Authors: Robert Parker
Tags: #Ben Bracken: Origins - Ben Bracken Books 1-5
Before he has finished his thought, he feels an awful sharp thud on the back of his head, as if he has been hit with something - he can’t tell what, but he can sure feel it. Warm begins to pour down the side of his head, onto his cheek, and he binds his eyes shut to beat back the pain and keep from getting what can only be his own blood in his eyes. The dizziness doubles.
The voice ramps up in intensity, and he can make out the occasional word -
‘........purge.........hate...........worth...........pound.........outsider (‘that old chestnut’, Ben thinks).........fear.........price.........’
Ben didn’t like any of those words, frankly. He still has no idea what is going on, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that if there is a young baby around these nutjobs, burning drugs and talking about a ‘purge’, that can only be a bad thing. If the child is up here, Ben knows he has to get it together. He’s not up on this dank hillside on a jolly.
Abruptly, Ben sticks his fingers down his throat, triggering his gag reflex. Almost immediately, he throws up - a lot. Blackstoke Bitter drenches the steps at the bottom of the altar, splattering wetly against the stone of the church floor. For Ben, the taste is awful, but he has to get all that vile airborne concoction out of his body as quickly as he can, before he loses control altogether.
The abrupt retching had cut short the woman’s ranting, but the woman’s voice punctuates the gagging once more, but this time bearing a venomous call to arms.
‘Punish this man. Punish him for questioning. Punish him for jeopardizing the purge! He does not want you to reach God - are you going to let him stop you from serving the Almighty?!’
Ben is both pleased and not pleased. Pleased that he heard every word and his drug-blurred mindset allowed him to arrange the words correctly. However, he is most definitely not pleased at the prospect of being torn limb from limb by some angry senior citizens. From his crouch, he spreads his arms around the floor, trying to find something through his hazy vision with which he can defend himself. His hands rake through his own vomit.
‘Oh for Christ’s sake...’ he mutters, moving his hands through - then his outstretched fingers bump something solid. He averts his eyes to the object and can just make out that he is touching his table leg - and has never felt so relieved to see a piece of busted home furniture. He curls his fingers around it tight.
Suddenly, a cold firm hand grasps around his ankle. Ben hadn’t even realized the flock were up and moving. Without hesitation, from it’s resting position on the floor, he swings the table leg at full force, calculating the trajectory as the leg is in flight with a little monologue to himself: ‘If the hand is on my ankle, the assailant is in a crouch or bending, therefore, taking into account the average height of over 65’s at 5 feet 7 inches, the optimum height to swing the club for impact above my foot is about there -’ CRACK. Another happy customer.
Ben’s vision is coming back quickly now, but he knows he has to find the source of the incense before that horrible haze comes straight back. He looks to where he made contact with his makeshift bat, and there is a bald man lying slumped on the floor with a huge gash atop his fleshy wrinkled skull. Ben doesn’t take any pride in maiming the old fellow, but God knows what the High Priestess of this awful congregation is able to make them do. And Ben knows, for every weird and awful thing that happens here, the likelihood of the child being safe and staying that way gets further and further distant.
He stands, and, as he surveys what awaits him, the scene begins to resemble some kind of zombie apocalypse. Swathes of people who approaching him menacingly - not with that lumbering gait of the undead from the Romero movies, more with a clear-eyed, single-mindedness fettered by the capabilities of the older demographics body type. They approach him with a purpose that, on making eye contact, is very real. And then he spots her - the High Priestess, the Baroness, running down the aisle to the front of the church, her arms bunched and folded tightly below her chest. Ben knows that, unless she is somehow injured, that’s got to be the baby.
Ben thinks at this point that, if he was a religious man, he should really say ask for some sort of forgiveness - here in God’s house, he’s going to have to dish out some nasty punishment to these people, men and women, in order to save the supposed infant. He thinks that these people should be the one’s begging for forgiveness, not him. Truth is, from a theological standpoint, Ben doesn’t know what he believes. He has seen enough horrors whose very existence warrants the belief that no God could exist, but then again, nobody guaranteed that God would be ambivalent. Either way, cracking a few OAP skulls in a church doesn’t sit right with Ben, and he reaches into the furthest nooks of his mind for some words for forgiveness, perhaps something he can remember from school. All he can think of is the Lord’s prayer, and a pre-dinner prayer for Grace. Since he has no intention of dying here, he opts for the latter, albeit modified.
‘Umm... For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make me truly... sorry’ he says. He knows he botched it, but at least he tried. That must count for at least something if he pops it and finds himself pitched up unexpectedly at the pearly gates. And with that he starts running and swinging at the oncoming horde.
To the casual outsider, the scene would most definitely cut a disconcerting sight - a half-cut bloke swinging a table leg at a pastel-clad army of senior citizens. It would certainly go a long way to increasing the amount of jail time he might face if he is ever forced to face justice. SMACK goes the wood into an older lady’s shoulder, then THUNK straight into an older man’s chest. It feels awful to Ben, just the most unnatural thing to do ever. He was always raised to respect his elders, not bring them an ugly battering. What he is doing turns his stomach, but he knows it is not the first time he has had to do something truly abhorrent in order to survive.
He swings again, with no target in mind, simply to make debilitating contact and swing again - only this time the wood, on making contact, almost sticks to it’s victim like it was bogged in tar. Ben tries to pull it out and back to him, but the wood is tugged away from him. He feels his finger loosening on the wood, and then some more fingers clawing through his hairline. An old lady is literally trying to scalp him with her own withered hands. Ben can only think ‘This is definitely a first’. A punch hits him right in the breadbasket, which is a devastating impact so penetrating Ben is pretty sure the owner of the fist will have grazed his knuckles on Ben’s own vertebrae, right through his stomach. It hurts Ben a lot. One of these boys has got some real power, Ben thinks. Through sheer force of will he refuses to go down, driven by the fear that the moment he does go down, he’s pretty sure he won’t get up again.
He pulls his head up again, to take in some air, where he can see his own weapon of terror swinging down onto the top of his skull - no longer has he managed to get upright, and the table leg has been used to smash him right in the head. The impact is too much this time. Ben slumps, and all he can see is blood vessels in his vision - tiny swirling blobs that the mere sight of can’t be anything good. That odd cold glove of unconsciousness begins to entrench Ben, and he almost welcomes it. He falls, hands clawing at his clothes, dragging him this way and that.
Suddenly, a deafening blast rips through the church. It silences the hordes and punishes the ear drums. Ben is suddenly dropped onto his front on the church floor, as his oppressors fan. He has no idea where the sound came from, but he knows it stopped his torment, and for that, he is grateful. He can now see a black vignette at the corners of his vision, giving the sensation of seeing life through an Instagram filter - so an appropriate level of hipster drama is afforded what he sees happen next. An old man in a green waterproof jacket, paces down the aisle towards Ben, and he is wielding a mean-looking smoking shotgun.
‘Get away from him!’ he orders. ‘Back! Back!’.
The man is cradling the shotgun tightly, but jabs it in the direction of the people he passes. He is older, like the people in the church, but, unlike the people in the church, there is a fire and fear in his eyes - as well as an absurd red blotchiness to his skin. The man keeps moving at a steady pace, then his boots are by Ben’s nose.
‘Can you stand?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ Ben answers, trying to hoist himself up to his knees, but manages only to lose his balance and roll onto his back like a stricken turtle.
‘Can you bollocks’, the man scowls. Before Ben can try to get an idea of who the man might be, he can feel himself being hoisted to his feet. ‘Get your bearings. Lean on me, but we need to move now.’
And with that, Ben is practically being dragged down the aisle back towards the front door.
‘Any of you dare move, I’ll bloody drop you’, barks the man at the people, who just stare back glass-eyed like the sheep that they are. ‘Nearly there,’ he whispers to Ben.
‘Who are you?’ croaks Ben.
‘You’ve no idea?’ the man replies.
Ben remains silent.
‘“That’ll be £2.90”, does that ring a bell?’
‘The pub’ Ben replies.
‘Yes, the pub. You’ve been my best customer for the last three weeks.’
Ben looks up to him and scrutinizes him - he can’t, for the life of him, recognize him.
‘Don’t strain yourself’, says the man. ‘You never look up from up your pint. Ever. My name is Dag.’
Before Ben can look where they are going, they are outside. The cold air hits him immediately, like iced smelling salts, and invigorates him to the core. He chugs on the chilled oxygen, finally able to get his lungs to some clean, untainted air. It is most welcome, as is the effect it brings. Clarity begins to return. Dag keeps speaking, but lets Ben go - aware that his strength and wherewithal is returning.
‘I literally shouted to you as you were heading out the door, back at the pub’ Dag continues, as he looks for something with which to bolster the church door shut, to keep the weirdos contained. ‘I wanted to come with you, as I had the shotgun. Bet you wish you’d waited.’
‘I didn’t hear’, Ben responds between breaths.
‘You were gone before I’d even got my words up. Look, I can spot ex-military a mile off.’
Ben looks up with that honed defensiveness, prickly to whenever the military is mentioned - all too aware of it’s divisiveness in the public sphere.
‘You needn’t worry, son, we know our own. The Welsh Guards, 1963.’
‘The Rifles, 2013.’ Ben responds. He wants to spill the rest but he knows he should not.
‘Well, Rifles - there is a bonfire kicking off on the hill behind the Church, another couple of hundred yards up. I’ll keep this ghost army at bay, while you go up there.’
‘Thank you, Dag.’ Ben offers earnestly.
Dag drags an old couch across the front door, then turns to Ben. ‘I can’t speak for anyone in there. I recognize a lot of those old boys. Down in the village we knew something was going on up here, but didn’t know what. It was getting quieter at nights down there, but that’s it. We always left them to it up here. But this... this... doesn’t look good.’
‘I have a thing for dropping in on bad situations’ says Ben. ‘You kind of get the feeling for them after a while, but this one is a little out there for me. Am I losing my mind, or does it appear that that old lady who ran out of here is preparing some kind of child sacrifice in a pseudo-voodoo mold?’
‘I think I would find it very hard to argue against that’ Dag responds.
‘Call the police - get them up here as fast as you can. If all goes well, you won’t see me again. If it doesn’t... Either way, thank you for helping me back there. I’m Ben Bracken. Make sure the police know that.’
‘I can do that’ Dag agrees, even though he has got no idea why this guy would want the police to know anything.
Ben turns to go, but Dag speaks again.
‘The old adage is that “the army can change a man”. They never tell you in what way - it’s different for every man. Let whatever happened go, and move forward. Not everyone can say they have much of a life after the army - you have an opportunity to do good.’
Ben considers this. ‘Believe it or not, that’s exactly what I’m about to do. Sort of.’
Ben starts to run for the hill, while, behind him, Dag sighs and takes aim at the door. He knows he can fend them off, but he needs to keep them away from Ben and the bonfire as long as possible - for Dag, it feels like a chance to save the town. For all that is good and Holy, it is a chance he must take.
Ben glances upwards, at the ever-darkening sky. He navigates the terrain easily, his eyes growing more and more accustomed to the low light conditions. High overhead, he can see black smoke darkly clouding the tips of the trees, and his heart sinks - the fire is certainly burning up here, just like Dag said. He can’t quite believe it, as the facts begin to mount. Aside from a family Guy Fawkes night, he can’t think of any other occasion at all that would call for a baby to be present at a lit night-time bonfire. He didn’t want to believe it was voodoo at all, but all the evidence points to it. The church, the baroness, the oppressed congregation, the violence, the phraseology, the fucking copal, the baby... Jesus, thinks Ben - I came here as a kid. I came here to find refuge, and I find as dark a fleapit of human debasement as I could hope to find. An innocent child. An innocent child!
Without thinking, Ben is moving faster, and soon, he can see the tips of the flames dancing up at the stars, and he knows he is close. One more slight rise. His knees ache and throb, and his lungs fizz with each intake of breath. Mercifully, the oxygen intake has almost completed it’s job of clearing his mind and thoughts, and he knows that if he can keep his rage in check, he can bring a cool air of tactics to what may happen next. But then he remembers he has absolutely no training for saving a baby from a quasi-voodoo sacrifice - he’ll have to follow his instincts, and his gut.
He slows at the peak, and slowly peeps his head over the crest, and he puts together a quick assessment of the scene, as if he is about to report his findings back to a superior officer. A clearing approximately 10 metres by 10 metres. A fairly large fire just back left of centre. Three rows of low wood benches facing the bonfire. A small stone altar in front of the fire, with a swaddled object atop it. The noisy crackle of the bonfire, and above that, punctuated and soft... an infant cry. It hits Ben hard - it’s the first time he has had concrete evidence the child is even here. He feels both horrified and vindicated.