CHAPTER NINE

Jon used to have this battered old hardback book called The Hangman’s Art. He was sick like that. It was the memoirs of an executioner but also a manual for a good hanging. Amongst all the factors the author considered important – a black canvas hood, the binding of hands and feet, the fluid motion of the trapdoor – the most crucial detail was the length of the rope.

If you hang a man with a rope that’s too long the drop will decapitate the condemned, and nobody wants that. Conversely, if the rope is too short then the condemned person’s neck will not break and they will swing there, choking to death. This outcome was not considered merciful.

The book contained a graph charting the ratio between the weight of the condemned and the correct length of rope required for a clean, clinical snap of the neck and a swift, essentially painless dispatch.

Thank Christ nobody on Baker’s staff had a copy.

I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that as I fell into space I lost all control of my bodily functions and shat myself. As I reached the full extent of the rope’s length it snapped tight and dug hard into my windpipe.

I heard a sharp crack and knew that I was dead.

The brain takes a fairly long time to die once deprived of oxygen. I remember Bates telling us once that during the French Revolution the severed heads of guillotine victims could blink on command for up to four minutes after the chop. I wonder what they were thinking, how conscious they were of their situation. Were they screaming silently or were their final, bodiless minutes strangely serene?

As I swung there, knowing that my neck had snapped and that I was beginning the irreversible process of brain death, my vision swam and my lungs cried out for breath that I couldn’t force into them. I didn’t feel serene at all. I wanted to kick and fight and bite and scream my way out of the noose. But my hands were tied and my feet kicked helplessly at thin air. All I could see was the sky rotating above me.

I’ve no idea how long I hung there, it felt like a lifetime. Eventually, just as my vision was starting to fade and the roaring in my ears reached the pitch of a jet plane taking off, I felt someone grab my feet and push upwards. The pressure on my windpipe briefly abated and I gasped down the tiniest of breaths before the grip loosened and I swung free once more.

Then my weight was taken again, but this time it felt like I was standing on someone’s shoulders. I was pushed upwards until I flopped onto the wooden platform like a landed fish. I felt hands loosening the noose and I breathed deep. Before I had time to get my bearings, while my hearing and vision were still blurred and faded, I was pulled to my feet and two people took my weight. I staggered between them, powerless to control where I was being led.

My senses began to re-establish themselves as we hurried down off the scaffold and across grass, around the side of the main building and away from the market. I could hear screams and gunshots. After a short run we stopped and my two rescuers started arguing.

“Where?” Petts.

“Um…” Williams.

“Quickly! We won’t get far with him like this.”

“Okay, inside.”

“Are you fucking nuts?”

“Inside!”

They dragged me through a side door into the main building and then up three flights of stairs. When we finally stopped we were inside a tiny attic room, probably an old servants’ quarters. A small window looked down onto the square below. There was a bed in the corner and my two schoolmates dropped me onto it. Williams closed the door and pushed a chest of drawers across it before slumping onto the floor.

“Who are they?” asked Petts.

“How the fuck should I know?” shouted Williams, on the edge of hysteria.

Resting on the bed I felt the adrenalin surging through me. I was shaking like a leaf but I could breathe!

“My… my neck. I heard it break,” I gasped. “Why am I still alive?”

“If your neck was broken you’d be dead. Your neck’s fine,” said Petts. “I mean, you’ve got a hell of a bruise, and rope burns and shit, but no broken bones.”

“But I heard it! I heard it break!” I protested.

“That wasn’t your neck, that was a gunshot,” said Williams. “They opened fire the second you dropped.”

I levered myself upright and felt the awful slickness in my pants as I did so.

“Who opened fire?”

“Take a look,” said Petts, gesturing to the window.

I shuffled sideways on the bed and peered down onto the market square. It was a scene of total chaos. The first thing I noticed was Baker, lying next to the lever, half his head missing, sprayed across the gallows platform.

At least that was one less mad bastard to worry about.

The forecourt was still full of people, but they were surrounded by the men I had seen at the back of the crowd. Some of these men carried guns; all brandished what looked like homemade machetes. There were some bodies lying around the place, a few villagers, and two of the attackers.

I could hear sporadic gunfire in the distance.

“They shot Baker just as he pulled the lever, and the crowd panicked,” explained Petts. “There was a stampede but they were ready for it and they herded everyone back towards the building’s entrance. Some of the men had guns and there was a fight, and during the confusion we were able to get to you. But it looks like these new guys, whoever they are, have got things under control now. By the way, Lee, you stink.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

At that moment a strange figure appeared, walking down the driveway towards the house. He was tall and lean and dressed in an immaculate three-piece pinstripe suit, complete with stripy tie and bowler hat. He carried an umbrella and his face was daubed with watery brown paint. He was flanked by two huge bodybuilder types, stripped naked and entirely daubed with the same brown stain. Both men carried machine guns.

Obviously an unknown force had stormed the town. I reasoned that one or two of them must have made it over the wire under cover of darkness and hidden a cache of weapons, probably in one of the abandoned houses. Then the main force had arrived one by one, ostensibly for market day, collected the weapons and waited for the appointed time – my execution. The gunshots in the distance indicated that another force had attacked the guard posts once they’d heard the shooting from inside the town. It seemed like a well organised and effective attack. Now here, in his finest suit, came their leader.

Much as I wanted to see what transpired I was conscious that a force of men from Hildenborough was about to storm the school. We couldn’t hang around here, we needed to get back and warn them. I turned to Williams.

“When do they attack?”

He looked up at me, wide-eyed. “What?”

“Look, I know you sold us out to Baker so don’t waste my fucking time. Do you know when they are planning to attack?”

Williams stared at me like a rabbit in headlights.

“Williams, listen to me. I don’t give a damn about what you’ve done, all right. I just need…”

“I don’t know,” he muttered. “He didn’t tell me.”

“Hang on,” said Petts. “Are you saying…”

“No time, Petts, not now. Got to get back to school and warn them. Stay here. I’ll be back.”

I rose to my feet. My knees felt like jelly but I forced myself to walk to the door. I listened but could hear no-one outside, so I shoved the chest aside and pushed the door ajar. No-one. I edged out into the corridor and worked my way along the rooms until I found one with a wardrobe full of clothes. I stripped my lower half and used a towel to clean myself up as best I could. I put on a clean pair of trousers and went back to the room, where I found Petts beating the living crap out of Williams.

I pulled them apart.

“Leave it Petts. Later!”

He was breathing hard and his fists were raw; Williams’ nose was broken and his lip was bloodied. He was terrified.

“Oh God, he’s going to crucify me. He’s going to crucify me,” was all he could say.

“I fucking hope so!” said Petts. I glared at him and told him to back off. He reluctantly sat on the bed. I knelt down and looked straight into Williams’ eyes.

“Nobody is going to crucify anyone, Williams. I give you my word.”

He looked at me for a moment and then nodded.

“Right now I need you to keep it together and help us get out of here without running into any of these guys with the machetes. Can you help us do that?”

He nodded again. “I know a way,” he said.

“Good man. Right, we’re going to try and get out of town as quickly and as quietly as we can, all right?”

Petts and Williams nodded. I sighed. I had just been bloody hanged. Why, oh why, did I have to take the lead yet again? The shit on my shorts wasn’t even dry. All I wanted was a long bath and a stiff drink. And maybe a massage.

I led them out onto the landing and let Williams take point. We descended to the second floor but then we heard voices coming up the stairs from below. They were searching the house. I ushered the boys through the nearest door.

We had taken refuge in a bathroom.

“Dammit,” I cursed. “Why couldn’t it have been an armoury?”

There was precious little to use in the way of weapons. Petts cracked the door open and peered out while I unscrewed the shower hose and handed it to Williams – at least he could use that to choke someone with. Not that I had any intention of killing anyone, I just wanted to get back to the school as quickly as possible. For all I knew this new group could be the good guys, and I didn’t want to go slaughtering them willy-nilly until I at least knew who or what I was dealing with.

I picked up the heavy porcelain slab that sat on top of the toilet cistern and held it ready to use a bludgeon. The only other potential weapon was a bottle of bleach. I pressed it into Petts’ hand.

“Only if we need to,” I whispered. “And try not to kill anyone, okay?”

They nodded.

The voices came nearer and two young men appeared at the top of the stairs. Both were wearing jeans and T-shirts. Their arms were daubed with the brown stain but their hands and faces were clean; left that way so they could blend in with the normal market crowd without arousing suspicion.

They began to work their way along the corridor towards us, checking the rooms as they went. I steadied myself and got a firm grip on the cistern lid; if I swung it right I should be able to take one of them out of the picture.

Two doors along from us they found someone hiding and both vanished into the room, where a struggle ensued. I was just about to try and use the distraction to slip past them when they dragged an old man of about eighty out into the corridor, threw him to the floor and kicked him hard in the ribs. He lay there, gasping, clutching his chest.

One of the men looked guiltily up and down the corridor, and then said to his mate: “Let’s bleed ‘im.”

His colleague looked uncertain.

“What, here?” he asked.

“Of course here, you berk. Where else?”

“David won’t like that.”

“David doesn’t have to know.” He gestured to his face and hands. “I feel naked like this. Don’t you? We’re not safe, mate. Gotta be safe.”

“Yeah, I s’pose.”

“So let’s bleed the cattle and then we can relax, yeah?”

“Yeah, all right, then. Bleed him.”

The old man who was the subject of this banal, macabre exchange, whimpered helplessly. The first man grabbed him by the arms and lifted him upright, while the other advanced towards him with his machete. It was only then that I realised exactly what they were talking about.

The brown stain wasn’t paint at all. It was blood.

Human blood.

Right. So. Not the good guys.

I felt a familiar sinking feeling as I realised that I was going to have to get involved. I turned to the others and whispered “Follow my lead”. Then I pushed open the door, bellowed as loudly as I could, and ran at the man with the raised machete.

On the whole I try to avoid picking fights with people, especially people who are clearly insane, daubed in blood, and carrying a fucking huge knife, but I was now doing exactly that, armed with only a detachable piece of flushing toilet.

I had surprise on my side and my target had little time to react. I swung the cistern lid with all the momentum of my short run up, and smacked him under the chin as hard as I could. There was a shattering crunch as he was lifted off his feet and his head smacked satisfyingly into the corridor wall. He slumped to the floor, unconscious, his jaw a bloody mess.

His mate shouted out in anger and threw the old man aside, raising his machete and moving towards me menacingly. At which point Williams snuck up behind him, wrapped the shower hose around his neck and tugged him off his feet. They collapsed backwards in a tangle of limbs. Then Petts ran forward and squirted bleach into the man’s face.

Williams scrambled clear as the man clawed at his eyes and screamed loud enough to raise the dead. Before I could knock him out with my trusty cistern lid, the old man stood up and drop-kicked his would-be murderer into the middle of next week.

There was a brief moment of calm as all four of us stood there breathing heavily, contemplating the two unconscious men.

“Thanks, lads,” said the old guy, cheerily, “but I had it all under control.”

We all gaped.

“Know a bit of unarmed combat from my army days,” he went on. “I was just waiting for him to get a little closer then I’d have kicked him in the goolies, tossed this chappy over my head and done a runner.”

“You were whimpering!” I said.

“All part of my act, dontchaknow.”

We didn’t have time for this.

“Right,” I said. “Good. Fine. Um, we’re running away now, if that’s okay with you. So you ain’t seen us, right?”

He tapped his nose and winked. “You hotfoot it, lads. I’ll take care of these two.” He bent down and picked up a machete. “Haven’t used one of these since Burma,” he said with relish.

We legged it.

We made it to the ground floor without encountering anyone else. We could hear someone giving some sort of speech from the forecourt, but I didn’t want to hang around so Williams led us through the kitchens to the back door.

“We go out here and around the side of the house,” he told us. “Then there’s a garden hidden from the driveway by a tall hedge. Then it’s over the road, across a field and into woodland. We should be safe from then.”

I pushed open the door. No guard. We ran as fast as we could, Williams in the lead, until we came to the sheltered garden that ran alongside the forecourt. Still no sign of anyone. They were all on the other side of the hedge listening to whoever was ranting. We were halfway down the garden when we heard a truly bloodcurdling scream. It was no use; I had to see what was going on. I ran to the end of the garden and peered around the edge of the hedge.

I wish I hadn’t.

The men with machetes were still encircling the captured citizens of the town, but all attention was focused on the scaffold. The noose was lying on the platform, the rope slack. A middle-aged woman was struggling in the grip of the two heavyset, naked guards, but she was tied hand and foot and had no chance of escape. One of the naked men looped her feet though the noose and then a third pulled the rope. She swung into the air, suspended upside down.

The man in the pinstripe suit, who was also standing on the platform – I assumed he was this group’s leader, David – stepped forward and began to undress, meticulously piling his folded clothes to one side. The last thing he removed was his bowler hat, which he placed on top of the pile. He stood there naked, his body caked in crumbly dried blood. He spread his arms and addressed the crowd.

“In the fountain of life I shall be reborn,” he intoned.

All the machete men chanted back in unison: “Make us safe.”

From then on it was call and answer, like some kind of Catholic Mass gone horribly wrong.

“With the blood of the lamb I wash myself clean.”

“Make us safe.”

“From the source of pestilence comes our salvation.”

“Make us safe.”

“Life for life. Blood for blood.”

“Make us safe.”

He turned, tenderly cradled the woman’s head and kissed her lips.

“I thank you for your gift,” he said.

Then she was hauled as high as the rope would go. David stood directly beneath her. One of his acolytes stepped forward and smoothly, emotionlessly, drew his machete across the trussed woman’s neck.

And David showered in her fresh blood as the crowd screamed and his acolytes chanted together:

“Safe now. Safe now. Safe now.”

Suddenly Mac didn’t seem like such a bad guy after all.

I turned away in disgust to find Petts, white-faced in shock, Williams, throwing up, and a very big man with a machete standing behind me.

Without hesitation I threw a punch, but he rocked backwards and I swung into thin air. He snapped upright and brought his machete scything down at my shoulder. I followed my fist and spun left as the metal blade sliced within a millimetre of my ear. I stumbled, my weak leg momentarily betraying me. I hit the ground and tried to roll with it.

I’m not a martial arts specialist. That’s Norton’s thing. I can do guns, no problem. I can even do toilets, in a pinch. But straightforward fighting, especially when I’m unarmed and the guy I’m fighting has a piece of metal specifically designed to split me in two, is not something I’m very good at.

My cack-handed attempt at a forward roll probably saved my life. The man brought the machete around with lightning speed and chopped at the space where I would have been had my hand not slipped in some mud, pitching me face first. I scrambled forward on my hands and knees as he raised the knife again.

Petts barrelled into the guy’s side, classic rugby tackle. The man staggered sideways but didn’t fall, and he brought the machete handle down on the back of Petts’ neck, hard. He went down like a sack of spuds.

I had regained my feet by now, and the man and I circled each other warily. I caught a glimpse of Williams, running for the safety of the trees in the distance. Cowardly bastard. Maybe I would crucify him, if I ever saw him again.

I considered letting myself be captured, escaping later. But after what I’d just witnessed I didn’t want to spend any more time in the company of these lunatics than I had to. No point taking a chance of being bled. But I was hopelessly outmatched here. This guy was faster, older, stronger and armed. I was limping, breathless and my neck hurt like hell.

He lunged forward, sweeping the machete sideways, trying to gut me. I sucked in my stomach and bent myself like a bow. The knife missed its mark. He then stepped towards me, and in one fluid movement the knife swept up and across, slicing down at my neck. I took a single step forward, ducked under the swing, and raised both hands to grab his forearm. I spun and shoved my back into his belly, tried to use his weight against him, throw him off balance. But, dammit, he was too solid on his legs and I hadn’t practised this move before; I was just aping what I’d seen on TV, and he obviously knew what he was doing. He pulled in his arms, kept me cradled to him and squeezed, lifting me off my feet and tossing me aside.

I got to my feet and ran. Of course I say ‘ran’, I was still limping so there was no point my making for the tree-line; I’d just never make it. Instead I ran back to the house, making it inside just seconds before my pursuer. I flung myself through the kitchen door and scanned left and right for some kind of weapon with which to defend myself.

When the man came pelting through the door in pursuit, his face met the business end of a frying pan and his feet went out from under him. He crashed down onto the hard tiled floor with a rush of expelled breath. But still he kept a tight grip on his machete. I aimed a kick at his nuts but he rolled away. Nonetheless I connected with his thigh and he grunted. Finally a stroke of luck – I’d given him a dead leg.

He pulled himself up on a table as I swung at his head with the frying pan again. He swatted it away with the machete and it went flying from my grip, clattering to the floor. His nose was bleeding freely and one side of his face was vivid red where the pan had caught him on the cheekbone.

He snarled at me, wiped his hand in the blood from his nose, licked it, smacked his lips, and then smeared the fresh blood all over his face, mixing the new blood with the old.

“Safer now,” he chuckled as he advanced, limping, towards me.

Jesus, was this guy for real?

I backed away, looking all the time for another means of defence. There was a rack of knives to my left, and I snatched a short one which I brandished menacingly. A voice in my head mocked: “Call that a knife? That’s not a knife. That thing he’s got, that’s a knife!”

I continued backing away, trod on my discarded flying pan, and went flying like a character in a bad slapstick comedy. To add insult to injury I somehow contrived to land on my own knife, stabbing myself in the side. I yelled in pain as I pulled the blade out and felt hot blood seep down my hip. I looked up and there he was, looming over me, grinning.

“Good cattle. Bleed yourself. Save me the trouble.”

“Oh, fuck off,” I said wearily. And then I sat up, leaned forward and buried the knife hilt-deep into his thigh. Now it was his turn to yell. I flung myself backwards to avoid the answering swipe of his machete. I scrambled to my feet again and staggered away from him.

He resumed his advance without even pausing to remove the knife. I started grabbing things off the work surfaces and hurling them at him without taking time to see what they were. A colander, a kettle, a bottle of oil, a box of teabags; nothing slowed him down. This was futile.

I turned and scurried to the door.

It was locked. I looked left and right frantically. This wasn’t the door Williams, Petts and I had entered from, that was on the other side of the room. This was – oh fuck, it was the door to a walk-in freezer.

I was trapped.

Long metal work surfaces stretched forward on either side of me, hemming me in. Behind me was a locked door, and in front of me stood some kind of Home Counties Jason Voorhees, dripping with blood, and grinning.

“Time to bleed, boy.”

There was nowhere to run, nothing to hand offered any chance of defence or offence. It was just me, him and a very big knife.

Fuck it.

I put my head down, and charged the bastard. I slammed into his midriff and this time, with both legs damaged, he lost his balance and fell backwards. We tumbled to the floor and slid across the tiles and – hallelujah! – I saw his machete go sliding away underneath the tables. We wrestled, each trying to gain some purchase, but both of us were slick with blood and our hands kept slipping off each other. I tried to reach up and grab his throat but he was way too strong for me. He forced my arms down and somehow spun me, taking a firm grip on my clothes and pinioning me, face down on the floor. He folded his arm around my neck, nestling the soft inside of his elbow on my already bruised and battered windpipe, and squeezed.

For the second time in an hour I was being choked to death and I couldn’t see any way of escape. I writhed and kicked, tried a reverse head butt, scratched and gasped and thrashed, but he was solid as stone, bearing down on me. I couldn’t move him an inch.

Again my vision began to cloud, my ears began to roar.

And then my thrashing hands brushed against something hard. The knife – it was still in his thigh! I grasped it, twisted and pulled. He grunted and tightened his grip. I couldn’t move my arm up to hit anything vital so I resorted to stabbing him in the thigh again.

And then again.

And again.

And again.

I kept the knife pumping in and out of his thigh with all the force I could muster, but as my body failed, my thrusts got weaker and weaker.

Eventually the blade fell out of my blood-slicked hands and I felt myself blacking out.

I regained consciousness what must have been a minute or two later. The dead weight of my assailant was still on top of me, but his grip on my neck had loosened. I lay there for a second as my head cleared. He wasn’t breathing. I roared with the exertion of throwing him off of me, and I slipped and slid in the blood pool that surrounded us both before finally standing upright. Pausing only to pick up the machete, I staggered away, back towards the garden.

My windpipe was so badly swollen that I could only breathe in short ragged bursts. My side was on fire where the knife had speared me. I was a mass of bruises, my head felt light, my hearing was muffled and I was covered, absolutely covered from head to toe, in blood – both mine and that of the man I had killed.

No, don’t think about that. Don’t think about the killing, about the intimacy of it, the penetration and the spurting and the tactile slickness of his dead skin. Don’t think about his breath on my neck, his hands on my throat, his knee in my back. Don’t think about how awfully, sickeningly different it was to the clinical dissociation of a gunshot. Don’t think about it. Save it for later. There’s time for the nightmares later. Things to do.

I limped outside into the sunlight and listened. The chanting had stopped but I could still hear the noises of a large group of people. My route to freedom was still the same, so I started walking towards where Petts should have been lying unconscious. But he wasn’t there. Had he regained consciousness and fled, or had he been found and captured? I peered around the corner of the hedge again and saw the machete men herding the townspeople into canvas-topped troop trucks, which had pulled up at the edge of the forecourt. They were shipping them off, presumably to their base of operations.

One man carried the dead body of the woman from the scaffold and tossed it into a truck amongst the living cattle.

Oh God, they had a use for corpses as well. Could they be cannibals too?

With a jolt I saw Petts, holding his head, clearly disorientated, being shoved into one of the trucks. There was no hope of a rescue. He’d have to take his chances.

There was nothing I could do here. I had to get back to the school and warn them about the imminent attack by all that was left of Hildenborough’s militia, assuming it hadn’t already taken place.

I made my way as fast as I could across the small section of exposed ground and then back into cover on the road, behind the hedgerows and up to a stile. Even the simple act of climbing over a stile felt like an achievement given what I’d been through. And then into the field and safe to the trees.

Apart from the young woman, daubed in blood, carrying a gun, barring my way and looking at me quizzically.

We stood and stared at each other for a moment, and then I smiled and said:

“Safe now.”

She regarded my blood-soaked self and nodded.

“Safe now,” she replied.

And I was free to go.

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