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Davey’s back and legs had seized up from the twisted position in which he’d slept.
This seemed to be the final insult to his battered body after all he’d endured.
The rat bites now oozed a horrid curdled foam that looked like month-old milk.
They stunk too; the smell almost bringing tears to his eyes.
Preacher Kelly was gentle with him, but made it clear he wasn’t to slouch.
The jump out of the back of the bulldozer almost gave Davey’s legs their last hurrah.
The pain was enough to make his head spin.
Armed guards met them at the gates, which opened with a squeal like a coffin lid being prised open.
They took his backpack off him and searched it for weapons.
Even though it came up empty, they hurled it into the dirt.
‘I have a knife and a gun on me, for protection out there,’ Davey said, remembering King Solomon’s advice.
Jake Fletcher – a balding middle-aged man who seemed to be in charge of the gate guards – aimed a rifle in Davey’s face while Preacher Kelly patted him down and removed the weapons.
There goes the assassination plan, he thought grimly. Now how the hell am I going to kill him?
Preacher Kelly smiled at him when he saw the crucifix hanging around his neck.
‘You’ll fit right in here if you believe, son. Welcome to Serenity.’
They led the weary party – the Congregation they were called by the guards on the gate – along a long straight road towards a small village made up of a dozen thatched cottages.
All around the village were people tending to their homes and the multi-coloured displays of flowers that seemed to sprout from every available foot of space.
Others painted the outside of their houses, which already looked pristine, but they took a pride in their work that made Davey long for the good old days before the world had taken the fast track to hell.
Others still wiped down the statues in the streets, polished the crucifixes that seemed to adorn every other available free inch of space.
In total juxtaposition to this utterly civilised scene of proud villagers tending to their homes was the screaming, blood-streaked man in the centre of the path.
It looked as though he had been shoved belly-first onto a sharp wooden stake.
‘He’s a sodomite,’ Preacher Kelly said by way of explanation.
As they passed, the members of the congregation all hurled insults at the impaled man.
A few of them spat.
One even slugged him hard in the gut.
The strident crack of breaking ribs filled the air in the otherwise everyday village scene.
The man dropped a little, his breathing seeming to labour.
‘Don’t pay him too much attention,’ Preacher Kelly said, aiming a filthy look in the direction of the hanging man. ‘He’s made his own decisions.’
The freshly raked gravel path took them through more of the immaculate village.
Still more villagers tended their houses, mending thatch on the roofs of their perfect homes, painting window sills with carefully measured strokes, mowing lawns with the epitome of pride and precision.
It was a throwback to the world that had once existed, and it again struck Davey that this was how things had been not really all that long ago.
Again it saddened him but more than anything it angered him; he felt a sudden, irrational rage for whoever had done this to the world without seemingly a second thought.
Everyone who saw them passing stopped to offer a polite greeting then went back to their jobs.
A man who had been raking the gravel on the path doffed his cap to the passing party, gave a cheery, ‘God bless,’ then returned to his business.
Even more bizarre was the sight of a man polishing a wooden gallows pole, carefully rubbing oils into the wood.
There was no one on the hangman’s rope, but Davey felt sure that this wouldn’t be the case for long.
The path wound on for a long time, seemingly towards the end of the village, but Davey saw more houses as they neared the village green.
The green was perfect in every sense, even better cared for than the rest of the village.
Flowers of pretty much every colour and species were in full bloom.
The village’s name – Serenity – was spelled out in a jaw-dropping display at the edge of the green.
Either side of the word were dozens of white crocuses laid out in perfect cross shapes.
Davey found himself wondering where the hell they had found the flowers in the dying world they now inhabited.
At the centre of the village green was a medieval church.
A huge golden cross adorned each end of the roof’s ridge, catching the sun’s rays and reflecting them back into the eye of the beholder.
All around the church – which possessed pointed spires which seemed to reach up into the heavens like plundering fingers – was a wrought iron fence.
Obviously whoever lived here didn’t want just anyone getting inside.
‘I’ll go and get him,’ Preacher Kelly said.
Preacher Kelly approached the gate and pressed a button on the intercom unit set into the post.
A conversation followed which couldn’t be heard by Davey and the men who’d accompanied him here, then the gate slid open without a single squeak or grate.
A few men came out, aiming rifles to cover every conceivable angle of attack, then a man dressed in an immaculate Reverend’s dark shirt and white collar emerged from the church compound.
Even from this distance he chilled Davey’s blood.
He had a wild look in his eyes that Davey knew meant danger.
The man was bad news, that much was clear.
He’d be proud to be the one to kill him, but he had no idea how he was going to achieve this goal.
It seemed he was well guarded, and, judging by the fences around his home, extremely paranoid too.
He was thrust from his musings by the approach of the preacher man.
Davey looked right into his eyes as they exchanged greetings and shook hands and he already saw that there was nothing there; only madness dwelled behind those dark, bulging orbs.
He also noticed that the man’s dog collar had two spots of blood – one large, one small, faded as though washed many, many times, but still visible if you looked close enough.
Cross seemed to notice he was staring at the blood spots, and tipped his chin down to meet his gaze.
Davey looked up and smiled. ‘Just admiring your shirt,’ he said. ‘It’s like a relic of a dead age.’
Cross smiled. ‘Indeed it is. I like to think of Serenity as a time capsule from a more civilised time. I like to keep things looking good. It’s keeping us apart from the savages, keeping the old ways alive. In case we ever manage to pull things around.’
‘Do you think we ever will?’
‘With the help and forgiveness of God, yes, I believe one day we will.’
A pretty, red-haired woman emerged from the church.
‘Ah, Deborah. There is someone here I would like you to meet. This is David, the newest member of our community. Would you join us for tea, David?’
Davey paused, unsure of how to proceed.
‘So, David, where did you come from?’ Cross said.
He seemed charming in the extreme, but the blood spots on his collar showed Davey that this was just a mask that was being firmly held in place for now.
‘I ran away from my home because the end of civilisation as it was in my youth led to my father and mother becoming increasingly abusive to me and my sister.’
Cross dropped his bottom lip, nodded a couple of times.
It wasn’t clear whether he had bought it or not.
Davey realised Cross was waiting to hear more from him, so he continued, trying to pick his words carefully.
‘I ran away from home and spent some time living rough in the city. I saw some horrible things there so decided it was time to look for somewhere else to live. I found myself lost out in the dump. These guys kidnapped me and killed my dog, Duke, but then your guys came and saved the day.’
Cross nodded, seemingly taking it all in.
His eyes darted around curiously.
Deborah poured some more tea when she saw that Davey had finished his.
Everything in the house was super neat, like OCD taken to its extreme.
The tea was served in bone china cups, with one of the smartest teapots Davey had ever seen in his life.
As Deborah leant in, Davey tried not to look, but got an eyeful of her cleavage.
He saw a bunch of nasty scars across her chest.
It seemed King Solomon had been right with his story about how Cross and Deborah had met.
Deborah seemed to feel his eyes on her and she didn’t react other than to close her top a little.
Cross didn’t seem to notice.
Davey noticed that Deborah shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, rubbing her right thigh with one hand subconsciously.
She had a haunted look in her eye, like she was remembering something traumatic.
She looked up, seeming to sense that Davey was watching her.
He glanced away but not before their eyes had locked for a second.
‘So why did you come here?’ Cross said, all manner of pleasantries gone.
‘I hoped, as a man of God, you would keep me safe and help me get my life back on track.’
Cross nodded. ‘And what makes you think we’d want another mouth to feed? You don’t look particularly strong. I doubt you’d be able to contribute in any way.’
‘I could help tidy up like the villagers were doing out there. I used to tidy our apartment while my parents were out drinking.’
Cross nodded again.
His fingers were steepled in front of his face.
He idly tapped the index finger of the right hand against his cheek.
His eyes ran over Davey’s face.
‘Are you religious, David?’
Davey nodded, indicating the crucifix around his neck.
‘You look the part, but I’m not sure I believe you,’ Cross said, meeting his eye. ‘After all, anyone can put a crucifix around their neck and play the part of a believer.’
Cross got out of his chair, and approached Davey, his movements slow and creepy, like a spider heading for a trapped fly.
He came right up to Davey, close enough for him to smell the altar wine on his breath.
Then he got even closer, so the tips of their noses were touching.
Their eyes locked for a few seconds that took an eternity to pass.
Davey didn’t flinch; he held the preacher’s gaze, though he hated doing so.
Then Cross did the most curious thing; he put his nose next to Davey’s left arm and began to sniff deeply.
He traced a path over his left shoulder, up to his neck, around his face and the back of his head and down the other arm, pausing every few inches to inhale.
Davey hated having his personal space violated in this way, but did his best not to let it show.
After this bizarre and unsettling experience, Cross tutted. ‘I can smell the depravity seeping from your pores. You are a demon trying to enter the house of God, child. You are not welcome here.’
Davey’s face fell.
He actually felt rejected, despite the fact that he had been sent to kill Cross.
‘But you will be one day,’ Cross said, his face rising in a curious parody of a smile. ‘Deborah, my beautiful wife here, was far from worthy of being here too, but she found God. Didn’t you, my darling?’
‘I certainly did,’ she smiled, again her hand moving to her right thigh and rubbing slowly.
‘So even the most unlikely sinner can find their way back to God. But I warn you, it is not for the faint of heart.’
He scoffed a little and smiled a predator’s smile at this.
Davey saw the mask slip ever so slightly, revealing the psychopath lurking behind his eyes.
‘But, there is a more pressing concern on my mind, young David.’
Davey looked him up and down, did his best to hide the panic that he was starting to feel.
He had a feeling he knew what was coming next.
‘What is it?’ he said, hoping his voice didn’t crack.
‘There is an enemy of mine out to the West. He would very much like me to shuffle off this mortal coil in as much pain as possible.’
‘Who is he?’
‘I have a feeling you know very well who he is, young David. And I would think very carefully if you are, as I suspect, on business from Solomon King. He is not all he is cracked up to be, believe me.’
Davey tried to hide his reaction to this, but he knew he’d given himself away.
‘What do you mean?’ he said, seeing no point in drawing out the questioning.
‘Well, he is a sinner of the highest order and he is leading himself and all of his followers on a one way path to the gates of hell. Aside from that, he is a really bad liar and he is deceiving the people who have put their faith in him.’
Next chapter is here