by Stephen Armson
When a corrupt official puts the kibosh on attempts to save their neighbourhood from demolition, the members of a Community Land Trust cut through the red tape and make their final appeal... to a force more powerful and terrifying than even the most dedicated government bureaucrat.
For Joanne the Forager
For reasons particular to themselves it had—largely—been assumed by all concerned that Dalton was acting in good faith, including the man himself. Until, that was, he fired up his laptop the night before the final meeting. It was the hippie woman, he decided sometime between seeing the photos that evening and the affair’s messy conclusion the next day, who had forced his hand. The papers would offer a differing perspective, on those events and what came after—though for once they focussed mostly on the “good news” angle, namely the upturn of local fortunes—and the local constabulary would go on to leak a succession of “working theories,” while resolutely committing to none. The ancient place of Smeddon, meanwhile, held close its own views, whatever they may have been.
* * *
Hayley Bodine had arrived at St Francis, the small primary school located on the corner of Galloway and Liston, and thus roughly at the centre of the loose congregation of streets known locally as the Devlin Parade, with enthusiasm and not a little of what was—for her, especially these days—the rare and precious commodity of hope. That it had been in short supply was not surprising; that it was now making a rousing comeback had fairly staggered her, once she had cautiously poked and prodded the strange sensation to determine its true nature and veracity. It scared her, as well. Oh, just a little, yes, and it was dwarfed by the sense of spiralling optimism (terrible in its own way, however delicious) but it accompanied her everywhere nonetheless, attempting to consult, keen to advise. She had been a part of the project—the Devlin Parade Community Land Trust—almost from the beginning, when most of the terraces lining Devlin and Galloway and Liston and Roscoe were derelict and boarded up, like a mouthful of decayed and rotted molars and incisors that yearned to assimilate the few healthy teeth that were left. Extraction was the only solution offered by the same authorities who had allowed (or “managed,” if you preferred that term, and most of the twelve members of the DPCLT did) the situation’s development in the first place, with the hale to be removed right alongside the moribund. Through the years it went on, each package presented with a slightly different bow, all woefully unable to conceal the gaping hole where a second phase might reasonably be expected to appear, all unable to dispel that ugly little phrase. Demolition without renewal. And with each new proposal there had been discourse, a “seat at the table,” the lofty designation of Stakeholders, gestures that were now so obviously perfunctory and disingenuous that it shamed her to think she had ever taken them at face value.
So now she sat in a conference room in the St Francis administration wing, flanked by Hallahan and Evans and across from this Dalton fellow who was the latest face in a suit—and would, either way, be the last—and went through it all one final time: how she had joined them in taking their own action, unburdening their streets of the junk and detritus (left not by residents but those from outside, all too eager to subscribe to the area’s unofficial designated status as a scrapheap); how they had cheered up the depressed empties with murals and flower beds on their window sills and doorsteps; how they had begun the monthly street market with three stalls and a boom box, and Mr Dalton did I mention it is now the biggest such market in the city? Dalton nodded his head in all of the expected places, as he had done numerous times before. As they all had. But there seemed to be something different about this one, Hayley had thought. Perhaps even special. She’d thought that might mean he actually wanted to help, and in spite of herself she had kept right on thinking that up until the moment she finished what she had come to think of as her spiel. Dalton had let the newly incumbent silence hang in the air a moment before leaning deliberately back in his chair—and there it was. A tiny upwards twitch at the corner of his mouth, gone so quickly you couldn’t be sure it was there at all, except Hayley was sure. And she knew what it meant; after a while, you came to know all of the signs that the rug was about to be pulled, knew them like you knew the feel of your own hand flat against your forehead.
Hello, shithead, Hayley thought.
Dalton cleared his throat, the twitch a phantom now to all but the untrained eye, and leaned forward in his chair, his fingers coming together in a steeple. He nodded to Hayley. “Thank you, Ms Bodine. It really does sound like you’ve been through the mill and back on this one. You should be proud of your efforts.” He nodded at Hallahan and Evans either side of her. “You all should. The three of you, your entire team at the CLT, every single resident. So proud.”
Erik Evans shifted in his chair. It was a terrible chair, he thought. Uncomfortable, mass-produced garbage, pressure on his arse and lower back just about everywhere. How could anybody get anything done in such a chair? It was a torture chair, plain and simple, and he was looking to his right at Hayley and thinking she had seen what he had, knew what he now knew, her face told it all just like Dalton’s had a moment ago. On the other side of her, Tymus Hallahan leaned back in his own angry chair. His eyes slowly swivelled to meet his, conveying nothing. They never did.
Dalton’s expression suggested that he anticipated some sort of response. When none came he unsteepled his fingers, took off his glasses and began to wipe them deliberately with a felt cloth procured from the breast pocket of his jacket. Hayley watched him do this, doing her best to ignore the roar that was swelling inside her, determined not to break the silence first. Finally Dalton appeared satisfied with his efforts and put the glasses back on. Hayley noticed for the first time how thick the lenses were, so it appeared as if Dalton’s previously unremarkable face was transformed into that of an intemperate child, face pressed up against the goodies counter. Which it sort of was, it seemed, only instead of sweets, the goodies were streets, the ones represented by the DPCLT. Erik Evans, meanwhile, was thinking not of sweets—or even of streets, not at that precise moment—but of chairs and ticking clocks, one ticking clock in particular, the one directly in front of him, behind Dalton and next to the door. That ticking clock had been ticking for a good long time since Dalton had stopped speaking—somewhere between a minute and three hours, if he’d had to guess—and it was becoming horribly apparent that it would fall to him to break the silence. He had just drawn a breath to do so (with what, Erik Evans did not know) when Hallahan broke it for him.
“Mr Dalton,” he said in his soft Donegal accent, his first words since the meeting had begun. “What is the council’s decision? That is to say, what is your decision? I believe the time has come for expediency. And transparency.”
Dalton bristled good-naturedly. “Come now, Mr Hallahan. I’ve told you before, I’m merely a figurehead. I report to, and act under the direction of, the regulatory committee. It’s true that I have a place on that committee, but I assure you I hold no undue sway over the other eleven members. Just as I’m sure you’d not hold any over your comrades.” There was a slight pause before, and emphasis on, that last word. “But you’re right,” he continued, “it’s time to lay cards flat, and it is my unfortunate duty to inform you that the committee has decided there will be no further extension, and no monies will be made available to you from the council’s regeneration fund. The committee has requested that I emphasise to you once again that this meeting constitutes the final verbal communication of the final deliberation on this matter. To be clear and for avoidance of all doubt: phase three of the Liverpool Regeneration Scheme will go ahead, as planned. We’ve done all we can.”
Erik Evans felt like he had been punched, in the solar plexus perhaps. This, he thought, simply wasn’t fair. At the comparatively young age of thirty, he still contended that such self-explanatory, yet highly subjective truths held weight.
“Now listen, Martin,” he said, lowering his voice. “You assured us this was in hand. ‘In hand,’ those were your exact words.” He snuck a glance at Hayley and Hallahan before going on, almost in a whisper. “You promised me.”
Dalton looked shocked at this last. “Mr Evans—Erik—I’m afraid I have to retort, and if there’s an implication there, I resent it. You will remember that I assured all stakeholders of my neutrality when these proceedings were first initiated. That neutrality has been ratified on several occasions since, by parties higher up the food chain than we. Now, if you’re implying that you and I held some sort of… informal sidebar, in which I made assurances, I would suggest you think very carefully before you formalise those assertions. Personal integrity is a virtue I hold above all others, Mr Evans, and I will not hesitate in fighting to protect my reputation, no matter who the accuser, and by whatever means available. It would be very public, Mr Evans, and would almost certainly gain the attention of our alma mater—” he glanced at his wrist watch, “—and your current employer, I believe. Now, if you don’t mind—”
“Mr Hallahan asked about transparency,” Hayley said. “When will we see the committee documents?”
Dalton shrugged. “Legally, they are deliverable to all parties within four weeks.”
“Plenty of time to exert undue sway.”
“Ms Bodine, I can only refer you to my previous response to Mr Evans, and assure you it applies to all three of you. The entire CLT, in fact. And associated media, et al. Both social and traditional.” He found a loose thread on his lapel and fussed at it vaguely. “My family has a large legal team on retainer. I mention this only to provide context.” He looked back up at them and smiled, thousands of pounds worth of upscale dentistry weaponised, here in this room, in these streets, where they wanted only peace and a little compassion, and that was when she knew that they were going to do it after all.
* * *
“You went to school with him,” Hallahan said, pint emphatically drained. “Was he always such a cunt?”
They were sitting in the Edward Medley pub about half a mile south of the city centre. The meeting with Dalton had ended thirty minutes ago—the three of them had left the deserted school and walked here through the sparse autumn leaves in silence, their destination never discussed or in doubt. The Ed Med was the Parade’s only local that was not now a ghost pub, but there weren’t many regulars sitting at the bar, or in the next room at the tables arranged in a looping horseshoe around a rickety old pool table. Three in the afternoon on a weekday, most of the local residents were at work.
Erik finished his own pint (lager shandy for him; he wasn’t used to drinking in the middle of the week, much less the middle of the afternoon) and twiddled a beer mat, giving more consideration to the question than had perhaps been intended upon its asking. He thought about how he had met Dalton. They’d both been attending Liverpool University, Erik a local boy, Dalton decidedly not. Dalton had travelled up from the Home Counties—Windsor, Erik thought—and it was safe to say that studying up here had not been his first choice. He remembered how miserable Dalton had been those first few months in the halls together, how he’d barely said a word to anyone while projecting a brittle kind of hostility to everyone. Erik had befriended him, not out of any real sense of altruism, but because Erik Evans as a young man had sought to befriend pretty much everyone, and not a lot had changed either. A decade on and Erik was still the one who had to be dragged away from random conversations in the street or the pub. If, that was, there was anyone else there to drag him away. He’d disappeared inside of himself a little bit the last few years… heavy loss could do that to you, he supposed. He also supposed it probably wasn’t particularly healthy, but had been in no rush to try and tackle the problem. It was only once he’d joined the CLT that he had been able to get a bit of distance from it—“gain some perspective,” as they might say on TV—and from that perspective Erik had been able to determine that he was indeed one unhappy humanoid. Being part of something helped; being part of something… hopeful, that helped even more (his mind circled around the word “honourable” and shied away at the last minute, afraid to go in where it might hurt), but he was still very much “a work-in-progress,” another phrase one might hear opined on the old idiot box. After all, there was only so much perspective could do for you when the person you had loved was still in the ground. But it was good, what he was doing with the CLT. What they were doing. And the appointment of Dalton to the committee had, if he was honest with himself, given him much more hope than it should have, hope he had then passed on to Hayley, to all of them. Except perhaps Hallahan.
“I honestly don’t know,” he said finally. “I mean, when I first met him he was an uptight fucker all right. Kind of smug, but I always thought that he was using the whole ‘toff’ thing as protection. I know he was unhappy coming up here to study. Think the plan was very much Oxbridge.”
Hayley raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
Hallahan snatched away his glass and stood up straight, his large frame throwing the others into a sudden indoors eclipse. “Boo-fucking-hoo,” he said, and headed for the bar.
“Same again, Sunshine!” Hayley called after him. Hallahan raised a hand without turning around. She turned back to Erik. “He’s right, you know. If Posh Lad hated it so much, why did he stay here? Why is he working for the fucking council?”
“No idea,” Erik said. “It’s not like we hang out. I knew him a bit in halls. We didn’t, like, cohabitate or anything after that. I barely even saw him after that one year. But, you know, I guess I did kind of bring him out of his shell while we were in there. I thought maybe he’d remember that. Thought it might count for something. Everybody hated him. Then they didn’t, so much.” He shrugged. “Maybe he puts that down to buying all the drinks.”
Hayley rolled her eyes. “Uh, you reckon? In his mind, he’s thinking he bought his way into everyone’s good graces, just like he’s bought his way into and out of everything else in his fucking life. And you know what, my innocent wee pal? He’s probably right.”
Hallahan returned with a pint for each of them. “You know what I think,” he said, after a brief survey of their faces. It wasn’t a question. And Erik did—he knew very well what Hallahan’s thoughts were on the matter. The difficulty lay in comprehending them; sitting here in this well-lit, familiar place, in the middle of the day, comprehending them seemed very difficult indeed.
“Yes,” Erik said. “We know what you think, Tymus. And can I just say, the mercurous nitrate hasn’t seemed to diminish your ability to bang out a lovely bowler.”
Hayley squinted at him. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Hallahan didn’t squint. He said, “Oh, don’t mind him. The graduate here is just implying that I’m mad. In the most condescending way imaginable.” He smiled at Erik, though it strayed nowhere near his eyes. “You think you’re pretty clever, don’t you. Like your pal Dalton thinks he’s pretty clever.” He turned to Hayley. “Perhaps they’re being pretty clever together, eh? I told you we should’ve gone with him.”
“Hold on,” Erik said. “Just because I’m not necessarily in agreement with you about certain things, doesn’t mean I’m not on the same side.”
Hayley cocked her head. “You think he’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” he said, not loving the sullenness in his voice.
Hallahan leaned in. “Is there anything you do know?”
“I know this is what he wants, this is what they always want.”
They sat in silence.
“Well, I know what I want,” Hayley said finally. “I’ve known it since the meeting ended. I want to offer him up.”
Hallahan nodded. They both looked at Erik, and Erik looked back, thinking of bulldozers and student lounges and police cells and how Dalton had smiled at them with his expensive teeth.
“He was born with polydactyly,” he said in a flat voice. “I suppose you noticed the scar?”
“Indeed I did,” Hallahan said. “Middle finger, left hand. Quite rare, quite rare.”
“We’d need to uh, source some mistletoe.”
Hayley laughed. “I suspect that won’t be a problem,” she said. “Mr Hallahan, are we covered?”
“In clover,” he replied.
* * *
Although Erik had not bothered to contradict Hayley, it was not quite the case that Martin Dalton had remained in Liverpool; though employed by the city council, he had not held a residence in Jung’s pool of life since his days as a student. Upon graduation he had hightailed it back to Windsor just as fast as his father’s driver could get him there. That gentleman himself—a coldly vicious pater to be sure, unlovely and unloved—had treated his arrival back in the family’s bosom with customary indifference bordering on disdain, and it did not take Dalton long to realise that if there was a place for him, it was no longer there. So began a meandering journey through the country’s local governance scenes. He started in London, where he reasoned any failings of significance were more easily brushed aside than in, say, the shires, where Farmer Brown might also be Mayor Brown, and know each member of the local council by parentage. But the failings were there all the same, and not quite so invisible as he’d hoped. And so he would be nudged along before too long, somehow gaining a reputation as a slick operative not in spite of the various snafus left in his wake, but because of them. Trading on his name far more than his 2:2 in Political Science (and how marvellously had that irked the old man?), he failed upwards into one plum position after another, each role garlanded ever so slightly more than the last, shit not sticking and he not staying; always, it seemed to him now, charting an inexorable course north through the country, back to Merseyside. His current position with the council was his most estimable yet, its ensnaring his source of greatest pride, and the distance from his father had become a salve against the nightly buffeting from dreams that sometimes made him think he could never be at peace.
But he’d balked at actually living in the city itself, preferring the more suburban confines of Cheshire, thirty miles south. He’d purchased a charmingly modest four-bedroom detached (sans mortgage thanks to grandmummy Dalton, God love her confused old bones), and it was to there he had retired once that afternoon’s meeting with the Tree-Hugger Society had been played out. When the doorbell rang that evening he was sitting on his overstuffed couch with a glass of Remy Martin XO—in the same spot, as it happened, that he had made the decision to pull the plug on the good people of the DPCLT the night before. That had been a decision that had shimmered into shape really very quickly, once he had seen the pictures on their website. Until then he’d actually been minorly impressed with their pluck, in spite of his first instincts. As the appointed committee liaison he had reported everything back to the other eleven members pretty much verbatim, given them the straight scoop as it were, and if the committee were inclined to rule in the DPCLT’s favour—as had increasingly appeared to be the case—well, that really was no skin off Dalton’s nose. It certainly wasn’t worthy of opening up his Big Bag of Tricks, which wasn’t a bag at all but a folder on his laptop containing dirt on a surprisingly large percentage of public officials he had worked with throughout the years—including each individual member of the committee. Some of the dirt was of the decidedly juicy persuasion, more than enough to end a marriage here, or encourage a lengthy stretch at Her Majesty’s pleasure there. He certainly didn’t see any reason to expend such political capital on the Devlin Parade matter.
But then, the pictures. Oh, how they had burned him up, for reasons he couldn’t articulate or even arrest long enough to examine; unlike his decision to press the button on the committee members by opening up his Big Bag of Tricks (and how amusing it had been to witness the haste with which that bunch of spineless degenerates had folded), the source of his loathing just would not come into focus, though a part of Dalton, a part that operated at depths the rest of him could not reach, suspected it originated from the same place as the dreams which awoke him most nights covered in sweat.
At first they had seemed unobtrusive enough: Erik Evans, Dalton’s erstwhile university acquaintance who had never managed to leave the cosiness of academia behind, pictured smiling with a piece of paper in his hands—10,000 signatures! the caption proclaimed; the one called Hallahan, leaning grimly against a comically small shovel, face displaying all the twinkly Irish charm of a Gaelic football boot to the head. No caption for that one, Dalton doubted it was possible to come up with one that didn’t sound sarcastic… But there were others, some with Erik and Hallahan, most without, unknown people smiling and grimacing and appearing earnest, and somehow it seemed to him as he kept clicking and scrolling through the website that all of the pictures were forming a pattern that he couldn’t quite make out, a pattern that was perhaps something like a map, and where else was it leading him to but the very last picture on the site. It was of Hayley Bodine standing next to a bed of potted wildflowers, and the lady was wearing a long white robe, the kind you’d see the idiots at Stonehenge wearing on a solstice, and—sweet Jesus—she actually had flowers in her hair and not a single hint of irony on her face. But it was the photo’s caption that really did it; Dalton had scarcely finished reading it before he had his Big Bag of Tricks open in front of him. The caption read: Hayley Bodine’s belief in animism is what inspired her to begin planting the flower beds.
Hippie bitch hippie bitch hippie bitch. The thought beat a rhythm in his head now as he got up to the answer the door, just as it had the night before. Just as it had when he’d pushed the button on them at the meeting—such a sweet moment, he really was glad he had delivered the news personally. He had a taste for his own dirty work, did Mr Dalton, and within that proclivity he came the closest he ever could to something like honour.
He opened the door and there was Erik Evans, erstwhile student cohort and current King of Low-Level Academia. Dalton was so taken aback to see him that he simply stepped aside when Erik barged in.
“Now, Erik,” he began, turning to close the front door. “I know you must be rather peeved—” And that was when a surprisingly strong hand clamped over his mouth, ramming something in there, something that tasted bitter-bitter, while the other hand plunged a needle into his neck, and for Martin Dalton the world suddenly became very black indeed.
* * *
Tymus Hallahan had known where it would be done for many months, but had kept this from the others. He had his reasons. One was that to solidify the idea in such a way as to designate a physical location might result in scaring the others off from the idea before it had had a chance to fully take root. He had mainly been worried about Hayley and Erik; the others would follow his lead, or Hayley’s. Erik, not of particularly high standing but of great importance in terms of access, had been the trickier of the two, the younger man’s noxious adherence to his deep-seated liberalism an obstacle that, in the end, Dalton’s sheer repugnance had managed to hurdle for them. It was joyous, really. And it was Hallahan’s opinion that Hayley, on the other hand, had been good and ready from the beginning, no matter what she might have said in polite company. She had a bit more of the old “pre-Christian” spirit about her. Hallahan found that pretty joyous too.
The second reason had been that he hadn’t needed all of them clambering up and down the place, poking around and asking questions. Better to keep some things a surprise, he thought. When the time came, they would glory in events just as he would; he was certain of it. Deep down they’d be compelled to. And if they weren’t, well, he could show them how. Hallahan’s people were true descendants, their practices and beliefs undiluted and traceable all the way back to the Iron Age itself; the Romans had been beaten back from Ireland, had never threatened its sons and daughters with the unsolicited promise of so-called civilisation in one hand and the tip of a spear the other. Unlike the rest of Europe, Roman lies had never infiltrated its consciousness, and if that wasn’t joyous then Hallahan didn’t know what was.
He zipped up his jacket against the cold and headed down the empty street, past rows of forgotten empties on either side, their hearts bludgeoned but not quite broken, and he began to quietly whisper words that had not been spoken in this place for centuries. Here in Smeddon, where the Old wills its own coalescing around the New; here in Smeddon, the ancient place. He watched as a squirrel, foraging in preparation for the changing of season, paused to sniff the air, and fancied that perhaps it could smell the reckoning to come and was informing the ancients, their own hearts inclined towards eagerness at the prospect.
* * *
When Dalton opened his eyes, the first thing he noted was the pounding in his head. The second was that he was not, as he’d expected, lying in his bed; was not in fact lying down at all. The third was that he had something rough and bristling looped tightly around his neck, and his hands were tied behind his back. There was a low murmuring in the semi-darkness he had awoken into, voices cascading over each other in varying degrees of urgency. He couldn’t make any of them out until he heard Erik Evans say: “He’s awake.”
For a moment he thought his eyes were beginning to adjust to the gloom, but he gave that up as an idea once the tableau in front of him began to fend off the shadows. Clearly he was still asleep, because what he saw was lunacy.
The three from the meeting—Ms Bodine, Hallahan, his old chum Erik—were standing before him, visible only by the glow of what seemed like a thousand candles, but they’d had a change of clothing since last they’d met; yes, the other two had begun to dig on Ms Bodine’s sartorial vibe, it seemed, because all three of them now wore long white robes, all three of them now seemed to share that belief in animism—and why not? It made as much sense as anything else right now—and whatever the fuck else was going on was that a knife in Hallahan’s hand? Surely it was, although it was unlike any knife Dalton had ever seen, the blade long and curving and wicked in the candlelight. Behind the three of them he could make out others, nine of them, all regarding him silently, all dressed in the white robes. He recognised their faces—he’d been looking at pictures of them on his laptop just one night ago, when the world had still been sane—and he wondered then why he hadn’t yet begun to scream.
* * *
The Smeddon was one of the many ghost pubs dotted around the Devlin Parade, located atop a steep incline where Devlin and Roscoe intersect. Approaching from either street it did feel, despite its dereliction, like the culmination of something, a destination sitting loftily alone at the top of the hill but for the two willow trees flanking it like guards. The pub took its name from the small area of the city that lay beyond it and the streets of Devlin Parade: Smithdown, once known as Smeddon, once known as Esmedune, by countless other names too that mattered as much or as little as the next gust of wind. What really mattered was that it was an ancient place, a place for brutal machinations that no longer had names. It was, and always had been, a place of reckoning. Hallahan had not chosen poorly.
Now he and the others gazed at Dalton, naked and wobbling on the chair that was currently sustaining his life, the noose around his neck attached to a chandelier high above them; the chandelier was old and would creak under the weight, perhaps, but it was sturdy enough to hold, Hallahan was certain. He approached, sickle drawn, and Dalton finally unlocked his jaw to let out a holler but the mistletoe that Erik had given him—two doses: one ceremonial, one purely medicinal—still did its job, and he wasn’t able to muster much more than a throatless gasp. Hallahan raised the sickle toward him, thankful that he was at the smaller man’s eye level despite his perch, and then bent to the floor in front of him. He used it to trace out a five-pointed star in the dirt.
Hayley stepped forward. “It’s time,” she said to the congregation, before turning to Hallahan. “Thank you, Tymus. Will you help him swing?”
“I will,” he said. A murmur ran through the gathering. Erik could feel something growing, something which he couldn’t name—excitement was part of it, certainly, but it wasn’t all of it.
Hayley nodded and stepped back. Erik felt her hand close over his. He could hear that it had begun to rain.
Hallahan turned to address the gathering, while behind him Martin Dalton began to hitch his breath. His entire body wiggled as it tried to reconcile the opposing compulsions to simultaneously consolidate its perch on the chair, and to flee it.
“Everyone. Hear me now, if you will,” Hallahan said. “All who are with us are with us for love. All who are with us are with us for peace. All who are with us are with us for our homes.”
“As we are,” the congregation responded in unison.
“Tonight, we offer a gesture of our faith in the old gods. We offer a gesture to Esus the Benevolent, Esus the Respected One, Esus the Good Master…” Hallahan held his hands up above his head. The rain was heavier now. Droplets fell through holes in the roof here and there. From behind him he heard a trickling sound, and the smell of urine wafted past.
“As we do,” came the response.
Hayley nodded at him urgently: Do it, if you’re going to do it.
But Hallahan wasn’t ready to do it, not yet. “Our humble offering: The noose—” He pointed to Dalton’s neck.
“The knife—” He showed them the scythe.
“And the kindling.” He pulled something out from beneath his robe. It was a can of lighter fluid.
“We offer to you the Threefold Death,” he finished, and began to squirt lighter fluid over Dalton, dousing him from head to toe.
The wind was rising now to join the rain, heavier even still, and together they were extinguishing many of the candles and fairly soaking the congregation. But not Hallahan—Hallahan was dry where he stood, and so too was Dalton.
Erik stood watching in the gloom, transfixed. For the first time in many years, he thought about the churches of his Roman Catholic youth. They spoke of Hell in those places, and it was possible to believe such things at this moment, oh yes, entirely possible. Beside him, Hayley’s eyes darted from Dalton to Hallahan to the rain streaming through the roof in discriminating funnels. A bolt of lightning lit up the windows and she screamed a moment later as the thunder clap shook the dirty floor they stood on, and it was a scream not of terror but of awe.
Hallahan dropped the empty can of lighter fluid and stood before Dalton. He looked up into his eyes, saw what he had expected to see, and slit his throat. A torrent of hot blood spewed forth from where he’d been opened; Hallahan side-stepped smartly, allowing it to splatter the floor, and the five-pointed star drawn there. Hallahan gazed at the blood, and was pleased with what it told him.
Dalton was writhing and gurgling now, but still somehow perched atop the chair. Hallahan kicked it away, and the sudden snap put an end to any writhing or gurgling forever.
Then, as the offering swung gently from the sturdy old chandelier of what was once the Smeddon pub but was now something else, he produced a book of matches, struck one, and set it on fire.
The immolation burned, the flames spitting and hissing and casting unnatural shadows across the faces of the congregation, and as the wind and rain began to abate the smell of roasting meat filled the air. It caused a number of them to gag, but nobody threw up. It wasn’t that kind of crowd.