The man who murdered scrambled through the trash strewn across the hillside. The secret seven crawled and concealed themselves amongst cracked concrete and broken bricks. Satisfied that everyone was in place, Jude ran through the mental checklist one last time, his bloodshot eyes never leaving the death that lay sleeping between the sleepers. Behind steel palisade security fencing on the opposite side of the railway track, the decrepit industrial estate stood deserted and decaying. The phone buzzed once then twice inside his pocket. The trap was set. All they had to do now was wait.
Hiding behind a moss-covered boulder, Jude Russell watched the breeze breathe through the meadow grass sprouting between bleeding batteries and mouldy mattresses. He imagined himself one of the soldiers in the trenches on the morning of the Battle of the Somme, counting down the minutes, the seconds, waiting for the whistle to sound the command to go ‘over the top,’ not knowing if they would survive the day. Did those fallen heroes feel the same silent, electric tension that he felt?
The lichen encrusted stone was before him. He pulled at wiry tufts of grass, prising life with a knife, lifting moss from the belly of rock, his astonishment growing as he uncovered circle within circle. Oil stained fingertips drifted over circuits carved by ancient hands, tracing the pattern, etching it into his brain. In his mind’s eye, he saw the Hiab crane ripping the boulder from the root-strewn forest floor; he saw the steel and glass office buildings, the cafes and designer shoe shops, the water feature at the heart of the busy plaza; he was an unseen observer in the heated ‘too damn creepy, get rid’ confrontation; he stood alongside the driver as the toxic turd was shat from the back of a tipper truck at the dead of night.
Curiosity overcame caution, and the flame-haired man pressed his palm against the face of the fly-tipped, covered-in-shit petroglyph. The vein in his forehead pulsed. His hand jumped to his temple. Light sparked into vision; then came the familiar yellow-orange-bastard-firework. The tremor began in his shoulder then pawed its way down his arm. Scrabbling inside his pocket, cursing himself for his stupidity, he found the foil tray, pushed four AEDs into his mouth and dry-swallowed.
Colour slow drained, then came the stiletto pain: the arrow that pierced from eye socket to the base of his brain. Shallow breath on shallow breath, the blurred face of time came back into focus; tick by Tag Heuer tick, the tsunami of electricity passed through his fingernails into clawed soil.
Shaking hands picked up his weapon. Through the scope darkly, he saw a boy swinging a stick, swiping bushes at the side of the railway line. The youngster stopped to pick up a rock then threw it against the galvanised security fence, standing, watching as it ricocheted into the creeping undergrowth.
Jude knew there would be a heavy price to pay if he compromised the mission, but the English Republican Army, his English Republican Army, did not kill children. He steeled himself to run for the boy, rechecked his watch, but when he looked up again the child was nowhere to be seen.
His mouth tasted of spoons. He could smell electricity. Fear prickled his guts. Not here, he told himself, not today.
The ancient stone, the Euclidean Domain, loomed before him. Inside his mind, he felt the cut-through. And thus spake the Lord of the Life; but the purpose, the intent, was an awful command. How could he possibly obey?
The rifle, the Linear Death, was beside him. Inside his heart, he felt the ice of isolation, the dark-star gravitational pull of the will to negation. And thus spake the Lord of the Flies; Moloch of Tophet demands his sacrifice of fire.
Paralysed by dread, no choice became choice.
The Exeter Saint Davids to Manchester Piccadilly swung into the valley of Gehenna – eight carriages travelling at sixty miles an hour. Three bombs detonated in sequence. Metal screeched as the train was lifted from the track and thrown into the dirt and detritus. Dust, diesel fumes, and flame, and a moment of unnatural silence. Then the screaming.
Smoky shadows fell from doors and shattered windows. Gunshots cracked. The mist cleared in the breeze, and he saw men, women, children stumbling, rising, then falling. Human beings were trapped, burning inside the wrecked train. The injured rolled on the ground in twisted agony until merciful bullets stilled their cries and soothed their flailing limbs.
There was no returning fire, no raised American voices, no uniforms, just ordinary families, dying.
They had their orders, and the team worked methodically. Fire and smoke curled higher. The shots rang out until no-one was moving in the valley, until the only sound was the roar of flame and the shattering of glass.
A small figure clambered from the smashed window of a burning carriage. The child’s clothes were ablaze. Tongues of fire were leaping up the child’s arms, chest, and back.
Jude awoke from his languor. The child burned. He stood, put one foot to the rock, raised his rifle, aimed, and squeezed the trigger once, then twice.
He could feel the cold stone beneath his boot. Without looking, he knew his foot was covering one of the rings. His body convulsed and the weapon fell from his hands. The terrified terrorist found himself held by a vast intelligence that spoke to him, that told him killing was wrong: not a little-bit-wrong, not a permitted-in-certain-circumstances wrong, but an absolute-wrong. In a moment of ineffable horror, he perceived all of what is watching him.
Lilian’s son fell backwards, grabbed the gun from the grass, crawled up the brow of the hill, then sped along the stony path. Climbing into the back of a white van, he buried his rifle beneath stained tarpaulins, slammed shut the rear doors, curled into a foetal ball, clasped his hands over his head, and lashed out at the metal wall with his feet.
The engine roared into life; the vehicle bounced its way down the farm track, rattled over a cattle-grid, then spilled out onto the smooth tarmac of the Birmingham road. Sliding across the ribbed steel floor as the van took a sharp bend, Jude searched his pockets. The heart-stopping realisation hit home – he had lost his meds in the valley of the damned.
That fucking rock, he told himself, that crazy-arsed pebble, emptied my pockets, signed my death-sentence.
Chapter 1 of Prodigal Saints by WF Florio