Horror and Thriller Fiction posted October 31, 2016


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A judge with a secret is impatient to see a certain verdict

The Long Drop

by MartinDHall


Sir Henry McClelland reached beneath his wig and felt the sore ... it was still weeping and hurt like the devil. So much for that wretched salve, he thought, but any intention to dwell on his misfortune was cut short. The closed carriage lurched and, instinctively, Sir Henry braced his legs. The resulting pain from his gouty left foot was excruciating.

Wig askew, he banged his silver-topped cane on the roof of the carriage, but any reply was drowned out by the agitated whinnying of the horse.

He drew back the side curtain and pulled down the window. The cause of the coachman's hasty action was mounting the pavement: an old man, dressed soberly but expensively. He could not have stood more than five feet tall and was leaning on a gnarled, shiny-black walking stick topped with a curved goat horn handle.

'You there!' shouted Sir Henry.

The old man turned slowly towards him.

'Yes, you. What in damnation were you about? I have a good mind--'

Sir Henry's outburst was cut short as he beheld the eyes of the old man. As they regarded him, those eyes -- the colour of lapis lazuli, down to the myriad gold flecks -- seemed to bore into Sir Henry, rendering him incapable of speech. A chill infused his entire body, subsuming the pain from his foot and scalp. Eventually, the cold localised around his heart and began to seep into it, drawing the breath from his lungs.

Then, the cold was gone and Sir Henry gulped air. If he had held up a mirror to his face he would have seen bloodshot, terrified eyes. As it was, he only felt relief.

The old man smiled gently and bowed to the great assize judge, before turning away and walking towards a coffee shop.

Sir Henry fell back into his seat and let the curtain fall -- the window remained down, as he felt a need to hear the hurly burly of street life. He did not wish to be completely on his own.

It was some moments before he ordered the driver to move on, and then with only a soft tap of his cane on the roof.

Today was the first day of the summer assizes in the year 1792. Sir Henry had left the judges' lodgings in fairly high spirits, for him. He was a man that many considered to be harsh when it came to culpability; he considered evidence to be a screen behind which the guilty frequently hid.

None too soon for Sir Henry, his carriage arrived at the courts of assize. As he descended the folding steps he cast a sideways scowl at the coachman, whose heavy lidded eyes and general air of dishevelment hinted at the man's previous evening's entertainment.

The judge limped up the wide marble approach to the weathered bronze doors. Every step with his left foot might have been into boiling water for the pain he had to endure. Not that his suffering was evident to the bystanders and those who would plead on behalf of the accused. His face was such that misery was a constant companion; his cold, unfeeling, watery eyes and perpetually downturned mouth precursors to what might be expected by the accused that day.
*
The last case of the morning concerned burglary of a hat shop. The victim, and prosecutor, a portly man with a purple face, described how he had entered his shop just after dawn and saw a man run from the premises with an armful of gentlemen's hats.

The shopkeeper gave chase, but the felon was younger and fitter. Repeated and increasingly breathless shouts of 'Thief!' garnered support from fellow shopkeepers on their way to prepare their own emporia for the day's business.

Apprehension of a culprit swiftly followed.

'How,' asked Sir Henry of the victim, 'did the burglar present himself?'

The victim, one Reginald Throgmorton, was hesitant.

'Come now, my good man. Did you, or did you not, get a good look at the perpetrator?'

The answer was a mute nod.

'Well?' asked Sir Henry, testily. This summer day had been uncommonly warm for the north-east of England, and air was at a premium in the overcrowded courtroom. The heavy, full-bottomed judicial wig did not alleviate his discomfort. He wanted to get through the list and return to the relative cool of his rooms, and so he determined that this case was in need of expedition.

The victim had found his tongue. 'The man who stole my hats was of medium height, slim of build, and had long hair that was mouse-brown.'

Many heads turned as one to the accused, who was standing in the dock. The young man towering above his gaolers was broad, with close-cropped hair of cornflower-yellow framing a good-natured, handsome face. The crowd now turned to Sir Henry.

'It was dark, was it not? The sun had barely risen above the horizon and, where your shop is situated, would hardly have made itself known. Is that not correct?'

Brows knitted, Throgmorton replied, 'Well, I suppose--'

'Thus,' interceded Sir Henry, 'you might be forgiven some slight vagaries in your description?'

A murmur travelled through the crowd.

Throgmorton now looked distinctly uncomfortable. 'Well, I am not sure--'

'Next witness!'

At Sir Henry's interruption, Throgmorton was marched from the well of the court and passed, on his way in, a man dressed in the manner of a baker.

After being sworn in, the baker, Nathaniel Webster confirmed that he, together with three others, had responded to the calls of alarm. By then, Throgmorton had given up the chase and was leaning heavily against a wall, but he could still point out the direction the miscreant had taken.

Within minutes they found the accused walking towards them, albeit with empty hands.

When accosted, he gave no account of his movements and was subsequently restrained -- without resistance -- and taken to the city gaol.

Sir Henry raised his eyebrows. 'The accused could have hidden the hats and then turned back to throw your good selves off the track. Could he not?'

'We made a search a little later and could find nothing that would link him to the burglary,' answered Webster.

'I can see that you are a kindly man Mr ...' He looked down at his papers. 'Mr Webster. You cannot discount, can you, that he had a confederate?'

Webster shook his head.

'Very well. I have heard enough to direct the jury.'

He turned to face the men arrayed in two ranks, below and to his left. 'Gentlemen of the jury. You have listened to the evidence of two honest men and against it no denial from the accused upon his arrest and ... more damning by far, no defence statement from him!' Sir Henry picked up his loose papers and let them fall back onto his bench, driving home his point that the accused -- with no right to verbally address the court in his own defence -- had failed in his obligation to lodge a signed defence statement with the court.

'What do we make of such a flagrant disregard for this court? I shall tell you--'

A voice called out from the gallery. It was the voice of a young woman. 'He cannot hear or speak, and he cannot write.'

Sir Henry breathed out heavily and looked over his nose spectacles to the source of the unwelcome interruption. 'You, madam, have some connection to the accused?'

'We are betrothed, My Lord.'

Sir Henry nodded. 'Continue.'

'May it please you, My Lord, he was on his way to work at the quay when he was stopped.'

Sir Henry glanced to either side of the -- decidedly pretty -- young woman and noticed only women. He smiled, which lent his face a sinister aspect. 'The employer of your intended, he is present?'

The young woman shook her head, but answered, 'He has three ships to deal with. He begs that Your Lordship holds the case over until later this day, when he will present himself at the pleasure of the court.'

'You have a way with words, young lady. Had you been a man you might have done well in the courts. As it is, you have every reason to lie to this court.' He paused. 'However, let it not be said that Sir Henry McClelland was unreasonable. I shall leave the decision to the good men of the jury.'

Relief was writ large upon the face of the young woman.

Sir Henry turned in his enormous red leather chair. He could see that some of the jurymen were close to collapse from the heat, while others were clearly itching to be elsewhere. 'Gentlemen of the jury. You may, like me, consider sufficient has been heard to convict the accused. On the other hand, you may wish to let this ... dare I say it ... phantom witness stroll to the court at a time of his choosing.

'The accused stands trial for his life. If such a witness truly existed, would he not have come to save his man, at all costs? If, and I stress if, such a man exists you might be forgiven for thinking he would be here now ...' He paused before adding, 'instead of asking you to wait in this court for the rest of the day, in these insufferable conditions, without a break.'

The jury became agitated. Some took the view that they should wait for the witness. Others were driven by more selfish concerns. Soon, threats could be heard, and the selfless few gradually diminished to one and then none.

The spokesman for the jury stood and faced Sir Henry. 'We are of a mind to deliver a verdict, My Lord.' The judge's eyes narrowed and the spokesman hurriedly added, 'A unanimous verdict.'

Sir Henry's face visibly relaxed. 'Your verdict, gentlemen?'

'Guilty, My Lord.'

There was an outcry in the court which drowned any sound from the young woman. What could not go unnoticed, was her fainting dead away.

Without pausing, Sir Henry placed a square piece of black cloth on his head so that a corner was facing outwards. Turning to the accused, who appeared oblivious to what was going on around him, the judge spoke. 'You have been convicted of a heinous crime, and only one sentence can fit such a crime: death by hanging. You shall be taken from this place to the place from whence you came, and from there to a place of lawful execution and, this afternoon, you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul.' These terrible words were followed by a peremptory wave of his hand -- a signal for the gaolers to remove the man, innocent in more ways than one.
 
As Sir Henry was about to adjourn the court, his heart turned cold. Sitting in the gallery was the old man from the street. Not part of the tumult, he simply gazed, impassively, across the floor to where the judge sat.
*
Back at his lodgings, Sir Henry asked for the key to room twenty-seven and gave strict instructions to the staff. 'I am not to be disturbed for any reason, however grave or important.'

The staff did not question the order: it was not their place.

No judge ever slept in room twenty-seven, because it overlooked the city gallows.

No judge ever entered room twenty-seven, save one, and he was now in possession of the key. News travelled fast through the city, and the staff knew that a young man was to be hanged that very afternoon. The request for the key was no coincidence.
*
Sir Henry sat at the large window and looked down at the crowd. He was surprised that such a number could gather so quickly, but was less impressed by the subdued atmosphere. It was palpable, even through the glass. He enjoyed this location as no one in the square thought to look up to the window. It was truly a private viewing.

The accused was brought to the gallows and, as he was walked up the wooden steps, a commotion broke out to one side of the crowd. It was the young woman and a powerfully built man with greying hair and an impressive beard ... the witness.

They approached the scaffold and words were exchanged. The hangman pointed towards the judges' lodgings and nodded.

The desperate woman and her saviour ran through the crowd, which parted, as if by magic, to allow them through. Usually, such a sizeable gathering would produce a buzz of sound to permeate the window, but there was only expectant silence.

He lost sight of the pair, but short minutes later came the sound of the door knocker to his lodgings being frantically hammered. Eventually, the knocking stopped, replaced by muted voices: a female voice with a plaintive tone, a deep sonorous voice, and a voice he recognised as the head butler, Jenkins. There was a silence, followed by another exchange between the woman and Jenkins, then a pitiable howl the like of which Sir Henry had never before heard. He could still hear it when the heavy front door had been slammed shut.

The crowd must have also heard it, as they turned towards the sound. Some -- men as well as women -- hung their heads and wept. Even the hangman shook his head.

Shortly, the burly man came back into Sir Henry's line of sight. He was supporting the stricken woman, who was barely able to walk. More than once, she feebly tried to break free from him and return to the lodgings, but she was firmly, yet gently, guided to the one place she did not want to be. The crowd, this time, did not only part but withdrew completely, leaving the supported woman, the guileless young man, and those with the thankless task of carrying out Sir Henry's orders. But for these few, the square was empty.

Sir Henry took a sip of claret and waited.
*
The sentence was carried out, but Sir Henry was disappointed. Frequently, despite the drop, a man, or woman, might linger a while and choke to death. It could last minutes. On this occasion it was instant.

Several minutes later, when the square was deserted, he rose, intending to return to his own room. A figure walked from a side street and stood with his back to the gallows.

It was the old man; and he was looking directly at Sir Henry.
*
Alone in his room, Sir Henry removed his powdered wig and wondered what pleasures the next day might bring. No sooner had he placed the wig on its block than he saw a figure reflected in the mirror of the dresser. It was the young man, with a red mark around his neck. Sir Henry turned, but there was no one there. I watched as the body was cut from the gallows. It was checked by the physician and carried away in a cart. If the thought was meant to instil calm, it failed.

He instructed Jenkins to post a man on the landing to keep watch for intruders. The head butler made no comment ... at least not aloud.
*
The night came and went without incident, and Sir Henry awoke refreshed, ready to dole out justice ... as he thought fit.

As he stood at his basin, straight razor in hand, he was about to scrape his beard when the spectral reflection reappeared. He turned, and this time the apparition did not vanish. The face of the huge figure was no longer open and trusting, but looked angry. In two enormous strides the vengeful spirit was upon him, hands around his throat.

Sir Henry felt his life being choked away. Then, he remembered the razor. He slashed at the behemoth and cut into its flesh. Much to his surprise, and relief, it had the effect of making the creature afraid. It stumbled about, smashing into furniture and creating a racket that would wake the dead ... if the dead had not already been awoken. Sir Henry, his blood hot, advanced upon the fiend, hacking again and again until it crumpled to the floor.

Not satisfied, the frenzied judge continued, unaware of the banging on his door. Eventually, the door crashed open, with Jenkins and two manservants falling into the room. They stood stock-still, looking down in horror at the blood-soaked judge.

Sir Henry's eyes were crazed. 'See what has returned from the grave to torment me. He would not stay hanged.'

Jenkins gingerly released the razor from the judge's grip, while his comrades took hold of the man's arms.

As Sir Henry was pulled to his feet, he looked down at his attacker and saw instead the shredded body of a young woman dressed in green. From what remained of her face, he knew he had never seen her before. 'Something is wrong ... Who is this woman ...? I defended myself against a wraith ... This is some kind of trick ... How dare you lay your hands upon me ...? I am Sir Henry McClelland ... Unhand me!'
*
Sir Henry's trial attracted a great deal of interest. His execution even more.

He stood upon the scaffold, and the last thing he saw before the hood was placed over his head was a pair of familiar blue eyes, a little way off to the side of the crowd.

Sir Henry had some time to ponder what part the old man played in his downfall, as the long drop did not work as planned. The physician later declared, when examining Sir Henry's body, that he must have choked for upwards of ten minutes before death took him.
*
The remains of the unidentified young woman were to be retained in the mortuary until Sir Henry's appeals were exhausted. In the event, there were no appeals.

Within hours of Sir Henry's execution, the mortician -- a solid, dependable sort not given to flights of fancy -- stepped out of the examination room, where the victim's remains and blood-sodden dress were stored.

The windowless room had a stone floor and only one door -- that being the one through which he had exited. He remained in the adjacent room, several feet from the door, for two or three minutes, and, in that short interval, no one entered the woman's temporary resting place.

Upon his return, he could find no trace of the body or dress.

The authorities did not pursue the matter of the disappearing evidence, although -- within the city's coffee houses -- it was the subject of much animated discussion amongst Sir Henry's contemporaries. If, they wondered, a body could disappear in such an impossible manner, perhaps it never existed in the first place.

What then -- they pondered -- of the staff who first encountered the grisly scene in the judges' lodgings? Well, if Sir Henry could be mistaken about what he saw, surely their evidence could be similarly tainted. One of the judicial grandees opined that the irony of being convicted on will-o'-the-wisp evidence might not have been lost on Sir Henry himself -- whose peculiar views on weight of evidence were well known -- wherever he might now reside.
***


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