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Sympathy for the Devil- Chapter Three 1/6

 

 

Chapter Three: Tuesday

The twenty-second of November, 1834


I lay traps for the troubadours
Who get killed before they reach Bombay
Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name
What's confusing you is the nature of my game



Nicholas was sweating, forehead drenched. The seconds were counting down, and the very room felt like it was breathing, in, out, in, out, the air heavy, moist and fetid, like the inside of a mouth. Uncertain fingers shaking, he reached out, touched the wooden king’s carven Inspector’s cap, and moved it forward a square, and as if to make up for his hesitancy, slammed his hand down on the timer.

Wrong move,” said the swollen, 8-foot-high squeaky monkey in the opposite chair, checkmating him easily, and the tiny Inspector died on the board.

*

GAH!” yelled Nicholas for the second time in two days, clawing his way back into consciousness. The last flail jarred his ribs under the bandaging, and he howled even louder, not being quite awake enough to clamp his teeth together and bear it.

The discovery that he’d slept in his pants was enough to instantly disgust him– the knowledge that there wasn’t even a shower to run away the dirt and sweat made it worse– the acknowledgment that he was still here, in 1834, for the third day in a row, was nearly enough to make him want to go back to sleep and have another go at waking up in the right year. Except, of course, that he’d rather face down another Neighborhood Watch Alliance rather than face the perversion of ‘I’M WITH STOOPID’ again. He crammed both heels of his palms into his eyesockets, trying to scrub away its evil, leering face from his retinas. “Ungh…”

In contrast to the previous morning, full, cold daylight glowed around the edges of the heavy curtains. On a solid wooden dresser across the room, a large jug of water stood in a white ceramic bowl, with Nicholas’s trunk heaved into the recess under the shelves underneath. A small fire had been lit in the grate at some point, warming the room, which now smelled– not unpleasantly– of wood smoke.

Feet on the stairs, then an anxious patter of knocking on the bedroom door. Danny had apparently learned his lesson about bursting in on people first thing in the morning. “Constable Angel? You all right?” Pause. “I put Dr. Cleaver’s tincture on the bedside table if y’need any.”

You can come in, Danny,” said Nicholas, tiredly. “I’ve got trousers.” He swung his legs over the side, carefully pushing the laudanum as far away from him as possible on the bedstand without putting in danger of falling, and added, “I think I’ve had enough of that stuff for a lifetime. I think I’ll wait until they invent the aspirin.” The jug of water sounded quite different, and he settled down to the always-tricky task of trying to pour water down his throat without putting his lips on the rim.

Danny opened the door. “I’ve got–” he began, then stopped, stared. “You’re… s’posed to wash with that.”

Angel’s eyes went wide. He choked, and spat it out into the bowl. “Guh, blorg.” He considered how much he wanted to know. And then considered cholera. “…Was it… used?”

Urr, no,” said Danny, pulling a face and thumbing tiredly under his eyes. He looked, now he’d had the chance to come to a standstill, quite worn out. “Fresh from the scullery. Listen… after you were out of it, last night…”

“–Is this all there is to wash with?” said Nicholas, not listening, lifting the jug. His brain was muggy, confused, muttering. If he had a shower, or, maybe a bath, he could think properly…

Cons– Nicholas,” said Danny, on the spur of the moment trying what felt like a rather riskily informal card in an attempt to get the Constable’s clearly absent attention, “Joe Messenger’s dead.”

There wasn’t any water left to wash with after that statement, mostly for the reason that it was sinking into the floorboards.

Angel stared, eyes readjusting to being switched on, only three levels higher. “…Naturally?”

Danny snorted, although there wasn’t much humour in it. “Not unless ‘e naturally bashed his own head in after accident’ly cuttin’ his own throat. His boy found ‘im on ‘is back doorstep, while we were still out looking. It must’ve happened– it must’ve been right after we was there talkin’ to ‘im after lunch.”

Nicholas tried vaulting over the bed to get to the door faster, forgot about his ribs, and landed awkwardly on the other side, one arm clutching at the bandages.

Argh. Is– is he still here? Frank?”

Careful!” said Danny, alarmed. “Yeah, ‘course– he’s downstairs, but–”

Nicholas nabbed a shirt from his trunk, rushing out of the room before he had time to put his arms into it– which he did while thumping down the stairs.

Where’s Joe Messenger’s boy?

With Dr. Cleaver,” jolted Danny, taking two steps at a time behind him, “his uncle’s comin’ from Castle Cary– but hadn’ you better–”

And the crime scene? Did you preserve that?” Nicholas strode through the center of the station towards the wine cellar a.k.a. jail, with his shirt untucked and half-open, fingers doing up the buttons as he speedwalked. “Hadn’t I better what?”

Not go runnin’ around so much,” sighed Danny, coming to a halt in the hallway between the cellar door and a rather interesting carved hatstand. “Yeah. I got down there with my string.”

We’re coppers. Of course coppers have to run; it’s part of our job descriptions. It’s not like you can yell ‘Oi, you’, and expect the world to do everything for us.” Nicholas tapped his way down the stone steps, towards the cell and cases of nettle wine, and the man inside.

Watch it on them steps,” Danny told his retreating back. He had the sudden impulse to add that he had a sort of bad feeling about this, and he almost did, but then, three people had been killed in the space of just over two days; what other sort of feeling was he or anyone else supposed to have about it, about any of it? And so he simply sighed again instead, sighed a big heavy frustrated patented Danny sigh, and followed him down.

The cellar was cramped and chilly, a wide, low-ceilinged stone room split down the first quarter by a solid wall of dark iron bars and a heavy locked door made from the same. This had created a cell on one side and a corridor on the other, a place for the detainee as well as the detained. Danny had hefted quite a lot of the wooden crates out of the cell to make room, and they were piled just outside in untidy stacks. A light-well choked full of cobwebs turned the cellar merely gloomy instead of simply dark, and there was a heavy, sweet smell in the air which spoke of centuries of slow, mellowing fermentation seeping into the very stones. Either that, or Danny had dropped one of the crates a bit too hard the previous night.

The decorators hadn’t exactly pushed the boat out. The cell contained a padded bench with a couple of blankets on it, a very short shelf, and a bucket.

Frank was sitting on the bench, leaning against the wall, close-reading a crumpled sheet of what looked like newsprint. He didn’t look up when Angel walked in.

Hallo, Nicholas,” he said, to the paper. “I had a feeling I’d be seeing you shortly.”

Sir,” said Angel, curtly. And, taking a leaf out of Liam’s book (circa 2006), asked, “How’s the ankle?”

It was the meanest opening he could think of.

Oh, tolerable, thank you,” said Frank, mildly, turning the paper over. “How’s the rib?

What rib?” said Angel, just as evenly. To let Frank see that he’d done any lasting damage would be intolerable. How’s your bollocks? he very deliberately did not say.

Hm,” Frank snorted, possibly laughed, through his nose. Finally, he looked up. “Forgive me, I was just musing. They talk about progress being unstoppable, but when you look at this…” He turned the ratty sheet of newspaper over. “Shifty politicians, celebrities, people moaning about the tax, war with somewhere we’ve never heard of.” He smiled, gentle amusement and a faintly terrifying blankness. “Nothing ever really changes.”

I don’t know, sir. I could certainly do with a shower.” Angel glanced at Frank’s darkly stained clothes. “From the look of those, I could say you could do with one yourself. Care to tell me what happened?”

Oh, well, if you’re going to split hairs,” said Frank, dismissively. “I haven’t the foggiest idea, Nicholas. You certainly seem to be a lot more on top of all this than me. All I can tell you is that I don’t remember the slightest thing after those two young idiots, shall we say, ‘escorting’ me along that road.” He raised his eyebrows, rubbing a thumb wearily beneath his eyes in an inadvertent mirror of Danny upstairs. “Next thing I knew I was flat on my back in some sort of barn, with, I might add, a headache roughly the size of Calcutta. As for this other fellow, I never even saw him.”

Aha. ”I never mentioned another fellow,” said Angel.

No. Quite right, you didn’t,” said Frank. “However…” He leaned back for a moment and closed his eyes, reading off his memory. “…his name was Joe Messenger, he lived in the Post Office, they found him yesterday with his throat cut, and he was always bang on delivering everything on time. Oh, and it’s a damn shame and no kid should have to see something like that.” He opened his eyes. “A couple of your colleagues have been down here this morning. I’m afraid that when it comes to keeping things to themselves, some of them aren’t quite as scrupulous as you.”

Well, sir, I do my best,” said Angel, grinding his teeth. Damn, he thought, back to square one, all because of the ineptitude of other officers, and his brain went, No kid should have had to lose either of their parents. Or their uncles and aunts. Or see their neighbors, their bloody friendly neighbors, impaled by a falling church spire. Or be taken hostage themselves. And all for a cold lump of metal that sits on a shelf saying that you’ve got a great village, well done, keep up the good work.

Somehow, attacking a police officer with the knife used in the first two murders doesn’t really lend your story any credit, sir."

Ah, well. For you, Nicholas, I’m willing to go that extra mile. Come to that, I’m not going to insult your intelligence by asking how you know what was used.” Frank folded the paper back into halves and tucked it into the pocket of his coat, although not without a slight hesitation. “Someone planted that knife on me. Why? I have no idea. A better question would be, why would I kill three people I don’t know from Adam?”

I have no idea why you’d kill anyone you did know, sir. From my perspective, maybe you just like killing people getting on with their lives, who have actual human flaws. Or you kill people when you’re cornered, and then kill again to cover your tracks.”

He’d evidently hit some kind of target. Frank’s face went cold, hard-lined. “What I did, I did it to protect my village,” he said, very deliberately. “My home. This isn’t my Sandford. I severely doubt this is even reality.”

I hardly think killing off the inhabitants of a village counts as protecting it, sir.” Nicholas was secretly overjoyed to see that last missile hit, sink in. He kept his face expressionless. “As I’m reasonably sure I can’t be making all this up, and that there’s too much I remember for that not to be real as well. Maybe you wanted to make this place a little more like home. Rustic aesthetic to a tee, completely undeveloped, the occasional corpse to stumble across…”

Ever heard of Ockham’s Razor, Nicholas?” said Frank, icily. getting slowly to his feet. “I think it goes something like entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. The simplest solution is always the best.”

I know what Ockham's Razor is, Frank.”

Frank smiled, thinly. “Of course you do. Anyhow, it's something you’d do well to keep in mind, next time you find yourself embarking on one of those grand theories of yours. Perhaps it might keep you from making too much of a fool of yourself.”

He approached the bars, still limping a little. “What sounds simpler to you? Some sort of hallucination. Or the entire structure of time, as thousands of years of science have explained it, stepping aside and dropping us both in the middle of the nineteen-hundreds, for absolutely no reason other than to teach us not to take modern plumbing for granted?”

I don’t expect the universe to have motivations,” said Angel, his voice dry in this damp room. Confident, now that he knew, and delighted in, Frank hurting. “Agnostic, sir, remember? People, however, do. Especially when it comes to murder. Even the ones that look like they have no motives. Some people just like killing. It gets them off. Gives a thrill. Makes them feel powerful.”

Well, now, that’s your theory,” said Frank. “Myself, my thoughts on the matter are slightly more prosaic. All I know is, it’s eighteen-thirty-four, or at least it appears to be, I’ve been framed for three counts of murder, and hanging won’t be abolished for another hundred and thirty years. I hope you’ll forgive me for finding it a tad difficult to focus on moral debate.”

I’m sure you could do anything you put your mind to,” said Angel, keeping his tone careless, aiming for the kill. “A man who puts a loaded gun to his son’s head… Well. That man can do anything.”

For a moment, the barricades went down. Frank’s eyes locked on Angel’s for a second of pure agonized hatred, and then went distant, staring through him and everything else into another reality altogether. Whatever it was he was watching there, a piece of action replay rewound so many times it was in danger of wearing through the tape, it didn’t appear to make for very pleasant viewing.

Nicholas had to fight down a grin. He’d won. He’d gotten through to a part of Frank that he could hurt, and now he went after it with tearing teeth and prey in sight, intent on squashing the little slug in Frank to a flat sticky mess. ”You knew exactly what you were doing. Every death. You’re as sane as I am, and we both know you don’t deserve a nice little stay in Buford Abbey for a time until they consider you rehabilitated in a few years. You deserve something a little more final. Maybe that’s your reason, why we’re both here. You to die, under the justice of law, and I’m here to make sure that it happens, lawfully.”

Oh, you are, are you?” Frank had a fist around one of the bars, dirty and white-knuckled, and his voice was screwed up into a deathly calm level, serene as quicksand. “And who appointed you judge, jury, and executioner, Nicholas? Serve and protect, and say who deserves to live or die? Well now, that’s interesting.” He smiled. “Of course, I wasn’t too happy about you replacing me, but who knows? Perhaps it’s for the best. After all, ‘replacement’ is just another word for ‘successor.’”

Nicholas had punched him in the face before he realized what he was doing, and exactly how good that felt. “Danny chose me,” he snarled. They all had, in the end, but Danny had been the first, and the statement was true on so many levels, that he didn’t amend it.

There was silence for a few moments, as Frank clung to the bar for support and wiped blood from his mouth. “And you’ll never notice,” he said, eventually, as if he hadn’t heard. “All the little decisions, all those little calls where you’ll decide the ends justify the means, oh, of course not usually, of course, but just this time, just this once. And then one day, just like that, you’ll realise how far you’ve gone. There's not really much to choose between us, me and you,” he said, close to the bars again now, “and as for poor Danny, bless him, the day will come when he sees that, too.”

You don’t say that.”

Angel yanked aside the bolt and launched himself inside at the upper body of Frank, a good head over himself and built larger and rangier than his shorter, lean frame, clawing at his face, aiming for the parts that hurt all over his upper chest and neck. He was also shouting some sort of nonsense, something like, he’s mine, you bastard, you don’t have the right to say his NAME, shut your face, you murderer, he’s mine!

From behind him, the confused echoing sound of someone swearing in panic and jumping a flight of narrow stone steps so quickly they were risking their own neck, and then a heavy arm clamped around Angel’s shoulders and dragged him backwards off Frank, who fell back against the bench, breathing hard.

“‘Ey-’ey-’ey, you can’t do that, Nicholas, c’mon, let ‘im alone!” yelled Danny desperately into his ear, getting hold of his other arm and trying to pull it into something at least approximating the lock he’d taught him the other day, trying to counter the fact that although Danny was big and heavy Nicholas was fit and fighting mad.

Nicholas twisted in Danny’s imperfect grip, trying to take out Danny’s knees from behind with a scything kick, but the angle he was being held with was all wrong, and it was Danny’s voice in his ear, so it didn’t work. He didn’t stop struggling, though it became more about not stopping movement, as opposed to focused on causing pain. “Let me go, get off, Danny, go away, get off me–”

Yes, don’t mind us,” croaked Frank, dragging a sleeve quickly across hit face and spitting blood. He sounded more than slightly indistinct, possibly because Angel had split his lip in two places. “Nicholas is just discovering the joys of policing the old-fashioned way.”

You shut up,” said Danny, angrily, over Angel’s shoulder. “Nicholas, you’ll hurt yourself, stop it! If my dad saw this ‘ed pitch a fit!”

I need to be outside, thought Nicholas, his mind whirling to keep up with it all, I need a walk. And he said as much to Danny.

And, a little late, and quite a bit regretfully, I can’t believe I did that.

Right,” said Danny, hurriedly, slamming the cell door on Frank with his foot. “Up’y’get. Want me to come with you?”

Yes, please,” said Nicholas, feeling suddenly himself again, and that included the part about having a broken rib. You’ll keep me in check, even if you won’t know why.

Danny nodded and went up the stairs behind him, reasoning that if Nicholas lost his footing he’d at least break their fall. As the loose old cellar door clonked shut behind them, Frank sat down heavily on the bench, bright blood still running freely from his lip. He wiped his mouth again, sighed, and dropped his head into his hands. 

*

You wanna tell me what all that was about?” asked Danny, cautiously, once they were safely out in the fresh air.

Nicholas sighed, looking up at the sky. Besides being unable to see a single plane in the sky, it was still the same sky of Sandford in two hundred years time. It just wasn’t making him feel any better. “He… said something about my partner, in two-thousand-seven.” He scrubbed at his face with his hands, trying to rub in a bit of sanity, or, even better, wake up and find that it was 2007 all along, and that hadn’t actually just happened. “That was very poor policing on my part.”

Danny tactfully decided not to comment, and instead opened the gate outside the police station, knocking a flurry of snow from it. More had fallen in the night, drifting thickly in the roads. “Did he confess or anyfin’? Say he did it?”

No,” said Nicholas, now looking at his feet as they walked across frozen mud and the occasional enthusiastic pre-cobblestone. “I would never have attacked him for that information. And no, he didn’t say anything about it at all. His specialty is… disarming you. Distracting you with other things. And then he sends someone to kill you in your room and passes it off like you slipped and hit your head in the shower. He… he just…” Nicholas tried to remember what exactly had been said to make him so angry. It had kind of gone… blurred. “He said something about Danny, and, and Danny eventually regretting me, and I… snapped.”

He sounds a right piece of work,” said Danny. He felt rather lost. In his personal experience, blokes just didn’t talk about stuff like this. If they were your friends you talked about the usual sorts of things, and got drunk with them a couple of nights a week, and you ended up feeling like you knew them pretty well, but you didn’t talk about anything… well… deep. Not really. Not with your mates.

But then he remembered his collection, and all the detective stories where the hero has a Shameful Past or Did a Woman Wrong, and finally Swallows his Pride and confesses usually about three pages before the end, either to a lady or their faithful companion, and when Danny read those bits, didn’t they sound in his head a bit like Nicholas did now? Except Nicholas didn’t sound like he’d also swallowed a book of Byronic verses beforehand. Which was good, because Danny thought he might have found that a bit difficult to take seriously, in real life.

Regretting you?” he asked, carefully.

Well, he– Danny– chose to side with me, over his father– that… man– when we took on the NWA– a sort of… citizen-run organization gone crazy, who were killing everyone who was making Sandford look bad. And I mean people like… itinerants, people having affairs, people who can’t spell, street entertainers, children experimenting with alcohol, someone who had an ugly house. And all for some sort of, of medal. So there was a massive shoot-out, and then we single-handedly arrested the lot of them. He– Danny– even took a bullet for me. And…” Nicholas gestured, awkwardly. “After he got out of hospital, we, er. You know. Really really became partners.”

I will not blush, he thought to himself, and his brain full-heartedly agreed that while this was a fine goal to set, the actual truth of the matter was that he was a very small pale man who had a great supply of oxygen to a decent mind, and that any embarrassment would be very, very likely to flush his whole face and neck scarlet.

And… I’m pretty sure that Frank doesn’t know anything about that, but…” Fuck, his face was hot already. “It was a stupid jab, about me filling in for his corrupt position, and that someday Danny would turn to look at me and see his dad there instead, and, and regret all of it. Regret choosing me.”

Danny did hear the last part, but somehow it seemed rather a long way off compared to the contents of the first bit, which were shouting urgently in his face from a very short range. He looked at Nicholas, and saw absolutely no trace that this was in any way a joke. If Nicholas even ever made jokes, which Danny really doubted on the face of all the evidence so far.

You… you’re saying you were… courtin’ with… a bloke.” His voice, apparently of its own accord, had gone all plonky, like someone dropping a load of lead organ pipes on something flat and dull.

Er… yes?” said Nicholas. Damn, he was blushing. “I thought I told you we were moving in together in a few weeks.”

Well, yeah, but I thought you was just…” It was at that point that Danny remembered that Nicholas had told him that, where he was from, there were bloody hundreds of houses, all close together. There wasn’t really any reason to move in with anyone unless–

But– it’s…”

Look,” snapped Nicholas, feeling embarrassed and ashamed at losing his cool to the point of violence, which had never happened before, and a bit… There was something about Danny’s reaction that was pulling him the wrong way, like when he’d tried telling other kids not to swear, and they’d laughed at him.* “I know it’s kind of unusual. But it was the only relationship I’ve ever had in my life that worked, and right now that bloke won’t be born for another hundred and forty-five years, and I fucking miss him, alright?”

Danny looked down at his feet. He remembered being in church, and he couldn’t have been more than twelve, thirteen, sitting next to his dad near the front in the spine-jarringly uncomfortable wooden pew, and hearing the Reverend giving a sermon about Leviticus and Sodom and Gomorrah. He’d spoken in such a terrible, cold voice that Danny had felt like he’d somehow done something wrong already, and probably most of the rest of the congregation had felt the same way.

This had been shortly after the Reverend’s wife and his housekeeper had gone off on a visit to the Reverend’s wife’s mother’s house in Bristol. Thinking about it now, Danny had to own it had been an extremely extended visit. It had lasted more than ten years to date, certainly.

Now Angel was starting to look angry and embarrassed and hurt all at once, and Danny realised that somehow, although it was Nicholas that had just confessed to something which was supposed to be too awful to even talk about in polite society, it was somehow him, Danny, who was handling this very, very badly.

Sorry,” he mumbled. “S’just I always… I mean, they say it’s a sin. An’– an’ you go to hell for it. I– I dunno, I didn’t think, y’know, someone like you’d…”

He wasn’t sure what on earth he was trying to say. That someone like Angel, the best copper he’d ever bloody met, the model of integrity when he wasn’t attacking murder suspects under extreme provocation, could do something illegal and act like it was normal. It was as if Angel had just nonchalantly told him he took money under the table.

Oh, you stupid arse, another part of his mind cut in, sharp and exasperated. It’s nothing like that at all.

“…I c’n tell you miss him,” he said, uncomfortably.

I don’t believe in a God,” said Angel, coldly. “I’m agnostic. I’ve been stabbed in the hand by a Father Christmas, been shot by a Reverend. I had to kill a man, once, you know, to save three other people– so if I end up in hell, thank you, it’ll be because I took a life.”

You were shot by a Reverend?” said Danny, startled for a moment back into plain awe. He thought for a moment about the current Reverend. He could actually imagine the man shooting somebody, he realised, if he just imagined the expression the man got on his face whenever someone started coughing during the homily. Then he realised Angel had just told him he didn’t believe in God.

Er…” What did you say, what could you say, to that? He glanced along the snowy, thankfully deserted, street, as if suspecting half the village were hiding around corners, listening. “Listen, you can’t tell anyone else about this. Not– about God– that’s just– I mean, the… other thing. It’s– it’s illegal.”

I don’t normally tell people about my personal life,” said Angel, taken aback. Danny’s drop in volume made him nervous, and he suddenly remembered how unsoundproofed any of the buildings were in this Sandford. How loudly had he been speaking? “Why? It’s not like he’s below the age of consent, and, and yes, I’m his superior officer, but– we, we already talked about that, and that if anyone actively took that against us, either one or both of us would quit the service, so it wouldn’t be an issue–”

Nicholas,” said Danny, with all the frightened sincerity that he felt, which came from realising with utter clarity that he didn’t give a toss about the morals of it when weighed against the danger Angel was in, “they hang people for it."

*And then beaten the crap out of him and the pedalcar.

continue...

 

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
random_nexus
Jun. 12th, 2009 08:20 pm (UTC)
Oh, I'm SO SO SO SO enjoying this!
Still marvy.

I almost had an objection about Nicholas jumping Frank, but when you add together that he's off-kilter from being out of his own time, injured, has been taking laudanum, and hasn't had a decent wash for 3 days... okay, I think I'd be fairly dangerous, myself.

*dashes to next part*
waffleguppies
Jun. 12th, 2009 08:42 pm (UTC)
And, added to all that, Frank knows exactly how to pushy pushy push push his buttons.
random_nexus
Jun. 12th, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC)
But doesn't he, though?! And it so came across, too.
_I_ wanted to slap him around! ;)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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