Wary, not expecting trouble, but ready for it anyway, Red eases herself silently along the rough path through the woods, staring hard through the shifting trees for any sign of danger. So far, she has seen nothing moving but shadows and dancing patterns of sunlight, but she knows she must be close. She can almost smell him, some uncanny feeling that sharpens her senses to a stiletto.
Something snaps behind her, a twig or a branch, and she spins instantly, twisting the movement to include drawing her knife from its hidden sheath. She crouches, looking back down the path, but there is nothing there but the slumbering forest, silent but for the soft breathing of the trees around her and the low whisper of the thick canopy far above her head.
For a few minutes longer, she stands motionless, watching the path and looking back through the forest, the colour high in her cheeks and her mouth parted in a snarl.
Eventually satisfied no one is following, Red sheathes the knife again, burying it deep in a pocket of her cloak, its touch reassuring. She clenches the handle until she can feel the warmth of her touch burning along the cold blade.
She comes to a tree and a branching of paths, one she has been instructed will take her to where she needs to go. Not marked in any way she would have noticed if she hadn’t been looking for it; but when the instructions were clear enough, so were the signs and the directions.
She smiles grimly to herself at the path she must take, the danger that will creep round her now at every step past this point. She grips the knife anew and thinks to herself, Let them come.
All that matters is getting to Wolf, and she knows she’s getting closer with every second and pace she takes. Now she can really smell him, a ripe and primal smell of unwashed fur and animal heat that permeates the forest.
Still, despite her caution, they still catch her unawares. A hundred paces along the path, a man steps out of the foliage ahead, completely hidden until he appears.
He raises his head, and with a gasp, Red recognises him and her nerve breaks despite her resolve. She turns to flee, her mission, her determination, forgotten in that terrible long instant of seeing his face.
But it’s already too late. Another figure – a woman this time – steps out of the forest behind Red, blocking her retreat as effectively as the man ahead.
Beaten before she has come close, Red closes her eyes and releases a sigh. She licks her lips and addresses the figure ahead, half-turning to keep them both in sight as they drift towards her.
“I heard you were working for him, but I never believed it…not until now, that is. How long have you been doing grunt work, Hansel? I can’t believe you came down to this after you managed to beat The Witch.”
The man sneers and pushes back his cap, exposing a long white scar along his cheek that terminates in the sightless white egg of his left eye. “Times is tough, Red. Me and Gretel gotta do what we can. And da Witch wus a long time ago.”
Hansel comes up behind Red and pushes her roughly forward. “Move it, bitch.”
Red turns towards Gretel, her eyes going wide when she sees the chewed remains of her face. Gretel sneers at her reaction. “See anythin green, Red?” She laughs at her own joke, an unpleasant rough sound that sends sandpaper chills down Red’s spine.
“Did Wolf do that?”
“Yeah. He ain’t so easy to sneak past as da Witch.” Hansel prods Red again. “Move it, I ain’t gettin any younger here.”
Red stands firm, resisting the pushing. “I’m here to see your boss.”
Hansel turns away from her, confident enough in his abilities that he doesn’t care about showing his back. “Yeah, we knows.”
Red stumbles, shocked. “You…you knew I was coming?”
“What da boss don’t know ain’t worth knowing, capice?”
Red turns back to Gretel. “How did you know I was coming?”
“Giant killer Jack told us.”
Red snarls. “That little…I’ll murder him.”
Gretel laughs again, throwing her head back. “That’s the spirit, girlie.”
They turn off the path and through undergrowth, travelling a route that Red gives up trying to remember after a few minutes, all the time with a single thought repeating in her head: I still have the knife.
They come at last to a tree with a hollow at its base and stop. Hansel turns to Red and regards her with the cold albumen of his left eye, Gretel moving beside him. “Boss is in dere. You got five minutes, he says, then we comes and drags you out. Geddit?”
Reassured by the solid feel of the knife against her side, Red tenses every muscle in her body, ready to sacrifice everything for the next few minutes alone with Wolf. She ducks into the hollow of the tree, descending a few steps. She takes a sharp turn and her eyes widen.
A plush apartment with low black leather sofas awaits her, soft uplighters at each corner casting an ambient gold glow on the low ceiling. In the centre of the room, smoking a cigarette through a holder and wearing a smoking jacket, Wolf awaits her, his legs folded casually at the knee.
He sees her enter and immediately folds away the magazine on his lap and drops it onto the thick oak table between the sofas. “Ah my dear, Red, how pleasant to see you.”
He removes the cigarette holder from his lips and purses his lips, pushing a hazy cloud of fragrant smoke around his head.
“My, what a nice apartment you have, Wolf.”
He smiles and tilts his head graciously. “All the better to welcome you, my dear. May I get you a drink?”
Red moves towards the sofa as Wolf rises to the bar. “Martini with olive, my dear?” he asks.
“How did you know that?”
“I know a lot of things, my dear Red.” He expertly mixes and pours a smooth martini from a cocktail shaker and delivers the glass to the table in front of Red. He folds himself on the opposite sofa, crossing his legs and waiting for her to speak.
Red tenses, her whole body tightening in anticipation. She reaches into her pocket, feeling the cold steel between her fingers.
Wolf examines his claws, apparently unconcerned at her silence. “I suggest you bring out the knife before you stab yourself with it, Red. We can at least be civilised and finish our drinks before you attempt to impale me.”
Red frowns, but brings the knife out, slowly, placing it on the table, still within easy reach of her fingers. She stretches and takes a sip of the drink. “That’s a good martini.” She sits back on the sofa, considering her next move.
“All the better to relax you with, my dear.” Wolf slaps his thighs. “Now, to business.”
“Yes.” Red leaps forward and snatches up the knife. “You seem to be working under the wrong assumption. This isn’t for you.”
Wolf raises an eyebrow. “Really? Then I have been misinformed.”
“Indeed. You see my grandmother is old, but the miserable cow refuses to die. She’s extremely rich, but until she’s gone, I’m stuck with my wasted drunk of a mother.”
Wolf looks at the sharp knife, throws back his head and howls with laughter. “Oh, my dear Red. You needn’t have bothered with the blade.” He flicks a long tooth with a claw. “Not while I have these.”
“Oh, goodness. What big teeth you have, Mr Wolf.”
Wolf smiles only the way a wolf can, with a face full of teeth. “All the better to help you with, my dear. Another martini and we can discuss my terms?”