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the fourth sacrifice - extract


Prologue

By now he knows he is going to die. And he feels something like relief. No more long, lonely nights and tortured dreams. He can release all those dark feelings that he has carried through life like some great weight strapped to his back, causing him to stoop and stagger and bend at the knees. But still this knowledge, that death is close enough almost to touch, is not without fear. But the fear has retreated with the effects of the drug and lurks somewhere just beyond consciousness.

He is only vaguely aware of those things around him that have been so familiar these last months; the scarred and naked walls, the rusted window frames, the washing hanging out to dry in the glassed-in balcony beyond the screen door. There is still a smell of stale cooking in the air, and sometimes the occasional hint of raw sewage that rises from the drains in the street four floors below, especially when it rains, like now. He hears the rain pattering on the window panes, blurring the lights of the apartment block opposite, like the tears that he can feel, warm and salty, on his cheeks. Only now does he succumb to an overwhelming sense of sadness. What futility! His life, the life of his parents, and their parents before them. What did any of it mean? What point had there been?

Now he feels rough hands forcing him to his knees, and a cord is passed over his head, a flash of red characters on white card as it drops to hang around his neck. Now his hands are drawn behind his back, and he feels the soft, familiar texture of silk as it tightens around his wrists, grazing and bruising. He would have been gentler with it. Despite the best efforts of the drug, his fear is re-emerging now, rising in his throat like bile. He sees a flash of light on dark, dull metal and a hand pushes his head forward and down. No point in resistance. No point in anything, not even regret. And yet it is there, big and scary and casting a shadow in his consciousness, fighting for space alongside his fear.

He is aware of the figure on his right, and he sees the shadow of the rising blade trace its pattern across the pale linoleum. He swallows and wonders if he will feel any pain. How good is his executioner? And then, fleetingly, he wonders if the brain ceases the instant the head is severed. He hears the swish of the blade and has a sharp intake of breath.

No, there is no pain, he realises, as for a moment, before blackness, the room spins crazily and he sees the twin jets of blood spewing from the strange apparition of his own headless body as it topples forward. But he will never be able to tell anyone. So many things he will never be able to tell.

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© Peter May 2004