EXPECTED IN 2017
Writing in progress…truly, it is.
[subject to change]
Dense cloud, heavy with the threat of more snow, hung low overhead, brushing the tops of the pines that stood solemn witness around the long meadow. Their densely needled branches were already thick with the burden dropped by last night’s late-season storm, and Thia felt her own shoulders bow in sympathy. She knew what it was to carry such a cold, relentless weight, to have more and more piled on until she hardly knew anything else.
She took a slow, difficult breath and, leaving the shelter of the trees, moved to join the already assembled circle at the meadow’s center. She couldn’t yet look at what had been constructed there, the focus of attention, and so instead watched her feet as she followed the candlelit path.
Heavy with sorrow. Raw with grief. Frequent descriptions for good reason. The aftermath of loss felt exactly so, as if whatever ordinarily existed to buffer a person from the full feeling of the world had been pared away, resulting in a pressure so immense that simply putting one foot in front of the other felt like slogging through quicksand.
There was no wind, no sound other than the soft, frozen crunch of her boots on packed-down snow. The flames of the path’s candles stretched long, reaching for the top of the mason jars that held them, and cast a warm glow into the deepening twilight.
At her approach, the people in the circle shifted slightly, making room for her beside Abby. More were present than Thia had first thought, but not everyone that she might have expected. One in particular, although there was time yet.
She took the offered place beside Abby, who then held out a mittened hand—a speaking gesture for someone who, as a rule, avoided contact.
“Abby,” Thia said, at a loss as they clasped hands. Instead of the expected withdrawal, her friend kept tight hold.
“Thia,” the normally bold woman said in a terribly small voice. Her pale cheeks showed evidence of tears, but her eyes—red-rimmed, haunted—were dry. The kind of dryness, Thia knew, that took great effort. In the meeting of their gazes, shared sorrow reached out, performed a kind of hand-clasp of its own.
“Oh, Thia,” Abby said again. A kind of plea.
“I know,” Thia said, although she couldn’t. Not really. Abby’s friendship with Kendra had begun long before her own, and its roots extended far deeper.
Together, they turned to face forward, where the timber and brushwood pyre awaited with its unthinkable charge.
The body had been wrapped in white silk and laid upon cedar branches. Thia’s gaze went unerringly to the top, as if in seeking out her friend’s face she might make a connection or at least reconcile herself to this new, incomprehensible reality, but nothing was visible beneath the shroud.
Irrational as it was, Thia couldn’t help worrying that not enough air could pass through the cloth, or that the artfully bound strips were too tight. Stifling. Restrictive. But of course none of that mattered.
What lay there, so impossibly still, did not breathe, did not feel. It was merely what remained.
The lone occupant of the front corner table, Cormac sat with his back to the wall and eyes to the door. It was that sort of pub. And, because his was that sort of life, he’d scoped out potential exit routes before he’d stepped up to the glossy oak of the bar—and then he’d used the time while his pint had been pulled to assess them for convenience and likelihood of success. Ranked thusly, they sat in the back of his mind much in the way he sat now, waiting for the action to start.
Patience had been a hard lesson of his youth; centuries later, it remained more a matter of acting than of being. A distinctly impatient man playing a role.
His mouth quirked at the thought. Technically, he played the role of a man as well, while his blood and his talents held his mother’s share of Other. Man and leanan sidhe. Both and yet neither. He had become adept at role-playing, at pretense—and at identifying the like in others.
Good thing, considering why he’d come all this way.
Rain had been pounding when he’d arrived in County Kerry’s famous harbor town and, two hours later, showed no sign of abatement. A slow moving system covered the whole of Ireland, with the western coast taking the particularly vicious brunt. To Cormac’s right, the mullioned windows afforded a rain-blurred view of the marina, where ships of all sizes and conditions crowded together against a backdrop of iron-gray clouds and the low green hills that lay on the other side of the bay’s dark, choppy waves. Even the most intrepid fishermen had been forced ashore, accounting for the pub’s brisk mid-afternoon business as well as its pervading odor.
The door opened abruptly and the peat fire in the stone hearth crackled and snapped at the intrusive rush of cold, salty air. Three large men stomped their way inside, water cascading down their yellow slickers as if they’d come from the sea itself.
They then had to fight the gale to get the door closed again. It took all of them, together, amidst much bickering in what Cormac recognized as Croatian, to get the job done. Afterward they laughed about it, wide smiles splitting the wet shag of their beards. The largest of them took a good-natured punch to the shoulder as they made their way past overfilled tables to the bar. The noise level, having dropped when a good deal of wary attention had shifted to their entrance, rose again.
The tension level stayed high as ever.
Idly, Cormac returned his outward gaze to the folded newspaper on his table and penned another answer into the crossword. He kept his inward gaze—his Sight—directed at his surroundings. It was, as he’d said, that kind of place.
Where the winter storm took away opportunity in the form of fishing, it put in place another that was potentially more lucrative: Smuggling.
He’d spent countless hours in pubs nearly identical to this one. He knew there were three types of players present. The first and largest in number by far were fishermen who could be had if the money was right—and it almost always was. Since the European economy had tanked and the future proved to be inescapably volatile for north Atlantic fisheries, the ranks of the have-ship-what-do-you-need had swelled exponentially.
Next were the thrill seekers, the ones who thrived on a bit of danger.
Maybe they’d started out with good intentions, maybe they’d had a record already and couldn’t find more legally acceptable work. Maybe they’d learned the trade when The Troubles were at their peak and this was how they kept their glory days alive.
Cormac knew well how potent a drug danger could be. Hadn’t he been on it all his Otherworldly-long life? He had been brought up to be of use to his father. Much of that had involved “acquisitions.” Objects, information—people on rare occasion—and all of it by whatever means necessary. And so Cormac had spent the greater part of nearly three centuries being a thief and confidence artist, in and out of some level of danger on a regular basis.
It was what he was. He had, in the shock of his father’s death and all that had come before and after with Thia, lost sight of that. He was back in it now, and it felt like slipping back into a favorite coat after a long, bewildering summer.
The third type, present here as surely as one or two of their number had been present in other pubs he’d visited up and down the seacoast, were not like him. They were worse.
Cormac lifted the pint glass to his lips, used a long draught as an opportunity to let his gaze move across the room. The local stout—this was his third—was surprisingly pleasant. Smooth with a complex, sweet finish.
The back of his neck prickled. Casually, he set the glass down, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand as he angled his head to meet the dark-eyed stare of the bartender. The burly man tipped his chin, wiped hands the size of hams on the apron tied around his barrel of a middle before he turned away to pull more ales for the Croatians at the bar.
As he did so, he looked—and made another, more subtle tip of his chin—to another dark-eyed watcher across the room and seated much as Cormac was: his back to the wall, a half-finished glass and newspaper taking up the small table before him.
The prickle at Cormac’s neck became a tingle. Full alert. He eased his grip on his glass and, with intentionally relaxed motions, took up his pen to resume work on the crossword. Out of the top corner of his eye, he watched the man across the room pull out a mobile phone. One touch of the screen and a call was placed.
It didn’t last long. A few short words, said with lips too flatly drawn to be read. Another touch of the screen and the phone was set down beside the folded paper.
Cormac wasn’t using a glamour, so he had no doubt that he’d been identified. He looked entirely like himself. Short-cropped brown hair (a bit scruffier than usual, thanks to the storm); moderate height with a trim build; balanced facial features, although his nose often proved too prominent in a fight. Ordinary, he would’ve said, even if experience assured that he was handsome enough. But once his identity was known, than so was his reputation.
Not at all ordinary, that.
He had no doubt that he had been identified here. He lifted his head, met the other man’s stare full on. Amber flickered there, a show of power too quick to be a warning. More like an acknowledgement. Cormac didn’t bother with a show of his own.
The man was of the third type, but not the particular one Cormac had come to see.
That one was stepping out of the sleek luxury sedan that had just pulled to a halt in the street outside, framed by the front window.
The arrival did not go unnoticed. Talk dropped to a low, nervous hush or ceased altogether. No one looked directly at the door, but everyone waited for it to open.
And open it did, easily—and then was easily shut despite the storm. The diminutive man that it had admitted wore no raincoat, but he hadn’t needed one. He wasn’t in the least bit wet. There was no question of his identity, either. Gold buckles gleamed on his heeled, leather shoes.
Cormac felt a spike of adrenaline. He’d expected someone higher up would be called about him, but not this high.
The room was stillness itself while the man made his short-stepped way through to the bar. He stopped at it, looked up to greet the bartender with a simple, “Rory.”
The high pitch of his voice suited his small stature—five feet at the most—but was disconcerting nevertheless, given the amount of power he carried.
“O’Shannon,” the bartender returned, and from a high little shelf behind him, took a bottle of whiskey and cut-crystal tumbler. He set them on the bar, pushed them to the front edge.
The man—O’Shannon—grabbed both and with a quick pivot, headed directly for Cormac. The gold of multiple rings glinted on his plump, blunt-tipped fingers. Bright green eyes sparkled beneath bushy, ginger brows as, above a matching, Donegal-style beard, a smile began to creep its way into being.
“My, my,” came that high, sing-song voice, and Cormac felt a chill race down his spine.
© R. A. Finley — All Rights Reserved No portion of this text may be reproduced or used without permission