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Chapter 7: Sunday night and Monday - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall

The Nazgul leaned over Caitlin’s shoulder, extending a glass which projected out of the folds of black sleeve without visible means of support.

“Morrrrrrrrrrre punnnnnnnnnnch,” it hissed in her ear.

She wielded the ladle once more, topping up the glass for - she made a mental calculation - the fourth time in forty minutes. There were, actually, two Nazgul in the room, but it was the taller one - the one who had made the point of announcing itself as Witch-King of Angmar - that was doing the serious drinking. Without a word of thanks the tall, black-cloaked being drifted away, heading towards the buffet table at the far end of the dimly lit dining room. Caitlin looked down into the ebbing tide of red liquid in the depths of the bowl, and uttered a restrained sigh.

Her views on punch were unequivocal. When her sons had first started going out to parties, her considered maternal advice to them had begun with (and pretty nearly stopped at),

“Never drink anything unless you’re sure where it keeps its kick. And what you can afford to mix with it.”

On the various occasions over the years when she had been required to provide a festive drink of ambiguous provenance for parties and the like, she had held to three simple rules. In summer, she made Pimms No 1 cup, mixing it with lemonade in the time-honoured proportions, and adding only fresh mint, cucumber and strawberry halves. In Advent she made Bishop, a mulled port with the kick of an army mule, brewed to a secret recipe that her aunt had had in grateful recompense from a man who had lived - thanks to her efforts - to command a battalion. And at all other times she produced a mixture of vodka and cranberry juice: clean, heady, a Sovereign Specific against cystitis, and, provided it was served from a huge china bowl with a matching ladle kept for the purpose, readily accepted as an authentic olde Englisshe punch by the punters.

She looked around the dimly lit room. Guttering candles, bare scrubbed tables and pewter tankards gave it, she hoped, at least a passing resemblance to The Prancing Pony at Bree. Despite Alan’s pleas that a totally candlelit effect would add extra authenticity, both health and safety rules and Caitlin’s concern for her staff had driven her to overrule him. Discreet electric lamps in the far corners of the room gave enough light for the staff to circulate with trays of canapés, even if the guests had little opportunity to detect what they were eating.

And real hobbits do eat quiche. So there.

Caitlin snorted inwardly. By tradition, Sunday evening supper at Gaia’s Place had always been a light, cold meal, designed to give the staff minimum trouble so they could clear off early in pursuit of their own devices.

Serving drinks and canapés at a Lord Of The Rings Fancy Dress Buffet was not, Caitlin suspected, the way any rational 18 year old really wanted to spend her Sunday evening. Still less doing so in idiotic costumes. But months ago when the course had still been in the planning stage, Alan had steamrollered her objections on both these points.

“We don’t want the staff girls to feel left out,” he had said. “They may not have a real sense for what we’re trying for on the course - why should they? - but I’d like to see if we can infuse them with the spirit of it all - try to break down those artificial Them and Us divides -“

Actually, you know, I think they quite like Them and Us divides. They see Them as the loonies who are paying to be here, and Us as the ones who are paid - not nearly enough - to tolerate their idiocies. And given a choice between dressing up and being patronised by you pretentious prats, and slipping into jeans and pushing off down to the pub for the rest of the evening -

However, they had taken the news unexpectedly well. Caitlin privately suspected that Rose and Sue had prevailed on Jack to let the girls in at the back door of the pub whenever the evening’s festivities had got to a point where sloping off was acceptable, and, until then, they were more than happy to take their change out in the guesthouse vodka. Which, behind the scenes, she had no doubt they were mixing with cranberry juice in strictly non-regulation proportions.

For whatever reason, the girls certainly appeared a great deal more at ease than the bizarrely clad delegates distributed awkwardly about the dining room. Elise, with typical efficiency and attention to detail, had arrayed herself as Findulias, wife of Denethor, and spent most of the evening to date explaining in faultless, if heavily accented, English who she was for the benefit of less well-read guests. Sue and Rose, not having read the book, had enthusiastically adopted Generic Low-Cut Serving Wench apparel and the repartee that went with it.

So no real change there, then.

Nonetheless, she kept a firm eye on Aragorn Telcontar (Alan really was, she thought critically, far too skinny for that leather jerkin, and the cloak which - in homage to the presumed location - he had swathed conspiratorially over his head and face merely added a touch of the ridiculous to the basically hubristic) and the Witch King of Angmar, both of whom she had mentally catalogued as potential problem areas.

No matter where my staff chose to put their cleavages, any guest who puts a finger out of place isn’t going to bounce before he hits the shrubbery. Or she, for that matter. Understood?

She took another glance round. Her views on fancy dress were almost as prescriptive as her views on punch (“Handcraft it over several winters with micrometre-perfect attention to original sources, or don’t bother”) and few, if any, of the guests lived up to her exacting standards. She was, however, amused by Lucy’s minimalist approach to her characterisation of Shelob: a Spiderman mask and the aggressive deployment of a half-knitted sweater being the sole additions to her ordinary costume.

The clop-clop, clop-clop of coconut shells being banged together caused her to look round. She smiled at Jacqueline, who was wearing a brown velveteen jump-suit accessorised by some rather fetching blond fetlocks, a matching tail, and a long blond mane out of which two velvet ears poked.

“What can I get you?”

Jacqueline smiled back. “Well, if I was planning to stay in character, I’d say a bucket of water and a warm bran mash. But in the circumstances I’ll accept a glass of punch.”

Caitlin looked at her, her head on one side. “Who’re you being? I mean - you’re obviously someone equine, but which one?”

“Bill the Pony. I always rather admired his take on life. An affectionate disposition, and good survival instincts. Originally, I was planning to be Primula Brandybuck, but the costume got too difficult.”

Caitlin raised her brows questioningly. “Why? What were you planning to wear?”

“An aqualung and a paranoid expression.” Jacqueline’s mouth twisted, sharply, and she suddenly looked bitter. “I could have managed the expression, at least.”

Before Caitlin could say anything, she found herself being importuned for a drink by a faintly apologetic hobbit. When she turned back, Jacqueline had drifted off.

“Do you sometimes wonder if we’re all just missing the point, you know?”

“But not, it seems, the guacamole, dear.” Cathy rescued the dip in the nick of time from beneath the arc of Áine ‘s extravagantly swinging sleeve. Áine nodded absent thanks, and reattached one of the crepe-paper water-lilies which had been sellotaped to her bare feet.

“What do you mean, missing the point?” Alan hoped his frustration had not come out in his voice. With all the expected and unexpected problems of this course, merely getting them to the mid-point with no-one having left in a huff demanding their money back, and with a reasonably coherent - if unoriginal - work-in-progress fully plotted out struck him as a major triumph, and one for which he was being underappreciated.

“Oh, sure, no disrespect. The course is going just great, sure it is. And your idea about the writing groups, that’s been cracking. It was just something Mike said as Josh and me were leaving the pub the other night got me thinking, you know-?”

Cathy’s dark eyes glittered, looking, Alan reflected uneasily, somehow serpentine, almost malicious. Perhaps it was the contrast with the blonde wig.

“Oh, do tell. I know we’ve all being wondering when you were planning to share what happened after we all - got separated -“

“In your dreams. Anyway, as we passed him, he said I’d stick tight to my little brother, if I were you. They tell me old Canon’s back in the village and he’s always liked the pale-skinned girls, they say. And then whatshisname - Draco - came up to Mike, and said something like I think you’ve said quite enough, and he shut right up. But when I asked Josh on the walk back what Mike had meant, he came up with some rigmarole about it being something they always said to scare the girls at school, when it was winter and they had to walk home from the bus-stop in the dark -“

Lucy snorted eloquently. “Schoolboys! No imagination whatsoever! I was in the profession for twenty-three years, and I can write you the script for that little comedy. So, these boys got the silly little misses scared out of their own shadows, did they? Then, I suppose they volunteered to walk them home. And on the darkest spot on the walk back the boy who’d agreed to play the bogeyman came leaping out with lots of yelling. And the girls would shriek and grab at the boys for protection, and if I know anything about it at all, the boys would take every opportunity to grab back. Oh, I’ve seen it all, believe me. And somehow the girls don’t ever seem to get wise to what they’re up to, either.”

Áine sniggered. “I can tell you, things weren’t much different in County Wexford. Except if you were very unlucky, the nuns had positioned themselves round the next bend, and that was enough to scare the shite even out of the bogeyman. But this was different. First off, there was how Mike looked when Draco shut him up - just utterly gob-smacked and scared - and then, Josh acted a bit odd, too. I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t looking around, all the time we were walking through the village. Oh, it gave me the creeps, no messing. Not that we saw anything untoward.”

She paused, and gestured again. Cathy’s dive - seconds too late - failed to save the guacamole this time, and it skidded off the table and under the bench, where it up-ended. Áine continued obliviously.

“Anyway, it got me thinking about the book. Here we are, sending the Quest off into the trackless wilderness, just featureless rocks and mountains which frankly could be anywhere from Norway to Patabloodygonia, and maybe we’ve not been looking closely enough under our own noses?”

Alan blinked.

By George, I think she’s got it. Seven days of stuffing them with chalk figures, stone circles, taking them round the churches where outlines of sheela na gigs can still be discerned, pointing out the pierced witch-stones still hung up above the cottage doors round here - and at last one of the delegates has cottoned on to the idea that we didn’t choose this location simply because it was a handy distance from London and the pubs were good.

He exhaled, trying not to let his irritation show.

And at least she seems to have realised one could, conceivably, choose to seek out the local folk-lore and use that for the basis of our fantasy writing rather than rehashing some tired old Norse/Icelandic bastardization for the umpteenth time. God, have I been talking for decoration all this time? Did any of them actually read even the list of the suggested pre-course preparation materials ?

“Ah - um?” he said in his best tone of encouragement.

“Well, there’s obviously a story under there. And then equally, the locals aren’t going to tell a lot of incomers about it - whatever it is. I tell you, if I’ve ever seen a guy being warned off - and granted the people I know back home, trust me I know what I’m talking about there, and no bullshit, OK - well, that guy was Mike in the pub. So there’s a mystery, too. That’s the sort of thing I was thinking of writing about next. A village community like this one - only maybe, I’d set it up on the Antrim coast - or perhaps out in Donegal - folding in around its secrets. You could really get your teeth into that one, wouldn’t you think?”

In the guttering candle-light, Julian’s flared, disdainful nostrils looked even more scornful than he had, perhaps, intended.

“Well, you could. I suppose. Though, personally, I’m sceptical it would work. It sounds to me like a cross between The Wicker Man and Miss Marple.”

Cathy giggled. “Should sell then,” she observed. ” To say nothing of the film rights.”

Julian’s face got even more disdainful. “Well, if that’s all you’re interested in. Speaking strictly for me, there doesn’t seem much scope for a sweeping mythopoeiac vision in what you’ve described so far, Áine. And as for the rest of it, sounds more like Mike and his brother were sending you up, in the pub. And that public school twit, probably, was in on the whole jape. God, I’m no fan of Ken’s politics, but I do believe in a meritocracy, even if that point of view is a bit old-fashioned, and it irks me to see someone like that expecting everyone to fall over and tug their forelocks just because he’s apparently descended from a bunch of mediaeval thugs. You know, I asked him what University he was at, and he looked at me as though he’d never even heard of the concept. You know - “

He dropped his voice. “It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he hadn’t even got A levels!”

“God, how shocking! Surely not! Can such people exist?” Julian flinched back from the note of sarcasm in Cathy’s voice. Having launched her broadside in that direction, she turned towards Áine.

“I suppose you’ll be reckoning next that that half-baked practical joke on Friday was the villagers trying to warn you off in case you’d spotted something? At the instigation of the sinister so-called Lord of the Manor, no doubt?”

Áine’s face changed. “Actually, I’d only been thinking about it as an idea for a story. But there could be something in that, you know? Local girls do the rooms - they could have done it, or given a passkey to someone else in the village - “

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Cathy gestured towards the makeshift bar. “It’s hardly as if we don’t know who was going to have been behind that one. And if it weren’t for this politically correct pussyfooting, something would have been done about it by now.”

Conscious of her eye on him, Alan cleared his throat, and then cursed himself for sounding so nervous.

“I can assure you,” he said, “That steps are being taken, and that appropriate action will be taken when those steps are complete. And I’m sure you will appreciate why I’m not really in a position to discuss them at present.”

There. Firm and decisive.

Pity you are still no nearer finding out who did it than you were on Friday evening.

He looked across the room at Jacqueline, who somehow appeared to him forlorn and very alone as she took her drink and drifted somewhat aimlessly across the shadowy room. He set his jaw.

But however I’ve slipped, I’m damned if I’m yet hypocritical enough to condemn someone on the strength of an anonymous letter.

He looked across to the bar, wondering if he could substitute the punch for something a good bit stronger, and caught Caitlin’s eye on him.

And anyway, even if I were planning to throw her to the wolves, I wouldn’t be allowed to. So that’s that.

Cathy opened her mouth - she was clearly preparing for another put-down -

All the electric lights and half the candles in the room went out at once.

Caitlin, released to get some food by Elise’s arrival at the bar, was in the act of reaching out for a tiropitta from the buffet when the room went dark.

There was a high babble of panicked conversation. She made her voice sound very calm as well as very assertive.

“Now don’t get excited. Something seems to have tripped one of the circuit breakers, that’s what. We do tend to get rather unexpected power surges and outages in this village, unfortunately. Always have done, for some bizarre reason. We were one of the last places in England to be connected to the National Grid, you know. Elise, please could you light us some more candles while I go and turn the lights back on?”

A cold draught breathed suddenly through the dim room. The candles guttered, and many more went out. Someone gave a shocked gasp in the darkness. Caitlin kept her voice level, and icy with controlled contempt.

“Whoever’s doing that, it really isn’t very clever, you know.”

As if in answer there was a further icy blast, extinguishing the remainder of the candles. The room was suddenly in almost total darkness, full of the sounds of panicked breathing, and an almost tangible fear. Caitlin drew in her breath with an audible hiss.

The emergency exit lighting didn’t go on when it should have done. There is something very wrong happening here.

“Lucy; do you have your lighter?” she enquired with determined practicality. From the window seat where she last remembered seeing the retired teacher came an answering flame.

“Yes,” a reassuringly calm, Brown Owl voice said out of the darkness. “Do you want me to start lighting candles?”

“Please. Elise: you’ve got some extra candles besides you. Give everyone a candle. Once you’ve got a candle, get Lucy to light it for you. Then it’s your damn business to make sure it stays lit. Light it from the person next to you if it blows out. Got that? Because I’m going to get the electrics sorted out.”

She ducked past into the hall before anyone could remonstrate, and slammed the door shut against anyone following her.

Being plunged into darkness had abruptly brought back memories of the times when she had come to stay when little, and Aunt Miranda had held deliciously anarchic children’s parties in her honour, with the whole of the house as the playground for thrilling games of Sardines and Murder in the Dark. She only wished that she could be sure this time that if a hand descended abruptly onto her shoulder in the blacked-out hallway that it would only offer her a piece of paper with “Victim” scrawled on it.

The yawning patch of even blacker dark indicating the passage to the extension that housed the ground floor bedrooms loomed on her right, and she ducked past it quickly. Anyone could be lurking in those shadows.

However, by feel and memory she made it unharmed to the cupboard under the stairs where the circuit breakers were kept. The heavy lantern torch was on the shelf where it always lived. By its light she scanned the rows of switches. One whole bank of them was in the “off” position.

Unexpected power surge, my eye. Someone’s deliberately tripped the electrics. Our anonymous prankster strikes again.

Grimly, she flicked them all back on again. There was a collective sigh of relief from down the hallway as the lights came back on -

Followed, almost immediately, by a blood-curdling and hysterical screech. Caitlin dashed headlong down the hallway back into the dining room.

Someone, thank god, had had the common sense to switch on all the overhead lights in the dining room. The guests’ costumes looked absurd and somehow bedraggled in the uncompromising radiance.

“What is it?”

Áine, her lips compressed tightly together, gestured extravagantly. She followed the line of Áine’s pointing finger.

In complete defiance of the proud vegetarian tradition of Gaia’s Place an unquestionably dead rabbit, its fur and innards apparently still intact, now formed the centre-piece of the buffet.

She paused, gathering her strength for a comment. But another voice cut in first. Ken, his black hood now pushed back to rest on his shoulders, looked sardonically from the lapine corpse to the horrified expressions of the onlookers.

“Well,” he said, “It seems Gollum was a guest here tonight, too. And how sweet of him. He’s left us a little present.”

Innogen looked up from her book as she heard the sound of her husband’s key in the lock. She already had a glass of brandy poured and waiting for him by the time he had deposited his outer garments and come through into the living room. She looked questioningly up at him.

“All go well?”

He gave a brief bark of laughter. “Like a charm.”

His knowing look - his smile betraying a few more teeth than usual - lit an answering complicit grin from her. She brought her hands together in the gesture she had used (so effectively) as Beth in that production of Little Women in the Theatre Royal, Rotherham when they had first met. “Oh, I do wish I could have been there to see! And did he suspect you were using your - special talents?”

Her husband took a swallow of the brandy and shook his head. His face was alive with amusement. “Hardly. Though it practically killed him to see how smoothly I pulled off playing Box and Cox in the hallway. That was like taking candy from a baby - everything atmospherically gloomy, just as he told me it would be, so no one could have known who was who under those idiotic robes. But oh, he was steaming at how well I pulled it off. I could feel him waiting for me to fail, no matter what was at stake.”

Innogen cupped her chin on her hands, resting her elbows on the little Queen Anne occasional table, and assumed the impish expression she knew he loved.

“What a horrid little man he is,” she observed. “Such a climber. And putting on that huge act that he isn’t, too. I do hate inverted snobs. By far the worst sort.”

“Oh, much. But don’t knock him too badly. After all, he’s very useful to us at the moment. There are some jobs for which you need blunt instruments. However grubby they are. And also - Mr Riddle hinted there are - certain ways - we might find him even more useful. In the not too distant future.”

She felt a faint stab of apprehension, even as she schooled her features responsively.

I do wish that becoming a Higher Adept wasn’t so - messy.

Unbidden, her glance flicked uneasily to the Welsh dresser, and the unclean secrets it contained. To change the subject, she said brightly, “And was it difficult to get hold of the rabbit?”

Her husband’s grin became subtly more disconcerting.

“For him? No. We went out for a walk this afternoon; we spotted one poke its head out of its burrow, Mr Riddle muttered something and before I knew what was what, we had one fresh dead rabbit all ready for delivery.”

He paused, momentarily. “Now, that’s what I call power. I wonder when -?”

She passed her tongue over suddenly dry lips.

“You know he said, we can’t run before we can walk. And having the strength of mind to channel that sort of power takes years of discipline -“

His face, momentarily, was almost in a pout. “So he says. One wonders if it isn’t just - politic - for him to hold us back - to keep for himself that edge of power - “

The note in his voice was a warning. Bad things had happened when she had heard that in the past. Almost unconsciously, her fingers went to her neck, to the silvery marks that really, whatever one imagined when looking in the mirror, one could now only feel, and then she jerked them away again, in case he had seen. She made her voice light, and self-consciously changed the subject.

“By the way, darling, I wish you’d tell me when you’re planning to put rat poison down, so I can make sure to keep Mrs Simpkins in.”

His brow furrowed, but in puzzlement rather than anger. She breathed a carefully concealed sigh of relief. “Rat poison? But I haven’t -“

“Not? Oh, I wonder who did, then. There was a dead one just lying there all stiff and cold when I went out to the log pile to top up the scuttle. Horrid!”

“Mrs Winzar being efficient, I take it. I wish she’d had the thought to get round to removing the bodies before you had to. Poor little one. Was it a shock for you?”

His voice had changed again, become tender, throaty and amused. He stretched out a hand, twining it in her hair. She leaned into the caress, sinking back into its comfort, and into the soft warmth of his tones, flowing with the lazy sweetness of maple syrup. She let a little conscious pride seep into her voice.

“No, I managed. I’ve been getting much better at that sort of thing, you know.”

He smiled protectively down at her. “There’s a brave kitten. But you needn’t have to do it again. I’ll tell her in the morning to be more careful about clearing up.”

He reached for the brandy decanter and poured her a drink to match his. She had been going to decline, but she caught the reflection in his eyes, and raised it to her lips, nodding in thanks over the rim of the glass as she did so. He raised his own glass in a swift toast.

“Well, let’s drink to the future! Nothing can stop us now.”

Jacqueline turned the rabbit over and examined it. The other guests had - with no discernable reluctance - allowed themselves to be herded into the sitting room where Rose and Sue were now serving them more punch, and a selection of canapés which had been pointedly sourced from the kitchen rather than the buffet table. The girls had, it was true, uttered one or two token shrieks at the evening’s events (it was clear that they regarded them as a thrilling interlude in a dull routine) but had got down to coping with the aftermath with verve. Jacqueline, acting on some impulse she barely understood, had caught Caitlin’s chain-mail sleeve as she was being firmly if gently ushered from the room.

“I’ve got some scientific training,” she had said, “It might help if I took a look at the rabbit. We might learn something. I mean, a fresh ungutted rabbit can’t be the easiest thing to acquire on a Sunday afternoon in winter in a vegetarian guest house, can it?”

And, however sceptically, Caitlin had given her a free rein to do so, leaning against the door-jamb and watching her with cool interest all the while.

Although her vegetarian principles would have prevented her from making stew of the small furry corpse she had no qualms about handling it for a thorough post mortem. She had done so often enough before. And with people, too.

She suppressed a bitter grin at Caitlin’s surprise at her matter-of-factness.

Expecting me to crack up, were you? Well, I suppose after my exhibition in the pub in Cerne it’s hardly an unreasonable assumption.

She made her voice cool and dry. “Not shot or snared. Didn’t freeze to death. No evidence of any form of physical trauma at all, in fact. I’ve felt under its fur, and there aren’t any broken bones, or swelling. No evidence of disease. If it was poisoned, certainly not by anything corrosive or convulsive: rigor is setting in now, but there was no evidence of any unexpected muscular stress before it died. I’m not sure how one sets about detecting cyanosis in a rabbit, but none of the points one would look for in a human are present. Unmottled pink skin inside its ears - clear eyes, no unnatural contraction or dilation of the pupil - all I can say is, without subjecting the poor beast to a full scale autopsy, that if it didn’t happen to be as dead as a doornail it looks like you’d have one happy healthy bunny on your hands.”

Caitlin’s eyes narrowed. “I see.” Her voice was nonchalant, but there was an edge in it. “Well, in that case, perhaps I’d better get rid of it, since we don’t seem likely to learn anything useful.”

She held out her hand, and Jacqueline surrendered the corpse to her, watching Caitlin grasp it firmly but somehow fastidiously by the ears, and head out of the room. She did not, however, assume that it was on its direct way to the guesthouse rubbish bins. Caitlin’s closed expression had suggested that she was neither planning to let the subject drop nor share her thoughts on how to take matters further with her guest.

It was no surprise to Jacqueline to hear a car start a few moments later. She moved unobtrusively to the concealment of the floor-length curtains by the big casements and peered out into the night. The VW Golf swung round from the back of the building in a shower of flying snow and accelerated off up the driveway into the night.

Jacqueline shook her head in a distracted way. She considered, and rejected, the option of going into the sitting room. There was no possibility of handling the conflicting mass of suspicion and speculation that would assault her there. And it was too early to go to bed.

She shook her head again. This place was getting to her. Even the spacious 18th century ceiling seemed to be pressing down on top of her head; the finely plastered and panelled walls leaning in upon her.

Tomorrow I need to get out for some fresh air, or I will go mad.

Er - do you think you would notice if you did?

Over the Western horizon the fiery sunset had died to red embers. The cloudless evening sky shaded from almost green where it touched the last of the day, to a deepening midnight blue above Jacqueline’s head. The dusk smelt of frost and wood-smoke, and was pricked here and there by the sharp bright points of stars.

If they aren’t military surveillance satellites, that is.

She shrugged the thought off even as she pulled her fleece more closely round her against the bitter chill that had come now the sun had gone down. The walk had brought some sort of peace of mind to her at last after the storms of yesterday and this morning, although her legs ached. Road-walking took it out of you. But, to be fair, even if the footpaths had not been closed by foot and mouth, the hard-packed snow and frozen ground would hardly have made walking off-road any easier today. But she felt refreshed; her thoughts clarified. Perhaps she could write that tricky segment before tomorrow morning’s session after all. When she got back to the guest-house, perhaps she could have a hot bath and let it all drop into place. In anticipation, she started to marshal plot and dialogue in her head.

She had been walking without any particular objective since she started, and reflected with surprise but, oddly, without noticeable anxiety, that she was puzzled to say where she now was in relation to the village. All she knew was that she was descending a narrow lane and on her right hand side was a robust stone wall which enclosed some sort of park. She speculated what it could be.

School grounds? Hotel? Hospital? Too big for a private estate, surely?

Not that she regarded herself as sufficiently lost as to need to shin the wall to ask for directions. Unless things went completely pear-shaped in the next few minutes, of course.

She had almost got to the point of considering it, however, when the wall made an abrupt right-angled turn away from her, and moments later the lane debouched onto the main road. Getting her bearings at last Jacqueline started down the hill that led towards the village.

She had gone a few hundred yards when, in a sudden blaze of undipped beams that reminded her just how dark it was by now, a car rushed upon her. Jacqueline jumped back to safety only just in time, nearly slithering into the snow-filled ditch on the road’s edge in her haste.

She recovered herself with an effort, and swore eloquently after the vehicle: a futile exercise, since it was presumably halfway to Salisbury by now. Before she could recover herself another car, equally heedless of whether or not there was anything in the way, swept down upon her, followed in quick succession by yet another.

She blinked against the brilliant after-images that had destroyed her night vision. Starkly white across the road was a fingerpost, pointing the way to the village down a bridleway that led more directly down the hill. Notwithstanding that it was now dark enough to make a twisted ankle a real danger if she left the main road, getting away from the callous indifference of the cars rushing out from the village was still attractive enough to make the risk worth while. Her decision was swift. She turned off down the bridleway, which soon started to wind between high walls: presumably the garden walls of the houses that lined the High Street. One of them must be Gaia’s Place, she supposed, but in the dark she was unable to tell which, and doubtless, especially given the recent difficulties, the back door would be locked in any event.

Her mouth twisted up, reminding her of what had driven her out on her solitary walk in the first place.

Kivren can’t be the only one who’s had an anonymous letter. And I must surely by now be pegged as the obvious suspect by everyone who has. I have to do something, soon, to try to clear my name. But what? And who will believe me, anyway?

The path ended, abruptly, in Vicarage Lane, which debouched onto the High Street. She would have continued on up the High Street and home, but a quick glance at her watch told her that, dark as it was, it was not yet 5.30, and the present session, the one she had skipped, still had the best part of an hour to run. And she was not, she thought, up to braving the Rose and Crown to drink alone, and endure the pitying glances of the locals.

Her brief, almost unconscious glance had registered that the church door was open and the lights on. She had not intended to enter: the C of E had not been her church even in the days before she experienced first hand what horrors disparate groups were prepared to inflict on each other when they assumed the enthusiastic endorsement of their respective One True Gods. These days, if asked point-blank what she believed, she would rather shelter behind the neutral label of “agnostic” and fend off wearily the inevitable allegations of woolly thinking and illogicality that would follow. At least that was better than attempting to express what it felt like to have once had a faith strong enough to lead her into a life of service, but which now, having been tested in the fire that was supposed (at least according to the devotional literature she had devoured as an impressionable adolescent) to burn away the dross and leave only the pure gold behind, had wasted down to a single weary proposition.

God is not dead, but is away working on a less ambitious project.

But the door was open, and she was suddenly very tired. A line from Messiah sang inside her head:

Come unto Him, all ye that labour, Come unto him that are heavy laden, and He will give you rest.

She was surprised at how familiar the interior felt. The holy-water stoup by the door had, of course, been converted to an offertory box, and there were no confessionals, but the sanctuary light was lit, and no liberties had been taken with the placing of the altar (the sanctuary light was sufficient assurance in itself that she would not be compelled to think of it as the communion table in this setting).

A white-haired man in priest’s clothing entered from the vestry; the incumbent, she presumed. He half turned as she entered, and she feared he was going to come over to her. Before he could do so, a woman who had been sitting, head bowed in prayer in one of the front pews, got up and moved towards him. Even from the back the frail figure was wholly recognisable.

Nicci! Oh, blast! I really do not want to have to talk to her. And she shouldn’t be here. How dare she skive off from the course, anyway?

At this last hypocritical thought, Jacqueline’s sense of humour kicked in.

Let her who is without sin -

The realization did not, however, solve her problems. Retreat through the main door was likely to be too conspicuous. Jacqueline dodged round a strategic pillar, and found herself in a side chapel. The magnificent stained glass window above the altar at the end featured the Annunciation, flanked on either side by the Flight into Egypt and the Lamentation of the Women at the Foot of The Cross. So far as Jacqueline could tell, the window was still the 14th century original. By some miracle, it seemed, both the Commonwealth zealots and the Victorian restorers had been kept away from the Parish Church of Malfoy Intrinsica.

She sank into a pew and rested her forehead on the hard oak back of the pew in front. It occurred to her that she had no idea how long Nicci might be tied up talking to the priest. Or even if she was planning to get back to the guest house in time for supper. All she knew was that conversation with anyone was for the moment beyond her.

Except - she looked up straight into the eyes of the Virgin in the window. The long-dead artist who had created that Annunciation had known a thing or two, it seemed. Even as the flawless young face composed itself in proper respect for the Archangel, and her lips moved in the Magnificat, her dark eyes showed that she knew, inevitably, that the tragedies shown in miniature in the flanking panels were indissoluble from her moment of supreme triumph; that conception and death were the light and dark sides of a single coin.

She sees all the death that will be, as well as the life to come.

Jacqueline shivered. So many of the dying whom she remembered had called on the Virgin as they passed. Perhaps because they blamed God too much to call on Him instead.

Perhaps there is a conversation that I do have strength for.

She bowed her head again over her linked hands

Time passed. It was the sudden darkness as the church lights snapped off, perceptible even through her shut eye-lids, that caused her to give a sudden gasp of fear, blundering to her feet in a flurry of panic. The noise must have been audible: the lights in the Lady Chapel came back on again, there were decisive footsteps from the nave, and a young dark-haired man wearing a clerical collar over a nondescript dark jumper was suddenly with her.

“Oh! I’m so sorry I startled you. We keep the Church open at this time in the evening for informal evening prayers, you know, but I thought everyone had gone by now. It was inexcusable of me not to check in here, though. I’m really so sorry.”

She must, she knew, still be gaping, because he extended a hand and said:

“Peter Blakeney. I’m the Rector here.”

That hardly helped. Without thinking straight, she blurted, “You can’t be! Oh, sorry - that sounds terribly rude. What I meant was: I thought the vicar here was an older man - “

The Rector raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps you’re thinking of my predecessor? I’ve only been the incumbent here a few months, you see.”

“No - that can’t be it. I’ve only been here just over a week, and I don’t think I was ever here before. But I meant I saw an older priest by the altar, about an hour ago. So naturally I assumed he must be - “

The Rector’s brow furrowed. “Just recently? And someone a lot older than me, you say? I wonder who that could be? Perhaps I’d better check Canon Bowles hasn’t popped over from Salisbury without telling me - though I’d have thought I’d have heard the motorcycle - I’ve been up to inspect the bell-ropes, my ringers are pressing me that they need a new set, and I can’t say in all honesty that they’re wrong - Anyway, I’d better check he’s not shivering in the Vicarage porch - Had you finished? I do need to lock up, but if you wanted to stay a bit longer I could go over and look for the Canon, and then come back?”

With the narrowing of the available light to the little pool remaining in the Lady Chapel the rest of the shadowy church had become somehow inimical. Anything might be lurking in the corners. The stained glass eyes of the Virgin - most truly, as the craftsman had portrayed her, Our Lady of Sorrows - seemed to be sending her a warning, too.

Don’t stay here alone.

Jacqueline shook her head.

“No. I - ah - have to be getting back to the guest house in time to tidy up for supper. I’ve been walking out all afternoon - I don’t want Caitlin thinking she needs to send out search parties - “

“Caitlin Naismith? You’re staying at Gaia’s Place?”

She nodded. The Rector smiled at her. “Then you’re in very good hands. A remarkable woman, Caitlin, from what I’ve seen of her. And a splendid partisan. With her heart very definitely in the right place.”

The Rector paused for a moment. Then he smiled sidelong at Jacqueline. “Mind you, you could say that last bit about a lot of people. What makes Caitlin different is that she puts her hands where her heart is, as you might say.”

They were at the lych-gate, and Jacqueline turned right, towards the lights of the High Street. The Rector, looking left at the silent Vicarage with, so far as she could tell in the dark, a puzzled air, turned towards her.

“It’s a lovely window in the Lady Chapel, isn’t it? Conflict and resolution all in the same small area of glass. I often find it helpful to look at it when I have difficult decisions to make. I hope you found it helpful, too.”

Unusually, the tone was a genuine statement, not a disguised question. I’m here if you want, but have no wish to intrude if you don’t. She smiled back at him.

“I’ve found this whole time very helpful. And I’ll certainly think about your advice, too. Thank you.”

She turned and headed determinedly up the High Street before he could respond. And did not look back.

Ecumenism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, was Caitlin’s instantaneous thought when she opened the door to her sitting room and saw Julian and Lucy presenting an improbably united front on the threshold. She sighed, inwardly. She had been hoping to spend a precious hour or two of post-supper quiet in trying to straighten out her thoughts about the problems that had beset her guest house over the last week, and she had no real expectation that whatever these two wished to see her about would assist the process.

“Can we have a word?” Lucy asked, without preamble.

If only there was some half-way civil way of saying “no” to that question.

Wordlessly, Caitlin nodded.

Without waiting for a further invitation Lucy brushed past her and into the room. Julian, giving a half-apologetic bob of his head, followed her. The two guests installed themselves in the armchairs either side of the fire. Lucy spoke first.

“I know this isn’t really relevant,” she said, ” But, you know, Caitlin, I’m so surprised, given your views on global warming and fossil fuel use, that you still have a fire burning real wood. Have you thought things through logically?”

Illogical as it was, Caitlin felt her facial muscles instantly begin to set in an expression of determined opposition.

This is my luxury. My choice. It reminds me of so much. Bonfires on the heath, barbecues on the sands of Morfa, when the boys were small. And before they were even born, as slurred profundities were swallowed up in the crackling of the driftwood fires as we lay back in the dunes, pressing back into the harsh resilience of the marram grass in our sleeping bags. And anyway, is it any of your bloody business, you censorious harpy?

“Well?” she enquired, a trifle more sharply than she had intended.

Julian, perhaps more aware than Lucy of the depths of their intrusion, coughed apologetically, and looked up at her earnestly.

“We did think we ought to speak to you about this,” he said hesitantly.

He cleared his throat, and crossed his legs twice around each other.

“After you, Lucy. But before Lucy expands on matters, I just want to say that we thought there was something that we’ve been made aware of that you might not know, and that we ought to put you in the picture about as soon as possible.”

Caitlin raised her eyebrows.

“About - that unfortunate incident at the buffet yesterday?”

Lucy folded her arms. “About all the problems we’ve been having on this course. We think we know who’s responsible.”

“And your evidence is?”

Julian looked up in surprise. “But don’t you want to know who - “

“No. I want to know why you suspect them. Because if it’s pure speculation, then the fewer people who know who you’re speculating about, the better. And that includes me.”

Julian began, “But we all agreed -” before shutting up, suddenly, and shooting Lucy a pained glance. Caitlin’s view of their feet was obscured by the backs of the chairs, but she had a definite impression that Lucy had hacked him violently on the ankle.

“Anyway,” Lucy continued after a brief pause, ” We’re all agreed that whoever’s doing these thing can’t possible be stable.”

“I imagine that depends on your definition, you know,” Caitlin said, hoping her gritted teeth did not sound in her voice.

Lucy was sounding pained. “Come on. Writing on walls-?”

I wrote on walls in my time. Admittedly “US out of Indo-China” sounds, to modern ears, rather like graffiti scratched by the tusks of a woolly mammoth, but I wrote it, nonetheless. I’d rather whoever did this hadn’t chosen my wall, but it’s hardly evidence of insanity.

“Dead rabbits -?” Julian added.

“Unpleasant, I grant you. Presumably for the rabbit, too.” She paused.

But not nearly so unpleasant as the righteousness of someone who has never had to question herself.

“Look, we’ve found out at someone on this course was compulsorily committed to a mental hospital not really all that long ago. There is a really - sick - person in our midst. And I think we’re entitled to have that acknowledged and - and dealt with.”

Ah yes. I thought that would be what this was all about.

“I’m interested to know how you know that. Presumably he or she didn’t tell you?”

“Well, of course not -!” Julian shut up abruptly, again. Caitlin repressed a smile.

“Naturally, they’d be keen to conceal it,” Lucy said. “Luckily, information has come into our possession -“



“Medical records. Subject to pretty stringent legal restrictions against disclosure, I believe. I’m asking whether your information was legally obtained?”

Lucy flushed. “How are we supposed to know how the information was obtained? What’s important is that we’ve been given it, and it would be hypocritical to pretend now we haven’t. Anyway, that really isn’t the point. I expect you to do something. We are being put at risk here.”

“Hm. Always assuming that your basic premise is correct, of course.”

“What basic premise?”

“That - this person you mention - is actually behind the incidents. Otherwise you’re simply carrying out a witch-hunt, because someone’s been ill.”

Julian leaned forward, his legs twined round each other with the intensity of his emotion.

“But Caitlin - I know you’re trying to see every side - and it’s very creditable, I suppose. But good intentions aside, without deliberately blinding yourself to the facts I don’t see how you can possibly not appreciate that what’s been going on round here is the work of a lunatic.”

I never said it wasn’t the work of a lunatic. Just that there’s a good deal more choice about who that description identifies than you’re suggesting. In fact, if you wind me up any more I might be inclined to mention that at least the person you’re pointing the finger at has had treatment. Which is more than can be said for the rest of you.

“Actually, you know, your approaching me isn’t as much of a surprise as you seem to think. I’ve already been spoken to by - one of the course delegates - who told me that there’ve been anonymous letters circulating about them, making these allegations.”

Julian, to do him credit, looked startled. Lucy merely appeared mildly irritated.

“Naturally, given the irrational actions that our lunatic seems capable of, it stands to reason someone might be too scared to put their name to a warning about them. I don’t think, Caitlin, given the dangers, you can fault anyone for taking a sensible precaution.”

Caitlin felt her lip curling.

“I can assure you, the victim really didn’t feel that way about it.”

Julian made a small sound of protest, but subsided into silence on Caitlin’s decisive gesture.

“I haven’t finished,” she said. “Unlike yourself, I’ve actually had the benefit of hearing why this person was in hospital in the first place. You can take my word for it: I am perfectly satisfied that there is no connection between the reasons for that, and what might be motivating someone to carry out these unpleasant practical jokes. So there you are: you are quite right in saying something has to be done. I suggest you pass on to me all the anonymous letters you can find, so we can get the police involved as soon as possible.”


To her satisfaction, both Julian and Lucy had identical expressions of horror. She shrugged, pointedly.

“It seems to me that by targeting one of our more vulnerable members, this anonymous letter writer is coming pretty close to an attempt to commit murder by proxy. As if, for example, the writer almost wanted to provoke a suicide bid, or the like. Which, if they had actually read the medical records they’ve obviously had deeply illegal access to, they could see was by no means unlikely to be successful. Being as that was why the person concerned was in hospital in the first place -“

Suicide?” Julian’s voice was high and incredulous. “But we were told -“

“I’d make it a rule, Mr Garrowby, not to believe things simply because you were told them.”

The interruption had sounded snappish, she knew. Nevertheless, she did not propose to withdraw it. She made her expression stern as she looked at them both.

“Not the police? You’re sure?”

“It would be very undesirable. And anyway, I’m sure they have better things to do than look into some trivial - and sick - practical jokes.”

Privately, Caitlin thought so too.

Unless I can use my - influence - to get the local bobby to take notice. And I daresay, in this village, I could.

Trouble is, what good is it likely to do? It isn’t as if we were dealing with a wholly natural enemy, apparently.

“Is that a no, then?”

The two delegates looked at each other, and then nodded in a bemused fashion. She repressed an instinct to smile. “Well, did you have anything else to say?”

They looked at each other, and then shook their heads. She suppressed a grim smile.

“Well, in that case -“

She got pointedly to her feet. In silence, they took their departure, and she returned to her previous contemplation of the flames of the fire on the hearth. They had, however, few easy answers for her. She had too vivid a recollection of the shock, rapidly veiled by identical closed, falsely reassuring expressions on the faces of Neville and Draco when she had presented the rabbit to them with a brief summary of Jacqueline’s findings.

If only we could have found a natural cause for that wretched beast’s death. And worked out why the emergency power supply didn’t come on. Then I’d know I’d only got a normal lunatic to deal with.

She sighed, and continued to stare aimlessly into the fire.