She knocked on his door three times in succession, letting her hand rest flat on it afterwards, willing it to open soon. Her back was burning, from that presence she could feel looming over this part of the village, she had to resist the urge to glance at the large house on the top of the hill where Major Blackwood Murphy and his son lived. Her nails dug into the wood as she pictured his, admittedly lovely, face in a window, looking down at her. She wondered what expression he wore when there was no one there to see him. Was it anything like the apathetic one he had on when with her, he had given up pretending to smile when he was with her since the incident had occurred. Now he no longer pretended. Her face burned, covering her freckles with a pinkish glow in two blotchy patches on each cheek. Open the door, ginger. Come on. She closed her eyes tight and hoped, eventually feeling the solidness of the door give way as he pulled it open with one rough yank.
“What are you doing here?” He spluttered as she stumbled to keep her footing. He glanced up to the house too. “If he sees me with you…” He grasped her shoulders and pulled her into the house.
It was a pretty nice house for just one person. Most people in the village lived with their families but he got one to himself, and with two bedrooms too, what a waste of space.
“Look, I needed to talk to you about something.” She said as she wandered her way around the living room, taking in the plate of potatoes and meat on the table and the discarded book that was placed next to it. “Sorry were you busy?” She said sarcastically, picking up the book and reading the page he had left it open on.
Something about a monster. “You read?” She said. He really was a rich boy then. Nobody read around here, except from the Bible, and certainly not the kind of stories with monsters in them. She knew what this was though. “An Old Country book? These are illegal.” She was shocked, she didn’t take him for the type. “Where did you smuggle this from? I didn’t think you Empire types would be interested in reading stuff like this, it’s all old myths from around here. The Empire always said they’re nothing but rubbish” She flicked through the pages, there were drawings of what she could only describe as creatures, with fangs and claws like animals, but none of recognisable to Lahel, and she always prided herself for knowing just about every animal that lived in this Godforsaken country. Her eyes grazed the page and landed on the bottom, where something the likes of which she had never seen squirmed on the page, terrifying: a snake-like thing with wings about as long as it was. A demon. She couldn’t imagine what would happen if the village people saw this. They had enough strange superstitions anyway, if they saw stuff like this they would start believing in it in a minute. They always got rather frenzied about their demons, who knows what kind of trouble it would cause, that’s why the Empire took these books away from them.
“Hey!” He grabbed the book out of her hands with a tug and hugged it towards himself like he could hide it from her, his face looking even paler than usual. He was nervous, maybe he thought she would show it to the villagers, they could make things really difficult for him after all.
“Don’t worry.” She laughed, spotting the opportunity to blackmail him with an immoral amount of glee. “I won’t tell anyone. Assuming you help me that is.” She sat down heavily and leaned towards him with her hands under her chin, waiting for his answer.
He sat down opposite her with an exasperated sigh. “If you let him find out, it won’t just be me in danger, you too, and everyone else.”
“Shush!” He drew up his hand so quickly, she thought that he was going to hit her. He looked around, especially at the window behind him that framed nothing but cloudy greyness. “If this is what I think it may be, we need to be more careful from now on.”
She had no idea what he was talking about, but he had said we, and that meant that he was planning on working with her from now on. Hopefully, that meant he would be more co-operative. “Anyway, I’ve just been with Norah and the Hughes sisters, and they knew what the man was called, the one who died.” He perked up at this, so she continued. “Finnegan Crowe. I knew him a bit, a young guy, a couple of years older than me, pretty tall too.”
“No, that’s not right.” He shook his head, looking down at his hands which had clasped themselves together seemingly without his consent. “He was old, the man I saw.”
“You saw? You saw what happened? Why didn’t you tell me?” She began to shout but he cut her off with another hand gesture for her to be quiet and a second glance at the window, which was still empty.
“I didn’t tell you because you’d shout like this. I told you, we have to be careful. You’re too loud.” He looked slightly irritated. “And anyway, you say he was young? The man I saw was old, short, he looked homeless to me.”
Lahel frowned. “No Finnegan wasn’t like that at all, he was always well-groomed, lived with his ma and all and she kept him clean. You’d never mistake him for a homeless man.”
He groaned quietly, putting a hand to his forehead as if it hurt. “So it’s not him after all.” Somehow, she got the feeling he wasn’t talking to her. He certainly wasn’t looking at her, more at the wall to the side of her. “He did say he was just a thief, the one who killed that kid. That he deserved it.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The man Murphy killed, it wasn’t the one from the doorstep. It was someone else.”
Lahel gasped. “Murphy killed?” This was what she had always suspected but to hear him say it. “So there was another one?” But ginger wasn’t listening, he was in his own world at this point.
“It wasn’t him, maybe he really was telling the truth.” He said with a half-smile, nodding a little manically.
“But he still killed someone, Clancy. You need to tell me what happened, I can take him in for this.” She stood up and tried to grasp his shoulders, forcing him to look at her, but he slipped out of her grasp.
“He was telling the truth, we don’t need to worry anymore.” He was getting louder and louder, the desperate tenor of his voice sounding hysterical in her ears. He was convincing himself, she could hear it. She had to stop him, calm him down, get him to talk to her.
“Okay, okay, he was telling the truth, but what exactly did he tell you, Clancy? What did he say he had done?”
“He only killed him because he had to. He was saving us.” His piercingly blue eyes locked onto hers with a sudden turn of his head. “We don’t need to worry now.” He laughed, standing up and turning her around with a hand at her shoulder. Before she knew it, she was being pushed towards the door.
“No, Clancy, you need to tell me what happened. I can get him arrested now, you don’t need to worry about him anymore.”
He laughed again, way too loud in her ear. “It’s fine now, you don’t need to worry. Forget what you heard, go home.” He had already opened the door.
“What?” She yelled as he pushed her out the door, she tripped on the step and fell out into the street, to her horror hearing the door bolt behind her. She turned with horror. What was happening? She had just heard exactly what she needed to hear but at the same time she felt all the doors for her finally catching him closing. The Hughes’ and Norah O’Connor were convinced Nevan was the murderer and this guy was sure that Murphy wasn’t. “Clancy!” She shouted. “You better say whatever you saw to Nevan when I get him arrested. You’re the only evidence I need. You better do it.” Nothing answered her but a gust of wind and a few bleating sheep in the distance. She got up to her knees and crawled nearer to the door, banging at it with her bruised knuckles. “You have to, Clancy! I’ll tell them about that book of yours.” Nothing. “Damn it!” She gritted her teeth together so hard her jaw began to ache. Why did everything keep going wrong. If she told about the book he may get a bit chewed out by the Guard but that was about it, if they found out why she was here she was really going to get in trouble. An illegal investigation may get her demoted. It wouldn’t be worth it. She cursed into the cold air.
Then, suddenly she remembered where she was. She looked up at that house on the hill, wishing she could see into its long windows but the house had such an impossible façade: from its tall, sloping roof, to the dark walls and the forbidding fence that kept everyone at a distance. It was just like him, she thought. You couldn’t even get close enough to it to see the beautiful carvings of angels and birds that adorned the wood on every window frame, she herself had only seen them once, a long time ago now. They had been beautiful.
She scrambled up to her feet, brushing the dust of her uniform with a wrinkled nose. She always took such care to keep it clean that it hurt to see it even the littlest bit messy. And for him to push her, it just made her want to scream.
She stared up at the house. It was all his fault. Everything had gone wrong since she’d known him. He had killed someone, she knew he had now, and he was still going to get away with it. She couldn’t let this happen. It was getting dark already, he would be going on his shift in just a few hours. She could wait until then.
She turned on her heel, trying to keep as much dignity as she could muster, and marched her way towards the Guard house, polished shoes clicking away on the cobbles.
In the house on the hill a dark figure watched from the window, a smile on his face as he watched the little Lieutenant stomp away. All was going to plan.