Constable Rían Kelly’s hands were turning white with cold, but his gloves stayed off. Gloves would keep him from holding his club tight, and he clung to that thing like it would make “right” right.
The armoured sleigh shook as they went through another dip in the frozen dirt road, thick with days of snow. Everyone jostled this way and that, but Rían somehow stayed ramrod straight, fingers tight around his weapon.
Across from him sat the prisoner, a rat of a man, with a scruffy beard and mean eyes that shone bright in the quarter-moon light that snuck through the narrow windows all around. Rían watched as the man licked his ragged teeth, eyes flicking down at the club like it amused him.
“Lookin’ real cold there, constable,” he said, his muddy Irish accent making every word feel like a dagger. “Go on, put on yer gloves. I won’t tell.”
Rían sat straighter, jaw clenched tight, trying to ignore the rat-man.
The prisoner tried to scratch his chin, but the shackles kept him just shy of his goal. He acted as if he didn’t care, and went back to focusing on Rían’s hands. “Good way to get frostbite, that,” he said. “Ain’t much use for a constable with no hands, is there?”
Rían squeezed the club tighter, and realized he couldn’t quite feel his fingers anymore. It was just an odd numbness, punctuated by little jolts of flickering jaggedness that wasn’t quite pain but wasn’t pleasant, either. The rat-man might be right. Dammit.
He tucked his hands under the sleeves of his thick fur coat, but didn’t slacken his grip one bit.
The rat-man peered over at Owens, Rían’s superior, who was lounging in the corner like a man who was accustomed to late-night sleigh rides. They went through an even deeper trench, which jostled everyone even more violently. Outside, the driver called out: “God damn half-assed roads!”
The rat-man grinned to himself. “Shoulda just let me be,” he said. “Nothin’s worth this.”
Rían’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward, club under the rat-man’s chin, pressing on his Adam’s apple. “What did you just say?” he growled, his own Irish accent crisp with anger.
“I said,” was the reply, “you shoulda just let me be.”
“You killed a man,” said Rían. “We can’t just let that be.”
The rat-man shrugged. “Priorities, I guess. See, if I was you—”
Rían pushed the stick harder into the man’s throat: “I’m nothing like you, you disgusting little—”
“Kelly, ease up,” said Owens, and Rían pulled his club back. “You leave a bruise, there’ll be hell to pay when we get to the jailhouse.”
Rían twisted the stick in his numbed hands.
“Yeah, Kelly,” said the rat-man. “Hell to pay.”
Owens passed Rían a flask that smelled of cheap whiskey. He took a short swig to be polite, handed it back. Owens gulped down a mouthful, hissing at the cold. “You’ve got to loosen up, man,” he said. “You stay wound this tight, you’re not doing any more of these runs, you understand me? They’re hard enough as it is, without worrying ’bout you going off on a bound prisoner.”
Rían nodded. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Sorry, sir.”
“Now cover your damn hands and let’s get a little shut-eye while we can.”
He settled back in his spot a little more comfortably, and Rían tried to relax a little, too, with limited success.
The rat-man was playing with his ring: a big golden thing, rectangular, with a fleur-de-lys in the middle, and gnarled grooves as black as night all around. Looked dangerous, all on its own, like a miniature hammer ready to be pounded into bone.
He twisted it this way and that, then caught sight of Rían watching him. He grinned, stroking the emblem affectionately. “Don’t get the wrong idea,” he said. “I only keep it for sentimental reasons.” He met Rían’s eyes and smiled. “First Frenchman I ever killed.”
Bile rose in Rían’s throat, but he said nothing. He knew a taunt when he heard one.
The rat-man wasn’t finished yet: “Toughest fingers you ever saw, that one,” he said. “Had t’just get in there with a knife and cut it loose, else—”
Rían’s frozen hand pushed the rat-man’s head back against the wall behind him, slamming it there, pressing it hard. His rage was unmistakable. The prisoner’s amusement was too.
“That’s a confession to murder,” said Rían, wishing he could just push the monster’s head straight through the wood and be done with him.
“Already acquitted, constable. But thanks for carin’.”
Rian glanced over at Owens, who was deliberately ignoring the exchange. His anger fizzled, and he let go of the prisoner’s head, easing back into his seat and re-gripping the club, as he worked through the implications of…everything.
The rat-man settled himself again, going back to playing with his ring. “His wife never noticed it,” he mused. “Never said a word about it, whole time we were together.” He shrugged. “Not that I understood a word came out of her mouth, ’cept non, non, non!”
Rían stared at him as he laughed, unable to process what he was seeing. “You’re a monster.”
“Aye,” smiled the prisoner, then stomped his feet on the ground and cackled. “Gods, this is fun. We should do this more often! Our little gossip club, talkin’ the nights away.”
“Shut up,” said Rían, trying not to show how close he was to yet another eruption. “No more talking. Just shut up.”
“Aw, don’t be cross, constable. Look, if y’don’t like the company, maybe try building a courthouse in town. Save us all a lot of sufferin’.”
Rían refused to make eye contact. Refused to crack again.
“I mean it’s mad, don’t you think?” said the man. “Trekkin’ all the way out to Perth every time someone does somethin’ a little wrong?”
“A little wrong?” growled Rían, losing his composure all over again. “Is that what you—”
“Kelly!” snapped Owens. “For God’s sake, man! Don’t take his bait!” He pointed a warning finger at the rat-man. “And don’t you provoke him, Sisk. This is Hell enough as it is.”
Rían looked over at the rat-man anew: “Sisk?” he asked. “Cedric Sisk?”
The rat-man tipped his head like a bow. “At your service, Constable Kelly.”
Rían pushed back in his seat. His fingers were so tight around the stick now, he was afraid he might break it. He felt a chill straight through him, like he was standing in the cold, naked, as the cruel wind crackled through him.
“I d-didn’t know…” he said, giving sideways glances to Owens that were thoroughly ignored. “I mean I—”
“Too late for second thoughts, Kelly,” said Owens. “You bagged him, you own it.”
Rían leaned closer to Owens, speaking under his breath in the vain hopes that Sisk wouldn’t hear. “But protection, sir. For my wife. If she—”
“No one’s done anything that can’t be forgiven,” said Owens, pulling his collar up over his nose and mouth to keep out the cold. “Yet, anyway.”
“Aye,” said Sisk. “But it’s a long damn road to Perth, now isn’t it.”
Rían looked through the bars of the tiny window behind him, at the barren, snowy wasteland spreading off into a murky, intangible distance. How long had they been riding? How long left to go? Why wasn’t there a courthouse in town? How long to get there, how long to get back, and by the time they did—
“Your wife got a name, Constable Kelly?” asked Sisk, jagged teeth arranged in a frightful smile.
Rían pointed his stick out as a warning. “You leave her alone.”
Sisk’s smile gave a nasty twitch. “She’s pretty, I bet. Red hair. Curls, too. Mmm, yeah, I can see ’em now. Fiery red curls, spillin’ down her shoulders, all the way to her—”
Rían cracked the billy club on Sisk’s knee, and the rat-man squealed in pain that somehow morphed into a crooked, menacing laugh. The man made very deliberate eye contact and licked his lips. “Oh, this is gonna be a fun night. I can tell already.”
The stick was back, pressed against Sisk’s left cheekbone, as Rían leaned forward to say: “I’m not afraid of you.”
Sisk shrugged. “Not too bright, then, are ya?”
Rían couldn’t get his next words out, because the sleigh lurched so hard to the side, it was like they’d fallen into a hole straight down to Hell itself. It felt like the left skids broke clean off from the violence of it, and with a vicious jolt, they all slammed down at an awkward angle, tumbling against the wall, the constables thrown furthest of all because Sisk was still held tight by his shackles.
Rían felt warmth on his forehead and knew that he was bleeding, but not enough to slow him down. He got back to his feet as best as he could, pressed the stick to Sisk’s neck as a warning as Owens righted himself, dabbing a glove on his split lip.
“Jesus Murphy!” shouted the driver, outside. “Y’could just wave me down next time!”
Rían tried to see out the window but all he could make out were snow-covered trees and the blue-black of the nighttime sky.
Then, around back, they heard the crunching of boots in the snow and the jingle of the chain over the rear doors being shaken loose and pulled away. The torchlight blinded Rían when the doors swung open. He pushed the stick harder into Sisk’s neck, as if it would change the equation in the slightest.
Sisk just laughed.
“Leave ’im be!” shouted a voice, outside. Rían could finally see, on the road in front of them, six fur-wrapped men with white masks pulled over their faces, hammers and clubs dangling loose from their hands.
Irish thugs. Shiners.
Owens shot Rían a warning glare. “Let him loose,” he said.
Sisk grinned over his shoulder, while the stick pushed harder into his throat. Outside, the hammers were being held a little less loosely, a little more purposefully.
Owens stomped his foot and pointed a warning finger. “Constable Kelly, unshackle the prisoner this instant.”
Thunk went the pitted head of a hammer, dragging slowly along the back of the outside wall. The wolves were circling.
Rían took a sharp breath, twisting the stick. “He killed a man in cold blood.”
“Seemed a mercy, after he lost his ears and nose…” laughed Sisk.
“You do not speak,” warned Rían, then pleaded with Owens…to what end, he couldn’t even tell. “If we don’t stand against this, what good are we?”
Owens sighed, shook his head, and said: “I’m sorry, Mr Sisk. He’s new. Still learning.”
Sisk grinned at Rían, held up his wrists. “Learn faster, boy,” he said, then jingled the shackles. “It’s too cold out for a conscience.”
The men outside were right up by the doors now, their weapons more menacing by the flickering torchlight. Their breath plumed into the sleigh, smelled like bitter spirits and rage.
Rían looked to the shackles, to the man they held back.
He reached for his keys with trembling hands, but his fingers were so numb, he dropped them somewhere in the darkness.
“Oh for God’s sake,” grumbled Owens, and fished his own keys out and undid the lock, pulling it off and letting the shackles drop away.
Sisk massaged his wrists, tipped his cap to Rían. “Constable Kelly,” he said. “A pleasure.”
He hopped out of the sleigh, and was greeted with a fur coat of his own and a heavy chain, which he slung over his shoulder. He peered back at the two constables and gave a nod.
“Best get on out of there,” he said, mere seconds before two of his comrades threw their torches onto the sleigh, setting it ablaze.
Rían and Owens scrambled for the exit, tumbling out into the snow as the Shiners headed back for their horses—and took the two that had been pulling the sleigh, too. The driver was chasing after, desperate, calling: “Wait! Wait, leave us one, at least! We’ll f-f-freeze to death out here!”
One of the Shiners kicked him to the ground and spat on him.
Sisk stood by his horse, playing with his ring again, making a fist on and off, on and off. “Next time, keep your pup to heel. Something to consider on your long walk home.”
Owens glared at Rían, fiercely, when he said: “Yes sir, Mr Sisk. Understood.”
The Shiners all mounted their horses, got ready to ride. Sisk was about to mount his, too, when he got a mischievous glint in his eye, looked back and said: “I’ll let your wife know you’re delayed, Constable Kelly. And don’t worry, I’ll make sure she’s not lonely.”
That was just too far. Rían’s anger boiled over. He grabbed his club and pointed it with fury, shouting: “You touch her, you’re a dead man!”
Sisk let go of his horse, turned to face Rían with the calmest of expressions on his face. His fingers wrapped around the midsection of the gnarled rusted chain, pulling it loose. Bits of metal jutted from its joins; the bottom, dragging in the snow at his feet, left streaks of rusted red. A dozen shades of blood.
Rian’s numb fingers held tight to his weapon, even as his courage faltered.
“A dead man, am I?” said Sisk, and began spinning the chain, faster and faster.
Rían’s teeth chattered as he tried to focus on what came next. What came after. It was too late for anything else.
“Forgive me,” he whispered, and charged.
Sisk just laughed, and whipped his arm around, and the chain went—