Kate threw the pipe under the scaffold and ran down the path to her car. Had anybody seen her running through the graveyard, flustered and grubby, with a suspicious bundle? She had just stolen something from a church, and she didn’t even know what it was.
As she fastened the seatbelt and started the car, she remembered her promise to Reverend Pilling.
She raced back to the rear of the church, locked the vestry door and hid the key beneath one of the three plant pots arranged in a triangle near the wall. If anyone had seen her, they hadn’t bothered to investigate what she was up to. Back in the driving seat, she took a deep breath.
Just an hour ago she’d been standing at the lych-gate, looking fondly up at the church where she’d been christened, preparing herself for an afternoon away from the office, researching the family tree of a new client. Scaffold covered the walls where once there’d been ivy and the stained-glass windows had been fitted with mesh screens to protect them from falling masonry and vandals. By the look of things, repairs to the roof had begun just in time.
She blew away the flurry of snowflakes that danced round her head with a puff of hot breath and tucked a wind-whipped strand of hair back under her woollen hat with a gloved hand. Then, shouldering her bag, she unlatched the gate and made her way up the path to the porch. The iron hinges squeaked as she pushed open the heavy wooden door. It was the perfect accompaniment to the whistle of the December breeze that played through the bare branches of the trees. It gave Kate goose-bumps despite the layers of warm clothing she’d piled on.
Inside the entrance stood a Christmas tree, as yet untrimmed. Leafy green wreaths and swags of ivy were laid out at intervals down the nave, waiting for someone to fasten them in place. She smiled at the happy childhood memories of candlelit Christmas Eve carol services that always ended with her being carried back to the car in her father’s arms, too sleepy to walk.
The arched stone walls reflected the rainbow of light from the tall medieval stained-glass windows, and row upon row of Jacobean box pews mirrored the dark oak beams in the ceiling. A couple of sparrows and a plump wood pigeon had found their way in through a hole in the roof. The pigeon perched on the curve of a wall monument, trying to sleep, his feathers puffed up for warmth while the smaller birds chirruped and chased each other from beam to beam.
Kate watched them for a few minutes until an elderly man wearing the ubiquitous grey suit, black shirt and dog collar of an Anglican vicar emerged through a door in the north wall, half hidden by a second row of arches. A wide smile formed on his face when he saw Kate. She grinned back as he strode towards her, carrying his cane rather than admit his need for its support by leaning on it, and vigorously shook her hand.
“Goodness me, Kathryn, you have grown up,” he said with a chuckle. “You were just this high the last time I saw you.”
He held up his hand to chest level, then tapped the cane on the stone floor three times, a habit he’d developed soon after acquiring it.
“It’s been ten years,” she said.
“It can’t be!”
“Well, tempus fugit, as they say. You must be surprised that I’m still here, though I think it won’t be long before I’m replaced. Probably by a woman. The Bishop is keen to increase the congregation and move with the times. There’s a vicar in the city centre you know who gives sermons dressed as a clown.”
He turned away, then muttered, “Idiot!” under his breath. She heard him nonetheless and pressed her lips together to stifle a giggle. The Reverend tapped his cane again.
“Well, I expect you want to get on with your research?” he said, adjusting his glasses and turning to look over his shoulder at her with eyebrows raised.
She nodded once more, and he led the way down the narrow aisle between the pews and through the wooden door into the vestry. Reverend Pilling’s office was on their left, but they entered the room opposite, a room filled with shelves of leather-bound church archives.
“I’m afraid I can’t stay, Kathryn. One of my parishioners has suffered a bereavement and I need to get the funeral arrangements underway. I’ll go out the front and lock the main door, but I’d be grateful if you’d lock up round the back and leave the key under the pot when you’ve finished.” He handed her a large, old-fashioned brass key. “I must be off.”
He punctuated his words by tapping the cane a further three times and disappeared back the way they’d come.
Kate sighed with contentment. She loved the solitude of working alone in old buildings and began making herself comfortable, placing her notebook on the table in the centre of the room and laying her coat over the back of a wooden chair. She took her time, walking a circuit of the room and running her fingers over the ancient cracked spines of the books. Gold lettering showed the dates of each collection, and when she found the one she needed, she pulled it from its place and laid it on the lectern on the table. Then she sat down and flipped to a fresh page in the notebook, wrote the surname of the family she was researching in capitals at the top, and opened the register.
Her client had appointed Sharpe’s Genealogists and Probate Researchers to finish his family tree when he could get no further on his own, having got into a muddle with the various records he had so far accumulated. Peter Sharpe had assigned the project to her.
She lost track of time as she worked, poring over the names and dates in the archives until the outside world faded away. Anything beyond the book in front of her and the room in which she sat ceased to exist. She was copying the details with meticulous care and double checking the records already provided by the client when a loud, reverberating crack and thundering echo from inside the church startled her. She paused, listening for any other sounds before calling out.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
There was no answer, but it was unlikely that anyone would have heard her from the thick walled room. It couldn’t have been a door banging shut. Reverend Pilling had locked the main door, and this had sounded like a large, heavy object falling on stone. Something from the roof, maybe.
It was quiet now, too quiet, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to concentrate properly until she’d investigated the cause of the noise. Kate put down her pencil and left the sanctuary of the archives, passed through the vestry, and emerged into the hushed church. The sound of her boots scuffing on the paved floor echoed round the building. There was no one there and nothing out of place that could explain what she’d heard, but as she skirted the Norman font and turned toward the chancel, she discovered the culprit.
An enormous piece of masonry, presumably loosened by the roofing contractors, had fallen from high in the east wall. It had crashed to the floor, miraculously missing the choir stalls and altar table, landing smack in the centre of the chancel. The only damage was a broken flagstone.
Kate edged towards the slab, glancing nervously upwards with each step. A triangular piece of paving stuck up from the floor at an angle, and she nudged it with the toe of her boot. It twisted and fell inwards, revealing a cavity below.
They often buried people beneath church floors. In fact, there were other grave slabs nearby, but Kate couldn’t see any carvings on this one, not even worn ones. She crouched down and swept her palm across the stone’s smooth surface, confirming the absence of an inscription.
She felt along the jagged edge of the flagstone with her fingertips, then gave an experimental tug. It didn’t budge, so she pushed her hand into the hole up to her wrist. Something tickled her, and she pulled it out again. The tickle continued, travelling up her arm along with the spider, and she jumped to her feet, shrieking and shaking her arm, brushing furiously at it to dislodge the tiny creature. When she was sure she had flung it far away from her, she took a deep breath. Her heart pounded, and she looked back at the hole with trepidation.
Leave it, she thought. Whatever’s in there isn’t worth it.
She walked away, got as far as the font, stopped, and blew out her breath in a long sigh. She was much too curious to let it go.
I don’t believe I’m doing this, she thought, pushing the sleeves of her jumper up to her elbows and steeling herself to try again.
It took several deep breaths and a number of false starts before she plucked up enough courage to thrust her hand all the way into the hole. It was deeper than she’d expected, but about a foot below the surface she felt something cold and solid and flinched away from it. When it didn’t move, she touched it again. Beneath a thick layer of dust, she could make out a surface covered with small bumps.
Her trembling fingertips traced along the edge of the object, found a corner, and continued on until she’d returned to her starting point. The object had depth to it too, and with her arm as far into the hole as it would go, she felt all over it, building up a mental image, like a blind person touching the face of someone they’d never met before. It felt like a box.
She brushed the dirt off her hand and pushed herself up, sitting back on her heels to survey the surrounding floor. The piece of mortar she squeezed between thumb and forefinger crumbled to dust. Where all the other stones were firmly cemented in place, this one was packed round the edges with earth. It had compacted over the centuries, giving the illusion it was fixed, but if the box contained someone’s remains, why was there no inscription, and why was the slab left loose?
Go on, dig it out.
The thought was in her head, so it must have been her own, but it didn’t feel like something she would say.
She looked around, chewing at a fingernail on the hand that hadn’t been in the hole, while she weighed up her options and wondered how long it would be before Reverend Pilling returned. She dreaded to think what he was going to say when he saw the damage to his church. Was she really going to do this?
With the decision made, she retreated to the archive room and rummaged through her bag for something to help remove the dirt from around the stone. The old nail file she found would have to do. The box was too big to come out through the hole, but if she could loosen the flagstone, she might be able to lift it.
What if I get caught? she asked herself.
We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Her inner monologue was really playing devil’s advocate today. It didn’t even sound like her any more.
Go on then, it prompted.
It took her fifteen minutes to scrape the dirt away, but no matter how she pushed or pulled at the slab, she could raise it only an inch or two before the weight of the stone dragged it down again.
Unwilling to admit defeat, Kate scanned the church for something to use as a lever and was surprised by how dark it had become. The late afternoon light had faded to dusk; the church had turned gloomy, and the silence settled like a heavy wool blanket. Even the birds had gone.
The air felt electric, like the moments before a storm when you were just waiting for it to break, and the prickling sensation at the base of her neck made her feel as though she was being watched from the shadows. She shook her shoulders, trying to dispel the idea.
There was nothing she could use inside the church, and she knew better than to even think of using the medieval silver candlesticks adorning the altar, so she slipped outside to search beneath the scaffold among the discarded rubble. The snow had begun to stick and was already filling up the gaps between the stacks of roof slates leant against the wall.
She turned up a length of steel pipe and after testing its weight, decided it would do the job.
With one end in the hole and using the fallen stone as a fulcrum, she pushed down on the pipe. The flagstone raised enough for Kate to thrust in her spare hand and pull out a large casket. She released the pressure, and the stone thudded back into its original resting place. She held the box up to what remained of the light and examined it. Something shifted inside, and she screwed up her eyes in an effort to peer through the keyhole on the front.
A rustle from the choir stalls made her jump again. With heart in throat, she wasted no time in sweeping the dirt into the hole, back filling the crevices and tidying up as best she could before someone came in and discovered her. Satisfied that the scene looked as undisturbed as she could make it, she rubbed the loose soil from her hands and wiped them down the front of her jeans, leaving dirty, grey streaks.
What now? she thought as she sat on a nearby pew with the box on her knee. She pulled at the lid, but it wouldn’t open.
Take it home.
Oh, no! That was a step too far. She was no thief, and whatever was inside was probably an old church relic or a saint’s bones placed there when the church was built. It was one thing to remove it from the crypt so it didn’t suffer further damage, but to steal it?
She shook her head. She would leave the box in Reverend Pilling’s office with a note explaining everything and phone tomorrow to ask him about it.
With the note written and the box placed squarely on the Reverend’s desk, she took one last look at it and stepped away.
Don’t you want to know what’s inside?
She straightened, tossed her hair back over her shoulder, and firmly pulled the door of the office shut.
Satisfied she had done the right thing, she went back to work. She sat down at the desk in the archives room and picked up her pencil.
What if someone comes in and takes it before the vicar gets back?
Why would anyone do that? she thought in reply.
It would be much safer in here with you.
That was true. She could watch over it until she had to leave, at least. Reverend Pilling might be back by then, and she could give it to him personally.
That’s right, it will only take a minute to get it.
She got up and moved towards the door, and suddenly found herself rooted to the spot.
You don’t have to do this, Kate.
“What?” she said aloud.
Where had that come from? Was someone else here with her? She was sure she had heard someone speak.
“Who’s there?” she called. “Reverend Pilling, is that you?”
There was no answer. She turned the brass knob of the door, but it wouldn’t open. It couldn’t be locked. Unless someone was on the other side.
She overheard whispering and stiffened as she tried to make out what was being said, but all she caught were snatches of a few words and phrases between what sounded like two people arguing.
“… shouldn’t be doing this… can’t interfere…”
“… she should know… what if she wants to…”
“Hello.” She rattled the doorknob. “Is somebody out there? Let me out.”
There was a pause. The door became suddenly free, and Kate stumbled back a step.
Take the box before someone who shouldn’t does.
The thought was so forceful and induced such an overwhelming sense of fear for the safety of the box that Kate hastily packed up her work and a few minutes later was back in the vicar’s office.
“I’m sorry,” she said to the air. “I don’t know why, but I need to know what’s inside. I’ll bring it back. Promise.”
And that’s how she found herself fleeing the scene of a crime.
In the time it had taken her to free the box, a layer of snow had obliterated the road. Kate restarted the engine of her cherry red VW Beetle and with a quick look over her shoulder, pulled away from the church. The back end of the car swung out into the road, but she regained control and sped up out of the village onto a narrow, unlit country lane.
The branches of the trees on either side of the road reached so far over they met in the middle and interlaced, like an arch of swords formed by a military honour guard. The tunnel they created made it so dark Kate could hardly see where she was going. She hunched over the wheel, her eyes squinting through the blizzard of snowflakes that battered against the windscreen, obscuring her view even further.
Her coat and bag had been flung onto the back seat, but she’d laid the box on the passenger seat beside her. Trying to focus her attention on driving, she rubbed her hand over the inside of the windscreen to clear the condensation. But the box, thrown about by the movement of the car, jerked forward and teetered on the edge of the seat. She pushed it back, looked up and gasped in shock, jamming her foot onto the brakes.
The man had appeared out of nowhere, and as Kate’s car sped towards him, he looked straight at her and smiled.
Nel Ashley is the author of Black Feather and Immortal, the second book in the Black Feather Series. She is currently working on her third novel, Dandelion Time, a time slip romance novel.
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