Saturday, November 21, 2009

Saturday Snippet: The White Gallows

This is a snippet that is unlikey to see the light of day beyond this post. It was the opening of The White Gallows, the next book in the series after The Rule Book, but I've decided to drop it. It took a little bit of persuasion, but on reflection I think the person who made the case is right. It feels kind of funny to edit out because it was written as flash fiction and then the rest of the novel was imagined and built from it. Dropping it somehow feels like erasing the key, initial cornerstone from the foundation of the story, although the book seems to work better without it - it provides some kind of haunting absence, I think. The cover, right, was the best I could mock up in five minutes and I'm lacking a bit of inspiration on that front. Ideas gratefully received. Anyway, here it is:

It was the same recurring nightmare, though nightmare was probably the wrong word. It wasn’t some fantastical labyrinth of cryptic signs and symbols, of ghosts and monsters. It was the Truth – of skeletal people he’d tortured, beaten and shot; of people so dehumanized they were merely automations; fragile beasts in a vast machine that ensnared them, extracted value, and disposed of their broken bodies. They were mules - animals of labour to be worked to death; stupid creatures that needed cajoling, disciplining and punishment to make them comply. They didn’t merit compassion or pity or aid when they broke; they were to be shot as lame mules were shot.

He was shouting at an emaciated figure - his head shorn of hair, face gaunt and drawn - only he couldn’t hear his own words, just the deafening noise of the factory. The man stared back blankly - no sign of comprehension or fear or defiance or hate; just emptiness. He could feel the gun in his hand, his arm lifting, coming into vision. He shouted again, waited for a reaction, then pulled the trigger.

A hole appeared in the man’s forehead just above his left eyebrow. He stayed on his feet a couple of moments, then dropped to his knees, his dark brown eyes still staring back, but now, ironically, somehow alive, his lips pulled in a slight smile. The corpse toppled forward its face smashing into cold concrete.

He moved the gun across the scared and hate-filled faces of witnesses, challenging them to defy his authority. A fellow, older mule hesitantly moved forward, his arms raised, hands open, and crouched down in the blood next to the body offering comfort and grief. His hollow, tear-stained face glanced up as the well polished boot arrived, his head jerking violently, his body toppling backwards, arms flailing. His skull cracked off the edge of a workbench and he slumped unconscious to the floor.

Koch woke with a start, his breathing laboured, heart pounding. His chest felt constricted as if tightly corseted. His striped cotton pyjamas were damp with cold sweat, the bed clothes kicked to the floor. He pushed himself up against the headboard, trying to slow his rapid breaths, and reached for a glass of water from the bedside locker. The room was near dark, dimly lit by a pale orange nightlight.

The nightmare had ended early - the shooting was always near the beginning. It was followed by a sequence of other atrocities he’d performed or witnessed – beatings, torture, rapes, punishments, humiliations, executions - all without mercy; none merited.

He took a sip of cool water and shivered. For over sixty years he’d been plagued by the memories. He could push them away during the day, but they haunted him each night, eating away at his soul, denying him peace. He knew they would never stop; that he could never be forgiven.

He deserved as much, he knew that. He’d killed people in cold blood and watched thousands more die; he’d been a willing participant. He’d thought of them as no more than animals; sub-humans that were devious, conniving enemies of the state. They deserved to pay the ultimate price for the crimes of their race and religion.

It was over thirty years later before he started to change his mind; before he admitted to himself that his victims were as human as he was – were more human than he was. He’d never told anybody else and he had no intention of ever doing so.

There was a sound downstairs, something being knocked over, thudding to the floor. He sat perfectly still and listened. The house was silent, then a creak. The floorboards were as old as the house and they sang with age. He’d once read that Japanese palaces were built with nightingale floors – boards that creaked however lightly and skilfully they were trodden on. That’s what the old farmhouse had become - a Japanese palace. A floorboard sang out again.

He picked up his cheap digital watch and brought it close to his face. Roza, his housekeeper, had long left the farmhouse. She lived in a barn conversion across the yard, although he knew it was unlikely she was there; she’d be spending the night with her boyfriend in Athboy.

It was probably a burglar. If they were going to come for him, they would have done so by now. And they would have come straight to his bedroom and searched the house later. If he could survive the Russians as they swept through Eastern Europe and the aftermath of the war, he could handle a burglar. He placed the watch back on the locker and eased his thin, frail legs out of the bed, sliding his bare feet into cheap slippers.

Koch crept across the room to an old wardrobe, the floorboards beneath a thick white rug revealing his slow progress. His fingers were shaking slightly with age, as they had periodically for the past two years, and he struggled to open the secret panel at the back of the unit. After a few moments it popped open and he pulled free a small handgun. It felt heavy in his hand despite its size, the grip comfortable in his palm.

He moved to the door, eased it open, and stood still listening for movement. The house was quiet; then the creaking of a misplaced step. Stealthily, he headed for the top of the stairs, the gun held in front of him, steadied by both hands, the training from sixty years ago still remembered. He eased himself forward, the gun pointing down into the darkness below.

The house had once again become silent. Gingerly he descended the stairs, the pale light of the night sky eating into the shadows through the semi-circular window above the Georgian door, the dull thump of his heart filling his ears. As he neared the ground floor he flicked on the light switch, swinging the gun round the empty hallway. He nudged open the door to his left, reached in, switched on the lights and slipped into the room. From behind the door somebody yanked the gun from his hand and something heavy landed on the crown of his head.

1 comment:

Dorte H said...

As I see it here on its own it seems quite compelling. Was it meant as a prologue? Generally, I am in favour of prologues, but it is difficult to judge whether it reveals too much without having read the whole novel.

It sounds darker than The Rule Book, but that may just be this scene from the point of view of a haunted killer. So all I can say for certain is that it has made me quite curious to read the book.