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The Fool

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The Fool

by

Morgan Gallagher

Osier Publishing

THE FOOL
By Morgan Gallagher
© Copyright 2015 Morgan Gallagher

Discover other titles by Morgan Gallagher through www.osierpublishing.co.uk

Contact Morgan Gallagher:
http://thedreyfusstrilogy.blogspot.com/ Twitter @DreyfussTrilogy
http://www.facebook.com/TheDreyfussTrilogy

Editing by Toni Rakestraw, www.rakestrawbookdesign.com
The moral rights of the author and artist have been asserted.
All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher.

All characters and locations within this work are fictitious and any resemblance to real people or places is entirely coincidental.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir or Amazon and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This book is dedicated to my husband, David. A wicked cool researcher, a brilliant maker of tea, an astoundingly good giver of cuddles, and a fantastic father. His research skills in particular, make my life so much easier. Usually. Some days we require family therapy, to see eye to eye on conflicting information. Therefore, in the spirit of marriage, I wish to make one thing clear: all the good bits are mine, and all the mistakes, his.

—Morgan Gallagher, Scottish Borders, April 2012

Table of Contents

The Fool

Other Books by the Author

About the Author

The Fool

Maryam Michael woke as she always did, in the dark. She left her curtains open so that when she woke, the night was in the room with her. Sometimes this meant she awoke in perfect darkness with a cloudy sky robbing all the night of light. At other times she woke in brilliant moonlight, so bright she could see her reflection in her dressing table mirror. This morning the shallow dark of a star-studded sky greeted her, and she rose and stared out her window, beginning her day with starlight and chanting. Here, in the quiet of her country retreat, there was no artificial light on the horizon, nothing to interfere with the sky and her communion with it.

After so many years enclosed, she had come to love the expanse of an unfettered sky. When she had left her cell behind, with all its quiet memories and soul devoted comforts, she had immediately relished the freedom of the sky. For years her sky had been small, distant, dissected into squares. A thing that she could glimpse now and then but which was out there, outwith the walls of her inner life. Now she embraced it as an equal, although she shied from that as an analogy; how could any single, insignificant human soul be equal to the sky?

Like everything in her new life, her routine, her habit, was a mixture of old and new. Carefully preserving the aspects that she’d found useful, adding to them new rituals and experiences that enriched who she now was. Therefore when she finished her chanting and had rung the temple bell that hung at her window three times, she bowed to the sky and went through to her toilette. A warm shower, the body washed and the hair cleaned through, she returned to her boudoir to dress. Rather than the ritual of prayer that once accompanied the taking off of her night attire and its immediate replacement with her day attire, she relished the freedom to sit naked at her mirror and dance cosmetics across her skin. The lightest of touches of moisturisers and foundation, a faint blush to the cheeks, a perfect contour of shade across her storm grey eyes, the lick of dark mascara defining her long lashes and a minute sheen of soft colour across her lip.

Her hair, as short as it ever had been, fell into perfect layers, a testament to scissors as sharp as the talent of the hairdresser that had yielded them. It required but one comb through to settle smoothly, revealing her cheekbones in a way striking to any women of her age. A cloistered youth had left her with excellent skin and when she had taken off her coif her shock of silver hair had been a surprise. Then it had been unusual for a woman to go gray so completely by the time she had entered her 40s. Now she was unusual only in that she choose not to colour it to mimic youth. Her youth still came from inside. She found that her age gave her a gravitas that she had sorely needed early in her life and valued tremendously now it had arrived. It was not something she was prepared to deny or to hide.

She dressed in delicate satin and lace underwear, bespoke to her slender body, and finished with house pyjamas and a long house coat in linen. Today would be spent in paperwork and she would appreciate the soft warmth and flow of the casual lines. She had always enjoyed the feel of cloth as she moved and relished that she could now indulge her tastes in any fabric and colour.

Although she rarely chose colour: her pyjamas were black and her housecoat grey. Monochrome was still a feature of her attire. She slipped soft leather slippers on and went downstairs to the kitchen. The aroma from the coffee maker drew her in and she poured herself a bowl. The timer was set so that she invariably arrived just as the last few precious drops trickled into the jug. She breathed in the warmth, holding the bowl in both hands and tip-toed over the flagstone floor, slipping into her study without waking up the Irish wolfhound that slept across the back door. Edith, her housekeeper, would wake the behemoth when she pushed open the door in a couple of hours. Once, Cullain would have woken the second she rose and would have been at the kitchen door whining and scratching when she came down. Now, even the gurgling of the machine barely caused an eyelid to flutter. He was getting old and knew he would be ignored until she’d eaten. So he stayed asleep and she got more work done: it suited them both.

 

She had two reports to file for the Vatican and two articles to translate from Aramaic, both for an American university. The Aramaic texts were proving to be difficult and she put her just awake mind to them first. After an hour, when her forehead had begun to pound, she fetched more coffee and switched to sorting out the references. She hated referencing her work and always had to make herself do it as she went, in order to prevent two weeks of agony at the end. Referencing was always a time for her to consider her faults and sins; she often felt doing them was some sort of penance.

By the time Edith arrived two hours after that, bringing fresh croissants and bread, Maryam was grey with fatigue. It was good fatigue, but her head hurt and her eyes stung. Edith tutted at her as she called her through for a warming bowl of sweet oatmeal. Maryam ignored the tutting, eating her portion whilst scratching the back of Cullain’s hairy ears. Edith was not backward in coming forward with her ideas about how hard work, tiny amounts of food and very little sleep would ruin a person’s health. Maryam, who’d found that slightly less sleep than you needed, combined with slightly less food than you needed and a good solid day’s work kept you agile and fit, ignored her. Edith fed Cullain his breakfast as Maryam finished hers by dunking a croissant in another bowl of hot coffee: sweet indulgence was good for the body and the soul.

She changed into her outside clothes and donned her thick boots and took Cullain out for his morning tramp through the woods and hills. It was brisk and none too warm, clouds scudded by and wind pulled at them both, but it was refreshing. Cullain came alive on his walks and there was great pleasure in watching him enjoy the scents and intrigues of other wildlife and the undergrowth. Her legs were aching when she returned two hours later and the aroma of the quail Edith was preparing for luncheon was delectable. A shower, and then an hour or so of more translation before eating… and then she could spend the afternoon reading for leisure. As she started up the stairs the phone rang. Edith popped her head around the kitchen door as she answered and tutted. The switch to Italian and her tone were unmistakable. Edith returned to the kitchen, clanging pots and pans. Madame was going on her travels again, and this lunch and the dinner she was half way through preparing would now be fed to the beast. How on earth was she going to get her layabout son to walk Madame’s wolf dog at this time of year?

When Maryam finished the conversation, she phoned the local taxi company and requested they pick her up in thirty minutes, to drive her to Marseille. Edith did some more banging as she packed a decent lunch for Madame.

 

Thirty minutes was tight, but she could make one of the afternoon’s TGVs to Lille if she hurried. Maryam downloaded the files the Cardinal promised had been sent through, and packed up her electronics and their all important leads: laptop, phone, chargers and electricity converters for the various European voltages. She showered the sweat off, dressed, and packed her clothing and personal items in under ten minutes. Her work kit was always full and ready to go; Edith took the three cases outside whilst she hugged Cullain goodbye. Cullain whimpered and look sorrowful but was asleep before she left the kitchen. She picked up her heavy wool coat with its scarves and gloves in the pockets as she left. The driver was eager, intent on carving a few minutes off the hour drive; the local drivers loved to compete on such runs. Edith looked grim as Maryam waved goodbye to her and Maryam felt that grimness inside: she detested being called to work on a murder.

 

She munched on her luncheon as they drove, sharing it with Alain, the driver. Edith had packed enough for three. They made the TVG comfortably and Maryam booked through to London on the train she had aimed for. Lille was a faster journey and transfer than Paris; she should be in London by late evening. She set up in the business lounge before they left and was able to call ahead and give her estimated arrival time before switching her phone off.

Her slender frame in the luxurious chairs allowed her to settle diagonally into her chair, with the laptop screen facing away from the casual eye. She’d positioned herself at the far end of the carriage, able to see all who approached in one direction and the opening door to her side warning her in the other. She closed the screen down at the stations: nothing of what she was viewing could, or should, be seen by the casual eye.

What she was viewing was disturbing enough in print; thankfully there were few photographs. That there were photographs at all warned her that some political connection had already been brought into play.

 

The murder had occurred in the Church of the Mother of All Sorrows, in Peckham, London. A young man had been spread out on the altar and his body slashed. He was naked and had been laid out in the shape of the crucifixion. A series of long cuts had caused a bleed out. The photos showed blood running off the altar and pooling on the floor. From the amount of blood, Maryam was sure the young man had died from exsanguination: he’d literally bled to death on the altar. He was seventeen years old.

The slashes were neither random nor without meaning. They slid in shallow swoops that had encouraged slow, deliberate, bleeding. They were also words that had been scrawled onto his flesh. It wasn’t English or Latin, or even Greek, but Arabic script. The translation she’d received from Rome suggested that the writing stated that the man had died as he was a pig and therefore unclean. Not entirely trusting either the transcription from the wounds, or the translation, she spent a good hour working through the photos and sketches made by the police, piecing together what she hoped was a rather more accurate version. The script claimed that the man had been cleansed and made mention of a Jinn. There were also random words on his limbs: swine, defiler, heretic, but the gist was that he had been killed to cleanse him of his stain. She was unsure if it was ‘stain’, and hoped she could get a clearer understanding of the writing at some point.

 

Feeling both repulsed, and so terribly sad for the young man and his stolen life, she switched everything off and sat, her eyes closed, feeling the rhythm of the train as it shot through the countryside. She’d learned that when faced with horror, with death and blood and violence, that meditating was the way to find safety. Once, she’d have prayed; prayed so hard that she would partially achieve an out of body feeling, a sense of spiritual release and ecstasy. She’d found, however, that this could be an emotion just as deceiving as despair; different edges of the same blade. Calm and lack was a more fitting home for the troubled spirit. A core of emptiness from which to observe and record; catalogue and process as opposed to feel. Prayer was feeling; meditation was absence. In absence, there was room for logic to examine the horror: to allow deliberation upon it that could leave her essence untouched.

 

It was also useful for alerting her to something she’d missed. When she went back to the images and the reports, after rising to walk around a few moments and request some fresh coffee, she noticed that the corpse lay upon what looked like thin paper sheets. Tiny segments could be seen, if you looked, lost in the shadow and blood stains. She magnified the image but could not discern much on a laptop. After an hour of fiddling with images, she was sure she could make out one small line of writing. Almost. Her instinct told her what was probably on the leaves. Her intellect told her what that might mean: it certainly made sense of why the crime had been passed straight up to Major Crimes by the local borough unit.

 

There was no mention of the sheets of paper anywhere in the reports. She did some research on the internet, found the phone number she needed, switched her phone on and sent a text.

 

She then closed down all the murder scene details and concentrated on the background report. The body had been found by a young priest, Father Wyn Jones. She clicked up a copy of his grainy passport-sized photo and stared at the face, trying to see what sort of man he was. Even in this old photo from his application form he was striking: handsome and virile. He was thirty-one years old and on his first posting as a fully ordained priest. Born in Cardiff, Wales, he had studied in London at Allen Hall, the Diocese of Westminster’s own Seminary. He was, according to the file, a gifted and passionate priest who had expressed his desire to work with the disadvantaged youth of the world. He had been delighted with his placement into the Archdiocese of Southwark and his posting to the Mother of All Sorrows Church in gang-ridden, crime-rife Peckham. She stopped work on the people and switched to the internet to examine the locale. Peckham was an old South London parish of dereliction and despair. It had been the scene of a dreadful murder a few years ago; a ten-year-old boy left to bleed to death in the streets, attacked needlessly by a couple of slightly older boys. The world was never good when children killed children.

She explored further and found that in recent months massive amounts of European funding had been pumped in to help combat both the violence and the decay. It was a good placement for a young priest with lots of drive and a desire to achieve something. Energy and money always made things happen, for good or ill.

Father Jones had worked relentlessly for good. He reinstated the Church youth group and set up a youth choir modelled on the Southern Baptist style song and dance of USA churches. It had been highly successful and there had been real connections made with the younger teenagers, who were in constant danger of being drawn into the gang infrastructure. There were also plans to set up a Church youth soccer team and he’d begun fundraising to pay for it. All in all, Father Jones had made a substantial contribution to his new parish in the fourteen months since he’d been assigned. The old parish priest, Father Edwards, who had been retired once and then dragged back out to keep the church doors open, had no doubt found the young man to be a blessing. The Bishop had been delighted and the parish had shown signs of recovery. Services had seen a congregation where not only was the average age under 60 years old, but there was talk of a toddler group being viable if the numbers of families with young children continued to rise. Father Jones was working on the simple truth that if you gave purpose and hope to the lives of the children, the parents would follow.

All had been well until about three months prior when the Mother of All Sorrows had become the target of a vicious graffiti and vandalism campaign. Parishioners had taken to nightly patrols round the closed Church and the graveyard, as no matter how much cleaning and restoration was done during the day, it would all reappear as soon as it was dark. Obscenity had been the main feature of the graffiti with graphic drawings of what was supposed to be Father Jones in sexual congress with children, animals, and corpses from the graves. Various classic motifs of defilement and occult paraphernalia had been left in both the Church, and the graveyard, all no doubt inspired by horror movies. Cats were found strung up on the headstones and a chicken was beheaded at the Church door, with its blood used to draw an inverted pentagram. The Archdiocese and the police had sealed it down with the help of the outraged parishioners and a local animal charity. CCTV had been upped and a couple of the youths from one of the local gangs had been arrested and charged with defacing Church property.

All had gone quiet until Father Jones had opened up the Church doors yesterday morning and found the body upon the altar.

 

Unfortunately, the young man who was dead, and spread across the stones, was known to Father Jones. Just the day before, they had been involved in a fist fight on the Church steps. They both still wore the bruises and cuts they had given each other. In fact, Father Jones had been the last person to see the young man alive.

 

Maryam finished her studies and switched her phone back on whilst she ate a good meal. It was a bit early for a full dinner, but the food wasn’t as good on the Eurostar, it had no internet signal at all, and phone calls were almost impossible. Whilst transferring at Lille, her phone beeped confirmation of the appointment she’d sought for her arrival. She settled onto the London train and switched everything off, using the time to reflect and refresh her mind, clearing out the images of blood and violence upon the altar, preparing herself to receive more information with an open mind. She itched to lay out a tarot reading and study what it may give her in the form of access to her own sub-conscious thoughts. Public attention closed that avenue down, however, and she put earphones on, pretending to listen to music. She sat with her eyes closed, grounding herself fully despite the speed at which she wasn’t touching the ground at all.

 

St Pancras, London was bitterly cold and it was raining: winter cold and dark. Customs had been dealt with in Lille, and the more relaxed attitude to train travel as opposed to flight had ensured her work case had been passed through with the minimum of problems. She alighted onto the platform and was met immediately by a young priest named Father Scott. He appeared disconcerted by her appearance; what, or whom, had he been expecting? He was too well-trained to say anything however, and he escorted her to the car whilst dutifully asking if her journey had been bearable. She was quite surprised to find Bishop Atkins of the Diocese of Westminster and Bishop to the Curia in England & Wales sitting in the back seat of the car, awaiting her. Father Scott packed her bags into the boot as she settled into the seat beside the Bishop.

 

‘Marie.’ Atkins nodded hello.

‘Frederick, how nice to see you.’ He did not extend his hand and she did not kiss his ring.

‘What arrangements have been made?’

‘I thought we’d drive you to Westminster, where an apartment has been prepared for you. Then we can discuss the matter before speaking to the priests at the parish concerned. The police will want to speak to you in the morning, no doubt.’

Father Scott started up the car and they began to weave their way to the exit queue to negotiate the ticket barrier.

‘I did not have time to alert you, but I have an appointment in a few minutes. Father Scott, could you take us to New Scotland Yard? Thank you. Also, Fred, I’d prefer to stay at the parish house in Peckham. After you drop me off, perhaps you and Father Scott can take my cases there and I’ll join you later?’ She gave Fred her best smile-of-good-intent: the social lubricant that women must often use when working with men used to being in charge. ‘Do you have a folder for me?’

Atkins leaned down and opened his briefcase, taking out a thin folder stamped with the mark of the Diocese of Westminster. His jaw was compressed as he handed the file over without speaking. He had always hated taking orders from anyone outside the Church: he must have hated that Rome had sent her.

The drive took a little over twenty minutes, which she spent examining the photos with a magnifying glass. Atkins had spoken over her deliberations several times, to offer more information and impressions, but nothing he said was important. Of more import was the way Father Scott looked away from the rear view mirror as Atkins had spoken.

Atkins was furious that he’d been dismissed. As she exited the car, he had tried both to accompany her and to suggest that Father Scott stay as a driver to assist her when she left. Maryam assured them that she’d see them later, at Peckham, or perhaps tomorrow if she was very late. She knew Atkins would remain at Peckham until she arrived, no matter how long it took her.

She went in and was invited to sit. She waited out being left to moulder into nervousness by the desk sergeant. His job was to make sure everyone was left to stew until they were admitted into the presence of those too overworked to care that much and who would often hide their tiredness in cynicism and anger. The ones who wished they were still desk sergeants and regretted their thirst for promotion. She doubted that dynamic would be presented to her today and settled into people watching and enjoying her wait.

It had been a few years since Maryam had been in the offices, and she noted the changes with some sense of the sadness that was beaten into the walls here. Security was now an awesome enterprise and she noticed that all the officers in view wore Kevlar vests, some even had firearms. She found the sight of a British Bobby with a semi-automatic gun in his hands unnerving; jarring, as if she’d taken a step and turned a corner into another world. Which is what had happened to them all, wasn’t it? She reminded herself of the world that most people grew up in, where they knew what guns looked like better than they knew a full plate of food. She shook the nostalgia of the Cosy Old London out of her thoughts and attended to the one in front of her.

 

Inspector Jennifer Barham was more than happy to meet and talk privately with Maryam after the observation that Maryam had texted her. Maryam could see that the woman was not at all certain about the involvement of the Congregation, but had agreed to it on some personal level. Otherwise the meeting would not be taking place as it was, late at night with no records being taken. When they settled down at an interview desk, with cups of tea between them, Maryam opened up straight away.

‘I wanted to thank you for letting me speak to you and for allowing the Office of the Arcane access to this.’ She indicated the folder that Atkins had given her.

Barham said nothing.

‘As you know, I wanted to talk about the papers under the body. Most importantly, I want to talk about why the reports allowed to be seen by the Congregation did not mention them.’

‘We accepted your involvement in this case as you have been helpful before. My supervisors advised me of how good you were, how relations with the Church could be maintained by allowing you in.’

‘But you felt you had to test me?’

Barham stared at her, then took the same route to honesty that Maryam had; Maryam’s respect for her increased.

‘No, not a test.’ She sighed. ‘It was just so… contentious, I didn’t want it in the record you had, yet… at least not until I’d met you. I was impressed you spotted the papers, never mind worked out what they were.’

Maryam picked up one of the new photos that Barham had brought in with her. The naked body of the boy after it had been processed and washed. The writing cut into his body was much clearer. She took a few moments to compare it to her earlier translation.

‘I am very much afraid, Inspector, that there is some fundamental religious aspect to this and you have good reason to be worried. What is written on his body could be read in many ways, but I’m afraid that the sheets of the Qur’an under his body, cut and slashed with the knife that killed him, further defiled by his blood, cannot be ignored. Someone wishes conflict between this Church, and the Muslim communities. They want it very badly. It is not good.’

Barham paled under her make-up. ‘Not what I wanted to hear, not at all.’

‘No, I expect not. And that’s before we get to the accusation that it’s a demon that killed him.’

 

‘I thought it was that the boy was a demon, I mean, had held a Jinn?’

‘No, it’s very clear that the writing states he has been sacrificed by a Jinn, not to one, or because he was one.’ She pointed to the autopsy photos. ‘All Arabic has three root letters and the letters aside them can change the meaning significantly. The confusion is easy to see, but so is the meaning. I’ll write up a thorough translation for you when I have the time. Tell me, I’m presuming there were no cuts on his back?’

‘No.’

‘The blood on the sheets of the Qur’an, it’s solely from the wounds?’

‘We think so. Analysis is still ongoing.’ Barham opened up the folder she’d taken the autopsy photos from and handed over several photos of the body on the altar, it being removed, the revealing of the leaves of paper underneath. Then the photos of each sheet being lifted and sealed in an evidence bag. The sequence showed that the body had lain on a cross constructed of torn and slashed leaves of the Holy Book of Islam. The young man’s body had been positioned as if crucified upon it. It was sacrilege to destroy the word of Allah. What had occurred was blasphemy; a deliberate desecration of both the Church and the Qur’an.’

‘And you have yet to inform any of the local Imams about this? Have not made any attempt to involve them?’

‘We wanted to be sure.’

‘You were hoping, no doubt, that this has nothing to do with religion at all?’

Barham nodded. ‘The deceased, Jason Briggs, is a gang leader, a violent and aggressive person who has been involved in criminal activity since he was nine years old. There is no evidence of either sexual assault, or robbery. He was neither Muslim nor Catholic, nothing to link him in any way to anything other than his gang activity. Peckham gangs don’t split neatly into religious or racial groups. They run according to the ethnic breakdown of the individual housing estates. Most are black British, such as Jason, but it’s not exclusive. This Church is in his area, but he’s not a member of the congregation, although he had been thrown out of the youth group a few months ago, along with other gang members who were trying to recruit from there.’

‘You believe that is what was behind the graffiti and the other desecrations?’

‘Yes. The gang members we prosecuted were from Brigg’s gang, the RRs, the Rye Runners. They targeted the local church group to recruit youngsters and were booted out. So they vandalised the cemetery and the building. None of that had any religious significance at all.’

Barham looked to Maryam to confirm this. Maryam nodded her head whilst filing away what Barham’s choice of words had revealed about her background. Barham continued.

‘It is only the pages of the book that suggests this has anything to do with Islam and actual religious faith. That’s not a very strong connection, given whoever did this is certainly not rational. Anyone could think of pulling the pages out of a book to muddy the waters. There is no strong evidence to treat this as anything other than a… secular… manner.’

The word was awkward in her mouth, the concept new to her brain.

‘I can tell you that the words written on this young man are neither random nor without meaning. They are intense and scholarly. No one was copying out of a book. The formations of the marks are sure and precise. Intellect has been used here, intellect, discipline, and knowledge; unlike the graveyard desecrations.’

‘Completely different?’

‘Utterly.’

Barham wasn’t happy with the news: so much easier to work this as a gang crime.

‘I take it he was drugged?’

Barham nodded. ‘We believe so, what leads you to ask that?’

‘He lay there and bled to death. There is no significant arterial spray pattern evident in the surrounding area. The wounds are shallow and the blood flowed out slowly and evenly, from what I can tell. He would not have lain there and bled to death, I imagine, unless he wasn’t able to rise. I can see no evidence of restraints or serious injury that incapacitated him.’

Barham paid Maryam the best compliment; she carried on talking about the details of the case without missing a beat. ‘We don’t know what, the toxicology results aren’t back. There was some spray on his chest; it could only be discerned by using light filters. It suggests the first cut was on his throat from someone standing behind him.’

‘So there wouldn’t be much spurt on the murderer?’

‘Nope.’

‘Curious.’

‘What?’

‘If the first cut was at the throat, it was symbolic. It was a shallow slash, one presumes…’ She picked up the autopsy photos and looked in more detail. ‘Yes, otherwise he’d have bled out much more quickly.’

‘Agreed. All the cuts were shallow. He only bled out as there were so many of them.’

‘Body couldn’t clot the blood fast enough.’ Maryam took a magnifier out of her shoulder bag and studied the cuts.

‘Is there any suggestion the writing was done by a different blade, from the slices that ensured the bleed out occurred?’

‘None. However, as I said, the autopsy and reports are not yet completed.’

‘And Father Jones remains relatively safe until then?’

Barham tensed. Maryam listened.

‘We have no reason to suspect it’s anything but a deliberate ploy to make us look at Father Jones. We have… I have… no expectation that he’ll be implicated.’

Again, gentle words spoken with care. Maryam had a sense of the huge wheels moving around them, grinding slow, grinding small, as the competing politics of the various authorities sought to ensure the dance did not end on their patch; that the axe would not fall upon their head.

 

‘Have you informed the multi-faith agencies working with the Met and used Bishop Atkins’ contacts in the various London communities? You have informed the hierarchies, if not the local mosques?’

Barham shook her head.

‘I see. That’s what bought my ticket, was it? Everyone agreed to keep all this quiet until after I arrived? An outsider to help keep balance; to blame, if all else failed…’ Maryam hoped Barham would understand the trust she’d accorded her by ending that last sentence out loud.

Barham took it on the chin and kept going. ‘Yes, I suppose that would be one way of looking at it. Your knowledge could have told us firmly this was not religious in nature, just freakish, like the desecration in the graveyard.’

Maryam nodded. ‘But what do you have hope of here, in this case…? What outcome are you looking for from the Congregation? Any religious analyst could have confirmed that context. Why allow us in, in particular? The Congregation is rather… unique in its brief.’

Jenny Barham went quiet, taking a moment to collect her thoughts. Maryam studied her. She was young to be an operational Detective Inspector, barely in her mid-forties. She was aging well in the job. She wore a wedding ring and her dress and figure suggested there was another person somewhere, whom she loved, who wore the match of it. Maryam doubted this woman believed in any God, in any religion, and she was a little lost as to how to respond.

‘We are hoping that we have something … concrete, to go on, before we approach the leaders in the various Islamic communities in the area. That we could rule out certain things before informing them of the… sacrilege.’

‘Rule out real occult influence? Present it as vandalism or madness but all of human agency?’

Barham laughed. ‘No! Not quite that. I mean, not really.’

‘You don’t believe in the occult, Inspector, in the supernatural?’

Barham looked confused by Maryam’s poise in asking the question.

‘Of course I don’t. I thought that was the point of your Congregation, to prove that such things do not exist and to explain occult events by revealing the human component?’

That she thought such revealed much to Maryam about how Atkins had presented their involvement. He did love to polish his words to reflect his own image.

‘We do investigate all reported occult activity that affects the Church, Inspector, to seek out the human agency in it. We do reveal the tricksters and the fakes, the psychotic and obsessed. That is true, but we do so in order to ascertain when actual occult activity has occurred, as opposed to human.’

‘You can’t tell me you believe in such things! Ghosts and ghoulies, demons and magic?’ Barham’s voice had risen several registers. Her tone had moved from surprise, almost to mockery.

‘What I believe is not of note, Inspector. The Church of Rome, whom I represent in this matter, does believe in spiritual forces beyond human knowledge or understanding.’

The warning was clear. Barham backed down. This was another example of how the world had changed and it was a good change. Government officials were no longer free to mock faith. Sometimes.

‘The issue, Inspector, is not what you or I believe or do not believe. The issue is the beliefs of those whom this case will affect. The issue is how communities will respond and how they may interact. The issue is how we mediate that response through our work.’

Barham blushed this time, but again took the blow on the chin.

‘Can you rule out that this crime has anything to do with the Islamic community?’

‘No. Not at this time. Neither can I confirm it has. Although it is likely the work of an individual, not any organised group. My advice would be that the Islamic authorities that work with the Metropolitan police are informed as a matter of urgency.’

Barham nodded. ‘Can you rule out… spiritual forces?’

Maryam smiled. ‘I appreciate your choice of words, and candour, Inspector. Spiritual forces move people to act in a way that cannot be defined. However, if you mean, can I rule out supernatural forces in this affair and assign it wholly to human action… I cannot do so until I have examined the Church and spoken to those concerned. But I can tell you it is extremely unlikely and highly improbable.’

‘Impossible?’

‘It’s impossible that this man was killed by anything other than a human being. The odds on it being only human agency involved on all levels are extremely high. The odds that supernatural forces are involved, miniscule. But I cannot rule such out until I have examined the Church and then spoken to all concerned.’

‘I appreciate you putting it like that. Yes, I have set up a car to take you over there, although I’ll presume you’ll want to examine the church in the morning, after you’ve had some sleep?’

‘Not at all, I want to look at it tonight, preferably in the middle of the night. It is the witching hour.’

Maryam smile was just enough of a tease for Inspector Barham to bark back a short laugh. The tension dissipated.

‘I’ll have a squad car take you down and send an officer with you. I doubt there is a crime lab person free just now, so for tonight you can only look, not touch.’ She stood up.

Maryam stayed seated and engaged the Inspector past her deliberate moves to signal the interview was over.

‘Before we go any further, tell me you have a Muslim police officer assigned to this case? One who can testify that no one official did anything offensive to his faith whilst interviewing and looking at the evidence?’

Barham stared at Maryam, then sat down again with a plonk. Her tiredness was starting to seep out of the edges, bringing with it her natural personality as opposed to her working identity. How many hours had she been on duty?

Barham took a deep breath. ‘No, I haven’t. Not yet.’

‘And you have used a Muslim crime scene investigator to handle the Holy Pages of the Qur’an? That you have those pages stored in a respectful and safe manner being guarded as a precious thing?’

‘Bugger.’

 

Barham paid her the compliment of picking up a phone first; delivering orders that she had the name of any Muslim officers on duty on her desk within the next five minutes. She then dialled again and demanded to know if they had any Muslim crime scene technicians on the books at all. Given it was now late at night, Maryam had no idea whom she had called, but the question didn’t appear to faze them.

Barham escorted Maryam to a nearby posh office with an en suite to allow her to freshen up, aware she had come straight from the train station. Maryam took the opportunity to phone ahead to Peckham and inform Father Scott that she would be unlikely to arrive at the priest house for several hours. She did not inform him this was because she’d be next door in the Church itself.

Before Maryam left in the squad car, an eager young detective was added to be her main liaison with the Met. DC Shahrukh Iqbal appeared to have been going off duty when he was called in to be her escort; he very much looked like he’d not long finished a hard shift. She wondered if this would be his first murder case, his sudden appearance caused a few raised eyebrows with the uniformed officers who were driving them. Maryam understood why Barham had been promoted so young: she learned fast.

 

As they approached the Church of the Mother of All Sorrows in the dark and the pouring rain, Maryam could see the police tape around the main door and the police officer standing guard. Iqbal held the car door open for her as they sprinted over the path, up the stairs and into the vestibule as fast as they could. The uniformed officer on the steps had opened the doors for them as they approached. The Church was probably over a hundred years old and spoke of Pugin and classic Gothic Revival; vaulting stone arches and stained glass windows. Highly ornate carving and roof painting above the altar and a huge Christ crucified hung central in domed space. The bright light of the crime scene lanterns and the police tape over the entire sanctuary were painful to experience, as was the smell. Blood: dead dried blood. It mingled with the scents of old wood, dust, and incense. Maryam hesitated looking down on the death at the end of the aisle, imagining how it had looked with the corpse upon the altar. A blasphemous mirror image of what hovered above it. How it had smelled when all that blood was fresh?

‘Have you been here before, Detective Iqbal?’

‘Actually, I have.’

Maryam looked at him askance. ‘I thought…?’

‘That I’d just been assigned? I have. I’ve not been here, at this murder scene, but I’ve been in this Church, during orientation.’

‘Ah. I see. You did a course on multi-faith policing in Peckham?’

‘In the Metropolitan area, I visited here then.’

‘So you know Father Jones?’

‘No. I met with a Father Edwards and a Bishop Atkins.’

‘Did Inspector Barham know this?’

‘Not ‘till about an hour ago, no. And please call me Shahrukh.’

‘As-Saamu alaykum, Shahrukh. I am Maryam.’ She did not offer to shake hands.

‘Walaiakum salam, Maryam.’ Even in his English accent, one of privilege and wealth, Shahrukh managed to pronounce her name with the correct emphasis. She looked forward to him speaking it aloud in front of Fred Atkins, especially if Fred continued to refer to her as ‘Marie’ in front of him.

Maryam indicated that Shahrukh should follow her as she walked down the long central aisle heading for the sanctuary.

‘Then you’ll know of the import of this. Have you been informed of all of it?’

‘Nope. Inspector Barham just asked me to accompany you and to assist you…’

‘And to not let me touch anything…’

‘And to not let you touch anything… then to escort you to the other house, then to go home. She said I’d get a full briefing when I came in for duty in the morning.’

‘Wise, very wise. Although I dare say it will be boring for you what I’m about to do.’

‘Why, what are you about to do?’

‘Nothing.’

 

And nothing was what she did, although it was a very active nothing. With Shahrukh by her side, she walked every inch of the church that was not sealed off by tape. She went into the empty confessional boxes on the gospel side of the church. She sat in each of them, on both sides of the screen, and did nothing for five minutes. She knelt on the penitent’s side and sat in the confessor’s. She avoided the confessional that was sealed off by police tape. She walked out of the nave back into the vestibule and took the stairs up to the choir area and sat there. She asked the detective to walk her out of the Church and into the Sacristy at the back via the outside door, set to one side just for the priests to use. This ensured she didn’t walk through the taped area of the altar. The outside door was tucked to the side and had a large steel sheet over it. She spent ten minutes studying the interior of the small room. When they returned to the nave, she sat at the front pew and looked at the altar for about twenty minutes.

She’d spent about two hours in the Church before hunger and tiredness started to intrude. She asked Shahrukh to walk her through the rain, and the graveyard, to the parish house. He advised her to only leave the house with an umbrella in her hands in the morning as there were a few stalwart local photographers snapping away from the street during the day.

Another uniformed officer stood watch at the door there, who nodded to her as she was allowed in by a very anxious Father Scott.

Inside the hallway, the smell of an old parish house met them: dust, age, furniture polish, fried onions, and cigarette smoke. The days of the smell of cabbage were gone. Maryam doubted that young Father Jones smoked, but the walls gave evidence that Father Edwards, who had been in residence for decades, did so with gusto. Father Scott took Maryam’s coat and indicated she should go through to the formal parlour.

‘I need to freshen up and change my clothing, Father Scott; please show me to my room first. Could I ask you to make some tea and toast please? I’m quite hungry.’

Father Scott nodded and they tip-toed past the sleeping Bishop Atkins, pegged out in a chair by an old gas fire in the parlour, and crept up the stairs. On the landing, one room showed light under the door sill and Maryam thought that would be Father Jones’s. All others were dark. The floor boards creaked as they walked to the end of the hallway and through the farthest door.

It was a visiting priest’s room, as she had expected, clean and bare. It had old linoleum and a faded rug, both from the 1950s, a dark wood bedside table of indeterminate age and design. The lamp and radio on the table were old, but the bed and bedding were modern and looked new. There was a crucifix on the wall above the bed and a couple of portraits of the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mother & Child on the walls. A desk sat with a small television sitting on it, unplugged and forlorn. A jug of water and a single glass. A wardrobe and a chest of drawers finished the room. Her cases had been laid carefully to one side.

‘There is a guest bathroom next door. It is not en suite, but no one else will use it.’

Maryam nodded.

‘Would you like some soup?’

‘Oh yes, please, that would be fine.’

‘There is real coffee.’

Her face lit up. ‘Oh, that would be wonderful, thank you.’

 

She longed to have a shower, but had no idea how the plumbing in this old building would react, no need to wake everyone with creaking and groaning. She washed herself down quickly and dressed in pyjamas and a mandarin collared, floor length house coat. It was only partially a defence against Atkins: after what she’d seen she needed to feel safe and comfortable.

Father Scott, who turned out to be called Andrew but preferred Andy, had warmed through a tin of tomato soup and sliced into a crusty loaf of bread. Tinned soup in the UK was most acceptable and she ate it gratefully. The coffee was almost good and she enjoyed it thoroughly. Andy was a most generous and understanding companion who understood the value in silence. It was something she appreciated about dealing with the clergy: the understanding that silence is often its own defined space and not always an uncomfortable absence.

It was about three a.m. when Fred blundered into the kitchen, having woken with a crick in his neck. One look at the tiredness in Maryam’s face and he ushered both himself and Andy out the door, saying they would return in the early afternoon. Her smile of thanks to him was totally genuine, as he’d restored her memory that he was a kind and caring man who just happened to be good at politics and enjoyed being a power player. She felt chagrined for her less than charitable thoughts of him and scolded herself for her own weakness.

Then she hauled herself into bed with a grateful sigh. She’d been up for almost twenty four hours and her head ached with the weight of the day’s events. Sleep came swiftly.

 

The dawn filled the room with cold light. The revving of motors and hooting of horns crowded out the bird song. The rain slashed the panes sideways. Maryam slept.

When she rose five hours later, her body was rested and her mind still held a little of the dreaming quality of the spaces in-between. She sat at the desk and shuffled her Tarot cards and placed them out on the desk. In her mind she was seeing the layout of the chapel as she’d walked through it. She placed the cards on the desk in roughly the same positions as the areas that had interested her, finishing with the altar itself. Only once she completed the pattern she had in her mind, did she look down at the lay.

The altar card sprung out at her: The Fool. Card zero. The young man off on adventures, too keen and new and full of the love of life to notice the danger he is in. The Sacristy had the most useful card to her, a reversed King of Swords. It suggested to her that someone was seeking to make most ill, under the guise of something else. Her senses had resonated with something in that room and the lay of the cards had reflected that. The card at the confessional, the reversed Hierophant, rang out a clear warning to her: misinformation, distortion, power achieved from withholding information. Bad advice. Not a card you want to see in connection with giving up on sin and the granting of forgiveness. With no repentance there can be no salvation.

There were a lot of positives in the lay, including the World, card twenty-one. A good ending. Or perhaps, with the Fool there, central, a new beginning that would end well. Interestingly, the card by the vestibule, where the police stood, was the Knight of Swords. Swords were so apt, given the circumstances, and looking at the cards, she looked forward to both meeting Father Jones, and working further with DC Shahrukh Iqbal.

She cleared the lay away and slipped her cards into her shoulder bag. Then she spent an hour in prayer and a further hour in meditation. Around her, people were moving about the house with hushed tones and delicate treads, no doubt trying not to wake her. The banging from the pipes as she showered both confirmed her suspicions and served to alert them to her being awake, so when she entered the kitchen, she was greeted by the smell of fresh coffee, and frying bacon.

A startled Father Jones jumped up from the kitchen table and smiled at her, offering her his hand, which she accepted with a smile. She was dumbstruck for a moment by his size and beauty: his photo had done him no justice. He was easily six foot two, perhaps six three. Both his hands enveloped hers with a gentle but firm hold; long, strong fingers with calluses that betrayed much reading, writing, and if she was not wrong, the playing of the guitar. His eyes were hazel with green flecks, a startling contrast with the dark caramel of his skin. His Welsh accent, cultured and enchanting in one. His physique had the sharp and supple tones of the professional athlete. When he smiled you felt your heart lift. It was no wonder the graffiti he’d been attacked with had concentrated on his sexuality. Wyn Jones shone with energy and humanity in a very warm and real body of flesh. The bruise on his cheek and the slight cut on his lip only served to highlight his perfection. Poor man, how he must have had to fight to make others believe his vocation was pure.

‘Please, Father Jones, be seated.’

‘Please call me Wyn, sis…’ His voice trailed off as he drew back in his mistake. It was one she was used to hearing from the clergy and she smiled back at him.

‘Maryam is just fine, Wyn.’ She held her hand outstretched in his grasp, for just a moment, to reassure him of the honesty of her response. She then approached Father Edwards, who was pouring her a mug of coffee. She extended her hand.

‘Maryam Michael, Father, from the Office of the Arcane. Sorry to meet you in such dreadful circumstances.’

Father Edwards was over eighty years old and his body was carrying the burden of the murder badly: he looked defeated, wasted in the pain of it all. Maryam felt his age, his anxiety, his desperate need for the nightmare to be over. His face was grey and his middle and index fingers stained tobacco yellow. Priests did not, in general, allow this to happen as they dispensed the host from those fingers to the mouths of the faithful. It spoke volumes to her of what was going on inside. He nodded and avoided her outstretched hand by giving her the cup of coffee. He turned and sat down at the table. A tobacco tin sat on it and he played with it. Maryam sat and Wyn jumped up again to make her a sandwich of white sliced British bread and fried bacon. She thanked him, cut it in half and made herself eat half of that. The discussion slowly turned their attention from her, to the circumstances, and she was able to dispense with the tiny bites she was taking and concentrate on coffee. Much more coffee!

By the time they had introduced themselves to each other and swapped enough banal pleasantries to get them over not talking about the murder, Inspector Barham had arrived with Shahrukh and a crime scene team in tow. On their arrival, Wyn went to his room and Father Edwards, who had not offered his forename to anyone, although she knew it was Peter, retired to sit outside in a somewhat dilapidated greenhouse, and smoke. The rain pouring down on the panes obscured him from view. Before she and Barham discussed the case, Maryam asked permission to have Father Edwards moved to a different address. Barham agreed and Maryam phoned Father Scott on the mobile number he’d given her. He was en route with Atkins. She requested a respite place be found for Edwards in another parish house, perhaps even at Westminster Cathedral. After all, they had the apartment they had prepared for her?

Barham and she discussed the case, with Maryam reporting she had no observations, but requesting that she be allowed to direct the crime team in some additional tests. Barham was happy with this and they went over to the Church. Maryam could see Wyn Jones looking down on them from his bedroom window. She pushed her sympathy to the side and concentrated on being calm and empty, open and flexible. In her heart she knew what Barham did, that Wyn had no connection with this death at all. Her head wasn’t so sure they were going to be able to prove that.

 

In the Church, Maryam asked if the tabernacle interior had been fully checked, not only for fingerprints, but for fluids. The crime officers stated it had only been dusted for prints, which she had known, as she’d seen the dusting powder all over the screen and door. When tested, it proved positive for blood, a tiny amount on the base of the interior. Barham asked what had led her to suspect this and they sat and discussed it with Shahrukh and another detective named Gatto, as the lab technicians catalogued.

It’s a sacred space. If the person who committed the murder was also trying to reinforce the sacrilege within Catholic, or Christian, tradition the way they had with Islamic, then it made sense to desecrate the area the sacred host was kept in.’

‘Then why not make it obvious?’ Barham and Gatto were taking the lead, with Iqbal listening hard. Maryam addressed Barham who had asked the question.

‘I’m sure the secondary intent is to cause problems between the communities. Being seen to actively defile the tabernacle at the same time as defiling the Qur’an would put both communities in the same position. The desecration of the Islamic element is being made more visible than that of the Christian one.’

‘Why not desecrate a host?’ This was from Gatto, who shared the same accent as Barham; both natives of this area of London.

‘These days there is no sacred host kept in an empty, locked church. There are usually only unblessed communion wafers.’

Gatto nodded. ‘Of course.’ Barham looked at him, and he continued. ‘The priest blesses the host at each service, each mass. If there is any left over, he swallows them himself so none of the sacred host is wasted.’

‘And the host is more sacred in a Christian church, than say the pages of a bible would be?’

‘In a Catholic church, yes. The host is the physical body of Christ.’

Barham looked confused. It was Iqbal who spoke up, surprising everyone.

‘In the Roman Catholic Church, the bread and wine of the communion are changed by the prayers of the priest into the actual body and blood of their saviour, our prophet, Jesus. In other Christian communities it represents such, a symbol of it, not the actual thing. Here, in this Church, it’s treated as if it is actually his body, his blood.’

Barham looked to Maryam, who nodded.

‘Detective Iqbal has said it succinctly. Ripping up a bible in a Catholic Church would be annoying, but not outrageous or seen as a severe attack. Polluting the tabernacle with the blood of a murdered man is in line with the offence of ripping and bloodying the Qur’an.’

‘So it confirms your thoughts that this is a serious attack on both religions?’

‘On this Church, and its beliefs, there has been a serious attack. I’m still convinced the attacking of Islamic principle is about making more of the offences to this one.’

‘The multi-faith leaders have been informed this morning. Myself and DC Iqbal have an appointment with the Imam of the local mosque this afternoon.’

‘I would be interested in attending that, if you would allow it. But first I must ask what you’ve done to find the weapon used in this murder.’

‘The weapon?’

‘Yes, the knife, although I suspect, as does your surgeon, that from the writing and the cuts it is a scalpel. The report says nothing has been found.’

This time it was Sergeant Gatto who took the lead, taking out a note pad, a very old fashioned and reassuring notepad, and read from it.

‘Yesterday, the entire Church and the graveyard were searched thoroughly, including with a metal detector. Detectors were quite useless in most of the Church, given the nails in all the wood, but it was swept through. The drains were checked and the main sewer is being examined today, on all the lead points. The street outside, the bins and post boxes, have been checked and there are ongoing searches in all the local gardens. The bin collection was the day before the murder, so most of the bins and skips out there are relatively empty, so that’s been quite easy. So far, we have nothing.’

‘Have you searched the parish house?’

Barham took over again.

‘No, we haven’t. Father Jones was taken to the police station and processed after he’d reported finding the body. He stayed with the body and phoned on his mobile phone and the CCTV evidence confirms this. After processing, he was returned to the parish house and asked to stay there. We haven’t had the manpower to search the premises yet, as the rain has made searching outside areas a priority. The Bishop has given permission for such a search.’

‘The Sacristy was completely searched?’

Gatto took that in his stride, confirming Maryam’s suspicions that he’d seen the inside of a Catholic Church quite a few times in his childhood; for all that he wasn’t practising now.

‘Yes, it was walked through and nothing found, no evidence it had been broken into. It was locked until we had Father Edwards fetch a key, as Father Jones was still down the station.’

‘What’s your point, Miss Michael? What’s so special about this Sacristy room?’ Barham appeared to be intrigued rather than suspicious.

‘It’s just that if I were going to desecrate a Church and I knew enough about the Church as this person appears to do, I’d have spent a few moments in there. Further, if I wanted to desecrate the host without being noticed, and hide a scalpel where it was unlikely to be found immediately, it would be in the sink in there down the plug hole.’

‘But we’ve explained that we checked the drains.’

‘The sink in there isn’t connected to the drains, Inspector. It’s a sacrarium. It’s completely separate from the normal sewage system. It’s only used to wash anything that a sacred, consecrated host could have come into contact with. It washes straight down into soil.’

 

Inspector Barham’s shock, when the sink hole furnished forth not only a bloodied scalpel, but the entire sink gave evidence of blood having being washed off in it, was palpable. The crime scene technician, who had shone a torch down the open mouth of the plug hole the day before, was also the one who then checked it for body fluids; she was very annoyed with herself: Barham was furious with her.

Maryam stayed in the nave throughout the entire affair, in order to distance herself from the evidence. Shahrukh talked her through why she’d suspected the sacrarium in the first place.

‘The wooden lid was up. Normally, when a priest finishes washing the communion vessels, and the altar cloth, and anything that may have a tiny crumb of host on it, in the running water, they would rinse out the sink and close down the lid. The lid was up, and I presumed the crime lab had left everything as they found it. I wondered if it was up, in order to make sure the sink dried before anyone went back in there. There is no reason for the sink to be used except after Mass. It’s never used for anything else.’

‘Why does it go into soil?’

‘To return the Body of Christ to the earth. Washing the blood from the murder off in there was a desecration. Any host particles going down in the weeks or months to come, would be contaminated. And the scalpel going in there would further deepen the desecration.’

‘It’s not that it’s a good place to hide it?’

Maryam shook her head.

‘Only if you were in a panic. You’d know once it went in there, it would stay there for… well forever, with surgical steel. Better places in a church to actually hide it, than there. No, it was symbolic. I’m sure.’

‘Would the priests be the only ones to have keys? It was locked when Father Jones reported the body.’ He was trying to get one step ahead of his superiors.

‘No, not at all. The women of the parish, who come in to fix the flowers and clean, will have a key. There should be a set of master keys for the entire Church at the parochial headquarters, in a drawer somewhere. Plenty of people move in and out of the Sacristy. I doubt the door is locked during Sunday services, where the priests will be moving in and out with their clean surplices and renewing altar clothes. Altar boys will be in and out of there, too.’

‘Altar boys?’

‘Young males of the parish. Although girls are now accepted in most places. They help during formal masses, called High Mass. This Church has one the third Sunday of every month. Go look at the notice board.’

 

She took the young officer round to the notice board in the vestibule, where he examined the rota of services and meetings. He was quiet.

‘This place must look empty to you.’

He nodded, looking unsure of commenting whilst on duty.

‘It can be easy to think Churches such as these have been deserted. Especially if you see your own place of worship filled five times a day. But these old Churches live on, despite the lack of numbers, because the faith of those left burns so strong. Keeping faith when you are socially isolated is harder than following the crowds who walk past your door daily.’

Shahrukh took on board what she said.

‘I suppose so. It’s not something that has even occurred to me. But it does feel like a place of worship. I feel as if I should cover my head when I walk in here. I’m uncomfortable when I don’t.’

Maryam laughed. ‘Me too! But that’s another story. Uncovering your head is the correct protocol, if you are male. It’s keeping your hat on that is out of place.’

‘But all the uniformed officers are wearing hats in there!’ There was a real touch of panic in his voice.

‘It’s fine. The crime scene technicians have to have their hair net things. And the need for it to be a crime scene comes first. Weren’t you asked to take your hat off when you did the training?’

‘We were in civvies. It may have been mentioned, I don’t remember.’

‘Well, remember it now. If you are ever called to a Christian Church, or into this one after it’s been released, take your hat off if you’re wearing one’.

‘The women don’t wear veils, why do you feel as if you should?’

She was saved from answering by the reappearance of Inspector Barham, who recalled the group to the back of the nave, to inform them of something that the more thorough forensic examination of the Sacristy had revealed: that the wooden floor had liberal amounts of semen and vaginal fluid scattered across it, as well as blood.

 

The discovery was not what Bishop Atkins had wanted to hear. He spent several hours in private discussion with Wyn Jones, who had taken on the look of a man condemned out of hand. The discovery also lengthened the time the Church remained in the hands of the police, as more detailed swabbing had to be done and the crime techs stayed on until well after dark, with a shift change seeing a new team brought in. One advantage to this was that there was finally time for them to search through the parish house, where they found nothing useful. Barham, Gatto and Iqbal came and went, but Maryam stayed, tucked out of the way in the Church, moving between the parish house and the crime scene when she was in the way in one, or needed in the other. Several more sites of sexual activity had been discovered, including inside the sealed off confessional box and on the benches of the choir. Maryam was not surprised when the main altar revealed the same.

Late in the afternoon she excused herself from the activity and asked Father Scott to accompany her out to the local shops. There they bought enough groceries for several days and she and Andy returned to the parish house and prepared food for everyone. Tea, coffee and what the British called biscuits and the Americans, cookies, were being used at a strapping rate by the various Metropolitan personnel. Father Edwards had been moved to another parish house whilst she had been in the Church in the morning, and Father Jones was still in conversation upstairs with Fred. She and Andy sliced, chopped, peeled and fried, and between them they rustled up a vat of soup and another of stew. Andy was a more proficient cook than she was, and between her labours on the chopping board and his with the meagre spice rack, what they produced was edible. The fridge was stocked with enough cheese, cold meats and salads to keep everyone going; there was fresh bread, fresh ground coffee and fruit. She and Fred sat in the kitchen eating vegetable soup and enjoying the rest from their labours: physical work did soothe the soul.

In the dark of the evening, Inspector Barham requested that Father Jones accompany her down to the police station for questioning. On discovering that the Sacristy had recently had the locks changed and only two keys opened it, one kept by Father Jones and one by Father Edwards, the point had been reached where Father Jones was being treated as a serious suspect. Maryam watched the squad car drive off with Wyn and Fred in the back. A lawyer appointed by the Church would meet them at the station. At least they had managed to get Father Edwards out to somewhere less painful before this had occurred.

Shahrukh had come to the kitchen to deliver the keys of the Church and the news that the crime technicians had released it. He shared bread and soup with them before going off duty, and they decided a mutual protocol for keeping the Church safe overnight and for Maryam to have access to it. Tomorrow, the cleaning firm recommended by the police would clean the blood out and then restore all areas covered in forensic powders and liquids, and the Church would be able to be opened to its parishioners. Father Scott had arranged for a prayer vigil for the murdered youth and the local Bishop would lead it off after reconsecrating the altar. For tonight, the police officers on guard would be stood down as there wasn’t the need, or the manpower to keep them. The local constabulary would patrol every hour or so, as they had done during the graffiti attacks. Father Scott had moved into the parish house that afternoon after Father Edwards had left, and he’d had contact with the local parishioners who had helped before. He was going to keep the CCTV working, and keep a general eye on the house and liaise with the congregation. Maryam would work in the Church after she’d had a nap: it was going to be a long night.

Fred returned from the station at about midnight. She was lying on the bed in a half asleep, half awake, meditative mode. A gentle tap on her door served to bring her senses back up to ‘on’ and she joined everyone in the kitchen for what was, to all intents and purposes, a council of war. Wyn Jones had not returned to the house; he’d been allowed to leave the station without charge on condition he did not go within three miles of his home. He was at Westminster Cathedral. Gatto had escorted Fred back in to brief Maryam on the outcome of the interview. He came in intending to stay just long enough to hand Maryam an updated file, taking her through the evidence that had been piling up against Wyn, but stayed to eat the large bowl of stew she’d placed in front of him. Both he and Fred devoured the food as she sifted through the file. It included a detailed log of the CCTV footage that had been collated. It revealed that whilst Wyn had indeed been the only person to enter the Church the morning he’d found the body, he’d also been the last person to leave it the night before, which they’d known. What they had not known until the footage revealed it, was that Jason Briggs had entered the Church just a few minutes before Wyn had that night and he’d not come out.

Maryam assessed the blurred black and white photos that had been printed off the camera feed. They showed the fight that had taken place between Wyn and Jason, Wyn going off in one direction being helped by a parishioner who had heard the scuffle, Jason shouting and gesticulating after him. Three hours later, Jason Briggs entered the Church but never exited. Wyn arrived five minutes after Jason, went in, and came out twenty-five minutes later, locking the door.

‘Is he still refusing to say what the fight was about?’

Gatto nodded and there was a moment of him swallowing food before he replied. ‘Yes. Won’t budge. Just says it was a private matter between them and he regrets having lost his temper.’

Maryam looked at Fred and wondered if she should speak up. There was only one logical conclusion when a priest under threat of being charged of murder would refuse to speak. What had Fred advised him during all those hours upstairs? Was it her role to speak of it? She assuaged her doubts by continuing to ask questions.

‘Was the Church patrolled that night?’

‘Not by us.’ Gatto looked to Bishop Atkins.

‘Two parishioners did a walk through the graveyard, at about eleven thirty, to make sure the emptying of the pubs had cleared through.’ Fred had taken down a lot of information in his own notebook. He looked grey with both fatigue and worry.

‘No one heard anything?’

‘No.’

‘Were there any lights in the Church?’

‘Yes. Some lights have been kept on all night, since the vandalism started, I understand.’ Gatto had referred to his notebook. Maryam wondered whether the officer and the bishop had noticed they were mirroring each other. Eat, look at notebooks, answer queries in turn.

‘In the Sacristy?’

‘Yes, I made special note of that.’ Fred had answered before Gatto. ‘The back of the Church there has no light, and therefore no camera. So the Sacristy light was left on for those patrolling, to be able to see the path as they walked round. It’s the darkest part of the yard and where there had been a lot of the most obscene pictures. You can’t see that area easily from any other view point.’

The Sacristy was the nearest part of the Church to the parish house garden wall. There were only about four feet of space between the Church ending, and the wall of the garden beginning. It was the most isolated, least travelled part of the Church grounds. What Fred described made sense to her.

‘You can’t see the outside door to the Sacristy at all, from any angle, can you?’

‘No, the outer walls of the East doorway block it from view. In fact…’ Gatto referred to a typed sheet of information in his file, ‘that door had to be replaced during the vandalism attacks, as it had images carved onto it. So someone had been able to take time to work. I believe that we’d requested a CCTV camera placed there, but there hadn’t been funds for it?’

Gatto look at Fred, who rifled in his own papers.

‘I’m not sure. This isn’t my area, of course. The Southwark office would know. I’ll ask them in the morning and see if they can assign you one of our people who helped with the prior incidents.’

Gatto nodded. ‘That would be good, sir. On these notes it says we requested a camera and the funds were being looked into, but the issues were solved before one was put in.’

‘But the door was replaced?’

‘Yes, Miss Michael, it was.’ Paper rifling. ‘It was a heavy duty security door with a steel outer cover. Is that relevant?’

‘It may be. But you are saying that the outside door was replaced and the inner door to the Sacristy had recently had its locks changed?’

‘Yes, that’s correct.’

‘Which would mean both outer and inner keys were replaced at roughly the same time? Did Father Jones say why he’d had the internal locks changed?’

Gatto let out a long exclaim of air, and Fred looked down at the floor. Maryam carried on observing Fred, as Gatto spoke.

‘He said he’d felt the place was unsafe, after the attacks. We pushed him, but it didn’t make sense. We asked him if he’d found anything in there, graffiti or vandalism, and he said no. Given the evidence of sexual activity in there, we pushed him hard. He said nothing.’

Fred’s upper lip was starting to bead over with sweat.

‘Did you ask Father Jones, Sergeant, if he’d had sex with anyone in the Sacristy?’

Fred’s face drained of all colour, and he coughed and stood up, and poured himself a glass of water. Gatto ignored him as he answered Maryam.

‘Yes, we did. He was most indignant and shouted no. He got quite animated. Father Jones has a bit of a temper.’

Fred had sat down again and was staring at his notebook.

‘Any priest accused of murder and sexual impropriety in their own Church is going to have a bit of a temper. Tell me, Sergeant, did you ask Father Jones if he knew of anyone else having sex in there?’

Gatto looked at her. Then he looked back at his notes, puzzled.

‘Actually, I don’t think so, Miss Michael, I’m not sure anyone did. We asked him who would be having sex in there, apart from him, and about keys and stuff. We pushed him hard. But we never said it like that, I’m pretty sure. But we did push him.’

Maryam was quite sure they had pushed him. Maryam was quite convinced that the police had done their utmost to present Wyn with the picture of him, and his congregation, and his youth club, and his charismatic beauty and his energy, and had pushed hard on the subject of a priest having sex in his own church. She’d have lost her temper, too.

‘Well, I’d appreciate it if you could do a background check on the place that replaced the door and the locks, Sergeant.’

‘It was done by the firm in the High Street. The owner is a member of the congregation…’ Gatto picked up and rifled through the report on the table. ‘Here it is, a Mr Vincent Doherty. Did it at a discount and did a very good job. I know of the man, he’s solid as a rock. He has a specialist licence to make keys for security firms.’

Gatto was making it clear that Mr Doherty was above suspicion in terms of handing out keys to others for work he’d done.

‘I’m sure Mr Doherty is an honest, upright citizen, Sergeant Gatto. But I’d like to know if he has a child, or a grandchild, in the choir or as part of the youth group, or if one of his workers does. Perhaps someone associated with Mr Doherty is an altar server? Does he have a wife who helps clean the church or arrange flowers for the Sanctuary?’

Gatto relayed Maryam’s request to the station before he went off home to try and get some sleep. Maryam wondered on the state of his marriage: police officers gave so much to their communities, and their jobs. There often wasn’t much left for family.

The silence in the kitchen was not comfortable and barely sufferable. Maryam had no desire to deal with Fred and he, in turn, had no desire to deal with her.

‘You’ll be going on in now?’ His tone of voice alerted Andy that something was wrong. He responded in a very British way and got up and put the kettle on for tea.

‘Yes.’ Maryam stood up.

‘I can’t come. I can’t force myself to take part in this…’

‘Chicanery…?’

‘Ritual.’

Maryam sighed and spoke it out for the benefit of Andrew Scott.

‘Bishop Atkins is not a supporter of the Congregation or its methods, Andy. He finds this quite painful. Would you like to accompany me, or am I going in on my own?’

‘Are you allowed to do this on your own, Marie?’ She was mildly shocked that he’d let the sarcasm through in his voice. This really was hurting him. Of course, it would. He was a dedicated priest and Wyn Jones a rather wonderful young man.

‘Yes, I am, Frederick, I am indeed. As you know, or you would have assigned someone to do it with me.’

At her jab back, old wounds opened between them. Maryam felt so very drained and so very tired of it all. Why London, why him?

‘Do you think I should go with Miss Michael, Bishop, witness her work?’ Andy somehow managed to make his attempt to placate sound aggressive. She put her head down in her hands.

The pretence was what was draining her, the pretence that this had not been discussed between them before she arrived. That it was somehow normal protocol for the Bishop of the Curia to be following her around in someone else’s parish. That no one from Southwark itself had been near her, that her contact with the London hierarchy had been restricted to Fred and Andy.

 

The pretence that Fred hadn’t informed Andy precisely of what was going on and they had decided between them who was going to do what.

 

She checked herself, then. An inner voice, a truer voice, reminding her that she had no way of knowing any of that, and she needed to remain open, flexible and trusting, at all points. The important thing here was the desecrated Church over there, the young man who had been killed, and the future of Wyn Jones. It was Wyn Jones who hung here, in the balance: his future almost gone. His life almost completely shattered and his faith on trial. She pulled her own emotions into check.

‘Fred, I know you are not comfortable with the Arcane. I know you think it is obsolete. I know you feel we should have been abandoned at Vatican II. However… it was not. The Holy Church still has room for this type of… endeavour.’

Fred nodded. He took the route she had offered, the one of agreeing to disagree and just get on with it.

‘I have discussed my… misgivings with Andrew here. But I assure you, he is free to make up his own mind. I brought no one else in, as we simply don’t have any one gifted enough. The only person I could have recommended to you is the one being accused.’

He got up and left. The atmosphere in the room did not improve.

‘You have to forgive us both, Father Scott. Old wounds, old battles.’

Scott stoically poured out tea that no one would drink.

 

It was just past two a.m. when she and Andy walked across through the graveyard and entered the Church by the main doors. It was odd that this was the longest way from the parish house to the Church, but the one that everyone took. The stone wall that separated the two did push you down midway between the two, but there was a diagonal path up to the Sacristy end, that no one ever used. She’d watched and noted.

The drizzle was refreshing and she’d dressed for cold, so the wind didn’t bother her. Andy carried her work case as it was important that she unlock the door and open up.

 

At the transept, in front of the sanctuary containing the altar, she laid out her work tools. The sight of the dried blood without the police tape made it even more macabre. Andy was so nervous she was tempted to shout ‘Boo!’ in his ear, but she refrained.

‘First things first.’ She laid out a dozen or so incense cones. As she lit them, she asked Andy to distribute them about the nave. Smoke curled up and flowed around them.

‘Is there any special order to putting them somewhere?’

‘No, I just want all areas of the Church to be covered by them.’ She did the altar, the apse, and the side altars, and set Andy to put a couple up in the choir.

She took her camera out and photographed the smoke as it rose and curled from the cones.

‘We’re documenting the air flow.’

‘Why?’

‘So we know where the air flow is.’ She smiled. ‘Not everything is more than it seems.’

He was relaxing, good.

The smoke did exactly what she thought it would. She talked it through with him.

‘The air from windows and doors create a natural air flow. With the main doors at the back and a good tight seal on the stained glass windows, you’d expect the smoke to slowly drift off to the main doors. The choir smoke should go up and then spiral down into the nave and add to the flow to the back doors. At the altar, the smoke will rise and swirl in line with how good the window seals are. It should collect at the dome. At the transept, depending how the doors face the wind and how good the seals and hinges are, it should part; some will go out that way, some will add to the smoke collecting in the ceiling.’

She photographed the eddies and flows and, in the main, the smoke did exactly as she predicted.

‘Wow.’ Andy sounded impressed.

‘No, not wow: science.’ Her smile was genuine.

When they’d documented the entire Church, they moved the cones to the areas where the police tape had been, in tight rows. Thick streams of smoke did exactly as the thinner ones had done earlier. She photographed them, paying close attention to the confessional box that had been taped off. There was nothing unusual about the air flow. When six were placed on the bloodied altar, the smoke billowed up and split, half rolling up to the dome that was somewhat behind the altar and the rest flowing up to the nave roof. It then drifted slowly to the gospel side, towards the side door there.

Asking Andy to open all the outer doors, she collected all the cones and dampened them. Then they waited for the Church to clear. It took a good half hour and the temperature dropped sharply. They watched the doors that had been opened and managed to get the Church sealed back down again before any of the promised patrols noticed anything.

‘We’ve established the normal air flow for the building, now we clean and clear.’

Maryam took a long thin blade out from the partitioned lining of her case. About nine inches long, double sided.

‘It’s steel, and will suffice as a sword, or a dagger, depending on the ritual.’

She walked over to the altar and started to draw shapes in the air using the blade, also touching her head, chest, heart, and mouth. She started facing East and the transept doorway. Andrew heard her call out to the angel Rafael in Latin. She turned South and spoke out Michael, then West and Gabriel. She turned North, facing the apse and the tabernacle, and spoke the name Uriel. The hairs on the back of Andy’s neck stood up and he turned away. He came to understand Fred’s resistance in a visceral, emotional way. It was one thing to know, intellectually, that the Arcane did things that you wouldn’t do in normal service. That you knew there were exorcism rites in the Church and priests trained to deliver them. It was quite another thing to actually witness a woman on the altar, speaking Latin, drawing pentagrams in the air with a sword, speaking the name of an arch-angel never mentioned in the bible; not part of your faith, your canon. To witness her doing this with an altar stained with blood, someone’s life blood. He felt sick and ran to the back doors.

He made it to the toilet tucked in the back of the vestibule and threw up. His body shook as he washed his face and hands, rinsed out his mouth. What had been an intellectual understanding that someone had tried to commit sacrilege in a Church was now a fundamental emotional connection for him. He was covered in cold sweat when he returned to Maryam and her work upon the altar, wondering if he had the strength for it.

She was finishing off the nunc dimittis and he searched his memory for why she might be dismissing a servant of the Lord, encouraging them to pass over.

Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum… Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel…

As she spoke she was sprinkling water, holy water, all over the altar and on any area of dried blood on the stone flags of the floor.

He sat down on the front pew shaking, his head in his hands. Oh, he was the wrong person for this. In his heart of hearts, he’d been dismissive of the Bishop’s objections and feelings. Not now. Now he was impressed at Atkins’s strength, how he’d accepted the command of his Church despite his personal feelings. Humility: it was a never ending lesson.

 

Something odd occurred as the prayer came to an end. He felt a breeze across his face, caught the scent of… roses. Neither rose oil nor rose incense, or even chemical rose scented air freshener; it was the fragrance of real flowers. The delicate scent of tea roses. He raised his head. By the altar, Maryam Michael was standing with her arms outstretched and palms uplifted. Despite the blood, the death, the finger print powder covering everything… there was a sense of deep peace, of acceptance, communion and freedom, emanating from the altar. His mind could not comprehend it but his soul, the core of him that prayed and reached for God, responded. Andrew Scott got down on his knees, blessed himself with the sign of the Holy Cross and prayed for the soul that had just departed: wishing with all the strength of his own soul, that the departed one would find peace, acceptance, forgiveness, and divine love. That it would move into a state of Grace.

 

Maryam did not bother the young priest with words or explanations. She accepted his profound need to feel the journey he was upon and not to mar those feelings with words, intellect and questions. She cleared her equipment back into her pack and silently jotted down notes for her report.

Lesser mark of the pentagram completed: working area protected. Nunc dimittis finished. Distinct sense of a soul both locked into place and then released. Scent of tea roses. She paused, wondering, thinking; filtering. Mother of All Sorrows? Rome would puzzle upon her report and decide on action, if any. She suspected this parish might be receiving more funding, and more priests, to keep its flame alive. What a pity that Wyn Jones would be moved on.

She opened out her inner case and brought out a crucible and a mortar and pestle. She selected frankincense and ground alfalfa grasses, crushed and blended them together. She then added a single dried rose petal. The mixture was tipped into the crucible and the lid put on. She readied her camera to one side and moved the crucible onto the altar, in the centre, which was free from blood stain as the sheets of the Qur’an had kept it clear. She lit the mixture and put the lid back on. When the smoke was beginning to flow out from under the edges she used crucible tongs and lifted the lid clean off. A cloud of smoke bellowed up. She picked her camera up.

Andrew watched as the smoke rolled up… and stopped. How it condensed into itself and hung in the air above the altar. How it rolled into itself in a delicate swirling ball, until the heat from below died and it dissipated. How it drifted down, back towards the altar, gently flowed over it and disappeared on the stone flags of the floor. He was too astonished to pray.

Altar tested positive for supernatural interference.

 

She tested several locations. Both altar and tabernacle tested positive. The confessional and the choir did not. The strongest reading was from the Sacristy, as she’d expected.

It was well past dawn by the time she’d finished and cleared up. Andy had stayed and watched. They walked back over in the companionable silence that had slowly been restored to them through the night’s endeavours. Whilst he made them both some breakfast, Maryam typed up an initial report and emailed it through to Rome. She requested permission to continue her investigation by interviewing Wyn Jones, outlining some of her concerns and in particular, her suspicion about his uncommon silence with the police.

The day had a lot of chaos in it and they were both drained. Andrew took the couch in the parlour and Maryam got two hours sleep lying on the bed in her room. First, the doorbell started ringing, and then the phone never stopped. The house began to fill up. The police leaving the scene had allowed the women of the parish in to take charge of the cleaning and cooking, and setting everything to rights. Two new priests arrived, settled in upstairs and then began to prepare rotas for an all night prayer vigil in the Church. The cleaning company finished the crime scene clear up and a veritable mob descended on the church to clean and set up for the ceremony. Maryam watched a local woman arrange a spray of pink tea roses with white baby’s breath on the side altar dedicated to Mary. On the other side, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, she set in place a vase of crimson carnations. She confirmed that those were the flowers that were always placed there. Sometimes the tea roses were white, sometimes yellow: they were always tea roses.

‘Father Edwards, he says the Lady likes tea roses and he often smells them here. So we always try and make sure there are some fresh ones in. The florist donates them when she can. Tell me, do you know if the Fathers are well?’

 

When the email arrived from Rome granting her full permission to proceed with an occult inquiry, she checked with Atkins where Wyn Jones was. As she’d thought, he was back at the police station. Fred assured her that they’d send someone to pick her up and bring her over to Westminster as soon as Wyn returned. Would she like to move into a room there now? She almost said yes, then thought better of it and said she’d stay here but would it be all right if she came over for dinner that evening? She and Wyn could eat and talk then. Fred agreed and Maryam took her weary body back upstairs and slept through the chaos of the various women of the parish finally having free rein to clear out decades of Father Edwards’s smoking. They were stripping the covers off the furniture as she went past the parlour. The sight both made her smile and her heart ache: what if the old priest could never bear to return?

 

The four of them ate together, Fred, Maryam, Andy and Wyn Jones. The Westminster housekeepers had laid out a set of cold cuts with salads, there was warm soup in an electric tureen; breads and cheeses. Wyn had arrived back from the police station very late and was drained, as were they all. Fred had opened an excellent bottle of wine, then another, and then had brought in some port. Wyn had eaten little and drunk less. The case against him was building momentum. Everyone in the room understood that if he was called back to the police station again in the morning, he would be unlikely to return. As soon as he was formally charged, his life, his ministry, his priesthood, was gone. The press would descend and devour him whole. Fred, who had been informed of Maryam’s assessment by his own Cardinal, was on edge. He tried everything he could to deflect Maryam, defer her interviewing Wyn. Maryam put up with this until the eating was over and she felt she had enough of a measure of Wyn to proceed on her own, and quietly dismissed both Fred and Andy. This she would need to do on her own.

 

Wyn Jones watched the tiny woman with the grey eyes and silver hair send Bishop Atkins out of the room with a nod of her head. His heart let loose a little of the pain it was carrying. He was not sure who he’d been expecting, but he had trusted in His Lord to send him someone to help. He had not expected a fiery angel or a burning bush, but he’d been praying for some sign that he was going to get out of the hole he was now in. Looking at the calm and demure face of the woman in front of him, he prayed that good things really did come in small packages.

 

Maryam went straight into it, knowing that with her, unlike with the police, Wyn had no choice but to answer when he could. It was when he could not answer she was interested in, but bided her time.

 

‘Start from the beginning, Wyn, from when these events started. What you now realise was the beginning.’ After days of being pummelled by words, Wyn started stiffly, reciting by rote. However as she left him to it, only asking him the occasional gentle question, above all showing him her respect for him and his work, he relaxed into discussing it openly. The story was not new to her, but it was new to the man sitting in front of her and his pain, his shame and anger, was displayed clearly as he took her through the events that had led up to the murder.

‘Jason Briggs was an enforcer for a gang, the Rye Runners; enforcer, part-time leader. Depended on who was in prison at the time. He had no contact with the Church at first, but his younger brother, Brad, was in the youth group for a while. Their aunt, whom Brad lives with, isn’t home much and the boy fends for himself with Jason’s help. Brad came in one evening with another boy and stayed. He was good at singing, joined the choir, and wanted to join the football club as soon as we got it running. After a few weeks he started coming to services.’

‘And Jason objected?’

‘Not at first. At first a lot of the gang members came in and out of the youth group and the Church. But after a while, when there was nothing for them…’

‘Nothing for them to steal, or take, or to have for their own…?’

‘Yes, exactly.’ Wyn looked at her, surprised.

‘I’ve been around for a few years, Wyn. I’ve seen this situation once or twice. New priest, new activity, poor parish: everyone always checks it out to see what they can have. A few stay on, take what we offer and, in turn, start to give back: but not all.’

‘No, not all.’ In his voice was his youth and disappointment, a suggestion of bitterness. ‘Not all.’

‘Was Jason one of the ‘not all’?’

‘Yes. I’d thought… I’d thought we were getting somewhere and then… then it started to go wrong.’ Wyn had paled, his throat had caught, his fist had clenched.

‘Tell me about it.’

 

Initially the youth club had a slow start. Months had gone by with only a couple of boy and girls, usually grandchildren of parishioners, attending. Over the months it had begun to build, then to flourish. The choir had blossomed, bringing in many who had no contact with any Church, any faith. Older boys such as Jason had started to come in. Wyn had thought it was a sign they were reaching into the community, that there was some hope of breaking the gang cycle.

‘But it wasn’t what was going on. I didn’t notice it at first, then it became obvious. They weren’t breaking away from the gangs, they were recruiting into them. Using the youth club, the choir to gain access to kids that were usually out of their reach. The kids whose parents took them into the school yard and then picked them back up from there. The kids whose parents knew where they were, twenty-four seven. Those kids were allowed into the Church activities anytime they wanted to attend.’

‘So the gangs came recruiting for them, here, in your groups, in the choir?’

‘Yes.’ His voice was as tired as Father Edwards had looked.

‘What did you do?’

‘Discussed it with everyone, with the local community leaders, the police, with my Bishop, had a long think and prayed… and then closed out those we felt were only there to recruit.’

The pain he was feeling was self-evident. The sense that he’d failed, that he’d somehow let down those who had come to him for help. A sharp life lesson had been dealt to Wyn Jones and he’d not enjoyed it. A bitter taste had been left, a defeat that had yet to be accepted and moved past.

‘Is that when the graffiti started?’

‘Yes. It all started then. I’d banned Jason and a few others, told them they were no longer welcome. I’d expected him to stop Brad from coming, but instead, Brad started to bring in more and more kids his own age or younger, ten year olds, eleven, twelve.’

‘Already gang members?’

‘Yes, some of the areas have their own self running mini gangs. The leaders are eleven, twelve, maybe thirteen at most. The gang itself can have seven year olds in it!’

Maryam, who had seen machine guns in the hands of ten year olds, machine guns and machetes with scalp and hair still stuck to the blade, and the ten year olds who wielded them stood silent with dead eyes… listened. You could only bear witness to some pains. Nothing you could say, or do, could make it more bearable, make it better. Sometimes listening allowed it out. In her silence, he found his voice.

‘I’ve been in gangs, Miss Michael. I ran with one back in Cardiff. It used to be called Tiger Bay, where I grew up. It wasn’t the sweetest area. There were always kids running wild, even the ones with loving Mums like mine.’ His voice lost its cultured tones, his accent more pronounced as he continued. ‘Mam took me off the streets when she lost me, when I lost myself. She sent me up valley, to my aunts. Her aunts really, my great aunts, they put me back on the straight. They let me find myself again. I thought I understood. I thought I knew where these children were coming from, what their lives were…’ His voice trailed off in despair. The tears in his eyes were not pity or sadness: they were rage.

‘I HAD NO IDEA!’ His open palm slapped down hard on the table, the bruising on his knuckles was clear to see. He needed to move, jump, to dissipate the energy in him. He stood up and kicked the chair away from him.

‘How could I have been so STUPID? So naive? How could I have done this?’

Maryam waited for him to recover, which he did, picking up the chair and setting it back to rights.

‘When I realised what they were doing, who they were targeting in the groups, I was so angry. I didn’t just ban them, I threw them out! When they argued back, I lost it. Like the money lenders in the Temple, I physically threw them over the threshold. I told Jason Briggs if he came near the Church again I’d make sure he couldn’t walk away. I’d break his legs.’

His face was ashen, tears flowing out of his eyes, his voice knotted in self-loathing.

‘When did this happen?’

‘Shortly after I’d called in the local police to help me make sense of it all. I hadn’t understood… understood what they were doing. That it wasn’t the young boys they were after. That’s why they got away with it at first and got their claws into some of them. I was blind.’

‘What were they after?’

‘The girls. They were after the girls. Courting them, buying them gifts, making them feel special. Recruiting them.’

‘For what?’

‘The gangs. They seek out girls and get them to join. But the girls aren’t treated the same way as the boys. The girls are… owned.’

‘Owned? You mean they prostitute them?’

‘Not in that sense. They don’t sell them out. But they possess them, keep them, use them. When the kids in the group started to get into trouble at home, started to skip school, go wild… I hadn’t understood what was happening, what terrible things were being done to the girls. I hadn’t known.’

‘Known what, Father Jones?’

‘That the girls were a commodity, Miss Michael. That a girl joining gangs such as the RRs, becomes… a prize. They are raped by the leader of the gang or one of the lieutenants. When they’ve had their fill of them, they are passed on down through the ranks. Sometimes the entire gang will rape them. The girls are only allowed to stay in the gangs if they accept this, accept anything being done to them. And once a girl is truly owned by a gang…’ Wyn’s voice again broke in anger and self revulsion ‘They recruit other girls in. Before I’d realised it, half a dozen of the girls coming to my group, good Catholic girls with families that adored them, protected them… they started running wild. Ignoring their parents, skipping school, running in the streets at night. But they kept coming to the group, to the choir. Their parents would come to me, begging me to help with them. I counselled them, reassured them. ‘They are still coming to the House of the Lord,’ I said. ‘They are still singing in the choir. We will reach them.’ And all the time they were there….’

‘To recruit more girls?’

‘YES!’ Wyn’s fist drove down on the table once more. ‘I found out that girls from my group were prized by the Runners. The Runners actively sought them out…’

‘Because they were virgins?’

Wyn looked shocked that Maryam had spoken such a thing, knew of such a thing. She placed her hand very gently on his fist, still held fast on the table.

‘The world has always had bad places and people in it, Father Jones. Nothing you could say would shock me or be new to me.’

Wyn pulled his hand free, stood up and turned away, pacing the room before facing a wall. His shoulders were crumpled, his heart heavy. She was sure he was praying. His breathing came under control, his shoulders straightened. Pride returned to his body, replacing the shame and rage. He returned to the table, seated himself, and allowed her to continue.

‘And this is why you threw Jason Briggs out?’

‘Yes.’

‘And that’s when the graffiti started, the desecrations?’

‘Yes.’

‘But it was stamped out?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then why were you and Jason Briggs fighting on the steps of the Church just four nights ago?’

‘I can’t tell you.’

They were at the nub of it, the rub of it. The place she had not been able to approach until Rome had given her permission. The place, if her suspicions were correct, she could never progress from or break into.

‘If I called Bishop Atkins in, could he tell me?’

‘No…’ His head dropped down, tears flooding onto his chest. ‘He could not.’

‘Why would that be?’

‘Because what had been happening between Jason Briggs and myself was happening under the Seal of the Confessional.’

 

Wyn Jones had cried. He had sobbed until his broken heart had rid itself of much of the poison that had been poured into it in the previous months. Maryam had sat and born witness. When his eyes had run dry, he’d risen, thanked her for trying to save him, and left her. Atkins returned within seconds, Andy Scott by his side.

 

Maryam didn’t hesitate in going straight to the point:

‘Why hasn’t he told the police?’

Fred sat down and poured himself another port. ‘I advised him not to.’

‘Why?’

‘Because once he tells them that Jason Briggs has told him secrets in the confessional, nothing will stop them in their pursuit of what they were. I’m trying to buy him time.’

‘How?’

‘About six weeks ago, Jason Briggs suddenly appeared in the confessional box one day and announced to Father Jones that he was a Catholic, and that he wished to confess.’

‘The police said that he had no religion.’

‘I know. Wyn didn’t believe him and advised him to discuss things with another priest or to seek support from the Archdiocese.’

‘What happened?’

‘Jason turned up back in the confessional and showed Wyn a confirmation certificate.’

‘Oh, my. How could that be?’

‘Jason’s father is Nigerian. He came and went in Jason’s life, turning up every now and then, spending time with him. When Jason was seven years old, his father visited and took the boy away for the summer, home to meet his family. During that time he was seemingly both baptised and confirmed. When he returned, his mother had finally lost parental rights of three-year-old Brad, her drug use and prostitution had taken over her life. His father could have gained custody of Jason, but he would have had to stay and deal with Social Services. His father abandoned him. Jason was also taken into care, in a different home from Brad. Jason never left it. Brad was taken in by his mother’s sister two years ago. She’d been out of the country and returned to find that not only had her sister died of a drug overdose, but that she had two nephews. Jason was fifteen and completely feral. The police had stopped trying to force him back to the care home. He lived by, and for, the gang. His aunt never had anything to do with him. It was she that sent Brad to the Church youth group, unaware that Jason was actually Catholic. She just wanted Brad off the streets.’

‘And you are sure that he was Catholic?’

‘No, that’s why we’ve been stalling. The certificates Jason showed Wyn were the right place and the right time but in a different name. They were also very clean and well kept, which didn’t speak of a seven year old child saving them all those years. Jason stated it was his family name in Nigeria and that his father had him given a Nigerian identity. It was his father’s surname. He’d claimed he’d written to his father’s family and had the certificates sent to him’

‘A tad unlikely.’

‘Precisely. We are actively pursuing it. We have a full investigation within the church, trying to track down the Bishop who undertook the confirmation. The certificate is real, we are pretty sure it doesn’t relate in any way to Jason.’

‘But you aren’t certain?’

‘No. And, until we are…’

‘Wyn is trapped in the confessional with him.’

‘Yes.’

‘Goodness, what a mess.’ Maryam poured herself a large port and studied the colours in the depths of the wine.

 

‘How did he conduct himself in the confessional, Jason Briggs? Did he know what to do?’

It was Andy who answered his surprise that Maryam asked the question evident.

‘He conducted himself impeccably. I spoke to Wyn about it at length. He knew what to do and say and couched everything he told Wyn under guise of confession, as an actual confession.’

‘Then he’d come back again and again and say he’d been weak and sinned once more? Asking for help and forgiveness?

‘Yes.’ Fred’s words were weighted down by the guilt he felt, by how they’d been unable to help the young priest.

‘When did you find out about all this?’

‘Just a few days ago; about ten days, I think.’ He looked to Father Scott, who nodded his head in agreement.

‘It took a while for it to filter over to us. His own bishop at Southwark was dealing with it, obviously.’

‘When was it brought to you?’

‘When permission was sought to enrol the services of a private detective to try and prove that Jason’s certificate of confirmation was a forgery.’

‘Was permission given?’

‘Yes, but the murder took place before we commissioned anyone.’

‘So you knew that Wyn was in the pressure cooker, that he was being targeted this way?’

‘Yes.’ Fred felt shameful. Maryam wasn’t sure what else they could have done, given how well Jason Briggs had danced upon the Church’s rules. It also explained why they’d been keeping her close to them. She’d misjudged him.

‘At no point could you persuade anyone that Jason’s confessions were not genuine? That he had no intention of changing his behaviour, that he was not a true penitent?’ Her voice betrayed that this was a forlorn hope… how to do you prove someone’s thoughts?

‘No. We tried. Wyn offered other priests for the confession. We changed the rota, we even moved Wyn out for a week, on respite. Briggs kept coming back, kept turning up in the confessional and kept requesting forgiveness. He would appear when the Church was locked.’

‘So that’s why the back door was changed, not the graffiti?’

‘Yes. Briggs was appearing in the Church when Wyn was doing work on his own, requesting confession.’

‘No doubt describing in graphic detail what his sins were and where they had taken place?’

‘Yes. He spared nothing.’

‘And not one of you can breathe a single word about it.’

‘Indeed.’

It was Maryam’s turn to slap her hand down on the table hard enough to bruise.

‘Damnation!’

 

She was glad she had stayed in Peckham and that she’d taken a taxi back. She got out of the taxi just after it crossed the river and walked the three miles to the Church. It was two a.m. and the world, even the South London world, was indoors and asleep. She needed the wind in her eyes and the cold touching her bones to drive away the depression that was threatening. Wyn was locked into a terrible battle, a struggle for his freedom and his innocence, and it very much looked as if he might lose it. They would lose both a promising new priest and a soul that lit the room up when he entered it.

She decided to switch from the ‘why’ of this investigation and look to the ‘how’. There had to be some way to save this young man, to defeat the evil that was attacking him. Rather than going to bed when she got in, she switched on her laptop and began research into the gang culture in London.

 

In the morning, with the parish house alive around her, she woke and attended to her Tarot. What she got in the three lays she did, one on the Church, one on Wyn, one on herself, was the same card; The High Priestess, card three. She had missed some evidence somewhere. Something was there to be seen, she’d just not found it. A knock on the door disturbed her and she placed the wrapping cloth over the cards that were laid out on the desk. One of the new priests, Father Jacob, had a mug of coffee for her and the news that Detective Iqbal was downstairs in the parlour. She thanked him, drank the almost bearable coffee and dressed quickly. When she’d made herself a large bowl of actual coffee, she and Iqbal settled into the only space they could find some peace and quiet; Father Edward’s greenhouse. It contained no greenery, soil or plants. There was a huge ashtray and a bottle of brandy hidden under the single upturned clay pot, and a stack of old newspapers. It was raining again and the noise was both soothing and meant they could not be easily overheard. The opening of the Church had sparked more press interest, but the telephoto lenses could not, as of yet, look round corners.

Iqbal had come to invite her to meet the local Imam later that afternoon. She was happy to do so, glad she would have the opportunity and he phoned through a time. She then kept his attention by inviting him to go through the physical evidence they had, something that he was more than happy to do. As a junior officer brought in for his background knowledge, he’d not been getting much of a shot at that. They spread out a layer of old papers on the bare potting boards and laid out their individual files, collating their knowledge as they went. There was little to add to what she’d already been furnished with. Vincent Doherty, the locksmith, was a childless widower. However, his manager ran the store and did all the fittings. He had three children. Like his boss, Mr Curtis was a Catholic and supporter of the Church. Both his younger children were altar boys and his daughter, Keely, had been a member of the Choir.

‘Any trouble at home?’

‘Yes. Keely was brought in drunk and disorderly by the local constabulary about four weeks ago. Turned out that the perfect daughter had been skipping school and running wild in the evening when the family thought she was studying at a friend’s house.’

 

‘She’s one of the girls who have been in trouble since the youth group and choir started?’

‘Yes. Her father banned her from the choir, took her out of the local school and she started in a private Catholic school two weeks ago. Her mother drives her across town to the new school and drives her home. Father is refusing us access. We’re going through procedures to interview her.’

‘How old is she?’

‘Thirteen.’

‘The brothers?’

‘Ten and eight.’

‘They in trouble?’

‘No. Still at primary school, no problems reported. It’s just Keely that’s gone off the rails.’

‘Does it make sense to you, Shahrukh, the gangs targeting these girls through the Church?’

He thought about it. ‘No, actually. From what I understand from the briefings I’ve had, the girls that join gangs are the ones already in trouble. They come from broken families with histories of abuse. The girls in the choir don’t tend to follow that pattern. Much more work for the gang, bringing them in. Gang meat is usually easy prey. Girls on the edge, already in trouble… they drift towards the gangs. The gang gives them family and safety. If you are in one of the stronger gangs, you never have any trouble at school or on the streets again as long as you are with your pack. If you are being bullied, the gang will dish out punishment. We had one girl who was being raped by her step-father: she got into a gang in order to get them to beat him half to death. She had to put up with worse than he was doing to her from the rest of the gang, but she took it. I was always confused by that.’

‘It was on her own terms.’

‘What?’

‘The gang treatment, it was on her own terms. She knew what was going to happen, didn’t want it, but she’d agreed in her mind. You don’t look convinced.’

He shook his head.

‘It’s not something I can make sense of in any way. The women here, on the streets and the estates, often allow themselves to be treated very badly.’

Maryam studied Shahrukh. His expensive suit cut to fit him, the pressed linen shirt collar and easy clean silk tie. His hands were soft, his fingernails manicured so discreetly that you had to really look. He’d worked hard at dressing to conform to his plain clothed superiors, but quality always shone through. Like his Italian shoes. Yes, she could see that he would have some problem understanding Peckham.

‘What brought you into the police, Shahrukh, if you don’t mind me asking?’

His smile lit up his face. ‘Somebody’s got to catch the bad guys.’

 

They set themselves to catching the bad guys the old fashioned way: hard slog. They sifted through all the evidence, twice. The coroner had constructed a timeline on the presumed time of death being at approximately four a.m. Blood flow would suggest that meant Jason had been cut for the first time at approximately one a.m. Toxicology still hadn’t returned results on what drugs, if any, had kept Jason lying down whilst he bled to death, so times could be out by a couple of hours, depending on what might have been in his blood.

‘What time does the CCTV show him entering the Church ahead of Father Jones?’

‘21.43. Father Jones went in at 21.55, came out at 22.20. Locked the door as he left.’

‘So, even if he had attacked Jason, then the coroner doesn’t think the cutting started for another two hours, maybe three?’

‘Correct.’

‘So what was he doing in there?’

‘The timeline is why Father Jones has not been charged yet. He can’t have attacked Jason and started the cuts that early, nor did he have enough time. Equally, no one else went in.’

‘What if there was someone else in there at the same time?’

‘It is possible. The cameras are not 24 hour, they come on at twilight.’

‘If Wyn didn’t do it before he locked up, what’s the thinking back at the office?’

‘That Father Jones knew the cameras didn’t pick up the outer door to the Sacristy and went in later using his key. Only he and Father Edwards had keys, and Father Edwards is too old and infirm to be considered as a suspect.’

She mused on the two or three hours of ‘dead’ time for Jason Briggs.

‘Didn’t the coroner’s report say that Jason had eaten and drunk alcohol?’

‘Yes. They wondered if there was a drug, it might have been given in wine. But still no tox report as of yet, as I said.’

‘Show me the bit in the file.’

He handed it to her and she read out loud. ‘Stomach partially full. Strong smell of alcohol. Meal of chicken, rice and peas had been ingested but was not fully digested. Meal probably eaten within two to three hours of death.’

She looked at Shahrukh. ‘Where had he eaten chicken, rice and peas if he’d been in the Church since ten o’clock?’

 

Shahrukh’s phone call to Barham about the stomach contents had two immediate effects. Wyn Jones, who had been en route for more questioning, was sent back to Westminster with a polite request he stay there for a few more days. Barham then phoned Keely Curtis’s father and read the riot act to him in a most convincing manner. Keely could, she promised, be taken into care if Inspector Barham thought she was in danger of significant harm; did Mr Curtis want to push that, given his thirteen year old daughter had been found in the gutter, unconscious in her own vomit, just four weeks ago? He agreed to her being interviewed as long as a lawyer was present.

Shahrukh drove Maryam to the local mosque in his own car, which was gleaming, small and city-use compact. She marvelled that it had both its wing mirrors and no dents as he negotiated the tightly packed streets with the huge buses and trucks and constant double parking in every nook and cranny. He drove neatly but with just a hint of aggression. It seemed to work.

Parking down the street, walking up to the mosque, Maryam observed that it was an old building that had been bought and made over into a Mosque. She read the plaque outside as she took a grey Hermes silk scarf from her coat pocket and covered her hair neatly. The plaque stated it was six years since the former Anglican Church had been converted. Maryam studied the arched windows where stained glass had been stripped out and replaced by plain and then looked up to the steeple, now used as a minaret, calling the faithful to prayer.

Imam Abdhul-Rahemm Malik was a gracious host. Maryam, for her part, was a gracious and respectful guest. When tea was offered, she accepted it with appropriate gratitude and she sat neatly to one side of the Imam, making no attempt to shake his hand. The meeting had been arranged in the lull between afternoon and evening prayer and Maryam knew her time was very limited. The Imam had begun by thanking Maryam for ensuring that the Holy pages of the Qur’an had been treated with respect, and by offering his aid in any way. Maryam thanked him, then diverted the conversation to the Mosque in a way that disconcerted both the men.

‘Imam Malik, may I ask you if you were part of the organising committee that oversaw the buying of this property and the conversion?’

‘Yes, I was. We spent many years raising the funds for it. Why do you ask?’

‘I presume it had been abandoned and deconsecrated by the Anglican community before you took over?’

‘Yes. That is correct. This building had been empty for many years before we began negotiations to buy it. It came out of a meeting at an inter-faith council. The Church that was, even abandoned, was costing the Anglican authorities a fortune to maintain. But they could not demolish it or have it assigned to any other purpose.’

‘So a transfer to your community, whilst maintaining it as a place of worship, was suggested?’

‘Yes. We paid a token sum and made a contract that all the Christian elements we removed would be passed on to the Church, or the profit from their sale was. The stained glass windows went to a new Church being built somewhere else, I believe. The font and their altar were removed before we took possession.’ Malik was starting to look a little uncomfortable. Shahrukh spoke up.

‘Miss Michael, are you suggesting the mosque and the events at the Church are connected after all?’

‘Not in that sense, no, Detective Iqbal. As I’ve stated, I firmly believe that attacks are aimed only at the Catholic Church. That the use of Islamic elements is about causing trouble, not an actual part of the crime.’

‘Then why are you asking about this mosque?’

‘Because I suspect that whoever killed that young man and wrote upon his body knew a great deal, not only about Islam, but about Catholic beliefs. They knew how to instruct a young man from the streets on how to act in a Catholic Church. They could write Arabic with a sure hand. The person is educated about faith and highly knowledgeable.’

‘And…?’

‘When planning permission for the conversion of the Church here was undertaken, did you have any serious objections? And when I say serious, did you have objections lodged by someone who argued time and again, perhaps using lawyers or sending in many letters, or generally using the legal argument as well as a religious one?’

‘We had several objections, obviously.’

‘But did you have anyone that seemed to be… out of place? Out of the normal, expected response?’ It was Shahrukh who had picked up the thread and pushed forward. ‘Did you have any vandalism during the conversion? Anything unusual?’

Malik nodded. ‘Yes, we did. How did you know that?’

Maryam felt the knot in her chest loosen. Shahrukh’s voice betrayed that the same had happened with him. There was a chance that Wyn could be saved.

 

Whilst Maryam was searching through records of the Mosque with Imam Malik, a young mother from the community by her side, Shahrukh had returned to New Scotland Yard to examine the police records about the same events. The usual stupid and everyday obscenities had occurred, such as slices of bacon being nailed to the doors. However, there had also been some more adept vandalism. A section from the bible had been carved into a wood panel alongside quotes from the Qur’an, on the inside of the former church. That had had to be removed and stored safely. The files contained a photograph of the panel before it was removed. Someone had spent a long time carving Deuteronomy 32.17 into the wood:

 

They sacrificed to devils and not to God: to gods whom they knew not: that were newly come up, whom their fathers worshipped not.

 

The Arabic was much shorter but beautifully carved. Very sure and clear on the swoops and curves. It was Sura 26.221 and translated as:

 

Shall I inform you upon whom do the devils descend?

 

Maryam wrote down both quotes, being careful to replicate them exactly.

‘Is the panel still in good condition? Do you have it?’

‘I would have to inquire. It may have been buried, I do not know.’

Maryam turned to the file on the objections to the transfer. Among the usual deluge of complaints about anything changing in any way in someone’s beloved ‘community’, one complainant stood out. A man who had been voracious in his protests; he’d even chained the front gates, repeatedly. He’d tried to stop diggers and workmen going in and had protested vigorously the removal of the windows. He’d lodged dozens of complaints with the local council and the police. He’d ended up being given an exclusion order under an anti-social behaviour order, forbidding him from entering the street the building was on. In the five years since the order there had never been any more trouble from him. She noted everything down, thanked the Imam and the woman who had chaperoned them, and left.

At the same time, a tearful Keely Curtis was detailing all the areas in the local Church that Jason Briggs had forced her to have sex with him. She’d thought he loved her, she explained, and had bought her gold earrings and a gold cross. Why would he buy her a cross if he didn’t love her? During the break in choir rehearsals, Jason had tried to find somewhere private for them to go and chat, but as the only place they could meet was the Church during choir practice, it was impossible. Her parents didn’t let her out of their sight apart from when she was at the Church, and she was never out of sight of the priest or a parish helper then. Jason finally persuaded her to meet in the Sacristy during a Sunday service. She was attending with her family and excused herself, saying she felt sick. She went out the Church doors and went round to the Sacristy, where Jason was waiting for her. He took her in and raped her with two of his gang whilst the Mass was being said through the wall. Jason used his mobile phone to film the other two having sex with her and threatened to send it to the whole school, and her father, if she said a word. Then they threw her back out into the graveyard. She’d gone home, showered, thrown her clothes into the washing machine and told her parents she was sick and stayed in bed for three days. She was too scared to do anything else, and when Jason started texting her to tell her to sneak out and meet up with the gang, she did as she was told. When Jason was thrown out of the choir and the new door and locks were put in the Church, Keely was ordered to make copies of the keys. She worked in the shop every Saturday and knew how to access the secure codes. She had been trained in making keys: it was how she earned her pocket money.

Keely had continued to be raped by Jason and some of his gang, in various places in the Church. All the girls who’d been recruited from the choir had been involved in sex in the Church, usually either the confessional box or on the Altar. It was a ‘thing’ of Jason’s. He’d told her he only did it there with ‘special’ girls. In fact, there had been jealousy with some of the other gang girls, which Jason had solved by smashing the face of one of the trouble makers. He’d taken her into the Church with Keely and some of the other choir recruits and smashed the girl’s face open on the Altar stone as he’d raped her from behind. This had pleased Keely as the girl had been having a go at her personally. None of the other regular girls had complained about the ‘Church’ girls again. Keely had also been given a lot of jewellery and a bunch of girls at school who were bullying her had been ‘sorted’ by the gang. She had begun to like running with them and had started to take part in the drinking. It was only when she was caught paralytic in the streets when her father had thought she was fast asleep in bed, that her family had realised she was out of control and locked her down, literally. Dad had changed all the door locks in the house and installed security shutters on her bedroom window. She’d got out once from the bathroom window, but her dad had caught her in the garden and had knocked the living daylights out of her. She’d threatened to have him arrested for assault and they’d kept her in her bedroom until the bruises had healed a bit.

‘Can they do that, Inspector? Can your Mum and Dad keep you locked up like that, like an animal? I’ve told them how much I hate them, but they don’t care! I hate this new school, and they won’t listen to me, and now you know he hit me! They don’t care about me!’

All Inspector Barham cared about, and was grateful for, was that she didn’t have kids.

 

Maryam reached Scotland Yard before Barham had finished interviewing Keely. Gatto had been working with Iqbal on the records of the vandalism and obscenity at the mosque conversion. They’d found the same details about the legal order keeping the local man away from the mosque and had been checking up on him. His name was Geoffrey Embleton, he still lived in the area and he was in his late fifties. He hadn’t been in trouble since the problems at the mosque conversion. They were happy to let Maryam feedback to them her thoughts.

‘I’m pretty sure he’s a Catholic, raised by a very old, or strict, family.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘If he did this carving here on the wood panel, it’s from a Catholic Bible, not an Anglican one.’

Gatto was impressed. ‘You can tell that just by looking?’

‘Yes. Translations differ… is this computer on the internet?’

‘Yes, go ahead.’

She opened up several windows and put in different editions of the Bible in each tab. Then she typed the same chapter and verse in each. Within a minute they had four separate versions of the text.

‘It was an Anglican Church, and at the time it would have been the New English Bible that would have been in use. That talks about foreign demons that are no gods, but you won’t get it on the internet.’

‘Why not?’

‘Still under copyright.’

Both Iqbal and Gatto laughed. Maryam, who hadn’t thought she’d been saying anything funny, looked confused, but carried on.

‘You can see it here in the King James, and here in the New Jerusalem Bible. The New Jerusalem is the current Catholic one. But look here.’ She pointed to the screen.

‘That’s the exact same quote down to the colons.’ Gatto sounded even more impressed.

‘Exactly. And this, gentlemen, is from the Douay-Rheims Bible, which is the official Catholic translation from the Latin Vulgate.’

They both just stared at her.

‘It’s an old text, superseded many years ago, too obscure to be used on the walls of an Anglican church in 2004.’

‘There’s no mistaking it. It’s a distinctive translation.’ Gatto was writing details down on his notebook.

‘What does it mean, the text, with the other one there, too?’ Iqbal asked.

‘I’m not sure. The bible text is spoken by Moses to the Israelites in the desert, after he’d returned with the Ten Commandments. The Israelites had been making merry in his absence, getting drunk, worshipping false gods. He returns from the mountains and blasts at them, warning them to pay attention and do as the Lord has commanded or they are in deep trouble.’

‘Fire and brimstone trouble?’ Again, she was sure that Gatto had been raised Catholic.

‘Yes, Faith of Our Fathers trouble.’

‘Huh?’ It was Iqbal’s turn to look confused.

‘Dungeon, Fire and Sword,’ replied Gatto. ‘What about the other bit?’ He indicated the Arabic script on the photo.

Shahrukh answered that. ‘It’s the prophet speaking, replying to a question about who are the people likely to be bothered by demons.’

‘And who’s that then?’ Gatto asked him.

‘Sinners. Those who lie and cheat. The point being that if you are pure of heart, you won’t be bothered by them.’

‘So, let me get this right. We have graffiti in a church about to become a mosque, from five, six years ago, saying that the badly behaved will be damned and that demons will come after sinners?’

‘A somewhat crude summing up, but yes.’ Maryam was aware that one of her faults was that she thought and spoke as an academic.

‘And now we have a dead body in a church that has been defiled and is laying out on a Muslim holy book, and a statement that a demon killed him with the implication being that the said demon is a Catholic priest?’

‘Well, yes, you could look at it that way I suppose.’

‘Blimey. Well, I think the priest is orf the ‘ook then, don’t you?’ That Gatto’s childhood accent had slipped through as he spoke said much to both Shahrukh and Maryam.

 

Barham had been sceptical about the connections but let Gatto and Iqbal follow the line of investigation: they had to find a connection between Briggs and Embleton. Maryam, exhausted as she was, asked for a car to take her to the Cathedral, where she informed Bishop Atkins of all they’d uncovered and personally told Wyn Jones he was unlikely to be charged. Jones had been stunned into pale silence. Fred had made sure she’d eaten before sending her back to Peckham via Andy Scott. They’d both tried to persuade her to stay at Westminster for the night, but she wanted to wake up in a room she knew and compose her thoughts for her report on her own.

The parish house was still up and filled with people coming and going for the prayer vigil in the Church, which was on its second night. Maryam excused herself and went straight to bed, falling asleep within moments.

 

Her dreams were not happy. She woke after only three hours and drew upon her Tarot cards. The reversed Chariot, card seven, was working alongside the reversed Ace of Swords. The person involved was working against authority, taking no heed of the situation or others’ understandings or feelings. The force working through that person was out to destroy Divine authority. The Fool was once more the card being worked against. Wyn Jones was the battleground. Why?

She spent an hour writing her report for Rome and included Geoffrey Embleton’s details: date of birth and last known address. At the police station, she hadn’t asked permission to do so, she’d just not spoken. They, in turn, had not forbidden her from discussing him with others. The sins of omission: it oiled the wheels of justice most days; when it wasn’t creating injustice.

She felt dirty and sweaty. It was past dawn but only just. She prayed for an hour, as she could pray when dirty with no problem. Then she ran a hot bath, ignoring the banging in the pipes and soaked in it for half an hour, before rising and then meditating for another hour. Meditation needed clean. Her sense of balance restored, she descended into the kitchen.

The women of the parish had been busy; the kitchen gleamed. So had Father Jacob, who handed her a plate of poached eggs on toast and a quite acceptable cup of coffee. They talked about West Africa, his home town, and how he was coping with the cold in Britain whilst she relished the cleaner air. The stench of stale smoke was gone and had been replaced by the lemon oil of detergents: it was much more palatable. Everywhere, everything looked cleaner: the paint in the hallway was three shades lighter.

She walked over to the Church afterwards and sat at the back for a couple of hours as parishioners in the prayer vigil came and went. Father Jacob was alternating with Father Hector to make sure a priest was present at all times and many other clergy were coming and going. The entire London community of priests was trying to make sure they attended the Church and prayed there at least once during this phase of restoration.

She sat, thinking, feeling the sense of space and light re-enter the Church, and then drifted off, drifted into thinking of nothing very much.

It wasn’t a noise. It wasn’t a sound. It wasn’t a feeling. What was it?

Something had flared her into life, brought her senses up full. The Church around her had become huge, cavernous. The light from the stained glass windows was flowing in but failing, stopping, not managing to reach the air above her, not managing to illuminate the central space. The people in the front pews were distant, tiny specks on her consciousness. She could feel someone praying on her left, behind her. She turned. A woman, old and round and puffing, a multi-coloured head scarf on her hair, a worn rosary in her hands, was praying in the depths of the left aisle. Her coal black spiral tresses were tinged with grey. She exuded life, loving, and images of joyous grandchildren roaring with laughter. Maryam could smell jerk chicken, grits, all manner of mouth-watering things. She turned back to the altar. The front pews were still far away, floating somewhere else. The right hand aisle also held someone praying, kneeling at the altar of the Lady. His hands were hidden from her as he was leaning forward on the communion rail. It looked as if he too held a rosary. She leaned forward, trying to see clearly. His head was bowed; she could see nothing but the pale back of his neck. He was thin, wiry looking and wore a waxed jacket, the type that kept out the cutting wind and rain. As she looked, she could smell wax; incense and wax. Not candle wax, sealing wax. As soon as the thought was formed, the scent strengthened, developed. The powerful smell of old books, lost books, musty books, slammed into her. She sat back, breaking the moment. The light that had been held above her cracked and clattered to the ground. The altar was back where it should be. No one else seemed to have noticed the noise. She stood up, sliding sideways out of the central seating and headed up the side aisle for the Virgin’s altar. As she moved, the smell became stronger, more corrupt. Mould and decay caught at her throat, she tried not to cough. The man was still kneeling, head bowed. He was less than two feet from the tea roses she’d seen arranged the day before, yet all she could smell was decay and deception. The stench became so strong she gagged, had to cough or suffocate. The man jerked back, looking at her approaching him. As he stood up from his knees, she saw his face clearly, saw his eyes. Saw the darkness moving in them; saw the lack of humanity, of love. Could see the depths of despair caused by a complete absence of grace. She faltered, tripped and fell as the darkness pushed into her.

 

By the time she had been helped to her feet by the parishioners and a startled Father Jacob, her head had cleared. The delicate scent of the tea roses was mingled with incense, burning candles, aftershave and perfume. She apologised for tripping and disturbing everyone’s prayer. Father Jacob escorted her to the parish house, where he was so concerned that he phoned Bishop Atkins. Maryam was quite content with this; she was using all her energies in restoring her own sense of belonging to herself and herself alone. It wouldn’t do to alarm Father Jacob further and she happily accepted some tea from him and let him sit with her and prattle away whilst they waited out the good Bishop’s arrival.

When he did arrive a scant half an hour later, which led Maryam to wonder if Father Scott had gained tickets for speeding on their way, Wyn Jones arrived with them. She was a little shocked by this, given the police request, but it was clear he’d been alarmed to hear of her fall and had wanted to see she was fine for himself. She accepted this, but asked them to send a message to Scotland Yard advising them that he had returned to the parish. Andy Scott phoned Iqbal’s mobile phone number whilst Maryam discovered something wonderful about Wyn Jones: he could make excellent coffee. He was clearly a man taking his own territory back as he marshalled together the water, ground beans, and a cafetiere that she hadn’t known the kitchen held. Although he almost swore in frustration when it took him five minutes to find which cupboard it was in.

‘The parishioners have been busy.’

‘Mrs Olagbegi has been rather frustrated by Pete’s refusal to let her ‘take over’, as he put it.’

‘When did you lose your housekeeper?’

‘Oh, many years ago. The old one died and parish funds could not afford a new one.’

‘Was Father Edwards here then?’

‘He’s been here thirty-five years.’ He stopped and looked at her. ‘Mrs Fisher, the housekeeper, had been here for twenty years when she passed. I think he still misses her.’

Fred returned from the Church, where he’d popped in his head as he’d walked Father Jacob back up. With Andy off the phone, they took their coffee through to the parlour and firmly closed the door. Andy drew a chair up against it as a precaution against a parishioner walking in at the wrong moment.

Maryam described what had occurred, although she did so as a light sketch, not in detail. Some things you didn’t tell priests. Or anyone, actually. She did describe the scent of the old books even as she omitted the detail about the jerk chicken, and she described the man in full.

‘That is Keith Pargiter.’

They all stared blankly at Father Jones.

‘You know him?’

‘Well, yes, he’s a stalwart of the parish. He’s an altar server and does some ground work in the graveyard. He runs an antiquarian book shop on Rye Road, although it does most of its business online, I believe. He joined the parish about three years ago I think, when he bought the shop. You’d have to ask Pete when exactly.’

‘And he’s a regular parishioner?’ Andy spoke first.

‘Oh yes, one of the faithful, as I said, can always be trusted to help out if we need it. He’s also been very good at donating bibles and religious texts to us if they are of no commercial value. We have a lot of things that Keith has passed on.’

‘Does he have keys to the Church?’ Maryam asked.

‘Well, not as such, no, but he’s on the cleaning rota with the others, why?’

‘I’m not sure how to tell you this, Father Jones, but the man I saw was Geoffrey Embleton.’

 

Gatto and Iqbal turned up about twenty minutes later. They asked Wyn if it would be all right if he went for a walk or went up to his room… or really, wasn’t he sure he wouldn’t be happier at the Cathedral?’

Father Jones had capitulated with a sigh and declared he was going to go and clear his head and walk back over to the other side of the river. He’d been cooped up for days between the police station and the cloister, and so he was off to get some fresh air.

‘Well, some London rain, I suppose,’ he said as he opened the door to discover the heavens had opened once more.

He took his overcoat and a brolly from the hallway and departed. Iqbal followed him out to make sure he went past the Church, then returned to the parlour.

Once more they laid out the files and started to go through them meticulously. Gatto had brought with him photographs from Embleton’s file and Maryam confirmed that was the man who had been praying in the Church before. She didn’t mention anything other than noticing him ‘because of a smell of old books’.

‘And Father Jones knew him as Keith Pargiter?’

‘Yes. He runs a book shop, old books.’

‘Well, if it is him, it’ll be interesting to see if he has an old Qur’an in stock. Or rather, missing.’

‘Didn’t Inspector Barham ask for the antiquarian book shops to be looked into, to see where the copy of the Qur’an could have come from?’ Iqbal asked Gatto.

‘Yes, she did, son. Keep asking questions like that and you’ll do okay.’ Iqbal almost blushed but held it off by staring hard at some paperwork.’

‘And you got a strange feeling off him, did you, Miss Michael?’

‘I never said that, Sergeant Gatto, did I?’

‘No, you didn’t, what was I thinking?’ His wry tone fooled no one. Maryam sipped some coffee and looked placid and neutral. Gatto excused himself and went outside to phone headquarters in private to see if the book shop had already been visited. Iqbal stayed and took them through what they’d uncovered in their own inquiries.

‘Shortly after Embleton was issued the ASBO for the mosque conversion, he was admitted to hospital. He was suffering from malnutrition and dehydration. There were marks on his body, self inflicted.’

‘What sort of marks?’

‘He’d whipped himself with something that had metal on it. One of the wounds on his back had become infected and it was the blood poisoning that caused him to collapse in Marks & Spencer’s. After treatment, he was voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric unit. No idea of the diagnosis or treatment, still looking.’

Maryam sighed. ‘It is rather unfortunate that Mr Pargiter appears to have been born in the wrong millennium.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Never mind, Detective, carry on.’

‘He came back into police view about two years later, when he was the subject of a complaint from a synagogue in Golders Green. He had been trying to convert to Judaism and things were not going well. I’m not sure what that means. He’d been asked to leave the synagogue in question and not return.’

‘And he kept coming back?’

‘Yes, Bishop, he did. I spoke to the local officer who worked on this case. It was only when Mr Embleton was threatened with an ASBO that he backed off.’

‘Did they know of the prior one?’

‘Yes, they did. They’d been looking into his background and it popped up in the system. PC Shirley Deal, who phoned me back, remembers him as it was such an odd case. Although still registered at his Peckham address, he was staying with friends in Golders Green. Intellectual sorts with a huge house; always had lots of people staying. She went round there and spoke to him, pointed out his previous ASBO and that they’d apply for another one for the synagogue if he kept pushing it. From her account, he left the area there and then.’

‘When was this?’

Iqbal looked at his notes. ‘About three years ago.’

‘Well,’ said Maryam, in a tone that made Gatto feel as if he was talking to his Chief Inspector. ‘I think we need to do two things. Firstly, establish that Keith Pargiter and Geoffrey Embleton are the same person, and then prove a connection between him and Jason Briggs.’

 

She’d been expecting it to be a slow and tedious affair. Police work was, despite the film and television versions of everything happening within two days. However, circumstances moved quickly once her report had been received in Rome. It only took twenty-four hours for Rome to return the information that Keith Archibald Pargiter had been accepted into training for the priesthood in 1964, when he was twenty years old. He had been carefully nurtured by his family, who had presented him as a gifted scholar and dedicated postulant. It had helped that the family had the wealth to support his training in Rome itself. The report she received back, which included a scan of a faded passport photo of the young man, was scant. It outlined only that Keith had had immense difficulty in accepting the changes being deliberated in the Holy City by the Vatican II council. He left the seminary by mutual consent in 1967. Rome had no more record of him. The fact that his true name was Pargiter and not Embleton helped the police untangle everything.

 

Keith Pargiter had been arrested and convicted of arson in 1970 and had spent three years in a secure psychiatric unit before being deemed ‘cured’ of the religious obsession that had resulted him in burning an Anglican Church to the ground. On release, he’d been sent to a private sanatorium in Switzerland by his family. He’d disappeared off the radar until turning up in Peckham three years prior, to inherit his maternal uncle’s book shop. However, his fingerprints were on file, and they matched the fingerprints of Geoffrey Embleton, which had been taken in the fuss that had resulted in the ASBO. The 1970 files were from Surrey police and had never made it into a computer database.

 

The matching of the fingerprints allowed Barham to seek a search warrant for Pargiter’s shop and his flat above. Pargiter himself had flown: no one had seen him since he encountered Maryam in the Church. The investigation into the shop accounts revealed an industrial storage unit where he kept the majority of his stock. Whilst the shop and the house had revealed nothing out of the ordinary, the storage unit was packed with all manner of occult and religious texts, including several copies of the Qur’an. It also contained crates of artefacts: chalices, altar cloths and a myriad of Catholic altar vessels. One small box had been locked and bolted into a larger crate and stored out of sequence with everything else. It contained two items, a communion chalice and a crucifix. Both bore the fingerprints of Jason Briggs. The feet of Christ on the base of the Crucifix also had his saliva and epithelia: he had kissed it at some point, no doubt when Keith had been tutoring him on Catholic tradition. Maryam could have returned home at that point, but she chose to stay on and see the parish settled back down. It was an odd time for all concerned. Wyn was allowed to return with no problem, and as he’d never been charged, there was no press coverage on him in connection with the murder. That was one reason Barham had been so meticulous on his being taken in and out of the police station on a daily basis. A dedication to preserving the reputation of those that passed though her official hands that Maryam appreciated. Not all officers of the law were so diligent.

The accounts of Geoffrey Embleton revealed that he’d sent money to a private detective in Nigeria in the past six months and had received ‘documents’ in return. Whilst the Metropolitan police could do little, the Curia investigated and supplied proof that the confirmation certificates shown to Father Jones by Jason Briggs had been bought by the private detective, from a young man in the village that Jason’s father had come from. This freed Father Jones to reveal everything that had been told to him by Briggs under the Seal of the Confessional. Fred and Maryam had stayed with him and the Diocese lawyer, as he’d gone through everything that Briggs had told him. The endless confessions of how he was repeatedly raping young girls in the Church, how the vows of priesthood had trapped Wyn into listening.

Maryam had spent a couple of hours with Barham, Gatto and Iqbal and an individual from the Crown Prosecution Service, explaining out the nature of the trap that had been sprung on the young priest. How sophisticated it was and how grounded in Catholic teaching and belief it had been. Barham was angry and Iqbal confused. Sergeant Gatto was affected the most: he resonated with Jones’s problem about knowing things professionally that couldn’t be revealed on a personal level. It said a lot about why he was happy to remain a sergeant. Maryam wasn’t surprised when Gatto turned up to Mass a week or so later.

 

What had surprised her was what happened when Father Jones took Mass. How the Church of the Mother of All Sorrows appeared to expand as if it were a living, breathing thing. How the singing of the choir when Jones was at the altar brought tears to your eyes. About the sense of life and light and wonder that sometimes filled you as he read the Gospel. It was a bittersweet experience. For side by side with the joy, with the sense of the sacred when he handled the Host, there was also the pain. The sharp stab of the sword piercing the heart: the shadow that sometimes stood by his side. The ghost sitting at the feast; the look in his eyes sometimes when he laughed out loud. How deep the darkness of desolation was now rooted. How the wound was unhealed. How his bedroom light would often stay on until dawn and how he would spend hours in the Church kneeling in prayer and yet not look at peace. How his light was sometimes occluded by doubt.

 

Maryam waited until the call came for him to go to Rome. She then packed her cases as he packed his. She needed to get back home and wake up with the night in her room. A still, dark night, with no lights or cars or trucks or people: just the night. She and Barham had got a little drunk the night before, over a goodbye dinner, where they had spoken freely and drained out the canker that could form from a case unsolved. Both had learned that most cases were left unproven and that few were ever prosecuted successfully. Just as they both knew who had killed Jason Briggs and how, they were unlikely to ever be able to prove it or bring him to justice. Barham had thanked her for her help and confided that she was glad there had been none of ‘this occult nonsense’ to sidetrack the investigation from diligent police work. Maryam had smiled and poured the inspector another glass of wine.

 

Her cases were in the car being driven by Andy Scott. She hugged ‘Jones the Priest’ as he liked to call himself and said goodbye. He was flying to Rome later that evening. He wished her well and smiled, but avoided looking directly at her. He knew that she saw the pain, the doubt, and it had begun to distance them from each other. She hoped that by the time they met again that pain would be healed. She turned and gave Father Jacob, who was staying on as the new parish priest, a hug. She then went up into the Church to say her goodbyes there.

In front of the altar of Mary, she prayed for Wyn, that he would not lose his vocation. She prayed that Pargiter and whatever force had worked through him, had failed in his attempt to derail him. She prayed that she and Fred would continue to be on good terms and that Father Edwards would end his life peacefully in the retirement home that he’d elected to move to. She prayed for Iqbal, hoping that his career would not take too harsh a toll upon his spirit and prayed for comfort and safety for Gatto and Barham. She prayed that Andy Scott would come to terms with the work of the Congregation and forgive himself for throwing up in the back of the Church. She prayed that Pargiter would find peace and the world would be free of his evil.

When all her prayers were said, Maryam lit three votive candles and placed them side by side, her voice speaking so softly no one would hear it even if they were standing next to her.

‘I give this light to you, Jason, in honour of your spirit. This one I give to your mother, who gave you life. This one I give to your father, wherever he may be. May you all three find each other one day and may you all find rest. Blessed Be.’

 

As she left the Church, the scent of tea roses went with her.

 

 

Author’s Note:

No one should expect to recognise anyone, or anything, in this tale. Writers are liars who get paid for their time. The world in this story does not exist, it just happens to almost mirror the one we live in. No one should expect to recognise either the Metropolitan Police, or the Roman Catholic Church from the above words. Whilst the Church is real, the Office of the Congregation of the Arcane is completely fictional and is not based on any existing, or historic office within any actual religion. Demons do not infect people in the real world, only in this fake one. Peckham does have gangs, and Churches, and Mosques, and none of them are in this work of fiction. The real world is but a template for my pretend one: a world two shades different from the real one. In those shades you will find my characters and their stories.

 

If you have enjoyed these stories, please tell your friends. Word of mouth is life blood for books, and writers. You can also contact me directly at the website listed above. Reviews are also gratefully received, and if you want to help Maryam Michael get to her other adventures, then a good review would help her crawl to the top of my ‘to do’ pile.

 

The Office of the Arcane thanks you for your time.

 

 

Also available by Morgan Gallagher

 

Changeling

 

A young woman vanished from the streets, a life destroyed, her humanity a battle ground.

 

London, April 1987. Joanne is out for a night on the town and her plans go awry. She slips into a pub for a quick drink before going to see a film. Jonathon Dreyfuss is on the prowl, looking for something tasty to devour. He spots Joanne through the window. Joanne vanishes from sight.

 

She wakes in a room with no windows, trapped in a nightmare of pain and terror. Dreyfuss finds her boring and tedious… yet he can’t quite kill her. Something about her, some aspect of her, is pleasing to him. He keeps her for a little while, house training her as he’s attempted to train others in the past. She resists, as they all did, and he takes up the challenge, to prove once again he is master of all. Joanne fights back as best she can, terrified and confused, beaten, starved and lost in a madman’s fantasy. He spends months schooling her to obey, tearing her down. When she begins to break, as hope of escape fades… he reveals his final madness: he is Vampire. She too, will be Vampire: his Changeling.

 

He wishes her to be his immortal companion, his eternal mate. What Dreyfuss wishes, Dreyfuss gets.

 

The battle for her soul begins. All she has is her will and the need to be free. Dreyfuss holds all the cards: money, power and no conscience. Can she keep fighting, or will he win? How long can Joanne stay human?

 

What would you do to win your freedom?

Changeling is the first novel in the Dreyfuss Trilogy: a compelling and unique vampire mythology for adults.

Horror: 152,000 words. Ebook and Paperback

Reviews for Changeling

It took me two sittings to read it. Why two, because I started reading in at 8pm. If I had started earlier, this would have been one of those books you don’t put down until the last page and you read that twice not wanting the adventure to be over. Morgan has mastered the emotional ride… a new talent to be discovered.”

Betty Carlton

It was impossible to put down, disturbing and intriguing at the same time.”

Alison Sauer

“[_ ...brutal and visceral -- so well written that it was almost physically painful to read. [it does]... a very good job of depicting physical and psychological torture – people either crack into catatonia or fight with every scrap of their being. Even when fighting means taking it passively.” _]

Christine Whitley

This is a very smart, well-written novel. It delves deep into the psychology of both the abuser and the abused. It contains graphic scenes of physical, psychological and sexual abuse that will upset those made queasy by portrayals of torture. But… this isn’t splatterpunk. It’s purposeful. So if you can handle that, you won’t find a much better vampire tale than Changeling. … I think that fiction should both entertain and make you think. It’s surprisingly difficult to find novels that do both. Changeling does.”

Alan Ryker

Read the first four chapters of Changeling:

CHAPTER ONE

The door slammed shut with the deadened finality that comes with the emptying of a living space. Silence filled in behind her, flooding the rooms with despair. The air in her bedroom, thick with deodorant, hairspray, floral shower gel and perfume, settled into scented layers around the debris of her work clothes. The cat, nonchalant about her absence now it had been fed, climbed onto the front room window sill, looking out on its domain of kebab shops and off licences. Endless traffic piled the corners, hooting and groaning as it snuffed along, pouring stink into the already sickly late afternoon air. It felt more like the middle of September, than that of April. The cat preferred the view over the back windows, endless roofs, tantalising birds and other cats to snarl at. It would wait until the acrid chemical smells in the other room faded, before proceeding to settle in its usual spot, angled out to the inner square of the backs of the houses. It would mewl and scratch fruitlessly on the glass at the outside wild life: desperate to be free to attack, to chase. Or so it thought. Once, a pigeon had settled on an open window sill in the summer’s heat, and the poor cat, comfortable and safe in its window glass world, had hissed in fright. It was so big, so aggressive, compared to the small fluttering victims of its day dreams, tiny and fragile on the roof spars opposite. The bird had eyed him coldly, without fear. The cat had hissed and growled its warning, but it had had no effect. It was a stand off until the bird flew away, unruffled. Since then, the cat went into a frenzy any time a bird landed on the other side of the window. The other side of the closed window.

Had she known it was the last time she’d abandon both the cat, and her flat, she might have washed the dishes. As it was, she had rushed around the flat, ignoring the smell from the sink. That morning, as she’d fallen out of bed to find that only her best suit was wearable, she’d planned to come in tonight and clean, ridding her life of the guilt the week had scattered around her. The resolution had been spurred on by the blissful thought of a Saturday morning lie in. A pristine flat all around her, requiring no effort on her behalf. Her change of plans, however, had left her with less than twenty minutes to bathe and change: she had once more ignored the chaos. Stopping only to throw some biscuits in the bowl (tinned food stank the place out) she vowed her allegiance to the hum drum of living; tomorrow. She’d do it all tomorrow. Clean out the cat litter, empty the bins, do the laundrette run and find her bedroom carpet under the skin of peeled off clothes that she kicked out of her way to find a matching shoe. Tomorrow would be good enough, and Sunday morning would be the sweet spot, as she lay in bed wondering how to fill a lazy day. She grabbed her keys and ran, heading off down the stairs at full pelt.

After four days unexplained absence, during which all answer phone messages had been ignored, her boss finally called the mother of her erstwhile assistant. Mrs Maitland, to the embarrassment of all concerned, exploded into tears at the thought of her only child’s fate. A day later, after some hemming and hawing, the police were called, forcing open the flat in absence of anyone with a spare key. They found the dishes partially in the sink, partially on the floor, courtesy of an exceptionally hungry cat. The cat took its revenge on the probationary policewoman, leaving a trail of claw marks across her cheek. The sergeant, who had cautioned against such inappropriate action, handed a clean handkerchief over and called in the RSPCA. Their elbow length leather gauntlets would handle the animal, which had conveniently hidden itself inside the fold down couch in the living room cum kitchenette. He had never had any truck with people who took free ranging creatures and locked them into tiny fourth floor flatlets, or patted them as if human sentimentality could mitigate a completely empty stomach. He left his charge dabbing at the blood and had a good look round.

There was a strong whiff of cat in the air. Cat sick, and well developed litter tray. Having scoured both rooms of what little food there was, the cat had evidently chewed through the motley crew of long suffering pot plants scattered awkwardly around, subsequently throwing up with abandon. Splotches on the carpet and furnishings tracked its comings and goings, mostly goings. It was a very annoyed cat, he had no doubt of that. The smell was one that the sergeant could easily stomach, was greatly relieved by, given what else there might have been in evidence, both of the girl’s disappearance and the cat’s subsequent hunger. As it was, there was no sign of the girl. The usual clutter of single living met his eyes; the fridge testament to the overall lack of care, or comfort, this young woman had afforded herself. Diet drinks, weeks’ dead salad, a dehydrated lump of cheese, rancid low fat spread and half a mouldy loaf. Two bottles of white wine and half a carton of milk, long turned to cheese. The bin, before it had been dragged around the floor, had been stuffed with various take away containers and two empty bottles of wine. She preferred Chinese, apparently, as the Chinese was six doors down, after the chip shop and the kebab house. On the other hand, the Chinese was first if you were walking back from the tube. The cupboard had several packets of fat free powdered soups, all well past their sell by date. The usual collection of tins and half a bottle of cheap vodka. The vodka had dust on the edges: no clues there then. The bread bin was stuffed with chocolate biscuits and crisps. The cramped and musty shower room gave evidence of the usual obsessions with creams and lotions, all feminine in nature. Nothing in the cabinet to suggest any other bad habits, not even the pill. The toilet bowl itself was clean and shiny, which confirmed his opinion. Make up was scattered out over the tiny table that served for a make shift dressing area, but that could have been the cat. The bed was single, unmade and rented out old. The sheets looked clean and the duvet was brightly coloured and newish looking. The clothes spread out on the floor were the formal side of business casual, the shoes impeccably heeled and well cared for. All the used knickers were in a laundry basket, but the bras were spread around. She used panty liners.

An ironing board filled up the tiny space on the other side of the bed, with an expensive iron on the floor beside it. Not the cat this time, as it had been carefully placed to cool out of harm’s way. For all the chaos in the room, an expensive jacket in dark blue hung impeccably on the back of the door. A matching skirt had been hanging in the shower room, obviously left to steam out its wrinkles. The tiny fragrance bottle by the bed was pricey but affordable enough to have been a present to herself. A secretary, the report had said. The flat screeched up and coming PA at him; with three daughters of his own, he was wise enough to know the difference. The probationer sniffed around after him as he called in the details, heeding his warning to touch nothing. She crumpled her nose in disdain at the mess, and smell. She’d learn. She’d learn bloody fast. A double duty of nights in the riot months of summer and her no doubt currently pristine room back at the police house would look the same. He logged the time and complete lack of evidence in any direction. Her suitcases were on top of the wardrobe, and the drawers filled with underwear, clothing and two sex toys. A vibrating egg and slim finger sized vibrator. This made it extremely unlikely she’d just walked away. He finished his report and sighed: this didn’t feel a good one, not at all.

A week of searching saw Joanne Maitland’s neatly typed details logged and filed, the case unofficially closed. She was lost somewhere in the mystery that the city became at these times, her disappearance overshadowed by a sensational libel case and another marital dispute over at the House of Windsor. Mrs Maitland, crumpled and creased from the jostled and chaotic trip South, shed her tears for the camera, wailing a little at Fleet Street’s seeming indifference. Had a paparazzo photograph of a distraught Princess of Wales not stolen the morning headlines, a little more might have been made of her one shot appearance on the evening news. As it was, London lifted its head in grief for a split second, returning to business as usual by close of trading. Jo, oblivious to the future of her good name, left behind a less than fitting epitaph in the form of her last confirmed sighting. Breathless, half in her jacket, red from the run, she had stood and watched the tube she had just missed hurtle down into the depths of Archway station.

“Shit!” is what she had said, loudly, as she stalked up and down the platform. “Shit!”

 

It had been another vile day. Too much work, not enough time. Fridays were always her worst day, not the usual Blue Monday of office worker fame. Friday was the day she’d be in such a rush that she would skip breakfast completely, her Monday good intentions on sensible eating abandoned sometime around Wednesday. Friday breakfast usually joined Thursday dinner as a non-event. Friday break would find her stuffing chocolate biscuits down her throat as quickly as she could, her now up and running body desperate for anything that looked and acted remotely like a calorie. If she was lucky, and this Friday she hadn’t been, lunch was a sandwich and a doughnut, washed down with lukewarm coffee. Every Monday she began a perfect routine of fruit for breakfast and break, with peppermint tea to wash her virtue down. She would smile sweetly at the others as they moaned about the coffee machine being broken again, as she waited for her tea bag to infuse. By Wednesday she was beginning to think maybe she should phone through for a new machine herself, as she waited for the damn thing to gurgle out more tepid caffeine. Friday always found her deciding that she’d damn well put the order through as urgent as soon as she had a minute on Monday, as she sent out an order for a massive triple mocha from the coffee shop on the high street.

Minutes were Friday’s real problem: there were not enough of them. Work that had not seemed too important and could be put back for a day or two, suddenly had to be cleared and logged out of the office before the weekend. Logged and cleared by her, for she’d learnt, as had her boss, that if she didn’t do it personally, it sometimes wasn’t done. Friday nights usually saw her pegged on the couch, having missed the soaps again, picking the topping off an extra large pizza, a bottle of plonk for company and a tub of ice cream melting in the sink, awaiting her pleasure. Fridays she was fit for nothing but collapse and retreat.

This Friday had been a Friday from hell. The end of financial year accounts about to be closed and set. She hadn’t even got to the chocolate biscuits ‘til after 2. The phone never stopped, the fax machine had over spilled twice and her boss had looked at her with one of those looks. The ‘I know you are so very busy and you are so very competent, but can I please have the report on my desk now’ looks. Yes, she loved the bustle. Yes, she was good enough to do everything well, no matter how busy it got. Yes, it was great fun. Sometimes. But it wasn’t really her job to do all of it and it was about time someone recognised that. They’d almost had words, Jo backing down at the last moment when the phone had rung once more, embroiling her in another minor crisis in the photocopying room. She had sent out for coffee and a sandwich, but either they had never arrived, or she hadn’t noticed them in the mêlée.

She had felt defeated when it was all sorted out, not exultant so, when the usual shout had gone up about where and when the office was congregating for party mode, she’d listened. She rarely joined in with the Friday night extravaganza that the bosses actively encouraged the staff into. She was always late, always tired, and found getting it down and boogying with the others a waste of time. Today, however, had been different. All she wanted to do was go out and get absolutely smashed out of her skull. Forget it all and start the weekend in bed, too past it to care about anything. She may even get laid, or try to. The safety of getting drunk in the company of her fellow workers stood against her managing a little horizontal jogging. Embarrassed encounters over work areas on Monday mornings were not her idea of fun. Not that she’d ever had such an encounter, but it might happen yet. There was a Northern chill to her backbone that usually saw to it that nothing squidgy happened, despite her fantasies. Perhaps tonight, she’d shuck off the puritanical streak she hadn’t realised was part of her until she moved to London.

Unprepared for a night out, she’d made the decision to leave some of the work undone and rush back home to change. With luck and the right connections, she would meet up with the others as they made their way across London to catch a boat that was going to let them drink themselves sick as it drifted along the Thames. Experience had shown that this was very convenient, both for throwing up discreetly, and for controlling who had access to you in a ‘fragile’ state. With the train now hurtling away from her into the darkness, there was a good chance she was going to be late. Thankfully, the next train popped up quickly, although she was going to have to change at Leicester Square, which suited her well enough as she didn’t have that much cash on her. Her temper had cooled as she stopped off to pick up money from the hole in the wall. Folding the notes into her purse, she allowed the chiming of the nearby Swiss Centre to register the time with her, bursting the bubble of her self-delusion. It was too late. She had missed the launch, they’d be heading downstream by the time she got there. She didn’t have one jot of a clue as to where it was picking up along the route, should have listened better as they all chattered about who was wearing what, who was gunning for whom.

She fought back the irrational prick of tears that threatened to engulf her, concentrating on what she wanted to do now. She was dressed for fun, she was in the right part of town. She had money in her purse and the night, if not the evening, was still young. She couldn’t face returning to her flat so soon after rushing out of it, all caught up with the idea that she had somewhere to go. Unnoticed by the crowds she slipped into the first decent looking pub she found. A quick glass of wine, some time to calm down. A meal, maybe a movie. Something of the evening would be salvaged. Besides, she’d be so much safer on her own.

 

Restlessness had brought him out onto the streets earlier than usual. The day had been hot; sticky and close. There was a fine drawing of his nerves building; a faint twitch. He cruised the bars from Soho down to the Square, scanning the eager young faces he passed. It was too early for the true desperates to be abroad. He wondered where they went in the city centre bustle between the hours of the commuter’s rush and the emptying of the bars. The young and helpless, tricking the night away to fill their bellies and their veins. The air was grey and stale, not heavy enough to call with it rain. Deep and dark enough that it lay in layers around him. The scents caught by each step forward drummed the sense of city into his bones. Sweat, concrete, cheap perfume. The sharp and noxious odour of urine, splashed carelessly behind bins and crates. Dark alleyways completely overlooked by the tourists. Rotting vegetables and rubbish caught in the trap of the gutter, wind brushing all to the corners of the streets. Noise assailed him from the edges of Chinatown, ancient spices and herbs drifted out to him from the apothecary’s shelves. Tonight was not a night for easy prey, swift endings. Tonight, he was in the mood for fun.

 

The pub was packed and she’d found her way to both the bar, and an empty table, with a lot of pushing and jostling. The table was crowded with bottles and had an overflowing ashtray. She edged it away, wrinkling her nose in distaste. The table was tiny, a fake hardboard top over a fake beer barrel. There was only one stool but she’d be nearer the door where there was a sense of fresher air to be found. Squeezing into a gap in the heaving bodies around her she settled into the seat, ruefully reflecting that the fresher air from outside was just as cloying, if somewhat drier than the sweat and lager laden fug around her. She scanned her somewhat sketchy memory of the area for rememberings of a good restaurant. One with air conditioning.

 

The street was a small one, lined with pubs and wine bars. The prices in each varied greatly. He’d learnt that such a range offered interesting possibilities. He took his time, savouring the appearance and demeanour of everyone around him. There was a tow-headed young man, a boy really, sitting on one of the cheap plastic seats outside a cafe. He looked as if he’d just been jilted, his eyes staring intently at the label of the bottle he held. He almost didn’t fit the new jeans he was wearing, his shoes scuffed and rather more worn than looked cool. Promising. Next door, a wine bar with pretensions of glamour. The woman taking advantage of the dim light of an alcove was in her late forties. High quality make up sought to cover the lines and wrinkles of excess, powder clogging her pores, eye shadow making pretence of much younger looks. Good clothing, bag and matching shoes. Expensive perfume barely masking stale body odour. Dark roots just peeping into view. There was a harshness, a nervousness about her. Eyes constantly roaming, searching, eager. Her hands were never still, the rings surrounding her fingers twisted and turned this way and that. She brought her hand up to her face regularly, hiding, entreating. He savoured her plight, how easily she would be caught. He shook his head, not for this evening, although he may return at a later date, not doubting that this was a favourite haunt.

The boy had gone when he returned to the street, his place taken by three giggling girls, their almost skirts not quite matching their almost tops. Make up applied with more enthusiasm than skill, their flesh tones lost in a jumble of clashing shades and colours. Long gangling limbs embraced in cheap bangles and bracelets, shoes all bought in a sale. A vestige of some shared shopping spree no doubt. He smiled at them as he passed, evoking shrieks of delight and raucous comment on his intentions. The smile was genuine as he savoured the raw scents they spread around him. Musk, heat, and the fresh tang of just washed flesh exerting its own perfume over that of soap and deodorant. He mellowed into the chase, thoroughly enjoying the pace and selection the evening had so far offered. He tipped them a wink and moved on, relishing the sounds as he passed them by.

 

Jo found her glass of wine soothing. It had a sour taste, kept overlong in a bottle behind the bar, but the alcohol warmed her blood. It was a stupid thing to do, get so frazzled, just for another pointless office party. She studied those around her, making guesses at who they were and what they did for a living. The main performer in a tightly woven pack of young men looked over at her and winked. She smiled, dropping her head to look at her glass. When she looked up he was engaged in another tall tale, his mates well on the road to joining him in a night of excess. A small part of her was disappointed that she’d been dismissed so easily, laughing the slight off with a quick toss of her head. A gesture for a mythical companion who was at the bar buying the next round, or weaving his way back from the Gents. A clear signal for the one who’d passed her over so quickly. It didn’t make her feel better; it made her feel worse, more aware of how vulnerable she was feeling. It was stupid to take it to heart, she was alone after all. No matter the attraction, the guy who had winked would have only broken ranks to approach her if she had been surrounded by her mates. Something for them all to get their teeth into. Shares for everyone, that was the pack rule. As she drained the glass her stomach announced its immediate rebellion. She must eat, must fill the void. Collecting her jacket and bag, she rose to leave.

 

The glimpse of white caught his eyes as he scanned the packed pub from outside. Too many people was as dangerous as too few. He preferred to analyse the opportunities from the large display windows theme pubs were beginning to build into their decor. She was in her early twenties, fading tan bought from a machine. Hair an untidy mop of curls, a better perm than it looked, dried with less care than the style demanded. She’d had it trapped up all day, released it without washing, the ridges from the clasps still evident. Her hair and eyes were the same warm colour of earth. Nothing too exciting, but a nice complement to her facial skin, which was paler than the rest of her. She read the magazines, this one. Knew to keep sun away from her face, even as she allowed it domain over her body. Make up had been hastily applied, the dress showed signs of a recent hanging in a crowded wardrobe. The single ring on her right hand was no more than a cheap silver memento of a Greek package tour. There was a drowsiness around her: fatigue. Her head came up and eyes made contact with someone else in the crowd, her smile warm and inviting. The movement of dropping her head to coyly study her glass entranced him. She was both naive and aware, testing her way along the path of the evening. Her face hardened as she realised she’d been overlooked, her head shaking away the slight. Look what you’ve missed, she was saying, look what you passed up. He smiled.

 

The air was slightly clearer as she left the bar, although it was still too warm, too old. As if it had been used too much that day, been dragged in and out of many sets of lungs. The greying light was losing its unequal battle with the electric lights all around, the street leached of its colour. It left a chill on her, made her feel transient, transparent. She really had to get some food. She perused a series of windows, ostensibly checking prices, really having a good look inside to see who was sitting down, what sort of feel the place had. Too many places were packed, overflowing with good cheer and heated bodies. Almost in desperation she headed for the Steak House on the other side of the Square. It was a tourist place, overpriced and stuffy. It would not be cool to have admitted eating there from choice but the green velvet booths would give her some space, the air conditioning respite from the now expected early summer. There was a small queue, which she didn’t mind. Other places had far larger queues and she quite enjoyed the wait, watching the life and colour return to the Square as natural light retreated and the neon took over. As she reached the head of the queue the maitre’d raised his head and smiled to the right of her.

“For two, sir?”

Startled, she turned to find a man standing slightly to one side. His face registered his own confusion at the question. Flustered, he looked first to Joanne, then back to the maitre’d.

“The lady is not with me.” He caught her gaze again and smiled at her. “Unfortunately.”

She grinned back at him in thanks for the compliment. He raised his arm, to allow her full access to the head of the queue and the now impatient staff.

“A single, madam?”

The voice betrayed his feelings on one of his precious tables being given over to a single occupant on a Friday night. She nodded. He looked past her again, to the gentleman whom he’d mistaken for her companion.

“And you, sir, a single also?”

The second nod of the head sent him in a scurry of disdain as he searched through the room for evidence of two small tables about to come free.

“It may be some time… unless…?”

The maitre’d allowed the word to hang in the air, hoping the two dim and sad people cast upon his restaurant on a busy evening would come to their senses. Joanne started to fidget, unprepared to deal with such complications. The man stepped into the breach, silencing the sighs of exasperation that were beginning to make their way up the ever lengthening queue. He stood forward, side by side with her, acting as if both the maitre’d and the queue had disappeared.

“I would be honoured if you would join me for dinner.”

His smile won her, the touch of self-deprecation in his humour, the secret he was sharing with her that anything was worth getting out from under the eyes of the officious man whose evening they were disrupting. Even so, she hesitated.

“I promise I will not bite,” he whispered to her, as she looked around for good reason to turn him down, “not unless you ask me to.”

The humour in his voice reached her again. She looked at the crowding room, the maitre’d, the queue. She was hardly at risk. Smiling what she hoped was gracious acceptance, she allowed them to be seated together. Where was the harm?

She soon came to see that harm might have been preferable to the uncomfortable feeling of embarrassment that settled between them as they sat opposite each other. The sensible solution that appeared so practical in front of the maitre’d soon gave way to confused silence. They each studied their menus in mock concentration. Joanne was aware that the man was probably more embarrassed than she, wishing he had not been so gallant. She racked her brains, trying to think of something witty and interesting to say.

“You live in London?”

God, what a trite thing to say! She swallowed hard, sweat breaking out on her palms.

“Yes, yes I do. And you?”

He had smiled in relief at her, obviously pleased she had opened up the communication. She felt a little better.

“Yes, oh yes.” she nodded too enthusiastically. “For a few years now.”

She trailed off, out of even trite things to say in response. He smiled at her again, reassuringly. He had nice eyes she mused, a light brown, not dissimilar to her own.

“Uhm, pardon?”

She realised he had spoken to her and she had missed it.

“Drink. Would you like a drink?”

With a start she realised that the waiter was standing next to her, order book in hand. He was looking at her with the disdainful sufferance of one dealing with the doltish. Had he spoken?

“The lady would like a glass of white wine. No, bring a bottle, let me see…” He rifled through the wine list.

She was relieved he had spoken up, taken charge; it was nice to be taken care of for a change. The waiter wrote the order down with a sigh and hurried off.

“I hope you do not mind my presumption?”

He was looking at her again with those eyes, those beautiful dark brown eyes. She smiled back, shaking her head.

“No, no, not at all. I must… I must be more tired than I thought.”

She fumbled to unfurl her napkin to cover her confusion. Had they ordered yet?

 

Oh, it was going to be a fine night. He studied her with pleased indulgence. His original assessment of exhaustion had been wonderfully proven by how easy she had been to enthrall. After he had ordered the food, enjoying the opportunity of filling her up with all the enticing scents and aromas of alcohol, she had prattled away, filling up the table with her chatter and youth. She was a delight. Half little fox, working away cannily at her job, sorry, her career, half a total innocent, lost in the big wide world. Her loneliness intrigued him, made a joy of her catching. She was so utterly childlike, unable to guess that she could have had many of those around her if she had only played a better game at being chased, and caught. He even liked her voice, which was soft and rhythmical, a legacy no doubt of the voice lessons she had taken to rid her of her working class tones. It was going to be a fine night, a slow and even one. As she finished her dessert he asked for the bill.

“Oh no, of course not, I’d be delighted.” she stared into his eyes as he paid. “Just don’t expect me to be able to dance much.”

She laughed, entranced by the darkness in those eyes. It was so flattering, after all, for him to keep looking at her in that way. As they rose, collecting their things, she wondered if she’d ever seen eyes that dark, almost completely black. Yet they glimmered so, were so very seductive. She smiled as he opened the door to her, sweeping her out into the street, oblivious to the blast of heat that enveloped them.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

She was aware of a vague feeling of disquiet as they walked across the Square. She wasn’t quite sure where she was going, what time it was. Fumbling, she looked at her watch, to be met in turn with his smile and those eyes. She forgot why she had wanted to know the time, returning his smile and wondering if she was boring him with her chit chat. He seemed so relaxed in her company and she responded to his confidence. He hailed a taxi and she found herself staring at the West End as it passed. She felt warm, rested, secure. He smiled and nodded at her, patting her hand, caressing her shoulder. It was all so very wonderful, so very exciting. To find such a companion by sheer accident, to have such a relaxing evening in the face of the earlier disappointment. She studied the lights as they passed, wondering if perhaps she’d had a bit too much to drink. There was something niggling at the back of her mind, something uncomfortable. She tried to put it away from her as the cab stopped, she didn’t want to lose him for lack of giving him her attention.

They were in the sudden quiet of a back street. She smiled as he opened the cab door, inviting her out with a dignified flourish. He was so romantic. She thrilled inside, a secret smile of pleasure at the thought. In the shadow of tall buildings the air was cooler, cleaner. As he paid the taxi driver and his face bent away from hers, she felt her mind once more straying. There was something she was worried about, what was it? It was lost as he smiled again, encouraging her to walk with him. He opened a door, ushered her in. There was the faintest scent of citrus, something tangy. Small, enclosed, yet neither intimate nor comfortable. Where was she? It was a lift, moving silently up. She giggled as she watched the lights on the panel flicker. Oh dear, she had better not have any more to drink. She didn’t want to appear sozzled, leave a bad impression. The disquiet returned as she stood outside a heavy wooden door, her companion pressing buttons on a glittering steel panel. Something about what he was doing made her realise how expensive the door was. Expensive doors were heavy, solid: immovable. That door was expensive.

She turned, to look back for the lift, see if she could work out where she was. His hand reached down and touched her chin, pulled it gently towards him. He kissed her then, for the first time, and the ground swayed under her feet. Oh yes, this was it, this was it! He was the one, the one she had been waiting for, longing for. She smiled, leaned into him, felt his clothing against her. Smooth, sensual. The door opened and she was walking inwards, his hand gently covering the small of her back. She could feel his coolness through her dress, excitement flooding her. She took a step forward, hesitated, stopped. Something was wrong, something was very wrong. It was dark where they were heading. She turned, to move back, but his hand was on her shoulder, cool and demanding, what was it she wanted to say? She opened her mouth to speak, and he was there again, kissing her, swallowing her up. There really wasn’t anything wrong; it was all rather exciting. She was as light as a feather, dancing, being carried through the air by his charm. Pale colours flowed around her, lights moving as they walked. The stars above her head were swirling, dancing with them as they moved. Dark green splashes of colour whizzed by. Her head lolled back, losing contact with his body. He tipped her forward again, and she snuggled onto his shoulder. This was so very fine, so very very fine.

The feel of the bed coming up from under her sent the warnings ringing out again. That was what was wrong, had been wrong since the restaurant; those damn bells. When were they going to stop that damned clanging? She tried to sit up. A mouth fastened over hers, drew out her breath, pulled at her, tugged something from her. What was she doing? All she could focus on was the cool mouth that was draining her of warmth. No, that wasn’t right, she was enjoying this. His mouth on hers, drawing, sucking. Imagined so many times before, she knew it was to have been warm, comforting. Not cool. But this mouth was cool, almost cold. Her surprise at that thought almost surfaced, but at the same time a hand started a soft, circular caress on her right breast. Joanne found her senses slipping into the heat and drive of the man floating somewhere above her. There was that cool mouth again, his salty taste, his hands, rough but welcomed, so very welcomed. His mouth lifted away from her, leaving her empty. Disappointment shook her body, she moved to follow after him. A tongue rested lightly on her neck, teasing, a hand moving over her stomach, rubbing downwards, pushing her back on the bed. Her trembling intensified. She had never imagined it could be like this. Back car fumblings and quick passions in parents’ beds, hurried to make sure they weren’t caught, had never been like this. This was what she’d waited for, dreamed for. This is what she’d known was in her path, one day. No silly stationary cupboard humping for her: no office tensions had yet caused her to drop her standards. Her body caught fire, the sharp, contracting pain in her groin catching her by surprise. The pain was intense, as she curled around the thought of loving him, being breached by him. She groaned and arched her back, truly slipping beyond her own awareness. There was only that tight, cutting pain, the burning in her breasts, the need for more. Her legs opened.

Although it had been a long time since Dreyfuss had loved physically with a woman, he had not forgotten the art of seduction. On whimsy, he excited the young woman beneath him, pulling out from her responses she had not known were hidden within her. He could feel her awareness, her excitement; it was this that served to pleasure him. He stroked and petted her, kissed and caressed, ‘til the fire that was upon her, was upon him. Her complete physical acceptance touched him, was pleasing to him. She was an open book, and he could read her language with ease. There was a vulnerability that teased at him, made him feel protective and paternalistic. He had wanted to play, and in her trust found a game of innocence and beguilement. An odd taste for the evening, but the palate responded well to change. He waited until she was almost sated, when the scent of her salt and musk flooded him: then he moved. Centring his mouth along the vein which coiled around the base of the neck, he kissed her hard, sucking, biting, bringing her blood up to meet him. The sharp piercing pain as he opened her was lost in her climax, in the sudden hot flush to his mouth. Salt and heat as he filled himself. The first rush of pleasure over, he drew slowly; swallowing: savouring. All ceased to exist apart from his mouth, its convulsions, the endless stream that he drew up into himself. Her blood was incredibly rich, loaded with the earlier meal. The alcohol he had pushed upon her coming back up to meet him, warming him. Soon, all that she was would be his, and it would be a fine moment for them both. She would die in ecstasy, a rare gift in this world, and he would live by her sacrifice, satisfied with what she had offered. He fell into her blood and drank.

Fire exploded all through her. There was nothing but heat and flame and the enveloping waves that pulsed from her groin. Everything was washed ahead in the wave of pleasure, so intense it was akin to pain, ripping through her. She felt herself cry out, her spine convulsing, her legs jerking, her throat tightening. There was nothing; nothing but the long, slow flow of blood pulsing through her. She throbbed in its wake, the heat subsiding. She longed for rest, for safety. Everything in her wished to relax and give herself up to that binding, to the warmth that filled her. To fall into the sleep offered her. That sated, resting sleep. To heal herself upon its joy. She sought the sleep, sought the rest. Reaching out with her mind, she tried desperately to pull it down with her, bring it with her into her dreams.

She shivered. Shivered again. Somewhere, somehow, she was cold. She could feel the cold. It fell upon her, swallowing her. Swallowing her heat, eating her dreams. She fought the cold, tried to move back to that feeling, that feeling of belonging and completion. It slipped away from her. She moaned, muttered, moved, protested. She wanted the feeling back, and she was not going to go until it came with her.

 

Movement jolted him, impinging upon the scent in his nostrils. Under him, the body had tensed, was trying to throw him off. How amusing; that had been the least expected of reactions. Remedy was swift and effective. He felt a surge of power as he further opened the wound, her essence flooding him, sending him flying into the night, soaring through the darkness. He could hear her heart falter as pressure dropped, veins beginning to slurry. There, teasing in the back of his mind, he could sense her death, waiting for him to finish his pleasure. He pulled her closer, eagerly awaiting her final gift. Then, from nowhere, as the life’s flow was at its sweetest, he was without blood: without source. His vision cleared and the dreaming fell from him. He blinked, bringing the room back into focus. She was standing there, pale, beside the bed. Blood flowed freely from the gash that the leaving of him had torn across her neck. She was shaking, not from fear, from fury.

 

Her eyes blazed at him: how dare he, how dare he!

 

Dreyfuss sat up and stared at the being who had defied him when he was in full feed. He looked at the girl, her life flowing from her neck, oozing onto the floor. She was a pale and empty little thing, not even fully aware of her own needs. He smiled into her shaking eyes, lifted his hand to her, inviting their reunion. She took a step back, so fast she almost stumbled and fell. It was his turn to stare, to wonder. It was slow to build, lost as he had been in the feeding, but anger at her defiance entered the game. He shook his hand again, repeating the invitation, a warning about refusal openly given.

She stared at him, horror growing in her eyes: she was breaking the thrall. His eyes narrowed in annoyance. Open panic filled her features, she turned to flee.

His hand snaked out instinctively, grabbing her by the hair, yanking her back to the bed, back to his embrace. She whirled round and slapped him across the face. The tide of his own anger lit out from him, fast and bright. Releasing her hair he pulled back his arm, the blow sending her away, to land heavily against the wall. She crumpled and lay still. To defy him, at the moment of their shared ecstasy? To raise a hand to him? She would die in pain for reward.

Catching her up, he fastened again on her throat, intent on sucking her dry. His hands held her fast, fingers dug deeply into flesh too spent to bruise. The torn throat gave him easy purchase and he set to devour all she had, all she had ever been. Even then, almost dead, wrung like a cloth, she groaned, moving against him. He felt the bitterness of her rebellion on his tongue. He pulled back, spoiled for her. He reached for her neck, a quick snap and she would be gone forever. His hands enclosed her, seeking to find the right spot, where vertebrae would be easiest pushed apart from vertebrae. Still she protested, fought his actions. Her hand had risen to weakly push him off, fight him away. He grasped it and pulled it away, back under her own body. What strength was left in her was used to arch her back, giving off her message: fight, no matter how trapped you are; fight. He smiled and leaned down to kiss her. Somewhere, in the haze of her dying, she noticed him, and whispered up to him.

“Fuck you.”

The words barely made it out of her mouth such was her weakness. My, he thought, such language from an innocent! He let her loose, grinning at her stubbornness. Some things were eternal, after all. Spirit such as this was rarely found, never mind uncovered so surprisingly. A part of him was pleased to have found a little savage in a cheap white dress. Without much thought for it he picked her up and tossed her back on the bed, the action more to do with an innate sense of tidiness than anything else. In the roots of his mouth an ache was building. He had been roused by her, his instincts kindled. Nothing would substitute for a full life, not now. The thirst was upon him, and he would quench it. He changed quickly, abandoning her gore for cleaner clothing. She would probably bleed to death before he returned.

 

The catching was easy, there were many who walked the streets in search of love, or death. When he raised his head he realised that her anger was still upon him. There was no throat left to the boy who had courted him, thinking only to find food for the night. Well food was what had been found, if not to his precise liking. He dropped the empty flesh onto the rails of Earl’s Court tube station. Another suicide, or fumbling mishap. London was used to that.

He returned home on foot, enjoying the night air and sense of freedom. The scents from the park beguiled him as he slipped past the shadow of the Albert Hall, disappearing out of the streets as effortlessly as he had emerged. After washing he retired, falling into a deep and dreamless sleep. When he rose in the middle afternoon he felt surprisingly rested. Light and alert. Active. As the coffee percolated, he went to check on his guest. To his surprise, she was still alive. The bruising on her jaw was minimal as there had been little blood within her to damage. She and the bed were splattered with dark brown splodges of dead blood; a shocking waste. What to do with her? Strangely, he had no instinct on the matter. Dreyfuss was mostly instinct. To survive as he survived, he had to be. He mused upon his own lack of immediate direction: a Dreyfuss without purpose was a strange and curious thing. He returned to his own bedroom and studied the matter.

As he showered, it occurred to him that the decision may be taken out of his hands. Returning to her room, which was a curious way for his mind to put it given how many had occupied it before her, he checked her pulse and blood pressure. A choice had to be made. To let her die, and end the matter, or allow her life? That was a nonsense, for she was meat as he looked at her. Dead was dead. The issue was when, not if. But something about that stubbornness had surprised him. Surprise in a life such as his was precious: unexpected bounty. Perhaps he’d kill her tomorrow? Regardless, she would die when he said so, not before.

He made a quick phone call. An hour later a courier delivered ten units of basic saline, plasma and sterile equipment. He set a drip, inserting the valve into the back of her hand quickly and cleanly. He refrained from polluting her with any drugs: if she’d been going to go under it would have happened before now. Wary of leaving her unconscious with a needle in her arm, he phoned his apologies through to the golf club; someone else would have to deliver the after dinner speech. Thinking that through, he contacted his second in command: things would have to run without him for a few days. He’d attend to any urgent mail that came into his study but apart from that, he was not to be disturbed. Well used to this, Gerald signed off in eager anticipation of a week in which he could call the shots.

Filling a bowl with tepid water and antiseptic, Dreyfuss attended to her neck. With all the gunge off, the tear was less than he had thought. Pressing the ragged edges together long enough to stop the fresh weeping, he carefully applied four paper stitches, sealing the mess with his own blood. Then he cut her dress and knickers off, sponging her down with cool water, remaking the bed around her. Rechecking her pulse and respiration he adjusted the flow of the drip and switched the light off as he went. He made a light snack of steak and eggs, settling down to watch a movie in peace.

 

Her dry coughing woke him from the rather pleasant slumber that he had slipped into. He had been dreaming of Eléan; which was unusual, for he had not dreamt of her in years. In the dream, she was calling to him, with that wicked half grin on her sly face. The call in the dream became the cough of his guest: he roused himself. She was half conscious, drifting in the way of those lost in the fight to waken. He gave her a few sips of water, checking her vital signs. She was fine, more or less, and he took out the drip. He needed to sleep, and she would be in the way, so he filled her veins with sedative. He went to bed and dreamed another dream of Eléan.

Looking in on her the next morning he was satisfied to see she had responded well to the enforced slumber. Her fatigued body was slowly recovering from the added stress of their encounter. Her mind wasn’t happy with the arrangement, her twisting and turning had pulled the sheet out from under her, but her skin tone was improved greatly. He shot her through once more with enough sedative to keep her under for a few more hours. His body ached from lack of activity and he felt in need of more work out than could be achieved on his home equipment. It wouldn’t do to have her up and around, screaming and pathetic when he returned from the gym. Without thought of it, his hands drifted over her body in more than a clinical assessment of injury. He hesitated over her breasts, slowly dragging his fingers over her left nipple. It sprung to life, reacting to his touch. He smiled, that sense of complete possession as sweet as ever. For whimsy, he brought the other to attention by the merest of touch of his breath. Sensing his invasion, she pulled away, a frightened moan escaping her lips. His smile deepened as he reached once more for the sedative. He pushed her so far under he heard her heart slow, her breathing hesitate, before settling into shallow swoops. He pinched her hard, on the fold under her arm: nothing. Lifting a lid he touched her eye: nothing. The smile that slipped from his lips as his hands travelled down to her groin was nothing short of a gloat: it was always so easy. The pleasure in digging his fingers deep inside her was not the pleasure of invasion, for that was a pleasure that palled all too quickly. It was the complete absence of awareness in her slack face, the total surrender of her limbs that enthralled him. She had no clue as to what was happening to her. He dug around, pushing the dry warm flesh this way and that, until it filled with moistness and expanded. He stabbed his rigid fingers into her cervix: nothing. All that was in her world, now, was his will. Even when she was unconscious, all she was, was his. Satisfied, he cleaned his fingers on the bedding and left.

He enjoyed the walk through the back streets to the gym he favoured for swimming. Most of the weights and running equipment was too light-weight, but the pool was almost perfect. He mulled the situation over as he pushed himself endlessly through the water, length after length ripped in two and left behind him. Which was the more sustained pleasure, the subtle yet silent power of the invisible, or the more immediate involvement of fear and struggle? It was an eternal question, one that he never truly managed to answer. For as he indulged in one, the other would entice his mind, beguiling him with the promise of more: a longer lasting satisfaction, a sharper and sweeter joy. It was a dilemma that shaped much of his life, that pushed and pulled at many layers of his living. Even now, as he changed back to the butterfly, it teased at him, took his mind off the rhythm of his stroke. For strength, he preferred to work out at home, where prying eyes could not react to the dead weights he could so easily conquer. He could pile the pressure onto his body, fighting his own limitations, testing out his mind’s strength in complete secrecy: no awareness of watchful humans to slow his responses and advise caution. Stamina however was always a public sport. No pleasure there unless observed, no triumph unless the bested stood in front of him, wheezing and shaking in their defeat. Five of the gym’s finest had slowly watched as he turned again and again, each length timed exactly to match the previous. In stamina he was only slightly more than they, each turn meting out as much punishment on him as it did them: yet he never lost. Three had taken his silent challenge today, and two were spent and useless, fighting for breath at the pool’s edge. He gloried in their weakness, their lack. The one still struggling on and on with him, ploughing a now straggly furrow in his wake, was going to drop out soon: the switch to butterfly had seen to that.

He smiled as he tucked under once more, kicking softly against the edge, unwilling to allow his strength to gain him advantage. The victory would be his fairly; there was the joy. The only pain was that it would soon be time to move on, find new territory. Few accepted the silent challenge anymore, too much defeat etched in their faces. A new club with a well sheltered pool would have to be found. New meat to be taunted with his pale and slender body. New muscle bound fools to pitch against him, to be fired up by his feet kicking dust in their eyes as he passed. He mused on the pleasures in his life as he dried, aware that today’s prize had been bought for him by his sleeping playmate. The joys had once more begun to drain out of his life, slowly, almost unnoticed. The taste of her defeat had awakened him, brought life back to a jaded palate. A few days off work to play, to sport: that was just what he needed. What a gift he would give her, letting her final days serve his greater needs.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

The first thing she was truly aware of was a cramp, low in her back. She wasn’t sure exactly when she became aware of it, how long she’d been listening to her body groan, but slowly, carefully, the awareness that this was real, her back was hurting, she was asleep, or had been, settled in her mind. It was dark, too dark; that wasn’t helping. Where was it, that it was this dark? Not her own bedroom for sure. Not her lumpy bed and rickety windowsill, traffic noises seeping through with the streetlights. The bed beneath her was straight, even with her weight on it. The dark around her, absolute. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on waking up. Her mouth was dry and filthy, caked with gunge. As she struggled to push her body awake, to sit up, make sense of the confusion, she flitted her tongue round and round, desperately seeking moisture. The pain from her back was sharp and fresh as she pulled forward, making her wince. What on earth had happened that her back hurt so? The question sat in her mind, trying to make some sense to her. She fumbled around, feeling the soft bed that surrounded her. How big could a bed be? She leaned to the side, reaching for an unseen edge, trying to find an end to this smothering softness. Her head spun, dizziness almost overwhelming her. A nausea rose within her, she gagged. She wasn’t going to throw up, she wasn’t going to throw up. She certainly wasn’t going to throw up until she had worked out where she was. She dropped back on the bed, closing her eyes. She’d moved too fast, the dizziness got worse not better. She groaned, which turned out to be a worse move than flopping back on the bed. Her throat felt awful, like she’d swallowed crushed glass. Hot and dry and raw all at the same time. As she lay there, trying to control her panic, her breathing, her dry mouth, her head began a wicked beating. Thrum, thrum, thrum. If this was a hangover, she didn’t want to think about what she’d been drinking. Her back had eased slightly on lying back, but when she tried to move upwards, it screamed protest once more. Fear started to edge out panic: what had she been doing that had hurt her back? Whatever the answer was, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know about it, not yet.

Gritting her teeth she forced herself to sit up, sitting straight up on the bed. The wave of nausea hit again, as did the dizziness. She rode it out, clutching a sheet to her face, concentrating on not throwing up, not passing out and not going back down into the bed. The thrumming threatened to split her head open, but she kept on in there. The feeling of sickness passed, as did the dizziness. Her back stayed raw and sharp, but got no worse. As the thrumming finally started to ease off, she became aware of a harsh rasping breath in the room beside her: laboured, dangerous. She almost screamed, clamping her hand over her own mouth, the noise stopped. Fear froze down her spine, blocking out all thoughts of her back, her pain, her headache. She clutched herself tightly, knees automatically raised to tuck under her chin. The rasping breath started again. She scrunched her eyes tight shut, tears squeezing out of the edges, and once more clamped her hand over her mouth, anything to make herself disappear. The noise stopped again. She held her breath, better to hear the darkness: nothing. The moment stretched and broke. She let the trapped air in her lungs out, the movement forcing more pain from her throat, her back, her head. The rasping started again. A whimper fled from her throat and was out into the darkness before she could help it. She again held her breath, this time her hands flying up to cover her head, her chin tucking down, seeking protection from her knees. The rasping stopped. As she lay there, tight and curled, awaiting whatever monster was in the room with her, she thought this through. An idea occurred to her. Lifting her head, she gasped in some air, once more releasing the bottled up feeling in her lungs. The rasping started once more. She held her breath. The rasping stopped. She breathed out. The rasping started up again. Relief flooded through her, limbs turning liquid; she crumpled once more back onto the bed. It was her! The noise she’d heard, that awful rasping breath, it was her own. The darkness, the silence in the room, it had fooled her.

She giggled, a strange and monstrous sound on its own, forced as it was through her aching throat, but she didn’t care. The fear that had frozen her bones melted, leaving them molten and warm in its wake. She was drained, shaking a little, almost shivering with the relief. A laugh escaped her lips, god, she was a goose. What a stupid cow, to get herself into such a fright from listening to her own breathing. She flung her hands back, pulling air deeply into her lungs, listening to the sound of it all around her. Her back once more announced itself and she stretched, trying to persuade the aching to retreat, she was okay, it was just cramp from sleeping wrong. Her back wasn’t convinced, but she kept it up, tightening and then flexing her spine, her legs, her arms. Her head hated it, the thrumming increasing, but she wasn’t going to let herself get back into the state she’d just left. As she stretched her right hand and arm out, moving her shoulder this way, then that, her hand connected with something solid. She leaned back, tracing the line her hand found: the headboard. Great, with a little bit of luck, she’d find out where she was. Following the line of the padded board, she inched around to the edge of the bed. It seemed to be miles away, but she got there. Left hand still touching the headboard, right hand on the edge of the mattress. She lifted her right hand and gingerly stretched it out, into nothingness, fingers splayed, seeking. There was a bump, and she nearly screamed again, but she’d found what she was looking for. Her arm had connected with something soft, yet solid, movable. A lamp shade. Shifting over a little, both hands examined the shade, which was your normal round sorta-pyramid shape. The noise of her moving the cover blotted out her breathing. She found the wooden stem it sat on, and her fingers explored, seeking. There, under the bulb, where it should be, there was the switch. It was stiff, and she had to really push to get it on, something she should have thought through a little more, for as light suddenly flooded the room, she screamed and once more fell back onto the bed. Her eyes, shit her eyes. She threw her arms over them, to protect them from the light, but it was too late. Brightness danced in front of her, stabbing the backs of her eyes, hurting more than the headache. She dug her hands into them, rubbing hard, as if she could rub both pain and after images away. Shit, why hadn’t she thought of that? She lay there, convinced she should feel the light through her skin, trying to get her breath back and her eyes back into their sockets. She turned over, ignoring the agony this caused her back and buried her face in a pillow. The stabbing lights slowly calmed down, although even with her eyelids closed tight, buried in the pillow, she could see ghostly images as she moved her head.

Anger began to chase out her panic. Anger at her own stupidity and whoever had gotten her here, to make such a fool of herself. She turned and sat up, once more ignoring both back and head, and shifted back ‘til she was leaning on the head board, her hands protecting her eyes. She forced herself to calm down, to unwrinkle her eyes. Light was leaking through both her fingers, and her lids, turning everything red. The ghost of the lamp still danced in front of her. She held this pose for what seemed like forever, forcing her pupils to adjust, to get used to the partial light getting through to them. Gradually, she dropped her hands ‘til only her lids protected her. She blinked, opening her eyes and closing them again, testing their responses. She turned her face away from the main source, away from the light, so she could look into the shadows on the left hand side of the bed. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was bearable. She forced them to open, to adjust. Blinking away tears, she turned her head slowly, making it come into contact with more of the lamp, so she could see where she was. The scream that bounced around the walls pierced her, made her jump, made her throat contract with the pain and fear of it. She didn’t recognise it as her own such was the shock.

 

Just by the lamp, there was a man sitting in a chair, looking straight at her.

He allowed himself a small smile then pulled his face back into emptiness. Would not do to give her too much to work with, would it?

The scream just kept echoing, on and on; she pulled back, scuttling as far away from him as she could. She stopped only when she knocked into the lamp on the other side of the bed, the crash as it flew back adding to her panic. Wedged in the corner, her body pushed as far as it could into the soft headboard on one side, the hard edge of a bedside table digging into her back. The scream just kept on going, filling the room, filling her. He stared at her, not moving, doing nothing but look. The voice stood between them, a solid, viscous barrier, carrying her shock and fear, but it couldn’t hold up. The already bruised and swollen muscles in her throat gave out, the screams became less powerful, more broken, more hoarse. When they shattered into a wretched moaning, she realised they were hers, that she had been the one screaming, and that it wasn’t achieving anything. She slowly wound down, a fractured organ running out of air. Silence crashed around them, her ears ringing with the force of it. Still, he did nothing but sit and look.

The initial shock was leaving, terror settling in its place. The silence between them became charged with it, alive with it. The pains all around her, her throat, her head, her back, became nothing in that awful stillness, as she watched him and he, her. His gaze upon her was terrible, frightening beyond words. She was caught between fear of not looking at him, in case he moved, and fear of being seen by him. In tiny, desperate movements, her eyes began to flit away from him, to and fro, attempting to build a picture, make sense of where she was. Behind him, in the shadows, there was the outline of a door. The bed she was on was massive, huge. He was easily six feet away from her, six feet of bed between them, then a few inches of space from the bed to the chair. The light from the lamp was actually quite low; there was no sense of colour in the room. There was only dark and light, although she was sure the sheets were white. She clutched them to her, they were soft, luxurious. The touch of them was comforting, reassuring. The reassurance fled as she thought on this, on the feel of it. For the first time her eyes dropped to look at herself, her own state. She was naked. She was totally naked and her right breast wasn’t covered by the sheet. With a yelp, she cowered down more, making herself smaller, pulling the sheet up to her chin. Her hair swung into her eyes, plastering itself to her face. She pushed her right hand up from under the sheet, pulling her hair back. It was soaking, soaked through. Her hair was sodden. She looked at the hand that had touched it, it was wet, but clear. Water, not blood. She had suddenly been afraid that she was covered in blood. It was sweat, she was covered in her own sweat. Around her, the sheet was staining where it touched skin. All at once she could smell it – the stench of her own body. Sweat and fear, that’s what she smelt of: sweat and fear.

Joanne Maitland hadn’t known that it was possible to smell of fear.

The thought almost broke her, almost made her close her eyes and slip under the white sheet, not caring what happened as long as she couldn’t see him, didn’t have to admit what was happening. It was all so wrong, so very wrong. It was a nightmare, and something was trying to tell her that if she just closed her eyes and slipped under the sheet, all would be well. All she had to do was close her eyes and go back to sleep, then she’d wake, and the nightmare would be over. She ignored the voice, the tiny whispering in the back of her mind. The whispering could shut the fuck up, for nothing, nothing was going to get her to close her eyes with that man looking at her.

He watched the tiny spark in her eye, the glowing heat. He was entranced, delighted. Anger, such a very quick show of anger. This was turning out to be a much better evening’s entertainment than he had hoped for. Anger at this stage boded very well, very well indeed.

Having decided she wasn’t going to close her eyes, wasn’t going to run away, she returned to checking out her surroundings. Her looks away from him gradually became more bold, sustained. A picture was starting to build. Over in the corner, by the door, ran some sort of unit. Dressing table perhaps, with a single shelf that ran the end of the room. Her vision ended where a second lot of drawers began. Carefully, she turned her head slightly, taking in the line as it grew to become a set of wardrobe doors. It was harder for her to sense their exact size and shape as she had to keep flitting her eyes back to check on Him. She couldn’t follow the line all the way through, the angle was wrong. She returned to looking at what she could see, her captor, for that was undoubtedly what he was. Still he sat, still he stared. As if he was made of wax. She dragged her eyes off him, it was terrifying to keep him in her gaze. She stared again at the doorway behind him. The door. He was between her and it. Her and the door. The little voice whispered again. No way, no friggin’ way. She wasn’t going to go any closer to him, not even an inch, never mind run right past him. Her eyes moved off the door, she didn’t even like to look at it, not while that traitorous thought was in her mind. She flicked back to Him: no change. She flicked away, once more examining the wall opposite the bed. On the wall, above the shelf of what might be a vanity unit, there was a drawing, a large one. She couldn’t see what it was, it was too dark, murky. But she could see something, could see the glass which protected it. How hadn’t she noticed it before? It reflected the room back at her. Dimly in places, but clear enough to her now adjusted eyes. In one corner, there was the lamp, his reflection. Then, a straggle of hair framed by a ghostly image of the headboard; herself. Next, in the nearest corner of the picture, showing part of the room she could not see, there was a dark rectangle. A tall dark rectangle that swallowed light utterly. Her eyes flicked between it, and Him. It and Him. The voice was back but this time she was listening. This time it was making sense. Sure, she didn’t know where it led. Sure, it was a slim chance, but it was a chance. She looked back to him, checking. He hadn’t moved, hadn’t changed. She looked one final time at the reflection, sizing it up. The open doorway was on the same wall as she was, just a little over from the bed. Had to be, or it wouldn’t be in the reflection. Seconds, that was all it would take, seconds. She decided.

“No.”

The sound of his voice went off beside her like a bomb. He hadn’t shouted, hadn’t spoken at more than a whisper, but it ruptured her illusion of safety, of the possibility of escape. She stared at him.

“Do not leave the bed.”

She saw the lips move, heard the words, but still he was so completely empty, so completely dead. For a moment she doubted herself, doubted he had spoken. What if it was her? What if she was making him up, had imagined his presence, never mind his voice? The thought scalded her, stole away what little composure she had. Without thought of it, she was up and off, heading for the doorway. Away, away, that was all she could think of. Away.

She tripped on the sheet that was wrapped round her, fell heavily onto the cool floor, found almost no purchase in it. A scrabble, a frantic scrabble, as she desperately tried to make the doorway just ahead of her. She kicked the sheet away, bare feet slipping and sliding on the surface of the bedroom. The darkness was really just ahead of her, the doorway was there, just there. With a push, she was over the threshold, scrabbling round on all fours, scooting through. The darkness was complete, she could see nothing once more, feel only the cold slickness underneath her. She tried to stand, found the door to her right, found the door handle. On her knees she rose and slammed the door shut, shutting out the light, shutting out Him. The silence crashed around her again, the darkness. The sound of rasping laboured breath. She put her thoughts away from her, to one side, and concentrated on the door. A door handle, maybe there was a lock, a key? In the dark she searched, her hands sodden with sweat once more. Nothing, she found nothing. Substituting her body for a lock, she turned around, slamming her back against the door, grimacing at the pain it caused. Sliding down, ignoring more pain, she landed on her bum and pushed. All she was she put into pushing against that door, feet barely gaining hold on the cold floor. She’d gone from a sheet between them, to a solid wooden door: she wasn’t giving it up. As she pushed, feet endlessly slipping on the floor, a thought did occur to her. It was the little voice again, the tiny echo somewhere in the back of her mind, the one that kept making suggestions, good, bad, fucking dangerous. You’re not being chased, it said. Nothing has come after you. She listened to it despite herself. All she wanted to do was concentrate on that wonderful solid door, and relish that she couldn’t see Him. No, that he couldn’t see her! She was this side, he was the other: it was going to stay that way. But the voice still niggled, still murmured, still sought to betray her jubilation. There was no one following her. There was no weight being pushed against the door. Nothing. It sank in, slowly, as the darkness around her did. She’d made the door because she hadn’t been chased: no one was after her. This thought slithered in as she continued to press against the door, continued to fight and slip and slide and desperately scrabble for support, something to hold onto to help her block Him out. No one was after her. It was just her, and the dark, and her rasping, echoing breath, and not knowing where the hell she was. Again.

It didn’t take long for tears to start. The feeling of complete helplessness, of humiliation. The dark around her once more became a physical thing that pressed down on her, swallowed her. She fancied she could taste it as it entered her mouth, beat against her eyes. She screamed, to force the dark away from her, to scare it out of her mouth, away from her eyes. The scream echoed, empty, hollow, fading. The sweat had started to pour from her again, rancid, slick; coating everything she touched. It became harder to stay against the door, to keep her folded legs under her. The more she tried, the more she slid around, the less hold she had. In a desperate movement to retain her position, she tried to stand a little, wedge her body harder into the cool frame. Her feet slid away and she fell, banging her head against the door. It didn’t hurt that much, but the unexpected motion of meeting something so hard and unyielding, of slipping again and again, of getting nowhere: it all took its toll. Before she could stop herself, before the voice could tell her this wasn’t a smart idea, she gave up. Lying on the floor, trying to ignore the wet sucking sounds of her own body, she put her hands over her face and folded herself in. She didn’t care, she couldn’t care: it was all too much. All there was were her tears, her terror and the dreadful stench of herself in the dark. She wasn’t going to play anymore, she was going home. The crying took her over, her head bowed so her face touched her knees, her hair plastered over her. She rocked in the sobbing darkness.

He sat, waiting, listening. He made a bet with himself: an hour, no longer.

She discovered going away was problematic. She didn’t know how long she had been rocking, how long she had been crying, but slowly, and as surely as when she had woken up, awareness started to reaffirm, force her to take notice of herself. Once more it started with her back. What had been a deep aching cramp was now a burning pain, spread up and around from the base of her spine. Her shoulders were bruised and aching too, adding their own tones to her back pain. Rocking, it had to be admitted, might have been comforting in some strange way, but it also hurt. The floor beneath her was no longer cold, but it was hard, hard and raw and pressing into her hip bone. Her head was filled with cotton wool, hard, impacted cotton wool that weighed her down and made her feel sick. Her face was just as sore, raw and open from the tears that stung their way endlessly over her skin. A gob of snot trailed from her nose down her cheek, sliding off into her hair. It was no good; as soon as she noticed one thing about her body another brought itself to her attention. She wiped her nose. Her hands ached, as did her wrists. Her knees felt raw and bruised, the soles of her feet tender and sore. Her lungs hurt and her throat felt as if it had been torn out. She was finding breathing difficult, a situation not helped by her being bent double. It was no good, the voice was saying, no good at all. She was just going to have to unfold, stretch out, breathe. She didn’t want to, didn’t want to admit she was awake, conscious, feeling. But the feeling part was not open to negotiation, she was feeling entirely too much.

It hurt to move but there was a great sense of relief, satisfaction, in turning on her back and stretching out. She realised she had been feeling stuffy and over hot, as moving back her head and letting in a great gulp of air, a sense of openness and coolness caressed her mouth and face. There was also a feeling of dizziness, but it soon passed. Lying there, spread out on the floor, heat and moisture evaporating off her body, she felt better, better than she had done. She sucked in the air, grateful for the release, grateful that there was something nice about the world. The room around her fell into perfect silence as her breathing slowed, calmed, became still. She concentrated on that for a moment, bringing her world down to the tiny regular movement of air going in, air going out. Air going in, air going out. The pains faded for a moment as she felt the air coming in, going out. The voice started up again. Started to think ahead, wonder what was going to happen, was she going to stand, was she going to sit? How had she gotten there? She pushed this question aside, it wasn’t to be looked at. She didn’t know why, but just thinking about it made her stomach clench, brought an iron band around her lungs making it difficult to breathe. She searched around for another question, something easier. The voice accommodated: was she going to lie there for ever ‘til she died of hunger and thirst? What a dramatic thought, she mused. To lie here and die of hunger and thirst. The voice laughed at her, began to talk through the odds of that, given what was on the other side of the door. This thought galvanised her, made her sit up too quickly, the dizziness almost overwhelming her. The other side of the door. He was on the other side of the door. Shit!

He loved to win bets. That had made three in a row this evening. He stood, silently moving towards the door. His hand reached for the switch. Soon, very soon.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Her back was once more against the door, her legs, aching and cramped, brought round in front of her. How could she have let herself go all floppy, all silly and stupid, to lie down and cry, hoping she would die from the pain of it? How could she? The anger burned in her mouth. She was a stupid cow. She was a complete fool and no matter what she was going to get out of this. The voice approved, told her that was a good thought, she should hold on to it. It wasn’t all she needed to hold on to. Sitting up had released another sensation in her body. Her bladder was bursting. The dark was once more around her, her body once more wedged against the door, and the need to go was suddenly with her. Strong, insistent, as if she had been ignoring it for some time. Now what was she going to do?

His finger lightly stroked the switch, pulsing, sensing, judging. Stand up little bird, stand up for Daddy…

The more she thought on it, the worse it became. It soon blotted out all but the pain in her back, even her throat became less demanding than the pressure, the actual physical pain that was starting to build in her groin. It was absurd to her, totally surreal, that of all things to concern her, pinned as she was on the side of that door, she was being driven wild by the need to pee. Even the voice agreed that this was silly, stupid, ridiculous. What could they do? She and the voice thought it over. They both came to the same conclusion, the only sensible conclusion there was: she should pee. Let it out, get rid of the pain and concentrate on the door. Sitting up there, in her brain, full frontal: an idea. It wasn’t an appealing idea. Sensible yes, appealing, no. She changed her mind, arguing with the voice: it was a terrible idea? The voice, she discovered, was somewhat of a fair weather friend: it didn’t answer her back. It had gone away, gone in the now grinding pressure of holding herself in. It was no good, she was going to have to move, sitting here on the hard floor wasn’t helping. She was going to have to stand up, leave the door alone, and try and work out where she was. She dimly realised that not wetting herself, crumpled on the floor, in the dark, was more important to her than holding onto the door. She didn’t understand it, but there it was. She took a deep breath and scrambled awkwardly to her feet.

Flick.

She screamed, a small part of her aware that this was another pathetic action, but the pain once more blotted all rational thought out. Her eyes once more protested, her hands flung instinctively to protect them. She would have dropped back down, but the fear froze her, kept her stranded up there, standing, caught by the brightness that had pierced her through. Red flooded her eyes, ghost images once more dancing in front of her, keeping track as she shook her head to and fro. The crying started, a wail tearing itself free of her chest. Shit, he was there, he was there! It was no good. He was there. The smell hit her from underneath: sharp, acid, pungent. She felt a warm puddle build around her bare feet: she had wet herself.

The acrid scent flooded under the door. Urine filled to its limit with toxins. A delightful bonus in a game already filling him with glee. His hand reached for the handle.

She was stooped over, half way to the floor, half upright. Her hands were jabbed in her eyes, rubbing, trying to force them to adjust quickly. She couldn’t be here, she couldn’t be here, in the middle of nowhere, naked, wet. She just couldn’t. She couldn’t move; she knew that she needed sight, she needed some direction. She forced her hands away, forced herself to blink. She must conquer this, must take charge of her senses.

“I told you not to leave the bed.”

She startled, whirling round, trying to face where the voice was. A scream was caught fast in her throat; she would not let it out. She wasn’t going to scream again, not ever. Her feet slipped in the puddle. As she opened her eyes and tried to bring her head up, she fell back, back onto the soaking wet floor, back onto the hardness and the pain. Her shoulder hit something half way down. Hit it hard. Stars danced around in her eyes, pain blossoming out from the joint, her head snapping forward. She slid down on her side, dazed. Too dazed to scrunch up, to hide. She lay there, sprawled, wedged between something. Something hard, cold, at her back, something hard and cold in front of her. Naked, apart from a coat of her own urine and sweat. The small, distant voice came back: it wasn’t very helpful. She pushed the thoughts down with some effort. Shame was riding her, riding her harder than the fear. Her eyesight was clearing, helping her identify where she was. A toilet bowl was in front of her, a brilliant white sheen that showed the wreck of her all too clearly. Her arm was screeching, shouting that she had to move before something got mashed. She tried to sit up, found she couldn’t. It was a narrow space, she was sore and slippery. She tried again, her elbow banging against the cold hard behind her. She slipped back down on to the floor, defeated.

There was a sharp intake of breath from somewhere above her, a sigh of impatience. She scrunched her eyes shut tight, turned her head to the floor, her fists clenching. She wouldn’t look, she wouldn’t look.

“Allow me to aid you.”

The words didn’t make sense to her, couldn’t make sense.

“I will not repeat myself. Allow me to help you.”

There was a tone in those words, an unmistakable air of menace. It was a threat clear and loud. “Do as I ask,” his voice had said, “and it will be okay. Fight me, it will not.” She heard it plainly. Her own inner voice heard it too. Her voice urged her to get up, to turn round, to do anything rather than just lie there. She followed the advice.

She couldn’t see him clearly as she first turned round. The light in the ceiling was behind him, dazzling her. All she got a sense of was his shape leaning down to her, an arm clearly extended to her. She reached up for it. His grasp was strong and firm, pulling her to her feet in one sure movement. Her body screamed its dislike of the action, her mind screamed louder. No sound left her lips. She felt proud of that, if nothing else. He let go of her as soon as he was sure of her footing. She stood, clumsily, trying to hide herself from him, which was impossible. Defeated, her arms dropped to her sides, her head down. He had very shiny shoes. Very expensive shoes. They didn’t look pleased, those shoes, standing in her piss. A hand reached for her, lifted her chin up, to stare at him. Their eyes were of almost equal height, which she found curious. A light brown, flecked with tiny shards of amber. Dark hair matched his eyes.

“You smell. You smell foul.”

His emphasis on the ‘foul’ made her flush red. She tried to drop her eyes, her head, away from his piercing gaze, her hands automatically coming back up, trying to hide, to cower. He held her firm, forcing her attention.

“Clean yourself and come back through to the bedroom.” He turned back to the door, opening it, leaving. Before he disappeared through it, he turned back, addressed her in that no nonsense voice. “Do not be long.”

The door closed quietly. Tears coursed over her burning cheeks. As he left the bedroom, aiming for the kitchen, he started to hum to himself. Gods, what a find. She gave such great fear. He switched the kettle on and busied himself. He had plenty of time.

 

The bathroom was huge; black and white marble. The floor and walls matched perfectly. White marble flecked with black on the floor, black marble flecked with white on the walls. The toilet and bidet, between which she had so recently rested, were brilliant white. The double vanity unit was gleaming black stone with equally gleaming white stone sinks. The fixtures were silver and black. The shower stall alone was bigger than her bathroom at home. It took up about a quarter of the room, easily holding about six people. It had a series of shower fixtures up the walls and across the top. She’d seen the like in movies, never in real life, not even in hotels at business conventions. The bath was actually quite small, compared to the rest of the room, but it was oval rather than bath shaped, with vents along the sides which she guessed meant it was a jacuzzi. There was a floor to ceiling cupboard with louver doors in silver. It looked like they were real silver, at least to touch. The back of her head, the voice, was screaming that she had to stop looking at the frigging decor and do something. She ignored it. Looking was doing something, it was doing about the only thing she could cope with. She’d crumpled down onto the wet floor when he had left, shaking. When she realised what she was doing, she had jumped up like a scalded cat. ‘Sides, she wasn’t getting into no shower ‘til she’d checked what was in the damned cupboard. The voice told her he wasn’t in the cupboard. She knew that, she told the voice, she was just being cautious. The cupboard was filled with towels. Pure white, soft. Looking at them, touching them, the tears started again, the shaking. No, screamed the voice. No! No! No! No way. If she fell apart, he was coming back for her and she didn’t want that. The thought did drive some of the dreamy feeling from her, did drive her into the shower. It took a few moments, but she finally got the water out of at least half the jets, first too hot, then too cold, then okay. There were plenty of gels and shampoos and such, on a fitted wire shelf right there in the shower. She stared at them, unthinking. The water ran off her, down the drain. The first thing she noticed, the only thing she really noticed, was that the smell was going. The smell of steam was replacing the smells of… let’s not think about that. She’d never thought that steam had a smell, that it smelt clean, warm, friendly. Her hair was flattened down onto her scalp, the water running off it over her shoulders. She tried to run her hands through it, it was matted, sticky. The water was making it wetter, not cleaner. She reached for the shampoo.

The warning wasn’t the stinging of her skin, it was the water beginning to run cold. She’d scrubbed and scrubbed, rinsed and then scrubbed again. All of her was red, raw looking. She hadn’t noticed. So much of her was pain that it wasn’t important. But the water running cold, that was important. That said something about time, about how long she’d been in there. The whole of the cubicle was fogged, cloudy. Opening the door, a blast of seemingly frigid air enveloped her. As did the stench of urine. She stepped carefully out of the cubicle, reaching for the towels warming on the heated bar. She placed them all on the floor, watching them soak up the fluid, watching the stain soak through them. When they were all down she walked round them, skirting them, and opened the cupboard. She brought out fresh towels and wrapped her body in one, then her hair. They were massive, covering most of her. She added a third across her shoulders, like a cape. All that showed was her shins, her ankles and her hands. And her face. She looked around. There wasn’t a mirror. She sat down on the toilet seat, shaking. She wasn’t sure if she could ever stand again. She looked at the door. It was white, with black running through it, as if it too was marble. There was no lock. No bolt. Nothing. The panic started up in her. She pushed it down, ruthlessly pushed it far away, away to the place the questions were. When she could afford it, then she’d bring it back. Not now. With a deep breath, she forced herself to stand, forced herself to open the door. The voice inside her was utterly silent, for which she was grateful.

 

He had to admit he was startled as the bathroom door opened: surprised. He had expected to have to go and fetch her. He had taken the stopping of the shower as his cue and was waiting long enough for her nerve to break before going in and getting her. He was undecided if he was pleased, or annoyed, at the change of plan. The going to get her plan had involved wondering if she would fight, or try to run? Run was fun, fighting was fine. Would give him a chance to lay down some rules. He had been running through both scenarios, deciding which pleasure he actively wanted her to present him with. She had done neither, forced him to recalculate: he was pleased. Good thing he had laid the table out all ready. It would not have done to be caught on the hop. He watched her edge nervously into the room. Great fun. Yes, this was better than having to go fetch her. He lifted the first pot.

“Tea?”

She jumped when he spoke, then froze, her exit from the bathroom interrupted. He stood by a table, a table laden with plates and cups and tea things. His raised hand held a silver tea pot. She stared.

“I find tea a most refreshing drink.” He picked up a plain white cup and saucer, deftly filling the cup. “Also…” placing the pot back onto the cloth, he picked up a silver jug. “I find it an excellent activity in those awkward social moments.” He smiled at her. “Milk?”

She stared. He ignored her.

“It is quite interesting you know, that today…” he poured the milk and placed both cup and jug down. “… very few people take sugar in their tea. Once, it was almost unheard of not to put sugar in your tea. Now, no one I know puts sugar in their tea.”

 

He had moved round the table, ‘til he was on the far side of it, and sat down. As he poured his own tea, he glanced up at her, smiling, then busied himself. He finished speaking as he dropped two white sugar lumps into his own cup. The noise of his stirring mesmerised her, transfixed her. Nothing she could think of, nothing she could imagine, explained what was happening. He finished stirring and placed the teaspoon delicately onto the edge of the saucer. As he lifted the cup to his lips, he inhaled deeply. He smiled, then sipped.

“Delicious. One of my favourite mixes. Most refreshing.” He indicated her own cup, sitting on the table. “Will you not join me?”

 

The menace was thick, the message clear. It broke through to her. She moved forward slowly, awkwardly, not wanting to get closer to him. She wanted to look around the room, get her bearings back, but the need to keep looking at him overrode everything. The chair she was to sit on was pulled back and angled, making it easy for her to seat herself.

“Excellent. Do try the brew, see if it is to your liking. Biscuit?”

Again, as he offered her a plate of pale Madeleine’s, his tone was unmistakable. She reached forward, hesitated, then picked one up. She cradled it in her lap as he prattled.

“It is an interesting blend, mostly Assam with some Darjeeling…” his voice droned on, somewhere above her.

She was staring fixedly at the white linen table cloth. The voice at the back of her mind was assessing it dispassionately. Had to be linen, such a large, yet fine, weave. It gleamed. The light bouncing off it with a shimmer. Her hand reached forward involuntarily, touching it. Damask, said the voice, definitely the finest Damask linen.

“It is Damask,” he said. “Do you like it?”

She startled out of her reverie so suddenly she couldn’t breathe, blood pounding in her temples. She looked over to him. The terror in her eyes was almost a force, a tangible sensation that flooded him. He took her gift eagerly, pressing for more.

“Do have some tea, it will make you feel better.”

He pushed the cup and saucer towards her. His hand reaching closer froze her for a moment, sent her blood pressure racing, her heart skipping beats. She was transfixed, unable to take her eyes from the smoothness of his hand. Pale smoothness, not unlike the cup. The contents swelled slightly, resettling. The dreaming quality returned, the cup shimmering, shifting in front of her. Her eyes hurt with the effort of looking at it, looking so hard she wondered that it didn’t shatter. There was a slight noise, he cleared his throat: impatience. She lifted her hands, which were very heavy, unwieldy, one aiming for the cup, the other the saucer. Both landed roughly where they should, she grasped, pulling them back to her. The cup trembled slightly as it travelled, liquid swelling up, dribbling over her hand. The heat was warming, she cupped both hands around and raised it to her lips. She felt the heat rise and touch her skin, tickle her nose. The tea was very milky, not at all what a good Northern Lass should be drinking. She swallowed some down, closing her eyes as she tilted her head back, not wishing to see him. There was pain as it flooded down her throat. She found it hard to swallow, had to force the muscles to work. Yet it was also good, refreshing. Her thirst roared within her, demanding more. She clattered the empty cup back onto the saucer.

“There, I thought that might be just what the doctor ordered.”

She didn’t look up as he drew the cup back, poured another cup, pushed it back to her. It was just as milky as the first. She reached for it shakily, her hand overshooting the mark. The cup, and its contents, spilled wildly across the table, soaking the perfect Damask. Her hand stayed where it was, over the now empty saucer, her eyes watching the spreading stain.

“Tut tut, what a pity. Here, allow me.”

He’d stood somehow, and was now beside her. White napkins, which she hadn’t noticed, were being piled onto the tea stain in an attempt to soak up the mess. The tea blossomed through.

“What a nuisance, here, let me have this towel.”

The towel from around her head was whisked off before she’d reacted to his request, its thick pile more use than the napkins. He was so close to her, she could feel the air between them move as he leaned this way, then that. He pushed the pot, sugar bowl and Madeleine’s back, mopping at the massive stain one small cup had made. When it was contained, he picked the Madeleine’s up, wiping dry the bottom of the plate.

“What a mess. Dreadful of me, to over fill that cup.”

He carried on mopping, pushing dry towel onto wet cloth, drawing out the stain, carefully blotting round its edges. Satisfied, he turned to her.

“Here, run and get me a towel soaked in cold water, to stop it drying.”

He handed her back her towel, smiling. He motioned to the bathroom door, encouraging. She watched his back as he again turned to the table, moving things around. She stood, shakily, clutching the soiled towel to her middle, afraid the ones wrapped around her body might fall. She backed away, eyes never leaving his back, until she bumped into the edge of the bed. With a tiny yelp, she turning, fleeing into the bathroom, almost tripping on the towels she had left dealing with her other stain. She dropped the one she held, pulled a fresh one from the cupboard, stuffing its bulk into a sink and turning on the cold tap. The water spouted up and over her but she barely noticed. Her mission was to get that towel as wet as possible, as fast as possible. She jammed the towel in one end of the sink, watching as it pushed out the other. This just wasn’t working. The whole dammed thing was never going to fit in the sink! Panic started once more, and she picked the towel up and threw it into the bath, turning off the sink tap as she went. This time, as cold water flooded the towel, it started to soak quickly. The water pressure was immense, the bath rapidly filling. She switched it off, swirled the towel round, picking up one edge and wringing it out over the bath, working her way up the length as she pulled it clear of the water. It could only have been two, maybe three minutes before she was back in the bedroom, hurrying forward with her burden. He’d cleared the cloth out from the table and folded it neatly. He took the towel from her and wrapped it around the tablecloth, as if he were wrapping a gift.

“There, that should keep it from drying out until I can get it cleaned. I shall just go pop it into a plastic bag.”

He smiled once more, and quickly left the room via the door that she’d been not looking at. Silence crashed around her. Her legs felt weak and before she’d really noticed what she was doing, she’d sank down onto the edge of the bed. He’d left the door open, light spilled in, forming a long rectangle on the floor. She stared at it. A thought was just beginning to form, who knows what it might have been, when she saw his shadow precede him. She lifted her head. He was drying his hands on a small towel, no a tea towel. He used it to wipe clean the surface of the table. There had been a tray, somewhere on the floor on his side of the room, for he leaned down, lifting it up onto the table top. It took seconds to clear the clutter, all neatly piled up. He sighed, then leaned down to the floor, picking up the Madeleine she’d cradled.

“Clumsy.” He shook his head. “Never mind, mess can always be cleaned up, always.”

His voice on the second ‘always’ was faded, distant. It sent a chill down her spine, the hairs on her neck prickling. She contained the shudder that went through her as he once more swept out of the room, this time with tray in hand. Her eyes returned to the light that blazed across the floor. The floor gleamed under its impact. She moved her feet, feeling the cool surface. The light continued to bounce up at her, bounce up from the smooth, seamless floor. The floor was covered in linoleum. Thick, dark coloured linoleum. Her hands rested back onto the bed cover as she puzzled this. As they sank onto the sheeting, she felt the slight crinkling underneath. The voice inside her head rang out with authority, with warning. She realised it had been trying to say something for some time. Her hands massaged the soft covering, investigating. The crinkling was way down, two or three layers. She pulled back the edge of the sheets. There, under three sheets, was a bed protector, sealing the mattress. Gleaming, exactly as the floor gleamed. The voice became louder, more insistent. Instinctively, she covered the bed back up as she tried to grapple with what it was saying, what her mind had noticed. The panic it brought set off her body, dizziness once more threatening to overwhelm her. Her hands began to shake, breathing more difficult. Sweat once more sprang out of every pore in her body. He came back to the room as the scream was fighting up through her chest, desperate to get out. She wouldn’t let it and the effort was choking her. She would hold onto this, her mind was insisting: she had to get a grip. She didn’t look at him, her eyes again studying the floor, the deadly, smooth, eminently cleanable floor. She was wrong, she just had to be wrong. He must have spoken, but she didn’t hear the words, aware only that there were other sounds in the room apart from her heartbeat. The scream was still trying to get up, get outside her, make itself large over her thoughts; she couldn’t risk looking up. She dropped her head lower, her chin dropping onto her chest: she would not scream. Her left wrist was yanked upwards, her head following naturally. He was standing over her, the light from the door once more making his face indistinct. His mouth was moving. She stared at his lips. Her arm was pulled sideways. The pain made her focus.

“I expect to be answered, do you hear me?”

His face was twisted up, his voice too. She nodded, unsure of what he’d said.

“Good, I am glad we have that settled. I did not speak for my own amusement.”

His voice had evened out, unkinked. He let go of her wrist. The pain immediately bloomed through her bones, shot up her arm. She grabbed the wrist with her other hand, rubbing. The pain lit out again, making her groan. He’d turned away from her, closing the door softly. The light was shut out, returning them to the dimmer glow of the lamps. He was there again, beside her.

“Whilst we are on the subject…” the pause had the desired effect. She raised her face to his. “There is still a little outstanding business between us.” His voice was soft, tender; cajoling. “I distinctly remember telling you not to leave the bed.”

Persuading her to do something. She took a deep breath, attempting to calm things: now, more than ever, it was important to look as if she was listening. She raised her face to him, composing it as best she could: she would listen. She didn’t see him move, had no time to react, to tense. The force that slammed into the side of her face lifted her off the bed, throwing her sideways onto the floor. She screamed.

 

About the Author

Morgan Gallagher is in her late 40s, and should know better, about spending her writing life with vampires. However, she has no choice, as they refuse to go away and leave her alone. She lives in the Scottish Borders, with her husband and their six year old son. A full time carer for her husband who is severely disabled, Morgan also works as a volunteer for several charities and is passionate about the rights of babies, children and mothers. She has campaigned vigorously against child detention during immigration procedures. She and her husband home educate their son and attempt to keep a never ending stream of cats under control. The North Sea pounds their fishing village every winter, and every major storm, the entire family are to be found in the car parked on the headland admiring the view. Apart from the cats, that is, who are at home dreaming of summer.


The Fool

When the body of a young man is found on the altar of the Mother of All Sorrows Church in Peckham, London, the Catholic Church does everything it can to help Scotland Yard in the investigation. It sends an independent investigator from the Office of the Congregation of the Arcane to assist. Maryam Michael isn’t happy, however, with it being London and she’s unhappy that the parish priest she’s supposed to be helping is fast becoming the main suspect. The Vatican is not going to be happy with what was hidden under the body: and neither is the local Mosque. Maryam only has a couple of days to solve the riddle of why this young man died on the altar, and if the supernatural is involved. Can she solve the murder fast enough to prevent Father Wyn Jones being charged? Is it straightforward gang violence, or are there occult forces attacking the Church?

  • ISBN: 9781311928726
  • Author: Osier Publishing
  • Published: 2015-10-29 17:20:10
  • Words: 46145
The Fool The Fool