We are absolutely delighted to be able to share with you the exclusive short story, Hemlock by Edward Cox. Hemlock is set in the Relic Guild world and is a must read for fans of The Relic Guild. Hemlock, read by the amazing Imogen Church, is also available as a free to download from Audible and Soundcloud. But, if you’d prefer to read this brilliant story, the only place you can is here on the blog.
Charlie Hemlock already had enough on his mind without having to deal with a nasty bastard like Jarris.
The dull red glow of Ruby Moon struggled to cut through the fat dark clouds spilling endless sheets of warm rain onto the Labyrinth. With his coat soaked through, his hair plastered to his scalp, Hemlock ran through the eastern district, slipping and sliding on wet cobbles, desperately fleeing towards the very outskirts of Labrys Town.
Reaching the end of an alley, he took a few precious moments to catch his breath. Furtively, he peered out onto a narrow road of crooked residential dwellings. It appeared deserted. No sign of pursuit. But appearances were always deceptive in this town.
The trouble with having someone like Jarris on your tail was that she was very good at her job – as subtle as a breeze in the night, but as deadly as tasteless poison in your food. Besides Old Man Sam, there was no better bounty hunter in Labrys Town. Not many people could afford her services, but Jarris was at her most dangerous when she was working for herself, and Charlie Hemlock was something of a project of hers. For the better part of six months, he had managed to avoid her, but tonight he sensed his luck running out.
Hemlock checked the road was clear again. The worst thing he could do now would be to lead Jarris to the merchandise, but he didn’t have the time to waste throwing her off his scent. He had to keep moving, and pray for the best.
Taking a steadying breath, mustering his courage, Hemlock made to sneak from the alley. He froze when he heard a high-pitched whine coming from behind him: the tell-tale sound of a power stone priming a handgun.
“Hello, Charlie,” said a low, female voice. “You know, for someone so stupid, you’re surprisingly difficult to track down.”
With his hands in the air, Hemlock turned around slowly.
Jarris wore dark clothes. The wet tangles of her hair were silhouetted against the glare of streetlamps shining from the other end of the alley. She aimed the gun at Hemlock’s chest. The violet glow of the power stone set behind the revolving chamber partially illuminated her face. Her slight smile might have been amused, but was altogether dangerous.
Hemlock held his hands before his face, and closed his eyes. “Please,” he begged. “Don’t-”
“Shut up, Charlie,” Jarris snapped. “If I was here to kill you, I would’ve put a bullet through the back of your head. I just want to chat.”
Not feeling particularly relieved, Hemlock lowered his hands and frowned. Chats with Jarris never ended well.
“I hear you’ve got something big going on,” she said, the aim of her gun steady. “A nice juicy deal with a mysterious new boss.”
Hemlock feigned bemusement. “Don’t know what you’re talking about, Jarris. I haven’t had any work for weeks.”
“That’s not what Fat Jacob told me.”
“Shit,” Hemlock whispered, and he managed a bitter smile. “Fat Jacob should learn to keep his fat mouth shut.”
“You’d think he would, wouldn’t you? Especially given what you’ve been up to. Jacob told me all about this deal of yours, Charlie. And I want what I’m owed.”
Hemlock could’ve bemoaned the fact that he’d had no choice about working with Fat Jacob, even though everyone knew that Jacob was just about the worst business partner in the history of the Labyrinth; but Hemlock had to concede that the current situation might be entirely his own fault. It was possible that, not so long ago, he had inadvertently screwed Jarris out of money – maybe on two occasions. Not his brightest idea in hindsight.
“Listen, Jarris,” said Hemlock. “You’re right. I do have a job going on – and, yes, it’s big – but my new boss . . . you don’t mess around with him, trust me. I’ll get you your money when-”
“I want fifty percent of what you’re making.”
“Say another word, and I’ll make it sixty.”
Jarris was also quick. Before Hemlock had finished his exclamation, she had closed the gap between them, gripped the collar of his coat, pulled him close, and jammed the barrel of the revolver into the underside of his chin.
“That’s sixty percent, Charlie,” she hissed. “And if you even think about screwing me over this time . . . well, I found you once, I can find you again. Only then, I won’t let you know I’m around.”
“All right, all right!” Somewhere beneath his panic, a part of Hemlock’s brain acknowledged that he was probably lucky to be alive as it was. But he simply didn’t have time for this. “It’s a deal,” he said miserably.
“That’s a good boy, Charlie.” Jarris was smiling again. “Now, who is your new boss? Fat Jacob doesn’t know anything about him, and it’s been a long time since something big went on in this town.”
“I can’t tell you,” Hemlock said truthfully. “And, believe me, you don’t want to know, anyway.”
“Don’t I?” She tightened her grip on his collar, and pressed the gun harder against him. “I’m not politely enquiring, you arsehole. Tell me what you know, before I . . .”
As she trailed off, Jarris seemed confused at first, but then her face screwed up in pain. A soft moan escaped her lips. She let go of Hemlock, dropped her gun, and fell backwards. Her head cracked against the cobbles. Lifeless eyes stared into the falling rain.
If Jarris had a weakness it was that she believed – as so many others did – that Charlie Hemlock was helpless vermin, a disloyal and venal rat, happy to steal scraps from the tables of other vermin while running from his own shadow. She believed that, even when cornered, Charlie Hemlock was too cowardly to stand up to a seasoned killer like her. Of course he wasn’t brave enough to use the knife he kept hidden in the sleeve of his coat – a knife with a blade so thin and sharp that Jarris wouldn’t feel it pierce her skin, slide between her ribs, puncture her heart – he was Charlie Hemlock.
The knife’s small, silver hilt protruded from Jarris’s chest. There was no blood. No mess. No time to hide the body.
Hemlock pulled the thin blade free, cleaned it on the bounty hunter’s clothes, and then continued on his way through the rain.
Feeling sick, desperation driving his feet, Hemlock made his way to the very edge of the eastern district, to the sheer, hundred-foot-tall boundary wall that surrounded Labrys Town. He followed a narrow lane that ran between the wall and the backs of buildings into an area where no one ventured anymore. He didn’t stop until reaching an old and abandoned lock-up.
The first thing Hemlock noticed was that the lock-up’s sliding door was already opened a crack, the pale light of a glow lamp spilling out onto the wet cobbles; the second thing was the voices coming from within. With the rain drumming upon him, a sense of dread chilling his insides, he crept up to the door, and took a peek inside.
Two men stood in the lock-up, a glow lamp on the floor between them. One of them was a big and battered bruiser called Ash, and he was supposed to be there. The other was Dumb Boy Clover, an unfortunate sort of man, who was supposed to be elsewhere. They stopped talking as Hemlock stepped into the lock-up, slid the door closed, and gave them both a baleful glare while shaking water from his hands.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
“Oh, hello, Charlie,” said Dumb Boy in his nasal voice. His clothes were soaked through, and he smelled of onions. “You ain’t here, are you?”
Hemlock blinked. He looked at Ash, who scratched his stubbly face and said, “He just turned up,” with a deep, unconcerned chuckle. “He doesn’t seem to know why.”
“I see.” Hemlock jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Why is the door unlocked, Ash?”
“I needed some fresh air. I was outside having a smoke when Dumb Boy arrived.”
“That’s right,” Dumb Boy happily confirmed. “He was.”
“Right . . .” Hemlock rubbed his forehead. “And where’s the key for the door?”
Ash produced it from his pocket, and Hemlock held out his hand. With a frown, Ash passed it over.
“Dumb Boy, you shouldn’t be here,” Hemlock said, gripping the key tightly. “Go and wait for me outside.”
Dumb Boy seemed uncertain. “But it’s raining.”
“Well, you’re already wet, so-” Hemlock bared his teeth “-go and get wet some more, you bloody imbecile!”
With a vacant expression, and a maddening lack of urgency, Dumb Boy Clover left the lock-up without further word. Hemlock closed the door after him, prayed for calm, and then turned to Ash.
“You do understand who we’re working for, don’t you?” he said with strained patience. “I mean – you remember what kind of person the boss is, right?”
Ash shrugged. “Relax, Charlie.”
“Relax? Ash, this job is already turning sour. If we get caught, there’ll be no walking away from the trouble we’ll be in. Some very serious people are about to get involved in this, and even if I was allowed to tell you who they are, you wouldn’t believe me. I need you to stay focussed.”
Ash’s square and pitted face split into a grin. “You should calm down before you have a heart attack. I’ve got this, Charlie. No one’s going to find us here, and the merchandise hasn’t been out of my sight.”
“Yeah. About the merchandise . . .”
In the shadows at the back of the lockup, a small and young woman lay on her side on the floor, facing the wall, with her knees drawn up to her chest. She wasn’t wearing much, and her hands were tied behind her back. Her slow, sleeping breaths sighed peacefully around the room; strange, considering the last time Hemlock had seen her she had been full of fear and begging for her life.
“Ash, what did you do to her?”
The big bruiser rocked his head from side to side. “I might have given her a little something to make her sleep. All that begging and crying was getting on my nerves.”
Hemlock stared at his accomplice, and then threw his hands into the air. “Are you insane?”
“What’s your problem?”
“We need her awake, you idiot!”
Ash drew himself up. His expression was flat, but his nostrils flared, and there was anger in his eyes. “Just because you arranged this job, Charlie, don’t think for a minute that I won’t slap the gob off you.”
“All right, I’m sorry,” Hemlock said quickly. “I didn’t mean to shout, but . . .” He glanced at the small form sleeping by the back wall. “Ash, the boss needs this woman because he knows that she keeps a secret. But before we can use her, you need to find out what that secret is. You’re not going to do that if she’s unconscious, are you?”
Ash eyed Hemlock for a moment, and then shook his head. “Charlie, we’ve had this girl for nearly three days now. We’ve starved her, threatened to kill her, and I’ve made sure she’s more frightened than she’s ever been in her life. If she really has this secret the boss needs so bad, she would’ve given it to us by now.”
Hemlock really didn’t have time for this.
“She has it, Ash – trust me. The boss is never wrong, and the clock is ticking.”
With another glance at their captive, Hemlock dipped his hand into his deep coat pocket, rummaged around, and then pulled out a small ampoule. He shook the clear liquid inside. It gave a brief sparkle of magic.
“Look, the boss says this’ll loosen her up.” He held the ampoule out to his accomplice. “Use it, Ash. And if it doesn’t work, then strangle the bloody secret out of her. Because . . . Because time is running out, and the boss is waiting. Understand?”
Ash took the ampoule and studied it. “Whatever I have to do, eh?” he said with a lazy grin.
“Just get it done,” Hemlock replied. “I’ll deal with Dumb Boy.”
Wondering what he ever did to deserve the curse of such a wayward crew, Hemlock left Ash to it and stepped from the lock-up, knowing in his heart that he had bitten off way more than he could chew with this job. He slid the door closed, and stared at it for a moment. Warm rain splashed upon his head and shoulders. The door was made of metal, two inches thick. Four sturdy iron rods served as its locking mechanism. He looked at the key in his hand.
Charlie Hemlock would refer to himself as a pragmatist. Others wouldn’t be so kind in their terminology.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed the key into the door’s lock. Carefully, as quietly as he could, he turned it until he felt the iron rods slide into their housings.
“What are you doing, Charlie?”
Dumb Boy Clover stood out in the rain, stepping from foot to foot, wringing his hands nervously. There was a pained expression on his face.
He added, “If you’ve got the key, how can Ash get out?”
From inside the lock-up there came a whimper, followed by the muffled menace of Ash’s voice.
“Dumb Boy,” said Hemlock, “Do you remember the instructions I gave you?”
“Yes, Charlie. You said to wait at home until the boss needs me.”
“So why are you here?”
Dumb Boy’s mouth worked silently for a moment. “I ain’t heard from anyone, and I was worried that-”
A piercing scream shattered the night air. Dumb Boy flinched. Hemlock faced the lock-up, his heart thudding. Someone was thrashing around inside, and it wasn’t Ash. The scream became a series of pitiful cries that began to sound like coughing that began to sound like barking.
“Charlie!” Ash shouted. He was banging on the door, trying to open it. “Let me out!”
The barking stopped, replaced now by a low, rumbling growl.
“Oh shit!” Fear had cracked Ash’s voice into a hopeless sob. “Charlie, please . . . she’s a magicker. She’s a-”
Vicious snarling mingled with Ash’s screams. It didn’t last long. The wet sound of gnawing and tearing replaced the silence of sudden death. Throaty growls came from the other side of the door.
Dumb Boy tried to speak, but he choked on his words. Still wringing his hands together, he was walking backwards, slowly, his fearful eyes looking from the lockup to Hemlock.
“Go home,” Hemlock ordered. “Keep your mouth shut, and wait for the boss.”
There was a single bark, as loud as thunder, and then something thumped against the lock-up door. Dumb Boy Clover turned and ran down the lane, quickly disappearing into the gloomy downpour.
Hemlock’s breath caught, and he backed away from the lock-up, as a long, bestial howl came from inside.
“Keep running, Dumb Boy,” he whispered. “You really don’t want to see what happens next.”
Hemlock © Edward Cox 2014
Want to know what kind of magicker the girl in the lock-up is? Read THE RELIC GUILD to find out…