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Authors: James Neal Harvey

The Headsman

BOOK: The Headsman
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The Headsman

James Neal Harvey


For Claudia, with much love.

Mind your mum

And give thanks for your bread

Or tonight when you’re fast

Asleep in your bed

The headsman will come

And chop off your head

old English nursery rhyme




was a pile of yellow brick, so ugly Marcy Dickens thought it would be better suited for a dog pound or the town jail. Just approaching it made her feel slightly ill, although she knew that was as much because she was a lousy student as it was due to the building’s odd angles and its pukey color. And also she hadn’t done her homework. As usual.

God. At least it was Friday.

Sometimes on a morning like this her mind shifted into another gear, and she imagined herself in some glamorous occupation. A rock star, maybe, or a movie actress. She’d be coming back for a brief visit, and the kids would be swarming around her limo as she got out, yelling her name and asking for autographs, and in the background Mr. Baxter would be watching. His face would have that constipated expression, his eyes little blue marbles behind the rimless glasses, and Marcy would know he’d be thinking that as principal of the school his whole year’s salary wouldn’t amount to what the famous Marcy Dickens gave out in tips. A lot of the teachers would be there too, of course, looking on with envy, really pissed that she’d not only made it but made it bigger than any of them could even dream about.

But it wasn’t a limo she was getting out of now, it was a school-bus. And the only person waiting for her was Buddy Harper, with grease under his fingernails and smudges of it on his wind-breaker, his long brown hair flopping down onto his forehead. Like Marcy he was carrying books in one arm, and she was reminded that even though he spent every spare moment working on his beloved ’79 Chevy, he got better grades than she did. Life was unfair.

She fell into step with him, and they joined the stream of kids moving slowly up the walk toward the school. Marcy said good morning and he grunted a reply. They’d been dating since the beginning of the school year, if you could call it that. Mostly their time together was spent groping in the back seat of the Chevy. Although once in a while they’d cruise over to Chelsea, the next town going east on Route 6, and take in a movie. There was a movie theater here in Braddock, which they also went to, but driving a few miles made it more fun, especially for Buddy. Anytime he had an excuse to wind up the Chevy he’d take it. He had it all charged up with stuff like high-speed cams, and headers, and a heavy-duty suspension, and a lot of other things Marcy didn’t understand but which he was proud of. There were also a couple of roadhouses on the way where you could get served without showing I.D., and that was another good reason to get out of Braddock. You couldn’t so much as go to the bathroom in this town without everybody knowing all about it.

Tonight would be more of a social event, however. There was the basketball game against Warren Falls, and afterward a dance in the gym. The Juggernauts would be playing, and they really weren’t too bad. Four guys—lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass and drums, and even though a lot of what they played was imitations of groups ranging from the Stones to U2, they had a big beat and enough amplified sound to make the walls shake.

And speaking of music, what was that? It sounded to Marcy like the Braddock High band, pumping out one of its crappy fight songs. She looked questioningly at Buddy, who shrugged. The band playing? At this time of the morning? Whatever for? But the thumping of the drums, the toneless bleating of the brass were unmistakable. Nothing else could sound that bad.

She looked up at the front of the building, and her suspicions were confirmed. The band was on the front steps, decked out in full regalia, looking like a bunch of Mexican generals with epaulets and gold braid dripping from their orange and blue uniforms. And the purpose of all this was instantly clear, as well. Taped to the wall above the front doors was a paper banner that read BEAT WARREN FALLS!

The cheerleaders were there, led by Marcy’s friend Pat Campbell, with her long blond hair and her boobs pushing out the front of her white sweater with the big orange
on it. And off to one side, sort of hovering, was Mr. Baxter, managing to seem pleased and snide at the same time. Which explained everything. This would be another of his brilliant ideas, intended to fire up enthusiasm and school spirit. What an absolute jerk.

The students were crowded around the steps, half-heartedly singing along with the band. Some of the younger kids were getting into it, however, urged on by the cheerleaders. Beside her Buddy suddenly launched into a loud braying of the song, startling her. Marcy realized an instant later that he wasn’t singing the melody, but was blaring out the words to one note, like an idiot. “Fight on old Braddock, fight on brave Orange,” Buddy intoned. “Braddock you are bound to win if you’ll fight fight fight fight on.” Marcy burst into laughter.

The pep rally went for another fifteen minutes or so, until she began to hope it would last all morning, the band playing and the cheerleaders going through the locomotive and a pyramid and a couple of other routines, but then the bell rang and suddenly this was just like any other Friday, more or less.

The band clumped its way through another fight song as the students climbed the steps, making way for the other kids to pass. When she went by Donny Lonzik, Marcy had to smile. Donny was playing one of those huge horns that wrapped around you—a sousaphone, she thought it was called. He was a fat guy and short, and even though it was a typical raw late-winter morning of the kind that passed for spring in this part of central New York State, Donny was running sweat, drops falling from his nose and chin as he huffed and puffed into the horn.

“Hey, Donny,” Buddy called out. “You know your fly’s open?”

Lonzik pulled away from the mouthpiece and a grin split his face as he supplied the punchline to the old gag. “No, but if you could hum a few bars …”

They filed on through the doors and into the school.


The first class of the morning was English, and it was a few minutes before everybody got settled after all the commotion. Marcy took a seat next to Pat, who was looking radiant. “Some whoop-de-doo.”

Pat rolled her eyes upward. “Leave it to Baxter. He’s such an asshole.”

“Yeah.” But Marcy wasn’t fooled. The cheerleader loved all this stuff, holding center stage and with the boys’ tongues hanging out as they watched her cavort in that tight sweater. Pat was her best friend, one of the few people she could confide in, and yet she couldn’t deny feeling envious at times like this morning, wishing she had hair like that instead of the mousy dark stuff she could never get to look like anything, and maybe a face that pretty. Not that Marcy was a dog. She wasn’t, not by a long shot. When it came right down to it, she had almost as good a body, and she was two inches taller.

But somehow Pat put it all together in a way that Marcy couldn’t. Blond hair, vivacious personality, a knack for wearing clothes. She also had the means to buy them; her father was one of the richest men in Braddock. Not that Marcy was poor. Her own father was president of a bank, and the Dickenses were one of the leading families in town. It was just that no matter how you looked at Pat, the sum total was terrific.

And if you wanted even more proof, all you had to do was look at her boyfriend. He was Jeff Peterson, captain of the basketball team, easily the prize catch of the whole damn school. He was sitting in the back of the classroom with a couple of his dimwitted buddies, his long legs stretched out into the aisle, cool and self-assured as usual. Some people thought he looked like a tall Tom Cruise, and while Marcy wasn’t ready to go that far, she had to admit that with his lazy smile and his close-cropped dark hair he was pretty cute. She glanced back at him as she often did, pretending to be just casually looking around the room, making a mental comparison of Jeff and Buddy.

The bell rang to signal the beginning of the period, and Mr. Hathaway rolled into the room in his motorized wheelchair. No matter how many times she had been in his class, no matter how long he’d been a fixture in the school, the presence of this man never failed to make her uncomfortable. Part of it had to be that chair, of course. She’d never seen him out of it, and so it was as if it were part of him. Instead of legs, he had wheels growing out of the bottom of his trunk. And instead of the sound of footsteps, he made a whirring noise as he moved around.

And that wasn’t all of it. There were the broad shoulders, and the bony hands with the long fingers. And most of all, there was that face, with its swarthy complexion and the deep-set dark eyes looking out at you. Sort of accusingly, as if it was your fault. His gaze met hers now, and she looked away.

The truth was that this course was a pipe. All you had to do was read whatever Hathaway had assigned—or skim through it, even—and later discuss the material in class. No matter what you said, so long as you didn’t make it obvious that you were bored, he would take your remarks seriously. And the exams were easy as well, all essay questions you could pretty much bullshit your way through if you had read at least a little of the stuff and then paid any attention to what had been said about it in the discussions.

What they had been studying for several months was work by American authors.
Moby Dick
, which Marcy couldn’t stand, and then
Huckleberry Finn
—a kid’s book, for God’s sake, that Hathaway made a big deal of. And now for the past few days they’d been reading and then reviewing stories by Washington Irving, which was really going back into your childhood. The first time Marcy had heard that crap about the goofy schoolteacher in Sleepy Hollow she must have been in the second grade.

“All right,” Hathaway said. “Quiet down. I know you’re all excited about the game and the dance tonight, but I want you to pay attention. You’ll be tested on a lot of what we’ve been discussing here.”

Some low-volume grumbling and rustling went on for a few moments, and then Hathaway asked Dick Heiser to summarize what they’d covered so far. As Heiser stumbled along with his answer Marcy listened for a while, and then as she often did when she was bored, she tuned out.

It was a habit she’d gotten into a long time ago, starting when her father would come home loaded and quarrel with her mother. Marcy was little then, and she didn’t understand a whole lot of what was going on between them, what her parents were fighting about. She realized her mother was angry because her father had come home drunk, and that he was angry because her mother was angry. But there were other currents as well, which Marcy couldn’t figure out. Her mother would yell, and her father would snarl, and then he’d pour himself another drink and the battling would become more intense.

And then Marcy would flick that little switch in her head that was sort of like the one on the TV, and she would be on a different channel, somewhere else. In fact, sometimes she would put herself into one of her favorite shows—“The Flintstones,” for instance. Fred would be cavorting with Barney or with Wilma, and Marcy would be right there in their stone house with them, sharing their jokes and giggling and having a wonderful time.

BOOK: The Headsman
7.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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