19 February 2014
Cathbad and the cat look at each other. They have been drawing up the battle-lines all day and this is their Waterloo. The cat has the advantage: this is his home and he knows the terrain. But Cathbad has his druidical powers and what he believes is a modest gift with animals, a legacy from his Irish mother who used to talk to seagulls (and receive messages back). He has a companion animal himself, a bull-terrier called Thing, and has always enjoyed a psychic rapport with Ruth’s cat, Flint.
This cat, whose name is Chesterton, is a different proposition altogether. Whereas Flint is a large and lazy ginger Tom whose main ambition is to convince Ruth that he is starving at all times, Chesterton is a lithe and sinuous black creature, given to perching on top of cupboards and staring at Cathbad out of disconcertingly round, yellow eyes. This is Cathbad’s third day of house- and cat- sitting, and so far Chesterton has ignored all blandishments. He has even ignored the food that Cathbad carefully weighed out according to Justin’s instructions. He might be living on mice, but Chesterton does not look like an animal who is governed by his appetites. He’s an ascetic, if Cathbad ever saw one.
But Justin’s sternest admonition, written in capitals and underlined in red, was: DO NOT LET CHESTERTON OUT AT NIGHT. And now, here they are, at nine o’clock on a February evening with Chesterton staring at the door and Cathbad barring the way with his fiery sword. The biblical reference comes to hand because the house is part of an ancient pilgrimage site and is decorated by etchings from the Old Testament. Justin, the custodian of the site, is on a fact-finding trip to Knock, something Cathbad finds extremely funny. He has left the fifteenth-century cottage—and the accompanying cat—under Cathbad’s protection.
Chesterton meows once, commandingly. ‘I’m sorry,’ says Cathbad. ‘I can’t.’
Chesterton gives him a pitying look, jumps on to a cupboard and manages to slide out through a partially opened window. So that’s why he has been on hunger strike.
‘Chesterton!’ Cathbad lifts the heavy latch and opens the door. Cold air rushes in. ‘Chesterton! Come back!’
The cottage is attached to the church, with a passageway through it at ground-floor level forming a kind of lych-gate. Worshippers have to pass underneath the main bedroom in order to get to St Simeon’s. There’s even a handy recess in the wall of the passage so that pall-bearers can rest their coffins there. The back door of the cottage opens directly on to the churchyard. ‘But you won’t mind that,’ said Justin, ‘it’s right up your street.’ And it’s true that Cathbad does like burial grounds, and all places of communal worship but, even so, there’s something about St Simeon’s Cottage, Walsingham, that he doesn’t quite like. It’s not the presence of the cat, or the creaks and groans of the old house at night; it’s more a sort of sadness about the place, a feeling so oppressive that, during his first evening, Cathbad was compelled to call upon a circle of protection and to ring his partner Judy several times.
He’s not scared now, just worried about the cat. He walks along the church path, the frost crunching under his feet, calling the animal’s name.
And then he sees it. A tombstone near the far wall, glowing white in the moonlight, and a woman standing beside it. A woman in white robes and a flowing blue cloak. As Cathbad approaches, she looks at him, and her face, illuminated by something stronger than natural light, seems at once so beautiful and so sad that Cathbad crosses himself.
‘Can I help you?’ he calls. His voice echoes against stone and darkness. The woman smiles – such a sad, sweet smile – shakes her head and starts to walk away, moving very fast through the gravestones towards the far gate.
Cathbad goes to follow her, but is floored, neatly and completely, by Chesterton, who must have been lurking behind a yew tree for this very purpose.
DCI Harry Nelson hears the news as he is driving to work. ‘Woman’s body found in a ditch outside Walsingham. SCU request attend.’ As he does a handbrake turn in the road, he is conscious of a range of conflicting emotions. He’s sorry that someone’s dead, of course he is, but he can’t help feeling something else, a slight frisson of excitement, and a relief that he’s been spared that morning’s meeting with Superintendent Gerald Whitcliffe and their discussion of the previous month’s targets. Nelson is in charge of the SCU, the Serious Crimes Unit, but the truth is that serious crime is often thin on the ground in King’s Lynn and the surrounding areas. That’s a good thing – Nelson acknowledges this as he puts on his siren and speeds through the morning traffic – but it does make for rather dull work. Not that Nelson hasn’t had his share of serious crime in his career – only a few months ago he was shot at and might have died if his sergeant hadn’t shot back – but there’s also a fair amount of petty theft, minor drugs stuff and people complaining because their stolen bicycle wasn’t featured on Crimewatch.
He calls his sergeants, Dave Clough and Tim Heathfield, and tells them to meet him at the scene. Though they both just say ‘Yes, boss’, he can hear the excitement in their voices too. If Sergeant Judy Johnson were there, she would remind them that they were dealing with a human tragedy, but Judy is on maternity leave and so the atmosphere in the station is rather testosterone heavy.
He sees the flashing lights as he turns the corner. The body was found on the Fakenham Road, about a mile outside Walsingham. It’s a narrow road with high hedges on both sides, made narrower by the two squad cars and the coroner’s van. As soon as Nelson steps out of his car he feels claustrophobic, something that often happens when he’s in the countryside. The high green walls of foliage make him feel as if he’s in the bottom of a well and the grey sky seems to be pushing down on top of him. Give him pavements and street lighting any day.
The local policemen stand aside for him. Chris Stephenson, the police pathologist, is in the ditch with the body. He looks up and grins at Nelson as if it’s the most charming meeting place in the world.
‘Well, if it isn’t Admiral Nelson himself!’
‘Hallo, Chris. What’s the situation?’
‘Woman, probably in her early to mid-twenties, looks like she’s been strangled. Rigor mortis has set in, but then it was a cold night. I’d say she’s been here about eight to ten hours.’
‘What’s she wearing?’ From Nelson’s vantage point it looks like fancy dress, a long white robe and some sort of blue cloak. For a moment he thinks of Cathbad, whose favourite attire is a druid’s cloak. ‘It’s both spiritual and practical’, he’d once told Nelson.
‘Nightdress and dressing gown,’ says Stephenson. ‘Not exactly the thing for a February night, eh?’
‘Has she got slippers on?’ Nelson can see a...