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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Sample Sunday October 28th

The final post of October and of taking part in eFestival of Words Hallowe'en Horror event.  Which means the coupon for 25% off Fragments runs out this week.  As the 5000 words sample HERE is of The Fool, I thought I'd go with a good thing and give you the next main sequence of The Fool below.  So unless you've already read the excerpt on the efestival site, start HERE FIRST.  

The Fool introduces Maryam Michael who is one of my favourite characters ever.  She fell into my mind fully formed and came with a long and interesting biography.  Which will unfold slowly over the remaining stories of the Maryam Michael Mysteries, each named after a Major Arcana in the Tarot Deck.  The stories will be sequential in terms of the titles, but the narratives in each will move around Maryam's life.  She starts off here below in her sixties, but there is a lot of back story there, all the way back to her childhood.

I'll be removing all excerpts from the three stories in Fragments off the web for a few months after this week, so you've been warned, if you want more for free, read up on them this week!

I like to give my major characters some time to develop, so son't let the slow and steady start fool you: this is a gripping occult thriller.  Enjoy.


    Barham paid her the compliment of picking up a phone first; delivering orders that she had the name of any Muslim officers on duty on her desk within the next five minutes.  She then dialled again and demanded to know if they had any Muslim crime scene technicians on the books at all.  Given it was now late at night, Maryam had no idea whom she had called, but the question didn’t appear to faze them.
            Barham escorted Maryam to a nearby posh office with an en suite to allow her to freshen up, aware she had come straight from the train station.  Maryam took the opportunity to phone ahead to Peckham and inform Father Scott that she would be unlikely to arrive at the priest house for several hours.  She did not inform him this was because she’d be next door in the Church itself.
            Before Maryam left in the squad car, an eager young detective was added to be her main liaison with the Met.  DC Shahrukh Iqbal appeared to have been going off duty when he was called in to be her escort; he very much looked like he’d not long finished a hard shift.  She wondered if this would be his first murder case, his sudden appearance caused a few raised eyebrows with the uniformed officers who were driving them.  Maryam understood why Barham had been promoted so young: she learned fast.

            As they approached the Church of the Mother of All Sorrows in the dark and the pouring rain, Maryam could see the police tape around the main door and the police officer standing guard.  Iqbal held the car door open for her as they sprinted over the path, up the stairs and into the vestibule as fast as they could.   The uniformed officer on the steps had opened the doors for them as they approached.  The Church was probably over a hundred years old and spoke of Pugin and classic Gothic Revival; vaulting stone arches and stained glass windows.  Highly ornate carving and roof painting above the altar and a huge Christ crucified hung central in domed space.  The bright light of the crime scene lanterns and the police tape over the entire sanctuary were painful to experience, as was the smell.  Blood: dead dried blood.  It mingled with the scents of old wood, dust, and incense.  Maryam hesitated looking down on the death at the end of the aisle, imagining how it had looked with the corpse upon the altar.   A blasphemous mirror image of what hovered above it.  How it had smelled when all that blood was fresh?
            ‘Have you been here before, Detective Iqbal?’
            ‘Actually, I have.’
            Maryam looked at him askance.  ‘I thought...?’
            ‘That I’d just been assigned?  I have.  I’ve not been here, at this murder scene, but I’ve been in this Church, during orientation.’
            ‘Ah.  I see.  You did a course on multi-faith policing in Peckham?’
            ‘In the Metropolitan area, I visited here then.’
            ‘So you know Father Jones?’
            ‘No.  I met with a Father Edwards and a Bishop Atkins.’
            ‘Did Inspector Barham know this?’
            ‘Not ‘till about an hour ago, no.  And please call me Shahrukh.’
            ‘As-Saamu alaykum, Shahrukh.  I am Maryam.’ She did not offer to shake hands.
            ‘Walaiakum salam, Maryam.’  Even in his English accent, one of privilege and wealth, Shahrukh managed to pronounce her name with the correct emphasis.  She looked forward to him speaking it aloud in front of Fred Atkins, especially if Fred continued to refer to her as ‘Marie’ in front of him.  
            Maryam indicated that Shahrukh should follow her as she walked down the long central aisle heading for the sanctuary.
            ‘Then you’ll know of the import of this.  Have you been informed of all of it?’
            ‘Nope.  Inspector Barham just asked me to accompany you and to assist you...’
            ‘And to not let me touch anything...’
            ‘And to not let you touch anything... then to escort you to the other house, then to go home.  She said I’d get a full briefing when I came in for duty in the morning.’
            ‘Wise, very wise.  Although I dare say it will be boring for you what I’m about to do.’
            ‘Why, what are you about to do?’

            And nothing was what she did, although it was a very active nothing.  With Shahrukh by her side, she walked every inch of the church that was not sealed off by tape.  She went into the empty confessional boxes on the gospel side of the church.  She sat in each of them, on both sides of the screen, and did nothing for five minutes.  She knelt on the penitent’s side and sat in the confessor’s.  She avoided the confessional that was sealed off by police tape.  She walked out of the nave back into the vestibule and took the stairs up to the choir area and sat there.  She asked the detective to walk her out of the Church and into the Sacristy at the back via the outside door, set to one side just for the priests to use.  This ensured she didn’t walk through the taped area of the altar.  The outside door was tucked to the side and had a large steel sheet over it.  She spent ten minutes studying the interior of the small room.  When they returned to the nave, she sat at the front pew and looked at the altar for about twenty minutes. 
            She’d spent about two hours in the Church before hunger and tiredness started to intrude.  She asked Shahrukh to walk her through the rain, and the graveyard, to the parish house.  He advised her to only leave the house with an umbrella in her hands in the morning as there were a few stalwart local photographers snapping away from the street during the day.
              Another uniformed officer stood watch at the door there, who nodded to her as she was allowed in by a very anxious Father Scott. 
            Inside the hallway, the smell of an old parish house met them: dust, age, furniture polish, fried onions, and cigarette smoke.  The days of the smell of cabbage were gone.  Maryam doubted that young Father Jones smoked, but the walls gave evidence that Father Edwards, who had been in residence for decades, did so with gusto.  Father Scott took Maryam’s coat and indicated she should go through to the formal parlour.
            ‘I need to freshen up and change my clothing, Father Scott; please show me to my room first.  Could I ask you to make some tea and toast please? I’m quite hungry.’
            Father Scott nodded and they tip-toed past the sleeping Bishop Atkins, pegged out in a chair by an old gas fire in the parlour, and crept up the stairs.  On the landing, one room showed light under the door sill and Maryam thought that would be Father Jones’s.  All others were dark.  The floor boards creaked as they walked to the end of the hallway and through the farthest door.
            It was a visiting priest’s room, as she had expected, clean and bare.  It had old linoleum and a faded rug, both from the 1950s, a dark wood bedside table of indeterminate age and design.  The lamp and radio on the table were old, but the bed and bedding were modern and looked new.  There was a crucifix on the wall above the bed and a couple of portraits of the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mother & Child on the walls.  A desk sat with a small television sitting on it, unplugged and forlorn.  A jug of water and a single glass.  A wardrobe and a chest of drawers finished the room.  Her cases had been laid carefully to one side.
            ‘There is a guest bathroom next door.  It is not en suite, but no one else will use it.’
            Maryam nodded. 
            ‘Would you like some soup?’
            ‘Oh yes, please, that would be fine.’
            ‘There is real coffee.’
            Her face lit up.  ‘Oh, that would be wonderful, thank you.’
            She longed to have a shower, but had no idea how the plumbing in this old building would react, no need to wake everyone with creaking and groaning.  She washed herself down quickly and dressed in pyjamas and a mandarin collared, floor length house coat.  It was only partially a defence against Atkins: after what she’d seen she needed to feel safe and comfortable.
            Father Scott, who turned out to be called Andrew but preferred Andy, had warmed through a tin of tomato soup and sliced into a crusty loaf of bread.  Tinned soup in the UK was most acceptable and she ate it gratefully.  The coffee was almost good and she enjoyed it thoroughly.  Andy was a most generous and understanding companion who understood the value in silence.  It was something she appreciated about dealing with the clergy: the understanding that silence is often its own defined space and not always an uncomfortable absence.
            It was about three a.m. when Fred blundered into the kitchen, having woken with a crick in his neck.  One look at the tiredness in Maryam’s face and he ushered both himself and Andy out the door, saying they would return in the early afternoon.  Her smile of thanks to him was totally genuine, as he’d restored her memory that he was a kind and caring man who just happened to be good at politics and enjoyed being a power player.  She felt chagrined for her less than charitable thoughts of him and scolded herself for her own weakness.
            Then she hauled herself into bed with a grateful sigh.  She’d been up for almost twenty four hours and her head ached with the weight of the day’s events.  Sleep came swiftly.

            The dawn filled the room with cold light.  The revving of motors and hooting of horns crowded out the bird song.  The rain slashed the panes sideways.  Maryam slept.
            When she rose five hours later, her body was rested and her mind still held a little of the dreaming quality of the spaces in-between.  She sat at the desk and shuffled her Tarot cards and placed them out on the desk.  In her mind she was seeing the layout of the chapel as she’d walked through it.  She placed the cards on the desk in roughly the same positions as the areas that had interested her, finishing with the altar itself.  Only once she completed the pattern she had in her mind, did she look down at the lay. 
            The altar card sprung out at her: The Fool.  Card zero.  The young man off on adventures, too keen and new and full of the love of life to notice the danger he is in.  The Sacristy had the most useful card to her, a reversed King of Swords.  It suggested to her that someone was seeking to make most ill, under the guise of something else.  Her senses had resonated with something in that room and the lay of the cards had reflected that.   The card at the confessional, the reversed Hierophant, rang out a clear warning to her: misinformation, distortion, power achieved from withholding information.  Bad advice.  Not a card you want to see in connection with giving up on sin and the granting of forgiveness.  With no repentance there can be no salvation. 
            There were a lot of positives in the lay, including the World, card twenty-one.  A good ending.  Or perhaps, with the Fool there, central, a new beginning that would end well.  Interestingly, the card by the vestibule, where the police stood, was the Knight of Swords.  Swords were so apt, given the circumstances, and looking at the cards, she looked forward to both meeting Father Jones, and working further with DC Shahrukh Iqbal.
            She cleared the lay away and slipped her cards into her shoulder bag.  Then she spent an hour in prayer and a further hour in meditation.  Around her, people were moving about the house with hushed tones and delicate treads, no doubt trying not to wake her.  The banging from the pipes as she showered both confirmed her suspicions and served to alert them to her being awake, so when she entered the kitchen, she was greeted by the smell of fresh coffee, and frying bacon.
            A startled Father Jones jumped up from the kitchen table and smiled at her, offering her his hand, which she accepted with a smile.  She was dumbstruck for a moment by his size and beauty: his photo had done him no justice.  He was easily six foot two, perhaps six three.  Both his hands enveloped hers with a gentle but firm hold; long, strong fingers with calluses that betrayed much reading, writing, and if she was not wrong, the playing of the guitar.   His eyes were hazel with green flecks, a startling contrast with the dark caramel of his skin.  His Welsh accent, cultured and enchanting in one.  His physique had the sharp and supple tones of the professional athlete.  When he smiled you felt your heart lift.  It was no wonder the graffiti he’d been attacked with had concentrated on his sexuality.  Wyn Jones shone with energy and humanity in a very warm and real body of flesh.  The bruise on his cheek and the slight cut on his lip only served to highlight his perfection.  Poor man, how he must have had to fight to make others believe his vocation was pure. 
            ‘Please, Father Jones, be seated.’ 
            ‘Please call me Wyn, sis...’ His voice trailed off as he drew back in his mistake.  It was one she was used to hearing from the clergy and she smiled back at him.
            ‘Maryam is just fine, Wyn.’ She held her hand outstretched in his grasp, for just a moment, to reassure him of the honesty of her response.  She then approached Father Edwards, who was pouring her a mug of coffee. She extended her hand.
            ‘Maryam Michael, Father, from the Office of the Arcane.  Sorry to meet you in such dreadful circumstances.’
            Father Edwards was over eighty years old and his body was carrying the burden of the murder badly: he looked defeated, wasted in the pain of it all.   Maryam felt his age, his anxiety, his desperate need for the nightmare to be over.  His face was grey and his middle and index fingers stained tobacco yellow.  Priests did not, in general, allow this to happen as they dispensed the host from those fingers to the mouths of the faithful.  It spoke volumes to her of what was going on inside.  He nodded and avoided her outstretched hand by giving her the cup of coffee.  He turned and sat down at the table.  A tobacco tin sat on it and he played with it.  Maryam sat and Wyn jumped up again to make her a sandwich of white sliced British bread and fried bacon.  She thanked him, cut it in half and made herself eat half of that.  The discussion slowly turned their attention from her, to the circumstances, and she was able to dispense with the tiny bites she was taking and concentrate on coffee.  Much more coffee!    
            By the time they had introduced themselves to each other and swapped enough banal pleasantries to get them over not talking about the murder, Inspector Barham had arrived with Shahrukh and a crime scene team in tow.  On their arrival, Wyn went to his room and Father Edwards, who had not offered his forename to anyone, although she knew it was Peter, retired to sit outside in a somewhat dilapidated greenhouse, and smoke.  The rain pouring down on the panes obscured him from view.  Before she and Barham discussed the case, Maryam asked permission to have Father Edwards moved to a different address.  Barham agreed and Maryam phoned Father Scott on the mobile number he’d given her.  He was en route with Atkins.  She requested a respite place be found for Edwards in another parish house, perhaps even at Westminster Cathedral.  After all, they had the apartment they had prepared for her?
            Barham and she discussed the case, with Maryam reporting she had no observations, but requesting that she be allowed to direct the crime team in some additional tests.  Barham was happy with this and they went over to the Church.  Maryam could see Wyn Jones looking down on them from his bedroom window.  She pushed her sympathy to the side and concentrated on being calm and empty, open and flexible.  In her heart she knew what Barham did, that Wyn had no connection with this death at all.  Her head wasn’t so sure they were going to be able to prove that.

            In the Church, Maryam asked if the tabernacle interior had been fully checked, not only for fingerprints, but for fluids.  The crime officers stated it had only been dusted for prints, which she had known, as she’d seen the dusting powder all over the screen and door.  When tested, it proved positive for blood, a tiny amount on the base of the interior. Barham asked what had led her to suspect this and they sat and discussed it with Shahrukh and another detective named Gatto, as the lab technicians catalogued.
            ‘It’s a sacred space.  If the person who committed the murder was also trying to reinforce the sacrilege within Catholic, or Christian, tradition the way they had with Islamic, then it made sense to desecrate the area the sacred host was kept in.’
            ‘Then why not make it obvious?’  Barham and Gatto were taking the lead, with Iqbal listening hard.  Maryam addressed Barham who had asked the question.
            ‘I’m sure the secondary intent is to cause problems between the communities.  Being seen to actively defile the tabernacle at the same time as defiling the Qur’an would put both communities in the same position.  The desecration of the Islamic element is being made more visible than that of the Christian one.’
            ‘Why not desecrate a host?’  This was from Gatto, who shared the same accent as Barham; both natives of this area of London.
            ‘These days there is no sacred host kept in an empty, locked church.  There are usually only unblessed communion wafers.’
            Gatto nodded.  ‘Of course.’  Barham looked at him, and he continued. ‘The priest blesses the host at each service, each mass.  If there is any left over, he swallows them himself so none of the sacred host is wasted.’
            ‘And the host is more sacred in a Christian church, than say the pages of a bible would be?’
            ‘In a Catholic church, yes.  The host is the physical body of Christ.’
            Barham looked confused.  It was Iqbal who spoke up, surprising everyone.
            ‘In the Roman Catholic Church, the bread and wine of the communion are changed by the prayers of the priest into the actual body and blood of their saviour, our prophet, Jesus.  In other Christian communities it represents such, a symbol of it, not the actual thing.  Here, in this Church, it’s treated as if it is actually his body, his blood.’
            Barham looked to Maryam, who nodded.
            ‘Detective Iqbal has said it succinctly.  Ripping up a bible in a Catholic Church would be annoying, but not outrageous or seen as a severe attack.  Polluting the tabernacle with the blood of a murdered man is in line with the offence of ripping and bloodying the Qur’an.’
            ‘So it confirms your thoughts that this is a serious attack on both religions?’
            ‘On this Church, and its beliefs, there has been a serious attack.  I’m still convinced the attacking of Islamic principle is about making more of the offences to this one.’
            ‘The multi-faith leaders have been informed this morning.  Myself and DC Iqbal have an appointment with the Imam of the local mosque this afternoon.’
            ‘I would be interested in attending that, if you would allow it.  But first I must ask what you’ve done to find the weapon used in this murder.’
            ‘The weapon?’
            ‘Yes, the knife, although I suspect, as does your surgeon, that from the writing and the cuts it is a scalpel.  The report says nothing has been found.’
            This time it was Sergeant Gatto who took the lead, taking out a note pad, a very old fashioned and reassuring notepad, and read from it.
            ‘Yesterday, the entire Church and the graveyard were searched thoroughly, including with a metal detector.  Detectors were quite useless in most of the Church, given the nails in all the wood, but it was swept through.  The drains were checked and the main sewer is being examined today, on all the lead points.  The street outside, the bins and post boxes, have been checked and there are ongoing searches in all the local gardens.  The bin collection was the day before the murder, so most of the bins and skips out there are relatively empty, so that’s been quite easy.  So far, we have nothing.’
            ‘Have you searched the parish house?’
            Barham took over again.
            ‘No, we haven’t.  Father Jones was taken to the police station and processed after he’d reported finding the body.  He stayed with the body and phoned on his mobile phone and the CCTV evidence confirms this.  After processing, he was returned to the parish house and asked to stay there.  We haven’t had the manpower to search the premises yet, as the rain has made searching outside areas a priority.  The Bishop has given permission for such a search.’
            ‘The Sacristy was completely searched?’
            Gatto took that in his stride, confirming Maryam’s suspicions that he’d seen the inside of a Catholic Church quite a few times in his childhood; for all that he wasn’t practising now.
            ‘Yes, it was walked through and nothing found, no evidence it had been broken into.  It was locked until we had Father Edwards fetch a key, as Father Jones was still down the station.’
            ‘What’s your point, Miss Michael? What’s so special about this Sacristy room?’  Barham appeared to be intrigued rather than suspicious.
            ‘It’s just that if I were going to desecrate a Church and I knew enough about the Church as this person appears to do, I’d have spent a few moments in there.  Further, if I wanted to desecrate the host without being noticed, and hide a scalpel where it was unlikely to be found immediately, it would be in the sink in there down the plug hole.’
            ‘But we’ve explained that we checked the drains.’
            ‘The sink in there isn’t connected to the drains, Inspector.  It’s a sacrarium.  It’s completely separate from the normal sewage system.  It’s only used to wash anything that a sacred, consecrated host could have come into contact with.  It washes straight down into soil.’

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