Sunday, August 2, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Four

A little town. A quiet village. Dawn rises.

A gray, skeletal figure sidles across the town common. The tired men on duty scowl and narrow their eyes. A few grip their rifles a little tighter, but none fire.

If the figure notices their glares, he pays no attention. His focus is on one man, the largest man, busily explaining how to operate the flagpole.

The Town Champion does not notice the approaching figure, who reaches out a long, thin arm to tap his muscled shoulder.

“Monsieur,” says the cadaverous man.

If the Champion was going to wave him away, he stops his dismissal when he recognizes the visitor. It is the caretaker of the lunatic asylum.

“And, ah, just pull on the rope so that the flag goes up,” the Champion finishes hurriedly, and then begins walking away, out of earshot from the other men.

“What is it?” he asks.

“The patients,” says the Doctor, his whisper low and calm. “They have died.”

“Died? That’s good, then, right?” The Champion speaks a little too loudly, then looks guiltily over to see if he was overheard. Whether the other townsfolk can hear or not, their attention is conspicuously on the pair.

“Not exactly, Monsieur. They died… but they came back. Do not worry,” the Doctor hurries to add, “we have taken care of them, and their ashes are ready for burial. They died, as we shall say, a hero’s death.”

“That we shall,” agrees the Champion solemnly. A few of his men had been bitten two nights previously. Since then, the guard had been doubled. They will not be surprised again.

“But what we learned!” grins the Doctor. “Oh, what we have learned!” He laughs a dry, throaty laugh, earning the attention of some children who are working on one of the common gardens. They have learned, even in their youth, never to trust the laughter of the good Doctor.

The Champion smiles hopefully. “A cure?”

This only makes the Doctor laugh all the more, until finally he is coughing and wheezing and squatting down, his hands resting on his pointy knees.

“Oh, no, Monsieur. I do not think Providence smiles on us that much.” And after another furtive glance around, the Doctor continues in a quieter voice.

“The wounded men, they had been bound and trussed so they could not bite any of my orderlies. And as they succumbed to their first death, they were injected with chemicals, poisons that would fell an elephant. And they were unaffected.”

The face of the Champion remains stony at this useless news. It means nothing to him or his town, but the Doctor seems to have enjoyed the experiment for its own sake. His white coat is spattered with many a dark stain.

“Stick them, stab them, strangle them, decapitate them if you wish. Nothing kills them but damage to the brainpan.” He taps his bald head and grins, looking more than ever like a toothless skull.

The Champion cuts him off brusquely. “I know that already. What do you think we’ve been doing all this time?” He turns and is about to return to the flagpole, but then wheels back to let the Doctor know his place.

“I only gave you those men because you gave me your word, your word, that these experiments would turn up something. And now I have five families who are furious that their loved ones are gone, and dozens more who might not trust me anymore.

“And if they don’t trust me, Doctor, this whole town’s going to die.”

That had been the beginning of his problem. None of the wounded wanted to go to the grim and filthy Asylum – they’d only grudgingly gone at his command.

And the others, those traitors who lied about their wounds, died anyway and took their households with them. Such a waste of ammunition and lives, and who had been blamed? The Champion!

It wasn’t his fault, of course, but the people needed to take their anger out on someone. Never mind the fact that he was the reason they were all alive in the first place, that it was his leadership that established the town guard and the rationing of food.

When things went well, people were happy to hail him, but when things went wrong, how quickly they turned tail. Hateful peasants.

“Ah, but Monsieur,” wheedles the good Doctor, “they will trust you. Because I did learn one thing of great importance.” He pauses dramatically. “From Pierre.”

The Champion thinks for a moment. “Who’s that?”

“He’s a rat terrier. Nothing special about him… except he can smell the sickness.”

Eagerly, the Doctor continues. “He hates the creatures. And he hates the infected. Barks nonstop. We thought after we incinerated the last one, he’d quiet down, but he didn’t. It seems he smelled the sickness within one of the wounds of my attendants.”

“One of your attendants was bitten?”

“A minor inconvenience, already handled,” says the Doctor quickly. “And, by the way, I’ll need one of your men to take his place.”

Before the Champion can protest, the Doctor continues: “But think, Monsieur. With Pierre, we don’t need to worry about them hiding their wounded at home. He’ll find them, and I’ll take them, and the town will be safe.”

“The people won’t like it,” says the Champion after a moment.

“They’ll do as you say,” says the Doctor, smoothly, and the Champion has to agree with such wisdom.

“And all this only matters,” finishes the good Doctor, “if we have another unfortunate incident like the last one.”

“True...” says the Champion, his mind on the previous night’s attack. He looks over at the men on the wall, and the guards quickly avert their curious stares. How many might be hiding wounds beneath their coats?

“Bring the dog around,” he decides. He’s always liked dogs, but would prefer if Pierre was of a larger, more heroic breed. “We should do a sweep of these men before the next ones arrive.”

Without another word, the Champion returns to his men. He offers them a winning smile and secretly wonders which will be sent to the asylum.