When autumn storms blast Hereford, centuries-old human bones are found among the roots of a tree blown down on the city's Castle Green. But why have they been stolen? At the nearby Cathedral, another storm is building around a modernizing bishop who believes that if the Church is to survive it must phase out irrelevant archaic practices. Not good news for Merrily Watkins, consultant on the paranormal or, as it used to be known, diocesan exorcist. Especially as she's now presented with the job at its most medieval. In the moody countryside on the edge of Wales, a rambling 12th-century house is thought to be haunted. Although its new owners don't believe in ghosts, they do believe in spiritual darkness and the need for an exorcism. But their approach to Merrily is oblique and guarded. No one can be told—least of all, the new bishop. Merrily's discovery of the house's links with the medieval legend of a man who resisted mortality threatens to expose the hidden history of a more modern cult and its trail of insidious abuse—a trail that may not be closed.
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Friends of the Dusk
By Phil Rickman
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 2015 Phil Rickman
All rights reserved.
Touch the darkness
Was it really a good thing visiting the old woman ahead of a much-foreboded late-October storm?
Was it, in fact, a good thing to be visiting her at all?
The room at The Glades, a Victorian greystone home for the elderly, had expanded into a whole suite after the deaths – eerily timely – of Anthea White's immediate neighbours on the second landing. Two new doorways had been made in the partition walls. Miss White had paid for all this from a recent bequest. She could have bought herself a nice, period cottage down in Hay, but she claimed The Glades suited her lifestyle.
The new living room had floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a view of the bell tower of Hardwicke Church. Miss White was curled into her wide, multi-cushioned swivel chair, a black widow spider biding its time. Were people who'd recently had hip surgery supposed to sit like that?
'Oh, now, you'll never believe this, Watkins ...' The old girl leaning forward. '... Cardelow's woman was apparently refusing to dust the books.'
'Actually,' Merrily said from the piano stool – no piano, just the stool, 'I think I would believe it. Especially if you were sitting there watching her. Even with her back turned, the malevolence would be palpable.'
Miss White smiled modestly. Mrs Cardelow, proprietor of The Glades, had brought them tea and cakes herself, asking Merrily if she'd mind bringing back the tray when she came down. Save my legs, Mrs Cardelow had said wearily. And possibly a little of my sanity.
'Cardelow's daughter was married the other weekend, did I tell you?' Miss White said in her tiny, kitteny voice. 'Some awful junior canon at the Cathedral.'
'Really? What's his name?'
'Didn't ask. Couldn't be arsed, but I expect you'll know him by his receding chin. All change, I hear, at the dicky heart of the Hereford Diocese.'
'Just a new bishop.'
'Is he charismatic, like the delicious Hunter?'
'I hope not, with all my heart; I haven't met him yet. Next week, apparently.'
Merrily became aware of an oak side table to the left of Miss White's chair, a white mat on top holding something covered with a black velvet cloth, like a very small catafalque. Miss White peered at Merrily, eyes darker than the caked mascara.
'Why are you here, Watkins?'
A trapped, tawny leaf flapped irritably outside the window. Merrily shrugged.
'I was on the way back from Hay, where I visit the Thorogoods occasionally, and I, erm ... thought I'd drop in and, you know, see if you were still breathing?'
Miss White scowled.
'Don't trivialize breathing. I enjoy my breathing, in all its infinite varieties. Along with occasional astral tourism, it's all I have left.'
Merrily smiled. OK, she'd called in because Betty Thorogood had said the word in the bookshop was that Miss White was not well. At her age, often a euphemism for may not see the weekend. She'd been surprised at how hard this had hit her. Exchanging banter with Miss White had become almost like a spiritual exercise, a test of faith. Reaching out a hand to touch the darkness just to prove you could still draw it back.
She glanced at the nearest shelves where a whole row of books had the name Crowley on the spine.
'And it's Hallowe'en next week, of course. Your official birthday, Anthea.'
Moments of quiet. The leaf escaped from the window and fluttered away like a timid soul. Miss White was leaning lazily back into her nest of cushions. She might be dying, but it didn't look imminent.
'And are things going well for you?'
'Things are fine. My daughter, Jane, she's due back from her gap-year archaeological dig in a week or so. Sooner than expected, but I'm quite glad.'
'Lol is also finally coming home. Been touring all summer, for the first time in years, then he was asked to do some studio work. Good for his self-esteem.'
Miss White pondered this.
'He's never been frightened of me. Odd, that.'
'Unlike me, huh?'
'I love the way you come here simply because you are frightened.'
'Oh, come —'
Merrily leaned back then had to steady herself on the piano stool. Miss White raised her eyes
'Come on, then, little clergyperson. Out with it. Don't be annoying.'
'Thinking of packing it in, are we?'
'Snipping off the dog collar? Depositing the cassock in the Oxfam bank in the vain hope it might reach some impoverished African priestess?'
The old woman seemed to be rearing in her chair, without moving; she could play tricks with your head. Wasn't bloody dying at all, was she? Merrily coughed.
'Makes you ask that?'
Miss White was smiling sweetly again, bending to the tray on the Victorian Gothic table between them to pour more tea. Then she stopped, looking up.
'Oh, but I never thought ...'
Putting down the teapot and leaning back to the side table, she pulled away the black velvet cloth to reveal a small, rectangular cardboard box, with gold sides. On the top, it said:
Ordo Templi Orientis
Thoth Tarot Cards
Merrily had seen the pack before. Exquisitely painted by Lady Frieda Harris, designed by A. Crowley.
'Would you like me to read for you, Watkins?'
The window rattled, and the first raindrops plopped on the glass. The impending high winds were supposed to be the residue of some Atlantic hurricane with a pretty name.
'No, I would not,' Merrily said.CHAPTER 2
A date with Hurricane Lorna
Driving back to Hereford from Annie's place, his mood as crazy as the night, Bliss got pulled over by the cops four miles short of the city.
Brakes on as the traffic car's headlights turned near-horizontal rain into tracer fire, he lowered the glass minimally, sat and waited, engine running. The road was a causeway through a war zone of waterlogged fields. No lights in the farmhouses.
'... assuming, sir, that you didn't see the sign back there?'
This big, sarky face swimming up in the side window, all pink and runny like the inside of a freshly sliced tomato: Darryl Mills, ex-CID, gone back into uniform for a more exciting life in a powerful car. Bliss cut his engine, leaned back out of the spray.
'You know, Darryl, I don't believe I did. Maybe it got blown away?'
'One second.' Up came the flashlight to confirm that Bliss's face matched the only Scouse accent in Gaol Street. 'Ah. Sorry, boss.'
'If you want a whiff of me breath,' Bliss said wearily, 'you'll have to hop in the other side. Buggered if I'm gerrin out in this.'
'Only the sign you missed, look, that was a diversion.'
'Darryl, this is Herefordshire, where they leave the friggin' flood signs up in a drought.'
Darryl Mills shrugged his sodden shoulders.
'Just telling you, boss. Road's well blocked up ahead. Trees down everywhere.'
A blast of weather had Darryl hanging on to the wing mirror to stay on his feet, his partner billowing up behind him, waterproofs flapping: Big Patti Calder, mother of four.
'If you're going into town, Frannie, it's gonna take you a while. Five B-roads closed. A49 north of Ross. Flash flood at Letton. Might be more, all we know. Rough ole night.'
'Bastard of a night,' Bliss said.
In all kinds of ways. The last thing he'd planned was a date with Hurricane Lorna. His day off. He should be warm and dry at Annie's flat in Malvern. And would be if her old man hadn't rung around teatime to check she was at home – Charlie thinking he'd drop in for a coffee on his way back from some meeting in Worcester. Bliss getting the gist and throwing his jacket on before Annie was off the phone. He had bad memories of a rainy night with Charlie Howe in it.
Annie had been wearing the famous old stripy sweater from the night the God of Policing had thrown them together. The sweater had holes in both elbows now. Worn these days only as a kind of talisman against evil fate.
Yeh, right. Putting down the phone, Annie had finally told him the real reason Charlie was coming round. What she'd already known about the old bastard but had kept to herself in the hope he'd come to his senses. Bliss had just stared at Annie, and she'd looked down at her slippers. It was like a bad joke. Except Annie didn't do jokes.
'— OK, boss?' Patti Calder said through the blast. 'You look —'
'Just recovering from a bit of awkward news, Patti. Not your problem.' Though it could be a problem for all of them, soon enough. 'Listen, how bad is it, really? I'm assuming nobody's actually been under a fallen tree?'
Darryl Mills laughed, and the rest got blown away. Bliss thrust his head into the weather.
Maybe too much to hope that a ten-ton oak had come down on Charlie Howe's car with Charlie inside.
Darryl bent to Bliss's window.
'We almost got excited, boss, but it was nothing.'
'No, go on,' Bliss said. 'What?'
When he left his car on a double yellow in East Street, the rain had stopped and the wind was dying back. Not yet seven p.m., and Hurricane Lorna was already over the hill, an old prozzie parading what was left of her in the brick alleyways accessing Castle Green and the River Wye.
Driving into the city, it had looked surreal, out of time: hardly anybody on the streets, whole areas blacked out except for the lonely flickering of candles and lamps behind fogged glass. The Cathedral tower was a grey smudge in the gaps between buildings.
Bliss was in jeans and beanie and a fleece he didn't need – under the wind, it was weirdly warm for the time of year. When he saw lights up ahead, they were actually on Castle Green, lights in a huddle, like a small camp or a party for the homeless. He felt his way along the rails by the long duck pond that used to be part of the castle moat in the days when there was a castle on the Green. Just a spread of parkland, now, with a Nelson's column in the middle, and then the River Wye.
Bliss paused on the path above the Green, dead leaves spinning around him like moths on steroids. It was hardly unusual for a body to be uncovered here. This being an historical site, it was almost certainly going to be an historic body, nothing in this for him. But still he kept on walking towards the lights. If he went home he'd just be sitting in the dark, listening to the last of the storm and the slithery sound of shit rising to the surface.
Nothing to say he'll get it.
Annie's voice in his head, parched with uncertainty.
Equally, Annie, there's nothing to say he won't. I've actually met people who love the fucker and not all of them criminals.
They actually liked that about Charlie Howe. Bit of a maverick, law unto himself, Jack the lad. And a local boy, see. Always important.
He gets it, I'm out of here, Bliss had told Annie. Obviously.
Not thinking, until he'd left, about the weight of what he'd said there and what it would mean to her. One way or another this was going to cause all kinds of —
A hand-lamp's broad beam swung past his face before tilting back to light up DC David Vaynor, striding towards him across the grass, cutting through the wind like a long blade.
'Didn't know you were coming out.' Vaynor shining the light down the Green. 'Something and nothing, boss. Anywhere else it'd be something, here it's nothing.'
'Just passing, Darth,' Bliss said, and then the beam landed on something massive and unexpected, writhing and clicking in the wind. 'Bloody hell.'
'Ripped clean out,' Vaynor said. 'Roots and all.'
Behind the roots, a jungle of clashing branches, pale and bloated in the lamplight.
'Nobody heard it coming down, with the wind,' Vaynor said. 'Nobody saw it happening with all the lights out. Heavy enough to flatten a Land Rover. Anybody been walking past at the time ... no chance.'
'Sure there's nobody underneath, are we?'
'Only our friend. And he's well out of it. Assuming it's a bloke.'
By the time they'd reached the fallen tree, the lamp had found a pick up truck and people erecting an orange barrier fence, plastic mesh, not easy in this wind. Bliss stopped next to a wooden bench.
'So where is he?'
The torch lighting yellow plastic sheeting and disturbed earth that looked like a plundered badger sett. Vaynor telling Bliss somebody from the Cathedral had come over, spotted bones down there and rung a mate from the county archaeologist's department. If you lived around Castle Green you could get to know a lot of archaeologists.
'Neil Cooper,' Vaynor said. 'He's around, somewhere.'
'Yeh, I know him.'
'Those are the council blokes, with the fencing. They'll probably take the opportunity to excavate properly when the tree's removed. Get him over, shall I?'
'No, finish the story.'
Darth said Cooper had gone into the hole, confirmed they weren't animal bones and then followed established procedure, getting word to Gaol Street. Hence Big Patti and Darryl Mills getting diverted to Castle Green at the start of their shift.
'And they're definitely old bones?'
'Looked old to me, boss. And with a tree that big on top? Cooper's thinking medieval.'
'So what you doing here then, Darth?'
'Just a slight complication, boss.'
They had one of these ten zillion candlepower lamps running from the truck. On the edge of its savage beam, Cooper, under his yellow hard hat, looked a bag of nerves. Kept rubbing his jaw, leaving mud-scrapes.
'Can't believe this. You turn your back for ... five minutes?'
Nice-enough lad, a few years younger than Bliss, youthful-looking, just about, like a member of a boy band, now retired. Cooper had been with the county archaeologist's department as long as Bliss had been in Hereford and now, apparently, was running the show while the top guy was recovering from some injury.
'Let me get this right, Neil. This was when you'd come out of the hole to call the police, right? That was when you reckon it happened.'
'Possibly then, or could've been earlier. Very dark and really noisy with the wind in the branches. That's why I went to make the call from the top of the bank. Couldn't hear a thing down here.'
No more than half a dozen people around now. Novelty over. Bliss looked down at the plastic sheeting covering the hole, stones weighting it down.
'How many people would've been left around the tree while you were on the phone?'
'Not sure. More by the time I got back.'
'Who were they?'
'Nobody I knew. I imagine word was spreading. Shops not long closed. I was trying to be polite and tell them there was nothing to see, but it was clear it had got out about the bones. People love bones, don't they?'
Neil Cooper bent, lifted a brick so he could draw back a corner of the plastic sheet, plywood slats underneath. He lifted one, beckoning Vaynor to shine his lamp down. In the earth, Bliss made out what might have been part of a ribcage, flattened like old rubber. Interesting but hard to love.
'Not exactly the first bones found here, right?'
'What? Oh no. Good God, no. And the nearer you get to the Cathedral ... it's like one big charnel house under there. Bones upon bones, upon bones. Thousands of skeletons, men, women, children discovered in The Close. And people were buried here – on what became Castle Green – before there was a cathedral. Hundreds of bodies found.'
'So how come they missed this feller?'
'Just that we don't make a habit of destroying mature trees to see what might be underneath. But when one happens to blow down ...'
'Was it a full skeleton? When it was first revealed?'
Cooper winced. Behind him, the dying wind was wheezing like an old Hoover.
'What I'm asking, Neil, is are you absolutely sure it originally had a head?'
'Francis, leaning over the hole I was this....' Cooper opened his muddied hands to the width of a brick, 'this far away from it. I was staring into its eye-sockets. Amazingly, the roots had not become entangled in the skeleton, or the bones would've been dragged up and they'd be all over the place. The roots stopped just above the bones, so it was virtually all exposed.'
Excerpted from Friends of the Dusk by Phil Rickman. Copyright © 2015 Phil Rickman. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Touch the darkness,
2 A date with Hurricane Lorna,
3 Hallowe'en. Normal, irrational anxieties,
5 ... or treat,
7 Not one of ours,
8 Lawful and justified,
10 Trashy world,
11 Purple haze,
12 Cutting edge,
13 Big voice,
15 A sense of betrayal,
17 Get over it,
18 A war,
20 Work in progress,
21 Bad guy,
22 Believe it happened,
24 Appropriate adult,
26 Good-looking kid situation,
28 Smashed faces,
29 Rambling in the night,
30 Dark Net stuff,
34 Full broadcast quality,
35 Cold case,
37 Coffin wood,
39 The Summoner,
40 Going out normal,
41 The Hereford Issue,
42 Swallow the pill,
43 Get rid,
44 Walks by night,
45 Courting the goddess,
47 At peace,
49 Before he was mad,
50 What can haunt you,
51 Just the one,
52 The song with the big cigar,
53 Only the start,
54 A peg,
55 Grim visitor,
57 A fence,
58 Timeless beauty,
60 What to believe,
61 The cloaked,
62 A flogging,
63 Darker glasses,
64 The Second Death,
66 Hereford Gothic,
68 The door,
Notes and closing credits,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is one of my very favorite series and I have problems waiting for the next. If you like intelligent mysteries that keep you puzzling to the very end, you will love Rickman's books.