The church steps. Daytime.
“And who found the body?”
“Remo, the verger. He is always the first one here. It was him that called the ambulance. Too late of course.”
Father O’Malley looked down and made the sign of the cross. He didn’t go on to say what had been on his mind all morning. That Remo should have told him first. All parish matters were supposed to come through him and Remo knew that. He would have to have a quiet word later.
“Was he one of yours? A church member I mean.”
“We get so few nowadays, outside the big holidays. No, no he’s not one of mine.” Father O’Malley shook his head.
The body lay just a few feet away under a sheet, the cruciform shape obvious nonetheless. Police in various uniforms busied themselves about it.
“Any reason anyone would do this, that you can think of?” The detective maintained eye contact relentlessly. It made Father O’Malley nervous. That was probably his intention though, to shake his interviewees up. He had nothing to hide here.
“None at all. We’re such a quiet parish.”
“Can we speak to the man who found the victim? This Remo?”
Changing the word from body to victim. How he hated that word. Wasn’t everyone a victim? One way or another. Eventually everybody fell victim to something. A crime, a vice.
“Of course. Although I think he will have left by now.”
The large dark oak doors behind Father O’Malley opened slowly revealing Remo’s shiny round face. He pulled the doors back one after the other and slotted the big grey bolts into place.
“Remo, there you are.” O’Malley expressed with some surprise as he glanced between the detectives and his assistant. “I thought you had gone already.”
“I gotta get ready to clean. Clean the steps.”
“Good man, yes. But first this man would like to speak to you.”
Remo shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other as he sized up the detective. His eyes were just as busy, never resting anywhere for too long. O’Malley stood right next to him as he answered. Now and again Remo would look to O’Malley, as if for guidance, there he would find O’Malley’s soft and patient face, and continue. The questions were concise. His replies cursory, enough to deter any more for now.
Afterwards Remo skulked away to attend to whatever dust had his attention today. As he passed he looked at the body as if it were more of an inconvenience than anything else. Dirtying up the steps that he needed so badly to clean.
Father O’Malley read the expression on the officer’s face and felt the need to speak on Remo’s behalf.
“He is a good man and an excellent caretaker.”
“Has he worked here long?”
“As long as I have, at least. Some twenty years.”
“Ah, so he would have been here last time this happened.”
“Now we come to it.” Father O’Malley had been expecting this.
“Come to what, Father?”
“Well, I assumed you would be only too aware of it. Well, I can assure you that Remo had nothing to do with that or this. He is a good man. Incapable of hurting anyone.”
This much was true at least. Father O’Malley firmly believed Remo to be a good man. And incapable of hurting anyone. He knew it in fact.
That a similar murder had happened here just a few years ago and Remo was the first person on the scene that time as well, was a coincidence. He was always the first person into the churchyard in the morning. It was his job and he did it religiously.
“You weren’t here the last time, were you?” The detective glanced at his notebook.
“No, I was travelling. In Asia. Doing the Lords work.” He offered a crisp smile.
“It was a Father Lilt, standing in for you. Is that right?”
“Yes, a young man but very keen.”
“Any idea where we can find him?”
“I think he is in Asia now actually. I’m not sure exactly where. I would be happy to track him down for you.”
“That’s ok. No need. For now.”
“I know you gentlemen need to look into every nook and cranny but I assure you. There will be nothing to find here. We are a quiet, little parish. This is the work of…” He trailed off.
“Well, it really is a terrible thing to think.”
“No worse to say it out loud.”
“I suppose not. You know we used to open the doors here, all night. Anyone was welcome. This is Gods house after all.”
“Well, we had to stop. The homeless. They aren’t all bad. But we can’t have trouble you see. Some troublemakers made it impossible. Fighting, arguing. Stealing. It just isn’t fair on everyone else. We had to stop. So, we started locking up. But they still come. They sleep here in the churchyard.” He gestured with a wave of his hand.
It was a perfect night-time spot for the homeless. There were miniature mausoleums dotted around the wall and many of these were open on one or more sides. They provided cover from the elements and a place to hide from the other elements, those of the underworld that was the homeless in this city. There were worse things in the night than the cold and the rain. The police were only too aware of the killings. Bodies turning up in River Forth. Unreported and unclaimed. People with no one to mourn them. The numbers of homeless killed in Edinburgh had went up dramatically the past few years. No one cared though. No one complained so it wasn’t a priority. Why would it be?
“You think this was a homeless argument gone bad?”
“Well, I saw him. ~He certainly looks homeless. The last, poor soul, it was the same wasn’t it. Homeless?”
“And the positioning of the body?”
Father O’Malley had spent many nights thinking about that. After he was told about the last one. Was it a message?
Was it a sign? Jesus God.
“The mind of the sick is a terrible thing indeed.” Was all he could reply.
Remo appeared at the door again. He sidled over to Father O’Malley and whispered something in his ear. His eyes moved over the corpse again and avoided the detective.
“Well, I am sorry I have a phone call. It will be the bishop no doubt. Bad news spreads much faster than the good, unfortunately. If you will excuse me.”
The detective stood still and watched them till they were out of sight.
Remo stuck closely by his side as they walked around the outside of the church to the gate at the back of the churchyard. The gate was always locked. Remo took the bundle of keys from the ring on his belt and opened it. It didn’t make a sound. Everything was well tended in this parish.
They walked the short distance from there to the parochial house. Where Father O’Malley lived, and did most of his work. Wordlessly he took out his own keys and unlocked the little side door to where his office was. He changed his shoes for his slippers as Remo shut the door behind them.
“Go into the kitchen Remo and put the kettle on.”
Remo obeyed without a word. Father O’Malley heard the loud whooshing of the cold water filling the kettle and the click as Remo plugged it in. He started counting in his head as he walked into the office and picked up the phone.
“Hello, bishop. Sorry for the delay.”
He listened intently. His lip twitched slightly. His eyes pointing straight down. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.
“Terrible business, terrible. Yes I understand.” Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three.
“Please don’t worry about a thing here. I will take care of everything. Yes. I will speak to you soon.”
He walked from the office back to the hallway and through to the large airy kitchen.
Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven.
Counting had always been a coping mechanism for him. He had done it from such a young age. It helped him focus, when there was a task to do.
The kettle began to whistle softly. Steam started to rush out. Remo stood next to it with Father O’Malley’s cup and saucer on the worktop in front of him.
Father O’Malley took Remo’s hand in his.
“forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty.” He said out loud.
He turned his hand and pushed Remo’s flat palm against the side of the metal kettle as it steamed. His own hand covering Remo’s. Pressing it in as Remo opened his mouth wide and screamed silently as the kettle whistled.