Chapter V: A Grin Without Expression
I pray to Luna that Redheart isn't home as I pick the lock to her apartment door. Hooves taught me how to pick locks once. It was a brief lesson. Vague. Most of his lessons are. Brief and vague, but I remember enough to break into Redheart’s flat with nothing but a paperclip I found at the bottom of Fedora’s wallet. Lucky break. If not for the paperclip I'd have to kick in the door or break a window. Lucky. I've been too careless lately. Too Reckless. Moving on instinct and relying on luck. Picking the lock takes a decade. A century. By the turn of the millennium the lock finally clicks, and I pray to Luna for a little more luck as I slowly push the door open.
I tread lightly. Carefully. About four steps into the room I realize I’m holding my breath and shaking like a leaf for no reason. Redheart isn’t here. Her hat and coat aren’t on the rack by the door. She's not in her bed or on the couch. Probably out drinking with Dee.
I swallow hard. My heart has been in my throat since I arrived on Redheart’s doorstep, so I swallow hard and wait for it to slide back down my throat. When I’m sure it’s beating in my chest again, I flip on the dim light and get back to work. The apartment is small. It doesn't take long to find what I came for. Tucked in a trash a bag in very back of the closet, my equipment is waiting for me. Batons. Vest. The grappling hook I used that first night on the streets. That first terrifying night. All adrenaline and trembling. Seems like a lifetime ago now. Like it happened to somepony else.
I only need the batons. I have three identical grappling hooks, one of which is tied around my waist right now, and the vest is ruined. There’s a bad memory still lodged in its chest and a worse one that tore through its gut, and I have enough bad memories without strapping two more to my chest. I leave the vest. Only need the batons.
I stole the batons off a couple of dirty cops I ran into after a night of training with old Storm Chaser. We were coming out of the Ringer when we caught them harassing one of Storm’s girls in the alley around back. They pinned her against the alley wall. Felt her up. Touched her every place no mare wants to be touched by Manehattan’s finest. Couple of crooked cops looking to have some crooked fun. One mare. One stallion. Both unicorns. Batons, badges, guns, and magic. Bad combination. Me and old Storm Chaser played it smart. Had I charged in the way I've been charging in all night tonight, those cops would’ve turned me inside out. But me and Storm played it smart. Sneaky. It was fun. I remember the sounds the mare made as I choked her with her own baton. She sounded hurt. Scared. Two of my favorite sounds in the whole world.
I take one of the batons in my mouth and for a while we just get a feel for each other. She’s cold and solid, just like I remember. Cold in that way only something inanimate can be. I give her a few practice swings and she cuts the empty air in Redheart's apartment like a blunt blade. Slowly we fall back into sync. It’s been a while. We don’t rush it. We take our time. Then I spit her into my hooves, and with a smile on my face, I tell her what I have planned for this city. I whisper to her, and without life or lips, she smiles back. Eager to carry out her grim work. When I’m satisfied, I slide the batons into their holsters before fastening them around my haunches.
I lock the door behind me and make for the roof. The gear weighs on me. Batons. Boots. Hook and cord. The gear is heavy, and I've been up all night, but Tracy’s gust doesn't want me to stop. It presses against my back like a pair of friendly hooves, pushing me forward. With Tracy’s help, I fly. I’m heading uptown. The doc is waiting for me there, and more than likely so is Tiger Voice and his gang. Maybe even this supposed psychopath as well. The thought makes me cringe. Shudder and shake like the frightened child this city knows I am. But I don’t let the fear stop me. It’s always with me. I carry it everywhere I go, but it can’t stop me anymore. Daisy is dead. Lily is dead. Redheart is gone. I have nothing more to lose. No reason left to flee and every reason to chase.
By the time I make it uptown, Celestia has already taken her sister’s place in the sky. I am accosted by the morning noises. I hate the morning noises. Hate Celestia and her ball of fire with its incessant light and warmth. The light makes me feel exposed. Makes me feel like every eye in the city is watching me. I take shelter in a motel. The cheapest one I can find, but not much of anything is cheap uptown. Pay for a room with Fedora’s money. He had plenty. I pay for a room. Hole up. Sleep. Wait for Luna to come back out and watch me play.
Sleep is fleeting. I wake up several times during the day. The nightmares are bad. Worst they’ve been in awhile. The scene projected against the inside of my eyelids has been remastered. The colors pop with new life. Daisy’s velveteen purple coat, and sand colored noose, and her lifeless eyes staring at me in the near perfect darkness. Noises are sharper too. Lily’s scream pierces my ears and hurls me back into the daylight.
The first two times I try to sleep, I wake up panting. Sweating. The third time I wake up screaming. Shaking. Pressing a hoof to my chest, as if fearful my heart will leap out and onto the floor. At one point an attendant knocks on my door. Asks if I'm all right. Asks if I need anything. I lie. Tell her I'm fine. By the fourth failed attempt I finally accept that it’s no good. I can’t sleep. I’m too wound up. The nightmares are always bad when I’m wound up. I pace back and forth in my room for a few hours. Then I wander downstairs, then out onto the street where I find a newsstand and buy today’s Post. The front page headline makes me smile. Almost makes me laugh out loud.
“VIGILANTE TERRORIZES CRIMINAL UNDERGROUND.” Underneath the headline is a police sketch artist’s rendition of what I can only assume is supposed to be me. Two images. One is of my face. The other is a side view. A profile sketch. The paper claims that both images were drawn by one of the precincts most capable artist, but honestly it looks more like something you’d see in a comic book. My mane and tail are almost perfect, but the face is all wrong. My features are too sharp. Too rugged. I look like some Hollyhoof antihero. Some thirteen-year-old’s idea of a badass. The face isn't mine, but the eyes—the eyes are flawless. The Rose looking back at me from the front page of the Manehattan Post has an animal’s eyes. A starving animal. Desperate and ravenous and lonely and scared, and just the tiniest bit mad. Her gaze is empty and searching for something to consume. Broken and crying out to be made whole. I've often wondered what the city sees when she looks at me. Often wondered and now I know. I’m nothing but an animal to her. A mangy little thing with hungry eyes. I can't help but smile. It suits me. Fits me like glove.
It’s late when I leap out the window of my motel room. I’m uptown tonight. As far uptown as you can go. Manehattan puts on her finest clothes for me. She does her makeup carefully. Lipstick. Eye shadow. Blush. She holds nothing back tonight. Puts on her best pair of heels and struts like a runway model; wears her mane up, stylish and sophisticated. Dilapidation has marred just about every inch of this city, but its left uptown untouched. Manehattan tries to hide her ugly face from me, but I see her for what she is. Beneath her awe-inspiring thirty story skyscrapers, her luxury hotels and casinos, her dazzling lights and deafening, prurient clamor—beneath all her glam and her false promises, I see her. I see her just as clearly as she sees me. I hike up her fancy dress and underneath it there she is. There’s my Manehattan. No curves; all corners and rough edges. Ugly as all hell. Ugly as sin. I lift up her dress and give her naked flank a hard smack. Let her know who’s in charge tonight.
Uptown belongs to the real criminals. Criminals like Grift and the types that hire stallions like Stephen Scope. Fedora told me Scope has hideouts all over uptown, which means he has connections. Ponies with connections in Manehattan think they’re bucking invincible. Bucking alicorns. They don’t like staying hidden. They like the night life; throwing away money and warming their beds with beautiful mares. If Scope is as uptown as I think he is, then he’s out tonight, and he’s got his lips wrapped tight around Manehattan’s teat, sucking the poor old mule dry.
I make for the Upper East Side. My hook claws into the side of a twenty-story high-rise and I fly higher than I’ve ever flown before. Uptown, the looming edifices are tall. The height is dizzying. I swing. At the top of my arc I chance a downward glance and nearly piss myself. The rush is too much. The right kind of too much. Kind that taps you on the shoulder and lets you know you’re still breathing. If I had some wind to ride I’d really feel alive, but the dumb kids up in the weather factory must have gotten into trouble with their boss for making such a ruckus the past few nights, because tonight’s breeze is a dying breath. As sad as it is shallow. I fly from rooftop to rooftop, looking up at the sky, hoping for Tracy and her gang to kick thunder out of the clouds or whip this miserable little wind into a roaring gust—really get my blood pumping. I get nothing. Guess I’m on my own tonight.
As much as I don’t like the dead air, it sets a nice mood. Tonight I play it the way me and old Storm Chaser played it in that alley around back of The Ringer. Sneaky. Quick and quiet. No loose cannon cowpony shit. Not tonight. Not while I’m uptown. Uptown is full of bright lights and crooked Manehattan cops. Cops on payrolls. Cops with loyalties to more than just the badge and the good citizens of Manehattan. I still crack plenty of skulls, difference is tonight I muffle the noises. Quick and quiet. Tonight it’s my turn to be a water fly. I skirt about the city on spindly legs. Holding up Scope’s picture. Asking questions. Making no ripples. I hit every place I might find a stallion like Scope. I sneak into expensive clubs and high-end strip joints. Luxury hotels. Casinos. I have plenty of fun making wet sounds with lowlifes in empty public restrooms. Feels even better with the batons. They flash their inanimate grins, whistling as they go about their grim work. Grim and gritty and pure, pure bliss.
Downtown was such a chore. For every ass I kicked downtown, I got my own ass kicked twice as hard. Downtown was a dead end job. Long hours. Little pay. Even less respect. But uptown is a paid vacation. The crooks don’t fight back uptown. They roll over on their backs like whimpering whores, their painted lips loose, ready and willing to talk. The high life has made them soft. Squishy. They scare easy. Whimpering painted whores. I throw uptown Manehattan on her back, and her legs quiver as I spread them wide. As I take the little whore any way I like.
And in no time at all I have the poor old mule squealing the name Stephen Scope.
Uptown knows Stephen Scope well. He leaves his hoof prints all over the city's ugly face. I cross paths with his former employers, his patients—and after choking down a few swallows of their own blood, they’re all too willing to feed him to me. I ask where he is and they tell me. They give me an address. An apartment building in the Upper East Side. The Bad Weather Beat. That’s what the cops who make their rounds up east nicknamed it: because when the kids working the fall and winter swing shifts up in the weather factory make their ruckus, the worst of comes down on their beat.
I find the place easy enough. I come down on the roof and start making my way down the fire escape when I realize I have company. A suspicious looking carriage pulls up to the curb. Jet black. Long. Tinted windows. The earth ponies pulling the carriage are four of the largest stallions I've ever seen.
The door slides open and out steps a small stallion wearing a long brown overcoat. Dress shirt. Tie. Black gloves on his forehooves and a wide brimmed hat that hides the horn on his head. He’s smaller than I remember, but I’m sure it’s him: Tiger Voice.
Damn it. Too late.
Tiger Voice is already here, and there are too many of them this time. Damn it. Just the sight of him makes my pulse quicken. My stomach does a backflip. Stop it, Rose, I tell myself just as my hooves start trembling. Remember your training. With some effort I bring my limbs under control, and with a little more I manage to clear my head. Think straight. There are only five of them. Only five and they haven’t seen me yet. I still have surprise working for me. Only five. If I take down Tiger Voice first, I’ll have a chance. He might be the smallest but he’s the only unicorn, and I already know he’s armed. He has that silver revolver tucked in his overcoat. The earth ponies are big, but if they are anything like the one I fought on the roof that night, they’re slow. I’ll have a chance. There are four of them, and they're huge, but if I can take down the unicorn first, I'll have a chance.
Tiger Voice starts talking with one of the stallions. I watch them. Looks like they're waiting for something. I plan it out. Visualize it. One at a time. I breathe deep. Remember my training. Remember the promise I made to my batons last night. The plans we made for the criminals.
Criminals. I hate them. Hate them and fear them. Them and this whole city. But the fear can't stop me anymore. I carry it everywhere I go, but it can't stop me anymore.
I breathe deep. Plan it out.
First: pounce on Tiger Voice. Take his gun.
One of the earth ponies points up toward the building and says something to Tiger Voice in a hushed tone. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I can see his lips moving under the streetlight.
Drop the biggest one next. Buckle his knees. Handicap him. Take him out of the fight and deal with him last.
He’s explaining something. I watch his lips. Read them.
Then attack the smallest. Trachea. Temple. He’ll go down quick. When he falls, stomp the back of his head.
He’s telling Tiger Voice where Scope’s room is. He thinks it’s 113, but I know it’s 110. Three doors away. Good. That will buy me some time.
The last two will be ready for me. They’ll come at me together. No surprises. No tricks. Fight them head on. Use my speed. My weapons.
Tiger Voice sticks his head back into the carriage and shouts something at whoever’s still inside. I’m just about to make my move when I see the first paw touch the sidewalk. Then the smell hits me like a blow. Rotten meat. Sewage. My stomach lurches from the sudden stink. A cold realization takes hold of me; then a raw, potent terror, as pure and putrid as the smell wafting up from the sidewalk. The stink. The fear. They crawl into my nose and settle in my stomach.
I try not to vomit, but it’s too much. The stink. The fear. I try holding it back. Try hard, but it's too much. I lean over the railing of the fire escape and what I cough up is hot and thick. The dogs’ ears perk up at the sound of my retching. Keen noses hone in on the scent of fresh puke as it spills over the rail.
“Up,” one of dogs bellows. Tiger Voice’s eyes crawl up the side of the building. Fix on me. I don’t wait for him to order his dogs to fetch. I make for the roof, panting, shaking, sweating, and stumbling the whole way up.
Buck. Diamond dogs. Buck, buck.
I wasn’t ready for this. For Tiger Voice and his gang, yes, but not this. Diamond dogs. Two of them. Fast. Strong. Stupid. They move on instincts, and their instincts are sharp.
I sprint for the roof’s edge, hook already twirling over my head. Ready to throw. Ready to fly away. The distance between me and the next building shrinks like a deflating balloon. The dogs are right behind me. I hear them snarling at my back. Smell them. I had almost a four story head start, but they’re already right on top of me.
I’m ready to jump when I remember Scope. Stephen Scope in room 110. Tiger Voice and his gang are headed to room 113. He’s got some time, but if I don’t stop them, Scope will die tonight. He’s being chased. Chased by Tiger Voice. By this city. Chasing. Fleeing. Fleeing is the reason Daisy and Lily are dead. The reason I can’t be with Redheart. I was afraid. I let them die because I was afraid, and I can’t let that happen to Scope. Not again. Never again. If I flee now, I will be fleeing for rest of my life. No more fleeing. No more fear. No more.
I shut my eyes and the noose slips easily around Daisy’s neck.
Then I open them. I open them and for the first time since I came to this city, I see the way forward. No more fleeing. I remember that tonight, and every night that comes after, I am chasing.
Before I reach the end of the roof, I skid to hard stop. Pivot on my hind legs. Spin. Let my hook fly. It claws into the shoulder of one of the charging diamond dogs. I give the cord a swift jerk, but his momentum does most of the work for me.
I give the cord a jerk, and he’s charging too hard and too fast, and the distance between him and the edge of the roof shrinks like a deflating balloon. When all of the air escapes the balloon, his body folds against the wall of the adjacent building. He tumbles. Bounces between the alley walls. It’s an ugly fall. All corners and rough edges the whole way down. When my ears catch the jarring, wet smacking that springs up from the sidewalk a moment later, I know the hound is gone. Just another blemish on this city's already hideous face.
The remaining dog pounces on me; and If I cried out as he sank his teeth into my foreleg I didn’t hear it. I kick in his eye with my free front hoof. He stumbles backward. Clutches his face. I scramble back to my hooves and draw one of my batons from the holster on my haunch. She’s cold and solid in my mouth, just like I remember, and when I bury her deep in the diamond dog’s gut, she flashes her inanimate grin. He doesn't go down on the first hit. I don’t expect him to.
While we circle each other I somehow manage to keep my hooves from shaking as I plan my next move. Then he takes a swipe at me with an open paw. Misses. Tries again with a closed fist that fits snuggly in the space right between my eyes. Sends me reeling. Staggering backwards on unsteady legs. He rushes. I'm off balance but before the dog can land his next blow, I counter. My baton comes down on his kneecap, buckling him momentarily. The next blow finds his chin; the one after that his wet nose; and the one after that his groin. Still, he doesn't go down. I bury the blunt blade in his chest. It's a solid hit. The kind that dives into your torso and rattles all the way up to your teeth. He gasps. Falls.
From there the work is grim. Grisly. Fun. He's tough. Too tough for his own good. It takes a lot of hits to put him down, and a lot more to keep him down. My baton smiles her inanimate grin, whistling a jaunty melody as we beat him into submission. The sounds are wet. He whines. I try not to enjoy it too much. I don’t kill him, but tomorrow morning when he wakes up his body will hurt all over and he’ll wish I had.
When the work is done my hooves are trembling again and my heart is pounding. I tear off the sleeve of my sweatshirt and use it to bind the wound on my foreleg. It doesn’t help much.
Four stories below, Tiger Voice and his gang are likely kicking in the door to room 110. If they started with 113 I may still have some time before—
—A sound catches my ear. Shouting. Struggling. I peek over the edge of the roof and spot Tiger Voice making his way out of the complex. Scope is floating a few inches above his head, thrashing as if struggling against some invisible restraint. Thrashing and bathed in light. Light from Tiger Voice’s horn.
No. Damn it. Damn it!
By the time I realize my grappling hook is on the sidewalk—still lodged into whatever is left of the diamond dog—Tiger Voice is already shoving Scope inside of the long black carriage.
The door shuts behind the unicorn and his prisoner.
I back to the opposite end of the rooftop, giving myself a running start.
My ears catch the first hoof-falls of the four stallions as they pull away from the curb.
Scope screams, and the carriage rumbles forward, and with nothing twirling above my head, I make a dash for the edge of the building. There’s no more time for thinking. No time and no need. I let the instincts take over. I let out the scared hungry animal whose eyes stared back at me from the front page of the Manehattan Post. I pull the bars apart with my bare hooves. She's been waiting. Chomping at the bit, and she can't wait another second longer.
I dash. Leap. My forelegs come down on the neck of a streetlight and are already in the air by the time my back legs catch up. The neck is thin. The margin for error astronomically small. It takes balance and timing and dexterity, and I accomplish all three in one swift motion. Swifter than a wind. When my back legs catch up I kick off the streetlight’s neck and fly. It’s impossible. Like leaping blind off a mountainside and landing on the head of a pin. Impossible, but I manage it in one swift move. I was born an earth pony but tonight I am an alicorn. There is nothing I cannot do.
My hooves come down on the ceiling of the carriage. Two of the stallions pulling it look back at me, eyes wide with disbelief, while the two out front focus on the road. They sprint into oncoming traffic. Dodging and weaving and forcing other drivers off the road.
I don’t waste any time. No thinking. No need. I make a dive for one of the leading stallions. My front hooves come down on the back of his head. It’s a hard blow. World shattering. But as hard as it is, it doesn't put him to sleep. He’s still conscious as the two of us tumble to the ground and are trampled under the rushing hooves of the pony immediately behind. I hear the both of them scream as our limbs tangle and we roll underneath the carriage. It’s loud. The wails melt together into one horrible uniform cry—and for one eternal instant, they scream in my ears and it is the worst sound I’ve ever heard a living thing make. Then the front wheel of the carriage rolls over one of their windpipes, crushing it, cutting the sound in half. The cart skips. I tumble. Somehow the front wheel misses me. Then the back wheel rolls over my torso and the world turns white. A bomb denotes in my lower back. I feel an earsplitting scream tear out of my throat, but I don't hear it over roar of twisting metal and splintering wood and the other agonized voices.
I go blind. Something hard tries to crack my head open, and then something else splashes in my face, and then there isn't anything. Nothing at all. The next few seconds of my life tick away without me.
When the world comes spinning back everything is still white. It takes a while for the colors, and the shapes, and the dimensions, and the textures to catch up.
The textures come first. I’m lying on something hard, warm, slick. A bloody Manehattan street.
Next the shapes arrive. I make out the form of a limp body sprawled on the street a few feet from me. A few yards ahead I see a second body, and a few yards ahead of that, a crumbled heap of something vaguely rectangular that must be Tiger Voice's getaway carriage.
I’m on my hooves and sprinting toward the carriage before the dimensions find their way back. At first it’s like I’m running in place. My legs charge forward and my hooves clop against the street, but the carriage doesn't get any closer. Then the dimensions appear, and I skid to a hasty stop before almost running smack into the carriage. The carriage is upside down, lying on its head, and as I slide the door open the colors come rushing back in waves.
Tiger Voice is ready for me. We are inches apart. His gun barks. The muzzle flashes. Smokes. We are inches apart when he fires but he’s too slow. He misses by a blink. It's impossible. When we first met, Tiger Voice put a slug in my gut that nearly ended me. On that night he was shooting at earth pony, but tonight his gun barks at an alicorn and he misses by a blink. It's impossible, but tonight the impossible is just another trick up my sleeve. Tonight there is nothing I can’t do.
Before he can fire again my front hoof lands on his chin. Breaks his concentration. The wisp of magic that was holding the revolver disappears and his weapon falls to the floor. I kick it way. He roars. His horn sparks again just as I pull him out of the carriage and slam him head first into Manehattan’s ugly face. Their lips meet. It’s a gritty, bloody kiss they share. Then they share many more kisses, each one rougher and sloppier than the one before. I stomp Tiger Voice’s lower back. His pelvis trusts into the city. They grow more intimate. More passionate. I stomp, and slam, and stomp, and stomp, and slam. He groans and so does she as I pummel him into the pavement, pushing him deeper and deeper into Manehattan’s assuaging embrace. I push, and stomp, and slam, and leap onto his back—and their mouths come together, and his bloody tongue slips past her lips, and his broken pelvis thrusts, and when Tiger Voice finally passes out from the strain of his lovemaking the two of them have become one.
It’s beautiful, really. They belong together. This city and her criminal.
I step over what’s left of Tiger Voice and crawl into the back seat of the long carriage in search of Scope. When I find him he’s unconscious. Knocked out but still breathing. I drag him from the wreckage and prop him upright against the overturned vehicle while I take a moment to catch my breath. Figure out my next move.
His eyes flutter open just as delicately as his haunches and hindquarters curve. He looks up at me. The eyes behind his glasses are soft and scared. He is beautiful. Maybe it’s just his feminine features that I’m attracted to, but I can’t help noticing how beautiful Stephen Scope is. I watch as he tries to blink the haziness out of his eyes, the way a mother watches her newborn baby colt as he wakes from a nap. Then a smile wanders into his bruised cheeks. It’s a lazy smile. The type Redheart used to make on those nights when she’d come home drunk.
“You came for me,” he says, staring at me. Poor bastard. Must be in shock. “You came, I knew you would.”
“Yeah, I did. Now come on we need to get you out of here.”
“You came. Please help me. Filthy's thugs are after me. You have to help me.”
He’s rambling. Must be in shock. I’m just about to pick him up and get him off the street, when I notice he’s not staring at me. He’s staring past me. Over my shoulder. And whatever he’s staring at, he’s seen it before.
Then the city laughs. Right in my ear. Right over my shoulder.
I turn around and freeze, still as a corpse. There is a nightmare standing behind me. My nightmare. A featureless white face. Cherry-red lips. No eyes. No ears. No nose. Nothing but a red mouth.
The mouth twists itself into a smile. No…A frown?
Just as my hooves begin trembling, something solid and flat rakes the back of my head. A star dies behind my eyes and I see colors that don’t exist. I fall into them. Then into blackness.
The last thing I hear before the noose slips around Daisy’s neck is the city’s laughter. Hot. Haughty. Then the noose tightens. The life is draining from Daisy's eyes. Before the life drains completely, she looks at me. Looks at me and then dies.
Lily screams but I don't wake up. Something is wrong. Lily always wakes me up. She screams long and loud. Then another sound bleeds into the scream, growing louder as Lily's voice shrinks into a distant echo. Laughter. Not hot and haughty like the city's, but low and rumbling and mad.
When I wake, I wake with a start. Daylight is shining in through an open window. The floor beneath me is stiff. No. Not the floor. A mattress. My mattress. I'm home.
I sit up. Head feels heavy. Whole body. Something is wrong but I'm too tired and too sore to give it much thought. I sit up. Look around the room and spot something that shouldn't be there. A piece of paper taped to my closet door. Reluctantly, I walk over to the closet and pull off the piece of paper with tentative hooves.
It's a note. The words are large. Red. Sloppy.
I turn the paper over.
I open the door. My hooves start trembling. I thought I was finally past the fear. Thought I had finally beaten it when I beat Tiger Voice, but it slithers back into my limbs and makes them shake. If not for my empty stomach, I'd be vomiting.
I open the door and Stephen Scope falls out of my closet, barely making a sound as he comes to rest on the carpet. His throat cut. His soft, scared, beautiful eyes still open.
No. Before another thought pops into my head, I hear a knock at the front door.
"Police! Open up! We know you're in there!"