy of damp and termite infestation.
Despite the ugly cracks that bisected the grimy, shit-stained glass, the silhouette of a man tugging on the brim of a hat was clearly visible, circled in a badly-stenciled font clearly applied poorly, by hand.FEXXFIELD PRIVATE INVESTIGATIONS
Voices echoed through the door from the office inside, whooping and crashing.
God, it must have been… five, maybe six years by now.
Ignoring the way her heart determinedly skipped several beats, the name on the door struck at something she'd long since buried. Another time, another flower girl and another man who thought that maybe there was a soul stuck in a hurricane worth saving from itself.
Incredulous, almost insulted by the brazen nature to which Masque had coerced her here… to this place… even without going through the door, Amber could recall the way the ceiling fan lazily spun overhead. Lethargic in its only purpose, the smell of burnt coffee and nail polish seemingly permeated into every surface.
Overstimulated, Amber grabbed for the banister as it shuddered beneath her touch. Threatening to collapse with her audacity to lay a hand on it.
"After everything…" Amber couldn't find the words, not ones that could be articulated beyond animalistic sounds and the kind of hurt promised never to be felt that way again.
If it weren't for Masque…
It was only then that the voices sunk past the sensory wall she'd thrown up, the crash of wood crunching beneath the weight of bodies. Pressure of its own weight perhaps, cause she knew those chairs weren't well made when they were new.
"I don't know what the fuck you think this is supposed to do–" getting vaguely closer towards the door, Amber was sure she heard the voices drop for a second as though they heard the gravelly and gutteral whisper that she was sure didn't belong to her. "–but this… Nah, this is too fucking far this time. You have some serious balls to think–"
“I do not think,” Masque replied, the humour in her voice gone instantly and replaced with something absolutely calculating. “I know exactly what the fuck this is supposed to do.”
She stepped forwards, making quick work of unbuttoning her coat and shrugging it down to the floorboards. “Does it make you feel sick to your stomach? To be here again, after so long? Even for me …”
Her god-given hand settled over her navel, pressing in. “ … It stirs something. How beautiful.”
“Do you know what they are doing in there? Corrupting his legacy, using it for their own ends. Drifters. Malcontents. Trash. Rifling through all those cases – do you remember some of them? I do. The Case of the Flower Girl Named After the Stars …”
She watched Amber grasp the stair rail without moving, breath coming in shuddering gasps as the redhead struggled to put all the pieces of the past back together in an instant. “My favourite was the Case of the Man Who Loved a Hurricane and got Blown Away. Tragedies always make for the best stories.”
“He was never particularly efficient with paperwork,” Masque continued. “I thought that is why he paid Madeline …”
Then she stopped, and looked directly at the Bombshells’ Champion. “Do you remember the awful coffee?”
“All his files, all the cases, left where he last put his feet up … On the desk. Before his unscheduled business trip. And that is where they stayed, office and eventually building abandoned … Until new ownership arrived.”
She gestured towards the flaking door. “They are using those sensitive documents to shake down old clients. Extort. Terrorise. Hurt. Some almost certainly deserve it, but others? Even in this city, there are innocents. Innocents enough, at least. Speaking of …”
“Have you talked to Madeline recently?” And she laughed. “They have.”
“I know exactly what this is supposed to fucking do,” She nodded. “This is going to liberate you, my Hurricane. It has already begun, I think? Oh, how your heart thunders. You are flushing. Ball those fists. It is time to reap a whirlwind.”
And with that, Masque made a fist from the plastic fingers of her prosthetic and sent it through the grimy glass of FEXXFIELD PRIVATE INVESTIGATIONS, reaching into the shattered pane and unhooking the latch from the inside.
“Do not think, just feel,” She said, throwing the door open. “Hurt them like they hurt you. Make them suffer, Amber. Like he suffered. Like you did. Like you still are.”
She didn't need to hear the words, to be goaded into falling into a familiar pattern. Warmth flushed into her skin, dissipating the crippling numbness that the now shattered glass had struck so deeply within.
Of course she remembered.
It was part of the reason she never left Atlantic City when she should have, before she went to Baltimore. Before she rebuilt what fractured foundations of a life she'd managed to drag out from the remains of Boardwalk.
Maybe she had moved on with her life, found a new reason to live and love recklessly – but she never quite forgot the emptiness that she could never resolve.
It would have been one thing to be left behind, at least that would have been closure. Masque, in her infinite cruelty, had chosen to sink those prosthetic fingers into the old scar tissue and tear them open so that everything beneath might be poked and prodded for a benefit.
No, she didn't need to be goaded.
She needed to be liberated.