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It was a normal raid on a normal night. That meant rain and nervous horses. It meant the coach travelling more slowly because of the conditions and thus being easier to ambush. It meant three men riding up alongside the coach and pointing a pistol at the driver. It meant one man standing at the front whilst the other two relieved the coach’s occupants of their jewellery, cash and expensive clothing.
Then all three rode away into the rain.
Stevens took the scenic route home, just in case anyone had followed although it would be a brave person to attempt that. He said goodbye to the others at the crossroads after retrieving his share of the loot. Back home he put the stolen merchandise in a chest in the living room. The servants knew better than to ask questions. When the chest was full he would take it to his contacts and sell for a large profit.
He sat down, with a glass of wine and started to relax.
Until the voice spoke to him.
There was nobody in the room, of that he was certain. Nobody outside, they could not be heard through the window anyway, and nobody on the stairs.
So he had to be imagining things.
“I am you,” said the voice clearly. “I know what happens.”
Stevens nervously quaffed some more wine. “Do you indeed?” he asked. “Then pray enlighten me.”
It had been a risky endeavour, and Barry couldn’t believe that he had now made contact. Years of practice had gone into this. The hypnotist had advised against it and so had everyone else, including that game show host when he had foolishly accepted an invitation to appear on national television.
Barry didn’t like people making fun of him. Especially when he was right. Especially when he knew and they chose not to believe.
As a child he had been fascinated by highwaymen, dreaming of the gallows and reading whatever he could find on their exploits. When he was old enough to browse the internet he was delighted to find a copy of the Newgate Calendar online. However it was in a printed book that he found a picture of the seventeenth century highwayman Richard Stevens.
Except for the moustache sprouting under Stevens’ nose he was identical to Barry.
Everybody saw that but thought it was just coincidence. Sceptics questioned the validity of the regression that followed, saying that Barry knew all about Stevens anyway.
But he hadn’t. None of the books he read had described the house, a mansion which still existed and which Barry had visited. He found himself recalling every door and window, explaining to his family what each room was used for. The sceptics said he made it up.
Nobody really believed. His wife, Harriet, indulged him but no more. So he decided to try and make contact with his former self.
* * *
Stevens blew out the candles and went to bed. What he had heard disturbed him greatly and he awoke twice in the night, believing that there was an intruder close to him. When he awoke he still remembered and still shivered but ignored the advice.
He had no choice. He needed the money to maintain the lifestyle he had created for himself. Besides, his friends would kill or, worse, betray him if he failed to turn up. The gallows was a daily risk in his line of work. Last night there could have been an armed group inside the carriage, waiting to capture them.
The next night there was.
They were on the trio before they realised, grabbing their guns and hurling them to the ground. Cursing and spluttering Stevens and his associates were chained and bundled inside the coach.
As a child Barry had experimented with hanging by standing on chair then tying a scarf around his neck and fixing the end to a hook in the ceiling. It never really aroused him, unlike the dreams of a judge sentencing him to death and the pictures of gallows which he viewed in books and online. One of the websites had a short piece about Stevens.
Making contact proved difficult. Firstly, Barry had to learn the art of hypnosis, then of regression. He spent hours practising, giving up his job in a supermarket and claiming benefits to supplement the amount he could charge for regressions. Regressing himself was harder still. He had to concentrate on his inner mind, training it to forget the current surroundings and go back and back to a period before he was born again. Then he had to ensure he was conscious enough to remember his current identity.
At first he could only see what was happening in Steven’s world, and he thought that perhaps he was just bringing the memory out of his subconscious mind. Speaking to Stevens, albeit briefly and incoherently, was different. It signified his arrival in the world where Stevens lived. A world he was finding it harder and harder to leave.
Initially he had regressed himself voluntarily at night. Now images of Stevens were appearing at all times, and in all places. A shopkeeper would turn to face him and suddenly don a black cap. Harriet would recite the sentence of death over the breakfast table. Of course he knew that these things weren’t happening now, but he was trapped in the past.
Forced to live through his trial and execution. Despite the increased frequency of the flashbacks he found himself enjoying the experience, wanting to participate even more fully. He had tried to change things, tried to save Stevens from the gallows, but now it was like watching a film for the hundredth time. You know the ending, and the lines, but are compelled to see it all again.
The trial was a formality and the sentence of death an inevitability. The packed crowd inside the court roared its approval. This was unusual, as most highwaymen were heroes to the masses. But this trio were rich and had not restricted their raids to their own classes. Relatively poor coach drivers had been stripped of their meagre belongings.
In the condemned’s cell, Stevens heard the voice again. It came to him on a regular basis, taunting, expressing regret and finally dispersing into tears.
Barry cried. He could not leave the experiment now. He had become trapped in his former mind. He was living his own life as normal, leaving home to go to the dole office, the shops and occasionally to see friends or take the children out. The rest of the time he was in a black cell, looking at the dust, the chains, and the grimaces on the faces of his colleagues. They were to die with him; he had imagined the execution before but never actually seen it.
As the day approached he became more nervous. Harriet was not talking to him, saying that he was becoming weird and suggesting that he get help. The children too were quiet around him. It was also quiet in the condemned hold, although some of the prisoners had hired prostitutes. Stevens did not.
Barry walked the route to Tyburn in advance, ignoring the noise of the traffic and seeing the great gallows standing midst all the modern buildings. He stood there for hours, transplanting the pictures he had memorised into this environment. It wasn’t enough. He knew that he had to be with Stevens for the final journey, recreating it to a better standard. Only then could he truly empathise. And perhaps, when Stevens died, he, Barry, would be reborn.
When the day arrived, chains were loosened and the highwaymen were dragged out along with four other miscreants to the cart that would lead them to death. Nooses were knotted around their neck then they were travelling along the crowded thoroughfares, being bombarded by stones, eggs and fruit. Barry felt the pain as a tomato hit him.
Stevens felt the pain as a tomato hit him. He grimaced indignantly at the spectators then laughed. Many of them would also die on the gallows one day, and the others left to eke out their miserable existence in poverty. They would never have a house like his, or servants. Primitive rabble.
He sensed rather than heard the voice. It was apprehensive now, and gasped as the gallows came into view. Stevens had never seen an execution before, one of the few men in London who abstained from visiting the gallows. His colleagues had attended to pick the pockets of the crowds but he preferred bigger and easier prey. Why risk hanging for a purse when you could take so much more?
He shivered as the hangman climbed onto the coach and tied the ends of all the nooses over the triple beam.
Barry shivered as the hangman climbed onto the coach and tied the end of the noose over the beam.
Stevens felt an erection forming and tried to restrain it. They had told him that the hanged men and women all urinated into the space beneath the gallows. It looked like one of the other prisoners had already wet his trousers.
Barry felt an erection forming. His hands were not bound like Stevens so he was able to loosen his trousers and release it but he couldn’t move far because of the rope. He leant forward.
Having secured all the prisoners the hangman beckoned to the Ordinary who read some prayers, the meaning of which were lost on all but one of the prisoners. Stevens had once believed in God. Now he didn’t expect to meet his maker on the other side. It would be just like sleeping wouldn’t it?
His mouth felt dry, despite being moistened by a drink on the way to the gallows. Barry had stopped for a pint in his local pub.
The hangman whipped white caps over all their heads.
Barry didn’t have a white cap; he had considered then decided against a plastic bag. Instead he saw through Stevens’ eyes, piercing the cap, as the hangman whipped the horse and the cart moved away. Stevens kicked out.
Barry kicked out and lost his balance.
It took Stevens five minutes to die but Barry didn’t see it in this world.
When Harriet returned home from work, mercifully before the children, she found Barry hanging from the ceiling. There was no suicide note and misadventure was the verdict later given in an empty court.
Copyright © 2004 by Paul Williams