How did I meet Rosie? Well, it wasn’t under normal circumstances – the world being the way it is. It wasn’t through mutual friends for example, or in a nightclub or at a party. No, I met her in a romantic slime filled ditch. She was the one in the ditch, by the way. Not me.
Here’s what happened. I’d been working my small plot of fertile ground on top of an otherwise boggy, barren mountain in County Wicklow. I grew vegetables there; potatoes, carrots, or any old crop I could coax into life. From my vantage point I could see the whole of the countryside for miles around so if I spotted any Dead in the vicinity – or even worse, any Living – I had ample time to act.
One balmy evening I was ambling home from my mountaintop garden to Mrs. Byrnes farm. Mrs. B, by the way, is that wonderful woman who kindly took me in after the first outbreak. The valleys were already darkening when I paused by the edge of an overflowing roadside drain to admire the sunset.
Suddenly, in classic horror film style, a cold wet claw snaked out of the mire and closed around my ankle. I fell backwards on my arse in utter shock and fumbled to detach the axe from my belt. I stared in horrified revulsion as a wasted, weed covered creature used my leg to haul itself out of the slime. It squelched and slapped its muddy way up my body, grunting and moaning. I quickly heaved it off, jumped to my feet and raised the axe. It burbled a wet: “No,” before slumping lifelessly on its side.
And that’s how I met Rosie. I stood there regarding her for a moment before poking her shoulder gingerly with the axe head. By way of response she puked spectacularly; gallons of brown, boggy water. I guessed she’d been submerged for longer than she’d planned.
I must admit I considered leaving her there, but against my better judgement I reluctantly hefted her all the way back to Mrs. Byrne and allowed her to assume the responsibility of looking after my find. I was all for showing this pathetic refugee the door as soon as she’d dried off and had a nap; not because I’m heartless, but the fruits of my garden could only stretch as far as nourishing me and Mrs. B.
The next evening when I got back to the farmhouse, dog tired after a long day digging potato drills, Mrs. Byrnes guest was sitting by the stove wearing Mrs. Byrnes dressing gown and holding a rare mug of hot tea in both hands.
“Ah, Bill,” smiled Mrs. Byrne warmly. “Home at last. Say hello to Rosie.” The self-satisfied expression on Mrs. B’s face was readable from space. It said: Now then Billy; didn’t this one clean up well? The horizontal light of the setting sun glowed warm and yellow through the kitchen window, lighting up Rosie’s face. My teachers tongue – so confident in the classroom – simply died in my mouth.
“Hello Bill,” Rosie said in a clear, pleasant voice. She held my gaze with calm green eyes.
I knew I must seem rude, but after three seconds of staring I could only manage to nod curtly. She was maybe a year or two older than me; skirting thirty, perhaps – no more than that, but she possessed everything I’d ever found attractive in a woman; a fine featured face, thick black hair, cheekbones, lips, wow…red…nice…her nose…everything. Eyes…I had to turn away. Good teeth, too. The truth is I was simply afraid to look at her. I was scared she’d see the terrible attraction I instantly felt just bursting from my astonished eyes.
“Don’t worry, Bill,” she said tonelessly. “I can leave in the morning.”
“No!” I cried; shocked into speech. “No, you mustn’t! You’re not fit to be up and about yet, surely?” I appealed to Mrs. Byrne. “Tell her, Mrs. B.”
Mrs. Byrne smirked knowingly. Smug old biddy. “Bill’s absolutely right,” she said, saint that she is. “You’ll be safe here Rosie, so don’t be in any hurry to leave. Besides, it’ll be wonderful to hear the pitter patter of tiny feet about the place again. It’s been too long since last I heard that sound in this old house.”
As a biology teacher I was familiar with the term pitter patter. I looked at Rosie’s belly.
“Oh…” I said as I observed its obvious rotundity, “…right.”
Yeah – a biology teacher, that’s me. So how come I hadn’t noticed this blatantly obvious bump when I toted her down the mountainside last night? In my defence I’ll only say that with all the puke and slime and bile and all, I’d hardly even noticed she was a girl.
Mrs. Byrne always had chores to do around the house and Rosie just threw herself into them. She wasn’t afraid to work, despite being unused to the things she volunteered for. She offered to clean out the pig pen and the chicken coop without batting an eye, but all she was permitted was some light cleaning: washing dishes and the like, or sweeping the floor.
At night, the three of us got into a pleasant routine of chatting amiably around the kitchen fireplace. Rosie avoided speaking of her past and what had happened to her before she’d come to us. Mrs. B reckoned she just wasn’t ready; that given time she’d let us know. I didn’t mind. I used this special time to steal glances at her in the flickering light.
As she waddled about in advanced pregnancy she did so gracefully and…and there was something maddeningly familiar about her…
“Have we met before?” I finally asked her. “I mean, you seem quite…” I reddened. This sounded like the lamest chat up attempt ever.
“No,” she laughed. “I don’t think so.”
“Were you on TV or something, then?” I persisted, cringing once more. Christ, I’ll be asking next if she’d done any modelled. This wasn’t going well.
“I was on TV a few times, actually,” she said. “On a couple of chat shows, but mainly I preferred to stick to modelling.”
Under the watchful eye of Mrs. B, Rosie got closer and closer to her due date. Mrs. B took me aside one morning and asked if I’d seen any strangers in the valleys lately? No, I replied, I hadn’t. Mrs. B said that Rosie had some mad notion she was being hunted by some big time Dubliner or other. That’s why she’d been hiding in ditches in the first place. Apparently she’d seen me coming that first evening and thought I was stalking her. In light of this possibility I became a bit more vigilant when out and about.
The following day, doing my morning security rounds, I glanced up and saw Rosie gazing at me through the kitchen window. She looked away quickly when our eyes met. Then later, when I was on the mountain, she brought me up a packed lunch.
“Oh,” I said. “You didn’t have to do this.”
“Mrs. B. made me. She said the exercise might start my contractions.”
“I’m only kidding, Billy. The walk is nice. And you’re up here, too.”
“Oh.” I repeated, my heart skittering a little at this observation. I glanced at her distended belly. She noticed. Then she sighed and smiled wanly.
“D’you see this thing?” she began hesitantly, fondly patting her bump. “Its daddy is dead. I was very fond of him but I didn’t love him, though I sometimes enjoyed the glitzy lifestyle we led; photographers, backstage at the concerts, gallery openings, our photos in Hello! But really, it was mostly an empty existence.” She rubbed her belly protectively. “I… didn’t like some of Evans friends,” she said vaguely, as if maybe she shouldn’t. The comment hung unexplained in the air between us.
“But soon,” she smiled brightly; changing the subject, “this little life is going to pop right out of me and I can’t wait. You know, the first time I woke up here, all washed and cosy in Mrs. B’s spare room, I though the End might just have been a morbid dream.”
“It wasn’t,” I said.
“No. But I can’t remember the last time I felt so happy.”
I gazed at her wistfully as she strolled elegantly away in Mrs. B’s oversized paisley wellies. The rough ground and the baby bump didn’t detract from her natural poise. Two hundred metres down Rosie gazed back up and caught me looking. I groaned in dismay and dug my spade into the ground with such extra sweaty vigour that I arrived home that evening smelling like a polecat.
“What on earth is that stench?” cried Mrs. B in horror, winking at Rosie.
“Aw, Mrs. B…” I moaned and left immediately to wash. The laughter of the two women followed me up the stairs.
A week later Rosie gave birth. Mrs. B assisted while I patrolled the immediate perimeter in case anything nasty came along during this vulnerable time. Just before dark I slunk back into the kitchen. Mrs. B breezed in and declared that Rosie was a Mum. It was a boy. She looked so pleased I knew that everything had gone well. I knocked at Rosie’s bedroom door and popped my head hesitantly in. She lay propped up in the bed looking absolutely wrecked.
“Hiya Rosie” I whispered sheepishly.
“Hiya Billy. Come in.”
I have to admit, I’ve just never understood the whole baby thing. I dutifully sized up the infant and it was just – you know, a baby; chubby, featureless, bald and asleep. Sort of scrunched up looking. Purple-ish. Rosie cradled it tenderly in her arms. I wished it was me – except at the age I am now.
“Nice baby!” I smiled.
“How do you feel?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You look kinda… pale.”
“I’m exhausted; it’ll pass.”
“A boy, eh?”
“Yes, isn’t he beautiful?”
“Yeah, just look at him there.” I reached down and fiddled self-consciously with its miniature little fingers. Its fingernails looked like perfect little models of proper sized fingernails.
“Aw, look. What’ll you call him?”
“Evan,” she said, “after his dad. He’d've been a good father, I think.”
I nodded but couldn’t think of anything baby related to say. I gazed down at Rosie as she gazed at her child.
“Listen, Billy,” she said tentatively. “I never properly thanked you for saving my life. No, don’t shake your head. You did, and more importantly, you make me feel safe. You have no idea how wonderful that feels after the last few months I’ve had.”
“Oh, stop,” I protested. “I didn’t save your life.”
“Oh, yes you did,” she insisted. “You did. After Evan was killed I stupidly accepted shelter in the house of one of his big society friends; a creep by the name of Charles Richards. He’s the most nightmarish man I’ve ever… Richards is a sculptor – sometimes he liked to be called The Sculptor, in capitals, like he’s the only one in the world worthy of the title.
“With Evan gone I quickly realised that Richards had plans for me that weren’t…very nice, you know? And I knew if I gave birth under his roof I’d never get away, so when I got the chance I made an impulsive break for it. I stupidly ran right out of his city centre fortress into an overrun street. I had to jump off O’Connell Bridge to avoid getting eaten.” She smiled. “I think the bump was all that kept me afloat.
“This might sound paranoid Billy, but I think Richards may still be after me. Even outside of the city I had a few narrow brushes with some of the guys who do his dirty work; as if they were out looking for me. Richards is a…he’s one of these men who’ll never let an acquisition go. And as far as he was concerned, with Evan out of the picture, I was an acquisition. I belonged to him.”
“You make him sound like a master villain or something. Does he own a fluffy white cat?”
“Don’t joke about him, Billy. I know you’ve got backbone. But you’ve never met him. Meeting you took the edge off my dread of him, but don’t joke about him.” She shifted the baby in her arms and looked directly at me. “There’s something else I need you to know. Mrs. B has asked me to stay. I’d love to, but I have to know if that’s all right with you. It could be terribly risky if I’m right about Richards.”
A surge of delight engulfed me. “You don’t even have to ask!”
“Oh Bill, you’re so sweet,” she said softly. “Thank you. Come here to me.”
Mindful of the baby I leaned carefully over and let Rosie kiss me gently on the lips. Explosives detonated in my chest. My fate was sealed. When I straightened up again she scratched thoughtfully at her cheek.
“If you want any more of those from me,” she said with an ambiguous smirk. “You might want to lose that beard of yours.” My face flushed with unexpected hope, with the promise in her words. It took all of my will power not to burst from the house and run whooping through the valleys.
A week later I came down from the mountain to find Mrs. Byrne weeping quietly in the kitchen.
“Mrs. B?” I gasped. “What’s wrong?”
“Rosie’s gone.” she said flatly.
She explained that a man had come and taken Rosie and Evan away. I mentally blanked from the shock. I thought I’d gone instantly nuts – the raging confusion in my head, the immediate sense of utter loss and terrible fear and disbelief – but I mustn’t have, because when I came back to my senses; minutes, hours later, the house was still intact. Mrs. B. explained that she herself had had all day to calm down and think about what had happened.
“Charles Richards,” I said.
“Not him personally,” said Mrs. B as she poured two large whiskeys with a shaky hand. “But it was his people.” No one had been harmed, she said. The man who took Rosie hadn’t been polite, but he hadn’t been abusive either.
“Howya Rosie,” cried a skinny, red haired man as he cheerfully barged his way into the house that morning. “Is this oul’ one here your Mammy?”
“Pete Finnegan!” Rosie gasped in horror. “How did you find me?” She snatched up a kitchen knife. Finnegan deliberately ignored it as he casually nosed his way around the room.
“You look great Rosie, so you do; as always. Your farmer friend just left, I see. I thought he’d never go. Just as well too, I suppose. I’d hate for there to be any trouble. Charlie’ll be pleased, so he will, me finding you at last. Anyway, enough of the happy reunion chit chat. Pack a small bag only; we’ve a bit of a way to go, and we’re leavin’ now.”
“I can’t go anywhere. I’ve just had a baby.”
“A baby?” laughed the man. “Ah sure, Jaysus, that’s great news! Congrats! Is it a boy or a child? Y’know, Charlie kinda guessed you’d've dropped by now. So guess what? We brought a bicycle rickshaw with us! Yeah! Just for you and the brat! Dekko and Jimmy’ll give us a mountain bike escort all the way home, so they will. I bet you never had one of those before. Not even back in your high and mighty, Hello! magazine days.”
“I told you, Finnegan. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Oh, but you are, Rosie darlin’,” he retorted coldly. “You see, Dekko and Jimmy are keeping tabs on your culchie pal right now – and d’you remember how cranky Jimmy can get for no reason? Well, I’d like all this to go peaceably, wouldn’t you?”
“Don’t, Pete! Do you hear me? They’re not involved.”
“In that case get packin’ and no one’ll get hurt; not him, not granny here and not you. We’ve a distance to cover today, so move it!”
Rosie had no aces. She broke down and wept, pale with fear. Mrs. B hugged her fiercely.
“The lads are gonna hang around for a couple of hours in case yer oul’ granny has any notion of putting Farmer Whatshisname on our trail. Best if he just forgot you ever existed. He’d be safer, y’know?”
Rosie packed a small bag for baby Evan, hugged Mrs. B and left quietly with her abductor. Mrs. B stood helplessly on the doorstep and wept.
“I know you’re going after them, Billy,” said Mrs. B. “But be careful – that red headed thug’s got dead eyes.”
“Rosie mentioned O’Connell Bridge once. They must be headed there.”
“No,” said Mrs. B. “That can’t be right. Dublin’s entirely overrun. More likely you’ll find them in the south suburbs. Take your time, Billy. Don’t panic. Don’t be stupid. Find that lovely girl and her baby and bring them back here in one piece, d’you hear?”
Mrs. B left the room. She came back a moment later and put something in my hand. I was still too shaken by Rosie’s disappearance to ask Mrs B what she was doing with a Tazer.
Three days later I’m looking for clues in the Dublin suburb of Templeogue. I was frantic with worry but I kept it under control. I wandered empty roads and avenues, saw dead traffic lights and fallen wires. I peered into blank windowed houses.
My patience paid off quickly. I was gazing from the upper window of a semi-detached house when two cyclists passed the low garden wall outside. They moved slowly, cautiously; ensuring that they saw everything but were noticed by nothing. One of them had a mop of flaming red hair.
I almost tumbled down the stairs in my excitement. I tried to follow but they gave me the slip by crossing the open expanse of the Bushy Park playing fields. If they had lookouts planted in the trees beyond I’d be finished, so I crept away to consider my next step.
I needed information and I needed answers. I needed Rosie back. I didn’t know how ruthless I could get, but on my journey to Dublin something dark had grown inside me as the miles went by. Some kind of self-defence mechanism had bloomed and I welcomed it, whatever it was. It felt like a second self had formed inside my head; a new Billy. He lacked scruples and self-doubt; he had a blurred sense of right and wrong. He was on a vendetta. And now, right on time, this cold new Billy helped me dream up a ramshackle, complicated plan to question this redheaded guy – but on my own exclusive terms.
My luck held. The following day they passed my window again. This implied routine, a patrol, so I began my preparations. I soon found exactly what I was looking for; a bedraggled cadaver standing stock still on a once pleasant avenue. I snapped a pillowcase over its head from behind. Before it could flail or struggle I dropped a rope noose around its neck and cinched it tight. I kicked its legs from under it and dragged it along the ground to a local school gymnasium.
Inside, I tied it to a wall mounted climbing frame. I allowed the corpse a small radius of movement, nothing much – a couple of metres – and I left its hands and legs free. Then carefully…very, very carefully, I took the pillowcase from its head and darted out of reach. I christened it Mr. Darcy after an ex-girlfriends father. It moaned and growled and tried to grab at my face. Just like the real Mr. Darcy had once done. I cautiously marked his circular reach on the wooden floor with a piece of chalk. This boundary was strictly for my own safety.
The next day the two men showed again. I deliberately let them spot me in the open. They shouted, I ran, they pursued, calling out for me to stop, to wait up. I locked myself in a one car garage attached to a house just across from the school. They hammered at the door with their fists as I waited nervously for them to take the bait I’d planted outside earlier.
Ahh, chocolates! Folks would kill for them these days and my enemies, spotting the expired Milk Tray at their feet just dived helplessly in. It was so simple. I was momentarily forgotten.
Ha, hahh…strong sedatives. I waited, heart pounding, until their conversation faltered and died. I quietly left by the back door and snuck around the avenue. My enemies were now my victims. They weren’t quite unconscious, but they weren’t fighting fit either.
Getting them across the road to the gym was difficult; as was hoisting their dead weight into chairs in the middle of the empty floor. I secured each one to his seat with wrappings of duct tape. Mr. Darcy stared at my activity with intense interest. The sun emerged from behind a cloud and blazed down through the high windows. The sunbeams drew a burning halo round the limp outlines of my woozy prisoners. Mr. Darcy shuffled towards us from the shadows, flustered by his noose.
Eventually, my captives began to regain their composure; puzzlement clouding their features. Are we awake or asleep? But it was the sight of the agitated corpse fidgeting beyond the curtain of the suns glare that brought them to their senses. He focused their attention, all right. I stood before them; my back to Mr. Darcy – I wanted him in their line of sight.
“Are you awake, lads?” I asked. “Good. Meet Mr. Darcy.” Right on cue, Mr. Darcy moaned a dismal greeting.
“That means he’s hungry. If you answer my questions he’ll stay hungry. If you lie to me, he’ll get fed. Okay? You,” I said to the one on my left. “What’s your name?”
“Dekko.” He said quietly as he eyeballed Mr Darcy.
“Dekko? Good. And you?” I asked the one to my right.
“Pete.” Yeah. Red haired Pete Finnegan. The one that lifted Rosie. If I find his boss I’ll find her.
“Dekko and Pete,” I said. “All right, I’m not interested in you two eejits. It’s your boss I’m after. Where is he?”
“You!” I said to Dekko. “Tell me where he’s holed up?”
“Where’s who holed up?” interrupted Finnegan before Dekko could speak. “Who are you talking about? Why have you got us tied up? We didn’t do nuthin’.”
“I wasn’t talking to you!” I said.
“Well, I’m feckin’ talking to you!” he exclaimed angrily. “Who the bleedin’ hell are you, anyway?” It was important that I dominated proceedings so I zapped him with Mrs. B’s Tazer. His body spasmed and arched – giving me a fright.
“Don’t!” Dekko snivelled. “We’ll tell you whatever you want to know. Just tell us who you’re looking for – who it is you mean?”
“Who is it I mean?” I said in disbelief. “Charles Richards! Charles feckin’ Richards.”
Dekko averted his eyes, “…never heard of him.”
Bad liar. I put down the Tazer, walked behind him and tipped his chair backwards on two legs. He squawked with alarm as I pulled him out of the sunlight, chair legs screeching, and across the floor to Mr. Darcy. Dekko screamed when he realised my intent. Pete did too. The gymnasium echoed with their horrified cries.
“Stop! Stop!” begged Dekko frantically. “I’ll tell you! Please, please! I’ll tell you everything! I’ll be good! Please, I’ll be good! I’ll tell you whatever you want to know!”
He wriggled against his bonds as we approached the rancid corpse. Mr. Darcy groaned in anticipation. The stench of his dead exhalations was foul. He stretched his arms towards us. I stopped at the chalk line, at the brink. I positioned Dekko’s chair so that Mr. Darcy, at a stretch, could just about scratch dryly at his knees without getting a grip.
“If you don’t tell me where Richards is,” I told him. “You’re dead. I’m a desperate man and I will feed him – I will…if that’s what it takes to get any info out of either of you. Now, you were about to say…?”
But Dekko was traumatised beyond speech by Mr. Darcy’s rasping touch.
“Come on,” I coaxed. “Where’s Richards?”
“We don’t know any feckin’ Richards!” yelled Pete from behind, his agitated face bright red, the tendons in his neck sticking out like ropes. “Will you listen? Look, we know some other survivors that might be able to help you. We’ll take you to them. Maybe they’ll know?”
“I know you know him.” I said, ignoring Pete and pushing Dekko closer in. “Mr. Darcy is going to eat the meat from your face and you’ll be aware of every second of it. It won’t be quick and it won’t get fixed. Now TALK!”
But Dekko was useless. Terror had chased his mind away. “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t…” His hands juddered and his feet drummed the floor. This was bad. He wasn’t capable of telling me anything. I realised I’d have to try a different tack or I’d really have to feed him to the corpse.
“Have you heard of the Sculptor, then? Charles Richards sometimes calls himself the Sculptor.” I said. “Does this ring any bells?”
“Yes!” screamed Dekko piercingly. “Yes! It does! It does! It doeeesssss!”
Pete didn’t look too pleased at this admission. I pulled Dekko back from the chalk line just to shut him up.
“So, tell me about the Sculptor.” I ordered Pete.
I could see he was thinking hard, coming up with some sort of story. “We only know the name, bud,” he said after a moment; a touch of slyness in his voice. “Survivors around here say he’s not human, that he’s some sort of devil, so we don’t mention his name. Do we, Dekko? It’s bad luck.”
“What sort of shite is that?” I exclaimed. “It’ll be bad luck if you don’t give me something more useful than that.”
“Pete, Pete!” whined Dekko unexpectedly. “Don’t let it get me!”
“Jaysus, Dekko. Just shurrup, willya!” snapped Pete. “Look, the Sculptors meant to live in the city centre, in the Pro-cathedral.”
The Pro-Cathedral? Now, there’s a valuable snippet. That’s just down the street from where Rosie jumped into the river, but I needed to be sure of this. If I had to go into an overrun city I wanted to go straight to the correct location. I wanted no mistakes.
“Bollocks,” I scoffed. “No one lives in Dublin. It’s wall to wall Dead. I don’t believe you.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t give a shite what you believe. I’m just telling you what we heard.”
“Heard from who?” I asked, deciding to play his game.
“Oh, some guy,” he shrugged and looked away, trying to appear casual.
“Just, you know, some filthy weirdo we met in…eh, Terenure; wasn’t it, Dekko? Naked from the waist down he was, and covered in shite.”
I’d heard these exact same tones in the past when my pupils swore blind that their dog ate their homework. Except this was different; Pete was making fun of me. He was having a laugh. I let him, for now.
“This weirdo told us about the Sculptor,” continued Pete, warming to the subject. “We’d never heard of any Sculptor before that. This fella said he was in the Pro-cathedral one time. He said it’s full of horrors that The Sculptor calls art; wooden statues of famous history scenes and shite like that, except there’s something wrong with all of them.”
“What was the weirdo’s name?” I asked patiently.
“Wha’?” he snapped. “How should I feckin’ know? Mister bleedin’ Weirdo! Jaysus…anyway, he said the Sculptor walked them right through some corpse filled streets just to get there. Imagine that? The Sculptor says to him: We’lljust stroll through these dead lads here! They’re harmless. Get out of my way there, you dead lads, he called, and the Dead just parted like the Red Sea and let them all stroll through.”
“All?” I said. “Who’s All?”
“Well… the Sculptor had a woman and baby with him.” Pete glanced at me. “The sculptor said to the weirdo: you carry the baby. This woman’s a bit of a handful.”
A cloud slipped across the sun and the gymnasium was plunged into gloom. I remained calm but a chill grew in me. The mere mention of Rosie…Something blinked into existence in my mind and cursed me for a weakling. My anger at this scumbag began to build. Something wriggled in my guts and attempted to break free, ordering me to go over and slap the bastard.
“Go on.” I said instead. “What about the woman and the baby?”
“Never got a chance to ask,” he answered nonchalantly. “Some Dead came along. The weirdo said he’d be okay because he was the Sculptors subject. We ran, though; didn’t we, Dekko? Hey! Dekko, are you still with us, there? Anyway, we left the poor eejit in the street, waving his willy around.” Pete sniggered. “Heh! You shoulda seen him. And d’you know what? Those corpses – they just pushed him out of the way and carried on after us. What did I tell yiz lads? Yelled the weirdo after us. They know who I belong to! Then he sat on the kerb and began to cry. I’m lost! He shouted. Ha, ha, ha. Sorry, but it just looked so funny. You’d have to be there, I suppose.”
“I’ve heard enough of your shite!” I snapped. “Do you take me for a complete eejit?”
“Naw, don’t be so hard on yourself,” retorted Pete slickly. “You seem smart enough. Now, how about lettin’ us go.”
“Are you pulling my plonker? Let you go? After treating me like I’m a complete fool? I’ll sit you over beside Dekko is what I’ll do, if you don’t tell me where Richards is!”
“You stupid dickhead!” he sneered. “I told you! The Pro-Cathedral!”
“What do you think, Dekko?” I asked. “Is your mate here telling me the truth?”
Dekko moaned, tears flowing. “Please, Pete. I want to go home.”
“Why don’t you tell me where Richards is, Dekko,” I asked. “Why are you letting this sneering weasel do this to you?” But Dekko just shut up.
“I’ve told you where he is,” Pete interrupted in a low, serious voice. “And I’ll tell you something else too. So listen carefully pal, okay? All the survivors round here – they don’t mention the Sculptor because of what I said earlier… they say he’s not a man; that he’s something else. They’re afraid if they say his name he’ll suddenly appear in a puff of black smoke or something! Conjured up, like!” Pete continued, his mocking tone gone.
“Seriously,” he went on, “just consider this for a minute; the Dead are walking, right? That’s not natural, is it? No! Not by a long stretch – the Dead are walking!” he emphasised. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “So why can’t other things exist out there as well? Why can’t other darker, more unnatural things just be?”
“Like the Sculptor, I suppose?”
“Exactly!” he whispered emphatically. “Just like the Sculptor.”
I’d had a bellyful. My patience was exhausted. This hadn’t gone anything like I’d expected just a few minutes ago; though I was vaguely satisfied that Rosie actually was in the Pro-Cathedral with Richards.
It was time to go. There was time for some fun first, though. I took a large knife from my bag and showed it to Pete. He’d kidnapped my Rosie and I wanted to mark him for it. To remind him. He looked me in the eye and paled. He recognised, too late, that he’d misread me. His smirk faltered, which only strengthened my resolve.
“Not so cocky now, are you Finnegan?” I hissed. “You lying, smartarse bastard.” I moved the curved point of the blade along his face and let it pause below his eye. “You stole my woman and thought you could laugh about it to my face.” A teardrop of blood ran down his cheek. “And then you insult my intelligence and give me nothing. Do you think there’s no price to pay for that?”
“What are you doing?” he asked softly, a quiver in his voice. “Don’t…”
“Don’t what?” I said quietly. “Pop your eye out? Cut your throat? You’ve had your fun Pete, haven’t you? And I’ve played along, listening patiently to your lies. Now, this is your final chance. Where’s Richards hiding? Just tell me and maybe I’ll let you walk out of here.”
Now I was lying. I was really only teasing myself of course; prolonging the pleasure of the moment as I decided whether to slit his cornea or widen his mouth. I reminded myself of how he’d stolen Rosie and deliberately obstructed me from finding her.
“Alright,” he said, reading my expression. “I’ve gotcha. Just put the knife down. Okay?”
“Just say it.”
“He has her in the Pro-cathedral just like I said. Okay? I swear. That’s the truth! He’s…”
That was all I needed. I dragged his chair across the floor and parked him beside Dekko. Then I pushed them both over the chalk line. Just a tad, but just enough. Mr. Darcy went hysterical. He scrabbled from leg to leg, stumbling and thrashing about, only a trouser crease away from gripping something useful. The boys squealed. Finnegan most of all.
“Pull us back!” he cried. “You’ve made your point, you bastard! I told you the truth! Pull us back!”
But I didn’t. As an afterthought I threw the knife across the chalk line. It clattered to a stop behind Mr. Darcy. If they could reach it – which I doubted – it was theirs, but quite frankly it was just my way of convincing my future self that I’d given them a fighting chance. I don’t think they even noticed the knife anyway. I left the school grounds with their shrieks adding a little spring to my step.
By noon the next day I’d made it as far as the Grand Canal by ducking quietly from garden to garden, or by moving through narrow, high walled lanes behind houses. The dead were getting more numerous the closer I got to the city centre but my yearning for Rosie drove me onwards. I considered skirting north to Chapelizod to find a boat. I could paddle to O’Connell Bridge under cover of darkness and make a new plan once I got there.
I had just crossed the canal when a completely unexpected thing occurred. I was hunkered in a narrow lane that opened onto a street of terraced red brick houses. A pair of silent corpses sat on the ground ahead of me; gazing at nothing, blocking my exit. Others roamed silently beyond them. As I quietly reached for my axe I heard a tiny noise behind me.
I whipped around, startled, and who was crouching there only Pete; his finger raised to his lips for silence.
“Finnegan…?” I blurted, utterly astonished.
“Howya bud,” he whispered with a wink. “Small world, eh? Here, you forgot this.”
He tazed me. Then a needle was jabbed into my neck and the sky surged green. Then it smoothed over all black and then…
…there was a strong smell of sawdust and wood shavings and candle wax and incense. There was also a background smell of decay associated with the close presence of the dead. It permeated the air. I stank of shite, but I didn’t think it was my own. I was afraid to open my eyes. I was afraid if I broke the vacuum in my head my liquefied brain might flow right out of my nose. Pete Finnegan – that sly bastard – how did he escape? And more to the point…
“How the hell did he find me?” I muttered.
“I tracked you with me bleedin’ ninja skills, so I did.”
Finnegan! Bastard! I put my hand to my forehead but my hand wouldn’t move. I tried to raise my arms and failed. My legs were locked solidly to…something. I opened my eyes and groaned at the simple irony of it. Pete’s preferred method of bondage was electrical cable ties. He’s bound me fast to a wheelchair.
I gazed up at a high, vaulted church ceiling. Pews were stacked and piled against the inside walls. Shadowy, indistinct groups of people sat and stood in clusters all around the cleared floor space. Pete and I were surrounded by them. The light was so bad it was hard to see much detail. It took me a moment to realise I was looking at the historical sculptures that Pete had mentioned – Richards artistic renderings of famous moments in time. So there was some truth to his waffle after all.
“Is this the Pro-Cathedral?” I croaked.
“The Pro-Cathedral?” snickered Pete. “Nope, not any more. There’s no stupid old gods here now. They’ve all been banished.”
“What’s here instead, then?”
“Why, the Sculptor a’course. He’s around here somewhere.”
“Ah…poor old Dekko,” Pete sighed sadly. “Being digested, I suppose. He bravely distracted your Mr. Darcy so I could get to that knife you so kindly left.”
“Jaysus, Pete,” I tried. “I gave you a chance, didn’t I? How about returning the favour and cutting me loose? Who’d ever know?”
“Naw, I wouldn’t be very popular if I did that. You’re not my prisoner, y’see? Me, I kinda admire you. You’re no slouch. If I had my way I’d just kick you in the nuts a couple of times and let you go – maybe – but the boss has something in mind for you. It’s best if you just stick around and have a chat with him; see what his plans are. But here,” he said. “Lemme at least give you this.”
He slapped me hard across the ear with the flat of his hand. “That was for those bleedin’ chocolates,” he explained. “They gave me the trots. Before I could cut meself loose I’d soiled me pants.”
I waited for the pain to subside. The last vestiges of late evening light illuminated the stained glass windows above the alter, but everything at ground level was getting gloomy. Darkness was falling.
Directly in front of me, and frighteningly lifelike, stood a group of wooden statues depicting ragged, wraith-thin famine victims as they queued to board a coffin ship for America. I glanced further afield. There stood Big Jim Larkin, arms held high, exhorting the exploited workers to action during the Dublin Lockout. There were at least twenty other groupings on view, maybe more, but I couldn’t identify their subject matter in the dimness. Not that I cared; I had a more urgent concern.
“Where’s Rosie?” I asked.
“With the boss. I’m to bring you to him as soon as you wake.”
“What? Let’s go, then!” I didn’t feel as brave as I sounded, but Rosie was here.
Pete shrugged and pushed me in the general direction of the alter. We had to follow a slow, zigzagging path between the sculpted groupings to get there.
“How is she?”
“Lookin’ great, as always.”
“I knew all along it was you that took her and the baby.” I said in an attempt to needle him.
“Yeah? Well, I’d watched you for two days up there in the hills, you feckin eejit. Still, you’d never have gotten this far without me. I dragged you here through the old sewers; the only safe way in and out of town.”
“The sewers? What happened to parting the Dead like the Red Sea?”
He snorted derisively as we sauntered past a wounded James Connolly directing battle from his sick bed – inside the burning GPO, presumably – a pair of wooden nurses heroically tending him.
“Let me go, Pete!” I pleaded suddenly. “Please? I just need to get them out of here. You can come with us.”
“Sorry bud,” he said sadly. “It’s too late for any of that.”
I bit down on my frustration. “Listen, why do you help Richards at all? You know he’s nuts.”
“Shush, wouldya. He’ll hear. Look, you know the way it is. It’s all winners and losers these days, bud. You have to side with the winners to stay alive; good or bad, y’know?”
I mulled this over as we passed an impressively large tableau of the Nativity; life size oxen and donkeys and the three wise men. Joseph and Mary kneeling piously by a crib woven from rushes. Mary’s hands pressed together in prayer as she gazed at her beautifully sculpted newborn nestling on a bed of hay.
“I like this one,” Pete commented. “Pity it’s too dark to see it properly.”
Joseph’s unclothed wooden body was obviously still a work in progress. The pegs and dowels for the missing head jutted upwards from the neck. Wood shavings littered the floor.
“Wait though,” he said suddenly. “I’ll get us a light. We’ll see it better then.” With that, he disappeared off through a forest of darkly dressed, foreboding figures, his footsteps reverberating off the walls and roof.
“Wait,” I called. “Pete? Come back!”
Somewhere in the direction of the alter a door echoed open – then closed – leaving me utterly alone in the vaulted dark and lightless silence. Sinister shapes loomed everywhere. At first, all I could hear was my own nervous breathing, but then I became gradually aware of a subtle background noise; a restrained susurrus whispering quietly through the groupings. It was like the softest of murmurs, the faintest rustling of cloth. I became very still. The waft of decay became more pronounced. The noise was countered by a barely audible plick over there, a little tock over here. A shuffle…The more I listened the more obvious this sibilant disturbance became. My unease increased. My flesh began to crawl. I realised I was spooked, sitting in this great indoor space surrounded by the Sculptors macabre works.
I waited for returning footsteps; for the light Pete would bring to chase away the deep, threatening shadows. I had never felt so vulnerable. What on earth was that growing murmur? The compulsion to yell for Pete at the top of my voice was almost irresistible.
“Can you hear my babies talking?” grumbled a deep voice in my ear.
“Jesus Christ!” I yelped.
“Shush! Just listen to them…as soon as the dark creeps in they whisper their delightful little secrets to one another.”
A flashlight flared on and chased away the immediate darkness. Huge lumbering shadows twisted and danced along the soaring walls and distant ceiling. The wooden tableaus lit up – then blinked out – as the beam swept across them. The noises subsided with the light.
He stepped in front of me, lit only by the reflected illumination of the torch. He could have been fifty, or forty – or maybe only thirty – I was honestly at a loss to say. His sharp features were topped by a mass of black hair slicked back from a pronounced widow’s peak. He regarded me through eyes so deep-set I couldn’t see them beneath his heavy, arching eyebrows. His beard was shorter and more neatly trimmed than my own.
“How did you sneak up on me like that!” I yelled.
His face split apart in a wide, toothy smile. “Now, now,” he chided. “No need to raise your voice. This place is mine and I don’t need to sneak around within its walls. You were listening so intently to my babies’ conversations that you just didn’t notice my arrival. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to welcome you here. I believe you’ve travelled all the way from the wilds of Wicklow just to visit me?”
“Don’t flatter yourself. I’ve come to take Rosie and her baby back.”
“Have you now?” he commented thoughtfully. “How chivalrous. But they’re not yours to take, are they?”
“Yes, they are.”
“No,” he purred. “They’re not. They’re all mine now. But I have to hand it to you; I really do; for making this gruelling trip just to retrieve them. And questioning Pete and Dekko? Marvellous stuff. You’re a regular Pimpernel, aren’t you, Billy?”
“And you’re Charles Richards, the so-called Sculptor.”
“Please; just call me Charlie,” he said diffidently. “Charlie Joseph Richards, that’s me, and you and I are going to be great friends. We have so much to talk about. I’d love to discuss certain…”
“We’re discussing nothing,” I interrupted. “I’ve got nothing to say to you. Untie me! Take me to Rosie.”
I hardly saw him move, yet suddenly his nose was only inches from mine. As he stared at me piercingly I saw his intense black eyes for the first time. A genuine lunacy danced giddily in there and it was delighted with itself. After a moment he sighed and stood. His big shoulders drooped in mock defeat.
“Oh, very well,” he muttered petulantly. “I can see you don’t want to chat. I’m very disappointed of course, but have it your way. Let’s go and see Rosie.” He grasped the handles of the wheelchair and pushed me effortlessly forward. We were almost at the alter rails when he said: “Wait. May I show you something first?”
He wheeled me all the way back to the Nativity tableau, swept the veil aside from the Virgin Marys face and pinned it back with a flourish.
“There!” he announced proudly. “Now, tell me what you think? But please, be honest.” He held his breath and gazed at me eagerly. The unveiled carving was genuinely good. Rosie had obviously been the model.
“You did this in just a few days?” I asked.
“Oh, goodness no, I’m not that good,” he declared modestly. “I had all my sketches completed of course – mostly from Rosie’s old magazine shoots – and I had the body carved and the clothes tailored to fit. But no, I couldn’t complete it without Rosie herself being here.”
“Oh no, no” he chuckled. “No, here. Look.” He shone the flashlight directly on the figures face. “There, see?”
Rosie’s carved likeness gazed down at the Baby Jesus. I blinked; what did he want me to see? I… I blinked again. Mary’s lustreless eyes were grinding dryly sideways in their sockets. I flinched. They locked on to mine and we stared at each other, eyeball to eyeball; Rosie and I. She opened her mouth without turning her head and clicked her discoloured teeth in slow, weak movements; clack…clack…
I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t think. I realised numbly that her nun-like garb concealed some form of neck to wood grafting. I realised that every figure in the cathedral shared this surgery.
“Oh my, yes,” whispered Richards ecstatically. “Isn’t she’s just the classic beauty? What do you really think, though?” The Baby Jesus twitched once – twice, in response. Evans grey newborn lips puckered. Subtle noises rose again and spread through the cathedral darkness.
“Ahh,” whispered Richards, his eyes closing blissfully. “My babies, my babies…those little scamps, they’re singing again.”
“Oh, Rosie.” I whispered.
“Oh, you poor, poor man,” Richards cooed sympathetically. “You really are upset, aren’t you? Or perhaps…maybe you’re simply overwhelmed by the wonder of my artistry?” he gestured dismissively. “Anyway, whatever.”
Humming to himself he produced a small tape and took a measurement across Joseph’s wooden neck stump. He then took a similar measurement across mine. He rubbed his hands gleefully together and drifted silkily away into the gloom.
“I’ll just leave you two lovebirds alone for now,” he chuckled as he left. “Goodnight now, Billy. You’re going to make a splendid Joseph, you know. Sensitive features, expressive eyes, not being the child’s actual father…ha, ha! Why, even your beard is just exactly the right length.”