Murdering Ministers: An Oliver Swithin Mystery #2

Murdering Ministers: An Oliver Swithin Mystery #2

What holy terror spiked the sacraments with strychnine? When a teenage girl disappears from a north London suburb a few days before Christmas, Detective Sergeant Effie Strongitharm puts would-be cult ...

About The Author

Alan Beechey

Alan Beechey was born in England and grew up in London. He moved to Manhattan in his twenties and now ...

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Sunday, December 21 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)

Billy Coppersmith realized he was possessed when he caught himself thinking about breasts during the Lord’s Prayer.

If it had been the sermon, he wouldn’t have been worried. Everybody’s mind wandered then, especially when Parson Piltdown got onto one of his tedious theological kicks. But it had begun during the second hymn, when sixteen-year-old Michaela Braithewaite, standing one pew in front of him and slightly to the right, took in a deep breath for the last verse. And now, nothing could get the profile of her tight sweater out of Billy’s mind.

It had to be an evil spirit. What else would make a fourteen- year-old boy think about sex all the time? Nigel warned that they were all around, waiting to snatch at the souls of the innocent and lead them into sin. Billy resolved to ask Nigel to drive out the demon when the group met for lunch after the morning service. He knew Nigel could do it. Surely he’d agree, now that they’d shared secrets? No demon was any match for Nigel’s profound and infallible faith.

Billy had witnessed that faith in action a few weeks earlier— Nigel grappling with the spirit of blasphemy that possessed Troy, his thin fingers gripping Troy’s forehead like twin spiders, the two men shaking convulsively in unison. And then that great cry of “Satan, come out!” when Nigel flung his arms wide and crumpled senseless to the floor. “Pray!” Heather had screamed, and they all felt the spirit scuttling about the living room, searching frantically for a new host, the temperature suddenly dropping in the presence of evil, while they desperately babbled prayers for the protection of their young souls.

Or at least, Heather said that’s what she felt—she swore she could almost see it—so that’s what the teenagers all agreed had happened, even using the same words. It was certainly the story he told his mocking school friends the next morning, as he tried in vain to get them to come to Nigel’s prayer group. (Every new member was a victory for Christ, Nigel and Heather told them.) Troy was the latest recruit. He was eighteen and he must have had lots of girls, but Michaela had made him join Nigel’s group before she’d agree to go out with him. And Nigel spotted Troy’s evil spirit the moment he swaggered into the room. Now Troy was born again, his evil dispersed to the air. Did that mean he and Michaela would have to be chaste? Or did they pray first and then make out, aware of God’s eyes on them? Maybe, despite her reputation at school, Michaela was still a virgin? If so, Billy was one better than her—or worse, depending on Who was judging you. Nigel hadn’t judged him.

But Billy had seen the works of good spirits, too, at Nigel’s house. And like the others, he’d been struck with the Holy Spirit itself, those evenings when the excitement within the young group was palpable, almost hysterical, and Nigel had touched their foreheads, one by one, holding their gaze and muttering prayers, until he tossed them backwards and they fell to the carpet like toppled statues. And one time, Michaela had started to writhe on the floor and make strange noises that were almost like words, but not words Billy had ever heard before, and then Heather piped up that she has been visited by a spirit of inter- pretation, a gift from the Lord, and she began to translate the strange prophecies—something to do with sterility and error in God’s house, and about a sign that would be coming soon. (Well, it was certainly getting close to Christmas, Billy noted, and wondered if he’d have to get Chrissie a present, even though they had broken up since that one time.)

Michaela had been speaking in tongues, Nigel explained later. It was a special gift from God. Billy started to wonder why God couldn’t have delivered the message in English in the first place, but he quickly concluded that questioning God was sacrilege and wished instead that he could speak in tongues, too. Though perhaps with nobody else present at first, in case he said something embarrassing.

There was Nigel now, on the platform at the front of the barn- like church, sitting behind the Communion table with that prating idiot Parson Piltdown and the other deacons, including Billy’s mother. They were all such hypocrites, not even true believers, not by Nigel’s lofty standards. Parson Piltdown came from the Church of England, so it was doubtful he was even a Christian. This was Nigel’s first Communion service as a deacon. He’d already sung for them, playing that twelve-string guitar so hard to keep in tune in the cold church. (Would Nigel invite him to play his electric guitar next time he performed?) The stale pellets of bread had been distributed and consumed. Now it was time for the wine.

Parson Piltdown—it was Nigel’s name for him; Billy had to remember to call him Mr. Piltdown if they spoke—lifted the chalice. “After the same manner also He took the cup,” he intoned, in that stupid posh voice he used for readings, “when He had supped, saying, ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

And Nigel himself brought the wine to the congregation! Billy snatched the tiny shot glass from the tray as Nigel passed it. Their eyes met, and Nigel gave him a small smile, an acknowledgment of the promises they had made to each other. Communion wine was awful, Billy had already discovered, with a foul, lingering aftertaste and no alcohol to speak of. But he’d enjoy this glass.

After the wine was distributed, Piltdown served the deacons on the dais. Then he took a glass for himself. He turned to the quiet, expectant church, raising his glass as if proposing a toast.

“Let us drink together, in remembrance of Him.”

He drained the glass and sat down again, on the largest chair in the middle of the platform. The small, scattered congregation drank their wine, dropped their empty glasses into metal rings attached to the pews, and bent their heads in noiseless prayer. An odd, reverent silence fell over the church.

Billy didn’t lower his head—he didn’t know why not. But that meant he was able to watch as Nigel, setting his glass clumsily on the table, rose slowly to his feet. Was he going to speak?

Nigel coughed twice, the second cough folding into a gurgle, as if unseen hands were pressing on his throat. The deacons, disturbed in their meditations, lifted their heads one at a time to watch him. Even Michaela and Troy looked up from the depths of their prayers.

Nigel stood, breathing heavily. Then he pressed his hands to his face, his eyes staring in astonishment at something only he could see, floating above the pews. Billy saw Piltdown exchanged a worried look with his mother, sitting beside him. Only old man Potiphar, the oldest deacon, seemed undisturbed and rapt in prayer.

Now Piltdown crept over and tried to whisper in Nigel’s ear. But Nigel paid no attention. He continued to stare ahead, as if his neck had turned to stone, like Lot’s wife gazing at the cities of the plain. His breath had become labored and audible. Piltdown looked awkward and lost.

Suddenly, Nigel gave a great cry, and his arms began to tremble. The noise continued, animal-like and increasingly desperate. He moved forward on unsteady legs, twitching, like a badly manipulated puppet. Then, with an intense convulsion, his legs flailed and he tipped forward, pivoting over the rail that ran along the platform.

Troy leaped to his feet. “He has been struck by the Holy Spirit!” he shouted, his voice drowning Nigel’s thick groans. “Praise the Lord!”

And now Michaela jumped up and left the pew, standing in the aisle and lifting her arms in supplication. This time, Billy didn’t notice her chest.

“Praise the Lord!” she cried. “God is with us.”

The familiar murmur passed among the other teenagers in Nigel’s group, and Billy too found himself rising and shouting his praises as the young people danced into the aisle and gathered around Nigel at the front of the church. The man was now lying on his back on the dusty floor, his arms and legs convulsing, making strange, breathy noises as he shook.

“He’s speaking in tongues,” squealed another girl. “Who has been given the gift of interpretation?”

“I have,” shouted Michaela quickly. “This is the sign! This is the sign of a new day, when the children shall lead and the old shall be driven from the temple. Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!”

The others took up the cry, and one began to sing a mindless, repetitive chorus. Soon they all joined in.

In that moment, Billy understood all that Nigel had been teaching. And although he was singing and dancing with the others, part of him watched the scene with fascination: his young friends jumping around the body, their arms clutching at heaven like windswept palm leaves; the deacons on the platform struck dumb and motionless in their spiritual impotence; the other communicants standing in their places, trying to see what was happening but not daring to step forward.

And Nigel himself, Nigel now revealed at last as the great prophet of the Second Coming, as he’d surely hinted, almost levitating from the ground in his desire to float up to his God, his whole body one uncanny arc, with only his head and heels in contact with the floor. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, indeed!

But who was that woman, Billy wondered—the one now sprinting down the aisle from the back of the church, her amazingly curly hair floating wildly around her head? She wasn’t a church member. Was she some sort of messenger from God? An Angel?

Then he remembered: She was that good-looking police detective who’d been asking all those questions yesterday. What was she doing here, at church, on this Sunday morning of all mornings? And what was she shouting, trying to make herself heard above the elated, singing, dancing teenagers?

“Let me through!” she was yelling. “Let me through, and stand back, everybody! Please!”

“Nigel is bringing us God’s word,” Michaela protested, weeping with joy.

“He’s not bringing you anything,” the detective snarled, as she tried to pull the dancing children out of her way. “Can’t you see? He’s dying!”


Chapter One

Tis the Season to Be Jolly

Sunday, December 14 (Third Sunday of Advent)

Sitting down had clear advantages over kneeling, Oliver Swithin had decided. If anyone ever asked him to create a new religion— “Swithinism” had a lilt to it, but it might be a bit hard on lispers—he would make sure that everybody sat down for the prayers. For one thing, the position was more natural—rather like perching on the toilet, with much the same spirit of supplication and hope for a blessing.

And it was quicker. At his parents’ parish church, the vicar’s call to prayer would have been followed by several noisy seconds of cracking knees and the odd territorial grabs for hassocks. (Or were those cushions called “cassocks”? Not being much of a churchgoer, he could never remember the difference. Both words sounded vaguely like Scottish mountain ranges. Or indelicate parts of the body.)

“Amen,” said the minister, at the end of a brief prayer that seemed largely improvised, like the many others that had preceded it. The tiny congregation mumbled a brief echo of the word, and Oliver realized that his mind had been wandering again. He shifted position on the uncomfortable pew and scribbled “Cassocks?” on his reporter’s notepad.

“My text for today’s sermon,” the young man in the pulpit continued, “can be found in the gospel according to Saint Matthew, chapter fifteen, verses ten and eleven.”

“And the best I can get, even with four-hundred-speed film, is a thirtieth of a second at f-two-point-eight,” Ben Motley whispered loudly into Oliver’s ear as he loaded a new roll of film into his Canon.

“Our days are numbered,” murmured Oliver.

“I’m reading from the Revised English Bible,” the minister continued. A thick-necked, elderly man sitting in the pew in front of Oliver and Ben stopped flipping the pages of his well-thumbed King James’s Bible and snapped it shut.

“‘He’—that is, Jesus, of course—‘called the crowd and said to them, “Listen and understand! No one is defiled by what goes into his mouth; only by what comes out of it.”’”

The minister repeated the last sentence with quizzical pauses, a look of concentration on his ruddy, good-natured face, as if he’d momentarily forgotten why he’d chosen the text. The elderly man and his wife seemed to take it as scriptural dispensation to unwrap sweets.

Ben lurched away and tiptoed closer to the front of the church, training his camera on a small group of sullen teenagers sitting close to the left wall. Apart from this cluster, there were about a dozen worshippers, but the large, plain, nineteenth-century building with its parallel rows of high-backed pews could clearly hold a congregation thirty times as large. A group of older ladies had huddled like shamefaced latecomers in the rear pew, under the shelter of a dark balcony, although Oliver knew they’d been there at least twenty minutes before the service began.

The minister had already explained to the congregation that the evening’s service would be photographed by Ben Motley, a man famous for his “spirited pictures of sporting women.” Since Ben’s notoriety actually came from his portraits of female celebrities and society dames at the point of orgasm, Oliver had to credit the clergyman’s subtlety. And once past the embarrassment of being stared at by churchgoers, he was equally relieved to hear himself introduced as a “leading writer of instructive works for children,” who was there to write an article about the United Diaconalist Church. If the congregation had found out the whole truth, they might have regarded Oliver’s presence as one of the first signs of the Apocalypse.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t going to be Oliver’s article, but the work of Finsbury the Ferret, the character he had created for his series of children’s books called The Railway Mice. After several slender volumes of innocent tales (and months of negligible royalties), published under Oliver’s pseudonym O.C. Blithely, the introduction of Finsbury into the series had made each subsequent book an automatic best seller, and gave British popular culture a new hero in the shifty, foulmouthed, evil-tempered beast. Oliver’s friend and housemate, Geoffrey Angelwine, was a member of the public relations team devoted to squeezing as much mileage out of Finsbury as possible, and he had pushed Oliver into writing a piece for Celestial City, a new online guide to London Sundays, as a dry run for Finsbury’s potential career as an opinionated commentator on the foibles of bipeds.

The editor of Celestial City, fearful of missing the bandwagon for the zeitgeist du jour (although Oliver had speculated that you had to be really slow to miss a bandwagon), had jumped on the publication of an ex-Spice Girl’s recovered memories of her former life as Saint Theresa of Avila as a harbinger of the nation’s millennial spiritual awakening. He had decided that an atheist ferret’s satirical take on a small suburban church would make pleasant online reading for Christmas, especially if the pages included pictures by an absurdly handsome photographer whose career was entirely based on sexual ecstasy.

Oliver always liked working with Ben, partly because his friend and landlord owned a black Lamborghini, and partly because the attention Ben inevitably attracted gave Oliver an excuse for barely being noticed himself. Now in his mid-twenties, he had more or less accepted that, Ben or no Ben, his unkempt fair hair, cheap glasses, and that certain absence of firmness about his jaw were hardly the assets that would capture the interest of a sultry stranger across a less-than-crowded place of worship. Besides, he reflected proudly, he had a steady girlfriend now.

But what had intrigued Oliver about the assignment was the name of the minister of the selected church: the Reverend Paul Piltdown. Oliver had gone to school with a Paul Piltdown. And a call to the manse in the north London suburb of Plumley confirmed that this was indeed the same Pauly Piltdown who’d shared his first copy of Playboy and with whom he’d played baccarat during long winter lunchtimes, using rules learned from a James Bond novel. Which explains why Oliver was sitting in church that Sunday evening, thinking of rude things for Finsbury to say about the service and, despite his agnosticism, feeling thoroughly guilty about it.

Oliver had long suspected that his school friend would find a vocation in the church, ever since Pauly’s whispered confession as a twelve-year-old that he thought he might look good in a cassock.(Ah, that’s the difference!) But this church? In the sixth form, Piltdown had been addicted to High-Church Anglicanism, and when Oliver had last seen him, seven years earlier, he’d been heading off to Cambridge with ambitions for a bishopric, an almost gymnastic addiction to genuflecting, and a best blazer that always smelled faintly of incense. Yet instead of the surplices and stoles he had coveted as a teenager, Piltdown’s only religious attire this evening was a white clerical collar, worn with a rumpled navy-blue suit that sat awkwardly on his hefty, rugby-player’s body.

His surroundings were similarly unadorned. Above the dark oak wainscoting, the only ornamentation on the sallow walls was a row of dimly glowing electric heaters, which were doing little to lift the temperature on that damp December evening. Since there was no altar, Piltdown had conducted most of the simple service from behind a sturdy wooden table, set firmly on the lowest level of a carpeted platform. This platform, which stretched almost the full width of the building, rose a couple of levels behind the minister, presumably for a choir, but instead of an elaborate reredos or dazzling stained glass window, Piltdown’s backdrop was the pipe array of a sizeable organ, painted an ugly battleship gray. (The hymns, however, had been accompanied by a young woman who played an upright piano, on the floor to the left of the platform.) The space struck Oliver as more like a theater than a church.

Piltdown had only left his station to deliver the sermon, when he had climbed the steps to a high pulpit, rising out of the right-hand side of the stage like a submarine’s conning tower. The one touch of color in the church was a garish, appliqué banner pinned to this pulpit, proclaiming JESUS IS LORD in childish lettering.

“As we draw close to Christmas,” the minister was saying, unconsciously patting his thatch of thick, wild hair, “our thoughts naturally turn to that well-known story of our Savior’s birth. Perhaps we first learned it from Nativity pageants per- formed by children, just like the one our own Sunday School will be performing during our Christmas Eve carol service. I myself can remember playing a king one year, wearing a splendid cardboard crown covered with silver foil and my new dressing gown with the gold piping as a robe…”

Piltdown glanced across to the younger people, seeking a smile or nod that would accompany a similar reminiscence, but they remained unmoved. Most were staring dully at their hands while he spoke, avoiding his eyes. They had shown little enthusiasm during the earlier parts of the service, rising wearily to mouth the three or four hymns and bending over so deeply in the pews during the long prayers that they practically disap- peared. Perhaps they were playing baccarat?

“And what do we find when we actually study the Christ- mas story in the scriptures?” Piltdown went on. “Do we find  a harsh innkeeper turning Mary and Joseph from the door of the crowded inn, with his tender-hearted wife running after the couple to offer accommodation in their stable? No. Do we find an ox and an ass? No. Nor do we find a stable, for that matter. Or three kings, whom tradition has named for us.”

“If I could get up to that balcony,” Ben whispered, perching beside Oliver as he reloaded his camera again, “I could do a great overhead shot pointing down on the pews. But the door’s locked.”

Oliver swiveled to look up at the shallow balcony behind and above them, but from the low angle he could only make out more high-backed pews in the darkness. Lowering his gaze, he met the stern eyes of a middle-aged woman in the rear pew. She winked at him. He smiled weakly and turned around again, wondering what he was missing on television at that moment. Paul Piltdown had been speaking now for fifteen minutes on the need for Christians to promulgate the biblical facts of the Nativity story without the accretions of tradition and myth. He paused suddenly, and although he did not utter a blessing, it was clear the sermon was over. Piltdown beamed around the church, coughed, and glanced down at his notes.

“Now before our final hymn,” he continued, “I’m going to ask our good friend Nigel Tapster to share his musical witness.” Piltdown sat down in the pulpit, sinking from sight, and a man sitting among the teenagers rose to his feet and sidled out of his pew. He was tall and rangy, with a balding head and a sparse, straggling beard that had been fussily shaped to his chin. His gray suit seemed a size too small. He stooped to pick up a large twelve-string guitar, which had been lying in a case beside the piano, and passed its leather strap over his head and one arm.

The teenagers all seemed suddenly far more animated, and smiled and whispered to each other as Tapster reached the platform.

He paused, his head down, as if listening intently to words whispered urgently into his ears. Ben’s camera clicked several times. Then Tapster lifted his gaze, looking around the church with dark, intense eyes.

“Friends, dear friends,” he said, his voice reedy and nasal. “The Reverend Piltdown has just told us what the world believes when it shouldn’t. I’d prefer to sing about what the world doesn’t believe when it should.” He strummed the guitar strings, wincing momentarily.

“It’s no good, I’ll have to send it back to the shop to be tuned,” he said apologetically, stepping off the platform and rummaging in the guitar case. One of the boys in the group let out a short, loud laugh. It echoed sharply off the bare walls of the church, as if the building was swatting away the unfamiliar sound. Tapster blew softly into a pitch pipe, fiddled with the tuning heads, and returned to the platform. “You know, not many people play the twelve-string guitar,” he muttered, “because it takes a lot of pluck.”

The joke was old and weak, but perhaps it was new to the young people, because they all laughed heartily for as long as it took Tapster to finish tuning the instrument. He played an E major chord, nodded with satisfaction, and began to strum in a different key. It was hardly an infectious rhythm, but within two bars, the young people were already swaying in time with the music. Tapster began to sing, very badly.

The song seemed to consist of little more than three chords and the word “Alleluia,” but the youngsters were clearly enjoying it more than anything else in the service. Two or three of them began to clap, and the woman who had been playing the piano earlier now started to shake a tambourine in an arrogant fashion. The performance ended, and Tapster stepped down from the platform, reverently replacing the guitar in its case. Oliver noticed that the young people mostly had their eyes closed now, with half-smiles on their faces, and one was raising a hand to the ceiling, as if asking God for a bathroom break. The old man in front of Oliver grunted.

Piltdown rose in the pulpit and announced the final hymn. The tambourine player stepped over to the piano and played the introduction to “As With Gladness, Men of Old.” Oliver wondered if Tapster would return the earlier compliment and accompany her on the maracas.

After a final blessing and a moment of silent prayer, Piltdown came down from the pulpit and stalked along the aisle on the right-hand side of the church. His flock meanwhile began to gather personal belongings and fidget in their pews. The young people were the first to escape, shuffling up the left aisle and through a heavy velvet curtain that hung below the balcony and separated the sanctuary from the narthex beyond. Tapster stayed behind, collecting his guitar. The pianist waited for him. Oliver passed his hymn book to a young girl of around thirteen, who was already steadying a teetering pile with her chin. She grinned and hurried away.

In the pew in front, the older couple stood as if on cue and turned simultaneously. Though they were both clearly in their seventies, Time had so far treated them with uncharacteristic decency. The woman was tall and straight-backed, with milky skin and a braid of thick white hair. Her husband was stocky-framed, and his hair, while fine and thinning, still covered his scalp and was largely dark. The way he fixed Oliver with a critical gaze from his small, brown eyes indicated he had no need of spectacles.

“Cedric Potiphar,” he announced solemnly, with a noticeable Cornish accent and a volume level that showed Time could still be a bastard. Oliver shook the large, dry hand and managed to introduce himself without mispronouncing his name. Potiphar took in this new information. “My wife, Elsie,” he added even- tually, as if unsure of the propriety of exposing her to a writer. Mrs. Potiphar rewarded Oliver with a nervous smile, but didn’t speak. The couple then repeated the entire exercise with Ben.

“May I welcome you both to the Lord’s tabernacle on this Sabbath day?” Potiphar intoned loudly.

“Thank you very much,” said Oliver.

“We outstretch the hand of fellowship to all,” Potiphar conceded. “No matter how unworthy,” he added more quietly, with a sidelong glance at Tapster and the pianist, who were ambling past the pew. He fell silent. The girl with the pile of hymn books paused and watched Tapster until he disappeared through the curtain at the back of the church.

“I suppose the guitar-playing is a way to involve the younger folks,” said Ben quickly, correctly guessing that the fishlike expression on Oliver’s face masked a fruitless and  increasingly desperate attempt to think of any conversational comment to make to the Potiphars. Although Oliver was the most polite individual he knew, Ben was also aware that his friend was utterly inept when it came to sustaining small talk.

Potiphar glared at the photographer as if he’d offered to take a set of boudoir shots of his wife. He tapped on the leather cover of his well-worn Bible. “There’s nothing in God’s word about preaching through entertainment,” he grumbled.

“Nothing about hearing aids either, cocky, more’s the pity,” muttered his wife under her breath. Potiphar appeared not to notice.

They had edged their way to the aisle and joined a queue of people slowly passing through the curtain. The Potiphars seemed content to let Oliver and Ben precede them, and as the two men slipped through into the church’s entrance hall, they saw the reason for the hold-up. A one-man receiving line, Paul Piltdown was now greeting each congregant in turn as he or she headed for the front door and the chilly night air of north London.

Ahead of them, Tapster and the woman had collected their out- door wear—a worn anorak for him, a buttonless crimson overcoat for her—and were now speaking to Piltdown simultaneously in low, urgent voices. The genial expression had left the minister’s face. “Good evening, Cedric,” said a middle-aged man, who had just collected an overcoat from a peg on the narthex wall. Not waiting for Potiphar to attempt an introduction, the man turned briskly to Oliver and Ben.

“Sam Quarterboy, deacon and church secretary,” he announced crisply, as Oliver found his hand being drawn into a hearty and skillful handshake through some hypnotic force he couldn’t explain. Quarterboy was clearly practiced in the presentation of a public self, from his shiny brogues to his tight, glossy bald pate. He was of medium height and build, but his stiff bearing and florid face implied that he had ordered his skin one size too small and a much fleshier man was pressing out the wrinkles from the inside. “I trust you’re going to give us a good write-up, Mr. Swithin,” he stated. It was not intended as a question, and Oliver was relieved that he wasn’t expected to answer. “It’s about time people realized that the United Diaconalist Church is very much part of the English landscape. There are a couple of hundred thousand of us around the country. Nothing odd here, as you can see. Just hymns, prayers, sermons. None of this New Age mumbo-jumbo or hysterical charismatic nonsense. Very solid foundation, this church. Very solid.”

Quarterboy tapped his foot on the tiled floor and grinned humorlessly, showing more straight white teeth than Oliver imagined could fit in just one set of jaws. Oliver recalled that his dictionary of religion had described the Diaconalists as “non-conformist separatist protestant dissenters”—four words that said what they were against, but not what they were for. But he was saved from thinking of something to say to Quarterboy by the conversation between Piltdown, Tapster, and the woman, which was no longer being conducted in whispers.

“It’s the youngsters I’m thinking of,” Tapster was saying urgently as he pulled on his anorak. “There are already so many conflicting messages in the world. I’m surprised to hear free-thinking from the pulpit.”

From the pulpit,” the woman echoed, as if Tapster hadn’t just used the words.

“Nigel, nobody cares for the children more than I,” Piltdown protested. “I truly think you’re overreacting.”

“We’ll see.” Tapster picked up his hard guitar case and stared into Piltdown’s face. “You know I’m saying these things out of Christian love, Paul. God has plans for Plumley. He has told me.” Piltdown smiled uncomfortably. Tapster opened the narthex door for the woman and followed her through it in a noisy rustle of nylon and Velcro. The pair joined the gaggle of waiting teenagers and drifted away into the darkness.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sneezed!” Oliver called to Piltdown’s back. There was a slight pause, then Piltdown turned with a broad smirk and grasped Oliver’s hand as if it were a lifeline. Oliver introduced Ben, and they stood to one side while Piltdown ceremonially bade farewell to the remaining congregants.

“Go in and make yourself at home,” Piltdown was saying as Cedric and Elsie Potiphar cautiously made their way down the frosty church steps. “I hold an open house at the Manse after the service,” he explained to Oliver. “Sandwiches and tea and a little fellowship. If you’re not rushing away, perhaps you’d care to join us?”

“A cup of tea, Vicar?” said Oliver, silently checking for Ben’s assent. “That would be lovely.”

“Jolly good, but for the sake of your article, remember that I’m a minister, not a vicar,” Piltdown said genially. “It makes a difference. I’m a servant of this congregation, not the representa- tive of a higher authority.”

He stepped through the narthex doors, crossed a shallow vestibule, and tugged the church’s main door closed, making sure the catch had clicked into place.

“Does that mean your members are free to challenge your sermons?” asked Oliver as Piltdown came back into the narthex. “Sorry, we couldn’t help overhearing the tail end of your conversation with the—for want of a better word—musicians.” Piltdown led them through the darkened church, turning off the heaters as he passed. “That was Nigel Tapster and his wife, Heather. She’s filling in as the pianist for our services. Well, yes, authority in the United Diaconalist Church is not central, as in the Church of England. We don’t have bishops or cardinals or anything like that. Each congregation is independent, supervised by its elders—deacons, hence the name ‘Diaconalist.’ As their minister, I’m only a sort of full-time professional super-deacon, with more responsibilities, including leading the worship, but no greater authority. And anyone in the congregation can be a ‘prayer minister,’ if the Spirit moves them.”

“And this Nigel Tapster’s one of your deacons?” Ben asked. “Actually, no. Nigel’s fairly new to the church, but he has a marvelous way with the young people—he’s attracted quite a few new members in the months he’s been with us. They’re good people, he and his wife.” Piltdown made the comment as if it was a reminder to himself. “We’re having our annual church meeting this Friday, when we elect deacons for the coming year. I believe Nigel will be standing for election. If you want to find out more about the church, Ollie, you’re welcome to come and observe.” “I’d like to but I have to see my uncle’s Bottom,” Oliver claimed with a snigger. Ben sighed. They had passed through a doorway beside the pulpit and were now standing at one end of a dim, musty-smelling corridor that ran the full width of the building. “Ah yes, your uncle, the Scotland Yard detective,” said Piltdown, without a pause. “I remember that he was fond of amateur dramatics. At school, we used to envy you enormously for having an uncle who was Chief Inspector Mallard and a Shakespearian actor, to boot. I presume from your comment that he’s performing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”

He broke off as Ben burst in sudden peals of laughter and thumped Oliver soundly on the back.

“Did I say something funny?” Piltdown asked apprehensively, noticing Oliver’s crestfallen expression.

“Not intentionally, Paul,” Ben spluttered, attempting to recover his breath. “It’s just that Oliver’s been going round for weeks bleating ‘I’m going to see my uncle’s Bottom’ and hoping that somebody would fall for it.”

“Oh, sorry, Ollie,” said Piltdown contritely. “Would it help if I roared and split my sides now?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Oliver muttered.

“How is your uncle, by the way? Still a detective?” “Yes. He’s a superintendent now.”

“Promoted to glory. Well, not in the biblical sense,” Piltdown added hastily. “Not that the expression has a biblical origin, of course, it’s just…” He let the remark trail off and tilted his head on one side. In the silence, they could hear sounds from the far end of the corridor—coins and glassware clinking, not necessarily in the same room. Nobody was in sight, but light shone through a couple of transoms.

“I don’t want to lock anybody in,” Piltdown mused, toying with a bunch of keys.

“Who would still be here?” Oliver asked, privately amazed that the dank, cheerless building could keep anybody from a warm home now that the service was over.

“I imagine one of the deacons is counting the offering, and there could be someone in the kitchen wrapping up the church flowers.” Piltdown gestured to a door beside them “Look, why don’t you two go next door to the Manse and make yourselves at home? I’ll be along shortly.”

# # #

Oliver and Ben let themselves out into the chilly night air and cautiously traced an overgrown path that skirted the building. Light from the streetlamps ahead of them glinted off cigarette butts, broken beer bottles, and a couple of discarded condoms among the nettles, indicating that God’s name may have been called upon outside as well as inside the church. The path led them to a small, gravel car park in front of the building, separated from the main road by a low wall.

“Has organized religion had any impact on your life, Ben?” Oliver asked cautiously, as they turned into the street. There was little traffic on the road that Sunday evening.

“Yeah, when I was growing up, there was that hour every Sunday evening.”

“When you went to church?”

“No, when we turned off the television because all the channels were showing religious programs. I’ve always hated Sundays, Ollie. London Sundays are a black-and-white day in a technicolor week. They’re like that squishy package you got among your Christmas presents—the one from your father’s childless aunt that always turned out to be socks.”

“I never minded socks,” Oliver reflected. “Should I get Effie socks for Christmas? Not very romantic, I suppose.”

They turned into the gateway of the manse and studied  the facade of the large, square, nineteenth-century house. It had been denied any of the ugly ornamental features that later generations would pretend to adore, in a desperate attempt to believe that most Victorians were whimsical madcaps. Instead, the manse stood behind a shallow but well-tended front garden and scowled glumly at the road with the half-naked bulkiness of a sumo wrestler.

The front door was ajar, although there was nobody in the hallway. They heard voices and a few notes from a piano in the large reception room on the left. Ben took Oliver firmly by the elbow and guided him into the room, aware that the prospect of stepping into a room full of people he didn’t know would be enough to keep his friend studying the hallway long-case clock all evening.

The girl who had been picking out “Wonderwall” on the poorly tuned piano seemed too young to have seen a lot of westerns, but she still stopped playing abruptly. Everyone in the room stared at the new arrivals. Oliver realized with relief that he had already met more than half the room’s occupants—the Potiphars sitting stolidly on a hard couch in front of the bay window, Sam Quarterboy perched on a dining chair beside the upright piano, and the young teenage girl on the piano-stool, whose face he’d last seen above a pile of hymn books. There were only two strangers: a woman in a deep armchair beside Quarterboy and a slim young man in his twenties, sitting at the far end of the room on another hard dining chair.

Quarterboy leaped up and drew the visitors smoothly into the room, introducing the woman as his wife, Joan, the girl as his daughter, Tina, and the young man as Barry Foison, before splitting them as neatly as a pack of cards. Oliver found himself irresistibly guided to a raffia-topped stool between the Potiphars’s sofa and Joan Quarterboy’s armchair, while Ben took a seat between Tina and Foison.

Joan Quarterboy was in her late thirties and clearly believed in going to church dressed in her Sunday best. She wore a blue two-piece suit, artificial pearls, and an odd hat shaped uncomfortably like an overturned dog dish on her frizzy hair, which was already styled in anticipation of her retirement years. Her small features seemed to huddle for protection in the middle of her face. Lipstick was her only makeup, exactly the same shade of orange as the spine of a Penguin novel. Oliver took one look and guessed that Joan had never owned a pair of jeans in her life. Both she and Potiphars were smiling encouragingly at him, as if willing him to speak. Ben was already deep in conversation with Foison and the girl, and Oliver once again envied his handsome friend’s confidence and social ease. Being alluring like Ben must be like having your self-consciousness surgically removed at birth, and Oliver remembered his fear that even the harshly professional Effie Strongitharm would not be immune to the good-looking photographer’s potent pheromones, back in the days when Oliver was nobly but inexpertly concealing his passion for his uncle’s Sergeant. But Effie had chosen him, and the last four months had been the happiest in Oliver’s life. He wished she were here now. No, definitely something more romantic than socks. He swallowed and tried to think of a question for his neighbors.

“Er, have you been members of the church long?” he asked nobody in particular. Joan Quarterboy looked abruptly terrified and turned toward her husband.

“My wife and I moved to Plumley when we got married,” Sam Quarterboy cut in, to Joan’s evident relief. “The Quarterboys have been Diaconalists for generations. But the record at this church is held by young Cedric here. He’s been serving the Lord as a deacon now for more than forty years, without a break. Isn’t that right, Cedric?”

Cedric Potiphar was staring ahead of him as if he hadn’t been listening, but he spoke in his deep Cornish tones.

“‘For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman.’ One Corinthians, chapter seven, verse twenty-two.” “Very true, brother, very true,” Quarterboy agreed, and Oliver found himself nodding sagely with the others. But only he seemed to hear Elsie Potiphar’s whisper:

“Needs a servant himself, to pick his dirty knickers off the bedroom floor.”

Oliver looked at her quickly, but she seemed lost in thought.

He realized it was time to pose another question.

“So, Mr. Potiphar, I imagine you must be an honorary deacon for life by now?”

Potiphar frowned, and looked as if he was going to dredge up another biblical reference, but again Sam Quarterboy spoke first. “Every deacon has to be elected, Mr. Swithin, every year at the annual church meeting. In fact, it’s taking place on Friday evening. There are four places on the diaconate—Cedric and I are humbly putting our names forward for consideration, as we do every year. And Patience Coppersmith and Dougie Dock are also standing again—I imagine you’ll be meeting them shortly.” Oliver noticed that Quarterboy hadn’t mentioned Nigel Tapster. Didn’t Paul say he was running, no doubt on the bearded twit ticket?

“Why don’t you join us on Friday at the church meeting?” Quarterboy continued. “I’m sure it would give you some valuable information for this article of yours.”

“Your minister already invited me,” Oliver replied swiftly. “But on Friday, I’m scheduled to see my uncle’s Bottom.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, apart from a small suppressed squeak from Elsie Potiphar. The smile drained from Joan Quarterboy’s face.

“I’m not sure I understand you,” said Sam Quarterboy tentatively.

“Oh. Well, my uncle’s playing Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Mid- summer Night’s Dream, you see, and I’m going to a performance.” Oliver waited in vain for the comprehending laughter. Quar- terboy adopted a look that suggested he was about to explain Diaconalism to a slow eight-year-old (something he might have attempted). “Then perhaps, you could have put it that way in the first place,” he said starchily. “I’m sure you didn’t mean it, but your comment implied you were going to look at a close relative in an unclothed state.”

“It’s just as well our Tina didn’t hear,” whispered Joan. They all looked across to where their young daughter was talking animatedly to Ben Motley and Barry Foison. Ben glanced up at that moment and noticed Oliver’s shamefaced expression.

“Oliver,” he called quickly, interrupting the girl’s flow of words, “you should really hear this. Tina’s been telling us how much she likes writing.”

Tina Quarterboy swivelled on the piano stool and fixed her intense brown eyes on Oliver. Her face had a permanently eager expression, as if someone had grasped her nose and pulled it forward slightly, dragging the rest of her features after it. Oliver just had time to notice her long dark pigtail and the casual clothes on her thin body, which were mercifully contemporary, when she began speaking to him, very rapidly.

“Oh yes, I love writing,” she said, beaming. “I write all the time. I was just telling Mr. Motley here that I want to be a writer when I grow up. Every evening, you know, instead of watching television, I take out my journal and put down everything that happened and everything I’ve thought of during the day. I don’t mind at all. I’d spend my whole day writing if I could—stories, poems, my thoughts, my ideas, anything and everything. I just want to be a writer.”

Ben interrupted quickly. “Yes, I was just saying, Ollie, that since you’re a writer yourself, Tina might want to pick your brains, gather a few tips.”

“That’s so interesting,” Tina cut in again. “It must be wonder- ful to be a professional writer. What sort of things do you write?” “Well, I write stories for children,” Oliver began cautiously. “How marvelous!” cried Tina. “I’d like to write stories for children. I’ve done some adventure stories, imagining myself in all kinds of peril, but they’re really for grownups. How do you think of your stories, Mr. Swithin?”

“Now that’s an interesting question. I suppose—”

“I really don’t know how I think of my stories,” Tina interrupted. “They just come to me. I was writing this really fascinating one the other day…”

The front door to the manse slammed. Tina trailed off as Paul Piltdown appeared in the doorway, to Oliver’s great relief, since the beaming Quarterboys showed no inclination to wrestle their daughter to the ground and gag her. Piltdown greeted his guests and immediately took orders for tea and coffee.

“Patience and Dougie will be joining us shortly,” he added. “They’re just running the church flowers round to poor Mrs. Aymis, who’s been in bed with her leg.”

Oliver sniggered, but nobody else seemed to see the humor, so he turned it into a throat-clearing.

“Let me give you a hand,” said Joan Quarterboy, making no attempt whatsoever to rise from her comfortable chair.

“No, let me, I know where things are,” shouted Tina, to Oliver’s relief, and she bounded off the piano stool and followed Piltdown toward the kitchen.

“The minister thinks a lot of our Tina,” Joan said softly. She signaled this family victory with a peculiar smile, which actually turned the corners of her narrow mouth downward. “She’s very fond of him.”

“He’s a good man,” Sam Quarterboy cut in, as if the remark were a work in progress rather than a final judgment. “Of course, there were those of us who didn’t take to his High Church ways at first. And there’s a little too much theology in his sermons, for my taste. But we’ve come to respect him.”

“Well, I for one prefer a little meat on the bone of my sermons,” cried Barry Foison unexpectedly, in a high-pitched voice. “I found this evening’s sermon refreshing and thought-provoking, and frankly, I’m disgusted that horrible man Tapster had the gall to criticize Paul in front of the whole church.”

“The question I ask myself,” said Potiphar, stirring to life, “is who granted this Nigel Tapster the dispensation to preach unto us this evening? The elders of the church were not consulted. Is this to become a regular part of our worship? There’s nothing in my Bible about guitars.” He fondled the book, which lay in his lap. “The young people seemed to enjoy Mr. Tapster’s music,” Oliver commented as he wrote some thoughts in his notebook. When nobody answered, he looked up. Eventually, Joan Quarterboy broke the clumsy silence.

“We’re a little concerned about Nigel’s influence over our young people, Mr. Swithin,”  she explained, leaning forward  as if sharing a secret, although the entire room was following the conversation. “We’re rather afraid he wants to alienate the children from the church. They’ve taken to meeting privately in the Tapsters’ home after the evening service, and sometimes during the week, too. Nigel and Heather Tapster have some odd ideas, it seems.”

“Odd ideas?” Oliver echoed. Joan seemed to warm to her new role as storyteller.

“Well, Patience Coppersmith’s son, Billy, is about the same age as our Tina, and he got her to go with him to a couple of Nigel’s prayer meetings. But she came back with some very peculiar stories, about spirits making her do things, hearing people speak in tongues, and the like. She’s at that impressionable age, you see, Mr. Swithin. So Sam put his foot down and insisted that she come home with us after church from now on. Billy is still part of Nigel’s little group, though, and I know Patience is sick with worry about him. Apparently, Nigel tried to do the same thing at his last church, Thripstone Central. But there was some sort of scandal, and he was asked to leave.”

“What sort of scandal?” Oliver pressed, sensing fodder for his story. Joan looked uncomfortable.

“I believe it had something to do with a girl,” she said, mouthing the last word as if she was referring to a gynecological problem. “Barry can tell you. He used to go to Thripstone.” Foison crossed his slim legs and wrapped his right shin behind his left calf. “This was a couple of years ago, before Heather and Nigel got married,” he claimed. “They’d only just met. She was a missionary in Brazil for most of the time Nigel was at Thripstone.”

“Now, now, Barry,” Quarterboy interrupted, “I’m sure we don’t want to give Mr. Swithin the impression that we sit around after church gossiping like a lot of old women.”

The criticism found its mark. Foison seemed to shrink inside his large, baggy sweater, aware of the eyes watching him. Behind Oliver, Elsie Potiphar mumbled something that sounded like “lot of old women, yourself, tosh,” but when he turned, she was staring into space. Ben diplomatically started a conversation with Foison.

“If Tina’s friends continue to go to the Tapsters’ meetings, aren’t you worried she might still be drawn to their circle?” Oliver asked Joan quietly.

“She’d never defy her father,” Sam cut in, with a small self-satisfied smile. “We only had to have that conversation once. I see it as my parental duty to protect her from wrong-thinking people who’d fill her little mind with things we don’t agree with. That includes smutty talk, which is why I may have seemed a little old-fashioned about your unintended remark earlier, Mr. Swithin.”

“As it is, Tina will lose her innocence soon enough,” Joan quavered sadly. “In fact, Sam and I have been discussing when we should do this.”

Oliver started. He was unaware that virgin sacrifice was one of the rituals of the United Diaconalist Church. Now this would make the article a little more interesting. But it quickly occurred to him that the Quarterboys equated the word “innocence” with a basic ignorance of avian and apian matters. “Surely she’s already had some sexual education in school?” he suggested. Sam winced at the word.

“Oh, we’ve insisted that she be removed from those classes,” he replied.

“We told Tina that babies are a gift from God to a mother and father,” said Joan. “Which is true, of course. And then we made it clear that we wouldn’t answer any more questions, so we know she doesn’t have any.”

Sam sighed. “I wouldn’t trust schoolteachers to tell my child the facts of life. They’re bound to make copulation sound pleasurable. If we left our children in ignorance a little while longer, we’d have far fewer teenage pregnancies and nobody would be murdering unborn children—”

He stopped himself abruptly as Tina paced slowly into the room, holding the handles of a large wooden tray. She placed it on a coffee table and began to hand out small plates and paper napkins to the group. Then she passed around a platter of bread rolls, cut in half and slathered with butter and fish paste.

“Aren’t you having some, too?” Oliver asked her, taking a roll and balancing his plate on his thigh.

“No, that stuff makes me blow chunks,” Tina answered blandly. Joan tutted, but Sam, now drawn into the conversation with Ben and Barry Foison, didn’t notice. “A lot of things make me puke these days,” the girl continued. “Besides, I’m on a diet.” “Where do they get these ideas?” asked Joan in wonderment, as if her daughter had just declaimed Newton’s first law of motion in High German.

“It’s true, Mum, I’ve been putting on weight lately.”

“But that’s normal, lovey, you’re a growing girl. You know, Mr. Swithin,” Joan added, after Tina had slipped out of the room again, “I wonder if we need to have that conversation sooner rather than later. Oh dear.”

They heard the front door open and close, and a slim woman in her late forties came into the room. In contrast to the other women, she was smartly dressed, in a way that suggested style had won out over fashion, and her graying hair was expensively cut into overlapping spikes that folded around her skull like flower petals. She had just been introduced as Patience Coppersmith when Piltdown finally made an entrance, carrying another large tray laden with cups, saucers, and an enormous teapot under  a bright quilted cozy. Tina trotted in behind him, reverently clutching a coffee pot.

“Is Dougie with you?” Piltdown asked Patience. “He’s just parking the car.”

Joan Quarterboy tapped Oliver on the arm. “Have you met Dougie Dock yet?” she asked softly.

“I’m afraid not.”

“Oh, he’s a character, you’ll like him.” She leaned in close and whispered, as if giving Oliver a secret password. “He’s a bit of lad, on the quiet.” Oliver, not knowing what this expression meant or why it seemed to be a confidence, took a bite out of his roll and wondered why Ben was suddenly frowning at him. “I’m sorry it’s all a little basic,” Piltdown said apologetically as he poured tea and handed the cups around the room.

“You do very well, considering you’re on your own,” declared Patience. Her voice was clear and musical, as if she were used to addressing children. There were polite murmurs of agreement around the room. “But it’s about time you started looking for a wife, Paul,” Patience continued. She grinned. “I can say that because I’m nearly old enough to be your mother.”

“But not quite,” laughed Barry Foison. “And you are avail- able, Patience.”

Piltdown smiled without meeting anybody’s gaze. “I’m not sure being a Diaconalist minister’s wife is an attractive prospect for today’s young women. But someday I’ll get around to it.”

“He’s waiting for me to get older,” Tina asserted, which provoked more laughter.

“We never see you with a girlfriend, either, for that matter,” Joan Quarterboy said to Barry Foison. The smile faded from Foison’s face again, and he pretended to be fascinated with the pattern on his plate. The front door slammed, and a middle-aged man in a blazer and sheepskin-lined car coat came into view.

“Ah, Dougie, good,” Piltdown announced. “Now we can say grace.”

Dougie Dock hovered in the doorway and the church members bowed their heads as Piltdown delivered a brief prayer. Oliver did his best to hide the large bite he had already taken from his roll.

“I know I’m popular, but there’s no need to give thanks every time I arrive,” Dock caroled. He was of medium height and had a thin face, decorated with heavy-framed spectacles and very blue jowls and chin. The lank black hair that still remained on the sides of his head was brushed backwards and hung over his collar. His remark received a mixed reaction from the audience, from deprecating tuts to polite chuckles, but nobody laughed longer than Dock himself. Piltdown introduced Oliver and Ben. “Ooh, hell-oo,” Dock crooned, with a peculiar singsong tone to the second syllable. He executed a theatrical half-bow where he stood, then picked his way across the room to shake hands with Ben and then Oliver.

“And while I’m over here,” he continued, in a nasal voice the swept good-humoredly into the falsetto range, “I must grab a kiss from the youngest dolly-bird in the room.” He leaned over Elsie Potiphar and planted his lips on her cheek. Joan Quarterboy laughed indulgently and nudged Oliver.

“Now don’t you go getting jealous, Cedric,” Dock said with a wink, stepping away, but managing to nudge Oliver from the other side as he passed. Potiphar grunted amiably, and some  of the others laughed again. Only Oliver heard Elsie Potiphar mutter the word “Prick!” vehemently under her breath. Dock tugged playfully at Tina’s pigtail as he passed. She cried “Ow!” with unnecessary vigor and scowled at him, but he just grinned and took an unoccupied chair beside the door.

“Did I understand you’re writing an article about us, Oliver?” Dock asked. “You ought to come to the church’s annual business meeting on Friday and see what goes on behind the scenes.”

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Dock—”

Dock held up an admonitory hand. “Please, I’m Dougie to everyone. Jesus used his first name, and if it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me, eh?” He chortled for some time at the remark. “Besides, if you call me ‘Dock,’ people might think I really am one.”

“What?” asked Ben.

“A doctor. Or one of the seven dwarfs, eh, Tina?” Dock laughed again and pulled at the girl’s pigtail. She moved out of range sullenly. “So you’ll come on Friday then. Oliver?”

“Actually no,” Oliver replied carefully. “I have a prior engage- ment. My uncle’s drama group is performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Ooh, I say, are you going to see your uncle’s Bottom?” Dock interrupted emphatically and subsided into guffaws of laughter, without taking his gaze from Oliver’s face. Tina spluttered, some of the others laughed aloud, and to his irritation, Oliver noticed that even Sam and Joan Quarterboy were smiling faintly, although shaking their heads.

“I don’t know how I think of them,” cried Dock as he wiped his eyes, complimenting himself quickly in case nobody else did. Oliver, feeling the amused eyes of Ben and Paul Piltdown on him, bent forward and took another mouthful of fish paste roll.

# # #

It was close to ten o’clock when Ben’s Lamborghini hurtled away from the curb in front of the church and the sudden G forces caused Oliver to rediscover prayer. They had spent the bulk of the evening in the clutches of Dougie Dock, who had produced a large wallet of color prints from a summertime trip to Canada and proceeded to give them an illustrated lecture without once asking Ben’s professional opinion as to why half the pictures seemed to be studies of his camera’s flash, reflected in the window of a moving tour bus. Dock broke off only once to show a card trick to Tina, provoking loud mutters from Cedric Potiphar about “the Devil’s picture-book” and quieter grunts of “Get a life” from Elsie, although Oliver could not be sure whom she was referring to. The magic trick failed because Tina apparently took the wrong card. Unlike most children, she did not ask the conjuror to do it again.

At last, Oliver’s social torture ended, and the visitors collected their coats and vanished into the night, but not before Dock had produced a fifty-pence piece from behind his ear twice.

“What did you make of them?” Oliver asked as they sped along the Westway toward their home in Holland Park. Ben hesitated, pretending to concentrate on an unnecessary gear change. “Pleasant,” he said eventually. “Hospitable. Devout. Sincere.

Virtuous, I’m sure.” “Dull?” “Er…possibly.”

“Yes,” Oliver agreed. “They certainly seem to have chosen  a dull way to spend a London Sunday: badly sung hymns in a chilly church, hard pews, and a fifteen-minute sermon, followed by fish paste sandwiches. It was a bit like stepping though a time warp and finding yourself back in the seventies.”

“The fifties,” Ben murmured caustically.

“I wish Geoffrey hadn’t got us into this. They’re decent, ordinary people. There’s nothing there for Finsbury the Ferret to make fun of.”

Ben thought for a moment. “What about this Nigel Tapster?” he asked. “They all seem to think he’s trouble, with the possible exception of your friend Paul. Speaking in tongues, exorcizing evil spirits—no wonder young Tina Quarterboy wanted to be part of Tapster’s private club. Casting out demons is a bit more entertaining than Dougie Dock’s tired conjuring tricks. Finsbury could go to town on that stuff.”

The Tapsters left as foul a taste in Oliver’s mouth as three cups of Piltdown’s cut-price tea. But Ben had a point. Could “Finsbury the Ferret Meets the Exorcist of Plumley” suit Celestial City’s needs?

Oliver looked out over West London and sighed. He might have shown more interest if he’d known that Nigel Tapster would be dead within a week and he’d already encountered the murderer.

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