ROMANCE IN THE TIME OF WAR
BY Richard Evans
Found a nest of dead vipers this morning. Piled ten high, carcasses rotting in the dank warehouse where they plied their drug trade. Someone else is operating in my town. Two surgeons, operating on either side of the sick, diseased, patient, both frantically trying to keep the victim alive. My name is the Crime Psychologist. Dalmasca is my city, I’ve been her caregiver, her wet nurse, her protector. Now there is another. I find myself drawn to this stranger, like a magpie attracted to the shiny coins and cheap jewelry discarded in the trash.
I have patrolled these bloody, stinking streets for fifteen years. Ever since they took away my license, ever since they took away my life. A man can be killed by an individual, but to destroy a reputation takes a whole city of corrupt officials.
It began with my wife, I knew she resented me but I never knew how deep the hatred in her heart went. It wasn’t enough to leave me, she had to take my best friend, my money, everything I owned. Even that was not enough for her, she wanted to see me destroyed, and she hoped I’d fall into the darkness, into despair and draw a blade across my wrist or put a gun to my own head and let a bullet end it all. She had no idea that there was something else inside me, something that lifted me up like the hand of God himself. The Crime Doctor was born that day in court, when they found the evidence she’d placed on my computer. When I realized that they were all going to turn on me, all the lawyers and judges and police who I’d worked with, putting the scum of this city behind bars. I knew at that moment that John Pope was dead. In one way perhaps my ex-wife succeeded, the man she married was dead the moment she pointed her finger at me from across the courtroom. One day I will find and I will kill Jill, but not today.
John Pope died the day he was convicted of those vile, disgusting crimes, yet that was not the day the Crime Psychologist was born. No, I had to be tempered and forged like steel on the streets that I’d tried so hard to keep safe. When I was convicted the news sent a shock wave through a city that thought it had seen its fill of horrors. I was their best criminal psychologist, my expert profiling had helped capture and convict half a dozen serial killers and more street level scumbags than I could. The rat lawyers who defended them all appealed their cases and were granted retrials. The public, so disgusted by my fall from grace, allowed those killers talk free. All of them, even the Holiday Killer, they were all given an apology and a bus ticket and let back out onto the streets of Dalmasca where they were free to rape, rob and murder all over again. A good man cannot survive in an evil city, any more than a healthy man can remain free of the germs during a plague. No matter how strong you are, no matter your honor or depth of character, inevitably the invisible poison, like radiation in the bones, will get into you. It will rot you from the outside.
I could not stand by and watch the killers I’d worked so hard to put away run rampant over the people I’d protected. Even though those people turned their backs on me, I would not turn my back on them.
Johann Lavater was right, you can tell a criminal by his face. They carry the scars of abuse and broken homes, the brand of drug addiction and the stench of alcohol and homelessness. It is easy for me to find them all, their crimes shine in their eyes like the shards of a shattered mirror. Now another has come and I must tread carefully. This city has more than enough of them, but now there is one like me, armed and dangerous, ready to fight. I look forward to seeing what he does next.
I found a smack dealer today, selling his poison outside an arcade, trying to hook them while they are still young, while the shadow of innocence still hangs about their shoulders. I waited until he left and I followed him. Eventually I strangled the life out of him on the stairs down to the subway where I know there are no cameras. This is why they will never catch me, the city provides me with blind spots where I can perform. As the last gasp of breath wheezed from the man’s crushed throat I heard gunshots, only three blocks away. I ran to the scene and I saw her, dressed in black and blue. The three bank robbers had her surrounded, but she was not afraid, not even of their guns. The woman was tall, over six feet, with a slim and muscular build. As she took the men on she moved like a ballerina, moving from one target to the next as if she were dancing. Her lean physique moved perfectly, like a well maintained machine and in no more than ten seconds all three men lay broken on the ground. She carried a small black staff, which spun so fast I could not see it in the light of the moon. As she turned to leave she saw me. Her eyes locked onto mine and I could see the cruelty and dedication inside them, they reminded me of my own eyes, staring back at me. They were steel gray and ice cold and her expression did not change, not even when she saw how I was dressed. A car out on the street honked its horn and I flinched, when I looked back she was gone, disappeared into the shadows. I am not sure if she recognized me as one of her own, if she knew what I was, that I was like her. We will meet again, I am sure of it.
They almost got me. After all these years, all the close calls, all the near misses, today they almost had me. I was patrolling the streets, occupied in my own head with thoughts of this new vigilante, Rose. I’ve taken to calling her that, you’ll know why in just a few minutes. Distracted by my own thoughts, I walked right into two rookie cops in uniform. They recognized me right away, the doctor’s coat and mask I wear over the Kevlar armor is a dead giveaway and all three of us drew our guns. Maybe I’ve been doing this too long, or maybe I’m just getting old, but one of the cops looked like a baby, he couldn’t have been any older than eighteen. The Dalmasca Police sends these kids out to the streets to feed the beast; the more young, handsome cops that die on duty the more funding and benefits the officers are given. I know this city is covered in crooked cops like an infection of hair lice, but I could not bring myself to fire on these two, scared young men. Especially the one with cheeks still flush with the redness of youth, the pink outlines of acne still visible on his hairless face. Unfortunately he did not have the same reservations and the young men opened fire right in there in the street. Both bullets connected, hitting me square in the chest. I was lifted off the ground, my sternum cracked and when I hit the ground I hit hard. Gasping for breath, I rolled over and threw a handful of garbage at them to cover my escape into a nearby theater. The usher said nothing as I pushed passed him, into the darkened theater. Slumped over, gasping for breath, I made my way down the aisle to the front row. I knew they were calling in for backup and I had to get out of there, quick, but I was in too much pain. I sat down in the front row, my instincts screaming at me that they were right behind me. I turned and glimpsed the two young officers storming into the theater, the darkness blinding them momentarily. I knew I wasn’t going to get any better so I bolted for the emergency exit. Two young men outside the door, probably employees who should have been working, were knocked over as I charged through them, their disgusting cigarettes knocked from their hand. The sun was setting and I ran toward the red orb, hoping the dying light would make it difficult for the police to take aim on me. I needed every bit of cover I could get, there was nothing between me and the next alley but a massive concrete parking lot. An empty parking lot, probably four hundred meters across, with the theater and the police at my back. I could hear the sirens wailing, telling me that the rest of the Dalmasca Police Department was on its way. They’d been after me a long time, when they catch me I know they will be barbaric. I made it half way before a bullet tore through my right shoulder, the pain and impact knocked me forward onto my knees. That was it, I closed my eyes and began to pray, knowing at any moment the gunfire was going to come and the bullets were going to tear me apart.
For a split second nothing happened and then I heard a shriek. Turning my head, I saw her standing over the young police officers. Leaving them unconscious, she sprinted across to me and helped me to my feet. The police were close, their sirens right around the corner and we snuck through a nearby pub. As we pushed through the bar patrons to the back exit she disappeared into the crowd and I found myself out on the other side, a rose in hand. Tucking the rose into my pocket I stripped off the mask and doctor’s coat and dropped them into a trash bin. I removed a plastic yellow rain poncho from my pants pocket and put it on, concealing the armor I wore. Then I jumped onto the first bus I saw and rode it all the way to the end of the line. By the time I got off the pain had subsided somewhat. Even though I’d almost been captured, and I know when they do catch me they are going to kill me, even in pain I was happy as I walked back to my suburban hideout. I am no longer alone, just as I was watching her, she was watching me. I had to find her now. She left me a blue rose, a symbol of our work in the city, a symbol of our freedom from the corrupt institutions that were killing the American people. I spent my whole life studying criminals and their tactics, hearing their excuses and justifications and I’ve learned how rare and precious a good, kind, soul is. I have to find this woman, I have to tell her that I am here to help her, protect her, and be her partner and guardian as she has been mine. Fate has brought us together in Hell. Perhaps together we can ease the burn.
It has been two weeks since I was rescued by the Rose. My body is healed but my mind is tormented. She wore a blue and black mask over her eyes and I am certain her black hair was a weave, so I have no way to figure out who she might be. If I could get a fingerprint or some DNA I might be able to pressure my old friends in the crime lab to run her through the system but that would put her secret identity at risk. She might have a normal life, a normal family, who would be put at risk if anyone else discovered who she is. In the end who she is doesn’t really matter, I already know who she is. She is the Rose and she saved my life. Past lives don’t matter, once we dip our hands in the cesspool of crime nothing will ever take the stench off. Whoever she was, she left that life behind when she donned the mask. I have no business digging up her past or her secrets. All I can do is continue to patrol the streets and keep my eyes open for her. I know she is still out here, somewhere.
I had almost given up hope but last night I caught a glimpse of her. After following a prostitute to the top of the Chestnut Hotel and dealing with her and her pimp, I went out on the rooftop to stand over the city and dispose of their bodies. Sometimes you need to climb out of the muck and filth of the streets and see the city from a different angle, get a new perspective. In the dark I wasn’t sure, but the shape kept moving like a shadow across the rooftops and eventually I spotted her beneath a street light. She dropped out of view, back into the housing projects of Eastwood and I wasted no time in following after her.
When I arrived I found the usual gaggle of gangsters and thugs hanging out in the park, a multicultural car crash of global cultures reduced to the lowest common denominator. None of them said a word to me, I was a wolf among dogs and they knew to give me room. My name and concealed face was known to them. Eastwood Tower, the tallest building in the project, was sixty stories of vertical crime and poverty, piled layer after layer on top of one another like a shit cake. I wasn’t sure if that was where she went, until I heard the gunshots. I made my way to the front entrance, pushing past the black youth blocking the doorway. They tried to grab a hold of my coat but when I put my 9MM in their faces they backed off.
I ran up the stairs, not trusting an elevator that smelled like death, taking the steps three at a time. I heard more gunfire; three shots, followed by three more. I was almost at the top of the stairs when the door flew inwards and Rose came bursting into the stairwell. Her arm hung limply by her side, blood dripping down into large splats and it took a moment for her to decide whether I was the enemy or not. She had saved my life and now it was my turn to save hers. I stepped into the hallway and saw the two black youths that had been shooting at her. When they saw me, they stopped dead in their tracks and raised their guns, but they were too close. I pulled out the two long knives I keep on my back, under the medical coat, and as I walked passed them I drew the blade across their stomachs. Both men dropped their guns, their hands flying to their guts as the blood and guts spurted out between their desperate fingers. Rose was right behind me, leaning against the frame of the door.
“They took a little girl hostage. Her father is a judge.”
“A good man?” I asked. It was important.
“First black judge in Dalmasca. He’s done more for these punks then they deserve.”
Her tone was rough and her words could have been perceived by some bleeding hearts as racist. I knew the truth, I knew exactly what she meant. The streets bred monsters, their color didn’t matter. Once the beast of Dalmasca was in them, regardless of who or what their parents might have been, they turned. Rose was an almond color herself, but she had nothing in common with those we hunted. We were predators, the top of the food chain. Our color didn’t matter either.
“Where?” I said.
“522. Watch it, these punks have no sympathy. I got clipped by a shooter blasting through the wall of 521.” She said, following behind me.
The apartment door next to me flew open and I saw a large white man with a baseball bat. I ran him through with the sword, dropping him where he stood. I didn’t care who he was, the look of menace on his face meant his life was over.
Another door flew open and this time I saw a gun come first, a white hand behind it. I cut clean through the limb and watched the gun and hand fall to the floor. I ignored the screamer and continued down the hall, behind me I heard the Rose take out Mr. Handless. I tried not to smile, she was quick and clean and he died without a whimper.
Before we reached the apartment the kidnappers ran out, pushing the little girl ahead of them. They moved quickly, I saw a flash of the girl’s dark eyes, wet with fear and desperation. A woman pushed the child roughly toward the elevator and there was no way I could reach them. Two big men followed her, covered in tattoos and muscles. I swung my blades but the first guy was fast, ducked underneath and slammed my wrist against the wall, forcing me to drop one of the knives. The other man kicked me, but I ignored it. The Rose still had a lot of fight left in her and she took the man who was trying to kick me while I wrestled with his buddy. It took us only a moment to put the men down, but the elevator was gone and we could hear more men coming from the apartments.
As much as I was attracted to the Rose, as the men filed out of the apartment I started to regret following her into Eastwood Tower. There were more men then I could count, men of all different sizes and colors. I pulled out my 9 MM, knives in the other hand and was greeted with numerous firearms from their side. It was a stalemate, but only for a moment.
“What? All you men can’t take one girl?”
It was Rose and although she was unsteady on her feet, her eyes meant business.
“No guns. No bullshit. We fight to the death, no rules.”
A pause went through the crowd of criminals and then the leaders laughed and one by one they put their guns away. I returned my 9 to the holster on my back and slid the knives back into their sheaths. If it was going to be a brawl, I could handle that. A brawl was always better than a shootout, both for us and the innocent people who lived in the building.
My heart swelled as the Rose moved in first, striking the man closest to her. From then on it was war. Fists and feet flew in every direction, every punch I threw connected with someone, but in the jumble I never knew which guy I was hitting. It didn’t matter, the two of us moved like old friends who’d danced this dance before. When overwhelmed, she would jump in, flinging men off me or kicking them to the ground. When I saw her in trouble, losing ground or restrained I would jump to her aid. We circled and supported each other, tossing our opponents aside like they were ragdolls. It seemed to go on all night but eventually the gangbangers got tired and sored, there was only so much pain and humiliation that they could take. We stood there, side by side, gasping for breath and it only lasted a moment but when our eyes met I saw the corners of her mouth turn up in a grin.
“Let’s get out of here.” I said, throwing her arm over my shoulder. She leaned into me, her body weak from blood loss. I could not help but think of how tough she was, to take on so many men with a gunshot wound. It had gone clean through the arm and it was going to leave an ugly scar. With me on one side and her staff in the other hand, we made our escape, narrowly missing the waves of police that were arriving on the scene.
I took her back to the apartment I keep under a fake alias to keep the maggots in authority from finding me. Once she reached the bathroom she didn’t need me anymore and I heard the water for the bathtub running. I wanted to help more, but I knew if I came off too eager it would push her away. Instead I sat on the bed, waiting patiently, my weapons and geared already put away in the storage locker.
When she stepped out of the bathroom, with only a towel wrapped around her, I knew I was in love, that this woman was the end of all things for me. She looked up at me for the first time I saw a smile cross her lips.
“I think you’re going to make a great sidekick,” Rose said, her towel dropping to the floor. In a city so ugly I could barely look at it in the light of day, I’ve finally found something beautiful. I can’t wait until she meets the ex-wife.