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The Remains of an Altar

Phil Rickman

PART ONE

‘The Bible record is unmistakable in its references to the old straight track as having partly or wholly gone out of use: “the ancient high places are in possession of the enemy”; “my people have forgotten me, they stumble in their ways from the ancient paths.”’

Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track (1925)

1

On the Bald Hill

More than a day later, there was still wreckage around: a twisted door panel across the ditch and slivers of tyre like shed snakeskin in the grass.

It had rained last night, and the Rev. S. D. Spicer’s cassock was hemmed with wet mud. What might have been a piece of someone’s blood-stiffened sleeve was snagged in brambles coiling like rolls of barbed wire from the hedge. The countryside, violated, wasn’t letting go. It felt to Merrily as if the air was still vibrating.

‘Other vehicle was an ancient Land Rover Defender,’ Spicer said. ‘Must’ve been like driving into a cliff face.’

Ground mist was draped like muslin over the hedges and down the bank and the early sun lit the windows of a turreted house in the valley. Looking back along the road Merrily could see no obvious blind spots, no overhanging trees.

‘Boy died in the ambulance.’ Spicer nodded at the metallic red door panel, crumpled and creased like thrown-away chocolate paper. ‘Took the fire brigade best part of an hour getting him out the car. Fortunately, he was unconscious the whole time.’

Merrily shook her head slowly, the way you did when there was nothing to be said. No act of violence as sudden and savage, massive and unstoppable, as a head-on car crash. She was thinking, inevitably, of Jane and Eirion out at night in Eirion’s small car. One momentary lapse of attention, a snatched caress, and…

‘He was in his mid-twenties. Lincoln Cookman, from north Worcester. The girl… no hurry to get her out. She’d had her window wide open. No seat belt. Head almost taken off on impact. Sonia Maloney, from Droitwich.’

‘Oh God.’ Merrily took a step back. ‘How old?’

‘’Bout nineteen.’ Spicer’s London accent was as flat as a rubber mat. ‘All horribly brutal and unsightly, but mercifully quick. No suffering. Except, of course, for Preston Devereaux.’

‘Sorry, Preston-?’

‘Local farmer and chairman of the parish council. And, as it happened, the driver of the Land Rover. Returning late from a family wedding.’

‘Oh, hell, really?’

‘Could’ve been any of us, Mrs Watkins. Parish Council’s been asking for speed cameras since last autumn. Not that that would’ve made a difference, state these kids must’ve been in. They come over from Worcester, places like that, at the weekends. Windows open, music blasting. Sixty-five, seventy, wrong side of the road. Poor guy’s still reliving it. He’ll need a bit of support – my job, I think.’

‘And what, erm… what’s mine, exactly, Mr Spicer?’

It was a reasonable question, but he didn’t answer. Parish priests would often have difficulty explaining why they’d resorted to Deliverance. Spicer had been terse and cagey on the phone yesterday. Can you come early? Before eight a.m.? In civvies. Best not make a carnival out of it.

OK, just gone 7.50 on a Monday morning, and here she was in discreet civvies: jeans and a sweatshirt. And here’s the Rector, all kitted out: cassock, collar, pectoral cross. Merrily felt wrong-footed. Why would he want that? She’d never met him before, didn’t even know his first name. Never been to this village before, out on the eastern rim of the diocese where it rose into the ramparts of Worcestershire.

‘Well, the point is,’ Spicer said, ‘this is the worst but it’s not exactly the first.’

‘You mean it’s an accident black spot?’

Sometimes, when a stretch of road acquired a reputation for accidents, someone would suggest that a bad pattern had been established, and you’d be asked to bless it. One of those increasingly commonplace roadside rituals, support for all the road-kill wreaths laid out by bereaved relatives – how did all that start? Anyway, it was a job for the local guy, unless there were complications.

‘How many actual accidents have there been, Mr Spicer?’

He didn’t respond. He was standing quite still; shortish and thickset, with sparse greying hair shaved tight to his head and small, blank eyes that seemed to be on his face rather than embedded there. Like a teddy bear’s eyes, Merrily thought. Poor man, Sophie had said last night on the phone. She took the children, of course.

It was as though some part of Spicer had withdrawn, the way a computer relaxed into its screensaver. Not many people could do this in the presence of a stranger – especially clergy who, unless they were in a church, tended to treat silence like a vacuum into which doubt and unbelief might enter if it wasn’t filled with chatter, however inane.

OK, whatever. Merrily let the silence hang and looked up at the tiered ramparts of the sculpted fortress-hill called Herefordshire Beacon, also known as British Camp. This was the most prominent landmark in the Malverns. Where the Celts were said to have held out against the Romans. The misty sun was hovering over it like a white- cowled lamp.

The name Malvern came from the Welsh moel bryn, meaning bald hill, and bald it still was, up on the tops of this startling volcanic ridge, while the foothills and the Alpine-looking valleys were lush with orchards and the gardens of summer villas: well-preserved remains of Elgar’s England.

‘Three… four now,’ Spicer said. ‘Maybe even five, including this one. That’s inside a couple of months. One was a lorry, took a chunk out of the church wall.’

‘And on a stretch of road as open as this, I suppose that’s…’

‘Drivers reckoned they swerved to avoid a ghost,’ Spicer said.

His tone hadn’t altered and his eyes remained limpid. A wood pigeon’s hollow call was funnelled out of the valley.

‘That took a while to come out, didn’t it?’ Merrily said.

‘Come back to the house.’ He turned away. ‘We’ll talk about it there.’

2

Uncle Alfie

After very little sleep, Jane awoke all sweating and confused. On one level she was lit up with excitement, on another fired by the wrongness of things: injustice, greed, sacrilege.

Bastards.

The thinness of the light showed that it was still early, but the Mondrian walls were already aglow: ancient timber-framed squares, once wattle and daub, then plastered and whitewashed and finally overpainted, by Jane

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