A dead man lay face-down in the laneway, flies buzzing around, the stain of his blood long since soaked into the dusty dirt road. His pistol was just beyond his reach, like if he could just stretch a little farther, he might undo the damages done.
The horses stepped around him carefully. The riders, they kept their hands tight around their weapons, eyes scanning back and forth for a second round of carnage.
And it was carnage they were facing: more bodies were strewn along the road, picked apart by scavengers, beset by insects, left to rot in the early autumn sun. One had taken hours to die, crawling back toward the house, leaving a streak of rust-red dirt behind him until he’d curled up in a ball and let inevitability win.
Gauthier covered his face with his bandana to block out the smell, but felt wretched all the same. He’d seen corpses before—he’d caused more than his fair share, too—but this? This was something on a whole other scale. Nowak was gripping his musket so tight, the wood creaked from the strain of it. Dexter was staring off at a point in the woods that seemed wholly unremarkable, but somehow vitally important.
The farmhouse was still standing, at least. The windows were all broken, and the door was knocked off its hinges, but the structure was sound. No dead men on its steps, no blood sprayed upon its walls. No movement inside, either. It was dark. Dark and stagnant.
They paused a short distance away and Gauthier climbed down, tying his horse to a post and sliding two long guns from the side of his saddle. He checked that they were loaded, then rested them on his shoulder.
“Want we should look?” asked Nowak, keeping his big voice quiet. He gestured to the forest surrounding the farmhouse. “Out there?”
Gauthier shook his head slightly, as if too big a motion might bring the whole world crashing down on him. “Mind the shop,” he said. “Shoot anyone that comes out that door.”
Nowak grinned. “And if it is you?”
“I don’t run from trouble,” said Gauthier, checking his pistols, too. And his knives. And his courage. “Wait for my signal. But mind the shop.”
He started off toward the house, and—
“If he is dead,” said Dexter, and Gauthier paused, turning back again. Dexter was still staring out at that spot in the forest. It was unnerving. He spoke to Gauthier, but his attention was very much elsewhere. “If he is dead, what will we do?”
Gauthier had been running that thought through his mind from the moment they’d sent Deschênes, Topek and Mercer off to make their unholy pact with Tremblay. What if their mad scramble of a plan had gone even worse than expected? What if Tremblay took his unhinged fury out on not just Mercer, but the other two as well? Deschênes had a silver tongue, but all the words in the world wouldn’t save him from Mad Charlie Tremblay if his mood went astray.
What would they do about Aylen if the one man who could hurt him—Mercer, testifying to corruption and murder in a public trial—ended up dead by another man’s hands? If their only hope of hurting Aylen bled out in a farmhouse off the St Lawrence?
“We’ll find another Mercer,” said Gauthier. “One way or another.”
Dexter shook his head. “No. Not Mercer. Deschênes.”
Gauthier looked out into the forest, too, at the same spot as Dexter. There was nothing there. He was sure there was nothing there. But now that he saw it, he couldn’t shake the feeling it was desperately important—
A creak echoed from the inside of the farmhouse.
Maybe just the wind.
Gauthier kept a gun in each hand and went in search of answers.
The closer he got to the building, the more he could smell the stench from inside. Beyond the heartbeat in his ears, he heard the sound of a thousand flies buzzing. He paused a second, tightening the bandana around his face so it wouldn’t slip, muttering a quiet prayer under his breath for what he was about to see.
The front porch to the building was clipped and scraped by gunfire. Bits of wood stuck out at odd angles from where lead had passed. Gauthier ran his thumb over one of the bullet holes shot through a column, as he climbed the steps. Splinters threatened to stab him, but he didn’t mind. The prickling kept him alert.
The sound of the flies reached a deafening crescendo as he passed through the door, and the second he was in the room with them, they all took off into the air, a massive frenzied cloud, swarming around every which way. He squinted, hunched forward and tried to keep them from flying into his eyes, or under his mask—and after a few treacherous moments, they finally settled again…on a wasteland of death.
There were bodies everywhere. Everywhere. The place had been full when the shooting started, and no one had been given a chance to leave peacefully. Men killed where they sat, cracked bottles of liquor on their laps; women shot dead while cowering, holes through their hands and straight into their skulls; gunmen slain in the act of reloading a weapon that had already missed its shot…
And blood. So much blood, some parts were layered so thick it was still sticky and slick.
Gauthier had been around enough death, and enough ill-advised heroics, to recognize an epicentre when he saw one: the back of the main floor, off in the corner, was where it had all started.
He stopped a moment and listened past the buzzing of the flies, and looked beyond the horrors frozen in time—and he waited for some sign that Topek, Deschênes or Mercer were still alive.
There was a creak from the back of the house. Long and slow.
He slipped his finger over the trigger to his rifle and carried on.
He stepped around the blood as best he could, and the bodies, too. One woman with pale, milky eyes stared up at him, her mouth hanging open like she was surprised to see him. He couldn’t tell how she’d died, and he felt, for just a second, like he ought to bend down and close her eyes—but then he heard the creak again, and remembered he had no time for kindness.
The closer he got to the back, the clearer the sound became: breathing. Laboured, tortured breathing. The sound of pain through weighted lungs.
He tightened his grip on his weapons and moved ever closer, into the inner sanctum of Tremblay’s twisted little court, where the blood was sprayed thicker, and the bodies piled upon one another.
It was only one mouth breathing that breath. Only one soul left living in a house full of stillness. Gauthier prayed and he prayed and he begged God to let it be one of his—and that he wouldn’t just arrive in time to see them lose their fight, too.
He tried to find the source of the sound, to find the face it belonged to. And then he did. He found what he was looking for, and he gasped in shock and—
Émile reached out his hand to her. “Please,” he said. “Let me keep my promise, Marie-Celeste.”
Topek’s eyes widened instantly. “Oh hell,” he said, and in a heartbeat, aimed both his pistols at Tremblay’s face. Every other gun in the room was quickly drawn and pointed at him, Émile and Mercer at once.
It was deathly silent.
Émile kept his hand outstretched. “Please,” he said. “I’m done with failing people.”
But before she could answer, Tremblay lifted his hand and raised a finger, as if to make a point. To Émile and Topek, it was the oddest gesture—but as if by magic, all Tremblay’s men let their weapons sag, deferring to their leader without question. Everyone waited on his word. Absolutely everyone.
Tremblay grinned at Topek, at the pistols still aimed at his face. “If he gets tired,” he said to Émile, in French, “he should feel free to stand down.”
Émile watched Topek’s stance, the tension in his jaw, the squint of his eye. Standing down was not in his vocabulary. Émile was so incredibly thankful for that—and terrified of where it might lead.
“Marie-Celeste,” he said, trying his best not to let fear creep into his voice. Not just of dying, but of losing her again. The look on her face said it was almost a certainty. “Just please, come away with me—”
“Oh, I’m afraid not, Mr Spy,” said Tremblay, settling into his seat like the world wasn’t on the precipice of disaster all around him. “She’s given you her answer. And it’s a no.”
“She doesn’t know what she wants,” said Émile.
Marie-Celeste’s eyes widened in anger. “I don’t know what I want?” she said, voice crackling with rage.
“I think she understands herself better than you,” said Tremblay. “You’ve known her a night—”
“I’ve known her since before she could talk,” snapped Émile. “I saved her—”
Tremblay laughed. “No, Mr Spy. I saved her. I saved all of these people. I found them when their lives had become cages keeping them in, and I freed them and gave them choice. You come here and want to take Marie-Celeste away? Fine. She’s free to go. Convince her your cage is worth leaving for.”
Suddenly the whole room was listening to every sound Émile and Marie-Celeste made. She looked angier than ever, being put on the spot like this. Émile knew he only had a few moments to make his case, and make it good.
“I’ve spent most of my life doing the first step of righteousness, over and over again,” he said. “It was how we were trained. Take a swing at the Devil, and disappear. Let someone else sort out the rest.”
She recognized her predicament in the words he was saying, but it didn’t make her any less angry.
“I have saved hundreds of souls, but I’ve never seen it through to the end. I lost someone—someone who deserved so much better—because I couldn’t see things through to the end.” His voice cracked, and Topek gave him a sideways glance in surprise. “Halifax is the end. It may not be perfect. It may not even be right. But I promised you—I promised myself that I would save you properly…” He reached a hand out to her again, and Tremblay’s men tensed. “Please let me save you properly this time.”
Marie-Celeste regarded him with narrowed eyes for a moment, even as Tremblay watched her with a keen interest. He was desperately curious what she would decide. Émile got the sense that she was, too.
“So let me get this straight,” she said, brow furrowed. “This is all about you.”
Émile blinked back his confusion. “It’s…no—”
“You have a history of not finishing the job,” she said. “You make a mess and run away. But the thing is, Émile…you assume the mess is never cleaned. You think the world just freezes in time until you come back again. But it doesn’t. No one can live like that. You made a mess of my life, and I cleaned it up. I did that for myself. I made my life for myself.”
“What does Halifax have to do with anything?” she shouted. “That’s your fantasy, not mine! You want to come in here and drag me away from the life I made for myself to go back to the place where I was beaten and tormented, and for what? So you can feel better about yourself? Well no thank you! I’d rather not!”
Émile had no words to say. It wasn’t just the forceful denunciation that hurt him, it was the realization that she was right. He was trying to force her to be the person his guilty conscience needed her to be. Her, Béatrice, Maggie…he’d decided who they were based on the ways he could help them, and refused to see that they weren’t as simple as a single moment of helplessness.
His whole body trembled with sickness and guilt.
“I’m…I’m sorry…” he whispered. “I only wanted to—”
“I know,” said Marie-Celeste, bitterly, with a core of pity just beneath the surface. “But I don’t need you cutting open my scars to help me heal better. Just let me be. Please.”
He nodded. “Alright,” he said. “Alright, I’m sorry. You’re right.”
He couldn’t look her in the eyes. He shrank back a little, behind Topek, who could read the air well enough to know his pistols weren’t needed anymore. He lowered them slowly, carefully, making a show of putting them away.
“Good,” said Tremblay, with a wide grin on his face. “I’m glad we could sort that out to everyone’s satisfaction.” He winked at Marie-Celeste. “I swear we will never visit Halifax, my dear. Unless it’s to set it afire.”
She smiled back, and Émile could tell she truly was where she belonged.
“And so,” said Tremblay, “we come to our goodbyes. Mr Spy, you have been extremely informative and entertaining, and simply talking to you forces me to think in ways I haven’t thought in years. But as much as I do enjoy the drama you carry in your wake—and your continuing insistence you are not what you clear are—I cannot overlook the disrespect you showed Marie-Celeste—and by extension, me—just now.”
Émile’s eyes widened and his heart stopped. Tremblay’s code of ethics were notorious, and dangerous to cross. It was the most consistent thing Gauthier had warned him about: if Tremblay saw you as morally impure, you were as good as dead. “N-no, I didn’t—”
“The lady told you no, and you refused to listen,” said Tremblay. “And I cannot do business with men who refuse to listen.”
The look on his face was regret, but not nearly as bad as Émile had been expecting. This might complicate their plans to use Mercer to take down Aylen, but so long as they could walk out alive, everything else was manageable.
Until Tremblay nodded to his men, and the guns came out again.
“Kill all three,” he said. “I’m done with this nonsense.”