“The Execution of Zacharius Grubb” by Bethan Claire Price
As it turned out, being hanged was only the second most unpleasant thing to happen to me on the worst day of my arduous existence.
What’s more unpleasant than being hanged, you ask? Well that would be the part that comes next. If some stuck-up fairy bent on making the world a better place has decided to bring you back, that is. Her name was Esmerelda, and in hindsight I think she had her eye on me for quite a while before she ended up in my dungeon.
Describing the process of being brought back to life would require every synonym for the word horrible that I’ve ever learned, and several more besides. So to save some time I’ll just say this: next time I would prefer to remain deceased.
Most people who’ve met me would tell you I deserved to be hanged. That’s because most people who’ve met me have been interrogated by me. And if they were lucky all I kept of theirs was a few teeth (I had a collection). Doubtless if you’ve spent any time at all in the city of Jadas, you’ve heard the spine-chilling stories of Head Torturer Zacharius Grubb and his associate, Kor. If not, then we hadn’t been doing our jobs properly.
Anyway, Esmerelda. Fairy, but she had a human form so you couldn’t tell it to look at her. Delicate though, and unreasonably pretty. Usually the pretty ones with their sob stories never fooled me, but somehow her fairy magic and her big blue eyes managed to tug at my heart-strings (I’m rolling my eyes as I think back on it) and long story short, we let her go.
You know those spine-chilling stories you’ve probably heard about Zacharius Grubb and his associate, Kor? The reason they get spread around so many taverns is to help everyone to remember why they shouldn’t cross our boss. Neora the Pitiless. The proverbial big cheese of our great and glorious city-state. She didn’t take too kindly to her Head Torturer and his associate Kor helping her prisoners to escape.
When she found out, Kor, the big lug, started bawling his eyes out like a little girl who just watched her kitten get dropped into a canal. I felt bad for the oaf so I took the rap for him. I was old and sick of my knees bothering me anyway. Within the hour Kor got fired and I got the noose.
The next thing I knew I was lying face-up on a barge filled with corpses bound for the crematorium at the city’s edge. I gasped for air and opened my eyes to find myself staring up at the ugly face of Kor. Built like a bear, IQ of a puppy – that’s all you really need to know him. He loomed over me with tears welling up for the second time that day, and I rolled my eyes.
“Welcome back.” Esmerelda’s voice. She was in fairy form now; small, winged and shimmering, buzzing around my head like a giant moth.
“She done brought you back, Zach-russ,” Kor explained, half stumbling over his own words as he spoke.”She done it with her magic.”
“Indeed,” I managed to mutter, beginning to notice the flies buzzing around the pile of dead bodies I happened to be lying on. Getting up had crossed my mind, but my limbs were as yet unwilling. Most of me was still waking up.
There was a pop and Esmerelda turned back to her human size. She said nothing, just watched me, arms folded, all the while grinning her smug fairy smile.
“Why, exactly?” I asked. Even to me it seemed like an odd choice of target for a resurrection spell, and I’m one of the few people that actually likes me.
Her answer came in the form of typical fairy bullshit: “Zacharius Grubb, you are just the sort of person who has never had a chance to do good with your life. And when you released me, you proved to me that you are capable of showing kindness and mercy.”
My three and a half decade career of trading pain for information left me ill equipped to take that as a compliment. I couldn’t help but think her real reasons were probably more to do with annoying my former employer.
After the ordeal of coming back I wanted to shout at her. One good deed in my whole miserable existence and that’s why you won’t let me rest in peace, you meddling little imp? I should have taken those back molars for my collection like I’d wanted to in the first place…
But instead I looked at her and I mumbled, “Oh…”
“Just as you gave me a second chance, Zacharius Grubb, I am giving you one. Start anew. Change your ways. Dedicate your renewed life to helping people.”
That, in short, is the story of how my associate Kor and I began our new lives fighting crime. Esmerelda warned that my miraculous recovery was contingent on us actually helping other people. Help others, Zacharius Grubb, or die – again. Given all her talk about starting anew, she could’ve at least thrown in a fresh pair of knees.
She didn’t stick around. Fairies never stick around, do they? They just wave their magic wands, change everything irreparably and then flutter off again and go back to whatever it is they do the rest of the time.
It was dark by the time the barge reached its destination. The workers of the crematorium were unsurprisingly rather shocked to discover live cargo amidst their usual shipment, but they let us off without asking any questions, and didn’t even mention the rope-burns around my neck.
I decided, given our fame in Jadas, that it would probably be best if we moved on from the city. Kor agreed.
The next morning we wandered bleary eyed into a nearby village, greeted by nothing but confused stares. A bony old man and his bear-sized associate walking into town with no horses or supplies was an odd sight, I suppose. Some children ran past us, chasing one another through the square, and I buttoned my collar up to the top-most button to hide my noose marks and avoid any unwarranted screams.
“You got any money, Zach-russ?” Kor asked, gazing longingly through the window of the local tavern.
“Severance pay isn’t exactly something they bother with when they’re about to hang you,” I shrugged, hobbling to catch up to him.
“Why you limping?” he asked. It had only taken him an hour to notice.
“My left leg keeps falling asleep. I don’t think it’s been completely convinced by the whole back from the dead thing,” I groaned in response. The fairy had neglected to mention the side effects of resurrection.
A serving girl inside the tavern set a large plate of stew down in front of one of her customers, and Kor’s stomach let out a growl so loud it seemed as if an earthquake had occurred within him.
“Maybe we should go in and ask if anyone needs help,” he suggested.
“You want to just wander into the pub and ask if anyone needs rescuing?”
Kor nodded eagerly and I buried my face in my palm to show my despair.
“Well, why not?”
“It won’t work,” I said flatly. “We look like villains, nobody’s going to trust us.”
“Prove it,” he dared me.
I had to ask the innkeeper for the name of the village first. Dullmarsh. It was as if the village founders had gone out of their way to create somewhere loathsome. I couldn’t help but wonder if all those years of torture had been necessary. Perhaps I should have just been threatening them with a one-way carriage ride to this place.
I used Kor to steady myself as I climbed up onto a barstool. “Good people of the village of Dullmarsh. I am Zacharius Grubb and this is my associate, Kor. Heroes from Jadas, now available for hire. Reasonable rates. No heroic act too big or small. Step right up!”
The villagers looked up from their drinks momentarily, then grunted and went back to ignoring us. In the city they would have at least had the courtesy to laugh at us first, maybe make a few crude jokes. Country folk are so anti-social.
“I don’t know if we’re supposed to charge for the heroic acts. I think we’re just supposed to… y’know, do ’em.” It was becoming apparent that Kor was more invested in this new line of work than I was.
“We need to eat, Kor,” I reminded him as I scrambled back down to solid ground, “and the twinkly one never said we couldn’t charge a coin or two for our trouble.”
We wandered back out into the square and sat ourselves down beside the big statue of a fat man who had apparently done something to save Dullmarsh from outlaws long ago. I looked up at his self-satisfied face and couldn’t help but hate him a little bit. Easy to stand up to crooks and the like when you’re big and imposing. Not so easy when all of your joints creak and your bladder isn’t even on your side anymore.
“Are you the ones who want to help people?” A little girl had skipped over to us. She had blonde hair in pigtails and was far stockier than the urchins that ran the streets of Jadas.
“I don’t know if want is the word…” I began.
“Yes,” Kor interrupted, elbowing me in the side.
She studied us for a moment, as if we were goats at the cattle market. “You don’t look much like heroes,” she concluded.
“It’s a fairly recent development,” I assured her.
“My Moogie is missing. D’you think you could find her?” Her voice was sweet, her eyes wide and pleading like those of a malnourished puppy.
“What’s a Moogie?” I looked to Kor.
“I used to call my Nan Moogie,” he shrugged.
The little girl’s bottom lip began to wobble. “We were walking back from the fair when some robbers made off with her. I followed them back to their hideout but when I tried to go in they threw rocks at me and ran me off.” Tears glistened in her eyes and I was reminded of the way that fairy woman’s sobbing had gotten me into this mess in the first place.
“And why is it they want your Moogie?” I asked cautiously.
“A note arrived this morning. They want my papa to pay them to give her back. But papa says if we pay that we won’t be able to afford enough firewood for the winter. He says we’re to let them keep her.”
“That seems rather cruel of him,” I said, the words sounding odd the second they escaped my lips.
We took the job. We had nothing better to do, and perhaps the girl would at least find us a bit of lunch for our trouble. She led us off into the forest, and an hour or two later we arrived at a secluded little cabin.
“I hope they don’t kill her and eat her,” the little girl whimpered.
“Is that usual for bandits around these parts?” I asked. The girl nodded and I did my best to hide my worry. We’d tortured a cannibal or two in our time at the palace; they were always rather twisted people, the sort who seemed to enjoy whatever you did to them.
“Run back to the village. We’ll find you when we have your Moogie,” I told the girl.
Once she was out of earshot, I began the unenviable task of explaining to Kor why it might not be a good idea to just barge in to a cabin filled with potential cannibals. Kor seemed confused by my protests until I explained that the word cannibal meant person who might like to eat you.
“Blimey,” he said, jaw agape. Fear was an amusing juxtaposition on the face of someone strong enough to knock all of your teeth out with one swing.
“Listen, we need to know what we’re up against. I’ll sneak up to the cabin and try and have a look through the window. If I’m not back after a while, or you hear me yelling, you come and get me. You hear?”
“How long do I wait?”
I sighed. Usually I had employees to help Kor with time management. “What’s the highest number you can count to?” I asked.
I remembered that Kor couldn’t count. Different tactic. “Do you remember the ballad of Kolgrim?”
“All ten verses?” I asked, and Kor nodded. “Start singing. If you get as far as Kolgrim winning the fair maiden’s heart and I’m still not back, then you come and fetch me.
Kor’s singing voice was flat and mumbly, and he kept making up strange words to fill in the lyrics he couldn’t remember. My ears were relieved to get away from him as I slipped between the trees, hurrying uphill to the glade where the cabin sat.
The shutters were open so I peered in through the window. There were four of them; none looked particularly formidable. In fact they looked rather underfed, and no match for my associate. The cabin consisted of one room with a stove and table and chairs at one end and a couple of drooping mattresses at the other. No sign of the prisoner, but it was better to see nothing than catch them carving the girl’s grandmother into steaks.
I was just about to sneak back to Kor to admit that his initial plan of barging in might in fact be the best course of action, when something large and blunt collided with the back of my head.
A short while later I regained my senses, only to realise I’d been jostled inside and tied to a chair. There was a fifth bandit now, the one I’d apparently failed to notice lurking behind me while I’d been spying.
“What you doing snooping round our hideout?” asked the one who seemed to consider himself the leader.
“I’m investigating. I want to build one just like it for my retirement home,” I lied, all the while wondering where Kor had got to.
“Well you’d better not get in the way of our big transaction,” he grunted.
It struck me at that moment that we were dealing with rank amateurs. Assuming I would be no threat whatsoever, they had turned their backs to me and had started to work together to make a stew for their lunch. Rule number one: never turn your back on a prisoner. They had even left me sitting right beside the door.
“Are you going to let me go?” I asked them. I had wriggled my hands free from their rope already, but I wasn’t going to let them know it yet.
“You know where our hideout is, you might tell someone.”
Their stupidity made me wince. I didn’t bother trying to explain that their cabin wasn’t exactly hidden and I never would have known it was even a hideout had I not been assaulted, dragged inside and told as much.
It was insulting to be in this situation. I wanted to stand up and shout at them. Don’t you know who I am? I’m Zacharius Grubb. There are mastermind criminals who fear me, and your shoddy band of miscreants isn’t even remotely competent. But I held my tongue.
I was just waiting for them all to be distracted enough that they wouldn’t notice me simply stand up and leave, when there was a knock at the door.
“Shall I get it?” I asked, standing up.
“How did you get loose?” one of them asked, rather taken aback by my unbound hands.
“You might wish to work on your knotting skills. I’d be happy to give you some pointers.” At that, I pulled the door open. “Have you met my associate, Kor?” I asked politely.
Kor strode into the room. His face was not the face of kind, gentle Kor, my friend who had sobbed over my lifeless body. This was Kor’s work face; a special expression reserved for people who needed their lips loosened, or perhaps their jawbone. Standing up straight he was at least a head taller than each of my captors, and their eyes widened as they took in his broad shoulders and bulky arms.
“About time,” I grunted.
“I got stuck on verse seven for a bit,” Kor admitted, rather bashfully.
The bandits looked to each other for a moment and without speaking they seemed to reach a consensus. In unison they bolted for the door. Kor just stood there and watched them leave with an expression that suggested he wasn’t sure what he’d done to offend them so.
“Grab one of them,” I ordered. We needed to find out where their hostage was being kept.
Kor stuck out one of his trunk-like arms to clothesline the last of them. Mouth met muscle. The bandit landed on his back with a sudden thud and a few teeth skittered across the floorboards.
“Where’s Moogie?” I asked the unfortunate man as his friends fled down the hill, arms flailing.
“You got the ransom money?” he asked, still writhing in pain at Kor’s feet. I chuckled. His cockiness would be short-lived.
My associate needed only a nod from me before springing into action. He grabbed the man by his collar, lifted him clean off the ground and set him back down in a chair. A moment later his hands were tied behind his back (competent knots this time) and he was ready to be asked again.
“I was hanged yesterday,” I told him. I paused and watched the man tilt his head in confusion. “It was really quite a fascinating process. It’s a very variable method of execution – lots of different ways it can turn out. My neck didn’t break on the drop, so it took a bit longer. The pressure of the rope closes both your jugular veins and your airway, so from there it’s really just a race to see which kills you first. I’m not sure which it was for me. I do know that I completely lost bladder control. Disgusting, isn’t it? And did you know there’s such a thing as a death erection? I had no idea.”
“You’re having me on…” he murmured nervously.
“Oh no, my dear boy, I am quite serious,” I pulled back my collar to reveal the marks around my neck. His eyes widened in panic and I continued, “It was a valuable experience. As a professional torturer, there’s so much I can learn about how the human body can respond to a simple matter of pressure around the neck.”
I cracked my knuckles one by one. A single bead of sweat dribbled down his forehead and I knew we weren’t going to need to press him for very long to get our information.
“I’ll talk,” he whimpered. Apparently we weren’t going to need to press him at all.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I’ve got my pliers. I could extract your toenails while you think about it?” It felt like longer than one day since my last chance to remove any body parts. I’d been getting withdrawals.
“If I tell you, you’ll let me go?” He looked to Kor for the answer; apparently I had frightened him a little too much.
“Only if you promise to be good from now on. You should help people, ‘stead of robbin’ them,” Kor told him earnestly.
“It’s contagious…” I muttered under my breath.
“I promise! I promise!”
“Speak then,” I sighed.
“She’s just tied up out back, by the shed.” Kor and I exchanged glances. An odd thing to do with a hostage.
We untied the poor man and he scrambled for the door. He paused briefly, turned back to us and said, “You’re much meaner than any of the heroes I’ve ever heard of!” And at that he fled, screaming.
I couldn’t help but smile. I hadn’t been too keen on the idea of becoming a hero, but a mean hero. Nay, the meanest… how intriguing. I felt rather happy with the concept. And now we’d completed our first act of heroism, we were well on our way. Living in infamy could still be a part of my life, even outside of Neora’s palace.
My joy was crushed however, once we stepped outside to find Moogie. I blinked and rubbed at my eyes, not quite willing to believe what was in front of me. We were on our way back from the fair, the girl had said, I hope they haven’t killed her and eaten her. The penny finally dropped.
“Moogie is a pig,” said Kor. Always a fan of stating the obvious.
To my eyes, Moogie was your typical living vessel of pork: pink skin, short snout, curly tail. She had a brown leather collar around her neck with a first-place rosette tucked into it. A champion pig, then. She looked up at us and snorted cheerily.
Slowly I turned to Kor, unable to hide my disgust. “It’s what you used to call your Nana.”
“Well, it is…” Kor patted her on the head as he untied her leash from the tree stump it had been attached to.
“In the space of one day I have gone from being a world-renowned interrogation specialist feared all over Jadas, to being a man who risks life and limb to save a sow!” I had meant to keep my usual composure, but I found myself shrieking at him.
“It is a prize-winning sow,” Kor interjected, pointing at the rosette.
I snapped and started smacking Kor across the arms, flailing wildly like a rabid monkey. He stood there for a while and glared at me, the giant of a man barely feeling the sting of my rage. Eventually he caught me by the hands and I was forced to stop.
I calmed down, and pulled my hands free. “I don’t want to be a hero. This is the epitome of rubbish,” I sighed.
Kor smiled at me and patted me on the shoulder. It was kind of him to be so understanding. I didn’t really deserve it after that tantrum. Moogie the pig seemed to grasp that I was feeling down, and nudged her head against the side of my leg affectionately.
“We should get her home,” I said.
Her homecoming was a joyous occasion for her owners. She wasn’t a treasured grandparent as we had originally assumed, but she was still a beloved part of the family. Not to mention there was good money in raising champion pigs.
I wasn’t so keen on being showered with hugs by the little girl, but I didn’t complain when her mother gave us a few coins and food for the road. And even I had to admit it was nice to feel appreciated. Torture is rather a thankless occupation.
I decided, and Kor agreed, that it was time for us to move onto the next village. Dullmarsh’s only band of bandits had been disbanded, and it was time for us to find other places in need of our particular brand of help.
As we walked off into the sunset, Kor smiled and reached into his pocket. A moment later he produced a small white tooth – an incisor, cracked in half from where he had bashed it out of the bandit’s mouth.
“Thought you might like to start a new collection,” he said.
He held it out to me and I smiled at my friend and took my prize. For the first time I thought to myself, perhaps this hero business won’t be so dreadful after all.
About the Author
Bethan Claire Price left her homeland of Wales and somehow ended up living in Halifax, Nova Scotia with a nerdy husband and a short-tempered rabbit named Marzipan. When not writing she plays the drums and travels the city on roller skates with pink wheels.