CHAPTER TWO: 10:46 PM
The next half-hour was a blur of movement; Kieran trotted Betsy through byzantine backstreets and sinister alleyways, never giving a whit of concern to what could lurk in the shadows of her own stomping grounds. When they finally broke from the dense crush of urban sprawl to see the Heron River stretching languid and dark before them, Betsy finally took a moment to catch her breath.
“Gods, I’m sorry, I just–” she spluttered, heaving down lungfuls of air. Kieran tilted her head at her, concern rising in her eyes.
“Ah shit, did I run too fast?” she asked. Betsy shook her head, doubled over.
“No, no,” she said, swinging upright, then nearly fainting as the blood rushed back into her head. Kieran flashed out a hand to keep her steady, and Betsy managed to get her own breathing under control.
“No, I was just holding my breath, apparently. All those dark alleys, I didn’t want to make any noise and wake anything up.”
Kieran gave her an odd look, eyes glimmering in the darkness of the alley’s mouth. Eventually, she smiled and clapped Betsy on the back.
“Sorry, Bets. Guess you really don’t know me.” Kieran laughed. “There’s nothing hiding in the shadows in this part of town that isn’t more afraid of me than you are of it.”
“Wait, isn’t the phrase ‘it’s more afraid of you than you are of it?’”
“Exactly. It’s more afraid of me. Now let’s mosey, the ferry’s gonna leave soon.”
With that, Kieran was already halfway across the street, moving with purpose to the ferry platform. Betsy sighed, ran her fingers through her hair, and followed.
While Kingston and the Hook were legally and municipally sub-entities of the city Crown(The City Resurgent, First of the New Age, the Promised Glory, etc), most people tended to consider them as unsightly scaffolding holding up the true city: the Courts. The island proper, split here and there by the massive canals that served double duty as internal borders. Highcourt, Lowcourt, and their constituent boroughs; the real deal that outsiders imagined when they heard the name Crown.
With this in mind, then, it could be said that Kieran and Betsy rode the ferry into the city that cold, bright night as they crossed the River Heron. The stars’ lights were blunted by the glitz of Crown, but the moon shone down a lonely vigil as the vessel’s engines puttered to life. On the ferry’s foredeck, a crowd of late-night partygoers raised their paper-bagged bottles to her silvery gaze.
Kieran posted up on the railing near the gangplank, taking everything in as the brackish Heron split sluggishly below like a confectionist sawing through taffy. She tilted her head to regard Betsy, gaze meeting her eyes and then wandering slowly lower.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at Betsy’s chest.
“Pardon me?” the blonde replied, face red. She followed Kieran’s finger and noticed the cameo necklace half-dangling out of her nightshirt. She somehow flushed further, fishing the rest of the silver chain out from where it had bunched between the shirt and her slip. “Oh, it must have jostled out when I was catching my breath.”
“Yeah, I noticed it then, but I didn’t have a chance to mention,” replied Kieran, eyebrow quirked. “What is it?” Betsy’s eyebrows furrowed as she looked from the cameo to Kieran and back. The cameo depicted a woman with a powerfully curved nose and icy gaze, dressed in a headscarf woven through with chain and a pair of ornate pauldrons.
“It’s just an icon of Saint Ouranne,” she said.
“Saint who?” asked Kieran. Betsy’s head fully tilted at that.
“Saint Ouranne,” she repeated. “You know, Our Lady of Cold Serenity? Goddess of justice and knowledge? Every city in the Federation has at least one school run by her nuns?”
“Huh,” said Kieran. “So, you’re saying she’s a pretty big deal, huh?”
“A big deal? Her church is one of the founding institutions of our whole government! Didn’t you pay attention in history class?” Betsy asked, flabbergasted. Kieran shrugged.
“I didn’t really go to school,” she said. Betsy’s eyes widened. Before she could interrogate this revelation further, however, she was interrupted by a nearby shriek of laughter. It seemed like the revelers from the foredeck were getting closer. Betsy eyed the group as she sidled closer to Kieran.
“Are there usually this many people?” she asked. “This late at night?”
“See, we all have different areas of knowledge,” muttered Kieran, searching through the pockets of her vest for a battered, nearly-empty pack of cigarettes. “There’s bars in Locksley that don’t even open until this time of night, not to mention the Unquiet’s nightclubs and casinos. Besides, it’s the weekend, plenty of reasons for folks to cut loose. Hey, you got a light?”
“No, sorry,” said Betsy, shaking her head. Kieran shrugged and kept the cigarette dangling from her lip all the same. Her eyes flicked over to the celebrants, and Betsy turned to see a pack of young women split off from the larger group, obviously angling for the two of them.
“Relax,” said Kieran, watching Betsy’s shoulders tense behind her shirt. “Just some girls from the neighborhood. I know a couple, they’re harmless.” Betsy looked back to meet Kieran’s gaze and nodded. The dark-haired woman grinned and raised a hand in greeting as the women approached.
“Marla, Kelsie,” she said, in only somewhat-forced joviality. “Nice to see you gals out and about tonight!” Her words prompted a flurry of giggles from the tipsy ladies, and a redhead with impressively-teased hair and wind-chime earrings threw her a smile so wide her eyes nearly disappeared.
“Always good to see you, Kieran,” she purred, and Kieran chuckled.
“I know that tone. Sorry, Deacon’s gonna be busy tonight.”
Marla let out an offended gasp, and another wave of giggles rippled through her friends. She batted her eyes and pouted, clasping her hands behind her back.
“Oh, that no good cousin a’yours, who needs him? You’re plenty tall, dark, and handsome yourself, aren’t cha?” Her gaze slid over to Betsy, and she smirked. “A’course, maybe you already got your arm candy for tonight, huh? She’s pretty, but I wouldn’t’a pegged you for having a thing for blondes.”
Kieran felt like she intended to chuckle at the jab, but she put a bit too much gusto into it; a sharp inhale later and Kieran’s cool demeanor shattered as she sucked her unlit cigarette up into her windpipe. She spent the next good while hacking it up into the river below, blessedly unable to hear another of Marla’s friends chime in about other things they would have pegged her for.
Betsy looked between Kieran’s hunched, wheezing form and the neighborhood girls and let out a peal of bright, shimmering laughter. Kieran looked up at her, tears in her eyes, to see tears streaming from Betsy’s as well. Her face, tired, sick with fear, smudged with dried sweat and sawdust from the workshop, had lit up into a beacon that threatened to outdo the moon above. She thumped Kieran on the back a couple of times and turned to Marla and company.
“Sorry, girls, Kieran’s helping me with something tonight. I’m afraid I’m going to have to monopolize her attention,” she nearly sang, occasional chuckle still bubbling out of her. The neighborhood girls gave a chorus of boos that quickly metamorphosed into a volley of compliments to how nice her outfit looked and how pretty she was, followed by a dozen offers to lend her a jacket if she was cold before the ferry finally landed on Locksley and the boatman called all ashore.
Kieran hung back as Marla and her friends disembarked, blowing kisses over their shoulders as they ambled to a nearby club to continue the night’s revelry. Reluctantly, she turned to look at Betsy, confirming that the blonde was staring at her with just as much amusement as she dreaded.
“Really?” said Betsy, smirk still playing about her lips. “Kieran Quick can stand up to a faerie monster, but a gaggle of flirty dames takes her right out?”
“It’s not like that,” said Kieran, but the color rising in her cheeks betrayed her. “It’s just– I mean–”
Betsy put a hand on her shoulder, and Kieran’s spluttering died away.
“Kieran,” she said. “I’ve been one bad move away from death since I woke up this morning. That’s the first real laugh I’ve had all day, whether you did it on purpose or not. Thank you.”
Their eyes met, and Kieran’s mortification turned to a small, soft smile.
“Come on, Deacon’s bar is just around the corner.”
Locksley, the easternmost quarter of Lowcourt, played host to an eclectic populace. Once the center of shipping and fishing for the whole of Crown, its attempt to pass itself off as an entertainment district for the blue-collars this side of God’s Tooth worked about as well as a seven-foot boxer wearing a tuxedo; that is, you agreed it did the job well, or you got your nose broken. Dozens of little oceanfront restaurants and bars dotted the edges of Locksley, shining enough neon and flashing lights to just nearly make you forget about the hulking, unmarked warehouses they sent a portion of their earnings to.
One such darling little establishment was the Golden Cat, a cabaret club that seemed to believe in the sanctity of its clientele so deeply that it was the only business on Fishhook Row that had shelled out for a bouncer at the door; an enormous slab of a man in a sport coat, with a little silver pendant hanging from his neck. The bar itself shone its name out onto faces of passerby, two-score high-power bulbs backlighting yellow-orange smoked glass cut into tasteful serif letters. THE GOLDEN CAT, it screamed, and beneath it in smaller type: ENTERTAINMENT FOR THE DISCRIMINATING MUSIC LOVER.
Betsy was just about to ask Kieran just how “discriminating” the music here was when the bouncer put up a hand in warning.
“Nope, nuh-uh, not happening,” he boomed, gaze fixed on Betsy’s companion. Kieran smiled ruefully and put up her hands in mock surrender.
“Giancarlo, there’s no need to be like that!”
“You stay back, Kieran. You ain’t gettin’ in.”
“That’s fine, I don’t need to get in, I just need Deacon to come out. Win-win, right?”
“Not right. Deacon’s still got two hours left in his set, the boss says you’re not allowed to pull him away from his work anymore.”
“Come on, Giancarlo. We don’t have to do this again, do we?”
“Do what?” asked Betsy, eyes ping-ponging between the two of them. The bouncer, Giancarlo, gave a nasty grin and reached into his coat.
“You got the drop on me last time, Quick, I’ll give you that, but I wasn’t really trying. Thing is, now the boss says I gotta keep you out of the bar by any means necessary. Even signed off on this.” The towering man produced a leather cosh from his coat, the lead-weighted head of it almost comically small when protruding from his beefy fist. Kieran gave an appreciative whistle.
“Cat’s eyes, a blackjack, huh?” She sauntered forward, hands still up in surrender. “You really gonna use that on lil’ old me? Tell your boss’s prized pianist you spilled his favorite cousin’s brains all over the cabaret porch?”
“Watch it,” growled Giancarlo, swiping the cosh through the air with an audible thwip. “I don’t like hitting ladies, even troublesome ones like you, Quick, but I’m not stupid enough to think you aren’t a threat.”
“Kieran, what is going on?” Betsy asked. Kieran turned to meet her look with a grin and a wink.
“Don’t worry, Bets, just a little joke between friends. Gianny here is just about to let us in, right?”
“Not happening,” insisted Giancarlo. Kieran rolled her eyes and leaned in a bit.
“Look, Gianny-boy,” she said, under her breath. “I know I’ve caused you all a bit of trouble in the past, and I’m honestly trying not to cause trouble here again. This is a legitimate emergency, and I really just need Deacon’s help.”
The bouncer was unmoved. Kieran sighed.
“C’mon, Gio. We’ve done this before. There’s two ways this goes: either you let us in, or I kick your ass and we go in anyways. I don’t want to kick your ass. Do you want me to kick your ass?”
“That’s why I got this,” Giancarlo said, brandishing his cosh. “This time’s gonna be different.”
“We’ll see,” said Kieran.
Kieran took one step further. Giancarlo took a swing. If Betsy had blinked, she’d have missed what happened next.
There’s a phrase, often uttered by posturing young men with no intention of following up on their words: “Two hits, man. Me hitting you, and you hitting the ground.” When Kieran Quick’s fist shot out that night, nearly faster than the eye could follow, the value of not signalling your intended number of blows was never more evident.
Giancarlo Rossa unwound the thick, bunched muscles of his powerful arm, slicing the air in two with the weight of his leather cosh right where Kieran’s temple had been a mere blink before. Unfortunately for him, she was a foot to the left, and the ridge of her palm arced up over his extended shoulder to meet his windpipe with a resounding whack!
The bouncer let out a hacking wheeze as the breath was slammed out of his throat. His free hand went clutch at his throat, trying to coax out a wheeze that refused to come, allowing Kieran to pluck the cosh out of his suddenly-slack grip. Kieran’s canvas sneakers rasped a staccato tap-dance on the concrete outside the Golden Cat as she twirled around to end up behind Giancarlo’s back, whipping the usurped cosh in an upward arc to crack across the big man’s head.
Somewhere, elsewhere in the world, a father put a hand on his child’s shoulder, smiling the gentle, warm smile of a man overjoyed to share his passion with a younger generation.
“Here, kiddo,” he said. “This is how you really hit a baseball.”
And he hit a home run.
Back in Locksley, on the front step of the Golden Cat, a man who had never had the chance to learn the sport of baseball from his father crumpled into a heap of loose muscle and dazed grey matter at the hands of a woman who had never known her father at all. Kieran Quick twirled the leather blackjack by its wrist-loop on her finger and whooped as the crowd in the back of her head roared.
“And it! Is! Out of there!” she crowed.
Out on the street in front of her, Betsy Planter regarded Kieran with a combination of embarrassment and awe.
“What in the world was that?” Betsy asked, hands over her mouth. Kieran shrugged and dropped the cosh back into Giancarlo’s twitching mitt, holding out a hand to help her step over his jumbled form.
“With big guys like this, you gotta let ‘em do the work for you,” she said. “They take these big ol’ goddamn swings and you just gotta make sure not to be there and then as soon as they overextend themselves, pow! Hit ‘em with everything. If you let ‘em build up a real head of steam, they’ll clobber you, so you gotta get ‘em where they don’t expect it, too.”
“…Noted,” said Betsy, taking Kieran’s hand and stepping up onto the cabaret club’s stoop. Kieran smoothly pulled the door open and ushered her inside.