Loser

This ain't the movies.

It's a clear night, if cold as hell. I keep movin', to keep warm. Movin' fast over rooftops, below me the streets flashin' by in a jumble of colour, an occasional shriek of music or screech of tyre wheels, the smell of greasy fried food, smoke and rottin' garbage waftin' up. It's just past midnight, headin' into the busiest time of night for me. The neighbourhood stretches out before me like a maze, a rotten, low down dirty pit, vice for sale on every street corner.

I come to a stop on top of a strip club on Redfern Street, feelin' the thumpin' sound of the music within reverberate in my feet. Movin' to the roof edge, I look down into the road. The ruddy glow of neon shop signs illuminate the pavement in streaks of red, blue and purple, groups of people sidestep the rubbish that litters the street, movin' out onto the road and dartin' around cars that toot impatiently and swerve around each other. Down one end of the street there's a couple of cops, but they ain't payin' attention to what's around them. They're just pickin' up doughnuts. There's a guy sellin' watches, sunglasses and rings at one table, another doin' card tricks further down from him.

Amber is down in her usual spot, a stretch of road framed by a greasy diner and a porn shop, inbetween 'em a booze and smokes joint, a Seven Eleven and an old record store. Everythin' she might need durin' the night, except maybe a motel, but then, not so smart to troll for business right out front. Not exactly subtle.

The record place is pumpin' Enjoy the Silence out onto the streets and Amber is dancin' along beneath the neon and multicoloured lights.

"All I ever wanted, all I ever needed, is here in my arms!" She sings in a surprisingly strong voice, if off-key.

The kids idlin' on the curbs and draped on the stoops, killin' time until they're sent out on their next delivery, clap and cheer her on. She's an old face around here.

"Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm."

A car slows down, crawlin' by the curb as though seekin' somethin' out. Which, of course, it is. Amber does not pause in her dancin', does not stop singin', but fixes her gaze directly through the windshield, to the driver, her smile a challenge. There's a click and the passenger seat springs open an inch, and she's up, bouncin' across the pavement, onto the street and into the car, which takes off with a squeal. This ain't the movies. She doesn't pause to lean into the window and do the barterin'. Good way to get arrested. Amber's been in overnight enough times that another won't make much of a difference to her record either way. But losin' a night's earnings and havin' to deal with a raw and sober morning might just be the one thing she truly fears.

I lean back against the chimney, a quiet sigh escapin' from me. She'll be back in ten minutes, if he's nice enough to drive her back. Fifteen, maybe twenty, if she has to walk. I'll wait around until then. Give her half an hour before I start lookin' for her.

Guess it's no secret she's my favourite of the girls down here, even if I'm the only one who knows. When I first started keepin' an eye on her I'd follow the car and wait to see her get safely out. But Amber's tough, tougher even than she looks, and she can handle herself, mostly. And I learned – and it surprised me, I admit – most of those mugs don't want no more than their happy endin'. They don't want to rip her off, beat her up or strangle her and dump her body in the river. They hand the cash over happily, she takes care of them and their business is done.

But of course, I can't hang around and wait for her to return from every pick up. There's more goin' on in this neighbourhood than a street girl ridin' in cars with strangers who might or might not be easily dealt with.

The vintage record shop is playin' classics, no rap or hip hop pulsin' through the earth so that your knees vibrate with the force of it. Now it's When Doves Cry, but the kids jeer and posture, all tryin' to outdo each other in nonchalant cool. Amber's not here to dance along and take the mickey from the classic, so there's no excuse to clap along and laugh. I know she'd be sorry to miss this tune. I'd like to go down and join them when she gets back, egg her on. But that ain't never goin' to happen.

One of the kids gets a call on his mobile, a sleek black thing that fits in the palm of his hand and costs way more than any parent in this neighbourhood can afford. He answers with a 'yo' and listens for a second before takin' off down the street. His name's Bengy. He's got skin so dark it gleams gold beneath the street lamps and a face so beautiful you already know he's breakin' hearts, though he couldn't be a day over twelve. He's wearin' about five hundred bucks worth of designer gear and I know he's off to pick up a couple of grams of coke and deliver it, possibly somewhere uptown. A few months ago I mighta made off after him, caught him as he was comin' out and given him the scare of his lifetime, sendin' him home to momma with a lecture before turnin' my fury on the dealers. Now, I just watch him go, as the track changes to I Don't Like Mondays. I also know he don't got a momma – just a grandmother who's too old and sick to work and three younger siblings, and Bengy's bringin' in the income for the household.

Yeah, I've learned a lot down here.

It's Eye of the Tiger now and from around the corner, Amber returns, punchin' her arms in beat to the riff. She kicks into the air, her flat-heeled boots slammin' back down into the cement. This ain't the movies. Stilettos aren't ideal to spend standin' around in for eight straight hours. Plus they don't exactly make for a fast getaway, should one be needed. The boots are too big for her skinny calves, but she's jammed the spaces with lambs wool to keep them on and keep her warm. She spins, her hair fannin' in an arc about her and head bangs to the song. The owner of the record store, an old fellow called Lenny, leans in the doorframe and laughs to see her, a husky sound, like paper rustlin'. He often chooses the tracks for Amber's sake.

"Good night?" he queries her and she swings her head to the tune, an exaggerated rock sneer on her lips.

"All good so far, baby." Her voice is thin and raspy, as though it's been dragged over a grater time and time again, worn down to an onion-thin slice. She vanishes into the 7-11, briefly squeezin' her eyes shut to the lurid glare of the fluorescent lights, and when she remerges she's got an oversized block of chocolate in her hands. Her habit gives her a sweet tooth that can never be fully satisfied and I can't help but shake my head and grip my sai a little tighter. Well, did I expect she'd undergone a miraculous transformation between last night and this? I should be glad. At least she's eatin' somethin'.

She taps her heel on the pavement, pullin' piece after piece of chocolate out of the foil and crammin' it into her mouth.

Another car slows down as it passes her and she shoves what's left of the chocolate block into her knapsack and throws her hair back over her shoulder, swallowin' hard as she darts over to the car. Her hair is long, waist length, mostly straight and pale red. It's beautiful and she's lucky, because she does little enough to take care of it.

She's got no pimp. Most of the girls don't. Somethin' else I've learned. They're free agents and they keep what they make. Not so many are keepin' a habit like Amber's. Most are just workin' to get their kids through school. They've got an easy-goin' camaraderie you don't see much of in this town. They don't let each other work in their spots, but they'll move into neutral territory to share a cigarette and a chat and give each other tip-offs. They all watch out for each other too and if a girl's had a rough customer there's a shoulder nearby to lean on. They all got each other's numbers – those who got phones - and if one girl gets her hackles up about the mug she's headin' off with she knows she can sms his licence plate to another girl, and have someone on watch for her. Amber doesn't have a phone. In this and other ways she seems more reckless than many of the others. But she's tougher in many ways too.

At the end of the night Amber will take what she's made and go to the public lockers where she keeps everythin' she owns. I never seen what's in it. She'll dump some money in there and take just enough to her dealer, a Puerto Rican woman who occupies one floor of an old, decrepit brown stone. She'll buy a dose, a big dose, and retreat into one of the dealer's rooms, bare except for a mattress and doona. Amber keeps everythin' she needs in her knapsack – fits, lighter, cord and spoon. She'll make up the shot, keepin' a little left over, tourniquet her arm with the cord and shoot up. She needs a hefty shot, after all these years. In the crook of her left elbow there's a fine pattern of pinprick scars she breaks open again and again. She'll lie back in a stupor for a few hours, a stupor that gradually fades into a feverish sleep. The dealer lets her stay in the room for the day – they've known each other for years and she'll see to it Amber ain't disturbed. But for as comatose as she gets, for as well as she knows her dealer, Amber keeps a grip on her knapsack like death after a soldier.

Sometime in the early evenin', she'll wake up. She'll fix herself a little shot with what's left, just enough to keep the taste of it in her blood to get her through the night without makin' her useless, and then she'll be up and back down into the streets. If she ain't got a book, she'll stop into the grimy old second hand bookshop on the corner of 14th and Crown and pick somethin' up, with a wave and a yo to the owner. He used to charge her but then he realised that she'd always return it a couple of days later. Well, she's got nowhere to keep them. She'll dart into the outreach place on Thistleway, stay just long enough to have a hot shower, pick up new fits and condoms, ignore the entreaties of the folks who volunteer their time there to stay and let them stage an intervention they can feel good about. Then it's down to that greasy diner on her little stretch of street, where she'll read and drink black coffee with lots of sugar and smoke until ten, when the tourists have gone back to their hotel rooms and the respectable businesses have shut, and all the night crawlers come out to play. She gets through four or five books a week like this. She must've read a hundred in the last six months I been watchin' her. . Sometimes, she'll have a slice of chocolate cake, or a frosted doughnut, or an éclair. As long as it's sweet. If she's really hungry, she'll have soup. Once I saw her order a burger with all the trimmings, but she only got through a couple of bites. She wrapped the rest up and gave it to Harold, the old fellow who pushes the trolley loaded with all his earthly possessions around the block, and croaks out ballads of the thirties to the tinny sound of his old boom box.

After that she'll pop into the booze and smokes place, buy a pack of Camels and a bottle of gin. She's all set for the evenin' then, and dances on the curb outside Lenny's Vintage Vinyl as cars circle the block, lookin' for their poison, until dawn.

I know what it sounds like, me knowin' so much about her. But I could tell you a dozen stories like that. I could tell you almost anythin' you cared to know about the regulars around here. This is my neighbourhood. My territory.

For all that, I'm not a part of it. Nah, I gotta be content to lurk and skulk about its outskirts, careful not to be seen, not to leave behind any scrap of my existence. I could name a bunch of the locals and tell you all their little quirks, their stories, what's brought them to this place in this moment of time. But not one of them could tell you a thing about me.

And I gotta keep it that way.

It bites, but that's the way it is.

But that's enough of that. It's time to move on.

Back on the rooftops, the icy air streams over my face, past my head as I move, leapin' from one buildin' to the next, pausin' to survey the streets below. There's a night or two, every year, when it's too cold or miserable even for the most hardened thug to go about his usual business. This is one of those nights. Apart from the drug runners and the mugs there's little enough goin' on. I guess I should be glad, but it makes me feel itchy, like a bug's crawled into my shell and is havin' a dance party in there. If the streets are quiet, it means the uglies have moved indoors and are takin' their frustrations at not bein' able to pursue trouble out on wives, girlfriends and kids. I grind my teeth at the thought and my vision blurs a bit so I stop, graspin' a pipe, gazin' down to the street below, its dark coolness broken at regular intervals by the pool of streetlights. The endless hum of the city rises up, surroundin' me. Car horns honkin', sirens wailin', people talkin', laughin', screamin', singin'. The thrum of machinery even adds its own pulse to the symphony of a New York night. I lift my head higher, strainin' my neck, surveyin' the vast glitterin' sweep of lights. It stretches on further than I can see and I feel a chill through me, at the thought of all those millions of people down there, each of them actin' out the soap opera of their lives, most of them never even crossin' each other. It's enough to make you feel crazy.

There's movement in the street below and I tense up, snappin' my gaze back downwards. A rangy fellow sidles into view beneath one of the lamps, hands thrust deep in pockets of his zippered hoodie, head bowed. I narrow my eyes at him and feel a grin snake up one side of my mouth. I can see the outline beneath his jacket. He disappears into the darkness again and I step up onto the roof ledge, assessin' my descent. There's a soft snickt, a metallic sound, from the shadows where he's lurkin' and I land behind him, silently. I wait long enough for him to get the door open before I pounce, knockin' the crow bar from his hand with one kick, knockin' him to the pavement with another. He barely yelps, until I let him get a look at me, the ridge of my shell, one three-fingered hand, green and oversized, clutchin' my sai, ready to strike. Then he makes noise enough and is poundin' the pavement in a frenzied dash to escape. I probably roughed him up more than was necessary – but hey, it'd been a quiet night. And I let him go and I'm not usually so generous.

I'm back in the shadows then, scalin' one buildin' quick, enjoyin' the pull in my muscles, the sensation of my own strength. I run along the roof to the other side, where an alley crammed with junk is home to a solitary car. I duck down as the car door opens and a girl gets out. It's Amber. The car engine starts up and the mug backs out of the alley, engine roarin' with his haste to beat it now he's got what he wanted. He might've driven her back.

Amber does her coat back up. In weather like this, you can't skulk around the streets in mini skirts. Like I keep sayin', it ain't the movies. The coat she's wearin' is knee length and tiger print, a ruffle of ragged pink feathers framin' her neck. She lights a cigarette, a bright orange point in the gloam of the alley, as she turns to begin her trip back. I drop onto the fire escape above her head, deliberately makin' a rustle and she jumps, whirlin' around in alarm.

Her face is taunt as she gazes upwards, surveyin' what she can of the darkness. I know I am invisible here, where the fire escape must be nothin' more than a black outline against the indigo of the sky. After a moment she relaxes, a smirk playin' on her lips as she lifts the cigarette and takes a long draw, turnin' away again.

"Hey, Raphael." Her voice is dry and soft. I crouch down on the stairs and smile, but do not reply. She wanders over to the stoop of a side door in one of the buildin's, and sits down, wrappin' her coat tighter about her. She flicks ash from her cigarette and pulls her knapsack onto her lap, reachin' for her bottle of gin.

"Behavin' yourself?" I ask and she snorts.

"You know better than to ask me that." And takes a swig, long and heavy.

I first met Amber when she pissed off a couple of dealers who worked the beat around the block from her. Amber had been on the streets for years and knew how to mind her own business. Mostly. For as rough as she played it, she had a soft spot for kids, though she's really still one herself, and when she found out Curly and Moe, as I called 'em, were payin' their drug runners in gear rather than cash, she took exception. Told the kids about her Puerto Rican friend, who only payed in cash, and the kids changed up. Well, the dealers took exception to that and cornered her one night as she was leavin' the bookshop, dragged her into a dark corner and made to give her a facelift. I happened to be passin' by.

One had her by her long hair and neck and the other was brandishin' a blade. Amber, who might've weighed ninety pounds, soakin' wet, didn't bother strugglin'. She was starin' out over his shoulder, her eyes blank and distant, though she chewed her lower lip hard. She'd said it to me a lot of times since that night, when I'd chewed her out for not bein' more careful where she chose to walk, or which cars she got into - "when it's your time to go, it's your time, baby." And that was what I'd seen on her face that night.

But it wasn't her time. Not on my watch.

By then I'd seen enough of the hookers to know they were the least of the lot. They didn't steal, beat up on people, sell drugs or flog stolen goods. They weren't out to hurt anyone – they just made their money, made their clients happy and went about their lives quietly and with little desire to cause trouble. They were the friendliest faces on the streets and the cheeriest voices, makin' cracks to each other from over the way. I got a bit of a soft spot for them, after a time, and it made me madder than hell to hear the names called out to them from cars full with smart mouthed kids, or watch them get shoved around by the hoods – or worse, get busted and locked up for the night by the cops when there were a dozen real criminals all up and down the same street. I saw red to see this skinny redhead gripped by one ugly, about to get her face sliced up by the other, and with a look on her face that said she was ready for it.

Curly and Moe didn't have time to do more than grunt, and Amber was whirled into the gutter, landin' hard on her haunches. They weren't no match for me but I laid into them hard, wantin' them to hurt, and keep on hurtin' for a week at least. She did not get up and run off, like most would and did. She sat sprawled in the gutter and squinted into the darkness, tryin' to catch sight of what was goin' on. But it was too dark and I was too quick. Curly and Moe fell, finally, out cold and I took just a moment to enjoy the sight of their swellin' faces before scalin' the nearest wall onto a low rooftop.

"You not even gonna hit me up for freebie after that?" She'd called out to me, and for some reason I had stopped, turnin' back to where she'd stood up, arms danglin' by her side, legs astride and as fearless as I'd ever seen. I knew she couldn't see me so I didn't see the harm in replyin'.

"Nope."

She'd shrugged and tapped a cigarette out of her pack. "That's good. I don't give out freebies, not even to heroes." She'd lit up, inhaled and blew out a great gust of smoke before liftin' her eyes to where she figured I was. "Though I reckon some would say you would be a bigger hero for letting those guys put me out. You gonna step out of the shadows so I can say thank you?"

I didn't. Told her that wouldn't happen. She'd just shrugged again and began an idlin' walk towards her spot. I'd decided to keep pace, in case there was any more trouble about. She was aware of it and it amused her. Asked me why I helped. I told her that's what I do. I asked her why those guys were after her. Her answer floored me.

"So – you sent them kids from one dealer to another?" I'd felt the tug of anger in the corner of my eye. Did she think she'd helped them? "You might as well have thrown the shovel in after 'em."

She'd pulled up short and stared into the shadows where I hid, flickin' the butt of her cigarette to the ground, grindin' it beneath her heel. "Yeah. At least I know with Eva they gonna get actual money rather than a brand new habit. Those kids got families to support, you know. What would you suggest? Report them? Knock off the dealers? Get the cops down here? You think that'll solve things? This place got its own economy, sweetheart. Lot of lives depend on it. "

I hadn't ever seen it that way before and I didn't like seein' it that way then. Now I did. Hell, I still don't like it, but you gotta pick your battles. Situations like that are just the symptom and the problem needs a bigger cure than puttin' the dealers out of business.

Amber screwed the lid back on her bottle and held it up to the fire escape.

"Throw it." I said, and she did, underarm so that it spun up into the air. I caught it and took a swig of my own. I like a drink, but I don't drink a lot, not like I did when it was still a novelty. There's no quicker way to get out of shape than alcohol, and the ragged feelin' of bein' out of breath and the hammerin' of your heart in your ears as you struggle to keep up with your brothers is a strong deterrent. Right now I'm in the best shape of my life and I ain't goin' backwards. Besides, I prefer scotch, when I do drink. But the gin is still a brace against the bitter chill of the night.

"Beat up any baddies tonight, then?" She asks me and I chuckle.

"Not as many as I'd like." I reply wryly and she grins, pushin' hair back over her ear. Her knuckles are red and split from the cold. She'd had gloves last week. I wondered what happened to them. A classic redhead, her skin is fair, a washed out white from too little sunlight in recent years. But freckles from earlier days speckle her cheeks and forehead in the dozens. I know from the summer months her shoulders and arms are covered in them as well. She's skinny, flat-chested, straight-hipped. I figure that's not just genes, but the fact she never eats, or not properly anyway. I know she'll go weeks without eatin' more than a candy bar sometimes. She's so lean her skin is stretched over her limbs like rice paper, translucent and thin. She wears no makeup, and her eyebrows and eyelashes are the same soft red as her hair, her pale lips chapped, thin threads of blood sometimes risin' to the surface. Her eyes are huge in her skinny face, but sunken as well, buried in dark circles. Even still, there's no need for makeup. The mugs aren't after glamour models here – you know this ain't the movies – they just want to get their rocks off. They're not forkin' over big bucks for all nighters. Ten minutes is the most they need, and any body is as good as another, so long as it knows what to do.

Amber shivers and I drop the gin back to her. She drinks again then bends her neck to one side, then the other, so that the bones crack.

"Ain't seen you in a while." She says and I drum my fingers on the escape rail.

"You ain't never seen me." I retort and she grins, showin' her teeth suddenly.

"That's true. Didn't think you still checked up on me like this."

I shrug, though she can't see it, and keep my voice indifferent. "I get about. " She lights another cigarette, takes another hard swig of gin. "It's a miracle you ain't fallen over dead already."

Her laugh is husky. "Give it time, baby. Though if you're all that concerned, maybe you oughta step out of the shadows there and come sit by me."

"We been over that, Amber. Not goin' to happen."

She shakes her head, flicks ash, takes another draw. "Yeah, I know. I woulda thought we know each other well enough by now for you to trust me though."

"Ain't about trust." I say shortly. Though it is. A little bit. But I'm already bendin' the rules enough by bein' out here, doin' what I do. Breakin' 'em completely by talkin' to her. Lettin' her see me? Well if the rules are already broken, what would it matter? I guess I know, for all that she's seen, that I worry I'd be too much. And I like our late night chats. "Thought you was the type to take folks as they come."

She grimaces, rubs at one eye with a fist, coughs hard. "Come on, Raphael. You're the neighbourhood's silent avenger. You saved my life. Keep tabs on me. Course I wanna know what you look like. That's just natural, baby. I respect your choice, man, but that don't mean I'm gonna stop waitin' for you to change your mind."

I can't help but laugh. "You keep on waitin', then. You know my reasons." We've been over this before. A dozen times. She thinks we're in this together – two outcasts makin' a go of it. She thinks she could handle my secret. I don't want the disappointment when she can't. This ain't the movies.

"I know 'em." She agrees. "You think I wouldn't understand you. I guess you figure I don't know what it's like to be misunderstood. You think you're a freak. You forget I'm one of life's great rejects." I open my mouth to object but she wasn't expectin' a response and continues, voice driftin' up and down as though she's not really payin' attention. "But I ain't gonna push you. Way I figure it, you're a well known crim. Maybe you busted out and are wanted back but you're paying penance of your own sort. Either that or you're disfigured somehow. Baby, I seen guys with deformities you can't even imagine. Ain't nothing about you gonna scare me. "

"That's what you think." I don't mean to sound as bitter as I do, and she starts, glances up towards me, eyes inscrutable.

"Don't be so down on yourself." She fetches the last of her chocolate block from her knapsack and begins to chow down on it. "I bet you're a big guy, huge, tattooed all over, with a face all scarred up and broken apart. Guy who likes trouble the way you do, gotta be carrying a few battle marks. Grizzly, shaved head. Ham fisted. Barrel chested. All that shit."

She's well off the mark, of course. Well, except for the scars. But my shell's borne the brunt of those. I ain't gonna correct her. She's just amusin' herself, anyhow.

"I don't get it though." She continues, throwin' the gin bottle back up to me. "Why you slum around this hood, with no glory or thanks for what you do. Hell, you don't even seek out appreciation and you've risked your neck enough to and it's an uphill battle all the way. Why, Raphael?"

The bottle is icy in my hands and I know we'll both have to get movin' soon enough. But I'll bear the cold now, for her sake. "Because I can." I reply. "Because I've got what it takes."

She's silent for a long moment, starin' out across the alley to a point I can't see. Her arms are folded across her chest and she licks her dry lips. "Do you choose the life you live? This lurking in the shadows, helping those who'll never thank you for it? Who'll never know who to thank?"

It's my turn to be silent and she waits, chewin' another piece of chocolate. I think of my life, of the battles I have fought with my brothers, of savin' this city, protectin' its citizens. Sometimes at great cost to ourselves – sometimes at risk of death. I myself have come close to dyin', closer than any of us. And throughout it all we have to be content to live beneath the city and never within it. Knowin' that we are the only ones of our kind. That to be found out could endanger us all. That even those we help would be horrified by us – that we'd no longer be their heroes, but freaks to lock up and study. I can feel my fists clench. It's not fair. I did not choose this life. I would not live below ground if I could choose otherwise. I would not hide from society. I look at Amber where she sits on the stoop, cold fingertips fumblin' with her lighter as she lights another cigarette, carefully not lookin' up towards me but all too clearly attuned, waitin' for my answer. There's a lot of folks in this city who think she's part of the problem. But, in a strange way, I think she's part of the solution. And it feels good to know I saved her bacon.

"No." I respond to her finally. "I don't choose to live like this. But I do choose to help."

She puffs smoke out where it billows on the freezin' air. "I'm on your side, Raphael."

"You think I don't want to step out and talk to you face to face like a normal person?" I'm angry suddenly and powerless to stop myself snappin' at her. "You think I like hoverin' above you like some fuckin' stalker? You think that's my idea of a good time? Believe me, society can't deal with a freak like me. At least this way they're still grateful." I feel sorry instantly I've finished, but she takes it in her stride, calmly smokin' her cigarette.

"You know most people when they look at me" she starts up after a moment. "all they see is a loser. A top of the line a-grade loser. They think my life is something that just happened to me against my will. That's why I can't stand those smug fucks over at Thistleway. They think I'm a goddamned movie script. That I was abused as a child and ran away, ended up on the streets with a pimp who beats me and keeps me drugged up so I'll keep on working. That if I only could, if I was only given the right – opportunity" – and she spits the word out like poison – "I'd get off the streets and into rehab, clean up, get a proper job, all that shit. The very notion I got free agency – hell, that I even know what that means – is beyond them. Hell, Raphael, I know you thought the same thing when you met me. "

I grow hot at the thought – she's right. I'd pitied her. Tried to get to the bottom of her situation, figure out how she'd got there. I didn't believe her when she told me it had all started as experimentin' with her friends and then they'd kicked the habit but she'd decided to keep it up, quittin' school and her weekend job for work that'd better pay her way. In those first few months as we'd go on our evenin' strolls in the deserted backstreets of the neighbourhood, me keepin' to the shadows and laneways, leapin' from balcony to rooftop to awnin' and her idlin' the streets, I'd engineer it so that we'd always end up back at Thistleways, suggestin' she go in for a square meal for a change, knowin' the staff there would do their best to keep her there, talk her into checkin' in. Not understandin' the angry disgust that would contort her face before she'd turn on her heel and storm back to her beat. I'd hated the mugs she went off with, hated them for usin' her. She'd been surprised at that. She didn't hate them, she said, why should I? She reckoned most of them were lonelier than me. Use her? She walked away with a fistful of cash. They went home alone.

I kept on learning, these girls weren't the type who needed pitying. Amber least of all.

She stands up abruptly and strides over to the fire escape, lookin' up into the darkness, straight at me. I back up a step or two, unnerved by her proximity. "Well, I'm telling you right now. I chose this life. I got a habit and no plans to quit. I like my life. I got no bills to pay, no home to keep, no obligations, nothin' owed to no one. Just me. I like what I do. I'm free. Plenty of work, plenty of cash. No boss. If I wanna take a night off, I can. " A smile quirked her lips. "Though we both know I'm a workaholic. And I look out for my sisters and take care of my clients. I'm no hero like you are, baby, but I keep an eye out on mine."

That she speaks of the other girls as her sisters strikes right at the heart of me and I think of my brothers. I'd do anythin' for them – all of them. Even Leo. Especially Leo. I know our subterranean lifestyle is hard on them too, Mikey most of all. I can't figure if I get more out of it by doin' what I do, or if I just torment myself further by watchin' what I can never have. This ain't the movies. I'm not goin' to turn into her big, tattooed fantasy any more than she's about to kick the junk and eat enough to gain twenty pounds.

"I don't fit in, either Raphael." Amber continues, her voice soft now so I have to lean over to hear her. "To a lot of people I'm a criminal. Scum. A loser. If I encounter violence, then I've brought it on myself. In their eyes I lost the right to consent or control my life the day I started selling it. Well, that's bullshit." Her voice rises again. "I'm not here to fulfil anyone's expectations but my own. I control my life. I'm a freak but I'm not a fuckin' victim. I'm a chain-smoking, alcoholic junkie whore - " And she laughs with real amusement, so that I can't help but chuckle too. " – but I put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces and make a lot of sad souls feel ten times better. Which is more than most people can say, baby. I see a lot of folks more than once and hear more than their closest friend – or their therapists – would. " She puts one foot on the bottom rung of the ladder that leads up to the escape and pulls herself up, starin' upwards towards me. If she comes any closer I'm goin' to have to move and I hate it.

"You might be a freak in their eyes, Raphael, you might even be a loser, but only you can give them consent to treat you that way. You give a lot to this world. You got more choice than you think, baby. "

Then she leaps back down onto the street, her boots landin' with a dull thunk. She turns on her heel and strides towards the alleyway's entrance, pullin' another cigarette from its packet.

"I don't give a good goddamn what they say about me – I'm fuckin' beautiful." She pauses when she reaches the street, her hair suddenly illuminated beneath the street lamp, and looks back to me where I stand, invisible and silent on that fire escape. The light throws new shadows over her face makin' the dark circles beneath her eyes deeper and heavier, her freckles stand out in bold relief against the fairness of her skin. She tips her head to the side and half smiles, a flake of dry skin on her lower lip splittin' further. "And so are you."

Then she is gone. And I'm alone again.