None the Wiser
Seamus Carter dropped to his knees.
His voice was little more than a murmur, rising and falling with the rhythm of the prayer.
Exhaustion threatened, and he tried to take strength from the subtext, a momentary sense of calm easing the guilt that had gnawed away at him for days. He kept his eyes closed in meditation a while longer, savouring the tentative peace that enveloped him.
No-one would disturb him.
He was alone – the pub that stood on the other side of the boundary wall with his church had a live band playing tonight. He had heard the thumping bass line as he had been praying, and none of his parishioners were likely to visit at this time of night.
Easing himself from a kneeling position, he genuflected as he gazed up at the wooden crucifix above the altar, and then bowed his head in a final, silent prayer.
Seamus blinked, his trance-like state leaving him as soon as he moved away from the altar.
Despite his efforts, the self-loathing remained, and he scowled.
It wasn’t meant to be like this.
He stomped along the aisle towards the vestry, reached into his pocket for a bubble pack of antacids, then popped and swallowed two.
His thoughts turned to the Sunday morning service, and the uplifting sermon he was struggling to write.
The events of the previous week had shaken him, and he needed to excuse his fear.
Addressing the congregation would be a tincture, a way to soothe the wound that had been opened.
Crossing the remaining length of the nave, he pushed through the door to his office and sank into the hard wooden chair at his desk. It faced the wall, a plain wooden cross above his head.
The room had no windows, which he preferred. The setting enabled him to meditate upon his words as he crafted carefully phrased sentences to spread the word of his God.
He tapped the trackpad on the laptop, and, as the screen blinked to life, he manoeuvred the cursor over the music app, selected a compilation of violin sonatas, and closed his eyes as the music washed over him.
Two years ago, the church cleaner had entered the room and emitted a sharp, shocked gasp at the loud trance music emanating from the computer. After he’d calmed her and tried to convince her that, often, his best sermons were written at one hundred and twenty beats per minute, she’d continued with her dusting, although she’d eyed him warily. He’d resisted the urge to educate her musical tastes further with the progressive rock of 1970s Pink Floyd.
Seamus read through the words he had typed an hour ago, and frowned. He deleted the last sentence, cracked his knuckles and then stabbed two fingers at the keyboard in an attempt to convey the thoughts that troubled him.
Perhaps in sharing his own foibles, he would find retribution.
The stack of paperwork at his elbow fluttered as a cold breeze slapped against the back of his neck, and he rubbed the skin, his eyes never leaving the screen.
He would check all the doors and windows before leaving tonight, but now he had found his flow, the sermon was almost complete.
A shuffling noise reached his ears before he became aware of someone standing behind him, a moment before a rope snaked around his neck.
Seamus lashed out in fear, shoving the chair backwards. Terror gripped him as the noose grew taut.
A gloved hand slapped his right ear, sending shards of pain into his skull, and he cried out in pain as his assailant moved into view.
Black mask, black sweatshirt, black jeans.
‘There’s money in the box in the filing cabinet over there. My wallet is in my trouser pocket.’
Before he could recover from the shock, his right wrist was fastened to the arm of the chair with a plastic tie.
His left fist flailed, then Seamus cried out as he was punched in the balls, all the air rushing from his lungs in one anguished gasp.
He panted as his left wrist was secured to the chair, and tried to focus his thoughts.
‘What do you want?’
The words dried on his lips as he heard the warble in his rasping voice, the unsteadiness that betrayed the lie.
Eyes glared at him from slits within a black hood, but no words came.
Instead, the figure moved behind him.
Bile rose in his throat as the rope tightened under his Adam’s apple.
His cry was instinctive, desperate – and useless.
Restricted by the rope around his neck, his voice was little more than a croak, broken and shattered.
He twisted in his seat, nostrils flaring as he tugged at the ties that bound his wrists to the arms of the chair.
He couldn’t move.
He gagged, struggling to swallow.
Without warning, the rope jerked, forcing his chin towards the ceiling and burning his throat.
A single tear rolled over his cheek as a wetness formed between his legs, heat rising to his face while his attacker crouched at the back of the chair, securing the rope.
He had known it would come to this, one day.
The figure said nothing, and edged around his body, peering into his eyes before raising a knife to Seamus’s face.
A gloved hand gripped his jaw, forcing his mouth open as the priest panted for air.
The blade traced around each eye socket, millimetres away from his face.
I don’t want to die.
His eyes bulged as the knife moved to his cheek, his plea little more than a whimper.
Seamus gagged at the rope cutting into his neck, fighting against the pressure in his lungs.
I can’t breathe.
A searing pain tore into his tongue, slicing through sinew and tendons before the knife flashed in front of his eyes, blood dripping from the blade, and, as Seamus’s body convulsed, the figure before him began to speak.
‘Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…’
Jan West aimed the key fob at the car, and only relaxed once she saw the indicator lights flash.
The area had developed a reputation for petty theft, and given the car wasn’t hers to start with, she wasn’t prepared to take any risks. Nor was she prepared to pay the extortionate parking fees demanded by the local council for what would be a short stay.
She turned away from the vehicle, slipped her keys into her leather handbag and buttoned her woollen coat while making her way across the cracked surface of the car park.
Pushing through a gap next to the barred metal gate, she swore under her breath as she slipped in mud-flecked gravel that had congealed next to the verge due to the number of dog walkers who used the route on a regular basis and had churned up the rudimentary path.
She regained her balance, throwing her arms out to her sides, and hoped to hell no-one she knew had seen her. She glanced over her shoulder but the car park remained deserted, save for her vehicle. Peering at the mud clinging to her month-old black suede shoes, she groaned and tried to wipe off the worst on the long grass beside the path. Her eyes fell to her wrist, her watch catching the weak sunlight.
She could have saved time and cut across the middle of the meadow to the river that twisted and turned its way through the market town, but one look at the boggy earth and she decided she’d take the long way around.
The narrow gravel path soon disappeared, making way for a grassy route worn away by walkers, the stench of rotten vegetation pungent on the damp morning air.
She stood to one side as she spotted a pair of brightly clothed men jog towards her, eyeing them warily as they drew closer and removing her hands from her pockets.
Their heavy breathing sent faint clouds of vapour into the air, and one of them nodded to her as he passed before he set his focus back to his route, several steps ahead of his companion.
The two figures receded into the distance, and Jan noted that instead of going through the gate to the car park, they continued towards an archway under the stone bridge that spanned the river further downstream.
To her left, the backs of a row of cottages flanked the meadow, the landscape a bleak contrast to the busy main road the buildings faced.
She peered over the low wall into the different gardens, taking in the rubbish bins, children’s toys discarded haphazardly, and brightly coloured laundry hanging out to dry on washing lines.
Raising her gaze to the clouds tumbling overhead, she thought it a little optimistic of the residents to expect anything to dry that day.
The noise of traffic reached her ears, the narrow bridge over the river adding to the morning congestion problems, despite having been widened three times over the centuries. The market town simply wasn’t designed for the number of cars, trucks, and people that descended on it every day.
When she reached the end of the row of cottages, she turned right and began to follow the towpath, with the river to her left.
The waters had receded considerably since the early spring floods, although a pervading stench of damp assaulted her senses as the earth continued to dry out. She eyed a swan as it floated past. It glared at her disdainfully before paddling off towards its mate that bobbed about on the water near the opposite bank.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she turned her attention to the row of boats further up the towpath.
Modern cruisers dipped and rose on the water alongside brightly painted narrowboats, the creak of ropes on moorings breaking the silence. As she passed the boats, she kept her senses alert while her eyes roamed over the different shapes and sizes.
She glanced over her shoulder, but no-one followed.
She slowed and pulled out a scrap of paper from her pocket, and then lifted her gaze and squinted towards the boats, realising the one she sought was at the far end of the row.
She shoved the paper back in her pocket, cursed the mud that was clinging to her shoes, and rummaged in her bag.
As she approached the last narrowboat, she ran her gaze over the dull blue paint around the windows and the worn timber gunwales.
A figure stood on the stern, coiling a rope, his head bowed as he worked. Dark curly hair lifted on the breeze as he turned away from her and threw something on the deck, a soft thud reaching her ears.
He wore a navy sweatshirt and jeans, his feet covered by boots that appeared to have seen better days. The sort that Scott would call his “gardening boots” whenever she suggested throwing them away.
Before she could open her mouth and call out to him, a dog barked. A split second later, a dark shape launched itself from another boat at her.
The man’s voice carried across to the animal too late to save the hem of her trousers. Muddy paw prints soon peppered the charcoal-grey material, and she groaned.
The dog trotted off towards the narrowboat, the man’s voice sounding more amused than cross to her ears.
He straightened as she drew near, a frown creasing his brow while he kept his fingers looped through the dog’s collar.
‘Can I help you?’
She took a deep breath. ‘Detective Sergeant Mark Turpin?’
‘Who are you?’
She held up her warrant card. ‘I’m Detective Constable Jan West. There’s been a murder, and the guv needs you at the crime scene.’
"Fast paced with vivid characterisation and clever twists – this is another winner”
Adrian McKinty, bestselling author of The Chain and the Sean Duffy series
"A terrific start to a new series"
Jo Spain, bestselling author of With Our Blessing and The Confession