She drove into Ashford at six, noticing the way the smog placed a thin film of grime on the back of her throat when she reached the bottom of Viper’s Hill. This was a mistake, she guessed, but sometimes mistakes could be educational. Justin had understood how to push the right buttons; he was learning too.
The flat was spotless, kitted out with modern furniture straight from Ikea. It was on the first floor of a modern block overlooking the busy old road to Tenterden, half a mile from the decrepit town centre. Only the rumble and roar of the passing Eurostar express spoiled the effect. It was that, she imagined, which put such a bijou place in the range of a junior policeman. She coolly accepted his embrace as she entered, then settled into a soft, overstuffed chair, with a glass of Scotch.
“I shouldn’t be here,” she complained. “Life’s too complicated.”
“No argument there,” he nodded. “But you stumbled on something, love. And one way or another we need to understand what it is.”
He pushed a pile of print-outs across the small glass and metal coffee table that separated them. “These are missing persons records going back ten years. All for the first two weeks of September. Quite a popular time for people to go walkabout actually. Kids go back to school and hate it. People go back to work after the summer holidays. Ordinarily I wouldn’t read too much into it…”
Alison stared at the long list of names on the paper. “Wouldn’t read too much into it? How many names are there, Justin? There must be fifty or more.”
“Thirty two in east Kent, to be precise. And remember these are the reported cases. Probably a third of people who go missing never get logged with us. Either it’s a family thing or they’re pretty much on their own and no-one gives a toss.”
“That’s a comforting thought,” she muttered.
“That’s life. It wouldn’t happen in Beulah, of course. Nothing goes unnoticed there, though whether even a missing person would get notified to the nick is a moot point. These figures are pretty much in line with national averages. What gets interesting, though, is when you look at the detail.”
He leaned forward and, with a yellow highlighter, ran through seven names on the list. “These are odd. They’re all men and women aged between twenty two and thirty five. They all go missing around the middle of September. And they’re real mysteries. All the families of missing people say they can’t understand why they should have taken off, of course. Some of them are even telling the truth. But these people really do seem the genuine article. And every one of them had a job that took them away from home. Lorry drivers. Couriers. Travelling sales staff. An air stewardess. So it took a while for their absence to be noted.”
She looked at the dates. “It was last year I saw someone on the fire, Justin, and you don’t have a name for then.”
“No. That’s just the way the paperwork pans out. There was a fair on at Folkestone. When it packed up and moved on to Hastings one of the ride attendants never turned up. They reported him missing to Hastings, not to Kent, so he’s not on our files. Took a little detective work to track that one down. Mark Horrocks, twenty three, originally from Bromley. Never seen since.”
She tried to remember what she saw in the fire. “A fairground attendant? Surely they just drift about all the time?”
“Perhaps. But the fair people say this one was dead straight and absolutely reliable. That’s why they reported him in the first place.”
“So what are you saying here? Is it really what I think?”
Justin shrugged. “If they’re capable of killing one person in the way you suggest, they’re surely capable of killing more. And here’s something else.” He pointed at five consecutive years. “If the theory holds and the ones I’ve outlined fit the bill then maybe they alternate, male and female, in consecutive years.”
It was a man she saw in the fire, she thought. There’d been the fight. These two had to be connected. So this year by rights out to be a woman. Perhaps Marjorie was already measuring her for the part: the thought chilled her but had some missing thread of logic within it too. The dead man of the previous year was a stranger. Even Beulah would not sacrifice one of its own. “Too fast, Justin. I found it hard enough to believe someone died last year. Now you’re telling me they do it annually, like a village fete? Why for God’s sake?”
He had his incisive expression on. “You know the answer to that. You know it better than I do.”
He was right too. “Because,” she suggested, “that’s the real ritual. The one that matters. All the rest is a prelude. Burning Man keeps the village whole. It protects Beulah from the poison of the outside world.”
She felt breathless. If there were even a grain of truth in the idea then something was amiss. Burning Man had not cured Beulah. Some darkness was abroad, sending Harry Blamire, and later his brother, into her bedroom, despatching the more vicious of the twins to a fiery death at Paternoster Farm.
“I think that’s what I’m getting at,” Justin said quietly. “It’s serial murder, deliberate, cold-blooded. And maybe it’s always been like this.”
She found it hard to squeeze all the possibilities into her head. “You mean going back to our old friend Prior Fenway and those guys in the Middle Ages?”
She wished Justin would stop looking at her as if she were stupid. Then it dawned, and the idea seemed much worse than anything she had previously imagined. “Oh my God. You mean right back from forever?”
“Precisely,” he nodded. “How old could something like this be? You look at what we like to call primitive cultures and they have rites going back to the Stone Age. We don’t because we’re civilised. Beulah isn’t, not precisely. As John Tyler always points out, the Church just ripped off a load of old pagan rituals. Why shouldn’t Beulah have kept the oldest of all?”
The thought horrified her, horrified Justin too judging by the pale, wary look in his face.
“They had to adapt it, of course,” he continued. “From time to time they got caught, even when Prior Fenway was around. But you could probably hide that pretty easily, until recently. And then, what do you know? Some company happens to build a disposal plant on communal land. It adds some money to the parish coffers and, just as importantly, allows them to get rid of any incriminating remains.”
She did not want to believe this. “Someone would see, Justin. Someone from outside. They couldn’t get away with it, not year in, year out.”
“Really? You said yourself that whatever was inside the Burning Man was very well hidden. You only saw it because you were in an odd position, and perhaps something went wrong. Even then, you’d have thought you were mad if you hadn’t found some evidence to suggest otherwise the following day. And remember. This is Beulah. Where there’s never any trouble. We don’t police the event. We don’t police anything up there.”
Something still didn’t make sense. “There’s a much easier explanation.”
“Perhaps this did go on. Perhaps even after all that trouble way back when. But it stopped. These are odd people but they’re not murderers. I spent some time with Granny Jukes yesterday. She’s a sweetie. She was chief prefect once, handed it on to the late Mary Wethered who had it snatched from her by Marjorie. Sure, Granny went along with the dancing and the wild ways. I don’t doubt that. But I don’t figure her killing people on an annual basis.”
Justin sighed. He was as uncertain about his original hypothesis as she. “So what did happen?”
“You said it yourself. John and Marjorie Tyler. The village has been dying for twenty years or more. They offered the radical alternative. Killed Mary Wethered and instigated the old regime. Midnight naked dancing and the sacrificial rota. Look at your own records. These missing people happen under Marjorie’s reign. Did you go any further back?”
“Only a little,” he admitted. “It starts to get a little fuzzy beyond that.”
She patted the back of his hand. “Occam’s Razor. The simplest answer is usually the right one. The Tylers are fundamentalists. They think the only way they can protect their precious piece of England intact is by reviving the old ways. And now people are too scared to speak out, probably because the Blamires were strong-arming on Marjorie’s behalf. Then Miles and I turn up and suddenly an alternative’s on hand. Marjorie’s crazy enough to think I might oust her and put things straight again.”
Justin shook his head. “But why you?”
“You should have seen Granny Jukes fitting me out for her old ceremonial dress yesterday. And the way Marjorie went white when she understood what was going on. As far as the Tylers are concerned their kingdom’s under siege. You know it’s mad. I know it’s mad. But, as you remind me perpetually, Beulah rules aren’t the same as ours.”
“Why not Sara or someone?”
She tried to shape the words carefully. The conversation was approaching dangerous ground. “Sara won’t do it. So who might that someone be, Justin? Beulah is dying. Look at it from their perspective: Paradise is being depopulated.”
“All the same,” he insisted. “An American, of all people?”
“Thanks,” she said with a grin. “It’s not me personally, although maybe that story I told them about my witchy ancestors helped. It’s Miles. The Fenway line. My guess is that Emily left him the place deliberately in the hope that the rest of the village would grasp the opportunity to set things aright. Marjorie tried damned hard to head this off at the pass by enrolling me as her number two. And, not realising what I was doing, I pissed her off no end by refusing the job. What other explanation can there be?”
“So she thinks that one day you’re the new Queen of the May?”
She nodded. “That’s the long and short of it.”
Justin stared at the papers on the table, avoiding her eyes. “Does Miles know? Does he understand she’s threatening you?”
“Miles is… so busy,” she stuttered.
“Too busy to be told his wife’s in danger? Or that she miscarried with what he thought was his child because Marjorie Tyler arranged it?”
The room was hot. The purple wallpaper seemed livid. A Eurostar train passed by with a deafening roar, shaking the walls. Justin got up, came and kneeled beside her and took her hands in his.
“Miles… is my husband. He cares deeply for me. He’d die for me, Justin. There are things I can’t tell him. Such as us.”
“He knows about us,” Justin said, and rustled his fingers through her hair. “And that’s no reason not to tell him about this.”
Lies did not come naturally to her. She lacked the glib mental agility necessary for successful deceit. “Sometimes you just have to trust me,” she said lamely.
“But I don’t, not on this.” He kissed her softly on the mouth. She closed her eyes and there, right on cue, praying to be released, was the memory of that night in Paternoster Farm, Harry Blamire disappearing into the flaming maw of the vat. “You haven’t told Miles because you daren’t. There was another death last autumn.”
“No,” she said slowly, drawing away from his embrace, aware that her eyes were streaming now. “Not now.”
The small, neat, antiseptic room swam lazily in front of her eyes. She felt breathless, the guilt rising in her gorge like bile. Justin bent forward and kissed her damp cheek once more.
“You have to tell me,” he whispered. “I’m not Miles. I can listen. I don’t think you’re crazy.”
Sometimes there was nothing to do but find the impulse, stare it in the face, ride its back to nowhere.
She stood up and went through the open bedroom door, kicking off her shoes, unfastening the buttons on her blouse, filled with some desperate urge to be naked in this small, hot room, because this was a state of innocence and sweetness, a place beyond lies and thoughts and visions that rose like bile from some dark corner of her memory. A dim phosphor light shone orange through the thin curtains. Somewhere in the night car tyres screeched. This was, she sensed, a moment when it was possible to turn her back on Justin Liddle and the world of the plain, shrink into some quiet, obedient Beulah shell and let events run their course. But Harry Blamire would not allow this; his was a demon that needed to be exorcised, in the oldest and most direct of ways.
At the bed, naked now, she turned and saw him following hungrily, something like victory in his eyes.
“Alison…” She placed an urgent hand on his mouth. No time for words. Alison Fenway clawed at his shirt, tore it from his chest, and mounted his struggling body. Astride him in the orange light, feeling for that urgent solidity to coax it to its natural location, she fell into the old ritual, arcing, writhing, seeing nothing in her head but Harry Blamire’s death, understanding that this was the first step towards its banishment from her head.
There was a form of release in this outpouring of heat and sweat. Later, panting from the effort, struggling for the words, his head nuzzling her breast like that of some giant child, came the second.
(c) David Hewson 2012