Michaels stood over the body of his latest assailant, staring at his gun with bitter regret. Some people became more hardened the more they killed, no matter what profession they were in, he was once told, long ago by his grandfather. He had thought that phrase was a crock of shit, but years of experience seeing man at his worst had erased that naïve notion from his mind.
People killed, either accidently, unintentionally or deliberately. The act alone was something abhorrent, something obscene. He was a killer and that never sat easy with him. The men and women he had hunted deserved to die, he heard some folk say. He understood the reasons for their hatred; he just never felt the same as they did, that level of intense enmity that would override all your moral code and submit to this base feeling that everyone had locked away within themselves. Such people were capable of murder themselves; they just didn’t realise it.
In some ways, that was worse. They inevitably lost something of themselves that they knew couldn’t be replaced, but they were still willing to make the sacrifice; the realisation would only hit them afterwards. Their actions would haunt them for years, maybe even longer. That was the sacrifice, he would tell himself. Having your peace of mind, conscience, blighted by an action that could have been avoided.
He knew the reasons why he had been sent. He even felt their pain this time. He couldn’t understand the reason behind the abduction. What did the father gain from all of this? Surely he knew someone like Michaels would eventually find him, no matter what rat-infested sink-hole he had scurried off to hide in. James Green was a good man; that much he did know. Good men often did bad things, things which make any kind of redemption impossible. Green must have known this when he looked into the eyes of the townsfolk, their shock turning to horror and outrage. He took the only option possible before their brand of justice intervened: flee Southstead with the boy.
The boy hadn’t resisted his father when he was taken; townsfolk would say the boy was mute with shock at seeing his mother shot in the street. He was still staring at his mother’s body and the small crowd of people that surrounded her when his father spirited him away. That was the last time he had been seen.
Anger. Raised voices. A fatal shot. It seemed the usual cut and dry dispute about the child that had at first turned ugly and then fatal. This one was different. There was something about this one that had seemed wrong somehow. He couldn’t place his finger on it, pin it down to a reasonable explanation, but the feeling remained with him and wouldn’t be ignored.
He spent time in the town, speaking to people about Green’s character and his wife. Uncovering their lives had also released a chilling quality into the community, one he was familiar with. It unsettled him to think his presence only made it worse. He had tried to placate them, but their feelings were too strong, too raw, for him to get through to them. In some ways, he was glad he had been chosen to do the job. It gave him the opportunity try and reason with Green.
A shout in the street shattered his introspection. Muttering angrily to himself, he moved warily away from the window and any light source, letting the room’s shadows envelope him. He felt vulnerable, aware that his position had just been given away by gunning down his assailant. This one he killed had friends. Now they were looking for him.
He knew coming here had been a mistake, but all sources had pointed to the town of Furnace, so called as the previous two towns built on the same spot had been burnt down. He had figured any enduring townsfolk living there had given up on any fancy names. Maybe naming it after something that creates such destruction would a good as name as any. Hell, may have even lifted the curse off the place, if there was any.
Why had Green decided to throw this lot in with a rural town? The answer was obvious: invisibility. Not many people had ever heard of the place, but several old-timers had pointed him in this direction. They figured it was good as place as any to look.
Typically, the place was what he had envisioned: a rat hole set into a forested valley. Some parts shanty town, other parts with lavish buildings and a clean thoroughfare. Both aspects lived side by side and in plain sight. People only tolerated each other and never for long. Yes, it may have looked like the town’s dual personality lived in harmony, but the divide was there and a more tangible presence than any wall. It was in keeping with local history, too. The place had been the site of a major battle in the civil war. He found it hard to imagine such a relatively small place held so many souls. The dead out-numbered the living.
The voice became more insistent and irritable, as though expecting an answer. Michaels looked at the body in the centre of the room. He frowned as he stared at the face. He recognised the man. Damn, he cursed. Why didn’t I realise this earlier? The corpse in life had been known as Benjamin Turner, a ruthless outlaw who had no morals. Michaels had heard rumours about that man, none of which made easy listening. He was now dead. There would be no more victims. It would bring some small comfort to those who suffered because of this man.
He checked his gun, shaking his head. What have I got myself mixed up in? Turner never worked alone. Not quite intelligent enough to lead an organised gang and too brutal and tempestuous for level headed planning, he supplied the muscle to maintain discipline and, where necessary, gentle coercion. By virtue of his build and disposition, he must have had some sway in a gang. He needed to know how many men he was dealing with. It always came down to numbers. How many times had he been shot at, physically beaten and left for dead? Too many times, he reasoned. Yet he still maintained his sanity, though that had suffered as many fractures as his limbs. Five bullets left. It may not be enough.
The door imploded in to splinters, the remnant listing on a warped hinge. Two heavy-set men entered the room carrying sawn-off shotguns. Michaels moved further into the shadows, crouching behind an old bookcase. He moved a couple of old textbooks, just enough so he could see his would be attackers. The element of surprise was a slender thing. It wouldn’t last for long. Both of the men knelt by Turner’s body, muttering to each other under their breaths. It was now or never.
Michaels grimaced, aiming his revolver through the narrow gap between the books. He fired twice, taking one of men in the head and back. He ducked down just in time as the books above his head exploded in a shower of shredded paper and torn leather binding. He had been lucky; this one had moved instinctively. Three bullets left. He rolled out into the open, firing once, hitting the remaining gunman just below his left eye.
Time to move, he thought, getting up from his crouch. He quickly moved over to the two dead men, taking their shotguns and any ammo they carried. Ten shells in total. Close range only. It will have to do. Time was now of the essence. It wasn’t just one shot that stood out; three would undoubtedly mean there was a gunfight and draw more people to investigate.
Furnace, the forgotten town, seemed to attract the dregs of society. Granted the place wasn’t going to win any awards soon, but it was a safe haven, one which Green had counted on sheltering him and his son. Guys like Turner and his lackeys never did charity; the concept was an alien one to men like them. If Green was indeed here, the chances of them meeting in a gunfight was a probability. He hadn’t checked who those two gunmen were, but he was confident neither one of them was the man he was searching for. He felt a pang of regret that he immediately quashed; he was in a kill or be killed situation. These men lived a day by day existence. None of them would know the infirmity of old age, Michaels included.
He found the back door. He paused, straining to hear any sound out of place. Nothing. The door opened out into a small courtyard, with a narrow alley beyond its far wall that ran parallel to the main thoroughfare. A heavyset door set into the wall was bolted shut. Perfect, he thought grimly. He had played it quiet so far and that hadn’t got him anywhere. Let’s see if I can stir the hornet’s nest some more.
He didn’t have time to formulate any plan as he heard faint footsteps from inside the building. He ran to the back fence, clearing the distance in three strides. He then hauled himself up and over the wall, landing softly into a crouch. From the sounds emanating from inside the building, they were frantically searching for the mystery assassin. One of the sets of footsteps gradually became louder than the others. There’s someone in the courtyard, he thought soberly. He readied the loaded shotgun.
Before he could move, a sharp pain shattered his vision. He slumped against the wall. Had he been shot? He tried to stand, but a second blow caught him in his stomach. He had been blindsided.
“Found the son of a bitch,” a rough voice called out.
Then he heard nothing.
* * *
Michaels was harshly reintroduced to the waking world by being doused with a bucket of stagnant water. Groaning, he rolled over on to his back, his mind marvelling that he wasn’t dead yet. Rough hands grabbed him under each armpit and unceremoniously dragged him from the cold floor that had been his bed. Certainly know how to look after their guests, he mused.
Corridors, rooms and landings; all seemed to rush past him in a blur. Sounds, too, invaded his semi-conscious state. People laughing, yelling, a child’s scream – he even thought he heard a woman’s orgasmic cry emanating from what he thought was a bedroom – all of these sounds blurred with the scenery, creating a nauseating whirlpool that brought up a mouthful of bile that burnt his throat. He spat out the bitter fluid, some of which stained part of his soiled great coat. One more won’t hurt, he thought grimly, his vision and mind beginning to clear.
He didn’t get too much time to be reacquainted with his returning wits as he was thrown through a set of double doors. He landed on his knees, wincing as a sharp pain lanced up his left leg.
“Gentlemen, where are your manners?” A soft, almost refined voice spoke directly in front of him.” Help our ‘guest’ up.” Before Michaels could protest, the hands were under his armpits again and hauling him to his feet.
He looked at his two guards: rough men that he didn’t recognise, but burly enough to cause him some damage. It seemed like this town had a recurring theme for attracting thugs with little brain power. Obedience, though, appeared to be their one virtue, even though they were not much better than dogs.
The room looked antiquated; the walls were adorned with garish paintings and extravagant furniture was better suited for a stately home. In the centre of the room, in front of a large window, was the silhouette of an old man sitting at an ornate desk. Wreaths of tobacco smoke curled around his head, lending him an inverted angelic aspect. I suppose here he is God, Michaels thought grimly.
“Robert Michaels,” the lyrical voice continued, mulling over his name like some vintage wine. “Not much of a name nowadays, is it?”
“It is what it is,” Michaels said tersely. Who was this man? He recognised the voice, but couldn’t quite make out his face in the light, even though his eyes were slowly becoming accustomed to the room’s conflicting contrast.
“Yes, there’s nothing fancy about you, is there?” The old man continued. It’s his voice, Michaels thought. Concentrate on that.
“I could say the same about you,” Michaels smiled coldly, deliberately showing his distaste for the room and all its trappings. He saw the old man stiffen at the insult, leaning forwards slightly to regard Michaels more critically; his face suddenly gained definition. Damn, that was who he was dealing with.
John Holbrect. The Butcher of Midtown. This was a man born to violence and brutality. His intelligence, however, made him a cut above the usual thug and degenerate that the world seemed to spawn in abundance. In his prime, this man had run the largest gang in the county, if not the state. Eventually, like all outlaws, his past caught up with him. Several towns formed a militia to take him down. They did. According to the legend, he was supposed to have died in one of the bloodiest gunfights the state had ever witnessed; others believed he survived and endured. Most people who believed him dead were wrong. He looked far too healthy to be a ghost.
He wasn’t interested in reminiscing about the old man’s youth. He had questions.
“You don’t like my taste in decoration? Ah, well, each to their own, I suppose.” Holbrect sighed, leaning back and taking a long drag on his cigar, exhaling a thick plume that lazily swirled up to the ceiling.
“Where’s Green and his boy?” Michaels asked calmly, his eyes locking with the old outlaw’s.
“Ah, yes, the greenhorn and his brat,” he said finally, regarding his cigar and turning it deftly in between his fingers. “The man had no business coming here with his brat, “he added with some distaste.”Kept trying to justify himself about bringing him here. Said something about the mother harming the boy.” He shrugged. “None of my business. Got the father out the back. He’s quite useful chopping wood. ‘Bout all he’s good for.”
That was it. The uneasy feeling Michaels had. It also explained a lot of the atmosphere back in Southstead. He was sure people had known about this, but turned a blind eye. It quickly regained its sight when Green killed his wife and took the boy. The townsfolk, in a vain attempt to assuage their own uneasy conscience, found it easy to pin all their rage on Green. In their eyes, he was guilty of both crimes.
“It’s a shame that you don’t like this room, boy,” Holbrect was saying, a cruel smile on his face. “You should take time to enjoy life’s pleasures, its beauty. Might keep you on the straight and narrow,” the old man laughed, eliciting a few puzzled chuckles from the two henchmen beside Michaels.
“What the fuck would you know about beauty, old man? All I see are trinkets adorning an outhouse and you’re the pile of shit in the middle of it all,” Michaels sneered.
He didn’t even see Holbrects reaction; a rifle butt struck him hard in the midriff. Michaels sank to the floor, coughing as he tried to get his breath back. A rough, calloused hand grabbed his jaw and snapped his head back. Holbrect’s livid face was bare inches from his own.
“I’ve tried to be nice, boy. You’ve strained my patience. What should I make of you, eh? You kill three of my men – good men – and then claim to be looking for some idiot and his brat. What the fuck do you take me for?” Holbrect hissed, spraying Michael’s face with saliva.
“No-one cares about you anymore”, Michael’s said with a small smile. “The seasons have turned, Holbrect. You’re too old to be feared by people anymore.”
Holbrect’s grip hardened. “I don’t believe you. You’re going to pay for killing good men.”
“Such a subjective term, Holbrect; don’t you think?” Michaels smiled, infuriating the old man even more.
Holbrect gave him a look of disgust, casually throwing Michael’s head aside as he let go of him. “Take him outside. Get Green and his brat as well. Can’t have anyone else accidently turning up here, can we? I like loose ends tied up.”
Michaels was dragged through the labyrinth of corridors, this time he was greeted with silence, as though everyone knew Holbrect had planned something to be watched. Michaels knew he was going to be publicly hung or shot. The tyrant’s grip on power never lets up, even when it provides entertainment. There’s always message conveyed to keep people in line.
The courtyard was immaculately kept clean and in good order. Makes the perfect stage for this sick bastard’s productions, Michaels thought harshly. A hard shove propelled him forward, towards a mountain of logs that lay near its centre. From the corner of his eye, he could see a youngish man protesting under the grip of a more powerfully built man as he was dragged towards Michaels, followed by a child tugging on the free arm of the larger man, tears streaming down his face. Green and his boy. Michaels went cold. Holbrect wouldn’t, would he?
The thug back handed the child, sending the boy sprawling to the floor. Green roared, headbutting his boy’s attacker. The larger man staggered to the floor, his nose a bloody smear. Michaels had a split second to act. He deftly grabbed his guard’s gun arm and spun him round, placing his right forearm against his throat. Everything then went to hell.
Green was the first to be dropped, several bullets hit him before he could kick out at the wounded thug. His chest erupted as the bullets tore into him. He was dead before he hit the ground. His boy screamed, flinging himself on to his father’s bloodied corpse, sobbing fitfully. The thug had been felled by a stray bullet, a look of astonishment on his face as it struck the side of his head.
Michaels felt the impact of several shotgun shells reverberate though his captive’s body, shredding clothing and skin. A thick red mist of blood and gore soaked him. His human shield wouldn’t last long. Gripping the body tighter, he moved behind the log pile, fumbling for the gun belt on the corpse’s waist. A decent revolver, he thought. A handful of bullets.
He felt the impact of bullets hitting the logs. He had to try and get the boy out of here, but how? Then, as if everyone knew his thoughts, he heard a high-pitched scream. His blood ran cold. He chanced a look. The boy lay unmoving, sprawled over his father’s corpse. No. Not the boy.
He heard two men come running towards him. He quickly grabbed a log and threw it at the spot where a gunman appeared, hitting him full in the face. Michaels rolled clear of the log pile, emptying two bullets into the gunman’s chest. He wasn’t quick enough to face the second one. A sharp, intense pain flared up his left arm; his right ankle buckled as a bullet grazed the bone. Cursing with pain, he managed to fire off three bullets at the second gunman. Two missed, but the third didn’t. It took the man through the throat, pitching him into the log pile where he laid motionless.
The firing had stopped, replaced by an intense ringing in his ears. A shadow suddenly fell across him. He looked up it time to see a boot lash out towards his injured arm. Pain flared once again, shattering his vision into shards of nauseating light. A calloused hand grabbed him by the throat. He felt the barrel of a gun against his forehead.
“Who sent you? Answer me you bastard,” Holbrect hissed. “Tell me or I’ll send you to hell!”
Michaels laughed despite the pain. Even now Holbrect still thought it was all about him. The man was one of many of bandits whose life had ceased to be of importance years ago. This bitter old shell was clinging to his past, one which came back to haunt him today.
Michaels closed his eyes, waiting for the shot which would end his life. A single shot rang out over the courtyard. Holbrect flinched, gasped, a slight sigh that escaped his slack mouth, and then collapsed on the ground. Michaels rolled him on to his front; a bullet hole marred the back of his waistcoat. He looked over to where the gun man was. It was the Boy. He must have crawled over his father’s body, intent on killing the man who had been responsible for his father’s death.
Holbrect was still breathing, something which Michaels would soon remedy. One bullet left in his revolver. He placed it under the old man’s chin and fired. The bullet tore through flesh and bone, reducing the top of his head to a gaping mass of gore and matted hair. He felt no remorse about killing this man. His life had been spent killing innocents. Let his soul burn. Let this stinking town burn.
He crawled over to the boy’s lifeless body, noticing the gun that looked too big to be in such small hands. Michaels swallowed dryly and reached out to gently cradle the boy’s head.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, feeling tears stream down his face.