The mood of the crowd, as I am bundled through the open doorway and forced outside, is buoyant. My cellmate of the past twenty-four hours is dragged ahead of me. I stumble along behind at the end of a rope, my hands tied behind my back. I must say it’s a relief to feel fresh air on my face again. I’ve been confined to more than my fair share of cages and jail cells over the past six months. The stench and squalor of my latest incarceration has to rank right up there with the best of ‘em. I’m well aware if I were to grow an extra pair of legs and exhibit a fondness for sniffing my own butt, I could expect to receive far better treatment. I’m covered in what look suspiciously like flea bites, making me itchy in places that really shouldn’t be scratched in public. It’s just as well my hands are otherwise occupied.
Cautiously, I test the bonds chaffing at my wrists. There’s not an ounce of give in the knots. The gorillas in these parts may suffer from a complete absence of brain cells, but no-one would dare question their ability with a piece of rope. It’s going to be a tad inconvenient when my arms drop off through lack of circulation, but I’m not entirely convinced I’ll actually feel anything. Apart from the swelling on my face where one of the goons saw fit to clobber me, and the mandatory scrapes and bruises, the rest of me is in relatively good shape. I have a very bad feeling that’s all about to change.
I’m not sure where the gorilla guards are taking us but I know it can’t be good. At least the crowd seems to be having a great time. Whatever’s going on, I want no part of it. After the gloom of the prison block, the sunlight is blindingly bright. I squint at the gathering mob, searching the sea of faces in a frantic effort to locate Virdon and Galen, wondering for the hundredth time how I ever got myself into this mess. Man, I can’t believe the way trouble follows me around. There are many degrees of stupidity. This latest effort borders on imbecilic.
The throng parts further and we are herded into the centre of the square.
It seems my cellmate and I are the star attraction of this so-called circus. I’m not particularly comfortable with my newfound celebrity status. Sure would be nice if someone told me what the hell is going on. Normally adept at talking his way in or out of any situation, even Galen has been unable to get within a hundred feet of my prison cell to put me in the loop. To my right is a raised platform, topped with a simple beam. I catch a glimpse of Virdon positioned near the edge of the crowd, barely restrained by Galen. At the last possible moment, I identify the source of Virdon’s agitation. Right out of a scene from a B Grade Western, two nooses dangle ominously from the wooden structure. It is the final clincher. I am in some seriously deep doo-doo. Right up to my soon-to-be-stretched neck.
“Oh fuck,” is all I can think.
I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked by this charming little scenario. Given that I’m Public Enemy Number One (or Two, or Three - depending on your point of view) odds are I would find myself in this predicament one day. I just figured it would be for my heinous crimes against apekind. Instead I’m going down for stealing a lousy oper.
Not that I really nicked it. Well, technically, I guess I did. But the whole episode was just a simple misunderstanding. One moment I’m in the middle of the market place, staying out of trouble just like Virdon instructed me, hefting an oper with one hand. Next thing I know, the stallholder is yelling and cursing at me like there’s no tomorrow. Six months on the run has taught me one thing, and one thing only – run like hell, and ask questions later.
Taking off like a scalded cat with the so-called evidence in my possession was probably not my finest hour. Getting myself captured was even dumber. Not that I didn’t try like crazy to escape. I’m certainly no slouch in the running department, but it’s nigh on impossible to outrun bullets from a rifle pointed an inch or two from your head. Dunno where those gorilla soldiers materialised from....
And yet, my week started out on a comparatively good note. We’ve been working at the farm of a chimp named Maldon, another one of Galen’s seemingly endless supply of relatives - Yalu’s second cousin, I think, twice or three times removed. I’ve completely lost track. Galen’s been in his element, lording it over the slave labour (namely Virdon and me) whilst we toil the fields, shirtless, under a blazing hot sun, offering up a vast array of unwanted advice from the safety of the sidelines. Farmboy’s been no better - raving on about the importance of crop rotation, his eyes glazing over at the chance to hang around the barn when we’re finished, knee-deep in cow shit, chatting to the livestock. I seriously don’t get it.
Normally the going rate for a ten hour day is a meal at night (if we’re lucky) and the dubious honour of bedding down with a bunch of noisy, not-to- mention smelly animals. But this time we totally lucked out – a decent roof over our heads, comfortable beds to sleep in, and three meals a day. Even better, we were actually paid for our labours. A token amount, of course, but more than enough to buy a handful of opers. There’s irony for you - the means to pay, and yet I lost my cool and ran.
The guards resolutely drag me forward to stand beside my former cellmate. I continue to struggle, twisting and thrashing in their vice-like grip. In stark contrast, my buddy is strangely docile, seemingly unable to take anything in. I still don’t know his godamn name. Confined together for the past two days, I’ve been unable to pry a single word from him the entire time. Either my conversation skills totally suck, or the guy is deaf and dumb.
He is hoisted towards the scaffold so I’m guessing he drew the short straw; I’m not about to object or anything. There’s no drum roll. No heralding of our unspeakable crimes. Not even the offer of a last cigarette. Just a clear intention to hurry proceedings along. The sorry procession reaches the platform and I notice the stain on the front of the condemned man’s pants where he has wet himself, poor bastard. At last he comes to life. His eyes are wide and panicked and he gives a low moan. It slowly intensifies into a pitiful scream. At least I can rule out my deaf mute theory.
Don’t know which is worse - going first, or being forced to watch. This is my first hanging (as either spectator or participant) so I’ll have to reserve judgment. I’m certainly not going anywhere right now with a three hundred pound gorilla attached to the other end of the rope looped around my waist. Yep. This is turning out to be a really bad day.
The noose is fastened around the man’s neck and he immediately stills. The trapdoor in the platform opens and he drops neatly through to dangle at the end of the rope. I turn from his writhing body, unable to stand the torture
on his face. Mercifully, it is over in minutes. There is no more movement, just the occasional twitch from the hanging form. I suck in a deep breath and focus on keeping the meagre contents of my stomach right where they belong.
I gather it is my turn.
“You forgot to say please,” I retort, aiming a kick at the guard’s shins.
An appreciative roar resounds around the square. The locals sense I won’t go easily, the way of my predecessor. They’ve come to watch the entertainment, so I’ll damn well give them a show. Uttering a string of curses, I resist King Kong and his evil twin every step of the short trip to the gallows. Some would question my sanity, but I feel compelled to do it anyway. At this stage, I have precious little to lose. Drenched in sweat, I know that a change of underwear is just around the corner.
My lips start moving in a silent plea to a long-forgotten God. The odd thunderclap or bolt of lightning isn’t too much to ask, is it? All I need is a little distraction here. Virdon and Galen will surely take care of the rest. At least I’m praying Virdon has a masterplan tucked up his sleeve. I’m fresh out of ideas, myself. I glance at a sky that remains a clear and resolute blue. It would seem that divine intervention is simply not on the cards. The guy upstairs has more important matters to attend to.
Okay. I can handle this debacle with a modicum of dignity. No problem. That is until I catch a glimpse of the inert body of my fellow inmate being cut down and hauled away. His face is a mottled purple and his swollen tongue protrudes grotesquely from between his teeth. Despite my best intentions, vomiting is inevitable and I barf all over the nearest guard’s shiny black boots; a definite highlight in what has so far, been a pretty crappy day. My efforts are rewarded with a crippling blow to the stomach, sending me crashing to the ground.
Amid the jeers of the crowd, the gorillas yank me to my feet by the hair, half dragging, half carrying me up the stairs of the platform. I can hear my name being shouted and I force my chin upwards in an effort to locate Virdon, frantically signalling him with urgent shakes of my head. Any sort of rescue would be sheer and utter suicide. There are too many armed gorillas scattered around the square. No sense in all of us going down.
My mouth is dry, my heart pounding, as I stare fixedly at the noose dangling in front of my nose. I don’t consider myself to be a coward, but the thought of dying this way terrifies me. I hate that Galen and Virdon must watch this, yet their presence is oddly comforting. Not that I’ll blame them if they turn and hightail it outa here. But I know my friends too well. Whatever the final outcome, they’ll stay until the end. I’d do the same in their place.
The rope is secured around my neck, forcing me up onto the balls of my feet. I can see now why Dead Guy went quiet. Any movement increases the pressure on my larynx, a far from pleasant sensation. In the interests of staying alive a few minutes longer, I stop struggling. Damned if I’m gonna make these assholes’ job any easier for them. With my hands still tightly secured behind my back, it takes all of my concentration to remain balanced. One small wobble and I’m toast. The trapdoor beneath my feet won’t need to be put through its paces for a second time. All that’s left now is for Urko to rock up and my day will be complete.
The guards step silently backwards, awaiting a signal from the Prefect. I can imagine him standing there, arms folded across his chest, smiling benevolently at the mob. No doubt the bastard is getting a real kick out of all this.
“Wait!” There is a collective gasp from the crowd. “I demand to know what is going on here!”
I’m pretty sure it is Maldon speaking, but I’m too busy maintaining my precarious balancing act to look around and confirm it.
“Maldon.” Okay, I know that voice. It belongs to Slimeball Prefect, aka Lothar. “It’s perfectly obvious what is going on.”
“I insist you stop this hanging. At once!” Listen to the man - I mean, ape. He’s making a whole lotta sense.
Lothar is outraged. “What right do you have to insist on such a thing?”
“I have every right. You are about to hang one of my servants. I demand to know why!”
“One of your……?” For a moment, Lothar sounds hesitant. “This human was caught stealing from the marketplace. You know the penalty for that particular crime is death by hanging.”
Well, the least they could do is to post a few signs about the place. Sure would have saved me a whole slew of trouble.
“It’s true, I sent him on an errand to the marketplace, but he had the means to pay for his purchases. What proof do you have that he stole anything?”
“Proof?” Lothar is obviously not used to having his authority questioned. “He was caught red-handed by the stall owner.”
I’ve already been down this path with Lothar, trying to explain it was all a stupid misunderstanding. In all honesty, our brief conversation didn’t go too well. I told him exactly which orifice he could jam the sick joke that passes for a judicial system in these parts. He had two of his finest deliver his swift response, the result being the impressive array of bruises currently decorating my ribcage. I should probably learn to keep my big trap shut, but some things need to be said.
There is plenty more I could tell him right now, but I politely refrain. Some of Virdon’s diplomacy must be rubbing off on me. Now there’s a heady thought.
“Where is this stall owner?” Maldon is nothing if not persistent. “I want to hear for myself.”
The rope is uncomfortably snug around my throat but I chance a quick glance down, watching the stall holder reluctantly trundle forward. He looks the way I feel; as though he’d rather be anywhere now but here. I almost feel sorry for him. And when I swivel my head even further, I can see Virdon edging his way slowly towards the platform.
“Tell Maldon what happened,” Lothar demands. “This nonsense has gone on long enough.”
The stall holder remains silent.
“I’m waiting.” It seems Head Honcho is more than a little pissed. The crowd is hushed with anticipation, enthralled by the exchange.
Lothar impatiently cuts him off. “Tell Maldon exactly what this human stole from your stall.”
“Nothing? What do you mean, nothing?”
“I must have been mistaken. The human ran, and I assumed he had stolen something. It seems that I was wrong. Nothing was taken.”
“Why didn’t you speak up before now?”
Eyes averted, the chimpanzee says nothing, sullenly shuffling his feet in the dirt.
“There you have it, Lothar,” Maldon crows triumphantly. “The only crime my servant is guilty of is one of stupidity.” He leans toward Lothar confidentially, tapping the side of his head. “It’s true he’s a little dim-witted, slower than most humans in fact, but he is a good worker.”
I feel compelled to voice my protest but self-preservation kicks in. I close my mouth and do my best to look, well, simple.
drives his point home. “We’ve established what really happened. Now I insist
that you release him!”
My concentration snaps and my balance wavers. I am brought up short as the slipknot tightens another notch, the noose digging painfully into my throat. Filled with panic, I start to choke. Heedless of the guns pointed in our direction, Virdon jumps up on the platform and grabs me firmly around the waist, almost hoisting me off my feet.
“Hang in there, Pete,” he urges.
I cringe at his poor choice of words. He struggles to get a purchase on the noose embedded around my throat, until finally he manages to work his fingers under the rope and relieve the pressure. A horrible rattling sound escapes me as I gulp precious air into my lungs.
“Well, Lothar. What do you intend to do? Hang this human for a crime he didn’t even commit?” A murmur of discontent sweeps the crowd. Ten minutes ago they were baying for my blood, now it is Lothar’s turn to feel the heat. “If so, I will naturally expect appropriate compensation.”
Lothar shakes his head furiously, realising he is beaten. “Take him. But I warn you, if there is a repeat incident……”
Wasting no time, Virdon extracts his knife and saws through the rope above me. He removes the offending noose from my neck, and then finally frees my hands. Failing to stifle a sob of relief, I sag against him, letting him take the weight of my body. Right now he is the only thing between me and the ground.
“You okay?” Virdon asks.
I nod uncertainly. No!
“Then what are you waiting for? A written apology?” he mouths harshly in my ear. “Let’s go! Before somebody changes their mind.”
I’m in complete agreement. One slight hiccup – nothing appears to be functioning below the neck. Cursing, Virdon slings my left arm over his shoulder and wraps his free hand around my waist. Galen springs forward to do likewise and together they propel me down the stairs and through the dispersing crowd.
Yeah, that’s right, folks. Show’s over. Time to go home.
A hundred questions race through my head, but for now they’ll have to wait. The path we are taking is in the opposite direction to Maldon’s farm. I assume we are putting as much distance between us and this place as possible, a plan I wholeheartedly endorse. A mile or two out from the village we pause to regroup, dropping wearily to the ground. Apart from the sound of my own ragged breathing, the silence is deafening.
“I have a suggestion.” Galen attempts to break the ice. “The next peaceful village we come to, a detour might be the order of the day. Right, Pete?”
His gallant effort falls miserably flat. I shrug weakly in reply. The whole sorry experience has rendered me incapable of speech. I close my eyes, letting the sun warm my face, then open them to find Virdon looking at me expectantly. I force myself to return his stare. The emotions on his normally placid face unsettle me - relief, concern, anger. I owe my friends an explanation, an apology, my thanks – something – anything – but the words fail to materialise. I’m the first to turn away, staring out towards the tree line. Virdon surges to his feet and stalks off. I know I should go after him, make things right, but instead I remain stubbornly rooted to the spot.
“He’s been out of his mind with worry,” Galen offers quietly, by way of explanation.
Yeah, him and me both, pal.
I hear my breath coming quick and shallow, my heart pounds erratically in my chest. My hands are trembling and a trickle of sweat works its way down the back of my neck. I draw my knees up under my chin and wrap my arms tightly around my legs, in an effort to stop my body from shaking. I desperately want to throw up but there’s nothing left in my stomach.
Virdon returns a few minutes later, his mouth still tight with strain. “Dammit, Pete. What the hell were you thinking?”
That’s the crux of the matter. I wasn’t. Thinking, that is. Galen sneaks me a sympathetic shrug. Swallowing back another wave of nausea I let Virdon vent, listening without interruption (a definite first for me) until finally the litany ends.
“Do you realise how close we came to losing you?”
I stare at him in momentary disbelief. I think I have a pretty good idea, but I refrain from reply. Virdon gives a bark of laughter at the absurdity of his own question.
“At least you’re back in one piece,” he offers briskly. I let out a breath I don’t realize I have been holding.
“How’s the neck?” he asks in a lighter tone.
I cautiously finger the rope burns encircling my throat. “Hurts,” I croak hoarsely. It comes out as a mere squeak but Virdon appears to have gotten the gist. I don’t expect, nor do I receive, any visible sympathy.
“Bound to for a while,” he replies matter-of-factly. “Here.” He tosses the water container in my direction. I catch it and take a grateful swallow, the cool liquid providing my raw throat with a moment of sweet relief.
A glutton for punishment, I attempt to speak again. “Maldon…” A marginal improvement, it comes close to resembling an actual word.
“We needed to leave in a hurry. He’ll understand why we didn’t hang around.”
I nod tiredly, acknowledging the truth of Virdon’s words. I would dearly like to thank Maldon personally, but I know it won’t be possible. I don’t know what he had to do to get the stallholder to retract his statement; I’m just grateful that a talent for telling great big whoppers runs in Galen’s family.
Virdon seems to read my thoughts. “Maybe we can get word to him later.”
“You came up with a good plan.” I finally manage to string together an entire sentence.
Virdon shoots me down with a withering glare. “Plan? There was no plan, Pete. Maldon’s been away. By sheer coincidence he arrived back today and came to town for supplies. He saw the crowd and decided to investigate. Galen managed to fill him in on what was going down. The rest, well……” Virdon’s voice trails away and he looks off into the distance.
I shudder at the thought of what might have been. I didn’t think it was possible to feel any worse than I already do. Apparently it is.
Finally, Virdon takes pity on me.
“Don’t worry. If Maldon hadn’t showed up, we’d have thought of something else.”
He’s lying through his pearly whites, but I appreciate the gesture. For a brief moment he gives a small grin but the smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes. It seems we may have reached a somewhat fragile truce. Forgiveness, I suspect, will take a little longer.
So what can I take away from this whole sorry experience? Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that a life of petty crime is not in the cards for me. It’s probably better that I stick to straight outlawing from here on in. There’s the comforting knowledge that I have friends prepared to put their lives on the line for me when the chips are down. Then again, I knew that already. I’m more than grateful that my neck has managed to stay intact. The miracle of my underwear somehow remaining unsoiled is an unexpected bonus. One thing’s for sure. I swear I’ll never touch another oper again, not as long as I live.
Hindsight. Sure is a beautiful thing.