Midnight in Ljubljana, where the Butcher Bridge spans the narrow width of the Ljubljanica River. The water beneath is a dark mirror, sluggish between steep banks. The bridge’s center span is paved in stone, the walkways at either edge in glass. Daylight tourists peer down at the slow water between their feet. But when night falls, a venomous green light projects upward from beneath the glass panels. The sickly glow pools around the legs of night travelers; their torsos left to drift unseen in shadow.
This night the Butcher Bridge is empty save for twenty-thousand cheap padlocks dangling from its wire railings, a grotesque bronze statue reaching for the stars, and one distraught woman.
The woman kneels at the wire railing. She is clad in black, only her face and hands exposed to the gloom. Her young face—striking in sunlight if not pretty—is distorted into a kabuki mask of putrid lime and shadow. The green-white flesh of a disembodied hand clutches one padlock. The other hand shakes, trembling fingers faltering with a keyring.
Key after key and none fits. The lock remains fixed to the wire cable. The cable sways under her hand and a hundred padlocks sway with it. Brass and steel dangle and shake, the metallic rattling tinny and mocking.
A keening begins in her throat, animal anguish and pain rising to a wail of anger. She pounds her fist against the glass at her feet and the sharp edge of a key grates against green glass. The wail dies in her throat as she half-rises, flings her fist behind her shoulder. But she does not cast away the keys. For two heartbeats, three, she is as still as the bronze figure behind her. Then she crumples against the railing, one hand still clutching the padlock, the other the useless keys.
She holds the ring in front of her face, stares at keys through a haze of angry tears. I know you’re there, you little bastard, I saved you. I remember Ana and Maja, how shocked they were when I told them. Zala, you didn’t throw the key in the river? That’s what you do, you lock the padlock on the bridge, then throw the key. That’s the whole point. Sure, I understand, but maybe I am more realistic than that. Oh, our poor unromantic Zala, shaking their heads. They had laughed, the three of them over their coffees.
Zala’s hand closes into a fist and the steel presses hard against her palm. You may not fit this lock, but I bet I can ram this whole ring right up Teo’s ass. Serve him right, shoving sharp metal up his ass while he’s humping that cheap slut in our own bed. Or he would enjoy it. Teo, you weak, pathetic fuck, how could you do this to us? You made a promise to me, remember? Here it is, right here in my hand.
Harsh words break from her throat, a shout in the silence.
I wish you in hell Teo, right now, you and this stupid padlock.
The shadows swirl behind the bronze statue and a tall man steps from the darkness. He wears a long tweed coat over a plaid waistcoat. A bowler hat is perched above his lean face. A long metal object dangles in the crook of one arm.
Zala scrambles to her feet, banging the railing. The rows of locks rattle and shake. She raises her clutched fist.
Get the fuck away from me or I’ll mace you, I swear I will.
I don’t believe you can mace me with a keyring.
The man’s voice is calm. Zala thinks she sees a smile gleam from within a dark beard.
Where the hell did you come from and what—wait, are those bolt cutters?
The man glances down as if surprised, then raises his eyes back to Zala’s.
Yes, bolt cutters, imagine that.
Zala realizes that she is not afraid of this stranger, not tonight. Who cares if he looks like a bicycle thief on his way to a steampunk party, he has tools.
Will those things cut one of these stupid locks?
Of course, Zala; I believe that is their primary function.
How do you know my name?
The same way I knew you had no mace. Not that it would have done you any good. But we waste time and words. You wish the lock cut free, yes?
Yes, I want the lock cut.
Very well. Listen carefully. Take hold of the lock you wish me to cut, but do not let it fall into the river. Do you understand?
Zala grips one padlock from the jangling line. The body of the lock is etched with a Tee and a Zee.
The man steps beside her, one handle in each hand. He pries open the tool, fits the steel jaws over the hasp of the lock. Zala feels his closeness, the smell of him. It is the sharp tang of ice on metal.
Do not drop the lock.
He squeezes the handles and the jaws close. There is a dull click and the lock comes free in her hand.
Zala takes a quick step away from the stranger, the broken lock clutched in her hand. She cocks her arm to throw.
His voice freezes her in place.
Before you act, know this: If this thing goes into the river, it is done. The bond is forever severed. Keep it and you retain a certain power over this Teo. Yes, and the thing holds you as well. Which do you choose?
Whatever force holds her arm is released. She stands poised, counts her heartbeats, then hurls the hateful lock out over the river.
There is a soft splash, then concentric rings on the dark water. Zala leans over the railing to watch them radiate. She hears the slightest swish behind her. When she turn to the sound, she is alone on the dark bridge.
Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, The UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, After Happy Hour Review, The Metaworker, Scarlet Leaf Review, Havik Fiction, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine and Route 7. Marco’s third novel, Breaking the Bundles, is available at fine online booksellers.