The church in Spitzer was built of solid stone, so the cells at its rear were quiet as a tomb. The three Pekot men were sharing a windowless cell that held four simple cots and footlockers, as well as a weapon and armor rack. They slept like the dead straight through the night.
Their cocoon was ruptured by Mrs Dunn, the church’s housekeeper, custodian, and quartermaster. In the dawn’s pre-light, she stood outside their cell ringing a hand bell loudly until Knuckle’s irate yelling had been sustained long enough to assure her the boys would not be getting back to sleep.
Choke, Knuckle, and Pinch stumbled out to the kitchen where Mrs Dunn served them up a hearty, simple breakfast of gruel and wickedly strong stugroot tea. Peep joined them from her private cell after a few minutes, dressed as usual in her combat kit of leather armor over breeches. Mrs Dunn had gone out into the yard, so Peep helped herself to a bowl of gruel and a mug of stugroot from the stove.
“So, how’d it go, boy?” Knuckle scoffed.
“I’d say, fair to middling, boy,” she said, taking her seat to eagerly tuck into her gruel.
“I take it that since ye left us to sleep through the night, ye couldn’t find out where the hit squad is holed up,” Pinch said.
“So ye found out where they are?”
“Well, are ye gonna tell us?” Knuckle asked sharply after a long silence.
“I suppose I could, if ye were to ask me nicely.”
“Peep, could you please tell us what you found out last night?” Choke asked.
“Okay! Well it’s a heavy squad for sure. And they’re holed up above the freight depot.”
“Where?” Pinch asked.
“It’s the big long building out by the lumber yards. By the yard there where all the wagons come and go. I guess it’s got an office on the second floor above the warehouse space.”
“And people were just talking about this?” Knuckle asked, incredulously.
“About the squad, yeah. And where they’re holed up. What did I tell ye? Drunk men just love to gossip, and almost all them drunks trying to get their end wet are teamsters or lumber workers. So, once I heard about where the cats were, I swung by the place and had a look at it.”
“And?” Pinch asked.
“Not good. I mean, they’re on the second floor of a secure building in the middle of a fuckin yard. Doesn’t get much worse than that, right? So I called it a night and come back to get some shuteye,” Peep said.
“And did ye hear anything about the squad? Was anybody talking about Murray or Lenny?” Pinch asked.
Peep shook her head as she took a deep swig of stugroot. “Nah, nothing about them. But people are going on plenty about the cat they got running the show. Not good. For us, I mean,” Peep winced.
“Who is it?” Knuckle barked.
“Alan ‘the Chisel’ Mason. Ye ever heard of him?”
“No. Who’s that?”
Just then, Mrs Dunn came hurrying back into the kitchen from outside. “There’s a ruckus out front,” she informed the squad, interrupting Peep as she was about to answer Knuckle’s question.
“What is it?” Pinch asked as their alarm rose.
“Seems there was a murder last night,” Mrs Dunn answered, giving Peep a very hard look. “Poor Mrs Murphy came out of her cottage across the street just now to find what she thought was a drunk passed out in her garden. Turns out someone cut his throat last night. She is very distraught.”
Everyone turned and stared at Peep.
“What? Wasn’t me,” she said. Then she gave Choke a significant look and flicked her eyes Mrs Dunn’s way.
Choke sighed. “I am sorry to bother you, Mrs Dunn, but could you go back out and see what else might be going on? I’m sure the guard is there, and any further information would be very helpful. Thank you so much.”
“Very well. But I cannot stress this enough: I do so only because Father Morrenthall, who has been very good to me indeed since my Fred was killed under his command, told me that you have his full confidence and support, and to give you whatever assistance you might need. I am quite sure that upon his return, and in his hearing every detail I can provide him, you will retain Father Morrenthall’s full confidence and support. Because, if not, I certainly will not be the one called to account on the matter. Yes?”
“Thank you, Mrs Dunn. We understand you very well,” Choke said.
When Mrs Dunn had left, the three men turned their full attention back on Peep.
“Well?” Choke asked.
Peep shrugged. “Yeah, well, whad’ye want? I fuckin killed him.”
“Peep,” Choke groaned, slumping in despair.
“I was gonna tell ye. We hadn’t got to that part of the story yet.”
“Ye said that when ye left the freight depot, ye came back here and went to bed,” Pinch said.
“Yeah, so? Whatever. I wanted it to be a surprise! It’s not like I was trying to hide it,” Peep said.
“Yeah, no shit. Leaving him out in the fuckin garden for the world to find!” Knuckle laughed.
“Okay, then,” Choke said, “We know now. So enlighten us. What happened?”
“So, yeah, when I went out last night, I slipped out through the yard and in behind the stables to get out to the front of the church, right? And I saw that fuck, camped out next to the cottage in the little garden there. Fuckin set up in the shadows, watching the church. So I think to myself, ‘well, that’s fucky. Best keep my eye on that.’”
“Okay…” Pinch said, keeping his tone and bearing very neutral. To his one side, Choke was barely holding onto his temper. To his other, Knuckle was staring at Peep with undisguised admiration and a big grin.
“Right. So I go and check things out, like I said. Then, I’m heading back here and I creep up on his spot to see if he’s still there. Because, I’m thinking, if he is, then that means for sure he’s up to no good. Spying on us for the enemy, like. And sure enough, he’s right there. Even got himself a little stool to camp out on. Staring right at the church like a hunter in a blind.”
“All right. So you go to confront him, and…” Pinch said, drifting off expectantly.
Peep blinked. “Confront? Fuck no. I snuck up behind him and cut his fuckin throat.”
“Yes, that’s what I figured,” Pinch said. “I was just giving ye the chance to sugarcoat it for Choke here.”
“Oh, is that something ye need, Choke? Ye need things tarted up for ye real nice? Or can we speak plainly about what we’re all about here?”
Choke sat staring at Peep for a while before speaking. When he finally did, it was slowly and calmly, with just a slight quiver in his voice to betray his emotion:
“Peep. I understand the rationale in doing what you did. I do.”
“But you must understand: that was murder.”
“Yeah? And what Knuckle did to Naomi wasn’t?”
“Who?” Knuckle asked.
“The woman ye crossbowed.”
“Oh. Her. That was a mistake.”
“Right. So ye just accidentally murdered her, then. But when I kill a goon that’s been sent to kill us, who is on the job working to get that done, that’s too much?” Peep asked.
“No. It’s all good,” Knuckle said. “Ye did right, girl.”
“Knuckle, there are rules,” Choke said. “With this killing, can we go to the Sheriff and prove to him, in law, that the man was engaged in a crime or was an imminent threat to us? No. We can’t. Because we have been on the wrong side of the law from the very start of this thing.”
“Yeah, I’d say that’s right. But it isn’t like the guys coming at us are squeaky clean either,” Pinch said.
“That does not matter,” Choke answered.
“Of course it matters, Choke!” Pinch said. “Sure, we got on the wrong side of the law with the whole Bridgetown thing. But, what, we’re just gonna sit on our hands while these thugs come at us on a mission of murder for hire? Come on!”
Choke sat glowering at his empty gruel bowl for some time.
“Okay, fine,” he finally said bitterly. “So we’re murderers too, now. Just great. But if that’s the case, did you have to leave the body out there for the world to find?”
“Well, yeah. Of course! Duh!” Peep said.
“Explain your thinking,” Choke snapped.
“The whole point of a killing like that is to send a message,” said Peep. “Not just to the enemy, but to everyone around that might be thinking of taking a poke at us too. Ye come at us light and yar gonna get yar fuckin throat cut. And as for Mason, we caught his crew slipping and dropped one of his people. Welcome to Spitzer, bitches! Where are you staying here? Some fuckin warehouse? Well, we’re here in the fuckin church, and if ye come snooping around, ye best fuckin watch yarself!”
“Fuckin A, girl!” Knuckle said holding his hand up for a high five from Peep.
“I follow you. But how d’ye know that guy was with Mason, and not just some dipshit trying to fink us out to him for reward?” Pinch asked.
“Ah. Right. Well, I was gonna get to that too. When Mason came to town a couple days ago, he put word out that yar contracts are his. But, he was still willing to pay for information that led him to ye. Then, when we rode into town last night, he put word out again that everything is off. He wants his own people on it and doesn’t want any dipshits getting in his way.”
“So you just happened to overhear some drunks talking about all this?” Choke asked.
“Not exactly. There was three bushpigs standing around outside a hoor house that fancied themselves hard. Real drunk. They were choked about Mason fucking up their score. So I come up to them and told them I heard they was on the job and that I knew where ye guys were staying and what might that info be worth to them? So, then they dished the whole story, dumbass drunks that they are,” Peep said.
“You talked to them. After I specifically told you not to do that!” Choke snapped.
“Yeah. So what? The move was there to make. They were pushovers. Don’t worry so much.”
“So, just to clarify, was this before or after you murdered that man in the garden?” Choke asked.
“Well, before, obviously. I wandered around, listening to this or that. Picked them up. Got the story on the situation. Then, I went to check out the freight depot. Then I cut that guy’s throat on the way back here. Does that all meet with yar aproval, sir?”
“In this squad, I am the leader. Is that understood, Peep? When I give an order, I expect it to be followed!” Choke barked.
“Yes, sir!” Peep saluted. “But that wasn’t an order ye gave me not to talk to no one. Seemed more a suggestion to me. And, if we’re talking soldier stuff here, if ye send yar scout out to get the lay of the land, yar gonna hafta let them think for themselves and make some moves out there, or else they aint gonna be good for shit.”
“She has a point, Choke,” Pinch said.
“Yeah. Remember what Brother Willem always said: deligation is critical to command. Ye can’t control everything. Now, Peep, what do ye know about this Mason Chisel guy? Have you heard of him before?” Pinch asked.
“Oh, hells yeah! He is known for keeping bad boys up at night worrying. A real headhunter. Collects bounties and contracts and kills for money. A proper scary fuck.”
“And what about his crew?” Pinch asked.
“He tends to hire local talent as he needs it.”
“So that crew ye worked last night didn’t make the cut, huh?” Pinch chuckled.
“Oh, hells no. We should be so fuckin lucky!”
“So, who did he hire?”
“That I don’t know. Doesn’t matter so much does it? Gonna be some dangerous bad boys that know the turf around here. Anyways, whoever they are, they’re all gonna drop like timber, right?”
“Fuckin A,” Knuckle said.
“So, with this all squared, now what?” Peep asked
They all looked at Choke, who fumed silently back at them.
“I guess when Mrs Dunn gets back we see what she says and get our weapons from her,” Pinch said.
“Just like we planned, right? If we’re not wanted by the Sheriff for murder, we go to the general store and get some gear. Then head out Bristlehump way and see about setting up an ambush. So we’ll need plenty of food,” said Pinch.
“Sounds good,” said Peep. “And the Sheriff aint gonna do shit. Just so long as nobody does anything stupid, like admitting we had anything to do with that body, we’ll be fine. Right?”
Both Pinch and Knuckle nodded. Then they and Peep all turned to stare at Choke, who was still glowering at them.
“Right?” Peep said more forcefully to Choke.
Choke stood up from the table and turned his back on them to walk to the kitchen exit to the hallway towards the main Church. He looked back to address them before leaving:
“I am going to the church to pray for guidance. All three of you, do not kill anyone while I am doing so. And that is an order!”
Choke stomped away down the hallway. Peep took just a second before she started shouting down it after him:
“Okay, thanks! Good job, Peep! Thanks for figuring that all out for us, Peep! Because without you, we’d be riding out for Bristlehump today with no fucking idea what’s sneaking up behind us!”
Choke made no reply. Peep smirked at Pinch and Knuckle.
“Don’t worry about him, Peep,” Pinch said. “He’ll be okay. It just takes him a little while to warm up to new things.”
“Oh, I know it. He’s a good lad! Don’t ye worry, boys, we’ll get him broken in before long at all.”
Peep, Knuckle, and Pinch all shared a good laugh as they settled in with their stugroot to await Mrs Dunn’s return.