/ Language: English / Genre:thriller, / Series: Merrily Watkins

The Lamp of the Wicked

Phil Rickman

It appears that the unlovely village of Underhowle is home to a serial killer. But as the police hunt for the bodies of more young women, Rev. Merrily Watkins fears that the detective in charge has become blinkered by ambition. Meanwhile, Merrily has more personal problems, like the anonymous phone calls, the candles and incense left burning in her church, and the alleged angelic visitations.

The Lamp of the Wicked

(The fifth book in the Merrily Watkins series)

A novel by Phil Rickman

The light of the righteous rejoiceth, but the lamp of the wicked shall be put out.

Proverbs 13.9

October 1995

Just about every door on the top landing of that three-storey house had a hole bored in it, for crouching at and watching. Holes and watching. Watching through holes. It would always start like that.

‘You still doing it?’

He realized he’d shouted it down the valley, which was wide and shallow and ambered under the late afternoon sun.

It was a lovely place. It ought to be grim and stark, with scrubby grass and dead trees. The reality – the actual beauty, the total serenity of the scene – he couldn’t cope with that, didn’t want any kind of balm on the memories that had brought him out here.

Oh, aye, a lovely place to be buried, beneath the wide sky and within sight of the church tower. But not the way the two women had been buried, chopped like meat and stowed in vertical holes. Not, for God’s sake, like that.

And now he had to turn away, with the weary knowledge of how futile this was, because there was still too much hate in him.

What had happened – what had started him off – was spotting one of those neat holes that appeared sometimes in the clouds, as if the sun had burned through, like a cigarette through paper, and then vanished. He’d at once imagined a bright little bulging eye on the other side of it. And that was when he’d down the valley, this great mad-bull roar: You still screamed doing it? You still watching?

Now he was looking all around, in case someone had heard, but there was nobody, only his own car in this pull-in area right by the field gate, near the fingerpost after which the field was named.

One of the signs on the fingerpost was light brown with white lettering, signifying a site of historic interest and pointing, up a narrow road to his left, towards a church that was not visible. The one that you could see, looking down the field, must be the village church, where the ashes of the monster had been scattered.

They should’ve been flushed down the bloody toilet.

He shut his eyes in anguish. Get a grip!

The county boundary apparently ran through the field, but he didn’t know exactly where. Should’ve brought an OS map, but he wasn’t really sure what he was looking for. Didn’t really know why he’d come, except for the usual problem of not being able to settle, not being able to stop anywhere for long before it all caught up with him again. He’d be walking in and out of his house, driving to places and coming home without remembering where the hell he’d been, and then going into his own church and walking out of it again, uncomforted and fearful for his faith.

And still wanting confrontation. It was anger that brought him here, and he’d have to be rid of that before he could make any kind of start. If you were dealing with something that had been human, no matter how low, how depraved, it was incumbent upon you to operate in a spirit of consideration and sympathy and…

… love?

Oh, bugger that. He punched his own thigh in fury, thinking about old comrades – survivors and relatives of the war dead – who had made pilgrimages to battlefields aglow with poppies. How much love had they been able to summon for the bloody killers?

Not that this was really like that. The pity and the waste, oh aye. But the evil here had been slow, systematic, intimate and concentrated – some of it ending in this field, with the hacking and the dripping of blood and offal into the holes. The horror had been intensely squalid, and the hatred… well, there didn’t seem to have been any particular hatred.

That, in some ways, was the worst thing of all: no hatred.

Except his own.

He’d left his car and climbed over the gate, near two black, rubberized tanks. There was a mature oak tree on his right. There’d been references in the statements to an oak tree. But was this one too near the road?

Now, he kept his eyes shut listening. It was said that no birds sang at Dachau, but the little buggers were singing away here. He’d never been able to identify types of birdsong, though, only the mewling of the buzzards in the rough country where he lived.

Where he lived, the countryside was scarred by hikers and by soldiers training. Not so very long ago, this field had been lacerated by police with spades. But it had healed now, was already back to being a beautiful place. Was that so bad?

Only for me.

He found himself patting his pocket, in case it had fallen out. He knew the words – ought to after all this time – but there was also a notebook in his pocket with it all written down, in case he got resistance, something bent on wiping it from his head, and he had to read it from the page, shouting it out into some dark wind.

But there was no wind. It wasn’t even cold. He wanted challenge, he wanted resistance, he wanted to see the gloating in those little glittering eyes. Feel the watching. Experience the demonic. It didn’t matter what else he’d become, at the bottom of it he was a man and he couldn’t cope with it any other way.

Finally, in his desperate need for discomfort, he actually sat down by the hedge, letting the dampness soak through his pants. Which was daft and childish, but it sent him spinning back into the pain. It did that, at least.

And it started the memory like a silent film, black and white, ratchet click-clicking in the projector, no stopping it now. Here he is raging into Julia’s bedroom, throwing himself down, sobbing, both hands on the bedclothes either side of where she’s lying, feeling the still, waxy atmosphere in the bedroom and smelling the perfumed air.

She obviously sprayed perfume around first, to make it less unpleasant for whoever found her, if her body betrayed her, relaxing into death.

Typical, that.

He feels dampness. The dampness by the side of her. What must have happened, she swallowed a couple of handfuls of the pills and then, maybe half asleep, thought Not enough, and took some more, another handful. She was likely so far gone by then that the glass simply fell from her hand, spilling the rest of the water on the quilt and rolling away into the corner of the room, where he finds it. And then his gaze is tracking slowly around the bedroom with its mid-blue walls and its Paul Klee prints, noting, in the well of the pine dressing table, the vellum envelope.

Picking up the glass first, though, and laying it on the bedside table, a few inches from Julia’s hair – she must’ve combed it first, you can tell. Oh Christ, oh Christ. Turning away, moving slowly towards the envelope until he can read his own name written on the front.

Inside, on the creamy notepaper she always used – her one constant luxury; she never could abide cheap notepaper – it says, in big looping handwriting that soon becomes blurred:

I’ll keep it short, Shep.

I’m so, so sorry about this. But I do believe there is somewhere else – you showed me that – and that Donna needs me there now. She so needs someone to comfort her, I feel this very strongly. I’m so very sorry, because I love you so much, Shep, you know I do, and it’s only thinking of you and sensing your arms around me that’s going to give me the last bit of strength I need for this, so please don’t take your arms away and please, please forgive me, and please go on praying for us. I’m so SORRY.

He’d no idea how long he’d been there, when the farmer found him: sitting with his back to the hedge, staring down the valley at the sunlight over the church tower. Sitting there up against the hedge like a bloody old tramp, with his eyes wet and his wet pants sticking to his arse.

Conceding afterwards that perhaps it was just as well the farmer did find him.

For now, anyroad.

Part One

Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.

The First Epistle of Peter 5.8

1

Foul Water

IT WAS A crime, what he was doing, this Roddy Lodge, with his wraparound dark glasses and his whipped-cream smile.

The stories had kept filtering through, like foul water out of sludge, and Gomer Parry had felt ashamed to be part of the same profession. Plant hire was the poorer for shoddy operators like Roddy: wide boys, duckers and divers and twisters and exploiters of innocent people, rich and poor – mostly incomers to the county that didn’t know no better.

Too many blind eyes had been turned, this was it. Too many people – even so-called public servants, some of them – looking the other way, saying what’s it matter if a few Londoners gets taken down the road; they got money to burn.

Bad attitude, sneering at the incomers, ripping them off. They were still people, the incomers. People with dreams, and there was nothing wrong with dreams.

Mostly.

What about Gomer Parry, though? Would he have backed off like the rest or looked the other way, if he’d had any suspicion of how deep it went? What about Gomer? Just a little bloke with wild white hair and wire-rimmed glasses and a sense of what was right and honourable: the plant-hire code, digger chivalry.

No point in even asking the question, because, the way it started, this was just a drainage issue. Just a matter of pipes and shit.

* * *

It had seemed odd sometimes to Gomer that his and Roddy’s trenches had never crossed, even allowing for the fact that they operated from different ends of the county. Plant hire: big machinery in a small world.

But it was happening now, no avoiding it on this damp and windy Sunday – a weary old day to be leaving your fireside, and if Minnie had still been alive likely Gomer would’ve put it off. But the old fireside wasn’t the same no more, and she’d sounded near-desperate, this lady, and only up here weekends, anyway.

A Londoner, as you’d expect. Londoners were always looking further and further west in the mad rush to get country air down their lungs, like it was some kind of new drug. Rural properties in Herefordshire never stayed long on the market nowadays, especially the ones that really looked like rural properties, even if there were clear drawbacks.

Take this one. Classic example, see. What you had was this lovely old farmhouse, with a couple of acres, on the A49 between Hereford and Ross. Built in the rusty stone you got in these parts, and from the front there were good long, open views over flat fields to the Black Mountains.

But before that there was the A49 itself.

Gomer put a match to an inch of ciggy, October rain sluicing down on his cap, as another five cars and a big van came whizzing past – and this was a Sunday. All right, fair play, he spent his own days bouncing around on big, growling diggers, but no way Gomer could live so close to a main road like this, with fast cars and all the ground-shaking, fume-belching, brake- screeching juggernauts heading for the M50 and the Midlands.

Yet for this Mrs Pawson, in her tight white jeans, it was some type of peace, after London. Oh, we’d had enough of it, Mr Parry. Or, at least, I had. We couldn’t hear ourselves think any more, and I was convinced Gus had the beginnings of asthma. I told my husband that if we didn’t get out now we never would, not this side of retirement. We desperately needed peace, above all. Somewhere to walk.

Walk? Pretty soon, in Gomer’s view, you’d give up going for walks, being as how there was a good two hundred yards of no-pavement between you and the nearest public footpath. For half the price, the Pawsons could’ve got theirselves a modern place, with no maintenance headaches, up some quiet lane.

But modern places weren’t part of the dream. This was the dream: eighteenth-century, a bit lopsided, no damp-proof course, dodgy wiring.

And private drainage.

The FOR SALE sign lay in the damp gravel at the side of the driveway. Gomer reckoned it’d be back up in the hedge within the year. They’d get their money back, no problem at all – the way Hereford prices were going these days, they’d likely get it back twice over. Even allowing for what it was going to cost them to put this drainage to rights, after what Roddy Lodge had done to it.

Gomer tramped back up the drive, past his bottle-green van. It had GOMER PARRY PLANT HIRE on the sides and across both back doors in white. Nev’s idea, this was – You gotter advertise, Gomer, gotter put it about, see. Your ole clients is dyin’ off faster ’n you can dig their graves.

The other side of the van, Gomer could see the top of the installation poking out of the grass not two yards from the property.

Efflapure: state-of-the-art sewerage.

Gomer had never even heard of an Efflapure before. Nev was likely right about him losing touch. He was well out of touch with the kind of rip-off junk getting unloaded on city folk who thought all they had to do was flush the lavvy and the council did the rest.

As for where Lodge had put it – un-bloody-believable!

‘Mr Lodge showed us several brochures,’ Mrs Pawson had told him earlier, ‘and gave us the telephone numbers of two other people who’d had these particular models installed.’

‘Phone ’em, did you?’

Mrs Pawson hadn’t even looked embarrassed. ‘Oh, we had far too much to think about.’

Woulder made no difference, anyway,’ Gomer conceded. ‘Both be stooges, see. Friends of his, telling you you couldn’t get no finer system anywhere in the country. Load of ole wallop.’

He started scratting about in the fallen leaves, uncovering a meter-thing under an aluminium shield, with another one like it inside the house, to tell you where the shit level in the processing tank was at. Waste of time and money. Folk had got along happily for centuries without knowing where their shit level was at.

Presently, out she came again, under a big red and yellow golfing umbrella.

‘So what’s the actual verdict, Mr Parry?’ Attractive-looking lady, mind, in her sharp-faced way. Fortyish, and a few inches taller than Gomer, but weren’t they all?

‘You wannit straight?’ Gomer took out his ciggy. Mrs Pawson was looking at it like he’d got a bonfire going with piles of old tyres. She took a step back.

‘It’s the reason we came to you, Mr Parry. Our surveyor said that you, of all people, would indeed give it to us… straight.’

Gomer nodded. This surveyor, Darren Booth, he was a reputable boy. He’d said these Pawsons could be looking at trouble, and he wasn’t wrong. Gomer looked over at the Efflapure, blinking through his rain-blobbed glasses.

‘All your ground’s to the far side of the house, ennit? That orchard?’

‘We did try to acquire some more, but—’

‘And how far’s he from the house?’ Gomer nodded at the Efflapure. ‘Four foot? Five foot? Bugger-all distance, ennit? You don’t do that, see, Mrs P. Should’ve been set back, that thing, well bloody back. Likely Lodge done it this way to save a few yards o’ pipe and having to go into the old orchard, mess with roots and stuff. But you never digs it in that close to a house, specially—’

‘We specifically…’ Mrs Pawson all but stamped her nice clean trainer in the mud. ‘We specifically told him that cost was not an issue.’

‘Ah…’ Gomer waved a hand. ‘Some folk, they’d cut corners for the sake of it. Don’t reckon he’d’ve passed on no savings to you, mind. So, er…’ Holding back a bit, because this wasn’t good. ‘What exackly did young Darren say could happen?’

‘He didn’t.’ Mrs Pawson shivered under her umbrella. ‘He just said it could become a problem and advised us to get a second opinion, and he suggested you, as… as the most honest contractor he knew. For heaven’s sake, Mr Parry, what does it mean?’

Staring at him, all wild-eyed. She was up here on her own this weekend – husband still in London, kiddie with the nanny – and she was finding out, in the mud and the rain and the wind, how country life wasn’t always a bowl of cherries. She looked thin and lost under the big brolly, in her white jeans and her clean trainers, and Gomer felt sorry for her.

He sighed. Nobody liked jobs like this, where you had to clean up after another outfit. But this time it was Roddy Lodge, and Roddy Lodge had it coming to him.

He went over to the house wall. No way you could be entirely sure, see, but…

‘See this bit of a crack in the stonework?’

‘Is that new?’

‘Sure t’be. What he’s done, see, is dug ’isself a nice pit for this article, eight, nine feet down, right up against the ole foundations.’

‘You’re saying’ – her jaw trembling – ‘it could cause the house to collapse?’

Gomer thought about this, pushing back his cap.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘not all the house.’

They agreed it needed moving, this Efflapure, to a safer location. If you accepted that such an object was actually needed at all.

‘See, I wouldn’t’ve advised you to get one o’ them fancy things,’ Gomer said. ‘Wasteo’ money, my view of it. You got a nice, gentle slope to the ground there. Needs a simpler tank and a soakaway, like there was before. Primitive, mabbe, but he works, and he goes on workin’. No problems, no fancy meters to keep checking. Low maintenance, no renewable parts. Get him emptied every year or two, then forget all about him. Tried and tested, see, Mrs P. Tried and tested.’

A gust of wind snatched at the brolly. Mrs Pawson huffed and stuttered. ‘So what on earth are we supposed to do with the… Efflapure?’

‘Get your Mr Lodge to take the whole kit back, I’d say. Tell him what your surveyor said. He’ll know Darren Booth, see, know how he puts ’isself around the county, talks to the right people, so if you and your husband puts it over to Lodge, tackful-like, that it wouldn’t look so good if it got out he’d been cutting corners to save ’isself a few quid, you’d have most of your money back off him pretty quick, I’d say.’ Gomer nodded seriously, figuring this was good advice – at least let Lodge know there were a few folk onto his games. ‘Who was it told you to go to the feller in the first place, you don’t mind me askin’?’

‘He…’ She brought out some folded paper from a back pocket of her jeans and handed it to Gomer. ‘Somebody… pushed this leaflet through the letter box.’

Gomer opened it out. There was a drawing on the front of a roses-round-the-door Tudor cottage. Cartoon man in a doublet-thing with a ruffle round his neck and a cartoon woman in a long frock and an old-fashioned headdress. They both had big clothes-pegs on their noses. Underneath the drawing, it said:

IN DAYS OF OLDE,

DAYS BEFORE…

EFFLAPURE

Gomer tried not to wince.

Mrs Pawson said in a panicky voice, ‘It was a local firm. We thought—’

Gomer shook his head. ‘Not what I’d call a firm, exackly. Lodge, he operates out of a yard, back of Ross-on-Wye, what I’ve yeard, with a coupler part-timers on sickness benefit.’

‘But he’s an authorized agent for… for Efflapure.’

‘Agent for more dodgy outfits than you can shake a stick at,’ Gomer said.

‘So you… You know him.’

‘Well… I knows of him. Seen him around.’

Roddy, with his baseball cap and his wraparound dark glasses. Roddy and his big, whipped-cream smile.

‘Can you…?’ Mrs Pawson gripped the shaft of the umbrella with both hands, knuckles white. ‘Can you take it away?’

‘Me?’

‘You could probably make some money out of it, couldn’t you?’

‘Well…’ Gomer scratched his cheek. ‘There are places one o’ these might be suitable. Working farm, light industrial, mabbe. We could likely come to an arrangement. But I gotter say, you’d be better off going back to this Lodge and—’

‘No!’ Her whole body a-quiver now. ‘I don’t want that. I don’t want him here again.’

Traffic swished past, all mixed in with the wind. There was a sudden thump in the leaves near their feet. Gomer saw that a big, ripe Bramley had tumbled from one of the trees, but Mrs Pawson jumped and looked behind her like it could be something a deal bigger than that. Now she was actually clutching his arm, the umbrella all over the place.

‘Mr Parry, how soon could you do it?’

‘You sure you don’t wanner talk this over with your husband?’

‘How soon?’

‘Well, you won’t be yere, will you, ‘less it’s a weekend?’

‘It doesn’t matter whether we’re here or not. Could you do it tomorrow?’

Tomorrow?’ Gomer was more than doubtful. ‘I’d have to put it to Nev – my nephew, my partner in the business…’

‘Look,’ Mrs Pawson said, teeth gritted, shivering seriously now, ‘I just want it out of the way. We’re new to the area and we made a mistake. It was a mistake and we’re paying for it. I want it out and I don’t want… him doing it, do you understand?’

Likely this was when Gomer should have spotted something. The look on her face: this kind of… well, fear, really. No getting round that.

The up-and-down of it was that he was sorry for this London woman, alone in her farmhouse with no farm attached, husband likely bored with it already. Smart-looking, educated woman washed up here, marooned in the flat fields with the traffic blasting past.

After what happened, he’d often think what else he might have said, how else he could’ve handled it – like stalling a while, taking advice, checking Roddy out a bit more. But what was to check out? What else was there to know about an operator, a wide boy, a conman, a ducker and diver, a bit of a poser?

Please,’ Mrs Pawson said.

Gomer wished he knew what else was bothering her but he figured she was never going to tell him. He nodded. ‘All right, then.’ What else could he say? ‘Tuesday. What about Tuesday?’

It didn’t feel right, even then.

2

Pressure

SOMETIMES, YOU JUST wanted to shake her. You wanted to get her into a corner and scream, Why don’t you just get on with it? You are a mature woman, you are unmarried. Like, being a priest is supposed to condition your hormonal responses or something? It’s the only life you’ve got, for Christ’s sake… whatever else you might think.

Jane was leaning forward, across the kitchen table, making no secret about trying to listen.

It was getting dark now in the big, beamed kitchen and Mum was partly in shadow, standing in the corner by the door, taking the call on the cordless. She looked very small but quite ghostly in her grey alb. Her expression hadn’t changed. Normally, when she picked up the phone and found out who was on the line, she’d react – like smile in relief, look curious, or maybe grimace. Like, she’d instinctively make a face if it was, say, the Bishop or – worse – Uncle Ted. The fact that there was no reaction at all this time meant that she was working seriously hard at concealing something she didn’t want Jane to know about. Most of the time, Mum was an open book – and it wasn’t by Proust or Joyce or anybody difficult.

So it was Jane who made the face. Like, was this ridiculous, or what?

‘OK. Fine, let’s leave it at that,’ Mum said, and stubbed out the line. She put the cordless on the dresser and stood looking at it for a fraction too long before turning back to look into the room. In the lamplight her face was soft and in the long linen alb she looked, for a moment, like a little girl waiting to go to bed. Just needed the teddy.

‘Cold call?’ Jane raised both eyebrows. ‘Emma from Everest? Stacey from Staybright?’

Mum came back to the table. She did look tired. Well, it had to be getting her down, this bobbing and weaving, covering her tracks.

‘You don’t have to do this, you know, Mum. Not with me.’

‘What?’ Now an expression: wariness.

‘I’m on your side. I like Lol. I mean, in other circumstances – like not involving my ageing parent – the twenty-something age gap between him and me would be as nothing. But, you know… if I can’t have him… What I’m saying is, if you want to arrange a little tryst, you have my blessing. And, er…’ jabbing a thumb towards the ceiling. ‘His too, I’d guess. He’s not inhuman. Presumably.’

Jane sat back, arms folded. For a moment, Mum was almost smiling. Then she said brusquely, ‘Don’t you have homework?’

‘Done it. Double free period this afternoon. However, if that’s code for you want me to leave the room so you can call back, exchange a few steamy intimacies, I’d be happy to—’

‘Don’t push it, flower,’ Mum said mildly.

‘Push it? Jesus, if anybody ever needed a good push…’ Jane subsided into her chair, drumming her fingers on the refectory table. This was not the time.

‘Look at the time.’ Mum closed her eyes, the childlike bit dropping away. She was thirty-seven now, no getting around that – heading for the rapid slide into cronehood, with her prospect of happiness, which had seemed so close, receding again. ‘Parish meeting at half-seven, and we haven’t eaten yet.’

‘Not a problem.’ Jane stood up. ‘Why don’t I go down the chippy?’

‘I thought you were boycotting the chippy.’

‘They’re now claiming they’ve stopped using animal fat. I can live with that.’

‘Would you?’ Mum looked grateful, dragging her bag from the dresser, pulling out her purse.

‘You want mushy peas, too?’ Jane asked.

After the kid had left, Merrily went into the scullery-office, closed the door, switched on the Anglepoise and sat down, pulling her black woolly cardigan over her alb. She thought about calling Lol back but then – parish meeting: income, cash flow… pressure – phoned Huw Owen instead.

‘You know everything,’ she said. ‘What line do I take on a mobile-phone mast in the spire?’

Huw said, ‘Cold over there, is it?’

‘Not by your criteria.’ Huw’s rectory was well up in the Brecon Beacons, above the snowline, where spring and autumn would wave to each other from either side of July.

‘I were only thinking about you earlier,’ he said. ‘You and your rock star. Serious, is it, or just a fling?’

Rock star: a touch of irony, there. She didn’t rise to it. ‘We’re permitted flings now?’

‘Merrily,’ Huw said, ‘these are the days of sex-change clergy, transvestite clergy, bondage clergy, cocaine clergy. I’d say, as long as it doesn’t involve Alsatian dogs… What’s Bernie Dunmore’s view?’

‘Up to the individual conscience. Between the individual and God.’

‘Nice. You can tell why he made bishop. And what’s God say?’

‘He says to get on with it or Jane’ll be back with the chips.’

She pictured Huw slumped, shoeless and shaggy-haired, in front of his fire of coal and logs, the uncurtained window a cold blue square in the whitewashed wall. From the edge of his sheep-shaven lawn, you could see the site of the cottage where Huw had been born a bastard, as he liked to phrase it, two years before his mother took him off with her to Sheffield, to grow up a Yorkshireman with a weight of Welsh on his back.

Huw Owen: the mongrel come home to the hills. Merrily’s Deliverance-tutor, her spiritual director.

‘Aye, go on, then,’ he said. ‘Mobile-phone masts? The tips of the Devil’s horns.’

Crossing the market place in the damp dusk, Jane looked back once. Through the heavy, dripping autumn trees, the lights of Ledwardine Vicarage were blurred, as though seen through tears, and she was wondering about Mum and Lol and how it could possibly be going wrong so soon.

All through the late summer, Mum had seemed brilliantly light and girlish, maybe for the first time since she’d been ordained. Twice, she’d actually worn this provocatively low-cut top Jane had brought back from a summer sale in Hereford as kind of a joke.

Jane had imagined the skimpy thing lying on the floor of Lol’s loft and was entirely cool about the notion. Mum had been a widow for over six years now and, although the crash that had killed Dad on the M5 had been a drastic kind of reprieve from a marriage gone bad, it was time to dump the guilt for ever.

It had to be guilt, didn’t it? Mum had always been good at guilt, on any level. During the summer, Lol had written this song, ‘The Cure of Souls’, about the problem women priests might have loving God while also loving a man.

Which was only a problem if you believed that God was a man. If you believed that God was anything.

And if this thing – this faith in something unknowable, unprovable and very possibly bollocks – was likely to screw it up for Mum and Lol, there was no way Jane could live with that… like, even if she had to stand out here in the square and publicly burn Bibles on the cobbles.

The violence of the thought disturbed her a little. Pulling her beret down over her headphones, she switched on the Super Furries’ Rings Around the World to blow it all away, crossing now into Church Street, with its lamplit black and white façades, moving under the dimly lit windows of the former Cassidys’ Country Kitchen. At least the Cassidys had tried to serve traditional local produce, whereas now the place was charging an arm and a leg for two bits of squidge cradled in a red lettuce leaf. Gourmets were said to travel from three counties to eat here, but local people only ever came once – probably calling at the chippy on the way home.

This was typical of the way the village was going. With another overpriced antique shop and poor Lucy Devenish’s old Ledwardine Lore turned into some rip-off, designer-trivia emporium pretentiously called Ledwardine Fine Art, it was close to becoming unbearably chic, with coachloads of French and Japanese tourists, like in the Cotswolds.

At least the chippy was still in business. Jane slipped into Old Barn Lane, where its single window gleamed grease-yellow in the drizzle. This year, autumn had come down hard and fast, like some dank, grey roller blind. No Indian summer, no golden October days, and too late for all that now.

She bought cod and chips, twice. She and Mum didn’t eat meat at all any more, but occasionally relapsed into eating fish. After all, Jesus had eaten fish, hadn’t he? Jesus, in the right mood, would double your catch. Jane stepped down from the shop doorway, holding the chip package away from her fleece.

‘Jane – tell your mother not to be late tonight, won’t you?’ Uncle Ted Clowes stood there, merging with the greyness, bulky and stupidly sinister in his wide-brimmed Mafia hat. Until his retirement, Uncle Ted had been a solicitor, and you still couldn’t trust the old bastard. He didn’t like Mum being Deliverance consultant because it regularly took her out of the parish, out from under his thumb – which was probably the only truly worthwhile aspect of the whole crazy Deliverance thing.

Jane looked up. ‘What’s the problem… Ted?’ In the light from the steamy window, his wide face looked like ridged sandstone; he hated it when she talked to him like an equal. She grinned. ‘Not… the great Commercialization-of-the-House- of-God storm?’

It’s a contentious issue,’ Ted said heavily, ‘and it needs to be resolved before it starts to split the village. Your mother knows that.’

Meaning he didn’t want it dividing the ever-diminishing percentage of villagers who actually went to church. Not much of an issue at all, then. Jane converted the grin into a sweet and sympathetic smile. ‘I’ll get her bulletproof vest out of the airing cupboard.’

‘One day, Jane,’ said Uncle Ted, ‘you’ll learn to take some things seriously.’

‘And the day after that, they’ll bury me.’ Jane refixed the headset. ‘Better split or the chips’ll be cold.’

Get a life, Ted.

She walked back through the village, its windows like Christmas lanterns. So far this year, it had been featured in three national-newspaper holiday supplements. Among the cars parked on the square – and taking up enough space for two – was this great long blue and cream Cadillac.

Ridiculous, really. Soon, it was going to be like living in one of those pottery villages that Ledwardine Fine Art was too upmarket ever to sell. Maybe each pottery village should have its own bijou pottery lady vicar. So much more tourist appeal than a crumpled old priest with a frayed dog collar and breath that smelled of communion wine.

‘Once upon a time,’ Huw said wistfully, ‘folk believed the world were surrounded by angels, wing-tip to wing-tip. Interesting concept, eh? Everybody under the protection of vast, angelic wings, like newborn chicks.’

‘Bit claustrophobic, though, when you think about it,’ Merrily said.

‘Also, the ultimate communication system. Safe, reliable…’

‘Ah. Right. I see where you’re coming from.’

‘But where do they go now, the angels? No room left up there for the poor buggers, with all them signals clogging up the atmosphere – radio waves, satellite TV, daft sods in supermarkets ‘ringing home half a mile away.’ Huw put on a whiny Home Counties drawl. ‘“Darling, I’m at the cheese counter now – do we want Emmental or smoked Cheddar?”’

‘So it’s fair to say you’re against masts, then.’ Merrily wondered if Huw ever visited a supermarket, the way she often wondered why no woman appeared to have shared his life. He’d mentioned one once, in passing – just the once – but she’d sensed there was sadness attached.

‘It’s easy money, lass,’ he said. ‘Lot of space doing nowt inside church spires. No maintenance costs. Ten grand a year or more in the parish coffers. Environmentally friendly, too, on one level. Saves putting up them unsightly steel things on the hills.’

‘But on another level, it could be causing cancer, damaging people’s brains, et cetera. A lot of evidence piling up there.’

‘Aye.’

‘However, we’re likely to get a mast anyway. Some farmer or other’s going to give permission sooner or later for one of your unsightly steel things. So that’s still bad health all round and a spoiled view.’

‘You’d be reluctantly in favour, then,’ Huw said.

‘Well, no. I’m instinctively against it. But we could use the money, and Uncle Ted’s smart. He knows that if he backs down on mobile phones, it’ll be much harder for me to resist his plans for putting a gift shop in the vestry. I’m in a corner, Huw, and the meeting starts in about forty minutes.’

Merrily glanced at the scullery window, where the climbing rose used to knock against the glass in the night wind. Although she’d pruned it last spring, she half expected it to have grown back: tock… tock… tock…

And the Hereford Times is hovering, because the mobile phone company looks like it’s one of those about to start transmitting soft porn to new-generation handsets. I don’t want to wind up in the papers again.’

‘Stay out of it,’ Huw said. ‘Let the parish council take the decision, but make sure you nobble a few of them first.’

Politics. I hate all that.’ Merrily gazed into the Anglepoise circle of light enclosing the Bible, her sermon pad and a volume of the Alternative Service Book, 1980. In His Presence, it said on the front. ‘Erm… would there be a Deliverance angle?’

‘On mobile phones?’

‘Transmissions. Signals… all that. I suppose that’s why I’m ringing, really.’ She heard footsteps on the kitchen flags; the chips had come.

‘Spirits in the air?’ Huw said.

‘Something like that.’

‘Or you could say the spire, which should be pointing to heaven, would be acting instead as a conductor for all kinds of shit thrown up from the earth.’

‘You put these things so elegantly,’ Merrily said.

‘Stuff the Parish Council. Say no to it, lass.’

‘Right.’

3

Something Ancient Being Lost

I MEAN, LET’S face it, nobody comes to church just to hear me preach…

It had just slipped out, and now they were all staring at her, as though she’d blasphemed in public or something.

Whatever you said always sounded more strident in the parish hall, the one building in mellow, timber-framed Ledwardine without a soul. The hall had been built in 1964. Its pink bricks and white tiling put you in mind of a disused abattoir; its caged, mauvish ceiling lights made faces gleam like raw meat.

‘What I meant’ – Merrily almost squirmed in her plastic chair – ‘is that I’ve never really thought of myself as much of an orator. I’m… not always entirely comfortable in the pulpit. Like, who am I to step up there and lay down the law?’

Now she’d made it worse. She looked quickly around the table from face to face, aware that she was blushing because it could have been taken as a reference to her private life. She wondered if any of them knew about her and Lol. Maybe they all did. Maybe it was all over the parish. Harlot.

‘Well, since you ask, Mrs Watkins…’ The chairman, James Bull-Davies, looked half-amused. ‘My understanding of the situation was that, for this short period every Sunday, the vicar was supposed to be some sort of mouthpiece for the Almighty. Suffused with the Holy Spirit. Or have I got that wrong?’

Merrily felt in need of a cigarette. She also felt like laying her head on the table and covering it with her arms.

‘That’s a little unfair, Mr Davies.’ The soft, mildly Irish voice of Mrs Jenny Box drifted like scented smoke from the far corner. ‘Mrs Watkins was displaying simple humility, and if that isn’t part of God’s core agenda for us all, then I don’t know what is.’

‘Oh Gord!’ James Bull-Davies leaned back abruptly, to vague splintering sounds from his carved wooden chair. ‘Shut your damn mouth, James.’ He waved a hand in exasperation. ‘Anyone object if we drag this discussion back to our agenda? Or else we’ll be here till the pubs’ve closed.’

James was chairing the meeting on military lines, eight tables arranged into a square. You felt that there should be sand trays and little model tanks. But it was good, Merrily had reflected, to have him back. He’d been out of village life for over a year, gathering his private affairs into some kind of order. Now, he and Alison were breeding horses professionally, and Upper Hall farmhouse was getting its leaking roof retiled.

In the semi-feudal past, it had been understood that the Bull family fortune should also maintain the fabric of the parish church; nowadays it was accepted that the odd crumpled tenner in the collection was going to be James’s limit. The church was on its own now. It needed more income, short and long term.

‘Sorry,’ Merrily said. ‘My fault.’ In a roundabout way, she’d been attempting to make the point that, while incorporating a gift shop could be a good idea, the parish church should also be available simply as a quiet, sacred place – that it wasn’t only about hymns and preaching. It wasn’t only about Sunday.

‘Look, I’m not…’ Uncle Ted Clowes raised himself up. He looked irritated. ‘I’m not entirely getting this. How does running a small shop in the church prevent it being a place of sanctuary? No one’s suggesting the proposed outlet should be open for business all day and every day.’

‘No,’ Merrily said, ‘but the church itself should be.… within reason. But what I’m really saying is…’

And then she lost the thread. The problem was, she was still in two minds about this. She was all for the church becoming more open, less formal. Hadn’t she fought Ted’s plan to lock the doors nightly at six p.m.? Hadn’t she held out against parish purists outraged when she’d let Rex Rosser’s sheepdog, Alice, lie on a back pew next to Rex?

The harsh lights hurt Merrily’s eyes. There’d been no mention yet of the mobile-phone mast. Maybe Ted was thinking that if he could push the shop through without a struggle then he could slip the mast in near the end or save it for a future meeting – one even more poorly attended than this, with its handful of delegates from local societies: the Women’s Institute, the Young Farmers’ Club, the tourism association. A couple of shop owners had shown up to voice mild fears about competition if the church went into the giftware business. But nothing serious, nothing likely to cause undue worry for Ted Clowes and the pro faction.

‘I think the point is, Mr Chairman…’ Again, it was Jenny Box, née Driscoll, one of the few with no obvious reason to be here, who came to Merrily’s aid. ‘The real point is that commercial enterprise would surely conflict with the sanctity and peace that the church must be allowed to provide at all times. If I want to go in and say a prayer, I may not wish to do so in front of a coachload of holidaymakers choosing picture postcards.’

And Jenny Box did go into the church and pray alone. Merrily had seen her several times and walked delicately past with a quiet smile, making herself casually available, in case this woman needed help. No particular response so far, and she didn’t want to be thought of as courting the newest Ledwardine celeb.

The truth was that, while much of the village – especially the growing retired faction – recognized Mrs Box from daytime ‘lifestyle TV or had shopped at Vestalia, Merrily had never even seen daytime TV, except by accident, and couldn’t afford Vestalia. She was faintly embarrassed because the face of Jenny Box, from the start, had meant nothing to her.

But…’ Ted was looking pained. ‘If you look at Hereford Cathedral, it’s had a sizeable shop for years, virtually next to the nave.’

‘But not in the nave,’ Merrily said. ‘And the cathedral’s just a tiny bit bigger than Ledwardine church, and if you do want to pray there you can always find a quiet corner somewhere, or an empty chantry.’

‘Well, if…’ James Bull-Davies pushed fingers through his thinning hair. ‘… If you’re talking about a quiet place, there’s always the Bull Chapel, isn’t there?’

Merrily said nothing. Even she had found it hard to pray in the Bull Chapel.

Again, Mrs Box dealt with it. ‘I accept it’s your family’s traditional resting place, Mr Chairman, but I don’t think I’m alone in finding that chapel just a tiny bit sinister, with that forbidding old tomb and the effigy of the man whose eyes seem to follow you around. Sorry, I suppose that’s silly of me.’

James gazed at Jenny Box, as he had several times tonight because, although he’d probably never seen her on TV either, Mrs Box was magnetic, her beauty soft and blurred under red-blonde hair just short of shoulder-length. There was very little make-up on her pale, regretful face, but even the livid lighting couldn’t insult her skin. She lived in a narrow, three-storey house on the edge of the village, near the river – alone, it seemed, although there was said to be an estranged husband somewhere.

‘Right, OK,’ James conceded surprisingly. ‘Point taken. We require a degree of separation, so I think we have to come back to Ted’s suggestion of the vestry. Reasonable enough size. Not as if we’re going to be selling country clothes or picnic hampers or what have you.’

‘Well… it’s a possibility.’ Merrily had already thought about it; she didn’t use the vestry much any more, not since the night it had been broken into. Now she kept all her clerical gear at the vicarage, and there was a cupboard in the body of the church for communion wine and stuff. ‘I mean, I suppose I could spare it, but I can’t speak for a future minister.’

‘Not our problem,’ James snapped. ‘Future chap can sort himself out. Or herself. Be many years, anyway, before you think of moving on, I trust, vicar. Nothing to stop us sticking a couple of counters and a till in the vestry meantime, is there?’

‘It’d need better lighting for a start, James. And some structural alteration, I’d guess. Costly?’

‘But it’s an option,’ said James. ‘At last we have an option. Thank Gord for that. We’ll get it costed out, report back. Yes?’ He looked at Merrily; she shrugged.

When they came out, half an hour later, without anyone having raised the possibility of installing a mobile-phone mast in the spire, Merrily wasn’t entirely surprised to find Jenny Box, in a brown Barbour and a white scarf, waiting for her on the cindered forecourt.

‘Look, thanks for…’ Merrily gestured vaguely at the hall behind them. She felt short and inelegant in the old navy-blue school duffel coat that Jane had rejected as seriously uncool. ‘I get a little flustered in there sometimes. I think it’s the lighting, but if I turned up in sunglasses, somebody’d be putting it around that I’d been beaten up.’

Jenny Box didn’t smile. Uncle Ted Clowes came over and put a patronizing hand on Merrily’s shoulder. ‘I think you’ll find it makes a good deal of sense, my dear. Tourism’s going to be very much the future of Ledwardine, we all have to accept that.’

‘Not the whole of the future, I hope, Ted.’

‘Well, there is another possibility.’ He glanced warily at Jenny Box. ‘But we’ll talk about that again. Goodnight, ladies.’

Ted put on his hat and strolled away. A walkover, then. Merrily was aware that Jenny Box’s expression had stiffened. For the first time tonight, in the thin light from the tin-shaded bulb over the doors of the village hall, she looked her probable age: forty-three, forty-four?

‘Crass auld fool.’ An unexpected venom thickened her accent. ‘Sell his own grandmother.’

Merrily said nothing. The two of them walked away from the hall, into Church Street and up towards the square. The air glistened with moisture and the deserted village centre looked film-set romantic under a mist-ringed three-quarter moon.

‘So how much are you thinking you’d need?’ Mrs Box’s voice had softened again without losing any of its insistence. ‘For the church.’

‘Well, I can’t really…’ Merrily hesitated. It was the first time she’d spoken more than superficially to this woman.

‘Per year, say. How much per year, to maintain the church without the need of this tourist shop?’

It was a serious question, and there was no walking away from it. Merrily shook her head. ‘I don’t really know what a shop would turn over in a year.’

Mrs Box stopped on the edge of the deserted square. ‘Tell me, have you asked God?’

‘Sorry?’

‘For the money. For the resources. Have you asked God?’

‘Erm…’

Jenny Box smiled faintly, indicating that she wouldn’t pursue it now. Directly in front of them, the small medieval building known as the Market Hall squatted on its stocky oak pillars. Mrs Box stood with her back to it, hands thrust deep into the pockets of her Barbour, a firmer, tougher proposition than she’d been in the hall.

‘You were absolutely right, of course,’ she said. ‘Women, as a rule, aren’t terribly good at preaching. Listening is what we do best. That’s why women priests are so important. Women listen, and so women receive. I’m not talking feminist nonsense, but the time’s come. Don’t you feel that?’

‘I think we can all receive, women and men,’ Merrily said carefully. They were alone on the square, lit by bracket lamps projecting from gable ends. Mrs Box glanced over her shoulder.

‘That man – Clowes. What he said about us all having to accept that tourism’s the future, it makes me feel quite ill. Look at this place… it’s getting like the Cotswolds – most of the people here born elsewhere, virtually all the businesses owned by outsiders.’

Merrily said nothing. Across the square, the lighted panes in the leaded windows of the Black Swan seemed as comfortably irregular as the moon-washed cobbles. She used to think of Ledwardine as an indestructible organism that ate and gradually digested change.

‘Oh, I know I’m part of the invasion,’ Jenny Box said. ‘I can’t help that. But when I see them trying to make this lovely old church into just another arm of the tourist industry… and I watch men like Clowes, who must be at least half local, just sitting there on their fat, complacent behinds and inviting it in, for short-term gain, I see something ancient being lost… and something insidious and inherently filthy creeping in. I want to go up in the tower and ring the bells and scream a warning. Don’t you?’

‘I don’t know,’ Merrily said honestly. ‘In one way, I do want to get lots more people into church. I like the idea of these villages in parts of Italy and places, where the church is the natural centre of everything, people wandering in and out, hens laying under the pews. And yet…’

She looked up at the woman she vaguely recalled as a fashion model in the 1980s, pale and waiflike then, and a little damaged- looking, like an orphan taken in by Vivienne Westwood. Jane had said that once, when she was off school with flu, she’d seen Jenny Driscoll – newly arrived in the village then and a talking point – on some daytime chat show discussing fame, how shallow it all was. On the other hand, as Jane had pointed out, there were few aspects of modern life more shallow than daytime telly.

‘I suppose you think I’m just some bored neurotic looking for a cause, to get noticed. Just say if that’s what you think.’

‘Oh, everybody here gets noticed. The real trick is to be anonymous.’ Merrily smiled tiredly. Normally, she was invigorated by this kind of searching approach by an actual parishioner; she just didn’t feel up to it tonight. ‘I’m sorry, I should have got to know you better by now. I admit I haven’t spent as much time in the parish as I should have, due to one thing and another.’

‘Like being an exorcist,’ Jenny Box said, all whispery sibilance.

‘Deliverance Consultant is the preferred term these days.’

‘Well, I prefer the old word. How often are you called on to exorcize people?’

‘I never have.’

Never?’

‘Well, I’ve only had the job for just over a year. I’ve never encountered a… confirmable case of demonic possession.’

‘But you believe it can happen?’

‘Of course.’ Merrily wasn’t used to this. If local people ever talked about what she did outside the parish, it was never to her face.

‘What about houses? You exorcize houses, do you?’

‘Occasionally.’

‘And would you agree,’ Jenny Box asked, ‘that whole communities are sometimes in need of it? Whole establishments, situations… whole milieux?’

‘I’m not sure what you mean.’ Merrily was thinking of last winter and the fundamentalist, Father Nicholas Ellis, who’d exorcize anything you could shake a cross at.

‘Cleansing. The expulsion of evil. You probably know that the business I was in – when I was modelling – all that’s pretty damn repellent to me these days. And though I’m well out of it all now, it’s like when you give up some bad habit – smoking – you can’t bear to be near smokers any more. You can smell them a mile off, and it’s unbearably obnoxious, all the worse because it’s tinged with this… foul desire.’

‘Right.’ Merrily was instinctively feeling the outside of her coat pocket, the familiar bulge made by her mobile phone… and the packet of Silk Cut and the Zippo.

‘So coming out here was like going into detox for me. But why would I come here, you’re asking, to this particular village, to be cleansed?’

‘No, I wouldn’t ask that. I try not to be nosy.’

‘All right, then, why are you here?’

‘Oh, I ask that all the time.’

Mrs Box laughed lightly. ‘Vicar, tell me, have you ever had what you might call a visionary experience?’ Merrily stared at her; Jenny Box raised both hands. ‘I know, I know, it depends on how you’d define visionary. Oh, the clergy, you’re so cautious these days, even the women.’

‘Especially the women. We still feel we’re on probation.’

Jenny Box regarded her solemnly. ‘But you’re the future. You must know that. Look, I’d like to discuss this and… some other things with you sometime… if you have an hour or so to spare – I mean, not now. I can see you’re anxious to be off.’

‘Well, it’s just that my daughter—’

‘No husband, though,’ Mrs Box threw in quickly.

‘He died. Some years ago.’

‘A young widow, remarried to the Church.’

It was what people often said, and it was irritating. It began to rain again.

‘Which is a wonderful thing,’ Jenny Box said. ‘You were… saved.’ She smiled. ‘It’s hard to avoid the old clichés, isn’t it?’

Merrily heard a voice calling from somewhere down Church Street.

‘I’m learning all about that because I’m writing a book,’ Mrs Box said. ‘About some things that happened to me.’

‘Oh?’ No big surprise. Jenny Box: the heartache I left behind. Serialized in one of the Sunday papers, a women’s magazine. If it was sensational enough, if there were ‘revelations’.

Mum!

Merrily turned, saw the kid running up the street. ‘I’m sorry… that’s Jane… my daughter.’

Jenny Box took a step back, and Merrily had a sudden powerful sense of something around this woman making small, anxious flurries in the air: disorientation, loneliness.

‘I’d… like to hear about your book sometime.’

‘It isn’t finished yet. It isn’t over, you see. What the book’s about… those things aren’t over. Those things have hardly begun.’ Jenny Box shook her head and began to move away. Then she stopped beside one of the pillars of the market hall, turning her face to Merrily. ‘You said we could all receive…’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, that…’ She looked at Jane stumbling to a stop, shook her head with finality. ‘Goodnight, Mrs Watkins.’

Pulling her scarf over her head, Jenny Box walked quickly away across the cobbles into the shadows behind the hanging lamps.

And here was Jane, the kid’s face shining with rain and sweat.

‘Oh God, Mum, I’ve run all the way down to the sodding hall. Tried to call you on the mobile.’

‘It was switched off. Didn’t want it going off in the middle of the meeting. What’s the problem, flower?’

Jane said, ‘Gomer.’

Merrily felt her stomach tighten. ‘What’s happened?’ She’d been half expecting Gomer at the meeting: the only parishioner you could always count on for support against the village establishment.

‘It’s awf—’ The kid was still struggling for breath. ‘Awful.’

What?’ Remembering the night last January when Minnie had had her heart attack, the hospital vigil with Gomer, the final silence of the side ward.

‘He came banging on the door. Didn’t know where else to go. He’d been in the pub and he’d had a few pints and he didn’t think he was safe to drive, so he was hoping you—’

‘Where?’ The rain was coming down harder. Jane had no coat, she must’ve gone rushing out in panic. ‘Drive where?’

‘He’d just got back from the Swan, OK, and… when he gets in the phone’s ringing and ringing. The police’d been trying to get him for, like, ages. He was hoping you could take him, but now he’s gone for his van, and he’s probably way over the limit.’

Police?

‘It’s his yard in the Radnor Valley. His big shed. Mum, it’s on fire. The shed with the diggers and the bulldozer? It’s just all on fire. Gomer Parry Plant Hire… burning up.’

‘Oh God.’

‘He’s gone like really manic. You know how he gets. Even if he was sober, he wouldn’t be safe.’

‘When was this?’

‘Just a few minutes ago. He went tearing back for his van.’

‘OK, he’ll have to pass this way.’ The village was silent – no vehicle sounds. Merrily pulled out her mobile and switched it on. ‘Go back home, flower. I’ll call you.’

‘I’ll come too.’

‘No, you won’t. I’ll call you. Just go home and get dry. OK? I’ll call.’ Merrily pocketed the phone, put both hands on the kid’s shoulders and pointed her at the vicarage. ‘Go.’

She watched Jane walking across the empty street and into the vicarage drive, where the kid stopped and looked back.

‘And bar… Jane, bar the door, OK?’

Merrily stepped into the road and waited.

4

A Good Name

‘SORRY,’ SHE MUTTERED. Thorny branches in the hedge were scoring the side of the van. ‘Sorry.’

The problem was that although she could reach the pedals – just about – the driver’s seat was sunken with wear and the heavy old van was hard to control on bends and steep hills when you couldn’t fully see over the bonnet. Especially at night, in the intermittent rain, on these greasy country roads leading down to the Welsh border.

‘Should’ve gone back for your own car, vicar,’ Gomer murmured round his ciggy. ‘I’d’ve waited.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t.’

He said nothing. Hadn’t he nearly run her down, before he’d spotted the dog collar in the headlights and braked so hard he’d stalled the engine?

Gomer Parry stalling an engine – unheard of. He’d been as close then as she’d ever seen him to coming apart. The night Minnie died, his anguish had flared publicly, just once, in a twilit street near Hereford County Hospital, before he’d subsided into bleak acceptance.

Tonight, however, there was no sign of him coming down from whatever emotional ledge he was clinging to, and the ciggy was glowing red and dangerous between his lips. He wore his cap and his old tweed jacket and, underneath that, a green sweatshirt with GOMER PARRY PLANT HIRE on it in white.

This had been his nephew and business partner Nev’s idea. Gomer had had two extra ones printed – a serious honour – for Jane and for Merrily, whose churchyard hedges he cut, whose ditches he cleared and not a penny charged for any of it. He even came to church, maybe every other Sunday. But plant hire was Gomer Parry’s religion.

‘They don’t know how it started?’

Had she asked him this before? There were only so many things you could say en route to the ruins of a man’s whole identity.

‘If they knowed, they wasn’t sayin’. You know what cops is like. Plus, nobody seen it at all till the whole shed was well alight. Four fire engines called out. That big.’

Poor Gomer, hunched gnomelike on the edge of the passenger seat, his wire-rimmed bottle glasses opaque in the dimness of the van. Merrily guessed that what Gomer and Nev did probably didn’t even qualify as plant hire in the strictest sense. Mostly, they dug field drains and soakaways for septic tanks. They had two tractors, a lorry, a bulldozer and a couple of diggers, Gwynneth and Muriel, stored in a former aircraft shed, twenty minutes away, near a long-disused airstrip just across the Welsh border. Where the fire was happening.

‘What about insurance, Gomer?’

‘Oh, we’re insured, sure t’be. But that en’t the point, is it, vicar?’

‘No. I guess not.’ A couple of years ago, Gomer had been pressed by Minnie into semi-retirement and he’d let Nev more or less take over the business. But after Minnie’s death, he’d gone grimly back, full-time. Plant hire: now it was all he had left.

‘En’t the point at all,’ Gomer said sadly. They were held up by temporary traffic lights at roadworks on the edge of Kington town centre.

‘Does Nev know?’

‘Ah, he’ll still be out on the bloody piss – apologies, vicar. Nobody knowed which pub the bugger was in.’

Unlike his nephew, Gomer didn’t drink much at all these days. But earlier tonight, it seemed, he’d arranged to see a certain bloke in the Black Swan, about some job or other, and this particular bloke was a big boozer, and Gomer had felt obliged to keep up with him. Mabbe four pints, vicar, he’d confessed, surrendering the wheel. Tonight of all bloody nights.

When Jane had run up to Merrily on the square and said, It’s Gomer, her first thought had been that he’d had a stroke or a heart attack like Minnie, who would have loved to mind the souvenir shop in the church – nobody better, except possibly Miss Lucy Devenish who’d kept Ledwardine Lore. Both of them dead now. All the things that might have been. Everything changing before you were ready, like pages of a favourite book ripped out to reveal a different story and new characters you were supposed to relate to instantly, the old ones suddenly gone for ever.

The traffic lights changed at last, and Merrily drove through the damp and empty small town and out of England.

Most of the leaves around here must have come down in last week’s high winds. Between the stripped trees, you could see blue lights turning in the Radnor Valley below, beating at the mist, as though the night itself was strobing. No visible flames, only these gaseous blue lights and the off-white, misshapen moon bobbing in the mist over the border hills.

‘Take a left by yere, vicar.’ At the sight of the emergency beacons, Gomer’s voice had gone flat. ‘And keep slow.’

Merrily turned into a minor road, a fenced field on one side – stoical sheep-eyes in the headlights – and what looked like a quarry on the other. She drove on, in low gear, for about two hundred yards before the headlamps found a high wire fence and two metal wire-meshed gates, both hanging open. A police car, engine running, blue beacon revolving, was blocking the entrance. When Merrily wound down her window, there was the throb of other motors, a haze of headlights and a smell that filled up the van like poison gas: acrid, hostile.

A policeman walked over. ‘Gomer.’ And then he saw it was a woman behind the wheel. ‘Oh.’

Gomer was shouldering open the passenger door. ‘Couldn’t bring that torch from under the dash, could you, vicar? Your side.’

The policeman said, ‘You’ve brought the vicar?’

‘Little vicar brought me, Robbie.’

The policeman sniffed the air around Gomer and nodded, getting the message. Gomer would know most of the coppers around here, and their dads and grandads, too.

Merrily found the torch and climbed out of the van. Her legs felt weak. She’d never been to Gomer’s depot before. Looking around for the famous former aircraft shed, she saw only the harsh headlights of fire appliances and some other vehicles, and puddles swirling with beacon blue. A couple of firefighters were moving slowly around with hoses, amid eddies of smoke. They seemed to be spraying the earth, as if they were trying to stimulate growth, and she realized, shocked, that this was because much of the building must have fallen in around its contents. No flames were left anywhere; the firemen were just damping down, to make sure it didn’t reignite.

She saw the husk of a tractor or maybe a bulldozer, its windows all gone. Gomer spat his cigarette into a pool of rainbowed water and walked away from the policeman towards a pyramid of twisted galvanized roof-panels, about ten feet high and wreathed in stinking smoke. Merrily started to follow him, then gagged on a mouthful of the searing air – no autumn-bonfire scents here; this was chemical, astringent. She doubled up, coughing. Gomer looked back; she waved him on, pulling out some tissues to mop her flooded eyes.

When she was over it, she could see him talking to two coppers and a senior-looking fireman inside a steamy mesh of headlamp beams. There were other people around, another blue light. She straightened up, began to move towards them, and another fireman bawled at her.

‘Stay back!’

‘OK…’ Putting up her hands, backing off. The three-quarter moon gleamed off the flank of a digger lying tragically askew, like a great shire horse with a broken neck.

Gwynneth, or Muriel. Merrily felt close to tears. She saw the policemen leading Gomer back towards the van, the senior fireman following them, snapping questions.

‘… Oil tanks? Diesel?’

‘Tank was inside,’ Gomer said. ‘Locked up.’

‘Just the one?’

‘Ar. Locked up. Good locks.’

‘Who else had keys, Gomer?’ An older policeman: grey moustache and sergeant’s stripes.

Nobody else had bloody keys, Cliff! Me and Nev, just me and Nev. You saying some bastard let ’isself in? ’Cause you’d need a bloody oxyacetylene torch to break in yere, take it from me.’

‘Far’s I can gather, Gomer, there was no sign of a break-in when the fire brigade got here. No doors hanging open, nothing like that, nothing obvious. However—’

‘When was this, Cliff?’

‘Two hours ago, round about. It was well away by then.’

‘’Cause if you boys reckons this was done deliberate’ – Gomer turned to the older policeman, a forefinger waving – ‘then I can give you a name, straight off.’

‘Gomer, listen, we en’t saying nothing like that at this stage.’

‘A bloody good name, Cliff.’

Merrily blinked, confused. How could he possibly give them a name? Was there something she didn’t know about, something Gomer hadn’t told her? It went quieter suddenly, and she realized the hoses had been turned off.

‘Gomer, listen to me,’ Cliff said quietly, ‘before you start throwing accusations around… you seen Nev tonight?’

‘Eh?’

Nev.’

‘I never sees Nev at night.’ Gomer calmed himself down, bringing out his cigarette tin. ‘All right to smoke, is it?’

‘Rather you didn’t,’ the fireman said.

The younger copper, Robbie, put a hand over Gomer’s tin. ‘Because we can’t find him, see.’

‘He lives at Presteigne. Lot of pubs in Presteigne. You go round the bloody pubs, you’ll find him, all right.’

‘We know all that,’ Robbie said. ‘We know Nev’s been drinking heavy lately. Including tonight.’

‘Depends what you means by heavy,’ Gomer said guardedly.

‘The thing…’ The sergeant, Cliff, hesitated. ‘The thing is, Gomer… Nev got hisself thrown out of the Royal Oak earlier on. Been on the beer, gets into a barney with Clem Morris’s boy, Jordan, on account of Jordan thinks Nev’s after his girlfriend. Something and nothing, as usual, but it all gets overheated, and we get sent along to calm things down. And we strongly suggested to Nev that he oughter go home directly and sleep it off.’

‘Stupid fat bastard,’ Gomer said.

‘Only, we know Nev didn’t go home, see, or he didn’t stay home, because when we goes to his flat over the paper shop, after the fire was reported, Nev en’t there.’

‘What you saying?’ Gomer snapped a glance over his shoulder towards the pyramid of smoking debris, his fists clenching. Merrily saw that, behind the collapsed shed, a small building was still standing, probably because it was made of concrete blocks. In the distance, below the moon, she could see a conifered hillside, the view of which the aircraft shed must once have concealed.

‘What we want to ask you, Gomer,’ Cliff said, gently enough to make Merrily very worried, ‘is where might Nev’ve gone? A mate’s… a girlfriend’s?’

‘What you saying?’ Gomer turned slowly, the blue light flaring in his glasses. ‘What you bloody saying, Cliff Morgan?’

Some more people were gathering around, firemen with their helmets off, like a sign of respect. Gomer suddenly spun away and pushed through them, disappearing into a hollow of darkness beyond the milky confluence of vehicle lights.

* * *

Merrily found him standing outside the concrete building. The air smelled of oil and charred wood. She felt slightly sick. From behind, she heard Cliff saying wearily, ‘Don’t let the little bugger go in, for Christ’s sake.’

‘Lend me the torch, vicar.’

But it was only holding tight to the heavy, rubberized flashlight that kept Merrily’s hands from shaking. Drawing a long breath, she shone the light inside the building to where the water was still an inch deep, from the damping-down. And then the beam was all over the place as she pushed her sleeve into her face because of what the breath had brought in with it.

She started to cough again. Amid the diesel vapour and the wet wood-ash was an odour you could taste. The torch beam found its own way down scorched plasterboard walls, over a dented grey metal desk, a wooden chair that now looked like it was made of hollow columns of ash. The remains of a wooden partition hung in grotesquely ornate strands, like the rood screen in some abandoned church.

Biting down on her lip, Merrily shone the light back onto Gomer, standing there with his cap gone and his white hair springing up, an unlit roll-up between his teeth. As she watched, he seemed to sag, as if what she saw was just his clothes, and the living essence of Gomer was deflating inside them. She let the beam follow his gaze to what had been a mattress, reduced now to lumps of scorched fabric and exposed springs.

And Oh God. Oh, sweet Jesus. Like a prayer opening up.

Was that what she was supposed to do at this moment – offer up a prayer for what lay on the mattress, for the soul that had vacated the blistered, split skin, the flesh cooked in blue denim and left to congeal, the legs burned back to the bone, the feet fused into the Doc Martens by their melted rubber soles?

Merrily’s stomach lurched

Hands gripped her shoulders. Gomer was alive again and turning her around, snatching the torch from her, but even when she was away from the smell, standing in a puddle, letting the cold water seep into her shoes, she was still seeing the spindle of an arm thrown protectively across the swollen, football face so that all you could make out underneath was the grimace of teeth.

She heard Gomer saying hoarsely to Cliff, ‘You want that name? You want the name now, boy?’

5

Denial of the Obvious

IT WAS RAINING again, the moon hidden. Cliff Morgan said, ‘I know how hard this is, so if you’re not one hundred per cent certain then you should say so.’ His grey moustache covered most of his lips and his eyes suggested that he was more than ready for retirement. ‘And frankly, Gomer, I don’t see how you can be certain. I’m sorry. I think this is going to be a dentist job.’

He offered them shelter in the police car, holding open one of the back doors, but Gomer stood defiantly in the rain, rubbing hard at his glasses without taking them off. ‘You bloody write this down,’ he was insisting, as if he hadn’t heard anything Cliff had said to him. ‘You get it wrote down official, boy. I wannit in the report, black and white.’

‘I en’t writing anything down just now, Gomer. I think you’re very much in shock.’ Cliff looked at Merrily. ‘Mrs Watkins, right?’

She nodded. She didn’t think she’d seen him before, but he seemed to recognize her. Dyfed-Powys Police; maybe one of the cops involved in the Old Hindwell conflict last winter.

‘Gomer been with you all night, has he?’

Merrily was startled. ‘What’s that mean?’

‘I’m just pre-empting other people’s questions, Mrs Watkins. People who don’t know him as well as I know him.’

‘Right,’ she said. ‘Of course. Sorry.’ When a building on its own in the middle of the countryside got burned down at night, police inquiries were always going to start with the owner.

‘At this moment, it’s a suspicious death, Reverend. CID have been informed, the pathologist sent for, the scene-of-crime people. We don’t yet know whether we’ve got a crime, but procedures are stricter now. Infantrymen like us, we’re not allowed to touch anything any more. We’re not clever enough, see.’

‘All the same, you’ve obviously seen this… kind of thing before. Do you think… I mean, do you think he was dead before the fire?’ She swallowed; she was still feeling sick, was somehow still smelling that awful smell – like roast pork – as though grease and fumes were in her hair. She knew why Gomer didn’t want to come out of the rain.

The senior fireman said, ‘I would think… although he must’ve been close to the seat of the fire, I would say he was overcome with smoke before it got to him. I don’t think he would have suffered, if that’s what you’re asking.’ He turned to Gomer. ‘That mattress, Mr Parry – has that always been in the back room there?’

‘Ar.’ Gomer had his tin open and his fingers were at work on a new ciggy whether he knew it or not. ‘Boy used to sleep there sometimes when things was bad between him and Kayleigh.’

‘And sometimes not on his own, what I heard,’ Cliff said.

‘Mabbe. Her once locked him out best part of a week. Turned a blind eye, I did. He had enough problems back then. I never figured he was still kipping yere, mind. Mabbe there’d be nights when he’s walking into the ole flat, and it just comes down on him that her’d gone and left him for a biker and a bloody ole squat in Cornwall. And he just… he couldn’t stay there.’

Gomer stopped rolling the paper and tobacco, as if his fingers had gone numb, and he stared at the ground. Merrily wondered how often, since last January, he’d walked into his own bungalow and experienced that same cold dismay.

‘But if you was thinking…’ Gomer looked up at Cliff. ‘If you was thinking that mabbe Nev Parry come in yere tonight pissed out of his head, and set all this off by accident or bloody carelessness, you can forget it now, boy.’

‘Not my job to decide, Gomer.’

‘’Cause I’m giving you this other name now, and don’t you forget it.’

‘Gomer—’

‘Roddy Lodge,’ Gomer said. ‘Roddy Lodge, plant-hire cowboy from up by Ross. You go over there and you talk to that bastard about this. Now. Tonight. ’Fore he can wash the bloody oil off his clothes. Roddy Lodge. You write that down.’

Cliff wasn’t writing anything down. Another car was pulling in behind the police car and Gomer’s van. ‘CID, I do believe,’ the younger copper, Robbie, said. ‘Just in time for breakfast.’

Merrily put a hand over her mouth.

What you said to the bereaved, usually in hospitals, was something like, Would you like me to say a prayer? Would you like us to pray together?

It was not always appropriate.

Merrily drove Gomer’s van for three or four miles before pulling into a lay-by, a mile or so over the hill from Kington Cemetery. Overhanging trees were dripping on to the bonnet, an all-night bulb was glowing outside a cottage across the empty road. As she killed the engine, a barn owl glided low, almost at windscreen level, seemed almost to hover for moment.

‘Why’ve you stopped, vicar?’ It was the first time Gomer had asked a question since they’d left the yard. He’d sat stiff-backed in the passenger seat, staring through his glasses and the windscreen.

‘Ought to ring Jane,’ she said.

‘Her’ll be in bed.’

‘I don’t think so, Gomer, somehow.’

‘You gonner tell her?’

‘I think so.’

She fumbled for her phone. Nev: she hadn’t really known him. Yet she had.

No problem, vicar, I’ll get Nev to do it, see…

That bloody Nev… digged a whole trench, got called away, come back and filled it in and forgot he en’t put the bloody pipes down…

Daft bugger. Bloody sweatshirts. Never live it down. Gotter laugh, though. You gotter laugh…

Be meeting Nev on the site at eight – say this for the boy, no matter what he’s put away the night before, he en’t never late…

Probably because Nev would have been sleeping on the premises.

There was nobody for them to tell immediately about Nev. His mum and dad – Gomer’s elder brother and his wife – were both dead. His ex-wife, Kayleigh, was presumably still in a squat in Cornwall with a biker. And the police had advised Gomer not to inform anyone more peripheral until there was confirmation.

Dentist job.

The quizzing of Gomer by a dishevelled detective constable had been brief and routine; they’d want to talk to him again tomorrow when they knew more. This time he hadn’t mentioned Roddy Lodge, whoever he was… perhaps just a name thrown up by the shock, a convenient focus for Gomer’s uncomprehending anguish, his denial of the obvious.

Merrily called up the vicarage number and was starting to get anxious when it rang six times before Jane picked up.

‘Sorry.’ The kid sounded muzzy. ‘Think I kind of fell asleep in the chair.’ A pause. ‘It’s bad, isn’t it?’

Merrily told her most of it. No point in dressing it up. Jane was silent for a while, then she said, her voice pitched high and querulous, ‘Couldn’t it be like a tramp or something? I know that’s just as like— just as bad for somebody, but it…’

‘We have to wait for official confirmation, flower.’

‘I just like knew there’d be something like this. It’s that kind of year – anything that could possibly be bad is always worse. Starting with Minnie… What will you do now?’

‘Come home, I suppose.’

‘Mum…’ Another pause as the wider implications sank in. ‘This is going to screw him up completely, isn’t it? It’s not like he can revive that business on his own, not at his age. But if he doesn’t, he won’t know what to do with himself. He’ll just fade into—’

‘We won’t let that happen,’ Merrily said quickly. ‘Go to bed this time, flower, or you won’t be fit for school.’

‘It’s half-term.’

‘Of course it is.’

‘Holiday time,’ Jane said. ‘What fun.’

Merrily had been holding the phone tight to her ear and didn’t think Gomer had heard any of Jane’s side of the conversation at all. But when she pocketed the mobile and started the van’s engine, he turned to her, green dashboard lights reflected in his glasses. Whatever small amount of light was available, Gomer’s glasses always seemed to reflect it.

‘En’t gonner pack in, vicar. En’t gonner walk away.’

‘Never thought you would.’

‘Gotter put it all back together. Somehow.’

‘Yes.’

‘Kind of memorial would that be for the boy, the business went down the toilet?’

‘We should talk about that.’

‘Put me outer the picture,’ Gomer said. ‘It’s what he wanted.’

‘Who?’

‘Roddy Lodge.’

‘Well, we can talk about that, too.’ Merrily let out the clutch too quickly – the van lurched and the engine stalled. ‘When we’ve got clearer heads. When we’re not so—’

‘You’re bloody well fobbin’ me off, ennit?’

‘No, I’m not, but…’

‘Poor ole bloody Parry! Shock of it turned his mind, done his ole brain in! Won’t face up to the truth: the boy had a drink problem. Comes in out of his bloody head, sets light to the mattress. Always been a liability. Accident waitin’ to happen. That’s what they’re gonner say, ennit?’

‘No.’ Merrily restarted the engine. ‘No, they’re not. Everybody liked Nev. Everybody who knew him.’ Ar. Well, that’s true. That’s dead right. But it weren’t Nev he was after. Me he wanted to get at, see. Poor bloody Nev, he just got in the way.’

‘Gomer—’

‘Can’t back away from this, vicar. Gotter take my piece o’ the blame. I never thought, see. Even after what I yeard in the Swan tonight, I never thought anybody in his right mind would…’ He shook his head. ‘But he en’t, see. That’s the point. En’t in his right mind. I never really reckoned on that.’

It was something about his voice this time. And the realization that he must have been going over this, in a kind of mental mist, all the time she’d been talking at him. Merrily switched off the engine and then the lights, watching the green glow fade from Gomer’s bottle glasses.

She slid a hand under her hair, undid her dog collar, pulled it off and put it on top of the dashboard.

She lit a cigarette.

‘All right,’ she said. ‘Who’s Roddy Lodge?’

6

Demonizing Roddy

GOMER BORROWED MERRILY’S mobile and rang his home number. He wanted her to hear a message on his machine, which, if you didn’t use the skip signal, would relay everything recorded since you last wound back the tape. He sat there for about four minutes with the mobile at his ear before thrusting it back at her.

‘Listen…’

The moon was back in the sky, two of them back in Gomer’s glasses: animation.

Merrily listened.

Mr Parry, it’s Lisa Pawson. I’m back in London. Listen, I’m afraid I’ve had Lodge on the phone…

Private drainage: for serious country-dwellers there was no other kind; you had a septic tank, and when the smell got too bad you had it emptied. For some incoming city types, however, having to take responsibility for your own waste could be a perpetual source of fear. What if it overflowed? What if it all started oozing back up your lavatory, in the middle of a dinner party?

It was the fear of sewage that kept firms like the Birmingham- based Efflapure in business. After meeting Lisa Pawson, Gomer had spent a couple of hours on Sunday evening making inquiries about the firm. Apparently, an Efflapure was an overpriced, overcomplicated, high-maintenance piece of junk that was supposed to turn your liquid waste into something you could safely add to your whisky. It would be smoothly and expensively installed for you by any one of a number of teams of so-called skilled subcontractors all over the country.

Mostly cowboys, Gomer said. Like Roddy Lodge, of down by Ross-on-Wye.

… And somehow, he knew you’d been to see me. It was awful. I really think he must be slightly off his head. He insists there’s absolutely nothing wrong with his positioning of the Efflapure and that you and the surveyor are “in it together”, trying to discredit him. Naturally, I don’t believe a word of this… but please will you call me as soon as you return.’

Bleep.

Merrily passed the phone back to Gomer. ‘How on earth did this Lodge know you’d been to see the woman?’

‘Somebody seen the van, sure t’be.’ Gomer put the mobile to his left ear and carried on listening to the sequence of messages. ‘No big surprise. It’s so near the main road, that place. Scores of motors going past, anybody could’ve seen me, even Roddy Lodge ’isself. Anyway, vicar, shouldn’t surprise you how fast word d’get around in this county.’

‘No. I suppose not.’

‘Also, see, there’s a lot o’ folk…’ His voice faded; she saw the moons beginning to shake in his glasses.

‘What’s wrong?’

Gomer handed her the mobile again. He took off his glasses, turned away.

‘… never woulder believed it, Gomer. Wanted one and a half mile of track clearin’, right up to the top of the Garth, and would we do it for two hundred? Bloody hell, I says, there’s at least five days’ work there, Mr Pugh!’

Nev.

‘I says he could argue it out with you, he wanted to. So if you hears from Frankie Pugh, that’s what it’s about, all right?’

Bleep.

Gomer coughed and looked out through the windscreen. Now that the sky had cleared again, you could see the lights of Eardisley village. Merrily put a hand on his arm. He’d become almost his old self, telling her about Efflapure and Roddy Lodge.

Now Mrs Pawson’s angsty voice was back in her ear.

‘… I’m sorry, this is getting ridiculous. He’s just phoned again. This time he says he doesn’t want any trouble and, while he isn’t admitting that it was wrongly positioned, he says he’s now prepared to come and take it away and return our money in full. In fact he… he was absolutely insisting that he should be the one to take it away. I’m sorry, one moment…’

Muted voices: Mrs Pawson in hurried conversation with someone in the room. Then she was back.

‘My husband agrees that no way should that man be allowed back on the premises, so I’m hoping that you’re going to be able to keep to the schedule and remove the… appliance tomorrow, as we arranged. I propose to telephone Lodge and tell him that you’ll be handling everything. If there’s a problem, please call me as soon as you can. Thank you, Mr Parry.’

Bleep.

Merrily lowered the phone. ‘Both these calls were this morning?’

‘Last one ’bout two this afternoon, I reckon,’ Gomer said. ‘No problem about lifting the unit. Me and Nev, we was gonner go over there first thing. But I still wanted to call her back, see. Some’ing puzzling me – why didn’t her take him up on this offer to shift the thing ’isself? Save ’em paying me to do it. Save me trying to flog it for ’em second-hand. Didn’t make no sense.’

‘Unless she wasn’t convinced Lodge would give them their money back.’

Gomer shook his head. ‘More’n that.’

‘What did she say when you called her back?’

‘Her wasn’t in. So after tea I gets on the phone to young Darren Booth – that’s the local surveyor called me in in the first place – and Darren… well, you ever met Darren, you’d know he’s terrible loud – rugby club, male-voice choir, that’s Darren. But today, the boy’s gone dead quiet on me. “Gomer,” he says, “my advice is, leave it a while. Let it lie. Likely her’ll change her mind, you know what these Londoners is like.” Now is that funny, or what, vicar?’

‘It’s odd.’

‘Ar. “What kind of ole wallop is this, Darren?” I says. He says, “He en’t right, that’s all.” ’

‘Lodge?’

‘ “En’t stable,” Darren says. “Very protective of his business,” he says. And wouldn’t say n’more. Comes on about how he has a hurgent appointment, rings off. Soon as I puts the phone down, it rings again. Voice goes, “Gomer Parry?” I says, “Ar, that’s me.” Voice says, “We don’t like the” – pardon my French, vicar – “we don’t like the fuckin’ Welsh… we don’t like the fuckin’ Welsh pinchin’ our business. You’re gettin’ a warnin’ tonight. You comes south of Hereford, you’re finished, Gomer Parry, you’re a dead man.” Then the line cuts off.’

‘That was him – Lodge?’

‘Held back his number, so I looks him up in the phone book, calls the number and nobody picks up. I reckon he wasn’t calling from home, see – that’s how it seems to me now. I reckon he was on a bloody mobile from down by my bloody depot, figuring out how he was gonner torch it. You’re gettin’ a warnin’ tonight – how much clearer you wannit?’

Merrily sighed. ‘If he was on a mobile, it might not be that easy to trace the call. And unless you have it on tape…’

‘Course, I din’t think that much about it – only made me more determined to do the job. Anyway, a bit later, I was gonner go to the parish meeting, thinking you might be in need of a spot of back-up, see, and I’m going across the square when Jumbo Humphries rolls up in his Caddy, says how about a quick one in the Swan, and I’m figuring if anybody know about Lodge it’ll be him, so—’

‘Jumbo?’

‘Humphries. Drives this ole Caddy?’

‘Ah.’ Merrily got out another cigarette. ‘I did notice this big, long American car on the square.’

‘That was him. Bloody ole thing that is, vicar – does about eleven miles a gallon on a long run. You en’t come across Jumbo? Got this place the other side o’ Talgarth – second-hand motors, stock fencing, animal feed, newspapers. And a snack bar. Harrods, they calls it.’

Merrily smiled and thumbed the Zippo, illuminating Gomer’s face. Seeing what might be small tear marks, she lit her cigarette quickly and put out the flame.

‘And also a private investigator,’ Gomer said.

‘You’re kidding.’

Gomer sniffed. ‘En’t that bloody brilliant, tell the truth, but he’s cheap. Checks out stuff for farmers, mostly. Stuff the NFU won’t do for free. Spyin’ on neighbours in feuds… land disputes, stock-thievin’. Goes around with a video camera. Mickey Mouse operation, you ask me, but Jumbo, he thinks he’s bloody Humphrey Bogart.’

‘Hang on, this is the man you were keeping pace with on drinks? You and he each drank four pints in the Swan and then he drove off in this huge, conspicuous American limo?’

‘Charmed life,’ Gomer said. ‘Plus he do weigh over twenty stone. Reckons it don’t affect him the same.’ He paused. ‘Come to think of it, he had a couple of whiskies as well. We had a good ole chat – catchin’ up, you know. And he told me a good bit about Lodge.’

‘Oh,’ Merrily said.

It was after midnight now and she was cold and tired. But Gomer was sounding increasingly focused and rational, and that was good. And if he needed to talk, well, women were good at listening – who said that? Never mind. Merrily smoked and listened.

It had been a rare case for Jumbo Humphries, the one that brought him up against Roddy Lodge. Probably routine for city private eyes, Gomer said, but rare for Jumbo: divorce.

What he’d previously failed to mention about Roddy was the boy’s legendary success with women. Gomer said he’d found this hard to believe: flash bastard, but not much to look at. Anyway, Jumbo Humphries had been retained by a farmer from down near Welsh Newton, who’d employed Roddy for field-drain work and come to regret it big time.

First off: tools, equipment. Things disappearing – a hay-fork, a stainless steel spade – whenever Roddy had been. Which he couldn’t believe at first, this farmer, as he knew the Lodge family: honest, straight, religious – Baptists. Couldn’t believe it was down to Roddy, this petty thieving, so he didn’t say anything.

And then, a couple of weeks after Lodge had finished the job and left, the farmer got word in the pub that his wife, who seemed to have made a lot of extra shopping trips lately, had been seen getting out of a white van in a lay-by where her own car was parked. When the shopping trips continued to increase, the farmer hired Jumbo Humphries to follow the wife.

Merrily found it hard to imagine how a twenty-stone man in a Cadillac was going to operate undercover in the vicinity of sparsely populated Welsh Newton, and this turned out to be a valid point. Although Jumbo Humphries had used one of the Land Rovers from his used-vehicle lot to follow the farmer’s wife one afternoon to a disused quarry, where a man was indeed waiting in a white van, he evidently had, at some stage, been spotted.

‘The van man – this is Lodge, right?’ Gomer said. ‘Jumbo recognizes him soon as he seen the dark glasses. So he parks out of sight – he thinks – on the edge of this quarry, gets out his video camera, starts creeping up on the van, figuring he might film ’em through the back window, get his evidence. Then…’

Gomer got out a roll-up, and Merrily lit it for him, noticing his hands were a long way from steady. He had two good drags before continuing.

‘Then just as he comes around the side o’ the van… bloody thing starts up, see. Spins round, comes after Jumbo – big empty space this is, the ole quarry yard – and Jumbo’s running for his bloody life. Van’s coming straight at him, near takes his foot off, and Jumbo, he stumbles and drops the camera. Van runs over it. Four hundred quids’ worth of camera!’

‘Occupational hazard, I suppose, for private eyes,’ Merrily said.

‘Not round these parts it en’t. But there was more to come, see. Lodge knowed Jumbo. Everybody does. He knowed where to find him, where he goes, where he drinks. That night, Jumbo comes out the pub at Llyswen, just on closing time, finds all four of the Caddy’s tyres slashed. Had to call a taxi to get home, come back with a low-loader next day to pick up the ole Caddy.’ He looked at Merrily expectantly. ‘See?’

‘Well… Gomer, it’s one thing running over a camera and slashing four tyres. I mean, it’s bad… But a major arson attack on a competitor’s yard involving… loss of life…’

‘Vicar, you yeard what that woman said on the phone. And Darren. And “You’re gettin’ a warnin’ tonight”.’

‘How did Jumbo know that it really was Lodge who slashed his tyres? Could’ve been pure coincidence, couldn’t it?’

Gomer snorted. ‘Put it together, vicar. Darren says he en’t stable. Somebody tells Lodge Gomer Parry Plant Hire’s been on his patch, Lodge goes straight round there and leans on Darren. Then he’s on the phone trying to put the frighteners on Mrs Pawson, only she’s in London…’

‘Didn’t Jumbo take it any further?’

‘Vicar, we en’t talkin’ about bloody Peter Marlowe yere. No, he didn’t take it no further. He backed off. What he says to me, he says, “Mess with Lodge, Gomer, you en’t dealin’ with a normal human being n’more.” ’

‘In what way?’

‘Mental, vicar. Lost it, blown it. Works on his own all night sometimes – been witnessed. Fires from the bloody hip when he feels threatened. And he en’t scared what he does. Feels he’s… nobody can touch him.’

‘Invulnerable.’

Ar. Met that type a few times.’

Gomer, you are that type, Merrily thought dismally.

‘ “You’re pushin’ seventy, Gomer,” Jumbo says, “and Roddy Lodge en’t even forty. Don’t be a bloody hero.” ’

‘That was tonight?’

‘In the Swan.’

‘Look…’ Merrily sensed his absolute certainty and turned to face him, an arm around the wheel. ‘I accept that the guy’s erratic, possibly a little unhinged. I realize you were right to tell the police, and I think you should tell them again tomorrow. I’ll tell them.’ She turned the key in the ignition. ‘Tomorrow, though. Let’s just… go home now.’

She let out the clutch and the van lurched into the empty road. Gomer was silent for a while. Merrily considered the possibility that, in his state of desolation, he was simply demonizing Roddy Lodge. What little evidence there was still pointed at poor Nev.

‘He knows they en’t there, see,’ Gomer said after a couple of minutes. ‘These Pawsons. Knows they en’t there ’cept weekends. Plus, he likely knowed we was coming to take out this Efflapure come the morning. Her said her was gonner tell him, right?’

‘Sorry… what are you getting at?’

‘Suppose he was plannin’ to go for that tank ’isself, meantime?’

‘Gomer, for… Why would he do that?’

‘Keep his good name, ennit? Small county, vicar. Man like that couldn’t live with folk knowin’ Gomer Parry Plant Hire had come and took away his fancy tank on account he’d put it in the wrong place and it weren’t needed anyway. Plus, also – I just figured this – we’d have one to look at, then, wouldn’t we? We’d all know what a piece of ole junk it was. Suppose he was makin’ sure we couldn’t do that job at all, by torchin’ the shed, destroyin’ the gear? Listen, I en’t sayin’ he knowed Nev was in there. I en’t sayin’ that… yet.’

‘Gomer, I know this has been a… an unimaginably awful thing to happen, but is that even vaguely—?’

‘Meanwhile he comes for the Efflapure ’isself under cover of dark, just to be sure. Knowing he got the place to ’isself…’

‘Is that entirely rational?’

‘He en’t a rational man, vicar. If he’s done the job tonight, if he’s been and took the Efflapure, that’s evidence.’

‘Possibly. If the Pawsons stick to their story.’

‘Don’t matter if they don’t, vicar, we got it on tape on the machine.’

‘Yes. I suppose you have.’ Merrily drove slowly into Eardisley, the first village on the black-and-white tourist trail which ended up eventually in Ledwardine. At night – all dark oak, whitewash and shadows – the village shed centuries and the car-dealer’s showroom right in the centre looked surreal.

‘Seventeen, mabbe eighteen,’ Gomer said. ‘No more’n twenty.’

‘What?’

‘Miles.’

Merrily sighed. ‘To this Pawson place, right?’

‘No traffic in Hereford, mind. Say half an hour, max?’

‘And what are we going to do if we find out he has taken the tank?’

‘Vicar, we’ll know.’ The two moons were clear and sharp in Gomer’s glasses. ‘We’ll bloody know.’

7

Legs Off Spiders

SO THIS WAS what they called The Hour of the Wolf. Something like that.

The dark night of the soul. The time of being transfixed by this acute, piercing awareness of the total pointlessness of everything – and of an utter, mindless, universal cruelty.

Jane had lain awake for nearly an hour, with Ethel the black cat on the bed beside her and real life hanging over her like this huge, leaden pendulum swinging slowly from side to side in the darkness.

You might as well just lie here for ever because, if you sat up at the wrong time, the lead weight – which you were never going to see coming – would suddenly smash you down again with sickening force.

This was what happened. This was the great, almighty secret of everything.

The moon – the once-beloved moon – made fitful appearances amid smoky cloud in the attic window, turning the coloured squares between the timber framing of the Mondrian walls into variations of grey. Everything was variations of grey.

Jane felt suddenly almost breathless with horror… with the thought that this – where her life was now – could actually be as good as it was ever going to get. Felt aglow inside with this bitter rage – the understanding that, as you got older and your body got weaker, the lead weight would smash you harder and more frequently until you couldn’t get up any more.

The way it was hammering Gomer Parry, who was one of the kindest, most actually decent people Jane had ever known, like a grandad to her now.

Because Gomer was getting old, and old people got ill and they got mugged – some universal law setting them up for this, the law that said: it’s always going to get worse. It was as if she’d never fully realized this painfully simple fact of life.

Made her mad as hell at Mum, this smart, still-attractive woman devoting most of her creative essence to the totally pointless adoration of something which, if it existed at all, existed only to treat us like shit!

Jane sprang up in bed, switching on the wall light, plucking the pay-as-you-talk from the bedside beanbag. She leaned back against the headboard, switching on the phone, punching out Eirion’s mobile number. OK, totally uncivilized time to ring anybody, especially the guy you were supposed to be in love in, but he’d have switched off his phone by now, so it wouldn’t matter; she’d just dump something into his voice-mail. Had to say something about this, and couldn’t call Mum without sounding like the little girl all alone in the big, dark vicarage.

‘Hello, Jane,’ Eirion said.

Oh sh—! She nearly stabbed the no button. ‘Jesus, Irene, I am so sorry – I don’t know what I’m doing. Like, why isn’t your phone switched off? It’s nearly one a.m.’ She reached up in a panic and snapped off the light, as though he could somehow see her with her hair all over the place and her eyes all puffy. ‘How did you know it was me?’

‘Because,’ Eirion said patiently, ‘of the solemn pact we made that we would always leave our phones switched on at night, so that if one of us was in crisis and needed to talk…’

Jane swallowed. ‘Oh.’

‘We remember now, do we?’

‘I didn’t think we meant it.’

‘Obviously one of us didn’t.’

She started to cry. ‘I’m sorry, Irene. I’m truly sorry. I’m the worst kind of bitch that ever—’

‘What’s wrong? You been listening to that Eels album again?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Jane said. ‘It was very stupid of me. I’ll call you tomorrow.’

‘Jane…’ Eirion’s soft Welsh voice sounded like it was weighted with all the sorrow of his ancestors. ‘If you hang up on me now, I may have to steal my stepmother’s BMW again and drive thirty miles to quench my overwhelming desire to strangle you very slowly.’

‘All right.’ Jane sniffed hard. ‘You asked for this, right? Big question: am I the only person of my age ever to realize that God, if God exists, is in fact some enormous, moronic, cosmic… infant who just, like, sits there, pulling the legs off spiders?’

Eirion thought about it for some time.

‘Probably not,’ he said.

Jane said, ‘Is there a longer answer?’

‘There undoubtedly has to be a longer answer, cariad, and probably a good reason why that concept is theologically unsound. Just don’t ask me what it is without giving me some kind of notice.’

‘And you’re really proposing to go to university next year?’

‘But not to read theology.’

‘Theology’s shit, anyway. I speak from insider knowledge.’

‘Jane, just tell me what’s wrong, could you do that? What’s happened?’

‘How do you know something’s happened?’

‘Because you didn’t ask me if I was naked.’

‘Right,’ Jane said.

‘That was a joke.’

‘I know.’

‘I’m not, anyway.’

‘Tonight, I don’t think I even care,’ Jane said.

And she told him why she was alone in the vicarage at one a.m.

It evidently knocked him back. He didn’t seem to know how to react. He knew Gomer; she couldn’t remember if he’d met Nev. ‘Shit,’ he said. ‘Oh bloody hell, that’s… The poor guy. Shit.’

‘Like, consider, OK? Nev. Consider that this guy was just put here – this human being was created – to be a digger driver… to live in the same valley all his life… to become overweight… to have a very bad marriage, to… to get humiliated, get drunk… and then get fucking burned to death. That’s it! I mean, that’s it, Irene – The Nev Parry Story. The whole incarnation! What was that about? What was it supposed to teach him? How is it going to help refine his immortal soul? And like don’t give me any of that Welsh-chapel bollocks about redemption through endless suffering.’

‘I don’t know,’ Eirion said soberly. ‘Maybe it’s not something we’re permitted to understand.’

‘Yeah, great. Either that, or it’s all complete crap. How often do you think of that? I find I’m thinking it a lot now: no God, only chaos.’

‘You’re an emergent atheist suddenly? What happened to paganism?’

‘Yeah,’ Jane said. ‘Paganism. What did happen to paganism? You want the truth? Sometimes I’m inclined to think modern paganism’s purely and simply about having fun – a reaction to the grey, studied bloody misery of Christianity. Dressing up, casting spells, cobbling together phoney rituals that sound heavy and significant, and kidding yourself you have like exclusive access to some arcane inner knowledge, which… I mean, somehow, it all just like… dissolves in the face of real life, the fucking savagery of it.’ Jane rubbed a wet eye with the heel of her palm. She felt cold and barren, nothing left to cling to except… ‘I wish you were here, Irene.’

‘Well, me too, obviously. I’m coming over tomorrow anyway… later today, would that be? Knight’s Frome? The session?’

‘Oh yeah.’ Lol had finally fixed it with Prof Levin for Eirion, the all-time rock-obsessive, to sit in on a recording session. ‘I don’t even know about that now. I don’t know how things are going to turn out. Life just comes at you, doesn’t it, like an axe? I was just thinking – again – Is Mum Living a Lie? It often comes back to that.’

‘Why don’t you have a proper talk to her?’

‘There’s never time. If it’s not trivial parish crap it’s Deliverance stuff. And how valid is that, really? I used to worry that she was in genuine spiritual danger from the unseen world… But how much crap is that? How often does the bloody unseen world destroy your—’

‘Jane, is this the time to talk about this stuff? I don’t think so.’

Au contraire, Irene, it’s the time when you can see the reality of it in all its stark… reality.’

‘What about your psychic experiences? You were always going on about that stuff.’

‘I think… I think we fool ourselves half the time. We desperately want there to be something else, and our subconscious minds, our brains, help us out. Comfort chemicals.’ For a moment she was shocked at the hard, croaky sound of her own voice. ‘And she… like Mum always says, when everything else fails, you just have to believe in love.’ Jane stared into the darkness. ‘I don’t know whether that’s a smart answer or just a smart get-out.’

She was thinking, What if love’s also a lie? What if there’s only sex, to take your mind off the shit for a few minutes?

‘I’d better go,’ she said.

‘Mabbe this was a mistake,’ Gomer said as they followed the A49, a couple of miles out of Hereford, hitting the open countryside again south of Belmont. ‘You needs your sleep, vicar, all these buggers in the parish trying to stab you in the back.’

‘Parish politics, I’m afraid,’ Merrily murmured, ‘are what people do when life isn’t happening to them.’

‘I gotter be up early, too, mind,’ Gomer said. ‘See about hiring some machines for a week or two. Got a mini-digger at the bungalow, but he en’t gonner handle much.’

She slowed. ‘Oh, Gomer.’

Got clients. They en’t gonner wait around.’

‘Gomer, that’s not – excuse me – entirely sane.’

‘Nev would want it.’ He sounded like he was somewhere else: Planet Plant Hire. ‘Twenty-four-hour service, see.’

Merrily flicked him a sideways glance. ‘If you even attempt to work this week, I’m going to have you sectioned.’

‘Wouldn’t work, girl. Buggers’d only put me in the care of the community, then you’d get me back.’ He paused. ‘You knows me by now, vicar – I don’t get back to work, it’ll all come down on me.’

She was silent. It was true. If he didn’t keep on, in the face of everything, he’d turn into some kind of elderly person, and not the most contented kind. This was why they were here now, heading towards Ross-on-Wye through the squally night. Nothing to do with obtaining evidence, because there wasn’t going to be any. This was about Gomer Parry never giving in.

‘Right.’ He was on the edge of his seat. ‘Not far now, vicar. We oughter stop some way off, pull off the road like we broke down. Don’t wanner look conspicuous, see.’

The traffic was mainly long-distance container stuff, widely separated. Merrily settled in behind a tall van with a sign on the back that read How’s my driving?, with a phone number. If there’d been one on the back of Gomer’s van tonight, the line would be jammed.

‘OK, slow down now… by yere.’ He tapped the wheel, and she took the van over the kerb and onto the grass verge, braking hard when high bushes loomed, skidding on a mud path. ‘That’s all right, girl. Shove him tight into them bushes. I’ll get out your side.’

Merrily switched off the lights and the engine, and climbed out onto the wet verge, looking around. She ought to have known where this was, but it was different at night: a stretch of tarmac, no houses visible. On the other side, the moon revealed what looked like endless fields, just a few tiny lights in the far distance. On the nearside, a ragged line of unbarbered bushes followed the road around a left-hand bend maybe a hundred yards ahead.

Gomer joined her. ‘Got the—?’

‘Torch, yes. Where’s the house?’

‘Just around that next bend.’ Gomer looked back along the verge, pointing. ‘See that wood – he runs along the back.’ But he made no move to go that way, as if he’d finally accepted the futility of all this, realized he’d clutched at the idea of Roddy Lodge as saboteur simply because he couldn’t face going home to an empty house, a cold bed and an answering machine with Nev’s voice on it.

‘I expect you’d be able to tell straight away if by any chance Lodge had moved this thing,’ Merrily said.

‘Sure to,’ Gomer said dully.

‘Let’s do it, then.’ She moved along the verge, the hem of her alb getting soaked in the long grass. ‘If anybody sees us, we can say the van broke down and we’re trying to find a phone.’

When they rounded the bend, the road began to dip and the house was below them, a block of shadow. It was no more than twenty feet back from the road and looked even closer because of its comparative isolation. Living here, you’d hear the traffic all night, a restless lullaby.

‘Entrance is just past the house itself, up a little drive,’ Gomer whispered. ‘All the land’s the other side, see.’

‘And that’s where the… thing is?’

‘The Hefflapure.’ He stopped and looked back at her, shaking his head as if he was just waking up. ‘Bloody daft, this, ennit?’

‘Something you had to do, that’s all,’ Merrily said.

‘Naw, just an ole man lookin’ for a… what’s the word?’

Scapegoat? ‘Can’t think,’ Merrily said. ‘Look, tonight we… you’ve seen what no relative should ever have to see. Maybe… I dunno… maybe we both needed to drive around a bit.’

‘Ar.’ Gomer stood at the edge of the A49, squeezing his fingers together. He seemed to have left his ciggy tin in the van. Merrily pulled out her Silk Cut, offered him one. Gomer shook his head.

‘People thought he must be called Neville. Used to get letters addressed to Mr Neville Parry.’ I thought that, too. What was he called?’

‘Nevin. Seaside place in North Wales, where his folks used to go on their holidays. Likely he was conceived there.’

Merrily smiled, and they both stepped back onto the grass as a high-sided touring coach swished past towards Ross, probably empty except for the driver. Its passenger windows, only feebly lit, were reflected, fragmented, in the leaded upper windows of the Pawson house.

But its dipped headlights set up more of a glare in Gomer’s glasses. And in the dusty back windscreen of the big digger in the drive.

All the breath came out of Gomer in a rush and Merrily actually went cold with shock.

The digger sat there silently, unoccupied, its shovel half- raised in front.

‘It’s him,’ Gomer said drably, after a moment. ‘Lodge. He’s bloody well yere.’

8

Nil Odour

AFTER A MOMENT, Merrily felt calmer. When she’d first seen the JCB in the drive it had been like the instant when a dream turned malignant, when your subconscious mind presented you, unexpectedly, with an image so loaded with menace, within the logic of the dream, that it jerked you awake for reasons of mental self-preservation. And then you thought, surprised at yourself, For heaven’s sake, it was just a truck.

‘Gomer,’ she said, ‘let’s just… let’s think about this.’

But Gomer was already off – the way he’d reacted back at the depot when he’d realized the savage truth behind Cliff Morgan’s gentle probing about Nev’s whereabouts. Only now he had a real, solid target; he was a man with something to prove, something tangible within his grasp. Before she could think to stop him, he was in through the gateway, urgently pushing back shrubs and squeezing around the side of the digger and under its wide front shovel.

Which was as far as he got, because that was when the nightmare came out of remission.

Merrily must have seen it first – a movement from the blackness between the drive and the house, and it made her jump, but she didn’t cry out because it could have been a cat or an owl. And then she saw Gomer come skating backwards, bumping along the side of the digger, bushes ripping at his jacket.

Gomer!’ He crashed back into a timber gatepost. She rushed to him. He was still on his feet but wheezing. ‘Gomer, Christ, are you—’

And then there was another man’s voice uncoiling from the shadows.

‘You want some more? You want some more, matey, you come right back now, look, and touch my digger again.’

Merrily gripped Gomer’s arm, steadying him. ‘He hit you?’

‘Pushed me, was all. Caught me off guard, ennit? Can you… can you find my glasses, vicar? Somewhere just yere.’

Merrily crouched, fingers scrabbling in the gravel, but her gaze was fixed all the time on the narrow alley between the digger and the shrubs at the edge of the drive, made wider by Gomer’s hurtling body. She found she was screwing up her eyes, expecting some sudden harsh light to hit them, but there was none. She could see the uneven roof-line of the house and the moving white dot of a plane between clouds.

She was about to switch on their own torch, then changed her mind because…

Because, oh Jesus, because maybe it was better kept as a weapon. She tightened her grip on the rubber stem of the torch, still patting the gravel with her other hand, while trying to rationalize this, trying to think of any possible explanation other than that Gomer’s crazy theory about Roddy Lodge had been, for heaven’s sake, dead right.

The only other explanations involved coincidence. One coincidence too many.

In the gravel, she touched smoothness and a wire earpiece and, in the same moment, saw a man standing at the end of the drive, between the tailgate and the house, moonlight glinting on the creases of his jacket: leather. He stood in silence, not moving, then he called out.

‘What you at over there?’

Merrily stood up, thrusting Gomer’s glasses into his hands. ‘OK, that’s it. This is where we leave. We’ve seen the digger, we know he’s here. Let’s go.’

‘We can call the police.’

‘Can’t do that, vicar.’ Gomer pushed his glasses on, calmly curling the wires around his ears. ‘Can’t just walk off now.’

‘No good. Buggers en’t gonner believe us. Anyway, time they gets yere, if they comes at all, he’ll be long gone. We got this bastard cold right yere, now… two of us… witnesses.’

‘Gomer—’

‘Chicken, then, is it?’ the man enquired, no hint of fear in the voice, although the words were spoken rapidly. ‘You boys chickenshit?’

Merrily whispered, ‘Let it go. Let’s just go back to the van. You’re right, we’re witnesses. It’s all we need. I promise you, Gomer, I’ll back you up all the way, but we need to—’

Gomer straightened up, bawled out, ‘You wanner know who I am, is it?’

No!’ Merrily dragged on his arm. Gomer didn’t move, felt as firmly rooted as the gatepost. She let go with a sound she realized was a sob, as he started to shout.

WHO AM I? GOMER PARRY PLANT HIRE! THAT’S WHO I AM, YOU MURDERING BASTARD!’

Silence. Merrily closed her eyes, squeezing the torch with both hands. Please, God, get us out of this. She could hear another lorry grinding round the bend in the A49 and considered running out into the road, waving her arms to flag down the driver.

‘Well, well, well,’ the man said.

Gomer stepped away from Merrily. Stood there with his arms by his side. Little soldier, little gunfighter. Merrily shook her head. No.

‘Lodge!’

‘Who says?’

‘What you done with that JCB, Lodge?’

‘En’t your business.’ The voice higher now, like a fox barking in the night.

‘It’s that bloody tank, ennit? You took him out.’

Pause. The lorry rumbled away on the road to Ross.

What tank’s that, then, Mr Gomer Parry?’

‘The bloody Hefflapure.’

‘Oh, you heard o’ that, then?’ Pause. ‘Thought they was still digging cesspits where you come from. Carryin’ it out in buckets.’

Gomer took a breath. There might be method in this madness, but Merrily didn’t think so. A duel: plant-hire rules? And then she thought, What if he isn’t on his own? How could he move that thing without help? What if he’s keeping us talking while someone else… ?

She whirled round. The entrance gaped.

‘You better ’ave a good explanation of where you was tonight, Lodge,’ Gomer said. ‘You better’ve got some good witnesses.’

A moment’s silence.

‘What you on about, little man?’

‘You know bloody—’

‘’Cause I don’t reckon you knows what the fuck you’re talkin’ about any more, Mr Gomer Parry. I don’t reckon you knows nothin’ ’bout nothin’, ole man. Well bloody past it. Clingin’ on by your bloody old arthriticky fingertips. Oughter’ve packed in while you was ahead, look, but you couldn’t let go… else you was just doin’ it to keep away from your ole woman.’

‘You bas—’

‘You don’t bloody know—’ Then Roddy Lodge just erupted. ‘Shit! You don’t know shit!’ Laughter like flames in the night. ‘This yere tank, he en’t no business o’ yours. This is my digger, my fuckin’ tank. I put him in, I took him out. No business o’ yours. Never was your business. You en’t got no business, boy. You en’t got business worth shit, every fucker knows that, knows I’m Number One now, look, I got fuckin’ respect for miles round yere… done tanks for all the nobs all over the Three Counties and down into Wales. I done Prince Charles’s fuckin’ sewage over at Highgrove!’

Gomer shook. ‘You lyin’ bloody toad!’

‘I done Madonna’s fuckin’ sewage up in the Cotswolds! I done Sting’s shit, down in Wiltshire!’

In other circumstances, Merrily thought, this could have been funny – surreal, anyway. ‘Gomer,’ she whispered urgently, ‘listen to me, you were right, he’s not rational. Let’s get the hell out.’

‘You go fetch the van then, girl. I’ll keep him—’

‘You bloody well won’t! You can come with me now.’

‘Who’s that with you, Gomer? Darren Booth?’ Merrily could see Roddy Lodge’s silhouette, almost full-length now, in the alley between the JCB and the hedge. Bizarrely, Lodge seemed to be bouncing on his toes. ‘Come on out, then, Darren – take you both on. Come on out… come on, boys!’

He sprang into the middle of the drive and started shouting again – voice high and rapid and streaked with outrage. ‘Tried to pinch my business. Tried to blacken my good name. Tellin’ porky pies about me! Come on, boys. Take you both… Her din’t believe you, look. Her knows what I give her was good. Knows I’m Number fuckin’ One, and don’t you ever forget it, Mr Gomer fuckin’ Chickenshit—’ Roddy Lodge broke off, looked up, squinting. ‘En’t Darren, is it?’

Gomer said nothing.

‘If it en’t Darren, who is it? I bet it’s only that fuckin’ fat mental-defective you got workin’ for you.’

Merrily could almost see herself, as if in a film, slow-motion, making a lunge for Gomer and Gomer not being there – Gomer moving away from her, along the side of the JCB, thin branches whipping behind him, until he and Roddy Lodge were facing each other in the open.

‘You murdering bastard!’

No, no, no… Merrily started edging around the other side of the digger. It was a tighter squeeze and it brought her up against the half-raised shovel, about six feet wide, with a piece of tarpaulin hanging over the rim. Please God

‘Meaning what?’ Roddy Lodge said, and she could see his lean body and then his face: concave, with a jutting, pointed jaw, pointed nose, eyes that slanted slightly. A puppet kind of face, she thought.

And he was tense now; this was clear even in vague moonlight. A sheen of sweat on his face. He’d run out of banter and mockery. He was nervous.

Because he did it, she thought. He did it. She could hardly breathe. Roddy Lodge and Gomer were standing only feet apart, on a paved forecourt in front of the house. If Lodge made a move on Gomer, took one step, she would have to go for him with the torch.

She started to tremble.

‘You set fire to my yard,’ Gomer said.

‘Never!’

‘You set light to my place tonight, boy. And my nephew, he was in there. I dunno whether you knowed that, but it don’t matter… he still bloody died.’

Roddy Lodge stood there, taking this in. She couldn’t make out his expression. She raised the torch, ready to run out.

‘And that’s murder,’ Gomer said.

Roddy Lodge didn’t move but something did – maybe a cloud, because now his face was washed by pallid light, and she could see he was smiling. It was this big, loose smile, causing his jaw to drop, as though all the tension in him was evaporating in the moonlight.

Lodge said easily, ‘You know what, Parry? You’re fuckin’ mad, you are. You’re fuckin’ out of it.’

‘It was murder,’ Gomer said.

‘Whatever you say, matey.’ Lodge’s voice was quieter now.

‘You en’t denying it. You en’t even—’

‘I en’t even talkin’ to you n’more, ole man. You’re senile. Fuck off home, I would, while you can still walk.’

Lodge began to move towards Gomer, not hurrying but not delaying either, and whatever he could see now in Gomer’s face, it was making the smile on his own grow bigger and whiter. The torch felt sweaty in Merrily’s hand as she squeezed past the digger, along the rim of its front shovel, trying to transfer the flashlight to her other hand… feeling it slip out of her grasp and down into the shovel. She expected a clang, but it landed on something soft: the tarpaulin. She leaned over, reaching down into the metal maw, grabbed for the torch, stumbled, clutching at the tarpaulin, dragging some of it back, releasing a curling, piercing, pungent sweet aroma… and her scream.

And she watched Roddy spinning round with all the inevitability of slow motion.

‘Who’s that? Who is it?

Merrily pushed herself away from the shovel and staggered out into the forecourt, shaking hard, feeling sick.

Roddy Lodge walked towards her across the moon-stroked flagstones. Her stomach was turning over.

He wore a grey leather jacket, tight leather jeans and cowboy boots, everything covered with drying red mud.

‘A woman?’ His voice rose to a note of wonderment.

‘You leave her alone!’

Merrily saw Gomer Parry about five yards away, both arms down by his side, fists tight, glasses opaque. Gomer’s voice was weaker now, could have been coming from half a mile away. She was willing him not to move, and all the time her mind was scrabbling for purchase on a sheer cliff-face of solid ice. It can’t be.

When Roddy Lodge came up to her, the first thing she noticed was his aftershave. He must have put it on with a paste brush. She almost retched.

‘Nice one, too, en’t you?’ Roddy was examining her, as if she was something that had just been delivered to his door. ‘Very nice. What you doing with the likes of this little toe-rag, my darlin’?’

The aftershave was so pungent it made her think of Nil Odour, the fluid undertakers used in coffins – the stuff the nurses at the General had kept under the bed of Denzil Joy, whose stench still sometimes soaked through her sleep.

Flash image: the half-cooked corpse of Nevin Parry. She felt faint with nausea.

Can’t be. Can’t be. Not again.

Automatically, her mind was erecting a segment of St Patrick’s Breastplate:

I bind unto myself the Name

The strong Name of the Trinity…

‘I’m very sorry about this,’ Merrily said calmly. ‘I’m really sorry, Mr Lodge.’

He had his head on one side, peering down at her. His eyes were aglow. He had a luminous white smile. She sensed a lot of energy there and even some humour. She sensed him wanting to touch her. She didn’t move away. Her coat had come open over her chest. She was expecting him to become aware of her dog collar, then realized she’d taken it off in the van.

She took a breath. ‘Mr Lodge, my name’s Merrily… The Reverend Merrily Watkins. I’m Gomer’s parish priest. I’ve been with him all night, since we first heard about the fire.’ She paused. ‘Mr Lodge, I’m sure you can imagine what kind of effect all this has had on Gomer. His nephew dead, everything destroyed.’

‘Why’s he reckon it was me?’ Roddy Lodge said.

‘Look…’ Her voice felt warm and soothing, full of pulpit- projection. ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to tell him. The police… the police said Nev had been drinking heavily, and they think he probably started the fire himself, accidentally.’

She didn’t look at Gomer, but she could feel it setting around him: a shabby concrete overcoat of bafflement and betrayal. She lowered her voice.

‘He’s an old man, Mr Lodge. He’s lost everything. When he wanted me to drive him here, I… I didn’t know anything about this… whatever history there is between you and him. I just assumed this place… that it held some memories for him and Nev, or something. I don’t know what he’s got against you or why it’s come up now, but I’m really sorry.’

‘Turned his mind, is it?’ Roddy said.

‘I’m sure he’ll come through this, with help. I’m just… I mean, I hope you’re not going to go to the police or anything. I promise you I’ll talk to him.’

‘Come and talk to me, you want, sweetheart.’ Roddy grinned. It was a wide engaging grin, but separate from his eyes, which seemed to have their own staccato light, like the sparks from her Zippo. ‘Vicar, eh? I goes and talks to our vicar sometimes. Nice feller.’ He unzipped a breast pocket of his leather jacket. ‘En’t as sexy as you, though. I reckon he’s a bit scared of me, tell the truth.’ He laughed, a high barking. ‘I scared him, I did. I scared the ole vicar.’

‘Did you?’

‘Told him ’bout all the things I seen in the night. Spooky!’

‘Sounds… interesting.’

‘Well, then…’ Merrily didn’t move as Roddy pulled out a card and came right up to her. ‘You come and talk to me any time you want. Any time. And anything you want doing, I’m your man. Special rates for the Church, look.’

He inspected her face, as though he was committing it, feature by feature, to memory.

‘Thanks.’ She took the card. ‘I’d like that.’

‘Yeah,’ Roddy said. ‘You would indeed, my darlin’.’

Merrily walked away without once looking back, Gomer following behind like a beaten old dog. She didn’t look at him, either.

She walked along the side of the big yellow digger without glancing at it or breathing in, walked out of the gateway and along the verge of the A49, with the long grass wet and cold around her ankles, sensing that Roddy Lodge was watching them and so not hurrying, not giving in to the urge to run, to the pushing in her chest. She walked around the bend in the road to where the van was almost embedded in the hedgerow. She unlocked the van and opened the door wide, so that Gomer could climb across to the passenger seat, where he sat in silence, sagging, as if all the life-energy had been vacuum-pumped out of him. She got into the van and turned the key in the ignition and for a moment was afraid it wasn’t going to start, but the engine caught on the second turn and she waited until there were no headlights in view before carefully reversing the van out onto the road. She drove for a mile or so in the direction of Ross before pulling off the road into the car park of a darkened pub. She switched off the engine but left the headlights on, illuminating a hanging sign featuring a rabbit or a hare, with a fluffy tail, seen from behind.

Merrily needed light. She needed to see anything coming. She tossed her head back over the peeling vinyl of the driving seat and let the breath out of her mouth, and when it came out it was an enormous sob, her body slumping into shudders.

‘Vicar?’

She held the wheel as if she was never going to let it go. ‘Couldn’t you smell it?’

He didn’t reply. He didn’t understand.

Merrily pulled herself up and found her phone. She couldn’t remember the number of Hereford Police. She’d have to ring 999 and see if they could put her through to anyone in CID.

‘I stum— stumbled, Gomer. Grabbed hold of this tarpaulin in the shovel of the digger, and it came away.’ She switched on the phone and turned to look at him. ‘I know… I know the smell now, you see. From when we found Barbara Buckingham. You remember. No mistaking it ever again, is there?’

Gomer lurched to the edge of his seat. ‘In the shovel?’

‘Thought I was hallucinating at first. Thought it was the shock… you know, of seeing Nev and… But it wasn’t the same. This one was putrid. State of decay.’

Merrily stabbed 9 three times. Later she would have to call Jane and explain why she might not be home until dawn, or later.

Part Two

His intelligence was born in the fields and woods on the very edge of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, honed in the thickets of the countryside, nurtured in a world where it was sometimes safer to kill a man than to kill a hare.

Geoffrey Wansell An Evil Love

9

Phobia

THE WOMAN IN Lol’s bed smiled sleepily. An arm came out, a long, warm forefinger touching his lips as he bent down.

‘Before you say a word,’ she said, ‘I will tell you right now, from the bottom of ma heart, that it was very, very good.’ Looking into his eyes now and slithering up in the rumpled bed like a mermaid breaking surface. ‘And also right. Right for this moment. What I so much needed. OK?’

Lol sighed.

OK, Laurence?’ She took away her finger but stilled him with her gaze, even though one eye was lost under this tumble of black hair with the long, pale streak, like a vein of silver in onyx.

‘Ah, well, you were good.’ Lol straightened up ‘You were wonderful. Me…’ He shrugged, spread his hands, did all this stuff that he was afraid was going to look deliberately self- deprecating. Uncomfortable now, he looked away, out of the left-hand window, where the mid-morning sky over Knight’s Frome was grey and shiny with unshed rain. It made the window seem like a square of tin plate in the wall of freshly plastered rubble-stone.

‘Aye, all right…’ She swung her legs out of bed. ‘If you push me, I’ll concede that “good” was maybe just faintly inappropriate. But “right” was… right. See, I was with this young guy before – doesnae matter who, these kids’re ten a penny, believe me: slick, cool, deft… and empty, you know? Awful proficient, sure, but proficiency isnae even halfway there, especially when it’s like received technique – out of Jansch, out of Thompson, John Fahey, whoever. In addition, I was getting well fed up with him trying to get into ma knickers.’

Like Merrily, she wore a long T-shirt in bed – this one worn thin from many washings; the faded figure on it with the top hat seemed, at one time, to have been Bugs Bunny.

‘Like I should be grateful to him for being fifteen years younger, you know?’ Moira said. ‘Jesus, the arrogance of these guys.’

She stretched and the T-shirt rode up and, through the thin cotton, Lol saw her nipples over the rabbit ears. He backed up, embarrassed, catching the edge of the tea tray, which rattled.

‘Like I’m some hag,’ Moira said. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, her hair almost reaching the duvet. She started rearranging the things on the tray. ‘This is entirely wonderful, Laurence, but faintly ridiculous. Why not just leave me a kettle?’

‘Prof’s orders,’ Lol said.

He’d awoken her with a call to her mobile, as arranged, at eight, and then carried the tray rapidly along two hundred yards of mud track before the teapot could cool, and then up fourteen stone steps to the granary. There’d be a small kitchen here eventually; meanwhile, Prof had said he wanted Moira Cairns looked after in the old-fashioned way. This apparently was something to do with memories of Moira bringing morning tea and toast to his room when they were recording, way back.

‘Ach,’ said Moira when Lol went on to remind her of this, ‘that was just to make sure the auld bastard didnae take anything stronger.’ She poured tea, steam rising. ‘Tell me, how’s he doing now, in that particular area?’

‘Carries this cappuccino machine around with him like a teddy bear. I don’t think there’s ever been anything stronger in the house.’

Moira nodded approvingly, sugaring her tea. Lol suspected she was sitting on a whole stack of horror stories about Prof’s drinking days.

‘And now you’re here as well, keeping an eye on him. Good arrangement, on the whole?’

Lol hesitated. He’d been here for several months now, since abandoning plans to become a psychotherapist; since Prof Levin had persuaded him to work on the long-awaited solo album that was not, in Lol’s view, long-awaited by as many people as Prof seemed to imagine. But now the album was virtually finished and Lol didn’t think he was doing enough around the studio to justify his de luxe accommodation. It was a good arrangement, certainly. Altogether too good.

‘Apart, that is, from when characters like me come down to strut our prima donna stuff and pinch your lovely wee apartment,’ Moira said. ‘Where are you sleeping yourself, meantime?’

‘Oh… in the loft over the end of the studio. I slept there most of the summer anyway. It’s fine.’

‘It’s no’ summer now, though. There’ll be no heating in there, will there, once the studio’s off?’

‘It’s fine, honestly.’

Moira smiled, crow’s feet developing, but it didn’t matter at all; this woman would be sexy at seventy. ‘This wee place, though, I have to say, is… totally magical. All those steps – like a tower house. You can stand at the window at night… the lights of Malvern in the distance. Would that be the town itself? Great Malvern?’

‘West Malvern. I think.’

‘Best not to know for sure,’ Moira said. ‘All distant lights at night should be the lights of fairyland. There to inspire us, but just out of reach.’ She looked at him over the rim of her cup. ‘Makes you uneasy, living here?’

‘Just a bit.’ Her level of perception was increasingly scary.

‘Why?’

‘Too perfect, I suppose. Paradise syndrome?’

The granary was on the edge of a field sloping down towards the Boswells’ place and well separated from the stable block housing the recording studio. Prof Levin had managed to buy it, along with adjacent outbuildings and two acres of land, when parts of the surrounding Lake estate had been sold off at the end of the summer.

‘But then,’ Moira said, ‘to a lot of people, this’d just be a high- level hovel in the middle of a muddy field, inconvenient to get to and too small to do anything decent with. It’s a personalized concept, paradise.’

‘Well… yeah…’ When Prof had suggested that he might like to move in here, Lol had suspected, although nothing had been said, that Prof was also thinking about Merrily, with whom Lol must never be seen.

‘I would say you’d become like a son to Prof,’ Moira said, ‘but possibly that would be overstating it just a tad. You’re somebody he feels he has to help because he knows you’re never gonnae help yourself. Like, if the whole ideology of this place is the Prof devoting the glorious sunset of his career to assisting – pardon me – the underdogs, like you, out of the money raised from the fat cats like me…’ She threw up her hands. ‘Whoops! Did that sound like charity?’

‘I’ve no illusions, Moira,’ Lol said. ‘It is charity.’

‘Unless, of course’ – she raised a forefinger – ‘he gets it all back on the album.’

‘Y–e–s.’

‘Although we all know that unless you’re immensely famous already, it’s bugger-all use making an album if you’re no’ gonnae tour it.’

‘Ah…’ He should’ve seen this coming.

‘Whereas a good tour’s almost guaranteed to put an album into profit.’

Lol sighed.

‘But, of course, we both know the Prof has no interest whatsoever in payback. Only, the way I see it, this is gonnae nag away at you, until you have to really do something about the whole… what? Allergy? Phobia?’

Lol went to look out of the window, over the Frome Valley. Across the meadow, he could see the Boswells’ beloved donkey, Stanley, browsing his paddock, taking it all for granted, like he was only collecting a little of what was due to his species after centuries of toil and maltreatment.

‘Obviously,’ Moira said, ‘when you’ve been out of it a long time, it’s bloody hard – especially on your own.’

‘Nearly twenty years. I was just a kid.’

‘Good long time for the fear to feed. Which is what fear does. Like I’ve got these ten dates provisionally fixed for the winter, and that’s gonnae start off being an ordeal, no question, even after two and a bit years.’

Lol turned back into the white room, where Moira Cairns was sipping her tea. His feeling was that the word ‘ordeal’ would not, in Moira’s thesaurus, carry any significant cross-reference to playing live in front of an audience.

‘OK, listen now. Laurence…’ She was watching him over her cup. ‘Bottom line: if this proposed tour goes ahead, how would you feel about being part of that?’

Lol went hot, then cold.

‘Aye, I know. All right, sunshine, don’t panic.’ Moira put down the cup and stood up, this beautiful, scary mature woman in faded Bugs Bunny nightwear. ‘Stay right there. I have to take a pee. You stay right there and consider all your get-out lines. But also… remember how it was last night.’

This morning was actually the first time he’d been alone with her. Last night in the studio, Prof had been there the whole time and also Simon St John, who was the vicar of Knight’s Frome and played bass and cello. Simon knew Moira Cairns from way back, when they were part of the same band, having its albums engineered, then produced, by Prof Levin. So this was in the way of a reunion, with Lol, the outsider, getting involved because he just happened to be here. Moira’s new album would be the first major-league product of Knight’s Frome Studio, where Prof wanted music to be made at leisure, songs laid down as and when, no pressure on anyone. Timeless.

Lol couldn’t remember which of them had suggested they should try one of his songs – as if Moira didn’t have enough of her own. The idea had just seemed to arise, and they’d wound up re-working his neo-traditional ballad about the changing face of the English village, ‘The Baker’s Lament’. At first Moira was singing, with Lol on guitar. And then – and he wasn’t sure how this had come about, either – Lol had taken over the vocal, Simon St John threading cello through it, sinuous and low-lying like the River Frome, and Moira contriving this incredible harmony.

Prof had recorded both versions, and it had been, like Moira said, kind of… interesting. Not technically terrific, but there was something going on, something organic, something visceral. Something a little wonderful. All those years since Hazey Jane folded, and Lol had felt like part of a band again.

Of course, it was just for amusement – a dream, a fantasy sequence. Who wouldn’t imagine they sounded good, recording with Moira Cairns? Moira, who now lived in seclusion most of the year on the Isle of Skye, coming out to perform only rarely, leaving deep tracks strewn with legends. Moira who had been born half-gypsy in Glasgow. Who was said to be possessed of ‘the sight’. A goddess of folk-rock. The vein of silver in the long black hair – how many pictures had he seen of that? Never before over a Loony Toons T-shirt, of course, but…

Why should she want to do this for someone she’d only known for a few hours? A favour to Prof? Laying all her hard- won credibility on the line as a favour to Prof? Last night it had seemed magical; now it was merely unreal.

‘Tell you what I’m thinking,’ she called from the bathroom. ‘Maybe we should do the one gig, to begin with. Just to see how it goes, yeah?’

Lol sat down on the edge of the bed.

Moira said, ‘Sorry, what was that? Couldnae hear with the taps on. See, what’s happening, I’m booked to play somewhere called The Courtyard in Hereford in… I think it’s a week on Wednesday. We could use that, for starters. As an experiment?’

Lol’s heel clinked on something under the bed.

‘Nothing formal, nothing on the posters – I mean, too late anyway. You just show up, drift in and out as you please. Then we toss in a couple of your own numbers, see how it feels.’

Lol already knew how it would feel. He could already sense his fingers sweating on the frets. With any more than three other people in the room, all the chords would crumble, he’d lose the tune, forget the words. And in any audience, there were always going to be two or three people who would remember…

He bent down. The item under the bed proved to be his kettle, its flex coiled up next to it. All that stuff about the morning-tea tradition never had made total sense – if Prof thought it was important to return old favours, why hadn’t he brought the tray?

A set-up.

Moira Cairns came out of the bathroom, looking fresh and composed in a lime-green kimono.

‘So,’ she said, ‘where do you wannae start?’

Well, naturally, Lol didn’t want to start at all. Hadn’t he done half a college course in psychotherapy, worked for a while with an analyst and counsellor in Hereford? He could deconstructit all very efficiently for himself, thank you, even down to the implications of his Nick Drake fixation: Nick Drake had made three classic albums but was always afraid to perform in public. Consequently, perhaps, the albums had undersold, and Nick Drake, undervalued, had died of an overdose of antidepressants.

‘But, Lol, the poor guy was mentally ill,’ Moira pointed out. ‘And you never were. You were just a victim of the system, with no support at all to fall back on when this… bastard bass-player very kindly gets you a conviction for having sex with a fifteen- year-old girl – to keep himself out of the shit – when you were – what, eighteen… nineteen?’

‘Thereabouts.’ She’d evidently been thoroughly briefed by Prof.

‘An innocent, all alone – your parents having become these totally insane religious maniacs, who disown you…’

The more Prof tells the story, the more insane my parents become.’

‘… So you fall into the system: unnecessary residential psychiatric so-called care – i.e. drugged senseless by the fucking state.’ Moira tossed back her hair – forked lightning in a night sky. ‘No way that’d happen now, with no damn beds to spare for the real loonies. Laurence, why aren’t you angry?’

Lol shrugged.

‘One day,’ Moira warned, ‘your shoulders are just gonnae freeze up. Let me get this right: if you reappear on stage now – nearly two whole decades later – the whole audience isnae gonnae be thinking, “Ah, here’s the awfully talented person from Hazey Jane, where the hell’s he been all this time?” It’s gonnae be like, “Hey, is that no’ the big sex offender of 1982 or whenever?” You really think that?’

No,’ Lol said too quickly. ‘Look…’ He turned to her. ‘I’m really grateful, Moira, and if I could do it I’d be – you know – I’d be incredibly proud. But we’re talking albatross here. Like what you don’t need around your neck.’

‘Now, listen, I’m a vulnerable wee creature behind the shell.’ She came and sat next to him on the side of the bed. ‘I need compatible support. I don’t need flash, I need sensitive and faintly flawed.’

‘You need somebody who can get the chords right and won’t just stand there in a pool of sweat.’

‘Laurence…’ She took him by the shoulders. ‘You can do this. You have to do this. Where’s your main income from?’

‘This and that. Royalties.’

‘From songs? From the old Hazey Jane albums? I wouldnae even like to ask how much that comes to. What’s your girlfriend say about it?’

Lol tensed. ‘Girlfriend?’

‘The wee priest?’ Moira said patiently. ‘I bet even the wee priest earns more in a year than you do.’

‘Who, er… who told you… ?’

‘Prof told me. Simon told me. Now, see, there’s something – I ‘mean, I shouldnae have to spell this out to an ex-loony who trained as a shrink, but that’s something you did overcome. Rejected by the born-again parents, and now here y’are in a close personal relationship with an Anglican priest. Major psychological breakthrough, or what?’

Lol stared down at the bedside rug. ‘They weren’t supposed to say anything about that.’ Which sounded a little pathetic.

‘Who?’

‘Prof… Simon.’

Moira blinked. ‘But you’re an item, right? You and the priest. You’re “going out together”.’

‘Well, we…’ Lol smiled ruefully. ‘We stay in together. Sometimes.’

Moira stared at him.

‘Or rather we just don’t go out anywhere very public. She’s… inevitably, like a lot of women priests, especially in a country parish, she’s insecure about some things… attitudes. I don’t want to make it any more difficult for her.’

It started to rain, a pattering on the east window.

‘Lol, what year is this?’

‘Yeah, I know, it sounds ridiculous. But when you consider that she also has this other… this other thing she does in the diocese.’

‘Exorcist. Yeah, I know… they don’t talk about it.’

‘She still tends to attract publicity,’ Lol said. ‘I mean, there still aren’t that many women priests in the UK, let alone women… Deliverance ministers. So if the press found out, even the local press…’

‘Ah.’ Moira contemplated this, supporting her chin with a hand, gnawing the side of a finger. ‘Right. I think I get the picture. Crazy woman who pursues evil spirits for a living takes up with ex-loony singer with a conviction for a sex offence.’

‘Not good, is it?’

Moira Cairns shook her head slowly. ‘Jesus, Laurence, you don’t go out of your way to make things easy for yourself, do you?’

Lol smiled his hopeless smile.

10

Caffeine

IN THE EARLY afternoon, with wind-driven rain coming in hard from Wales and the last of the apples down on the vicarage lawn, the police arrived.

Actually, just one of them: DI Francis Bliss, of Hereford CID, which was a relief; it meant this was informal. DI Bliss sat at the kitchen table and drank coffee greedily. He was unshaven, been up all night, couldn’t hide his excitement.

‘Merrily, we’ve gorra name.’

‘For the… ?’

‘Dead person.’

‘Oh.’

They had Merseyside in common, he and Merrily, if not synchronistically. She’d been a curate there, her first job in the clergy, her baptism of fire and acid, but good times, on the whole. By the time she’d arrived in Liverpool, Frannie Bliss – stocky, red-haired, raised a Catholic in Kirby – would already have left. It was unclear how he’d wound up in Hereford.

He folded his hands around his warm mug.

‘Lynsey Davies. Local woman. Reported missing back in the middle of August by her partner – I say “partner”… one of her partners. The father of two of her kids, anyway, which he reckons gives him first claim.’

‘Claim on what?’

‘On any compensation that might be due to the dependants of a murder victim, I imagine. Everybody talks compensation now. You don’t have a loss, you have an opening for gain.’

‘Not a loving relationship, then.’

‘With Lodge on the side?’ Frannie Bliss sniffed. Merrily, feeling chilly even inside her oldest roll-neck woolly, carried her ashtray to the table and slumped down opposite him. It was a day for despairing of people. Bliss’s excitement depressed her. But then, if everybody enjoyed their jobs that much, the sum of human happiness… She surrendered to confusion and lit a cigarette.

‘When you say “local”… ?’

‘Village called Underhowle. Backside of Ross-on-Wye, where it joins the Forest of Dean. I’d never been there before. Lodge has his depot on the outskirts, and a bungalow he’s built next to it. Lynsey Davies lived in a council house in Ross. She was thirty-nine, had four kids by three different blokes, and was apparently Roddy’s intermittent girlfriend. A fun-loving lady.’

‘So she was… identifiable, then.’

Frannie smiled thinly. ‘Ah… not strictly. The ex-partner, Paul Connell, reckons he doesn’t mind having a quick glance, but I’m not sure how useful that would be. It does help a bit that the body was dumped in pea-gravel rather than soil, with this big tank thing on top, so it’s not as badly eaten-up as you might expect after a couple of months underground. And the clothes tie in. We’ve sent for dental records, anyway.’

‘Lodge actually took it… her out of the ground?’

‘Dug down by the side of the tank, fished her out – probably manually. Dumped her in the shovel of the digger, tucked her in nicely.’

Merrily shuddered, recalling the mud drying on the front of Roddy Lodge’s leather jacket, on his trousers.

‘The, er, you know, the bodily fluids, they’d have gradually drained out through the gravel,’ Bliss said. ‘So although she was a big girl, the body wouldn’t’ve weighed that much. Wouldn’t’ve taken a great feat of strength for Roddy to roll her onto a couple of feed sacks and lift her out of the pit and into the shovel.’

Merrily thought of Roddy Lodge’s pungent aftershave, wondering if he’d plastered it on to combat the smell. Didn’t make too much sense; this was a man who installed foul drainage.

She and Gomer had seen the big digger go rumbling past while they were waiting for the police on the pub car park – the body presumably out in front, sunk into the raised-up shovel like an offering to the moon. Gomer had wanted to follow Lodge; Merrily had talked him out of it. Half an hour or so later, the police had cornered Roddy at his depot. The woman’s body was still under the tarpaulin. Not much room for denial.

‘How did she die?’

‘The PM should be taking place as we speak.’ Evidently, Frannie didn’t want to say how she’d died. He finished his coffee. ‘Can I go over a few points? According to your statement, you and Mr Parry went to this house because you had reason to think Roddy would be going there to retrieve this septic-tank unit. The, er…’

‘Efflapure. But we didn’t expect him to be there.’

‘Right.’ He lifted his cup. ‘Don’t suppose… ?’

‘Sure.’ She went to fetch the coffee pot, trying to recall what she’d said in her brief statement to a detective constable in Hereford in the early hours. ‘I know it all sounds unlikely, Frannie, but you have to remember we were both pretty hyped- up last night. There was no way Gomer was going to go home and sleep. But we really didn’t expect to find Lodge there.’

‘Actually, Merrily, it all sounds far enough off the wall to be true, given the circumstances, even if I didn’t know you well enough to think it unlikely in the extreme that you’d lie to the police.’ He beamed at her. ‘But in fact we’ve also spoken to Mrs Pawson in London, who confirms Lodge insisting that he should be the one who took the thing away. Which, of course, now makes perfect sense. Not a question of professional pride, as you assumed, but the fact that the bugger had a body buried underneath it, and he was panicking at the thought of it getting discovered by Gomer Parry. Makes a lorra sense, from Roddy’s point of view.’

It doesn’t really make sense to me that he should bury a body under a septic tank.’ Merrily poured Bliss more coffee and saw his wrist quiver; after a long night, he must be sizzling with caffeine. ‘I mean, OK, he might not have expected it to be dug up again within weeks, but surely there was always going to be a chance that some day it was going to be re-excavated. They don’t last a lifetime, do they?’

‘They can last a lifetime, apparently. But yeh, I do see what you mean. But you’ve gorra remember we’re not dealing with a fully rational person. A feller who drives through the night with a body held up in his bloody digger’s shovel…’

‘He did kill her, then? I mean, there’s no suggestion that he might have been getting rid of a body for someone else?’

‘An extension of his waste-disposal empire? He’s arrogant and daft enough, but I don’t see it, do you? My feeling is we’ll have a confession before dark. I’m leaving him to stew for a few hours. I’m not hurrying.’

This was not Merrily’s impression. She still wasn’t quite sure why Bliss was here. She’d expected a visit at some stage, but not so early in the investigation, and it wasn’t as if Ledwardine was on the Ross side of Hereford. This was a special trip.

‘Will you be talking to Gomer again? Because Jane’s round there at the moment. I don’t particularly want…’

Jane was making Gomer’s lunch. The kid had still been awake when Merrily had got in around 5.45 a.m. Neither of them had really slept after that.

‘Er… yeah.’ Frannie Bliss sounded doubtful. ‘We will be talking to Mr Parry again at some stage, obviously. Though I’ve gorra tell yer it might be less easy than he thinks to prove that Roddy Lodge torched his yard.’

‘And, besides, you’ve got something more important, now?’

Bliss looked pained. ‘Don’t put it like that. I know the lad’s dead, and I’m not saying it wasn’t down to Roddy. But while he’s still dodging around Lynsey Davies, he’s flatly denying the bloody fire. Says Parry’s three sheets in the wind, gorra grudge, professional rivalry, all this kind of shite. Roddy is indeed very ‘proud of his professional standing – among other things. Could be Forensics’ll find traces of combustibles on his clobber, but meanwhile, all I’m saying is, let’s get him sewn up on the easy one first, then see what else we can discuss with him. It’s been a long night, Merrily.’

‘What about DNA?’

‘After a fire?’

‘But you’ve charged him.’

‘Er… no. No, I haven’t. Not yet.’

‘Oh?’

‘I want it in the papers,’ Bliss said. ‘If he’s charged, it’s sub judice and the clamps go down. I want it splurged all over the papers, radio, TV, the lot, that we’ve found a woman’s body under a new-fangled septic tank and that a thirty-five-year-old man is helping with inquiries. I want people to think about it and talk about it. Not just in the village. I want the name Efflapure in the public domain.’

‘I’m sorry…’ She poured another coffee for herself, maybe thinking it would attune her to Bliss’s wavelength. ‘Why?’

‘’Cause Roddy works over a wide area.’

‘Yes.’ I done tanks for all the nobs all over the Three Counties and down into Wales. I done Prince Charles’s fuckin’ sewage over at Highgrove.

‘See, what I’m looking for, Merrily, is a full list of all the Efflapures or anything else he’s put in. We’ve got his books, but we all know that, with a bloke like Roddy, they won’t all be down on paper for the taxman. I want to know exactly where he’s been.’

She nodded. She didn’t really get this – too tired, maybe – but she nodded anyway.

‘Merrily,’ Bliss said. ‘You’re a woman.’

‘Yeah, I still like to think so.’ Suddenly, despite – or maybe because of – her fatigue and the sordid, sickening nature of the discussion, she felt a piercing need to be in Lol Robinson’s bed in the white room in the granary. She looked away, knowing she was blushing.

And a priest.’ Bliss sat up in his chair, facing her with both hands flat on the table, his voice becoming Scouse-nasal. ‘And you’ve been close to evil. Closer than most priests, I’d say, even if you’ve not been at it long. So I just want to ask you – off the record – about the kind of stuff that’s not in your statement. I want to know how you felt about Roddy. As a priest. As a woman.’

She met his gaze. His eyes were bright with caffeine and candid ambition. She liked Bliss, actually – more than she liked his boss DCI Howe, who was apparently away on something called an SIO Module course. But she wasn’t quite ready to say how she felt about Roddy Lodge.

You come and talk to me any time you want.

Thanks. I’d like that.

Yeah. You would indeed, my darlin’.

She said, ‘You’re leading the inquiry then, Frannie?’

‘So far,’ he said. ‘But I may not have long before somebody takes over, you know how it goes.’

‘So all that about being in no hurry…’

‘… Was bollocks. Yeah. Truth is, Merrily, I’m chasing a feeling about this feller. I’m supposed to’ve gone home for a kip ages ago, but I’ve been driving round thinking about it.’

‘Roddy?’

He nodded. ‘What I reckon…’ He took a breath and seemed to be swirling it around his cheeks before letting it out. ‘I reckon there could be more of them. More Lynseys.’

The problem was, Jane realized, that nobody really understood Gomer. They looked at this weedy little old guy in the bottle glasses and they somehow failed to see the rebel warrior crunching down the border clay on his grunged-up caterpillars, swinging the arm of his JCB like some huge broadsword. They couldn’t discern the elemental side of Gomer. Even Mum, who should have known better by now, had been like, Keep an eye on him… make sure he takes it easy… don’t let him overreact.

They didn’t understand. Overreaction was what kept Gomer fully alive.

He’d agreed finally to let Jane go to the chip shop, then he’d left half his lunch. All morning he’d kept phoning people, in a compulsive kind of way. No! he’d go. It don’t matter what you’ve yeard, it en’t over! Gimme a week, I’ll be back to you. Gimme ten days, max!

But there was a dullness in his glasses.

‘I’ve got my provisional licence now.’ Jane wrapped the congealing chips in their newspaper and dumped them in Gomer’s kitchen bin. ‘I could work for you weekends. I mean JCBs… it’s just a matter of experience and technique, right?’

‘And an HGV licence,’ Gomer said heavily.

‘Oh. That, too, certainly. I knew that.’

She also knew that, in some curious way, he wouldn’t feel free to mourn Nev until he’d secured the business. If he let it go, it would be a kind of betrayal. In the same way, the small, modern kitchen was amazingly clean and neat, everything shiny – the way Minnie had kept it, but not like a shrine, Jane thought. A shrine was static and frozen; in here you could still feel Minnie’s busy spirit, and Gomer needed that. Like he always needed to know the big diggers were out there, oiled and ready to move the earth.

The kitchen window overlooked the orchard, out of which the buttressed church spire rose like a rocket on its launching pad. Starship Mum. Soon to be transmitting soft porn, if Uncle Ted got his way.

Everything was getting out of proportion.

Jane said, ‘I suppose, if you could wipe off the jobs you’ve already got on the stocks, you could take some time to kind of reorganize things. Like, reduce the scale of the operation.’

Gomer looked up. ‘Ar. Mabbe you put your finger on it there, Janey. Gotter deal with the commitments first, ennit? I en’t given up hope. I know where I can rent a digger, and there’s a coupler fellers I know would likely help me out, but they won’t be in till tonight, see.’

‘I suppose it’s going to be an even smaller pool, now that this Roddy Lodge is going to be… whatever happens to him.’

Gomer’s glasses, she would swear, darkened. Jane could’ve punched herself for bringing this up again. This whole Lodge thing was very weird and sick. When Mum had told her, she’d felt obliged to feign disappointment at missing the excitement, but in reality she was glad she hadn’t been there. Awfully glad, too, that Mum had got herself and Gomer out of it, avoiding confrontation. Jane had learned that, in situations involving crime and death, only distance lent any kind of excitement. The fact that this Lodge, in all probability, had killed Fat Nev, who Jane had known – OK, not well, but she could picture him, could hear his voice, knew what a crappy life he’d had – made the guy repulsive, a monster.

But Gomer was different. Somehow, for Gomer, the discovery of the woman’s body in the truck had been almost a frustrating development, an intrusion coming between him and the man who’d murdered his nephew and wrecked his business. Did Gomer feel – maybe unconsciously – a certain resentment towards Mum for forcing him to take the easy way out, let the police handle it?

Unlikely, because Gomer’s affection for Mum was almost a father–daughter thing.

But there was something.

‘What are you doing this afternoon?’ Frannie Bliss said.

‘I… nothing vital.’

Lie down for half an hour, maybe. Go across to the church and say some prayers for Gomer and Nev. Phone Lol. Avoid Uncle Ted. Go back and talk to Gomer, see if there’s any way to help him through this.

‘Only, I’d like you to come and look at his place. At Underhowle. Take less than an hour to get there. You know me, Merrily, I don’t have too much faith in psychologists and profilers, but I’ve still gorra sneaking regard for priests.’ He gave a small smile. ‘Of whichever side of the fence.’

‘Frannie,’ Merrily said, ‘do you have any real concrete reason for suspecting he’s done it more than once?’

‘Just his attitude. And the fact that at least one other woman’s gone missing from that area in the past year.’

‘Oh.’

‘He likes women.’

‘It’s not a crime.’

‘I use the word “like”…’

‘OK.’ Merrily put out her cigarette. ‘I’ll tell you. He was heavily suggestive, I mean towards me. In an old-fashioned way, I suppose you’d have to say. I was standing a couple of yards away from a body he’d just exhumed and he was telling me I was… you know… It wasn’t exactly sophisticated and it wasn’t subtle: he actually used the word “sexy”. Here we are in the grounds of an empty house, he’s just been accused of murder by Gomer, and he’s talking like we’ve just met up in a singles bar and we’ve both had a bit to drink.’

‘Had he, do you think?’

‘I wouldn’t’ve thought so. His voice didn’t seem to be slurred and I couldn’t smell anything on him other than an awful lot of aftershave. He was still hyped-up, though.’

‘In what way?’

She thought about it. ‘At first, I thought he was nervous – Gomer had called him a murderer. However, as soon as he found out this was about the fire, he – as you said – kind of denied it. Laughed it off, anyway. That was about when I gave myself away – dropped the torch in the shovel, on the tarpaulin covering… Anyway, as soon as he saw I was a woman, maybe that was when he got cocky. He seemed quite relaxed, from then. I wasn’t, of course. I’d smelled… the smell. I just wanted us to get the hell out of there before he pulled a gun or a knife or something.’

‘Do you think he detected you were scared, and that was what made him so forward?’

‘You mean, do I think he got off on that, a woman being blatantly nervous of him? Maybe. I don’t know.’

‘Where was Mr Parry at the time?’

‘Mr Parry was standing there, gobsmacked at me selling him down the river. I really don’t think… The impression I have, thinking back on it, was that Roddy had ceased to be aware of Gomer from the moment he became aware of me. He said, “a woman” – like, you know, “For me?” ’ Merrily shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, that sounds – even to me, that sounds like the kind of thing you say in hindsight, when you know you’ve been face to face with a…’

‘It sounds about right, actually,’ Bliss said. ‘For instance, when the lads brought him in last night, he was rabbiting nonstop in the car, like they were his best mates. Like they were all on a coach coming back from an outing. He’s there, jammed up between two burly uniforms, and at one point he’s suggesting that if they ever fancy a one-nighter, with the trimmings, he can get them fixed up.’

‘Trimmings?’

‘I’ll spare you the details.’

‘Did he realize why they were arresting him?’

‘Oh yeh. Merrily, you say in your statement he told you he’d been to talk to the local vicar?’

She nodded. ‘That would be Jerome Banks. You spoken to him?’

‘Would I need to?’

‘Lodge claimed he scared the vicar. Told him about things he’d supposedly seen. “Spooky” was Lodge’s word.’

‘Didn’t go into detail?’

‘He seemed… I dunno… kind of proud of this – spooking the vicar. I said that sounded very interesting, and he said – in this heavily lecherous way – that I could go and talk to him any time I liked.’

‘And you said?’

‘I said that’d be nice, or something like that.’

‘Ah.’ Frannie Bliss rubbed his stubble-roughened jaw.

‘What?’

Nice. Yes. That’s more or less what he said to us.’

‘Huh?’ She reached for the Zippo and the Silk Cut.

‘Like I say, they couldn’t shut the bugger up last night. And yet this morning, when we brought him out of his cell and into an interview room… he’s a very different man. Withdrawn. Sort of hunched up into himself. Like he’d been drunk last night and now he’s very badly hung-over. Didn’t want to know us any more. Kept muttering, “Not talking, not talking.” Kept wanting to go back to his cell. See, that’s a bit unusual. Normally they can’t wait to get out. We tried all the usual things.’

‘Good cop, bad cop.’

‘We’re a little more psychologically sophisticated nowadays, Merrily.’

‘Since when?’ She drew out a cigarette with her teeth.

‘Anyway, it wasn’t happening. We weren’t getting anywhere. He didn’t even ask for a solicitor. We offered him one, he said no. No to everything. No, no, no. Don’t wanner talk, leave me alone. Sinking further back into himself, complaining of headaches. Well, all right, we’ll have enough forensic by the end of the day to package him up, no problem. But I…’ He looked into Merrily’s eyes. ‘I know there’s a lot more to come out if we handle this right.’

‘And you want to be the one to uncover it, before they send Howe back from her course to take over.’ Merrily eyed him along the length of her cigarette.

‘Aw, please…’

‘Sorry.’

‘But eventually,’ Bliss said, ‘he just looks at me through his fingers and he says, “You get that little woman. I’ll talk to that little… woman.” ’

‘What?’

Bliss smiled a touch bashfully, not quite meeting her eyes.

‘You took a bloody long time to get round to that,’ Merrily said.

‘Yeah. Sorry about that.’

‘No, you’re not.’

Bliss shuffled in his chair. ‘Merrily, how would you feel about talking to him? Might save us all some time.’

Help you get it wrapped before they bring in some flash DCI from headquarters or summon Ms Howe back.

‘By “talking to him” you mean either with you there or with a tape running.’ Something like that. But I wouldn’t like to have you going in there cold. That’s why I want you to see his place. Get an idea of what kind of bloke we’re dealing with. It won’t take long.’

‘Now?’

‘Wouldn’t mind.’

‘Look, I know the Bishop and the Chief Constable have had drinkies together—’

‘But you don’t work for the police. Yeah, yeah. I don’t want to cross any of your personal barriers. I just want a firmer idea of whether I’m talking to a sexual fantasist who got carried away one time, or to a real sexual predator – maybe somebody who started out degrading women and progressed to killing them. Them – plural.’

‘And as well as whatever he might disclose to me, you probably want to watch how he reacts to me as a woman, right?’

‘Well, you know, I hadn’t actually thought of that.’

‘Frannie, forget it.’

Bliss was silent for a moment. He waved away her smoke. ‘You’ve disappointed me, Merrily. I thought what you did was all about stopping the spread of evil.’

‘And suppose he’s in some way innocent? Suppose you’re getting carried away.’

‘I can show you—’

‘All right.’ She put out her cigarette. She’d have to admit that the possibility of Lodge’s innocence was remote. ‘I’ll talk to him, but I’ll warn him first that under the circumstances there could be things I would feel obliged to pass on to the police. Then he has the option of telling me to push off.’

Bliss didn’t look too unhappy about this.

‘And no tape, no video.’

‘Merrily…’

‘Or I could put your idea to the Bishop. He’d need about two days to think about it, the old worrier.’ She stood up. ‘Frannie, are you even fit to drive?’

Bliss squeezed shut his eyes and opened them again.

‘Wouldn’t have any more coffee in that pot, by any chance?’

11

Just How Funny It Gets

THEY TRAVELLED DOWN the long, misted valley, with steel skeletons striding ahead of them.

This was where Herefordshire and Gloucestershire lay back- to-back on a lumpy mattress of tiered fields rising into old woodland of browning broadleaved trees and conifers high on the hillsides. But the valley didn’t look as if it belonged to either county as much as it belonged to the power industry.

‘You can’t believe they can still get away with this, can you?’ Merrily said.

‘Sorry?’ Frannie Bliss, driving, was somewhere else.

‘The pylons.’ They looked seriously hostile, like an army of the dead, bristling with obsolete weaponry. ‘I mean, would it be all that costly to run some of it underground?’

The joke was that there were so few homes in view that you could probably have electrified the lot with half a dozen windmills. Wreathed now in fog, the pylons were a primitive show of strength. Maybe one day they’d be industrial archaeology. Not yet.

Frannie Bliss glared at the countryside through the windscreen of his black Alfa, as though it was holding out on him. He was still a city cop at heart; you couldn’t accost pedestrians the same in country lanes: Where you off to, son? What’s in the rucksack?

They’d come in from the A40, the dual carriageway pumping heavy goods in and out of Newport and Cardiff and the West Country. Here, lorries lurched past the most voluptuous curves of the Wye Valley and that famous Ross-on-Wye skyline: the tall-steepled church crowning the town, above the river and the water-meadows and the mock-medieval sandstone walls. Dark wooded hills were the Ross backcloth, and those same hills were directly above them now, sunk into wet mist, a few miles beyond the town.

‘No, I was just wondering,’ Bliss said, ‘how many sewerage systems Roddy’s put in around here. Every farm needs one, doesn’t it? Every cottage.’

Merrily saw where this was heading. ‘You could start a terrible scare.’

Bliss nodded, didn’t seem too concerned.

‘You put this out in the media,’ she warned, ‘you get everybody for miles around wondering if they’ve got a dead body under their septic tank.’

In a pocket of her coat, she’d discovered the card that Roddy Lodge had given her last night.

Efflapure

R F Lodge

registered contractor

The Old Garage,

Underhowle,

Nr Ross-on-Wye.

It was in a plastic evidence bag now, locked in the boot of the Alfa. Frannie Bliss seemed close to becoming obsessive about Roddy Lodge.

‘I wouldn’t mind looking under, say, a few selected septics. Narrow it down a bit.’ He smiled. ‘We’ll see, anyway. How’s business? The Evil One doing much locally?’

‘You’d know better than me.’ He was changing the subject, but she could sense his anticipation and was unnerved by it.

He glanced at her. ‘How’s Lol?’ He’d encountered Lol during the summer, over the hop-kiln tragedy and the problems surrounding Allan Henry, the developer. Oddly, Bliss and Lol had seemed to understand one another, but that didn’t mean she could trust him with an update.

‘We’re still friends. And how’s your private life, Inspector Bliss?’

‘Not many private bits left.’

‘What’s that mean?’

He took a sudden right between a Scots pine and an untrimmed hedge. The car skidded on some mud, and Bliss narrowly avoided the hedge.

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘just the usual police thing. Your married life suffers on account of the job, and then it gets so bloody messy at home the job becomes a refuge. Like that.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I don’t want us to be over, but it’s going down so fast now, I don’t really know how to stop it. And before you say “Do you wanna talk about it, Frannie?” – no, thank you, not now. Maybe when this is finished.’

‘I wonder how often you’ve said that. Maybe—’

‘All right,’ Bliss said, ‘probe over. We’re nearly there. Listen, when we get to the actual place, I’m not gonna force yer into a Durex suit, but try not to touch anything, eh?’

‘We’re just going to his house, aren’t we? It’s not as if it’s a murder scene…’ She registered his chilly half-smile. ‘Oh.’

‘We don’t know for certain,’ Bliss said. ‘But he had to’ve done it somewhere. And we do know he brought women back here, and when you see inside the place… well, you’ll probably want to wear a Durex suit.’

This was where Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean looked to be stealthily pinching bits of Herefordshire. The lane narrowed between wild saplings growing on the verges. And then, within fifty yards of a sign announcing Underhowle, but before any evidence of a community, they were there: a clearing and a short cindered track opening into a forecourt fronting a building of grey concrete – a classic garage from the 1950s, sectional temple to the motor car, with a white metal sign: R. F. LODGE. In front, the stumps of petrol pumps, behind one of the towering pylons that looked as though it had just walked down from the conifered hillside.

Either side of the garage with its high, twin entrances, shuttered now, stood newer concrete buildings. Frannie Bliss parked the Alfa between a police car and a white van on the forecourt, lowering his window as a uniformed constable came over.

‘Sir, there’s been a deputation of local people demanding to know what’s going on here. DS Mumford didn’t want to speak to them, so I just told them I wasn’t authorized to make a statement, it’d be up to the SIO. Just to put you in the picture. I think they’ll be back.’

‘I do not doubt it, son. Andy’s up at the house, is he?’ Bliss turned to Merrily. ‘I’ve had Andy going through Roddy’s books, phoning his fantasy clients. Is he known at Highgrove, you reckon?’

‘You’re really building this up, aren’t you?’

‘Merrily, I’m a detective inspector who would like to be a detective chief inspector. I’m thirty-six years old, and I think I’m worth it.’

She grinned and stepped out into the peppery breeze. Bliss ushered her along a flagged pathway down the side of the garage, and there, within ten yards of the rear of the grey building, was the bungalow. It had been invisible from the front. Maybe just as well, as it wasn’t pretty: multicoloured bricks assembled in no particular pattern, flat roof, no garden, no flower tubs, just a concrete surround and the tiled pit of a drained swimming pool near the back wall of the garage.

‘And in summer you can float on your back and watch the sun sizzling through the power lines,’ Merrily said.

‘Apparently he got the land cheap. Built the bungalow himself, more or less.’

‘You don’t say.’ Down in a parallel field she could see half of what looked like a stone chapel.

‘Be worth quite a bit now. It’s actually quite well built, according to Mumford who knows about these things.’

‘Maybe it just lacks the feminine touch.’

Bliss glanced at her. ‘How true that is,’ he said.

Roddy Lodge’s office was at the rear of the bungalow, to the right of the back door. Its walls were only half plastered, and its rectangular window looked into the brackeny hillside, through the steel bones of the pylon.

Merrily saw a filing cabinet and a metal desk with a bright red computer and a phone on it. Also, a bulky middle-aged man in a shapeless dark suit sitting in a vinyl-backed executive swivel chair. Bliss bent down to him, cocking his head on one side.

‘So was the Prince cooperative, Andy? Was he as nice as he always seems on the telly?’

‘Good afternoon, Reverend.’ Mumford carefully folded up his mobile phone and placed it on the desk. ‘Nice to see you again.’

‘Hello, Andy.’ Merrily wondered, not for the first time, what kind of vocation this was turning out to be, when she seemed to encounter more coppers than priests.

Mumford looked at the mobile. ‘Boss, I’m just waiting for a call back from Mrs Jilly Cooper’s secretary. They do seem to remember being approached by Lodge sometime last year, but had no need of his services.’

‘How wise,’ Bliss said.

‘And… Highgrove came back to me to confirm getting repeated letters and leaflets from him. I asked if they’d kept any, but apparently they didn’t. I’ve also found a pile of press cuttings in the filing cabinet, mostly relating to famous people who’ve moved to this area… in fact, anywhere within a fifty- or sixty-mile radius.’

‘What does that tell you,’ Merrily wondered, ‘apart from that he’s enterprising?’

‘And a terrible celebrity-stalker,’ Bliss said.

‘He’s very upfront for a stalker.’

‘He’s certainly not efficient.’ Mumford nodded at the scarlet computer, which had yellow speaker grilles and looked like a toy. ‘At one time he seems to have tried doing his bills and stuff on that thing, but the last one I can find on the hard disk seems to be over a year old. He’s all over the place after that, and the computer’s gathering dust.’

‘Other things on his mind, Andy?’

‘Shows a lot of nerve, in a way,’ Merrily said. ‘I mean, a small operator making a direct approach to Prince Charles?’

And Princess Anne at Gatcombe,’ Mumford said. ‘At least, she’s down here on his list. When I phoned, I wasn’t able to talk to anybody who might know about him, so I’ve arranged to call back in an hour or so. As for Sting’s place – no answer at all. A couple of other people you won’t’ve heard of, boss, seem to remember getting leaflets from Roddy as well as individual letters.’

‘Yeah,’ said Frannie Bliss, ‘but have any of these nobs actually hired the bastard?’

Mumford shrugged.

Merrily said, ‘This is like one of those old Ealing comedies.’

Bliss didn’t smile. ‘Right.’ He opened the office door. ‘Come with me, Merrily. I’ll show you just how funny it gets.’

The focus of the living room was a big mahogany cocktail bar, brand new but well out of fashion. There were tall stools, optics, dozens of bottles and a neon sign: Roddy’s Bar. The low seating was arranged around it: a couple of sloppy dark leather chairs and a sofa behind a long, glass-topped coffee table with copies of Loaded and Front on it.

‘This is clearly a man who knows all the best discount warehouses,’ Bliss said.

On one wall, a bullfight poster had Roddy’s name added to the list of contenders. There was a Bang & Olufsen sound system with speakers on wall brackets, and a CD pyramid with one CD lying on top: Ibiza Nights, Vol 2. But the stereo was unplugged, as was the wide-screen TV, as if Roddy didn’t use them much any more, didn’t spend much time here.

‘It’s all very clean,’ Merrily observed.

‘He has a Mrs Wellings, from the village, comes in once a week. But she says this, and the kitchen and a couple of other rooms, are about as far as she’s allowed to go.’

Bliss led her back into the passage. This was a plain corridor bungalow, doors to left and right, two of them still unpainted. It reinforced the feeling Merrily was getting of a man who moved around like a moth, never settling to anything for very long.

‘How long has he lived here?’

‘Built it about four years ago from money his old man left him. He’s got two older brothers – like twenty years older. One’s living in Oz, one has the family farm up the valley – both quite respectable, by all accounts. Roddy was a bit of a difficult boy, but not in the sense that he’d be known to us… and he wasn’t. I don’t know the full circumstances, but you had a situation where the father bequeaths him a wodge of cash on the proviso that he uses it to set himself up in business. The brother up the valley says he seemed to have knuckled down to it.’

Bliss had stopped outside a door at the end of the passage with a conspicuous metal lock screwed to the outside. The lock was conspicuously broken.

‘That’s us. Most coppers are frustrated burglars.’ He opened the door. ‘After you. This is where you don’t touch anything, but I don’t suppose I’ll need to emphasize that.’

It was dark inside, except for a shape like the screen of one of the old black and white TVs she remembered from when she was a little kid – when you had to fiddle with a switch labelled horizontal hold because all you could get were black, white and grey lines.

She blinked and realized it was only a window with Venetian blinds, their blades not quite fully closed. ‘Oh, sorry,’ Bliss said ingenuously, once she was fully inside the room. ‘Lights. I forgot.’

Merrily was starting to feel annoyed. He’d been setting this up for her, so she’d be in the best viewing position to get the full effect when his hand crept around the door jamb and found the switch.

… and all the women came out of the shadows.

It didn’t seem unusually disturbing at first. They were centre- folds mostly; you could even see the little holes and rips left by the staples. They were pasted on two white emulsioned walls.The other two walls were black or a very deep purple.

She hardly needed to screw up her eyes against the light. The only illumination came from shielded spotbulbs just above skirting-board level, and it was subdued, serving only to reveal the photos and deepen clefts between breasts and thighs.

Of which there were quite a lot. Could be as many as a hundred pictures? Merrily wondered. They were soft-porn poses, mostly, colour and black and white. A scattered few were harder core, a couple featuring women using vibrators. The weakness of the lights and the clouding shadows added the illusion of movement – that was disturbing, in an eerie way. The rest, Merrily decided, was just sad for a man twenty years out of his middle teens.

‘Like some repressed schoolboy’s fantasy den, isn’t it?’ Frannie Bliss stood in the bedroom doorway.

Merrily turned to glance at the bed, keeping her hands in her coat pockets. The bed was king-size, unmade. Black shiny sheets – well, of course. There was a thick smell.

‘Makes you wonder how he ever got a woman to spend a night in here, doesn’t it?’ Bliss said.

‘I don’t think he’d get one for a second night.’

‘Ah, well…’ He came a little way into the room. ‘The answer, of course, is that he’s got another bedroom, along the passage. Red lights, pictures of Spanish dancers – nothing to offend, other than aesthetically, and I don’t imagine there’ve been too many cultural exchanges in there. So if we assume that’s where he takes the, er, young ladies, then this’ll be where he… enjoys his own company.’

Merrily shuddered. She recalled the shadow of Roddy Lodge standing immediately over her in front of the Pawson house, the birthday-boy look on his trowel-shaped face. A woman? he’d said.

Like: any woman. Another one for the wall.

Bliss stood there, hands in his pockets. They both had their hands in their pockets. Bliss was watching her, waiting.

Merrily met his eyes.

‘Er…’ He cleared his throat. ‘You’re not getting it, are you?’

‘Sorry… ?’

‘Take a closer look, would you, Merrily?’

She didn’t move. ‘I don’t see that—’

‘There’ll probably be some ladies you might not recognize – don’t know them all meself. But the one just to the left of the door, for instance, is Kelly Emerson, who was found raped and murdered in Swindon last year. That was the picture the family gave the police for the crime posters. It was widely used in the papers at the time.’

‘What?’

She followed his forefinger to a blurred black and white face, dark synthetic curls, big smile, naked body in shadow. She didn’t understand; the newspapers had used a nude photograph of a missing woman? She moved in closer, realizing that there was something wrong here, something skewed. Saw that the face of Kelly Emerson was in grainy black and white, but the naked body was studio quality and, on closer inspection, was slightly too big for the face.

Merrily backed rapidly away, aware of breathing harder.

‘Thing is, of course,’ Bliss said, ‘that he couldn’t’ve done that one. There’s a bloke doing life for Kelly. Feller from Bournemouth – they got him on DNA and then he pleaded guilty, no messing. It’s beyond any question.’

‘But…’

Lodge had pasted the cut-out face of a murdered woman onto the body of some anonymous pin-up from the Sun? Just another model… just another dead woman.

She made herself go back and examine both walls more closely. There were several faces she recognized now: celebrity murder victims, celebrity suicides. Also the most famous car- crash casualty of all time. All of them women, all of them now dead, their faces pasted onto cut-out nude bodies – tragic victims twisted, with scissors and paste and lighting, into profane pin-ups.

Merrily turned away from the wall. All the sensations of last night were coming back, from the feeling of grease and smoke in her hair at Gomer’s burned-out depot, to the waves of aftershave, to the cloying perfume of decay under the tarpaulin.

‘I don’t understand,’ she said.

‘I think you do, Merrily,’ Bliss said softly. ‘You’re looking at his inspiration. These are the ones he wishes he’d done. The ones he wishes he’d got to first.’

She stood in the dimness, staring no longer at the illuminated wall but into the very thin lines of grey and white between the blades of the Venetian blinds.

‘They’re all paste-ups?’

‘Not all of them. I think some were just piccies he got off on. Part of the mix-’n’-match. I expected to find one of Lynsey, but she’s not there. Maybe because she’s not had her picture in the papers, yet. There’ll be a reason. He…’ Bliss paused. ‘He might tell you what it is.’

It was as though he’d opened the door of a deep-freeze.

‘I can’t do it,’ she said.

‘That’s your decision, Merrily. I can’t force you to see him.’

‘He doesn’t want to talk to me. You know that. He just wants a woman in the room with him. Any woman. You know that.’

She remembered Roddy Lodge passing her his card, scrutinizing her as if taking a mental photograph, offering to tell her all the scary things he’d told the local vicar about what he’d seen in the night. She didn’t like to think now about what he might have seen in the night, inside or outside his own head.

Thanks, she’d said. I’d like that.

Yeah. You would indeed, my darlin’.

Merrily pushed her fists hard into the pockets of Jane’s duffel coat, determined not to shiver. ‘You’d better tell me what you know,’ she said to Bliss. ‘How did he kill Lynsey Davies?’

He shrugged. ‘Strangled her. The PM should confirm it. Roddy told the lads in the car he’d “throttled” her. He just hasn’t said it for the tape yet. Probably not bare hands, we think something was used – possibly a belt.’ He paused. ‘You can probably understand now why I want to dig up a few more Efflapures.’

‘Yes.’ Bliss was probably right to want to dig up every Efflapure that Roddy Lodge had ever planted.

‘I didn’t want to say too much in advance. Open the blinds now, if you’re feeling a bit oppressed.’

She tugged on the cord and grey daylight made the room look merely tawdry. The view, sliced horizontally by the blinds, was further slashed and diced by the great steel legs of the pylon at the edge of Roddy’s garden.

‘Would it offend the crime-scene people overmuch if I had a cigarette?’ Merrily said.

12

Dark Lady

EIRION SUBJECTED JANE to this sideways perusal she didn’t care for. They were heading out of Hereford on the darkening Ledbury road, bound for Knight’s Frome.

‘Like what?’ Jane demanded. ‘Go on, say it!’

They’d been dissecting her mother’s love life to discover precisely why it was going nowhere. From the lofty plateau of a relationship that was actually working – OK, within the restrictive parameters of herself and Eirion being still at school and stuff like that – Jane figured this was legit, her duty even. After all, it had taken her over a year to engineer the Mum/Lol thing.

Jane’ – Eirion did this exaggerated sigh – ‘you didn’t, though, did you?’

‘What?’

‘Engineer it. It was nothing to do with you. In fact, if you’d kept your nose out completely, it would probably actually have happened before it did.’

‘Thanks!’

‘Well, it’s true. You can’t leave anything alone.’

‘You totally smug fat git!’

She glared out of the window at the newly stripped hopframes around Perton. When Eirion had picked her up at five p.m., she’d noticed he’d put on a bit of weight, a big Welsh problem.

‘It’s because of all this driving to pick you up,’ Eirion said. ‘Maybe I should stay in and do sit-ups and weight training.’

I’m sorry,’ she said gruffly, not looking at him. ‘I didn’t mean fat… exactly.’

He didn’t respond. They drove in silence for a mile or so. They were in Eirion’s new old car, a little grey Peugeot with one of those CYM stickers identifying the driver as a resident of Wales who’d taken the vehicle abroad, if only to England. In fact, usually only to England.

And everything – like everything – was irritating Jane tonight. Obviously, she loved to talk and theorize about Mum and Lol, but right now – she realized this, she wasn’t stupid – it was also an escape from the aura of manic desperation surrounding Gomer. She wished there was something she could do for him, but even Eirion didn’t have an HGV licence, probably wasn’t old enough. Besides, it would take more than dealing with a backlog of digging contracts to put Gomer back together this time. The big pendulum had taken him down once too often this year. Anxiety began to inflate in her chest; she folded her arms over it.

‘Anyway, it doesn’t matter who engineered it if it was meant to happen, if it’s the right thing for her – and for Lol, obviously – and it quite clearly is. But because of what she does she’s got to be sure it’s the right thing by… Him. Like He deserves that kind of deference. If He exists.’

‘It’s a big responsibility, being a priest,’ Eirion said lamely.

‘The truth is,’ Jane said, ‘they’re both basically wimps. Neither of them had the confidence to commit. They were just kind of moving warily around one another, like cats.’

‘That’s not being wimpish, it’s what you do when you’re an adult,’ Eirion said, the trite bastard. ‘You’ve made a few mistakes before, and you don’t want to jump into anything without being sure of the territory… especially when there’s additional baggage.’

‘You mean me?’

‘No, you egomaniac – emotional baggage! History.’

‘Well,’ Jane said, ‘it’s not like they’re still not making a complete bollocks of it – all this about everything having to be kept under wraps… which is like totally ridiculous.’

‘It’s not, totally, when you think about it.’

Jane leaned back against the passenger door. ‘What’s to think about? If you look at the Anglican Church as a whole, about half the priests are gay, right? And they’re not hiding their private life any more, are they? They’re practically announcing it from the pulpit.’

‘Dearly beloved brethren…’ Eirion did this reedy voice. ‘This morning, I have to impart to you all that the big black guy living with me at the vicarage is not really a Nigerian theological student, as originally announced in the parish magazine. In fact, he’s my special friend.’

Jane fought back the grin. ‘But I mean, with a gay vicar you’ve got an ordained minister who’s having sex with one or more partners with no possibility of any of them ever becoming the vicar’s wife, in the traditional sense, so why can’t two heterosexuals—?’

‘Because, right now,’ Eirion said in his explaining-to-the- child tone, ‘neither of them needs the shit. She’s had more publicity than she ever wanted just lately. Plus, Lol’s got a lot to work out, with this album and the chance of a comeback after, well, a very long time. Be bad enough for someone who hadn’t had… the kind of problems he’s had.’

‘I’ll tell you one thing, Irene, if Mum had walked away, he wouldn’t’ve been able to finish that album. If you listen to the new songs, most of them are actually about her. Which has got to be just the most incredible turn-on, hasn’t it? Like being the Dark Lady of the Sonnets.’

‘Jane, with all respect and everything—’

‘OK, hyper. But if I was his Muse…’

Eirion stopped for the traffic lights at Trumpet. ‘You still fancy him, don’t you?’

She stared at him, resentful again. He’d refused to let her drive, claiming the car wasn’t insured for a learner. Which was bollocks, probably. The truth was he was afraid.

‘But what this is really… Jane… ?’

‘What?’ she said sulkily.

What this is really about is Moira Cairns, isn’t it?’

‘That’s crap. Moira Cairns is really old.’

‘And really beautiful and charismatic.’

‘Moderately attractive, I believe. If you like that kind of thing and you can put up with the grating accent.’

‘And – what – possibly five years older than your Mum?’ His patronizing lilt was back. ‘That’s not very old, really, is it? And Moira and Lol have the same musical background. And Lol’s going to be playing on her album. And she’s doing one of his songs? And they’re under the same roof, miles from anywhere, recording well into the night.’

‘That is total, absolute, complete bollocks,’ Jane said, furious.

It was getting dark now, and some of them were carrying torches or lamps. About a dozen people, men and women, with a few teenagers lurking on the fringes. From a distance, it looked like a group of very early carol-singers but, close up, Merrily could tell they weren’t going to be bought off with mince pies.

A man came forward, his voice preceding him across the cindered forecourt of Roddy Lodge’s garage.

‘We’d like, if we may, to speak to the Senior Investigating Officer?’

Frannie Bliss turned to Merrily, raised an eyebrow and then walked out to them – a poised and dapper figure despite the loss of sleep and all the coffee. A pro, an operator.

‘That would be me. DI Francis Bliss. How can I assist?’

‘Well, I hope that, for a start, you can tell us exactly what’s going on.’ The man was half a head taller than Bliss. He wore jogging gear, luminous orange. He put out a hand. ‘Fergus Young. Chair of the Underhowle Development Committee. Also head teacher at the school.’

He and Bliss shook hands, while Merrily stayed in the shadow of the concrete building, hoping on one level that all this wasn’t going to take too long and on another – because of what lay ahead for her – that it would take half the night.

‘Mr Young,’ Bliss said. ‘I’m happy to tell you what I can, but I’m afraid it’s not going to be much.’

‘Well, to begin with, if I may ask this, where is Mr Lodge?’

‘Ah.’ Bliss put his head on one side. ‘Mr Lodge – to use a phrase which I only wish we’d been able to improve on over the years, but we somehow never have – is helping us with our inquiries.’

A woman shouted, ‘Please don’t patronize us. We know the kind of questions you people have been asking in the village.’

‘Yeh, I’m sure you do.’ Bliss peered cautiously into the assembly. ‘The press aren’t here, are they?’

‘Of course not,’ Fergus Young said. ‘We’re all local people, and we’re here because we’re quite naturally concerned about what appears to be intensive police activity around the community in which we’ve chosen to invest our lives. And if that sounds pompous I’m very sorry.’

It certainly didn’t sound local. He was about Merrily’s age, and had a bony, equine head with tough and springy dull gold hair. He looked like the kind of evangelical head teacher who did an hour’s fell-running before morning assembly.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘I can assure you that anything you say to us will be treated with sensitivity and discretion.’

Bliss looked pointedly at the teenagers.

‘Or,’ Fergus Young said, ‘if you’d prefer to talk to just a few of us, in a less public place, I’m sure—’

‘That might be a better idea, sir, yes.’

Young turned to the group to discuss it. Frannie Bliss moved away, hands in his trouser pockets. Merrily murmured, ‘Shall I wait in the car?’

‘Not unless you really want to. I might need back-up, with some of these plummy bastards.’

And so they all wound up walking, almost single file, into the village of Underhowle in the blustery dusk. The lane was slick with wet leaves. Nobody spoke much. Merrily knew that Bliss was working out how to turn this around, milk the villagers while telling them nothing they didn’t already know and making it sound like he was taking them into his confidence. Walking a couple of yards behind the delegation, she had the feeling of being towed into something she was going to regret.

Underhowle: she didn’t know what to expect. The village, though still in Herefordshire and close to the most expensive curves of the Wye Valley, was also on the fringe of the Forest of Dean, the less affluent part of rural Gloucestershire – former mining area, high unemployment, a fair bit of dereliction. It wasn’t only the River Severn that separated the Forest from the Cotswolds, and it probably wasn’t only the Wye separating Underhowle from the posher parts of South Herefordshire.

Bliss dropped back to take a call on his mobile. ‘Yeh.’ Then he listened for a while. ‘So that bears out? Good, good…’

The trees dwindled, lights appeared.

‘Lovely job. Ta very much, George.’

Bliss snapped his phone shut, dropped it into his jacket pocket and quietly punched his left palm with his right fist. Fergus Young glanced back at him sharply. Merrily wondered if Bliss had been given the post-mortem result, but he didn’t enlighten her. She caught up with the others.

‘Never seems to stop raining these days, does it?’ she said to nobody in particular, reaching for her hood.

‘Aspect of global warming,’ a white-bearded man growled. ‘We only have ourselves to blame.’

‘I suppose so.’

There was a solitary street lamp at a staggered crossroads, a signpost pointing through the rain to Ross in the west, Lydbrook in the east. Ahead of them, Merrily saw sporadic cottages and modern houses edging warily up a stubbly hillside with the pylons marching behind. In the dusk, with few lights, it looked stark, like a big, sloping cemetery.

‘We’ll use the village hall, I think,’ Fergus Young said.

Not what Merrily was expecting, given the bleakness of the village. Nor, after the abattoir ambience of Ledwardine parish hall, what she was used to.

It had evidently been a barn, left over from the days when the village centre had formed around old farms. Now it was the classiest kind of barn conversion: chairs with tapestry seats, tables of antique pine. Wall lights shone softly on unplastered rubblestone, open beams and rafters.

A sandstone lintel, above a window in the end wall, had one word carved into it: ARICONIUM.

There was also a coffee bar. A dark, wiry guy with a shaven head went behind it, flicking switches. ‘Gotta be espresso, I’m afraid. That all right for everyone? Inspector?’ London accent.

‘Lovely,’ Frannie Bliss said. Merrily wondered how long before he succumbed to caffeine poisoning. She took a seat near the door, glad she was wearing civvies.

Most of the villagers, including all the kids, had dropped away at the entrance. Now there were only four locals in the hall: the shaven-headed guy, the man with the white beard, a weathered woman in her fifties wearing a tan riding jacket. And Fergus Young, lean and rangy and looking more relaxed in here, briskly unzipping his orange tracksuit top.

‘I’ll introduce everyone very quickly, OK? Ingrid Sollars, who runs our visitor centre; Chris Cody making the coffee – Chris is also on the Development Committee – and, er… Sam Hall.’

Not on the Development Committee.’ The bearded man was sitting on the edge of one of the tables. He had thin white hair dragged back into a ponytail, was maybe in his mid-sixties. Merrily had the feeling he’d invited himself to the party.

‘And… I’m sorry.’ Fergus Young turned to Frannie Bliss. ‘Inspector… ?

‘Bliss.’

‘Of course. And your colleague… Sergeant, is it?’

‘One day maybe, if she keeps her nose clean.’ Bliss smiled blandly at Merrily. ‘This is DC Watkins.’

Merrily smiled back fractionally, saying nothing. Yeah, well, it probably made sense; the truth would only provoke questions they could do without right now.

She sat quietly, like a minion. In the civilized warmth, she was aware of her thoughts being sucked back into Roddy Lodge’s necro-erotic grotto. This wasn’t something she felt qualified to analyse; it needed a forensic psychiatrist more than a priest. In fact, specialist advice was essential before Bliss took this any further – although obtaining it would mean alerting his superiors to the possibility of something far more extensive, more labyrinthine, than a one-off domestic killing. Which was why he was counting on her to soften Lodge. And she wasn’t going to be up to that, was she?

‘And what’s the Development Committee, exactly?’ Bliss said.

There was laughter from Chris Cody with the shaven head, the youngest of them – probably mid-to-late twenties. He and Ingrid Sollars were laying out bright red cups and saucers on the bar top.

‘It’s what we’re obliged to call ourselves to attract lots of terribly useful grants from various organizations,’ Fergus Young explained. ‘But it’s all rather more casual than it sounds.’

‘Brings results, however.’ Merrily recognized the voice which had earlier accused Bliss of being patronizing. ‘I was born here,’ Ingrid Sollars said, ‘and I can tell you this community has prospered more in the past five years than in the previous forty. We don’t intend to let it slip back, and that’s why we don’t need any of the more unsavoury kind of publicity.’

‘Man’s only doing his job, Ingrid,’ Sam Hall said mildly.

‘Notoriety we can do without.’

‘Lot of things we can do without.’

‘Let’s stick to the point, shall we?’ Fergus Young glanced at Sam and then at Bliss, smiled and shook his head, as though implying this was a little local conflict, nothing to worry the police. Sam Hall wrapped his arms around his knees and stared at the ceiling. Chris Cody and Ingrid Sollars began to hand out coffees.

‘Ta very much.’ Bliss sipped contentedly, glancing from face to face. ‘So, how well do we all know Mr Lodge?’

Ingrid Sollars frowned. ‘Well enough not to say another word until you tell us what he’s supposed to have done.’ She had grey-brown hair pulled back into a tight bun.

‘All right.’ Bliss sat down and stretched out his legs. ‘I can tell you this much, some of which you’ll know already. We’re investigating the suspicious death of a thirty-nine-year-old woman whose body was found on Mr Lodge’s… property. It’s now been confirmed by a pathologist that this woman was strangled.’

‘Oh, shit.’ Chris Cody sat down.

Sam Hall swung his trainered feet to the floor. ‘You’re saying you’ve charged Roddy with murder?’

‘We’ve not charged him with anything yet.’

‘But you’re going to?’

‘Would you advise me not to, sir?’

There was silence, except for noises from the coffee machine and rain on the window. It was quite dark outside now.

‘Poor Roddy,’ Fergus Young said.

Bliss tilted his head, inviting him to expand.

‘I…’ Young sighed. ‘All right, I’m the local head teacher – at the primary school. If you’d told me that one of the kids had committed a murder, my reaction would be much the same. I’m not saying he’s in any way retarded – well, maybe emotionally, and I’m not qualified to give an opinion on that. But the idea of Roddy Lodge as a murderer… it’s just hard to—’

‘This woman.’ Ingrid Sollars was still on her feet. ‘The dead woman. Who is she?’

‘Sorry. Can’t tell you that until she’s been formally identified.’

‘Is she local?’

‘Depends what you mean by local. I’m sorry.’

‘Because questions were being asked in the village about a woman who… who’s been missing for some time.’

Bliss nodded. Merrily recalled his mention of another missing woman.

‘Inspector Bliss, have you found the body of Melanie Pullman?’ Ingrid Sollars stood in front of him, her back arched. ‘Is Melanie Pullman dead?’

Bliss folded his arms. Merrily tried to catch his gaze; this wasn’t fair.

‘Did you know Miss Pullman?’ Bliss asked.

‘She worked weekends for me when I was running a riding school. Then she started going out with Roddy Lodge and I didn’t see her so often.’

‘Why did she break up with Roddy?’

‘I assume because he took up with another woman.’

‘Which nobody could understand,’ Sam Hall said. ‘Melanie was a nice girl and pretty, whereas the other woman looked, uh…’ He glanced at Ingrid Sollars, smiled and shook his head.

‘What?’ Bliss asked.

‘OK, good-looking, but older and… kind of a hard bitch, you want the truth.’

Sam Hall had a curious hybrid accent: the Gloucester roll you found east of Ross made more fluid by something transatlantic. Ingrid Sollars stared at him like he’d already said far too much.

‘So who’s the other woman?’ Bliss said casually.

‘Aw hell, Ingrid,’ Sam Hall said, ‘this is all gonna come out – why waste time? Name’s Lynsey Davies, Inspector. When she’s not in residence at Roddy’s place, she lives over in Ross, which is where he picked up most of his, uh, companions.’

‘So that’s where we could expect to find Ms Davies at the moment, then, is it, sir?’

‘I guess. Though there is another— OK!’ Sam put up his hands to field Ingrid’s glare. ‘No gossip. I’ll stick with the facts. Yeah, someplace in Ross. Personally, I haven’t noticed her around the last couple weeks.’ He raised an eyebrow at Bliss, then looked away to show he wasn’t going to follow up on this.

Ingrid Sollars moved towards a chair, then turned back to Bliss. ‘When Melanie Pullman disappeared, some of us thought you – the police – ought to have looked harder. But you abandoned her.’

‘I don’t think “abandoned” is quite the right word,’ Bliss said. ‘But, yeh, there are hundreds of adult missing persons, and not that many police. We have to prioritize and, unless we think someone’s in immediate danger, we can’t always devote the resources we’d like to. However… I can say I’d be very surprised if this turned out to be Miss Pullman’s body. And not only because it’s about two years since she disappeared.’

‘Oh.’ Ingrid Sollars sat down, expressionless. ‘Thank you.’ ‘Nonetheless,’ Bliss said thoughtfully, ‘since you mention it, in the light of what’s happened, the circumstances of Melanie’s disappearance might warrant another look, do you think?’

‘Oh, now just a minute.’ Fergus Young sat up. ‘This situation’s fraught enough—’

‘I’m just asking the question, Mr Young. How long after breaking up with Roddy Lodge did Miss Pullman disappear? Is it possible she disappeared before breaking up with Roddy? If you see what I mean.’

Sam Hall said, ‘I’d say not. But around this time Roddy Lodge’s love life would’ve been a little hard to chart. Boy seems to have gone through what you might call a delayed adolescence – like he’d discovered sex for the first time in his thirties. I guess you’d say no woman was safe. Although by safe, that’s not to say…’

Fergus Young nodded regretfully. ‘In a way Sam’s right, I suppose that’s what I meant earlier about Roddy being a big kid. His overtures to women were always so obvious, so unsophisticated – so immature, really – that we perhaps didn’t appreciate how often he… you know.’

‘Stop it!’ Ingrid Sollars shouted. ‘You’ve no grounds, neither of you…’

Fergus looked embarrassed. ‘I’m sorry. It’s true that most of us haven’t been here long enough to give you a reliable opinion.’ He looked at Ms Sollars. ‘You were born here, of course.’

‘And brought up not to gossip, Mr Young.’

‘Well, I was born here, too.’ Sam Hall lowered himself into a chair opposite Bliss. ‘And I think this is a situation where the famous Forest caution can do more harm than good. I know the Lodge family reasonably well. Solid, traditional farmers, made a good living, looked after their money, regulars at the Baptist Church before it closed.’

And Roddy was the baby, right?’ Bliss said.

Sam Hall nodded. Merrily noticed he was drinking not coffee but spring water from a bottle. ‘Mother dead, so it was an all- male household: Harry Lodge and the three sons, of which Roddy was the youngest by almost a quarter-century. Harry never remarried, and whatever happened, he tended to accept it as the will of God. Personally, I don’t know too much about Roddy’s life when he was growing up, being as I was away for some years, but I guess it was kinda… constrained?’

He stopped and glanced at Ingrid, who presumably had been here during those years, but she wouldn’t be drawn and looked away.

‘Don’t give up on us, Mr Hall,’ Bliss said.

Sam shrugged. ‘Well… when I came back from the States, Harry Lodge had just died and left Roddy the money to start a business, give himself a direction in life. To everyone’s surprise – not least Roddy’s, I guess – it took off, and… and so did Roddy. After this confined, God-fearing life on the family farm, where earnings tended to be conserved, were certainly never flaunted, he suddenly had more money than he knew what to do with. I guess it went straight to his head.’

‘There’s this little sports car in the garage, along with the diggers,’ Bliss said.

‘Yeah, a red one. And some pretty expensive weekend wear in his wardrobe, I’d guess. Sure, with his flashy car and a place of his own, he found he’d become suddenly attractive to a certain kind of woman. I guess he was getting to think he could have just about any woman he wanted – or a good proportion, anyway. Lynsey Davies didn’t seem to mind – least, she stuck around. Maybe she liked the sports car.’

‘And were the other women around, too, at the same time?’

‘Not in Underhowle. But I have friends in Ross. In some of the pubs there, Roddy was felt to be a nuisance, always trying to pick up girls.’

‘Sometimes succeeding?’

‘Aw hell, more than sometimes. Rebuffs bounced off him. If ‘there’s such a thing as what the Americans call a retard – only with a mental age of sixteen – then that’s what I guess you’re looking at here.’

‘Nicely put, sir,’ said Frannie Bliss. Merrily expected follow- up questions, tracing the directions Roddy’s new-found liberation might have taken him, but Bliss stood up. ‘Well, thank you all, very much. I think we’ve managed to exchange some useful information there. If you can think of anything else, I’ll leave a couple of cards on the bar here. Ring me.’

Outside, Bliss said to Merrily, ‘Next time I talk to those buggers, it’ll be individually. Like, the woman can obviously tell us a lot more, but she’s not gonna do it in front of the rest of the Underhowle Development Committee.’

‘What’s that about? What are they developing?’

‘Everything. Place has been going down the pan for years. Used to have three pubs, post office, bakery, all that. Used to be plenty of jobs in the Forest of Dean – mining and… forestry, obviously. Now, even farming’s in trouble, and a place this scrappy’s never going to make the tourist trail. All they had left was the school, and they had a hell of a battle to keep that going. That guy Fergus got a big campaign going, now he’s a local hero.’

They walked back along the lane. The rain had stopped again, but the wind was up, rattling like a flock of pigeons in the trees on either side.

‘And the other little bloke – Cody – the one who doesn’t say much, he’s the big industrialist. Builds computers.’

‘Here?’

‘Got a little factory. Doing very well, comparatively. Not exactly Bill Gates yet. More of a Bill Catflap – somebody called him that.’

Merrily laughed into the wind. Bliss looked at her. ‘They don’t pay you much, do they, the Church?’

‘What makes you think that?’

‘The knackered old Volvo. That coat. I always thought maybe you got extra for being an exorcist.’ No, just the privilege of having only one parish, instead of about six, like the bloke who covers this patch.’ Merrily looked down at her coat. ‘Don’t worry about me, I’ll have saved enough for a new one from the Oxfam shop before winter sets in.’

Bliss smiled, his mind already moving off somewhere else – she could almost see it racing ahead of them down the windy lane, a striker needing a swift score before somebody blew the whistle. She tried to intercept.

‘You learn anything back there, about Roddy Lodge and Lynsey Davies?’

‘Just threw up more questions. If he was suddenly getting his leg over half the girlies in Ross, why the older woman?’

‘Thanks.’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘What’s more curious, I would’ve thought,’ Merrily said, ‘is why – if he’s doing so well with real live women – why the wall full of dead pin-ups?’

Ahead of them, she could see lights in the garage complex, where Andy Mumford would be working stolidly on, alone in the bungalow with Roddy’s gallery. She didn’t want to see that again and was worried that Bliss was going to ask her to.

‘And what’s Ariconium, Frannie?’

‘Eh?’

‘The word “Ariconium” was inscribed on a stone in the hall.’ ‘I don’t know. I’ve seen a few mentions of it around the village. Listen, are you up for this now? Roddy? You can ask him about the dead ladies.’

Merrily shivered. ‘Frannie, it’s a police station, not a wine bar. He’s going to be on his guard. He isn’t going to tell me anything that he wouldn’t tell you. I really can’t see that it—’

‘Merrily…’ He stopped at the edge of the garage forecourt, by the police tape. ‘Let me be the judge, eh?’

‘That’s one of the things I’m worried about,’ Merrily said.

13

The Tower

THE CAIRNS WOMAN was sitting alone in the glass-sided recording booth, cradling this curved-backed Ovation guitar. She wore this long, dark blue dress, and the white streak in her tumbled hair was like a silk ribbon that had come undone.

From up in the darkness of the gallery, about ten feet above the half-lit studio floor, she looked… yeah, OK, impossibly romantic. Made you want to puke. Jane, in her tight little woollen top, directed a resentful glare at Eirion – besotted, the bastard – as the goddess Moira put on her headphones, and began adjusting the tuning on the Ovation.

On the other side of Jane, in the tiny gallery, was Lol, who wasn’t playing on this track; it was going to be a traditional folk song, stripped down. Jane was relieved to see how Lol kept looking away from the lovely Moira to where Prof Levin was hovering over his mixing board like a bald eagle.

Earlier, while Eirion had been drooling around the Cairns woman, she’d told Lol and Prof all about Gomer and the hateful pendulum of fate, and the impossible fix the poor little guy was in. And the dilemma: should he even be going back into a really back-breaking job, working alone, at his age? But what would become of him, mentally and emotionally, if he didn’t?

Prof Levin, who was not that much younger than Gomer, had said that if this plant-hire thing was what the man did, age was a meaningless consideration.

But he would say that, wouldn’t he, here in his cosy studio?

Later, Jane had privately conveyed to Lol as much as she knew about the even more grisly sequel to the fire, involving this Roddy Lodge – stuff she hadn’t even passed on to Eirion because Mum had told her not to. But there were going to be no secrets from Lol, right? Nothing to make him feel insecure in the relationship, and therefore open to—

A low-level fingered riff started up on the guitar, in the drumtight ambience, and then the voice came in: a voice that was low and heavy with dark magic and loaded with this beckoning sexuality.

Bitch.

Jane snatched a glance at Lol, noticing that he was looking less than relaxed, maybe wondering – and with reason – why Mum herself hadn’t phoned to explain why she hadn’t been able to see him just lately. He was wearing one of his sweatshirts with the Roswell alien face on the chest and his hair was nearly long enough again for the old ponytail. He was sitting very still. There was more Jane wanted to say but you weren’t allowed even to whisper up here, or the wrath of Prof would come down on everyone, and she couldn’t do that to Eirion, for whom this place was a bloody temple.

Other people: tact and consideration, walking on eggshells. Life was getting like some fragile little comedy of manners.

Jane sighed and leaned back in her canvas chair and listened to the song: predictable tragic-ballad stuff about a lady who waited in her tower room, watching every day at the window for her unsuitable suitor – and secret lover – to return from the wars. The way you did. Eirion was nodding, hands on his knees, so impressionable. She glanced at Lol. He was biting his lower lip, the way Mum would when something worrying was taking shape.

In a traditional narrative ballad, there were no wasted words and no sentiment. Long years passed and the hair of the Lady in the Tower was starting to go grey. Her father was bringing would-be suitors to her door, but of course she wasn’t interested and refused even to see them. Jane thought of Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, waiting for Odysseus to return from Troy.

As the seasons turned she moaned and cried

To the moon and the sinking sun.

And the flowers grew and the flowers died.

How long can a war go on?

And then suddenly, in this moment of, like, startling telepathy, Jane began to hear what she was sure Lol must be hearing: the awful subtext of the song. The realization just flew over her, like a ghostly barn owl, and she was sure she must actually have flinched.

The song was a mirror image of Lol’s own situation. The tower was the granary on the edge of Prof’s land, and the person in the tower was Lol himself – the Lol who would wait for long hours… days… weeks for Mum to come to him… she having to come to him, because of the covert nature of their affair. And it was she who was out there, following a vocation that, for two thousand years, had been the exclusive preserve of men… and working in its darkest places.

It was Mum who was away at the war.

Moira’s voice had grown thin with despair. This was a voice that killed the cliché of the form, invoking not so much beery folk clubs as the smoky jazz cellars of another era. A voice laden with doomed love.

Jane thought, in horror, It has to change, doesn’t it? It can’t go on. She knew that Lol considered his music trivial next to Mum’s spiritual work. He probably felt as confined and helpless, as furious and… impotent, as he once had in periods between medication. Like, outside of a recording booth, he had no reality. It would never occur to him, the way it occurred to Jane, that Mum – and the Church, too – might just be wallowing in self-deception. For Lol, it wouldn’t be the validity of what Mum was doing that mattered as much as her having the nerve to go out and do it.

One bright morning, the lady in the song is looking out from her tower and sees a lone horseman, and her heart takes a great leap. At this point Moira’s voice rose about an octave, and Jane saw Prof’s bald head nodding in satisfaction.

She didn’t actually know how the song was going to end, but she knew a bit about traditional music, and she recognized the fearful shrillness of false hope, as Moira Cairns sang:

It was the springtime of the year

And the sun was in the sky,

But the messenger climbed down from his horse

And night was in his eyes.

Right. So next time her lover appeared in the tower, it would be as a ghostly apparition. It was always as a ghost. Last night he came to me… my dead love came in…

When the next verse didn’t come, Jane looked down and saw that the Cairns woman’s fingers had fallen away from the strings. She stood for a moment, as if she’d forgotten the words, and then Jane heard her call across the studio, ‘Listen, Prof, can we leave this one for tonight, huh?’

Prof said something that Jane didn’t hear. Eirion, clutching the wooden railing at the edge of the narrow gallery, exhaled a word that might have been ‘Awesome.’

‘Aye,’ Moira replied to Prof, ‘goose over ma grave. Let’s move on.’

DI Frannie Bliss, at the wheel again, said, ‘If you ask me, those people, those villagers – the real locals, not the white settlers – they bloody know. They know at gut level that he’s done it before. They’ve more or less given us another name: Melanie Pullman.’

‘You’re still naturally suspicious of country people, aren’t you, Frannie?’ Merrily said. ‘You don’t understand them, so they scare you a bit.’

‘Balls.’ Bliss drove past the pub with the hare on the sign where, only last night, Merrily and Gomer had huddled over a mobile, waiting for Roddy to drive past with his… cargo. ‘No… all right, they do scare me. They have a different morality. It’s a fact, is it not, that country people kill, without too much thought. Farmers, hunting types – they don’t even question it.’

‘It’s still a big step to hunting people.’ She pushed her cold hands into the opposite sleeves of her coat, Chinese style. The car heater wasn’t doing anything for her. Basically, she didn’t want to go to Hereford Police Station to absorb confidences from a killer; she wanted to go home.

‘I don’t know,’ Bliss said. ‘And unless Lodge opens up to you tonight, we’ll be fighting for every scrap of the picture. And that’s why I want to get into lifting some more septic tanks. Tomorrow, soon as it’s light, if I can.’

‘On your own? You’re going to sign out the West Mercia police shovel?’

‘Ah, well…’ Bliss speeded up the wipers. ‘As it happens, you’ve put your finger on a minor logistical problem there, Merrily. I want to lift a couple of Efflapures, right? Now, I could get onto headquarters, obtain the necessary chitties and have a nice, professional JCB team out here… accompanied by a bunch of nice Regional Crime Squad boys with a detective superintendent in green wellies. And it’s bye-bye, Francis, thanks for all your help.’

‘Modern policing,’ Merrily said. ‘You can’t get around it.’

‘But think what that would cost… and suppose I’m wrong? Also, they’d make a mess of a lorra nice gardens, specially with all this rain we’ve been having. So what I’m saying… how much better, how much more discreet, how much less likely to cause a panic, if we have a small operation conducted by a feller who really knows his Efflapures.’

‘It’s an argument, I suppose.’

‘Good man, your Mr Parry,’ Bliss said. ‘A very able contractor, everybody says that.’

Merrily rose up against her seat belt. ‘Forget it!’

‘Listen, it makes a lorra sense – feller who can whip ’em out, put ’em back, no mess. Might even make a better job of it.’ But Gomer’s got a personal axe to grind on Roddy Lodge!’

‘Which is why I thought he might be happy to do it.’

‘Frannie, you are so irresponsible.’

‘Aw, Merrily, what’s he gonna do? Plant evidence? Bring his own bodies?’ Bliss drove placidly through the scattered lights of the village of Much Birch. ‘I’m assuming not all Gomer’s plant was destroyed. I mean, he’ll be able to put his hands on a digger of sorts?’

‘I’m not even going to answer that.’

‘You just did,’ Bliss said. ‘Thank you, Reverend.’

She scowled. ‘I can’t help feeling that something here’s swallowing us up. Me and Gomer.’

‘Let’s not be melodramatic, Merrily.’

‘Maybe it’s just you,’ she said, ‘and your voracious ambition.’

Bliss laughed. Presently they crested a hill, and there was the city of Hereford laid out before them like an illuminated pinball table.

Post-session, they were all – except for Lol – crammed into the scruffy kitchen behind the studio, where Prof Levin had his cappuccino machine going. Pinned to the wall over the sink was the proposed cover for Lol’s album. He was shown in black and white in an empty field, wearing his Roswell alien sweatshirt. Someone had made him take off his glasses, so that he looked totally disorientated, which was quite a smart move actually, in Jane’s view. The album title was stamped diagonally across the photo in stencilled, packing-case lettering.

ALIEN

Which was cool. It was a very cool cover altogether. Like Lol had been taken away and brought back but not to the place he’d been taken from. It wouldn’t have his name on the front, so that the punters would have to take it out of the rack to find out who it was by.

She asked Prof Levin, ‘Is it actually going to happen for him this time, do you think?’

‘Jane, what can I say? It’s a strange and lovely album. It needs word of mouth.’

‘People say I’ve got an awfully big mouth.’

‘Well, there you go.’

‘And Eirion’s very good at manipulating the Net.’

‘It all helps.’ Prof Levin wore an oversized King of the Hill T-shirt. His off-white beard was freshly trimmed. He was The Man, Eirion said.

Right now, Eirion was chatting up The Woman, having done his innocent, nervous approach, all pink-cheeked and lovable, the smarmy git, assuring her he had all her albums. For heaven’s sake, he was too young to have all of Moira Cairns’s albums. Lol, meanwhile, had disappeared.

‘So what’s on your mind, Jane?’ Prof said.

‘Oh, I… Well, I was just thinking that it would be like seriously useful if Lol was to become mega very soon. I mean, not for the money or the fame, as such.’

Prof Levin inclined his head, over-conveying curiosity. Behind him, the cappuccino machine was making impatient noises. ‘Give me a moment, darling, and I’ll be with you,’ Prof said to the machine.

Jane said, ‘Like, if he was so big, so famous… well, we all know it wouldn’t go to his head because… because it just wouldn’t.’

‘I agree totally.’

‘I mean, if he was famous enough that people would be like, hey, can it really be true that Lol Robinson is going out with some little woman vicar? Does that make sense?’

Prof Levin considered. ‘Some.’

‘See, it’s not as if she thinks she’s any kind of big deal, but he does. He thinks she’s spiritually over his head – like too good for him, I suppose, literally. When in fact he’s probably been to places we can’t even imagine. Mixing with really mad people on a level that even most psychiatrists never reach.’

Prof said gently, ‘I think perhaps she understands that, Jane. But maybe they have one or two things to work out before they consider going public.’

‘I still think it’d be useful if he was out there… up there, recognized, you know? I think he thinks that, too, though he’d never—’

‘Give me a break!’ Prof Levin spread his hands. ‘I agree.’

‘So is there anything else we can do?’

Prof shook his head. ‘I think what we do, Jane, just for the moment, is nothing. I think we butt out and let what happens happen.’

Jane saw him lift his gaze across the room towards the Cairns woman. She heard Eirion asking the Scottish siren something about a man who played the Pennine Pipes, whatever they were. Moira was smiling politely, but her attention was on the doorway – Lol coming in.

‘So where’s your mother now, Jane?’ Prof Levin said.

‘She’s, er, working, I think.’

Coming down from the gallery, Jane had said to Lol, I’m sure Mum was going to call you tonight. She’s just been kind of… overburdened. Lol had merely nodded and then gone outside on his own into the night, the alien, Oh God.

Prof called to Lol, ‘Jane was just telling me she thinks you should get out more.’

‘No, I didn’t.’ Jane felt the blush coming, turned her head away. She heard Lol saying, ‘I wouldn’t argue.’ He came over. ‘Prof, would it be feasible for you to spare me for the odd day? I’ve kind of… I’ve just agreed to maybe take on this kind of part-time job.’

‘Job?’ Prof said mildly. ‘What kind of job?’

‘Manual.’ Lol looked down at his guitarist’s fingers. ‘I’ll wear gloves, obviously.’

‘Sure, whatever.’ Prof turned to attend to his cappuccino machine, casually assembling mugs. ‘Manual is fine. Maybe you could also do bingo calling at night, to help destroy your voice.’

Lol explained to Jane, ‘I called Gomer. I haven’t got an HGV licence or anything, but I can do the hand-digging and things.’

Jane blinked. ‘What?

‘Just to clear the backlog. Keep the business going until he can get things reorganized.’

‘You’re…’ Jane stared at him in dismay. He was sweating lightly, his hair roughed up. ‘You’re going to work with like… shit?’

Of all the people she’d thought might be able to step in and help Gomer – even considering Eirion, for heaven’s sake. Jane felt herself going deeply red. Humiliated. Conspired against.

The Cairns woman tossed back her lovely hair and started to laugh her croaky Glaswegian laugh. ‘Aye,’ she said, ‘the therapeutic power of shit – that’s been overlooked for years.’

On the other hand, it would at least get Lol away from this bitch.

Pulling into the car park at Hereford Police Station, Bliss said, ‘I’m not even going to attempt to compromise you. This is down to your own conscience, Merrily. No tapes, no video, no tricks, no water glasses up against the door. Just let him talk, and then you can tell me as much or as little as you want to.’

When Merrily got out of the car, her legs felt as unsupportive as they had last night when she was taking her first steps into the ruins of Gomer’s yard. Bliss joined her under the lighted entrance on the Gaol Street side.

‘There’ll be an alarm you can sound if he makes any kind of move. I’ll show you all that. And we’ll be directly outside.’

Merrily pushed a hand through her damp hair. ‘Could I go to the loo, first?’ Prayer for guidance. You forgot how many toilet cubicles had served as emergency chapels.

Please get me through this. They walked up a ramp to the modest entrance. Inside: utility seating under Crimestoppers posters. A man sitting in the window, briefcase by his feet.

A white-haired sergeant appeared and raised a hand to Bliss. ‘Francis – a moment?’

‘Two minutes, Douglas, and I’ll be with you.’ Bliss led Merrily through a door and then through a couple of offices, both unoccupied. ‘You want the lavvy now?’

Maybe you could show me the room where we’re going to do it?’

‘Sure. One of the interview rooms, I thought.’ He smiled tightly. ‘You want to bless it first or something?’

When she saw the interview room, she thought a blessing wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Claustrophobic was too friendly a word. It was below ground level, a bunker almost opposite the cells, a windowless cube no more than nine feet square, with fluorescent lights and air-conditioning vents. The air felt like very old air, re-conditioned.

‘Bloody hell,’ Merrily said.

Bliss shrugged. ‘It’s not the flamin’ Parkinson show, Merrily. Now, do you want the bog or do you want to stay here and purify the place while I fetch Roddy?’

There were two chairs, one small table. A microphone for the tape was plumbed into one of the brown-fibred walls. Merrily sat down in one of the chairs and said glumly, ‘Whatever you like.’

The white-haired sergeant was in the doorway. ‘Francis…’

‘Douglas, can’t this wait?’

The sergeant said, ‘When you came in, did you happen to notice a young man with a briefcase?’

‘Does he concern me?’

‘That,’ the sergeant said, ‘was Mr Lodge’s solicitor.’

Bliss stared at him. ‘Douglas, Mr Lodge hasn’t gorra fuckin’ solicitor. He refused a solicitor. You were there.’

‘You go and explain that to this kid, then,’ Douglas said.

The solicitor was on his feet, waiting for them. He wore black- framed Jarvis Cocker glasses under glossy dark hair streaked with gold. He looked all of twenty-four, but he had to be older to have qualified.

He’s a new one.’ Bliss peered through the glass.

‘Office in Ross,’ Douglas said. ‘Ryan Nye. High-flyer.’

‘He’s hardly out the fuckin’ nest.’

‘I did try to warn you, Francis, but your phone was turned off.’

‘‘Yeh.’ Bliss walked out into the reception area. ‘Mr Nye? DI Francis Bliss. How can I help?’

Ryan Nye smiled affably, if a little nervously, shaking hands. ‘Mr Bliss, this isn’t my usual sort of thing, so I hope you’ll excuse my naivety, but I was rather hoping you could either charge my client or release him. He’s not well, is he?’

‘Not well in what way, exactly, sir?’

‘I rather thought you’d have been informed. Headache, nausea, disorientation.’

‘It can be a very disorientating experience, sir, getting arrested for murder. And I’m afraid I don’t see him being charged tonight.’

‘Then I really think he should see a doctor, or— Look, I’m trying to be helpful here… have you thought about a psychiatrist?’

Bliss folded his arms. ‘Are you an expert on mental health, Mr Nye?’

‘Of course I’m not. I’m trying to be helpful.’

‘You have reason to think he might harm himself, sir?’

‘His behaviour’s erratic, that’s all I’m saying.’

Bliss was silent for a moment. Then he said, ‘As a matter of fact – and I don’t know whether he’s mentioned this to you, sir – he has asked to see a priest.’

‘What – for the last rites?’ Ryan Nye’s face expressed pained disbelief. ‘Look, Inspector, it’s my impression that Mr Lodge doesn’t want to see anybody at all, and I certainly wouldn’t advise—’

‘Would you like us to go and ask him again, sir?’

‘No, I wouldn’t, actually. He certainly didn’t say anything to me about a priest. I really do think you should consider quite carefully what I’ve been saying. My client is not a well man.’

Outside, Bliss went off like an inexpensive firework, storming into the night then fizzling out, next to a lurid traffic car at the front of the station, looking like he wished he had the energy to put his fist through its windscreen. Or into the face of Roddy Lodge’s solicitor, Mr Ryan Nye, spoiling his glossy, streaked coiffure, dislodging his Jarvis Cocker glasses.

‘You know what this means?’ He leaned against the traffic car. ‘Means we’ve gorra leave the light on in Roddy’s cell, have an officer peeping in at him all night. Also means I’ve gorra get onto the Stonebow unit at the hospital and drag a psychiatric nurse over here. And if anything happens to him I’m up the Swanee.’

Merrily said, ‘You don’t really want him to be mentally ill, do you?’

‘He’s not mentally ill. He’s a crafty sod. Fuckin’ Nora, where do these leeching bastards come from? Is this lad an ambulance chaser, or did somebody engage him on Roddy’s behalf?’

‘Frannie…’ Merrily looked over a traffic queue to the new magistrates’ court that the planners had allowed to eat up a useful car park. ‘Be careful, OK?’

Merrily went home by taxi. She hung her coat over the post at the foot of the stairs and fed the cat. Alone in the vicarage, she felt edgy and unclean, and also guilty at being grateful to Roddy Lodge’s flash young lawyer for sparing her an intimate session with a man who kept eroticized pictures of dead women on his bedroom walls.

It was nearly nine p.m. To get this out of the way, she rang the Reverend Jerome Banks, Rural Dean for Ross-on-Wye. She remembered him as a wiry man with an abrupt manner, an ex-Army officer who’d once served alongside James Bull-Davies at Brecon. If Roddy Lodge had been mentally unstable, he ought to have spotted the signs. She got his answering machine and left her name, would try again tomorrow.

She had a shower, washed her hair, thinking of Jane at Knight’s Frome with Lol, wishing she was there. After putting on a clean alb, she still felt uncomfortable, a little clammy. She was pulling her black woollen shawl around her shoulders, ready to walk over to the church for some further cleansing, when the phone rang.

It was the Reverend Jerome Banks. ‘Mad?’ he said. ‘Oh yes. Absolutely barking, I’d say.’

14

Recognizing Madness

HAD SOMEONE FOLLOWED her in?

If it was a footstep, it was a light one. It might be a cat. Sometimes cats came into the church, and once there’d been a badger. But badgers weren’t stealthy; they clattered and rummaged.

Merrily was sitting in the old choirmaster’s oaken chair with her hands on her knees, a single small candle lit on the altar fifteen feet away, a draught from somewhere bending the flame, making shadows swirl and dip and rise to the night-dulled stained-glass window at the top of the chancel.

Ledwardine Church was locked soon after dark, nowadays, unless a service or a meeting was scheduled. She’d let herself in through the side entrance, which at least had a key you didn’t need both hands to turn. Against all advice, she hadn’t locked the door behind her. It was fundamentally important to feel she had protection in here, inside this great medieval night-dormant engine, or else what was the point?

Probably hadn’t been a footstep at all. After a day like this, the world seemed riddled with tunnels of obsession. For a cold moment, Merrily held before her an image of the frozen smiles of all the dead women on Roddy Lodge’s bedroom walls as they writhed in other women’s bodies, and then she let it fade, whispering the Lord’s Prayer. Apart from having to give evidence at the inquest on Lynsey Davies, her role in this particular police investigation was probably over.

And yet – shifting restlessly in the choirmaster’s chair – how could it be over when she was still attached via Gomer, who would never back off until Lodge had been convicted for Nev? Plus, here was Frannie Bliss about to exploit Gomer in the interests of keeping the case in his pocket: bad, selfish policing, and he knew it. Maverick cops were for the movies, and Frannie was on a narrowing tightrope. Meanwhile, Roddy Lodge…

‘Barking, of course,’ the Reverend Jerome Banks had said at once. ‘A complete fantasist. Wanted to tell me about the ghosts he’d been seeing all over the place. Well, isn’t as if you and I haven’t met lots of people like this, all the clergy do… They seek us out, expecting tea and cakes and a sympathetic ear that also happens to be entirely uncritical. Hardly dangerous, in the normal… I mean, not even to themselves, not in the normal course of things. Well, hardly going to spew out all this to the detective chappie, was I? What was I supposed to say? Boy didn’t seem deranged in a psychotic sense. I had absolutely no reason at all to suspect he might ever do what he’s done – well, of course I hadn’t.’

‘So you just offered him a sympathetic ear.’

‘No, I said that was what these people expected. Personally, I’ve never been one to play the jolly old dim-witted vicar. That’s what’s got the Church into its present enfeebled condition, if you ask me. Public starts to think we’re all half-baked. And this chap was getting on my nerves, to be quite honest. Bumptious? Full of himself? Never seen the like. I wasn’t entirely sure, to tell you the truth, if he wasn’t taking the piss.’

‘You said he came specifically to tell you about the ghosts he said he was seeing?’

‘Look…’ Jerome Banks had made an exasperated rumbling noise. ‘He was asking me how his property could possibly be haunted. How this could happen when it wasn’t an old house? Just built it himself – so how could it be haunted? I said had he put the pipes in properly? Had he had the wiring checked by experts?’

‘He was hearing strange noises, you mean? Lights were going on and off, that kind of—?’

‘I don’t know. That’s what usually happens, isn’t it? Look, Mrs Watkins, I’m not awfully ashamed to admit I’ve never really been into that kind of malarkey. Don’t know how you people manage to keep a straight face half the time. And anyway, this was rather before your time, so the only alternative would’ve been to refer him to your predecessor, old Dobbs – who was completely bloody barking, in my view… well, in everybody’s view, really. So I was rather relieved when Lodge reared up aghast, said no, he didn’t want any of that, thank you very much.’

‘Any of what?’

‘You know… prayers for the Unquiet Dead.’

‘Then why did he come to see you? His family was Baptist, anyway, surely?’

‘No idea at all. Never met the chap before.’

‘So did he say what kind of… manifestation… he’d been experiencing?’

‘Oh, it was probably all washing over me by then. I didn’t take detailed notes. You know as well as I do that we could spend all our time listening to all kinds of complete nonsense, but when you’ve got half a dozen parishes to organize you have to adjust your patience-level accordingly.’

‘When exactly was this?’

‘Probably in my diary somewhere but, off the cuff, two years ago? Three?’

She hadn’t pushed him any further, but she guessed there was quite a lot he wasn’t saying.

Not her business, anyway. Merrily let her head roll, shoulder to shoulder, with tiny cracklings like the beginnings of fire in kindling. Her woollen shawl was a distraction; she let it slip over the back of the chair and began to relax her body, starting with her toes – tightening muscles, letting go. Warmth would come.

For a while, she’d resisted Eastern-influenced meditation – the awakening of the chakras – as vaguely unChristian and also very Jane. But the demands of Deliverance, especially, had brought out a need for experience on a deeper level, a need to find moments of knowing. There were still too many times when she was appalled at her own weakness and ignorance, the frailty of her faith – a woman of straw. OK, humility was crucial, but so was a small, hot core of certainty. Some kind of retreat might have helped restore her inner balance, but there’d never been time for that – hadn’t even been time for a holiday. This job was smothering her; it was everywhere, like fog.

Lose thoughts. Concentrate on the breathing. It had taken her some time to realize that this was not about breathing consciously but becoming conscious of your breathing, simple things like that.

Gradually, the fabric of the church faded: the stonework, the stained glass, the rood-screen with its carved apples, the pulpit where she tried to preach while hating the word ‘preach’ with all its connotations, the entrance to the Bull Chapel with its eerily sleepless effigy. After a time, the church ceased to be its furniture, its artefacts. Now came the space, the atmosphere, the charged air – this was the church.

Her spine straightened from what she hadn’t realized had been a slump; there was a warmth in her chest, her breathing was deepening. There was a moment when the warmth aroused an underlying pleasure that was close to sexual; she had a glimpse of Lol and let it go at once… you just let it go, without guilt or self-recrimination. You let the breath become the Spirit and the Spirit filled you, pouring down to the stomach, with that strange, active relaxation of the solar plexus – separation, breath of God… God breathes me – and, at some stage, entered prayer.

Thack.

Merrily’s eyelids sprang back. The building seemed to shudder, as though the pews, the pulpit, the stone tombs had been brutally hurled back into place.

She knew at once what it was, knew every little noise this church made after hours.

The latch. When you were used to it, you could let the iron latch on the side door slip silently back into place. When you weren’t, the latch came down hard: thack.

Someone had been in here with her for a while, and then gone out.

Or wanted her to think they’d gone out.

The draught had died; the candle flame was placid now, making a nest of light on the altar. Merrily rose quietly, stood under the rood-screen and listened intently for more than a minute, staring down the central aisle.

Rat eyes in the dark? Anyway, she refused to be intimidated. If they’d gone, they’d gone. If they hadn’t, she was safer up here, close to the altar. She hadn’t finished, anyway. She knelt in the centre of the chancel and prayed for Gomer. And for Roddy Lodge. And for Frannie Bliss, who confused police work with poker, his cards up against his shirt-front, always raising the stakes.

She waited for two or three minutes before coming to her feet, bowing her head, gathering her shawl from the back of the choirmaster’s chair and going to the altar to snuff out the candle.

She listened again. There was nothing to be heard inside, not even the skittering of mice. Only the wind from outside. The row of high, plain, diamond-paned windows was opaque – no moon to light her way down the aisle. She always thought she could find her way blindfold around this church, but twice she collided with the ends of pews. Nerves.

At the bottom of the aisle, Merrily walked into something that should not have been there and fell hard onto the stone flags.

The original plan had been to return to the studio, to carry on working until midnight. But after Jane and Eirion had left, Moira had said she was tired, so Prof had suggested they wind up.

Soon after this, Gomer had phoned, the familiar old buzz under his voice.

How you fixed for ten o’clock, boy?’

Tomorrow?’ The mobile had halted Lol at the door, Maglite in hand, about to guide Moira back along the track to the granary. He’d been thinking maybe he’d have a week or so – at least until after Nev’s funeral – to get himself a little fitter before Gomer summoned him to make a fool of himself laying field drainage under the sardonic gaze of some Radnor Valley sheep farmer.

‘Police, it is, see. Can’t say too much on the phone, but anything that’ll help bury that bastard, I’ll do it, they knows that.’

‘We’re working for the police?’

‘Can’t say too much. Ten o’clock, boy?’

‘Early night for you, too, then,’ Moira said when he folded up the phone. ‘Hand me the torch, Laurence, I can see m’self back.’

‘You’ll need someone to run for help if you get attacked,’ Lol said.

Moira rolled her eyes, taking down her black cloak from one of the hooks inside the stable door. The cloak was well worn, he noticed, and its hem was frayed. She walked outside and waited for him. The night was dry now and the wind seemed to have pulled back into the west, leaving a thin breeze.

They followed the pool of torchlight along the track, between two old oaks, avoiding the puddles.

Moira said, ‘Jane’s mother, your… friend – how’d she come to be doing that job?’

‘You don’t believe in a calling?’

‘No, becoming a priest, I can understand that part. In other circumstances I might’ve gone that way, too, who can say? I was meaning the exorcism side of it. I don’t know how many women priests would be doing that job, but I’d guess not many.’

‘No. How it happened was, a year or two ago she was faced with something she couldn’t explain, a… well, a haunting. And the Church wasn’t helpful, and she made some comments at a particular conference about the lack of any kind of real advice for the clergy on the paranormal. And there was a guy there who was about to become the new bishop of Hereford, and he had this old-style exorcist he wanted to get rid of.’

‘He tossed her in there cold?’

‘There was a training course.’

‘Oh right, a training course. So that’s all right, then.’

He looked at Moira, her cloak billowing a little as if it was responding to her annoyance.

She said, ‘Were there no’ some… aspects of herself she needed to resolve, perhaps? Just that I’ve talked to a couple of exorcists over the years, and they both got into this particular ministry to try and understand certain experiences or abilities they’d discovered they possessed – precognition… clairvoyance… mediumship.’

‘Common ground there for you?’

‘Oh, aye, it’s all been pretty much normal with me since I was a wee girl. Hereditary – from ma mother.’ She stopped, pulling the cloak around her. ‘I suppose what always bothered me most was not that I was sensing stuff that just seemed to go flying past other people, but why? Why me, y’ know? What was I supposed to do with it? Was there some wider purpose, or was it just there to give me a hard time – penance from another life or some shit like that? I just wondered if this was how it was with your friend – if she had personal stuff to come to terms with.’

Lol shook his head. ‘She wouldn’t claim to be psychic. She realizes she was brought in because she was a woman, youngish, personable… new image. That’s it, really. And she’s trying really hard to live up to it.’

‘Jesus.’ Moira ducked as more trees locked branches overhead. ‘These guys have some things to answer for, don’t they just? The administrators, the politicians, the power people with their meaningless degrees and their cheesy Tony Blair smiles, who think finding their sensitive side is learning how to change nappies and slice the fucking quiche. They never appoint people they believe can actually do anything, in case they do it too well. Just the ones they’re pretty sure they can control.’

‘He’s gone now, anyway.’ Lol stopped at an old footbridge over the narrow River Frome, which had seeped through the summer and now was racing with the rains of autumn. ‘You think that, as a normal person, with no obvious special… attributes, she maybe shouldn’t be doing what she’s doing?’

Moira leaned against the bridge’s damp wooden railing. ‘It bother you, what she does?’

‘Well, it’s not really my place—’

‘Oh, come on!’

‘It’s just that she was doing it before we—’

‘Does it scare you?’

‘Maybe not as much as it should.’ He pointed the Maglite vertically so that it made a white cone in the air. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Or maybe you’re more afraid of what’s in here’ – Moira pointed to the side of her head – ‘than what just might be out there.’ She levered herself away from the rail. ‘Well, more often than not, in my experience, Laurence, they are one and the same. Seems to me…’ She crossed the footbridge. ‘Ach, this is none of my—’

‘No, go on.’

A single light gleamed ahead of them. She’d taken his advice and left a light on in the granary, so that when they came out the other side of the trees they could see it in the middle distance.

‘It would be lovely,’ Moira said, ‘to think that the Holy Church confers protection. But I cannae help thinking that the awful mess that is modern Anglicanism is now becoming so far removed from the source that being an Anglican exorcist—’

‘Deliverance Consultant.’

‘Maybe it’s a wee bit like going into an unknown tropical jungle without your injections, carrying a road map of the Home Counties. Deliverance Consultant. Jesus, the weak-kneed bastards can’t even say what they mean.’

Lol stopped on the bridge. Beneath it, the swollen Frome foamed and spat; it wasn’t the river he thought he knew.

From the far bank, Moira said, ‘So I was lunching today with your not-invariably-amiable local clergyman, the Reverend Simon St John. A serious psychic, dogged all his life by premonitions, apparitions, all the bloody itions you can name. Still thinking of it as a kind of sickness, and the Church of England as his sanatorium. Guy who’ll run a mile from the unexplained.’

Lol joined her on the bank, uneasy. The torch beam showed the frayed hem of Moira’s cloak trailing in the mud; she didn’t seem concerned.

‘Simon and I were discussing your problem – the need to keep up appearances. In truth, we couldnae see you at the heart of village life – in your alien sweatshirt, handing round the vol- au-vents at the vicarage garden party, then stepping up on the podium with the Boswell guitar to perform a couple of angsty numbers for the parishioners. Simon said if it was him in Merrily’s shoes they could all go eat their lace curtains. But then, he’s a guy.’

The kind of guy, Lol reflected, who never worried about appearances and got away with it. Merrily tended not to get away with anything.

‘In the end, though, we couldnae come up with an easy answer, although Simon said it’d be a terrible shame if you didnae come through, the two of you. Not least, he said, because of what she’s doing… this lonely path, full of doubt and soul- searching and wondering whether you’re going clean out of your mind. She needs somebody around her who’s up to recognizing madness.’

‘Thanks.’

‘As for the wee girl…’

‘Jane?’

They came to the granary, the light from the window outlining the steps. ‘Some problem there, Laurence, my impression. Not a happy kid. I may be wrong; I don’t think so.’

Merrily limped into the vicarage, dragging the black sack after her – an ordinary Herefordshire Council medium-quality plastic bin liner. Under the security light over the church porch, she’d taken one look inside and then closed the top quickly, spinning the sack round and round.

She shut the front door and stood with her back to it, panting. She felt as if something was making circles of madness around her. She didn’t know whether to call the police tonight or…

Tomorrow. She’d call them tomorrow. She needed to sleep on this. Needed to sleep full stop.

Except Jane wasn’t back yet. She was late – she’d expected to be home by eleven, because Eirion would then have to head back to Abergavenny, and it was already twenty past. OK, not over-late; maybe she should wait ten minutes before ringing Lol at the studio to see what time they’d left.

She left the bin sack in the hall, went into the kitchen and found the Germolene, pulling up her alb to expose the kind of cut knees that Jane was always bringing home as a kid. Rubbed some on, couldn’t be bothered with plasters. She went to put the kettle on, lit a cigarette and stood for a few moments staring through the open door at the print of Holman Hunt’s Light of the World, the house-warming gift from Uncle Ted. A tired and disillusioned middle-aged Jesus doing this sorrowful simper: I’ll hold up the lamp but I don’t really expect any of you to follow.

She thought, Sod it, went into the hall and brought back the sack that someone had left at the bottom of the aisle. Someone who had entered the church while she was praying, left the bin liner and crept away, leaving her to fall over it. Afterwards, she’d sat there on the stone flags, which also served as memorials, feeling the lumps in the sack, thinking of Roddy Lodge and dead bodies.

Now she emptied the contents onto the kitchen table. She stared at the heap again and tried to laugh. This was beyond insane.

Merrily sat down at the table, picked up one bundle, pulled off the rubber band and counted out the notes slowly and meticulously: £2,000 in fifties. There must be forty or fifty similar bundles. On the top of one there was a printed note on a quarter-folded sheet of A4 copier paper:

For maintenance of the Church at Ledwardine without the need for commercial enterprise. A donation.

She heard a car pull up outside, a door slam, Eirion’s familiar parting tap on the horn. She swept the bundles into the bin liner. Rapid footsteps on the path, then Jane’s key jiggling around in the lock. As she pulled the bag into the scullery, the phone began to ring.

‘How did it go?’ Huw Owen said.

‘Huh? Sorry, Huw, I…’

‘The meeting, lass. The mobile-phone mast?’

‘Oh.’ God, was that this year? ‘Sorry, quite a lot’s happened since then. No, Ted didn’t raise it in the end. However…’ Merrily pulled out the chair, slumped into it, stretched out her sore legs and suddenly felt like talking.

Not about the bundled money; she wasn’t up to discussing that, not until she’d puzzled out a few things. She told him instead about Roddy Lodge, from Gomer’s fire and the death of Nev to the discovery of the body on the truck, from the visit to Lodge’s bungalow to the interview-room session that didn’t happen. It took about twenty-five minutes. After half a day with manic Frannie and the shock of the bin bag, laying out the Lodge affair for the stoical Huw was almost relaxing.

‘Underhowle, eh?’ he said.

‘Not a place I’d ever been to before.’

‘Dobbs went,’ Huw said.

‘Sorry?’

‘The late Tommy Dobbs, your esteemed predecessor. He were in Underhowle a few years ago.’

‘Not at the invitation of the rural dean he wasn’t, unless I’ve been misled.’

‘Who’s the RD?’

‘Banks.’

‘Happen before his time. Five, six years ago? Summat like that. Haunting job, sort of. Reason I remember it, Dobbs did summat he’d never been known to do before.’

‘Mmm?’

‘He rang me for advice. In the normal way, his consultative procedure would begin and end with God.’

‘Flattering.’ Merrily was thinking this couldn’t involve Lodge’s bungalow because it wasn’t even built then. ‘Were you able to assist?’

‘I, er… no. He were right in this instance – not our usual thing. Alleged case of what I’m afraid you’d have to call “alien abduction”.’

‘Yes, that would’ve fazed him.’

‘ “Mr Owen,” he says – always one for formality, was Dobbs – “Humanoid entities in silver suits: what does this convey to you, Mr Owen?” Course Dobbs didn’t have a telly. Bugger-all use referring him to Star Trek.’

‘This was in Underhowle? Someone in Underhowle was claiming to have had a close encounter?’

‘Several, as I recall. Several encounters, not several people. Only one person – young woman, late teens. I believe Dobbs did a report on it, for the record, to cover himself. Sent me a copy. I could probably find it for you, but I expect Sophie’ll have it on the files up at the Cathedral, if you’re interested. Dobbs found it disturbing because he didn’t think the girl was lying or mentally ill, but he still couldn’t do owt with it. I’ve heard of alleged alien cases where blessings or minor exorcisms have helped, mind. Which makes you wonder if there isn’t a spiritual dimension to some of these so-called close encounters. Not this time, though.’

Merrily yawned. ‘OK, perhaps I’ll have a glance at the records. You never know, do you? You wouldn’t remember the name of the girl – for the file reference?’

‘Aye, vaguely. Summat like yours. Melissa? No, Melanie. Pullford. Melanie Pullford.’

Merrily stiffened. ‘Couldn’t have been Pullman?’

‘It’s possible.’

‘Because if she’s been abducted by aliens again, this time they forgot to bring her back. Been missing two years. Bliss thinks Lodge might have killed her. You have any thoughts on that?’

‘Aye – tell the bugger.’

‘If it was confidential, between the girl and Deliverance, that might not be entirely ethical.’

‘Tell him anyroad. I don’t like coincidence. He won’t do owt, mind. He’s a copper. If even the likes of us are suspicious of alien abduction…’

On the whole, not the best thing to say late at night to Merrily, who always felt responsible, especially if nobody else did. Sometimes your most appealing quality, Jane had said once. But most of the time your worst fault.

She sighed and made a note on the sermon pad to call Sophie, first thing.

And then Gomer phoned and told her what he was doing in the morning, he and Lol.

Merrily went anxiously to bed that night, and anxiously to sleep. Had anxious dreams.

Part Three

It is important to acknowledge common experiences that emerge in all world cultures and religions when we are living in an ever-shrinking global village. All cultures, including our own, acknowledge the existence of spirits at levels beyond the human. We call them angels.

Matthew Fox and Rupert Sheldrake The Physics of Angels

15

Holes

IT HAD TO be. Had to be. But now, on the steps of Chapel House, Merrily was sandbagged by second thoughts. How did you do this? How did you go about accusing someone of giving you eighty grand?

Tell me, Jenny Box had said the other night on the square, have you asked God? For the money? Have you asked God?

It was a very old house, as old as the vicarage but better kept. A narrow, cobbled alley now separated it from the timber- framed row that began with the Black Swan.

She’d always thought it was called Chapel House because it was across the street from the former Zionist chapel, now selling antique furniture. Obviously, the house was centuries older than the chapel, but she’d imagined it being renamed around the turn of last century, when Nonconformism was hot.

Beginning to feel conspicuous, Merrily lifted the knocker, let it fall and heard a long echo from inside the house. With any luck, Jenny Box would be out. This was a bad move. She wasn’t ready. Yet how could she not have come?

After breakfast, Jane had casually told her what she already knew – that Lol had elected to become an unskilled labourer for Gomer. And they’d stared at one another for a moment, Jane displaying hostility, like this was Merrily’s fault, while Merrily wondered if the kid could possibly know the worst of it – what it was likely to involve.

Evidently not. At about nine, Eirion had picked her up, and they’d said they were heading back into Wales for the day. If they’d secretly been going to join Gomer and Lol in the search for decaying bodies under waste tanks, Jane might have thrown up a smokescreen but Eirion wouldn’t.

When they’d gone, she’d tried to ring Lol, twice. No answer. Why did he still find it so hard to accept that someone might want him to be there? Spooked by the way the Lodge affair was starting to surround them all like a blanket of smog, she’d pulled the plastic sack from under the desk in the scullery, emptying it out again to make sure she hadn’t dreamed its contents and carefully counting it all this time.

Eighty thousand pounds exactly, for the church.

Right. OK. She’d knotted the neck of the sack and called the Deliverance office in Hereford, got the answering machine – Sophie must be down at the Palace with the bishop. Merrily had left a message asking if they happened to have the Melanie Pullman file and, if so, could Sophie e-mail it.

It had been then, stowing the bin sack under the desk, that she’d realized she’d finally run out of reasons for putting off a confrontation with Mrs Box.

Inevitably, the old oak door of Chapel House opened – not bumping and scraping like the front door of the vicarage, but gliding – and here was Mrs Box, carefully made-up. Or rather, made-down: her hair was brushed and shining and her face wore pale foundation, but no lipstick, no eyeshadow. She was wearing a simple black dress with a loose cord around the waist.

‘Why, Merrily.’ Smiling her gracious smile, this silky-voiced, willowy woman, the ex-model who would always make you feel graceless and untidy. ‘You couldn’t’ve timed it better. I was just off to my morning prayers. Now we can go together.’

‘Oh.’ She was waiting for me. She knew I’d come.

Merrily turned to descend the steps, thinking they’d be off to the church. But Jenny Box had already slipped back into the dimness of the old house.

‘Well, come on, then, Merrily. I’ve been dying to show this to someone who’d really understand.’

Gomer was standing up in the mini-JCB, leaning forward like a horseman on stirrups, to witness the uncovering. ‘Easy now, boy. Don’t you scratch him.’

As most of the tank had been buried and seemed to be coated with tough rubber, it was hard to imagine how a few scratches would matter. But this was Gomer’s show, Gomer’s world.

Lol eased up, using the tip of the spade like a trowel, teasing away shards of clay. This was how they’d unearthed the first Efflapure, a big rubber ball full of human waste – slow and careful, as though it was likely to explode like a giant landmine in a welter of shrapnel and shit. You couldn’t pull it out without emptying it first, and they hadn’t got a convenient tanker, so it was a question of digging down to it, getting underneath, and Lol was waist-deep in the hole, his jeans soaked through because he’d said no to plastic trousers.

Outside the hole, it was already late morning, but the sun was like a soft-boiled egg. Across the long field beyond the garden fence there were still woolly rolls of mist on the hill above Underhowle – Howle Hill this would be, hanging a literal name on a village that Lol had never heard of until today.

He didn’t know this area, and he’d never been to the Forest of Dean, which Andy Mumford said began the other side of the hill. He didn’t know it, and yet he was already inside it, feeling its juices, smelling its smell. Everything here was earthy and pungent, but it was also, thankfully, kind of unreal: Middle- earth. Gomerland.

Mumford was standing well clear, saving his suit from mud- spurts. As if he’d picked up Lol’s thoughts on some mental police wavelength, he whispered loudly into the hole, ‘You see anything or smell anything apart from God’s earth, Mr Robinson, you come out of there quick, and we summon the white people.’

Meaning the forensic people – white coveralls. Until then, it would be just the three of them: two seasoned professionals and a wimpy little singer with muscles like sponge cake, guitar fingers delving in mud and slime. Gomerland. Maybe inches away from meddling with the dead.

Which would then be Merrilyland.

‘Smell?’ Mr Sandford, whose garden this was, had been peering in, quite intrigued, but now he jumped back, alarmed. ‘Smell?’ Here it came, the first shower of outrage. ‘I thought this was just a formality. That’s what Inspector Bliss told us on the phone. He said it was just—’

‘Yes, sir, I’m sure that’s right,’ Mumford said.

‘No, you’re not! You think there’s’ – the colour was flaking from Mr Sandford’s smooth face – ‘a dead flaming body down there!’

Mike?’ Here came the blonde wife tottering in unsuitable sandals at the edge of their bungalow’s colonial-style verandah. ‘Mike, oh, for God’s sake…’ Glossy lips retracting in revulsion. ‘It is this Melanie Pullman, isn’t it? They’re looking for Melanie Pullman’s body. Oh please, not here!’

‘You got some information you haven’t told us about?’ Sandford was waving his wife away and backing off from the hole like it might widen and swallow him. He was about Lol’s age, wearing sweats and trainers: suburban weekend-wear in an area of well-patched tweeds, overalls and waterproofs. He’d told them he’d taken half a day off work for this.

‘Please calm down, sir,’ Mumford said in his stolid, farmerly way. ‘We don’t know anything. Like I said, this is just one of a number of installations we’ll be checking out in the course of the day.’

In fact six, Lol had been told, in an area roughly bounded by the towns of Ross, Ledbury and Coleford. This was the first – recently installed and less than half a country mile from Underhowle where this Roddy Lodge lived. From Gomer, Lol had learned a lot about Lodge: liar, conman, incompetent installer of overpriced drainage systems. The man who murdered Nev. Also a woman.

They were here to look for number three; why deny it?

‘Don’t expect this, do you?’ Mr Sandford had returned nervously to the edge of the hole. His wife had gone back into the house; she’d be calming herself by phoning friends, Lol thought. This was how panic spread. The next house they arrived at, discretion would no longer be an option.

‘No,’ Lol said, ‘you don’t.’

‘Move out the bloody city to find a place where your kids can walk home from school in safety, and just when you finally think you’ve…’ Mr Sandford nodded at the exposed tank. ‘How long before you know?’

Lol shook his head. The pit Gomer had excavated on two sides of the Efflapure was wide enough now for him to move around the tank. He reversed the spade, holding it two-handed just above the blade, and began to scrape soil from the curved, rubbery casing, his arms already stiffening under sleeves of drying mud.

‘You’ve got a job locally?’ he asked Mr Sandford – talking only to cover his own nerves, because if there was something dead down here, he was likely to be getting very close to it. He was aware of a dark bib of sweat spreading over the front of his T-shirt.

‘Computers,’ Mr Sandford said.

‘Oh?’ Lol took a careful sniff at the earth: decay, yes – but vegetable, surely nothing more than that. Gomer had said grimly, You’ll know, boy, when you finds it. Like he was certain they were going to.

‘You’re not local?’ Mr Sandford said.

‘No, not very.’ Lol began to prod tentatively at the pea-gravel around the bottom of the tank.

‘In which case, you wouldn’t know this is Silicon Valley in the making.’

‘You’ve got a factory?’

‘Not me personally. Chris Cody’s the genius. Saved the whole village from a slow death. Seventeen new jobs this year, if you include part-time employment for cleaners and so on. That’s big-time here. And it’s just the start.’

What, software manuf—?’ Lol recoiled as his spade found something in the gravel. Black. Could be a shoe. He looked up at Gomer.

‘The lot.’ Sandford hadn’t noticed it. ‘We make computers. Right now, the big thing’s computers for kids.’

It was a pipe, just a thick, black pipe.

‘I thought…’ Lol collected some breath, unsure if this was relief because, of all the bits you might uncover first, a shoe would probably be the least distressing. ‘I thought kids could use anything. Eight-year-old hackers getting into the White House and… all that.’

‘Nah, little kids, this is. Simple computers for four-year-olds, three-year-olds, two or younger. With games they can understand. By the time they get to school they’re computer-literate and most of ’em can read and write. Puts ’em a couple of years ahead of other kids. Fantastic. Might look run-down and primitive round here, but this place is the future, and that’s why—’

‘All right.’ Gomer jumped down from the digger, tossing his ciggy into the mud. ‘I’ll come in there now, boy.’

‘You sure, Gomer?’ Lol was already out of the pit, a shiver up his back.

‘But you do not expect this,’ Mr Sandford said, watching the Efflapure, as if they were excavating Hell itself in his half-acre garden.

‘Careful now.’ Jenny Box pulled back the rug in her oak-panelled hall, revealing the hatch in the crooked wooden floor.

‘Chapel House…’ Merrily said. ‘You mean… ?’

‘Even the estate agents didn’t try to make anything of it,’ Mrs Box said. ‘They thought ’twas just a little cellar – a “wine cellar” they called it – which they thought would sound more appealing to the kind of people they were expecting to buy the house.’ She pulled back a bolt and slipped slender fingers under a black cast-iron ring. ‘This hatch is Victorian, I’m guessing, and they’d have made a feature of it, but for most of last century it’d have been nothing but a storage space.’

The hatch came up easily. Jenny Box laid it down flat. She depressed a switch in the oak panelling. Stone steps were softly lit from below.

‘After you, Reverend,’ Mrs Box said.

Merrily put a toe on the first step. She was still wary of enclosed and windowless spaces after a harrowing night last Candlemas, in a private mausoleum in Radnorshire. Maybe she always would be.

‘There used to be a rail,’ Mrs Box said, ‘but it’d fallen off and I didn’t replace it. ’Twas always my feeling that, going down there, a certain sense of danger would be not inappropriate. Sometimes, if I’m feeling a little daring, I’ll go down in the dark and light a candle.’

‘You should be a bit careful,’ Merrily said. ‘What if you fell and got trapped?’

‘Tssk,’ Jenny Box said scornfully.

Merrily went down the steps, which curved. She was wondering: some kind of priest’s hole? Was the house old enough for that? As she came to the bottom step, she glanced back over her shoulder, trepidation lightly brushing her, as if the hatch might come crashing down, the bolt thrown, sealing her underground with… what?

There was an absurd moment of relief when she saw Jenny Box following her. She went forward, ducking – not something she had to do very often, even in the oldest cottages, but here the curved ceiling was, at its highest, only an inch or so above her head.

Mrs Box laughed lightly. ‘Kneeling room only, for most people today. I guess people were all a lot shorter when this was built.’

A round lantern, with an electric bulb, hung close to the wall, and Merrily saw she was in a short, narrow passage, its walls recently replastered and painted white. A smell. Incense? She didn’t move. She felt cold down here, despite still wearing her coat – the short woollen one, newish; she hadn’t wanted to look too poor this morning.

She wants me to know… is that possible?

‘Go on.’ Jenny Box was behind her, not quite touching her. ‘Go through.’

The passage opened out into a small white room lit by a second lantern and given focus by a low wooden altar. The atmosphere was suddenly so pervasive that, if she hadn’t been so unsettled, it might have brought Merrily instinctively to her knees.

‘I didn’t know this even existed.’

She’d been expecting something contrived, something fabricated, something faintly naff. But there were places where you could be brought in blindfold and you’d still be instantly aware of the energy of prayer.

The altar was of dark oak, its top a good four inches thick. It had on it a small golden cloth, a heavy gilt cross on a stand and two thick yellow candles in trays. Before it, a gold-coloured rug lay on the flagged floor and the ceiling was painted gold, like a chantry. There was an oak settle against the back wall. An incense-burner hung from what looked like a meat-hook in a corner and behind the altar was a tall picture involving a misty white figure with a down-pointing arm extending to form what could be a sword.

From a small alcove in the stone wall to their left, Jenny Box took down a box of cook’s matches, and moved to the altar.

‘When I contacted the previous owners… well, no, not them because they were only here two minutes, but the daughter of the people who’d owned Chapel House for about a half-century before that, she said they always knew there was something “funny” about this cellar, and in fact local people used to say it was haunted. The daughter said her parents just used it as storage space, for junk. They didn’t know its history – nobody seems to, but I don’t think that matters.’

‘No.’

‘I mean, I could tell straight off that there was something. I had it cleaned out completely, did most of it myself. Scrubbed for hours at the floor – the first time I’d scrubbed a floor in many, many years. It seemed like… an important thing to do. Like washing the feet of…’ She broke off and smiled almost bashfully. ‘It had obviously even been used as a coal cellar at one time. The walls were pretty filthy. So I started to scrub away at them, too. And that was when the cross appeared.’

Merrily looked around.

‘Oh, it’s not there now.’ Jenny Box struck a match. ‘It disappeared again, I’m afraid. There I was, scrubbing at the wall one day, and the plaster came off, and it left the exact, perfect shape of a cross, but when I came back the next morning all the rest of the plaster had fallen off. It wasn’t for anyone else, you see.’ Her faced tilted; she sought out Merrily’s eyes. ‘It was to show me,’ she said. ‘You know?’

Merrily said nothing. This was no place for scepticism. Although it was still cold, there seemed to be no intrusive air down here, and when Mrs Box lit the candles their flames rose elegantly and brought the painting behind the altar to flickering life. She saw a stormy sky over a church steeple and, parting the thunderclouds, the figure of white smoke with what was now clearly a naked sword.

‘It’s not exact,’ Jenny Box said. ‘A friend of mine did it in London. She’s a fashion designer, so I suppose the whole thing’s a bit glib and glossy, but she did her best with what I outlined to her.’

‘An angel?’

‘Well, someone said it must be the archangel Uriel, the one with the flaming sword, and perhaps there is something in that. I wish I could’ve painted it myself, but I’ve never been very good that way. ’Twas all I could do to paint the walls.’

It was hard to imagine Jenny Box sweating in overalls, collecting those unavoidable emulsion spots on her delicate skin.

‘Well, I couldn’t let anyone else in. Not after I realized what it had been before. I couldn’t have vulgar fellers smoking and swearing down here, now could I?’

Jenny Box smiled down at Merrily, arms by her sides, her black dress simple and monastic, except for the way its velvet cord hung loose just above her hips. In this moment, Merrily was entirely sure that this woman had left the money, unpretentiously in the black plastic bin sack. And in the next moment, she recognized the church steeple in the painting. And the wooded hills behind it.

‘It’s…’

‘Oh, that part’s exact,’ Mrs Box said. ‘I gave her a fine set of postcards to work from.’

Merrily took a good hard look at the picture. It was about two feet by four, in a plain, matt-white wooden frame. The paint was probably acrylic, and it looked surreal now, like a Magritte – the church hard-edged, an almost-photographic image, no brush strokes either in the clouds. Airbrush, probably – very professional. She turned to ask a simple question: What does it signify?

Jenny Box had gone to sit on the oak settle, her hands folded primly on her lap, her face lambent like some Rembrandt saint.

Merrily saw that the question wasn’t going to be needed.

Three tanks raised, and still nothing. Relief for the Sandfords and two other householders, frustration for Mumford. They’d moved almost in a circle around Underhowle but had never gone into the village itself. The last Efflapure had fallen back suddenly into its pit, and Lol had twisted his ankle hurling himself out of the way.

‘One more,’ Mumford said, ‘and then likely we’ll call it a day.’ Like he’d been doing the digging.

At the last place, there’d been a bunch of curious villagers and this pitiful middle-aged couple from Monmouth whose nineteen-year-old daughter had been missing for five months. A relative in Ross had told them about a man being arrested and the police digging for bodies.

Anything, they said, was better than not knowing.

It was heartbreaking. And probably unnecessary, Lol thought. He was aching all over by then. Earlier, he’d listened to Mumford talking to Bliss on the phone, arranging for the couple to meet him.

‘When do you decide this isn’t working?’ Lol asked Mumford as they were unloading the gear for the fourth time. No point in appealing to Gomer, for whom this was personal.

‘Isn’t for me to decide,’ Mumford said. ‘Likely, the boss’ll turn up in person at some point.’

They were on the gravel forecourt of a tall Victorian stone house with an ‘Old Rectory’ nameplate on the gate. A woman of about twenty-five with short fair hair and an eyebrow ring was standing watching, hands on her narrow hips. After a while, she sashayed over to Lol.

‘You don’t really think Roddy’s a mass murderer, do you?’

‘Don’t actually know the bloke,’ Lol said.

‘He’s just a little weird.’

‘Is he?’

‘You people, if somebody’s weird they’re automatically some raging psychopath, right?’

‘I’m not a copper,’ Lol said. ‘He’s the copper.’

She looked over at Andy Mumford and rolled her eyes. ‘Forget it.’

Mumford went to meet a man coming out of the house. ‘Mr Crewe?’

Connor-Crewe. Piers. How’s it going, Inspector?’

Big guy – well, overweight, certainly. Fiftyish, with luxuriant grey-speckled hair and a wide, easy smile. He wore a denim shirt overhanging baggy corduroy trousers.

‘Sergeant, sir,’ Mumford said, in the resigned way that told you sergeant was as high as he was going and even that had been unexpected. ‘That’s Mr Parry over there. He’s a professional drainage contractor, he won’t take long, and he’ll leave your ground without a blemish.’

‘I’m sure that’s true.’ Mr Connor-Crewe beamed, his big, round face like the friendly planet in a space picture book Lol had owned as a kid. ‘Just as sure as I am that you’re all wasting your time here. Not that it’s my place to offer an opinion.’

‘At this stage, sir,’ Mumford said, a very slight eye-movement conveying what Lol judged to be intense interest, ‘we’re open to anyone’s opinion. Did you know Mr Lodge?’

Well, obviously he installed this set-up for me, and it’s worked efficiently enough so far.’

Gomer sniffed in contempt.

‘And he had an assistant, like your man here,’ Mr Connor- Crewe said, ‘and they were both very civil, very obliging.’

Which must have saved Mumford a question. At each of the other places, he’d asked if there’d been anyone helping Roddy Lodge. In each case it had been someone different, and, no, they hadn’t been there all the time. Mumford had said Lodge was known to use cheap, casual labour, usually pulling someone from what he said was a bottomless local pool of fit blokes claiming sickness benefit.

‘Or, rather, not like your man,’ Mr Connor-Crewe said. ‘In this case, the assistant was the – I believe late – Lynsey Davies.’

The young woman stared at him. ‘You never told me she was helping.’

‘Aha,’ said Connor-Crewe. ‘Lots of things I haven’t told you, my sweet.’

‘Shit, Piers,’ she said. ‘He might have dumped her here.’

‘He certainly might have killed her here, the way they were carrying on – violent arguments one minute, practically shagging in the mud the next.’

Mumford got out his notebook. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘let’s have a proper chat, shall we, sir? In the house.’

At first, Lol had thought she must be Connor-Crewe’s daughter. Evidently not. She stayed outside with him and Gomer, after Mumford and his notebook had followed Connor-Crewe into the Old Rectory, watching them mark out a circle around the Efflapure, which was sunk into a paddock behind the house.

‘That was a shock, mind,’ she said. ‘Lynsey.’ She looked out across the paddock and another couple of fields to the tops of some houses: Underhowle. ‘We all knew Lynsey, in Ross. Everybody’s saying she was a slag. Which is… yeah, I suppose, dropping babies everywhere, but that’s not the whole story. She was smart.’

‘Who’s looking after them babbies now?’ Gomer said, as Lol uncovered the top of the globular tank.

She shrugged. ‘Who’s always looked after them? Grannies, ex-boyfriends, ex-boyfriends’ mums. Having kids never held Lynsey back. Ace at palming them off on people. “Can you just mind him for a hour?” And then she don’t come back for six weeks. You had to admire it, in a way. She had this fierce determination to experience everything she could get out of life. Used to buy these heavy books from Piers’s shop, which was how I got talking to her. I mean, she wasn’t stupid. When she wasn’t around any more we just figured she’d gone off with some bloke – could be anywhere. You just… couldn’t imagine her being dead, that’s all.’

‘If her wasn’t stupid’ – Gomer slid an oily tow-rope under one of the thick rubberized loops on top of the tank – ‘how come her wound up with Lodge?’

‘Dunno. Probably because he had a fair bit of money – like a lot of money compared to Lynsey’s usual men – and a fast car. She did use people. Let’s be honest, she was good at men.’

‘You said Lodge was weird.’ Lol stepped back from the tank, started to cut into the turf around it with his spade. He was wondering how deeply involved in all this Merrily might have become, because of Bliss.

‘Yeah, well, he is. You talk to people round here, they’ll tell you like… how he works at night, that kind of thing.’

‘Ar?’ Gomer came over. He got out his tobacco tin. There was one cigarette already rolled in there, and he offered it to the girl.

‘Cheers.’ She stuck it in her mouth; Gomer lit it for her.

‘Works a lot at night then, do he?’

‘It’s what people say. Bound to get all blown up now, so like suddenly he’s become like this vampire.’ She took a long, needy drag and let the smoke out. ‘Piers and me were in the pub last night, in Underhowle. Nobody was talking about anything else, obviously, but the place was divided between the people who couldn’t believe he’d done a murder and the ones who’d always known he was a psycho. Like when he did Mike Sandford’s sewerage Lorna was uptight ’cause he was out there most of the night. They could see him prowling under the full moon, digging.’

‘That’s it for weird?’ Lol said. ‘He works nights?’

‘Well, you know, mood changes. Up in the clouds one day – drinks-are-on-me, chasing all the women. Next day he’s slinking around like he don’t want to know you or anybody.’

‘Like manic depression?’ Lol said.

‘Oh, sorry.’ She peered closely at him. ‘I didn’t realize you were a psychologist.’

Lol smiled sadly.

Sure you’re not a copper? I mean, you don’t look like a copper, but you don’t look like… whatever he is, either.’

‘No?’ Lol was disappointed; he hadn’t been this muddied-up in years. Not physically.

‘I do like to suss people – as a writer. Short stories, plays. Poetry, when I’m moved. Dennis Potter was going to look at my TV play – he lived in Ross, you know? But then he snuffed it.’

‘And your… has a bookshop?’

‘Piers? Yeah, in Ross. Second-hand, antiquarian. I work there couple of days a week, more in summer. Piers phoned me, said I might want to come up this afternoon – as a writer – because you were digging for bodies. He’s thoughtful like that.’ Something caught her eye. ‘Oh, look, the poor police can’t get a signal.’

Lol turned and saw Mumford had come out of the house, was backing away, staring at his mobile held at arm’s length. He ended up next to Gomer’s truck, the phone now tight to his ear.

‘Ariconium,’ the young woman said. ‘Last defensive outpost against the techno-invasion.’ She came right up to Lol. She wore a black fleece, the zip pushed halfway down apparently by the pressure of her breasts. ‘I’m Cola French.’

‘Gosh.’ Lol didn’t move. ‘Really?’

‘All names are real. What’s yours?’

‘Lol.’

‘There you go.’

‘What’s Ariconium?’ Lol said.

‘Roman town. On the old iron road between Glevum and Blestium – that’s Gloucester and Monmouth to you. The historians say it was down the valley, where Weston-under-Penyard is now, but Piers reckons most of it was where Underhowle is now. It’s his new buzz-thing. Piers gets obsessions, then there’s no stopping him.’

Mumford came over. ‘Leave that a moment, boys.’

‘Woooh!’ said Cola French. ‘Something came up. Go, go, go!’

Mumford ignored her, jerked his chins towards the house. Lol and Gomer trudged after him to the edge of the paddock, Cola French watching them from behind her writer’s knowing smile.

‘Let’s just quietly pack up the gear,’ Mumford said. ‘We’re on standby to meet Mr Bliss.’

‘Oh we are, are we?’ Gomer said.

‘Bear with us, Gomer,’ Mumford said tiredly.

‘Been bearin’ with you all morning, boy, and we en’t found a bloody thing. Your gaffer wants to check his information ’fore he gets carried away, ennit?’

‘My gaffer,’ Mumford said, ‘says that Roddy’s finally talking.’

‘Ar? Talked about what he done to Nev yet, has he?’

‘I don’t know, Gomer.’

‘They ever tell you anything, Andy boy?’

Mumford, maybe sensing mutiny, said, ‘All right. This goes no further.’

Gomer looked scornful.

‘Looks like he’s coughed on three,’ Mumford said. ‘Lynsey, Melanie Pullman and the girl from Monmouth, Rochelle Bowen.’

Lol turned away. The sky was shabby and sunless now, and only the line of pylons gleamed.

‘Soon as he decides to remember where they’re buried,’ Mumford said, ‘they’re bringing him out to show us. That good enough for you?’

Gomer clapped his hands together, producing a sharp echo from the direction of conifer-clad Howle Hill.

16

The Glory

‘WHEN I FIRST came here,’ Mrs Box said, ‘I’d spent the whole day looking for somewhere to live. An agent had sent me the particulars of a place in the country out past Hereford that was far too big and had all this land – what was I supposed to do with seven and a half acres, buy myself a tractor? Besides, the local church was ugly and the minister was a disinterested auld devil.’

‘I won’t ask which one it was.’ Merrily stood with her back to the candlelit altar and the long painting.

‘Doesn’t matter, I can see that now.’ Jenny Box was demure on the oak settle, hands forming a cross on her knees. ‘But at the time – and for other reasons, too – I was very deeply depressed. And the countryside was flat and unwelcoming and I felt lonely and unwanted and… unnecessary, you know? I’d spent a holiday here once, with my husband when things were good with us, and I loved it and I’d built up my hopes of finding somewhere… but now ’twas all wrong. I didn’t feel I belonged, or was ever going to belong. I was starting to question the whole idea of moving out here. And the clouds were gathering, and I just got into the car and drove in any direction, I didn’t care.’

Merrily asked hesitantly, ‘Your marriage had—’

‘Broken up? No. Oh no. And still hasn’t, though he goes his own way, and has his women like he always did. Well, that’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that any more. No, I just decided I wanted a place in the country and he was in no position, quite frankly, to object. I mean, he comes down sometimes, from London, at weekends, to discuss business matters – you’ll have seen him, no doubt, though not in church – but if he looks like staying for more than one night I’ll go and stay in London for a few days. The marriage, you might say, is winding down slowly.’

Merrily recalled the gist of her words from the other night: The business I was in, the things I was doing for money and self-gratification, all that’s repellent to me now. I came here to cleanse myself. A reference, it had seemed, to her modelling days, her brief career in daytime TV. Was there more to it, though?

‘But you’d still be business partners,’ Merrily said.

‘Would you happen to’ve been in one of the Vestalia stores lately, Merrily? Cheltenham? Cardiff?’

‘Er, no. I don’t seem to get out of the county too often.’

‘Ah well, there’s one supposed to be opening in Hereford in a few months’ time, and that’s what you might call a bone of contention. I don’t like the name much any more – ’twas from my sad New Age days, I was one for the goddesses then. Well, it’s too late now to change that, but I want the Hereford store to reflect a more robust spirituality.’

Merrily recalled what she could: the concept of Vestalia was about introducing spirituality into the home, from sacred candles and ornamental crystals to very expensive hearths like pagan altars. ‘You mean… ?’

‘A Christianization. I’ve been looking at Hereford Cathedral – at the ornamental chantries in particular. But we’ll have a High Church feel, with censers and things. I’m going to London next week to talk to some designers. I want a store which is going to reflect the true magic, if I can use that word, of Christianity. The angelic.’

‘And your husband…’

‘Hates and deplores it. Thinks it’s going to destroy us. Well, the hell with him, I’m the one with the ideas. Gareth has the contacts and the business acumen. Gareth it was who persuaded countless Londoners to install wood-stoves, to burn scented sacred apple logs brought up from the country at enormous prices. Would’ve been cheaper for some people to chop up their furniture and feed it to the flames.’ Mrs Box laughed coldly. ‘I don’t even want to discuss that man, thank you very much, in this holy place.’

She stood up and glided to the door and reached up and put out the lamp, so that the sacred cell was lit only from the altar, and then she went back to her seat, in shadow now.

‘Anyway… ’twas springtime,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry?’ Merrily stepped to one side so she wasn’t blocking the candlelight.

‘This day I found myself driving out towards Leominster. I’m leaving the main roads behind, soon as I can, looking for somewhere to get out and walk and think. ’Twas spring, and the leaves were half out, and some blossom on the trees, which were all startling white against a sky that was deep and mauve- coloured and loaded with rain that it wasn’t about to part with until it was good and ready. I parked up close to a footpath sign, and I climbed over a stile and here I am on the top of a hill overlooking what proved to be this very village.’

‘I think I know which place.’ Merrily recalled a certain afternoon walking with the late Miss Lucy Devenish, proprietor of Ledwardine Lore, who had known everything there was to know about the history of the village and made informed guesses about the rest.

‘Of course you do,’ Jenny Box said. ‘And you’ll know how it overlooks the orchards, with the spire poking out through all the apple blossom. So very white, the blossom was, this day, under that heavy, heavy purple sky. And here’s me just kneeling there on the grass, and praying and weeping, and weeping and praying… You know how it comes over you?’

‘I…’ Merrily looked down at the flagstones. ‘Yes.’

A movement: Jenny Box sliding gracefully to the end of the settle.

Sit with me.’

Merrily hesitated and then came to sit on the oak seat, opposite the altar and the picture of the church and the figure of light in the sky. There was some other movement, almost imperceptible, a small quiver, a flutter in the close air. Jenny Box gazed directly at the altar. When she began to speak, Merrily felt something like the breeze under Jenny’s voice.

‘I found myself praying to the Highest to be relieved of all that useless so-called spiritual debris. Praying with this absolutely overwhelming intensity – but the intensity wasn’t from me, y’understand. It wasn’t that half-phoney, feverish passion I’d known before; it was something out there that came around me and enveloped me. Something I was powerless to resist, to give you the auld cliché.’

Merrily nodded.

‘You understand that, Merrily? You understand what it is I’m talking about here?’

‘Yes,’ Merrily said and relaxed for a moment into common ground and memories of blue and gold. Yes, this did happen.

‘Of course you do,’ Jenny Box said. ‘See, I’d always thought myself to be a deeply spiritual person. But ’twas a poor spirituality, if I had but known it – Tarot cards and magical crystals and all the shiny paraphernalia of the Devil. Paganism slithering in round the back, like a door-to-door salesman with a suitcase full of glittery trash.’

Merrily, whose attitude towards paganism had become less black and white lately, said nothing.

‘But I was drawn to it all, in the beginning, you see, because of its leanings to the feminine, its exaltation of womankind. Let no one say, Merrily, that it isn’t men that’ve brought the world to the state it’s in. Let no one dare to tell me that – me that was hurled away from the Catholic Church when I was barely out of my teens, soiled with the sick hypocrisy of men.’

Ah. ‘Is this men in general?’ Merrily said. ‘Or…’

‘Or more specifically, our parish priest, Father Colm Meachin.’ The words coming out in a rapid, breathy monotone.

‘The saintly Father Colm, with his stately manners and his high-flown rhetoric and his political friends, and his thin, white hands all over a quiet girl, Niamh Fagan, who was my friend. But that… Ah, you see, it’s too perfect, that’s the real problem.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Too neat and hard, it seems to me now, and it doesn’t capture the glory of it all. The picture, Merrily – doesn’t capture the quite explosive glory of the moment, and I never really expected it to, but I thought the moment should be commemorated here nonetheless.’

Merrily moistened dry lips.

‘The moment?’

The unsettling thing was that Merrily was sure she could remember the exact day, last April or May… a ferocious electric storm heralding rain that had been almost equatorial. A Sunday. Tourists in the village hurrying into the church porch. Jane bored because Eirion had the flu and she’d been stuck indoors all weekend.

‘A flash of lightning, Merrily! A flash so wild and bright I had to shut my eyes against it. And when I opened them, the whole of the sky was as black as a peatbog, and then’ – the soft voice putting a thrill in the still air of the underground chapel – ‘came the tiny light, right at the centre, in the very darkest part of the storm.’

The church steeple in the painting was, without any doubt, Ledwardine’s, shooting out of crowded apple trees, with the wooded hills behind it and the stormy sky above, charcoal clouds delicately parted as if by the point of the sword, and the light oozing through in violet-magnesium bubbles.

‘The little light’s growing larger before my eyes, until it’s like a ball, or an egg shape, like some UFO thing. But I knew from the first that it would be more than that, more glorious.’

Merrily looked at the white figure, the sword-bearer: not Michael nor Gabriel but, apparently, Uriel, a peripheral archangel. Uriel came from the Biblical fringe, the Apocrypha.

As I stood there on that little hill’ – Jenny Box stood up – ‘absolutely transfixed, there was a sudden’ – she swung her arm – ‘slash of fork lightning, and the lightning itself became the sword. The sword was the lightning. You know? And I just shut my eyes, Merrily, and the rain came down, so very hard that I was soaked to the skin inside a minute. Soaked through, and laughing like a fool.’

Jenny Box’s face shone with joy in the altar lights. She’d stolen the show, had been in charge from the beginning. There had been no way of putting that question – So was it you who brought a sack full of money into the church last night? – not now, not here in Jenny’s private chapel, Jenny’s holy space, in the light of the candles and Jenny’s holy vision.

‘So I drove down to the village, and by the time I got here, in less than ten minutes, it had almost stopped raining and the weakest of suns had come out. And here I am, walking around the village in a dream, burning inside with the white heat of pure joy. I’m walking around the square, looking up at the old buildings and just revelling in the atmosphere… not the quaintness – that’s all rubbish – but this tenuous strand of sanctity that still threaded its way through the streets in spite of all this commercialism. I seemed to see the thread unravelling before me, and so I followed it and… you can guess the rest.’

‘It led you here?’

‘There was a FOR SALE sign. The only one in the whole village, as I remember.’

Merrily tried for a smile. ‘These things happen.’

But they didn’t really, did they? Not very often.

‘They do. I know that now.’ Mrs Box’s face was flooded with happiness. But, at the same time, Merrily was recalling the sense of loneliness and disturbance which had blown like dry leaves around the woman in the square on the night of the fire.

‘And I knocked on the door, and the people didn’t want to show me around at all – “Oh, you’ve got to go through the agent,” they said, but I insisted, I was very strong that day, and I felt the absolute rightness of it and I virtually made an offer there and then. I don’t think for one minute they believed me – thought I ‘was some stupid, doolally tourist woman, but it didn’t matter. I left the house and the sun was shining, and I walked down to the church, and it was there – it was right there in the churchyard – that I was granted another small vision: the one that clinched it.’

Merrily was silent. Too many visions.

Mrs Jenny Box, née Jenny Driscoll, this former model, this former minor TV-person turned successful businesswoman, said, ‘What I saw was… I saw you.’

Merrily looked down at her own hands, one squeezing the other.

‘In your dog collar and your long white tunic. Walking out of the church, talking to some visitor-type people with their anoraks and their cameras. I saw youall in white. And I felt I was in the centre… of the future.’

Merrily became aware that she was no longer the least bit cold. Too warm, if anything.

‘Will we pray now?’ Mrs Box said very softly. ‘Will we pray together?’

By the time Merrily got back to the vicarage, she was disgusted with herself: woman of straw.

In the scullery, the computer took for ever to boot up. It was a reconditioned PC bought primarily to receive e-mails, mainly from Sophie, and it hadn’t seemed too healthy for some weeks now.

There was one message highlighted, from ‘Deliverance’, subject ‘Extraterrestrial’, and she printed it out. Couldn’t get her feet under the desk because of the bin sack, which she now had no damn choice but to take to Uncle Ted.

After those brief and nervous prayers, Mrs Box had been very gracious, giving Merrily tea, giving her fruit cake, in a white-walled, low-beamed parlour that was furnished almost frugally: two grey sofas, a low, Shaker-style table, no pictures on the walls. And Merrily, sitting in the middle of one of the sofas, on the crack between two cushions, had said, eventually, ‘We’ve had… there’s been a donation.’

Watching Jenny Box who knew it, arranging herself on one of the sofas, a bleached sunbeam stroking her hair.

‘To the church,’ Merrily said. ‘A substantial donation.’

‘Really?’ Mrs Box smiling vaguely. ‘That’s really wonderful. I’m so glad.’

‘It’s a very large amount, in cash. So large that… I’m not sure I can keep it.’

‘Oh? Why ever not?’

‘Because a cash donation of that size is bound to be considered—’

‘Miraculous?’ said Mrs Box. ‘An answer to a prayer? To a dilemma?’

‘Suspicious. Because it’s anonymous, and in cash.’

Jenny Box inclined her head to one side, appearing to consider the implications and then said, in that light, velvety voice of hers, ‘Well, now, surely, if the donor didn’t want to put his or her name on the bottom of a cheque, then it would not be in the spirit of the gift for you to institute inquiries and thus risk causing unwarranted embarrassment. Would it not be the thing to treat it as just the most lovely coincidence and perhaps even an indication from God that turning His House into a place of business was not the way ahead?’

Merrily nodded, smiling weakly. Had she really been expecting a confession? Under the surface vulnerability, Jenny Box was clever, a slick operator – and rich. But that didn’t make it feel any more right. So much of this seemed wavery, blurred by an intermittent aura of flickering instability. I saw you… all in white. And I felt I was in the centre… of the future.

Had she been wearing the surplice that afternoon… the white alb? She didn’t remember.

But, to Merrily’s knowledge, no one throughout the recorded history of the village had ever claimed to have seen an angel lighting up the sky over Ledwardine Church.

Hard to say which was the most unlikely: that or aliens in Underhowle.

* * *

I’m sorry, Merrily, this took rather a long time to find, and as, like most of Canon Dobbs’s files, it was handwritten, I’m afraid I had to type it out. I’m now back in the office, if you have any more queries.

Sophie.

How extraordinary! Not, I would have thought, Canon

Dobbs’s ‘thing’ at all.

The report itself, dated April 1997, was quite short.

Subject:

Miss Melanie Pullman, of 14 Goodrich Close, Underhowle, near Ross-on-Wye.

Source:

The Reverend Iain Ossler, temporary priest-in-charge, Ross Rural.

Nature of the problem:

Nocturnal disturbances of unknown origins.

The attending minister, Canon THB Dobbs, states: I was asked to look into this most bemusing case by the Reverend Ossler who, having been consulted by the family of the subject, was unable to determine whether or not it fell within the purview of the Christian Ministry of Exorcism. I found Miss Melanie Pullman to be a relatively articulate young woman of some eighteen years, an employee of Boots the Chemist in Ross-on-Wye, who had been left in a somewhat confused and, I would say, debilitated condition, allegedly resulting from a series of ‘experiences’ at her home over a period of four to six months.

Merrily wondered what Melanie Pullman had made of Canon Dobbs with his eroded graveyard archangel’s face and no discernible sense of humour. A man who had rejected the term ‘Deliverance’ and all attempts to introduce a series of guidelines for Anglican exorcists.

I interviewed Miss Pullman in the presence of her mother, Mrs Audrey Pullman, and her elder brother, Mr Terence Pullman. Throughout the interview, Miss Pullman complained of headaches and said she had been experiencing a number of physical symptoms, which the family general practitioner had diagnosed as a nervous condition, subsequently prescribing small amounts of Valium. The family dwelling is a former council house on an estate of similar homes and has no record of psychic disturbance, according to my inquiries with previous owners/tenants. Miss Pullman recounted a number of incidents, an example of which I quote here, from my notes. ‘I awoke in the early hours of the morning to find that the television set in the corner of my bedroom had inexplicably activated itself. I am certain that I had switched it off, as usual, before falling asleep. However, there was neither picture nor sound, only a blinding white light on the screen which I could not look at for long.’

Inexplicably activated itself. Merrily wondered what terminology Melanie had actually used.

‘This light eventually became dimmer and finally faded away. However, concurrent with this, I became aware that my bed itself was becoming bathed in an orange light which became increasingly bright.’ Miss Pullman then related a most confusing story of apparently being taken from her bed and losing consciousness and subsequently awakening in what she described as a ‘spacecraft’ of a spherical nature where she was laid upon a white metal table and subjected to an intimate physical examination by humanoid creatures, which she described as being thin and grey with unusually large heads and eyes like black mirrors. She claimed the examination concluded with one of the creatures having sexual intercourse with her. Asked if she would describe this experience as rape, Miss Pullman became embarrassed and said that she would not. Her mother later explained that, some days afterwards, Miss Pullman had been treated by her doctor for what was described as a vaginal infection. Whilst my information is that reports of this type of alleged experience are not uncommon, particularly in the United States of America, it was my impression that Miss Pullman had indeed undergone some manner of hallucinatory or ‘dream’ experience. That is, I did not believe that she was ‘making it up’. The central question, however, remains: was demonic interference involved? I have learned that some investigators of the phenomenon known as ‘alien abduction’ have proposed a correlation between this type of experience and folkloric tales of people who were ‘taken by the fairies’ as they slept, sometimes with similar suggestions of sexual interference, often resulting in the birth of a ‘changeling’ offspring. As Miss Pullman does not appear to have become pregnant, I would be inclined to rule out any involvement of so-called elemental forces! My own tests, through prayer and meditation, failed to detect the presence of a demonic evil, but I remained concerned by Miss Pullman’s physical conditions, which had led to her taking considerable time off work and, according to her mother ‘moping about the house’. Accordingly, after blessing the premises, with the use of holy water, I had a short meeting with the general practitioner, Dr Ruck, whom I must say I found to be less than helpful. Dr Ruck stated that this was the second such case reported to him within a year, from the same housing development in Underhowle, and he considered it to be a ‘fad’ among young people, arising from certain popular films and television programmes. I asked the Pullman family to keep me informed about any future developments but have not heard from them since.

CANON T. H. B. DOBBS,

DIOCESAN EXORCIST,

HEREFORD.

Merrily was unexpectedly impressed by Canon Dobbs’s general diligence and open-mindedness. OK, this hadn’t, unfortunately, extended to women priests – and women exorcists in particular. But he had done his best with what, to him, must have been a perplexingly contemporary kind of haunting.

The idea of aliens as post-modern fairies was one she’d heard before. True, there was no suggestion of the demonic here, nothing for the Deliverance ministry to combat with traditional means. But who did you go to when you were convinced that something which you couldn’t resist had arrived in the night and taken you away for experimentation?

Certainly not the police. If she showed this to Frannie Bliss, it would only put question marks over Melanie’s mental state. As for the doctor: bloody Valium, the universal panacea.

Merrily recalled when Jane, approaching the peak of her New Age phase a year or two ago, had believed she was having nature spirit experiences in the orchards of Ledwardine.

And she was startled by a pang of nostalgia, realizing that she very much preferred that fey, impressionable kid to the hard- bitten cynic who’d emerged around the approach to her daughter’s seventeenth birthday. She wondered what Eirion thought of the new Jane.

She went back to the computer to e-mail her thanks to Sophie… and discovered that she couldn’t. The screen had frozen, but in a peculiar foggy way, and when she tried to restart the computer she found it wouldn’t.

Bugger. Hard disk gone, or what? She’d have to ask Eirion who, she had to admit, was becoming an indispensable extension of this household.

Meanwhile, she rang the Cathedral gatehouse. ‘Sophie, thanks for doing this.’

‘Do we have another case in this particular village?’ Sophie’s voice, which had once seemed severe, now conveyed this inimitable mixture of calm and capability.

‘Alien abduction? No, but Dobbs’s subject has since disappeared, and the police are worried about her.’

‘And you’ve been consulted?’

‘In a roundabout kind of way. Has there been anything on the radio about the discovery of a woman’s body early today, near Ross?’

‘Oh,’ said Sophie, ‘that.’

‘No, this is not her. That’s… another one.’

Oh well, at least this would delay having to take the sack to Ted. She told Sophie everything that had happened last night up to, but not including, the bin-sack incident, which was purely parish business.

It was like unloading stuff on your older sister.

‘My God… what an appalling night for you,’ Sophie said. ‘Two of them. Two dead bodies.’

‘Possibly both victims of the same man.’

‘I hadn’t heard about Mr Parry’s fire. I’m so very sorry. He’s a wonderful man – and a good friend to you. Do you really think this person was insane enough to start that fire?’

‘Gomer’s in no doubt. And there’s definitely something wrong with Lodge. The bedroom wall was very… yuk. I mean, I can understand why Bliss is convinced Lodge has killed more women.’

‘And you say Mr Parry’s out there now, digging for more corpses?’

‘With Lol.’ Merrily fumbled a cigarette into her mouth.

‘Is this entirely wise of Inspector Bliss?’

‘Not in my view,’ Merrily said. ‘But who ever listens to me?’ Jenny Box, she thought. Jenny Box listens.

17

Expecting Confession

MADE SENSE, SEE, Gomer told Lol, as the truck bumped down into the valley, under the big pylons. This place was on the edge of the Forest, and anything could happen in the Forest – full of old secrets never told. Perfect place for a killer to lurk undiscovered for years.

Unlike Radnor Forest, that area of crowded green hills forty miles west of here where Gomer had grown up, the Dean was the real thing. Trees: oaks, chestnuts, sycamores, conifers. Miles of the buggers, wall-to-wall – twenty-five thousand acres, sure to be. Royal hunting ground in the Middle Ages, therefore operating according to separate rules, its own code.

‘What you gotter remember, Lol, boy…’ Gomer’s eyes shrank shrewdly behind his telescopic glasses. ‘What you gotter remember ’bout the Forest is it’s wedged up between these two big rivers, the Wye by yere, and the Severn in the east. And the Severn’s real wide; the other side’s like another country, so you’re lookin’ across at neighbours you likely en’t never gonner talk to the whole of your life.’

‘Sounds like West London,’ Lol said.

‘Point I’m makin’, boy, if you wanner get the other side of that river, from yereabouts, you gotter drive miles and miles down to the big bridges in South Wales, else your only alternative’s all the way up to the city of Gloucester and struggling through the terrible bloody traffic you gets there. Now… in between Gloucester and South Wales, see, you got the Forest. Like a big island full o’ trees.’

Trees were already thickening on both sides of the road and the cab of the truck was blue with Gomer’s smoke.

‘And if the Forest folk couldn’t easy get out, where do they go but down? Pits, see? Iron mines, it was, way back to Roman times, and coal mines. All closed down and covered over now, mostly, but the land’s still riddled with bloody ole shafts. Mines and secrets, boy, that’s the Forest. Mines and secrets.’

Despite the cold and the shuddering of the truck, Lol’s body was sagging into sleep. He sat up, shaking himself like a dog. ‘How come you know so much about it, Gomer?’

‘Ar, well…’ Gomer’s voice went gruff. ‘My first wife, God rest her, her family comed from Cinderford. Used to have to go over at Christmas, times like that. Never felt accepted, mind. Suspicious devils, her family. Close. Interbred.’

It was noticeable that Gomer had been talking more in the last five minutes than he had all day. He’d never mentioned his first wife before, not in Lol’s hearing. This was Gomer galvanized, sensing the closeness of a climax.

Coughed on three: Lynsey, Melanie Pullman and the girl from Monmouth, Rochelle Bowen.

Rochelle was the daughter of the couple who’d caught up with them when they were excavating the third Efflapure, at a brick cottage outside Pontshill. She was nineteen, a trainee dental nurse, missing for five months. Lol had felt heartsick; seeing in the faces of the parents this withering combination of resignation and cold dread, making it all searingly real. He hoped they weren’t going to be around when Bliss arrived with his prisoner.

Gomer slowed at a sign pointing to Under Howle – two words, as though the village had no identity separate from the hill. Lol couldn’t see a village out of the truck windows, only close-growing trees with brown, frizzled leaves.

‘This actually counts as the Forest, Gomer? So close to Ross?’

Gomer sucked on his ciggy. ‘This, boy, counts as a place even the Forest folk don’t know. Perfect hidey-hole for the likes of Lodge. Bastard goes out from yere, like them bloody ole raiders from centuries ago… cheatin’, philanderin’… killin’… He coughed. ‘Burnin’. Then crawls back to his lair, all snug.’

They came down into the village, which looked muddled and haphazard, houses floating in the early dusk like croutons in a brown soup. They passed the hulk of a church, entering a street with – surprisingly – several shops, their lights coming on. Down through a disjointed crossroads, back into the trees.

And then Lol saw, on his left, the first police car, the police tape and the tiered façade of the garage, like a concrete Lego garage from his childhood, with the pylon rearing behind it. Gomer turned in very slowly and deliberately, truck wheels grinding cinders.

‘All snug,’ he said.

Merrily punched in the numbers of Lol’s phone.

‘I’m sorry, the mobile you are calling is—’

She switched off again. It was so basic, Lol’s phone, that it hadn’t come with an answering service. In fact, he probably hadn’t even taken it with him. She pictured him digging, willing but a little inept, in some muddy field, red-brown stains on the alien sweatshirt – her mind could still never find him without the alien sweatshirt. Once she’d insisted on bringing it home to mend a hole in the shoulder and had ended up sleeping with the faded item under her pillow: how sad was that? You wanted to be adult about these things, wanted to take it slowly, but your emotions operated at a different velocity: feelings on fast-track, playing the old Hazey Jane albums when you were alone in the car – his voice a little higher then, a little smoother; he’d been not much older than Jane at the time, and now nearly twenty years had passed and – Oh God.

Merrily lit a cigarette. Her hand was shaking. It didn’t seem to take much to make her hands shake nowadays.

Jane had also talked about the folk-rock singer, Moira Cairns, on whom Eirion had seemed to have developed a crush, although the kid had emphasized in disgust that the singer was old enough to be his mother. Merrily recalled a Moira Cairns album with a sleeve picture of Cairns trailing a guitar along an empty beach. Something special then; how special was she now? Last night, Prof Levin, according to Jane, had thrown an oblique glance at the lovely Moira in her slinky frock and had said they should ‘Let what happens happen.’ Was this Jane winding her up? Jane, who wanted a situation where Lol actually moved into the vicarage with his guitars, which… which was really not possible, at the moment, was it? What would they say about her in the village (whore!), the diocese, the press. And, of course, Uncle Ted…

Merrily stared at the phone. Uncle bloody Ted.

No real reason for putting this off any longer. She called him. She called Uncle Ted Clowes and arranged to meet him in the church in ten minutes. She put out the cigarette, got back into her best coat and pulled out the sack full of cash, its origins still uncertain.

With the sun going right down, the wind getting up, and still no sign of the Hereford coppers arriving with Lodge, Gomer left young Lol Robinson rubbing his hands in the cold, tramped across the cinders and dragged miserable Andy Mumford over to one side, by the garage wall. Time to have this out.

‘You said three, right, Andy boy? You reckoned he’d confessed to three.’

Andy Mumford looked over his shoulder. ‘I never said anything at all, Gomer, you know that.’

‘Three, that it? Just the three women?’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

Behind Mumford, coppers were moving through the dusk, unloading tackle from a blue van.

‘Don’t you give me that ole wallop!’ Gomer levelled a finger. He’d known this boy for years. Born to a big family over by Wigmore, and if ole Ma Mumford was yere, she’d have the truth out of the bastard. ‘What about torchin’ a certain plant- hire shed? What do he say about that, boy?’

Miserable Andy looking frazzled. Coming up to retirement, didn’t need this. Well, too bloody bad! Gomer could feel the old fury coming to the boil. He’d worked all day for nothing much, seen his good friend young Lol Robinson reduced to a limp rag and now in all the excitement of Lodge shooting his mouth off, just the one serious crime gets very conveniently forgotten.

‘Not sexy enough – that it, Andy? Not got no spectac’lar headlines in it? Unknown Welsh Border drunk gets ’isself roasted?’

‘Look, Gomer,’ Andy said awkwardly, ‘we’ve been cooperating the best we can with Dyfed-Powys on this one, but it calls for a lot of forensic, and that’s not easy to come by after a big fire. I don’t know how much you know about DNA, but it doesn’t survive that kind of blaze. Anyway, proving that someone else other than Nev was involved is not gonner be a simple matter, take it from me.’

‘Ole wallop!’ Gomer was ramming his glasses up tight to his eyes. ‘In the ole days, they’d’ve bounced the bastard off the cell walls a few times till he told the truth.’ He was thinking of Wynford Wiley, the Radnor Valley sergeant – never liked the bugger, but he knew how to get the facts out of the lowlife.

‘Gomer’ – Andy sounding pained – ‘Lodge has a very smart young lawyer, I’m told. Going about it the old-fashioned way is the best way of not getting a conviction on anything these days, take it from—’

‘Ar, we all know what goes on nowadays – three-course dinner and tucked up with a hot-water bottle, all cosy. ’Spect he’d be getting a conjugal bloody visit if he hadn’t done for all his girlfriends.’

Bad-taste thing to say and, fair play, Gomer was truly sorry for those girls and their families, but there’d been no woman in Nev’s life at the end, and nobody was going to stand up for that boy if Gomer didn’t do it now.

Headlights blasting through the trees brought Andy Mumford out of his slump.

‘They’re here. Gotter leave this now, Gomer.’

Two cars… three.

‘Do one thing for me, Gomer.’

Gomer kept quiet.

‘I’ll admit I warned the boss about hiring you for this,’ Andy said. ‘But he was in a hurry, and I reckon he thought you’d have a bit more of an incentive than most digger-men.’

Boy had that right.

‘But don’t – just don’t… When you see Lodge, don’t say nothing, don’t do nothing. Soon as we nail this psycho on the women, we’ll talk about Nev, I promise. Just you keep in the background, meantime, and dig where you’re told. Don’t do nothing else, you understand me?’

‘You knows me, boy.’

‘Exactly,’ Andy says grimly.

The first car’s pulling up just a few yards from Gomer. It’s not a police car. The boy Bliss gets out first. He stands there, hands in his pockets, waiting, as the second car fits itself in behind.

Three uniform coppers in this one. And Lodge, bent drainage operator and likely the biggest serial killer in these parts since bloody Fred West.

Gomer fired up a ciggy in the fading light and waited too.

Stepping warily into the gloom of the vestry, Merrily found that Uncle Ted had already moved the wardrobe into a corner and folded up the card table, and was now brushing the dust from his sleeves, obviously envisaging the gift shop.

‘I thought the main counter about here… and perhaps a second display stand under the window?’

Merrily said, ‘Perhaps if we brick up the window altogether, we could have an even bigger display stand.’

‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ Ted said, ‘because when you add up the cost of extra lighting…’

He dried up, realizing – lips twisted in annoyance – that his niece, the vicar, was taking the piss. His face went a deep and petulant red. ‘I very much hope,’ he said, ‘that you aren’t going to backtrack on this. We do need the income.’

Backtrack? She didn’t recall ever agreeing. ‘Well…’ She carefully re-erected the card table in the middle of the small, drab room and placed the black bin sack on it. ‘Maybe we can now afford to postpone the decision for a while.’

She was still dreading telling him about the money. Obviously, they’d have to put it out that there’d been an anonymous donation, without necessarily revealing how it had arrived. The gossip, anyway, would be considerable.

Ted frowned. ‘I admit the mobile-phone mast would bring in a regular income, but…’

‘You haven’t mentioned that in a while.’

‘No, I… to be honest, I’ve been a trifle perturbed by what I’ve been reading about possible health risks. Particularly to, ah, elderly people, it seems. Nothing proven, but it might be wise to, ah…’

‘I see.’

‘Sorry to toss a spanner in the works.’ He stood with his back to the door, hands across his belly, the last man in Ledwardine habitually to wear a Paisley cravat down the front of his Viyella.

‘No, that’s… very public-spirited of you, Ted,’ Merrily said. ‘Listen, there’s something I have to tell you. Something’s happened.’

He peered at her. ‘Why are you all dressed up?’

‘Because I’m leaving for Barbados tonight,’ Merrily said. ‘I’ve come into money.’

She emptied the contents of the bin liner on to the table.

Ted picked up one of the bundles of notes and then moved rapidly to the door and flung on all the lights.

‘Bloody hell!’ he said.

Lol saw them bringing Lodge out, couldn’t easily miss him. In direct contrast to the dark blue uniforms on either side, he was wearing orange overalls, probably police-issue while they ran tests on his clothes. His head hung, so you couldn’t see his face, and his hands were cuffed in front of him. He let the two coppers move him around in the greying light, like a bendy doll.

A mist-blurred, listless moon was skulking in the trees. The wind brushed fallen leaves into heaps against the closed doors of Roddy’s garage, and the police clustered in front. Nobody was doing much talking, but Lol was aware of an excitement he guessed they wouldn’t want to show – you could hear it in the agitated jostling of the leaves and the tense, metallic thrumming in the overhead power lines.

There were about eight police visible, among them DI Frannie Bliss who Lol had met during the summer – a brief liaison founded on the need to pull Merrily out of a threatening situation. There’d been a degree of self-interest then, but you felt you could trust him, up to a point.

Surprisingly, Bliss came over.

‘Knew the music industry was in a bad way, son, but not this bad.’

Lol nodded gloomily. ‘We’ve got Robbie Williams round the back, unloading the truck.’

‘Yeh, I thought it was.’ Bliss was dressed for action in a nylon hiking jacket, jeans tucked into calf-high cowboy boots.

‘You look happy, though.’ Lol was wary: the police and their prisoner waiting around, the night closing in, and the DI sparing the time to acknowledge the hired labour.

Tentatively happy.’ Small teeth flashed briefly. ‘You’re looking a bit knackered yourself, Laurence.’ Bliss pulled leather gloves from his jacket and put them on. ‘I suppose it was the little Reverend got you into this. Relieving Mr Parry’s burden, in his hour of sorrow.’

‘Thought it might help him to have somebody to laugh at.’

‘And how can we ever refuse her, eh? All right, son, listen…’ Bliss led him to the edge of the police tape, voice lowered. ‘Here’s the situation: after what’s been a difficult day, by and large, Mr Lodge has decided to cooperate. But this is’ – he waggled his fingers – ‘funny stuff, you know? Gorra go a bit careful.’ He nodded at the spade. ‘Obviously you’ve mastered the complexities of that, more or less, but what I need to know is, can you, if necessary, operate this little digger of Gomer’s?’

Lol took half a step back, stumbled.

‘Hey, we’re not talking heavy plant,’ Bliss said. ‘This is Tonka toy.’

Lol looked around. He couldn’t see Gomer anywhere, but he could see Roddy Lodge, luminous in his overalls, with a policeman either side and another man, in plain clothes, joining them. A policewoman was handing out plastic cups of tea or coffee from a couple of flasks in the boot of a police car, including one for the prisoner – Roddy clasping the cup like a chalice between his cuffed hands. The reality outside the recording studio – more of it than Lol had counted on.

‘I’m not saying we’re gonna need the digger.’ Bliss tapped the spade. ‘This might well suffice. But if we do need to go a bit deeper, I don’t want Mr Parry within quarrelling distance of Roddy Lodge. Better an inoffensive little artiste than a combustible old bugger with a grudge, this is my view.’

‘And how would you feel,’ Lol said, before he could think, ‘if your nephew’s murder was getting sidelined by a slippery copper on the make?’

Must have been even more tired than he’d figured.

Bliss merely frowned. ‘Suspicious death. His nephew’s suspicious death, Laurence. I apologize for calling you inoffensive.’ He paused. ‘Anyway, that’s over the garden hedge – Dyfed- Powys’s case. I’m not saying there won’t be meaningful discussions with our Welsh colleagues when this present business gets sorted, but right now I want to build on what we know we’ve got. It’s about seizing the moment. Now you run along and ask Mr Parry for the keys of his little digger.’

Lol didn’t move. ‘I thought you’d have real forensic people to do it, now you’ve got something positive.’

‘Never fear – you happen to strike anything softish, I’ll have vanloads of the buggers here before you can scrape the shit off your wellies. I’ve just gorra be quite sure our friend here isn’t being disingenuous.’

‘So where will this be? Where are we going?’

‘Going? We’re not going anywhere.’ Bliss patted Lol on the shoulder and walked with the wind behind him across the crowded forecourt towards the cops guarding the prisoner. ‘Right then, Roddy, my son, let’s be having yer.’

Here? He’d buried one on his own property?

‘DI Bliss!’ The third man with Lodge stepped out, his hands going up protectively as the headlights of one of the police cars sprayed his dark suit. ‘I just want to say, before you—’

Lol saw Bliss quiver. ‘Mr Nye… we’ve had an independent doctor in to check him over, we’ve also had him looked at by an experienced psychiatric nurse, neither of whom thought he was seriously ill or unfit to travel. Now, will you let us get on with our job, please?’

The guy shook his head. He looked young, maybe not too sure of his ground. ‘Inspector, I have to tell you that I’m far from confident that anything Mr Lodge might say under these circumstances can be considered admissible. I think—’

‘I know what you think.’ Bliss stood with his arms by his side, fists tight. ‘And what I think is that Mr Lodge’s mental state has no particular bearing on the situation at this stage. And I’m more interested right now in what he’s got to show us, rather than what he tells us. And if any of this upsets him further, I’m terribly sorry, Mr Nye, but in comparison with the parents of Rochelle Bowen, with whom I spent a very distressing forty-five minutes this afternoon, my sympathies—’

‘Mr Bliss, I repeat that my client is unwell, and I think you could at least – bearing in mind that Mr Lodge hasn’t been charged and he is cooperating fully – remove the handcuffs.’

Bliss threw up his arms. ‘All right, we’ll take off the f— the handcuffs.’ He moved close up to Mr Nye. ‘I should, however, remind your client that if he at any stage makes a personal decision that his continued presence here is no longer entirely essential, I’ve got police officers posted at the front and the rear and every conceivable exit from these premises. Is that fully understood, Mr Nye?’

‘We wouldn’t expect otherwise, in the circumstances,’ said Mr Nye. ‘Thank you, Inspector.’

Bliss nodded. One of the uniformed policemen bent to remove Lodge’s handcuffs.

‘You believe that?’

Lol turned. Behind him, Gomer was furiously assembling a ciggy, the headlights turning his glasses opaque, like cross-slices of banana.

‘You ask me, en’t nothin’ wrong with that piece of rubbish you couldn’t bloody shake out of him.’ He shoved the new ciggy in his mouth and closed the tin with a snap.

‘Gomer—’

‘You don’t need to explain nothing, boy. Miserable Andy’s spelled it out. Keep Parry out of it. Don’t nobody mention Nev. You go with ’em. I’ll stay yere.’

‘It’s nothing personal,’ Lol said. ‘Just Bliss covering himself against any comebacks in court. If they do find anything and it was you who dug it up, a man with a grudge…’ He sighed; he didn’t want to operate the digger, either, even if he could be sure he knew how to. ‘Nobody’s going anywhere, it seems. Looks like they want to dig here. Maybe we should tell them they can do it themselves.’

‘Not with my bloody gear, they don’t. I’ve lent tools to cops before.’ Gomer pulled a single key on a chain from his overalls. ‘So don’t you let anybody else—’

‘Hang on to it,’ Lol said nervously. ‘It may not come to that.’

They watched Roddy Lodge flexing his arms, rubbing his freed wrists. Lol saw his face properly for the first time, and it was the colour and the texture of paving stone. His eyes seemed sunken, but somehow gleaming back there, like glass, like cat’s eyes in the road.

And then he started slowly shaking his head, a smile forming.

18

Up

JANE SAID, ‘So you’re saying Jenny Driscoll saw an angel.’ She flinched slightly. ‘An actual… with like, wings?’

Merrily stood up, went to switch on the earthenware reading lamp on the wide window sill. It had been clear to her that if she was going to tell the kid about the money then a preliminary account of Mrs Box and the vision of the angel was probably unavoidable.

Besides, this had been, not too long ago, very much Jane’s kind of thing. Up in the apartment, against the Mondrian walls, two bookcases still bulged with pastel-spined paperbacks about contacting nature spirits, working with the elements, finding secret pathways to enlightenment.

Which had bothered Merrily quite a bit at one time; less so now. If, occasionally, it bordered on neo-paganism, it was still spirituality. Better than agnosticism.

Certainly better than the possible onset of atheism.

‘Let’s say a startling brightness formed out of the veins of light on the edge of clouds,’ Merrily said. ‘Resembling in this case, it seems, the Archangel Uriel. This is the lesser-known one usually portrayed with a sword, pointing down. It was very dramatic, Mrs Box says.’

‘And it was pointing at the steeple. Your steeple?’

‘This would be… you remember the huge, spectacular storm one Sunday last spring? Where we were standing here at the window and the whole of the orchard was lit up white, like a snowstorm? Well, Mrs Box parked her car and walked up onto Cole Hill. She was in a… an emotional state.’

‘Evidently,’ Jane said.

Eirion had dropped her off around four before having to go home for his step-grandmother’s eightieth birthday party. Now the day was closing down, the old Aga making its smug Aga noises without putting much heat into the kitchen. Merrily and Jane had mugs of tea for warmth.

The lamp laid a golden mist on the room. The kid had changed into white jeans and a sweater discarded by Merrily as terminally shapeless. It seemed to fit Jane better. She slid forward on her elbows, chin cupped in her hands, gazing into her mother’s eyes, very candid and calmed by something awesome that Merrily was seeing more frequently: a level of understanding that murmured adult.

Merrily’s hand tightened around her mug.

‘OK, just reassure me,’ Jane said, ‘that you don’t believe a word of this bollocks.’

The strengthening night-wind rattled the trees.

Bastard!’ Bliss was livid. He stormed over to where Lol and Gomer were standing, out of Lodge’s earshot.

‘Lawyer’s got it right for once, boss.’ Mumford was ambling behind like a pack pony. ‘Bloke’s mental.’

‘Andy, he’s mental when he wants to be.’ Bliss moved up to the barrier tape, clutched it with both hands, failed to snap it. ‘I’m buggered if I’m chauffeuring the crafty bastard back to his cell after this little works’ outing. I’d rather dig the whole site up and make him watch. Put him back in the cuffs.’

‘Look a bit peevish?’ Mumford said.

‘I’m a peevish person.’

‘En’t bein’ helpful n’more, then,’ Gomer said insouciantly through blue smoke.

‘No, he en’t.’ Bliss stared out across the lane into the trees, hands rammed into the pockets of his green and cream hiking jacket. ‘As you may have overheard, Mr Lodge appears to have had a lapse of memory and is now effectively saying he no longer recalls precisely why he brought us here.’

‘Ar.’ Gomer smiled through his ciggy. Relief seeped into Lol’s aching body like warm alcohol. It looked like this could be over before it started.

‘What’s he got here, Andy?’ Bliss said.

‘Boss?’

‘How much ground? Acreage. Roughly. What we looking at?’

‘I’d reckon… say two and a bit acres, all told. That’s including the yard and the bungalow and the triangular piece of land at the bottom with the pylon on it. Oh, and the other side of the main perimeter fence it seems Lodge owns a paddock, and then there’s about one and a half acres surrounding what used to be the Underhowle Baptist chapel. Lodge used to own that, too, but he’s now sold it to the Underhowle Development Committee.’

‘Proper little property speculator,’ Bliss said sourly. ‘We been in there?’

‘The chapel? Empty, boss. The Development Committee’s turning it into a museum for all the Roman finds.’

‘We’ll still put it on the list for the Durex-suits.’

‘He’s just had money to spare and a good accountant,’ Mumford said. ‘Property always makes sense, even derelict property. I bought the field next to us, with an old cowshed.’

‘Yeh, you would.’ Bliss hacked the heel of a cowboy boot into the cinders. ‘Wouldn’t know where to start here on our own, would we? Take days to dig up this lot, and I haven’t got days.’ He turned his back to the tape, looked across at Roddy Lodge standing motionless in his orange overalls. ‘I’m gonna look a right twat when this gets out.’

Lol noticed two kids hanging around at the far end of the tape, one apparently shielding the other who was bending over the tape – probably cutting himself a couple of feet of it as a souvenir.

Gomer cleared his throat, but Frannie Bliss didn’t look at him. A policeman advanced on the two kids, who ran off up the lane towards the village. Then one turned and gave him the finger. It began to rain very lightly.

There was a sigh of resignation from Bliss. ‘Yes, Mr Parry.’

‘Course’ – Gomer spat out the last millimetre of ciggy – ‘if I hadn’t been discharged from my duties, told to take a back seat, like…’

Lol became aware of just how cold it had become, how thin his old army jacket was, and how much night there was stretching ahead.

‘What you got in mind, Gomer?’ Bliss said.

Lol just hoped that whatever it was wouldn’t involve him or his frozen muscles.

Merrily said, ‘So I emptied out the sack, and waited for it to happen. And, sure enough, he metamorphosed before my eyes. Out goes the churchwarden, in comes the lawyer.’

‘Dr Jekyll and Mr—’

‘No, this is Ted,’ Merrily said. ‘Mr Hyde and Mr even-Hyder.’

Jane grinned fractionally. Merrily poured more tea, glad to be off the subject of angels. She was bewildered by Jane’s reaction to the report of a dramatic visionary experience on her own doorstep. Was this not the kid who had entered her middle teens with a fervent belief in fairies and the kind of elemental forces not covered by the Bible? There was a point where New Age philosophy and Christianity crossed over, and angels were it, and you didn’t just abandon all that virtually overnight – not even Jane.

‘So what did he say?’ Jane demanded, clearly far more interested in the manifestation of the money, obviously annoyed that this was the first she’d heard about it, when both Uncle Ted and Jenny Box had been told.

‘Oh… “Lock the church at once, Merrily!” ’ Merrily threw up her arms. ‘Pulls out his mobile, brings up the police number, which he appeared to have in his index. “OK,” I say, “but I’m locking it from the outside, I’ve not got time to sit around here…” “No, no! You can’t leave me on my own with all this money!” I said, “Ted, I’ve just dragged it all the way along the bloody cobbles, from the vicarage, on my own.” ’

‘So where is it now?’

‘Probably in his safe at home. I somehow can’t see him surrendering eighty grand to the police for safe keeping. He’ll give them the minimum legal leeway, just to make sure it doesn’t match up with some robbery.’

‘And assuming it doesn’t?’

Merrily shrugged. ‘Goes into the parish coffers. End of story, everybody happy. We just don’t spend any for a while, to be on the safe side.’

‘It’s a lot of money, Mum,’ Jane said soberly. ‘Take a whole canteen of collection plates to accommodate that lot.’

‘Mmm.’ Merrily was remembering a row she’d had with Uncle Ted when she’d decided to abolish the time-honoured practice of sending round collection plates during the final hymn. Let’s not make an exhibition of it, Ted. They can put something in the box on the way out. Ted had insisted this wouldn’t work; people never shelled out unless they were publicly shamed into it. It even emerged that the old bugger had sometimes taken twenty-pound notes from parish funds, placing one on each plate prior to its circulation, setting an example.

‘And Jenny Driscoll didn’t come close to admitting it was her?’ Jane said.

‘Maybe I didn’t push her hard enough, but… I suppose it’s actually quite a considerate thing to do. If it had been a cheque with her name on it, we’d both have felt uncomfortable. Like she owned the place or… me.’

‘Yeah, but secretly you know it’s her. And she knows you know. And nobody else does – just you and her. That makes it altogether more subtle, don’t you think?’

‘Too subtle for me, flower.’

For a few moments neither of them spoke. The only sound was Ethel the cat at her bowl, crunching dried food.

‘You know your problem, don’t you?’ Jane was carefully inspecting her nails. ‘You’re becoming unworldly.’

reared up. ‘Me?

Merrily

‘Obvious side effect of Deliverance.’ Jane put her hand down and met Merrily’s stare across the table. ‘Like, in the job, if you’re exorcizing some house or something, it has to be that it’s not you doing it, it’s God. You’re just the vehicle. If in doubt, butt out. God will find a way.’

‘No.’

‘Think about it,’ Jane said. ‘She’s targeted you. All that bollocks about seeing an angel over your church. And then she bungs you eighty grand. She wants something. You’re in the cross-hairs, vicar.’

Merrily took in the kid’s serious face, the hair – darker now – pushed back behind her ears. A face she hadn’t seen before? She felt a stirring of panic, very glad now that there were some aspects of that unnerving couple of hours in the incense air below Chapel House that she hadn’t told Jane about.

She finally flared a little. ‘Somehow, I just can’t help being a little surprised at hearing the rational, not to say cynical argument from someone who used to stand on the lawn on nights of the full moon and solemnly utter ritual incantations.’

‘I was a kid then!’

‘It was last year!’

‘Look…’ Jane planted both palms flat on the table, leaning across. ‘Doesn’t this worry you in the slightest? She might look like a wilting snowdrop, but what you have here is an ex-TV person, a top businesswoman with shops all over the place who’s probably never been known to do anything that wasn’t for publicity…’

‘The money’s for the church, not me.’

Your church.’

‘What – you think I should take it back?’

Jane shook her head helplessly. ‘I don’t know. But I should be really, really careful, if I were you.’

Merrily said nothing. She was hearing Jenny Box from the square, the other night. It isn’t over, you see… those things aren’t over… those things have hardly begun. No, she didn’t know what that meant either.

‘Because, if you think God’s going to see you right, protect you from whatever devious shit—’

‘Jane—’

‘Like he protected Gomer. Like he protected Nev.’

Merrily closed her eyes. Not tonight, please. ‘All right.’ She breathed in and out slowly. ‘All right, I didn’t do very well, did I? There were things I should have asked her that I didn’t. Maybe I had a lot on my mind, with this… police thing. Which is probably all over now, anyway.’

‘All over? Not for Gomer it isn’t! Not for Lol either, who probably wouldn’t have got involved at all if you—’

‘What?’

Jane shrugged sulkily. ‘Just something else you’re letting slip away, isn’t it?’

‘Oh, for God’s sake.’ This is not going to become a row. ‘I’ve tried to ring him several times.’

‘Maybe you’ve got more problems than you know, Reverend. Maybe Uncle Ted’s actually right—’

‘I do not—’

‘—when he says Deliverance is taking over your life. And he doesn’t even know what it’s done to your basic common sense.’

Merrily’s lips tightened. Bloody teenagers. What a great shame it was that there wasn’t some kind of hormone-reduction therapy.

‘So how did you leave it with the Driscoll woman?’ Jane said. ‘Like, thanks for the cakes and see you in church?’

‘She…’ Merrily stared into her cooling tea. ‘She asked me to do something for her. She wanted me to formally reconsecrate her private chapel. In the cellar.’

Jane’s smile was three parts sneer. ‘And?’

‘No consecrations. But a blessing, yes. Probably.’

The kid’s exhaled breath was like a slow puncture. The kitchen seemed bigger and felt colder.

‘Well, what was I supposed to say, Jane? It’s what I do!’

And of course what you do is of major spiritual, like cosmic significance. Even though it’s all f— fantasy. Whereas, us down here… I bet… I bet you don’t even know about Lol’s first gig in twenty years.’

‘Lol?’ Merrily whispered. ‘Gig?

The rain fell steadily on the field at the back of the bungalow. Lol held the rubber-covered lambing lamp over a spot just off- centre, lighting up a circle of green and yellow. He could hardly flex his fingers any more. He thought that if he were to lie down now in the cold, wet grass, he’d probably be asleep within a few seconds.

Yere.’ Gomer bent down, pushing his fingers through the grass. ‘Just about yere. Sure t’be.’

Where Gomer’s hands were, you could see the soil level was lower, the grass a slightly different shade. Before locating this spot, Gomer had spent no more than twenty minutes scouring the site as if he was dowsing for water – sometimes pulling back bushes and brambles, getting Lol to shift piles of building rubble.

A circle of police was forming around them, as Gomer came triumphantly to his feet alongside Lol and the lamp.

‘’Bout last spring, I reckon, this was dug up. No later’n that. Try it, anyway, I would. You’ll know soon enough.’

Bliss was sauntering up, looking less than impressed, when a howl of outrage exploded over the heads of the circle of cops.

‘You don’t wanner take no notice of that ole fuck! He’s well past it, he is! He don’t know what he’s—’

In the choked silence, Lol was aware of the razory thrumming of the power lines.

Then a chuckle. One of the uniformed police fisted his palm in glee. Frannie Bliss, smiling in the lamplight like a freckled cherub, punched Gomer joyfully on the upper arm.

‘Thank you, Roddy. Thank you, God.’

Laughter. You could feel the current passing around the circle.

Bliss beckoned the policewoman. ‘Gomer, this merits a nice

‘plastic cup of tea, which Tiffany here will provide for you, if I’m not being sexist there. And an Eccles cake?’

‘Welsh cake, boss,’ the policewoman said.

‘Sorry, Tiff.’ Bliss was still smiling as he handed Lol the spade. ‘Take it slowly, son.’

Like he could take it any other way. Quite when he began to tremble, he wasn’t sure. He was just suddenly aware of doing it. It could’ve been the cold, because it was cold, and it was wet and the earth was clammy. But he knew it wasn’t that; he’d been cold and wet most of the day.

His head was full of rumbling: they’d brought two cars round the back, with their engines running and the headlights on full beam. He was caught in the lights, the star attraction, sweating under the scrutiny of a hyper-attentive audience – Lol Robinson on stage for the first time in nearly two decades, Lol Robinson performing live, digging up the dead.

He was directly under the power lines – heavy-gauge black strings on a fretboard of night cloud. The spade was about eighteen inches down now, raising a little hill of muddy soil and wedges of clay at the side of the hole. Lol’s glasses had misted up and the spade was feeling sledgehammer-heavy, pulling him down, the way the old solid-body electric guitar had done once, on stage with Hazey Jane – Lol sagging under the responsibility, the knowledge that all he had to do was touch a string with a fingernail – the wrong string, the wrong note, the wrong chord – and there would be this hall-filling blast. A power he didn’t want, the amplification of his inadequacy.

His head felt hot. The sweat on his face was like cream. Moira Cairns said smokily in his head, Let me get this right: if you reappear on stage now, the audience isnae gonnae be thinking, “Ah, here’s the awfully talented person from Hazey Jane, where the hell’s he been all this time?’ It’s gonnae be like, ‘Hey, is that no’ the big sex offender of 1982 or whenever?’

Lol hated it here. The half-imagined zinging of the power lines was like the panting of old amps on stage, and like every chord he played, every spadeful he dumped on the heap at the side of the hole, they landed on it, pulling it apart, mauling it: blurred figures in boots and uniforms. Spotlit from several angles, Lol had the clear sensation of digging his own grave, like some prisoner of war, surrounded by uniforms, and he didn’t even notice when the spade found something – something that was actually not softish – until Frannie Bliss, his Liverpool accent cranked up to distortion level, was bawling:

‘Stop! What’s dis? What’s dis, what’s dis…?’

A skull? A human skull caked in clay? Lol was out of there fast, gripping the spade with both hands.

‘Leave it,’ Bliss said, as if people were going to rush to the thing in the hole like it was a holy relic. He snatched a lamp and shone it down. ‘Spade, Laurence.’

Bliss grabbed the spade from him and stood astride the hole. Handing the lamp to Mumford, he started to probe with a corner of the blade. Lol found himself next to the lawyer, Mr Nye, who turned away from him, like Lol had flakes of dead flesh on his arms.

‘Hang on,’ Bliss said. ‘What the… ?’ Lol saw something in the hole that was dull and grey and blistered with earth. Bliss said, ‘Right. Fetch Roddy. Now.’

He got the spade under it and levered it half out.

It was not a skull.

‘Suitcase, boss?’ One of the police crouched down. The curved, shiny bit, Lol saw, was a metal corner-support.

‘Too small.’ Bliss looked down in disgust, like a kid on Christmas Day who didn’t get the bike after all. ‘Attaché case, more like. Feels like it’s bloody empty. I said, fetch Roddy!’

Lol, thinking he was maybe the only person here who was relieved, walked away from the lights towards the shelter of the garage.

Hands in leather seized his left arm and spun him around. White flashlight speared his eyes. All around him, there was heavy movement in the mud, scuffling, panting. Torch beams were intersecting erratically in the rain.

When they let him go without an apology, he realized something had happened.

‘Oh shit.’ Panic scraping a young copper’s voice. ‘I can’t bleeding believe this.’

The initial stampede had been constrained. Procedure now. They were fanning out, covering the ground, lamp and torch beams pooling.

Someone had gone into the bungalow and put on all its lights. The whole compound was lit up now, multiple shadows climbing the windowless back wall of the garage.

‘Somebody,’ Bliss said through his teeth, ‘is going down for this.’ The hoarsened edge to his voice suggesting that he was getting worried it was going to be him.

The hole in the grass lay abandoned. Someone had taken the case away. There was no stench of decaying flesh, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a body down there, somewhere. Lol stayed away from the hole. Only Roddy Lodge could explain this, and he wasn’t around. Roddy Lodge had taken a personal decision that his presence here was no longer essential. He’d just walked away into the darkness.

‘Can’t’ve got out of here,’ Mumford kept saying. ‘That’s for certain. I know this place now, end to end, and if everybody’s stayed in place, he cannot have got out.’

‘You better be right, sunshine, for all our sakes.’ Bliss turned to the lawyer, ‘And if you—’

‘He was ill.’ Mr Nye had his arms folded and kept looking over his shoulder. Lol instinctively looked over his: how dangerous was Lodge? ‘He was ill,’ the lawyer insisted. ‘There was no question at all that he was ill.’

‘I’m not feeling too marvellous meself, pal, and if I thought for one minute that when you asked for those handcuffs to come off—’

‘Don’t be absurd!’

This man’ – Bliss’s forefinger came out like a gun – ‘is a suspected multiple murderer. So don’t you go anywhere, Mr Nye.’

‘Is that a thr—?’

‘And who the fuck,’ Bliss roared out, staring past Mr Nye, ‘let these bastards in?’

Maybe it was the kids driven away from the perimeter tape who’d spread the word. But it wasn’t just kids this time. Lol thought of a football crowd filing through turnstiles. Only with lamps and torches.

‘Jesus, it’s a fuckin’ circus!’

The group of people moving along the path on one side of the garage building was led by a tall woman in a long stock- man’s coat. A lone PC behind them spread his arms, helpless.

‘Sorry, sir, they—’

‘Get back to the entrance! Now!’ Bliss walked up to the woman. ‘Mrs Sollars, you should know better than this. We’re not running a funfair here.’

‘Then what are you running?’ a man demanded. ‘You’ve spent the whole day digging up people’s gardens with abandon. I suppose you thought you were being discreet.’ He looked down at two children. ‘Miles… Ffion… home, please. I did ask you before.’

One of the kids said, ‘Aw, Fergus!’

‘Or there may have to be proportionately less time on line for the whole of next week,’ the man said calmly.

The woman said, ‘If you’d had the common decency, Inspector, to keep the community informed—’

‘Oh, pardon me,’ Bliss snarled. ‘I’ll have a special flyer pushed through everybody’s door next time. Look, I don’t have time for this. You’d better go over and stand by that wall, all of you, and stay together, you understand me? Because if any of you gets in my way, I’m gonna do you for obstruction, and that’s not—’

‘You’ve mislaid him, haven’t you?’ a man with a white beard said. ‘You don’t have Roddy right now.’

‘I’m telling you not to come any further. Stay together. And

‘don’t let anyone else in here. Can you do that? Can you do that for the sake of the community?’ Bliss began to walk away.

The bearded man said, ‘You don’t look very far, do you?’ He had a vaguely transatlantic accent. He wore a loose denim jacket and a plaid cap, and he had a canvas bag hanging from a shoulder strap. Also good night-vision, Lol figured; although he didn’t have a torch, he was peering around into the dark areas.

Bliss continued for a couple of paces and then stopped.

Lol saw exactly where the bearded man was gazing.

Up.

19

On Angels

JANE HAD GONE upstairs for a bath, leaving Merrily hunched by the sitting-room fire, feet in woolly socks, cardigan buttoned to the top, but still feeling cold. She pulled St Thomas Aquinas from the shelf: Aquinas on Angels. Intellectual exercise could sometimes deflate anxiety.

She opened the paperback, immediately shut it again, snatched up the cordless and tried Lol’s phone. It was now over a week since she’d seen him, and, OK, it felt very much longer – really, what kind of relationship was this? To Jane, for whom two nights without a call from Eirion was cause for sleep-loss, it must look like a trial separation.

Merrily felt angry, frustrated, losing her grip – a marionette with its strings pulled in different directions by Jenny Box, Uncle Ted, Frannie Bliss and… Jane? Like, what had happened suddenly to turn the kid into the self-appointed voice of rationality in this household?

‘The phone you are calling is switched off…’

Inevitably.

Nearly two hours into darkness, now. Were they still out there digging for Frannie’s corpses on the windy fringe of the Forest? Merrily tapped in Gomer’s home number, on the off chance that they were out of there.

‘This yere is Gomer Parry Plant Hire. We en’t in, but that don’t mean we en’t available, so you be sure and leave your number.’

Damn.

Merrily hit end and tossed the phone on the sofa. Slumping down with the book, she found St Thomas Aquinas no more accessible.

It is not necessary that the place where an angel is should be spatially indivisible; it can be divisible or indivisible, greater or less, according as the angel chooses, voluntarily, to apply his power to a more or less extended body. And the whole body, whatever it be, will be as one place to him.

She read the paragraph twice more. You could always rely on Thomas to make you feel totally thick. Hard to imagine a mind this colossal functioning within a society of bows and arrows, boiling oil, trial by ordeal… but then, inside grey walls in the thirteenth century, with no TV or radio or phones or kids, only a solitary circle of candlelight, a trained intellect powered by spiritual energy might well acquire laserlike focus.

In the dog grate, a mix of coal and apple logs burned with an intensity that she could neither feel nor find in herself. To be a serious student of Aquinas, theology was not enough. You also needed to be Stephen Hawking.

An angel is in contact with a given place simply and solely through his power there. Hence his movement from place to place can be nothing but a succession of distinct power contacts.

What she was hoping for was… OK, a sign. Like, sometimes, you could open a book – it didn’t have to be the Bible – to a random page, and the solution would be there, as though at the end of a shaft of light. The answer might not depend on a literal interpretation of the text; it might be a certain metaphor which sprang a diversion, lit some indirect path to an unexpected truth.

Jenny Box: what the hell does she want from me?

Jenny’s angel: was that a metaphor, or what? A person coming from New Age spirituality – from earth-powers, shamanism and healing crystals – to Christianity would probably need some kind of visionary incentive, real or imagined. Jenny Box would have to find ample metaphysical justification for her move to an obscure village in Herefordshire: Ledwardine as Glastonbury, Ledwardine as Lourdes. Just as Merrily herself often wondered if she’d been washed up here for a reason – at college, she’d always seen herself as an urban priest, firing faith in concrete alleys full of vomit and discarded syringes.

She lay back on the sofa with the Aquinas paperback on her lap, closed her eyes and saw four possibilities:

1. Jenny Box had hallucinated the angel.

2. Jenny Box had invented the angel.

3. An optical illusion.

4. An angel.

Floodlit by a dozen small lamps, it looked like a gigantic headless metal puppet, with six arms rigidly outstretched – wires from its pendulous fingers, wires from its elbow joints.

If there was a formidable elemental force travelling those wires, the pylon itself looked dangerously unstable, Lol thought. And archaic. A skeletal survivor of the days when cars broke down every few weeks and a single computer filled a whole room.

This was your standard National Grid tower, the bearded man in denims had explained in his relaxed, tour-guide kind of way. He’d hung around with Lol when the adrenalin kicked into Frannie Bliss. There were over fifty pylons in this part of the valley, he said, and this was one of the big ones. It was carrying 400,000 volts.

And Roddy Lodge.

Lodge was about forty feet up, like a crawling insect, not far beneath the first pair of arms, at the end of which the live powerlines were coiled around insulators resembling hanging candles of knobbly green glass.

Lol heard Bliss telling someone to call for an ambulance and the fire brigade. He was standing about twenty feet from the pylon’s splayed legs of reinforced steel, hands in the pockets of his hiking jacket, more controlled now that he could see his prisoner again – could see that the prisoner had nowhere to go.

Nowhere in this world.

Lol wiped his glasses on the sleeve of his jacket. It had stopped raining, but the wind was up. The wires were zinging in his head. Vicarious vertigo.

‘You’re not with the police, then,’ the bearded man said. Directly in front of them was the abandoned excavation, the spade still sticking out of it. From here they could see the whole of the pylon, maybe 150 feet tall, and the shape of Howle Hill behind it, a black thumbprint on the sky.

‘I’m just one of the gravediggers,’ Lol said.

‘That mean I can actually talk to you without I get told to climb back on the school bus and leave it to the grown-ups?’

‘Least the police don’t have guns,’ Lol said, hoping he was right about this.

‘One of the reasons I came home, my friend. Protest about something in New Labour Britain, you don’t get shot, you just get patronized. Name’s Sam Hall, by the way.’

‘Lol. Lol Robinson.’ He saw that Sam Hall was older than he’d first appeared, well into his sixties, maybe beyond that – that backwoods-pioneer look grizzling over the years.

‘Tough day, Lol?’ Sam said mildly. As if they were unwinding at something not over-exciting, like crown-green bowling.

Before Lol could reply, a woman screamed. He saw Roddy Lodge gripping an overhead girder, swinging himself, apelike, into a steel V, finally wedging there. The orange overalls might have been designed to make him conspicuous in a pylon at night, like a warning beacon for aircraft.

‘Aw, Roddy!’ A small shrillness under Frannie Bliss’s voice as he called up, ‘Roddy, you daft bugger, where’s this gonna get yer? Tell me that, eh?’

No answer.

‘That’s because he doesn’t know,’ Sam Hall said to Lol.

‘Sorry?’

‘’Less, of course, he has an end in mind.’

Lol glanced sharply at him.

‘Which would depend on whether he’s done all they say he’s done,’ Sam Hall said.

‘How much danger’s he in?’

‘Boy, we’re all of us in danger from those monsters. I could name you three, maybe six people’d be alive today if they’d lived the other side of that hill. But Roddy… My guess would be that he’s done this before. You’ll notice somebody already cut through the barbed wire the power guys snag around the base to stop people climbing – and this is Roddy’s land, so I’d say it was him. Evidently knew where to find the footholds. He’s been up there before. Just look at the guy go…’

Roddy was moving again, pulling himself onto the first of the great arms, about sixty feet up now, lamp beams following him.

‘For God’s sake,’ a woman shouted from behind them, ‘can’t anyone get him down?’

‘Not possible, Ingrid,’ Sam Hall said, although there was no way she could hear him. ‘Not worth the candle,’ he said to Lol. ‘Tower’s earthed, so anyone standing on it’s earthed, too. Electricity will do anything to hitch a ride to the ground. What happens – he gets too close, it’s gonna jump him, and I wouldn’t like to be the person holding on to his feet when it does.’

‘You know a lot about it.’ Lol had his hands deep in his pockets, hunched against the shivering. ‘Worked in the power industry?’

Sam Hall let out a big, echoing laugh that sounded a little shocking in this situation, like it was bouncing around the valley. ‘Partner, what I do is I work against the power industry.’

Roddy Lodge had come fully to his feet. He was standing on the arm, a yard or so out from the shoulder, holding on to a diagonal steel bar with one hand. On the ground, the policewoman, Tiffany, and a male colleague were arranging a sheet of white plastic over the hole Lol had dug, weighting down the edges with bricks from a pile of building rubble.

‘Fact is,’ Sam Hall said, ‘a bunch of fat cats here and over in the US would give just about anything in the whole world to have me up there, ’stead of that poor sucker.’

A gasp of wind hit Roddy and he swayed and lost his footing and slipped down between two girders and hung there, his feet dangling in space.

‘Christ,’ Lol whispered. Three police officers ran, amid screams, towards the pylon.

‘Could be safer if he dropped now,’ Sam Hall said. ‘He doesn’t hit metal on the way down, he might not die. All depends on what he wants out of this.’

‘This is a little early for you, cariad,’ Eirion said.

‘How’s the party?’

Yn Cymreig. I’m having to watch my grammar.’

‘The whole party’s in Welsh?’ Jane sat on the edge of her bed, wrapped in the big bath towel.

‘My step-gran’s discovered cultural correctness in her old age. And her heritage – distant cousin of Saunders Lewis, see.’

‘You’ve lost me already.’

‘Anyone who wants to speak English is finding it expedient to go outside,’ Eirion said. ‘Bit like having a fag out on the balcony.’

‘Wow,’ Jane said, ‘another world. Is that where you are now?’

‘I’m in the kitchen. But not, I have to tell you, because my Welsh isn’t wholly fluent. Where are you?’

‘My bedroom. Just got out of the bath. Goose bumps everywhere.’

She heard Eirion moan faintly.

‘We could have telephone sex, if you like,’ Jane said. ‘I’m letting the towel slip slowly down my breasts. There are tiny bubbles of moisture…’

‘What is it you want?’ Eirion said tightly.

‘OK, I lied. I’m fully dressed. In fact, it’s so cold in this house that I’m wearing my fleece and leg warmers.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Listen, how far are you from the nearest computer?’

‘Decades,’ Eirion said obliquely.

‘Check someone out for me? On the Net? You remember Jenny Driscoll? All soft-voiced and drippy. Did these crappy daytime TV shows on fashion and decor and make-overs and stuff.’

‘Like the ones I always watch to find my feminine side.’

‘Irene, this is—’

‘Yeah, I do know who you mean. Nice-looking.’

‘You’re really into old ladies, aren’t you? There’s a word for it.’

‘And she lives in your village.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘You did.’

‘Christ, was I ever that sad? Irene, listen, this sounds… this is going to sound very stupid. But this woman, this Driscoll – or Mrs Box, as she now calls herself – she’s got her claws seriously into Mum.’

‘Meaning what?’

‘I can’t tell you, but it comes out of some middle-aged religious obsession. Or maybe it’s just attention seeking, or maybe she’s just a lonely old bag, I wouldn’t like to venture a hard opinion at this stage but, essentially, she’s claiming – this is what she’s told Mum, right? – that she’s had a mystical experience. Involving an angel. In the sky, over the church – our church. Don’t laugh. And she has a chapel in her house – this kind of shrine, under the floor, and she took Mum down there, and there was incense and candles and stuff. And of course Mum’s reacting in a suitably spiritually correct fashion.’

‘And you think this is another world,’ Eirion said.

‘It’s not actually a joke. It’s not actually funny, for at least one very bizarre reason that I’m not allowed to tell you about, so don’t ask me. But I do not believe this woman has had any kind of… experience, and— Irene, are you still there?’

Yeah. I… Jane, it’s still happening isn’t it? You’re still…’

‘Huh?’

‘Your… This whole dark-night-of-the-soul thing. A few months ago, if anybody claimed to have seen an angel within fifty miles of Ledwardine, you’d have been so excited you’d be up all night with a video camera.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m over it, all right? It was pitiful, and I’m finally over it. You can waste your life on that kind of shit.’

‘I don’t think you mean that, Jane.’

‘How would you know what I mean?’

Eirion sighed. ‘What do you want me to try and find out?’

‘Anything. What happened to her marriage. Why she got out of TV. Any of the kind of scurrilous flotsam that gets washed up on the Net.’

‘Surfing for shit?’

‘Just help me, Eirion.’

Silence. I called him Eirion, Jane thought in dismay.

‘You want any dirt I can find on Moira Cairns at the same time?’ he said.

‘That’s not fair.’

‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’

Eirion didn’t sound sorry. He sounded disappointed, somehow.

A crowd had gathered, the way crowds did. Suddenly it was just there.

Lol didn’t know how many people lived around Underhowle, but at least seventy of them had to be here now. The ones who hadn’t broken through the police tape must have come across the fields on the other side of the pylon, by the edge of the woods fringing Howle Hill. Perhaps forty people were standing within twenty feet of the tower, like they’d bought tickets. Not enough police here to move them on – like the police didn’t have enough to think about.

Frannie Bliss was pacing around the base of the pylon, conspicuously uneasy now. Lol could make out people crouching ‘with their camcorders. Bliss stood back, hands cupped around his mouth. A sudden white light shone all around him – someone had brought along one of those long-distance spotlamps.

‘Roddy. Can you hear me, son? This is DI Bliss. Frannie Bliss.’

Roddy Lodge had pulled himself back on to the metal arm; he was braced against the tower’s skeletal spine. Clouds had dropped away from the wafery moon, and the girders gleamed white like bone.

‘Roddy, can you hear me?’

On the ground, Bliss was competing against the spectator buzz, but the voice from the pylon burst sharply in the air.

‘NO!’

Like a hole punched in a paper bag, making its own hush.

‘DON’T WANNER TALK TO NO MORE COPPERS!’

‘Roddy…’ Bliss bent backwards. ‘Let’s be sensible. You’re about six feet from enough juice to light up half the county. Just let yourself come down, and take it very carefully. You got nowhere else to go. You know that, son.’

‘THAT’S WHAT…’ A surprise blast of wind. Gasps from the crowd as Lodge clutched at a steel diagonal, caught it and clung to it. ‘THAT’S WHAT YOU RECKONS, IS IT, MR COPPER?’

‘It’s very dangerous, Roddy, that’s all I’m saying. There’s massive voltage up there, you know that.’

Silence.

‘Roddy, if you—’

‘NOT TO ME. EN’T NO DANGER TO ME, COPPER. I’M ELECTRIC ALREADY, LOOK!’

Frannie Bliss stared at the churned ground. Lol could feel him groping for viable words. High above him, washed by swirling lights, Roddy Lodge was glowing red like a pantomime demon – Lol willing him to give it up, come down from there, don’t raise the stakes.

Roddy suddenly reeled back, one arm locked around the cross bar, the other thrown across his face. His feet seemed to skate on the metal.

The light,’ Sam Hall said. ‘Light’s affecting him. Plus the shit coming off of the power lines. He’s gonna be disoriented by now. His balance’ll go completely, can’t they see that?’ Angrily, he strode down the field towards Bliss. Two uniformed police came out of the dark from two sides, restraining him. Sam turned on one of them. ‘Not me, you asshole! Get across there and tell some of those stupid bastards to switch off their lights if they don’t want to kill him. Jesus!

‘Why’n’t you jump?’ A sudden, strident male voice in the crowd. ‘Why’n’t you take a bloody running jump, Lodge?’

They do want to kill him, Lol thought, sickened. He was sweating and trembling with the cold but, at the same time, he was glad he was this side of the pylon, away from that crowd. It was an audience. Audiences wanted it all. He felt hollow inside, and his head was throbbing with fear for the man on the pylon, the performer in the spotlights. You reappear on stage now, Moira said softly in his ear, it’s gonnae be like, ‘Hey, is that no’ the big sex-offender?’ When he turned away, teeth clenched, he could still see the shining red figure projected like a hologram, vibrating in charged air.

‘Why’n’t you go for a swing on the high wire, Roddy?’ The same man’s voice. ‘Save the tax-payers havin’ to keep you the rest of your bloody useless life!’

A fragment of silence.

Shaddup!’ a woman shrieked. ‘You en’t lived here two minutes, it’s no damn business of yours!’

Bliss was tramping back up the field. ‘This is useless. How am I supposed to try and talk him down with these fuckin’ hayseeds—? Andy! Where’s…? Right. Listen. Get half a dozen uniforms, go across and get the lot of them out of there. It’s gorra be private land. Tell them they’re trespassing, they’re obstructing the police, whatever you want. But the first one objects, you nick him!’

He tore past Lol, making for the cars.

Sam Hall was back, brushing himself down, straightening his denim jacket. ‘This is not good.’

‘No.’

‘He looks down, all he sees now is row upon row of blinding lights. His head’s gonna be close to exploding.’

The lamps aimed up into the pylon made a white gauze in the rain mist. Lol sensed an ambivalence in the crowd. He’s a murderer. He’s murdered one of our own. At least one. Yet Lodge himself was one of their own.

The lights went in and out of focus. Lol looked down.

He saw a tiny red glow tracking across the field.

Lodge!

The beams from the crowd swung down again, like they were voice-activated, and found – Oh God – found Gomer Parry, standing where Bliss had stood, his cap off, his white hair on end in the wind, like a hearth brush, a fresh roll-up in his teeth.

‘Lodge… Gomer Parry Plant Hire! You yearin’ me?

Gomer!’ Bliss went lurching back. ‘No!

‘Where was it you set that fire, boy? Where’d you go? Where was it you went Monday night?’

‘YOU KNOOOOOOOOW!’ A roar of pain.

Gomer snatched out his ciggy. ‘Say it, boy! Say it again. Where’d you go exac’ly that night? Tell these folks.’

Silence. Beams intersecting like aircraft-spotting searchlights. Gomer waited, rocking back on his heels in the mud.

‘I DONE IT!’

Gomer bounced. ‘What? Where?’

‘I BURNED HIM! I… F – FRIED HIM.’ A shrill giggle, tremolo yelps. ‘I FRIED THE FUCKING BASTARD IN HIS OWN FAT!

Bliss had hold of Gomer, was dragging him away. ‘Christ’s sake, what you trying to—?’

‘YOU KNOOOOOOOOOOOOOW!’

‘Tryin’ to get at the bloody truth.’ Gomer pulled away. ‘Which is more’n you done. And I’m tellin’ you, boy, it en’t—’

‘I… DONE…’ Roddy Lodge was shambling slowly along the down-sloping arm of the pylon, arms outstretched like a tightrope artist, a man on a high diving board. Not too far above him now hung one of the insulators from the second tier, its power- hugging glass discs gleaming cold green. Candle of death. ‘I DONE ’EM ALL!’

Bliss’s head went back. His fists were clenched tight. Gomer just stood there and stared down at the ground. Both of them in shadow, all the lights trained on the pylon. Roddy stopped. Even from where Lol stood he could see Lodge was grinning.

‘I DONE…’ He shuffled, swayed. ‘I DONE ALL THEM WOMEN! I DONE LYNSEY! I DONE… I DONE MEL! YOU YEARIN’ ME? I DONE ’EM ALL! I DONE THAT WELSH GIRL! I DONE… I DONE MORE’N YOU KNOWS. ’CAUSE…’

Bliss stood there, ramming his fists into the sides of his thighs. Roddy reached up like he was trying to clasp the wind and the night.

‘’CAUSE I’M THE DEVIL! I’M SATAN! I’M THE BIGGEST FUCKIN’ SERIAL KILLER EVER LIVED! YOU HEAR ME? I WAS GONNER DO FUCKIN’… FUCKIN’ MADONNA!’ ’CAUSE I’M NUMBER ONE, LOOK… I’M NUMBER FUCKIN’ ONE!

Silence fell like a canopy. Lol was suddenly and horrifically aware of something in the crowd that was less apprehension than a kind of active anticipation.

And yet he also actually heard someone beginning to weep, a hoarse, bubbling sound as the rain came down harder.

A distant siren – the ambulance or the fire brigade. Lol watched Gomer walking slowly away from the pylon, looking at the ground. The wind had reined itself in. There was a dense, waxy stillness to the air.

One of the police laughed uncertainly. ‘Got the biggest witness list of all time there, boss. When he’s in the dock—’

Lol heard Sam Hall saying very quietly, ‘He won’t be, will he?’

Gomer reached them, muttering.

‘We digs holes, is what we do. En’t no affair of ours now.’ His voice was shaking. Lol had never heard Gomer’s voice shaking before, not even with anger. ‘En’t up for no public execution. We just digs holes, ennit?’

He kept on walking, along the alley by the side of the garage. Lol followed him, holding his spade. At the end of the alley he looked back once and saw Roddy Lodge standing halfway down the arm of the tower, with his hands reaching up, as though other hands were up there in the night sky, waiting to catch him.

Lol didn’t think he either saw or heard what happened next; maybe his mind edited the moment, a jump cut. All he was fully aware of was the lights going out in Roddy’s bungalow.

20

Stadium Rock

THEY SEEMED to have awoken at about the same time, in the still hollow of the early hours. Merrily sensed him becoming aware, by touch, that she was actually here, in this strange bed, in this unknown timber-framed chamber that was strange to her, too – she’d never slept in here before, the air was different, the sounds in the walls.

And it was the first time they’d slept together with no sex. Not that they’d slept together many times. Pathetically few, in fact, since they’d first done it in the summer.

Done it.

Here she was, thirty-seven years old, actually thinking of it with that old teenage delight in the forbidden. An adventure: two kids in a small, secret room in an ancient house with timbers that creaked and grumbled in the late-October night. It felt deliciously out of time, a place you thought you could never re-enter, soft and sticky and warm and illicit. And in the vicarage… where the vicar might come in and catch you doing it

Doing it: more spontaneously thrilling than making love. That hint of…

Sin?

Shameful. Utterly. When she thought, It’s me… I’m the vicar, she couldn’t stop giggling and hid her shame under the duvet, because there really was nothing at all to laugh at tonight.

* * *

Jane had gone off to bed with a book half an hour before Gomer had arrived at the back door. The kid must already have fallen asleep – if she’d heard him, she’d have been straight down.

It was eleven-fifteen p.m. Gomer had been looking very tired, his glasses half-clouded. In fact, more than tired: perturbed, unhappy. He didn’t seem in the mood to talk.

He had with him some wreckage dressed in Lol’s clothes.

‘Boy en’t in no fit state to drive home, vicar. Figured you might have a bed made up in one of the spare rooms. Being as how you’ve always been strong on the idea of sanctuary, see, for the weary.’

Yes, Merrily had agreed, that was a possibility. Lol had smiled lopsidedly. There was a smear of dried mud on his forehead. A pocket of his jacket was hanging off. He stood there among the fallen apples, looking like a refugee who’d crossed Eastern Europe on foot. She’d wanted to laugh, and to touch him.

Gomer said, ‘And I figured you’d wanner know, anyway.’

Know?

Evidently, this had not turned out as expected. Looking at Gomer now was reopening narrow channels of anxiety. Merrily hadn’t asked about anything, only offered him some tea and something to eat, which he’d declined, claiming that if he sat down, he wouldn’t get up till morning.

She’d watched him tramping back to his truck, small and grey against the remaining lights of Ledwardine. There was only one other vehicle parked on the square. She’d gone back in and made some tea for Lol and left him to drink it while she slipped upstairs and quickly made up a bed – in the fifth bedroom, the small one at the back of the house, over the kitchen and therefore warmer than most of them. Also, well away from the stairs leading to Jane’s attic.

‘We’ll talk in the morning,’ Merrily had said.

Lol had wanted to tell her everything now, but she’d slipped away to run a bath for him. He was here, in her home. What else mattered?

A lot, but it would wait. While he was in the bathroom, she’d stolen most of his clothes and loaded them into the washing machine. When she came back upstairs nearly an hour later, dressed for bed, he was still wrapped in the towel, lying on his stomach on the single divan in the fifth bedroom.

She’d stood looking at him for quite a while, his compact body, his wet hair, before taking away the towel and covering him with the duvet. Then she’d set her alarm clock on the window sill, knelt and prayed silently, and then slipped in next to him, putting out the light.

‘So we… we went back,’ Lol said. ‘How could we not?’

They had their arms around one another, holding themselves together in the narrow bed in the darkness.

‘Chaos. People screaming and pushing, as if they thought the whole area was in danger of becoming electrified. Couldn’t get out of there fast enough.’

She was visualizing it, recalling the pylon standing over the bungalow in a whole valley polluted with pylons.

‘Bliss went crazy. Had everybody thrown out, except Gomer and me – and that was only because he wanted to give Gomer a bollocking.’ Lol stared into the dark. ‘Gomer was right. It turned into a public execution.’

‘He wasn’t still… up there?’

‘No, he fell off. When we got back to the field, he was lying at the foot of the pylon. Someone said he was still twitching, but I couldn’t…’

‘But you didn’t actually see it happen?’ Wanting him not to have. Detailed images lived for years in Lol’s head. Today had left multiple bruises and scratches on his body and his face, and that was enough.

‘I don’t know.’ His hand tightened around her upper arm, against the memory. ‘It’s all mixed up with what other people said they saw. There was a bang. A flash of light. He was all lit up for a moment, somebody said.’

Merrily was picturing Roddy Lodge’s angular, jutting, puppet face jerking in spasms. She shuddered. Was this really where he’d wanted to end up, when he’d slipped quietly away from the police? She recalled him screaming at Gomer that night at the Pawson house: Chicken, then, is it? You chickenshit?

‘When we saw him afterwards,’ Lol said, ‘I didn’t know what to expect. Whether he’d be… burned to a crisp. But it doesn’t… this guy told me it’s like a microwave… cooks from the inside.’

‘But was he trying to kill himself? Did he know what he was doing?’

She was feeling leaden inside now, with guilt and remorse, recalling that initial relief when she’d been spared a meeting with Roddy Lodge at Hereford Police Station – because of the intervention of his solicitor, who had insisted his client was mentally ill. Why had Lodge wanted to see her? What had he wanted to tell her that he was refusing, at least at that stage, to tell the police? And would it have made a difference?

Lol said, ‘In the end, he was holding out his arms. Standing there, on the arm of the pylon, spotlit from all directions, and he’s suddenly flinging out his arms. Bliss had been shouting up to him about the dangers. He shouted back that he was electric already. This was some minutes before he… before the electricity jumped into him. There was this guy there, called Sam, and he’d said that was what might happen. Whether the wind or the rain made a difference, I don’t know, but he couldn’t’ve touched anything. His fingers must’ve been at least a couple of feet from this… hanging thing, the insulator, hanging down from the second arm, above him.’

‘This was just after he confessed?’

She felt his face move against her hair – Lol nodding.

‘So Gomer…’

‘Bliss obviously blamed Gomer for pushing Lodge to the brink. The confession… obviously that was what Bliss wanted, but not in public. The way it happened, it was like Lodge was – I don’t know…’

‘Stealing his glory,’ Merrily said. ‘Stealing the case right out of his hands and giving it to everybody. Stealing the whole judicial process. Roddy Lodge having the last laugh, hijacking Frannie’s result. And Gomer…’

‘Gomer wasn’t laughing.’

‘He’d got what he wanted. Roddy did confess to the fire. And Nev? What about Nev?’

‘He said he… fried the fat bastard. So Gomer got his confession, too, finally. It was really odd. All the way back here, he said hardly a word. You’d expect some kind of cathartic reaction. But not a word. I think Gomer was seriously stunned.’

‘You travelled all the way back in silence?’ Merrily felt around on the oak-boarded floor for her cigarettes.

‘No, he talked about this and that – the tanks and why we hadn’t found any bodies underneath them. How that was one secret Lodge had taken to his grave. Which, of course, is another problem for Bliss. Nobody’s going to tell him where to look now. He could dig up half the county and still not get close.’

‘Lot of explaining ahead for Frannie, I’d imagine.’ She thought about Bliss and his ‘messy’ home life and the Job – only the police gave it a capital J – becoming his refuge. It wasn’t going to be much of one now. His superiors would want to know exactly how he came to mislay his prisoner, why he’d sat on the case, kept it to himself, hired the volatile Gomer Parry to dig up septic tanks installed by a man Gomer believed had murdered his nephew.

She wondered how much of a basis Bliss had really had for bringing Roddy Lodge out to Underhowle, how much Lodge had actually told him in the interview room. Evidently he’d admitted to several killings, but had he given any indication of why? Serial killers had become a species, their motives taken for granted. They were male predators, and that was it, jungle carnivores, bringing down young women like gazelles, to be pawed and raked at leisure.

Leave it. Merrily peered at the old luminous alarm clock in the window; she didn’t want to oversleep and have Jane find them here in the morning… even though the kid would probably be delighted.

Hell it was the morning. In three minutes’ time it would be Hell, four a.m.

Lol said suddenly, ‘I felt sorry for him.’

‘Bliss?’

‘Lodge.’ His voice sounded distant, detached. His arm went slack around her. ‘That’s not right, is it? How can anybody feel sorry for a man who killed women?’

Merrily said, ‘It’s a… Christian thing.’

Trite.

‘Empathy,’ Lol said. ‘I saw him up there, and I seemed to feel what he was feeling. Or it translated itself. It was like stadium rock. All the lights. Pink Floyd or something. Crazy.’

Or something. Merrily said, ‘When’s the gig?’

‘Oh. Next week. Wednesday.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I… In case…’

‘You mean you’re considering not doing it.’

‘It’s a Moira Cairns concert. That’s all it says on the posters. Nobody would be the wiser.’

‘I’m going to order some tickets.’

‘Don’t do that. I can get you some. She’ll be worth seeing.’

She.

‘I want to buy them,’ she said, ‘out of my meagre stipend.’

‘Merrily—’

‘Shush.’

They’d agreed that in the morning he would stay up here until Jane wasn’t around, and then he’d slip quietly away through the orchard to pick up his car at Gomer’s. No one would know. Merrily felt tearful.

‘Why did you do it? Why did you offer to go with Gomer?’

‘I like Gomer.’

She reached for his hand; it felt like half-set concrete. ‘Feels like you won’t be able to pick up a guitar for days.’ She stiffened. ‘Is that why? Is it?’

He kissed her naked shoulder. ‘And I sensed people wanting him to die. I was sure I sensed people wanting to see him die.’

Lol sighed, as if this was something he needed to get out of himself. Merrily was about to say something when she realized he was asleep.

She kissed his forehead and wondered if he was dreaming about Roddy Lodge. Or Moira Cairns.

Part Four

I am glowing radioactive

We draw

Beams around the world

Super Furry Animals ‘Rings Around the World’

21

Icon

IT WAS DURING her sermon the following Sunday that Merrily realized it wasn’t over – that Roddy Lodge, though dead, wasn’t out of her life.

This morning, she’d awakened at five a.m., or thereabouts, after the return of that old recurring dream: the one where she suddenly discovered she was living in a house with three floors, after thinking there were only two. And on the third floor was something dreadful, and she knew that she’d have to go up there and face it alone.

She was moving very slowly up the second staircase, the fear of reaching the top intensified by the inability to turn back – in dreams, turning back never seemed to be an option – when the dark upper landing suddenly came into view, and then she was at the top, and the first strange door was just above her and beneath it was a thin grin of icy, violet light.

This was enough. Ejecting in terror from the dream, Merrily had rolled over, with an urgent need to be held. But the bed was wide and empty and outside the uncurtained window the boughs of old apple trees were creaking in the sour October wind.

Alone.

For two nights after Lol had gone, she’d gone back to the fifth bedroom, slept in the single bed they’d shared, before returning despondently to her own, bigger room. Sad, huh?

And puzzled and unhappy, because now she actually was living in an old house with three floors, and Jane was in possession of the attics. She thought she’d dealt with the third floor.

Here in church, there were more stairs she preferred to avoid: the polished wooden steps to the pulpit. She knew she should really be up there this morning: little woman, big congregation, even for October when they tended to increase because there were no lawns to mow and the kids had stopped demanding days out. Here, close to the front, sat Big Jim Prosser from the Eight-till-Late, which reduced its Sunday opening hours at the end of the tourist season. Here even was Kent Asprey, heart-throb, jogging GP, back with his wife after a midlife-crisis fling. A penitent Kent, with Mrs Asprey – one week only, probably.

Merrily put a tentative foot on the first pulpit step, then backed down again. What she’d been doing during the summer and early autumn, when congregations were smaller and cosier, was to sit on a hassock on the carpeted chancel steps, under the apple screen, and not preach but chat. Sometimes, a few members of the congregation would join in, and there was a sense of warmth and unity. She found it exciting, was never sure where it would lead. One Sunday it had spontaneously opened out, like a flower, into communal meditation.

It was hardly going to happen today. The congregation was like the bed: too big, too cold, too quiet. And swollen by too many comparative strangers whose presence could only be explained by curiosity over rumours of Merrily’s links, through Gomer, with the Roddy Lodge sensation – an electric death still pulsing in Herefordshire like a snaking naked wire.

This was a small county; everybody knew somebody related to the Lodge family or the families of girls and women missing from home – one was from a farm near Staunton, just a few miles from Ledwardine – or at least someone who had considered having an Efflapure system installed. Everyone had been exposed to radio and TV reports and centre-spreads with the same grisly sequence of pictures and tasteless variations on the Daily Star’s:

Villagers watch in horror as man boasts:

‘I’m the biggest serial killer ever’, then is

FRIED IN THE SKY

Underhowle itself was reported to be in a grey state of communal shock. Nearly a hundred people, including children as young as five and six, had heard Roddy Lodge confess, then watched him die. Many were being treated and counselled for the trauma.

And the shock waves radiated outwards.

TRACKS OF THE BORDER BEAST.

On the third day, most of the headlines were variations of this one from the Mail. Where had Roddy Lodge been? Where might he have interred the bodies – Is there a corpse under YOUR septic tank? the Mail asked. The speculation now was that this was a false trail: cold-storing the body of Lynsey Davies in the pea-gravel under the Efflapure had been a one-off emergency measure – maybe Lodge had felt in danger of discovery at the time. Anyway, there would surely have been better options open to a killer with his own JCB.

So the other bodies could be anywhere.

All over Herefordshire and the Forest of Dean, this particularly was a live issue, and Merrily had felt obliged to address it, had assembled a sermon around the life and death of Roddy Lodge. Why did such people exist? Why had God created serial killers?

A difficult one. Why exactly?

It was certainly not a question voiced by the grateful papers, as the search for bodies went on, as police interviewed and reinterviewed the relatives of missing women and girls across five shires, as press and TV cameramen prowled Underhowle, reporters free to speculate now that the killer who had confessed so publicly was never going to face trial.

And the police, in this case, were… who exactly? No mention in the papers of Bliss. Or indeed of DCI Annie Howe. All the press briefings had been given by a Detective Superintendent Luke Fleming. Merrily had never heard of him – must have been from Headquarters. She noticed that there was nothing in any of the papers about Roddy’s taste in bedroom decor. Given that he was dead, why not?

Every day she’d expected her own involvement in the discovery of Lynsey Davies to be disclosed by the police, but despite the local gossip – inadvertently fuelled by Gomer, she suspected, as he pursued the truth about the fire – nobody had approached her.

This morning, preparing for Holy Communion in the early light, she’d decided to dump the Roddy Lodge sermon. It had seemed unnecessary, gratuitous.

Sermon B, then.

She didn’t sit on the hassock, but she didn’t go into the pulpit either; she stood at the side of the lectern.

‘Erm…’

She felt obscurely nervous; she really needed notes for this one, but there was nowhere to conceal them. And because pews were filled further back than of late, she had to project more than she’d become accustomed to. Had to make like a preacher.

‘If we… if we sit down and really think about it, I suspect most of us will remember an occasion when something’s happened, very suddenly, to divert us from a certain course of action. Maybe a flat tyre that stopped you making a particular journey. And then, some time later, you find out that that journey might have led you into a far bigger crisis – a motorway pile-up, or some confrontation that you might not have been able to handle. And then you say – and how often have most of us said this…?’

She leaned out, an arm around the stem of the lectern, found herself locking gazes for a second with James Bull-Davies, three pews from the front.

‘… Perhaps it was meant.’ She stepped back. ‘That’s a useful phrase, isn’t it? Meant by whom? By God? And why should God single us out for salvation? Why should we be diverted from the pile-up that’s going to kill or injure several other people?’ Longish pause. ‘For the Christian, there’s… another option. Suppose we think about that phrase in the context of the possibility of there being’ – she smiled faintly – ‘angels among us.’

Jenny Box was close to the front, to Merrily’s right, washed in amber light from the circular stained-glass window in which a clutch of apples was pensively surveyed by several angels. Jenny Box, with her fine old-gold hair under a small white hat that was almost a skullcap, her eyes unblinking but also unfocused, as if gazing into the ether. Merrily wondered how Thomas Aquinas would have handled this.

‘What do I mean by angels? To be quite honest, I’m not sure. Do I mean heavenly forces, agents of change? Powerful, invisible intelligences capable of assessing a situation, seeing the direction it’s going, anticipating the consequences. And occasionally intervening, sometimes as a result of prayer, but often quite spontaneously. Or so it seems.’

Mrs Box was watching her now. Merrily avoided her gaze.

‘We talk about governments being interventionist or non- interventionist – should they step in and overrule market forces or whatever? It’s always a fine balance and, because governments don’t have Godlike wisdom – or much wisdom at all, you might think sometimes – they often intervene over the wrong issues. But we have to assume that angels… that they never get it wrong.’

She hadn’t had time to prepare this properly. She was opening a can of worms. Were angels messengers of God or aspects of God? To what extent were they independent? Was this the time to mention Ledwardine’s own angel? Not the one with the sword allegedly witnessed spreading its radiance over the church in a thunderstorm but the anonymous one with the bin sack full of used fifties. That would take their minds off Roddy Lodge for a while.

Maybe not. Uncle Ted had whispered to her earlier, as they came into church, that he was still awaiting police clearance on the money. If he didn’t hear anything this week he was damn well getting back onto them.

‘The Bible doesn’t go into too much detail about the nature of angels. They just are. Most of us, if we think about them at all, think of them in the context of particular episodes – usually involving halos and harps and a few gobsmacked shepherds. Or we might mention – with a shiver – something we like to call the Angel of Death, which…’

Merrily looked up at the stained-glass window with the apples. The angels there were solid and looked female, with their extravagant golden curls and small pursed lips.

‘… which we always see as something horribly sinister rather than something gentle and understanding which exists to guide us through what, for most of us, is the only situation since birth in which we are one hundred per cent helpless.’

Jenny Box had lowered her gaze. Merrily thought of all the hospital beds she’d sensed to be enfolded in dark, downy wings. But then – the thought pierced her like a thin blade – what was the Angel of Death doing when the face of Lynsey Davies was turning blue under the savage pressure, her eyes bulging, her tongue

‘I… As far as I know, I’ve never seen an angel. So I really can’t tell you if they look like the ones in the windows over there – if they’ve got actual wings, or if they’re light and vague, or as invisible as breath. I suspect that angels look… just like us.’

And how many others are dead? Nobody knows. And why? Nobody knows.

‘Some people do claim to have actually seen them in times of crisis, some to have… sensed them.’

She swallowed. Lifted her eyes and her thoughts. Had she sensed them? At her shoulder during a Eucharist? Once, perhaps, on Christmas Day, in an aura of profound holiness, as the bells awoke the valley?

‘Most of us, though, have only seen evidence of what appears to be a practical intelligence which comes out of nowhere to… alter a situation. Now that in itself – that’s such an amazing concept, such a Superman thing, that it’s easy to get carried away, to start looking for angels, looking for evidence of angelic intervention in everything, every little situation.’

She paused, looking around for Jane, who would occasionally slip in at the back, without making a thing about it. No sign of her today. No surprise.

‘My own feeling, for what it’s worth, is that angels are a layer of creation, an aspect of divinity, of which we should be aware. Or more aware. And if we ever have reason to think that an angel has intervened for us, then maybe we shouldn’t just say “Oh, it was meant,” we should spend some time thinking: Why? Why me? Why now?’

What Merrily was thinking right now was that all this sermon had told its listeners so far was that this vicar hadn’t yet worked out where she stood on angels. Or, indeed, on Jenny Box, probably the parish church’s biggest benefactor since the Bull family ran out of spare cash.

She looked into the congregation, perhaps for some guidance on how far to take this, and caught a movement from the bottom end of the nave: Frannie Bliss walking quietly through from the porch.

Frannie Bliss?

But, like several others, Bliss must have left before the after- service tea and coffee – either that or she’d imagined him. Jenny Box didn’t stay, either, but then she never had; she probably considered the serving of refreshments to be misuse of a holy sanctuary. On this one, Merrily would always disagree; this was about giving and sharing and opening up, not taking people’s money.

Sometimes, people would want to discuss aspects of the sermon, but not today. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to disclose a personal angelic encounter. Outside, after everyone had gone, only James Bull-Davies hung around in the churchyard.

It was a James kind of day: stiff, blustery. He angled over, hands behind his back, stared moodily at a windfall apple that had landed on a grave.

‘This Box woman.’

Merrily drew her woollen cape over her surplice, tilted her head to one side, curious. Pulled prematurely from the Army on the death of his father, James had reluctantly shouldered what he perceived to be his family’s burden of responsibility for the village. Lately, however – under the influence of Alison, no doubt – he seemed to have shrugged much of it off, coming to church alone, avoiding the traditional Bull pew, generally adopting a neutral stance on parish issues.

‘Don’t like to interfere, Mrs Watkins.’ He cleared his throat. ‘As you know.’

‘How’s Alison?’

‘Fine.’ He flicked a brittle wafer of lichen from the eighteenth- century headstone opposite the porch. ‘Met the husband, have you?’

‘Husband?’

James folded his arms, looked down at his shoes. He had on a checked shirt and a mud-coloured tie under the old tweed jacket he wore like battledress. ‘Encountered the guy in the Swan, Friday evening. Up here for the weekend. Works in London.’

‘I’ve never met him.’

‘Worried man.’ James gazed over Merrily’s head towards the lych-gate. ‘No one wants a wife playing away.’

Merrily blinked. She got a sudden flashback of James at the height of his crisis, drunk on the square, Alison trying to haul him into the Land Rover. Mistress, he’d called her. And then whore. Ownership. But Alison had been cool about all that.

‘Another man?’ Merrily said. ‘Here?

‘Good Lord, no.’ James snorted. ‘Gord, Mrs Watkins. Gord!

‘What?’

‘Has its place, religion – the Church. Always accepted that, as you know. Part of the framework. More of these newcomers we can bring into the fold the better.’

‘Absolutely.’

‘Fanaticism, however… something else entirely.’

‘Oh, I see. You mean God is the… the other man.’ She smiled. Church, for James, was a local obligation, a necessary hour of faint tedium on a hard pew smelling of polish. Echoes of public school. James’s school had had masters. When the idea of a woman priest-in-charge had been mooted for Ledwardine, he’d apparently been the first to object. She’d kind of thought that was in the past.

‘Find this amusing, do you, vicar?’

‘James,’ she said, ‘He’s my boss.’ He sniffed. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘It’s not awfully warm here. Do you want to come back to the vicarage? Sit down with a cup of tea and—’

‘No…’ He shook his head quickly. ‘No time, sorry. I just… This is simply the gypsy’s warning, all right? I’m strongly suggesting you keep that woman at arm’s length, if you know what’s good for you. Sorry… don’t mean that to sound like a threat.’

‘Of course not.’

‘Simply that Box told me some things. Guy’d had a few drinks, so I’m treating most of it as confidential. However, presume you know she’s been in psychiatric care?’

‘No, I didn’t know that.’

‘Well, there you are.’

‘But…’ Merrily thought of Lol. ‘We do try not to hold it against people. “Let the loonies come unto me,” sayeth the Lord, “and I shall…” ’

‘Mrs Watkins,’ James said wearily. ‘I realize that taking the piss out of me has become a little hobby of yours, but—’

‘What’s he like?’

‘What?’

‘Mr Box.’

‘Oh.’ He considered. ‘My height, perhaps an inch or two taller. A little older than her, but not appreciably. Keeps himself fit.’ He avoided Merrily’s eyes, inspecting the oak frame of the porch, as if the Bulls still paid for its maintenance.

Yes,’ she said, ‘but what’s he like?’

‘Ex-journalist. Businessman now, handles her shops. Says he does all the work, she wanders round, tweaks a few things. Don’t know these shops myself… decor.’ Saying it like you’d say blue movies. ‘Smoothish type.’

‘Is he still here?’

‘Wouldn’t know. We were only introduced on Friday. Guy’d drifted into the Swan for a few drinks because he was a little tired of sitting there watching his wife reading her Bible and mouthing psalms.’

‘He told you that?’ Behind him, in the churchyard, Merrily saw a tiny tendril of smoke rising.

‘Not in so many words. Conjecture. Look, vicar, I don’t know the ins and outs of it. Never been anyone’s idea of a marriage- guidance counsellor, thank Gord.’

‘I suppose not.’

‘But if Box is blaming anyone’ – James dropped his hand from the oak – ‘then I’d say he’s looking in your general direction. And that’s a bit more than conjecture.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, I… I…’ James glared down towards the lych gate, as though wishing he was out of it. ‘Woman’s got a bit of a crush on you, after all. Pretty common knowledge in the village.’

What?

‘Ah… wrong word, as usual. Sorry. Still… big thing, women getting ordained. More underneath all that than any of us suspected. And you yourself – all this cross-waving, holy-water – I’m simply saying you’ve probably become a… what’s the word?’

‘If you mean role model—’

‘Icon?’

‘Bloody hell, James.’

‘Wrong word too, is it? Shut your mouth, James.’

‘Bloody hell.’

She was shocked, couldn’t look at him. As they walked out under the lych gate, she glanced back down the crooked alley of

graves to where she’d seen the smoke. Gomer Parry was sitting in his usual spot on Minnie’s grave, a roll-up in his mouth.

‘Poor old Parry.’ James had followed her gaze. ‘Never bloody rains, eh? They buried his nephew yet?’

‘Next week. After the opening of the inquest.’

‘Bad show. Didn’t notice him in church. Having problems with the old faith, you think?’

Merrily said nothing. Gomer always went to Minnie’s grave when he had something to work out. Along with Minnie, he’d buried both their watches, with new batteries. Gomer’s was one of the old kind which, despite the batteries, still ticked loudly. Sometimes, he’d said, he thought he could still hear it. Helped him think.

She watched the smoke rise from Gomer’s ciggy, darkening the day, a signal of distress. Something was wrong. After he’d told Minnie, maybe he’d tell her.

When they reached the square, she said to James, ‘You going to come and discuss this thing in private? Tell me what on earth people are saying?’

‘I think not.’ James sniffed the air. ‘Never been a gossip. Anyway, told Alison I’d be back before one. I’ve said all I wanted to say. Question of watching your back, vicar. Watching your back.’

‘Thank you.’

James merely nodded and walked away with long strides. Merrily looked around the square, as if there might be small knots of people pointing at her and muttering. Maybe the angel sermon hadn’t been such a good idea. Maybe – if Jenny Box had told anyone else here about her vision – it was a very bad idea.

In fact, the square was empty except for Frannie Bliss leaning against one of the oak pillars of the little market hall, munching a Mars Bar.

Merrily sighed.

22

Aura of Old Hippy

LOL TOOK THE call just before one on the kitchen phone at Prof’s. From the studio he could hear a playback of Moira’s ‘Lady of the Tower’, veined now with the seamless cello of Simon St John. Just Moira’s voice and Simon’s cello: experimental.

On the phone, he heard, ‘That you, boy? You know who this is?’

A warm voice, not quite American. Lol was momentarily baffled, before the voice threw up an image of the sepia sleeve of The Band’s second album, all beards and back porch.

‘Sam?’

‘Lol, I hope you don’t mind this intrusion. I got your number through talking to the cop… Bliss? Came over to see me a couple days back.’

‘Has he calmed down now?’

‘I guess you might say that,’ Sam Hall said, ‘though he doesn’t strike me as a man who can handle calm too well. Anyhow, we had a talk, and it, uh… it all came out about you and what you did when you weren’t up to your ass in mud.’

‘That Bliss,’ Lol said. ‘So discreet, it’s a wonder he never made the Special Branch.’ Behind him, Simon’s cello glided over the chasm left by Moira’s voice after the verse where the messenger climbed down from his horse and the night was in his eyes.

So in the afternoon I went on down to the village hall,’ Sam said. ‘They have a community computer room there, courtesy of Mr Cody, and I started to search the Web, and, hey, there you were, boy, all over the show – folks saying how come this guy is a footnote to so many other people’s careers? Where’d he go? Folks all over the world – America, Australia – asking questions about Lol Robinson.’

‘But you didn’t just ring up to scare me.’

Sam laughed. ‘Which, I concede, is the good side of the Web – people talking to each other, sharing enthusiasms. The payback, however, in phone lines, in power, that’s bad, bad, bad. But even a dangerous crank and a madman such as myself has to compromise sometimes… which is how I wound up at Ross Records, and they didn’t have the Hazey Jane albums, but they did have this collection by Norma Waterstone, with “The Baker’s Lament”. And… well, the up and down of it is, you’re good, boy. You… are… good.’

Lol was confused. ‘Thanks. That’s kind of you, but—’

‘I like how you write what are essentially new folk songs. “The Baker’s Lament”, that’s a new song sounds like it’s been around for ever till you really listen to the words, discover it’s a new take on an old theme, and it packs a strong message about what is happening to the countryside. So, the upshot, I wound up buying this Norma Waterstone album.’

‘Er… Waterson,’ Lol said.

‘Some voice, huh? Played it four times last night, used up all of my power ration. Listen, I’m gonna come to the point, Lol. You’re a guy feels strongly about the destruction of the country. You know my take on all that – and the power lines. But you don’t know it all. There is so… much… more.’

‘Well, I’m sure—’

‘And, listen, I don’t mean worldwide, I mean here. I’m talking Underhowle, I’m talking Lodge and I’m talking Melanie Pullman. I talk about this the whole time, and nobody listens to me ’cause I’m this old crank, this lunatic with a chip. I’m the fool on the goddam hill, man, and nobody listens. Wanna cut me off now?’

‘Go on,’ Lol said.

‘You wanna cut me off, you cut me off. Everybody cuts me off sometime. Anyhow, after the boy died the other night, I listened to all my neighbours walking home saying how it was all for the best, save the taxpayers having to keep him in jail for the rest of his miserable life, and I’m thinking, Hell, am I the only person in this whole village sees this as some kind of a tragedy? I’m always saying that – am I the only person in this whole valley knows what’s happening to us all? Anyhow, this time I went home and I started to write myself a poem. Sat up the whole night to finish it – a two-candle poem. And when Bliss told me about you, I started thinking, hey, this is more than coincidence. This is meant to be.’

Not one of Lol’s favourite phrases. Meant to be was a trap.

‘I’m gonna ask you straight out,’ Sam said, ‘I like to be direct. If there’s any way at all that you could find the time to turn this poem into a song – well, I don’t have the money to pay you, but you could keep the song, if you liked the idea. And the cause is good. It’s a world issue and a big one. It’s what my life’s been building towards.’ Sam paused. ‘You still there, boy? You hung up on me yet?’

When Eirion called, Jane was lying on her bed with Ethel the cat and a paperback. As soon as she heard his voice, she thrust the book under the pillow, as if he could see it down the line.

Eirion said, ‘I’m afraid I have to tell you she seems genuine, Jane. There is like no dirt at all on Jenny Driscoll – not on the Net anyway, and I searched hard. In fact, what I’ve read I rather like.’

Jane thought that, with this unnatural thing he was developing for once-good-looking old ladies, his opinion was hardly to be trusted, but she didn’t say anything.

‘Do you want to know now?’ Eirion said. ‘Or shall I print some of it out and fax it over or something?’

‘Can you give it to me potted? I’ll stop you if anything sounds interesting.’

OK.’ Eirion cleared his throat and started to enunciate like it was the voice-over on a TV biog. ‘She was born in County Wicklow into a respectable lower-middle-class family. Father was the manager of a small soft-drinks business. As a teenager, Jenny apparently got itchy feet and sent her picture to a model agency with an office in Dublin. It turned out she had the kind of looks that appealed at the time, and she wound up in London within a year. Someone said she “looked like a girl who bruised easily”. Evidently a famous quote. This was the post-punk New Romantic era, apparently. Terrible clothes, terrible music. And this element of sadomasochism.’

‘Mum was there – I’ve seen the pictures. She was briefly into Goth.’

‘Yes,’ Eirion said thoughtfully, ‘I know.’

Lewis…’ Jane gave it serious menace. ‘Kill that fantasy right now.’

Eirion chuckled.

‘OK, so New Romantic.’ Jane knew some of this, but there might be something new.

‘But romantic in a kind of besmirched way,’ Eirion said. ‘Because she looked so vulnerable, they were putting her into these Vivienne Westwood type of things, so that she came across like some kind of teenage streetwalker. Smudged lip gloss and mascara with dribbles, like she’d been crying. Tarnished before her time, you know? It was all a little bit pervy, I suspect.’

‘I’m so glad you recognize it.’

She seems to have recognized it, anyway,’ Eirion said. ‘She suddenly packed in modelling at the height of her career, washed off all the make-up and got a job in children’s television, on the production side.’

‘How saintly.’

‘Where she was soon found to have an aptitude for presenting.’

‘What do you know?’

‘And kids liked her because she still had this faintly risqué ‘reputation, so in no time she’s presenting this cult teenage show – she was out of her teens by then, but she didn’t look it. And she eventually became quite popular with parents and older people because there was obviously a genuinely nice person underneath. And, as she got older, she resurfaced, presenting these lifestyle kind of shows – this is the mid- to late nineties, when she was also offered a column on one of the papers – could’ve been the Mail or the Express, I forget, but that was how she met her husband, Gareth Box. A journalist.’

‘Wrote the column for her?’

‘Do you have to be disparaging all the time?’ Eirion said. ‘Box was an assistant editor in charge of features or something but, since she was making so much more money than him, he seems to have packed that in soon after they got married, to manage her career. Maybe she was being exploited.’

‘Hmm,’ Jane said sceptically.

‘Anyway, this was when private TV production was really taking off, and Jenny and her husband came a long way very rapidly and started creating these home make-over type of programmes, with heavy emphasis on feng shui – there was a series for Channel Four which I remember seeing a couple of and it was actually pretty good. And that was when they set up this shop called Vestalia, which very rapidly became a chain and seems to be worth… well, a lot of money.’

‘Never put a foot wrong, then.’

‘But then she backed out of the spotlight.’

‘Or she saw when the spotlight was about to move on. Or they were making so much money that she didn’t need all that bullshit any more.’

‘There was some speculation at this time that the marriage was cracking up,’ Eirion said, ‘although she was never linked with anyone else.’

‘Staying together for the sake of the business?’

‘I don’t know, Jane. They were worth quite a lot by then, because Vestalia was into major cities, and also changing direction. One article I found, from the Telegraph, at the end of last year, was about how she was increasingly into personal development and meditation and spirituality, and he wasn’t particularly, but he went along with it. And it was then that the shops started to really specialize in creating a spiritual home environment. They’d stopped using the phrase feng shui, though, because that was seen as a passing fad.’

‘This is quite good, actually,’ Jane said. ‘We’re getting closer.’

In fact, this was moving nicely in the direction of home chapels.

She slid the paperback book out from under the pillow. It was called Working with Angels, Fairies and Nature Spirits. About a year ago – OK, she would admit this – she’d been finding it seriously inspirational, entirely sensible in its evocation of a complex world with all these different layers of existence, all these forces and incorporeal intelligences you could call on to improve and focus your own life.

Now, however, as a more balanced person, she was simply consulting the book to establish where the Box woman was coming from. Obviously, it helped that not too long ago Jane herself had been just as loopy, but there was method in Jenny’s particular madness; her so-called spiritual development always seemed to run parallel with an increase in material wealth.

The bottom line: this didn’t sound like a woman who gave away eighty grand without some underlying purpose unconnected with her immortal soul.

‘You actually did OK here, Irene.’

‘How very kind,’ Eirion said.

‘No, really, I mean… thanks.’

Maybe she and Eirion, approaching this from different directions – his investigative skills, her background esoteric knowledge – could nail the duplicitous bitch to the wall before Mum got stitched up.

‘What do you do now? How do you respond to this?’ Prof Levin advanced on Lol across the studio floor. ‘What you do now, Laurence, is not respond. That is, you decline… rapido. Because the one thing you, of all people, do not need at this stage is to get in with crazies. So what you do is you call him back and you put it very politely and very firmly. You don’t ask any more questions, you resist all his attempts to make you read the lyric, and you never ever write a song or the merest line of a song that reflects this proposed theme in any way.’

‘Except…’ Lol backed up against the glass-sided recording booth, ‘I kind of—’

‘You then make sure to avoid having dealings of any kind with this person, ever again.’

‘Only I kind of like him,’ Lol said.

‘Jesus.’ Prof feigned an intention to put his foot through the golden weave fronting the Guild Acoustic amp. ‘Of course you liked him. These people, they’re oh so very nice and humble and they tell you you’re Lennon and Dylan and Paul Simon all rolled into one, and they would consider it an honour to, in some small way, serve your art. Pah! Two years later, five, ten… whenever it seems like you’re finally doing OK for yourself, along comes the exceedingly unfriendly letter from their lawyer.’

‘He actually dealt with that,’ Lol said. ‘He said he was prepared to sign the whole thing over to me. Draw up whatever document you like, he said, and I’ll sign it. He said this wasn’t about money.’

‘Laurence, everything, at some stage, is about money. However, this is your funeral.’ Prof turned away, shaking his head, and mooched off towards the kitchen and his cappuccino machine. ‘Make it a noisy one.’

When he’d gone, Moira Cairns leaned back against the outside wall of the recording booth. She wore very tight jeans and a black top, her hair loosely tied behind with a crimson ribbon.

‘So,’ she said, ‘what is the great world issue this guy feels so strongly about?’

‘Electricity,’ Lol said. ‘Pylons, dangers of.’

‘Ah. So this would be a person you met at the, ah, execution.’ Moira came to sit on the amp opposite. ‘Tell me about it. Where’s the guy coming from exactly?’

‘Strong aura of old hippy,’ Lol said. ‘He’s very proud that some elements in the US government and the power companies were glad to get him off their backs. He talks about extensive scientific research linking overhead power lines with everything from brain tumours to leukaemia clusters – research that is constantly ignored.’

‘There’ll be background. There always is.’

Lol told her that Sam Hall appeared to live in a remote cabin on Howle Hill, generating his own electricity with a windmill while putting pressure on the power companies if not exactly to accept responsibility for all the health damage then at least to run more cables underground in rural areas.

‘He says he’s a crank and a loony and proud of it, and he admits to propositioning anyone he thinks might be able to publicize the cause. He says that seeing Lodge dying up there traumatized him into action – again. I mean, if he was asking Bruce Springsteen or Sting to write a song about it…’

Moira put her head on one side. ‘Perhaps he doesnae know Sting and Springsteen. Listen, loony or not, I wouldnae quarrel with the sentiments – I hate those things. There has to be a better way.’

‘Going round with Gomer, I got to see the whole valley. On environmental grounds alone, I’d like to help. Assuming he’s on the level. I mean, we don’t get to do much for anybody, do we, in this business? Not like some people.’

‘Not like your wee friend the Reverend, huh?’ Moira smiled. Lol stared at her in dismay. People always said she was psychic; they didn’t say she had the ability to uncover the hidden motives you hadn’t even admitted to yourself.

‘It’s so charming, the way you blush,’ Moira said. ‘So few guys today can still do that. Laurence, it’s perfectly fine for you to wannae be involved with the stuff in her life. Like I said the other night, a guy who understands the nature of madness…’

He let out a shallow, baffled sigh. ‘There was something else. It was when I was standing there watching this man climbing up towards… eternity. Knowing how it was going to end. And getting a strong feeling of people wanting it to happen.’

‘What, like the audience at the Colosseum or somewhere, willing the emperor to give the thumbs-down to the gladiator who came second?’

‘I don’t know. It was like there was something there to be… understood.’

‘What did you arrange with this guy?’

‘He said come and see him sometime. “Bring your lady,” he said.’

‘Will she go with you?’

‘I… can’t see her having time.’

‘Tell you what.’ Moira stood up. ‘Suppose I were to tag along, check out this guy. I can be quite intuitive, you know? That wouldnae bother you, if I came along?’

‘No, that would be—’

‘Call him, then.’

‘I can’t call him. He doesn’t have a phone. You leave a message for him at the village hall, and he calls you back. There are lots of things he doesn’t have.’

‘Interesting,’ Moira said.

23

Nothing But the Night

‘THE WIFE,’ Bliss said, ‘Kirsty…’ Shovelling a third sugar into his coffee, letting the spoon clang on the tabletop. ‘Aw, it’s dead difficult, Merrily, this personal shite.’

The first thing she’d noticed was that he hadn’t shaved. This wasn’t Frannie. Frannie was dapper, Frannie was tidy.

He drank some of the coffee, made a face.

‘I mean, I’ve gorra say I never really wanted a wife. In some ways it was that simple.’

Merrily rolled her eyes.

‘The police… It’s like you either go at it firing on all four cylinders, day and night, or it’s just a… just a job. Me, I never wanted just work. I’m like you, it had to be a vocation, a calling – and there was never gonna be a wife, not till I was pushing forty anyway, and I certainly never wanted kids.’ There were tears in his eyes now. ‘Needy little twats.’

‘Have you had anything proper to eat, Frannie?’ Merrily asked. He’d told her on the square that he’d give her an hour or so to get changed, get sorted – meaning get Jane out of the way, she guessed – and then he’d come and see her, if that was all right.

‘Nothing for me, thanks.’ He put up both hands. ‘Kirsty… she used to make me take a flamin’ yoghurt to work. She doesn’t bother any more. I miss that.’

He looked out of the window towards the ragged apple trees. There was silence, not even the mouse-scratch of Jane listening behind the door to the hall. Perhaps, Merrily thought, she’d grown out of that and therefore really had gone up to her apartment after lunch. She’d be back at school tomorrow.

‘So she’s a local girl,’ Merrily said. ‘Kirsty.’

‘Shit on her shoes soon as she could walk.’ Bliss made a desolate face. ‘All her family’s sunk into these bloody dead-end farms, all within about ten miles – ma and pa and her old bloody gran and about six thousand aunties. Jesus, they look so normal when you first meet them, country girls. She worked in the fashion department at Chadd’s. She was… very chic. So anyway, that’s why I’m still out here, chasing sheep-shaggers. Before we got married, West Mercia was gonna be strictly short-term. I was looking towards – I dunno…’

‘The Met?’

‘Yeh, maybe the Met. Or even back to Merseyside, with a bit of rank to stand on. But Kirsty, she’d just die in a big city, just curl up and… I’m not kidding, I’m not exaggerating.’

‘I know.’

‘I hate that in her. It’s not how wives are supposed to be, is it? She’s supposed to want to follow me to the ends of… wherever.’

‘Except that wherever you go, you’ve always got your family around you,’ Merrily said. ‘Because your family’s coppers – the Job. And she knows that. And she knows that if she’s stuck in some city suburb and all she has is you and you’re not there half the time…’

‘Very slick, Reverend. Very psychologically acute.’

‘True, though?’

‘Probably,’ Bliss said.

‘Tell me if this is not what you came for. I mean, you could always go to your long-suffering priest for five Hail Marys and a—’

‘Yeh, all right, it’s what I came for. Shuffling round the village square like a stray dog on a Sunday morning. It’s finally come to this.’

Merrily poured herself some black tea. ‘So you made a martyr of yourself. You put your career on the back shelf for love.’

‘Tugging me forelock to fast-track floozies like Annie Howe. Grovelling on me knees to po-faced jobsworth gits like Fleming. Listen, I might not be university-educated, Merrily, but I was doing all right. I’ve had… approaches, you know? You get enough results, it’s still possible to make your own fast track.’

‘Until you fall off it.’

‘Yeh.’ Bliss looked at her. ‘You fall off, you go down the flamin’ embankment so fast, you break both legs. So I’ve gorra simple choice: stay here and rot in an office or bugger off. What a waste. Either way, what a fuckin’ waste.’

‘OK.’ Merrily reached for her cigarettes. ‘Let’s look at the facts. After what happened in Underhowle, this Luke Fleming comes over from Headquarters and decides that you mishandled the case from the start. If you hadn’t kept it all to yourself, played all these wild cards, including Gomer, Roddy Lodge would be safely tucked up in his cell instead of on the slab.’

‘I took a risk.’ Bliss leaned on an elbow, hand cupped around his unshaven jaw. ‘Several risks.’

‘Even I could’ve told you that.’

‘You did.’

‘Mmm, well…’

When you thought about it, he was actually lucky his conduct hadn’t been the subject of an internal inquiry. In fact, with an inquest pending, he wasn’t out of the disciplinary shadows yet.

And yet Merrily couldn’t help thinking that the last time she’d been aware of him bending the rules was when, last summer, he’d passed information to Lol that might well have prevented Annie Howe hanging her out to dry on a very public washing line. Did she still owe him? Did it matter, anyway?

‘I mean, it could have been worse, Frannie.’

‘Suspended. Bumped down to sergeant But that would’ve been a public admission that we fucked up. Still comes down to the fact that I’ve no future in West Mercia now, and the normal thing would be to go on the transfer list. And we know what that means.’

Have you asked her?’

‘Indirectly. We had a big row last night. Ended with me driving off and sleeping in the car. My fault… as usual. When the job’s going well, I’m not there; when it’s not, I’m there but I’m flamin’ unbearable. I could stay on in Hereford, work me shifts, gradually mature into the mellow – but secretly bitter and twisted – old DI who lets the youngsters buy him pints and passes on his wisdom.’

‘How would it be if I had a chat to Kirsty?’

‘And let her know I’ve been telling yer all this? Look… I’ve gorra fair bit of leave owing, as you can imagine. It’s been suggested that I take it now. Kirsty thought it might be a good idea if we left the kids with her ma and went away for a week to try and get ourselves sorted.’

That was a very good idea, Merrily thought.

‘That was what the row was about,’ Bliss said.

Merrily closed her eyes in despair. ‘Oh, Frannie, you clown.’

‘I can’t leave it like this, Merrily. I’ve gorra know.’

‘Know what, for heaven’s sake?’

‘If I was right!’ Bliss leaned heavily on the table, spilling sugar, making his mug and spoon rattle. ‘You know what they’re saying now? You know what Fleming’s saying? He’s saying that what we’re looking at with Roddy Lodge is a one- off, bog-standard, common-as-muck domestic. That he strangled his girlfriend during a drunken barney, figuring he could cover it up with no fuss, but when we pulled him, being the kind of cocky sod he was, he gets carried away with the big-killer image. That was Fleming’s first assessment of the situation. In other words, he’s saying Roddy Lodge, serial killer, was created by me.’

‘Oh.’

‘And then he talks to Roddy’s GP, and then he consults Moffat, the forensic shrink who confirms that Roddy was exhibiting absolutely classic symptoms of advanced manic depression. You see where that’s going?’

‘It…’ Merrily hesitated. Lol would know for sure, but she had ‘a good idea, and it fitted all too well. ‘They lie, don’t they?’ she said glumly. ‘Manic-depressives lie on an industrial scale.’

‘Exactly.’ Bliss smiled icily. ‘In the manic phase, they may tell extravagant lies, which can be very convincing because they half believe it themselves. If it isn’t the truth, they believe it ought to be. In other words, they boast about things they haven’t actually done.’

I done tanks for all the nobs all over the Three Counties and down into Wales. I done Prince Charles’s fuckin’ sewage over at Highgrove.

Bliss said, ‘Fleming’s pointing to one thing in particular that Roddy came out with when he was up the pylon. He said he was gonna kill Madonna – we have all this on tape, of course, thanks to some local smart-arse with a video camera. You yourself said he claimed to have done Madonna’s drainage in the Cotswolds. And of course, Madonna doesn’t even live in the Cotswolds – he got that wrong. Her place is down in bloody Somerset or somewhere. Roddy Lodge never got closer to Madonna than pictures in the News of the World.’

‘But what about the other two? Melanie Pullman and the girl from Monmouth.’

‘They’re saying I offered those names to him and he went for them with his tongue out. They say my style of questioning was antiquated and inept, given that we’ve no proof that either of the women are even dead. To deal with it once and for all, Fleming’s hired another firm with five diggers. They’d excavated about fifteen more Efflapures by yesterday.’

‘Nothing?’

He didn’t even answer. Merrily didn’t know what to say. If Roddy Lodge in fact hadn’t been a serial killer at all, if there weren’t any more bodies buried, then that was surely the best possible outcome… except that Frannie would be seen as an ambitious but misguided detective who’d driven a man to his death – a man who, if hardly innocent, was certainly guilty on a far lesser scale than… Oh hell.

Bliss put his hands behind his head and stretched out his legs, talking flat-voiced to the ceiling.

The last thing Fleming said, yesterday afternoon, was that if I’d suggested to Roddy that he’d killed Lord Lucan’s nanny he’d have gone for that, too. He said I was dangerously naive. He said that in my craving for fame and glory, I was probably only slightly less manic than Lodge himself. He said the combustible combination of Lodge and me had created something it was gonna take West Mercia a long time to live down. He said – finally, he said that if he didn’t see me again for the rest of his career he’d consider himself a very fortunate man.’

His hands fell away from his head and he slumped in his chair, his lips compressed into the kind of smile you put on to ward off weeping. He didn’t need a Catholic priest; this was his confession. Merrily wondered if he’d told any of it to his wife; she feared not.

‘Which I thought spelled it out very nicely,’ he said after a while. ‘Pastures new, Frannie, and don’t expect a reference.’

She didn’t even like to ask what Fleming was saying about the incineration, allegedly by Lodge, of Nevin Parry.

Bliss stood up and walked across to the window. ‘Another option, of course, is for me to quit the Service altogether.’

‘Frannie, this is just one man. He might move on himself.’

‘Doesn’t matter. Marked me card now. No, I’ll do exactly as advised: take two weeks off. Use them as best I can.’ He turned away from the window and came up to where she was sitting. She could smell dried sweat on him. She could smell anxiety and frustration, a toxic mix. ‘I’m telling you he did it, Merrily. He did Melanie Pullman and he did Rochelle Bowen. And maybe some more. I could see it in his eyes, I could feel it in me chest. Somewhere, there are bodies.’

‘Oh.’ It was what she’d been afraid of. If the maverick loner cop was history, the suspended cop determined to clear his name was movie history. Anyway, Frannie’s situation was, in a way, worse than suspension: his conduct would not be investigated, the investigation would simply continue without him. An investigation that was no more now than a tying-up of loose ends. Nobody was in danger; the beast was dead, and perhaps he hadn’t been that much of a beast after all.

‘I’m gonna find them, Merrily.’

‘What – commandeer Gomer and Lol again?’

‘I’d pay them.’

‘Frannie, you’re bonkers. You don’t even have anything to go on, do you? You wouldn’t know where to start.’

‘Well, I would, actually,’ Bliss said. ‘If, for instance, we talk about the piccies on the walls—’

‘Part of his fantasy. Despite all this chatting up in pubs, making a fool of himself when he was in his manic phases, he was actually afraid of real live women; he only felt truly safe with dead ones.’

‘Aw, you’re just—’

‘I’m just saying what the shrink’s going to say. I don’t recall you had much to say about Lodge throwing his weight around in the police station. Subdued… uncommunicative… sick… didn’t want to leave his cell. “Hunched up into himself” – I think that’s what your phrase was at the time. The word depressive somehow springs to mind.’

‘All right, then.’ Bliss sat down again. ‘Let’s go back. Put yourself back in that bedroom for a minute. Look at the bed with the nasty black sheets. Sniff the air. Now look at the pictures in half-light from the low-wattage bulbs, so that they’re not like pictures any more; they’re actual shadowy women, right there in the room with you. Flickering about. Moving in the dark. And you know they’re all dead.’

‘But he didn’t kill them.’

‘Tell me you couldn’t feel the evil in there, Merrily. Tell me you couldn’t feel it. As a priest.’

‘I don’t… I don’t know what I felt.’

‘I know what I felt.’

‘It still doesn’t make too much sense, Frannie. You don’t have any kind of scenario for Roddy Lodge as a mass murderer. You don’t even know why and in what circumstances he killed Lynsey Davies, do you? What happens if you don’t find anything to support the theory you don’t yet have? What happens if you go blundering about and you don’t find anything at all?’

Merrily—’

‘I seriously think you should follow Kirsty’s suggestion and go on holiday somewhere quiet and uncomplicated with good food, nice views and room service, and spend a lot of time talking to one another. She’s throwing you a lifeline, if you could only see it. At the end of the week, if you play your cards right, who knows how the situation might’ve changed? I mean, I’d be the first to miss your famous scowl around the place if you went back to Merseyside, but—’

‘Merrily, I do have a scenario.’

‘What?’

‘Lol tell you about the attaché case? The one Gomer dug up just behind Roddy’s bungalow before he went up the pylon like a monkey?’

‘Possibly. I—’

‘Stay there.’ Bliss stood up. ‘Don’t go away.’

Bliss didn’t have the actual case any more. The case had gone to the lab.

It had been so lightweight that they’d thought at first it was empty, he said. He didn’t have the stained and crumpled newspaper cuttings that had subsequently been found inside, either, but he did have photocopies, and if she’d give him a minute he’d fetch them from his car on the square.

This just doesn’t go away, she thought. Why doesn’t it go away?

When he returned, she saw that the old briskness was back, his caffeine eyes burning through the fatigue.

‘Whatever this is, should you be showing it to me?’

‘Merrily, I shouldn’t even’ve taken the copies away. Who gives a shit?’

He dropped the A4 buff envelope on the kitchen table and slid out a stack of papers. He spread them. Merrily recoiled.

Headlines snarling, headlines pleading, headlines shouting outrage, black on white, hard and contrasty and unremittingly ugly.

IN THE DEPTHS OF EVIL

THE PREDATORS

THEY GREW INTO MONSTERS

A LETHAL LUST

‘I don’t understand.’ Even though they were only copies of copies of old newspapers, she didn’t like to touch them. A low cloud of black-flecked smog was almost visible above the heap. Bliss fiddled about in the papers and brought out one with a font that looked, among the rest, almost comfortingly familiar: the Hereford Times.

INQUEST ON REMAINS FOUND IN FINGERPOST

FIELD, MUCH MARCLE

‘It’s funny how many people mentioned it when we were in Underhowle,’ Bliss said. ‘We never thought. It’s only about eight miles away, Marcle, as the crow flies. Nothing really, is it?’

‘Sorry, I don’t—’

‘Much Marcle?’

‘Frannie…?’

Merrily froze up.

The table was whited out by ghastly flash-photo images: bodies under concrete in a cellar in Gloucester, police digging up red Herefordshire fields. A series of young women raped, tortured and butchered over a period of twenty years. Gloucester Council had demolished the house and talked of eradicating the name of Cromwell Street, but both Gloucester and the village of Much Marcle, in Herefordshire, would retain the memory of this man and his vicious wife for ever. An evil you couldn’t see through because there was nothing on the other side but the night.

24

On the Sofa in Roddy’s Bar

‘HOW MANY?’

‘Twelve, officially. Including his first wife and two daughters.’

‘But probably more.’

‘Oh, yeh,’ Bliss said, ‘could be a lot more. The estimates range from twenty to sixty. The little bastard kept careful count, I’m sure of that, even if he could never remember their names. Very efficient, in his way – this is what people don’t realize. Most serial killers, they relish the reputation, the drama of it, the fancy names the papers give them: The Night Stalker, all this shite. They enjoy that sense of ritual. With him, that was no big deal at all. He just had an extremely skewed sense of right and wrong. He didn’t relish being evil, because he couldn’t see himself as evil. It wasn’t a concept he understood. This is a man with a big part of him missing, and the space filled up with something black.’

‘Yes.’ Merrily was finding all this sickening, didn’t see the point, wished they were still into marriage guidance.

Bliss had hung his jacket over a chair back. Now he was unfolding one of the cuttings, flattening it out.

‘This is the important one. Not the article – the photo.’

The picture under the headline, though embellished with the smuts and smudges of hasty copying, had a feeling of formality. A flash photograph, carefully posed, of the two of them. Merrily was sure she must have seen it before.

Even if you didn’t know who he was and what he’d done – what they’d both done – you would automatically have given him an identity: maybe the one-time randy paper boy grinning over his handlebars, grown now into the backstreet grease monkey who would guarantee to get your banger through its MOT for twenty in hand or – Seeing it’s you, my love – a tenner and a kiss.

Frederick West, in suit and shirt and tie, was leaning over the back of a sofa that had floral cushions. Behind him was a photomural of mountains and fir trees. Fred’s hands were resting around the shoulders of the woman sitting on the sofa – plump, mumsie Rosemary, his wife. Fred looked like he’d rather be doing something else to her; Rose looked happy about that.

Two big smiles for the camera, four eyes alight with twisted love and shared memories of dead girls.

‘Oh, it was an eye-opener for all of us, no denying that,’ Bliss said. ‘It shocked us out of our provincial complacency, Merrily. It actually shocked coppers.’

‘Look, I…’ She pushed the paper away; West wore a grin that could sear your dreams. ‘Maybe I should’ve read more about it at the time, but I couldn’t face it. When was it – ninety-five? I wasn’t here then. And I still had… some other problems, personal.’

‘I had nothing to do with him meself,’ Bliss admitted. ‘I’d not been down here long – still a DC when they were digging at Marcle. It was a couple of years later when I was in a pub with a sergeant from Gloucester, who once escorted West to a remand hearing, and this guy, he said that the worst thing of all, the very worst thing, was that you could actually get on well with him. One of the lads, good for a laugh. Of course you’d hire him to install your new bathroom – why not?’

‘And leave him alone with your wife while you were at work?’

Bliss inhaled through clamped teeth. ‘It’s easy to go through all the pictures now and say, yeh, you can tell straight off he’s an evil bastard. But if you didn’t know… I mean, look at him – an imp, a troll. Where’s the serious harm in him?’

Merrily chose not to look, for the moment. It hadn’t even registered at the time that he was a Herefordshire man. He was always ‘the Gloucester mass-murderer’ because that was where he lived, operating as a self-employed builder out of a tall terraced house in Cromwell Street. The house where Fred had promoted Rose as a willing prostitute, watching her doing it with other men, especially black men. Where the Wests had rented out rooms to young people who didn’t take too much luring into sex. And where the police had found most of the bodies of women and girls – buried in the garden or concreted into the cellar. Frederick West who lived for sex – and then killing became part of it. Fred West, the lust murderer, and Rose, his all-too-complicit wife.

But the killing had started long before Fred and Rose moved to Cromwell Street. It had started when he was a Herefordshire country boy, born and bred less than thirty miles from Ledwardine and only a ten-minute drive from Underhowle. This was where the police had gone next, after Cromwell Street, discovering that the roots of the evil lay deep in Hereford red soil – something Bliss now kept emphasizing.

‘I remember when the lads came back from Marcle. After they found the first body in the Fingerpost field. Probably his first victim, Ann McFall – tied up and strangled, stabbed… butchered. Here.’ His fingertips pressing into the pine top of the kitchen table. ‘A feller who grew up among farms, worked for a slaughterhouse. In the country, where—’

‘Where everybody killed, yeah. You keep saying that.’

And buried the bodies. To West it was no different from disposing of a dead ewe. He cut them up for more efficient burial. Efficiency – that was the only ritual for Fred. An efficient workman. An efficient workman always makes good afterwards. Is it really such a big step? I mean, if you can kill and butcher an animal, you’ve got over the queasy part, haven’t you? Only the morality of it left to deal with. And he didn’t have any of that, anyway.’

‘Frannie, can we just get to the point?’ Merrily felt jittery, like a child who couldn’t swim, standing on the edge of a frozen pond and watching a friend skating enthusiastically towards the centre. ‘He’s dead. He hanged himself in Winson Green prison while awaiting trial, and his wife’s serving life for her part in the murders.’ She pulled her cigarettes towards her. ‘And Jane will be coming down for tea very soon and when she does I really would like not to be discussing this stuff. Get to the point.’

‘You know the point. These selected articles were in an attaché case buried in what would have been Roddy Lodge’s back garden, if he’d been of a horticultural bent.’

‘And are they – Fleming, the SOCOs – entirely sure that Lodge was the one who buried them?’

Bliss sniffed. ‘I don’t know what they think. They’re not telling me things any more. But I’m sure. And I’m asking meself, Why? Why did he bury them? Why didn’t he just burn them if he wanted to get rid of them?’

‘Was that all there was in the case – the cuttings?’

‘No. This is it. This is the point. There was one other thing – one photo which, to my great sorrow, I didn’t have time to copy.’

‘Of?’

‘So I can’t show yer it. But you’ve already seen it, in a way. It’s a happy snap of Roddy and Lynsey. In Roddy’s Bar. You remember Roddy’s Bar?’

‘In his bungalow? Neon sign, optics, tall stools, leather suite, copies of Loaded.’

‘The same. What this photo shows is Lynsey on the sofa in a nice red dress and Roddy in his suit and tie leaning over her from behind, like he’s dying to start pawing. Got his back to the bullfight poster. Smiling for the camera. Geddit? Identical pose to the famous shot of Fred and Rose.’

‘I may be starting to feel sick,’ Merrily said.

‘Well, hold on to it a bit longer.’ Frannie Bliss went over to his jacket and dug an envelope from an inside pocket. ‘Now then, I’ve gorra cutting of me own here. Andy Mumford put me on to this. Good memory, Andy.’

Bliss laid the paper in front of Merrily. It was from the Daily Telegraph, dated 5 December 1996.

LIFE FOR KILLER WHO COPIED THE WESTS

‘Frannie…’

‘No, read it first.’

It was the report of the trial at Cardiff Crown Court of a man from South Wales known as Black Dai because of his preference for black clothing. In 1996 he was thirty-two, a car thief who’d never had a proper job. He was obsessed with Fred and Rose West.

‘Oh God.’

Bliss said nothing. He sat down again. The phone rang in the scullery; Merrily let the machine take it.

She read that the prosecution had told the court how Black Dai had suggested to his girlfriend that ‘just like the Wests, they could travel the country, pick up girls, have sex with them and torture them’.

No. Merrily took out a cigarette then pushed it back into the packet.

The girlfriend had thought it was ‘just fantasy on his part’. Until Black Dai abducted a young woman from a pub disco in Maesteg, Glamorgan, and subsequently drove her sixty miles to Herefordshire, where he beat her to death with a wheel brace and dumped her body in woodland at a place called Witches Fell, at Symonds Yat.

Symonds Yat: just a few miles outside Ross-on-Wye. Five miles from Underhowle.

Black Dai got put away for life.

‘And I keep thinking what a great pity it was,’ Frannie Bliss said, ‘that we were prevented by a green young lawyer from letting you and Roddy have your little chat.’

‘And what do you think he’d have told me that he didn’t tell the entire population of Underhowle?’

If he’d opened up to you, we might not even’ve needed to take him out to Underhowle, Merrily. I’m thinking of when Gloucester pulled West in, and he was leading them a bit of a dance, until a woman social worker was brought in to look after his welfare while on remand. Seems she looked a bit like Ann McFall, the first victim, his first love – the words “love” and “victim” tended to be synonymous in Fred’s world – and pretty soon he was telling her everything. Out it came: possibly the full body count. No more ever found, but still…’

Merrily jerked upright. ‘That’s why you set me up for it?’

‘No. Honestly, swear to God, I had no idea then. Never even thought about West. And no, don’t worry, you don’t look remotely like Lynsey. She was twice as big as you, for a start.’

She had a flashback then to her one contact with Lynsey Davies, the nauseous blast of human decay from under a tarpaulin, a stench like a howl of pain and outrage. She pulled out the cigarette again.

‘Lynsey, however,’ Bliss said, ‘did look more than a bit like Rose. Bit bigger maybe – taller. But buxom.’

Merrily lit the cigarette. ‘You’re saying that Roddy saw her as his Rose-figure. That he saw the two of them as…’

‘Can’t say there’s no solid precedent for it, can you?’

‘Yes, but when you look at all the women Fred West killed and the one he didn’t kill…’

‘That’s because Rose was what she was.’

‘His soulmate – if he had a soul.’

‘And also found guilty of ten murders,’ Bliss pointed out. ‘And now in prison with a recommendation from the judge that she should never be released. Talk about star-crossed lovers – when you start to ask yourself what the chances are of two people that depraved finding each other within a small area of rural England…’

‘Yes.’ The aura of an almost alien abnormality lit the image of Fred and Rose, two people who’d formed into something that lived for physical gratification in its most twisted and degraded forms, mixing other lives at random into the bubbling sexual soup.

‘Lynsey might’ve put it about over the years,’ Bliss said, ‘and she might not’ve been on the shortlist for the Mothercare Trophy. But my guess is that when she posed for that picture she wasn’t aware of the true significance. So when she did become aware that she was posing as Rosemary West – well, how would you react?’

‘You’re saying he killed her because she found out and was threatening to shop him?’

‘Probably. We don’t know. We probably never will know.’

‘Who took the picture?’

‘Automatic exposure, I should think. There were two SLR cameras around the place, and a camcorder in the car. Lodge liked gadgets, just like Fred did. On the other hand, Roddy was different from Fred. He boasted more. Fred was talkative, but Roddy was loud. Yeh, it’s possible he got somebody else to take the picture – flaunting it a bit.’

‘Frannie, why did he go up that pylon?’

‘There was nowhere else to go. We’d got men on all the possible exits, he knew that. Maybe he stupidly thought we wouldn’t spot him up there in his orange overalls, and he could wait till we’d gone. He’d been up the pylon before, I reckon – somebody’d cut away the barbed wire they bind around the legs. Maybe he used to go up them as a kid. Like kids do – for a dare.’

‘You don’t think he intended to die?’

‘No, I don’t. I think he saw himself as invulnerable. Merrily, look, what I wanted to ask you… why do you think he buried all these West cuttings – together with the picture of him and Lynsey as Fred and Rose? If he was suddenly worried about them being found, why didn’t he just set fire to the lot? He was good at fire, if we accept Gomer’s viewpoint.’

‘Well, he didn’t get rid of the pictures of women in the bedroom, did he? What do Superintendent Fleming and his pet psychiatrist think?’

‘We didn’t exactly get around to discussing it.’

Merrily shook her head slowly. ‘I don’t know, Frannie. I mean, you’ve established that he did have some kind of West fantasy, although how far he took it none of us can say for certain. As you say, if he wanted to put all that behind him, burning would be a quicker and safer option. Sealing the picture, together with the news cuttings, in the case – making it absolutely clear, by the context, what that picture was meant to convey – seems more of a… an affirmation, I suppose.’

She found herself thinking of Gomer who, when Minnie had died, had buried both their watches, with new batteries, in her grave.

‘Go on,’ Bliss said.

‘Like it’s a way of binding them all together. Fred and Rose and Lynsey and Roddy.’

‘Binding together how?’

‘Sealed up together, underground. I don’t know.’

‘You see, he took us back there, leading us to think we were gonna find bodies. And there are no bodies buried there – only this little case, which Gomer found in the end, making Roddy bloody furious. And it was shortly after that that he did a runner.’

‘Perhaps that case was more important to him than bodies.’

‘He took us back to uncover something and then when we got there he changed his mind. What’s that tell us?’

‘Tells us he wasn’t thinking straight, Frannie. Look, I…’ Merrily didn’t see how she could help Bliss any more. From where he was sitting, his future in the police service depended on proving that he’d been right from the beginning about Roddy Lodge. It depended on finding bodies.

Bliss stood up, put on his jacket. ‘Well, thanks, Merrily. You’re a pal.’

‘I haven’t done anything.’ She followed him out into the hall, where the jaded Jesus stood with his lantern.

At the door, Frannie Bliss turned. ‘Fred and Roddy. Two self-employed contractors, who pride themselves on being methodical, efficient in what they do…’ Under the light, with those freckles, he looked like a schoolboy, and schoolboys would do anything. ‘Somewhere, Merrily, there are bodies.’

* * *

Merrily shut the front door, went back into the kitchen, reached automatically for another cigarette, then tossed the packet down and went into the scullery office, where the light was flashing on the answering machine. She pressed play.

Oh, Merrily, I’m so sorry to bother you on a Sunday, but could you ring me at home? It’s twenty past five. Thank you.’

Sophie.

She rang back. ‘Something I’ve forgotten, or something I don’t yet know about?’

‘You sound gloomy, Merrily.’

‘Just trying to untangle some things, Soph. Sorry.’

There was a short silence, and then Sophie said, ‘Merrily, I’ve been meaning to ask… Why don’t you and Laurence Robinson come for supper one night?’

‘Oh.’ She knew, of course. Nothing had ever been said, but Sophie had known maybe even before Merrily had known. ‘That’s… very kind of you.’

‘I don’t mean tonight or even this week. But sometime.’

This was Sophie reaffirming that it was OK. She was not a priest – as the Bishop’s secretary, she didn’t need to be – but Sophie lived for the Cathedral, and if you knew it was OK with Sophie there seemed no immediately obvious reason why it shouldn’t be OK in the sight of God.

‘Thank you,’ Merrily said. ‘Was that what you wanted?’

‘Oh no. That would have waited until we met. This is rather more complicated. I understand you’ve been peripherally involved in the police investigation at Underhowle, of which we’ve all been reading.’

‘Who told you about that?’ She’d never thought to inform the Bishop; perhaps she ought to have.

‘You spoke, I think, on the phone to the Reverend Jerome Banks. Who, in turn, spoke to the Bishop. In connection with the late Mr Lodge.’

‘It wasn’t an official approach.’

‘He isn’t complaining, Merrily. According to the Bishop, he seemed not ungrateful for your interest. From what I understand, Mr Lodge dead is considered no less of a problem in the parish than was Mr Lodge alive.’

‘Mr Lodge wasn’t considered a problem alive. Nobody knew about his hobby.’

‘Well, they do now, and it’s put the Reverend Banks into what he perceives as a rather difficult situation. Merrily, we do realize your involvement here had no connection with the Church and that it isn’t your parish, obviously… but the Reverend Banks did have a suggestion to make which the Bishop has asked me to put to you, and that’s what I’m doing.’

There was a movement at the door. Jane stood there, wiggling her fingers in a resigned hello again kind of way. Merrily smiled and did it back.

‘In relation to Mr Lodge,’ Sophie said, ‘I have to ask you… how you would feel about burying him?’

25

The Plague Cross

THE SKYLINE HAD broken into a lushness of wooded hills and an elegant tiered town, the River Wye fronting it like a moat. In the late afternoon, a low, unexpected sun was burning across the dual carriageway, gilding the town and its tall steeple.

Moira looked enchanted, Lol thought, as though the pattern had been laid out especially for her, the sun’s last curtain call timed for this moment. She wound down her side window.

‘Has quite a soft air, actually. That would be the sandstone walls, I’d guess.’

Lol’s geriatric Astra rattled down the side of a traffic island and then crossed a long bridge that became more like a causeway, with green parkland beside the river bank on the left, sandstone cliffs hanging over them on the right. There were no suburbs this end; you entered the town almost at its centre, expecting a fortified gateway. Instead, there was a single medieval-style round tower set into the red walls: Victorian Gothic, but it fitted.

Moira nodded approval. ‘Somebody got this place right.’

Lol glanced at her. Often, she talked like she was reacting to a sixth sense she no longer questioned. Moira had something of the threshold about her.

According to Gomer Parry, the way the council had ballsed things up only disabled taxi-drivers could be guaranteed to get parked on the street in Ross. But this was Sunday and Lol found a space close to the top of the hill, before the first shops.

He locked the car. Moira was waiting for him, leaning on a wall, peering down towards the twisting river, pulling a black woollen wrap around her shoulders. It was that time, just before the street lights came on, when the autumn air was thickening and the church, no more than a couple of streets away, seemed less solid than it had from across the river, the steeple a sepia spectre.

‘Where’s he gonnae be, this guy?’

Lol almost said, Where do you want him to be? This woman seemed to persuade things to happen. When he’d rung the village hall at Underhowle to leave a message for Sam Hall, Sam himself had answered the phone as though he’d been waiting around for Lol’s call. Sure, let’s do this right now. But let’s not do it here. Let’s meet in town. Hour and a half, say?

‘He said he’d find us in the churchyard.’ Lol looked towards the steeple, along a narrow, uphill street where everything was Sunday-silent. There was no wind, and the dusk was forming like coppery smoke around them.

And Moira said, ‘So you’re definitely up for the gig, right?’

They walked up some steps to the churchyard, their footsteps echoing from the buildings of brick and stone on either side.

‘So the offer’s still, er…’

‘Open, yeah.’ Moira, who persuaded things to happen, took his arm, hugging it to her. ‘What a difference a death makes, eh?’

Something like a pebble landed in Lol’s gut.

‘Directly under your feet,’ Sam Hall said, ‘are hundreds of dead people. Buried in their clothes – no shrouds, no coffins.’

Sam had found them at the edge of The Prospect, a plateau behind the church with a view of the river and, beyond it, twenty-five miles of darkening countryside rising to the slopes of the Black Mountains on the Welsh border.

He’d explained that there used to be a bishop’s palace up here, a second home for the bishops of Hereford who, for centuries, had been the biggest landowners hereabouts. Now The Prospect was mainly public space, a high garden sloping down to the sandstone walls and the Royal Hotel.

Moira had looked around, tossing an end of her wrap over a shoulder. ‘No sign of power lines.’

‘Oh, they’re around,’ Sam had said. ‘Come with me. I’d like to show you something.’ Turning away abruptly and setting off back along the path with a seasoned walker’s easy gait, a small knapsack hanging from his shoulder like just another crease in his plaid jacket. They went back into the churchyard under mature trees still heavy with dark foliage, where a straight path led from the church itself down towards the centre of the town.

Near the end of the path, opposite a shadowy street of houses and offices, was this stone cross on a hexagonal plinth with steps. Now Sam Hall had a foot on the lowest one.

‘This is the Plague Cross. In 1637 the Great Plague took out more than three hundred people, putting Ross into quarantine. All the trading with the outside world was done down by the bridge, and they washed the money in the river. Even the church services here were suspended. And the dead…’

Lol glanced at Moira, who was standing very still, the white streak in her black hair gleaming in the last of the light as she watched Sam climb to the third step and put a hand up to the stem of the cross.

‘The dead were buried in pits right here,’ Sam said. ‘At night. Buried, according to a local account, “in their wearing apparel”. The bodies were brought up here on carts, and dumped… while the minister stood here, right where I’m standing now, and gave the last blessings by torchlight. Can you imagine that?’

Moira said nothing. Lol thought she probably could – in full colour, with agonized suppurating faces and the stench of disease. Suddenly, in the stillness, he saw it all too, was aware of people in a state of exhaustion, beyond despair, beyond pity, beyond both fear of death and expectation of life. The images were so dense and complete that it felt as though Moira was sending them to him.

This is the same Great Plague that swept through London?’ he asked.

‘Only it came to Ross first. Prosperous-looking place, even then, but the streets were thick with filth and packs of rats. Most of the rich folk left town. But the minister stayed, to bless the sick and the dying.’ Sam turned to Moira. ‘You’d have heard of this man, maybe?’

‘Me?’

‘Name was the Reverend Price. At the height of the plague, the darkest hour, he had all the townsfolk that could make it to their feet join him in a procession – all walking with this desperate dignity through the town streets at five a.m. chanting a litany, a solemn appeal to the Lord for deliverance.’

A light came on in one of the houses across the street, making it seem darker in the churchyard.

‘And his faith was rewarded. When the sun rose that day, it was said, the plague went on the run.’ Sam Hall stepped down from the cross. ‘And you’re wondering why I’m showing you this, right? Well, see, a plague is how I think of it. The Great Plague of the Twenty-first Century. I have an engraving of this cross as the motif on my notepaper.’

‘This new plague is about power lines?’ Lol said.

‘The power towers are the enemy we can see.’ Sam stared up into the sepia sky. ‘If we could see all the TV and satellite signals, all the radio waves serving mobile phones, police communications, cab fleets, air networks, the sky would be this kind of poisonous black the whole day long. If we could smell them like exhaust fumes, we’d all choke to death. But it’s a whole lot more subtle than that. They zip unseen and unfelt through our atmosphere and through our bodies and our brains. They are the insidious wind that blows right through us all – through flesh and tissue, through bones.’

It sounded like a speech he’d made before. Sam was back on the path.

‘You’ll notice I came down off of the cross before I said all that. I’m no preacher, just a guy who seethes inside whenever ‘he sees some twelve-year-old kid in the street, calling up her pal on a piece of pink plastic that burns brains.’

‘Which is always gonnae be denied,’ Moira murmured.

‘Oh, sure. The bigger the investment, the stronger the denial. Like the electricity industry denied the report that came out of Bristol University a couple years ago linking overhead power lines to leukaemia, skin cancer, lung cancer – you name it.’

‘A plague on all humanity, huh?’

‘Sure. And we’re all of us guilty to some extent, even me. I won permission for a windmill to generate clean power for my place up on Howle Hill. I don’t have a phone, let alone a mobile. But if I want to get on the Web, I’ll still go down the hall, use one of Cody’s community computers. Act of plain hypocrisy, with the guy hell-bent on turning Underhowle into the hot spot to end all hot spots.’

‘Hot spots?’ Lol said.

‘ “Hot spot” is the term for a dangerous configuration of transmitters, pylons, what-have-you which renders an area… let’s say difficult to reside in. Cody’s computer plant came to the area on account of a development grant and a derelict site going for peanuts, and now they want to… but you know all this.’

‘I’m a stranger,’ Moira said. ‘I don’t know any of it.’

Sam Hall looked hard at her in the dimness. Moira folded her arms in her wrap.

‘We have a complex situation,’ Sam said. ‘The small industries which once built up Underhowle into a community with three, four pubs, a bunch of shops and its own school went to the wall long ago. By the mid-nineties, the shops had all gone out of business, the school was threatened with closure, and the village wasn’t pretty enough to attract the cottage-hunters from London – specially with these damn pylons like watchtowers around Belsen and Auschwitz.’

It was almost night now and growing cold. Somewhere at the back of his mind Lol could hear Prof Levin saying, The one thing you, of all people, do not need at this stage is to get in with crazies.

Biggest disease in Underhowle, when I came back from the States, was apathy,’ Sam Hall said. ‘I didn’t mind. I just wanted a place I could afford and where I’d be left alone to be a crank and a pain-in-the-ass idealist, sustain my fantasy that we could live without the goddam mains services run by fat cats who’d watch us die one by one, to stave off wasting-disease of the wallet.’

Lol wondered if Sam saw himself as the new Reverend Price, who’d chosen to live and fight in the plague hot spot.

‘At first, I was as pleased as anyone,’ Sam said, ‘when, like the recipient of a touch of magic, Underhowle began to undergo a small revival.’

Two things happened, almost simultaneously, he told them. Two new elements of growth that fed one another, two men with compatible dreams. Fergus Young, a teacher with real vision, took over a dying primary school, down to fourteen pupils. And Chris Cody, this computer whizz, brought in enough employees with young families to fill it up again.

‘I like Fergus. He’s evangelical, like me. Gave up a lot for that school – even his marriage, in the end. Hell, I even like Chris. Fergus knows how to inspire kids, he was getting incredible results very quickly, but I guess it was the computer input that revolutionized everything.’

‘They provided computers for the school?’ Lol recalled the Efflapure owner, Mike Sandford, telling him about the children’s computers they were manufacturing – for four-year-olds, three-year-olds, two… younger.

‘They donated computers,’ Sam Hall said. ‘Not only to the school, but to every household in the catchment area with a small kid. Time the kid reaches school, it’s computer-literate, with all the educational benefits that brings. Plus most of them could read and write by age five or earlier. So between them, at this run-down school in a run-down village, Fergus and Chris have already created a generation of very smart kids.’

Lol recalled Mike Sandford again: Might look run-down, but this place is the future.

‘This been publicized?’ Moira wondered.

‘In all the right journals. Result: Cody’s kiddie computers are starting to sell, internationally – so yet more jobs. Parents squeezing themselves into the catchment area to get their kids into Fergus’s school. Property prices rising. Place still isn’t pretty, but it’s changing fast – two shops reopened in the past year, one by Cody, as a retail software outlet, but the other sells food. And we have a hairdresser, we have the refurbishment of the village hall as a sophisticated community centre. And – you know – so far, so good. We were all getting along together fine on the Underhowle Development Committee. Till we fell out.’

Sam said that although he’d been less enthused than some by the idea of Underhowle becoming a blueprint for rural regrowth, he’d kept quiet about the aspects that worried him. Until the demands for better communications began bringing results. Until the growing complaints about the poor mobile- phone signals in the valley and the bad quality of TV reception began to have enough relevance for the fat cats who ran the networks to act on them.

When the Development Committee had voted to express its approval of a plan for a new and powerful mobile-phone transmitter on the side of Howle Hill, along with a TV booster less than half a mile away, Sam had quit the committee in an atmosphere of serious acrimony. Now the booster was up and shooting signals at Underhowle, the new phone mast only awaiting the green light from the council. And no groundswell of opposition to get in the way. Only Sam, the crank, the fruitcake.

‘I expected support from the newcomers, but hell, with the village taking off the way it is, they’re scared to be seen as blocking progress. In most cases, their jobs depend on it. But it’s… with the number of goddam power lines we already got intersecting here, it’s my absolutely unswerving belief we’re in for one hell of a hot spot. Health problems – and mental health problems – on a scale you can’t imagine. Signs are there. I can give you a long list of people who died prematurely – people living too close to 140,000 volts. When that damn mast goes up, it’s gonna be electric soup. But… I got no proof and no back-up.’

Lol was thinking Sam was going to need more than a rally and protest song to raise any. He didn’t know what to say.

Sam said, ‘Sure, I have friends outside – links with Green organizations. But Green activists, they tend to be gentle people. They don’t have maybe the blind rage needed to tackle what is one enormous ecological problem and – I would venture to suggest, Reverend – a spiritual one.’

Moira said, ‘Huh?’

‘I can explain this aspect, if you’ll give me some time. If we can meet this week, perhaps, I can explain it in detail. But, essentially, our local minister, Reverend Banks, is a man with – and, as someone who’s at least half a Christian, I make no apology for this – a man with a small, closed mind, who refuses to absorb or even to consider—’

‘Mr Hall, I wouldnae doubt that he is, but if I could—’

‘I realize your position’s bound to be sensitive, where another clergyperson’s concerned. But there are some things I need to get aligned in my own mind, and I could use some advice from someone… such as yourself.’

He stood at the foot of the Plague Cross, shoulders slumped, sagging a little, looking more like his age. He unshouldered his knapsack, as if it had suddenly become too much of a burden, and laid it on the bottom step.

‘Sam,’ Lol said gently, ‘I think…’

Lol drove around the island and back onto the A40, from which the town of Ross glittered in the early night, like a birthday cake, across three lanes of traffic and the river. He drew a fold of paper from his jacket pocket.

‘Gave me this just as we were walking back into town. I guess it’s the poem. The song. He took it out of his bag almost like an afterthought, just before we went our separate ways.’ He handed the paper across to Moira. ‘Sorry, the interior light doesn’t work, but there’s a torch in the glove compartment.’

‘I suppose I ought to feel flattered,’ Moira said. ‘This could be the first time in ma whole life I was ever mistaken for a good and devout person.’

There was only one way this misunderstanding could have come about: Sam had talked to Frannie Bliss, and Bliss had disclosed Lol’s close friendship with the diocesan exorcist for Hereford. Lol had introduced Moira to Sam only by her first name. Moira – Merrily? It was an honest mistake.

‘I don’t think he’s crazy,’ Lol said. ‘But he certainly seems less stable than he did the other night. Or maybe it’s me who’s more stable than I was then.’

‘Well…’ He heard the snap of the torch switch. ‘I don’t think he’s crazy either, but he sure is no poet.’

‘Not good?’

‘It’s like he just scribbled it down, off the top of his head, before he came out.’

‘Maybe he did.’

‘Aye.’

In the darkness of the car, Lol was aware of Moira’s scent; it made him think of deserted sand dunes in the Hebrides. Or maybe that wasn’t the scent at all. Her voice came back, low.

‘He doesnae want you at all, Laurence. Or your talents. It was a wee ploy and not a very convincing one. He wants your friend. He wants an exorcist. It’s why he asked you to bring your lady.’

‘Yes.’

‘If you’d been alone, I guess he’d’ve sounded you out about an introduction. When he thought I was her, he went for it: “an ecological problem, but also a spiritual one”. But when he found out I wasnae exactly ordained, the spiritual part stayed under his woolly hat. I guess he’ll find your wee reverend some other way.’

Lol said, ‘What if he’s a little crazy?’

‘Ach, Laurence, we’re all of us a little crazy.’

‘And the Plague Cross?’

‘Well… there’s a sickness there, all right,’ Moira said.

Still?’

She was quiet for a moment. ‘He’s scared of something, and he’s no’ sure exactly what.’

Lol was puzzled. ‘He is sure, isn’t he?’

‘He knows what he can see – the pylons and the TV masts and those sinister mobile-phone masts with the bits sticking out. But he cannae see electricity and he cannae see evil.’

Lol said after a while, ‘Is this a warning?’

‘Oh, Laurence,’ Moira said, ‘if it was all as simple and direct as, like, “Don’t get on any planes on the 18th”. What do I say to you here? I’m standing by the Plague Cross and this guy’s talking about people buried without coffins, and then I start thinking about you and your friend digging for dead people, and I get this rather loathsome curling sensation down in ma gut – which I believe I managed to conceal rather well. I don’t know what that means, do I?’

‘What should I say to Merrily?’

She let him drive in silence for a while.

‘Aye well,’ she said, ‘that’s a difficult one.’

That night Lol called Merrily on the mobile, from his loft.

‘Mmm,’ she said, ‘I met Sam Hall when I was in Underhowle with Frannie Bliss. He didn’t go out of his way to speak to me then. On the other hand, Bliss had introduced me as a DC. Which nobody seemed to question at the time.’

‘Maybe assuming there must have been a change in the height regulations,’ Lol said.

‘Ho ho. So am I supposed to go and see him?’

‘Why would you need to? I was just warning you he might try and get in touch. So you’d know what it was about, vaguely, if he did. And if I could just—’

Merrily said, ‘Only, I’ve been asked to bury Roddy Lodge, you see.’

‘Bury him?’

‘Not dig the hole – conduct the funeral.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s a Christian tradition. But if you mean why me, it’s because a large number of people in Underhowle are saying, We don’t want this murderer in our churchyard, and the local minister’s got cold feet from sitting on the fence. And I’m like your Mr Hall. An established fruitcake.’

Lol said, ‘Do you have to do it?’

‘I don’t have to.’ A pause. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing.’

Lol imagined her at her desk, shoes off, toes curled under the electric fire. He felt that, whatever she was getting into, she should not be left in there alone.

26

Black Sheep Kind of Thing

HE’D COME DOWN from the hill on his quad bike as soon as his wife had reached him on the mobile. ‘I can’t discuss this,’ she’d said miserably when she saw the dog collar. ‘You’ll have to speak to Mr Lodge.’ And went on talking about the rain and how much of it there was these days, until he was pulling off his wellies at the kitchen door.

Out of the plain, square kitchen windows, all Merrily could see was damp fog, greenish like mucus.

Mr Lodge: this defined him now. His father was dead, and he was the eldest brother. This was his farmhouse, brown-washed and hunched into the foggy hillside, and this was his name: Mr Lodge, the last one in the valley.

They looked at one another. By the frosted fluorescent tube on the kitchen ceiling, Merrily saw a fawn-haired man in a working farmer’s green nylon overalls, edging quietly towards sixty, lean and wary as a dog fox. He saw something that evidently worried him.

He coughed. ‘I’m sorry I, er, I didn’t expect you’d be a woman.’

Well now, wouldn’t she be running a wealthier parish, if she had a pound for every time someone had said that?

‘I’ll make some tea,’ Mrs Lodge mumbled.

‘Yes.’ He nodded at Merrily. ‘Well… thank you. Thank you for coming.’ He indicated a wooden chair with arms and a car cushion on it, near the Rayburn. ‘You have that one. In the warm.’

‘Thank you.’ She took off Jane’s duffel coat and hung it around the back of the chair. She was wearing the black jumper- and-skirt outfit and her fleece-lined boots. He looked away.

‘Tony Lodge,’ he said reluctantly.

‘Merrily Watkins. I’m… afraid I only heard about this last night. From the Bishop.’

‘Ah.’ He sat himself on a hard chair at the edge of the gatelegged table, leaving about seven feet of flagged floor between them. He sat with his cap on his knees. ‘So you en’t spoken to Mr Banks.’

‘Not about this, no. I’ll probably be seeing him later.’

‘If you’re lucky.’

She smiled, easing her chair to one side so that Mrs Lodge could put the kettle on the Rayburn, which Mrs Lodge accomplished without looking at her.

‘Not, er… not that I’m a churchgoing man any more,’ Tony Lodge said. ‘My parents were chapel, and I was raised to that. When the chapel went out of use my father, he started going to the church instead, because at least the church was still here, even if the services were few and far between. He wouldn’t go to Ross to worship. And he wouldn’t go to Ross to be buried. And that’s what this is about.’

Merrily said, ‘I gather there’s a long-standing agreement with the Church, on burials.’

‘Never been any other way, look. They reckon the chapel here was near as old as the church, and there’s only one graveyard in Underhowle – that’s up at the church, where the land’s better drained, more suitable for burial. And that’s where we goes, the Lodges.’ He paused. ‘That’s where my brother’s to go. Friday, we thought, if that’s all right for you. Funeral director’s Lomas of Coleford.’

‘Your father…’

‘Would not be happy if the sons were not around him and my mother. You understand that.’

‘Of course. Erm…’

Mr Lodge raised bony brown hands in a warding-off gesture. ‘No,’ he said calmly. ‘I don’t want to talk about what he’s done. My duty to my father, as eldest son, is to see my brother buried at Underhowle – not cremated. I would like there to be a proper service. If Mr Banks wants to throw in his hand with the newcomers, that’s his business.’

Merrily didn’t say anything. She might have known it would be something like this.

‘There was a deputation here last night,’ Mr Lodge said. ‘How much you know about that, I en’t sure.’

‘Deputation?’ All Sophie had told her was that the Rev. Banks had said the Lodges were not members of his congregation, whereas the family of the missing Melanie Pullman was, and therefore he would prefer it if an outside minister could handle Roddy’s funeral. It wasn’t an unusual procedure in cases like this.

‘Local people,’ Tony Lodge said, ‘and some not so local. Wanting me to have my brother cremated. Said it would be better for his ashes just to be scattered in the churchyard, that a grave would become a… “tourist attraction”. Not the sort they wanted for Underhowle. The new Underhowle.’ Bitterness tainting his tone now. ‘Not the image they wanted for the new Underhowle.’

‘I see.’

‘I doubt you do.’ Mr Lodge almost smiled. ‘I doubt you do, Reverend, but I don’t suppose that matters.’

‘I have met some of the people in the village: Mr Young, the headmaster. And… Ingrid Sollars?’

‘Mrs Sollars. Yes, I was surprised she was part of it, but there you are. They all have their own concerns. Things aren’t simple like they used to be. In the old days, you accepted responsibility for your village, in good times and bad. And the people there, good and bad. You kept together. Now it’s all about what you looks like to outsiders.’

‘True, I suppose.’ She was mainly worried about how she’d justify this to Gomer: leading prayers for the everlasting soul of the man he believed had murdered his nephew, incinerated his depot and his machinery, taken a pickaxe to the foundations of his life. She’d tried to reach him last night: no answer.

‘You’ll be wanting some personal information about my brother,’ Tony Lodge said. ‘I’ve written out a list – date of birth, where he went to school, that sort of detail.’

‘Well, actually, what…’ What Merrily wanted most was a cigarette. ‘What I normally do is have a chat with the relatives of the person who’s died so that, at the service, I can talk about them, as people. We don’t bury bodies, we bury people. If you see what I mean.’

She wondered if he did. There were few signs in this drab, functional farmhouse of real sorrow, only of resignation: perhaps an attitude branded into farmers by BSE and foot-and- mouth and endless forms from the Ministry of Agriculture, now called DEFRA – which Jane said stood for Destroying Every Farm-Reared Animal.

‘Look…’ Mr Lodge was facing her, although she could tell his eyes weren’t focused on hers as much as on the space between them. ‘I don’t want no fuss. I don’t want things said about him that weren’t true, just for appearances. I don’t really want anything said about him at all. Just like it done quickly and with dignity. Isn’t as if there’s going to be much of an audience anyway.’

Merrily sighed. ‘I’m afraid you might find there’s rather more of one than you think. There’ll almost certainly be police and… reporters. Possibly even television – I wouldn’t like to say.’

He stood up. He said, without raising his voice, ‘He was cursed from the first, that boy.’

The kettle came to the boil behind Merrily and began to shriek, as if demanding she should leave. She stood up, too. ‘Look, if you want to have a think about it, I’ll leave you my number, or I can ring you. We’ll also have to discuss the choice of hymns, that kind of… Oh, and one other thing – Roddy. Roddy’s… body. Where do you—?’

‘I don’t know all the details yet of how they release him. There’s already been a post-mortem. They reckons the inquest is being held tomorrow.’

‘Well… opened,’ Merrily said. ‘All they’ll have is a short hearing at which the coroner will take formal evidence of identification – which means that the body can be released for burial – and then it’s adjourned, usually for several weeks.’

‘So the worst is to come.’

How could she deny that?

Mrs Lodge almost brushed past her to reach the kettle on the Rayburn. Close up, Merrily registered that she was quite a few years younger than her husband, although the age gap was fogged by colourless, wispy hair and an absence of make-up – somewhere along the line, she’d lost the need or the will to be noticed.

Merrily pulled her coat from the back of the chair; they both knew that she wouldn’t be staying for tea. ‘Meanwhile, if there’s, you know, anything at all I can do…’

‘You will conduct the service, then?’

‘Of course. If that’s what you want. I’ll talk to Mr Banks, see when’s best for everyone.’

He nodded once. ‘And beyond that,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t do anything, if I were you. Let’s get him in the ground, and there’s an end to it.’

A bleak statement in bleak surroundings on a bleak day. She wondered if, in the end, he hadn’t been jealous of his manic young brother, travelling the countryside and apparently making a lot of money while he, the inheritor of the farm, stayed and rotted in it. Was that how it was? On the way here, she’d felt she ought to explain the circumstances of her own brief meeting with Roddy Lodge; now she didn’t think it would change anything, would probably not help at all.

At the door, she said, ‘What I meant was… if there’s anything I could do to help the two of you cope with this.’

‘Oh, we’ll survive.’ He smiled crookedly. ‘In this job, most of us gave up looking to God for any help a long time ago. If it’s the same God that helps the continentals to reject our beef, where’s the point?’

Not the time, either, for theological debate. Merrily saw that Mrs Lodge was standing over the Belfast sink, staring into it, unmoving.

‘I, erm… I have to call and see Mr Hall. Sam Hall? I was told his house is somewhere near here.’

‘Aye, carry on up the track and you’ll see his windmill. It’s a bit mucky up there, but you’ll get through. Friend of yours, Mr Hall?’

‘I’ve not really met him. As such.’

‘Nice enough man,’ said Mr Lodge. ‘Used to be local, then he emigrated to America and come back a bit cranky.’

‘Oh?’

‘Takes my dogs for a run. Loves dogs, he says, but he won’t have one himself ’cause he reckons there’s too many dogs around for no particular reason. That kind of cranky.’

‘Ah. Right. Look, I…’ Feeling, if anything, more hopelessly inadequate than was usual on these occasions. ‘I just want to say I’m very, very sorry for what’s happened.’

‘Thank you. But you don’t know what’s happened, do you?’ Tony Lodge presented her with his summary of Roddy’s life, scribbled in felt pen on half a sheet of lined notepaper. ‘None of us do. And likely that’s best for everyone.’

Spectral in the fog, the windmill rose like a huge, petrified sunflower out of a clearing on a small escarpment, a plateau on the edge of the hill. It looked alien and probably always would, Merrily thought. The house was about thirty yards away, behind a wall around four feet high and the winter remains of vegetable patches.

Pulling on woollen gloves, she left the Volvo at the top of the track, before it narrowed into a footpath and curved past the house towards what she guessed would be the summit of the hill – could only guess because it was smothered by the fog, whitish here like a blank stage backcloth.

Despite the murk, she could see no lights in the house. But then, from what Lol had said, this place would never be well lit. It was a brick-built bungalow, square and compact, with small windows, dense as Gomer’s glasses, and a solar panel like a blister in the roof. There was no smoke from the chimney.

The wooden front gate was unlocked, and Merrily went through, along a path between veg beds, to the front door inside its wooden porch. She couldn’t see a bell or a knocker and ending up banging on the panels with a gloved fist. No answer. She went back outside.

Electricity and radiation, Lol had listed. Pylons, power lines, TV and mobile-phone transmitters. The twenty-first-century plague. Hot spots and the death road. And something else it was clear he wasn’t going to tell me or Moira.

Me or Moira. Moira and me. Why did this nag? They were all supposed to be adults. But it had got into her dreams last night. In the last dream, she’d suddenly realized – with the dramatic intensity that only dreams could bestow – that Lol Robinson was in the music business… where everybody slept with everybody else. Awakening anxious and cold – again. Of course, she knew he wasn’t like that – quite the opposite in some ways, after what had happened to him all those years ago. But he was insecure about his abilities and perhaps this mature, experienced Moira Cairns was giving him the reassurance that only another musician could.

Oh God. The fog swirled around her like hostile floss.

Merrily heard footsteps on the track, then a slurring in the mud, the sounds somewhere inside the white fog. She stayed inside the garden wall, hands cold inside her coat pockets and the gloves.

The engine was running to support the heater, doing its best, but this was an old car and the heater took a while to get going, the car warming up very gradually like an old man rubbing his hands and massaging his joints.

The Volvo was backed onto the grass beside the footpath, out of sight, if not earshot, of Sam Hall’s eco-house. On the passenger side, Mrs Lodge was bulked out by a US Army parka, far too big for her. She’d started talking outside on the track, her voice high and querulous and revealing the remains of a South Wales accent. He’s not heartless, she’d cried. I didn’t want you to leave thinking he’s heartless.

Merrily said, ‘Mrs Lodge, this is one of the hardest situations anyone has to go through. When it’s not of your making but you’re dragged into it and you don’t know where your loyalties are supposed to lie.’

‘Cherry,’ Mrs Lodge said. ‘My name’s Cherry. Like the fruit, not Mrs Blair.’

The run up the track had reddened her cheeks, as if to underline the point. She told Merrily she’d known Sam Hall wasn’t at home, had seen him walk past, towards the village, over an hour ago, and when her husband had climbed back on his quad bike and gone back to finish his fencing in the top field, she’d grabbed her chance to say what she couldn’t say in front of him.

‘Not that we’re not close.’ She stared through the windscreen into the fog. ‘Not that we haven’t been close, I should say. The bad things that happen on a farm – even the money problems – are things you can discuss. This—’ She sniffed and dragged out a clutch of tissues to wipe her nose. ‘This is beyond everything.’

Merrily said, ‘Do you mind if I smoke… if I were to open the window an inch or two?’

‘Of course.’ Cherry almost smiled, seeming grateful for this sign of human weakness. Merrily lit a Silk Cut.

‘He’s changed, of course,’ Cherry said. ‘He doesn’t think he’s turning into his father, because the old man was always so religious, but he is.’ She put away the tissue and turned in her seat to face Merrily. ‘Still, there are worse things. Lord knows what Roddy was turning into. All in all, I can’t help thinking, God help us, that it’s as well it ended the way it did. If we could say it had ended. If we’re ever going to be able to say that.’

‘Were you there?’

‘No. Neither of us was there. I remember I went out to fill the coal scuttle about teatime and I thought I could hear something from down the hill, but I thought it was just kids. It was about ten o’clock before the police even came and told us he was dead. We didn’t know what to do. Nobody else came. We didn’t know everybody had seen him… electrocuted. We just… Tony and me, we just sat there and talked about it until the early hours. But then the next day he didn’t want to know, and that’s how it’s been since. That’s how the old man would’ve been. And then it was in the papers and on the telly – the videos people’d taken. Our neighbours, so-called.’

‘How long’ve you been married?’

Wanting to take her away from those images. The car, swaddled in fog, was warming up inside now and Cherry was talking freely. It emerged that she and Tony had met through a dating agency for farmers. Born in Newport, where her parents had a shoe shop, she’d always dreamed of life on a farm. They’d been married twenty years, since she was twenty-seven, and had two sons, both now working in Cardiff and loving it. If Tony Lodge left them the farm, it would only be sold off. He had a decision to make and fairly soon. He didn’t need this on top of it all, his wife said.

And when they’d turned up at the door last night, the villagers, the new villagers, telling him he ought to do the decent community thing and have Roddy tidily cremated…

‘I don’t think I’m quite understanding this,’ Merrily said. ‘All this talk of the “new” Underhowle. Would this be something to do with the Development Committee?’

‘They don’t even like to call it Underhowle any more. “Oh, it’s a nowhere sort of name,” one of them said once, when they had a public meeting about it. “A neither here-nor-there name”.’

‘Meeting about what?’

‘Ariconium. That’s what they call the project. Ariconium was an old Roman town that was supposed to be further down the valley towards Weston, but Mr Crewe, who bought the Old Rectory, he reckons it was more this way, and he found a little statue of a Roman god and they all got excited, and that’s how it started, really. I can’t see it myself – I mean, there’s nothing there. It’s not like as if there were walls and ruins, things you can walk round. It’s just marks in the ground.’

‘I saw a stone plaque thing in the village hall, with the word Ariconium carved into it.’

‘They wanted to put it on the signs at the entrance to the village, but some historical organization objected because they said it wasn’t proved, but they’re fighting that. They’re setting up a museum of things people’ve found and maps and audiovisual stuff – in the old chapel. They’ve had a grant from the Lottery, lots of things like that.’

‘ “They”?’

‘Well, Mr Crewe and Mr Young at the school and the chap who has the computer factory. People like that. Seem to be more of them every day. But they’ve done a lot for the village, kind of thing, put a lot of people in work, so everybody’s going along with it. And they make it all sound so exciting for the future – more tourism, more jobs. They’re planning this big launch next Easter, with leaflets and articles in the papers and television and that. The last thing they want is for the village to be associated with a mass murderer. Oh, dear God, no, not now.’

‘Pretty tactless, however, coming to your husband, so soon afterwards.’

‘Had to come in good time for the funeral. They were nice enough about it, I suppose. Said they’d help keep it discreet. Keep the press away. How it was in everybody’s interests to develop an upmarket tourist economy kind of thing and until that was established we had to be conscious of our public profile.’

Merrily shook her head at the crassness of it. ‘Not, even in normal circumstances, the best thing to say to a traditional farmer.’

Cherry Lodge managed a smile. ‘That’s true.’ She was actually quite pretty; there had probably been a time, before the reality of it all started to wear her down, when Tony Lodge hadn’t been able to believe his luck. ‘All tourism means to my husband is people tramping across his land, leaving gates open. That’s what he’s doing up there now – repairing fences, tightening the barbed wire. Battening down the hatches.’

‘That’s not good, is it?’ Merrily said carefully, and collected another grateful look.

‘Like he’s accepted that we’re supposed to be hermits now, for the rest of our lives. Not show our faces down there ’cause we’re going to be tarred with it for ever.’ A glimmering of tears. ‘And this family’s been here longer than any of them. Longer than any of them.’ She leaned forward in the seat. ‘You know what I’d like to do – sell our story to the papers. We had the reporters here, loads of them, and Tony was ready to get his gun out to them. But I’d like to get them back, tell everybody what he was really like, how weird he really was – that’d teach—’ She blinked. ‘I keep forgetting you’re a vicar. I don’t get to talk to many women. You must think—’

‘No. Not at all.’ Merrily focused rapidly, glad that Jane’s duffel was still toggled over the dog collar. ‘What would you tell them, Cherry? What would you tell them about Roddy? Weird how?’

‘Oh…’ Cherry looked uncomfortable again. Too eager. Blown it. ‘All sorts of things. Tony used to talk about him a lot at one time – all the things he couldn’t understand. There’s always somebody in a family you talk about, isn’t there? Somebody you always despair of. Always, “Oh what’s he gone and done now?” Black sheep kind of thing.’

‘What kind of things did he do?’

Cherry’s hazel eyes flickered. ‘You’ve put me on the spot now. I’m not sure I should—’

‘It’s OK.’ Merrily nodded quickly, pushing her cigarette into the ashtray. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t’ve asked.’

‘Anyway, I’ve taken up too much of your time already. I’ve got the lunch to make and everything. Not that he’ll eat much.’

‘I’ll take you back down.’ Merrily let out the clutch, biting her lip. How to play this… ‘Look, you can take up as much of my time as you want, whenever you want. Any time you feel this is getting on top of you and you want to talk.’

She backed into some bushes in the fog – more scratches – before managing a clumsy three-point turn, dragging the Volvo back onto the track, crawling down the hill in second gear, foot on the brake, headlights on, until the farmhouse imprinted itself drably on the clogged air. Cherry was silent the whole way, and when Merrily pulled up, she made no move to open the door.

‘You’re not an ordinary priest, are you?’

‘Well, most of them are bigger…’

‘Mr Banks, it was, who told Tony. About what you do.’

‘Well, whatever Mr Banks said, I don’t think it’s anything to do with why I was asked to take over the funeral.’

‘Isn’t it?’

‘If it is, nobody’s told me.’

Cherry stared out of the window. ‘You on e-mail, are you?’

‘Yes. Well, no… actually the computer’s crashed at home, but you can reach me at the office in Hereford.’

‘Write down the address for me, can you? Don’t look so surprised, I’m not a peasant, I’ve been doing the accounts on an IBM computer for four years now. Listen, if I write all this out for you and send it, no one will see it? You promise me that?’

‘Except possibly my secretary. Who’s also the Bishop’s secretary. Who you could trust like your mother. But—’

‘I don’t know what good it’s going to do – except I think we should’ve told the police and Tony wouldn’t do that. It was when the police told us about all these pictures on his wall, and they asked could we throw any light on it, and Tony said no, we couldn’t. And afterwards he was going, “What difference is it going to make now, anyway – except everybody thinking, Oh they’re all like that, all the Lodges. Mental. Sick.” ’

Merrily’s throat was dry. The fog seemed, if anything, thicker now; it felt like when you were a kid burrowing under the bedclothes with a pencil flashlight. Cherry opened the car door, got out and then leaned back in.

‘It torments me. I keep thinking, maybe we should have tried to get him to see a psychiatrist, we might’ve saved those girls. I mean, he went to his doctor, with the headaches, and he didn’t spot anything.’

‘Whatever it was, I think a lot of people failed to react to it,’ Merrily said. She was thinking of the Rev. Jerome Banks. She was thinking of her own wimpish relief at being denied access to Roddy Lodge at Hereford police headquarters.

Cherry said, ‘This is going to sound stupid, but what it comes down to is Roddy and dead people. From an early age, this thing about the dead.’ She leaned on the door frame, looking around, listening perhaps for the putter of the quad bike. ‘Maybe I’m making too much of it.’

27

Lamp

THE SCHOOL BUS was actually starting up when Jane looked out of the window and saw Eirion standing there by his car, in his school uniform, in the fog. And her heart pulsed the way it used to when he drove all the way from the Cathedral School in Hereford because he just like had to see her. Serious turn-on.

And today he’d come all this way in terrible driving conditions.

But when she scrambled down from the bus, dragging her flight bag full of books, she saw that he wasn’t smiling. From the beginning, the most amazing thing about Eirion had been his smile, and when it wasn’t there he looked pasty, a bit jowly, even. These days, anyway. Especially through the fog.

In the old days – March, April – arriving at her school, he’d say, I was just passing. Both of them knowing that this wasn’t a place anyone in their right mind ‘just passed’. So it was a catchphrase nowadays, and they’d be touching one another before the car’s doors were properly shut. But tonight…

‘I just needed to see you.’ Eirion making it obvious by his tone that today it wasn’t that kind of need. ‘You want a lift home?’

When she got into the new old car, the sky was going dark. It always seemed to be going dark, Jane thought. Life was one long dusk. Eirion just started the engine and when they were through the gates, he said, ‘Jane, do you think we need to talk?’

Like how many crappy soaps did you hear that line in, in the course of an average week? Or you would if you watched them. Jane tried to think of a corresponding cliché, couldn’t come up with one.

‘What about?’ she said finally.

‘Well… you.’

He took the back lanes to Ledwardine, prolonging the journey like he used to when they weren’t quite going out together but he was hoping. It could take for ever today, with these conditions. The fog had never really cleared from this morning; they’d had the lights on in the school all day. And what a long and tedious day it had been. In Eng Lit, she’d collected a couple of dagger-glances from Mrs Costello whom she liked really but, come on, wasn’t life just a little too short for flatulent prats like Salman Rushdie?

‘I, er, checked out the insurance,’ Eirion said. ‘It’s probably OK for you to drive this car, after all. I mean… when it’s a better day than this.’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘A better day.’

A better day. A bright new beginning. You’re so young, people said. What I wouldn’t do if I was your age again. When what they really meant was that when they were young the idea of a bright new beginning for the world didn’t seem quite so laughable.

In the summer, after she and Eirion had made love for the first time (the first time for both of them, with anybody, it later emerged) it was incredible, like climbing a mountain, and it was all there at your feet: the whole of life a glowing patchwork of endless, glistening greenery.

Jane scowled. Didn’t ‘make love’. Had sex.

And that was it. Done it now. Done it a bunch of times and, sure, sometimes – before and during and after – it felt as though she was very much in love and didn’t want there to be anyone else ever…

In which case, this was really it? Seventeen now, an adult. Now what?

And why? Why bother? It was all going to end in tears, anyway.

‘I’ve been wondering what’s made you so negative lately,’ Eirion said.

‘Oh, really.’

‘And whether there was any way I could help.’

The car heater panted. The dipped headlights excavated shallow trenches in the grey-brownness. It was a situation that, at one time, might have seemed cosily mysterious. As distinct from totally dismal.

‘Because if I can’t,’ Eirion said. ‘You know…’

‘What?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Well, if you don’t know…’ After a while, Jane stopped noticing the limited views – atmosphere was just a psychological condition, right? She found she was gripping folds of her skirt. What was happening to her? She didn’t even want to drive. What was the point? Be gridlock everywhere within about ten years.

‘It’s like you just want to wreck things,’ Eirion said. ‘If things aren’t working exactly as you’d planned them, you don’t want to wait.’

‘Life’s short. Very short for some people.’ Thinking of Layla Riddock, who hadn’t even made it out of school when the big pendulum did it in one blow. Thinking of Nev. Thinking of their day out in mid-Wales, when Eirion had taken her to see this particular standing stone, and it had somehow just looked like… a stone. And Eirion had been dismayed because she wasn’t going like, Hey, wow, can’t you feel that earth energy?

Jane felt her eyes filling up as the car bumped around a bit. She thought at first he’d just gone over the kerb in the fog, but it was deliberate. He was fully in control. The car stopped, and he switched off the engine. Jane looked out and saw wet grass.

‘Where are we?’ Turning to him, wanting for a moment just to see his old smile in the dimness and then fall into his arms and everything would be all right.

For a while, anyway.

So where does it begin, this clinical depression? At what stage do they prescribe the pills? She pulled her bag onto her lap, folding her hands on top of it: self-contained, untouchable. Inside, along with the books, was her Walkman with the Nick Drake compilation CD – Nick Drake, who died of an overdose of antidepressants. It could all be really funny. Except it wasn’t.

Eirion scrubbed at the windscreen with his hand. ‘You can’t even see it.’

‘What?’

‘The steeple at Ledwardine. We’re on Cole Hill.’

‘What are we doing here?’

‘I don’t know, really.’ He sank back in his seat. ‘This is where she saw it, isn’t it? Where Jenny Driscoll saw the angel. Or didn’t… as you decided.’

‘So?’ She stared at him. If she was getting an inkling of what this was all about, she wasn’t inclined to allow the idea to develop.

‘Doesn’t matter, anyway.’ He stopped rubbing. ‘It’s too foggy.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘I think you do.’ He swallowed. ‘It’s like I said before – a few months ago this whole thing would’ve been just so exciting to you that we’d’ve been up here every night on some kind of angel hunt.’

‘No, we wouldn’t. That would be stupid.’

‘Yeah,’ Eirion said. ‘It probably would be, now. But the thing is… it would also have been fun. I would’ve liked it. Flask of hot soup and the… you know, the need to keep warm.’

‘Oh, right,’ Jane said, laying on the scorn. ‘This is about sex.’

No!’ Almost a scream. ‘That’s not what—’

‘Think about it very carefully,’ Jane said sadly. ‘Underneath it all, it would be about sex.’

Eirion drew in a tight breath. ‘So we’re into Freud now, is it?’ Stirrings of anger bringing out the Welshness in his voice.

‘I really wouldn’t know about that,’ Jane said. ‘I think I’m probably just coming to my senses.’

He exploded then. ‘This is your senses? It seems to me that you’re losing your fucking senses. All… all six of them.’

Jane said, without thinking much about it, ‘Can you take me home?’ The windscreen was opaque with fog and condensation; it was already going cold inside the car.

‘Is this it?’ Eirion said. ‘Is this it for us?’ Talking in this dramatized way to provoke from her an outraged denial.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Maybe like the angel will float down and spread this healing radiance all around us and we’ll feel really cool.’

It was hard to see his face in what light was left, but she could feel the extreme shock coming off him. It was like being in one of those cold patches that Mum was supposed to look for in haunted houses. And though she’d caused it, Jane felt detached from it – and that wasn’t right, was it? That was kind of… cruel.

‘Listen,’ Eirion said urgently. ‘We all get like this sometimes. You read about executive stress and mid-life crisis, but I think those people’ve just forgotten what it was like when they were in their teens and there were like whole big areas of their lives they couldn’t control.’

‘What?’

‘They don’t remember how bad it could be sometimes. When you can’t cont—’

‘You really don’t understand, do you?’ She looked at him with pity. ‘I’ve realized that nobody’s in control. Nobody and nothing. All this information going round and round the world on the Internet and stuff, and it’s all bullshit and everybody’s got a Website that tells you nothing you want to know, and all the politicians are like… And Mum… Mum knows these guys know sod-all really and are never going to get us anywhere, and the hospitals and everything are always going to be totally crap, but she can live with it, because she’s managed to con herself into thinking that way above all this ridiculous mess there’s this all-knowing, benevolent thing.’

‘Oh Jane—’

And meanwhile she and Lol are coming apart before it ever came together. And he’ll shag the Cairns woman, if he hasn’t already, because at least she’s there for him. At least she’s there. And Mum will just spend the rest of her life humouring fruitcakes like Jenny Driscoll. And poor old Gomer will start sitting in front of daytime telly – day after mindless day of soaps and Kilroy – not even seeing it after a bit, and falling asleep, until one blessed day he doesn’t wake up.’

Silence.

‘It’s a phase,’ Eirion said feebly at last. ‘It’ll pass, Jane.’

She jerked in her seat. ‘I don’t want it to pass, you cretin! This is reality!

She started to cry, and wound down the window to let the fog come in like a damp facecloth.

‘I’ll take you home, then,’ Eirion said emptily.

Merrily had come home via Hereford, calling in at Tesco to pick up a sandwich and then at the hospital to see a couple of parishioners in the geriatric ward – Miss Tyler and Mrs Mackay, once neighbours in the village and now they didn’t even recognize one another on the ward. But they recognized Merrily, or seemed to, and Mrs Mackay wanted her to pray with her and, at the end of it, Merrily added her own silent prayer that something could be done about geriatric wards. Even the word itself had become demeaning and contemptuous, and when you said it aloud it made a sound like a creaking wheelchair.

Back home, she found a parcel – a brown Jiffy bag – in the porch and dumped it on the hall table when she heard the phone ringing. She exchanged grimaces with the lamp-bearing Christ and went through to the scullery to answer it.

‘You sound a bit down, lass.’

‘Oh. Hello, Huw.’

‘You find that stuff about the girl?’

‘Yeah. I was trying to think if it could be relevant, in any way, to her disappearance.’

‘Depends if it were still going on.’

‘Getting abducted by aliens becomes a regular thing?’

Sometimes the experience is repeated. Sometimes it even seems to be site-specific.’

‘You mean the house is haunted, rather than the individual? That rather argues against aliens, doesn’t it? More like geological conditions – fault lines, underground springs. Any atmospheric conditions that might promote hallucinations. Nothing to do with rehabilitation of the displaced dead. No requirement for social services of the soul.’ Merrily sat down, still wearing her coat. ‘Huw, I’ve got to bury Roddy Lodge.’

‘So I heard.’

Did you?’ Amazing how much gossip drifted up the Brecon Beacons. ‘And would you have any advice on that? For instance, there’s a body of local opinion doesn’t want him in the churchyard.’

‘That bother you?’

‘I feel OK about it. He’s entitled to a Christian burial. However, bearing in mind that I’ve never buried a murderer before…’

‘Aye.’ A pause for consideration. ‘Complications are possible. A lot of psychic fallout drifting round a murder. As for several murders…’

‘Not proved. He’s still an innocent man in the eyes of the law.’

‘And that can make it even more complex. Unfinished business, lass.’

‘This is what you rang about, isn’t it?’

Huw was silent for quite a while. Long enough for Merrily to tuck the phone under her chin while she shed her coat.

‘I had a call from young Francis,’ Huw said. ‘The detective.’

‘Bliss? You had a call from Bliss?’

‘Catholic, am I right?’

‘Ten a penny in Liverpool.’

‘And a bit… not exactly unstable. Would “volatile” be a better word?’

‘Let’s say “impetuous”. What’s this about, Huw?’

Lad’s been out and about, asking a lot of questions in certain areas. Bee in his bonnet. Bees buzz.’

‘Certain areas?’

‘Specifically, the West case.’

‘Why would he phone you about that?’ She was cautious now.

‘I, er… I were a consultant on that inquiry.’

‘You never mentioned that before.’

‘Couple of us were brought in after talk of the Wests being involved with a satanic cult.’

‘I wasn’t aware of that.’

‘Talk by West himself, mostly. Some of it was allegedly said in discussions he had with his prison carer, while he was on remand. Could’ve been bullshit. Anyroad, during the police investigation, a number of us were asked if we knew of anything, any groups operating around Gloucester or the Forest of Dean. Satanist, sadist, anything deviant. One suggestion was that Fred West were supplying this group with virgins. Abducting women, taking them to some farm for ritual abuse, subsequent murder. Course, he lied a lot. Probably just a latent attempt to shift some blame was how the coppers saw it, but they didn’t want to take any chances.’

‘And were you able to help?’

‘Well, we couldn’t supply a string of addresses of satanic temples, if that’s what they expecting. But there was evidence of hard magic in 25 Cromwell Street itself. One of the victims – young lass of seventeen – was into occultism and blood-ritual, linked to bondage, S-and-M. Whether they believed in it or not, the Wests were only too happy to join in. Lass ended up tied by her ankles to a beam in the cellar, hanging upside down like a side of meat.’