I'm aware the narrative does assume some previous knowledge of Amber. I hope it doesn't make it impossible for newcomers to engage with her.
Gotham City was a hellhole.
A modern day Rome seemingly eternally perched on the precipice of an almighty fall; it festered relentless and enduring in spite of all, swollen with crime, corruption and vice.
Its magnificent architecture, world renowned universities, and celebrated museums and galleries lapped constantly by an endless tide of debauchery and excess. From all across the world people gathered, melting into a great mess of diversity and desperation, building and tearing apart all atop of each other in a constant struggle to keep their nostrils above the mania that plagued the city.
It was at once beautiful and unbearable; like the light refracted off of a brass pot in the blistering sun. Or like staring into the sun itself. Stunning and vicious. Difficult to tear away once you got hooked, sure to be permanently damaging if you couldn't.
Amber loped down the streets of Newtown, a burning cigarette between two fingers, her scuffed boots thudding dully on the pavement. She wasn't even sure why the hell she'd come to Gotham, of all the god-forsaken places to be, or why she stayed. Like New York on some hella-powerful steroids, the world's greatest city was also its worst, and for most of the same reasons.
Liar, she thought. She did know why she had come – to get away from Raphael for a while, and all the uncomfortable intensity and severe fucked-upedness of that relationship. She'd hopped into the first car that had picked her up, not caring where it was going, so long as it was out of New York.
So. That's how she'd ended up in Gotham.
As to why she stayed –
Well, as it turned out, Gotham had the best smack she'd had in four years.
The autumn breeze was cool, but not unpleasantly so. The weather had just started to turn, the city still humid enough that her sleeveless hoodie and short purple Cookie-Monster dress was sufficient, its flared skirt skimming the tops of her thighs like the foam of a berry milkshake, her freckled arms long, lanky spokes by her side, rather than wrapped up and around her bony chest.
She sucked in the last of her cigarette, pulling it right back into the roach, then flicked it into the gutter, pushing a long strand of red hair out of her face just as the phone in her shoulder bag began to vibrate.
She pulled a face, freckled forehead furrowing together in a mean knot about her sunken eyes. Only one person that could be.
She got the phone out of her bag anyway, as if it needed to be confirmed, checking the caller ID.
Yep. Raphael. Jesus.
Well, she had been gone more than two weeks. And she hadn't really told him…
Hadn't really planned it.
It had happened one early morning, just as the sun began to bleed over the horizon, when he'd been lingering in the frame of her window and she'd been – she winced – kinda, sorta, maybe clinging to him a little and laughing too. And he'd smiled at her with those big, startling, stupidly intense brown eyes all bright and fixed on her face and she'd frozen a little inside, her guts coiling up on themselves. And when he'd embraced her, she'd pushed her lips against his neck and felt safe.
After he'd gone she'd sat on the window ledge, looking out of the squat over the rooftops, bathed gold in the morning light, for a few moments. Then she'd picked up her bag, shoved her gear in it, walked outside and headed straight for the nearest road out of town.
Now she scowled at the phone, which had stopped ringing only to begin again a few seconds later. Why the hell had she ever gotten one? Life had been a lot simpler before she'd given into his insistence and bought the stupid thing from a pawnshop. She passed a garbage bin and dumped the phone inside, it making a muffled thwunk as it clunked against the tin insides. Feeling considerably lightened, she smiled a little and shoved her hands into the hoodie pockets, falling into something of a hop, skip and a jump, her feet beating the sidewalk.
Newtown, the lower East side; a breath away from the infamous Crime Alley. Not the ideal place for a young lady to be walking, unaccompanied and scantily dressed, unless she was a certain sort of girl.
The sort of girl Amber happened to be.
Though the night encroached about her on all sides, though it was constantly pierced with the wail of sirens and the distant shrieks of urban war, though the crumbling buildings lining the streets housed the unseen malevolent presences of a hundred predators waiting for the hour to strike, her gait was confident and her manner disaffected.
There, she was at home.
Of course, she understood what Gotham City was all about. With the worst crime rate in the world, the highest murder rate, a skyline about which notoriety hung like a cloud, it really should've intimidated even the hardened likes of her. But, she reasoned, the statistics were pushed up by the freaks and loonies who this city seemed to breed like roaches.
And how many people really encountered any of that lot?
After all – it had been two weeks. And she hadn't caught sight of so much as the flapping cape of the city's supposed protector.
Not that she'd been looking.
In real terms, Gotham was no worse than New York, she reasoned. Its dealers, thugs, brutes, and criminals were no more vicious and no more powerful, and at any rate, she spoke their language and knew how to trade. The whackos – the so-called "super-villains" as the media dubbed them (stupid fucking term, made her think of Mikey and his bloody comics) were the only ones to really worry about.
And what were the odds of actually encountering one of them?
"Misery's the river of the world, everybody row, everybody row", she hummed below her breath, turning into a lone twenty-four hour convenience store, a radioactive square of light on a dark corner, hitting the candy aisle and picking up bags of Starburst and Skittles, big blocks of Cadburys.
She'd worked the streets hard the last few nights and all she wanted to do now was spend a few nights in her hotel room getting stoned.
She paid for her purchases and left the shop, turning down a long finger of an alleyway, boots splashing in something unspeakable. She was already pleasantly numb, having shot up in the dank public toilets of the Giordano Botanical Gardens and she thought there'd be something mind-numbing on the tiny, flickering television set in the grotty, cramped room she was paying twenty bucks a night for. When she'd first checked in, the clerk had taken one look at her and advised her there was a surcharge per guest so she'd been doing all her jobs on the streets and in cars, which saved the hassle of kicking them out of the room afterwards anyway.
"There are a few things I never could believe… a woman when she weeps, a merchant when he swears, a thief who says he'll pay, a lawyer when he cares…" She was following an unravelling thread of thought in her head, spinning backwards, not hearing the soft whistle which had taken up the chorus of the song she sang quietly, head nodding forward against the heaviness of the drug, suddenly unbearably hot and uncomfortable in the hoodie, wrenching it off.
She reached her hotel, on a silent, stark and deserted stretch of street, its blue neon ftzing steadily above her like a mosquito. She fumbled in her bag for the keys, keen to be inside now and ensconced in the damp-smelling room with its awful and slightly greasy chintz bedspread. The hotel had a "security" door, a thick glass thing that was constantly being kicked, slammed and jimmied, with the result that the key had to be jiggled and twisted just so in the lock.
She was too off her face to manage the task right at that moment; the key seemed to stick harder than usual, refusing to turn either way and in a sudden surge of fury she shook the door violently and let out a string of expletives:
"You mother fucking sonuvabitch what the fuck is the fucking problem, goddamn cheap piece of shit."
And kicked at the glass with one scratched boot.
"Now, now, such language. On a public street. From a lady."
She jumped at the voice, not having sensed the presence of the person behind her. The reprimand was delivered with an amused, and slightly malicious, tone of voice and for some reason, a chill went down her spine.
A second later and she tore the key back out of the lock, covertly positioning it between her middle and index finger so it pointed outwards like a blade, then turned to give the smart-arse a piece of her mind.
But when she saw the man leaning up against the lamppost, not five feet away from her, all retorts died on her lips.
He was unusually tall, his height only amplified by the long leanness of his figure. He was impeccably dressed in a fitted wool suit, its style one that had been the height of fashion in the thirties, except that it was a shocking shade of purple, offset by the brilliant turquoise of his silk shirt and the vivid orange of his cravat and waistcoat. His hands were jammed casually into his pockets, one ankle crossing the other in shined black shoes and soft, white leather spats. A purple fedora with a turquoise hatband was perched upon his head, its brim pulled down over his face.
But it was not enough to conceal the shocking bone white-ness of his flesh or the lick of vibrant green hair at his neck; it was certainly not enough to mask the smile that contorted his face, a mirthless, awful grin that struck her with a sudden sense of unreality.
It's a costume, she thought frantically, ignoring its perfection, the key slipping in her hand, the wind whipping her skirt up in a sudden rush that set goose pimples scattering across her skin. It's gotta be. Just some jok – some asshole trying to be clever. Don't let him know he got ya.
So instead of doing what she should've, she reached into her bag with trembling hands and pulled out a cigarette, lighting it to up to feign nonchalance.
Statistics, girl. How many people actually encounter one of these kooks? You'd have to be one in a million and you've already used your turn on Raphael. Just be cool. It's just some nutjob's idea of a game.
She leaned up against the security door, crossing one skinny leg over the other, mirroring his posture, and blew out a gust of smoke. "You looking for a good time, baby?"
When his grin grew wider, she knew she'd made a mistake. It split the edges of his face and beneath the shadow cast by the brim of his hat; his eyes glittered with something like hunger.
"Indeed I am." He replied softly. "And you are just the very thing."
Finally she did what she should've done to begin with, and broke into a run.
She was quick and agile, but his slouch was deceptive. He'd been waiting for it and leapt forward, catching her by the tendrils of her stupidly long hair, yanking her back with a savageness that made her yelp, her scalp suddenly stinging in a hundred places.
She turned, kicking out desperately, but he dodged and laughed. It was the laugh that sent her spiralling into panic then, a maniacal, hideous sound that split the night like a thunderclap, startling the hope out of her.
"Relax, honey thighs, it'll be easy." He hissed and suddenly a cloud of something green billowed in her face. In shock she sucked in a breath.
The darkness then was absolute.