The cherry car coasted down the illuminated street with ease, and Eagan could not resist smiling in the rearview mirror at Annabelle in her car seat behind him. She rested her strawberry head against the side, asleep. To the right of her was a paper bag swollen with the rectangular boxes of cereal and soaps and such. A package of paper towels was on her other side.
He also glimpsed a pair of headlights on a silver station wagon approaching. They were within a second behind him within moments. Pressure on the gas pedal sent the station wagon up the middle of the road on his right and maintained its evenness. He scowled at the driver only to see him point across to his other side. There was the shallow enclave of the pub he had spent so much time in over the last several years, and he swerved into the opening and steered around the backside of the building, where there was a sea of blackberry brambles behind the pavement. He stopped rather abruptly, and Annabelle stirred. He listened to his own breathing. A moment later, the station wagon pulled in behind him and stopped.
"I'll be back," he promised the girl as he pushed open the door and scrambled out of the car. She started awake when he slammed the door behind him and continued toward the station wagon, whose driver also emerged with a smile.
"Well, boy," Murtagh ran a hand through his mahogany hair. "I imagined we'd never see you here again, after your sermon on the mount, so to speak."
"Well, how can I resist when there is another car forcing me in here?"
Murtagh sneered. "True. Say, we have some crucial business to discuss. Come with me, will you?"
Eagan snorted and started back to the car. "I have to get home."
"I suspected you might say that," said the smooth approaching voice. As soon as he reached the door of his car, there was a slender edge pressing against his spine – definitely a blade. He returned Annabelle's stare through the windows and gathered his composure.
"By all means," he released the breath he'd been holding. "Lead the way."
"Go through the back door and down into the cellar. Two of me mates will lead the way while I stay behind you and make sure we get where we're supposed to be."
Eagan started toward the back door as two other men, one slender and one stronger and with no hair, climbed out of the station wagon. They hastened to gain the lead and entered through the back. Eagan searched the opening of the second doorway for someone recognizable, but Murtagh steered him to an immediate right, where lay the door to the cellar.
The pair of men opened the door flicked on the light before trotting down the stairs. The single dangling bulb managed to cast a soft glow against the brick cellar. Eagan sensed the blade prick his spine and descended into the chilled stale room as he trudged down each stair.
"Get against the back," Murtagh directed the moment he reached the end.
Eagan meandered to the brick wall and leaned against it with crossed arms. "So what do you want?"
Murtagh searched his eyes and simpered with the knife still pointed. "You remember what you saw when you came down here in December?"
"Yes. I remember you going to sell a girl."
"And you got her out of here," a mixture of alarm and urgency glimmered in his slate eyes.
"Yes, I did."
Murtagh examined his prisoner as he started to promenade around the perimeter of the cellar in his mud-encrusted boots. "Are you going to turn us in if you see any evidence?"
Eagan snorted and smiled. "You know I will."
"Allow us to help you change your mind," Murtagh nodded toward him, and the pair of men at the stairs strode toward him. The slender one crept behind Eagan and gathered his wrists together while the one with the crooked nose raised a fist and punched him across the cheek. Blood rushed to the stinging surface and his teeth were already aching. Blood sprayed from his mouth when he spat aside and chuckled.
"So is this where I'm supposed to promise I'll never say a word?"
A second series of punches ensued, and within moments, more blood was seeping readily from his nose and mouth. Another series of punches aimed at his ribs made him keel over. Then he raised his eyes again and stared into those ahead of him.
"Still no promise."
"You know, lads," Murtagh mused with a mock concerned expression as he crossed his arms and tapped his cheek, "I don't suppose he really will commit to silence. I do not recall ever seeing alarm in his eyes, really. This is not promising."
"We have the last option," suggested the man with the crooked nose with raised eyebrows.
"Yes, we do," Murtagh approached him with the raised knife. The man behind released him an instant before Murtagh thrust the knife into the left side of his abdomen. Eagan gripped his shoulder in an attempt to remain upright as his muscles began to tremble and stared at the satisfaction in his eyes. The knife with withdrawn with a yank, and he crumpled into a heap on the cement. He straightened with a grimace and reached to touch the stickiness of the blood at the wound. Murtagh crouched over him and met his eyes again. There was an instant where they appeared concerned as he brushed his hand away from the shallow wound and plunged the knife into him again. Murtagh kneeled down and stared into his eyes with a smile as he grasped the knife and withdrew it. Fresh blood brimmed to the edges of the wound and welled over. Stunned, Eagan listened to the murmurs and creaking of the stairs as they ascended into the main room of the pub.
He breathed as evenly as he could and prayed silently for strength. His ribs ached as he eased onto his side and onto his knees. His entire torso seemed to be dampened with blood, and the dull pulsating in the wound seemed to amplify as he crawled across the cement with muscles trembling with adrenaline. He collapsed onto his stomach at about the middle of the cellar and started to drag himself, leaving a smeared path of blood as he went. The pain was thundering in his wound by this time. There was limited time before he was completely incapacitated.
As these events were concluding, Anita meandered around the main room. She raised a beer to her lips and smiled at the elder man seated at the bar as he tapped the metal band on his ring finger against the granite surface. "So, I see you're married."
He snorted and stared straight ahead. "Ah, but she don't care if I'm around no more. Tried to throw me out last Monday, but I was too bloody stubborn to leave."
"Really. See, I imagine commitment like that might flatter most ladies."
He snorted again and stroked his short ivory beard, sneaking a smile to her. "She's no lady."
Anita raised her bottle. "To marriage."
He raised his pint. "To heck with marriage."
As she smiled, a hand clamped down on her shoulder. Startled, she spun around in time to awkwardly seize Eagan as he dropped and slung his arm around her neck. With a mighty heave, she shouldered as much weight as she could and stood, praying for strength as she staggered toward a bench seat against the far wall and lay him down. She motioned for Declan to toss her the bar cloth and used it to sweep his hair back from his dampened forehead.
"All right, you are going to be all right."
She bunched his shirt in her hand and clamped it over the wound. He clenched the collar of his navy coat between his teeth and grimaced. Hot blood oozed through her fingers, draining the color from her cheeks. Eagan no longer writhed, but rasped for air, the breath rattling within his lungs. His muscles started trembling even more as he opened his bloody hand and covered hers. He pried his eyes open and stared at her. "I have to go."
"You stay here. Someone is calling an ambulance for you."
"No," he choked. "Annabelle. Let me up."
He attempted to straighten, but she shoved his shoulder back down. His breath was rapid and shallow and his complexion was pale beneath the steadily ripening bruises at his eye and mouth. He seemed to be staring past her.
"Fire!" a man shouted as flames streaked around the rear perimeter of the pub, igniting the sloshed beer on the wood. Men and women shouted and rushed either to slap the fire with their coats or out the main door. Anita reached to raise Eagan up again, but a pair of arms snatched her and dragged her across the progressively hazy room.
"Let me go! You have to let me go!" she shouted and punched against the arms clasped around her. Fire blackened and curled the curtains and crackled with sparks. The beating of her heart and the annoyed snarls of her captor were the only sounds that reached her ringing ears.
The moment the remainder of the people streamed into the crisp evening atmosphere, Anita raised her eyes to the man that gripped her. Aside from the patches of stars that managed to shine between the winter hazes in the azure sky, she glimpsed the end of a crooked nose.
"You could have died going to rescue him, Anita."
"He is going to die if no one else does!"
She closed her eyes and breathed. She was not strong enough to loosen his hold, but she could pray. The screech of tires snapped them open again in time to see a crimson car speed around the corner of the pub and smash into a street lamp.
"Eagan," she breathed. Realizing she was suddenly free, she rushed to the car amidst the shouts and sirens. The breeze ruffled his strawberry blond hair where his head lay propped against the frame of the open window. She reached into the car for his wrist and smiled when she sensed a pulse.
There was a child screaming and wailing in the backseat. She peered into the car with a plummeting heart when she saw Annabelle.
In the cellar: "The Butcher" by Project 86