Salvation

by Jason S. Ridler


Bryan Haig woke on a cold floor, dressed in the black shirt of a minister, collar digging into his wet and razor-burned neck. Brain sizzles dissipated and he rubbed the jagged scar at the base of his skull. Memory clip still there. The Army surgeons promised it couldn’t break . . . but was it snapped? Was he in jail? Was the hell he’d asked to have shoved in an electronic void about to burst?

Maybe some Serb, or Croat, or Bosnian Muslim had finally found him, tazered him, brought him to wherever the hell this was, and torture was in the shadows. But why dress up an ex-peacekeeper as a priest?

Pain replaced the cobwebs. There were bars for walls and a small walkway in front of the doors. A door lay outside on the left, behind it a voice he didn’t know. Two men were in a cell opposite Bryan, dressed in blue overalls covered with yellow triangles. 

One was white and skinny, hair like a tornado, smoking and staring at the floor, mouth barely a hole in his face. The other was black and big, frown etched on his skin by years of hard shots, a huge mole jutting from his forehead. 

Prisoners. Maybe the death warrant on his head had caught up with him.

“Jenkins wants you to see this.” 

Bryan choked down the nausea. “Who said that?”

“Sure wasn’t Larry,” said the black man. “I had to pull his tongue out because he was screaming like a monkey after the last time, before they brought us here. Jenkins wants you to see this. Said I could read it, but it won’t work for me.” In the black man’s hand was a thick book. A Bible. The prisoner passed it through the bars.

Bryan stood, the fetid stink of the floor enough to give him strength to stand. The icy bars kept him steady. He gripped one end of the Bible, ready for anything. But the black man simply let go. “Easy. Haven’t killed a priest before.” The tone was less of a reassurance than a curiosity.

The slick surface slipped out his weak hands and bounced once off the ground. He snatched it despite the seize of icy pain in his brain. Head between his legs, he took twenty deep breaths, then straightened up.

“Pricey thing,” Bryan muttered. It was black, covered in plastic, would not open. 

“I thought Bibles were free, Father. Used to see them in motel rooms when I was working on the road.” 

“That’s Gideon’s version, they are free, and don’t call me Father. I’m not a priest, or a minister.”

“You better be.” The black man turned and lay on the one bunk in the cell, next to a stained yellow bucket. Larry continued to smoke his coffin nail.

Bryan gripped the heavy Bible in his hand when he heard a snap. It started to turn blue, illuminating a shimmering light from its cover. Then the words appeared:

“The KJV Bible, v.2. This Bible is intended for use by Correctional Service only. Misuse is punishable under the Criminal Code of Canada. Hardware provided by the Church of the Carpenter, technology division, Caratas, British Columbia.”

“A computer?”

A waiver appeared. 

“Minister Bryan Haig, Salvation Army, will administer the Gospel of Luke: 2: 29-31, at the execution of Larry Buckmen, convicted of breaking and entering and murder, and Harold McDonald, convicted of rape, murder and narcotics trafficking. 

“Operation: A single word from the aforementioned chapters and verse, once spoken, will activate the trap on the authorized gallows. For the benefit of the administrator, the word will be chosen at random upon activation.” 

It thanked Father Haig for his cooperation. Bryan’s gut sank into his bowels. “This is sick.”

“Nah,” said Harold, lying on his cot “It makes sense. They fucked up last time something bad. Me and Larry are the first back to the hanging tree in nearly a century, ever since they brought back the death sentence. So everyone was new to it, and they diddled around making assess of themselves like they were getting laid for the first time. All the while I was making peace, and Larry shat himself. He was going first. So they strap Larry to the mat and primed him, and he’s yammering on and on and on until they start a countdown, and he shuts the hell up. 

“All they had to do was press a button.” Harold’s wheezy laugh turned to a chuckle. “Poor Larry. I mean, it was sad. The Warden from Milhaven ordering the doctor to push the button, and the doctor freaking out saying it was against the hypo oath, you know, about healing and not hurting people, screaming at the Warden that it’s his job to commit murder, that the doctor can only say when a guy’s dead. And I’m outside, a room away, but I can hear it. Neither wants to go on record for a killing. So they yelled and yelled but couldn’t come to a decision. Hell, Larry almost had a heart attack and saved them from choosing. So they held it off for both of us and moved us out here while the dipshits made up their minds on what to do. I guess they wanted someone out of the circle to do it.”

“But I’m not even a priest or minister or whatever,” Bryan said, staring into the blue of the electronic Bible. It gave an eerie hum, as if it was on its last fuse.

“If you ain’t a priest, are you a killer?”

Bryan flipped the Bible over to escape its glow. “Yeah. Once.”

“You killed somebody once?”

Bryan shook his head. “No. Yes. Well, I was a soldier once.”

Then Harold was on his feet. Larry assumed the fetal position. “I knew it! I knew that face was familiar. Son of a bitch celebrity. You were the peacekiller, or one of them. I heard you were all dead.”

“Yeah.” For the first time in his life Bryan agreed with his Dad that no good would come to his life other than its final end, and he hoped it was soon. Listening to the murderer’s excitement, it seemed long overdue.

 “Mmmm” The chainsmoking and tongueless Larry muttered again. 

“Shut up, or I’ll take away your breathing privilege.” Harold kicked his shin and the muttering stopped.

Bryan backed up to the hard corner, away from the other prisoners, and sat. He put the Bible on the floor, face first, and crossed his arms. How the hell had he gotten here? He was traveling through Ontario, on his way to Sergeant Brook’s funeral in Ottawa, the most recent victim of the death warrant. He rubbed the memory clip scar, praying it held together. 

Their crime was locked away in that circuit, part of the unit’s plea bargain after the fiasco in New Yugoslavia. But he’d read about it, been hounded about it, and damn glad he couldn’t remember it. 

But that didn’t explain being kidnapped and dressed up like a damn priest for some execution that no one wanted. Or did it?

Harold was at the bars. 

“I was in the States, on business, when it happened, when you guys just blew the shit out that building, but it didn’t matter. Scene played out every night for days. They kept calling it a powder . . . powder--“

“Powderkeg.”

“Yeah. Man, that war is still going on ain’t it? The one you started?”

One of the combat-engineers in Kosovo, a kid from Edmonton named Sykes, had told Bryan and Sergeant Brooks that the war in the Balkans had started five hundred years ago, with some Turkish invasion that destroyed a Serbian king’s hold on the nation. Ever since then the Serbs had celebrated military defeat to promote their case as Europe’s victims. He’d heard a mirror story from an Albanian guerilla caught trying to smuggle heroin to, of all places, a Serbian platoon in Macedonia, about how the Muslims of Europe had been beaten and tortured by overlords for half a millenium. Bryan tried to think of the Pec incident as nothing more than a tragedy in a war that had started five hundred years before, but it never jelled. History was no comfort when you were making it, Bryan thought. Even if you couldn’t remember it.
Now Brooks was dead, found at the retreat for PTSD patients: rumour was his clip had broken.  When they found him, he had been shot in the head, an Islamic crescent carved in his cheek. Beside him was the body of the assassin, feet naked to walk barefoot in paradise. 

Bryan’s gut’s shook. The tightness of the room closed in on him like the waiting room before the operation, but instead of sterile air and bright lights there was darkness and stale breath. “I don’t know. Probably fighting going on. Always has been.” But the words were as comforting as emasculation with mirror shards.

“I’ve done a lot of things, but nothing compares to that. Starting a war, that puts you up high in the gallery.”

Bryan shot the Bible like a square blade. Harold ducked as it cut between the bars. “Motherfucker!” 

The Bible smacked against the hard, windowless back of the portable and sent thunder throughout the room like Zeus’s laughter. It landed face up, and the blue light flashed through the cell like ball lightening. “You sick sack of shit!” Bryan said, now on his feet and near Harold. Rage ate the pain in his bones “No rapist’s gonna judge me!” and he reached for Harold’s throat, but the big man was too fast. He clasped Bryan’s wrist and yanked him to the bars. A thousand days of training flashed in Bryan’s mind. He twisted his arm and yanked. Harold’s head smacked the bars and he let go of Bryan.

Then both men were staring on opposite sides of the cell, huffing, waiting, when the door opened. A small man in a short sleeve shirt, tie, and giant glasses opened the door, yelling at everyone to calm down. He pointed at the Bible on the floor, flashing an insane Morse code against the ceiling. “Larry, hand it over. Now.”

Larry did as he was told. Bryan and Harold held their stances. 

“Corporal Haig. You’re awake,” said the man. “I’m Mike Jenkins, Ministry of Justice.”

“What am I doing here?”

“Your duty. We have it on file you worked at a Salvation Army as a minister, so we hoped you could assist us in this very grave and important task.”

“I worked at the Salvation Army for a year, but I was no minister.”

The man fixed his glasses. “Well, we can worry about that later. I see you already activated the Bible, which I’ll take as your acceptance of this job.”

“What if I refuse, bug eyes? You gonna force me to flick the switch?”

The man took a step away from the bars. “No. But I have been authorized to remove your memory clip.” He smiled as Bryan’s sweat went cold. 

“You can’t. The surgeons-“

“Work for the government. As do I. And in case you haven’t noticed, the clip is starting to break down. Thanks to a Mark IV tazer.” He adjusted his massive glasses. “And those memories will be returning. Soon. Unless you agree to help us, and we’ll help you.” 

“Shit,” Harold said. “You don’t remember the people you killed? Then what’s the point?”

“Shut up!” Bryan yelled, then turned to Jenkins. “You can’t make me do this.”

Jenkins sighed. “Of course, if you want those memories back now, I can do that.”

Two men came into the room, both wearing matching grey flannel suites. One was fat, sporting a broken nose and a black eye. The other was rake-thin and wore a rictus grin. 

And Bryan remembered: they’d snuck up to him at the bar in Kingston, fat one trying to move him with a gun he didn’t know how to use and reflexes slower than a doped sloth. But the Rake, he was a Pinocchio, and met him move for move without sweating before the fat one tazzered him.

“Glad to see you’re not hurt,” the Rake said, robotic grin as legitimate as a three dollar coin. 

“Yeah,” said Fatty. “Not much anyway.” The red jolting blast of electricity between the tazer’s prongs lit up in Fatty’s hand.

Bug Eyes gave the two Ministry of Justice thugs strict instructions then left to see have his tech department fix whatever damage Bryan had done to the electronic Bible. “Your clip hasn’t sustained any permanent damage,” he said, politely, “but if we don’t fix it by tomorrow, you’ll be screaming for that Bible. So, are we agreed?”

Bryan gripped his hair, and slumped down on the floor, wondering what nightmares were coming . . . “Yeah. Fine.”

Fatty followed Jenkins out to catch some shut eye, leaving the Rake on duty. Bryan rubbed the scar on his neck and closed his eyes in agony. 

After an hour, Harold was sleeping. Larry passed out in the fetal position. But Bryan was wired, head racing, when the Rake spoke just above a whisper. 

“Can I ask you a question, Minister?” Bryan kept his eyes closed but the Rake’s rictus was there in his brain hiding behind his lids like a skinless skull. Who the hell made machines to look like that?

Bryan sat and scratched his itchy neck. “I’m not a Minister, Pinocchio, any more than you’re a toaster.”

“Do you believe in this new procedure of the death penalty?”

“Until today I couldn’t have cared less about it.”

“So what do you think today?”

Bryan opened his eyes but just stared at the battleship gray floor. He’d gotten use to the smell of old blood, vomit, and feces that hovered down low, a smell of degradation, just like . . . ? 

“Minister?”

He kept his eyes on the ground. “I don’t know. If what that parasite Harold said was true, that no one wanted to flick the switch, I see the logic. No one wants bloodstained hands. Hell, if the Bible activates it, they can say God did it.”

“But you will say the word that triggers the release of the trap.”

“Isn’t God the Word and the Word is God?” He swore he had heard that in a movie once.

“Genesis.”

“What?”

“You’re quoting the book of Genesis.”

And for the first time in a donkey’s age Bryan laughed. All throat. It hurt, but he couldn’t stop it. But behind the laughter Bryan was cracking, as if hot water had been spilt on the thin ice of his skull. 

“It’s not the word. It’s the man who says it. He takes responsibility for it, good or bad, right or wrong. Ottawa doesn’t like responsibility. Institutions don’t. The public sure as hell doesn’t. Never has. But every crime demands it. It needs a face. Someone has to get punished or else it’s hard to sleep at night. Mistakes make folks uncomfortable. Bad luck is no excuse. Accidents are unforgivable. At the end of the day a poster has to be put up saying ‘I got the bastard,’ or else we give something else, something other than man, the responsibility. People don’t like tragedy, Pinocchio. They like vengeance. But no one wants to hold the gun that delivers it.

“I’m a disgraced soldier, and thanks to a clerical error, I’m a minister from a charity group. Who better to flip the switch?”  

“Aren’t you a peacekeeper?”

“Peacekeeper?” His voice strained. “Is this the 1960s?” His vision was spotted and he blinked. There was a doll behind his lids, china white, naked. He kept them open.

“Minister?”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Corporal?”

“Not any more. Try Bryan. At least the file got that right.” He looked at the Rake. The view seized his stomach. The mannequin grin was as shiny as a new dime. 

“Bryan, is it true that you opened fire on that toy factory in Pec full of Albanian and Serbian children who were hiding from the Children of Arkan?” 

Bryan bit his lip. The clip wasn’t working. He wouldn’t close his eyes, because they would be there. And in the dark of his skull the memory was unfolding like a life-sized map of the world, each time doubling in size. The children. Collapsed faces and shattered skulls thrown across blood stained rubble. A dolls arm or a child’s arm? Impossible to distinguish with that much blood and dust. Dolls, he said to himself, they’re just dolls. It was a factory, hiding chemical weapons equipment, the toy store was a front. So many dolls, black and white and red and the smell of burning . . . children.

Bryan’s spine froze then, from the front room, came the sound of Bug Eyes exclaiming something. Bryan looked at the Rake. The rictus seemed to waver, as if it was losing its consistency--a doll’s face in the dark. “Yeah!” Bug Eyes said, “It works!” The blue light of the Bible became a steady glow.

The door opened and Jenkins sweaty face, all smiles and eyes, appeared. “So, are you going to play nicely?”

But to Bryan he was just a doll. “Yes.”

He was led, tazer in his neck, up a long flight of stairs, then a concrete corridor, and finally into a patch of open field surrounded by bulldozers, wheel barrels, and a few limestone buildings, all surrounded by a dark, high wall, towers on each corner. A sizzle came from the Bible, echoing in his head.  

“Kingston Pen,” Harold said. “Fucked if I thought I’d end up here again.”

“Will be our first super pen,” said Jenkins with pride. “In a few years.”

The legendary prison had been closed for a donkey’s age, but all signs pointed to re-construction. Metallic portables, Port-O-Potties, stacks of wood beams, sacks of concrete, all scattered in piles, the hollow components of future buildings, lifeless across the floor.

“Keep moving, hero,” Fatty said, prongs digging into Bryan’s neck.    

In the dead of night they prepared for the executions. Everyone but the Rake looked exhausted, but there was no time for sleep. Fatty complained that his injuries made it impossible for him to work at night, so Bug Eyes just yelled at the Pinocchio. The contraption was a throwback to the Westerns Bryan’s grandpa made him watch. But there was no dust, no sun, no Mexican bandits laughing and swigging tequila and firing pistols into the orange sky: just a platform and a beam, ropes in front of men. 

“Pretty welfare set up,” Harold said. “Might as well get out an Iron Maiden.”

“This gallows is both efficient and cost effective,” said the Rake.

“Especially since we had most of our budget spent on that Bible you almost ruined,” Jenkins said, sneering at Bryan.

Somehow I doubt a gun-for-hire will be riding in to save us, he thought. Any of us.

It was cold, but only Bryan shivered. The trap was set, the radio receiver for the Bible was on, and the nooses were hung with care. Larry and Harold, chained at leg and wrist, stood in front of them. Larry whimpered. Harold stared at Bryan. 

Bryan knew that look. 

Fever had him, and even the weak wind was smacking his skin like a whip. He could barely focus. The dolls were not staying put. Behind the gallows they danced on ruined limbs, jumping to the periphery of his vision as soon as he focused. He couldn’t look at the Pinocchio. 
Jenkins broke the silence. “Just read the lines. That’s it. Then we’re done. Guys, get them ready.” Fatty and the Pinocchio went up the metal steps. The convicts jingled and jangled their chains like the ghost of Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol.

All around Bryan, scars appeared in the darkness. 

Shadows moved around like stars, threatening to go bright. White faces began to bloom. 

“I can’t see shit,” Fatty said. “Shine that light over here.” 
Bryan did as he was told and the light from the Bible made the scene ghostly blue. The sizzle sound had grown. 

“There,” Fatty said, giving a hard tug, but Harold’s killing eyes stayed on target. Bryan removed the light, and the scene grew quiet and tense. A few caws from blackbirds and the never-ending chorus of crickets were the only natural sounds of the earth on the killing ground of Kingston Pen. 

“Well,” Jenkins said. “Start reading.”

Bryan’s shaky finger pressed the blue “start” button. The Bible emitted a slow hiss. The screen flashed three times before falling to a steady glow. “Luke: 2: 29-31.”

LORD, NOW LETTEST THOU THY SERVANT DEPART IN PEACE, ACCORDING TO THY WORD:
FOR MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THY SALVATION,
WHICH THOU HAST PREPARED BEFORE THE FACE OF ALL PEOPLE.

He opened his mouth. “No.”

Fatty’s safety was released with a click. 

“If you don’t send these men to the fucking grave . . . ” 

It sounded like Bug Eyes, but Bryan was too lost in his mind to be certain. Dawn inched towards existence and the dark was turning purple in anticipation for the sun’s arrival. The dolls were dancing.

“Do it, you shit,” Fatty said.

Bryan brought the Bible to his face. The blue cascade filled his vision until all there was white light. Pure . . . 

Then spotty . . .

Then shapes. Stray limbs of children with savaged bones. Gapping half-torn mouths breathed his name. Black eye sockets filled the whiteness, staring at him with the gaze of eternity. They were not angels. They were not dolls. 

Remember us, Bryan? 

He had thought, maybe . . . the light was so bright. They always say you see bright light . . . but in the scars of darkness were skulls floating in puss. Looking hard for answers this late was no help. No. He clenched his right fist, generating as much sweat as possible. He brought the Bible down and held it hard. His fist would have to go right through, hit the power cell, and fry him to the marrow. He raised his hand and opened his mouth. 

“I’m sorry.”

A shot cracked through the air and night birds cawed into the sky. The Bible flashed like drunken moonlight as Bryan dropped, and night enveloped him. He hit the grass a dead man, rolling face up under the gallows. 

A cone of light beamed from the Bible’s face. No gun smoke came from Fatty’s pistol. They all froze, unsure of what had happened. And off in the field came a scream, hoarse and terrifying, another shot and a thud. The Bible’s light was fading.

“What the fuck was that?” said Fatty, shaking the pistol in his hand.

“Serbian,” said the Rake. 

Harold’s laughter cackled. “Heh, that’s too much! Killer followed him all the way from the war he started.”

“Shut up!” Bug Eye’s said. “Find the shooter!

Soon, the Rake dragged back a man in one hand, a rifle in the other. “Kalishnakov,” said the Rake. “I would expect he was hunting Bryan.”

Harold was cackling.

Jenkins’ fists were pumping. “No, no, no! Not again. What the hell did this Serbian bastard say, Pinocchio?”

“He said that this shot was for Branco’s salvation.”

The Bible hissed, gave a click, and the light went bright then died. A swish came from the trap, then a thud, and Harold choked on his laughter. The prisoner’s wild bicycle legs, hovering above the ground, slowed as they reached their final destination. 
 
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