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Sympathy for the Devil- Chapter Five 1/3

 

 

 

Chapter Five: Friday

The twenty-fifth of November, 1834

 


I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I thought it was time for a change
I killed the Czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank
Held a general's rank
When the Blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank



The first report rocketed over Sandford at 6am, and blew a hole in the center of High Street, where half a century later someone would decide to cover the scar with a great ruddy fountain. It drove every dog, cat, cow, horse, and newborn baby into a barking, baying, screaming mess, and woke everyone else who wasn't already up and ready for the day.

It was designed to be a warning.

Nicholas didn't like having to shoot people who would much prefer not to fight him. Even in the leg.

Danny staggered back a few steps, his free arm windmilling. Smoke poured from the muzzle of his gun as remaining fragments of gunpowder sizzled and popped around its fluted mouth. He stared at the damage with an astonishment which was half delighted, half plain scared. "Blimey O'Reilly! Cor, these things don't 'alf pack a punch!"

"Yes," said Nicholas, shrugging his vest into a more comfortable position so it wouldn't interfere with the access to his sabre, and the other half-dozen weapons clamped to his legs. The material still smelled burnt.

Some sunglasses would be rather excellent right now…

"We're not going to use that on anyone, understand? I doubt Dr. Hatcher could find enough of them to put back together. It's a weapon to be used for intimidation purposes only."

"Yes, I reckon this pigeon's sufficiently intimidated," said Frank, poking a charred clump of feathers with his foot. He unshouldered his own weapon of choice, an enormous smoothbore rifle which, much to his annoyance, still had a cluster of deer teeth knotted inextricably around the barrel. At least, he hoped they were deer.

He also had several smaller pistols in holsters, and the crossbow. It wasn't anywhere near as powerful or useful as the guns, but he'd kept it anyway. Angel hadn't said anything about it; presumably, he could recognise an albatross when he saw one, too.

"Make sure you remember the order, now," he said to Danny, who had broken the still-smoking elephant gun open and was fumbling in his ammo pouch. "Like I showed you. Fill the priming pan, then the rest goes in the barrel with the ball."

"Here they come," said Nicholas, taking the safety off his own musket. Using and disposing the largest guns first would lighten him up as he went along with a minimum of reloading, and providing he didn't idiotically throw down extra powder and ammunition next to the gun, nobody else would be able to use it either. "Formation like we discussed, annnd… now."

*

Armstrong was having a spectacularly horrible morning, and it had barely started. He'd woken up with a hangover and his new boss storming into the barracks of the new police headquarters (normally the housing for the Reverend and his family at the back left of St. Vincents, which had always been a rather optimistic set-up anyway, when you compared the size of the housing to the size of Sandford) screaming at everyone to get their kit on and get down to the Crown, because something had apparently exploded.

Armstrong had groaned along with the rest, pulled on his boots, grabbed his gun and a few handfuls of gunpowder packets and cartridges– and run headfirst into the low-hanging doorframe in his confusion and disorientation.

Being six-foot-six in a world built for people who were five-foot-nine wasn't easy at times.

The local policemen– the ones who'd stayed, anyway, instead of sodding off like the Chief's son– were looking quite a bit nervous. He cheered up a lot at that, laughing under his breath, joking about it with the three mates sent out with him to scout the area for hostiles. Right up until the street underneath their feet made an extremely loud sort of WHAM and bits of cobblestone pelted him everywhere. The ground made a funny movement and shook him off of it, and he hit his back against something, ears ringing.

The other guards, who hadn't been nearly a meter ahead with bravado like Armstrong had, and had managed to keep their footing, yelped in alarm and dodged to the sides of the street. The major problem with this, however, was that with one man down and dazed, they couldn't quite seem to decide which side of the street they wanted to be on, and they definitely didn't want to be left with one person on one side, when they had no idea where their attackers were, and so began an almost comical Chicken-With-Head-Cut-Off crossing and recrossing the street routine.

"It's a pity 'Yackety Sax' hasn't been written yet," Frank observed, reloading for the second time, squinting through his glasses, and blasting a very large piece of solid masonry off the corner of the stone building which– in about a hundred and twenty years' time– would become Barclays Bank. The recoil knocked him back a step, and the plummeting lump of stone knocked one of the guards senseless.

"Yes, why don't you sing it for Danny," snipped back Nicholas, putting a neat bullet in the shoulder of the third guard, who had just realized that the shooting was coming from just inside the wide doorway of the apothecary and fired off a shot in their direction, taking a chunk out of the hanging sign. Nicholas was crouched under Frank's taller reach, and Danny, behind them, was frantically reloading the elephant gun.

"Tone deaf," said Frank, cheerfully, breaking his rifle open in a dense wreath of smoke. Another bullet zipped past and shattered the apothecary's window, smashing the giant glass retorts in the display and drenching an enterprising man who had been trying to sneak up on them in several gallons of ancient coloured water. Alerted by the surprised gurgling noise behind him, Danny drew a shorter musket, ducked, and fired, hitting the would-be stealther square in the kneecap. He went down with a damp scream.

"Someone's got a bead on us," warned Frank, rifle to shoulder, scanning the square.

"Twenty seconds, you said?" asked Angel thoughtfully, stuffing the empty pistol back into its holster and getting out its twin. Lord, how he missed his Baretta. "Cover me," he said, and dodged out into open territory, darting left, right, left, moving unpredictably, moving towards the opposite side of the street towards the Crown.. Hello, Urban Pacification 101! Have an impulsive idiot who doesn't have a helmet and prays the biggest target isn't his big fat head!

"'Ey, this wasn't in the plan!" Danny yelled after him, then twisted as he spotted that one of the men who had been stunned in the first wave was beginning to stir, crawling towards his rifle. A bullet buried in the dirt near his hand was enough to convince the man that it was a better idea to stay still and try to protect what was left of his hearing.

Tactical plans need to stay flexible, thought the Inspector, because the other parts of Nicholas's mind were a little busy trying not to get shot along with the rest of him. Especially if there aren't many on your team.

"Jesus Christ–" Something had just ricocheted off the cobbles and bitten into his outer left shin- and the next moment he had stumbled through, pressing himself against the Crown's outer wall that smelt of last night's urine and Old Peculiar.

He checked to make sure he at least had a leg– nerve endings could lie about something serious– but no. There wasn't even much blood. Shrapnel, there's a small chunk of shrapnel in your leg. Better not harm any ligaments or muscle before it's out. And he could probably still walk on it. It'd hurt like the tiny embedded chunks of sea mine and atomized police station, but he'd survive. They weren't even half done.

He opened his lungs.

"He's four buildings down to your left on my side, behind the water trough. You're an open target."

Frank saw Angel stumble, the countdown already ticking along in his head. Five seconds. He stepped out of the apothecary's doorway and saw the muzzle of the man's musket waving above the trough, jerking through the process of reloading. Realising he'd been rumbled, the guard stood up behind the trough, intent on Angel, now, focusing on the closer threat as he fumbled with ramrod and ball. Ten seconds. Fifteen. This one was a quick study; he was already bringing his musket up to his shoulder. Twenty. A good ten yards out of cover now, Frank dropped to one knee, sighted, fired.

The two gunshots mingled together so closely that it was impossible to tell which came first, a hundred echoes swarming against the enclosed walls of the square. The guard pulled the trigger and sparked the powder a fraction of a second before Frank's bullet arrived and smashed clean through the barrel of his gun, reducing the forward two-thirds to a cloud of flame and splinters and leaving the man screaming and desperately trying to beat out dozens of small fires in his clothes and beard. Before he had even gathered enough presence of mind to hurl himself into the horse trough, Frank had signaled to Danny to follow and was up and striding across the square, tossing the empty rifle aside. Danny chucked his empty musket into the remains of the apothecary's window, drew a brace of pistols and passed one across to Frank as the two of them reached the front of the Crown.

"You all right?" said Danny, anxiously, leaning against the wall next to Nicholas to reload. He dusted black powder off his hands– bandaged over the palms like both the other's hands were, too, to protect them from the dry, splintery finish of weapons which probably hadn't been properly polished since he'd been born– and glanced at his friend's leg, where the cloth was spotted with blood.

"S'just shrapnel, Danny," said Nicholas, not even looking down or at Danny's face to know what he was looking at. "Cleaver'll get it out later, and if I can't run after that, I'll sock him in the jaw. Is that everyone?"

"Two stunned. Two disabled. One… stunned, possibly still on fire." Frank had a stitch, and was trying not to let it show. "That's three un… unaccounted for."

"Don't think he'd leave himself entirely undefended, do you?" said Angel, listening for a moment for any boots crunching into gravel, or even the sound of someone trying to be quiet. "He'd keep at least two for himself, as bodyguards."

"I reckon they're at the church," said Danny. "There's nothing much else down that way." It was starting to get lighter, now, the piles of swept snow in the gutters and doorways losing their eerie bluish look as the sun rose over towards what would one day be the Memorial Gardens, and overhead the sky was clear. It was going to be a brilliant, sunny day.

There was a bizarre sort of silence, of people in their now-a-little-more-battered homes and businesses, cowering under the tables and beds and praying that whatever was out there, be it the Army or Jesus's second coming or Napoleon's third, that it would all go away very soon and hopefully not kill anyone except the annoying neighbour downstairs. Out by the pond, ducks quotted and swam and gave a wide berth to the swan, who was in a rotten mood this morning.

Around the bit where High Street intersected with Abbey Road, where less than a week before– relatively– Nicholas Angel had been engaged in a chase on foot with an arson suspect, came the hesitant clopping of horse hooves, and the squeak of a wooden cart. Mr Palmer held the reins, looking as though he were trying to focus on avoiding the new potholes in the road and looking calm, instead of giving proper examination to the new craters in the walls of the buildings and the occasional crumpled body and therefore losing his shit.

He was already on a pretty tight string. A man of fragile health and timid nerve not aided by the lifetime he'd spent in the company of corpses, he'd been summoned unwillingly to his own front door at some insane time that morning by a thunderous pounding which had threatened to dislodge the entire dry-rot-stricken structure of the elderly brick porch. He'd opened up, nervously, only to be almost trodden on by Chief Constable Frank Buttleman, in the latter's striding rush to get into the small, shaded part of the house which doubled as Sandford's only mortuary and funeral parlour. To Palmer's dismay, the Chief had pushed straight into the room, which- thanks to the surprising number of local people who had inconveniently wound up dead in the space of one week- was a little crowded at the moment, and stripped the sheet from the nearest body with an angry flourish.

At this point, Mr. Palmer had started to think that this really wasn't going to be his day at all, because instead of the body of that nice young Constable just down from London, the already well-embalmed corpse on the table was that of one Gerald Staples, a septuagenarian who'd died the previous week from eating some dodgy fish, and whose immediate family were still locked in a dispute with the Reverend about burial rights.

The Chief Constable had growled- actually growled- and yanked the sheet from the body next door, which should have belonged to the other victim of last night's impromptu bring-your-own-noose party, only to find a stuffed cloth dummy which Mr. Palmer usually used to show the apprentices the correct procedure for preparing a corpse for display.

The Chief had pulled the sheet back over the dummy's face with a curious amount of care, and turned around quite slowly, but by that time, Mr. Palmer had been outside and quietly hitching up the horse. You couldn't live sixty-seven years in a place like Sandford without getting a good sense for when there was going to be one hell of a storm, and the old undertaker had realised from just one good look at Frank Buttleman's face that the best place to ride this one out was going to be quite a long way away. The other side of Gloucester, at least.

It was just a shame that he hadn't quite made it that far.

The three members of what was arguably the closest Sandford was going to get to a liberating army for about another hundred and thirty years stayed pressed against the front of the Crown, watching the cart's slow progress with incredulous eyes.

"Oh, good Lord," groaned Frank. "I thought this rumour was supposed to have everyone firmly indoors breathing through a hanky."

"Well, he's the undertaker, in't he," Danny pointed out. "His clients don't 'zactly do much gossiping."

Nicholas stayed quiet, watching Mr. Palmer delicately maneuvering through town. Something, soon, was going to go very wrong. His senses were screaming at him, fizzing under his skin, the Inspector was jammed-up right behind his eyes– it was, in fact, the air-gulping, stomach-tensing feeling he'd used to get right before Operation Fill-In-The-Blankdowns; no, something stronger than a feeling, a certainty.

He was absolutely and completely right.

The moment the cart passed between Armstrong and the three in the door of the Crown, the man on the ground got to his crouching feet and back, running along the side the cart to block any possible fire, and threw himself up onto the plank that passed for a front seat and jabbed the point of a Bowie-imitation Sheffield knife to the unfortunate undertaker's ear, who had barely had time to realize that the guard wasn't actually a dead body.

"Go. Now."

Mr. Palmer, who really hadn't anticipated anything like this when he'd made the decision to get out of bed that morning, almost jumped out of his skin, yanking reflexively on the reins. The horse, ears already flattened back by the unfamiliar mingled reek of gunpowder and blood and adrenaline in the air, reared up and skittered backwards on two hooves, eyes rolling, making the cart rock dangerously. In the midst of this lurching action Danny spotted an opening– Armstrong's knife arm thrown back, flailing momentarily away from the undertaker's neck as he grasped for balance– and leaped for the cart, pulling himself up onto the backboard.

At that moment, Armstrong's patrol-duty buddy, the one who had been knocked out by a large chunk of proto-Barclays Bank stonemasonry before he'd even managed to get a shot off, hauled himself dizzily onto his elbows and fired wildly at the wobbly groups of– alternately– three, six, and nine people he could see in front of the Crown.

All Frank felt was a sort of thump in his side, as if someone had just one-inch-punched him very hard with a small, hot fist. It was more of a shock than anything else. Shards of brickwork pinged past his face, and he ducked down and yelled at the other two, already aiming for the second guard.

“Leave this with me! Go on!”

Nicholas was at the undertaking cart before Frank finished his sentence– his ankle sparking in agony– and… sort of pathetically hauled himself onto it, like a beached whale. It was embarrassing, not being able to vault effortlessly over things the way he'd trained himself to over the gymnasium's horse in Hendon. But he couldn't stop to feel embarrassed– he wriggled further onto the back, the bare worn planks creaking in warning as he got to his feet, and made a grab for the knife.

Danny didn't dare get in his way– to complicate matters any further by adding another flailing body to the mess would have been asking for someone to get stabbed, and right now the odds were three to one that it would be someone that he would much prefer to remain un-stabbed. Instead, hoping to simplify things a bit, he stayed low and chucked himself at Mr. Palmer, giving the old man a shove which sent him rolling off the front of the cart. As a maneuver, it didn't exactly encompass much finesse, and as Mr. Palmer went flying he found himself swallowing the absurd urge to apologize.

Angel caught a punch to the side of his head, and the downward stroke of the knife catching in the wool of his stab vest. Half of the world suddenly went purple and yellow, and he blinked, desperately, and fortunately had the presence of mind to take the arm holding the knife and twist it in a hold until Armstrong yelled in pain.

The tired-looking horse decided that now would be the best time to get the hell away from the cart, which was squeaking and rocking back and generally slowly separating from the shaft, and dragged away the draft traces as it ran. And that was all it took.

The damaged cart rocked against a stone and some leftover snow as the horse fucked off behind the pub, and started to roll. At the hilly peak which was probably the highest point in Sandford. Furthermore- most pertinently- in a time before the invention of brakes.

Danny grabbed the side of the cart and said two adjectives and a noun, all of which would pass into oblivion in the next hundred years or so without ever even making it as far as a written page; mainly because no literate person would ever be crude enough to dare to record them for posterity. They were mostly incomprehensible anyway, because the cart was picking up speed now and lumps and potholes in the downhill track caught the wheels, throwing the three struggling passengers up and down like a collection of scarecrows. A line of fenceposts, blurred to a froth, whipped past as it careered onwards.

Armstrong tried to elbow backwards and catch Angel in the crotch, but his aim was rather spoilt by Danny picking this moment to kick him very hard in the kneecap. After that, the hill took a steeper turn, and staying upright on the runaway cart became too much of a task even for someone with Armstrong's treetrunk build.

Angel was not nearly so indistinct– he was injured, and there was a man going after his balls who had a knife– even with the two of them knocked-over, and now the cart was fast approaching the really unsafe speed of 40 miles-an-hour in a 20- zone.

"Oh, fuck it all in the arse!"

He grabbed Armstrong's knife hand, holding it against his stab vest, and wrapped both knees around the base of his arm, pinning down the larger man's neck with both legs. One Jujigatame, the strongest armlock in Judo, freshly served.

Danny risked a look over the vibrating, bucking shelter of the riding board. In front was easier to focus on than to the side, moving relatively slowly towards them. That was relatively, however. Danny had never gone so fast in his life, and was reasonably sure than nobody ever had, apart from the luckless portion of humanity who meet their Maker by way of falling off cliffs and tall buildings and things. Somewhere in his brain something was wondering interestedly if they were going faster or not as fast as you'd go if, say, you jumped off the top of Sandford Gorge, but it was argued down as maybe not having its priorities very straight.

“Oh, bugger it– Nicholas!”

"What??" screamed Nicholas. He'd just succeeded in flinging the imitation Bowie knife over the side.

Danny couldn't tear his eyes off the end of the track, a short flat piece of grassy ground at the bottom of the hill. If the cart could just be allowed to roll off its excess momentum on the flat and the sprawling flood meadow behind it, it was just about conceivable that it could have come to an eventual stop.

Unfortunately, this wasn't an actual option, because the church was in the way.

Trying to steer the cart at this point would have been about as effective as trying to divert the path of a hurricane by sticking your foot out in front of it, which was a shame, because the church was definitely not about to move out of the way for them. In the rattling blur of Danny's mind, he thought it looked almost smug about it. Hello, it seemed to say. I'm a church. The name's Vincent's, Saint Vincent's. I'm made of several hundred tons of Sandford sandstone. I've got cloisters and a nave and a big old tower with lots of those pointy stone twiddly bits on top, whatever they're called. You really should know what they're called, you and me have been regulars nearly every Sunday of your life, haven't we? You got christened in me, Danny-boy.

I'm going to kill you.

And then there was no more time at all, and all Danny could do was duck down and shield his head and pray that Nicholas would do the same.

Nicholas had enough time to see the spires rising up over the wagon bed, before the wagon aimed, with deadly accuracy, for the set of double doors. This was probably due not so much to chance, as the track worn through three centuries of a village full of people trudging up to them at least once a week. All roads lead to heaven, indeed.

Assuming the crash position after extricating his legs from around Armstrong's thick neck, Angel managed, "Roll!–"

And then the funeral cart plowed into the thick oak.

continue...

 

 

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
random_nexus
Jun. 15th, 2009 06:19 pm (UTC)
OMFG! WOOOOT!!! Shite, look out for that church, dammit!
Replay all my squeakings of joy previous; it all still applies!
*zooms to next bit*
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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