The Secrets of Pain
They came for me in darkness
They were black-eyed, grey and thin
The house was right next to the road, wherever the road was.
And out in front there was a woman.
Not exactly dressed for the weather, thin cardigan all lumpy with snow. Stumbling about in Bronwen’s lights and the blinding white hell, waving her arms. And they were going to run her down, cut her in half.
‘Gomer!’ Danny roared. ‘ No! ’
The snow was coming down like rubble now, had been this past four hours, and if Danny couldn’t see through it there was no chance that Gomer could. When Bronwen lurched and the snow sprayed up, Danny was thinking, Oh Christ, it’ll be all blotched red.
Then they’d stopped. Apart from Bronwen’s grumpy chuntering, there was silence. The front door of the house was wide open, yellow light splattered over the snow like warm custard on ice cream. Some of it reaching Gomer, sitting at the wheel in his old donkey jacket, with his cap and his sawn-off mittens and his muffler and the snowlight in his glasses.
‘What we done?’ Danny heard his own voice, all hollow. ‘What we done, Gomer?’
Oh God. Leaning on his side door, breaking through the crispy layer of snow. New tractor, out for the first time with the snowplough. This superhero routine of Gomer’s, coming out in the dark to clear – for free – the roads that Hereford Council wouldn’t go near… well, you learned to live with that, but how long before he was a danger to other folks and hisself?
You ask Danny, it was starting to look like the time had come.
A slapping on the door panel, Gomer’s side.
‘ Who’s that in there? ’
Danny went, ‘Woooh.’
Sagging in blind relief. It was her. Gomer, meanwhile, totally relaxed, was letting his window down, the ciggy glowing in his face.
‘We help at all?’
‘… dies of frostbite, what do he care? Long as he ’s bloody warm!’ The woman, entirely alive, glaring up at the cab, hair all white and wild. ‘Not you. Him in there, look.’
Glancing behind her just as the front door of the farmhouse got punched shut from inside and the warm light vanished.
‘En’t that typical? He won’t do nothin’, ’cept toss another bloody block on the fire. Serve the buggers right. Let ’em get theirselves out. Then back to his beer.’ She was standing back, snow over the tops of her wellies, squinting, then she went, ‘ Gomer? ’
‘Ah,’ Gomer said. ‘Sarah, is it?’
‘Gomer Parry Plant Hire! Thought you was long retired, boy!’
Danny was too cold to smile. Gomer had an angry puff on his roll-up. Long as the ole boy had his ciggies, the cold never seemed to bother him. Least, not as much as the idea of folks thinking he was too advanced in years to be driving heavy plant through a blizzard. His voice was distinctly gruffer as he drew out the last half-inch of ciggy.
‘Problem, is it, girl?’
‘Some fool in a car, it is,’ this Sarah said. ‘Come whizzin’ clean off the road on the bend back there. Slides across, crashes through the gate and straight down the bloody hill!’
‘Sure? I was at the bedroom window, Gomer, couldn’t hardly miss him. Straight through! Headlights all over the snow, then they’ve gone, look. Well, there en’t no way out of there. Ends in forestry.’
‘So, let’s get this right, girl,’ Gomer said. ‘There’s a car or some’ing gone down over this yere hill, and he’s vanished?’
‘Likely buried already, and we en’t got no gear to haul him out. Can you get through in that thing. Gomer?’
It was like the whole cab was bulging with Gomer’s outrage.
‘ This thing? ’
‘Gomer, mabbe we should call the-’
‘En’t nowhere…’ Gomer tossing the last millimetre of ciggy into the snow ‘… on God’s earth this girl can’t get through.’
Danny, defeated, looked up at the falling sky. Snow and ice had come hard and bitter after Christmas, right after the floods. Over a month of running out of oil, on account of the tankers couldn’t get through, and starving rats raiding your vehicle from underneath, dining on your electrics. A brief respite early in February and then, just when you thought you’d seen the end of winter, the bastard was back with both fists bunched, and Gomer Parry had got hisself a big new JCB tractor called Bronwen and something to prove.
Danny climbed down and found the car hadn’t gone crunching through the gate after all.
‘Some fool left him open.’
He climbed back in, slammed the door. No warmer in here. Bronwen had a cracking heater, only Gomer wouldn’t use it in case he nodded off at the wheel and some bastard magistrate had his HGV licence off him.
‘Shouldn’t be no gate there at all,’ Gomer said. ‘No fence, neither. Common land, it is. Bridleway. Only Dickie, see, he reckons if he d’keep fencin’ it off, one day folks is gonner forget it don’t belong to him.’
He lowered the plough: tracks in the headlights, but Danny saw they were filling up fast. Gomer set about clearing the field entrance in case they came back with something on tow.
Danny said. ‘Dickie who?’
‘On the pop half the time. Dickie Protheroe. Her’s gotter hold it all together, ennit?’
‘Ah, so that’s Dickie Protheroe’s new wife, is it? Never seed her before.’
‘Course you en’t. On account of Dickie’s in the pub and her’s back yere holdin’ it all together.’
‘Aye,’ Danny said. ‘Fair play to her.’
Pulling snow out of his beard, thinking whoever was down there could be badly hurt, or worse. Could’ve hit a tree or a power pole.
‘Land Rover, them tracks,’ Gomer said. ‘Long wheelbase. Only one set o’ tracks so he en’t out.’ He sniffed. ‘Right, then. We go for it?’
Ten minutes from midnight when they went in, and the windscreen was near-opaque. Like being inside a washing machine when somebody’d overdone it with the powder. Hoping to God this wouldn’t end in no pink snow, Danny dug his hands into his pockets. Warming himself inside with thoughts of the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury on a hot night at the end of June, coloured lights in rippling sequence, the strobes going, the ole Strat hard against his thigh as he went sailing off into the solo from ‘Mephisto’s Blues’.
Well, it could be, if only Lol would realize how much he had to offer… if the boy could just overcome that persistent low self-esteem.
What the hell, life was good.
Had been good.
‘You all right, Gomer?’
‘Course I’m all right.’
Bronwen went grinding on between leafless trees turned into great white mushrooms. Humpy, glistening ground and a teeming sky, the countryside like a strange new-made bed, all the familiar creases filled in.
A slow, downward slope, now, the snow-level rising either side of them. Not going to be that easy getting back up.
Patches of grey stone in the lights.
‘All right, boy, I seen him.’
‘What the hell is it, Gomer?’
‘Looks like an ole sheep-shelter.’
Gomer brought Bronwen grunting to a stop and Danny made out the roof of a vehicle behind the broken wall, a wedge of thick snow on top. How the hell did he get behind the bloody wall? Danny lowered his window.
‘You all right there?’
No reply. He glanced behind. The incline they’d just come down would look dangerously steep on the way back. He turned back to find shadows moving silently on either side, just beyond the lights. Danny stiffened. How many of the buggers were in this yere Land Rover, and why wasn’t they calling out? Like, Thank God you come, kind o’ thing.
‘En’t bein’ funny, Gomer, but I don’t altogether like the looks of this, to be honest.’
The shadows were spreading out, circling and crouching like a pack of wolves. Five of them at least, murky grey now in the swirling night.
A sudden massive bang on Danny’s side of the tractor.
One of them was there. All black, no face.
BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! on the panel.
The man was in camouflage kit. Gloves, balaclava. No glint of eyes behind the slit.
Danny got his window up to just a bit of a crack. Looked at Gomer across the grey light in the cab. In the past year, two JCBs had been nicked from this area. All right, not hijacked, just stolen out of their sheds, but there was big money in a brand new tractor and a first time for everything.
‘Don’t wanner make a thing ’bout this, Gomer, but how about we don’t get out till we finds out a bit- No! Gomer!’
‘Balls!’ Gomer was leaning across Danny, mouth up to the crack at the top of the window. ‘ Gomer Parry Plant Hire. You all right, there?’
Oh Jesus… Like these were the magic words, the key to not getting dragged out into the snow and having the shit beaten out of you while the lovely new tractor you’d called Bronwen and had blessed by the vicar got shipped out to Lagos.
Danny was going, ‘Look, pal, we-’
When the voice came out of the snow.
‘Yow know who we are.’
Aye, that kind of voice. Full of clouds and night and a bit of Birmingham, and now Danny could see two solid shadows, either side of the camouflage man. Gomer coughed, a bit hoarse.
‘This a hexercise, pal?’
Silence. Then a short, little laugh.
‘Give the ole man a coconut.’
‘What I figured,’ Gomer said. ‘Only, Sarah back there, see-’
‘… so yow just turn this bus around, yeah, and bugger off.’
All the breath went out of Danny in a steam of relief.
‘I should just do it, Gomer. These guys, they don’t make a habit of flashin’ their ID.’
‘Put your lights out, now,’ the camouflage man said. ‘Then fuck off and forget you seen anything.’
Danny shifted uncomfortably in his seat. You wanted cooperation, you didn’t talk quite like this to Gomer Parry. Five foot four and well past seventy, but you just didn’t. Everybody knew that.
‘And you might find it easier if you put that filthy cigarette out.’
‘Now listen, boy-’
‘Just do what he says, eh, Gomer,’ Danny hissed. ‘You can complain to the Government later.’
Gomer said nothing, just let the windows glide up, putting the tractor into reverse and reaching out for the lights.
Only, the mad ole bugger didn’t switch them off, he threw them on full beam, making a starburst in the snow, and – Jesus! – Danny was jerking back as Bronwen swung round hard, on a slide. In the lights he’d seen what he’d seen – what he thought he’d seen – before the tractor lurched and bucked and went snarling back along the track they’d made earlier.
Danny and Gomer didn’t speak at all till they’d managed to make it up the hill and out the gate and onto the road again. Then Danny sat up and looked hard into Gomer’s thick, misty specs.
‘We really see that?’
‘Hexercise,’ Gomer said gruffly. ‘That’s all it is. Kind o’ jobs they get, they gotter be hard, ennit?’
‘Well, yeah, but, Gomer…’
‘ Hexercise,’ Gomer said. ‘That’s what we tells Sarah Protheroe. Her’ll know.’
‘And we don’t say nothin’ else. All right?’
Danny was shivering. He’d go along with that. Anything. But what they’d seen in the white hell… in other circumstances it could have been almost funny, but in a late-February blizzard, in the minutes after midnight, it was enough to scare the shit out of you.
Especially the way the fifth man had been just standing there laughing, bollock naked in the snow.
Empty your septic tank
Take it to the bank
The bad stuff started with Jane insisting on getting the drinks. A Lotto thing – she and Merrily had both had ten-quid paybacks on the same number. Jane wanted to buy Lol and Danny Thomas a beer. Which was nice of her. She seemed determined these days, Lol thought, to do more things that were nice, as if she had something to repay.
He watched her at the bar. The tight jeans, the sawn-off white hoodie and the area of soft skin exposed between the two. Merrily had said, If you could just, you know, keep an eye on Jane…?
She’d been thinking about the weather. They all had, since the Christmas flood, a continuing source of unease in Ledwardine. Mid-evening on a Friday, the Black Swan was less than a third full but sounding crowded to Lol because of all the voices raised against the punch of the wind and the fizz of rain on the leaded windows.
Big weather. More big weather.
He’d seen it coming well before dark, the sky over Cole Hill chaotic with ripped-up cloud and flarings of wild violet beyond the church steeple. The last taunt of winter. Or maybe the first sneer of spring. The floods, then the snow, then more snow and now, just as you thought it was over, the gales.
And yet it was an ill-wind because, out of the black night and the white noise of the rain and his anxiety, suddenly the lines happened, like they’d been blown into his head.
The chorus had been hanging around for weeks, begging for an opening trail of memorably bleak images to illustrate the raw emptiness before love walked in. The rhyme was a bit bumpy, but maybe that was OK, maybe even good.
The wind is screaming through the granary
It turns the springtime into January.
This was the granary, where he’d lived for a time, at Prof Levin’s studio over at Knight’s Frome. The perpetual January of a lonely bed. Lol pulled over a beer mat, found a pen in his jacket, saw Danny’s eyes lighting up over the shoe-brush beard.
Lol reversed the beer mat, steered it across to Danny then drew back as the gale pushed like a big hand – whump – on the leaded pane directly across the room. No let-up. The lines had probably arisen from his failure to prevent Merrily driving out into the storm… or at least letting him drive her. What if there was no Merrily? What if there’d been no Merrily? The void at the core of the song: I can’t define my sense of need.
Danny was gazing at the beermat like it was Mozart’s scorepad. Before Gomer Parry had rescued him, he’d been a struggling Radnorshire farmer with fading dreams. Also, three vintage guitars, a couple of ancient amps, a decibel-dazed wife and a sheepdog called Jimi.
He looked up.
‘I’m hearin’ it, boy, sure t’be.’
The grin reappearing in the beard, though still a little wary, like a poacher’s flashlight in the undergrowth. Not long after Danny had joined Gomer Parry Plant Hire, Lol had been looking for a lead guitarist, someone good but not too expensive. After two sessions in Danny’s barn over at Kinnerton, he’d said, You want a proper contract or will a handshake do? Danny grinning like a little kid, his muddied hand already out.
‘Should be in your barn, recording this,’ Lol said. ‘Under the storm noise, everything shivering.’
‘Storm noise in a barn en’t never as good as you imagines. Ole wind got his own backbeat, see, never plays to yours.’ Danny nodded towards Jane at the bar. ‘Growin’ up?’
Getting the drinks herself was important to Jane. Doing it legally was still a novelty. Barry, the manager, was behind the bar, and everybody in the Swan knew Jane. Some of them even liked her.
The wind came back, a fighter in the ring, leaving you no time for recovery, and Danny picked up on Lol’s anxiety.
‘You’re worried about your lady.’
You had to love the seventies rock-band jargon.
‘It’s not blowing over, Danny.’
‘Hard to blow an ole Volvo off the road.’
It had been mid-afternoon, after the first Severe Weather Warning, when Merrily had come across to Lol’s house, looking unsettled and facing an hour’s drive to the mountains the other side of Brecon. This was Huw Owen, inevitably. For reasons Huw hadn’t disclosed and Merrily couldn’t fathom, he’d wanted her to talk to his students at the grim, disused Nonconformist chapel up in the Beacons where he taught ordained priests how to mess with the unmentionable.
‘I’ll give Huw a call, anyway.’ Lol had his mobile out. ‘Make sure she…’
‘Makes you feel better, boy,’ Danny said, ‘do it.’
In Huw Owen’s rectory, thirty-plus miles away, the phone rang out. Maybe they’d already left for the chapel, which probably didn’t even have a phone. Huw liked to awaken in his students a sense of isolation and vulnerability. Lol killed the signal.
But Danny Thomas was listening to something else, his long grey hair pushed back behind one ear. He caught Lol’s eye, lifting a cautionary forefinger. Lol heard a drawly voice from Off.
‘… what I said, George, I said the old totty-meter’s flickering into the fucking red.’
Then liquid laughter. Lol turned towards the bar. Kids, you’d think, but they weren’t. About five of them, late twenties to early forties, talking in low voices, but their London accents lifted them out of the background mush.
‘ Clean off the fucking dial, George. I mean, will you just look at that…’
‘… he on about? ’
‘ His fanny-meter’s gone off.’
‘ Ask the barman for a Kleenex.’
‘ Not kidding, George. I’m in love.’
‘ You’re rat-arsed.’
‘ I think… I think I feel a wager coming on…’
None of them spoke for a few seconds. Apple logs shifted on the hearth. Danny looked at Lol. Red mud was still flaked in his heavy-metal hair. He’d been here in the village all day, working with Gomer on extra flood defences down by the river.
A wager. Lol could imagine florid men, squires and their sons, in three-cornered hats, with lavish waistcoats and long bendy pipes, under these same beams on Jacobean nights when the Black Swan was young.
‘ How much? ’
‘ Hundred? Two? ’
‘ You’re not scaring me, George. I’ll go three.’
‘ Bloody confident tonight, Cornel.’
‘ He’s bladdered. He won’t -’
‘ All right. Listen. I’ll persuade her into the paddock for nothing, and then… why don’t we say three-fifty if I get her upstairs? However -’
‘ Yeah, but that doesn’t prove -’
‘ However… any tricks, any remarks from you bastards that might put her off, and you pay up anyway. Deal? ’
‘ That’s -’
‘ Deal? ’
‘ Don’t fall for it George.’ Mild Scots accent. ‘ He’ll probably offer to split it with her if she plays along.’
‘ He won’t, Alec, because we’ll be listening to every word.’
At some stage, probably when money came into it, the banter had shed its forced humour. At the other end of the bar, Jane was handing Barry a ten-pound note, leaning forward, exposing a widening band of pink skin just below the small of her back.
As the daylight faded, their cars would arrive on the square like Viking longships floating into a natural harbour, the top-of-the-range Beemer, the Porsche Boxter, the Mercedes 4-by-4.
Barry the manager, like half the village, was in two minds about them. They had – nobody could argue about this – seen the Swan through a bleak winter of recession, and yet…
Like they own the place. That old cliche. You heard it a lot around Ledwardine but it was only half right, Lol thought. You didn’t need to own a playground.
Only one man in Ledwardine actually seemed interested in owning the village. Lol had never actually met Ward Savitch, but you couldn’t fail to be aware of his presence, usually on Sunday mornings. Used to be church bells, now it was shotgun echoes.
The new hunter-gatherers. Paying guests of Savitch, who’d bought the old Kibble place, known as The Court, a farmhouse with fifty acres. Savitch was everywhere now, grabbing marginal land – woods and rough country, like he was reclaiming his heritage. In fact, he was building himself one. Came out of London just ahead of the big recession, with all his millions in a handcart. Now the fifty acres had more than doubled, holiday chalets had gone up. Shooting and paintballing weekends, for those who could afford them. Some were corporate jollies, designed to freshen up tired executives – Savitch clearly exploiting his old contacts.
Not many posh cars outside tonight, though. A couple of these guys were staying here at the Swan – overspill – and the others had come down from The Court on foot, intent on serious drinking. Some of them still in their designer camouflage trousers bought from one of the few retail chains in the county that were no longer on nodding terms with the Official Receiver.
‘Day’s shooting supervised by Kenny Mostyn and the kids from Hardkit and they think they’re fighting fit,’ Barry had said one night when it was quiet. ‘Well… fit enough to take on a five-course champagne dinner and a few gallons of Stella.’
Barry knew about fighting and fitness. Retired from the SAS at forty, still went running in the Black Mountains most weekends. He was on the portly side these days, but only portly like a bouncer.
‘But – what can I say? – it keeps the lights on. Most of these guys, it’s just about getting pissed and bringing me pheasants they’ve shot. Who loses?’
‘Apart from the pheasants?’ Lol had said.
Glad that Jane hadn’t been there.
But not as much as he wished she wasn’t here now.
Keeping an eye on Jane… this was getting increasingly delicate.
She’d been Lol’s friend before he even knew her mother, back when she was just an insecure kid, in a new place, and he was a part-time recluse in a cottage down Blackberry Lane. But Jane was eighteen now, approaching her last term at school, finding herself some space. Wasn’t as though Lol was her dad or even a dad figure. Not exactly a dad-figure kind of person.
Jane had said she was just popping to the loo, would get the drinks on her way back. But Lol had noticed she hadn’t actually gone to the loo. Directly to the bar. Purposeful.
He pushed his chair back so he could see her talking to the lanky young guy with the deep chin and the big lips. Because of all the voices raised against the rattle and hiss of the weather, you couldn’t hear what was being said as the guy bent down to her, like he was offering her a lollipop.
‘Stay calm, boy,’ Danny said. ‘This is the Swan on a Friday night. She can just walk away.’
But she hadn’t. She seemed to be listening, solemnly, then smiling right up into the big-jawed face. Wearing that close-fitting white top, half-unzipped, over very tight jeans. The small band of pale flesh and the navel.
‘… hand it to Cornel,’ one of the older bankers-or-whatever murmured to another. ‘ Eyes in her knickers already.’
Lol looked helplessly at Danny. You could see the three lagers Jane had bought sitting on the bar top behind her left elbow, giving her a good excuse to prove she was not here on her own.
Jane could walk away from this any time she wanted.
But no, she went on talking to this Cornel.
Very much a woman, and smiling up at him.
‘Oh God,’ Lol said. ‘What do I do about this?’
The Grey Monk was still there, in the ladies’ lavatory, his face fogged and his arms spread wide.
A deja vu moment and it made Merrily feel unsteady. The wind was whining in the rafters, buzzing in the ill-fitting glass of the leaded window, whipping into the thorn trees around the chapel. All the different rhythms of the wind.
Had this ever been a friendly place? Its stone looked like prison stone. It stood mournful as an old war memorial in a shallow hollow on the yellowed slopes where the SAS used to train. Nearer to God? All it felt nearer to was death.
She glared at the grey monk by the side of the door, where he lived in the plaster. Where you’d see him in the mirror as you tidied your hair. According to Huw, he’d been a Nonconformist preacher who’d roamed the hills sick with lust for someone’s wife down in Sennybridge. He’d been found dead where the women’s toilet now stood, head cracked open on the flags.
The point being that he was said to have left his imprint there, later known, because of its general shape, as the Grey Monk – Huw explaining how most so-called ghostly monks were not monks at all, just a vagueness in the electromagnetic soup suggestive of robe and cowl.
Merrily saw herself in the mirror standing next to the monk. She was thirty-nine years old. Were the crow’s feet becoming webbed or did she just need more early nights? She nodded to the monk and walked out to where Huw was waiting for her at the top of the passage, standing on his own under a small, naked bulb, spidery filaments glowing feebly through the dead flies and the dust.
The course students had all gone into the chapel. Merrily shut the doors on them. The only chance she’d get.
‘OK. I was absolutely determined not to ask, but…’
‘It’ll be obvious, lass,’ Huw said. ‘Also, good for you. A chance to step back and see how far you’ve come. Rationalize it.’
‘It can’t be rationalized. It isn’t rational. You taught me that.’
Huw put on his regretful half-smile. His dog collar was the colour of old bone. Huw’s collars always looked like they’d been bought at a car-boot sale, maybe a hearse-boot sale. Merrily remembered the first time she’d heard his voice, expecting – Huw Owen? – some distant Welsh academic with a bardic lilt, but getting David Hockney, Jarvis Cocker. He’d been born in humble circumstances just down the valley here, then taken away as a baby to grow up in Yorkshire.
‘All right,’ he said, ‘It’s partly on account of you being the first woman ever to get sent here for deliverance training.’
Which he’d hardly been happy about at the time. Walking her over the unwelcoming hills, telling her what a turn-on women priests were for the pervs and the creeps. As for a woman exorcist…
‘Two on this course,’ Huw said.
You could tell by his tone that he hadn’t been impressed. The hanging bulb glowed the colour of wet straw. The wind was leaning on the new front door at the top of the passage, and Merrily had an urge to walk through it, out onto the hill. Try and keep a cigarette alight up there. Or just keep on walking into the rattling night, back to the car, foot down, out of here, with the wind behind her.
‘So what do you want me to tell them?’
‘Just answer their questions, best you can. Feel free to downplay everything. We don’t want to put the shits up them.’
Then, suddenly, impulsively, Huw sprang up on tiptoe and headed the bulb, setting it swinging like a censer. In its fibrous light, his smile looked slightly insane.
‘Although we do,’ he said. ‘Obviously.’
The women on the course were a brisk, posh girl and a squat, quiet matron in her fifties who Huw said had been governor of a women’s prison. If it wasn’t for the hungry female clergy, a third of the churches in England and Wales would probably be nightclubs and carpet warehouses. They had the confidence of being needed, these women.
‘So why are you all here?’ Huw said. ‘Eh?’
Over twenty clergy in the body of the chapel, mostly young middle-aged. The higher number on the course reflecting not so much an increased interest in exorcism, Merrily was thinking, so much as the trend for deliverance panels within each diocese. Health and Safety. Back-up. Decisions made by committee.
There was a kind of formality about them. No jeans, no sweatshirts, more dog collars than Crufts. But somehow it felt artificial, like fancy dress. The only obvious maverick here was Huw himself, so blatantly old hippie you expected flecks of spliff down his jacket.
‘I’m serious. Why were you picked for this – the one job the Church still gets all coy about? And Dawkins on the prowl, knife out.’
Somebody risked a laugh. Huw gazed out. Now they were out of fashion again, he wore a ponytail, grey and white, bound up with a red rubber band. He was sitting next to Merrily, behind a carafe of water, at a mahogany table below where the lectern used to be.
‘You…’ Levelling a forefinger. ‘Why’ve you come? Stand up a minute, lad.’
The guy into the second row was about forty, had narrow glasses and a voice that was just as soft and reasonable as you’d expect.
‘Peter Barber. Luton. Urban parish, obviously, high percentage of foreign nationals. The demand was there. I was invited by my bishop to consider the extent to which we should address it.’
‘And how much of it do you accept as valid, Peter? When a Somali woman says she thinks the Devil might be arsing about with her daughter, what’s your instinct?’
‘Huw, we discussed this. I have a respect for everyone’s belief system.’
‘Course you do, lad.’
Huw glanced at Merrily, his lips moving slightly. They might have formed the words Fucking hell. The wind went on bulging the glass and swelling the joints of the chapel.
‘How many of you are here because you’ve had what could be called a psychic or paranormal experience?’
Someone coughed, smothered it. Merrily felt Huw wanting to smash all the lights. Then the woman who’d been a prison governor stood up. She wore a black suit over her clerical shirt. Her lapel badge said Shona. Her accent was lowland Scottish.
‘I’ve been close to situations which were difficult to accommodate. We had a disturbed girl with a pentagram tattooed on the side of her neck, who we found was organizing Ouija-board sessions. Something not exactly unknown in women’s prisons and not invariably stamped upon.’
‘Because at least it keeps them quiet,’ Huw said.
‘Not in this case. We had disturbances bordering on hysteria, which spread with alarming speed. Girls claiming there were entities in their cells. The equilibrium of the whole establishment seemed to have been tipped. The prison psychologist was confident of being able to deal with it but eventually our chaplain asked me if he could bring in a colleague. From the deliverance ministry.’
‘When was this?’
‘Five or six years ago. I’d been reluctant at first, expecting him to… I don’t know, subject the girls to some crude casting-out thing. But he just talked to them, and it gradually became quieter. No magic solution, and it took a number of visits by this man, but it was resolved.’
‘Never an exact science, lass.’
‘I was impressed. Wanting to know how it had been achieved. When I took early retirement a couple of years later and sought ordination, that incident kept coming back to me. So here I am. A volunteer.’
Huw nodded and didn’t look at Merrily. If the first guy had seemed unlikely to go the distance, it would be hard to fault this woman on either background or motivation. Merrily watched Huw bend and lift the carafe with both hands and tip a little water into his glass.
‘So in other words,’ he said, ‘you’re a set of dull buggers.’
Outside somewhere, a branch snapped. Huw took an unhurried drink.
‘Men and women of common sense and discretion. Selected for their stability. Safe pairs of hands. Individuals who won’t embarrass the essentially secular element inside the modern Church. No mystics, no evangelicals, no charismatics.’
Merrily stared at Huw. That was a bad thing? He shrugged lightly.
‘Well, aye, we don’t want crackpots. We don’t want exorcisms prescribed like antibiotics, to cure shoplifting and alcohol abuse. Ideally, we don’t want them, in the fullest sense, at all. But let’s not dress this up…’
Merrily watched his fingers flexing on the mahogany tabletop then taking his weight as he leaned forward.
‘This is no job for a digital priest. At some stage, if you decide to go ahead with this particular ministry, you’ll be pulled into areas you never wanted to go. You’ll be affected short-term and long-term, mentally and emotionally and spiritually. Every one of you’s guaranteed to encounter summat that’ll ruin your sleep. I don’t want any bugger leaving here thinking that’s not going to happen.’
She was aware of him glancing into the bottom left-hand corner of the chapel, where the shadows were deepest and you couldn’t make out the faces.
‘Which is why I asked this friend of mine to come over. Through the rain and the gales.’ Turning to look at Merrily, who couldn’t kill the blush and frowned. ‘This is Mrs Watkins, deliverance consultant for the Diocese of Hereford. Successor to one of the most experienced exorcists in the country. Quite a responsibility. So… we have to ask, how did a young lass get a job like that? Safe pair of hands? I don’t think so, though she is now. No, she were hand-picked by the Bishop of Hereford at the time, because…’
Huw. Glaring up at him, not moving her lips. For God’s sake…
‘Because he fancied her,’ Huw said. ‘It were a glamour thing.’
Merrily had come in jeans and a cowl-neck black sweater with her smallest pectoral cross. Nowt formal, Huw had said on the phone. She sighed.
‘Runner-up in the Church Times Wet-Cassock competition. Never going to live that down.’
‘ Runner-up.’ Huw sniffed. ‘That were a travesty.’
Only half of them laughed. You could almost see the disdain like a faint cloud in the air around the posh girl who was probably planning a paper on how the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection were part of the same complex metaphor.
‘With Merrily, you can’t see the damage, but it’s there.’
Huw wasn’t smiling now. She noticed that his face was thinner, the lines like cracks in tree bark.
‘Tell them about Mr Joy, Merrily. Tell the boys and girls what Mr Joy did to you.’
And then he turned away so he wouldn’t see her eyes saying no.
Talk About Paris
Cornel – was that his first name or what? Cornel. You had to try and laugh. He didn’t even need to open that wide, loose, red mouth to be screaming, Look at me, I’m from Off. That too-perfect combination of plaid workshirt and Timberland-type boots… and the Rolex. Or whatever it was. Some flash old-fashioned status watch, anyway, and he’d be thinking all the country girlies would be like, Take me, Cornel… take me away in the Boxter and show me the penthouse.
Well, not quite all of them.
‘I’ve never been up there myself,’ Jane said. ‘The Court… it’s like real mysterious to us.’
The localish accent rolling out nicely, not too pronounced. If this wasn’t so serious it could almost be fun.
‘Mysterious,’ Cornel said.
Did he actually say myshterioush? Was he really that pissed?
Probably. Jane looked up at him, hands on her hips.
‘So go on…’
‘Like what happens?’
‘What do you think happens?’ Cornel said.
‘I don’t like to think.’
Cornel grinned down at her. There was that sour, too-much-wine smell on his breath. More unpleasant, somehow, than beer or whisky. Kind of decadent and louche.
‘You’re really tall,’ Jane said stupidly. ‘You know that?’
‘I was breast-fed. For months and months.’ He looked up from her chest. ‘So my mother tells me.’
‘You got a gun, Cornel? Of your own?’
‘Two, actually. One’s a Purdey. You need another drink.’
‘So, like, what do you shoot?’
‘ Things? What, like bottles off walls and stuff?’ Jane could see Cornel trying to not to snigger. ‘Well, what?’
The wind came in again. Lights flickered.
‘Darling,’ Cornel said. ‘We get to shoot pretty much anything that comes within range… pheasants, rabbits, those little deer… pussycats…’
Below bar-level, Jane felt the fingers of her right hand bunching into a tight little fist. There’d been talk in the village of cats going missing.
‘Wow,’ she said.
‘What happens at The Court is anything you want… basically. ’Cause you’re paying for it. Or, rather, the bank is.’
‘Oh.’ Jane did the vacant look. ‘Which bank you with? Is it…’ Putting a finger up to her lower lip. ‘Is it the NatWest? Or like that one with all the little puppet people and the tinkly music?’
‘Uh-huh.’ Cornel smiled, shaking his head. ‘Landesman’s. New kids on the block, very progressive.’
‘You do credit cards and stuff?’
‘And what do you do, girlie?’
‘Hairdresser,’ Jane said. ‘Well, trainee. But one day I’ll be doing it big time in Hereford. Or London, mabbe.’
‘Hmm.’ Cornel was swaying a bit and wrinkling his nose like he was figuring something out. ‘Don’t know anybody in Hereford, but I did once handle some finance for a chain of salons in London… and Paris? Paris any good to you?’
Jane blinking, like she didn’t dare believe he was serious.
‘And Milan, now, I think,’ Cornel said. ‘You look like you need a drink. A big one.’
‘Had too much already,’ Jane said.
‘Maybe you’d rather have one somewhere else?’
‘Where we can talk about Paris.’
Jane’s left hand was on the damp mat on the bar top, and Cornel’s much bigger hand was over it and squeezing gently. She pulled, not hard, but the hand was trapped.
She looked up at Cornel and giggled. His eyes were well glazed. It was unlikely that she’d get any more out of him. Probably time to end this.
The odd times when it was needed in an establishment as relatively sedate as the Black Swan, Barry was known for acting with speed and economy and a glimmer of steel. But Barry was on the phone. Lol tensed. The inglenook coughed out smoke and soot.
‘You seen him before?’ Danny said. ‘Do we know if he’s got a room yere?’
Lol shook his head.
Telling himself it would be OK. That this was Jane. Jane who’d once expressed the hope that some myopic Japanese stockbroker would accidentally blow off Ward Savitch’s head.
‘Hell’s bells!’ The main door had sprung open, the wind pushing in James Bull-Davies. Last squire of Ledwardine, partner of Alison Kinnersley, Lol’s ex from what now seemed like another, distant lifetime. ‘Bloody night.’
James thrust the door shut against the gale, shaking drips from his sparse hair, as Lol heard Jane’s unmistakably dangerous laughter, like pills in a jar. Cornel was grinning and Jane’s expression was kind of, Oh you… Almost affectionate, like they’d known one another a long time or she was as pissed as he was.
Lol looked at Danny. Danny sighed.
‘All right, then, boy, we’ll both go.’
He was halfway out of his chair when the weather took over. A wall of wind hit the Swan, the candle-bulbs shivering against the oak panelling. Lol saw Jane’s free hand reaching out to grasp the end of Cornel’s leather belt.
‘Bastard’s bloody pulled,’ one of his mates said.
‘George, she’s pulling him. Doesn’t that give us a get-out?’
Both of these guys smiling now, as Cornel let Jane tow him along the bar towards the door to the stairs, looking into her eyes with what Lol interpreted as a kind of grateful disbelief as he and Danny moved in. Then the whole bar was doused in sepia.
Power drop-out. Somewhere in the room, a woman did a theatrical scream, and Lol froze. All he could make out was a shadow-Jane trying to stand a beer glass on the bar. Then a roar.
‘ Shit! ’
As the lights came flickering back, he saw Cornel jerking up and away, movements fractured like an early movie.
Jane’s smile was wide and wild, but her voice was shaky.
‘… from the pussycats.’
Her face pale and strained, and she was breathing hard but clearly determined not to run, as Cornel came at her, his head like a red pepper, big lips twisted.
‘… you little fucking…’
Lol flinging himself between them, hands out.
Saw it coming, twisted sideways but still caught the fist on the top of the shoulder, which really hurt, then saw Cornel’s colleagues closing around him, with a sickly wafting of wine-breath.
‘Now, hold up…’
James Bull-Davies wading in. Stooping a bit these days, though it might have been the weight of whatever he kept in the fraying pockets of his tweed jacket.
‘Might one suggest you chaps cool off outside?’
‘… fuck’s this?’
‘Ladies present,’ James said briskly.
‘ That bitch?’ Cornel’s face thrust into James’s. ‘You saw what she did?’ Close to screeching, losing it. ‘ Saw that, did you? Did you?’
Lol saw an extensive dark stain on the front of Cornel’s jeans.
‘Shouldn’t render you impotent for long,’ James said mildly. ‘Big man, little girl, be disinclined to make a fuss, myself.’
Somebody laughed. The inglenook was oozing smoke like some ancient railway tunnel.
‘All right. Enough now, lads.’ Barry was here, in his quiet suit, his slim bow tie. ‘Accidents happen in the dark. If you’d like to leave your trousers at reception, sir, we can get them cleaned for you.’
Cornel was looking at Jane, his eyes sunk below the bony ridge of his sweating brow.
‘I’ll be seeing you,’ he said, ‘girlie.’
Lol felt Jane shaking and put an arm around her and steered her back to the table by the fire. She smiled slackly.
‘Cocked that up.’ Lifting up her hands, all wet. ‘More on me than him.’
‘What did you say to him, Jane?’
‘I was just, you know, so pissed off at the idea of them coming in all droit de seigneur kind of thing – and he was obviously legless. So I thought I’ll get him talking, see what I can get out of him?’
‘That’s why you wanted to go and buy the drinks?’
‘Oh, Lol, it was an impulse thing!’ Her face shone. ‘Like, it’s important to know, don’t you think, what Savitch is letting them get away with? Like, if we’re going to get the bastard closed down before he turns the village into the blood-sport capital of the New Cotswolds-’
‘Jane, he’s investment. A lot of people love him.’
‘ Nobody loves him! And we don’t want that kind of investment. We’ve got archaeological remains, we’ve got the strong possibility of a Bronze Age henge with actual stones. We could have loads of tourism – worthwhile tourism, not these… scum.’
‘All right, they love his money,’ Lol said sadly.
‘They just think they might need his money, so they don’t like to tell the bastard where to stick it.’ Jane glowered for a moment, then looked up, wary. ‘You’re not going to tell Mum about this, are you?’
‘So what did he tell you, Jane?’
‘Actually, it’s not funny. I was, like, what do you do at The Court, and he’s going, Shoot things, of course, and I’m like, Things? Go on. And he thought… I mean, I could see he thought I was…’
‘Like turned on by it? The way some women are. The hunt-ball floozies? He said they’d shoot anything that got in the way. Deer… pussycats, he said.’
‘Probably exaggerating to try and sound hard.’
‘I could tell he was waiting for me to go, Oh, I’d love to come and watch you wielding your weapon. Lol, they’re-Oh shit, look at him now…’
Lol half-turned, pain spinning into his shoulder where he’d caught Cornel’s fist. Cornel was standing next to the door to the stairs. His eyes seemed to be physically retracting under the shelf of his brow as he looked around the room in the half-light, plucking at the damp patch on his trousers.
‘Wherever you are, you little bitch,’ he said mildly, ‘I just want you to know this isn’t over.’
Lol looked around. Maybe only he and Jane had heard Cornel, because there’d been a sudden scraping of chairs, exclamations and then a hollow near-silence in the bar as a small circle formed around Barry in the centre of the room.
‘ Where was this?’ James Bull-Davies snapped. ‘Say again.’
‘Oldcastle?’ Barry said. ‘Have I got that right? Beyond Credenhill, but before you get to the Wye. Don’t know any details. Mate of mine with an apple farm was just passing it on in case we saw any police action. Cops are all over there, apparently.’
‘Yes, but who-?’
‘Oh, Mansel…?’ Barry stepped back. ‘Gawd, James. That mean he’s a relation?’
‘Cousin. Of sorts.’ James straightened up, bit his lower lip. ‘Hell’s bells.’
A flaking log rolled out of the fire up against the mesh of the fireguard. Danny Thomas came back and sat down, pushing fingers through his beard.
‘Barry just had a call from a mate. Feller been found dead. Farmer.’
Lol said. ‘What… storm-related?’
‘Sounds like way too many coppers for that,’ Danny said.
Up against the brick wall under a bleary bulkhead lamp, Bliss was struggling into his Durex suit. Big, wide puddles in the yard, four of them rippling like something tidal in the lights and the remains of the gale. The fifth puddle much smaller, not rippling at all, the colour and consistency of bramble jelly.
Farmers. Never felt comfortable around farmers, not even dead farmers.
Terry Stagg came lumbering out of a litter of uniforms and techies shielding the body from the wind, Bliss looking up from the flapping plastic.
‘DCI know about this, Terry?’
Realizing this was the very last question he’d normally ask. This was getting ridiculous. He peered at Terry Stagg’s eyes in the lamplight. Terry was working on a beard to cover up his second chin. His eyes looked tired. And faintly puzzled?
‘Boss, it was actually the DCI who said to get you out. Be more convenient for DI Bliss were her actual-’
Stagg said nothing. Bliss turned away, nerves burning like a skin rash. Probably digging himself an even bigger pit.
‘My impression was that the DCI won’t be coming out tonight at all,’ Stagg said. ‘Which is unusual, given the social status of the deceased.’
‘Don’t question it.’ Bliss zipped the Durex suit from groin to throat. ‘Give thanks.’
He plucked the elasticated sleeve away from his watch: just gone nine. Taken him the best part of half an hour to get here from home. Blown-off branches all over the roads, one lacerating the flank of his car as he squirmed past on the grass verge.
‘So this is…?’
‘Mr Mansel Bull, boss. Fifty-seven. Farmer, as you know. Old family.’
‘Double-page spread in the Hereford Times kind of old?’
‘Maybe special supplement,’ Terry Stagg said.
‘Not short of a few quid, Tez. Lorra leckie going to waste, or is that you?’
The yard was ablaze with lights on sensors, like a factory, and alive with bellowing creaks, the smashing of blown-open doors, the restive moaning of the cattle in the sheds – Bliss thinking all this was like the sounds of his own nerves amplified.
‘On his way,’ Terry said. ‘Allegedly. But we do have time-of-death to within half an hour or so. Mr Bull’d gone to a parish-council meeting arranged for seven, but called off due to the conditions. Sounds like he came directly back. Walking into… something.’
A council meeting explained the suit and tie, what you could see of it under a glistening beard of blood. Hard to say if his head was still even attached. Was that bone? Was that an actual split skull? Bliss stepped back. You never quite got used to this.
‘Who found him?’
‘Brother. Heard the cattle moaning in the shed, so he had a walk up. With his shotgun.’
‘Not loaded, he claims. Lives in the big bungalow down towards the river. Mr Bull lived here, on his own.’
‘On his own – in that? ’
Security lights on the barn opposite flushed out mellow old brick and about fifteen dark windows on three storeys. Oldcastle Farm. The house and buildings wedged into a jagged promontory above the Wye, embedded like a fort. Georgian or Queen Anne or whatever, had to be big enough for a family of twelve, plus servants.
‘Divorced. For the second time, apparently.’
Terry looking sideways at Bliss. Mr Bull was face-up to the lights, eyes wide open in his big, bald, dented head, like he couldn’t believe the way death had come racing at him out of the wind and the night.
‘Where’s the brother?’
‘In the house. Waiting for you.’
‘He see anything?’
Terry Stagg shook his head.
‘All right.’ Bliss hunched his shoulders against the wind. ‘So where we up to, Tezza?’
‘Covering the lanes, pubs, for what that’s worth now. They’ll be well away.’
‘Mr Sollers Bull thinks a gang. He’ll explain.’
‘House-to-house. Well… farm-to-farm. In the four-by-four. With a couple of uniforms, just in case.’
Karen was connected: farming family. Where Bliss came from, a farmer was a bloke with a shared allotment and a chicken.
‘Obviously you’ve searched the buildings.’
‘With Mr Sollers Bull. And the house. Did I…?’ Terry Stagg coughed. ‘Did I say Mr Sollers Bull was not very happy?’
‘ No. You amaze me, Terence.’
Terry said, ‘In the sense that… he reckons he and his brother both reported intruders.’
‘Two occasions in the past month. He says we laughed.’
‘ We laughed?’
‘The police laughed. Fuck me. Excellent.’
‘I mean, that’s what he says.’
‘Might this explain the DCI’s generosity in letting the underling take charge, d’you think?’
Thinking, nice one, well-timed, Francis, as a vehicle came coughing and grumbling up the tarmac drive. Dr Grace’s Land Rover Defender.
‘Also,’ Terry Stagg said, ‘when I told him you’d be in to talk to him later on, Mr Sollers Bull said… He seems to know who you are.’
The vehicle’s engine had been switched off but was clinging to life. In the instant of its last shudder, the wind died and it was like they were standing in the vacuum of quiet at the eye of the storm.
‘Fame at last. I’m made up.’ Bliss’s own voice came bouncing back at him from across the yard. He lowered it. ‘What are you saying?’
‘He knows your father-in-law.’
Billy Grace was hauling his kit up the drive. Bliss went to meet him.
Shit. The downside of having a complicated private life in a small county.
Every other Saturday, work permitting, he’d collect his kids from the in-laws’ farm. Trying to time it so he’d be bringing them back just before Kirsty got in from shopping or wherever. In the hope that he could leave them with his mother-in-law, a woman he could handle, more or less.
Unfortunately, he’d pulled this one too many times. Last Saturday, the door had been ajar at the farm holiday cottage where Kirsty was living, and the kids had gone running inside. He’d considered just buggering off, but in the end he’d gone in to find the stove lit, all very cosy, smell of quality coffee – sour reminders of his own kitchen with all its comforts now plundered.
And here was the plunderer in person: Mrs Bliss. Only, this was the Mrs Bliss of ten years ago – the future Mrs Bliss reborn. All made up, short black skirt well up the thigh. See what you threw away.
‘You had another hour, at least,’ Kirsty said, when the kids were out of the room. ‘But then you always did get bored with them quite rapidly… what with an eight-year-old’s lack of interest in the vagaries of the Crown Prosecution Service.’
Vagaries? She’d been rehearsing, evidently.
‘Or do you have a date tonight?’
Date. Not a word they’d ever used between themselves. That little tweak of petty triumph on Kirsty’s lovely pulpy lips.
She knew something. She bloody knew something.
‘Gorra be off, Kairsty,’ Bliss said. ‘Be the Easter holidays next time I come, so we can make it a different day if you want. I could maybe take them over to Aberystwyth or somewhere.’
‘You never did put yourself out much, did you, Frank?’
Finding his arms folded – classic defence stance – Bliss let them drop.
‘It’s not that frigging convenient. Couple of hours each way, and with Easter traffic-’
‘I think,’ Kirsty said, ‘that you know what I’m talking about.’
‘I’ve gorra go.’
‘The thing is…’ she stood up slowly ‘… isn’t it against the rules? I mean, when it all comes out, won’t one of you have to move to another division? Isn’t that how it works?’
Bliss had felt the blood draining out of his face so fast that his cheeks actually felt cold.
‘Now, look… I don’t where you think you’re going with this, but-’
‘Oh, you do, Frank.’
Bliss’s mind was going like a washing machine: oh shit. Shit, shit, shit. Where had she got this from? Which one of his beloved colleagues had sniffed it out? How was this even possible?
‘You’re mental, Kairsty, you know that?’
Safest to go on the offensive. An advantage of being separated was the way you could bring a row directly to the boil, knowing you could slip away, with nothing lost, before the first plate hit the wall.
‘I don’t think so.’ Her eyes cold as quartz. ‘I mean, I could almost feel insulted if that cow’s as far as your ambition goes, but being I know what a sad little sod you’ve become, it doesn’t surprise me a great deal, Frank, to be honest.’
Bliss’s palms starting to sweat.
‘Calling the shots now, is she, on your private life?’
‘Think whatever you want.’
‘As I understand it, with a male officer and a woman, it’s always the man has to move, isn’t it? Or have I got that wrong?’
‘What exactly do you want off me?’
And she’d smiled. Generously.
‘Just want you to own up to it, Frank, that’s all.’ Oh, the satisfaction in her eyes. ‘Dad’s solicitor says that makes it a lot easier. Play your cards right, it might not come out in public’
‘Just makes it easier, that’s all,’ Kirsty said.
‘And costlier. For me, anyway.’
Kirsty had shrugged, Bliss feeling like his insides had been flushed out with cold water. Kirsty blamed the police for everything that had gone wrong between them. She was wrong about that, and she probably knew she was wrong, but this was convenient, and she’d use it.
‘Close friend, Billy?’
Dr Grace, who was very well-connected, glanced over his shoulder at Bliss. ‘Not particularly a friend at all, Francis, but everybody’s at least acquainted in this county. Except, possibly, for uncouth incoming Scousers like yourself.’
‘You mean a Masonic thing?’ Bliss said.
Dr Grace declined to reply, turning back to his work, lifting a distended flap of skin like he was opening a Jiffy bag full of blood, and Bliss turned away.
‘Big family, mind, Billy. Branches everywhere. The Bulls, Bull-Morrises, Bull-Davieses…’
‘And a big house for one man.’
‘Two marriages, Francis. Both childless. Not what a farmer wants. Well, now, I’d say that was pointing at him as culprit, but not the kind of man to have his sperm tested. Almost certainly would’ve been a third wife. Never a man to look back, Mansel.’
‘He didn’t see this coming,’ Bliss said.
‘Ah now…’ Billy Grace turned, beaming, a loose, shambling man with big white teeth, a wild, neon smile. ‘Actually, he did. He must’ve been facing directly into it.’
‘What you offering?’
‘Not a penknife, Francis. Machete, more like.’
‘That’s urban, Billy.’ Bliss took a step back. ‘That’s frigging gangland.’ Mr Sollers Bull thinks a gang. ‘Go on then, doc. Give me the guesswork.’
Billy Grace lurched to his feet. Thimbles of blood on the fingers of his surgical gloves.
‘The neck – one blow, looks like. A single slash. I’m guessing that came first, while he was still on his feet. The blows to the top of the head would’ve put him straight down.’
Billy took a couple of long strides into the middle of the farmyard, all the uniforms and techies moving away as his right arm went back for role-play.
‘If you imagine he’s standing here when the blade makes contact, slamming into the windpipe. Not exactly what you’d call a butcher’s strike, but the sheer impact of it would leave the poor bastard reeling, spouting blood and tissue everywhere. A great dollop… as you see.’
Billy gestured at the separate puddle. Bliss felt queasy.
‘Poor old Mansel tottering away, couple of metres and then…’ He began to back off unsteadily. ‘ Bang, on the skull, and Mansel comes down like a block of flats.’
Bliss said, ‘And the killer…?’
‘Well, obviously, I don’t know that, but… I’ll be able to give you a full list of injuries and possibly confirm the sequence tomorrow, but if you want to take a closer look…’
‘For now, I’ll take your word. So the killer knew he’d killed. There was serious intent…’
‘Hardly trying to fend the poor chap off.’
‘And then slinks away. With his big knife.’ Bliss turned to Terry Stagg, the wind in his face like barbed wire. ‘First light, we go over the whole frigging farm, inch by inch. I also think we’re gonna have to drag Howe away from her dinner party, or wherever. Gorra mad bastard here.’
‘Or someone pumped up with drugs.’ Billy’s teeth shining with carnivorous glee. ‘Whoever he is, Francis, I wouldn’t like to face him in an alley.’
Terry Stagg said, ‘Mr Sollers Bull… you need to know…’
‘Where is he?’
‘I suggested he went home. You go down to the fork in the drive, turn right-’
‘Where’ve I heard that name before, Terence? Sollers Bull…’
‘TV?’ Stagg said. ‘Pictures in the papers? I’ve been trying to tell you.’
Bliss turned. Billy Grace was grinning.
‘Oh shit,’ Bliss said. ‘He’s got form.’
‘That might be how you see it, Francis,’ Billy said. ‘But to quite a few people hereabouts, he’s a bloody hero.’
Even now, even in a room full of priests, it was hard to relive. Years later, it would still start burning in her memory like acid. If it caught her in the night, she’d have to get out of bed and pray. Recite St Patrick’s Breastplate, the way she had the night Denzil Joy died.
‘Let me set the scene for you,’ Huw Owen said to the students. ‘When Merrily were appointed as deliverance consultant, the man she replaced was the last Diocesan Exorcist. His name were Canon Dobbs and he couldn’t be doing wi’ namby-pamby terminology like deliverance.’
He paused, looking down to the darkest part of the chapel again.
‘An austere owd bugger, Dobbs. Former academic. Not a supporter of the ordination of women. Merrily’s a university dropout who received her calling in the last days of a wonky marriage – he got killed in a car crash. Was there an element of guilt after that? I wouldn’t like to spec-’
‘Always an element of summat, in’t there? We’re all on the threshold of imbalance. As this job keeps reminding us.’
She saw his left hand quiver. And again he looked out towards the shadows in the left-hand corner, where Merrily could see a man now, leaning back, an arm thrown across the back of the empty chair next to his.
‘Anyroad, Canon Dobbs felt it were his duty to expose the upstart bint to the kind of evil the very existence of which would be denied by the progressive bishop who’d appointed her. And – happen – by some of you. Lass?’
Huw extended an arm. Merrily stood up.
‘Erm… I don’t know whether anybody here’s ever been a nurse. Or knows one. But I’ve found it’s always useful to listen to nurses.’
A rush of wind hit the chapel and there was a distant splintering, all heads turning except for Huw’s.
‘Not least because they’ve seen most things relating to death. This, erm, this is about a death. It was my first deliverance job and probably should’ve been Canon Dobbs’s last before he retired, but he was… unavailable.’
Merrily was already uncomfortable. All she had to do was lift the cellar hatch of memory, just a crack, and out it sprang again, and she could almost feel it on the underside of her wrist.
The smell coming back at once: cat-shit and gangrene, one of the nurses had said.
‘Mr Joy was a hospital patient in Hereford, and he didn’t have long. I was called out in the night because the nurses said he was asking for a priest and the hospital chaplain wasn’t available. The truth was that it was the nurses who needed the priest.’
The nurses who didn’t like to touch Mr Joy. The nurses who had seen the way he used his wife when she came to visit.
The nurses who never could forget the sensation of his fingers when they bent over him to take his temperature or change one of the tubes.
Scritch-scratch. On the soft skin on the underside of the wrist.
‘But I was new at this,’ Merrily said. ‘I told them it wasn’t my job to judge him, only to try and bring him peace. Something was still insisting, back then, that there was no such thing as an evil presence.’
A hand went up. Shona, the woman who’d been a prison governor, hair like a light brown balaclava.
‘You mean your own life-experience or your training?’
‘Look,’ Merrily said. ‘Here you are at the bedside of a dying man. He ’s dying, you’re a priest, there to bring comfort. How can you do that if you accept that he’s infested with evil? So you go with the rational view. No such thing as an abstract, incorporeal evil. You need to relax.’
He can enter you without moving, that man, one of the nurses had said.
Merrily’s hand instinctively moving to the pectoral cross. Don’t shudder. Do not shudder now.
‘Cut to the car chase, lass,’ Huw said. ‘And don’t omit the exhaust.’
She told them the rest. Well, most of it.
Trying to convey that sense of all the light in the room being sucked sourly into a man on the very rim of extinction, whose touch was like an enema.
‘Looking back, it leaves me asking a number of questions. Fierce sexual energy coming from an old, dying man – can that be explained medically? Possibly it can, I’m not qualified to say, but the nurses didn’t think so, and nurses, no matter how compassionate, can be very cynical people.’
It was quieter now, the wind in remission.
‘The psychological explanation,’ Merrily said, ‘might be that here was a man who’d enjoyed exploiting women sexually, degrading them. A man in search of increasingly perverse pleasures – to what extent you want to demonize this is up to you.’
Huw was looking at her, head on one side. OK, I’m coming to it.
‘You can usually find a rational explanation, but there has to be a cut-off point. You need to recognize when you’re trying too hard to explain something away, because that can be when you’re most vulnerable. And if it reaches you, there’s not much hope for whoever you’re trying to protect.’
Shona said, ‘When you say “if it reaches you”…?’
‘What do I mean by it? Not sure. But I think if you’re unable to accept the premise of an external evil, you may not be able to deal with some problems. I think… looking back, I don’t think I handled it forcefully enough. I let the psychology make too many decisions. And afterwards I failed to draw a line under it, as a result of which… something… seemed to be hanging around, for some time.’
Looking at Shona, hoping she’d ask another question, move the thread.
‘I felt unclean. Bad dreams. Night… sensations. Subjective, you might say, psychological. I’ve since encountered criminals, accepted as being disturbed, and this was just an ordinary old man. Yet Mr Joy was a notorious case in that hospital. Canon Dobbs had had dealings with him before and could have done so this time, but he set me up.’
She didn’t want to go into the burning of garments, and no way was she going to tell them about the essential advice which had come not from Huw but from an old woman who’d lived in a care home and who’d been surrounded by some very dubious books. Wouldn’t help anybody. Although it had helped her.
Maybe seeing she was floundering, Huw stood up.
‘The point being,’ he said, ‘that it might’ve been years before Merrily encountered owt as extreme as that – if ever. Make or break, and Dobbs is expecting break. I’d still say that were irresponsible of him.’
Heads turned at a slow creaking sound from outside, some distance away but ominous.
‘Another tree coming down,’ Huw said. ‘Nowt we can do.’
‘It’s like a series of doors,’ Merrily said. ‘You start off opening the psychological door, and sometimes that’s as far as you need to go, and it ends with prayers and a blessing. But quite often, several doors down the line, you’ll come to one that a psychologist wouldn’t go through.’
She drank some water.
‘I don’t know, to this day, whether Mr Joy was afflicted with some violent sexual anomaly which had more or less eaten away his humanity. Or whether that had opened him up to something else. But you don’t have to. That’s why we have the rituals and the liturgy. To an extent… just do it. Without it, you’d be off the rails.’
The posh girl – did the card say Bethany? – had her hand up.
‘What happened finally? Were you there when he-?’
The wind had started up again but now it was less ferocious, as if slightly dismayed at what it had done. The big gust which had brought down the tree had also driven clouds away from the moon. It flared suddenly in the lowest window and lit the face of the man at the back. Briefly, before he slid into the adjacent chair.
The man at the back of the chapel had flat, grey hair and his eyes still looked like they’d been sewn on. No bags, no wrinkles. A soft-toy’s eyes.
‘He died that night,’ Merrily said. ‘I was there, yes. Nurses will often tell you stories about the dying being… helped over. Claiming they can see the faces of people they’ve known. Parents, old friends, grannies. Brain chemicals, if you like, comfort visions. Lots of rational explanations, but it keeps happening. Someone to beckon you over.’
‘And was there someone waiting for Mr Joy?’
‘At the end, he was conspicuously disturbed. As if he could see something which… didn’t seem like his granny.’
‘Did you see anything?’
‘No. And I came away, as I’ve implied, with a quite acute sense of failure. Sat and smoked a cigarette with the ward sister. Both of us fairly shattered after watching an old man who’d scared us all… go out in a state of abject terror.’
Shona said, ‘And when, subsequently, you felt that something of this man hadnae gone away… do you think this sense of failure might’ve been a contributory factor?’
‘Haunted by my own inadequacy?’
Nobody followed up on this. Merrily glanced at Huw, sitting with his eyes half-closed. She had that sense of being set up, manoeuvred into place, as surely as she had with the late Canon Dobbs.
‘Were you afraid,’ the girl, Bethany, said, ‘when you thought something was coming for him?’
‘Hard not to be. He was.’
‘Afraid for your immortal soul? Or afraid that you weren’t going to be able to handle the job?’
‘And what did you do about that?’
‘I don’t know,’ Merrily said. ‘It’s never gone away.’
Huw was nodding.
‘You’re always afraid?’ Bethany said. ‘Whenever you’re asked to deal with…’ Her face, at last, showing dismay.
‘Pretty much,’ Merrily said.
Glancing towards the guy at the back, half expecting to see a spiral of smoke. Remembering a summer afternoon in a big church in the Malvern Hills, the vicar there finishing off his cigarette, leaving little cylinders of ash at the foot of the lectern. Remembering what he’d said that day.
Not a lot frightens me. I can deal with most physical pain, emotional pain, stress.
He’d probably done his training up here in the Beacons, and the exercises prior to selection. It was said they had to run up to fifty miles with an eighty-pound pack and when they took their boots off their socks were thick with blood. I can achieve separation from the weakness of the body, he’d said that day in his church.
It was fairly clear now that he hadn’t been expecting to see her here. Maybe hoping to slide away quietly when the session had ended, so they wouldn’t have to meet? The moon had screwed that.
He looked up at last, and their eyes met, and his were small and almost flat to his head like a teddy bear’s, and his smile was tentative, wary.
Fallen trees had restructured the landscape. Two of them were down on the hillside below the chapel, the biggest near the bottom of the track, just before it joined the main road. A crackling, skeletal mesh in the blurred moonlight.
Huw Owen was standing on a crag with a lambing lamp. Like one of Holman Hunt’s rejected sketches for The Light of the World, Merrily thought. Below him, a bunch of the deliverance students stood staring dumbly at the tangle of branches, like this was an act of God. Huw smiling thinly, as if he knew that it was.
Not that it would affect the students. They’d all walked up from the pub and the guest houses and B amp; Bs in the village, Huw from his rectory. Only someone who’d arrived late enough to have to park her old Volvo right outside the sodding chapel…
‘What this probably means,’ Merrily said, ‘is that I won’t get home tonight.’
The wind had died back to a murmur, like distant traffic. Huw came down from his crag.
‘Couple of lads’ll be up wi’ chainsaws, I expect.’
‘Soon as it’s light. I’ll make you a bed up. Won’t be silk sheets or owt, mind.’
She followed him across the rough and sodden grass, popping the studs on her waxed coat, not liking to think what kind of damage there might be back home in Ledwardine. Huw stopped and looked back at her.
‘Country life. Like town life, wi’ extra shite.’
‘Don’t like Jane being on her own in the vicarage. I know she’s eighteen, but in my mind she’s ten.’
‘She’s got Robinson just across the street.’ Huw came to a wooden stile, waited, patting Merrily on the shoulder as she drew level. ‘You did bloody well tonight. Wouldn’t’ve worked the same coming from me.’
He balanced his lambing light on one of the stile’s posts and climbed over. She called after him.
‘You’re a bastard, Huw.’
Huw picked up the lamp, and the lamp picked up a razored track leading down towards the stone rectory, a grey boulder with a scree of crumbling outbuildings. Merrily scrambled up on the stile, the wind whipping at her hair. This was nothing – an hour ago she’d’ve been on hands and knees.
‘You didn’t tell me Syd Spicer was on the course.’
After the session was over, she hadn’t gone looking for the man with teddy-bear eyes, she’d waited for him to approach her. But he never had. She hadn’t seen him leave. Old skills.
‘He rang me up. Asking if he could sit in for one day.’
Merrily looked down at him from the top of the stile.
‘When was this?’
‘At the weekend.’
‘He say why?’
‘Not in any detail.’
‘Would I be right in thinking…’ Merrily climbed over and sat down on the step of the stile ‘… that Syd no more expected to see me here than I expected to see him?’
Huw stood gazing out, beyond the rectory, to where the moon had pewtered the hills.
‘I didn’t tell him I’d asked you to come, no. I figured… since you worked with him last year, I figured he’d trust what you had to say.’
‘In relation to what?’
‘Whatever problem he’s got.’
The step was soaked through; Merrily pulled her coat under her bum. This was obviously going to take a while. Across in the rectory, a light blinked on.
‘That’ll be Spicer now,’ Huw said.
‘He’s in your bloody rectory?’
‘He were stopping t’night here anyroad.’
Two lights were on now in the rectory. Merrily folded her arms.
‘You see, what strikes me as odd is that when I was invited down to Syd’s parish in the Malverns, it was because he, basically, did not do this stuff. Had no time for any of it.’
There are leaps I can’t make, he’d said to her.
And Merrily had said, You’re worried by the non-physical.
And he’d said, Samuel Dennis Spicer, Church of England.
Name, rank and number. You could pull out all his teeth and that was the most you’d get from the Rev. Syd Spicer, former sergeant with 22 SAS, the Special Air Service, Hereford’s finest.
The UK’s finest, come to that. Some said the world’s.
Huw sat down at the other end of the step.
‘Remind me about the time you worked with him. Briefly.’
‘Series of road accidents in the Malverns, near his rectory. All in more or less the same place. Survivors saying they’d swerved to avoid a man on a bike.’
‘Who wasn’t there. And Spicer didn’t believe that.’
‘Kept saying he had a problem with paranormal phenomena,’ Merrily said. ‘He wanted me to look into it, do the roadside blessing bit and reassure local people that it was sorted. Which led to-’
‘I know what it led to. Did he believe at the end? When it was over?’
‘Probably not. So if you’re asking whether I’m surprised to see him on a deliverance course, yes, I am.’
Huw said, ‘I were also wondering why he hadn’t gone to you in the first place.’
‘Over what? What did he tell you?’
‘He said – and I quote – an old evil had come back into his life. And he needed to deal with it.’
‘Exhaust. That’s why you set me up to talk about Denzil Joy?’
‘Don’t get me wrong, lass, I think it were a useful exercise for all of ’em. It’s the most explicit case of possible demonic possession I’ve heard of in a while, and I thought you’d tell it well, and you did. None of them buggers is going to forget about Denzil. But whatever it is it’s likely in your manor, and I thought you should know about it. And I thought he should be reminded about you.’
‘Syd isn’t expecting to see me again tonight, is he?’
‘Aye, well… he’ll think you’ve gone. He won’t know your car’s trapped behind a tree.’
‘Huw, you’re a-’
Even the weather played into Huw’s hands.
‘I take it, Merrily, that when that business were on in the Malverns, Spicer wasn’t frightened.’
‘No, he wasn’t.’
‘He is now.’
‘A man who’s served in likely the hardest regiment in the entire history of the British Army.’ Huw stretched out his legs into the dark, greasy grass. ‘Now then, lass, what could possibly scare the shit out of him?’
Bliss had come alone, parking outside a metal gate at the top of the drive, eventually having to climb over because he couldn’t work the bolt in the dark. A spotlight speared him as he hung astride the shivering tubular bar. At the top of the drive, a door had opened. A man stood there. Green gilet, high boots.
‘Police,’ Bliss said.
Feeling like a twat as he came down from the gate, stumbling to his knees. The countryside could always bugger you up when it felt like it. He stumbled towards the bungalow, built of old brick like the big house – an outbuilding, possibly a converted coach house.
A nod, maybe.
‘Francis Bliss, Mr Bull. West Mercia CID.’
Bliss pulled off his beanie, held up his ID. The guy in the doorway didn’t look at it.
‘You’re the man who married Chris Symonds’s daughter.’
‘I am, yes.’
Bliss sighed. Maybe they’d met at one of the agonizing county functions Kirsty had dragged him to, some creaking conveyor belt of dinner jackets.
‘Chris is a friend,’ Mr Bull said. ‘I see him often.’
Well, that could hardly be more explicit. A blast of wind caught Bliss as he stowed away his ID. Loose bits of his life getting blown in his face.
‘Mr Bull, can I say that I’m very sorry-’
‘For my loss?’
Bliss said nothing.
‘You can take your routine commiserations, Inspector Bliss, and insert them into your rectum,’ Mr Bull said.
Bliss nodded wearily and followed him into the house.
Grief took many forms, aggression one of the commonest.
Low-energy bulbs laid a mauve wash on the kitchen. It had costly customized fittings and strong new beams of green oak. When a phone started ringing, Sollers Bull unplugged the lead from the wall.
‘Everybody who needs to know knows.’
‘Next few days will be difficult,’ Bliss said.
‘ Days? ’
Sollers Bull stood gazing into wide windows that looked to be triple-glazed. Nothing much to see but the reflection of himself and Bliss and a double-oven Aga in tomato red. Sollers had told Stagg he’d spent the early evening at a staff meeting at his farm shop. It checked out.
‘Chris says you consistently neglected your wife, Inspector,’ Sollers Bull told Bliss’s reflection. ‘Neglect seems to be your force’s forte.’
‘Where’s your wife, Mr Bull?’
‘Not your concern.’
‘Well, you know, actually it is,’ Bliss said quietly. ‘With an extremely violent killer on the loose.’
‘Then why aren’t you out there looking for him?
Mr Bull turned at last to Bliss. A wedge of stiff dark hair was razored clear of his ears, a tiny diamond stud winking out of one of them – the one that TV cameras always caught when, with his handsome head held high, Sollers was striding in and out of court.
Bliss said, ‘Your brother reported intruders on his land.’
‘We both did. On separate occasions. Did you know that?’
‘Doesn’t particularly surprise me, Inspector Bliss, because preventing crime-’
‘Look…’ Bliss held up both hands. ‘I understand your distress and your anger, but alleged trespass isn’t necessarily police business at all, let alone CID business. For a start, it has to be trespass with intent -’
‘And preventing crime is low-priority stuff nowadays, isn’t it? Counts for nothing in the target culture. Nil points.’
You got this every day now, every little twat nicked for a minor offence accusing you of using him to make the figures tally.
‘Mr Bull, we don’t like the target culture any more than you, and I try not to let it get in the way of being a good copper. I’m not saying if I’d heard about your intruders we’d’ve come rushing over with a chopper and an armed response unit, because our resources are limited at the best of times but…’ Bliss drew out a chair from under the kitchen table but didn’t sit down ‘…I think I need to know about it now, sir. Don’t you?’
Sollers Bull crossed the room, switched off the main bulbs, as if to dim his anger. The moon was in and out, now that the storm was over. Through the window you could see poplars waving blackly, like they were fanning away shreds of cloud.
Mr Bull, sharp face scarred with shadows, told Bliss he’d seen two of them, around the end of last week, Thursday, perhaps. Two men and a vehicle. ‘Wasn’t quite dark. I could quite easily have shot one.’
‘Probably as well you didn’t, though,’ Bliss said patiently. ‘You don’t know this was down to the people you saw. Whom I’m presuming you didn’t recognize… or did you?’
‘I don’t know who they are, but I know what they are.’
‘Who did you speak to, Mr Bull, when you rang the police?’
‘Rang what I thought was Hereford police and it turned out to be some anonymous call centre… might as well have been in fucking Delhi, like the rest of them. Sometime later, I actually received a call back to ask if the intruders were still in the vicinity because the police were rather busy…’
‘Yeh, well,’ Bliss said. ‘We both know that’s not satisfactory, and if I was Chief Constable I might well talk to the Home Office about things being done a bit differently. But I’m just a lowly foot soldier. What exactly did your brother see?’
‘Is he still there? Still lying out there in his yard?’
‘When I left, but probably not now. There’ll be a post-mortem in the morning.’
There was a bottle of single malt on the table. Sollers Bull pushed it at Bliss. Bliss shook his head. Not falling into that trap.
‘Tell me about the vehicle.’
‘Pickup truck. White or light blue. Mansel saw it on the track two nights together. Raced away when they saw him. I’ve told all this to your sergeant-’
‘Which is why the whole area’s taped off. In case there are tyre tracks and footprints.’
‘We’ve both been over it several times since then. And delivery vehicles.’
‘We can eliminate them. It’s still worth it.’
Sollers Bull eyed him over his glass.
‘Wasn’t worth it when we had a quad bike stolen last year, was it? Or when Gerry Morgan’s chain-harrow took a walk the week after Christmas. I bet you don’t even know what a chain-harrow is, do you, Inspector?’
Bliss moved on. Might know what it was, but he was buggered if he knew what it looked like.
‘Mr Bull, you said you didn’t know who they were but you knew what they were…’
‘Did I?’ Sollers poured himself a drink. ‘Probably because I’d been reading in the local rag how the Hereford murder rate’s doubled the past year or so.’
‘Still means a lot less in Hereford than it does in New York. Or Birmingham, even. And if you’re pointing out that the last two killers were East European… well, so were the victims. And both were urban. Aren’t even any migrants round here, yet. Are there?’
It had been too dark on the way here to see the fruit fields, the frames for the polytunnels where the seasonal workers were employed, the caravans and dorm blocks where they lived. But they wouldn’t even have started planting yet.
‘A percentage of migrants are career criminals, we all know that,’ Sollers Bull said. ‘Easy pickings over here. Organized credit-card theft, fiddling cash machines. Driving through a farm and lifting anything not nailed down.’
‘Did you see any signs of a break-in?’
‘Inspector Bliss…’ Sollers Bull regarding him with scorn. ‘We en’t yet been able to count the livestock.’
Bliss was silent. Sollers sipped his whisky.
‘Don’t the police have two men of East European origin awaiting trial for rustling?’
‘Yeh, but I think that’s in Evesham, Mr Bull.’
‘Not all that far away.’
‘It’s a fair way from small-time rustling to taking a man’s life.’
Bliss was recalling another case, unsolved, where sheep had been slaughtered in a field and then butchered on the spot. Somebody’s idea of a takeaway. Bliss thought of butcher’s knives. Check it out.
He said, ‘You think your brother came back earlier than expected after his council meeting was abandoned… and walked in on a robbery in progress?’
‘Nothing else makes sense to me.’
‘Seems odd he should be all alone in that big house.’
‘His marriage ended.’
‘No children from either of his marriages.’
‘A local woman comes in most days. I’ve given your sergeant her details.’
Bliss said, ‘We do need to know if he had enemies.’
‘He was well liked and well respected by everyone who knew him. A traditional farmer. An old-fashioned farmer. A man of the land – this land. Bred to it.’ Sollers looked down at the tabletop as if the contours of the land were marked out on its surface. ‘We both were.’
‘Bridge Sollers,’ Bliss said.
At least he knew his place names.
‘And Mansel Lacey,’ Sollers said.
Both villages – hamlets – within a few miles of here.
‘Something to live up to, Mr Bull.’
‘No,’ Bliss said, surprised. ‘No, it wasn’t.’
Sollers Bull lowered his head to his hands, massaging the edge of his eyes with the knuckles of his thumbs.
‘Let’s talk again tomorrow, shall we?’ Bliss said.
He drove up to the fork, parked with his engine running, headlights on dipped, and got out his mobile. Signal was a bit wonky.
‘Mansel Bull,’ he said. ‘Farmer. Machete job, Billy Grace reckons.’
‘I know,’ the DCI said. ‘I’ve just talked at length to Stagg.’
Addressing his superior, Bliss felt acutely strange. Up to a few months ago, he was routinely editing his thoughts before opening his mouth.
‘Sollers Bull,’ Annie Howe said. ‘That would be…?’
‘Gobby hunt supporter nicked by the Met for pouring red paint on John Prescott’s second-best Jag.’
‘Fighting for his heritage. A hero.’
‘Malicious damage is malicious damage, Annie. And still a cocky twat. Who, as you can imagine, doesn’t like the police much. Especially me.’
They’d been in the remains of Bliss’s sitting room when the first call came through. Kirsty’s old man had been in with Kirsty’s key while Bliss was at work and had nicked the flame-effect fire. Bliss had been filling a paraffin stove when Terry Stagg had come through on Annie’s mobile.
Be more convenient for DI Bliss.
True enough, in that Bliss was nearer the door. Whenever Annie came round she’d arrive just after dusk, leaving her car in a cul-de-sac two streets away. Strategic. Kirsty was right. If it came out, one of them could end up behind a desk in Carlisle.
No guesses which.
‘We need to watch Stagg,’ Bliss said. ‘Ma’am.’
Hadn’t yet said a word to her about Kirsty’s suspicions. Best to keep quiet until he knew for sure that the bitch wasn’t flying a kite.
‘What else did Sollers Bull say, Francis?’
‘Reckons it was a robbery gone wrong. All but accusing migrant workers from the fruit farm across the road.’
Figuring this might rattle Annie’s PC cage a little.
‘That would be Magnis Berries?’
‘That what it’s called?’
‘Named after what was a Roman town,’ Annie said, ‘which used to stand somewhere round there. How close is it to Oldcastle?’
‘Half a mile? I doubt there are many people employed there now. Probably not even got the polytunnels up yet. You think we should go in, see what vehicles they’ve got?’
‘Check it out discreetly tomorrow. Maybe find out if anyone’s in charge. During the season, it could be the biggest centre of population between there and Leominster.’
‘Yeh, OK.’ Bliss sat watching the bare brown hedge, like a complex circuit board in his headlights. ‘What time will you get back tomorrow?’
She was in court at Worcester: three brothers accused over the near-fatal stabbing of a father-in-law.
‘Verdict early next week. I might look in on you tomorrow, but no point in me getting involved if I’m back in court on Monday. You pleased?’
‘Made-up, Annie. Where are you now?’
‘Home. Thought it was best.’
‘What about tomorrow night?’ he said.
‘I’m not sure.’
See, that was what he was scared of, too. The idea that something which neither of them had expected to last… really wouldn’t last.
‘Didn’t catch that, Annie,’ Bliss said. ‘I keep losing the signal.’
Towards the Flames
Syd S Picer had the fire going nicely in the parlour.
‘This looks like sycamore,’ he said to Huw. ‘Good burner, easy ignition. And a bit of oak to keep it going all night. Well-dry, too.’
‘Stored for three years, the oak,’ Huw said with disinterest.
Merrily was observing Syd. Hyper. Striding around Huw’s Victorian parlour then diving at the fireplace and rearranging a log to funnel the flames. The pensive figure in the darkest part of the chapel – that had been the Syd Spicer she knew: this was not. Same voice, though, flat as old lino.
She looked at Huw in his leaking armchair, his face mapped by shadows. The parlour was still in winter mode, with two baskets of logs and a heavy curtain drawn across the main door. Whitewashed walls ochred with smoke.
‘Tell you what…’ Syd was back on his feet. ‘I’m just thinking, if you’ve got a chainsaw, Huw, we could get Merrily out.’
She sat down on the sofa. If he wanted her out, she no longer wanted to go. Sunk into the ruins of his armchair, Huw shook his head.
‘Take you bloody hours on your own, lad, in the dark. Dangerous, even on your terms.’ He started easing off his walking boots. ‘Make your calls, Merrily. Ring Jane. You’ll only be on edge. Go in t’kitchen. Rayburn’s on.’
‘I’ve no big secrets.’ Merrily looked at Syd, then back at Huw. ‘But if you two want to talk… Can I make you some tea?’
‘Aye, that’d be nice. Two sugars for me.’
She’d never been in Huw’s kitchen before, and it was a small surprise: clean, and not as basic as you’d imagine. New pine cupboards and a larder fridge. Odd domestic touches – spice rack, even. Feminine touches. Maybe his cleaner? There was no woman in Huw’s home, as far as she knew. Not since the death of Julia, the love of his later life.
The Rayburn was doing warm, throaty noises. She filled the kettle, found the pack of Yorkshire tea bags then called the vicarage on her mobile. Answering machine. Called Jane’s mobile: answering service. Called Lol at his cottage in Church Street: no answer, no machine.
Bugger. Since the great Christmas flood, Ledwardine had seemed vulnerable in a way it never had before. Changing times, a climate in destructive flux. Jane… variable. Something not quite right, lately. She rang Jane’s mobile back, left a message: ‘ Just call me.’
Syd had a daughter, too, around Jane’s age and problematical. For once, he seemed to want to talk about her.
‘Em’s been clean for most of a year. Though we remain watchful.’
Stretching in his chair. Couldn’t seem to keep still. He’d shown no actual surprise when she’d turned up with Huw, but then he wouldn’t. But watchful, oh yes. He always would be, until his teddy bear’s eyes were closed by someone else.
‘Where’s she now, Syd?’
‘Back home. With Fiona.’
‘Which is still down south?’
‘For the present.’
Syd was from some part of London, his wife from Reading. He’d virtually promised her they’d go south when he came out of the army, but his ordination had changed everything, the way it often did. And, like so many SAS men, he’d grown fond of the place that he’d kept coming back to with his mission scars.
Only problem being that, by the time Syd had become a curate there, Hereford had developed its own little drug culture, and Emily was a born addict. No safer, as it turned out, in Malvern. In the end, Fiona Spicer had taken her back to Reading in manacles, while Syd, bound by his faith, had stayed on.
‘But it’s going to be all right.’ Syd sat with his hands clasped between his knees, staring into the fire, rocking slightly. ‘It’s working out.’
‘You’re finally leaving Wychehill?’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Not been gone long.’
‘Oh God.’ Syd stretched his socks towards the flames. ‘I know what you want, Merrily, and I really can’t help you. Hands are tied. You know how it is.’
Huw sniffed, sank lower into his chair. In the poor light, its leaking stuffing was the colour and texture of his hair.
‘Bloody old Huw,’ Syd said, like Huw wasn’t there. ‘He’s a cunning bastard. Can’t say I wasn’t warned. Hasn’t explained, has he?’
‘What?’ Merrily didn’t look at Huw. ‘I’m not getting any of this, Syd. Either you’re taking over my job and they haven’t told me yet…’
‘I wouldn’t go near your job in a radiation suit, Merrily. It’s simply that where I am now makes direct consultation with anybody outside of certain circles… inadvisable, at best.’
‘You are still in the Church?’
‘To a point.’
‘Jesus,’ Huw said tiredly. ‘Weren’t for me to tell her. He’s gone back where he came from, lass.’
‘Bit irregular,’ Syd said. ‘The Regiment doesn’t like old warriors crawling back. Nobody wants a loser who can’t cut it on the outside, with a yen to start jumping out of helicopters again, but the current guy did his back in on an exercise, and they needed a stand-in for a while.’
‘They’ve made you…?’
‘Temporary chaplain.’ Syd plucked his mug from the chair arm. ‘Saves sending a civilian on the Vicars and Tarts for the sake of a few months.’ He smiled. ‘That’s the course they have at Sandhurst for clergy new to the army.’
He leaned back, his eyes half-closed.
‘Interesting times. Not often commented on, but the growth of the secular society’s not good news as regards the Regiment. Especially when you’re dealing with an enemy that welcomes martyrdom.’
Syd sat up, drank some tea, leaned back again, pushing out his feet to the fire. He’d once told Merrily that there was a harsh kind of mysticism at the heart of the SAS. Something to do with the miracle of survival against immeasurable odds. Ninety per cent training and preparation, nine per cent luck and one per cent something you’d call on at breaking point. The lantern in the storm.
‘I know what I’m doing,’ Syd said. ‘First rule – don’t throw the Big Feller in their faces.’
Merrily nodded. It made sense.
‘Always a surface cynicism about all things religious,’ Syd said. ‘Which is healthy. But, in the end, these are not ordinary soldiers. They live by a very strong faith. Faith in themselves, faith in their mates. There’s also what you might call a monastic quality, and if a particular kind of inner spark is allowed to go out, they’re open to a certain creeping disillu- Shit! ’
Syd jerked his feet back from the hearth. His socks were smouldering. He stamped his feet lightly on the edge of the hearth, then rubbed them together and carried on talking.
‘If you come over too evangelical, you’re well stuffed. But you do have to come over like a priest, not a mate. They’ll always respect an expert.’
‘This mean you sometimes have to go abroad with them, Syd?’
‘You make your own decisions on where you might be needed.’
‘I mean, how dangerous is it for a priest? Stupid question?’
‘Frustrating more than dangerous. If threatened, for instance, you must never resist or exercise violence. You go willingly into captivity. And no shooters. What’s kind of amusing, if you go on exercise with the boys, they don’t like to think you’re getting off with light kit, so they give you a cross to carry, size of an old Heckler and Koch nine-mil.’
‘And if it’s touch and go, lad,’ Huw said, ‘wi’ a crazed Taliban warlord?’
Syd let his chin sink into his chest, peered up, coy.
‘Every SAS chaplain worth his kit knows thirty-seven ways to kill with a wooden cross.’
There was a silence. The elephant in the room had a big D tattooed on its hide. Merrily sipped her tea, looking for an approach.
‘Why did you want to do it?’
‘It was the right time. Iraq, Afghanistan. War, but not the kind of war people care about. You hear a lot about the dead, but not much about the damaged.’ Syd put a thumb to his head. ‘Up here, you know? The NHS got no answer to that – not much of one, anyway.’
‘You think you can help?’
‘In a small way. Makes me feel more useful than… you know…’
‘It’s still a parish. Except this is one where I can see the point of it.’
‘You’re based at Credenhill?’
‘Army villa, fully equipped.’
‘On your own?’
‘For the present. However, Emmy’s no longer at college. On account of being four months pregnant.’
‘Nah…’ Syd sat up. ‘It’s good. This is the good thing. She gets married beginning of May – to a boy who’ll soon be a baby barrister, how perfect is that? Then Fiona moves back in and we get to think about a future.’
‘Well.’ Merrily smiled. ‘Things do turn around, don’t they?’
‘Told you it was OK to smoke in church.’
He wasn’t smiling, he was wearing a smiley mask. He didn’t seem frightened, though. He seemed in control.
‘So, Syd… you’re here because you have a deliverance issue related to your SAS ministry?’
‘Blimey.’ Syd stretched his arms over his head. ‘Is that the time?’
There wasn’t a clock in here and probably insufficient light to see his watch. Syd was on his feet.
‘Samuel Dennis Spicer.’ He yawned. ‘Church of England. As was. Goodnight, all.’
The logs had reddened and collapsed into glowing splinters, the air outside fallen to near-stillness. Merrily stood up and went to the window. Across the valley, clouds had cleared and the hills were moon-bleached, but you couldn’t see the tip of Pen-y-fan the way you could from the chapel.
‘Of course,’ Huw said from the sunken chamber of his chair. ‘You’re a woman.’
‘We all have our cross to bear.’
‘They don’t have women in the SAS.’
‘You’re saying that’s why he won’t talk to me?’
‘He’s back in the army, his ministry’s governed by the buttoned-up bastards in the MoD. Not that he said much to me, either.’
‘An evil. What do you think that might be? As I recall, that’s not one of his words. He doesn’t do melodrama. But, yeah, I can see why you might think he’s scared. He’s a bit manic, isn’t he?’
‘You’re hardly going to see him trembling or keep running to the bog.’ Huw sat up, reached down to the hearth for the pot and poured more tea. ‘But, aye, that fact that he’ll say nowt to you more or less confirms it. It is Regiment-related. So very much on your patch.’
‘Although it has moved since Syd was a soldier.’
In Syd’s time, the Regiment had still been based on the southern edge of the city where it had been established during World War Two by an army colonel, David Stirling. The camp known ever since as Stirling Lines. Still producing highly trained commando units, parachuting in to operate behind enemy lines. That famous motto: Who Dares Wins.
Strangely, in the city, it had been more anonymous. The townsfolk part of a conspiracy of silence. But now it had moved a few miles out, to the former RAF base at Credenhill. Now everybody knew where to find the SAS: out in the sticks, with a high fence and armed guards.
Merrily came away from the window.
‘Topographically they’re in the county and in the diocese. But not part of either. The SAS are a little island of their own.’
‘So if Spicer has a problem involving a spiritual evil he has to deal with it himself. Doesn’t that bother you?’
‘In what way?’
‘He does one day on a deliverance course and thinks he knows enough to wing it on his own?’
‘Mmm. See what you-’
Merrily’s mobile was chiming in her bag. The kid had always chosen her moments.
‘Where are you?’
‘In the pub.’
‘I’m assuming not on your-’
‘With Lol. And Danny Thomas.’
‘Good. Listen, flower, I’ve got a bit of a problem.’
Telling Jane why she’d be spending the night at Huw’s rectory.
‘Jesus,’ Jane said. ‘Gormenghast?’
‘So when you get in, maybe you could ring and assure me that all the doors are locked, things like that. Or you could even stay in Lol’s spare room…’
‘And become the subject of evil gossip? I’ll be… fine.’
‘Wind’s dying down. A few slates gone in the village, that’s all. You want me to take a walk round the vic-?’
‘No! If there’s nothing obvious from inside, just-’
‘You want me to hang on in the morning, till you get back?’
‘No, get the bus. I’ll call you anyway, about eight.’
‘And get Lol to see you home and check-’
‘That there’s nobody around. Yes. I will. I’ll do that.’
Now that was wrong. Normally it would be, Don’t be ridiculous, this is Ledwardine.
‘Owt up, lass?’
‘Don’t know.’ Merrily dropped the phone into her bag; maybe she was overtired. ‘You think when they’re officially adult, it’s going to be easier. That they’ll be more restrained. But the only real difference is that now they can do things. Shake foundations.’
She told Huw about the Ledwardine henge issue – indications of a Bronze Age earthwork around the village, concealed for centuries by apple orchards. It was clear that elements inside Hereford Council would prefer that nothing was found on land they hoped to develop, thus turning Ledwardine into something approaching a town. Jane – obsessed with ancient sites, planning a career in archaeology – was furious. And Jane was eighteen. Jane could vote and express opinions.
‘She’s also enraged about a very rich man called Ward Savitch inviting other rich people to kill our wildlife. And she feels… I don’t know. She was a bit screwed-up when we arrived – fifteen, dad dead, mother adopting a deeply uncool career. And yet she’s been happier in Ledwardine than anywhere, and now she can see it coming apart. The village is a divided place now. Not a happy place. ’
‘And you’ve to keep walking the fence.’ Huw fell silent, gazing into the embers from the depths of his chair. Then he got to his feet. ‘I’ll go and make some more tea.’
When he returned with the teapot it was after midnight and Jane had rung back to say all was well: doors barred, cat fed, no signs of storm-damage at the vicarage.
Still detectable traces of let’s not worry Mum unnecessarily. But short of listing every conceivable mishap and pedantically putting them to her, one by one, there wasn’t a thing you could do about it.
The tea was strong, as if Huw was determined neither of them would get much sleep tonight.
‘You read the new guidelines?’
A circular last week, underlining the need for full insurance. Be sure your clerical policy covered deliverance and all the possible repercussions.
‘It’s a farce, Merrily. Rules and procedures and targets. Like the NHS. Health and Safety. It can’t work like that. I’ve been thinking… might be time for me to pack this in. The courses.’
‘You’ve said that before.’
She moved to the chair vacated by Syd, up against the dregs of the fire. Lighting a cigarette and leaning back into a padded wing so that most of her face was out of Huw’s line of sight. You tended to think it was only the intensity of his work that had kept him going after Julia’s death.
‘What would you do?’
‘Happen retire. Write me memoirs.’
‘That would explode a few comfort zones.’
Huw leaned back with his hands behind his head.
‘I’m starting to think we could be close to fucked this time, Merrily. I go into Brecon – even Brecon, and I can feel it. Apathy, scorn… even fear. Of what we might be underneath. Used to be the worst we were was irrelevant, now we’re taking the shit for militant Islam and a handful of kiddie-fiddling Catholic priests. We’re either naive and laughable or we’re part of a sinister old conspiracy to control people’s minds and have sex with their children. And all the time there’s Dawkins standing on his citadel of science, pissing on us over the railings.’
Merrily let the smile show.
‘Did I just hear a snatch of your fantasy final sermon?’
Huw’s eyes lit up for just a moment, like in the old days, and he laughed.
‘Bugger off to bed, you cheeky cow, or you’ll be fit for nowt in the morning.’
She nodded and stood up.
‘Keep an eye on him,’ Huw said.
‘Syd? He’s a grown man.’
‘Credenhill’s no more than… what? Eight miles from you?’
‘You think this could actually be something at the SAS camp? Not going to get in there, am I?’
‘I never saw you as a defeatist,’ Huw said.
The room Merrily’d been given… she figured it wasn’t supposed to be a guest room. Syd would have the guest room. This was… a woman’s room? Nothing you could quite put your finger on. No frilly pink shade on the bedside lamp, no extra mirrors, no fleecy rugs.
The lamp had a parchment shade, making a pale sepia circle around two books: a hardback New Testament and an Oxford paperback edition of Aquinas’s Selected Philosophical Writings. The bed was a double bed. Merrily guessed this was the room where Huw had slept with Julia – a room that he didn’t use any more.
Wearing a sweater over bra and pants, Merrily switched off the lamp and walked over to the sash window. The view was down the valley towards the few remaining lights of the village of Sennybridge. The landscape looked disarranged, like rumpled bedclothes after a restless night.
The way the weather got inside the landscape. The way it got inside people. Even Huw.
New deliverance guidelines. Another generation of dull buggers appointed by careful bishops. She couldn’t lose that grainy mental video of Huw in the passage at the chapel heading the old stained light bulb, and she had a disturbing sense of disintegration: Jane leaving home for some university next autumn, Lol’s career reviving after the years of oblivion. Even though he only lived across the street, Merrily wasn’t seeing as much of him this year, now that Danny Thomas’s barn, over the border, had become his rehearsal room.
Well, that was wonderful, obviously. Life was good for Lol, good for Jane… if she could let go of Ledwardine.
Merrily stood at the window, arms wrapped around herself, watching the lights in the valley going out.
…then my sight began to fail and the room became dark about me, as if it were night…
Julian of Norwich
Revelations of Divine Love
Mid-morning, Day Three of the Mansel Bull investigation, and the police press officer was on the phone to Bliss. Elly Clatter, this was, ex-local journalist from the Black Country and a nice enough woman if you didn’t mind being treated like a maladjusted kid at play school.
‘Normal way of it, Francis, my duck, I’d be suggesting you maintain a dignified silence. Only it looks to me like this is starting to become a bit of an issue.’
An issue. This year, everything was a frigging issue.
‘And he’s saying what, exactly?’
Sollers Bull. The first formal interviews since his brother’s murder. Hunt hero Sollers Bull, in the Tory tabs. Twat in Bliss’s book.
‘He hasn’t said anything yet. He’s doing TV and radio in about an hour. But if he says what we think he might say, we’re going to need to be ready with some answers.’
‘Not me again, Elly, I’ve done enough.’
Couple of pressers over the past two days. This was a particularly savage and pointless crime. We know the killer left the scene with a considerable amount of blood on his clothing and on his person. Somebody out there knows who this is. This is an individual nobody should be hiding.
Trite crap. Hated the telly, particularly.
‘You can relax,’ Elly said. ‘It’ll just be a quote from a police spokesperson at this stage. All we need from you, Frannie, or your colleagues, is some background, so we can formally say, no, we’re not turning a blind eye to petty crime in the countryside, and yes, we do investigate all reports of suspicious behaviour.’
‘Shit, Elly, I’ve gorra-’
Bliss broke off. Eyes were raised all over the CID room. Must’ve been shouting. Normally he’d be in his own office, but that wasn’t the best place to find out if people were dissecting your private life.
‘If you cobble something together,’ Elly said, ‘I’ll mess around with it, read it back to you, then take it upstairs for clearance. How’s that sound?’
‘Or you could just tell the media that DI Bliss has told Mr Bull to go and-’
‘Sorry.’ Bliss lowered his head into Billy Grace’s report: divided trachea, several blood vessels… ‘I’m not gerrin a lorra sleep, Elly. I’ll talk to the DCI, get back to you, all right?’
‘He seems to be an impulsive sort of man, this Mr Bull,’ Elly said.
Bliss had a few of the back-stories on his laptop. THE BLOODING OF PREZZA – Daily Express on the red-paint incident. A Telegraph feature on the saintly Sollers’s battle to defend a thousand-year tradition. Pictures of Sollers in his fox-hunting kit and his ear stud. Bliss looked up and saw that Elly Clatter hadn’t gone away.
‘I’d be a bit a careful, Frannie. You just see him as a man with form, but in hunting circles it’s a medal. Him and that Otis Ferry?’
‘Both members of the Jumped-up Twats Club.’
A moment’s silence. From opposite corners of the CID room, Terry Stagg and Karen Dowell were staring at him.
‘You ever think you might be working in the wrong part of the country, Francis?’ Elly Clatter said.
About half an hour later, Bliss rang Annie Howe at headquarters in Worcester. From his office this time. Door shut, voice lowered. Annie was still only half-available, required to be on hand in case she was recalled to the Crown Court. She’d been quite helpful meanwhile, which was still a whole new experience for Bliss.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘We tried. Either they know nothing or they’re not playing.’
‘Or the translator’s crap,’ Bliss said.
‘She’s actually a very good translator, I’m told.’
It had been Annie’s idea – and not a bad one – to approach the two men facing rustling charges in Evesham, offer them a deal in return for information on who might be lifting stock in Herefordshire. A network couldn’t be ruled out.
‘Both came over as seasonal workers,’ Annie said, ‘but don’t seem to have been at any of the Hereford fruit farms.’
Bliss and Stagg had been over to the Magnis Berries farm first thing. Still a pre-season skeleton staff: local manager, six workers. Everybody living off-site, the whole place locked up all night.
‘Stuffed, then,’ Bliss said. ‘They could’ve come from anywhere… Birmingham… Newport… Gloucester…’
‘Widen the net, then. Talk to West Midlands, Gwent. What about general crime? No pointers there?’
‘Farm thefts are up. Stolen quad bikes, chainsaws. Diesel drained from tanks. Widespread metal-theft. Some organized poaching, but no recent rustling of farm animals, no violence. We’ll keep trying.’
The press conferences had shaken out sightings of two un familiar pickup trucks on private land – one up towards Bredwardine, one seen turning round at Lulham like he was a stranger who hadn’t known it was a dead end. This was the best so far, but still not worth much.
‘Meanwhile,’ Bliss said, ‘Mr Bull is doing interviews.’
‘Talking stable doors? Accusing us of giving rural crime low priority? Don’t react. I mean it, Francis.’
Bliss found himself wondering what Annie was wearing.
‘Where are you tonight?’
‘Jury’s still out, and we’re warned to expect an overnight.’ She was always careful on police phones. ‘Might make it over there before close of play. Failing that, I’ll be home this evening. If you need me for anything.’
‘Right,’ Bliss said.
The lunchtime TV news had pictures of grey fields, barbed wire and police tape. It said the hunt for the killer of a farmer in the Wye Valley had been stepped up.
What they always said when there was no new line. Bliss switched off. He’d brought Karen Dowell and Terry Stagg into the office, with a pot of tea and a few sandwiches.
‘We’re going to get a hard time over this, aren’t we?’ Terry said.
Sounding almost pleased. Bliss extracted an egg sarnie.
‘But it’s not totally our fault, is it, Tezza? As we’re severely undermanned, underfunded and overburdened with bureaucratic shite. I think we need to quietly point this out to the media.’
‘I was thinking you, actually. When you go back out there, I thought you could find out which pub they’re occupying, join them for a butty, exchange a few confidences. You’ve got the look of a boozer, Tez, it’s the veins in your nose. They like that. Maybe you could find out what Sollers is telling them on the side, and what they think of him.’
‘You don’t like Sollers Bull, do you, boss?’ Karen said.
A wholesome country girl, but smart.
‘Karen, what were his relations with Mansel, do you think?’
‘Big old family.’
‘It’s not the frigging Royal family, Karen.’
‘It’s near enough, in this county. You should know, you married into the fringes of… all that.’
‘Sorry,’ Karen said.
‘I was sensing a distance, between Sollers and his brother,’ Bliss said. ‘The way he kept telling me what a well-respected man he was. No conspicuous affection.’
‘With respect, boss, he wouldn’t show that in front of you.’
‘But they weren’t mates. Big age gap. Not exactly grief-stricken, is what I’m saying. And he’s very likely going to inherit a big slab of prime riverside acreage, plus a small mansion. Mansel had no wife left, no kids.’
‘I heard that’s why they’re history,’ Terry said, ‘the wives.’
‘That’s what Billy Grace thought. Mansel wanted an heir to Oldcastle but refused to believe it might be his fault he didn’t get one. Bottom line, looks like Sollers could be in line for most of it. They were partners.’
‘You want to be a bit careful, boss, that’s all,’ Karen said. ‘Under the circumstances.’
‘I’m doing me job.’ Bliss threw up his hands. ‘He’s got form.’ ‘He was nicked for exercising his countryman’s right to protest about what he considered to be an unjust law.’
‘ You think he’s a hero, do you, Karen?’
‘I think he’s clever. University, then business college? Big on diversification – farm shop, restaurant…’
‘We frequent his restaurant, do we?’
‘No, but my mum works there.’ Karen split a Kit Kat. ‘What’s the DCI’s line? Something this big, I keep expecting her to come stalking in, rapping knuckles. But she stays in Worcester. Odd, that.’
‘She’s been in court.’
‘Not over the weekend. I mean, she was here, but not for long.’
Terry Stagg said, ‘Maybe keeping out of the line of fire. Let the DI cop the flack.’
‘Not the only odd thing, when you think about it,’ Karen said, thoughtful. ‘She does that spell as acting-super here and then gets offered Thames Valley, which – unless I’ve got this wrong – would’ve been about six months under a superintendent coming up to retirement. On a promise. Why didn’t she go for that? Not the Howe we know, is it?’
Terry Stagg smiled greasily through his unsightly stubble.
‘Maybe she has other things she wouldn’t want to leave behind.’ Grinned at Bliss. ‘Father’s daughter?’
‘OK,’ Bliss said, ‘let’s just…’
‘That’s crap.’ Karen shaking her head. ‘Even I don’t think she’s bent.’
‘That case…’ Terry brushing crumbs off his tie ‘… maybe she’s finally getting herself seen to.’
Shit. Bliss was looking down at his desk, turning over the forensics, feigning lack of interest, when he heard Karen go, ‘It’s not you, is it?’
His gut went tight as a drum.
His head came up very slowly – a struggle to frame some flip reply, until he saw she was looking at Terry Stagg.
A joke. How many of these frigging jokes could his heart take? He watched Stagg shudder.
‘Why is Karen trying to give me nightmares, boss?’
‘She’s actually not bad-looking,’ Karen said. ‘In her austere way.’
‘Karen…’ Terry Stagg blinked. ‘That woman’s a metal coat hanger with tits. It’d be like, you know, with a plastic doll or something? Staring over your shoulder with glazed eyes. Anyway, nobody’s yet proved to me she’s not a lezzer.’
‘ How many times we been through that?’ Karen said.
‘Does a brilliant impression of a woman who hates men.’
‘Gay women cops, Staggie – man-friendly. Always. Am I right, boss?’
‘Sorry, Karen?’ Bliss tried not to look too concerned either way. ‘I was just wondering how Terry knows so much about having sex with a plastic doll. That was a very telling detail about the way their eyes stare over your shoulder.’
‘Sod off,’ Terry Stagg said, going not quite red.
‘Boss.’ Bliss relaxed. As best he could these days.
He stood fingering the loose change and the car keys in his pockets, unhappy about the way Annie Howe’s uncharacteristic professional restraint had been spotted. Had they also noticed how readily she’d trusted him to handle a major inquiry of national interest?
On their own now in his office, Terry Stagg heading back to the crime scene.
‘Karen, look, I’m gonna come over all pathetic now. Is there any kind of rumour going round? About me.’
‘What? About being gay?’ Karen grinned, then saw his face. ‘Sorry, boss, I’m not sure what you’re asking me. If you mean Kirsty… a wonky marriage’s hardly got novelty value in this place.’
‘Nothing else? I apologize for sounding girlie.’
‘Unless I’ve failed to pick up on something, I’d say the pressure of a high-profile murder investigation, combined with your domestic issues, is making you just a bit paranoid.’
‘Nothing. Frannie, I’d know. And if I knew, I’d tell you.’
Should’ve kept his gob shut. She’d be curious now. And Kirsty… Kirsty still knew something. But from whom? Who’d found out about him and Annie and passed it on?
‘Things’ll get better, boss,’ Karen said.
‘Yeh,’ Bliss said, as Gwyn Adamson, office manager on the Mansel inquiry, came over with an envelope.
‘Couple of things, Francis. One’s an eyewitness report from a petrol station at Leominster. Bloke apparently was dropped from a car and then escorted by two men into a four-by-four. As he was getting in, someone pulled a bag over his head.’
‘When was this?’
‘Last Wednesday night. Two nights before Mansel was killed. No indication of duress. Witness thought it was a joke. However this…’ Gwyn handed Bliss the envelope ‘… is more interesting. Came in the lunchtime post, just addressed to Police, Hereford. Could be a crank job, but…’
Bliss accepted a folded sheet of A4. Computer printout.
The word BLOOD all over it.
Act of Sacrifice
These were two pains that shewed in the blessed head: the first wrought to the drying while his body was moist, and that other slow, with blowing of wind from without, that dryed him more…
The sky, through the scullery window, was scored with raw pink cloud. Easter was coming, and Easter Week at the end of March would sometimes mean snow. Nobody here would be surprised after what last winter had hurled at them.
…and pained with cold, more than my heart could hold… and The shewing of Christ’s pains filled me full of pains.
Merrily folded down the corner of the page, shut the paperback. It was still scary. It had the feel of reportage. Informed, forensic, almost dispassionate reportage. Nothing quite like it before or since.
There’d been a few blank faces when she’d brought it out in church yesterday, Palm Sunday.
This had been after the evening meditation, attended by the more thoughtful, committed parishioners, all ten of them.
‘Julian of Norwich.’ Holding up the paperback. ‘A woman. Mother Julian. A nun. An anchoress, or recluse, and a mystic. In 1373, when she was just thirty, she became very ill and nearly died, and that was when she experienced the series of visions she discusses here.’
Or fever dreams, hallucinations, whatever.
‘Leaving us with this profoundly, harrowing, gritty account of what crucifixion must really have been like. Which, erm… I was thinking we could use as a basis for the Good Friday meditation.’
A suitably sombre prelude to the proposed vigil in the church through Saturday night to Easter Day. Amanda Rubens, the bookseller – looking a little nunlike herself in a long black dress – had probably spoken for most of them.
‘And you really want us to dwell on wounds and killing… exactly a week after what happened at Oldcastle Farm?’
It had been all over Ledwardine by the time she’d arrived home from Brecon. Ten miles was nothing in the country. Ten miles was somewhere you could see, across the fields, between the trees.
Although she’d never met or heard of Mansel Bull, she knew a relative, James Bull-Davies, last remnant of the Ledwardine squirearchy. And Gomer Parry had once dug a pond for Mansel. And Jim Prosser in the Eight Till Late, his brother-in-law had had a sheepdog pup off Mansel less than a year ago. Merrily’s own grandad had farmed at Mansel Lacy after which the dead man, apparently, had been named. Connections everywhere: an act of sudden, blinding violence ricocheting like a pinball around the countryside, setting off vibrating lights, jarring the whole table.
The Sunday papers had pictures of a red-brick farmhouse on the edge of an orchard above the Wye and a smiling thickset man leaning on a gate.
This morning, a new For Sale sign had appeared in Church Street to join the existing four. All of them reactions to the winter and the fatal flooding which had turned the church into a no-go area on Christmas Day. The mopping and the mourning into New Year, when the snow came.
And then the bitter winds, driving the sleet, heralding the murder of Mansel Bull at Oldcastle, whose high chimneys you could see from Cole Hill in the lifting of the morning mist.
Some weeks, during the frozen months, there had been no actual meditation in church. Too cold in here, even with all the heat on. They’d just sat around, in their coats, and talked. Ledwardine shivering in chill fatalism, and the village still looked raw and flaking. Not much energy here, except around The Court, where Ward Savitch hosted upmarket action weekends and shooting parties to reawaken hunter-gatherer instincts in men from Off.
‘Obviously we should do it,’ Gus Staines had said.
Gus was a plump little woman with a semi-permanent goblin smile. She’d come up from London in January to join Amanda, her long-time partner, who had been making an adequate and decorous living here in the New Cotswolds… until the weekend visitors began to be repelled by the snow and the electricity kept failing, and the shops didn’t get supplied so often.
‘We’ve all gone soft,’ Gus said stoutly. ‘We should throw ourselves into the full horror of the Crucifixion. The violence and the misery. Because that’s the reality of what people do to each other still. This is not the time to turn away.’
Merrily had glanced over to where Jane was sitting on the edge of the circle. Jane had been to the meditation most weeks since Christmas. Not saying much, which was probably just as well. She didn’t say anything now, but she looked mildly interested. And then…
‘It’s a magical ritual,’ she’d said last night. ‘You’re playing with the Big Forces here. Community shaman.’
‘Resurrection of Christ, resurrection of Ledwardine. Correct?’
The kid was sitting, as she often did, on a cushion at the edge of the hearth with the reddening log fire behind her, Ethel the black cat on her knees, the eyes of both glittering like LEDs.
‘The role of the shaman being to lead the tribe out of the dark. Like, out of the tunnel of winter onto the sunlit hillside of spring. Pain and death, a vigil through midnight and then, boom… catharsis… Easter! ’
‘Sod off, Jane.’
‘You’re going into denial already?’
‘Not exactly denial…’
‘Easter was the most profound of all seasonal festivals way before Christianity. Even the Last Supper has pagan origins. And, like… I think you said Julian of Norwich actually wished for her illness… invoking mortality in the hope of rebirth? Experiencing those visions in like the delirium of near-death?’
‘It’s all totally valid,’ Jane said. ‘The village has lost its mojo. You need to kick-start the ancient engines. And some asses.’
Jane looking down, slowly massaging Ethel under the chin. Ancient engines. They’d been here before. The creaking and stirring of old Ledwardine, spiritual sap seeping eerily into centuries-dead oak timbers. Jane’s favourite picture of herself was the one taken by Eirion, her boyfriend, in Coleman’s Meadow, bare arms raised to the sun. Handmaiden of the Goddess.
‘Needs to be seriously harrowing, Mum. Like, when a place gets into disaster mode, expecting the worst all the time, the worst just seems to go on happening. Unless you step in with an act of sacrifice.’
‘Jane, how can I put this? We don’t actually want to scare people?’
Although we do, obviously, Huw Owen said now in Merrily’s head, watching a bulb swing like some sinister censer.
Merrily had spent an hour underlining passages in Revelations of Divine Love. Normally on a Monday afternoon, she’d have driven into Hereford to go through the deliverance diary with Sophie, but the Monday before Easter was for planning and organizing the weekend ahead.
There was also a parish council meeting on Wednesday. Uncle Ted, senior churchwarden, had a proposal to create a permanent cafe in the church. Turn it into the heart of the village again, he said. Also make some money. So what would happen to the silence? Where would you go when you needed to be alone with something that didn’t judge, didn’t question, didn’t ask you if you wanted to buy a raffle ticket?
Merrily looked up, out of the scullery window at the lesions in the sky. The sky was momentarily blurred. Maybe she needed glasses. A middle-age thing. It would come, sooner rather than later. Now she had an adult daughter. God…
The phone rang. She shut her eyes for a second before picking up.
‘All right, lass?’
Hadn’t spoken to him since Saturday morning. A sparse breakfast, just the two of them, Syd Spicer having left silently before first light, as they’d both known he would.
‘Just had a call.’
‘What did he want?’
Merrily watched the daffodils still huddled in their buds. You didn’t have to be psychic.
‘He’s laughing. “Huwie,” he says, “just a slight problem here, mate, a mere technicality…”’
‘A mere technicality. He said that?’
She could hear the laughter. It would be artificial. She felt for a cigarette, still staring out of the window. Under the winter-bleached church wall, banks of snowdrops were only now beginning to droop next to the emerging daffs.
‘And what was the technicality?’
‘If a man feels… let’s say oppressed by the perceived proximity of someone who’s passed on, someone who, in life, was known to him but who was, shall we say, a flawed person, how is it best to get this presence off the premises?’
‘Requiem eucharist? You might expect him to know that.’
‘He said there could be complications. Here comes the technicality. He suspects there could be what he describes as strongly negative energy behind the manifestations.’
‘Plural, aye. Suggests a chronic case.’
‘Is this one of his, erm, flock?’
‘Declines to be specific. But why else the secrecy? I reminded him I wasn’t his spiritual director. I said Hereford Diocese wasn’t my patch, I said he needed to talk to somebody else.’
‘And he said…?’
‘He said he thought that when you were describing the case of Mr Joy you hadn’t finished the story. He wanted to know what nobody else had the nous to ask about. What you did afterwards to keep Mr Joy out of your life.’
‘I see. That negative.’
‘Cry for help, Merrily.’
‘If that’s a cry for help, it’s pitched too high for my hearing. Look…’ She pulled the last cigarette out of the packet. ‘I was new to it then. I was very scared. I’d listened to an old wives’ tale from an old woman who’d dabbled in areas I was supposed to abhor, and…’
‘And it worked.’
‘Something worked. Well… so far.’
‘It worked because you did it in the right spirit.’
‘You could argue…’ Merrily stared at the church wall, with all its lichens and life forms ‘… that the right spirit would be not to have done it at all. The purer soul does it with considered prayer. This was… something else.’
The cold finger was on Merrily’s spine. Up sprang the spidery figure of a creepy old woman in a care home whose name was Anthea but who only answered to Athena.
‘And you told him, did you?’
‘What I knew of it. Threw in a couple of defensive penta-grams, point up. See what reaction I got to that. He said nowt, seemed to be writing it down.’
Merrily remembered discussing Athena’s advice with Huw afterwards. How it bordered on what Jane would call magical ritual, and Huw had asked her if she realized how many so-called magical rituals had come out of the medieval Catholic Church.
She wondered if Syd had noted what she’d told Huw’s students about not necessarily analysing everything in depth.
That’s why we have the rituals and the liturgy… just do it.
Still not sure how true that was.
‘How does this feel to you?’ Merrily asked.
‘Feels wobbly. Temporary. I don’t like it, but if the bugger won’t come clean…’
‘It’s personal, isn’t it? It’s him.’
‘Or connected to him.’
‘Is he going to come back to you afterwards? Tell you – man to man – if it worked? Because he isn’t going to come to me, is he?’
‘Happen you should smother your pride and give him a call.’
‘I haven’t got his new number.’
‘I have it here,’ Huw said. ‘Give him a day or so, then call him. I think it were bloody hard for him to give away much as he did. I reckon he’s in a bad way.’
‘Thanks,’ Merrily said.
The core squad, in the CID room in front of the box. All the blinds up on a heavyweight early-evening sky. A gathering dismay in the room. Bliss howling.
‘What are these bastards trying to do? It’s like it’s been orchestrated.’
He’d come in halfway through the replay of the national news. He sat down, shaken.
‘How far it was planned is of no great importance at the present time,’ Annie Howe said. ‘It’s happening, and we need to respond to it.’
Annie had returned in a rare sparkling mood, the Worcester jury having come back unexpectedly with a nice result: two out of three guilty on the stabbing. The DCI’s fizz had survived the national TV news, but the extended version on Midlands Today was something else.
‘… poisoned our towns.’
On the screen, some fat bastard bulging out of his tweeds. ‘… and now it’s overflowing into rural areas. All the time, we see strangers in old vans, clearly up to no good, but we know we’re wasting our time reporting it, because it’ll be ignored… simply ignored.’
Cut to camel-coat-and-headscarf woman by a five-barred gate.
‘ Obvious why they don’t care. Coming out here’s jolly time-consuming, and everybody knows they can meet their arrest and conviction targets far quicker and more cheaply in the towns.’
‘Trouble is, she’s not far wrong there, is she?’ Bliss said.
‘Though we won’t be expressing those sentiments outside of this room, will we, Francis?’ Annie Howe said quietly, not looking at him. ‘Karen, run the item again from the beginning, would you, please? We need to know who they all are.’
Karen Dowell played about with the remote, brought up the current Midlands Today Barbie-and-Ken presentation team.
Man: ‘ With the hunt for the brutal killer of a Herefordshire farmer in its third day, a rural pressure group has been accusing police of failing the countryside.’
Woman: ‘ And, as Mandy Patel reports, the attack’s been spear-headed by the brother of the murdered man, who says West Mercia Police repeatedly ignored reports of intruders on their land.’
Familiar shots of the middle Wye Valley looking bare and wind-scoured. Patel’s voice describing how the mood in Herefordshire had swung from horror to rage, as the vision cut to an obvious protest meeting. Bunch of people at a raised table, draped in banners. Apart from Sollers Bull, Bliss recognized nobody.
Annie said to Karen, ‘Who’s the man in the red waistcoat?’
‘Can’t remember his name, ma’am, but I’m pretty sure he’s the county chairman-elect of the NFU. And the guy next to him…’
‘Is Lord Walford?’
Bliss said, ‘Who the fuck’s Lord Walford?’
‘Old Tory peer, boss. And Sollers Bull’s father-in-law.’
‘Also a former member of the police authority,’ Annie said, ‘Where’s this happening, exactly?’
Walls of light wood, spotlights from exposed rafters. Pine tables.
‘The restaurant at Sollers Bull’s farm shop,’ Karen said. ‘Out on the Leominster Road. My mum works there, part-time. Got to say I’ve been around here all my life, ma’am, but there’s quite a few people I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.’
‘Yes, well, me neither,’ Annie Howe said. ‘Which possibly lends credence to their claim that it’s a national movement.’
‘Freeze it,’ Bliss said. ‘ There – isn’t that one of those ageing boy racers from The Octane Show?’
‘Smiffy Gill,’ Terry Stagg said. ‘Lives just over in Wales.’
‘Just the kind of flash twat who’d throw his driving gloves into the ring for this shite,’ Bliss said.
Above the panel of nobs at the raised table, a sign, green on white, covered half the wall.
The camera pulling back from the sign, the reporter saying, in voice-over, ‘ The organizers insist this is not a spin-off from the Countryside Alliance but a new response to what they say is an urgent situation.’
‘Hold it there,’ Annie Howe said. ‘Man at the back, black hair, receding jawline. Tim… Tim somebody. Member of the police committee.’
‘Who’s he supporting?’ Bliss said.
‘Who indeed? Sorry, let it run, Karen.’
New voice, a woman, not local.
‘ This is not political, but it’s certainly a matter of…’
Now you saw her. Fortyish, short red hair, tailored suit.
‘… pride and tradition. This county, like every county in Britain, has its roots in agriculture, but in Herefordshire the roots are still close to the surface, not yet buried under tons of concrete .’
The caption said:
Coordinator, Countryside Defiance.
Bliss made a note of it as the woman said: ‘ With the hunting ban and four-by-fours road-taxed to the hilt, people who live and work in the countryside already felt they were being systematically penalized. Now they not only fear for their livelihoods, but their very lives.’
The reporter’s voice came back: ‘ The brother of murdered farmer Mansel Bull is also talking of a climate of fear in the Welsh Border hills and is accusing West Mercia Police of turning a blind eye to rural crime.’
Sollers Bull was standing outside his restaurant between two flags, a Welsh dragon and a cross of St George.
‘ My brother’s death left us shattered. Not only the family, but the whole county. I’ve had dozens of phone calls, letters, emails from farmers and country dwellers, and most of them are saying the same thing.’
Sollers wore a dark suit, black tie. Spoke quietly, even hesitantly, letting a local accent leak through and stumbling over the odd word. No hint of the aggression he’d displayed to Bliss. No ear stud today.
‘ Only days before he was killed, my brother reported seeing strangers on our land, behaving in a suspicious manner. So he phoned the police. Who did not come out to investigate. ’
Sollers paused. No mention of migrants this time, Bliss noticed. He knew that any hint of racism and the BBC would never speak to him again.
‘… and even after the murder, I was appalled to be told by a senior officer that we could not have expected any more attention than we got.’
Annie Howe and Terry Stagg both glancing at Bliss. DCs Vaynor and Toft exchanging smiles, maybe even smirks. Bliss scowled.
‘What was I supposed to say? Yeh, I’m really sorry, we should’ve sent an ARU?’
Rachel Wiseman-France was back.
‘ The point is that some police divisions have special squads for dealing with gun and knife crime and offences in urban ethnic communities. But rural crimes, time after time, go undetected, because too many police have absolutely no knowledge of life outside the cities.’
Karen Dowell looked at Bliss, raising a despondent eyebrow, as shots appeared of uniformed police and SOCOs in Durex suits standing by a van at the entrance to Mansel Bull’s farm. The camera lingering for just an instant too bloody long on a full-length shot of Bliss pointing at something and smiling. God, he hadn’t noticed that first time round. Smiling at a murder scene. Bliss kept his eyes on the TV, knowing that every bastard in the CID room would be covertly observing his reactions.
What he saw next, as the picture cut back to the people in the restaurant, made him want to kick the screen in.
He turned away, nails digging into his palms, as Rachel Wiseman-France said, ‘ The last thing we want is to be accused of taking the law into our own hands. But are we really going to stand by and see our precious countryside turned into killing fields? ’
At a signal from Annie Howe, Karen cut the sound on the male presenter reading out a precis of the press statement put out by Elly Clatter about how West Mercia were fully committed to the policing of rural areas and nobody would rest until the killer of Mansel Bull was caught. Annie moved in front of the screen.
‘OK, you all know what we’ve said to the media. After what we’ve just seen, we all know it’s not going to be good enough, long-term. I have a meeting with the Chief Constable tomorrow, and I’d like to be able to tell him we’re moving towards a quick result on this. But… clearly we’re not.’
‘Killing fields?’ Bliss snarled. ‘Frigging killing fields? Who is that woman? Anybody know anything about this Countryside Defiance?’
Bliss looked at Karen Dowell, who shrugged.
‘Ask around, shall I, boss?’
‘There’s a new pressure-group formed every other week,’ Annie Howe said. ‘Probably latching onto this for their own political reasons, with the telegenic Mr Bull as a useful figure-head. However… they do seem to have the support of certain influential people in the county, which is obviously not going to make things any easier for us.’
Bliss looked at Annie, in her black Crown Court suit and her white silk shirt. His lover, now, unbelievably.
But his friend?
Later, in his office, Bliss showed Annie the letter posted to The Police, Hereford. ‘Gwyn Adamson’s inclined to think it’s a crank thing. I’m not sure.’
To the Detective investigating the Murder of Farmer Bull.
I cannot tell you who I am for personal reasons. While my girlfriend and I were parking at the entrance to a field last Friday night, we both saw a man covered with blood. He was coming towards us as I pulled in and when he saw us he turned and ran. I had the headlights on full and we saw that there was blood all over him. I am sorry that I cannot reveal my identity but I swear this is the truth.
I did not think to look at the exact time but it was about 8.00pm. This is all I can tell you. I hope it helps you catch him. I am unable to give you a better description of him because of all the blood.
‘This has been processed, presumably?’ Annie said.
‘It’s a copy.’
‘Where was it posted?’
‘Could be on CCTV, then. If we can tie it down to a time margin, could be a simple process of elimination.’
‘Already being done,’ Bliss said. ‘What strikes me is the way he calls Mansel Farmer Bull. Heard that a few times the last couple of days. Some local people called him Farmer Bull in a humorous kind of way because he looked so much like an old-fashioned gentleman farmer – tweeds, waistcoat, cloth cap.’
‘That been in the papers?’
‘Not that I’m aware.’
‘So this person’s probably a local. Fairly intelligent, no spelling mistakes or dodgy grammar. We could be looking at a neigh-bour. In a car. With a girlfriend. So if he’s married… What’ve you done about it so far?’
‘Extended the search area. Nasty night, so there’ll be tracks. Also, if this bloke they saw was well splattered with Mansel’s blood, he’s likely to’ve sprinkled some of it around.’
‘We need to find whoever sent this,’ Annie said. ‘This guy thinks he’s told us all he knows, but half an hour’s questioning we could get twice as much. Let’s put out an appeal. Person who sent a letter posted in Hereford. No details.’
‘OK, will do. Interesting they saw only one man. Could be significant?’
‘Unless they split up, took off in different directions.’
‘There’s also a report come in of a man at Leominster being taken away in a four-by-four with a bag over his head. But that was two nights earlier. Maybe a joke.’
‘Yeah, well, from now on, we ignore nothing that happens in the sticks,’ Annie Howe said.
‘Yeh. Um…’ Might as well tell her. ‘Don’t think you’ve ever seen Kirsty, have you?’
‘Apart from in the wedding picture that used to be on your sideboard.’
‘She looked different then. Longer hair. And it’s dyed now. Dark red.’
Annie looked at him, a forefinger extended along one pale cheek.
‘Dark red hair? Black coat?’
‘You noticed her, then.’
‘On the box? Oh God, Francis.’
‘Who was the man, with her?’
‘Her old man, Chris Symonds. Interesting the way they were sitting at the table right underneath the Countryside Defiance banner.’
‘So they knew they’d be on TV, and you’d see it.’ Annie folded the photocopy of the letter and stood up, allowing her hand to brush briefly against Bliss’s. ‘Come over later, if you can.’
Borderlife: that was when the knife really went in.
A quarterly glossy, full of ads for luxury stuff that few local people would buy even if they could afford it. But then, Borderlife wasn’t aimed at local people. Getting off the school bus, Jane had seen the spring issue on the rack at the Eight Till Late. Hadn’t wanted to buy it, obviously, but the know-your-enemy instinct had kicked in with the picture of Ward Savitch on the front, sitting on a vintage Fergy tractor with The Court in the background, all misty, and the blurb Just Call Me A Reformed Townie.
OK, Jane had never actually met Savitch. Didn’t really want to, either, in case he turned out to have, you know, some level of basic charm or a prosthetic leg. But she was building up a file of news cuttings, background for the expose in a proper pub lication.
Borderlife had four pages, including about six pictures of the countryside looking lush, the enemy looking smug.
THE SAVITCH EFFECT
Lorna Mantle meets the man at the heart of the New Cotswolds
Jane had the magazine open on the floor by her bed and was lying across the width of the duvet, tensing up already.
How many lives must have been changed for ever by a quick flip through the property pages in a dentist’s waiting room. ‘Yes, I the secrets of pain owe all this to a broken tooth,’ Ward Savitch laughs, showing me around an estate that now extends to over 300 acres… and growing.
The advertisement for The Court at Ledwardine wasn’t the biggest on the page, but there was something about it that told the jaded City broker: This is the one.
‘I think it was the fact that I’d simply never heard of the place,’ he says. ‘I’d inspected properties all over Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire with an increasing sense of seen-it-all-before. But Herefordshire was a revelation.’
They all said that. Jane wrinkling her nose in distaste. What they meant was that Herefordshire was still up for grabs, whereas the Cotswolds had been firmly grabbed, no bargains left.
The term ‘New Cotswolds’ as applied to the pre-recession rush to buy property in Herefordshire is not always used approvingly, but Ward Savitch sees it as a challenge. ‘This county has a wealth of customs and traditions in danger of being lost for ever. I want to see growth of a kind which supports the old traditions and helps develop a society that will preserve them in a sympathetic and lasting way.’
Made you want to vomit.
After an extensive restoration of the former farmhouse and its grounds and outbuildings, Mr Savitch began breeding pheasants and organizing shooting weekends. Then, as he acquired more land, new luxury chalets were concealed in the dark woods, giving upmarket holidaymakers a taste of the wilds.
The action-holiday market was also catered for, with paintballing events, canoeing on the river, quad bikes and rough shooting. Many of the guests enjoyed themselves so much that they didn’t want to leave and went on to buy their own homes in the area, finding that it was possible to live on the Welsh Border without giving up their highpowered business ventures.
‘I realized there was a new energy here,’ says Mr Savitch, ‘and became more excited than I’d ever been in my life. I saw that, with the decline of agriculture, the countryside was literally being left to rot – by the damned townies. Well, you can call me a reformed townie – I’ve seen the light. In the Internet era we can do anything here that can be done in a city – and better.’
To prove this to City power-brokers, Mr Savitch has been organ-ising hugely popular ‘freshen-up’ weekends aimed at London-based professionals damaged by the recession and and desperate to make a new start.
Cornel and his mates? They were damaged all right, but not in ways they’d accept.
Ward Savitch certainly exudes an infectious vitality as he drives me in a bumpy old Land Rover across fields and along forestry tracks, where every chalet – and chalet is a poor term for these luxurious holiday homes – comes with over half an acre of wooded land, and full Wi-Fi broadband. They all have solar panels and Ward has plans for a small wind farm on the edge of his estate.
‘Oh, I’m as green as the next man,’ he says. ‘But I’m not into gimmicks and all that old hippie “good life” nonsense. The countryside isn’t a place for running away to. It’s a place to progress to. Surveys show that the largest proportion of incomers to Herefordshire in the past year have been from London.
‘Many are people with money, eager to invest it somewhere they can see it having an effect,’ says Mr Savitch. ‘I’ve lost nearly two stone since moving here and sleep better than I’ve ever done. Coming to the Border – I expect that to add at least fifteen years to my useful life.’
Solar panels and windmills for phoney green cred? Who was this Lorna Mantle? Had Savitch opened a bottle of vintage champagne afterwards and shagged her in the barn? Jane wasn’t laughing, because it got worse.
The secrets of pain The Savitch effect is already visible in the economic health of the county, in the demand for country-sports equipment and outward-bound accessories.
‘Mr Savitch has done great things for my business,’ says Kenny Mostyn, proprietor of camping and country sports suppliers Hardkit, who provides instructors at The Court. ‘I won’t deny we were in trouble before he came – the bank was pulling the plug – but we now have four flourishing retail outlets either side of the Welsh Border.’
‘Ward has been good news for us,’ says Lyndon Pierce, who represents Ledwardine on the Herefordshire Council. ‘He’s preserved the village economy in difficult times, and even attracted new business ventures. And this is just the start. A broad economic base means we should be able to go ahead with a major expansion programme that might otherwise have been in danger.’
At the bottom of the piece it said:
SEE FOR YOURSELF what Ward Savitch has achieved when The Court at Ledwardine is open to visitors over the Easter holiday period, culminating in a Family Fun Day on Bank Holiday Monday.
He had it all worked out. Winning the battle for hearts and minds. It was sick.
Jane slid the magazine under the bed, rolled onto her back, and a rogue sob came up like a hiccup. She lay looking up at where, when they’d first moved here and she’d claimed the attic as her apartment, she’d painted the white plastered spaces between the timbers in primary colours. The Mondrian Walls. The big statement. This is me, this is my space.
Just a kid, then. Not yet getting it that Ledwardine was all about bones of oak and creamy white skin and didn’t need chemical colours.
Or anybody like Ward Savitch. Ever.
Now there were sheets of white card taped between the timbers. She’d spent every evening for most of a week putting this together, using blow-ups of a large-scale OS map. Here was the village with the orchard marked out, as it had been centuries ago: a great circle around a much smaller community. The orchard still enclosing much of a Bronze Age henge. Roots of old apple trees wrapped around buried stones. It had to be.
She sat up, took the mobile from the bedside table and rang Neil Cooper, of the county archaeology department, at home. He answered on about the twelfth ring.
‘OK, look,’ Jane said, ‘I’m really sorry to be ringing you at night again, and I know your wife thinks we’ve got a thing going, but I need-’
‘No, she doesn’t, Jane,’ Neil Cooper said. ‘She’s seen you. She knows I’m far too much of a slippers-and-cocoa kind of guy for someone like you. In fact, Russell Brand would probably be too-’
‘Yeah, yeah, very amusing.’
Jane squirmed to the edge of the bed where she’d lost her virginity to Eirion Lewis. He was at university now, in Cardiff, came over most weekends, bless him, didn’t want to lose her. Russell Brand?
‘We’re moving as fast we can, Jane,’ Coops said, ‘but like I keep telling you, it’s not the only dig in the queue.’
Nearly all archaeology these days was rescue archaeology. They only ever got to look at places about to be buried for ever under a housing estate. What worried her was that if the council sanctioned plans for a superstore and upmarket housing – and Savitch had to be in on that somewhere – the henge would stay buried, like for good?
‘So what you’re saying is…’
‘It’s now looking doubtful this summer.’
‘So, like, if I wind up at uni in September, I miss everything.’
‘Sorry, I expect you’ve got things to do. I’ll go.’
‘I will keep you informed. I realize how much this means to you.’
Jane lay down with her head hanging over the side of the bed. Couldn’t seem to sleep these nights.
It was OK till you turned eighteen. OK to sound off about things you hated, knowing there was nothing you could really do about any of it. All those years of thinking how great it’d be when you were officially adult and nobody could restrict you any more. When, in fact, not being able to do anything was actually a kind of freedom. If you stood up now and accused your local councillor of being bent – which he was – he’d have you in court. The village and the henge… she’d tried to discuss it with some of the guys at school, and they didn’t get it. Didn’t remotely get it. None of them could wait to get the hell out of the places they’d grown up in, dreaming of London and Paris and New York and LA.
Maybe it was a pagan thing, that sense of place. That sense of attachment. Although even Mum was picking up on it now.
Jane had Googled Julian of Norwich last night and discovered a woman who, in an age when God was generally feared, had found the old guy polite, compassionate and…
… had even talked of Mother God. Which the theologians said was no more than a recognition of God’s nurturing of mankind. But, hey, come on, how far was this really from Mother Goddess?
All the blood was running to Jane’s head, almost on the floor by now, in a nest of hair. This whole university thing was like some insidious conspiracy by the lousy Government, just a way of keeping you off benefits for another three years, while hitting you with mega tuition fees. By the time she was out of it, there’d probably be thousands of qualified archaeologists who were all going to be Indiana Jones and…
Jane’s head hit the floor… she didn’t have to go.
Shocked and excited, she wriggled back onto the bed then rolled off it, stood up, went to the window. The village lights were coming on, twin lanterns either side of the main door of the Black Swan, fake gas lamps on the square. The lights you could see, the lights you couldn’t.
Jane’s eyes widened.
That simple? A decision already made? On some level, it had been decided?
She was breathing very fast now. OK, maybe not a question of deliberately fluffing the A levels. Probably make a point of doing well, getting the grades, just to show she could do it. And then just not going.
No shame in that. It was actually kind of radical. She could just go out and get a job. Any kind of job that would allow her to stay in Ledwardine and fight for what mattered.
Jane felt suddenly still inside and terrifyingly clear-headed. She needed to be absolutely direct about this. No shit. She’d give it a few minutes, then go down and tell Mum before she could change her mind. Hadn’t Mum, after all, dropped out of uni after getting pregnant? Hadn’t she even been known to say – long after Dad’s death in the car crash alongside the woman he’d been shagging – that maybe it was all meant?
Jane stood gazing down at her village. Which needed her. In this sick, withering world, it needed all the energy it could get.
She saw a small shadow emerge from the vicarage gate. Mum, in jeans and sweater, tripping across the market square. Of course – off to meet Lol in the Swan, like it was still the early days of their relationship, courtesies to observe. What was the matter with them, hovering around one another still? Everybody hovering, nobody doing anything.
OK, give them an hour or so and then go across to the Swan. Telling Mum in front of Lol, that would diffuse the effect.
Still in her cloud of knowing, Jane went downstairs to the kitchen, talked it over with Ethel, the cat.
Ethel was like, Yeah, but what about your career?
‘It’s just a word, Ethel.’
Jane stood for an uncertain moment in the cold kitchen, then went over to the fruit bowl on the dresser and took out an apple. Cut it in half – crossways – to reveal the pale green pentagram at its heart. Carried it out into the garden and held it in the cup of her hands, open to the rising moon, only a misty grey-blue smudge, but it would do.
She stood in the silence, expanding the apple pentagram in her mind until she was standing in the middle of it, watching it widen and become a white-golden aura, eventually enclosing the whole of Ledwardine.
And then Jane prayed to the Goddess, to become a channel for the cosmic energy which would make things happen.
Lol said, ‘Would Barry have to kill me with his bare hands if I put that on the fire?’
Merrily followed his gaze to the basket in the inglenook, black and ashy.
‘The big log?’
‘The only log.’
He was right. She couldn’t remember ever before seeing only one log in the inglenook at the Black Swan, famous for its apple-wood fires, smoke-sweetened air over the cobbled square. She shivered. In the beamed and panelled lounge bar, only half the wall lights were on. Enough for the eight or so customers whose sparse voices made soft echoes.
‘You might not like what Savitch is doing,’ Lol said, ‘but you really notice when one of his wealthy hunting parties leaves the village.’
‘Barry’s that dependent on them?’
Lol shrugged. He was wearing his fraying grey Gomer Parry Plant Hire sweatshirt. He had a spiral-bound notebook – his lyrics pad – and, beside it on the table, a pint she guessed was shandy, not yet half-drunk.
‘Smoking ban,’ Barry said from behind the bar. ‘Cheap supermarket booze. And now Fortress Hereford. Yeah, we are getting dependent on them. Seven fewer five-course dinners, bar takings down by a third. Put the bleedin’ log on, Laurence, I can always saw up an oak settle.’
Lol left the log alone. Merrily stared at bulky amiable Barry in the black suit and the bow tie.
‘All farm doors locked at nightfall, shotguns loaded. Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me there’s another reason we’re nearly empty.’
‘What, because of-?’
‘Having your quad bike nicked is one thing, but getting killed like Mansel Bull is not a case for Farm Watch, as we know it.’
‘It’s not Texas, either,’ Merrily said. ‘Not yet.’
‘Civilization, vicar, has a thin skin. This is still a frontier. Face west, nothing but lonely Welsh hills. Don’t take much to send us to ground. See this?’
Barry slapped down a glossy flyer showing the winding Wye seen from above. A man in a hunting coat stood with his back to the camera, a riding crop in one hand. Under the photo it said:
W ORTH FIGHTING FOR?
C OUNTRYSIDE D EFIANCE
Lol’s eyes flickered.
‘Who are they?’
‘The woman we saw on the box – Wiseman-France – she’s dined here a time or two, with clients. Professional PR, management consultant, not sure which, but you get the idea. You know the type. Move in and tell the hicks their interests are being ignored at national level because they’re not making their voices heard with sufficient eloquence.’
‘Mmm.’ Merrily nodded. ‘Then they offer their services free to give themselves a certain status in the community. Make them feel they belong. She’s created it, has she?’
‘She ain’t created the mood, but she’s given it a name,’ Barry said. ‘Don’t have to be thousands of people behind it, just a few dozen of the right people. The thousands will follow. And the money.’
‘Put it this way… it was one of his minions brought the flyers in. I’m told it also comes in different languages. When the shooting parties come in from Europe, America, Japan they learn that the spiritual home of hunting since the eleventh century is under threat. You ask me, Defiance is pulling donations from US hunting and gun lobbies.’
‘ This is Savitch?’
‘Probably excites him. Life on the edge can be quite sexy when you’re living behind big walls with big guys around and a game-keeper in the lodge with a rack of shotguns.’
‘Spoken by a man who knows all about life on the edge,’ Merrily said.
‘This and that.’
‘You know Syd Spicer?’
It just came out. Barry’s expression didn’t change. Lol glanced at Merrily, curious. You could hear the tunk of a pool game over in the other bar. Barry came round the bar, raked over the fire in the dog-grate, picked up the apple log and dumped it on top.
‘The last good log,’ he said. ‘’Scuse me a minute.’
Lol’s spiral-bound lyrics pad was half-filled. Merrily remembered him buying it in Hereford, maybe two weeks ago, after a rare lunch at All Saints.
‘You’re, erm, cookin’? As Danny would say.’
‘We need to get the album out before summer.’ Lol had a cautious sip of shandy. ‘It’s not just about me any more.’
Probably meaning not Danny so much as Prof Levin. Hard times for a producer with a studio and overheads, now that a band could make a perfectly professional album with digital kit in someone’s spare bedroom. She knew Lol was worried about Prof going back on the booze, if only out of boredom.
‘And, um…’ Upturning his pencil, letting it slide through his fingers to the pad. ‘I’ve had another approach.’
‘An agency. Nu-folk stuff – reputable. They could break me into tours, have me headlining middling events next autumn, and…’ Lol leaned back. ‘There we are. Serious money.’
With downloads and burn-offs, the profits were in gigs again.
‘I said maybe I’d get back to them,’ Lol said.
‘I won’t, obviously.’
‘Lol, don’t let-’
‘It’s not just that. I mean, it’s not just you.’
Merrily felt like the stone flags were falling away beneath her chair. That what he was saying was not what he was thinking.
Lol said, ‘I don’t actually want to be rich. You know that.’
‘Well… be nice, in a way, to be so loaded you could buy out Ward Savitch. But realistically…’ Lol put his hands on his knees, stared down at them. ‘I’ve been handed a second chance, right? So I want things to be different from what they might’ve been if I’d made it first time. Partly because there’s going to be less time. And also… Like, when Prof says, we need more body on this album and why doesn’t he see if Tom Storey’s available, I’m going, no, there’s actually this guy called Danny Thomas who’s an ex-subsistence farmer and isn’t quite as good as Tom Storey, but is good enough…’
‘You didn’t tell me that, either. You didn’t tell me Prof wanted to get you Tom Storey.’
Unlikely to be an idle promise, because Prof had been around a long time and knew these ageing rock gods from way back, and some of them owed him favours. Merrily felt starved. What else hadn’t he told her?
Lol said, ‘Just we’ve not had that much time to talk lately, have we?’
‘Because you’ve been at Danny’s barn night after bloody-You just didn’t want to tell me, did you?’
‘You have enough to-’
‘So we have separate problems now? We keep our problems to ourselves? We keep them apart? Now you don’t need me to bounce this stuff off because you’ve got Danny?’
‘I don’t want a row…’
‘Jesus, Lol… you never want a bloody row.’
Merrily jerked her chair back. What was the matter with her? She liked Danny Thomas. She was glad that Lol was working with a local guy. But was he turning down tours only because he thought it would be incompatible with the life of a woman tied to a parish?
‘I like it here,’ Lol said. ‘I like being a guy living in a village where one day you’re playing music, the next you’re doing… something else.’
He pulled over the lyrics pad, pencilled a circle around something, then pushed it in front of Merrily. She read:
When life’s become a bitch
Dig out another ditch
Find some recovery
Back in the JCB
Referencing the times he’d spent helping Gomer Parry. She wasn’t really taking this in. She was thinking, This is a test. It had to happen one day. The Christian thing would be to persuade him to do the tour.
She saw a man walk into the bar, carrying a black bin liner.
‘Look,’ Lol said, ‘I’ve agreed with Barry to do a few more gigs here – at the Swan.’
‘And would that be a living?’ Merrily clutched her head. ‘All right, I’m sorry…’
‘And maybe something outside in the summer, with more music. Other people.’
‘A music festival? In Ledwardine?’
‘Too big a word. We’re thinking no more than one day… and a night. Just an idea. Well, Danny’s idea. He has Glastonbury dreams. I was going to see what you thought before we took it any further, because… festivals of any kind haven’t always gone well here, have they? Anyway, it would be useful to have the album finished and mastered and out there, before it happens. If it happens.’
‘Does the album have a title yet?’
‘ A Message from the Morning.’
‘Oh God, I knew that. What’s the matter with me? Lol, look…’ Merrily reached across the table for his hand. ‘Maybe we should grab half a day. Drive over to Wales. Talk about all this. And other things.’
Lol said, ‘What’s up with Barry?’
Merrily turned her chair around. Barry was back and the man was holding up the bin liner. Barry was wiping his hands on a towel.
‘He’s not happy, Lol.’
Lol said, ‘Why were you asking him about Syd Spicer?’
‘It’s a long story.’
The guy put the bin sack on the bar.
‘For you, Barry.’
He was gangly, long-faced, jutting jaw. And not sober. Barry looked up, doing his professional beam.
‘Is this roadkill, sir, or did one of you finally learn how to shoot?’
‘Dinner.’ The guy slapped the bag on the bar. ‘My dinner for tomorrow, Barry.’
He wore a camouflage jacket, newish. He had a loose, rubbery mouth.
‘I wanna eat it,’ he said.
Merrily saw Lol look up, frown.
‘I thought he’d gone back to… wherever he came from. I thought they’d all gone.’
‘Guest of The Court?’
‘They love to find bits of lead shot in their dinner,’ Lol said. ‘Real men.’
‘Do us a favour, sir,’ Barry said, ‘Take it round the back. Not everybody likes dead game in the bar. Especially when it’s over a month out of season.’
‘It never fucking is, landlord!’
‘Then it’s probably unfit for human consumption,’ Barry said calmly. ‘Round the back, eh?’
‘I need to eat it.’
‘We’ll talk about it round the back.’
‘I can only thank God Jane’s not here,’ Merrily said.
She saw Lol wince.
Halfway across the square, under the amber wash of the fake gas lamps, Jane lost the certainty. Not cold feet exactly, just the need for a second opinion. Why ruin Mum’s night? She hadn’t seen Lol for days.
She slipped into the shadowy sanctuary of the little oak- pillared market hall, pulled out her mobile and called Eirion’s phone.
Eirion’s answering service kicked in.
‘It’s me,’ Jane said.
She’d give him two minutes to call back and then walk across to the Swan, see what kind of mood Mum was in. Let the fates decide.
She was alone under the stone-tiled roof of the market hall which sometimes looked even more ancient than it was, like a prehistoric burial chamber. In her plan of the Ledwardine henge, the market hall was just off-centre, maybe marking a confluence of energies. A fair bit of energy had been expended here, all those shadowy couples exploring each other’s bodies up against the pillars.
Which made her think about Eirion at university, with all its temptations, although he’d sworn to her…
Sod it. Jane tucked away her phone and walked across to the Swan, reaching the bottom of the three stone steps just as the door opened. She backed away as someone stumbled out, the porch lamp lighting his face and his slobbery mouth.
Oh God, no.
Still here? Weren’t they all supposed to have gone home to their penthouses? How long did these bloody courses go on?
Still here, still pissed.
I’ll be seeing you… girlie.
Bad, bad news. Jane slid into the alley which led to the Swan’s backyard. He might not even remember her, probably tried it on with a few more women since then, but it wasn’t worth the risk. She stood leaning against the wall, waiting for him to go.
Obviously not the time to talk to Mum. Too many negative signs.
The phone shuddered in her pocket. She eased it out of her jeans, moving further into the alley, holding it very tight to her ear.
‘I was finishing a curry,’ Eirion said. ‘Some things must never be interrupted. And, before you ask, yes, it was a vegetable curry. Not easy to obtain in this part of Cardiff.’
‘Well, that-’ Footsteps, someone grunting. ‘Irene, I’ll have to call you back.’
She killed the signal, edged a little further against the wall. There was a sigh and a liquid splatter. Steam and stench. G ross. Jane turned away and waited until it was over, expecting him to go once he’d finished, but…
Damn, damn, damn. He was coming into the alley. Jane moved all the way into the inn yard. There was an old brick toilet block at the end, long out of use. Jane slid around the side of it, stumbling into a pile of rubble.
Only just making it in time. The kitchen door was opening. A splash of light. Jane saw Dean Wall standing in the doorway, wearing an apron. A local thug, basically, unless he’d changed since she’d been at school with him. Somehow, he’d persuaded Barry to take him on as an assistant chef, which probably meant he was responsible for sweeping the yard. Essentially, only a few years, a degree from the LSE and probably a Swiss bank account separated Dean from Cornel, who was standing on the step, one arm inside a plastic sack.
‘Tomorrow’s dinner, mate.’
Something was pushed at Dean, who went kind of duh, but it was crisply overlaid by Barry’s voice.
‘I’m sorry, mate.’
‘Don’t apologize, Barry. Just take it.’
‘You misunderstand. I told you once, I’m not accepting this. This is the country. There are rules.’
‘Rules. Take it away.’
‘No, mate,’ Cornel said. ‘In the country, there aren’t any fucking rules that can’t be broken.’
‘Son, you don’t know anything about the country.’
‘Season ends on February the first, and it’s now very nearly the end of March. That make sense to you?’
‘Pheasants. The rule.’
‘Did I mention pheasants? Did I? ’
Jane saw white moonlight rippling in the black plastic of a bin liner, bulging. Cornel was holding it up with both hands, something hanging out of it.
‘It deserves to be fucking eaten,’ Cornel said. ‘By me. That make sense to you?’
Barry didn’t move. Cornel pulled the bin liner open at the top and held it out to him. Barry stayed in the doorway, very relaxed-looking, not touching the bag.
‘How’d you kill that? You all get together and beat it to death?’
Jane couldn’t see what it was and didn’t want to. She felt herself going tight with hate.
Cornel said, ‘You’re really not gonna-?’
Barry at his most no-shit.
‘Wha’m I s’posed to do with it?’
Almost screaming now.
‘I should put it back in your car boot, mate, and dispose of it very discreetly.’
‘You’re no fun, Barry. You’re no fucking fun.’
‘Actually,’ Barry said, ‘this is me at my most fun. You want to see me at my most no fun, you’ll leave that thing behind on these premises. You get where I’m coming from?’
There was a scary kind of deadness in Barry’s voice. Jane had heard stories about what Barry had been known to do, the odd times it had got rough in the public bar. The yard went momentarily black as the door was shut, and – oh, shit – the mobile started vibrating in Jane’s hip pocket. She was gripping the phone through the denim as Cornel totally lost it, started snarling at the closed door.
‘This is not over. It’s not fucking over!’
Just like the other night. I just want you to know it doesn’t end here. Only losers walked away. Limited repertoire. Tosser. Jane stayed tight between the perimeter wall and the toilet block, trying to breathe slowly in the stale-beery air, not wanting to think how Cornel might react if he found her here, witness to his humiliation. Again.
The moon showed her Cornel’s foot coming back, maybe to kick the closed door, and then it got confusing.
‘Didn’t handle that very well, did we, Cornel?’
Another voice. Someone had come into the yard from the alley.
‘Pick it up, eh?’
An ashy kind of voice. Not Barry. A bit Brummy.
‘I thought you’d gone,’ Cornel said.
‘Thought? Yow don’t think, Cornel, that’s the problem. Now pick it up. Take it somewhere and bury it, then go and cry yourself to sleep.’
Cornel’s voice came back, petulant.
‘Why are you doing this to me?’
‘Go home any time y’want, mate. No skin off my nose.’
‘You’re just a-’
A movement. Not much of one. A chuckle. Then a short cry, more shock than pain.
‘ Uhhh! ’
‘Ah, dear, dear, you’re really not ready. Didn’t see that that coming either. Not as hard as we thought, eh? Long way to go, Cornel, still a long way to go, mate.’
Jane breathed in hard, through her mouth, and the breath dragged in something gritty.
‘I’ve told you,’ Cornel said. ‘I’ll pay the extra.’
‘It’s not about money. It’s about manhood.’
An indrawn breath, full of rage, a scuffling, like Cornel was finding his feet. Jane tasted something disgusting, realized she was inhaling a cobweb full of dead flies.
Cornel was going, ‘You sanctimonious fucking… Awwww…’
From the yard, a bright squeak of intense agony. Piercing violence lighting up the night like an electric storm, and Jane, choking, clawing at her mouth, was really scared now, sweat creaming her forehead. Trying to meld with the toilet wall, breathing through her nose, holding her jaw rigid, not even daring to spit.
‘Come and see me again, look, when your balls drop,’ the guy said.
This kind of tittering laugh. A sound you’d swear was the guy clapping Cornel on the back in a don’t take it to heart kind of way.
Departing footsteps, light and casual in the alley, but in the yard there was only retching and then Cornel going, ‘ Shit, shit, shit, shit…’ like he was walking round in circles, while Jane clung to the jagged stones in the toilet wall, her head ballooning with a suffocating nausea.
‘…shit, shit, shit…’ from the alleyway now, receding.
Cornel had gone.
Jane sprang away from the wall, coughing out the cobweb and the flies, coughing and coughing, wiping her mouth on her sleeve as she went staggering out into the warm smell of new vomit in the yard.
She was at the top of the alley, where it came out onto the square, when she saw Cornel again.
He was on his own, dragging the black bin sack across the cobbles like some vagrant. He was moving jerkily, his body arched. Jane saw him stop. She saw him pick up the plastic sack with both hands, his gangly body bending in pain like an insect which had been trodden on.
Cornel dumped the sack into one of the concrete litter bins on the square, ramming it in hard before walking crookedly away.
Jane didn’t move until he was long gone and the village centre was unusually deserted in the amber of the fake gas lamps.
Beyond the glow, gables jutted, like Cornel’s chin, into a cold, windless night sky, and the church steeple was moon-frosted as Jane moved unsteadily across to the concrete bin.
Get the Drummer Killed
‘ You don’t have to take that crap,’ Barry said. ‘There comes a point where you just… you realize you just don’t.’
He’d come back from the kitchens looking dark-faced, angry, and that was rare. A few more customers had come in since, and Marion, the head barmaid, had taken over. Barry had poured himself a Guinness and come to sit with Merrily and Lol.
‘Behaving like a servant is one thing. Being treated like one is something else.’
‘He’d killed a pheasant?’ Lol said.
‘Don’t matter. None of it matters too much now, anyway. When the worst happens, I’m not going to be around.’
He got up suddenly, unhooked a big black poker, turned over the last big apple log, and the flames were instantly all over it. Barry came and sat down, rubbing soot from his hands.
‘The worst?’ Merrily said.
‘I apologize.’ Barry drank some Guinness, wiped his lips almost delicately on a white pocket handkerchief. ‘There’s no reason at all for me not to tell you. Savitch is buying the Swan.’
Pool balls plinked off one another in the Public. Lol put down his pencil.
‘When you think about it, it was only a matter of time,’ Barry said.
‘I didn’t…’ Lol’s voice was parched. ‘The Swan’s for sale?’
‘Way things are now, Laurence, any pub’s for sale. Every day, somewhere in Britain, another one shuts down.’
Merrily stared into the fire. After Christmas, it had become known that the Black Swan’s elderly owner had handed it over to her son, who ran a building firm. The building trade would revive, but the future for pubs…
‘Savitch put in an initial offer last week.’ Barry’s voice was flat. ‘Ridiculously low, and it got turned down, of course. But that was just round one. He’ll be back.’
‘Why’s he doing this?’ Lol said. ‘Why not just, you know, live here?’
‘He’s a businessman. The place you live, you want it to look like an enterprise, not a loser’s refuge.’
‘This can’t happen,’ Lol said.
‘It could happen tomorrow, mate, if he doubles his bid. Which I’m sure he can afford to. But I think he’ll wait.’
‘What can we do?’ Merrily said.
‘What are his plans, exactly?’
‘Village is set to grow. Maybe he’s on a promise. All too friendly with Councillor Pierce these days.’ Barry leaned his chair back against an oak pillar where a wall had once divided the bar into two rooms. ‘End of the day, we’re just the little people. These things don’t happen on our level, do they? I mean, the word is he’ll ask me to stay on, but that’s… not for me.’
‘I’m so sorry, Barry.’
‘Nah, I’ll be all right. Not sure about Ledwardine, though.’ Barry settled into his chair, evidently more relaxed now it was out. ‘So what’s the problem with Syd Spicer, then, Merrily?’
‘Didn’t think you wanted to talk about him.’
‘I didn’t. Now, suddenly, it seems like light relief. One of your lot now, last I heard.’
‘Actually, one of your lot again. Been made chaplain at Credenhill.’
‘Has he now?’
‘You didn’t know?’
‘They don’t put out a newsletter. Chaplain, eh? Padre. Well, well.’
‘Barry, could I ask you something in general? About the Regiment?’
Barry shrugged, his jacket tightening, a sleeve rising to expose a purplish scar snaking up his wrist from the palm of his left hand.
‘I’m sorry if it-’
‘Nah, nah, just it’s usually teenage boys. How many men you killed? How many times you been tortured? It can get wearing.’
‘Just that Syd once told me… he said there was a kind of mysticism in the Regiment. His word.’
‘Oh, I see. This is about the things you do on the side.’
Much of the time, Barry’s broad face was smooth and bland, but his eyes were the eyes of a far thinner, warier man. Maybe a colder man. He sucked some froth from his Guinness.
‘Not quite sure what you mean by mysticism. There’s a lot of myths .’
Merrily waited. The old apple log was well alight and it felt warmer in here now, almost like old times. But this was the last good log.
‘What can I tell you?’ Barry said. ‘There’ve been geezers I knew, up against a wall, who’ve prayed their hearts out and the wall never moved, know what I mean? And there’s a bloke I know survived against all the odds, and he’s seen it as a miracle and gone hallelujah, praise the Lord, born-again.’
‘What about superstition?’
‘Rabbits’ feet? Not treading on the cracks in the minefield?’ Barry shook his head minimally. ‘Small obsessions can get you hurt.’
‘Fear of the unknown?’
‘You don’t give in to it. If you’re in a tight situation, personal fears take a back seat because you’re concentrating on how to deal with it.’
‘What if it’s something a man knows he can’t get at? I’m wondering at what stage he would think he was going mad.’
‘Blimey,’ Barry said. ‘What’s this about? Only, generally speaking, we don’t do mad. All right. What I’d say is you might start by eliminating the possibility of there being, say, something in the water – practical stuff.’
‘And when you’ve eliminated the rational, the hallucin- atory…?’
‘We talking about Syd here? Only he’s a bleedin’ vicar.’
‘Not all vicars feel able to take the funny stuff on board. Don’t all take God on board any more. At what stage do you think he might seek help?’
‘On a mission, you rely on your mates, your gang. The circumstances would have to be very special for you to venture outside. You read Frank’s book? Frank Collins?’
‘Should have, shouldn’t I?’
Frank Collins: former curate at St Peter’s, Hereford. Ex-SAS. Occasionally spoken of among Hereford clergy, warily.
‘Wish I’d known him,’ Merrily said. ‘But he was dead before I came here.’
By his own hand. Gassed himself in his car. She’d heard it said that he’d become depressed after writing the book about his time in the SAS and his conversion to Christianity. It hadn’t been well received – by the Regiment, not the clergy.
‘Some weird stuff in that book,’ Barry said. ‘How God spoke to him through the radio. There’s one tale in there of a guy who knows his best mate’s bought the farm in the Falklands on account of he’s appeared to him in his house, thousands of miles away, all dripping wet. Made me shiver a bit, that. I served with them both. Frank, too. Blondie, we called him.’
‘I’ll read it. Did start it once, but life intervened. Did, erm… did Frank Collins find the same level of support in the Church as he had in the SAS?’
‘Evidently not,’ Barry said.
‘In the Regiment, you rely on your mates not only because they’re your mates but because each of you’s got special skills. Abilities the others respect.’ He looked at Lol. ‘Like in a band. Only a band where, if you forget your chords, you might get the drummer killed.’
‘Good analogy,’ Lol said. ‘I’m guessing.’
‘We don’t like to rely on guesswork,’ Barry said.
Some nights, Lol would just go back to the vicarage with Merrily for coffee or hot chocolate.
This wasn’t going to be one of them. They both knew that, as they walked out onto cobbles already slick with black ice. Almost touching, not quite. They never publicly held hands in Ledwardine, not even after dark.
A few icy stars were out over Cole Hill, a wreath of them above the church steeple. Merrily shivered with cold and unease, watching Lol beside her, head down, the lyrics pad under an arm, a hole in an elbow of his Gomer Parry sweatshirt. The Ledwardine village musician, one day playing music, the next following a JCB down to the riverbank with a hand shovel. She could almost hear his thoughts echoing across the cobbles: what kind of fantasy is this?
Lol had never really been much of a pub guy. Didn’t drink much, didn’t play darts or pool, didn’t have mates. It was only after his Christmas concert at the Swan that he’d achieved a degree of openness in Ledwardine. After he’d been lured out to play his music in front of his neighbours. And now…
I’ve agreed with Barry to do a few more gigs. Here at the Swan. And maybe something outside in the summer.
‘If Savitch can’t get it cheap enough, he might not bother,’ Merrily said at the entrance to Church Street. ‘I mean, what’s he going to do with it anyway, to make it show a decent profit… on his scale?’
Wishing, as soon as it was out – like with a lot of things she’d said tonight – that she’d kept quiet.
‘You know exactly what he’ll do,’ Lol said. ‘He’ll make it into some kind of apres-shoot retreat for his corporate clients… and for all the wives and girlfriends who don’t want to stay in a chalet, however luxurious, on a muddy farm. He’ll build up the restaurant and double the prices. It’ll just… regularize things.’
They stood and contemplated the clutch of lights down Church Street, where the holiday homes – sixteen at the last count – would be in darkness until Easter weekend. One of the For Sale notices had acquired a cross-strip saying sold. Had Savitch bought that, too?
Merrily saw Lol bent over his guitar in a corner, his music drowned out by the laughter of loud-voiced, faux -rural thugs.
‘They look out from their penthouses across all the lights,’ Lol said. ‘And they can’t see it but they know it’s there… all those thousands of square miles of it, all dark and empty. It just… it starts to irritate them. They’re thinking, what’s it doing? We’re the masters of the universe, why isn’t it giving us anything?’
Merrily was nodding gloomily. Had it ever been otherwise, since Norman kings designated thousands of acres as hunting ground? Great slabs of it going to the barons, who settled and grew, in their brutal way, to love it and eventually became the old squirearchy.
The Bulls and the Bull-Davieses.
Until they, in turn, started to lose it under the weight of inheritance taxes, leaving it prey to the new money. Savitch.
Cycles of exploitation.
The last fake gas lamp on the square was behind them now. A merciful mesh of shadows claiming them for its own. Lol brought out the keys to the terraced cottage where Lucy Devenish used to live. The folklorist. The guardian of the soul of the village. Jane’s first mentor.
‘I suppose what gets me,’ Lol said, ‘is that most people don’t seem to mind. The first time somebody off the TV comes to stay at the Swan, bit of glamour, they’re all in favour of it. It’s brought the village alive… but not in the right way.’
‘A bit of glamour,’ Merrily said. ‘Maybe we all need that.’
Her eyes felt damp.
Lol held open the front door for her. Inside, the wood stove was burning a surprising terracotta red.
Merrily’s black woollen top was off before they reached the sofa.
An Island in the Night
‘Actually, I do think he did it,’ Bliss said. ‘What’s wrong with that? It’s me job to suspect people.’
Staring up at the plaster moulding around the bedroom ceiling. The curtains were undrawn; you could see blurry lights in the big houses on the hillside across the road.
Cosy. An upstairs flat in a classy Victorian villa set back from the main road out of Great Malvern. Bliss liked it here – at the moment, more than anywhere, especially his crappy semi on the flat side of Hereford. OK, if he was called out in the night it’d take him maybe forty minutes to get back, and he’d need to leave at seven a.m., anyway. But it was worth it. Wasn’t it?
Annie Howe peering at him, her eyes all soft and woolly and useless without her contacts. It was worth it just for that.
‘… you can’t simply accuse a man of murder because he doesn’t like you. Sometimes I don’t like you. You can be an intensely annoying person.’
‘Part of me appeal, Annie.’
Bliss watched a light go out across the road, and then the hillside was as blank as those years of mutual blind distrust. Fast-track Annie, man-hating bitch, daughter of Councillor Charlie Howe, ex-copper, bent. All the poison darts Bliss had aimed at her back. Why should she like him?
He felt, unexpectedly, flimsy. What was she supposed to see in a twat who couldn’t hold anything together, not his job, not his family? Like Kirsty said, You never did put yourself out much, did you, Frank?
True, in a way. He and Annie had fallen into bed within days of Kirsty leaving, both coasting on the euphoria of a crucial result, a key arrest. A cop thing. How much staying power was there in that?
‘What’s the matter?’ Annie said.
Chris says you consistently neglected your wife, Inspector.
She moved away from him. She’d put her nightdress back on, all creased. She was his superior. Better-educated, better-connected, better-looking. Coat hanger with tits? Was Stagg blind?
‘We said when this began that there’d be no analysis,’ Annie said softly. ‘One day at a time. We also said that.’
But there were no days, only nights. Cover of darkness. Cover of Christmas. It should have been his emptiest Christmas ever. Instead, he’d spent the days in work, the nights with Annie. In January they were spending two nights a week together, one at her place, one at his – Annie parking around the corner, walking, all muffled up, to the back door. We’re all right, she’d said, as long as nobody finds out. As long as we’re never seen together. As long as we don’t go out together. As long as we don’t ever do that thing where you drive a hundred miles into Wales or somewhere and have lunch and walk by the river, because there’s always some bloody copper, who used to be in this division, on holiday.
Bliss cleared his throat. Badly wanting to tell Annie about Kirsty, get her input, see if she had any idea at all who might’ve rumbled them. But Annie’s job was as important to her as his was to him. If he told her, she’d restrict their meetings, and he couldn’t stand that, because this was the only thing preventing him exploding into gases and shrapnel.
‘Right, then, Francis…’
In the glacial light from the street lamps he saw that she’d arranged two pillows against the bedhead, sitting back into them, a nipple’s areola vanishing back into the white cotton. Reaching to the bedside table and finding her glasses and putting them on to watch him across the post-midnight greyness. Return of the Ice Maiden.
‘Tell me about Sollers Bull,’ she said.
Gut feelings were no longer encouraged. No place for them in teamwork. Even Bliss was suspicious of gut feelings. Other people’s, anyway.
‘See, even when I was talking to him, I could feel it. I could see him in a pair of them green nylon overalls that farmers wear for mucky jobs.’
‘Pulling them off, I suppose, as he ran through the fields into the headlights of our correspondent and his girlfriend.’
‘I wanted to go back with a warrant to search his house. I wanted to talk to his hidden wife. Maybe she knows, maybe she doesn’t or maybe she just suspects.’
‘Stay away from her, Francis. Until you have something stronger, anyway. The bottom line is… he has an alibi. Several.’
‘The staff at his caff? It’s still borderline. Time of death’s not that certain, and it’s not that far away. You didn’t see the rage in him. Something about it that was wrong for the situation… skewed.’
Anger was always useful for concealing a hole where grief ought to be, but it was also a good outlet for the hyper excitement that lived in you for hours after you’d done something enormous.
‘I was thinking at first that if there was no real pain there it was because half of him’d be well chuffed at getting the farm.’
‘Perhaps that’s all it was,’ Annie said. ‘We don’t even know he didn’t get on with his brother. OK, different kinds of men – the traditionalist and the young progressive. University education, big ideas.’
‘Enough to cause a rift, when he starts shaking off the steadying hand.’
‘Even if they did hate one another, who’s going to tell you? Not the family, and not the wider community.’
‘Somebody will,’ Bliss said. ‘Always somebody with a grudge, a chip.’
‘We get his DNA, for purposes of elimination?’
‘You feel threatened, Francis?’
‘He’s put you very much in the firing line. A symbol of what’s gone wrong with the police in this area. Urban cop.’
‘Strange as it may seem, Annie, it wasn’t that urban where I grew up. Not then, anyway. There are fields up there.’ Bliss lay back. ‘Countryside frigging Defiance. Where did that come from?’
‘I Googled them. Much of it’s hunting-based. Aimed mainly, I’d guess, at attracting younger people to the cause. The trad- itional fox-hunting image of a retired colonel and Camilla Parker-Bowles as was… is not terribly evident on their Web site.’
‘Who’s behind it?’
‘Don’t know. They’re also using Facebook and Twitter. Sollers Bull in hunting pink is a gift. Good-looking and a little bit dark and edgy. He was always like that.’
‘I didn’t know him well, but I did know him. From his days in the YFC.’
‘ You were in the Young Farmers?’
‘I was a young farmer’s girlfriend for a while. He was a friend of Sollers. This was when I was about sixteen. We were at the same parties, occasionally. He was popular with girls who… had more going for them in the looks department than I ever did.’
‘Don’t sell yourself short.’
‘I’m a realist. Anyway, I didn’t know him well enough to get behind the image.’
‘He’s a liar,’ Bliss said. ‘He was acting. On TV. Just like all those husbands who break down in front of the cameras: Please find the monster who killed my lovely wife. And all the time you’re looking at him.’
The lights were all out in the houses on the hillside, traffic was sparse. Bliss had that feeling he used to get as a kid, of being on an island in the night. It was not unpleasant.
‘He did it, Annie.’
‘I’d be very careful, at this stage, who you share your suspicions with. It’s a small county and Bull has friends all over it.’
‘Including my soon-to-be-ex-father-in-law.’
‘Did you know that your in-laws knew Sollers Bull?’
‘Be surprising if they didn’t. The farm’s only ten minutes away and Chris Symonds has social ambitions. Always asking me if I was up for promotion.’
Annie slid down in the bed, a long thigh against his.
‘You’re obviously up for something,’ Annie said.
It was six-thirty and fully light when the mobile trilled by his side of the bed. Bliss awoke spooned into Annie’s back, experiencing the usual half-shock at whose back this was. His hand had barely found his phone before Annie’s phone made its Nokia noise on the other side.
‘Karen, yeh?’ Bliss said.
Watching Annie fumbling for her glasses, peering at her screen. In Bliss’s phone, Karen Dowell didn’t dress it up.
‘Shit,’ Bliss was clawing the sleep out of his eyes. ‘Where?’
‘City centre, more or less. East Street?’
‘A woman. You did say a woman?’
‘No, boss, I said two.’
When I was still young, I thought it a great pity to die. Not that there was anything on earth I wanted to live for…
Julian of Norwich
Revelations of Divine Love
Just gone eight, and the city was stirring irritably under a blotchy brown sky, East Street sealed off, end to end.
A barrier was moved to one side, the tape dropped, letting Bliss through to where Terry Stagg was waiting with a blurry excitement on his brick-dust face.
‘Two females. Mid-twenties? We’re thinking East European.’
Bliss stood in the middle of the street, looking down to a private parking area for office workers, lawyers, hairdressers. You could see the screens projecting from behind a blank yellow end wall. East Street ran narrowly between the city centre and the Cathedral Close. A few discreet shops, refurbished terraced housing, offices, the rear of the Shirehall and a lone bijou black and white property used by chiropractors.
‘And why are we thinking that?’
‘Apart from general appearance,’ Stagg said, ‘one’s wearing this kind of a locket thing, silver, with a little religious-looking picture inside and some foreign words.’
‘I was off sick when they ran the course on migrant crime.’
Bliss wrinkled his nose. Thousands of East Europeans around the county now: mainly honest, decent migrant workers, a percentage of migrant layabouts and a handful of migrant heavy-duty wrongdoers. There’d been a short course for cops on the kind of societies they came from, their favourite crimes – the more violent ones usually practised against other migrants who were usually reluctant to give evidence.
‘How long’s he been here?’
A silver Beemer was parked up by the little black and white place. The Havana cigar box on the dash identifying Billy Grace’s urban transport.
‘Quite a while,’ Terry Stagg said. ‘He likes the ones where he gets noticed.’
The private parking area was almost a little square. Uneven levels, low brick walls and the arse-ends of buildings in need of repair. A weeping birch tree grew incongruously at its centre and its horizons were tarted up by the tower and steeple of St Peter’s and the Shirehall’s little cupola with its flagpole and Union Jack.
‘This where it happened – or were they dumped?’
‘Unlikely,’ Terry Stagg said. ‘Blood and gunge over a fairly wide area.’
‘Who found them?’
‘Elderly bloke from over there.’ Terry nodding at a modernized brick terrace. ‘Woke up to screams and yells not long after midnight.’
‘You mean… we actually came out here last night?’
‘No, he didn’t report it. Thought it was kids, pissed. Seems he’s complained twice in recent weeks and, um, no action was taken. And you don’t go out to remonstrate any more, do you?’
‘I presume the DCI’s en route?’ Bliss said.
A practised insouciance – getting good at this. Annie’d given him ten minutes’ start so they wouldn’t be seen arriving together.
‘And presumably we’re knocking on doors. Those windows overlooking the car park? Pubs, clubs, night workers, minicab firms.’
‘And CCTV,’ Stagg said. ‘The whole city centre.’
‘Good,’ Bliss said. ‘Right, then. Let’s go and put me off me breakfast.’
Turned towards the tape and the canvas, and Terry handed him the Durex suit, and they walked down past the offices of the Hereford Herd Book Society, whatever that meant.
Sollers frigging Bull would know.
Most of the video had been shot, but they were still taking stills from different angles. Images to wither your soul. Breathing in all the degrading smells of violent death, Bliss heard a man distantly protesting, ‘No, I work here, of course. Come in early because I have clients. How long am I supposed to hang around? Can’t you at least…?’
‘Twat,’ Bliss said.
It came out a bit choked up, surprising him. It wasn’t the horror as much as the sad banality: the two red shoes shed in different places, the blue vinyl handbag sprung open, letting out lipsticks and tissues and photos, left where they’d fallen. He saw a picture of a middle-aged couple, hand in hand on the edge of a field, with a white dog.
‘Only one handbag, Slim?’
‘Nothing else here.’ Slim Fiddler, head SOCO, came up like a hippo from a swamp. ‘And I can’t imagine they shared.’
The first body… it was as if she’d been thrown like discarded clothing over a low wall, maybe the foundation of a demolished outbuilding. She was wearing jeans and a black fleece, half off. A thin arm was draped over the bricks, the hand already bagged. You could only see one of her eyes; it was like sun-dried tomato.
‘Looks like the head was banged repeatedly into the sharp edges of the bricks,’ Billy Grace said. ‘The other one… is less of a big-production number.’
Beaming the way only Billy Grace ever beamed.
The other one lay a few paces away in a patch of scrubby grass. The pink fleece and the way she was half-curled made her look like a prawn, Bliss thought, a giant prawn, for God’s sake. One hand down between her legs.
‘Probably.’ Billy bent down. ‘Dress ripped here. Didn’t do that herself. But the rest of it, as you can see, is far less… frenzied… than the other one.’
Her face was unmarked. It was a doll’s face – not a baby’s doll, more like one of those Russian dolls where one was inside another and so on. The hair was brown with gold highlights.
‘Probably died quite quickly,’ Billy Grace said. ‘I’d guess she fell back on the corner of that brick – see the blood there? Then perhaps somebody pulled her away, let her fall again.’
‘But the other one… fought harder.’
‘To the end, I’d imagine.’
Billy straightened up. Under his unzipped Durex suit, he wore a blazer with a badge, old-fashioned rugby-club type.
‘Not a lone assailant, is it?’ Bliss said.
Bliss returned to the first and bloodiest body, took a breath and bent to the poor kid, examining her neck. A few scratches there, that was all.
‘Where’s the locket?’
‘Came off, Frannie.’ Slim Fiddler led him to a patch of weeds. ‘Try not to touch.’
Bliss squatted to where the leaves had been parted, making eye contact with the Virgin Mary in light blue and gold. The locket was silver, tarnished.
‘Very possibly Romanian,’ he said.
An unusual silence. Bliss half turned. Billy Grace was peering at him over his half-glasses, eyebrows raised. Bliss scowled.
‘Piss off, Billy, I’m norra complete friggin’ moron. It’s from an icon, Russian Orthodox kind of thing. The Romanians are big on icons of Our… of the Virgin.’
Could have told him how once, aged seventeen, just, he’d had to take his ma and his most devoutly Catholic auntie to this exhibition of icons in Liverpool – was it the Walker Gallery? Not long after he’d passed his driving test, anyway, so he’d been quite happy to relieve the old man of the chore just to get his mitts on the car keys for an afternoon.
Bliss stood up and backed off to view both victims in the context of the location. The violence was… careless. Almost impersonal, like storm damage.
‘They’ve been left like rubbish, Billy. Like fly-tipping. No attempt at concealment. Not what rapists do. Rapists, if they’ve killed, they make some effort to cover up.’
‘That include gang-rapists? Drunk.’
‘I dunno. Something’s not quite right.’
‘Be able to give you a more formal verdict on the sexual aspect later today.’
‘Won’t be me, Billy. I’ll be off back to Oldcastle. Where I might even get left alone for a bit. DCI’ll be here soon. This is the big one.’
‘You think so? Mansel Bull’s a pillar of the rural community, whereas these pitiful young things…’
‘I’m too old to care, Francis. This your mistress now?’
Bliss tensed, but didn’t look at him. Up in the street, Annie Howe, in her light grey trenchcoat, was getting out of her Audi, bringing her mobile to her ear.
Just a figure of speech, that was all. Not a chance in a million that Billy Grace knew or even suspected. Just a frigging stupid, flip remark.
Bliss turned his back on the crime scene to walk slowly, as if reluctantly, towards Annie.
‘No!’ he said. ‘No, listen, that’s not what’s gonna happen…’
‘Don’t be stupid.’
Back in the Audi. Bliss in the passenger seat, all the windows up. Annie behind the wheel, no make-up. Bliss hunched himself up against the passenger door, explicit body language for anybody watching: he didn’t want to be here with this woman.
‘Apart from anything, you know exactly what it’s gonna look like.’
‘Actually, I don’t think it will,’ Annie said. ‘That’s the point. This is a double murder. By any criteria, the biggest case. It’s also going to be immensely high-profile, controversial and politically sensitive.’
‘Nobody’s going to make that distinction, Francis. And, anyway, it’s what God wants, so we have to live with it.’
She’d been talking to the Chief on the Bluetooth, driving here. Fait accompli. Fit-up. The church clock at St Peter’s began to chime the hour. Annie passed a folded paper across to Bliss, under dash-level.
He stared at her.
‘I don’t like the friggin’ Guardian. It’s all opera and foreign stuff.’
‘It’s the Daily Mail. I had to pick it up on the way here. Just read it, will you?’
Sourly, Bliss opened the paper out to a double-page spread. A panorama of Oldcastle Farm on its bank above the Wye, photographed across the fields between bands of police tape.
RURAL IDYLL OR KILLING FIELDS?
Police ‘don’t want to know’
In another picture, the Countryside Defiance banner. In the middle of the page, a shot of a man sitting with his head in his hands. The caption,
Sollers Bull: shattered.
‘If it’s painful, you can skip to the end,’ Annie said.
‘Not sure I can move me reading finger that fast.’
Annie turned away, tapping the steering wheel slowly with her nails. Bliss sighed. Near the bottom of the story, it said:
West Mercia police confirmed last night that the detective leading the inquiry, DI Francis Bliss, is an incomer from Merseyside.
‘DI Bliss has been with us for several years now,’ a spokeswoman said, ‘and we’re fully confident both of his ability and the extent of his local knowledge.
‘We consider the claims made by Countryside Defiance to be ill-founded and obstructive.’
‘So just get on with it,’ Annie said. ‘And be nice to the television people. Look, it’s the best solution. Except, possibly, for me, but I’ll cope.’
‘Two incident rooms?’
‘You get Gaol Street. I’ll be taking a caravan over to Oldcastle.’
‘Will there be a generator and a primus stove?’
‘You’ll also get some extra bodies from Worcester and two translators, that’s been agreed.’
Translators. Wonderful. Bliss could foresee long hours of watching people’s eyes for traces of guilt while listening to the soundtrack of a foreign film without the subtitles.
‘And you can have Karen Dowell.’ Annie Howe went on looking out of the windscreen down the length of East Street. ‘Look, I’m adapting to instructions, Francis. It’s what I do. Adapt. Known for it. Off you go. Get the bastards before they can leave the country. Oh-There are two Lithuanian nationals in the cells, apparently, brought in pre-dawn, drunk and incapable. That’ll be a start for you.’
‘Thanks, I’ll eat them later.’ Bliss shouldered open the passenger door. ‘Just remember what I said, Annie.’
‘You know what.’
Bliss stepped out, looked up into the sheeny sky, scraped with brown clouds like the chickenshit on a new-laid egg.
‘Annie… check him out, yeh? Just… check him out.’
Who We Are
Despite the Metropolitan fantasies of a few power-crazed councillors, Hereford was still a big village. When a very bad thing happened, Merrily was thinking, ordinary life didn’t yet accelerate around it. Something lurched, shifted down a gear.
With East Street sealed off, traffic concertinaed, it had taken her ten minutes to get from the top of Broad Street to the Cathedral Gatehouse. You could walk it in two. She’d left the old Volvo in the Bishop’s Palace yard, meeting one of the canons, Jim Waite, who explained what had happened.
Slaughter was the word he’d used.
He hadn’t said, Where the hell is God in this?
Up in the gatehouse office, Sophie was at the window, gazing down into Broad Street, then across the Cathedral Green towards Church Street. Both of them linked into the – hitherto more obscure East Street.
The killings must have happened close to the centre of Hereford’s medieval triangle of big churches: All Saints, St Peter’s, the Cathedral. An alleyway linked East Street directly to the Cathedral Close, winding past the house once occupied by Alfred Watkins, the antiquarian.
And where the hell was God? A question that the previous owner had pencilled into the margin of her second-hand copy of Frank Collins’s Baptism of Fire, the book she’d been reading till after one a.m.
‘It’ll become commonplace here sooner than we know, Merrily.’ Sophie turned sharply away from the window, her glasses swinging on their chain. ‘Like Birmingham and Manchester. Society’s losing all cohesion.’
She went to sit down at her desk. She’d had her hair cut shorter for spring – too soon, as it had turned out. She was still wearing the winter cardie long after its time. She looked – unusual for Sophie – lost.
‘One only has to look into the hopeless faces of the drunks in Bishop’s Meadow. Lost souls in a purgatory of disillusion and charity shops.’ Both Sophie’s hands were placed flat on the desk, as if for stability. ‘I have no doubt that the vast majority are decent people, trying to earn an honest living. But they’re not the ones who create the need for a policeman almost full-time on the door at Tesco.’ She looked down at herself. ‘Dear God, stop me, Merrily.’
‘Questioning the impact of social change isn’t quite the same as joining the British National Party,’ Merrily said.
‘And we don’t know what’s happened, yet, do we?’ Merrily said. ‘We don’t know if it’s a sexual thing or a robbery or a… private matter.’
‘A private matter. That’s just it, isn’t it?’ Sophie said. ‘We don’t know what they’ve brought with them. We don’t understand what kind of demons drive them. And we do need to, because we’re not London, we’re a country town. We know who we are. Or we always used to. Now, one can feel a… a weight of silent resentment. And an apprehension.’
Merrily had been about to say that it wasn’t exactly new. In the Middle Ages there’d been resentment in the city about the increasing Jewish community, even the revered bishop Thomas Cantilupe railing against them.
No, forget it. She wandered over to the window, looked down at the Cathedral Green. Seasons slowly shifting out there, winter retiring into the mist, spring blinking warily in the tepid sunshine. Then the clouds took it away, and she saw a lone daffodil, still in bud, flattened by someone’s shoe.
‘The Bishop’s been quiet lately.’
‘He’s increasingly tired. I think he’ll probably hang on until the autumn, then we’ll hear something.’ Sophie stood up. ‘I’ll make some tea. I’ve itemized your calls, in terms of apparent priority. Three inquiries in the past week, none of which I felt you needed to be alerted about. One’s that rather querulous person who seems to think you can get her grandson off heroin by… exorcizing his inner junkie. I’ve taken the precaution of quietly alerting her parish priest and suggesting she talks it over with him.’
‘Thank you.’ Merrily sat down. ‘Nothing from the Holmer?’
A fortnight ago she’d been called out to a single space in a factory parking area where a manager, newly divorced, had – like poor Frank Collins – asphyxiated himself in his car. Several workers had claimed that they’d felt him sitting next to them in their own cars if they parked there. The local vicar had dismissed it as hysteria.
‘Nothing.’ Sophie shook her head, filling the kettle. ‘In fact, you really didn’t need to come in.’
‘Well, I came in because… I need to make a possibly tricky phone call.’
For some reason, it was easier from here. Like you had the weight of the Cathedral around you. And Sophie to consult. Pretty much the same thing.
‘It’s Syd Spicer. Now at Credenhill?’
‘Ah, yes,’ Sophie said.
‘How long have you known?’
‘Since the Bishop approved it. It’s been announced now, has it?’
You were inclined to forget that her principal role was as the Bishop’s lay secretary, guardian of episcopal secrets.
‘I’ve been a bit naive about all this, Sophie. Until a few days ago, it didn’t strike me that to become a chaplain you had to actually join the army. Or rejoin.’
‘Yes, that’s a requirement.’
‘Well… I suppose I can tell you. We were in two minds about his suitability. Since leaving the city for Credenhill, the Regiment does seem to have become more remote from us. Not even in the same parliamentary constituency. So Hereford, technically, is no longer a garrison town.’
‘Appointing one of their own as chaplain makes them more remote?’
Sophie said nothing. Merrily looked at the phone. Much of the incentive had gone. She looked up at Sophie.
‘OK, can I tell you about this?’
Lol had had to force himself to go back to work this morning. Couldn’t bear to finish the one about the village musician who found recovery in the back of a JCB. When the knock came on the front door, he was messing with the lyrics for ‘The Simple Trackway Man’, one he was trying to persuade Danny to sing. A homage to Alfred Watkins, the Hereford man who discovered ley lines.
I am a simple trackway man Who walks the lanes by ancient plan
Leading the people from beacon to steeple
And steeple to stone
And all the way home.
Back in the 1920s, Mr Watkins, controversially, had traced possible cross-country tracks connecting prehistoric ritual sites – stones and circles and burial mounds – and the medieval churches built on ancient sacred enclosures. Most of his research had been done in his home county and Danny’s native Radnorshire. Unlocking the British countryside for future generations who wanted to connect again with the land. Jane’s hero.
Lol’s song had been written carefully in the vernacular, borrowing material from Watkins’s classic work, The Old Straight Track. He was quite proud of it. A song that should’ve been written decades ago, to be sung in folk clubs and on village greens at Whitsuntide. Or by chains of walkers stepping out to refresh themselves and the countryside at Easter. Mr Watkins as some unassuming, low-key pied piper of the border hills.
Sitting on his sofa, with the Boswell across his knees, Lol sang ‘Trackway Man’ to the wood stove glowing ashy pink against the morning sunlight.
Across the fields where gates align
Ole scarecrow gives us all a sign
Where stand of pine marks sacred shrine
And secret dell hides holy well.
He saw the man in the cap walk past the front window, didn’t take much notice, and it was about half a minute before the knock came, as if the man had walked past the door towards the village square and then either had remembered something or had second thoughts and turned back.
Answering the front door, Lol didn’t recognize him at first. He wore a rust-coloured gilet and a leather cap. Incomer wear, nothing unusual. He had his chin up and his hands behind his back. He had a quick, efficient smile.
‘My partner introduced me t’your music.’
The hand came out, a leather glove removed.
‘Ward Savitch. Is this convenient?’
‘Too much reticence can be counterproductive,’ Sophie said. ‘You deserve at least an explanation.’
They were looking at the SAS base on Google Earth. Half surprised to find it there, this unexpectedly large network of utility buildings, parked vehicles. A community probably bigger, if more compact, than the village of Credenhill. You pulled back, and the wide view was all open countryside, apart from the wooded slopes of the hill itself, close enough to overlook the base.
‘You feel like you’re breaking the Official Secrets Act just doing this, Sophie. Like they’re going to know, and the door will fly open and men will be there with automatic rifles.’
Sophie looked severe.
‘When they were at the old Stirling Lines, they were part of the city. Part of the community. Mrs Thatcher liked to call them her boys . But, essentially, they were our boys. Part of Hereford since the Regiment was formed in 1941. That’s a long time.’
‘But the glamour years only began in the 1980s.’
After the SAS had travelled from Hereford to rescue hostages in the Iranian Embassy in London, abseiling down the walls from the roof live on TV.
‘And we were always discreet, Merrily. When a new recruit came off the train and asked for directions to the army base, he wasn’t told.’
‘I’ve heard that.’
‘We all knew where it was, but we didn’t tell just anyone. The Regiment was inside the city itself, but it was anonymous. And yet a presence.’
‘Like the Cathedral?’
‘Call Spicer,’ Sophie said abruptly. ‘He used you. I’m tired of seeing people used.’
Merrily looked at her, curious. Was she thinking that nobody had been murdered on the streets of Hereford when the SAS was still in town?
She picked up the phone, put in the number Huw had given her. And was almost grateful when there was no answer, no machine, no voice-mail.
Last night, she’d told Lol about Syd at the chapel. Lol had met him once, at the end of a very dark night in the Malverns, when Syd had been very much in denial. Merrily had said, You really don’t see anything bordering on the paranormal? and Syd had said, You mean you do? ’
She let his phone ring for half a minute before hanging up. Tried twice more before lunch and also called home to see if there were any messages on the machine. Sometimes, if she’d had to leave early, Jane would leave one for her. Jane, whose mood last night, when Merrily had got in from the Swan, had been changing like traffic lights, flickering erratically, red-amber-red-amber. Like she’d wanted to talk about something, but couldn’t. Said nothing this morning, either, and you wondered if it would be better or worse when she went to university.
Not that Merrily had wanted to talk last night. Better not to mention Savitch’s bid to buy the Swan until it actually happened. With the vague hope that it wouldn’t.
‘Sophie… in Canon Dobbs’s day – was there ever any involvement with the SAS, back then?’
‘In what way?’
‘I don’t know. I’m just wondering if there’s any precedent.’
‘I can check the records.’
‘Perhaps it wouldn’t be there. If there was anybody less forthcoming than the SAS, it was Dobbs, so the combination of the two…’
Sophie’s smile was transient, and it probably wasn’t nostalgia.
At twelve, they switched on the radio for the national news headlines and, for the first time since New Year, Merrily heard the nasal tones of Frannie Bliss.
‘… horrific crime, and we wanna talk to anybody who was in or near the centre of the city last night between the hours of eleven and one a.m. Doesn’t matter whether or not they think they’ve seen anything significant, they may still have information that could be useful to us.’
Frannie – how was he doing? Merrily had invited him round for a meal a couple of times since his marriage had finally collapsed. Both times he’d said he was busy.
The phone rang and Sophie turned the radio off.
‘Gatehouse.’ A pause. ‘The Cathedral Gatehouse. In Hereford. Who is this?’ Sophie listened. An eyebrow rose fractionally.
‘Ah… one moment.’
She put the call on hold.
Merrily said, ‘Me?’
‘Picked you up on 1471. From Credenhill.’
‘His wife,’ Sophie said. ‘Mrs Spicer, I’m putting you through to Mrs Watkins.’
What did she know about Fiona Spicer? Very little. Except that SAS wives who survived the course were rarely insubstantial women.
‘I think we almost met once in the Malverns. My name’s-’
‘Yes, I realize who you are now.’
Voice low and steady and not exactly friendly. Neutral southern-English accent. Merrily pulled the Silk Cut packet from her bag, stood it on the desk in front of her. Sophie frowned.
‘I ran into Syd a few days ago. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were… back with him.’
Christ, what did this sound like? Merrily stared at the packet, extracting a spiritual cigarette.
‘I’m not back with him, Mrs Watkins. This is a visit.’
‘Is, erm… is Syd there?’
Merrily waited. After a couple of seconds, the silence suggested that Mrs Spicer had gone.
No – a mobile. She’d picked up the number from the house phone, but she was calling back on a mobile. Merrily looked at Sophie, back behind her desk, making no pretence of doing anything but listening.
‘Mrs Spicer, it’s the first time I’ve used the Credenhill number. I got it from Huw Owen, my spiritual director. Syd consulted him and – indirectly – me, about something, and I just wanted to follow up on it.’
Something wrong here. Merrily lit the spiritual cigarette. Sometimes it worked.
‘Do you, erm, know where he is, Mrs Spicer?’
‘He can’t be far away. His car’s here.’
‘You are at the house?’
‘I’m at the house, yes. The army house. He’ll be across the road. Attending to his flock. Fortunately, he’s not very SAS when it comes to hiding spare keys, so I was able to go in and take a look around.’
‘First time you’ve been?’
‘To this house, yes. I’m in the garage now.’
‘Syd said you’d be moving in soon.’
‘My husband worked with you once before,’ Mrs Spicer said. ‘Your name and number are written inside a book entitled Deliverance. A book much thumbed. Pages folded over.’
‘That would make sense.’
‘But you haven’t spoken to him today.’
A silence, then…
‘Mrs Watkins, something’s disturbing me. Would it be possible for us to meet?’
‘Of course. Should I come over?’
‘Perhaps I should come to you. I’m staying in Hereford, at a B and B. You’re at the Cathedral, are you?’
‘In the gatehouse. Above the entrance to the Bishop’s Palace.’
‘I’d rather come to the Cathedral itself. Where’s quiet?’
‘Do you know the Lady Chapel?’
‘I can be there in about half an hour.’
The dead line was for real this time. Sophie was sitting on the edge of the desk, pale and watchful as a barn owl on a branch. Merrily handed her the phone to hang up.
Liberal of the Old School
When Dc David Vaynor came in, all seven feet of him if you included the big hair, Bliss was waiting for the pictures of the dead to come up on his laptop. Cleaned-up pictures of the cleaned-up dead, done before the PM, before the craniums came off. Pictures you could show to people with no loss of breakfast.
‘We might’ve got them, boss,’ DC Vaynor said.
‘Shut the door, son.’
Bliss closed his lappie, Vaynor ducking into the office. Despite being a Cambridge honours graduate, or some such, and wearing a tweedy sports jacket, he wasn’t a bad lad. Locally born, working class, good contacts – where they counted. Maybe these sloppy old sports jackets were all he could get to fit him.
‘Right, then. Go on.’
‘Goldie Andrews, boss? On the Plascarreg?’
‘Couldn’t be that easy, Darth. Could it?’
‘Goldie’s been scuttling around the estate asking if anyone’s seen her lodgers.’
‘Where’d this come from?’
‘The new launderette at the front of the Plas? My cousin’s wife, it is, runs that.’
‘Good boy. Names?’
‘Marinescu. Maria and Ileana.’
‘Jesus, that sounds right, the escu bit.’ Bliss began tapping lightly on the lid of his lappie. ‘How long they been missing?’
‘Just the one night. Not normally a cause for upset, except they don’t do things like that. Also… it’s rent day and apparently they owe Goldie for two weeks. I just rang her up to confirm, took it straight to Sergeant Wilton, and he said to come in and tell you right away.’
‘Goldie’s lodgers… yes…’ Bliss came to his feet. ‘The bottom line here being that it’s not exactly unusual for Goldie’s lodgers to be on the game, is it?’
‘Unusual for them not to be on the game.’
‘She know they might be dead?’
‘She will by now, it’s all over the radio, TV, Internet…’
‘Right, then.’ Bliss pulled his jacket from the chair. ‘Let’s go and have a chat. They can send the piccies to me phone.’ He beamed. ‘Nice one, Darth. Write yourself out a commen- dation.’
‘Cheers, boss. Do you, um… want me to…?’
‘Yeh, yeh, come along. But I might just go in on me own at first, to chat to Goldie.’ Walking out, almost bumping into Karen Dowell. ‘Thing is, that woman owes me… quite a bit. Karen.’
‘Boss, we have a reliable sighting in the Grapes in Church Street, from half-nine, and then the Monk’s Head, ten-nish.’
‘Lovely. Get Elly to put out an appeal for anybody who saw them in either. Karen, me and Darth’s off to Goldie’s on the Plas. If you could tell Brian Wilton, it looks like we’ll need forensics. And when the pictures come in from the morgue, could you get them sent to me phone?’
Known, inevitably, as the Plascarreg Hilton.
It had once been a row of 1930s brick-built terraced houses, here before there was an estate. Goldie had got the first for peanuts, renting out the bedrooms to working girls, buying out the neighbours one by one as the new estate got developed at the bottom of their backyards and the value of the houses sank. The sign outside said Abbey View, possibly referring to Belmont Abbey, which you were unlikely to see from anywhere on the Plascarreg without a platform crane, although on a clear day you could spot the Tesco tower.
Bliss let Goldie weep for a while. Two weeks’ rent she’d never see, that wasn’t funny. Eventually she looked up, over her lace hanky with the border of red flowers like little blood spots.
‘Shoulda knowed. Soon’s I seen it was you at the door.’
‘Nothing’s set in stone yet, Goldie.’
‘You’s the angel of death, you are, boy.’
Couple of years now since two teenage boys in a stolen Transit had booked in for the night, paying in advance with hot cash from an armed robbery at a petrol station in the Forest of Dean. Two boys, one seventeen, one fifteen, and a bottle of Gordon’s. Oh, and an old. 38 revolver with which they’d played Russian roulette and, at just after three in the morning, one had lost.
‘I never said you wasn’t understanding, mind,’ Goldie said.
‘How long the girls been with you, Goldie?’
‘Four, five months.’ Goldie set light to a roll-up. ‘We connected straight off, see… The Roma?’
‘What? Oh, yeh…’
Romany, Romania? Who knew? Goldie’s origins were obscure. She’d come down from a caravan in the Black Mountains. Before that, it was a caravan somewhere in the South Wales valleys. Some element of gypsy back there – you could see it all over the living room, the brass ornaments and the illustrated plates and the gilt pendulum clocks.
‘We had a…’ Goldie mouthed the ciggy, touched forefingers in the air. ‘Like that, we was.’ The cig waggling. ‘Movin’ in yere, it was like comin’ home. Her kept sayin’ that, her did.’
‘Maria, was it?’ Goldie pulled out the ciggy, ruby and emerald rings winking. Breathed out some suspiciously herbal smoke. ‘She’ve got the best English. She do’s the talking.’
‘So they were here for the winter, yeh?’
In summer Goldie did B amp; B. Difficult to imagine anybody wanting to spend a holiday on the Plascarreg. But then, there were holidays and holidays. In winter, it was long-stay guests, cheap deals, all meals out.
Bliss watched the skin around Goldie’s eyes crinkling like bits of old bath sponge.
‘Lord above, Mr Francis, this can’t be right. They’s good girls.’
A liberal of the old school. All Goldie’s girls were good girls. Bliss’s iPhone was buzzing.
‘Gissa sec, Goldie.’
No message, just the pictures which somehow, when viewed on his phone, made him feel like a sick voyeur. Snuff-porn.
‘Goldie, I’m gonna have to ask you to take a look at a couple of photos.’
‘I en’t their ma.’
‘You’re all right, we’ve had them, you know, prettied up a bit.’
‘Oh, dear Lord.’
Goldie breathed in, slow and phlegmy, then pulled her glasses from their electric-blue plastic case. Bliss flicked from one pic to the other a couple of times and chose the least horrible. Goldie pushed her unlikely blonde ringlets behind her ears, and he handed her the iPhone.
‘Take your time.’
Sitting next to her on the old studio couch, slabs of polished wood, somehow coffin-coloured, set into the armrests. Waiting for her nod and then flicking to the other picture, which was not so nice because of the eye. Given time, they’d’ve found a glass eye.
Bliss counted five clocks ticking before Goldie leaned back and crossed herself.
‘Which is which, Goldie?’
‘The one with the eye… that’s Maria. The one with the English. Lord above, what’s happenin’ to this town?’
‘When d’you last see them?’
‘I’m not sure. Yesterday morning? They left… I dunno, about ten?’
‘To go where? Where’d they go when they left here?’
‘Town. Where’s anybody go?’
‘They say where in town?’
‘Just town. Was they interfered with?’
‘Where would they go at night?’
‘Pubs? Clubs? I don’t know. They only goes out one night a week. Safer yere. We all knows each other on the Plas.’
‘They got any family… anywhere in this country?’
Goldie shook her head.
‘Come over to work on the strawberries, ennit?’
Figured. Thousands of them came across from Eastern Europe to work in the polytunnels.
‘And didn’t go back?’
‘A lot don’t.’
‘What did they do after that? Did they get more work?’
‘This and that.’
‘They work for you, Goldie?’
‘Bit of housework.’
‘I mean outside work.’
Goldie’s eyes were narrowing.
‘I’ve always tried to help you, Mr Francis.’
‘And I think it’s been mutual. If not more than mutual. And, in case you forget, this is a mairder investigation.’ Bliss leaning on his accent. ‘We’re nor’all that interested in lifting anybody for minor stuff.’
‘They never done no outside work for me.’
‘Never? Not even when they ran out of cash and couldn’t pay the rent? You never suggested how they might pick up a few quick twenties apiece?’
‘I’m tellin’ you they done cleaning work, an’ that was it.’
‘Used to be at one of the stores, on the Barnchurch. The factory-outlet place, you know? Wasn’t full-time, and then they got let go.’
‘When was that?’
‘When it closed down.’
‘Yeh, that would figure. When? ’
‘’Bout a month ago?’
‘All right, I’ll ask yer again. Any reason to think they might’ve been doing night work, freelance?’
‘They wouldn’t. I’m tellin’ you. They was religious girls.’
‘What about friends? They have friends among other East Europeans?’
‘Not many, far’s I know.’
‘Attractive girls, Goldie.’
‘No boyfriend I knows of. They went around together. They looked out for each other.’
‘All right.’ Bliss stood up. ‘Let’s see their rooms.’
‘Room. They had one room between them.’
He followed her into the hallway. Two neighbouring hallways once, the dividing wall turned into an archway. A reception desk in one corner had a steel grille to the ceiling – well, this was the Plascarreg. One staircase had been taken out, so the other was isolated in the middle, Hollywood baronial.
‘Anybody else in residence just now, Goldie?’
‘It’s quiet, it is. We got a few comin’ in for Easter.’
‘Anybody staying here in the past week?’
‘And the odd one-hourer?’
Goldie was like she hadn’t heard. The bedroom doors had big plastic numbers. They went from Room Three to Room Five, Bliss noticed. Room Four was where they’d had to scrape teenage brain cells off the ceiling. Superstitious old girl, Goldie.
She led him along a corridor with three different carpets, stopped at Room Seven, unlocked the door with her master. Bliss put out an arm.
‘We’re gonna stay in the doorway, Goldie. Nobody goes in till crime-scene gets here.’
‘This en’t no crime scene, Mr Francis! I objects to that!’
‘It’s just that we’ll need to examine all their things very carefully. Yeh, it’s likely whoever attacked them it was a random thing, but it may not be. We also need the passports, papers, all that sort of stuff. We need to find the relatives.’
The room had dingy yellow walls, two beds, two single wardrobes. But it was tidy. There were two holdalls with shoulder straps under the window, Bliss keen to get inside them, but he didn’t move. A wardrobe door was open. The clothes he could see looked clean, new even.
‘What sort of girls were they, Goldie? All right, good girls, but…’
‘You can do better that that. You have long chats with your guests. Old-fashioned nights with the tarot.’
‘I’m a people person. It’s why I opens my house.’
‘If they had worries, they’d confide in you.’
‘I likes to think.’
‘Course they had worries. They worried about their family back home. They was expected to send money back, but there was never enough. Not what they expected. I done readin’s, set their minds at rest.’
On the window sill was a small framed picture of a couple on a sofa, smiling. The window overlooked a playground, a swing with the chains cut off near the top so it looked like a gallows.
‘You know what I’m after, Goldie.’
‘They didn’t have no enemies, if that’s what you’re gettin’ at. How could girls like that have- Was they messed with? You can tell me that.’
‘I can’t, actually,’ Bliss said. ‘Not yet. But we do think there might be more to it. You said they worked on a strawberry farm. Which one?’
‘Couple, I think. One out near Ledbury, but they left because of the… you know, gettin’ pushed around and messed about.’
‘Messed about how?’
‘You know what conditions is like in these places. Next thing to slave labour. They was passing out, and if they asked for water they got it in an ole petrol can. Disgustin’. ’
‘They’re supposed to’ve cleaned up their act,’ Bliss said, cautious. ‘The worst ones.’
‘You believe that, you’ll believe anythin’. Maria, she told me one of the other farms there was a woman raped by two of the foremen. Took in a shed and raped.’
‘But nobody reported it.’
‘ Course nobody reported it. They knows their place. They got no status. Young fellers, they din’t do what they was told they got the shit beat out of them, and the women was raped. ’Less they gived it up willin’. Them as gived it up willin’ got the easier work. You must’ve heard what goes on.’
Everybody had heard the stories. Karen Dowell had come close once to getting a Polish girl to give evidence against this Albanian minibus driver who was demanding a weekly blow job for getting her to work on time. Then she’d disappeared. They could disappear very easily.
Bliss said, ‘So the girls got out.’
‘They moved to that place out on the Brecon Road. Magnum?’
A complex chime went off downstairs. Bliss thought it was one of the clocks.
‘Doorbell,’ Goldie said.
‘Could be my lads. So they moved to Magnis.’
‘To be near Hereford.’
Coincidence was a lovely thing, but maybe this wasn’t much of one: it was a small county and Magnis was close to the city.
‘When was this, Goldie?’
‘They stay the course this time?’
The bell went again. ‘I better let your men in,’ Goldie said.
‘They left there, too,’ Goldie said. ‘The sisters.’
‘Something happen to them?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Were they staying here when they worked at Magnis, or did they live at the camp?’
‘At the camp. They come yere when they left.’ She didn’t look at him. ‘I felt sorry for them, I did. They wanted to go home. They was thinking how to raise enough cash to go home. I’ll go down, let your mates in.’
Bliss waited at the top of the stairs, looking at the holdalls, one pink, one tartan. Never had liked strawberries.
Ground To Air
The Lady Chapel was a serene shrine to motherhood, recently renovated in quiet golds, muted tints, the gilded panels of its altar screen illustrating the domestic life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Merrily was alone. Someone had left a newspaper on a chair: today’s Telegraph folded at ‘The Killing Fields of Middle England’. She picked it up, sat down next to a Madonna and Child panel where the infant Jesus had the face and the haircut of a middle-aged estate agent. Did one killing make them killing fields? And when did the Welsh Border become Middle England?
The paper had been left here as if it was part of the Countryside Defiance campaign. Fortress Hereford, all farm doors locked at nightfall, and don’t expect any help from the police.
Something not right about this. Why were people erecting fences, spreading panic?
Answer: they weren’t local people. Local people were cautious, but they didn’t panic.
There was a colour picture of Mansel Bull’s brother, Sollers, in hunting pink and then, downpage, a small shot of Frannie Bliss caught side-on getting out of his car, the now-trademark dark blue beanie covering his close-mown thinning hair. At the foot of the story it said, DI Bliss, who came to Hereford from Merseyside, could not be contacted last night, but a spokeswoman…
West Mercia’s brief quote in support of its officer was lukewarm, a formality. Bastards. Merrily tossed the paper back onto the chair.
Maybe the woman in green Gore-Tex had seen the annoyance on her face; she’d stopped a few paces away. Merrily stood up.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you coming.’
Shoulder-length straight dark hair under a black woolly hat. Cursory make-up. She lowered a leather shoulder bag to the flags, turned candid brown eyes on Merrily.
‘Yeah, well, me too,’ Fiona Spicer said.
It was about surviving marriage to a man who would vanish overnight, usually for weeks at a time, and sometimes she didn’t know where in the world he was, or why, or when she’d see him again, or if.
‘Exciting boyfriends, for a while.’ Fiona Spicer’s voice was thoughtful and seldom lifted. ‘But, as husbands… problematical.’
Most people, this might’ve been small talk, ice-breaking stuff: the partner’s little quirks, how Fiona had known Syd before he joined the army. How they’d met on holiday, a teenage seaside romance, exchanging letters for a couple of years before they even saw each other again. And it got no better.
‘For more than half my marriage, my husband’s keeping secrets from me – me and the rest of the country. Where he’s going, what he’s doing there.’ They’d moved to the corner near the votive stand where three candles were alight. ‘I thought all that was over, when he left the Army. But part of them doesn’t leave, ever. He’d keep going to the window, as if he was looking for a reason to walk out. Sometimes I’d wake up in the night, and he’d be at the window in the dark.’
‘They come out of the Regiment at forty, is that right?’
‘At Sam’s level. You get a hazy kind of honeymoon period before they start wondering what they’re for. If their life has meaning any more.’
Fiona took off her wool hat, laid it on her knees.
‘I suppose I was luckier than most. Just a few months of agonizing before he hit God like a ground-to-air missile.’
‘God’s warrior. All gunfire and smoke. As if saving a soul was the same as rescuing a civilian from terrorists. He did settle down, eventually. Probably as a result of Emily going off the rails.’
‘You must be relieved all that’s over.’
‘One problem ends, another opens up. Suddenly… it’s like the old days again: secrecy, lies, obfuscation.’
‘Because he’s back in Credenhill?’
‘He was never at Credenhill. But, yes. Back to the Regiment. Assuring me it was going to be entirely different this time. First and foremost, he’d be a priest. And that would be different. I almost believed the bastard. Then the curtain came down again. The vagueness, the false optimism. Everything’s fine. Everything’s going to be all right. And you know he means afterwards.’
‘You tell me, Mrs Watkins. Sam kept your number in his car.’
‘ Sam? Oh…’
Samuel Dennis Spicer. SD. Thus, Syd.
Fiona was gazing up at the sanctuary, the Virgin at home. Two elderly couples filed through an oak door in the richly panelled screen to the right. The Audley chantry – the Thomas Traherne chapel now, recreated to honour, in new stained glass, the seventeenth-century poet and celebrant of the mystical Welsh Border countryside. Who had also, as it happened, been vicar of Credenhill.
‘Did he know you were coming here?’ Merrily said. ‘To Credenhill?’
‘I rang last weekend, suggesting I might come over, get things organized… and there was immediate resistance. Oh, there were things he needed to do to it, it was still in a mess. Well, I like a mess, gives me a sense of purpose. Hell, I’m supposed to be living there in a few weeks. No… he didn’t know I was coming. Compliance is an essential virtue for a Regiment wife, but I’m fifty-one, for Christ’s sake. I’ve been through that phase.’
‘So you went to see Syd, without giving any indication that you were coming.’
‘It was easier in the old days, when they were in Hereford. All that high fencing, like a prison, but it was still in the city. Credenhill, you feel more exposed. Still, I found the house easily enough, end of the row, near a little wood.’
Fiona had parked the car, gone up and knocked on the door. Ready for Syd saying this really wasn’t convenient and maybe she could come back in a couple of hours. But there was no answer.
Fiona had her hands in the pockets of her jacket. Like Sophie, she was overdressed for the weather – even a scarf, as if she’d learned from experience that you couldn’t trust signs of warmth.
‘So you let yourself in,’ Merrily said.
‘I know where he hides things like spare keys. Not under the step. And I didn’t do anything furtive, which always gets noticed.’
The two couples came out of the Audley chantry and Canon Jim Waite appeared, said ‘Hi, Merrily,’ and then guided the visitors into the Lady Chapel. Merrily nodded at the chantry door.
‘Why don’t we go in there? I’ll tell you what I know.’
She talked about Syd at the Brecon chapel, sitting in the shadows, asking no questions. And afterwards at Huw’s rectory, that unconvincing airy optimism. It’s going to be all right. It’s working out. How they’d decided, she and Huw, that there was probably a security aspect to whatever was troubling Syd.
‘Always a good get-out,’ Fiona said. ‘And that’s it, is it?’
‘There’s a bit more. He phoned Huw yesterday to inquire about certain deliverance procedures.’
They were on separate wooden benches, Merrily by the windows, Fiona by the door, staring bleakly into a stained-glass starburst Godface of blinding white.
‘Let me get this right. Deliverance is exorcism?’
‘To get rid of spiritual evil.’
‘Sometimes. Syd suggested to Huw that an old evil had come back to haunt him. Would you have any idea what that might be?’
‘There was a book dealing with it. Deliverance. It was with two other books on the back seat of his car, in the garage. The car wasn’t locked, which is how I got your number.’
Fiona hadn’t answered the question; Merrily didn’t push it. Fiona said Syd had told her the Credenhill house was a mess, but it had actually been very tidy. Everything in its place. Not the places Fiona would have put things, but all very neat.
He’d lied, to keep her away. Why?
‘Not another woman. He’d’ve told me.’
Her face was flushed, but only by the sun through the firework blaze of extreme stained glass. The new Thomas Traherne windows, four of them, were small and ferocious, with individual dominant colours: the almighty white, the crucifixion red, the pagan green. You never enjoy the world aright, Traherne had written…till you are clothed in the heavens and crowned with the stars.
You had the impression that it had been a long time since Fiona had found anything in the world to enjoy.
‘I made myself some tea,’ she said. ‘Sat down in the living room for a while, thinking he’d be back. When he didn’t come back, I started to look around. Some of it… You could come back to the house and take a look if you wanted to. If you have the time.’
‘If he’s back, he won’t be overjoyed to see me there.’
‘If he’s back, he can bloody well live with it.’
No raising of the voice, just a hoarse, fur-tongued undertow, thick with history. Fiona was looking into the second window, which had an ephemeral Christ figure in a shaft of light, arms wide, head bowed, crucified without a cross.
‘Do you know anything about the house?’ Merrily asked. ‘Who lived there before? I mean, they’re not old houses, are they?’
‘It’s army housing, end of a row, detached. You think there’s something wrong with the house?’
‘It might be one explanation. If it was a house where… perhaps people couldn’t settle, where successive occupants felt unhappy, had marital problems, sickness… then new people living there might well get a sense of that.’
‘You’re so matter-of-fact about all this, aren’t you?’
Fiona shook her head slowly, as if her senses were adjusting to the atmosphere of another planet.
‘I’m familiar with it, that’s all,’ Merrily said. ‘But Syd didn’t have much patience with any of it. Out of his comfort zone.’
‘They don’t do comfort,’ Fiona said. ‘Neither do I. But – I’m sorry – this is beyond reason. This is mad.’
‘What did you find?’
Fiona unwound her scarf as if it was choking her. The green glow of the end window lit the side of her face, making her look faintly sick.
‘I went upstairs. If it was going to be my home, I had every right. Have to work out where to put the furniture, much of which is still in store.’
‘The house has three bedrooms. Two were full of boxes of stuff, waiting to be unpacked. The master bedroom… well, it was empty. As if it had been burgled or something. No clothes in the wardrobe. And the dressing table… all the drawers had been pulled out, as far as they’d go. All empty.’
In the green window, a figure – possibly the poet, Traherne himself – was running along a path towards a conical wooded hill. Fiona was slowly winding the ends of her scarf around her hands, pulling it tight.
‘That means something to you?’
‘It might. Go on.’
‘The mirror had a dust cloth draped over it, although there was no visible dust. The whole room was extremely clean and bare. The bed had been pulled away from the wall, almost into the middle of the floor, the bedclothes pulled back but not removed. Oh-and there was no carpet. It had been rolled up and put into one of the other bedrooms. And… there was a trail of white, making a circle around the bed.’
‘A lot of salt. How did you know?’
‘Salt’s part of the mix for holy water, sprinkled during a clearance. An exorcism, if you like. But it can also be used on its own.’
‘And on the wall, opposite the window, there was a large wooden cross I’d never seen before.’
Probably to catch the first rays of the morning sun.
‘Sam’s never done much of that – crosses and pictures. Nothing ostentatious. He says you should hold whatever you have in your… your heart. The only thing he used to keep in the bedroom was his Bible. Not a Gideon-type Bible in the bedside cabinet, this was a massive old family Bible, half the size of a paving slab.’
‘No. He bought it. Just before he was ordained. Symbolic, I suppose. Something big and heavy that you couldn’t just slip into your pocket. A necessary burden. I…’ Fiona spread her hands. ‘I don’t know. With Sam, there were always things you didn’t ask. It had brass bindings and a lock, and he used to keep it on top of the wardrobe and get it down to dust it every Sunday. The odd thing is that it wasn’t there. There was nothing on top of the wardrobe. Not even dust.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I got out of there. I felt… quite cold.’
Fiona took both her hands out of her scarf and laid them on top of it. Her wedding ring was iridescent in the blazing stained-glass light. Merrily stood up, turned to watch the figure that might be Thomas Traherne moving away along the path up the wooded hill which might be Credenhill. Traherne had been the vicar at the church below the hill. She had a strong feeling there was history here that Fiona wasn’t yet prepared to disclose.
‘Those things you didn’t ask…’
‘I don’t have the knowledge. Do I?’
‘How about if I ask them?’
‘That might be helpful. If you don’t mind.’
‘OK.’ Merrily picked up her bag. ‘Your car or mine?’
Billy Grace had found bruising around the pubic area in both cases but no traces of semen, and no internal damage. Neither Maria nor Ileana Marinescu had been raped. Or, it seemed, had recent sex of any kind.
‘So… was there an attack with intent to rape?’ Bliss said to the class. ‘Or was it something random? Group of lads coming back from the pub, spot these two on their own, maybe wander over, see what’s on offer.’
‘Maybe simply thinking they were prostitutes?’ Darth Vaynor said.
They had decent CCTV now, of the girls entering and leaving the Grapes in Church Street at 9.45 p.m. On their own, both times. Nobody following them.
‘Very drunk, presumably, the attackers,’ Rich Ford said, the veteran uniform inspector. ‘And then it gets progressively out of hand.’
About fifteen of them in the incident room, including seven uniforms and Slim Fiddler and Joanna Priddy from crime-scene.
Rich Ford, months off retirement, glanced over his shoulder, cleared his throat.
‘Perhaps I should mention that while the two Lithuanian gentlemen helped into the hospitality lounge in the early hours were completely pissed – one vomiting profusely all over the reception desk – neither had any blood on him. We did manage to talk to them this morning before they were checked out, and it was fairly clear that neither of them had seen – or at least remembered seeing – anything untoward.’
Statistics showed overwhelmingly that most crimes against economic migrants in Hereford were committed by other migrants. Maybe retribution for non-payment of business protection or the required percentage for procurement of employment. Neither of which seemed to apply to the Marinescu sisters.
‘However, if this is to do with some existing conflict we know nothing about,’ Rich said, ‘there’s likely to be retaliation, isn’t there? Could be trouble on the streets tonight – and that could give us an in.’
‘If the girls had been on the game,’ Bliss said, ‘we’d have to consider the possibility that they’d intruded on someone else’s street corner or pub of choice… or failed to cough up the agreed percentage of their earnings to the pimp.’
‘Which in this case would be Goldie,’ Darth Vaynor said. ‘And we don’t have any reason to think Goldie’s lying about them not being involved in prostitution.’
Slim Fiddler grunted.
‘Less they was doing a foreigner?’
‘Can’t be ruled out,’ Bliss said. ‘Or, as Darth said, that somebody thought they were on the game. We’ll come back to that. Let’s just deal with the second possible motive – robbery.’
Turning to Brian Wilton, the office manager, who brought up on the monitor a picture of the pale blue handbag found in Bishop’s Meadow down by the river. A twin to the one Bliss had seen in East Street.
‘Contents emptied out,’ Brian said. ‘Wallet-type purse found in the Cathedral Close, empty. Bits of make-up kit also picked up between the Cathedral and the river.’
‘Likely to be DNA,’ Slim Fiddler said. ‘We’re still waiting.’
‘Also, that lays a bit of a trail.’ Bliss went over to the blown-up street map, tapped it with his pen. ‘Quickest way from East Street to the Cathedral Close is through this little alleyway, almost directly across the street from the car park. Curves round past the old Alfred Watkins house into the Cathedral grounds. We might assume that, after killing the Marinescu sisters, the attackers ran across East Street, into the alley, going through the bag as they went.’
‘Why take only one bag?’ Karen Dowell said. ‘If the other was left in East Street and there was a few quid left in the purse…’
‘I don’t think we ever really considered this was about robbery, Karen, I’m just gerrin it out the way. What else? Any ideas?’
‘Personal?’ Rich Ford said. ‘They’ve committed some offence against their family?’
‘According to Goldie Andrews, they have no known family over here, and they didn’t mix much with other migrants.’
‘What about non-compliance?’ Darth Vaynor said. ‘They were invited to work for somebody but, being religious, they declined, and…’
‘Maybe.’ Bliss wrinkled his nose. ‘Have to be more complicated, though. Like that they were threatening to come to us. And how often does that happen?’
He waited for more, got blank faces. They were talking to the Romanian authorities, but the suggestion so far was, as Goldie had thought, that the Marinescu girls were from a fairly rural area and maybe not exactly sophisticated.
Bliss was still pretty sure, mind, that there was a lot of stuff Goldie hadn’t told him, maybe in connection with the fruit farm. Time to float this one.
‘It’ll surprise none of you to learn that these girls came over to work in the tunnels. In the last instance, Magnis Berries, off the Brecon Road. So… what do we know about Magnis Berries? All shut when me and Terry called in the other day, and no particular reason to take it further at that stage.’
‘Aw, come on, children, what’ve we heard?’
‘No suicides,’ Brian Wilton said. ‘Unlike some similar establishments.’
‘Rumours of intimidation? Threats, bribery? Think back to the van driver who demanded his weekly blow job for getting a woman to work on time. Pretty scary for a couple of young lasses from a village in rural Romania.’
‘It’s a newish establishment,’ Karen Dowell said. ‘They seem to have started up with full knowledge of the kind of reputations that some fruit farms had got themselves for bullying and poor working conditions. Brought in local people as supervisors. I don’t suppose they pay any more than the others, but we’re not getting rumours.’
‘Then why did the girls leave? We need to find out.’
Karen said, ‘If we’re descending on Magnis Berries, that’d be rubbing shoulders with the Mansel Bull inquiry. I believe the farm’s being extended onto what used to be Mr Bull’s land.’
‘I learned last night that he sold it a month or so ago. Causing a bit of controversy locally, as you’d expect.’
‘Absolutely.’ Bliss was blinking hard. ‘Right. Well, not too much is clear at the minute, but I still don’t expect this to take long. We’ve gorra lorra DNA to play with. So – need I say – any excuse to snatch a sample from any bugger, we grab it. Welcome to Swab City.’
‘OK, Karen.’ Assembly over, Bliss shut the door of his office, waved her to the spare chair, sat down behind his desk. ‘Give.’
‘The bit of controversy?’
‘You’re going to get overexcited now. This is only from my mum, right, so it might need some more looking into.’
‘I see Mrs Dowell as an impeccable source, Karen.’
‘Magnis Berries, the parent company, is in the Vale of Evesham. Well established, fairly responsible. So what you hear – or what you don’t hear – is pretty reliable. It’s still a shit job, but nobody at Magnis gets a bucket of muddy water thrown over them when they pass out from the heat.’
‘But just because it’s not too bad for the wairkers…’
‘Once it gets out that a few hundred migrant workers are going to be housed in huts and caravans, creating a new community twice the size of any of the local villages, and all the fields spread with plastic… you’ve got trouble. And as it’s now about to almost double in size again…’
‘Double? Sollers Bull agreed to this deal?’
‘Nobody locally knew that ground was even for sale until the deal was done. Which is not exactly normal procedure, if you want to get the best price…’
‘Point is, Sollers didn’t get a chance to disagree. The deal was done by Mansel Bull. On the quiet.’
Bliss leaned his chair back on two legs, his elbows against the wall.
‘Mansel Bull… very quietly, behind his brother’s back, sells a chunk of his farm to Magnis Berries?’
‘I think it was no more than about twelve acres, but he also brokered a deal for three other neighbouring farmers to sell pieces of their land… probably for well above the going rate. Which, in a time of deep recession, would overcome any resistance they might have. The few enemies he’d make would just be incomers from Off, the roses-round-the-door types.’
‘Sollers… came round,’ Karen said.
‘It was me, I’d be nursing a grudge the size of Wales.’
‘Boss, bear with me. He, like, physically came round? To Magnis Berries? I mean, quite often. Oh hell, look, this is from my mum, right? And if it ever got out she was the source she’d lose her job so fast-’
‘I mean, it’s not a major secret that Sollers puts it about, and although he-’
‘Hang on…’ Bliss was sitting up. ‘Sollers puts it…’
‘Bit of a celeb?’ Karen said. ‘Plus, the number of women turned on by hunting pink and riding boots is still considerable. He’s discreet, naturally, with a useful marriage to protect.’
‘Lord Walford’s daughter.’
‘In hunting circles, that means a lot.’
Bliss was breathing hard.
‘Karen, could you possibly… spell this out? Whereabouts has Sollers been putting it?’
‘This is only-’
‘Hearsay, yeh. I love hearsay. Just spit it out.’
‘Some of the migrant girls… always hoping it’ll end in a fairy-tale marriage and a lovely home in England?’
Bliss shot forward, the front legs of his chair clacking to the floor.
‘You’re telling me Sollers Bull was shagging the wairkers? ’
‘It only once got dicey, when a certain Polish girl… I understand he went back a few times too many, and she got the wrong idea. Shows up at his restaurant one day, demanding to see him. Which was how my mum first got a glimpse of the situation. I think she must’ve collected a good pay-off, this girl, ’cause she apparently went home to Warsaw or wherever soon after that. Anyway, it was dealt with.’
Bliss was tapping his desk, rhythmically, quite fast.
‘He was practically accusing migrants of killing his brother.’
‘That would be male migrants, boss.’ Karen’s eyes were opaque. ‘I expect you’ll have to pass this on to Ma’am, though, it being not your case any more.’
‘Sure. Although, naturally, I’ll need to visit Magnis Berries first, ask some questions about their two murdered employees.’
‘That restaurant…’ Karen looked unhappy ‘… there’s a lot of irresponsible gossip. I don’t know if he goes to the farm any more. It probably gave him a scare, the Polish girl. I think maybe you should pass this directly on to Ma’am, don’t you? It’s the way things are done?’
‘The Marinescu sisters,’ Bliss said. ‘Very attractive girls. But also religious. Maybe a little naive.’
Karen stood up and opened the door and then shut it again.
‘Just be careful, Frannie. You know? Let the DCI run with it?’
‘Your ma’s job is safe in my hands, Karen.’
Bliss’s fingers still going tappy-tap-tap on the side of the desk, like a little dynamo.
Alone in his office, Bliss Googled Magnis Berries, found a discreet Web site with the head of some Roman-looking god wearing a wreath of strawberries, blueberries and blackcurrants. There was only one number, in Evesham. Bliss tapped it in, got a chirpy lad’s voice.
‘Magnis Berries. My name’s Robin, how can I help you today?’
‘My name’s Detective Inspector Bliss from West Mercia Police, Robin, and you can help me by putting me through to Batman.’
‘It’s Bat woman, sir,’ Robin said.
Bliss waited on hold, listening to the inquiries unrolling on the other side of the door, Darth Vaynor talking intelligently to someone in London connected with the Romanian embassy. In his left ear, some half-familiar classical music from Magnis Berries, then a crisp, educated female voice.
‘DI Francis Bliss, Ms Goddard, West Mercia CID, Hereford. You’re the MD?’
‘Inspector Bliss…’ A bit snappy, not intimidated by cops. ‘I’ve already told one of your officers that we have very few people working in the Wye Valley at this time of the year, and my manager has assured me he knows nothing that would help with your investigation.’
‘Cross purposes, Ms Goddard. This is not the Mansel Bull inquiry, this is two of your former employees. The Marinescu sisters?’
‘If they’re former employees, I don’t see how… What have they done?’
‘Got themselves beaten to death in Hereford.’
‘Oh, good God.’
‘As you were their last formal employer, I’m interested in the circumstances under which they left.’
‘Inspector, these people come and go in great numbers, and while they’re the first at one of our farms to become victims of violence…’
‘As far as you know.’
‘My instructions to all the managers is that anyone found fighting or attempting to intimidate other workers should be summarily dismissed.’
‘Is Wye Valley your biggest farm? I was thinking, with the whole firm being called Magnis Berries…’
‘We adopted the name last year. Magnis was the name of the Roman town discovered not too far away, and it gave us an identifiable corporate image. In fact, several of our other farms are two or three times as big.’
She gave Bliss the manager’s name, Roger Hitchin, and the unlisted number. Not that he planned to ring first; he and Karen could be there in ten minutes.
But then Brian Wilton came in to tell him that a couple of young women had arrived in response to their appeal for anyone who’d seen the Marinescus in the pubs around East Street. Then Elly Clatter rang through about the inevitable press conference, a necessary chore, timed for two p.m. Magnis would have to wait.
Of course, it might all come to nothing.
Bliss was tingling to his fingertips.
Lol found Barry in the Swan dining room, putting out menus. Just had to talk to somebody about this.
‘It’s like you’ve gone to hell and here’s Satan in a cardigan, offering you tea and scones.’
‘It’s the way he is,’ Barry said. ‘Taps into what he sees as the prevailing mood. Now, what you accusing me of?’
Five tables were laid out with traditional stiff white cloths and napkins furled like water lilies. Lol counted another six tables, bare wood, redundant now, pushed against the oak panelling.
‘All I’m saying is only four of us knew about it. Danny Thomas, Merrily… and I didn’t even tell her until last night.’
‘Making me the most likely one to’ve blabbed to Savitch.’ Barry pulled a dining chair away from a table, waved Lol to another. ‘What exactly did he say?’
‘Tells me his partner likes my… fine music.’
‘Brigid? That woman keeps a flat in the Smoke because she can’t go a week without a night at the opera. With all due respect, Laurence, I doubt she regards what you do as music at all.’
‘Good at this, though, isn’t he? Knows his folk festivals, too… Super idea, actually, Mr Robinson. Obviously, never be a Glastonbury here, but perhaps a smaller-scale Cropredy, or a Green Man? Real ale… good Herefordshire cider. Marvellous.’
‘Google is a wonderful thing,’ Barry said. ‘What’s he offering you?’
‘A site. He’s thinking one of his larger meadows, up near the bridge. Lots of parking.’
‘I may have misunderstood, but I think it was free.’
‘Tribute to your status here, Laurence, though he’ll want a percentage.’
‘Barry, I don’t have any status here.’
‘Nah, the gig during the flood won you a bunch of new friends. Always been great public affection for the dance band on the Titanic .’
‘They all drowned,’ Lol said. ‘The dance band.’
‘Well, that’s true, yeah.’ Barry opened out a napkin. ‘You got a problem here, no getting round that.’
Lol recalled Savitch’s face exploding into a wide, disarming smile. He’d expected arrogant, distant, and had got ordinary, reasonable. Very scary.
‘He said people had him all wrong. As if he was trying to distance himself from the blood-sport side. How keen he was to revive the whole tradition. More about Merrie England than hunting and shooting.’
‘Merrie England? Like when the countryside was a recreation area for the aristocracy?’
Barry’s smile was like the coal-chip smile on a snowman. Lol understood he’d been brought up in South London foster homes. His dad had died in Wandsworth Prison.
‘So what was your response, Laurence?’
‘I’m sorry, Mr Savitch, your ethos is not in the spirit of the music we’re trying to promote. In fact we hate everything you stand for.’
‘And you actually said…?’
‘I said it was a very generous offer, but it was early days yet. And he invited me to visit his establishment on Thursday. Media launch for the family open day he’s having on Easter Monday. He gave me two tickets.’
‘You and Merrily?’
‘Me and my partner.’
‘He wants the vicar, trust me. Two birds with one. Sooner or later he’ll make a donation to Merrily’s church. He’ll wait for an opportunity. Urgent repairs needed in the belfry, something like that. Something that gets him noticed, yet doesn’t look like profligate largesse.’
‘I’ve never heard you use so many big words before, Barry.’
‘Funny how despair can inflate your command of English. Of course, if you do turn down his offer, that would look a bit…’
‘But, equally, if you say yes…’
‘I’d be in his pocket. So I’m not going to, am I?’
‘Idea’s planted now. He could go on to hold a bigger event, with big names. Yours not among them.’
Barry’s hands were efficiently twisting the napkin into another lily. Lol watched, fascinated.
‘They teach you that in the SAS?’
‘Yeah, but with necks,’ Barry said.
In the end, they went in separate cars, Fiona’s blue Honda Jazz leading Merrily north-west along those pale, seemingly pointless new roads which hinted at clandestine development plans. Then familiar wooded hills with an early-spring greening like fresh mould, an occasional long view across the hidden Wye to the notched belt of the Black Mountains.
The side-window down, but the breeze couldn’t blow away the voices
Huwie, he says, just a slight problem. A mere technicality.
A circle of salt. Had Syd also forced himself to visualize the golden rings around and above his body, mentally enclosing himself in an orb of light?
Received wisdom. Received madness from a spidery old woman named Anthea White who called herself Athena and lived in an old folks’ home with her occult library. Supplemented with suggestions from the handbook of the Christian Delivery Study Group. Much thumbed, pages folded over.
Open all the cupboard doors, take out all the drawers, cover the mirrors.
… a chance to step back and rationalize it.
Huw again, with chapel echo.
‘It can’t be rationalized,’ Merrily hissed, as if he were sitting in the car with her. ‘It isn’t rational.’
Carly Horne, the skinny one with black hair slanting down over one eye, thought Bliss talked like that comedian.
‘Yeh, I know,’ Bliss said. ‘Lily Savage.’
Carly said, ‘Who?’
Karen Dowell smiled. Bliss didn’t ask. They were in the least grotty interview room. He sat down next to Karen.
‘So you heard it on the radio news.’
‘Stations I listen to don’t do news, to be honest,’ Carly said. ‘Taylor Magson told me – this bloke at college? He knows which pubs we do and when I said I remembered these Russian girls, he was like, hey, you better go tell the cops?’
‘Romanian,’ Karen said. ‘The girls were Romanian.’
‘Got us an afternoon off college, anyway.’
‘What courses are you on?’
‘I’m doing secretarial, she’s beauty therapy, jammy cow.’
The other one was heavy and sullen-looking. Her hair was cut short and the acid colour of lemon cheese. Her name was Josceline Singleton. She had on a high-necked top and pink leggings.
‘You know those pictures you showed us,’ Carly said. ‘Was that them dead?’
Bliss gave her a rueful smile.
‘That’s really sick,’ Carly said.
Karen said, ‘How long you been going in the pubs, Carly?’
‘Years, but I don’t drink much, to be honest, when I got college next day.’
‘So this is the Monk’s Head,’ Bliss said. ‘Lounge bar. Ten o’clockish?’
‘Bit later, when these women come in. There’s only one bar now, since they started doing live music, weekends.’
‘You ever see these girls before?’
Carly shook her head.
‘Were they on their own?’
‘Yeah. They looked kind of, you know, isolated? I used to feel pissed off about them coming over here taking our jobs and stuff, but I feel sorry for them now, I do. When you read about them having to live like seven of them in one room? That’s why I went over and talked to them, really. Well, I was on my way to the lav, to be honest, and I like bumped their table?’
‘Oh.’ Bliss sat up. ‘So you actually talked to them.’
‘Talk to anybody, me. I mean, we didn’t discuss the government and stuff, it was just like, so where you from, kind of thing? And then she comes out with this place I en’t never heard of, so that was a bit useless. I don’t think they wanted to talk, to be honest. Same with a lot of these ethnics, they don’t really wanner mix with us, do they?’
‘It’s the language,’ Josceline Singleton said. ‘They don’t know a word of English.’
‘Except benefits,’ Carly said. ‘That’s my dad. He’s a bigot, he is.’
Bliss said, ‘You told the sergeant some men followed them out.’
‘Yeah. A few blokes in the pub was looking them over?’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘Like, you know, grinning at each other, making fists and stuff? Kind of, give her one. You know?’
‘And then followed them out? What time was this?’
‘Not sure. Maybe about quarter past eleven?’
‘How many of them?’
‘How many, Joss? I wasn’t counting, to be honest. Wasn’t like they was good-looking or anything. And quite old. Three? I think there was three. They was ethnics, too.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘You can just tell, can’t you?’
‘Would you recognize them again?’
‘You don’t really take them in, do you, ’less they’re a bit fit.’
‘All right,’ Bliss said. ‘I’m gonna leave you with DS Dowell. I’d like you to try very hard to describe these men – how old, how tall, what they were wearing…’
‘Yeah,’ Carly said. ‘All right. I mean, when you think about it… could’ve been any of us, couldn’t it? Like, murdered?’
It was Jane, with her growing feel for the landscape, who’d pointed out that Credenhill existed on three different levels.
The village itself was strung out aimlessly – modern housing, a line of convenience stores set back from the main road. It was looking already like the suburbia of a much-extended Hereford which it might one day become.
An ignominious future, in the shadow, literally, of its impressive ancient history.
Merrily and Jane had once walked up the huge afforested hill to the east, which carried the remaining earthen ramparts of the biggest Iron Age hill fort in the county. Not much to see now, but some historians said Credenhill had once been the Celtic capital of what became Herefordshire, an elevated fortified community with a population of more than three thousand.
It had once looked down on the later Roman military town of Magnis, long gone. Now, as you followed the winding track, you could see down below, when the trees were bare, a spread of low buildings, vaster than it looked from the road. A quiet, self- contained community, with intersecting roads and parked trucks.
The third and most modern Credenhill, to which the elite warriors of the British Army returned, some of them seared and scorched and riven by demons. Applauded from afar, but not allowed to talk about it.
Except to people like Syd Spicer.
Merrily slowed when the gates of the camp appeared on her left. Two police cars were parked alongside one of the buildings, armed guards at the entrance. None of this, to Merrily’s knowledge, outside of routine. The army housing was across the road. She followed Fiona’s Jazz into the estate, which was like any other housing estate except somehow quieter. Parking behind the Jazz outside an end house next to a wooded field, she guessed their arrival would already have been clocked by somebody, somewhere.
All the hundreds of times she’d driven past. Never actually stopped here before. You didn’t. You just didn’t.
Memories of the Frank Collins book were with her now. Frank, a Christian in the SAS, bothered by the old question of God and warfare. In the end, he’d justified it simply to himself: soldiers killed to prevent innocent people dying. The Regiment as knights, trained to deal with evil. Frank had been raised among tough kids in working-class Newcastle, breaking the law like the others. She guessed he’d been a good priest.
Merrily came out of the old Volvo with a ridiculous caution, as if she might be in someone’s cross hairs. For no obvious reason, she pulled the collar of her woollen coat across her dog collar and buttoned it.
It was all very quiet. She looked around and saw nothing moving on the estate, no curtains twitching. No wind. A sky like tarnished brass.
Further along the main road was the turning to Credenhill Church, raised up on the right. Strange connection, coming here direct from the chantry where Thomas Traherne’s vision burned in stained glass. This was a tiny parish in his day, averaging about two baptisms a year, but it would be wrong to think he wouldn’t recognize the place now. He’d know the fortified hill at once and the vista across the Wye Valley to the Black Mountains. On the Welsh border, the big things didn’t change.
He might wonder, though, about the metal frames for poly-tunnels which she could see in the distance to the south, might even find a kind of beauty in their skeletal caterpillar symmetry. Traherne could find beauty in most things.
Did Syd ever go to Traherne’s church?
She felt uneasy. She was on army ground. Had no doubts where Syd’s loyalties would lie. While Merrily was locking the Volvo, Fiona was already walking towards the front door, between bare brown bushes, and then she stopped. Glanced over her shoulder towards Merrily, who moved towards her.
Fiona nodded at the white door. It was half open.
‘Oh,’ Merrily said. ‘He’s back, then.’
No sooner were the words out than she knew how wrong she was.
Fiona didn’t move as they were surrounded. It happened very quickly, as if this was a surprise party, but all the guests were men, and none of them expressed a greeting. After what seemed a long time, one of them turned to Merrily.
She saw an older man, standing between the brown bushes, shaking his head.
‘I’m sorry,’ the first man said, and the older man approached Fiona, quite slowly.
‘Mrs Spicer, we met once before, briefly. My name’s William.’
He wasn’t in uniform. None of them were. Fiona nodded.
‘Yes, I remember.’
William was solidly built and had a full grey moustache. He wore walking boots.
He said, ‘Should we go inside?’
‘No,’ Fiona said. ‘I’d rather not.’
Her face had gone grey, like fresh plaster. Merrily took in three other men, one of whom she recognized: stubble and broken veins. Not military. It was Terry Stagg, detective sergeant.
William said, ‘Who is this woman, please?’
Fiona half-turned, as if she’d forgotten Merrily was there.
‘She’s a friend of Sam’s. In the Church. A priest.’ She stood before William, her head tilted up to stare him in the eyes. ‘You’d better tell me.’
‘Mrs Spicer, I think-’
‘Where’s my husband?’
‘Mrs Spicer,’ William said, ‘I’m afraid I have some… distressing news. I… very bad news.’
It was Merrily who nearly cried out. Fiona’s lips were tight. She still hadn’t moved, yet she seemed far away from here, as if replaying a scene which had occurred in her midnight thoughts so many times that emotions could be dispensed with.
A Lovely Thing
Jane used to know kids who loved messing with dead things, but she’d never been one of them, so she’d been dreading this all day.
At this stage of your school career, if you didn’t have any particular classes, you had the choice of coming home, to work on revision. Yeah, right.
When she got off the bus, there was no sign of the Volvo outside the vicarage, so she went directly round the back to the garden shed. At least there’d been no blood on the path this morning.
Not yet four p.m., the sun still high, but weak. The shed was just a lean-to against the highest part of the wall. Wasn’t kept locked and it had been the only place she could think of last night.
Needed some help with this, really. Even Mum who, as a kid, had wanted to be a vet and knew a bit about injured pets and livestock. Mum would have an idea how the bird had died.
Could hardly take it to Mum, though, who knew nothing about the earlier incident with Cornel and the beer. Tangled web. Jane began to part the garden tools, remembering pushing the sack behind them. She threw the door wide, pulled out the spade and the hoe and the rake and the hedge loppers, tossing them onto the lawn behind her, but…
Oh, God, no…
This could only be Mum. Now she’d have to explain everything, which would lead to a chain of explanations, and that would get Lol in bother, too, for not disclosing what had happened on the night of the storm. She was in deep trouble and hadn’t even dealt with the no-university situation yet.
Jane closed the shed door, walked away to the end of the garden, leaned against the churchyard wall, staring over at the old graves. Considering the worst options: could Cornel have pinched it back? Would he have gone to that kind of trouble?
He couldn’t have seen her last night, could he? Couldn’t, surely, have been in a fit state after the kicking he’d had and throwing up in Barry’s yard. Last night, Jane had awoken twice, with the gritty ghosts of dead flies in her mouth and shuddery memories of the quick, efficient way in which Cornel had been damaged, that almost feminine cry of pain. Big, tall Cornel, breast-fed for months and months. Cornel, the winner who could do anything he wanted because the bank was paying. Cornel had been very afraid, had done as he’d been told, had taken the sack away. Except he’d been told to bury it and he’d only buried it in the bin on the square.
But what about the other guy? Who had just disappeared. Who hadn’t seemed like the kind of guy who would just disappear.
Oh Christ. The very worst option: what if he ’d seen her?
Jane began to sweat. Went over the whole garden, frantic now, looking behind all the apple trees, into the long grass under the church wall, leaning over the wall to see into the churchyard. Why the hell had she taken it? What was it supposed to prove?
She ran back around the vicarage, out of the front gate and down Church Street towards the river, pulling out her phone. She’d call Eirion. Hadn’t called him back last night, just dropped him a quick text promising to explain tomorrow. She’d tell Eirion everything.
But his damn phone was switched off. Jane leaned over the bridge, watching the slow water making dark, languid circles around the pillars and buttresses. After the psychotic nights around Christmas, the river was back to its old torpid self, and there was no sign of a bin sack down there.
‘’Ow’re you, Janey?’
He was leaning over the bridge next to her, teeth clamped on an unlit ciggy, pale sunlight swimming in his specs. Hadn’t even heard him approaching. Jane looked down at his feet.
‘Gomer… you’re wearing trainers.’
‘Hay ’n’ Brecon Farmers. Two for the price o’ one.’
‘That’s, erm… normal in footwear, isn’t it?’
‘Two pair, girl. Don’t worry, you en’t gonner see me doing no joggying.’
‘You don’t fool me, Gomer.’ Jane found a smile. ‘I bet you’ve got a hoodie and a baseball cap in the back of the JCB.’
‘En’t even seen the bloody ole thing for nigh on two days. Danny’s got him, workin’ over by Walton, makin’ a pond. Been fillin’ my time with a bit o’ spring maintenance in the churchyard. Found some bloody ole briars muster got missed last autumn, so…’ Gomer eyeing Jane, head on one side ‘… took up the vicar’s offer of borrowin’ the ole loppers.’
He put the ciggy back in his mouth, stood with his hands behind his back, rocking slightly.
‘Oh,’ Jane said. ‘Erm… from the shed.’
‘Exackly. From the ole shed, back o’ the vicarage.’
‘Right. Wooh. So, you, erm…’ Jane looked into Gomer’s glasses: opaque white discs, relief enfolding her like an old bath robe. ‘You probably found a black bin sack.’
‘Sure t’be.’ Gomer extracted his ciggy. ‘Bit of a story to this, is there, Janey?’
Jane felt her shoulders slump.
‘Got him back at my place. You wanner…?’
She nodded and followed him, down from the bridge. They walked up to the bungalow with the fading buttermilk walls, where Gomer had lived alone since Minnie’s death.
Gomer. Sometimes, crap situations just rearranged themselves for the best. With divorce and death and stuff, Jane had never really had a grandad. Her worst recurrent nightmare was probably the one in which Gomer had died.
Gomer didn’t judge. Well, not Jane, anyway, so she told him virtually everything, in the sure knowledge that it would go no further.
He leaned against his wall, listening, chewing on his unlit ciggy. When she’d finished, he opened his garden gate.
‘Dull buggers, some o’ these fellers,’ he said. ‘For all their college papers.’
‘He was really scared, Gomer. And probably shocked. That the guy could, you know, do whatever he did. He obviously knew who it was.’
‘You sure it wasn’t Barry?’
‘I heard his voice.’
‘Only Barry, see, he’s had his times.’
‘Oh, I know Barry could have done it, but he didn’t. Definitely not him.’
Signs of springtime action in Gomer’s garden – a rake and a hoe leaning against the wall, with a stainless steel spade, its blade worn thin and sharp.
‘En’t much into gardenin’, see, Janey, ’cept for the ole veg, but Minnie… her always liked her daffs. These is in memory, kind o’ thing.’
‘They’re nice, Gomer. Erm…?’
Gomer nodded towards the garden table. The black bag was underneath it, tied up with orange baler twine. He went over and dragged it out, placed it on the table, undid the twine.
Jane looked around nervously. The bungalow was raised up behind substantial hedging, tightly cut, obviously. You could see over it back to the river bridge and, in the other direction, the Church Street pitch, all the way up to the market square. But nobody could see into Gomer’s garden.
‘Shot it,’ Jane said quickly. ‘I think they shot it. Cornel, he was going, Oh, I’ll have a blast at anything that moves.’
‘Was he now?’
‘He said it was all OK, as long as you cleaned up afterwards. Scumbags, Gomer. They went onto someone’s property and shot it. I was going to put it back in the litter bin, but then I thought, no, it’s evidence.’
‘Shot, eh? That’s what you reckons?’
Gomer brought it out and laid it on the iron tabletop. It was pretty battered, but you could tell it had been a lovely thing, with like a lion’s mane, all golden. Jane swallowed. Dismay set in.
‘I know this doesn’t really prove anything. They could just say it was an accident. They’re just-’
‘Haccident?’ Gomer ran a hand over the feathers. ‘This don’t happen by haccident.’
‘Janey…’ Gomer sighed and brought out his ciggy tin. ‘This boy en’t been shot.’
‘Well, I didn’t really look. It was dark and…’
Jane saw there were spots of blood around the beak. She didn’t understand.
‘That en’t good, girl,’ Gomer said.
‘ It’s not your fault, of course,’ Huw said.
In the scullery, the red light was still blinking on the answering machine, the air swollen with its bleeps. Merrily sank down at the desk.
‘You’re a hypocritical bastard, you know that?’
Holding the big, Bakelite phone with both hands. Her stomach felt like a crumpled paper bag. About four hours’ sleep last night, and she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Barely remembered driving home, very slowly. Ignoring the answering machine, taking two paracetamols with a glass of water.
She fingered a cigarette, drew a hard breath.
‘You as good as told me something was coming. You were afraid for him.’
She felt momentarily dizzy.
The old black Bakelite phone, a present from Jane, felt like some kind of barbell in her left hand. Everything was heavy, even the waning sunlight. She slid her dog collar off.
‘I said. How did he actually die? Where was he found?’
‘On the side of the hill. He was in a shallow ditch. A depression near the foot of some steps.’
‘You saw his body?’
‘No… God, no. I just remembered the spot when they told me. Earthen steps, the soil held in by boards. Walked up there once, Jane and me.’
‘And is there any reason to think-?’
‘They don’t know. They’re not sure. There’s no suspicion of…’
Foul play. Why did they always say that? Play. Jesus.
‘There’ll be a post-mortem, obviously,’ Huw said.
Merrily was unbuttoning the top of her clerical shirt, wiping a hand across her throat. She was cold but sweating.
‘They go running up there?’ Huw said. ‘The lads from the camp?’
‘Bound to. There seems to be nothing to suggest it isn’t natural causes. As if he’d just collapsed. Gone for a run, just like old times, but he wasn’t up to it any more. Especially with all that weight. The big rucksack still on his back. The Bergen.’
The word had been used several times after they’d gone into the house. Syd had been found with his Bergen beside him. The big framed rucksack that the SAS carried their kit in. What they carried sometimes weighted with bricks, according to the legend – on exercises.
‘Who found him?’
‘I don’t know. Walkers. A lot of people go walking up there. There’s a car park and everything. He might’ve been lying there all night, or since early morning.’
‘And they let you into the house, with his wife.’
‘I think they were grateful to have another woman there.’
One of them had made tea. They’d sat Fiona down with her sugary brew and asked her some simple questions. When had she last seen Syd? What had been his state of health, state of mind?
She hadn’t wept. She’d kept on her Gore-Tex jacket and her woollen hat and her scarf. The suppressed grief in the room had been like a still, white steam, Fiona’s first word little more than a breath.
A man who, in the course of his career, might have lost his life in a dozen different countries, and he’d gone out on a muddy hillside less than a mile from his kitchen, his kettle.
‘We don’t really know,’ the man called William had said. ‘He might have fallen and hit his head, he might have had a heart attack. Mrs Spicer, do you know if he had any health problems? Chest pains? Tightness of breath?’
‘He had a medical before his appointment, didn’t he?’
A silence, and then William had asked Fiona if she knew why the bedroom door was locked.
‘Is it?’ she’d said vaguely.
Putting her tea on one side, her expression saying it was too sweet. Merrily had gone into the kitchen to pour another. Feeling inadequate here. As a parish priest, you spent long hours in houses of bereavement, but not often surrounded by men whose experiences of death would always outweigh yours.
By the time she came back, William and the detective, Terry Stagg, had gone upstairs, the other two men outside to a police car.
Merrily had said to Fiona, ‘Do you want to come back with me?’
‘I’ve got spare rooms at the vicarage. Nobody should be alone at a time like this.’
‘We don’t really know each other, do we?’ Fiona said.
They were alone in the living room. It had magnolia walls, a sofa, a small TV and a white melamine bookcase with a couple of dozen books in it. Merrily recognized the spines of the deliverance handbook and A Time to Heal, with its narrow black cross against sunburst red.
Fiona stood up and went to the window, where the view was over the camp, over the fields, over the River Wye to the Black Mountains and Wales.
‘I don’t particularly like the country,’ Fiona said. ‘I’ll stay in Hereford tonight, then go home till… till I have to come back.’
‘What about your daughter?’
‘I’ll phone her, when these people have finished with me.’
‘Is there anybody I can phone?’
Fiona shook her head.
‘Something kept telling me that the only way we’d stayed the course so far was by having long separations. Now we’ve got the big one.’ Her mouth twitched. ‘I don’t like the country. It was no good for him.’
She’d turned away from the window, as if she never wanted to see that view again.
‘She must have pre-lived Syd’s death dozens of times. She starting doing practical things. Very methodical. She gave me her phone numbers.’
And the three books she’d found in Syd’s car. Telling Merrily to put them in her bag before the men came back.
Merrily didn’t tell Huw about the books, hadn’t looked at them yet.
‘Then they came back downstairs, this William and the CID man. And then some uniformed policemen came in, and a woman – I don’t know if she was army or police family-liaison, but she was there for Fiona. While this guy, William, took the opportunity to get what he could out of me.’
‘You don’t ask, do you?’
William had followed Merrily out into the front garden.
His heavy moustache was old-fashioned, a Lord Kitchener job. Authoritative back then, today it looked faintly comical, mock-solemn. William was stocky, built like a pit bull.
‘Where’ve you come from, Mrs Watkins?’
‘Ledwardine. That’s a village, few miles over-’
‘Yes, I know where it is. In fact, I’ve an old army friend living there. James Bull-Davies?’
‘I know James.’
Knew him well enough to be sure he’d never been in the Special Air Service.
‘I meant where’ve you come from… just now?’ William said.
‘From Hereford. Fiona’s staying there. We… met at the Cathedral. Where I work, sometimes.’
‘How well did you know Syd, Mrs Watkins?’
‘We were… better than acquaintances. Worked together once.’
The motion of an eyebrow suggested that William had an idea what she was talking about, but he didn’t follow it up. He’d gone to stand on the edge of the lawn, hands behind his back.
‘Neighbour saw him leave here yesterday evening, Bergen on his back, as he apparently did most evenings. He was found lying by the side of his Bergen. He’d taken it off, as if to sit down for a rest. More or less full kit inside, and mint cake, water bottles. Over sixty pounds. Made weightier by a rather hefty and cumbersome addition. Not the apocryphal bricks.’
‘Would it be a family Bible?’
William’s eyes had widened fractionally.
‘Fiona said he always kept a big family Bible in his bedroom,’ Merrily said. ‘On top of the wardrobe. She said it wasn’t there any more.’
‘I see. Yes, you’re quite right. A Bible.’
Merrily followed William onto the front lawn, where the grass was still slippery from the winter. He jerked a gloved thumb back towards the long hump of Credenhill, the remains of its fort camouflaged in forestry.
‘If he was running up that hill with a Bergen containing that kind of weight… we have youngsters, trained soldiers who think they’re tough enough for the Regiment, collapse after a few miles carrying less than that. How old was Syd – fifty-two, fifty-three?’
‘I don’t know.’
Merrily had been thinking of the vivid green window in the Traherne chantry. The figure of the poet – or somebody – running along a path towards a wooded hill that was probably Credenhill.
‘You all right, Mrs Watkins?’
‘Sorry. Goose over my grave. Could I ask you something? Who lived here before Syd?’
William had looked at her sternly.
‘There a reason for that question?’
‘You’d probably think it was a fairly stupid one. Not another chaplain?’
‘Here? No. The last chaplain had his own house nearby. I believe this was a sergeant, with a wife and a son. They were here, I’d guess, about seven years, until he retired. What exactly were you expecting?’
‘Still, erm, alive?’
‘And kicking. All over the world. He landed something of a plum job with a film production company, as a stunt adviser of some kind.’
‘Oh. Well… thank you.’
Merrily had wondered if he’d mention the drawers pulled out, the mirror covered, the salt around the bed. He didn’t, but she was convinced he now knew about her peculiar role in the diocese. Might even have rung James Bull-Davies while he and Stagg were upstairs. But he couldn’t be sure if she knew what was behind the bedroom door.
‘Why might Syd have a big heavy Bible with him, Mrs Watkins?’
‘I’ll need to think about it.’
‘That’s what you advised Syd to do, right? The drawers, the salt.’
‘I told him what you did,’ Huw said. ‘Told him what you’d done in circumstances that might’ve been different. Giving him another opportunity to tell me exactly what was bothering him.’
Merrily sighed. Open the cupboard doors, take out the drawers, expose all dark places, leave nowhere for evil to hide. Maybe all symbolic, hooks for the mind, and maybe Syd had thought it was all crap, but he’d done it just the same. And then died.
‘You think it’s possible he killed himself?’ Huw said. ‘High suicide rate among ex-SAS men. They come out, can’t adjust to normal life, and depression sets in.’
But Syd had come through. Like he said, things were looking up. Daughter getting married, grandchild on the way. Yet Merrily was remembering the sense of an optimism as synthetic as air-freshener.
‘Why the procedure with the kit, though?’ Huw said. ‘His Bergen – part of his old identity, as a serving SAS man. And his Bible. His big Bible, representing the other half of him, but also, from what you say, a bit of a talisman. And he goes up the hill, carrying his whole identity, his memories, the weight of his religion. What’s the significance of the hill? Would he have done exercises up there, when he was in the SAS?’
‘They weren’t based at Credenhill then. It’s just a good place to run.’
‘He was running away? Getting away from a house he thought might be contaminated? Not a word from this feller about his bedroom?’
‘Not to me.’
‘They’ll want to keep that out of the inquest. Brush it under the carpet. It’ll be natural causes or accidental death or, at worst, Spicer taking his own life while the balance of his mind were disturbed. Drawing a line we don’t have to draw. And happen won’t.’
‘Because we failed him?’
‘Talk about it tomorrow, eh?’ Huw said.
Silence, except for the answering machine, bleeping away like a life-support system.
Merrily’s bag was hanging over the back of the chair. She pulled out the three paperback books, laid them out on the desk, one by one: Deliverance – new edition, scuffed and tatty, well-thumbed, pages turned down but nothing underlined, no margin notes. Only the Ledwardine Vicarage number.
And then there was Wordsworth’s Britain: a little itinerary. This one was also quite tatty, dark green, far from new. Merrily flipped through it. Nothing was marked.
The third book was a larger paperback. On the cover, a Roman soldier had his short sword raised over a cowering man in rags against a background of fire. Fiction. It had a blurb.
They came, they saw, they slaughtered…
It was called Caradog and it was by someone called Byron Jones.
Merrily turned it over. The price was $10.50. A US edition. The lurid cover, the language and the print size all suggested this was a book for children. Well, older children or young adults – although it had probably been published before that term was in use.
Caradog? Another name for Caractacus, the British leader who held out against the Romans and whose last stand was once supposed, probably wrongly, to have been on Herefordshire Beacon, overlooking Syd’s last parish in the Malverns.
So no big mystery there. Caradog carried a very brief biographical note on the author.
Byron Jones was a Special Forces soldier in the British Army. He is now an expert on Roman and Ancient British warfare.
Ex-SAS, then. A book written by a former comrade? If there’d been time to examine Syd’s bookshelves at length, Merrily might well have found Andy McNab, Chris Ryan, all the others.
She flipped through the pages to be absolutely sure that none of them had been marked, then gathered the books into a neat pile, leaned across the scullery desk and pressed the green piano key on the answering machine.
Fiona Spicer’s voice. Very dry, very firm.
‘ Merrily, I’m sorry, could I-Could you do something for me? I’m not sure about the army protocol here. But could you bury him? ’
She pushed her chair back, sat with space all around her.
A sign like a pointing finger from the clouds. The ultimate responsibility.
The cock was a tumble of feathers, his neck coppery and gold in the late sunlight.
‘En’t a fox done this, neither,’ Gomer said. ‘Fox goes for the neck, and he don’t leave much behind.’
‘Maybe he was disturbed.’
Jane stepped back from the garden table as Gomer lifted up the bird’s head. She wasn’t squeamish, but an image from last night had stayed with her from when she’d first opened the sack under one of the lamps on the square: the ruined eye peeping up. The body was battered, feathers broken, maybe from the kicking Cornel had given the bin sack.
‘See the blood on his beak? That’s the real giveaway, ennit?’ Gomer turned to her. ‘You all right there, Janey?’
‘He’s beautiful, Gomer. That golden… like a lion’s mane.’
‘His hackle. Aye, nice bird, he is. You don’t see the ole breeds too often n’more.’
‘I mean, I don’t know much about chickens and things, but it didn’t seem like his neck had been wrung or anything. And the way they were talking about shooting anything in front of their guns…’
Gomer struck a match, ignited his roll-up.
‘Janey, I’d ’ave to say no man done this. Goin’ by the injuries. And the breed.’
‘I’m not following you.’
Gomer took a drag on his ciggy.
‘Gamecock, he is.’
‘Game-’ Jane sprang back from the table like it was electrified. ‘But that’s-’
‘Died in the ring, sure to.’
‘A cockfight? But that… It’s like bear-baiting and stuff. History. Illegal.’
‘Been illegal for over a century. But that don’t mean it don’t go on, see, on the quiet.’
‘Few farmyards, gypsy camps.’
Jane stared at the dead cock, her fists and chest tightening.
‘Big money in it, see,’ Gomer said. ‘Betting. Lot of it about when I was a boy. Some folks then, they couldn’t figure why it was banned. Cocks fight – what they does.’
‘But they don’t kill-’
‘I’m just tellin’ you what the cockers say. All about mating. Like stags. Sure, once they seed the other cock off, it’s over. But you puts the buggers in a pit what they can’t get out of… the losin’ cock, he en’t got nowhere to go, do he? Far’s the other bird’s concerned, he’s still a contender. So it don’t stop. Specially with all the money ridin’ on it, and…’
Gomer looked uncertain.
‘Go on…’ Jane said.
‘Well, they got these… spurs, ennit? Metal spikes, couple inches long on their legs. See where this leg yere’s-’
‘That makes it more fun, does it?’ Jane took one look, jerked herself away. ‘More blood, more feathers ripped out?’
‘Most of ’em dies from head wounds… or eyes. Like this boy, I reckon.’
‘I just don’t believe this, Gomer. When’s the last you heard of it?’
‘By yere? Thirty year ago, sure t’be. Used to be a reg’lar cocking fraternity, kind o’ thing. Don’t mean it en’t been goin’ on ever since, on and off. Just means it’s more underground, kind o’ thing. Under cover of gamefowl breeders’ clubs.’ Gomer nodded at the dead bird. ‘Weren’t so terrible bright o’ that feller, just dumpin’ him in a bin.’
‘He offered him to Barry. For the kitchen.’
‘That weren’t bright.’
‘He was drunk.’
Jane turned away from the table, her eyes filling up. She heard Gomer putting the cock back into the bin liner, and felt suddenly heartsick.
‘You seem to know… like… a lot about it, Gomer.’ She turned back as he tied up the sack. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Uncle,’ Gomer said. ‘When I was a boy, I had this uncle bred gamecocks. He’d’ve died when I was mabbe eight or nine. I remember goin’ with my ma to clean out his house, and we finds all these photies. One’s the ole feller with his prize bird and another cock, dead, what the prize cock killed. And here’s my Uncle Gwyn, great big beam all over his face.’
‘Thing is, he never seen it as cruel, do he? Gamecocks, they had a real good life, long as it lasted. Spoonful of porridge, spoonful of treacle… eggs, barley… nothin’ but the best ’fore a big fight. And when you thinks of all these poor bloody battery chickens, fattened on drugs, never loosed out in the fresh air and then they dies on a conveyor belt…’
‘Yeah, that totally stinks, but it doesn’t…’
‘No,’ Gomer said. ‘It don’t. A cock don’t even have to die in the ring, see, but it’s like with them ole… what you calls them ole Roman fellers?’
‘One o’ them, he gets the thumbs-down – curtains, ennit? Specially if he en’t put up much of a fight. En’t the same for the crowd, see, if both of ’em struts out at the end.’
Gomer puffed awhile, watching the sun.
‘This that Savitch?’
‘Cornel was one of his clients… guests. I mean it’s bad enough they think they can go round just shooting anything, but… You think Savitch is actually staging cockfights?’
Gomer lowered the sack to the grass.
‘He can’t be that daft, can he? What you wanner do with this ole boy?’
‘Isn’t it evidence?’
‘You gonner be a witness, girl?’
‘I don’t mind.’
‘In court? Against the kind o’ lawyer this banker feller’s gonner hire? That’s even if it went that far. One dead cock is all you got. We don’t really know where he died or how. En’t nothin’ there for certain to say he went in the ring. Hell, Janey, I might be wrong…’
‘You wouldn’t’ve told me if you thought for one minute you were wrong. What about Barry? He saw it.’
‘All he seen was a dead fowl in a bin bag. He’s been around, that boy, but it don’t mean he’s ever seen a cockfight.’
‘Yeah.’ Jane shook her head gloomily. ‘And like is he going to want to tear up his meal ticket? And the cops couldn’t give a toss about rural petty crime. Apparently.’ She looked up. ‘There just has to be a connection with Savitch. It’s the kind of thing he’d do, give the city guys a little extra thrill. Show them how hard people are in the sticks.’
‘This banker feller… don’t seem likely he owned the cock, do it?’
‘He said it was rubbish.’
‘Mabbe he had money on it.’
‘Brought him back… the loser… to eat? Because it had let him down?’
‘This other feller…’
Twin brownish suns in Gomer’s bottle glasses. Pretty savvy for an old guy who, Mum reckoned, had rarely been north of Leominster or south of Ross the whole of his life.
‘I didn’t really see him and I didn’t recognize his voice.’
‘You figure they was both at the cockfight, Janey?’
‘Sounded like it. He was sneering at Cornel. This was before he hit him. He said it was about manhood. He said Cornel wasn’t ready. I have no idea what he meant. What do we do, Gomer? How about the RSPCA, the League Against Cruel Sports?’
‘Mabbe I’ll talk to a few folks,’ Gomer said. ‘See what I can find out.’
‘You know people who might be involved?’
‘Gotter get their fowls from somewhere. Mating season now, ennit? Cocks is well up for a fight.’
Gomer tapped the sack with the edge of his trainer, looked at Jane.
‘Bury him, proper?’
Jane nodded. The sun had sunk terminally into cloud, and the air smelled sour. She watched Gomer pick up the black bin sack with its sad bundle of feathers. Her fingers were curling tight.
Like the Poet
With Jane, it was always more than body language. She could give off fury like smoke.
When Merrily ran into her, where Church Street met the square, she was still in the school clothes she normally couldn’t wait to shed, and she looked starkly monochrome against the vivid pink sky.
Or maybe everyone would look like that tonight. Merrily shook herself.
‘Sorry, flower, had to go to Jim’s. We were clean out of bread. You weren’t looking for me, were you?’
‘No, I… yeah.’
No, there was something wrong. But Jane turned it around.
‘What’s happened? You OK?’
‘Bit of a shock, that’s all. Syd Spicer, who was vicar of Wychehill, in the Malverns?’
‘He’s dead. He was found this afternoon on the side of Credenhill. Where the earth-steps are. Where we walked that time. Apparently he’d gone for a run on the hill. Might’ve fallen, hit his head. I don’t know.’
‘I’m sorry. That’s awful. Was he still a mate?’
They walked out onto the square under a brushing of rain.
‘Life’s very often crap,’ Jane said. ‘Have you noticed?’
And she might well have gone on to explain if Barry, in his black suit, with his polished shoes, hadn’t come briskly down the steps of the Swan, striding across the cobbles, asking Merrily if she could spare him a minute.
If you could call that asking.
Barry’s office was behind the reception desk, a small, woody, windowless space with nothing at all to say about the Swan’s Jacobean origins. It had a strip light that turned Barry’s face blue-white.
‘Now I’m nervous.’ He shut the door, pointed Merrily to his leather chair. ‘You come in here last night, asking me what might frighten a man trained not to be frightened of anything, and next day he’s bleedin’ topped himself.’
‘Barry, nobody’s saying that. Probably natural causes, maybe an accident.’
‘Accidents like that don’t happen to men like Syd. Besides, that would hardly’ve caused what you might call a small tremor in the ranks.’
‘What’s that mean?’
Merrily instinctively pulled the cigarettes from her bag, then shoved the packet back. Barry waved a hand.
‘Nah, light one, you want. This ain’t public space.’
‘It’s OK.’ She closed her bag. ‘Who told you?’
‘These things get round. You were with Fiona?’
‘One in a million, that woman. She understands. Better than both mine did, anyway.’
He stood over her, waiting. Merrily lowered her bag to the floor.
‘All right, what happened, I was asked to talk to a group of clergy on a deliverance training course last Friday night, and Syd turned up, with something on his mind. Which he wouldn’t talk about. Not to us, so we assumed it was SAS-related.’
‘Huw Owen. My spiritual director.’ Looking steadily up at him. ‘You knew Syd well, didn’t you? Well enough to know his wife, obviously.’
‘I served with him.’
‘He was a friend?’
‘For a time, yeah.’
‘For a time?’
‘We didn’t fall out or nothing. I saw him a couple of years ago. He seemed OK. You can usually tell when they’re not. I heard he was in full kit when they found him.’
‘He had a Bergen, that’s all. A lot of weight in there, including a very big family Bible. This… has kind of knocked me sideways, Barry.’
Merrily’s right hand was shaking and she placed her left hand over it. Barry pulled out the other chair, sat down opposite her.
‘I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to sound like I was interrogating you.’
‘Huw was convinced Syd needed help.’
‘Kind of help?’
‘He didn’t tell us, did he? Some people are embarrassed by the… anomalous. Especially the clergy. He sat in the shadows and he listened to what we had to say in the chapel. Like he had to deal with it himself, get it out of the way.’
‘You had dealings with him before though.’
‘Yeah. He consulted me about something he either didn’t believe or wanted nothing to do with. He told me, more than once, that he didn’t like that kind of thing. He wanted me to deal with it. This time… I can only assume this was something he did believe in, however reluctantly. Or that it was personal.’
Even in here, you could hear the plink, plink of the pool table in the public bar. No voices, no laughter, just cue on ball. It sounded random, directionless. Lonely, somehow.
‘Frank Collins,’ Barry said, ‘not long before he died, he became chaplain to twenty-three SAS – the reservists. So not as close as Syd. Only, when his book came out, it hadn’t been cleared by the MoD, and he had to resign. Got very depressed about that. Looking at it from the other side, maybe it was the Church what done for Frank Collins.’
‘It’s true that when things get difficult you don’t always get the support you might expect from the Church. The Church can be… strangely cold.’
‘Could be none of this applies. Regiment suicides are mainly blokes who only ever went inside a church for a mate’s funeral. Some of it’s post-traumatic stress, some of it’s because you get altered, and normal life don’t seem like life at all and ain’t worth holding on to.’
Merrily thought for a moment, listening to the pool game.
‘Barry, can I hang a name on you?’ And then, before he could reply, she came out with it. ‘Byron Jones?’
His eyes went blank.
‘Like the poet,’ he said.
Merrily had quickly Googled Byron Jones before she came out. Not much at all, really. He was certainly an author, but not exactly a best-seller. Or not any more – the most recent reference was 2007.
‘Actually,’ Barry said, ‘he was a poet.’
He sat waiting for a reason to continue.
‘Syd had one of his books on the shelf,’ Merrily said. ‘ Caradog, a novel for older kids about the Roman invasion of Britain.’
‘Yeah. I did hear he was writing books. A number of them have a go at that, as you may’ve noticed. But there was only one Bravo Two Zero . Not many millionaires among the rest.’
‘ You ever read anything by Byron Jones, Barry?’
‘Lost interest when I heard they weren’t about the Regiment. Anything about the Regiment we tend to collect, for various reasons. It was for kids, anyway.’
‘Most of them are written under pseudonyms… Andy McNab, et cetera. Is he…?’
‘His name is Jones. Byron – I was actually there the night he got that. We were due to fly out to… somewhere or other. About a dozen of us in the Paludrin.’
‘The social club at the camp. Valentine’s Day coming up and one of the boys, he’s got a card for his girlfriend what he’s leaving for a mate to post, and he’s trying to compose a verse to write in it. We’re all helping. As you do. He’s sitting there, this boy, with his notepad, getting nowhere – specially with our suggestions. “Some men sniff their armpits, others tubes of glue”… I won’t go on, but you get the level. Then this person we’re discussing…’
‘He looks up from his Sun, and he goes – never forgotten this, it was so unexpected. He looks up, very slowly, and he goes, in this dreamy sort of voice, “ Some men win at snooker and some at poker, too… but only one who dares can really win a girl like you ”.’
‘Get it?’ Barry said. ‘Who Dares Wins? Big cheer goes up, and somebody goes, This lad’s a regular Byron. And so, for ever after… He still didn’t look the type, but how many of us did?’
‘What type was he?’
‘Spare one for me?’ Barry nodding at Merrily’s bag. ‘Fag?’
She pulled the bag onto her knees, found the packet and the Zippo. Barry extracted a Silk Cut and lit up.
‘So Syd was back in touch with Byron, was he?’
‘I don’t know. I’m just telling you his book was on the shelf.’
‘And you just happened to notice it.’
She said nothing.
‘Byron Jones.’ Barry blew out smoke, thoughtful. ‘I dunno about this, Merrily.’
‘Is he a real writer? I mean, some of these guys, they have somebody to do it for them. But I suppose he’d need to be famous for that.’
‘He’s not famous.’
‘And the poetry…’
‘Like I said, that was a joke.’
‘I mean was he interested in poetry? Or was Syd? Wordsworth, that kind of thing? Byron Jones’s book was next to a book of Wordsworth’s poetry.’
‘Not that I know of. Byron was into history. He joined a local history club, and they’d do these field trips.’
‘What… with local people?’
‘Maybe. I dunno.’
‘What did they do?’
‘You know, just… poking round. Looking for bits of history. Archaeological remains. In the countryside. Around Stirling Lines back then, in Hereford.’
‘Was Syd in this history club?’
‘So he and Byron were mates.’
‘ Mates…’ Barry’s smile was tight ‘… I have to say is not a word you’d readily apply to Byron.’
‘He wasn’t friendly?’
‘Not being funny…’ Barry straightened his black tie, folded his arms. ‘Look, I never knew him well enough to say too much. He was very single-minded. On exercises, very competitive. I put this down to him being a bit nearer the end of his army career than the rest of us and no promotion. Like he had something to prove. I… I really don’t know about this.’
‘Not going to be filing a report on it, Barry. It’s just I can’t help feeling I let Syd down. Even though he didn’t want to talk to me.’
Barry inspected his cigarette like he couldn’t believe he’d already smoked half of it.
‘Byron was… I mean, ruthless was not a word we used, seeing as how we all needed to live there sometimes. But Byron was less inclined to take prisoners, you know what I mean? You’re aware that I’m telling you this…’
‘In total confidence.’
‘And if there are defence issues?’
‘Doesn’t worry me a lot.’
‘You think, if I get too close to something embarrassing, I might get waterboarded?’
‘I think you should not take the piss out of these people, frankly. And you didn’t just see Byron’s book on the shelf, did you?’
‘It… was pointed out to me. But no explanation was given. I didn’t know anything about Byron Jones until now. Is he still around? I mean here?’
‘He was. I know where he was, ’cause his wife’s there. Ex-wife. Ran into her on a tourist-board beano last year. She’s doing B and B in the Golden Valley.’
‘Another failed marriage, then.’
‘Actually, the marriage survived quite a long time. Mostly through absence, I suspect. Yeah, OK, that’s not a bad idea. If you want to know about Byron, you should to talk to Liz. Big Liz. I expect there’s things she could tell you. If she was minded to. And I never said that.’
‘Why wouldn’t I just talk to Byron himself?’
Merrily raised her eyebrows. Barry leaned back.
‘I could give her a call, if you like, tell her you’re all right.’
‘That sounds like you want me to talk to her.’
‘I don’t want you to talk to anybody, but if you’re determined to open this can of worms…’
‘I’m trying to work this out. You think there’s something I should know, but you don’t think you should be the one to tell me? Or you can’t tell me?’
Barry looked worried. He didn’t often look worried.
‘I wasn’t expecting you to toss Byron Jones into the mix. If you get an approach from anybody, we haven’t had this chat and it wasn’t me put you on to Liz. All right?’
‘And Byron, I might’ve made him sound funny – the poetry and everything. He wasn’t, do you know what I mean? He isn’t.’
Merrily searched for anything in Barry’s eyes, but it was like they’d been switched off, and she wondered if the evil from Syd’s past finally had a name.
There were security lights on stockade poles at either side of the entrance. The sign had a Roman helmet on it.
Karen Dowell was sitting in the passenger seat, arms folded over her seat belt. Apprehensive.
‘You haven’t told her, have you?’
‘No reason to,’ Bliss said. ‘This is my inquiry.’
‘Which just happens to overlap her inquiry.’
Occasionally, he wished he could come clean to Karen about him and Annie. She’d be shocked rigid, but no way would she blab. And if she ever found out some other way she’d never trust him again, and that would be very bad. But he couldn’t. There wasn’t anybody in or outside of Gaol Street he could tell, and it was hard to imagine a situation where there ever would be.
‘Was there really a Roman town here, Karen?’
‘I think the actual site’s about half a mile away. I remember we had this school outing there once. Of course, absolutely nothing to see but empty fields. One kid burst into tears. He was expecting something like the Colosseum. Always remember that.’
Bliss drove between the lights. Almost immediately, you could see newly covered polytunnels, like big white worms. Nobody about at all. In summer the tunnels would be like wasp nests.
‘I’m not even on overtime for this, am I?’ Karen said.
‘I’ll make it up to you, kid. One day.’
Needed her local knowledge, this was what it came down to. There were details he might miss on his own. He parked near the top of a low hill, in front of a long shed with a poorly lit glass porch.
‘We should really be in town,’ Karen said. ‘If even Rich Ford is predicting trouble…’
‘Rich Ford’s an old woman.’
‘Been around a long time, boss, and he’s got a nose for under-currents. If there’s some underlying migrant issue here we know nothing about… I think he could be right – spot the retaliation and you’re there.’
‘Yeh, well, this won’t take long.’
The manager, Roger Hitchin, was waiting for them. A vague-looking feller who said straight off that he was no use to them. Didn’t deal much with the migrant workers, not being much of a linguist, just a man who knew about the business of growing strawberries. Which was why he wanted to introduce them to the firm’s Personnel Liaison Officer.
Vasile Bocean. A Romanian whose halfway-good English had apparently lifted him out of the ranks, putting him into a permanent caravan with electricity. Vasile told them that, proud of his caravan. Couldn’t be more than twenty-four. Spiky hair with gold highlights.
Hitchin left them alone with Vasile and they talked outside the office, under a metal awning. Vasile seemed to be a permanent resident now, going out with a local girl and, yes, he certainly remembered the Marinescu sisters.
‘From village near Sighi oara.’
Bliss nodded. He knew that much. Confirmation had come in late this afternoon from the Romanian police. The parents already contacted, photos exchanged, talk of family members coming over to take the girls’ bodies home. Elly Clatter had finally put out the sisters’ names in time for the six o’clock news.
‘Sighi oara!’ A short laugh from Vasile Bocean. ‘Is very famous town. Very small but very famous.’
Vasile was grinning, as though Bliss and Karen ought to recognize the significance. ‘Sighi oara, Transylvania? Famous tourist place. Old-fashioned buildings, like Middle Ages. But most famous…’ Vasile raising his hands, making his fingers into claws ‘… as birthplace of Mr Dracula.’
‘Vlad Tepes. Impaler.’
Bliss let Vasile enjoy himself explaining how this English writer had borrowed this notorious serial killer’s name and his castle and his reputation, turning the already uncuddly Vlad into an eternal emblem of the Undead.
‘These were country girls, then,’ Bliss said when it was over. ‘Unsophisticated.’
‘Simple. Simple girls.’
‘People there is all very weird, detective. Everything, they believe. Curses. Evil… omens? Spirits of the dead? Mr Dracula! Woowoo!’
‘These girls… full of all that.’ Vasile waggling his fingers. ‘Spooky stuff.’
Bliss exchanged glances with Karen, bulky in a blue fleece, looking like she wanted to be anywhere but here.
‘Simple country girls, Vasile… can get preyed on. Like Dracula preyed on girls?’
Karen gave him a look. Bliss heard the rattling of a breeze on polythene, glanced down the valley, where no lights were visible, probably because of dense woodland.
‘Who preyed on the Marinescu sisters, Vasile? You know, don’t you?’
Karen barely spoke to him until they were back on the outskirts of the city. It had started to rain.
‘I had to push him,’ Bliss said. ‘His English wasn’t that good. He needed direction.’
‘He was upset,’ Karen said. ‘He was shocked. His grasp of English wasn’t great. He was very distressed when you told him what was done to them. And you capitalized on that. He didn’t know… He didn’t even know they were dead.’
‘Yeh, it occurred to me, when he was having a laugh about Dracula, that Hitchin hadn’t bothered to tell him about the girls. The firm’s way of distancing itself. Saying, we just employ them, whatever they get up to in their own time… nothing to do with us.’
Bliss wondered what Vasile was paid as personnel liaison officer. He figured about fifty pence an hour more than the pickers.
‘At least we’ve planted the idea, Karen. He’ll be thinking about it. And then we go back and talk to him again.’
Sex, Vasile. I’m talking about sex. Don’t tell me it doesn’t go on – and not necessarily always with consent. Women get raped on these farms, Vasile, you know that. It’s just that they don’t come and tell us about it, because of the possible repercussions.
Vasile had said, Cushions?
Because they’re afraid of it coming back on them. People get beaten up on farms like this, too. Injured. Hurt. Isn’t that right, Vasile?
Our information, Vasile, is that these girls, they were having a bit of trouble while they were here. No, no, I’m not saying it was anything to do with you, but if you don’t tell us what you know, there might be repercussions when we eventually find out. You know what I’m saying?
‘It’s not as if he’d ever make a witness,’ Karen said as they came up to the Westgate traffic island. ‘Is it?’
‘I don’t expect that to be necessary, Karen.’
Listen to me, Vasile. Suppose the Marinescu sisters had been the victims of sexual harassment – men asking for sex in return for favours, easier work?
That never happen here! Vasile backing off, shaking his head, hands going like windscreen wipers on fast mode. I swear to you -
Vasile, a few people are known to have taken their own lives because of intimidation, bullying. Not here, maybe, but other farms. We know what goes on, and maybe we haven’t asked as many questions as we ought to have. But murder, this is very, very different. Two young women beaten to death in the city, right under our noses? Anybody who withholds information about that, doesn’t tell us what they know, we’re gonna take a very dim view of it. Maybe they’ll go to prison, these people who conceal information, maybe they’ll get deported?
Listen, detective, please, I tell you everything I know. These girls, all they talk about… is about how this place is bad.
In what way, Vasile?
With ghostmen! Mr Dracula!
Come in the night… I dunno…
Of course you dunno, because…
I’m telling you -
Because what came in the night, Vasile, was ordinary men. No, listen to what I’m saying. I’m talking about men from outside. You understand? I’m not trying to blame your people – your workers – for things they didn’t do. Which happens sometimes, doesn’t it? Sometimes they get the blame for bad things done by local men. Bosses. I know there was a boss who was very interested in some of the girls. And somehow… I think you know that, too.
‘The name Bull,’ Karen said. ‘All the name Bull meant to that boy was the murdered man on the farm. Who he felt he had to keep saying he didn’t know in case you were trying to hang that one on him as well.’
‘He knows more than he’s saying. He thinks he’s gorra good job, with prospects, and the future’s rosy, and no way he’s going to jeopardize that by grassing up somebody important. You notice how his English seemed to get gradually worse the more we pressed him?’
Bliss felt Karen’s wobble of rage.
‘We? We pressed him? This blind obsession with nailing Sollers Bull to the wall, it’s turning you into a-’
‘Something I never thought you were.’
‘Mother of God, this is nothing to do with what Sollers thinks about me, or how well he knows me father-in-law. Sollers finds a source of uncomplicated sex with women he doesn’t even have to talk to. Vasile is the… intermediary, shall we say?’
‘Whatever. All this spooky girls, Transylvania shit – he thinks we’re that thick? This is an old-fashioned gut feeling, Karen. Remember them?’
‘Sure, and you’re an old-fashioned detective, Frannie. Which is no longer a compliment.’
‘The blokes those kids saw in the pub,’ Bliss said. ‘Who’s to say they weren’t paid to do it? One job, big money. They’re probably on their way home now.’
‘Pulling two murders together – one knife, one blunt-force – because they both have connections to a man you don’t like?’
‘It was you who-’
‘Yeah, and I said tell the DCI. Leave it to a senior officer who hasn’t got a very visible axe to grind.’
Bliss drove slowly down towards the turn-off for Gaol Street. Traffic was light. The higher than usual percentage of police cars was very evident. He wasn’t expecting to see Annie tonight, though a late-night phone call couldn’t be ruled out.
Karen was right. It was best.
He needed Annie to get Sollers. Needed Annie to want to get Sollers.
Back home, Merrily went directly through to the scullery, called Fiona’s mobile.
Answering service. She thought of leaving a message, wasn’t sure what she wanted to say. She sat looking at the American paperback, with the Roman soldier and the fire. They came, they saw…
The book fell open at page 35.
Caradog was a warrior, born to it. From childhood he had been taught that fighting was something to be relished and, when necessary, he killed without much thought. But he was learning that there was something different about the way the Romans fought and killed. He wanted to know what it was. What had made them the finest fighting force in the world… so that he might use it against them.
Who was he really? Where was he? Barry had avoided telling her Byron’s real first name. There were ten million Joneses in the phone book.
Ethel was slaloming between Merrily’s ankles, and she got up to put out some Felix. She could hear the sound of the TV from the parlour. A chance here of discovering what was on Jane’s mind. Take some hot chocolate in. Meanwhile, she rang Lol to explain the situation. It was important to keep him in the loop. Start sharing more. Guard against slippage.
‘It was on the news,’ Lol said. ‘About the body on Credenhill. No name. God… Syd Spicer?’ A silence, then he said, ‘Don’t even think of shouldering any-’
‘It’s not about blame,’ Merrily said quickly. ‘It’s about finding out what was damaging him and making sure nobody else is affected. This is supposed to be my manor. If he was keeping something from us because it involved national so-called security… well, that’s not my problem, either.’
‘You need to be careful with those guys.’
‘Me? A harmless lunatic? A medieval throwback? Oh… I’ve been asked to do his funeral.’
‘Oh, no,’ Lol said. ‘Not that.’
And then there was someone at the door. An efficient tapping, as if with the tip of a walking stick or an umbrella. Or an army officer’s baton.
Merrily watched James Bull-Davies shaking out his umbrella, shuffling on the doormat, angled like a tower crane.
‘Not, ah, keeping you up, am I?’
‘It’s not yet nine o’clock, James. Coffee?’
‘Bit late for caffeine.’ James stood his umbrella under the Light of the World print. ‘No, hell, might as well. Thank you.’
Merrily led him into the stone-flagged kitchen. Chilly in here in these days of post-Aga economic restraint.
‘I’m sorry, I was meaning to call in, after…’
‘Mansel? Second cousin, twice removed, something like that. Hadn’t spoken to him in years. Nothing wrong, just never that close.’
‘Still a hell of a shock, though.’
‘Rather admired him for his refusal to give up the family home, the way we did ours. Otherwise, lived within his means. Which both his wives seem to have seen as being tight with money, but… shocking, as you say. Shouldn’t happen. Country going down the lavatory.’
James pulled out a chair at the refectory table and spread himself over it in his ungainly way. He was wearing an old tweed jacket, grey woollen tie.
‘Reason for disturbance… you met a friend of mine earlier. Lockley. William. Never Bill. Despises Bill, don’t know why.’
‘He said you were friends.’
‘Shipped orf to the same school, for our sins. Christ Col, Brecon. Also served Her Maj together as young chaps, briefly, before he… took a slightly different path. Now. This man Spicer…’
‘What does William do? With the Regiment?’
‘Nothing too active now. Had his time in the sandpit. They keep him on. Chaps like him have their uses, if it’s only a long memory.’ James coughed. ‘This is me talking to you, by the way. Not him. Not them. Fairly clear, that, I suppose?’
‘You know I’d never suspect you of making covert inquiries on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.’
Army county, this. Someone’s fingers snapped and men who were never quite retired came out of civilian limbo. James cleared his throat.
‘Here – far as I’m aware – purely on behalf of my old friend Lockley.’
‘As far as you’re aware.’
‘Or could ever expect to be aware.’
‘James, my head’s starting to ache.’
James shifted in his chair, like a minor rockfall.
‘Didn’t just drop out of the cot, Merrily. Fully aware of the degree of suspect politics which may appear to be lurking behind anything involving the military. Fully aware of that.’
‘Good. Go on.’
‘Having him as stand-in chaplain… not universally applauded.’ James sighed irritably. ‘Hate this kind of thing. Poor chap’s gorn, that should be an end to it. However, one or two things still leave cause for concern.’
The atmosphere had altered, the banter was over. The coffee pot began to burble. Merrily went to it. James cleared his throat again.
‘Probably know what they found in Spicer’s bedroom?’
‘I didn’t go in. Wasn’t invited.’
James was silent.
‘All right,’ Merrily said. ‘I may have an idea what was in there.’
‘I, ah… made it clear to Lockley that I had considerable respect for you, as a person. Wouldn’t like you to be buggered about. However, they… that is, we… I… were wondering how far you’d be prepared to share.’
She turned to face James, a mug in each hand.
‘Things are sensitive. We’re in wars, could be for some time. Not made easier by the nation being in two minds about the need for it. Though, with all the loss of life, there’s a lot of sympathy, at present, for the chaps who have to fight. Anything which might affect that sympathy or the morale of the fighting man, which, between ourselves, is getting bloody close to rock bottom… PTSD, combat-stress… obviously needs to be watched.’
Rain skittered like moths on the high window. Merrily frowned.
‘I know how hard this is for you, James, but you’re going to have to spell this out.’
‘Merrily, this… hell’s bells, they don’t understand this stuff. Not their field of combat. Lockley’s job’s to ensure that whatever was bothering Spicer could not, if it ever emerged, be damaging to the reputation of the Regiment. Might’ve been the onset of mental illness. Might’ve been something personal or foolish. Or…’
‘What do they think it might be?’
James didn’t reply.
‘Share means share, James. Two-way street?’
Merrily waited. James sat there for some moments, concrete-jawed. She guessed he often wondered where he’d be now if he hadn’t been dragged out of the army after the sudden death of his father, to pull what remained of the estate together. Not too successfully, as it had turned out. Savitch was the squire now.
She began to lose patience.
‘Maybe I need to consult my boss. Before this goes any further.’
James looked up sharply.
‘Who are we talking about?’
‘Oh.’ He looked relieved. ‘Dunmore. Well, yes, of course. Absolutely fine. Apparently.’
You could only take that one way. Small county with a long history of cooperation between Church and Military. It felt like the walls were closing in on her with a sinister splintering of old, brittle wattle.
‘Though we’d rather you said nothing to the other chap,’ James said. ‘Owen.’
Merrily let the mugs come down, clunk, on the table. James smiled ruefully, chin sinking into his tie.
‘Complicated times, Mrs Watkins. Even in our own little world. Savitch bidding to buy the Swan, heart of the community?’ He coughed. ‘Apart from the church of course.’
‘No, you were right the first time.’
‘Should talk again.’ James stood up, looking sorrowfully down at the spillage on the table. ‘But I think you understand where we’re coming from, broadly speaking. And, ah, perhaps it is a little late for coffee.’
After James had gone, Jane was still in the parlour, sitting on the sofa. But the TV sound was off, and she was talking into her mobile.
‘Yeah,’ she was saying, ‘I’ll consider it.’
When she came off the phone and didn’t ask who’d been here… well, absence of curiosity was often a sign that Jane had something of her own to conceal. And when it was weighted with a muted fury which couldn’t have been more apparent if the kid had been slashing the sofa…
‘That was Eirion,’ Jane said.
Tossing the phone onto a cushion, as CSI Miami played silently on the TV: shiny, flawless techno-puppets moving in digitized choreography against glass walls and orange skies.
‘How is he?’ Merrily said.
‘He isn’t doing anything. Just learning stuff, most of which he isn’t going to need. His fifteenth year of learning. Weird, when you think about it, the whole university thing. Like, your mental energy levels are about as high as they’re ever going to be, and it just gets poured down the system.’
Was that what the rage was about? Some acrimony with Eirion?
‘And then you come out in serious financial debt,’ Jane said. ‘To them. With no guarantee of meaningful work. It’s a scam. Eirion reckons if they can get a stack of foreign students paying an arm and a leg they’re more than happy.’
On the box, a beautiful pathologist with uncovered glossy hair and perfect make-up wielded an electric handsaw, and a dead man’s brainpan was eased away like the top of a soft-boiled egg. Without appearing to notice what was on the screen, Jane switched it off.
‘I might get an early night.’
Merrily sat up in bed. The rain had stopped. No vehicles on the streets, only the occasional flattened notes of footfalls on the cobbles, the claw-patter of a dog on a lead. Townies talked about escaping to the country, but there was no escape out here. Everybody knew where to find you.
Too much had happened today, none of it good, but there was still work to do. Under the bedside lamp, she read Mother Julian’s account of changing skin colours on the dead Christ, half his face coated in dried blood.
Merrily marked the place with a Post-It sticker. There had to be a logical sequence for this meditation and it should be stored in her head. No sitting at the top of the nave with a clipboard. Just a low and steady voice, minimal inflection, not a preacher’s voice. Julian’s voice.
She worked with the book for an hour, until around midnight, applying more Post-Its. Syd hadn’t used them. Pages of his Deliverance handbook had been folded seemingly at random, as if simply to mark his place. The book was uncared-for, as though he’d carried it around in his pockets.
And then thrown it at the wall because he couldn’t find what he needed. You picked it up and you could almost feel the frustration. She’d left it downstairs. With Julian of Norwich, she’d been thinking, there would at least be distance.
Of course, there wasn’t. After six centuries, Mother Julian was up-close and breathing, resisting impulses to look away from the horror because she knew that while she gazed on the cross her soul was safe. Apart from the cross she had no assurance. Interesting.
Merrily stopped work, went to the window and prayed for the capacity to interpret and to understand what had driven Syd Spicer on that final exercise. Then the bedside phone rang.
‘You ain’t gone to bed or nothing? Only, I phoned Big Liz. She’ll be happy to talk to you on the understanding it’s off the record.’
‘Wasn’t planning to use it in a sermon, Barry. You, er… haven’t spoken to James Bull-Davies, by any chance?’
‘No. Not for a couple of days, anyway. Look, you’ll need to make it earlyish tomorrow. Liz’s got her first Easter guests arriving after lunch. Start of the season. Can you do nine prompt? And wear the vicar kit – that’ll impress her.’
Merrily dreamed of having to watch a post-mortem on Jesus Christ. Several of them in a gallery overlooking the table: James Bull-Davies, stooped and solemn, William Lockley behind his Lord Kitchener moustache and, in the darkest corner, Syd Spicer with his steady, soft-toy’s gaze.
She kept walking away from the metal table and out of the door, then finding herself walking back into the morgue through a different door. Watching and worrying because the wounds of Jesus Christ, as listed in the New Testament, did not include a circle of black stitches between the eyes and the halo, where the top of his skull had been sewn back on.
When the mobile whined, Bliss was camped in front of the massed ranks of CCTV monitors in the Big Telly room.
‘Yeh, give me five minutes.’
Annie Howe said, ‘If it’s not a good time…’
‘Good as any tonight.’
Looked like Rich Ford’s reasoning had been well off-beam. In the aftermath of the carnage, it was unnaturally quiet on the night streets of Hereford. They’d spotted a handful of blokes who roughly fitted the inexact descriptions given by Carly Horne and Joss Singleton but nobody worth more than a mild tug. Bliss signalled to Vaynor to keep tabs and went downstairs and out to the car park and called Annie back.
‘I was gonna give it another half-hour and then stagger off home. What’s your day been like?’
‘We’ve set up a phone line specifically for reporting rural crime – anything suspicious – anything. Which we may live to regret, as we pursue fly-tippers and kids stealing apples. On the positive side, we may actually have a response to the coded appeal for the guy who saw the man covered with blood. And I had to let Stagg go for a while, when this SAS chaplain was found.’
‘Anything in that?’
‘Looked borderline suspicious at first, but it doesn’t seem to be. Nothing much for us to do. They look after their own.’
It was spitting again. Bliss moved under the awning by the door.
‘Where are you?’
‘Home. Thought about staying with Dad, decided that wasn’t a good idea. Ah… the TV I saw, you handled it well.’
Bliss had done six TV interviews, including satellite. Only one reporter had slipped in a rogue question: You feeling more comfortable on an urban case, Inspector?
‘They didn’t use it, far as I know. Maybe they’ll save it for if the rural-cops issue comes up again.’
‘Ah, yes,’ Annie said. ‘Which it well might, I’m afraid.’
Here it comes. Bliss moved out into the rain.
Annie said, ‘The Chief Constable’s had an e-mail document, copied to both MPs, from Countryside Defiance. Containing what purports to be a list of over two hundred unsolved rural crimes in this division over the past year.’
‘Theft of equipment and vehicles. Arson. Damage to property – a rural bus company having seats repeatedly slashed…’
‘Yeh, by a rival bus firm, if it’s the one I’m thinking of. Point of honour for some of these redneck bastards to settle their own scores. Half your rural crimes, it’s stuff they keep to themselves. Feud-linked, neighbours with a grudge. Leaving each other’s gates open, cutting fences…’
‘According to Countryside Defiance,’ Annie said, ‘some farmers apparently have given up reporting crimes because they’re tired of wasting hours of the working day-’
‘-on worthless interviews and statements when in the end no one is ever arrested and they never get their property back.’
‘Most thefts from farms are twats in vans, cruising the lanes, seeing what’s unlocked. Chancers from the West Midlands, South Wales. It’s not organized. What are we supposed to do about that? Put all the dozens of friggin’ patrol cars we haven’t got into hundreds of miles of twisty little lanes? Stop and search? You imagine how well that’d go down?’
‘And there’s something else,’ Annie said.
At some point, Bliss forgot where he was. Finding himself the other side of the main road, by the steps to the magistrates’ court, some drunk staring at him from under a street lamp. It was pissing down now, reminding him of the night during the floods when he’d doorstepped Annie’s dad, and come off worst.
Go home boy. Charlie’s finest sneer. Go back to Liverpool or wherever it was you crawled from. Long outstayed your welcome down yere.
Ex-Detective Chief Superintendent Charlie Howe, former head of Hereford CID. It was all different now, the organization, more remote. Bliss had met the Chief Constable just the once. He recalled a mild-mannered bloke, not a big sense of humour, but that had never been a qualification.
‘The fucker wants me out?’
‘He told you on the Bluetooth this morning, didn’t he? On your way to East Street.’
‘I didn’t say anything then because I didn’t really think he was serious. And it… didn’t seem a good time to discuss it.’
‘The cowardly twat.’
‘Francis, they’re all the same. It’s a difficult job at a difficult time.’
The drunk was still staring at him. Bliss lowered the phone, advanced on him.
‘Will you piss off!’
A sardonic, rubbery grin and a finger, and the drunk moon-walked away.
‘I’m sorry,’ Annie said. ‘It’s knee-jerk and it’s probably unjust. And it’s…’
‘A small county?’
‘Not quite set in stone. Not yet.’
‘If he’s told you, Annie, it’s as friggin’ good as.’
‘He’s told me because he’s heard there’s a long-standing hostility between us. He’s told me, because he’s hoping I’ll expedite it. I imagine he thinks I’ll quite enjoy expediting it.’
‘He say how he expects it done?’
‘The usual. It’s to be made clear to you, quietly, that DI is very much as far as you’re going if you stay here. Other opportunities will be aimed in your direction.’
Bliss stood with his face tilted into the rain, letting it come.
‘I’m going home. I’m switching off.’
‘No, listen, that…’ Annie sounded tired and distressed. ‘That’s… not the half of it.’
Bliss sat in his kitchen until getting on three a.m. Under the naked bulb, from which Kirsty had taken the lampshade. One of the clutch of low-energy bulbs that came free from the lecky company, coiled white tubes like frozen intestine.
He’d been picturing Annie’s incident room. Her little outpost at Mansel’s yard. A message to the farmers: we’re here for you. And we’re local people. Maybe you remember my father. Maybe you were in his Lodge.
Bliss stood up, took his mug to the sink and held it under the tap with both hands for too long, numbingly cold water cascading over his wrists. Remembering something else Charlie had said that night in the rain.
You never deserved Kirsty. Nice girl. Good sensible head on her shoulders. Well rid of you, boy. Well rid.
He turned away from the sink, hands dripping, staring at the bright, new brass lock on the back door. The locks had been changed now, front and back. Kirsty would never again get in to sniff the sheets, check the bathroom cabinet for cosmetic anomalies, the kitchen cabinet where the Brazilian decaff was, the only bit of exotica that Annie had ever introduced.
It was now entirely possible that Annie would never come here again, with her overnight bag and her expensive Brazilian decaff.
Bliss dried his hands, switched off the coiled bulb and went and sat down at the table in the dark. In his head, he was joining the wires. They ran from his father-in-law, Chris Symonds, would-be gentleman farmer, to Sollers Bull, who knew the family. To Charlie Howe, who knew the family.
And what about Lord Walford, Sollers’s father-in-law and former member of the police authority? Former? Made no odds, he’d still have the contacts.
Chris Symonds says you consistently neglected your wife, Mr Bliss .
Had it actually come from Kirsty? No stranger to False Memory Syndrome, his wife. Of course I won’t be doing anything about it. He’s not worth it. I’ll just be glad never to have to see him again.
Bliss could still hear Annie’s voice in the mobile as he was standing in the rain outside the mags’ court. The words still tight in his head like a migraine.
Confused at first. I’m not getting this, Annie. Hadn’t realized who she was talking about.
They’re saying… that your abuse of your wife also had a physical dimension.
And then, Who? Who, who, who…? he’d been screaming into the phone, until he realized that might make him sound like someone who easily lost it and…
… lashed out at his wife.
‘ There was no abuse. Do you understand, Annie? Making his voice very calm. Physical or otherwise. Or, if there was, it was one-sided. She knows that all too well.
Well, of course she knew it, but that didn’t matter. Didn’t matter whether he had or he hadn’t. Didn’t matter. In a small county.
Bliss sat there in the dark, head in his hands, remembering, as he often did, the first time he’d seen the DCI as a woman. Opening her front door to him on a December night, wearing the jeans and the loose stripy top. Hair down, glasses on the end of her nose. Those little blue sparks of static electricity. Maybe he should’ve seen the way this would go.
Sometimes I don’t like you.
Just last night. And then this morning, in her car, after her Bluetooth discussion with the Chief: I’m adapting to instructions, Francis. It’s what I do. Adapt. Known for it.
Thing was, he had seen the way it might go. His eyes had been open the whole way. He knew what Annie was and what he wasn’t. After that unexpected, glorious compatibility on the night they’d nailed Steve Furneaux, together, he’d been fully prepared for a slow descent into the old brittle, viper-tongued, day-to-day disparaging. A relationship as workable as a frozen toilet.
And – here was the really sad bit – had even been willing to endure it for those brief moments of defrosting, the hair-down, glasses-on-the-end-of-the-nose moments, the blue sparks.
Bliss parted his hands and let his forehead come down on the tabletop, again and again and again.
Yet in all this I wanted (as far as I dared) to get a real sight of hell and purgatory…
Julian of Norwich
Revelations of Divine Love
A Soul in Camouflage
Abruptly, Big Liz rose, went over to a sprawling oak sideboard and came back with a green cardboard folder which she handed to Merrily.
‘Just in case you thought we were never happy.’
Liz had wide grey eyes and copious white hair pulled back into more of a cob than a bun. And she was big. Tall, wide-shouldered, wearing a long sheepskin waistcoat.
In the wedding picture, she looked bashful in a complicated white veiled headdress, and the man she’d married was all smouldering hero in his morning suit and winged collar, with his thick dark hair.
‘He could be very charming,’ Liz said. ‘Always good with my parents. That was half the battle, then.’
They were sitting near a bay window in a high-ceilinged, mauvey, chintzy sitting room with a wide stone fireplace and a view across the Golden Valley to the Black Mountains.
‘My father – before I got married, he said, Elizabeth, you’re going to have to be very strong – stronger than an ordinary wife – and very discreet, for the rest of your life. And you’ll have to make allowances, because these are not ordinary men.’
‘Your father was in the army?’
‘No, just very patriotic, and Colin, being a career soldier in an elite regiment, he could do no wrong. I’m not very good at people. I just go along with things.’
Colin Jones. Right.
‘How long have you lived here?’
The stone farmhouse, at Allensmore, south of Hereford, was Victorian and lofty. Big bones, like Liz. There was a small crenellated tower in the roof, aligned to the front porch with its double doors.
‘It was my parents’ house. My mother started the bed-and-breakfast side. I grew up here, and they always said that when Colin came out of the Regiment they’d sell the grounds, retire and move into a cottage and let us take over the house. At the time, Colin seemed delighted but…’ Liz gave a small, helpless shrug ‘… I didn’t realize then that was only because it would give me something to do. Keep me occupied while he did other work.’
‘What kind of other work?’
‘He took a job with one of the private-security companies in Hereford. Went abroad for weeks at a time, as a bodyguard to various businessmen. It was a bit on and off, and then it stopped. That was when he started to write his books. Non-stop, once he’d started one, early morning till late at night. He had a lot of energy. Too much for ordinary things.’
‘He didn’t get involved with your business here?’
‘Wanted nothing to do with it. We had separate lives, almost. Well, except for sex, and that was…’ Liz looked away, out of the bay window ‘… never very loving, but I made allowances. Anyway.’ She placed her hands primly in her lap. ‘There we are. I suppose I thought they were all like that. Oh dear.’
She blew out a short, startled breath, then sat back, looking a little surprised, as if she’d let herself be tricked into saying too much. Merrily looked around at the nests of chairs and coffee tables and saw why Byron Jones might have found it hard to settle here. Even the bookshelves had ornaments on them – little wooden boxes and china figurines and what might have been golf trophies, widely spaced. Liz’s second husband was out playing golf, apparently. It seemed likely she’d arranged this meeting for early in the day not, as Barry had said, because she was expecting guests after lunch but because she knew that this morning they’d be alone.
Big Liz owed Barry. She’d met him on a tourism course. When Byron left, Barry had helped her keep the business afloat, attract some grants. Leading you to think that Barry had been sorry for her and maybe knew more about Byron than he’d revealed last night.
As for Liz… she was oddly incurious, hadn’t once asked why a vicar might want to know about her first marriage. It seemed enough that Merrily had been sent by Barry.
‘I’d begun to think it was all history. Then Barry rang and told me about Syd.’ Liz’s face became glum. ‘Oh dear. You never know what you should or shouldn’t say. I’m still a bit of a patriot, like my dad.’
‘Where did you meet Colin?’
‘Disco. In Hereford. I didn’t go very often, but my cousin was staying with us and she was all for that kind of thing. It wasn’t very long after the Iranian Embassy siege in London, when the Regiment rescued the hostages, and they were national heroes, and all the girls in Hereford… do you remember that? Perhaps you’d be too young.’
‘Well, I wasn’t living here then, but I can imagine what it was like.’
‘Madness. They were like pop stars. It was when young men started pretending they were in the Regiment just to get the girls. Colin, though… I didn’t even find out that he was one of them, not for a while.’
‘He was actually one of the team who got into the embassy?’
‘No, no. Just in the Regiment. Though he never made a thing out of it, never. In fact, not long after we got engaged he said he was thinking of leaving, he’d had enough. But… he didn’t go until he had to. And by then he didn’t want to.’
‘You mentioned something being history. What was that?’
Clouds were lowering like a big gloved hand over the southern Black Mountains and the air was occasionally ripped by the screams of duelling chainsaws from middle-distant woodland.
‘Yes,’ Liz said eventually. ‘The trouble between Colin and Syd. I may have mentioned it to Barry, once.’
‘I’m trying to clear up a few things. Syd and I worked together… in the…’
Merrily lifted a hand to her dog collar. Liz nodded as if she understood, said she thought Colin and Syd had been quite close friends in the Regiment. So she was pleased – at first – when Syd had turned up one afternoon, not long after the publication of the first book.
Just passing through, Syd had said. Colin had been out when he arrived, and he said he’d wait and they had a pot of tea, Syd and Liz, and quite a long chat. Syd had not long been ordained as a minister, and Liz remembered he’d said it was as if his innocence had been restored.
‘I think it was something he’d been building up to. Coming to see Colin. Not just passing at all.’
‘Did they meet in the end?’
‘It was a Sunday. Colin had been out shooting. As soon as he walked in, I sensed… It was like an encounter between two hostile wild animals. Colin still had his shotgun and a bag with what he’d shot – wood pigeons, I think. Standing there with his gun under his arm. I said, Well, I’m sure you two have a lot to catch up on. I was uncomfortable. The whole atmosphere had changed, and I realized there was something badly wrong between them. I don’t think they even noticed me go out.’
‘So you didn’t hear what they talked about.’
‘I didn’t want to.’ Liz looked agitated. ‘I shut myself in the kitchen and put the radio on, loud. Classic FM. If there’d been guests in, I don’t know what I’d’ve done, but it was out of season. I heard Syd shout, in quite an anguished voice, “They’re dead! They’re all dead now!” Didn’t see him leave.’
‘Who might he have meant? All dead.’
Liz looked out of the window. There was a long view over pastureland, channelled by woodland, to the foothills of the Black Mountains and then the smoky shelf of the mountains themselves.
‘I don’t know, my dear. Colin never mentioned it afterwards. I do know that resolving a dispute with Colin was never easy. He didn’t forgive anyone quickly, if at all. And, of course, he always seemed to despise the Church, even though we were married in one. I didn’t like to mention that before, with you being… He once said Christianity was… not a man’s religion. Certainly not a soldier’s religion.’
‘So could the antagonism between Colin and Syd have been anything to do with the fact that Syd had taken up a religion that Colin had no time for?’
Merrily shifted in the squashy chair. For a moment there, she’d felt something of Syd Spicer in the place. The quietness of him, almost an absence, a soul in camouflage.
‘Possibly… I don’t know,’ Liz said. ‘I thought… this sounds silly, but I kept thinking it was something to do with the books.’
The books had started not long before Byron had left the private-security company in Hereford. When the foreign jobs had become fewer. He’d begun talking about all the money that guys like the man known as Andy McNab were making from SAS memoirs and spin-off novels.
Liz took Merrily upstairs, where there were five bedrooms off the landing, the doors of all of them hanging open. A scent of fresh linen and a light musk from a dish of pot-pourri on a window sill.
Five doors open, one closed: narrow, Gothic-shaped, midway along the landing. The tower room, where Byron had written his books.
‘A lot of controversy at the time about SAS memoirs. The Ministry of Defence didn’t like it and Colin thought they were right. When some new regulations were imposed to make it harder for them, he thought that was good. He always said that what he was doing wouldn’t affect national security in the least. Because his books weren’t about the SAS. Well, not directly.’
‘This is the ancient Britons, the Celts against the Romans?’
‘He said all he was doing was using his experience of close combat to show what it was really like. He was going to be the first writer to really get inside the heads of the old warriors. He used to go running up the hill, where there’s a Celtic fort.’
‘Credenhill? But I thought-’
‘No, the other one. Dinedor. The old Stirling Lines was close to it.’
That was interesting. The SAS had moved its headquarters from the shadow of one Iron Age fortified hill to a site directly below another.
‘I think some Roman remains were also found around the camp itself, and he was very interested in that. He joined a local history group. In fact…’ Liz’s forehead furrowed ‘… I’m not sure they didn’t actually form it themselves.’
‘While still in the Regiment?’
‘He’d read a lot of books. By the time he left, he knew all about the Celts and the Romans. And he had this idea about Caractacus, who he called Caradog, the Welsh name. Colin’s family was from Wales, although he was born in London. The later books were written in the first person – as if he was Caradog, you know?’
‘I’ve only seen the first one.’
‘He was furious when publishers kept turning him down. One of them said it had all been done before, and Colin rang the man up and raged at him – no, this has never been done before, you… effing idiot.’
‘Was it always going to be for children?’
‘Oh, no. No, it wasn’t. It made him furious when the only publisher who was interested said it should be written for children. He said he was going to forget the whole thing. Then the publisher came to see him. A woman. I think she’d persuaded him it was going to make a lot of money.’
‘How many has he written?’
‘Five. He’d stopped by the time we parted. He was quite bitter. Used to say they’d led him on with lies about selling the books all over the world. But they only ever sold one – to America, and the Americans demanded all kinds of changes which made him angry. His publishers kept saying it would build a readership when it became a series, but it never really happened. It was always going to be the next one.’
Liz unlocked the door of the tower room, and the pot-pourri scent followed them up four steps from the landing. The room was west-facing, white-painted walls, one small window. No furniture, only cleaning utensils, bathroom sprays and bumper packs of toilet tissue.
‘He’d shut himself in here for whole days… He could go a long time without meals. I was glad at first when the publishers wanted him to go to schools and talk to children, to promote the books. But he hated that. He didn’t particularly like children. Or pets. An encumbrance. He didn’t like encumbrances.’
Liz looked down at the boarded floor. Had she wanted children and Byron hadn’t?
‘Wouldn’t make any concessions in the books, to young people. I tried to read them, but I had to skip some of it. Scenes where people are garrotted and… worse. There was a lot of bad feeling with the publishers, in the end. His editor… she rang one day, when he was out, very upset. He didn’t like having a woman edit his books. She sounded quite frightened, actually. Very shrill. He didn’t write another one after that. Broke his contract, but they didn’t try to stop him or get any money back. I think they were worried about antagonizing him any more.’
‘Were you frightened, Liz?’
‘I’d learned to keep out of his way when he was angry. I kept thinking of what my father said. The pressure he must’ve been under, the things he’d had to do. He certainly never touched me… in anger. When things became too much, he’d go out walking a lot. And shooting. Sometimes he’d stay out all night. I got used to it. Well, you have to, don’t you?’
Liz had left the door of the tower room wide open, pushed back against the wall. She was standing against the frame, her hair coming loose.
‘Some nights he wouldn’t come home, and there’d be no explanation. I never once thought about other women. He didn’t like women enough. I knew he went to Hereford, drinking with his mates, and I just assumed he was unfit to drive and sleeping on someone’s sofa. Seems everyone knew except me. But then, I’m not very bright. He used to say that.’
Merrily sighed. Liz tried vainly to pile her hair back.
‘Stella, who helps here, told me in the end. I think she was embarrassed on my behalf. Not like it was just one woman. He was playing the field. As if he was in his twenties again. In the pubs and the clubs. He was… you know, walking out with them. Stella’s brother’s a minicab driver in town, and he picked Colin up twice with different women. Drunk and all over one another in the back. I was sick to my stomach, and it took me a long time to ask him about it. When I did, he admitted it at once. Apologized and offered to find me a good lawyer. All very businesslike.’
‘How long ago was this?’
‘We’ve been divorced exactly two and a half years. Married Paul last year – known each other since we were kids. It’s fine. It’s all right. Quieter now. I was glad when Colin took his books away – all the second-hand books he’d bought for research. Not the kind of books you wanted guests to see. Pagan religions and the occult. I was always worried he’d leave this door unlocked and someone would come in and… Don’t like this room.’
You could see the marks where bookshelves had been taken out. Liz’s hair had come free now, like a cloud of white steam. She swivelled her head, looking from wall to wall, as if there might be blood oozing out of the plaster.
‘When he left, I cleaned it out and put a bed in here. A woman came to stay for two nights. An older woman. The outspoken type you could imagine as a magistrate. Miss Pleston. Came down to breakfast next morning, and straight out with it: how often do you clean your rooms? Insisting there was a… a men’s stench. It kept waking her up, and she’d had to open the window.’
‘Oh.’ Merrily had gone still inside. The weird excitement of the unthinkable. ‘And could you smell anything?’
‘I… no. Didn’t charge her for the room. You can’t afford that kind of talk. Perhaps she was making it up, I don’t know.’
Merrily half-turned, had a discreet sniff: only Jeyes Fluid.
‘Where’s he now, Liz?’
‘Brinsop. Near Credenhill. Do you know it?’
‘I know of it.’
Passed the signpost hundreds of times. Never actually been, though the church was apparently worth a visit – couldn’t remember why.
‘He took aerial photos. He’d been on a course in the army so he could take pictures from helicopters for surveill-Should I be talking about this?’
‘What was in the pictures?’
‘Well, there isn’t much there, at Brinsop. Just a few houses and farms and things and an old manor house on the outskirts. And a church, of course. And lines. On the more distant aerial photos he’d drawn lines and marked things with crosses.’
‘Did he explain that?’
‘Kept showing me the pictures and saying what a terrific place it was and how we should live somewhere like that. I didn’t think he was serious. Then suddenly he’d bought some ground. He had a separate bank account for his earnings from the books, and he’d bought this ground before I knew anything about it. About twenty acres, part of a farm where they’d sold the house separately. He said he could get planning permission for a bungalow or something there and convert the outbuildings for accommodation.’
‘He wanted you to move to Brinsop? Sell this house?’
Liz shook her head vaguely, still baffled.
‘My father had died and my mother had gone to live with her sister in Pembrokeshire, and Colin said there was nothing to stay here for now. He said I could still do B and B. Well… I didn’t often say no to him, but this house means a lot to me, and it was in my name!’
‘Was this before he… went off the rails?’
‘About the same time, I suppose. After we separated, he just moved over there. He was in a mobile home, apparently. Like a big caravan.’
‘Do you know why he wanted to live there? To be back near the SAS?’
‘I don’t really understand it. They don’t talk to you after you’ve gone – the ones left in. Well, they do… but they don’t tell you anything. You’re not part of the family any more. He was quite bitter about that, too. Bitter about a lot of things.’
‘What does he do? Farm? Still write?’
‘I think he’s a consultant to one of these firms that runs these survival courses, self-sufficiency and… I don’t really know.’
Merrily nodded. Picked up her bag, then put it down again.
‘Liz… erm… please say no if you think it’s silly or offensive, but would it help at all if I did a little blessing thing… in here?’
Huw Owen’s primary rules: never leave the premises without dropping a blessing, or a prayer. Never leave anyone agitated or stressed. Never leave a vacuum.
Liz looked as if she didn’t quite understand and perhaps didn’t want to.
‘Yes, all right,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’
Karen Dowell was on the phone when Bliss got into Gaol Street, just after half-nine, but still managed to flick him a warning look, glancing at his office door. Which was shut. Someone sitting in there.
Bliss decided that if, by some serendipitous anomaly, it was the Chief Constable, he’d smash the bastard before he could get up. Partly because the Chief was bigger than him and partly because he felt like shit this morning – shivery and light-headed, like when some hovering virus was figuring out if you were worth taking down. And partly because it might just be the finest thing he’d ever do in his life.
He nodded to Karen, opened the office door, walked in with his aching head held high, and it was Annie Howe.
The old Annie. The dark trouser suit, the ice-maiden white shirt. The no make-up, the no jewellery. Sitting behind his desk, marking the homework.
Bliss shut the door behind him.
Might have slept last night, but he didn’t think so. He remembered the sun coming up before his wide-open eyes, before the clouds had smothered it. He’d got up, drunk a whole pot of tea, hoping that Annie might call him from Malvern before either of them left for work. Nothing.
‘If you’ve gorra screwdriver on you, Annie, I’ll take me name off the door.’
‘I’m meeting a witness at ten.’ Annie stacked the reports, looked up at him. ‘Why I’m here rather than Oldcastle. I thought you might like to sit in.’
‘Witness to what?’
‘A man in a field? Covered in blood?’
‘Agreed to meet in town, if we can protect his identity. Actually, it was the girlfriend who rang in, from a mobile. I’m meeting them at Gilbey’s. Told her I might be accompanied, but that wouldn’t change anything.’
They walked up towards High Town, well apart on the pavement. Annie was wearing a grey double-breasted jacket, a long white woollen scarf.
‘I do hope the Chief realizes this won’t be bloodless,’ Bliss said.
‘Don’t do anything stupid. There may be room for manoeuvre.’
‘Rather be out than have this shite. Chuck in me papers.’
‘You’re being ridiculous.’ Annie quickened her pace. ‘Nobody wants you out of the job. Might even simply be a case of staying in West Mercia, just leaving the division?’
‘No. No, no, no.’ Rage ripping into Bliss as he caught her up on the corner, near the zebra crossing. ‘You don’t understand, do you? I’ve only gorra close me eyes and I can see them… Kairsty and her old man… Sollers Bull and his friggin’ father-in-law from the House of friggin’ Lords. All the foreign hunters behind Countryside Defiance and the tweedy twats who like to think they still control this county, and-’
‘The Chief’s just watching his back. It’s how they survive.’
‘-and right there in the middle… your old man. Charlie Howe with one hand held out for the money and the other making some Masonic sign. Corruption’s embedded in this county, Annie, like… like the blue bits in Danish friggin’ Blue. Try and cut yourself a slice that isn’t riddled with it.’
‘You could say that of just about anywhere.’
‘Yeh, well, I don’t live just about anywhere. And one thing I’ve noticed is that when they go down, the bad guys… when they go down in Hereford, it’s always the outsiders.’
They turned along the narrow passage leading to Gilbey’s bar, where the city’s movers and shakers occasionally moved and shook. In its own secluded little space up against the back of St Peter’s Church.
‘We have to sit outside.’ Annie headed for the farthest table, under a tree and in the shadow of the steeple. ‘You go and order some coffee. I’ll wait here, in case he’s early.’
‘Do we need pink carnations?’
Inside, Bliss scanned the clientele. A few faces that he vaguely recognized. Fortunately, nobody he actually knew. He’d thought maybe Annie had asked him along because she had something encouraging to say to him about how they’d fight this thing together, but that evidently was not going to happen.
When he came out, there was a woman sitting with Annie. Mid-thirties, pale-skinned, wind-straggled blonde hair tucked into the collar of her red leather jacket.
‘This is my colleague, Francis Bliss,’ Annie said. ‘Francis, this is… Janette.’
‘Jan,’ the woman said.
Bliss sat down the other side of Jan.
‘And when will your friend be joining us?’
‘She won’t,’ Jan said.
Bliss looked at Annie, who smiled colourlessly.
‘Jan is our witness, Francis.’
It took a moment.
‘Ah,’ Bliss said.
Jan told them she was taking up an appointment after Easter, as head teacher at a local primary school.
Bliss said, ‘You mean, out there, in the sticks?’
‘Out there, yes.’
Jan said the person she’d been with in the car on the night of Mansel Bull’s murder was married, but wouldn’t be for long. They’d been at college together, found one another again after fifteen years. She was the reason Jan had come looking for work in the Hereford area.
‘There might not be complications with either parents or governors, but there just might. It’s necessary to be discreet and take things slowly. This is, after all, a rural area.’
‘You’re quite right there, Jan,’ Bliss said. ‘It very much is.’
He wondered if her girlfriend was fairly well known in the area. And if the husband had any inkling. Jan still looked nervous.
‘You won’t get me to give evidence in court. You do accept that?’
Annie said, ‘We can talk about that later.’
‘There won’t be a later if I don’t get an assurance.’
Annie Howe nodded.
At least they got an accurate location, a good half-mile from where they’d stopped searching for blood traces in the fields. Covered some ground, this guy. The access involved several unmarked single-track lanes. There was a derelict barn you couldn’t miss, Jan said, and the ungated field entrance was about fifty yards after that.
Bliss made notes. Asked her if she’d seen any other vehicles on the way there, and Jan shook her head, said nobody lived up there any more.
‘I’ve walked that whole area. I’m staying in a guest house at Tillington, about three miles away, looking for a cottage, so I’ve done a lot of exploring around. Essential preparation for taking over a local school. Kids can be evil wee sods if they think you’re an innocent abroad.’
‘And your friend? She’s local?’
‘Do we have to go into that?’
‘Credenhill,’ Jan said. ‘Though not originally.’
Bliss didn’t react. Was it possible that Jan was snuggling up to some SAS man’s missus while he was in foreign parts? That’d make anybody nervous.
‘In your letter,’ Annie said, ‘you called Mansel “Farmer Bull”. Was that how your girlfriend knew him?’
‘It’s what they called him in the local shop.’
Bliss said, ‘When you saw this man in the field, did you also see any sign of a vehicle? Off-road, perhaps? Or any other people?’
‘We didn’t hang around, if I’m honest. Out there in the middle of nowhere, it was pretty frightening. We’d only just arrived, so we still had the engine running and the headlights on when he came rushing out of the dark. As if he’d been blown out by the wind.’
‘You say you couldn’t see his face – what about his hair?’
‘I think he had hair… I mean, I don’t recall him as bald or anything, but… it could’ve been slicked back with the… with the blood. I don’t know.’
‘Tall, short, thin, fat?’
‘He certainly seemed tall. And well-built, I suppose. And quite fit, I’d imagine, the way he was moving. I go to the gym twice a week, but you wouldn’t get me out running in those conditions.’
‘Let me play devil’s advocate here,’ Annie said. ‘How do you know it was blood? How do you know he wasn’t simply plastered with mud? Red Herefordshire mud.’
‘And then I heard about the murder afterwards, you mean, and put two and two together and made eleven?’
‘You wouldn’t be the first to make that kind of mistake in a situation like that.’
‘Chief Inspector, I spent many hours agonizing over whether to send you that letter, knowing that if it got out that a respectable married woman was having a relationship with a gay woman who was about to become head teacher at the school attended by her children…’
‘Yeh, OK,’ Bliss said. ‘What did he do, this feller, when he saw you?’
‘Stopped. I mean, he had to, or he’d’ve run into the front of the car. Then he turned away and ran off. Almost casually. As if he was an athlete running for pleasure, and he was full of endorphins, you know?’
‘What was his… you know, his mood? You gerra sense of that?’
‘It was – this is going to sound crazy – but it was as if he was loving it. Despite all the blood. Obviously, we thought it must be his own blood, and you think… even as you’re backing the car away, you’re thinking, does he need help? And yet that really wasn’t…’
‘Like he was relishing the blood?’ Bliss said. ‘I’m thinking the way a new huntsman – a fox-hunter – when it’s his first time, they splatter him with the fox’s blood?’
Bliss’s eyes met Annie’s, saw a flickering warning there. He smiled.
‘I’m afraid I’ve had nothing to do with blood sports,’ Jan said.
Annie asked her, ‘Do you think he saw you?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘He must’ve seen what kind of a car you had.’
‘And if you backed up and accelerated out of there, he must have known you’d seen him,’ Bliss said.
He watched Jan playing nervously with a stray blonde curl. Women of a Sapphic persuasion, it wasn’t as easy to identify them any more. In a few ways, she was more girlie than Annie.
‘I did think of that, yes,’ Jan said. ‘Another very good reason not to want to be identified, wouldn’t you say?’
Bliss said, ‘If we were to show you some piccies…?’
Felt Annie Howe’s head coming round on him with the weight of a gun turret.
‘It would be very unlikely that I’d recognize anybody from a photograph,’ Jan said. ‘As I say, it was all terribly fast and rather blurred.’
Bliss saw the waitress leaving the doorway of the bar with their coffee and cups on a tray.
‘What about your friend?’
‘She saw less than I did. Screaming her poor wee head off by then.’
‘I firmly trust you weren’t actually going to do that,’ Annie said. ‘That you were saying it just to annoy me.’
Jan had left. They knew where to find her. Bliss licked his spoon.
‘Why not? It’d be with a selection of other photos.’
‘Planting the idea that West Mercia Police suspect Sollers Bull of killing his brother?’
‘Got that twat’s prints all over it.’
Telling her about his and Karen’s visit to Magnis Berries last night and the reason. Annie scowled. Bliss shrugged.
‘Don’t tell me you wouldn’t’ve done the same.’
‘As it happens, I did know about Mansel selling the land to Magnis.’
‘Done behind Sollers’s back?’
‘According to Sollers, it was a decision made without much forethought. Mansel was using those top fields for training his sheepdogs. And then simply decided he’d had enough. The offer came, and he took it. Shortly before he was killed, he’d arranged to sell all his dogs to Berrows, from Kington, who you’ll know.’
‘He’s taken them all. Five dogs.’
‘That’s a bit odd, isn’t it?’
‘What’s so odd about it, apart from the timing? Mansel presumably didn’t know he was going to be murdered. He’d lost the patience for it, according to Sollers. Not winning trophies any more. That’s all it is.’
Bliss said nothing. Sat and looked at Annie, sitting with her jacket open, her long woollen scarf hanging loose. The slender neck, the carelessly brushed pale hair.
‘Right,’ Annie said. ‘We’d better get back. I’ll send Slim Fiddler to find that field, and I’ll make sure he goes over every last blade of grass.’
Bliss contemplated the oval miniature of his own face wizened into the sugar spoon. Spent a couple of cliff-edge seconds reconsidering his decision not to tell Annie about Kirsty’s first little bombshell:
…when it all comes out, won’t one of you have to move to another division? Isn’t that how it works?
Annie said, ‘Presumably you didn’t get anything useful from Magnis Berries?’
‘Nothing of immediate significance, no.’
Annie stood up, buttoning her jacket, the tower and steeple of St Peter’s in the wedge of white sky behind her. For a moment Bliss thought she was smiling as she looked down at him.
Then she said, ‘Don’t.’
‘Don’t assure me again that you never hit your wife. I believe you. However, for the foreseeable future…’ she tucked a two-pound coin under the coffee pot ‘… I think we need to be colleagues.’
‘Colleagues,’ Annie said. ‘People who work together.’
Halfway along the Golden Valley, a green hill bounced up on the right, its summit shaped by the earthen ramparts of another British camp. Tiny compared with Credenhill, but they were everywhere, a whole layer of landscape sculpted by ancient Britons. Still here, still dominant.
Merrily was driving slowly, under clouds like the rolling smoke from a grass fire. She’d brought a flask of holy water up from the car and done the blessing, with Liz. An appeal for calm and light in an oppressed place. Most times you were uncertain: an unaccountable man-stench in the tower-room – wishful thinking, Miss Pleston?
And yet a faint sensation of something resistant had come back at her, and she’d walked downstairs feeling unexpectedly drained. Maybe she was just overtired and underfed, or affected by the mind-altering properties of Jeyes Fluid.
No, Barry had been right. Byron Jones was not funny.
It would’ve been interesting to see the books he’d kept in the tower. Old pagan religions and the occult. Merrily thought about the people of the hilltop camps, whose priests had been Druids. Talk to Jane, and they were kindly nature-worshippers and all they ever used a sickle for was cutting down mistletoe. Read the Roman accounts, and you got blood-drenched savages, well into human sacrifice. They probably didn’t smell too good, either.
In the straggling village of Peterchurch, she pulled into the parking area opposite the Norman church, called home to check the machine and found just the one message:
‘ Merrily, this is Fiona Spicer. I think we have loose ends.’
A voice still perfectly contained, wholly together. A widow of one day. Merrily sat staring across the parking area at a children’s playground which looked like a small power station. Lit a cigarette and called Fiona.
Lol had been in Danny Thomas’s barn since eight. Danny was walking up and down in the straw, rehearsing a verse of ‘Trackway Man’, talking it into the mic.
‘“Among the hills where shepherds watch, we’ll march towards the skyline notch. From tump to twt we’ll mark the route…” What the hell’s a twt, Lol?’
‘I thought you were Welsh.’
‘I’m from Radnorshire, it en’t quite the same.’
‘I thought it was a Radnorshire word. I dunno, maybe a burial mound, a small tump. Rhymes with route, anyway, that’s all that matters.’
‘This don’t seem like your kind o’ song, somehow,’ Danny said. ‘Them Biblical quotes at the start. “Set me up waymarks, writes Jeremiah”?’
Lol explained how Alfred Watkins had collected bits from the Bible which seemed to support the idea of ley lines. He was thinking it would be quite good to use them with a kind of monastic echo. Resonant.
‘Just trying to connect, Danny. You were born here, I’m just… don’t know.’
‘Just ’cause you lives yere, it don’t necessarily mean you connects.’ Danny squatted down in the straw between a vintage Marshall amp and Jimi the sheepdog. ‘Did once, mind. Had what you might call a spiritual experience where I seen the poetic truth of ley lines. Looked at the veins in my wrist and seen the arteries of the countryside. Magic, that was.’
‘I thought it was acid.’
‘Well, aye, it was, but a vision’s a vision, ennit? Bloody hell, what a long time ago that was. I was only a kid. Thirteen, fourteen?’
‘You were dropping acid at thirteen?’
‘Very progressive area, Radnorshire, in the ole days, boy. ’Sides, nobody knowed, back then, what it could do to your brain.’
Danny grinned. Then, abruptly, his face was solemn.
‘Seen much of young Jane, past day or so?’
‘Uh… not really.’
‘That business in the Swan, where she poured that feller’s beer… Got a bit overshadowed, that did, when the word come in about Mansel Bull.’
‘An ill wind.’
‘Never seen her like that before. Serious. The changes round yere – gettin’ to her. Savitch.’
‘Getting to all of us, one way or another.’
‘Only, Gomer and me, we got a problem,’ Danny said.
Fiona said, ‘No commiserations. Sympathy cards, I won’t even open. Don’t want to be treated like an invalid. When you’ve lived with a vicar, you know all the bereavement rituals. ’
Merrily thought naked grief was easier to handle.
‘You’re not still on your own, are you?’
‘Emily’s on the way up to Hereford, with her boyfriend. And I have things to organize. Better than thinking. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk last night, and I’m grateful for what you did. And what you might have done if we… if we’d been in time. You will take the funeral?’
‘Well, if you… I don’t do quickies, Fiona.’
‘What’s that mean?’
‘Well, it doesn’t mean endless eulogies. But there are things I need to understand. Whatever he wouldn’t tell me, it’s not going to rebound on him now. Which… is one reason I’ve just been over to Allensmore. To talk to Byron Jones’s ex-wife.’
‘That was quick.’
‘When you were talking about the books that Syd was reading, back in the Cathedral, I don’t recall you mentioned Byron Jones. So when I found that book, with the others…’
‘I was certainly surprised to see a copy of that book on the desk.’ A pause. ‘OK, the last time I saw one was when we were at Wychehill. A parcel arrived one day with a copy of Caradog inside. Newly published.’
‘This was when they were still friends?’
‘I thought they were. A short time afterwards, I opened the wood stove, because it seemed to be nearly out and… you know how you can tell something used to be a book, for just a second, before the ashes collapse?’
‘Syd burned the book? Without even reading it?’
‘He never explained. Though he now seems to have acquired another copy. They were good friends, once. Byron was a bit older than Sam. He came out of the army first, but they stayed in touch.’
‘Was Syd in Byron’s local-history group?’
‘Liz says Byron was in – or might even have set up – a society to study the history around Stirling Lines. Romano-British history. The inference being that this was where he got much of the background for his fiction.’
‘I know nothing about that. Though it’s hardly something you’d need to keep secret.’
‘Liz said Byron despised Christianity.’
‘Not sure if he despised it quite so much before Sam got into it. Sam was hyper at that time. His ground-to-air missile period.’
Merrily shifted in her seat, looked over towards Peterchurch’s Norman church with its fibreglass steeple. It was called The St. Peter’s Centre now, and it had a cafe and a library. Was this what Uncle Ted had in mind for Ledwardine? Which reminded her there was a parish council meeting tonight to discuss it. Bugger.
She said, ‘You do know about Syd going to visit Byron at Liz’s place?’
‘When was this?’
‘Liz said two or three years after Byron left the Regiment. Possibly around the time Caradog was published. Would that have been after the burning of the book?’
‘I didn’t know that Sam had ever visited Byron,’ Fiona said. ‘Or imagined he’d want to. What did Liz say about it?’
Merrily told her. Everything, including the shotgun, which provoked a short, sour laugh.
‘Perhaps he felt he needed it as protection. Turning the other cheek was the one Christian premise I always felt Sam could never quite swallow.’
‘You’ve met Liz?’
‘One or twice. At funerals. Walking – metaphorically – half a pace behind Byron. They’re often the ones who get hurt in the end. Wholesale philandering goes with the territory. Like Vikings.’
‘But not Sam.’
‘Sam was a misfit who didn’t know what he wanted or where he wanted to be. The army straightened him out for a while, religion messed him up again.’
‘Did he ever mention Brinsop?’
‘It’s a hamlet near Credenhill. Where Byron lives. Where, according to Liz, he seems to think it’s very important for him to live. Syd ever mention it?’
‘No. And if you were thinking of going to visit him I’d urge you not to. Some of these guys, there’s another side to them which is great in warfare but, in ordinary life, relatively… antisocial.’
‘Fiona… do you have any idea what all this is about? You must’ve given me those books for a reason.’
‘Knee-jerk reaction. Probably a mistake. I don’t know anything about deliverance, and Wordsworth – no idea what that’s about either. Merrily, I have to go. Have people to see… solicitors… and whoever you see to register a death. I’m sorry.’
Danny pulled down a squared bale of straw and sat on it.
‘Likely you don’t know much about cockfighting. Well, me neither. Us ole hippies, we never done that stuff. Foreign to our nature. But it went on.’
‘Part o’ country life. Country folks was cruel, too.’ Danny reached over and turned off the amp. ‘Gomer found a dead gamecock in the vicar’s shed. Turns out young Jane put it there. Told Gomer a feller dumped the sack in a bin on the square. Feller was this Cornel.’
‘Oh…’ Lol closed his eyes ‘… God.’
‘You en’t lookin’ as surprised as I figured you might be.’
Lol pulled the Boswell across his knees and told Danny about what he and Merrily had watched in the Swan, the night before last.
‘Only we got the impression from Barry that it was a pheasant.’
‘He still stayin’ at the Swan, this Cornel?’
‘I think he just comes in for meals now. I don’t know where he’s staying. How did Jane know it was a fighting cock?’
‘Her didn’t. Gomer knowed straight off.’
‘Gomer’s on the case?’
‘En’t nothin’ Gomer wouldn’t do for Jane, is there? Jeez, why they gotter-’ Danny pulled off his baseball cap, sent it spinning to the straw. ‘Cockfights! They tells us we’re in recession, so we gotter degrade ourselves by stagin’ cockfights for the freakin’ tourists?’
‘Who d’you think?’
‘You really think Savitch would risk his reputation by supporting something illegal and… universally condemned?’
‘Gomer phoned around. Farmers, dealers. Drew a blank. Wherever it’s happenin’ it en’t at no farms round yere. Gotter be some bastard from Off. Now… where was the ole Ledwardine cockpit?’
Lol shook his head.
‘I’ll tell you,’ Danny said. ‘Up by the top bridge, where the river come through in the floods? Used to be a pub there, knocked down seventy, eighty year ago. You can still see the outline, they reckons. Like a depression, middle of a copse, now. Cockpit was back o’ that pub.’
‘So that…’ Lol stroked a sinister E-minor on the Boswell ‘… would be on the ground…’
‘Bought up by The Court last summer – when wassname, Wickhams, sold up?’
‘You’re saying that whatever remains of the old Ledwardine cockpit is now owned by Ward Savitch.’
Suddenly, Lol could see why this just might be Savitch. All for traditions. The first man to stage a cockfight in Ledwardine for a century or whatever. Even if he only did it once or twice, for selected guests.
‘Jane know about the cockpit?’
‘Not yet, boy. See the problem?’
‘Case closed, far as Jane’s concerned. And it looks very likely, doesn’t it? I mean, how else would Cornel’ve been to a cockfight?’
‘Exackly.’ Danny stood up, strapping on his Telecaster. ‘So what’s Gomer do now, boy? Do he tell her… or don’t he? Bein’ as how her’s likely to go off like a rocket.’
‘Even if Savitch wasn’t charged with anything,’ Lol said, thinking hard, ‘it would make him a figure of hate.’
‘Would you be able to tell, if you saw the pit, whether it had been used recently?’
‘Gomer might. But… private land now. Big fences.’
‘Not this weekend. It’s open to the public on Easter Monday.’
‘Still be restricted access. Public won’t get near an active cockpit.’
Lol said, ‘Tomorrow, however…’
Laying down the Boswell in a manger full of last year’s straw, he told Danny about Savitch’s visit and the offer of a site for an open-air music event. Half afraid that Danny, whose musical aspirations had been frustrated for so long, would see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stage some kind of Welsh Border Woodstock. Danny sniffed and smiled.
‘En’t life a bitch?’
‘So I’ve got these two tickets for the press launch and reception for invited guests. Be far more informal. Fewer stewards, not much security.’
‘If I gave the tickets to you and Gomer, would you be able to maybe find out one way or another?’
A short, worried whine came out of Jimi the sheepdog as Danny stood up, gripped the Telecaster around the bottom of its neck, pulling it hard to his gut.
At one stage, the narrow lane to Brinsop pointed you directly at a wooded flank of Credenhill. You felt that if it didn’t veer off soon you’d vanish into a green mouth.
The first time, Merrily missed the turning to the church, then spotted in the rear-view mirror what might be a bell tower. At approaching midday, a pale blue hole in the clouds was broadening into a small lagoon. She reversed into the next track, and the long hill fell away to the side. Nobody about. No other vehicles.
No village. Plenty of fields, woodland, a few dwellings, and a church, on its own, set apart.
Merrily’s stomach was hurting. Really needed something to eat. Maybe she should go home. Only twenty minutes away. Three warnings about Byron Jones – secretive, embittered, obsessive. She didn’t want to find him, not yet. Just to get a hint of what, in Brinsop, had caught his eye.
The church was at the end of a private track with weeds growing up the middle. A sprinkling of homes, old and newish, barns and sheds, and then the Volvo was up against a fenced field of ewes and lambs. A dead end with the churchyard alongside, raised up. Jane maintained that an elevated churchyard always indicated a former pagan ritual site. But then, for Jane, signs of paganism were everywhere.
OK. Merrily stayed in the car and leaned back, easing the pressure on her stomach. Do this properly. She pulled her bag onto her knees and consulted her contacts book.
Dick Willis, priest in charge of the Credenhill cluster of churches. A cautious guy, not far off retirement. The signal here wasn’t good, but she got him.
‘Ah, Brinsop,’ he said. ‘The jewel in my crown.’
‘I’m afraid I’ve never been before.’
‘Then I mustn’t spoil it for you, Merrily. Is there a problem there? I certainly haven’t heard of one, but when one hears, out of the blue, from your good self…’
‘Do you know a guy called Byron Jones? Colin Jones?’
‘Ah, now, that would be the man with the private army base?’
‘Say that again.’
‘I exaggerate. He calls it The Compound. Once a pig farm, a mile or so out of what used to be the village. The farm became derelict, the house was sold off and this chap bought the land. Lived there in a caravan, then suddenly built this rather lavish bungalow, as if he’d come into money.’
‘What did you mean by private army?’
‘Not an army, a base. He has a training area with an assault course and all that sort of thing. He run courses for military enthusiasts, and the place is done out like a real army base with high wire fencing and authentic warning signs. Part of the mystique, I suppose. Looks more secret and exciting than the actual SAS place down the road. Boys will always be boys, Merrily.’
‘He had planning permission for all this?’
‘Not always needed. And some of the objectors were appeased when, at his own expense, he planted extensive woodland to conceal the site. That was about a year ago.’
‘Mr Jones is ex-SAS, I believe.’
‘Well, yes, that always helps, doesn’t it? Especially in this area.’
‘Does he come to church?’
‘If he does, it’s not when there’s a service on,’ Dick Willis said.
The sun was just visible through the cloud, like a pound coin in a handkerchief, as Merrily got out and locked the car. She shook herself, felt a little better.
The site was fairly remote, but the churchyard was well looked after. Nothing overgrown here, and most of the uncrowded gravestones were upright. A huge sentinel evergreen stood beyond the wooden gate, looking taller than the church which sat behind it, under the hill. A compact greystone church with a conical bell-tower. More central Wales than Herefordshire, but comfortable in its lusher ground.
And the site… Jane might well be interested. Different levels, perhaps a suggestion of earthworks and, across the lowest field beyond the church, a small, dark-green lake. Or a big reeded pond. Or, possibly, a moat, all wooded-in.
A lovely spot, really. This was one of those churches that had had to be here, Jane would say. Had to be here. Sacred ground long before Christianity.
Merrily walked past the church porch towards the water and was pulled up by a name on a gravestone, directly in front. Not ornate, but tall and prominently sited and making an instant connection with one of the paperbacks on Syd Spicer’s desk.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF JANE WINDER WHO WAS BORN AT KESWICK, CUMBERLAND AND DIED AT BRINSOP COURT, IN THIS PARISH OCTOBER 16, 1843 IN THE 43 YEAR OF HER AGE.
This Stone is erected by WILLIAM and MARY WORDSWORTH, of Rydal Mount
Westmoreland in affectionate and grateful remembrance of her faithful services continued through fifteen years.
Good God. Merrily began to tingle. That sense of the preordained. A piece of an unknown jigsaw. The piece that slotted in to tell you there was a jigsaw.
William and Mary. Rydal Mount. Westmoreland. The Wordsworths – the Wordsworths – were here?
She walked back to the porch, went in. Always the same when you approached an unknown church, that frisson of mild apprehension, as you turned the ring handle. Some resistance, but the door wasn’t locked. It gave, and she went in, and whatever she was expecting – perhaps, given the location, something frugal, cold, drab, rudimentary – it wasn’t.
No smell of stone or damp. She made out lurking colours, and not only in the windows. Much metallic glistening from the chancel.
Merrily waited at the bottom of the nave. Waited for something to happen, something to move, shadows to part.
‘Blimey,’ she said, to nobody she could see.
This was all strongly medieval. Medieval like in the actual Middle Ages. A concave golden canopy was shining over the altar, like the reflector on a lamp. There were three gilded angels, wings aggressively spread, brandishing candles.
A treasure house. Out here in the deep sticks it was all so entirely unexpected as to be approaching the surreal. Merrily picked up a leaflet from the pile and took a seat at the back. Chairs, light-coloured wood, not pews. A lot of money had been spent since medieval times, enhancing what was here. The angels were confidently balanced on the top edge of the chancel screen, guarding a Christ on the cross. A chess-piece kingly Christ in a golden crown. Not suffering, but proud and triumphant. In control.
And when you looked more carefully, you began to see all the dragons. Merrily came back to her feet.
Everywhere, dragons were dying.
There he was, red-crossed, in a window. And here he was again, more modern and explicit, on a pedestal, in full armour with his foot on the dragon’s neck, his spear down its throat.
Merrily opened the leaflet. St George. Brinsop Church was dedicated to the dragon-slaying patron saint of England. The leaflet said the church had been saved from ‘certain ruin’ in the mid-nineteenth century, old windows rediscovered and restored. It had never looked back since, acquiring much sympathetic embellishment by Sir Ninian Comper, ecclesiastical architect and Gothic revivalist, in the early twentieth century. His work included the angels on the wooden screen. And yet, for all Comper’s bling, it still felt like a country church, small enough to be welcoming. Some bright, modern stained glass: a St Francis window with birds. A First World War window with crucifixion symbolism. And one…
In memory of Wm Wordsworth, poet laureate.
A frequent sojourner in this parish.
Back to the leaflet. Wordsworth’s wife, Mary, had been a sister of Thomas Hutchinson, who was leasing the twelfth-century Brinsop Court, the poet often spending holidays here, with his wife and his sister, Dorothy.
Merrily stood up, feeling ignorant… parochial. Why hadn’t she known about this? The next church to Traherne’s, at Credenhill. Traherne and Wordsworth… separated by more than a century, but two poets with a lot in common. Lovers of landscape, solitude. Nature mystics.
Odd. Was it odd? She walked into the chancel, looked back to where the far window was halved by the bar of the screen, split by the shaft of the cross. This was very much a theme church, St George the principal one. Why did you always feel sorry for the dragon, instantly disliking the smug bastard with the spear? The charitable view was that – lance, deep throat – it was a piece of early sexual symbolism.
She padded across the nave. As usual, alone in a church, Merrily didn’t feel alone, but this time it wasn’t just about God. That little green book of Wordsworth poems suggested that Syd Spicer had been here.
Byron and Syd? Byron who despised Christianity… not a man’s religion, not a soldier’s religion. She felt Syd pondering this, lighting up. He’d want to smoke in here. Too rich for Syd, this place. Wouldn’t have liked the golden angels. Phoney High Church iconography , he’d said of what had been inflicted on his own church at Wychehill. Grotesque.
Syd, you just knew, preferred drab, damp and frugal.
Merrily moved on to a small lady chapel with more Wordsworth memorials. A medieval stone coffin lid in the floor reminded her of the Knights Templar church at Garway. Stories everywhere, written in glass and stone, many of them modern and literal but no less effective for that.
And then she came to what, unmistakably, was the real thing. Out of place, isolated, but probably pre-dating the wall into which it was set.
A stone slab. Carved images. St George again, an early depiction. George in dragon-slaying mode, but on a horse this time. She consulted the leaflet: originally a tympanum, a piece of ornate masonry between the top of a door and the arch. Herefordshire Romanesque. She knew a bit about that – early medieval. The leaflet said that a stone in an adjacent field was believed to mark the actual spot where St George had killed the dragon.
Sure. The St George who apparently was Turkish, the dragon whose legend was set in the Middle East. Merrily imagined Syd tapping his ash on the saint’s helmet, knowing he could’ve taken George, unarmed, any day of the week.
Never quite understood how saints like George fitted into the fabric of Christianity. A medieval thing, probably, an excuse for crusades, brutality masquerading as valour… a frenzy of pure excitement.
There was a whiff of cigarette smoke. Syd Spicer was back.
The Syd of an overheated confessional afternoon in the church at Wychehill, when he’d used those exact words, recalling the lethal focus you acquired in the Regiment.
…a frenzy of pure excitement… I understand the rush you get when you convince yourself that, in the great scheme of things, it’s not only justified but necessary. When you know that a difficult situation can only be resolved by an act of swift, efficient, intense and quite colossal violence.
Merrily was jerked back against the stone by a shuddering in a pocket of her jeans. She fumbled out the mobile.
There was no sound for a couple of seconds, wonky signal, then Fiona’s voice.
‘You’re there, aren’t you?’
‘Brinsop. At the church.’
‘I’d better tell you,’ Fiona said.
The Having Done It
Merrily took the phone outside and stood by the grave of the Wordsworths’ faithful servant Jane Winder. Looking across to the possible moat, the clutch of trees on what might be an island, the viridian march of conifers up the flank of Credenhill.
‘There was a party,’ Fiona said. ‘A publication party. Not for Byron: one of the other better-known SAS authors, a friend of Sam’s, so although he didn’t like parties much he thought we should go. And there were a lot of people there that Sam hadn’t seen in years, so he was doing a fair bit of catching up. Are you still there?’
‘I’ll try and improve the signal.’
Merrily moved up to the high ground behind the church, overlooking lumped and tiered fields where a village might once have stood. The signal had moved up to two stars.
‘When was this?’
‘About a month after the book was burned. I hadn’t been feeling well that night, and Sam was talking to his old mates, so I slid away and sat down at a table on my own. And then Byron was there. Not Liz, just Byron. Sam was conspicuously avoiding him, but he came up to me. Very charming and attentive. Very smooth and elegant in his Heathcliff way. Got me a brandy and sat down. Said he didn’t know what he was doing here, he’d never particularly liked… the author we were supposed to be celebrating, and his book was rubbish.’
‘This was in London?’
‘No, it was a country-house hotel, in Buckinghamshire. We’d decided to stay there, so Sam could have a few drinks. All free – the publishers were spending a lot of money on this guy at the time. A lot more than had ever been spent on Byron, anyway, and he seemed to be taking it as a personal slight. But he was very nice to me. Coming out with all sorts of bullshit. How he wished he had a wife like me, who understood.’
‘Oh, you know, what it was like leaving the Regiment. Having to slow down your metabolism… all this. His metabolism didn’t seem to have slowed at all. He was very intense, whatever he was talking about, very concentrated. Much, I suppose, as you’d imagine he’d be on some operation behind enemy lines. In fact, I remember thinking perhaps that was how he saw this party. Someone else’s wealthy publisher, someone else’s inferior book. As though he was at war with other writers who’d been in the Regiment. The underdog, because his was a kids’ book.’
‘This was before Harry Potter, I presume.’
‘Probably. There was a tremendous… frustration there. Pretty soon, he’s pouring out his troubles, and I’m trying to be sympathetic.’
‘Wife didn’t understand him?’
‘Wife didn’t understand anything. Wife was completely bovine. After a while, I was starting to find it repellent. Self-pity I can handle – it was the venom I didn’t like.’
‘Against life. Anyway… as I said, I really wasn’t feeling terribly well that night. Eventually I excused myself and went to the loo and then went out for a breath of air. In the grounds, which were extensive, though not remote like you get round here. You could always hear traffic. And he was there.’
‘Emerging from the bushes, as though he was on an exercise. The exercise being… I was the exercise, I-God, I can’t believe I’m telling somebody about this with Sam lying in a mortuary. It makes me feel sick. I feel sick now, and I felt sick then.’
‘He was drunk?’
‘No, I don’t actually think he was. I don’t think he needed to be. I wish I could explain what I mean by that. It was as though the… the night had released something in him. Sorry, that sounds stupid.’
‘Not to me. Go on.’
‘When I said I wasn’t feeling well, he put an arm around me and said some air might help, and he walked me away from the terrace. Down across the lawns, away from the floodlit area. What could I do? He’d been a friend. He said he wanted to talk to me. Seriously. Very focused. He told me Sam was making a terrible mistake in going into the church, that he was throwing away his life and damaging his country, and if I didn’t want a life of misery I should stop him. Or leave him.’
‘Bloody hell, Fiona…’
‘He said Sam was an idiot who didn’t deserve me. And a coward. He actually said Sam was a coward. And when I opened my mouth to protest, he… his lips were there. And he started to touch me. Fondle me. As if it was the most natural thing in the world? And I’m going, No, thank you, Byron, let’s go back now. I was pretty terrified, naturally. Also terrified that Sam would find us.’
A pause. Merrily moved back towards the car.
‘That’s not… how it seems,’ Fiona said. ‘I knew that if Sam had found us, what would’ve happened… it would’ve ended in some appalling violence.’
‘But Sam was becoming a priest…’
‘He was trying to become a priest. He’d had long talks with other priests. Used to say there were aspects of himself he’d have to… alter if it was going to work. There’d’ve been no turning of cheeks here, would there?’
‘What did you-?’
‘I mean, it wouldn’t’ve mattered who came to the rescue, would it? The result would be the same. Do you know what I mean? Sooner or later it would involve Sam in violence. These guys, that was the only way it could ever be resolved. I’m not saying it’s the only language they understand, or that they’re stupid and mindless, but Byron…’
Fiona broke off, as if she was trying to rethink this, to see if there was any other way it might be viewed.
‘Byron, the way he was that night… it seemed to me, in those moments, that that was what he wanted. He wanted Sam to come for him. He wanted an excuse to release some kind of animalistic rage.’
‘You mean at Syd, or just…?’
‘I mean that he wasn’t attracted to me, as such… it was because I was Sam’s wife.’
‘There was a real kind of… a real evil about it, I suppose. That is, an emptiness – a hole where love and humanity should be? Is that evil?’
The clouds had gulped up the sun. Merrily, starting to shiver, walked down through the little gate and stepped down towards the car. The fields looked raw and winter-stripped.
‘So… what happened?’
Convinced that Fiona, unprompted, would simply not have finished the story.
‘I didn’t resist him. He had me against the side of a garage block, and I didn’t resist.’
‘He raped you.’
‘It was over very quickly. It was, for him, I think, not so much the doing it as the having done it. What I remember most was the sound of his breath. A hollow sound. As though he was drawing breath from somewhere else. Afterwards, he just said goodnight. I don’t think he even remembered my name.’
‘You’ve never told anyone?’
‘You’re the first.’
One in a million.
Barry had said that.
Merrily smoked half a cigarette, put on her coat and went back into the church.
Up to the glittery chancel, but it didn’t feel right. She walked back down the nave and across to the Romanesque stone tympanum. St George spearing a snake-like dragon. An untypical St George in a kind of pleated skirt. Essential violence.
Fiona had said she’d gone back into the hotel through another door. Gone upstairs to their room and locked herself in and showered for a long time and put on fresh make-up and a different dress. Syd had been looking for her. She told him she hadn’t been well. She said she’d been sick and had had to change.
All that night, her skin had felt greasy and she’d had a filthy taste at the back of her throat.
Merrily thought about Denzil Joy, found she was breathing far too fast and became aware that on the wall opposite her, above the church door, another act of violence was evoked in smoke.
She stood staring at it, uncomprehending for a few moments, taking several long breaths before approaching it across the space at the back of the nave.
It was not smoke. Nor was it imagination. She stopped, flipping feverishly through the leaflet.
The 13th century wall painting above the door is of The Crucifixion.
Like most wall paintings, there wasn’t much left. Could have been a dampness stain, like the grey monk in Huw’s chapel.
Two pains… the first wrought to the drying while his body was moist, and that other slow, with blowing of wind from without…
All the colours gone. The cross gone. He was a corpse or very nearly, drained of all resistance. His head, dead weight, had collapsed into an elbow. His body was brittle as a chrysalis, flaking into the wall.
Four-thirty. Too quiet in the CID room. An air of getting nowhere.
‘Boss, you’re dead on your feet,’ Karen said. ‘Go home, eh?’
‘I’m all right. Just sick of drawing blanks. Not even as if it’s a wall of silence.’
Bliss quite liked a wall of silence. Justified the use of a wrecking ball. Problem here was that once you were over the language barriers the Bulgarians, Romanians, Lithuanians, Poles would tell you anything you wanted. All of them shattered by the East Street atrocity. Not an enemy in the world, these girls. Clean-living, religious. Just wanted to make some money to send home.
Men? Of course not. They were inseparable, anyway. The prevailing opinion now was that they’d somehow, perhaps innocently, offended one of the criminal gangs. That the men seen by Carly and Joss in the Monk’s Head were hard-core. Following the sisters out, pretending to fancy them, that was just an act.
‘Something will give,’ Karen said. ‘On the third day, something always gives. Now, please, will you go home? Me and Darth can hold it together till the morning. Have a big glass of whisky and go to bed. Anything breaks, we’ll send a car for you?’
‘Yeah,’ Bliss said.
‘Now, boss? Straight home?’
‘I’m gonna make a call first. I’ll be in my office.’
In the office he didn’t quite shut the door and stood by the gap, out of sight, listening. But nobody seemed to be talking about the DI beating up his wife and nobody’s expression changed when he walked back in, claiming he’d left his chewy behind.
Bliss sat down and put in a call to Jeremy Berrows, who farmed beyond Kington, where Herefordshire met the paler hills of Radnorshire. Jeremy lived with a lot of sheep and a lot of sheep-dogs. Also with a beautiful woman called Natalie, who was known to the police from way, way back, but it was all right now.
‘You sounds a bit on edge, Mr Bliss,’ Jeremy said.
He was what people called an old-fashioned kind of farmer, open to superstitions and signs and portents. A haloed moon, three magpies, the ash out before the oak, all that. Jeremy thought his land confided in him.
Bliss said, ‘You’ve got Mansel Bull’s dogs, I believe. All of them.’
‘They’re a gang. He didn’t wanner split them up. Problem with that?’
‘We’re talking to everybody who’d had dealings with Mansel.’
‘Wasn’t exactly a deal. Bit of an agreement, that’s all, between two blokes as knew a bit about dogs and sheep. Not everybody got along with Mansel, but he looked after his dogs.’
‘And you came and took them after he died.’
‘Before. Just as well. His brother woulder stopped it. Trained dog’s worth money. Or mabbe he’d’ve had the whole bunch shot.’
‘Mabbe that’s unfair,’ Jeremy said.
‘See, apart from the inhumanity of that, Jeremy, it would indicate a fairly strong element of not exactly honouring his brother’s memory.’
Jeremy didn’t reply. Bliss liked the sound of the silence. He’d once listened to the lovely Natalie at the right time, and whilst Jeremy didn’t exactly owe him…
‘Word is,’ Bliss said, ‘that Sollers wasn’t too pleased when Mansel sold that ground. Any whispers about that?’
‘Don’t go much on whispers. Too many of ’em round yere’s been about me and Nat. As you know.’
‘How is she?’
How many local people knew about Natalie’s time in detention was debatable. The probability was that the gossip was just about how a little woolly-haired farmer held on to a serious beauty from Off. But it was unlikely either of them would ever be able to relax.
‘Jeremy, you’re a straight sort of bloke, as farmers go, so I’ll be straight with you. I think there’s quite a lot Sollers Bull hasn’t told us. I accept you don’t listen much to gossip, but how did you feel things were between Mansel and Sollers?’
‘Different generations, different attitudes. Mansel was a businessman in the ole sense. Tight as a duck’s arse, but you knowed where you was. Sollers is all for the image. Puttin’ hisself around. Prize cattle at the Royal Welsh, diversifyin’, farm shops and cafes. Huntin’. I was at school with him for a few years. Lady Hawkins.’
‘And what was he like at school?’
‘Figures. See, I’m guessing Mansel would realize Sollers wouldn’t be too keen on him flogging that ground to the fruit farm. So why’d Mansel do it? Bit of pique, maybe?’
‘No, no, that wasn’t it at all, he…’
Jeremy sounded uncertain again, like he was worried about breaking a confidence.
‘He’s dead, Jeremy. He was killed. It was mairder. Remember?’
‘Wasn’t going well, that’s all. The dogs. Mansel thought mabbe he was losin’ it.’
‘What, his marbles?’
‘His skill. Had three shelves full of awards. Come close to winning One Man and His Dog on the box, once. Then it wasn’t workin’ n’more. Used to train his dogs down by the river, but Sollers wanted more ground for his cattle, and he had to move up to the top field. Not used much for stock, usually they just had the hay off it. And it wasn’t the same. Seemed obvious to me it wasn’t the dogs, but he was losin’ heart. Mansel, either he was on top or he didn’t wanner know – got that much in common with Sollers, at least.’
‘I’m not sure what you’re saying, Jeremy.’
‘Couldn’t hack it. Dogs was all over the place some days. He’d give a command, dog’d go for it real slow. Or run off, back down to the river. Couldn’t count on ’em. He was gettin’ real depressed. Thought it was his age. Got so he didn’t wanner take the dogs out n’more.’
‘So you got all these valuable dogs for nothing from a man who’s known for being tight as a duck’s arse?’
‘Too many dogs is more of a burden than anything, Mr Bliss. We agreed mabbe he’d have ’em back one day. I told him I reckoned it wasn’t about him and it wasn’t about his dogs. They works fine yere. Poetry.’
‘I’m not getting this.’
‘You’re a copper, Mr Bliss. Nobody ’spects you to get it. Had to be a reason them top fields wasn’t used much – and that was how it was for years. Generations, mabbe. I had a walk over it when I went to fetch the dogs. Some places, the air feels loaded. A place looks quiet, but it en’t. A lot of ravens, too, for some reason.’
‘Ravens.’ Bliss thought about this, and it was Vasile Bocean all over again. ‘You know what, Jeremy?’ he said. ‘I’m tired.’
He sat at his desk for several minutes. All right, raised a Catholic and, whatever anybody said, you never lost that and all the baggage. And what Jeremy had been hinting at – feelings, atmosphere – he wouldn’t entirely rubbish any of it. Privately. In the midnight hour. It was just nothing to do with police work. It didn’t help.
He got up and stood by his window. The sky was like the inside of an orange peel. The light nights were coming. Didn’t like them any more, dark was best, watching the lights going out across the road, on the hill above Great Malvern.
Colleagues only. The way those words had been pinballing round his head all day. Telling himself she didn’t mean it, she’d come round. He’d find some way of bringing her round. Have to. Couldn’t lose this. Couldn’t let it just come apart like a cheap supermarket bag.
Somehow, he had to get Kirsty to refute any suggestion that he’d ever abused her physically. She could call him any kind of shit as long as she told the truth about that, sent it back up the line.
Bliss pulled out his iPhone, checked his incomings. No e-mails of any consequence, just the one phone message.
Annie Howe. Thank Christ. Bliss clicked on it. Annie’s voice was very low, but not so low the words weren’t metallically distinct.
‘ Didn’t think I could be surprised any more at the level of your blind stupidity.’
Bliss clapped the phone tight to his ear, both hands around it in case anybody came in.
‘ Don’t know how you could have thought for one minute that I wouldn’t find out. Your wife. Your own bloody wife.’
Deadness for several seconds.
‘ Anyway,’ Annie said, ‘ That’s it.’
End of message.
Bliss wrenched the phone away from his ear, stabbed at the screen to call her back. All right, no, he couldn’t explain why he hadn’t told her about Kirsty’s suspicions, except to say that he hadn’t believed the bitch, couldn’t imagine how she could possibly know about Annie. Still didn’t know.
Annie’s phone was switched off.
Bliss stared at the iPhone, all the little symbols, the ten thousand useless friggin’ apps. Rubbed the cold sweat from his forehead.
So who had the bitch told?
He strode out of the office, through the CID room without speaking to anybody, down the stairs and out of the building, his face and the back of his neck feeling like they were badly sunburned.
The Energy of Sorrow
Lol watched Merrily collapse back into his sofa. Late sun honeying the room, red veins pulsing among the ashes at the bottom of the woodstove. As so often these days, Merrily looked vacant, wiped-out.
‘So where do I go from here?’
Lol was thinking maybe a new career. It was a crap job, the clergy, and no indication it would ever get better. So much open contempt now. The Church, God, the afterlife – all delusion. Thinking it and getting a buzz out of saying it, loudly, in public, on TV, and the only people who shouted back were the crazy fundamentalists like his late parents who’d cut him out of their lives.
Merrily had come home this afternoon to find the answering machine going, Uncle Ted, the churchwarden, trying to lean on her, before tonight’s parish meeting, about his plans to turn the church into a greasy spoon. It was about paying bills.
The bleeping of the answering machine had chased her out of the house and across the road in search of sanctuary. I think I need help , she’d said, and they’d talked for an hour, sharing an omelette and toast. She’d told him about last night’s visit from James Bull-Davies and everything she’d learned about a man called Byron Jones. From Barry, from Jones’s ex-wife and, finally, Syd’s wife, Fiona.
‘You believe this man raped her?’
‘You think it’s something she’d invent?’
‘But she didn’t go to the police. Or to anyone.’
‘Syd would’ve killed him.’
‘And now he’s dead, does Mrs Spicer want you to do something about this?’
‘I’m not sure.’
Lol sat down next to Merrily.
‘How would she feel about you simply dumping it all on Bull-Davies? Who asked you to share.’
‘She wouldn’t like that. I’m only telling you because I know it won’t go out of this house. I mean, who is William Lockley? Why does he want the information? Does he want to use it or suppress it? Who am I working for?’
‘So tell Bull-Davies what you’ve heard about Jones without naming names. And then back off.’
‘Can’t now. Not with Syd’s funeral.’
‘That,’ Lol said, ‘was a mistake.’
He slid off the sofa, gathered up two logs from the hearth, opened the stove and put them in. Watching the fire seizing one, thinking of the insatiable furnace in a crematorium, where quickie funerals were conducted by a duty vicar who’d never met the customer.
And this… this was the summation of a life, Merrily would protest. Where was the electricity, the surge of transition, the smoothing of the final earthly path by the subtle energy of sorrow? No wonder some of them didn’t rest. She didn’t do quickies. A properly conducted funeral needed the history. Bottom line: if she’d felt an obligation to Syd before, now it was cast in bronze.
‘What was I supposed to say? No, thanks, best to find somebody who doesn’t give a toss? Lol, it’s like he’s haunting me. The way he showed up at the chapel. I keep hearing that flat voice in my head when I’m not expecting it. “Samuel Dennis Spicer, Church of England”. Smell his cigarette smoke in church.’
‘Isn’t there a term for that?’
‘Arising from guilt. Self-recrimination,’ Lol said. ‘Misplaced.’
‘No, this is something else.’ Merrily stood up, walked to the window, looked across the cobbles at the vicarage. ‘He was taking steps to protect himself against something he considered evil. He goes out on Credenhill with a Bergen full of Bible, as if he knows he isn’t coming back. And he leaves these books behind like clues to something. One pointing directly at a man who went from good friend to bitter enemy.’
‘Just do a meaningful funeral. Pray for both their souls or something.’
‘Sure.’ She smiled. ‘Walk away. Credenhill’s twenty minutes down the road.’
‘And always go the other way to Hereford.’
Lol had planned to tell her, finally, about Jane and Cornel and the cockfighting, but that would be too much for her to handle. Needed to deal with that himself. At least with Danny and Gomer on the case he felt better about it. Get the evidence, share it with Jane, then take it to the RSPCA and the police. Let Jane take the credit if it worked out; shield her from repercussions if it didn’t.
He sat down on the hearthrug, looking up at Merrily on the sofa. She looked small, vulnerable, and there must be something he could do.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we try and work this out?’
‘Don’t have much time. Parish meeting at seven. Maundy service tomorrow. Chrism mass at the Cathedral – I’m not going to make that this year. Why does Easter always come at the wrong time?’
‘Does Barry know anything about this?’
‘I don’t think Barry’s told me everything he knows. I don’t think he knows about the rape, but he does think Byron’s a dangerous man. Warned me not to try and talk to him.’
‘But you still went to find him.’
‘No… I just went to the church because there was clearly something there that fascinated him. He must’ve spent virtually everything he had buying that land.’
‘Where he now stages war games behind barbed wire?’ Lol leaned back against an inglenook wall. ‘The rift between him and Syd – what was that about?’
‘All we know for sure is that he hated Syd becoming an ordained priest. Byron’s own religious beliefs, if he had any, appear to have been pagan. Saw himself as a Celt, like his hero Caradog. Locked away in his tower room, turning himself into Caradog. Leaving Caradog’s… ambience.’
‘If I’ve got this right,’ Lol said, ‘Caradog held out against the Romans until he was betrayed and captured and taken to Rome. Where his oratory made him a celeb. A hero.’
‘But Byron’s fictional story seems to deviate. He’s not interested in oratory. His Caradog has to impress the Romans with his military skills. Which are obviously akin to SAS methods. I called in at the bookshop to see what the chances were of getting his other books, but Amanda says they’re out of print.’
‘And Caradog was a druid?’
‘He worked with druids. According to the stories.’
‘What might Jones have been doing, then, in that tower room?’
‘Maybe meditation, visualization. To focus his mind for the writing.’
‘And the smell?’
‘I don’t even want to think about the smell.’
‘Did Syd know Byron was at Brinsop, when he took on the job?’
‘That’s the interesting question. I’d say he did. My feeling is that he always knew where Byron was, at any given time. When Byron was at Allensmore, Syd went to see him, maybe to try and sort something out… but maybe not. “They’re all dead,” he’s saying. “All dead now.” Who did he mean?’
Merrily spread her hands in defeat.
Lol said, ‘Would Syd have known, do you think, the reason Byron wanted to live at Brinsop? Or at least have an idea?’
‘Let’s assume he did. Let’s also assume there a connection with this very unusual church, which Byron kept photographing from the air.’
‘How would he do that?’
‘Not a problem in this area. He’d know people with private planes. Helicopters. A lot of the SAS had contacts with Shobdon airfield. Recreational. Parachute clubs, all this.’
‘It’s just that aerial photography might suggest the site of the church is more important than the church itself,’ Lol said.
‘And lines. He’d drawn lines across the aerial photos.’
‘Possibly. Not saying a word to Jane. I don’t want her within five miles of Byron Jones.’
‘Leys, if they exist, are pre-Celtic,’ Lol said. ‘Bronze Age or earlier.’
‘I’m just telling you what Liz said.’
‘I’d quite like to look at Byron’s book sometime.’
‘It’s in my bag.’ Merrily gathered it up from the floor and stood. ‘In fact, they’re all here. I’ll leave you the Wordsworth, too. Any perceptions, flashes of inspiration… would be very welcome.’
‘Merrily…’ Just inside the door, he grabbed hold of her, hugged her, hard. ‘I’m sorry…’
‘What for, exactly?’
She kissed him and he felt a quiver in her.
‘Been letting things slide,’ he murmured. ‘When something’s finally paying the mortgage, you tend to go at it round the clock in case it doesn’t last. And you forget what’s really important.’
‘At least you don’t have God on your back. Swan later?’
Lol opened the front door. Up the street, at the Eight Till Late, Jim Prosser was taking in his paper rack. A news bill said: HEREFORD HORROR.
Lol watched Merrily walking back to the vicarage. The voice in his head sang, Do something. But he didn’t know where to start.
Seer Takes Fire
The blood on the book cover was embossed, glossy-bubbled against the background’s matt black and greys and the white title.
They came, they saw…
Lol took it over to the desk in the window, flipping through for any local place names. Nothing he recognized immediately, but it was, after all, fiction.
He took the legionnaire from behind. A thrust to the spine and then, as the man fell back, moved around and hacked off his head from the front, a practised upward stroke. They were easy meat, most of them, mercenaries who’d never seen Rome. They obeyed orders and understood discipline – he’d give them that. But they lacked the ability to think for themselves or operate in small units. And, as lowly foot soldiers, they were not attuned to the higher energies known to the elite and now, at last, known to Caradog, who felt them rising like fire from the pit of his gut. A fire kindled from the sun itself.
Cartoon violence. Kids loved this stuff, but they’d probably turn off at the first mention of higher energies. Lol scanned several chapters, finding two more references to Caradog drawing energy from the sun, at one stage holding up his sword to catch the light before going calmly into battle and efficiently slaying a large number of Romans.
Druids worshipped the sun.
It was a start. Lol opened up his laptop, put Google on the case. There was modern druidry, the religious arm of Greenpeace, and there was the kind the Romans had known, altogether darker, with animal and possibly human sacrifice. But the Roman accounts might have been propaganda.
He Googled Wordsworth and Brinsop. Quite a lot. Wordsworth had been Poet Laureate when he was holidaying at Brinsop Court.
And then the Net, as occasionally happened, threw up an unexpected link – not to Brinsop but somewhere not far away – which sent Lol back to the small green book: Wordsworth’s Britain: a little itinerary.
He found it tucked in after ‘Tintern Abbey’. A poem commemorating:
ROMAN ANTIQUITIES DISCOVERED AT BISHOPSTONE, HEREFORDSHIRE
While poring Antiquarians search the ground
Upturned with curious pains, the Bard, a Seer,
Takes fire:-The men that have been reappear;
Romans for travel girt, for business gowned;
And some recline on couches, myrtle-crowned,
In festal glee: why not…
The poem was dated 1835 and carried a note from Wordsworth describing its inspiration: a Roman pavement discovered only yards from the front door of Bishopstone parsonage: in full view of several hills upon which there had formerly been Roman encampments
Doubtless including Credenhill, with its Iron Age fort. In Wordsworth’s day, any kind of camp might be considered Roman.
Lol put a block of ash on the stove and dug into the shelves for an OS map: Hereford, Leominster and surrounding area. Cleared his desk and opened out the map to the area west of Hereford.
It brought an invisible landscape into existence in various archaic fonts and symbols.
ROMAN ROAD (course of)
Again and again: Roman roads either side of the Wye. One skirting Credenhill. Under the hill was Brinsop, the church marked only by a small + but earthworks and moat nearby signifying an area of extreme antiquity.
Bishopstone, a hamlet with a church, was no distance from Brinsop. Directly east of it, two more Roman roads made a kind of V-formation into the point of which was tucked something identified on the map as RAF Hereford. Which could only be the SAS camp. Just before the Roman roads converged on MAGNIS (ROMAN TOWN) the ruins of which, according to several Internet sites, had still been visible in recorded memory. Much of the masonry had gone into the foundations of Hereford. By 1772, the antiquarian William Stukely was discussing a fine mosaic floor unearthed at Kenchester and the remains of a temple, and also noting that one Colonel Dantsey had paved his cellar with Roman bricks.
Around the original Roman army camp there had been evidence of streets and shops. The remains of a shrine had been uncovered near the Wye, part of a villa found in the river itself.
Lol went through to his kitchen for a glass of water, digesting the key point: the SAS, quite recently, had moved its headquarters from Hereford itself to a former RAF base at the convergence of two Roman roads serving a Roman military base.
Back to the roots.
Brinsop Church, however, was part of a different story. He remembered it now. Remembered a wet Sunday when he and Jane had been enthusiastically defacing another copy of this same map, circling every stone, mound, cross and old church, marking up every conceivable alignment of prehistoric sites and then checking them out to see if they’d found anything that Alfred Watkins had missed. Alfred Watkins of Hereford, the original Simple Trackway Man on whom Lol and Danny had based the song. Whom Jane claimed for an ancestor.
Lol pulled down his copy of The Old Straight Track, Watkins’s masterpiece, the book which, long after his death, had sent generations of Brits – young hippies, old hippies, pre-hippies, post-hippies like Lol, post post-hippies like Jane out into the countryside, to find the stones and mounds and mysterious church formations that lit up an alternative Britain.
OK, most archaeologists rubbished the idea, but it was still exciting to think of being surrounded by ancient landscape patterns, which also drew in churches because so many of them had been built on sites of prehistoric pagan worship. You saw church towers and steeples, you saw four thousand years of ritual.
And, in the middle, the Romans.
Alfred Watkins had suggested that the Roman roads had often followed the old straight tracks – in his view more by design than accident, as if the Romans had merely widened existing prehistoric routes. Lol felt a twitch of connection. He’d known that, of course. Even worked it into ‘The Simple Trackway Man’.
From moat to mound we’ll mark the ground
From barrow to camp we’ll carry the lamp
From Roman road to trader’s track
And over the pitch and all the way back.
Interesting to think this guy Byron, a man who could rape a friend’s wife, might have been on the same trail, fascinated by the same magic landscape.
He’d drawn lines across the aerial photos.
Lol found a pencil and, using the edge of The Old Straight Track as a ruler, drew in three of the lines that he and Jane had found radiating from Brinsop Church, one linking it with four other medieval churches.
Brinsop Church was on a site of some significance and, although it was only a few miles away, he’d never even seen it.
The sun was low in the sky over Ledwardine, but there were a good two hours of daylight left to find what could be found. Lol picked up his car keys, went out to his truck.
Brinsop Church was locked now. Maybe the smoking ghost of Syd Spicer was inside, waiting there in motionless, crampless silence, the way the SAS could. Waiting for a signal.
Lol moved among the graves through the soft light. The bell tower was crisp against the cooling sky, the giant conifer black, like a knobbly monolith.
It didn’t matter that the church was locked. Outside, the landscape had revealed itself. The Ordnance Survey map was opened out in his head, the lines drawn in.
At the end of the short grass, before the woodland began its march up Credenhill, you could see, like an entrance to the underworld, what the OS map identified as moat. Alfred Watkins thought some moats might have been dug not for protection but to mark the tracks by reflecting sunlight or beacon fire or lamplight.
Lol had looked across the dark stain of the moat to the wooded thigh of Credenhill, imagining the pale essences of long-gone villagers walking the spirit paths that intersected here. Syd Spicer following some distance behind, cautiously adjusting to being dead.
In the adjacent field, a stile gave access to a squat monolith on top of a circular stone slab with a metal drain cover set into it. On the stone it said The Dragon Well. As it was unlikely that a dragon had died here, what did it actually mean?
Half an hour ago, standing at the side of the lane somewhere around Kenchester, Lol had gazed out over the fields which enclosed the ghost of the Roman town. He’d seen isolated farms and, further away, on the higher ground, the frames of this year’s polytunnels spreading like worm-casts.
He’d driven past the SAS camp with its armed guards. A military base built close to, maybe even on top of, the buried remains of another. What could that mean? What could it mean to Byron Jones?
A cyclist was bobbing along the lane, dipping periodically behind the hedge, heading this way. Lol waited. The man wheeled the bike to the dead end of the track. He was thin and bearded, maybe in his early sixties, wearing a scarf and a flat cap.
‘Nice truck,’ he said. ‘Animal or Warrior?’
A match flared. The guy applied it to a roll-up.
‘Used to have one meself. Comfy, for a truck.’
He looked like an archetypal peasant, therefore obviously from Off.
‘On your own, mate?’
‘It’s what country churchyards are for,’ Lol said. ‘Being alone.’
‘Not so much these days. One of the finest St George churches in England, this, but who bovvers now?’
The guy checked him out again, then took a step back.
‘Hang about… I fink… stone me! I was at your gig. In the floods? At Ledwardine? Hey… how cool is this?’
Lol smiled, a bit bashful. This never used to happen at all, but it had occurred a dozen or so times since Christmas. Local recognition: a mixed blessing.
‘Forget what I said,’ the guy said. ‘This is exactly the right setting for you, Lol. There should be a soundtrack. Sunny Days?’
The edges of his Londonish accent were rounded off, as if he’d been living here a good while.
‘Well, you know, that was a long time ago,’ Lol said.
‘Well, I had it first time around, I’m proud to say. Hazey Jane. First album I ever bought by a band a good bit younger than me. Big fing, that, when you first accept younger guys can get it right. Seventeen, was you?’
‘Another lifetime,’ Lol said.
The guy put out a hand.
‘Arthur Baxter. Bax. I live a mile or so back there, over the pitch. Still come here most nights, on me bike. Meet the dragon.’
‘You feel his breath?’
‘Like a blow-heater?’
‘Exactly.’ Bax grinned. ‘You know the story?’
‘Um… no. You got time?’
‘Got all night, mate – the missus is rehearsing a community play, down the leisure centre at Credenhill. Dragon’s drinking at the well, right? George comes down off of Credenhill, lookin’ for trouble. Slash, slash, spear downa froat, all over.’ Bax took a meditative drag. ‘You out here looking for inspiration, Lol? If you’re not, don’t spoil it for me. I wanna point to a song one day and go, I was there when he got that one.’ Bax drew deeply on his cigarette, offered it to Lol. ‘Try this? It ain’t bad.’
A certain sweetness drifting up. More than one kind of dragon. Lol smiled, shook his head, nodded at the truck. Bax assured Lol that he’d been biking these lanes, pleasantly stoned, for the best part of two decades, never once been stopped.
‘Tell you how far back this all goes,’ Bax said. ‘If we could get into the church you’d see this old stone slab with a picture carved on it of St George and the dragon. Only George is wearing like a skirt? Which means somebody seen him either as a cross-dresser or a Roman soldier – you know the little whatsits they had, wiv the belt?’
‘St George is portrayed as a Roman?’
‘Well, that’s the answer, innit? That’s what it’s about. It’s the Romans slaughtering the Celts. You really here for inspiration?’
Lol told Bax about ‘The Simple Trackway Man’. Which could use another verse. Bax was delighted, clapped his hands.
‘A lot of Roman stuff around here, too,’ Lol said. ‘Or there used to be. I was reading this poem by Wordsworth. “The men that have been reappear”.’
‘Yeah, yeah, I know it. Often wonder… did he see them?’ Bax waved his spliff. ‘Bigger than they know, that Roman town. Me and the missus found maybe a dozen coins down the years.’
‘And the men who reappear?’
Bax shuffled around, prodded a tyre on his bike.
‘I live in hope.’
Lol said, ‘Ever come across a bloke called Byron Jones?’
‘Round here? Should I have?’
‘I think he lives in a caravan. Or he did.’
‘Oh…’ Bax blew out smoke. ‘You mean Colin Jones?’
‘He don’t live in the caravan no more. Got permission for a bungalow on the edge of his land. The Compound. Nice, too. Swimming pool.’
‘That’s what it looks like. All that high barbed-wire fencing. Don’t know him, exactly. We are acquainted. He does intensive fitness training. Got a gym in there and an assault course where you swing over a pond on a rope, that kinda caper. You know him?’
‘Know of him.’
‘Ex-Sass. And then he was a minder. Quite well fought of, in these parts.’ Bax sniffed. ‘As they are, the Sass.’
‘People like you… ever go on these courses?’
‘Me? Nah. Wouldn’t be able to afford it. Though occasionally Mr Jones offers a one-day crash-course sort of thing to local boys, for nothing. Excellent for local relations.’ Bax took a long, noisy pull on his spliff, now down to a fragment. ‘Blimey, that din’t last long, did it?’