Chapter I: Noose Without a Hangmare
I shut my eyes and the noose slips around Daisy's neck.
She is lying on her stomach, and the noose slips easily around her neck as if it were made just for her. It is the color of sand and the contrast it creates against Daisy's velveteen purple coat is striking. The life is draining out of her eyes. There is a hoof on her back, and she is lying on her stomach, and the life is draining out of her eyes. In a few moments she will be dead. Lily will die next if I do not open my eyes soon. This is what I see whenever they are closed. There's a projector in my head that plays the scene over and over and over.
When I open my eyes the city greets me with the familiar sound of ambulance sirens and thundering hooves racing down poorly maintained streets under the vigilant gaze of Luna’s full moon. Fleeing. Chasing. That's all this city is. Just fleeing and chasing. Tonight I am chasing.
From the roof of my brownstone downtown Manehattan looks like an affront on Celestia's green earth. Less a city and more a declaration of war on all things natural. I've heard it called the "concrete jungle" but the metaphor does wildlife a disservice. The city is nothing but miserable urban sprawl. It stands as a testament to squandered pony potential: seeds of avarice, lust, and pride sewn in barren land, and from them sprout the looming edifices of stone, iron, brick, mortar, concrete, stainless steel, and glass. Great sheets of crystalline glass. Dilapidation has rotted most of this city to the bone, but the windows are always kept clean. They sparkle when shattered.
A harsh laughter plays games in my ears as Manehattan watches me up on the roof of my brownstone. Watches my hooves tremble like the coward she knows I am. She is a living thing, this city, and tonight there is a smile on her lips because she knows I am afraid of her. She’s laughing. Hot and haughty. I let her enjoy it. Let her have her fun.
A breeze nudges the hook dangling from a length of cord tied around my midsection. Metal brushes against fur, reminding me where I am and where I’ve been and why I’m doing what I’m doing. I take a deep breath. Remember my training. Remember that tonight I am chasing. I back to the roof’s edge, making sure to give myself enough room for a running start.
I back to roof’s edge and listen. Listen to the laughter playing its games in my ears and the bustling carriages and the countless shuffling hooves on the sidewalk below. The night sounds. The city’s pulse. Her heartbeat.
Then I take the hook-tipped length of cord in my mouth and begin twirling it above my head. My legs come alive. My whole body. I hurl myself forward. Sprinting. I Charge forward on uneasy legs at first, but about halfway across the rooftop I find my stride. The space that separates me from the edge of the building shrinks like a deflating balloon. I sprint. When all of the air in the balloon escapes, I leap, throwing myself and my hook forward with every ounce of strength I can muster.
The brownstone becomes a memory.
The sidewalk recedes.
The city shrinks and so does her laughter.
I sprint. Leap. Throw.
I was born an earth pony but tonight I fly like a pegasus.
My hook finds the edge of the adjacent building and holds fast, like a swooping owl clawing into its prey. The first swing is terrifying. The cold air combs through the rose colored mane on my head for which I am named, and despite all my equipment---the grappling hook, the Kevlar vest, the boots, the pair of batons on my hip---I feel naked. Exposed. For a second I close my eyes and the noose slips easily around Daisy's neck. The life begins draining from her eyes just as I open my mine and land safely atop another brownstone. I come down running, pulling the cord behind me as I go. Not slowing down. Faster. Faster. The speed again reminds me that tonight I am chasing. The buildings downtown are practically leaning on each other. The next few rooftops I clear in easy bounds.
Despite my fear of this city, I allow a smile to grace my lips as I gallivant upon her. She’s ugly. All corners and rough edges. All of it slowly falling to ruin. But the many blemishes on her face make her easy to climb. Fun. I swing from her. Trample her. I am a child and she is my playground. This is the closest, I fear, we will ever come to love.
For a long time the city is quiet, and I begin to worry I am perhaps only chasing ghosts. At first I'm upset. Then relieved. I tell myself it is better I not find what I am looking for. Not catch what I am chasing. It will solve nothing. Change nothing. There will always be fleeing and chasing. What can one pony with a Kevlar vest and some cord do to change all that?
I've almost convinced myself that it has been enough to fly---that I should go back to my brownstone and curl up on the stiff mattress waiting for me there---when suddenly something catches the corner of my eye. On the roof of an apartment complex across the street, I make out the shape of four ponies moving toward the roof's edge. I move to investigate and already my pulse is starting to quicken.
Three of the ponies, all of them earth stallions, have the fourth surrounded, cornering her so that her back is digging into the short wall that separates the edge of the roof from the sidewalk four stories below. One of the three stallions is especially aggressive. He trusts a threatening hoof into the filly's chest. She shrugs. Sinks deeper into the short wall. Her gesture is meant to be disarming. Submissive. A plea for negotiation. The filly says something but I’m too far away to hear it clearly, and it’s too dark to read her lips. She says something else. Then the smallest of the stallions raises one of his front hooves, and the aggressive one backs off a bit.
As the scene plays out before me, I notice how they regard each other with familiarity. Without hearing a word of the conversation, it’s obvious they all know each other. This is no random shakedown. They've done this before. Good. That means I have a little time.
I sneak up on them using the fire escape on the opposite side of the building. It’s not until I hear their voices coming in clearly that I realize just how close I am to the action.
"…Would you just listen for one second," the filly pleads. Upon hearing her voice I realize that she is actually a stallion too. He has a dainty feminine frame and his haunches and hindquarters curve like a mare's. "I got the bits okay. I just don't got them with me is all." Despite his brave face, I hear a pang of fear ringing true in his voice.
"Don't play games with me, Doc," says the smallest stallion. His voice is a tiger's growl billowing out of a house cat. "I know all about the job you did for that psychopath back in Fillydelphia. Heard you patched her up real good too. Heard she paid you a pretty bit for your services. You owe me a pretty bit, Doc. Lots of pretty bits."
"I already told you I got the money but it’s back home in Filly. I got busted and had to leave it with a guy, an old patient, when I made a run for it." This upsets the small stallion with the tiger's voice. The aggressive thug grabs the feminine stallion by the collar with both hooves, shoving him so that his whole upper body is leaning over the side of the short wall.
If I'm going to make a move at all I ought to make it now, but my legs are trembling so hard I’m scared I might fall off the ladder. I duck my head down suddenly for fear of being seen and stare at the wall through the rungs. What am I thinking? I could go now. Leave this ‘Doc’ character to a fate he probably deserves. From the sound of his talk he’s likely a criminal too.
Criminals. I hate criminals. I'm afraid of them. Afraid of this whole city.
"Wait! Wait!" I hear the feminine stallion scream, the panic dense in his voice. "If you waste me she'll find out! I'm working with her now. You hurt me and she'll come after you."
"You threatening me, Doc?" The tiger's growl becomes a roar.
I try to bring my limbs under control, stop them from shaking, but I can't. My stomach lurches. Heaves. I want to cry. I shut my eyes.
I shut my eyes and the noose slips easily around Daisy's neck. It is the color of sand and the contrast it creates against Daisy's velveteen purple coat is striking.
I'm up the ladder before the noose begins to tighten. Eyes wide. Focused.
I was born an earth pony but tonight I materialize upon the roof as if by magic and charge headlong into the aggressive stallion. He shouts. A mixture of agony and surprise bubbles up out of his throat as the crown of my head sinks into his soft midsection. He shouts. Tumbles over the edge, threatening to take the feminine stallion with him, but I catch the doc's tail in my mouth and manage to pull him back to safety with one swift yank. My own strength surprises me. It’s good to know I haven’t been training all this time in vain.
The aggressive stallion is aggressive no more. He’s little more than a mangled red stain on the concrete now. Another blemish on the city's already hideous face.
I wheel around, baton already in mouth, and smash the face of the other goon. He's sturdy. Doesn't go down. Sturdy but slow. He tries to retaliate, kicking at me with his forelegs, but I sidestep him easily and strike his trachea. Now he falls. Then something sharp sticks me from behind. It doesn't hurt all that much, but it staggers me for a second and that's all the time the thug needs to kick my legs out from underneath me. Then all of a sudden he is on top of me, and he is heavy, and his front hooves are coming down on my face. Hoof meets head, then head meets cement. Sparks flicker behind my eyes. For a few uncomfortable seconds I am a heated piece of iron being forged into a sword, my imperfections hammered out between mallet and anvil.
My head spins.
My senses dull. Dull. Dull. Then a splash of rusty iron fills my mouth, travels down my throat, and all at once the lights come back on. When his hoof comes down again I catch it with my forelegs.
I was born an earth pony and tonight I buck like one. My hind leg finds the thug's groin. The blow doubles him over. Folds him in half. He falls. I scramble back to my hooves and stomp the back of his head, knocking him out cold.
With my head still spinning, I look around for the doc and the pony with the tiger's voice. The doc is gone but I spot the last of the thugs running along rooftops, already two buildings away. I try to convince myself that I've done enough for tonight. I put my training to good use. Flew. Saved a pony's life. I should go home now. I should go but something inside me pushes my hooves forward. The chase. That must be it. I remember that tonight I am chasing.
My heart is in my throat, pulsing violently against my voice box, and wild reckless adrenaline is leaking out of my ears as I dash after the pony with the tiger's voice. He’s fast but he’s a stranger to my playground. The blemishes on her ugly face trip him up but only hasten my advance.
Our game of fleeing and chasing leads us several stories up. Downtown Manehattan seems to stretch on forever, her buildings as numerous as trees in a forest. He grows bolder. Climbs higher.
Lands on the steps of a fire escape.
I do the same, but faster. By the time he ascends the fire escape to the rooftop, I’m right on top of him. But this rooftop is small. He covers the distance quickly and leaps again. Lands. It's a long jump but he makes it.
My hind legs kick off the edge and by the time I see it, it's already too late. A flash silver light cuts a swath across the night, illuminating the small stallion's face. His hat floats off of his head revealing a small spiraled horn.
Shit. A unicorn. I bucking hate unicorns.
It happens in less than a second but the details are so rich I will be able to recall this moment for the rest of my life.
The unicorn's coat opens and out floats a silver revolver. A ghostly silver revolver. Hauntingly bright in the darkness. Hanging in the open air. Gripped and wielded and ordered to kill by intangible forces. By things as fragile as white light and thoughts.
The gun fires four times. The sound is world shattering. Three of the rounds hit me. Only one is stopped by the Kevlar. Another rips through my right foreleg a little above the elbow, and the worst of them buries itself in my soft underbelly.
If I cried out as I fell into the alley between the pair of buildings, I didn't hear it. It's an ugly fall. All corners and rough edges the whole way down. During my tumble I grasp at a clothesline and though I can't quite get a hold of it, it slows my fall considerably and is likely the reason I am still alive. My back meets the lid of a sturdy dumpster and the two of them become very well acquainted. I feel whatever stabbed me earlier jab itself deep into my lower back. Air flees from my body. My chest flutters. Blood sputters from my lips. I forget how to breathe. My eyelids become lead weights. I try to keep them open but they are falling...
The noose slips easily around Daisy's neck.
My eyes snap open. Try to sit up. Focus. Remember your training, I whisper aloud to myself before taking a moment to assess the damage. Bullet in the gut. Something lodged in my lower back. The something that stabbed me earlier. A knife. Must be knife.
I try to roll off the dumpster lid and onto the sidewalk but the task is beyond me. When I fail to roll off the dumpster, I reach across my body for the boot on my left hind hoof. There is a cell-phone in the boot on my left hind hoof, and if I can reach it I might not die tonight. The effort it takes is enormous. As I reach across my stomach, I see the bullet hole in my gut and my body stiffens. Flash freezes. I'm scared. I hear the city laugh at me. I'm scared, but if I start shaking now I will die for sure. I strain to reach the boot. Grit my teeth, shut my eyes and remember a time when I was more frightened than I am now. The memory gives me the strength I need.
I flip the phone open and dial just one key on the pad. I have a friend who has agreed to help me out tonight should I need it, and I definitely do. She’s on speed dial. I put the phone to me ear and it is ringing.
The phone rings once.
A child is born. A filly. A pegasus. Her skin is soft and the feathers in her wings are light and delicate. A loving mother cradles the baby in her forelegs for the first time. She is beautiful. They are happy together.
The phone rings a second time.
The filly grows into a lovely young mare. She finishes school. It is a low-income school in one of the worst neighborhoods in Manehattan, but she finishes at top of her class. She gains admission to several prestigious universities. Colleges in Ponyville. Canterlot. Her future is bright.
The phone rings a third time.
Her mother falls ill. Medical bills are high. School is expensive. She takes time away from school to work so that she can take care of her loving mother. Her mother pleads with her to reconsider. She does not wish for her daughter to throw away her bright future for the sake of a dying old mare. The daughter refuses. Eventually it gets to be too much and she drops out. Works full time.
The phone rings a fourth time.
The treatments are expensive. Work is difficult to find. She turns to stripping. Prostitution. Still it is not enough. Her once soft skin has aged and her light delicate wings have dulled. During her work in the streets she acquires a drug habit that spells the end for her. Her mother dies alone in a hospital bed and she under a freeway overpass. When her body is discovered a week later the doctors will say it is just another overdose and put her with the others.
A lifetime. A long, sad, lonely Manehattan lifetime begins and ends in the space of those four rings. At least that's what it feels like as I lie on the lid of random dumpster in a random alleyway. Bleeding out. Waiting for Redheart to pick up the phone.
I lie. Bleed. Wait. When the call goes to voicemail, I scream out loud. Dial again. This time she answers on the first ring.
"Rose?" The phone is cheap and the signal is shit. I can barely hear her. "Rose, is that you?"
"I need…a pick up," I manage to say without gagging. The sound of my own voice scares me. I sound like somepony who's about to die.
"Where are you?" The nervousness in her voice makes me tremble. I look down the alley and hope to see a street sign from where I'm lying. I don't.
"I don't know," I hear myself say, sounding surprisingly calm. Perhaps I have given up.
Remember your training, I tell myself. I take in my surroundings. Look for something that will give me a clue as to where I am.
Then the clothesline saves me again. Hanging from it are three hideously worn out, plain looking white collared shirts with holes cut into them for pegasus wings. A standard weather factory worker's uniform. This bit of information is useless, except hanging beside the shirts is a red and white baseball cap with a powder blue brim. I recognize the hat. The shirts and hat belong to a young freelance reporter who supplements her income by working part-time at the weather factory that floats above Manehattan's upper east side. Her name is Tracy Flash and she has a bright smile befitting her namesake. I only met her for a brief moment when I first moved here from Ponyville, but I remember her complaining about how her mother insisted on washing her hat and then hanging it on the clothesline. It is her favorite hat and she is worried somepony might steal it.
"You're new here," she told me when I first met her in a line at an unemployment office on the upper east side, "so if you ever need a friend call me." Then she gave me a slip of paper with a phone number and an address scribbled on it. I don't know the number by heart, but I know she lives on 1st and 18th. I know where I am. Someday I'll have to thank Tracy for saving my life.
"…1st and 18th," I mumble into the receiver.
"You're sure?" asks Redheart.
"Yeah. And please hurry. I'm...bleeding all over myself. Starting to feel dizzy too," I say with a self-conscious, almost embarrassed laugh. Redheart mumbles something into the receiver about coming to get me. I don’t hear it. Nor do I hear the sound of the phone breaking against the concrete after it drops from between hooves made clumsy by pain, fatigue, and a fresh slick scarlet coating.
Blood loss makes my eyelids heavy. I fight to keep them open, not wanting to relive the nightmare. I have endured it dozens of times, but it never becomes any less real. If I can just hold out until Redheart gets here. If I can just…
…My eyes shut and the noose slips easily around Daisy's neck as if it were made special. Made just for her. It is the color of sand and the contrast it creates against Daisy's velveteen purple coat is striking. The life is draining out of her eyes. There is a hoof on her back, and she is lying on her stomach, and her legs are flailing uselessly, and the life is draining out of her eyes. Before it is wrung out completely, Daisy looks at me. Into me. Our eyes meet just as hers are becoming glass, and we are so close that I see myself in them, the reflection of my visage pale with unknowable terror. Trapped. Forever locked away behind a pair of perfect spring green mirrors.
If I do not open my eyes soon, Lily will die next.