Another chapter towards the end of the marathon effort. Thank you again if you’ve stuck with it so far.
And if you’re new, please go to this page to read all that’s gone before.
Wednesday 13th November 1985: 14.56 – 15.25
Within the space of a heartbeat, relief turned into anything-but-relief-ness for Amita Chowdhary.
She’d been delighted when, leaping forwards to drag the old lady (Lavinia, Mabel Cartwright’s voice-that-wasn’t-a-voice had called her?) out of the corpse’s reach, she’d seen that Joseph, unbidden, had done exactly the same.
Two souls with but a single thought… The quotation had flashed through her brain. (Where was it from, now? Keats? She was pretty sure it was Keats. But then, it might have been Shakespeare; most quotations normally were.
Or thinking about it, it might have been Lionel Richie. Hadn’t he recorded a song with lyrics along those lines a couple of years before?)
But now, Mabel Cartwright was stomping towards them again. Or rather — most of Mabel Cartwright. One of her arms seemed to be in the custody of Terrence Dawson; which was all well and good, but wouldn’t yield much if it came to an interrogation, she suspected.
What was she thinking? She began to drag Lavinia, whose legs were functioning as nothing more than decorative appendages, backwards again. To her right, Joseph matched her, his face betraying the same horror she was sure was written on her own.
A stray length of organ pipe lay to one side of the corpse’s path. Please, Vishnu, don’t let her notice it and pick it up, Amita prayed. She’d already thanked the god for sending Garuda to get rid of the the hatpin menace. She wasn’t sure a return flight from the sun-bird would be as effective against a thicker, longer, stronger (albeit unsharpened, which was one positive, if one that offered no reassurance whatsoever) lump of metal.
As if she’d read Amita’s mind, and thought, That’s a great idea, why don’t I do just that to add more menace to the overwhelming menace I’m already expressing, Mabel Cartwright noticed the pipe and stooped down to pluck it from the floor. Damn! Amita thought.
Oh well. It served her right for relying on gods that weren’t native to the building she was in.
She continued hauling Lavinia away. There was still plenty of room behind at the moment, but at some point she and Joseph would run out of floor and have to resort to walking up a wall to keep the old lady safe.
‘Keep movin’, and I’ll tear your other bloody arm off for you!’ Sergeant Bulstrode’s voice barked out from behind Mabel Cartwright.
Amita breathed a sigh of relief as the sergeant hurried forwards and grabbed the old lady’s still-attached arm, halting her progress. She stopped as well. Maybe the wall was safe from her footprints after all.
With a glance at him that could only be one of contempt, Mabel Cartwright swung her arm casually, and Sergeant Bulstrode disappeared over the front pew with a crash that reverberated round the church.
Damn again! (She was rather getting into the habit of swearing. Much more, she’d be turning into DI Hampshire, let alone hatching out of the same egg, as she’d thought in the cafe the day before.) She set off backwards once more, doubling her pace and turning the retreat into pretty much a backwards sprint. On the other side of Lavinia, she saw Joseph scurrying to keep up, and blessed him for the courage he was showing, even though it wasn’t his job to do so.
She could feel the wall rushing closer. Her shoes were of the variety labelled ‘sensible’ in every fashion magazine she’d ever read. But: ‘sensible to mountaineer up a vertical surface?’ Probably not.
Was there any more pipe behind her? She couldn’t remember seeing any; but she didn’t want to glance behind to check, in case the length in front took advantage of her distraction to commence swinging. But if there was, it might make a handy (or more likely hopeful, given the havoc she’d already seen Mabel Cartwright wreak) weapon. Or a trip hazard, of course, which wouldn’t be anywhere near as good; and would, in fact, probably register on the side of badness labelled ‘total disaster’.
‘That’s enough!’ another voice roared, and Chief Inspector Meredith appeared, rounding the front of the middle aisle and moving to block Mabel Cartwright’s advance.
Instinctively, Amita sent up another petition. I like my DCI, please don’t let him come to harm. This time, she left the deity’s name-field blank, for whichever one might be on duty to fill in.
And then, a third voice called, ‘Please don’t hurt her!’
DCI Meredith swung his head to look at Clarissa Rawlings, rushing up the aisle towards the front. ‘Mrs Rawlings,’ he said, ‘please stay back.’
But Clarissa either didn’t hear, or, more likely, ignored him. She interposed herself between the DCI and the corpse, and held out her hands in supplication. ‘Mabel, please. Can we talk about this?’
Clarissa, what are you doing! Amita shot the thought at the vicar’s wife. Okay — there were now two layers of defence between Lavinia and Mabel, as well as herself and Joseph. But if what had happened to both the organ pipes and Sergeant Bulstrode was anything to go by, those layers were going to be paper thin; and tracing paper, doused in water and perforated every few inches, at that.
Another footfall sounded, and the vicar too rounded Mabel, to stand beside his wife.
Good for you, Amita thought; then added, but really, you’re both off your heads. But, she noted, the old woman had actually halted again. That was something, at least.
‘Mabel,’ Clarissa continued, ‘I know you must be angry — really angry — at having your life taken away from you. But please — you’ve had your revenge. On Hettie. She can’t hurt anyone else. Can’t you leave it at that?’
Was there a hint of uncertainty in the corpse’s eye? (The one that still existed, that was. The other one, she didn’t really want to think about, let alone examine.) She could only hope. She wasn’t going to pray this time, though; the experts in that field were now dealing with the situation, and anything she’d ask might only get in the way, even assuming she did get the right god.
‘Miss Cartwright. Mabel,’ Clarissa’s husband joined in. ‘We know that you love our Lord. Please — if only you give up this search for vengeance, I’m sure we can help you find peace. Wouldn’t you like that? Truly?’
‘She said I was unholy!’ the voice in Amita’s head snapped. ‘That I’d never be allowed into Heaven, I was such a sinner.’
‘Hettie, you mean?’ Clarissa said. ‘You don’t believe that, do you, Mabel? You’re the most faithful person I know. You don’t really think that Jesus would deny you Glory?’
There was a groan from the front pew, and happily, Sergeant Bulstrode’s head appeared, slowly followed by his arms and upper torso. Inconsequentially, Amita noticed that the hatpin he’d had in his hand was now sticking out of his jacket sleeve, which wasn’t the most natural place for it. The sergeant looked dazed, as she supposed he had every right to be.
‘Vicar — Mrs Rawlings,’ DCI Meredith was urging, ‘I really think you should stand back.’
By way of reply, the vicar waved his hand backwards in a silencing motion. ‘Clarissa’s correct,’ he said to the corpse. ‘Our Lord is full of love, and would want you to know rest.’
‘But I’ve killed!’ Mabel’s thought came. “Thou shalt not kill,” Hettie would have quoted.’
There was a bark of laughter from the sergeant, and Amita was pleased to hear that he sounded like he was back in the room again mentally as well as physically. ‘“Thou shalt not kill”, my Aunt Fanny! She was one to talk, given the number she must’ve bumped off in her time!’
‘Those were righteous killings, though,’ Mabel’s voice came again. ‘She showed us the Old Testament verses.’
‘Oh, Mabel, Mabel,’ the vicar said. ‘Please disregard what Miss Foster told you. That really isn’t the way of it.’
‘But how can I go to Heaven as a murderer?’
The question hung in the air, and then, to Amita’s astonishment, the vicar set up a low chuckle that, quiet as it was, filled the space around them all. ‘Now that, Mabel,’ he said, ‘is a really interesting theological question. Most interesting.’
To Amita’s further astonishment (an astonishment which, she’d suspected until this moment, couldn’t be more furthered if it tried), he left his wife’s side, rounded the DCI and the corpse, and began to climb the stairs to the pulpit. ‘Forgive me,’ he said. ‘I do find it so much easier to expound when I’m up here.’
At the top, he settled himself into what she assumed must be his ‘preaching a sermon’ pose. (How long did a Church of England sermon last? One of the first cases she’d learnt about in college was that of a congregation in an American-influenced denomination being literally talked to death during a service that lasted not only the whole of Sunday, but well into the middle of the following week as well. No charges had been pressed, but the pastor of the church had subsequently emigrated to the parent church in Texas, where he made a handy second income as an alternative to the lethal injection in death penalty cases.) Beaming down at them, he continued, ‘Yes — a very interesting theological question. If you consider it, Mabel, your sin is by way of being rather unusual. Happening, as it did, when you were already dead.’
Amita and Joseph exchanged a puzzled glance. Looking away again, she saw Terrence Dawson, still clutching Mabel Cartwright’s detached arm as if he’d won the trophy for ‘Most Unusual Arrest of the Year’, do the same with Sergeant Bulstrode. ‘Oh, of course,’ she heard Clarissa breathe.
‘You see,’ the vicar was continuing, ‘you cannot possibly be held guilty by God for events that occurred after you’d died, any more than you could for events before you were born. Only the living can sin.’
‘But surely…’ Mabel’s voice began.
But the vicar cut into her protest. ‘The Lord is actually obliged to let you into Heaven, dear Mabel, under his own rules. You died redeemed by his blood. Whatever happened after that is purely incidental.’
There was a pause, and then he made the sign of the cross at them, and muttered something that could either have been a blessing, or a comment of, ‘If you believe that, you’ll believe anything.’
And she couldn’t help noticing, as he descended the pulpit steps again, his back towards them, that he held one hand behind that back, and the middle and index fingers on it were also well and truly crossed.