Lahel woke up with a start, looking around with an unsettled feeling. She didn’t know when she had fallen asleep or what could have woken her. The last thing she could remember was sitting at home, alone in her room, just thinking about what she was going to do about this dilemma.
She stretched, limbs stiff from the cold in her room. Had she left the window open? She couldn’t recall, but it was open now. She stood up and slammed it closed, and whilst standing there she looked out onto the street. It was early, the sun still yet to crest the hill on top of which the Blackwood Murphy house crouched, dark as a crow. The morning light lay in thin rays over its spiked turrets like pierced strips of silk. She drew the heavy curtains together; she didn’t want to see it now. Not now that she couldn’t do anything about it. If only there was someone else she could talk to. Some more evidence out there, something Nevan couldn’t ignore, but there was nowhere else to look. That thought made her pause for a moment. There was one place she had not yet tried. Sergeant Murphy himself. Of course, it was a long shot, but if she could get him to admit it, that would be the end of it. How to make him talk, though? She couldn’t arrest him again; the Guard wouldn’t let her, then again, she didn’t have to go through the Guard this time, did she? Was it worth the risk though? Perhaps. She needed some weapons though, really she could do with her belt back. She’d have to think about it later, right now she thought she could hear some talking downstairs. Had one of the women from town come to talk to ma? That would be bad, they could reveal that she was on leave. They would love to be the ones to first tell her, but Lahel couldn’t let that happen, not before she had told her.
She didn’t even bother to get dressed, just threw herself down the stairs as fast as she could and burst into the kitchen so hurriedly that she practically fell over. Add froze. Instead of the two women she had been expecting to be sitting there, gossiping, there sat the General Nevan opposite her rather annoyed looking ma, holding a chipped mug of tea so far from himself she would have thought if stank or something. He looked even more child-like than usual, sitting on the kitchen stool with his feet dangling a foot above the tiled floor and legs swinging, but somehow he still managed to look as creepy as he usually did perched behind his great big desk in his throne-like chair back in the Guard house.
“General?” She spluttered. “What are you….”
“So, you’ve been fired then.” Her ma interrupted in a hiss. “And when, exactly, were you planning on telling me?”
“No ma, it’s not like that.” Damn it, she should have told her last night, but she had looked so tired after working on the farm all day that she hadn’t wanted to pile any more stress onto her shoulders.
“You know what I told you, if you don’t have that job you’re marrying your cousin and taking over the farm. It seems that the job was too much for you anyway, from what Nevan here has been telling me.” She cringed at the familiar way her ma addressed the General. She hoped he wouldn’t take offence.
“Actually,” the General spoke in his strange, high-pitched voice, “Lahel has not been fired, Mrs Callahan.”
“I’m not a Mrs anymore.” She retorted, completely missing the main point of his statement.
“You are still a Mrs, my dear,” he smiled at her, “just as Lahel is still a Guard. She is just on a break, as I have been telling you. She will come back eventually, just as you and your dear husband will someday be reunited.” Something about that sounded vaguely threatening, but not enough for her ma to get the message.
She continued her tirade on her daughter as if he had not spoken. “It’s about time you gave up this silly dream and settled down, a young, unmarried woman like you isn’t going to get anywhere being a Guard, not with all those men there. They laugh at you, you know. I heard them. They’re never going to take you seriously.”
She could feel that familiar sensation of anger bubbling in her, building up to a steaming red in her cheeks as she stared down hard at the floor tiles. Her ma thought she really didn’t know what they thought of her in the Guard. She did. She always had, and she didn’t care. She was going to change their mind when she finally got Murphy and stopped these murders. He ma and everyone else was going to see that she was right, and she wasn’t going to get married to her stupid limping cousin or take over the bloody failing farm. She was going to do what she wanted, even if she was a ‘young, unmarried woman’. Her mouth opened, and she knew she was going to say something she’d regret just to wipe that all-knowing expression of her ma’s face. She tried to gulp it down, but the woman was still going.
“Nevan told me you’ve been asking around about these murders, even bothering Major Murphy about it. Really? What is wrong with you, child, always sticking your nose into trouble? You’re going to get yourself killed one of these days, like that girl they found the other night, when you were apparently busy accusing the Major’s son of murder. You think it won’t happen? Because it will with the way you’re carrying on.”
She breathed out slowly, trying to convince herself that it was better to just not say anything at all, but it seemed that she didn’t have to, Nevan was taking on her ma for her.
“Mrs Callahan, do you think she’d be any safer working on the farm?”
Her ma looked at him like he’d just asked her how old she was, or something else hugely inappropriate like that. He didn’t give her a chance to answer anyway.
“If this murderer is out there, or whatever ‘monster’ you believe is doing this killing, she wouldn’t be any safer at home. And I even propose that she would be better able to protect herself if she continued on as a member of the Guard. We look after our people well, Mrs Callahan.”
That last bit set her off. “Oh, I know you look after your people, all you Empire types are the same after all. What about everyone else, notice how all the people have been killed are our people, and not one of yours has so much as a scratch on them.” Lahel’s mouth dropped. She knew how her mother and most of the townspeople thought about the Guard, but she hadn’t expected her to be so straight-forward about it. She watched in horror as her ma raised a challenging eyebrow to the General. “I don’t want my daughter associated with whatever shifty business is going on with your Guard, especially when it all comes to light.” Lahel gasped. Her ma had just threatened the General of the Gokheya Guard with a rebellion, how would he react?
She turned to look the General in his impossibly wrinkled face, searching those pearly eyes for any hint of emotion. He wasn’t angry, was he? She hoped not. Unexpectedly, and somehow even more concerningly, he laughed. “Believe me, Mrs Callahan, I want to know what’s going on just as much as you. I have realised that none of our Guard members have yet been harmed but that doesn’t mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that we are not doing our best to protect the townspeople.”
“But…” ma began, but he cut her off quickly.
“I’m afraid I did actually come here with an intention in mind, Mrs Callahan. I wish I had more time to chat with you,” he said, sounding as if he could think of nothing worse, “but I must talk to Lahel now. Alone, if you will.”
Her ma wrinkled her brow, but, for once, decided not to challenge him. “Right,” she said, “Well that’s just perfect for me because I am rather busy looking after my farm alone.” With that last word she made a face at Lahel that made her know she would be getting hell for this later, grabbed her coat of the hook and made her way to the front door. “Lahel.” She said, with her palm wrapping around the handle, “I trust that you will make the right decision for all of us.”
“I can only make decisions for myself, ma.” She answered with reckless bravery, and watched as her ma’s shoulders slump slightly as she marched out the door.
She felt those unseeing eyes on her back. “So, you heard I went to talk to Major Murphy.” She murmured, still looking at the door.
“Yes.” He answered.
“But you’re not going to fire me.” She ventured.
“No, Lahel” He sighed, and she felt her heart jump back up from its quivering place at the pit of her stomach. “I’ve been thinking that I may have been too harsh last time.”
“You changed your mind that easily?” She found that hard to believe, after all he’d said last time. Something must have happened.
“Yes, well, no. I said Major Murphy came to tell me you visited yesterday, and I have to admit that he was acting…strange. I’ve been thinking it for a while, but last night it was worse than usual. I wanted to know if you found out anything.”
She stuck up her nose a bit at that. “So, you want me to help you? Even though you were just threatening to fire me. That doesn’t seem fair, after all I am on leave from the Guard.”
“Now listen, Lahel, I know I said that the other day, but I thought about it and there’s really nothing I can do except from allowing you to help.”
“Why me? Why don’t you get someone else to do it, someone you haven’t put on probation, maybe?” She crossed her arms.
“I couldn’t ask anyone else to investigate him, that would let on that there’s something wrong with the high-ups. I can’t afford having any weaknesses in my Guard’s trust in me at the moment, not with the murders and the Empire visit coming up.”
“So I’m just a ‘weakness’, am I? What’s to say you won’t fire me as soon as I’ve helped you?”
“I won’t Lahel. You have to trust me. We’ll sort this out, just the two of us. We don’t need say so much as a word about this to anyone else.”
“I don’t think I do trust you, you know?” She mused, looking past him dreamily. Surely, he didn’t think she was this stupid. She wouldn’t tell him a thing without a guarantee.
He sighed. “I can do better than that,” he reached deep into his pocket and pulled something out, “Your gun. Take it.” He gestured at her with the pistol and, when she didn’t take it, slid it across the table towards her. “I won’t officially reinstate you yet, it’ll be better for your snooping around, especially as you’ll be dealing with Guard members that know you’re on leave. If this murderer is in my own Guard I want to know about it, you have to understand Lahel. If you do this for me before the Empire representatives come tomorrow, your prospects in the Guard are going to get eminently better.”
She laughed. “A day? A bloody day! That’s what your giving me. How the hell am I meant to do that, huh? And if I can’t do it you’re going to fire me? How does that seem fair to you?” She wasn’t even sure who it was yet. It wasn’t even possible.
“That’s strange, I thought you would have learned something from all your snooping. You went to see Sergeant Clancy as well, didn’t you? You didn’t learn a thing?” How did he know about that?
“I did.” She wondered if she should tell him about the murder Murphy committed. Clancy had said it was a homeless man, a thief no less. And that he had been the one to kill that child. Maybe it was justified. But then again, he hadn’t told the Guard about it, if it was fine he wouldn’t have kept it a secret. “Some of what he said could be considered….useful.” Whatever happened, it was best not to tell him too much. After all, she was suspicious of him too. If he really was the one to attack Einin, maybe he had ulterior motives for sending her out to investigate. She looked down at the gun he had pushed in front of her.
“Not going to tell me, huh?” She could hear a little smile in his voice. “What about the Major, did anything he said stand out to you. I am concerned about him.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t get a chance to speak to him that much before Murphy turned up.” She sorted through what he had said, wondering what would interest him. “He did say something about forgetting the day, like he had been blacking out.”
General Nevan made a small sound in the back of his throat, as if he had been expecting that. Did he know something?
“If you’ve got any information, you’re going to have to tell me if you expect me to help. I’ll need everything you’ve got, General, if I’m going to do this in a day.”
“I thought I saw him that day Murphy was in jail, the day we found that woman in the streets and it proved he couldn’t be the murderer.” Could it be, she thought, could it be that Murphy’s alibi wasn’t all it seemed? “He was dragging something from up in the fields, I couldn’t see what it was, but he was the one who found her first. I had never suspected him until then, I knew there was something wrong, but I didn’t think he could be the murderer.”
“But he’s not!” She grabbed his hands, cold and tiny as they were. “It’s his son, I’m sure of it. He must just be protecting him, there’s no way the Major would kill someone.”
“I hope your right, Lahel.” He shook his head. “I really do.”
“If you don’t believe me, why are you asking me to capture Sergeant Murphy?”
“There’s something to him, even if he isn’t the murderer. I’ve thought about it ever since the Major found him, he could be that hero the townspeople are all talking about.”
“The hero? No, he’s no hero, General. Quite the opposite.”
“You may be a bit biased, Lahel, but I’ve been watching him for a while and if there’s any chance that he is, the Empire must know, before he creates an uprising.”
Well, it didn’t matter why she got to capture him, as long as he got caught. And all the better if she was the one to do it. “I can do it.” She sighed.
“Take him away but do it subtly, just keep him in the house the day the Empire leaders come along, and they will collect him, don’t want him causing any trouble or getting the villagers riled up while they’re here to see. And I’ll deal with the Major. If he really is the monster, it’s going to be hard work.”
The monster? What did he mean by that? That was that silly thing the townspeople round here believed in, wasn’t it? It was nothing more than rumours. He really thought the Major was the one killing people around here? Well, no matter, she would be the one to catch the real killer. She grinned, knowing that he couldn’t see, and showed him to the door. She watched him stretch to grab his cloak from the hook and stood at the door as his tiny figure receded into the grey fog outside.
Today was a big day. She held the gun out in front of her, aiming at where she had last seen his back, and took of the safety. This time she was going to come out on top.
She let the door creak open, revealing the dark hallway. The light from outside painted a jagged stripe half way up the first set of steps, before they twisted around the corner and up to the top storey of the house. She crept her first few steps inside, glancing from side to side to see if any of the downstairs rooms were occupied. No, she decided as she pressed the door closed silently, there was no one here, all the doors were partially open, but each was unlit. Someone could be sitting in there in the dark, she supposed, but she doubted it. No. The house was drawing her upstairs, calling for her. She was sure he was up there.
She was finally going to do it. To detain him. The excitement was trickling down her spine like cold water. It almost felt like fear, but each shiver had her heart pumping and muscles tensing with eagerness to get up there and catch him. She took three steps at once, hoping they wouldn’t creak, but not caring if they did. It was over now anyway, he couldn’t get away.
As she got to the corner, she drew the pistol out of her pocket and held it up before her. Her hands shook with each reverberating thump of her heart, and she turned the corner with a twist, pointing her gun at every inch of darkness in front of her in case he was waiting for her there. No, she could see where he was now. The only door that wasn’t open was right before her, at the end of the corridor. Somehow, the darkness that seeped out from under that particular door seemed more solid than that of everywhere else, sticky like treacle; pooling around her feet as she approached like liquid pitch.
She released one hand from the gun, feeling the blood prickle away from her cheeks as she did, and reached for the shining handle. With the touch of cold metal under her palm, she knew there was no turning back. One twist and it would be over. Her muscles did it without her even thinking. And, as it creaked open, she wished she had taken another minute to compose herself. The smell is what assailed her first. A sickly-sweet kind of smell, unexpected when she saw what lay before her. The window was open, and from the empty darkness came clouds of moths and flies whose fat bodies bounced off her face as she entered the room. There were so many it seemed almost impossible. She wanted to shake her head, knock them away with a toss of her head like horses did, but her eyes were glued to the emerging shapes she saw collected in the darkness. Their little bodies thrown aside like paper bags: limbs splayed, big eyes deflated, fur slick with blood and sweat. With horror, she realised that she could see to the white bone of their spines through the gaping skin of their necks, each one’s head was holding on only by a thin strip of hide. And that’s where those flies were settling; a buzzing clot of black bodies, squirming about their raw flesh. They were flung around the room, some even on top of each other. Puppies, dogs, a few cats as well, though it was hard to tell the difference in the dark and with them as mutilated as they were.
My God, she thought, as she covered her mouth with her hand. The smell and the sight together were just too much, her throat retched convulsively, painfully dry. In her shock she almost forgot about him. There he was, stretched out among the bodies with his eyes closed and legs crossed at the ankles, looking almost dead himself if it wasn’t for that little smile on his lips.
“Child…” He murmured, still smiling with those cat-like teeth exposed. “…you shouldn’t have come here.” He shook his blonde head with childish glee from side to side and opened one golden eye to look at her.
She drew the shaking gun down to point at him, trying to keep the thing trained on his face. “I had to come, Nevan finally gave me permission to arrest you.” She gritted her teeth, but she couldn’t pretend that her voice wasn’t shaking just as much as her hands.
“Nevan sent you to your death, huh? How ironic, I always thought he would sacrifice himself when the time came.” He held up a lazy hand and traced a languid shape upon the ceiling with his finger. “I expected him to be the one to come through that door today, you know. You really have defied my expectations this time, little one. I rather hoped you had given up on this silliness the first time I warned you.”
“You underestimate me then. I didn’t give up for a second. And I’ve been wanting to out you for a long time, Murphy.” She used her other hand to steady the gun, but she feared the quivering of her voice was undermining her assertiveness.
“Perhaps I did.” He grinned, and then looked up with an overdramatic sigh. “Maybe it was just wishful-thinking on my part.”
She narrowed her eyes. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I told you.” He turned his face back to the ceiling and pouted with mock petulance. “I’d rather hoped you forgot about this whole meddlesome thing. I was going to leave you perfectly alone had you chosen not to stick your nose in.”
“What do you mean you’ll leave me alone? Do you not see this gun? I’m the one in control today.”
He laughed out loud this time. “In control? Does it feel like that to you?” He paused, as if waiting for her answer. He must now that she wasn’t so she decided to ignore that question.
“I don’t see your gun.” She shifted her front foot forward to steady herself.
He held up both hands in front of his face and looked at them. “You’re right, no gun!” He shouted, turning them over and inspecting both sides. “My hands are empty, I have nothing with which to defend myself.”
He looked far too pleased with himself for her liking. She scanned the room for a gun. “Stand up.” She demanded. “Stand up!” She repeated, louder, even though he was already standing up. He was still not much taller than her, maybe even skinner than she was, but, somehow, he made her flinch as he stretched to his full height. The ease of his movement made her think of something animal, he was lying down then all at once upright, muscles obeying his whims effortlessly.
She gulped and shuffled forward to pat him down. As she thought, he had no gun. That confidence he exuded was from something else, something she feared was altogether more terrifying.
As her hand brushed against his clothes, on its way to retreating back to the safety of her own self, he grabbed it so quickly she couldn’t even feel shock at its arrival around her wrist. “It really is a shame, Lahel.” With that voice, she could almost believe he meant it. “There haven’t been many people I wished to leave alive despite being so troublesome to my plans. In fact, you are one of only two.”
She tried to pull her wrist away, but it was immediately clear he was far too strong, surprisingly so. “Who’s the other lucky fellow to get this grand treatment, I wonder.” She was glad she could still pull of that level of sarcasm, even though her voice was not as convincing as she would have liked.
“You know, you’ve always reminded me of her.” He carried on as if she hadn’t spoken. “She was just as irritating, just as stupidly optimistic, had just enough faith in this corrupt justice system before I showed her the truth.” He cocked his head to the side. “Maybe that’s one difference between you, you never seem to have realised the ineptness of this Empire and its Guard, of justice as a whole. I could have shown you that. If only you hadn’t gotten involved.”
“She?” She asked, and as soon as she said it she shook her head, she didn’t want him to answer that. “Anyway, you’re caught now, there’s nothing you can do.”
He glanced briefly at the barrel of the gun and at his hand on her wrist. “You know, I was getting tired of pretending, it’s refreshing to not have to do it anymore.” He tightened his grip enough to make her gasp, she felt the weakness shaking in the back of her knees and hoped to God she wouldn’t fall. Still, her finger didn’t leave the trigger. “I’m not scared of this little thing.” He said, looking at her with a look in his eyes which resembled something like sadness. She wasn’t sure if he was talking about the gun or her.
“If you do something to me, the General knows, he’s the one who sent me here and he won’t let you get away with it. I’ve told him everything I know, he can get you locked away for sure.”
He smirked. “Darling, he won’t have time. Sure, it would have been better if I could have gotten rid of him first, but it won’t make one bit of difference to my plan if he’s still around. Anyway, you don’t really have anything on me.”
“I know what you did. That person you killed. You’re probably the one who attacked Einin O’Connor too, and who killed that woman that turned up while you were in prison. I don’t know how you did it, but I’m sure we’ll find out once you’re arrested.”
A laugh. “It’ll all be clear soon.” He cocked his head. “Well, maybe not to you.”
Oh God, this was not going to plan. She only had one option now, and she hadn’t wanted to use it. She had to keep him distracted for a bit longer.
“And what exactly is this plan?” She ventured, tightening her finger over the trigger.
“It doesn’t matter to you now.” He said and before she had even opened her mouth to answer his hand was around her neck and everything went black.