Blackfeather Chapter 10

The adrenalin rush subsided and gave way to tears. She knew she should call the police, but tell them what? A guy she’d met in a bar had put some kind of spell on her, made her fall in love with him, took her out for a meal and then killed a man in front of her?

She felt queasy again and ran to the toilet, reaching it in time to throw up dinner. She sat back, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Had she really seen what she thought she’d seen? Could it have been her imagination? Given the stress she’d been under the last few days she might have imagined it all, including Ash. He had seemed so nice, so likeable, so loveable.

Perhaps she should wait:, if the following day’s news reported a murder, then she would call the police. She staggered back to the kitchen for a drink of water. Her eyes settled on the brown cover of the journal poking out of her bag, where she had dropped it on the kitchen table. She picked it up and drummed her fingers on the cover. She needed to do something to steady her nerves and whether she’d witnessed a murder or not, she wasn’t going to sleep tonight.

*  *  *

She kicked off her shoes and climbed onto the bed with the journal resting on her drawn-up knees. She was tense, edgy, but after flicking through the book and seeing the  translated text again, her anxiety gave way to wonder and excitement.

“All right let’s start at the beginning,” she said aloud and turned back to what she expected would be the book’s title. Her face fell and the colour drained from it. The two words read…

For Catherine.

She sat up, alarmed at the sight of her own name. All right, it was a different spelling, but the chances were phenomenal. After everything else that had happened she could hardly dismiss this as a coincidence. She had two choices: read on or put the book down and forget it. Curiosity got the better of her and she turned the page.

May 12th 1479

So it was a diary and the date placed it a little earlier than the rebuilding of the church. Whoever Catherine was, it certainly didn’t mean her and Kate relaxed a little before starting again.

May 12th 1479

Catherine is on her knees in the little church. She is not praying today, but is scrubbing the stone floors. She is but fourteen years old and is daydreaming, again, about how she will one day meet a handsome knight, who will fall in love with her and take her to his grand castle, where he will make her his lady.

I see the images from her imagination as clearly as if they were my own. We are linked, she and I. I smile as she smiles. She doesn’t know it, but I have been with her since she first drew breath in this life and I love her with a deep abiding and unconditional love. She is a new soul and I have been chosen to watch over her.

She pushes a stray hair from across her face and looks up from her tedious work to a small crudely carved image of one of my brethren. It is Michael, I think. I doubt he would be impressed with the object, too feminine he would say. Gabriel, on the other hand, gentle Gabriel, would find it pleasing.

Catherine speaks aloud. Her voice is a sweet sound to me.

“I wish I could see a real angel, it might restore Uncle’s faith in God and I think would be more wonderful even than a knight.”

The priest is not my concern, it is the secret he keeps and not his faith that vexes him so. A secret of which Catherine is unaware. However, hers is an innocent request and I know others have been granted such visions, so I clothe myself in the form of the man she imagines in her romantic ideas of earthly love and grant her wish. Others would have run away, hidden their faces or fallen to their knees in prayer. Not Catherine. She smiles shyly, thanks God for answering her prayers and asks…

“Which are you? Knight or angel?”

By way of answer I display my wings. They are wondrous to behold and fill the little church with their white evanescence, but her smile is even more brilliant.

She wants to fetch the man she calls Uncle, the priest, but I explain that only she can see me and, for her own safety, this must be our secret. She readily agrees. I know she hopes to persuade me differently later, but for now she is content to obey.

We become constant companions. I hide myself when she is not alone, even though the others can’t see me. It is easier for Catherine that way. Less chance she will give us away.

Time means nothing to me, but for Catherine, days become weeks. Spring turns to Summer and we spend as much time as her chores will allow walking the fields and woods that surround the village. Away from the houses we can talk uninterrupted.

*  *  *

Kate paused. Angel books in the bookshop window, the dictionary of angels in the library, the poster for the festival and now this. This couldn’t be a diary, angels weren’t real, this was someone’s fantasy story.

June 30th 1479

A young man rides into the village. A stranger. The villagers flock to him, fascinated by the novelty of his appearance. His skin is tanned a rich, dark olive and his voice is a mixture of many accents, one layered upon the other, as though he has travelled the world spending many years in each place. The style and quality of his clothes mark him out as a wealthy man, possibly a merchant or squire. He takes a room at the inn telling all within earshot that he is on a business errand for his master. Catherine says he smells of rotting flesh, but no one else seems aware of this. The adults around her don’t notice or don’t care and are too busy doing his every bidding as he showers them with coins from his bulging purse. He throws his money around as if it were as plentiful as animal dung, but it gives him no pleasure to see the people scurry after it. For all his rich trappings and his youth, the stranger appears weary of life and when he catches sight of his reflection in the polished surface of his goblet he sneers at it and quickly looks away, as though he cannot stand the sight of himself.

On Sunday, he attends the evening service in the chapel and later comes to the house to speak with Catherine’s Uncle. She lays on the floorboards of her little room, her ear pressed to the gaps trying to hear what is said below us. I beg her to come away. I don’t know why, but the man frightens me. There is an odd darkness about him. He carries a book and a gaudily jewelled box that give off an aura of evil.

He stays late into the night at Catherine’s Uncle’s table and she must wait on them. I watch from the shadows, afraid for her. His hands are always reaching out to touch her pale skin, but my Catherine is too quick for him, avoiding his contact time and again. When at last she can retire to bed I stay to listen to their conversation. It is banal at first, pointless chatter about local issues and the politics of the day, but eventually the stranger brings out the book and pushes it towards the priest.

“What’s this?” asks Thomas.

“I’ve been told to gift this to you. The book will give you everything you ever dreamed of.”

Thomas smiles indulgently at the man as though he is a child.

“I already have such a book,” he says, waving his hand towards the Bible that sits on the table by the window.

“With this one you can amass great wealth, become Archbishop.” The man barks a short, sharp laugh. “Hell, you could even raise a loved one from the dead.”

The smile fades and now there is fear in the eyes of Thomas Whittle. Has this stranger guessed his secret? He draws himself up and shakes his head.

“How can that be? You speak of something only God could accomplish. This must be some kind of joke.”

The man rises from the table and comes to stand behind the small frame of Thomas Whittle. He leans over him, his hand on Thomas’ shoulder, pressing him down, hard into the bench. The other hand reaches for the book and flips it open. He thrusts Thomas’ face toward it.

“See,” he croons. “The book has wonders for thee to perform.”

Thomas’ eyes scan the page before him and widen with fear and disgust. Before him is the offer of eternal life itself.

“That’s blasphemy,” says Thomas, wriggling under the vice-like grip. “Why are you offering this to me?”

“Come now, we know your faith has left you, Father. God doesn’t answer your prayers any more, Thomas, but the book can, and my master thinks you deserve some reward for the suffering you’ve had to endure. He wants you to know that your anger at God has not gone unnoticed.”

Thomas slumps, recognizing the truth in the words the man speaks. It has grown more and more difficult for him to minister to the villagers’ needs and in the night, when he has thought himself alone, he has gone to the church to rail at God until, his prayers unanswered, his faith is lost altogether.

“And what do I have to do in return?” he asks.

“Ah, you’re a clever man, Father.”

He lets go of Thomas’ shoulder and stands back.

“In return for immortality my master requires that you carry out small tasks from time to time, such as the one I have performed tonight in bringing you the book.”

“And who exactly is your master?”

“Again, a very astute question.”

The stranger returns to his seat, pulls his saddle pack onto the table and opens the flap.

“He is a great prince, but you will never see him unless you accept the offer.”

Thomas suspects he already knows who the stranger’s master might be, but he is already wavering.

“And what must I do to attain this illustrious reward?”

“You must capture an angel, the book will show you how.”

Thomas has taken the opportunity to steady himself with a mouthful of wine. It sprays across the room, the droplets sparkling as they catch the light from the candles. He snorts in derision at the man.

“Don’t be a fool, man. Angels don’t exist, any more than God does.”

“I think you’ll find you’re wrong on both counts, Thomas,” the man says, pulling the jewelled box from his pack.

He lifts the lid and takes out a murderous looking weapon. A dagger sharpened to a wicked point, the hilt as black as midnight, the blade covered with glittering symbols of power. I am astounded at what I see before me, for though its form has changed, I recognise the weapon. Who among us could ever forget it.

This is Lucifer’s sword, from the days of the war in Heaven. When Michael disarmed him, flicking it from his grasp with the fiery point of his own weapon, it fell, plummeting to Earth where it split the landmass and formed the continents. From there it sank, through the depths of the great ocean, lost forever, or so we thought.

Lucifer must have gone to great lengths to recover it and he had altered its appearance, a dagger being less conspicuous than a sword. As an ordinary weapon it was a lethal object, but it had a singular property that made it more fearsome to me – it could kill angels.

“Then I want nothing to do with this evil,” Thomas says with as much conviction as he can muster.

“Oh no, Thomas, you can’t back out now.”

In one swift movement the dark man closes the gap between himself and Thomas and cuts both his own palm and that of the whimpering priest. He presses their palms together in a blood pact. Thomas struggles, the bench falls back with a clatter as he tries to fight off his assailant. His hand caught tight in the dark man’s hand, their blood mingling and dripping to the floor.

The man laughs again, pushes Thomas away from him and leaves him cowering on the floor.

“The book will tell you all you need to know to accomplish this task.”

He towers over the shaking form of Father Whittle, then crouches so their faces almost touch.

“When you have your celestial prisoner, you must kill him with this. Perform the ritual and bind the angel’s soul to the dagger. My master will come to you when you have done all this”

He flourishes the dagger one last time, then lays it back in the box and closes the lid, picks up his saddle bags and purse and walks towards the door.

“Where am I supposed to find this angel?” Thomas whines.

“Ask your daughter.”

His laughter is chilling.

“Ha, you have the wrong man, I have no daughter,” Thomas says, but his brow is beaded with sweat and his skin is a sickly pallor.

The stranger merely smiles a knowing smile and Thomas clasps his hands together to stop them from trembling. In all, four people were aware of Thomas’s secret and three of them were dead. He has hidden the truth that he is Catherine’s father from everyone. Her mother, a nun from the convent at Nun Appleton, died in childbirth. Thomas took the babe to his brother, knowing that his barren wife would persuade him to adopt the child as his own, but she died five years later and her husband, a loyal Yorkist, was killed fighting against Lancaster, less than a year later, at the battle of Tewkesbury. Catherine’s only living relative is Thomas. The man she believes to be her uncle.

Before he leaves the house, the stranger glances in my direction and sniffs the air. He cannot possibly know I am there, but I draw back all the same. I follow him and watch him enter the inn. I am glad when in the dead of night he saddles his horse and leaves, riding out of town without looking back. The book and box are left with Thomas.

I say nothing of the encounter to Catherine and the following morning the book and box with its hateful contents are gone. I pray that Thomas has somehow destroyed them.

In the days that follow, Catherine and I are too happy in each other’s company to notice the change in Thomas. I should have seen how he locked himself away, spending long hours alone by candlelight, well into the night, neglecting his duties in the church, but all I know is love, I have eyes for no-one but Catherine.

 

As I look back I see I was arrogant. I thought I could protect her from anything, but in the end I could do nothing. I was so naive as to be stupid.

 

Wow, thought Kate.

Whoever had written this must have had a fantastic imagination and they’d done their history. Thomas Whittle was a real man. He hadn’t just been the rector of All Souls Church, he had built it, though she couldn’t remember anything about him having a daughter. The story fascinated her and she had to read more.

 

August 15th 1479

Thomas has sent Catherine to the miller today. They need more flour to bake bread. She tells me the day is hot, but I have no sense of these things. I tell her the names of the flowers and birds that we see and hear on our way through the countryside. So engrossed am I in our game that I don’t sense the trio of boys sneak up behind us until it is too late.

They run forward and surround her, one tugs at her hair and calls her simple. He wants to know why she is talking to herself. She knows she cannot tell them and refuses to answer. The oldest boy raises his hand to strike her, but his fist doesn’t make contact. Something stops him. Something he cannot see. He falls backwards as if pushed by an unseen force and the other boys laugh at him. When he gets up and runs away the look he gives Catherine as he flees is one of fear and hatred.

The following day, as we walk along the streams edge, I sense another. A woman from the town watches Catherine. I am not visible to her, but I alert Catherine to her presence and the woman pretends to busy herself with work, then leaves. I tell Catherine we must be more careful, but it is too late and the damage is done. Events are now set in motion that even I cannot prevent.

 

August 20th 1479

It has been another perfect day in Catherine’s company and we talk in quiet whispers as she drifts off to sleep. We have been there for some time when the door is pushed open so violently it shakes on its hinges. It is Thomas who enters the room.

“With whom do you converse, child?” he asks, his voice stern with anger.

“No one, Uncle,” Catherine replies, pulling the blanket up to her chin.

“You lie.”

He strides forward, clutches at Catherine’s wrist and drags her from the bed. She yelps in pain as he shakes her, repeating the question. I stand there helpless, shocked, afraid for her.

“You have been seen Catherine, by the village folk, talking to a spirit. Goodwife Reve espied you at the well and the day before that, your demon struck her boy.”

I was horrified. We had been careless and now I understood what I had seen on the face of the fleeing boy. Now I could see it on the faces of all the villagers. Every time they had looked sideways at Catherine, every time they had crossed themselves as she passed them, every time they turned away from her or went inside when she was near. How could I have been so stupid?

Catherine is crying now.

“He’s not a demon Uncle. He’s an angel. I have seen him and you can too.”

What was she saying? I could not show myself to him. Thomas pauses, he seems to be considering something.

“Bring him forth,” he demands.

Catherine turns to me, but I shake my head.

“He says he cannot.”

“That is unfortunate,” he says. “You give me no option then.”

Suddenly, he has Catherine in his arms, his hand across her mouth. He marches her down the stairs and out into the night. I follow. He reaches the church and pushes open the door, strides down the aisle and takes Catherine down, under the church, through a small trapdoor. There is a small stone lined room here. He pushes her into it and slams the door, locking it with a great iron key and shouts through the door at her.

“When he is ready to show himself I will set you free.”

He leaves her, alone in the dark and damp. The walls ooze moisture. She shivers in her night dress and crouches against the wall, sobbing.

But she is not alone, for I am always with her. I will not leave her now. I try to comfort her, but it is useless.

Thomas does not return until nightfall the next day. Catherine has had neither food nor water, but I have kept her warm by surrounding her with my aura.

His questions are relentless. He wants every detail about me, my name, my appearance, what miracles I can perform. Catherine is defiant, she refuses to answer and he leaves once more. Night after night the scene is repeated. She is given meagre scraps to eat and a few sips of water. I can sustain her for a while, but her body will soon succumb to this harsh treatment.

After endless nights of this torture, Thomas cannot restrain himself any longer and backhands her. It is more than I can stand. If he wants to see me then he shall.

I appear before him, ablaze with blinding light and wings extended. He has planned this and is ready for me. He pulls the black book from beneath his robes and begins to chant some evil spell. My body feels heavy, I am drawn downwards, the light begins to fade. I don’t understand what is happening, but Catherine is cleverer than I. She rushes at Thomas, knocks the book from his hands and screams at me to depart.

I waste no time in argument as I realise Thomas’ intent and remember the words of the dark man.

Brave Catherine, faithful Catherine, lays beaten and bleeding on the stone floor when I return. I sit close to her. She knows I am there, but will not look at me for fear Thomas will sense my presence. His questions never let her rest.

“Conjure it,” he demands of her. “Bring forth the creature who will buy me immortality. It does your bidding, I know.”

“He has left me,” she lies. “He will not return again.”

Thomas storms out of the little cell, his plans in tatters, more angry than ever.

“I will never leave you Catherine,” I tell her, gathering her in my arms.

“I know,” she whispers, a tear slips down her face leaving a trail in the grime and blood. She loses consciousness, a brief respite, while I hold her.

*  *  *

 

There was a gentle knock at the door. Kate had been lost in the story, horrified at the turn of events and now, with a start, sat bolt upright. She held her breath and gripped the bed-covers.

“Kate, I need to talk to you. I won’t hurt you. Please let me in.”

She stifled a cry, it was his voice. The voice that made her melt. How had he found her? He couldn’t have followed her home.

“Kate, I know you’re there. Let me explain.”

As he spoke, Kate slipped off the bed and tiptoed out to the hall. She could see him silhouetted against the glass in the front door.

“How did you get here?” she blurted out. “How did you know where I live?”

“I always know where you are Kate, from the moment you are born. I could find you anywhere.”

His voice was calm, soothing, but if that wasn’t a threat…

“Kate, I know it looks bad, but I swear to you that I mean you no harm.”

“I saw you kill someone!” she yelled. “Do you think I’m going to let you in so you can kill me too?”

“Have you forgotten how I saved your life this week? Why would I want to kill you now?”

She thought about how she’d almost been run over and the near miss on the ice.

“So it was you in front of my car? Who the hell are you?”

There was a long silence. He seemed reluctant to answer.

“I wrote the journal.”

“That’s a lie!” Kate shouted, “You can’t have done! It’s five hundred bloody years old!”

She waited to see what he would say to that, but it had gone quiet and she could no longer see him through the glass. Maybe he’d given up and left. Kate crept towards the door. She screwed her eyes up, peering through the spy hole and listened for the sound of footsteps moving away from the house. It was silent.

“I know, but I can’t lie.”

Kate spun at the sound of his voice. He was standing in the hallway behind her, the journal in his hands.

Her world reeled, some invisible force hit her full on and she thought she was going to faint, but she was held in a bubble of warmth that took all her fear away. The man in black looked at the book in his hands, his face etched with sadness. His fingers stroked the cover. There were tears in his eyes as he smiled at Kate. She thought her heart would break.

“I’m the one responsible for this,” he said.

*  *  *

“I could have come in any time I wanted,” he said. “But I was hoping you’d answer the door.”

“Have you drugged me?” asked Kate.

They were now seated comfortably in the living room. Kate in a chair, Ash a short distance away on the settee.

“No, because I’m close to you I can calm you. It’s a bit like altering your state of consciousness. The way people do when they meditate. You know, a little like what you were up to at the bookshop.”

His words held a touch of reproach in them.

“Was it you they all saw?” she said. “And again with the tarot cards?”

“I had to do something to get you out of there. You shouldn’t be messing with that kind of thing. It’s dangerous.”

Kate’s head felt warm and fuzzy. She was so relaxed that she smiled at him.

“I know underneath this I’m practically hysterical with fear that you’re going to murder me, but for some reason I can’t seem to care at the moment.”

He laughed. It was the most wonderful sound Kate had ever heard.

“It’s OK, I’ll only do this until I explain who I am, then I’ll withdraw my aura.”

“Your aura?” she said, thinking of the girl from the journal, locked in the little cell.

He nodded.

“Did you kill the man in the alley?”

“No, he wasn’t a man.”

“It looked like a man to me.”

“So do I,” he said. “But I’m not.”

She was about to say something else but he cut her off.

“What you saw wasn’t human, they clothe themselves in human form, but they’re far from human. It was probably a spy, sent to find things out and report back to its master. By breaking the neck I sever the connection between its etheric body and what you see as a physical representation of a person. It sends them straight back to where they belong – Hell. I’m guessing it was looking for me.”

“Oh yes, and exactly who are you?”

“My name is Ashrafel,” he said. “I’m your guardian angel.”

It was Kate’s turn to laugh.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

In spite of what she’d read earlier she wasn’t crazy enough to believe it was true. He was clearly deluded and she would call his bluff.

“If you’re an angel,” she said, crossing her arms. “Where are your wings?”

She pushed out her chin and waited to see how he was going to answer that.

He stood and walked to the centre of the room. She tried not to laugh at him and waited to see what excuse he would have when nothing happened and he had to confess he was lying, but gradually she began to notice there was a change in the room. Everything seemed clearer somehow, like someone had turned the brightness up on a T.V. screen. She could see the floral pattern on the vase at the other side of the room in minute detail, the individual strands of wool in the carpet. The light seemed to gather where he stood, coalescing at the epicentre. He glowed with unearthly light. Then there was a rush of cool air, strong enough to push Kate back in the chair and blow her hair about her head. She had to close her eyes against the intense brightness. When she dared open them again the room was filled with wings. She was astonished, but couldn’t help reaching forward with one shaky hand to brush the feathers with her fingertips.

“They’re beautiful,” she whispered, awestruck.

“Thank you.”

There was something not quite right though. She looked up at him with a puzzled frown.

“They’re black!”

“I’m fallen,” he replied. “Exiled.”

There was no further explanation, but she believed him now. He was the angel that poor Catherine Whittle had loved and trusted and protected from her father, and if her dreams were true, he had got her burned at the stake.

He handed the book back to her. The wings had gone and he was just a man again, so sad, so beautiful, but she was still a little afraid of him.

 

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Blackfeather – Chapter 5

Kate threw her keys onto the kitchen table. They skittered across the smooth polished surface and slid over the edge with a clatter. She bent to pick them up again with a loud sigh. This wasn’t turning out to be a good day.

In her bedroom she stripped off her coffee stained clothes and put on her dressing gown then headed to the bathroom to shower. The sticky, brown patches on her arm and legs were proof the incident had happened, but wipe that away and underneath the skin was healthy.

Kate stepped into the flow of hot water, letting it run over her body, easing away the tension in her shoulders and wrapping her in a cocoon of steam. As she relaxed, her mind’s eye replayed the scene in the café.

She watches again as the coffee pours from the jug and the steam from her memory mingles with that of the shower. It had been hot then. So how had she escaped being badly scalded? The vision continues and she recalls the scene in minute detail. It is a cold sensation that spreads along Kate’s arm as the coffee soaks into the sleeve of her favourite powder blue jumper. Brian lurches across the table, grabbing for the pot, but the liquid is already pouring, the waitress is terrified. Behind her Ronnie steps away, not wanting to admit blame and the pool of coffee grows larger, creeping across the table like the tide rising inexorably up a beach.

Fearing for the precious casket, Kate pulls it out of the way of the waterfall of coffee, now spilling over the table’s edge, and the man from the corner gets up from his seat and walks towards them, seemingly unaware of the little drama until he reaches the door and turns, deliberately, to look directly at her.

The feeling of recognition washes over her again and she observes him with detachment. He has short pale blonde hair, the colour of buttermilk, and is incredibly good-looking. He wears a leather jacket, shirt and jeans, all black except for the lining of the jacket, which is red. The white wire of his earphones contrasts sharply against his dark shirt, the end disappearing into the pocket of his jeans, but his most striking feature is his eyes. They are more than green, they are the colour of polished malachite and although she doesn’t know who he is she feels connected to him in a way she can’t explain. His eyes are locked on hers until he passes through the door and it closes behind him. The feeling of loss she experiences as he leaves is inexplicable.

Kate blinked the water from her eyes; it was like waking from a dream. The face she’d pictured with such detail in her mind’s eye a few seconds before was now impossible to capture. Try as she might she couldn’t remember him, but it seemed important that she did. She pressed her fingers to her temples, gradually becoming aware that the persistent ringing in her head was the telephone. She turned off the shower, wrapped herself in a towel and hurried to answer it before the caller rang off.

“Hello.”

“Ah finally! Hi Kate, it’s me, Brian. I  wanted to check you were OK after this afternoon and – well, all right I’m curious as to what you were going to ask me.”

There was a pause.

“Kate, are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here,” she said, trying to figure out what she was going to say.

“You are OK, aren’t you?”

It was obvious Brian was genuinely concerned.

“Yes, I’m all right.” She paused again. “Brian, I don’t suppose there’s any chance of you coming over here is there? Tonight?”

It was Brian’s turn to pause at that.

“Yeah, I think I can manage that. Is six thirty OK for you?”

“Yes, that’s fine. I’ll see you then.” A sudden thought crossed Kate’s mind. “And bring your toolbox,” she added.

“Right.” Now he was confused. “What do I need…”

“Please.” She cut him off. “I’ll explain when I see you.”

She hung up, biting her lip, and thought about the brief conversation. Had she done the right thing getting Brian involved? What would he think if he found out she’d stolen the box, never mind where it had come from?

I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it, she thought, echoing the words she’d heard in the church.

If it got her inside the box it would be worth it, she decided and went to get dressed.

*  *  *

It was six forty before Brian’s Jeep Compass crunched through the frozen snow on Kate’s driveway. The motorcycles were for weekends and pleasure, this was Brian’s company vehicle, a respectable car for when dealing with clients and out on field trips to look at Parish Registers and other archives. Eager for his arrival, she’d been pacing back and forth across the front room carpet and stopping at every turn to look out through the window for any sign of him. She was at the door before he even had a chance to knock.

“I thought you were never going to get here,” she said.

“Steady on, what’s the rush? Them roads are treacherous y’ know.”

She remembered Michael, the man she’d rescued the previous night and cringed.

“Right, what’s all this about?” Brian asked, swinging the toolbox by his side.

“How good are your lock picking skills?”

Brian narrowed his eyes at her.

“What did you lose? Car keys, garage keys?”

“Neither.”

Kate was beginning to wish she’d thought this through a little longer. She hadn’t yet formulated a story about how she’d acquired the box and why she needed him to open it. From here on in she was thinking on her feet.

“I need you to open a jewellery box for me.”

Kate waited to gauge Brian’s response. Did she need to add anything more or would Brian accept this simple explanation? He raised an eyebrow and Kate dug herself deeper into the lie.

“I think it belonged to my Grandmother. I found it while rummaging around in the attic last night, but there’s no key and I don’t want to damage it and I want to know what’s inside. You know she died before I knew her and …”

“All right!” Brian interrupted her. “I’ll try and open it for you, but if I do you have to do something for me.”

Kate heard the mischievousness in his tone and tried to figure out what he was up to before she gave in and fell into his trap. How bad could it be?

“All right, what is it?

“You have to come out on a date with me this Friday.”

She groaned.

“Oh Brian, you know how I hate crowded places.”

“Yeah, but I’ll look after you and it’ll do you good to get out for once instead of cooping yourself up here alone all the time.”

The prospect of a date with Brian filled her with dread, but she weighed up the pros and cons, and it was too late to back track now, she had no other choice if she was going to get Brian to cooperate.

“OK. But it’s just this once and it doesn’t mean we’re a couple or anything.”

“No, of course not,” he said. “I’m shocked and hurt you’d even think that.” He pushed his way into the narrow hallway. “OK, where’s the patient?”

He let Kate squeeze past him and lead him into the kitchen, where she’d once again placed the box in the centre of the table. The toolbox thumped on the floor where Brian dropped it. He leaned over the casket and whistled in appreciation of its beauty.

“This has been hidden away in your attic?”

“Yep!” Kate lied again.

“Funny thing to have engraved on a jewellery box,” he said, reading the inscription.

Kate shrugged. They stared at each other for what seemed like a lifetime until she was sure Brian had seen through her deception. She chewed at a fingernail, then he too shrugged and bent down to open the toolbox.

He took out a small black bundle and unrolled it, revealing a row of small metal tools. With a feather light touch he lifted the box, turning it this way and that, appraising the lock and how difficult the job would be. When he was satisfied, he replaced it, pulled out a chair and took a seat. He flexed his fingers until the bones cracked and selected his instrument.

As he placed a hooked tool in the lock, Kate interrupted him.

“Try not to damage it,” she whispered, leaning close to his ear.

Brian paused and turned his face to hers.

“Do you want me to open it or not?”

“Yes.”

“Right, trust me then.”

She took a step back and closed her eyes, clasping her hands together in front of her as much in a silent prayer that the box would open easily as in excitement at discovering what it held.

Brian proved far more expert at picking the lock than she had been with the hair clip and after hearing a small click, pronounced it open. He handed the box to Kate. She stared down at it, reluctant now to disturb its contents in front of anyone else. Brian nodded in encouragement. All Kate wanted was to be left alone with it, but it was clear Brian had no intention of leaving without getting a look inside, so she pushed the lid upwards.

It opened without a sound, as if it had been made yesterday rather than being hidden in the ground for who knew how long. Kate’s eyes were round and expectant and Brian moved to stand beside her, caught up in the moment, as eager as she was to see inside, but when the contents were revealed they were not what either one had anticipated.

They stared in silence at the objects in the box for several minutes before Brian said what both of them were thinking.

“Not quite what you were hoping for, is it?”

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Kate murmured.

“Jewellery, I would’ve thought.”

“Hmm.”

Of course, she hadn’t expected jewellery, but what had she thought would be in there? She hadn’t thought that far ahead. Now she could feel her excitement draining away like water down a sink. Inside the box lay a dirty linen bag and a leather-bound book. There were no markings on the cover or spine and Kate’s initial thought was that it must be a Bible.

“Aren’t you going to open the bag?” asked Brian.

Kate reached in and lifted it out, afraid it might fall apart from years of lying in the ground, but it held together. Maybe it wasn’t as old as she thought it was. The church had been built in the 15th Century, but the bag looked as though it was probably less than a hundred years old. Of course, she was only guessing. She put the box down and weighed the bag in the palm of her hand. It might have been white once, but now it was a dirty grey with splotches of dark brown mottling its surface. She loosened the drawstring and peered inside.

“Well, what is it?”

Brian leaned forward. Kate held it out to him.

“You tell me.”

He took it from her, glanced at the contents, then up at her and back at the bag again before poking a finger inside. He held it up and examined it, rubbing the grey powder between finger and thumb.

“Looks like ash,” he pronounced. “Oh, you don’t think it’s a person’s remains, do you?”

Kate nodded.

“Could be.”

Brian dropped the bag in the box, his face twisted in disgust, and turned to the sink to wash the offending substance from his hand. Whilst his back was turned, Kate picked up the book and opened the cover.

There was something handwritten on the flyleaf and though the writing was easy to make out, it appeared to be in a language Kate had never seen before. In place of letters there were symbols, and assuming that each symbol had been substituted for an ordinary letter, the grouping of first three and then nine didn’t make the words Holy Bible a likely translation. She frowned, unsure what to make of it.

Brian’s voice made her jump. For a moment she had forgotten he was there and she snapped the book shut and held it tightly in her hand.

“What’s that then?”

He nodded at the book at her side.

“An old Bible,” she said.

The more lies she told, the easier it became.

Kate tensed as Brian stepped towards the table where the casket lay. She wanted to grab it, not let him touch it again, but he leaned past it, replaced the tools he’d used in their holder and rolled it up, putting it back in his toolbox and snapping the lid shut.

“Looks like you discovered a dead relative in your attic then. Ugh, creepy. Fancy not knowing it’s been up there all the time you’ve lived here, especially now you’re on your own. I wonder if your mum and dad knew it was there?”

“I don’t think so,” Kate said.

“So what are you going to do with it – him – her?”

What was she going to do?

“Put it back and forget about it, I suppose.”

Brian shivered.

“Creepy,” he said again with a shudder.

There was a moment of awkward silence as Kate stared at the box and Brian waited for her to say something. He decided she wasn’t going to, so he gathered his things to leave.

“S’pose I better get off before them roads freeze up again.”

“Oh yes,” Kate said, distracted. “Um, thanks Brian. I appreciate you coming out to do this for me.”

“Sorry it wasn’t what you expected,” he said, then grinned. “And don’t forget you promised me a date.”

Kate pulled a face, shaking her head at him.

“Don’t worry, I won’t forget.”

She ushered him towards the door.

“Err, I could stay, like, if, y’ know, you feel a bit scared with them ashes in the house.”

“They haven’t hurt me yet, have they?”

“No, but you didn’t know they were there before. You’ve disturbed ’em now, they might not be too happy about that.”

“I’ll be fine,” Kate said, ushering him down the hall and outside, closing the door behind him.

He pressed his face to the glass.

“Well, if you need me, y’ know my number.”

Kate laughed, then walked back down the hall to the kitchen. She leaned back against the cooker and contemplated the box and its contents. The sound of Brian’s Jeep receded into the distance and she was left in silence. She opened the bag and pushed her fingers into the grey dust. The fine particles coated her fingers and a profound sadness welled up within her. Without knowing why, she began to cry. She gathered the book and the linen bag in her arms and hugged them to her, sinking to the floor. Overcome with grief, she rocked back and forth as the tears rolled down her face. Over an hour later, cried out, exhausted and more than a little bewildered, she picked herself up, placed both items back in their resting place with unusual reverence, closed the lid and took herself and the box to bed.

She fell asleep within minutes of closing her eyes, but it was far from peaceful. Her dreams were filled with strange faces, people she thought she knew but couldn’t name. And though she seemed to recognise her surroundings, her body was a different matter. It did not feel as if it belonged to her, she felt younger, but not the girl she remembered as her childhood self. There were voices all around, taunting, shouting, hurtful and though the language was familiar it was not quite modern English.

The scene changed, and she found herself imprisoned in a small cell with no idea of what her crime might be. The questions her gaoler fired at her were unceasing. She was confused, frightened and fighting to get free and when, at last, she thought she would succumb to madness, she heard a low, soothing voice whispering comfort to her. She was cradled in the warm glow of a healing mellow light, and her pain and fear were gone. Then the dream changed once more to a confrontation with a shrieking mob. Her eyes stung with smoke and the last thing she saw, before she woke, screaming, was the figure of a man. He stood alone, watching her burn and behind him was a church.

Her skin slick with cold sweat and her throat parched and sore, she stumbled, trembling, out of bed, down the stairs and into the kitchen in search of water. After gulping down a whole glass she stopped to catch her breath. She’d never had a nightmare so real. She had felt the heat of the flames as they rose up around her and the barrel she bizarrely appeared to be standing in, and though she had lurched awake before they touched her skin, the final image of the dream had burnt itself into her mind.

The church.

In her dream it had been a smaller, plainer building, but a vision of what it would one day become had superimposed itself over its predecessor. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, which church it was. She had visited it the day before. All Souls, in the village where she had been born. The church from which she had stolen the box.

Once she had calmed down it was easy to rationalise an explanation for the nightmare. Finding someone’s ashes in a casket would bring burning to anyone’s mind. It may not have been the cremation one would expect, but a cremation of sorts all the same, and Brian hadn’t helped by putting images of unquiet spirits in her head. No, the tension of the past couple of days and the events culminating in the opening of the box had had a more profound effect on her than she’d realised. Tomorrow, without even touching the book again, she would return the box to the church, anonymously, and that would be that.

With an effort of will, Kate returned to bed. Whether by sheer determination or through complete exhaustion she didn’t know, but she soon fell back to sleep and didn’t wake again until morning.

 

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Blackfeather – Chapter 1

Kate threw the pipe under the scaffolding and hurried down the path to her car. Her hands trembled, her knees were weak. Had anyone seen her, running through the graveyard, flustered and grubby, with a suspicious bundle? She had just stolen something from a church and she didn’t even know what it was.

As she fastened the seatbelt and started the car, she remembered her promise to Reverend Pilling. She swore and raced back to the rear of the church, locked the vestry door and hid the key beneath one of the three plant pots arranged in a triangle near the wall. If anyone had seen her, they hadn’t bothered to investigate what she was up to. Back in the driving seat, she took a deep breath.

Just an hour ago she’d been standing at the lych-gate, looking fondly up at the church where she’d been christened, preparing herself for an afternoon away from the office, researching the family tree of a new client. Scaffolding covered the walls instead of ivy, and mesh screens had been fitted over the stained glass windows to protect them from falling masonry and vandals. By the look of things, repairs to the roof had begun just in time.

She blew away the flurry of snowflakes that danced round her head with a puff of hot breath and pushed a wind-whipped strand of hair back under her woollen hat with a gloved hand, then shouldered her bag, unlatched the gate and made her way up the path to the porch. The iron hinges squeaked as she pushed open the heavy wooden door. It was the perfect accompaniment to the whistle of December wind that played through the bare branches of the trees and it sent goose bumps up Kate’s arms in spite of the layers of warm clothing she’d piled on.

Inside the entrance stood a Christmas tree, its branches as yet untrimmed and at intervals down the nave were leafy green wreaths and swags of ivy, laid out ready for someone to fasten them in place. The decorations brought back happy memories of candlelit Christmas Eve carol services, and being carried back to the car in her father’s arms afterwards, too sleepy to walk.

The rainbow of light from the tall medieval stained glass windows was reflected on the arched stone wall opposite and Jacobean box pews, lined up in rows down the nave, mirrored the dark oak beams in the ceiling. At the entrance to each pew was a small posy of flowers, placed in a conical holder. A couple of sparrows and a plump wood pigeon had found their way in through a hole in the roof and while the pigeon perched on the curve of a wall monument, trying to sleep, his feathers puffed up for warmth, the sparrows chirruped and chased each other from beam to beam.

Kate watched them for a few minutes until an elderly man wearing the ubiquitous grey suit, black shirt and dog collar of an Anglican vicar, emerged through a door in the north wall, half hidden by a second row of arches. When he saw Kate, a wide smile formed on his face. She grinned back as he strode towards her, carrying his cane rather than admit his need for its support by leaning on it, and vigorously shook her hand.

“Goodness me, Kathryn, you have grown up,” he said with a chuckle. “You were just this high the last time I saw you.”

He held up his hand to chest level, then tapped the cane on the stone floor three times, a habit he’d developed soon after acquiring it.

“It’s been ten years,” she said.

“It can’t be!”

Kate nodded.

“Well, tempus fugit, as they say. You must be surprised that I’m still here. Though I think it won’t be long before I’m replaced by a woman. The Bishop is keen to increase the congregation and move with the times. There’s a vicar in the city centre you know who gives sermons dressed as a clown”.

He turned away, then muttered, “Idiot!” under his breath. She heard him, nonetheless and pressed her lips together to stifle a giggle. The Reverend tapped his cane again.

“Well, I expect you want to get on with your research?” he said, adjusting his glasses and turning to look over his shoulder at her with eyebrows raised.

She nodded once more and he led the way down the narrow aisle, between the pews and through the wooden door into the vestry. To their left was Reverend Pilling’s office, but they entered the room opposite, a room filled with shelves of leather bound books, where the church archives were kept.

“I’m afraid I can’t stay, Kathryn. One of my parishioners has suffered a bereavement and I need to get the funeral arrangements underway. I’ll go out the front and lock the main door, but I’d be grateful if you’d lock up round the back and leave the key under the pot when you’ve finished.” He handed her a large, old-fashioned brass key. “I must be off.”

He punctuated his words by tapping the cane a further three times and disappeared back the way they’d come.

Kate sighed with contentment. She loved the solitude of working alone in old buildings and began making herself comfortable, placing her notebook on the table in the centre of the room and laying her outdoor clothes over the back of a wooden chair. She took her time, walking a circuit of the room and running her fingers over the red, leather spines of the books. The dates were stamped on each one in gold lettering and when she found the one she needed, she pulled it from its place and laid it on the lectern on the table. Then she sat down and opened the notebook at a fresh page, wrote the surname of the family she was researching in capitals at the top and opened the register.

Her client had appointed Sharpe’s, Genealogists and Probate Researchers to finish his family tree when he could get no further on his own and had got himself in a muddle with the various records he had so far accumulated. Peter Sharpe had assigned the project to her.

She lost track of time as she worked, poring over the names and dates in the archives until the real world faded away. Anything beyond the book in front of her and the room in which she sat ceased to exist. She was copying the details with meticulous care and double checking the records already provided by the client when she was startled by a loud, reverberating crack and thundering echo from inside the church. She paused, listening for any other sounds before calling out.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

There was no answer, but it was unlikely that anyone would have heard her from the thick walled room. It couldn’t have been a door banging shut. Reverend Pilling had locked the main door and this had sounded like a large, heavy object falling on stone. Something from the roof, maybe.

It was quiet now, too quiet, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to concentrate properly until she’d investigated the cause of the noise. Kate put down her pencil and left the sanctuary of the archives, passed through the vestry and emerged into the hushed church. The sound of her boots scuffing on the paved floor echoed round the building. There was no one there and nothing out of place that could offer an explanation for what she’d heard, but as she skirted the Norman font and turned toward the chancel, she found the culprit.

A huge piece of masonry, probably loosened by the roofing contractors, had fallen from high up in the east wall. It had crashed to the floor, miraculously missing the choir stalls and altar table, and landed smack in the centre of the chancel. The only damage was a broken flagstone.

Kate edged towards the slab, glancing nervously upwards with each step. A triangular piece of paving stuck up from the floor at an angle and she nudged it with the toe of her boot. It twisted and fell inwards, revealing a cavity below.

People were often buried beneath church floors, in fact there were other grave slabs nearby, but Kate couldn’t see any carvings on this one, not even worn ones. She crouched down and swept the palm of her hand across the stone’s smooth surface, confirming the absence of an inscription.

She felt along the jagged, broken edge of the flagstone with her fingertips then gave an experimental tug. It didn’t budge, so she pushed her hand into the hole, up to her wrist. Something tickled her and she pulled it out again. The tickle continued, travelling up her arm along with the spider, and she jumped to her feet, shrieking and shaking her arm, brushing furiously at it to dislodge the tiny creature. She hated spiders. When she was sure it had been flung far away from her, she took a deep breath. Her heart pounded and she looked back at the hole with trepidation.

Leave it, she thought. Whatever’s in there isn’t worth it.

She walked away, got as far as the font, stopped and blew out her breath in a long, slow sigh. She was far too curious to let it go.

I don’t believe I’m doing this, she thought, pushing the sleeves of her jumper up to her elbows, and steeling herself to try again.

It took several deep breaths and a number of false starts before she plucked up enough courage to thrust her hand all the way into the hole. It was deeper than she’d expected, but about a foot below the surface she felt something cold and solid and flinched away from it. When it didn’t move she touched it again. Beneath a thick layer of dust she could make out a surface covered with small bumps. Her trembling fingertips traced along the edge of the object, found a corner and continued on until she’d returned to her starting point. The object had depth to it too and with her arm as far into the hole as it would go, she felt all over it, building up a mental image, like a blind person touching the face of someone they’d never met before. It felt like a box.

She brushed the dirt off her hand and pushed herself up, sitting back on her heels to survey the floor around her. The piece of mortar she squeezed between thumb and forefinger crumbled to dust. All the other stones were cemented in place, but this one had been packed round the edges with dirt. It had compacted over the centuries, giving the illusion it was fixed in place like all the others, but if this had been a burial, why had it been left loose?

Go on, dig it out.

The thought was in her head so it must have been her own, but it didn’t feel like something she would say.

She looked around, chewing at a fingernail on the hand that hadn’t been in the hole, while she weighed up her options and wondered how long Reverend Pilling would be gone. She dreaded to think what he was going to say when he saw the damage to his church. Was she really going to do this?

With the decision made, she retreated to the archive room and rummaged through her bag for something to help remove the dirt from around the stone. The old nail file she found would have to do. The box was too big to come out through the hole, but if she could loosen the flagstone she might be able to lift it.

What if I get caught? she asked herself.

 We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Her inner monologue was really playing devil’s advocate today.  It didn’t even sound like her any more.

Go on then, it prompted

It took her fifteen minutes to scrape the dirt away. She stood at the unbroken end; bent over with both hands in the hole and pulled it towards her with all her strength. She managed to raise it an inch or two before the weight of the stone pulled it down again.

Unwilling to admit defeat, Kate scanned the church for something to use as a lever and was surprised by how dark it had become. The late afternoon light had faded to dusk, the church had turned gloomy and the silence settled like a heavy, wool blanket. Even the birds had gone.

The air felt electric, like the moments before a storm when you were just waiting for it to break, and the prickling sensation at the base of her neck made her feel as though she was being watched from the shadows. She shook her shoulders, trying to dispel the idea.

There was nothing she could use inside the church, and she knew better than to even think of using the medieval silver candlesticks adorning the altar, so she slipped outside to search beneath the scaffolding among the discarded rubble. The snow had started to stick and was already filling up the gaps between the stacks of roof slates leant against the wall. She turned up a length of steel pipe and after testing its weight decided it would do the job.

With one end in the hole and using the fallen stone as a fulcrum, she pushed down on the pipe. The flagstone raised enough for Kate to thrust in her spare hand and pull out the large casket that had been hidden there. She released the pressure and the flagstone thudded back into its original resting place. She held the box up to what remained of the light and examined it. Something shifted inside and she screwed up her eyes in an effort to peer through the keyhole on the front.

A rustling from the choir stalls made her jump again. With heart in throat she wasted no time in sweeping the dirt into the hole, back filling the crevices and tidying up as best she could before someone came in and discovered her. When she was satisfied the scene looked as undisturbed as she could make it, she rubbed the loose soil from her hands and wiped them down the front of her jeans, leaving dirty, grey streaks.

What now? she thought as she sat on a nearby pew with the box on her knee. She pulled at the lid, but it wouldn’t open.

Take it home.

Oh no, that was a step too far. She was no thief and whatever was inside was probably an old church relic or a saint’s bones, placed there when the church was built. It was one thing to remove it from the crypt so it didn’t suffer further damage but to steal it..? She shook her head. She would leave the box on Reverend Pilling’s desk with a note explaining everything and phone tomorrow to ask him about it.

With the note written and the box placed squarely on the Reverend’s desk, she took one last look at it and stepped away.

Don’t you want to know what’s inside?

She straightened, tossed her hair back over her shoulder, and firmly pulled the door of the office shut.

Satisfied she had done the right thing, she went back to work. She sat down at the desk in the archives room and picked up her pencil.

What if someone comes in and takes it before the vicar gets back?

       Why would anyone do that?  she thought in reply.

It would be much safer in here with you.

That was true, she could watch over it until she had to leave, at least. Reverend Pilling might be back by then and she could give it to him personally.

That’s right, it will only take a minute to get it.

She got up and moved towards the door and suddenly found herself rooted to the spot.

You don’t have to do this, Kate.

“What?” she said aloud.

Where had that come from? Was someone else here with her? She was sure she had heard someone speak.

“Who’s there?” she called. “Reverend Pilling, is that you?”

There was no reply. She turned the brass knob of the door, but it wouldn’t open. It couldn’t be locked. Unless someone was on the other side.

She heard whispering and stiffened as she tried to hear what was being said, but all she caught were snatches of a few words and phrases between what sounded like two people arguing.

shouldn’t be doing this… can’t interfere…

       …she should know… what if she wants to…

There was a pause and the door was released and Kate stumbled back a step.

Take the box before someone who shouldn’t does.

The thought was so forceful and induced such an overwhelming sense of fear for the safety of the box that Kate hastily packed up her work and a few minutes later was back in the vicar’s office.

“I’m sorry,” she said to the air. “I don’t know why, but I need to know what’s inside. I’ll bring it back. Promise.”

 

And that’s how she found herself fleeing the scene of a crime.

In the time it had taken her to free the box, the road had been obliterated by a layer of snow. Kate restarted the engine of her cherry red VW Beetle and with a quick look over her shoulder pulled away from the church. The back end of the car swung out into the road, but she managed to regain control and accelerated out of the village onto a narrow, unlit country lane.

The branches of the trees on either side of the road reached so far over they met in the middle and interlaced like an arch of swords formed by a military honour guard. The tunnel they formed made it so dark Kate could hardly see where she was going. She hunched over the wheel, her eyes squinting through the blizzard of snowflakes that battered against the windscreen, obscuring her view even further.

She had thrown everything into the back except the box, which lay on the front passenger seat. She tried to focus her attention on driving, rubbing her hand over the inside of the windscreen to clear the mist her breath made on the glass, but the box, thrown about by the movement of the car, jerked forward and teetered on the edge of the seat. She pushed it back, looked up and gasped in shock, jamming her foot onto the brakes.

The man had appeared out of nowhere, and as Kate’s car sped towards him, he looked straight at her and smiled.

 

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