CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
He’d followed Darren at a distance through the smoky haze and gathering darkness, only the stranger’s unfamiliarity with the terrain allowing him to keep up. Thanks to the man in front of him his mission wasn’t finished, in fact it had hardly begun.
He could have turned away, resigned his mission to the jaws of defeat and let the simmering evil erupt, but it wouldn’t be the end of things. Of that he was sure.
And it wouldn’t be the way of the righteous.
There was only one place they could be headed now and Darren would lead them there in his own cumbersome way. Stranger or not.
It had taken longer than he thought, the man had taken the wrong track on one occasion and on another he’d been sure Darren had realised he was behind him. Then, his feet aching from the unaccustomed trek they’d reached the clearing, where makeshift circular homes, like wattle and daub of mediaeval times surrounded a large barn. He’d paused, moving around to the eastern edge of the clearing, brushing rain from his eyes and watching as Darren stumbled across the barren patch then into the barn. He’d heard his stifled yell amidst Tomblin’s throaty roar and the shrieks of his natives.
Tomblin as well, there could yet be triumph from failure, but his only tactic wouldn’t work – the barn’s structure would be too soaked with rain for fire to take hold. He’d held back, racking his head for a solution that wouldn’t come. Then he’d seen a figure run quickly into the clearing and head for the barn, wrenching loose some sacking before hurling it down and turning. His heart rate already too fast rose even further. Why couldn’t Claire stay away damn her.
She’d disappeared around the side of the barn, out of his sight. He’d made to follow her but her movement had been too quick and the faint light thrown from the barn wasn’t enough to aid him. He’d stood for several minutes at the edge of the clearing, rain soaking his already drenched clothes, unsure what to do. Then with a suddenness that drove daggers of fear through his tangled senses the barn door burst open. He saw figures fleeing outside then turn and ring Darren and Claire as they emerged at the entrance. From the huts other figures, their grotesque forms eerie in the darkness wondered forth to join the assembly, oblivious to his presence.
Lightning forked through the sky, splintering light through the clearing and for a second Claire seemed to be staring right at him, he thought he’d been exposed – and then the pair of them had taken a backward step and the door had slammed shut.
Then another lightning strike and amidst it the unmistakable form of old man Tomblin, trailing his left leg, his torch leading the way, something else in his right hand. He squinted, unable to make out what else Tomblin was carrying and then as the glint of light struck the barrel while he directed the torch at the barn door he saw what it was.
Tomblin pushed his way inside; the others ringing the entrance began to follow him through, lead by the huge figure of Joseph.
So now they were all in there, he had them all. Old man Tomblin, his ogre of a son Shaun, the gruesome hunchback Joseph and the assortment of freaks and misfits who for too long had lead a purposeless life in conditions you wouldn’t keep a dog in.
But what did he do?
Then he remembered.
What light there was emanated from the front of the barn, as Tomblin shone his torch into the faces of Darren and Claire, his old gun held at waist height directly into their faces. Darren’s last reflection was going to be what might have been, if in another place and time he’d met Claire. Even in this final moment she stood beside him unflinching and in the strange silence which had followed the excited cries he could hear her breathing, slow and controlled. It was as if she was daring Tomblin to pull the trigger, in the faint light he could see his son hunched and expectant, in both faces never had the inherent madness been more apparent.
It was true that in darkness there was light.
And those words rang now from the back of the barn as Endleberry emerged, his body a ball of flame, rolling over and over on the straw littered floor, his dark cloak gold in the heat of the fire. Old man Tomblin glared in anguish and then horror as the burning figure rose and rushed, its fiery arms stretched towards him. He shot blindly into the air but in his panic he’d found only the barn roof. He felt hands on his face like hot coals from hell; he felt the flames burning into it with a savage swiftness as the raging inferno turned itself on his son. But it was the cloak that caught Shaun Tomblin, a black scorching mask across his face, searing his eyes in a sheet of white blindness.
Claire recoiled from the scene around her, feeling for her daughter in the dazzling heat of the fire that spread like an uncoiling snake across the barn floor. Darren gripped her arm; this time there really was no way out.
His senses reeling, he felt Claire’s tug, urging him backwards, becoming aware of her throaty cry, ‘Back here, the way David must have come. He must have realised what I did…’
Darren felt the scorching heat in his lungs and smelled the sickly stench of burning bodies but he couldn’t resist a backwards glance to where Jacob Tomblin, Shaun Tomblin and Endleberry had merged into one solid wall of fire. But the fire was all encompassing now, ‘Endleberry must have fired the barn and set himself alight in the process, the bloody fool,’ Darren gasped between breaths that felt like dagger thrusts.
Claire heard Darren’s words but she didn’t reply. Urgency over-ruled it. The small exit at the rear, the one she and Endleberry used, was their only hope. But that was where the fire had started before in the darkness, Claire had no doubt; Endleberry had turned it on himself. And there, seemingly unafraid of the flames that leapt from the ground licking his huge warped frame stood Joseph, a forbidding sentry denying their escape. Darren pulled her up sharp, seeing the glare in her eyes as he did.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ Claire tightened her grip on her daughter.
‘You’re not going to run at that thing,’ Darren panted as Joseph’s twisted mouth curved into a leer, ‘it would be like taking on a wild dog.’
‘What other choice do we have…’
‘Then let me,’ Darren thrust himself in front of her before she could react, her own bravery fuelling his actions he launched himself through the acrid air but the huge Joseph held his weight with just a slight stagger backwards towards the exit he’d guarded. Darren felt the powerful arms squeeze tightly about him, feeling the constriction in his stomach then so tightly into his lungs he feared they would burst. Suddenly and just as quickly he felt the hold slacken and eyes widening in disbelief saw Joseph slump to the burning floor.
‘Grab my hand!’ the urgent call cut through the crescendo of the fire and snatching hold Darren felt himself pulled into the welcome relief of the night air. He saw the policeman, his bulletproof suit as dark as the night, and seeing the gun in his gloved hand realised Joseph’s demise.
‘Claire – she’s still inside, I can’t see her!’ Darren shouted at his rescuer, his eyes fixed on the wall of flames that encompassed the narrow exit. Then he heard a child’s scream, he heard its mother’s urgent shout and then both of them were outside, propelled by their own momentum to roll on the soaked peat outside the barn.
Darren’s feet were scorching but he couldn’t have cared less about that. Claire was free and hauling herself shakily to her feet, am arm clasp around her crying daughter. He closed his arms around them both and closed his eyes to the rain filled night sky; his heart was beating two to the dozen while around him the hopeless task of abating the fire began.