The Cornish village of St. Petroc is the sort of place where people come to hide. Tom Killgannon is one such person. An ex–undercover cop, Tom is in the Witness Protection Program hiding from some very violent people, and St. Petroc offers him a chance to live a safe and quiet life.
Until he meets Lila. Lila is a seventeen-year-old runaway. When she breaks into Tom’s house, she takes more than just his money. His wallet holds everything about his new identity. He also knows that Lila is in danger from the travelers’ commune she has been living at. Something sinister has been going on there, and Lila knows more than she realizes. But to find her, he risks not only giving away his location to the gangs he’s in hiding from but also becoming a target for whoever is hunting Lila.
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Kyle Tanner opened his eyes. Peering out from the back of a deep, dark cave. Breathing jagged and heavy, body not his own, head not his own. He was walking. Staggering.
Where ...? Why ...?
Memory came back in fragments. Globs of paint dropped on a canvas, forming only an incomplete picture. His two mates. A campsite. Then there was a girl. Small, pretty. Nice smile. And some kind of spliff. Strong. Nauseatingly, sickeningly strong. Felt the smoke in his lungs, the heat prickling, stinging, head spinning ... And then ...
He kept walking, stumbling. Going nowhere. Waiting for more paint to fall, fill in the landscape. Then he heard something. A voice. Someone was talking to him. He turned, trying to trace the source.
"I said, d'you want a lift?"
It was the girl. With the smile and the spliff. Lily? Lila? Leaning out of the window on the passenger side of a VW camper van.
"My mates ..."
"Went back ages ago," she said. "Come on, get in." He did so. Grateful not to have to walk.
The van pulled away.
And Kyle Tanner was never seen alive again.CHAPTER 2
The waves roiled and pushed toward the bay, dragging with them the threat of danger and violence, to a rising accompaniment of white noise. Some didn't make the shore, crashing against the lumpen rock outliers, breaking on the cliff faces, bursting upward and outward, all white spume and foam, a crescendoing explosion of static. Sheer, primal power. Whatever was left made it through to the shore, curling and unfolding, then lying down flat. Thin and spent. Their threat, their power, gone. Then the sea clawed them back once more, starting the whole process all over again.
Tom Killgannon watched from a cliff top. Hooded, bundled. His bad-weather gear was supposed to keep him insulated, impassive to the elements. But it didn't, even with the hood of his waterproof pulled over his head. The rain stung his exposed features, hurled into his face by gales threatening to uproot trees and upend people, icy needles shattering against his skin. He wished he could be as impervious to the elements as the rocks below were to the waves. But he wasn't. Nowhere near.
The clouds were low, dark, and heavy. They leached the color from the surrounding landscape, rendered the world a perpetual twilight. Black birds wheeled, caught in the airstream, cawing, a murder of angry dots. Tom weathered the elements, stood his ground. Watched the bay below.
Some desperate surfers had gotten themselves into wet suits and were running down over the shingle toward the sea, racing each other to be the furthest out, fastest in. Idiots, he thought. Why would they want to court life-altering injuries, or even death, by hurling themselves against nature at its angriest? What did they have to prove, to themselves or anyone else? What was lacking in their lives that drove them to do that? He didn't know, didn't want to speculate. Just knew that these people hadn't faced real horror in their lives, real danger. If they had, the last thing they would do was actively seek it out.
He checked his watch, turned away from the cliff face, the surfers and their stupid death wishes dismissed.
Time to go to work.
The sail makers pub was all but empty. Sunday quiet. No roasts, no specials. No tourists ventured this way, especially out of season, so no point. Just the few daytime regulars, scattered and disparate, who would brave more than the storm outside to get their usual seat, their usual drink.
Tom came through the front door, closed it behind him, thankful that the fire had already been built up. The regulars all looked at him. Some nodded, some went back to nursing their ales. He was still relatively new here. He understood that. St. Petroc, to put it mildly, wasn't the kind of community that was immediately accommodating to those who weren't just passing through and spending money, but had decided to remain and settle among them. He didn't mind. Welcome brought with it inquiry and interference and he didn't want either. That was one of the main reasons he had chosen the place.
Hardly anyone came to St. Petroc who didn't live there. And hardly anyone came to live there. It wasn't the kind of place where TV crews would make period or heart-warming drama. It had no celebrity chef taking over all the restaurants and bars in the village, of which there were scant few anyway, to tempt Londoners down for the weekend. No hippie capitalists had based an organic confectionery business there. No Eden Project. Very few holiday cottages, no second homers.
He had come down the cliff path, walked through the town to get to the pub. Even in sunlight it looked bleak and depressing, on a day like this more than doubly so. It was a dying little village, shrinking all the time. Shopfronts were boarded up and locked, dusty flyers and bills stacked up and yellowing behind dirt- and rust-encrusted mail slots. Buildings weren't maintained, stone slab frontage green with mildew and algae, busted drainpipes and guttering giving heavy localized showers. Where nearby villages had turned amenity stores into tourist gift and craft shops, St. Petroc had nothing. Old businesses were selling up and getting out, new businesses never lasted long. The hardware store became, optimistically, an artisanal bakery, the family butcher's a coffee shop. Now they were nothing. As abandoned as the rest. About the only business remaining was the village grocery store, its shelves virtually bare, a pre-glasnost supermarket in miniature. The church stood lonely and weed-choked, its pews almost empty come Sunday, its spire pointing toward the sky like a raised middle finger.
The bar of the sail makers was dark, all old wooden beams, low ceilings, uneven floors. It was getting on for three hundred years old and no one really wanted to update it. The owners were holding their breath, hoping that tourists would think themselves the first to discover a cozy old hidden gem of an inn, and the locals just didn't like change on principle. It was supposed to have an authentic smugglers tunnel leading from behind the bar down to one of the caves in the cliff face on the seafront. Tom couldn't testify whether that was real or an attempt at myth-making, but there was definitely some kind of hole in the wall behind the bar. Too small for anyone but a child to get through, though.
He crossed to the fire, took off his coat, water dripping off it. He shivered before the heat.
"You walked here?"
He turned. Pearl had heard the door, had come through from the back room to behind the bar. Curious to see who would turn up in this weather.
He shook out his coat one last time, dropped it on the floor. Began warming his hands. "Yeah. Didn't think it would be so bad. Came along the cliffs."
She laughed, turned away. Back to what she had been doing.
He knew what she was thinking. What all those in the bar were thinking. City boy. Northerner. Doesn't know anything.
Let them think that.
Warmed through, he picked his coat up, went around to the other side of the bar, lifting the heavy wooden flap to do so. This was his job. Bar work. He hung his coat on one of the pegs reserved for staff. Checked the sealed inside pocket before he did so, made sure the coat was within sight all the time he was on the bar. His wallet was there. It held more than just money, it held his whole Tom Killgannon identity. And it was too precious to leave anywhere else. So, like hiding a tree in a forest, he knew it would be safest in his coat. Pearl was waiting for him.
"You're early," she said.
"Yeah. Not much to do today."
She laughed. "Or any day, 'round here."
He liked it when she laughed. Even the gloomy back bar of the pub seemed to light up when she did that.
She wasn't a stereotypical barmaid, he thought. Or at least not his idea of what a stereotypical barmaid was, the kind who had manned the pumps in the pubs he had drunk in on the estate during his youth. Not blond and brassy, bosomy and blousy. The kind who would come on to you one minute, want to mother you the next, ignore you the moment after that. Pearl was younger than him, the daughter of Dan and Elaine Ellacott, who owned the pub. She had returned to the village, and the pub, after university. Only temporarily, she had said at first. Just till something comes up. A job I'm suited for in the city. Any city. Well away from here, thank God. She had been behind the bar for over five years.
He got along well with her, though. A good working relationship. The bar had become hers to run really, her parents concentrating on keeping the struggling hotel upstairs going. She did the hiring and firing, ordering, bookkeeping, everything. And Tom had no problem working for a woman. He might not be as young as her, but he wasn't a dinosaur. He did what he was told, dispensed drinks when asked, brought out food when required, listened to customers when they needed to talk. Although most still preferred to talk to Pearl. And he couldn't blame them for that.
"Go sit down," Pearl said. "Have something to eat before you start.
Don't work if you don't have to. I'm not exactly snowed under here."
"You're all right. I'll give you a hand." His turn to smile now. "Sure there's something that needs a man's touch rather than a young girl's."
"Piss off, granddad."
They both laughed. A good working relationship.
He started in the cellar, checking the barrels, stacking up the empties, carefully moving in the new ones. Doing all the lifting and carrying that, despite what she said, Pearl wasn't strong enough to do. In fact, he had been surprised at just how heavy the work was, even for someone as used to exercise as him. It was good, physical work. It passed the time and he didn't have to think too much about it. That suited him just fine. He came back up to the bar, wiping his hands on a towel.
"Anything happening today I should know about?" he asked Pearl.
"Round Table meeting tonight," she said with a hint of a smile.
"Ah, the local civic toiletries all out in force. Have to be on our best behavior. Do we need to salute?"
She laughed. "Don't let them hear you say that. They'll find somewhere else to have their meetings. Then where would we be?"
"Yeah, like there's somewhere else 'round here for them to go."
Pearl shrugged in agreement.
The Round Table meetings were one of the few things that brought in any kind of revenue to the pub. Locals got together in an upstairs room, trying to find ways to halt the decline of the village. Even Pearl's parents were involved. So far, thought Tom, they didn't seem to have come up with anything.
"Dad's all excited that the marina's on the agenda for tonight," Pearl told him.
"Oh, that. Hope you can let him down gently."
There had been rumors that Cornwall Council were looking to build a marina with the last of the EU regeneration money coming in. Areas had to bid and there were three in consideration. St. Petroc thought they stood a chance. Tom knew it wasn't his place to tell them how delusional they were.
Pearl agreed again. "Well, it gives them something to talk about. Makes them feel useful, bless them."
Tom assumed position behind the bar, waited for customers. The same few regulars were still there, now using the storm as an excuse not to leave. Pirate John sat on his usual stool in the corner, rolling away at his skinny cigarette until it looked like a broken yellow twig. He was the friendliest of the locals so far, Tom had discovered. The least likely to treat him with suspicion. Although, as he had been keen to tell Tom on their first meeting, he hadn't lived in Cornwall all his life like the rest of them. No, not him. He'd actually spent some time in London. Tom didn't ask what had brought him back. He doubted he would get a truthful answer. And besides, he wasn't really interested.
He didn't know why he was called Pirate John. The only reason he could think of was that the front of his cottage had been decorated so enthusiastically and idiosyncratically, with a huge, thick horizontal flagpole sticking out of the wall, that it looked like the prow of a pirate galleon. He also didn't know what he did for a living. Pirate John drove around the village in a vintage blue-and-white two-tone Hillman, loading and unloading what could be junk, could be valuable vintage and retro items, or could be both. Plus a never-ending supply of anonymous, nod-and-a-wink cardboard boxes. Maybe he was called Pirate John, thought Tom, because he was some kind of twenty-first-century smuggler. He also — Tom had noticed, having been on the receiving end plenty of times — fancied himself as something of a barroom philosopher.
In the far corner were Mick and Stew. Both young men, all knotted muscle and sun-hardened skin, leathered beyond their years. Long hair in beanie hats, perma-stubbled chins, T-shirts and work clothes. Laborers or surfers, Tom hadn't pried. But their actions were always shadowed, hands constantly ducking beneath the table whenever the door opened. Tom guessed what that meant. But still refrained from becoming involved.
And representatives from the local hippie grungy surfer clan had put in an appearance. They all wore variations of the same uniform, hair long and tousled, beards unkempt. Tom had just begun to tell them apart but still hadn't learned any of their names. They kept themselves to themselves. Lived in tents and camper vans somewhere along the coast. A kind of commune. They weren't like the surfers he had seen earlier, the middleclass ones in their premium wet suits on their expensive boards pitting their egos against the elements. This lot seemed to live off the earth, be part of it, even. Or liked to give that impression. But their very presence gave off an indefinable air of menace and danger. Like Hells Angels with boards. The rest of the drinkers gave them a wide berth.
The other regulars, Isobel and Emlyn, retired history teachers, hadn't shown. The weather must have put them off. They would probably turn up later for the Round Table meeting.
Pirate John shook his empty glass in Tom's direction. Tom nodded in return. He could see that Pirate John's lips were moving in preparation for one of his usual philosophical rambles, the empty glass a ruse to find an audience. Tom crossed to him.
This was his life now. This was his world. Shrunk down to the inside of an old pub in a remote part of north Cornwall. Constantine nearby got the majority of the surfing trade, Port Isaac the TV tourist trade. St. Petroc got neither. And, though he doubted others in the village agreed with him, he was happy with that. His only responsibilities to pour drinks correctly, listen and nod when talked to. A lot of people would find the repetition, the anonymity, the mundaneness of life behind the bar of a dying pub in a dying village stifling. Maddening, even. But not Tom Killgannon.
After what he had experienced, it was exactly what he wanted. The closest thing to nothingness he could find.
But that was all about to change.CHAPTER 3
Lila was scared. Really scared. She had run before but that had been away from something bad and hopefully toward something better. And nowhere near as bad as this. Now she was running for her life.
She was soaked. And cold. The garage she was sheltering in had a leaking roof and no matter where she tried to position herself, on the floor in the center, in the corners, the rain found a way to soak her. She had tried covering up the gaps with things found around the place — old tarpaulin, plywood sheets — but nothing worked. The water still found her.
She pulled her clothes tight around her in an abortive attempt at warmth but that just added another layer of cold against her skin. She tried to think of somewhere to go. Somewhere she could be safe. Couldn't think of anything, anywhere. So she sat, huddled, shivering. Alone.
Again, she tried to work out how she had come to be in this situation, again she came up with no answer. She had done what was asked of her. Picked up the boy. Stood smoking with him so he got a good look at her, made sure he got in the van and Kai drove away. That was it. Her part, finished. When she asked what would happen to him she was told it was none of her business. Even Kai had ignored her. And she had left it at that. She knew not to ask too many questions. It wasn't healthy. Just accept, that's what Noah always said, what she was always told. So she did. Or tried to.
And then she saw him on TV. On the screen in the pub. A photo of the boy.
She turned to the other two she was sitting with. Kai and Noah.
"Hey, that's —"
A look from Noah silenced her. Kai looked away from her.
She kept watching. The sound was down low, but she still managed to make things out. He had gone to Cornwall with his university friends for a small break before their exams. And hadn't come back. Police wanted to question a young woman who was seen with him on the night —
She stared at Noah once more.
"Do they mean me?"
"Keep your voice down," he said, eyes half lidded, face blank. "You're attracting attention."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Old Religion"
Copyright © 2020 Martyn Waites.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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