“I gotta plan." Sy pulled something out of the duffle bag on the ground.
Joe sighed. “It wants to be better than the last one.”
Brittle wood splintered in the torchlight as Simon ‘Sy the Scythe' Eldridge forced his crowbar underneath the window boards and levered them away from the frame, one by one. A gap, big enough for Sy to squeeze through, was soon inviting the gang into the abandoned church.
“Hey, Fingers! You'll get through that right?” Sy pointed at the hole in the building’s defences.
“I will,” said Joe ‘Fingers’ Finch, eyeing up Sy’s handiwork. “And so will the Fresh Meat, but I’m not sure our pirate friend can make it.”
Pete ‘Blackbeard’ Barrons stepped up to the window, checking the situation with his one good eye. The other one lost, along with his left leg, in a motorbike accident, on the run from the cops some years before. He stroked his long, black whiskers with a chubby hand. “You’ll have to take another one off and hurry up about it.”
Sy the Scythe rolled his eyes and lifted his crowbar again.
“It’s not my fault,” said Blackbeard. “You try staying skinny and fit when you’ve-“
“Only got one leg!” chimed in Fingers and Sy together, drowning out Blackbeard’s excuses.
“Some pirate you are!” Fingers said. “No good for climbing the rigging or swashing any buckles! Honestly, I don’t even have two full hands and I’d do better on a galleon.” He held up his left hand, his little finger and ring finger both missing. “But then we all make sacrifices, I guess.”
Rob ‘Fresh Meat’ Bacon was a 21-year-old medical student with deathly pale skin and the greenest of green eyes. In his first two weeks with the gang he'd learned to laugh along with the older men. He knew not to get on the wrong side of Sy; there were rumours he’d killed a man for taking his seat on a train. Rob couldn’t imagine Sy being well organised enough to book a seat for anything. Killing a man though – that part was believable.
The next wooden board clattered to the ground as Sy finished his task.
“Good job we’re in the middle of nowhere!” Blackbeard winced and held his hands to his ears. “You’re making enough noise to wake the dead!”
“I ain't done yet.” Sy took the crowbar in one hand and tapped it lightly on the stained glass he’d exposed, then swung with the full force of his shoulder against the window. Glass shattered and smashed to the ground both inside and outside of the building, leaving shards at his feet. Sy took a sheet lead knife from the pocket of his German army jacket and cut away the remaining metal shapes from the window. “There we go, we’re in. And with any luck, we will wake the dead!”
Fingers and Blackbeard laughed as Sy cleared the remaining slivers of glass from the frame. Fresh held his torch steady, focussed on the window. Sy rolled up his sleeves exposing his forearms and Fresh caught a glimpse of his tattoo.
“So that’s where you get your name?” Fresh Meat asked, “from your awesome tattoo?”
“We all make sacrifices, like the Boss man says. This tatt covers the scar I were given in a knife fight with a man who tried to kill Fingers. The shape o' the cut made the blade of a scythe. The Reaper were added later.”
Sy went first through the window, then took the duffle bag from Fingers and disappeared into the shadows. Fingers pulled himself through next, his muscular arms making short work of the exertion.
Blackbeard followed, sitting himself on the ledge and throwing his crutches through the gap. He used his hands to pull his leg into position before half falling, half rolling the rest of the way. Fresh, sweating a little at being the last man in, had to jump, pulling himself up until he rested one knee on the ledge and got purchase enough to climb inside.
“So.” Fingers shone his torch around the shadowy church. “Time to initiate our newest member.” He ruffled Fresh Meat’s hair and pulled him into a bear hug. “Fresh, do you know why we’re here?”
“We’re. . . raising the dead?” Fresh shrugged.
“We might be.” Fingers grinned. “We have to find him first.”
Sy pulled up four empty packing crates from against a wall and gestured for the others to sit. Once they had shuffled into a circle of sorts, Sy opened the duffle bag and stashed the crowbar back inside.
“The story goes somethin' like this.” The Scythe cleared his throat. “About 150 year ago, around the time this church were built, a man named Bernard Appleby were a preacher in these parts. Appleby had been a man o' God all his life, 'til his wife and son got sick.” Sy reached into the bag and produced something small and rectangular which he handed to Fingers. “After them developin' sore throats, rashes and a high temperature they both died, in spite o' Appleby’s prayin' and his doctor’s herbal remedies. Sounds like it were scarlet fever. You never hear of it today.”
Fingers shone his torch on the object he was now holding – it was a scruffy, leather-bound book with some pages loose and sticking out from the rest. “Appleby left diaries of almost his whole adult life. I managed to ‘obtain’ a few of the books from a contact I have at the county archives. This one, in particular, is of interest. It describes a location, a church, somewhere in Salop – what we know as Shropshire. We narrowed it down to three possibilities. We checked another one last week and ruled it out. But one of these places is where he burned his family’s bodies in a fire of renewal and brought them back to life.”
Fresh Meat swallowed hard. “But how? If he was a preacher, he wouldn’t believe in that.”
“By then he wasn’t a preacher.” Blackbeard adjusted his eye patch. “By then, he was. . . one of us. Right to the bones.”
“Bernard Appleby was very successful at many things once he left behind the hypocrisy of the church and joined the followers of Satan.” Fingers scratched his ginger stubble. “He made a lot of money and became quite influential. But a few of his secrets were discovered and he was accused of witchcraft by some backward locals. Scared of what he might do to get revenge on them for their accusations, they formed a mob and lynched him in a farmer’s field out of town. They buried him in an unmarked grave.”
Fresh leaned in with his eyes wide. “So how did an archive get his diaries?”
“His wife, who he brought back from the dead,” Fingers continued, “fled the village with their resurrected son, taking only the diaries and some cash with her. She hoped she could use the diary notes to bring him back when she found his body. As he had done for her.”
“But she never managed it? Did she?” asked Fresh Meat. "The diaries were found by the authorities?"
“No, she did not. And yes, they were. But she did find out where he was buried and drew a map in the back of this book.” Fingers opened the back cover, held it up and shone his torch over it from underneath. “It points to a place not far from here which is still farmland, and there are landmarks on the map which are still there today. So possibly, we can find his bones.”
“And then what do we do?” asked Fresh.
The others laughed.
“Well Lad,” said Blackbeard, “we dig him up, take him to the church where he raised his wife and kid from the dead, and we repeat the ritual to bring him back.”
Sy shuffled on his crate. “Even Fingers 'ere thinks Appleby would be the leader we need. Someone to teach us the real power o' the craft.”
“But he’ll be rotted away by now." Fresh's eyebrows knitted. "You can’t bring back a skeleton.”
“You let me worry about that, my lad, it’s a powerful thing this ritual.” Fingers gave a slow nod of his head.
“How do you know how the ritual works?” asked Fresh.
“It’s all in here.” Fingers tapped the diary. “Only thing we don’t know, is which church to use. But like I say, we had three possibilities – and this is the second one we’ve checked.” He spread his arms to indicate the space.
“So, must be the last one,” said Sy. “Appleby’s church 'ad a marble floor and a font. 'e used the font to collect the blood o' his family, then 'e drew symbols on the floor with it to call the power of our master.”
“This church is missing a font and has a wooden floor.” Blackbeard tapped his foot on the boards. “So . . we can burn it.”
“Or, more specifically,” - Fingers looked over at Fresh Meat - “you can burn it.” He stood up and reached out a hand to Sy who rummaged in the duffle bag.
A few minutes later, Fresh was pouring kerosene around the floor of the church. His companions were making their way back out through the broken window. Last to leave, Fresh leaned back in through the gap in the boards, struck two matches and dropped them on to the wooden floor. The four men hurried back to Sy’s car as the flames took hold.
. . .
“Pass us another can.” Sy clicked his fingers at Fresh and pointed to the six-pack on the coffee table.
Fresh Meat obliged and took one for himself.
“Good lad,” said Fingers. “Get a few down you before we go. Will help you stomach it when we get there. Might even put some colour in those ghost-white cheeks.”
“Where are we going tonight? The last church?”
“No, Lad, not tonight.” Fingers pulled the diary from the pocket of his raincoat. “Mrs Appleby is going to lead us to her husband, Bernard, this evening. And we’re going to dig him up, so he can come with us to the final church.”
. . .
The country lane was unlit and hedged on both sides with hawthorn. Sy pulled over next to a five-bar gate that led into a cornfield. Once the headlights were off, Fresh was grateful for the full moon.
“It’s definitely this one?” Blackbeard pointed to the gate.
“Must be.” Fingers shone his torch into the field. “See that massive tree? In the opposite hedgerow? That’s one of the markers. It’s where they killed him. You’ll see when we get close that it’s had lightning damage. Was split almost in half once and grew back out through its own middle.”
Sy opened the boot and removed four spades and a pickaxe, passing the tools to his companions. “Come on then, which way, Boss?”
Fingers checked the map in the back of the diary and turned the book to orient it along the line of the hedgerow. “Left through the gate, keep to the hedge on this side ‘til we’re level with that old tree. Then we pace across the field towards it, about 250 strides, 125 to Blackbeard" - he sniggered - "roughly level with that ruined windmill.” He pointed to an old brick building in the distance that was missing the top third and could have been anything.
“That’s a windmill?” asked Fresh.
“Was once,” said Fingers.
When Fingers was convinced they were in the right spot, Sy broke the ground with the pickaxe and the others started to dig.
Corn roots, stones and heavy ground made the men sweat and pant. As the pile of earth to the side grew larger, and the hole they made grew deeper, something pale appeared in the dirt.
“This must be him!” Fingers reached a bare hand into the hole and pulled out a long, off-white bone. “Looks like a leg! Everyone, come and dig here.”
They had soon uncovered most of a skeleton and collected the parts in a hessian sack.
“How will we know it’s all here?” asked Fresh.
“We just have to do our best to find him, we’ll stay 'til we can’t find any more parts.” Fingers held up a gold tooth in the moonlight. “And I expect ALL of these to be present and correct! The whole top row.”
The sun was coming up by the time they decided they had to go. They all piled back into Sy’s car, Bernard Appleby in the boot with the tools, and they drove off back to Blackbeard’s house on the edge of the farmland.
“So, we need to check we’ve got him all.” Fingers hauled the sack into the kitchen. “Should be 213 bones I think, plus teeth, right, Fresh?”
“Right, Boss. Gold ones included!”
They worked through the morning, laying the bones out on the kitchen floor and counting them as they went. Fresh Meat consulted a textbook where required to see that things were in the right place. When they had emptied the bag, he looked puzzled.
“What’s wrong, Lad?” asked Blackbeard. “Those green eyes are looking blue.”
“Well, there’s a patella missing. The left.”
“In English, Lad?” Blackbeard smoothed his beard with his hand.
“It’s the knee cap. I don’t know how we missed it. He can’t walk properly without it.”
“We’ll have to do the best we can with what we’ve got I suppose.” Blackbeard said. "I might like having another man around who needs crutches."
Fingers rubbed his chin and sighed. He’d think of something. Perhaps sacrifices would have to be made.
. . .
The final church sat outside a small town near the Welsh border. A quaint, sandstone building, it had a modest bell tower with a clock that was only right twice a day. The window arches were narrow and stone, so, even with the glass smashed, no one was climbing in that way. There was a padlocked metal cover plate over the door which Sy saw to with a pair of bolt cutters. The original wooden door behind was so rotten that a few shoulder barges soon had it open, and the men were in.
Fingers carried the sack of Appleby’s bones in from the car. He removed each one with great care, and placed them on a black sheet, which he'd spread over the altar. He lit black candles at the head and the feet and set incense burning at five points around the body.
“Appleby used blood to draw the symbols on the floor,” said Fingers, “and so will we. Sacrifices have to be made.” He handed out flick knives and grubby bandages to the gang and gave them each a laminated page with a symbol printed on one side. “Each cut your palm and clench your fist to drip the blood into the shapes on your pages. Try to be as accurate as you can.” He pointed each man to a corner of the nave where they dutifully opened their blades.
Once the symbols were clear on the floor of the church, Fingers began reading unfamiliar words from the diary, chanting and strutting between the symbols. He finished his performance back at the altar where he beckoned to Fresh Meat to join him.
Fresh approached the Boss and took the lighter from his outstretched hand. Blackbeard approached too, standing to one side, leaning heavily on his crutches.
“Now Lad, stand exactly here.” Fingers pointed at a position on the altar step. “Then light the lighter and hold it to the sheet until a clear fire burns.”
Fresh did as he was told but the sheet would not light.
“Hold steady, Lad, hold steady. Right about there.” Fingers grinned.
The bones on the altar shivered and shifted against the sheet. The candles burned higher and the fire caught. As the flames licked across the bones, they juddered to new positions, pulling themselves into a recognisable skeleton. Arms and legs took shape and joints clicked into position. The head, spine and ribs raised up off the altar, and the legs swung forward over the edge, feet nearly touching the floor. The skull turned on the neck and Fresh staggered back as he found himself staring into a pair of empty eye sockets.
“Don’t be afraid my lad.” Fingers put a hand on Fresh Meat’s shoulder. “Your leading role is still to play.”
The skeletal hands reached forward and wrapped themselves around Rob’s neck, edging him towards the flames. Fresh struggled to pull away but Fingers stepped up behind him and shoved him in the back. Fresh lost his balance and grabbed Blackbeard’s arm in an attempt to right himself, knocking his companion off his crutches. Blackbeard fell down the altar step and cracked his head on the stonework. He groaned and then lay still, sprawled over the marble floor.
. . .
Four men emerged from the blazing church, the heavy scent of smoke in their clothes. They made their way to Sy’s car. Fingers supported Blackbeard as he struggled on his crutches, still dizzy and disoriented from his fall. The others walked tall.
"'ere you go Burns," said Sy, passing a can of lager to the man walking next to him. "Bet you'll need one o' these."
“Who’s this guy? I thought Appleby would have a limp?" Blackbeard groaned, rubbing the lump on his head. "And what happened to the kid?” He threw his crutches in the boot and hopped round, leaning on the car, to the back seat. “Is he not coming back with us?”
“He is, and he isn’t.” said Fingers, getting in next to him. “We all make sacrifices.”
Sy helped the taller man into the passenger seat before opening the driver’s door. The interior light came on while he fiddled with the bandage on his hand.
Blackbeard glanced at the passenger’s face in the rear-view mirror. He had a full top row of gold teeth, deathly pale skin and the greenest of green eyes.