Chloe Helton | Historical Fiction

The Red Pearl: Chapter 29

 Chapter 29

I came, this time, before sunset, so it was I who waited for Sam. I ordered a glass of cider, which he would appreciate, and wiggled my way back to our usual table, more nervous now than ever before. While it wasn’t a great surprise, what Sam had done, to see him and know that his hands had wrapped around a man’s neck and squeezed the life from him would be quite strange. He had always been so kind to me, and it was hard to imagine he was capable of it.

Yet, it couldn’t have been anyone else.

It was sunset, at least, by the time I finished my cider, and yet I was still alone. I had hoped he would find me here, only a few sips into the drink, collected and ready to make calm accusations. I had not expected to wait half the night, until the anticipation and the pent-up terror had made a woodland creature out of me.

Perhaps these meetings were over. Maybe Sam didn’t frequent the Pig’s Head anymore, now that our work together was clearly done. He had probably supposed that I would never come back.

I tapped my fingers against the table. Suddenly, all these faces - which were familiar, as the men who frequented The Pig’s Head were much the same every night - had grown dark and menacing. I would have to walk home alone, and although now I had my little pistol, no bullet could shoot away the shapes of shadows and the sound of voices. Likely, I would be fearful for the rest of my life. I would never again trust dark corners and unfamiliar men. Even with brief moments of reprieve, I could never forget the lingering terror that thrummed with my pulse. So long as my heart was still beating, the terror would be with me.

Shivering, I traced my hand against the gun at my hip. It would not change who I had become, but it was a start.

I noticed the approach before he spoke my name, but it didn’t quite register in my mind: until the moment he said, “Lucy,” he was a blur. And then he was clear, with clean lines and a crisp smile, beckoning the same sharp pang that graced my heart every time.

“Sam,” I said weakly. “I almost thought you’d stopped coming.”

He slid easily into the seat across from me, taking a moment to drink me in. A moment perhaps, to discern whether I knew what he’d done - as if somehow I might have missed the corpse left in my backyard. “Why would I stop?”

I shrugged. “War’s over. No reason to see me now.”

Words hung limp between us. He had a reponse to that, as far as I could tell, but all he came up with was, “You came just to say hello?”

I took the last sip of cider. “No.” Cleared my throat. “Are you getting a drink?”

He looked back at the bar, as if he’d forgotten it was even there. “I suppose I shall. Would you like a refill?”

“Please. Cider.”

He shrugged. “I can get you whiskey if you’d like.”

I swallowed a hard lump in my throat. “No, cider is fine.”

Wringing my hands together, I stared at a portrait on the wall. It was a portrait of the king, ironically enough, that had been scratched-up and the word TYRANT scribbled across his face in big, bold letters. Perhaps done by the owner before it was even put on the wall.

Sam came back with the drinks. Eagerly, I brought mine close, wrapping my hands around the warmth of the cup, realizing that he was waiting for me to speak. “I received your gift,” I said cryptically.

He nodded. “I thought you would appreciate the artistry.”

I snorted. Of course that was his concern: the artistry. Staring down at my cider, I rolled my tongue across the inside of my cheek and asked, “Why did you do it?”

“He hurt you.” Not even a beat.

My chest seized, and for a moment he was incomparable. Who was my husband, when Sam would slit throats in my name? How could I walk away from him?

If my all-consuming admiration for Sam’s deed had lasted more than that single moment, perhaps I would have left that pub by his side, attaching myself to his hip and never looking back at The Red Pearl. But I swallowed, and I tasted blood, the blood I had seen pooled at my feet when I stumbled upon Charles’ corpse. I had known enough of blood.

So I gulped and said, “I did not ask for this.”

His eyes were sympathetic. “Of course not. I tried to fix it.”

He didn’t understand. I did not ask for this: he thought I’d meant the assault. I looked down and said, “You didn’t.”

His responding nod was mechanical. “I’m sorry, Lucy.”

I couldn’t identify which of many things he was apologizing for. None of it had been his fault, except the murder. If I had not given him the information about that ship The Blue Orphan, he wouldn’t have used it. That was on me.

Again, I stared at the torn-up portrait of the king, which cast a sinister smile down on Sam, who was sitting just beneath it. I tried to figure what I had intended to get from this meeting. Was there something I wanted Sam to know? Was there something I hoped to learn from him?

I stared into his green eyes. There was nothing. This was a good-bye. “Don’t fret on it,” I said. “You did nothing wrong. You helped me.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

I nodded. “All the information I told you - I’m proud to have done it. I am grateful that I could help.”

But at what cost was it? That question was in his eyes, and it was always in my mind. At the moment, it didn’t matter. It was done, and we had both done what we could. We had helped to win this war, and we would try to leave the ghosts behind.

A long silence. “Well, I don’t intend to stop coming here,” Sam said. “Even with the end of the war.”

I cleared my throat. “Well, I do.” A quick glance at the pub around me. “I think it’s time I left this place behind.”

His face fell. “Of course.”

I downed the last of my cider and stood from my chair, leaving a Continental note on the table. I gave Sam one last look and said, “I hope you find her.”

Confusion. “Who?”

A light smile. “A woman who will appreciate your artistry.”

As I left Sam, and that pub, and a piece of my heart, I pulled out my pistol and stepped into the darkness of the streets. The gun did not chase away the shadows nor the voices, but I kept it in my hands, pointed toward the ground but ready to be raised in a second, and for now, that was good enough.