He stood in the exact same spot as Kate had done just a few days before, a look of contempt on his face for the church he had built in another life. The scaffolding made him smirk. If he could have had his way he’d reduce the whole building to rubble. It had been a waste of his time as Thomas Whittle, the penitent, to build this place in the hopes of redemption for his sins. There was no peace after death, just this endless, recurring cycle of misery, searching, striving, yearning for the day when he would achieve his dream of immortality. That would bring him his peace. The angel would rot in Hell and she, whoever she was in this life, she would die once and for all by his hand and he would send her soul so far into the darkness she would never find her way out again.
He unlatched the gate and strolled up the path, hesitating when it forked left and right, then choosing to follow it to the rear of the church. Outside the vestry door he stopped and sniffed the air. She’d been here, he felt it. Some sixth sense drew him to the plant container. He bent down, lifted the pot with a gloved hand and retrieved the ornate brass key. It turned easily in the lock and he slipped inside, dropping the key into his pocket.
He passed the vestments, hung on pegs along the wall and knocked them to the floor, trampling them under muddy boots, then stopped in the doorway and surveyed the main body of the church. It smelled of cold stone, polished wood and beeswax candles. The silence and sanctity of the place oppressed him. With his face set in a sneer of disgust he passed through the arched wall and into the chancel, his hands held away from his body, palms downwards as if feeling his way, searching for a psychic impression of her presence. He had felt it outside, at the front of the building. It was what had made him enter by the vestry and what had given away the hiding place of the key. Her heightened state of emotion when she had last been here had imprinted itself on the ether. It was almost fading; if he’d waited a few more days it would have gone and he would never have picked it up at all.
What could have made her so anxious, he wondered, that she’d left a trail so incandescent?
The brand new flagstone in the chancel floor, directly at his feet, stood out conspicuously. He crouched down, removing a glove, and swept his hand across its surface. It gave nothing away, but he extended his reach below the stone and BANG!
His mind was slapped away with enough force to send him toppling over backwards. He sat on his backside and laughed. So, the angel had hidden something here.
What could he have …oh of course, he thought as the memory returned to him. The ashes.
He and the angel had conspired together to inter her here.
There was something else though, something far more important than Catherine’s earthly remains, but he couldn’t see. The angelic barrier effectively blinded him.
“Excuse me. What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
He was up on his feet in seconds, spinning towards the voice, muscles tensed. He relaxed when he saw it was only the elderly vicar, his walking stick dangling awkwardly from a hand beneath arms full of dirty vestments. He ran his hand through his short, dark and recently very greasy hair, put the leather glove back on and strode towards Reverend Pilling, a Cheshire Cat grin on his face.
Reverend Pilling stood his ground, but was caught off guard when the intruder extended his hand towards him. He dumped the vestments on the nearest pew and went to shake it. The man stank of stale sweat and urine and he was squeezing his hand too tightly; his arthritis flared, painful enough to make him wince. He raised indignant eyes to the man’s face and gasped. He recognised evil when he saw it.
“Get out of my church,” he said, his voice shaking with fear and defiant anger. He tried to extricate himself from the stranger’s grip, but was held fast. The man’s laugh bordered on hysteria. Its echo seemed to go on forever.
“I think you’ll find it’s my church,” he snarled, then backhanded the vicar, rendering him unconscious.
* * *
When Reverend Pilling came to he was tied to a chair, brought from the vestry by his assailant. He was gagged with a piece of cloth torn from one of the surplices and his head was pounding. His glasses were gone and the world around him blurred into a muted impressionist painting.
His attacker was whistling somewhere off to his right and he turned his head in that direction. If he screwed up his eyes the dark blob became almost man-shaped. He could hear water splashing. Dear God, was he urinating in the font? His muffled protests brought the offender’s attention back to him.
“At last” he said, zipping up his trousers and crossing the floor.
His face pushed into that of Reverend Pilling.
“Now you can tell me what I need to know. I’ll remove the gag if you promise no screaming. Understand?”
Reverend Pilling nodded. The gag was loosened.
“Glasses?” the vicar rasped.
“I’m afraid they were damaged,” the man said.
The sound of glass breaking and being crushed and ground beneath his boot followed.
“What do you want, demon?”
“Oh I’m not a demon,” said the man. “I’m human, just like you.”
Reverend Pilling snorted.
“I have a different master, that’s all. Do you know I built this church? Wanted God to forgive me of my sins. Gave everything I had to the poor, helped the needy; was assured, by an angel no less, that there was nothing more I could do. Should have kept the money and told God where to stick it because he didn’t save me and that angel, that bastard angel, has made me the evil son of a bitch that I am today.”
He pulled out a knife as he spoke. The vicar recoiled, receding as far as possible into the chair to which he was bound, but the man had dug the point into the pew at his side and was chipping away at the wood, carving a pentagram, which the vicar’s wide, terrified eyes couldn’t see.
Finishing the design seemed to calm him and he took a deep, satisfied breath as he turned back to Reverend Pilling.
“And now you’re going to answer my questions or I’m going to carve this into you.”
He rose from the pew and knelt in front of his captive. The vicar closed his eyes and prayed for strength and courage as the dagger sheared the buttons from his shirt, one by one.
“What was hidden in the floor beneath the flagstone?” the man asked in a sing-song voice.
“Which flagstone, the floor is covered with them?”
The dagger’s point was pressed to his throat.
“The new one. Don’t toy with me Vicar.”
Reverend Pilling was confused. He frowned.
“Nothing.” he said.
The tip of the knife was dragged across Reverend Pilling’s bare chest. It was a very sharp knife and at first caused no pain, but then the wound began to bleed and sting.
“I’m telling you the truth. There was a cavity, but there was nothing in it.”
The man stood up and began to pace.
“Tell me what happened to the previous stone.”
“It’s been taken away.”
“Why – was it – replaced?”
He was getting impatient now, the vicar was a simpleton. It would be satisfying getting rid of him.
“Oh, oh I see,” said the vicar. “I came in and found it broken. A stone had fallen from the wall where the builders have their scaffolding. I ordered a replacement. When they took the old one away they found a space, but it was empty.”
So she had found the ashes and taken them and whatever else the angel had hidden there with her.
“Who is the woman who has visited the church this last week?”
Reverend Pilling paused, he thought back, but could think of no one.
“There hasn’t been any…”
“Yes there has.”
The knife was put against his skin and he was cut again.
“I don’t remember!”
“I don’t know, I don’t know!”
He cried the words over and over as the knife cut him for a third time, but then – there had been someone. Did he mean Kate? The man raised his eyebrows.
“There has been no one,” he said.
He was slashed again and again. He could feel the warm blood soaking into the waistband of his trousers. At last, he could take no more and the words flowed out as freely as his blood.
“All right,” he whimpered. “There was a woman, a genealogist, she came to do research in the archives.”
The vicar sobbed.
“Oh God, please forgive me. It’s Kathryn. Kathryn Lowry.”
“Catherine? Wait, no, that can’t be…”
There was a pause, then the voice dropped to a whisper.
“I know that name, why do I know that name.”
For a moment the voice had been unsteady, high pitched, almost scared, then it barked a short laugh. The vicar couldn’t see the man’s smile with his eyes squeezed shut, but he felt the man pull the sides of his blood drenched shirt front across his wounds and his voice had regained its sinister composure when he spoke again.
“Where are these archives?”
* * *
He walked a slow, steady circle, the way Kate had done. His hands hovered over the spines of the record books, then stopped and came back to one he had just passed. He pulled it out, flipped through the pages and came to a stop where the book had most recently been viewed. His eyes widened with surprise as he read down the column of names, then he chuckled to himself.
“Well, I didn’t expect that.”
When he sauntered back into the church the smile was wiped from his face. His path to the whimpering vicar was blocked by a tall, dark haired, intensely blue eyed figure.
“You!” he spat. “You can’t interfere, it’s against the rules.”
“I’m not interfering. You’ve got what you came for, but I’m not going to let you kill this man.”
“You should be more worried about me killing you right now,” he said, brandishing the Angel Killer.
The tall man laughed.
“I don’t think so.”
He disappeared, then called down from the rafters.
“You’re much too slow.”
Then he was gone again, reappearing in the pulpit.
“Besides, you’re saving yourself for my little brother.”
He had gone again. The man with the dagger shifted from one foot to the other, his eyes darting round the church. He flinched when the angel appeared behind him and shoved him in the back.
“Now get out of here.”
The main door swung open and the man, fighting the urge to run, swaggered out. The door closed behind him with a soft thud.
Reverend Pilling broke the silence with a sob. The angel placed a hand in the middle of the vicar’s chest and healed the deep cuts. Then he untied his hands and, finding the broken spectacle frame on the floor, repaired the lenses and handed them back to Reverend Pilling.
The vicar stared up, open mouthed, into the eyes of the tall man. He recognised evil, but he also knew an emissary of God when he saw one.
“Th- th – thank you!” he managed to say.
The angel nodded and turned to leave.
“I wonder,” called the vicar. “Might I…”
The angel returned and shrugged. There was a blast of air so strong the vicar feared losing his glasses again. He took his hands away from his face and stared in wonder.
“Magnificent!” he said.
“I know,” said the angel and walked away.
* * *
It was only later, as he related the entire tale to the Archbishop, that he realised something he’d been too awestruck to register at the time. He gripped the incredulous elder cleric’s hand and muttered the astonished words –
“They were black.”