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Sympathy for the Devil- Chapter Three 5/6


A couple of floors below him, Frank wasn’t asleep yet, either. He would have sympathised with Angel’s boredom, although he was probably better used to dealing with it by now. Prison was boring, that wasn’t all it was but it was certainly an essential component of it, being bored out of his mind and watching the days of his life drift by like snow.

Admittedly, it didn’t usually involve actual, real snow, though. A small part of the glass pane at the top of the light-well shaft must have been broken, and there was a little pile of it on the stone floor.

It wasn’t completely dark in the cellar, there was still a candle burning in a bracket on the other side of the bars, frosted with old wax. As he lay on the bench, Frank could feel the glow of it through his eyelids, and he should have found the warmth of it comforting, but instead it seemed to drill in, keeping him from sleep. It didn’t help that every time he started to drift off the little fragments of thoughts returned, bothering him with–

(a little pocket, down the side)

some irrelevant nonsense that he was quite sure he didn’t want to remember. His head hurt, and he regretted the things he’d said to Angel that day. What on earth was the point?

He turned his back on the candle and pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders. Unlike Angel, Frank could shut his equivalent of that furious, righteous inner monologue off. He’d had to, in the past, to get things done, because the thing was a right goody-two-shoes and sometimes, like right now, shutting it up really was the only way he could sleep.

Sleep, however, was not due to happen anytime soon.

Footsteps trotted evenly down the stone steps into the cellar, followed by the man making them– approaching his sixties, tall, slightly on the rangy side with a bit of a paunch to boot. He had salt-and-peppered sideburns to balance out his thinning hairline, and a gentle, confident look to his face that suggested he was rather used to getting people to do things the way he wanted. He didn’t look like Frank, but only because you’d have to photoshop Frank’s head over the man to complete the transformation.

Hearing the noise, Frank turned over and sat up, his shoulders stiff and protesting from all the yanking about they’d put up with lately. For a moment, confused, he thought that it might be morning, but comprehension returned quickly as he saw the other man and realised, almost immediately, who he must be. He said nothing, watching him warily and with a vague sense of something which might have been envy.

The Chief Inspector ignored him, walking with boisterous light-heartedness and the good will of men plastered over his face to the cases of nettle wine, carefully selected one, and dropped it to the floor with a smash.

Frank flinched, and stared.

The man had his own aura of satisfaction, his old confidence. He’d never seen it from the outside, before. It was uncanny, like looking in a mirror that you slowly realised didn’t turn things from left to right, and it didn’t gel at all with what he was doing– what was he doing? What was he even doing down here?

What are you doing?” To his chagrin, his voice had a bit of a hitch in it. It was the slight shake of a man who doesn’t quite realise yet how deeply worried he is getting.

Bottles clinked as the other Frank sifted through them, searching for the next perfect target, withdrew another bottle, held it out from himself, and let go. Crash.

"I wanted to thank you for being so…" Clink, gloink. "Diverting." Smash. "It's a shame all good things must end."

Frank stood up, his stare flicking incredulously between the man’s face and the smashed puddles of glass at his feet. The thick, honeyish smell of spilled alcohol was growing stronger, swelling even further beyond pleasant into sickly, cloying. It was almost enough to make him feel dizzy, and his head throbbed with it, as slow panic hiked his pulse and pounded blood through his temples.

“‘Diverting’? he repeated, angrily. “What’s that supposed to–”

Ahem, murmured his mind, sounding almost respectful for a change. Getting a bit urgent, all this. Might be a good idea if you caught on, now.

And, after a moment, he did.

His eyes widened. Flat, spiraling horror curled through his stomach, tightened his gorge, pulled his mouth into a shocked grimace. The tension of it cracked his split lip, but he didn’t feel a thing. Involuntarily, his hands clamped around the bars, as the shock, combined with the days of bad food and bad sleep and mental exhaustion, conspired to almost take his feet out from under him.


Yes, me,” said the man, mildly enough, tossing another bottle to burst against the far wall and a bit of the wooden supports.

You framed me!” Frank's sense of indignation was surprisingly strong, considering. Perhaps it was because, however strongly he'd tried to convince Nicholas of his innocence, a tiny part of his mind hadn't been sure. Not sure at all. It might have been, before the trial and Buford Abbey and the diet of unpronounceable pills they'd stuck him on, but perhaps he was no longer so convinced of his own sanity, and the thought that he might have blacked out and killed two men for very little reason wasn't nearly as ridiculous and easily dismissed as it would once have been. “You left me in that barn- you left me that knife!”

I knew you'd come in handy.” Crunch.

Hardly aware of what he was doing, Frank reached up with a trembling hand and felt the bruise on the back of his skull. In his mind's eye he could see it with perfect clarity- the two wardens, sharp black shadows wandering up the long country lane, hustling him between them, talking and laughing with each other. The double-barred gate. The two wardens, turning at a sound behind them, himself only half-reacting before a sharp blow to the back of the head flipped the switch on his own private universe for the rest of the night. And then... what? The two wardens, incredulous at what had just happened, struck dumb with surprise or perhaps demanding an explanation from the man they both recognised, the one who stood there smiling gently at them from under a policeman's hat, and then the swift shine of a knife in the moonlight-

However,” said the other Frank, snapping him back to the present, “I can already see Constable Angel is a bit too tenacious. He doesn’t much care for settling for the most simple explanation. Two bent wardens, killed while transporting a murderer back to a prison? Oh no, can’t have been the murderer. A nervous postman, who won’t use his connections to build a semaphore tower, and supposedly the last one to have seen the murderer, killed just before the murderer’s recapture. Oh, can’t have been him. There’s another killer! And all this bleeding heart nonsense about executions being amoral.” A disbelieving shake of the head. “It’s only my town releasing necessary stress, after all. And the point of stress, at the moment, happens to be, well, you.”

Do you really think Angel will let it go that easily?” snarled Frank, ducking a flying fragment of glass. “Killing me'll only make him more suspicious.”

Oh, I doubt that,” said the Chief Constable. “He’s currently upstairs, quite a bit under the weather, shall we say, and I’ve barricaded him into his room. Shame,” he said, again, smiling. “I wish the game could have gone on a bit longer.”

Frank, who had had no idea that Angel was staying on the premises, took a moment to recover from this. Game? he wanted to scream. You think this is a game? Good Christ, call it a mission, call it a call it a ruddy crusade if you fancy, but a game? Have you any idea what that makes you sound like?

And your boy?” he forced himself to ask. “What about him?”

Buttleman shrugged. “Well… he’s a tad useless, really. I’m sure you’ve already seen that when you set eyes on him. If he survives, then there’s no real gain or loss. And the more the merrier!” Another bottle went.

Frank sort of sagged. His appalled eyes followed the Chief Constable as he continued to methodically drench the cellar in alcohol, and in them was the look of a man who was seeing far, far more than he wanted to.

You’re insane.”

His doppleganger paused, head tilting slightly. “How odd. That’s exactly what my wife said.”

After a moment, a small, entirely nonsensical sound escaped Frank’s mouth. He was learning for the second time that day that someone doesn’t have to hit you to make you feel like they’d just slammed an iron bar into your gut.


This was more like a nightmare than anything else so far, in fact, it reminded him more than anything of the nightmares he'd had following the death of Irene, the nightmares in which he stood on the side of the road and watched her go past in her red Datsun. Driving to her death. He'd try to warn her, stop her, but his body wouldn't work and he'd somehow forgotten how to use his voice. He could only watch.

Sometimes Danny, then only just fifteen years old, was in the car with her. Whatever he did, they never saw him, just kept driving by. It was as if he'd become invisible. He couldn't stop them any more than he could stop this ghastly mirror of himself now, and dear God, the man was exactly like him, except-

No, spat the voice in his head. There's no 'except', Frank. You're choosing to see a difference, because you want to. If you really had a better reason than his, if you really were any better justified, don't you think it would have kept you going, afterwards? Don't you think you might, oh, you know, still believe in it? The only difference between you and him is that you're about to burn to death, and he isn't.

For God’s sake, why are you doing this?”

To see that Sandford modernizes, of course.” Buttleman offered him a bright, cheery smile. “The only way to get a new building in this village is to burn one down, and the only way to fill in a previously corrupt, or… ambling position is to empty it yourself. Of course, you need to have the proper man to fall for you, but with a prison full of volunteers only the next town over, it’s so easy.”

He struck a match against the dry foundation, cupping it in his hand and took a step back. “I’d start saying the Lord's Prayer, if I were you.”

There are a few choice phrases in the English language which have been so over-used in fiction as well as real life that they just eventually lose all meaning. It was something that Frank, who had almost exactly the same passing knowledge of dozens of action films that Nicholas now had, knew very well. Some people are passive smokers. Frank, thanks to the years of living– and sharing a TV lounge– with his son, was a passive movie buff.

Sometimes, though, you are put in a position where you simply have to say one of these wretched phrases, because it’s the only possible thing anyone could say, and you’re the only one there to say it. Knowing this kept Frank focused on his doppelganger’s eyes, rather than his match, which had an irresistible quality all of its own.

You’re not going to get away with this,” he said.

Suit yourself,” said the Chief Constable, and threw the match onto the floor.

The room lit up into a bright C around the cell, the only place Buttleman hadn’t smashed any alcohol into. Buttleman himself leaned against the door at the top of the stairs, apparently admiring his handiwork. The flame– it was too big already for ‘flames’, just one giant flame that could nearly touch the ceiling in the first few seconds of birth- not finding enough fuel, licked casually along the floor towards the rest of the still-bottled nettle wine.

After the first few seconds, Frank couldn’t see the Chief Inspector, or the stairs, or the door, any longer. Everything beyond the fire was plunged into darkness, both by the contrast and by the smoke, which was thick and acrid and started him coughing almost immediately. He stumbled back, to the shelf where the paper swan stood next to the water jug, and dumped the water out onto the sleeve of his coat, breathing desperately into it as he grabbed the barred door and shook it as hard as he could. This had exactly as much effect as the craftsman who had made the bars in the first place had evidently intended it to. On top of that, the flames were licking at the bars down at floor level, and the metal was already warm under his hands.

The wooden crates were starting to smoulder. A couple of bottles were loose and already engulfed in flame, and pretty soon they were going to start boiling. That, Frank predicted, was when the real fun was going to start. And–


Not now, for God’s sake, he thought. But this time, as the heat grew more and more intense and he shrank away from the smoke to the clearer air near the floor, his head still reeling with his doppelganger’s awful, cheerful, reasonable explanations, he couldn’t stop it, and the memories burst open in the front of his mind like rotten flowers.


(it’s called Restoril, Frank.)

every time he hadn’t been watched, he’d hidden them down the side in a little pocket–

(it’s nothing to worry about, it’s just so we know you’re sleeping when you’re supposed to be, all right?)

a little pocket, just a tiny hole really, in the stitching down the side of the mattress, because he didn’t need any of that muck, hated how it made his thoughts drift off like slow, fluffy icebergs, hated being enveloped in that big woolly cloud of nothing–

Oh, but he’d been so tired, homesick and sick of everything else, his guilt crippling, his loneliness so deep and complete that he hadn’t even been aware how badly he was suffering. Missing Sandford. Missing Danny. And before he knew it he’d had at least a dozen of the things, and, at last, he’d decided… he’d decided…

You decided to trade for what’s behind the curtain.

The air was burning. Frank pulled himself closer to the floor, breathing and coughing through his sleeve, but not nearly so often now, or so frantically. He could see the light-well above his head in the smoke, nothing but a paler rectangle in the blackness.


The light-well brightened in a sudden rush, flooding the whole cellar with a pure, cold, white radiance. This was a different voice, an unfamiliar one.

(Frank, can you hear me?) 

Voices. The air on his face was cold. Why was he so hot?

(Was that a response?)

Now, white stars blazed over his head, globes of pale fire eclipsed by masked faces. As if from a very long way away, he heard a couple of wine bottles explode, their muffled reports filtering in from at least the next universe over

(Negative. GCS still steady at four. Whatever he’s seeing, it’s not on this planet. Stethoscope, please.)

He blinked, and the darkness and heat and smoke rushed back. Something new came back with it, though, something he’d forgotten that he had, and that it might already be too late to use.

His voice.

Frank took a deep breath, tasting smoke and wet cloth and old blood, and started to yell at the top of his lungs.



It’s the foundations,” complained Sandford Castle. “Always been a little temporally unstable. And creaky. When are you people going to learn to shore them up properly?

Angel glared at the hideous, geologically-shifting, vaguely-human-shaped thing sitting across from him, and moved his queen to E-4, countering the attack from a rogue knight

Now I know it’s not your fault,” said the castle, gesturing widely with a spare wing. “You’re just so… capable. Which is why it’s high time with such,” The castle sucked on something horrible approximating human teeth, “skills, were put to better use.”

Angel stared.

In Sandford, Gloucestershire,” added the castle, sheepishly, jeopardizing Nicholas’s queen with a heavily defended bishop, nudging it forward with a shrunken cornerstone. “The figures have gone a bit… squiffy.”

It’s talking with Liam’s voice, now, thought Angel. It doesn’t know how to actually talk, it’s a damn human-sized… person… shaped... castle. It’s made out of my own memories. I’m just not going to talk back to it.

On the board, the Inspector, who had been holding down a grim little fortress of pawns, suddenly caught on fire. Someone, somewhere off in the distance, was screaming.

I’d wake up now, if I were you,” said Sandford Castle, conversationally.


It was too hot. Way too hot. Nicholas struggled out of bed, only vaguely aware that he’d somehow fallen asleep in his stab vest, and was finally able to register that there was smoke pooling up through the floorboards around his ankles. Smoke means fire. Fire means get the hell out of the building already you sodding bastard, it’s a miracle you managed to wake up at all!

He snatched up the bundle he’d been lying on, and the contact of skin on paper suddenly reminded his aching head of something. Danny’s… whatevers!

Nicholas stamped his feet into boots, and on all fours, crawled to the door, pressing his palm against the paneling to feel for heat on the other side.

It wasn’t hot, just feverishly warm like everything else in the place suddenly was, like the air and the floorboards under his feet. It felt like an Indian summer, except an Indian summer would not stink so asphyxiatingly of wood smoke and soot.

Angel tried the door, but something must have fallen and caught the door at the most awkward point, preventing any levering-aside. If he stayed in here, he’d be dead. There wasn’t any backup, there wouldn’t be any fire and rescue teams, he was on his own, and he was going to die here alone without ever seeing–

The hinges groaned under the battery of kicks and shoves, and Nicholas fell over into the second floor hallway on top of it.

The first thing he tried to check was Danny’s room, at least to see if any of his book-pamphlets were still intact.

Danny’s door stood open, and his bed was rumpled and empty. Smoke crawled out in a thick blanket, joining a rapidly-descending shroud across the hallway ceiling. It was almost impossible to really see what was going inside the room, because all the shelves and most of the floor was on fire. Whatever was underneath, the front room by the look of it, was not going to be a good place to be.

There were a few boxes of pamphlets lying scattered on the untouched floorboards by the doorway, victims of Danny’s untidiness but not, as yet, of the fire.

Nicholas grabbed the largest box he could lift, and heaved it out Danny’s window into the snow below.

He ran, as low to the ground as possible, down the stairs. Check every room. Make sure that nobody’s– The entryway was clear of Miss Thatcher and any lingering memories of the castle-human, and though the far half of the Chief Constable’s room looked well on its way to becoming a large pile of blackened ash in a few hours, the side with the desk still looked quite untouched. The smoke in the room was terrible- all that paper- and when a kick failed to budge the window, he frantically defenestrated the heaviest book on the desk, which flew through the window in a spray of glass shards like a very aerodynamically-impaired pigeon escaping a burning building. The atmosphere started to clear, but only a little.

Make sure that nobody's still inside-

He straightened, and then crouched again in panic as the eaten-into far wall crumbled, and the next heat wave from the new hole rushed in, singing off his arm hair up to his elbows.


The downstairs hallway had been papered in some heavy green patterned stuff, which must have been printed with phosphorous ink or something similar, because it wasn’t so much burning as dripping bits of flame onto the floor. Thankfully, the lack of proper carpets anywhere in the station house had retarded the spread of the fire over the floorboards, which had been full of winter damp to begin with.

The cellar door was open, which was fortunate, because it was also on fire. Most of the smoke in the hallway which wasn’t coming from the horrible dripping wallpaper was belching out of the stairwell and across the ceiling.

Inside the cellar, the remaining crates were all well and truly on fire, and it clearly wasn’t going to be very long before the whole stack went the way of the few free bottles before them. Frank, leaning heavily into the corner of the wall the furthest away from the bars, sleeve still pressed to his mouth, was watching them with stinging eyes, trying his hardest to hang on to consciousness. Smoke inhalation hadn’t seemed like such a bad way to go, but being cut to pieces by shrapnel and boiling ethanol was a very different proposition.

Nicholas stumbled down the stone steps, and nearly went headlong into the Bog of Random Flame Gouts that the cellar had become sometime between finishing off the vests and now.


Frank, whose throat and lungs by this point felt packed with boiling sand, managed to shout something that was probably neither intelligible or sensible in return, then coughed so hard it made him retch. Sucking air through his drenched sleeve, however, he managed to force the important part out.

Don’t– touch the– bars!”

He had been watching the iron lattice take on a dull, dangerous, not-quite-red-coloured tint over the last few minutes, and he knew what it meant.

Angel leaped through the flames– arms up, protecting his face from blistering– catching himself against the bars with his vest, burning dark, smoking lines into the cheap linen. He angled a foot, balancing precariously for a moment as if he were halfway through a Crane kata, and kicked the bolt free.

Come on!”

Starting towards the cell door as it swung back on its hinges with the momentum of Angel’s kick, Frank glanced towards the clouds of black smoke wreathing the top of the steps just in time to see the orange light of flames in the corridor suddenly blooming brighter, flaring through the blackness. He lunged, stumbled, grabbed Angel’s arm and dragged him into the cell, and the next moment, the structure of the doorway at the top of the steps collapsed, filling the frame with rubble and bringing a shower of beams and bits of flaming wood down across the blazing stack of crates on the cellar floor.

Frank was breathing fast and shallow through his sleeve. His colour wasn’t very good; through the soot, he looked grey. “Whole lot’s– going to go up,” he gasped. “Window. Can’t– reach– you’ll have to go first.”

Shorter than you,” Nicholas reminded him. “Need a leg up.”

Now was not the time to start wondering if Frank would decide to break his spine halfway through the operation.

Frank took as deep a breath as he could, linked his hands and boosted Angel’s feet as the shorter– and undeniably more athletic– young man scrambled up the brick shaft. He suppressed a grim speculation about whether or not Nicholas might decide to hold up his end of the obligation once he was out. Now just wasn’t the time.

Nicholas braced himself up the short chimney with his knees, as he –carefully, carefully– dislodged a large pane of glass at the top, not four inches from his face, and then hurled it as far off into the unseen horizon as his limited movements could allow. Wedging himself up with a system of elbows and knees, he popped out the top and over the side, most of the hair singed off his body, some of his clothes smoking as he lay in the snow, just to catch his breath. Air had never tasted so good.

And then he forced himself back the other way, upper torso halfway down the pipe, hands reaching– reaching–

His rib was screaming at the exertion.

Standing on the bench, knee wedged awkwardly against the shelf, Frank watched Angel make it up the shaft and pull himself over the top, a success followed by a few blood-curdling moments where he could see nothing at all except the cool moonlit square of sky at the top of the shaft. He glanced back through the bars, and at that moment part of one of the crates furthest from the cell erupted with a roar into a dazzling burst of liquid fire. He shielded his face, felt a faint scatter of boiling droplets like needles across his back, then saw Angel’s arm reaching down from the skylight and forced himself up to meet it.

With Nicholas’s arm for support, Frank heaved himself up the shaft with his elbows and knees in much the same way as the younger man had, only a lot slower. Several smaller reports from below, coupled with the ferocious heat on his back, suggested that the situation in the cellar was not improving. Several times Frank felt himself starting to grey out, every muscle in his back and shoulders screaming at him, but at last he got a grip on the edge of the shaft, let go of Angel’s arm, and dragged himself clear of the light-well.



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jun. 14th, 2009 07:34 pm (UTC)
AAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! Too exciting! Can't stop - must go on!
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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