A solitary skylark stood in the sky over the chalk escarpment. Black-faced sheep grazed on the hill. Beyond them, waving in the wind, was a stand of quaking grass and fescue, the pale, nodding heads of pyramidal orchids just visible among the waves of green. This was a popular beauty spot on warm, summer weekends. Today, in spite of the bright, bleached sun, the wind was blowing hard, chilling to the bone anyone foolhardy enough to brave the heights. Only a single car stood beside the regulation police Peugeot in the lay-by.
The day was so clear he could see the giant chimneys of the power station at Dungeness, far away across Romney Marsh. Beyond that, the grey, lifeless waters of the Channel stood between England and France, little more than thirty miles away. In the far distance was a tantalising shape that might have been cloud or land, the bare, rocky outcrop of Cap Gris Nez.
He thrust his hands deep inside the pockets of his black police parka and headed for the escarpment edge and the deep, crater-like indentation in the ground that the locals called the Devil’s Kneading Trough. Justin walked around the edge of the vast, circular blemish. He had never liked it, and it had nothing to do with the name. The feature seemed out of place among the gentle, undulating curves of the Downs.
In a minute, he reached the end of the path, stood on the small, paved viewpoint and stared ahead. On days like this the distance between Beulah and the rest of the world seemed enormous. From the outlook at the very edge of the hill, with its ancient, worn compass, pointing out distances and directions to local towns and villages, the visitor felt like some kind of angel, surveying the flat, everyday world from a point of lofty, exalted grace. And weren’t devils really just some kind of angel too? Ones that had simply fallen to earth? Justin Liddle shook his head in wonder. The crazy talk of Beulah could become infectious. And Sara was one of the saner ones.
The wind picked up speed, blew an icy blast into his face. He cursed and looked around. It was an odd spot for the returning Mitch to choose. Why not the cottage down from the Green Man which had been the Blamire residence for as long as anyone could remember? One day, perhaps, there would be sufficient evidence to ask for a warrant to search the cottage. Perhaps Mitch wanted time to hide the evidence… of what? He thought about Alison’s suspicions, and wondered why she only saw fit to share them with Sara. There was a simple, logical answer to these mysteries somewhere, and part of the answer lay in her head.
“Mitch!” he bellowed into the swirling air. The single skylark rose suddenly higher in alarm. A stupid black-faced tup took to its heels and scuttered away towards the low beech woodland, with its carpet of seasonal anemones, that stood at the village side of the scarp.
A familiar, stout figure came out from behind a mound of hawthorn and bramble, buttoning his fly. Justin nodded at him then stared at the lumpen mass of Ashford, a few miles away, on the spreading plain beneath them. Ashford. Where there were no witches, no Mitch Blamires and no deep, encircling mysteries. And no Alison Fenway either.
“Damn,” he muttered then opened his eyes and almost jumped out of his skin. On the cheek of the approaching figure, unmistakable and livid white in the piercing brightness of the day, was a scar, the shape of forked lightning. Justin did a double take, staring at the man, staring at the scar, trying to dredge some once-familiar memory out of the dusty cellar of his head.
“Mitch?” he asked, feeling stupid. This was Mitch. He had Mitch’s body. Mitch’s eyes. But, on his cheek, the tell-tale scar that Harry wore with such pride.
“Aye?” the man said, stopping in front of him, blocking the view down to civilisation.
“Scare yer, uh?” Mitch grinned, and it was him. There was just the question of the physical blemish, and he couldn’t take his eyes off it.
“I don’t understand.”
Mitch stabbed a finger at his cheek. “What? Me birthmark here?”
Justin shook his head. “I don’t think my memory’s playing tricks.”
“Lots of tricks get played hereabouts, copper. Story I’m telling is that after Harry was gone it just grew. Woke up one morning in Bangkok and there it was. Harry’s present, uh?”
Justin looked at him. Mitch was always the quieter, the more decent of the two. Although this was, of course, comparative. “That’s bollocks, Mitch. You did that to yourself. Why?”
Mitch Blamire gave him a sour stare. “Why not? He were my brother. Why can’t I remember him how I want?”
The Blamire boys loved their little blades. Pen knives, sheath knives, a flick in there too, not that they’d take that out while he was around. A few quick slashes with a couple of drinks down the hatch, and there it was. Mitch had erected a memorial to Harry, a living one, for all to see.
“You’re sure he’s dead then?” Justin asked.
“You’re the copper. You tell me.”
Justin nodded. “Someone was killed when Paternoster went up. Nothing we can identify, but you can put two and two together.”
“Did that already. Did that the night it happened. We was identical twins, you know. Twins got a link.”
“So you knew?”
Mitch rubbed his chin, wondering. “Knew that very moment. I’d had a few down the Green Man. Woke up, still pissed, and he was gone. I saw it.”
“Saw what, Mitch?”
“Him dying and that. What else?”
Justin wondered whether to dignify this drivel with his notebook, and decided against. “So what happened?”
“Thing blew up, didn’t it? Like a big bonfire. Like Burning Man only ten times over.”
“You don’t think there was something suspicious?”
Mitch was almost laughing in his face. “Suspicious? Like what? We was playing with dynamite in there. You got to expect a few explosions now and then.”
“And so you disappeared?”
He shrugged. “I was upset. And what was there to hang around for? Weren’t going to be no funeral now, was there? Some money came through quick from the insurance. Why not bugger off for a while? Have some fun for a change?”
“Why’d you come back?”
“Skint,” Mitch admitted. “And besides, it’s cricket season soon. No-one but me knows how to deal with that pitch now, do they? Can’t have a bunch of middle class wankers going in and ruining all that work Harry and me put in over the years.”
It was all, in a sense, plausible. Even the scar. “So how long have you been here?”
Mitch laughed unpleasantly. It wasn’t just the scar. Something of the late Harry seemed to have rubbed off on him now. “How long? Longer than any of you know. I been back and forth since before Christmas. Those who I wanted to see me saw all right. Just didn’t want to talk to nobody else. That’s all.”
“Been working then? Doing jobs for Mrs Tyler?”
The piggy eyes narrowed, full of suspicion. “Marjorie’s the Queen of the May. We all work for her in one way or another, don’t we?”
Mitch lost his smile. “However she bloody wants, mister. Got to earn a living. If Old Marjorie wants her garden doing, her rubbish moved, whatever, I’ll do that for her. I’d do it for you, if you paid me.”
“Gardening…” Justin Liddle thought of Paternoster Farm. He’d driven past more than once when it was working. The smell was so putrid he’d never even considered taking a closer look. Not exactly on a par with sorting out a herbaceous border. “You’re a real handy man Mitch, aren’t you?”
Mitch’s cold eyes glinted at him. At that moment he could have been Harry. “Oh, I’m handy all right. Don’t you go forgetting it. Anything else you was wanting to know? Only I got things to do. Harry and me used to come here when we was kids. I want to get me memories straight.”
And plenty more besides, Justin guessed.
The stocky little man eyed him eagerly. “We done? You going to stop hounding me now?”
He ignored the bait. “You’re not off on your travels again Mitch, are you?”
“What? Leave this place in summer? You’d need to be off your trolley. As mad as that Yank bint of yours. Beulah’s me home. You get to know that when you’re on the other side of the world banging some Bangkok whore and wondering why you bothered. You got a home, Justin? You figured out where that is?”
“Not here, that’s for sure,” he said softly, then stuffed his hands deep in his pockets and went back to the car. He glanced back once. Mitch was in the centre of the crater, flat on his back on the damp grass, hands behind his head, staring at the sky. Justin followed the direction of his gaze. A premature horned moon had appeared. The lone skylark danced against it, singing wildly. From the beech stand came the sudden, unmistakable screech of a muntjac.
He took a deep breath then drove, too quickly, down Vipers Hill, and back into the smog of Ashford.