The first time Kieran Colt saw Lee Shelter was in a gunfight. Burchell warehouse, in the back where the money was counted. Kieran was down on the floor, counting bills from their latest robbery with Genie Simon and Wesley Burchell. Not that Wesley was actually counting anything. Instead, the short, pudgy man was simply recording things with a pen and clipboard.
Kieran jumped when he heard a shout from the front—a garage for all of the auto parts Burchell sold and smuggled, and a place for the more mechanically-inclined Burchells to bring cars back from the brink. Then another shout. And then a gunshot, down by the riverfront.
“Shit,” Wesley griped, clicking his tongue like he was disappointed in a child. “Colt, go stall. Genie, pack this up.”
The tall, freckled woman gave him a pitying look as she moved silently to do as Wesley had commanded.
Kieran swallowed as he pulled his revolver from the waistband of his pants, pushing four bullets into the cylinder before closing it. He stood and trotted out of the room. He knew better than to disobey Wesley Burchell, even if he knew in the back of his brain that Genie was a better shot than him and better at keeping her head under pressure. Gods above, he hated duking it out with anyone—pigs, other gangs, innocents, it didn’t matter. It just wasn’t part of his toolbox, not really. Like a human trying to use an old mage-made gun.
A bullet shattered part of the concrete wall next to him, and Kieran stumbled back with a gasp, dropping behind a crate full of mufflers. He poked his head out from the side of the crate, trying to get a good look at what was happening.
Three Charlette goons were spreading out amongst the boxes and cars—and the lookout Wesley had stationed was nowhere to be seen. Probably dead. Only one light flickered in the warehouse, hanging from the ceiling about a third of the way between him and the Charlettes.
He could hit it. Probably.
Kieran leapt to his feet, trying to aim before he was even steady. He heard a gunshot from the other side of the room, and the concrete behind him taking the blow, but everything else seemed to fall away. He let out half a breath, and shot twice in quick succession, the recoil making him wince.
The second gunshot heralded success, and as the light went out Kieran dropped back behind his box and the yelling began. Then he scrambled through the darkness behind another one, trying to keep his footsteps light and quiet enough to be covered by their foolish yelling. He’d been kicking around this warehouse for a long time now. He knew it better than any Charlette fools.
The moonlight coming from the open garage door just barely served to create an outline of the three intruders, and Kieran suddenly felt his hands sweat, his throat clam up. He couldn’t. He’d never killed before.
So he raised his gun and shot the wall, just like how the other gang had. Kieran could feel it, could see it in their postures. They relaxed. Kieran cursed internally. It was too much to hope for, that they would just run away.
“Lucky shot, the first time.” It was more a statement than a question, and Kieran squirmed as the deep bass poked at the truth.
The boy wasn’t about to just let them know exactly where he was, so he kept his mouth shut. Instead, he slipped over to a service counter near the back, taking another shot closer to one of them, just before he dove underneath it. He could squeeze into the cracks, hiding himself so well that he wasn’t sure he’d even be able to find himself, if he were searching. He was out of bullets—shit. He hadn’t thought he’d need them. They were only supposed to be counting what the others brought in that night. Four shots, and he only hit something with one of them.
The faintest sound of a car squealing away met Kieran’s ears, and he breathed out slowly. Okay, the money was gone. He just needed to get out, now. It was okay to run away, now.
“Go after their car.” That same, deep voice sounded like gravel being poured out onto a road. Kieran heard footsteps, but there was no way of knowing whether or not it was a feint. He stayed as still as a dead man, because if he didn’t, he might be one.
The fastest way to get out from his hiding spot was out the garage door beyond the Charlettes. That wasn’t going to happen, so he pulled out of his hiding spot, slowly, slowly. He could go out the back, same way Wesley and Genie had gone. It took an extra minute and would take him through a couple extra doors, but if he got out without dying it would be worth it.
Clang! Kieran found himself sprawled on the ground, his foot tangled up in a stray pipe. His breath caught in his throat as he heard a hammer click back—older gun, Kieran’s stupid brain supplied helpfully.
Then his breath squeezed out of him all at once as he saw the shadowy figure standing over him with the barrel of a revolver pointed at him. His words fell like water through a dam, controlled but fast-flowing. “Hey! Listen, you probably don’t really want to do this, right? I have nothing to offer you, really—I’m just a kid, they don’t tell me anything.” His voice cracked helpfully on ‘kid,’ but he couldn’t help but to keep going. “I was thinking, maybe you could just let me go? Just me and you here, you could tell your friends I escaped into the night! I—I don’t have much, but I’ve got some cash on me.” He made a move to get into his pocket, but froze when the revolver’s aim shifted from his chest to his head. A nervous smile practically cracked his face open.
“You know where they went?” It was that same, deep rumbling voice.
Technically, no. Realistically, they probably went to roost back at the Burchell apartment building all of them lived in. But technically, Kieran did not know for a fact.
Kieran shook his head vigorously as his eyes finished adjusting, revealing the vague features of a man. He had dark hair, cropped close to his head, with a flat face, bold nose, and a bit of a split in his lip from what looked like an old scar. He looked too calm for someone about to murder. Kieran shuddered and raised his hands up in false surrender. “No—no, I don’t, honest! Look, I was serious about me being a kid, they don’t tell me anything! Wesley just told me to stall and told Genie to help him pack up. There was nothing else for me to hear!” He whimpered, though it was an act. Fear stung his chest, but if this man was going to kill him there wasn’t much he could do about it. “Please don’t kill me.”
Kieran heard the man suck in a deep breath, then he swung his revolver to the side and pulled the trigger with one finger already between the hammer and the frame. He released the trigger, then let the hammer fall.
“If I find out you lied to me—”
“I’m not!” He sat up, coming very near to the man, then scuttled backwards until his back hit the wall. Distance was good, here. As much truth as possible was good, here. “I swear to you, Wesley didn’t tell me anything!”
“—I won’t let you see me before I kill you next time.”
Kieran swallowed. “Understood.” All of his babbling ceased. He’d gotten his way, as paltry of a way as it was.
He wouldn’t be leaving the most secure of Burchell territory for a while, he promised himself that. Genie’s fancy plans be damned.
“Good.” He leaned down to Kieran, seizing a fistful of his wavy copper-toned hair. Something in Kieran squeezed and he couldn’t tell if it felt good or bad. The man’s face was still blank as a mask, not nearly far enough away for Kieran to feel comfortable. “I won’t forget this hair anytime soon.”
And then, just as soon as he’d appeared, he strode out of the warehouse and out of sight, leaving behind only a slight hint of some sort of pine-scented cologne and gunpowder.
When he was gone, Kieran pushed his hands up against his face, and breathed in and out slowly. He tucked his knees up to his chest. His hands were trembling.
“Come on, Colt,” he whispered to himself. He rubbed his face with his hands vigorously. “That’s not the scariest position you’ve ever been in.”
But there was something about the absolute placidity of that man’s face as he leveled his aim. Something about the sheer professionalism as he promised he’d come back for Kieran—there wasn’t a hint of emotion, not even anger. At least not anything that Kieran could read from. That was—that was something Kieran wasn’t quite used to.
There was nothing for him to manipulate there, and that was terrifying.
More terrifying than that, though, was the whimper he’d felt in his throat when the man had gripped his hair, staring at him with dark, serious eyes. The tremble in his spine at the dull ache.
“Fucking hormones,” Kieran spat, pulling himself to his feet. He needed to get lost for the night, and the docks on the Hook were perfect. After a short search around the area near the auto shop, he found one of a family friend’s boats, and hunkered down for the night under all of the nets and ropes. He wouldn’t look like anything more than an orphan down on his luck, if someone came along. Which he was, but he didn’t usually look anything like it.
The ropes under his back pressed up into him, and the netting over him was almost like a blanket if he focused hard enough on the night sky above. The stars just barely shone to him with all of the lights on the water and on the banks. He let out a long breath in the chilly night air. He could have died, not that that was particularly interesting. He tried to focus on the smell of the sea salt coming from the ocean not too far away, just on the other side of the Sound.
A foghorn sounded in the distance—must have been a new ship coming into port in Ansen Sound. Kieran could hear the gentle lapping of the waves against the harbor, the slight creaks of the boats all around, and the chattering of people from the other side of the river. He wondered if they were happy. He wondered if he was happy, but then he rolled over with a scoff. As long as he was alive, that was alright. What else could he hope for, really?
The swaying of the boat put him to sleep faster than he expected.
Come morning, he disentangled himself from the ropes that had wound their ways around his arms and legs. He pulled himself onto the creaky old dock, but his foot slipped at the last moment and he got soaked through up to his left knee.
A perfect way to start the new day, Kieran thought as he shook himself and scowled. His foot squished as he walked through the winding, ancient streets of the Hook. He trekked all the way up to the bridge, shooting tired looks at fishermen as they packed their boats and headed to work. As he approached, a familiar brown Ponti car skidded to a stop next to him, and a weary smile split his lips as the driver’s side window rolled down.
“I was wondering if I’d be finding you, or your body, mage boy.” Genie leaned out of the window as she idled the car, her freckles seeming to shine dark in the early-morning sun against the beige tone of her skin.
Kieran let out a laugh—loud, boisterous, even though he was still irritated from his mishap with the boat. “You know you can’t get rid of me that easy. I’ve been around long enough to know how to lay low.”
“Well, sure, but I thought you’d been shot.” She gestured for him to get in, and he did. “I know you’re not exactly the best of shots.” She pulled a perfect U-turn on the narrow cobblestone street.
Kieran grinned, a little bit of cheek rising in him. “You know I can talk my way out of anything.”
Genie sent him a sideways glance, and suddenly her smile fell. “Not out of a bullet, Colt.”
“I did this time.” Kieran forced himself to puff his chest out, and then started into his tale, exaggerating all of the dramatic bits and leaving out anything that made him uncomfortable. Soon, everything would be back to normal, and he would be able to feel safe again. Right?