Literatti: Fiction By Deslea
Deslea R. Judd
Pairing: Vera Claythorne/Philip Lombard
Rating: M. Graphic discussion of hanging.
Word Count: 1800
Summary: The Judge thought the power of suggestion would work on her. He was wrong.
More Fic: On AO3 or my fic site.
Feedback: Love the stuff. On AO3 or at deslea at deslea dot com.
As soon as she saw the noose, sanity prevailed.
Stunning clarity washed over her, like a bucket of ice-cold water, bringing with it new truths, one after another. Philip's last words ("We're being hunted!") sounded in her brain.
Yes, they were being hunted, and she was the only one left.
The killer had thought he could prompt her to kill herself, and if he'd just left it alone, he would have been right. But he had shown his hand now, shown her that her rising insanity was created, not real.
Your mind's stretched, she thought, but not broken. Not yet.
Just wait until it sinks in what he got you to do to Philip.
Grimly, she pushed that thought away. Survival first. Philip would expect no less.
Clever girl, Philip's voice approved deep inside her brain, and she ignored him. There were only so many ghosts a girl could handle in one day. And speaking of ghosts, what about the killer?
He's in the hallway, her mind whispered in cold, slow horror. Or the water closet. One or the other. He's close.
He had to be. She was the only victim left, this was meant to be her murder, and he would be here to watch. And she had dropped the gun out in the hall. It was empty, but Philip probably had more bullets in his room. Even if he hadn't, God knew how many other weapons the killer had at his disposal.
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled as it occurred to her that he might even be looking at her through the keyhole now. How long did she have until he came in here? How long until he decided she wasn't going to do it, and came in and killed her some other way?
Her heart was hammering, but somehow, she managed to stop herself from looking wildly around. Instead, she tilted her head to one side, theatrically contemplating the noose. Stalling for time.
Her head still tilted, she scanned the room. Her window was too high to jump for it. She'd probably survive the fall, but she'd be disabled by it. The killer would just walk calmly down the stairs, come outside, and kill her on the lawn. Hiding and getting past him after he got into the room didn't seem like an option either. He was almost certainly watching her even now.
Her gaze fell on the noose, and she swallowed hard. It was beginning to look like her only way out. Ten minutes ago she had longed for it, Hugo's voice whispering in her brain, and she had flirted idly with the idea for much longer. Now, it was here, and she didn't want it. Beneath it all, she wanted to live.
Thoughtfully, she wondered if it was possible to survive it. And if she had any right to try.
If I could prove it, I'd see you hang.
Well, Hugo had led the killer to her door, one way or another. As far as Vera was concerned, that debt was well and truly paid.
And by the way, where was he, the killer? Was he deciding even now that she wasn't going to do it?
She thought rapidly on all that she knew about hanging. Thought about the times she had gingerly, experimentally put rope around her neck.
I've seen you run, Vera. You're fast. You're strong. Yes, she was strong. Strong on land, strong on water. Arm over arm. Hand over hand.
Hand over hand.
Resolutely, she climbed onto the chair.
It was the Judge.
She'd thought she'd been ready for anything, and she had not discounted the possibility that one of the others had somehow faked it.
But just the same, when he came into the room as she stood there, the rope around her neck, the shock made her jolt, and that knocked the chair over. Desperately, she grappled for the side of the chair with her toes. Managed to get purchase, and tottered there, the strength of her arches all that stood between her and death.
The Judge was a talker, it seemed. And why not? He had been handing down verbose sentences for decades. He seemed very pleased with himself, and very keen to explain all that had happened, seemingly under the belief that she must be hopelessly confused in the face of his labyrinthine brilliance. She wanted to tell him that Philip had raised the Judge-Turned-Self-Appointed-Executioner theory days ago, but she thought that would be a very good way of getting herself killed.
She might have found his impressively distorted psychology interesting, if she'd cared. What she actually cared about was the hammering question, What did he want? And, was it possible to make him want something else?
Quickly, it became clear that it wasn't. What he wanted was to complete his execution of Vera Claythorne, and then he wanted to depart the mortal coil himself, a few dignified steps ahead of the cancer that was taking him anyway, leaving behind the perfect crime.
Well, she had no intention of giving it to him.
She tried to bargain with him, and didn't miss the gleam in his eye when she did it. Didn't miss the enjoyment he took as she appeared to build up hope of convincing him to free her. If she pushed him hard enough, she thought, he would pull the chair right out from under her, and turn and walk away in disgust. Well, let him. Let him satisfy himself without actually watching her die. It was the only chance she had to survive it.
She just had to be ready. She would only get one chance - if that.
When he did it, she grasped the rope with her hands. Dragged it down her neck, away from her jaw. She felt light-headed as he left her there, as the rope pressed down on her arteries, but she could still breathe. She wasn't sealed off - not all the way.
As his footsteps receded, she launched one wild, grasping hand up behind her. Grabbed hold of the rope, taking part of her weight with it. The pressure on her neck eased, just a little.
She threw the other hand up too. Inched her up the rope, hand over hand. Now, her arms took all of her weight, and the noose dangled slackly around the base of her neck.
She didn't have long. She could feel the muscles in her shoulders tearing already.
She pushed one leg back, against the windowsill, and braced with it. Used one hand to gingerly loosen the noose and pull it back over her head. Carefully, though her arms were a concert of agony, she lowered herself to the floor. Not wanting to fall in a heap in case he heard.
When her toes touched the floor, uncontrollable shudders gripped her, shudders of horror-relief. She turned, holding the rope for balance, and groped forward with one hand. She felt for the windowsill, still hanging desperately onto the rope with the other. Terrified that he would hear her, and come back.
She lurched her body towards the window, swaying alarmingly, and at last, she let the rope go. She bent forward, bracing herself on the window, sobbing out tiny rasps of shock and belated terror. She lowered herself slowly to the floor, a race to do it before her legs and body gave out.
She wept there, holding onto enough of herself to do it quietly, but louder than she should. It wasn't loud enough to draw his attention, it seemed, because there was a gunshot minutes later.
A long, long time later, after the shudders in her arms and legs had been and gone, she armed herself with a poker, and went downstairs, fearing even now that he might still be alive. That even now, he was toying with her.
But no, he was there in the dining room, shot dead, just like he'd planned. Dressed and dignified with a glass of wine by his side.
A wave of pure, righteous fury swept over her. That murdering bastard had had the nerve to sit in judgment on her.
Her lip curling, she swung the poker squarely at his neck, toppling his head from his shoulders with a grotesquely wet rrrrrip, and his head went rolling leisurely on a wave of blood down the room.
"So much for your elegant staging now, Judge," she hissed. "What do you have to say about that?"
The Judge didn't have much to say about it at all, and she dropped the poker in disgust, and went to find Philip.
"You shot me."
Philip's voice was aggrieved.
Vera didn't look up from her work. "Sorry."
"You left me for dead."
"Temporarily. Hold this." Not waiting for an answer, she lifted Philip's hand, and pressed it down on his stomach.
"Do you even know what you're doing?" he demanded.
"Not in the least. But I figured stopping the blood and giving you fluids was as good a start as any."
"That's true," Philip conceded. "I can do better than that if you get me Armstrong's medical case."
"It's right here," she said.
"Clever girl. Open it. And put some pressure on my stomach while I move - I'm going to do some damage here." Gingerly, he levered himself up enough to look at it, and picked through the instruments. He pulled out a couple and began to dig around rather revoltingly in his wounds. Vera winced and looked away. "So I'm guessing you figured out I wasn't the killer?"
"First-hand. It was the Judge."
"There's a surprise. Where is he?"
Philip paused his explorations to look at her. He gave a low whistle. "Oh, well done."
"I didn't kill him. But I did knock his sanctimonious head off his shoulders afterwards, if that counts."
"I should say it does, rather." He made a sound of annoyance. "Well, you certainly did a good job on me, Vera. You seem to have rather miraculously missed my more vital organs, but I still would have bled out if you hadn't come back." There was only the barest hint of rancour in his voice, and a fair bit of admiration.
"Does that mean you forgive me for shooting you?" she wondered.
"Well, I don't know about forgiveness, but it means I won't kill you for it," he smirked.
Vera felt the corners of her lips curling upward. "Close enough."
Philip sobered, just a little. "Like I said, Vera, death is for other people. Not for us."
She held his gaze for a long moment. The sand was sodden and pink with streaks of his blood. Her neck still ached from her ordeal. In the house on the cliff above them, eight people lay dead, including the one who had meant it for them as well.
They were the last little soldier-boys, one shot, one hung, just like the poem…but they survived it, together, just like he'd said. Even when she'd doubted him, even when she'd become the killer's unwitting weapon against them both, he'd been right all along.
She wouldn't doubt again.
"No," she agreed. "Not for us."
I didn't intend to write such a graphic and traumatic near-brush with death for Vera. The idea was basically just a challenge-to-self, to write a survival scenario that didn't actually conflict with anything we saw onscreen. Because, y'know, I like canon-compliance and I wanted a get out of jail free card to write some guilt-free Vera/Phillip without pesky thoughts of, "But dude, they're dead!" getting in the way.
So I envisaged some sort of flimsy, but theoretically-plausible deus ex machina. I had thought there might be some easy trick she could have used to elude the Judge, such as a dummy knot with an untie mechanism made while she was experimenting with the noose, but that was a no-go. (There are knots like this used in theatre nooses, but they give way as soon as any weight at all is on them. There's really no such thing as a partly-effective noose that both holds a person's weight and gives way with a quick tug the second they want to get free).
Well, when I have a challenge-to-self going, I can be a bit like a dog with a bone, so then I turned to what is known of the science of hanging. There was only limited useful information I was able to find. My reading of it (and I'm not a doctor) is that Vera's survival as outlined here is theoretically possible, but unlikely in the extreme. Only someone extremely strong could even attempt a hand-over-hand escape, and I used Hugo's description of her athletic strength to suggest it…but it's a long shot. The other element that seems to make a hand-over-hand escape almost impossible is the pressure of the rope on the jaw. This is thought to force the tongue up to the roof of the mouth, closing off the airways, and causing loss of strength and consciousness very quickly. Our last sight of Vera was of her pulling the rope down her neck, off her jaw, so I used that as my excuse to believe it was possible...but again, it's a long shot.
So the takeaway message here is - hanging is extremely dangerous. It's far more likely to be a deadly act than not. Surviving like this does seem to be theoretically possible, but only in that "theoretically possible you might survive a ten-storey fall" kind of way. So please, no faked stage hangings/auto-erotic asphyxiation/whatever thinking this is your get-out-of-trouble strategy, mmkay?