By Joshua A. Spotts
Soiled pages rested in his left hand. They were brittle and yellow. Rain began to fall. The slow trickle of water into a barrel snuck into his ears, ears that were still filled with an entirely different sound. A sound, not soothing like water, but terrifying and painful like flowing blood, it was the sound that upheld his life and would, he knew, someday end it.
A book lay on the wet, bloody ground, a smoking hole in its black leather cover. The pages scattered on the ground, torn from the book, were just like the ones in his hands. Stepping forward, a few brittle pages shattered under his feet. The rain beat down. The paper in his left hand cracked and fell through his fingers unto the bloody stones and so did the pistol that was in his right.
Turning, the man walked from the alleyway. Thunder shook the earth from above. Nearby, lightning left a black scar down the side of a building. Grabbing a lantern at the end of the alleyway, the man tossed it over his shoulder. The alleyway burst into flames. The black words stood out on a yellowed, brittle page. An image flashed into his mind, searing itself there. Thou Shalt Not Murder.
Gunpowder burns were still evident on his fingers. The man laid them to his right temple. He pushed in, trying to force the crushing pressure out. He found another memory. But instead of his fingers there was a pistol. And instead of his temple it was another man’s. He heard the click of the pistol hammer releasing. He watched as the blonde hair blackened and then his memory disappeared.
“I need a drink.” The man muttered. A nearby pub beckoned to him. Raucous singing leaked from the shuttered windows, its sound dulled also by the pounding rain.
The man laid his left hand on the hilt of his sword. Pain consumed his hand. Smoke curled up and stung his nostrils. The man tore his hand from his sword hilt and looked at him palm. His eyes widened and then narrowed. Red words crawled across his skin. Thou Shalt Not Murder.
“By god! I always start seeing things when I’m sober!” The man glanced at his hand, shook his head, and then threw open the doors to the pub. Another glance revealed that the writing still blazed red on his palm. He swallowed and glanced about the pub. Silence reigned as if a Banshee had just burst through the door, claiming someone’s time had come. And perhaps someone’s time had come.
“A mug of ale, bartender,” the man said. He winked his scarred eye at the bartender, “quickly.”
Within moments the man was sipping from a clay mug. A smile crawled up his cheeks, twisting a scar into a frowning shape. He glanced at his hand as a broad shouldered man came up behind him. The heavy footsteps wisely stopped just outside sword range. The man noticed that as he traced the letters on his hand with a small knife.
“We don’t want you kind in here.”
“Then you best leave me be and I shall be on my way.”
“That’s right you will be!” The big man stomped his booted foot. The floor shook.
“I will leave.”
“As soon as I finish my ale.” The man stared at the writing on his hand as he took a large swig of his ale. Thou Shalt Not Murder. “Have you ever murdered anybody, Bill?”
There was silence. Then the big man answered. “No, by I’ll murder you if you don’t clear out.”
“Don’t lie to me, Bill.” The man had no idea how he knew his opponent’s name.
And soon Bill wondered as well. “How do you know my name?”
“Don’t lie to me, Bill.” The man repeated. He gulped down the rest of his ale and glanced at his hand. The writing still remained and it still burned. It burned worse than the strong ale rushing down his throat, forcing anger and power into his veins. Bill was lying to him. A crash echoed in the silent room as he shattered the clay mug on the bar.
“Hullo!” The bartender yelled and then there was confusion. But it only lasted a few moments.
The floor shook again and thunder rolled outside. Bill lay bleeding on the floor. The remnants of a shattered mug stuck from his throat. On the unbroken bottom of the mug which sat on Bill’s unmoving chest, over his useless heart, was a message. It was written with black coal dust. It read: Your sin was murder, William Patrick O’Reilly, Thou Shalt Not Murder.
“Bloody butcher…” the bartender muttered as he knelt over Bill. “Ever since that Johhny came here as a young boy I knew he’d be trouble.”
The next morning, after a fitful night’s sleep, the bartender, one Lloyd MacDougall, opened his front door and heard what he had always dreaded. His pub was on the town crier’s tongue. Indeed, the man kept yelling, “Brutal Murder at MacDougall’s.”
Does he have to say “brutal?” Lloyd thought. It was not like the town had not seen murder before.
As Lloyd shut the front door he thought he had heard his back door open. He felt a chill on the back of his neck. Jogging down the hallway he peaked into the storage room. The back door sat firmly in its frame. The iron bolt was in its place, locking the door shut, just as Lloyd had left it that last night when he came home from the pub.
Lloyd’s stomach growled. He decided it was time to make some toast for breakfast. Walking into his kitchen, Lloyd set a skillet on his potbellied stove. He had pulled out a loaf of bread and had begun to cut it when a voice spoke. A voice he recognized as Johhny’s. “Good morning, Lloyd.”
“I would prefer you called me Mr. MacDougall, lad.”
“Or I could call you Father.”
“No,” Lloyd gathered some jam from the ice box. “You cannot call me that.”
“You and I need keep no secrets, Father.” Johhny said.
Lloyd cut his finger on the knife he was using. A drop of his blood fell unto one of his pieces of toast. He placed the toast on a plate and offered it to Johhny. “Toast?”
Johhny jumped up from his chair at the kitchen table. He raised his hands, “It frightens me, dear Father, that a man of God would ever offer another man tainted food. Does not the church forbid partaking of blood? Unless, of course, holy father, it is the blood of your savior,” Johhny stepped forward. “Or is it the blood of my savior?”
“Don’t ask me these things. I left that life years ago.”
“Oh, I know that, Father. But I did not hear that you left of your own choice. This is interesting.” Johhny stepped closer to Lloyd. “I heard that something terrible drove you away.”
“What do you mean?” Lloyd tightened his grip of his knife.
“What drove you away?”
“You know the answer to that question already.” Lloyd turned around. He felt a small trickle of blood run down his cheek. Johhny’s sword rested on his Adam’s apple. Sweat beaded on Lloyd’s forehead.
“Drop the knife please.” Johhny moved the sword a bit; giving Lloyd a miniscule cut and Lloyd dropped the knife. “We’re not here to fight only to talk and confess. Sit down, Father, let me confess my sins to you.”
“I know what you are doing. I’ve seen a scar like that before.” Lloyd gestured to the writing on Johhny’s hand.
“My sins are many, Holy Father. I have done things no man can be redeemed from. Shall I confess them?”
“If you wish, my son,” Lloyd folded his hands in prayer. He bowed his head. The sharp sound of Johhny’s sword being sheathed rang in his ears.
“I have spoiled my purity in shallow sexual debauchery. I have lied. I have cheated. I have denied the church and renounced Christ. And, Holy Father, perhaps the worst of all these things, I have murdered.” Johhny’s left hand burned as if thrust into molten steel. He bit his tongue but did not notice that new, fresh pain. Nor did he notice the salty taste of his own blood. He let his jaw drop. His shoulders hung as if his entire body stood exhausted. A drop of warm blood splashed on the floor. “Tell me, Holy Father, how many good deeds will my redemption cost me?”
“You cannot free yourself from this hell you’ve created, only God can.” Lloyd sat at his table. Johhny did the same. “And this mission you believe came from God via the writing on your hand; it is not from God at all. It is from Satan.”
“Your words are straight from the church seminary, Father.”
“No,” Lloyd laid his left hand out on the table, palm upward. “My words are from experience.” A faint white scar read Thou Shalt Not Murder. “I once did exactly what you have done. That ‘incident’ was the night I had first received the mark; the divine command, as I thought. I went directly to the dirtiest part of town, found a murderer, and killed him with a gun I had hidden in my Bible.
“As that man fell to the ground I knew I had given Satan another soul before it had a chance to repent. I felt as if I was obeying God. But after I talked with the bishop I knew I was only obeying the tricks of Satan.”
“I received this mark from a Bible, Holy Father.”
“Stop denying what you know is true. Satan has many methods to ensnare mankind. And each method is designed for the specific type of people it is used on.” Lloyd jumped up from his seat, grabbed his own Bible, and then grabbed Johhny’s left hand. Pain shot through Lloyd’s right arm, numbing it. But he held on.
The Bible slammed down on Johhny’s scar. He roared in agony. His free hand grasped for his sword. But the pain gave him little control.
“I am a vigilant agent of God, destroying those who destroy!”
“Your vigilance is blind!”
“I admitted my sins, Father.”
“But you are not repentant of them. You are just as broken as the murderers you hunt.”
“I am an agent of God!”
“You are an agent of Satan!”
Johhny looked at the Bible on his hand. The pain shot in bursts through him, ripping at his nerves. “As were you.”
“I repented.” Lloyd leaned forward. “Can you?”
“No.” Johhny jerked his hand out from beneath the Bible. Splinters bit into it. Blood seeped from the writing. “I am too great a sinner.”
“There is no sin so great that it cannot be set aside. I can help you, Johhny. God can help you.”
“I don’t want to live like this, murdering people. I want a second chance, but I never gave those I killed one. How is that fair?”
“You are not responsible for justice against yourself or any other, only for your own repentance and to seek help in correcting your ways.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“What will you do now?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll pray that God will guide you.”
“God bless you, Lloyd MacDougall, for having the courage to talk to me.” Johhny stood, shook Lloyd’s hand, and left the house a changed man. He left his sword across Lloyd’s doorstep, leaving it as a changed man. The writing on his hand began to fade as he offered sent prayers of repentance to God.