This is the opening section of The Fool, an occult thriller novella in the Fragments collection.
Maryam Michael woke as she always did, in the dark. She left her curtains open so that when she woke, the night was in the room with her. Sometimes this meant she awoke in perfect darkness with a cloudy sky robbing all the night of light. At other times she woke in brilliant moonlight, so bright she could see her reflection in her dressing table mirror. This morning the shallow dark of a star-studded sky greeted her, and she rose and stared out her window, beginning her day with starlight and chanting. Here, in the quiet of her country retreat, there was no artificial light on the horizon, nothing to interfere with the sky and her communion with it.
After so many years enclosed, she had come to love the expanse of an unfettered sky. When she had left her cell behind, with all its quiet memories and soul devoted comforts, she had immediately relished the freedom of the sky. For years her sky had been small, distant, dissected into squares. A thing that she could glimpse now and then but which was out there, outwith the walls of her inner life. Now she embraced it as an equal, although she shied from that as an analogy; how could any single, insignificant human soul be equal to the sky?
Like everything in her new life, her routine, her habit, was a mixture of old and new. Carefully preserving the aspects that she’d found useful, adding to them new rituals and experiences that enriched who she now was. Therefore when she finished her chanting and had rung the temple bell that hung at her window three times, she bowed to the sky and went through to her toilette. A warm shower, the body washed and the hair cleaned through, she returned to her boudoir to dress. Rather than the ritual of prayer that once accompanied the taking off of her night attire and its immediate replacement with her day attire, she relished the freedom to sit naked at her mirror and dance cosmetics across her skin. The lightest of touches of moisturisers and foundation, a faint blush to the cheeks, a perfect contour of shade across her storm grey eyes, the lick of dark mascara defining her long lashes and a minute sheen of soft colour across her lip.
Her hair, as short as it ever had been, fell into perfect layers, a testament to scissors as sharp as the talent of the hairdresser that had yielded them. It required but one comb through to settle smoothly, revealing her cheekbones in a way striking to any women of her age. A cloistered youth had left her with excellent skin and when she had taken off her coif her shock of silver hair had been a surprise. Then it had been unusual for a woman to go gray so completely by the time she had entered her 40s. Now she was unusual only in that she choose not to colour it to mimic youth. Her youth still came from inside. She found that her age gave her a gravitas that she had sorely needed early in her life and valued tremendously now it had arrived. It was not something she was prepared to deny or to hide.
She dressed in delicate satin and lace underwear, bespoke to her slender body, and finished with house pyjamas and a long house coat in linen. Today would be spent in paperwork and she would appreciate the soft warmth and flow of the casual lines. She had always enjoyed the feel of cloth as she moved and relished that she could now indulge her tastes in any fabric and colour.
Although she rarely chose colour: her pyjamas were black and her housecoat grey. Monochrome was still a feature of her attire. She slipped soft leather slippers on and went downstairs to the kitchen. The aroma from the coffee maker drew her in and she poured herself a bowl. The timer was set so that she invariably arrived just as the last few precious drops trickled into the jug. She breathed in the warmth, holding the bowl in both hands and tip-toed over the flagstone floor, slipping into her study without waking up the Irish wolfhound that slept across the back door. Edith, her housekeeper, would wake the behemoth when she pushed open the door in a couple of hours. Once, Cullain would have woken the second she rose and would have been at the kitchen door whining and scratching when she came down. Now, even the gurgling of the machine barely caused an eyelid to flutter. He was getting old and knew he would be ignored until she’d eaten. So he stayed asleep and she got more work done: it suited them both.
She had two reports to file for the Vatican and two articles to translate from Aramaic, both for an American university. The Aramaic texts were proving to be difficult and she put her just awake mind to them first. After an hour, when her forehead had begun to pound, she fetched more coffee and switched to sorting out the references. She hated referencing her work and always had to make herself do it as she went, in order to prevent two weeks of agony at the end. Referencing was always a time for her to consider her faults and sins; she often felt doing them was some sort of penance.
By the time Edith arrived two hours after that, bringing fresh croissants and bread, Maryam was grey with fatigue. It was good fatigue, but her head hurt and her eyes stung. Edith tutted at her as she called her through for a warming bowl of sweet oatmeal. Maryam ignored the tutting, eating her portion whilst scratching the back of Cullain’s hairy ears. Edith was not backward in coming forward with her ideas about how hard work, tiny amounts of food and very little sleep would ruin a person’s health. Maryam, who’d found that slightly less sleep than you needed, combined with slightly less food than you needed and a good solid day’s work kept you agile and fit, ignored her. Edith fed Cullain his breakfast as Maryam finished hers by dunking a croissant in another bowl of hot coffee: sweet indulgence was good for the body and the soul.
She changed into her outside clothes and donned her thick boots and took Cullain out for his morning tramp through the woods and hills. It was brisk and none too warm, clouds scudded by and wind pulled at them both, but it was refreshing. Cullain came alive on his walks and there was great pleasure in watching him enjoy the scents and intrigues of other wildlife and the undergrowth. Her legs were aching when she returned two hours later and the aroma of the quail Edith was preparing for luncheon was delectable. A shower, and then an hour or so of more translation before eating... and then she could spend the afternoon reading for leisure. As she started up the stairs the phone rang. Edith popped her head around the kitchen door as she answered and tutted. The switch to Italian and her tone were unmistakable. Edith returned to the kitchen, clanging pots and pans. Madame was going on her travels again, and this lunch and the dinner she was half way through preparing would now be fed to the beast. How on earth was she going to get her layabout son to walk Madame’s wolf dog at this time of year?
When Maryam finished the conversation, she phoned the local taxi company and requested they pick her up in thirty minutes, to drive her to Marseille. Edith did some more banging as she packed a decent lunch for Madame.
Thirty minutes was tight, but she could make one of the afternoon’s TGVs to Lille if she hurried. Maryam downloaded the files the Cardinal promised had been sent through, and packed up her electronics and their all important leads: laptop, phone, chargers and electricity converters for the various European voltages. She showered the sweat off, dressed, and packed her clothing and personal items in under ten minutes. Her work kit was always full and ready to go; Edith took the three cases outside whilst she hugged Cullain goodbye. Cullain whimpered and look sorrowful but was asleep before she left the kitchen. She picked up her heavy wool coat with its scarves and gloves in the pockets as she left. The driver was eager, intent on carving a few minutes off the hour drive; the local drivers loved to compete on such runs. Edith looked grim as Maryam waved goodbye to her and Maryam felt that grimness inside: she detested being called to work on a murder.
She munched on her luncheon as they drove, sharing it with Alain, the driver. Edith had packed enough for three. They made the TVG comfortably and Maryam booked through to London on the train she had aimed for. Lille was a faster journey and transfer than Paris; she should be in London by late evening. She set up in the business lounge before they left and was able to call ahead and give her estimated arrival time before switching her phone off.
Her slender frame in the luxurious chairs allowed her to settle diagonally into her chair, with the laptop screen facing away from the casual eye. She’d positioned herself at the far end of the carriage, able to see all who approached in one direction and the opening door to her side warning her in the other. She closed the screen down at the stations: nothing of what she was viewing could, or should, be seen by the casual eye.
What she was viewing was disturbing enough in print; thankfully there were few photographs. That there were photographs at all warned her that some political connection had already been brought into play.
The murder had occurred in the Church of the Mother of All Sorrows, in Peckham, London. A young man had been spread out on the altar and his body slashed. He was naked and had been laid out in the shape of the crucifixion. A series of long cuts had caused a bleed out. The photos showed blood running off the altar and pooling on the floor. From the amount of blood, Maryam was sure the young man had died from exsanguination: he’d literally bled to death on the altar. He was seventeen years old.
The slashes were neither random nor without meaning. They slid in shallow swoops that had encouraged slow, deliberate, bleeding. They were also words that had been scrawled onto his flesh. It wasn’t English or Latin, or even Greek, but Arabic script. The translation she’d received from Rome suggested that the writing stated that the man had died as he was a pig and therefore unclean. Not entirely trusting either the transcription from the wounds, or the translation, she spent a good hour working through the photos and sketches made by the police, piecing together what she hoped was a rather more accurate version. The script claimed that the man had been cleansed and made mention of a Jinn. There were also random words on his limbs: swine, defiler, heretic, but the gist was that he had been killed to cleanse him of his stain. She was unsure if it was ‘stain’, and hoped she could get a clearer understanding of the writing at some point.
Feeling both repulsed, and so terribly sad for the young man and his stolen life, she switched everything off and sat, her eyes closed, feeling the rhythm of the train as it shot through the countryside. She’d learned that when faced with horror, with death and blood and violence, that meditating was the way to find safety. Once, she’d have prayed; prayed so hard that she would partially achieve an out of body feeling, a sense of spiritual release and ecstasy. She’d found, however, that this could be an emotion just as deceiving as despair; different edges of the same blade. Calm and lack was a more fitting home for the troubled spirit. A core of emptiness from which to observe and record; catalogue and process as opposed to feel. Prayer was feeling; meditation was absence. In absence, there was room for logic to examine the horror: to allow deliberation upon it that could leave her essence untouched.
It was also useful for alerting her to something she’d missed. When she went back to the images and the reports, after rising to walk around a few moments and request some fresh coffee, she noticed that the corpse lay upon what looked like thin paper sheets. Tiny segments could be seen, if you looked, lost in the shadow and blood stains. She magnified the image but could not discern much on a laptop. After an hour of fiddling with images, she was sure she could make out one small line of writing. Almost. Her instinct told her what was probably on the leaves. Her intellect told her what that might mean: it certainly made sense of why the crime had been passed straight up to Major Crimes by the local borough unit.
There was no mention of the sheets of paper anywhere in the reports. She did some research on the internet, found the phone number she needed, switched her phone on and sent a text.
She then closed down all the murder scene details and concentrated on the background report. The body had been found by a young priest, Father Wyn Jones. She clicked up a copy of his grainy passport-sized photo and stared at the face, trying to see what sort of man he was. Even in this old photo from his application form he was striking: handsome and virile. He was thirty-one years old and on his first posting as a fully ordained priest. Born in Cardiff, Wales, he had studied in London at Allen Hall, the Diocese of Westminster’s own Seminary. He was, according to the file, a gifted and passionate priest who had expressed his desire to work with the disadvantaged youth of the world. He had been delighted with his placement into the Archdiocese of Southwark and his posting to the Mother of All Sorrows Church in gang-ridden, crime-rife Peckham. She stopped work on the people and switched to the internet to examine the locale. Peckham was an old South London parish of dereliction and despair. It had been the scene of a dreadful murder a few years ago; a ten-year-old boy left to bleed to death in the streets, attacked needlessly by a couple of slightly older boys. The world was never good when children killed children.
She explored further and found that in recent months massive amounts of European funding had been pumped in to help combat both the violence and the decay. It was a good placement for a young priest with lots of drive and a desire to achieve something. Energy and money always made things happen, for good or ill.
Father Jones had worked relentlessly for good. He reinstated the Church youth group and set up a youth choir modelled on the Southern Baptist style song and dance of USA churches. It had been highly successful and there had been real connections made with the younger teenagers, who were in constant danger of being drawn into the gang infrastructure. There were also plans to set up a Church youth soccer team and he’d begun fundraising to pay for it. All in all, Father Jones had made a substantial contribution to his new parish in the fourteen months since he’d been assigned. The old parish priest, Father Edwards, who had been retired once and then dragged back out to keep the church doors open, had no doubt found the young man to be a blessing. The Bishop had been delighted and the parish had shown signs of recovery. Services had seen a congregation where not only was the average age under 60 years old, but there was talk of a toddler group being viable if the numbers of families with young children continued to rise. Father Jones was working on the simple truth that if you gave purpose and hope to the lives of the children, the parents would follow.
All had been well until about three months prior when the Mother of All Sorrows had become the target of a vicious graffiti and vandalism campaign. Parishioners had taken to nightly patrols round the closed Church and the graveyard, as no matter how much cleaning and restoration was done during the day, it would all reappear as soon as it was dark. Obscenity had been the main feature of the graffiti with graphic drawings of what was supposed to be Father Jones in sexual congress with children, animals, and corpses from the graves. Various classic motifs of defilement and occult paraphernalia had been left in both the Church, and the graveyard, all no doubt inspired by horror movies. Cats were found strung up on the headstones and a chicken was beheaded at the Church door, with its blood used to draw an inverted pentagram. The Archdiocese and the police had sealed it down with the help of the outraged parishioners and a local animal charity. CCTV had been upped and a couple of the youths from one of the local gangs had been arrested and charged with defacing Church property.
All had gone quiet until Father Jones had opened up the Church doors yesterday morning and found the body upon the altar.
Unfortunately, the young man who was dead, and spread across the stones, was known to Father Jones. Just the day before, they had been involved in a fist fight on the Church steps. They both still wore the bruises and cuts they had given each other. In fact, Father Jones had been the last person to see the young man alive.