Eagan pressed his knee into the azure leather bar stool and raised himself up to step onto the onyx counter, despite the protests in Gaelic from Declan. He reached down and snatched up two abandoned beer bottles by the neck and clanked them together until he attracted the attention of most occupants.
"You all know who I am," he announced. "I have been angry at the idea of God a long time. I realized I was wrong on Sunday, when God rescued me from myself. He can do the same for any of you."
The deep cherry wood walls were illuminated by the traditional gas lamps, casting shadows across the inquisitive visages around him. Two women murmured to one another, eyes still on him as he bid them a good night, stepped onto the bar stool, and leapt to the wood floor. He stopped to swipe the mud prints from the counter with the damp cloth Declan always used, then started toward the door.
The air was crisp and scented with cedar. Crickets and the crunching of his boots on the gravel were all that could be heard in that desolate street corner as he started toward his car, until rapid crunching of someone rushing up behind him.
"Eagan, right?" she asked as she reached him. He stopped and peered down at her dove eyes and silken blond hair. The ivory blouse she wore revealed enough skin to see the shivers in the cold. She gave an uneasy smile with rosy cheeks and said with misted breath, "That was some speech."
"Spoke the truth," he answered with raised shoulders. She sneaked a peek over one shoulder.
"I was enjoying that discussion we were having before," she eased closer and clasped his hand between hers. "Me name is Linnea. What if we go somewhere private and I ask you about that story?"
He peered down at her pale arm. Violet prints marked the grip that once squeezed her wrist. He raised his eyes and stared in the direction she kept looking toward, but saw no one at the window.
"We could see about a dinner."
Linnea chuckled and shook her head. "I meant a bit more private than that."
Eagan managed a smile. "Can't have a girl over without even a meal?"
Her smile faded into a straight line and she jerked back her hand. "I'm sorry, but I can't do that."
Eagan raised his eyes past her again and suspected, "Someone threatened you."
"Shut up," she hissed.
"Come with me," he persisted at the accidental affirmation of his statement. "I can get you away."
"You know, I'm going to go back inside," she said suddenly and wrapped her arms around herself. He slipped a card out of his pocket and passed it to her.
"I'm a blacksmith in the area. Here is where you can reach me if you change your mind."
She accepted it with a wry smile, but released it as soon as he returned to striding toward his car. She stared down at it in the dirt as his engine revved and he pealed out of the gravel enclave. She could hear the crunching of shoes behind her, so she returned to the bar and passed Murtagh with sheltered eyes.
He stared at the small rectangle in the dirt ahead and bent to pick it up, examining its dingy words beneath the street lamp flickering with the interruption of moths.
The atmosphere was the crisp sort that bit into exposed nerves, but the stars were abundant.
Eagan spent much of the late night within the fiery illumination of the smoldering coals on his forge. After some time, he withdrew a searing metal rod with his tongs and laid it on the anvil. He reached toward his hammer and smashed it into the rod to compress it.
A second searing rod was added to shape the first into a cross, and there he hammered it into one artifact. Eventually, the rhythmic clang silenced when he laid aside his hammer and removed his leather apron. He cast it aside and crossed his arms to examine the artifact as the crickets resumed their chirping in the crisp midnight atmosphere.
A swift scrape against the outside bricks of his shop darted his brown eyes to the dense wooden door. He reached for a metal rod and sneaked toward the door, shouldering it open with the rod raised. A punch to his mouth almost stunned him, but he managed to drive the rod down on the shoulder of Murtagh as a second man darted into his shop. He shoved Murtagh away with his boot and lunged to pin him to the earth. He pressed the rod against his throat and snarled, "Why are you here?"
Murtagh smirked and drove a knee into his stomach to loosen the pressure. The second man erupted out of the shop and snapped a shoe into Eagan's ribs several times until he collapsed to one side. In his hand, the man clutched two metal rods, and he tossed one to Murtagh as Eagan scrambled up with his.
"Get away from my bloody property," he commanded with the rod poised for action again.
"We hear you reached out to Linnea," Murtagh smirked with a flash of his brilliant teeth.
"She did all the approaching," Eagan snorted.
"Is that right?" Murtagh slipped a hand into his jeans pocket and produced a rectangular business card between two fingers with another simper. Eagan stared at it in vain. "Really, when has Eagan shut down the advances of a lovely woman? Reason would say he believed the risk outweighs the desire."
"Get to your point."
"My point is this," Murtagh squeezed another fraction of a smile out of his lips. "You are a man of God now. You have a moral conscience."
"Glad we cleared that up. Anything else you want to say?"
"Only that we have come to ask your cooperation."
"You always do that with a punch to the mouth?"
"Mostly when we know we will not get it. I know you enough, Eagan," Murtagh started to circle him as he continued eye contact. "Anyone who has met you knows your fire. Your strength won't be swayed by mere words and clasped hands with puppy eyes. You would need some convincing. So we are here to present a bargain. You continue on without a word about Linnea, or us, and we stay away. Promise?"
Eagan stared at him without a sincere idea of what he was speaking about and suspected Murtagh believed he knew much more than he did.
"No," came the answer with a swipe of his rod at Murtagh's coming at him from behind. He darted his boot out to the side and drove back the second man, then grasped his rod with both hands and blocked a shot from Murtagh. He sensed the second man behind him a moment before the crack against his skull. He collapsed to his knees, stunned. Each snagged one arm and dragged him back into his shop.
He sensed the heat radiating from his forge as the second man looped his arms around his shoulders and propped him up close by, vision bleared. Murtagh flashed his teeth with another smirk. He reached toward the tongs, and suddenly raised the cross into view. It was illuminated with a searing glow. The crisp atmosphere made him realize his collar was more open. The searing metal cross was approaching, and he gritted his teeth against the impending pain…
… Eagan cupped the steady stream of water in his palms and leaned down to rinse his strawberry blond hair. Crimson swirled down the sink drain, diminishing only after more water.
After coming to his senses on the ground and becoming distinctly aware of the searing pain on the skin near his heart, he managed to get onto his knees and crawl to the door. He heaved himself up and, remembering Annabelle in the house, rushed inside to see her asleep on the rug ahead of the television.
When the blood was rinsed from his hair and his lip, Eagan stretched a knitted beanie over his head and pulled on a dense navy coat. The collar was straightened up around his chin to help conceal his lip. He reached to snatch his keys from the counter as he made his way toward Annabelle.
"Come on, lass," he murmured as he gathered her up in his arms, asleep. He rushed out to the car and secured her in the backseat, dialing his cell phone as he climbed into the driver seat and started the engine. After several rings, he heard a sleepy murmur on the other end.
"This is Eagan. Mind if Annabelle stays with you tonight?"
"We would love to have her," he answered with an edge of alertness. "Is everything all right?"
"Yeah. We'll be right there."
The atmosphere was bitterly cold, but Eagan switched on the heat as soon as the engine was warm in an attempt to keep Annabelle asleep. His eyes darted to each shadow on the street edges, alerted with the adrenaline he strove to maintain control of in his system.
Callum shivered with crossed arms ahead of his house when Eagan stopped the car beside him. Melia peered out the door in a lilac silk nightgown, a contrast to the dark curls that reached her shoulders.
"Is everything all right?" Callum asked gently when Eagan remained in his seat.
"Yes. Seemed I might be getting a cold, and I wanted to avoid giving it to her," Eagan strove to reassure his brother with a steady tone, despite his clearly suspicious appearance. "I won't get close to you, either. Go ahead and take her inside."
Callum watched him as he opened the rear door and reached into the backseat to remove the sleeping Annabelle. He kissed her cheek when he laid her against his shoulder and said, "Eagan, you look exhausted. Come inside and have some soup. You can stay the night without getting too close."
"No," Eagan shifted the gears into reverse, head pulsating with pain, "but I appreciate all this."
Callum stared after him when he pulled back down the dirt drive and onto the street, arms secure around the girl to maintain heat. Melia met him at the door to accept Annabelle into her arms and start upstairs to tuck her beneath the covers in their spare room.
When the sun rose into a crisp dawn, Annabelle meandered into their room and asked in a clear voice, "Where is Eagan?"
Callum rose into an upright position and Melia reached out to accept the small girl into her arms and set her between them. "He was not feeling well, so he let you come stay the night with us," she said with a kiss to the soft cheek. "We'll see how he is today."
Callum attempted to call him several times that morning. By noon, he approached Melia in the parlor and murmured, "I'm concerned about him. He rarely ever catches anything, and when he does, he never looks as unsettled as he was last night."
"Surely he's not immune to everything," Melia reasoned. "Perhaps he is sick and slept late."
Sunlight diminished into the evening in almost a shade of lavender. Callum stared at the seconds passing by until his unnerved intuition moved him to call their parents and explain the situation. He could hear his mother harbor her concern behind steady breathing, but Cairbre was more direct.
"Do you suppose he's been drinking?"
"I honestly have no idea," Callum admitted as he stared at the approaching night. "But he has been doing so well with Annabelle that I would have been surprised. At least until last night."
"I knew this was doomed to go awry."
"At least we gave him another chance to prove himself!" Abigeál reminded her husband, then sniffled back her tears. "We must see what his explanation is whenever he does come around."
As this conversation was happening, three men and two women piled into a battered black car and steered onto the street. A red one pursued it at a distance and maintained its speed despite the periodic swerve of the first car.
The black car continued to speed down each street it pivoted onto until it reached a city whose people were still active amidst the streetlamps. A row of brick flats stretched across each side of the street, and the black car stopped abruptly at the curb. The men and woman emerged and started up the stairs to one door as the red car stopped several spaces away.
As soon as the people disappeared behind the closed door, Eagan emerged into the rain and raised a camera to snap a photo of the address. He watched as the flat was saturated in illumination behind the drawn curtains, but could see nothing else.