When I am dead, people will find and read these words. If they are faithful, perhaps they will even understand what I have done and why.
Once, I was a soldier. I fought and killed for my country, trying to hold onto the Word of God while my brothers sacrificed their lives and sometimes their souls in defence of our homeland. I saw minds and bodies that were broken beyond repair and comrades who were thrown on to the scrapheap to eke out the remainder of their miserable lives on the streets, begging for money from people who sneer and spit at them. What is the old saying? A land fit for heroes? Not when its people are uncaring, indolent, Godless pigs.
Why was I chosen to bear this burden? It is a question that has haunted me now for long years. But it is the same question that Jesus asked of His Father. He pleaded for the cup to be taken away from his lips. But God refused. Our Lord had to bear the burden to account for the sins of Mankind and I cannot do less in the eyes of God.
Pride was my sin. I talked about God and professed my faith to others, but I gloried in my own achievements as a soldier and did not keep the Lord in my heart as I spilled blood, not in His name, but at the behest of corrupt, self-serving politicians. I woke up finally, but it was too late. God had already passed judgement upon me. Even as I planned to lay aside the sword and pick up the good book - to exchange my uniform for the robes of a Priest - an agent of Satan was sent to test my faith and I was found wanting. He is a mortal man, a weak, shallow creature, but he carries the same poison in his soul that my mother did. The touch of his hand awoke the evil legacy of my mother’s blood and I was lost.
At last, my time has come. His punishment, and my redemption, draw nigh. The first one dies tonight.
Chapter 1 Bishops Hill Oxford.
It was a little before 6.30 p.m. when Nick Ballard dragged himself into the Wheatsheaf, a gloomy looking eyesore of a pub, framed in scratched wooden panelling and peeling wallpaper that bloomed with yellow-brown stains. He looked around, tried to catch his breath. A couple of old barflies lurked in a dim corner, huddled over a graffiti scored table like conspirators but otherwise the place was deserted. There was no-one waiting to serve him with what he so desperately needed.
Nick hesitated for a few seconds and then slouched towards the counter. He waited for someone to appear. A couple of minutes ticked by and still no-one. It was a sign. He should get out now, go home and do something else, for fuck’s sake anything else, but not this, not again.
It was no good though. He couldn’t handle the pain. Not tonight. Gotta get rid of it. Drown it. Where was the fucking bar staff?
The panic that had been rising and threatening to engulf him all day took hold. Adrenaline dumped into his nervous system, his heart raced, and he gripped hold of the bar to anchor himself. Oh God, was he going to throw up? Shit himself? Pass out? Oh, please no, a drink; he needed a drink right now. Why the fuck was no-one serving?
‘Have to knock to get any attention in here, mate.’
He looked around to discover that one of the denizens of the dark corner had joined him, a raddled looking creature, at ease in its natural habitat. The man proceeded to rap on the varnished surface of the bar with a pound coin.
A door at the rear of the bar opened and cold air rushed in from outside. For a second, the empty, litter strewn car park at the back of the building was revealed in all its glory. A morbidly obese woman appeared in the gap. She paused to blow cigarette smoke over her shoulder, slammed the door shut and then lumbered towards the bar. Her gaze settled on Nick and the effect was instantaneous. She was bright, so bright, like God had flicked a switch on in his brain. Every detail of the woman shone out: her eyes; her face; her blouse – the colour of fresh blood. He knew everything about her: her name; where she lived; the names of her lazy husband and lippy teenage son; that she hated her mother; and that she’d only ever experienced five orgasms in her life, three of which were with her best friend at a Girl Guides camping trip when they were fifteen. More and more information clamoured in his mind; facts, secrets, opinions, hopes, fears, until his head groaned with it all. His brain was an open circuit, an easy lay and it was getting roundly fucked.
Nick staggered a pace back from the bar, the panic turning into a full-blown attack as he gasped for air. The world reeled. Oh fuck, no, not again, please. He couldn’t faint, not in here, he had to keep his shit together long enough to get the fuck out of this dump.
The barmaid frowned and then a sly, knowing look spread over her face. He knew exactly what she was thinking and felt compelled to respond, panting the words out as he struggled for oxygen.
‘I’m not pissed and I’m not on drugs, so you don’t have to shout Ray to come and sling me out.’
The look fell from her face as though it had been slapped off and the frown returned. His head was bursting with pain now, but he managed to turn away from the barmaid at last and stumble towards the door past the old geezer.
‘Didn’t realise I was that ugly.’ The barmaid called after him. The old punter who had struck the bar with his coin answered in Nick’s place.
‘Look bloody gorgeous to me love, especially when you put some beer in this glass.’
Nick kept moving and hit the door shoulder first, emerging into a cool breeze that was like a balm upon his burning face. He fumbled a brown paper bag out of his pocket, panted into it, and leant against the wall of the pub for a few moments until his head stopped spinning and his breathing began to regulate. Thank God. The horrible tingling sensation running through his hands and feet began to subside and his heartbeat slid down from his throat and returned to his chest. He was fine now, ok, but he needed to keep going. He needed to get back home. This had been a bad idea to begin with and it had turned into a shit-show as soon as he went into that dive.
As he put some distance between himself and the Wheatsheaf, the barmaid’s thoughts drained away from his mind, like a radio station losing reception. His head pulsed with a sickening headache that was here to stay for the rest of the night, but worse than that was the familiar, terrifying feeling of helplessness that accompanied these episodes. Why had he put himself in danger like that? He should have known better after all the times his so-called gift had resulted in a sickening explosion of unfiltered information from some random stranger. He just couldn’t control it the way he used to, not since Meg. There was no aura encircling random people anymore, no bright halo that meant that he could magically access their thoughts and memories. Why had he gone out? He was stressed. This date was always stressful, and the attacks were more likely when he was in this state. The answer, he knew, was grief, grief and something else that he could barely admit to himself: loneliness.
His stomach roiled, perhaps considering whether to eject the half-digested Big Mac and fries he’d consumed on the way to the pub. If that happened, only God knew which end it would come out of. Maybe both if he was really unlucky.
He found the nearest shop and purchased a bottle of whisky. There was only one way to stop his head from pounding and he meant to take it. He was going to drink himself into oblivion tonight if his frigging stomach calmed down. Then he wouldn’t have to think about anything for a few blessed hours.
Nick travelled the short distance to his house, a modest semi purchased with a sizeable chunk of the money left over from his days of TV stardom. The place was cold and dark, and he enjoyed no sense of coming home, only a familiar numb feeling that was mixed with relief when he closed the door on the outside world. He was safe, alone but safe.
He grabbed a tumbler from the kitchen cabinet, entered the living room without bothering to switch the light on and slumped down into the armchair of a battered brown leather suite that was the centrepiece of the lounge; a drab, tired looking living space that screamed ‘single man’.
Nick found the TV remote and BBC News 24 blinked on- same old depressing headlines-looked at the bottle of whisky cradled in his hand and smiled. His lips twitched at the old feeling of longing that filled his mouth with spit and made his throat ache with anticipation. It was a sensation he loved and despised in equal measure. He filled the tumbler to the top and began to work swiftly on its contents.
Within an hour the headache had subsided into a faint throb as he finally began to relax. Thankfully, his stomach followed suit. He could stop now, just stop and go to bed before he fucked himself up monumentally. He was feeling mellow all of a sudden, cool, relaxed. He could leave it at a few drinks. No problemo. No biggie.
It was an old, familiar lie and as he continued to drink, he thought about the incident with the barmaid and it brought everything crashing back. Why was this happening to him, without any warning, time after time? Why?
Megan’s face flashed into his mind and he tried to blank it out. No, he couldn’t go there. It was no good though; the same old gut-wrenching images came to him: Meg on their wedding day, smile dazzling as she lifted her veil, looking into his eyes in the moments before they took their vows; Meg lying in a coffin, beautiful face unmarred by the accident that claimed her life, surrounded by a sea of foaming white lilies. He’d sat next to her in the sterile little room where they kept her body, breathing in the cloying, scented air and staring at her for hours until his mind began to break.
The last, worst memory tried to force its way in, a replay of their final
conversation, their final argument. No, not that, no. Shut it out. He reached for the glass with trembling fingers and tried to focus on the TV screen, vision blurring with tears. Five years ago, today, she had left him, five years. It seemed more like five fucking weeks.
When the house phone began to ring, he almost cried out-almost dropped the tumbler. Don’t answer it. It’s either someone trying to sell you something or Ollie dearest, and she’ll hear the booze in your voice, you know that. She can smell it down the fucking line.
He tried to ignore the phone until it stopped ringing, but in the end, picked it up more out of reflex than anything else, almost against his will.
‘Ollie,’ he said.
There was a pause. He thought that she was going to ask him if he was pissed,
but she surprised him and didn’t, even though it must have been obvious from the way
he’d slurred her name.
‘How are you?’ she said. She must have known the answer already, but it was what people did, ask pointless questions when they didn’t know what else to say.
‘Look, sis, thanks for ringing. I knew you would and I’m really grateful, but I need some alone time tonight, ok?’
‘Alone time’s all you seem to want these days. I hate the thought of you existing up there like some kind of fucking hermit. I should’ve come to see you today of all days. I’m sorry.’
‘Hey, you’ve got your own stuff to worry about. I’m fine, really, honest to God. Listen, I’ve got something on the hob, and I think it might be burning. Have to go, love you, bye.’
He hung up and walked over to unplug the phone jack from its socket in the wall. As a bleary afterthought he took out his mobile phone and switched it off.
He looked at the half-empty bottle on the coffee table. That’s better, alone at last. Now, where were we?
Another hour crawled by and Nick finally passed out as the glass slipped out of his fingers and bounced off the carpeted floor. His mind sank into oblivion.
The blackness gave way to something else; awareness came back to him and he plunged into a strange dream where he was travelling at great speed through a dark tunnel that flickered with red light. Then he was in bed in a room that he didn’t recognise. What the hell was this? He tossed and turned without any volition of his own and took in the scene through eyes that were only half-open. He tried to blink, but nothing happened.
This is a dream, isn’t it?
The thought surprised him. He was cognizant of his own conscious mind, which was now clear and sober. He rolled over again. No, he hadn’t wanted to move; it just happened, as though he was a passenger in someone else’s body. It didn’t feel normal.
There was heaviness in his chest and a funny sensation in his groin. As he
moved for the third time, heat suddenly surged through him, prickling his skin and burning it as sweat leaked out of every pore.
Thoughts came from nowhere:
Oh Jesus, here we go another bloody hot flush, need to find somewhere cool in this bed, oh God, I’m melting, so hot.
What!! What the fuck was happening? Was he a woman? Jesus, this dream was fucking insane.
The thoughts about the ‘hot flush’ certainly weren’t his; they were blurry and a little disconnected, but this didn’t feel like what happened in the pub earlier, or even what it was like when he could control the process of reading someone else’s mind. These thoughts felt like an echo; they weren’t invasive. He could just hear them, running faintly and separately from his own.
‘You are the first.’
A man’s voice broke the silence and the woman’s mind sharpened, filled with alarm, as she tried to reach across and switch on her bedside lamp.
Imminent danger jolted Nick’s consciousness. Something was wrong here, terribly wrong.
Then an unseen attacker began to manhandle him - manhandle them. Cruel, relentless fingers pulled the woman upwards by the hair and then let her drop back on to the bed. Nick felt the sharp pull at his scalp as though it was his hair and tried to yell: Again, nothing.
‘Please, don’t hurt me.’
Nick’s lips moved as she begged for mercy. He looked up through her eyes at a black shape that was framed against the bedroom window.
The figure paused for a moment as if it was considering her plea. Then something glittered in the uncertain light.
Razor sharp metal pierced the soft flesh below Nick’s cheek and the point of the blade jabbed against his tongue. Blinding, exquisite pain followed, and then total blackness swallowed him; but he was still awake, still aware, although the pain from the knife wound left him instantly.
Wake up, wake up! I can’t, where am I? Oh Christ, get me out of this fucking nightmare. There was no light at all in this place and no feeling that he was sharing the woman’s body anymore. Her thoughts had vanished completely.
Was he actually dead and trapped in this abyss? The idea terrified him. He remembered an old Hammer horror movie that had freaked him out when he was a kid. The hero, suffering from catalepsy, had been mistakenly buried alive beneath six feet of earth in a silk lined coffin as rats and insects began to burrow through the wood towards him. The hero had been awake, but unable to move. The fear of that happening to him had tormented Nick as a child, but this was worse somehow; it was like he was in some kind of dead space, a void where no light or reality existed.
Then he was back in the woman’s body and the pain returned with sickening force. Anything was better than that blackness, even the pain that throbbed through his mouth. But something was different. He was still on the bed but stretched out somehow. There was pain biting at her wrists and ankles when she struggled, and he realised that she had been tied to the bed. Panic beat at his mind like a caged bird. He was imprisoned within this woman’s body and there was no escape. Blood ran slowly down her throat and he could taste it too; warm, coppery, sickening. She tried to scream, but it was a weak effort that gurgled on the blood and sounded more like a whimper. The man-shape was standing at the side of the bed as it passed a long, thin knife through the air.
‘Death by a thousand cuts, Nick, the first death.’
This wasn’t a dream; now he knew it wasn’t because this maniac was using his name. The thought was lost in pain as the blade fell and sliced open the skin on the woman’s left cheek, laying it open. Then it slashed at her stomach and gouged a shallow groove above the navel. Again, and again, on and on. The knife worked its way around a prone body that wasn’t his but felt like his at the same time. Why was this happening? What the fuck had he done to deserve it? The knife jabbed and scratched his skin – pure agony. Oh fuck, please stop, just end it, just kill me. Blood ran from everywhere as it drained life drip by agonising drip. He was like some kind
of fucking sacrifice to be butchered and killed slowly.
The pain was stinging and intense, but worse for Nick was the sense that he
had of the woman; her mind was a terrified, bewildering cacophony of thoughts and memories as she died, slowly, horribly, and for no reason that she was aware of. Even
as he shared the horror of impending death with her, his mind reeled on the precarious edge of sanity. Why couldn’t he die, just die and get out of this living hell?
The ordeal continued: the cutting of the knife seemingly endless. His vision misted over, but the faceless man splashed freezing cold water over his head to keep him, the woman and the pain alive, to prolong the interminable suffering. Evil, sadistic bastard.
Then, as the grey veil began to blacken, fingers grasped the woman’s hair
again, and lifted her head from the pillow.
‘This is only the beginning of your atonement.’
The knife flashed for the last time and everything went black.
Nick jumped up from the armchair in his living room, a hoarse scream rattling
his throat, and he tripped, falling heavily and barely avoiding crashing into the coffee table.
As he lay on the floor, panting, the pain of the man’s knife attack began to fade from his body. He was alive.
It was all he could manage before the vomiting began. When that was over, he crawled away from the hot, foul-smelling puddle, buried his face into the carpet and began to cry.