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

The Smile of a Ghost

Phil Rickman

In the affluent, historic town of Ludlow, a teenage boy dies in a fall from the castle ruins. Accident or suicide? No great mystery — so why does the boy's uncle, retired detective Andy Mumford, turn to diocesan exorcist Merrily Watkins? More people will die before Merrily, her own future uncertain, uncovers a dangerous obsession with suicide, death and the afterlife hidden within these shadowed medieval streets.

The Smile of a Ghost

(The seventh book in the Merrily Watkins series)

A novel by Phil Rickman

Mumford

ALL THE PEOPLE who’d told Mumford, It’s a new beginning.

All the beaming faces blurred by pint glasses frosted with froth, all the damp handshakes. Mumford mumbling, Ah, thanks… thank you… very nice… ’course I will… No, I won’t be going nowhere… yes… no… thank you.

Andy Mumford, who didn’t see the point of new beginnings – complete waste of half a lifetime’s experience. Andy Mumford who had just wanted to carry on.

The way this town had carried on: the oldest town he knew – or at least the one that looked oldest. Bent and sagging, and people loved it for that, and nobody looked up at the crooked gables and the worm-riddled beams and said, What this old place needs is A New Beginning.

Mumford felt a gassy fury inside, like in one of the first-ever pictures he could remember – in a children’s encyclopaedia, it was, and it showed the inside of a volcano close to eruption. How many years ago was that now – forty-four, forty-five? God almighty.

Not that anybody would ever know about the volcano in Mumford. Not showing it was the one thing he was real good at. Not showing his excitement when the suspect in the interview room said the wrong thing at the right time, springing the trap. Not showing what he really wanted to do to the rat-eyed rapist with a cellar full of porno videos. Never showing his feelings because he was a professional and because he was…

… imperturbable.

Clumsy old word, bit of a mouthful, but probably the nicest thing anybody ever said about him in all those years in the Job. And that was all right. Imperturbable implied solid, reliable… professional.

Only, what bloody use was being totally professional when you didn’t have a profession any more? What use was imperturbable ever going to be to him again?

Mumford walked up Broad Street, Ludlow, which some folk maintained was the most beautiful street in the most beautiful medieval market town in the country, and it might as well have been a semi-derelict industrial estate for all he noticed.

Warmish evening now, Easter just gone and the town coming alive for the tourists, everybody’s world opening up, Mumford’s closing down. What would he do, day to day, through the summer? And then the autumn and the winter and then another year. Another thirty years, if he was spared. The length of his career all over again. Thirty years of what’s the point?

He reached the top of the wide street, across from the Buttercross, the old market building with its fancy little clock, behind it the tower of St Laurence’s soaring over a tight mesh of streets and alleys. The whole scene warm and golden. Andy Mumford feeling as warm and golden, frankly, as shit.

Ludlow wasn’t his town, mind. Mumford came from Leominster, back in Herefordshire, a dozen or so miles down the A49. It was just that his Mam and Dad had moved here to take over a little shop after the old man retired from the Force (‘Why don’t you get yourself a little shop, Andy?’ some bastard had said in the pub; Andy could’ve nutted him) and now Gail was working part-time as an auxiliary nurse at Ludlow Community Hospital.

Because Gail was still a professional.

For probably the first time ever, Mumford had brought his wife to work this morning and he’d come back now – after what had to have been the longest day of his entire life – to pick her up. Tonight they were going to have a meal at one of the fancy new restaurants that had opened up here.

A celebration meal. A couple of extra glasses of wine for him because Gail would be driving them home. A toast to a new beginning. A meal they wouldn’t normally think of affording in the town that, with all these new eateries, had become the Food Capital of the Welsh Marches – Mumford conceding that, for the town, this probably did, in fact, qualify as a new beginning. Always been prosperous, but it had real wealth now, all these poncy-voiced bastards moving up from London with their silver knives and forks.

Mumford glared, with this new resentment, at the little shops with their blinds down and the dark windows of the Buttercross where the town councillors met and patted each other on the back and swapped the odd Masonic handshake.

He was in his best suit, the suit he’d last worn to collect his commendation from the Chief Constable, and Gail had brought to work some nice clothes to change into at his Mam and Dad’s house down the bottom of town, behind the new Tesco’s.

Which was why Mumford was walking uptown… trying to get himself into the right mood to face his Mam and his bloody Dad for the first time since the Home Office had officially repossessed his warrant card. Needing to sound a bit jovial from now on, on account of imperturbable was no longer enough to see him through. He was expected to become a member of the human race. To become Andy.

Andy, the dumpy, middle-aged, genial, smiling, bastard civilian.

We’ll likely be seeing a bit more of you at last, then, Andy, Mam had said the other night on the phone. You can do a bit of decorating for us, if you want to. And Robbie, he wants to show you all his favourite places in the town, don’t you, Robbie? He’s nodding, see. He’s always saying when’s Uncle Andy coming?

Robbie, his young nephew, his sister’s boy from Hereford, who preferred to spend the school holidays with his grandparents in Ludlow, even though his grandad despised him.

I’ll be getting some kind of job, Mumford had snapped back. En’t that old yet.

Guessing that when he got there tonight she’d have forgotten he was even retired. In any other job he wouldn’t have been. If he’d just been a bit more ambitious in the early years, if he’d pushed a bit more, he could’ve made Inspector and stayed on till he was sixty. But he was a plodder, and the plodders didn’t get promoted and so they were forced into retirement at fifty. And everybody thought that, being plodders, they were looking forward to it: crown-green bowls, growing sprouts, bloody line-dancing.

Surprisingly, the only bit of understanding had come from Francis Bliss, his last boss, who was fifteen years younger and, as a senior officer, still had another twenty-odd years to serve if he wanted it.

CID room, Mumford’s last morning, Bliss frowning.

This is all to cock, this system, Andy. We just throw away our best natural resources, like pressing the fuckin’ delete button on thirty years of database.

He’d respected Bliss for that. Realized how much he’d come to respect Bliss as a detective, too, despite him being a smart-mouth from Merseyside. Knew that when the time came, unless the world was a very different place by then, Bliss – never a man you’d call imperturbable – would go out cursing.

Cursing.

Mumford looked up at the hard, shiny evening sky, ready to curse God.

But God got in first.

God pulled the rug from under the slippers that Mumford was never going to wear.

He was turning the corner to walk up to Castle Square when he heard it coming up behind him, a sound that used to make his blood race but now seemed more like a taunt, and he wanted to shut it out. The way this morning he’d punched in the button on his alarm clock – which he’d routinely set without a thought last night – and then lain there staring into the white-skied emptiness of a new day.

Ambulance. He stood on the corner under the dull maroon façade of McCartney’s estate agents, and watched it barrelling through the narrows, a couple of tourists glancing up in annoyance like it ought to be horse-drawn in Ludlow.

He didn’t really mean to follow the thing. It wasn’t even instinct, just that it was heading the same way as he was. In fact, he nearly turned back when he saw the patrol car on the square under the Cheddar-cheese-coloured perimeter wall of Ludlow Castle.

He did, in fact, turn away when the first copper came out of the gateway, near the old cannon from Sevastopol, and he saw it was Steve Britton, station sergeant at Ludlow – no hair left but still a few years yet to serve, and even then they’d probably keep him on as a civilian.

But Steve had seen him.

‘Andy?’

Mumford kept on walking, figuring Steve would think it was a case of mistaken identity or that Mumford hadn’t heard him. But then he heard footsteps – not merely footsteps, police boots – clattering across the empty square, and Steve Britton was shouting now.

‘Andy!’

So he had to stop and stand there, waiting wearily, in front of Woolworths, staring down at the pavement, steeling himself for what was coming: Andy, mate, I’ve only just heard. Free at last then, eh? Look, I get off in an hour, we’ll have a couple of jars.

But when Steve Britton drew level with him it was different.

Steve’s long melon face was damp with sweat and his eyes had a look that Mumford recognized straight off. A look he’d probably had on a few dozen times himself over the years, carrying out just about the worst chore you ever got saddled with as a copper.

Confusing, though, on account of he’d never faced it before.

Never actually been on the receiving end, feeling that sharp, flat punch of dread – a punch deep to the gut, right where, a few minutes ago, the volcano had been simmering.

Andy couldn’t say anything. He just stared at Steve, and at his uniform. Wobbling slightly, experiencing, for the first time ever, what the sight of that uniform on your doorstep meant to the average person with no drugs in the house.

‘Andy…’ Steve getting his breath back. ‘You been down to your mother’s tonight?’

‘Not yet.’ His mother? Andy felt his own breath catch. ‘Something happened? Something happened, Steve?’

Far from bloody imperturbable, the way that came out. Realizing how scared he was now, how exposed, the streets spinning.

‘Yes,’ Steve said. ‘Something’s happened.’

Walking with Steve Britton back to the castle.

The castle, of all places. Christ.

The castle was ruined but pretty big, a lot of it left. You couldn’t see much from here, the town side, but from down below, across the river, it was still massive and imposing and had been dominating Ludlow for most of the last millennium.

Mumford had probably been in there just twice in the whole of his life, and never in the last twenty years.

But Robbie practically lived here when he was staying with his grandparents, which was every school holiday since his mother moved in with the toe-rag. Robbie, the history buff. Quiet, likeable boy, covering up for his gran, day after day.

Please God, not Robbie. This’ll destroy her.

Couldn’t be, anyway. No logic to it.

‘How’d this boy gain access, Steve?’

‘We figure he stayed in. Hid somewhere after they closed the castle for the night. There’s a hundred places to hide… inside these little passages, the towers… it’s a bloody honeycomb.’

It actually looked like a honeycomb, all yellow and orange in the evening light. The main gates were wide open, a young uniform Mumford didn’t recognize guarding the entrance.

You forgot how big this castle was. Inside the perimeter walls there was a green open space where they had sideshows and medieval-type displays in summer, and then the Christmas Fair. From here a stone footbridge took you over the moat, which was all dried up now, leading into the main fortification with this huge gatehouse tower that had been the old Norman… keep, was that the word?

Robbie would know.

Couldn’t be. One fourteen-year-old boy looked much like another – trainers, baseball cap. This would turn out to be some tourist kid larking around.

Mumford went back to being observational, like he hadn’t retired two days ago and this was still his job. Some part of him knowing that if he was to keep from losing everything that had ever meant anything in his life, he needed to start off how he meant to go on, and that was not as just another member of the bastard public.

Walking with his uniform counterpart, Sergeant Steve Britton, towards another…

… another death scene.

Just another death scene. Nothing to do with him. A mistake.

Red spears of sunlight were bouncing off the ambulance parked near the footbridge. A couple of paramedics were bending over the edge of the dried-up moat.

‘Visitors can go right to the top, see,’ Steve said, talking rapidly, a bit hoarsely. ‘Good… good views.’

‘Robbie Walsh knows his way blindfold, Steve.’

The square tower seemed awful high now, the size of a big block of flats in this part of the world. A St George’s flag was hanging limp up there against the amber sky. The stone bridge had a wooden handrail, and even from here Mumford could see there was blood on it, like a splash of spilt creosote. Should’ve been taped off.

He could see into the moat now, something humped and twisted on the bottom, the fact that they’d left it down there saying everything.

‘Must’ve come down on the handrail, bounced off,’ Steve said.

‘Broken neck?’

‘And the rest.’ Steve swallowed. Likely never had to do this before to one of his own. ‘Andy, I… I hope it’s not. I hope I’m mistaken, that’s all.’

‘Sure t’be,’ Mumford said. ‘Let’s get it over.’

‘We used to see him all over town. Walking up Broad Street, and down Old Street, and past the station. You’d think he’d get sick of it, same streets, day after day.’

Steve making it clear he knew what Robbie Walsh looked like.

‘He never got sick of it,’ Mumford said. ‘Always finding new things, so they reckoned. He loves it here. History-mad. Goes to all the lectures, all the exhibitions. Has some kind of season ticket for this… for the castle. So he can come in and out.’

‘People knew him, Andy. All the local people and the shopkeepers knew him. Always polite. Not like most of the little sods.’

Steve keeping up this street-corner chat routine to delay the moment, prepare Mumford for the worst. One of the paramedics was on his feet now, talking to the cops and shaking his head, likely telling them what they already knew.

‘Witnesses?’ Mumford said.

‘Feller seen it from over the river, top of Whitcliffe. Artist bloke. Paints pictures of the castle. Watching a buzzard through binoculars. Said it was… Ah, you don’t wanner know this stuff…’

‘I wanner know everything.’

‘Just make sure first, eh?’

‘I wanner know everything,’ Mumford snarled, knowing that he was shaking like a civilian.

That night, Angela, his sister, did some screaming.

The Hereford boys had finally found Ange and her partner in the Orchard Gardens, the city’s most misnamed pub, out on the edge of the Plascarreg. So it was getting on for midnight when they got to the Community Hospital, and Ange must have drunk a fair bit, which didn’t help.

In the hospital mortuary, Mumford, for all his experience, had turned away, biting his lip. Lying there, with only his not-too-damaged face exposed, the boy had looked all of eight. Ange had taken one quick glance and then it was the full hand-wringing dramatics: It’s him, it’s him… oh shit, shit, shit, look what they done to him!

During this performance, Mumford had found himself watching the scumbag partner, Lennox Mathiesson, hunched up with his hands in his pockets, nodding his head, half-fascinated, ear-trinkets clinking. It sickened Mumford that Angela was three months pregnant with this rubbish’s baby.

Tomorrow morning, the body of her first child would be taken to Shrewsbury for the post-mortem. Tonight, outside the hospital, Ange shelved her grief and set about doing what Mumford reckoned she’d been doing since before she could walk, which was generously apportioning the blame so that there was none of it left for her.

‘That selfish ole bitch, I just hope she’s satisfied. I gotter come all this way to see my son lying dead, killed, because she wasn’t fit to look after him. She robbed me… robbed me of my son. I hope she’s fuckin’ satisfied now.’

Ange in the car park, legs apart, arms folded and a sawn-off top advertising her navel and her condition. Thirty-nine years old.

‘I reckon you better get off home, Angela,’ Mumford said. ‘I’ll phone for a taxi.’

‘Happier yere than he ever was with you? You remember when she come out with that one? What did you say? Nothing, as usual.’

‘She’s not right,’ Mumford said quietly. ‘You know that.’

Except on that occasion, Mam had been dead right. Mumford drew away from the alcohol fumes, stumbling back into a tree trunk as his sister stuck her wet, smudgy face up to his.

‘She en’t fit to look after a child, that’s for sure. And you never said a word, so I hope you’re satisfied too, mister smart-arse fuckin’ detective.’

‘He en’t a detective no more.’

Knowing smirk from Lennox Mathiesson, ten years younger than Angela, two convictions for burglary, one aggravated, plus an ABH. Well, Mam’s mind might be on the blink but she could still recognize a bad bastard when she saw one, and that was why her and Ange hadn’t spoke for the best part of two years, since Ange had left Robbie’s dad – decent enough bloke, worked at Burton’s men’s-shop – for Mathiesson.

Mumford got out his mobile, putting in the number of this taxi firm he knew in Leominster. It’d cost, but he just wanted an end to this night.

‘Oh yeah, get me out.’ Ange staring at him with contempt. ‘Get me out, ’fore I makes trouble. Well, we’re gonner make trouble, mister, you count on it. We can sue that castle, for a start.’ Hands on her hips now, body arched, belly swelling out. ‘Letting him run wild all day in dangerous ole ruins that oughter be fuckin’ pulled down.’

Run wild? Robbie? Mumford was thinking of all the times he’d heard her say, I wonder sometimes where he came from, hiding away with his books, no proper friends. It’s not like having a normal child, is it?

‘Angela,’ he said, ‘obviously you’re terrible upset, but let’s just get one thing straight: there’s no case to sue the castle. Robbie was there illegally, when it was closed for the night.’

‘Well, we’ll fuckin’ see about that, won’t we, mister smart-arse fuckin’ ex-detective.’

Mumford nodded, standing with his heels in a flower bed, taking it. What else could he do?

‘And what’s disgusting, like I say, is she never knew where he was. I bet she even forgot he was stayin’ yere.’

Laughable, that, coming from Ange. It had always been Mumford himself who’d picked Robbie up and brought him over to Ludlow for his holidays, and his most sorrowful image of the boy was not the lolling body under the tower but the pale kid with a suitcase waiting like an orphan at the top of the steps at the Plascarreg.

Different boy altogether when he got to Ludlow, but Ange was never going to want reminding of that.

He got the taxi firm on the mobile. ‘Soon’s you can, Paul, eh?’

‘And I’ll tell you what, mister – you can tell the ole bitch she can pay for the fuckin’ funeral…’

‘God almighty, Angela!’

It had been like this for as long as he could remember. Mam had been forty-five when she’d had Ange, and the gap was always too wide – Mumford always in the middle, covering his ears.

‘Wasn’t fit to look after nothin’, and you never seen it, or you pretended not to, more like, ’cause you was always too busy persecuting folks just wanted a bit of pleasure outer life.’

Meaning the time he and Bliss had had Mathiesson’s brother for enough crack to lay out half the estate. Personal use. The balls they expected you to swallow. Mumford had never set foot in Ange’s flat from that day to this.

‘You bloody let her take him away from his own mother just when I needed the help. You robbed me, she robbed me, every—’

Ange had started to cry again then, tottering across to Lennox Mathiesson, who gathered her into his tattooed arms, giving Mumford this thin smile over her quaking shoulders.

Time he was off. Needed to pick Gail up from poor bloody Mam’s. Gail in her best frock for the celebration dinner. Christ.

‘Anyway, you know where I am,’ Mumford said and walked away, Angela screaming at his back.

‘You tell her I hope she never sleeps again!’

All the lights were on in his mam and dad’s house, the last neighbour walking away. They were good to her, the neighbours in this short, terraced row down at the bottom of the town, between the station and the new Tesco’s.

Mumford sat in his car and just wanted to stay there. He could see Gail and his dad through the extended front window, its curtains still drawn back. His dad had a hand on his forehead, likely with exasperation by now; his dad had never had much patience with female emotions. Gail had a cardigan over her new frock, and she was bending down, like she was bending over a sickbed. Below the level of the window frame, his mam would be sitting in her chair and the TV would be on with the sound turned down.

He could feel the atmosphere in that room coming out at him like radio static.

Gail was a nurse and knew how to handle people in grief; all Mumford knew was how to catch the people who’d caused it. Which didn’t apply in this case, whatever Ange said, and, even if it had, he wasn’t allowed to do anything no more.

Unless Ange was halfway right, and he was the guilty party.

He leaned his sweating forehead against the back of his hands on top of the steering wheel and let the breath come out of him. Feeling beyond exhaustion.

Aye, he’d known the state she was in, the ole girl, but he’d also known how much it had meant to her having Robbie around. Didn’t know much about degenerative brain disease but he did know his mam would have gone downhill a whole lot faster without the boy.

When he looked up, he saw how pale the night sky was, the big tower of St Laurence’s looming out of the body of the town. And became aware of another person standing out on the edge of the Tesco’s car park, still as a post, looking across the road at the house.

A woman, it was, with pale hair escaping from the hood of a long grey cape that hung to the ground. The night was so still that the cape didn’t move, its folds like the stone pleats of the robe of some religious statue. The only movement was a white flickering like a candle on an altar. And it was a candle, Mumford saw, in a metal lantern that hung from the woman’s hand emerging from a slit in the cape.

Mumford experienced a moment of superstitious fear – like he was seeing the angel of death outside the house – and then a bigger fear that he, like the ole girl, was losing his marbles, and he got out of the car in a near-panic.

As he reached the edge of the car park, the woman turned to face him, and there was enough light for him to see that she was entirely human and that she’d been crying.

‘You all right, madam?’ Mumford said.

She didn’t reply, just walked away with the candle-lantern swinging like a captured star in a cage, and Mumford shook his head and crossed the road to his parents’ house.

PART ONE

Robbie

‘I talked to one of the officials and he told me that he was always getting reports of odd happenings in and around the castle.’

Peter Underwood, A Gazetteer of British Ghosts (1971)

‘It is well recorded that those left behind often do experience feelings of closeness to their dead loved ones during the months immediately after their loss.’

Ian Wilson, In Search of Ghosts (1995)

1

Into the Loop

‘NO – PLEASE – I want to understand this,’ Siân said. ‘You’re telling us that you yourself have seen one.’

Her pewter hair hung like a warlord’s helmet. She’d found her way to the head of the table, and she was sitting there in judgement. Her expression was like, Say it… say that word again.

The word that Merrily was realizing should be avoided.

‘I once had an experience, that’s the only way I can describe it,’ she said. ‘A series of experiences, if you like, that I couldn’t rationally explain.’

In the vault-like vicarage kitchen, beeswax candles burned low in their saucers, and the empty ashtray mocked her. She’d been trying to tell herself she’d guessed it was likely to turn out this bad, but the truth was, no, not in her worst dreams.

‘And so I went to the Church for advice, and the Church wasn’t exactly helpful. Felt I was being treated like some kind of hysterical loony.’

Siân’s grey eyes blinked once, like the steel shutters on the little windows of a police cell. Merrily stared into them. Sorry – I meant, like some kind of emotionally dysfunctional person with advanced learning difficulties.

‘And where exactly did you have this… series of experiences, Merrily?’

‘Here. At the vicarage. Upstairs. Just after we moved in, a couple of years ago.’

‘This is rather a big house,’ Nigel Saltash said.

‘Huge – certainly compared with anything I’d lived in before.’

‘Just you and your daughter?’

Saltash tilted his head fractionally, as though he needed this slight motion to activate his enormous brain. It also turned his smile on. He had an all-purpose smile: questioning, explaining, sympathizing, patronizing. For many years, he’d been a psychiatrist; some things didn’t change.

‘Just the two of us, yes,’ Merrily said. ‘Me and Jane. Like now.’

‘So, if I were to humbly suggest – and you could say I’m simply playing devil’s advocate, if you like – that you were feeling terribly insecure at the time… a stranger in the village, not yet fully licensed or formally installed as vicar… and you’d been thrown into this enormous, ancient, echoing… rather spooky old house…’

‘Plus, I was not that many years widowed. And we had very little money. Also like now.’

‘And have the experiences stopped now?’

In the candle-glow, Nigel Saltash’s face was taut and tanned from skiing somewhere. His light grey hair was cropped tight and fitted flush into his beard. He was long and lithe and living proof that seventy was the new fifty.

‘Yes, it was all over very quickly,’ Merrily said. ‘Once we’d got certain things sorted out.’

‘You’re playing into my rationalist’s hands, Mrs Watkins. Deliberately, perhaps?’

‘Well, I suppose I’m making the point that someone like you can turn anyone’s circumstances to your professional advantage.’

‘But am I necessarily wrong?’

Merrily shrugged. ‘I’m always going to say “I know what I saw,” and you’re always going to say “But you didn’t really see it at all.” ’

‘And that way, surely, we arrive at something approximating to the truth,’ Siân Callaghan-Clarke said.

‘Do we?’

‘Nine times out of ten, yes.’

‘Anyway,’ Merrily said, ‘that was the main reason why, when I was offered the post of exorcist – Deliverance Consultant – I would have found it hard to say no.’

‘I still cannot believe you’ve been allowed to go on for so long… alone.’ Siân was shaking her head. ‘The danger you’ve been in…’

‘Sorry?’

One of the candles sputtered out, and Merrily ran a forefinger nervously around the rim of her dog collar.

She’d been naive; she’d misread the signs.

Huw Owen had told her at the start what she’d be up against. If women priests were seen as soft plaster patching up the already crumbling walls of the Church, a woman exorcist—

Might as well just paint a great big bull’s-eye between your tits, Huw had said memorably.

A month or two ago, when the Bishop, Bernie Dunmore, had said, I’m afraid that, once again, I’ve been asked what you’re doing about establishing a Deliverance advisory panel, she’d shrugged it off.

Realizing that, OK, sooner or later there was going to have to be a support group within the diocese, but it had to involve the right people, didn’t it? People who were sympathetic, who didn’t have an agenda, political or otherwise.

Only, the ones she’d thought of as the right people hadn’t wanted to know – Simon St John, vicar of Knight’s Frome, backing away in mock terror when she’d asked him, making the sign of the cross with both hands. But the point was, she knew that he would always be there for her, like the wise old owls outside the diocese, Huw Owen and Llewellyn Jeavons. It just wasn’t official; some of these people didn’t do official.

Whereas people like Siân Callaghan-Clarke and Nigel Saltash didn’t do anything else.

Saltash was a good friend of the Dean, and giving his professional services free – no better reason for the Dean to take him to meet the Bishop and the Bishop to introduce him to Merrily. In any modern Deliverance circle, a qualified psychiatrist was now fundamental. A free one was a godsend.

Thank you, God. Thank you so much.

‘You mean I’m in spiritual danger?’ Merrily said. ‘As a woman in a male tradition?’

Now Siân was staring at her, leaning back in her chair like Merrily must be deliberately winding her up. Siân’s mother was a New Labour baroness; she wore her feminist credentials like defiant tattoos. Within five years she’d either be a bishop or out of the Church. Spiritual danger, political danger – all the same to her.

‘I meant, like, the first exorcist having been Jesus himself,’ Merrily said lamely.

She let the silence hang, recalling the reported mutterings of her predecessor, Thomas Dobbs, as he’d prowled the cathedral cloisters trying to engineer her resignation. At the time, she’d been probably the first – certainly the youngest – woman diocesan exorcist in Britain, operating under the customized title Deliverance Consultant. Appointed, it later became evident, largely because the former Bishop of Hereford had wanted to get into her cassock. Siân Callaghan-Clarke, already a well-placed minister in the diocese, would have heard the rumours and stored them away.

Payback time for bimbo priest?

Martin Longbeach carefully relit the candle with a taper. Martin, tubby and camp, wore an alb and an outsize pectoral cross and was known to covet the south Herefordshire parish of Hoarwithy because of its exotic Italianate church. It had been his idea that they should light candles tonight, to ‘aid concentration’.

‘By danger,’ Siân said, ‘I meant the danger of being compromised and exploited… and of having to make instant decisions that you’re perhaps not…’

… qualified to make, experienced enough to handle.

Siân left this unsaid. Merrily sat in the candlelight, images of the past couple of years encircling her like pale smoke – fears, anxieties, faltering hopes, tentative joys. And also the most bewildering and stimulating years of her life.

There was a stillness in the air. Was this it? Intimations of the end, on a cool April night?

Siân Callaghan-Clarke clasped her long hands and leaned over them across the table.

‘Tonight we’ve tried to go over what we understand by the term “Deliverance”, and the multiplicity of conditions we’re expected to examine – from perceived ghosts and poltergeists, to perceived curses, possession and so-called psychic attack. We’ve considered the cases Merrily has to deal with, day to day: the deluded, the disturbed, the fantastical, the pathological liars—’

‘Not forgetting those in need of prayer and non-judgemental understanding. And the ones afflicted by what seemed to be genuine… intrusion,’ Merrily said.

‘Seemed to be.’ Nigel Saltash smiled.

‘Seemed to me to be. A conclusion not lightly reached.’

‘The point is,’ Siân said, ‘that deciding who is deluded and who – however remote that possibility might be – is, ahm, genuinely afflicted… has been Merrily’s sole responsibility. An impossible situation for just one person, who also has a parish to run.’

‘I’ve not been without back-up. Huw Owen’s always on the end of a phone.’

Merrily felt the outline of the unopened packet of Silk Cut in a pocket of her denim skirt. The other back-up.

‘Ah yes,’ Siân said, looking over her half-glasses. ‘Huw Owen.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Saltash said. ‘Who is Huw Owen?’

‘Nigel, I’m not sure you’ll want to know.’

Siân’s eyes were still and neutral. Merrily was furious but bit down on it. She really, really needed a cigarette. They were all looking at her.

‘Huw was my primary tutor. Me and a bunch of others. He runs training courses for the Deliverance Ministry in a former Nonconformist chapel in a remote part of the Brecon Beacons.’

‘Where nobody can hear you scream,’ Siân said. ‘My understanding is that Huw Owen, while living the life of a fourth-century hermit, has himself been in such a precarious psychiatric state for so long that—’

Merrily felt herself arch like a cat. ‘That’s ridic—’

‘—that not only can he no longer be relied upon to remain au fait with current thinking—’

‘And fucking defamatory!’ Merrily said.

In the silence, the phone rang in the scullery, which she used as her office.

Siân looked up, said mildly. ‘You want to get that?’

‘I’ll… let the machine take it.’ Merrily glanced at the scullery door, which was ajar. ‘If it’s not urgent…’

They all sat there uncomfortably as the machine in the office played Merrily’s outgoing message through the open door, Nigel Saltash giving her a look that was professionally wry and sympathetic.

It was Saltash who’d introduced Siân, who’d worked with him when she was standing in as a hospital chaplain. She said she’d been wary of Deliverance work up to now, but if Nigel was going to be involved…

Siân, in turn, had brought in Martin Longbeach, once her curate, who was clearly a placid and malleable guy. And, no doubt, guaranteed not to fancy Merrily.

This was a nightmare.

There was a bleep from the answering machine and a cough.

‘Mrs Watkins. Mumford. Andy Mumford. I’ll… call you later, if that’s all right with you.’

The line went dead, the machine rewound, Merrily nodded.

‘I can call him back.’

‘Would that have been Sergeant Mumford?’ Siân asked. ‘From Hereford CID?’

‘I think he’s about to retire, actually. May already have…’

‘You’ve had some interesting dealings with the police, haven’t you? I was talking the other day to Sergeant Mumford’s superior – DCI Howe?’

‘Oh? Yeah, our paths have… crossed.’

‘So she tells me. I get on very well with her.’

Figured. If glacial Annie had opted for the Church rather than a fast-track police career, Canon Callaghan-Clarke would have been her ideal spiritual director.

‘I’ll make some more tea,’ Merrily said. Nobody had referred again to Huw Owen. Nobody had reacted to her outburst.

‘No, I think we should say goodnight at this point.’ Siân folded her document case, took off her glasses. ‘Given ourselves quite a lot to consider.’

‘Yes.’

‘I think we’ve all accepted that, having inherited a basically medieval structure, our task is to turn it into something practical, efficient and geared to the demands of the twenty-first century. To formulate a set of parameters, so that changes in, say, personnel will not damage the efficacy of the essential Deliverance module.’

Merrily gripped the cigarette packet on her thigh. Deliverance module?

Siân stood up.

‘I think the main decision we’ve made is that, to ease the very obvious pressure on Merrily, all of us should immediately be brought into the loop – the Deliverance e-mail loop, that is. And that each and every new case should be submitted for observations before any action is taken. Correct?’

‘It makes sense,’ Martin Longbeach said. ‘We might not always be able to make a contribution, but it’s a question of sharing.’

‘I’ll… tell Sophie at the Bishop’s office,’ Merrily said.

‘And in my case,’ Nigel Saltash said, ‘in these formative days, I do think it might be rather a good idea for me to tag along and observe some of the people you’re dealing with, Merrily. I mean, purely from an educational point of view?’

‘Sorry?’

‘I want to learn. See how you operate. Had more time on my hands since we sold half the land. Always thought I could settle down, in retirement, as a farmer, but I’m afraid that once a shrink… Would that be in order? I want to understand how you see Deliverance.’

Merrily took a big breath. ‘Nigel, how I see Deliverance… I’m supposed to be a priest, right? I have to operate on the basis of there being a spiritual element – that we’ve got used to calling God – in everything. So I actually believe that things can happen on more than one level.’

‘Indeed,’ Martin Longbeach said. ‘The holistic approach is essential. All aspects of life are interconnected.’

‘And the fact that there are certain things that I’m never going to be able to explain scientifically or psychologically… that doesn’t bother me one way or the other. And I think we should be there to say to the people affected: no, you’re not necessarily going mad—’

‘But if you are’ – Nigel Saltash smiled hugely – ‘we can also help you with that.’

Merrily sighed. ‘As I tried to say, when I was having problems the Church looked at me sideways and raised its eyebrows pityingly. I don’t want anybody out there to feel I’m writing them off as disturbed or deluded.’

‘And I’d absolutely hate to cramp your style, Merrily,’ Saltash said.

Merrily stood up. Her legs felt weak.

‘We’ll see what we can work out.’

‘Of course we will,’ Saltash said.

Dear God.

2

Vice-rage

LOL HAD A bunch of new-home cards. He’d put them in the deep sill of the window overlooking the bathroom-sized garden and the orchard beyond. Jane began to read them, holding the first one up to the hurricane lamp hanging from the central beam.

‘Alison, eh? Wooooh!’

The card had a pencil sketch of horses on the front. Alison Kinnersley, who bred them, had lived with Lol for a while before taking up with James Bull-Davies, whose family had once run this village before they ran out of money. Two years ago, even a struggling squire with holes in his farmhouse roof had been a better bargain than Lol.

But now Lol had Mum and a career back on course, and the village more than accepted him, and even Alison was being generous.

It’s definitely the right thing to do, she’d written. You can’t hide it for ever. Even James thinks that now, and I don’t need to tell you how conservative James is.

‘Wow,’ Jane said, ‘if it goes on like this, they’ll be inviting you to run for the Parish Council.’

Lol looked down from the stepladder, the overloaded paint-roller in his hand dribbling burnt orange onto the flagstones. Jane had chosen the ceiling colour; it looked wrong now, but she was never going to admit that. Lol just looked uncomfortable. He had orange smudges down the front of his Gomer Parry Plant Hire sweatshirt, tiny spots on his round, brass-rimmed glasses.

‘Then again,’ Jane said, ‘maybe not.’

There was a card from the Prossers at the Eight till Late and one from Gomer Parry and Danny Thomas – Welcome back, boy – with a sheep on the front driving a JCB.

Finally, one from Alice Meek. God bless you in your new home, Mr Robinson. Big letters full of stroke victim’s shake. Alice was only alive because of Lol, and the village knew it, and that was why he was so welcome here now.

And, of course, it was making him wary. Lol didn’t wear medals. Finding the old girl half-frozen over a grave in the churchyard, carrying her into the vicarage, and all the heavy stuff that had happened afterwards… he didn’t even like to talk about any of that. It could easily have ended so differently.

The verdict at the inquest on the guy who’d wanted Alice dead had been Accidental Death – totally correct – although most of what had happened had not come out, the villagers closing ranks around Lol. No longer an outsider, even if it wasn’t publicly acknowledged that he was Mum’s… whatever.

Couldn’t have worked out better, really. His first album in many years was out, he had respectable gigs scheduled. And he was about to abandon his temporary flat at Prof Levin’s recording studio at Knight’s Frome – like, thirty miles away – for this little terraced house a one-minute stroll from the vicarage. So, like, if his star, for once, was accelerating towards the high point of the heavens… well, nobody could say it had been easy.

Jane looked up at him. It was getting too dark to paint, and the electricity was still disconnected, but he was going at it like, if he stopped, somebody would come and take the house away and maybe take Mum, too… and then the tour would be cancelled and the album would be savaged in the Guardian or Time Out, and…

‘Come on down, Lol. Tomorrow is another day.’

‘Need to finish this corner.’

‘You can’t even see the corner. Let’s go and get some chips, otherwise I won’t get to eat till breakfast. If Mum gets through with the po-faced gits on the Deliverance Committee before eleven, it’ll be a certifiable miracle.’

‘Hate going in the chippie now,’ Lol said. ‘They won’t let me pay.’

Jane laughed.

‘It’s not funny, Jane.’

‘Lol, they like you. That’s—’

‘Unsettling.’

Jane sighed. ‘When’s the next gig?’

‘Next Thursday. Bristol.’

‘Wooh, bigger and bigger. Glastonbury next year?’

‘Jane, you trying to make me fall off?’

Oh God, Nick Drake Syndrome; it never really goes away.

‘Bad enough that there’s this guy from Q magazine coming to interview me on Saturday,’ Lol said. ‘I mean, if I’d thought—’

‘What?’ Jane went to the foot of the ladder, shouting up like he was on a mountain. ‘Did you actually say… Q magazine? Like, did I hear that correctly? And did you say, “That’s bad enough”? And are you insane?’

‘Just there are things I don’t necessarily want people to read about.’

‘So like’ – Jane spread her hands wide in frustration – ‘don’t talk about them! Talk about any old crap. Lie. They won’t care, they’re a music mag. When will it be in?’

‘Dunno. It’s a monthly. Guy said they work weeks in advance. Maybe it won’t be in at all. They probably do a lot of interviews that get overtaken by better stuff.’

‘This diffidence is worrying.’ Jane shook her head. ‘I think I preferred the paranoia.’ She went to put Alice’s card back on the window sill, and found another one lying face down. ‘What’s this, Lol?’

Actually, this one wasn’t a card, as such: it was a folded paper, lined, like from a writing pad. She opened it out and held it up to the lamp, saw crude line drawings done in thick fibre-tip, of a big house and a little house with two parallel lines between them, suggesting a road. Across the big house was scrawled:

VICERAGE

Jane looked up at Lol. ‘Vice-rage?’

‘Vicarage.’ Lol started rolling hard at the ceiling. ‘Could be a double meaning there, I suppose, but I wouldn’t think whoever sent it was that smart.’

There was a double-pointed arrow connecting the two houses across the road. Underneath the drawing was written:

RECKON YOU CAN FIND YOUR WAY IN THE DARK?

‘Bloody hell,’ Jane said. ‘It’s a poison-pen letter.’

She looked up the ladder. Lol went on painting.

Jane smiled thinly. So this was the problem.

Well, there was always going to be one spiteful bastard, somewhere. Mum got along with most people in Ledwardine, but not everybody approved yet of women priests. And it was a safe bet that not everybody who did approve would accept the idea of the female clergy having intimate relationships unsanctified by marriage – like the clergy was supposed to stay in the Victorian era, Mum and Lol walking out together, with a chaperone.

This would be one of the areas of his life that Lol would prefer to be kept out of Q magazine.

‘Who sent it?’

‘I don’t think that’s supposed to be obvious, Jane. That’s possibly why it isn’t signed.’

‘But there’s an element of threat. I mean, I realize it’s probably just some semi-literate tosser…’

Lol came down from the stepladder, ducking under the beam that divided the room. The beam was dark brown oak, well woodwormed – a big chocolate flake. The hurricane lamp swayed, shadows rolled. Jane wanted to crumple up the paper, but on the other hand…

‘Can I keep it?’

‘What for?’

‘Might be an opportunity to compare the writing. Like with the parish noticeboard? The cards in the shop window? Or even the prayer board in the church. I mean, it’s always useful to know who your friends aren’t. Anyway’ – she folded the paper – ‘nothing really to worry about. I don’t think Mum’s worried. I mean, the Bishop knows.’

Jane picked up a paint rag and dabbed up some blotches from the flagged floor, recalling the first time she’d seen Lol, when he was looking after Lucy Devenish’s old shop, Ledwardine Lore. Lol peering out between racks of apple-shaped candles in the orchard-scented air. Like a mouse. He’d been really messed up back then.

Jane had been fifteen, just a kid. Now she was facing A levels and a driving test, and she wasn’t a virgin, and Lol and Mum were some kind of tentative, nervous item.

And Lucy Devenish was dead.

Hard to accept that, even now. No matter what colours the crooked walls and sloping ceilings were repainted, this was Lucy’s house and always would be. When you stood in the hall you could imagine you still saw her old poncho hanging over the post at the foot of the stairs. If it was really dark when you came in, you could imagine Lucy herself there, wearing the poncho, her arms lifting it like batwings.

The people from London who’d agreed to buy the house when it first came on the market last year had given back word after their five-year-old asthmatic kid had asked who the old woman was on the landing.

Scary. Lucy hadn’t been scary, not really. Formidable, certainly. Maybe a little witchy, in the best, most traditional sense, and…

… OK, she had been a little scary. But she’d liked Lol and supported him when he needed it, and she’d been some kind of mentor to Jane, and…

… And this was OK. Lol finally getting the house – this was meant. Everything finally was going to be OK for Lol and for Mum, who’d been a widow for long enough. Yeah, in one way it was ridiculous, Lol living in this little house and Mum across the road in the huge vicarage, with seven bedrooms, but it was an arrangement that would work, for the time being.

And it would have Lucy’s blessing. Lucy who, though dead, still somehow spoke for Ledwardine.

Jane allowed herself a shiver. Lol carried the roller and paint tray into the kitchen and put them in the sink.

‘How about you get the chips?’

‘Lol, you wimp.’

‘Wallet’s on the mantelpiece.’

Jane found it and took out a tenner.

‘Mushy peas?’

‘Why not? Just don’t say they’re for me.’

Jane shoved the tenner down a back pocket of her jeans, along with the vice-rage note, and shrugged on her fleece.

‘You’ll be all right on your own for a few minutes, then? You and Lucy?’

Lol said, ‘Sometimes – did I tell you? – sometimes I try out a new song on her. If she likes it, she joins in. A bit croaky and out of tune, of course, but you can’t—’

Jane threw the paint rag at him.

3

Pebbles

NEXT MORNING, WHEN Jane had left for school, Merrily phoned Huw Owen. She hadn’t slept well, was feeling frayed and edgy, sitting in the scullery in the kid’s old pink fleece. Outside the window, the day was crazed with April chemistry: white sunlight soaking through holes in the foaming cloud.

‘So when did this happen, lass?’

Huw had been up north on what he liked to call a retreat, working with a gang of hard-nosed clerics in the badlands of south Manchester. She wasn’t yet ready to hear his horror stories.

‘Think it happened when I wasn’t looking. Can’t say you didn’t warn me – if you don’t pick a team, somebody picks one for you. Just that my guys didn’t want to be picked.’

He was silent. She could hear the kindling detonating his living-room fire. Pictured his feet in peeling trainers on the hearth, the volatile sunlight in his old hippy’s shaggy hair. She was getting the feeling that his Manchester time had left him energized rather than wearied.

Precarious psychiatric state. Bitch.

‘I feel pathetic,’ she said, ‘ringing you with this stuff. I just wondered if you’d – you know – heard anything.’

Huw had been born in rural Wales but brought up in Yorkshire, returning to the Beacons in middle age as a parish priest and a personal trainer in the practice of exorcism. Where nobody can hear you scream. Merrily heard the creak of his chair as he stretched, thinking.

‘Callaghan-Clarke. Wasn’t she one of the bints who did a circle-dance round the tombs of the old bishops in Hereford Cathedral to celebrate the ordination of women?’

‘If she was, she’s calmed down now.’

‘The calming power of naked ambition. Get their feet under the table, next thing they want’s a bigger table. Where exactly does she stand in your… Deliverance circle?’

‘Given herself a title: Diocesan Deliverance Coordinator. We voted on it. Every case we get from now on has to be submitted to the group before any action’s taken. We voted on that, too. Three in favour, one bemused abstention.’

‘Bugger,’ Huw said.

‘Quite.’

‘A little focus group. It’s just what you need, isn’t it?’

‘We light candles and concentrate. I’m not kidding.’

She told him about Martin Longbeach, and Huw laughed – the noise milk would make if you could hear it curdling.

Merrily looked up at the wall clock: nearly nine a.m., and a difficult funeral to organize – an elderly woman who’d moved to the village no more than a fortnight ago to live with her daughter and son-in-law, themselves comparative newcomers. And Andy Mumford was due here around ten. It was looking like another day when she wouldn’t see much of Lol.

‘Back-up’s one thing,’ Huw said. ‘You need a witness sometimes, no question, and somebody to watch your back. But an ill-matched committee operating in an area where nothing, at the best of times, is ever a bloody certainty…’

‘We all accept the need for a psychiatrist…’

‘There are good shrinks,’ Huw said, ‘and there are dangerous shrinks.’

‘You come across Nigel Saltash before?’

‘Never.’

‘Me neither.’ Merrily gazed out of the window at the unmown lawn, vividly green against the grey sky with its seeping sun. ‘He’s a regular churchgoer, however.’

Huw laughed again. ‘You know your problem, lass? Had your picture in the papers once too often, and you take a very nice picture. They don’t like that. And they weren’t happy at all when you were cosying up to the pagans against Ellis.’

‘Oh, Huw, Ellis was the kind of humourless, dangerous, fundamentalist bigot who brings the Church into—’

‘Ellis was part of the Church,’ Huw said. ‘Whereas pagans are pagans. Any road, I’m just planting the thought.’

‘Who doesn’t like it? Not the Bishop?’

‘Dunmore’s a time-server. He wouldn’t even be consulted. Think higher.’

‘Huh?’ She was thrown.

‘You want a list of all the embittered, back-stabbing bastards who hate the whole concept of Deliverance? Hey, God forbid that priests should meddle in metaphysics. Somebody’s happen saying, we need to keep an eye on that little Watkins in Hereford… could be getting carried away… too much, too soon. Needs a steadying hand…’

‘Hang on. Let me get this right. You think Callaghan-Clarke may have been nudged into place as a… an instrument of restraint?’

Merrily heard Huw sniff. She was thinking of what Siân had said about his precarious psychiatric state. Would it help to tell him about that? She stared out into the garden, at the pale buds on the apple trees.

‘And the bottom line,’ she said, ‘is that nothing much gets done, right?’

‘ “But how can we be certain?” ’ Huw doing this delicate, disapproving, posh voice. ‘ “We could so easily look ridiculous, couldn’t we?” And this lad with the candles sounds like window dressing. Bumbling New Ager. Whimsical, but essentially nice and harmless.’

‘Making us seem a little woolly?’

‘That’s a good word, aye.’

‘Let me get this right. You actually think—?’

‘Leave it with me,’ Huw said. ‘I’ll ask around, see what I can find out.’

Merrily made a call about the funeral. Hereford Crem: two p.m., Monday. She’d go and see the family over the weekend. It was always a problem when you didn’t know either the dead person or the bereaved: gently quizzing them about their mum, looking for the one little jewelled detail that would make it meaningful before you slid her through the curtains and the next one came through – another priest, another set of mourners. A line of sad trains on the last platform.

Andy Mumford turned up ten minutes early.

On the phone last night he’d sounded agitated. When he walked in, she was shocked.

He was wearing a fawn-coloured zipper jacket over a yellow polo shirt. She’d never seen him without a suit before, and he looked all wrong. He’d always seemed comfortably plump; now he was sagging and his farmer’s face was less ruddy than red.

‘You had breakfast, Andy? I can do toast—’

‘No, no…’ He waved a hand, said he’d have tea. Weak. No sugar.

So she’d been right: he’d retired from the police.

‘When?’

‘Three weeks back.’ Mumford pulled a chair from under the pine refectory table. ‘Three weeks and two days. CID boys bought me a digital camera.’

‘Oh.’

‘Now I’ll have to get a computer.’ He sat down with his legs apart, hands bunched together between his knees. ‘Like having your leg off.’

‘Sorry…?’

‘People thought I was looking forward to it. Like you look forward to having your leg off. Wake up in the morning and you think it’s still there, and then you realize.’

It was why his clothes didn’t fit; he’d lost the kind of weight you could never quite put back. Poor Andy. She’d seen a lot of him over the past two years, most recently as bag-carrier to Frannie Bliss, the DI. Bag-carrier and local encyclopaedia: an essential role.

‘You’ll get another job?’ Merrily filled the kettle. ‘Security adviser somewhere, or…?’

‘To be honest, Mrs Watkins, I’d rather not be a night-watchman at some battery-chicken plant.’ Mumford looked down at his hands. ‘Might get some chickens of my own, mind. Beehives. Dunno yet. However—’ He looked up at her. ‘How’re you?’

‘I’m all right.’

She smiled. Along the Welsh Border it was some kind of etiquette that you took ten or fifteen minutes to get around to what you’d come about. You tossed pebbles into the pond and, at some stage, the issue would float quietly to the surface. Must have been fascinating to listen to Mumford interrogating a suspect.

‘Your mother don’t live round yere, Mrs Watkins?’

‘Cheltenham. She has a lot of friends there now. We don’t see each other that often.’

‘But you did have some relations yereabouts?’

‘My grandad had a farm and an orchard near Mansell Lacy when I was a kid. All gone now.’

Mumford nodded. ‘My folks moved north into south Shropshire, after my dad retired from the Force. Ludlow. They had a little newsagent’s and sweetshop for a while, then it got too much for them.’

‘Nice place. Historic.’

‘Pretty historic themselves, now, my mam and dad. They’ll expect me to do more for them, now I’m retired.’

‘No brothers… sisters?’

‘Sister. Twelve years younger than me, lives in Hereford with this low-life idle bugger. Her…’ He paused. ‘Her boy, from when she was married, he never got on with this bloke. Always an oddball kid. Used to spend the school holidays with his grandparents. In Ludlow.’

He looked at Merrily, and she met his baggy-eyed gaze and detected ripples in the pond, a circular movement, something coming up.

Mumford said, ‘My sister’s boy, my nephew – Robson Walsh.’

The name broke surface, lay there, the water bubbling around it. Robson Walsh.

‘Suppose you’d still be… dealing with the funny stuff, Mrs Watkins?’ Mumford’s face was a foxier shade of red now, but she saw that his eyes looked anxious.

‘When it comes up.’

She sat down opposite him. Never the most religious of professions, the police. Saw too much injustice, degradation, few signs of divine light. Even Frannie Bliss, raised a Catholic up in Liverpool, had once said that if he ever made it to heaven he wouldn’t be too surprised to see a feller with a trident and a forked tail sitting on a cloud and laughing himself sick.

Whatever this was, it was hard for Mumford.

Robson Walsh. Robbie Walsh, Robbie Walsh…

‘Oh my God, Andy.’ TV pictures: old mellow walls, police tape. A school photograph. ‘The boy who fell—’

‘From Ludlow Castle, aye. I was there.’

‘At the castle?’

‘In the town. Come to pick up the wife – she was working at Ludlow Hospital. We were going out for dinner, celebrate my… celebrate…’ He looked down at the table. ‘Station sergeant at Ludlow spotted me in the street, took me into the castle. Boy’s still lying there, waiting for the pathologist.’

‘God, I’m so sorry, Andy, I just never—’

‘I’ve spent time with a lot of families lost a child.’ He looked up at her. ‘But at the end of it, Mrs Watkins, you always gets to go home.’

‘You said your sister’s son?’

‘Slag.’

‘Oh.’

‘Lives in Hereford with a new bloke – toe-rag. Only too happy to let the boy spend his holidays at his gran’s. Now she blames me.’

‘Your sister? Why?’

‘’Cause we covered up, Robbie and me, covered up how bad the ole girl was getting. He couldn’t stand the thought that he wouldn’t be able to go and stay there. He loved it, see. Ludlow. The history.’

‘They called him The History Boy – in one of the papers.’

‘That’s right.’

‘You and he covered up that your mother was…?’

There was a knocking from the front door, where the bell had packed in again. Merrily didn’t move.

‘What’s the point of putting a long name to it?’ Mumford said. ‘But her mind’s going, and it en’t no better for this.’

‘But didn’t your sister know what your mother was like?’

‘They don’t speak. Not since she went off with the toe-rag. I usually got to take the boy to Ludlow. Hell, he was all right there. Better than at home on the bloody Plascarreg, with a latchkey.’

‘Your sister lives on the Plascarreg?’

Not the best address in Hereford.

‘He was capable and intelligent,’ Mumford said. ‘I never had a son, but I couldn’t’ve complained if I’d got one like him. Anyway, Gail works at Ludlow Hospital three days a week, so she pops in, sees they’re all right.’

‘What about your father?’

‘Not the most sympathetic of men. Tells you about all the death he’s seen in his time, how you gotter put it behind you kind of thing. Meanwhile, ole girl goes over and over it in her mind, what’s left of it.’ Mumford glanced over at the door to the hall – more knocking. ‘You better get that.’

‘It’s OK.’

Probably just the postman with a parcel. He’d leave it in the porch.

Robbie Walsh. She recalled the case throwing up questions in the papers. How had he managed to conceal himself in the castle? Had he been alone?

‘So has the inquest…?’

‘Opened and adjourned after medical evidence. Boy was cremated at Hereford. No proof of anything more than an accident. Most popular theory is he got totally absorbed in whatever he was checking out inside the castle, got hisself locked in and went up the tower to try and signal for help. Mabbe leaned over too far.’

‘That feasible?’

‘It’s feasible. But there’s ways out of there for an agile kid, and if anybody knew ’em he would. But… nothing iffy sitting on a plate, the police don’t go looking for it no more. Not enough manpower to handle what they got on the books already. Verdict of misadventure, most likely.’

‘And what do you think?’

‘I reckon it should be an open verdict. Mabbe I’m just saying this on account of it’s destroyed what was left of my bloody family, but I reckon there’s stuff we don’t know. Meanwhile, my mam… this is gonner be hanging over her for the rest of… whatever she’s got left.’

There was more knocking at the front door, insistent.

‘In more ways than one, it looks like,’ Mumford said.

‘Sorry?’

‘Hanging over her. It’s why I’ve come. You better get that this time, it en’t gonner stop.’

Merrily went to open the door.

Just what she needed.

‘Sorry if I got you out of the bath or something, Merrily.’

Nigel Saltash smiling his all-purpose smile.

4

Routine Pastoral

ON HIS TRAINING courses at the disused chapel in the Beacons, Huw Owen liked to invent pet names for the unquiet dead.

Insomniac, hitch-hiker, breather, groper…

Exorcist jargon, a touch of black humour for the troops.

Merrily brought over an extra mug, poured three teas and sat down at the head of the table, her back to the window. The sun laid a creamy sheen, like an altar cloth, on the pine table top.

Huw would have called Mumford’s mother’s problem a parting-caller or a day tripper. Throwaway terms for a commonplace phenomenon – loved ones dropping in just to show their faces, let you know they wouldn’t be far away. They tended not to stay long. She remembered Huw saying that, nine times out of ten, they were none of his business.

‘The technical term is “bereavement apparition”,’ she told Mumford. ‘If anybody bothered to do a survey, they’d probably find that at least fifty per cent of bereaved people have similar experiences.’

Usually widows or widowers, or the children or siblings of someone who had recently died. But it could equally be a favourite teacher or a long-time colleague. You’d be doing something mundane around the house when suddenly you’d feel a sharp awareness of whoever had died. Or you’d actually see them passing through the hall or maybe sitting in a favourite chair. Just a glimpse, and then they’d be gone.

‘What we’re saying, Andrew,’ Nigel Saltash said, ‘is that this tends to happen with a person one is used to having around. It’s something I’ve encountered many, many times.’

He was wearing a tracksuit the colour of his hair, and his tanned skin shone. At the door just now, on auto-smile, he’d told Merrily he’d thought they ought to have a chat one-to-one. Didn’t want her, after last night, to run away with the wrong idea. And as this was his day for early-morning jogging with Kent Asprey, the fitness-freak Ledwardine GP… Oh yes, old mates. Hammered the country lanes together every Friday.

Terrific.

So there’d been no alternative to bringing him in and explaining to Mumford about the new Deliverance Advisory Group – giving Mumford an opportunity to say nothing, make an excuse and leave, call her later.

But, of course, it turned out that he and Saltash knew each other from way back, when Saltash had worked at the Stonebow Psychiatric Unit in Hereford. Reminding Mumford of all the times he’d been called across to Police Headquarters to assess some drugged-up prisoner self-harming in the cells. What days, eh? And now both of them retired. Or entering a new life-phase, as it were.

Saltash watched, with a smile conveying mild pain, as Mumford dumped three white sugars in his mug of tea.

‘Essentially, what you’re looking at, Andrew, is grief-projection. The bereaved person is carrying an image of the departed one very close, as it were, to his or her heart. We don’t want to have seen the last of them. A part of us desperately wants them still to be around, in the old familiar places. And so an area of our consciousness responds to the need. This is almost certainly what’s happening with your mother and her visions of the boy. Are we together on this one, Merrily, would you say?’

The tilted head. The smile that was a well-oiled explanatory tool.

But he was probably right. Huw Owen’s advice had always been to leave parting-callers, in general, alone. Didn’t matter whether they were hallucinations or psychological projections or something less explicable, they usually brought comfort rather than fear or distress, and so they were part of the healing mechanism, part of a phase that would pass. And if Mrs Mumford’s mind was on the slide…

‘Can I…?’ Merrily conspicuously sugared her own tea and stirred it noisily. ‘Can I just briefly go over some of it again, Andy? Your mother says she… saw him, first, in the kitchen, right?’

Mumford nodded, glanced at Nigel Saltash, then glanced away.

‘Out of the corner of an eye. Said he was standing by the fridge, like he was about to help himself to a can of pop. When she turned towards him, he… vanished. This was before the funeral.’

Nigel Saltash was nodding eagerly. Merrily wondered, despondent, if he was going to call in every week after jogging with Dr Asprey, to discuss the many areas where so-called spiritual guidance overlapped with nuts-and-bolts psychiatry.

‘And the second time?’ she said to Mumford.

‘In the back garden. Robbie’s standing by the bird bath, looking up at the house. Mam was in the bedroom, says she saw him through the window. But it was… you know, it was like a reflection in the glass. When she stepped back he wasn’t there any more.’

‘A reflection,’ Saltash said. ‘Yes, of course.’

‘Same in the town.’ Mumford was mumbling now, like he wanted to get this over. ‘Near the Buttermarket. Shop window.’

‘Oh, really? Another reflection?’

‘Kind of thing. She was with my dad. He didn’t see anything. She was looking in the window and Robbie, he was behind her, but when she turned round…’

Merrily said, ‘Did she think he knew she was there?’

‘I don’t… I don’t know.’

‘I mean, does she ever think he wants to communicate with her?’

Mumford shook his head. ‘Don’t know.’

‘Does it frighten her at all?’

‘Frighten her?’ The corner of Mumford’s mouth twitched. ‘Robbie?’

‘Right.’

‘I see what you’re getting at, Merrily,’ Nigel Saltash said. ‘There’s clearly a contributory element of perceived guilt here – whether or not that guilt is misplaced. And also’ – he leaned across the table, holding his hands like bookends – ‘a desperate need to know exactly what happened.’

‘Does she know you were coming here, Andy?’ Merrily said.

‘I…’ Mumford shook his head. ‘She don’t like a fuss. Like she was very embarrassed at the size of turnout for the funeral – people from the castle, councillors, the Press. Like they were sitting in judgement, she thought. But all it was… it’s still a small town, see. They take something like this to heart. Bishop insisted on conducting the funeral hisself—’

‘David Cook?’

The Suffragan Bishop of Ludlow. Number two in the Hereford diocese. Bernie Dunmore, now Bishop of Hereford, had previously held the post. But surely David Cook…

‘—Even though it was only about a week before he went in for his heart bypass,’ Mumford said. ‘Not a well man, and he looked it.’

Mumford didn’t look a well man, either. His hair was grey and lank, his eyes baggy and wary, small veins wriggling in his cheeks. He had to be about twenty years younger than Nigel Saltash, but he seemed older. Just a civilian now – no longer Detective Sergeant, while Saltash was still Dr Saltash.

‘Look, I…’ Mumford came to his feet. ‘Might well be like you say, Mrs Watkins, imagination playing tricks.’

‘Well, that wasn’t necessarily what I—’

‘Old girl’s had a shock. She don’t want no fuss, neither do I. I just thought, as I knew you… You’ve cleared things up a bit. That’s fine. And the doc here…’

‘Glad to help an old mate, Andrew.’ Nigel Saltash sitting back, with his arms folded. Like when the driving-test examiner had told you to park and sat there making notes on his clipboard.

Merrily said on impulse, ‘I think I should probably talk to her.’ She saw Saltash raising an eyebrow. ‘So, if you want to ask her, Andy…’

‘You think you could, ah, get rid of it, Merrily?’ Saltash’s smile expressing professional curiosity.

‘Wrong terminology, Nigel.’

‘Ah, sorry. Help it on its way?’

‘Even that might be counter-productive.’

‘So you have this general policy of non-intervention, unless there’s a clear threat to the patient’s mental health.’

Patient. God.

‘Something like that,’ Merrily said.

She hated this. She hated it when lofty consultants exchanged viewpoints at the foot of the bed, like the third party was already brain-dead.

‘I have a lot to learn, don’t I?’ Saltash said. ‘On which basis, if you go to see this lady, might I perhaps tag along?’

She could see Mumford was uncomfortable about this. Saltash evidently picked up on it, too, smiling down at him.

‘Andrew, old boy… I’m retired, OK, like you? This is observation only.’ He was doing this windscreen-wiper gesture with both hands. ‘No reports, no referrals.’

‘I’ll talk to her about it.’ Mumford seemed less than reassured, which was quite understandable.

‘I’ll call you, Andy,’ Merrily said.

Coming up to midnight, she was lying full-length on the sofa at Lucy’s old house, with Lol sitting at one end, her head in his lap. Low music was seeping from a boombox beside the glowing hearth.

‘I suppose I’m going to have to do something,’ Merrily said, ‘before it all falls apart on me.’

The sofa, delivered that day, was the only furniture in the parlour. It was orange, like the too-dark ceiling – never trust Jane in Linda Barker mode.

‘Psychiatrists,’ Lol said.

The weight of his own experience turned the word into some kind of lead sarcophagus full of decomposing remains.

‘I think I want to kill him,’ Merrily said.

The sofa smelled of newness and showrooms, but the scent from the fire in the inglenook was of applewood, the kindest, mellowest aroma in the countryside.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘You know…’

Oh, he knew… She was thinking of ‘Heavy Medication Day’, the only angry song on the new album. It was about his experiences on a psychiatric ward with a doctor who… over-medicated. Someone has to pay, now Dr Gascoigne’s on his way. A lot of residual bitterness there.

Last year, before they were a unit, he’d enrolled on a training course for psychotherapists, with the feeling that he could maybe, in some way, alter things from the inside. Discovering fairly soon that mere psychotherapists weren’t anywhere near the inside and, like all therapists and crisis-counsellors, they were ten-a-penny nowadays. And so Lol had walked away from it, back into music.

He slid a hand under her hair. ‘How necessary are they?’

‘Shrinks?’

‘I mean in Deliverance.’

Merrily thought about it. ‘You could probably say they’re only actually essential when you’re dealing with someone who thinks he or she is possessed by something… external. A psychiatrist would be able to detect symptoms of, say, schizophrenia.’

‘Symptoms of schizophrenia don’t necessarily prove the person actually is schizo,’ Lol said.

‘No, but it’s something that needs to be eliminated.’

‘How often have you had a case of demonic possession, then?’

‘Never. As you know. Never had a case where it was down to schizophrenia, either.’

‘So the idea of having a psychiatrist as a permanent part of your Deliverance group…’

‘Could be overkill,’ Merrily said. ‘If you consider that most of what we’re dealing with are what you might call non-invasive psychic phenomena… then if you have your resident psychiatrist insisting that it’s always down to delusion, hallucination, comfort chemicals in the brain, et cetera…’

‘… Then what’s the point of people like you?’

‘Listen to us, we’re finishing one another’s sentences,’ Merrily said. ‘How cosy is that? What’s this music?’

‘Elbow. Cast of Thousands.’

‘It’s lovely.’

‘It’s bloody terrifying. I don’t know why I bother.’

‘Never mind, they were probably influenced by you.’

‘You vicars can be so patronizing.’

Merrily looked around in the firelight, among the paint cloths and the ladders, for a clock. Jane was out with Eirion, as usual on a Friday night. By agreement, she was always home by one.

There wasn’t a clock anywhere yet. She guessed she’d been here about an hour and a half.

‘So, anyway, I called Andy before I came out,’ she said. ‘I’m going over tomorrow to see his mother. Not being much help around here, am I?’

‘You’re crap at painting anyway. You told the shrink you’re going?’

‘I really don’t know what to do. I mean, this is routine pastoral stuff. I wouldn’t be going if it wasn’t Andy Mumford – I’d refer it to local clergy. It doesn’t need a psychiatrist, so why set a precedent? You’re right, it’s overkill. All this belt-and-braces stuff, the Church covering its back, never sticking its neck out…’

‘Can you cover your back and stick your neck out at the same time?’ Lol bent and kissed her, one hand pushing her face into his, the other hand…

‘Mmmmph…’ It suddenly struck her that there were no curtains in this room and one window overlooked Church Street.

‘You’ve gone stiff,’ Lol said.

She sat up. ‘You should talk.’

‘We could go upstairs, take some cushions. Merrily, people know…’

‘I need to get home. Jane’ll be back. Besides, if you’ve got to drive back to Knight’s Frome—’

‘I’m going to sleep here on my nice new sofa,’ Lol said. ‘There’s this guy from Q magazine coming tomorrow, quite early.’

‘He’s coming here?’

‘Prof didn’t want him poking round the studio. We’ve got Tom Storey in, mixing his album. Prof’s a very private producer, Tom hates the media. I won’t say a word about you, you know that.’

‘It shouldn’t be like this.’ Merrily stood up and straightened her sweater. ‘I’m sorry. I mean, there’s probably no real reason for…’

‘We’ll get there,’ Lol said.

Would they? Within a few weeks, when his intermittent tour was over, he was going to be living here permanently. She supposed that what the new-home cards on the window sill were saying was that it was time to stop being coy and covert.

‘Oh hell, Lol, let’s – I don’t know – put a notice in the window at the Eight till Late or something.’

‘Uh…’ Lol went over to the window where the cards were. ‘You should know about this.’

Handing her a folded paper. She took it to the hearth and opened it out. It wasn’t hard to read it by the firelight. Big letters.

FIND YOUR WAY IN THE DARK?

‘Oh.’ Not a universal welcome, then.

‘I’d have said it was somebody having a laugh,’ Lol said, ‘but I can’t think of anybody… I mean, it’s not that funny, is it?’

She refolded the paper, annoyed. ‘You might as well tell the guy from Q. It would at least end this kind of stuff.’

‘Not in the context in which they’d run the story. It’d have to be from my side… the arrest, the loony bin. My Years of Hell. Now finding happiness at last, with a good woman in every sense, and letting it all come out in the music.’

‘God.’ Merrily shuddered. ‘Let me think about this.’

When she left, she went by the back door, reaching Church Street via the alley. Keeping to the shadows until she was approaching the square, where security lamps lit the front of the Black Swan and only two cars were still parked.

What was coming back was what Huw Owen had said.

Had your picture in the paper once too often.

He was right, of course. Deliverance was the Church’s secret service. Essentially low-level. Publicity was seldom helpful. No room at all for the cult of personality.

Maybe the Deliverance group/panel/circle/whatever was a good thing. Good for her. Prevent her becoming proprietorial. A question of sharing, Martin Longbeach had said.

Always painful lessons to be learned about yourself, your attitude.

So why was she deciding, as she padded quietly across the cobbled street to the vicarage, that she would not ring Nigel Saltash about tomorrow’s appointment with Mumford’s mother?

5

Saturday Sun

NIGEL SALTASH CAME to pick Merrily up at ten.

Jane spotted him from the landing window on her way down from her apartment in the attic, calling down the stairs.

‘He’s got one of those cool little BMW sports cars.’

Merrily widened her eyes. ‘Like… gosh.’

‘He’s getting out. He’s wearing jeans and a cream sports jacket that could be Armani. He looks a smooth old bastard, Mum.’

Merrily said nothing, stepping into her shoes at the bottom of the stairs, sliding her slippers under the hallstand. She was still feeling resentful, manipulated. What Saltash had done was phone Andy Mumford himself last night, saying he’d tried to call Merrily but she was out. Finding out the time of this morning’s proposed visit to Mumford’s mother and then leaving a message on Merrily’s machine suggesting he pick her up: no point in a convoy.

‘So how badly do you think he fancies you?’ Jane said.

‘He’s seventy-one, flower.’

‘The new dangerous age. They’re getting in as much sex as they can before it’s too late. Apparently, at that age they can only hold an erection for five minutes max, and it’s counting down all the time, did you know that?’

‘Oh, Jane…’

‘And, listen, you’ve got to stop calling me “flower”. You’ve been calling me “flower” since I was seven.’

‘I’ll try.’ Merrily pulled her coat from the peg. ‘What are you doing today?’

‘In the absence of his girlfriend, I’ll probably help Lol finish painting Lucy’s living room.’

‘I don’t think so.’

Jane peered down at her, hands on hips. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘The guy from Q magazine’s coming to interview him. Teenage girl walks in, the guy remembers Lol’s history.’

‘Oh, that is…’ Jane bounded downstairs. ‘That is like totally ridiculous. It was twenty years ago. He was a kid. And he was fitted up, and if the guy from Q’s done his research he’ll know that.’

‘No smoke, flower. Just stay away until he’s gone, OK?’

‘Hah!’ Jane stopped, with an arm wrapped around the black oak post sunk between the flags like a tree stump at the foot of the stairs. ‘Now I understand. If the journalist sees me, Lol will have to explain whose daughter I am. And we can’t have that coming out, can we?’

Merrily sighed. ‘It’s a music magazine. They wouldn’t be interested anyway.’

‘Yeah, but doesn’t the same firm publish Heat?’

‘Jane, please? Humour me?’

Feet crunched the gravel outside and the front door was rapped. Merrily unbolted the door, telling herself that some Deliverance teams worked like this all the time, in tandem with a bloody shrink.

At the Eight till Late, now the only worthwhile shop in Ledwardine, a partitioned strip along the side of the main window was full of handwritten notices.

PUPPIES. Border Collie/Lab cross. Good working strain. Parents can be seen. £40… RESPECTABLE CLEANER NEEDED TWO DAYS A WEEK… MOUNTAIN BIKE, NEARLY NEW. EIGHTEEN GEARS.

That kind of stuff. Even the personal columns of the Hereford Times were loaded now with ads like: Live Adult-fantasy Chat… Venus’s 24-hour Wankline. But village noticeboards never changed – unless ‘respectable cleaner’ was some little-known rural euphemism for bondage-supervisor.

This window was Jane’s last hope, anyway. She’d checked out the prayer board in the church. She’d even, for the first time ever, been through the parish register to see if, by chance, somebody had endorsed their marriage vows in the hand that had also scrawled VICERAGE.

She’d photocopied the poison-pen note before giving it back to Lol. OK, maybe it wasn’t that poisonous. It was just that they all had to go on living here, and Lol and Mum had been through all kinds of crap already, and it just really pissed Jane off that there was some mean-spirited git in this village who begrudged them a hint of happiness.

And Mum was the vicar and therefore too nice to deal with it, and Lol was too timid, and so…

Mobile hairdresser. Women and men catered for.

She pulled the photocopy from her jeans, held it up to the window. Close.

Jim Prosser, who ran the shop, waved to her from inside. Jane put away the paper, waved back. Jim knew everybody in Ledwardine, must have seen a fair few handwritten shopping lists and weekly orders, for delivery. And he knew all about Mum and Lol.

Maybe not. And the lettering wasn’t that close.

She walked off down Church Street. Sharp Saturday sun slanting on Ledwardine, the black and white cottages and shops all tarted up for the early tourists looking for pseudo-antiques and maybe a weekend cottage to display them in.

Predatory Londoners on the spree. Jane had read in one of the Sunday property supplements that, now you couldn’t find a garden shed in the Cotswolds for much under half a million, the Welsh Border was no longer considered too remote for commuters. So Ledwardine, this classic calendar village still enclosed by ancient orchards, was well in the cross-hairs. Even its one-time council estate no longer looked like a council estate, with its new hardwood windows, rendered brickwork, conservatories bulging out like transparent blisters.

Hereford’s estate agents were doing faster business than Venus’s Wankline.

Lol had somehow squeezed in, though Jane guessed that his mortgage on Lucy’s house was crippling. And knew that when she got round to needing a place of her own there’d be like no chance here. And she liked Ledwardine, didn’t want it to become Beverly Hills with a botox population and Jim Prosser forced to stock disgusting pâté de foie gras to stay in business.

But unless you had a farm or something to inherit, you were stuffed. At least when the Church kicked her out of the vicarage Mum could move in with Lol. If that was acceptable to Mr Vicerage.

Who might be here right now on the square, watching.

Jane wandered around, keeping an eye open for Eirion’s car. After Mum had put her off going to Lol’s, she’d called Eirion at home in Abergavenny, and he’d said, yeah, OK, he could probably try and cobble together a few quid for the petrol; he’d come over. Less enthusiastic than he might have been. Was something cooling off? It was true that there were times when she felt she needed some space, maybe go out with someone else, just to, you know, compare. But the thought of Eirion with another girl… she couldn’t handle that.

She stopped in front of the two-up, two-down terraced cottage, separated from the pavement by a ridge of new cobbles. Lucy’s house. A little black Nissan was parked outside behind Lol’s clapped-out Astra. The man from Q? She thought of going round the back and letting herself in through the kitchen door that Lol never locked. Just sitting in the kitchen, listening.

But she knew that if Lol was being too self-deprecating she’d just get annoyed and give herself away. And she was annoyed enough already, at the carrion crows from Off scooping up Ledwardine. And at herself for being so insecure.

* * *

‘You must feel I’m rather on your back,’ Saltash said, cruising onto the Leominster road.

He had dark glasses on and his leather seat eased well back. There was a buttermilk sun, and the hedgerows on either side of the road were greening up almost in front of their eyes.

‘Well, I… tend to think that if you arrive with a psychiatrist most people feel a bit threatened,’ Merrily said. ‘Some of them have really had to steel themselves to approach someone like me, and so… we probably need to think of a way around that.’

Saltash chuckled. ‘Just as well I’m no longer a psychiatrist, merely a new member of the team who wants to learn.’

‘Probably a few things I could learn, too,’ Merrily said, being diplomatic for the moment. She was wearing civvies, jumper and skirt. In another parish, you didn’t make a show of what you were.

The BMW was swallowing miles in small, easy sips. When Saltash slowed for the Leominster traffic island, the engine made a thick and fleshy sound, as if it was powered by rising sap. With the size of insurance premiums and the cost of petrol, you peered into a sports car these days and almost invariably saw white hair and driving gloves. Merrily tightened her seat belt.

‘So what exactly do you want to know about ghosts, Nigel?’

‘Ghosts?’ Saltash twisted his head towards her, the cords in his long neck like piano wires. ‘Oh, ghosts are terribly interesting. Don’t you think? I doubt there’s ever been a wholly convincing study, though.’

‘That mean you’re thinking of making one?’

‘Be awfully time-consuming, but perhaps worthwhile. I’d certainly be quite interested in examining apparitions as subjective – or reflective – phenomena.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘A study of perceived apparitions to discover what they’re telling us about the perceiver.’

‘The ghost as a psychological projection of someone’s inner condition?’

‘Inner guilt, inner torment.’ Saltash joined a tailback of cars from Leominster’s town-centre lights. ‘Sense of loss. Repressed sexual desire. Is the perceived ghost, for instance, shadowy and quiescent? Is it urgent, or aggressive?’

‘So I can take it you don’t accept the possibility of ghosts as an objective reality.’

‘Merrily, the very word “ghost” ’ – Saltash’s smile broke out – ‘is surely an antithesis of the word “real”.’

‘So, even as a Christian—’

‘I don’t think the Bible has a lot to say on the subject. Or am I wrong?’

‘Well, it… occurs, here and there.’

‘But probably without a hard and fast definition of the term ghost. You see, I don’t know how far you personally go with this. I’m not going to ask you about your personal “psychic experience” – highly subjective, therefore rarely helpful, and not a can of worms I’d want to open at this stage of our relationship.’

This stage?

Merrily had the feeling of being worked, becoming the subject of some kind of private thesis. And guessing that whatever she said next would seep, at some strategic point, back to Siân Callaghan-Clarke.

There was that mellow, new-car smell inside the BMW, a discreet No Smoking sign on the dash. She wished she was alone, in her rattling Volvo.

‘Look, I… I don’t have a particular problem with psychological projection. Probably does account for a lot of ghost stories. But it doesn’t fully explain the traditional haunted house, does it? Where something is seen again and again, by more than one person. How would you deal with that?’

‘Where do you want to start?’ The lights turned green; Saltash turned left. ‘Preconditioning? Folie à deux on a grand scale? If I were a physicist, I might even be drawn to seek a more scientific explanation of the trace-memory theory. But that’s not my backyard. The mind’s where I live. Edging, a touch warily for the moment, however, around Jung’s collective unconscious.’

‘So I’d be safe in assuming that the whole idea of the unquiet dead… would be well over your belief threshold.’

‘Merrily…’ Nigel Saltash wore his smile like a gold medallion. ‘Do you think we know each other well enough yet to even raise that question without the risk of permanent damage to an otherwise promising relationship?’

Promising? Promising how?

They were leaving Herefordshire now, and the personality of the countryside was changing. She saw the plains and ridges and escarpments of Shropshire: a bonier landscape, a lighter green, a bigger sky.

She saw, far in the east, the sawn-off slope of the Clee Hills. And then, momentarily, in the middle distance, fading out of the morning mist to the north-west, the tower of the church that was sometimes called the Cathedral of the Marches.

St Laurence’s, Ludlow. The ancient town clustered below it, an island in amber. A small town with an antique lustre and a bigger history than the whole of Herefordshire.

No town that ancient is unhaunted, Merrily thought, irrationally.

At first, Lol had thought, He’s too young.

Too young to know the background. Too young to understand how difficult it had been to get anywhere in the 1980s with music that was soft and breathy and woven into a mesh of acoustic guitars, when everything else was shiny and synthesized and nobody had heard of Nick Drake, and the Beatles were archaeology.

Jack Fine sat on the shorter stepladder, his microphone between his knees, wired to a mini-disc recorder in his jacket pocket. He had floppy hair and sulky lips and looked like he could be about nineteen. But then so did a lot of blokes that Lol learned later were in their mid-twenties. A sign of age, but he tried not to worry about this any more. And it became clear that Jack Fine did know the background. Maybe too much of it.

‘So, as I understand it, Lol, this goes back to when this other guy in the band – Karl Windling? – was hot for this groupie, and he roped you in to keep her mate occupied. And they were both under-age, and you got stitched up?’

‘I was eighteen,’ Lol said patiently. ‘I was very naive.’

‘But you were the one who finished up getting arrested and taking the rap—’

‘For something that never even happened.’

Oh God, how many times was he going to have to tell this wretched story? Even Karl Windling was history – dead in a road accident two years ago.

‘Leaving you with a police record,’ Jack said.

Lol nodding wearily. ‘And then my parents… they were tied into this fundamentalist religious sect, and they disowned me. And everything went downhill from there. Got the wrong kind of help, cracked up, wound up in a psychiatric hospital, and… Listen… Jack… I’m not trying to cover anything up or tell you your job or anything, but would it be possible to maybe not go into all this again?’

‘Lol…’ Jack leaned over his mike, his fair hair falling over his forehead and covering up one eye. ‘Look, man, OK, I can gloss over it. I can deal with it in, like, a couple of paragraphs? It’s just that you seem to be putting this experience into a few of the songs on the album?’

Lol sighed. No way round this.

‘The song “Heavy Medication Day”,’ Jack said. ‘The one that goes, “Someone’s got to pay, now Dr Gascoigne’s on his way.” What’s that about?’

‘It was just a particular doctor who was – how can I put this? – liberal with the medication. Anything for a quiet life. And probably so people wouldn’t know what he got up to on the side.’

‘Go on.’

‘Uh-huh.’ Lol shook his head. ‘He knows and I know, and all the rest is… just a song.’

‘There’s real anger in that song, though, isn’t there? Which is unusual for you – it’s usually more sort of resigned. It’s as if this guy did something really bad to you.’

‘Not to me personally.’

‘So, what—?’

‘Can we leave this one, Jack?’

‘Seems to me this whole album is about your journey, through the system… back into the light, kind of thing,’ Jack said. ‘Like an exorcism.’

‘Not exactly the word I’d use.’

Jack grinned, like maybe he knew about Merrily. He couldn’t know.

‘So how did you wind up out here in the sticks?’

‘Well, I… came here originally with a woman. She eventually went off with someone else. And then, um…’ Lol leaned back on his sofa and paused for a few seconds while he worked out what it was best to leave out – like him leaving the village and then coming back, because of Merrily. ‘… Then I met Prof Levin, just as he was setting up his studio on the other side of the county. And I’ve been working there, helping Prof out, doing a bit of session stuff. And then Prof kind of persuaded me to do the album. So I owe it all to him, really.’

Lol got out a copy of the CD and put it on the boombox, and they sat there, amid the paint cans and the dust sheets, discussing the songs and people who’d played on the tracks.

‘Including Simon St John on bass and cello,’ Jack said. ‘That’s a real name from the past. And he’s a vicar now, right?’

‘He’s been a vicar for years.’

‘Cool.’

‘Yeah, he’s cool.’

‘But you’re nothing to do with the Church…’

‘Oh no.’

‘’Cause, like, your parents…’

‘It can put you off, when your parents are… extremists.’

A lorry full of gravel went clanging down Church Street, and Jack was silent for a moment, seemed to be thinking what else he could ask.

‘How long have you been in music-writing?’ Lol asked.

‘Oh, not long. My old man – he publishes specialist magazines now, but he used to be a newspaper reporter when he was young. But my grandad thought this was a really disreputable thing to be and he tried to persuade him to pack it in and get into the management side. My old man’s really encouraged me to go into cutting-edge journalism. Go for it, you know? Don’t look back.’

‘Music’s, er, cutting edge?’

‘I do other stuff. Anything that comes up, really. Anyway, Lol… I mean, you were really fucked up for a long time, weren’t you? It was like with Nick Drake – how long’s he been dead now, thirty years? I mean, like him you couldn’t cut it on stage, face an audience.’

‘I identified a lot with Nick Drake, from the beginning. Hence the name of the band, Hazey Jane.’

‘Huh?’

‘The Nick Drake song, “Hazey Jane”?’

‘Oh yeah, sure. Sorry, I thought you meant… So like, how did you get over that? ’Cause you did this amazing comeback gig… at the Courtyard in Hereford?’

Lol told Jack about all the help he’d had from Moira Cairns, folk-rock goddess, who happened to have been recording at Prof’s. How Moira had literally pushed him out in front of that audience. Scary? Oh yeah, cold-sweat situation. All those lights, all those faces.

‘And you’re still doing a few gigs as support for Moira, right? But you and her…?’

Jack moved his hands around.

‘Oh no,’ Lol said. ‘Nothing like that.’

‘But you’re with somebody?’

‘No, I live alone. A rural idyll.’

‘Right,’ Jack said. ‘Right.’

Still waiting for Eirion, Jane saw Lol and the guy from Q come out of the front door of Lucy’s house and walk up the street to the village centre. They seemed to be getting on OK. She didn’t know why she felt so responsible for Lol. He was just that kind of guy – vulnerable.

The journalist was a surprise. He didn’t look any older than Eirion, for God’s sake. He had a camera with him – a Nikon, digital-looking. Doing his own pictures, too. Jane slid behind one of the thick oak supports of the old market hall as they came onto the square. A few shoppers and tourists were glancing at them by now, and Jane saw that Lol was looking a bit unhappy.

‘’Course I won’t say where it is,’ the Q guy said.

‘Only the market hall’s fairly well known,’ Lol said. ‘Be a give away.’

‘No problem – we’ll face you the other way. Better for the light, too.’

The guy lined Lol up on the edge of the square, with the church in the background and people walking past, and Jane wondered if he was trying to simulate one of the famous black and white street-scene pictures taken for Nick Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left.

And she wondered, not for the first time, if that was a good thing. Nick Drake’s music was wonderful but he surely represented the old Lol. He had, after all, killed himself with an overdose of antidepressants.

Jane saw Eirion’s car arrive – little grey Peugeot with the CYM sticker, identifying him as a Welshman abroad. Eirion drove slowly around the square to park in front of the vicarage gate, and Jane stopped herself from running across, waving. A measure of cool might be more appropriate. Try and cobble together a few quid for the petrol, indeed.

She strolled casually over the cobbles as Eirion climbed out. He spotted her at once and did his incredible smile – the kind of smile that said you were the only person who could make it happen.

Smooth bastard.

OK, he wasn’t. Eirion wasn’t smooth. He didn’t even know he had any charm.

When they’d finished kissing, he said, ‘Is there something wrong?’

‘Why?’

‘It’s very busy here today, isn’t it? I’ve never seen it like this.’

‘It’s Saturday.’ Jane looked back at the square. Lol and the guy from Q had gone already. Not a major photo-session, then.

‘Didn’t used to be like this on a Saturday, did it?’ Eirion said.

‘Tourism. It’s like tourists have suddenly discovered the area.’

‘Good for the shopkeepers.’

‘I suppose.’

Jane imagined the figure of Lucy Devenish, the ghost of Ledwardine past, standing in the shadows under the market hall. Lucy looking very old, the way she never had, and the poncho drooping. Something feeling wrong.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ Jane said.

6

On the Slippery Slope

MERRILY FOUND THE atmosphere stifling. Too much heat, food-smells, a sense of something out of everyone’s control.

She exchanged glances with Saltash from opposite ends of the sofa. Saltash raised an eyebrow. Mrs Mumford seemed to think he was some kind of priest. And the wrong kind, at that.

‘Where’s the Bishop?’ she kept shouting at her son. ‘You said you’d bring the Bishop. You never does what you says you’s gonner do.’

Mumford sat, impassive, on a hard chair by the TV, which was silently screening some Saturday-morning children’s programme: grown-ups wearing cheerful primary colours and exaggerated expressions, smiling a lot and chatting with puppets.

Soon after they’d arrived, Mumford’s dad had walked out. ‘Can’t stand no more of this. I’m off shopping. She won’t face up to it. You talk some sense into her, boy, else you can bloody well take her away with you.’

‘I’m cold.’ Mrs Mumford was hunching her chair dangerously close to the gas fire. ‘Fetch me my cardigan, Andrew.’

‘You got it on, Mam.’

Mumford looked down at his shoes. The room felt like the inside of a kiln. His mam wore this winter-weight red cardigan and baggy green slacks. She had one gold earring in, and that wasn’t a fashion statement. She looked from Merrily to Saltash to Andy. She’d done this twice before, as if she was trying to work out who they all were.

‘Why en’t the Bishop come?’

‘He en’t well, Mam, I told you. He had a heart operation.’

Her eyes filled up. ‘You’ll tell me anything, you will.’

‘Mam—’

‘He was always nice to me, the Bishop, he never talked about God and that ole rubbish. Used to come in when we had the paper shop. Used to come in for his Star nearly every night.’

‘Mam, that was the old bishop. He don’t live here no more.’

‘He can’t tell me why, see! That’s why he don’t wanner come.’ She turned to Saltash. ‘Can’t tell me.’

Mrs Mumford stared at Saltash in silence. Merrily looked away, around the room. The walls were bare, pink anaglypta, except for a wide picture in a gilt frame over a sideboard with silverware on it. But the picture had been turned round to face the wall. All you could see was the brown-paper backing, stretched tight.

What was it a picture of? Ludlow Castle?

‘What would you like the Bishop to tell you?’ Saltash asked.

Mam kept on staring at him, like she knew him but couldn’t place him. You could feel her confusion in the room, like a tangle of grey wool in the air. Her voice went into a whisper.

‘Why did God let her take him?’ Starting to cry now. ‘Why did God let that woman take our boy?’

Saltash leaned forward. ‘Which woman is that, Phyllis?’

‘You’re supposed to be a policeman!’ Mam rounding on Andy, chins quaking. ‘Why din’t you stop her?’

Andy Mumford drew a tight breath through clenched teeth, the veins prominent in his cheeks.

‘The Bishop, when he come round, he sat on that settee with a cup of tea and a bourbon biscuit and he never mentioned God nor Jesus, not once.’

Merrily said softly, ‘Mrs Mumford, who was the woman?’

Mam didn’t look at her. ‘I can’t say it.’ She pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and blew her nose. Saltash caught Merrily’s eye.

Andy said, ‘Mam, you can say anything to Mrs Watkins, and it won’t go no further.’

‘What… this girl?’

Mam snorted. Mumford looked helplessly at Merrily.

‘Phyllis,’ Saltash said. ‘I think you were starting to tell us about Robbie.’

‘Oh…’ She smiled suddenly, her face flushed. She sat up, centre stage. ‘He loves it here, he does.’

‘He felt safe here.’

‘He loves it.’

‘He was interested in history, wasn’t he?’

‘He loves all the old houses. He’s always walking up and down, looking at the old houses. He knows when they was all built and he knows who used to live in them. You can walk up Corve Street with him, and he’ll tell you who used to live where, what he’s found out from books. Reads such a lot of books. Reads and reads. I says, you’ll hurt your eyes, reading in that light!’

‘Phyllis,’ Saltash said. ‘Can you see Robbie… reading?’

‘No!’ She reared up, nodding the word out, hard. ‘I don’t need to see him no more. I said, please don’t let me see him. I don’t wanner see him like that…’

‘Like that?’

‘All broken. I don’t wanner— I just hears him now. Nan, Nan… Sometimes he’s a long way away. But sometimes, when I’m nearly asleep, he’ll be real close. Nan…’ She smiled. ‘And he draws them, the old houses. He’s real good. Draws all them old houses. And the church. And the ca—’

She stopped, her mouth open. And then her whole face seemed to flow, like a melting candle, and a sob erupted, and she clawed at her face and then – as Merrily stood up – kicked her chair back, dropping her hands.

‘She took him off.’

‘Mam!’ Andy knelt by the side of the chair, steadying it. ‘You mustn’t—’

‘She pushed him off, Andrew.’

‘No,’ Mumford said. ‘Now, that didn’t happen. Did it?’

‘Pushed him off,’ his mam said. ‘He told me.’

‘What do you mean?’ Mumford staring up into his mother’s swirling face. ‘What are you saying?’

Outside, the sun had gone in and there was a cold breeze. Merrily stared across the car park at the Tesco store. Its roof line had a roller-coaster curve, and she saw how this had been formed to follow the line of the hills beyond the town.

Some town – even Tesco’s having to sing in harmony.

She felt inadequate. Something wasn’t making sense. Or it was making the wrong kind of sense. There was an acrid air of betrayal around the house where the Mumfords lived, in the middle of a brick terrace, isolated now on the edge of one of the new access roads serving Tesco’s and its car park. When they came out, Nigel Saltash had spotted Andy’s dad walking back across the car park with a Tesco’s carrier bag, a wiry old man in a fishing hat.

‘Think I’ll have a word, if that’s all right.’

Mumford nodding glumly, sitting on the brick front wall of his parents’ home, looking out across what seemed to be as close as Ludlow got to messy. The train station, small and discreet, sat on higher ground opposite the supermarket. Lower down was an old feed-mill, beautifully preserved, turned into apartments or something. Then tiers of Georgian and medieval roofs and chimney stacks and, above everything, the high tower of St Laurence’s, like a column of sepia smoke.

‘The doc says she needs assessment,’ Mumford said. ‘Should have had assessment some while back. See the way he looked at me?’

‘It’s how he looks at everybody,’ Merrily said. ‘He’s a psychiatrist.’

Her hands were clasped across her stomach, damming the cold river of doubt that awoke her sometimes in the night – the seeping fear that most of what she did amounted to no more than a ludicrously antiquated distraction from reality.

‘Checking out the old feller now, see,’ Mumford said. ‘Next thing, he’ll have the bloody social services in. This is—’ His hands gripping the bricks on either side. ‘She’s got worse, much worse, since the boy died.’

‘A dreadful shock can do it. Reaction can be delayed. It doesn’t necessarily mean she’s on the slippery slope.’

‘At her age,’ Mumford said, ‘what else kind of slope is there?’

Merrily paced a semicircle. She saw Saltash, just out of earshot. His head was on one side, and he was pinching his chin and nodding, flashing his mirthless smile as Mumford’s dad talked, his carrier bag at his feet. She was remembering Huw Owen’s primary rule: never walk away from a house of disturbance without leaving a prayer behind.

Had she left without a prayer because she was afraid it might have inflamed the situation? Or because Nigel Saltash was there?

‘Just because I’m working with a psychiatrist doesn’t mean other possible interpretations go out of the window.’ She bit her lip, uncertain. Hoping she wasn’t just fighting her corner for the sake of it. ‘What do you think she meant about a woman pushing him off the castle?’

Mumford shook his head. ‘She never said that before.’

‘Does it make any sense?’

‘There was a witness – bloke lives over the river. Steve Britton showed me the statement. Bloke saw him fall. Nothing about anybody else. I… Where’s she get this stuff from? Never said nothing like that before. I don’t… Christ, I need to check this out, now, don’t I? You’re right, it’s easy enough to say she’s losing it.’ He sprang up from the wall. ‘I dunno… at every stage of your bloody life you become somebody you said you was never gonner be.’

‘In what way?’

‘Ah… you’d be on an investigation: murder, suicide, missing person, and there’d always be some pain-in-the-arse busybody relative – never the father, always someone a bit removed from it – who’d be trying to tell you your job. Have you looked into this or that aspect, have you talked to so-and-so, why en’t you done this? You wanted to strangle them after a bit. But the truth is there aren’t enough cops to do half of what needs doing. And so things don’t come out the way they should, things gets left, filed, ignored…’

‘Be careful, Andy,’ Merrily said, for no good reason, knowing she wouldn’t be careful in a situation like this.

‘Airy-fairy sort of feller, apparently – writes poems and publishes them hisself.’

‘Who?’

‘The witness. I’ll mabbe go see him. Got time now, ennit? Got time to be the busybody pain-in-the-arse uncle. Nobody bothered about the kid when he was alive, except for one ole woman.’

‘Andy, I’m hardly the person to be disparaging it, but if she does think she’s been given this information by a… by Robbie…’

‘Could be something he told her days before, ennit? Before he died. Something that’s suddenly clicked. I been agonizing about Robbie’s death for three weeks now. Thinking, leave it till after the funeral, wait for the inquest. Now even Mam’s on at me to do something. Why din’t you stop her? Where the hell did she get that from, Mrs Watkins?’

On the edge of the car park, Mumford’s dad had picked up his carrier bag and he and Saltash had started back towards the house in the wake of Saltash’s all-concealing smile.

‘Andy.’ Merrily beckoned Mumford into his parents’ tiny front garden. ‘I think we should try and deal with this… Go back in. But not with him. Think of something.’

7

I’ll Be Waiting

THERE WAS ANOTHER clear reason why the implications of retirement were terrifying Andy Mumford.

His dad.

Reg Mumford was taller than his son and held himself stiff-backed and upright, but it was hard to believe now that he’d ever been a policeman. Still wearing his fishing hat, he was standing with his hands on the shoulders of his wife’s chair, as if it was a wheelchair. Merrily’s feeling was that this was because he didn’t want to look at her.

‘I reckon they’ve started watering the beer again, Andrew.’

‘You said.’

‘Have you found that?’

‘No, Dad.’

‘Always start doing it this time of year when the tourists come.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Prices goes up, too. Don’t seem two minutes since it was one and six a pint.’

‘Before my time, Dad.’

‘Hee, hee!’ Reg Mumford pointed at Andy, who was standing uncomfortably up against the sideboard near the picture that was turned to the wall. ‘You en’t gonner be saying that for long. Now you’re retired, see, time’s gonner speed up, time’s gonner flash by, you mark my words, boy.’

‘Mrs Watkins would like to talk to you again,’ Mumford said.

‘I’d be delighted to talk to this young lady, Andrew. Shall we go out for a drink, the three of us?’

‘She wants to talk to Mam, Dad.’

‘Won’t get no sense out of her,’ Reg said. ‘I can tell you that much.’

Merrily, still standing by the door, glanced at Andy Mumford, watched his lips retract, a sign of extreme frustration. They were getting nowhere here. Nigel Saltash had suggested lunch in one of the splendid new restaurants which, he said, now made visits to Ludlow such an unexpected pleasure. At least she’d got out of that, saying that she had a sermon to write, and then Mumford telling Saltash he had to pick his wife up in Dilwyn, not far from Ledwardine, so he could give the vicar a lift back.

She came over from the door and knelt on the rug in front of Mrs Mumford’s chair. Mrs Mumford contemplated her for a while and then began to nod, light graduating into her eyes as if the action of nodding was powering a small dynamo.

‘Now then. Now. I know who you are. I was a bit confused, the way that man kept smiling at me, but I know who you are now, my dear.’

Merrily smiled back. Somehow she didn’t think Mrs Mumford was going to get this right.

‘You were at the funeral, weren’t you?’

‘Erm…’

‘You’re the teacher. Yes. Robbie’s teacher. You was his favourite, you’re…’ Mrs Mumford started to prise herself up. ‘You’re his… history teacher!’

‘Well, I—’

‘’Course you are.’ Reg Mumford was leaning over the chair from behind and pointing a forefinger at his own head, making screwing motions. ‘And we’re very glad to see you, aren’t we, Phyllis?’

‘He loved history,’ Mrs Mumford said.

‘Yes,’ Merrily said. ‘Yes, he did.’

‘Much bloody good it did him.’ Reg snorted. ‘Should’ve been out playing football. If he’d played football like a normal boy he’d still be alive. I’ve always said that.’

‘Dad, for Christ—’

‘Andrew, we gotter face facts. We’re all terrible sorry ’bout what happened, but it en’t no use blamin’ ourselves for ever and a day, is it? Boy was a bloody dreamer, head in the clouds, no gettin’ round it.’

‘All right, Dad,’ Mumford said, desperate. ‘We’ll go to the pub, you and me, eh? Half an hour, Mrs Watkins, will that be all right?’

Merrily nodded, grateful.

‘Now, I know I had something to show you,’ Mrs Mumford said. ‘Where did I put it?’

Merrily had made tea for them both. The kitchen wasn’t as clean as it might have been; she’d wondered if there was a home help. Mrs Mumford didn’t seem to be disabled, but she was very overweight.

‘Look in that top drawer, would you?’ She seemed to be accepting Merrily, now they were on their own, but not as a priest; she wouldn’t be ready for that. ‘No, no, not that one… the long one… that’s it.’

‘This?’ Merrily opened the drawer and found a hard-backed sketch pad inside.

‘There it is. Will you bring it over?’

‘Phyllis… why’s this picture turned to the wall?’

‘Eh?’

‘The picture.’ Merrily touched it.

‘No! You leave that alone!’

‘OK.’ She drew back, took the sketch pad to Mrs Mumford who put it flat on her knees. Merrily pulled up a dining chair. An envelope fell out of the sketch pad and she caught it and put it on the chair arm.

‘Don’t know what that is,’ Mrs Mumford said. ‘Now, look at these. He spent hours on these. You’ve got to be careful not to touch them or it’ll all come off. He had a spray, he did, but it still comes off.’

They were charcoal sketches. The first one was clearly of St Laurence’s Church, but its size was exaggerated so that the townhouses seemed like dog kennels. The second had been drawn from directly below, so that the tower resembled a rocket about to blast off. The perspective looked, to Merrily, to be spot on. There was light and shade and he’d smudged the charcoal to produce mist effects.

‘He was very talented, Phyllis.’

‘Sit there for hours, he would, drawing pictures of the church and the black and white houses. The others… we never sees them, they never comes to see their ole gran. Only Robbie.’

‘He loved being here with you, didn’t he? What’s this one? Is that what they call the Buttercross? With the little clock tower on top.’

‘Town council meets there. That one’s the Feathers Hotel.’

Mrs Mumford was much calmer now, leafing through the drawings, some identified underneath: Castle Lodge, The Reader’s House, the Old College.

‘Did he sit outside with his sketch pad?’

‘Too shy. He went out, see, and he looked at the old houses for a long time and he’d walk all round them and then he’d come back and he… you know… what do you call it?’

‘Drew them from memory?’

‘That’s it.’

Either Robbie had had a photographic memory or he’d really studied these buildings, come to know them intimately. Whichever, it was remarkable. Merrily said this to Phyllis, and Phyllis began to cry silently, the tears just coming, her cheeks swollen and shiny like the pouches that fed hospital drips, and Merrily held her hand, and Phyllis said, ‘He’s dead,’ looking up at her, as if pleading for a contradiction.

‘You’ll see him again, Phyllis.’

‘No.’ Phyllis’s fingers tightening in a spasm, flooded eyes gazing past Merrily now, at the picture turned to the wall.

The atmosphere in the room seemed brown and felt dense, as if the air was flecked with clouds of midges. The sketch pad slid to the carpet.

‘Phyllis, will you say a prayer with me?’

‘The only one of ’em ever come to see his ole gran,’ Phyllis said.

Did she mean still?

‘Can I say a prayer?’

‘When’s the Bishop coming?’

‘I’ll make sure he comes,’ Merrily whispered. ‘I’ll bring him. I promise.’

‘Can’t see the Bishop like this.’ Phyllis pulled her hand away. ‘State of me.’

‘You’re upset, and you’ve got every reason to be.’

‘Going to the bathroom.’

‘OK.’ Merrily helped her up. Phyllis had a bandage on one leg, rumpled, and it wasn’t clean. ‘Will you be all right? Does that dressing need…?’

‘I’m all right. That woman will come… my… Gail, is it?’

‘Andy’s wife.’

‘She’s a nurse.’

Her daughter-in-law of… thirty years, was it? Merrily held open the door that led to the hall. ‘Have you got a downstairs…?’

‘I’m all right, girl.’

Merrily left the door open, went to pick up the sketch pad. It had fallen open at a drawing of what looked like a high stone wall with a jagged white hole in it the shape of a figure, like when a cartoon character crashed through brick-work. She picked up the pad, took it back to the open drawer, listening for Mrs Mumford’s movements down the hall.

Problems here, and nobody would challenge Saltash’s assessment.

When she was putting the pad away, light from the front window showed how she’d misinterpreted the drawing. It wasn’t a hole in the wall, it was a white figure in the foreground, a vaguely female figure with the charcoal smudged around it to suggest a glow, a halo. It was two-dimensional, without contours, featureless.

It seemed to be the only figure in any of Robbie’s drawings.

Merrily closed the sketch pad, put it away in the drawer, went back to plump up the cushions on Mrs Mumford’s chair and spotted the white envelope that had fallen from the sketch pad.

It seemed legitimate to open it.

Inside the envelope was a picture postcard, an atmospheric filter photo of Ludlow Castle in a pink and frosty dawn light, the message written in black fibre-tip across the full width of the card.

Dear Marion,

I am in Ludlow again as I told you and it’s brilliant here even on my own altho when I am walking through the castle I feel you are there with me and then I feel really happy.

Sometimes I pretend you are walking next to me and we are holding hands and it’s brilliant!!!! Everything is all right again, and I never want to leave cos this is our place.

I was so miserable I didn’t think I could stand it till the end of term. Its worse than ever there. I hate them, they are stupid and ignorant and they are trying to wreck my whole life. The nearer it gets to the end of the holidays the sadder I feel and don’t want to go back there and I wish I could stay here with you for ever.

Please come like you promised you would.

Please, please, please come.

I’ll be waiting.

On the way back, in Mumford’s car, coming down from Leominster towards the Ledwardine turning, Merrily said, ‘I did a brief house blessing, no fuss, a prayer for Robbie to be at rest, and the Lord’s Prayer.’

‘She even realize what you were doing?’

‘She’s not that far gone, Andy. Although I don’t think she quite got the point that I was a priest. Hard to say. Erm… look, I’m going to talk to the Bishop, OK? I mean, she asked for him, right?’

‘All that was…’ Mumford looked embarrassed. ‘They both knew him quite well, the Bishop, Mr Dunmore, back when they had the paper shop. Hardly ever went to church, mind, certainly not the ole man, but it didn’t seem to bother him. But, hell, he’s Bishop of Hereford now. We can’t just get the Bishop of Hereford to an old woman who—’

‘What… like, if it was the dowager Lady Mumford it wouldn’t be a problem? Of course we can get him. You got me – I mean you were concerned enough to think it might be something we could help with.’

‘Wish I’d never bothered. The ole man, he don’t give a toss.’

‘He’s not making her feel any better, is he? Do you think he even notices?’

‘Mrs Watkins, the fact is he’s been treating her like she’s daft for half a century.’

A stray spatter of rain landed on the windscreen. Merrily took a breath.

‘Well, I’m not sure she is.’

‘What’s that mean?’ He almost turned at the wheel, but the old Mumford set in and he kept on looking at the road.

‘It’s a feeling. Based on this and that. Who’s Marion?’

‘Who?’

‘Did Robbie have a girlfriend?’

‘Too shy.’

‘That’s what your mother said. But there was an unfinished message on a postcard. In an envelope in Robbie’s sketch pad. Begging someone called Marion to meet him at the castle. He said it was their special place. He said he was imagining them holding hands.’

‘Written by Robbie?’

‘He hadn’t signed it yet, but the handwriting matched the titles he’d put on some of the drawings. Also, was he having a bad time at home?’

‘Not according to his mother, but that don’t mean a thing. If I had a home like his, I’d’ve been having a bad time.’

‘Perhaps you should read the card,’ Merrily said. ‘I put it back in the sketch pad, next to a rather strange drawing.’

‘Strange how?’

‘Difficult to explain.’

Cole Hill came up in the windscreen, and the church steeple, and rain came on for real. Two o’clock in the afternoon, and it felt like dusk.

‘Marion,’ Mumford said. ‘Don’t mean a thing. You ask the ole girl?’

‘I didn’t mention it. She was already upset, so I just did the prayers.’

‘She seemed calmer.’

‘Final point,’ Merrily said. ‘The mirror turned to the wall.’

‘Couldn’t fail to notice that, could you?’

‘I thought it was a picture, so I had a quick look while she was in the loo – thinking maybe it was a picture of the castle or something.’

‘Mirror.’ Mumford sighed. ‘Dad wouldn’t let her take it down. Nothing to straighten his tie in.’

‘I’m not happy with this, Andy.’

‘No,’ Mumford said.

Sermons: every week another one hanging around your neck like a penance, supporting the traditional assumption, from the days when the priest was the only person in the village who could read, that you could stand up there in the pulpit having universal truths channelled through you, when all you really had were questions.

An hour after Merrily got back to the vicarage, the computer in the scullery was still switched off, Ethel the cat curled up in the tray next to it. On the sermon pad she’d scrawled a number of questions, including: old people – why have we stopped listening to them?

Maybe, one day, something unexpectedly profound would get pushed between the lines, a surprise parcel in the spiritual letter box. One day.

The phone rang.

‘Merrily, this is Siân. Just a very quick call. Nigel and I had lunch – apparently, you were late with your sermon.’

‘Well, I always like to leave it till the last minute. Keeps it fresh, like… like a salad.’

God, why does this woman always make me talk bollocks?

‘Anyway, Nigel was impressed with your handling of a rather difficult situation.’

Huh?

‘Inevitably, when people we’ve known for years, like ex-Sergeant Mumford, are involved, we feel we have to go through the motions, don’t we? But I do think this case underlines the usefulness of having someone like Nigel who can confirm our own suspicions with some authority.’

‘Suspicions?’

‘He tells me he’s already given ex-Sergeant Mumford his own initial assessment, along with suggestions on how it should be followed up with his mother’s GP as early as possible next week. He’s also going to write up a short report for Sophie to keep on our database. And I think that concludes our involvement.’

‘That’s what you think, is it?’

‘Except, of course, as a discussion point amongst ourselves. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I have to say there’s a danger that, by our very existence, we may, ahm, sometimes be actively encouraging people to inflate their feelings of paranoia or persecution, or their reactions to sudden and shocking bereavement, into something altogether more fanciful.’

By our very existence?

‘You’re suggesting we shouldn’t exist?’

Siân laughed. ‘Essentially, I’m merely saying that we – the Deliverance Ministry – if we are to lose the unsavoury aura of medievalism, should not be seen to bolster people’s protective fantasies. Encouraging them to deny personal responsibility by projecting it into something separate and amorphous over which they have no control. I’ll put this on the agenda for our next meeting, shall I?’

‘Erm…’

‘But thank you, all the same, for going to Ludlow with Nigel – although I gather he did the driving.’

‘Evidently.’ Merrily felt rage clogging her chest. ‘Siân, are we becoming a fu— focus group?

‘That’s becoming a derogatory term, I think.’

‘Because focus groups appear to be designed to obliterate the individual intuition by which something as inexact as Deliverance often stands or falls.’

‘One viewpoint, certainly,’ Siân said. ‘We could discuss that issue, also.’

Afterwards, Merrily sat watching the wind in the apple trees.

She folded up the pad and rang the Bishop at the palace behind Hereford Cathedral. Answering machine. She left a message asking what he was doing tonight, anticipating his groans, but this was important, even if she wasn’t sure exactly why. Intuition, maybe.

She rang Andy Mumford on his mobile.

‘Hold on one minute,’ Mumford said, and she heard him apologizing to someone else, and then he came back with a different acoustic – outside. ‘I was in with Mr Osman. The witness. Feller who saw Robbie fall?’

‘You went back to Ludlow?’

‘En’t far.’

‘Oh God, what are we doing, Andy?’

‘Think I’ve found a woman,’ Mumford said. ‘Mabbe two.’

8

Imbalance

‘HARD TO CREDIT,’ the Bishop said. ‘My God, how it’s changed.’

The street had narrowed, closing around the crawling Volvo. Merrily couldn’t see how the town centre could have changed much at all in about five centuries.

She had her window wound down. The dusk was dropping over Ludlow like muslin on antique trinkets, the cooling air singed with woodsmoke. The medieval timbered buildings on either side seemed to be reaching for each other, gables bent towards a creaking kiss under the dusty copper sky.

‘Not the buildings,’ the Bishop said. ‘Most of this town’s in aspic. Lay a finger on a brick and English Heritage will crucify you.’

‘With antique nails?’

‘Goes without saying. No, I meant the people. Even when I was living here, on a Saturday night you’d have the pub trade and not much else. Now look at them – listen to their accents. TV actors live here now, you know – and news-readers, politicians. And what are they all doing? Where are they all going? They’re going to dinner. Now call me a puritan…’

‘Inappropriate. You haven’t got the waistline for it.’

‘You’re very frivolous tonight, Merrily.’

‘Actually, I’m nervous,’ she said, ‘and I’m not sure why.’

The plan had changed. Andy Mumford wanted them to meet up at the spot where the man had seen Robbie Walsh fall. There were some things that Mumford thought Merrily should know before she took the Bishop to see his mother.

The Volvo was stuck in an unexpected queue of vehicles on the bottleneck corner near the Buttercross. She tapped the accelerator as the engine began to falter, recalling reading somewhere that Ludlow now had more Michelin stars than any other town its size in the country.

‘What exactly started this invasion of restaurants, Bernie?’

‘I think they had a food festival, which was a huge success. Perhaps someone realized there was something irresistible about expensive meals served in crooked oak-framed rooms with sloping floors. I don’t really know why it took off. All I know is that it’s virtually destroyed my chances of ever moving back one day. Nowadays, if you’re going to even look in an estate agent’s window in Ludlow, it’s advisable to swallow a Valium first.’

Bernie Dunmore was probably the first Suffragan Bishop of Ludlow ever to be given Hereford – safe pair of podgy hands after a difficult period. All the same, he was often heard to say he wished they’d left him alone; seemed to have personal history invested here.

‘Which is how we arrive at a possibly dangerous imbalance,’ he said. ‘It’s always been a friendly town, but there’ll be resentment, inevitably, from people who were born here and have been thoroughly priced out. Even the likes of me – I wasn’t born here, but there’s nowhere quite like it. Once you’ve been here, you never want to leave.’

‘You do the Lottery, Bernie?’

‘Is that a sin, do you think, in my position?’

‘Only if you pray for a result.’

The traffic broke and they emerged into the market square, turned sandy by the last of the sunset. There were shops either side of the square, and a wider street sloped down to the left: warped and tangled medieval timbers giving way to graceful Georgian terraces with their soft lights, and the wooded hills behind.

Serene, timeless, secure in itself. All of that.

The Bishop shaded his eyes against a sudden sunset flare before they drove back into shadows.

‘Straight on, Merrily. And then, just as you think you can’t go any further, follow the wall to the left.’

The wall. Directly ahead, across the square, flat as a film-set in the muddy dusk, was the reason, maybe, this town had survived to become so cool and comfortable in the twenty-first century.

By day, as Merrily remembered, the castle was more obviously ruined: sunny sandstone, like a big play area. Now, in fading light, it was seizing power again, dragging its history around it like a heavy military cloak. It was a royal history.

‘Didn’t Catherine of Aragon live here for a while?’

‘With the short-lived Prince Arthur,’ Bernie said. ‘And then she married his brother, who became Henry VIII, and the rest is… Oh, and the two ill-fated sons of Edward IV, they were here. The Princes in the Tower. Here in happier times – presumably. People tend to be happier here.’

She headed left, where he’d told her, along the walls. Ludlow Castle: lost and won, besieged and battered, but still hugging this craggy site, as if to stop the town crumbling into the river below.

‘I suppose hundreds of people must have died here.’

‘It’s just that most of us thought the deaths were over,’ the Bishop said.

Steeply down through Dinham, another ancient piece of town with a small medieval chapel dedicated to the martyred St Thomas of Canterbury, and across the bridge over the River Teme, with the castle behind them – from this side, as much of a fortress as it had ever been. She supposed that the highest tower was the keep, from which Robbie Walsh had fallen.

‘I suppose I ought to have come to the funeral,’ the Bishop said. ‘But it was David’s show and, with the TV cameras and everything, I knew there’d be scores of people there. Anyway, I didn’t think the Mumfords would remember me. I just bought my papers there.’ He sighed. ‘Suppose that’s why I felt obliged to come with you tonight, even though I’m not entirely sure what this is about or why she’d want to talk to me, especially.’

‘She liked you because you didn’t have much to say about God.’

Bernie grunted. ‘Limited opportunity to bring the Almighty into a transaction involving a packet of Polos and the Shropshire Star.’

She smiled, guessing he’d used the Mumfords’ shop as an information bureau, picking up on local gossip. He could look jovial and vague, but Bernie didn’t miss much. When he’d asked her how she was getting on with the Deliverance panel, she’d been glad it had been too dark for him to see her eyes while she was murmuring that this was something they perhaps ought to discuss. When there was more time. Like several hours.

‘Phyllis and Reg must have been well into their seventies when I knew them,’ the Bishop said. ‘I remember when they sold the shop we sent them a good-luck card.’

‘You ever see the boy?’

‘I’ve been trying to remember. I don’t think so. But he didn’t live here all his life, did he?’

‘Only the best bits, apparently.’

Across the river, the land gave in to ranks of dark conifers and the lane took them uphill. Cottages and a hotel had been flung into the hillside, lights coming on in them now. The road kept on climbing, and they did almost a U-turn and emerged, unexpectedly, onto a natural parapet.

Merrily slowed. ‘Gosh.’

‘Never been to Whitcliffe before, Merrily?’

‘It’s… incredible.’ She stopped the car at the side of the lane.

It was like arriving in the circle at a theatre, and the whole of Ludlow was the set… the best, most focused, most enclosed view of a whole town she’d ever seen – this fairyland of castle and ancient streets, like a richly painted wheel around the spindle of the church tower, haloed by the molten glow of evening.

Another car was parked a few yards away, two men getting out of it, one of them Mumford. The other man was taller and wore a big hat. Merrily eased the Volvo up behind them.

‘This chap happy to talk to us, Merrily?’

‘I think Andy kind of used you to square it with him – if the Bishop’s involved, it must be kosher. As it were.’

Merrily zipped up her fleece over the dog collar. It was cold now, for the end of April. Cold enough for frost. Mumford and the big-hat guy came over. Mumford wore a dark, heavy jacket.

‘Mrs Watkins, Bishop – this is Mr Osman.’

‘Gerald.’ The guy shook the Bishop’s hand and then Merrily’s. He was wearing a Barbour, and his wide-brimmed hat was waxed, too. An incomer, then. Pinched face, prominent teeth.

‘Mr Osman’s a writer,’ Mumford said.

‘Well… illustrator, mainly, and book designer. I produce local watercolours, with accompanying verse. A new career, in retirement, and a chance to immerse oneself in the place. And calendars. I also produce calendars. Gerald Osman.’

‘I think someone sent us one at Christmas, actually,’ the Bishop said. ‘Watercolours, yes. Keep it in my office.’

‘Do you really? You must come up to the house for a glass of wine afterwards. We’re at the bottom of the hill, this side of the river. My wife used to think it was so lovely having a house with such a wonderful view of the castle, but not so sure any more. Rather wishes it would all go away.’

‘Yes,’ Mumford said. ‘Perhaps you could show us, sir, where you were when you saw the… my nephew fall.’

‘Well, as I told you, it’s just… just here, actually. Quite a remarkable view of the castle, as you see. And it was earlier in the evening, therefore so much clearer.’

The sky was darkening fast now, a sharp shaft of burnt orange over the keep, getting duller, like a spearhead cooling after the forge.

‘I’ve painted it many times, at different times of day and night,’ Mr Osman said. ‘Often from this actual spot – so I do know this angle pretty well. As you see, it can look rather sinister in the last of the light, and in the rain it often has a faintly dolorous air. But in the early evening, on a fine day, it’s mellow – like the crust of a mature Cheddar. Everything very clear: every ridge, every fissure.’

‘If there’d been two people up there, do you think you’d have known?’ Mumford said.

‘Well, it’s rather further away than it looks from here, so human figures are very small, and I didn’t manage to focus my binoculars until I saw him fall – couldn’t believe it, obviously. Terrible shock.’

‘But you’ve spent a lot of time in the castle,’ Mumford said. ‘You’ve been up that tower.’

‘Of course. I’ve been everywhere, making sketches – which is why I recognized your nephew. I mean from the photographs on the TV, not when he was… falling… The moment the face came up on the screen I said to my wife, Good Lord, I’ve seen that boy several times. I’ve even talked to him.’

‘In the castle?’

‘When it was quiet, I’d sit in the castle grounds, make some watercolour sketches. I’m sure they come out just as well when I do them at home, from photographs, but I always felt I was honouring a tradition – all the distinguished artists who painted Ludlow Castle. Turner, for heaven’s sake! Not one of his best, I grant you.’

‘And the boy…’

‘Would come and watch me. From a distance at first. Normally, I’m quite wary of children, especially teenagers, with some of the malevolent little tykes around nowadays. But this boy was genuinely interested. Eventually telling me he did some drawings himself. And his extensive knowledge of the castle was apparent from the start – knew the names of all the towers, their history, the various stages of development. I was impressed.’

‘Knew his way around,’ Merrily said.

‘Absolutely. Rather a pleasant boy. Shy at first – I find shyness something of a virtue these days.’

‘And the woman,’ Mumford said heavily. ‘You were telling me about the woman.’

‘Ah. Yes. Mrs… Pepper? Lives in that rather splendid old farmhouse down from the bottom of The Linney.’ Mr Osman pointed somewhere to the left of the castle ruins. ‘Well, it’s a bit of a fraud, actually, was built up from very little by some professional restorer – who, incidentally, cut down a wonderful old oak tree, allegedly by mistake.’

‘And the woman herself…’

‘She bought the place earlier this year. She’s supposed to have been quite well known at one time – afraid I don’t know very much about that kind of music myself. She’s… like a number of people living here now, I suppose, somewhat eccentric.’

‘And you saw Robbie with her,’ Mumford said.

‘Oh yes.’

‘How many times?’

‘Well, twice, certainly. She’s quite distinctive, with the varying colours of her hair and the way she dresses.’

‘Dresses how?’

‘Oh… like out of a Victorian melodrama. Long coats. Swirly cloaks.’

‘I see. You ever talk to the boy when he was with her?’

‘Never. Some people one instinctively…’ Mr Osman cleared his throat. ‘But the boy would follow her around, and they’d be pointing things out to one another. If I hadn’t known she lived here, I would probably have thought they were tourists, a mother and son.’ He looked at Bernie. ‘I gather you’re a friend of the family, my lord.’

‘Just, ah, Bishop… please.’ Bernie had dressed down tonight – golfing jacket, corduroy trousers. ‘Yes, we’re all trying to help them come to terms with what happened.’

‘Dreadful thing. I did telephone the police station the next day to tell the sergeant I now realized this was a boy I’d seen in the castle. And about the woman. He didn’t seem to think that was very important.’

‘Oh?’ Mumford’s tone didn’t alter. ‘What did he say, exactly?’

‘He just said something to the effect that Robson Walsh was a familiar figure to a great number of people. Boy was clearly obsessively interested in the history of Ludlow and would talk to anybody who seemed to know something about it. Though why that particular woman would be considered a fount of local knowledge—’

‘I’m sorry,’ Merrily said. ‘Did you say she was a musician?’

‘Some sort of singer, I gather, at one time. Mrs Pepper. Hasn’t lived here two minutes – well, say six months. Admittedly, we’ve only lived here permanently for about three years ourselves, but it was our holiday home for seventeen years before that, so I think we’re permitted to feel a touch proprietorial.’

‘And you said she was eccentric…’

‘I try not to listen to gossip.’

‘You don’t happen to know her first name, do you?’ Merrily said.

‘I don’t think I do, no.’

‘Couldn’t be Marion?’

‘Doesn’t ring any bells. Well, not in that context.’ Mr Osman turned to Mumford. ‘You asked me that, didn’t you?’

‘Do you know anyone called Marion who… frequents the castle?’ Merrily asked.

‘Well, not…’ He laughed. ‘As I told Mr Mumford here, not someone I’ve ever seen.’

‘I’m sorry?’

Mr Osman didn’t reply. Over the town, the sky was turning a luminous acid green with early moonlight.

‘Ah,’ the Bishop said. ‘I think I understand. You mean Marion de la Bruyère. But that wasn’t the keep, was it, Mr Osman?’

‘It was the Hanging Tower, Bishop. I wrote some verse about her, for my calendar the year before last. Marion, whose endless death… is poised upon a midnight breath. Not… not awfully good, really.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Merrily said. ‘Three of you seem to know what this is about, but one of us doesn’t. Who are we talking about here? What does she do?’

‘She haunts,’ Bernie Dunmore said. ‘Allegedly.’

9

The Bishop’s Tale

THE BISHOP SAID he was confused: too much, too fast.

‘Why did you want to know if Osman had seen anyone else on the tower? I mean, surely you don’t imagine that someone actually killed the boy?’

The ornate lamps in the square were white, like magnesium flares.

‘We have’ – Merrily slotted the Volvo into a corner, down by a darkened delicatessen and well away from the castle – ‘a kind of reason to try and eliminate the possibility.’

God, she was thinking, do we? She had her window half-down, collecting music and laughter draining from a pub in a nearby street no wider than an alley, the sounds disconnected, somehow, as though on the tape-loop of a separate but parallel time-frame.

Eras overlapping: a disconcerting town.

All she’d told him earlier was about the supposed bereavement visions – that Phyllis Mumford had been in a distressed and confused state, that he was the only priest she seemed likely to open up to. There hadn’t seemed much point, at that stage, in going into what Phyllis had said about a woman.

But it was unavoidable now.

‘I see.’ The Bishop breathed in slowly. ‘That’s rather a difficult one, isn’t it?’

‘Only for a Deliverance consultant,’ Merrily said. ‘The rest of you are free to roll your eyes.’

‘If I could just say…’ Andy Mumford was a bulky shadow on the back seat. ‘The fact that Osman didn’t see another person don’t mean there wasn’t someone up there with the boy. Just they didn’t hang around afterwards.’

The Bishop shuffled. ‘You do know what you’re saying here, Andrew?’

‘After many years as a detective, Bishop, I think I got a basic idea.’

‘Yes, but what are you actually suggesting – kids fooling about and one falls off the tower? Or what?’

‘I was ready to believe,’ Mumford said, ‘that it was an accident. At first. Mabbe it’s what we all wanted at the time – no stigma with an accident. But now’ – he leaned forward between the front seats – ‘now it’s like something’s telling me, real strongly, that something en’t what it seems. You understand?’

‘Story of my life,’ Merrily said.

‘The night Robbie was found, after my sister ID’d the body, I go back to my mother’s house. There’s a woman outside. Long cape. Just standing there, looking across at the house. When I tried to talk to her, she walked off.’

‘What?’

‘What I could see of her face, she’d been weeping.’

‘Andy, you never even mentioned this before.’

‘Didn’t think too much of it afterwards. Spooked me a bit at the time, OK, but I was tired. Lot of neighbours been in and out the house. Lot of people dress funny in Ludlow these days – people going out to dinner.’

‘So the chances are your mother knows this woman?’

‘She was carrying a lantern – with a candle in it. Well, there’s a few shops in town now selling tat like that. You think, some crank, don’t you?’

‘We’ll certainly ask Phyllis about her,’ the Bishop said. ‘Perhaps clear it up.’

‘Meanwhile,’ Merrily said. ‘Can we…’ She squirmed a little. ‘Can we talk about Marion now?’

* * *

The ‘Dear Marion’ postcard. She talked about that.

‘When we go over there, I’ll ask Mrs Mumford if I can show it to you.’

‘Needs to be photocopied, I think, Merrily,’ the Bishop said.

‘Good idea.’

‘Then Andrew has to decide if the police should see it. Meanwhile, let me… let me get this right – this is a postcard, with a photograph of the castle on the front, written by Robbie Walsh to someone he actually addresses as… as Marion.’

‘Someone he imagines he’s walking with in the castle grounds, holding hands. And there’s a drawing of what appears to be a spectral female figure. Pleading with her to come to him. “I’ll be waiting,” he says.’

‘I see.’ Bernie Dunmore was silent for a moment. He seemed agitated. ‘What are your conclusions about that?’

‘The psychological one first?’

‘Please.’

‘Shy, solitary kid, fascinated by medieval history, besotted with Ludlow…’

‘You’re thinking fantasy-girlfriend,’ the Bishop said.

‘I don’t know. Is she fantasy-girlfriend material?’

He sighed. ‘All right… look… I do, as it happens, know something about this story. Goes back to the twelfth century. Or, in my case, about thirty-five years, to when I was a young curate. Here, as it happens.’

‘I didn’t know you were a curate in Ludlow.’

‘Not something I’ve ever emphasized on my CV. A bishop is expected to have been around. Unfortunately, once I’d lived here I didn’t want to end up anywhere else. Moved on, drifted quietly back. I’ve been, ah, fortunate.’

‘You jammy sod, Bernie.’

‘Yes, that’s another way of putting it. So… I happened to be a young curate at St Laurence’s when a chap called Peter Underwood – doyen of British ghost-hunters, though I didn’t know it at the time – was researching a book called, if I remember rightly, A Gazetteer of British Ghosts. It has quite an extensive entry on Ludlow – most of which, as it happens, is taken up by the story of Marion de la Bruyère. Marion of the Heath.’

She was usually described as ‘a lady of the castle’, Bernie said.

Which could have meant anything – possibly she was a lady-in-waiting, if there were such creatures in the reigns of King Stephen and his successor, Henry II.

Turbulent times. Less than a century after the Norman conquest, and the ownership of the new and highly strategic Ludlow Castle was in dispute. Stephen had put the fortress in the charge of a Breton knight, Joce de Dinan – arguably the source of the name Dinham, for the community under the castle’s perimeter wall, to the south-west. But the powerful baronial de Lacy family thought it should be theirs, and it was the conflict between Joce and the de Lacys that led to a young knight called Arnold de Lisle, a de Lacy man, being taken prisoner.

‘While not exactly established history, it’s certainly well-documented in a medieval epic known as The Romance of Fulk FitzWarrin,’ Bernie said. ‘Seems that Marion de la Bruyère – described by one source as “a guileless damsel” – had fallen in love with the prisoner, Arnold, and helped him escape from the castle either down a rope or knotted sheets.’

And then – her fatal mistake – Marion had arranged to let Arnold back into the castle, on a later occasion, by means of a rope ladder.

‘While the two of them are otherwise engaged in Marion’s bedchamber, a large number of armed men from the de Lacy camp come swarming up the ladder to capture the castle. Now we know that happened – de Lacy did get the castle. Appears to have slaughtered a lot of people and set fire to property in the streets of Ludlow that night to make it clear that he was now running the show. In fact, some of the killing and the burning would have happened exactly where we’re parked now.’

‘Thanks for that, Bernie.’

‘Anyway, when she finds out what’s happening, Marion – full of remorse and fury at his betrayal – snatches Arnold’s sword and kills him with it. And then – not seeing, presumably, much of a future for herself – she throws herself from a high window in the Hanging Tower.’

Merrily said, ‘But that—’

‘No, it’s not where Robbie fell. It’s a tower at the rear of the castle, facing the river. And the present Hanging Tower doesn’t seem to have been built until two centuries after these alleged events took place.’

‘But Marion…?’

‘Yes. Marion. There’s certainly quite an extensive section in Underwood’s book relating to her activities, post-mortem. It, ah, it was said that people could hear her final screams for many years, but the more recent stories relate to a sort of heavy breathing – supposedly as she psyched herself up either to dispatch Arnold or herself. Underwood told me he’d talked to a local man who’d heard it several times and researched it pretty thoroughly, disproving to his own satisfaction the theory that the noise was caused by a nest of young owls. Not possible in January, apparently.’

‘Nothing seen?’ Merrily said.

‘Ah… there was talk of a… a white lady. Nothing on record.’

‘But it seems likely that Robbie Walsh would have heard the stories.’

‘Best-known ghost story in Ludlow, Merrily. And there’s no shortage of competition in this town. There’s a chap now who conducts ghost-walks at least twice a week in the season. Marion, I’d guess, would be his star attraction.’

‘From what little I know about medieval history,’ Merrily said, ‘an unattached female, in those days, wouldn’t be far into her teens.’

Bernie coughed. ‘If at all.’

‘Robbie would have known that. He wandered the town alone. He might well have fantasized a relationship – maybe, at that age, no more than a rather romantic friendship – with a girl from the past, rather than a supernatural entity. The guileless damsel. The kind you rarely encounter today.’

Merrily thought about Jane, who wouldn’t have fitted the description ‘guileless’ since turning eight.

‘And written to her?’ Bernie said.

‘Gives a kind of substance to the fantasy. Makes her seem more real to him.’

‘Pleading with her to meet him? Saying he’ll be waiting?’

Merrily shrugged.

‘If that’s your psychological explanation,’ the Bishop said, ‘I’m not sure I want to hear the other one.’

‘I haven’t fully worked out the other one yet.’

They were silent for a few moments. A bunch of kids were whooping and kicking a lager can in the square. Merrily wound her window up.

‘Andy, isn’t it likely, given what Bernie says, that your mother would have heard the story of Marion?’

Mumford grunted. ‘I hadn’t. But then I en’t from yere.’

‘Could she be subconsciously associating it with Robbie’s death, is what I’m wondering. She’s seen his drawing. She’s probably read the letter, even if she’s forgotten about it. And in her confused state of mind…’

Out on the square, one of the boys who’d been kicking the can, shouted out, for no obvious reason, ‘Fuckin’ shiiiiiite!’ Merrily thought of the cries – somewhere on the tape-loop – of slaughtered citizens, hacked to death by de Lacy’s men, while the broken body of Marion de la Bruyère still lay at the foot of the tower.

‘And also, Andy, given that the card suggests a depth of unhappiness at home, doesn’t this open up another possibility?’

‘You’re saying suicide.’

‘In which case’ – Merrily looked over her shoulder at the shadowy Mumford – ‘would you really want to take it any further?’

‘Wrong tower,’ Mumford said stubbornly. ‘You heard what Osman said: boy knew that castle like the back of his hand. He wants to kill himself the way this girl did, why would he jump off the wrong tower?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Tell you what,’ Mumford said. ‘If you wanner stick with this ghost stuff, mabbe I’ll check out the real woman. The living woman. The one he was seen with. Mother and son.’

‘Mrs Pepper.’

‘If her name turns out to be Marion, what we gonner be looking at then?’

‘Look, it’s getting late,’ the Bishop said. ‘Perhaps we should go and do what we came for – see how we can comfort your mother. Perhaps hear what Phyllis has to say. And then… little prayer-circle, do you think, Merrily? Proper blessing of the house? How’s your father, Andrew?’

‘He’s all right.’

‘Probably showing less than he’s feeling if he’s the Reg I remember, but I’ll persuade him to join us. All right, Andrew, how about you drive down and prepare the ground? Merrily and I should perhaps… discuss tactics.’

‘Thank you,’ Mumford said. ‘Aye, I’ll go and talk to them. Thanks.’

He had to put his shoulder to the rear offside door, which jammed most times. When he’d gone, the Bishop turned to Merrily, his arms folded, his legs stretched out into the well.

‘So what’s all this really about?’ he said mildly.

She asked if she could have a cigarette, so they got out and walked down towards the centre of the town. There was a greenish sheen on roofs and a glare in window-glass as a near-full moon came up like stage lighting, sharpening the medieval gables and creaming the appropriately buttery stonework of the Buttercross with its neo-classical portico and its clock tower.

Eras overlapping like double exposures on a film.

‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you,’ Bernie Dunmore said. ‘I warned you last summer, before that trouble at the hop kiln nearly backfired on you. I said that, when dealing with matters that can never be verified, you needed to cover your back. Had to get some support around you.’

‘It just wasn’t as easy as you thought. The people I was hoping to get are not… joiners.’

‘Yes, well, unfortunately, in the Church of England the joiners are usually the ones trying to further a political agenda. I don’t know Siân Callaghan-Clarke very well, and I’m sure the hint of dominatrix I sometimes see in her eyes is pure illusion—’

‘Bernie, I never wanted a cosy life.’

‘—Whereas Saltash is someone I have had dealings with over the years, and the man has an ego the size of a Hereford bull’s balls, to put it bluntly. And, incredibly for a psychiatrist, he doesn’t appear to listen. So you have my sympathy there, Merrily. However…’

This was difficult. If Merrily wasn’t careful, the Bishop was going to think she’d generated this whole situation to bend his ear on the subject of control-freak Deliverance advisers, brought him out here to get him on her side.

‘Bernie, if you’re thinking—’

He lifted a hand. ‘We do share a secretary. Sophie gets e-mails from Callaghan-Clarke. Endlessly, it seems. Questioning this, questioning that, usually about the way we conduct Deliverance.’

‘She hasn’t complained to me.’

‘Hasn’t complained to me, either. Sophie doesn’t complain. Just hasn’t concealed the computer traffic. I mean, obviously, as soon as interest in using Saltash was expressed from the Dean’s office, of all places, I suspected we’d have problems, if only because I knew he’d rather like to repossess your office for general Cathedral admin.’

‘I didn’t know that.’

‘You knew he was hardly a Deliverance, ah, groupie, Merrily.’

She followed him across the narrow medieval street into the wide street that glided gracefully down to the Georgian era and the river.

‘How close is the Dean to Saltash?’

‘Not sure, Merrily, but I have the feeling he was once chaplain at a mental hospital somewhere. Oh, they’re going to try and tie your hands, between them, that’s not in doubt. As to Siân – whether it’s personal ambition on her part, or she’s firing someone else’s bullets, I wouldn’t know. But remember, whatever they try to make you do, you’re still the only officially trained Deliverance minister in this diocese.’

‘She’s certainly doing her best to discredit the man who trained me.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about old Huw – been there before, loves it. And you don’t have to do what you’re told. In fact, resisting the rationalists is probably an important part of your role. Tightrope, obviously, I’m not denying that, but then the whole job’s a tightrope.’ He pushed his hands into the pockets of his golfing jacket, watching his plodding feet in the moonlight. ‘Of course, you’ll never prove Saltash wrong, because to do that you’d virtually have to prove the existence of ghosts, wouldn’t you?’

‘Hadn’t thought of it quite like that,’ she lied.

‘I…’ He stopped under the awning outside the ancient and cavernous De Grey’s restaurant. ‘There’s something I didn’t tell you, Merrily.’

‘Oh?’

‘When the Underwood ghost book was published, I… All right, I was a curate, but I was still a young chap, played rugby, had some mates, and we used to go drinking on a Friday night. Not to excess, in my case, obviously, but we enjoyed ourselves. And I happened to have a copy of the book, and we… I mean, you know what young chaps are like…’

‘Do I?’

‘We’re in the pub one night, half a dozen of us, discussing this business of the heavy breathing in the tower – giving it somewhat salacious overtones, I’m afraid. I said it was all a load of rubbish, probably dreamed up to attract more visitors to the castle. Someone said, how can you say that, all the nonsense you’ve got to swallow and regurgitate every Sunday? Anyway, the upshot, there was a bet… ten quid.’

‘Lot of money back then, I’d guess.’

‘Curates were paid even worse in those days, and I was engaged at the time, so, yes, ten pounds… well worth having. There were five of them, and they threw in a couple of quid each. One of them, you see, knew a way into the castle at night, over one of the walls, Dinham end, and then… anyway…’

‘You didn’t…’

‘If it had been for a whole night, I definitely wouldn’t have, but it was quite a warm evening – warmer than tonight – and we agreed on two hours. I had to swear on the Bible that I wouldn’t sneak out. The deal was two hours, absolutely on my own in the Hanging Tower, and if I was still there when they came to get me, around half past midnight, the money was all mine.’

‘You astound me, Bernard.’

‘Wasn’t going to tell you in front of Mumford, that’s for sure. Anyway, we all went in together first. I’d never been in the Hanging Tower before. You have to go across the Inner Bailey – there’s a wonderful Norman chapel in the middle, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene – and then into a sort of great hall, which is rather eerie because it has these sculpted stone faces on the walls. One of my friends had a torch and he kept lighting up the faces, making woo-woo sort of noises. All pretty juvenile.’

They were walking downhill now, towards the old town gate, where the roadway still passed under an arch with lighted rooms over it.

‘The so-called Hanging Tower protrudes from the rear of the castle – must have been two or three storeys high originally, but there’s no roof now, so you can just see the windows in recesses, one above the other, and then the sky. Small rooms now – six of us filled the space, but when the others had gone… most unpleasant.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t have done it.’

‘It was a boy thing, as they say. Castle’s a very different place at night, hadn’t realized that – all that nice, mellow, honey stone. But when you’re absolutely on your own inside an enormous walled ruin, it’s… black. Smells… the thought of rats. And cold as hell in there, a clammy damp in the air. I spent the first hour at the window – least I thought it was an hour, probably ten minutes – looking out at the few visible lights. Night mist coming off the river, and I couldn’t see the ground, or the sky, and it felt… I gather it’s commonplace if you’re on a high building and suffering from vertigo to want to… you know…’

‘You wanted to jump?’

They were alone on the street, no cars for a few moments, and Bernie’s voice was resonating as though in a small church as they passed under the short tunnel which had once been Broad Gate.

‘Probably couldn’t squeeze through now, but I could have then. Didn’t like it, anyway, so I had to move back into the dark. In the end I found myself hunched up in a corner, in near-total darkness, which was like being entombed, and I… at some point I became aware of an unhappiness. Almost a physical thing, rather like when you feel the beginnings of a sore throat and it’s no more than an unpleasant taste. Have you ever tried to pray and you couldn’t?’

‘Not sure.’ Merrily lit another cigarette. ‘Been times I’m ashamed of when I just couldn’t do it because it seemed worthless… useless. Slippage of faith.’

‘No, we’ve all been there. This was an actual physical inability to pray when I very much wanted to. The way an asthmatic can’t find breath. Here I was, a fairly recently ordained minister of the Church, and I… could not pray.’

‘That would be scary.’

‘Panic. The unthinkable. The feeling that it just didn’t work here, that God had been excluded from this place. I remember – it seems laughable now— No, actually, none of that night seems remotely laughable – I remember thinking of the ten quid at stake, and how despicable that had been. How what was happening to me was a direct result of that. That what I’d done – taking that bet – had been almost evil. I… when you asked me earlier tonight if I did the National Lottery, no, I don’t. I’ve avoided anything approximating to a bet ever since.’

Merrily stopped on the wide pavement, under the first street lamp beyond what had been the town boundary, the road sloping to the River Teme at Ludford Bridge.

‘What happened?’

‘I ran away, of course. Or stumbled away would be more accurate. When I realized I was actually cringing into the stones, like a cornered animal, I… threw out a prayer, like a sort of yelp. Just God help me! Just praying that I could move. And I did move. Like the clappers. And you’re probably smiling.’

‘I’m not, honest, boss.’

‘I’ll cut it short. There are two ways out of that tower, and I took the wrong one at first and came up against some steps that led nowhere any more, a blank wall, and that was horrifying, as if whichever way I went I’d come up against a wall that hadn’t been there when I went in. Imagination, in these situations, becomes so unbelievably powerful. So I scrambled back down and back into the chamber and… well… that’s when I saw her. I bloody saw her.’

‘What?’

‘She was— Look at me…’ The Bishop held his hands out under a street light. ‘After all these years… still shaking.’

‘You saw Marion?’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, I don’t know who or what it was, but I remember I did know, with a quite awful certainty, that something was going to happen as soon as I re-entered the chamber. Partly because of the cold – yes, I do know that’s a cliché. But it wasn’t a normal cold, not a healthy cold – not like rushing wind or crackling frost. It was a negativity, an absence, a hollow-ness… an area in which warmth couldn’t exist. Any more than normal prayer.’

Bernie held the lamp-post, like a drunk, Merrily feeling chilled now. One of those attic moments, when you opened an old chest to expose ancient rotting fabric.

The Bishop’s tale. She wondered when he’d last told it to anyone. And she wondered why, in all the discussions they’d had about the nature of Deliverance, he’d never even hinted at a personal experience.

‘She… it was… as I re-entered the chamber, there was a paleness. I can see it now, but I still can’t properly describe it – only my own reactions to something that seemed to be made of nothing more than the cold air and the damp unfurling from the stone. I wasn’t aware of a face, but I was sensing a horrible smile that was more like an absence of smile. A smile so cold, so bleak, so devoid of hope… only this perpetual, bitter… terminality.’

Merrily brought the cigarette to her mouth. It had gone out. As she fumbled for her lighter, the Bishop stepped away from the lamp-post, rubbing the warm blood back into his hands.

And then, as Merrily’s lighter flared, so did bigger lights – flashing white and orange and wild blue, bouncing from pale walls and darkened windows.

10

Leave God Out of It

THE ROAD HAD already been closed below Ludford Bridge, which explained the sparseness of traffic on Broad Street.

Not so sparse, though, at the bottom of the hill, where there had once been mills and the distinctive Horseshoe Weir sent the River Teme rushing over flat rocks – a beauty spot on the edge of town, now a garish confluence of hysterical light: an ambulance, police cars, blue beacons still revolving, inviting an audience like bleak neon.

‘Road accident, looks like,’ Bernie Dunmore said. ‘Funny we didn’t hear it happen. Better turn back, I suppose. Last thing they need is—’

‘Andy.’ In the full-beam headlights of a static vehicle, Merrily could see the stocky figure climbing over the lower wall towards the river. ‘Down there, look, by those—’

Two policemen were going after Mumford, close to the shimmering sheet of the river.

‘Poor chap can’t seem to walk away from it, can he?’ the Bishop said.

But Merrily was already running down the hill, the throbbing voice inside her chest keeping time with her pounding feet, going, No… no… no… no…

They were bringing him back over the wall, one pushing him to the other who’d leapt over onto the pavement, Andy shouting, ‘Don’t you stupid bastards ever listen?’

The cops had an arm each. At the side of the road, a third shone his torch on them.

‘Andy? Andy Mumford?’

‘Get them off me!’

‘It’s all right, boys,’ the third cop said. ‘Who told you?’

‘Small town, Steve.’ Mumford shaking them off, brushing at his arms where they’d gripped him.

‘Did you see…?’

‘Didn’t get a chance, did I?’ In the torchlight Mumford’s face was smooth and cold, like washed grey stone. ‘These cretins—’ He looked up, saw Merrily. ‘Mrs Watkins.’

‘Andy, what’s—?’

‘Better go and make sure, hadn’t you?’ the third cop said.

Merrily found herself following Mumford over the wall, nobody blocking his way now they knew who he was. It was a longer drop the other side than she’d been expecting, and she stumbled, Mumford catching her arm.

‘Couple of neighbours waiting for me outside the house, with Dad. One was walking his dog by the river when he seen these boys come out of the pub by the bridge and go wading into the water.’

The policeman called Steve came alongside.

‘Can’t believe this, Andy.’

Mumford said nothing. They reached another cop and two paramedics in luminous jackets. There was a stretcher, and two wide-beam lamps were sparing them nothing. Merrily looked once and then turned away, fists tightening, watching the moonlit river washing under Ludford Bridge, hearing the hard questions, the terse replies.

‘No mistake, Andy?’

‘No.’ Mumford moving round the body. ‘No other injuries?’

‘Not that we can see.’

The swab of froth on Phyllis Mumford’s mouth had made it look as if she’d swallowed soap. Had made it seem, at first, like she was still alive, blowing bubbles. The bandage on her leg had been hanging loose, like a pennant.

Mumford grunted, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched.

‘Nothing anybody could’ve done,’ Steve said.

‘Didn’t go off the bridge, then?’

‘Be more damaged, wouldn’t she, Andy? Looks like she got over that wall, same way we just came in, just started wading out from the bank and then slipped on the rocks. Anybody’d fall over in a minute, in the daytime even. No chance at all at night, see.’

‘Not at her age.’

‘No. What can any of us say? If those boys had got there five minutes earlier… I’m real sorry, mate.’

‘Aye.’

Merrily turned, and Mumford was there. They walked back slowly towards the wall, Mumford clearly coping with it the only way he knew how – like he hadn’t retired and this was someone else’s mother. Someone else’s mother, someone else’s nephew, someone else’s life.

‘Cold water,’ he said. ‘They always reckon a heart attack gets them first.’

‘I’m sure it… must,’ she said. ‘Andy—’

‘A mercy. Under the circumstances.’

‘—Why? Why would she come out in the dark, on her own?’

‘You tell me.’

‘This is just…’ Standing there, stupidly shaking her head. ‘I should’ve…’

Didn’t know what she should’ve done. This was altogether beyond comprehension.

‘My fault, ennit?’ Mumford said. ‘Should’ve noticed the way she was going. Should’ve had her assessed. Couldn’t expect the ole feller to see it, he en’t noticed her for years.’ His arm came back and he smashed his right fist into his left palm. ‘Christ!’

‘It’s not…’ She caught his arm on the rebound. ‘It’s not your fault.’

‘Look, Mrs Watkins, I got a long night…’ He turned away. ‘Long night ahead of me.’

Sounding like what he was really talking about was the rest of his life.

Someone helped Merrily back over the wall: the Bishop.

‘Saw a chap I knew. Merrily, this is beyond all—’

‘Aye,’ Mumford said, calm again, as if that one slam of the fist had been like a pressure valve.

‘Andrew. Look… where’s your father?’

‘One of the cars, last I seen. With Zoë – policewoman. Dunno which one it is.’

‘I’ll find it. I’ll talk to him.’

‘Only I’d leave God out of it, if I were you, Bishop,’ Mumford said and turned to Merrily. ‘These accidents will happen, won’t they? Ole women shouldn’t play by the river at night.’

Merrily thought, Accident?

As they stepped onto the pavement, several people were trailing past and, as they faded into the lights, she saw that they were wearing old-fashioned evening dress, two women in long black frocks and two men in tailcoats and top hats. She thought of posh restaurants, the new and affluent Ludlow, Phyllis Mumford dying alone, on the edge of all this.

‘Need to call the wife.’ Mumford had his mobile out. ‘Pick up the ole feller, take him back to our place.’

‘I could—’

‘I’ll see to him. You get off home.’

She wanted to scream, For God’s sake, you’re not a copper now, you’re one of us!

‘Come over to the car, Andy,’ Steve the policeman said. ‘We better sit down, sort some things out.’

Merrily was left alone. The party in evening dress had stopped, gazing down to where a knot of police and paramedics were concealing the body. They were not what she’d thought, these decadent revellers. A ruby glistened like a bubble of blood in the cleft of the chin of one of the women and one of the men in top hats wore eye make-up and his hat had ribbons hanging behind, like an old-fashioned undertaker.

‘Come on…’ A policewoman came over, arms spread wide. ‘Don’t hang around, please.’

‘Is she dead?’ one of the girls said, like she was asking about the time of the last bus.

‘You can read about it tomorrow. Come on.’

‘I won’t be here tomorrow.’

‘Good,’ the policewoman said.

‘Was it suicide?’

This was an older, quieter voice. Merrily saw that there was a fifth person in the group, this woman wrapped in a grey cape so long that it was touching the pavement.

The policewoman said, ‘Do you have anything to tell us about this incident, madam?’

The woman smiled faintly, with a shake of the head, as the blue beacon light passed over her face, brushing like a strobe effect over an eagle nose and causing a glistening like hoar frost in hair that was like strands of tarnished tinsel. And Merrily recognized her. Partly from Mumford’s description, but mainly…

Pale arms outstretched, fingers clawed, sleeves of a black robe slipping back. A copper bangle like a snake…

Merrily froze, hands clasped, catching a long-ago devilish reflection of herself in a mirror: white lipstick and a black velvet hat and mascara caked on like chocolate. Heard her own mother, appalled: You’re not walking out of this house looking like that…

‘No, I thought not,’ the policewoman said. ‘So would you mind not blocking the footpath, please?’

She’s quite distinctive, Mr Osman had said, with the varying colours of her hair and the way she dresses.

And then Andy Mumford in the car: If her name turns out to be Marion, what we gonner be looking at then?

From what Merrily could remember, her name had never been Marion.

She saw Mumford getting into the back of a police car with his friend Steve, heard the church clock strike almost softly. Ten o’clock and all so very far from well.

She stood in the middle of the road, the dog collar under the zipped-up fleece tight to her throat like a stiff admonishment. Furious at herself for failing to foresee something like this and, to a lesser extent, at Saltash whose flip diagnosis had probably been right, although it could be no more proven now than the existence of ghosts.

11

Nightshades

MERRILY DIDN’T FEEL any better in the morning, Sunday. She awoke with the light and lay watching the red dawn surfing the ceiling, where the oak beams were like beach barriers. Wondering what difference it would make to a suicidal world if she just didn’t bother to get up.

Unless anyone specifically asked, she hadn’t been in Ludlow last night, and neither had Bernie Dunmore. They’d agreed this as she dropped him, around one a.m., at the Bishop’s palace in Hereford.

Bernie had told her about his time with Reg Mumford. He’d taken Reg to the Angel, in Broad Street. ‘As a damn bishop, you get out of it,’ Bernie said. ‘Out of real people. You’ve forgotten the conclusions you once came to about what this job’s about – not preaching, just pure, concentrated listening.’

In the bar, he said, Reg had been remembering his wife as she used to be and a lot of other people Bernie didn’t know. Memories dripping into the beer, most of them from a long time ago.

Reg hadn’t mentioned his wife’s death – as if that was something he wasn’t yet ready to process, Bernie said.

As for Robbie, Reg didn’t understand how the boy had come to get himself killed, didn’t see any use dwelling on it. Kids did daft things, and sometimes they ran out of luck, and that boy… face it, he wasn’t entirely normal. Reg never knew how to talk to him, never had since he was little. Phyllis, however…

Reg had been trying to lose himself in daytime telly. Looking up every so often and seeing Phyllis gazing into the mirror, where she’d found a new channel of her own: the Robbie Channel. Robbie still sitting scrunched up over the table, drawing his black and white buildings, hands all black with charcoal – holding up his hands, Phyllis said, and grinning at her through the mirror. Phyllis weeping through her mad world, which had reflections of Robbie everywhere. Sometimes trailing aimlessly around the shops – Reg embarrassed, striding ahead, then looking back and seeing Phyllis staring in some window. Look, there he is again… do you see him? Reg buying her bits of things in the shops – it was only money – but when they got home the packages were never opened.

Would have destroyed Reg, too, if he’d given in to it. But Reg had seen too much death in his time, and he’d lost all patience with her – only so much a man could take. It was Reg who, in a fury, had turned the mirror to the wall before the Bishop came, because he hadn’t wanted the Bishop to see Phyllis going insane. Only it hadn’t been the Bishop at all, it had been Andy and some strangers and Reg didn’t want to meet any more strangers. This bloody smiley feller coming up to him in the street, all chatty, then asking who his doctor was – what right did they have, treating you like a kid?

Merrily got out of bed and knelt under the window, with its view over the village towards wooded Cole Hill, under a shiny salmon sky, and prayed for Reg and whatever remained of Phyllis and Robbie. When she stood up, her eyes were wet, and she found herself thinking, irrationally, of Lol and had this image of herself running down the drive and across the cobbles in her nightdress and banging on the cottage door, screaming, Let me in! for all the village to hear.

At breakfast, Jane said, ‘Mum, you look like sh—’

‘I know, all right?’

‘You turn up for Communion looking like that, they’ll all lose their faith.’

‘Oh hell, what time is it? And what are you doing up so early?’

‘Just curious about why you were out so late. On the other hand’ – Jane put a pensive forefinger to her chin – ‘if you were to turn up at the altar in your dressing gown, a soupçon dés-habillé, it might bring in more blokes, and— You’re not in the mood, are you? What’s happened?’

‘The elderly lady.’ Merrily brought her mug of tea and sat down opposite Jane, morning sunlight piercing the top window, over the sink. ‘The woman Saltash and I were supposed to be helping? She drowned herself last night in the River Teme.’

Jane blinked. ‘Mumford’s mother?’

‘Must have happened while we were no more than half a mile away, talking to a bloke who saw Robbie Walsh fall. Her lying in the water, us theorizing about some bloody stupid old ghost story and wondering—’

‘What old ghost—?’

‘Not important. No more important than me going on to the Bishop about Saltash and Callaghan-Clarke and feeling sorry for myself.’

‘Oh God, Mum…’

‘Deliverance – the fourth emergency service. Have to laugh, don’t you, flower?’

‘I’m not laughing. Was she, you know… confused?’

‘We always assume that, don’t we? That’s what everybody would have assumed last Christmas if Lol hadn’t got to Alice Meek before the cold did. But even if Mumford’s mum was on the slide, there might have been a part of her I could have got through to, with perseverance. And I didn’t really try.’

‘But you did try. You pressured the Bishop into going back with you because he was an old mate of the Mumfords.’

‘Putting the responsibility on someone else.’ Merrily’s head felt congested; she found a tissue in her dressing-gown pocket, blew her nose. ‘Should have tried harder, instead of half-thinking, Yeah, Saltash could be right, this is probably more his show than mine. I don’t know, maybe I just—’

‘Mum, don’t keep doing this to yourself. You did what you thought was best at the time. You always do. So just, like, finish your tea, have a wash, brush your hair, get your kit and… off to work.’

Merrily looked at the kid, who was no longer a kid, and dug out a smile from somewhere.

‘There you go,’ Jane said. ‘Why, there could be as many as, like, four people in that church, just gasping for Holy Communion. Get down there and give ’em… wine.’

So she got through it. No big state of eucharistic grace, no all-enveloping peace, but she got through Holy Communion and Morning Worship – doing the sermon about listening to old people, the real meaning of honouring your father and mother. Not very convincing, really, and she was having problems staying focused. When she closed her eyes, she saw Phyllis Mumford’s drowned face and heard her wispy, untethered voice: Now thenI know who you areI know who you are now, my dear.

Back in the scullery, she rang Lol, explaining about last night. About the two women who had faded into the picture, one dead, one on the streets of Ludlow in a full-length cape, accompanied by younger people in decadent goth costumes. The shock of recognition.

‘Belladonna?’ Lol said. ‘Are you sure?’

Just after lunch – priests always knew when other priests were most likely to surface on a Sunday – Siân Callaghan-Clarke rang. She’d heard about Phyllis Mumford from Nigel Saltash, who’d heard it on the radio.

‘It’s terrible, but I’m afraid Nigel wasn’t entirely surprised. There’s an area psychiatric support team that ought to have been told about Mrs Mumford. But human resources are terribly stretched these days, largely as a result of increasing addiction problems. Awfully sad, though, because Nigel was going to talk to their GP first thing tomorrow.’

‘Was he?’

‘But thank heavens, Merrily… thank heavens, in a way, that you didn’t take it any further.’

‘Sorry?’

‘From a Deliverance point of view. When you think of the kind of adverse publicity if the media had discovered that you’d performed what they would have seen as some sort of exorcistic rite at this poor woman’s house just hours before she died.’

‘A home-blessing?’

‘It’s not what’s been done, Merrily—’

‘A few prayers?’

‘—It’s who’s done it. You’ve become fairly widely known now, not least to certain sections of the media, as an exorcist. Certain people would put two and two together and make six.’

‘But suppose that – after this exorcistic rite – it hadn’t happened. Suppose Mrs Mumford hadn’t wandered into the river. Was therefore still alive…’

But then she had done it. She’d returned, behind Saltash’s back, and done her rudimentary blessing, and Mrs Mumford had still died.

‘We could play the “what-if” game for the rest of the day, Merrily,’ Siân said, ‘but I doubt exorcism has ever been hailed as a cure for senile dementia.’

‘So, do you think it’s time for me to quit, Siân, before I bring the Church into even more disrepute?’

‘Let’s not be silly,’ Siân said.

Sunday evening, the Bishop rang. Something he thought Merrily should know.

‘Old Reg Mumford phoned me today. Encouraging, really, that he was able to do that.’

‘How is he?’

‘Staying at his son’s house, but insisting on going home tomorrow. He… seemed more focused. And resigned. And in his resignation, behind the loss, one could almost sense, I’m afraid, an exhausted kind of relief. Said he knew Phyllis would never have come to terms with what had happened to Robbie, however long she lived.’

Merrily was taking the call on her mobile, alone in the church, preparing for the Quiet Service. She lowered herself to the edge of a pew opposite the west window, where the evening sun made a ruby in the apple held by Eve.

‘You mean he’d actually thought she might want to die?’

‘Not exactly,’ Bernie said. ‘She was so convinced the boy was still there, in the town, that Reg said he was half-expecting to hear she’d been knocked down in the traffic after spotting Robbie across the road or something and rushing to him.’

‘His… reflection.’

‘Reflections. Exactly. Look… ah… Reg said that, in happier times, he and Phyllis often used to walk by the river. And one fine evening last week, she got him to take her back there.’

‘Oh no.’ Merrily closed her eyes.

‘And it was early evening, and the water was fairly still, even so close to the Horseshoe Weir, and she went and stood near the wall, looking down. And of course…’

‘Robbie.’

‘Looking up at her from the water.’

‘Oh God.’

‘Reg couldn’t take it. He pulled her away. They walked home in silence, nothing to say to one another. The last thing she said to him last night – therefore the last thing she said to him ever – was, “I can’t feel him in here any more. You’ve driven him out.” ’

‘Meaning the mirror – turning it to the wall?’

‘Who knows? And then she walked out, and she was standing at the front of the house, and he could hear her talking to one of the neighbours for a while. When he looked for her, she wasn’t there.’

‘He didn’t tell you this last night?’

‘I think he had to get it clear in his own mind. Anyway, thought I should tell you, that’s all. So that we can draw a line under it, as it were.’

Merrily heard soft footsteps, opened her eyes to the sight of Lol padding into the aisle. Sometimes he’d come to the Quiet Service, though never any of the others. He was wearing his old Roswell-alien sweatshirt. He’d worn this in church before, possibly a signal that he wasn’t yet fully integrated.

‘You really think a line can be drawn, Bernie?’

‘I think we have to. This Marion business… that’s always going to be a mystery.’

‘Why have you never told me about that before?’

‘Didn’t seem relevant. And anyway—’

‘You mean, not relevant to, like, what I do?’

‘Put it this way,’ he said, ‘you’re the only person I’ve ever told. Including the friends who got to keep their ten quid. And I trust you’ll keep it to yourself. Are you in the church, Merrily?’

‘You want me to swear on the Bible, over the phone? Sorry. Yes, I’m just rearranging the furniture.’

Lol was pulling movable pews up to the front to set up a rough circle.

‘Ah,’ the Bishop said. ‘Your meditation service. That going all right?’

‘We just call it the Quiet Service now. Yeah, going very well, since we managed to cool the rumours of miracle healing. We’ll do prayers for specific people sometimes, but strictly no hands-on. I know my level. We get about twenty most weeks.’

Including Jane, occasionally, and now even Lol.

Merrily beckoned him down the aisle and into the vestry, soon to be converted into a gift shop. Its walls had been freshly painted in yellow and some cheap pine shelving had been fitted. A faded Victorian sofa, now looking for a new home, had been pushed against the wall under a window, and Lol sat on that.

‘Well, this is nice, but wouldn’t it be some kind of sacrilege?’

‘I just want to talk, you fool.’ Merrily shut the door behind them.

‘Sacrilege could have been exciting.’ Lol lifted his hands. ‘Kidding.’

‘I know.’

Couple of years ago, the church organist had openly fantasized about slowly unbuttoning Merrily’s cassock. Lol, however, after the experience with his parents, was still wary of the Church and its trappings. Another reason he preferred the Quiet Service, when Merrily wore only her pectoral cross over a dark sweater and jeans.

‘So,’ she said. ‘Belladonna?’

‘You could be right.’ Lol sat forward, hands on his knees. ‘I rang Prof. He said he’d been warned a few months ago that she was living in the area and possibly working on a new album. Consequently, he was putting it around that the studio was booked up for the foreseeable.’

‘She’s not changed, then?’

‘Don’t go there,’ Lol said.

‘Hey, I’ve been there. When I was Jane’s age, it would have been. It was at a wrestling stadium – she wasn’t very famous then, but she had a cult following. We all wore black tights for the gig and I had this kind of funeral coat I’d bought for a couple of quid from Oxfam, and a black velvet hat and a lot of cheap stage makeup. Thank God all the pictures have disappeared.’

‘You really were a goth?’

‘A phase. We all linked arms under the stage and stood very still, like mourners around a catafalque. I didn’t like the music that much, to be honest. Too slow, a bit dismal. Occasional bursts of hysterical screaming. No tunes to speak of.’

‘What does she look like these days?’

‘Hardly any different. This long grey Victorian kind of cape that trailed in the mud. Same slightly beaky nose, same slightly crooked teeth.’

‘But in an attractive way. That strange kind of uneven beauty,’ Lol said.

‘Mmm.’ She tossed him a suspicious look. ‘So how close did you get all those years ago?’

He smiled. ‘Nice of you to imply I might have been brave enough at eighteen. No, we once played a very badly organized one-day festival in this half-flooded field in Oxfordshire. We were near the bottom of the bill – eleven a.m. – and she was in the prime sunset spot. We didn’t actually stay for her gig. But I did hear the discussion she had with the organizers about the level of facilities. Scary.’

‘Formidable woman.’

‘Hadn’t realized she was so posh until then. You don’t expect it. No, I never actually met her. She…’ Lol’s gaze had turned watchful. ‘She came down to the river last night because she’d heard there’d been a death?’

‘She asked a policewoman if it was a suicide. I thought that was a curious question. Suggested she knew who it was. Or maybe I was just thinking that because I realized this was probably the woman seen with Robbie Walsh. She certainly knew where he lived because Mumford saw her standing outside the house. Ironically, we were going to ask Mrs Mumford if she knew this odd woman personally. Thought that might solve something.’

Merrily could hear voices and footsteps from the nave. And laughter, which was good.

‘This gig I went to,’ she said, ‘when I was seventeen – the band were all dressed as undertakers and they wheeled Belladonna on stage in a coffin, on a bier.’

Remembering the album: Nightshades. Fairly sure she didn’t have it any more, or Jane would have found it. Maybe that was why she’d got rid of it. On the cover, Belladonna had been sitting in some kind of dusty chapel cradling a mandolin like a baby, a strap of her dress pulled down as if she was about to breastfeed the instrument. Subtly profane.

‘This guy you spoke to,’ Lol said. ‘He said the woman’s name was Mrs Pepper?’

‘Mmm.’

‘Prof told me Belladonna was married at one time to her producer, Saul Pepper.’

‘That’s it, then. I’ll phone Andy Mumford when I get home and confirm it.’

Whatever her connection was with Robbie Walsh, Mumford would find it. If you wanner stick with this ghost stuff, mabbe I’ll check out the real woman. The living woman. His mother’s drowning was hardly going to make his inquiries more restrained.

‘Lol…’ He was leaning back on the Victorian sofa, exposing the big-eyed alien on his sweatshirt. Lol the former psychiatric patient, drop-out psychology student. ‘You were an imaginative kid, right?’

‘What makes you think that?’

‘Did you never fall in love with someone who didn’t exist? Seriously.’

‘With me, it was always serious.’ Lol stood up. ‘Even the real ones, you turn them into something that doesn’t exist. You start with a beautiful face and you build around it something that might actually love you.’

She told him about Robbie Walsh and Marion de la Bruyère.

Lol said, ‘If he saw Ludlow as a refuge from something very bad… It was the end of the holidays, wasn’t it, when he died?’

‘Virtually.’

‘Maybe he really couldn’t bear to go back this time. Maybe he just wanted to stay with Marion.’

‘Suicide? Mumford’s given no indication that his home life was that bad.’

‘Everything can seem very closed-in at that age,’ Lol said. ‘The future’s like staring down the wrong end of a telescope. You can’t envisage anything more than a few months ahead, at most, and if you’re having a very difficult time you don’t see a way out, ever.’

‘He killed himself in Ludlow, dying the way she died, because that was the only way he could stay there?’

She looked into Lol’s eyes. Lol shrugged.

Slipping back into the nave for the Quiet Service, Merrily was trying to see this unlikely triangle: Robbie, Marion, Belladonna. The kid’s connection with a 1980s goth rock singer was the hardest to envisage.

‘Frankly,’ Lol whispered in the vestry doorway, ‘if it turns out he was suicidal, I can think of more suitable people to administer counselling.’

12

Esoteric

MERRILY SOMEHOW SENSED it and looked up maybe half a second before it was dismissed… and Sophie’s face was blank again.

Outside the gatehouse office window, muscular clouds were hanging over Hereford like a street gang closing in. Maybe it was the sudden darkening of the room that had caused her to raise her head; nothing to do with Sophie, the only person she knew who could convey disapproval without any change of expression – probably went with her breeding.

‘What’s wrong, Soph?’

‘I’m sorry?’

Sophie looked up from her computer. She was wearing a dark red woollen suit over a cream silk blouse. The Bishop of Hereford’s lay secretary over many years and several bishops. Worth her weight in pearls.

‘You scowled,’ Merrily said.

‘I don’t think so, Merrily.’

There was a muttering of thunder from Dinedor Hill or somewhere. Merrily got up from her desk. On Mondays she usually tried to come in for a couple of hours to review the Deliverance schedule, although lately there hadn’t been much of one. She was late today because of the afternoon cremation. A difficult funeral: people she hadn’t known before, and so it was all the more important to make it resonate. Huw wasn’t the only Deliverance minister to suggest that cursory, conveyor-belt funerals were leading to disquiet on both sides of the grave.

‘I’d better put the kettle on before the power goes.’

‘This isn’t Ledwardine, Merrily, the power isn’t going anywhere.’

‘It’s my turn, anyway.’

She filled the kettle and plugged it in, spooned tea into the pot then swiftly backed up and peered over Sophie’s shoulder at the computer. There was an e-mail in the frame.

Sophie, Re the ‘sample’ of Deliverance files that you mailed me this morning, this is not what I meant. I feel it is important that the whole team sees all correspondence before it is filed. I also think we should be able to access the database at all times of day, rather than having to trouble you during office hours. Please get back to me with your thoughts before close of

Sophie clicked it away.

‘Ah,’ Merrily said. ‘I see.’

Sophie gazed into the screen-saver photo of swans on the Wye, impossibly blue.

‘I tend to receive instructions most days from Canon Callaghan-Clarke.’

Outside the window, the sky was solid now, like a rock formation over Broad Street.

And, oh dear, you didn’t do this. You didn’t treat Sophie Hill as a servant. What you had to learn, if you wanted to avoid trouble in the workplace, was that Sophie served only the Cathedral.

‘And will you be getting back to her with your, er, thoughts?’

‘What do you suggest? For instance…’ Sophie went back into the e-mails. ‘Should I have sent her a copy of this?’

* * *

Happy Beltane, Ms Exorcist! Yes soon be Walpurgis Night!!! Why don’t you come out and let your hair down. ha ha ha.

( )

               * I *   Lucifer

‘This came through the website?’

‘Yesterday. When exactly is Beltane?’

‘April the thirtieth… Saturday? May Day Eve, anyway. When all card-carrying Satanists perform their blood sacrifices.’

‘Ah, yes. Probably mailed from an Internet café.’

‘Just some kid who’s learned how to construct a devil on the keyboard. With a website, you’re bound to get a percentage of this sort of crap.’

‘Unless, of course’ – Sophie looked up – ‘one decides to dispense with the facility.’

‘Scrap the message line? She wants to do that?’

‘The entire website, actually,’ Sophie said.

‘What?’

‘I’ve been asked, initially, to supply a list of all the e-mails it’s stimulated in the past year.’

Merrily went to the window, exchanging hard looks with the sky. This time, there had to be a mistake. The website was about offering straightforward advice to people experiencing problems they thought might be of paranormal origin. It included self-help procedures and useful prayers. It advised them to contact their local clergy if the problems persisted or, if they preferred to, e-mail, phone or write direct to this office.

She turned back to Sophie.

‘So how many people did contact us in the past year through the site?’

‘Not a great many. Perhaps thirty.’

‘And what percentage, would you say, were jokes or try-ons?’

‘I’d say about twenty per cent. A few were from children who genuinely thought they had a problem, but turned out to have seen too many episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A couple came from Women’s Institutes asking if you could address their meetings. We had, I think, four from people thanking us for the prayers and the advice and saying they’d actually worked and they were now sleeping better – that sort of thing.’

‘And how many requiring follow-up action?’

‘Seven. Mainly poltergeist-related, all subsequently dealt with by the local clergy – prayer and counselling.’

‘It’s a substantial number, when you think about it, for a largely rural diocese. What exactly has Siân said?’

‘She said she’d placed the issue of the website on the agenda for the next meeting of the Deliverance Panel and, as I say, went on to ask for detailed background information as to the site’s usage.’

‘What do you think her argument’s going to be?’

‘I suspect she’s going to dismiss the whole thing as costly and trivial. If anyone wants this essentially… esoteric service badly enough, they’ll go to the trouble of finding us. Of course, I may be quite wrong—’

‘Esoteric – that was her word?’

‘Unless I misheard.’

‘So we’re minority stuff. They’re pushing us into a back room and switching the light out.’

‘Or possibly a cupboard,’ Sophie said.

‘If that website has saved just one faintly timid person from—’

‘You don’t have to convert me, Merrily.’

‘No.’

They looked at one another in the dimness of the afternoon. The kettle rumbled towards the boil, distant lightning glimmered. Merrily sat down at the desk, her back to the window, and switched on the lamp.

‘Sophie, what am I going to do about this bloody woman?’

This morning she’d phoned Huw Owen, leaving a message on his answering machine. He’d come back to her just after twelve when she was getting into her black coat for the funeral. He hadn’t found out very much and none of it was encouraging.

Except that there appeared to be no hidden agenda. No worthwhile conspiracy theory. No credible faction, in or out of Canterbury, with a mission to destroy Deliverance.

Which, of course, didn’t mean it wasn’t bubbling under, somewhere.

Huw told her what he’d learned about Siân Callaghan-Clarke: fifty-one years old, formerly a barrister – which would explain her need to work with professionals like Saltash, the resident expert witness. Born in Winchester to an upper-middle-class, High Church, landowning family.

‘Word is,’ Huw said, ‘that the father was a traditionalist. Her younger brother would have the career, Siân was expected to marry well, raise kids – women’s stuff.’

Not a good time to impose those values. Siân had not only not married well, she hadn’t married at all, moving to Worcester as a criminal barrister and managing to raise two sons inside a comfortably loose arrangement with her head of chambers. He was still around, still in Worcester, and the sons were both at Oxford.

The Church?

‘Well, it was in the family,’ Huw said. ‘Uncle became Bishop of Norwich. Her brother – who she appears to have resented from an early age – is now an archdeacon, Exeter or somewhere. Siân, commendably enough, began to help some of the youngsters she was defending and concluded that the Church had the facilities to operate a support network for addicts and suchlike and wasn’t using them. It’s not that simple – as I’ve just been finding out up in Manchester – but it was enough to get her involved. And that was the time when the battle for women priests was on, and her younger brother, apparently, was strongly anti.’

‘That would do it,’ Merrily said.

‘Oh aye. That were the red rag, all right. She’d get into the Church and she’d leave the brat behind.’

As a priest, Huw said, Siân was exactly what she seemed: a modernist and a politician. Known to be tolerant of Islamic fundamentalism while deploring its equivalent in Christianity. Suspicious of evangelism and Alpha training. Considered opposition to gay clerics to be irrational to the point of superstition.

Talking of which…

‘Aye, well… there were rumours of her having a bit of a thing in Worcester with a bloke I trained with, Keiran Winnard – younger than me, charismatic in all senses of the word. She’d certainly be his type: striking blonde, plenty of style and fancy footwork in debate. Liked a woman with a bit of intensity, Keiran, as I recall.’

‘Risky, though, in the Church. In the same diocese?’

‘Wouldn’t be the first. Pure physical attraction, not necessarily a meeting of minds. Anyway, it must have burnt through quickly enough, leaving her even less well disposed towards the miracle-and-wonder lads than before. Happen that was the reason she got out of Worcester. Or she just thought she could rise faster in Hereford – smaller pool, bit of an outpost. Either way, looks like Hereford’s got her for the foreseeable future. And so have you.’

‘So maybe she sees Deliverance as a method of exercising control,’ Merrily said to Sophie.

‘You mean, over the wilder elements within the diocese? The charismatics, the evangelicals?’

‘If you consider that, in certain hands, exorcism itself can be very rigid and repressive… keeping the lid on the cauldron, as someone once said. Taking a dim view of the Charismatic movement, arm-wavers, happy-clappies, speakers in tongues, because of what they might be opening themselves up to. Look at my predecessor. He hated all that.’

‘But from a different perspective, surely.’ Sophie leaned into the lamplight. ‘Canon Dobbs lived an ascetic life – self-denial, fasting, long hours of prayer. A deeply spiritual man. Bitterly opposed to women priests, as we know, and I have no doubts at all where he’d have stood on the issue of gay clergy.’

‘With his back to the altar and a big cross in front. You’re right, it works both ways. Rationalism can be even more repressive, in its way: all possession is mental illness, all ghosts are psychological projections. Siân is potentially more restrictive than Dobbs.’

‘Then why…’ Sophie pinched her chin, forefinger projecting pensively along her cheek. ‘Why would she want Martin Longbeach on the Panel? A… well, a tree-hugger.’

‘Window dressing, Huw reckons. I mean, he’s harmless, isn’t he? And gay. Probably an excellent source of information from the lunatic fringe. And doubtless so deeply honoured to be chosen that he’s more than happy to pass it on.’ Merrily smiled. ‘Is Siân a gay icon, do you think? Or maybe Martin’s being groomed as my successor…?’

The phone rang. Sophie snatched it quickly, probably to kill the image of Martin Longbeach here in this office with his thinking-candles and his herbal teas.

‘Gatehouse.’

Merrily heard a man’s voice on the line. Pale sheet-lightning brought the office up in shades of grey.

‘One moment, I’ll see if she’s in.’ Sophie covered the mouthpiece. ‘It’s former-Sergeant Mumford, are you—?’

‘Sure.’

She’d spoken to him very briefly last night, telling him about the woman who had proved to be Belladonna. It had meant nothing to Mumford, who said his knowledge of rock music began and ended with the Rolling Stones. Sophie passed the phone across the desk.

‘Andy, I was going to ring you tonight. How are—?’

‘You got a TV, switch it on.’ Mumford’s voice, flecked with storm crackle, also loaded with the kind of urgency you didn’t expect from him. ‘Just caught the headline, called you at home, your daughter said you’d be there. You got a television in the office?’

‘Well, we have…’

Looking up at the portable collecting dust on the filing cabinet.

‘Switch it on. Central News, it’s on now, don’t hang around. I’ll call you back.’

Thunder trundling, like a heavy goods vehicle over the horizon, as he hung up.

PART TWO

Jemmie

‘People who will accept an apparition because it is a visual experience will tend to reject the conviction of a sense of a presence because the experience is not externalized… I am convinced that this sense of a presence is experienced far more often than is reported.’

Andrew Mackenzie, The Seen and the Unseen (1985)

‘And who that lists to walk the towne about

Shall find therein some rare and pleasant things.’

Thomas Churchyard (on Ludlow, 1578)

13

Extreme

‘… REMAINS A POSSIBILITY, but, yes, very unlikely to have been accidental.’

The stonework, in jagged close-up, was hard against the patchy sky. Then the picture pulled back, and you could see that the shot had been done from the ground.

This was as near as they could get because the tower was taped off, two police protecting the site. Old videotape from coverage of the Robbie Walsh tragedy, Merrily thought.

They cut back to the policeman who’d been talking over the shot. She didn’t recognize him. ‘… Just about possible to survive that kind of fall, but unlikely,’ the policeman said.

Now Robbie Walsh’s face came up, the school photo, Robbie with his hair brushed and his tie straight, his mouth in an unsure smile, his eyes flicked to one side. The reporter’s voice over the picture:

‘… weeks since the town was shattered by the death of fourteen-year-old Robbie.’

They’d been too late to catch the link into the story and had also missed the first part of the report. It looked like Central News was going heavy on the death of Mrs Mumford, rehashing the events preceding it.

The boy’s photo had been replaced by another one, a poignantly blurred holiday snap of a woman in a sundress leaning – bitter irony now – against a lifebelt hanging from a sea wall.

Merrily bit her lip.

‘And then, at the weekend, came news of the shocking death of Robbie’s grandmother, Mrs Phyllis Mumford, whose body was pulled from the River Teme, flowing just below the castle here. Eighty-three-year-old Mrs Mumford was said by neighbours today to have been inconsolable after the death of her grandson, who’d been staying with her and her husband at the time.’

Shot of the river, a police barrier, two sheaves of flowers lying up against it, the cellophane flapping.

‘The town is in mourning once again. But absolutely nothing could have prepared the people of Ludlow for what was to happen today.’

‘Huh?’

Merrily looked at Sophie. The phone on Sophie’s desk started to ring. Sophie opened a drawer and put the phone in and shut the drawer up to the wire. Merrily moved closer to the TV.

‘… Hard to take in. We’re shocked… shattered.’

Man in his sixties, hair like wire wool and hollow cheeks. George Lackland, Ludlow Mayor, the caption read.

‘… Gather she wasn’t local,’ George Lackland said. ‘We don’t know where she came from, but the thought that she came here – a girl that age – specifically to… you know, to die, in this horrible way… that really doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?’

‘Christ,’ Merrily said.

Long shot of the tower. The reporter saying, ‘And that’s the terrible question that just about everyone here is asking tonight…’

The camera finding the reporter – evidently live, picking up off the back of his taped report – standing outside the castle, on a walkway halfway down the banks above the river, his spread arms conveying universal incomprehension.

‘… Did the girl come here to kill herself in a macabre imitation of the death of Robbie Walsh? There was nothing to suggest that Robbie’s death was anything other than an accident. But two identical accidents at the same castle? As the Mayor said, the implications of this are, to say the least, disturbing.’

In the studio, the presenter, a blonde young enough to be the reporter’s daughter, said, ‘Paul, do we know yet where exactly the girl had come from – how far she’d travelled?’

‘Tammy, my information is that the police do have a name, and the parents of a fifteen-year-old girl are, at this moment, being brought to Ludlow in the hope of a formal identification. But it could be several hours before that name is formally released.’

‘Is there any connection with Robbie Walsh?’

‘It’s a question that’s been asked, but there’s no reason to suppose there was any connection between them at all – except, of course, the circumstances of their deaths.’

‘And what does that say about Robbie’s death, Paul?’

‘Well, there’s no particular suggestion that it throws a different light on Robbie’s death. There’ll always be an element of mystery about that. What I’d guess police and townsfolk are asking is: was this girl, in some awful way, inspired by… by the way he died and, of course, the dramatic location?’

‘Obviously, Paul, this is something nobody could have predicted. But how could it possibly have been prevented?’

‘Tammy, it’s an impossible situation. This is a major tourist attraction that gets hundreds of visitors every day, many drawn in by its dramatic location, at the highest point of the town, with these high walls, these ruined but still very tall towers and this steep drop almost to the river. Yes, of course it’s dangerous, but so are hundreds of beauty spots all over the country and what’s being said is, well, if someone’s determined to die, there’s no shortage of places to go.’

‘But two teenagers – both at Ludlow Castle?’

‘Why here, particularly? Yes, that’s a question a lot of people are now trying to answer. Children do have to be accompanied by an adult and, with the number of tourists increasing daily as we move towards the main holiday season, there’s no doubt at all that attendants here are going to be exercising considerable extra vigilance.’

‘Paul, thank you,’ Tammy said. Turned back to camera. ‘And if the girl’s name is released, we’ll update you on our late-night bulletin.’

Merrily switched off the set. The phone had stopped ringing, and Sophie brought it out of the drawer.

‘A girl,’ Merrily said. ‘A fifteen-year-old girl. What’s it mean? Another one.’

‘Children are impressionable,’ Sophie said.

She used to teach.

Merrily reached for the phone. ‘I’ll ring Andy. He mustn’t’ve known anything about it, either, until he switched the news on.’

Mumford’s line was engaged.

‘Probably ringing the sergeant he knows at Ludlow. Poor guy must feel right out of the loop when something like this happens and he finds out from the news like the rest of us. Especially when it’s going to add a lot of fuel to his own suspicions.’

‘Merrily, as the reporter said, there’s no reason to think Robbie Walsh’s death was anything other than accidental. Children have always been impressionable. Now they’ve become horribly… extreme. They want extreme experiences, extreme sports, sensations…’

‘Death?’

‘They see death on TV, and it’s usually rather exciting.’

Merrily pulled the Silk Cut from her bag. ‘Bloody hell, Sophie.’

Sophie frowned at the cigarettes.

‘When I was a child, the country had just come through a world war, and people were simply grateful to have survived, and we children were aware of that. Today… some of them seem to treat life almost like an unwanted present that they might as well take back. I’m sorry, Merrily, if I seem to be losing my Christian compassion. I’m sure there’ll be a thoroughly heartbreaking story behind it.’

The phone rang. Merrily grabbed it.

‘Andy?’

‘Ah, you are still there,’ the Bishop said. ‘I suppose you’ve heard the news from Ludlow.’

‘Just caught the last part of the TV piece.’

‘Tragic,’ the Bishop said. ‘Awful… wasteful. Three deaths, three… and in fact it’s more than tragic, it’s nightmarish, now, in ways I…’

‘We don’t know where she’s from?’

‘Other side of Herefordshire. Ledbury, I think. That is, George— I rang an old friend in Ludlow, George Lackland, the Mayor – you saw him on the TV thing. Used to be my senior churchwarden. George says the police are saying she seems to have hitch-hiked across.’

‘Thirty-odd miles? Forty?’

‘Something like that.’

‘Do they know why?’

‘Will they ever?’

‘Witnesses?’

‘Someone on the bowling green below The Linney appears to have seen her fall. No one inside the castle was aware of it, although it must have happened while the place was open to visitors. So easily done, you see. You can’t follow everybody around. She apparently paid to go in and just… never came out. Nightmarish.’

‘Was she dead when they found her?’

‘I’m not sure. George thinks there may have been complications. But if she was alive when they found her she didn’t survive long.’

Outside, the rain had started, like nails on the window.

‘Bernie… erm, should we be… involved in any way?’

Merrily heard his breath, slowly expelled.

‘I don’t know. Something did strike me when I saw the TV pictures. Actually, I feel rather foolish and trivial even mentioning it at a time like this, but you just know that some people in the town are going to be talking about it. This sort of gossip… one can’t do anything to stop it. You, ah… Marion. You remember Marion.’

‘I think I can just about remember Marion, yes.’

‘And we were all thinking, yes, but… wrong tower.’

‘The keep, as distinct from the Hanging Tower.’

‘Precisely. Well, you wouldn’t know the layout of the castle, but I do. And there it was, on the news.’

‘Sophie and I missed the beginning of the report,’ Merrily said cautiously.

‘Well, they didn’t make a point of it, but they wouldn’t know either. However…’ The Bishop coughed. ‘They showed it from the outside. Unmistakable. This time, it was the Hanging Tower.’

14

Black Poppies

THAT NIGHT, LOL boiled some water for tea, using a Primus stove in his kitchen, leaving Merrily to finish dressing by firelight. He had something to tell her, but it could wait.

When he came back into the living room with the tray, she was sitting on the end of the sofa, small and demure, with – unless he was deluding himself – the same glow on her face that he’d once seen by the light of altar candles, and her hair tied back with a rubber band. But, too soon, the glow was fading.

‘OK?’

‘I’ll go up to the bathroom later, with a torch and a mirror, to check the fine details.’

‘That’s not exactly what I meant,’ Lol said.

As so often, it had been a touch furtive. Curtains surreptitiously drawn. Cushions from the sofa, this time, on top of freshly washed paint cloths on the flagstones. Like teenagers, when the parents might come in… only the parents were the parish.

‘Jane kept a straight face,’ Merrily said, ‘when I said it was my turn to help you with the painting. And then she spoiled it by murmuring something I didn’t quite catch, about brushes and paint pots.’

Lol smiled. Merrily looked around the fire-lit parlour with its bounding shadows. There were always shadows. Lol thought about Lucy Devenish, who’d made him read the poems of Thomas Traherne, the seventeenth-century Herefordshire minister who believed that God wanted you to be happy. Sitting there listening to your mournful, wistful records. It’s spring! Open your heart to the eternal! Let the world flow into you!

Lucy’s last spring, as it had turned out. Suddenly, he could almost feel her in the room with them – Lucy sensing Merrily’s underlying gloom and frowning, and turning, now, towards him, poncho aswirl, eyes like the smouldering core of the fire.

Do something, Lucy commanded.

Lol gazed into the top of the chromium teapot.

‘I see three male presences looming over you.’

‘Mystic Laurence, huh?’

‘One’s a retired detective, who hates the way his world is being fragmented. One’s a bishop, for whom retirement is looming, and he doesn’t want his longed-for haven spoiled. And the third is a retired psychiatrist, who… Actually I don’t think there’s such a thing as a retired psychiatrist. They never give up analysing.’

‘Wrongly, of course,’ Merrily said.

‘But the message is: retired people are the new delinquents – too much time, nothing to lose. Beware of them. Essentially, the teapot is saying this is not your problem.’

‘Easy for the teapot to say.’ Merrily went to sit on the hearth. ‘Last night, when he rang me in the church, Bernie was, “Oh, let’s draw a line under it.” Tonight, he’s virtually saying, “Sort this out.” ’

‘ “Sort this out for me.” ’

‘He does seem to feel a spiritual responsibility for that town.’

‘Because he used to work there. And hopes to retire there. So maybe nothing spiritual about it at all, really,’ Lol said.

‘Not sure about that.’ She took the pot away from him and poured tea for them. ‘Anyway, he thinks this girl’s death is going to cause a lot of dangerous speculation. And he’s probably right. The legend of Marion de la Bruyère is very well known in the town, and this is her tower. The idea that the girl didn’t know about that seems remote.’

‘Might have a terrible appeal for a certain kind of teenager in despair, sure.’

‘More so, probably, than the accidental fall of a fourteen-year-old boy, from a different tower. I just… There has to be a connection we can’t yet see.’

‘Had the girl been seen in Ludlow before?’

‘We’re not going to know that until they confirm her identity and issue a picture.’

‘You keep saying “we”. It’s not your problem.’

But Lol knew already that this was a lost cause.

‘I looked up Belladonna on the Internet.’ Merrily sugared the teas. ‘Just to see what she’s doing these days. What she’s doing in Ludlow.’

‘And?’

‘Didn’t find out. Learned a lot of history. For instance, the name Belladonna isn’t actually much of an affectation. Her name was Arabella Donnachie. So she was always carrying Belladonna around with her in the middle of her name.’

‘Wonder if her parents intended that.’

‘Says not on her website. Says it was fated… all that kind of stuff. She was born in Banbury, Oxfordshire. Father a well-off accountant. Educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. Walked out at seventeen to form a band, for which she was apparently later considered too weird.’

‘In what way?’

‘Didn’t say. I, erm, tried to call Mumford tonight. No answer at home, mobile off. Suppose he’s gone after her?’

‘She can take care of herself,’ Lol said, and Merrily looked up. He shrugged. ‘I had a call from Prof.’

‘Relating to…?’

‘Well… Belladonna.’

‘And you weren’t going to tell me?’

‘Choosing the moment. Did I mention that Tom Storey was at Knight’s Frome, mixing his album?’

He didn’t know if she’d ever been a Tom Storey fan. Always more of a boy’s hero, Tom – like Jeff Beck, Peter Green, Mark Knopfler and Eric Clapton before he recorded ‘Wonderful Tonight’.

‘Normally, I keep out of the way when Tom’s there,’ Lol said. ‘He’s, um… irascible. His hair’s all white now, and his moustache seems to cover half his face. It’s like the studio’s being vandalized by the Abominable Snowman, and yet at the end of it all those guitar licks – fluid, economical, delicate—’

‘He knows Belladonna?’

‘—And, underneath it all, a sensitive man. I mean sensitive sensitive. And sensitive about discussing it, because he’s in permanent, neurotic denial. Tom will tell you – just like your friend Saltash – that it’s all crap and all in your mind. Except that Tom knows it isn’t. So when Prof said, hang on, I’m going to put Tom on the line…’

‘Belladonna.’ Big voice filling the mobile phone, making it feel twice as heavy, like an ingot. ‘Bella-fucking-donna.’

Lol had had to sit down.

‘You know what that woman did, Laurence? She had a baby. She’s in maternity when she learns she’s finally got herself a recording contract. The longed-for break. What’s she do? Kid’s born, she gives it up for adoption.’

‘At that stage?’

‘Might have arranged it earlier, I’m not brilliant on details, I’m giving you the sense of it. Gives the father up, too. Dead now, poor sod – smack. That’s the kind of woman. Carries death around like a tray of black poppies. Gives up a child for a recording contract.’

Hard to be sure how accurate this was. Lol knew that Tom felt strongly about anything child-related. His daughter, Vanessa, was Down syndrome. He treated her like a goddess.

‘But that was a long time ago,’ Lol said. ‘She couldn’t have been much more than a kid?’

‘A woman, take my word – then. Gawd knows what she is now.’

Tom talked about the albums – biggish over here, for a while, but in the States… mega. Which was rare for a British punk or New Wave artist.

‘American punks, at least they knew a few chords and they didn’t gob on the audience. British punk, Americans just didn’t get the joke. But, see, Belladonna was never funny. And she wasn’t like the rest. She talked posh. Talked like bleedin’ Julie Andrews. They loved that in the States.’

Because America had quite taken to her, Tom said, Belladonna had made a huge amount of money very quickly. And because she’d looked after it – with Daddy’s assistance – she never wound up on some sad, end-of-the-pier, 1980s nostalgia trip like some other poor bleeders Tom could name.

‘They put the loot into property. Old houses. Bought this dump looked like the Bates Motel, done it up, sold it for triple, never looked back. Daddy saw the value, Bell only bought the place on account of – what’s this tell you about her? – on account of she reckoned it was haunted.’

Lol had asked, hesitantly, what it had told Tom.

‘Tells me she don’t… she ain’t got it. She don’t feel. Haunted, to her, was like romance. This fucking, irresponsible, dilettante bitch.’

They were close to Tom’s barrier here. He’d let go of a huge but unstable laugh at this point, like a big tipper-lorry dumping gravel.

‘The house… the house wasn’t haunted enough, apparently. Or the bleedin’ spooks couldn’t stand the company and pissed off.’

‘She didn’t feel’ – Lol took a chance – ‘the way some people… feel. But she wanted to?’

Tom was quiet, Lol half-expecting him to ring off. And then,

‘Story is, she had meningitis as a kid. Teens, anyway. Came close to checking out, had some death’s-door experience, changed her life. Kept wanting to tell me about it, following me around. Sent me a card wiv… you know, a picture inside. Of her. That kind of picture. I don’t fink so. Outta my face, you crazy woman!’

‘So when was the last time you actually spoke to her?’

‘Gawd… few years ago? She wanted to work wiv me this time. Like I’d be that insane? Didn’t seem to be able to decode the phrase piss off. Kept ringing, bending Shelley’s ear, the missus – I wasn’t gonna talk to her, no way; it’s why we was ex-directory, Gawdsake. We had the number changed, in the end. Mad, sick, stupid woman. And the music… atrocious.’

‘Where was she living, the last you heard?’

‘Moves around. Always moved around, couldn’t settle. I fink – Shelley would know this – I fink, the last we heard, she was on her daughter’s back. Nah, nah, not her daughter, Saul Pepper’s daughter. The poor bastard she married. He had a daughter already. Bell went to live near the daughter, that’s the last we heard.’

‘Would that have been in Ludlow?’

‘Where?’

‘In Shropshire.’

‘Shit,’ Tom said. ‘That ain’t too far away from here, is it? Listen, you ever run into the mad bitch, you never spoke to me in your life, Laurence.’

Lol put a log on the fire.

‘The marriage to Saul Pepper ended, apparently, about six years ago,’ Merrily said. ‘He went to America to work. Has a new family now. One website says the split was amicable. Pepper said she was too’ – Merrily sighed – ‘too weird for him. In the end. Seems to have been too weird for people all her life.’

‘But not too weird for Saul Pepper’s daughter.’

‘Nor, it seems, for Robbie Walsh. Erm… what Tom Storey told you about the near-death experience – that’s interesting. The Church has a strange attitude towards all that. The most common perceived experience of an afterlife, but we’re oh so wary.’

‘You?’

‘Me, no. I’d love to have a near-death experience. Well, not too near, not just yet, but I mean most people who’ve had them – the long tunnel, the glorious light – they immediately seem to lose all fear of dying.’

‘I thought the clergy naturally would have no f—’

‘You’re kidding.’

Lol smiled. ‘Doesn’t really explain Belladonna’s music, though, does it? Her old stage act. Which was not about the delights of the afterlife as much as the trappings of death itself: coffins, biers, all that. What kind of near-death experience accounts for that?’

‘Good point. None of this adds up, does it? I mean, that’s the problem… nothing here adds up. Nothing quite connects. Pieces missing, everywhere.’

‘What about the dead girl?’

‘Especially that. That’s… horrific.’ Merrily stood up, steadying her mug of tea. ‘I’m going to suggest that Mumford talk to Frannie Bliss, see if he can find out what the police have uncovered. I think what Bernie’s saying is that it needs to be sorted – explained – before local people start putting a superstitious slant on it.’

‘Does that really happen any more, in our secular society?’

Especially in our secular society,’ Merrily said. She reached out for Lol’s hand. ‘Nothing wrong, is there?’

‘I… no.’

‘You’re OK about the Bristol gig?’

‘I’ll just take lots of drugs,’ Lol said.

She peered at him to see if he was smiling. He smiled.

A few minutes later, he watched from the front window as she moved across the edge of the cobbled square to the vicarage gate. He felt vacant, spare. She was working seven days a week, letting herself be used to further other people’s agendas. In the past week, he’d written about half a song that was never going to be more than a filler track on the next album, if there was a next album. He felt incomplete, worthless.

The fire was burning low and the room was laden with shadows as dense as old clothes. It was time he got the electricity connected.

15

Ghost-Walk

MUMFORD DIDN’T WANT to talk to Frannie Bliss.

Well, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk to Bliss, he said on the phone, just that he didn’t want to put the DI in a difficult position.

Mumford, reluctantly, as Joe Public: a crisis of confidence.

‘You do want to find out about this?’ Merrily said. ‘How this girl’s suicide ties in. If it does.’

‘Suppose I wouldn’t mind, aye.’

Almost certainly Welsh Border-speak for, Yes, I will never rest again until I know. Outside the scullery window, the apple trees’ budded branches dangled uncertainly, and the grey-green moss gleamed coldly on the stone wall between the vicarage garden and the churchyard. Spring had stalled in frosty spurts of morning mist, the exhaust of winter.

‘You heard the local radio, Mrs Watkins?’

‘Some of the early stuff.’

The breakfast lead on Radio Hereford and Worcester had been an extended report live from Ledbury. Not unexpectedly, the parents weren’t talking. Anonymous neighbours said that the dead girl, Jemima Pegler, used to be a helpful, friendly kid, once, but she’d changed. Neighbours in small towns didn’t like to use words like sullen. They said more withdrawn lately.

‘You leave it on for the studio discussion?’ Mumford said.

‘Didn’t have time.’

‘Your friend Dr Saltash?’

Merrily gripped the wooden arms of her chair, Ethel the cat taking off from the desk and raking up a page of the sermon pad.

‘Introduced as a retired consultant psychiatrist with Hereford hospitals, special consultant to the Department of Health, and the author of a paper on self-harming in children and teenagers.’

‘Andy, was this man always bloody ubiquitous, or is it just my paranoia?’

‘Said he couldn’t really comment on an individual case but in the general way of things this particular method of suicide – public place – it was usually a cry for attention. A child saying, You’re all gonner know who I am now, kind of thing.’

‘And two near-identical deaths in more or less the same spot?’

‘Didn’t make much of that. Once a place gets known for it… like scores of folk jumping off Beachy Head, ennit?’

‘He mention your mother?’

‘Not in so many words. Old folk, that’s not so emotive, is it? Not like kids.’

‘And we still don’t know what the police think.’

Giving Mumford another opportunity to say he’d contact Bliss.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘I gotter go into Ludlow this afternoon, see about the inquest, get an undertaker on standby for the ole girl. Might talk to some other people while I’m there. Let you know what I find out, all right?’

‘Please.’

‘’Course,’ Mumford said, ‘no partic’lar reason why you shouldn’t give the boss a call.’

‘Bliss?’

‘Always got time for you, as I recall.’

‘And then, like… tell you what he says.’

‘I wouldn’t mind,’ Mumford said.

‘Andy Mumford,’ Frannie Bliss said nostalgically. ‘Merrily, I just can’t tell you how much I miss the miserable bastard. The faded rugby-club ties, the knackered tweed jackets he probably inherited from his dad…’

‘His dad’s still alive, Frannie.’

‘Figure of speech, Merrily.’

‘Unlike his mother.’

‘Ah… Jesus.’ Over the sounds of phones and fractured laughter in the Hereford CID room, she heard the side of his fist bump the desk. ‘I’m not thinking, am I? I’m sorry. I was gonna ring him, Merrily, it’s just…’

‘Difficult?’

‘Yeah. Strangers, I can handle the sorry-for-your-loss routine, and when it’s a working copper, you all go out and get drunk together. But a retired DS who never wanted to go. Never even got pissed when he left – you know that? We’re in the pub for his presentation, and he’s shuffling about a bit, trying to pretend he can’t wait to see the back of us. And then I look around and he’s like… just not there any more. Gone. Evaporated. Always that bit of distance, mind: him local, me incomer.’

‘Been trying for two years to get him to stop calling me “Mrs Watkins”.’

‘No chance,’ Bliss said. ‘So… Andy’s slumped in his garden, like a bloody old smouldering bonfire, thinking the Shropshire cops are sitting on information that could reveal the truth about his nephew’s death, right?’

‘And there’s also the question of his mother. And now…’

‘The girl. Listen, I’ve gorra say at the outset, this is not really my case. True, both kids came from this division, but it’s Ludlow’s headache, for which we’re frankly quite glad. I mean is it a case? I don’t know. Has it been a case for you, as it were?’

‘I’ve never yet had anything so clean-cut as “a case”, you know that.’

‘Go on, then,’ Bliss said, resigned. ‘Tell me why you’re interested.’

So Merrily told him about Mrs Mumford and the bereavement apparition/delusion/hallucination. Well, he knew what she was about. He was a Liverpool Catholic, tended not to laugh at her. Not often, anyway.

‘Funny, I remember me ma, when me uncle got killed on the railway, she swore she’d seen him walking up our front path. Didn’t know he was dead, then. Opens the front door, nobody there. Family’s a funny thing, Merrily. What did you do?’

‘Nothing. I had a psychiatrist with me. Not an entirely happy situation, but I won’t go into it now. Bottom line is, what she subsequently said, in front of Andy and me, was that a woman had taken Robbie. Later, she appeared to be suggesting that a woman had pushed him off the tower.’

‘How did she know that?’

Merrily sighed. ‘He’d told her.’

‘Ah,’ Bliss said. ‘The old phantom-witness scenario.’

‘I knew you’d be impressed.’

‘Don’t get me wrong—’

‘I’d have been dubious, too, Frannie, except we talked to someone who’d seen the boy with a particular woman on two occasions. Once in the grounds of Ludlow Castle.’

‘And?’

‘What do you top detectives call it these days when you’ve got a feeling?’

‘We call it time to keep very quiet, Merrily. Because, in the modern, computerized, CCTV, DNA, CPS-conscious, politically correct, focus-group fuckin’ police service, we do not do individual feelings any more.’

‘And there was me thinking you were the last maverick cop under forty. Man who needed to live life on the edge.’

‘That was before I was back with Kirsty. Now I’m a husband and father again, with a mortgage and a career path.’

‘I see,’ Merrily said. ‘Well, then… thanks very much, Frannie. Erm… have a nice life.’

The rest of the morning, she didn’t think about any of it. She had parish matters to deal with, not least the fortnightly Ledwardine magazine which, in recognition of the need to sell a few hundred copies to people who didn’t go to church, had become a general community newsletter. Edited in this parish, inevitably, and somewhat crudely, by the vicar.

It usually carried a few paragraphs on newcomers to the village, and Jane had left a piece on Lol in the file, which Merrily got around to just before noon.

We are delighted to welcome to the select end of Church Street Mr Robinson, who many of you will no doubt remember as the young, good-looking and talented one in the almost-famous 1980s folk-rock band, Hazey Jane. Mr Robinson, who spends some of his spare time with the vicar, has recently relaunched his musical career after a difficult period in his life, but wants it to be known – although far too shy to say so himself – that he will not be available for the Ledwardine Summer Festival or any other piece of crap planned by his fellow incomers to ‘put the village on the map’.

Also in the file was a copy of a letter from an outfit calling itself Parish Pump which had apparently gone to every community in the diocese.

Do YOU want to make your parish magazine into a genuine going-concern – a professional publication that every parishioner will want to buy? If so, we can help you. We can show you how to turn your parish notes into something lively, gossipy and compulsively readable. We can even DO THE WHOLE THING FOR YOU! And if you aren’t satisfied with the increase in income, we’ll refund your fees. Parish Pump guarantees to pump up your income. Contact us NOW.

You had to hand it to them for enterprise, but the idea of turning the Ledwardine Community News into something resembling Hello! magazine somehow didn’t appeal. Still, she put it back in the file; perhaps she’d show it to the parish council. Jane’s contribution, however… she cremated that slowly over the ashtray, with the Zippo. Because the magazine was usually laid out and printed in a hurry, you could never be too careful; it just might get in.

The phone rang. She burned her thumb reaching for it.

‘This woman,’ Mumford said. ‘Sorry – you got time?’

‘Where are you?’

‘Ludlow. On the mobile, in a lay-by. Edge of the town centre, below the castle. Looking at a pair of locked gates. Mrs Pepper’s house, what you can see of it behind all the trees.’

‘I can imagine she wouldn’t want to be too public,’ Merrily said. ‘Some of her old fans could well be slightly disturbed people.’

‘That’s what the feller does the ghost-walk said.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Ludlow Ghost-tours.’

‘Ah. Right.’

‘Don’t stop her roaming the street in the early hours, mind. Sometimes on her own, sometimes with her followers. From out of town, mostly. Weird clothes. Like Dracula.’

‘I saw them, Andy, down by the river.’

‘Been street fights between local boys and these creeps, did you know that?’ Mumford said. ‘A stabbing one time.’

‘In Ludlow?’

‘Like anywhere else at closing time. Local yobs don’t work for the tourist office.’

‘This is what the ghost-walk guy said?’

‘Eventually. Took some time to get anything from anybody. Most folk won’t hear a word against her. I asked around in shops… cafés… the tourist information office. Helpful at first, then they clammed up. Without exception. Either they din’t know or they said it was rubbish, telling you to take no notice of any malicious gossip you gets told, it’s all lies. Woman lives quietly, does nobody any harm. Bit eccentric, that’s her business. What d’you make of that?’

‘That it’s a nice town, where people don’t like malicious gossip?’

‘Shops, Mrs Watkins, businesses. Good customer, mabbe? Rich woman, big spender?’

‘Or maybe they thought you were a reporter.’

‘No,’ Mumford said, ‘they didn’t think that. So, finally, I’m in this café, and an elderly woman having a cup of tea overhears me talkin’ to the proprietor, leaves the money on the table, follows me out.’

Mumford paused; Merrily heard faint voices in the background, passers-by. When it was quiet again, he came back, his voice tight to the phone.

‘Whispers to me, do I mean the woman who walks the back streets, the alleys, very late at night, early morning?’

‘Ah.’

Mumford said the elderly woman lived in one of the discreet courtyard retirement flats between the church and the top car park – new housing cleverly built into the oldest part of town, ancient stone walls merging with new brick, almost the colour of the old. Desirable dwellings, if you didn’t mind a few curious tourists, the occasional drunk.

And the night walker.

‘Walking the back streets dressed all in white, sometimes carrying a candle in a lantern.’

‘That’s your woman.’

‘So I went back to see the ghost-walk boy. Taking what you might call a slightly firmer line with him.’

‘I hope that’s not understatement, Andy.’

‘Only language they understand, his sort. Anyway, he opens up eventually. Telling me how this woman hired him to take her on his walk. This was not long after she moved in. Just him and her. Nearly three hours, questions all the way. Ghosts: when was this one seen? Is it still seen? Have you seen it? I reckon he wasn’t too upset, in the end, at being kept out most of the night, mind.’

‘He was well remunerated?’

‘One way or another, I reckon.’

‘Unfair. People change. Presumably you asked the ghost-walk guy about Mrs Pepper and Robbie?’

‘Nat’rally. Well, first thing – he knew Robbie. All right, no surprise there, they all knew Robbie, all the shopkeepers, the coppers. But the ghost-walk feller, they had an arrangement. He’d come along on the walks, tell folks about the history of the various buildings. Very useful for the ghost-walk feller. People liked him, see – Robbie.’

‘The History Boy.’

‘Exactly.’

‘Would that be how he met Mrs Pepper?’

‘I’d say. Anyway, figured I’d go over to her place down lower Linney, ring the bell, ask her straight out. Come up against a pair of locked gates. No bell, no speakerphone. Just an expensive mailbox. So I climbs over.’

‘That wise?’

Mumford snorted. ‘Walks up the drive, fully visible from the house. Farmhouse, looked like – pretty old. Bangs on the front door. Nothing. But, see… she was in there. Thirty years a copper, you just know when they’re in. And she was… She was in.’

‘You tried phoning?’

‘Ex-directory. Which wouldn’t have been a problem, few weeks ago.’

‘No… maybe not.’

Merrily could sense his frustration. He was panting a bit now. She had the impression that years of bitterness were being funnelled into this, like petrol into a generator.

‘Folks finding candle stubs on walls, tree stumps, where she’s been. Been going on for months. And me – even I seen it. Hovering round Mam’s house with her bloody candle. Why didn’t I go after her?’

‘Because you had no reason to. Because whenever there’s a public kind of death, a big funeral, there’s always someone like that around – leaving flowers, burning candles. I see it all the time. And she was crying, wasn’t she?’

‘Was she crying at the river?’

Merrily paused. ‘No.’

‘I en’t gonner make a mistake like that again,’ Mumford said grimly.

* * *

Merrily shoved the parish-magazine file into a drawer, lit a cigarette. This could get out of hand. With the death of his mother – an unnecessary death, a second public death – Mumford wasn’t going to stop.

When the phone went again, she thought it was going to be him ringing back, having cooled down, but it was Bliss. He sounded relaxed or maybe that was just in comparison with Mumford.

‘You remember Karen? Merrily?’

‘Huh? Sorry…’

‘You all right?’

‘Yes. Sorry. Karen…?’

‘Big farm girl? WPC. Acting DC now. With Mumford gone, I campaigned very strongly to get Karen on the team. Another real local country person, somebody who can work a baler and drain a slurry pit – can’t get along with these poncy law graduates. Now then, earlier today Karen brings in a personal computer. Lifting it around like it’s a toaster, what a woman.’

‘Good to hear you have a new bag-carrier worthy of the term.’

‘The computer’s original owner: Jemmie Pegler. Jemima.’

‘I thought you said it wasn’t your case.’

‘Yeah, well… you ringing up like that, out the blue, got me thinking. I always hate it when me mates are talking over me head. And Karen, despite having pigshit on her boots, is also our resident computer expert – bit of a natural, so they sent her on a course for stripping down hard disks, all that – so Shrewsbury asked if she could do the necessary with Jemmie’s gear. And I thought I’d have a peep.’

‘Nice to have you back, Frannie.’

‘Yeah, that really hurt me feelings. Still the last maverick cop under forty, and proud of it.’

‘So what did you find on the computer?’

‘Upsetting.’ Bliss didn’t sound upset. ‘Hard disk is full of links, for instance, to these horribly scary teenage-suicide chat-lines. Would you like to see?’

‘Shall I come now?’

‘Leave it till late afternoon, when the DCI has a meeting at headquarters with some tosser from the Home Office. And no dog collar, eh? I’d really hate it to get back that I still talk to dangerous cranks.’

16

Kindred Spirit

THAT EVENING IT rained again. Hard, brutal, nail-gun rain, like in winter.

For the first time in about a week, Merrily had built a fire of logs and coal in the vicarage sitting room. She sat watching Jane cuddling Ethel on the hearthrug. There was a lot to be chilled about tonight, but it was cosy enough in here, if you averted your eyes from the damp spreading under the window.

‘What is this?’ Jane said. ‘Suddenly, everybody wants to talk about suicide.’

‘Never mind,’ Merrily said. ‘We don’t have to. Put the CD back on.’

‘Not the Belladonna album again.’ Jane put the cat down and made as if to get up, staging a startled glance at the door. ‘Anything but that… in fact, let’s talk about suicide. What do you want to know?’

Jane being self-consciously frivolous, but she really hadn’t liked the CD – Nightshades – that Merrily had found in Woolworths. If you ever do come across that woman in Ludlow, just don’t invite her here.

‘Teenage suicide,’ Jane said sweetly.

‘All I said, flower, was that it seems to have—’ Merrily shook herself. ‘Sorry, did I call you “flower” again? It’s no good, doesn’t seem right saying “Jane” all the time.’

‘Not my fault you wanted a kid called something basic just because you’d been landed with a silly name.’ Jane slumped back down. ‘Just call me whatever makes you happy. And yes, I do know people my age who’ve been into suicide chat-rooms.’

‘Why?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘I mean, is it suddenly seen as cool or something?’

‘Is it cool to die?’

‘OK,’ Merrily said. ‘Jemima Pegler was habitually sullen and uncooperative and didn’t talk to her parents.’

‘Hmm. That does sound like a particularly curious case—’

‘Jane.’

‘OK, sorry…’ Jane leaned back, hands clasped behind her head. ‘It’s like one of the uncles said on the news – how were they to know she was seriously depressed when she wouldn’t talk to them?’

‘You don’t sound too sorry for her.’

‘Sorry?’ Jane said. ‘I’m supposed to feel sorry for her? Look, suicide chat-rooms, it’s like it’s the final taboo. The great unknown. The ultimate experience. Because nobody you know – all the cool guys who’ve been there, done that, washed the T-shirt again – it’s the one thing, the one place – death – that they haven’t… do you know what I’m getting at?’

‘Possibly,’ Merrily said. ‘In fact… yes.’

Jemmie Pegler had been fifteen years old. Reading her e-mails, you had to keep reminding yourself of that.

Merrily had left the Volvo in the Gaol Street car park, to find Frannie Bliss waiting for her in the street with an executive briefcase. Annie Howe, the DCI, had been delayed, was still in the building. Bliss had rushed Merrily off to a café in a mews at the opposite side of the car park. On a discreet corner table, he’d laid out a sheaf of printout material from the dead girl’s computer.

But first he wanted to talk about Mumford.

‘Merrily, why the… why didn’t you tell me?’

He’d had his red hair cut tight to the skull, maybe because it had been receding or maybe because he thought it made him look more dangerous. Which it did.

‘I did tell you—’

‘No, you didn’t. You totally did not tell me, Merrily.’

‘I don’t understand…’

‘Mumford’s been in Ludlow today, right?’

‘Right.’

‘Talking to people all over the town about Robbie Walsh and this woman?’

‘Did I mention—’

‘And the reason I know about this is that the DCI told me. And the reason the DCI knows is that she was telephoned by her opposite number in Shrewsbury, a shiny-arsed admin twat called Shaun Eastlake, who was clearly chuffed as a butty at being able to tell her about a… a member of the public stamping around his patch interrogating other members of the public, having identified himself as Detective Sergeant Mumford?’

‘Oh God,’ Merrily said.

‘Now, I think you can probably imagine how the Ice Maiden is reacting to this.’

‘Mmm.’ Danger signals in Merrily’s head blinking amber and red. Before Bliss had been promoted to Inspector and Annie Howe to DCI, Mumford had been her bag-carrier and local-knowledge man – history which, in the present circumstances, would matter not a damn.

‘Frannie, look, I didn’t know. Should have realized, of course… should have realized, if only from personal experience, how hard it is to get information out of people if you haven’t got the weight—’

‘Merrily!’ Bliss’s fist came down on the table, a woman behind the counter glancing anxiously across. ‘It’s an offence. Impersonating a police officer? And if you’ve been a police officer, does that make it better? No, it makes it wairse.’ The Mersey in his accent bursting its banks. ‘Is it conceivable the fat bastard’s forgotten that?’

‘Frannie—’

‘You think I’m kidding? This is Annie Howe we’re talking about, not a human being, and her face is as close as it gets to being pink with embarrassment.’

Merrily sat back. ‘One of the people he talked to told the police?’

‘No, they told George Lackland.’

‘The Mayor, right?

‘And county councillor? And vice-chairman of the West Mercia Police Committee?’

‘Oh God, really? But, apart from the element of deception, why would he – or any of the people Mumford talked to – not want the truth to come out about Robbie Walsh and a woman who—?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe she’s well connected. Let’s just say that Ludlow’s one little town where Mumford would be well advised to walk like the streets are tiled with antique porcelain. Bearing in mind that when it comes to bailing-out time, Steve Britton will no longer be his friend. Best to assume he doesn’t have any friends any more, in or out of uniform, at Ludlow nick.’

‘Policemen don’t just drop their mates.’

‘Times change, Merrily. We didn’t used to have divisional chiefs like Howe. So you tell Mumford: any officer spotted discussing the weather with him, it’s a red-card situation. Do you think you could convey that to him?’

Merrily nodded. There was nothing to be said. Mumford was so far out of line he probably couldn’t even discern a line any more.

‘Good,’ Bliss said. ‘Now let’s talk about poor Jemmie Pegler.’

it was realizing i just did it to keep him quiet and so he’d keep paying for the drinks. what’s that say. im anbodys after a few drinks and they just laugh at the desperate worthless fat bitch and when your worthless thats the bottom. your never gonna come back from that are you

Merrily winced. ‘Who’s this one to, Frannie?’

‘Girlfriend. Found it on the end of a reply from the other girl. Karen went to talk to the other girl. She seemed genuinely shattered. Said Jemmie Pegler’s e-mails always went over the top – wanted her mates to think she was a woman of the world who’d had so many men she was bored with sex. Girl thought it was all bullshit.’

‘Doesn’t seem like that to me.’

‘In which case…’ Bliss put a stiff-backed photo envelope in front of Merrily with another e-mail on top of it. ‘The girl said she thought this was bullshit, too.’

they’ve gone out again so i looked in the bathroom cabinet just now and im thinking what would happen if i emptied every packet and every bottle in there and swallowed the lot. well just be sick as a dog most likely. how sad is that, sam. im not going out sad. im not. when i go theyll fucking know ive gone.

Merrily read it a second time, then opened the envelope.

It was a flash photo, in colour: a party pic of a fleshy girl, laughing. Short black hair gelled into gold-tipped spikes. A nose-stud with an implausible royal-blue gemstone. She was gripping a bottle by its silvery neck.

‘When did the computer come in, Frannie?’

‘Soon after we got a firm ID. Last night.’

‘And would Karen have been working on it last night?’

‘She was certainly on last night, and it’s much nicer tucked up in an office with a computer and mug of tea than going out on the cold streets, so probably. Why?’

Merrily went back to the e-mail. ‘This line about not going out sad. Seems to echo what someone apparently said on the radio this morning – that this kind of public suicide was a way of saying, “Now you’re all going to know who I am.” ’

‘Who said that?’

‘I’m probably being paranoid. Dr Saltash, interviewed by Radio Hereford and Worcester. Is he officially assisting the police?’

‘Possibly. He’s done it before. The Ice Maiden’s fond of psychological consultants, profilers, all these buggers who’re supposed to be doing our job for us.’

‘Mmm. And Siân Callaghan-Clarke.’

‘Who?’

‘Colleague of mine.’

Callaghan-Clarke on DCI Annie Howe, the night of the Deliverance Panel: I get on very well with her.

‘Why paranoid, Merrily?’

‘Sorry?’

‘You said you were probably being paranoid.’

‘Oh, it… it’s just that Nigel Saltash has been inflicted on me as a psychiatric consultant.’

‘He probably volunteered when he saw your picture.’

‘Do you have a reason to say that, or…?’

‘Hmm.’ Bliss did a wry smile. ‘If he is a mate of the Ice Maiden’s, forget I spoke. Have a look at this one.’

i want to go away. want US to go away where they cant get at us do you know what im saying. im sick of *guys* im sick of *going to london* in nicked cars only it always turns out to be Worcester and im sick of loading the poxy dishwasher. i want to GOOOOOO AWAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY FOR GOOD!!!!

Merrily went back to some of the earlier e-mails about Jemima not wanting to go to school any more, but not wanting a job either. Jemima professing to despise girls who stuck with one boy longer than a few weeks – suggesting that boys usually dumped her within that time-span.

‘Doesn’t want to live at home, but she thinks it must be crap to have a place of your own and have to clean it. So… she’s overweight and has a reputation as an easy lay because she must be desperate. Self-esteem at rock bottom. Bored with going out with blokes who nick cars because there’s nowhere worth driving to in them. Was she ever diagnosed as clinically depressed?’

‘Parents say not.’

‘Drugs?’

‘In normal life… possibly. Hard to say. When she died, however— This is well off the record, right?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘The window in the ruins we’re fairly sure she went out of is not actually that high up. Certainly not compared with the top of the tower that Robbie Walsh came off. You can’t get to the top of Jemmie’s tower without a ladder – it’s hollow. So you’re going out of one of the reachable windows – quite a drop the other side, and it could kill you, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. Unless, that is, you’ve already shot yourself full of enough heroin to make Keith Richards play the wrong chords.’

Merrily looked up, blinking.

‘She shot up before she jumped,’ Bliss said. ‘Threw the syringe out the window first, it looks like. SOCO found it underneath a yew tree, with her mobile a few feet away, both some distance from the body. PM this afternoon showed cardiac arrest.’

‘Is that—?’

‘Common enough, with an inexperienced user. More often than you’d think, the first fix is the last. Sometimes they don’t even have time to take the needle out before they’ve gone. Dr Grace thinks she might’ve been dead before she hit the ground, but we’ll never know that.’

‘God.’

‘So for all the drama, it’s a sad little death, Merrily. Mobile shows she tried to call her mate, Sam, before she did it. See, we know she wouldn’t have had any problem at all getting the stuff. A useful by-product of getting into Jemmie’s computer was it led us directly to a dealer we didn’t even know about in Ledbury. She’d had Es and dope from the same guy. So delightfully indiscreet, these kiddies.’

Ledbury: pleasant, picturesque old place at the foot of the Malverns. You didn’t think of it happening there. But then, it happened more or less everywhere now.

‘And some links to bigger players in Hereford,’ Bliss said. ‘For all she never spoke to her parents, she’s chatting away to us, from the other side of the grave. Talking of which…’ Bliss spread out some typescript. ‘Read this.’

with a plastic bag u can tie it round your neck but its not really necessary and it will take u much longer to get it off if u change your mind!!! Wot is good about plastic bags is that u dont look really horrible when they find you like with some methods of suffocation cos your eyes dont come out all bloody.

‘You can also read about the delights of hanging yourself,’ Bliss said.

‘This is an Internet chat-room, right?’

‘A specialist suicide chat-room. Adults advising unhappy kids on how to top themselves. Can’t describe what I’d like to do to these bastards with a few plastic bags, but then a few of us Catholics still think suicide’s a sin.’

‘Did Jemmie Pegler join in the discussions in the suicide chat-rooms?’

‘Just eavesdropped, I think. Lurking, as they say. Been doing it, on and off, for weeks, it looks like. Downloaded quite a lot. So we know she’d been dwelling on the possibility of suicide for quite a while.’

‘But no clues as to why she chose this method, this place? No mention of Robbie Walsh? Or Ludlow Castle?’

‘Nothing.’

‘You see, the point is that Robbie fell from the big tower, the Norman keep. No history to that. But Jemima wasn’t the first to go off the Hanging Tower.’

‘Tell me,’ Bliss said.

Merrily told him about Marion.

‘Long time ago, that.’ Bliss reached down to his briefcase.

‘You’ve already indicated this particular tower isn’t best suited to suicide, yet Jemima was determined to go that way. Did she use all that heroin to give her courage, or was it to make sure she died if the fall wasn’t enough?’

‘Interesting question,’ Bliss said.

‘How about Robbie Walsh – did he have a computer?’

‘Apparently not. Karen checked this afternoon.’

‘You’re having second thoughts about Robbie Walsh because of this?’

‘You got me thinking,’ Bliss said. ‘However, according to his mother, he wasn’t the computer type. An old-fashioned reader. Certainly enough books around the place, according to Karen. History books. No personal CD collection, either. Very old-fashioned little lad. An old-fashioned family, the Mumfords. Well, most of them.’ Bliss laid a folder on the pile in front of Merrily. ‘There you go. All ends tied?’

It contained a colour printout from a website.

LUDLOW GHOSTOURS

‘You knew,’ Merrily said.

‘Just thought I’d see if you did. It’s all there. Marion of the Heath. For a small fee, this feller will even guide you to the spot.’

‘She’d downloaded it.’

‘And more besides. Plan of the castle. She knew exactly where she was going and what she was gonna do when she got there.’

‘Anything else you haven’t told me because you wanted to see if I knew it already?’

Bliss smiled.

Before leaving Hereford, Merrily had called Mumford on his mobile, from the car, sitting in the Gaol Street car park with the rain beginning.

‘Aye,’ Mumford said wearily. ‘I know.’

‘Who told you?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’

‘Pointless me asking why you felt you had to pass yourself off as still a copper.’

There was silence. She thought she’d lost the signal. The rain pooled in a dent on the Volvo’s bonnet; when Mumford’s voice came back it sounded dried-up, like a ditch in summer.

‘Can’t talk to people. Simple as that. Never could. Can’t do small talk. Walk into a shop, I can just about ask for what I wanner buy. What do I say? “I’m Robbie Walsh’s uncle and I’m feeling guilty as hell and please can you help me?” Can’t do it. Never could.’

In the same way he could only call her Mrs Watkins. In the same way he’d addressed Gerald Osman as ‘sir’, but not out of politeness. His whole identity had been written on his warrant card.

‘What did Bliss say?’ Mumford asked.

‘He said you should stay out of Ludlow. He was probably hyping it up a little.’

‘Mabbe not.’

Merrily sighed. ‘OK, here’s what else I found out.’

She told him about Jemmie Pegler’s computer and the suicide chat-rooms. Emphasizing that, although his name had appeared briefly on the chat pages, there had been no obvious personal connection with Robbie Walsh. Hopefully, this would keep Mumford out of Ledbury.

‘Computer, eh?’ He let out a slow hiss. ‘Never thought. Damn.’

‘Bliss said Robbie didn’t have a computer.’

‘Of course he had a computer. His grandparents bought it for him. Had me collect it from PC World. Packard Bell.’

‘Well, he hadn’t got it any more, Andy.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ Mumford said.

Driving home, with the rain starting up, Merrily wondered how much was actually known about Marion de la Bruyère, ‘a lady of the castle’. You thought of flowing robes, one of those funnel-shaped headdresses, with a ribbon.

But Bernie Dunmore had been right. You were probably talking about a child. Those precious teenage years were also very much bypassed in the Middle Ages; by Jane’s age you could be a mother of three. Marion was probably about fifteen herself when she died, or even younger. Young enough, certainly, to be fooled by a smart operator she thought was in love with her.

Jemmie Pegler, staving off chronic emotional starvation, maybe profound loneliness, had been in very much the right mental state to imagine that Marion, disaffected, betrayed – a kindred spirit – would be holding her hand as she jumped.

Merrily said to Jane, ‘What sort of state do you imagine someone would have to be in for the idea of suicide to become appealing… exciting?’

‘Look,’ Jane said. ‘Suicide chat-rooms – my basic feeling is that most people who go into suicide chat-rooms are never going to top themselves. It’s just titillation. Like running across railway lines, bungee-jumping. Real suicide, that’s when you just no longer want to be alive. When it seems like there’s absolutely nothing worth hanging on to. You don’t care how you do it, do you? As long as it works.’

‘Jemmie Pegler went through with it. In a way that suggests she cared very much how it was done.’

‘Yeah, that’s weird. And what about Robbie Walsh?’

‘Possibly killing himself? Mmm. I think we’re all starting to have second thoughts about poor Robbie.’

‘Well, thanks, anyway,’ Jane said.

‘For what?’

‘For not saying, “Look, flower, if there was ever a deep source of depression in your life, I hope you wouldn’t hesitate to—” That’s the phone.’

Merrily pointed a menacing finger. ‘Don’t go away.’

By the time she got to the scullery, the answering machine had caught the call – as was intended, to ambush the people who made a point of phoning at night because it was cheaper, to bend your ear for an hour on some parish issue of awesome triviality.

‘Mrs Watkins, if you’re there—’

She sighed and picked up, switching on the anglepoise lamp.

‘Andy.’

‘I’m at my sister’s. Robbie’s mother?’

‘Andy, do you think maybe you need to relax, just a little?’

‘I got Robbie’s computer.’

‘Oh.’

‘Thought you might wanner know. When my sister told Karen the boy hadn’t got a computer, she lied, nat’rally. Which Karen would’ve guessed, of course, but she was hardly in a situation to push it.’

‘I’m sorry – why would your sister lie?’

‘Two reasons. One, they was worried about what he might have on there that p’raps a good, caring parent ought to have known about. Two, they thought they could sell it for a couple of hundred. Taking it to a car-boot sale, along with the rest of his stuff. ’Course, she also tried to tell me they’d already got rid of it, but I remembered the lock-ups.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Garages – a number of which don’t contain cars but serve as storage for various items that residents of the Plascarreg might not want found inside their houses. Sometimes using each other’s garages – or the garage of some harmless old lady with no car – to confuse the issue.’

‘The Plascarreg. Of course. Are you bringing the computer out?’

There was a pause. ‘I could spell this out, but you’re an intelligent woman. My sister’s here on her own. The boyfriend’s down the pub. I got till he comes back to check this over. Not that he scares me, but if I can get away without a scene, that’s best. So I’m gonner go over the hard disk on site, as it were.’

Merrily looked up at the wall clock: 9.05 p.m. Over the phone, she could hear vehicles revving, the tinny sound of hard rain splattering a car roof.

‘Would it help if I came over?’

‘Couldn’t ask that, Mrs Watkins. Not the Plascarreg.’

‘This is Hereford, Andy, not Brixton. What’s the number of the flat?’

‘One thirty-seven.’

‘OK.’ She wrote it down.

‘I can’t ask you to do this,’ Mumford said. ‘Not at night.’

‘You didn’t ask. I’m electing to come. I’m interested.’

‘You’re stupid,’ Jane said. ‘You can’t see what he’s doing to you.’

Merrily standing in the hall, pulling on her coat, Jane in the kitchen doorway, doing the slow head-shake that conveyed superior knowledge.

‘Make this very quick,’ Merrily said.

‘OK. Lol will doubtless confirm the psychology at a future time, but essentially Mumford is a subordinate, officer, right? He never rose beyond sergeant… because he was totally reliable but never had the spark of inspiration that make guys like Bliss – and don’t you ever dare tell Bliss I said this – into a bit of a star.’

‘No worries there.’ Merrily unbolted the front door. ‘Bliss would not believe you’d ever said that.’

‘And now Mumford’s lost Bliss, right?’ Jane came into the hall. ‘He’s floundering. He’s out of his depth. He can’t make decisions. He can’t function without a governor. And so, like, whether he realizes this or not, he’s put you into that essential role…’

‘Jane, that’s—’

‘It’s spot on, vicar, I’m telling you.’

Merrily stepped outside, then turned back. ‘Would you actually like to help?’

Jane’s eyes half-closed. ‘What?’

‘Go on the Net and see if you can find any links between Ludlow and suicide sites and, erm… anything else.’

Jane looked surprised. ‘Yeah, OK.’

‘Thank you, flower.’

‘Any time. I’ll, er… I’ll see you later, then… guv.’

17

Outcast

IN THE CITY the rain had stopped, leaving the roads blurred and gleaming, the white-lit restaurant complex in Left Bank Village like an ice palace beside the River Wye, as Merrily drove across Greyfriars Bridge.

This was tourist Hereford, only seven minutes’ drive away from the Plascarreg Estate, where no tourists went except by mistake.

Plascarreg: Welsh for place of the rocks. If what she’d read some months ago in the Hereford Times was still valid, the only rocks here now were crack-cocaine. Plascarreg was flat-pack brick and concrete housing blocks just off the road between Belmont and the Barnchurch Trading Estate, its windowless backs hunched against the west wind and the city. Half-lit in sour sodium, it looked like a vague idea half-thought-out.

Merrily drove in slowly, on full beam. The derelict land opposite had been scheduled for an extension of the Barnchurch site, suspended through lack of investment or perhaps because someone thought derelict land reflected the Plascarreg ethos better than fields.

The second block was three storeys high: flats behind covered walkways. There was a parking area crammed with vehicles, with just one space free if you put two wheels on the kerb. She reversed in, next to an abandoned van with a stack of crumbling bricks under one rear wheel-arch. It would have been stupid to tell herself she wasn’t feeling vulnerable here, but when you’d started out as a curate in a particular area of Merseyside it wasn’t exactly a fear of the unknown.

Mumford hadn’t said whether his sister’s flat was on the ground floor or if there was a stairwell involved. Nobody liked stairwells at night. She started walking along the edge of the roadway, looking up at dull lights behind tight-drawn curtains, edging round puddles, hands in the pockets of her waxed jacket that was hanging open. The air was damp and chilled and sharp, and there seemed to be nobody—

‘Mrs Watkins.’

‘Andy…?’

Moving softly in the shadows, and it was all shadows here, Mumford took her elbow.

‘Should’ve told you on the phone, we en’t going to the flat. It’s just over yere.’

He led her to a low concrete block, separate from the flats: garages, with up-and-over metal doors. Stopping outside one with a thin rim of yellow light around it, pulling up the door with a clang that echoed like machinery in a quarry. The light came from a caged circular ceiling lamp, reflected in an oil-pool on the concrete floor where a car would have been.

‘You better make this bloody quick, Andy.’ A woman moved out of the shadows and pushed in front of Mumford. ‘And remember, you don’t take nothing.’

She was about Merrily’s age, maybe a bit older, with Mumford’s small features surrounded by a lot of dark hair. Her red leather coat was open, showing that she was pregnant.

‘My sister, Angela,’ Mumford said. ‘This is Mrs Watkins.’

‘Merrily.’

‘Good job you didn’t come in your dog collar,’ Angela said. ‘They eat priests on this estate.’

‘They wouldn’t enjoy me,’ Merrily said. ‘I’m more chewy than I look.’

Angela gave her a glance, unsmiling. So maybe this wasn’t the time to offer condolences.

‘Remember what I said,’ Angela said to Mumford. ‘You don’t take nothing away.’ She tossed him a key on a chain. ‘You got half an hour, no more. Lock up when you’ve finished, key through the letter box.’

Angela walked out without looking back. Mumford tried to pull down the door from the inside but the handle was missing.

‘I would say she’s changed.’ He left a gap under the door, so they could get out again. ‘But she en’t.’

At the far end of the garage, the computer sat on a workbench, already switched on, casting a somehow baleful blue light over stacks of cardboard boxes. Mumford nodded at the boxes.

‘Take a look, Mrs Watkins. See what’s left of Robbie Walsh.’

Merrily walked around the oil. There were about a dozen wine boxes from supermarkets. Warily, she opened one.

Books. She pulled one out, large-format: Everyday Life in the Middle Ages, in Pictures. Heraldic symbols in each corner. Once a paperback, its covers had been stiffened with card, the way you did to prolong the life of a book that you really loved, one that was well used, day after day. It flopped open where a page had been torn out, none too carefully, fragments of it still flapping from the spine. The facing page was headed: TRIAL BY ORDEAL.

Mumford prodded a box with his shoe.

‘All his books are yere. Stuff on castles… armour… weapons. Guide books to historic houses people gave him… all off to a boot sale at the weekend – outside of town, they en’t daft.’

‘They’re selling all his stuff?’

‘Need the space. Another baby on the way – boyfriend’s this time, just to prove he can.’

Merrily put the book back in the box and closed the flaps. It felt like pulling a sheet over a body.

‘What happened to Robbie’s father?’

‘He came to the funeral. Not a bad bloke.’ Mumford opened another box, pulled out a turquoise baseball cap, put it on his own head, where it almost fitted. ‘This was always too big for Robbie, see. Poor little devil never realized why folks were laughing. Tried for street cred, never got close.’

‘You’ve got kids, haven’t you?’

‘Two girls. One in New Zealand, one a veterinary nurse, living with a vet down in Newport. They done OK, considering.’ Mumford took off the cap. ‘When you make CID, you’re as good as lost to your family. “Oh Dad, you’re not working again, we never sees you.” “Look,” I’d say, “I’m protecting you and your mother, that’s what I’m doing.” Any old excuse. See this?’

He’d opened up a book he’d evidently been using as a mouse-mat for the computer. The Tudor Household. Something had been scribbled on the front and then scribbled over. Through the top scribble they could still make out crude black letters: Walsh is gay.

‘Jane tells me the word’s become an all-purpose term of abuse now, among kids,’ Merrily said.

‘Abuse,’ Mumford said. ‘Aye.’

‘What are you thinking?’

Mumford reached into the book box, pulled out a paperback with a white and sepia cover: Castles and Moated Sites of Herefordshire. It looked new, except for the brown tape holding the spine together. A pamphlet fell out: South Wye History Project.

‘Looks like the book was ripped in half, ennit? He was real careful with his books.’

‘What you’re saying is he didn’t do this.’

‘That’s likely what I’m saying.’

‘The boyfriend?’

‘Or it could be Ange. When he was little, if he left toys around after she’d told him to put them away, she’d throw them on the fire. I’ve seen it. This was when she was still with his dad and they were living out at Kingstone. Marital tension. Always felt I… oughter do something for the boy. Couldn’t think what.’ He put the book back carefully in the wine box. ‘Hell, he was never abused, I’m not saying that. Just never encouraged. Which is how he became a loner, up in his room with his books.’

Mumford turned away, stood very still, hands in the pockets of his dark tweed jacket.

‘Andy—’

‘Let’s have a look at the computer.’ Mumford brought out his glasses case; his hands were shaking very slightly. ‘Never got to see the boy much since she moved in with Mathiesson. They never liked me coming round. Not with both neighbours on probation. No excuse, is it? I could’ve done something.’

He put on his glasses and gripped the mouse, began dragging the cursor over icons on the computer desktop. Mumford – Merrily had noted this before – was surprisingly at home with computers.

‘Seems likely the only time the boy ever went out on his own was in Ludlow. Just walking the streets. In his element.’ He clicked on an icon, bringing up a photograph of the ornate oaken façade of the Feathers, in Corve Street, against an improbably Mediterranean blue sky. ‘What he’d do, see, he’d download documents and photos from the Net, compiling his own files. Switch on his computer, straightaway he’s back in Ludlow. Street maps, architectural plans, the lot.’

‘Virtual heaven,’ Merrily said, aware of her own voice giving way. She coughed.

‘Aye. Look…’ Mumford brought up a series of short histories of different buildings; some, like The Reader’s House, she’d heard of. ‘This is what I wanted you to see.’

THE WEIR HOUSE

Name adopted, since recent major restoration, for this onetime farmhouse on an elevated site below the castle and overlooking the Teme. Origins believed to date back to the early fourteenth century, when it was acquired by the Palmers’ Guild, or earlier. Timbers extensively replaced, but one original cruck-beam is preserved and the central fireplace, believed fifteenth-century, remains a significant feature.

NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

‘That’s her house,’ Mumford said. ‘Mrs Pepper.’

There was sweat on his forehead, a small mesh of veins like a crushed insect twitching below one eye.

‘But it… Andy, it seems to be one of over a dozen old buildings he’s got listed there.’

He shook his head. ‘All the others are key historical buildings. This Weir House, it’s just been done up from a shell. It’s the only one on the list that’s not important. And not really in the town itself.’

‘But…’

‘It’s only there ’cause it’s hers.’

‘You think?’

‘Ludlow. The one place he thought he was safe…’ He clicked to a photo of the Buttercross, staring at it as if he could get the full story out of the stones.

‘Safe from what?’

‘Where he thought he was free, then.’ He stepped away from the monitor. ‘You have a look, see if anything occurs to you.’

Merrily went over to the computer keyboard. ‘You checked his e-mails?’

‘Nothing.’

‘No e-mails at all?’

‘I reckon they been wiped – by Ange or Mathiesson, just in case.’

‘In case of what?’

‘I’m not sure.’

‘You been through the deleted mails?’

‘Bugger-all. See for yourself.’

Under deleted mails, Merrily found one that said GHOSTOURS. Re half price. She clicked on it.

Hi Robson!

Thanks for your mail and your interest in GHOSTOURS. Yes, it certainly is half-price for children. However, we don’t usually allow anyone under sixteen to go on the walk unless accompanied by a responsible adult. Mind you, it’s usually the adults who are most scared!

Is there a parent or relative who would come with you? If so, we usually gather in the Bullring on Friday and Saturday evenings, at 8.00 p.m. But pop into the shop when you’re here and we’ll see what we can do!

Cheers,

Jonathan Scole,

Ludlow Ghostours.

‘That’s months old,’ Mumford said. ‘Boy making plans for his holiday. This is the ghost-walk feller the Pepper woman paid to take her round. Would she have made a responsible adult for Robbie, you reckon?’

‘Andy, that—’

Merrily turned round. A boy had squeezed under the metal door. He looked about ten or eleven. She tapped Mumford on the shoulder, gave the kid a quick smile.

‘Hello.’

The boy said nothing.

Mumford eyed him with naked suspicion. ‘What d’you want, sonny?’

The kid moved further into the garage, baseball cap pulled down. ‘What you doing?’

‘What’s it look like we’re doing?’ Mumford said. ‘We’re playing computer games.’

‘What you got?’

‘Sonic the Hedgehog,’ Mumford said. ‘Before your time. En’t you got something violent to watch on TV?’

‘That Robbie Walsh’s stuff?’

Mumford clicked off the e-mail. ‘Makes you think that?’

‘Their garage, ennit?’

‘You knew Robbie Walsh?’

‘You his grandad?’

‘No I en’t, you cheeky little sod.’

‘Ange said we could have a look at his stuff, see if there’s anything we wanted.’

‘Aye, I bet she did.’

‘Honest!’

‘All right, goodnight, son,’ Mumford said. His tone had hardened. His hands hung by his sides. Mumford still had police presence. The kid backed off, ducked under the opening, then stuck his head back in.

‘Don’t want none of that shit, anyway. Robbie Walsh was gay. I’d get Aids or some’ing.’

And disappeared, laughing. Mumford said nothing, but went over and pulled down the metal door, leaving a much smaller gap at the bottom this time.

‘He probably doesn’t even know what it means, anyway,’ Merrily said when Mumford came back to the computer.

‘I know what it means.’ He didn’t look at her. ‘Means the boy was different. Sensitive. Bit academic and didn’t hang around with whatever gangs operated on the estate. An outcast, in other words.’ He picked up the book with the damaged spine. ‘Therefore a target.’

‘He was being victimized? Bullied? That’s what you think?’

Mumford didn’t reply. He put the book back and laid a hand on the mouse, running the cursor from icon to icon.

‘Try Internet Explorer and click on History,’ Merrily suggested. ‘Find out where he’s been lately.’

But Robbie’s most recent ventures on the Net amounted only to Ludlow tourist sites, Ludlow historical society documents. Nothing unexpected. Nothing that looked like a suicide chat-room. After about fifteen fruitless minutes, Mumford went back to the desktop, where nothing looked promising unless you were seriously into medieval history.

It was cold in here, and Merrily was no longer sure what they were looking for. It all came down to Mumford’s feeling that the boy had been in need of help and he hadn’t noticed. Perhaps thinking he’d got off too lightly with his own daughters, to whom nothing bad seemed to have happened.

‘School Projects,’ she said. ‘Try that. Sounds boring.’

Mumford looked at her. A vehicle went slowly past the garage.

‘Maybe a bit too boring,’ Merrily said. ‘Do you think?’

Mumford clicked on it. An e-mail appeared at once.

Dear Robbie,

Thanks for the stuff you sent me. It was great. It’s cool that we’re interested in the same things and OF COURSE I won’t stop writing to you.

But DON’T WORRY! I know things can seem really bad but like my nan says it’s always darkest before the dawn and I know this is going to work out for you and you’ll get away from that awful place. Just HANG ON IN THERE and thanks for sharing this with me, I feel really privileged.

Look, Robbie, I’ve got a lot to do with exams and stuff coming up, so if you don’t hear from me for a bit don’t think I’ve forgotten, all right. Love and GOOD LUCK!

Merrily read it again. There was no signature.

‘Well done, Mrs Watkins,’ Mumford said.

‘It looks like he’s copied the e-mail onto a document, deleting the signature and the e-mail address. He’s hidden it away where nobody’s likely to look for it and if anyone finds it they won’t know who sent it.’

‘Mabbe scared of his mother or Mathiesson getting into his computer when he en’t around.’ Mumford scrolled up. ‘Hang on, here’s another.’

Dear Robbie

You’ve made me cry. I just wept when I read your mail. Those bastards! You can’t let them do these things to you. You have to tell someone, do you understand? You could even tell the police, never mind about your stepfather or whatever he is. You’ve got to do something, do you understand? I’ll tell the police for you if you want, I don’t mind. Just DO SOMETHING!

love

‘I take it all back,’ Merrily said.

‘You didn’t say anything.’

‘I thought it. I thought you were making something out of nothing.’

Mumford scrolled up again. No more e-mails.

‘We need to go through everything, Mrs Watkins, no matter how unpromising. He’s probably got stuff scattered all over the place.’

Merrily read the last one again. ‘Obviously a girl. A boy would never admit to crying. It’s also someone close to his age…’

‘Because she talks about exams.’

‘And if we assume the last one was sent first…’

‘Then he’s replied to it, obviously,’ Mumford said. ‘He’s replied and deleted his reply from his own computer. He’s upset he’s made her cry, and so he’s saying, Oh, things en’t that bad. And he’s told her something. And he’s sent her something.’

‘ “Thanks for sharing this with me”… what’s that mean?’

‘Sounds like he’s told her about some plan for getting away. Right.’ Mumford straightened up, rubbing his hands. ‘I’m taking this computer home. Then I’m gonner come back tomorrow and talk to Angela. You agree? I en’t overreacting?’

‘No, you’re not overreacting.’

‘Accident – balls,’ Mumford said. ‘That boy killed hisself.’

‘It’s starting to look more like it.’

‘And if I—’

Mumford spun round as the garage door came up suddenly and violently, like a car crash. Breath shot into Merrily’s throat and she toppled a box with her elbow, spraying books across the floor. She saw still figures in the gaping night.

Silence except for a metallic chink.

There were four of them. One, in a hooded top, had something like a dog-chain doubled up and stretched between his fists, and he kept pulling it tight, letting it go, snapping it tight.

Chink.

18

Departure Lounge

THE CLAUSTROPHOBIA IN the Departure Lounge was so intense that Jane had to go into the kitchen for a glass of water. Didn’t like this at all any more.

Dipping into the Internet was sometimes like lowering yourself into hidden catacombs or potholing. Going down… click, click, click… one site dropping into a deeper site, crawling through narrow tunnels, until you found you’d sunk so far that, when you looked up, the patch of light over your head had totally vanished, and the air was too filthy to breathe.

Of course, she knew what this was: too many bad experiences with confined underground places linked with death – the cellar at Chapel House, the crypt of Hereford Cathedral. It was close to phobic, and she resented that but it still didn’t mean she could handle it.

She filled a tumbler with sparkling water. All she needed now was a bottle of old-fashioned aspirin to wash down. Twenty should do it, right?

Naw, twenty is nowhere near enough, Karone the Boatman, from Nevada, had written for the benefit of Dolores, from Wisconsin. Ya don’t just wanna be sick

Jane had started with the new teen-oriented search-engine I Wanna, which dealt mostly with shopping wannas. Shopping to topping yourself was quite a long and tortuous trip and meant circumnavigating all the agony-aunt sites that wanted to talk you out of it.

But she was getting better at this, nearly as good as Eirion now at knowing what to look for. Which was how she’d wound up with the disgusting Karone the Boatman in the Departure Lounge.

Welcome to the Departure Lounge. Take a seat. You are among the best friends you have ever had, perhaps your last good friends. Help yourself to a drink (see our wine list, left). Listen to some music (see our selection, right).

As you can see, the Departure Lounge has two doors. You may leave at any time, through the door on the right. Or you may choose, if invited, to enter, through the left-hand door, into the Inner Lounge.

If invited? It was confusing. The walls of the Departure Lounge kept shrinking and expanding, and the doors on both right and left would alternate from black to white, and sometimes they were both grey. This was technically quite a sophisticated site. More sophisticated, at least, than some of the sickos who hung around in the virtual lounge like virtual pimps.

Karone the Boatman, from Nevada? Jane guessed he’d taken his name from Charon, the boatman who ferried the dead across the Styx in Greek myths… only he’d never read any Greek myths; someone had probably just told him the name, mispronouncing it, and he’d never even bothered to check it out. She pictured some earnest, humourless, semi-literate, burger-munching git in a sweaty baseball cap, who was arrogant enough to imagine it was his mission in life to help other people end theirs.

Karone kept printing up a link to his personal website, on which Jane had tentatively clicked, thus learning how to make a foolproof noose. Shutting down the site at this point, before slime could start oozing through the monitor.

She went back and perused the music selection: some classical stuff and a few names Jane hadn’t heard of. Plus Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’, which it said Cohen had banned himself from singing – was this a joke? – and a song called ‘Gloomy Sunday’, which definitely was not a joke.

God.

‘Gloomy Sunday’ – also known as ‘The Hungarian Suicide Song’ – had been written and recorded in 1933 by Rezso Seress after breaking up with his girlfriend.

In the song she dies and he decides to follow her. The actual girlfriend later killed herself, leaving a note saying only ‘Gloomy Sunday’. Rezso Seress himself jumped to his death from his apartment in 1968.

‘Jumped to his death.’ Jane found that she’d whispered it.

She was starting not to like this. She learned that the song had been banned by the BBC and other broadcasters because it had been linked to so many suicides, some within the music business – one of the more recent had been one by the Scottish duo, The Associates, who’d recorded it in 1980.

But the most sinister version remained the original, which had recently been cleaned up. It was said to promote nightmares, depression and irrational fear in listeners, but was not available for downloading on this particular site.

However…

The cleaned-up version was not available in 1999, when ‘Gloomy Sunday’ was covered by Belladonna, and the singer insisted that the crackles and scratches on the 1933 recording be scrupulously duplicated on her own version. Record company executives refused to include the Belladonna version on the album The Pervading Dark – for which it had been recorded – after a spate of suicides, including an assistant engineer, a secretary and the singer’s former lover, the session musician Eric Bryers, who threw himself from high up in a block of flats in south London.

Jane drank some water. Christ, another one. Did Mum know about this? Somehow she suspected not.

One theory was that the music was part of an occult ritual devised by Seress for purposes unknown, in which his girlfriend was expected to take part. But the implications of it terrified her, and this might have been linked to her suicide.

The words ‘Gloomy Sunday’ were blinking at Jane from the monitor.

Uh-huh. She drew back and clicked away the panel.

Belladonna. There were some artists who’d been big in the 1980s that it was still cool to kind of like: Elvis Costello, Julian Cope and XTC, of course, who would have been totally celestial if they hadn’t stopped touring and been forced to compete against dreary synth bands. But Belladonna…

Belladonna had embraced synthesizers. Her voice even sounded like it had been produced electronically, thin and screechy with occasional pulses – part of the machine. Belladonna was distant, lacked any kind of intimacy. But in its dismal-as-January way, the music did, Jane was forced to concede, sometimes carry you away. Just not to anywhere she could imagine ever wanting to be carried.

Actually, she was being particularly wimpish tonight. Could be something to do with being alone in the vicarage. She really should download Belladonna’s ‘Gloomy Sunday’. It was almost certainly a scam – that whole story sounded phoney.

On the other hand, she was pretty sure The Associates had existed. The trouble with the Net was that it was always very good at half-truth and conjecture.

Jane clicked back to the music panel. Immediately, ‘Gloomy Sunday’ began to flash. Her hand hovered over the mouse.

Mumford calmly put his glasses in their case, tucked it down the inside pocket of his jacket. He stood there, turning his head slowly from face to shadowed face, as if he was matching each one to a mugshot. Then he straightened up, hands by his sides, cleared his throat.

‘Help you boys?’

And Merrily realized that they were boys. Mainly young teenagers, plus the kid of eleven or so who’d been here earlier.

The tallest and presumably the oldest of the teenagers peeled himself away from the others. ‘So what’s happening, dad?’ He was about a head taller than Mumford.

‘Heard you was having a garage sale.’ The beefy kid with the chain grinned from inside his hood, like some kind of malevolent gnome. He pulled the chain tight. Chink.

‘Con,’ the tall kid said, ‘will you put that fuckin’ thing away?’ He looked mixed-race, had prominent teeth, a stud in the cleft of his chin. His silky black jacket had zips everywhere, like ridged operation scars. ‘Sorry about my mate, dad, he’s seen too many old videos.’

‘Don’t apologize,’ Mumford said mildly. ‘Just take him back to the home and we’ll say no more about it.’

‘Good one, dad. So…’ The tall kid with the zips looked around. ‘This is it, then, is it? The official Robson Walsh closing-down sale? Everything must go, yeah?’

‘Knew Robbie, did you?’

‘We was only his very best mates, dad. We had some awesome laughs with Robbie.’ He turned to the others. ‘Am I right?’

The eleven-year-old giggled. The other small kid – yellow fleece, combat trousers, watchful eyes – looked down at his trainers.

‘You had some laughs.’ Mumford’s voice was a thin, taut line. ‘With Robbie.’

‘So, like, basically, we thought we’d like to buy something to remember him by. Not the books, though. The books are shite.’

‘What kind of laughs you have with Robbie?’

‘See, I was thinking that computer. How much?’

‘Not for sale,’ Mumford said.

‘Tell you what, dad… forty quid.’

‘You en’t listening, son.’

‘All right – sixty. You en’t gonner get sixty for a second-hand computer that old, are you?’ The tall kid unzipped his jacket, felt in a pocket of his jeans, took out an amazingly dense wad of notes. ‘OK, I’ll go seventy. Seventy quid. How’s that?’

Merrily saw that the boys had arranged themselves in a rough semicircle around Mumford and her, the width of the garage, so that nobody was going to get past them.

‘Lot of notes you got there, Jason.’ Mumford’s face was set like cement, his eyes steady on the tall kid. ‘Been nicking little children’s dinner money again, is it?’

Jason? Mumford knew him? Merrily kept quiet, staying in the corner beside the workbench. They were only boys, after all. The eleven-year-old… he could even be ten. The other younger one, maybe twelve or thirteen, kept glancing nervously at the tall kid, as if he was worried about where this was going.

Merrily felt the heat of sweat on her forehead.

‘You talking to me?’ the tall kid said. ‘Is that my name, dad?’

‘Ah well…’ Mumford reached up and unplugged the computer from a socket over the workbench; the screen sighed and faded. ‘Could be I made a mistake. Just you reminded me for a minute of Jason Mebus, star of a whole stack of CCTV nasties – urinating in High Town… nicking Big Issues from a disabled man. Jason’s just waiting for his seventeenth birthday, he is, so he can be in prison videos.’

‘Fuck are you?’ the tall kid said.

He might as well have pinned on a lapel badge that said Jason.

‘Then again, it’s a bit dark now.’ Mumford looked into the black screen. ‘So I might’ve been mistaken. And if you was all gone from yere ’fore I had a chance to get a good look…’

Good. Merrily breathed slowly. That was sensible.

Jason didn’t move. The gnome with the chain stifled a laugh.

Merrily saw something dance into Jason’s eyes. He reached out a hand, laid it on Mumford’s shoulder.

‘You a cop, dad?’

‘Take your hand off me, boy,’ Mumford said mildly.

Jason’s grip tightened. ‘No, come on, dad… are you a c—?’

Mumford came round faster than Merrily could have imagined, had the boy’s arm down behind his back, had him swinging round and rammed up – smack – hard against the side wall, squashing his open mouth into one of its concrete blocks.

‘No. For your information, I en’t.’ Mumford’s forearm in the back of Jason’s neck. ‘Which means I can do what I like to you, ennit, boy?’

Merrily saw a bloody imprint on the wall where Jason’s mouth had kissed it.

‘Andy…’ She came out of the corner. If Mumford had smashed this boy’s front teeth, they were in trouble. ‘Let’s just—’

‘You can start by explaining why you want the computer, Jason,’ Mumford said, ‘or mabbe who sent you in to get it for them, and then—’

And then Merrily was dragged aside from behind, and stumbled to her knees, and saw across the bench that the boy in the yellow fleece had hold of the plug on the computer lead and had started to pull on it, his face red with effort and a kind of panic in his eyes.

By the time she was back on her feet, the dog-chain was around Mumford’s throat, the fat kid tugging on it from behind, swinging on it, both feet leaving the ground, and Mumford’s eyes bulging out of his veined, florid face.

19

The Joy of Death

SADGIRL. OK, IT wasn’t sophisticated, but it was simple and it sounded vulnerable and inoffensive: SADGIRL, HEREFORD, ENGLAND.

It would do.

So Sadgirl left a message in the Departure Lounge.

i lost my baby, and i lost my fella. i’m seventeen and i dont want to get any older. dont want to do any of this again. i listened to belladonna and shes given me the courage to do what i have to do. i want to rest for ever with my child. this is serious.

Rest for ever with my child. Jane thought this was moving and resonant. She felt better hiding behind Sadgirl. Putting her own name in there would have been awful: planting some part of herself in the electronic depths – a suicide seed.

Sadgirl was cyber-bait. It just needed someone to come through and harden the link between Belladonna and suicide. Jane had a picture of the dragon lady lurking, logged on from Ludlow, waiting to entrap damaged people.

Which wasn’t entirely ridiculous. She instinctively didn’t like this woman. OK, she hadn’t even been born when Belladonna was famous, and she hated almost all 1980s music on principle, but it went beyond that now. She’d logged on to the Belladonna websites – surprised at how many there were, mostly unofficial – and they were all creep sites. You had an immediate sense of something unhealthy, sexually perverse and kind of slick and clammy, like those things people put up to catch flies.

And the woman – her music, at least – was sharing the same cyberspace as Karone the Boatman, sultan of sickos.

Maybe – and the idea wasn’t total fantasy because anything was possible in cyberspace and everyone was equal – Sadgirl could lure Belladonna into the open. She just needed to know more. Mum had not divulged enough to give her much of a handle, and Mum was out of reach, which left…

Lol.

It was useful, not to say comforting, to have Lol just across the street. Jane stayed connected to the Net and phoned him on her mobile.

Lol said, ‘She’s out with Mumford? At this time of night?’

‘It’s not a date, Lol. And like, I’m sure that, while a certain kind of woman wouldn’t be able to resist that gruff, monosyllabic—’

‘I’m backing off, all right?’ Lol said. ‘Just because I’m across the road—’

‘No, I like you to be concerned about her. It’s old-fashioned.’

‘Meanwhile, what exactly is bothering you about Belladonna?’

‘Just need a clearer picture of where she fits in. Like, why is she in Ludlow? What’s she doing there?’

‘Everybody’s got to live somewhere, Jane. It’s a very sought-after place these days. However… apart from the fact that her stepdaughter’s in the area, we really don’t know.’

‘But there is a definite connection between her and Robbie Walsh, right?’

‘Seems that way. However—’

‘Therefore, if I was to firmly link her with Jemmie Pegler, as well…’

‘You haven’t…?’

‘Got to be close. Mum says Pegler was visiting suicide chat-rooms, and if they’re the ones I’ve just peered into, they’re more or less recommending Belladonna as, like…’

‘Music to slash wrists by? That’s no surprise. It doesn’t mean she’s authorized it.’

‘She could have, though.’

‘It, um… sounds like you’ve been having an interesting night.’

‘Educational. I tell you, Lol, if I was ever contemplating an exit, it’s the last place I’d go for help.’

‘That’s the idea, isn’t it?’

‘Ha ha. No, listen, there’s this guy who comes on like, are you cool enough for it? Like, do you have what it takes to be a statistic? You can imagine people who are really, really depressed, and this creep’s sneering at them, like it’s a challenge – are you hard enough to top yourself?’

‘Could be reverse psychology.’

‘Not that subtle. It’s telling them that if they can’t find the balls to do it, they really will have failed. You know?’

‘Out of interest, which Belladonna songs?’

‘Well, she – this is probably some kind of sick joke – but she’s supposed to have done a cover version of something. “Gloomy Sunday”?’

Lol said, with no hesitation, ‘The Hungarian Suicide Song.’

‘Shit, Lol…’

‘It’s fairly well known. Billie Holliday did a version.’

‘And survived?’

‘For a while. She didn’t have a very nice life.’

‘Did you know that Belladonna had recorded it?’

‘No, I didn’t. Doesn’t surprise me, though.’

‘See, there’s supposed to be an original version from 1933 that if you hear it…’

‘I’ve heard that, too. Not the song. I’ve heard what it’s supposed to do. The music business is full of ghost stories.’

‘They only had the Belladonna version on the Departure Lounge recommended listening list. Along with a Leonard Cohen song he apparently doesn’t play any more.’

‘And Nick Drake’s “Fruit Tree”? That’s usually among the top ten suicide songs.’

‘I didn’t see that. Lol, the Hungarian guy who composed it and Belladonna’s ex-lover, Eric…’

‘Bryers.’

‘You knew him?’

‘I know people who I think did.’

‘They both committed suicide by, like, throwing themselves off buildings. Did you know that?’

‘It’s a popular method, Jane.’

‘Especially in Ludlow, apparently,’ Jane said.

‘Jane, let’s not… Like I say, Belladonna might not even know they’re using her songs.’

‘Nah, I think she’s there. I can feel her lurking like an evil presence. And Jemmie Pegler was definitely into those sites.’

‘Let’s not get carried away, Jane, OK?’

‘Hey, when did that ever happen?’

Lol was silent. She could picture his expression.

‘You had any more anonymous letters, Lol? You would tell me?’

‘You’d be the first to know.’

‘I bet.’ Jane leaned into the computer screen. ‘Hey, something’s come up. I’ll have to go.’

‘Jane, you didn’t listen to—’

She cut the line. This could be significant. But how would she handle it if Belladonna herself had left a message for Sadgirl? Well, it was possible.

But it was Karone the Boatman who’d come back, and he was not sympathetic.

Sadgirl, u r in the wrong room, babe. Nobody here wants to know about ya problems. Come back when ya ready to DO THE THING.

The heartless bastard! You’d lost your baby, got dumped by your guy, and this scumbag…

Jane started to laugh. Oh God, she must really be overtired. She finished the fizzy water, thinking how it would be best for Sadgirl to react now. She knew how she wanted to react, but that wouldn’t achieve anything outside of personal satisfaction.

She switched off the desk lamp, sat back in the chair and closed her eyes to think this out.

Standing in the wreckage of Robbie Walsh’s torn-off life, Merrily lit a cigarette and smoked half of it and then threw it down on the concrete and stamped on it. When she put a hand to her face, it sent up a hot wire of pain. Afterwards, her fingers were slicked with blood and water and mucus.

‘Should mabbe see a doctor.’ Holding his head at an angle, Mumford bent and picked up a cardboard box. Books were scattered all around, oil soaking into the pages, the turquoise baseball cap crushed flat. ‘Shouldn’t’ve let you come, Mrs Watkins. Should’ve realized.’

‘What about you, for God’s sake?’ Merrily could see the flush on his neck, a glaze of blood where the chain had bitten.

‘I’m fine.’

‘Oh sure – that’s why your voice is like a penny whistle someone’s trodden on.’

She tried for a laugh, but she was still too shaken, the scene replaying itself from when she’d thrown herself at the fat kid, trying to get a grip on his gelled hair – at the same time aware of the kid in the yellow fleece pulling the computer, by its cord, towards the edge of the bench. She remembered seeing Mumford turning into the chain, his hand crabbed across the face of the fat boy, thrusting him away. Merrily feeling grateful that he’d found the strength… until, at the same time as the computer hit the concrete, the boy’s elbow had pistoned back into her face.

Sitting on the floor, semi-stunned, she’d heard one of the younger kids crying out, ‘Car coming!’ and been aware of Jason Mebus lurching away, eyes flashing hate at Mumford, blood from his mouth forming twin channels either side of the stud in his chin.

In the next memory-frame, there was just her and Mumford amid the wreckage.

He stood over the computer for a moment before lifting it back on the bench where it sat lopsided, looking like a badly fractured skull.

‘Andy, we have to tell the police.’

He laughed.

‘Andy, come on… Blood on the wall? You half-garrotted? God knows what I look like. We’re supposed to just walk away?’

Mumford sighed. ‘Mrs Watkins, you know how these things work. They appear in court in their school uniforms, hair all neatly brushed. Look real scared and helpless. One’s got a missing front tooth. They got Mr Ryan Nye representing them, on legal aid, making references to my mental state following the death of my nephew – who these boys will deny they ever met – and then my mother. I need to paint you a picture?’

‘Suppose I phone Bliss at home?’

His expression was enough to shut her up. He put out a hand and tipped the computer lightly. Something inside it collapsed.

‘Got what they wanted, then.’

She remembered Jason Mebus, on his way out, putting in two vicious, hacking kicks, splintering the back of the computer.

‘Probably won’t fetch much at the car boot sale now, Andy.’

‘No.’

‘What are you going to tell your sister?’

Mumford bent down, picked up Robbie’s baseball cap. ‘Not a thing.’

‘Sorry?’ Merrily had found a tissue in her coat pocket; she brought it cautiously to her face, winced, looked up at him through one eye. ‘Is there something here I’m not understanding?’

‘I was thinking at first it was the boy told the others we were yere,’ Mumford said. ‘But then I’m thinking, wouldn’t Ange stay with us? Wouldn’t you stay with somebody wanted to mess with your dead boy’s stuff? Make sure they didn’t find anything you didn’t want found?’

‘What are you saying?’ She had a full view of his throat now, red and purple and swollen and lacerated. At least his wife was a nurse.

‘Funny Ange en’t come back, ennit?’ he said. ‘Funny we en’t seen nothing at all of her feller, Mathiesson.’

‘You think they put those kids…?’

‘Could be they all had reasons for making sure we never got to see what was on that computer. The kids too.’ Mumford’s eyes were pale and hard. ‘Tells us why Robbie was afraid to come back from his gran’s, mabbe?’

We was his best mates, dad. We had some laughs with Robbie.

‘As someone trained always to see the best in people, I confess to having a problem with those kids,’ Merrily admitted.

‘Let’s not dress this up, Mrs Watkins,’ Mumford said. ‘They killed him. As good as.’

And she was in no position to dismiss it. When they left, stepping under the door into the dark and the damp, she noticed Mumford stuffing the crushed turquoise baseball cap into his jacket pocket. Then he picked up the computer.

‘Long shot,’ he said. ‘But it’s possible the hard disk might not be totally destroyed.’

Jane woke up so suddenly that Merrily had to hold on to the chair to stop it tipping over.

‘Sorry…’ She held on to the kid’s shoulders. ‘I didn’t realize you were—’

The scullery was lit only by the computer. Merrily felt she’d had about enough of computers for one night. She had to have a bath. She felt exhausted and aching and soiled and useless.

‘Why haven’t you gone to bed?’

‘Where’ve you been?’

‘How long have you—?’ She saw what was on the screen. ‘You fell asleep online?’

‘Oh shit… listen, it’s been twenty minutes max. Anyway, it doesn’t cost much at night.’

‘Forget it, it’s my fault.’ Merrily switched on the anglepoise lamp and turned off the computer. ‘I should’ve rung – except I thought if you’d gone to bed— Don’t look at me like that. Things were… difficult. I realize it’s unlikely I’m looking my best.’

‘Shit…’ Jane breathed.

‘Jane—’

‘Things really were bloody difficult, weren’t they?’

‘I’m OK. I’ll tell you about it in the morning. In confidence.’

‘So, like, did Mumford do that?’

‘Huh?’

‘Was it Mumford gave you the black eye?’

‘What?’

Merrily stumbled out of the study, through the kitchen to the mirror in the hall, slapping lights on. From the framed print, Holman-Hunt’s Jesus Christ regarded her with sorrow and pity and eternal understanding.

‘Oh shit,’ Merrily said.

When she came back to the study, holding a cold sponge to her eye, the computer was back on and Jane was in front of it. Didn’t even turn round to reinspect the injury.

‘Mum… take a look at this.’

‘You know what time it is?’

‘Yeah, yeah. Listen… The suicide chat-rooms, OK? I got into this one, and it seemed to be just, like, crap. There was this guy in Nevada, and— Anyway, I logged on under a false name—’

‘Sadgirl?’ Merrily leaned over the desk. ‘That’s you?’

‘And Belladonna was there. Or least her music was, but Lol said somebody might have just ripped that off. And there was a song she covered, a famous suicide song, where lots of people connected with it topped themselves. It was Hungarian originally, composed in 1933.’

Merrily dabbed at the eye, wishing now that she hadn’t brought Jane into this. ‘Sounds a bit tenuous.’

‘Except Belladonna’s boyfriend also committed suicide, just like the original composer, by – get this – jumping off a high building?’

‘Well, that’s… it’s tragic and everything, but it’s not exactly an uncommon method.’

‘Yeah, well, I was trying to find a stronger connection. I dropped in the name Belladonna and got a nasty reply from this bastard, Karone, which is what he seems to specialize in, and then – this must’ve come in while I was asleep, right?’

‘OK, let me see…’

Merrily eased Jane away from the screen. Sneery message from someone called Karone the Boatman, and then someone called Dolores had written,

Sadgirl, you have to understand Karone is a technical adviser and inclined to be abrupt. i think what he’s saying is you need to go back and think things out. this is the biggest thing you have ever done or will ever do. i myself know, because of my condition, that i’m going to have to do this thing sometime, and all that is important to me is that when the time comes i do it efficiently and quickly and without leaving an unsightly mess for my folks to clear up. you sound like your problems are emotional and i beg you to go away and think again because it will surely pass.

‘Sorry, that’s not the one.’ Jane scrolled down. ‘I feel really bad about Dolores. She’s obviously got something really horrible wrong with her.’ She put a forefinger on the screen. ‘This one.’

REVENANT

Sadgirl, Belladonna understands.

Death is eternal life without pain.

Know that we must make our own eternity.

20

Old Ludlow

‘CANON CALLAGHAN-CLARKE is looking for you,’ Sophie said, without glancing up. ‘She’s rung here twice already. Claiming your answering machine isn’t switched on.’

‘Can’t believe how inefficient I am sometimes.’

Merrily dumped her bag on the desk, pulled out the chair opposite Sophie, who was addressing an envelope by hand with a fountain pen. Glasses on the tip of her nose, Sophie put the envelope in a tray, for the ink to dry, and started on another.

They’d talked on the phone soon after nine, when Jane, clear-eyed and superficially undamaged by minimal sleep, had carried off a slice of toast and marmalade to the bus stop. Merrily had told Jane a certain amount, not everything, about last night. She’d told Sophie – because there were probably confessionals less secure than this office – the whole situation. More or less.

‘Oh yes,’ Sophie said. ‘On the filing cabinet – this morning’s Daily Mail.’

‘Oh.’

The paper was folded at page five and a fuzzy picture of Jemima Pegler at a party, collapsed in laughter, with two other girls holding her up. The circumstances of her death had come to light too late for yesterday’s morning papers to indulge in more than straight reporting.

What a difference a day made: on the other side of the page from Jemima was a line drawing of a woman in a medieval robe and headdress.

A leap across time… Eight centuries separated them. But now Jemima Pegler and Marion de la Bruyère are united in tragic death.

Obvious the media would discover Marion. And nobody waited for an inquest any more; the police line ‘no suspicious circumstances’ was a strong enough pointer to suicide. The story said Jemima’s death had the hallmarks of a copycat suicide, but who was she copying – Robbie Walsh or the death-plunge of the twelfth-century woman whose ghost was said to haunt the castle?

The story is certainly well known in Ludlow, according to Jonathan Scole, who runs Ghostours, which organizes lectures and guided walks around the town’s haunted buildings.

‘Our tours are getting increasingly popular, and this poor kid may well have come to one. We do occasionally get groups of teenage girls.

‘Marion is a very romantic figure, and one of the highlights of the tour is gathering under the castle wall at the precise spot where she fell.

‘It’s intended to be pure entertainment, and I’m afraid I do tend to ham it up a bit.

‘Naturally, it horrifies me that the story could have had this kind of impact on someone, but I doubt it did. If we’d had a multi-storey car park, it’s quite possible she would have jumped off that.

‘I think if someone’s determined to die, they’re going to do it somehow, aren’t they?’

But an experienced psychiatrist who is studying the Ludlow deaths, said that a second fatal fall at the castle was disturbing because it indicated the formation of a behavioural pattern.

‘Saltash.’

‘He does seem to be cornering the market in what one might call soundbite psychology,’ Sophie said.

‘He might be right, actually – the teenage pack-mentality, the need to feel that, even in death, you’re not alone. Anyway, someone has to be around to do the psychobabble.’

‘How far have you read?’ Sophie murmured.

‘What?’

and teenage girls are particularly susceptible to the fantasy world of ghosts and the supernatural as an escape from the ordered world of school and the prospect of exams,’ said Dr Saltash, who is also a special adviser on mental health to the Diocese of Hereford, which includes Ludlow.

‘Special adviser on mental—?’ Merrily let the paper drop to the desk.

‘You notice he doesn’t neglect an opportunity to file psychic phenomena under the general heading of fantasy,’ Sophie said, ‘thus detaching it from the Church’s official area of belief.’

‘This isn’t going to stop, is it?’

Merrily slumped down next to the window. It wasn’t warm out there, but there was enough early-afternoon sunshine for a few people on Broad Street to be wearing dark glasses. She took hers off just as the phone rang and Sophie looked up.

‘Ah.’ Sophie’s hand froze over the receiver. ‘I thought there might be some minor aspect of last night that you hadn’t mentioned.’

‘Impressive, isn’t it?’ Merrily tilted her head to the window. The sunlight hurt. ‘Purplish last night, now a delicate bottle green.’

‘What are you putting on it?’ Sophie picked up the phone.

‘Just the glasses.’

‘Gatehouse.’ Sophie tucked the phone between shoulder and chin, just above the pearls, leafing through her letters. ‘Yes, Bishop, I’m doing them now, they’ll be in the lunchtime post… Certainly… Well, yes, she’s here now as a matter of fact… I will.’ Sophie put down the phone. ‘He’s coming over later. He wants to talk to you.’

Merrily had started to roll up the Daily Mail into a stiff, tight tube. She stopped, sensing the change, and saw that Sophie’s face had hardened and darkened in a way that… just didn’t happen.

‘God almighty, Merrily! What the hell are you getting into?’

‘It was— OK, it wasn’t exactly an accident, but it—’

‘You do know that’s what’s known as assault causing actual bodily harm? What did they do to Mumford?’

‘Some…’ Merrily let the paper unroll, shaking her head helplessly. ‘Some damage. Nothing serious. We hope.’

Before leaving home, she’d talked on the phone to Mumford’s wife, Gail, who’d sounded cold and guarded, saying Mumford could hardly turn his head this morning. Hardly the first time he’d brought injuries home, but that was supposed to be all over now, wasn’t it?

Sophie wasn’t letting it go, either.

‘Did he even think about what might happen to you last night, when he took on these savages?’

‘I don’t suppose he did.’ Merrily reached for her bag; a woman with a painful black eye was allowed a cigarette. ‘With hindsight, I think he was quite happy when they invaded the garage. He was on home ground. Recognized one.’

‘Can we at least assume this will bring him to his senses?’

‘Sophie, we both know it’s going to make him worse.’

Blokes like Mumford – the bag-carriers, the local-knowledge men, the stoical, taciturn, imperturbable, down-beat, low-key, salt-of-the-earth types – when those guys started to come apart, it was like landmines: you were never sure where the next one was going to explode.

‘We now have – or we had last night, it’s destroyed now – evidence that Robbie Walsh was scared to go home to Plascarreg. We have it from his e-mail correspondence. Also his letters to… We also know he fantasized about Marion de la Bruyère. Saw her as some kind of a confidante and wrote to her.’

The postcard she’d seen, next to Robbie’s sketches, was now making perfect, heartbreaking sense.

Sometimes I pretend you are walking next to me and we are holding hands and it’s brilliant!!!! Everything is all right again, and I never want to leave cos this is our place… I was so miserable I didn’t think I could stand it till the end of term. Its worse than ever there. I hate them, they are stupid and ignorant and they are trying to wreck my whole life. The nearer it gets to the end of the holidays the sadder I feel and don’t want to go back.

‘If there’s anything that makes me feel a very unchristian hatred, it’s bullying. From cruelty to animals to…’ Merrily drew in too much smoke, suppressed a cough as colliding clouds sucked a sunbeam from the desk between her and Sophie. ‘We even know who some of them are, now. They as good as admitted it. But bullying’s not quite a crime, and neither’s suicide any more. Three people dead, and none of them crimes. Doesn’t make them any less dead.’

‘This woman,’ Sophie said. ‘Mrs Pepper…’

‘I don’t know what to think about that any more, Soph. She’s a woman who makes mournful music, evidently chosen as a suicide soundtrack by people who run unsavoury websites and chat-rooms. There’s undoubtedly a cult – or cults – of suicide operating on the Internet. If she is into all that and she talked to Robbie Walsh – as we know she did – and he was suicidal, is it remotely conceivable that she would actually have encouraged him to jump off that tower? I mean, I hate bullying, but I can understand the spiritual vacuum it comes out of. But this…’

‘There are Internet sites that are actually urging people to take their own lives?’

‘That’s the implication, according to Jane. And chat-rooms. Bit like the Samaritans in reverse, isn’t it?’

Sophie’s expression didn’t alter. Sophie was a Samaritan.

‘Merrily, if you think this woman might be connected with one of these organizations, it’s surely our duty to expose it.’

‘In what capacity? It’s not a Deliverance issue, is it?’

‘Isn’t the woman fascinated by ghosts?’

‘That isn’t, in itself, a Deliverance issue, either. Anyway, if I follow agreed procedure and consult the Deliverance Panel, are they going to let me get within ten miles of Mrs Pepper? Mumford’s already been warned off by Annie Howe, with whom Siân Callaghan-Clarke says she “gets on well”. Probably attend the same kick-boxing classes.’

‘This is a mess, Merrily.’ Sophie folded her reading glasses, snapped them in their case. ‘Everything seems to be a mess at the moment.’

The Bishop arrived before lunch. He looked pensive. He sat on the edge of Sophie’s desk, picked up a pen and kept tapping its top into the palm of his left hand.

‘George Lackland, Merrily. You haven’t met him, have you?’

‘Mayor of Ludlow.’ She had her sunglasses back on. ‘Vice-chairman of the Police Committee.’

‘That’s the one.’ He unbuttoned his jacket, and his purple shirt strained over his stomach. ‘Long-standing county councillor, magistrate. George is… the epitome of Old Ludlow.’

‘And your old friend.’

‘Yes. An honourable man. Conservative in every conceivable sense of the word, of course. Retails traditional furniture, as distinct from so-called antiques.’

‘He sounds… very influential,’ Merrily said.

The Bishop looked pained. ‘I realize that, to you, attaining power and influence means being as bent as… as…’

‘A crozier?’

‘Thank you, Merrily, I’m all too conscious of the opportunities for personal gain afforded to an unscrupulous bishop. But some of us do our best, and so does George Lackland.’

‘Sorry, Bernie.’

‘Anyway, he’s been in touch. Called me last night, and we spoke again this morning. As you can imagine, George is very concerned – as are many people in the town – about these deaths at the castle. Everything that happens in Ludlow, he takes personally, always has. It’s that kind of town – people feel privileged to belong to it.’

‘Mmm.’

‘That part of the castle – the Hanging Tower – has now been closed to the public, for obvious reasons. But already, sightseers have been turning up on the other side of the wall – where this girl fell. Can’t do anything about that: it’s a public right of way.’

‘What sort of people?’

‘Young people, mainly. A group of them were observed last night. They’d gathered with candles. Singing and chanting. There’s an old yew tree. They were clustered around it. Near where she fell.’

‘Jemima.’

‘And, ah, the other one.’

‘Robbie?’

‘Marion,’ the Bishop said.

‘Why would they gather there, Bernie?’

‘Would you expect a coherent reason? Everything seems to become a shrine these days.’

‘Well, perhaps if they knew the full facts, they’d find it less romantic.’

There’d been nothing in the Mail or anywhere else, presumably, about the heroin overdose.

‘They’ll draw their own conclusions, anyway. As some people in the town are now doing.’ The pen was going tap-tap on the Bishop’s palm again: agitation. ‘You see, George Lackland’s always been a man of the Church. Senior churchwarden until his civic duties became too onerous. Seen by many of the older residents as something of a figurehead, and not only in a temporal sense, especially with David Cook still in convalescence. So George has… been approached.’

‘Oh.’

‘Don’t look at me like that, it’s how things are done there. People worried about the town’s reputation have made… approaches.’

‘Tourist association?’

‘Well, yes, but also church people. All kinds, not just us. The RC church, various Nonconformist chapels. Individuals who fear for the spiritual health of the community. People who might feel happier talking to the Mayor than to each other.’

‘And what are they saying?’

‘ “Hinting” would be a safer word. No more than whispers. Undercurrents.’

‘Mmm?’

‘You’re not getting me to say it, Merrily.’

‘Some people are suggesting that the recent spate of tragedy is somehow rooted in… whatever happened on the same site over eight hundred years ago?’

‘Ah…’ The Bishop cleared his throat, uncomfortable. ‘I don’t imagine anyone’s expressed it with that degree of… exactitude. Rumours trickle through the streets about a place becoming unlucky, and they gather momentum. Even when I was there, you’d get people saying the town was becoming ungodly, selling out to Mammon – new restaurants, rich incomers.’

‘How does that relate to two teenagers and an elderly woman?’

‘Well, it… That is, George says some people were suggesting the Walsh boy had become a little too obsessed with the past. Aspects of the past, that is, that should be left to, ah…’

‘Has he seen the papers this morning?’

‘For once, it seems, the papers are only echoing what’s already been whispered. It’ll die down in the press, probably before the week’s out. The media always treat these stories as a joke. Not in the town, however. Things will be blamed on it that have no connection whatsoever.’

‘So what’s the Mayor want?’

‘A meeting. He’s asked me to go and see him. Tonight. I’ve told him I’d like to bring someone with me who knows more about the elements being, ah, hinted at. Are you free tonight, Merrily?’

‘I could be.’

‘Good. Excellent.’

‘Right, then,’ Merrily said. ‘So, do you want me, or Sophie, to inform the Deliverance Panel?’

The Bishop looked blank.

‘Procedure,’ Merrily said. ‘All possible cases must be referred to the panel for assessment before any action is taken.’

‘Who decided that?’

‘The panel.’

‘Well, I think’ – the Bishop stopped tapping and closed his hand around the pen – ‘that we ought to regard this as a preliminary and essentially informal discussion. Don’t you?’

‘If that’s what you think, Bishop.’

‘Oh yes. I do.’ He placed the pen carefully on the desk. ‘I… your eyes, Merrily. Is there something wrong with your eyes, or are you trying to look sinister?’

21

Tradition

THE MAYOR CLOSED his heavy front door, and they stepped into a hall that was cream-panelled and bright with shards of crystal light from an electric chandelier. Through Merrily’s new glasses it glowed amber and pink, like a rose garden at sunset.

‘This is the Reverend Mrs Merrily Watkins,’ the Bishop said. ‘Merrily is my, ah, Deliverance Consultant.’

‘Oh yes?’ The Mayor shook hands stiffly. He wore a mid-brown three-piece suit, with a watch chain, and you didn’t come across many of those any more. ‘I see.’

He obviously didn’t see at all. You could be close to the church your whole life without being aware of what went on in the crypt. Bernie Dunmore didn’t explain; Merrily felt he was still faintly embarrassed, even in Ludlow, about perpetuating a tradition as medieval as hers.

‘Come on through, Bernard,’ the Mayor said. ‘Let’s sit down in the drawing room and hope to discuss all this in a civilized manner.’

George Lackland’s home was above and behind Lackland Modern Furnishings, midway down Corve Street. The Corve was the more modest of Ludlow’s two rivers, and this ancient street sloped steeply down from the town centre to meet it. The shops here didn’t look like shops at night; most were fabricated inside historic buildings, and the owners hadn’t been allowed to enlarge windows or put up new signs. Much of Corve Street was frozen in various eras, all of them pre-neon.

Even the Mayor looked like part of the façade. His forehead jutted like a mantelpiece over the deep-set embers of his eyes. He looked more like a bishop than the Bishop.

‘Nancy sends her apologies, Bernard. Meeting of the festival committee. Some very big names coming to town this year.’

‘You mean the few who don’t live here already?’ Bernie said. He was still in his episcopal purple shirt. He’d told Merrily that George would expect this.

She followed the Mayor down the hall to his drawing room, unbuttoning her black cardigan so that the dog collar was fully on view. She wasn’t insecure about the women’s priesthood any more, but he might be.

‘This is nice,’ she said.

Well, it probably had been, once. The room was lodged in the era when cream leather three-piece suites were cool, and carpets were always fully fitted because bare floorboards were a sign of penury. There was a high ceiling, with mouldings and another crystal chandelier. French windows revealed a moon-bathed sunken garden, and that really was nice.

‘Yes, we’re fortunate – if that’s the word – to have quite a number of famous folk living here now.’ George’s voice had an Old Ludlow roll, Shropshire easing into Hereford. ‘We seem to have become a bit of a refuge from London – actors, television personalities, political people…’

‘Singers?’ Merrily said.

‘Aye, singers too.’

The Mayor put on a cautious smile, showing Merrily to a chair near the hearth, where a log-effect gas fire fanned out tame flames. He opened a drinks cabinet, glancing towards the French window – perhaps, by daylight, you’d be able to see the castle ruins from here. Then he looked back, with uncertainty, at Merrily.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Watkins… what exactly was it that you said you did? I don’t fully…’

‘Perhaps…’ Bernie coughed. Sweat had pooled in the centre of his expanding male-pattern tonsure. ‘Perhaps I ought to explain, George, that Deliverance Consultant is the modern term for what we used to call Diocesan Exorcist.’

A silent moment, flames flickering emptily among the artificial logs. Conscious of what the Bishop had said about her looking sinister, Merrily had dived into Chave and Jackson on Broad Street and picked up this pair of less-dark glasses that might even be taken as ordinary tinted spectacles. On the outside, the glasses looked light brown, but they turned these flames bright red, like a miniature synthesis of hell.

‘Merrily’s our adviser on the paranormal.’ Bernie sank into the leather sofa. ‘That is, the person who advises people who believe they’re having problems with… what we loosely refer to, George, as the unquiet dead.’

There. He’d said it. His hands came together in his lap as the cushions broke wind with a soft hiss.

‘This young woman?’ George said. ‘Oh dear.’

And then he changed the subject and went to get them drinks.

Merrily saw, against a far wall, an elderly radiogram: polished mahogany case with gilded fabric over the speakers. She could imagine the records: nothing later than Elvis.

She sipped her tonic water. ‘Mr Mayor, is there any history of… disturbance, unrest… around the Hanging Tower?’

It had taken half an hour to get to this point, via the new restaurants (a good thing in general, better than nightclubs) the new Tesco’s (there was demand for it, and it could have been worse, long as it didn’t put the traditional butchers out of business) and the new people.

The new people? Well, they had money, which they spent in the new shops. Buying the sort of old rubbish that George and Nancy, not so long ago, used to throw out. But at least the new people appreciated the town. Sometimes too much.

‘Disturbance?’ the Mayor said. ‘You mean these young people dancing around?’

‘No.’ Merrily looked at the Bishop. ‘I mean paranormal phenomena.’

‘Of what… nature?’

The Bishop avoided her gaze and said quickly, ‘Merrily knows about the breathing, the gasping sounds. Alleged.’

Alleged, huh? When I realized I was actually cringing into the stones, like a cornered animal, I… threw out a prayer, like a sort of yelp.

George Lackland came to sit down opposite Merrily, a leather-topped coffee table between them, with a hard-backed loose-leaf file on it.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘there’s always been stories. You expect it, don’t you, in an old place? Different stories all over the town. Catherine of Aragon’s been seen, some say. There’s an old woman who walks through the churchyard – that’s a regular one. But Marion, aye, she’s probably the oldest. The breathing, like someone in a deep sleep, quite a few folk reckon they heard that. Nobody’s said they seen her lately, mind – not in years.’

‘People used to?’ Merrily said.

The Bishop’s chin was sunk into his chest.

‘The White Lady,’ the Mayor said. ‘Marion of the Heath. Walked the ruins. And the path around the walls. And people who used to live in the flats at Castle House used to talk about strange noises and… what do you call it when things misbehave?’

‘Poltergeist phenomena?’

‘Aye. But, like I say, nothing about that lately. Although somebody did blabber on about strange lights round the old yew tree, year or two back.’

‘What kind of lights?’

‘Hovering lights.’ The Mayor made a ball shape between his hands. ‘Orbs of lights.’

Routine stuff. Low-key energy-fluctuation.

The Mayor’s eyes narrowed. ‘What are you looking for, exactly?’

‘I’m not looking for anything that isn’t there… at some level,’ Merrily said. ‘It’s just that what you’ve told me doesn’t sound as if it’s particularly bothering anyone.’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘You see, we don’t consider it our function to investigate all inexplicable phenomena just because they’re there. We like to think that we’re here to try and help people who are frightened or upset by what’s happening to them.’

‘Well…’ George Lackland leaned towards her. ‘Top and bottom of it is, if you don’t mind me saying so, Mrs Watkins, that a great many people have been very gravely upset by these deaths. Folks remember Mrs Mumford in the shop, and they were fond of that boy, too. Walked into my shop one day, asked if he could look at the old fireplace in the back, and the cellar. Very polite, very knowledgeable. All the little tearaways as breaks your windows and writes on your walls, and the one who falls to his death has to be the decent one.’

‘He didn’t fall from the Hanging Tower, though.’

‘He was the start of it. The start of something.’ The Mayor looked into her eyes; maybe he could see the discoloration through the glasses. ‘See, I truly love this old town, Mrs Watkins. We’re not from here; my family’s roots are in East Anglia, but we’ve been here nigh on two centuries – wool merchants originally.’

‘That sounds… pretty local to me, Mr Mayor.’

‘We’re settled, but we don’t feel we own it. Been selling furniture here for over seventy years – real furniture, hardwood, none of your stripped-pine rubbish. We believe in solidness and quality – what this town always stood for. Solidness. We can be relaxed about the side-effects of the tourism and the new people – because we’ve got a solid heart. And the Church… the Church has always played an essential role here, and still does.’

George turned away, staring fiercely into the gas flames.

‘What about the owners of the castle?’ Bernie said. ‘What do they have to say about all this?’ He turned to Merrily. ‘The Earls of Powis, the Herberts, have owned the castle for many generations. Edward Herbert was MP for Ludlow in the early nineteenth century, prior to inheriting the earldom.’

‘Bit of a silence so far,’ the Mayor said. ‘Apart from taking the obvious steps to ensure it don’t happen again – plans to get that window barred, that kind of measure. It’s a question of what other steps might be taken. On what you’d call a spiritual basis.’

‘We’d have to go carefully, George.’ Bernie took a hurried sip from his brandy balloon.

‘Let me put it to you directly,’ Merrily said. ‘Do you personally really believe that the two deaths at the castle are in some way connected with a paranormal presence dating back to the twelfth century?’

George Lackland grimaced at the stupidity of the question.

‘Top and bottom of it is, it don’t matter what I believe, Mrs Watkins. I’m the Mayor. My role is to go along with the will of the people. And among the older residents there’s a strong sense that something’s very wrong. Very bad.’

‘Is there a history of suicide here?’

‘Well, obviously—’

‘I mean in the rather lengthy period between the twelfth century and a few weeks ago.’

The Mayor didn’t reply. Bernie Dunmore shot a warning look at Merrily, to which she didn’t respond.

‘I mean, what actually happened, do you think, to make two teenagers take—’ She bit off the sentence: no suggestion of suicide in Robbie’s case, although after last night… ‘Lose their lives in a place that had been the scene of just one suicide, over eight hundred years ago?’

George Lackland looked at the Bishop. ‘Am I supposed to be able to answer that?’

‘George, I think what Merrily’s saying is that we have levels of response. Perhaps in the old days, the – let’s get the word into the open – the rite of exorcism was enacted without many preliminaries. Today, with the, ah, levels of bureaucracy within the Church…’

‘Is this lady going to help us, Bernard, or not?’

‘Of course she is,’ the Bishop said.

Help us? Merrily had the sense of being woven into someone’s fabric. It was time to tease out George Lackland’s agenda. This was the man to whom the traders and tourist operators had gone when Mumford had started questioning them about Belladonna. This was the man who, as vice-chairman of the police committee, had leaned on the head of Shrewsbury CID, who in turn had contacted Annie Howe to get Mumford warned off.

Right. She took a sip of tonic. ‘Erm… the strange people gathering around this yew tree below the Hanging Tower. With their candles, and their chanting. Who are they, Mr Mayor, do you know?’

‘Not local.’ As if this was all that needed to be said about them.

‘What did they look like?’

‘Oh… stupid. Horror-film clothes. You know the kind of thing.’

‘What I heard,’ Merrily said, ‘was that there’d been quite a few of them around the town recently. Possibly before the deaths.’

The Mayor spread his hands. ‘It’s possible. We get all sorts comes and goes.’

‘And there was a bit of a fight with some local boys.’

‘More of that than there used to be, regrettably – street violence. Too much drink about.’

‘And someone got stabbed?’

‘First I’ve heard of that, Mrs Watkins.’

But she’d seen the twitch of a nerve at the corner of an eye.

‘Perhaps people like this were… attracted here by the ghost stories?’

‘I wouldn’t know about that.’ He smiled apologetically and shook his bony head. ‘To be honest, I feel a little bit daft sitting here in this day and age talking about ghosties and ghoulies and things that goes bump.’

‘Oh, I get used to it,’ Merrily said. ‘But the thing is, before we can organize any kind of remedial action, we have to eliminate all the possible rational explanations. For instance, somebody told me that these kids in fancy dress are probably just fans of… one of your rich settlers? A singer?’

George Lackland said nothing. Nothing twitched this time, but she was sure that she saw a quick glitter of anguish in the hollows of his eyes, and he planted levering hands on his thighs as if his instinct was to walk out.

‘Can’t remember her name… used to sing these mournful songs all about death and… and things like that.’ Merrily smiled ruefully at George. ‘Not your cup of tea, really, I suppose.’

The flame-effect gas fire gasped, the Bishop’s brandy glass chinked on an arm of the sofa as he sat up, and she felt his curiosity uncurling in the air.

‘No,’ the Mayor said at last. ‘Not my cup of tea at all.’

He came to his feet, screwing his eyes shut for a moment and swaying slightly, rubbing a hand wearily over the back of his neck.

‘Ah, that’s the trouble with public life,’ he said. ‘Always some malcontent ready to shoot his mouth off.’

‘Something here you should be telling us, George?’ the Bishop said.

22

Stepmother

THE BISHOP’S GAZE swivelled back to Merrily, and in it was incomprehension… and suspicion.

Well, she could understand it. The hour-long journey here had been filled with an explanation of her bruised eye and everything that had led up to it: Jemmie’s sordid e-mails, Mumford and Robbie’s computer and the history books and Jason Mebus. Not reaching the Departure Lounge until they were leaving the bypass at the Sheet Lane entrance into town, with the moist blue night dropping over Ludlow like the lid on a jewel box.

And so not quite getting around to Belladonna.

‘I’ve got nothing to hide about this,’ George Lackland said. ‘Nobody could possibly expect me to like the woman.’

He was standing up now, behind his cream leather chair, both hands gripping its wings. One of the bulbs in the chandelier had blown and was hanging there like a bad tooth, making the room seem just slightly tawdry.

‘When the boy came home with this girl, Susannah, she was everything you’d want for your son – respectable, steady, nicely spoken. And a solicitor, too, of course. Always useful to have a solicitor in the family, especially with a firm like Smith, Sebald and Partners.’

Merrily glanced at Bernie, both eyebrows raised to convey that she had no idea what the hell the Mayor was talking about.

‘Sorry, George,’ Bernie said, ‘I’m a bit out of touch – which boy is this, Douglas, or, ah…?’

‘Stephen, the younger one. The one who went to university. Like Nancy said, when you think of the girls he might have brought home from that place…’

‘He’s, ah, engaged, is he?’

‘To this girl from Smith, Sebald, as I say. Very well established firm, as you know – offices in Ludlow, Bridgenorth and Church Stretton. She’ll be a partner one day, Bernard, no question of that.’

‘I’m sorry, George – who exactly are we talking about?’

‘Susannah,’ the Mayor said. ‘Susannah Pepper.’

‘Ah,’ Merrily said.

Of course.

Bloody hell.

‘Your… future daughter-in-law… her father would be a record producer called Saul Pepper?’

The Mayor looked at her with keen interest. ‘That’s quite correct, Mrs Watkins. But how could you—?’

‘I have a friend in the music business. I gather Saul Pepper lives and works in America now, since the break-up of his marriage to… Mrs Pepper.’ She turned to Bernie. ‘Who lives in the renovated farmhouse at the bottom of The Linney – and was seen in the castle with…?’

The Mayor’s hands tightened on the chair wings, and then he turned away. Merrily could tell that getting the story out of him was going to be like dredging a pond – a lot of discoloured water and sludge, and the bottom never quite exposed.

But enough had now been clarified – particularly the warning-off of Andy Mumford – to make the exercise well worthwhile, no matter how long it took.

‘They were engaged before you met her mother, then,’ Merrily said.

George spun round. ‘Stepmother!’

‘Of course.’

‘But yes, you put your finger on it there all right, Mrs Watkins, we had not met her before the engagement.’

‘George, do excuse me,’ Bernie said, ‘but my own knowledge of the, ah, the stepmother is somewhat scant.’

‘Aye, and if my knowledge was as scant as yours, Bernard,’ George said, ‘I’d count myself a happy man.’

Of course, when Susannah Pepper had told them her stepmother was coming to stay, George hadn’t known who this woman was, let alone why she was considered notorious. He knew that Sue’s mother had been deserted by her father for the woman, whom he’d proceeded to marry. It hadn’t lasted, however, and he’d moved to America, starting a new family over there.

Well out of it, as George now realized, although the divorce had been amicable.

‘She has… considerable assets, Bernard. Could probably buy my business twice over. Susannah’s her solicitor and financial adviser. And nursemaid, now. And, by God, she needs one. Day and night. Particularly at night.’

Merrily said nothing. Let this come out in its own way.

‘Whenever they needed to discuss her financial affairs, Susannah used to travel to her stepmother’s home,’ the Mayor said, ‘wherever it happened to be at the time. She moved around a lot, London one year, Paris or Rome the next. And then… she came to Ludlow.’

Well, that first visit of the stepmother… George didn’t think much of it. Not an event he was ever going to keep gilt-framed in the formal gallery of his memory. And nothing particularly amiss at first. They weren’t contemporaries, George and Bell, not by ten or more years, yet for that first meeting she’d been dressed decently and conservatively, if a little eccentrically, in an Edwardian-type summer dress, her blonde hair neatly styled, Nancy had noted. Quite girlish, rather attractive.

And clearly besotted with the town, from the start.

George should have spotted the danger signs: the woman tripping and gliding around the Buttercross, this delighted smile on her face, upturned to the sun. And then breaking into almost a dance. He was quite gratified, at first, in his proprietorial way. Not having any idea then that she was already planning to stay…

… For good.

George looked at the Bishop. ‘Do you know that she tried to get one of the flats at Castle House?’

‘Was she eligible?’ Bernie turned to Merrily. ‘We mentioned this earlier – there was a large house built onto the outer walls in, I think, the nineteenth century. Later turned into council flats, would you believe? Not quite sure what the situation is at present.’

‘There was a couple living there, halfway through a forty-five-year lease,’ George said, ‘and she tried to take it over. She was besotted with the idea of living inside the castle. I think she thought if she could get that apartment she’d soon have the whole house – maybe feel like she owned the castle, who can say?’

‘What happened, George?’

‘Oh, the Powis estate managed to stop it. They have other plans for Castle House. But she has money, my God, she has. The people she tried to bribe! Fortunately, the Earl of Powis is a man of strong Christian principles and I reckon he saw the danger. Eventually, she settled on The Weir House – so called. I don’t know what she gave for it, but the people who rebuilt it seemed to have been well satisfied. As for Bell— Hold on a minute, would you?’

George went over to a long mahogany sideboard, opened a drawer, took out a slim box file, brought it back and emptied out the contents in front of Merrily, as if he was putting all his cards on the table.

‘This is one from the South Shropshire Journal.’

He spread out a photocopy of a press cutting.

Ludlow is my heaven,

says rock diva Bell.

* * *

In the colour photo, Belladonna sat on the steps of the Buttercross in a filmy cream dress, arms folded. She looked graceful and calm and strangely demure.

‘She’ll only ever speak to the local papers,’ George said. ‘Reckons this town’s her whole world now, and nothing outside it matters. Oh, they all had a go, when she first moved here – national papers, television. None of them got close.’

‘Don’t suppose they tried too hard,’ Merrily said. ‘She isn’t as famous as she used to be.’

‘If they all knew what I knew, Mrs Watkins,’ George said, ‘she’d be in every paper there is. That’s the top and bottom of it.’

‘And are you ever going to tell us, George?’ The Bishop sat cradling his brandy balloon, with its last quarter-inch of spirit. ‘Merrily’s not exactly one of the Little Sisters of the Assumption. She’s been around, you know.’

‘Thanks very much, Bernie.’

‘George knows what I mean.’

‘What’s ironic,’ George said, ‘is that she’s become a bit of a heroine to many people here – ’specially the new folk, the well-off folk. Ever a bit of timely cash needed to conserve some historic building, she’s in there with her chequebook. Made plans, apparently, for her own trust fund, to protect the old places. And then there was the housing business. You remember the development plan for the Weircroft fields, Bernard?’

The Bishop shook his head. ‘After I left here, I imagine.’

‘Owner of a couple of rough fields not far from The Weir House – bit of a wide boy, you ask me, had the look of a gypsy – he was trying to get planning permission to put houses on them. And there was a fifty-fifty chance he’d get it, too, eventually.’

‘Down by the river?’ the Bishop said. ‘Surely not!’

‘Under the castle walls, near enough. Council opposed it, and so did all the residents nearby, naturally. But the way this government is on housing now – build more and more, ignore the green belts – chances are he’d have won on appeal, especially as he was promising more than the usual quota of low-cost homes which are hard to get in Ludlow now. Then she made him an offer for the land.’

‘Did she indeed?’

‘And a very meaningful offer it was, too, but he had to decide now. Now or never. Well, he couldn’t afford to risk it, and so she bought the ground and declared it preserved. And now none of her neighbours will have a word said against her, because, if she moves, that ground’s gonner be up for grabs again. So all the folk in that vicinity, from Upper Linney to Stanton Lacy, turns a blind eye and a deaf ear.’

‘To what, George?’

‘To a good deal more than rumour, but I’ve never been one for gossip, Bernard, you know that.’

‘Erm…’ Merrily thought that one day she might meet someone who actually admitted to relishing tittle-tattle. ‘She walks the streets, right? At night. With a candle, sometimes.’

George Lackland folded his arms and sucked in his lips.

‘Like a ghost,’ Merrily said.

George dropped his arms. ‘Like a whore.’

‘Oh, really, George,’ the Bishop said.

‘You were here long enough, Bernard. You know what’s what. The prostitutes in this town… they knows their place. And you will agree that place is not, for instance, St Leonard’s graveyard.’

‘Oh, come now—’

‘We manage to keep it all under wraps one way or another. The police – well, if she’s broken the law, it’s not much compared with what else they have to handle nowadays. Can a woman be done for indecent exposure? Minor theft?’

‘I’m sorry,’ Merrily said. ‘What—?’

‘She stole a prayer book from St Laurence’s. Maybe other things, too, but someone saw her put the prayer book in her bag and walk out. And there was more, but we couldn’t tell David Cook, with the state of his health.’

‘More of what, in particular?’

‘We didn’t exactly hold on to the evidence.’

Merrily waited. Bernie Dunmore took a precautionary sip of brandy.

‘What she left in the church’ – George spoke tightly, as if his throat was closing up – ‘back of one of the misericords. Well, you don’t keep… articles like that.’

‘Perhaps I’m somewhat naive,’ the Bishop said.

‘Corey House in Broad Street, Bernard? The decorators?’

‘Architectural Interior Designers and Restorers, I believe they call themselves now.’

‘Decorators,’ George said. ‘The son, Callum, he went to finish off a wall for her at The Weir House. Had some very peculiar requests made of him. His father’s on the town council, and he had a word with me. They’re newcomers, but they’re a decent family. Thought I should know.’

‘What were the requests?’ Merrily asked. But George shook his head in a shuddery kind of way.

‘And there’s the parties. The young people. The singing.’

‘What kind of singing?’

‘I only use that word out of politeness,’ George said. ‘Sounds like a tribe of tom-cats.’

‘You’ve heard it?’

‘Just the once. I was advised to walk down The Linney and have a listen. There was something resembling a song, but I couldn’t distinguish the words. I think it was her and some other people.’

‘Possibly the ones who gathered under the Hanging Tower after the girl’s death?’

‘Aye. The neighbours… they look the other way. Some of the local boys are less tolerant, ’specially when they come out the pubs.’

‘Was it… one of these local boys who was stabbed that time?’ Merrily asked.

George took a long breath, said nothing.

‘But nobody was charged, right? Perhaps somebody was persuaded not to make a complaint?’

‘Probably wasn’t serious,’ George said quietly.

‘As a leading member of the Police Authority,’ Merrily said, ‘I suppose it’s a bit difficult for you.’

The Mayor’s eyes flared with anger, like coals far back in an old kitchen range. Merrily came back quickly, before he could clam up again.

‘Did you know that Mrs Pepper had been seen with Robbie Walsh not long before he died?’

‘Well, of course I knew. She was seen all over the town with him – in the church, the path by the yews as leads down to the back entrance of the Bull, the old alleyways…’

‘Do you know what brought them together?’

‘No. But then, I’ve not had what you’d call lengthy conversations with her. Wisest not to.’

‘Do you have any idea at all why she does… the things she does?’

George didn’t reply. He began scratching at the back of his hand as if he’d been stung.

‘You’ve evidently been covering up for her, George,’ Bernie said. ‘For quite some time, it sounds like. For, ah, Susannah’s sake. And Stephen’s, naturally.’

The Mayor went to the French windows and pulled a cord to draw the velvet curtains. Stood with his back to the dusty pink folds, as if he was keeping something out.

‘And the good of the town, of course,’ Bernie said slyly.

‘She’s a sick woman, she’s…’ George Lackland reached up and pulled the curtains together at the top, where one had slipped off its glider, and Merrily thought she heard him say ‘evil’ but couldn’t be sure. He turned around. ‘Pressure of wondering what she’s gonner do next is getting to me a bit, have to say that. Top and bottom of it is, I wish she’d never come, and I wish she was gone.’

‘I might be slightly off course here,’ the Bishop said, ‘but it seems to me that all your problems might conceivably be part of the same one. Do you think?’

George Lackland didn’t reply.

‘And you can’t involve the council, George, and you can’t involve the police. Therefore, I suppose that’s why we’re here.’

‘Maybe I just wanted to talk to somebody who knew the town and could see the picture,’ the Mayor said. ‘Even if they thought there wasn’t anything they could do. At least they’d understand a few things.’

‘Some things are not easily understood.’

‘Likely I used the wrong word. I’m not an educated man, as you know. But there’s areas of… areas of experience where education don’t help that much.’

The curtains were swaying a little in a draught from somewhere. George Lackland watched them with a faint smile.

‘I remember a young chap thought he was up for a bit of easy money – just spend a couple of hours on his own in the Hanging Tower.’

‘Oh now, George, that was a long, long time—’

‘Never seen a man more scared, from that day to this. Comes running across the old inner bailey, stumbling and tripping – didn’t think his pals could see him, and they didn’t like to rub it in at the time.’

‘What?’

‘Didn’t want you trying to escape, Bernard, so we took a few bottles of pale ale into the old Magdalene Chapel and kept very quiet. Sobering, though, in the end. We all thought you were faking it, at first.’

Merrily smiled. The Bishop saw her and scowled.

‘Bastards.’ He finished his brandy. ‘All right, George, suppose someone was to look into it. All of it. Discreetly. Someone sympathetic but, ah… knowledgeable in all the necessary areas. And, of course… utterly reliable.’

‘Then I would be most grateful to that person,’ George Lackland said, ‘and provide what assistance I could.’

Down by the fake logs, Merrily froze.

23

Duality

THE ROAD TO Hereford was due south, more than twenty moon-washed miles. For the first three or four, neither of them said a word. Merrily’s black eye was pulsing. Her new sunglasses lay on the dash. Somewhere behind its facia, the old Volvo was ticking like a time bomb.

Eventually, the Bishop coughed.

‘Mother-in-law from hell, eh? Well… stepmother-in-law.’

Merrily glanced to her left: moonlight bathing the Bishop’s brow. At the Little Chef at Wooferton, the lights had gone out.

‘What have you done, Bernie?’

‘I think the word “evil” passed old George’s lips at one point, but I’m afraid he had his back to me at the time.’

‘And that justifies it, does it?’

‘We have nothing to justify, Merrily.’

‘Not yet.’

‘It’s all quite legitimate.’

‘So you’ll send an official memo to the Deliverance Panel first thing in the morning, saying you’re personally authorizing me to investigate a cluster of deaths and their possible connection with a woman who’s causing considerable embarrassment to the Mayor of Ludlow.’

‘We can deal with that,’ the Bishop said. ‘And surely… you want to, don’t you?’

‘I think I’d want to know why I’m doing whatever I’m supposed to be doing. I mean, let’s establish, first of all, what your long-time friend the Mayor is after. For instance, when he was close to advocating exorcism, which woman do you think he was talking about, the dead one or…?’

That duality again. It had been there from the start: Why did God let her take him? Why did God let that woman take our boy?

‘Look, I had no idea,’ the Bishop said. ‘I didn’t know there was any connection between George and this woman. Until that chap who makes calendars brought her up, I’d never even heard of her.’

‘Because bloody George is using his position to hush it all up! He’s already had Andy Mumford warned off. Plus, a guy who was stabbed in the street has probably been given a bung to keep quiet about it.’

‘You don’t know that—’

‘Ha! I mean, sure, I can see the Mayor’s problem – she’s landed like an alien being from a world he can’t even comprehend – but there’s no way I want to appear to be working on behalf of someone who works the system like good old George.’

‘Merrily, he hadn’t even mentioned Mrs Pepper. It was you who introduced the subject.’

‘You think? You know what, Bernie? I think he was talking about her all along. From the beginning. I think she’s what’s causing unrest among the older God-fearing folk of Ludlow, far more than the possible influence of a silly little girl who got taken for a ride in the twelfth century. On which basis, by the way, I’m buggered if I’m going to even consider exorcizing the Hanging—’

‘Merrily!’

‘Sorry. Didn’t get much sleep last night. Got elbowed in the eye by a psychotic teenager.’

‘How come you know so much about this Mrs Pepper?’

‘Lol. And Jane on the Internet. It doesn’t take very long to find out about anything any more. Also, I saw her, when I was on the river bank with Mumford and you were in the pub with his dad. I recognized her… realized this was who Osman meant.’

‘Well, I don’t know anything about her, as I said, but I do know that George Lackland, while he may work the system, is a decent man who thinks his beloved town is being contaminated, if only by having its moral tone lowered. Is he exaggerating this? I don’t know.’

‘Personally, I just can’t see a wealthy middle-aged woman going in for wholesale alfresco sex in a town she regards as heaven. And I don’t want to get involved—’

She braked, catching a movement on the grass verge: badger about to scuttle across the road.

‘—get involved with a witch-hunt.’

‘Witch-hunt.’ The Bishop leaned his head back over the passenger seat, from which the headrest was long gone. ‘How simple things were in those days. The mob would have dragged her in front of some judge who thought he was God, and then taken her out and hanged her at Gallows Bank.’ He turned his head towards Merrily. ‘Still there, you know. Still this patch of open space, in the midst of modern housing. You can see where the actual gibbet stood, so that executions would be visible all over town. Ludlow, you see, looks after its past.’

‘Unlike Hereford?’

‘We try. Unfortunately, I think our old execution site is underneath Plascarreg.’

‘Really?’

‘Don’t you dare make anything of that.’

Merrily smiled.

‘And try not to hang George. He’s an old-fashioned civic leader. Middle Ages, he’d have been the sheriff. When they eventually come to lay him out, they’ll find the imprints of chain links on his chest.’

Of course, he’d know exactly how George felt because it was how he felt. If Ludlow was tainted, George was tainted, and if Bernie let George down he would probably feel he’d forfeited his right to come back and live out his sunset years in the benign shadow of the Buttercross.

‘Of course, the woman’s obviously mad,’ he said. ‘Too many chemicals in years gone by, one assumes.’

‘You think we should inform the Diocesan Director of Psychiatry?’

She felt him staring at her, working this out. He shifted, something clicking ominously under his seat.

‘Saltash.’

‘You read the Mail, then.’

He grunted. ‘It was in The Times, too, actually. Yes, that man did rather exaggerate his role, didn’t he?’

‘Glad you think so.’

‘Heavens, Merrily, last thing we want is worried people avoiding Deliverance for fear of being considered eligible for assessment under the Mental Health Act.’

‘But under our new, agreed working practices, I’m supposed to report – for instance – what we’ve just been told, for consideration by the panel before any action is taken. Like I said earlier, I shouldn’t even have come tonight without clearing it with them.’

‘It’s preposterous, Merrily.’

‘It’s what we agreed.’

‘What they agreed, you mean.’

In theory he could, as Bishop, overrule any of it. In practice, it would be impossible without dispensing with the panel and making lifetime enemies of Siân and Saltash, and the Dean who had brokered the deal. She left all this unsaid, but it was drifting between them as Leominster appeared over to the right, an island of lights.

The Bishop sighed.

‘Merrily, let’s not fool ourselves. Look at me: overweight, over sixty and not up to much in the pulpit. I’ve never been under any illusions. I’m a caretaker here and I suspect my time’s already running out.’

‘Come on, Bernie, people like you.’

‘Like? What’s that got to do with it? There are those who could have me quietly retired in no time at all, if they chose to whisper in the right ears. And I rather suspect Ms Callaghan-Clarke’s one of the potential whisperers.’

‘You think Siân wants you out?’

‘I don’t know what I think. Hereford’s not the most exalted of dioceses, and nicely out on a limb. Good place for a woman to have a chance at the helm, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Siân Callaghan-Clarke?’ Was that the wheel shaking, or her hands? ‘Bishop of Hereford?’

‘I’m simply saying it’s a possibility that’s occurred to me, that’s all. May be years off, yet. Then again…’

‘Christ,’ Merrily said.

‘And there’s… something else. I’m not supposed to tell you this yet, but… the Archdeacon came to see me this afternoon. You know Jeff Kimball’s moving to St John’s at Worcester, leaving a major vacancy at Dilwyn?’

‘I didn’t.’

‘Well, he is. And with Archie Menzies retiring in the autumn, your area of north Herefordshire’s going to be stretched. Inevitably, the Archdeacon’s looking at the possibility of a shake-up – introduction of a collaborative ministry in that area: rector, team vicar, et cetera. And, as all this would be happening very close to the Ledwardine parish boundary, it’s been suggested that Ledwardine should be included in the review.’

‘Oh.’

Her hands slackened on the wheel. She could see where this was going. Only a matter of time.

‘And, of course, someone pointed out that you had only one parish,’ the Bishop said.

‘Inevitably.’

‘Something of a rarity these days, you will admit.’

‘Who, er… pointed that out?’

‘No idea, but I expect you could make a solid guess. My opinion, as I’ve frequently stated, is that, with an expanding Deliverance department to run, one parish is quite ample, and I do know you’re working seven days most weeks. But when I pointed this out to the Archdeacon, he said it had been suggested to him that perhaps Deliverance was something that, ah, expanded according to the time and the manpower – or, indeed, womanpower – available.’

‘The Archdeacon’s been got at.’

‘So it would seem.’

‘Someone wants me to have a bunch of extra parishes. Thus leaving very little time for Deliverance work.’

‘Draw your own conclusions. The thinking, I would guess, is that Deliverance would itself then become something of a team-ministry.’

‘And the post of Diocesan Exorcist – under whatever title?’

‘Would disappear.’

‘Well, I suppose that’s neither here nor there.’ Merrily kept her eyes on the road. ‘Except that the end result would probably be that Deliverance itself – as a specialist field – would eventually also disappear.’

‘I can see that happening, yes,’ the Bishop said. ‘It’s a political thing, isn’t it?’

They hit the Leominster bypass, picking up speed and extra rattle. The Bishop seemed tired, almost defeated. Merrily wondered how close he was to pre-empting attempts to remove him while a suitable property in Ludlow was still within his price range.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want to tell you tonight.’

‘I’m glad you did.’

‘I may be misinterpreting it.’

‘I don’t think you are. It explains a lot. Well…’

‘Quite.’

‘If I fight it, it’s going to look like pure self-interest, extreme selfishness – some ministers struggling to support seven parishes, while I’m poncing around with a flask of holy water.’

‘There’s so much resentment in the Church now. I’ll hold out against it, of course…’

‘You can’t. I wouldn’t expect you to. Anyway… let’s see what happens. Meanwhile, there’s the Ludlow situation to sort out.’

‘Look,’ he said, ‘if you think you should take it to the Deliverance Panel, do it. If they say leave it alone, leave it alone.’

The parish church of St Mary, Hope-under-Dinmore, rose up on the left, separated from its parish by the fast road. Our Lady of the Bypass. Merrily slowed; this stretch had a bad record for deaths.

‘Stuff them,’ Merrily said. ‘I’ll do it. But if anything rebounds on George I won’t try to catch it first, OK?’

‘Of course not. Merrily, look, I’ve been thinking about this whole situation. Why don’t you take a week or ten days off from the parish – get Dennis Beckett in as locum. Then you can look into the situation and you won’t be responsible to anybody, will you? You won’t be there. You’ll be working… what’s the word?… not plain clothes?’

‘Undercover?’

‘That’s it. Afterwards, you produce a report for me, and I inform anyone who complains that this seemed to me to be the best way of dealing with a delicate and rather nebulous situation.’

‘Bernie, have you really thought this through?’

‘And it’s not a witch-hunt, Merrily, it’s pastoral care. It’s very clear that this woman needs help. Women don’t behave in this way because they’re happy and fulfilled. They don’t leave used sanitary towels down the back of a fifteenth-century misericord, they—’

She turned to him. ‘I don’t remember him telling us that.’

‘He didn’t. He got halfway and became embarrassed. The incidents – it happened three times in successive, ah, months – were mentioned as a whimsical footnote in a report on church maintenance I was obliged to read.’

We didn’t exactly hold on to the evidence.

‘That’s weird, Bernie.’ She followed a pale grey ribbon of road up the long hill towards Hereford. ‘Not to say faintly ridiculous.’

‘Play it by ear. Follow your conscience.’ The Bishop loosened his seat belt, settled back with his hands folded on his stomach. ‘Do have a cigarette, Merrily, if you want.’

‘You’re a true man of God, Bernie,’ Merrily said.

Merrily didn’t have the cigarette until she’d dropped Bernie Dunmore at the Bishop’s Palace, behind Hereford Cathedral. It was about nine-thirty p.m., a few people about. She parked for a few minutes on the corner of Broad Street and King Street, opposite the cathedral green, took the Silk Cut from her bag and thought about Belladonna and Marion de la Bruyère.

About ghosts.

In the 1930s, a cowled, monkish figure had been repeatedly seen in the cathedral close. Seen initially by policemen. The whole town had been hugely excited, apparently. Excited rather than frightened. As many as two hundred people would gather here on the green, night after night, in the hope of spotting the ghost. Like a football crowd, someone had observed at the time.

Merrily smoked and gazed out at the green and the Cathedral and the soapy spring moonlight splashing through the trees, where all those people had stood in anticipation of… a multiple psychological projection, a shared hallucination on a grand scale?

The existence of ghosts, the nature of ghosts. At least half of the raison d’être of Deliverance.

She rang Jane to say she was on her way home. The kid sounded tired.

‘I’ll probably have an early night. Take it nobody beat you up or anything?’

‘Not so’s you’d notice. Look, I’m sorry I had to go out again.’

‘Save it for Lol. He’s off to Bristol tomorrow.’

‘Oh my God, I forgot!’

‘You always forget.’

‘I’d better go round.’

‘Stay the night, I’ll be OK.’

‘I’ll be back by midnight,’ Merrily said.

‘Yeah,’ Jane said morosely. ‘I expect you will.’

* * *

She parked the car at the vicarage and let herself in. A kitchen lamp had been left on, but there was no sign of Jane. She gave Ethel a foil pack of Felix and then, out of habit, went quietly up to the attic apartment, just to make sure.

‘Er… night-night, Mum,’ Jane said from the other side of the door.

Merrily smiled. Forgiven. Kind of.

She managed to catch the Eight till Late just before it closed, picked up some cigs and a bottle of white wine, carrying the bottle openly down Church Street. The village was deserted, but there were a lot of windows on either side. It was the darkened ones you had to worry about – not all of them were holiday homes.

However, the darkened ones did not, tonight, include Lol’s.

He’d seen her coming. He was standing in his doorway.

‘You’ve had the electricity reconnected!’

‘No going back now,’ Lol said.

He still seemed bewildered at finding himself a man of property. The hall behind him was lit by a low-wattage bulb dangling over the newel post where Lucy Devenish used to hang her poncho.

Merrily felt a rush of emotion.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Definitely no going back.’

In full view of all the darkened windows in Church Street, she stepped up to the doorway and kissed him on the mouth. Saw his eyes widen close to hers as he manoeuvred her inside, throwing the door shut behind them.

‘What have you done?’

Oh God, her glasses! They were still in the car.

‘I…’ She swallowed. ‘Would you believe it if I said I’d walked into a lamp-post?’

‘No.’

‘Thought not.’ She put the bottle on the floor, felt at her dog collar. ‘Look, I’m sorry I’m still in the kit. It’s coming off tonight, for… for at least a week. I’ve been told to get a locum in, so I can be a… an ordinary person.’ She shook her head. ‘I’m probably demob happy, Lol, that’s what it is.’

A lock of hair brushed her bruised eye like a bird’s wing. She pushed it aside with a hand and winced.

‘Tell me what happened,’ Lol said.

She looked up the stairs and imagined Lucy Devenish standing at the top, watching them with a weary disappointment, her poncho drooping. And then caught a sudden mental image of Belladonna down near Ludford Bridge, wrapped in her floor-length cape, electric-blue light on her beautiful, predatory face.

Thought about Marion de la Bruyère – a young girl who had reacted to betrayal in the manner of the times, now a ghost more than eight centuries old – and what the Mayor of Ludlow might be asking.

Probably her last task as a Deliverance minister.

And it wasn’t even official.

‘Actually,’ she said, ‘to be honest, I’m not so much demob happy as demob… very pissed-off.’

Could have done a deal with Bernie, Merrily told God later. I could have said save my ministry, get those two bastards off my back, and I’ll help you in Ludlow. That was the obvious thing, wasn’t it?

But, like, playing politics – that’s not what the Church is supposed to be about, is it? Yeah, yeah, the Church has been deep into politics from the start, but that didn’t make it right. Or did it? I mean, it survived, didn’t it? Would it still have survived if there hadn’t been political popes, reformation, renewal and… and…

I don’t want it to end. That’s what I’m trying to say. Deliverance. I don’t want it to be over.

Thought I was starting to get it… to get some of it right. Maybe helping people. Sometimes. OK, I was too late to help some people, like Roddy Lodge, and too blind to help others – Layla Riddock? But I had a strong feeling You were using me to give Nat and Jeremy a chance at Stanner last winter. That was… I mean sometimes it’s been amazing.

And, sure, I’ve felt desperate because it didn’t seem to be working, or I wasn’t getting it right. And guilty when it was fulfilling, when it felt like I was wielding light… guilty because I only had one parish and didn’t have to go on the road on Sundays and learn how to preach properly.

Have I been guilty of pride? Are there ministers in this diocese – there surely are – who could do this so much better than me? Did YOU send Siân and Saltash? Am I stupid and naive and blind? Is it Your will that I give this up, let it be taken from me, stop meddling in the affairs of the dead, run five, six, seven parishes instead, watch it all falling away for all of us…?

I’m sorry. I don’t know. I don’t know. Do I fight this or lie down? Which is worse, cowardice or pride?

And do You ever listen any more?

Merrily opened her eyes, standing by the window, moonlight sugaring the trees on Cole Hill, no easy answers written in the sky.

PART THREE

Bell

To 20th-century eyes such colossal expenditure on unproductive religious ritual may seem strange, but in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries most people were in no doubt that what kept mankind from both spiritual perdition and temporal catastrophe was an incessant flow of prayers to God from the priesthood and from religious orders. It was more vital expenditure than commercial investment or relief of poverty.

Michael Faraday, Ludlow, 1085–1660 (1991)

Ludlow had become the elite leisure centre of the middle marches in the 18th century and the castle was the focus of this burgeoning tourist industry… John Byng thought it was ‘one of the best towns for a genteel family of small fortune to retire to… Ludlow was thus one of the first tourist “honey pots” in England.’

David Whitehead – ‘Symbolism and Assimilation’, chapter in Ludlow Castle, Its History and Buildings, ed. Ron Shoesmith and Andy Johnson (2000)

24

Ancient Incense

MERRILY FELT VERY small and exposed.

She was wearing jeans and a green fleece with a torn pocket. She had a canvas shoulder bag with her cigarettes inside and her phone. Around her neck was a chain with a tiny gold cross on it that was hidden by the neck of her grey T-shirt.

Demob-disorientated in an old town like a pop-up book, coming at her from all angles in wedges of carrot-coloured antique brick and twisted timbers and thrusting gables.

Cars and trucks laboured up Corve Street and down Old Street, or were funnelled, squealing like pigs, into the Bull Ring and King Street which must have been designed for donkey carts. And the sun slithered overhead like a soft-boiled egg trailing clouds of bloodied membrane. Or that was how it looked, through the rose-tinted glasses.

And she felt very small, especially next to Jon Scole of Ghostours.

‘Drinks,’ he said. ‘Right. OK… OK… I’ve got to think about this. Which one of these tarted-up piss-parlours threw me out last?’

Ethereal he wasn’t. He wore a motorbike jacket with extraneous chains. He seemed about seven feet tall, and he had long hair and a beard and a Manchester accent that could split logs. He winked at Merrily, tossed back his blond ringlets.

‘Only kidding, Mary. They love me, really. I bring ’em customers they’d never see as a rule: old ladies who want coffee, or a bitter lemon if they’re feeling daring – soft drinks and beverages, that’s where the real money is. ’Sides, you need a clear head for ghosts, I should know. OK, the Feathers it is, then. Top place. You did say the Feathers, didn’t you? They always do.’

‘I didn’t say a word,’ Merrily said.

‘Hey, you thought it, though? Nobody can resist going in the Feathers at least once. Hang on…’ He lifted a finger as if he was testing the wind direction. ‘Now. Right. Feathers Hotel… OK! Now, we don’t normally get to this until last ’cos it’s not what you’d call typical. As ghost stories go, it’s a bit off the wall, but still…’

He led her across the road, weaving through the traffic, drivers letting him through: Jon Scole looked like he could damage small cars. He stopped at the opposite kerb, gazing up at the ornate Jacobean fantasy that looked as if it had been sculpted out of Cadbury’s chocolate flakes and marzipan. The last time she’d seen the Feathers Hotel was on Robbie Walsh’s computer.

‘I mean, classic haunted inn, right? What would you reckon, Mary: a highwayman in a black mask? No… well, maybe, I dunno… but the most interesting phenomenon in this particular location is – get this – young girl in a miniskirt and a see-through blouse.’

‘Really?’

‘Fact. Usual time, about now – no, later, around noon. Comes sashaying straight across where we just come… right through cars… fades through the bloody cars and out the other side… up onto this very pavement, and then – poof! Vanishes! Seen, not once, but about a dozen times, back in the 1970s when I were still learning to walk. Go in there, luv, ask the staff. Come on, I’ll prove it to you.’

‘No… Jon… I’d rather not ask anyone. I don’t want to—’

‘Sorry!’ He put up his hands, as though the spectral girl had just glided out of the Telecom van parked up on the kerb with its hazard warning lights on. ‘Got you. You don’t wanna make a thing of it. I’m with you. Let’s just go in, grab a drink.’

At a round table in the Comus Bar of the Feathers, she made like the old ladies and asked for tea. Jon Scole grinned at her through his curly copper-wire beard.

‘Vicars and tea, eh? Sorry! Just can’t get over you being a… you look so little and…’ He puffed his lips out. ‘Sorry, I’m a bit direct, me.’

‘No, that’s— It’s always nice to know where you are with people. Makes quite a change. But if you could just, like’ – Merrily patted the air – ‘reduce the volume?’

‘Right, OK.’ He brought down his boom to a loud whisper. ‘And that’s the last time I’ll mention religion in public, swear to God. Don’t worry about the folk you get in here, though – unless it’s Rotary day, it’s guaranteed to be mostly tourists.’

‘Why’s it called the Comus Bar?’

‘Milton’s play, Comus – first performance 1634 at Ludlow Castle. Little Robbie Walsh told me that, God rest his soul. Everywhere you go, this town, you’re wading through ’ist’ry. Come in off the street, you got to scrape it off your shoes like dogshit.’

He took off his motorbike jacket, hung it over the back of his chair. Underneath, he wore a leather waistcoat. He pulled it straight.

‘Used to wear a watch and chain, then word reached me Councillor Lackland thought I were taking the piss. Didn’t want to offend dear old George. He could make things very difficult for me, could George – all the official buildings I need to take people through. And the shops – George runs the Chamber of Trade. He could wipe me out in a month, no shit.’ A gap appeared at the bar; Jon Scole stood up. ‘Pot of tea, please, Ruth, and a pint of the good stuff.’ He sat down. ‘So, Mary… you want to meet Bell, eh? Tough one, that. Not impossible, but certainly tough.’

It was George Lackland who’d set this up.

The Bishop had talked to George on the phone from the Deliverance office early this morning, setting the ball rolling. Perhaps whatever she turned up could be filtered through Sophie during office hours, Bernie said. Best if they were not seen to be collaborating, although she was welcome to ring him at home at night. Merrily didn’t imagine it would make much difference now. There were times when you felt it was all out of your hands, a Will of God situation. She’d never actively sought out the deliverance role, so if it was taken away… what right did she have to feel furious, embittered, isolated, stabbed in the back?

‘You all right, Mary?’ Jon Scole said.

‘Yes… sorry…’

‘You looked like you suddenly wanted to kill somebody.’

‘No, it was just…’ She felt the blush. ‘Had a late night.’

This morning, she’d sat in the office and listened to Bernie giving George Lackland the spiel, Important Man to Important Man: George, we have to work this out between us, you and I, and I think our priority is essentially the same – that is, preserving the spirit of the finest, most precious little town in the country. But if we’re tampering with heritage, George, we have to tread softly. I’ll be frank, what I’ve said to Merrily is this: go into Ludlow, talk to people, take the spiritual temperature, come back to me and we’ll make some sort of decision. Sooner rather than later, I promise.

Not spelling anything out. Never once mentioning Belladonna.

And then George had been talking for a while and Bernie had been nodding and glancing at Merrily and giving her small, confidential smiles, finally telling George that of course he understood. We decoded your messages, old friend. We’ll keep your confidence, and you’ll keep ours?

The parish details had all been arranged surprisingly easily. Merrily and Sophie had fixed up for Dennis Beckett, retired minister, go-anywhere locum, to take on the Ledwardine church services for the next two weekends and handle any routine parish business that came up. Merrily would still be at home at nights, but she’d leave the answering machine on the whole time, directing any calls on urgent parish business across the county to Dennis. She’d tell Uncle Ted, senior churchwarden, tonight. He wouldn’t be happy, having to work with Dennis at such short notice, but when had Uncle Ted ever been happy since she’d taken on Deliverance?

As for Siân Callaghan-Clarke and the Panel, Sophie had already dealt with that. Sophie accepted that part of her role was laundering clergy lies; she’d told Siân that Merrily’s favourite aunt – not her mother, who could easily be traced – had fractured a hip and, as Merrily had holidays owing… Where was this? Sophie wasn’t entirely sure, but somewhere not too far away, as Merrily would be coming home some nights, when another relative took over – Sophie making it complicated enough to forestall questions.

Then George Lackland himself had phoned Merrily, telling her he’d arranged for her to meet Mr Jonathan Scole. A volatile young man, but he could give her information that it wouldn’t be right for George himself to come out with. And, because of what Jonathan did, he’d spent some considerable time in the company of a certain person, George said.

Now, the only problem here is that I might have to tell him who you are and what you do. I have every reason to think he’ll keep it absolutely confidential. Every reason. My wife works a good deal in tourism and Jonathan’s business depends on a certain amount of goodwill, if you understand me. No, he’s a good lad, really, he’s kept us well informed about matters that might have proved embarrassing. Top and bottom of it is, I think he’ll be quite thrilled to work with someone like you… Now then, is that all right for you?

Well…

You tell him what you want him to know and what he’s to keep to himself, and you tell him he’s got me to answer to if he don’t. Not that that’ll be necessary.

The mood swings of last night had no longer been in evidence. George Lackland had a town to run, and it had been like talking to some avuncular Mafia don whose ethos had long since transcended all moral values.

‘So I’m in your hands.’ Jon Scole sucked the top off his beer. ‘Whatever you want. And I might seem a bit of a loud-mouthed bastard, but I can promise you, Mary’ – Jon tapped his nose, froth on his beard – ‘nothing gets out.’

Mary? Well, why not? He knew she was a vicar with the diocese. But he didn’t know her surname, and now he’d got her first name wrong. Perhaps even George Lackland had heard it as Mary.

She was working undercover. She would be Mary. Fine.

She’d met up with Jon Scole at his shop in Corve Street. The shop was called Lodelowe, a medieval spelling of the town’s name. It was a darkly atmospheric gift emporium, with lamps made from pottery models of town houses, misty framed photographs, paintings and books: books on the history of Ludlow and books about the supernatural.

Jon Scole understood from the Mayor that, unlike some people in the Church he’d had dealings with, Mrs Watkins wasn’t averse to discussing ghosts, which had seemed to be the clincher for him. They could talk about ghosts. Jon loved to talk about ghosts. And also about the strange ways of the exotic Belladonna – Bell Pepper.

‘Oh yeah, I get on with Bell… as far as anybody does. Bell loves ghosts. I mean, that’s it. Mystery solved. I could lead you along, make a big thing out of it, but that’s what it comes down to. That woman bloody loves ghosts. And you know what’s so funny about that – I mean considering all those spooky albums? You know the big joke? Bell can’t see ’em. She cannot see ghosts.’

‘That’s what she’s said to you?’

‘I tell you’ – Jon pointed down the Comus bar, which was unexpectedly modern, not at all rustic – ‘if the bint in the see-through whatsit drifted through here now, she’d carry on with her gin and tonic, tequila, whatever— Oh, listen, I never finished that story, did I? That was a strange one. A bloke investigated it, found this actual young girl who, every week, she used to visit her auntie, or her great-auntie – anyway, they were close – and when the auntie died suddenly and the girl moved away, she used to imagine herself going back along the same route, reliving it – a happy time. And they reckon that’s what people saw.’

‘A phantasm of the living?’ Huw Owen called them extras or walk-ons.

‘Blimey, you do know your way around my backyard,’ Jon said. ‘I tell you, Mary, this town’s heaving with ghosts. I can do well here, if they leave me alone.’

‘You’ve not been doing this long?’

‘Came here not long before Bell. Parents died – got killed in the car.’

‘I’m sorry. Was it—?’

‘Bit of a shock. Year or so ago now. They had a restaurant – well, more of an upmarket transport caff, to be honest, south Man. – Cheshire, they liked to say. I couldn’t face taking it over, so I flogged the lot to the bloody Little Chef – opportune, really – and took to the road, looking for something interesting.’

‘So, you own the shop?’

‘No, I’m renting – ridiculous bloody rent – but it’s still at the experimental stage. This bloke Roy Liddle, who did the ghost-walks before, it was more of a hobby for him. I’m afraid I’m a little bit more of a businessman, don’t want to invest all I’ve got in it if it’s going to flop, do I?’

‘The ghost-walks?’

‘Ties in with the shop: mysteries of old Ludlow. Not doing badly, but it’s early days yet – I only opened last Christmas, still feeling me way. Can’t afford to tread on too many toes at this stage. So when the Mayor sent for me…’

‘Sent for you?’

‘Well… asked if I’d drop into his furniture shop – it’s only fifty yards up the road. You should’ve heard him. He’d been asked to assist “senior clergy” investigating “certain incidents”. Absolutely confidential, Jonathan. Me trying to keep a straight face. What is that about?’

‘It’s about what you might call the spiritual spin-off from two very similar deaths at the castle.’

‘One an accident. Unless…’

‘Mmm?’

‘Unless you and George know better?’ Little smile there.

‘Did George indicate that?’

‘Well…’ Jon Scole thought for a moment. ‘I should tell you – if he hasn’t already – that there’s a certain issue on which old George and me swap confidences.’

‘Belladonna?’

Jon grinned. ‘Bane of his life. Lovely lady – undermining every bloody thing he thinks he stands for: moral decency, all this stuff. And he can’t do anything, ’cos very soon she’s gonna be at the very heart of his eminently respectable family. Respectable! He’s an old crook, like all bloody councillors. You ever know a councillor who was in it for the public good?’

‘But why would he share confidences with—? I’m sorry…’

‘A yob like me? Because I mix with the kind of people who come into contact with Bell. And even Bell herself, now and then. Better placed than anybody, me, to keep an eye on her. I mean, I can see his problem – it must be scary having a woman like that around.’

‘A woman like what?’

‘A woman with enough money never to have to give a shit for people like Councillor Lackland. A woman who’s fascinated by the mysteries of life and death, and is open to… experiments.’

‘What kind of—?’

Jon tapped his nose. ‘All in good time, Mary. Tell me about yourself.’

‘Well…’ She’d spent some time working out what she wanted to say and what it was best to conceal. ‘I work for the Diocese of Hereford…’

‘You’re a real, actual priest.’

‘I… yeah.’

He frowned. ‘See, that’s not good, Mary. She doesn’t like priests, Bell. Likes churches but she doesn’t like The Church. If you get me.’

‘Mmm.’

‘So what’s The Church’s angle on this?’

‘Good question. All right… I work for the division of the Church that investigates hauntings and… things of that nature.’

‘That’s more or less what George said, but I wondered if he was having me on, so I said I’d talk to you. So you’re actually an exorcist, right?’

‘Well, I… yeah.’

‘You don’t look a lot like Max Von Whatsisname.’

‘I’m a disappointment to everyone.’

‘There isn’t some silly bugger wants you to go in and exorcize the castle, is there?’

‘Nothing formal, as yet.’

‘Because that…’ Jon was lifting his glass. He put it down with a bang. ‘That would be fuckin’ insane, Mary! Apart from what it’d do to my business, you’d be undermining the very essence of Ludlow. Bell would go spare.’

‘For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t like to do that either,’ Merrily said. ‘But I’m interested in why you think it would be insane.’

‘Really? All right. Come with me, then.’

‘Where?’

‘Not far.’ He stood up and put on his motorbike jacket. Its chains rattled like an alarm, and two retired-looking couples at the next table all turned round at once.

Jon Scole wiped his mouth and beard with the back of a hand. ‘You psychic yourself, Mary?’

‘No more than anybody.’

‘As long as you’re receptive, you’ll feel it. There’s some places with more resonance than others, especially in this town. Not sure why, but it’s fact. Physically, it’s got a lot to set it apart – built on a kind of promontory, two rivers, a very ancient church… and I mean very ancient. And, like, the whole atmosphere here, you can feel it… it’s rich and heavy, like it’s drenched in some ancient incense, you know what I’m saying?’

‘Actually, I do. Especially in the evening.’

‘You don’t need the evening.’

25

His Element

DOWN PAST TESCO’S, towards the bottom of Corve Street, yew trees overhung a high stone wall and they could see the roof of the chapel.

‘Dogs,’ Jon Scole said. ‘They reckon the dogs know.’

He had to shout over an old yellow furniture van clattering out of town. It had one word diagonally on the side: LACKLAND.

‘Dogs?’ Merrily said.

‘Dogs are supposed to go bonkers this end of the Street. Out of control. Well, I’ve seen it. Some old dear hauling on the lead: Brutus! Heel! No chance. Very strong atmosphere. Accumulation of psychic energy. So, anyway, this is where she walks.’

‘Sorry… who?’

‘Who do you think?’

Jon Scole led her through the gateway, where cars were parked next to a circle of youngish yews, gloomily wrestling for the light. The chapel was set back, regular and Victorian-looking like the chapels you found in cemeteries, which was what it appeared to have been.

There was an information board on a lectern. It told you that the chapel had been built partly on the site of a Carmelite friary dating back to 1349, in use until suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539 when its buildings were sold and demolished. And then came the cemetery.

‘No, don’t read it, Mary, come and see it.’

Jon Scole led her down past the chapel, which was some kind of print workshop now – and that was good, she thought, much better than dereliction, brought a flow of people down here, kept up a flow of energy.

Merrily blinked. Bloody hell, she was thinking like Jane.

But there was an energy in Ludlow, the kind you didn’t find in too many ancient towns, and even the rolling roof of Tesco’s was urging it in. The town was prosperous, sure, but not in any self-conscious way, and what Bernie Dunmore had said about the buildings being preserved in aspic was misleading. Nothing that she’d seen here was in aspic; it was all still in use, and it buzzed, and it hummed, and it chattered.

Even the graveyard. A path ran down the middle; Jon Scole was strolling along it, but Merrily had stopped. There were cemeteries and there were graveyards, and the thing about cemeteries was that most of them weren’t places you’d want to end up.

Jon Scole turned and came back. He was beaming.

‘Surprising, eh? When they ran out of room at St Laurence’s this was where they came. And then this one got full. There’s supposed to be fourteen hundred graves here.’

Very few of them were fully visible any more because someone had taken an inspired decision. The result was that St Leonard’s graveyard was vibrantly alive: a tangly, scuffling, mossy-green delirium, busy with birdsong, rich with moisture and slime. Merrily looked around, saw a fat, hollowed-out yew tree and two shiny, rippling domes of ivy that probably used to be headstones. In the summer, the air would be shimmering with butterflies, haunted at night by bats and moths.

‘They gave it back to nature,’ she said. ‘They just… let it go.’

‘What you got here, Mary, is part of a kind of secret passageway linking the oldest parts of town – and the two rivers. The Corve down at this end, which is this narrow, private kind of river, and the big one, the Teme, at the other.’

Between the trees, over the bushes and the rooftops, you could see the tower of St Laurence’s, as if this graveyard was still intimately linked to it. Which, in a way, it was. Merrily was enchanted. Not in some flimsy, poetic way; there was a real and powerful enchantment happening here.

Maybe it was a combination of the rose-coloured glasses and her own disconnection from the diocese: Jane’s pagan forces reaching out for her. Maybe this was just an overgrown graveyard.

‘We’re going the opposite way from the way she walks,’ Jon said, back on the path. ‘She comes up from The Weir House, up the steps and into The Linney, which goes from just above the Teme, up to the church and then starts again on the other side of the church and comes down again, and you wind up here. Magic.’

‘How often does she… walk?’

‘Whenever the mood takes her. No, that’s wrong, she probably follows some pattern. Late at night, or in the hour before dawn. Something’s got to be turning her on, though, hasn’t it?’

‘Meaning?’

‘Well… you know. There’s obviously a lot of places she finds a bit of a turn-on. That’s why she came here. Like I say, this is just a very haunted town, and it feels like it, know what I mean?’

‘It feels nice.’

‘It feels haunted, Mary. Everywhere you go. Look at all the stories… you got an old woman in a dressing gown in the churchyard, and heavy footsteps. You got Catherine of Aragon – allegedly – at the Castle Lodge. Summat shivery at The Reader’s House. You got haunted shops, a hairdresser’s with a poltergeist. And… look over there…’

A view had opened on the left, the kind of view that seemed like it was planned. Anywhere else, there’d have been a viewing point with a telescope that you could feed 10p coins into.

It was the castle, as she’d never seen it before. It was away on the other side of the town but, from here, it appeared to be nestling in lush greenery, the scene uninterrupted by modern buildings or, in fact, any buildings – as if you were viewing it along a wooded valley. As if you were back then, when there was only the castle.

‘Jon, it’s like this place – this cemetery – is linked with everywhere. You turn a corner and…’

‘Magic,’ Jon Scole said. ‘Everything in this town is connected up. Like electric wires. Like a circuit. If you know how, you can plug yourself in.’

‘Bell told you that?’

‘Just once. And then she shut up, like she were giving too much away. Links through time – all the sacred places interlinked, and there are special spots where all the… like the eras of time come together. When she walks here, it’s like… you know?’

‘Like she doesn’t walk alone? Or at least she feels…’

‘Feels, yeah. Doesn’t see nowt, but… I tell you, if I could get that woman into the ghost-walks, as a regular, I’d bloody clean up. As it is, I’m just taking it all in, I feel like I’m tapping into her consciousness.’

Merrily remembered Lol suggesting that inside Belladonna’s consciousness was not a safe place to be.

‘… Learned a lot about Bell,’ Jon was saying. ‘I mean, the music, that’s only half of it. This is a heavy lady, Mary.’ He paused, nodding his head. ‘’Course, she’s also halfway out of her fuckin’ tree.’

They went and stood under the dark, feathery awning of the yew, and she felt stupid with her glasses on, turning everything the colour of ripening plums.

‘Presumably,’ she said, ‘you’ve heard about the other things she’s supposed to have done. I mean, apart from walk.’

‘Naked!’ He laughed. ‘With a feller. Just over there, it was, apparently, where the ivy’s all thick on the ground. You’ve got to hand it to her, at her age. They must’ve been scratched to buggery.’

‘The Mayor was not amused.’

‘Well, what d’you expect? I mean, George Lackland… his generation… he’s not exactly a left-wing espouser of liberal values, is he? I mean, she was in rock music. They don’t operate according to George’s rules. They don’t live on the same planet.’

‘George lives on Planet Ludlow,’ Merrily said. ‘Isn’t that where Bell wants to be, too?’

‘She wants to be part of it, that’s true. But like, if she gets off on doing it in places where’ – making quote marks in the air with crooked fingers – ‘The Veil is Thin… I can connect with that. Sex produces a lot of psychic energy. And if there’s this vortex of energy there already, you probably get a top buzz. ’Least, you do if you’re Bell. You know what I mean?’

‘In a way.’

It was still a graveyard, though. Death-fixated erotomania was how Nigel Saltash might describe it. The yew tree was draped around them, exposing its insides. Ancient yews always looked like they’d been dead and come through it.

‘She’s built a career around an obsession,’ Jon Scole said. ‘If you’ve heard the music you’ll know that. She’s made a shitload of money, but she’s had a couple of brushes with the big D along the way, so she knows what a tightrope life is, even if you’re loaded. And she’s not getting any younger. So she’s not playing any more, and she doesn’t care what people think. She wants to know what she’s got coming.’

‘We all want to know,’ Merrily said. ‘Even the clergy.’

‘Yeah, but you got distractions. You got other things to do. This woman… she’s done the lot. Every way you can gratify yourself in this life, she’s done it. What’s left? Think about it.’

‘You sound as if you understand her.’

‘I try. I mean, she’s here… I’m here… there’s potential.’

‘But you said she was out of her tree?’

‘Halfway out of her tree.’

‘How would I get to meet her?’

‘You don’t meet her. She meets you… if she wants to. You can hang round here all night, and it’s like waiting for some rare creature – you might get lucky, you probably won’t. When she first came to live in Ludlow, reporters’d show up, full of themselves, and they’d all go back with nowt. Unless she wanted to talk. Which mostly she didn’t. Talked to the Journal ’cos that were the local paper. Wouldn’t even talk to the Star, ’cos it circulates outside.’

‘And that’s why local people protect her?’

‘That’s one of the reasons. She’s eccentric, Mary. This town likes eccentrics.’

‘George doesn’t. And a few others.’

‘No. Well…’

‘So if I wanted to meet her?’

‘You’d have to be someone she was interested in.’

‘Like Robbie Walsh?’

‘Let’s get back into the light, eh?’ Jon Scole said.

They stood inside the chapel gateway, near the information board, their backs to the surrounding wall and Corve Street. A young man came out of the print-shop with two carrier bags, smiled at Merrily.

‘Don’t believe a word this feller tells you. Most frightening thing you’ll ever see in Ludlow is him at closing time.’

‘Right…’ Jon Scole levelled a finger. ‘That order for four hundred Ghostours leaflets? Consider it bloody cancelled!’

He dropped his grin as the guy walked away. Turned to Merrily and shook his head.

‘What happened to Robbie, that were the worst thing of all. Great kid. Great to have around, you know? All that knowledge, he was like a wassername, prodigy. You’d see him wandering around, world of his own, and you’d go, All right, Robbie? You OK, mate? Be like he was coming down off something. Blink, blink – where am I?’

‘He used to go on the ghost-walk?’

‘Towards the end, he were practically a fixture. At first, he’d just tag along – well, I couldn’t charge him, could I? ’Sides, people liked him. He used to do half my job – knew everything about every building we came to. I didn’t, hadn’t been here long enough. Loved telling people about the past. In his element.’

‘He was interested in ghosts?’

‘Not so much the ghosts as the ’ist’ry. I did the ghosts, he did the ’ist’ry. We were quite a team, all through Easter. See… he could give you a picture. He was like a kid that’d just walked out of the Middle Ages. When he died, I were just fuckin’ gutted, Mary.’

Jon recalled the funeral – only right the service should be at St Laurence’s; even though he wasn’t local, he’d made himself local. Jon had waited to talk to old Mrs Mumford afterwards, telling her how much they’d all thought of Robbie.

‘Including Mrs Pepper?’

‘What do you think?’

‘So how did they meet?’

‘On the ghost-walk. Some nights, when it’s a bit quiet, she’ll just show up. Tag along. Tourists leave her alone; she’s a bit forbidding in that cloak. Anyway, one night – this’d be around last Christmas, when I was just getting the shop together – Robbie was there, and I were a bit knackered so I let him do most of it. He knew all the stories, better than me. And he just… little bugger brought it alive, standing there under a lantern on a stick. Especially the medieval stuff. He’d tell you what they were wearing, what the streets were like… the smells, even. Not in an academic way – he were still a young lad, no big words. But it was like the rest of us were in the here and now, and he was walking the same street, but he was in the twelfth century. You had to see it.’

‘He sounds remarkable. I hadn’t quite realized…’

‘I don’t wanna build him up too much, Mary, he were just a lad.’

‘And Bell…?’

‘Riveted, obviously. A young lad who seemed to be seeing things she couldn’t?’

‘What did you think about that?’

‘Me? I just thought he’d read a lot of books.’

‘And they became friends – Robbie and Bell?’

‘She made sure of that.’

‘Guy I spoke to said they seemed like… mother and son.’

‘They were mates.’ Jon looked irritated. ‘Let’s not get silly about it.’

‘Did you talk to him about her?’

‘Once or twice.’

‘And how did he relate to her… special interests?’

‘You mean was he exposed to Bell’s obsession with all things death? I don’t know. This copper asked me that. Detective. You know what they’re like, trying to make you say things.’

Mumford.

‘I mean, what is this, Mary? Is this some scheme of Lackland’s to get her out of his hair for good? Stitch her up for assisting Robbie to do himself in? Turn the whole town against her?’

Merrily stared at him. ‘What makes you think he did himself in?’

‘I dunno.’ Jon jammed his hands in the lowest pockets of his leather jacket, rattling chains. ‘It just never made a lot of sense to me that he’d just fall off. Kid knew his way around every passage in that castle with his eyes shut. And then that girl – not much doubt about that, is there? She came here to die.’

‘Did you ever have any reason to think Robbie was depressed about anything?’

‘No, he were full of life when he… I never thought, you know? He said things maybe I should’ve put together. Like, you’d ask him about his parents, and his face would cloud over. I was thinking maybe divorce, so I stopped asking. Didn’t wanna upset him. We just don’t know, do we, how to react for the best? What do you think?’

‘I think there are some questions that nobody’s been asking. And I think everybody’s been walking round Belladonna as if she’s the Queen.’

‘Mary, next to Bell, the Queen’s anybody’s.’ He looked at her, standing a bit too close. ‘She could be interested in you. I mean, you know your stuff, don’t you? It’s just… the priest thing. And an exorcist, even worse. Like Rentokil for ghosts.’

‘We’re not—’

‘I know you’re not. I’m telling you how she’d see you.’

‘Doesn’t mind being in the church, though.’

‘That’s because it’s where it is. It’s obvious the church is one of the places. Right at the top of the town, at the centre, where all the lanes and alleyways come out. View from the top of the tower – amazing. You should see that, makes the Hanging Tower look like jumping off a stepladder. You been there yet?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Blimey, you gotta see that. We could go there now. Ten minutes. You got time?’

Merrily looked at her watch. It was coming up to one p.m. She needed a break to think about all this, and she wanted to speak to Mumford. But more than any of this, she felt the need to break the spell.

‘All right, what are you doing around, say, four o’clock?’ Jon said. ‘Suppose I meet you at the entrance to the car park, near the castle?’

She nodded. She’d have to see it sometime. At least this guy would know the exact spot. Four p.m. would give her time to talk to Mumford and try to see the interior decorator who, according to George Lackland, had had some peculiar requests made of him by Mrs Pepper.

‘OK.’

‘Ace. Meanwhile – Bell. Let me think about this. I mean, I reckon she’d take to you as a person.’ Jon Scole grinned. ‘They say she goes both ways.’

‘Not with me she doesn’t, Jonathan.’

‘Just kidding, Mary.’

26

The Mix

THERE WAS THIS feeling of unease now, whenever Merrily thought about Andy Mumford. Wouldn’t have been too surprised to spot him back on the prowl here in Ludlow. She felt he was teetering like Jemima Pegler had, and perhaps Robbie Walsh, over a long drop.

But when she rang from the Volvo he was at home.

‘How’re you?’ His voice was still higher than usual; he would hate that – every time he spoke, a reminder of the kid with the chain.

‘I’m fine.’ She was in the car park at the top of town, close to the castle. The day had dulled, thin grey clouds windshielding the sun like smoked glass. She crumpled up the cellophane wrapping of her lunch, one free-range egg-and-cress sandwich. ‘You seen a doctor, Andy?’

‘No need. It’s better than it was.’

‘Doesn’t sound it.’

‘That’s because it hurts more.’ Mumford wheezed out a laugh. ‘Where you calling from?’

‘I’m back in Ludlow.’

‘That a fact.’

‘I’ve got a few days off.’ She could hardly tell him about the Bishop or George Lackland. ‘Vicar with a black eye doesn’t look good in the pulpit. And I thought that, with you being persona non grata here, maybe I could… check a few things out?’

‘Good of you.’

‘So I went to talk to Jonathan Scole.’

‘Boy tried to bullshit me.’

‘I think it’s his way. He does seem to have been fond of Robbie, however. Poor kid had a virtual season ticket on the ghost-walk in return for lecturing the punters on local history.’

‘What about the woman?’

‘She seems to have milked Robbie, too. If I ever get to see her, I’ll let you know.’

‘Thank you, Mrs Watkins,’ Mumford said. Paused. ‘Oh… I had a bit of information, too. From headquarters.’

‘You finally spoke to Bliss?’

‘No, no. Another person this was, in the Division. Distant relation. Second cousin to a second cousin, kind of thing. Gives me a call now and then, we chats about this and that.’

Family. In this part of the world, no matter how thinly a blood link was stretched, it was there to be rediscovered when necessary.

‘Seems Jason Mebus finally turned seventeen,’ Mumford said.

‘And you missed his party.’

‘They had his party below stairs at Hereford, attended by former colleagues of mine. Jason got into a confrontation at the Orchard Gardens last night – pub by the Plascarreg? Two boys finished up seriously hammered in the car park.’

‘By Jason?’

‘By four of them, but the others were juveniles. Jason’s charged with ABH. His first as an adult.’

‘He’s off the streets, then?’

‘That en’t gonner happen till he kills somebody. He was bailed. If the presiding magistrate’s in a real bad mood, he’ll get community service, the others’ll have a stern ticking-off. One of the others, by the way, was Chain-boy – Connor Boyd, his name.’

‘How do you know it’s him?’

‘Moron still had the chain.’

‘Ah.’ She watched a young couple loading babies and groceries into a people-carrier parked against the wall under the castle, where some siege engine might once have stood. ‘Andy, does this… relative know what they did to you?’

‘Said I had a throat infection. Another one of them’s Connor’s half-brother, Shane Nicklin, twelve. I reckon he was likely the little angel who came in to see us on his own. Regular at juvenile court. Shot a toddler in the eye with an airgun when he was seven.’

‘A good family, then.’

‘An example to us all,’ Mumford said.

‘I’m rather embarrassed about this,’ Callum Corey said. ‘You shouldn’t be putting me in this position.’

He looked about twenty-three and wore a white silk shirt. He stretched his legs out, swivelling sulkily from side to side in his leather chair. On the wall behind his desk were framed photo blow-ups of the restoration jobs Coreys had handled, and it was impressive: baronial interiors, open log fires.

‘It’s all word-of-mouth in our profession, Mrs Watkins,’ Mr Corey said. ‘Any gossip of this sort gets out, it can do us immense harm. My father thought he was doing old Lackland a favour – didn’t think he was going to blab it all over town.’

‘I don’t actually think,’ Merrily said, ‘that confiding it to a priest amounts to blabbing it all over town. Besides, he didn’t actually tell me what happened, he just suggested that I might have a word with you.’

‘You don’t look like a priest to me.’

‘What’s a priest look like?’

Mr Corey was the new type of ex-public-school painter and decorator, working out of this tasteful Georgian town house in Broad Street, which sloped to the old town gate and then to the river at the Horseshoe Weir where Mrs Mumford had drowned. The office was the size of a small ballroom, with blue-washed walls and four long Georgian windows. Trestle tables displayed leather-bound catalogues and samples of moulding and dressed stone.

‘OK.’ Merrily stood up. ‘I can see I’m putting you in a difficult position. I’ll go. Thank you for seeing me, Mr Corey.’

‘No, look—’ He came half out of his chair. ‘Wait… sit down. I just wondered… how the Church came into it. We… we’ve done some work for the Church.’

‘One word from me and all that would be over for good.’

He looked startled for a moment. Merrily smiled.

‘Joke, Mr Corey. OK, how do we come into it? Well… there’ve been incidents in St Laurence’s. We don’t like to involve the police if we can deal with these things ourselves. And I’d be grateful if this wasn’t blabbed all over town either.’

A glass-fronted cast-iron wood-burning stove was burning low, more for effect than heat at this time of year. Callum Corey pulled his chair away from it.

‘It wasn’t our job, originally. The Weir House was a project by the Raphaels – hit-and-run restorers. Move into a place, do it up, sell it, move on. Except in this case they virtually had to build from the foundations up. One of the old Palmers’ Guild houses. Look, please sit down. Would you like something to drink?’

‘Just had lunch, thanks.’ She sat down across the desk from him. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the Palmers’ Guild.’

‘Name’s now been appropriated by Mrs Pepper for a conservation trust she’s setting up. I’m afraid I’ll believe that when I see it. Originally, they were well-off pilgrims to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. Brought a palm leaf back to prove it, something like that. That was how it started. Then they became a sort of cooperative movement that employed priests exclusively to pray for the immortal souls of their members. They became immensely wealthy and lasted for several centuries.’

‘Just in Ludlow?’

‘Began in Ludlow, spread over a wide area. Put huge amounts into the fabric of the church and financed the building of about fifty houses in the town. Including the ruin that the Raphaels renamed The Weir House.’

‘Mrs Pepper bought it off these Raphaels?’

‘Very quickly, apparently. There were still bits and pieces left to complete – but that’s always the case with these quick-bodge merchants. It’s all about appearances.’

‘So Mrs Pepper hired you to finish it off.’

‘Perfect it,’ Callum said. ‘There’s an impressive central room with an immense stone fireplace. One wall had been improperly finished and was miasmic.’

‘You mean it was damp?’

‘They’d used a gypsum mix on top of the stones but it hadn’t worked. What it needed was something more sympathetic.’

‘Like lime?’

‘Exactly.’ He looked surprised that she’d know.

‘I live in a four-hundred-year-old vicarage.’

‘Ah. We’re asked to renovate churches, but rarely touch vicarages and rectories still owned by the Church. They don’t seem prepared to spend too much money on dwelling houses.’

‘Unlike Mrs Pepper.’

‘Mrs Pepper didn’t quibble at all about the price. However, she had in mind certain… refinements of her own. Originally, horsehair was often mixed with the slaked lime. Did you know that?’

‘I’ve heard of it.’

‘Mrs Pepper had something similar in mind. But she wanted to use… her own hair.’

‘I see.’

‘I’m not sure you do, actually.’ Callum looked down at his unused blotter. ‘We do get a few odd requests of this nature sometimes – the craze for feng shui, fuelled by those dreadful TV make-over programmes. Some of the proposals contravene listed-building regulations, but we do what we can to satisfy the customer.’

‘So you went along with it.’

‘I did the work myself. She said too many people trampling around the place… that would not be acceptable.’

‘For reasons of privacy.’

‘I thought so, yes. I didn’t realize quite… Well, anyway, she presented me with a cardboard box with hair in it. Her own hair is blonde – whether it’s dyed or not, I’m not qualified to say. But this hair, um, wasn’t. It was darker and clearly of a different… consistency.’

‘It was someone else’s hair?’

Callum stood up and walked over to one of the long windows which overlooked not Broad Street but a small, flagged courtyard with a tall cedar tree at the bottom.

‘That wasn’t the impression I had,’ he said. ‘My impression, by the lack of length and the, er, texture of the hair was that it… hadn’t been taken from her head.’

‘Oh. And did you go ahead with the job? Did you mix it in?

‘Yes, I did.’

‘And was she happy with it?’

‘Er… very happy. She insisted on helping me. She got the plaster all over her hands. I did suggest she wear gloves, but she… seemed to want it on her skin. She then… at some point… she asked me if I would also like to add something of myself to the wall. As it were. I was quite wary by this time. I don’t really like working alone in houses where there’s only a woman at home.’

Merrily smiled. ‘I always thought you builders were men of the world.’

‘I am not a builder. Well, I am, but… This is a small town, and we’re a respected company, and my father’s a town councillor.’

‘You made an excuse and left?’

‘I did. Wasn’t just that she was old enough to be my mother, she… it wasn’t healthy.’

‘She lives there on her own?’

‘She has a cleaner and a gardener who come in. Seems to have most of her meals in restaurants in the town.’

‘That must be costly.’

‘Not a problem, it seems, for Mrs Pepper. The house is filled with… “antiques” would perhaps not be the word. There’s a sink, for instance, fashioned from what appears to be a stone coffin. They become available sometimes when old churches are converted into houses.’

‘So she had a wall plastered with hair… not from her head. Anything else she… wanted you to do?’

‘I’m not going to elaborate on what she invited me to add to the mix.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Quite,’ said Mr Corey.

27

Carrying a Light

IT WAS JUST after three p.m. when Merrily left Corey’s, walking, more or less aimlessly, up Broad Street, past de Grey’s café and then the clothing shop which Bernie Dunmore had told her had been retail premises since the fourteenth century.

She started imagining Robbie Walsh drifting this way, his self-educated inner vision replacing tarmac with cobbles, delivery vans with wooden carts, coats with cloaks, Levis with leggings. Ending the exercise when, without trying too hard, she was able to turn a man with a charity tin on the steps of the Buttercross into a leper in rags with a peeling face and wretched, burning eyes.

There’s some places with more resonance than others, Jon Scole had said. All it would take would be a moment of slippage, a mental stumbling, and she’d be seeing through Mrs Mumford’s eyes: dead Robbie shivering in sun-splashed glass.

She hurried away and didn’t look into shop windows.

There were times when you needed spiritual advice. Back in the car, she rang Huw Owen at his rectory in the Beacons, and, thank God, he was there.

‘How old is she, lass?’

‘Late forties, fifty, hard to say exactly; she’s wearing well.’

‘Been around?’

‘In every sense. She seems to have had a fairly nomadic existence, maybe not able to settle anywhere until she found this place.’

‘That would figure. Feels she’s come home at last. This is the place she should always have been. She has to make up for lost time.’

‘I think that’s exactly right. She’s bought a rebuilt medieval house on an old site. When a wall needs replastering, she gets the builder to mix in some of her own hair.’

‘Instead of horsehair.’

‘Exactly. Only, this is evidently pubic hair.’

‘Nice touch,’ Huw said.

‘What are we looking at here, then? Sympathetic magic?’

‘All magic’s sympathetic magic, lass. But this goes back to folk custom. When I were a lad, I remember an owd bloke saying that if you wanted to really make a house your own, you and the missus should make sure you use every room. “Use” being the operative word.’

‘That would figure, too, from what I hear.’

‘You’d probably also find that she’s drawn some of her own blood and mixed it with paint or varnish,’ Huw said. ‘Or she might use urine or… any other bodily fluids that come to hand.’

Merrily wrinkled her nose. ‘So it’s about belonging.’

‘Or, if she feels the house is haunted – say a presence from the past appears to be the dominant force there – then, by infusing her own essence into the fabric of the place, she’s making it clear who’s possessing who.’

‘You’re good, Huw.’

‘Ah, you know all this yourself, really, lass. This is just belt and braces.’

‘It’s what I need right now.’ She told him what Bernie Dunmore had suggested about Siân Callaghan-Clarke. ‘All rumour and conjecture, of course.’

His voice grew concerned. ‘So you’re really working privately for bloody Dunmore…’

‘Not as such. Just that we haven’t told anybody.’

‘Serving his agenda, though, not yours. I’d go home if I were you, Merrily. Keep your head down. Not the time for being a maverick. I’m not kidding. There’s summat here needs looking at. What’s that woman after? Why you?’

‘Dunno. I do, however, want to find out how Belladonna ties in – if she does – to the death of Robbie Walsh. And then I’ll back off. I’ve got your support, haven’t I? Counts for a lot, Huw. It’s kind of strengthening. Can I tell you the rest?’

‘There’s more?’

‘The house is only the beginning. She’s operating on a much wider scale. I think this is all about acceptance by the town itself, on all kinds of levels.’

She was already halfway to working this out. It was always fascinating to watch incomers and how they tried to get themselves accepted, grab a stake in the community – like, in Ledwardine, it was always the new people who organized the festivals, usually for the benefit of other newcomers. It drove Jane mad.

‘But of course Belladonna’s already famous, a bit notorious, and she doesn’t want to advertise her presence. Definitely doesn’t want to be a tourist attraction.’

‘But knows she’s a stranger,’ Huw said, ‘and that’s how people regard her – a newcomer… doesn’t fit and not entitled to. Has to earn her place.’

‘We know she’s already given a lot of money for conservation. Saved some land from possibly unsympathetic development.’

‘That’ll happen win her more friends than enemies – but some enemies.’

‘But I think that being accepted by the living people, Huw – that’s only a small part of what she wants, because… OK, this is what she does: she walks the streets alone at night, dressed in a long cape, burning candles. Following a specific route, it looks like, through the oldest parts of the town. Some people find it eerie, but they’ll accept it without too many questions, because…’

‘Poor folk are mental cases, rich folk are merely eccentric.’

‘Mmm. And then… here comes the sexual element again.’ She told him about St Leonard’s graveyard and what Jon Scole had said. ‘But that could be gossip.’

‘He could be right, though – fusing her own energies with the energies of the place. In the same way as witches’ll use sex at the culmination of a ritual at a sacred site – stone circle or whatever. Who was the partner?’

‘No idea.’

‘He should be local, for maximum benefit.’

‘Or she, apparently.’

‘Ah. Interesting. See, this is all very practical, Merrily. Your woman’s found the little town she wants to stay in for the rest of her life. If she’s carrying a light from her home, all the way around the town and back again, passing through the most ancient and holiest places, on a ritual basis – time and time again – she’s taking her spirit into that town, isn’t she?’

‘And becoming accepted by the spirit of the town? Or spirits…’

‘Which spirits?’

‘We know she’s been milking Jon Scole and anyone else for information about the best-established ghost stories – and there are quite a lot of them here, Victorian, Tudor, medieval… She wants to know who they are, and where they walk.’

‘Happen she sees the ghosts as the oldest permanent residents. Gain their acceptance and you’re in.’

‘There’s another thing, too… damn…’

‘Take your time. Put the mobile to your other ear for a bit, don’t want to fry your brains.’

‘No. Quite.’ She switched ears and leaned back in the driving seat, eyes closed. ‘Ah… I know… the church.’

‘It’s old and it’s big.’

‘And it has some famous misericords. On several occasions, Belladonna appears to have left a… tampon or a pad pushed down the side of one of them. This is blood again, isn’t it?’

‘Even better, this is menstrual blood. The deepest power of womanhood. Fertility on every level. A woman is at her most… fearsome, if you like… when she’s menstruating – as most fellers find out, to their cost. In the ancient world, you’d have a lot of ritual centred on menstruation – its connection with the moon.’

‘Ah,’ Merrily said.

‘But you knew that, anyway.’

‘You have a great ability, Huw, to make me aware of the significance of what I already might have known.’

‘Just be careful,’ Huw said. ‘Keep looking over your shoulder.’

‘Yes.’

There was still ten minutes to spare before Merrily was due to meet Jon Scole at the entrance to the car park. She walked back into Castle Square, where the historic buildings fell away and the timeless, grey-flecked sky opened up.

The castle gateway was guarded by a huge old cannon and a line of recently pollarded trees. There wasn’t time to go in now; she crossed the square towards the shops: Woolworths, the Castle Bookshop. She was looking in the bookshop window when worlds collided again.

There, on the fringe of a display of books on local history, was a large-format paperback with a red and white cover and heraldic symbols in each corner. In one of those moments of total awareness of everything around her, she went into the shop.

‘Could I… just have a copy of that book in the window: Everyday Life in the Middle Ages, in Pictures?’

She heard the bookseller saying that he thought it was the last copy, making a note to reorder some as she pulled out her purse.

Somebody had laid a wreath at the foot of the yew tree where they’d found Jemima Pegler. No name on it, no identifying card. Some of the pink and white flowers were already browning, petals picked off by the wind.

Merrily looked up into the denseness of the yew tree which was said to have grown on the spot where the body of Marion de la Bruyère had come to rest. The tree threw a circle of darkness. It was probably hundreds of years old, its leathery trunk knobbed and warted and suggestive, here and there, of twisted faces. Behind it was the dizzying sheerness of cliff… wall… tower… sky. About a dozen black window spaces had been punched in the tower walls, irregular, like holes in cheese.

‘This girl Jemima came out of one of them,’ Jon Scole said. ‘Didn’t look too bad, according to what people say. I’ll have to use her, eventually. She’ll become part of the myth. You think that’s tasteless?’

‘It’s what you do,’ Merrily said.

Walking down from The Linney – very steep, too narrow for cars, old houses on one side built up against the castle walls – he’d told Merrily about his efforts to get some kind of relationship going with Bell Pepper, whose Weir House was below them, hidden in the bristle of pines above the river.

Seeing the look on her face, he’d gone backing off, hands up, tangled blond hair bobbing, chains jangling.

‘Whoa! No, not that kind of relationship. When I’m with her, I’m dead careful to make sure we don’t accidentally, like, touch. No blue sparks.’

‘Blue sparks?’

‘Apart from us being not exactly contemporaries, Mary, it would probably ruin any chance of a business arrangement.’

He was probably right to be cautious. It was unlikely, for instance, that Callum Corey would be lured back to The Weir House, no matter how much money was on the table.

‘What kind of business arrangement did you have in mind?’

‘Dunno, really. But if I can’t make a few quid out of her, who can?’

‘You selling her albums in the shop?’

‘Sore point, Mary. I started selling the albums – Nightshades, very moody cover – and then Doug Lackland, George’s elder son, he drops in one afternoon for a discreet word.’ Jon did the accent. ‘ “Now, we don’t want to underline that she’s livin’ here, do we, Jonathan?” CDs quietly disappear. Dougie bought the lot. No skin off my nose, but it’s not on, is it?’

They’d followed the rising stone wall to the walkway below the castle along which, Jon said, demure Edwardian ladies with parasols had once paraded. As distinct from a volatile Viking in a motorbike jacket and a scruffy little vicar in jeans, a well-worn fleece and tinted glasses.

‘See where that shelf of rock projects?’ he said now. ‘Back of Jemmie’s head hit that with some force, so that were a bit messy, you know, but her face wasn’t damaged. That’s what they say. It’s kind of a – what would you say? – an elemental way to go.’

‘People say you’re dead before you hit the ground,’ Merrily said dully. ‘Or maybe that’s when the parachute doesn’t open.’ She looked up. ‘It doesn’t seem far enough for that.’

The clouds, empurpled by Merrily’s glasses, were foaming now, with not-quite-rain. She walked up to a jagged crevice in the bottom of the rock face or the castle foundations. It was like the beginnings of a cave, or a recess where a statue should be placed – a natural shrine. Someone had left a small posy of flowers in there: anemones.

‘Would’ve smashed every bone in her body,’ Jon Scole said.

‘I thought you said—?’

‘No, I’m thinking Marion now. Would’ve been all rock down here then. I ’spect it’s worn away a lot in eight centuries. And she most likely came from the top.’

‘It’s a very violent way to go,’ Merrily said. ‘A tumult of emotion there. A feeling of betrayal, sure, but she’d also just killed the man she’d loved. Absolute desolation.’

‘You talk like Robbie,’ Jon said.

‘What?’

‘Robbie… the way he’d talk you through it. This little stunted kid in a woolly hat under a lantern in the dark. He didn’t use big words like “desolation” but he’d tell you about all these enemy soldiers swarming up the rope ladder, swords and knives coming out. The guards and retainers not expecting it, having their throats cut. Stone stairs all slippery with blood. Marion running up ahead of them, wi’ blood all over her nightdress and her hands soaked from hacking to death, as you say, the man she loved. And I remember, Robbie said she was sick. He said she had to stop on the stairs to be sick. I mean, that’s not in the story, is it?’

‘Rings true, though. If you imagine all the adrenalin and the extreme violence. The heavy action going on all around, with the enemy pouring in. Everything happening so fast, and her own frenzied reaction when she worked out what she’d let happen. And then she looks back for a moment, realizes what she’s just done to Arnold de Lisle, and her stomach…’

Jon Scole smiled. ‘You want a part-time job?’

A twig snapped under Merrily’s shoe, and she spun round.

‘You’re even scaring yourself,’ Jon said.

‘Was he that vivid about all the ghost stories? Robbie?’

‘Fair to say that were probably his best.’

‘Because if it wasn’t an accident and he killed himself because he couldn’t bear to leave his beloved Ludlow, why did he jump off the wrong tower? Why didn’t he jump off Marion’s tower?’

Jon blew out his lips. ‘Got me there. I mean, I remember he used to say we couldn’t really be sure of anything, because a lot of the castle were built afterwards – after Marion died, that is, which was back in the reign of Henry II or somewhere around there. So it would’ve all looked different, then, anyway.’

‘But Marion didn’t throw herself off the keep. That’s a certainty, isn’t it?’

‘It’s a longer drop, though. You can go right to the top. You’d be more sure of a result.’ Jon Scole walked over to the ancient yew, fingered its swarthy, resinous skin. ‘If this old bugger could talk.’ He grinned. ‘Maybe it can. A lot of mysticism around yew trees.’

‘So I’ve heard.’

‘All about immortality, Mary. Yews go on for ever. Some of them are two thousand years old. They’ve always got them in churchyards, and sometimes they’re older than the church.’

‘I don’t think that’s my kind of immortality,’ Merrily said. ‘Rooted in one spot, for ever and ever.’

‘That would depend on the spot,’ the woman said.

It was hard to say how long she’d been standing there, on the edge of the path, her back to the river and the hills and the forestry. She wasn’t wearing a cape, just one of those ankle-length Barbour stockman’s coats, in dark blue, fastened to the top, the storm-flap half covering her chin.

Merrily thought, How quiet she looks, how demure, how genteel.

‘Actually, I understood that yew trees did well in churchyards because they thrived on corpses,’ the woman said.

28

Tonguing the Yew

IT WAS STRANGE, the fame thing. You told yourself that you would never be overawed by people just because you’d seen them on TV or they were in the Cabinet or the Royal Family. Experience had told you that movie stars and government ministers were often narrow and paranoid, and that power not only corrupted, it reduced.

But it was different with someone who had been famous in the days when you’d been impressed by celebrity and notoriety. There was some part of you that wasn’t going to let go of that, and the old shiver went through Merrily.

‘Historians say the sacred tree of the Druids was the oak.’ That voice of dark green glass. ‘But the Druids wouldn’t have got it that wrong.’

Merrily said nothing, but found she was nodding, in that instinctive, subservient way she always despised. Still, oaks versus yews wasn’t something she had an opinion on, anyway.

‘I love and venerate them,’ Mrs Pepper said. ‘Some protected oaks on my land were apparently removed. No big deal, oaks are all right – solid, dependable, functional, but they haven’t got the intellect, or the cunning. Or the true key to survival. Isn’t that right, Jonathan?’

‘If you say so, ma’am.’ Jon Scole bowed his head – he actually did that.

‘So my yew – I’ve got this incredible yew at home – something ensured that it was left well alone when they took out the oaks. Because removing the yew would have been a very bad thing to do, wouldn’t it? Even Jonathan knows that.’

Jon Scole did another small bow; if there was an underlying disrespect here, it wasn’t immediately obvious. Mrs Pepper came up onto the path, her long coat making a soft, slithery sound around her. She approached the tree.

‘In the great yew-tree scheme of things, this one’s still pretty young, but it was born out of death.’ Talking as if she was addressing a larger group. ‘The yew communicates nature’s most important message about death within life, life within death.’

She had the rhythm going now: the glistening, seamless voice which used to step down, mid-song, into the spoken word without losing the flow. Merrily tried to bring up all the loony images: the sanitary goods under the misericords, the bodies rolling in the ivy among the graves, the lime mix fortified with pubic hair. Somehow, none of this diminished her.

‘I’m going to do the lecture now – short one, don’t worry. Here’s what happens: after one or two centuries, the heart of the tree begins to die, which is why so many of them are hollow. But the outer layer just goes on growing around the hollow space, and the tree gets wider and thicker. When a branch breaks off, the yew self-heals and puts out new shoots. And they go on like that for sometimes thousands of years.’

‘Immortality,’ Jon said. ‘Awesome.’

The sky was a deep, soft grey now, and Mrs Pepper shone against it. Her plaited hair had the remains of many colours in it, a woven rainbow. She bared her teeth, which were small and mischievously pointed, and her big eyes were a startling turquoise.

‘And what’s really cunning about the yew is that the death of the heartwood eradicates the rings by which you can tell how old the tree is. So the yew becomes totally fucking ageless… my kind of tree.’

She opened her arms and embraced the yew, and put out her tongue to its warty pigskin trunk, Merrily thinking, Spare us the theatrics, please…

… As Belladonna began to lick the bark of the yew tree, a slow, intense, liquid lapping.

‘For God’s sake!’ Merrily yelled. ‘It’s pois—’

Bell Pepper looked over her shoulder, gaze locked on Merrily’s, tongue curling up around her upper lip then slowly retracted between small, pointed teeth.

‘Country girl, eh?’

‘I just know it’s very poisonous,’ Merrily said. ‘To animals, anyway. It kills cows and horses. Another reason it’s said they were planted in churchyards was so that farmers would keep their cattle out.’

‘Predates both farming and churchyards, sweetheart – even Jonathan knows that.’

Mrs Pepper bent her head on one side, kissed the tree lavishly, with her mouth open. And then she moved away, smiling, the neck of her coat undone, her throat exposed, turning to Merrily.

‘So who are you, darling? You’re not the woman?’

‘Uh… this is Mary,’ Jon Scole said. ‘Mary, this is… Bell.’

‘Hello,’ Merrily said. ‘Bell.’

Bell looked cross. ‘Jonathan, I’m not sure you heard me. I said, is this the woman?’

Jon Scole seemed worried for a few moments. He looked down at the base of the tree, hacking his trainer into the dust, hands in his pockets nervously flapping his motorbike jacket and making his chains rattle. When he looked up, though, his old smile was returning. He didn’t look at Merrily, but he beamed at Bell Pepper.

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘That’s right. This is the woman.’

A face projected onto an already-fraught night by blue emergency beacons… that was just an image. This quiet confrontation on a mild, cloudy afternoon was something else. Especially when the face – this icon of punk-goth perversity – was suddenly behaving entirely in accordance with the legend.

Tonguing the yew, for heaven’s sake!

Merrily trying to be dismissive – maybe Belladonna just wasn’t getting enough attention these days, maybe that was the answer to all of it – so not picking up, at first, on what Jon Scole was doing.

This is the woman?

‘Oh, shit, this is really unfair,’ Jon said. ‘Mary hasn’t the faintest idea what we’re talking about. I haven’t even told her about any of this yet. We’d just, like, walked over here, and I were— I’m sorry, Mary, I was gonna put it to you later. Like, I know you don’t just do this for everybody and money doesn’t make any difference, but I thought maybe this once, you know?’

Merrily stayed silent. Jon Scole tossed back his flaxen locks and put his hands together, as if in prayer. His gaze locked on to Merrily’s and he raised an eyebrow fractionally.

‘Bell’s house – just down there.’ Tipping a thumb towards the river. ‘I was gonna ask you to take a look at it. See if you got anything?’

Now he was looking at her hard, his mouth slightly smiling, his eyes imploring.

‘I see,’ Merrily said.

‘As a psychometrist,’ Jon said. ‘As, uh, a psychic.’

Mrs Pepper said, ‘I’m sorry… Mary? Is it Mary? I must’ve made a very unfavourable first impression. This boy tends to bring out the worst in me.’

‘It’s just his way,’ Merrily said.

‘So I’m going to carry on with my walk,’ Bell refastened her coat. ‘Let you two work this out.’

She moved off, the way they’d come, up towards The Linney and the centre of the town. Her feet were bare inside skimpy sandals, and it occurred to Merrily that she could well be entirely naked under the stockman’s coat.

Or maybe that was just the legend talking.

* * *

Down the path, now, the castle opening out on their left, as they walked, Jon Scole trampling last year’s brambles.

‘I’m not gonna apologize for this, Mary. You wanted to get close to her, this is your chance.’

‘You set me up,’ Merrily said.

‘I were thinkin’ on me feet. I said I’d help you and I have. I told you about her, the way she is: thinks she senses, but she wants someone to help her know. If I told her you were clergy, you wouldn’t get within a mile, and if she knew you were an exorcist… she wants her ghosts exorcizing like she wants a double mastectomy.’

Merrily zipped up her fleece, sank her hands into its pockets, the day swirling around her, out of control.

‘She said she gets strong feelings coming off the house,’ Jon said. ‘I say, why don’t you get a medium in? She goes dead sneery – she’s like, Oh, I used to go to mediums once, spiritualist churches, they were a joke. Plus, they kept bringing God into it, doing little prayers.’

‘Isn’t her house a new house, strictly speaking?’

‘Built out of the ruins of the old, though. She reckons it was connected with the castle. She’s opened up a pathway so she can walk up here, to the yew. See, this is where it begins. Bell’s walk. A big circle… up The Linney, through the churchyard, down to St Leonard’s graveyard – route marked out by ancient yews… and then back through the town.’

‘OK, I’m getting the picture. What did you tell her about me?’

‘Well… it wasn’t about you to begin with. This goes back to me saying, look, Bell, some mates of mine, they’re psychic investigators – which is true, they got all the kit and they’ve had some good results. Why don’t we come in, I say, give your place a full going-over? She says forget it. Because, what it is, she doesn’t trust anybody. She thinks they’re gonna talk about it, sell the story. And she doesn’t trust me because I make money out of it, and she’s been ripped off too many times by fakes and phoneys. So I say, OK, I know somebody – a psychic, a psychometrist – who’s so red hot she won’t do it for money. In fact she won’t do it at all unless it’s to further her researches, know what I mean? The real thing. Well, she was interested, I could tell straight off she was interested.’

‘And do you know a psychometrist?’

‘Well… kind of. But I were taking it dead slow. I see her periodically, and I go, bloody hell, I saw that woman and I forgot to flaming mention it. Bugger! Letting her think it’s no big deal to me, but avoiding giving her the woman’s name.’

‘Because this woman doesn’t exist, right?’

‘Uh… not exactly.’ Jon stopped. There was a bench up against the castle wall, near a gateway into the outer ruins. He gestured for Merrily to sit down.

‘You really do sail close to the wind, don’t you, Jon?’

‘What life’s all about, Mary, i’n’t it? See, there’s a friend of mine, lives over in Bewdley, does the same business – ghost-walks. Anyway, I met this girl when I were just setting up, and we had a bit of a thing going and she give me a few tips. Still do each other favours. She was gonna do it, play the psychic for me.’

‘But she’s not a psychic?’

‘Well, we all are a bit, aren’t we? I mean, it’s easy – there are staples in haunted houses: man in uniform, woman at the window. Baby crying. Cold spots. It’s how mediums do it. You mention something – old geezer always wore a muffler, somebody goes, yeah, that’s my grandad. Only in a house, they go yeah, I did feel something in that pantry. Piece of piss, Mary.’

‘Well, forgive me for being—’

‘I’m telling you, you go in there, tell her you can hear a baby crying or something, I guarantee you’ll get a result.’

‘Jon, have you forgotten what I do normally?’

‘God’ll protect you, then, won’t He? Look, you genuinely know about this stuff, right? What you were giving me earlier about phantasms of the living – that’s serious, in-depth knowledge. You could carry it off, no problem. I tell you, she thinks she’s getting something out of you, she’s a pussycat.’

‘And what do you want out of this, Jon? What do you want out of her?’

It was a still day; you could hear the weir. Over Wales, the sun was just visible, like a coin pressed into tinfoil.

‘What do you think I want?’ Jon Scole gripped his knees, leaning forward. ‘How much you think it costs these days to have a shop in Ludlow? Keep enough stock to attract people in?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Me parents left me enough to get a bit of a business going, but costs are always higher than you think they’re gonna be, especially here. The ghost-walks don’t do badly in the season, but it’s peanuts really. And if the Mayor and his family wanna squeeze me out they can do it any time. Could make sure the lease don’t get renewed, for a start.’

‘He wouldn’t do that.’

‘He bloody would, Mary. And could I afford to buy anything proper? Not the way property’s going in this town.’

‘I thought you sold a café to the Little Chef?’

Jon sighed. ‘I sold a bit of land with a prefabricated transport caff on it. No comparison with posh high-street business premises in an upmarket place like this.’

‘So you’re looking for a backer, in other words.’

‘Think what she’s spent on that house. And buying the land to stop the building? You heard about that? Imagine what that cost. Bought it straight out, no financial juggling required. Imagine.’

‘So if she sees you as someone who’s done her a few favours…?’

‘Who knows? Bit of a tightrope, I’ll give you that.’ He rubbed his eyes. ‘I’m sorry to’ve hung this on you. I just thought… Well, obviously, I didn’t think at all, did I? I just come out with it.’

He looked a bit lost. He was younger than he’d seemed, maybe no more than thirty. The beard was deceptive, as it was no doubt intended to be.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘you go back to your vicarage, have a think, and if I don’t hear from you again… well, it’s been interesting, hasn’t it?’

‘There’s just one problem here, Jon. Supposing we find out that she did something that could take her away from here? How would that help you?’

‘What, to prison?’

‘Well, I’m not going to arrest her, I’m just a jobbing priest, but…’

‘I’m under no illusions, girl,’ Jon said. ‘The day she finds it impossible to live in Ludlow, that’s the Mayor’s birthday. And you wouldn’t shed any tears neither if you found Robbie’s death was in some way down to Bell. But I reckon whatever you did find out you’d accept it, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t try to twist it or move the goalposts. So if it turns out she’s, OK, out of her tree, but basically harmless, that’s all right, i’n’t it?’

‘We’ll… have to see.’

‘I believe in fate, me,’ Jon Scole said. ‘Whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen.’

Merrily got back into the car and lit a cigarette.

It could hardly be worse, could it? Either she could go along with it, faking ridiculous psychic skills just to gain some kind of access to Bell Pepper (and then what?) or make an ignominious retreat, put the whole issue in front of the Deliverance Panel, let them dismiss it out of hand, accept an official rebuke for not informing them earlier and then wait for the axe to fall.

How the hell had she got into this?

She supposed the paper bag on the passenger seat answered that question. She picked it up and shook out the book: Everyday Life in the Middle Ages, in Pictures. What had a boy as clued-up as Robbie Walsh wanted with a picture book anyway?

She laid it on the passenger seat and flicked through it, expecting cartoon-like artist’s impressions; in fact, most of the illustrations seemed to be from old engravings, stained glass, carvings on tombs. This made more sense – he would have wanted as authentic an illustration as possible of what life in the Middle Ages had been like. It had obviously been important to him, as he’d walked these streets, to see through medieval eyes.

Why had that been so important? Why had an evidently personable adolescent boy needed to retreat through time? What had made the present so unbearable?

She leafed through the book – the reason she’d bought it, for £7.99 – for where the page had been ripped out. Just one missing page, and the facing one had been about… Trial by Ordeal? Was that it? She turned to the chapter headed ‘Medieval Misdeeds and Retribution’.

Page ninety-one had a reproduction of a sombre woodcut, depicting a man hanging from a gibbet, his head bowed over a tightened noose. Several people were gathered around, watching. Some appeared to be smiling.

Merrily stared at it, recalling how the page had been quite carefully removed from Robbie’s copy. The reverse, page ninety-two, had a black and white photograph of the reconstruction of a medieval wooden gibbet from some interpretive museum. Immediately, she was hearing Bernie Dunmore telling her how Bell Pepper might have been dealt with in times gone by on Gallows Hill, still preserved as open space in Ludlow.

Unfortunately, I think our old execution site is underneath Plascarreg. Don’t you dare make anything of that.

She wasn’t about to; it seemed unlikely to be relevant, but it was worth mentioning, and so she called Mumford.

No answer. She rang the Bishop, managed to get him at home. He even seemed relieved to hear her.

‘Woke up in the night, deeply troubled about all this, Merrily. Wondering what I’d let you in for. Came out in a sweat – couldn’t get a handle on what I was expecting you to resolve. Just some great amorphous wrongness. Ludicrous.’

‘ “A great amorphous wrongness.” I do like talking to an experienced metaphysician.’

‘Pack it in and come home. It was stupid of me to even—’

‘We can’t disappoint Dennis Beckett now, Bernie. Erm… something that keeps coming up: The Palmers’ Guild. What’s that about?’

‘In what context?’

‘You remember the Mayor told us Mrs Pepper was setting up a trust to help conserve old buildings in Ludlow? She’s apparently named it after The Palmers’ Guild, which may have built the original house on the site where she’s living.’

‘There’s a window in the church – I’m not an expert on this, Merrily, but you can’t operate in Ludlow without coming across the Guild. Sometimes spelt “Gild” without the “u”, in the old way. They were probably the original Ludlow conservationists – kept the church standing, anyway. Started, I think, in the thirteenth century when a great deal of wealth in the town was coming out of the wool industry. Guilds conferred a kind of pseudo-aristocratic social standing on rich businessmen.’

‘They invested in property.’

‘A couple of hundred properties at one time. Some of the income was used for the benefit of members who had fallen on hard times. It was a cooperative movement.’

‘But the religious side of it—’

‘Right. The Palmers’ window in St Laurence’s has eight stained-glass panels depicting what we can only think of as a legend put about to give the Palmers some authenticity. It was said that, in the eleventh century, pilgrims from Ludlow had brought back a ring from St John the Evangelist which they presented to the King of England at the time, Edward the Confessor. That’s what the window illustrates. It’s probably a fabrication.’

‘On which basis the Guild appointed priests, right?’

‘To devote their prayers to speeding its deceased members out of purgatory. A medieval conceit, difficult for us to comprehend, but it’s clear that this was the main function of the Guild. Started out employing three chaplains, who also served the parish church, but there were as many as eight in the fifteenth century, catering to the whims of four thousand Guild members. A lot of prayer, a lot of Masses.’

‘All focused on immortality.’

‘They were certainly considerably more concerned about what happens afterwards than our society. Even if they did think God was open to back-handers.’

‘I met Mrs Pepper this afternoon.’ Merrily tamped out her cigarette in the ashtray. ‘Briefly.’

‘And did she appear mad?’

‘On one level, barking. She was kissing a yew tree.’

‘I beg your—’

‘Kissing a yew tree. Very sensuously.’

‘I don’t know how to react to that.’

‘The yew is nature’s prime symbol of immortality. I’m just trying to find a link here with The Palmers’ Guild, who built her house and who evidently had a similar obsession.’

‘No more than anyone in those days. And this woman doesn’t appear to be particularly well disposed towards Christianity.’

‘But she’s very much obsessed with place-memories. Ghosts. The way that Ludlow exists in more than one time-frame. It’s as if she wants to experience other… I don’t know. I don’t know if there are hallucinogenic drugs involved here or what. It’s fascinating, in a way. My impression was that she was putting on a show today. Partly because she used to be a rock singer at the theatrical end of the business, and outrageous exhibitionism comes naturally… and partly because it’s a good smokescreen. People think you’re mad, they leave you alone. How people react to your madness tells you whether they… sorry, you still there, Bernie?’

‘Merrily, you’re not… I don’t like to think of you being drawn into anything.’

‘Me?’

‘I realize you must be feeling terribly insecure at the moment.’

‘Insecure,’ Merrily said. ‘She’s evidently looking for some kind of security. Acceptance.’

‘But by whom? Not by George Lackland, clearly.’

‘By the dead?’ Merrily said. ‘Do you think?’

29

All the Big Words

MERRILY DIDN’T REMEMBER when Jane had last been this amused – turning off The Coral on the CD player, coming back to the sofa and curling up in the lamplight, with a cushion clutched to her chest like she used to do when she was twelve, small pulses of amusement producing little choking noises in her throat.

‘This’ – fiendish smile – ‘could be the long-delayed beginning, Mum. The start of the new you, in floaty frocks and snaky bangles. And it’ll be, like, so cool that you never return to the grim old Church, and the future opens out for you like… like something that opens out. A sunflower. Whatever.’

‘And we’ll give up the vicarage,’ Merrily said, ‘and put our names down for a mobile home with wind-chimes, where we have to share a bedroom, and a shower block with the neighbours, and—’

‘Hell, no, you’ll live with Lol!’

Lol. Merrily looked at the clock. He’d be on stage now, having dealt with his nerves with the help of Moira Cairns, for whom he was opening, the woman who had coerced him back to gigs, who had become a kind of talisman for Lol.

Maybe he should be living with Moira Cairns.

Jane was staring at her, wide-eyed. God, had she actually said that out loud?

‘Wow,’ Jane said. ‘You’re actually still paranoid about Moira.’

‘Oh, that’s rid—’

‘Hah!’

‘I’m an actual grown-up now, Jane.’

‘This is because you’ve never met her,’ Jane said. ‘For what it’s worth, when she first appeared, I used to be worried about that, too, because she is, admittedly, mesmerically beautiful. But also, for someone who’s almost a big star, she’s actually relatively OK. She understands things. She once called me a wee pain in the arse.’

‘That was penetratingly perceptive of her.’

‘Seriously,’ Jane said, ‘there are things you could learn from Moira. Like how to step back from other people’s problems and learn to live? Because, when you think about it, neither you nor Lol’s ever had a normal life. Pregnant at nineteen. Widowed with a small and delightfully complex child while you’re still in your twenties…’

‘I’m sorry, when did I ever say you were delightful?’

‘And your only real experience of student life’ – Jane wrinkled her nose in distaste – ‘is bloody theological college… as a mature student… toting a kid. Like, where were the years of clubbing and getting pissed and waking up in strange beds?’

‘Actually that was how it all—’

‘What?’

‘Forget it.’

‘Hmm.’ Jane smiled, and then her brow furrowed. ‘Listen, there’s no penance to be paid, Mum. I mean, OK, yeah, we’ve finally got Lol into the village. But you’re still not getting it right. You’re taking a week off the parish to do this private-eye stuff in Ludlow for the Bishop, but you won’t take a break to maybe go somewhere special with Lol.’

‘You know…’ Merrily repositioned herself on the sofa, awkwardly. ‘I think I was happier when you were just laughing at the idea of me pretending to be psychic.’

‘Yeah, well, that was the wrong attitude. I’ve decided to take it seriously.’ Jane put the cushion behind her on the sofa and sat up straight. ‘You need specialist advice, or that woman is going to take you apart. She’ll just, like, totally dismantle your façade in about ten minutes.’

‘And you can, erm, school me, can you?’

Jane shrugged. ‘I’ve read the books. Spent a few months, if you recall, attempting to worship the moon… when I was young.’

‘It was less than two years ago.’ Merrily looked into Jane’s eyes, surely greyer than they used to be.

‘I mean, I’m not claiming to be anything more than some kind of failed neophyte, Mum, but I reckon I could probably save you from total humiliation.’

Merrily considered this.

When exactly had Jane’s paganism ceased to be a problem for her?

At first it had seemed like a basic teenage rebellion thing: Jane resenting the Church, seeing poor Lucy Devenish, with her talk of apple-lore and nature spirits, as a kind of guru… and then, after Lucy’s death, lying about her age to get into a goddess-worshipping group based at a Hereford health-food shop. In just a couple of years, Jane had encountered pagans and psychics, good and bad, and emerged, at the age of seventeen… oddly clear-headed.

Yes, it was still there in some form, Jane’s paganism, but no, it wasn’t quite a problem any more.

‘All right,’ Merrily said. ‘Can we go through it?’

Yew trees. Jane appeared to have read entire books about yew trees.

‘Making love to one. That’s totally… I mean, I can connect with that.’

‘Are they poisonous to people? I’m not sure.’

‘I wouldn’t personally exchange life-fluids with one to find out,’ Jane said. ‘But I do get the point. She’s embracing immortality. Some yew trees could be the oldest living beings on this planet – and that’s heavy. The idea of a tree being a repository of ancient wisdom is not so crazy. So if she has an ancient yew near her house, and that’s the start of her ritual walk, and then she proceeds to this yew at the castle where Marion fell… Where’s the next one? Bound to be one in the churchyard.’

‘Several, apparently. I think there’s the remains of a yew alley,’ Merrily said. ‘I asked Jon Scole about that.’

‘Cool.’ Jane spread Merrily’s new street map of Ludlow over the OS map of the wider area. ‘And then one in this old cemetery?’

‘St Leonard’s, yes.’

‘So you’ve probably got an ancient and sacred route… maybe even pre-Christian. Maybe a processional route up and over the holy hill between the two rivers. If you think, way back, before there was a town or a castle there’d just be this hill… a holy hill.’

‘How do you know it was holy?’

‘Hah!’ Jane beamed in satisfaction. ‘I looked it up. It’s in one of my books upstairs, and I got some more off the Net. This is amazing stuff. The name “Ludlow”, right? “Low” usually refers to a tumulus or a burial mound, and sure enough there was one.’

‘Where?’

‘On top of the hills. What’s now the highest point of the town.’

‘The church? St Laurence’s?’

‘There was a tumulus which, until the end of the twelfth century, was right next to the original church. And then they extended the church into the tumulus and found that it contained bodies – bones. Which were alleged at the time to be the remains of three Irish saints, because in those days if anybody found any bones near a church it would be, like, more kudos if they were holy relics. They were probably the bones of Bronze Age chieftains… which is cool.’

‘They’ve gone now, presumably?’

‘Doesn’t matter. What matters is that the tower – the tallest tower on the border, OK, the Cathedral of the Marches – is rising up directly out of a pagan site, so it’s like’ – Jane held up a fist – ‘one of ours.’

‘Congratulations.’

‘It’s what they did,’ Jane said. ‘These are geopsychically sensitive sites. If the Church hadn’t built on existing places of power, Christianity would probably have vanished by the end of the Middle Ages. So if Belladonna’s making a personal connection with the sacred centres of Ludlow, that’s the big one.’

‘Well, she certainly goes into the church, even if she doesn’t go to actual services.’

‘There you go. She’s opening herself up to the vibrations.’

‘Opening herself up, all right.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Never mind.’ Ethel jumped into Merrily’s lap and started to wash her paws. ‘What exactly is she doing, do you think, Jane? Where’s she coming from? We looking at witchcraft, or what?’

‘She on her own?’

‘There are some young people who seem to have formed some sort of attachment to her. When I first saw her, she was with, I think, four of them – two men, two women, all wearing Edwardian-type gear, slightly funereal.’

‘Could be part of a coven. Doesn’t seem too likely, though.’

‘They just struck me as basic goths.’

‘OK, listen…’ Jane leaned into the corner of the sofa. ‘I’ve been thinking about this… Could she have any ancestry in the town? Are there any family roots she maybe wants to pick up on? Because that might explain why she was always with Robbie Walsh – he could’ve been helping research it, couldn’t he? That seems to have been the kind of thing he enjoyed.’

‘That’s actually not a bad theory,’ Merrily said.

‘Or, if you want to extend it in a more mystical direction, could she have been, like, hypnotically regressed into recalling some past life in Ludlow? For instance – and this makes sense – suppose she believes she’s the reincarnation of somebody like, for instance…’

Merrily brought her hands together. ‘Marion de la Bruyère!’

‘Well…?’

‘It’s a fascinating thought, flower.’

‘And it explains the suicide links,’ Jane said. ‘And it’s exactly the kind of bollocks a mad old slapper like Belladonna would go for.’

Afterwards, Lol followed Moira back up the M4 to the Severn Bridge services, where she was spending the night. They sat in the café by the big windows where you could see the sweep of the suspension bridge into Wales and the lights bouncing off the estuary’s dark water.

‘I’ve never done that before,’ Lol said. ‘Never.’

Two verses in, freezing up in the heat of the lights, standing quivering, like the mental patient he was singing about.

‘You mean it wasnae deliberate?’ Moira raised an eyebrow, cup of hot chocolate held in both hands, like a chalice. ‘Even I thought it was part of the act. And when you started laughing like that…’

‘Couldn’t stop.’

Doubled up, he’d noticed her watching him from the shadows at the side of the stage, in her long, sea-green dress, the strand of white in her hair like the crack of light down a doorway at night. Expecting her to walk on, gently detach the mike and salvage his set.

Not necessary, as it turned out. The audience had started laughing with him, with no idea why. In the lobby afterwards, Moira’s merchandising guy had sold over sixty copies of Alien. Now he was higher than the Severn Bridge and, every so often, he would shiver at the memory.

‘It was a wild moment, but you never looked back,’ Moira said. ‘You were soaring like a gull. I’m thinking, Jesus, he’s become a performer at last – wee Lol. However, just for the record… why?’ She’d put down her cup. Her hair was tied up now. She wore a grey woolly sweater and white jeans. ‘Go on… just out of interest. For m’ personal files…’

‘Must’ve been the song,’ Lol admitted. ‘It’s always that song. It’s got… something in it I can’t always control.’

‘ “Heavy Medication Day”?’

‘The day I refused to take the pills,’ Lol remembered, ‘Dr Gascoigne said… and I remember him leaning over me, I was sitting in a high-backed chair in the main day-room, and I’d turned it away from the TV, and he leaned over me and he said in my ear, “Don’t go thinking you’re ever going to leave here, Mr Robinson. You see that door? One day, when I’ve been long retired to the south of France, you’ll be straining to get your Zimmer frame through it.” ’

‘Jesus. This is a shrink? This is how they talk?’

‘Well, it’s been said before, but it’s true…’

‘That if it wasnae for the white coat you’d never know which were the patients, right? I tell you what… by the time you’d finished laughing and you did the whole song again, they were with you for the duration.’

‘Um, to change the subject – slightly – I was talking to Tom Storey.’

‘Poor Tom,’ Moira said. ‘Wasnae so rich and famous he’d probably have been under the shrinks years ago.’

Moira had once, way back, been in a band with Tom Storey. It was a very small pond, the British folk-rock scene.

Lol told her how he’d wound up talking to Tom. Moira rolled her eyes.

‘Belladonna, eh? The extraordinary Bell. Used to fancy the hell out of Tom, simply because he was rumoured to be, you know…?’

‘Sensitive?’

‘Amazing the number of women went after him because of that. To guys, a guitar hero. To women, a psychic guitar hero. None of them realizing it was the best way to have the poor guy heading for the airport. Bell couldnae figure it at all – she could’ve had anybody at that time.’

‘You knew her?’

‘Nobody knew her. We did a couple of the same festivals – you did one, I recall. This’d be before America discovered her. She was older than me and always kind of superior – she’s an artist, slumming, and I’m this folk-club kid on the make. And she resented me, probably for the same reason she fancied Tom.’

‘Because she’d heard you were…’

‘A touch fey, aye. Oh, and she’d made a wee pass at me and got soundly rebuffed. That didnae help.’

‘Went both ways?’

‘She went a hundred ways, Laurence, although I tend to think the allegations of actual necrophilia were no more than malicious gossip. It was all a major fetish thing. Other bands and singers, it was a phase. Her, it went on when goth stuff was no longer big-money cool, so…’

‘So there had to be a cause,’ Lol said.

‘Always a cause. They’re saying even schizophrenia’s no’ something you’re born with. The guy I did know was Eric Bryers, her boyfriend way back. Session bass-player, absolutely besotted with Bell. Do anything for her – coke, smack, acid. If you get ma point. She was gonnae have his child and everything, and it was all cosy-cosy, then she suddenly disappears – this is Eric’s version of events – and the next he hears of her she’s in LA and a big star, with no mention of a baby.’

‘Had it adopted, Tom said. He was furious.’

‘Ah, the adoption story, that’s one version. What I heard, the baby was stillborn, and she had a big funeral for it, fancy Gothic grave – that would be more in keeping. Last time I saw Eric, he… Aw, he was busking with another guy in Manchester – I had a gig at the Free Trade Hall, and there he was busking. I’m ashamed to say I couldnae face him, so I walked past quick, with ma scarf around ma head, and slipped all the cash I had on me intae his hat. Talked to a guy some time later, said Eric used to follow Bell’s gigs around the country, busking near the theatres, and getting arrested and moved on. I think he had a solid habit by then, and nobody was using him.’

‘Dead now.’

‘Aye. They got him off the smack and he turned to drink and his behaviour became erratic, and one day the poor devil threw himself off the top of a skyscraper block in London.’

‘Like Seress.’ Lol started to feel a little weird.

‘What?’

‘Rezso Seress – “Gloomy Sunday”?’

‘It’s late,’ Moira said. ‘Start again.’

‘There was this song about suicide which, according to the urban myths, has been leading to people actually topping themselves. By a Hungarian, Rezso Seress. He also died by throwing himself off a building. The Hungarian Suicide Song. Occasionally gets covered by artists feeling a bit daring.’

‘Bell?’

‘Very faithful version. Exactly like the original, down to the scratches.’

‘See, that’s just the kind of fuckin’ stupid thing that woman would do,’ Moira said. ‘The way Eric was, I can actually imagine him sitting there playing the damn thing over and over and refilling his glass. I’d like to give her a good slap.’

‘You ever see her now?’

‘Not in years, she’s well off the circuit – doesnae need it; weird kids keep rediscovering her. They also began using her music on commercials a lot – when TV commercials started becoming so diffuse and surreal you weren’t sure what they were advertising. Stroke me, poke me, invoke me – however that shit went. Only it would be a car. You staying here tonight?’

‘Going home, I think. It’s only just over an hour.’

‘Home,’ Moira said. ‘That’s such a nice word, isn’t it?’

It seemed unlikely he’d be back yet, but around midnight Merrily went to the end of the vicarage drive to see if there was a light on at Lol’s.

There wasn’t. There were no lights on anywhere in Church Street. It was a warm night, with no moon. She lit a cigarette, looked up at the window of Jane’s attic apartment, and there was no light there either. Good. The kid had done enough research for one night.

Kid. It wasn’t respectful even to think of her as a kid any more. She was smart and funny and perceptive and increasingly good to have around. And in eighteen months’ time she’d almost certainly be leaving home.

Home. Merrily turned her back on the vicarage. It had never really felt like home. Seven bedrooms – how the hell could she live here alone? Maybe one of the other five parishes she’d be invited to take on would have a smaller vicarage. Or maybe, when Jane finished school, it would be time to move on, out of the diocese. Maybe the writing was already on the wall, next to a hazy outline sketch of Siân Callaghan-Clarke in episcopal purple.

The image made her angry and she thought, Sod it, I’m going to do it – Mary the bloody psychic.

‘You know the way to be really convincing as a psychome-trist?’ Jane had said as she went up to bed. ‘Just wander around and don’t say a thing. Don’t claim you’ve had any visions or sensations at all. Say absolutely nothing.’

‘What good will that do?’

‘Because all phoney psychics come out with a mass of crap, and when you respond to some detail they snatch on it, and that’s how it works. If you say nothing she’ll think either you don’t want to reveal what you’ve picked up until you’re absolutely certain, or you know it would scare the pants off her.’

Made sense. Merrily pinched out her cigarette and went in.

Lol drove across the bridge into Wales and slowly up the border, along the deep, moon-tinted, green-washed Wye Valley into the lights of Monmouth and back into England and up towards…

Home, yes.

It would be overstating it to say that Moira could read you like a book, but she could see all the big words in your life as if they were spelled out in neon on your forehead.

Home… that was one of them. The last time he’d lived in Ledwardine, it had been a refuge, the place he’d hidden rather than lived in. Now… well, now he actually felt he was probably the right person to be in the house of Lucy Devenish.

And Merrily… that would work itself out. It had to.

Because she was the real meaning of home.

He left the Astra on the square, alongside the oak-pillared market hall. Perhaps he should think about renting a garage somewhere. Tonight, they’d sold more copies of his album than they’d sold of Moira’s. Well, OK, most of the audience would already have had all Moira’s albums, so that was understandable, but sixty copies…

It was twenty to two in the morning. Friday morning, Ledwardine hanging in timeless silence, a bat flittering overhead. Lol stood for a moment on the cobbles, looking across at the vicarage drive – a small, dim light on somewhere in the woody heart of the old house. There should always, he thought, be a light in there.

Tears came into his eyes and he hurried away.

Remembering, as he often would, the first night he’d met Merrily, when Ethel the cat had been given a kicking by Karl Windling and Lol had wound up carrying her to the vicarage. And Merrily had tended Ethel and, although it had been a very bad night for her in ways that he hadn’t yet known about, she’d sat down and lit a cigarette and had said, in a voice full of ironic uncertainty, Talk to me, Mr Robinson… I’m a priest.

Lol unlocked the door and stumbled through the darkness towards the parlour, until he remembered he had power.

He had power.

He clicked the switch and the bulb over the foot of the stairs drizzled out its low-wattage light. Lampshade, Lol thought. Lampshade tomorrow.

A rectangle of white.

Shit.

Before he’d picked the envelope off the mat, he knew what it was.

Somehow he’d forgotten. He really had forgotten. Hadn’t thought about it for ages. It belonged to the days of oil lamps and paint-trays, before he had power.

He almost crumpled it up and threw it away. But the night had already darkened. He tore it open at the door and held it under the bulb.

Your a sick man.

How long you been hitting her

30

Victim

NEXT MORNING, AS soon as Jane had left for school, Merrily drove straight to Hereford, letting herself into the gatehouse office with her own key before Sophie had arrived.

Dressed-down again, jeans and fleece, as yesterday, she sat at Sophie’s desk and rang Lol on his mobile. Still switched off. She left her second so-how-did-it-go? message of the morning. She knew he was back; she’d seen his car on the square.

Outside it was raining hard, Broad Street speckled with umbrellas. In the dullness of the office, the figure 2 was glowing from the message window on the answering machine.

No glow, however, in the messages.

‘Sophie, I think we must talk on the subject of office reorganization – and Mrs Watkins. Call me, please. Thank you.’

Callaghan-Clarke, clipped, concise and ominous. The teacher: see me.

And so barefaced about it, because Mrs Watkins was on holiday. Finding she could hardly get her breath, Merrily was close to phoning back herself. Instead she lit a cigarette, her hands unsteady, fumbling with the Zippo, listening to the second message: Andy Mumford.