A Nice Place to Die, page 1
Fiction Titles from Jane McLoughlin
A TURN IN THE ROAD
THE HIDE AND SEEK CORPSE
DEATH BY PREJUDICE
STRANGER IN THE HOUSE
SHADOW OF A DOUBT *
*available from Severn House
A NICE PLACE TO DIE
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This first world edition published 2011
in Great Britain and in the USA by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
Copyright © 2011 by Jane McLoughlin.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A nice place to die.
1. Police – England – Fiction. 2. Vicars, Parochial –
Crimes against – Fiction. 3. Detective and mystery stories.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-109-5 (ePub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8060-4 (cased)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
The old woman did not hear them coming. They burst through the door of her cottage and they set upon her. Some of the older men scattered the blazing logs from the open fire, kicking them across the room so that they set light to the straw pallet where the old woman slept. Tongues of flame began to climb up the wattle and daub walls towards the thatched roof. Whatever the logs touched began to burn.
They dragged Hester Warren to a site on the edge of the village, where the local women had built a great pyre of wood and straw round a strong stake on an open field.
Hester wasn’t really conscious when they threw her down on the parched ground. The women who had lost children in the recent sickness vented their grief as she lay on the ground where the men had flung her. They beat her and kicked her, screaming abuse full of hatred and misery. Then some of the men hauled her upright against the stake and bound her there, while the women heaped kindling around the base of the pyre.
Then they set it alight.
The whole village heard the witch scream. They couldn’t see her frantic face behind the flames, but long after she should have been safely in Hell they could hear her curse them, and all future inhabitants of Catcombe down the generations, for what they had done that day.
Then the screaming stopped and there was only the sound of the fire, crackling and hissing. Some wag had called out, ‘See you in Hell, then, Hester Warren,’ but no one took up his jeering. It was as though they were awed that they had witnessed divine justice done. The mothers of the children who’d died at the witch’s hands began to weep. Most of the people there looked shocked, as though the burning of the old woman had come as a surprise to them.
The parson stepped forward then and lifted his arms and spoke some solemn words before he turned his back on the fire.
‘The evil among us is destroyed,’ he told the people, ‘let us give thanks unto the Lord.’
Some of the villagers fell to their knees.
Parson Pearson began to recite the Lord’s Prayer. He paused and raised his voice when he got to ‘Deliver us from evil.’
‘Amen,’ the squire muttered, echoed by the doctor, who had played such an important part in unmasking Hester Warren as a witch and the source of the calamity that had come upon the village. The squire and Parson Pearson had too, once the doctor had pointed out that none of the squire’s family or the parson’s, nor the offspring of anyone else who could afford his knowledge of medical science, had died of the sickness which had broken out amongst the poor village children.
It was Hester Warren who had harmed these children. The mothers’ grief and guilt at their own failure to help their suffering welled up inside them and spilled over in a great mass hunger for revenge against the woman who had claimed to be able to cure the children with her ancient spells and herbal potions and had instead killed them.
For Hester Warren was not one of them, not born and bred. No one knew where she had come from, because no one was old enough to remember her coming. No one was sure how old she was. The tight-knit village community thought she must be as old as the huge old oaks in the woods and could not have lasted to such an age by natural means. Anyway, Hester seemed always to have been there on the fringes of Catcombe, in a tumbledown cottage beside the stewpond in the woods on the outskirts of the village. She was a familiar sight to the fishermen in the early evenings flitting like a giant bat in the dusk as she searched the hedgerows for the plants she gathered to take back to the cottage. There, muttering to herself, she brewed the leaves and roots and twigs in a pot over a smoky wood fire to make her potions.
People were afraid of Hester because she was not like the rest of them, but when they had something real to fear in their own lives, they invariably turned to her for help. It didn’t matter to them then that she was not right in the head, or that some claimed to have seen her on the night of Samhain, the ancient festival of All Hallows Eve when the spirits of the dead return to visit their old homes, consorting with a black, bear-like animal in the depths of the forest. At times like these, many a young girl who had dallied too long in the dusk with a young man came to Hester for a potion to bring on menstruation; then ageing men who could not satisfy their wives visited the cottage at night for powders made of dried roots which would restore their virility. And more than once Hester had worked with her magic twigs on married women in despair at being with child once too often.
But those who came to Hester Warren came in secret. Those she helped were conscious almost always that they were suffering the consequences of sin. Decent folk would condemn them and cast them out if their troubles became known. So even as they went to Hester for her help, they knew that the old woman did the devil’s work.
When it was over and Hester Warren was finally dead, the smell of wet ash hung in the air over the village for hours. In such a drought as they were suffering that summer, it would have been too dangerous to let the fierce blaze of the execution pyre burn itself out. The wind had got up, and sparks set alight first one rick and then another round the village. The farm men who put the fires out worked silently, carefully avoiding looking at each other. There was no moon, no stars to be seen, but in spite of the cloud there was no sign of rain. The heat was oppressive. The men were not sure why they felt under threat, but they did, every one of them.
That night the villagers in their beds pulled the covers over their heads and thought of the sound of Hester’s screams and the curses she had brought down upon them, and upon Catcombe, and they were afraid.
The year was 1568.
Tim Baker was only recently qualified as a vicar. He was young and optimistic and he wanted to help his parishioners
When he was first appointed to the parish of Catcombe in Somerset, Tim saw it as his mission to heal the deep and bitter divisions between the traditional rural community in the old village and their new neighbours in the vast modern housing estate called Catcombe Mead. The estate was built in the late 1990s to house the overspill from a distant city. The villagers saw these urban incomers as a hostile invading force. The incomers looked on the villagers as another kind of farm animal.
Old Catcombe, like many other ancient grey-stone rural small towns buried deep in the West Country, was dying on its feet. Within living memory there had been a cattle market, a thriving woollen mill, and a small brewery to provide work for the locals who were not employed on the farms. But these were gone now, as were most of the farms. Now many of the cottages that lined the single main street, or clustered around the squat church with its imposing square tower, were holiday lets unoccupied out of the summer season. Year by year one shopkeeper after another had gone out of business and moved away, until there remained only a single Co-op store, a post office already threatened with closure, and a small junk shop called The Antiques Emporium which was open only in summer.
There was also an untidy garage which no longer sold fuel from the three grimy pumps marked in pints and gallons – two for petrol and one for diesel – under its battered canopy. The butcher’s shop selling local beef and lamb had closed the year before when the butcher died and his son sold out; and two years ago the branch of one of the big banks which occupied an impressive double-fronted house opposite the church had closed. The building was now converted to a private house. The only bank business left was a cash machine in the Co-op, and they were lucky to have that.
In contrast, the modern shopping centre of Catcombe Mead flourished. The housing estate was a large development of jerry-built red-brick family homes served by a shiny new glass-fronted secondary school, a supermarket, and the usual DIY and furniture stores.
These houses were intended for executive workers who would commute every day to the city thirty miles away. Shops, the new school, a health centre, were all within walking distance – a community purpose-built for the new millennium.
The developers congratulated themselves on how many homes they had managed to fit into the site where once upon a time fat Red Devon cows grazed on the water meadows in the summer. They claimed they had built the houses without losing what they called ‘rural amenity value’ because there were still a few fallow weed-filled fields beside the road between Catcombe and Catcombe Mead to remind the incomers that they were enjoying the benefits of country life.
But a slump in the national economy affected jobs in the city. The cold east wind of economic blight made itself felt in Catcombe Mead. The housing estate began to reflect a rundown air of depression and neglect.
And, as the incomers themselves made no effort to take responsibility for the eyesore that had been created for them, the resentment of the Old Catcombe villagers towards the incomers began to harden into outright antagonism.
The villagers began to feel that they were under siege by barbarians. During the day the bored young unemployed from Catcombe Mead drove stolen cars at speed through the old village. They raced their motorbikes round the town hall and through the arches of the historic market cross. They terrorized old ladies as they tried to cross the street, and shouted obscenities at mothers walking with prams or small children.
At night these same outlaws stalked the streets, threatening the people and stealing from homes and garages. In the morning, trails of broken glass and discarded beer cans, used condoms, puddles of vomit and urine, remained as evidence of the night’s disturbances.
In the Co-op in Old Catcombe, the old ladies asked each other, ‘What have we done to deserve this?’ And the middle-aged woman behind the counter could only shake her head and say, ‘It’s like there’s a curse on this place.’
Nothing much came of complaints to the police or the council. The police sent a constable round the village houses to offer advice on security; the council provided a man with a mechanical street-cleaner early on Monday mornings to clear up after the weekend. But the intimidation continued and the villagers still felt themselves besieged.
Something had to be done. And, the Reverend Tim Baker told himself, it’s my job to do it.
As was his wont, he looked first for solutions in books. Unable to communicate easily with his parishioners, he looked to local historical precedent and tradition for guidance. In the parish records he came across a contemporary account of the burning of the witch Hester Warren in 1568.
The next Sunday, the Reverend Baker delivered an impassioned sermon. He used the terrible fate of Hester Warren to call for an end to the ignorance and intolerance which still existed in the parish. He appealed to his congregation to seek reconciliation between the two Catcombe communities, divided, he said, by a lack of mutual understanding.
His regular churchgoers, ten elderly residents of Old Catcombe, showed no sign of having heard or understood anything he’d said. Some complained among themselves afterwards that they didn’t like the way the vicar had shouted at them, it wasn’t proper to raise his voice in church.
Tim told himself that if he was to achieve his goal he must get his message across to younger, more active people. That meant that he would have to look for converts to his cause among the residents of Catcombe Mead.
So, one breezy afternoon not long before Christmas, the young vicar, telling his wife that he’d be home for tea, mounted his new blue mountain bike bought for getting around his scattered parish, and made his way down the still pleasant country lane to the housing estate. There he intended to foster the spirit of the season of goodwill to all men among his new parishioners.
If the people of Old Catcombe and Catcombe Mead would only talk to each other, he thought, all this ill-will could be sorted out.
As he approached Catcombe Mead and the main road, he saw ahead the vast glass school and the supermarket car park. He didn’t want to go there. People there would be too busy to listen to him. He intended to make contact with the people living in the residential areas, the ordinary people. He was naive enough to imagine that he could call on them in their homes as he did when he visited the Old Catcombe villagers. The newcomers were people like himself who would surely respond to a friendly approach just as his parishioners in the village did.
The Reverend Tim took the first turn on the right into Forester Close. This was a quiet-looking cul-de-sac of detached three-bedroomed houses. Nowhere looked its best this time of year but the leafless ornamental trees and the muddy grass verges in this street spoke of pretensions to human warmth and communal pride not even hinted at by the soulless blocks of flats and concrete pavements which bounded the main road. He thought the street looked promising.
He thought he saw a light on at the back of one of the houses and this made him happy. Here was a proper full-time mother, probably baking scones for her children’s tea when they came home from school. He found the image comforting. This, he decided, was a good place to begin.
It was only after he dismounted from his blue bicycle and propped it against a low garden wall outside the house that he saw the group of teenage boys hanging around outside the front door. They were gathered round a tall sturdy youth with dark greasy hair. He wore studded black leathers and heavy laced boots which seemed to mark him out as some sort of leader. He was playing with the controls of a shining black motorcycle.
Tim Baker suddenly felt nervous. He was a small, thin, pale man who wore spectacles with thick lenses to correct his short sight. He had a nervous dithery way that irritated him as much as he knew it put off other people. Also, he had learned from childhoo
But it was too late to retreat now. He took a deep breath and started to walk towards these new parishioners of his. He was acutely aware that they were watching him, and that they had formed a semicircle and were moving towards him.
‘Hallo, lads,’ he said brightly, and tried to make his smile convincing. ‘Nice bike,’ he said to the boy with the motorcycle. He thought that made him seem rather cool. He tried to deepen the high pitch of his voice. ‘I’m your new vicar,’ he said. ‘My name’s Tim. I’m hoping to get to know some of my parishioners here, right? If you’ve got any problems you’d like to talk about . . .’
He knew he sounded ridiculous, and frightened. But he couldn’t help himself.
Tim wished they would stop staring at him. It made him even more nervous.
‘Quite,’ he said, as though someone had said something. He asked himself, what’s the matter with me? They’re just kids, all they need is to feel someone cares about them.
He laughed. It came out all wrong, very shrill and forced, which it was. He said hastily, hearing his own desperation, ‘I think I’ve come at the wrong time. Everyone seems to be out today. Perhaps you could mention to your parents that my door’s always open, right?’
He was sweating. This was absurd. They were harmless kids. But he started to move away, knowing that he must not turn his back on them. It seemed to him that he could smell his own fear. He’d always thought that was just something people said about fear, but now he knew that it was true.
‘Got a day off school, have you?’ he said. ‘That’s nice. You must study very hard these days to pass all those exams. I feel sorry for you kids today, there’s so much pressure on you all to do well. But one day you’ll be glad you worked so hard.’
The teenagers looked at each other and showed their teeth as though they were about to laugh but they didn’t laugh.