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Sympathy for the Devil- Chapter Three 6/6

 

Guh,” said Angel, rather eloquently, letting go of the older man as soon as he was clear, and curled into a fetal position in the snow, coughing.

Frank rolled over, struggling for breath. He could hear that somewhere, probably not too far off, there was a lot of shouting and excitement going on, but he found it very hard to kindle any kind of interest in it for the moment; or, for that matter, in anything, apart from how blessedly cold the snow was on his back.

Get... getting too old f'r... f'r this sort of thing,” he managed, and then added a cautious, croaky “Thank you.”

N'. Nih. Norra problem."

They breathed for a while, both enjoying the novelty of it.

ch’las,” Frank said, wheezing, “why, really? Hanging. Changed yhhhhh–” He choked, gathered breath, slowly. “Your mind.”

Be– hoc!” Nicholas spat out a large load of phlegm onto the snow. It was an unpleasant sort of grey-black. “Because you’re innocent– of the Messenger one, at leass’.” He flopped back down. Neither heaven nor earth could stop him from clutching at his rib for the next week and a half. “And, because, technically, I’m what the locals’d call a sodomite. I don’t wanna get hanged, either.”

He had barely finished when the ground beneath them thumped. A billowing mushroom cloud, full of whirling tatters of flame, belched out of the light-well, raining big flakes of ash which sunk into the snow around the frame, accompanied by a chorus of little pops and hisses.

Frank didn’t really seem to notice. He made an involuntary noise a bit like a laugh, which caught in his seared throat and made him cough. As always, though, his voice rose to the occasion, somehow making him sound merely gently incredulous even when it was so cracked and short of breath. “I– I beg your pardon?”

Inna relationship,” said Nicholas, stuffing handfuls of snow up his vest and shirt. Snow and cold, wet things were the best invention of the universe right now. “Back home. They hang poor sods for it here, apparently. Just as stupid a reason as the NWA’d come up with.”

It was a fair enough point, although specifically incorrect. Part of the contest’s guidelines for a ‘perfect community’ in this day and age– that day and age, anyway– had been a ‘proper commitment to equal opportunity and non-discrimination.’ The NWA had hardly been discriminatory, either. If they thought you were riff-raff, you were doomed regardless of what team you were batting for. They might cut your throat for not trimming your lawn, but they would at least be politically correct about it.

Seem to remember them telling me– you were in a relationship,” managed Frank. This was a very weird conversation to be having under the circumstances, but something kept him talking, either because it was a relatively normal topic in the midst of all this ludicrousness, or because his stomach was starting to get that brink-of-a-precipice feeling again. “Some young CSI girl in London.”

Nicholas would have laughed, had he the energy. “I haven’t seen her for over a year,” he grunted, a woosh of relief spewing from his mouth as numbness finally crept across his bruised stomach and swelling rib. “That was over before I even got to Sandford.”

Ah,” said Frank. And then, in quite a different tone, “Oh, God.”

A long silence followed, broken up by the hungry roar and crackle of the fire and the slow, folding thumps as more of the structure collapsed in on itself.

“…I think he would have wanted to try and tell you,” said Angel, eventually. His eyes were closed. “But your visitation rights…”

“Oh, God, Nicholas,” said Frank, again. The protective rush of strength and adrenalin from their narrow escape had sluiced away, and his voice spoke volumes of the flat black plain of depression underneath. “I've made such a mess of things. I... couldn't have gone and dragged him back into it.”

I’m probably never going to see him again either,” snapped Nicholas, suddenly irritable. “Considering where the hell we are. You might last twenty years. I’ll last another thirty after that. You think I haven’t done the math?"

Speak for yourself,” wheezed Frank. “Unless I’m very much mistaken, I’m not even really here. Wh... whether it’s all as real as it seems to be is rather redundant, under the circumstances.”

What do you mean, ‘not even really here’? We’re both here, this is real. Unless I should have left you in the… burning… exploding… building!”

Sandford Police Station made a sad, groaning sort of noise as the thatch on the roof finally caught, and, finally the main support beam in the center of the building collapsed, relocating half of the second floor to the ground.

Have you ever... heard of the Glasgow Coma Scale?” asked Frank, for all the world as if he was inquiring into what flavour of cake icing Angel found most agreeable. “I have. Is a medical benchmark system used to measure how deeply a person is in a coma. When I passed out down there, I– woke up. Or suh... something approximate, anyway.” Still lying flat on his back, he wiped soot from his face with his wet sleeve. “I was in a hospital bed. In 2007. And I heard one fellow say I have a GCS of four. Means that the... the lights are on, but it’s... increasingly clear that nobody’s home.”

I fell down a hole,” said Nicholas. “A shallow… hole. That shouldn’t put anyone in a coma. At most, I should have a sprained ankle. And if this,” he gestured, limply at the bleak, burning remains of the station, “is us in a coma, then how are we talking to each other? How is it possible for us to interact with people from the past? Like your great-great-great-great-whatever-grandfather.”

Maybe... you bashed your head,” suggested Frank, keeping the cool, wet cloth clamped against his singed forehead for the moment. He sighed, then paid for it with a hacking cough. “I’m going to assume he’s all right, as far as you know, or else you wouldn’t be lying around out here. More or less all right, anyway,” he added, partially to himself. “He’s certainly not going to be very happy about all this.”

Angel decided to see exactly how much hair he had left. The status report, after using another handful of snow to wipe off his face and head, wasn’t good. ”Yes, because you going fft suddenly would be a big clue. He’ll have lost the collection he's been keeping since his mum died, though. These… booky things.”

Frank sat up slightly, supporting himself on his elbows. He had been trying not to think too hard about the things his… double had said. His lungs hitched in protest, and he coughed and gripped his chest, slumping back. “Nicholas, listen. It was him. The– the boy’s father. He killed Joe Messenger and those two wardens, he framed me, and when you started to catch on, he decided to make a clean sweep of both of us. He thinks he’s modernizing Sandford. And–” He could hardly bear to say it. “–his wife. He killed her. I... I think… a long time ago.”

Nicholas stared at him in appalled disbelief. “What the hell is it with you people and this town?”

The snow had done its job of cooling him down, and now he was starting to shiver. There was almost nothing left of the police station by now, and judging from the amount of heat being given off, melting and icing over the snow around them, the fire probably wouldn’t stop until morning.

I’m just surprised you got out at all. He said he locked you in.”

Nicholas opened his chattering mouth to say that he had thought a part of the building had wedged the door shut, or maybe he’d been about to explain that he kicked the crap out of the hinges, but it died in his throat at the sight of a poorly-lit figure shuffle-running through the smoke and snow towards them.

Nicholas!”

Danny slalomed to his knees in the snow alongside him. He was gasping, grimy with soot and sweat, and, like Nicholas, didn’t appear to have found the time to take his stab vest yet. He was horrified by the state his friend was in. “Oh my God, I thought you’d had it! They wouldn’t let me back in! ‘R’you all right?”

Behind him, Constables Turner and Paver, both looking even more like they hadn’t quite devoted the necessary time and attention to dressing then they usually did, came hurrying up, gaping, apparently just as startled by Nicholas’s very not-dead appearance. Toby, with more presence of mind than he had ever displayed to date, started forwards and grabbed Frank by the shoulder as he started to get to his feet.

Heigh-ho,” remarked Frank drily to Nicholas, as he was pulled upright.

Fine, Danny,” said Nicholas, feeling dizzy and slightly euphoric from the sudden energetic company. He was missing most of his hair, including whatever stubbled bits had grown over the last three day, and it felt like his rib had finally exploded, but no, it didn’t feel like he was going to end up with any horrible burn-scars. “I threw a box of your, your pulp dread-pennies out the window. Maybe it survived.”

Thanks,” said Danny, making a pretty decent attempt at a grin. Tom Paver nudged his shoulder and passed down a heavy cloak, which he handed across. “Here, you’ll freeze. Don’t move, Charlie’ll be here any minute.”

Freezing feels kinda nice,” protested Angel, managing to sit up. “By comparison. We had to climb out of that thing,” and he pointed to the light-well, still spitting flames and smoke like a chimney. “Can I get a shower, yet?”

Bloody hell,” said Danny, eyeing the inferno with some horror. “I dunno, everyone’s round the front trying to put it out. I been trying to catch Becky– and nobody’s even seen Dad–”

At that exact moment, Chief Inspector Buttleman rounded the corner of the blazing building. He had what looked like half the village behind him, many in their shirtsleeves, many more still holding buckets and clumps of wet straw, and he looked coldly furious. He pointed dead at Angel.

There he is,” he said in a loud, carrying, declarative voice. It was the sort of tone that wrote history books. It definitely wasn’t one that allowed for any argument. “He burned the station and conspired with that degenerate criminal to kill three innocent men. Seize him!”

Again. What is it with me and corrupt superiors who hate my guts? thought Angel, making it to his feet by tugging his way up Danny’s vest.

There were times you had to say politically-incorrect, godawful tired cop-movie cliches, and this just happened to be one of them.

Equally loudly, defiant; “Sir, you are so full of shit.”

Dad?” Danny hadn’t moved, not even in response to being used as a human ladder. He looked completely bewildered. “That’s not true.” As the crowd started to move towards them, he took an uncertain step forwards, raised his voice. “That’s not true! He couldn’t’ve, Dad, that’s– that’s stupid! He nearly died!

Shut up, Danny,” said the Chief Constable, calmly. “Constable Paver?”

Tom Paver, pinioned by his Chief’s expectant glare, hesitated, then made a grab for Angel’s arms.

Angel ducked, and pulled a nearly textbook nage-waza Tai Otoshi, pinning the stunned man to the snow. ‘Nearly’, because there was a bruise the size of Lurch’s fist on his side that was pulsing in pain.

We’re both innocent! At the time of Messenger’s death, at four pee-em Sunday, Constable Buttleman and I, on the Old Bristol Road, were arresting the former murder suspect! How thick can you be to not see that doesn’t add up? None of us were there!

It’s true.” Frank stumbled over to join him. Constable Turner attempted to stop him, but Frank’s boot grinding into the side of his ankle quickly convinced him that his priorities lay elsewhere, namely in the fields of hopping and screaming. “This… this sorry excuse for a police officer framed me, and now he’s trying to frame this young man to cover his tracks!”

A few of the men at the front of the approaching mob glanced at each other, but perhaps decking Paver quite so spectacularly hadn’t been the best possible idea that Angel could have had.

He’ll kill him!” shouted Frank Buttleman, remaining a fixed point in the stream of people as the crowd surged forwards. “In God’s name, stop him!”

What?” said Nicholas, startled, and letting go of Paver at once. He’d only really been holding the man down. Even the throw, which had deposited Paver in the snow, had hurt him less than it had Nicholas.

And now you can’t run, said the Inspector. You are so fucked.

Let go! Get off! I’m fucking innocent– let go of my leg!”

The first man to reach them tried to go for Nicholas and received a fairly good punch in the side of the head from Frank, whose own unarmed combat skills had been pretty rusty long before Nicholas had come to Sandford. Nicholas’s instructor at Hendon would probably have given it a 7. The man whose skull it was gave it a sort of staggering sideways flail, and fell over.

Not that this was of very much use. A couple of seconds later, several other men grabbed Frank at once, and at least half a dozen more were on Nicholas in the next moment. Danny was shoved clear out of the way by the mob, which closed around the two of them like a hungry mouth and started to drag them bodily towards the Chief Constable. The most frightening thing was how quiet everyone was. There’s a kind of collective anger that’s worse than screaming, and the other Frank had reached out and infected these people with it, spreading it through them like a plague.

Frank Buttleman hadn’t moved. He stood on his own in the firelight and the melting snow, and as the mob came to a halt before him, forcing Nicholas and Frank to the front, held by at least a dozen pairs of determined hands, he looked right into Nicholas’s eyes. His face remained stern and reproachful, but there was something in the eyes behind those old-fashioned spectacles that was a lot brighter than firelight, and a hell of a lot more dangerous, and it was grinning.

Bring them to the square,” he said, and the crowd started to move.

This is it. This is where I’m going to die, thought Nicholas. All because some two-faced maniac doesn’t like to exercise proper crowd control. He’d stopped struggling by now, because everything was pain, and he’d already exhausted most of his energy, and even in the prime of health he could only successfully take down about three larger men at once. It was fear and calm all at once. I wonder if they still draw and quarter living people?

Frank,” said Angel, and it wasn’t a conversational opening, or even particularly angry. It was a confirmation, a I’m not going to die alone, am I?

Stiff upper lip, Nicholas,” returned Frank, as they were manhandled onwards, and the heat and sounds of the burning building started to fade away behind them. His own thoughts were along much the same lines, with additional accommodation for the sheer poetic irony of it all. He’d spent thirteen years treating the law in Sandford like his own personal Slinky toy, and now, this one time when he was innocent, he was going to die by the harshest penalty it could extend.

Maybe that’s your reason, why we’re both here. You deserve something a little more final.

Angel was going to die too, though. Angel, who had just saved his life, and where was the justice in that?

His lip had cracked again in the struggle, beginning to bleed, and with both hands restrained he sucked at it instead, drawing a mouthful of blood. He didn’t particularly want to die looking as if he’d pulled one of his son’s messy party tricks.

Oh, sod off,” said Nicholas, and then an “argh, shit,” as something painful about his person was jostled.

Stiff upper lip? Stiff upper lip, is that supposed to be funny? You sounded a little less than supportive back there, when the topic of Danny came up. You looked like you did back then, when Danny chose sides, and it wasn’t you. You looked like your son had tried to stab you.

Stiff upper lip? Well fuck you too. 

*

Danny was left shoved off over to the side, standing in a small pile of things left shurikened into the snow just outside the collapsing, flaming building. A pen jabbed here, a book stuck there.

He felt as if most of his brain had switched itself off in shock. Neither the mob, nor his father, would listen to him. Trying again would be an exercise in pointlessness– if Angel couldn’t even carry the crowd, Danny stood no chance.

We don’t arrest innocent people.

He stared down at his feet, and suddenly spotted his dad’s ledger. It was surrounded by shattered glass, its black leather cover sticking up like a shark fin. The pages had soaked up moisture from the snow and turned into a yellowy clump, but they parted when he turned them. His dad’s writing, sorting out fact from fiction over hundreds of little cases over the days and months and years, so exact and infallible. How had he managed to get it so wrong this time? It was almost as if he’d wanted to accuse Angel. And that was stupid. Dad had been desperate for Angel’s new ideas.

You can want ideas but not like who they’re coming from. Angel must have thought that, when the… other Frank started him thinking about the times. Danny turned the pages faster, looking for the Messenger entry. Maybe if Dad had made a mistake, seeing it in his own handwriting would give him pause.

Blood on Becky’s saddle. Which could have come from anywhere, but…

He’d gone far too far back. These pages were dated from years ago, winter, 1818. The pages were damp, sticking together with much more tenacity. These two almost seemed pasted together.

On the Fourth of the month of December, Year of Our Lord 1818. A satisfying conclusion to the Business…

1818. The year had a sour taste to it in Danny’s head, like something left for too long in a dark place. It took him a moment to realise why.

Suddenly the urgency and the danger, the heat on his face and the cold seeping through his boots, all seemed very far away. Standing like a statue in the light of the burning station, Danny read on.

Laid out in his dad's careful, precise prose, perfected over nearly half a century of report-speak, it was a story about a young man with pretty much everything going for him. He had a wife, and a young son, and the best job in the universe. Although on the face of it his job was only the Chief Constable of a little village, it was in reality much more than that. It was his job, his Mission, to lead the little village by example. It was his job to do all that could be done to lead the little village into a bright future. It was also his job to make sure that nobody got in the way of this bright future, because if they did, then they did not deserve a share in it.

And the young man did his job very well, very well indeed. Even though the resources he had to work with were slim, he worked wonders. Even though he was held back at times by the actions of lesser men, men who were stupid enough to want no part in his glorious Mission, in that bright, shiny future. Even when his own wife, who- much unlike this splendid, fearless young man- was a frail, sickly woman with a weak mind, fell victim to the poison of all those stupid, godless, progress-fearing doubters, and turned against him. Even then, the young man did not hold back from doing his duty. She had been sick in the head, tragically so, had spoken of leaving him, of taking their son and leaving the little village, of ruining his standing in the community with scandal and vicious rumour. And all because of such a little thing, something she had happened to see him doing, a little clear-up job that had been none of her business in the first place. She had snooped and spied and betrayed the vows of loyalty she had taken when she had become his wife, vows taken in the sight of God Almighty, and he had had no choice but to do his duty and make sure she couldn't jeopardize his mission any longer.

And the brave young man had carried out his duty as well as he could, and as he always did he'd made sure that no suspicion could ever fall on him and endanger everything he'd worked for. Only one other man had known that his sickly, foolhardy wife's death had not been from natural causes- the bumbling drunkard of a village doctor- and it had not taken much to make the fool believe that he had himself been to blame. One imagined slip of medication, one fabricated deadly mistake, and the young man's own grief-stricken yet steadfast promise not to tell- as long as- and the idiot of a village doctor was his for life.

And so the noble young man had left this chapter in his own story behind, and continued to work towards his little village's grand future. As the years passed, as a quick flick through the rest of the book served to demonstrate, he really had been very busy.

Very busy indeed.


*

Danny!”

When Horace Cleaver came around the corner of the burning building a few minutes later, he was going at a very unsafe pace, and he almost slipped over on the melting snow. Spotting Danny, he stopped, staring at the blazing wreckage and the trampled furrows left in the mob’s wake. He looked like a man who has had to both wake up and sober up extremely quickly, and he was clutching an old pistol in one hand with the air of someone who hasn’t got a clue on what they intend on doing with it. Charlie Halper, a short, thin, dark-haired young man who looked every bit as confused and worried as he did, was hot on his heels, carrying his bag. “Danny, what in Heaven’s name happened here? Where is everyone?”

He killed my mum,” Danny said, turning around with a couple of slow, stumbling steps.

Cleaver stopped in his tracks. “What?”

He killed her,” Danny told him, again. His face was wet. He seemed to be in the grip of some kind of waking dream, or nightmare, seeing and not seeing the doctor at one and the same time. His eyes were wide, and wondering, and horribly blank. “He’s going to kill Nicholas.” He took another heavy step towards the doctor, walking like a golem, or an automaton, that would go on very slowly until it hit something and fell over. “We got to stop him."

*

Sandford Square was usually a nice sort of place. For over two hundred years, it was where farmers and merchants gathered every week for a Farmer’s Market (and, in the far-distant future, where tourists and judges could poke about). Fresh veg and grain, flowers and carpentry, dairy and eggs, all were exchanged and bartered for whatever anyone needed and could afford, and the rest sold and sent into the nearest cities for extra money.

But now it had gone ugly– two bodies were being dragged towards something that certainly no modern Sandford tourist had ever seen; right past the mouldering old public stocks, and right up towards what was normally a harmless part of the landscape– two posts with a crosspiece between them. It was only in moments of anger that it sliced against the sky as people held up bits of burning police station against the dark. A rope dangled from the blocky, primitive arch. There was a stool beneath.

Well, fuck, thought Angel.

Someone grabbed his arms and forced them behind his back, tying them roughly together with a short piece of cord. A pathway was clearing in the crowd between him and the gallows, widening organically as people moved out of the way, muttering, their faces fixed and solemn in the torchlight.

"People of Sandford." Frank Buttleman was using his outdoor voice again. He was standing with his back to the men who were holding Nicholas and Frank, facing front row of the mob. "What these men have done places them beyond redemption in the eyes of the Law, and the eyes of our Lord. Sometimes our duty may seem distasteful, but it is our duty nonetheless. We must do what is right, we must not let our justice be tempered by those outside voices who would confuse weakness with mercy."

The crowd murmured as he took a deep breath. "It is only by setting an example such as this, against such great evil, that we can move forwards into a brighter future."

He nodded to the men standing by the gallows. "For the good of our community."

Danny, thought Nicholas, biting his lip and his fists and wrists bunching against the rope, staring straight out across the masses, still in his burn-striped stab vest and fried pants.

If he had to die, right here and now, better to die thinking of the best part of his life, than to focus on the mud and people and misery of now. After all. it was extremely unlikely there'd be an 'after'; tempting, but no. And so he let loose the memories that would have driven him crazy if the Inspector hadn't locked them away, so that he'd be a useful sodding copper in a time where people didn't want them.

Danny, getting him to laugh for the first time in weeks, maybe months, over a ketchup sachet.

Danny, going through arduous physical therapy to recover from having chunks of himself blown out by a blunderbuss, with Nicholas there every day after his shift to help him about.

Danny, grinning, announced fully-recovered, just about to get into the car on the way home, standing in the car park, in fact, and the relief was so palpable in Nicholas that Danny was finally okay that he'd leaned over and kissed the man on the lips, without thinking. And then they'd both… blushed, and it had been an incredibly awkward drive back to Danny's house, where Doris and the Andes were lying in wait with a cake in the shape of a sea mine– but… Danny had looked thoughtful. And two nights later, in front of The Bourne Identity, Danny had kissed him back.

Danny, the one person Nicholas had ever encountered where spending every sleeping and waking moment together was comfortable, normal, desirable– and that the normal rules of friendship, where you'd start getting on each other's tits in less than three days, were entirely suspended, and even when Nick, or, rarely, Danny, had run out of things to say, the silence was… nice. Undemanding. Simple, or, rather, uncomplicated. Unlike anything Janine had been like. And they could certainly fill that silence with other things.

Partners.

There was a loop of rope around his neck. It cinched, tightened.

DannyDannyDannyDanny.

The world went black.

continue...

 

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
bakaknight
Jun. 13th, 2009 07:16 pm (UTC)
I- you-

It's like Life on Mars, except I don't find myself wishing he'd stay...
Made of win.
This had so better not be the last bit.
waffleguppies
Jun. 13th, 2009 07:21 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean about Life on Mars. I was really annoyed because

SPOILER




I didn't agree with him deciding to take a long run off a short roof at the end, I felt firmly he should have stayed in reality. But that end bit with the chargin' off in the car was so awesome that I decided it was the right choice, in the very end.
bakaknight
Jun. 13th, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC)
I know what'll happen to him. But when I say 'stay', I mean 'not even leave in the first case, Sam you utter plonker'.
Although, having Sam stay in 2006? Only if he had somebody to be a Gene. And I don't mean the beatings/bigotry/stuff, I mean the bleedin' friendship.
(I also do not like Annie, not one little bit, and I think she's a representation of Lying Death.)
waffleguppies
Jun. 13th, 2009 08:03 pm (UTC)
Lying Death?! That sounds terribly ominous.
bakaknight
Jun. 13th, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC)
-shrug- You know, like the old thought puzzle. You come to two doorways/a fork in the road, and the two aspects of death are standing before you. They will not let you pass.
One one side of the path/door is eternal damnation, and on the other side is salvation (other versions have death or life, but they are boring. Also, the concept that death lies and that life tells the truth is really rather wrong once you think about it). You must choose which path, and once you start down it you don't get to return.
You may ask the two deaths one question. But! One of them lies, while the other tells the truth.
I see Annie as the lying death of this puzzle. Oddly, however, the Test Card Girl occupies the space where I'd put the truth-death.
waffleguppies
Jun. 13th, 2009 08:58 pm (UTC)
Ohhh. That happened in Labyrinth. And I've never understood Sarah's logic, or what she got wrong.
marshwiggledyke
Jun. 13th, 2009 10:13 pm (UTC)
I understand what her logic was supposed to be. It just wasn't well-worded.

:B
bakaknight
Jun. 14th, 2009 12:07 am (UTC)
Exactly like in Labyrinth. Except, of course, in Sarah's case it wouldn't have mattered. No matter which door she might have chosen, she would have been safe.
random_nexus
Jun. 14th, 2009 07:44 pm (UTC)
EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEe!!!!! OMFG!!!
*flailing wildly*

I think I would have some stern words if I didn't know there was more already posted. ;p

Incredibly awesome, really.
waffleguppies
Jun. 14th, 2009 07:47 pm (UTC)
Yeeaah... we fail at cliffhangers. You cannot really Tune In Next Week! when resolution is only one clicky away.

But thank you! :D :D :D
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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