[This is an extract from a work in progress, a crime fiction novel set in Liverpool. Father Gerry Carroll, unintentional amateur sleuth, is attending a lecture given by an old friend, a radical philosopher. The novel’s working title, ‘The Thirteenth Station,’ refers to the penultimate of the fourteen Stations of the Cross which depict Christ’s journey to death by crucifixion. In the thirteenth station, the cross stands empty after the body of Jesus has been removed. The Stations of the Cross are particularly important for Catholics during Lent, the season which culminates in the hopelessness of Good Friday and Easter Saturday but is followed by the joy of Easter Sunday. This lecture takes place in the fifth week of Lent, just before Palm Sunday, a commemoration of Jesus riding into Jerusalem and being acclaimed as a king.]
‘Gerard, you’re not going out like that?’
There was no point arguing, he’d tried and failed. ‘Male’ and ‘fashion’ were two words his mother believed should never go together. Especially if you were a priest. And he knew exactly what she’d say, heard it often enough.
‘It may be a black t-shirt to you but it’s still a vest to me. And no decent man goes out with his vest showing.’
He grinned, ignoring his absent mother.
Trotting down the stairs Gerry yelled a quick goodbye to Father Alex and hurried off, past the pub on the corner, down the cobbled street lined with Georgian houses and old-fashioned street lamps. In London they would be worth a fortune, here they were mostly cheap student flats, their sash windows pierced by ugly ventilation fans or obscured by dingy net curtains.
The lecture was in a large room with tiered seating. Gerry’s heart sank as he made his way to a row at the front. No escape. He had left it late and had no other choice.
The title was up in big letters on the screen:
‘Murder Most Democratic: Crowd-Sourcing the Ultimate Crime.’
No wonder it was packed.
A blast of music settled everyone down as Jimmie walked in wearing a top hat, a wing-collared shirt, red-lined tails and a red bow tie. Gerry had to bend his head over the desk in front to stop himself from cracking out laughing.
It was, with hindsight, a predictable choice of music – the Kaiser Chiefs and ‘I predict a riot’ – but it was new and strange to many in the crowd. Among the mass of students a sprinkling of silver hair rippled across the auditorium, like whitecaps on the sea, bobbing as they asked each other what this noise was all about.
The music died down and an air of expectation filled the room. Jimmie whipped off his top hat and flung it on a hat-stand in a gesture worthy of Fred Astaire.
‘Riots. Remember them? Well I predicted the bloody riots,’ he began, determined to shock from the start.
Or was he?
Gerry squirmed as he settled in his seat. No-one else seemed to be muttering or tutting, not even the silver-hairs. Maybe he was the one who was conservative in this crowd.
As Jimmie warmed to his theme Gerry’s misgivings fell away.
The audience was not just alert, it was spellbound.
Mulhearn was a shaman.
As he shouted his way through despair and disillusion, spat out anger and resentment, Gerry could feel the crowd fizzing, bubbling with energy.
He looked around. Everyone else was looking straight at Jimmie. Everyone except one person. Anne-Marie, the shy, postgraduate student whose thing was dead languages. She sat staring at the door, as if waiting for someone to burst through it.
The young woman must have felt Gerry’s eyes on her. She turned, saw him watching her, blushed and bent over an open notebook, hiding her face from view.
Gerry wondered. But not for long.
Jimmie was winding up. Really winding up. He was getting people to yell back at him.
‘Justice, Isn’t that what we want?’
Boy, he had chosen his targets well. Students – so easily becoming a rabble. And Liverpudlians – whatever their age, or sex, or class. Always on the side of the underdog. Except when they weren’t.
Gerry realised he had missed something as he assessed his fellow humans. Jimmie had moved on.
The man was talking about Pilate.
What was he up to?
Every muscle in Gerry was taut, so taut his teeth hurt from clenching his jaws.
‘Come on,’ bellowed Jimmie, ‘what did they say, the people in that crowd? Crucify him! That’s what they said. Come on, yell it out. Yell it like you mean it. Crucify him!’
The man looked like a hungry lion, pacing, staring.
‘Come on, try it. It’s an experiment. You don’t have to mean it, just yell as if you do.’
There was an uncomfortable silence.
‘No?’ He paused. Looked around.
‘Too scared of divine retribution? Is that it? I forgot how Catholic this place is. Don’t worry, we’ve got a priest here to forgive us, eh, Father Gerry?’
He turned his gaze on the front row.
‘Well, Father Carroll? Will God smite us for yelling this, just to see how it feels, so we can begin to understand what drives people to do things they don’t intend to do?’
Gerry stood and addressed Jimmie.
‘I’m sure God will understand.’ Then he turned to the crowd whose ranks rose behind him. ‘And anyone who’s going to be at Mass on Sunday will be doing it anyway, in the Palm Sunday readings.’
He turned back to Jimmie, before sitting back down, ‘I think it’s an interesting suggestion. Go ahead. Let’s see what happens’.
‘Come on then.’ Jimmie waved his arms about as if whipping up a storm.
‘Crucify him!’ He waved his arms again. ‘Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!’
A few of the students were laughing. Then, hesitant, the few joined in.
‘Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!’
Then a few more.
Eventually the whole audience – or so it seemed to Gerry, was not just yelling, but on its feet and yelling, teeth bared, arms aloft and pumping with aggression.
‘Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!’
Gerry remained seated, bowed his head and tried, for a moment or two, to pray. It was no good. He turned to look at Anne-Marie. She was up on her feet and screaming with the others, waving her fist backwards and forwards.
Gerry looked up at Jimmie. The man was exultant, no other word for it. His eyes roved around the auditorium, like some mad dictator storming home to victory, against all the odds.
Jimmie glanced down at Gerry, grinned, then looking up to the back of the room, pulled a finger across his throat, the gesture the sound technicians needed to do their thing.
A mighty drum roll roared from the speakers and everyone fell silent. It was if their strings had been cut. People wobbled, sat, slumped into their seats.
Jimmie whirled around on his podium and clapped his hands. The music started again.
‘Thank you, everyone, thank you. You were fantastic. Now you understand. Now you know. You have been at the heart of the darkness, you have stood at the eye of the storm. Politicians know nothing. This is how revolutions happen. This is how riots happen. And that’s how I, Jimmie Mulhearn, could predict,’ he paused, took his top hat from the hat-stand and placed it on his head, ‘a riot.’
He removed his hat once more and bowed a deep bow, like an old fashioned magician. A few people started clapping, then more and more till it broke like a wave of approaching thunder across the room.
Gerry eased his way out of the hall. Outside, in the foyer, he was just in time to catch a glimpse of Anne-Marie as she ran into the night, as if the very devil was after her.