This was a story that I submitted to a local crime-writing competition a few months back. I’m happy to say it was Highly Commended. I hope you enjoy it, too.
Dead Man’s Eyes
Four days have passed since Kelly was hanged, yet still I feel the weight of his words upon me, as if the man stood alive hereafter, hissing into my ears for the pleasure of watching me squirm.
Before me, reflected in the grimy glass of a shop window, is a man unrecognisable—eyes dull and mouth contorted. Lifeless, yet alive. Not me, yet… me. I tear my sight away and hurry along the street, fleeing the sight of my own tortured face. My gait is hobbled by urgency, and I can feel my age bearing heavy across my shoulders.
“May the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
It was such a common formulation of words, strung together for all manner of mongrels who’d passed through my court. Most men accepted the proclamation quietly, hearing it either as a mercy or a mockery, but never considering it worthy of response. But Kelly had not been like most men. Kelly had lifted his gaze, slowly, steadily, surely, and given a barely-there smirk. “I will go further than that,” he’d rumbled, “And say I will see you there, where I go.”
Four days have passed since Kelly was hanged, and I fear his words may yet come to pass.
The courtroom used to bring me such comfort—the familiarity of procedures, the logic of verdicts. But no longer. Each sentence I pass fills me with an unknown dread; the prisoners seem to match my stare more strongly, and always with Kelly’s eyes; the air is too thick and warm, sluggish, almost, as it passes my lungs; and this infernal wig has begun to itch to the buggery!
I startle at the soft words and the gavel slips from my fingers, landing with a loud thunk against solid mahogany. A sense of finality follows the sound.
“The cases have finished for the day,” says the young officer below me; and indeed, the courtroom is empty. How long have I…? “Do you need assistance, your honour?” queries the lad. He speaks in a gentle hush, as if to a frightened child or hysterical housewife, and I immediately bristle.
“I do not need assistance,” I intone deeply. “And I’ll thank you not to interrupt me whilst I am thinking.”
The young man blushes and babbles an apology, departing with nervous swiftness. In his absence, my fears loom closer, fed into by the dreadful silence and the presence of a dead man’s ghost.
…I will see you there, where I go.
They are like cobwebs, my concerns. So difficult for others to see, but a clinging presence that I cannot ignore. And should I try to brush them aside, they merely reappear in new and intricate patterns, weaving together and threading me ever closer to some unknowable, inconceivable threat. I feel the sting of a spider’s venom throbbing through my veins and can do nothing to ease the ache.
Ned fucking Kelly will be the end of me.
I will go further than that…
I have been troubled by illness these last few days—skull-splitting headaches and nauseating dizziness; fevers that leave me weak and shaking, then suddenly give way to icy chills. To climb a flight of stairs leaves me with a pounding heart and a terrifying breathlessness that I imagine is akin to the grip of a tightening noose around one’s neck.
And always, ever always, do I hear the laughter of a bushranger now nine days dead.
Someone seeks my death, of that I am sure, and my list of suspects is too long to narrow down. I am surrounded by Kelly’s supporters—the imbeciles who signed petitions and staged protests and cheered whenever the cop-killing gang ran free. Any one of them would do me harm; any one of them would proudly bring my end in the name of ‘justice’. But what do they know of justice?
My illness is surely a plot to which I, in my distracted state, have allowed myself to fall folly. I feel weak and foolish; days pass in a confusing blur. The courtroom brings no solace; I ultimately refuse to attend to my duties, citing carbuncles as the reason for my withdrawal, too exhausted to feel shame or guilt. The concerns of my loved ones, my friends and my colleagues go unheeded, for I know their words cannot save me.
Twelve days have passed since Kelly was hanged.
In the dark, cool shelter of my home, I sit alone. Too afraid to stand, for the dizzying pulses in my head. Too afraid to eat, for the poison that must surely be hidden on the plate. Too afraid to sleep, for the echoing laughter and the unblinking eyes of my tormenter.
Twelve days have passed since Kelly was hanged, and I fear his words have come to pass. As the ache within me blossoms into something sickly and hot, as the air in my lungs grows stale, I whisper to myself, “May the Lord have mercy on my soul.”
Darkness falls upon me like the gallows’ hood, heavy and tight. Through the gloom of numbness, I feel his ghostly hands loop around my throat and that damned familiar voice rumbles like thunderous laughter.
I will see you there.
* * *
‘[Sir Redmond] Barry’s role as the judge in the trial of the outlaw Ned Kelly is his most well known. […] Kelly was executed on November 11, 1880 at the Melbourne Gaol at Russell Street. Barry was to die some days later on 23 November at his home in East Melbourne, not far from the scene of Kelly’s demise. Barry was thought to have died of septicaemia…’
Boyd, J 2012, ‘Ned Kelly hanging judge was much more’, Herald Sun, May 15
– Love The Bad Guy