By the time Miles Fenway and Justin Liddle reached Sterning Wood, the weather was already starting to change. The endless high pressure was reaching its expected climax. A storm was on the way, rolling around the guts of the sky, pondering where to break.
Justin had talked, as he drove furiously around the Minnis, spoken of burned files and how suspicion could, with a little work, be shifted from one person to the next, like some gigantic boulder tipped sideways with the push of a finger. Then he parked in the lay-by close to the woods where, what seemed a lifetime before, he had once wooed Alison with vague, unfulfilled promises. Miles took the gun out of the boot, passed the big police torch to Justin, and the two of them set off into the thickness of the coppice, with its leafy smell, its unseen creatures.
It was hard to judge directions, to think about which way to proceed. Before, at Christmas, the wassaillers had approached from the Minnis side of the wood, past the White Horse. Now, Justin had to discover the opposite way, trying to work out which path through the slender chestnut woodland before them would be best.
Miles stood behind him, the gun beneath his arm. “We’re wasting time. We need to find her.”
Something stirred in the trees. The dun shape of a tawny owl lifted out of some low branches in a flurry of feathers.
Then there was another, louder sound, closer to them, and it was Miles who was swearing, cursing like a trooper, arms flailing, groaning as if in pain. Justin jerked the torch beam wildly through the sea of branches. There was a dark, squat shape there, immediately familiar
“Mr Fenway! Mr Fenway!” Mitch’s Blamire’s voice laughed at them from a few feet away.
Justin turned the torch on Mitch. The gun was firmly in his arms. Miles lay breathless on the ground. “Bastard came out of nowhere,” he moaned.
“Course I did,” Mitch laughed. “You get to learn that when you’re poaching. That what you gents doing, now? A little pheasant or a partridge for the pot? Nice gun, sir. Nicer than any I’m ever likely to own.”
“Mitch,” Justin said carefully. “Don’t do anything stupid. I’ve got other coppers beating the woods too. They’ll find us all before long. Just be smart this once. Give us the gun. Take us to where Mrs Fenway is and we’ll deal with this quietly in the morning.”
Mitch Blamire guffawed. “Others in the woods? Don’t insult my intelligence, boy. I could live ’neath these trees if I wanted. I could hear you a mile off, smell you too if truth be known. Nobody here but us, mister. And a few of my friends. Who I imagine you’d like to meet.”
He came up to Justin, thrust a fat hand into his police jacket, took out the radio threw it to the ground and stamped on it. “Don’t want you talking now, do we?” He waved the gun down the path. The two men went in front. Mitch Blamire followed behind. It was no more than three hundred yards and then they were in the clearing, with fifteen or more people, the Beulah hard core, Justin guessed. Among them was Frank Wethered, behatted as usual, the Cartwrights, Norman from the pub, and Sara Harrison, looking wild-eyed and terrified. And, held captive at the neck by a rope which Marjorie Tyler gripped tightly in her hands, Alison, her head covered in flowers. She looked at Justin and Miles and said nothing. Marjorie held her tight by a bonfire some ten feet tall, wigwam-shaped with a gap in the middle where a sizeable tree trunk was rooted in the ground. The air stank of petrol.
“Visitors, Ma,” Mitch said from behind them. “Armed too. Now why’d you think nice blokes like this would be wandering around the woods at night with a gun in their hands, eh?”
John Tyler lurked behind Marjorie, solemn, apprehensive. They all looked scared, Justin thought. Maybe that was where the opportunity lay.
He stepped forward, in front of the semi-circle they made, and held out his arms. “This is enough. It stops…”
It was Frank Wethered who lashed out at him, thin arm whipping through the air to strike Justin on the cheek. “Shut up you stupid oaf! You don’t understand a damn thing.”
Mitch Blamire crocked the Purdey beneath his shoulder and laughed. “Right there, Frank. This is Burning Man. We got a job to do.”
It wasn’t working. They were more under Marjorie’s spell than he expected. Miles glanced at him, eyes darting back to the woods, then kicked hard at Mitch, sent the squat figure reeling towards the ground.
“Run, Justin,” he yelled desperately. “Get help, for God’s sake.”
The circle was broken, uncertain. Justin hesitated, almost for too long, and then took to his heels, dashin g into the encircling night, through the forest of slender chestnut. Dickie Cartwright and two other figures raced through the dark to rugby tackle Miles to the forest floor where they struggled in a flurry of curses. Then Mitch stumbled to his feet, cursing and pointed the gun at the heap of flailing bodies until they were quiet.
“You keep your peace, Mr Fenway.” Mitch was wheezing, hurt. “We’ll get that bastard. He can’t run far. And he weren’t a friend of yours either.”
They let Miles rise from the ground. His face was bruised. There was blood on his cheeks and the low note of defeat in his voice. There must have been ten men against him. “This is insane, Mitch. You can’t think you’ll get away with it.”
“Watch us,” Marjorie barked. “We’ll deal with you and the plod after.” She jerked on the rope. Alison stumbled forward, eyes shining in the dark and fell to her knees. “Mitch, you tie her. Have done with it.”
The crowd was silent. Alison tried to see Mitch Blamire’s face in front of her. He was grinning, but unsure. The fire was unlit. Justin was free. And she was not about to go easily.
The rope flew over her head, thrown to him by Marjorie. Mitch took it, wrapped the end around his free arm, gave it a gentle, tenuous tug, like a farmhand toying with a young bull. “Nothing personal, Mrs Fenway,” he said. “You understand that? We just go to do things right here. Otherwise it all goes to pot.”
“Then do it, Mitch,” she said calmly. “I’m awake now. I can see you.”
In the end, she thought, it was Mitch who was afraid here. She had despatched his twin to the grave. She had spilled Blamire blood. Mitch was, she felt, in awe of her. At this final juncture, fear and hesitation coursed in equal measure across his face.
Expressionless, he walked slowly towards her. Counting the seconds in her head, trying to choreograph this last desperate dance, she seized the moment, grasped the rope and pulled. Mitch, caught by his own momentum, stumbled. The gun danced like a silver charm in front of her. Alison fell forwards, rolled on her right shoulder, desperately reaching for the weapon in his hands, felt for the wooden stock and tore it firmly from his grasp.
There was no true time in this place. No difference between a second or an hour. The Purdey was tight within her grip, the familiar shape against the shoulder. Somewhere in her reeling imagination the filigree dragons on the metalwork shone with a radiant luminescence. And Marjorie had the rope again, had snatched it from the felled Mitch Blamire, was pulling, pulling, from behind, such agony on her neck.
Alison tumbled towards her, easing the strain on the rope, then pushed herself to her feet. She flailed out with the gun, expecting Mitch to pounce any second. But he was somewhere else, beyond reach. The twin barrels rose, struck something soft and human. Marjorie cried out, letting loose the long, flashing knife which disappeared into the blackness of the wood. The rope fell free. Alison was standing now. The Purdey sat in her shoulder as if it were part of her body. On the ground, fat and helpless, face bloody, rolling, screaming imprecations, Marjorie Tyler struggled to get upright.
“Bitch,” Alison said quietly, to herself, not to this small crowd of onlookers, who didn’t move, didn’t say a word behind her, made no noise whatsoever, knowing the power that rested in her hands.
The vast figure thrashed about on the ground, alone, no sign of John Tyler anywhere. Marjorie’s piggy eyes glinted at her, full of hatred, and in that glance Alison saw every venomous deed that had been done to her these past twelve months, each odious act replayed, full of pain and misery and a dark, malevolent intent.
“Bitch,” she repeated softly, and the weapon jerked twice making a sound like thunder, a rolling, roaring explosion that brought some deep, growling counterpoint from the thick and threatening sky.
It was, an observant, rational part of her mind came to judge, a simple, instantaneous transition. One second, Marjorie rolled on the earth, a living, thrashing heap of fury. The next she was gone and in her place was flesh and blood, the pumps and girders of the body’s mechanics, still twitching, but out of some lingering electrical spark alone. What had been Marjorie, the essence of her life, had disappeared, ripped from the world by the force of the weapon and Alison’s single-minded will. The sky roared again, a fulminatory row above their heads. The first few drops of ponderous rain touched her face. She was aware now of the throng around her, bodies mingling, rushing, shouting.
There was Miles, shaking himself free from the gang that surrounded him. Somewhere in the wood, racing for help, there was Justin. Two men, her men, against the mob. It was, she knew, insufficient. Alison Fenway closed her eyes, let the smooth, comforting form of the Purdey slip from her fingers to the floor and waited for their anger to descend.
Even then, the night was closing in. Her consciousness grew hazy. In the loud, frantic frenzy, someone touched her, and it felt more like an embrace than an assault. She held up her arms, not knowing why. They rushed around her. In the throng she saw so many faces, people she knew, laughing, screaming, cheering. Frank Wethered’s hat was off, which was, it seemed to her, an odd memory with which to leave this life. Bella Cartwright’s face dipped briefly from view, down to the shattered remains of Marjorie, and then she returned, waving hands smeared in blood. Close by, singing a happy, nonsensical song, Mitch Blamire danced a jig, round and round, all on his own, like a muscle-bound genie released from the bottle. Beyond him, thoughtful, hand on white, pale face, faintly smiling, stood John Tyler, looking at them all, mulling over the proceedings.
She wanted to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. Her vision was failing. A long dark tunnel lay ahead, racing up to her consciousness, racing to greet her. The night bellowed at them. It had ceased to possess a form she recognised.
John Tyler’s face hove into view and it was friendly, even though the syringe was back in his hands.
“Good girl,” he said. “Brave girl.” She felt the needle enter her arm, behind it the deadening force of some overpowering anaesthetic. Someone was singing a song, a familiar song, from a movie she could no longer remember, from a time when the past was warm and sunny and safe. She knew these words. Her lips moved with them, automatically.
Quietly, with no perceptible melody, just busking along with the chorus around her, Alison Fenway whispered, “Ding Dong, the witch is dead, the wicked witch, the wicked witch…” Then fell in a lifeless heap to the ground.
(c) David Hewson 2012