Gwen was standing stock-still, laptop dangling by her side, free hand clenched into a tight fist. Her shoulders were slumped, and she looked sad, and tired. She spoke slowly, every word an effort.
“Why do you have to stop it? Why can’t you just go?”
Carter stood looking at her, breathing heavily. It was taking every ounce of self-control he had not to keep yelling in her face. He forced himself to count to five, slowly. When he had finished counting, he spoke, in a tightly controlled voice.
“How can I leave, knowing that this is happening? How could I ever look myself in the eye again if I ran away and did nothing?”
He stepped towards her, and this time she stepped back, flinching. That flinch was like the strike of flint against steel, and it reignited the anger inside him and he cursed the whole world for conspiring to make her look at him that way.
“How could I leave you here? You, Henry, Lauren. I don’t…”
He rubbed his face with both hands. She could see that his eyes were becoming bloodshot with tears and exhaustion.
“I don’t think you want this to be happening. Do you?”
“Of course not-“
He continued, hating the sound of his own voice.
“There’s something about this town. I don’t know what it is. But it gets into you, I think, like some kind of poison. It has to. Otherwise how could you live here, Gwen? Knowing what they do?”
He was rambling, desperate to justify this somehow, to reconcile what he now knew about the people of Fisherman’s Creek with how he felt about them. He had felt this desperation before, heard this pleading tone in his own voice. He was looking at Gwen, but he was seeing a young man, head bleeding, lying dead on the floor of a club.
Gwen just stared at him. There was silence, broken only by the groan and creek of the Wanderer’s fixtures. Carter thought it sounded as if the building was under great strain, threatening to collapse inward and crush the both of them under its immense, aged weight. He found himself wishing it would.
Finally, Gwen shook her head. Carter searched for the right words to take the past five minutes back, to pick up the broken pieces and shove them back into place. He came up empty. Gwen slowly, carefully, stepped forward, taking care to show that she was moving around him, not toward him. She spoke as she walked.
“The end of the harvest season is one week from now. If you can avoid giving in until then, you’ll be safe. But they could try to trick you at any point between now and then.”
Gwen stopped when she drew level with him, wiped her eyes, and looked up at him. He gaze was cold and level, but her red-stained eyes broke the illusion of composure.
“Be careful. They’re surprisingly clever, and their supposed ‘requirements’ for the ritual are changeable and unfair. And since there aren’t any other outsiders around… I’m not sure what they’ll resort to if you hold out until the last day.”
With that she strode past, stepped out the Wanderer’s doors, and disappeared into the warm late-spring night. He stood in stunned silence for a moment, then went over and locked the Wanderer’s front doors. He checked and locked every ground floor door and window and, once he had done that, he went around and double-checked every one. He was glad he did so – on his second round he found a small kitchen window for ventilation that he hadn’t locked, that was big enough for a small man to climb through.
Finally, he turned off all the lights and went upstairs. He stepped into his room, paused, then exited and checked every door and window on the top floor twice as well. He didn’t think anyone would be able to climb up, but he didn’t want to leave it to chance. Finally, he wedged the door to his room shut with a chair, turned off the lights, and dropped into a restless sleep.
He dreamed of creek water, warm like blood and black as oil, and the dead man on the dance club floor. But when he looked, it wasn’t the dead man’s face at all. It was Gwen’s.
Marcus looked around at the men who stood surrounding him. They were behind the church, standing a respectful distance from the edge of the creek. The end of the harvest season was only one week away, and they hadn’t even begun to ask for Carter’s help. The others had insisted on trying to contact Tobias at the hospital, but when that had failed, Marcus had called a prayer meeting himself. There was no time left to waste, and if that meant forging ahead without Tobias’ guidance, then so be it. In any case, Marcus had seen Tobias shortly after the latter had dragged himself back to town, bloody and broken. A man who looked like that only days ago could not be expected to lead such an important event as the harvest. With much posturing about the solemnity of it, Marcus had stepped into Tobias’ place.
He was finding it difficult, though. The others in the group were frightened of him, yes – he preferred to solve arguments with his fists and feet, and while he wasn’t physically intimidating, he was cunning and violent and fought dirty. But it turned out that fear wasn’t enough. They feared Tobias, and his strange connection to the Fisher and the creek as the Fisher Man, but they also respected him. He was intelligent, and calm, and he was always thinking three steps ahead of everyone else. Marcus had their fear, but not their respect, and it meant that they were second-guessing his every move.
“Brothers,” he had started, and even in the dark he had felt their eyes drift away, looking at the ground, or each other, or the creek. Not at him. He pressed on.
“The harvest time approaches. And we have not yet baited our catch. I think we all know who it is to be – the stranger, Carter Murphy. But knowing is not enough. We have to act on it!”
A voice interrupted his train of though. Marcus peered into the dark, but couldn’t see who it belonged to.
“But how? He has to be tempted. What can we tempt him with?”
Marcus had been ruminating on that himself, and had come up short. He tried not to let his uncertainty bleed into his voice.
“Money. Power. A woman – he seems to spend a lot of time with Gwen.”
A second voice rang out of the darkness.
“But he’s a hitchhiker, right? What would he want with money? And as for the woman – I don’t think he needs our help there, the way they act.”
Tobias had always seemed to know who was speaking, but Marcus had no idea how – he spent all his time with these men and yet he couldn’t recognise any of their voices. He kicked himself for not paying more attention. He was getting frustrated.
“Something else, then! There’s always something.”
A saying of Tobias’ came to him, and he tried it on for size.
“’There is not a man alive who cannot be tempted. Temptation is in our very souls. We may not understand another man’s temptation, but it is there.’”
There, if they wouldn’t respect him the same way they respected Tobias, then he’d just use Tobias’ own words.
A third voice came from the darkness. This one was thick, and booming, and at the first syllable Marcus’ blood ran ice cold and the skin on his testicles shriveled and became covered in goose bumps.
“I am pleased to hear you were paying attention to my sermons, Marcus.”
Marcus peered desperately into the dark. Around him, he could feel the men shift and turn as they searched for the source of the voice. A hand touched his shoulder, and he jumped, an electric shock running down his spine. He heard a voice in his ear.
“Was that Tobias?”
It was Lee Vickery’s gravelly voice. Marcus exhaled a quick breath, his eyes darting around.
“I don’t know. I think so. I can’t find him though.”
Tobias’ voice boomed out again. It was loud, and had a strange hollow echoing quality.
“Carter is our only option, yes. But how to tempt him? With money, or women? No. He is smarter than that, and in any case doesn’t care for those things. Not him. Not a wanderer.”
Marcus stared at the church, standing squat in the night. He could just barely see it by the moonlight reflecting off of its greenish slime. He strained his ears, listening hard as Tobias continued.
“No, there is nothing we could give him that would convince him to help us. No bait with which to catch him. So forget rods, and nets. Think of spears.”
Marcus slowly left the circle. He felt the men’s eyes on him as he crept forward through the brush, heading for the entrance of the church.
“No, there is nothing we can give to him. So instead, we will take from him. We will dismantle his life and burn everything he holds dear and leave him with nothing left and no choices to make, except to choose the Fisher. And he will choose the Fisher. A man like that values his freedom over everything else, and when choosing to help us is the only freedom he has left, he will take it.”
Marcus crept slowly around the corner of the church. In the thin moonlight, he could see that the front door of the church was ajar. He moved forward quietly, sliding one foot in front of the other. If Tobias was in there, and he could get the drop on him, then he wouldn’t need their respect. They’d have no choice but to listen to him. A new line of Fisher Men.
He sucked in his breath and slid carefully through the crack in the door, not daring even to touch it for fear of the sound alerting Tobias to his presence. The interior of the church was pitch black, and there was a heavy smell of mildew. He couldn’t see, but he knew from past experience that there were rotting wooden pews lining both sides of the centre aisle, all the way up to a small stage at the back, where in the church’s better years the priest would stand while giving sermons.