Heavenfield (The DCI Ryan Mysteries Book 3)By: L.J. Ross
“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
—Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle
Sunday, 2nd August—St. Oswald’s Tide
He expelled the damp air in short, panting breaths and the harsh sound of it echoed around the walls of the church. His eyes darted across the vaulted ceiling above him and he could smell his own sweat, sickly sweet and cloying.
How poetic that he, of all people, should find himself the victim.
The cold point of a gun prodded his right temple and the taste of fear was bitter and strong, like the bile which flooded his throat. His chest shuddered as he fought to stay calm, though he knew that the end must be near.
“I’m not afraid of you!” he shouted desperately, but there was no answering reply, only an angry shove from the metal aimed at his head.
He trained his gaze straight ahead and brought Anna’s face to his mind, imagining her beside him.
How he loved her.
How he wanted her.
He heard the soft ‘click’ of a trigger being pulled back, ready to discharge.
“Just do it!” he burst out, tears leaking tracks over the lines of his face.
The sound of the gunshot was like a canon being fired in the confined space. Outside, resting birds squawked their disapproval and fluttered into the night, before settling once again into a silence that was almost religious.
* * *
The air was hushed and reverent as a line of men and women made their way up the gentle incline towards the place known as Heavenfield. A little stone church stood eerie and alone atop the hillside, overlooking the rolling landscape of Northumberland. The sun made its final descent into the horizon at its back, casting deep amber rays over the fields while stars began to pop high in the darkening sky above. Nature was the master here and all around her handiwork bloomed; a patchwork blanket of lush green grass, gorse bush and sprouting purple lavender.
The pilgrims held their lanterns aloft, moving like a fat glow-worm through the empty fields. Their feet made little sound as they moved across the mossy floor, trampling the ground where soldiers had fallen centuries earlier. Now, the only sign that a battle had once waged lay in the simple wooden cross which marked the spot.
The pilgrim leader was surprised to find the heavy oak doors standing ajar. It was true that God’s house was always open for business but it was unusual for anybody to make the trip to this deserted spot unless they were part of the pilgrimage trail.
With slight misgivings, he led the crowd into the darkened interior. There was no access to electricity or running water here; only pungent gas lamps, which had not been lit. The glow from the pilgrims’ lanterns filtered through the gloom and their excited chatter died abruptly. There was a loud shriek and the leader threw out his arms, urging them back towards the door they had just entered.
A man lay sprawled over the altar at the rear of the church, blood and brains spattered across the floor and the wall at his back. In the sudden silence, they could hear the soft tap tap of his life force dripping onto the flagstones. Another man stood over the body, one bloodied hand held out in warning, his tall figure silhouetted against the stained glass window at his back by the last light of day.
“Keep your distance!” he barked.
“You’ve…you’ve killed him! Don’t come any closer!” The pilgrim leader shouted, his voice wobbling. “I’m going to call the police!”
The man frowned, his dark brows pulling together.
“You don’t understand—” he said sharply.
“Keep back!” The pilgrim leader repeated, stumbling as people fled the church, their lanterns swaying dangerously as they took the light with them.
Detective Chief Inspector Ryan watched them leave and wondered how long it would be before two of his colleagues turned up in a squad car. At least it saved him the job of calling it in. He mustered a detachment he didn’t entirely feel and looked down at the shell of a man who had once been Doctor Mark Bowers, eminent local historian.
Ryan sighed, his breath clouding despite it being summer outside. The plain lime-washed walls were an effective barrier against the sun and, consequently, the room felt like a fridge.
Or a morgue, he amended, with an eye for the dead man.
He crouched to the floor and took a slow survey of his surroundings, eventually rising again dissatisfied. It was nearly impossible to see the details of the room now that the last of the sun had gone and the light from his mobile phone did little to help. He could still make out the lines of the body in front of him and the skin was warm to the touch; in fact, if he didn’t know better, he would have said that Bowers had died only moments before. Blood oozed from the bullet-wound at his skull and was only just beginning to coagulate.