This story first appeared in The Crimson Pact Volume 3 anthology. Ed. Paul Genesse. Alliteration Ink. March 20, 2012.
I didn’t mean to become a murderer, not really. I did imagine them dying over and over—I used to pray for it every night before I went to bed. Tom Miller’s face was pitted like a walnut shell and I wished it would crack open. Jeff Hunter used to pull my hair, just because he liked the sound of my screaming. When I refused to scream, they’d both try it, to see if they could make me cry eventually. I never did, not even when each had fistfuls of orange hair. There were also the twins, Mark and Nate, who liked to kick—I prayed every day I would stop feeling anything, or that the four of them would drop dead. I never thought that wish would come true.
It happened just after I came home from the academy. I don’t think there was anyone in town who thought I’d gone because I loved the idea of being one of the first female constables. I think they all knew I’d done it so I could come home and arrest all four of them. Especially Tom, for when he beat me and unbuckled his belt behind the woodshed. He might have gone all the way, if the innkeeper’s apprentice hadn’t heard me yell and come out shouting. Our town was very small and everyone knew my carrot-orange hair was the boys’ favorite target. Nobody did anything about it. I thought it wasn’t so much that the innkeeper’s lad, Benjamin, was kindly to me. I’m sure his master just didn’t want something like that to happen in his yard. Tom got away with a few scratches and no punishment. So I made punishment my job.
When I came back to town, I knew I’d catch them doing something vile and finally put them in the gaol, where they belonged. My first day in uniform, high black collar, specially tailored coat with a shiny silver crest, was only the beginning. The governor herself stood on the balcony of Central Hall and granted us all her blessing—the first mixed class of men and women, the first female constables going out to the scattered settlements. I should have been proud, but all I could think about was how, at last, the ones who deserved it would get what was coming to them.
I was right, but wrong about how it would happen.
I think about that night often now. I’d been home just three days, long enough for Milford’s constable to wonder what he was going to do with a female trainee, besides assign her to kitten rescue. It was after hours, and I ached to prove myself. I knew the gang of them was drinking at the inn. I went in there knowing it wouldn’t take much to rile them, to get them to fight me. I’d had two years of constabulary training by the Governor’s Hand himself—I knew how to handle myself, or so I thought. And, anyway, they’d get it for assaulting an officer of the realm. If they tried, I’d lock them up. I counted on liquid bravery, but not how far it would carry us.
As soon as I walked in there were catcalls. “Come and search me, darlin’, there’s something unlawful in my breeches,” “I have some ideas for your fetters, Constable Burke.” Then Tom, “Came back for more, eh? I can’t blame you.” He’d told everyone in town we’d done it behind the woodshed, and only the innkeeper’s lad and myself knew the truth. I ordered a drink. Tom and his cronies kept it up. I got in Tom’s face and told him to back off. Then he balled his fist in my hair and tried to kiss me while the others laughed. People started to clear out of the inn.
I kneed Tom in the balls. While he was bent over, cursing, Mark and Nate took my arms. Jeff laughed so hard he pissed himself. Tom spit in my face and yanked at my jacket, sending silver buttons bouncing across the floor.
“Hold her still, lads. I’ll show you she’s carrot on more than just her head.”
I kicked and clawed but they were too strong. Their laughter rang in my ears.
The innkeeper’s lad, whom they’d ignored, knocked Tom hard with the club kept behind the counter. There was a scuffle between them, and Jeff cheered Tom on. I struggled, but Mark and Nate held me tight while Jeff, still laughing, punched me in the face. The innkeeper joined in the fight and I, dazed, dropped to the floor. I found myself in a sideways world, table legs and black boots, my cheek pressed into the sawdust, staring at a dark shape in the corner who watched us all, unblinking. I heard the shrill notes of a constable whistle and someone dragged me out into the street by the arms. The lot of us were fettered and hauled off to the gaol.
Constable Stanhope dressed me down for “asking for trouble.” I told him it was those boys who were asking for it. I got reprimanded for my cheek and was off assignment for a week.
“Stay home, Sarah. Take some time to rest and think,” he said.
Ma and Da were quiet about the whole thing, like it hadn’t happened. They’d never approved of me being a constable, didn’t even come to graduation. Da said it was unnatural for a woman to take jobs from men, who had kids to feed. He wanted me to marry someone and be safe and happy. Cared for.
I told him there wasn’t anyone in the whole world who could make me happy. The next day I learned I was wrong.
I was in the market. Ma wanted me to stay home for the shame of my lumpy face. I wanted the whole town to see what the boys had done. I wandered through the familiar sights and smells of the market, the same old stalls cobbled on top of carts and leaning against buildings, where folk sold salted meat and onions. Children chased each other around because no one felt like watching or reprimanding them. The smell of roast chicken mingled with apple tarts and dried sage was enough to make anyone feel like they were with kith and kin. But it felt like another place where I had to walk on the outside of things. People averted their eyes from my face, except for one man.
He was tall and wore a top hat and a long ragged coat. He watched me—blue eyes glinted from deep sockets. His face was lined like it had either seen a lot of sun or many more years than the rest of him. He moved with grace, arms and legs stick-thin.
“What ails you, girl?” His voice was like a dog’s whine of warning—high and made the back of my neck prickle.
“That’s Constable Burke to you, sir.”
He took off his hat and bowed. I don’t know why, but I was reminded of a spider folding itself in to die. “Constable, then. What gave you such pretty black eyes?”
“Not a what, a who.”
“Of course.” He smiled at me apologetically; he was missing both front teeth. “Who, then?”
“Those who don’t know what’s good for them.” I looked for a way to step around him, but he blocked the aisle. I’d have had to push by him. But, for some reason, I didn’t want him to touch me.
“So they’ve been punished, then?”
I ignored the question. Jeff was still at the gaol, but Tom, Mark, and Nate hadn’t even been brought in or questioned.
“I see. Not punished.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Do you want your revenge, Constable?” He held out a dirty package.
“I’m not buying anything today.” I started to push past him.
He shoved the parcel into my hands. The paper tore, showing red. “A gift.”
I didn’t like that glimpse of red. It made me want to know what it was. Maybe there really was a constable instinct inside me somewhere, or maybe the rage that lived in my soul knew this was how it would get fed. I shifted the package in my hands and it tore open further. It was cloth.
“What is this?”
“It’s a cloak. So you can get what you want,” his whine dropped like a stone down a well.
“And what’s that?”
“I was in the tavern that night. I saw. This will give them what they have coming.”
He was the kind of man mothers warn children to stay away from—the kind I’d have questioned if I were still on assignment. I knew I should tell him to keep what he was peddling and go on about my day, but there was a lure in his voice I couldn’t dismiss. For all his strangeness, I stepped closer and lowered my voice. “What do you mean? How do you know?”
He smiled, but his grin wasn’t humor. It was cold. “I’ve used it for my own purposes. Now it’s time to pass it on.”
My stomach flopped over. I studied his creased face, then the bundle in my hands.
He seemed to see something in my expression, because he nodded. “Never put it on where others can see you. You must wear it every night to make it your instrument. When you have achieved your goal, you must find another and pass it on, for it has more work to do. I will be watching.”
I listened, but I didn’t really hear. I saw Tom twisting on the ground in agony. God help me, I liked the image.
The man stepped back and tipped his hat to me, and all I did was nod, put the bundle under my arm, and walk away.
I put the cloak on that night. The cloth was stiff and crackled when I pulled it from the package, like it had been soaked in some thick liquid and dried without being wrung out. I slipped it on and fastened it across my shoulders. The fashion was old, it didn’t have the extra rain guard that cloaks of today have across the shoulders. Hats were in fashion now, not hoods, and this cloak had a deep one. My head and face disappeared into darkness when I pulled it up. The clasp was a black claw, the grasping fingers of a raven. It felt heavier than anything I had ever worn, but with the weight came determination.
I snuck out of my bedroom window that night, silent as a hungry wolf, and eased the shutters open gently so I didn’t wake my parents. There was a broken shovel handle behind the neighbor’s house and I snatched it up. Sneaking through the settlement at night isn’t easy—everyone has dogs. I was careful as I stole through the sleeping town, but the only dog I saw backed away with his tail between his legs, a thin whine curling from his bared teeth.
A small voice inside me said I should be worried by that dog’s reaction, but I ignored it and made for the mill, hoping Tom was there. It wasn’t far, and the forest was between the town and the mill down-river. Lights still shone in the side building where the miller sometimes spent the night during harvest. I crept to the window and peered through the cracks in the shutters. Tom sat at the table. He had a black eye and nursed a bottle. He was alone. Rage was an ache in my gut.
I crept back into the woods and picked up small river stones. The undergrowth smelled like the river, dead fish and rotting waterweeds. I turned the stones over and over in my hands. They were worn smooth; tumbling through life for however many centuries had knocked off all the rough edges. Maybe that’s what happens to us all, we go on tumbling through life until nothing touches us anymore and we feel nothing. Not me. Not yet. Fire gnawed at my insides. I had plenty of edges.
I threw a stone through the window on the first try. It bounced off the table right in front of Tom—his head jerked up. I ducked lower in the bushes, my heart pounded against my ribs, but everything else around me was silent. I didn’t notice it at the time, but not even insects sang that night.
Another stone. Tom stood and lumbered over to the window.
“Throw another and you’ll wish you hadn’t, boy.” A sloppy grin split his pockmarked face. I realized he thought I was one of his friends, pulling a prank. I cocked my arm, took aim, and the next stone bounced off his forehead with a dull thud.
He swore loudly and rubbed the red mark I’d given him.
“That’s it, you’re in for it now.”
He came out of the mill house like an angry bull and stomped down the path, eyes piggy and mean. I slithered down to my belly, the shovel-handle tight in my hands.
He rooted around in the bushes and cussed for some time before he walked close enough. I stuck the handle between his ankles and twisted. He went down hard on his side and his belly jiggled with the impact. I stuck him hard on the shoulder and he tried to roll away from me, but I was on him. I pressed his face into the mud and dug my knee into his back.
“I came back for more, Tom. And I want it all,” I told him. Then I put my hands around his thick neck and started to squeeze.
He fought me, kicked, and almost bucked me off. My hands sank into the warm flesh of his neck, as though it were bread dough, and I felt the ridges of his bones, his Adam’s apple, and the air sputtering through.
He started to convulse as though I were bleeding him, not choking him. Then I realized there was blood. He was red all over. It oozed between my fingers, buried deep in his neck. Blood seeped out of his scalp, dripped down his hair. It soaked up through his tunic, his trousers and painted us both scarlet. I tried to tear my hands away, but they came with hunks of meat and badly-shaved patches of pockmarked skin. I meant to wipe it off but instead I brought my fingers to my mouth and shoved the meat inside. It was hot, still steaming, and dripping with fat.
It was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted. It soothed the burn inside me. I ripped off more, and aborted screams whistled through the hole in his neck, until he gurgled and was silent. Then I flipped him over and tore into the mound of skin and organs before me.
When it was over, there was nothing left of him. I’d eaten even the bones, felt them crack like nutshells between my teeth. The only thing that remained of Tom were shreds of clothing. It was an easy thing to wrap them around a rock and toss them into the fast-moving river. One of the benefits to being a constable, I guess. I know how to cover my tracks.
I went to the mill and found a torch to light. I expected I’d be a mess, that I’d have to hide my clothes and bathe in the freezing river, but there wasn’t a spot on me. The cloak clung like a second skin—not a drop of blood to be found on my hands or clothes. From what I could tell from my reflection in the rain barrel, there wasn’t even blood on my mouth. I went to where I’d done Tom—there was no blood in the mud, only a little spattered across the leaves. When I swept the cloak over them, it drank those away too.
I felt numb, like my head was floating somewhere above my body. There was nothing left of Tom. It was as though he never existed, which had, in fact, been my earliest wish. I undid my buckle. My stomach, where I’d devoured him, was flat. The cloak did feel heavier, but it was nothing I couldn’t carry.
The bottle Tom had been drinking sat at the table alone, his chair still pushed out. There was something unfinished about it. I pushed the chair in, but it still bothered me. I picked up the bottle and saw marks from Tom’s lips on the rim. My face, lumpy and pale, looked back at me, even more distorted by the curving sides. My eyes looked like deep holes. I didn’t like it, so I broke the bottle against the table. Then I had to sweep up all the shards and chuck them out the window, or there’d be awkward questions. I don’t remember what I was thinking as I swept, the water pouring over the mill drowned everything else out. I left the door open. No one would be surprised that Tom had gotten drunk. If they found his shoes downstream, they’d assume he’d fallen in and drowned.
I stole home through the woods and climbed back in my window. I took the cloak off, folded it, and put it under my bed. I slept soundly but my dreams throbbed with distorted images of a face with dark holes for eyes.
The next day I thought about Jeff, Mark, and Nate . . . and I planned. Again I walked through the market proudly, my head held high. The bruises were fading. No one talked about Tom’s disappearance because his absence hadn’t been noticed yet. I thought about who was next. Mark and Nate were brothers—woodsmen. They were never apart and they almost always had axes nearby. I remembered Jeff’s laughing face, him pissing himself.
It was an easy matter to learn where Jeff was—he’d sat in the gaol all night before Constable Stanhope released him. It was no secret he’d left on a hunt the next day; probably hoping memories would fade while he was away. He couldn’t be far—a horse kicked him when we were kids and he had walked with a limp since. I knew I could catch him, he always hunted the same spots, but I packed a bag for several days just in case he changed his habit. I bundled the cloak in brown paper on the very top. I was the hunter now.
“Where are you going?” Ma caught me when I was getting a pouch of nuts from the cupboard.
“Nowhere.” I stepped away without meeting her eyes and made for the door.
“Why should I?” I pulled the straps of the pack up and adjusted it across my spine.
“We must discuss what to do.”
“What to do about what?”
Mother patted down her hair, black and tightly bound under a modest white cap. Straightened the collar on her white and blue gingham dress. “This problem.”
“And what problem would that be?” My words were short. Clipped. I knew she meant the brawl at the tavern and how I flaunted my bruises, but I wanted to hear her say it.
“This behavior does not befit a lady.”
“Neither does what they did, Ma. What do you have to say to that?” I knew she didn’t have an answer—she never had.
She looked at me then, her eyes were sharp. “You are so hard, daughter. How did you get so hard?”
She kept talking. “You cannot force others to act the way you want them to. You may only command your own self. Your best self.”
“Don’t you see, Mother?” I opened the door and called back over my shoulder. “This is my best self. Ask yourself, who are you?” I walked out.
Her words seemed to follow me through the town. Was I still myself? How much of me killed Tom, and how much was the cloak? Was this justice? I still thought it was, even though it wasn’t even close to what I’d been taught at the academy. My justice didn’t follow the rules. It simply was.
“All right, Sarah?” A soft voice stopped me when I went by. The innkeeper’s apprentice leaned on his broom.
“Fine.” I groped for his name. “Benjamin.”
“Come in for some soup?”
I shook my head. “There’s something I have to do.”
He nodded. I’d never noticed before, but he had green eyes. I felt a sudden urgency to get to the woods.
“Bye,” I said awkwardly, and marched past before he finished waving.
I headed for the tree line and I thought about silly things like how brightly white Benjamin’s apron was, how domestic and safe that well-swept porch was. I was distracted and on edge. All that went away once I put on the cloak, as soon as I was away from town. The forest was quiet, nothing moved nor buzzed as I slunk through the trees, red hood drawn low over my face, and my feet found familiar paths. I didn’t think it odd at the time that the scarlet cloak never caught on a thorn or briar. I glided through the trees and shrubs as though they were passersby on the street. I found Jeff’s old fire before too long, right where I knew it would be. It was a scuffed smudge on the forest floor, just as I intended to do with him.
I walked through the forest all day. Nothing disturbed my hunt and I didn’t wear out or become tired. It was as if the forest were my natural environment, and I the hunter. I was strong and fast. I found him just before dawn.
My best self, indeed. This was my best self. I pulled him from his tent as easy as shucking a bean from the pod. The first hunk of flesh I tore from him were his balls, as I’d wanted to do with Tom. Then the cloak and I drank him down while he screamed.
I left the campsite as undisturbed as I could. The cloak wiped away the blood and it was even heavier, but I was strong enough to carry it. I bundled Jeff’s clothes close to me. I searched around until I found a bear’s lair. I walked in, bold as anything, though I felt the bear inside, a huddled presence. She shrank back from me and I scattered the shreds of his clothes before her. If anyone ever found them, they’d assume poetic justice—the hunted got the hunter. Was that really so far from the truth?
I took the cloak off and shoved it in my pack, though I really didn’t feel like taking it off and folding it. I felt like it was hiding me from unwelcome eyes. I packed it up anyway. I had a peaceful walk back in the darkness and was in the village just after sunrise. Father and Mother were at the table when I came in.
“Where were you?” Ma asked.
“Nowhere. Walking.” I loosened the straps on my pack. Both parents looked somehow smaller.
Da reached for another bun. “Miller’s son’s missing. You know anything about that?”
“Why would I?”
He shrugged. Chewed. Mother watched me beneath hooded eyes. I went back to my room. I felt naked not wearing the cloak. I took it out and wrapped myself in it and thought about sunlight in the trees. I sat without moving and watched the sun stripe into my room, morning, afternoon, then set. Then darkness. I thought about nothing but the weight of it. That night I slept with the cloak on. My dreams were strange and twisted. Bears growled in darkness. A drum beat itself under my still hands. Spiders climbed through hair.
The next day the whole town discussed Tom’s disappearance. Any number of voices speculated on what had become of him, where he’d gone. Constable Stanhope must have interviewed everyone in town before he came to me. He found me at the inn, where I was enjoying an ale, courtesy of Benjamin. I didn’t know Benjamin played the pianoforte—but he’d struck up a tune when I came in. He stopped when the constable joined us.
“Here now, Sarah.” Stanhope slid next to me at the bar. Benjamin poured him a pint.
“You know anything about Tom going missing?”
“Why would I?” I sipped.
The constable dipped his mustaches in the ale’s foam and drank deeply. “You’re saying you don’t.”
“Can’t say I keep tabs on his comings and goings.” I said. “You calling me back on duty? Then I’ll care.”
He grunted into his mug. “All right then. You hear anything, you tell us.”
I sipped. He lingered, waited for me to speak again. I didn’t.
Finally he left.
“Another, Sarah?” Benjamin slid a fresh one over the counter. I realized he’d grown into a man while I was at the academy. His knuckles were scabbed from the fight in the inn. I realized I was carrying out justice for both of us.
“Sure.” I took what he offered and drank deep, savoring my memories of Tom and Jeff’s deaths. Only two left now.
Mark and Nate were woodsmen who spent their days stocking logs for winter. They’d be out in the woods until sundown, when they went to the inn to drink. If I had a chance, it would be while they were out away from town. Time to go home and get ready—and avoid my parents’ questions. I slid my stool back and made my way to the door.
“I’ll finish that song if you want?” Benjamin asked.
“I have something I’ve got to do.” I left him holding the empty mug.
I was on my way home, humming a half-remembered tune, when I heard a shout, men’s voices raised in alarm. It was Mark and Nate in the street, holding Jeff’s torn and stained clothes, other villagers coming to see what the fuss was about. Constable Stanhope appeared. I slunk close to the wall and leaned into the shadows. I carried the cloak with me at all times now, but I didn’t put it on. I kept my hand on it so I was ready if I needed it.
“We went to meet Jeff at his campsite and didn’t find him. So we went looking. We found these lying in the forest.” Mark spoke very fast. Nate’s face was pale.
Maybe they found them in the bear’s den and brought them back. Or maybe the bear chucked them out. Either way, Constable Stanhope now knew two men were missing, Tom and Jeff, at least one of which was killed violently. Both missing not long after a scuffle with me.
I’m not dumb. I knew it was time to make myself scarce.
I worked my way around the edge of the crowd and ran into someone I didn’t expect to see again, at least not so soon—the man with the top hat and the spidery limbs.
“How are you, dear?” He stepped toward me and I backed up. We were in a narrow alley between buildings.
“Fine, thank you. Excuse me—“ I tried to edge past him but he filled in the space with one of his long legs.
“Yes, and, the cloak—“
“Things are fine. Two down.” I was angry at being delayed—it made me reckless with my words.
“Good. You must keep it fed.”
“No worries there.” I managed to squeeze past, but I asked, “What happens if I’m seen?”
He smiled a gap-tooth grin. “Bad things.”
“What kind of bad things?”
“Skin will look after skin.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “And if I don’t keep it fed?”
He smiled in a way that was wholly unsettling. “See that you do.”
Then he turned away and walked down the alley, smaller and smaller until he turned the corner.
I headed for home. I’d have to be careful when and where I killed Mark and Nate, and I’d have to leave this town not long after. Then I’d need to find another way to feed the cloak, but I didn’t bother puzzling that one out yet. I’d think of something when the time came.
Ma and Da weren’t anywhere in the house, which should have struck me as odd, but it didn’t. I put the cloak on and dozed, I’d need all my strength and rest before the hunt began. My throbbing dreams continued, darker, hotter than before. I could almost hear voices in them, screaming. A loud knock woke me.
“Sarah Burke. Come out of there,” said Constable Stanhope’s deep voice.
My covers were strewn across the floor, but I still had on the cloak, and it was heavier than ever. I stumbled out my bedroom door and went to the kitchen. There were torn clothes on the floor, white and blue gingham.
“Burke, come out now or we break the door down.”
I pulled the cloak tight about me, pushed my way out the window, and fell heavily in the bushes. I sank to the ground and scuttled for the woods as fast as I could go. I didn’t have anything but the cloak, no supplies. Then again, I reminded myself, did I really need anything else? It would help me get what I needed.
I wasn’t far in the trees when I heard the latch give on the door. I thought about the gingham in the kitchen. Was my mother dead? I slowly realized I wasn’t hungry, and, with the strange dreams of the night before, I couldn’t say I hadn’t eaten. I stumbled off into the woods, deeper, deeper, until the early dusk of autumn covered me over.
I wandered the woods that night, but I don’t remember it clearly. I had a waking dream that the spidery man visited me and told me about feeding and secrecy. I brushed it away.
A day passed. Two. I thought I heard someone calling my name once. I ate three deer I found nibbling on wheat at the edge of the fields. They weren’t at all filling and I felt the cloak needed more than animals to satiate it.
At the end of the third day I heard the crack of splitting wood. It came from the woods off the trade way, not far from the innkeeper’s beehives, and I walked through the white boxes carefully to be sure no one else was near. There was no buzzing, as if all the bees were clumped together, waiting. Town was far enough away that no one would hear the brothers die.
Mark and Nate were splitting logs next to their cart. Neither had tunics on, one set the wedge and the other swung the maul. They both wiped sweat from brow or chin. Three spare axes lay in the back of the wagon. I moved around until I could feel the smooth and polished handles.
Mark dropped the maul and stepped away. A jug sat at the base of the tree.
“Where is he?” He took a long drink. “I’m famished.”
“Still mooning, I’m sure,” Nate shrugged. “Stanhope told him to mind his till, but I wager he’s using the walk out here for another search.”
“He won’t find anything. We never found anything left of Tom. I’d wager it was a lucky stroke we found something of Jeff’s.” Mark shuddered.
“Whatever happened to them . . . it didn’t take her.”
“Why not? Parents gone and all.”
“Not Sarah Burke.” Nate wiped his brow with a stained handkerchief and then wrapped it around the meat of his hand.
Mark laughed. “Still sweet on her, are you? Always the hopeful one, anxious for Tom’s leavings.”
“She’d be lucky to have me twixt her legs.” He pumped the air. Both men laughed.
The first axe I threw shattered the bottle and broken crockery showered them both. Nate looked at me, face blank, open, surprised. The second axe took him in the shoulder and drove him back against the tree. Mark screamed and ran toward me, but not before another axe cut into his brother.
I put my hand into Mark’s chest when he got to me, like a ladle into gravy. I felt the ribs part. I clapped my other hand to his head, but my hold wasn’t right and I tore off his ear. Then the cloak had him screaming and bleeding all over. I dragged him to where Nate was slumped against the tree, blood pulsing from his chest, an axe at his feet. He watched, panting, and when I tore into Mark, Nate started screaming and tugged on the other axe, still in his shoulder. I must have hit bone, because he couldn’t pull it out.
I didn’t bother with him at all until after I’d eaten all the bones. He knew exactly what was coming for him when I stepped in and yanked the axe from his chest.
He made small whimpering sounds, but then he screamed just like the others. Afterward, I didn’t bother cleaning up the drips of blood. I thought about taking the cloak off, folding it up, but it felt too good not to wear it. I stood in the clearing and enjoyed the silence instead. It was over.
A quiet voice disturbed me. Benjamin had come through the trees with two red and white checked bundles in his hands. He stared at the mess of torn clothing. Spatters of blood still painted the trees and logs.
“Benjamin—“ Whatever I meant to say next, I didn’t get any further. The cloak wrapped tight against my body, constricting me. I struggled with it, tried to pull it away from my legs.
“Are you all right?” Benjamin dropped the bundles. A bottle of wine rolled out and spilled purple across the weeds.
“Stay back!” I felt the cloak pulse with hunger. I recognized its rage wasn’t my own because mine had been quenched with Nate and Mark’s deaths.
“We’ve been looking for you.”
I felt the cloak tighten around my legs and pull me forward, toward Benjamin. “Get away from me!”
“I was worried about you. I mean, you can take care of yourself, but I thought maybe—“
The cloak forced me another step toward him, then another.
He looked at me, confused. I struggled with everything I had to keep the cloak in check. He took a steep back, and a sudden burst of lust, perhaps a chase instinct, hit me. I leapt for him, my screams mixing with snarls and barks the cloak forced out of my mouth. I took him at the waist and pulled him down to the ground. I fought the cloak, but it made him bleed. I bawled both fists in his tunic and tried to push him away from me, from us. But he was slicked with red—it ran off him while he screamed, the whole while I pushed him away. Then he shuddered and stopped.
God help me. I was hungry for his flesh. The cloak was heavy on my shoulders. I tore it off and threw it to the ground. Benjamin’s body was a red mess. He was still as only the dead are still. The cloak inched toward him. I threw an axe and it sank into the mass of the cloak. A sudden pain bloomed in my back, a shadow to the pain inside. I threw another, pinning it again. Agony sliced across my ribs, and the cloak writhed. One of the axes came lose and the cloak slithered around the other.
“No, you don’t.” I told it. I trapped it with my boot and chopped it to pieces with the third axe. Each cut seared through me. The pieces tried to crawl away, toward Benjamin.
There was a lantern in the wagon, which I smashed and lit the oil. I fed the pieces of the cloak to it and the pain almost undid me. I don’t know how long I lay on the forest floor, screaming, gasping. Finally the cloak was wholly gone, consumed by fire.
That was when he came again, the stranger in the top hat.
“Is it done?”
I looked across Benjamin’s body, still a bloody mess. Then I turned on my side. I never cried when they pulled my hair. I never cried when Tom tried to rape me. I never cried when they beat me at the inn. But I cried then as if my heart were broken.
The man gathered up the smoking tatters of the cloak in his hat, bowed, and disappeared back into the forest.
When the constable eventually found me, I was still huddled on the ground. From that day till now, I can’t feel anything anywhere on my body. I’m like one of those river stones, as if all ability to feel my own skin left with the passing of the cloak. Like it, I was damaged beyond repair. They took me to the gaol. No one could explain how I’d killed Benjamin, even though they had proof of the body there. No one’s ever found my parents. If the town had been left to deal with me, I’m sure I’d have burned as a witch. The constables couldn’t prove I’d killed Tom, Jeff, Mark, or Nate, though the prosecution tried. It was the governor’s court—as one of the first female constables, I was tried and judged by the governor herself who, in her enlightened wisdom, put me in prison. Every day I look out of the dirty grey square that frames my world and count myself lucky when the occasional insect alleviates my loneliness. Some days I think I see a man in a top hat, looking back at me. Other days I think I see someone wearing a red cloak, disappearing in the mist.