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A dark, delicious tale of a popular village cleric who has no conscience.
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A dark, delicious tale of a popular village cleric who has no conscience.
"You don't mean that, Bishop. You want me to roast in hell. I can see it in your eyes."
The bishop muttered, "That's what you deserve. You're the worst case I've come across. A wicked young man."
"You have evidence?"
"In the car. A dossier this size." Actually the shape the bishop made with his hands looked rather like a blessing.
"Then it's a fair cop."
The young rector was taking it well-too well, flippantly even. He sat serenely on his swivel chair in his comfortable office in Foxford Rectory, his Wiltshire home. The bishop's summing-up was true. The Reverend Otis Joy was young, still in his twenties, and wicked. The afternoon sun through the leaded windows cast black bars over him, yet he managed to look benign, thanks to a generous mouth with laughter lines at the edges, a fine straight nose and deep-set eyes of that pale yellowish brown that is disarmingly called hazel. A sharp intelligence lurked there.
The bishop, on the other side of the desk, did not appreciate what was going on. If you knew Marcus Glastonbury, you would not expect him to appreciate anything out of the ordinary. At the last General Synod, towards the end of his specially dull speech on improving communication in the Church, a pigeon that had crept through a window of Church House had fluttereddown and perched on the microphone. Bishop Marcus was the only one who hadn't laughed.
"Speaking of cops ...?" Joy raised his eyebrows.
The bishop didn't follow him.
"... are they involved?"
"Oh." A shake of the big, bald, consecrated head.
"Thank God for that." Joy watched the bishop wince. "Or would you rather we left the big fella out of it?"
The bishop drew in a sharp, shocked breath as if he had been struck. He was in danger of being undermined. "I have not consulted anyone ... yet."
"Not even in prayer? He knows, anyway. No use pretending he doesn't."
"It's a crime by any definition, secular or temporal," said the bishop. "There's no escaping that, which is why I'm here."
"To do a deal?"
That suggestion was not received well. It drew forth a sound remarkably like a growl.
Joy leaned back, letting the chair rotate a little, and studied his accuser. He'd never seen old man Glastonbury dressed like this, in an ordinary blue shirt, striped tie and crumpled linen suit, perfect, he thought, for importuning in the park. It was supposed to make the bish less conspicuous, of course. This was the Church under cover, about to trade with the devil, disagreeable as it must be. The gleaming blue BMW had crunched onto his gravel drive without warning. A knock on the door and not a word of greeting when it was opened. Glastonbury had stood there with a bulging briefcase under one arm, which he handed to Joy to carry inside. No friendly handshake. No response to the usual courtesies. When a bishop refuses a whisky, watch out.
The bishop made an effort to seize the initiative again. "Not to beat about the bush, you're an embezzler. You have systematically robbed the Church of funds. It's a criminal matter that ought to be reported."
"But won't," murmured Joy.
There was a shocked pause. "I don't think I heard correctly."
"I don't have to take such insolence from a parish priest. I'm looking for some sign of contrition."
"Like grovel, grovel?"
"I can't believe what I'm hearing. I was told you were a first-class priest, popular, hard-working, a most able preacher who fills the church most Sundays."
"The people fill the church, my lord."
"Your previous parish, St. Saviour's, has the highest opinion of you."
"This is about St. Saviour's?"
"Who blew the whistle, then?"
Bishop Glastonbury tilted his head in a superior way and for a moment it caught the light and shone as if he were freshly anointed. His vanity was well known in the diocese. "I take an interest in all my parishes. After you left, and the new vicar arrived, there was a spectacular improvement in the St. Saviour's income."
"That's a matter for rejoicing."
"It increased by something like forty per cent."
A cold stare. "But there was no obvious reason. The church membership actually dropped away after you left. I make it my business to study the parish returns at the Diocesan Board of Finance, so it came to my attention. They're all on my computer at Glastonbury. Any departure from the norm stands out. I sent for the bank statements. I looked at the books. What I discovered shocked me more than I can say. I was forced to the conclusion that-"
"I had my fingers in the till?"
"The collection plate."
"Get real, my lord."
The bishop twitched again.
Joy told him, "I'm not such a dumbo as to help myself to twenty quid's worth of small change."
"I was speaking figuratively. If it had been the collection plate you were robbing, the parish would have got onto you before this. I had to dig deep to find the discrepancies."
"And you did?"
"Eventually. The bogus bank accounts. Two roof funds, set up with different banks."
"Ah." Joy raised a hand like a footballer acknowledging a professional foul.
"The so-called parish rooms account."
"That, too." He lifted the other hand.
"I put up one hypothesis after another to explain the unthinkable, a priest who systematically robs his own church. It was so monstrous that I confided in no one else. You can't share suspicions like that until you're absolutely sure."
"Dead right, my lord."
"So this is a private visit. As far as my staff are concerned, I have an afternoon off. That's why I'm dressed informally. I wanted to put the charge to you in person. I hope to hear that it's a misunderstanding."
"But that would be a lie."
The logic escaped the bishop. "Consider your position. You're one of the best regarded young priests in the diocese. Don't you have anything to say in mitigation?"
"Before you pronounce judgement?"
"Before we talk about the next step."
"Ah-the next step." Joy's eyes glittered. "What are you after? Your cut?"
Shock, extreme shock, set Marcus Glastonbury's mouth agape like one of the gargoyles on the roof of his cathedral. "That's abominable." He looked about him as if for support from the shelves of religious books, the palm crosses pinned to the notice board, the gilt-framed print of The Light of the World and the solid glass paperweight of St. Paul's Cathedral. "Have you no shame?"
"I find it gets in the way. What do you expect-wailing and gnashing of teeth?"
The bishop made a huge effort to get control of his features again. "You realise, of course, that it's over. You can't continue in the Church."
"This church? St. Bartholomew's? They haven't complained, have they?"
"The Church of England. You're finished, Joy. You must resign the priesthood."
"Resign?" The young man made it sound like a foreign word.
The bishop played it down a little. "We'll find some form of words. A nervous breakdown, some unspecified illness. There are ways it can be handled."
"I'm not the first, then?"
"And you must make good the money you took. What did you do with it?"
"But on what?"
Otis Joy rotated the chair and looked out of the window at the bishop's beautiful car. "On the trappings of success. Monstrous, isn't it, the cost of keeping up appearances?"
Marcus Glastonbury's voice piped up in outrage, "I won't let you get away with this."
"Vengeance is mine, saith the lord bishop."
It crossed Joy's mind that he might have done himself more good by quoting from the Sermon on the Mount on the subject of mercy, but he doubted if it would make much impression on this bishop. Instead he was compelled to embark on another strategy. He turned the chair to face the front again, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at the BMW parked on his drive. "The Church does all right. It can afford to write off a few grand. It's a major player in the property market, owns big chunks of London."
"How right you are. And it pays peanuts to the clergy."
"That isn't what I meant. It's deplorable that a priest should characterise the church in such a way."
"Face facts, Bishop. Lambeth Palace doesn't want a major scandal."
"Is that a threat?"
"It's why you're here. You see, I don't intend to hang up my dog-collar, not for you or anyone. They call this a living, which means for ever. Or till you find me another just as suitable."
"But you're morally corrupt. How can you possibly continue as a priest?"
"I won't be the only one."
Their two minds were not in tune, nor ever likely to be.
The bishop became more practical. "If you can't pay back the money immediately, we can make an arrangement, so much a month."
"And I continue here?"
"Absolutely not. You're unfit for the ministry. I've offered you a discreet way out and you must take it. We'll use your PC."
Otis Joy played the words over in his mind. The parish council? The local bobby?
With the air of a man who has just scored the winner, his visitor pointed to Joy's own personal computer on the table against the wall. "You will sign a letter of resignation."
"A computer-literate bishop, for all that's wonderful."
Now the bishop picked up the briefcase and took out a laptop, like a service engineer preparing the invoice. He placed it on the desk in front of him, opened it and started tapping the keys.
Joy asked, "Is this resignation letter already on disk?"
"In draft form. It doesn't go into details. You and I know the reasons behind this and there's no need for the rest of the diocese to rake over the embers. There." He passed the laptop across the desk.
"I'm impressed," said Joy. "Do they issue these to all bishops?"
"Read it, man."
Appropriately the little screen was heavenly blue. The words were less attractive.
I, Otis Joy, Rector of St. Bartholomew's Church, Foxford, beg leave to resign from Holy Orders with immediate effect. This is for personal reasons. It is final and irrevocable.
"Do you agree the wording?" demanded the bishop, obviously feeling he had the upper hand now. "We'll download onto your machine and do a print-out for you to sign."
"If they're compatible."
"More than you and me. Don't I get time to think about it?"
"I shan't leave without your resignation. And I want a written undertaking to repay the church the sum you embezzled, which I estimate at not less than fifteen thousand pounds."
"Is that on the machine as well?"
"No. We'll do this first."
"OK." Joy handed the laptop back to the bishop. "You'll need paper for the printer." He opened a drawer, took out a sheet of headed notepaper and handed it across.
This sudden act of capitulation was greeted with a nod that was part satisfaction, part triumph. The high-tech bishop crossed the room and sat at the rector's modest machine. He connected his laptop, switched on and touched several keys.
"I must see this." Joy got up and came around the desk and stood at the bishop's shoulder.
The text of the letter appeared on the screen.
The bishop touched more keys and fed in the sheet of paper. The printer hummed and brought forth the resignation.
"There." He took a silver Montblanc fountain pen from his pocket and unscrewed the top. "Sign."
The pen was not required. Unseen by the bishop, Otis Joy had snatched up St. Paul's Cathedral. He swung it with tremendous force at the back of the big, bald head.
The impact of solid glass against bone was irresistible. Marcus Glastonbury was killed by the first blow. He got two more to be certain.
After a wedding rehearsal in the church-but before rigor mortis set in-Joy returned to the rectory, his pastoral duties over for the day. He felt as shaky as anyone does with a dead bishop waiting for disposal, but he was in control. He trusted himself not to panic. In fact he was experiencing quite a surge of adrenalin at the challenge of the things to be done. A clergyman's life is more structured than lay people ever appreciate, and there is quiet satisfaction at coping with whatever life throws at you and still conducting services on time. He confined himself to a quick supper of pilchards on toast, a banana and a can of beer, whilst thinking over the fine points of his arrangements. He had a plan. When you live with the prospect of someone like Marcus Glastonbury knocking on your door, you think through the options you have. He was a keen student of criminology.
For example, he knew about forensic science. He knew better than to leave traces on his clothes. The blood-spotted stock and dog-collar he'd been wearing that afternoon were already in a plastic sack awaiting disposal.
Before doing anything else about the late Marcus Glastonbury, he went upstairs and stripped completely. As if he was well used to going naked, he padded downstairs to the kitchen, put on rubber gloves, and went to the office to check the scene. The body still lay where it had fallen in front of the computer table. The head wound had seeped badly. Otis Joy was not a man for profanities, but this could only be described as a bloody mess. The old Wilton rug he had inherited from the previous incumbent would definitely have to go.
He knelt beside the dead bishop, not in prayer, but to remove anything that might link him with the killing. An entry in a diary, or a scrap of paper with the rectory address, would be a gift to the plod. Through his job the rector had a privileged relationship with death, so he didn't flinch as he went through the bishop's pockets and made a small heap on the desk. Car keys and a pocket bible. A wallet thick with banknotes and plastic. The high life: American Express, Mastercard, Visa, the Vintage Wine Club. What was it St. Paul wrote in his First Epistle to Timothy? "A bishop then must be blameless ... sober, of good behaviour ... not given to wine ... not greedy of filthy lucre." Maybe the filthy lucre was meant for charity. Maybe flying saucers have landed. He found the diary, noted that there was no entry for this day, and put it back. He put the cap on the Montblanc pen and replaced it in an inside pocket. Replaced two twenty pound notes and everything except the car keys, one of the credit cards and the bible.
Then the doorbell rang.
The clergy are used to unexpected callers, but Joy had suffered one already. This was inconvenient. He was tempted to ignore it. Then he remembered his car was standing on the drive, unlocked, advertising that he was at home. He had taken the precaution of backing it out of the garage, and putting the bishop's BMW out of sight in there.
Suppose someone was dying and wanted a last Sacrament. He hoped not, for both their sakes. Standing up, he remembered he was naked and looked round for something to cover himself.
The bell rang again.
He fetched an apron from the kitchen and, like Adam, tied it around his waist.
He opened the front door a fraction, just enough to peer round, with only his head and one bare shoulder showing.
"Oh, great timing!" There was an embarrassed laugh from one of his younger parishioners, Mrs. Rachel Jansen, blonde, slender, unthreatening-if any caller can be called unthreatening when there's a corpse back there on the office floor.
He told her, "I'm on a messy job. You'll have to excuse me."
She said, "I can easily call back when you're decent, Rector. I mean-"
She had turned quite red.
"No," he said with more force than either of them expected. "It's all right. I'm wearing something." He opened the door wider to prove it.
The sight of the young rector in yellow rubber gloves and a striped apron did not lessen Rachel Jansen's embarrassment.
He smiled at her. "Saves my kit."
She nodded several times, humouring him. She seemed unable to speak.
"What can I do for you?"
She took a step away, raising her hand dismissively. She found her voice again, and it was nervous. "Really. Don't trouble."
"Out with it, Mrs. Jansen."
She was trying to find an exit line.
"Fire away," insisted Joy.
The words came in a rush. "The day before yesterday I put a white plastic sack through your letterbox. Help the Aged. Old clothes. Isn't that it behind you at the bottom of the stairs?"
Excerpted from The Reaper by Peter Lovesey Copyright © 2000 by Peter Lovesey
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.