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

The Prayer of the Night Shepherd

Phil Rickman

A crumbling hotel on the border of England and Wales, a suggestion of inherited evil, a mystifying love affair… and the long–disputed origins of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s all endlessly fascinating for young Jane Watkins, flushed with the freedom of her first weekend job. But the sinister side becomes increasingly apparent to Jane’s mother, Merrily, diocesan exorcist for Herford. And the snow is coming. And a killing. Altogether, one of the most original and atmospheric crime novels you’ll read this year.

The Prayer of the Night Shepherd

(The sixth book in the Merrily Watkins series)

A novel by Phil Rickman

They had gone a mile or two when they passed one of the night shepherds upon the moorlands, and they cried to him to know if he had seen the hunt. And the man, as the story goes, was so crazed with fear that he could scarce speak...

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

No record in cold print can give the reader an idea of the pleasure experienced in collecting the elusive material we call folk-lore from the living brains of men and women of whose lives it has formed an integral part. In some cases, with regard to superstitious beliefs, there is a deep reserve to be overcome; the more real the belief, the greater the difficulty... The folk of the Welsh districts are more superstitious, as a rule...

Ella Mary Leather, The Folk-lore of Herefordshire

Under Stanner in the Summer

SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, he really should. That morning, even though it was a fine morning, coming up to high summer, the whole valley was singing with unease.

‘Oh bugger,’ Jeremy Berrows said to Danny. ‘You seen that?’

Up on Stanner Rocks, knobs of stone poked out like weathered gargoyles on an old church, or ancient skulls browned by the earth, half-buried, with scrubby trees in their eye sockets. From one side, you could sometimes see a whole body of rock that Danny reckoned looked like the remains of a dead giant thrown back into the greenery encrusting the cliff face.

But Jeremy wasn’t looking up at Stanner – likely he blamed the rocks for taking Mary Morson away, though in Danny’s view the rocks done him a favour on that one. He was staring instead at the smoky firs across the valley, the dark trees that said, This is Wales now, boy, make no mistake.

‘What?’ Danny said.

‘Big black crow. Hovering.’

‘No, really?’

‘Just flew over real low. Then he come back, flew over again.’

‘Gotter hand it to these scavengers,’ Danny said. ‘Awful thorough.’

Bollocks, he was thinking. You could drive yourself daft, seeing signs everywhere – even if you were Jeremy Berrows, with ditchwater in your veins and the valley talking to you all your life.

Could see where the boy was coming from today, mind. Even without crows, everything visible in the west seemed like a warning about Wales, a stiffened finger under your nose. But when you actually crossed the Border into Wales, the countryside relaxed into the easy, light-coloured, sheep-shaved hills where Danny Thomas had been born and bred and still lived.

Still lived. Jesus, how had that happened?

Danny was grinning in dismay, rubbing his beard, and the boy glanced at him but Danny just shook his head and tramped on down the dewy field under the fresh-rinsed morning sky, not sure any more which side of the Border they were on, or if it mattered. He was a Welshman himself, he supposed, although the way he talked wasn’t recognizably Welsh either to real Welsh people or to the English whose country was within shouting distance, and all the shouting, from either side, done in near enough the same accent as his.

Confusing, really: if Danny was from the lighter, more English-looking country down the Radnor Valley, which was actually in Wales, then Jeremy, back here under the dark firs and the knuckles of Stanner Rocks, must be...

‘You English, then, Jeremy?’

‘Me?’ Jeremy glanced warily at Danny, instinctively patting his thigh for Flag, the sheepdog, to come close. ‘Dunno. Do it matter?’

‘Matters to some,’ Danny said, ‘so they tells me.’

It was real confusing hereabouts, mind. For instance, the little town a mile or so behind them was in England, despite being on the Welsh side of Offa’s Dyke. Even so, with its narrow main street and its closed-in feel, it felt Welsh.

Kington: an anomaly.

This was Danny’s current favourite word. The naturalists he met in the pub used it about Stanner Rocks, said to be some of the oldest rocks in the country. Anomaly meant strange stuff going on, odd climatic things occurring up on the tops, resulting in plants that grew on Stanner and nowhere else in these islands. Local people rarely went up on the rocks these days, it being a National Nature Reserve protected by the Countryside Commission; mostly it was just the naturalists and a few tourists with permission.

But Mary Morson went up one day, and got a bit of a thing going with one of the naturalists and never come back to Jeremy Berrows, and mabbe the boy didn’t want reminding.

Boy. He must be late thirties now, but he had this fresh complexion, which was rare for a farmer. Most of them had skin like old brick – like Danny’s skin, in fact, what you could see of it between the grey beard and the seaweed hair. But it wasn’t only that; there was an innocence about Jeremy, and that was rare, too, in a farmer, especially a good one. Jeremy also had commitment, an intense... bonding was the word they used now, with this marginal ground. The kind of bonding that hinged on knowing that if the ash came out before the oak you were in for a soak, and that kind of stuff. Whatever you wanted to call it, it had drained out of Danny Thomas long ago, leaving a bleak old desert of regrets.

‘Down by there, it is.’ The boy was nodding his head towards the copse at the bottom of the field, where a bunch of fat lambs was gathering. ‘Other side of the ole conker tree. See him?’

They were up on a bit of a tump now, and you could see all of Jeremy’s ground, almost surrounded by the huge area owned by Sebbie Three Farms, the robber baron. And you could see the big, naked feet of the giant on the side of Stanner. Below the rock face was the main road where it turned into the Kington bypass, and a long yellow container lorry sailed past, like something out of a different time zone. Danny wondered if Jeremy even noticed the lorry – if all the boy saw wasn’t just grass and trees and the plumpening lambs and the hawthorn trees sprinkled with floury blossom.

And the intrusion. The vans that shouldn’t be there. Danny’s gaze followed a sheep track down to the bottom field, where he could make out a cool blue roof slashed by a blade of sunlight. But no movement down there, no noise.

‘Likely they won’t be up and about yet,’ he said. ‘Always stays up late, these folks, with the booze and the dope. And music. You year any music last night?’

Jeremy shook his head, and Danny looked wistfully away towards Hergest Ridge, a long arm pushing into Wales, made famous by Mike Oldfield when he named his second album after it. Mike Oldfield was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to Kington: up on the Ridge with his kites and at home in his farmhouse with – the thought of it still made Danny Thomas catch his breath – twenty guitars.

Danny had three guitars in his stone barn: two acoustics and a Les Paul. He’d sold his classic Strat last Christmas. Broke his heart, but they needed a new stove, and Greta had gone without too long. And Mike Oldfield was long gone now, and Danny was left sitting in his stone barn, riffing into the night and counting all them lost opportunities to get out of farming for ever.

‘No music, no,’ Jeremy said. ‘They was prob’ly laying low the first night.’

‘You reckon?’

In Danny’s experience, laying low wasn’t what they did.

‘It’s where the ole crow was hovering,’ Jeremy said. ‘Direc’ly over that van.’

Half-past six this morning, when the boy had phoned him.

‘Hippies,’ he’d said.

Not Danny’s favourite word. There hadn’t been any hippies for over thirty years, but folks in this area loved to hang on to the obsolete. And it was what they’d always called Danny himself. Danny Thomas? Bloody hippy. We all knows what he grows in Bryncot Dingle. If his ole man was alive it’d kill him dead.

Danny had turned off the toaster, lowered the volume on Wishbone Ash and sought some clarification. To some of the old farmers, a hippy was anybody not wearing a tweed cap, wellies and green waterproof trousers.

‘Ole van,’ Jeremy said, ‘with little windows at the top. And a minibus, with one of them funny stars painted on the side.’

‘Pentagram?’

‘Sort of thing.’

‘Just the two vehicles?’

‘Far’s I can see. Could be more in the trees.’

‘You en’t been down to check?’

Jeremy had said nothing. He wouldn’t have gone near, not even after dark when he was known to move around among the sheep and the cattle looking like a poacher, but in fact a guardian. Jeremy never lost a lamb to the fox; it was like he and the fox had come to an agreement.

Greta had come into the kitchen then, flip-flopping across the stained lino. Had on the old pink dressing gown, and there was purple under her eyes, and Danny thought about the stove her’d never asked for and how it wasn’t enough.

He sighed and waited on the phone, until Jeremy coughed and said, real tentative, ‘Only, I thought as how you might... you know?’

‘Aye, I know,’ Danny said.

It had been flattering at one time. When the New Age travellers used to turn up in force, back in the eighties and nineties, the local farmers had felt threatened by the sheer numbers, and it took the police a long time to get the necessary court orders to move them on. Danny had come into his own, then – a farmer who looked like a traveller and was into their music and understood their ways. One summer night, he’d taken his Les Paul and his littlest generator and the Crate mini-amp up to this travellers’ camp by Forest Inn and hung out there jamming till dawn with a bloke called Judas, from Nuneaton. Biggest bloody audience Danny ever had. He’d donated a drum of diesel for the buses and off they’d all trundled next day, no bother.

The farmers were well pleased, even Sebbie Dacre, bigtime magistrate, who’d been about to have the invaders dealt with. Might be a raggedy-haired druggy, Danny Thomas, but he had his priorities right when it come down to it: Danny the negotiator, Danny the diplomat. The hippy-whisperer, some bugger said one night in the Eagle in New Radnor. Not imagining for one moment that when Danny Thomas was up there jamming with the travellers, he’d been screaming inside, Take me with you! Please! Get me out of yere!

And things wasn’t all that bad, then. Nowadays, agriculture was a sick joke, gasping on the life-support of EC grants. Danny wasn’t hardly replacing stock, in the hope that something would come up. Prices were laughable, and he wasn’t even looking forward to the haymaking, which seemed pointless. He was letting the docks grow, and the thistles. He’d even started doing the National bloody Lottery, and that was totally despicable.

‘All right, give me quarter of an hour, boy.’ Danny turned to his wife. ‘Jeremy Berrows. Got travellers in his bottom field.’

‘You makes it sound like a disease,’ Gret said.

Danny smiled and went off to find his classic King Crimson T-shirt.

The problem was not that Jeremy was scared, just that he was plain shy and avoided the company of other men who were cynical about farming and treated their animals like a crop. Never had nothing to do with his neighbour, Sebbie Dacre, gentleman farmer and Master of the Middle Marches Hunt. Even after his mam left the farm, Jeremy ignored the pubs, and the livestock markets when he could. Everybody thought he was coming out of it when he hooked up with Mary Morson – nice-looking girl, solid farming family. Her and Jeremy, they’d go out together, into Kington, and they had the engagement ring from the jeweller’s there – Mary flashing it around, Jeremy proud as a peacock, if peacocks wore work shirts and baggy jeans.

The van was below them now, about seventy yards away, and Danny could see most of it – light blue, with bits of dark blue showing through on the roof. Hard to say what make it was – bit bigger than a Transit, sure to be. And quite old, so that would likely rule out foreign tourists who didn’t know no better than to camp on somebody’s ground. Foreign tourists had classy new camper vans and Winnebagos.

Jeremy was looking tense already, hunched up.

‘Tell you what,’ Danny said. ‘Why don’t I go down there, talk to the buggers on my own?’

It made sense. Jeremy looked grateful and his shoulders relaxed. Flag the dog, sensing a release of tension, lay down in the grass, panting, and Danny went down there on his own, into the dip where the bank was eroded. The stream at the bottom was almost dried up. The blossomy hedge hid the bypass, though not Stanner Rocks, and Danny could still see the faces on the rocks, and the dead giant. Way back, when he was doing acid, he’d once watched the giant’s head rotting into green slime. Jesus Christ, never again.

‘Hello there!’ Danny shouted.

Now he was close up, he could tell this wasn’t travellers in the New Age sense. The van might be old and have windows punched in the sides, but it was tidy, clean and looked-after, with nothing painted on it – no slogans, no pentagrams – and the windows had proper blinds. And it was the only vehicle here. Where was the minibus, then?

Danny stepped over a bunch of elder branches, neatly sawn and stacked and left to rot, on account of Jeremy never burned elder, which was the Devil’s wood and would bring you no luck.

‘Anybody about?’

He walked over to the van and peered inside the cab, remembering how, on his own farm one time, he’d found this car – posh car, BMW – tucked up against a field gate, with the engine running and a length of hose from the exhaust jammed in the window, and a man in a black suit in there, all pink-faced and well dead.

A wood pigeon came blundering out of the hedge, making as much racket as a bunch of yobs with baseball bats. Danny spun round, and saw that they were above him. Both of them.

A woman and a girl. They were standing on the bank, in full sun, and Danny Thomas could see them clearly, and they weren’t exactly what he’d been expecting.

‘How’re you?’ he said mildly. Was he a bit disappointed because they were so ordinary-looking, both in light-coloured tops and jeans and trainers? Because they wasn’t wild-haired creatures with tattoos and chains and rings in their lips?

‘Oh hell.’ The woman scrambled down. ‘I suppose we’re trespassing.’

Danny shrugged.

‘It was late,’ the woman said, ‘and we were exhausted. I’m sorry.’

Danny said, ‘Where’d the other one go?’

The woman blinked, shook out her dark brown hair. The girl came down and joined her, sticking close like Flag, the sheepdog, had with Jeremy. The girl looked about fourteen.

‘Minibus?’ Danny said. ‘Pentagram on the side?’

‘Oh, yeah, right.’ The woman had an English accent. ‘They’ve gone. They left early. What happened, we met them last night – a girl and two guys. We both pulled into this garage forecourt, only it was closed, and we were nearly out of fuel and it was getting dark and I’m like, Oh Christ, what are we going to do if they’re all closed? I mean, obviously I don’t know this area too well, and I couldn’t think of anywhere to stop for the night. Then this girl in the bus says, “Oh, we’ve been round here loads of times, we can show you a good campsite.” And that’s how we...’ She shrugged. ‘I’m sorry. I mean, it was dark and I— We didn’t light a fire or anything. We wouldn’t do anything like that. Is this your farm? Can I pay you?’

Danny became aware of Jeremy Berrows up on the bank.

Danny said. ‘It’s his farm, it is.’

‘Oh.’

He watched the woman approaching Jeremy. She was very thin and her bare arms were tanned. She was real sexy, in fact, in a more managed way, like a rock chick of the old school.

‘Hi, I’m, er... I’m Nat,’ she said. ‘Natalie. That’s Clancy.’

The girl nodded and said nothing.

Jeremy didn’t move at all, but he wasn’t still either. He was so much a part of this land that he seemed suspended in the air currents, and his sparse, fluffy hair was dusted by the sun. When the woman moved towards Jeremy, leaving the girl by the van, Danny would swear he saw a hell of a shiver go through the boy, as if there was a sudden stiff breeze, come out of nowhere, that no one else could feel.

Danny felt an apprehension.

For over a week, the blue van stayed in the bottom field.

Then it wasn’t there any more.

About a month after this, Gwilym Bufton, the feed dealer and gossipy bastard from Hundred House, told Danny Thomas that he’d seen a blue van parked up in Jeremy Berrows’s yard, hidden behind the old dairy. Like it was meant to be hidden.

By September, people were starting to talk.

In October, Danny saw Jeremy Berrows one lunchtime in the Eagle at New Radnor, sitting at a table in the shadows with the woman with dark brown hair. Jeremy nodded and said, ‘How’re you?’ in a nervous kind of voice, and Danny didn’t push it. The woman smiled at Danny, and it was a nice smile, no question, and she was a lovely-looking woman, no question about that either, but her eyes were watchful. Danny supposed he could understand that, the way people were talking.

Next thing he heard about the van was that it had been sold – bit of irony here – to the naturalists working up at Stanner, to use as a mobile site HQ and for overnight accommodation. Serious burning of boats here, in Danny’s view. Then he hears the woman’s gone to work for the latest London fantasists to take over the ruinous Stanner Hall Hotel. Manager, no less.

A few days later, Greta said, when they were watching telly, during the adverts, ‘Rhoda Morson – you know, Mary’s mother? Well, I was talking to her, in the paper shop, see, and her says, “Oh, he’s just doing it to make Mary jealous.” ’

‘You what?’

Her. Well, Rhoda Morson was mad as hell, sure t’ be, when Mary blew it with Jeremy and lost the farm. Getting his own back now, that’s what she reckons. Rubbing it in.’

‘That’s what her reckons, is it?’ Danny said. Lost the farm. Bloody hell, it was all they ever thought about – bringing another bloody farm into the family. Where was love in the equation, or was that a sixties thing?

Greta looked at him, thoughtful. ‘You could find out.’

‘Eh?’

‘How permanent it is.’

‘Why’d I wanner do that? En’t my affair.’

‘Ah, but is it?’ Greta said. ‘Is it just an affair? Or has that tart got her big feet firmly under the table? The girl’s going to school over at Moorfield now, ’cording to Lynne in the hairdresser’s. Now that’s got the ring of permanent about it, isn’t it?’

Danny yawned and watched a car commercial he liked because it had a soundtrack of ‘Travellin’ in Style’ by Free. He’d never had an actual car, only second-hand trucks. He didn’t mention to Greta about the van being sold; if she hadn’t heard, he wasn’t going to give her more gossip to spread across the valley.

‘You knows Jeremy Berrows better than most,’ she said. ‘You could find out.’

‘I prob’ly could, Gret,’ Danny said. ‘If I gave a shit.’

And the matter was never raised again, because that was the night of the terrible fire that wrecked Gomer Parry’s plant-hire depot down the valley, killing Gomer’s nephew, Fat Nev. Bit of a shock for everybody in Radnor Valley, that was, and Danny spent a lot of time helping poor old Gomer salvage what could be salvaged and restore what could be restored. Rebuilding the perimeter fence to keep out the scavengers and dealing with the particular area of the site that he realized Gomer couldn’t bear to go near.

And out of the blackened ruins of Gomer’s business came the glimmering of a new future for Danny. It wasn’t, admittedly, the career in music he’d always dreamed of, but it would mean whole days out of the valley. New places, new people. And he was a good ole boy, Gomer Parry.

For a while, Danny Thomas was so excited that, like the great David Crosby, he almost cut his hair.

He never saw much of Jeremy Berrows again until the winter, when the trees were all rusty and the skulls of Stanner Rocks gleamed with damp like cold sweat, and the traditional stability of the border country was very much called into question.

Traditional stability: that was a bloody joke.

Part One

It occurred to a man who was cycling home to Kington late at night – he’d been working at the munitions factory during the War. Near Hergest Court he saw this enormous hound which he’d never seen before and never saw again. The hound had huge eyes – that’s what impressed him most, the size of its eyes. The hound didn’t attack him, and he just kept cycling and I would imagine he cycled very fast. He had a feeling that there was something that just wasn’t real about it.

Bob Jenkins, journalist, Kington

1

Without the Song

NORMALLY, SHE WOULDN’T think of fogging the air around non-smoking parishioners, especially so soon after a service. Tonight was different. Tonight, Merrily needed not only this cigarette but what it was saying about her.

The cigarette said, This woman is human. This woman is weak. Also, given the alleged findings on secondary smoking, this woman is selfish and inconsiderate. This is a serial sinner.

Only it wasn’t getting through. Brenda Prosser’s eyes were glowing almost golden now. Twice she’d tried to sit down at the kitchen table and been pushed back to her feet by the electricity inside her. She had to hold on to the back of the chair to stop her hands trembling, and then the joy would make her mouth go slack and she’d shake her head, smiling helplessly.

‘Gone.’ Maybe the fourth time she’d said that – Brenda relishing the hard finality in the word: gone, gone, gone.

‘Just like it never was there, vicar,’ Big Jim Prosser said. His light grey suit was soaked and blackened across the shoulders. He stood with his back to the old Aga in the vicarage kitchen, and the Aga rumbled sourly.

And Merrily smoked and wondered how she should be responding. But the inner screen was blank. Just like Ann-Marie’s scan.

‘This is a miracle, sure t’be,’ Jim said.

Oh Christ. Any word but that.

‘And, see, like I kept saying to Jim, hardly the first one, is it?’ Rain was still bubbled on Brenda’s forehead like the remains of a born-again baptism. ‘Not the first since you brought back the Evensong.’

‘Without the song.’ Merrily sat down, then abruptly stood up again and went to fill the kettle for tea. A dense curtain of rain swished across the dark window over the sink, as though it had been hosed.

They could have waited for her in the church porch, Brenda and Jim. But when the congregation was filing out, umbrellas going up, there they’d been, standing among the wet tombs and the headstones, both of them bareheaded, as though they were unaware of the sometimes-sleety rain. Like they were in some parallel dimension where it wasn’t cold and it wasn’t raining at all.

The truth was, Jim had said, as they followed Merrily to the vicarage, that they didn’t want to talk to anyone else, didn’t want to answer all the obvious questions about Ann-Marie. They thought it was only right that the vicar should be the first to know.

This was the first time that either Jim or Brenda had been to the Sunday evening service. They’d been among those older parishioners who were huffily avoiding it because they’d heard it was all changed, had become a bit unconventional, a bit not for the likes of us.

‘I pray we’ll be forgiven for ever doubting what you were trying to do, Merrily,’ Brenda said now.

So much for the experiment in Mystery.

Evensong.

As in most parishes, the Sunday evening service had been killed a while ago, by falling congregations.

And then Merrily had suddenly brought it back. Sunday evening in the church. Everyone welcome. Just that. Nothing about a service.

The truth was that, after what had happened with Jenny Box, she’d been feeling guilty. Deliverance work had been separating her too often from her own parish, from the day-to-day cure of souls. She’d been too busy to notice the anomalous buds in the local flower bed until they were bursting into black blossom.

When she’d put this to the Bishop, he’d waved it away. Congregations were in free fall; it was a phase. Or it wasn’t a phase, but something truly sinister – the beginning of the end for organized Christianity. What about children? the Bishop asked; the new Archbishop of Canterbury was particularly worried about the absence of children in churches. Merrily had raised this issue with Jane, who seemed to have been a child like yesterday, and Jane had wrinkled her nose.

‘Who needs kids in church, anyway? Look at it this way – kids are not supposed to drink in pubs until they’re eighteen, so pubs are slightly mysterious... therefore cool. So like, obviously, the best way to invest in the future would be to ban the little sods from the church altogether. That way, they wouldn’t turn out like me.’

‘So the monthly Family Service, with kids doing readings, the quiz...’

‘Totally crap idea, I always said that. It just makes the Church look needy and pathetic. You have to cultivate the mystery. If you don’t bring back the mystery, you’re stuffed, Mum.’

It was worrying: increasingly these days the kid was making a disturbing kind of sense.

OK, then. When she brought back the service, she didn’t call it Evensong because there was no song. No hymns, no psalms. And no sermon, definitely no preaching. It was an experiment with Mystery.

She didn’t even call it a service. She didn’t wear the kit – no cassock, not even a dog collar after the first time – and she sat on a car cushion on the chancel steps. The heating, for what it was worth, would be on full, and pews were pulled out and angled into a semi-circle haloed by a wooden standard lamp that she’d liberated from the vestry. It was a quiet time, a low-key prelude to the working week. The first time, only four people had turned up, which partly dictated the form. Five weeks later, it was a congregation of around twenty, and growing, although congregation was hardly the word.

It would begin with tea and coffee and chat, turning into a discussion of people’s problems. Sometimes solutions were arrived at before the villagers went home. Small difficulties sorted: babysitters found, gardeners for old people. Sometimes it would quietly feed notions into the village, and issues would be resolved during the following week.

The church as forum, the church as catalyst. The polish-scented air as balm. How it should be.

And the Mystery.

As early as the third week, more personal issues had started to emerge. The ones you wouldn’t hear discussed on the street, certainly not by the people involved: marital problems, anxieties over illness and fears over kids and what they might be getting into. There was a surprising focus to these discussions, and when prayer came into it – as it usually did, in the end – it would happen spontaneously, rising like a ground mist in the nave.

Real prayer... and somehow this was a seal of confidentiality. None of the problems raised in the church and distilled into prayer had ever drifted back to Merrily as gossip.

She was elated. It had been cooking. What she didn’t need at this stage was anything boiling over into myth-making.

Jim and Brenda Prosser ran the Eight till Late in the centre of the village. Their daughter, Ann-Marie, who last summer had been painlessly divorced, had moved into the flat over the shop, helping out there at weekends before going off clubbing in Hereford, with her mates. Ann-Marie’s illness had been a rumour for some weeks. Pasted-on smiles at the checkout, whispers about tests. On a Sunday night two weeks ago, Alice Meek, who had the fish and chip shop in Old Barn Lane, had said, Brenda won’t talk about it, but it don’t look good. En’t there nothing we can do?

‘Alice,’ Brenda said now. ‘You know what Alice is like.’

‘Calls a spade a bloody ole shovel,’ Jim said.

‘We met Alice when we were coming back from Dr Kent’s house this afternoon, and she seemed to know.’

‘Only by your face, love,’ Jim said with affection.

The kettle began to hiss, and Merrily put tea in the pot. Brenda sat down at last. She was in her early sixties, had lost weight recently – no surprise there – and her bleach-blonde hair was fading back to white. Periodically, a hand trembled. Brenda folded both of them in her lap and stared across the refectory table at Merrily, like she was seeing the vicar in a strange new light.

‘Alice told us about the special prayers you had for Ann-Marie.’

‘Well, not—’ Merrily looked down at the table top. Of course it was special; all prayer should be special.

‘Alice said she lost track of time. She said she felt as if everybody there was together. United, you know? And that was also some of the newcomers she didn’t know. All united and they were part of something that was... bigger. Said she’d never known anything like that before. Alice said.’

Emotion had brought up the Welshness in Brenda’s voice. The Prossers had moved across from Brecon about fifteen years ago. Merrily felt flushed and uncertain. Happy, of course – happy for the Prossers and Ann-Marie. It was luminously wonderful, and she’d been conscious of reaching an unexpected level of conscious worship, but...

‘What did Dr Kent say exactly?’

‘He phoned for Ann-Marie just after lunch,’ Jim said. ‘He admitted he’d known since Friday, but he was afraid to say in case it was wrong. In case they’d somehow got the wrong medical records or whatever. He said he didn’t think it was possible the new tests had drawn a blank, couldn’t like get his head around it. So he was trying to get the consultant on the phone all of yesterday, and it wasn’t until this morning, see, when he managed to reach him at his home. Couldn’t believe it. Neither of them.’

‘He definitely confirmed that the scan was...’

‘Clear. Nothing there. And it was hers, no question of that. No mistake here, Merrily.’

‘What did the consultant say about it?’

Jim shrugged. ‘You know these fellers.’

‘Maybe they...’ Merrily bit her lip. Made a mistake the first time.

‘See, to be frank, Merrily, I’ve never been what you’d call a real churchgoer,’ Jim said. ‘I’m a local shopkeeper, struggling to stay in business. Sometimes I’ve come because it seemed to be expected.’

Brenda sat up. ‘Jim!’

‘No, let me say this. I want to. It’s like being a social drinker. I was a... how would you put it?’

‘Social worshipper?’ Merrily smiled. ‘That’s perilously close to martyrdom, Jim.’

‘What I’m trying to say...’ He’d reddened at last. ‘Well, if this isn’t a bloody miracle, Merrily, I wouldn’t recognize one, that’s all.’

Merrily tried to hold the smile. ‘Big word.’

Brenda said quickly, ‘Alice said you also prayed for Percy Joyce’s arthritis and—’

‘Yes, but that—’

‘And now he’s come off the steroids. You’re healing people, Merrily.’

The words echoed once, clearly in her head as the kettle began to scream and shake, and the kitchen lights seemed too bright.

‘I...’ Merrily ground her cigarette into the ashtray, twisting it from side to side. ‘Sometimes, God heals people.’

Sometimes. It was a crucial word, because most times people were not healed.

Big Jim said gently, ‘We understands that. But He do need asking the right way, don’t He? What I’m saying, Merrily... something happened during that service, to concentrate people’s minds on it. Something a bit powerful, sort of thing. It’s a new kind of service, and you’re a new kind of vicar. Not what we was used to. Alice is telling—’

Everybody, probably.

‘Where’s Ann-Marie now?’

Brenda smiled. ‘In the pub, I expect, with her friends. She’ll be coming to thank you, have no doubts about—’

‘No... look...’ Merrily stood up. ‘I’m really, really happy for her and for you, and it does seem like a miracle. But the body’s a wonderful thing, and sometimes... I’d just be really glad if you didn’t say too much about that aspect of it, for the moment. For the time being. Until—’

Until when, exactly?

‘We’ll go now,’ Jim said.

‘You haven’t had your tea. I’m sorry...’

‘We never wanted to embarrass you, Merrily,’ Brenda said.

Most weeks, Lol would pull the property section out of Prof’s Hereford Times and toss it on the pile of papers they kept for lighting the stoves.

Wood-burners in a recording studio? Prof had been unsure about this, but the punters liked it. When the sound of a log collapsing into ash had filtered like a sigh into the mix of the final acoustic song that the guitar legend Tom Storey had recorded here last week, Tom had refused to lose it. Tom, who’d left yesterday, was superstitious about these things.

Tonight, Prof would be working in here, tinkering with Tom’s music perhaps until dawn. About eight p.m., Lol went out to the wood-shelter and packed a pile of blocks into a big basket, brought the basket into the stable that now housed the studio and bent to build a fire in the second stove.

Sometimes his work here amounted to little more than domestic chores and working on his own material. Prof didn’t seem to mind that, but Lol did.

He was crumpling the property pages to take the kindling when he noticed a small photograph of a tiny, tilting house with a white door. He stood up and carried the paper to the light over the mixing desk.

LEDWARDINE

Church Street – exquisite small, terraced

house, Grade Two listed, close to the centre

of this sought-after village. Beamed

living room, kitchen, two bedrooms and

bathroom. Open green area and orchards

to rear. Must be viewed.

He stood for a while by the mixing desk, then he tore out the page, folded it and pushed it into a back pocket of his jeans. While he was packing the rest of the property section into the stove and adding twigs, he saw himself walking in through that white door. Draped over the post at the foot of the stairs was an old woollen poncho, then you went through into the low-beamed parlour. You sat down at Lucy’s desk in the window overlooking Church Street, with two lamps switched on. You heard a movement, looked over your shoulder and saw Jane Watkins, fifteen, standing in the doorway, and Jane said, desolately, I thought she would be here. I really didn’t think she’d left us for ever.

Lucy Devenish: honorary aunt to Jane, mentor to Lol. Lucy had introduced him to the inspirational seventeenth-century Herefordshire poet, Thomas Traherne, and, indirectly, to Jane’s mother, the Rev. Watkins.

Lucy in her poncho, face like an old Red Indian, voice like a duchess: You have to learn to open up. Let the world flow into you again.

He could still see Jane standing in the doorway that night at Lucy’s – Lucy not yet buried after dying in the road, hit and run. Jane standing in the doorway, confused, and a pink moon hanging outside. Jane talking about her mother: She does like you. I can tell. I think, the way things turned out, you probably did the best thing not actually sleeping with her. It will stand you in good stead.

Getting to sleep with Merrily had taken more than a year. A year in which Lol had turned away from music, taken a course in psychotherapy and then turned away in disgust from psychotherapy and gone back to the music.

But neither he nor Merrily was all that young any more. They lived over half an hour apart and their lives were very different, but every day when he didn’t see her seemed like a wasted day, and there was nothing like the music business for teaching you about passing time.

Lol struck a match and put it to the paper. Ledwardine. He’d been living there when they’d first met, but circumstances had moved him away. Now he wanted to go back. He wanted that house and everything it once had promised.

When the Prossers had gone, Merrily lit a cigarette, feeling leaden and ungracious. She was thinking, miserably, about healing.

Thinking about the corrupted Bible Belt evangelism of the former Radnor Valley minister, Father Nick Ellis. About an event called the Big Bible Fest she’d attended with a crowd of other students at theological college, where there’d been speaking in tongues and calls to the disabled to have faith and rise up out of those wheelchairs. And if they didn’t rise up then their faith wasn’t strong enough. Tough.

She thought about a girl called Heather Redfern – seventeen, Jane’s age – who, despite prayers in at least six churches, had died of leukaemia less than a month after leading a twenty-mile sponsored walk around the black and white villages of North Herefordshire to raise money for Macmillan nurses.

And she thought about Ann-Marie Herdman – dizzy, superficial, often seen swaying across the square at one a.m., towing some bloke up to the flat over the Eight till Late. Some bloke who, in the morning, she probably wouldn’t even recognize. Ann-Marie: a woman for whom the church gate was just a convenient place to wait for your lift into Hereford.

Healing was like the bloody National Lottery; the good guys rarely hit the jackpot.

Merrily stood up and went, without thinking, into the scullery. Because what you did now, you phoned your spiritual director.

Or you would do that, if your spiritual director wasn’t wrestling with his own crisis in a place far away where no mobile phones were permitted – a primitive monastic community, not in the mid-Wales wilderness but on a concrete estate south of Manchester, where the police would raid flats and find guns, a place Huw Owen described as like an open wound turning septic. More suited to his condition, he said, than bare hills safe and sanitized by wind and rain.

Huw was running hard from his all-too-human emotions. He’d lost a woman, the love of his mid-life, because of a man of unfathomable evil, and the all-too-human part of Huw had sought closure through revenge. And, although – maybe because – this man was dead, it hadn’t happened; there had been no closure, and Huw was terrified that his faith wasn’t sufficient to take him beyond that.

Merrily sat down at the desk, glimpsing a dispiriting image of her own faith as a small, nutlike core inside a protective shell: too small, too shrivelled, to absorb the concept of miracles.

Jane rang from the hotel, just before ten. The same Jane who should have been home by now.

‘Erm, I told Gomer I wouldn’t need a lift back tonight, OK?’

‘I see,’ Merrily said.

‘Don’t be like that. There’s no problem about going straight to school from here in the morning. As it happens, I’ve got the clobber in my case.’

‘How prescient of you, flower.’

‘It’s as well to be prepared, you’re always saying that. It looked like snow earlier. It comes down heavily up here, when it starts.’

‘Being at least seven miles closer to the Arctic Circle.’

Jane’s weekend job had altered the format of both their lives. It was good that she had a job, not so good that it involved overnights on Saturdays, because all they had left, then, was Sunday, Merrily’s Working Day. Which left Sunday night, and now that was gone, too.

And it was the fact that Jane was working in a hotel and spending nights there. This was really stupid, but Merrily kept thinking about Donna Furlowe, daughter of the woman Huw Owen had loved. At Jane’s age, maybe a little older, Donna had been working at a hotel – holiday job – and had gone missing and been found murdered, possibly one of the Cromwell Street killings. Of course that was in Gloucestershire and this was on the edge of Herefordshire, where it hardened into Wales. It wasn’t even a coincidence, just paranoia.

‘You all right, Mum?’

‘Why do you want to stay there?’ It came out sharper than she’d intended. ‘Sorry. Do they want you to stay?’

‘They could use the extra help, yeah.’

‘Mmm.’ It was wise, in this kind of situation, not to ask too many questions, to convey the illusion of trust.

‘Of course, if you’re lonely,’ Jane said insouciantly, ‘you could always give Lol a ring.’

‘Jane—’

‘Oh no, it’s Sunday, isn’t it? Mustn’t risk having a man seen sneaking into the vicarage... on a Sunday. And not leaving until – wooooh – Monday.’

Merrily said nothing.

‘When are you two going to, like, grow up?’ Jane said.

2

Game Afoot

‘AND LEFT HER there... her lifeblood oozing into the rug.’

Pausing for a moment, lean and elegant in his black suit, he stared right through the faces watching him out of the shadows. The table lamp with the frosted globe put shards of ice into his eyes. ‘Oh my God,’ a woman whispered.

Jane was thinking, Grown people.

Now he was spinning back, sighting down his nose at the man in the wing-backed, brocaded chair. And the man was shifting uncomfortably. And the stiff white cuffs were chafing Jane’s wrists.

‘... And then you crept up to your room and waited until the entire household was silent. What time would that have been? Midnight? A quarter-past? Yes, let us say a quarter-past – twelve-seventeen being the precise time of the full moon... which I suspect would appeal to your sense of drama.’

With the log fire down to embers, the globe-shaded oil lamp was the only light in the drawing room, more shiveringly alive than electricity, spraying complex shadows up the oak panels. Jane dropped her resistance. She was part of the whole scam now, anyway.

‘Piffle,’ said the man in the wing-backed chair.

‘Oh, I think not, Major. I think that, barely half an hour after the murder, you crept back down the stairs and into the study, where you began to overturn chairs and pull out drawers, making as much noise as you possibly could. Finally, with the handle of your stick, you smashed not one, but two windows, in swift succession, so that the sound might be mistaken for a single impact.’

‘Sir, your imagination is, I would suggest, even more hysterical than your abominable fiddle-playing.’

A thin hand disdainfully flicked away the insult. ‘And then you moved silently, up the back stairs this time, and immediately re-emerged onto the main landing, dragging on your dressing gown, shouting and spluttering.’

Jane remembered it well. It had been seriously startling. She must have been in bed about twenty minutes and was half asleep when this huge roar went up. Who’s there? Who’s making all that damn noise? What the hell’s going on?

When she’d grabbed at the switch of the bedside lamp, it hadn’t come on. And then, when she got out of bed, she’d found that the ceiling light wouldn’t work either. She’d gone to open the door but remembered, just in time: Never be seen outside your room in your normal clothes, no matter what happens. Anyhow, her jeans and stuff were in the case under the bed, so she’d thrown on the awful, stiff black dress – Edwardian maid’s standard issue – before venturing out into the cold and musty darkness of the upper landing, flicking switches to find that none of the electric lights was functioning. Feeling her way to the top of the stairs under this eerie green glow from the smoke alarm, peering down to see most of the guests stumbling onto the main landing which was dim and full of shadows but a little brighter than upstairs because it was lit by – wow, cool – an incandescent thimble on a bracket. She’d noticed several of these gas mantles around the place but never imagined that they might actually work. This was like totally disorientating, a time-shift, a sliding century. She recalled a woman saying faintly, Is this real?

‘You roused the entire household, Major.’ A raised forefinger. The Major tried to rise but fell back into the wings of the chair. ‘But you made very sure that you would be the first one to re-enter the study – this sombre room of death where poor Lady Hartland lay cooling in her own congealing blood. And you had to be the first one to enter. Is that not so?’

‘Fairy-tale nonsense, sir.’ But the Major’s voice was slurred with guilt. Was he really a major? He’d been chatting in the bar an hour or so ago, explaining that he’d been based at Brecon until his retirement. Was that all made up?

The lamplight wavered. Jane felt bemused. It was working.

Last night, when they’d all come staggering down, the Major had been standing at the foot of the stairs, his back to the door of the study which all yesterday had been kept locked. Oh Lord, something terrible appears to have happened! Please, madam, you’d best not look. At this point, the study door had swung ajar behind him and you could see the bare lower legs of the corpse, pale as altar candles, receding into shadow. That had worked, too. Christ, Jane had thought, for that one crucial moment.

‘So.’ The man in black cleared his throat. ‘We know why you murdered her, and now we know how. There remains only—’

‘The question of proof. Of which you have none.’ The Major waved a dismissive hand and turned away, gazing towards the long window. Headlamps flashed on it, tongues of creamy light distorting in the rainy panes. It was probably the Cravens, reversing out to go home. Oh, hell, Jane thought, I was supposed to have drawn the curtains. At least Ben had his back to the window, so he wouldn’t have noticed. Jane put up a hand to her white, frilly headband, making sure it hadn’t slid off again.

‘Proof, Major?’ A faint sneer, a languid hand reaching down by the side of the chair. ‘If we’re looking for proof—’

‘Leave that alone! How dare you, sir!’

‘—Then we need hardly look very far.’

The man in black had found a walking stick, ebony, with a brass handle in the shape of a cobra’s head. As he weighed it in his hands, you could hear the distant visceral scraping of a solo violin. Should have sounded naff, but it was somehow exactly right, timed to underscore the tension as the stick was proffered to the man in the chair.

‘If you please, Major... or shall I?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Then we shall waste no more time!’ Snatching back the stick and holding it over the table, next to the oil lamp, so that everyone could see him twist the cobra’s head.

No! The Major sat up. ‘That—’

The snake head came off, the hollow shaft of the walking stick was very gently shaken. The man in black was somehow manipulating the light so that everyone’s attention was on his hands, and on the stick... and on this big red stone that rolled out and lay there glowing on the very edge of the table.

‘Hmm. The Fontaine Ruby, I imagine.’

The Major half rose from his chair, as though he was about to make a break for it. Several spontaneous gasps wafted out of the shadows, from people who had spent most of the afternoon searching for this paste ruby – with the walking stick conspicuously propped up in the hallstand the whole time.

The man in black didn’t even glance at it. Gems, in themselves, clearly held no big fascination for him; even his interest in the Major was waning now that guilt was proved. They both glanced towards the door, which had opened to reveal this guy bulked out by a huge tweed overcoat. The Major slumped back.

‘I think this is all the evidence we require,’ the man in black said mildly. ‘You may arrest him now, Lestrade.’

Silence. And then the electric lights came up and the applause kicked in: genuine appreciation, a couple of actual cheers. A triumph. You couldn’t fault it.

When the lights came fully on, everything seemed duller and shabbier, the country-house drawing room reverting to hotel lounge, the oil lamp dimming into history. And Sherlock Holmes was Ben Foley again, closing his eyes in relief.

Afterwards, when the bar was closed, Jane went down to the kitchen to collect mugs of bedtime hot chocolate to serve to the twelve guests. Earlier, she’d heard Ben saying that twelve was barely enough to make the weekend pay for itself, and they were all too old, and the whole thing was an embarrassment.

The kitchen had flagged floors and high windows and room for a whole bunch of servants, but it was dominated by the new island unit that Ben had assembled from the debris of a bankrupt butcher’s shop in Leominster. If most domestic island units were the Isle of Wight this was Australia. Amber, who didn’t have any staff to speak of, was on her own, bending over a corner of the unit, adding something herbal and aromatic to the cauldron of hot chocolate. She looked up.

‘Is he all right?’

‘Basking in adulation.’

‘Yes, he’s quite good at that,’ Amber said. No sarcasm there; Amber didn’t do sarcasm.

Last night, all wound-up before the guests came down for dinner, Ben had snarled that yeah, he might have done live theatre before, but that was over twenty years ago, and back then he didn’t have to work with school pantomime props and a bunch of crappy amateurs.

‘He was brilliant, Amber. Genuine massive applause – well, as massive as you can get from— Anyway, you’d have thought there was a lot more of them, to hear it.’

Amber was wearily rubbing her eyes, shoulder-length ash-blonde hair tinted pink by the halogen lights. She was probably about fifteen years younger than Ben, maybe mid-thirties, but more... well, more mature. She was wearing a big pink sweater and an apron with a cartoon cat on it.

‘Must’ve taken for ever to plan,’ Jane said. ‘Like the gas mantles – I didn’t even know they worked.’

Amber looked worried. ‘Some kind of bottled gas. I don’t like to think of the safety regulations he’s broken. Plus messing with the trip switches last night to make sure the normal lights didn’t work – I mean, what if one of those old women had fallen down the stairs?’

‘Well, they didn’t. It was brilliant.’ Jane liked Amber moaning to her; you only moaned to people you could trust. ‘Oh yeah – good news – only one of the punters correctly identified both the murderer and the motive, so that’s just the one bottle of champagne to give away.’

Amber blinked. ‘You did phone your mother, didn’t you?’

‘I did phone my mother. And there wasn’t a problem about staying over.’

‘Because I’d hate—’

‘There was no problem.’

‘It’s very good of you, Jane,’ Amber said. ‘The girl we had before wouldn’t do Saturday nights. They don’t seem to want weekend jobs any more.’

‘Jesus, Amber,’ Jane said, ‘this isn’t a job.’

A holiday, more like. A regular weekend break, and they gave you money at the end of it. Well, usually.

At first, Jane had thought Amber was a bit like Mum, but now she saw a clear difference. Amber’s modesty came out of this essential self-belief; she’d handled the food end of two significant London restaurants fronted by flash gits who treated customers like morons, knowing that she was the reason they could afford the arrogance. Flash gits faded fast, but Amber was never going to be out of work, Ben had remarked, talking about it to guests in the bar, naming names. I like to think I rescued her from that little scumbag. Can you bear to watch his crappy TV show?

To Ben, virtually everything on the box, including the news and weather, had become crap from the day he finally negotiated his severance deal with BBC Drama. A couple of weeks ago, a Face from Casualty or EastEnders – someone vaguely familiar from something Jane wouldn’t have watched if the alternative was the Open University – had come to stay overnight at the hotel, accompanied by a gorgeous-looking woman who sat propping up her smile while the Face and Ben got rat-arsed and ranted on for hours about the bunch of totally talentless twats who ran the Corporation these days.

‘So who was the winner, Jane?’ Amber started setting out empty mugs on the wooden trolley.

‘Oh – guy with white hair? Like Steve Martin without the humour?’

‘Dr Kennedy. He’s the serious expert. The others are just here for fun. Kennedy’s written books on Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. He knows a lot.’

‘I thought Ben knew a lot.’

‘Ben? All Ben’s ever done is produce The Missing Casebook for the BBC. You’re probably too young—’

‘No, I think I saw a couple.’

‘I’m sure you’re too young to remember the fuss.’

Apparently The Missing Casebook had not been adapted from the Conan Doyle stories. It was this semi-serious spoof, supposed to be about what Holmes was really doing after everyone thought he’d died at the Reichenbach Falls. The joke being – possibly for copyright reasons – that the central character in The Missing Casebook was incognito. He looked like Sherlock Holmes, he spoke like Sherlock Holmes, he played his violin in the night and shot himself up with cocaine, and everyone knew who he was really, but he was always called something else, a different name in every episode.

‘I don’t actually remember that,’ Jane admitted.

‘The second series was cancelled. The first one didn’t go down well, particularly in Holmes circles. The orthodox version’s sacrosanct to those people. They want the same stories done over and over again, as if it’s history, not fiction. And they don’t like people taking the piss.’

‘He wasn’t taking the piss this weekend, though, was he? OK, the story was invented, but you can’t have a murder weekend where everybody already knows who’s done it, can you?’

‘Murder weekends.’ Amber sighed.

‘No, but it worked, Amber. I was trying to be cynical, because, you know... But it was all beautifully done, given the—’

‘Tiny budget,’ Amber said.

‘I mean, he really dominated it. He was Holmes.’

‘Gave up acting when he was twenty-six,’ Amber said. ‘He didn’t think he was good enough to be one of the greats. It’s the way he is.’

‘He needs to be great?’

‘He needs to... succeed against the odds, I suppose.’ Amber dipped a wooden spoon into the chocolate and tasted it. ‘Anyway, the most important guest this weekend is Dr Kennedy, because he’s the Secretary of The Baker Street League, and we need their conference. They’re not the biggest or the oldest of the Holmes societies, but Ben knows a few members already, and obviously it would help for us to be linked with a group like that.’

Jane sniffed at the hot chocolate. You could pass out with longing.

‘Amber...’

‘What?’

‘Do you really need this Holmes connection to make the hotel work?’

Amber blew out her cheeks, the closest she ever came to scowling. Jane knew that Ben had spotted this place in a copy of Country Life at the dentist’s, making an impulse call and discovering that it was still on the market after five months. So there was Ben with what seemed like a decent amount of money to invest in a future out of TV... Ben who didn’t want to go crawling to any more witless tossers who couldn’t see further than cops and hospitals. Who didn’t want to have to watch any more projects crash after months of hassle. Who wanted something he was completely in control of. He kept saying that.

And here it was, in a beautiful, atmospheric and unspoiled area less than half a day from central London. A structurally sound country house – kind of – with the possibility of twenty bedrooms if you developed outbuildings. A house with a history that, although not extensive, included a literary connection of curious significance to Ben Foley. Surely this was some kind of—

‘I mean, I know he said it was an omen...’ Jane said.

‘Now he’s finding out that the concept of total independence is a myth, especially with limited funds, and he’s still having to crawl to people like Kennedy. And put on murder weekends, which he claims he does for fun, but which really are all we’ve got. Which isn’t good, is it, Jane?’

‘But this Conan Doyle thing...’ Jane looked around the vast kitchen, imagining a grandfatherly figure with a heavy moustache waiting politely for his mug of chocolate. The face she saw was very distinct. It was the face from a blown-up photograph framed above the fireplace in the lounge.

‘We don’t actually know if he stayed here regularly – or even once. But rumour and legend have always been enough for Ben. What he doesn’t know he’ll invent. Life’s like television – if it’s on the screen it must have happened. And that’s enough to build a business image around.’

‘Maybe he was just afraid you wouldn’t come if you thought he had an agenda.’

‘No,’ Amber said sadly, ‘I always go along with things.’ She began to pour the chocolate into a big earthenware jug. ‘I just wish it wasn’t so... Victorian. There’s something cold and... ungiving about Victorian houses. Everything’s bigger than it needs to be. Too many passageways.’

‘Mmm,’ Jane said. Ben had shown her the ‘secret passage’ under the stairs, where Lady Hartland, played by Natalie Craven, had waited to die.

‘Not so bad in the summer, but now I realize I don’t like the forestry, and those gnarled old rocks. The way they seem to be watching you. Watching everything crumbling around you, while they’ve been here for ever.’

‘Mmm,’ Jane said again, in two minds. As a weird person, she really liked Stanner Rocks, naturally. But this seemed like a good opportunity to bring up the thing that had been bothering her a little. ‘Er, while we’re on the subject of everything being bigger than it needs to be, my room certainly is.’

‘Sorry, Jane?’

‘The tower room – I mean it’s fantastic to have a room that size, but I feel a bit... Like, I’m not used to a room that big, that’s all.’

‘Oh, we thought—’

‘And I keep waking up in the night. Stupid, really. So like, I... just wondered if I could have my old room back.’

Jane felt deceitful and a bit ashamed. She’d been switched around twice over the past couple of weekends, as the Foleys continued their winter programme of refurbishing the bedrooms one by one. Amber looked at her thoughtfully.

‘Just... too big?’

‘Stupid, really,’ Jane said.

‘Well, if you don’t like that room, Jane—’

‘It’s not that I don’t like it—’

‘Then you can move your stuff back to the old one tonight if you like.’

Jane nodded, trying not to show her relief, which was kind of despicable, frankly. ‘Thanks, Amber.’

Back in the lounge, Ben helped her serve the chocolate. ‘Thanks, sweetheart, you’ve been terrific.’ His hair was wisping out of the Holmes grease-slick, the curls re-forming. He bent down to her ear and whispered, ‘Some of these old guys, seeing a little maid around the place in a starchy uniform, it gives them a delicious little frisson, you know?’

‘I don’t do frissons,’ Jane said primly, and Ben laughed and went to play Holmes again for two elderly ladies, the kind that it was nice to think still existed outside of old Agatha Christie films. A few of the people here were regulars at murder weekends all over the country. There was a network of them now.

The Major came over for his chocolate. ‘Terribly sorry, my dear, but I’ve been assuming you were Ben’s daughter.’

‘Just paid help... Major.’ It felt – this was stupid – a little weird talking to a guy who’d just been exposed as having beaten a woman’s brains out. It was surprising how the scenario crawled into some area of your mind and lodged there. Maybe something to do with the house. She shook herself. The maid’s headband fell off, and she caught it and laughed. ‘Are you really a major?’

He pushed his tongue into a cheek. He was stocky, sixtyish, and his tufty white moustache looked genuine. ‘Frank Sampson, AVAD.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Arrow Valley Amateur Dramatics.’

Jane grinned. ‘Had me fooled. Not like this area isn’t full of retired soldiers.’

‘Except the real ones tend to be ex-Regiment. Younger. Fitter. Not how you imagine them any more.’ Frank Sampson nodded towards Ben. ‘Fun, though, working with a pro. I’d like to see them make the place work. I remember the first time it was a hotel.’

‘Bad?’

‘Well, that was back in the sixties, when walking holidays were for the hard-up, so I suppose it was more of a hostel. After that, an old folks’ home, then some sort of specialist language school, then an old folks’ home again. Not for long, though. Elderly people hate to be dumped this far out. They want life around them, not dripping trees.’

‘So what was it when Conan Doyle stayed here?’

Frank Sampson shrugged. ‘Just a house, presumably. Quite a new one then, obviously. That’s a bone of contention, isn’t it? That’s a can of worms, Clancy.’

Jane smiled. ‘I’m Jane. Clancy’s gone home.’

‘Sorry!’ He covered his mouth. ‘Can’t seem to get anything right tonight. Can’t even get away with murder. Don’t suppose there’s any more of this incredible chocolate, is there? Not getting paid for this, but I’m buggered if I’m passing up the side benefits.’

The last of the logs collapsed in the grate behind them. Jane brought the earthenware jug and topped up Frank’s mug. ‘How do you mean, can of worms?’

‘Weeeeell, you know – did he spend time here or didn’t he? I don’t know. I don’t know anyone who does.’

‘Why would anybody think he did, then?’

The fake major blinked. ‘Well, that—’

Friends!’ Ben was in the middle of the room, clapping his hands together for attention. His Edwardian jacket was undone and his hair was flowing back from his shining dome. ‘In case I don’t see any of you in the morning, just want to say a big thanks. Thanks for being our guinea pigs.’

‘Great fun,’ one of the Agatha Christie ladies said. ‘Hope there’ll be more.’

‘Well, ah... we’ve certainly learned some things.’ Ben sank his hands into his jacket pockets, opening the coat out like wings, the way kids did. ‘For instance, quite a few people have said that they’d rather it had started on Friday evening, through Saturday, because they really needed to leave today, to get to work tomorrow. Sorry about that. As you can no doubt guess, we’re pretty much amateurs at the hotel game. But’ – he raised a forefinger – ‘we learn fast. Ah...’

He paused and looked across at the portrait over the fireplace, the blue-tinted blow-up photo of the kind-looking man with neat hair and a weighty moustache and eyes which seemed to be focused, with a glint of mild wonder, on something in the middle distance.

‘I know there’s still some controversy about whether Sir Arthur spent time here,’ Ben said. ‘But I feel he did. Sometimes, when I walk through these rooms late at night or early in the morning, I like to feel he’s perhaps... Well, we all know what an ardent spiritualist he was, so let’s not get into that. I just feel there are mysteries about Sir Arthur which might be solved here. I don’t know why I say that, I just... sorry... babbling.’ Ben wiped the air. ‘Apologies.’

‘No, go on,’ a woman said. Not one of the Agathas; this one was elegant, middle-aged, with long near-white hair and half-glasses, and Jane thought she’d come on her own. ‘Are we talking about The Hound of the Baskervilles? Because I was rather disappointed that none of this came up during the weekend.’

‘Ah, well.’ Ben looked put-out. ‘That deserves more than a single weekend. Can’t divulge all our secrets in one burst, darling.’

An Agatha chuckled. ‘Didn’t want to waste it on the likes of us, eh?’

Ben did this camp simper, not denying it. Jane looked at Frank Sampson, the erstwhile murderer. ‘Can of worms,’ Frank murmured.

Later, in the lobby, with its shabby flock wallpaper and Victorian-looking wall lamps, Jane heard Ben talking to the thin man with bristly white hair. Seemed this guy Kennedy was one of those who would have preferred to leave this morning. He was leaving now, with his bottle of champagne for solving the murder.

‘So we’ll be hearing from you,’ Ben said. ‘About your conference?’ He was carefully standing with his back to one of the places where the panelling had been poorly patched with stained plywood. Unfortunately, just above his head, an area of unpapered plaster was dark with damp, and he might as well have been pointing at it.

‘Well, I...’ Dr Kennedy hefted his canvas overnight bag. His voice was nasal and tinny, not a lot like Steve Martin. ‘I do need to talk to my colleagues on the committee. I’ll confirm my decision in writing by the end of the week.’

‘Wonderful,’ Ben said. ‘That’s marvellous, Neil.’ Not exactly rubbing his hands, but aglow with satisfaction as he followed Dr Kennedy to the main door. Jane moved ahead of them and held it open for Kennedy to pull his bag through after him. Ben and Jane stood under the big brass lamp in the conservatory-porch, its long Gothic windows streaming with rain, watching him run for his car.

‘Game’s afoot, Jane,’ Ben said.

‘Sorry?’ Oh yeah, Holmes-speak.

‘The game is finally afoot.’ Now he really was rubbing his hands, maybe just being deliberately theatrical.

The piece of carpet that they were standing on was soaked through. Jane hoped Dr Kennedy hadn’t walked into one of the pond-size puddles on the terrace or stumbled on the eroded steps down to the car park. There was no sign of him now, anyway. Beyond the car park you could see nothing but darkness, and all you could hear was the rain in the pines.

And then a shot.

Ben was standing in the doorway, and his head twisted sharply as if he’d been hit and was about to go down. It was that close. A blast, loud enough to blow a hole in the rain. Jane found that she’d backed away against one of the glass panels. She was momentarily frozen, half expecting Ben to fall, but he straightened up and breathed in hard.

Right.’ In the golden light of the brass lamp, his eyes were bright with rage. ‘That’s it. That’s fucking it.’ He stepped out into the rain and splashed across to the low stone wall at the edge of the terrace.

‘Ben?’

Jane followed him out, feeling her frilly headband falling off behind her. The car park was on a slope, bordered by pines and, through their tiered trunks, Jane thought she saw a blurry light moving. A car door slammed, an engine started up, and then the much brighter lights of Dr Kennedy’s car shone into her eyes, and she couldn’t see anything else.

This was the country. Shots happened. It was supposed to be illegal to let off a shotgun at night, and in weather like this it was seriously crazy. But it happened. It certainly happened here. Jane went tense, remembering last night.

Bastards!’ Ben climbed up on the wall, Dr Kennedy’s car passing below him, the rain thudding on the shoulders of his Edwardian jacket. His fists were clenched, his long face shining with fury. ‘Scumbags! Don’t think I don’t know who you are. I told... I warned you, not on my land! This time you’re fucking dog meat!’

Nobody replied. Ben stood for a moment longer, with his head bowed, his back to the Hall, with its mock-mullion windows and its witch’s-hat towers. Then he slammed his right fist into his left hand and came down from the wall. His hair was slicked flat to his head again, like Sherlock Holmes’s hair. He walked back towards the door, taking hold of Jane’s arm.

‘When do you ever hear of one being revoked?’

‘What?’ Jane had been dredging her headband from a puddle.

‘Shotgun licence. When do you ever hear of anyone’s shotgun licence being revoked for misuse of firearms, Jane? Never. Because all the bloody magistrates are farmers, like this guy Dacre, and they all stand together. Bastards. I said I didn’t want them on my land, disturbing my guests, killing my wildlife. I said no.’

‘Who are they?’

Ben steered Jane back into the porch. ‘Some kind of gun club. Think they can safely ignore me because I’ll be gone soon, like all the others. When it all goes down, when we’re declared bankrupt. It’s what this area does, you see, Jane. Ruins you eventually. Nothing creative ever thrives, because it’s a wilderness, a hunting ground. That’s what it’s always been, it’s the way they like it. But they don’t know me, Jane.’

‘They go out shooting in these conditions?’ She hadn’t heard about his row with the gun club.

‘I think they just saw the lights, the cars. It’s a gesture – you don’t interfere with us, we’ll leave you alone. They think I’m soft. Effete. Some arty bastard from London, here today, gone...’ Ben pushed his fingers through his wet hair, wiping his shoes on the sodden carpet. ‘They don’t bother me, why should they? Half of them aren’t even locals. Yobs, Jane. Thick, barbaric yobs. No subtlety.’ He suddenly flashed a big grin. ‘Where I come from, we have real hard bastards.’

‘Where’s that, exactly?’

‘Oh... the city. Country people think they’re tough because they can pull lambs out of ewes and have to walk further for the bus. Because they can shoot things and watch foxes get torn to bits without feeling pity. Is that tough, Jane? Is that what you’d call tough?’

Jane wrinkled her nose. ‘I think hunting’s totally psychotic, and a waste of time and money. But then, so do a lot of country people, on the quiet.’

‘Do they?’ Ben was either surprised or disappointed.

‘Nobody really likes having their land churned up and their cats killed, like, by mistake. Most of them keep it to themselves, because hunt people can turn nasty when they’re threatened. And country people don’t like confrontation.’

Ben did, though. Ben was into drama. And although he didn’t seem to be aggressive in a violent way, you got the idea that he actually needed to feel a lot of people were against him – needed this to fire him up, maintain his energy level. Needs to succeed against the odds, Amber had said.

Which, when you thought about it, made him a dangerous sort of person to be living here on the Border. Like actually on the actual Border. Jane had theories about the Border and what it meant, what it really was. This excited her most of the time, but now her cheap maid’s outfit was blotting up the wet, and she was clammy-cold and starting to shiver and actually wish she was in her apartment back at the vicarage – how wimpish was that?

‘You’re a smart girl,’ Ben said. ‘I’m awfully glad we’ve got you here. Amber’s a hugely talented woman and very... very decent. But she needs support. And because we can only afford part-time staff, you and Natalie, you’re...’

He didn’t finish. He smiled and turned away, opening the main door for Jane, who noticed the rain coming into the glass porch through the gaps in the putty.

‘They were very close last night,’ Jane said.

‘Who were?’

‘The gun club. There was one shot... sounded like it was just outside the window.’

‘Really,’ Ben said.

3

What Consultants Are For

ON THURSDAY MORNING in the church, the Holy Ghost was waiting.

Alice Meek, from the chip shop in Old Barn Lane, was doing the flowers on the altar. Dusty pillars of white light were dropping from the upper windows and Alice’s voice was carrying like a crow’s across the chancel.

‘My niece, the one in Solihull, she did one of them Alpha courses at her church, did I tell you? After the decree nisi come through, this was – big gap in her life, usual story.’ Alice was smoothing out the altar cloth, replacing the candlesticks. ‘This Alpha, she reckoned it d’creep up on you somehow. It don’t seem like much at first, but near the end of it she felt the Holy Spirit was in her heart like a big white bird, and you could feel its wings fluttering. That’s what she said, vicar. As if this big bird was trying to escape from her breast and’ – Alice spread her arms wide – ‘fill the whole world with love and healing.’

‘That’s nice.’ Merrily went on dusting the choir stalls, wondering where this was going. It was the first time she’d encountered Alice since the Prossers had told her about Ann-Marie.

‘But we prevents it happening, see.’ Alice came back to the chancel steps for the pewter vase that she’d filled with flowers. ‘We don’t let it out. It’s the way we are. We’re all scared to open up, so we keeps him in his cage, the poor old Holy Spirit. I never quite got that before, see.’ She scuttled back and set the pewter vase on the altar. ‘Nothing like freesias, is there? You en’t thought of having one of them Alpha courses yere, Vicar?’

‘Well, it’s—’

‘No. You’re dead right. It’s not necessary.’ Alice came stomping back down the chancel steps, a fierce-faced little woman in a pink nylon overall. ‘I yeard as how Jenny Driscoll, God rest her poor soul, used to say there was angelic light around Ledwardine Church, and now I know exac’ly what she meant. It’s crept up on all of us, it has. Like me – I only come to your Sunday night service because somebody said there wasn’t no hymns. Voice like mine, you don’t wanner do no singing if you can help it, do you? Scare the bloody angels off the roof.’

Alice cackled. Was there a new energy about her, or was that imagination? Merrily sat down in one of the choir stalls. As with most parishes nowadays, there hadn’t been a choir here for years. Some ministers even liked to condense their congregations into the stalls now. More intimate.

Alice came to sit next to her.

‘I’ll be honest, Vicar, some of us wasn’t too sure about you at first. Bit too nervous in the pulpit. Like you wasn’t too certain of what you was trying to say. But it en’t all about preaching, is it? And it en’t all about singin’ the same ole hymns and not hearing none of the words no more. It’s the quiet times, ennit? It’s the quiet times when things starts to happen.’

‘Things?’ Merrily grew nervous.

Alice winked, like there was a great secret floating in the dusty air between them. Brenda Prosser’s voice seemed to echo in the void: Alice said she lost track of time. She said she felt as if everybody there was together... and they were part of something that was, you know, bigger.

‘It’s prayer,’ Merrily said, ‘that’s all.’

‘Whatever you wanner call it’s all right with me,’ Alice said. ‘It’s like you being the exorcist. We wasn’t sure about that either at first. But when I was talking to Mrs Hitchin, works in the library at Leominster, she says it’s all part of the same thing.’

‘Oh.’

‘So anyway,’ Alice said, ‘I was planning to have a word with you about my nephew, works at the tyre place in Hereford.’

Merrily looked at her.

‘Asthma,’ Alice said.

Later, when the Ledwardine GP, Kent Asprey, phoned about next year’s village marathon, Merrily knew he wanted something else. This was how things were done in the sticks.

She took the call in the scullery, sitting at her desk next to the window overlooking the sodden, grey garden.

‘I see from my list that you haven’t entered your name,’ Asprey said.

‘It’s next April, isn’t it? Anyway, you wouldn’t either, if you had legs as short as mine.’ Merrily lit a cigarette. ‘But you could put me down to be one of the people who pushes drinks at the runners.’

‘Righto,’ he said. She could hear him writing.

She waited, looking across the lawn to the ancient apple orchard which was creeping back into the churchyard so that the church and the vicarage were enmeshed again, in a skein of hoary branches. Apple trees were not graceful and not pretty once the fruit was gone. In the old days, the cider would have been made and stored by now. The cider would see the village through the winter. The cider and the church.

But no cider was produced here any more.

‘Ann-Marie Herdman,’ he said. ‘You’ll have heard, I suppose?’

‘It’s remarkable, isn’t it?’ Merrily began to draw an apple on the sermon pad.

‘At least you didn’t use the word “miracle”.’

‘Not one of my very favourite words, Kent.’

‘I... I know Ann-Marie pretty well...’

‘I’m sure.’ This was the man who, in the cause of preventative medicine, used to lead groups of women from Ledwardine and surrounding villages on fun runs. Until word reached his wife that, for a select few, the serious fun had begun after the run. ‘So your position on this would be... what?’

‘I’d say, let them all keep their illusions. Not often people in my profession get to impart that kind of good news. And if it helps you people fill your churches in these difficult times...’

‘That’s very generous of you, Doctor. We need all the crumbs we can get.’

‘Entirely off the record, it could be a medical anomaly, but it’s my suspicion that there was an error at the hospital with those first tests. Whether it was technical or a mix-up of names is a matter of conjecture, and we’ll probably never really know, but—’

‘You mean Ann-Marie Herdman never had a tumour.’

‘I can’t say that, obviously.’

‘But you must’ve had a reason to refer her to the consultant in the first place.’

‘It’s what consultants are for, Merrily. To take the heat.’

‘Of course.’

‘But mistakes do occur. It’s inevitable.’

‘And yet you told the Prossers you’d done some checks and you couldn’t find evidence of any mix-up.’

‘Merrily, in these litigious times...’

‘I see.’

‘Anyway,’ Asprey said, ‘I thought you ought to know. I realize it can be quite embarrassing for someone in your position when people latch on to something like this and blow it up into something it isn’t.’

‘Yes,’ Merrily said. ‘That was very thoughtful of you.’

When he hung up, she was looking at the moon over Paul Klee’s rooftops in the print opposite the desk. The moon was very faintly blue. She looked down at the sermon pad and saw that under the apple she’d printed the words SMUG and GIT.

At dusk, Merrily went to lock up the church, glancing, on the way out, at the prayer board on which parishioners could write the names of people for whom they’d like prayers to be said.

There were twice as many as usual. One had the final sentence underlined; it said: THIS IS FOR SUNDAY NIGHT.

Walking back through the churchyard, an isolated spurt of sleet hit her like grit from under lorry wheels, and she hurried under the lych gate.

What did you do here? What did you do about healing? How did you explain all those times when there was no cure, when the condition worsened? What did you say to them when, after the quiet times, after the unity, after the being part of something bigger... what did you say to them when, after all that, God appeared to have let them down badly?

Back in the scullery, with about twenty minutes before Jane’s school bus was due on the square, she prodded in the number for Sophie at the Hereford Cathedral gatehouse. Time to make an appointment with Bernie Dunmore.

‘Gatehouse.’ Male voice.

Bishop...?

‘Merrily Watkins, as I live and breathe.’ Bernie sniffed. ‘Well, with slight difficulty at the moment, seem to be developing a cold. Sophie’s just popped across to Fodder to get me some herbal thing which she insists is going to deal with it.’

‘Echinacea?’

‘What’s wrong with Sudafed, I say.’

‘It’s a drug.’

‘And?’

‘Bernie,’ Merrily said, ‘where do we stand on healing?’

‘As in...?’

‘Spiritual.’

‘We brought out an extensive report,’ the Bishop reminded her. ‘It’s called “A Time for Healing.”

“A Time to Heal”. No, when I say we, I mean we, the Diocese. As distinct from we, the Church.’

‘Bugger,’ said the Bishop. ‘Have you no pity for a man with a cold? Your department we’re talking about here, isn’t it? Healing and Deliverance. Remember?’

‘Is it, though? My job description says Deliverance. Healing sounds like the C of E spin doctors softening it up. Less bell, book and candle, more touchy-feely caring.’

‘You have a specific problem with that?’

‘Possibly.’

The Bishop didn’t reply. He would know better than to quote St Mark’s version of Jesus’s parting message, pre-ascension; as well as the Church’s healing mission, it appeared to advocate picking up snakes, cause of many deaths in the US Bible Belt.

‘All right, I’ve been doing this slightly experimental Sunday-evening service,’ Merrily said. ‘Loose, open-ended. I thought it was working. I mean, it brought in some of the villagers who normally wouldn’t notice if the steeple fell off. Even Jane’s been a couple of times, when the weekend job allows. So... a modest success.’

‘What I like to hear.’

‘People actually saying they’re reaching something deeper in the way of understanding and awareness. And discovering you can actually learn meditation for free. But it wasn’t meant to be... I mean, it didn’t start out as a healing session. We did pray, though, as you would, for a woman who’d been told she had a malignant tumour. A week later she was told that she didn’t have a tumour at all.’

‘Congratulations,’ the Bishop said.

‘Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be more delighted—’

‘But you can’t help wondering if it was an answer to your prayers, in the strictest sense.’

‘The local GP rang to point out that it was probably a misdiagnosis. Or a technological problem with the scanner. Or an administrative cock-up, or – at worst – one of those very rare medical anomalies. Now, he could be entirely wrong, or covering something up. And he’s massively out-numbered by all those people who would clearly like to think that something did happen...’

‘Obviously.’

‘But... Bernie, they’ve started to bring out their sick. They’re recalling lesser ailments prayed for and subsequently eased. This morning I was asked if I’d mind curing someone’s asthma, even though he doesn’t live in the parish.’

‘They believe you’re a latent healer?’

‘I stress that if it’s happening it’s not down to me, but I suspect there’s a feeling that the Deliverance minister has a hot line. Like the fourth emergency service? The nature of the Sunday-evening service has been... misrepresented.’

The Bishop breathed so heavily into the phone that it was like the germs were coming down the line.

‘You do have a more exciting ministry than most of us, don’t you, Merrily?’

‘Maybe I’m missing the humour here, Bishop. Young guy who gets acute asthma attacks and whose aunt is afraid that the next time it happens...?’

There was a long pause. Down the phone, she could hear the traffic in Broad Street, a door opening and closing, quick footsteps on the stone stairway to the gatehouse offices.

‘You know Jeavons is back,’ the Bishop said.

‘Jeav—? Oh.’

‘I mean, if you wanted to talk to someone about this. Someone who actually knows about it, as distinct from a knackered old admin bloke like me. I was only thinking, with Huw Owen being away...’

‘I’ve never met Jeavons,’ Merrily said.

The Bishop blew his nose. ‘You’re not the first to raise the question of healing lately. Healing groups is the normal approach. I think we all agree it’s better to share the burden. It also raises ecumenical possibilities, particularly with the Catholics, and I’m quite drawn to that. Ah... hold on one moment...’

She heard another voice. She heard the Bishop saying, ‘Well, I don’t know how to work the blessed thing.’ She thought about Catholic priests she knew and how they’d react to the idea of working with a woman.

Bernie came back on the line. ‘Sophie goes out for five minutes, place ceases to function. Did I mention Jeavons?’

‘He’s in Worcestershire, right?’

‘He’s been abroad. Semi-retired now, of course. Rather prematurely. Few years ago, there was a move to fast-track him into purple – view to Canterbury, one suspects. The little greaseball Blair was keen, for obvious reasons. Red faces all round when Jeavons tosses it back at them and says he’ll retire instead. What he wanted, we discover, was his freedom, to pursue his specialist interests, hover over psychic surgeons in Chile.’

‘At the Church’s expense?’

‘Dunno. My information is that he’s back in the country and available as a consultant to selected clerics – although I was once told it would be unwise to refer just anybody.’

‘Huw talked about him once,’ Merrily recalled. ‘Only—’

‘Because, if anyone’s on the edge of a crisis, Jeavons has been known to tip them over.’

‘Only, Huw reckoned he was mad,’ Merrily said.

Since the days when hundreds of medieval pilgrims had dragged their crippled limbs to the shrine of St Thomas Cantilupe in Hereford Cathedral, the Church had become increasingly uncomfortable about healing. You prayed for sick people, you might even light a candle, and if there was a cure you thanked God. Beyond that, a certain wariness crept in. Not strictly our thing.

In which case, what was the Church’s thing? The way congregations were crashing, it was clear that this was a question not going unasked. While Jane was changing out of her school gear, Merrily dug out the report: ‘A Time to Heal: A Contribution towards the Ministry of Healing’. In his introduction, George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, referred to ‘Our Lord’s injunction to heal the sick,’ and suggested that the report might be studied and reflected upon and considered for action ‘as appropriate in dioceses and parishes’.

As appropriate. Merrily smiled.

In relation to parishes, the report recommended that clergy involved in healing should consider combining their resources with those of doctors, community nurses and carers operating according to a ‘working theology’ of the Ministry of Healing.

Oh, sure. Like Kent Asprey and Lorraine Bonner, the district nurse, who maintained she’d seen too much of life to be anything but an atheist.

The report was sniffy about some healing services. Lack of preparation, misunderstandings, unjustified claims and emotionalism leading to subsequent disappointment. It was more supportive of what it called Intercessory Groups, in which a number of ‘instructed persons’ met regularly to pray for the sick.

Laying-on of hands, by the minister, in the context of a normal service or Eucharist was also accepted, as were Services of Penance, underlining the healing benefits of forgiveness.

Merrily looked up Canon Llewellyn Jeavons in the phone book. There was a Jeavons L.C.D. at Suckley.

Mad, Huw had said, without explanation.

She knew where Suckley was – a rambling hamlet not far over the Herefordshire border and not far at all, in fact, from the Frome Valley where Lol Robinson was still living out of suitcases in the granary at Prof Levin’s recording studio.

Merrily sometimes caught a frightening image of herself in twenty years’ time. It was in sepia: this small, monklike person in the bottom left-hand corner of the huge old vicarage, hunched over the desk. Dark. Chilly. Cramped. Very much alone.

She saw it quite often these days. Sometimes it was so detailed, and yet so stark, that it was almost like an engraving.

That night, building a fire of apple logs in the sitting-room inglenook, Jane said, ‘You don’t make fires like this when I’m not here, do you? Like last weekend, for instance.’

‘I was busy.’

‘I think you probably didn’t come in here even once. I could almost smell the damp.’

‘Saturday night, I wrote the sermon. Sunday night, we had the service and then the Prossers came to tell me about Ann-Marie. Wasn’t really worth it afterwards.’

The paper and the kindling flared yellow. Jane, on the hearthrug in her jeans and an overstretched white sweater, looked like a little girl again. Seventeen now – scary.

‘It’s just...’ The kid positioned a small log over a mesh of thorny kindling. ‘I like this job. I like Stanner Hall. You get to meet people – different kinds of people. I just don’t like to think of you all alone here. Like everywhere dark, except the kitchen and the scullery.’

‘I’ve got the cat. And, of course—’

‘Let’s keep Him out of this,’ Jane snapped. ‘The point is, in under two years I’ll probably be gone, whether it’s university or... whatever. But I might be gone for like... for good. And you’ll be kind of lodged down in that scullery like the last Jelly Baby in the jar, writing your sermons into the empty night.’

Actually, it was going to bed that was the worst time: putting out the bedside light, knowing that the attic apartment directly above you was empty. Thinking of all the empty rooms and all the people who had been and gone. Jane’s dad, long gone. Jane’s dad – that was how she thought of Sean now, as though Jane was the best thing he’d done in his foreshortened, corrupted life.

Biting her lip, she stood over Jane and bent and kneaded the kid’s shoulders. ‘Two years is still a long time.’

‘I used to think that, but it isn’t.’ Jane looked up at her. ‘You’ll be nearly forty then. Have you even thought about that?’

‘Too old for sex?’

Jane pulled away. ‘Stop it.’

‘It was a joke. How are things at the hotel?’

‘Don’t change the subject. You’re here in this mausoleum, on your own every weekend, and Lol’s twenty miles away with no real home at all, and he can’t get near half the time because of appearances and the Church and all that hypocritical bollocks. I mean, if you were gay – if you were a lesbian – nobody would—’ Jane broke off, blushing, probably remembering a certain misunderstanding.

And there’s the question of restarting Lol’s career,’ Merrily said. ‘The album out in March, the chance of a tour...’

The kid smiled maliciously. ‘And groupies.’

‘Do they have groupies any more?’

‘Just trying to inflame the situation. Groupies and Lol doesn’t arise.’ Jane looked up again, an apple glow on her face. ‘But you have to do something soon. Face it, most people know about you and him now, anyway.’

‘Yeah, but cohabiting in the vicarage might just be a step too far. And I don’t think he’d want that anyway. Now that he’s finding his feet.’

‘You’re so... unimpulsive. You piss me off sometimes.’

‘It’s what I’m here for,’ Merrily said.

Later, just before nine, she left Jane in front of the TV and slipped away to the scullery. On the blue blotter on her desk, next to the sermon pad, was a folded copy of the property section of the Hereford Times. Just above the fold, an advert, encircled, said:

LEDWARDINE

Church Street – exquisite small, terraced

house, Grade Two listed, close to the centre

of this sought-after village.

It could be the answer. Tomorrow, she’d call the agent. Tonight, she lifted the phone and tapped in the number of Canon Llewellyn Jeavons.

So he was mad. Maybe she could use some of that.

4

The Room Under the Witch’s-Hat Tower

THE PINES WERE matt black against the blood-orange sky when Jane was walking up the hotel drive. Friday, late afternoon, and here it came again – that shivery anticipation, her senses honed as sharp as the air, as the cold tide of night swept in towards the Border.

The Border. It was right here. She could actually be standing on it now. The hotel was in England, but the rocks it was named after were in Wales. And here, where the track divided, was where it all coalesced in a burst of sunset.

Letting her school case and her overnight bag slip to the ground, Jane stopped at the fork. The independent working woman, on the Border.

Two witches’-hat towers were prodding up between the ragged pines. Stanner Hall was Victorian Gothic, therefore more lavishly Gothic than the original. And from this distance, at least, it looked like it belonged here, if only as a piece of skyline, on the Border. And the Border, like all borders, was more than just a political division; it was about magic and transformation, a zone out of time where things normally unseen might, for tiny, bright moments, become visible.

Some part of Jane felt this to be true and responded to it. Christianity would be like, Turn away from the dark... shun the numinous... take no pleasure in the nearness of other spheres. Which was why Jane reckoned that she was always going to be a pagan at the core. OK, maybe she’d mellowed a little towards Mum’s faith, but it didn’t go far enough. It had no sense of place. This was the holy land.

Looking up the left-hand stony track that led to the top of the mysterious Stanner Rocks, she stood for a moment, feeling the night beating in like heavy, downy wings. Then she picked up her bags and took the right-hand path between the gateposts of Stanner Hall, these sculpted stone buttresses against the trespassing woods. Most of a foxhound was preserved on the top of the left-hand post, its muzzle pointing rigidly at the sky as if it was about to begin howling. On the right-hand post only the paws remained. Nothing here was completely intact. The sign at the bottom still said STANNER HALL HOTE

Are we talking about The Hound of the Baskervilles? Voices from last Sunday. Rather disappointed that none of this came up during the weekend.

‘... That, ah, probably deserves more than a single weekend.’

Can of worms... can of worms...

Well, she’d read The Hound of the Baskervilles years ago when she was quite young. Hadn’t liked it much, always managed to avoid the films on TV. At school, when she’d raised the issue, Clancy had said, ‘Yeah, I think there’s some local connection,’ but she didn’t seem interested.

Tonight, Jane and Clancy had come off the school bus at the usual junction, at the end of the Kington bypass, but Clancy had gone off down the Gladestry road, to the farm. Clancy said her mum was coming down heavy on the subject of homework – like, it had to be done on Friday night or the kid didn’t get out on Saturday. Changing schools so often, she’d fallen behind, and this was her last chance to pull back. So Jane had been seeing more of Clancy’s mum than Clancy and now, when she lugged her bags into the courtyard of Stanner Hall, here was Natalie, leaning against the open kitchen door, massaging a mug of coffee.

‘Hi, Jane.’

This warm, pithy voice travelling easily across the darkening yard. It was a voice that Jane imagined blokes finding very sexy. Nat, too. She was quite tall and supple, with high pointy breasts inside her black jumper. She had dense, shaggy hair, the colour of dark tobacco, and she was... well, very beautiful, in this enviably careless way.

‘Clan has gone home, Jane?’

‘She was certainly heading that way.’

‘Hmm,’ Nat said doubtfully.

Clancy had shown up for the first time at the beginning of this term. She was only about a year younger than Jane, but actually two years behind her at school – which, not surprisingly, had left her isolated, with no real friends. Jane, who knew what it was like being the new kid, had realized that Clancy’s situation must be a whole lot worse, having to take lessons with little children. She’d gone out of her way to talk to Clancy at lunchtimes, and they’d become mates, kind of. Which was what had led, indirectly, to the offer of regular weekend work at the hotel where Clancy’s mother was receptionist, barmaid and the person who made this joint seem halfway professional.

Nursing her mug for warmth, Natalie came out into the yard, smiling in a bruised kind of way and raising her eyes to the purpling sky.

‘Like the Fall of fucking Troy in there today, Jane.’

The earthy talk was one of Nat’s contradictions. Treated her own daughter like a kid and was old-fashioned about stuff like bedtimes and homework and pubs, but she’d address Jane like a real mate, a colleague. Nat had clearly been around, and not only in hotels and restaurants.

‘Unexpected guests?’ Jane looked over at the car park and saw Jeremy’s old Daihatsu 4×4, which Nat must be using, and Ben’s MG, and that was all.

‘If only,’ Nat said.

The letter was crinkly and discoloured, and some of the print had smudged. Amber flattened it out on the baronial island unit, slid it across to Jane and switched on the halogen spotlights.

‘I had to dry it on the stove. Ben threw it in the sink on his way out.’

‘Oh.’ Jane looked at the letter but didn’t pick it up. ‘It’s OK to...?’

‘Please do,’ Amber said. ‘Otherwise you’ll spend the rest of the night wondering why he’s drinking too much and smashing things. Anyway, you’re one of us now.’

Jane felt a grateful blush coming on. She picked up the letter. It was printed on what she guessed to be very expensive, fine-quality vellum, and it was brief and kind of shocking.

The Baker Street League

Dear Foley,

As expected, the management committee of The League has confirmed my decision in regard to its annual conference and the Stanner Hall Hotel.

I was mildly diverted to hear of your intention to develop the link between the hotel, Doyle and The Hound. However, as the majority of my members firmly reject this theory, they did not feel it would be appropriate to associate the name of The League with your establishment.

Sincerely,

pp Dr N.P. Kennedy,

Hon. Secretary.

Jane let the letter fall to the island unit. ‘PP? And it’s not even signed by anybody. That’s like... deliberately insulting, isn’t it?’

‘No, it’s... probably just careless.’ Amber’s doll-like face was squashed-in with strain, her hair pushed back over her high forehead.

‘Amber, the bastard blatantly led Ben to think you were going to get the conference. I heard him.’

Natalie pushed the letter away with a forefinger. ‘He was hardly going to say that to Ben’s face, was he?’

‘Yeah, but he...’ Jane felt personally hurt, remembering the way that Ben had forced himself to smarm the guy. That’s terrific, Neil.

‘Perhaps Kennedy had pressures we don’t know about,’ Amber said. ‘There’s nothing we can do, anyway.’

‘You did say Ben knew other members of this outfit, though, didn’t you? Maybe he can find out what the real reason is.’

‘That probably is the real reason, Jane. They don’t believe the story. They think we’re pulling some scam.’

Jane sat down on a wooden stool. ‘I don’t really understand what that’s about – The Hound of the Baskervilles. When I read the book, it was set in Devon.’

‘Dartmoor.’ Amber leaned over her corner of the island, elbows on a double oven glove with burn marks on it.

‘The Grimpen Mire.’ Jane shuddered. In the book, a wild pony had been sucked to its death in the bog; she’d hated reading that. She’d probably been about twelve. She’d hated what happened to the hound, too. She might have wept at the time. And, anyway, it was all a con. You were led to believe it was going to be supernatural, and it wasn’t. ‘So like, is there some suggestion that Conan Doyle wrote it here?’

Amber shook her head. ‘Not exactly. The story hangs on the legend of a ghostly hound which is a sign of death for the Baskerville family. So, OK, there was a Baskerville family in this area. Long-established, wealthy... They had a castle or something at Eardisley, which is only about six miles up the road. And there’s a pub called the Baskerville Arms over at Clyro, which is just over the other side of Brilley Mountain.’

‘And did they have a ghostly hound?’

‘No, but the Vaughan family did. They lived at Hergest Court, which is only a mile or so away from here, across the valley. There was a hound that was supposed to mean death for someone in the family if it was seen. And it has been seen. Apparently. Over the years.’

‘To this day?’

Amber shrugged. ‘There are no Vaughans left now. Anyway, Conan Doyle is supposed to have been related to either the Baskervilles or the Vaughans – maybe both, I don’t remember – and it’s believed that he stayed here, in this house, to research the story. Or he heard it while he was staying here. Or something.’

Jane was impressed. If this was true it was well worth all Ben’s efforts. ‘But why would Conan Doyle switch the story to Devon?’

‘We don’t know,’ Amber said. ‘As Kennedy says in his letter, a lot of Holmes enthusiasts reject the Welsh Border theory entirely, because there’s also a Devon legend that fits. Maybe Doyle liked the name Baskerville enough to want to use it but didn’t want to implicate the actual family, so he set the novel somewhere where there aren’t any obvious Baskervilles.’

Jane thought of the stone hounds on the Stanner Hall gateposts. ‘Did the Baskervilles have anything to do with this house?’

‘Not that we know of. It was built by a family called Chancery. It must have been fairly new at the time the book came out in 1902. But it was built to look historic, so maybe it gave Conan Doyle an idea of what he wanted. I mean, it certainly looks more like the Baskerville Hall he describes in the book than Hergest Court does. Just a farmhouse now.’

‘Honey, it’s how novelists work,’ Natalie said. ‘You take a bit of this, bit of that, and muddle it all up so that there are no comebacks.’

Jane recalled something else. ‘A woman brought it up at the murder weekend. She wanted Ben to talk about it, but he hinted he was saving it.’

‘Well, of course he was,’ Amber said. ‘He was saving it for the annual conference of The Baker Street League. The plan was that Ben would get The League to endorse the evidence that this place is quite possibly the real Baskerville Hall, and then we’d start publicizing it. And, at the same time, Antony—’

There was a loud clink and a muted splash. Natalie had tossed a soup ladle into one of the sinks. She stood with her hands on her narrow hips, annoyed.

‘It’s all my fault. If I’d bothered to check out Kennedy on the Net before Ben had invited him, we’d all have realized that, as he was born in bloody Tavistock, he might not have been an ardent supporter of the theory that The Hound had sod-all to do with Devon.’

‘How much does all this matter?’ Jane asked.

‘You can’t do all his thinking for him, Nat,’ Amber said. ‘He gets an idea and he’s off. Doesn’t do his homework. He didn’t even know Kennedy had scotched the Herefordshire theory in at least two of his own books.’ She turned to Jane. ‘Dartmoor gets a lot of Hound-related tourism – Americans, Japanese. It’s like King Arthur in Cornwall: they don’t exactly want to share it.’

Jane gazed around the vast kitchen. The high windows were full of pine tops and dark purple dusk. It wasn’t very warm in here.

‘What will you do now?’

Amber shrugged. ‘Ben’s still desperately trying to get hold of Antony, to put him off for a couple of weeks while he rethinks everything. He won’t give up. He can’t. We’ve very little money left, and if we sell up now we sell at a loss.’

‘Who’s Antony?’

‘What?’ Amber closed her eyes, opened them and blinked a few times, shaking her head despairingly. ‘Sorry. Sorry, Jane, I thought you knew about that. Antony Largo. Old mate of Ben’s from Beeb days. Independent producer, documentaries. There’s a series that his outfit’s putting together for Channel Four, called Punching the Clock, about successful people hitting hard times and having to make a new start in mid-life. So Antony approaches Ben, and Ben tells him to stuff it – I mean, he refuses to think of himself as being in mid-life, for a start. It’s always the beginning for Ben.’

Jane smiled. It was one of the aspects of Ben she most approved of.

‘But it started him thinking,’ Amber said, ‘and he told Antony about his plans to pinch a piece of the Sherlock Holmes tourist trade, and now he’s half-sold him on the idea of a separate documentary on all of that. Which would have launched the whole thing nationally – brought us a lot of publicity for the hotel and some sort of fee, presumably.’

‘Also,’ Nat said, ‘the crew would have to stay somewhere, so that would tide us over the lean period before Christmas.’

Amber looked doubtful. ‘Crews aren’t what they used to be. It’s usually one person with a Handycam from Boots. And they’d have been doing most of their filming during the conference of The Baker Street League, when we’d be full up anyway. But that... obviously doesn’t apply any more. We’re stuffed.’

She picked up the double oven glove and slid her hands into it and covered her eyes. Jane wasn’t sure if this was a comic gesture or concealment of actual tears. She imagined Ben telling Amber about the idyllic country-house hotel he’d found for them: open log fires, big, warm, traditional kitchen where she could work her magic. Cosy and romantic. Amber not realizing then that Ben’s idea of romance was a howling in the night and a fiery hound on the moors.

Natalie walked over and put an arm around Amber. The worldly big sister, taller and leaner and more together. ‘We can still do something. We can rescue something.’

‘We need more time, and we haven’t got it. Antony’s booked in for tonight, Ben can’t reach him on his mobile. He could turn up any time.’ Amber lowered the oven gloves; her eyes were dry. ‘Look at this place. It’s like some old workhouse.’

‘No, it’s cool,’ Jane said. ‘Really.’

‘It’s bloody freezing, Jane. I keep on at Ben to check out this damp patch under the stairs, and he avoids it. He thinks burst pipes mystically seal themselves. This makes it four leaks we’ve had since the autumn. Does that augur well?’

Jane looked up through the window, moving to her right so that one of the ridges of Stanner Rocks came into view. It was a proven scientific fact that Stanner Rocks were strange, because of the Standing Wave that altered the climate, the comparative darkness of the rock itself, holding the heat, and the thin soil where plants grew that you couldn’t find anywhere else in Britain. Jane felt that, in ancient times, Stanner Rocks would have been sacred, like some gloomy, miniature form of Ayer’s Rock in Australia.

‘I mean, until you live in a place like this you never realize what plumbing’s about,’ Amber wailed. ‘There’s miles of pipe – miles.’

‘I mean there’s an energy here,’ Jane said. ‘And it’s right on the Border. On the edge.’

‘We’re all on the edge,’ Amber said bitterly.

Ben, however, when he strode into the kitchen, seemed to have recovered – now apparently relishing the adversity, refocused.

‘I think... we’ll put Antony in the tower room.’

‘You couldn’t stop him?’ Amber said in dismay.

‘I stopped trying.’ Ben, in tight black jeans and a white shirt, was swaying like a tightrope walker re-establishing his balance. ‘The more I think about it, we don’t need the bloody Baker Street League. What we have is strong enough.’

‘Oh God,’ Amber said.

‘You don’t mind going back to your old room for a couple of nights, do you, Jane?’

‘She already has,’ Amber said. ‘Why do you want to put Antony Largo in the tower room?’

‘More of an atmosphere.’ Ben smiled at Jane. ‘Don’t you think?’

Jane must have blushed or something, because Ben smirked and said, ‘Nip up and open the windows, Jane, would you, and give the bedding a shake.’

‘Right.’

Oh well... Up the steps into the lobby, which now merged with the hall. Up the baronial stairs...

And when you got to the top of the first flight and turned right, through the fire doors, into the ill-lit passage towards the west, it was clear why this part of the house – although it probably had the best rooms – had been set aside by the Foleys as staff quarters.

The problem was, it had been dragged into the 1960s or 1970s and left there. The walls were lined with woodchip, probably to hide the damp, and it was dim and dusty, a languid light drifting from a tall, narrow window at the bottom of the passage. This area of the house needed a lot of money spending on it. Money they probably thought they’d have to spare, but now it had gone, on the basics: keeping the damp out and the heat in. Or trying to.

The first room, convenient for the stairs, was Ben and Amber’s own. What must it have been like when they first arrived here, and they were the only people sleeping in this huge house? This was Mum’s problem with Ledwardine Vicarage magnified about four times. A lot of the time, even now, Ben and Amber would be alone here during the week. Most of the part-time staff – cleaners and waiters – came in daily during the summer, or when there were guests.

‘Jane!’ The fire doors clicking together. It was Ben. ‘Forgot to give you the key.’

He strode ahead of her down the passage, near to the end, unlocking the last door on the right. Actually, she was quite glad to have him here with her. Stupid, huh?

Inside the door, there were steps up into the actual tower, and then another door. When Jane had first started work here, she’d been flattered and excited to be given the room under the witch’s-hat tower. OK, it was big, cold, needed redecorating, but it was, like, you know... the room under the witch’s-hat tower.

Ben put on the light. The room had gloomy maroon flock wallpaper, pretty old, and less than half as much furniture as a space this size needed to look vaguely comfortable – the three-quarter divan, the wooden stool serving as a bedside table, the mahogany wardrobe with the cracked mirror.

The aim, apparently, was to create an en-suite bathroom at one end, and this was actually essential before you could legitimately charge anyone for spending a night here and experiencing those incredible views across Hergest Ridge into Wales.

With the light on, all you could see through the triple windows now was a thin slash of electric mauve low in the sky, like the light under a door. Ben stood in the middle of the room, rubbing his hands.

‘Couldn’t take it, then, Jane?’

‘Sorry?’

‘You wanted out.’

‘Well, you know... look at it. It’s like sleeping in... in somewhere too big.’

‘That’s all?’

‘All?’

‘No other reason?’

‘Should there be?’ Sod this; she was giving nothing away – she was going to make him say it.

Ben leaned over his folded arms, rocking slightly. ‘So you had a perfectly untroubled night’s sleep.’

‘Don’t people usually?’

‘One of the builders – when we were having the partition wall taken down, between the hall and lobby – he stayed in here, and he didn’t want to spend a second night.’

‘Oh?’

‘He thought it was haunted.’

‘What happened?’

‘Oh... noises, he reckoned. Breathing. And he said he thought he saw a woman’s shape outlined against the window. Next morning, he was not a happy man. Said he thought we’d set him up.’

Jane struggled to bring up a smile. ‘Did you set me up?’

‘I thought... well, you’re quite interested in this sort of thing, aren’t you? Weird stuff.’

‘So-so. Ghosts are a bit... I mean, they’re usually just imprints, aren’t they? Emotional responses trapped in the atmosphere. Nothing to worry about.’ She was furious – the bastard. ‘I mean, I wish you’d told me...’

‘You’d have been expecting something then. Pointless exercise. So you wouldn’t mind moving back sometime, if necessary?’

‘Look, Ben, I wouldn’t mind spending a night in a sleeping bag on a station platform, but I’d rather have an ordinary-sized room, thanks.’

Ben grinned. ‘Ah, Jane.’

‘What?’

‘I should’ve realized the most important thing for you would be retaining your cool.’

‘Look, my mother’s—’

He lifted an eyebrow. Did he know? She thought not.

‘My mother’s a vicar. They’re not bothered by this sort of... you know.’

‘Right,’ Ben said.

That was close. She didn’t want Mum involved in anything here. This was her separate thing.

‘So you’re going to try this guy, erm... in here.’

‘Antony Largo. If you think you’re cool...’

‘I don’t!’ Jane said, smarting, going to turn down the bed clothes.

Ben smiled and shook his head and wandered out.

Left alone, Jane shook out the duvet, remembering how, when she’d come up here to dump her case that first night last weekend, and then gone down to get something to eat, she’d returned at bedtime to find the duvet had been roughly thrown back, as if someone had started to make the bed and then abandoned it.

That could’ve been Ben, couldn’t it? Setting her up.

Otherwise, just an imprint. Just an emotional response trapped in the atmosphere.

Jane sorted the bed and didn’t hang around.

5

Drink Problem

THEY’D MOVED THE bed so that it faced the window and the lights of West Malvern. From this position, on a dark night, it looked as though the lights were away in the sky, big stars. And you could feel safe, for a while.

Lol said thoughtfully, ‘Does this mean you get your own cult?’

Merrily sat up. The lights of West Malvern were now quite clearly just tall, narrow buildings on a hill.

‘All the lanes around Ledwardine full of crutches and sticks abandoned by the roadsides,’ Lol said.

‘You think this is funny, don’t you?’

And then she started to laugh, and it was one of those laughs that you could feel in your toes and the tips of your fingers and the pit of your stomach. Therapeutic, probably – a healing laugh. Oh God. Not two hours ago, she’d fed Ethel, the cat, left a second cat-meal in the timer bowl for the morning and then driven quietly away. Driven over to the granary at Prof Levin’s recording studio in the Frome Valley, for the healing – Van Morrison sang that. Such an easy, guiltless word.

The granary was a two-room tower house reached by exterior stone steps. Lol’s temporary home. Romantic. The trysting place.

He was watching Merrily, an elbow propped on the pillow to lean on. He had his little round brass-rimmed glasses on.

‘Sorry. The last time we talked about this, you were a bit nervous, but it didn’t seem like anything you couldn’t handle.’ He sat up beside her. ‘What happened?’

Where to start? She told him about Alice Meek and her nephew. And about a letter this morning from a woman in Hereford whose grandchild had cerebral palsy. Nobody she knew. The letter concluding: I said to my husband that the doctors were hopeless, so we ought to give the Church a last chance.

‘Last chance?’ Lol said. ‘Save my child or else?’

‘Show us some action, or you’re finished. And the point is, they can finish us. It’s like if you do a gig and only two people turn up... no more gigs. And gigs are what the Church is about. Hence Alpha, all the dynamic, youth-oriented stuff. A good gig. You gotta do a good gig.’

‘But isn’t that what you’re doing on Sunday nights?’

‘Well, I thought so. Only it wasn’t meant to be a healing gig. It was about, I dunno, helping people develop an inner life? But you discover that most people don’t want an inner life. They just want a good outer life, and you need to be fit and healthy for that, and if the Church can take away your ailments, hey, that’s cool. Magic. Like, if you look at the medieval Church, all those pilgrimages to the holy shrines with sick relatives on stretchers, hundreds of amazing cures attributed to St Thomas of Hereford. The Church works magic, so the Church becomes rich and influential.’

‘You’re still identifying more with Celtic hermits in caves?’

‘Maybe they were even worse. Nothing to be responsible for.’ Merrily’s head sank down into the pillow. ‘Healing’s about taking responsibility. How can you take responsibility for something that—?’

‘That you can’t totally believe is going to happen?’

‘God help me.’

‘What about this bloke?’

‘It can happen.’ She rolled away. ‘I mean, it can.’ She was sweating. ‘Jesus, am I ever going to be big enough for this job?’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Canon Jeavons. Llewellyn Jeavons. Llewellyn with two Ls, Canon with two Ns.’

‘As in loose?’

‘That’s what he said on the phone. He jokes around a lot.’

He doesn’t have a problem with it, then.’

‘Evidently not.’ She turned back to face Lol. ‘But then he’s a bloke.’

‘Crass and insensitive?’

‘Confident of his tradition.’

Lol said, ‘What’s basically wrong with this idea of a healing group? Responsibility shared with Catholics and Methodists and... whoever.’

‘Pentecostalists?’

Lol sighed. ‘If you must.’ His parents had been out on that fevered frontier, accusing him of amplifying the Devil’s music, then swapping his picture on the mantelpiece for one of Jesus Christ. This had been one of the principal milestones on the road to Victoria Ward and the syringe-wielding Dr Gascoigne, immortalized in the creepy, cathartic ‘Heavy Medication Day’, on the new album.

‘It’s probably the best solution,’ Merrily said. ‘But it’s got to be more than healing. I don’t want to run an all-singing, all-dancing medicine show.’

‘Sometimes healing’s a by-product. Like when you’re in love, you feel healthier.’

‘That’s a good point. Holistic.’

She felt better. More complete. It should always be like this. Yesterday, she’d thought it could be; she hadn’t told him why, and there didn’t seem much point now.

However, later, lying spooned on the rim of sleep, she heard Lol’s voice: hesitant, feeling his breath warm on her ear in the darkness.

‘There’s a house. In Ledwardine.’

A hollow moment.

‘For sale.’ Lol said.

‘Oh.’

‘A small, terraced house in Church Street. Did you know?’

‘Lucy’s house,’ she said. ‘No, I didn’t know, not until... it was in yesterday’s Hereford Times.’

‘And the week before’s. I found it while I was making a fire with the paper. It kind of leapt up at me.’

‘I only saw it yesterday. You’d think someone would have...’

But why should anyone have told her about it? For the past year, it had just been a weekend cottage for two solicitors from Luton. They never came to church; she’d met them, once, briefly. It was a small investment; they didn’t care whose house it had been, and because they weren’t there during the week no estate agent’s sign had gone up.

‘I’m never going to be a star,’ Lol said, ‘but it looks like I might make a living out of it for a while. Enough to cobble together a deposit. If I do the tour and the album sells a few. Can’t stay here indefinitely, Prof needs the space. Every time somebody comes in to record, I’m back in the loft over the studio. It’s not really convenient for anybody.’

‘Did you ring them up about it – the agents?’

‘I thought I’d better talk to you first.’

Lol was rebuilding foundations. He’d faced an audience again after many years, some of them spent on psychiatric wards. Circumstances had meant she hadn’t been there for him when the unforgiving lights came up; she never again wanted him to feel alone.

‘Lol...’ Her throat was dry. ‘It’s gone. It’s sold.’

‘The house?’

‘I’m so sorry. I rang the agents this morning.’

A cloudy silence. Across the room, the lights of Malvern blurred, and she realized that her eyes had filled with tears.

Lol said, ‘You rang the agents?’

‘Well, I... It just seemed like the answer to the problem. Separate houses, just two minutes’ walk away. I thought it must be meant. I thought how delighted Lucy Devenish would have been to have you living there. And I thought that if you couldn’t raise the deposit, maybe we could somehow do it jointly.’

‘You’d do that?’

‘Of course.’

Lol expelled a long breath and put both his arms around her.

Christ. She closed her eyes; the last thing she wanted was for him to feel grateful.

‘But it’s gone,’ she said.

Gone. In the paper for a whole week, and we never saw it. And then we both did, too late. Like it wasn’t meant to happen at all, and the point was being underlined for us.

‘It’s become a very desirable place, Ledwardine,’ Merrily said. She shivered slightly, unaccountably, in his arms. A goose walking over her grave.

For a time – just around the time he was realizing he wasn’t never going to make it as a rock star, or even out of farming – Danny Thomas had been into some serious drinking. Never quite an alky, mind, but his name was written in big, dripping letters on the walls of half a dozen pubs in Kington and the Radnor Valley.

It ended when he got banned for a year. Greta wasn’t up for ferrying him to and from the half-dozen pubs, so that was it: Danny stayed home. Cheaper than the Betty Ford clinic, and the music was better.

And it was during this period of near-abstinence that he’d come to realize that what he needed more than the booze was crowds sometimes – loud, mindless crowds. So when he’d got his licence back he’d rationed himself to two nights a week and made sure he didn’t go out until half an hour before closing time, when the pubs was packed and so many folks was pissed it was almost contagious.

Which was how come Danny missed all the action tonight, down at the Eagle in New Radnor, when Sebbie Three Farms had to be escorted to his Range Rover.

They was all still talking about it when Danny arrived at twenty past ten. All familiar faces in here tonight, from Gwilym Bufton, the feed dealer, ole Joe Cadwallader, from Harpton, young Robin Thorogood, the American from Old Hindwell, with his missus and his walking stick.

‘Moves like lightning, has him up against the wall, both hands round his neck, knee in his crotch,’ Gwilym said. ‘Never seen Sebbie move as fast – not after seven Scotches, anyway.’

‘So who was this?’ Danny asked, fetching his beer over. ‘Who was Sebbie having a go at?’

‘Tommy Francis, Felinfawr.’ Gwilym shaking his head in disbelief. ‘Tommy Francis! Been mates since Tommy had the hunt kennels. Only feller yereabouts dares take the piss out of Sebbie. Went too far tonight, mind. Oh hell, aye.’

‘Thought he was gonner kill him,’ Jed Begley said. Jed, who built scrambling bikes the other side of Evenjobb, did a fair impression of Sebbie. ‘ “Whadja mean by that, hey? Whadja mean?” ’

‘But what did he say?’ Danny asked him. ‘What did Tommy say?’

‘All he said—’ Gwilym looked round for support. ‘All he said was, “Must be frustratin’ for you, seein’ that boy comin’ home to this tasty piece, thinkin’ what’s he got that I en’t?” That right?’

‘Close,’ Robin Thorogood said. ‘Surprised the hell out of me, way the guy reacted.’

‘It’s about ground, it is,’ Gwilym said. ‘Always comes back to ground round yere. Sebbie won’t never be happy till he’s lord of all he surveys, and he can’t survey all his ground from any direction without he closes one eye to block out The Nant.’

‘And who in his right mind’s gonner close an eye, woman like that around,’ Jed Begley said, and people laughed.

Not Danny, though. He’d last seen Jeremy and this Natalie here at the Eagle, when he and his new partner, Gomer, had dropped in to grab some lunch, week or so back. This Natalie with a half of lager, Jeremy with his usual limeade – and this unmistakable stiff quietness around them. Well, Danny’d been in that situation himself enough times, him and Gret. But this kind of atmosphere so early in a courting boded no particular good. Jeremy’s face, for the first time ever, had seemed lined and creased and there was a brightness in his eyes that was like harsh sunshine in a leaden sky.

‘Been bloody strange lately, mind,’ Jed Begley went on. ‘Look at them gun-boys. Did Sebbie hire them boys, or en’t he?’

Danny had heard of this: shooters on the prowl. ‘Welshies, ennit?’

‘South Wales, aye. Hired to shoot foxes.’

‘Do that make sense?’ Danny said. ‘Sebbie’s the flamin’ hunt.’

‘Barry Roberts at the Arrow Valley Gun Club, he don’t get it neither,’ Jed Begley said. ‘And he en’t happy. ’Sides, you seen more foxes than normal lately? I en’t. No, see, what you got with Dacre is a drink problem. Plus, he’s mad.’

‘Got his own agenda, and he plays his cards close,’ Gwilym said. ‘Always has done. Danny knows.’

Danny nodded, said nothing. Sebbie Dacre, Sebbie Three Farms: magistrate, master of the hunt, robber baron of the Marches, with this fancy but phoney Norman coat of arms over his porch and his customized Range Rover. What passed for gentry these days – an apology for it, in Danny’s view, but Sebbie was influential, supported the local shops and the pubs and the feed dealers, and he employed local labour – well, normally he did.

Sebbie Dacre and Jeremy Berrows had lived side by side all Jeremy’s life, with no socializing but no real trouble... although if you stood on any one of Jeremy’s boundaries you could feel Sebbie glowering like storm clouds massing. This was because Sebbie’s ole man, having bought Emrys Morgan’s farm, had put in a good bid for The Nant that was wedged between Emrys’s farm and the Dacre estate, but the owners – Sebbie’s own relations – had sold it to the Berrowses instead, for no good reason except that they liked the Berrowses. Which was no reason at all, in Sebbie’s view.

‘En’t been the same since he got divorced,’ Jed said. ‘What’s that – ten years now? Not so much losin’ the wife and kid as what her cost him, plus the fees for Big Weale. Which is why he don’t let women get closer than a quick bang, n’more. And here’s Jeremy Berrows and this totally spectac’lar woman, delivered to his doorstep.’ Jed going back into Sebbie-speak. ‘ “What’s this, hey? What’s this about?” Should’ve seen him drive off, Danny, when we finally got him in his motor. Hunches over the wheel, crunching his bloody gears. You wouldn’t wanner be on the same road.’

‘Like his nan,’ ole Joe Cadwallader said suddenly, in his high voice.

Gwilym bent down to him. ‘Wassat, Joe?’

‘His nan. You’re all too bloody young, that’s the trouble. His nan, her used to go to the pub in Gladestry – ’fore the war, this was. Idea of a woman goin’ in a pub on her own, them days... unheard of. Idea of a woman drinkin’ pints... well! Idea of a woman goin’ to the pub, havin’ six pints then gettin’ behind the wheel of a big ole car...’

‘Jeez,’ Robin Thorogood said. ‘She never kill anybody?’

Ole Joe Cadwallader didn’t reply because Robin Thorogood was from Off. He just looked around – big smile, gaping mouth like an abandoned quarry.

‘Whoop, whoop,’ he said, and then he finished his Guinness.

The discussion died then, people drifting away. Last orders had been and gone. Danny drifted to the door and was sure he heard ole Joe Cadwallader, still sitting there behind him, going very quietly, like a whistling wind, ‘Whoop, whoop.’

Somewhere in the middle of the night, the wind came in from Wales and rattled the eaves and made the pines shiver.

Jane rolled out of bed, wrapped herself in her fleece and went to the window. Amber was right, it was freezing here, and it wasn’t even December yet. But that was OK; she wasn’t a guest, she wasn’t expected to be warm.

She’d spent two hours helping Amber finish redecorating another bedroom. Tarting the place up, Amber had said desperately, in case they ever needed to accommodate a conference, ho, ho. Well, it was more fun than cleaning lavatories and changing bedding, and Jane was starting to take the injustice of this situation personally now. These were good people who worked hard, even if Ben was inclined to mess people around like he was still working in TV.

In a way, she was drawn to his philosophy. Life’s like television – if it’s on the screen it must have happened. Well, why not? It was a way of actually making things happen. Or like amending reality. Amber had talked about it in a disparaging way, as though she didn’t understand why it was so intoxicating.

Jane understood. She’d been going out with Eirion for nearly a year now, and Eirion was obsessed with getting into the visual media. And she herself... well, only another year at school after this one. Decisions had to be made.

Through the window – there was a crack in the pane and a thin draught oozing through it – she could see a vague, orangey moon, and the clouds were sliding across it like they were on fast-forward.

This little room wasn’t quite an attic, and there were much better views from inside the witch’s-hat tower, but it was high enough to overlook some of the forestry, and you could see across to the long plateau of Hergest Ridge and the sombre conifers under the moon. And down to the Celtic Border, this seam in the earth, the secret snake which sometimes awoke and writhed. She experienced that familiar longing to feel the Border and all it represented: points of transition, cultures in collision.

But not from the tower room, thank you.

There was something about that room that was essentially mind-shrinking. Unpleasant, basically. Haunted rooms were fascinating, but not on your own. If Eirion was here – the irresistible smile, the allegedly puppy-fat spare tyre – well, that would be a whole different ball game. That could’ve been... almost fun.

Only she hadn’t seen him in a fortnight. And in a couple of weeks’ time, when they should be getting together for the Christmas holidays – intimate hours in candlelit corners – he would instead be on a plane with his wealthy Welsh family, bound for St Moritz or one of those other cheesy, overpriced, overcrowded playgrounds for bored tossers. It had been arranged months ago, before she had this job, and she could have gone with them – OK, so her mother was only a vicar on a pittance but they could have worked something out.

Sure they could. Could have applied for a Lottery grant.

Jane felt resentful and unsettled.

A tiny light was moving somewhere below the ridge. A white light, bobbing, as if someone was carrying it. Perhaps the shooters again. The shooters who Ben had ordered off his land. Men with guns at night: bad news.

Or maybe just Jeremy. Clancy said Jeremy would sometimes creep out in the night to check on his stock. Jeremy was married to his farm, Clancy had said, which didn’t hold out much hope for her mother. And Jane had thought, Huh? – wondering how Clancy managed to see it that way around. When you saw Natalie, this cool, careless beauty, with Jeremy, this stocky, hesitant little farmer with limited communication skills and hair like the fluff you found under the bed, you were like, What? However this unlikely liaison had come about, Jeremy must feel like it was his birthday every day it lasted.

The bobbing light went out, or it disappeared into the forestry or something. Shedding her fleece, Jane went back to her single bed, wishing Eirion was here. Like here, now. The ironic thing was that Eirion had admitted he’d rather be coming here, talking to Ben, meeting some of the telly people – not so much the stars as the producers – who, according to Ben, were likely to drop in over the festive season. Like, this documentary guy, for instance, Largo. Eirion could talk their language; he’d done work experience at HTV Wales – other kids got to hang around behind the counter in the NatWest bank, Eirion spent a fortnight with a documentary team.

Family connections, Daddy’s directorships.

A distant gunshot had her springing back from the bed, back to the window.

Nothing. No lights.

They were very close last night, she’d said to Ben last Sunday when they’d come in from the rain and he’d been raging about the gun club.

Yeah. So close, one of them was right inside her head. She’d awoken in the tower room – must have been about three in the morning – with this single colossal angry bang deep inside her head... this swelling, echoing explosion that awoke her instantly, absolutely cold with fear, immediately thinking – the way you always thought at three in the morning – of a brain tumour or something, and she’d felt just totally... sick. Nauseous, headachy and – considering the size of that room – so horribly claustrophobic that she’d rushed to open the window, sliding her head under the sash into the freezing night.

There. It was out. She’d relived it.

And it was, of course, probably something for Mum.

And Mum was the reason she’d said nothing. This was what she did separate from Mum. The Independent Working Woman on the Border did not go crying to her mum.

Jane wrapped herself in the duvet and lay on her back with her eyes wide open to the grey window. It was crap when something awoke you in the night. You wanted to be alive to the magic in life, but all you could see was the injustice of everything, and the fragility and the darkness beyond the glass.

6

Beastie

THE BREAKFAST TABLE was a battleground, and Ben was on his knees.

When Jane came in with the extra toast that nobody had asked for, Antony Largo, the independent producer, was saying. ‘No, no, that is a wee bit unfair, pal, I certainly wouldnae use the word shite.’

Largo must have got in very late last night. He didn’t look like he’d had much sleep – that room? – and he wasn’t eating much of the food that Jane was putting out for him and Ben. Breakfast was good for eavesdropping because you could make frequent trips to and from the kitchen with fruit juice and toast and coffee, and you could hang around a lot in the doorway.

Ben was in his jogging gear, hanging back in his chair, probably thinking he was looking fit and relaxed and glowing. In fact, he looked nervous, and he was laughing too much. Jane was wincing inside for him.

The dining room at Stanner Hall was long and chilly, its end wall encrusted with a chipped and faded coat-of-arms over the fireplace where unlit logs were piled into a dog-grate. Opposite was this church-size Gothic window, which still had some stained glass in veins of cold blue and blood red. The two men were sitting under the window, next to a flaking grey concertina radiator that made more noise than heat.

‘OK,’ Antony Largo said, ‘we’re mates, we go back, I can think aloud with you.’ He gave Ben this level stare, amusement in his eyes. ‘You tell me: where’s the contemporary dynamic? Where’s the now drama coming from?’

Bloodied sunlight flared on Ben’s forehead. He’d have done his usual run, down the drive in the early mist, up through the forestry and back into the gardens. Working up an excuse for the sweat.

‘Actors,’ Ben said.

Antony Largo studied the toast. The set of his shoulders said give me strength. He said patiently, ‘We talked about that. We said we could ship over a few famous faces from your illustrious past, old friends sampling the accommodation. That is no’ a difficulty.’

‘That’s not—’ Ben picked up the silver pepper-pot, and Jane thought for a moment that he was going to whizz it at Largo’s head, but he just brought it down again on the tablecloth to emphasize a point. ‘That’s not what I meant. If we have one fairly prominent actor playing Doyle, this would be the only speaking part. All the rest – Vaughan, Ellen – would be shadowy figures, half seen... in black and white or sepia, so that’s—’

‘Yeah, yeah, it’d be entirely workmanlike, and perfectly acceptable at seven p.m. on Channel Five. This is peak-hour Channel 4 and requires viscera. Sorry, pal, it still leaves me half a dozen good thrusts short of a decent climax.’ Antony Largo looked up at Jane and winked. ‘My apologies, hen.’

Jane grinned. Antony Largo leaned back and poured himself some coffee. With a name like that, you expected Armani and suave; what you got were faded old denims and this honed Glasgow scepticism. He was about thirty-five, and wiry, with oiled black hair. He had one ear-stud and a hard, blue-grey stubble. He looked like one of those guys who stayed fit without jogging and never put on weight – an honorary life member of the gymnasium of the street.

‘Antony.’ Ben laughed again, his anxiety lines deepening. ‘Why do you always, always start off by talking everything down?’

‘This is not tactics, pal.’ Antony leaned forward, shaking his head slowly. ‘Way back, when there was advertising coming out the networks’ ears, money falling from the sky, we just fenced around a bit, for appearances’ sake. But that was then, this is now – Independent TV drama belly-up and barely twitching.’

‘Yes, but drama-documentary—’

‘... Is the new drama, yeah. Doco is the new drama. But a doco with no contemporary propulsion, no plot line? OK. See it from my angle. I walk in there and I go, This is about where the Sherlock Holmes guy got his idea for The Hound of the Baskervilles, but hey, it’s not what you think. And they’re going, Why would we think anything? Why would we give a fart?’

‘Because...’ Ben looked up and saw Jane, who realized she must be standing there, blatantly listening, maybe with her head on one side and her mouth slightly open. She turned away and started rearranging things on her tray. ‘Thank you very much, Jane,’ Ben said, meaning Piss off. His laughter had gone tepid.

‘Sorry.’ Jane gave him an uncomfortable smile and slalomed away between tables that didn’t match. At one time, there would have been a single banqueting job down the middle of the room; now the small separate tables looked mean and utility, kind of cafeteria. Symptomatic of what was wrong with this place.

She didn’t hear Ben explaining to Antony how he thought the TV people could be made to care. Which would have been interesting.

Passing the foot of the main stairs, Jane could hear the bagpipe wheeze of Amber vacuuming up there – staying well out of it. Natalie was bustling in from the lobby, long legs in tight black jeans, red leather coat over her arm.

‘That the TV guy’s car, Jane? The old Lexus?’

‘Probably.’ Jane glanced over her shoulder. ‘Ben’s struggling. I don’t think he’s even got round to telling the guy there’s not going to be a Holmes conference.’

‘Oh.’

‘Essentially, they’re talking at cross purposes.’ Jane put down her tray on the second step; the upstairs vacuuming droned on, suggesting it was OK to talk. She brought her voice down. ‘Ben’s flogging his Hound line and this Largo’s trying to convey that he’s only interested in Ben’s struggle to revive Stanner.’

When she’d first gone in, with the fruit juice, Ben had been saying how well they were doing. He said he’d altered some bookings to keep the hotel empty so he’d have time to show Largo around. The guy would have had to be blind to fall for that. Where was all the staff, for instance?

‘The hotel trade looks like a pushover till you’re in it,’ Natalie said soberly. ‘I’ll be surprised if they can afford to heat this place through the winter.’

‘It’s that bad?’

Natalie waggled her fingers, suggesting borderline wonky. ‘When you’re full up in summer it feels like the escalator’s never going to stop. In winter, the outgoings mount up. They’ve got three women in Kington on standby for that conference who won’t be happy to stand by in the future.’

Ben ought to listen more to Nat; she had serious qualifications in catering and hotel management. Clancy said her mother had been running a big hotel at Looe, in Cornwall, before suddenly resigning (after a relationship with a man crashed). Then there’d been another admin job, at a motel near Slough, but Clancy had hated the school there and they’d moved on again. When the summer holidays came round, Nat had bought this old camper van and they’d just set off, looking for somewhere that felt right. Being gypsies, Clancy said.

Nat shifted her leather coat from one arm to the other. ‘So this guy’s not interested in The Hound at all?’

‘Only as one of Ben’s wild schemes to attract trade, in this Punching the Clock series. And that would depend on having famous faces – actors, people like that – come to stay. Like out of pity; that’s how it’ll look, won’t it?’

‘Humiliation’s big,’ Nat said. ‘We love to see people going face-down on the concrete. Especially arrogant bastards from glamour jobs.’

Jane nodded morosely, seeing it all now, like she was viewing the rushes – meaningful cutaway shots of damp patches and peeling flock wallpaper; Stanner Hall looking half-derelict under wintry skies; Ben striding around like some manic Basil Fawlty figure. She’d neither seen nor heard anything of Antony Largo until this weekend and, call her psychic, but she guessed that shafting his old mate wouldn’t leave him feeling over-gutted.

The vacuum cleaner cut out. Jane glanced up the stairs, which had a new red carpet – an important buy, according to Ben: make the punters feel special going up to their rooms.

‘She shouldn’t be doing that. I should be doing it.’

Nat eyed the tray. ‘She got you to serve breakfast instead, because she wants to stay in the background. Bloody shame, Jane. A class chef.’

And you’re an experienced hotel manager, Jane thought. Yet here you both are. But she didn’t say anything about that because Ben and Antony Largo had emerged from the dining room, Largo saying, ‘... Oh, right down the shitter, ma friend, no question there. I’m no’ saying you didn’t get out at the right time, I just think there might’ve been better ways of—’

He stopped. He’d seen Natalie, and he was looking at her the way male guests tended to. She was standing in a diagonal funnel of sun from the long window on the first landing. She looked typically gorgeous and typically unaware of it.

‘This is Natalie Craven.’ Ben took a step that put him between Nat and Antony. ‘Natalie’s my... house manager.’

Nat raised an eyebrow. Antony put his head on one side. ‘I’m sorry, but you’re no’ an actress by any chance?’ When Nat started to shake her head and he could see she wasn’t smiling, he went on hurriedly, with a thickening of the accent, ‘Wisnae meant to be an insult, Natalie, I just thought Ben might’ve called in some old... favour.’

‘She doesn’t owe me any favours,’ Ben said tightly.

‘Hey!’ Antony put up his hands. ‘No offence, pal.’

‘None taken.’ Ben was looking a little weary now. ‘Nat, if you see Amber anywhere, can you tell her I’m taking Antony to the church to, ah, meet the Vaughans.’

‘Or perhaps you’d like to join us,’ Antony said softly to Nat. ‘Be good to get another perspective. I, er, gather the Vaughans don’t have a lot to say these days.’

Nat smiled at him. ‘I’ve been there before. Also, there are people I need to phone. Bookings to make.’ She looked at Ben. ‘Like all the ones you put off this weekend?’ She threw her coat over the reception desk. ‘Why don’t you take Jane? Jane’s got a perspective on most things.’

Ben shrugged. Jane glanced at Natalie, thinking she ought to be upstairs with Amber, cleaning and redecorating. But maybe Nat wanted to find out how this situation worked out, come back with a report.

Cool.

‘Time for your break, surely,’ Nat said, confirming it. ‘And you’ve never met the Vaughans, have you, Jane?’

Kington Parish Church was alone on the edge of the town. From the road it looked like a country church, walled and raised up against the cold sky. Ben didn’t even glance at it, just drove straight past the entrance in his old blue MGB, with the top down. Antony Largo was beside him, Jane fleeced and huddled into the little seat behind them, her hair blown across her face.

‘That was a church, wasn’t it?’ Largo said. ‘The chunky grey thing with the wee spire we just passed?’

‘I’ve changed my mind.’ On the edge of the town centre, Ben had turned right, heading back into the country, raising his voice above the engine’s dirty growl. ‘I’m going to take the story in sequence.’

‘Can we no’ have the damn top up?’

‘It’s jammed, if you must know.’

‘Great.’

‘Do you good, a bit of air.’

I know what’d do me good, pal, but we left her behind.’ Largo leaned his head back. ‘That’s no offence to you, Jane, but I don’t think your mother would approve of me.’

‘I wasn’t looking for a new dad, anyway,’ Jane said.

‘Hmm,’ Largo mused. ‘Feisty.’

They came out of a shady lane with detached houses in it, and now they were in hilly countryside. Jane had never been down here before; she had no idea where the road led. The sun was pulsing feebly, a blister behind clouds like strips of yellowing bandage.

‘And you can keep your filthy paws off my staff, Largo,’ Ben said mildly. ‘Natalie’s in a relationship, and she’s bloody good at what she does.’

Largo turned to Ben. ‘How would you even know?’

‘What?’

Something fractured then, Largo bawling at Ben, raising himself up in the bucket seat. ‘Come on, what do you know about the hotel trade? I mean really? What have you done, you maniac? You could’ve found something in the independent sector, no problem, like every other bastard gets dumped by the Beeb. You could’ve gone to Kenny and Zoë Fitzroy. You could’ve come to me, for Christ’s sake! How naive is this? Find you can afford some Disneyesque mansion wi’ wee towers for the price of your Dockland penthouse, and you have to grab it like it’s now or never.’

Ben gripped the wheel. ‘I’ve remarried, in case you failed to notice. I have Amber to consider.’

‘Aye, and that—’

The wind made a grab at Antony Largo’s voice and the folded fabric of the car’s roof flapped violently behind Jane. She sank down in the little seat to hear the rest of the stuff he presumably hadn’t felt able to say inside the hotel.

‘—An artist and turned her into a skivvy. You had to prove you didn’t need any of us: “I’m gonnae show these bastards, I’m getting out of London and create a wee paradise and get m’self fit and youthful again and make them all as sick as pigs.” How naive is that? Truth of it is, you do need us, you arsehole.’

Ben hung grimly on to the wheel, slowing the car, breathing in deeply, swallowing something. ‘The building on your left,’ he said finally, through his teeth, ‘is Hergest Court.’

Disappointing.

Like, it should have been bigger. Must have been bigger once, seeing it was built on a motte, an obvious castle mound above unkempt grounds and what might have been an old pond, even a moat. It was about fifty yards back from the road, part stone, part timbered. The stone end had a sloping roof, the timbered end just stopped.

‘Like it’s been sawn off,’ Jane said.

‘This is only a fragment of what it used to be.’ Ben had reversed into a track of hard mud and turned the car to face the house.

It looked stark, the way buildings with timber framing rarely did. There ought to be wooded hills rising behind it, but there were only the cold fields and the waxy sky. On the sawn-off side were sporadic trees – a gloomy yew, a bent pine – and then some industrial-looking farm buildings.

‘Rather forlorn now, I admit,’ Ben said. ‘Been let out in recent years by the owners. Lived in usually by tenant farmers, and it was even a rural art gallery for a while. You can tell by the mound it’s built on that it used to be fortified, way back.’

‘How far back?’ Jane asked, interested now – more so than if it had been tarted up inside some mock-Elizabethan knot-garden.

‘Well, thirteenth century at least. That’s recorded.’

‘It’s no’ my idea of Baskerville Hall,’ Antony Largo said.

Ben switched off the engine, and the atmosphere between him and Largo seemed to tauten, like some invisible sheet of cellophane dividing the front seats. Jane hunched into a corner of the back seat and kept her hands in the pockets of her fleece. No other vehicle had passed since they’d arrived. No smoke was coming out of any of the three visible chimneys of Hergest Court.

‘By the fifteenth century, it had become the house of the Vaughans,’ Ben said. ‘The most important family in the history of Kington.’

Antony stretched his legs. ‘And they’re your prototype Baskervilles?’

‘There is a long-established Baskerville family in the area, which accounts for the name. But the Vaughans have the history. The central figure is Thomas Vaughan, who switched from the Lancastrian side to the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses. Killed at the Battle of Banbury in 1469. He was known as Black Vaughan.’

‘Naturally,’ Antony said.

Ben frowned. ‘Because of his black hair, apparently. To distinguish him from his brother who had red hair.’

‘Maybe you could just not mention that.’

Jane said quickly, ‘It was Hugo Baskerville in the book, wasn’t it? The guy who was supposed to have brought down the curse on the family?’

‘A wild, profane and godless man, according to Conan Doyle’s Baskerville manuscript.’ Ben turned around to face her. ‘Conan Doyle brings his legend forward almost exactly two centuries, to the time of the Great Rebellion – the English Civil War. So both the historical background and Doyle’s created one feature civil wars which tore the country apart. Doyle puts Hugo in the seventeenth rather than the fifteenth century. It’s exactly how an author would muddy the waters.’

‘And there was a girl, wasn’t there?’ Jane said.

‘A neighbouring yeoman’s daughter whom Hugo fancies and abducts. He drags her back to Baskerville Hall, but she escapes down the ivy from an upstairs room that night, while he and his cronies are getting pissed – the inference being that, hearing their ribald laughter, she suspects that they’re all going to come up and gang-rape her. When Hugo finds that she’s gone, his night’s pleasure denied him, he offers himself, body and soul, to the Powers of Darkness if he can be allowed to catch up with her again. Then he mounts his horse, orders the hunting pack to be unleashed and rides off furiously across the moor, with his hounds, to hunt her down.’

‘Across the moor,’ Antony looked around. ‘Do I see a moor?’

Ben frowned. ‘For which, if we were shooting the scene, we might substitute Hergest Ridge. Which begins’ – he jerked a thumb at where the land rose steeply behind the car – ‘just there. It’s wild, it has its curious features. And Stanner Rocks are surely as brooding as any Dartmoor tor.’

Antony smiled.

‘What happened to the girl?’ Jane asked. ‘I don’t remember.’

‘Hugo’s companions go chasing after him,’ Ben said. ‘They’re scared of what he’ll do if he catches up with her. They encounter a night shepherd on the moor who’s in such a state of terror that he can hardly speak. He tells them he’s seen the hounds pursuing the hapless maiden, followed by Hugo on his black mare. And then, silently following Hugo, the worst thing of all.’

Another hound.’ Antony Largo laid on this melodramatically spooky Scottish voice, like Private Fraser in those old Dad’s Army episodes. ‘Only bigger... and meaner.’

‘They eventually find the girl in a clearing, dead of fatigue or fear,’ Ben said. ‘And then they find Hugo. And, standing over him, a great black beast, bigger than any hound—’

‘—Ever seen by mortal eyes,’ Antony Largo said.

Ben finally turned to him. ‘You’ve actually read it, then, Antony.’

‘Of course I’ve read it, you tosser, I’m a pro. I do my prep – even for this sh— So, here’s your beastie plucking at Hugo’s throat, and then it finally rips it all away.’ Antony clenched his teeth and growled until his own laughter began to choke him. ‘And it turns on these guys, with its jaws all dripping with blood and flesh and its eyes on fire. And they all shit themselves on the spot and leg it. End of legend.’

Ben didn’t laugh. ‘Not exactly.’

‘Yeah, OK. From then on, if the Hound is heard howling in the night or seen prowling the precincts, then it’s no’ what you’d call a fortunate omen for the Baskervilles.’

‘It means death,’ Ben said.

‘We know that,’ Jane said. ‘But, like, how closely does that match the story of this Black Vaughan?’

Ben didn’t reply. He put his shoulder against the driver’s door, crunched it open and stepped out onto the edge of the road.

‘Obviously, not that closely at all,’ Antony murmured.

Ben leaned against the car. ‘There are actually local people who won’t come down here at night. Don’t smile, Antony, this isn’t the city, this isn’t even the soft country. Vaughan was associated with a black hound, which some sources suggested was in some way satanic. Now, although the spectral black dog is a familiar motif in British folklore, the death connection is less common. But I can tell you that there are still some local people who just won’t come this way for fear of meeting it on the road. I have that on good authority.’

‘Say that on camera, will they, pal?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe.’

Jane glanced across at Hergest Court. Nothing was moving. ‘Have people seen something?’

‘It’s odd,’ Ben said. ‘You talk to people in town and they’ll say, “Oh, old so-and-so’s seen the Hound, he’ll tell you about it. And then, when you find old so-and-so, he looks blank, never even heard of it. Which is extremely unconvincing and, in my view, the denials prove the fact of it. As I understand it, what’s been seen is a big black dog that disappears into walls, solid things. And there are other related phenomena that I’ll explain about later.’

‘But in the book it was a fiery hound,’ Jane said. ‘Which turns out to have been phosphorous paint. Like, when the Hound starts appearing again in modern times – like, Victorian times – it turns out to have been an actual dog that was starved, therefore given a good reason to howl in the night. And painted with luminous paint.’

Ben nodded. ‘In the novel, the fiery hound is a scam.’

‘And in the end Sherlock Holmes just shoots it,’ Jane said. And it was all coming back now. ‘Why did he have to do that? The poor dog’s already been deliberately starved for weeks. I hated him for that.’ She was aware of both men looking at her with curiosity. ‘OK, I was young. I didn’t realize he needed a dramatic finale. I was just sorry for the dog, and that’s all I remembered. And that’s... that’s why I’ve always hated the book. Sorry.’

A Land Rover Discovery came around the bend quite fast, tyres skidding in a patch of icy mud, and Ben slid quickly back into the MG. ‘Jane actually makes an important point there. Why did Doyle give his novel such a prosaic ending? A real dog and a pot of phosphorous paint?’

‘It was a Sherlock Holmes story,’ Antony reminded him. ‘Sherlock Holmes disnae believe in ghosties.’

‘Yes,’ Ben hissed, ‘but Doyle did! This is the whole point: a medical man, a scientist... but, for the last twenty years of his life, also a spiritualist! The most famous proponent of spiritism on the planet! The guy was beyond fanatical – tours of Britain and the States, promoting what he considered to be the absolutely proven scientific fact of life after death. In fact, towards the end, Antony’ – Ben put his face to within six inches of Largo’s – ‘Doyle lived for bloody ghosties.’

Then something caught his eye and he straightened up, looking away, down the lane to where the Discovery had stopped to let two men out.

‘Ah,’ Ben said.

The two men both wore army-type camouflage jackets and baseball caps. One of them pulled open the back door of the vehicle, reached inside and then handed the other something that Jane thought at first was a spade.

‘Them,’ Ben said.

The rear door was slammed shut, and the Discovery moved on, leaving the two men standing in the road. They started walking up the lane towards the MG, heads down like they hadn’t noticed it was there.

Jane thought, Oh Christ.

Two men, one shotgun.

‘How very opportune,’ Ben said through his teeth. He stepped out into the road.

Antony Largo raised an amused eyebrow, half-turning and leaning back against the passenger door for a better view. Did he know the history to this? Probably not.

‘You know, one thing I’ve always admired about Ben,’ Antony said, ‘is his ability to move into a new situation and form instant and lasting friendships.’

He folded his arms, waiting to be entertained. Jane looked at Ben, already all worked-up and dismayed because he was fighting for his and Amber’s life, and everything he’d thrown at Antony had been deflected – Antony in his professional body armour and Ben bare-knuckled.

‘I’m just so much in the right mood for these scum,’ Ben said. He moved into the middle of the lane and stood there with his legs planted apart, rocking slightly.

7

The Healing of the Dead

IT WAS ONE of those cottages with very small windows and so few of them that it needed lamps on all day in winter. Merrily counted seven of them, on tables and in nooks, all low-wattage, white-shaded and strung out like a chain of beacons so that you navigated through the house from lamp to lamp. There was a dreamlike feel to this.

‘One day, when I’m really old...’ Canon Jeavons was leading her down a cramped passage, like a tugboat on a canal; he was balancing coffee cups and milk and sugar on a tin tray, ‘there gonna be a nice, plain bungalow, with windows so wide you think you living on the lawn.’

His voice was crisp and biscuity, like on high-quality FM radio. A cathedral voice, too big for a farmworker’s cottage that probably had not been much updated since the wattle first met the daub.

He ducked through a doorway. ‘You must be the first person in a long, long time I’ve never had to warn to keep their head low till they sitting down.’

They’d arrived in a room that needed no lamp. It had whitewashed brick walls, a square of white carpet and an uncurtained window, revealing a small, fenced garden, wide fields and a hoary, wooded hill. The room had a sloping ceiling, suggesting that it had begun as a lean-to. A black cast-iron flue pushed through the ceiling at a crooked angle, serving a glass-fronted, pot-bellied stove in which coals glowed agreeably. There was an earthenware coffeepot on the stove. Homely.

‘This place used to be for the family cow,’ Jeavons said, ‘or maybe the pig. Sometimes I see just one big pig snuffling around in here – raised like a member of the family, many tears shed at the parting of the ways. Sometimes I feel the presence of a single cow, but mainly the pig. What do you feel, Merrilee?’

Unrolling her name like ribbon. His accent was a carnival – lazy Caribbean towed by old-fashioned, fruity English clerical. She couldn’t decide how much of it was laid on.

‘Cows are good,’ she said carefully. ‘And, er... pigs are even better.’

‘Indeed!’ Jeavons beamed. ‘Take a seat.’

He scooped a huge grey and white cat from a fat lemon-yellow armchair and sank into it, transferring the cat to his knees. When Merrily took a matching chair on the other side of the stove, she found it was so overstuffed that her feet didn’t reach the floor.

‘Well now...’ Jeavons sat back, his chins on his chest. ‘Ms Deliverance. This is interesting indeed.’

‘It is?’ Merrily looked into the big, squash-nosed, grey-sheened face, wishing she knew more about his personal history. The established facts were that he’d been a canon attached to Worcester Cathedral; the legends told of a seeded tennis player cured of multiple sclerosis and a fire victim whose disfiguring facial scars had vanished within a week.

Canon Jeavons and the big cat both looked placidly back at her. ‘Because you’re still not quite sure how to handle it,’ Jeavons said, ‘are you?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘All of this – the calling, the job. And, most of all, I would imagine, the complexities of Deliverance. It’s a problem of... I was gonna say confidence, but it isn’t that. You have a fear.’

‘Lots.’

Suspicious now. When she’d finally reached him on the phone she’d learned that Sophie Hill had already called on behalf of the Bishop, to make sure that he was still available for consultation. Sophie would have told him a little about her but nothing personal. Sophie didn’t do personal.

‘I’d say you have a horror of being considered’ – he looked at her sleepily through half-closed eyes – ‘pious?’

She thought she must have shaken, physically. ‘What makes you say that, Mr Jeavons?’

‘You must call me Lew,’ he said. ‘Now that I’m retired.’

She didn’t call him anything, she just stared. He wore a linen jacket with wide blue and light-grey stripes, like for punting. Under it was something you always guessed must be available somewhere, but not in any ecclesiastical outfitters: a high-necked black T-shirt with a white dog collar that was part of the design. Maybe he’d got it from a joke shop.

‘See, Merrilee, most of the female clergy of my acquaintance, they all very proud of what they achieved for their sex after all these centuries. They wear the dog collar and the clerical shirt on all possible occasions. Maybe they sleep in a clerical nightdress, I wouldn’t know about that. But always, when they come to see a male priest, that’s when it’s extremely important to them that they be seen as equals. You, by contrast – no collar, no shirt. Only a cross, so discreet it could even be an item of jewellery. And you’re not wearing too much make-up or a short skirt, either, so... You’re married?’

‘Widowed, for some years. There is... a man.’

‘Oh.’ His eyes went into a squint. The cat purred, the coffeepot burbled on the stove.

‘He’s a musician. He helps out at a recording studio in the Frome Valley. We see each other... not as often as we’d like, and I’m not sure what to do about that.’

‘Your people know about him? In the parish?’ His gut pushed out comfortably, like a flour sack, and the cat nestled into it.

‘Some must’ve guessed by now. He used to live in the village. We thought there might be an opportunity for him to move back, but it wasn’t to be.’

Wasn’t to be – had she conveyed some sense of foreboding in that phrase? Defensive now; this man could pluck away your secrets like specks of fluff.

‘What do your prayers tell you about this relationship?’ Jeavons asked.

‘I feel it’s the right thing. At this moment.’

Jeavons nodded. There was a movement outside the window – a cock pheasant on the lawn. Merrily blinked. There was something about the light in here, the white clarity of everything, after the dimness of the rest of the cottage. It was like snow-light; everything was lit. She had the curious feeling of emerging from an initiation.

She said slowly, feeling the words drawn out of her, ‘Martin Israel, in his book on exorcism, says that some degree of psychic ability is probably necessary to do this job – Deliverance.’

‘And you think you don’t have what’s necessary?’ Jeavons said.

‘How did you know about me and the word “pious”?’

‘I didn’t.’

‘Sophie didn’t let it slip that “pious” was my most unfavourite word in the dictionary and that I have a fear of—?’

‘Sophie?’

‘Sophie Hill. The Bishop of Hereford’s lay secretary.’

‘Ah. A lady of evident discretion and diplomacy. No, she didn’t tell me that. But then she wouldn’t, would she? You, on the other hand...’ Canon Jeavons gripped the cat, and the cat purred fiercely. ‘Merrilee, you’re an open person. Aspects of you stand out as if you carrying a placard – it’s in your manner, the way you dress, that big old Volvo you drive. No doubt you’re capable of considerable discretion when it comes to the affairs of others, but about yourself... you drop sizeable clues, you know?’

‘The word “pious”...’

Jeavons rocked back, laughing. ‘You ain’t gonna let this go, are you? Listen, it dropped into my mind. Things do that sometimes. If we take the time to absorb what people are telling us about themselves, directly and indirectly, and we are in a suitable state of relaxation – a contemplative state – then the clues come together and a feeling or a word sometimes drops into our minds, just like... like a packet out of a cigarette machine.’

She frowned. ‘You can also see the nicotine on my teeth?’

‘Your teeth are like pearls.’

‘And it’s always right, is it, this thing that drops into your mind?’

Hell, no. Sometimes it’s so far out I feel like a horse’s ass. But when you get to my age, time’s too precious to keep it to yourself and sit and wonder. This, as it happens, is at the heart of spiritual healing: taking the time to know people, making small deductions. How many doctors have the time or the patience to do that now – talking and considering and leaving time for small leaps of inspiration. No, it’s, “Take two of these three times a day”, or, “I’ll make you an appointment to see a consultant... send the next one in on your way out.” One time, minor ailments were resolved without the need for pills, because pills were expensive and time was cheap. And doctors – country doctors, particularly – would often be spiritual people, capable of insight. From insight to inspiration is only a small leap, which may be divinely assisted. Are you following my reasoning?’

‘I think so.’

‘Good. Let’s have some of this coffee.’ He eased himself around the cat and stood up.

Merrily said, ‘What happened to your wife?’

He raised an eyebrow, as if she’d turned the tables on him.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t want to—’

‘God would not permit me to heal her.’ Jeavons lifted the coffeepot from the stove. ‘She died five years ago, around the time they wanted to groom me for bishop. Maybe if she lived I’d have gone for that, if only to see Catherine in a palace. Instead, a row. I said to them, You don’t know a thing about me, you just want me ’cause purple and black go so nice together in New Labour Britain. I said, I’m going away instead. I want to find out for myself why my wife was not healed.’

‘And did you?’

‘Maybe. Haw, you’re suspicious of me now. You thinking I’m some kind of old-time shaman out of a travelling medicine show. We should start again. Tell me what you want to know.’

‘You know what I want. I was appointed as Deliverance consultant for the Diocese of Hereford. Suddenly, whichever way I turn, I’m finding the word “deliverance” linked with the word “healing”.’

‘And that would naturally scare you. It scares you like “pious”. Because it would mean people start to see you as wonder-woman.’

‘Mmm.’

‘Difficult,’ Jeavons said.

‘The names,’ Ben said. ‘Consider the names.’

Driving back into town, he seemed re-energized, setting out his case for Arthur Conan Doyle basing The Hound of the Baskervilles on what had happened in Kington, talking about the way the book and this area echoed each other in unexpected ways.

And the real clincher: the remarkable coincidence of names.

‘Key characters in the novel... look at the names. Baskerville – obviously, a prominent family in this area, as we’ve established. But then the others – Mortimer. Dr Mortimer is the local GP, the man who first consults Sherlock Holmes over the case. Now Mortimer – as Jane knows – is probably the most significant name in the middle-Marches. This was the core domain of the Mortimer dynasty of Norman barons. Commemorated in place names like Mortimer’s Cross, which is just a few miles from here, along the Border.’

Antony Largo said nothing.

‘All right,’ Ben said, ‘you might argue that’s not such an uncommon name. But what about Stapleton? Stapleton, the naturalist who turns out to know rather more about hounds than butterflies. Stapleton, Jane. Tell him where Stapleton is.’

‘Oh...’ Jane recalled a fragment of ruined castle on a hill, a farm, a few cottages. ‘It’s a hamlet. Just outside Presteigne. That’s right on the Border, too, isn’t it? Presteigne’s in Wales, Stapleton’s in England – just.’

‘Thank you, Jane.’ Ben nodded happily. ‘Baskerville, Mortimer, Stapleton. Key names strung out along the mid-Border. It could be coincidence, but would Holmes himself have bought that? I really don’t think so. Doyle’s delicately encoding the real history, the actual location of The Hound of the Baskervilles.’

Jane was impressed, but Antony said, ‘So what about the Cabell family of Devon? What about Sir Richard Cabell who’s supposed to’ve followed a spooky hound across the moor on his black mare after making a pact with the Devil?’

‘So?’

‘That story fits pretty damn well, and we know for a fact that Doyle went to Devonshire to research the terrain. We even know which hotel he stayed at.’

‘And?’

‘See, I found all this on the Net, very easily. Arthur went down to Dartmoor with his golfing pal, Fletcher Robinson, a Devonian. In fact, Robinson himself was said to have come up with the story – for which Doyle insisted on giving him a credit in the Strand Magazine, which serialized his stuff. Am I right?’

‘I’m not disputing that, Antony.’ Ben shook the wheel lightly. ‘However – and was this on the Net? – the then editor of the Strand said that he understood Fletcher Robinson obtained the original story from – and I quote – “A Welsh guidebook”. I can show you that reference in two biographies of Doyle. So while I couldn’t deny that he borrowed elements of the Cabell legend to flesh out the scenario, all the evidence still says it starts right here.’

‘And the small fact that the coachman Doyle and Robinson employed in Devon was one... Harry Baskerville? How does that equate, my friend?’

‘Oh.’ Jane was dismayed. ‘Is that true?’

‘Perfectly true,’ Ben confirmed. ‘And Baskerville himself assumed that his name had been borrowed. However, Stashower, in his biography of Conan Doyle, points out that Doyle mentioned the proposed title The Hound of the Baskervilles in a letter to his mother before he and Robinson went to Devon – before he even met Harry Baskerville. I can show you the reference.’

Antony didn’t reply. Jane was delighted. The awkward encounter with the shooters seemed to have given Ben a blast of confidence.

It had been almost funny – these two guys, with their South Wales accents, up from Ebbw Vale, claiming they’d been hired by a local farmer to get rid of foxes. Well, Jane had realized at once that this was bollocks; the usual situation with rough shooting was that guys like this paid the farmers for the privilege.

Anyway, the shooters had got totally the wrong idea, assuming that Ben, despite the jogging kit, was some local hunter warning them off his patch. And Ben, being Ben, hadn’t corrected the impression, he’d played to it – Jane could hear his voice changing, acquiring this military edge. Initially, he’d just been rescuing the situation, saving face, but in the end he’d had the Ebbw Vale guys backing defensively away, up the public footpath to Hergest Ridge, bawling after them, ‘Bloody cowboys! Your card’s marked in this area, believe it!’

He might not have been potentially one of the greats, as Amber had put it, but he was still a bloody good actor. And now he was on a roll, his argument flowing.

‘So, like, why did Conan Doyle transfer the whole thing to Dartmoor?’ Jane asked.

Ben shrugged, lifting his hands from the wheel. ‘Don’t you find that interesting in itself? Also, why did Doyle decide to rubbish the concept of a ghostly hound in the book when in real life he’d have pounced on it with all the enthusiasm he lavished nearly twenty years later on those patently faked photos of the Cottingley Fairies?’

‘Right.’ Jane knew those pictures: close-ups of innocent young girls’ faces with these archetypal Arthur Rackham-style fairies frolicking in front of them. Obvious fakes now, but convincing enough in the early days of photography. It wasn’t so much of an indictment of Conan Doyle’s gullibility.

Ben turned into the tarmac drive leading to Kington church. ‘What’s also interesting is that originally The Hound wasn’t going to be a Sherlock Holmes story at all. Doyle had already killed Holmes by then – dragged over the Reichenbach Falls in the arms of his arch-enemy Moriarty. And then he writes what’s become a famous letter to the editor of the Strand, announcing his plans for The Hound with the words, “I have the idea of a real creeper.” But you see it wasn’t, at that time, going to be a Holmes adventure at all. So when Holmes was brought in, Doyle wrote the story as if it was something that had happened pre-Reichenbach.’

‘And did he...?’ Antony eyed Ben thoughtfully – some respect at last, Jane thought. ‘I’m sorry, I know he was a fellow Scot, but my knowledge here is a wee bit scant... Did Conan Doyle write other stories that were essentially supernatural?’

Ben nosed the car into some bushes, where the ground was still furred with frost. He pulled on the handbrake with a fusillade of ratchet clicks and switched off the engine.

‘Yes, Antony. Of course.’

‘So when he decided to make it a Holmes tale, he knew that’d be an aspect going out the window, Holmes being the ultimate rationalist. If Holmes is gonnae solve the case, there has to be a rational explanation.’

‘Yes. And what I’m wondering... was Doyle specifically asked by the Baskerville family – or someone else – to put in some distance? There’s a traditional belief in this area that he was distantly related to the Baskervilles, who were in turn, way back, related by marriage to the Vaughans. Obviously, there’s still a lot of research to be done here. Hidden connections.’

‘He didn’t have to use the name at all, though, did he?’

‘Still, hell of a good name, isn’t it? Where would that title be without it?’ Still buzzing, like he’d been snorting coke or something, Ben stepped out onto the frosted grass. ‘Come and meet the Vaughans.’

There was no tradition of shamanism or the priesthood in Lew Jeavons’s family. He’d come to England from Jamaica as a teenager, his father working on the buses. As a young man he went to New York where he was ordained and met an Englishwoman, on attachment to Harvard, an academic.

‘And we found our way back here. Which I always felt was my home.’

‘You were... into healing in America?’

‘Well, I’ve always thought I was channelling healing.’ He nodded at the big cat on his knees. ‘Talk to Lucius about it. He was run over on the main road at Fromes Hill in the summer. The driver didn’t stop. I’m the next car along, and I pick him up, along with his exploded intestines. Take him along to the vet, who puts back the intestines, shakes his head, takes out his syringe. But I shake my head. Bring Lucius back here, to be my cat for whatever time he has left.’

‘He looks brilliant.’

‘He limps a little now, that’s all. Cats respond directly to love and hands-on. People are more complex. My wife... she should’ve recovered, that was the point. It wasn’t such a big heart attack, they didn’t think it was a bypass situation. I was convinced she was going to recover fully, and I took my eye off of the ball, and she had a second heart attack. I was leading a healing ministry in Oxford at the time, and we were all full of it: missionary zeal – hey, this is what the Church of England’s been lacking for so long! And in the middle of all this healing frenzy, my beloved wife, she just ups and dies. Happens within a month. What was that saying to me? What was He telling me?’

‘You must’ve been... bitter.’

‘And bewildered. I didn’t think I was arrogant, I didn’t think I needed bringing down – and there, you see, that proves I was arrogant, my first thought was that it was because of me that she was taken away – God telling the big healer, You are nothing, man!’

‘How old was she?’

‘Forty-nine. No age. Yes, I was bitter, sure I was bitter. What do they think – we can’t hate God because we’re priests?’

Merrily said, ‘The... problem I have with this is the obvious one: some people recover, some don’t. Some people who are prayed for – really, really prayed for, by many people...’

‘I know.’

‘So all the hopes build up and, in the end...’

‘It’s a lottery?’

‘Or it’s not our decision. Not a decision we can – or should – try to influence, despite what the Gospel—’

‘Oh boy,’ Jeavons said. ‘You really don’t get it, do you? We do it because it’s all we do. It’s fundamental: the care of bodies, the care of souls, the care of the living earth. It’s how we develop within ourselves – by suffering through our failure and trying again and suffering some more. We suffer, Merrilee. A doctor fails to heal someone, he says, Well, hell, I prescribed all the right drugs, I did what I could. But we must suffer. And that isn’t what you wanted to hear, is it?’

‘I... don’t know what I wanted.’

‘Maybe you just don’t understand about the nature of suffering, and that suffering can be a truly positive state. We should discuss this sometime.’

‘Why wasn’t your wife healed?’ Merrily said.

Jeavons lifted both hands from the cat, held them in the air. Sat there in the white room like a bare rock on a beach freshly washed by the tide. Was the answer one he couldn’t accept? Had he been forced to conclude, in his suffering, that her faith – her faith in him, Lew – had been insufficient? Was that it?

He opened out his hands, a candid gesture.

‘It was because I didn’t understand, at the time, that there was more than Catherine in need of healing in this particular instance. I didn’t know... I didn’t know about the healing of the dead.’

8

At Home With the Vaughans

JANE WAS KIND of tingling now. Antony Largo had demanded, Where’s the contemporary dynamic? Where’s the now drama? And now he had his answer: there was a totally worthwhile mystery here, deeper than the Grimpen Mire, subtler than phosphorous paint, and panting for telly. Jane carried the excitement with her, through the uncoloured, wintry churchyard to the door of the church of St Mary the Virgin.

There were quite a few churches hereabouts dedicated to Mary – a sign of Norman origins, according to Mum: the conquerors emphasizing to the conquered that they had the support of the spiritual big-hitters. From the plateaued churchyard, you had a wide view of the Welsh hills above the English town and the beginning of Hergest Ridge, a peninsula into Wales. The sky had closed in now, the clouds tightening around the sun, reduced to a hole at the end of a grey-walled tunnel.

‘Used to be a Norman castle up here,’ Ben said. ‘Soon abandoned, though. It’s thought the church itself was providing community defence against the Welsh by about the thirteenth century.’

‘People shut themselves up in the church?’ Jane looked up at the squat tower, with its stubby steeple.

‘The tower was separated originally from the main body of the church,’ Ben said. ‘It has walls a good six feet thick, apparently.’

‘Now I won’t have to buy the guidebook,’ Antony said, as they followed Ben inside. ‘Thanks.’

Jane had never been in here before; she’d been expecting stark and utility, and she was surprised at the size of it and the luminous, grotto-like darkness, the way the stained glass bestowed this old, rosy warmth. So different from the frigid dining hall at Stanner, although Ben said some of the stained glass had been put in around the same time. Heavy Victorian restoration, then, but it had worked: there was a big window with generous reds and oranges and warm blue and, opposite it, high up in the west, a tiny circular one with a white dove fluttering out of crimson.

The age of the place was underlined for visitors by a big modern white plaque listing all the ministers of Kington, beginning back in the days when parishioners would be putting the six-foot walls between them and the marauding Welsh.

Hugh Chabbenor ...........1279

Rhys ap Howell ..............1287

John Walwyn .................1313

Ben was strolling around in the tinted gloom with his hands behind his back. ‘All this was far more spectacular in the Middle Ages, we’re told. Wall paintings... ornate screens.’

Antony was shaking his head, slipping Jane a wry smile that maybe contained just a touch of affection for Ben. Perhaps he was at last getting into Ben’s groove, finding the motivation, feeling the dynamic.

There were only the three of them in here, or so it seemed as Ben led them back towards the door, past a table with guidebooks and magazines on it. He stood there facing them. Jane could tell that he was in Holmes mode again, a sheen on his domed forehead, the curly hair around it absorbed into the dark. Ben was excited.

‘Well... can you see them yet?’

‘Huh?’ Jane looked around.

‘Such a sense of drama,’ Antony murmured.

He and Jane were standing by the font, to the left of the entrance. Ben stepped to one side, extending an arm into the body of the church, to their right. From the side of the chancel nearest to them a different light, a colder light, was washing between the bars of a wooden screen from a stained window beyond. This window was full of blues and whites and a thin gold, and the light was hazy.

Jane was aware of a separateness – light, colour, mood – about that whole area, evidently a side chapel. And then she saw two heads together, from behind, an alabaster couple lying on a hard white bed, the wooden screen its headboard.

‘May I present Thomas,’ Ben said softly. ‘And Ellen.’

It was one of those still, hollow moments. The heads conveyed a superiority, an arrogance, an hauteur. Jane hadn’t noticed them before, and now they were all she could see: two effigies on a spectacular, off-white tomb, at ease with their backs to the pews and to the door, confident of their place in the medieval Church of St Mary the Virgin and in history.

‘At home with the Vaughans,’ Ben was saying. ‘Cosy, isn’t it?’

The double tomb came up to Jane’s chest. On the side nearest to her, eight anonymous carved figures, some of which might have been monks or even angels, stood behind their shields, to protect the remains inside.

Black Vaughan, in fact all white now, was nearest the altar, his effigy’s praying hands projecting from its alabaster chest, its face bland and clean-shaven.

Jane noticed right away that below the feet of the effigy was a dog.

It was a disappointment, however: too small to be any kind of hound, unless the fifteenth-century monumental mason had reduced the scale to make it fit onto the tomb. A life-size hound would have spread over the whole width of it and under the feet of the woman.

Jane thought Vaughan’s own feet seemed too big, like cartoon feet. ‘It’s like he’s wearing Doc Martens.’ She giggled. ‘For like giving the peasants a good kicking?’

Irreverence was compulsory in this situation – the way these arrogant bastards had always claimed the place nearest to God. Like they honestly believed God was naive enough to fall for it. But as soon as she’d spoken, she was sensing disapproval, unsure of whether it was coming from Ben or she was projecting it to Black Vaughan. Or his lady.

The lady might have been beautiful; it was hard to judge from a tomb. She wore a long gown with a girdle, her slender arms bared in prayer. On her pillowed head was a small cap. Fashionable? Probably. Coquettish? Maybe not. Her face was solemn, but what would you expect?

‘What does it mean that they’re praying?’ Jane said. ‘I mean, like, are they praying for mercy because of all the corruption in their lives, all the people they shafted? All the peasants they exploited?’

‘Comely wench, though,’ Antony observed. ‘Nice body. What’s her name again?’

‘Ellen.’ Ben stood at her feet, his hands clasped in front of him as if he was about to join the Vaughans in prayer. ‘Ellen Gethin. Also known as Ellen the Terrible.’

Antony tongued his top lip to conceal a smile. ‘I trust that disnae mean she was terrible in the sack.’

Jane grinned nervously. Ben frowned. ‘It was because she killed a man.’

Antony tilted his head. ‘Is that a fact?’

‘She came from a village called Llanbister, over the border in Radnorshire. Had a younger brother, David, of whom she was very fond. He was killed in a sword fight with his cousin, John Hir – a row over an inheritance. Ellen was shattered and bent on revenge. She was a strong woman. A formidable woman.’

‘Looks maybe taller than her man,’ Antony noted.

‘Described as having masculine strength.’

‘Sexy, though.’

‘Shut up, Antony,’ Ben said. Antony peered down at Ellen’s breasts, then looked up at Ben and grinned.

Jane said, ‘What happened?’

‘There was an archery contest at Llanddewi, near Llanbister. Ellen went along disguised as a man. John Hir was the champion archer and she challenged him. John put his arrow into the target, Ellen put hers into John.’

‘Feisty,’ Antony said. ‘Is it true or a legend?’

‘It’s believed to be entirely true, although it does rather correspond to a few classic myths about the vengeful-huntress figure. It’s said to have happened in 1430, after Ellen’s marriage to Thomas Vaughan. She must have been a very young woman at the time because Thomas was killed at the Battle of Banbury nearly forty years later.’

‘I like it,’ Antony said. ‘We could’ve used it.’

Ben turned to Jane. ‘Antony did a Channel 4 documentary series a few years ago about the psychology of women who kill. Women of the Midnight?’

‘Aw, I hated that title,’ Antony said. ‘It was imposed on me. What I had in mind was to call it My Milk for Gall. Something like that.’

‘Lady Macbeth?’ Jane said. ‘ “Unsex me here and take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers.” I... wow.’ She stared at Antony with new respect. This man was actually the producer of Women of the Midnight? ‘That was like... heavy stuff.’ Not admitting that she hadn’t actually seen it, having been only about ten at the time.

But she saw now why Ben was courting Antony so assiduously. She was fairly sure that Women of the Midnight had won some prestigious award for Channel 4, which must make Antony a seriously influential producer. Like, if he brought in an idea, people would listen to him, the people with money to hand out. So the main problem for Ben was convincing Antony himself, and perhaps this would be the only problem.

‘Too late now though, huh?’ Antony was looking down wistfully at Ellen Gethin again. Ellen’s eyes were shut.

‘Such a shame,’ Ben purred. Jane thought, Milk for Gall: Lady Macbeth, Myra Hindley... Ellen would probably have fitted nicely into the format.

Antony moved away from Ellen and stood at the feet of Thomas, with his Doc Martens and his little alabaster dog.

‘So what about this guy?’

Ben shrugged. ‘We don’t know very much about him. He was born in 1400, was initially a supporter of the Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses but for some reason changed sides. One version says he was on his way to the Battle of Banbury in 1469 when he was captured by the Lancastrians, accused of treason and beheaded. His body was brought back here.’

‘And was he like Hugo Baskerville? A bad guy, a tyrant?’

‘We don’t know. We don’t know what kind of man he was when he was alive. He’s better known for his activities afterwards. All the accounts say he made a very angry and destructive ghost, haunting the stretch of road between Hergest Court and Kington, often in broad daylight. Rearing up in front of women, and causing farm carts to overturn.’

‘What did he have to be mad about?’

‘Dunno, but it’s said the town was in terror. The road to Hergest was shunned. Taboo. Got so bad that Kington market began to suffer because nobody wanted to come. Vaughan could change shape, tormented horses as a fly. Appeared in this church as a bull, roaring through the pews during a service.’

‘But not a doggie.’

‘That came later,’ Ben said. ‘After the exorcism.’

Jane said, ‘What?’

Apparently, it had taken twelve experienced ministers to deal with Vaughan, all of them gathered inside a circle drawn on the floor at Hergest Court, each with a lighted candle. There was also a woman and a young baby, presumably newly baptized and presumably representing purity. When your mother was in the trade and left books lying around, you learned quite a lot about the history of dispensing with demons.

Ben said the story had been chronicled by the Herefordshire folklorist Ella Leather and, before that, collected by the Border diarist Francis Kilvert.

‘Hell of a struggle, candles going out, slanging match with Vaughan’s spirit. But they eventually reduced him to something small and manageable, and then they confined the spirit in a snuffbox.’

Snuffbox – this angle sounded familiar, and Jane figured she was bound to have read about it, at some stage, in Mrs Leather’s book. It was a big book, with thousands of stories, many of which you forgot because they weren’t strictly relevant at the time. She’d go back to it, check all this out.

‘Vaughan’s spirit had expressed an aversion to water,’ Ben said. ‘So they buried the snuffbox at the bottom of Hergest Pool.’

‘As you would,’ Antony said.

‘It would dramatize beautifully.’

‘And if you wanted some authentic stuff on exorcisms,’ Jane said, ‘my mother might be able to—’ She broke off, her hand touching Ellen’s white, shiny elbow – how broad and muscular that arm appeared now. Jane drew her hand away. Best, on the whole, not to say anything to Mum about this: she wouldn’t exactly be in favour of dramatizing an exorcism, however many centuries ago it had happened.

Ben and Antony were both looking at her.

‘Of course,’ Ben said, ‘your mother’s a vicar, isn’t she?’

‘Um... yeah.’

‘With a special interest in this... area?’

Jane sighed. Had he heard whispers? Was Mum’s name still mentioned at this end of the county in connection with her run-in with the creepy evangelist, Ellis?

Whatever, it was too late now.

‘She’s, erm, the Deliverance Consultant for the Hereford diocese. Diocesan exorcist, as was. But like, on second thoughts, I think it would be best if she didn’t know I was involved in anything like this. Dabbling? You know? They discourage it.’

‘How interesting,’ Ben said.

‘She just got pushed into it by a previous bishop, who thought it’d be cool to have a woman operating in that area. Look, I really don’t want to tell her about this, OK? If you want any information, we’ve got lots of books at home. I could get you anything you needed.’

‘Fine,’ Ben said. ‘Super.’

‘You really are a slippery bastard, Foley,’ Antony said.

Ben didn’t look at him. ‘Ah... We don’t know precisely when the Vaughan exorcism was, but the inference is that Vaughan was never seen again – not in person, anyway. However, as recently as 1987 two women were visiting this church when one of them distinctly saw the shape of a bull form in the atmosphere.’

‘In here?’ Jane glanced from side to side.

‘She said it seemed to coalesce, as if it was composing itself from dust motes in the air. She was from Solihull in the Midlands, a tourist. Oddly, her name was Jenny Vaughan. The bull didn’t do anything, it just formed and then presumably dissolved again. Like a show of strength.’

‘And the Hound?’ Antony said.

‘It’s known simply as the Hound of Hergest. It was said to appear before the death of a member of the Vaughan family. There were nine generations of Vaughans after Thomas and Ellen, and the last one to live at Hergest Court died childless at the beginning of the eighteenth century. But the phenomenon remained. Other people, over the years, are said to have seen the Hound in the lane leading to the Court. And a former tenant of Hergest used to speak of hearing what sounded like a large dog padding across the floor upstairs. This was quite recently.’

‘And folk died?’

‘Not as far as I’m aware. Though perhaps some Vaughan descendant somewhere...’

‘OK, it’s interesting,’ Antony conceded. ‘So, tell me – how important would it be to the Devon people to prove that the Conan Doyle connection here is a load of shite?’

‘Well, it makes them very angry indeed. I only need to show you the terse letter I’ve just had from this guy Kennedy, of The Baker Street League, who’s evidently poisoning a lot of people against me. It drives them crazy.’

‘And you’d take them on? I mean, I’m not sure this’d be enough, but if you really got them fired up...’

‘Look, this has become terribly important to me,’ Ben said. ‘It’s not just financial any more – I mean, not just a question of getting publicity and an image for the hotel. Sure, it’d be wonderful to be able to afford to fully re-Victorianize Stanner, down to the last gas mantle in the last lavatory. Which is how it started, I’ll admit, but it’s so much more than that now. It’s about winning the Border – Jane knows what I mean. The Border’s a hard place, a testing place. People fail here all the time, because they haven’t earned acceptance. They don’t have links with the past, they’re not part of a tradition. They don’t understand.’

He was standing beside Thomas Vaughan. Black Vaughan. The white, blue and gold light was behind him. He was giving Antony Largo his piece-to-camera, framing himself in the light, the way he’d done as Holmes in the final act of the murder-mystery weekend at Stanner.

‘Damn right I’d take them on,’ Ben said. ‘Me. And Thomas. And Ellen.’ He gazed into the two white faces. ‘I feel, in a strange sort of way, that we’re kind of a team now.’

Following this dramatic and – Jane thought – slightly unhinged assertion, there was silence in the chapel. Just as Ben had intended.

What he hadn’t intended was that it should be broken by a slow applause, the sound of two hands clapping.

Which was eerie enough, in this setting, to make Jane turn around very slowly.

9

Ask Arthur

SHE REALLY WASN’T spooky, that was the first thing. She had a well-worn sheepskin coat around her shoulders and a yellow silk headscarf and suede gloves. Jane didn’t recognize her until she pulled off the scarf.

‘Bravo, Mr Foley!’ She shook out her pale hair. ‘Golly, what a trek I’ve had. Your manager said you’d be down at Hergest Court by now, so of course I drove over there. Silent as the grave, as usual. Never mind, here we are. Yes, bravo. Awful man, Neil Kennedy, I’ve always thought – mean-minded and elitist. May I come in?’

Antony stepped aside to let her into the chapel, his head tilted, quizzical. Ben looked confused for a moment, and defensive, and then Jane saw his hands flick, as though he’d suddenly turned over the right page in some mental card-index.

‘Of course, you were on the murder weekend. Mrs...’

‘Elizabeth Pollen. Beth.’

Beth. Yes. And you’re... still here?’

‘I’m often here, Mr Foley. I only live at Pembridge.’

‘Good Lord,’ Ben said weakly, as though he was bemused that anybody who lived close enough to Stanner Hall to know what kind of dump it was would want to pay good money to stay there.

But Jane was placing Mrs Pollen now: the youngest of the Agathas – hanging out with them in the hotel bar in the evenings but clearly not a part of their weekend coach-party sleuthing scene. The only time she’d come out of the shadows was on that last night when she’d tried to persuade Ben to expand on the Hound reference and Ben had deflected it.

No way he could deflect it now.

Beth Pollen folded her silk scarf, like someone who didn’t have too many of them. Under the heavy coat she wore a pale grey dress, and she was very slim, mothlike. Probably in her late fifties, but it was hard to be sure.

‘Mr Foley, first of all, as a member of The Baker Street League, I’d like to apologize for the way Kennedy treated you over the conference. I was very much looking forward to that.’

‘Yes,’ Ben admitted. ‘Quite a blow.’

‘The membership wasn’t consulted, of course. We’re treated like geriatrics most of the time. I may forget to pay my subscription next year, after this. However... I’ve been speaking to your manager – Mrs Craven? – and I think we may have an alternative proposition to put to you.’

Ben blinked. ‘The League?’

Not The League, I’m afraid. Our coffers may not be as deep as The League’s, but I hope we can strike a deal.’ Mrs Pollen placed her folded scarf in the cleft between Ellen Gethin’s alabaster waist and her praying hands. ‘Isn’t she adorable? Isn’t she proud?’

‘She’s got something,’ Antony agreed.

‘Sorry – this is Antony Largo, an old colleague of mine.’ Ben’s expression had sharpened, Jane noticed, at the word proposition. ‘We’ve been discussing some TV possibilities.’

‘So I hear.’ Mrs Pollen wore this soft, knowing smile, and Jane realized that her surprise arrival at the church had to be down to Natalie, the professional hotelier, plotting efficiently behind the reception desk to retrieve a situation which could put her out of a job. People I need to phone. Bookings to make. It had to have been Nat who’d told this woman about Kennedy’s brutal cancellation.

Jane guessed that Ben, too, had worked all this out. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, Beth, but with so much happening I’m afraid I’ve rather forgotten...’

‘You haven’t forgotten anything, Mr Foley. Don’t fuss.’

‘Ben.’

Ben.’ Her figure might be light and wafery but her voice was low and warm and soothing, like dark coffee. ‘All you really need to remember is that, while I might be a member of The Baker Street League, I have a much more meaningful role with the White Company. And no... you aren’t expected to have heard of them either.’

‘One of Doyle’s books, surely?’ Antony said.

‘It’s an historical novel, of which he was enormously proud, about medieval mercenaries. And I suppose it is rather good. Arthur, as I’m sure you know, considered Holmes to be very much a secondary creation and always hoped to be recognized as a great historical novelist. As far as we’re concerned, though, the White Company was simply a phrase that came through repeatedly to our Mr Hardy, and it stuck. Which gratifies Arthur, although I’m afraid most of us haven’t even read it.’

‘I’m afraid I haven’t either,’ Ben said.

‘Mr Foley...’ Mrs Pollen placed a calming gloved hand on Ben’s arm. ‘That doesn’t matter.’

And the deal was done, more or less, right there in the cold blue Vaughan Chapel, silently witnessed by Ellen and Thomas. the White Company would hold their annual conference – or moot, as Beth Pollen called it – at the Stanner Hall Hotel in the week before Christmas, effectively replacing The Baker Street League’s original booking.

There would be more than twenty of them, including wives and husbands – not as many as The League and unlikely to spend as much on meat and drink, given that over half of them were vegetarians and too much drink was not encouraged, even over the festive season.

Like Ben cared, at this stage of the game – facing the cold-weather heating bills, the burst pipes and the need to keep the fridges stocked for the benefit of a handful of masochists who were into punishing winter walks and cold bedrooms. In the hollow of the night, he must surely have wondered if the Hound itself was out there somewhere, howling to herald the death of the Stanner Hall Hotel.

But now it was all turned around again. They discussed special terms, Ben meeting every suggestion with, ‘Absolutely – talk to Natalie about it.’ Knowing that Nat would organize the very best, most workable terms, leaving Ben to float around being entertaining and Amber to cook.

Antony Largo had been leaning against the wall between the tomb and the stained-glass window, arms folded, listening to the one-sided negotiations behind a foxy little smile which, it seemed to Jane, was fronting a deeper amusement.

‘So, Beth.’ Antony casually uncoiled from the wall. ‘the White Company... is what, exactly?’

Jane saw Ben throw him a look that said: Back off. She guessed that Ben, on the threshold of the bleak season, didn’t give a toss if the White Company was a society of rubber-fetishists, as long as they left a deposit.

Beth Pollen gave him a candid look. ‘I think you’ve already guessed, Mr Largo.’

‘But you could humour me.’

‘Well... the society was officially formed in 1980 – the fiftieth anniversary of Arthur’s passing.’

‘Arthur’s passing. Ah Beth, you’re dropping wee clues the whole time.’

‘Well, of course I am.’

Ben said, ‘Antony, would you please—’

‘No, no...’ Mrs Pollen lifted a hand. ‘It was originally called The Windlesham Society, after Arthur’s much-loved last home in Sussex. It wasn’t terribly well supported in the early days, and many of the members were rather elderly and found it increasingly difficult to get to meetings. After a few years, it faded virtually out of existence. And then, about six years ago, Alistair Hardy, of whom you might have heard...? A fellow Scot?’

‘Big country, Beth,’ Antony said.

I’m sorry. We do tend to think that because someone’s eminent in our particular field he must be a household name. Alistair’s a very well-known trance-medium from Edinburgh. His spirit guide, at the time, was Dr Joseph Bell, who, if you recall—’

‘Doyle’s tutor at Edinburgh University medical school. Impressed young Arthur with his incredible deductive skills, thus becoming the prototype for Holmes himself. Arguably a useful guy to have as your spirit guide.’

Ben whispered, ‘You’re spiritualists?’

Jane had to laugh.

Mrs Pollen said, ‘Approximately six years ago, Dr Bell communicated to Alistair Hardy that a friend and former student of his was most anxious to find an enlightened audience because he didn’t feel his work here was complete.’

‘Now, I wonder who that would be,’ Antony said.

Beth Pollen merely raised an eyebrow at him. ‘In the last years of his life, Arthur’s beliefs were derided. But let’s not forget that when it was introduced in the West in Victorian times, spiritism was considered a science and had enormous credibility. When Arthur first applied to join the Society for Psychical Research, in 1893, its president-elect was Arthur Balfour, who would later become Prime Minister.’

‘Did I know that?’ Antony wondered. ‘I don’t believe I did.’

‘New technology was rampant. If we could pull voices from the air into a radio set, capture images on film, how long before we would all be seeing and talking to the dead?’ Mrs Pollen made a wry face. ‘By the twenties, we had commercial aircraft, phones, cinema, but spiritism wasn’t felt to have come up with the goods, so it was considered a crank fad. Everyone’s idea of a medium was Madame Arcati from Noel Coward. So it’s quite reasonable to suppose that Arthur was biding his time.’

Jane thought, And she seemed such a balanced woman.

‘The way you always refer to him as Arthur,’ Antony said, ‘suggests...’

‘An affection. He’s our patron, after all.’

‘You’re all spiritualists?’

‘We’re all spiritists, but we’re not all mediums, if that’s what you’re asking – I’m not. Essentially, we’re a group of people committed to furthering the work which occupied a good twenty years of a fine man’s life.’

‘He was – how should I put this? – a somewhat credulous man,’ Antony said, avoiding Ben’s agitated gaze.

Not as credulous as his critics would have us believe, Mr Largo. He fought two elections. He campaigned on behalf of the wrongly convicted. He was a passionate, liberal-minded man who constantly questioned his own beliefs and fought against injustice the whole of his adult life. His only flaw – if that’s how you want to regard it – was a desire to offer hope.’

Nobody spoke for a few seconds. Mrs Pollen turned away and spread her scarf over Ellen Gethin’s face, as if she wanted to protect her from cold scepticism.

‘Aye, OK, I’ll buy that, Beth.’ Antony leaned back against the wall. ‘I’m just no’ gonnae ask, if you don’t mind, under what circumstances Conan Doyle became your patron.’

The short drive back to Stanner started in silence, Antony lounging against the passenger door of the MG, chewing his lip and watching Ben drive with one hand on the wheel and his hair flowing behind him. Ben’s expression was so bland that Jane knew there had to be frantic action behind it. Which was understandable because, like, Jesus...

Coming up to the bypass Antony said, unsmiling, ‘My friend, if this is a set-up, I think it would be wise if you were to tell me right... now.’

Ben didn’t look at Antony. Jane had the impression he’d been expecting this.

‘We go back, pal.’ The open cuff of Antony’s denim jacket rolled back along a muscular forearm and his forefinger came up like a knife. ‘But not far enough that I wouldnae—’

He grabbed at the dash as Ben spun the MG into the side of the road, then up onto the grass, hitting the brakes hard and tossing Jane all over the small back seat.

‘Sorry about that, Jane.’ Ben took both hands from the wheel and half turned, as if offering his heart to Antony’s blade. ‘Look, I’ll say this once. Until half an hour ago all the White Company meant to me was a Boys’ Own adventure story that I had no particular wish to read.’

‘You’ll forgive me,’ Antony said, ‘for thinking it was all a wee bit lucky from your point of view.’

‘It was quite awesomely serendipitous, but I’m telling you I knew nothing about it.’

This is Natalie, Jane thought, sliding back into the narrow rear seat, saying nothing, holding down her excitement. Nat arranged for all this to be unveiled in front of Antony, and whatever you’re paying her it isn’t enough.

‘You wanted a contemporary dynamic,’ Ben said. ‘Now you’ve got one... and some.’

‘And you think they’d play ball? All the way?’

‘You came bloody close to asking her, matey. I was nearly soiling myself with anxiety.’

‘I’m no’ quite that stupid,’ Antony said. ‘I realize that to appear too eager at this stage would not be the thing.’

‘No.’ Ben leaned back into his bucket seat. ‘Even I couldn’t have dreamed up a woman with both a personal axe to grind against Neil Kennedy and a desire to prove – if only because she happens to live in this area – that The Hound begins on the Border. And to set it up for us like— I mean, you can see it, can’t you? To think I was originally going to offer you, as a frame, the tired old Baker Street League debating the origins of The Hound. Jesus.’

‘When all you needed,’ Antony said, ‘was for someone to... ask Arthur.’

‘It’s what they do, Antony. It’s what they bloody well do.’

‘So we’re looking at this Alistair Hardy, who has the temerity to claim Dr Joseph Bell as his spirit guide?’

‘Seems like it.’

‘At Stanner.’

‘You heard what I heard.’ Ben slid the gearstick into second and drove back onto the bypass.

‘And you think they’d let us shoot it? All of it? Like, they’re no’ gonnae give us any of this privacy’s crucial to the success of the operation kind of bullshit?’

‘Are you kidding? Listen. Some months after Doyle’s death in 1930, more than five thousand people attended a memorial seance at the Royal Albert Hall, during which a chair was left empty for him – how private was that?’

‘And did he, um, manifest?’

‘They had a well-known medium called Estelle Roberts. And Doyle’s widow Jean was on the stage. Great formal occasion, everyone in evening dress. A sign on the empty chair simply read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lady Jean was seated next to it – though she admitted she didn’t expect to turn round and see him.’

‘Shucks.’

‘However, Estelle Roberts began the proceedings by describing several spirits present in the hall, and their identities were confirmed by members of the audience.’

Plants, Benjamin.’ Antony sniffed. ‘Mediums work with more plants than Alan bloody Titchmarsh.’

‘Antony, I’m not making a case for the veracity of it, I’m simply applauding the clever building of dramatic tension. Sure, a few dozen people were unconvinced, and some of them just walked out – to the evident dismay of Mrs Roberts, who started complaining that she couldn’t work under these conditions. Then somebody started playing the organ to drown out the, ah, sounds of dissent. And then, just when it looked as if it might all be falling apart, the medium suddenly shouted out’ – Ben raising his voice against the buffeting air – ‘He is here!

They rounded a bend in the bypass, and the wooded face of Stanner Rocks was up ahead, with those knobs of stone projecting like crumbling body parts.

‘And there was old Arthur in the chair,’ Antony said, ‘placidly smoking his pipe.’

‘Well, the medium claimed to have seen him. She described him as being in full evening dress, and striding with his old vigour across the stage to take his reserved seat.’

‘Always keep ’em waiting.’

‘Mrs Roberts said Arthur gave her a message for Lady Jean, which she promptly passed on. Unfortunately it was drowned out by a dramatic fanfare from the organist and nobody in the audience – don’t, Antony, do not say a word – nobody in the audience heard it. But Jean maintained for the rest of her life that she was utterly convinced by its content that the message had come from her husband. Make of that what you will.’

‘Doesn’t matter, does it?’ Antony said as they slowed for the hotel drive. ‘Doesnae matter at all.’

‘Not a toss.’

They glanced at one another and they both smiled.

‘Well, I think I’m coming, Ben,’ Antony said. ‘I think I’m nearly there, pal.’

‘Not in front of Jane, Antony.’ Ben pushed the MG between the grey gateposts topped by damaged hounds. ‘Wait till you get to your room.’

And they both started laughing, big mates again, schoolboys. His room? Was this some in-joke? She was not unaware that Ben had never mentioned the room where Antony had slept or asked him if he’d experienced anything – at least not in her hearing.

Jane leaned back against the hard rear seat and wondered why she wasn’t joining in. Ben glanced very briefly back at her and then at Antony, and she knew that look from a long time ago. It was like, pas devant les enfants. She looked quickly away from them, up through the strobing of light and pines to the turreted profile of Baskerville Hall.

‘And then I’ll tell you the rest,’ Ben murmured to Antony. ‘And that’ll really bring you off. Pal.’

10

Serious Requiem

‘YOU SOUND LIKE you badly need to talk,’ Sophie Hill had said when Merrily phoned.

Jeavons was right, she was an open book.

The lights were on in the gatehouse when she drove under it. Alongside, the sandstone Cathedral was crouching like a big ginger cat in the rusting remains of some late sunshine. In the office, Sophie had the kettle on. Most Saturday afternoons she’d go into the gatehouse office to sweep up the remains of the week.

‘What was he like?’

‘Bewildering.’ Merrily sat down at the desk by the window. ‘Enigmatic. Worryingly perceptive.’

‘You liked him?’

‘He has... charm.’ She gazed through the window into Broad Street, where the street lights were coming on, along with chains of coloured bulbs newly hung across the road, although Christmas was still no more than a threat.

Sophie poured boiling water into the white teapot. ‘I did some research. So far this year, six ministers in the diocese have made inquiries about the possibility of holding healing services. I spoke to three of them. One said, “I think we should be seen to be doing something.” Another stressed he wanted nothing to do with Deliverance.’

‘Figures.’ Merrily’s attempt to set up a Deliverance Advisory Group was still in the tray marked ongoing. Some of them quite obviously didn’t want to know because she was a woman. A month ago, after consulting her over the phone about certain technicalities, one rector had gone off and set up his own small group – all male – to deal with an alleged presence at a village shop. They’d never told her what had happened.

‘Another one,’ Sophie said, ‘volunteered to be involved in any healing initiative if there was someone else to lead it. And as long as it wasn’t – and I quote – “anyone like Jeavons”. Sometimes one has to acknowledge that the clergy, as a profession, can be rather dispiriting.’

Sophie wore her mauve twinset. Her hair was white. In a dog collar she would cut a reassuring figure, but it would never happen; Sophie knew too much about the Church.

Merrily got out her cigarettes. ‘There were some things I hadn’t realized about Jeavons. It came out when he told me about the death of his wife, and why he couldn’t heal her... and yet might have, if he’d known then what he knows now.’

Sophie turned off the main ceiling lights, switched on the desk lamp and set the teapot down between Merrily and herself.

‘Go on.’

They actually went upstairs together, Ben and Antony – up the red carpet that Ben had bought instead of rewiring or a damp-proof course. Jane thought they looked like two kids who’d found a porn cache.

She found Natalie putting up Christmas lights in the cocktail bar, a room not yet fully Victorianized. It had pale green walls and colonial cane tables and fake oak beams across the ceiling, supporting nothing.

‘So how long have you known about Mrs Pollen?’ Jane said.

Nat was standing on the bar itself, arranging the lights between steel hooks projecting from the oak beam over it. ‘Why are these bastards not coming on?’

‘Maybe the fittings need tightening,’ Jane said. ‘Stay there.’ She climbed up from a stool to the bar and picked up the end of the string of miniature bulbs.

‘Beth Pollen found you, then?’ Nat said.

‘At the church.’ Jane started turning the first pea-bulb in its plastic holder. ‘She seemed OK. Surprisingly.’

‘Why shouldn’t she be?’ Nat had her reading glasses on the end of her nose, and she peered over them at Jane. Nat looked good in glasses, would have looked good in a neck brace. ‘She got into it the way most of them do. Bereavement – husband. They’re not all cranks.’

‘I just can’t imagine ever wanting to contact someone who’s dead.’

‘Can’t you?’

Jane thought about it. ‘The thing is, I knew a girl at school who thought she could do it. And there was this other girl with problems who got involved, and she was like unhinged, mentally disturbed, and the whole thing pushed her over the top. It was... unpleasant, in the end. Horrible.’

‘And your mother wouldn’t like it, would she? Spiritualism.’

Jane looked up. ‘That’s nothing to do with it. I’m not exactly intimidated by the Church.’ She tightened a second loose bulb; the lights still didn’t come on. ‘You do know what they’re planning, don’t you?’

‘Yeah. I was just wondering if you did or if you were fishing. Pollen sounded me out during the murder weekend, so when The Baker Street League went down...’

‘She told you then – at the murder weekend – that the White Company wanted to, like, seek confirmation from Conan Doyle that this was the source of the Baskerville thing?’

‘No, that seems to have occurred to them later. Pollen’s late husband worked in the archive department at Powys County Council, and he was interested in Stanner. She has copies of various deeds and documents, so she knows a lot about this place. She said, how did I think Ben would feel about hosting the Company, and I said, why don’t you ask him?’

Jane said, ‘He’s like a little kid over it.’

‘It fits in nicely, doesn’t it?’

All the lights had come on, a garish string of alternating sour lemon and livid blue. Natalie stared at them in clear disbelief. ‘Do you think Ben got them from the County Highways Department? They look like fucking warning lights.’

Jane let go of the bulbs but didn’t get down from the bar.

‘Nat... Just now, in the car, Ben said there was something he had to tell Antony that would like... you know, really clinch things. What’s that about?’

‘Huh?’

‘He gave Antony a look like, not in front of the kid. And when they came in he took him upstairs.’

‘Oh.’

‘You do know what it’s about, right?’

Natalie frowned. ‘Possibly. But he wouldn’t have been bothered about you hearing it, he’d have been—’ She shut up as the door opened, and then she turned and smiled and made a ta-da flourish towards the grim Christmas lights. ‘Well... we got them working, Amber. We’re just not sure if we’re glad or not.’

Amber, in jeans and a mohair sweater, stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips. She looked horrified.

‘For God’s sake, they’re awful! Switch them off!’

Natalie tweaked a bulb but the lights didn’t go out. ‘Where’d he get them?’

‘I don’t really care. Let’s just get them down. I think that pipe’s burst, Nat. I think the whole heating system’s all to cock.’

‘Oh hell,’ Nat said. ‘Listen, has he told you? We have a mass booking.’

Amber’s eyes widened. Jane saw a certain fear there.

‘I think I’m going to let Ben tell you about it himself,’ Nat said. ‘Not for me to pinch his glory.’

‘Where is he?’

‘Entertaining Mr Largo, somewhere or other. Don’t panic, lovie, it’s a week or so off yet. We’ll get some more lights by then. We’ll get the plumber. We’ll make this place look almost festive. Well, the bits we allow them to film...’

‘Film?’

‘Oh, I think so.’ Nat jumped down. ‘Good, eh?’

And when Amber had edged anxiously away, Nat smiled and shook her head, and Jane said, ‘Why don’t you want to pinch his glory? It’s all down to you.’

‘Just that she may not thank me when she finds out,’ Nat said. ‘He’ll maybe want to choose his time, Jane. She hates this place enough already. If she knew there’d been a murder, it might not—’

Jane came down from the bar top in a hurry. ‘You’re kidding...’

‘Long time ago – before World War Two. Pollen told me, and I checked it out with that guy Sampson who played the Major. And then I told Ben.’

‘What happened?’

‘He decided to keep it to himself for a while. Just a domestic thing, Jane. One of the Chancery women killed her husband. No big mystery, no need to gather the suspects in the drawing room. She was pissed at the time, apparently.’ Natalie started to bundle the alleged Christmas lights together on the bar top, and they sent blue and yellow stripes flaring across her face. ‘On the one hand it adds to the atmosphere of the dump, on the other... might put some people off. You don’t know, do you?’

Jane said, ‘Erm... did it happen in one of the bedrooms?’

‘I think it was outside, actually. In the gardens.’

Merrily told Sophie that sometimes she wished she was a Catholic or belonged to some hardline Nonconformist sect with strict liturgy and rules instead of guidelines.

‘Just it would be nice to meet two Deliverance ministers who operated to the same rules.’

Is Jeavons a Deliverance minister?’ Sophie asked.

‘Not strictly. But... yeah, of course he is. In the cause of healing the sick, he actually goes further into it than most of us. This is where Deliverance meets Healing – the healing of the dead.’

‘His wife?’

‘Catherine.’ Merrily watched her cigarette end smouldering in the ashtray. ‘This cool, fiercely intellectual, academic theologian.’

Jeavons had said that he and Catherine had been married in New York, where he was a priest and she was lecturing. As she was English and he’d lived here too, he wanted them to marry in England, but Catherine wouldn’t hear of it. Nor would she invite her parents to the ceremony. And when the Jeavonses did eventually come back, as a married couple, she didn’t even notify them.

‘Whatever she told Jeavons about her background, it wasn’t the truth. Some years later, Catherine’s father made contact with Lew. Someone had sent him a local newspaper picture of the Reverend and Mrs Jeavons when Lew became rector of a parish in Lincolnshire. The old man said he and his wife had parted and he’d very much like to get in touch with Catherine again.’

Jeavons had been surprised to discover that Catherine’s father was a fairly well-known Cambridge theologian, H.F.H. Longman. Longman told Jeavons there’d been a row about an unsuitable boyfriend while Catherine was at university. But Catherine still refused to see her father and became very agitated that he knew where she was – so much so that Jeavons had to negotiate a parish-swap, which was how they’d wound up in Worcestershire.

Merrily looked down into Broad Street: nearly dark now, the lights misting. Sophie poured more tea, and Merrily told her about the second time Catherine’s father had been in touch – when he was terminally ill, begging Lew to persuade his daughter to see him one more time before he died. Jeavons had told her she’d regret it if she didn’t, and perhaps something would be lifted if she did.

Although in the end she gave in, Catherine had refused to have Jeavons with her at the Cambridge hospice, where Longman was in his final coma.

Sophie leaned back into the shadows behind the desk lamp.

‘When she got home,’ Merrily said, ‘Jeavons was leaving for an international conference in Cape Town. When he got back, about three weeks later, she’d lost weight, her hair was unwashed, she’d been drinking. He found bottles of whisky under the sink. And she was... distant. Didn’t want to talk to him. And then she moved her stuff into a separate bedroom – a temporary thing, she said. She just needed time on her own. A few weeks later, she had a minor heart attack.’

I took my eye off the ball, was how Jeavons had put it. And he’d done it again, after the doctors had given Catherine a tentative all-clear and the situation between her and Lew was gradually restabilizing. Took his eye off the ball, because this was when he was being courted by both the Church and politicians. He’d thought she’d secretly like the idea of him in episcopal purple.

When Catherine had the second heart attack, Lew had thrown himself into three desperate days of prayer and hands-on. Rarely left her bedside, never slept, the bitterness and self-recrimination lasting long after Catherine’s funeral and the memorial service and Lew’s rejection of the purple.

‘He’d located Catherine’s mother to ask if she wanted to be at the funeral, and she hadn’t even replied but, some months later, he tracked her down. He said he was in a rocky mental state himself by then – could often feel Catherine’s presence in the rectory. He... said he awoke one night and saw her in the doorway of his bedroom. But he could only hear the sobs as echoes.’

At this stage, Lew had said, he was close to dumping his ministry, having been offered a teaching and community post back in Brooklyn. He’d had his letter of acceptance in his pocket, ready to post, when the mother-in-law he’d never met had arrived without warning at the rectory and he’d finally learned the truth about his dead wife’s relationship with her father.

‘Oh God,’ Sophie said irritably.

‘Intellectual sparks between a father and his brilliant daughter. Her mind excited him – Longman used to say that, apparently. When she was at Oxford, he’d visit her at weekends.’

Sophie snorted.

‘Jeavons said he’d often suspected there might have been someone else, someone she still thought about. Remembering the “unsuitable boyfriend”. Never imagining how unsuitable the boyfriend might actually have been.’

‘It’s more common than we might imagine among the so-called educated classes,’ Sophie said. ‘They encourage their children to be “liberal-minded”. Makes me sick.’

Merrily shook out a cigarette. ‘The reason Catherine’s mother had come to see him was that she also was experiencing problems. Maybe it was guilt at having walked away, or at her own resentment of Catherine. Understandable. It’s often hard to draw a line between mental unrest and... and the other thing. Lew brought in another minister, a friend, to bless the vicarage, sprinkle holy water around in the room where Catherine had slept. Then they held a Requiem Eucharist for Catherine, in the presence of her mother. Which, in normal circumstances, you might expect to resolve it.’

‘It didn’t?’

‘Got worse. He didn’t go into details. But he gave back word on the Brooklyn job and just spent a lot of time praying for an answer. Also, putting himself through a kind of ritual scourging – sleeping in the bedroom that Catherine had switched to, because he felt it was... their room, you know?’

‘The father?’

‘Jeavons felt that the fact that she’d been there, at the hospice, when the old man died, even if he wasn’t conscious – at least, she thought he wasn’t conscious – that this might have... created an opening. Maybe something had been reclaimed, something renewed. Her father had wanted her back with him. You know?’

Sophie’s face was hollowed behind the lamp. ‘That’s horrible, Merrily. Sick.’

‘Lew didn’t know what to do, or who to turn to for advice. Just kept on returning to that bedroom every night, with his Bible, and whenever he awoke – which was several times every night – he’d pray for help. He maintains that to heal we often have to suffer. A priest must go on suffering, without complaint, until something turns around. And you don’t have to look very far into the New Testament for his sources, do you?’

Sophie looked momentarily anxious and then stern. ‘I do tend to wonder if you really need this, Merrily.’

‘Tell a woman about the need for suffering and you touch a very deep seam. Anyway, it came to Lew one night that there should be a Requiem for this person he’d grown to hate: H.F.H. Longman. So... Lew Jeavons, his mother-in-law, his Deliverance friend and two other colleagues gathered in the bedroom. Lew doing the honours. Part of the suffering.’ Merrily paused.

‘And?’ Sophie said.

‘He told me he went to bed that night for the last time in that room. And he awoke in the night, as he always did, but this time he didn’t feel the need to pray. He simply turned over and... and the other side of the bed was warm. He got out of bed, pulled up the sheets and went back to their old room.’

Sophie leaned forward into the lamplight. Merrily felt the heat of her own tears and was irritated somehow.

‘He gave me a copy of a book called Healing the Family Tree by Kenneth McAll, who was a priest and a doctor. I knew about it, never read it. It argues that your mental and physical health is often conditioned by your ancestors. They fuck you up, your mum and dad, and their mums and dads and so on.’

‘Genetics.’

Merrily shook her head. ‘Maybe related – I’m no scientist. Jeavons spent about three years researching all this, here and abroad. Visiting societies where the placating of the ancestors is still considered all-important. Which was controversial, as some of them were more or less pagan.’

‘He thinks his wife was in some way destroyed by her father from beyond the grave?’

‘Lew thinks if he’d known what he was looking for, if the so-called maladjusted essence had been dealt with earlier, Catherine might still be alive. Like so much of this job, it’s hard to separate the spiritual from the psychological. He also talked about this tennis player, Kim Redmond, who was supposed to have been cured of MS. Jeavons said he spent a lot of time talking to Kim, and it came out that the kid’s father and his grandfather were both doctors. And the grandad was furious when Kim walked out of medical school with his tennis racquet – accusing him of betraying the family and his obligations to the sick.’

‘As if medicine was an ancestral obligation?’ Sophie said. ‘A tribal thing?’

‘Mmm. During Kim’s first Wimbledon, grandad dies. By the end of the week, just after the funeral, the kid’s having nightmares, beginning to feel his body is no longer his to control. His game’s shot to pieces, the doctors eventually start to suspect the worst. Jeavons’s solution was a serious Requiem for the old man, conducted at the church where the funeral had been held.’

‘And it obviously worked.’ Sophie followed tennis.

‘Or something did. The docs said it was probably an initial misdiagnosis. Which they would, wouldn’t they? Similarly, you could say that the Requiem – the emotional weight of this ancient, solemn ritual – had an immediate psychological effect on Kim, removing the burden of guilt and related symptoms. Anyway, Jeavons says we generally do half a job.’

‘Who?’

‘Us. Deliverance. Because most of us don’t take into consideration the true psychic weight of the family or tribe. And because we’re only concerned about the dead when they’re conspicuously haunting us. Jeavons’s view is that the dead always haunt us, whether we’re aware of it or not.’

Sophie sat up. ‘That’s untenable. He’s virtually saying every one needs deliverance.’

‘To a degree.’

‘And then, in no time at all you’ve become like that man Ellis, exorcizing everything from the demon drink to the demon—’

‘Tobacco,’ Merrily said. ‘Not as bad as Ellis, maybe, but it’s... perplexing.’

‘It’s the quickest way to a nervous breakdown, if you ask me,’ Sophie said. ‘My advice, for what it’s worth, is to avoid this man and all he stands for.’

‘He’s a very influential voice in Deliverance worldwide. He showed me his computer files. He’s in contact with more than three hundred priests, in the US, Canada, Africa, Australia... all submitting records of their work, building up this huge database on the healing of the dead. There are people out there who’ve been trying to heal... I dunno, Hitler?’

‘Stop.’ Sophie pointed at her, very calm, very stern. ‘Stop now. Don’t go near that man again, Merrily. Just don’t.’

11

Welshies

THE SMOKY DUSK was settling over Stanner Rocks when Gomer Parry picked Jane up in his truck, and she wondered if he could see some kind of glow coming off her.

‘Cold ole night, Janey. Gonner have at least one big snow before Christmas, I’d say.’ Gomer’s teeth were clenched like a monkey wrench on his ciggy.

With Antony Largo as the only guest, Amber and Ben didn’t need Jane to stay over, so she’d phoned Gomer and arranged for a lift home. But before she left, Antony had cornered her, and put this proposition to her and... it was like incredible.

‘Me and Danny, we falled this ole dead oak for Mrs Maginn, Cwmgaer,’ Gomer said. ‘Then we sets up the tractor and the sawbench, cuts him up for her stove.’

Gomer was now spending most days at Danny Thomas’s farm in the Radnor Valley, ten minutes from Stanner, while his yard was cleaned up after the fire and the big shed was being rebuilt. Danny was Gomer’s new partner in the plant-hire business – which made all kinds of sense, with Gomer’s nephew Nev dead and Danny having discovered how much he hated farming.

Rural serendipity.

In the dimness of the truck, with no dashboard lights working, Jane watched the tip of Gomer’s ciggy receding towards his mouth. He had to be over seventy now, not that anybody would ever prove it. Mum always maintained that Gomer had his own organic generator, and you could sometimes see light in his glasses when there wasn’t any around to be reflected.

Serendipity. Maybe Antony would change his mind. Maybe it wouldn’t happen. She wouldn’t be holding her breath exactly. But, like... wow.

‘Hope that bugger’s still paying you, Janey.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Foley. Word is he en’t doing brilliant business. Danny’s Greta’s sister, she yeard as they wanted help in the bar over Christmas, and then when she gived ’em a call they said they was all right now. But there en’t been nobody else took on, otherwise her’d have yeard. Don’t miss a thing yereabouts, Gret and Gret’s sister.’

‘That’s bollocks.’ Jane was annoyed. It was sunk deep into the collective psyche of this area: the joy of failure. ‘In fact, things are really picking up. They’ve just had a major conference booked.’

‘From Off?’

‘Of course from Off. Off’s where the money is, Gomer.’

‘True.’ Gomer wasn’t parochial himself, he just mixed with people who were.

‘And Nat can handle the bar, anyway.’

Gomer slowed for the roundabout at the end of the bypass. ‘This’d be Miz Natalie Craven, Jeremy Berrows’s... friend.’

‘Why, what are they saying about her?’ Jane had often wondered, although she could probably guess.

‘Oh... hippy,’ Gomer said. ‘Not Danny, mind. He don’t call her that.’

That was probably because Danny was a real hippy, Jane thought, as Gomer cleared the roundabout and the sporadic lights of Kington were behind them, dark fields on either side.

‘There was plenty folks, see, wanted Jeremy to get back with Mary Morson, after this do with the plant feller from the Rocks – well, Mary’s ma, partic’ly, on account of Jeremy’s worth a bob or two. This plant feller, he was just on some Government work scheme. Gone now, and never even said he was off.’

‘I’m sorry, Gomer, I’m not getting this.’ She was interested, naturally: the enigma of Nat and Jeremy.

‘Mary Morson, her was engaged to Jeremy?’

‘OK.’

‘Two year or more, sure t’be. Then her goes to this rock music night at The Eagle, with some mates. Meets up with this smoothy plant feller.’

‘You mean one of the botanists working on the Rocks? For the Hereford and Radnor Nature Trust?’ There was a study project, Jane knew, centred on this rare plant, the Early Star of Bethlehem, found on Stanner Rocks and virtually nowhere else in Britain.

‘Sure t’be,’ Gomer confirmed. ‘Bit of a fling. ’Course, Mary Morson reckoned her could easy go back to Jeremy on account of Jeremy, he en’t going nowhere, is he? He don’t never go nowhere, that boy, won’t leave his stock no more’n half a day. But meantime this Natalie turns up sudden, with the kiddie, in this van. No accounting for circumstance, Janey.’

‘Served the bitch right, if you ask me.’

Gomer’s grin flashed in the gloom. ‘Exackly what Danny’d say. Danny reckoned her was good for Jeremy, this Natalie. Bring him out of ’isself.’

‘Quite right,’ Jane said. She stared at him. ‘Was good?’

Gomer clamped his teeth on about a millimetre of ciggy. ‘Boy en’t right, n’more, Janey.’

‘How do you mean?’

But he just shook his head and said nothing, and Jane didn’t push it. Maybe she ought to have pushed it, if only for Clancy’s sake, but everything else was looking too good tonight.

The heavy stuff started for Danny not long after he got in. It started with Greta pulling off the left-hand channel of his big old Wharfedale cans and booming down his ear like her was taking over lead-vocal.

Danny sat up. ‘Who?’

Greta said it again, slowly. ‘Jeremy Berrows. Needs help. At The Nant. Urgent. Won’t tell me n’more, but you just be careful what you takes on, Danny Thomas, because—’

‘Bugger.’ Danny blinked at the telly, the Foo Fighters still roaring somewhere in his brain. The telly was on, but Danny had been watching the wood-burner, like he always did when he had his music playing on winter nights, just gazing and gazing into the glass. They had these lovely barn-dried ash logs on there tonight, burning bright orange and molten gold, just coming up to perfection, and he could smell his tea, cheese toasting, and the curtains were drawn against the cold black night and... Bugger!

Danny laid the cans on the back of his armchair, where his head had been, and Greta shoved the cordless at him.

‘Yeah?’

‘Danny?’

‘Ar.’

‘They won’t go away.’

‘What?’

‘They won’t listen to me. It’s like I en’t yere. They’re all over the yard, all over the meadow...’

‘What you on about? Who?’ Danny had Greta leaning between him and the wood-burner, trying to hear what was coming down the line. He waved at her to get out of his heat.

‘Welshies,’ Jeremy said.

‘Where are you?’

‘I’m in the house. I come back in the house, see. En’t no way I can deal with all three of ’em, Danny. I got the kid with me, Clancy.’

‘Well, that—’

‘Don’t know whatter do. Don’t want no cops yere, they’d just turn it back on me or it’d get in the papers.’

‘They threatenin’ you?’

‘Danny, I en’t good in these situations, you know that.’

‘Lemme get this straight, Jeremy. Welshies. This would be a raiding party come over the bloody border, is it?’

‘Could say that.’ Jeremy’s voice had gone faint. ‘I dunno, Danny, basically. I dunno what’s gonner happen.’

When Jane walked into the kitchen, it was clear that Mum hadn’t been in long – coat over the chair, bag on the table. Jane placed her own overnight bag very carefully by the kitchen door; she’d need to get it upstairs as soon as poss. Tried not to keep looking at it as she helped Mum cobble a meal together.

‘It might snow,’ Mum said from the fridge.

‘Gomer said that. I bet it’ll all be gone by Christmas, though. I don’t remember a white Christmas.’

‘There was one when you were little.’ Mum came over and looked at her with evident suspicion. ‘Did something happen?’

‘No, why?’

‘You seem... strangely energized.’

‘It’s the wonderful world of work. Invigorating.’ Jane sawed hard at a farmhouse cob, keeping her head down over the bread knife. Hell, was it that obvious?

‘Are they... going to want you much over Christmas?’

‘Hard to say. I think there’s a conference of some kind coming off. So, um, you got over to Lol then?’

‘Er, yeah.’

‘Good. T’riffic. Bit of a drag, though, driving all the way over the other side of the county every time you feel like a... proper chat.’

‘Actually, we thought there might have been something—’ Mum went to the sink to fill the kettle. ‘Well, Lucy’s old house in Church Street was for sale yet again, and we thought this time... Well, Lol thought he could raise the deposit.’

Jane dropped the knife, looked up in real delight. ‘Wow! Really? That would be... incredible!’

Lucy had been Lol’s mentor, had helped turn him around after Alison Kinnersley dumped him. It was what Lucy did: the nature-mystic, the keeper of the village’s soul, touching all their lives when they’d first arrived in Ledwardine. Becoming Jane’s fairy-godmother figure, kind of. Before dying, thrown from her moped on the road near the old Powell orchard.

‘Only, it was, erm, sold,’ Mum said. ‘Before the agents could even get a sign up.’

‘No!’

‘We should’ve seen it earlier in the Hereford Times. You don’t think, do you?’

‘Oh God, that would’ve been so totally perfect. Like, for both of you. Is there no chance?’

Mum shrugged.

‘Who’s got it?’

‘Looks like a weekend-cottage situation.’

‘Bastards!’ Jane snatched up the bread knife. ‘That is so... In a country this overcrowded, there is no excuse for anybody to have more than one home. It’s just like so totally unfair. Why don’t the sodding government bring in some kind of crippling second-home tax?’

‘Probably because most of the Cabinet seem to have three or four homes each. I think they’re lawyers, from London, these people. Well, you have to do something with all that money, don’t you?’

Jane shook her head in sorrow. ‘Mum, I’m so sorry. It would’ve been brilliant. And Lucy – she’d have wanted it, more than anything.’ She forced a smile. ‘Plus, it would’ve been somewhere for you to move into when I’ve left home and you finally come to your senses.’

‘A retirement home?’

‘Oh, it’s my firm belief,’ Jane said, ‘that you’ll be out of the Church within two years.’

‘You wish.’ Mum walked across the kitchen and scooped up the overnight bag. ‘I’d better get this lot in the washer, before—’

No!

Mum turned, with the overnight bag dangling from her hand, Jane frantically aware of the bulge in the side of it. And of Mum’s eyes narrowing. She thought fast.

‘Put that down at once! Can’t you ever sit down and relax? I’ll do it in the morning, when... when you’re in church.’

There was this horrible, tense moment before Mum did her wry smile and dumped the bag.

‘Sounds like you’ve had a lousy enough day already,’ Jane said, snatching it up.

God, how close was that?

12

Night Exercise

DANNY REMEMBERED THE last time he’d had the call-out from Jeremy – a soft summer morning, the air full of warm scents, the brown-haired woman waiting in her caravan, sending out the secret siren calls that only Jeremy would hear.

Now, under an icy sky slashed by a thin moon, Danny backed Greta’s old Subaru Justy out of the barn. Little grey car, discreet – don’t make no Bank Holiday parade out of this. Greta was opening the galvanized farm gate for him, yowling the whole while.

‘You en’t called me in half an hour, I’m phoning the police! You got that, Danny Thomas?’

‘Whole bloody valley got it.’ Danny wound his window tight, shoving a random cassette into the player, turning up the sound cautiously, in case it was one of Gret’s Jackie Collins story-book tapes. Danny had his giveaway hair pushed up under his woolly hat: no need for the buggers to know who he was.

The Welshies: Sebbie Three Farm’s hired guns – here, according to the popular folk-tale put around by Sebbie, to reduce the fox population.

Which was bullshit, basically, because there was never enough, and never would be enough foxes around for Sebbie Dacre and the Middle Marches Hunt. And also, seeing there was a local gun-club that would be only too grateful to be viewed by somebody as a bit useful, why had Sebbie hired from Off?

The Subaru sloshed down the track, the tape on the stereo turning out to be the Creedence collection, starting with ‘Susie Q’, which was all right but, if it got as far as ‘Bad Moon Rising’ before he reached The Nant, Danny was gonner take it as an omen.

Truth was, nobody knew why Sebbie Dacre had hired shooters from South Wales to scrat about pretending to be after foxes. You didn’t go out of your way to fire hard questions at boys from Off with loaded guns. But when these boys was invading what was likely the only farm along the whole border that didn’t have no firearms of any description, that was seriously out of order, Danny’s view of it.

At the Walton turn-off, he could see all the way to Old Radnor church, jutting up like a castle on a horizon turned jagged by quarrying. Then, just as Creedence were unrolling ‘Proud Mary’, the forestry rose up darker than the night sky, making him feel like some insect crawling into a yard brush.

What you had to understand first about Jeremy Berrows, see, was that he was an only child. Normal thing was for a farming family to have a spare, but Eddie Berrows was killed outright in a tractor accident when Jeremy was still at school and his mother was pregnant at the time, and her lost it, likely due to the stress. And that was that – Jeremy growing up knowing he had Full Responsibility for The Farm.

There was still farm labour to be had cheapish in them days, so they got by till the boy was sixteen and could take over official. Meantime, it was like all his ole man’s know-how had come seeping into him from wherever his ole man was, and now Jeremy was truly part of his land, in the way Danny had felt part of the whole valley that time, way back, when he’d dropped acid in the Four Stones field. Except that with Jeremy, who didn’t even drink, this was a natural chemical thing, an organic thing, ditchwater in his veins. You’d see him standing there like a little thorn tree, bristling with the breeze, Stanner Rocks behind him and the ewes around his legs. If Jeremy had played music, this would have been his album cover, and it was something close to mystical.

He just wasn’t good with people, that was all. Boy was shy, and if folks thought he was just another thick-as-shit hill-farmer, that was all right with him. Let the other buggers do the talking, let Sebbie do the shouting and go on thinking he ruled the valley. Sebbie Three Farms: master of the hunt and all he surveyed – except for this thriving little holding, right in the middle of Sebbie’s three farms, that belonged to Jeremy Berrows.

Danny took the Gladestry turn. Always reckoned he knew this area as well as anybody, but he still needed full beams to find the entrance to The Nant. No sign, see. Used to be one, till Jeremy’s mam went into the sheltered bungalow in Kington, but Jeremy didn’t need telling what was his, so when the sign fell off it stayed off, and that was that.

Full beams was a bit of a giveaway, but the track was narrow and the ditches either side were four feet deep, sure to be. The headlights found some new trees that Jeremy and the woman must have planted, with strong stockades around them and chicken wire to keep the sheep off. How many farmers planted trees without there was some big environmental grant for it?

Jeremy Berrows: natural green-boy, firm custodian of the land, friend to all of—

Christ!

Danny slammed on, both feet hard down, the Justy’s little tyres spinning and squealing like piglets in the mud.

The track had curved to the left and this big motor was blocking the whole of it like an outsize bull. No lights. Without his own headlamps, Danny would’ve been up the back of it, no question.

The Justy slurped and stalled, leaving Danny slumped over the wheel, breathing heavy. Must’ve stayed there about half a minute, getting hisself together, switching his lights off, before pushing his hair back under his woolly hat and climbing shakily out of the Justy. Close? Shit.

Danny staggered up to the big motor. It was a Discovery, metallic light green, with camouflage effects sprayed on. He hated this paramilitary crap, despised these bastards already. Still, he made good and sure there was nobody inside the Discovery before setting off to walk the last fifty or so yards to the buildings, keeping to the narrow grass verge beside the ditch, aware that he’d left the Justy blocking the way out.

Too bad. He was still shaking. In the country, the worst accidents happened on farms.

In his jolted-up state, he’d forgotten to bring a torch with him, but the place looked to be well lit up already. The track ended in the farmyard, with the black and white house to the left and the old stone barn on the right, and one wall of the barn looked floodlit like an old church.

The big bay doors were shut, but Danny noticed that the small one to the side was ajar and this was where most of the light was, and there were shadows moving, and he stood there on the edge of the yard, screwing up his eyes to try and make out what was there. Then calling out, in a friendly kind of way, ‘Hello there!’

This was just before the light went out and he heard footsteps coming at him from three directions, making him instinctively start whirling round, clawing at the blackness.

When the light came back on a few seconds later, it was full in his eyes, and he was near flattened by the violence of it.

Eirion’s voice, in the phone, said, ‘You total, insufferable bitch. How could you do this to me?’

Jane carried on unwrapping the package, the mobile wedged between ear and shoulder. She was smiling. She’d dug the big Jiffy bag out of her overnight case and brought it over to the bed. Mustn’t drop it on the floor, an expensive and complex piece of equipment like this.

‘Jane, you still—?’

‘Sure.’ She’d kept the overnight bag between her knees all the time she and Mum were eating, then said she’d just have to whizz upstairs to the apartment to freshen up and unpack.

‘Well?’ Eirion said.

‘Look, it’s the way it goes, sunshine. Nobody compelled you to go to the Alps with your creepy stepmother and a few corrupt members of the Welsh Assembly and their bimbos. I think it was John Lennon who said, “Life is what happens to other people while you’re busy shooting the piste with a bunch of inconsequential tossers.” Right, here we are...’

Jane released the camcorder from the bubblewrap and lay back on her bed with the phone.

‘I can’t stand it,’ Eirion said. ‘What’s it look like? What sort is it?’

‘Well, it’s a Sony.’ Jane held the camcorder over her face with one hand. She was going to have to cool this a little, or he wouldn’t play ball. ‘It says one-fifty and some letters. It’s kind of dinky.’

‘Sounds like the kind they hand out to people doing these video-diary pieces. The punter sets it up on a tripod in his room and whispers intimate thoughts at it. If it gets broken it doesn’t make a major hole in the budget. Has it got one of those flaps you unfold, like a wing, and you can see the picture?’

‘Hang on.’ Jane sat up. ‘Yep, there’s a flap. Can’t see anything in it.’

‘That’s probably because it’s not switched on. Sockets for external mike?’

‘Could be. Couple of those little pinhole things. In fact, there’s an actual microphone as well, separate. It’s longer than the camera.’

Eirion moaned.

‘Piece of crap, then, is it, Irene?’

‘No.’ Eirion sighed. ‘It’s a tidy bit of kit, for the money, and it’ll get very credible results on automatic setting. Jane, I’m gutted.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m sorry. I truly wish you were going to be there. You’d probably get much better stuff than me.’

‘Are you trying to make it worse? What’s he like?’

‘Antony? He’s quite funny. Very cynical. At first, you get the feeling he really couldn’t give a toss. But then he latches on to something, and you can see this steely intensity in his eyes. Of course I don’t know these guys like you do, and I didn’t realize he was that famous.’

‘He’s not famous, Jane. Pro doco guys are seldom famous. He’s respected, is what counts. Which is what brings the work in. And I mean, why would a guy... why would a guy of his stature allow an evil little bimbo like you to... shoot for television?

They had him backed up against the farmhouse wall, battering him with white light.

‘... The fuck are you?’

Danny didn’t respond. Stood there with his head bent away from the raging light, knowing that they had him wedged in. Somebody pulled off his hat and his hair came down over his face, near-wringing with cold sweat.

‘Looks like one of them fuckin’ travellers,’ another voice said – higher, younger. Danny placed the accent in the Valleys, somewhere down where there used to be coal mines and jobs. A good fifty miles from local, anyway.

It was them.

The light veered away from him, and he looked down and saw the lamp – one of them items you could send for out of the glossy catalogues that dropped out of local papers: ten million kilowatts, guaranteed to throw a beam halfway to Rhayader.

‘Assed you a question, mun.’ Hot, soupy breath in his face. ‘Assed you a fuckin’ question!’

‘What I am,’ Danny said through his clenched teeth, ‘is a feller got hisself invited yere by the owner. Unlike some bastards.’

‘Bullshit!’ He’s just a fuckin’ tenant, is all. Scum, he is.’

It was blasted into his face along with some spit. The light hit him again like a big white fist, just giving him time, before he had to shut his eyes against it, to see two blokes in army-looking camouflage gear, one with the lamp, the other with something that was likely a rifle with a telescopic sight.

‘Try again,’ the Welshie said.

‘I’m a neighbour. Who’re you?’

‘On your own?’

‘You’ll mabbe find out just now,’ Danny said, and cried out as somebody grabbed his hair and hauled his head back, and they shone the light directly into his eyes, and when he shut them the night turned bright orange like the logs in his stove.

Danny!’ Jeremy. His voice coming from above, probably an open window.

‘Call the cops, Jeremy,’ Danny said, surprised how calm he sounded, still held by his hair with his eyes tight shut.

From behind, another bloke said, ‘OK, he’s on his own.’ Then they let go of Danny’s hair, and he couldn’t feel the heat from the lamp any more, and he risked opening his eyes a fraction.

The first thing he saw was the gun.

‘Oh shit,’ Danny said.

It wasn’t what he was expecting. It had a shortish single barrel and a skeleton butt, like the end of a crutch.

‘Look,’ he said, nervous as hell now, ‘what’s this about?’ If you didn’t know better, you might figure these blokes for the SAS on some night exercise. All the instructions shouted, rasped out, like soldiers and armed police did on TV. A performance, designed to put the shits up you.

And it was working. No bugger in these parts had a gun like that, not even—

Danny said, ‘Sebbie Dacre sent you, right?’

‘Shut the fuck up.’

‘Nathan!’ The younger voice, from a few yards away. ‘I can year the bastard movin’ about! Fetch the fuckin’ light!’

‘Now, you won’t move, will you, mun?’ the close-up Welshie said. ‘’Cause if we has to come and find you we gonner beat the shit out of you, no arguments.’

‘Where’m I gonner move to?’ Danny just hoping Jeremy had got over his suspicions of the police and was on the phone to them right now. Failing that, it was all down to Gret. This wasn’t normal, not by a mile.

‘He’s comin’ out!’ The younger voice – a shrill excitement there, you could almost hear the adrenalin crackling. Boys with guns – unstable. Danny saw one of them swing round, levelling his rifle at the half-open barn door, going into a crouch.

Behind Danny, back at the house, there was the sound of a door bolt being slammed back.

No!’ Jeremy. The boy bursting out of the farmhouse.

From inside the barn, there was a scuffling of straw, maybe the sound of something panting. Then a shadow was rising up in front of Jeremy, and he was going, ‘Errrrrrr,’ like all the breath had been punched out of him.

‘You don’t wanner get hurt, little man.’

‘That’s, that’s my...’ Jeremy, fighting for breath. ‘That’s my dog!

Danny ran out into the yard. The barn doorway was fully exposed in the bright beam, two yellow bales on end inside. He saw the butt of the rifle go back hard into the crook of the camouflage feller’s shoulder. His own breath came in like ice. One of the Welshies ran over and kicked the barn door wide open and then threw hisself to the side, bawling.

‘Shoot! Shoot! Shoot! Shoot the fucker!’

The gun went off twice, these crisp, tight cracks, Jeremy screaming, ‘Noooo!

Amid the echoes, Danny heard rapid footsteps and saw something else flitting across the yard through the lamp beam to the barn.

‘Stop her!’ The first Welshie striding out, the lamp snatched up, beam swinging all over the place like a bar of solid light.

And then Jeremy Berrows going, ‘No, Clancy, stop, Christ almighty, no!

Jesus, it was the girl. Danny found himself moving fast towards the open doorway, aware of the feller with the gun coming up alongside him, his face shiny-white in the light, and Danny thinking Oh God, oh God, oh God, what they done?

A couple of yards from the barn, the gunman pulled ahead of Danny and twisted back, and Danny saw it coming, but he couldn’t do a thing about it. His head seemed to burst apart, and he went down clawing at the frozen shit on the cobbles.

13

Real Personal

SPIRITUALISM: THIS, ESSENTIALLY, was the problem. Spiritualism was the keyhole in the door to hell, and the Deliverance Ministry tended to take an inflexible line on it, so this was why Jane couldn’t tell Mum about the White Company.

‘Or, er... the camera.’

‘You mean she doesn’t know you’re doing this?’

Eirion disapproved too, naturally. Rigid Welsh Chapel ethic. OK, he didn’t actually go to Chapel, but it had seeped into the whole culture.

‘She trusts me these days, Irene. We’re into a new phase of mutual trust and support. Look, I’ll tell her... at some stage. Meanwhile, don’t be an old woman. Just give me a few, like, really basic hints, OK? Please, Irene.’

‘You don’t deserve it. You’re evil and duplicitous.’

‘Irene. I’ve had a lot of bad stuff happen to me, you know that. No father any more... dragged out to the sticks... adolescent crises... mother in a permanent state of spiritual angst...’

‘You’re not just economical with the truth, you’re parsimonious.’

‘Not with you.’

In fact, she’d told him virtually everything: the church, the Vaughans, the White Company... all the stuff she couldn’t talk about to Mum without risking the most God-awful row, which she, frankly, did not at this moment need.

‘How did Largo put it?’ Eirion asked. ‘What did he actually say?’

‘Well, it... it was after we got back from the church, and I’d been helping Nat with these awful Christmas lights, and Amber’s determined to talk to Ben, so Antony just wanders in and he’s like, “Jane, could I have a wee word?” ’

She told him how she’d made Antony some coffee in the lounge, and he’d said, ‘Sit down a minute, Jane,’ and started asking her questions: what did she think of this and that on TV, what did she have planned for when she left school?

‘I mean, it was dead casual, I thought he was just making conversation. We were getting on pretty well – better than when Ben was around. And like having a laugh about how serious Ben was getting over all this. And then he goes, “Tell me, Jane, have you ever used a decent video camera?” ’

‘And then when you said no... ?’

‘I didn’t exactly say no. As such. I mean, suddenly I was getting an incredible feeling of where this might be going. Which was just... wow. So I told him that my boyfriend... I said my boyfriend’s family was connected with television in Wales and I’d been on lots of shoots and, like, helped out... filled in... done a bit of this and that. You know?’

There was a silence. What she’d actually said was ‘my ex-boyfriend,’ wanting to keep whatever might be on the cards to herself, and she felt desperately guilty about that. Despicable. What kind of bitch did that to her guy? OK, he wouldn’t be able to be involved anyway, being out of the country, but it was still... well, not the kind of thing Eirion would ever do to her.

‘It just came out,’ Jane said.

‘You... lied to Antony Largo?’

Jane swallowed, realizing she was sweating.

‘You didn’t mention my name to him, did you?’ Eirion said. ‘Because when this is all over and your name is like something scraped off his trainers after jogging across the dog pound...’

‘Look, it’s no big deal!’ She stared at the silvery little camera, panic rising. ‘He’ll shoot the heavy stuff himself, the seance. He just wants me to keep track of stuff happening day-to-day when he’s not there. Just like point the thing at anything interesting going down around the place and especially at Ben. See, he can’t afford to spend whole days himself around Stanner when he hasn’t flogged the idea to anybody yet – which can take like weeks and weeks – and he needs to keep track of developments and he needs Ben to be in some of the pictures, so... Apparently, they’re always getting people to do it these days. Shoot bits of stuff. There used to be hassles with the unions, but all that’s—’

‘So why don’t you ask Ben for a few hints?’

‘Because...’ Jane shut her eyes. ‘Because Ben’s clearly not happy about me doing it. He’d rather shoot it himself and not be in shot. It’s all so confused. Antony’s idea of this project may not quite tie in with Ben’s. Like, they’re mates, but there’s artistic friction, you know? I think, what Antony’s got in mind, is that if it all crashes, at least it’ll make a funny episode for this Punching the Clock series, about mid-life crises launching new careers.’

‘And these spiritualists – the cranks who think they’re going to raise the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – they’re actually going along with this?’

‘Yeah, they’re cool with it. Maybe they’re hoping for something amazing. Irene, come on, even if nothing happens it could still be totally brilliant stuff.’

Eirion did this bitter sigh. ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this, but the most basic piece of advice I can give you is to use the tripod whenever possible. You’ve got a tripod?’

‘Antony’s having one sent over to Stanner for me.’

‘Right, well, don’t get carried away with hand-held stuff. Unless you’ve got a lot of experience and really steady hands it looks awful. Unusable, right? Also, stick to auto at all times or you’ll just get in a mess.’

‘Won’t it look amateurish?’

‘The difference will probably be minimal, and Largo can get rid of any fluffs in the editing. And make sure your shots are long enough – remember you’re recording what might be a familiar scene to you for people who’ve never seen it before, so hang in there. Don’t pan unless it’s vital. Don’t get carried away with the zoom. And remember that the mike on the camera’s OK for ambient sound or when you’re tight, but... What’s the other mike like? Directional, or what?’

‘Well, it... I mean you can like point it. Look, when you said zoom...?’

‘Ration it severely. My advice is to pretend that every time you use the zoom it’s going to cost you a tenner.’

‘So the zoom... where is that exactly?’

‘Well, it’s... Oh, bloody hell,’ Eirion said, ‘suppose I just come over and show you.’

Jane fisted the air. ‘I love you so much, Irene.’

‘Prove it.’

‘Well, maybe,’ Jane said, low and sexy and exultant inside. ‘Maybe later.’

This greasy, low-wattage bulb over the door. Only a feeble light, coated with dust and cobweb and dead flies, but all light was pain.

Silence in here. The only sound was in his head: the buzzsaw of pain. Standing in the doorway, he was sick with the pain.

‘No. It’s a friend,’ Jeremy said. ‘A friend.’

Danny held on to the door frame. The girl in the straw didn’t move. Her hair was the same colour as the straw in the rancid butter light. She stared up at him and her eyes were full of fear and hate.

Jeremy said, ‘Oh Christ, they done that?’

Danny’s face and head were wet. He kept his hands away from it.

‘Gone?’ It was a tattered croak; he couldn’t believe the terror in his own voice. ‘All of ’em? You sure?’

On the flagged floor, a broken bale and the girl sprawled forward in the straw, looking up, covering the black and white dog with her body.

How much time had passed Danny didn’t know. His head felt like the time he’d been kicked by a horse. Jeremy was staring at him.

‘They was gonner shoot the dog, Danny. Clancy, she just hurled herself in front of ’em. Wasn’t no answer to that. They buggered off.’

‘They was gonner shoot the dog?’

‘What they hit you with?’

‘Butt of the gun, I reckon. Why the dog?’

‘Dunno.’ Jeremy was wearing baggy jeans and an old sweater with holes in it. He was quivering. ‘Dunno what they thought.’

‘Don’t you really, boy?’

‘I better get you an ambulance.’

‘Bugger off.’

‘Can you see out that eye?’

‘It missed the eye. You called the cops?’

‘You can’t drive home in that state,’ Jeremy said.

‘You called the police?’

‘No, I—’

‘Why not?’

‘Don’t want no police, Danny. It’d all get twisted round. You know how it is.’

‘This is Dacre, ennit?’

‘They never said, not really.’ Jeremy ran his hands through his sparse fair hair, his face all screwed up. ‘They never... He’ll admit to hiring them, but he’s gonner deny responsibility for how they done it.’

‘Done what?’

‘Shot the foxes.’

‘Foxes, balls. He’s the bloody hunt master. He don’t wanner see no foxes shot at night, or by day. He wants ’em all decently ripped in half by his hounds. The bloody Middle Marches Hunt looks like running out of foxes to chase, Sebbie’d have a couple crates of the buggers shipped over from the city, you know that.’

Danny leaned back against the door frame, breathing through his mouth. The effort of saying all that had left him feeling faint.

‘He en’t an easy man to deal with,’ Jeremy said.

‘He’s a total bastard of a man, Jeremy, we all know that.’

‘He phoned me earlier.’

‘Oh, did he?’

‘Said did I know what that feller Foley was doing over at Hergest. With another feller. And a girl.’

‘Why would you?’

‘Well, ’cause... ’cause Nat’lie, she d’work up at Stanner.’

‘Yeah, yeah. You tell him?’

‘Told him I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’.’ Jeremy looked down at the girl. ‘You best get inside, Clancy, ’fore your mam gets in.’ He smiled at her. ‘Take the dog in with you. You’re gonner need some tea, Danny.’

‘No, I’ll get off home, ’fore Gret calls in the bloody Armed Response Unit. Give her a call for me, will you, boy? Say I tripped on the cattle grid but I’m all right now.’

In the end, it was past midnight when Danny made it home, and Jeremy had to take him in his Land Rover.

What had happened, those bastards had rammed the Justy out of the way with the bull bars on the Discovery, heaving it into the ditch. The driver’s door was stove in, and Danny didn’t give a lot for the sub-frame.

Bastards! Couldn’t believe they’d done that. Couldn’t believe any of this.

Knowing for a fact that if he tried to make a claim against them – even if he could find out their names – they’d deny the whole lot. Anyway, Danny avoided lawyers the same way you didn’t drink sheep-dip.

‘I en’t fully sure what this is about,’ he told Jeremy out on the bypass. ‘But far as I’m concerned it just got real personal.’

‘Leave it, eh, Danny. En’t nothing to be done.’

En’t nothin’—?

‘I’ll pay for the damage.’

‘You bloody will not, boy!’

‘Happened on my ground. Me as called you out. And I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have rung you. I just didn’t want nothing to happen to the girl.’

‘Right,’ Danny said. ‘What’s going on, Jeremy?’

‘Nothing’s going on.’

‘Who are they?’

‘Just some shooting yobs from—’

‘Not the Welshies, you... that girl. And her mam.’ Danny was talking through the pain now, so he didn’t care what he said, long as he could get it out. ‘What’s the score there, Jeremy? Where’s it goin’, you and her? What’s that about?’

Jeremy said nothing.

‘All right, why’d them Welshies say it wasn’t your ground? Sebbie Dacre still think he’s entitled, is it?’

‘I wouldn’t know.’ Jeremy staring straight ahead, driving slow. ‘En’t his. En’t never gonner be his. That’s all I know. I was born there, I’ll die there.’

Not just an expression of intent, Danny thought, it was like he knew it for a fact – that he would die at The Nant.

Above them, the wishy-washy moonlight shone damply on Stanner Rocks, and Jeremy never spoke another word, except for ‘goodnight’ – not much more than a clicking of the tongue – when he dropped Danny at his top gate.

Part Two

‘My friend was still looking at the coat of arms and I walked to the archway here and just looked across at the blue curtain. There was an image... it wasn’t even a shape... I can only describe it as when motes hang in sunbeams. But it was the image of a bull and he was giving out the feeling of being angry... he was pawing at the ground but he was in the air. The inside of his nostrils – this was one of the most vivid things – were very, very red, like a racehorse when it’s just stopped running. And it was wet, it was dripping moisture or something on to the ground. It was as though it was hanging in sort of strings... As we walked to the middle aisle it started to fade... I’m a hard-headed business person. But I can’t deny it, I’ve seen it – I’ve experienced it.’

Jenny Vaughan, 1987

The ladies who prepare the flowers in the church did say on two separate occasions that the floral arrangement had taken the shape of a bull’s head.

Alan Lloyd, local historian, Kington

FOURTEEN

Word to the Wise

SO DANNY WENT after Sebbie Three Farms.

The wisdom of this... well, that was in question. Jeremy phoned early Sunday morning, to see how Danny was feeling, to repeat his offer of picking up the tab for Greta’s Justy and to tell Danny to leave well alone on account of Sebbie Dacre couldn’t be counted on to behave like any kind of rational human being.

Danny said he’d bear that in mind.

Hour or so later, Greta bathed his head again and said, ‘Leave it, you year me, Danny Thomas? You can patch him up, the little car. Leave it till tomorrow at least.’

‘Longer we leaves it, harder it’s gonner be.’

‘You are not going to Dacre’s place on your own. Suppose them fellers is there with their guns? You can wait till tomorrow, then you can take Gomer with you.’

‘Take Gomer with me?’ Danny stared at her. ‘You totally cracked, woman? Gomer? I’d feel safer with pockets full of bloody Semtex.’

‘En’t as wild as he used to be,’ Gret said. ‘He’s an ole man now. Look, you promise me—’

‘I promise.’ Danny went out, shaking his head at the idea that age could mellow somebody like Gomer Parry. But then, Gret had never seen Gomer at the controls of his JCB, that big gash of a smile around his ciggy, hell’s own light in his glasses.

The sky was near-enough the colour of a shotgun barrel, and the cold air ripped at Danny’s head wound like barbed wire as he crossed the yard to the Land Rover.

Well, no way was he gonner forget this. Couldn’t live with himself. Couldn’t afford another car for Greta if this one got written off.

He was on his way to Jeremy’s to see if he could somehow tow the Justy home when, as it happened, he seen Sebbie Dacre in person, turning right at Walton towards Radnor Forest. Sebbie was in his mustard-coloured Range Rover, and he was on his own.

Seemed like fate.

Last in the handshaking line outside the church porch after morning service was Alice Meek, in Sunday best. Not many people wore Sunday best any more; they came to church in fleeces and jeans.

The big man with Alice wore jeans and a shiny leather jacket.

‘This yere is Dexter Harris, vicar. My nephew from the tyre place? With the asthma? Didn’t seem right just bringing him along tonight, for the Healing Service.’

The Healing Service?

Merrily shook hands limply with Dexter and then stood there, shivering in the cold, weak sunshine of the first day of December. When, for God’s sake, had her loose prayer meeting, her meditative interlude, her quiet time before the start of the working week, become The Healing Service?

‘I told him there wasn’t nothing to be scared of. Don’t wanner bring on an attack, do we?’

Alice cackled, confident that this wouldn’t happen. Not on a Sunday, not at the church of the healing vicar.

Merrily looked up at Dexter Harris. He was a big, heavy man, shaven-headed, balding or both. He had a lower lip that jutted like a spout from a jug. He looked about thirty-five. He looked like he’d rather be anywhere but here, but few people argued with Alice.

Down by the lychgate she could see Ted Clowes, retired solicitor, senior churchwarden, her mother’s brother and the village’s most reliable opponent of Deliverance, faith healing and anything else that was, in his narrow view, spiritually off-the-wall and fiscally unpromising. If Ted was waiting for her by the lychgate, it was with the intention of following her home to bend her ear on neglect of crucial parish issues.

Oh well.

‘How would you feel about a cup of tea, Dexter?’ Merrily suggested. ‘In fact, there might even be a can or two of Stella in the fridge.’

Mr Sebastian Dacre JP.

Danny Thomas and Sebbie Dacre, they was about the same age and had known one another, to a point, since they was boys. But Danny was at the local schools and Sebbie was a boarder at the Cathedral School in Hereford and riding to hounds at twelve and screeching around Kington in a Triumph Spitfire at eighteen. And Sebbie’s ole man used to have close to a thousand wide acres while Danny’s dad had just under forty-three acres of hillside with soil skin-deep over the rock.

And Danny was Danny Thomas, the Rock ’n’ Roll farmer as was, and Sebbie was Mr Sebastian Dacre JP, Master of the Middle Marches, local organizer for The Countryside Alliance. It was like that.

Sebbie was clearly headed for the Eagle at New Radnor. Nice pub, situated just perfect in the middle of this nice quiet village – big wide street, widest in Radnorshire, sure to be, overlooked by a lot of houses and cottages and a shop and the Eagle. Danny was reminded of the streets in old Western movies, which were always very wide and quiet and just right for a shoot-out, two fellers approaching each other real slow from opposite ends.

Greta was wrong. Best to handle this on his own: Danny the negotiator, Danny the diplomat. He wanted something out of this to repair the Justy. Also it was very much time to put the arm on Sebbie to keep his muscle off Jeremy Berrows’s ground. Boy looked like he’d enough to worry about right now, without lying awake at night listening for tyres creeping up the track.

Most of all, though, Danny wanted to know what was behind it. Why was Sebbie Three Farms employing these three hard-bastard shooters from South Wales?

A shedload of questions here. And if he followed Sebbie now to wherever he was going, then he wouldn’t have broken his promise to Gret, would he?

Sebbie parked at the side of the road and Danny come in behind him just as he was climbing down: Sebbie Three Farms, all six foot whatever of him, tough-thin, like streaky bacon.

Sebbie put on his tweed cap. Always wore a cap because his reddish hair was sparse now and his skin was pale as watered milk. A walking invitation to skin cancer, was Sebbie, and yet he always walked tall and straight, like he was defying the sun.

Danny come right up behind him. ‘Mr Dacre!’

It was how you talked to people in these parts, only real close friends using first names.

Sebbie didn’t turn round at once, like a normal person would; he kept on walking towards the pub door and, when he did turn, it was only to flick a bleep at the Range Rover to lock the doors. At which point he deigned to notice Danny.

‘Mr Thomas, how’re you? Working with Parry now, hey? Diversification – only course open in these constricting times.’

‘You happen to ’ave a minute, Mr Dacre?’

Sebbie frowned. ‘People say a minute when they mean half an hour.’

His pale eyes had screwed up a bit now, cautious. Last thing he’d want would be Danny in the pub with him, where they’d be overheard, and the word spread over half of two counties by sundown.

’Cause Sebbie knew what this was about, nothing surer.

‘I’ll keep it short, then,’ Danny said. ‘Three of your boys was rampaging over The Nant last night, loosing off the kind of gun you don’t normally see this side of Credenhill base. And the end result—’

‘Mr Thomas—’

‘End result of this bit of a farm-invasion is this.’ Danny touched his forehead, winced.

‘Doesn’t look like a bullet wound to me, Mr Thomas, but more to the point—’

‘More to the point, Mr Dacre, is my wife’s car gets battered off the track and looks to me, bearing in mind he’s eleven year old, like we could be looking at a write-off.’

‘And you saw who it was, hey?’

‘Your boys, it was. Like I said.’

‘My boys? My boys?’

‘Said you was payin’ ’em to shift foxes.’

Sebbie squinted, like the sun had come out. ‘That sound awfully likely to you, Mr Thomas?’

‘I’m tellin’ you what they said. Three Welshies from down the Valleys, sounded like.’

‘And you saw them actually damaging your car, did you, these boys? At night.’

‘Men, they was, more like. And I sure enough seen—’

‘You informed the police, obviously.’

‘I sure enough seen one of the buggers come over and clobber me with the butt end of his fancy gun.’

‘And naturally you’ve told the police about that, too.’

‘No.’ Danny glanced down at his boots. ‘Not yet.’

‘And you’re saying these men claimed to be working for me. That’s an actual allegation you’d be prepared to make in front of witnesses and my solicitor?’

Danny fell silent. You forgot how hard it was getting a feller like this to put his hands up to anything. Outsiders, townies, they didn’t believe Sebbie’s sort existed any more, thought they was a joke – music-hall villains, feudal stuff out of history. But even now, with the countryside shrinking faster than a pair of market-stall jeans, Danny could still point you out five or six like Sebbie within twenty or thirty miles.

Sebbie gave out a look that was all but a mouthful of spit. ‘I thought you’d know better, Mr Thomas, than to come accosting me in the street with this kind of half-baked drivel.’

‘It’s the truth.’

‘They named me?’

‘Aw, come on, everybody knows it, Mr Dacre. Folk around yere en’t daft. Nobody understands it, why you’re letting foreigners in with illegal shooters, but they knows it’s down to you. And they knows there’s history between you and Jeremy Berrows.’

‘Who does?’ Sebbie was half-smiling, hadn’t broken sweat. ‘Who knows all this? Give me some names, Mr Thomas, hey? Give me some names and I’ll sue their arses orf in a court of law.’

Danny said nothing at all. Who was he supposed to drop in the slurry? You didn’t, did you? Not to a man who never forgot a name. Danny felt ashamed. He should’ve brought Gomer along, like Gret said; Gomer, to put it mildly, wasn’t fazed by nobs. Danny hadn’t said half of what he’d planned to say, and already it was all going pear-shaped on him. His head throbbed and his vision was lopsided somehow, so that he saw Sebbie Dacre like Sebbie was some tripping image, an acid flashback: thin neck craning out of the collar of his Viyella, and his head, under the beak of his cap, like a hawk’s watching a rabbit.

‘Easy target, en’t he, Jeremy Berrows?’ Danny said.

‘Mr Thomas, Jeremy Berrows would be an easy target for the Women’s Institute bowling team. Now geddout of my hair.’

‘I don’t get it,’ Danny said. ‘How come you live next to Jeremy all his life, and suddenly you’re turnin’ the heat on?’

Sebbie just looked and half turned away like the very sight of Danny was starting to offend him.

‘Or mabbe it’s the woman,’ Danny said. ‘Nat’lie.’

Sebbie swayed just slightly and then he came out with this one, real nonchalant, like he’d just been ferreting in Danny’s mind.

‘You still using drugs, Mr Thomas?’

‘That en’t bloody fair!’ Danny blurted, before he could stop hisself. His head pulsed and he felt faint.

Ain’t fair?’ Sebbie’s head shot forward like Danny’s words had pressed a button. ‘I’ll tell you what ain’t fair. What ain’t fair is what’s happening to the countryside under this fucking government. If they persist in trying to stop us hunting with hounds – make us subject to licensing and regulations, put the countryside into a suburban strait-jacket... if they go on trying to challenge our traditional way of dealing with vermin... then they can bloody well expect what one might call Less Orthodox Methods of Pest Control.’

At this point, Gwilym Bufton, the feed dealer, came across the road towards the Eagle, with another feller, and they exchanged ’ow’re yous with Sebbie, and Sebbie raised two fingers to his cap in a kind of mock-humble salute. When they’d gone into the pub, he came a bit closer to Danny, his pinky eyes shining. The street was quiet around them, and Danny had the feeling of folks at their windows, like this really was a showdown in a Western town starring the big-time rancher and the shabby dust-bowl farmer who couldn’t afford a haircut. Sebbie’s voice was low.

‘What I’m saying is, if they’re going to make us illegal, turn decent people into poachers, then they shouldn’t be surprised to find bands of brigands roaming by night.’

Danny was thrown – this was surreal. ‘What the hell’s that mean? You’re supposed to be a bloody magistrate!’

‘And with more of our local police stations closing every year,’ Sebbie said, ‘they won’t have the means or the manpower to counter it. Look, I don’t know what happened to your damn car, and I expect you’ve got another half-dozen clapped-out wrecks in your buildings to replace it, but I can tell you one thing... this is only the start. And if you’re not part of it, you should stay at home, get yourself quietly stoned and keep your nose out, eh? Word to the wise, Mr Thomas, word to the wise.’

He turned away. Danny didn’t move, couldn’t believe what he’d heard. This was a magistrate. He shouted after Sebbie Dacre, ‘Why’d you tell them Welshies Jeremy Berrows didn’t own his own farm? Why’d you tell ’em Jeremy was your tenant?’

‘Don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘You know what, Sebbie?’ Danny pointing the finger. ‘I don’t believe you. I think you’re full of shit. I reckon you’re covering some’ing up, boy.’

‘And you’re a faded old hippy full of pathetic, drug-induced conspiracy theories.’ Sebbie stopped at the pub door. ‘I’ll give you a question, now. Why did Berrows call to you for help? Why didn’t he call the police, hey? Give that some thought, I would, Mr Thomas, and be sure to hide your stash somewhere safe, because you can expect a visit in the early hours from the Dyfed-Powys Drug Squad. Good day to you.’

Then he went into the pub, and Danny saw the curtains twitching along the street and found he was shaking, like with cold turkey.

15

Milk into Concrete

WHEN MERRILY BROUGHT Dexter Harris into the kitchen, Jane had already made soup and sandwiches – not many big Sunday lunches in this household – and they’d shared them with Dexter, who at first was all shy and shambling, twice using his inhaler.

He ate steadily, glancing at Jane and occasionally at Merrily, something evidently on his mind. It took both cans of Stella to bring it out.

‘They, er, they reckons you’re the whatsit – county exorcist.’

‘Well, nowadays, they don’t...’ Merrily’s shoulders sagged. He’d have seen the movie on DVD – explanations were useless. ‘Yeah, kind of. Alice told you?’

Dexter shifted uncomfortably. Maybe he was expecting her to toss holy water at him, thrust a cross in his face, instructing the demon of asthma to vacate his system. Maybe that was a course of action Lew Jeavons might even advise.

In which case, one of them was in the wrong job.

‘It’s probably not what you think,’ Merrily said.

But what was she going to do? What did Alice actually expect of her? She smiled nervously at the big guy wedged into a dining chair with his leather jacket over the back. She felt worse than inadequate, she felt like someone recruited into a fraudulent enterprise, a trainee on a travelling medicine show.

And while the lager had loosened Dexter up, it didn’t make the situation any more promising. He was eyeing Jane now, and claiming that today was the first time he’d been inside a church since his christening. Tell the truth, he was only doing this to shut Alice up – her nagging him and his ma about it. Dexter lived at home with his ma and his younger sister in the Bobblestock area of Hereford. Useful to have somebody around if he had an attack, look. Also it was cheaper, and most of his girlfriends had their own flats or houses, so that was all right.

Suppose he had an attack here, what then? Merrily looked at Jane. If Dexter’s breathing changed rhythm, any laying-on of hands would take place only while they were waiting for the paramedics to get here.

Dexter started asking Jane which clubs she went to in Hereford at weekends. Jane named four, Merrily seriously hoping that she was lying. Dexter smirked at the last one, telling Jane he’d probably see her there sometime. Maybe he didn’t think of himself as being twice as old.

At about two-thirty, they heard a car pulling into the vicarage drive and Jane sprang up, conspicuously relieved.

‘It’s Eirion.’

‘Jane’s boyfriend.’ Merrily stood up, too, moved to the door of the scullery. ‘Let’s leave them to it, huh, Dexter?’

‘Boyfriend?’ Dexter looked like he’d been short-changed.

Merrily held open the office door. She was still in her dog collar and the Morning Worship kit, minus surplice, and this was probably for the best – too much informality could well convey the wrong impression to an overweight, dough-faced man of probably thirty-plus who seriously imagined someone Jane’s age could fancy him.

They went in and sat down, facing one another across the desk, like one of them had come for a job. On the desk: computer, answering machine, phone, Bible, sermon book.

Now what, Lew?

This... is at the heart of spiritual healing – taking the time to know people, making small deductions. How many doctors have the time or the patience to do that now – talking and considering and leaving time for small leaps of inspiration?

She had a cigarette half out of the packet when Dexter blandly shook his head, making wiping motions with his hands, his lower lip projecting like an outlet pipe. She pushed the cigarette back into the packet, wondering how he survived in the clubs. Putting the Silk Cut packet out of reach. We suffer, Jeavons had said.

An hour passed. It was growing dark.

Dexter was talking about the collapse of his engagement two years ago – how it had really knocked him sideways to learn that his girlfriend, Farah, had been seeing another bloke for months, apparently weighing up which of them was the best bet and then deciding, for some weird reason of her own, that it wasn’t Dexter.

Bitch. Made you stop trusting women, Dexter said. Made you want to start scoring a few points of your own. Dexter had hit the clubs. Shagger Harris, the foreman started calling him, down the tyre depot. Dexter grinned, looking down at the Bible on Merrily’s desk.

If we take the time to absorb what people are telling us about themselves, directly and indirectly, and we are in a suitable state of relaxation – a contemplative state – then the clues they come together and a feeling – or a word – sometimes drops into our minds.

‘How old are you, Dexter?’

‘Me? Twenny-nine, now. Soon be thirty. Yeah, I know I look younger.’

‘Nobody special since Farah? Just casual stuff?’

‘Just casual sex,’ Dexter said.

‘Doesn’t the asthma...?’ Merrily broke off, embarrassed.

Dexter wasn’t. ‘Naw, they reckons it’s stress brings it on, look. Well, I only gets stressed-out when I en’t having no luck. Most times I can go all night, know what I mean? Don’t get no problems that way.’ He smiled at her. ‘Funny thing, that, ennit?’

Merrily leaned back. ‘You don’t really think this is going to help you, do you?’

Dexter sniffed. ‘Like I say, if it keeps the old woman quiet, it’s something. No offence meant. I’m not much of a believer. Can’t help that, can I?’

‘No. If you try and force yourself to believe, that only causes... stress.’

‘Doctor says I’ve gotter avoid that. People gives me stress, I don’t bother with ’em no more.’

‘Do you remember the first one?’

‘You what?’

‘The first asthma attack you ever had.’

He shook his head. ‘Dunno.’

‘Do you remember how old you were? Or has it always been a problem?’

‘’Bout twelve, thirteen.’ He didn’t look at her. She felt a tightening of the air between them. ‘Do it matter?’

‘I was just wondering what might’ve brought it on. If there was a particular... emotional problem that might’ve caused it. I mean, I don’t know what Alice told you, but I’m not any kind of medical expert. I’m just looking for... maybe something we can focus on in our prayers.’

‘Prayers?’ He looked at her now. ‘Strange, a nice-looking woman like you being a vicar and going on about prayers and that.’ He looked down at her breasts. ‘You must’ve been quite young when you had your daughter.’

‘What do you think about when you’re having an asthma attack?’

‘Eh?’

‘What goes through your mind?’

‘Sorter question’s that?’

‘I don’t know, it just came into my head. Nobody ask you that before? The doctors?’

‘Why would they?’

‘I’d just like to know what it’s like.’

He stared at her defiantly. ‘It’s like you’re drinking a glass of milk, and it turns into fuckin’ concrete halfway down your throat. That’s what it’s like.’

‘Thank you.’ Sounded like an image that went way back. A childhood image.

‘Don’t you get me going,’ Dexter said. ‘If I starts thinkin’ about it, I’ll get stressed.’

He wasn’t much more than a big silhouette now – wide shoulders, a pointed head. It was dark enough to put on the lamp. She reached out automatically, then paused, with a finger on the button of the Anglepoise.

‘And I don’t want people talkin’ about me in the church,’ Dexter said. ‘She said you was just gonner... I dunno, just do the healin’.’

‘It wouldn’t be like that, Dexter – people talking about you. It’s just, you know, to give me some guidance. Everything you tell me is totally confidential. Just between the two of us.’

‘Nothing to tell.’

‘Have you really not been in a church since your christening? No weddings? Funerals?’

He didn’t reply. In the silence, she thought his breath had coarsened. She tapped the Anglepoise button, still didn’t press it down. The directional light might make this seem too much like an old-style police interrogation. She thought of the basement interview rooms, opposite the cells at Hereford police headquarters, the ventilator grilles high on the walls, no windows. You didn’t need to be asthmatic to feel you couldn’t breathe down there.

‘You ever been in bother with the police, Dexter?’

It just came out, on the back of the thought.

‘Eh?’

‘Look, I’m sorry if that was—’

‘I fuckin’ knew it.’ Dexter was pushing back the chair.

‘I’m sorry.’ With difficulty, she didn’t move. ‘I don’t know why I said that.’

a feeling – or a word – sometimes drops into our minds.

Dexter was on his feet, a terrifying rattle in his breath.

‘It was out of order,’ Merrily said. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘I dunno...’ Dexter moved clumsily to the door. ‘Dunno what she’s been tellin’ you, that ole bat.’ He had his inhaler out. ‘But fuck this for a game of soldiers.’

When Eirion tried to ease Jane back onto the bed, she just couldn’t go for it. Not with Mum two floors below, doing what she was doing. Doing the business, doing the priest bit, whatever she perceived that was today.

‘I really worry about her now.’ Jane sat on the edge of the bed, with her elbows on her knees.

‘It’s probably reciprocated tenfold,’ Eirion said.

‘I’m serious. The Jenny Box thing, that whole affair, it really messed her up – this woman in desperate need of support, sitting on awful secrets, and Mum not being there for her when it came to a head.’

‘She couldn’t know, though, Jane, could she?’

‘It doesn’t matter, she still feels responsible. Male priests can be aloof from it all – if they can get a few bums on pews then they feel they still have a role and a bit of status. Women, everything that goes wrong they take it as their fault.’

‘Isn’t that slightly sexist?’ Eirion said.

‘And with Mum you’ve got this constant self-questioning – all this, “Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing to try and fill His bloody sandals?” ’

Eirion came and sat close to Jane, bending forward to peer into her face.

‘I’m not upset,’ Jane said, ‘just in case you were thinking I might be in need of a groin to cry on.’

‘So what is she doing?’

‘Huh?’

‘Down there, with this bloke.’

‘I think she’s been invited to cure whatever it is that’s causing him to keep sucking his inhaler.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘OK.’ Jane let him take her hand. ‘It started with Ann-Marie Herdman. It’s all round the village that Ann-Marie Herdman was cured of something very nasty – that she may or may not have had – after Mum prayed for her. Now, if it had been a regular prayer for the sick, in the course of a normal service, nobody would’ve said a word. But because it was at one of the mysterious new Sunday-night sessions where there are weird things like – woooh – meditation... then it must be... you know?’

‘She’s teaching meditation now?’

‘In a simplistic Christian way. Nothing esoteric. I didn’t realize how far it had got until I went down the shop a couple of hours ago for some stuff for sandwiches, and there were these two women talking about it to Brenda, who’s Ann-Marie’s mum. I mean, I knew about Ann-Marie, but I thought it was just another NHS cock-up. I didn’t realize Mum was in the frame as... God, I can’t bear it. And if I can’t bear it, how does she feel?’

‘They’re saying she has healing skills?’

‘It’s the way people are, that’s all. Always desperate for evidence of miracles. It’s like when all these idiots form queues to worship a potato with the face of Jesus. One of the women said Alice Meek had brought her nephew in to have the vicar pray for him to be healed, and I’m imagining some little kid, and I’m thinking, Oh God, this is terrible, that’s all she needs. Then Mum turns up with this big jerk with the inhaler who keeps leering at me and accidentally rubbing his leg against mine under the table. It’d be laughable if it wasn’t so... not funny.’

‘So what exactly is she doing?’

‘If she’s got any sense, Irene, she’s explaining to him that she’s unfortunately become the focus for a load of superstitious bollocks put about by old women with nothing better to occupy their minds. And then maybe suggest to this guy – Dexter, for heaven’s sake – that they say a quick prayer together but don’t expect to be throwing his inhaler into the river just yet.’

Eirion thought about this. He was Welsh; a large number of them still took religion seriously. ‘But she’s a priest,’ he said.

‘Er... yes.’

‘Don’t you see? She has to acknowledge at least the possibility of miracles. She has to accept that God can do it, and that she could be a channel for it. She can’t just walk away from it if anybody thinks there’s a small chance. You know?’

Jane sighed. ‘It’s a fine line.’

‘It’s not that fine, Jane.’

‘The big joke...’ Jane stared at the Mondrian walls – big plaster squares in the timber framing that she’d painted in primary colours. ‘The big joke is that women think getting ordained was some huge coup for their sex. The fact is, it’s the crappiest job there is, and it’s getting worse all the time, as society gets more and more secular and cynical. It’s obvious that the ordination of women was actually a subtle conspiracy by the male clergy, desperately searching for fall guys as everything around them collapses into some like... pre-Armageddon bleakness.’

‘I thought you were over that.’ Eirion stood up and walked to the window. It had started snowing: not much, but it always looked worse from up here, especially at dusk, white on grey.

‘I have the occasional relapse,’ Jane said.

Eirion sighed. ‘So, do you want to know how to work this video camera, or what?’

Maybe Merrily should have realized that something was spinning out of control. Maybe, if she hadn’t been thinking about Dexter Harris, she would have been curious about the extra cars on the village square. She didn’t even notice them.

It was becoming unexpectedly cold – she was aware of that. She saw snowflakes clustered like moths around the fake gas-lamps on the square. As soon as she slid into church, wearing Jane’s old duffel coat over jeans, her black cashmere sweater and her smallest pectoral cross, she made sure that the heating was on full – checking that Uncle Ted hadn’t crept in and turned it down.

He hadn’t, for once, but she still felt a need to do more and lugged the little cast-iron Calor-gas stove out of the vestry, wheeling it to the bottom of the chancel steps. It wouldn’t make much difference, temperature-wise, but a glimpse of real, orange flames kind of warmed the soul.

She felt domestic about the church tonight, wanting to turn the House of God into a big kitchen.

How she felt about Dexter Harris – that was different. The fact that he was so charmless and unresponsive somehow made it more important to try and help him. The fact that he didn’t want to be helped made it complicated: if there was something in his past that had caused or advanced the asthma, did she have any right, let alone responsibility, to try and find out about it?

Responsibility: where did it begin and where did it end?

Sitting alone in the choir stalls, she cleared Dexter from her mind, closed her eyes and became aware of her breathing, allowing it to regulate itself. A short meditation had become an essential preliminary to the Sunday-evening session. When she sat down here, twenty minutes before the start, she would usually have no real idea at all what form it would be taking. But when she stood up again, that no longer mattered.

It was the sounds of movement that brought her out of it. Too much movement. She knew her church; she knew her congregations and the sounds of them, familiar coughs and whispers.

When she came back into the body of the church, standing next to the faintly hissing gas stove, it was like she was in some other parish, staring out at faces she didn’t recognize: a woman with a baby, two teenage girls. And in the aisles, two wheelchairs, one occupied by a boy of about eleven and the other by a woman in her fifties with a tartan rug over her knees.

There was a shuffling quiet in the church, everybody looking at Merrily, in her black sweater and her jeans, and she felt small, bewildered, desperate.

Fraudulent.

It was snowing so hard that Eirion had to leave. Jane had been hoping he wouldn’t notice until it was too late, so he’d have to spend the night, but he’d borrowed his stepmother’s car again, needed to get it back to Abergavenny.

Jane stood at the front door, cuddling Ethel the cat and watching through the bare trees as he drove away, red lights reflected in the half-inch of unsullied snow on Church Street. Much of what he’d told her about the camera she was sure she hadn’t really taken in, but she’d made notes. She ought to practise with the gear before she went back to Stanner. In normal circumstances she could ask Mum to help, perhaps record an interview with her, with the external mike plugged in. Except that, because of the nature of what she might be shooting up at Stanner, it wasn’t wise even to mention it.

Christianity was a minefield. You could talk about spirituality but not spiritualism, open yourself to spiritual healing but never spirit healing. If she told Mum about the White Company, she’d be letting herself in for one of those long, serious talks, ending with the usual warnings: Well, it’s up to you, you’re intelligent and old enough to make up your own mind about what you get involved in, but...

The rest unsaid, the word ‘betrayal’ never passing between them.

The phone was ringing. Normally, she’d let the machine grab it, but she felt like talking to somebody. She stepped back inside and shut the front door, putting Ethel down and dashing through the kitchen into the scullery to snatch up the receiver.

‘Ledwardine Vicarage.’

‘Mrs Watkins?’ Female voice.

‘No, she’s in church. Can I help?’

‘Oh... no... It’s all right, I’ll call back.’

‘Can I give her a message?’

‘No, it’s all right, really.’

The caller hung up, just as Jane recognized the voice. Was sure she’d recognized the voice.

She dialled 1471.

You were called at seven-fourteen today. The caller withheld—’

Jane hung up. Two chairs were pulled away from the desk, as if Mum and Dexter had left in a hurry. Jane sat down in one.

Talk about betrayal...

Danny tried to listen to some music, but The Foo Fighters made his headache worse. It was the first time this had happened; normally, the heavier the music the more it relaxed him. In the end he watched telly with Greta, listening to Heartbeat with his eyes shut, identifying the sixties numbers on the soundtrack until he fell asleep.

And Greta woke him again, with the cordless phone.

‘No,’ Danny mumbled. ‘Please, God.’

‘Gwilym Bufton, it is. I told him you wasn’t well, but he said you’d want to hear this.’

‘Gwilym?’ Danny struggled to a sitting position. First time he’d had a call from the feed dealer since he’d given up livestock, which Gwilym saw as an act of treachery.

‘’Ow’re you, boy?’

‘Half dead.’

‘That’s good. Looks like we’re in for some snow, ennit?’

‘Sure t’ be.’

‘Not a problem for you n’more. In fact, it’ll be contract work with the council, you and Gomer. Got your plough fitted?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Good business, Gomer’s.’

Danny waited, his head throbbing. Bloody trouble with Border folk, took for ever to get to the point. For ever later, Gwilym gets there.

‘What you been doing to Sebbie, then?’

‘What have I been doing—?’

‘You and the Berrows boy.’

‘What’s he saying we done?’

‘En’t said a thing. Havin’ a go at him, though, wasn’t you? Not a happy man in the pub afterwards.’

‘Glad to hear it.’

‘Just wonderin’ what else you might’ve yeard.’

‘Like?’ This needed care; Sebbie was a valued client of Gwilym’s.

‘Worried man, Danny.’

‘Din’t look worried to me.’

‘Well, he don’t, do he? All bluff and bluster. You remember Zelda? Zelda Morgan, from the Min of Ag, as was?’

‘Who wouldn’t?’

‘Sebbie been giving Zelda one for quite a while,’ Gwilym said. ‘Her lives in hope, poor cow. Distant relative of my good lady, see.’

‘I’d make it even more distant, her becomes Mrs Dacre.’

Gwilym laughed, just a bit. ‘He don’t sleep much.’

‘Zelda’s complainin’?’

‘Zelda’s bothered, Danny. Wakes in the night, there’s Sebbie, bollock-naked at the window. Shaking. Shaking like with the cold. And it is cold in Sebbie’s bedroom, but it never bothers him as a rule.’

‘Mabbe not as much as the price of heating-oil.’

As well as feed, Gwilym was the agent for an oil depot in Hereford.

‘So he’s going – this is Sebbie – he’s going – “Look, look...” Drags Zelda out of bed, points down the valley, over Berrows’s ground. “See it, see it?” ’

‘See what?’

‘Her don’t know. He won’t say. And Zelda don’t see nothing. Moonlit fields, that’s all. Couple nights later, wakes her up again. “You hear that? You hear that?” Her can’t year nothing, ’cept for Sebbie bleating like a ewe in labour. This is confidential, Danny.’

Sure it was. Fellers like Gwilym doing the rounds, farm to farm, was the reason this valley leaked like a smashed sump.

‘So what’s this gotter do with me?’ Danny said, patient as he could manage with a bad head. ‘If Dacre’s losin’ it, he’s losin’ it.’

‘And then Sebbie’s going, “It’s coming out of Berrows’s ground... Berrows’s ground.” ’

Danny’s hand tightened on the cordless. He said casually, ‘Good to know the bastard recognizes the boundary now.’

‘He says, “It’s Berrows. Berrows and that bitch.” ’

‘Zelda tell you this herself?’

‘Zelda’s pretty scared, Danny. Her asks Sebbie about it next morning, over breakfast, bugger hits the roof. Sweeps the bloody cups off the table, everything smashed. Thought he was gonner hit her. White with rage.’

‘He’s always bloody white, Gwilym, it’s the skin he’s got.’

‘So, like, Zelda says to me, “Can you ask Jeremy Berrows ’bout this? I can’t never talk to him.” ’

‘Which is why you’re askin’ me,’ Danny said.

‘En’t real sure what I’m asking, Danny. You’re the nearest he’s got to a friend – do any of this make sense?’

Danny thought about it.

‘No,’ he said after a bit. ‘Do me one favour, Gwilym, don’t spread this around. Gimme a chance to find out what I can. Or am I too late already?’

‘You knows me, boy.’

‘Aye,’ Danny said. That was the bloody trouble.

‘What was that about?’ Greta said when he’d clicked off.

‘Feller Gwilym knows with a David Brown tractor for sale. I said I’d pass the word on to Gomer.’

‘In other words, keep your nose out, Greta,’ Greta said.

Danny stared into the reddening wood-stove.

16

Responding to Images

FRANNIE BLISS, OF Hereford CID, called back on Monday afternoon, just as the light was fading.

‘Not a career criminal, Merrily, I can tell you that much.’

‘Didn’t really think he would be.’ Merrily brought the cordless and a mug of tea to the kitchen table. ‘I just thought, with mention of all the clubs... drugs?’

‘Certainly not a recognized dealer and if he was dealing he doesn’t sound bright enough that we wouldn’t know. Doesn’t sound like he could run very fast, either, if we were after him.’

‘Sorry.’ She pulled over the ashtray, fed up now. ‘Shouldn’t have asked you.’

And wouldn’t even have considered an approach to any other copper, but by now she and the Mersey exile Bliss knew too many of each other’s flaws for him to sell her down the Wye.

As for the ethics, it went like this: she was following through on something that might help Dexter Harris with his medical condition. She had nothing to tell Bliss that might get Dexter nicked. She hadn’t even told him why she wanted to know if Hereford Division had ever heard of Dexter, and he hadn’t asked her.

‘Mind you,’ he said, ‘I’ve known a few disabled villains over the years. Only difference is they tend to have less conscience. Feeling the world owes them. A wheelchair ramp at the town hall is often considered insufficient recompense.’

Merrily found a grin. ‘It’s so reassuring to talk to a man for whom the pit of human depravity can have no floor.’

‘Ah, you’re following your nose. You’re a priest. How can you know if a gut feeling isn’t a tip-off from God?’

‘That’s very empathetic, Francis.’

‘Yeh, well...’ Bliss was a Catholic from what was probably still the most Catholic city in England. He knew all the questions priests asked themselves with little hope of a convincing answer.

‘So, how are... things?’ Merrily said.

‘Kirsty? We’re not out the woods yet, but we’re having what you might call a trial reconciliation. It’s a start. The Job: I’m not on any shortlist for DCI as yet, but the word is that the main man in Worcester who, as you know, does not love me like a brother, may be on the top-detectives’ transfer list, with an eye on Thames Valley. So that could be goodish news.’

‘I’m glad.’

‘And how’s the healing coming along?’ Bliss said.

‘Sorry?’

‘One of the DCs, his wife’s had persistent back trouble. Done the rounds of osteopaths and chiropractors, getting nowhere with it. He reckoned somebody had told his missus they ought to come and talk to the vicar of Ledwardine.’

She stared blankly out of the window at the black, spidery apple trees. This could not be happening.

‘Might I have touched on a sore point, by chance?’ Bliss said.

Merrily sighed at length, lit a cigarette, then told him about the Sunday nights, Ann-Marie and Jeavons. The whole sub-Messianic mess.

‘About fifteen years ago,’ Bliss said, ‘when I was a young plod, there was a noise-nuisance complaint at this chapel up near Formby. I go in, and there’s one of these evangelical fellers clutching some poor bastard’s head in his hands and shaking it from side to side, screaming to heaven for some action. Whole place in uproar. Well... no disrespect intended, Merrily, but that doesn’t sound like your thing.’

‘Last night, my usual congregation had doubled. Doubled, Frannie. Two wheelchairs in the aisle. Desperate people, and the health service in perpetual crisis. But... me? What am I?’

‘What did you do?’

She blew out smoke and coughed. ‘What usually happens on the Sunday-night thing is we drag out some pews and arrange ourselves into a rough circle. Too many last night for that. No spiritual calm, no intimate atmosphere – only this... overpowering sense of... need. I just had to stand there in front of them all, in my jeans, feeling like a useless pillock, doing my best to explain that the Diocese was currently taking steps to create a proper healing network.’

‘Are they?’

‘God knows. We did some prayers, but no wheelchairs were abandoned. There was a general feeling like at the pictures once when I was a kid and the projector broke down before the cavalry arrived. Never felt so inadequate – let down the Church, the Women’s Ministry, the people for whom this might have been a last hope. Afterwards, this very nice little woman comes up, says how mortified she is about all these outsiders invading our lovely quiet time. What do you say?’

‘Bit of a shite situation, Merrily. I’m really sorry. However, this Dexter Harris, with the asthma...?’

‘His auntie cleans the church midweek. I’d guess she feels responsible because other people don’t find him terribly lovable. What can I do? I could just pray for him, or I could try and do what Jeavons does and look for an underlying something, a hidden source. Let God in the back way.’

‘Forgive me, this guy sounds like a nutter.’

‘But what if he’s right? What if it works?’

‘All right, look,’ Bliss said, ‘what I’ll do is, I’ll run Dexter past an ancient custody sergeant called Melvyn. Melvyn’s old-Force, very, very discreet and he’s gorra brain like an antique computer – feed him a name, it goes clank, clank, clank for a few hours, and if there’s a connection with anything notably unlawful over the past many years, he’ll deliver eventually, like ticker tape. His specialist subject is Prostitution in Hereford since Nell Gwynne.’

‘That’s a big one.’

‘Leave it with me,’ Bliss said.

After they cut the call, Merrily considered phoning Sophie to see how soon they could arrange a meeting of all the Hereford clergy who’d declared an interest in the Healing Ministry, not including those who wanted nothing to do with Deliverance, Lew Jeavons and women.

How many would that leave? Herself, probably.

The phone went again: Jane, out of breath. Behind her, the patient rumbling of school buses.

‘Mum, look... screwed up. Left vital books for Eng Lit at Stanner, so I... figured I should get on Clancy’s bus and pick them up. That OK?’

Stanner. In a matter of weeks, the whole axis of Jane’s life had shifted.

Merrily frowned. ‘And you’d get home how?’

‘I called Gomer. He’s with Danny, on a blocked-soakaway crisis at New Radnor. He could pick me up around seven, which would be perfect.’

‘So you do want to come home, eventually?’ Merrily said.

‘That a serious question?’

On Saturday, Jane, who didn’t like killing a tree for Christmas, had collected some dead branches, which they were going to spray silver and gold to arrange in the hall. She supposed she’d have to spray them herself now.

‘I don’t really know,’ she said.

A few minutes later, rinsing her mug at the sink, she heard a song of Lol’s in her head, the one he’d written in – she’d always supposed – a state of bitter despair about ever getting into her bed.

Did you suffocate your feelings

As you redefined your goals

And vowed to undertake the cure of souls?

She wiped the mug and hung it from the shelf over the sink. And thought about Lol and told herself she was too old for one-night stands.

She needed emotional back-up, someone to hold at night, when everything else was falling away: Jane growing up, moving on, and the cure of souls – the job, the calling – wobbling on the rim of the irrational.

Snowy dusk on the Border, but the moody pines rearing behind Stanner Hall were still black and green, dark guardians. The snow had stopped after a couple of hours last night, but it had frozen by morning, and Stanner was locked into winter, the witch’s-hat towers shining like white lanterns under an icy half-formed moon.

Such a lovely, lovely shot.

Jane leaned back, shoulders braced against one of the gateposts, both hands supporting the camcorder, holding it tight but not too tight. Sure, Irene, avoid hand-held. But if she wasted time rushing up to the hotel for the tripod, the dusk would be over and this incredible image would be history.

Jane triggered the shot, trying to breathe evenly. All day at school, she’d kept the equipment concealed in her bag to avoid attracting a crowd of sad boys with Quentin Tarantino fantasies. At lunchtime, in the school library, she’d studied her notes on Eirion’s instructions and added to them, remembering things he’d said.

Make sure your shots are long enough – remember you’re recording what might be a familiar scene to you for people who’ve never seen it before, so hang in there.

No hardship lingering on this one: pure Baskerville Hall. Was this what Conan Doyle had been picturing when he wrote about dull light through mullioned windows, holes in the ivy? OK, there was less ivy here, and it wasn’t built of black granite; if he hadn’t altered some of the minor details he’d have given it away.

She contained the urge to zoom in on one of the towers, holding the shot instead until she became aware of Clancy Craven shivering, kind of miserably – which, in that wildly expensive Austrian ski-jacket, Clancy was definitely not entitled to do.

Jane lowered the camera. ‘You can almost hear the distant howling, Clan.’ She threw back her head and howled at the cautious moon. The howl was unexpectedly resonant, echoing back off the Hall.

Clancy said, ‘Don’t.’

She had her shoulders hunched and her hands deep in the pockets of her blue jacket. Jane looked up to see if she was serious. Clan, though younger, was quite a bit taller than Jane. She was bony now, but you could tell she’d be like Natalie in a year or two, with a bonus of natural blonde hair. Clearly destined for serious beauty, this was a girl who really ought to be happier than she was.

Clancy shivered again, although this one was probably faked. ‘You really like spooky things, don’t you, Jane?’

‘Doesn’t everyone?’ Jane squeezed the camera back into her overnight bag, Poor Irene – he’d have been gutted to the point of self-mutilation if she’d told him that Antony was bunging her a hundred a week for this. Money for jam.

I don’t,’ Clancy said. ‘I never have. All the kids are on about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. I can’t watch that stuff.’

They had nothing in common, did they? Jane shouldered the bag. Of course, she’d have to tell Mum about the hundred a week at some stage. Maybe she could actually spend the money on, say, a new automatic washing machine to forestall the Second Great Flood.

‘Why do they have to try and invent things to scare us, when there’s so much...’ Clancy shook her head and began to trudge up the drive, keeping out of the slippery tyre tracks in the snow, and Jane started giving her some attention, because something was very much bothering this kid.

The fact that she was here at all tonight was unusual. Normally, Clancy would go straight home to Jeremy’s farm. On the bus just now, she’d told Jane that Natalie wanted her to come up to the hotel from now on, so that they could go home together in the car. Jane wondered if there could be some problem with Jeremy. Older men, teenage girls in the house – these things happened, right?

‘Your mum’s not scared of anything is she, though?’ Jane probed, catching up with her.

Clancy stopped, fingering the drawstrings at the waist of her costly ski-jacket. Most of Clancy’s clothes were expensive. ‘Only thing she’s scared of is something happening to me.’

‘They’re all scared of that. Erm, I’ve never liked to ask...’ Jane zipped up her fleece. It was very cold; you didn’t notice the conditions when you were working creatively. ‘What happened to your dad?’

Clancy started walking again. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Oh.’

‘He wasn’t anybody special. Just some guy who got her pregnant.’

‘You mean like at a party or something, when everybody was pissed out of their heads?’

‘Something like that. Your dad was killed, wasn’t he?’

‘Car crash on the motorway. With his assistant, Karen. Assistant and lover. He was a lawyer. Having a thing on the side. Both killed.’ Jane was aware of the subject having been changed, but she was casual enough about this now. ‘Bit of a bastard, my dad. Obviously, I remember him as being really nice, but I don’t remember that much, as the years pass. I was still quite little when he died.’

‘I suppose your mother hasn’t been with many guys since. Being a vicar.’

‘It’s what makes it hard getting this thing with Lol beyond first base. She doesn’t know what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to play it. Women priests haven’t been around long enough to establish a precedent.’

‘Excuse me?’

With her being so tall, sometimes you forgot Clancy was a couple of years less experienced and sat in classes with little children. ‘I meant, there seem to be no rules on whether it’s OK for a female parish priest to be having a conspicuous relationship with a man if neither of them’s married.’

‘They could always get married.’

‘Lifetime commitment? These are two very timid people, Clancy.’

Jane paused at the bend in the drive, where the Hall suddenly opened out in front of them, panels of light from the ground-floor bay windows imprinted on the clean, white lawns. Was this worth another shot?

Nah – face it, none of this was going to get used, anyway. Antony would deal with the arty stuff himself. All he wanted from Jane were snatches of what Eirion called ‘actuality’ – short exchanges, things happening around the place, people in motion. Get Amber in, and Natalie, when you can, Antony had told her. But be discreet about it, they’re not performers like Ben.

Clancy said, ‘It’s the first time we’ve lived with a man. It’s strange... not like I imagined.’

Jane wanted to ask, how... why? But they were getting too close to the Hall to approach an issue this big. The high pines were all around them now. It was like a medieval castle: the pines were the curtain wall and the lawns sloped up to the Hall, which was like the keep on its mound in the centre. In the dark, Stanner looked much older than Victorian. There obviously had been more ivy on the walls than there was now; you could see where it had been cut away for repairs, so maybe when Conan Doyle was here...

‘Something happened at the farm, the other night,’ Clancy said. ‘Something horrible.’

Jane stopped, a hand on Clancy’s arm. ‘You mean between Nat and Jeremy?’

No!’ Clancy shook her off. ‘Why do you always have to think of things like that? She was at work, anyway, she was here. It was Saturday night, and Jeremy and me were watching a video... and suddenly there was this blinding light through the window and all this shouting, and these men were outside the farmhouse, with guns and a big spotlight thing.’

‘The shooters – the ones Ben’s been getting hassle from?’

‘I don’t know. They were just... It was like a raid.’ Clancy stood at the edge of the lawn, looking over her shoulder. ‘They came out of the trees with their guns, and they were like surrounding the old barn opposite the farmhouse. They were going to shoot Flag.’

‘The dog?’

‘They would have!’ Clancy’s voice was raw and strained in the razory air. ‘They’d have shot him. It was like they owned the place, and they could do what they wanted. Jeremy told me to stay inside, but I couldn’t. I went out after Flag. And then Jeremy’s mate Danny was there, and one of them hit him with his gun.’

‘Danny Thomas?

‘Long hair and a scraggy beard?’

‘That’s him.’

‘They hit him on the head, over an eye and made it bleed, and then they shoved his car into the ditch.’

‘Jesus. Is he all right?’

‘I think so, but—’

Jane was appalled. ‘Have you told the cops?’

‘Jeremy was funny about it. He didn’t want to talk about it afterwards.’

‘But he told your mum?’

‘That’s why she won’t let me walk down to the farm on my own any more. I think she and Jeremy think they’ll come back.’

‘Does Ben know about this?’

‘Don’t say a word! Jane, please, you haven’t to say a word! I’m not supposed to talk about it.’ Clancy started walking rapidly towards the house, face splattered with light from the big windows.

Jane thought of the men that she and Ben and Antony had encountered at Hergest, who claimed they’d been hired by a local farmer to get rid of foxes. If one of his neighbours was involved, this might explain why Jeremy didn’t want to cause any trouble.

‘Clan, did they have Valleys accents?’

‘What?’

‘Were they from South Wales?’

‘Might’ve been. I’m not sure.’

‘You should tell Ben. He’ll get something done without implicating Jeremy. Ben doesn’t—’

No!

‘He doesn’t care about treading on people’s toes. He likes that.’

‘Please, Jane...’ As they reached the Hall, Clancy was nearly in tears. ‘I wouldn’t’ve told you if I thought you were gonna go telling tales. I just... suddenly everything’s a mess. It was OK in summer when we came, but now everything’s gone crap. I don’t like the people round here. Wish we could go back to Shropshire.’

‘Where were you in Shropshire?’

‘Craven Arms. It’s between Shrewsbury and Ludlow.’

‘Yeah, I know. Clancy Craven, of Craven Arms, huh?’

Clancy didn’t react.

Jane said, ‘Look, you’ve got to keep me informed of anything else that happens, OK?’ And Clancy nodded, looking relieved. Jane knew what it was like in these small Border communities: you wondered whether the normal rules of Western civilization applied or if you were part of some tight, taciturn little Anglo-Welsh banana republic. Well, she’d be seeing Gomer in a few hours, and if he didn’t know about this, as Danny’s partner...

The very last of the daylight was soaking away into night-cloud, and Jane was glad she’d stopped to do that moody, glistening shot. Even if it never got used, the fact that she’d thought to capture it showed she was like responding to images.

Despite the weather, there were extra cars on the car park. Apart from Jeremy’s old Daihatsu, used by Nat, and Ben’s MG, covered with old carpet where the soft-top was jammed, there were three of them she’d never seen before.

‘Guests? On a Monday?’

‘They’re not staying,’ Clancy said. ‘They’re just here for a meeting. Mum has to run the bar. She was moaning that they probably wouldn’t be drinkers anyway, people like that.’

‘People like what?’ Jane could see some figures through the bay window of the lighted lounge. They were standing around like they were making small talk. Ben was one of them, and then Jane saw a woman with pale hair, and a small thrill rippled through her. ‘Oh wow... it’s them, isn’t it?’

‘I don’t want to know,’ Clancy said, miserable again.

‘It’s the White Company, isn’t it?’ Jane had like just known she had to be here tonight. Psychic or what?

‘People round here are sick,’ Clancy said.

This time, Frannie Bliss was calling her from his home, out near Leominster. She could hear his kids in the background, squabbling over something that made techno-bleeps.

‘Merrily. Just had a call from Melvyn. He was pretty sure about this, but he likes to check his facts. There is a story, but it’s not quite what you thought. And it goes way back. The last time Dexter Harris saw the inside of an interview room was nearly twenty years ago.’

‘When he was nine?’

‘Twelve, actually. And looked older, Melvyn says. Big lad, even then, which was how he wound up in the grown-up felons’ interview room. Hang on a sec, Merrily. I said, No... Daddy will fix it later... Gerrout, or I’ll nick the pair of yer for aggravated assault. Let me shut the door, Merrily.’ Bliss put the phone down and when he came back he said, ‘I had my way, the age of criminal responsibility’d be reduced to four. You might want to make notes.’

Merrily found a pen, pulled over the sermon pad.

‘Right,’ Bliss said, ‘I’ll give you the bottom line first: Dexter killed somebody.’

17

Detestable to the Lord

WHEN SHE WAS about two, maybe three, someone had given Jane this vintage nursery-rhyme book, made out of thick cloth, with serrated edges to the pages. On the front was a watercolour picture of a little girl in an apron who had the saddest face Jane had ever seen. Both the little girl and the book itself used to make her feel deeply upset, and she remembered being convinced it had been owned by a child who had been so unhappy that she’d just died of it.

This was one of her earliest memories, and it faded up when she and Clancy padded into Stanner Hall and saw Amber Foley standing at the top of the kitchen steps, wearing a vinyl apron with a watercolour-type picture on it of a cottage on a hill. Amber hadn’t heard them come in, and she was staring across at the closed door of the residents’ lounge. Her hair was pulled back and her skin looked like thin white eggshell about to crack.

Jane thought of life-threatening misery and a voice on the phone. She swallowed. Amber saw Clan and jumped, then blinked and smiled – weak sun reflected in a stagnant pond.

‘Oh, Clancy... I’ve sorted out a table for you in the kitchen to do your homework. Your mum says—’ Becoming aware of Jane, Amber looked bewildered. Like, if this is Jane it must be Friday.

‘I left some things, Amber, on Saturday. School books.’

‘Oh, Jane, we could’ve got Natalie to send them with Clan—’

Amber looked hard at her, obviously aware that Jane would have known this. One of the wall-lamp bulbs had blown, and unfamiliar shadows made the lobby look dull and brownish and semi-derelict. Good location, crap place to live. How often had Amber stood alone here, wondering how she’d ever got herself into this? And realizing, of course, that she hadn’t; Ben had.

Amber flicked a glance at Clancy, who said, ‘I’d better get on with it. I’ll see you tomorrow, Jane,’ and meekly walked past Amber and down the steps to the kitchen. Doesn’t want to know, Jane thought. If there’s something bad or contentious going down, she just doesn’t want to know about it. We have absolutely nothing in common.

When they could hear the kid’s footsteps on the kitchen flags, Jane nodded at the closed door of the residents’ lounge.

‘The White Company, right?’

‘Ben’s in there with them. And Natalie. He’d be better off married to Nat, don’t you think?’

‘No, that’s ridiculous.’

‘You know what they’re doing, don’t you?’ Amber said.

‘Well, yeah, I... You’ve got a problem with it?’

Amber straightened up and flattened a bulge in her apron. ‘You knew they were coming, didn’t you? That’s why you’re here.’

‘Well, no, actually.’

‘You couldn’t keep away.’

‘No, it—’ Oh hell, no point in letting this fester. ‘OK, if you want the absolute truth, Amber, the real reason I came is because I happened to pick up the phone last night. When you tried to call my mum?’

There was the jittery sound of polite laughter from behind the lounge door.

‘And when you recognized my voice,’ Jane said, ‘you got off the line as quick as you could. Only I’m quite good with voices.’

‘Jane, I—’

‘So if it’s something about me, I’d like to know, OK? Because I haven’t told her anything about all this, and it could get me in a lot of bother.’

Amber’s doll’s cheeks were colouring.

Jane sighed. ‘I suppose Ben told you what she did. Like, apart from being just a vicar?’

Amber nodded, losing what might have been a grateful smile inside a grimace.

‘Only, I didn’t know you were religious,’ Jane said.

‘I’m not. Not really. Just neurotic.’

Jane gestured at the lounge door. ‘About that?’

There was the sound of more merriment, Ben’s peal obvious.

‘None of this worries him in the slightest,’ Amber said. ‘He loves it, for the drama. He doesn’t believe in it for one minute, though obviously he won’t tell them that – he’ll be hamming it up in there for all he’s worth. It’s how guys like him and Antony persuade people to do things on camera that are going to get them ridiculed in thousands of homes. Because they don’t laugh. At the time.’

Jane’s eyebrows went up. ‘They’re not doing it now, are they – trying for Conan Doyle?’

I don’t know. I just think people like that are irresponsible, and the point is: it’s not their house, is it? It’s ours, God help us.’ Amber moved away from the vicinity of the lounge towards the reception area. ‘Look, I know it’s money, much needed. I know it’s part of Ben’s Great Scheme. But getting cranks like that involved – that’s the pits.’

‘You rang Mum for, like, support? Did you get through to her in the end?’

Amber swallowed a breath. ‘When Ben told me what your mother did, it seemed a bit too coincidental – like a sign. We neurotics, you know? No, I didn’t try again. Not after you answered the phone.’

‘Well...’ Jane raised her gaze to the flaking frieze around the walls. ‘If you’d wanted support you’d have got it, no problem. Why didn’t you just ask me? I could’ve told you exactly what she’d say. Like, at some point she’d drag out a slab of the Old Testament. “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practises divination or sorcery or witchcraft or pisses about with spells...” blah, blah... “Or who is a medium or spiritist or consults with the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord.” ’

‘That seems fairly unequivocal to me,’ Amber said. ‘Of course, I’m only a cook...’

‘Amber, for heaven’s sake, it’s Old Testament. You can find bits of the OT that suggest blokes are entitled to strangle their wives for being unfaithful. It was political – anything paranormal, the priests of Jehovah had to keep it to themselves, or bang goes the power base. But trying to contact poor old Arthur... I mean, come on.’

‘I just—’ Amber folded her arms. ‘Like I said, I’m not particularly religious. And, God knows, I’m certainly not psychic, although I don’t entirely doubt that other people can perceive things that are beyond me.’

‘Well, I have pagan instincts,’ Jane said with relish, ‘and I believe there’s masses in this area to be sensed by anyone with the balls to...’

She let the sentence trail, realizing how smug and insulting it must have sounded.

‘Well—’ An uncharacteristic anger glowed momentarily like filaments in Amber’s eyes. ‘For all your pagan instincts, Jane, you couldn’t get out of that room quick enough, could you?’

‘Room?’

‘The tower room. I didn’t particularly want to put you in that one, because we’d had a couple of people already who— But Ben said, Oh, don’t worry about young Jane. Far too down-to-earth. Jane’ll be fine.’

‘So you... know about that.’ She’d had the impression that Ben had not told Amber, who was negative enough about this place already.

‘And wish I didn’t,’ Amber said. ‘Ben laughs. He says every hotel has a room like that, and some people would even pay extra to sleep in it. If you remember, what you told us at the time was that you weren’t used to sleeping in a big room.’

‘Well, I—’

‘Only I happened to recall you telling me when you first came how you’d turned a huge attic at Ledwardine vicarage into your apartment and painted some big coloured squares on the walls – like some famous abstract artist?’

‘Mondrian.’ Oh God, she couldn’t even keep track of her own lies. ‘All right, I had a bad night. I felt... not very well. I mean, I never know when it’s my imagination. I’m sorry, Amber.’

‘Of course, I didn’t actually know at the time that it was Hattie Chancery’s room,’ Amber said.

Jane flung a glance into the well of the hall, where the staircase twisted out of sight. There were certain phrases you could feel like fingers up your spine – what Ben would call a frisson – and this was one: Hattie Chancery’s Room. The possessive. Present-tense. Oh God.

‘The Chancerys were the family who built this place, right?’

‘I think their name was originally Chance, but they altered it to sound more distinguished. Incomers from the Black Country. Industrial wealth, delusions of grandeur. Most of the big Victorian homes in this area seem to have been built by rich Midlanders, who wanted their own castles. The names are usually a giveaway. Big houses around here tend to be called “court”, from the Welsh. But they called this Stanner Hall to—’

‘Yeah, right. So Hattie Chancery was the one who killed her husband?’

‘So you knew.’

‘Not then.’

‘Because Ben only told me about this yesterday. He’d known for some time, but...’ Amber’s voice was brittle. ‘He thought the little woman might be frightened.’

‘But it wasn’t in that room, was it?’

‘Not the murder. That was in the grounds, I think. It isn’t talked about much. Probably overshadowed by the War at the time, and she was mentally ill, apparently.’

‘A madwoman?’

‘No, Jane, I think we’d all prefer mentally ill.’

‘So, like, what did people see in the room?’

‘Oh... one man said he saw the shape of a woman against the window and smelt— Look I’m not going into this now, all right?’

‘But that’s the reason you’re unhappy about the White Company, right?’

‘I just don’t think this is a happy place. But then, I’m only a cook.’

‘What did he smell, this guy?’

‘Alcohol... beer, I think.’

‘You thought maybe Mum could do something about this?’

‘Jane, look, it was just a knee-jerk thing. I was angry, all right?’

‘She’d just warn you not to let the White Company in. And you’d go along with that, but Ben—’

‘Shhh!’

Amber was looking over Jane’s shoulder. Jane turned and saw the lounge door opening, and Ben gliding out, his hair sheened back, his slim, black Edwardian jacket hanging loose. His Holmes kit. He’d worn part of the Holmes kit to welcome the White Company. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

‘Amber, where’s—? Jane!’ Ben looked fit, she thought, and energized, and showed no particular surprise that she was here on a Monday, only satisfaction that she was. ‘Jane, you wouldn’t by any chance have brought along that little Handycam Largo gave you to humiliate me?’

‘Well, actually—’

‘In which case, fetch it, darling.’ Ben clapped his hands. ‘Fetch it at once. We’ve got Alistair here, the medium, and we’re testing various rooms to work out which is the best place to try and contact, ah...’

‘And where are you proposing to go next?’ Amber said.

‘Amber, it’s a positive thing,’ Ben said casually.

Oh no,’ Amber said.

‘Amber—’

‘Understand this, Ben.’ Something passed swiftly, like the shadow of a small bird, across Amber’s white doll’s face. ‘Those people will not go into my fucking kitchen.’

‘Maybe I could just describe these events to you without any comment,’ Merrily said. ‘And then perhaps you could just tell me what you think.’ Her ear was aching from phone use.

‘So formal,’ Canon Jeavons said.

‘I’ve been talking to a cop. It’s all forms and recorded interviews with them, now. All about covering yourself, and isn’t the Church going the same way?’

‘Oh happy day,’ Jeavons said. ‘All right, go ahead, Merrilee. Lay it on me.’

Inside her head the chorus started up.

Forgive me, this guy sounds like a nutter.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is to avoid this man and all he stands for.

If anyone’s on the edge of a crisis, Jeavons has been known to tip them over.

There was no harm in listening to what he had to say. The fact was, if she’d never met Jeavons she wouldn’t have dug into Dexter’s history, and she wouldn’t have uncovered what might be the underlying cause of his condition.

‘It’s about three boys from the Belmont area of Hereford.’ The brief, bleak notes in the sermon book lay in the lamplight pooled next to the Bible. ‘Two of them are brothers – Darrin and Roland Hook, aged thirteen and nine. Dexter Harris is their cousin. This is seventeen years ago, and he’s twelve.’

Seventeen years ago. The year Jane was born. The year she quit university and married Sean. They said she could come back and get her degree, but she’d had a feeling at the time that this wouldn’t happen. Law: it had never felt right – why on earth was she reading law? Parental pressure, at the time, and the influence of Uncle Ted, family solicitor. It’s a good degree to have, Merrily. Whatever you decide to do with your life, it will always be there for you.

Wasted years.

‘Belmont’s an expanding suburb south of the city, close to open country. Less so now, since they built the all-night Tesco and the drive-in McDonald’s and hundreds more houses and the Barnfield Trading estate, but you get the idea. You keep going and you’re on the open road down to Abergavenny.’

She was seeing it as she talked: this widened country lane above the Golden Valley, which always seemed so aptly named on summer evenings with harvested fields aglow as if lit from underneath.

This had all happened on a warm evening in August, approaching dusk. The three kids were exploring a half-finished building site, where some of the houses were already lived in. Darrin had a plan.

Gorra wire coat-hanger down his pants, Bliss had told her. So it wasn’t an impulse thing, and he chose well, just like a pro: new house with high fences. People have gone out, leaving their second car in the drive. A gift.

Darrin had learned the techniques from a boy at school – how to force the window and then apply the coat-hanger to the pop-up locks. Then the hot-wire bit. The only drawback was that Darrin didn’t know how to drive.

Which was where Dexter came in. ‘Taller than the others,’ Merrily told Jeavons. ‘An unusually big boy for twelve, so he could reach the pedals, no problem. Dozens of drivers must have seen this Fiesta weaving about, but there weren’t many mobile phones in those days, so it was a while before the police got on to them. Not that you could miss them by now, because it was getting dark and Dexter hadn’t thought about lights.’

‘Already I’m sensing no happy ending,’ Jeavons said.

‘The police picked up the trail on the hill down to Allensmore, when they were picking up speed. Dexter subsequently told the police that he’d been afraid to brake. He was once on his bike and went over the handlebars, and he had the idea that if he did it now he and Darrin would go through the windscreen – certainly a possibility as neither had a seat belt on. By now the police are behind them, siren going. Not too close – volatile situation, car full of kids.’

Dexter’s well hyped-up now, Frannie Bliss said, the traffic lads blasting away behind them, blue lights going. He’s gorra do something. Decides the best thing is to get off the big road, dump the car and run like buggery. Sees this turning up ahead, on the other side, into this narrow little country lane, bus shelter on the corner. Decides to go for it. Just like that. No indication. Big lorry coming towards them, but Dexter reckons he’s got plenty of time. An experienced motorist now – driven all of six miles on his own.

Stupid little gobshite spins the wheel, sends the Fiesta whizzing across the road. Amazingly, he doesn’t turn it over, but it’s well out of control, as you’d expect, and naturally he’s missing the turning, heading straight for the hedge. Now even at this point, if he’d left well alone, the car would just’ve gone through the hedge into the field where, as long as it avoided trees, it’d just be a cuts-and-bruises job.

Unfortunately, Dexter panics, stands on the brakes and the Fiesta stalls on the kerb, directly in the path of the oncoming lorry. Haulage vehicle. Melvyn doesn’t recall the exact tonnage, which is rare for Melvyn, but the driver was a Mr Evans, from Newport, carrying steel, and afterwards Mr Evans gives up his job, telling the coroner that he’ll never drive a lorry again as long as he lives.

‘The lorry had collided with the rear half of the Fiesta,’ Merrily said, ‘flattening it into the bus shelter, which collapsed. Both front doors sprang open, so Dexter and Darrin both walked away. Darrin had a broken arm, Dexter was mildly concussed. Roland, however...’

Think of the forgotten sardine in the tin, Bliss had said brutally, after the tin’s been trodden on.

‘His parents were told it was instantaneous,’ Merrily said, ‘meaning he didn’t suffer. Which, as far as physical pain goes, may be true but disregards the state of helpless terror he’d have been in for several minutes before the crash.’

‘Yes,’ Jeavons said softly.

‘Probably the last thing Dexter would’ve heard before the impact was the final screams of his nine-year-old cousin. How much of the carnage he saw in the back of the car, we don’t know.’

‘What happen to Dexter?’

‘Not much. First offence. Appeared in court as a juvenile and therefore wasn’t named. Pleaded guilty to charges related to taking and driving away and causing death by dangerous driving. No previous convictions. Said very little in court apart from to apologize and burst into tears. The view of the court seems to have been that having to live with this for the rest of his life was a bigger punishment than anything the justice system could inflict.’

‘Not always a good decision,’ Jeavons said. ‘Incarceration puts a time limit on it. Life goes on.’

‘Certainly split the family. There was an awful scene at the funeral – Roland’s mother screaming that Dexter was a murderer who should be in jail. Maybe forgetting that Darrin was the instigator, the one who’d learned how to break into cars. But Darrin couldn’t drive, so it was Dexter who killed Roland.’

‘His grandma mention any of this?’

‘His auntie. Alice. Not a word, but it probably explains why Dexter’s never been near a church since. His parents apparently felt compelled to move to the other side of Hereford, and he went to a different school.’

‘Certainly explain why he freaks when you ask him what happens in his head when he’s having an attack,’ Jeavons said. ‘He have any counselling at the time?’

‘Not as common then as it is now, was it? Especially not for offenders.’

‘And he’s working in a garage now.’

‘Tyre depot. But still working with cars, yes. Hasn’t committed any criminal offences since, according to my friend. As far as health goes, he might always have been prone to respiratory problems, but the serious asthma attacks seem to have started within a year of the incident. So...’ Merrily closed the pad, stared at the flat, pastel mosaic of the Paul Klee print. ‘Can I help him?’

‘What do you think?’

‘I think I know what you might suggest. While the thought of it leaves me feeling exhausted already, the logic of it’s almost too perfect.’

‘Yes,’ Jeavons said.

‘Would you do it?’

‘What? Say it.’

‘The healing of the living and the healing of the dead. A formal Requiem Eucharist to bring peace to the soul of a nine-year-old boy who died seventeen years ago. And to his cousin, who has it all stored up inside him like some old video nasty that keeps replaying itself in his head... until it constricts his lungs.’

‘Textbook,’ Jeavons said. ‘Unless maybe they already had a Requiem?’

‘They didn’t. I tracked down the minister who conducted the funeral. It was at Hereford Crematorium, they weren’t practising Christians and it didn’t take long. That’s how I found out about the row during the service. Which didn’t end there. When Dexter’s dad bought a new car it was vandalized – tyres ripped, bodywork scored. Their house was also broken into twice – damage rather than theft. They suspected Darrin.’

Not without reason. Bliss had said Darrin had burgled his way through half the houses in south Hereford. The family blamed Dexter for Darrin turning bad.

‘A few months ago, according to my colleague, Darrin’s mother encountered Dexter’s mother in the car park at Safeway... spat in her face.’

‘The healing capabilities of time are often overrated,’ Jeavons said.

‘So there’s a good deal more to heal here than a case of asthma.’

‘You think she wanted you to find out about all this, the aunt?’

‘I don’t know.’ Merrily lit a cigarette. ‘Alice seems to be the eldest sister. She and her husband opened a chip shop in Ledwardine about twenty years ago. He died a while back. She must be well into her seventies now but still works there part-time. And does most of the cleaning in the church. And her niece in Solihull recently went on an Alpha course, which seems to have inspired Alice to come to one of our Sunday evenings.’

Felt the Holy Spirit was in her heart like a big white bird, and you could feel its wings fluttering. As if this big bird was trying to escape from her breast and fill the whole world with love and healing.

‘You got yourself an enormously interesting case, Merrilee,’ Lew Jeavons said. ‘Why you trying to avoid it?’

‘Am I?’

‘Reach out! Embrace!’

He laughed hugely, the bastard.

The White Company: cool name, but...

Well, come on, what did you expect?

Jane stood by the stairs with Ben, watching them bunched in the hall under the blown bulb, and thinking that at least they blended with the decor. Of the three of them, Elizabeth Pollen was the most animated. There was a youngish guy with limp hair and Harry Potter glasses who had, like, anorak stamped across his shallow forehead, and if he didn’t have spots it was only because the Clearasil was working this week.

Which meant that Alistair Hardy, the medium, the main man, had to be the heavy-set sixtyish person with pewtery hair and an intermittent scowl and a briefcase. A man clearly aware of his professional standing, like a small-town bank manager. It was laughable.

‘Right,’ Ben said. ‘If we’re all in agreement, I’d like to record some of Alistair’s testing of the individual rooms. Antony Largo would have been here himself, but he’s tied up on another project at the present. And so—’

And then, what Ben did, he plucked the Sony 150 out of Jane’s hands, just blatantly lifted it.

‘—I’ll have to shoot this myself.’ Moving away with the camcorder, he tossed her a brief, faintly rueful smile over his shoulder. ‘Jane, you might like to watch how I do this. Give you a few basic ideas.’

Son of a bitch!

Jane was boiling with embarrassment. She thought she could see the Harry Potter guy smirking. She turned to look for Amber, but Amber had gone, maybe to barricade the kitchen. Natalie appeared in the lounge doorway, met Jane’s eyes and shrugged, sympathetic but helpless.

18

Shock of the Proof

IN THE DINING room, Alistair Hardy said he could see a spirit.

It was all quite repulsive, Jane thought, like he was feigning a stroke. Hardy was wearing a dark grey suit and a black tie, maybe to suggest respect for the dead, and it was as though one side of him had gone numb. An arm was sticking out from his body, fingers curled, as if he was holding another hand.

He’d moved to the area where Jane had stood with her tray while serving breakfast to Ben and Antony and absorbing their edgy banter. The stained glass in the window, with only the night behind it, looked as dense as lead. The concertina radiators were silent; Ben and Amber had no heat to waste.

Ben was into a crouch, no more than a yard away from Hardy, aiming the camera upwards, probably to make the guy look more majestic; also close enough, according to Eirion’s rules, to pick up usable sound through the built-in mike.

‘There’s an elderly lady, with a stick... no... it’s a walking... Oh, what do you call it?’ Hardy’s metallic voice was pitched up, like a priest in church. If he was supposed to be from Edinburgh, why didn’t he have a Scottish accent? Sounded faintly West Midlands to Jane. ‘A Zimmer frame! An elderly lady with a Zimmer frame!’

Jane, standing over by the door with Natalie, murmured, ‘Well, that sounds suitably Victorian.’

It was freezing in here. She zipped up her fleece. She hadn’t yet decided if Hardy was a phoney or merely self-deluded, but the fact that the filming had been literally taken out of her hands allowed her to be as cynical and acidic as she liked.

‘I believe this place actually used to be an old people’s home, Alistair,’ the Harry Potter guy said.

‘Yes,’ Hardy said. ‘Thank you, Matthew.’

Jane thought, He must have known that anyway. It was strange, really; she had this fairly liberal acceptance of the paranormal, based on a couple of meaningful experiences of her own, but spiritualism just didn’t light her candle. It was fusty and sad; it was rooms full of lumbering furniture and old ladies smelling of camphor.

‘I would say the poor old dear had dementia,’ Hardy said. ‘She still doesn’t seem to be fully aware of her own passing. And so she walks this room, around and around. I expect I can probably help her get to where she should be. When I have a little more time.’

‘Meanwhile, we’ll just leave her to hobble around for a few more weeks,’ Jane murmured. ‘This guy should be working for the NHS.’

Natalie shook her head, a little smile on her perfect, ironic lips. What, precisely, did Natalie believe in? Jane realized she had no idea. And somewhere, the incurious Clancy was quietly getting on with her homework. Jane didn’t understand that, either.

Ben said, from behind the camera, ‘Just the one, ah, spirit, Alistair?’ His voice was conversational. You could hear it on TV already, the out-of-shot director’s diffident prompt.

‘I’m fairly sure this room is not the one we’re looking for, Ben.’ Hardy’s arm relaxed, his fingers uncurling. ‘Not to worry.’

‘You didn’t get much in the lounge, either.’

‘No. Let’s go back into the hall. Perhaps upstairs?’

Jane looked at Ben. Ben said nothing. She wondered how Amber would react if he showed Hardy the ‘secret’ passageway under the stairs. Or if he took them up to Hattie Chancery’s room. She and Nat let the four of them go through and waited. Ben had hurried ahead to get a shot of them vacating the dining room; he wouldn’t want the staff in the picture.

‘This is moderately naff,’ Jane murmured to Natalie.

‘Perhaps it’s not for us to say.’

Nat was demure tonight, in a black woollen dress, the kind Mum might wear. Of course, she was responsible for this, setting it up, because it would be good for the hotel. But would it? If Stanner developed a reputation as the haunt of saddoes, where was the future in that?

‘I mean, do you believe that guy can see anything at all?’

‘I don’t know, Jane – what do you think?’

‘I think maybe he does – or did have – some psychic ability. But if it’s not happening for him, he’ll just make something up. That’s where it all goes wrong. Nobody gets it all the time, but if you’re a so-called professional medium, with an audience expecting fireworks, you’re going to make sure they get what they want, aren’t you? Like, if you know this place was once an old people’s home, you invent an old girl on a zimmer.’

‘And what does your mother think?’

‘You been talking to Amber?’

‘Ben told me about her.’

‘That guy is so discreet. Amber would like it if Mum came in and scattered some holy water before the White Company gets into it.’

‘And would she do that?’

‘Probably. But the point is that I would rather she didn’t get involved. Because I like it here, you know? I like this job.’

When they decided it was safe to leave the dining room, they saw Alistair Hardy moving upstairs, up the red carpet and – oh hell – Amber was alone at the top of the kitchen steps. Her face was blank, but you could sense the tension in the way she was standing, both hands pressing on her apron with the design of a cottage on a hill.

There was a subdued tension everywhere, the air drab with negative emotion, and it was like the fabric of Stanner Hall was moulding itself around this. Like bad vibes were part of its heritage.

If Ben was aware of this, he was pretending he wasn’t, crouching at the bottom of the stairs shooting Alistair Hardy. He loves it, for the drama. He doesn’t believe in it for one minute. Hardy had got halfway to the first landing when he abruptly turned and came down again.

‘Ben, I’m being pulled the other way.’

Ben carried on recording: digital video was dirt-cheap, according to Eirion, and went on for ever. Hardy came quietly down, standing at the foot of the stairs with one arm out at an unnatural angle, his eyes not quite shut, so that you could see the whites, like the light under a closed door. Maybe he was simply telepathic and had picked up what was threshing around in Amber’s head.

Slowly, like a soldier patrolling a boundary, Hardy walked away into the dimmer part of the hall, where the blown bulb was. He looked across at Amber, who looked away. Then he turned back, Beth Pollen and the others watching him in silence. Mrs Pollen had on a short grey cape, like nurses used to wear, over a long viridian skirt. Would have made better video, Jane thought, if she was the medium.

You’re not alone, are you?’

Jane twisted round. Alistair Hardy was standing next to her. She could smell his aftershave; it seemed wrong, somehow, for a medium to be wearing aftershave; shouldn’t they project a neutral ambience? Jane stiffened. It was like the way cats always chose to rub up against the one person in the room who was allergic to cat hair. She tried to move away and bumped into Harry Potter, who didn’t move.

Hardy was looking at her, as if he was noticing her for the first time. She met his eyes: flat and grey and somehow leaden, like the stained glass in the dining room with no light behind it. She glanced away, found herself gazing directly into the dark lens of the camcorder – Ben on his knees on the worn rug in the centre of the hall, poised and steady and relaxed. She found they were all grouped around her now, like a coven. What? Jane spun, looking for a way out of this. The hall seemed suddenly full of people and shadows.

‘Rather distinguished woman,’ Hardy said. ‘Elderly, but not at all like the poor dear in the dining room. Has your—? I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.’

Jane said nothing, reluctant to give anything away to this creep. She’d been fitted up. She wanted to kick the camera out of Ben’s hands. Then again, she wanted to go on working here. Possibly.

‘Jane,’ she said sullenly.

‘Ah yes.’ As if he’d known that all along and was just making sure that she knew who she was. ‘Jane, have you a granny who’s passed?’

‘Not to my knowledge.’

Hardy smiled his bank manager’s smile. He had a gold filling. ‘She’s definitely with you, my dear.’

‘And you’re sure she hasn’t got Alzheimer’s?’

He kept on smiling, which was unnerving. He was supposed to lose his temper with her; spiritualists had no sense of humour, everybody knew that.

‘Property,’ Alistair Hardy said. ‘She has a message for you relating to property.’ His right hand seemed to be vibrating, fingers clawed.

‘I don’t deal much in property these days.’

‘She says... tell them not to give up on the house.’

Jane shrugged. Usual banal crap.

‘She’s taller than you,’ Alistair Hardy said. ‘As tall as me. Formidable, I think would be the word. She has... rather sharp features – strong would be a better word. Not someone to trifle with, certainly. And she’s wearing... a shawl? Quite a large, thick shawl.’

‘Don’t know anyone with a shawl. Well, my mum has an old black one that she—’ Jane shut her mouth. It was like with fortune tellers: you never went along with it, never fed them information they could build on. She looked beyond Alistair Hardy into the sepia shadow-stain around the bulb that had blown.

‘It’s not quite a shawl, it’s – help me here, somebody – what do you call one of those garments that became very popular for a while back in the seventies? South American origins.’ He lifted his good arm, started to snap his fingers in the air. ‘Somebody... what’s the word? Come on, this is quite significant.’

‘Oh,’ Beth Pollen said. ‘You mean...’

The word had burst in Jane’s brain before it was uttered. She kept on staring into the blown bulb, like her consciousness was being drawn into its fog, and the broken filament inside the bulb was the size of a dead tree, her hands going numb around it. She felt insubstantial, grey and vague, barely feeling her legs give way.

‘You mean a poncho,’ Mrs Pollen said.

Over the clanking of the van, Gomer said, ‘It don’t sound right to me, boy. Sounds like he was handing you a barrow-load of ole bullshit.’

‘He was always full of it,’ Danny admitted.

‘ “Bands of brigands roaming by night”?’ Gomer and Danny were both staring through the windscreen at the lightless fields beyond Walton, sloping up to Radnor Forest. They were going to pick up young Jane Watkins at Stanner before Gomer dropped Danny off at home, else she’d think Gomer had forgotten about her.

‘That’s what he said. He d’reckon it’s the only way the farmers gonner keep the fox population under control when the Government bans huntin’ with hounds.’

‘Ah well,’ Gomer said, ‘I can understand Sebbie comin’ out with that ole wallop when he’s got the MP round his place for cocktails – put the frighteners on the politicians kind of thing. But not to the likes of we.’

‘So what was them bloody Welshies doin’ in Jeremy’s yard, then? They had his barn all staked out, Gomer, like they’d got the fox trapped up in there. All it was was Jeremy’s ole sheepdog. They’d’ve bloody shot that dog if the kiddie hadn’t run in. Shot the dog out of sheer spite, I reckon.’

‘Should’ve called in the law, boy. Let them sort it out.’

‘He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t do it, Gomer.’

‘Then you oughter be asking why he wouldn’t.’

‘That was what Sebbie said. That we oughter be asking why Jeremy didn’t want the cops round. And then the bastard was asking me if I was still doin’ dope. Like as if Jeremy didn’t want no cops round for the same reason I never did.’

‘You en’t still—?’

Danny coughed. ‘Bit of home-grown. Strickly for personal use. And only a bit.’ Giving Gomer a nervous glance on account of, to Gomer’s generation, a twist of wacky baccy could put you on the down-escalator into hell and blacken the name of Gomer Parry Plant Hire for ever. ‘Pigs don’t do you for that n’more, see, long as you en’t dealin’.’ He was being a bit careful, though, since Dacre had dropped the little phrase ‘Drug Squad’. He might be full of bullshit, but he did have contacts.

Gomer drove on steadily, said nothing. Good ole boy.

‘So this woman,’ Danny said. ‘Miz Natalie Craven. Two ways of lookin’ at that, Gomer. On the one hand, blokes is like, Lucky devil, what’s he got we en’t? Whereas women’s sayin’ she’s bewitched him, the slag.’

‘And Sebbie Dacre?’ Gomer wondered. ‘What’s Sebbie think about her?’

‘Sebbie’s had his share,’ Danny said.

‘Zelda Morgan, ennit, now?’

‘Zelda, aye. Off the boil a bit, what I yeard. Zelda mabbe fig-urin’ it wasn’t worth the candle – Sebbie’s moods.’

‘Or mabbe Sebbie’s thinkin’ he can do better than Zelda,’ Gomer said. ‘Mabbe lookin’ for a woman of means, way he got fleeced by the missus in the divorce court.’

‘Have you...’ Danny hesitating, as they rattled out onto the Kington Road. ‘You yeard anythin’ about Sebbie goin’ strange, Gomer?’

‘What way?’

‘Well... the Welsh shooters. Settin’ ’em on Jeremy. Like he’s got an obsession with Jeremy, now Jeremy’s got hisself a serious woman. Anything, really.’

‘You reckon it’s to do with the woman?’

‘Dunno.’

They drove on in silence for a while, then Danny said, ‘Sometimes, it feels like everything’s filled up with some’ing, and it’s only a matter of time ’fore it bursts. I thought it was the snow – you know that feeling you get when there’s snow on the way. But it en’t just snow.’

Gomer looked at him. ‘Well, if you feel that way, think what it’s like for Jeremy Berrows...’

Nat had taken Jane down to the kitchen.

There was an old flowery-patterned sofa under one of the high windows, and they sat there and Jane drank hot, sugary tea. In the opposite corner, Clancy’s homework was spread over a card table; when it was established that Jane was OK, Clancy had gone back to it. She was working quietly, underlining things with a ruler.

‘It’s never happened to me before.’ Jane shuffled to the edge of the sofa, glaring into her cup. She felt furious now at having personally created one of those moments for Alistair Hardy. Could imagine the Harry Potter creep relaying the story to his anorak mates, or – worse – keying it into some global spiritualist chat-room: the story of the girl who was determined to slag everything off just keeling over with the shock of the proof.

‘It happens,’ Natalie said, next to her.

‘It doesn’t happen to me. I never faint.’

Natalie said nothing. She hadn’t asked the obvious question. Nobody had, not even Alistair Hardy.

‘Where are they?’

‘In the bar,’ Nat said. ‘He’s still looking for what he calls a point of contact.’

‘Where’s Amber?’

‘I don’t know. Amber’s in a state.’

‘Wishing she’d never seen this place.’

‘Something like that.’

Jane said quickly, ‘When we first moved to Ledwardine, I had a very good friend who ran a shop that was devoted to the history and folklore of the area and the poetry of Thomas Traherne.’

‘Look, you don’t have to tell me,’ Natalie said. ‘Your past, above all things, is your own. You’re not obliged—’

‘I want to. It’s going to drive me insane otherwise, and I can’t tell Mum for obvious reasons. She was called Lucy Devenish, and she was killed on the road. Knocked off her moped. She was elderly and thin, and she had a face like some old warrior, and she—’ The tears were like spikes behind Jane’s eyes. ‘Every time she went out, Nat, she wore this... bloody poncho.’

Nat said nothing. There was silence in the vast kitchen, except for a slow bubbling from the stove and the squeak of Clancy’s fibre-tip. Clancy always pressed down too hard, as if the words might fade otherwise.

Jane clasped her hands together, squeezing tightly. ‘Do you think he took her out of my mind? Stole the memory? You see, I can’t believe that even if she... I can’t believe Lucy would talk to a tosser like that. I feel he’s been into my mind. I feel like he’s extracted her, like some computer hacker can get into your hard disk and pull out some ancient, buried file. It’s like a kind of rape.’

‘I doubt that, Jane,’ Nat said.

‘That he took it from my mind?’

Natalie didn’t reply. There were footsteps on the stone stairs, and then Alistair Hardy was standing there with Harry Potter. Hardy had his jacket off. He wore a pair of those archaic expanding armbands around his shirt sleeves. He peered at Jane, his face shiny.

‘All right now, are we, my love?’

‘We’re fine. Just I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast. I felt sick earlier. That’s all it was. I feel fine now.’

‘Good,’ Hardy said. ‘Mind if we come in?’

Natalie stood up. ‘Well, I think you ought to—’

‘Won’t take a moment. This is the kitchen, is it?’ He blinked. ‘Or servants’ quarters once, I suppose.’

‘That’s right,’ Harry Potter said. ‘I’ve seen the Victorian plans.’

‘Where’d you get those?’ Jane stood up. She was half afraid her legs would give way again, but she was OK. Plans? They had plans of the house? Did Ben know about this?

‘Where’s Ben?’ Natalie said.

‘Oh, he’s gone outside.’ Harry Potter pulled a slick of hair from his concave forehead. ‘We were out near the entrance, and there was some shooting going on in the grounds, and he said it was coming through on the soundtrack and ruining everything. He was really annoyed. He’s gone out to – you know – remonstrate with them.’

Hell, the shooters...

‘Oh Christ.’ Natalie jumped up, pushed between Alistair Hardy and Potter, almost colliding with someone moving slowly down the stone steps.

Amber. She stood at the foot of the steps for several seconds after Nat had gone. Jane wanted to go after Nat, but...

Amber. Those people will not go into my fucking kitchen.

Jane saw Alistair Hardy walking in his measured, deliberate way across the flags until the island unit the size of Australia was between him and Amber.

‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mrs Foley,’ he said.

19

Nancy Boy

AMBER SAID, AND it was almost a wail, ‘This is the kitchen. This is the heart—’

‘Of the house. Yes. Precisely.’

Alistair Hardy was leaning forward over the enormous island unit, his hands splayed on the oiled hardwood: the bank manager at his desk, laying down the options.

But he and Amber weren’t coming from the same direction at all, Jane knew that much. Amber meant that the kitchen was the heart of her own shrinking world. This woman was probably all that was truly professional and worthwhile about the Stanner Hall Hotel, and this was her refuge, where what remained of her confidence was located, while the rest of the house faded and dripped and crumbled and rotted and soaked up money. This was her place. Whereas Hardy...

‘It’s on a lower level than the rest,’ Harry Potter explained. ‘They had to build the foundations into the rock. This part of the house is sunk into some of the oldest stone in the country – over six hundred and fifty million years—’

‘So what?’ Amber was arching from the hips in furious incomprehension. ‘I mean, six hundred million, four thousand million – all rock’s pretty bloody old compared with the human race. I don’t see the point of this.’

She backed off a little, maybe realizing that, she was shouting at the people who would be paying for Christmas.

‘Mrs Foley...’ Beth Pollen was stepping down on to the flags. ‘Oh golly, what a mess. All my fault. I assumed you were au fait with everything. If I’d known you were at all worried, I live just a few miles away, I could easily have—’

‘You don’t understand,’ Amber said.

For Jane, the vast kitchen had taken on a cavern-like feel: the purply-greyness, the uneven lighting, the high windows like enlarged slits in the stone. Perhaps some of that very ancient stone was in these actual walls – Amber’s kitchen sanctuary formed out of Stanner Rocks. In the corner, Clancy sat watching from her card table, the pen still in her right hand.

Amber must have touched a switch somewhere because the small bank of halogen lights came on, turning Hardy’s face bright pink.

He didn’t move. ‘Mrs Foley, I knew as soon as I came down the steps. This is where it happened.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Amber said.

‘It’s in the records.’ The Harry Potter guy, Matthew, strolled into the centre of the room. He seemed older now than Jane had first figured, probably even thirtyish, not much younger than Amber. ‘We know that the textile magnate, Walter Chance, who built this house, had a vague interest in spiritualism, as did a lot of people at the end of the nineteenth century. It was fashionable, state of the art – except that to them, of course, it was very much a science, with lots of gadgets. The scientific advances and the technological developments during this comparatively short period were mind-bogg—’

‘We know all that,’ Jane said, and was gratified when Matthew looked at her, irritated.

‘Who is this girl?’

‘Kitchen-maid.’ Jane did a tight smile. ‘With attitude.’

‘Let him finish, Jane,’ Amber said. ‘Let’s get this over with.’

‘Walter retired here with his new young wife.’ Matthew looked at Amber. ‘I expect you know all this.’

It was clear to Jane that Amber didn’t. But had Ben known? Were there aspects of this that he’d hidden? Because if there were, he was going to be in some deep trouble tonight.

‘Mrs Bella Chance – or Chancery as they were known by then – was from London,’ Matthew said, ‘and Walter wanted to give her the kind of social life she was used to. He’d throw these big house parties, no expense spared. Hence a kitchen this size – loads of servants. He’d invite minor aristocracy, and some of them even turned up. But Walter Chancery was generally regarded as pretty crass and vulgar, and they were never really accepted either by the local people or by the gentry.’

Jane thought she could hear raised voices from outside, hoped to God, after what Clancy had told her about the bad attitude of the shooters at Jeremy’s, that Ben wasn’t chancing his arm with them. Especially while she wasn’t there, with her video camera. Christ, what if he still had it with him? What if it got broken?

Nothing she could do. Couldn’t walk out now. Besides, this was becoming interesting, stuff worth knowing, for a student of the Border. If you could put up with the anorak drone.

‘So when Walter discovered that Conan Doyle had friends and relatives nearby and sometimes stayed in the area... You see, we just don’t have authors now as celebrated as Conan Doyle was then. If the Strand was publishing a new Holmes story, there’d be endless queues for copies. Now, Doyle was told about the Hound by his friend Fletcher Robinson – who, despite being a Devonian, was said to have come across the story in a Welsh guidebook. So we assume that Doyle was making inquiries about it in the area. And the Chancerys, when they learned that the great man was staying in the vicinity, well, you can imagine they just had to have him as their house guest.’

‘I’m sorry.’ Amber came into the light. ‘I think this is conjecture. Ben’s been all over the place, trying to find evidence—’

‘Mrs Foley...’ Beth Pollen came forward, her cape folded over her arm, looking reassuringly nice and motherly, but you never really knew with these people. ‘The main reason your husband didn’t find out about this was simply because nobody wanted him to. The only remaining family in this area related to the Chancerys are the Dacres, who certainly don’t like to talk about it.’

‘I don’t know them.’

‘It wouldn’t help you if you did. There’s only one left – Sebastian Dacre, and he’s a difficult man. Ironically, the one place where your husband might have laid hands on useful documentation was in the very extensive records of The Baker Street League in London. Which is where I first happened upon them. Does this begin to make a certain kind of sense?’

Amber said, ‘And you have copies of this... documentation?’

‘Mysteriously – or perhaps not so mysteriously – when I applied to the committee to draw out the relevant papers to allow me to make some photocopies, they seemed to have... disappeared. I explained all this to your husband earlier.’

‘You’re saying this is something to do with Dr Kennedy?’

‘Dr Kennedy now disputes that the material ever existed, and Dr Kennedy is now in virtual control of The League. Furthermore, he and most of the present committee very much deplore the White Company and all it stands for. They’d rather forget Doyle’s obsession with spiritualism. And I’m not sure they’d go out of their way to preserve an account handwritten by a participant in the Stanner seances for a London magazine, Cox’s Quarterly – which, it appears, paid for it in full but never, in fact, published it. Was, in fact, persuaded – we think – not to publish.’

‘And you’re saying this article proved conclusively that Conan Doyle based his novel on the legend of Thomas Vaughan and the Hound of Hergest?’ Amber’s hands were pushing down the bulges in her apron again. ‘Is that what you’re saying?’

‘What I read certainly suggested that, after his evening here, Doyle was fully acquainted with the Vaughan story. We’ve since established that the man who wrote it, who was quite elderly at the time, died within a year of submitting it, still waiting for his piece to appear. And the magazine itself went to the wall a short time later. We don’t know how or when the article fell into the hands of The Baker Street League, but I don’t suppose that’s important now.’

Interesting. Jane imagined Ben and Antony in London, doorstepping Neil Kennedy, for the programme: So, tell us Dr Kennedy, why did you suppress documentary evidence that Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel was based not in Devon but on the Welsh Border?

She waited for Amber to ask the other crucial question – what happened here? But Amber didn’t. Amber really didn’t want to know.

Sod that.

‘Excuse me.’ Jane stood up. ‘You said the writer of this article was a participant. Like, participant in what? What did they actually do here, in this room?’

There was a silence.

She never got an answer. In the midst of the hush, she heard chair legs scraping the flags in Clancy’s corner of the kitchen, as Beth Pollen looked at Hardy and Matthew adjusted his glasses and said, ‘Should I attempt to—?’

By then Clancy was on her feet.

Mum!

Matthew was frozen into silence. Natalie had arrived at the bottom of the kitchen steps, dark brown hair tumbled over one eye, the sleeves of her black woollen dress pushed up over the elbows. Both men looking at her, because that was what men did.

‘Amber...’ The calmness in Nat’s voice was like this really thin membrane over panic. ‘Do we have a first-aid kit?’

The halogen lights were showing up, around her wrists, these wild, wet swatches of what could only be – Jesus Christ – fresh blood.

Amber’s whole body jerked. ‘Where’s Ben?’

Jane sprang up and ran for the steps.

At the bottom of the car park, there was a small wrought-iron gate to an old footpath that Ben had cleared. The path went down through the grounds, curving through tangled woodland, almost to the edge of the bypass, facing Stanner Rocks. This was where Ben went jogging most mornings; you could go along the side of the main road and then join up with the main drive back to the hotel.

Now the gate was open. Footprints in the snow.

Jane went through hesitantly, carrying the rubber-covered torch that Amber had given her; there was no great need for it: the moon was out and the ground was bright with virgin snow.

‘Careful,’ Amber said, the white canvas first-aid bag over her shoulder. ‘For God’s sake. We don’t know—’

‘It’s all right.’ Ben’s voice from some yards away – Ben’s voice like Jane had never heard it before, kind of thin and stringy. ‘It’s all right, Amber. All right, now.’

Just the other side of the gate was a small clearing. Jane stayed on the edge of it and shone the torch towards Ben’s voice. The beam unrolled a white carpet slicked by the marks of skidding footwear. No sign of the shooters, no voices other than the Foleys’.

‘Stay there, Jane.’ Amber put down the first-aid bag and said to Ben, ‘What have you done?’

It was like she’d asked him to stir the soup and he’d let it boil over. It was always easy to underestimate Amber: she worried about intangibles, but only because she was a practical person, controlled. She’d sent Natalie to the ladies’ loo to get cleaned up and then stand by to call an ambulance.

‘I’m sorry.’ Ben let out a long, hollow breath that was more than a half-sob. ‘I’m really sorry about this.’

At the same time she saw Ben, Jane heard these liquid snuffling noises, knowing as he turned into the torchlight that he was not making them. Behind him was a fence post with no fence, only shorn-off twists of barbed wire nailed to it. And a hump on the ground.

Ben turned fully towards them, rising, and Jane gasped. His Edwardian jacket hung open, exposing his once-white shirt, emblazoned now with a blotch like a red rose.

‘Lost it,’ Ben said. ‘I lost it.’ And then he giggled. He was trembling hard. He stumbled. ‘Oh Jesus.’

‘Hold the torch a bit steadier, can you, Jane?’ Amber looked at Ben. It was like he’d been fighting a duel and staggered back, rapiered through the heart.

‘No, really, I’m all right. Don’t bother about me. I’m really all right. We should see to—’

He gestured vaguely at the hump on the ground. Jane had been afraid to look at the hump. Hoping it was a dead tree. Or something. Something that didn’t snuffle.

‘I’m sorry about this,’ Ben said again.

The man was lying with his shoulders propped against the fence post. He was wearing camouflage trousers, an army jacket. He was holding his head back against the post. You couldn’t see much of his face through all the blood, but his mouth was hanging open, and there was blood in there, too, and all around his lips and nose, bubbling through a film of dirt and snot. Jane recoiled, swallowing bile. It was like he’d been bobbing for apples in a barrel of blood.

‘Called me a nancy boy, you see.’ Ben moved away back, so that Amber could undo the first-aid bag. ‘Nat tried to stop the bleeding. Not very successfully, I’m afraid.’

‘He needs to go to a hospital.’ Amber’s voice was crisp as the snow. ‘You’ve broken his nose, for a start.’

‘Is that really necess—? I mean, can’t you—?’

‘Ben, you’ve smashed his face! I can’t believe you could—’

‘It was dark, I couldn’t see what I— For God’s sake, Amber, they were destroying it all. Everything was going so— And then these, these bloody shots, shaking all the glass in the windows. These bast— That’s illegal, that’s—’

The man on the ground squirmed, as if he was trying to get up, and then he slid back down the post like he was tied to it. He tried to speak, but his voice was like a thick soup. He started to choke.

Amber said, ‘Jane, leave me the torch and then go back to the house and tell Nat we need an ambulance, will you?’

Naw!’ The man was prising himself up, his back jammed against the fence post. ‘No abulath!

Ben snatched the torch away from Jane, the way he’d grabbed the video camera, and held it up over his shoulder, the way police held their torches, gripping the lighted end, so they could use the thick stem as a club.

‘What’s he saying?’

‘He said no ambulance.’ Jane retched.

Amber said, ‘What are you going to do now, Ben – beat all his teeth out?’

‘You don’t understand.’ Ben shone the torch briefly round the clearing. ‘There’s two more of these bastards somewhere. And a gun. One of them’s got a gun.’

‘He’s...’ Jane backed away. ‘He’s right. They were at Jeremy’s. They were going to shoot Jeremy’s dog.’

‘Then tell Natalie to phone the police as well,’ Amber said. ‘Jane, go!’

‘Yes.’

Jane turned away, grateful for an excuse, and ran blindly across the clearing towards the wooden gate. Couldn’t believe what Ben had done. OK, he was furious at the shooters invading his land, and it had been building up for weeks, and he was frustrated and desperate for something to work out. But this was Ben Foley – artistic, funny, slightly camp. You thought you knew people. You thought you knew

She was pulling at the gate when the hands came down on her shoulders.

TWENTY

Not About Foxes

‘SO HOW DID you find out, vicar?’ Alice Meek said. Resignation there, but no big surprise. ‘Who told you?’

Merrily shook her head. ‘Wouldn’t be fair. But it was more a question of finding out that there was something to find out. You know?’

‘You was guided.’ Alice put a mug of coffee in front of her. ‘See, Dexter, he thought you was just gonner lay your hands on him. He said he wouldn’t mind that. He come back afterwards, he says, that’s it, don’t wanner go n’more. I said, Dexter, I said, nothing comes easy, in this life. You want the Holy Spirit to pay you a visit in all His glory, I said, you gotter play your part, boy.’

Alice had a bungalow in a new close off Old Barn Lane, not a hundred yards from her chip shop. Alice’s kitchen was bright and shiny and full of chrome. Like a chip shop, in fact. It occurred to Merrily that, of all the women who gave up their time to clean the church, Alice was probably the oldest, the busiest and the richest.

And no kids. Dexter could be in for a sizeable bequest. Whatever Alice wanted, Dexter would have to listen.

‘What I was going to suggest, Alice...’ Nervously, Merrily sipped the coffee. It was, as she’d expected, the kind you made if you needed to work all night. ‘I mean, there might be something in this for more than Dexter.’

She hadn’t wanted to waste any time, to dwell too much on this before taking action. She’d walked straight down to Old Barn Lane and gone into the chip shop just as it was opening for the evening. Alice wasn’t working tonight, but the woman there, Sharon, had phoned Alice at home and Alice had told Sharon to send the vicar round directly.

‘En’t never had no kids, vicar, as you know. Used to babysit the others. Oldest sister, no kids, you spends half your nights babysitting – they think they’re doing you a favour.’ Alice sat herself down in a chrome-framed chair at the chrome-legged table. ‘What I’m saying, I knowed all of ’em, vicar, all them kids, better’n their own mothers in some ways, truth was known. Kids talks to the babysitter, see – when they wakes up in the night, when they’re tryin’ to put you off sending ’em to bed, they talks.’

‘So Dexter, Darrin, Roland...’

‘Babysitted all them boys for years. Never hardly had a Saturday night at home. Roland, he wasn’t like the others. Upsets me still to think about that child. He was... like he didn’t belong in that family. They’re – I’m saying this even though it’s my own family, but they’re a rough bunch, vicar, en’t got no social graces. En’t saying there’s no goodness at the heart of ’em, but you gotter dig deep sometimes. ’Cept with Roland. A true innocent, that child. He was that innocent it was like he didn’t belong in this world, which is a daft thing to say—’

‘I know what you mean.’

‘Like he never growed a skin, vicar. Sometimes, I wakes up in the night, years him, clear as day, sniffin’ his tears back. “Daddy was drunk”, he’d say. “Daddy’d come in drunk and he smelled bad.” Saturdays, see, Richie, he’d spend the whole afternoon in the pub – come back, trample on the kids’ toys and laugh hisself daft about it. Then they’d go out, him and my sister, Lisa, and I’d come round and babysit and clean up the mess and dry the tears. And talk to Roland. Darrin, he was his dad’s son, didn’t wanner talk, got bored easy. Roland, he wasn’t like neither of them. You think about what happened to him, and you think, why? Why was he put on this earth for that short time, for that to happen?’

You learned something from him,’ Merrily said.

‘Yes.’ Alice’s sharp little eyes filled up – a rarity, Merrily guessed.

‘What about Dexter’s family?’

‘That’s the middle sister, Kathleen. Her ex-husband, Mike, least he kept a job longer’n a week when they was together. None of ’em was bright, look, no get-up-and-go. You only gotter look at Dexter. I couldn’t look at Dexter for months, mind, after Roland died. I thought – God help me – why couldn’t it be him instead, or Darrin?’

‘Darrin’s... been in trouble?’

‘I never knows whether he’s in or out of prison, vicar, been in that many times. Beyond all redemption now, that boy. His dad, he was always destructive, but that was just clumsy and careless, through drink mostly – he never done nothing criminal. Most he ever got done for was urinatin’ in a public place – doorway of the Old House, dead centre of the city, all the shops still open, you imagine anybody that stupid? Thick as a beam-end, Richie. But Darrin – when his ma blamed Dexter for what happened to Roland, Darrin went and did damage on them, and Kath and Mike, they wouldn’t put the police on him ’cause they was ashamed of what Dexter done.’

Merrily sighed.

‘Problem with Dexter, look, he en’t got no charm, do he, vicar? Too fat, en’t too pretty to look at and not much of a way with him. Nothin’ about him, is there? Most people, they don’t know what he did – never did, even at the time; his name wasn’t in no papers nor nothin’, ’cause of his age. But he always reckons everybody knows and whatever he do they en’t gonner think no better of him, so he don’t even make the effort. But inside, it all builds up.’

‘Until he can’t breathe.’

It all added up. Except, perhaps, for the Requiem for Roland seventeen years dead. This was something she wouldn’t even have thought of before meeting Llewellyn Jeavons. It was unknown country. Embrace, Lew had said. Embrace the entire dysfunctional family? Was she big enough for this?

‘Nobody got no time for the boy but me n’more,’ Alice said. ‘He’s had girlfriends, but they drifts away. En’t a good bet, is he?’ She looked at Merrily. ‘What you got in mind then, vicar? You gonner have to spell it out for an ole woman.’

The difficult part. Merrily looked up and saw her own face reflected, warped and stretched and crushed, in shiny things on shelves.

Danny Thomas said, ‘We’ll take him to the hospital in the van. No problem at all.’ He turned to the man with the face like a bloodied waxwork. ‘Nathan, ennit, as I recall?’

The guy grunted something about his mates. Amber, apparently oblivious to the cold and the carnage, had cleaned his wounds the best she could and gone calmly back to the hotel. It was all less disturbing now, in the clearing, with Danny and Gomer there.

‘Looks like your mates didn’t hang about, boy,’ Gomer said. ‘If they got a mobile, we can phone ’em from the hospital and they’ll come and pick you up, mabbe.’

Everything was turned around now. The moment of panic when the hands had come down on Jane’s shoulders, and then the moment of wild relief when Ben had shone the torch on the man’s face and it had a beard and hair like grey seaweed around it and a puzzled expression.

‘Yes, but how—?’ Ben sounded worried again. ‘How’s he going to explain to the hospital what happened?’

‘Stick to the truth, I’d say,’ Gomer said. ‘What happened, he slipped on the ice and snow and come down on that ole broken post with his nose. We’d just parked the van, comin’ to pick Janey up, and we years the poor bugger moaning. Don’t reckon our friend yere’s gonner wanner make n’more of it than that.’

Jane had to smile. For a while, after what happened to his depot and to Nev, it had looked like Gomer’s effective years were over; he’d been erratic, disconnected. Now he was back in gear. And bringing Danny into the business... that had been inspired. Mavericks, both of them.

‘If you got a toilet that en’t too posh, with a basin and an ole pair of jeans, that might help too,’ Danny said to Ben. ‘We’ll stand outside, make sure he don’t get away. All right, Nathan?’

Nathan might have nodded. The blood had stopped flowing, but he was still breathing through his mouth.

‘This is very good of you guys,’ Ben said. ‘I don’t know what you saw—’

‘Not much,’ Gomer assured him. ‘Not much at all. What you wanner do now, Janey? Come with us to the hospital, or I come and pick you up on the way back?’

‘That’d be out of your way,’ Jane said. ‘I’d better come, I suppose.’

Not exactly looking forward to sharing a back seat with the remains of Nathan, but what could she do? She waited with Gomer in the foyer while Danny escorted Nathan into the ground-floor gents and Ben ran upstairs to replace his torn and saturated trousers. There was no sign of the White Company. Were they still in the kitchen? Was she missing Alistair Hardy’s first attempts to reach Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? All that stuff seemed so unreal now. As unreal as the idea of Lucy Devenish floating around her like some pagan angel.

‘What did you really see?’ she asked Gomer.

‘Like I said, not much at all, Janey.’ Gomer got out his tin to roll a ciggy. ‘Starts off when we’re just about to turn up the drive and Danny spots this green Discovery in the lay-by across the road, no lights. Had a run-in with these boys the other night, see.’

‘Clancy told me.’

Did she? Well, Danny’s quite keen to discuss a little matter of severe damage to Greta’s runabout, so he pulls in, and we waits a while. Then we sees the three of ’em running up the drive with the gun. Then there’s about three shots. That’s it for Danny – puts the lights on full beam, the ole fog lamps too, goes revving up the drive, windows down, bawling out, “Armed Police, stay where you are!” Seen ’em do it on the box.’

‘Cool.’

‘Bloody worked, too, ennit? They wouldn’t know, that stage. They muster took to the woods, ’cause next thing we seen two of ’em back on the road behind us. Jump straight into the Discovery and off. This one – Nathan – your mate Foley likely had him cornered by then. Time we gets to the top, we years Foley shoutin’ at the feller, Miz Craven trying to calm both of ’em down. He’s saying to the Welshie, Just tell us what this is about, all we wanner know’s what it’s about. Someone payin’ you to make trouble, kind of thing. Then Miz Craven, her says some’ing and then this Welshie – he don’t sound too scared, not then – we years him go, “So what you gonner do about it, you and this nancy boy?” And that’s when I reckon Foley goes for him.’

‘Insult to injury.’ Jane recalled Ben on the last night of the murder weekend. They think I’m soft. They think I’m effete, some arty bastard from London. Then he’d said, Where I come from we have real hard bastards.

Scary.

‘So, what if the hospital ask questions?’

‘Ah, that boy, he en’t gonner say nothin’. Wouldn’t look too good, where he comes from, getting ’isself filled in by – pardon me – a London pansy.’

‘What if the hospital tell the police?’

Gomer shrugged, lighting his ciggy. ‘Could always not bother goin’ all the way to the hospital – kick the bugger out, side o’ the road.’

And, for a few moments, Jane thought that was what they were going to do, when Danny Thomas pulled into the bay fronting a closed and lightless garden centre on the Hereford road and switched off the engine.

‘Right, then,’ Danny said.

He and Nathan were in the front, Jane and Gomer sitting on bags of sand and cement on the deck of the van. Nathan had his shaven head tilted over the back of his seat. He was wearing the jeans that Ben had brought for him. They were too long. And they were white – a last, desperate joke, as Ben had accepted from Danny, with a moue of distaste, the bin liner containing Nathan’s camouflage trousers.

Nathan sat up in a hurry. There was enough moonlight to show that he was very scared.

‘Relax,’ Danny said. ‘What you gotter worry about? All you done is wrecked my wife’s car and nearly put my eye out with a rifle. Do I look like the sorter feller holds a grudge?’

Nathan made a lunge at the door, slamming into it with his shoulder. He cried out.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ Danny said. ‘Oughter’ve told you, that door’s knackered, he is – only opens from the outside. You gotter wind down the window, see, lean out and do it that way. You wanner bit o’ help with that, is it?’

Nathan slumped, still breathing hard through his mouth, like he had a very heavy head-cold. ‘Juss fuggig... ged id over.’

‘What – beat the shit out of you? Mess those lovely dinky white jeans? Nathan, we come to your aid, man. We’re your friends.’

‘Fuggoff.’

‘And friends – what does friends do but share a few confidences?’

A lighted bus went past on the Hereford road, and you could see the scar on Danny’s forehead like an angry red slug-trail. Beside Jane, Gomer took out his ciggy tin. Jane began to feel an edge of trepidation about what they were going to do to a man already in need of serious medical attention.

Nathan said, ‘You lemme out now, made, we’ll leave id at thad, eh?’

‘Mate?’ Danny said. ‘Mate? I was a fucking long-haired twat, if you recall, the other night.’ He leaned towards Nathan. ‘Do you recall the other night?’

Nathan said nothing.

‘Well, I recalls it in detail, Nathan, I recalls leavin’ with a whole load o’ questions bobbing around in my head, which also happened to hurt like hell. So where you wanner start? Let’s start with who’s paying you. Let’s start with Mr Sebbie Dacre.’

‘Dacre’s... nod payig us nothig.’

Danny pondered this, nodding rhythmically, like he was at a gig.

‘Nathan, one thing we don’t do is we don’t lie to our friends. Now we can have you all tucked up in Casualty in ten minutes – or at least in the bloody queue – or we can sit yere a while longer, admiring the moonlight over the Wye Valley.’

‘I’m id fuggig agony, you bassard!’ The sweat on Nathan’s face was making the dried blood glisten like jam.

‘And I feel for you, Nathan, but we en’t goin’ nowhere till after we has a meaningful conversation. Now... Dacre.’

‘Tells us go id heavy,’ Nathan said.

‘On Foley?’

‘Uh!’ Nathan twisted his head. ‘Be-ows.’

‘What?’

‘Beddows!’

‘Jeremy Berrows?’

Nathan nodding. ‘Said he was a bad tenad.’

‘He en’t a bloody tenant!’

‘Didn’ pay. Nebber fixed fences, loosed his sheep—’

‘Bullshit!’

‘Is whaddhe said!’ Nathan coughing, phlegmy. ‘Said go id hard. Beast on his ground, he won’t kill id!’

‘Beast?’

‘Seven grand,’ Nathan said.

‘What?’

‘Seven grand if we geds him.’

‘Nathan—’

‘Swearda God. We brings him a body, we geds seven, cash.’

On the back seat, Jane went rigid. Gomer carried on rolling his ciggy.

‘Run that by me again, Nathan,’ Danny said.

‘Fuggsake... We brigs him a beast, it’s seven thousad. Cash.’

There was a long silence. Gomer wet the ciggy paper with the tip of his tongue. Jane looked at Nathan; he wasn’t as old as she’d thought, might be no more than mid-twenties. And maybe not as hard as he’d imagined he was. You could start to feel sorry for Nathan. But she still didn’t understand what he was on about. Seven thousand?

‘Forgive me – we en’t talking ’bout foxes yere, are we?’ Danny said.

Nathan tried to breathe through his shattered nose and the breath got caught somewhere. There was a clicky, ratchety noise, and Nathan whimpered in pain. Whatever he’d done, Jane just wished they’d get this over, get him to hospital.

‘What, then?’ Danny said.

‘Dog.’

Jane breathed in hard. ‘Clancy said—’

Danny raised a hand. ‘Go on, Nathan.’

‘Killid’ sheep. Dacre said he’d god five, six sheep, throa’s ripped out.’

‘When?’

‘Dunno. Recent. Didn’ wad no fuss, no panig, see. Just wannid dealin’ wid.’

‘For seven grand? You really expect me to—?’

‘Wadds id kept quiet, he does, dassa mai’ thig. Don’ wadda locals involved. And don’ you go spreadin’ dis around, ’cause dis Dacre’s a hard basd—’

Seven grand?

‘Swearda God! I’m not godder make ub da’ kinda moddey, ab I?’

‘And that’s why you was gonner shoot Jeremy Berrows’s sheepdog?’

‘We wadder godder shoot no fuggig shee’dog!’ Nathan gritted his teeth, rocking his head. ‘Bigger, yeh? Down from the Ridge. Big black bugger.’

Danny turned round to Gomer. ‘He on about?’

‘Hold on, boy.’ Gomer leaned over Danny’s seat, and Jane knew what Mum meant about the light in his glasses. ‘You talking some’ing like... for instance, there was this so-called puma down West Wales, year or two back.’

‘Uh!’ Nathan nodding hard, wincing at the pain. ‘We was on dat... How Dacre god onto us, see.’

‘A mystery beast? That’s what you’re sayin’? Dacre reckons he’s got a mystery beast preying on his stock?’

Nathan closed his eyes, still nodding, sank down in the passenger seat.

Jane felt this unearthly tingle.

‘Comin’ out of Jeremy Berrows’s ground?’

‘Uh.’

Danny said, ‘Let me get this right, boy. Sebbie Dacre was offering you and your mates seven thousand pound if you brought him the body of a big black dog that been attacking his flocks. Usin’ you on account he didn’t want no local boys involved.’

Nathan made some kind of grunt you could probably take as affirmation. Danny turned back to Gomer.

‘I knew it, see. All that bullshit about demonstratin’ what it’s gonner be like if they bans huntin’ with hounds...’

‘The Hound,’ Jane said, breathless. ‘The black—’

Gomer put a hand on her arm. ‘Don’t get too carried away, Janey. We don’t know the half of it yet.’

‘Berrows’s ground,’ Danny whispered. ‘Gwilym Bufton said Sebbie seen it on Berrows’s ground.’

Jane said, ‘Danny, I think...’

She was looking at Nathan struggling to sit up. A gout of fresh, bright blood flooded out over his lips. Jane stifled a scream.

‘Oh hell,’ Danny said, not too calmly. He turned on the engine.

Part Three

It was several years before we discovered there was anything ghostly about it. I’d never believed in ghosts really... not until we experienced it ourselves. About three years ago, walking up the stairs late in the evening, I got to about here... and there was a shadowy figure crossed straight across in front of me... sort of a crouched person, almost like a largish sort of dog... just passed straight in front of me and into the inner hall and... well, I didn’t see any more after that. A prickly feeling went up my back.

John Williams, farmer, Hergest Court, 1987

21

Cwn Annwn

TURNING OVER THE apartment – this wasn’t something you did lightly.

The attic door opened easily. No alarm went off, though it wouldn’t have come as a big surprise to find one had been secretly installed. Merrily stood on the threshold of Jane’s domain, remembering how important having her own apartment had been to the kid’s acceptance, aged fifteen, of a new life in Ledwardine.

Just a child then – two years ago, incredibly, she’d been just a child. Now she was a working woman with a provisional driving licence. And in a relationship – was this really the new going out with someone? Sometimes it felt that while Jane and Eirion were in a relationship she and Lol were just going out. Even though they never did.

Merrily felt her age like a grey blanket around her shoulders. Standing in the doorway, looking up at the walls, an enormous colour chart for emulsion paint. Even on a drab day, the Mondrian Walls – currently, giant slabs of crimson, cobalt blue and chrome yellow – were startling enough to have the Listed Buildings Department chasing an injunction, if they ever found out.

Merrily went in. This visit was long overdue. It wasn’t that Jane had been particularly secretive or moody or preoccupied, or anything like that. In fact, after her long-dark-night-of-the-soul period during the autumn, she’d been unusually bright and animated.

Which had seemed to be down to the weekend job – the sense of grown-up independence it would be giving her... and more. Merrily remembered working Saturdays, at sixteen, in a small, indy record shop, putting on her black and purple Goth make-up like a uniform. Getting paid to be cool.

Then the record shop had closed down, the way they did, and she’d found a back-room job in an old-fashioned department store, where the merest smear of Goth and you were out. Welcome to the world of work.

What she couldn’t quite understand was what was so long-term cool about washing up and waiting tables in a cold, rundown, under-financed country-house hotel run by a redundant TV executive with no catering experience and a young Delia Smith who should have known better. Naturally, she’d been over to Stanner and met them both – this being Jane’s first weekend job, it was important to check it out – and Amber and Ben Foley had seemed pleasant and well-intentioned. And almost certainly doomed.

The bed was made, and very neatly. This was the bed to which Jane had brought Eirion last summer – Eirion blurting it out to Merrily the very next day, after she’d accused him of being a nice guy. No, I’m not – I slept with your daughter.

Merrily smiled: innocents, really, both of them.

This afternoon, under an hour ago, Lol had rung from Prof’s studio, ominously hesitant.

The familiar leaden thud of a bag of anxiety landing on the doorstep.

Lol had been hesitant as long as she’d known him. Much less so with her now, obviously. No taboos between them any more. All right, one taboo. Just the single issue where hesitancy still came into it.

‘This is about Jane, isn’t it?’ Merrily had said. ‘This is one of those situations where you have to decide where your loyalties lie.’

‘And what’s best,’ Lol said. ‘Ultimately.’ He paused. ‘She phoned.’

‘When?’

‘Last night. She said it was, you know, absolutely confidential. I was to say nothing to anybody. Well, I realize that “anybody” almost invariably means you, but in this case...’

Merrily had sunk into the office chair, jagged neon letters spelling out PREGNANCY and ABORTION in her head. Outside, it was attempting to snow again, like it had been all week.

‘She’s not pregnant,’ Lol said, ‘as far as I know.’

‘How did you—?’

‘It’s what you always think of first.’

‘You know me that well?’

‘Anyway, she wouldn’t tell me a thing like that. The things she tells me about are the things that might offend you professionally.’

‘Kid’s always taken a special kind of delight in offending me professionally.’

‘You’re not cooperating, Merrily. You know you have to cooperate here, or I can’t go on.’

‘All right. Yes. OK. There is no way she’ll ever learn you told me, as God is my—’

‘We take that as read,’ Lol said. ‘This is about Lucy’s house.’

‘Oh well, Jane knows all about that.’ The relief making her smile. ‘We keep our secrets to an absolute minimum these days. Grown-ups. Mates. All that stuff.’

‘Jane says Lucy doesn’t want us to give up on the house.’

‘Well, obviously, we—’ Merrily paused, staring out of the window, to where the apple tree branches waved vaguely. ‘Lucy says?’

‘The late Lucy Devenish.’

‘I see.’ Merrily said.

‘You do?’

‘Lucy has appeared to Jane... in a dream?’

‘No, through, um, a third party.’

‘Oh.’ The smile dissolving, Merrily scrabbling for a cigarette.

‘She said she’d thought about it for two or three days before deciding to ring. In the end she’d decided it would be remiss of her not to pass on the message.’

‘Lol, what are we talking about here? Clairvoyant, Romany shaman?’

‘She kept saying things like, “Well, obviously I’m in two minds about the whole thing and it’s probably bollocks anyway.” After what happened with Layla Riddock, I think she’d be quite cautious.’

‘I’d’ve thought that, too.’

‘It seems to be a spiritualist medium,’ Lol said.

‘She went to a... medium?’

‘I don’t think it was that formal, but it was obvious she wasn’t going to tell me the circumstances. So I’m just... I sat around and searched my conscience. And I thought, well, we don’t know who the medium is, and there are mediums and mediums. So I decided I ought to tell you.’

‘Thank you, Lol. It’s appreciated.’

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Lol said. ‘Lucy was a good friend to me.’

‘So you rang the agents to see if the buyers had by chance given back word?’

‘Naturally.’

‘And?’

‘The people can’t wait to move in. Although they have two children, they find it delightfully bijou rather than small and cramped.’

Merrily wondered if he’d still have told her about Jane and the medium if it had turned out that the purchasers had suddenly backed out and Lucy’s house was on the market again. She decided he would have, in the end, but maybe not until contracts had been exchanged.

‘Typical spirit message, then,’ Merrily said. ‘Sod-all use.’

Danny wasn’t sorry the job had been called off. It was too cold. The sky was tight as a snare drum, grains of fine snow collecting on the bonnet of the van like battery acid.

And Gomer was getting on in years, and excavating a wildlife pond for this posh bloke from Off, these were not the best conditions for it. So when the feller’s new wife comes on the scene, going, ‘No, I think it should be over there, don’t you, darling?’, Danny was relieved to hear Gomer suggesting they should both think about it for a few days.

Back in the van, Danny had asked Gomer how much he was going to charge the people for a wasted trip, and Gomer had shaken his head and said that wasn’t how you kept your clients. Fair enough. Danny had shrugged, still an apprentice in the plant-hire business, and Gomer had dropped him off back at the farm.

Snow was falling, light and fine as dust motes, when Danny saw the car in front of the galvanized gate and wondered which of Greta’s mouthy friends he’d have to endure before he got any lunch.

‘Ah! Now! Talk of the Devil!’ Greta giving it the full Janis Joplin from the living room, soon as he let himself in. ‘Look who’s yere, Danny!’

Danny pulled off his wellies and padded in, and came face to face with Mary Morson, Jeremy’s ex, in the black business suit her wore as some kind of social services gofer at Powys Council.

‘En’t you at work, Mary?’

‘Danny!’ Greta blasted.

‘Flexitime,’ Mary Morson said, smug. Put on a bit of weight, Danny noticed. Pregnant? Unlikely. Accidents didn’t happen to Mary Morson.

‘Listen to this, Danny,’ Greta said. ‘Just listen to this – what did I say about that woman? Tell it him, Mary.’

‘I just thought somebody should enlighten a mutual friend of ours.’ Mary looked serious, light brown hair tucked behind her ears, small disapproving lines either side of her mouth. ‘It’s none of my business, really.’

‘In which case—’

‘Danny!’

‘Go on, then.’ Danny sighed and tried to get his bum within a yard or two of the wood-stove, but Mary and Greta both had chairs pulled up to the heat. Jerry Springer or some such earache was on the telly with the sound thankfully down, and he stood in front of that.

‘That bitch is cheatin’ on him already,’ Greta said, big smile, and Danny turned briefly, thinking her was on about some bint on Jerry Springer. But it wasn’t Jerry Springer on the box after all, it was some little blonde home-improvement tart.

‘Natalie Craven,’ Mary said grimly.

‘Eh?’

‘That blue camper van. The one Natalie Craven sold to the survey people at Stanner Rocks...’

‘I thought you and the naturalist feller was all washed up,’ Danny said.

‘I still have friends there,’ Mary said, voice cold as outside. ‘They were using the van as a site office, and they kept the folding bed as emergency overnight accommodation for volunteers. But one day, there was evidence that it had been... used.’

‘Mabbe one of the volunteers fancied a lie-down. It can get weary, watching little bloody plants grow.’

‘At night, this was,’ Mary said, ‘when there weren’t any volunteers on site. The van was always kept locked and the keys in a locked drawer at the Nature Trust office in town. Anyway’ – Mary’s little nose twitched in distaste – ‘they found suggestions of sexual activity.’

‘Like what?’ Danny raised his eyes to the big central beam. ‘Pair o’ pink knickers with no crot—’

‘Danny!’ Greta roared.

‘Well, this is bloody daft, Gret. Couple o’ randy naturalists nips in the ole van for a quick shag, and it’s gotter be—’

‘Listen, will you!’

Danny sniffed and scowled, and Mary said, ‘The door hadn’t been forced. It had obviously been unlocked. And if anybody might’ve had a spare key, nobody could think of anybody more likely than the person who sold them the van in the first place. So anyway, one of the team, he left some equipment on the site this night, see, and had to go back. And what should he find parked up there on the edge of the forestry but Jeremy’s four-by-four, and nobody in it. But there was a bit of light coming from the camper van, and when he looked in the window, there she was, with a man, and it certainly wasn’t Jeremy.’

It had all come out in a rush, and Mary Morson slumped back in her chair, lips tight. For the first time in his life, Danny wanted to physically shake the smile off Greta’s face.

Natalie?

‘No more’n you’d expect from a woman like that,’ Greta said.

‘A woman like what?’

‘I need to spell it out?’

‘So who was the man?’

‘He didn’t recognize the man,’ Mary said. ‘He couldn’t see him very clearly, because he...’ Mary looked away. ‘I expect she was on top of him. But then he doesn’t know many local people, anyway.’

‘In which case—’

‘But he does know Jeremy! And he knows her.’

Danny shut his eyes. Shit.

‘Somebody ought to tell him,’ Mary said quietly. ‘Somebody who knows him well.’

‘When?’ Danny said harshly. ‘When was this?’

‘Night before last.’ Mary Morson stood up in front of him. ‘There’s no mistake about this, none at all, Danny. It was her. It was Natalie Craven and a bloke, and they were—’

‘All right!’

‘We’re just telling you,’ Greta said, ‘because you’re the nearest he’s got to a best friend. None of us wants to see him hurt.’

‘Hurt? It’ll kill him! You really expect me to go tell him? Like he don’t got enough on his plate?’

‘Who else is going to? You wanner wait till it’s all over Kington?’

‘You mean it en’t already? Oh, I forgot, you en’t been shopping yet, did you?’

‘That’s unfair!’

‘Well...’ Danny turned away. ‘It’s bloody upset me, it has.’

‘It’s upset all of us,’ Mary Morson said, shameless.

Merrily checked out the pine bookcase. Not many changes here: The Hedgewitch Almanac, Green Magic, Britain’s Pagan Places, plus another fifty or so pastel spines confirming that Jane was still a vague supporter of the Old Religion, which, as the kid now admitted, was actually not very old at all.

The shelves were all full. No room here for the Bible, which had failed to address the issue of the mystical British countryside, but there was still a corner, Merrily noted, for the 17th-century Herefordshire cleric Thomas Traherne, who’d chronicled its God-given glories at length.

This was all about the need for direct experience, a confirmation of Otherness. And, of course, there was an area of operation where Christianity and New Age paganism came close together.

It was spiritual healing.

It was several days now since she’d been to see Alice Meek, suggesting that if there was to be a service of healing it should initially be directed towards the soul of nine-year-old Roland Hook. Telling Alice it all came back to Roland, all the guilt and the grief... and the pain of a young child who had died, very afraid, in the middle of a crime. Maybe the knowledge that Roland’s soul was at peace would bring some kind of harmony to the family.

‘Right, then.’ Alice had stood up, stiff-backed, fiery-faced. ‘You leave it with me, vicar. Half of them won’t understand what it’s about, dull buggers, but I’ll talk to my niece in Solihull, her as did the Alpha course. We’ll make this happen, somehow.’

Not a word since. Sophie, meanwhile, had been compiling a list of ministers in the diocese who had a serious, practical interest in healing, with a view to organizing a preliminary meeting. But it needed someone else to organize it; Merrily wasn’t good at admin.

She sat on Jane’s bed. Turning over the apartment was beginning to look like a waste of time. Had she really expected to find a ouija board laid out next to the collected works of Doris Stokes? She’d looked briefly in the wardrobe, flicked open dressing-table drawers, glanced under the bed. Not even much dust under there – amazing what changes a few weekends of chambermaiding could bring about.

Through the window, she could see wooded Cole Hill, with scattered snow up there, like grated cheese. There hadn’t been a serious fall this year; maybe it wouldn’t come this side of Christmas. After Christmas, Lol would go on tour for the first time since... well, since he was hardly older than Jane. Lol finally getting a life: where would that leave them?

Don’t think about it.

The only book on the bedside table was a scuffed old favourite: The Folk-lore of Herefordshire, by Ella Mary Leather, dead for three-quarters of a century and still unsurpassed for down-home authenticity. There was an orange Post-it sticker in the book, and Merrily let it fall open.

Cwn Annwn, or the Dogs of Hell.

Parry (Hist. Kington 205) gives an account of the superstitious beliefs of many aged persons then (1845) living in the parish.

It was the opinion of many persons then living in the out-townships that spirits in the shape of black dogs are heard in the air, previous to the dissolution of a wicked person; they were described as being jet black, yet no one pretends to have seen them. But many believed that the king of darkness (say the gossips) sent them to terrify mankind when the soul of a human being was about to quit its earthly tenement.

Kington: the final frontier, the least known, most hidden, of Herefordshire’s six towns, in appearance more like the Radnorshire towns of Knighton and Rhayader, but with streets more cramped than either. It was even on the Welsh side of Offa’s Dyke. It was entirely understandable that Kington folk, even in the nineteenth century, should have felt under the dominion of Welsh mythology. And inevitable that Jane, working weekends in the area, would be interested.

Mrs Leather added:

Hergest Court was, or perhaps still is, haunted by a demon dog, said to have belonged to Black Vaughan and to have accompanied him during his life. It is seen before a death in the Vaughan family. A native of Kington writes: ‘In my young days I knew the people who lived at Hergest Court well, and they used to tell me strange things of the animal. How he inhabited a room at the top of the house, which no one ever ventured to enter; how he was heard there at night, clanking his chain; how at other times he was seen wandering about (minus the chain!) His favourite haunt was a pond, the “watering place” on the high road from Kington. The spot was much dreaded, and if possible avoided, by late travellers. I knew many who said they had seen the black dog of Hergest.’

Right. This was the legend alleged to be the source of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Ben Foley hosted murder weekends at Stanner, appearing as Sherlock Holmes, on the basis – unproven – that Arthur Conan Doyle used to stay there.

This would be Jane helping out with background research.

Of course, despite being a doctor, a man of science, Conan Doyle had been very deeply into spiritualism and psychic matters in general. Merrily recalled reading how he was convinced that the escapologist, Harry Houdini, was using psychic powers to dematerialize, which Houdini denied to the end. Doyle had also championed the Cottingley Fairies photographs – fakes.

Hmm.

Merrily shut the book and arranged it carefully on the bedside table, the way she’d found it. She went back to the bookcase, crouched down and re-inspected the titles, one by one this time. Definitely nothing here suggestive of a new interest in spiritualism.

When you thought about it, the only place Jane could realistically have encountered a medium – the only place, apart from school, she’d been to in weeks, in fact – was Stanner Hall.

Was, or perhaps still is, haunted by a demon dog.

But that was Hergest Court, not Stanner. Stanner wasn’t old enough to be haunted by a demon dog. A ‘demon dog’, anyway, was probably no more than an imprint, or a projection. Nothing demonic about dogs.

Merrily checked out the little room which, due to cash flow, was still only halfway to becoming Jane’s private bathroom. Found herself lifting the lid of the toilet cistern.

Nothing but brownish water. Feeling stupid and treacherous, Merrily replaced the cistern lid. As she left the apartment she looked around the upper landing, full of shadows even in the early afternoon, and a few trailing cobwebs she ought to get around to removing. She cleared her throat.

‘We’re all right, you know. We can manage, Lol and me. And you must have things to get on with, Lucy. A woman like you.’

She went downstairs, shaking her head. Madness. All priests were prey to madness.

And then, on reaching the bottom, she immediately turned and went back up and said a small prayer outside Jane’s door. Paranoia.

That night it all came back, like something she’d eaten, when the kid said, ‘Would it be OK if I spent all next weekend at Stanner? Friday till Sunday?’

Merrily went still, hands in the washing up bowl. She didn’t turn round.

‘Weather doesn’t look too promising, flower.’

‘Well, I can always cadge a lift with Gomer in the truck if it looks bad. The thing is, they really need me – there’s a conference on.’

‘An actual conference.’

‘Don’t be like that. They’re doing their best.’

‘What kind of conference?’

‘Oh... . something called the White Company. It’s the title of an historical novel by Conan Doyle so I expect they’re into, like, the non-Holmes side of it. Which sounds boring, but Ben thinks it’s great. Like, anything at all to do with Conan Doyle, he’s up for it. And the money, naturally.’

‘Interesting man,’ Merrily said, ‘Conan Doyle.’

‘Er... yeah.’

‘Progressive thinker. Although he lost a lot of credibility towards the end of his life through his support of spiritualism.’

‘Well, he would wouldn’t he?’

‘Would he?’

‘It was all bollocks.’

‘Ben Foley’s not interested in that side of him, then?’

‘Ben’s got his credibility to think about.’ Jane stood up. ‘Tell you what... just to make sure it’s OK for the weekend, how about I walk down to Gomer’s and ask him if he’ll be around Kington, with Danny. And the truck.’

‘Why don’t you just give him a ring?’

‘I’ve tried. Always leaves his answering machine on at night. Look, if you light the fire, I’ll be back in no time.’

Through the half-open kitchen door, Merrily watched Jane throwing on her fleece and slipping out the front way.

Oh, there was something.

22

Whoop, Whoop

‘COMES A TIME,’ Gomer said, ‘when you gotter decide whether seven grand’s worth gettin’ your face stove in for. Naw, they en’t been back, them Welshies, ’course they en’t.’

Gomer’s kitchen was still like a monument to Minnie, who had died on him: very clean and bright with shiny pots and cake tins, lurid curtains with big red tulips on them and a tea cosy in the shape of a marmalade cat. Nothing added, nothing taken away; maybe a shrine or maybe Gomer just wasn’t interested in kitchens.

‘I did try to phone you a few times.’ Jane took off her fleece. ‘I rang Danny last night, but I got Greta so I had to pretend it was a wrong number. Anything I can do while I’m here?’

Gomer gave her a sharp look. ‘I en’t an ole pensioner yet, girl.’

I know that. It’s just that when you’re a weekend maid it’s the way you think.’ She sat down at the kitchen table. ‘It’s a lot of money, Gomer.’

‘Oh hell, aye. Even for Sebbie Three Farms, now. Lost a fair bit five year or so back. Wife divorced him. Had to do a bit o’ jugglin’ to hold on to all his ground.’

‘What’s he like?’

‘Sebbie? Standard ole Border gentry. Certain kind seems to thrive yereabouts – talk posh but rough as a sow’s hide underneath. Can’t say I likes the feller, but can’t say I dislikes him as much as some of ’em. En’t figured it out, mind, why he brung in shooters from Off.’

‘Because he didn’t want local people gossiping.’

‘But if he’s got a beast at his flocks, why en’t he out there ’isself? Been around guns all his life. Why en’t Sebbie out there ’isself takin’ a pop? Tea, Janey?’

‘No, thanks, I can’t stay long.’

‘Well, I’m gonner have one.’

Gomer went to put the kettle on. Jane looked at the crack of night between the drawn curtains. For three nights, she’d lain in bed dwelling, with no pleasurable frissons, upon the beast, the participants in the event in the kitchens at Stanner. And sometimes feeling Lucy Devenish watching her from the corner by the bookcase – this solemn, hawk-nosed figure in a poncho, rebuking her for her lies, deceit and despicable selfishness.

‘Gomer...’ She hesitated. Gomer plugged in the kettle and turned and looked at her. ‘The Hound of Hergest,’ she said.

Gomer came and sat down. His smile was sceptical. ‘I won’t say I en’t never yeard of folk supposed to’ve seen him, Janey. But the ole Hound of Hergest – do he kill ewes, this is the question?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Yere’s the situation. Dogs kills sheep. Sheepdogs kills sheep – one o’ your big myths is that stock with their throats ripped out, that’s all down to Mr Fox. Truth is, whole load of lambs gets savaged every year by sheepdogs. Thin line between snappin’ at sheep to round ’em up and picking one off. Point I’m makin’, Janey, if you got a mystery beast preyin’ on ewes, chances are it’s a big sheepdog – mabbe two – that’s got the taste for blood.’

‘So why’s this Sebbie Dacre so scared of going out there himself with a gun?’

‘I say scared?’ Gomer squinted at her.

Also, at night, she’d thought of Nathan. What if he’d died? What if he’d died there in Danny’s van, leaving Ben facing a manslaughter charge, at the very least, and Gomer and Danny and her as accessories?

What if he’d died after they’d got him to the hospital? What if he was dead now?

‘I wouldn’t know why Sebbie’s scared,’ Gomer said. ‘Man like Sebbie, he don’t confide to the likes of we. Don’t confide to nobody, that family. He also don’t scare that easy.’

‘They were related to the Chancerys of Stanner, weren’t they?’

‘Who you year that from, Janey?’

‘Woman who’s booking a conference at Stanner. Mrs Pollen.’

‘From Pembridge?’ Gomer nodded. ‘Me and Nev put her a septic tank in once. Husband used to be County Harchivist for Powys.’

‘So Dacre is related to the Chancerys?’

‘Small world, girl, terrible inbred. Sebbie’s ma was Margery Davies, second daughter of Robert and Hattie Davies – Hattie Chancery as was. After Stanner was sold, Margie ’herited most of the ground on the Welsh side and some money, and her married Richard Dacre, who was the son of a farmer on the English side. So, overnight, like, they become the biggest landowners yereabouts. And they had just the one son and that was Sebbie, and a younger daughter. So when Richard died, Sebbie got the main farms and all the ground and a fair bit of cash. And then he bought up Emrys Morgan’s farm across the valley, when Emrys died, and so that’s why they calls him Sebbie Three Farms. See?’

‘So Dacre is Hattie Chancery’s grandson. And great-grandson of Walter Chance, who built Stanner Hall.’

‘Correct. Hattie, her had two daughters, but Paula, the oldest, got sent away, and Paula was left the Stanner home farm, The Nant, which was leased long-term to Eddie Berrows, Jeremy’s dad, who was Hattie’s farm manager’s son.’

‘So Jeremy’s farm was originally part of the Stanner estate, too.’

‘Not much wasn’t. Now Paula, after what happened with Hattie and Robert, her was brung up by Robert’s sister up in Cheshire. Growed up and married a feller up there and just took the income from the lease. But her died youngish, see, and Richard Dacre, he kept trying to buy The Nant off Paula’s husband, but Paula, her had a soft spot for the Berrows from when her was little, and her husband knew the Berrowses didn’t want the Dacres as their landlords, ’cause the Dacres’d likely have ’em out on their arses first possible opportunity. So he signs another lease with Eddie Berrows – under Richard’s nose, so to speak. And the Dacres was blind bloody furious. So that split the family good and proper. Plus, it explains why Sebbie Dacre got no love for Jeremy.’

‘It’s not short of feuds, is it, this area? You need an up-to-date feud-map just to find your way around.’ Jane was imagining a large-scale plan of the Welsh Border hills, with arteries of hatred linking farms and estates, pockets of old resentment, dotted lines marking tunnels of lingering suspicion.

‘’Course, quite a lot of folk don’t think too highly of Sebbie,’ Gomer said. ‘Do he care? Do he f— No, he don’t, Janey. He don’t care.’

‘So, what happened – I mean I really think I ought to know this, working at Stanner – what exactly happened with Hattie Chancery? Or is that something people don’t talk about?’

‘They don’t talk about it,’ Gomer said, ‘on account there en’t that many folk left round yere remembers it.’

‘What about you?’

‘I was just a boy then. Just a kiddie at the little school.’

‘So you’re saying you don’t remember it either?’

Gomer dug into a pocket of his baggy jeans and slapped his ciggy tin on the kitchen table. ‘’Course I remembers it. All everybody bloody jabbered about for weeks.’

Jane beamed at him. ‘Maybe I will have a cup of tea after all, if that’s all right.’

And she sat quietly and watched Gomer making it. Could tell by the way he was nodding to himself, lips moving, that he was replaying his memories like a videotape, and maybe editing them, too.

While the tea was brewing, Gomer brought down Minnie’s bone-china cups and saucers, and it was touching to watch him laying them out with hands that looked like heavy-duty gardening gloves. Jane waited. If she was going to be of any use to Antony Largo, she needed more background information. This wasn’t simply curiosity, it was need-to-know.

Last night, from the apartment, she’d rung Natalie to ask how things were going, like with Ben. Nat hadn’t been all that forthcoming. ‘He’s all right.’

Jane had pressed on anyway. ‘But is he? That guy thought Ben was going to kill him. He was terrified, he— It’s like... it’s a side of Ben I’ve never seen.’

‘He’s a man,’ Nat had said, offhand. ‘Men can’t be seen to back down. I really don’t think he meant to do that much damage.’

‘Nat, was he—?’

‘It happened very quickly, Jane. I didn’t really see anything.’

‘Well, obviously, that’s what you’d tell the police.’

‘Police?’

‘I mean if the police were involved. If that guy’s injuries—’

‘Jane...’ Nat’s voice had gone low. ‘That really isn’t going to happen. So I think it’s best we all forget about this incident. It was a one-off, and if it gets round... you know what this area’s like. We don’t want Ben to get a reputation. Best if we don’t talk about it any more. All right?’

Nat had sounded nervy. Not herself at all.

And Jane was still hearing, Thick, barbaric yobs. No subtlety... Where I come from, we have real hard bastards.’

Time to investigate Ben’s history. This morning, Jane had got up early, gone down to the scullery, switched on the computer and fed Ben Foley into Google. Hard to remember what life had been like without the Net. Now everybody was a private eye.

The results had been disappointing. All she’d found were references to the various TV series Ben had been involved with, no personal stuff at all. It had been mildly amusing to discover a Web site for The Missing Casebook, his series about what had really happened to Sherlock Holmes post-Reichenbach. It had become a very small cult, the Web site set up by a hard core of fans furious that it hadn’t run to a second series. But the site didn’t seem to have been updated for a while.

Jane also looked up Antony Largo. Most of the references were to his documentary Women of the Midnight. The words most often applied to Antony were committed and tenacious. To understand what drove women to kill without mercy, without pity, inverting their need to nurture, he was said to have spent weeks in Holloway prison and had corresponded with Myra Hindley, the moors murderess. After Women of the Midnight, Antony never seemed to have been out of work, but he didn’t seem to have done anything since that had been quite as massively acclaimed.

It was becoming clear that Ben had known exactly what he was doing – connecting with old triumphs – when he’d introduced Antony to Hattie Chancery.

‘Hattie Chancery,’ Gomer said, lighting up. ‘Her was as big as a cow. Her could skin a rabbit with her teeth. Her could ride all day and drink strong men under the table.’

‘Really?’

‘Prob’ly not, but it’s what we was told as kids. “Eat up your sprouts, boy, else Hattie Chancery’ll come for you in the night and put you under her arm and take you away.” You woke up in the night, bit of a creak, it’d be Hattie Chancery on the stairs.’

‘This was while she was still alive?’

‘Sure t’be.’ Gomer nodded. ‘Master of the Middle Marches, see, for years. The hunt, Janey. Used to year ’em galloping up Woolmer’s pitch of a Saturday, hounds yowlin’ away, but the loudest of all’d be Hattie Chancery. Like a whoop, whoop in the air, urgin’ on the fellers. Hattie Chancery: whoop, whoop.’

Gomer leaned back in his chair, into the smoke from his ciggy and the clouds of his childhood.

‘Was that unusual,’ Jane asked him, ‘having a female hunt master in those days?’

‘Was round yere. But Hattie, her was a dynamite horse-woman, and had this authority about her. Big woman, see. Weighed a fair bit, in later years. Drank beer. Pints. Big thirst on her.’

Jane knew girls at school who drank pints, but that was more about sexual politics than big thirst.

‘You still gets huntswomen like that now, mind,’ Gomer said. ‘Loud. I remember folks used to jump in the ditch if they yeard Hattie’s car comin’ round the bend from the pub at Gladestry. That was a fact – into the bloody ditch, no messin’, and they’d year her laughing like a maniac as her come beltin’ past, well tanked-up, all the windows down. No big drink-driving thing in them days, see. Least, not for the likes of Hattie Chancery.’

Jane was surprised that Gomer could remember so far back, but she supposed you did when you got older; it was just the more recent events that became a haze.

‘What about the husband?’

‘Robert? Kept well out of it, Janey. Never hunted. Couldn’t ride, for one thing – they reckoned he had an injury from the Great War, but I also yeard it said he had a bit of a distaste for all that. For blood. Bad time, they reckoned, in France, and he come back a changed man: quiet, thoughtful, never talked about what he’d seen. Son of a doctor in Kington, Robert was. Good-lookin’ feller, caught Hattie’s eye, and that was that. Her was young, eighteen or so, when her married Robert. Hattie’s ole man had died by then, and so Robert come to Stanner. Hattie wouldn’t never leave Stanner. Brought Robert back like a bride. That’s what they used to say. Like a bride.’

Jane sipped her tea, forming this picture of Robert as some kind of poetic Wilfred Owen type, sickened by the horrors of the trenches. Maybe even a Lol type.

‘Serious mismatch,’ Gomer said. ‘Went wrong early, got worse.’

‘You ever see him?’

‘Mostly, he stayed round the house and the grounds, but I seen him once or twice. Every now and seldom he’d go for a walk on his own, along Hergest Ridge, with a knapsack. And I was with my ole man this day – I’d be about seven – and we seen Mr Robert, and he give me an apple. And I remember my ole man watching him walk off, head down into the wind, and the ole man sayin’, “Poor bugger.” Always remember that. Poor bugger.’

‘So how long was that before...’

‘Oh, mabbe a year or two. ’Course, there was a lot o’ gossip ’fore that, about Hattie and her men.’

‘She had other men?’

‘Oh hell, aye. Any number, you believed the stories. Any number. Good-lookin’ woman, see. Golden-haired and statuesque, like. There was tales...’ Gomer looked into his cup, cleared his throat. ‘Like, you’ll’ve yeard how a new huntsman gets blooded, from his first kill. They reckoned the Middle Marches had its own... test. For a new boy. See if he was up to it, like.’

‘What – up to Hattie?’

‘Her was said to be... I suppose today you’d have a name for it.’

‘Generous?’

‘Nympho,’ Gomer said. ‘Appetites like a feller, my mam used to say – not to me, like, but I overyeard her and Mrs Probert from the Cwm once. Well, naturally, after her done what her done, they all had their theories. More like a feller. Used to get in fights in the pub. Smash an ole pint glass, shove it at you.’

‘She glassed people?’

‘All kinds of stories went round after her killed Robert. Stories I wouldn’t rush to repeat.’ Gomer sniffed, stirring his tea, ciggy in his lips. ‘Not to a young woman.’

‘Oh, Gomer.’

‘Janey, it was gossip. We was kids. Young boys. ’Sides, it was five or six years after her was dead I yeard this. Durin’ the War. Young lads talkin’, the way young lads talks at that age.’

Jane had an image of Gomer in adolescence: thin as a straw, hair like a yardbrush.

‘Gomer, I’m like... seventeen, now? You know?’

Gomer stirred the dregs of the tea in the pot and filled his cup with it – tea like sump oil. ‘It was Stanner Rocks,’ he said. ‘Used to take ’em up Stanner.’

‘Men?’

‘Funny place, see. Scientists now, they reckons it’s down to what they calls a Standing Wave. Meteological stuff. Gives it a rare climate up there, like in Italy and them places. Nowhere like it, ’specially not on the edge of Wales.’

‘Mediterranean.’ Jane nodded. Ben had gone on about it, bemoaning the fact that the rocks, with their odd climatic conditions and their rare plants, didn’t belong to the hotel. A national nature reserve now, so you had to have special permission to go up there, which meant Ben couldn’t even build it up as a tourist attraction.

‘They din’t know the scientific stuff then,’ Gomer said, ‘but everybody said it was a funny place, what with the Devil’s Garden where nothing grew – just thin soil, more like, but they always called it the Devil’s Garden. Soil’s that thin on them ole rocks that in a good summer you’ll have a drought up there as kills off half the trees and the bushes. See, what—’

‘And she used to take men up there?’

Gomer sucked the ciggy to the end, carefully extracted the remains. ‘Boys’ talk. No matter what the weather was like, see, you’d always find a warm spot on top o’ Stanner.’

‘Like for sex?’

‘Bloody hell, Janey! Can’t get to it fast enough, can you?’

‘Sorry.’

Gomer drank his tea. ‘Her’d make ’em go right to the edge. Right to the edge of the rocks. The cliff edge. Hundred-foot drop or more, onto stones. And her’d have ’em right on the edge, more ways than one. Whoop whoop.’

‘Oh.’

‘Boys’ talk, Janey. Stories, that’s all.’

‘So like, did you know anybody who... ?’

Gomer stared into his teacup; it was empty.

Gomer!

‘Pal o’ mine – his older brother. He was one.’

‘And what happened?’

‘Men wasn’t experienced back then, Janey, not quite the same way they are now. Her gets him... overwrought.’ Gomer’s face went dark red. ‘And then, when he can’t think proper, her’s got him hanging half over the edge. Thought he was gonner go over the top and he... he din’t care, see. Din’t care if he went over or not.’

‘Bloody hell, Gomer.’

‘Boys’ talk,’ Gomer said. ‘They used to say her liked ’em to be real scared. This was the thing for Hattie. Take the boys to the edge, show ’em who was boss.’

‘Domination? Like, she got off on it?’

‘Mabbe.’

‘So it wasn’t just boys’ talk at all, was it?’ Jane said softly.

Gomer coughed. ‘Mabbe not all of it.’ He started rolling another ciggy, then stopped and shut the tin and looked past Jane into a corner of the kitchen as if he thought Minnie might be there, watching him with disapproval. ‘Afterwards, her’d make ’em bring a rock back for her. A stone. Mabbe the size of half a brick.’

‘What for?’

‘Kept the stones on the mantelpiece. In a line.’

‘I don’t get it.’

‘Trophies,’ Gomer said. ‘Every time her had a different feller up the top he’d have to fetch a new rock back. All laid out on the mantelpiece in the big drawing room, all in a line, where poor Robert could see ’em – watch the line of stones gettin’ longer. He wasn’t a well man by then. Chest. Spent a lot o’ time in the lounge in front of the fire. Under this line of stones, gettin’ longer.’

‘What a total bitch.’

‘We had all the gossip from the servants, see – local people. Her used to scream at him that he was weak – a malingerer. He was ill, was what it was, but Hattie din’t wanner know ’bout that. Not her idea of what a countryman should be – a countryman was healthy. When her was out huntin’, he’d go to bed, try to build up his strength, mabbe fall asleep and then her’d come back and find him... rip all the bedclothes off him, leave him shiverin’. Always made her angry, the drink. Some folks gets merry, some— What’s wrong, Janey?’

‘She pulled the bedclothes off him?’

Jane moistened her lips. In her head, a memory of being in the doorway of her first bedroom at Stanner, looking in at all the duvet pulled off, its cover gathered in a heap like a flaccid parachute.

‘If he was still up,’ Gomer said, ‘there’d likely be a fight – a real fight: bruises, split lips. His lips. That was talked about, oh hell, aye. Can’t cover up a split lip, can you? Can’t pass it off as how you fell over the grate.’

‘How could he stand it?’

‘Her house, her money. Where’s he gonner go? Pitiful, Janey.’

‘Yes.’

‘And that was how it come to the end. Night of the day of the hunt. Hattie real fired up, as usual. Her’d ride like the devil, and if they ever come back without a kill... not a happy woman.’

‘You make her sound like...’

‘Ar?’

‘Doesn’t matter, go on.’

‘This night – round about now on the calendar, night of the Middle Marches Hunt Ball... See, Robert, he wouldn’t go to the Hunt Ball, couldn’t get on with these country sports types. Hattie goes alone. Comes back alone around two or three in the mornin’, but whether her was alone between leavin’ the ball and gettin’ back to Stanner, that’s anybody’s guess.’

‘Slag.’

‘Ar. So he’s still up when her gets in, mabbe asleep in the chair. Then, all this noise, shoutin’ and screamin’. Servants yeard it, but they was used to it, see. It was only when it carried on out in the garden – and then it all goes quiet – that a couple of ’em comes out, the servants. Found Robert out in the garden, down near this ole seat where he used to sit and stare out at the hills. They reckoned he’d tried to crawl up onto the seat, but he’d just fallen back, down on the grass. And Hattie – her was just standin’ there, a few yards away, like a marble statue, arms down by her sides. A rock in each hand. From the mantelpiece.’

‘Jesus.’ Jane wondered how much of this Ben had told Amber. How much Ben himself knew. If he knew anything when he was planning his cute little murder-mystery weekend.

‘Then Hattie, her drops the rocks and walks calmly past ’em, up the path and into the house. Servants carries Robert in, lays him out on the long sofa. One of ’em rings for the doctor, though they knows it’s too late. Hattie’s movin’ around upstairs, but nobody’s brave enough to go up there. And then one of ’em notices the desk drawer’s hangin’ open. This is where Robert kept his service revolver, locked away.’

‘Oh hell, Gomer.’

‘No sooner they seen the drawer’s open than it’s too late. Echoes through the whole house like...’

Oh. Oh G—

‘... thunder. Took a while ’fore one of ’em was up to goin’ up them stairs. Ole Leonard, the butler, it was. Had a bit of a job getting the bedroom door open on account of Hattie was on the floor behind it. Big woman, see, like I say.’

Jane heard her own voice saying, ‘Was she dead?’ Like from a distance, like it was someone else speaking, because she didn’t think she could move her lips.

‘Her’d put the end of the ole revolver in her mouth, Janey.’

She wanted to scream aloud. She wanted to leap up and go screaming down the lane. Anything to take her out of her own head, where an explosion had happened in the early hours.

‘Not the nicest way to go,’ Gomer said. ‘But I s’pose it’s what you’d expect, kind of woman her was. No nonsense. You chews on the barrel, en’t nothing gonner go wrong. Hexpedient. How much them kids saw, nobody knows – mabbe it’s what messed Paula up in the head.’

‘She doesn—’ Jane’s lips were rubbery. ‘Doesn’t seem like a woman who would kill herself.’

‘What’s the alternative, Janey? Even if her didn’t get hanged, her’d’ve gone to jail for life. Go to jail? Leave Stanner? Lose it all for a few moments of black madness? Naw, her took the man’s way out – that’s what they used to say. And took Stanner Hall with her. You inherited Stanner, would you wanner live there after that? Not like it was ancestral – two generations? Never was a house again. Commercial premises from then on. Grounds all overgrown. Us kids tellin’ stories of Hattie’s big ghost, gliding through the tangled ole gardens with a rock in each hand.’

Gomer gathered the teacups and the pot on a tray and took them to the sink.

‘Goin’ Whoop, whoop,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘Whoop, whoop.’

23

Showdown Time

DANNY HAD AWOKEN in the dark with this sense of something closing around him like a fist. Like during the Foot and Mouth – filthy smoke from distant pyres of flesh and hide, mostly unnecessary, an uninvestigated crime perpetrated by the wankers of Westminster, and all you could do was turn away and weep.

In the end he’d got up, leaving Greta rumbling warmly, happy as an old Rayburn. Half-past three in the morning, and he’d gone downstairs and shoved a block into the stove, putting on his cans and letting in the soaring fury of The Queens of the Stone Age. There were times when only heavy music could blank out the foundry of your thoughts.

Even though he’d resisted rolling a joint, he awoke before seven with a mouth like the deck of a New Age traveller’s bus, and Greta bending over him, lifting off the cans, closing his hands around a mug of tea.

‘You en’t got to, Danny.’

Danny sat up, spilling the tea.

‘Like you said, it en’t really your business,’ Greta said.

‘But... ?’

‘But nothing.’

‘But you think I should tell him. Don’t you?’

‘You can tell me. If you want to.’ Greta sat down next to him, in her old pink towelling robe. Danny remembered a seventeen-year-old rock chick in a kimono, and how he used to picture her with him in a beach house overlooking the Pacific Ocean, knowing – totally bloody knowing – that one day that was where they’d be, him and Gret. And here they still were, after thirty years, and it was too cold for kimonos and always would be now.

‘Tell you what?’

‘The rest of it,’ Greta said. ‘There’s more to it, en’t there?’ Mabbe years since her’d spoken to him like this – this quiet.

‘Dunno what you mean.’

‘Look at me,’ Greta said.

He did. Always looked good with her hair down, but it was only ever down in the mornings. Danny felt a sense of loss and sadness.

‘He’s different is what it is, Gret. You know that. Different from the rest of ’em, different even from me. But at least I can see it.’

‘Different how?’ Greta said, holding his gaze with her big brown eyes. You, my brown-eyed girl. The young Van Morrison. How long ago? God.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry what I said about you gossipin’. I was distraught.’

‘You don’t tell me things n’more, Danny. Think I’m gonner spread everything round Kington market. It’s like Gomer’s your wife now.’

‘Don’t be daft.’ And yet he knew this was partly right. There was things that Gomer understood, though you wouldn’t think it to look at him with his ciggy jammed in and his glasses alight. You’d think Gomer was a bit touched. But mabbe that was it – you needed to be a bit touched to understand some things. Greta and him, folks used to say they was both touched, back in the wild ole days.

‘You were right about one thing,’ Greta said. ‘Mary Morson was never the one for Jeremy. No sensitiveness there at all.’

‘No.’

‘Jeremy’s mother used to say he had the Sight.’

‘Even his mother did? You never told me that before.’

‘Din’t wanner set you off. Visions and stuff.’

‘That was acid. I wouldn’t do that now.’

‘Wouldn’t you?’

Danny smiled. Greta continued to sit there. Bugger, Danny thought, it’s too early for this.

‘Never loses a lamb, do he?’ Greta said. ‘Never loses a lamb to the fox. It’s like he’s come to an agreement with the foxes. His mother used to say that, too. When he was real little, he’d creep out at night and they’d find him sitting with the sheep. Catch his death, his mother used to say.’

Funny phrase that, Danny thought. Catch his death. Funny how a familiar saying could sound new and full of meaning, if it caught you in the right mood. Aye, if death was coming, Jeremy would see it, mabbe have a chance to catch it in both hands, his eyes wide open.

‘He’s part of that farm,’ Danny told Greta. ‘The land, the stock, Jeremy. A whole organism, see, and he’s the part as thinks. And he keeps it all balanced, and in that way I always feel the boy’s good for this whole area. Balance – don’t ask me to explain it. It’s the way he works, goes quietly on... if they’d leave him alone.’

‘People?’

‘He just en’t good with people. They don’t get to know him easy, and he don’t know them. Hard to go quietly, nowadays.’

‘Mary Morson made all the running,’ Greta said.

‘Her’d have to.’

‘He was a catch. A good, sound farm.’

‘Mary Morson’s a cold-hearted little bloody gold-digger.’

‘And this Natalie?’ Greta said. ‘Where’s the difference there? Got it made now. Single parent in need of a home. Where’s the difference?’

Danny drained his mug. ‘There is a difference. All I can tell you is, the first time they met, it was in the air. Like some’ing he’d been waiting for all his life. I can’t explain it. It didn’t seem right, but then it did – later. I don’t know why.’

‘She’s beautiful, Danny, how else would he be?’

Danny bowed his head. ‘This is gonner kill him, Gret.’

‘It’ll kill him if he gets it from somebody else.’

‘Mary.’ Danny sighed. ‘Aye, Mary’ll spread it.’

‘Only thinks of herself.’

‘Shit.’ He stared at the light on the stereo, a little red planet. ‘See, the rest of it... I can’t figure it out, but some’ing’s gone unstable. Sebbie Dacre feels it, I’m sure of that. Sebbie feels threatened – big farmer, big magistrate, Master of the fucking Hunt, and he feels threatened. By Jeremy? How’s that possible? Lived side by side with Sebbie all his life, no trouble – no pally-pally either, but that’s a class thing. Yet here’s Sebbie sending his Welshie shooters to terrorize the boy. Why?’

Greta put a hand on Danny’s thigh. ‘You got a job today, with Gomer?’

‘Nope.’

‘Then you better go talk to him, en’t you? You go this morning. Get it over.’

‘Aye.’ Danny put his mug on the floor and then he put his arms around her, his eyes full of tears that he couldn’t have fully explained.

Around mid-morning, it finally started to snow. Real snow, the kind you knew wouldn’t stop. Flakes the size of two-pound coins, and it was already an inch deep on the vicarage drive when Merrily opened the front door to Gomer Parry.

‘Vicar.’ The end of Gomer’s ciggy was the only warmth out there. He had his old cap on and his muffler. When you looked up, the snow was almost black against the sky.

‘You must’ve heard the kettle.’

‘Ah,’ Gomer said, ‘that’s what it was.’

He sat down at the kitchen table, with his cap, his muffler and his ciggy tin in a little mound by his elbow, and she made him tea and put out chocolate digestives for him to dunk. When the phone rang, she let the machine take it.

‘You talked to Jane last night?’ She switched on the lamp on the dresser.

‘Difficult,’ Gomer said.

‘Goes without saying.’

‘Don’t wanner break no confidence.’

‘You’re not the first to say that, in relation to Jane.’ Merrily came and sat down opposite him. ‘Vicars aren’t good for much these days, but we’re good at keeping confidences. Take it all with us to the grave.’

I know that, vicar. ’Sides, this prob’ly en’t confidential.’ He glanced around. ‘Her’s at school?’

Merrily nodded. ‘Last day of term tomorrow. If it carries on snowing like this, she may not even make it tomorrow.’

‘So this...’

‘This could be our last chance to talk about her behind her back, yes.’

‘See this—’ Gomer broke a chocolate digestive in half. ‘Her’s likely told you about it already, but if her en’t...’ He stared up at the snowy window.

Merrily said, ‘It isn’t about spiritualism, is it?’

‘Eh?’

‘Contacting the dead?’

Gomer blinked. ‘No, it’s about this Ben Foley beating seven bells out of this feller the other night.’

What?

Gomer nodded slowly. ‘Her never tole you ’bout that, then.’

Danny turned the Land Rover around and parked him up against some holly trees on the edge of the farmyard at The Nant. By the time he’d unbuckled and climbed down, the windscreen was already thick with snow. It had to come, and he was glad; it was like some of the tension had been released from the drum-skin sky. Just from the sky, though, not from Danny Thomas.

Jeremy was already at the gate, like he’d been watching out for something. He had on one of those tea-cosy woollen hats – Badly Drawn Boy job.

‘Just passin’,’ Danny said. ‘Reckoned you might need a bit o’ help gettin’ the ewes down from the hill.’ He looked up at the teeming sky. ‘Way all this come on – sudden, like.’

‘Had ’em down last night.’ The snow was all over Jeremy, confusing the pattern on his blue and black workshirt.

Well, he would know this was on its way, wouldn’t he? His friends the clouds, and all that.

‘Jeremy, we...’ Danny stood and faced him over the gate, pulling his denim jacket together over the baggy old Soft Machine sweatshirt he was wearing over his King Crimson T-shirt: the layered look. ‘I reckon we gotter talk, boy.’

Jeremy said, ‘We don’t ’ave to.’ He started waggling his hands, embarrassed. ‘What I mean... the way he’s comin’ down you could easy get blocked in back at your place.’

Danny rested his arms in the soft snow on top of the wooden gate. ‘Do I give a shit, boy? This partic’lar moment, mabbe not.’ He pointed at the farmhouse door. ‘Inside, eh?’ What was strange was that nothing had changed from when Jeremy’s mam was in charge: the same dresser with some of the pots the old girl hadn’t been able to take with her to the sheltered bungalow in Kington, the same flowery wallpaper between the beams, the same dark green picture of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Blocks of wood were turning into glowing orange husks on the open fire in the cast-iron range. The kettle hissed on the hob. Flag the sheepdog lay on the same old brown and green rag rug that had been here likely thirty-five years. Damn near as old as Jeremy, that rug.

All of which was odd, when you knew there’d been a new woman here for nigh on six months now, a smart woman who’d be expected to make big changes.

Danny sank into the old rocking chair and told Jeremy about the Welshie, Nathan, what Ben Foley had done to him and what he’d told them on his way to hospital. Just in case Miz Natalie Craven hadn’t given him the full story.

‘No problem at the hospital, in the end,’ Danny said. ‘Gomer knowed the nurse from when his missus died. ’Sides, even if they’d wanted to keep the boy in, they’d’ve had nowhere to put the poor bugger. Seen bigger bloody sheep sheds than that new hospital.’

Jeremy stood his wellies on the stone hearth at the foot of the range. Jesus Christ looked miserably down from over the fireplace, waiting to get betrayed by a bloke he reckoned was his mate. Danny looked up at Jesus, who seemed to be saying, Make this easy, can’t you?

‘See, these fellers from Off, you never knows what baggage they brung with ’em,’ Danny said. ‘That feller Foley – big chip on his shoulder, Greta reckons. Had his nose pushed out down the BBC in London. Lot of anger built up inside him. Coulder killed that boy, see. Goes at him like a bloody maniac. And he was a boy. No more’n twenty-four or -five. Thought he was hard, thought Foley was soft. Bad mistake.’

Danny leaned back and rocked the chair, which creaked. Reason he was going into this episode, apart from buying time to think, was to find out exactly how much Natalie Craven was telling Jeremy about day-to-day – and night-to-night – life up at Stanner. And if this Foley had some unknown degree of violence in his London past, who knew what other secrets might be there?

Specifically: what were Foley’s relations with Natalie? If something was on the go, it wouldn’t be easy for Foley and Nat to get it together in the hotel – not with Mrs Foley around and young Jane at weekends. But a nice camper van within easy jogging distance... and Foley did jog, apparently. Well, the question needed asking, that was for sure. Not that Danny would make the suggestion to Jeremy, bloody hell, no. Not directly, anyway.

‘So what do, er, Nat’lie think about him?’

‘Nat?’ Jeremy scratched his head through his hat. ‘Well, her thinks... thinks mabbe he was provoked. Not the first time the shooters been on his land. Had guests in at the time. See, he’s worried they en’t gonner make a go of it – that’s the top and bottom of it. Desperate situation.’

‘Least you won’t see those boys again.’

‘Hard to say, ennit?’ Jeremy had sat himself on a wooden stool, away from the fire, like he was determined not to get comfortable, lulled into saying too much. There was a sprig of holly on the mantelpiece but no mistletoe anywhere: old Border lore reckoned it was unlucky to bring in mistletoe before New Year.

‘So we had a chat with this Nathan before we took him to the hospital,’ Danny said. ‘Not a chance to be missed. And he was quite forthcoming, that boy, ’bout how Sebbie Dacre was gonner bung ’em seven grand when they proved they shot the beast.’

Jeremy didn’t react to this.

‘So mabbe that was why they was gonner shoot Flag yere. Paint him black all over, with luminous bits and—’

‘I know what you’re sayin’—’

‘The Hound of Hergest, Jeremy. Sebbie hired the Welshies to shoot some’ing bearing a close resemblance to the famous Hound of Hergest.’

Jeremy looked down at his light blue socks.

‘It make any sense to you, boy?’ Danny said.

Jeremy didn’t look up. ‘Can’t shoot what en’t there, can you?’

Danny pondered this, noting how clean the room was, everything polished that needed polishing. Outside the window, the snow fell real quiet and in some quantity. The only sound was the dog’s breathing.

‘By en’t there,’ Danny said carefully, ‘do you mean en’t there as in, like, imaginary? Or en’t there as in... en’t there? If you sees what I mean.’

They were getting close to matters that Jeremy didn’t talk about, not so much because he was suspicious or embarrassed but because they were hard to put into words. He pulled off his Badly Drawn Boy hat and pushed his fingers through his hair.

‘Sebbie Dacre, he won’t have it talked about.’

‘Well, that’s pretty obvious, Jeremy, else he’d’ve been down the gun club and wouldn’t need to offer them Welsh boys a penny.’

Jeremy said, ‘Foley, he was supposed to be goin’ round askin’ people if they’d ever seen it. And Dacre said if any of his employees – or anybody workin’ for the hunt or their relations – which I reckon covers most folks in this area – if they said anythin’ to Foley they’d have the sack.’

‘Tole you that?’

‘Ken, the postman. We was at school together.’

‘So who are they, these folks reckons they seen it?’

‘Just folks. Over the years.’

‘Like?’

Jeremy looked at Danny, then looked away into the red fire. ‘Me.’

‘I see.’ Danny felt his beard bristle. ‘When was this, Jeremy?’

‘It en’t what you think.’ Jeremy’s face creased up, mabbe more with sorrow at Danny’s unease. ‘En’t like in the films, all red-eyed. En’t n’more’n a shadow most times. Might be there, just before dark, see, bounding down off the Ridge, corner of your eye. Might be close up, but real faint, a cold patch against your leg. But you knows.’

The fire was pumping out heat, but there was places it couldn’t reach.

‘It is a dog?’

‘Kind of thing.’

‘Sebbie reckoned he’d had ewes savaged. What en’t there can’t savage ewes.’

Jeremy said, ‘The beast they was huntin’ round Llangadog year or so back? All over the papers – police marksmen, helicopters, the lot? It killed a dog, a whippet. Tore his throat out. Folks swore they seen a big cat, but when the police done DNA tests on the dog it killed they figured it was another dog did it. Yet you still had folks swore blind they’d seen this big beast, puma, whatever. Nobody ever found a puma, though, dead or alive. Or a big dog.’

‘What’s your point?’

‘Things... happens. Things as en’t meant to be explained. Why try?’

Danny found Jeremy meeting his stare now. Anybody else, he’d suspect a wind-up, but all he could see in Jeremy’s eyes was sadness and acceptance.

‘All right...’ He held on to the chair so it wouldn’t rock, wouldn’t creak. ‘What about Sebbie Three Farms?’

‘He believes,’ Jeremy said. ‘He just don’t want nobody thinkin’ he believes. So he makes a big noise. Bigger the noise, scareder he is, I reckon.’

‘Why’s he scared?’

‘’Cause most folk seen it, it don’t matter... not to them.’

‘You mean Sebbie...’ Danny held on to the chair arms, trying to anchor himself down. You hung out with Jeremy you lost hold of reality, felt yourself slipping into Jeremy’s fuzzy world. It was like dropping acid again and, same as he’d told Greta this morning, Danny didn’t see himself going there no more.

‘Personal,’ Jeremy said.

Danny sagged back in the chair. This was getting well out of his ballpark. Wouldn’t be a bad idea, mabbe, to get Gomer to go and have a quiet chat with his lady vicar over in Ledwardine, whose specialist subject appeared to be fellers like Jeremy Berrows.

We keep our secrets to a minimum now, she’d said to Lol. Grown-ups. Mates.

So this was the kid’s idea of a minimum.

Gomer, like Lol, had clearly done a lot of agonizing before shopping Jane. See, when you first told me her was working at Stanner, I din’t make much of it, ’cause things change, places change...

It seemed that, on the way back from taking a smashed-up man to Hereford hospital, Jane had suggested to Gomer that it would be best not to talk about the incident, not even to Mum, because Ben was in a difficult enough position and if this got out...

Merrily stood by the window, watching the apple trees becoming stooped and shaggy with snow. The probable truth was that the kid had concealed the incident not out of loyalty to her employer but because of what else she might have to disclose – like, for instance, an alleged predatory beast carrying a £7,000 bounty.

Which made no sense. Not yet, anyway.

The clock above the old Aga said two-thirty. Couple of hours before Jane was due home, and in this weather it would probably be longer. Merrily could hear traffic grinding up the hill to the village square, the futile sound of tyres spinning. If Herefordshire Council’s foul-weather rapid-response was as rapid as usual, they wouldn’t see a snow plough or a gritter until around lunchtime tomorrow.

In the interim, showdown time.

So there’d been a domestic murder in the garden at Stanner Hall in the year before World War Two.

Well, that was a long time ago, but seeing what Ben Foley – a man with no known history of violence – had done to the intruder, Nathan, in that same garden had brought the superstitious side of Gomer Parry squirming uncomfortably into the light. Superstition was never far below the surface along this Border: the most rural county in England lying back to back with the most rural county in Wales.

Just if I had a daughter, Vicar, and her was working at Stanner, these is things I’d wanner know. Gomer had still seemed embarrassed. He’d refused a second cup of tea and gone shuffling back into the snow, pulling on his old tweed cap and leaving her to examine all the features of country-hotel life that Jane had been concealing.

That bloody kid. Did nothing ever change?

Merrily leaned against the Aga rail, pondering the options. If she couldn’t reveal either Gomer or Lol as informants, there was at least one person she could shop with impunity.

She would admit to Jane that she’d raided the apartment. She would produce the copy of Folk-lore of Herefordshire, with the relevant pages marked. It wasn’t much, but it was a way in. And in the course of the subsequent bitter quarrel the whole truth would, with any luck, come pooling out all over the unforgiving flagstones.

What was good about this weather was that, the way things were looking, Jane would not be returning to Stanner this weekend. Big fires, CDs of Nick Drake, Beth Orton... Lol Robinson, even. Mother–daughter quality time.

All the same, Merrily watched the ceaseless snow with trepidation. They made jokes about the council and the grit lorries, but they were jokes best made over a mug of hot chocolate in front of a blazing fire. This was a part of the county that had often been cut off, lost its electricity and its phone lines, reverting for whole days to a semi-medieval way of life.

When the phone rang, she grabbed the cordless from the wall.

‘Mum.’

‘They let you out?’

‘Erm... they sent for the school buses early.’

‘Because of the snow.’

‘Otherwise about five hundred of us would have been spending all night fighting over the sofa bed in the medical suite.’

‘Understandable. So you’ll be home early, then.’

‘And we don’t have to come back tomorrow, if it’s bad.’

‘And then it’s the holidays.’

‘Right.’

‘Well, that’s very thoughtful of the education department. I’ll go and light the fire.’

‘Yes,’ Jane said. ‘Do that. It’s just...’

‘Something wrong?’

‘Not exactly wrong. It’s... like, the snow’s coming down so hard, they reckon all the minor roads in the north of the county could be... difficult, by tonight. So that would mean I probably wouldn’t be able to get to Stanner at all tomorrow, maybe not even with Gomer.’

‘Can’t be helped, flower.’

‘No.’

‘Act of God. Never mind, I expect the conference will have to be called off as well.’

‘So, like, I thought the best thing to do would be to get on Clancy’s bus.’

‘What?’

‘So, like, that’s what I did. Kind of a spur of the moment... thing.’

Merrily said tightly, ‘Where are you?’

‘I’m at Stanner,’ Jane said. ‘And it really was for the best. The snow’s much worse here.’

24

Necessary Penance

LOOKING OUT FROM her room over, like, Siberia, Jane phoned Eirion on his mobile and was invited to leave voice-mail. ‘We need to talk,’ Jane said menacingly.

She sat down on the bed, cold. Even turned up full, the radiator was like a cheap hot-water bottle the morning after. Stanner needed more money spending on it than Ben and Amber were ever likely to make, this was clear.

It was also clear, when she’d walked in with Clancy an hour or so ago, shaking the snow off her parka, that Ben and Amber had had words. Amber was tense, Ben fizzing with anger. Ben always turned anxiety into anger – according to which equation, desperation became rage. Nathan the shooter had found that out.

Amber had frowned. ‘Jane, this is crazy. You should not have come.’

‘You need me,’ Jane had said.

But it had been Ben who’d needed her first, waiting until Amber had gone down to the kitchen before producing a folded sheet of A4 that had obviously been dried out. ‘You undoubtedly know more about the Internet than me. How do I find out where this stuff originates?’

Jane spread the paper out on the bed. Yuk. ‘Haven’t the faintest idea,’ she’d told Ben, ‘but my boyfriend might be able to find out.’

Ben had found it drawing-pinned to the hotel sign at the bottom of the drive. It didn’t have to be at all relevant to Ben or Stanner; the area had its share of weirdos. But the Stanner board wasn’t exactly a convenient place to pin anything, and if it was a joke it could have been funnier.

i was just a kid about 15 when the case was on. i remember seeing the picture of her in the Mirror in her school uniform and it knocked me out. i had it up in my bedroom but my mother made me take it down so I stuck it up inside my locker dore at school. i have offen wondered what happened to her and what i would do if i met her. does anybody know where she is now. I have never been able to forget her.

>>CHRIS.

‘Might be rubbish, but with a conference on this weekend, if someone’s trying to tell us something, I’d quite like to know what,’ Ben had said when Jane had identified it as a printout from some kind of sad, obsessive Internet chat room or message board.

I gather Brigid is very popular in Germany. I also read in a Dutch magazine that she was living in the South of France. She is grown up now and is said to be absolutely gorgeous. *Drop dead gorgeous* ha ha. When she came out she spent some time in Italy, where she is supposed to have done two men but the police did not know who she was until she had left the country, and there was no evidence. So it looks like she’s still doing it. They can’t stop. It’s a physical need.

>>HOWARD

I think that is all rubbish about Brigid going abroad put around to stop us looking for her. i have it on good authority that she’s here but may have had plastic surgery. I think I would know her whatever she’d had done to her. I have been dreaming about her for about 20 years. she still makes me swet.

>>GAVIN.

At the bottom, it said:

full explicit details: sign in and see what Brigid REALLY did

Sick, or what?

If anybody could track it down, Eirion could. If he hadn’t left for the piste.

Jane went to the window. You could see the forestry across the valley, and Hergest Ridge, mauve against the sky. Yes, you could even see a sky, of sorts. Did this offer some hope that the snow was actually thinning?

Mum, on the phone, had said things like I see, calmly conveying an acute sense of betrayal. This morning, over the breakfast, Jane had kept glancing at her, thinking, I ought to tell you everything. I ought to do it now. After what Gomer had revealed, it hadn’t been her easiest night’s sleep. But if she’d laid the Hattie thing on her, Mum would have seen to it that she didn’t get here tonight. She might even, on hearing about the explosion in the head, have kept her off school. Which wouldn’t have helped.

Because what could Mum have done about this, anyway? Exorcists worked by invitation only.

Clancy had gone to watch TV in Ben and Amber’s private sitting room, some bland early-evening soap. On the bus, Jane had said, on the subject of the White Company, ‘Doesn’t it interest you at all?’ And Clancy had been like, ‘What’s the point of wasting your life imagining you go to some spooky place when you die?’

Huh? They really didn’t have much to say to one another, her and Clancy, did they? Jane sat on the bed and scowled and then dialled the mobile number that Antony had given her.

‘Antony, it’s Jane. I’m sorry to bother you. I don’t know what it’s like with you, but it’s fairly bad here... well, not that bad. I mean, I managed to get in tonight on the bus, and Ben reckons enough of the key people from the White Company are around for it to go ahead. Alistair Hardy’s staying with Beth Pollen, and she’s going to meet some more of them at Hereford Station in a four-wheel drive tomorrow. So like... are you going to make it all right? And if not, what do you want me to do? If you could like let me know. I’ve got some really nice shots of Stanner in the snowstorm. So, like... bye.’

She sat on the bed, huddled inside her fleece. The snow wasn’t thinning at all, was it? Most of the time you just lied to yourself because if you then repeated the lie to someone else it wouldn’t seem like a lie.

Why had she gone out of her way, in the face of the weather and her mother’s dismay, to come back?

Because she was a working woman and, with a conference on, Amber needed all the help she could get. Because she was retained by Antony Largo, on the promise of considerably more money, as a cameraperson. Because if it turned out that the White Company made some historic contact tonight and she’d missed it...

Yeah, mainly that.

Why had she not wanted to come? Why had she actively dreaded being here? Because, on the other side of this unlikely but nonetheless compelling psychic odyssey there was the bloated ghost of Hattie Chancery, her repellent life, her sordid and hideous death.

She gave Eirion another five minutes to call back, then stood up and snapped on the light. No good putting this off any longer. She took off her fleece, pulled her overnight bag from under the bed, found her warmest sweater and put that on, dragging the fleece over the top. She felt a little better, got out the Sony 150 and checked the charge. Then she put out the light and went out onto the top landing, down the second flight of stairs and left at the fire doors.

Had to do this. Had to dispense with it before she could move on. Before she could stop waking up in the morning waiting for the bloody bang.

This morning at the breakfast table, at her most pathetic, she’d nearly cried out to Mum to take it away, to exorcise Hattie Chancery from her subconscious. Like Mum could really do this with a sign of the cross and a pat on the head. Bonkers.

She had to do this – walking down the passage with the Sony held in front of her like an automatic weapon – because it made the difference between being a woman and a child. Because she’d never been in that room with any knowledge of whose room it had been and what she’d done – i.e. the knowledge that Hattie Chancery was the kind of woman, basically, who, in life, Jane would have hated even more than she did as some sick possible presence.

And also the knowledge of the stains under the maroon flock wallpaper, the blood dribbling down the windows.

She intended to walk into the room under the witch’s-hat tower, bring the Sony 150 to her shoulder, demanding, Imprint yourself on that, you brutal bitch. This was a necessary penance.

‘Couldn’t do it.’ Danny had his head in his hands, a bowl of tomato soup cooling on the table at his elbow. ‘In the end, I couldn’t tell him.’ He looked up at Greta. ‘Pathetic, eh?’

‘Could be it’s for the best,’ Greta said, but he could see she didn’t believe that, not for one second.

‘Suppose he’s mad? Suppose he’s ill? Suppose that what we reckoned all these years was perceptiveness, knowingness... suppose that was just signs of his... mental dysfunction.’

‘Big words tonight, Danny.’

‘I en’t thick,’ Danny said. ‘Might’ve lost a few brain cells to acid and metal, since the ole grammar school, but it en’t taken it all away.’

‘Have your soup.’

Danny swallowed some tomato soup. Through the kitchen window, he could see the snow ghosting the farmyard that was foggy-grey with old stone and dusk. No stock out there no more, nothing in the sheds except for his own tractor and Delia, Gomer’s new JCB. Need to have the tractor up and ready tonight, with the snowplough bolted on; this could go on for days.

‘Know what I was scared of back there, suddenly, Gret? That mabbe, if I told him, he’d kill her. Like Geoff James did when his missus—’

‘Danny, this is Jeremy.’

‘Can’t just say that n’more.’ Danny put his spoon down. ‘People goes funny. Same disease: isolation, EC form-filling, stock-tagging, signing all your beasts over to the bureaucrats. No independence, no pride, no satisfaction, no money. You reads the bloody papers, you’d think all country folk’s worried about is what the government’s doin’ to bloody huntin’ with hounds – like it’s fundamental to us all in the sticks, ’stead of just a rich man’s expensive pleasure introduced by psychotic Norman barons. Shit.’

‘You got out,’ Greta reminded him, that soothing tone again. ‘You’re with Gomer now. You sidelined, you en’t part of it n’more.’

‘Jeremy en’t never gonner get out, though, is he? It’s part of him. Part of him’s in the land. Uproot him, he’s dead.’

‘Why should he be uprooted? He’s got a good, solid farm. He’s respected. He’s got—’

‘A good woman? Ole days, see, there was farming marriages, and they lasted. Now you got partners... temp’ry. All right in cities, mabbe, where it’s all temp’ry and you can move on, swap around. In the country, you don’t have continuity – there’s another big word, see – if you don’t have continuity, you’re fucked. Jesus Christ, did I just say some’ing Conservative?’

‘Look,’ Greta said, ‘he won’t be out of his yard at all for days, if it keeps on like this, so unless somebody rings him and tells him about Natalie, he en’t gonner find out nothin’, is he?’

Danny stared into his soup, a pool of blood. He was thinking about Natalie Craven and her mousy little partner, and Ben Foley and his mousy little wife.

Ben Foley, saviour of Stanner. Incomer with attitude, smooth Londoner widely said to be driven by irrational obsessions. Man who showed up on your doorstep asking if you seen the Hound of Hergest.

‘Sign of death.’

Greta gave him a hard look. ‘What is?’

‘The Hound of Hergest.’

‘Let’s not get silly about this,’ Greta said. ‘Jeremy’s ma used to say he was always seeing things that wasn’t there. It’s the way he is. His condition.’

‘That’s what it’s supposed to be, though, ennit, the Hound: an omen of death.’

‘If your name’s Vaughan.’

‘The Vaughans’ve all gone.’

‘Nothing to worry about, then,’ Greta said.

‘Just be honest,’ Merrily said. ‘Tell me what you think I need to do. Tell me I’m overreacting. Tell me it’s time to let go of the leash, cut some slack, sever the umbilical, make some space, chill out. Tell me, Lol.’

‘You know I can’t do clichés.’ Lol took the mobile out into the passage and went across to the stable door, unbolting the top half and pushing against a crust of snow. The section of door opened with a sound like splintering plywood. Somewhere out there was the Frome Valley, as white and cold and barren as an old psychiatric ward he used to know.

‘Tell me there’s nothing to be afraid of,’ Merrily said into his ear, serious now. Snow talk. Unexpectedly severe weather could do this to you. You were no longer in control. Nobody was.

‘I’ll come over,’ Lol said.

‘No. You can’t. Really. It’s just been on the radio: go home and stay home. Stay off the roads unless it’s an emergency, and even then—’

‘It’s not bad here.’ Lol looked for his car, couldn’t see it. It was nearly dark, and the snow was like a wall.

‘I’ve got enough to worry about without the thought of you stuck all night in a snowdrift in an ancient Astra with a heater that hasn’t worked in years.’

Music started up in the studio behind Lol: a slow, growling twelve-bar blues from the album that Prof Levin was mixing for the guitar legend Tom Storey. A relentless, chugging momentum: life going on.

‘It’s Gomer, that’s all,’ Merrily said. She’d already told him about Ben Foley and the violence and the woman called Hattie Chancery. ‘Gomer’s worried; how often does that happen?’

‘You could phone her. She’s got her mobile?’

‘I could do that, yes. I could go on to her very carefully, stepping on eggshells, knowing that at any time she could lose her temper and cut the call and switch off the mobile, and that’s the link gone for the duration. I could do that. Would you do that?’

There was a gas mantle projecting from the wall, just inside the fire doors. During the murder weekend, Ben had propped the doors open so that you could see the mantle from the stairs, and you were back in Hattie Chancery’s young days, enclosed in a hollow glow.

No mention of Hattie Chancery during the murder weekend. There were murder games, with the scent of mystery, and there was real murder, with its sadness and its stink.

The mantle, unlit, was utility-looking, without romance. No doubt it would be working again when the White Company were in residence. The passage, meanwhile, was lit by electric wall lights – dim vertical tubes under amber-tinted glass. The walls, with their recessed doors, were lined with woodchip paper. The lights turned them yellow.

Jane stood at the entrance to the passage, legs apart, and lingered on the shot. Ought to have brought the tripod really, but she guessed that if she’d gone downstairs to look for it she wouldn’t have come back. As it was, she kept wanting to turn back but wouldn’t permit herself to stop or even to hurry, to get it over with.

Oh, don’t worry about young Jane. Far too down-to-earth. Jane’ll be fine.

He really didn’t care, did he, as long as he came out a winner.

Called me a nancy boy.

A winner against the odds. Whatever it took.

But was she really so different? Jane Watkins: research and second camera. Using Eirion, deceiving Mum. Snatching every new experience to further her own ambitions, hoovering up the dirt on Hattie and the tragic Robert, while despising the White Company as naff and sad.

Capricious and contrary, this Jane Watkins, not a nice person.

Still shooting, Jane walked on, with sour determination, along the passage, where the sharp smell of recent painting failed to obscure the odour of damp and quite possibly rot.

She stopped in front of the last door on the right, the image wobbling. Through the lens, with the recording signal aglow, it was both more exciting and less scary because it was less personal – a professional thing.

The door was like all the other doors in the passage except that it didn’t have a number on it. When she opened it – reaching out to the handle, giving it a quick push and then stepping back, with the camera still running – she realized that it was too dark in there to shoot anything. She put the camera on pause and lowered it, recalling that there were a few steps to a second door that was oak and Gothic-pointed.

Jane stopped briefly at the bottom of the steps. She remembered a pot lampshade hanging from the ceiling. There was a switch somewhere, on an old-fashioned pewter box. But when she hand-swept the walls on either side she couldn’t find it. Perhaps it was at the top. She located the first step with the toe of a trainer, went up carefully, one, two, three, four – was that it?

No – she stumbled – five.

Jane remembered how it had seemed so cool at first, having one of the tower rooms, sleeping under the witch’s hat, with views across the Border.

A shocking cinematic image flared unconjured in her mind: the heavy old service revolver clunking on the floor as Hattie’s head exploded, blonde hair snaking with blood and wet brains, and a splatting on the walls and—

What was it like to have killed? To have done – publicly, without hope of concealment – the one thing you could never reverse, put right, make recompense for. One way or another, your life was over, wasn’t it?

No more tally-ho, no more whoop-whoop.

She felt for the handle of the bedroom door, catching an acrid waxy smell. Furniture polish? The cold clawed through her chunky sweater as though it was cheesecloth, and she thought of Robert Davies lying here in a fever, Hattie hauling the bedclothes from his sweating body. What had Hattie felt like as she carried the service revolver up here? How had she known it was loaded, unless she’d loaded it herself? So was this an outcome that had always been at the back of her mind? Because it really wasn’t a woman’s way of suicide, was it, to blow all your beauty to fragments?

Jane’s hand found the doorknob, cast-iron and globular, grasped it angrily, turned it and went into the bedroom, standing there panting out some kind of mixed-up defiance into the darkness.

Only, it wasn’t dark at all. Hattie Chancery’s room was delicately rinsed in ochre light.

Jane’s senses swam.

She saw a mustard-shaded oil lamp standing on a dressing table of polished oak in front of the central window with its floor-length purple velvet curtains. The light lured a dull lustre from the gilt frames of pictures on the flock wallpaper.

The polish-fumes seared her throat. This was wrong; everything was wrong, many years wrong. She reeled back against the door and it closed behind her with a heavy thunk and an efficient click. The triple mirrors on the dressing table reflected a high, claw-footed bed, and a woman’s figure rising.

And Jane just screamed, high and piercing, like she never had before, at least not since she was very little, as she saw, in the middle mirror, a broad face, with thick fair hair piled up and twisted and eyes that were small and round and pale like silverskin onions.

25

Shifting Big Furniture

THE WHITE COMPANY was a band of English mercenaries formed by Sir John Hawkwood in the fourteenth century, best known for its campaigns in Italy. It was also a firm supplying bathroom-related fluffy goods through mail order and two fancy-dress historical recreation societies.

Close to the bottom of the first page, Google finally identified the White Company as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic historical novel, and Merrily clicked on it.

Motley group of English mercenaries led by Sir Nigel Loring... assiduous attention to historical detail...

Nothing, however, to suggest that the novel in any way reflected the central obsession of Doyle’s last two decades.

In under an hour, she’d gathered a mass of background on this: Sir Arthur’s tireless tours of Britain and America, promoting his conviction that spiritualism would alter mankind for ever by making life after death a scientific fact. His blind defence of obvious fakery. His insistence that he’d spoken, at a seance, with his son Kingsley, a victim of the Great War, and his brother Innes. His belief that his sister Annette, over thirty years dead, had communed with Jean, Arthur’s wife, through automatic writing. Eventually, Arthur had acquired his own high-level spirit contact, Pheneas, a scribe from the Sumerian city of Ur, dead for over four thousand years.

A kindly, decent, deluded man.

In the snow-padded silence of the scullery, the phone went off like a burglar alarm. Two phone lines had become a necessary extravagance. Merrily plucked it up, wedging it under her chin while tapping on next, for Page Two.

‘Ledwardine Vic—’

‘Vicar?’

‘Alice.’

‘Vicar, will you be in if I comes round later on?’

‘I... yeah, sure. Wear wellies, though, Alice, because I haven’t bothered clearing the drive.’

‘With Dexter,’ Alice said.

‘Oh.’

The digital clock on the desk said 7.18 p.m. The snow had turned the apple trees outside the window into cartoon wraiths. Page Two came up, with its highlighted words: white, white, white...

‘Sorry I’ve been so long getting back to you,’ Alice said, ‘My sisters, they said yes, they’d like to have the Eucharist. Dexter, he en’t so sure.’

‘He’s with you now?’

‘Does two nights a week in the chip shop.’

In a steamy chip shop? With asthma?

‘I en’t letting him go back to Hereford tonight – what if he got stuck in the snow and he couldn’t breathe? How would they get him to the hospital? Will you talk to him, vicar? Will you make him see some sense?’

‘Well, you know, I’ll... I mean, I can try and explain, but I don’t want to—’

‘’Bout half an hour, then?’ Alice said.

On the screen, near the top of Page Two, it said:

The White Company. Established to further the mission of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to prove that the spirit world is an incontestable fact.

Oh.

‘OK,’ Merrily said, ‘fine.’

Replacing the phone with one hand, she clicked the mouse with the other, watching a bulky figure fading up: sagging white moustache, pinstripe suit, watch chain, watchful eyes. Encircling him, like some tragic Greek chorus, other faces less defined – misty faces blinking on and off, like faulty street lamps, in shades of white and grey. And then:

The White Company

welcomes you

Walter was this fat and beaming old git, with a moustache that curled. His wife, Bella, might have been his daughter: turned-up nose, big hair gathered on top of her head. And the kid, this flat-faced kid clutching her hand, could have been Walter’s granddaughter.

In fact this was Hattie Chancery, apparently the earliest obtainable photograph of her. It was on the wall next to the door, one of four framed photos in here: Walter and his family in the garden – Walter, formal in wing collar, and his wife Bella in some kind of flouncy crinoline. Also, two scenes of what, presumably, was the Middle Marches Hunt hounding some poor bloody fox into a badger set. And, over the bed, so she might see herself reflected in the mirror when she awoke... the adult Hattie.

‘Where did they get them?’ Jane’s voice was still unsteady. Shock, it seemed, could carry on pulsing through your body for whole minutes afterwards. Already she was despising herself, but that didn’t take it away.

‘On loan from the museum at Kington.’ Natalie lay on her back on the claw-footed bed, smoking a cigarette. ‘A deal. Ben found a really old washtub and stuff like that in one of the outhouses and donated it all. The pictures can go back after this – we’ll get them all copied when the snow goes. But Ben thought the originals might give off the strongest vibrations.’

‘For Hardy?’

‘I mean, Ben thinks it’s all shit really, but if it makes the White Company feel more inspired...’ Nat rolled over and off the bed, stood up and stretched – just the way she had when Jane had first walked in, rising up alongside the gilt-framed portrait hanging over the high mahogany headboard. She wore tight jeans and a black shirt open to a silver pendant. ‘I’m shattered, Jane. Shifting big furniture takes it out of you.’

Jane went to the bottom of the bed and looked up at the woman in the sepia photo-portrait: the coils of glistening hair, the broad face with unsmiling lips like segments of soft white pear, and those pale, pale eyes gazing over your shoulder as if Hattie was disdainfully contemplating the mess left by her own blood on the wall between the windows.

‘How old was she here, do you think?’

‘I wouldn’t know. Thirty?’

‘And Alistair Hardy actually wants to sleep in here?’ Jane could no longer imagine doing that. And the thought of waking up on a wintry morning to those silverskin eyes...

‘I don’t think he knows about it yet. It’s Ben’s idea. He’s become obsessed with the Chancery woman and this room – Stanner’s haunted room – and he’s thinking televisually. So we have to recreate the room pretty much as she’d remember it. Which, I have to tell you, has taken all day. The dressing table, we pinched from Room Seven – I spent about an hour polishing the foul thing. The bed – we had to bring that down in sections from one of the attics.’

‘This was her actual bed?’

‘God knows. It had enough dust on it.’

‘It bloody scared me, Nat. It’s... just unhealthy.’

‘Your face when you first opened the door, Jane, will live with me for a long time.’

‘It was just a big shell when I was last here.’ She looked around again. ‘Rather Hardy than me.’

In fact, Hardy deserved all he got. Jane was still furious at him for using Lucy Devenish. An affront; Lucy’s spirituality was well in advance of all this.

Natalie walked past her and opened the bedroom door. ‘Well, if we find him dead of a heart attack in the morning, it’s an occupational hazard. I can’t say I like him. Let’s go and have some tea.’

Jane looked at her with something between shock and respect. Dead of a heart attack? It was the sort of thing a kid would say, oblivious of the rules of adult decency that obliged you to airbrush your thoughts before you exposed them. Nat was just so cool. It certainly took some kind of cool – or a complete absence of sensitivity to the numinous – to lie there alone on that bed, under that very eerie picture of Stanner’s murderer.

‘Nat...’

‘Huh?’

‘Does Amber know about this... refurbishing?’

‘Some of it. She’s been very quiet all week. I mean, the idea of them summoning spirits in her kitchen – the only place she can really bear to spend time in...’ Nat glanced outside, down the dark steps to the passage. ‘Sometimes I think she might surprise us all and leave him to it.’

‘Leave Ben?’

‘Leave Stanner and give Ben the big option. Could you blame her?’

‘Nat, it would destroy him. He thinks he’s doing all this for Amber.’

‘Yeah.’ Nat smiled with no humour. ‘Aren’t men dangerously delusional sometimes?’

‘And dangerously aggressive,’ Jane said.

Nat eyed her, a warning look. It was a one-off. We don’t want Ben to get a reputation, do we?

‘Look...’ Jane glanced away from her, determined to get this out. ‘I’ve been thinking about it a lot...’

‘Well, don’t. It won’t help anybody.’

‘Been finding out about Hattie Chancery.’ Jane glanced warily at Hattie’s reflection in the dressing-table mirror. ‘I mean... you do know what she did in here, don’t you?’

Natalie came back into the room. ‘Ben’s still letting Amber think she shot herself outside somewhere. I mean, Christ, they sleep just up the passage. Who told you?’

‘Gomer. And he told me about Hattie and all her men. What she did with them on the top of Stanner Rocks. All the aggression she had inside her. And the booze.’

‘If you believe all that.’

‘I kind of do.’ Jane looked at her. ‘Don’t you?’

‘You’re asking me what I believe?’ Natalie supported her bum against the dressing table, stretched her long legs out, stared at Hattie. ‘I believe you don’t let anybody fuck you about. That’s it, really.’

Jane, her back to the door, looked at the bed. It had a faded old mauve coverlet on it, with a fringe. She said, not looking at Nat, ‘When I was here, for that one night, I came back and found the quilt and the sheets had been pulled off and thrown back against the headboard. No, really, it happened. And I didn’t even know whose room it had been then.’

Nat made no comment.

‘OK.’ Jane turned to Natalie. ‘Maybe Amber or somebody had been about to change the bedding and forgot and went away and left it. There could be a whole bunch of rational explanations, and I hope one of them was the truth. But I also had a really bad dream in here. I mean really bad. And also—’

Nat said quietly, ‘Um, Jane...’

‘I mean, if you consider what happened last weekend... put that together with Hattie – goes up Stanner Rocks, shags some guy, comes back and smashes her sick husband’s head in. With a couple of the rocks she kept as like trophies? And then you think of Ben – OK, volatile, but basically this artistic, nonviolent bloke – who just loses it completely. On maybe the same spot? It was a horrendous attack. If you and Amber hadn’t been here, let’s face it, he might’ve killed that guy. And you know that’s true. He might be on remand now for murder.’

‘Jane, I don’t think this is a particularly—’

‘What got into him? You have to ask. Because if that was the real Ben—’

‘Jane—’

‘—Then maybe it would be a good thing if Amber did leave him. Maybe he’s the wrong kind of person to be here. You know?’ Jane blinked. ‘What’s wrong?’

Natalie was looking over Jane’s shoulder. Apologetically.

Jane stiffened, her shoulders hunching. She shut her eyes for a moment, opening them, in anguish, to a long, unsmiling face in the left-hand mirror of the dressing table.

‘Erm...’ She turned slowly, towards Ben, with her shoulders still up around her ears, forcing what she guessed would be a sick and cringing smile, holding out the camcorder like an offering. ‘Like, I... just came to... to get some, like, atmos shots?’

Inaugurated in 1980, on the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the White Company was originally called The Windlesham Society, after Sir Arthur’s last home in Sussex. The name was changed after the words ‘White Company’ were repeatedly received at spiritist meetings throughout Britain, both clairaudiently and through automatic writing. Finally, Sir Arthur himself conveyed to the eminent channelist, Mr Alistair Hardy, that he would consider it an honour to be patron of a society named after an especial favourite amongst his novels.

The Society now comprises of both committed spiritists and Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. In 1993, the outline of a planned Holmes story, The Adventure of the White Shadow, was channelled to Mr Hardy and later drafted in full by Mr Mason W. Mower, of Connecticut.

Merrily wrinkled her nose. The idea of a society combining committed spiritualists and Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts sounded slightly unlikely, if you considered that Holmes was the creation of Conan Doyle’s rational, scientific side.

But, then, wasn’t spiritualism considered to be rational and scientific? Wasn’t that the whole point – that they were proving the fact of life after death without the excess baggage?

Meaning religion. Merrily fingered her small pectoral cross on its chain.

It was easy to say that the Church was just jealous because these guys were offering direct experience. There were many people no longer scared of death because their departed loved ones were saying, We’re here for you. And even if it was faked, was that all bad? The main spiritualist wave had come after the First World War – all those grieving families who didn’t know how their sons and husbands had died, had no bodies to bury. A means of bringing closure.

The doorbell rang. Merrily groaned. The thought of an hour with Dexter Harris was not enticing.

She stood up, pulling on one of Jane’s old fleeces over her cowl-neck sweater. Half her wardrobe these days consisted of the kid’s cast-offs. No fire in the sitting room, so she’d have to keep Alice and Dexter in the kitchen, and it wasn’t too warm in there either, despite the Aga. She went through to the hall, meeting the eyes of the jaded Jesus hanging on to his lantern of hope in Holman Hunt’s Light of the World, Uncle Ted’s house-warming present.

To prove that the spirit world is an incontestable fact.

Slipping the catch, tugging the front door out of its frozen frame, she thought what a disappointment it must be to Conan Doyle, if he was still watching, that the great spiritual revolution had crumbled so quickly into the ruins of Crank City. The front door shuddered and the white night came in from the open porch in tingling crystals of cold.

For a moment, it was surreal. The front garden of the vicarage was like some kind of fairy-tale bedchamber, the lawn a lumpy white mattress, bushes squashed into piles of pillows, a night light glimmering from the village square through the bare trees.

Very much a part of this tableau, he unwound his scarf and a frieze of snow.

‘Um, I wondered if I might sing a carol.’

‘God!’ She laughed in delight, looking down the drive towards the snowbound square. ‘How did you—? Where’s your car?’

‘How would you feel about “Ding Dong M?’

‘You’re insane!’

‘And there are medical records to prove it,’ Lol said.

26

White High

LOL SAT BAREFOOTED on the rug in the scullery, defrosting his toes by two bars of the electric fire. The lights were out, but the door to the kitchen was ajar a couple of inches. His frayed blue jeans were somehow soaked despite his wellies, and there were wet patches on the dark green sweatshirt with white stencilled lettering. He sat there alone, watching the snow widening the window ledge outside, and he felt wildly happy.

The lettering on the sweatshirt said Gomer Parry Plant Hire, commemorating the days he’d spent as an unskilled labourer in the wake of Gomer’s disastrous fire. Another small breakthrough: if it makes you a little anxious, do it. A chance to shovel tons of earth with your bare hands before playing live on stage for the first time since your teens. An impossible polar expedition in a clapped-out, sixteen-year-old Vauxhall Astra, to be with the person you love? Do it.

The old Astra had slithered over snow-blinded hills, hugging a council grit-lorry down to Leominster. Tunnelling through the suffocated lanes, Lol had passed two abandoned cars, snow-bloated, and gone chugging on impossibly until the old girl finally gave up, rolling away into the cascading night.

But she only gave up – there was a God – on the hill that was already evolving into Church Street, Ledwardine, vainly spinning her wheels before sinking back, exhausted, into the Community Hall car park. Lol had climbed out like he was emerging from a trance state, and bent to kiss her cold grille thanks and goodnight before walking up to the vicarage on a white high.

On the deserted square, a Christmas tree stood in front of the squat-pillared market hall, the whole scene loaded with snow, the fairy lights reduced to gauzy smudges of colour like ice lollies in a deep-freeze. Lol had looked back for a sign – a For Sale sign on Lucy’s old house – as if the sudden enchantment of the night might have tossed it back onto the market.

No sign there, no lights. Maybe there was a forbidding, black-lettered sign somewhere that said he didn’t belong here, but right now he didn’t care. He sat in the glow of two faintly zinging orange bars and half-listened to Merrily in the kitchen, dealing with some people who had arrived soon after him. Best they didn’t see him; it would have been all over the village by morning. The way things had turned out, even his car wasn’t here. Snow was good at secrets.

From the kitchen, he heard about arrangements for what seemed to be a memorial service. There was an elderly woman with a croaky voice that he recognized at once. Salt and vinegar with that, is it? And a guy called Dexter who managed to be both gruff and whiny. Sounded like routine parish stuff.

At first, idly browsing the Cwn Annwn passages from Mrs Leather, Lol wasn’t aware of what Merrily was saying, just the soft and muted colours of her voice. Luxuriating in the proximity of her, recalling an old Van Morrison song from Tupelo Honey, about a woman in the kitchen with the lights turned down low.

It was quite a while before raised voices began to suggest that there was unpleasantness here.

‘No, what’s she’s saying,’ Alice from the chippy said, ‘is that we needs a proper funeral for the boy. With the full rites.’

Merrily said, ‘Well, not—’

‘That’s fucking creepy!’

Dexter!

‘Funeral for a kid that’s already been in his grave for near twenty year?’

‘It’s not—’

‘You’re telling me that en’t creepy?’

‘It’s not a funeral,’ Merrily said, ‘and I honestly don’t think you’d find it creepy. However, it’s only an idea, a possibility.’

‘You got no right. Should never’ve gone round askin’ questions, rakin’ it all up. It’s in the past.’

‘It’s in you!’ Alice shrieked. ‘Don’t you see that?’ Her voice steadied. ‘Been like this all night, he has, vicar. I don’t know what’s the matter with him.’

Merrily said, ‘Dexter, first of all, we don’t have to do this, not if you don’t want to. And we don’t even have to do it in a church.’

‘Then where’s the bloody point?’

‘All I’m trying to say is that the Eucharist – communion – is a very powerful way of tackling these things, in which... we believe that Jesus himself is personally involved. And it can sometimes draw a line under things, create order and calm, where there’s been long-term unrest, ill feeling, distress... conflict.’

‘Yes,’ Alice said, ‘this is what we want.’

‘Alice asked me if there was any way I could help, and I’m sorry if it isn’t what either of you were expecting. If you don’t think it’s the right thing, you don’t have to have anything to do with it.’

‘But,’ Alice said, with menace, ‘you’ll be letting your family down if you don’t.’

No!’ An ache in Dexter’s voice. From the scullery, Lol could feel him wanting to beat his head on the table.

Alice said, ‘En’t no reason the rest of us can’t go ahead without him, is there, vicar?’

‘Well, we could, but that wouldn’t—’

‘What about Darrin?’ Dexter said. ‘He gonner be there?’

‘It might also help Darrin a lot,’ Merrily said. ‘It would be good if everyone was there, from both sides of the family. It can bring things out. In my experience.’

‘Bring out the truth?’

‘Well, it... it can bring peace.’

‘And what if everybody don’t want the truth out?’

Merrily didn’t reply. Alice shouted, ‘We all wants the truth!’

‘Well, mabbe Darrin don’t! Mabbe the truth en’t what Darrin wants at all, look.’

Nobody spoke for a while. Chairs creaked, small movements of unrest. Then Dexter started mumbling. Lol couldn’t make out any of it. Then Alice said, raw-voiced, ‘What’s this? You never—’ And Dexter mumbled some more, and Alice said faintly, ‘No. Dear God.’

Dexter’s voice came in again, no longer gruff, raised up in panic.

‘He’s like, “Get your fuckin’ foot down, you big useless—” ’

Dexter!

‘No,’ Merrily said. ‘Go on. Please.’

‘I was bigger than Darrin, but he was real nasty, look. Stuck his knife in the back of my hand once. Had an airgun, shot a robin in the garden. Things people thought were nice, he’d wanner destroy. So like, when we gets into the Fiesta, there’s a kiddy’s picture book on the seat, and he picks it up and rips it in half, throws the bits out of the window. Roland, he starts crying, Darrin’s leanin’ over him and pinchin’ him, telling him we’re going to London. We en’t stopping till we gets to London, and we en’t never comin’ back. Never see his mam and dad again.’

‘Oh God in heaven, Vicar, stop him!’

‘Weren’t no stoppin’ him, Alice. More the kid’s screechin’, more he’s gettin’ off on it. Excited! Gettin’ more excited the further we goes. I’m like, “Don’t you wanner go back now? How we gonner get back if we goes too far?” Darrin’s goin’, “Keep your fuckin’ foot down, you fat wanker, we’re goin’ on the motorway, we’re goin’ to London.” ’

Alice was moaning, ‘Oh, dear God, no, oh dear God.’ Lol sensing a rhythm, as if she was rocking backwards and forwards, doubled up in anguish.

‘So Roland, he’s gettin’ real hysterical, starts pulling at the door handle, and Darrin’s goin’, “You get away from that door or I’ll give you a smacking.” So like Roland waits till Darrin turns round again and I can year him fiddling with the handle, and then Darrin whips round, sudden-like, and whangs him in the face, bang! Cops is behind us by then, look, blue lights going and that, and Roland’s sobbin’ away, and that’s when I decides I’m gonner go across the road and up this little turning, then the cops’ll be able to get us. And that... that’s how it was.’

Silence, except for creaking chairs, small sounds of unrest. Then Alice started to weep. Routine parochial issue. Lol tugged his wet wellies onto his bare feet.

Merrily said, ‘You didn’t tell the police about... any of this. Did you?’

‘How could I? But you see why Darrin en’t gonner want none of it out.’

‘Or your parents? You tell your parents anything?’

‘They know what Darrin’s like. Alice knows.’

Another silence.

Then a jagged wail.

‘Oh my God, that poor little child... his own brother...’ Like Alice’s voice was bleeding. ‘Oh my God, and then he died! He— My God, I never knew none of this.’

‘’Course you never knew,’ Dexter snapped. ‘Darrin en’t never gonner tell you, was he?’

‘Gets worse, gets worse all the time.’

‘You made me, Alice, I didn’t wanner—’