16th December

Max

Midnight. Max thought. It should be another day, but it's still the same old one. It's been the same old one for weeks now. One continuous long day that seems to find new ways to haunt and disgust me. Shut up, stop moaning. The job is done.

The snow settled and Concave had been turned into the wonderland that'd been promised. Winter was the only time of year the Underbelly looked vaguely presentable. Old and dying buildings still littered its landscape, not to mention its population scuttling about like cockroaches, but the streets and roads were a pristine white. All the garbage, be it newspapers, condoms, needles and cigarette butts, had been hidden. It was like they'd been swept under a rug. But not everything could be hidden that easily. The murders couldn't. The suicide couldn't. The pain never could.

I've never seen the forensic team so much. I'll owe them all Christmas cards at this rate. Max's feeble attempt at what was presumably a joke received a shut up from himself. During the commotion and surprise of seeing her body Max had initially missed a hand written note from Roxy. It had been sitting in the grungy sink and simply read 'I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry'.

"It looks like suicide." One of the forensics told him. He looked just as tired and unkempt as Max did. "I can't see anything suspicious here. The knife looks to have been taken from the kitchen; old cutlery that could've been left behind from previous owners. I'll obviously do a full examination when we get the body back to the lab. I don't particularly want to stay in the Underbelly any longer than I have too."

"Of course." Max grunted. His whole body language came across as defeated and tired.

He dragged his footsteps back to the car, each one creating a quiet crunch of snow. The cold air stung the small cuts on his fist. He was lucky that none of the glass from the mirror had embedded itself into his hand.

She was a sick woman. Max thought as he drove back to the station once again with nothing but bad news. It was starting to become an unwanted habit. She was a murderer, an unbalanced and terrible woman… who I wish I saved. It's getting worse. Every death is starting to haunt me, even the ones that were beyond my control. I couldn't have saved her. Max gritted his teeth and thumped his steering wheel in frustration. For Christ sake! I sound like some hormonal teenager who thinks the world is against him. 'No one understands', 'everyone hates me'. Pull yourself together. The villain is dead. Job done. The papers don't care how, neither do the citizens. All they've ever wanted were results. It's why the corrupt thrive and the honest wither. I just need to focus, focus on the fact that a 'clean up' is needed. Roxy would've had followers; some of them may still try and act out. With any luck it may be a case of 'cut off the head and the body withers and dies'. Hmph, luck.

Max slowly pulled up at the station. He stood outside staring at the building. Memories rushed through his mind like speeding bullets. He could feel himself slipping into that trance like state you sometimes find yourself in. You suddenly realise that you've been staring at an inanimate object for several minutes like some nut. He cleared his throat and walked up to the front desk.

"Max," Hanson called out. "The interview tape is in your office. Oh, and the Commissioner still wants to see you."

Max nodded and headed towards his secluded hole. The Commissioner could wait… again. Once inside and with the door firmly shut he took a deep breath and let the warmth envelop his body. He had decided against taking his blood drenched coat and told the forensic team that he'd rather get a new one. Luckily he had no connection to the coat that he'd had for several years and that kept him warm on winters like these. "I should've just got it dry cleaned." He mumbled.

Max sat down in his chair and searched his draws for a packet of crisps. He usually kept one of them stocked up with some kind of food should the long nights demand a snack. To tell the truth Max couldn't remember when he last ate. It would certainly account for the headaches and the feeling of his stomach eating itself. He opened the crisps knowing that they would be stale but not really caring. Food was food after all, it all ended up in the same place. He picked up the tape and put it in the old cassette player on his desk.

"This is Sergeant Damian Jenkins covering for Lieutenant Max Wakeman. I will be interviewing Samantha DeLane. The time is eleven thirty and the date,"

"Ah," Max said out load whilst crunching a crisp. "I remember now. That's how you do it."

The interview was by the book. Max knew Jenkins, he'd been keeping an eye on him and it seemed he was an honest cop. Yet to be bribed and muddied with the rest. He took out Roxy's diary from its evidence bag. He presumed that all tests had been taken along with the small black book found in Deane's pocket. Either that or no one cared anymore after hearing the news of the Roxy dead.

Almost every entry she talks about how lonely she is and how her dreams torment her. This girl was in a world of hell and she had no one to turn too. These nightmares sound like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; I should know.

"She tried to recruit me." Roxy said over the tape. "She said that she had these girls, Harbingers or something."

I am the Harbinger of a new beginning. Wait? Max flipped through several pages. Her lover died fighting the city; a crusade of his. Her lover was Harbinger. Son of a bitch. Why didn't I see that earlier? Here, I thought he was one of the good guys, beat the hell out of the scum and took down a load of drug rings, maybe he was, maybe it was just her that went off the rails.

"She really couldn't remember, Sergeant. I know she wasn't lying."

Max sighed. He paused the cassette, picked up the phone on his desk and slowly dialled a number; initially there was no answer but the second time it was picked up by a groggy voice.

"Max?"

"Yeah, it's me doc. I'm sorry to call you so late but I need advice for a case I'm working. I've got a woman here who's been through hell and it's screwed her up pretty bad. I need diagnoses."

"Okay, okay. Let me just wake up… okay, shoot."

"She lost her lover and from what I can tell it sounded like he was long term. She was caught, but did escape, in her apartment as it burnt down but was suffering nightmares and flashbacks. She was previously a prostitute with a drug and alcohol addiction that she was trying to knock on the head and to top it all off she was suffering blackouts. Apparently she'd wake up in the middle of the street at night or in her bathroom having just self-harmed and with no memory of events leading up to it."

"Okay, wow. That's quite a lot to take in. Well… for starters I'd say that she's suffering from severe depression after losing her love and from the sudden withdrawal of drugs and alcohol. The nightmares and flashbacks are PTSD but the blackouts are difficult." She sighed and the line was silent for a few moments. "These diagnoses I'm making can't go down in a report. These are just my best guesses without going over any evidence."

"I know."

"The blackouts could have been brought on by the severe stress of the previously mentioned events, but the fact she's finding herself in various places and situations with no memory of how she got there suggests she could be suffering from Systematised Dissociative Amnesia."

"These sufferers of this amnesia, could they coordinate a series of highly thought out attacks and have no recollection of doing so, kind of like a split personality thing?" Ideas were beginning to form inside Max's dusty head.

"Well," She began. "I wouldn't like to say no as it seems anything is possible these days but I've never heard of a case. If the 'sufferer', as you put it, were to attack they are most commonly provoked which would then bring on a sudden and violent assault; no premeditation would be involved. I would also like to add that sometimes the sufferers are highly open to suggestion in a desperate attempt to fill in the blanks within their memory."

"Shit." Max mumbled.

"Is everything okay? Your Commissioner told me how you've been acting lately. I presume you've started counting again."

"I can't talk about it now. I promise I'll get in touch after this case is finished. I have to go now, thanks for your help, doc." Max put the phone down and lent back in his chair. He closed his eyes and resumed listening to the cassette player. He focused on Sam's words and what the doctor had just told him.

Come on. I know you're tired and broken. You're a machine with half its cogs missing, but I need you to focus. I need you to put it all together. All the clues are here. A woman with a dead boyfriend who was Harbinger. She was angry and distraught that the Underbelly took him. Blackouts, depression, flashbacks of being trapped in a burning building.

"Rox wasn't herself, it was like she had transformed into a psychopath. I just… It's so hard to process; even though it happened I still can't believe it all. I don't want to believe it all. She was my best friend." Max lent forwards and paused the recording once again.

Then a friend who you knew and trusted tells you you're the mastermind of it all. You'd deny it. It's impossible, how could little old you have anything to do what it? It's madness. Then she drops in key words. Tired. Angry. Safe. Harbinger. Protect. Pain. You'd start to believe her; after all you're in an unfamiliar building. She's chained up with half her face busted in begging for mercy. The facts are against you. A mind begging for answers would make sense out of the most deluded idea. It would draw its own connections in a desperate attempt to fill in the gaps. Then there's you. Sam DeLane. You hid yourself in the last place anyone would think to look, the spotlight.

A single lamp struggled against the darkness in Sam's home. The ground floor dwelling was grim and messy just like every other place in the Underbelly. Why should hers have been any different? The faint, pale light of the lamp weakly illuminated parts of her beaten face. The swelling had slightly subsided but the cuts were still very visible. She had tried her best to patch up what she could; the rest would just take time to heal.

A knock on the door rudely awakened her from her daydreaming trance. Sam had lost count of how long she'd been sitting in the comfy armchair, the two almost becoming one. She slowly stood up, almost robotic like, and walked to the door and opened it. Sam knew who it was; she'd been waiting for them.

"We need to lay low for a while." Sam said as a group of wrapped up prostitutes walked in. "Our next target will be Tyler Kelly, he's had it coming for a long time. I've covered our tracks; someone else has taken the wrap."

"You mean Roxy." One of the prostitutes said as they all tried to fit themselves on top of each other's laps due to the lack of seats. "You shouldn't have done that. It wasn't fair."

"The Underbelly isn't fair!" Sam spat. "She was a necessary sacrifice; or perhaps you'd be happy if we all got caught? We're the ones who do all the work, not the pimps or the mob; us. This life is brutal and I'm trying to make it safer for us. We're forced to degrade ourselves day in and day out and have nothing to show for it."

"What about Trixxx? This didn't turn out so safe for her. Was she another one of your sacrifices?" Another voice said.

"Trixxx killed herself. It wasn't Wakeman."

"Like hell!" The voice roared.

"This isn't the time to fight!" Sam snapped. "It's the time to stay silent and let the pimps feel safe. Let them think they've won, slowly they'll skulk back into the light and continue their routines like nothing had ever happened… then we kill them all."

'She was my best friend.' It was Sam's voice but she wasn't saying it. 'She was my best friend.' The sentence blasted through the air once again. The girls slowly and carefully looked out the front window. The crummy blinds hanging up blocked parts of their view but they could see enough to know what was happening.

"She killed herself, Sam." Max said through the loud speaker as he threw a cassette player back into his car. He stood at the front of several armed officers and a riot squad. He looked like a damn hero. They were all ready to wage war. "The day you decided to use Roxy as your scapegoat was the day you made a deal with the devil, wasn't it? You told her the perfect lie and she believed it. You sent her straight to hell with all the others you murdered."

"This shouldn't be happening." One of the girls whispered as the panic begun to build.

Sam quickly backtracked to the centre of the room and pushed her chair across the floor. The others watched as she madly clawed and kicked at the floorboards like an animal. Eventually one of them gave way and she started to tear it up. "We are not going out like this." She hissed as the other girls spotted a number of weapons hidden beneath. "The police are risking their own wellbeing whilst being here in the Underbelly. Their kind isn't welcome here; the locals will turn on them."

"What locals, Sam? No one is out there anymore, we've scared them all off; everyone keeps to themselves now. We've signed our own death sentence."

"We wanted the Underbelly to ourselves," Another of them said. "Well now we've got."

"Lieutenant Wakeman." An officer called out whilst running up to him. "There's too many alleyways round here. It's like a maze. We've tried to cover as many exits as possible should they run through the back. Are you sure you don't want the teams at the door?"

"No. It's so risky, they'll come out shooting and I don't want to lose any men." Max knew that he had them outnumbered almost two to one, but it wasn't always about numbers. This was a volatile situation and could go off at any minute. Max shook the unwanted memories from his head but they were strong, cemented into his brain lest he ever forget.

"How shall we proceed?" The officer asked.

Max froze, unable to give any orders whatsoever. He suddenly felt like this was his first day on the job. A young man, still wet behind the ears. Bullets began to fly from the windows.

"Get down! Everyone get to cover!" Max instinctively shouted out. Dammit! Stop freezing, focus of the job.

The officer next to him groaned as a bullet tore through his shoulder. Max caught him from falling outside of the car they were crouched behind. He looked round at the other cops who were busying themselves with return fire. The riot team caught his eye with expectant looks on their face. They were loyal hounds waiting for orders.

"Riot team, breach the house! I want zero fatalities, go!" Max demanded like an old war general. Good man, keep it together. "Everyone else cover the riot team."

Max watched as the riot officers performed with immaculate precision and stormed the house. He moved up with several others in tow, keeping their weapons aimed and ready. It wasn't long until several of the women were on the floor being restrained. The bullet proof plastic shields had proved invaluable once again.

"Lieutenant, several of the girls escaped through the back. The men out there can catch them."

Max looked at the women on the floor. None of them were Sam. "Get these women down to the station."

Max headed out through the back door and down one of three alleys that split into two each time. It was a labyrinth and he was starting to feel like a trapped rat. Each footstep pounded against the snowy floor as he continued to chase never ending shadows. He could feel his breath getting heavier followed by a dry burning sensation in the back of his throat. I can't let her get away.

A plank of old wood walloped into the side of his head. Max stumbled whilst trying to grab hold of the wall to stop his fall. A woman walked out from the shadows but it wasn't Sam, just another one of her Harbingers.

She ran for Max and head-butted him square in the chest. He wheezed and staggered backwards even more as she brought her boot across his face. Damn, this one knows how to fight. The two both ran to each other but she had the advantage of youth. Another boot to the face came from almost nowhere.

"Christ, you're flexible. I bet you're popular." Max quipped whilst getting his bearings back. She smiled sarcastically as she raised her boot a the third time for another crushing blow.

Max shot up off the floor like a rocket leaving most of his blood in the lower part of his body and forced his palm into her shoulder. She let out a screech of pain and an echoing curse. Max wrapped his arm around her neck and sharply pulled her free arm behind her back. He began to squeeze tightly on her neck. She struggled and desperately tried to break free but he was bigger and stronger. Age beat youth once again. Once she stopped moving Max gently laid her on the ground. He didn't enjoy that in the slightest but a sleeper hold was the best option, short of bashing head against a brick. It was more humane he kept telling himself.

A loud bang and a searing hot pain in Max's shoulder caused him to dive behind a nearby dumpster. He'd been shot. Blood slowly trickled out as he pressed his hand against the wound. Max cursed to himself how he didn't see the shooter who must have been right in front of him. Max carefully leaned out, inching gradually forward at a time. The alleyway was dark, claustrophobic, snowy and empty.

He reached out with his bloody hand and grabbed an old empty box that had almost been turned into mush from the weather. Max threw the box in hope the shooter would fire at it and give their position away but no such luck. They were playing smart. He looked across the alley and saw a small dip in the building. It was big enough for him to hide in and get a better look at the area.

After three. One. Two. Three… Go! Either he was slower than he thought or the shooter a better marksman but another red hot bullet hit his leg. Max fell to the floor like a helpless baby with his gun slipping from his grasp.

A figure stepped into the moon light with a smoking gun pointed directly at him. It was Sam, beaten, bruised and shaking; but still on top.

"Why?" Max asked breathlessly and gritting his teeth through the pain.

"She was the perfect scapegoat. I didn't want to frame her, but when the opportunity came I couldn't pass it up."

"She is dead, Sam! Roxy took her own life. I saw her cold dead body, wrists slit and laying in her own bloodied bathwater." He drove the point home upon seeing the twitch of hurt on Sam's face. He knew that deep down some shred of human emotion was in pain from what she'd done. "You delivered her to the devil yourself."

"No!" Sam shouted, clearly frustrated by what was being said. Whatever lie she had told herself was starting to waver. "I did what needed to be done! The Underbelly had to be taken for ourselves."

"Nothing you say can justify your actions! Stand by your convictions."

"No!" Sam screamed again. "There was no deal, I didn't choose her, it just happened. I saw her journal just lying there every time I visited, but this I time saw that she'd written about having blackouts and how she couldn't remember why and ended up in random places. Then it hit me, finish his work, dress my killers up as him and she would take the fall. I knew her boyfriend was Harbinger. Do you think I'm stupid? I saw him climb in and out of her window; we all did for Christ's sake! We're always on the street, we see everything. But we kept quiet because he was protecting us. He was taking down the scum and keeping us safe. But that night, when her apartment was set on fire and then we heard about these explosions in Upstate and the Financial District, he just disappeared and she became a recluse. Something had to be done, the Underbelly was up for grabs and I wasn't going to let it fall into the hands of someone worse, a monster."

"So you became one yourself." Max said finally understanding.

"The pimps humiliated us. We knew what being a prostitute would involve but it got worse, the beatings, the rapes, the forced drug use. We had no one to turn to, we were trapped in hell and I saw the devil. Harbinger, it means one that foreshadows what is to come. I was not alone; others had grown tired in being treated worse than animals. So we used the hero of the Underbelly as our weapon. We took it a step further."

"You mutilated them." Max wheezed. The loss of blood was starting to hit him hard.

"We took the tongue that they brandished us names with. We took the hands that they assaulted and traded us like meat with. We took the genitalia that they raped us with and we would have taken the brain that they concocted their unforgivable schemes with. But you interrupted us, you made Trixxx kill herself, you found out too much. Just like Thomas did, I thought that by going to the press with the first murder I would've excluded myself from any possible speculation. But the clever bastard was working too much out. I forgot about the ledger Nichols kept, a school boy error." She chuckled almost manically.

Max watched her slowly walk around him. She's starting to feel confident. They always like the sound of their own voice. It makes them feel clever when explaining their plan to the baffled cop. No one likes to go unnoticed, especially when they think they're a genius.

"I got a call from Roxy, she told me that Thomas was there and the moment I stepped in he began babbling about the murders and how he thought they were connected. I panicked and grabbed the nearest object and let him have it. I'd almost forgotten about Roxy, but when I turned round she was just standing there lifeless. I presumed she was having another 'moment' and it all worked in my favour. I had to be quick; she could have woken up at any moment. I did this to my own face and left with Roxy. In the hurry I forgot to search Thomas to see if he had the black book on him. It's a funny old world, isn't it?"

Max couldn't believe what he was hearing. Half of what had happened had been dumb luck, some almighty force had conspired with her and let almost everything conveniently hand itself to her on a silver platter. Her plan had been forming and growing one step at a time. It explained why it was so hard to pin anything. Max looked at Sam and saw she had come full circle around him and was now standing closer. Close enough for him to swing his leg out and knock her off her feet.

She hit the ground hard and let off a stray bullet which embedded itself into a nearby wall. Max's vision was starting to become fuzzy and he could feel himself shaking. He reached out for his gun but was stopped by Sam kicking his hand away. He returned the favour by pulling her leg as she reached out for her gun. She kicked again and climbed on top of Max. Her hands wrapped themselves tightly around his neck and began to squeeze.

"A lot of my customers enjoyed being strangled. They couldn't get enough of being dominated by a woman." She mocked.

Max reached for his gun whilst his body screamed in pain and desperation. The words 'like my life depends on it' kept echoing through his head. The irony of course lost on his oxygen starved brain. A finger closer… a bit more. Come on, don't die like this, not like this.

He grabbed the gun and pointed it towards Sam who momentarily froze. She spotted his shaking hand and laughed. He couldn't do it; he couldn't kill her despite being close, so close to death himself. I can't do it… I… I… damn, not now. Pull the trigger. She is killing you! Pull. The. Trigger.

"Don't feel bad lieutenant." She said whilst void of any emotion. "The Underbelly makes men weak… you're no exception."

A few drops of blood fell onto Max's face. At first he mistook them for his own but then he realised the look of confusion on Sam's face. He could see it in her eyes, her plan had just failed. Her grip went limp and she stared at Max and whispered at a barely audible level. "Needs must when the devil drives." She gracefully toppled off to one side leaving Max gasping for air.

You really do get one hell of a view from up here.

Max stood the rooftop of his apartment block overlooking New Knox. If he squinted he could just see the Underbelly in the distance. The air was cold, but fresh. Max inhaled a long drag from his cigar; something he felt he deserved. The snow had all but melted leaving just small piles of frozen mud and grime. Concave no longer had anything to hide behind.

'You're very lucky Mr Wakeman.' That's what the doctors told Max. He laughed so hard the nurses thought it was a reaction to the pain killers. The bullet in his shoulder had missed his thoracoacromial artery. He was to expect stiffness for the rest of his life but that was a good deal. The bullet in his leg was just flesh wound, another miracle. Sam, however, wasn't so lucky. A riot officer had managed to find Max and take the shot, but he made a poor choice of where to shoot. She died on the operating table.

Once he'd finally been released Max's first stop was at the station to hand his badge in. He told them that he 'couldn't handle it anymore.' He got the expected response. 'I'll keep your position open'.

Max took another long drag of his cigar and let the fumes swing around his head. They were intoxicating, like most things that would eventually kill you.

It'll take more than a crazy broad and a few bullets to stop me. He chuckled to himself. My body can be beaten, shot at and even broken, but it'll always heal. If I'm to die I know exactly what it will be. It'll be you.

THE END