He stood at the side of the road, a young man lost and alone. He wore a cap pulled down to shade his eyes from the westering sun, a plaid shirt that had seen better days, and a pair of pants that one could assume had probably not always been quite that dusty of a brown. The cars raced past him, his bag on his back and the sun on his face. Periodically, he would hold out his hand, thumb raised skyward, and hope. But universal as the call was, none heeded it.
The sun set and the stars filled the sky, cars becoming nothing but headlight streaks and the whoosh of their passing. With a sigh, he raised his head and watched as a pale gray sedan pulled up alongside him. It seemed to have stolen the moon’s glow in that newly fallen night. The window rolled down, and though he could not see the driver, the boy knew who stared into his soul.
“Are you ready?”
Defiant, the young man raised his chin.
“Not yet, old man, I got too much world left to see.” Then he grinned. “Too many girls to fall in love with.”
There was a sigh from within and the boy braced himself in case today was the day he was finally told No.
“Someday, for your mother’s sake, I hope you will come home, my son.”
Lightning crashed in the distance and both men looked up. Neither boy nor car cast a shadow on the ground.
“Someday, sure.” The young man adjusted his cap, taking a step back. “But not today.”
As he faded into the air, the pale gray sedan pulled away to seek him in another twilight.
The moon was rising and Mattie stepped out into the backyard. The rules for the summoning ran through her mind. Never give your real name. Have gold in your pocket, just in case. Never say thank you, but be polite. She had a small box of supplies to work with, and her Granda’s knife slung to her belt. Kneeling in the grass, she started by spreading a circle of salt around herself for protection. Next came the candles. Those, she placed on small rocks to keep them above the grass. It took a few flicks of her lighter before she could light the candles. In the flickering glow, she placed a small piece of paper with hand-written words. It was meant to be Gaelic, but she’d had to write it phonetically. Probably Liam could have helped her with it, but she didn’t want him to know. Taking a deep breath, she drew the knife out of the sheath and began to speak. Her words came slowly and carefully, focusing as hard as she could on making sure she said everything correctly. Reaching the end of the first repetition of the chant, she drew the knife across her palm carefully. Just the top layer of skin, just the top layer. Don’t cut anything important. It stung and then burned, blood welling up. She set the knife aside and held her hand just outside the salt circle, making a fist and squeezing. Then she repeated her chant. The quality of the air changed. It felt thick, heavy, almost like you could lean on it and stay standing. After a long moment, she heard hoofbeats sounding across the ground. Looking up, she pulled her hand back inside the circle. The figure riding towards her was shrouded in black leather armor and astride a skeletal horse.
His voice was like nails on a chalkboard and Matt wasn’t entirely sure where it was coming from at first since she couldn’t see his head. Then she realized he was carrying it tucked under his arm.
“Speak English, if you can.”
“I can. Why do you call me, woman?”
Mattie bristled at that but held herself together. Be polite. Be polite. She took a breath.
“I am told that you can find anyone, no matter where. I need you to find Captain Henry Wirz.”
She heard the door slam behind her and bit her lower lip.
“I will do this for you. Then I will be released.”
The rider started to wheel his horse and Mattie silently prayed he would be gone before Liam said anything.
“Matilda O’Halloran, what in God’s green earth are you doing?”
Her stomach dropped and the rider’s eyes locked with her’s. He knew her name now. She could hear his laughter echoing as he reared and then charged off into the night. Fear overtook her and Mattie buried her head in her hands, trying to stop the tears. She heard the knife getting jammed roughly back into its sheath but still didn’t look up.
“We need to clean your hand. Bandage it.”
Liam’s voice was distant, distracted. Matt whirled around, standing in one fluid motion. For a moment, she glared at him.
“I’ll deal with it,” Mattie growled low as she stormed back into the house.
Pulling up in the small lot out behind the little historical society building, William O’Halloran took his phone out of his pocket. Flipping it open, he checked the small screen once more. No messages yet. Hopefully, Matt was just busy. Tucking the phone back into his pocket, he stepped down from the cab of his pick-up truck and dropped his keys into his jacket pocket. As he approached the building, he could hear quiet chatter and he smiled.
The young woman with her brightly red hair pulled up into a neat bun under her bonnet smiled at the students dismissing them back to their teachers when they had no questions. She was cheerfully telling them that they could always come by and find her here if they had any questions when she spotted him leaning casually against the wall and grinned. As soon as they were gone to the shade and the picnic tables in the back, she tugged off the bonnet and came over to see him, brushing off the front of the apron she wore over her pale green dress.
“I thought you said you weren’t coming by the town anymore, Granda. You and Mom both said it was too dangerous.”
There was concern in her voice and in her hazel eyes. He looked the scant few inches down at this woman who looked like she was nearly his age now and smiled.
“It is, Mattie, but I had to talk to…a business associate of mine. And, I’ve made a deal.”
“Another one?” She crossed her arms over her chest, frowning now. “But-”
“Don’t worry, lass. This one…well, I’ll tell you in the truck. But I need your help. Can you take some time from work?”
She glanced back at the building and then looked at him as though he was a puzzle she was trying to solve.
“Granda…I can’t just…I’m supposed to give notice. What’s this about?”
“Call it a family emergency, Matt. I’m serious. I talked to her and she said she’d…” he paused, searching for the right words. “That she’d be willing to negotiate the original terms if I do this for her.”
That caught her.
“I could have it back. For honest truth.”
She rubbed her temples.
“I’ll talk to Judy, but if she says no…”
“Then I’ll find someone else. Just try, alright?”
She hugged him quickly and turned back towards the building.
“I will, Granda, I promise.”
The office was a small, cramped affair on the river but the building was older than the country in which is rested so a bit of tightness in the architecture could be tolerated. Thrift, they called it. It was easy to heat, especially since they put in the new insulation and windows. A woman sat behind the desk, a young man fidgeting in front of her almost nervously.
“Ma’am, I thought we were all squared away.” Nervously, he fidgeted with the cap in his hands. “I paid up years ago and…and I’ve still got the copy of the contract that you gave me.”
He would have continued on if she hadn’t raised her hand then.
“William, we’re fine on that score. I assure you. But…well, I know this is a bit unorthodox, but I need a favor.”
His face went pale under its summer pink.
She nodded solemnly and slid a file folder across the desk, keeping one hand firmly holding it down.
“I have a bit of a situation that I think suits your skills rather well. An escapee who needs to be…reacquired.”
She pushed her glasses back up her nose, red eyes glinting as she looked at him.
“You were a tracker, were you not, Private O’Halloran?”
He straightened slightly.
“I was, Ma’am. But that was…near to a hundred sixty years ago. A lot’s changed since I tracked rebels… What needs tracking? Is it…human?”
“He…was. Now, he is an escaped soul and I believe that not only would it suit me for him to be returned, but that you would very much enjoy hunting him personally.” She paused. “And, if you were to complete the mission, I would be willing to return your soul to you and amend the clause in your contract stipulating your eternal damnation.”
The young man frowned slowly, his eyes on the packet.
“I believe you know him. Captain Henry Wirz, the commander of Camp Su-”
He cut her off, eyes distant and remembering.
When she spoke, her voice was surprisingly gentle.
“You have yourself a deal, Ma’am.”
He held out his hand to shake on it and she took his hand, gripping it firmly.
“Excellent. Let me just get out the proper forms and we’ll just make it all official.”