CHAPTER SIX

XV

Pathways' suite of offices were located in upper Manhattan, housed on the fifteenth floor of a tall, glittering skyscraper that burned with lights.

I surveyed the building from a rooftop opposite, the need to figure out a way of getting in taking my mind off the scene that had taken place barely twenty minutes before on the other side of town.

The second that lady had given up the address, I was outta there, not pausing even to look at Amber before I did, not wanting to see the haunted look in that lady's eyes another second.

I hated that we'd had to go there, that Tran didn't know the city or how to get back to where she'd escaped from.

I'd put as much distance between us as quickly as I could, moving frenetically over the rooftops at a pace to rival Mikey's, the weight of the suit tugging me just slightly every jump I took, sweating from every pore until the suit felt like a sauna but not stopping, not pausing, not until I reached the address.

I'd moved around the rooftops until I'd located their offices, a regular looking arrangement of cubicles, empty and dark for the night, leading into a corner office, closed off from the rest with high walls and a heavy door. I could see the furniture inside it was expensive – the huge oak desk and the wide, heavy leather chair for all the world like some kinda throne, walls lined with framed documents and a set of shelves with awards dotted out along them – some of them humanitarian awards.

I grit my teeth so hard my jaw ached.

When Amber took me there, I didn't know the head of Dignity woulda had nothing to do with it all. All Tran knew was they'd handed her over to this mob. Amber never mentioned she knew that lady – Sheila – knew that she would be ignorant. I'd been itching to go, to get my hands on whoever was at the centre of it. I didn't figure I'd need Amber to learn what I needed to know. But she'd insisted, that she'd know where to find the information, that she'd be let in without a fuss.

I could see so clearly into that big, pretty office because the lights in there were still on. And at the big desk, in his throne, sat my target, back to me. I could see the top of his greying hair above the back of the chair. See that on his desk sat framed photographs of smiling kids. And I felt my muscles tense, fuelled with the kind of cold, burning fury that meant whatever came next would be over with quickly.

I'd have to enter through the roof. The glass would be too thick to break once I got over there. Unless I used explosives. Or unless…

I cocked my head, judging the distance with a narrowed eye. With the suit on I weighed about two hundred, two-ten. I reckoned it would be enough.

If I'd known Sheila had nothing to do with it I coulda gone back to the offices after she'd gone for the night, found the info then – Amber coulda helped… but then, that was it, wasn't it. Amber had wanted Sheila to be there. She'd wanted Sheila to know.

I wondered if Sheila would ever get a decent night's sleep again.

I'd backed up on the rooftop, shook my shoulders and arms out, tensed them. Then I ran.

I hurtled over the edge of the rooftop, every ounce of power in me summoned up in the run, sending me flying over the illuminated street, the wind screaming around the helmet. I pulled my knees up to my chest, wrapped my arms around them, kept my body on a straight trajectory so as not to lessen the impact and braced myself as the glass wall rushed over to meet me.

The sound of the glass bursting was ferocious, though it resisted just enough to slow my path down, meaning I fortunately didn't go flying into the wall the other side of the office, but landed, rolled and came up on one knee as shards of glass rained down all around me. The thick leather and metal of the suit protected me though the edges of the glass still felt sharp as they made contact. I crouched for a moment to make sure I wasn't going to sway as I stood up, and then I turned on my quarry.

He hadn't had time to move before the glass had shattered all around him, capable of doing nothing but throwing his arms up over his head and himself beneath his desk, no doubt thinking Armageddon had stopped in for a social call. His desk was scattered with pieces of glass, large and small, his carpet patterned in it, crunching under my feet as I moved towards the desk, framed now by a jagged-edged hole that let in the night wind, furious and screeching even at just fifteen stories up.

I reached down over the desk, grabbed him by his collar, unable to help a satisfied grin at the terrified shriek I heard then, hauled him up and onto the glass-strewn surface, his body sweeping against the scattered fragments so that they tinkled and chinked against each other.

He sputtered, hands waving uselessly at the air as I bent over him. He hadn't managed to escape the glass entirely. A bloody cut intersected his forehead, and other smaller ones decorated his cheeks, ears, neck and hands. The blood ran down into his eyes, no doubt blurring his vision, and I shoved a thumb forward to wipe it away, he whimpering and struggling beneath me, helpless and useless.

"You got somethin' to tell me," I snarled at him, bending over into his face, "and I don't wanna wait."

XVI

"You will sever your ties with Project Dignity. Or I'll be back. And you won't survive the next time."

Those were the words I'd left him with once he'd stopped blubbering long enough to give me the docks address. He'd pissed himself once he'd registered enough to focus on me, see who it was who'd exploded into his office, upheaved his comfortable life. I knew that would make Amber laugh. I just found it perplexing, to connect this cowardice with the horror he enacted on defenceless women.

When I knew that he'd heard those words, I made him incapable of going for help, for calling ahead and warning his cronies, of doing anything but lying on the floor on a bed of glass, moaning and waiting for his secretary to arrive in the morning. Let him figure out a way of explaining it. I was fairly confident the name Nightwatcher wouldn't come into things.

Then I'd come down to the docks.

It looked like just a warehouse from the outside but when I got up to the roof, looking in through the skylight there, I'd seen that half the interior had been built into rooms with partitions, the other half loaded up with crates, huge crates, perhaps ten by six. Big enough to fit a person inside it with room left over, for easy loading onto the ships that would wait nearby.

The men I saw threading their way through the crates, coming in or out of the doorway that led into the suite of rooms, or moving up towards the office that overlooked the whole space were all packing heat and I opted not for the explosive entrance this time, instead edging the skylight open and easing silently in.

I didn't want to take any of them out from a distance, or from behind, even though it woulda made things easier. I wanted them to see it coming.

The first guy didn't have time to draw his gun, but he yelped in surprise as my fist landed in his gut before I knocked him out and that alerted the others. The warehouse rang with the cocking of chambers and I felt a grin contort my face beneath the helmet as I readied myself for the battle ahead.

The manriki disarmed one of them, and I felt the pop of another's elbow as I grabbed his gun arm and twisted it. A bullet went whistling past my head, singeing the helmet and I ducked low and barrelled forward as a round of shots rang out, delayed just long enough by the shock of two of their pals whimpering on the ground so that I was ahead of them. A kick landed in one jaw, a fist in another, two automatics were plucked from their moaning holders' fingertips and tossed away into the shadows amongst the crates. The last guy opted to run but the manriki coiled around his ankle and hauled him back to me. I spun him onto his back, bringing me face to face with the barrel of his gun and I threw myself back onto my hands, kicking the weapon so that it went spinning into the air, releasing a shot as it did so which buried itself in the partition leading into the built-in rooms.

The force of the manriki had broken one guy's hand, I'd broken the arm of another, but I was hardly through yet.

Tran's tear-stained face and Sheila's stricken, broken gaze played through my mind as I laid into them, all calculation gone as I gave vent to my anger, allowed it to flood, un-dammed into every muscle and limb, transforming me from a fighter, from a vigilante into something made only of fury and vengeance, blind and raging down onto their bodies which cracked and popped beneath the force. Hired guns, nothing more, made immortal by the weapons they carried, unable to believe anyone capable of overcoming them so long as they had those guns.

But not just that, not nothing more. I thought of the women who lay hidden in the rooms beyond me, what these men had done to them. Then Amber's face rose up in my vision, clouded with the bruises rained on her by some creep like these bastards. As I brutalised them, hard muscle pounded into soft flesh beneath me, I felt a great roar rising up from my gut, burning my throat as it came, filling my ears with its sound.

Then I realised they were no longer getting up, no longer moving. Five broken bodies lay crumpled around me in the gloom, bloody and still and I was in their centre, hearing my heart hammer, feeling my breath come in furious gasps. Slowly I came back to myself, that strange focused numbness retreating to where I could feel the throb in one knee, the smarting across my knuckles, the sweat trickling hot down my legs, the back of my neck to underneath my shell.

I guessed at least one of them wasn't breathing. Maybe more than one. Maybe all of them. I didn't care.

My focus came back to me and I moved to the partitioned rooms, still strung out enough to yank the door open a little too hard, still panting.

There was a corridor, splitting the suite into two sides. A couple of doors were open, revealing nothing more than filing cabinets and more crates, some beds and a bathroom. I noticed the bathroom was on the side that was built against the wall of the warehouse, a window above the sink. Maybe the bathroom Tran had escaped out of. Then I came to a door that was bolted and padlocked.

I stopped for a moment and leant on it, shutting my eyes and breathing deep, waiting for my pulse to calm. Remembering what Amber had said back at Mae's joint. Reminding myself the enemy was taken care of.

Then I backed up, drew all my energy together, and kicked the door in, cold and calculated.

The women within, sitting huddled together on the rows of bunk beds, did not scream or cower when I entered. They sat there, maybe eight of them, arms around each other, staring at me with wide eyes, silent and wary. I stayed near the doorway, surveying them. The silence, the weight of their still expectation, hung heavy over me.

Amber had confronted me as we rode the elevator down from Mae's. Had pulled off my helmet and stepped up close to me, her eyes fervent on mine. "No cops."

The thick leather of the suit, the bone of my plastron and I could still feel her body pressed against mine, the flare in her eyes as she'd said it, her grip on my shoulders. "It'll just make more trouble for them. They'll be deported. No cops."

Without the cops, Pathways would go unpunished. These girls would disappear into the city, not officially existing. They'd go back to the people they had contracts with – to Mae.

I didn't know what the right thing to do was.

I felt my shoulders sag. They must've seen it because then one of them stood up and took a step forward, her waist-length black hair tangled, her face a smooth oval mask expresisonless except for her eyes, huge and alert.

"Can we go?" Her English was soft and accented. I lifted my head to look at her again, to hold her eyes, knowing as I did she couldn't see mine and that it wouldn't matter if she could. She wasn't asking a question so much as telling me what they wanted.

So I stepped back.

She spoke to them softly in Thai, and after a moment of hesitation, they begun to collect themselves to leave, standing up, clutching hands, moving towards the door together. They filed out, still silent and cautious, looking carefully up and down the corridor as they moved, picking up speed as the silence of the warehouse impressed itself upon them. I leant up against the wall as they passed, one or two daring a glance at me and hurrying away; I heard them gasp and exchange a few frantic words as they came upon the bodies of their captors, but they did not stop or slow down, but continued to quicken until finally I could hear their feet in a pattering run making for the exit.

I waited a while, long enough to give them the chance to get away from the building.

Then I left.

XVII

Amber was waiting for me on our rooftop, a slim silhouette against the dark blue of the sky, patterned with stormy clouds dimly illuminated by the glare of the city. I came up in line with her and we stood in silence, the river stretched out in front of us and glittering dully.

I pulled the helmet off and stood there with it in my hands, looking down at it. Seeing where the bullet had carved a small dent in it, one more war wound to add to its collection. I remembered how she'd leapt forward and lifted it up in the elevator, how I'd been enraged by that broach, my first impulse to throw her back. And I looked up at her, to the fading bruise on her cheek, barely visible now beneath the heavy cluster of freckles in this dim light.

She darted a look at me, her face savage with its query.

"No cops." I admitted grudgingly and she jerked her head quickly. I guess that was her thank you.

The silence grew and made me uncomfortable. It was not the easy silence we had sat in before. This one simmered with resentment, hers as keen as one of Leo's blades and mine steadily sharpening to match it.

"Did you haveta do that?" I grumbled and she threw another look at me, eyes bright and questioning. I sniffed and looked back out to the river, wondering briefly which way those girls had gone. "What you did to Sheila."

"She had to know." Amber's voice was calm and assured and it got me going.

"Not that way." I snapped, rounding to face her. Something passed over her eyes, something broken, but she recovered quickly and glared at me steadily, saying nothing.

Then she broke the stand-off, stepping back and pulling her knapsack around to fumble in it for her cigarettes, sighing.

"Mae and Tran said to say thank you." She said, not looking at me and my own sigh was like a hiss through my teeth. "Do you want a drink?"

I thought her voice shook. I accepted the bottle and took a slug, the gin harsh on my dry throat. I really needed water.

When she took the bottle back I caught sight again of the bruise patterning her breast bone, disappearing below her dress and in a fit of frustration I stepped forward, grasping her arm and pulling her towards me.

"Let me see."

"No." She wrestled against my grip. "I told you to just leave it. Now leave it." Her voice rose, echoing in the quiet around us and abruptly I let her go so she stumbled backwards.

"Then tell me what happened." I clenched my fists, ground my heels into the rooftop and wished that it never happened like this, that there were problems I couldn't solve with my fists.

She'd lit her cigarette and now blew a cloud of smoke out furiously, centring a vicious glare at me. "What happened? What happened is that I hooked up with that pretty boy I told you about, what happened is we spent an afternoon shooting up all the smack he had in the house, what happened is his boyfriend came home and got pissed off there was nothing left and kicked the shit out of both of us. Okay?"

I couldn't say anything, my mind wrestling with this information, struggling around its unexpectedness, feeling my eyes bug at her. She snorted, turned halfway away from me, raising her cigarette to her mouth.

"Like I said, it's not always the way it looks. "

And slowly it registered that she did know who it was, and where they were and that if she would tell me then I could –

So why didn't she tell me?

She took in a shaking breath and rounded on me.

"Whose side are you on?" Her voice wavered, her half-shadowed face contorted with emotion. I gaped at the question, my thought path broken.

"What?"

"Whose side are you on?" She repeated, her brows creasing together as she stared at me. "Mine or Sheila's?"

She couldn't have surprised me more if she'd pulled a gun on me. We stood together on the rooftop, the summer breeze chill at this height, the semi-darkness falling in heavy shadows between us. "Wh-why are ya askin' me this?" I lifted my palms to her, one foot stepping back defensively, scraping against the cracked cement.

"I just wanna know." She persisted, lifting her chin. "Who you agree with."

In the silence that followed the darkness seemed to grow heavier, the dim city sounds retreating further. I gaped at her and she stared at me, jaw clenched and for maybe the first time in my life I found myself wondering why it had to come down to this all the damn time – always us and them. The cigarette in her hand burned steadily away, now more a long cylinder of ash. As I met the steel in her eyes I found my words carefully.

"You're the one I'm gonna stand by." I said it softly but she recoiled anyway. It wasn't enough.

"That's not an answer." She snapped and her eyes got wet.

I shrugged, a coiling sickness in my gut, hating myself and resenting her for forcing it.

"That's all I got for ya right now." It ached to admit it. I wanted to touch her and I wanted to fight. I wanted to reassure her but I didn't want to lie. She'd know if I did, anyway.

Then her face hardened again, settling into a disturbing stillness, eyes drying instantly and cold and mean on me.

"Okay, whatever, " she drawled, sucking in the last lungful of nicotine her cigarette held, the harshness of the roach making her cough painfully. She threw the butt down and pushed her hair back. "See ya 'round. I gotta go stick a needle in my arm."

It was cruel and unnecessary. But I said nothing as she whirled around and headed for the fire escape, her boots slapping the pavement in a way that betrayed her anger. I turned away from her and moved to the edge of the rooftop, looking out across the streets that wound their way down to the riverside, listening to the clang of the ladder as she clambered down, out of sight and without another word.

Then I pulled the helmet back on. The night was still young, after all.

End