I jerked my hand away as if I had been burned, then froze, hardly even daring to breath.
The knocking came again. Ss’blood! Why now? I hesitated, wondering whether to just ignore it. When the knocking came again, louder this time, I realised that I would have to answer or risk whoever it was waking the whole inn.
Taking a deep breath, I pulled the door ajar and peered out. One of Langwin's maids – the same one who had served me the drink downstairs – stood there, red hair tumbling over her plunging neckline, her hands twisting her apron into a ball as she bit at her bottom lip.
"What?" I snarled.
The girl simpered and shrank away. She dropped her eyes to the floor. "I... I need to check your room, milord." She curtsied.
"I'm sleeping. Go away."
I went to close the door, but her hand darted out and stopped me, palm slapping against the wood. I looked at it, then at her, in surprise. I caught a glimpse of something hidden in the back of her eyes, then she smiled, revealing two dark gaps between her yellowing teeth.
"Please sir,” she whined. “It’s just we've had a vanishing and Master Langwin will have my ear if I don't do what I'm told."
A vanishing? Dammit. It couldn’t be a coincidence – someone knew about the dead man. I needed to find some way of stalling the search until I could get out. Putting on my sternest expression, I snarled. “I don’t care about Master Langwin. You tell him I’m sleeping.”
She shook her head. “Oh no, sir, he won’t allow that. Master Oaksgrave is one of his good friends and he wants us to check every room until we find him. I have to look in your room.” She started to push, her arm surprisingly strong as she tried to force me back and get the door open.
Oaksgrave. At least I had a name to go with the scream. Still, this little snippet was getting on my wick. Since I obviously wasn’t going to get rid of her, I did the only thing I could. Wrenching the door open with one hand, throwing her off balance, I reached forward with my other hand and grabbed her by the shoulder, dragging her inside.
Once she was in, I spun her around and pulled her back against me, one arm wrapping around her waist while my free hand clutched at her mouth. I felt her take a breath to scream and tightened my grip.
When her eyes fell on the old man's body, a soft sob escaped her lips.
"I'm not going to hurt you, you hear me?” I whispered in her ear. “This isn't what it looks like. If you promise not to scream, I'll let you go."
I felt her head bob against my chest as she nodded. I was taking a huge risk, but I knew that I couldn’t carry her out of the inn and make my escape, not without bringing half of the town down on me. Slowly, my whole body tense in case she decided to test my resolve, I pulled my hand away from her mouth.
She didn't scream. Instead, a low moan escaped her lips and her body started to go limp. At first I thought the fool girl had fainted, but as I gently allowed her to drop, she fell to her knees. I saw her shoulders begin to shake and heard her murmuring. Her hands fell into her lap and she started to play with her apron again. When I heard what she was saying, I rolled my eyes. She was praying to the Goddess for protection.
I left her where she was and went to the door, peering out into the corridor to make sure no one had been attracted by the noise. To my relief, it was empty. Closing the door as softly as I could, I turned back to find the girl on her feet. There was no sign of tears in her eyes. Instead, she held a pistol in her hand, pointed at my head.
I have to admit, my reactions weren’t what they used to be. I was so surprised that I froze, frowning. "What do you think you’re…"
"Shut up." Gone were the simpering tones of the maid, replaced by something altogether colder and harder and brimming over with anger.
I did as I was told, snapping my mouth closed. I followed her with my eyes as she stepped back, her own eyes never leaving mine until she reached the bed. She glanced down, then her hand reached out blindly and she fumbled at the man's neck. When she found the place where his pulse should have been, she pressed her fingers against the cooling skin. After a moment, she cursed again.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” she demanded as she took a step towards me, cocking the pistol. As if from a distance, I recognised it as a Two-shot Jack. Not that she would need more than two bullets considering how close we were to one another.
"How much is he paying you, you bastard?"
I shook my head, lifting my hands. "Listen lady, I don't know what you're..."
"Don’t lie to me! I know the Ghost sent you!” She scowled. “Ss'blood, you've ruined everything! Six months of work, gone. Do you have any idea how long it has taken me to get any kind of a lead on your boss? Not that you care."
She took a deep breath, glaring at me. "I’ll just have to make the best out of it, I guess. I’d been hoping to trap the Ghost himself, but you’ll have to do instead.” She smiled, looking like a cat who has a mouse trapped between her paws. “I'm sure a few days in the Tower will loosen your tongue."
The Tower! This was getting out of hand. I needed to do something and fast. I glanced at her gun again, then took a step towards her. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
"Stop right there."
Slowly, carefully, never taking my eyes off her finger, I raised my hands higher and moved one step closer. "Listen, we don’t have to do it this way. I’ll tell you everything I know." Another step.
"I said, don't move."
I ignored her, my eyes still fixed on her finger, stepping a little closer. Only a few steps remained. I was taking a hell of a risk, but I had no other choice. Keep her distracted. I forced myself to keep on talking, not really paying any attention to what I was saying. “Please, this isn’t what it looks like. If you’ll just listen…”
Her finger twitched a moment before she pressed the trigger. It wasn’t much of a warning, but it was just about enough. I acted on instinct, leaping towards her instead of away as she had obviously expected. Her aim was high, but I felt the bullet graze my forehead with a flash of red fire before I was on her.
Gravity did the rest. We tumbled to the floor. Acting more from instinct that anything else, I clocked her, my fist catching her on the cheek. There was no strength behind it and the blow did little more than stun her. I didn't waste any time checking exactly how dazed she was, though - scrambling to my feet, I darted for the door.
The corridor was quiet and empty. I wondered vaguely why – if Langwin had ordered a search for Oaksgrave, there should have been more people about. Still, I wasn’t one to refuse small mercies. As fast as I could, I ran to the stairs, heading down to the common room. My head throbbed from the alcohol and whatever else had been slipped into my drink. Someone must have drugged me in order to slip the old man’s body into my bed. Why, though? And more importantly, who?
Down in the common room, the fire had died out, leaving nothing more than embers. The place looked dark and deserted, like one of those homesteads you sometimes find out in the Woods, abandoned by the people who had once lived there during the Change, and yet strangely untouched by the forest itself.
I darted right, throwing my shoulder into the door between the common room and the kitchen. I heard a snap of wood as the lock gave way and then I was stumbling through. I passed tables and cupboards in a blur of shadows. By the time I reached the door outside, my breath was coming in great heaving gasps.
The door was locked, and much heavier than the one between the kitchen and the common room. I had as much chance of breaking it down as I did of swimming all the way back to the city from here. My eyes scanned the nearby tables, looking desperately for something that I could use to pick the lock. A wooden fork hung from a hook on the wall, so I snapped off one of the tines, my ears pricked for any sign of movement from upstairs. If that red-haired bitch called for help, I would be done for. Nothing but silence. So far.
- Hurry it up, Daniel.
I dropped to my haunches, ignoring Lucan’s reminder and inserting the pick in the lock. I could hardly see anything, the only illumination the moonlight filtering through two windows set into the wall high above me. Sight wouldn’t help me anyway. I forced myself to take a deep breath and then hold it, the only sound the hammering of my heart. I pressed my ears against the door, listening as I twisted my self-made lock pick. A click as it caught on the lock, then slipped away. Biting back a curse, I tried again. This time the pick held and I heard a louder clack. Letting my breath out in an explosion of air, I twisted the handle and pushed the door open.
A man stood in front of the door, legs spread, one hand on the hilt of a dagger while the other held a pistol pointed at my forehead. This was no Two-Shot Jack, it was a proper pistol, probably an officer’s weapon. I stalled, just staring at him.
The man had a northern tang to his voice. His face was weathered and covered in tattoos, as was the little amount of skin I could see on his arms and chest. He smiled, his cold grey eyes glimmering silver in the moonlight.
I didn’t answer. The tattooed man waved the gun, indicating that I should step away from the door and place my back against the wall. I did as I was told. From behind me, I heard hurried footsteps and a moment later the red-haired bitch came barrelling out into the cool night air. When she saw me, held at gunpoint by the tattooed man, she stopped.
“You bastard,” she rasped. I tried not to smile at the bruise growing on her cheek.
“You lost him,” the tattooed man said.
“He took me by surprise,” the red-haired bitch replied, scowling at him.
He didn’t say anything, but the slightly raised eyebrow said enough. The red-haired bitch growled under her breath, then turned to me.
“That was a stupid thing you just did.”
I shrugged. “Not if I’d gotten away with it.”
She stepped closer. “But you didn’t, did you?” She looked up at me and smiled. “And I promise you, you’re going to regret it.”
I sensed the tattooed man stepping up behind me a moment before the butt of his pistol came crashing down on the back of my head. I just had time to see the red-haired bitch smile before I blacked out.