Worth Fighting For
by J. Blaine http://www.timesend.addr.com/SFVSKOF/
course of one's life, one never stops learning. Life's lessons come to us day-by-day. Many
of the important lessons come to us when we are younger, but as we grow older, it is
amazing to find how much we do not know)
(about the world,)
(and about ourselves.)
(Life has been compared to many things. To some, it is a flow.)
(To others, a circle.)
(But I find the most proper allegory compares life to a dance.)
('Life is a dance. You learn as you go.')
(...You learn as you go.)
Muscles straining, abdomen tensing, diaphragm cutting her chest with daggers of sharp hot pain, Cammy grits her teeth and pulls herself up one more time. Her legs, hooked over a parallel bar, support her body as she struggles upward against her own weight, the pull of gravity, and the weight of the two-hundred pound bar she's holding behind her neck. Her breath rips out of her chest and whistles between her teeth. Sweat rolls down her chin, into her eyes, into her hair. Finally, her enhanced physical strength wins out, and she completes the hanging, vertical sit-up. "Sixty!"
(The girl doing the sit-ups is me. I am Cammy White. Still here after all that's happened. Amazing, isn't it? If life is a dance, for the longest time, I was doing a death-waltz. That's all behind me now. Well, except for getting up at the crack of dawn and training until it hurts. You can take the girl out of the military, but you can't never-mind.)
Cammy slowly returns to the hanging position, and lets her limbs slowly uncurl until the iron bar in her hands touches down gently on the hardwood floor. She lets it go very slowly, ever-so-careful not to nick the wood's glassy, reflective finish. With her burden released, she hangs suspended for a moment, looking up at the ceiling. With an adept thrust, she throws her legs off of the bar and lets them haul her head and shoulders upright as gravity pulls her down. Her feet hit the floor solidly, and she lands in a crouch.
(I left the military officially. Simply put, I had had enough. Shadaloo, Delta Red, Street Fighting? I'd experienced all three before I'd even turned eighteen. Shadaloo was the biggest part of my decision to leave all that. It was enough to continue fighting until Shadaloo fell, but once it did, it seemed like a part of me fell, too. The violent, bad part of me, the one that fights, the one that kills? I let it sink into the abyss.)
Cammy steps into the bathroom and hits the switch, flooding the light-blue tiled room with 75 watts of artificial white. She turns the knobs in the shower stall, and soon the lavatory is filled with steam, rising up from the floor of the shower in curling mounds. She slips into the shower and lets the water wash away her sweat. The beating of the spray sends pulses of heat into her throbbing joints and sore muscles, alleviating her pain. She sighs.
(Still, leaving the military isn't the same as leaving it behind. Because of my involvement with Shadaloo, the things that I know, and the things that were done to me means the military will always be a part of my life, even if I refuse active duty. I survive these days on 'military pension', which is an official term, but not at all true. I am being paid to keep my mouth shut about Shadaloo. I'm a walking top secret file, and a lot of what went on in Shadaloo is classified, for military eyes only. I don't understand why they still obsess over it. If I didn't exist, Shadaloo would seem like nothing more than a bad dream.)
Her mental clock still ticks as precisely as it did when her brain was being patched into the Shadaloo mainframe. She knows it is exactly 6:02 AM, December the twenty-fourth. Christmas Eve. The sun has just barely begun to make itself known. Filtered by an overcast horizon, It casts dull blue-gray rays over London. In exactly twenty-two minutes, she would be able to see the first orange rays slipping through a break in the clouds, and below her third-story window she would begin to hear the sounds of cars honking and people shouting to one another on the streets as they leave for work.
(There are other ways that the military has a hold on me. Like the changing of my name, or how I wear concealing makeup to hide my scar and special lenses that change the color of my eyes. There's also the locked-up chest in my closet, containing my Delta Red gear, my service piece, several detonating charges, a military surveillance camera, and a few other choice accouterments.)
The knobs squeak as she turns them once more, and the water flowing from the shower head dies to a drizzle, degenerates into a steady trickle, and then settles on a slow drip. She pauses, admiring the sleek curves of her body in a long mirror. The tenseness of the muscles in her thighs give them the seeming of possible eruption. The lines of muscle flow up from her belly to the curve of her breasts. After a moment of studying her features to make sure they are all still hers, she begins to towel off.
(It's an interesting charade for now, I suppose living this other life here in London, at least until they are satisfied that all investigations have been closed. It gives me time to cool off, re-adjust, and learn new things about myself. Christmas is almost here, and I find myself wanting to go out for the first time in years. Life brings me something new. It's a dance. You learn as you go. I'm going.)
Cammy stands in front of the sink, peering into the vanity mirror. Using a beige circle-pad, she begins to apply concealer to the left side of her face.
(Maybe there's something out there for me. Maybe I'll learn something new.)
Worth Fighting For
Withers' morning walk saw her winding dazedly through the milling crowds, moving past
people at a pace that was very close to running but not quite. The crowds didn't notice
her, but she noticed them even less. She noticed the whole world even less than it
paid notice to her, and so it seemed that her procession was thoughtless and random.
That was not so. Her eyes, glazed and withdrawn, were nevertheless viewing the street ahead and relaying the information to her brain. Her brain was plotting a course without her even realizing it, and her legs worked each step on their own, moving as involuntarily as her heartbeat. She was on what can only be compared to functional autopilot. Though she was not mentally commanding every nuance of her body's movement down the street, she was not in a stupor.
If one were to notice Amanda Withers, they would see her jagging and weaving in and out of the lanes of people on the walk, and they would think at first that she was striking in a pitiful way. They would see her wearing a concealing brown longcoat over what they would assume is a very lithe, beautiful physique, and they would see the green bow tying her long blonde hair in three places as it made its way down her back, ending at her backside. They would think at first that if she really tried, she would have her pick of any Tom in the alley.
The next thing they would notice is her haphazard stride, quick, but somehow lost, and they would see that glazed, dull stare in her eyes, and they would assume she was a junkie, or an overworked employee late one too many times. They would feel concerned when they see her approach an intersection without slowing down. They would assume she doesn't see the crossing light in its imperative command to halt, and as the viewer continues to watch helplessly, they would doubt what their eyes are soon to witness.
Because at this point they would witness her take the entire crosswalk in two amazing, low-flying leaps that can be described as nothing less than Olympic. The first leap would see her sail past the front of an oncoming car that doesn't even bother to slow; her foot touching down on the center line, her body tensing. The second leap would carry her the rest of the way, and this time an approaching car would blow its horn at her as she landed safely on the sidewalk, and she wouldn't pay the irate driver any attention. She would disappear into the crowd, leaving the watcher questioning the existence of what they just saw.
before Amanda Withers like a picture of gothic times, Trafalgar Square worked a kind of
magic over her that was piercing and powerful. It captured her mind so much that she
paused, and her eyes lost their bewilderment, and her actions became directly her own
once more. The old stone buildings lining the square bore the earmarks of architecture
from medieval times. The National Gallery, and many other structures on the square stood
with huge stone awnings supported by flying buttresses, giving them a feeling of important
brooding and age.
The square was fairly crowded, but it would be positively choked with people by noon. There would be tourists, of course, as well as a fair number of locals. Some would come here and visit the crypt café of the ancient cathedral Saint Martins-in-the-Fields, which sits in the square like a watchful old matron, presiding over the here-and-now with an enchanting toll from its tower bell. Others would visit the National Gallery to see exhibits by everyone from Michelangelo to Monet.
Some of the more courageous visitors would purchase feed from vendors, and would be subsequently mobbed by the numerous pigeon-inhabitants of this place. Many would be here to see Nelson's Column, rising above the whole scene, standing at the Square's center like a beacon, the star of the show, the focal point of the famous locale. But none of these things are the real attraction in Trafalgar Square.
During the Christmas season, all these things stand aside for the seventy-five foot tall Norwegian Spruce stationed to the side of the central monument, sharing Nelson's spotlight while the dazzling Christmas lights wrapped around its towering trunk cast down a spotlight of its own.
Looking up at the tree, Amanda Withers is taken years back through time, to a Christmas past, to a life when her name was Cammy White and her eyes were blue, not brown. For a woman who had her childhood stolen from her, she finds her heart beating fast at the remembrance of youth. The last time she had stood and stared up at the tree, it was night and the lights on the tree were resplendent and golden, and reflecting on the waters of the fountains to either side of it. It was cold that night, and despite the frigidity she could imagine the warmth radiating from the glowing tree so profoundly that she could almost feel it, and she did not shiver once.
Cammy White turns away from the tree, hardly aware of the tears brimming on her eyes. The heels of her boots click loudly on the tan and brown tiles of the promenade overlooking the square as she moves on. Little children dart about the path ahead of her, scattering pigeons and racing around the stone bollards that separate the street from the walkway, ignorant of how little time is afforded to youth.
She diverts her eyes from them and continues on to the bus stop to wait for a double-decker to take her to her next destination. In her apartment there would be no Christmas tree, nor any stockings, but she would buy herself a bauble or a special-nothing, and she would celebrate the Holiday unprofessionally and for the first time that she can remember.
The red bus rolls slowly by, and she can see the words KNIGHT, QUEEN, and KING spelled out on its side in bold white letters. She steps up into the stairwell in the rear of the carriage and climbs aboard, absently paying a conductor three pounds for her ticket to Oxford Street.
Occupant of a
cramped standing space where a fat man was blocking one window and a tall kid with a
skinny girlfriend stood against another, Cammy noticed almost none of the décor plastered
up and down Regent Street. Daylight contributed to a lack of majesty in the elaborate
lights strung on street signs and buildings up and down the boulevard. Lights are not the
only holiday enhancements on Regent Street. Given chance to see past one of the
window-obscuring bodies, Cammy would probably have noticed garlands and balloons floating
over milling pedestrians. She was entirely unable to see the trademark flying lights over
Regent Street, done up in crowns with the logo of Yves Saint Laurent hanging below them.
She did not count these things as a loss. Oxford Street was her destination, and she would have plenty of time to enjoy the ornamental transformation of the many plazas there. When her stop came, the bus slowed with a hiss from its hydraulic pistons and then ceased motion. Passengers began to file out in orderly rows, and Cammy followed them, skipping the last step thoughtlessly.
Oxford was positively choked with late Christmas Eve shoppers. Nevertheless, her stroll down the street was pleasant, and to the gratitude of whatever prying eyes might be following her here, she did not go about on autopilot though her eyes were generally here-and-there, more than straight ahead nor did she cross streets that came to her in incredible jumps. Instead, she crossed them with groups of pedestrians when it was time for cars to yield and bodies to cross.
She found herself window-shopping as much as drinking in the holiday decorations. She passed many stores geared towards women, giving them only a perfunctory once-over with her eyes, foregoing visits to prestigious establishments like BHS and Clark's to pause and peer into the window of the Gadget Shop on the corner. Amongst soda cans dancing to the sound of popular music, mechanical dogs chasing mechanical cats chasing mechanical birds, and wire snakes climbing magnetic poles, she found a kind of fascination that was both grim and childlike. The doodads, doing their tricks mindlessly, held a certain kinship with her.
Then her eyes met a display farther back into the store, marked NEW & AMAZING, and for a long while, she found herself unable to tear away the grip her eyes locked onto what was laid out there. ADVANCED DOLL, LOOKS AND FEELS REAL. Unaware of how close she had gotten to the glass, Cammy reached up and wiped the fog of her breath from the window with a cuff. The doll had crisp blue eyes, and it stared up at her with a vacant smile, blonde braids hanging over one shoulder, head canted slightly to the right in a questioning manner.
Cars whooshed by on the street behind her, and people passing to-and-fro gave her sidelong glances. Some gave her a wider berth than others. Finally, a hand settled on her shoulder, and she came out of her deep study of the display with a jolt.
"My apologies!" The clerk said, backing away with his hands up. "I'm an employee of the store, and my manager bid me welcome you inside. It's cold out here, miss."
Cammy looked up at him, and her vacant expression faded, much to the clerk's relief. "No, I'll," she gave a glance back at the display, turned her head back to him. "I'll be moving on. Good day."
"Good day to you, miss! Merry Christmas!" The clerk smiled, and watched her cross Holles Street. He stood there for several moments, watching her disappear down Oxford's expanse, melding into a sea of bodies.
Cammy's procession brought her alongside the immense John Lewis department store, and she casually watched the windows to her right as she moved. Closer to the doors she could hear the familiar tune of Deck the Halls coming from overhead speakers that usually inundated shoppers with muzak.
It was passing the entrance of John Lewis that she first noticed the swift girl darting through the crowd ahead of her. Her keen eyes trained on the swift girl, and she knew all at once that something was wrong with the way the girl was moving, hunched slightly over. Cammy turned toward a display to make her spying less overt, but she kept her eyes turned sideways.
The girl, bundled in a long black coat with a white shirt and gray slacks underneath, had brunette hair that flew back over her skull, exposing a large, pale white forehead. Her eyes were deep black specks set in a plain face that was guilty of no certain flaw or beauty. The former Delta Red took a mental snapshot of the girl's appearance and filed it into the recesses of her brain for later use. The girl was coming closer, and there as she passes a man smoking a Pall Mall, her hand dips into his coat pocket and fishes out a wallet. Without faltering even a single step, the swift girl progresses forward. As she passes by Cammy, Cammy appears to be looking up at a mannequin wearing a tricorn and a trench-coat.
White tenses, sensing the girl's eyes on her back, sensing the girl pause for a moment, trying to decide if Cammy is a target. The girl, armed with keen survival instinct that comes to most adept street urchins, moves on to seek a better target.
It takes a long time for Cammy to decide what to think of what she has just seen. The hunched-over girl had probably been up and down the street stuffing other people's belongings into her coat. She was fast and she knew what she was doing, that was for sure. But the question in Cammy's head was is it my problem?
An ex-assassin, ex-street fighter, and ex-soldier. Had Cammy devolved to simple constable status? No, she'd dropped farther down the chain, and was determined not to get involved, until she began to imagine how many children the swift girl might be ruining Christmas for. The circumstances of her life had robbed Cammy of many Christmas', and so the relational empathy came to her with a startling impact.
Moving quickly to catch up, Cammy follows the swift girl back down to Holles Street and takes the corner, tailing her target with difficulty. The crowd provides her a shield from suspicion, but it also makes a comfortable smoke screen for her small target. The girl ducks into an alley, still unaware that she is being followed, and White doesn't see it.
Cammy increases her speed so much that she passes the alley at first, but she returns to it after hearing a pile of trash-cans go over noisily. She peers around the corner of a brownstone building and sees the swift girl standing before three large, trench-coated men, one of whom is carrying a crowbar.
The garbage cans lay on their sides around the gathering of four, but the girl stands with her head held high, despite her looming company. Cammy feels a surge of adrenaline run through her. Her first instinct is that the tables have turned and the girl who was robbing is now being robbed. She holds her reactive nature in check and continues to watch.
The middle-man of the trio reaches out and grabs the swift girl by the collar, pulling her up to her tiptoes. "Empty yer coat, missy, and be quick about it."
The girl doesn't blink, her face remains passive, and she nods. The hand on her collar unlocks, and she drops to her heels. A moment later, she's unbuttoning her coat.
"Be careful. Be ever so careful, love," the man with the crowbar imparts. He's a broad-shouldered fellow with huge, blocky teeth that seem to flash as he speaks, and he stands to her left with the crowbar slapping at his palm impatiently.
Minding him, she opens her coat, and begins to pass over the wallets with visibly trembling hands. After coughing up three billfolds and a masculine purse, she looks up at them. The man to her right, a fat, balding rough with huge arms and jagged yellow teeth swipes her final offering, the purse, out of her hand, and shakes it.
"This all?" Yellow-teeth snaps. "This is the catch we've been freezing our arses blue for?"
"Four strikes without a hitch!" The girl snaps back. "Four without a hitch is amazing! I can't do better."
The middle-man grabs her collar and pulls her up, and this time her feet leave the ground. She can feel his hot breath hit her face and she can see the crumbs of a crumpet on his heavy mustache. "You will do better, little nip," he snarls. "You'll do better, or your mum's place won't see the light of Christmas morning."
"I can't," she gasps, clutching at her collar, grimacing. She had been struggling to say I can't breathe, but the ruffian takes it as a re-assertion that she can't steal more, and he hooks a fist into her stomach and throws her roughly against the wall. Her small body bounces off the brownstone and she staggers on her tip-toes, her back arched in straining pain before she falls forward onto her face.
The barely-audible sound of stone cracking goes unheard by all four in the alley, as Cammy's hand, gripping the corner, digs into the brick with inhuman strength. The girl's arms brace and she pushes herself up onto her knees, gasping for breath.
The middle-man steps forward and kneels beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder. She slaps it away with a sideswing of her hand, and begins to choke back tears. "Aww now, don't be cryin," he says with a tone of false sympathy. "All you have to do is snag us a little more, and then you won't have to worry your pretty little head about this bad, bad, business."
Cammy's teeth grind as she works her jaw back and forth and tenses her hands. The girl rises and sweeps the dirt from her slacks and then claps it from her hands, turning her back on them defiantly. She sniffs and rolls the cuff up over her eyes.
Tell them no, Cammy mentally shouts. Immersed in the scene, the tension rolls over her in waves. Standing in the alley, she sees herself at fourteen, failing to say no to an order to go on another kill mission. No, for God's sakes, NO!
"Only a few more, and then I'm done," the girl says, snuffling.
"That's a good little dolly," the crowbar-wielding one says, smiling his blocky grin. For a terrible moment, she sees another man with a blocky grin in the face of the hood before her. Her eyes are wide, her breathing shallow, and at this point, if any of the men bother to look, they would surely find Cammy looking back at them. None of them do. They all turn away, head in the opposite direction, leaving the girl alone with her misery.
The girl looks down at her open hands for a long time, almost as if she is having an unspoken, solemn conversation with the tools of her emancipation. Cammy continues to watch, and a war of emotion wages in her heart. Go to her. Go to them. Do something. Do nothing, that's what you always do. You never try to make a difference until the damage is done. Cammy finds herself staring down at her own open hands, when the girl calls out to her.
"How long have you been there!?"
Cammy snaps her head up, and her false brown eyes seem not to comprehend the question posed to her. The girl has fire, and strength, not unlike Cammy did. The girl is also having that fire and skill exploited and used by evil men, not unlike Cammy did.
"I asked you a"
"Who are they?" Cammy says in such a stern tone that it startles the girl more than mustache-face ever did. "I want to know who they are, and why you do this for them."
"Flock off," the girl responds, turning to head in the other direction. Cammy's hand closes on her shoulder and whirls her around with amazing strength.
"I asked you a question. Several questions. I want answers."
"You're crazy," the girl replies in a soft, reflective voice. "I'll scream for the police!"
"I saw everyone you've robbed," Cammy lies. "I'm sure they'd be interested in hearing about this."
"What evidence would you give them that I stole anything?" The girl fires back swiftly, her eyes blazing with familiar fire.
Cammy straightens up. "Fine," she says, storming past the girl. "You can tell me, or I can get the story from those men. I followed you here and you had a block's lead. I'll find those three with no effort."
The girl's eyes widen, and she recalls the emphatic terms of the deal; the ones that said if she gets the cops or anyone else involved, the torch would drop. "Wait!"
Cammy pauses at the end of the alley, but does not turn back. The girl speed-walks up to her and stands five paces behind her.
"My name is Sloan Merryweather," the girl says. "I'll tell you. Just don't go."
Cammy back into the alley, farther away from the street on either side. Nearby, a diesel
hauling a trailer with the John Lewis logo was pulling up to the rear of the John Lewis
department store. "My mother owns a craft shop on Chamberlain Road, a few miles from
here," Sloan began. "We're neighbors with two other stores, an antiques shop and
a bookstore. All of the buildings in our little block are very old, dating back to World
Cammy nods, bidding Sloan to continue with a slow blinking of her eyes.
"Our neighborhood is relatively peaceful, quiet we," Sloan pauses, and her eyes drop as she struggles for the words. When she finds them, she looks back up at Cammy. "We're not very well off, but we survive."
"Pick-pocketing?" White asks, one of her eyebrows crooking upward.
"I learned to do that when I was very young. Dad died and mother couldn't keep up the funds to live on just her crafts. I got very good because I had to. I had no other choice. I got even better at sneaking the money into mom's purse or paying off creditors coming to the door with envelopes with her signature forged to them. When she finally caught on, she told me how wrong it was to steal and made me stop. That was four years ago."
"Did you stop?" Cammy asks.
"Why are you stealing for those men?"
"It all began about a month ago," Sloan says, sighing. "There's a bar in the next neighborhood over called Heaven. There's been three shootings there in the last year. It has a reputation for drugs and prostitution."
"I see," Cammy nods. "Go on."
"The owner of Heaven bought the vacant lot across from the shops, and has begun the construction of his second bar, Hell. The owner of the bookstore, Mrs. Rathburne, and the owner of the antique store and her husband decided to fight progress with an organized petition to keep Hell from ruining our peaceful community. They even launched a formal protest with the common customers to their stores, and they marched in front of the vacant lot. It drew a lot of attention, and at first, things seemed all right."
"No one knows who the owner of Heaven and Hell is," Sloan continued. "But he sent men. A lot of men came one night to scare us. Mom and I live in an apartment in the back of the craft store. We weren't involved in the demonstrations, but they lumped us in with their opposition, and began to trash the stores, throwing rocks through windows and bashing up the insides. They were going to set torches on our shop, but I stopped them. I think they were surprised that I was there, that they had been caught, more than anything else."
Cammy's fists clench, her knuckles go white. "What did they do to you?"
"They tried to scare me with threats. They pushed me around and acted like they were going to kill me, but I bargained with them. I told them we weren't the ones against them, and they didn't believe me. So I told them we wouldn't act out against them, and if they left us alone I would work for them, stealing, until Hell was constructed." Sloan rubs her left shoulder with her right hand, gazing off into nothing. "They let me know that if the cops or any other interested parties came barking up their tree, we would lose protection."
"An original racket," Cammy says, also staring off into nothing. The bar, 'Heaven'. It seems like it should be important to me. Why?
"The other store-owners have been frightened into silence. Club Hell is getting closer to completion, and when it's done, I'll be free of this."
"No," Cammy interjects. "You'll never be free. The minute you tell them you're done, they'll tell you that you aren't. If you resist, they'll threaten your home again, and you'll be forced to protect it. You're trapped."
"No," Sloan replies, shaking her head. "It can't go that way. They made a deal. I won't believe it. They just want to keep me and my mom out of the way, they want us to stay insignificant until Hell's doors are opened."
"You're wrong," Cammy says in a tone that is both polite and stern. "You stopped being insignificant the day you stole for them. You're worth more to them now than you were before. Before, they just wanted you to shut up. Now they want you for other things, and they won't let you out of this, deal or no deal."
"That can't be true," Sloan whispers.
"It is," Cammy says. "Hope is a good quality, but naïveté is not. But now I'm involved, and you can hope for something more than a bunch of thieving pigs to keep their promises."
"No!" Sloan shouts. "If you go, they'll wreck our store for certain! You can't get involved!"
Cammy shakes her head. "If someone doesn't wake them up to the fact that they aren't going to go unnoticed, terrorizing innocent people, they're going to walk on you and all the shop owners on Chamberlain Road, and make all of your lives miserable. I am involved." The former Delta Red turns away from Sloan and makes her way down to the end of the alley.
"Wait!" Sloan demands. "Tell me your name first!"
Cammy pauses and drops her chin, turning her head two inches to the left. Her eyes also drop, and she is about to say Cammy. "Amanda," she says instead. "Amanda Withers. Go home, Sloan. If they come, call the police."
Sloan watches Amanda Withers stalk down the alley, and the last thought that comes to the swift girl's mind upon seeing her go, is that she walks like a soldier.
As the scene
unfolds before her, Cammy feels more than ever that she has wandered into something
familiar. Heaven sits on its own small plot with a street on both sides, and a third
running past its front doors. The bar itself is made of brown brick, and has two long
rectangular windows on its face, with a glass door between them. Frosted into the surface
of the door-glass is the phrase WELCOME TO HEAVEN. Above the doors, the electric
banner crackles with electricity, displaying the name of the bar in glowing letters.
Behind Club Heaven is a square-shaped vacant lot, roughly the size of Heaven itself. The lot is lined with broken sections of picket fencing. Once white, the wooden slats have been worn to gray by the weather. Most are broken, many lay scattered about the lot. There is not a single complete row around the entirety of the lot. The cement that makes up the lot's basework is cracked, and one of nature's most tenacious life forms is growing up through the cracks in huge green spouts, leaving every broken slab lined with yellow-green tufts.
At barely eleven in the morning, the setting holds a feeling of breakdown and dilapidation, but with a harder edge that seems dangerous, like a starving dog that has just decided he'll eat anything to survive. Cammy puts aside the task of trying to figure out whether or not she knows something important about this place, and makes her way up the sidewalk across the street from Heaven at a casual pace. Outside she can see three people, all male, supposedly twenty-one but she somehow doubts it. One of them, so drained of vitality by the fast-life that his blonde hair is turning white looks up at her and puckers his lips.
She ignores him and continues walking up the street, choosing not to make her move on the bar just yet. Cammy White is not a fighter anymore, nor a soldier. Her name is Amanda Withers now, and she is a merely citizen who refuses to be afraid. She passes an alley, and a voice hisses at her in a whisper.
Cammy turns to the left, and her eyes adjust to the faint shadows. "Sloan."
"Come in here," Sloan says lowly.
Cammy turns and looks back down the street. The boys in front of Heaven are no longer paying attention; one of them is shooting dice at the wall of the bar. She slips into the alley with Sloan. "What?"
"I followed to see if I could stop you," Sloan says. "Is there any way I can stop you?"
"No," Cammy says, looking out of the alley, down the street.
"I don't know why I should trust you," Sloan begins. "You don't have anything to lose if you go in and get involved...but they will come looking for us if you do." She pauses, and Cammy begins to reply, but Sloan interrupts her. "But something deep down is telling me you're more than meets the eye, Amanda Withers."
Cammy shrugs lightly. "Not anymore."
"Never you mind," Cammy says. "Go now, and do as I said."
"No," Sloan insists.
"Listen" Cammy begins, a hint of frustrated anger in her tone. But Sloan cuts her off before she can say anything harsh.
"I'm going to help you," Sloan offers. "If this doesn't work, I don't want it all to be on you. I've already disobeyed those men by not getting them another pile of loot, so I might as well do this, too."
Cammy's eyes soften a bit, and she puts a hand on Sloan's shoulder. "Stay here. Your support is enough."
"No," Sloan says. "I'm serious."
"If you're serious, then you can help," Cammy responds. "By calling the police in ten minutes, if I haven't come out yet." Before Sloan can respond, the woman she knows as Amanda Withers is gone from the alley. Cammy blows past the boys outside the bar so quickly they are stunned to do naught but stare.
Cammy pulls the glass door open with one hand, and a bell overhead jingles, announcing her entry to the whole bar. She is immediately met with gritty smell of cigar and cigarette smoke. Round tables that seat four people are scattershot across the floor of Heaven. The bar, which curves along one corner to another, is lined with green garland and white bulbs, most of which have burned out. She notices a slate atop the bar, and the message scrawled on it in yellow chalk, telling the patrons that the BAR WILL BE OPEN ALL NIGHT X-MAS EVE AND ALL THROUGH X-MAS. The bar itself is fairly crowded for so early in the morning, but there are only a few people sitting at the round-tables. This makes her search much easier.
She sees the three who were with Sloan, sitting at a table at the far end of the room, playing cards and passing a bottle of whiskey around. Her purposeful stride up to their table immediately gets their attention.
"I want to see the owner," she says, looking down her nose at them.
"Hey pretty lady," the fat one with the bad teeth answers. "Howbout having a seat?" He pushes a chair out with his foot, and she looks down at it with disdain, then she glances back up at his face.
With a smile that comes nowhere near to her eyes, she reiterates. "I asked you a question."
The mustached man and the blocky-grin look at the fat man, whose anger and stupidity are as plain as the nose on his face. "He's in the crapper, so maybe you should come back tomorrow."
Unaware of the ludicrous nature of his statement, or that he has just let the woman know the boss is there, the fat man draws an angry glare from both of his friends. Before they can react, Cammy marches around their table and throws the bathroom door open.
The bathroom is surprisingly crowded. There's a black guy standing in front of a sink-mirror, combing his hair. Two others are using urinal stalls at the end of the room, and another is standing at a far wall, pissing into a trough. There's a kid with his jet black hair greased back, smoking a joint and fishing a yo-yo against a wall, and she assumes there may be more people in the five toilet-cubicles to the left of the door.
Roaches crawl over mildewed tiles under the sweeping gaze of her eyes. Smoke and farts fight for control over command of the bathroom's stench, and overhead, florescent tubes buzz out a dull throbbing light that reflects on the tiles, casting a greenish tint over the room. The concrete floor, perpetually damp, stinks of all manner of refuse, and is littered here and there with scraps of paper, wrappers, bandages, and cigarette butts.
At first, no one notices that a woman has barged in, but then a procession of men follow her in, lead by the blocky-grin, followed by two bouncers, a few interested patrons, and finally mustache and bad-teeth. "You're expelled from this bar, little lady," the blocky-grin commands, pointing at her back.
She turns her eyes on him, and when he is confronted by her lack of fear, he finds a sudden comfort in standing with a crowd. "I'll not go," she responds politely. "Until I've spoken with the owner of this place personally."
"I'm afraid that's not possible," the balding, yellow-toothed member of the hood imparts. "Now we'll be showing you to the door nicely, or you'll be thrown out on your duff." He waddles forward to make a grab on her and she sidesteps, sticking a foot out to trip him. He drops hard, and his teeth click as his chin hits the concrete. The bathroom is suddenly filled with pitching, uproarious laughter.
"If he's here, I say he should step out now, if he's man enough to speak with a lady."
The small gathering of patrons ooooh's dramatically at her challenge, and the mustached man steps forward. "My cantankerous friend is dull in the head, but he is correct, love. If you don't leave, all these boys here will get a reduction on their tabs for making you regret it. Leave. Now."
"That won't be necessary," a deep gravel voice booms.
Cammy whirls as a bathroom stall door bangs open, and her eyes go wide as she is confronted with the knowledge she had been groping for earlier. Suddenly she remembers who owned Club Heaven, and why it was important.
Birdie ducks under the door-frame of the stall and squeezes out one shoulder at a time. A massive, brown-skinned behemoth, Birdie seems to fit the decorum like a king fits a palace throne room. His mammoth frame, wrapped in muscles, twitches involuntarily. He towers over Amanda Withers and smiles. "We can't have all these suckas getting their bar-tabs erased." He reaches up, brushes a drum-sized fist across his mouth, and leans his head in low. "What's your gripe, pretty?"
Cammy stares up at him with a vacant expression, and in that moment, the part of her that is Cammy White screams to be released in the face of danger. But another part of her, a part of her that is guilt and soul and a promise not to hurt anyone ever again rises up against Cammy. That part of her, namely, Amanda Withers, takes control. This all happens in a fraction of a second. "I want to talk to you about something your boys have been doing." She thrusts a finger out at the yellow-toothed man, who is glaring daggers at her.
Birdie leans in a little closer, and she can see the light reflecting on the bald sides of his head, and the impossible hole through the center of his blonde mohawk, and part of the heart tattooed above his ear. "An' what's that, sweet heart?"
Cammy's nose twitches as his alcohol-tainted breath rushes hot across her face. She remains calm, passive, and utterly fearless in the face of the giant. "Extortion, for one," she replies. "Terrorism, vandalism, and harassment, for others."
"My, my, oh my!" Birdie says, raising back up over her, pounding his fist into his chest dramatically, the heavy chains on his wrists clinking on the smaller ones sewn into his black vest. "They're such naughty boys, I"
"Don't bother!" Cammy interrupts. "Listen."
"I don't take to bitchy women," Birdie snarls.
"I SAID LISTEN," she shouts. "Are you as stupid as you look?" She points to the wall, where a half-open vent is. Birdie shoots a sidelong glance to the vent, and listens.
"I don't hear anything," Birdie grunts.
"But you will," Cammy replies. "You'll hear sirens. And you will hear them every day for the rest of your life if you don't back off. I won't stop until you do, and that's a promise."
Birdie's eyes roll low and swing sideways in their sockets, turning back to Cammy, and his massive lips curl into a sadistic smile. "You play a hard game."
"I don't play."
"Oh, I'm sure," Birdie says. "Very sure you don't play." He takes two steps forward, and his massive footfalls echo through the stalls behind him.
At first, Cammy White doesn't give him an inch, but as he steps closer, Amanda Withers begins to back away.
"I'll tell you what, girly," Birdie says, leaning down to look her in the eyes once more. "If you give me a kiss, I'll call them off."
Cammy stops backing away. "I'll do no such thing," she barks up at him in a tone of voice that surprises everyone in the room. To Birdie, even more so; he's heard that voice before.
Birdie shakes off the feeling of walking into a trap, chalking it up to his imagination, and he dips his arms down, to capture her. A few of the guys in the crowd begin to cheer and hoot when this happens, but instead of capturing Cammy, Birdie only succeeds in capturing an onlooker, who nearly wets his pants with fear. Amanda Withers had ducked around his side with such grace and speed that it seemed almost effortless to her.
Birdie refuses to think anything of it. The girl before him is plain, with brown eyes, wearing a brown long coat and blue jeans, and a plain green ribbon in her hair. She's nobody. "Come on, baby, just one little kiss." He lunges forward, raising up another cheer in the gathering, which has spread around the bathroom in a circle, and Cammy dances around him quickly a second time. This time, however, Birdie predicts it and twists farther, herding her back into a corner.
He leans in, and her foot comes up hard into his crotch. All the breath leaves his lungs, and he falls to his knees, but still manages to be as tall as she is until he falls forward, cradling his crotch. Amanda Withers stands over him, glaring downward. "You will call them off!" She demands, pointing to the vent. This time, the sound of sirens can be heard. "It's already begun, Birdie. Do you hear it?"
But Birdie hears nothing, because Birdie is exploding with mindless rage. The pain in his crotch becomes secondary to that rage, and the pain becomes the gasoline that fuels the fire. He blasts upward, and his forehead drives into her chin with all the power in his tremendous body.
Cammy's vision explodes with bright orange stars as she flies upwards, propelled by the force of the blow. Birdie reaches up and snags her by the arm, sweeping her out of the sky and flinging her back-first onto the concrete so hard she bounces. Cammy rolls away defensively, a river of fire flowing up her spine. She can hear the sirens getting closer as she pulls herself to her feet.
Don't fight. Don't.
Birdie gathers all the strength in his body and lunges at her, his head slashing down into her upper back so hard she is blown off her feet. She lands on the floor and slides, much to the delight of the riotous crowd. Her body comes to a stop amongst the onlookers, who pay her a tribute of cigarette butts, paper-wads, and spit.
She grits her teeth and braces up on shaky arms, while her eyes seek the door out of the bathroom. Perhaps she could make a dash, get the Hell out perhaps not. The cold steel of Birdie's chain wraps around her neck from behind, and her hands fly up to take hold of it. So dazed is the former Delta Red, she barely even realizes she's in the air until Birdie drives her into the concrete floor. Her tiny body is driven into the unyielding cement with a wet THAK sound that is both brutal and terrible to the ears. Cammy's eyes go wide as saucers and the breath she had been holding is forced from her lungs in a ripping, painful blast. Something inside her body suddenly tightens up like a fist, and before she can even cry out, she is hauled into the air a second time. Cammy finally begins to try to fight back, if only to survive, but it's too late. She kicks her legs out uselessly as Birdie drags her downward a second time, driving her into the floor. Her body goes slack and her arms fall out to her sides to lay across the cold concrete.
Birdie, growling, hauls her limp body up one more time, and begins to spin her over his head, letting the centrifugal force lift her, and then he lets her go, slinging her into a tile wall with all of his might. The tiles bash inward, and there is a small explosion of dust and white tile-powder. For a moment she is stuck against the wall, horizontal and wrecked, one arm folded protectively behind her head, one leg turned down at the knee, the other hooked outward, most of her body embedded in the bashed-in wall. After resting suspended for a space of four heartbeats, her body rolls off of the wall, and she lands on the floor face-first, her body making a loud report of flesh on cement.
Barely conscious, she looks out at the room and hears nothing but one solid, muffled noise, and sees nothing but a blur of moving color. Unaware that she's doing it, she reaches up and grabs a pipe curling into the wall, and weakly drags herself under a sink. The crowd goes on laughing and jeering as she pulls herself up against the pipe and props her back against the wall in a sitting position. The world spins, and she feels it fading to black, when Birdie steps back into view, stealing her view of everything else.
"Now, I'll only tell you this once you little trollop. I never want to see your ugly face again. Get out."
Cammy gazes up at him, comprehending nothing he says. Birdie glares down at her, and then he turns to the side, dips his hand into a urinal, and flips it out, splashing her in the face with putrid water. Cammy convulses once, and in a final, desperate instant, the rage moving through her veins lends her enough strength to bring her to her feet. The police burst into the bathroom as her legs unhinge. She begins to fall forward, destined for a merciless collision of face on concrete, when a quick policeman lunges forward and catches her.
As the police carry her out of the bathroom, Birdie smiles contentedly, watching them go by. As they pass with her, he can see the liquid rolling down her face and over her cheeks. "Make-up's running, dolly," Birdie says tauntingly. Then, for a split-second, he imagines that he sees the running make-up flowing away to uncover a scar on her left cheek, only this time it isn't just his imagination playing a trick on him.
Outside, Sloan runs to Cammy as two policeman, one under either arm, carry her out of the bar. "Are you okay?" Sloan asks, and then becomes more frightened when she doesn't reply. She looks up at the officers. "Is she okay!?"
They ignore her, carrying her to the squad door. A third policeman opens the door, and they put her in the back. "Wait, why are you taking her?" Sloan asks frantically.
"Invasion, trespassing, and assault," the cop at the door answers, shutting it on Amanda Withers.
Sloan turns and looks back at the bar to see the blocky-grinning bastard looking back at her. Then she turns and watches the squad car pull away. As the car takes off, so does she, her eyes brimming with tears.
Withers, the ride downtown is a series of hazy interludes of coherency, mixed in with long
stretches of lucid awake-time. From the window of the patrol car she can see London,
sometimes blurred, sometimes clear, but the Christmas decorations are no comfort to her.
Her insides are pulsing and burning; truth-be-told, she feels like a giant bruise. Her
head is groggy and throbbing with a monster headache. Her eyes are reddened with
Outside the window of the squad car, everything goes by quickly, and all the color fades to gray. Loneliness settles in on her like a blanket of snow: just as bitter, and just as cold. Grief joins physical pain to add to her torment. She blinks out of consciousness, and is awakened from a dreamless, uncomfortable sleep by being escorted from the car. This time she manages to walk herself, with one officer escorting her to keep her from falling, as well as to guide her to the tank.
She sits down on a wooden bench, vaguely aware of her surroundings. The jail door clinks on its chain track before slamming shut with an echoing metal bang. Her world once again fades to black.
Hours later, her eyes open, and to her relief, the headache has completely faded away. Somehow, the coolness of the jail cell is relieving, refreshing. A slat-window pushes a crisp winter breeze up the hallway and into the tank, where it rushes across her face before tracing a quick good-bye in the ends of her bangs.
Finding herself able to think coherently once again, she looks around the tank. It is lined on three sides with benches. She is sitting close to the cell door, which is to her left. To her right, near the other wall, a young woman with an obvious wig of curly blonde hair sits, chewing bubble-gum and looking annoyed. Along the back wall of the cell, a fat bag-lady wearing brown overalls, a dingy white shirt colored yellow by time, and a blue ball-cap that fails to cover strings of dirty brown hair slipping down either side of her baggy face. To the bag lady's right, a drunken black woman with one of her shirt-sleeves torn part-way off. Straight across from her, a young lady sitting on the bench with her legs up and her face pressed into her knees.
She can't be much older than... Sloan makes her way to the forefront of Cammy's brain with an unexpected jolt, and suddenly Cammy feels a very urgent need to get out of the cell. She picks herself up, and is further gratified by the ease at which she is moving. "Hello?"
"Ay," a voice calls back to her from up the hall. The owner of the voice strolls into view, but keeps wide of the cell. She doesn't even see his face. Her eyes hone in on a white-gloved hand twirling a key-ring. "We were wondering when you'd come to."
Easy, she tells herself. You aren't planning an escape. She glances up at the guard's face. He's young, probably pretty sharp. "What time is it?"
"Four in the afternoon," the guard replies.
"I want my phone call," Cammy utters instantly.
"Easy now," the guard says. "We're having some troubles bringing up your ID. Who would you be calling, just out of curiosity?"
"You'll be hearing from him soon," she replies.
"Eh, a lawyer I guess?" He slips the key into a panel on a wall down the hallway, and opens a small metal door, covering a switch. He throws it, and the latch on the gate comes undone. "Very well. This way." Slipping the cell door open only wide enough for Cammy to step through, he lets her out, watching her every move with scrutiny.
After she leaves the cell, he shuts it with another enormous bang, and then he guides her to the end of the hall, where an off-white telephone hangs from the wall. "There's your call."
Cammy steps up to the phone, aware of his eyes on her, and she picks up the receiver, placing it against her ear. Her hand dials the number swiftly, and the phone on the other end begins to ring.
Please answer, she pleads mentally. I have to get out of here, and see about Sloan.
Pick up, damn you!
RIII "Wolfman here."
The guard watches, and only hearing one side of the conversation, he gleans very little.
"Amanda Withers, sir," she says to the person on the other end. A short pause. "Jail. I don't know which station. Shall I ask? No, you've traced the call? Thank you sir."
The guard's brow furrows somewhat as Cammy hangs up the telephone. "You'll be getting a call soon."
"I see," the guard says despondently. "This way." He guides her back to the tank and opens it up, allowing her to slip back in. He shuts the door and continues down the hallway, looking back once to see her standing at the cell door, as if she were going somewhere.
The door at the end of the hall flies open, and though Cammy cannot see it, she hears a new voice call out. "Officer Campton."
"Sir?" The guard replies.
"Please come in here."
Cammy glances back into the cell, at the other young women sitting there, seeing in their body language how none of them wish to tell their stories, but seeing in their eyes the important parts of those stories. Broken spirits, loneliness, addiction, and desperation. She sighs lightly, and turns her eyes back to the world outside of the tank, as footsteps approach from down the hall.
"Well, I don't know who you are," Officer Campton says. "But you've got a powerful friend in Keith Wolfman. It makes me wonder. No paperwork for you, anyway," Campton continues, while opening the switch-panel in the wall. He throws it, and then slides the jail door open. "The Sergeant has ordered you be released posthaste. You're free to go."
Cammy steps out, feeling a tinge of joy rush through her chest, followed by a sense of urgency. Though her pain isn't completely gone, she has already forgotten about it, in favor of placing all her cares with the shop-owners on Chamberlain Road.
"Uh, ahem," a voice behind her pipes up. She turns and sees an older man with a brown handlebar mustache and a square head of thin red hair standing at the end of the hallway, in the doorway of the office Campton was called into. He is wearing a blue trench coat, and his gloved hands are buried deeply in his pockets. She makes her way over to him, and pauses in the hallway, crossing her arms beneath her breasts to look up at him questioningly.
"Ms. Withers, I am precinct Sergeant Reynolds," he says, lifting a hand out of his pocket to offer it to her. She looks down at the offered hand and then glances back up at his face, and he takes it away. "I wanted you to know that we are uh, really uh, sorry. If there's anything we can do to assist this country's military branch, we are uh, ready and uh, willing."
She continues to regard him with cold hard eyes, and a long, tense moment of silence comes to them. Just as Sergeant Reynolds is about to withdraw and bid her a Merry Christmas, her eyes soften, and she brings her hand up to shake. He quickly accepts.
occupied by Amanda Withers is a sizable dwelling for someone who lives alone; the military
pension she receives is reason for that. Still, it is a lonely little place, sitting
three stories up over a narrow alley street that rumbles at night with the passing of
shipping trucks. The dining room possesses a single oval table with a mahogany finish and
a pair of brass-framed chairs with pink padded cushions on the backrests and the seats.
The kitchen floor is made of homely yellow tiles; linoleum laid in the late seventies, worn bald near the door-less frame that connects the dining room to the kitchen. The apartment's living room is a tiny space between the kitchen and the door that leads into her bedroom. The living room boasts a single television with a twenty-four inch screen, sitting on a small wooden cabinet in the middle of the room, a love-seat across from the television, and Amanda Withers herself, who is sitting on that love-seat. The television is turned on, and a weatherman is reporting that there is a huge storm front moving in, and that London could see its first white Christmas since 1970.
She finds no importance in the weatherman's droning, as she leans back in the cushions of the sofa. She would go into the bathroom and wash away the stink of Club Heaven, and the reminders of her beating with it, but not just yet. For the moment she is content to linger, reduced, humbled, and dwelling on her humiliation. Her worries are gone; she trusted Sergeant Reynolds to warn Birdie off of Chamberlain Road and see to the protection of those old shops...but...
But nothing, Amanda Withers. You're not a soldier anymore.
Still, Sloan's problem had been fixed, but the gnawing feeling in her gut tells her that justice hasn't been served. No matter how hard she insists she is not Cammy White; her gut is one thing she will never be able to suppress. It, like Cammy, is a part of her forever. And so she sits, accompanied only by the evening news reporter on her television, yammering on incessantly about what the Queen might say in her annual Christmas address to the nation.
She doesn't know where Sloan might be, or what she might be feeling right now. She is not considering the lights in Trafalgar Square, which are beginning to show with more brilliance as day fades to night. She has no idea that Birdie spooked by the similarity between his victim of the day and Cammy White has been more than compliant with police orders to leave the people at Chamberlain Road alone.
She is not thinking about cleaning herself up or alleviating her pain. She is thinking about Birdie, standing over her, flinging piss-water in her face.
The blows had come to her unexpectedly, and Birdie had caught her off guard. She could live with being beaten by him she didn't even fight back but he had humiliated her, and he had done so because he could get away with it.
Birdie, a terrorist bully who has no qualms about striking women that refuse his advances.
Birdie, who sits in his grotto like a little king.
Before Cammy even realizes it, she is rummaging through her closet. She locates the heavy green chest and drags it out, ignoring the pain exertion causes her.
Well, there you are.
She looks down on the chest, latched shut. Sealed inside, the remains of her former life as Cammy White, former SAS specialist, member of Delta Red, and Doll-assassin of Shadaloo. She stands over the case, looking down at it with her solemn, crisp blue eyes, and the chest holds her captive. After several minutes, she kneels, lets her hand close around the latch, and flips it up. The lid comes up slowly, seemingly by itself; she is so entranced that she doesn't even realize she is the one lifting it.
She peers into the chest's contents as light chases the retreating shadow of the rising lid, and the first thing she sees is the triangular red pin on the front of her Delta Red uniform. For a moment, she feels herself teetering on the edge of a long fall back into a life she had literally fought to escape. Then an important question poses itself. Is this just one more fight? Then the answer hits her. No. If you go down this road, you can't go back the way you came. Finally, at the precipice, she feels a sudden jolt of willpower and she stops herself from taking that final step. Amanda Withers drops the lid shut on Cammy White and rises to her feet. Suddenly the need to shower becomes all-important.
Lit by antique
styled lamp-posts up and down both sides of the street, Chamberlain Road feels warm and
inviting, even as darkness sets in. As Cammy moves up the concourse, she sees no signs of
trash in the streets, no shadowy figures lurking in alleys, and several of the stores she
passes are bedecked with Christmas lights in their windows.
She sees Sloan first, sitting on the steps in front of the door of a shop. Above her, a hanging sign reads Merryweather Crafts, and Cammy knows she is in the right place. Sloan didn't hear Cammy's approach until the woman was nearly on top of her, and then only because Cammy stepped harder to make her approach deliberately noisy.
Sloan turned her face up to Cammy and Cammy could see the relief flooding in to replace the look of grim sadness. Sloan lifted from the stairs and put her arms around Cammy instantly, without so much as a word.
"I thought I had seen the last of you!" Sloan cried.
"No, not me," Cammy admitted, allowing herself to squeeze the girl's shoulders before gently pushing her away. "Are you fine?"
"I'm okay, but what happened to you? They beat you in there, didn't they? And the police! They took you away. How did you ever escape?"
Cammy smiles at the naiveté in Sloan's last question. "Don't worry about it, Sloan," she says. "I have some good news for you."
Seeing Sloan's eyes lighting up in response to a promise of good news made Cammy's ordeal seem all the more worthwhile. "Those men won't be coming around anymore. The Sergeant of Chamberlain precinct is seeing to that himself."
"I...Thank you, Amanda," Sloan says. She shakes her head and looks out across the road at Hell, sitting in the darkness of its lot like some great beast crouched in a cave. From here, they can read the words WELCOME TO HELL frosted into the glass on the front door. "It seems so unreal. I haven't lived here all my life, but I do care for this place. Look at the street," she says, pointing at the smooth paved macadam. "There's no litter, no alleys to lurk in, no people who like to lurk in alleys. Most of all, it's safe. When the doors of that bar open, all of that will change."
Cammy listens in silence, and agrees with every word Sloan says, but turns the conversation away from that place of troubles. "Is your mother home?"
"Hm?" Sloan looks up at Cammy, blinking with confusion.
"You said you live with your mother in an apartment behind the store."
"Oh, silly me," Sloan says. "Actually, the lady who owns the book store, Mrs. Rathburne, and Carol Davis from the antique shop were in with mum, discussing their fears...I told them about you. I came out here to get some fresh air, and because the tone of their conversations were getting to me, I"
Cammy nods. "I understand. I suppose I'll be going, then."
Sloan looks down at her feet, feeling guilt crawling through her chest.
"Amanda Withers, I presume?"
Sloan and Cammy turn a full circle to see a tall, older woman with a blue winter cap on her head and glasses on her face. Her long brown hair slips out from under the brim of her cap and hangs far down her back, past her waist. Cammy sees the resemblance and immediately deduces that it is Sloan's mother, but doesn't say so. "I am."
"Please, come inside," Sloan's mother says, stepping around the corner of Merryweather Crafts to disappear out of sight.
Sloan looks up at Cammy. "That's my mother," she says. "June Merryweather. Isn't that an awful name?"
Cammy cracks a thin smile, remembering someone who was important to her in what seems to be lifetimes ago. "It's a lovely name."
"Come along," Sloan says, taking a few steps. She pauses when Cammy doesn't follow, and she turns her eyes back. "Are you coming?"
"Is it all right?" Cammy replies.
"I don't think they're cross," Sloan says. "Mother wouldn't have asked you inside. Please follow?"
Cammy nods silently and follows. Sloan leads Cammy around the corner and they walk along the side-wall of the store, stopping almost at the corner, when they reach a door. Sloan opens the door, and holds it for Cammy. "Welcome."
Cammy steps into the small apartment, and is instantly touched by the warmth of the wall heater blowing lightly over the length of the house. The sound of the fan turning inside the unit is audible, but somehow non-intrusive.
The door they enter leads them directly through the kitchen. Cammy waits a few paces in while Sloan closes and latches the door behind her. Cammy can smell cookies baking in the oven, and she feels herself develop a sweet-tooth she never knew she had before. Candy had just...never appealed to her until that exact moment.
June Merryweather stepped back into the kitchen, and smiled warmly at her daughter and their guest. "My name is June, I'm Sloan's mother."
"Nice to meet you," Cammy nods.
"Sloan, please escort Ms. Withers into the den. Liza and Carol would like to meet her."
"All right, mother," Sloan says. Cammy once again settles into a following path, and is suddenly hit with a surge of apprehension. She had been half-expecting them to be angry at her for getting involved and possibly getting them in trouble, and she could have handled that just fine. But if they got the news of what she'd done for them, not only by taking a beating, getting arrested, but going as far as to get the vandals off of their backs, they might begin to treat her like a heroine. She was not ready to be received as a hero, and agreeing to step into the apartment suddenly feels very, very arrogant.
Cammy stops behind Sloan, and sees the small plastic Christmas tree standing in the corner, blinking with a string of white bulbs and a star that barely even manages a dull flicker. Liza Rathburne and Carol Davis are sitting across from one another, Liza in a rocking-chair, Carol on the sofa. As the two enter, they both look.
"Mrs. Rathburne, Mrs. Davis," Sloan says. "This is Amanda Withers."
"Ohh, you!" Mrs. Rathburne says, rising from her rocker. She seems to be in her late fifties by the look of the wrinkles spreading on her face. Her red hair still curls nicely and is devoid of gray, however. She rises and closes heavy arms around Cammy, hugging her roughly like a stereotypical over-zealous British nanny would.
Cammy smiles through the ache this embrace causes her, but her physical pain is nothing compared to her moral discomfort. I have no right to be a part of this normal life. I don't want to seem like I'm here for their praise and thanks
"Merry Christmas," Carol says, offering a hand to Cammy. Carol is about June's age, but her hair has gone stark white. "Sloan told us about you. You're a brave girl, very brave!"
Cammy shakes her head in disagreement. "Sloan is brave, I'm just loud."
Mrs. Rathburne laughs heavily at that. "Oh you, you are a tough little nut!"
Cammy blushes, feeling more than just a bit embarrassed. "I think I should be going. Sloan has some news for you that you will enjoy."
"Don't be silly," June says, standing in the doorway with a tray of cookies and a teakettle full of steaming hot cocoa. "Unless you have family waiting for you, we'd love you to stay a while."
"I..." Cammy's eyes pan across the faces of the room and settle on Sloan's questioning, friendly gaze. The honest side of Cammy works its way to the surface. "I just feel unseemly. I don't want to be treated as a hero, really. I have no business being a part of this." She gestures her hand across the room.
"Nonsense," Sloan says. "Mother, she got Sergeant Reynolds to put the lid on the thugs at Bar Heaven today. If they come around here, they'll be stopped for sure. That is the news report I was to give."
Cammy shakes her head, as June sets the tray on the coffee table. "Is this really true, Ms. Withers?"
"Yes," Cammy says lowly, feeling a sudden need to hide.
"Merry Christmas to you, then," June says, beaming.
"Our prayers have been answered," Carol Davis sighs dreamily.
"A modest one you are, deary," Liza smiles towards Cammy. "We'll not torture you with thanks, but it will be hard to hide the relief."
"Please, make yourself comfortable," June says, and watches with a measure of joy as Amanda Withers loses the look of a deer in headlights, and settles down on the sofa.
Two hours later, Amanda Withers walks home, accompanied by street lights and the passing of automobiles, which will continue long into the early Christmas morning. In her hands she carries a vase worth ten pounds with a beautiful forty pound arrangement of silk poinsettias that Sloan's mother put together during her visit.
As she gets closer to Trafalgar Square, the traffic becomes much heavier, and she welcomes the liveliness. Stepping into the square, she gazes up upon the Christmas tree, burning gold, with ornamental bulbs winking and flashing as they are swayed by gentle winds.
She stops at the edge of the square as people pass her by, and she clutches her Christmas present tightly as she comes to find out that even she can be touched by the magical power of the season.
As she breaks her eyes away from the tree, she looks down at the poinsettias once more, and feels something fall into place that wasn't there before. Traces of attainable humanity, the chance to lead a normal life. It is the true gift Sloan and the others had given her, and suddenly she feels like she has a shot at life. Standing in Trafalgar Square on Christmas Eve, peace on Earth suddenly seems entirely possible, and Amanda Withers finds her peace with Cammy White, while fading from necessity. There, under the lit-up Norwegian Spruce, Cammy White finds something worth fighting for.
Standing in her living room with the moonlight flooding into her apartment from the window overlooking the alley, she towers over the trunk that carries so much of her soul inside its layered wooden casing. The luminous soft-white moon-glow throws her shadow long across the floor and up the wall. The shadow shrinks when she drops to her knees. The lid of the trunk is thrown open again, and this time she does not hesitate.
unimpeachable mental clock still ticks as precisely as it ever did. She knows it is
exactly 6:02 AM, December the twenty-fifth. Christmas Day. The sun has just barely begun
to make itself known, fighting through the storm-front a certain weatherman predicted
might be a snow-producing. In exactly twenty-two minutes, the sun wouldn't matter, nor the
people on the streets who are out enjoying a holiday off from work. Being Cammy White is
an exact business, and there is only one thing she cares for, and that is the mission at
She had been about her grim business through the night, and the final phase had come. Birdie's bar, Heaven, had been filled to capacity all night. Huge speakers on every side of the room thudded out music that could be heard blocks away. The alcohol and the deafening music added to the unobservant nature of the crowd. Cammy White reached Heaven at precisely 6:05, and no one knew what hit them.
A small gathering outside the bar saw her coming first. Not wearing a middle-class garb, but the striking green one-piece with a triangular pin over the left breast, and a red beret on her head, she seemed a whole different person. Perhaps she was. Her hair was not simply tied down, but it was born out in a pair of sweeping braids. Her scar was uncovered, her legs painted with splotches of green, her eyes, the most dangerous shade of electric blue, she was drawn into a low, fast walk, and every angle of her movement was on fire with rage so tangible you could see it in every step.
The first person to notice her was the punk who had puckered his lips at Amanda Withers the day before. His face lit up at her appearance and he smiled, and before a single piggish word could leave his mouth, she shut his trap with a stiff right hook. His body flew through the air, bowling over two of his compatriots before they even knew what happened. A fourth, who hadn't been knocked down screamed WHAT THE FUCK at the top of his lungs and caught a spinning heel to the stomach. Doubling over in sudden agony, he was then grabbed by the back of the head and thrown face-first into the sidewalk.
Needing no further example, the crowd parted before her like the Red Sea, and she stormed Heaven's front door, nearly knocking it off the hinges with her incredible enhanced strength. At first, no one of consequence noticed her. Her eyes scanned the crowd of drunken, cavorting patrons, and through them came a wave of men in black suits, rushing her with obvious intent. She shoved a startled drinker out of his chair and pulled his table into the air, tossing it into them, bowling over three of them all at once.
Two of the bouncers sift through the crowd to both sides of her and she spears one in the gut with a side kick as he emerges from the crowd, while simultaneously ducking a hook from the one on her left. Without ever stopping her motion, she swings her leg around, cutting the puncher's legs out from under him with a mower's scythe kick to the knees.
As he falls, the guy she threw out of the chair gets up and swings a bottle of beer at her. She sidesteps and grabs his arm, throwing it down, causing him to flip wildly through the air. She throws a dismissive back-kick into his airborne body, sending his two-hundred pound ass sidelong through the bar's front window with an explosion of glass.
"Everyone out!" She shouts. "Unless you want to take the ride he just took!"
The bar regurgitates a horde of patrons from the front door and through the broken window, making Cammy's job much easier.
Another bouncer tries to grab her from behind, and she mule-kicks him in the crotch, shoulders his chin, and drops to her ass, nearly snapping his neck. His body bounces away from her and rolls over and over, settling limply on the floor. She makes an immediate leap from the ground, launching high as three more guards dash in. She drops down behind them and runs into the center of the bar, kicking over tables and throwing chairs out of her way as she goes. Booze bottles burst on the floor and shot-glasses roll and refract specks of light over every wall of the room in a dizzying disco-ball pattern. The remaining crowd draws away from her as she moves through. The blocky-grinning thug emerges around a corner of bodies, and she drives her gloved fist into his face, sending his teeth flying like dice.
"Everybody out!" she shouts again, running for the bar. Bodies spread away from her as she leaps the counter, sliding across it to the other side. The bartender looks on in shock as she grabs a fire-extinguisher and leaps back over. She opens the nozzle and begins to herd remaining patrons out with a sea of foam. The fat, bad toothed lout appears through a white-foam haze, swinging a dagger. The worse-toothed man, now she swings the fire-extinguisher around, drawing it across the side of his mouth with a brutal CLACK. He spins and falls, and she finds herself suddenly surrounded by a ring of bouncers. She tosses the extinguisher at one of them, grabs a chair, throws it at another, grabs a table, turns it over and rolls it into three coming at her side. One slams a fist into her jaw from the left and she staggers, throwing a leg back into his ribs. He falls away and another pounces on her, gets shoulder thrown into one coming up behind her. Two lunge in from either side and she leaps, throwing both legs out to the side, driving heels into their faces.
The mustached-man leaps in close to get between falling bodies, and reaches into his vest. She doesn't see his face to recognize him, she only recognizes the butt of the gun and that a hand is pulling it. With superhuman reflexes, she swings her leg up, snap kicking the gun out of his hand as he draws it. It flies up and over her head, and she reaches behind her, catching it, then pitches it back, drilling it into his face so hard he goes off his feet, spraying blood and teeth from his mouth as he falls.
She looks up, and her eyes lock on the bathroom door. She hasn't seen Birdie yet. Was he even there? Blocky-grin, now bleeding profusely from the mouth, leaps into her line of sight and throws a vicious jab at her. She lifts her palm, catching the fist solidly, and then she grabs his wrist with her other hand and twists his arm, then brings her other hand down in a chop to the joint, breaking his elbow. He gives a horrid wail, as she grabs him by the collar and lifts him straight up, where the turning blades of a ceiling fan all take turns snapping off against his head. She turns and flings him one-handed into a bouncer who has just staggered to his feet, and both go down in a heap.
Birdie's first indication that there might be trouble comes to him when the music suddenly goes off. Sitting in a stall in the bathroom, he growls, annoyed someone had probably accidentally tripped the plug-in and then he considers the woman before, and the scar he thought he'd seen. Fuggat, he tells himself. Killer Bee wouldn't be comin' round here.
Outside, Cammy had not only unplugged the speakers but she'd gone around, breaking each one in with a fireman's ax in turn. With a strong push, she managed to turn over the massive pool table, and then she went to work on its legs with the ax, blasting them off with heavy strokes from the blunt end. Her eyes once again settle on the bathroom door, and she tosses the ax away.
The bathroom door slams against the inside wall, and the impact echoes through the restroom. Drunks and drug-heads, oblivious to what has gone on in the main room scatter before her like roaches. She marches dutifully past men pissing in the urinals, and stops at the end stall, looking down at a pair of unmistakable boots. In her Amanda Withers voice, she calls out to Birdie. "You and I still have something to discuss, sir."
Birdie's fears are instantly assuaged. Of course that Withers broad wasn't the Shadaloo assassin he'd heard so much about. She'd never have been such an easy target. Birdie zips up, and smiles, as his massive hand goes to unlatch the door. "I thought I told you to stay out of my bar. This time, I won't show you any mercy."
He throws the door open, and his eyes go wide at the person he sees before him. A bolt of fear races up his spine as the one and only Killer Bee fills up his sight.
"TARGET CONFIRMED: LOCK ON!" Cammy cries, lunging at Birdie with all the strength in her flawless legs. With extreme force, she turns sideways and corkscrews through the air. "SPIRAL ARROW!" Her feet drill into Birdie's stomach, and his mouth snaps open in a wide O of surprise as the blow knocks him off his feet and slams him through the back of the toilet, crushing the porcelain like it was no sturdier than eggshell.
Birdie gasps, stunned and crumpled forward. Cammy uses the chance to make a quick observation. "You've got toilet paper on your shoe."
She grabs him by the collar and drags him forward, still bent over, out of the stall, then she pulls his head down and a brings a knee up to collide with his chin. His head is ripped from her hands by the force of the blow, which throws him into a standing position, allowing Cammy to quickly capitalize. She flips upside down, and her powerful legs scissor shut around his neck. She throws her body backwards with all of her might, and wrenches her hips forward, dragging the gargantuan Birdie into the air before he can even react.
Driven head-first into the concrete by Cammy's Frankensteiner, Birdie rolls over onto his back, arms and legs splayed. The onlookers who still remain stand by in shock at the massive strength of the girl who just hauled Birdie's four-hundred pound body into the air with her legs.
Cammy immediately rolls over onto his chest and hammers a frenzy of rights and lefts, crosses, jabs, and hooks into his face, busting open his nose and mouth, staining his blonde facial hair with blood, pulverizing his cheeks and jaw with her hammer-blow punches. After a brutal series of blows, she rises and hauls him to his feet by his collar, and then she runs with him, throwing him face first into the tile wall. His head bounces off, leaving a circle-shaped bash in the tile. Birdie's spine snaps up straight and he staggers back from the wall, his eyes rolling back in his head. She grabs the back of his jacket, pulls him back two steps and then two to the side, to aiming him at the wall between two sinks, then runs him at the wall again. This time his head goes right through the tile.
He staggers back, bringing his hands up to his face, and Cammy watches in shock as he shakes it off, throwing his head side-to-side. He turns slowly, and a garbage can sails in at his face, a trail of garbage flowing out behind it. Birdie catches it before it can hit his face, but he does not catch Cammy. She plants a foot on his chest and gathers her power and rage, unleashing it with a Cannon Spike off his chest, into the trash can, which is driven into his face so hard it wraps around his head.
Still, he only staggers backward, while the bashed, folded trashcan falls from his face and clatters across the floor. She runs forward, hands slashing out, fingers digging into his vest, and she pulls with all her might, slinging him towards another wall, but this time Birdie grabs her wrist and tenses his legs, overpowering and throwing her into the opposite wall instead. The pain of her earlier beating comes back to her all at once, and she hisses through her teeth as her body rebounds from the wall, staggering out of control towards a massive fist that blasts into her jaw and blows her off her feet.
The monster awakened, Birdie blasts a dazed Cammy off her feet with another right, and watches as she sunfishes back into the standing position almost involuntarily before he drives his heavy fist into her forehead, THAK. Her legs leave the ground and she falls straight down, but finds the strength to kick her legs up and out, pulling herself to her feet one more time. Cammy, desperate to get out from under Birdie's line of fire pulls her arms up in a cross block, and manages to block a lunging kick. Her body is lifted from the ground by the force of the blow, regardless, and she sails ten feet backwards, slamming into a mirror and dropping ass-first into a sink.
The doll's chin drops to her chest, revealing a bloody spiderweb of cracks in the mirror behind her. Her arms also go slack, and Birdie feels a surge of triumph rush through his body, knowing this time he has beaten a truly powerful opponent. His body rips across the expanse, his head drawn back, one leg off the ground. He brings his head down with unmatched force, aiming to bash her skull in with the brute force of his attack. Instead, his head rips down and blasts through the sink as she sails over his head, recovered at the last moment.
Birdie stands up straight, barely fazed by the blow to his head, and then he feels her arms latch around his waist from behind. Before he can even compute what is happening, she pulls him off his feet to execute a brutal German Suplex. She snaps backward at her pelvis, driving him into the concrete on the back of his head, neck, and shoulders, while his legs and lower body compact on top of him. A half-second-later his whole body goes straight like a spring released, and he flops over on his side, rolling instantly to his feet.
This time, Birdie is on his feet more due to rage than to invulnerability. Cammy knows she has to finish him quickly. She launches into a ball and curves through the air, attempting to catch him with a Hooligan Roll, but he brings both his fists up in a double ax-handle, striking her from below. She gasps in pain as her body goes into an uncontrollable upward-spiral, only to be torn from the air by Birdie's maniacal grip and flung into the pressboard door of a stall. She falls slack against the door, eyes squeezed shut, body battered. All her senses go full-alarm, screaming at her to move to the side. She follows her instincts, and Birdie narrowly misses her. Instead, his lunging head butt blasts the stall door inward, ripping off the top set of hinges completely.
Reacting quickly to Birdie's momentary stun, she spins on one leg, throwing her other leg around behind her. It connects with the back of Birdie's knee like a shot from a sledge-hammer, and he immediately is cut down to size, dropping to one knee. She grabs him by the mohawk and then she pulls his head back and throws it forward, bouncing it off the door once, twice, three, four, five times. She reaches across with her other hand, takes hold of his mohawk, and then swings her other elbow down into his throat with merciless force. Birdie reaches up and grabs his throat as his wind-pipe closes. Cammy pulls his head back one more time, throws it forward, but Birdie plants his right hand against the wall, stopping himself, and then reaches back with his left hand and captures her head, throwing her face-first into the stall next-door.
Cammy staggers back, holding her face in both hands, and Birdie steps around behind her, pulling the chain around her neck. He lifts her up in front of his chest, and she gasps, holding the chain as his eyes gleam with hatred and rage. After choking her for a moment, he lifts her into the air and brings her back down, slamming her body into the concrete with a wet, gruesome impact. Her body goes slack as he hauls her into the air a second time, a third time, and then a fourth time, the final blow sending her body rolling bonelessly across the floor to land in a sickening crumpled ball.
Birdie clutches his throat with one hand. Her attack on his oxygen had been more effective than anything else. His lips curl back and he spits a gout of blood that rains down over Cammy. She then begins to move, much to Birdie's great disbelief. First she plants a hand on the ground, then she plants a shaky leg, then another. Birdie's huge lips curl back into a snarl and he begins to glow red as the burning Ki flows through his muscles, into his head. He cocks himself back and unleashes his most powerful rushing lunge, intent on finishing her off before she can recover.
This time Cammy is too dazed to move out of the way. In an instant, she sees Sloan and the others, gray-toned and standing in the darkness, their faces painted with hope. In front of them, she sees Amanda Withers in color, standing with her hands clutched and a worried look on her face. The strength rushes into her legs, and she turns one leg up, releasing her power through both legs, one thrusting off from the ground, the other blasting upward. "CANNON SPIKE!"
The heel of her boot catches Birdie directly in the chin and carries his massive frame high into the air, where their bodies part ways, curving in opposite directions. Birdie lands hard on his back, and Cammy lands in a crouch, her eyes burning with new fire. "It isn't over yet, Birdie," she says. "But it will be. Soon."
Birdie rolls onto his side, his body no longer burning red, but back to its normal state of being. He throws himself up onto his feet and falls forward onto his hands and knees, his head spinning. Cammy sees her chance and rushes forward, hammering her right hand into his chin with all her might, over and over again, haymaker after haymaker, five blows, total. She finishes the combo by drawing low her left fist and hitting him as hard as she can with an uppercut to his already softened-up chin. The force of the blow takes Birdie off his knees and knocks him back onto his feet.
Feeling particularly mean, Cammy grabs and throws him forward into the stall he ripped the door off of, and then she grabs the back of his head and forces his face down into the dingy yellow water. Bubbles erupt from the surface and Birdie flails his hands wildly before gripping the rim of the bowl and physically throwing his head back, to throw her off. She rolls back out of the stall, and he lunges out after her, but his strength is so depleted that she only leaps back instead of to the side, watching as his headbutt falls short. He draws his head back up, and she dings him in the balls with a vicious kicker's punt, causing him to buckle forward, then she smiles and jerks a thumb across her neck, signaling the end. She grabs his collar and runs with him, he bent low, she, a one-hundred and ten pound girl out ahead of him, dragging him, and she throws him face-first into the back wall of the bathroom.
The wall gives way under the sudden impact and explodes out into the vacant lot behind Heaven with a spray of bricks and paint-chips. Birdie crawls away from the hole, bleeding from the nose, mouth, eye, and now from the top of his head. Birdie wants nothing more to do with her. He only wants to get away, escape the assassin who was said to never miss a mark.
Designation: Killer Bee stalks after him and he rises to his feet, and she lifts off, drilling into his back with a Spiral Arrow. He throws his head back and cries out in pain as he flies forward, landing flat on his face. Everything goes cold and black for an instant, and minutes later, he finds himself looking up at her red boots, standing just in front of his face. Every blast from his nostrils sends a small ring of dirt back into his face, and he doesn't even care.
No matter how hard he tells himself to move, get up, get the fuck away from this crazy bitch, his body refuses to respond, beaten and out of strength. "Birdie," Cammy says sternly.
"Birdie," she repeats. "I know you can hear me, and for your sake, you had better listen. I am the last remnant of Shadaloo. I am not evil, or a criminal, but the part of me that was born in Shadaloo will stay in me for the rest of my life. Do you know what part that is, Birdie?"
"It's the part that kills. Do you understand me?"
"Please dun kill meh," Birdie grunts. "Please please please!"
"Consider yourself rehabilitated, Birdie," Cammy says, before kneeling down. Now she talks very lowly. "If you ever go near Chamberlain Road again, it won't be Delta Red or Amanda Withers or the police coming for you. It will be Killer Bee, assassin of Shadaloo. You got me?"
Birdie nods emphatically, face down in the dirt, "thankyouthankyouthankyou!"
Police sirens howl through the streets, coming closer and closer. Birdie pushes himself up to his hands and knees, and looks up at her, his face a complete mess of bruises, and blood covered in dirt. She points to the west.
"Look there," she says.
He looks, and just as he does...
Sloan woke up
Christmas morning and went to the Christmas tree, where her stocking was hung for lack of
a mantle. In it, she found an assortment of her favorite chocolates, a ten pound note, and
a note written on yellow notebook paper. She pulled the note open and read the words on
it, written in green ink:
Sloan, you and your mother should stay inside today. Merry Christmas!
Immediately thinking of Amanda, she passes the note along to her mother, and they pass it back and forth, with no real idea of what to make of it until their little apartment is shaken by an outside explosion.
up at the ball of fire and smoke rising over a line of buildings, in the direction Cammy
Cammy smiles, thinking of the detonating caps she once had in her trunk. She tosses one onto the ground in front of Birdie, and he looks down at it. "The fires of Hell, Birdie."
Birdie looks up at the sky, and comprehends what she means a moment later. "My...my new bar. I...I..."
"Forget about it," Cammy snaps. "Your life is my Christmas present to you. Make something of it."
One of the two approaching sirens diverts in the direction of the explosion, while the other car arrives at the bar a moment later. By this time, Cammy is long gone, and a jibbering, shocked Birdie is left with a lot of explaining.
forgotten how many times I came here to be alone, after I joined Delta Red.)
As night falls over London, Cammy stands on a cathedral rooftop, wearing none of her Delta Red gear.
(I never thought this place would lose its comfort, but somehow it did.)
Instead she's in baggy camo pants, a green sweater, and a heavy red coat.
(But I don't think it changed. I think I did, and for the better.)
From here, she can see Chamberlain Road.
(Somewhere along the line, I lost the need to be a recluse. Funny, I suppose. Life.)
The smoking husk of Hell has long been extinguished, and the firefighters have gone home to their Christmas dinners.
(Life is a dance. You learn as you go.)
After a long moment of silence, she slips back into the shadows.
(I'm ready to learn this dance, now more than ever)
There were no Christmas dinners in her future, but somehow, she still felt good.
(now that I have something worth fighting for.)