Funeral for a Victim

Father O’Malley was used to dealing with idiots. Not just in his congregation, but the wider world as well, in the church, at the supermarket, everywhere. He seemed to be constantly surrounded by idiots. It used to bother him. He would get angry, refuse to talk to them. Or the opposite, he would pity them and coddle them in their idiocy. Thinking he could help them. He must have been mad, idiotic even, to try. These fools were beyond help.

There were different types of fools, of course. They used to be classified in the good old days. In psychology, Idiot was the bottom of the IQ scale, followed by Imbecile and then Moron. Moron being the highest level of intelligence for someone who is mentally disabled.

Of course, Father O’Malley knew these people were not technically morons but they were certainly far beneath him. They all mindlessly take up his precious time with pointless pleasantries and platitudes. Why must they insist on rabbiting on about the most meaningless nonsense for no other reason than to make conversation? The very notion that silence must be filled was ridiculous. It must be enjoyed, savoured, sought after. Never just needlessly filled.

This crowd was a particularly ugly rag tag bunch. Clearly not used to being together and feeling obliged to converse and console. They moved around him in various shades of black although he could see them all being more comfortable in tracksuits and trainers. They gripped hands with rarely seen relatives and tapped shoulders of common acquaintances; all pretending to support one another, like the weak do.

He was too tired for this. Best to get it over with.

Father O’Malley strode down the central aisle as the mourners took their seats either side. Some shuffled for the front row. There was no need to rush, it wasn’t going to be a full house. Far from it. The miserable wretch was lucky anyone was here at all.

The coffin was basic. He had seen plenty like it. Plain black, cheap and shiny. Fake brass fittings and a tiny simple wreath on the top. It was an affront. How he missed the grand elaborate affairs this parish used to offer up. This place would be full to bursting. Weeping and wailing from the porch to the pulpit. Loud hymns would be belted out with the organ accompaniment. “Abide With Me” was always a favourite. It has power and reminded them of their mortality, kept them supplicate.

He arrived at the altar and said a few words, then nodded to Remo, who stood loyally by the CD player. Remo pressed play.

Robbie fucking Williams, Angels.

Should’ve guessed. These people love it. It is a right challenge to play this song to a group of British people and expect them not to sing along, either in their heads or, if drinking, from the depths of their lungs. They did their best not to sway with the music as O’Malley watched. He enjoyed it, like a birdwatcher in a hide, observing but not taking part. Looking at the poor, mindless creatures as they went about their business. The second chorus was coming up. Most of them had their heads down but a few here and there were looking up, spurred on, getting in the mood. He knew they would not be able to resist singing it in their tiny minds. The guitar solo. Fingers twitched among middle-aged men that should know better. Black clad air guitarists who, for want of a couple of pints of cheap lager, would happily have those ties around their foreheads by now. The final chorus was approaching. O’Malley had heard this song so many times. He knew every word, every beat, whether he wanted to or not. And he sorely wanted not to. They were building to a crescendo in their half-witted hive mind. The solo was just about to finish.

“Aaannd through it all…”

Father O’Malley nodded at Remo who obediently and immediately stopped and ejected the disc. Oh, how he loved the looks on their faces. How he revelled in the suppressed disappointment. You cannot wreck a funeral for the sake of an unfinished pop song, but by Christ these idiots felt that it had been destroyed right now. This was what got him through these things.

“We are gathered here today.” He began, checking his note cards as he went, looking through them to find out the names of his loved ones, his hobbies, all that rubbish. He could have planned ahead, but the cretin in the box had never set foot inside this church in his worthless life. Why the hell should O’Malley put any effort into this?

“As we know, his life was full of ups and downs. He lived through challenges some of us are lucky enough never to face.” He was a homeless, drug addict thief. His challenge was being a decent human being. He failed it.

“Of course, will be remembered through the life and love of his family, his mother…” check card “Angela, and his two brothers…” check card “Derek and Gaz.” Father O’Malley visibly sneered at this last name. They had given the names themselves, they could have said Gary, or Gareth but no, Gaz it was. He turned the sneer into a smile and directed it towards the family. They had the decency to look solemn at least. This was probably their first time in a house of God since their mother’s wedding. Bastards.

Their dead brother had visited the church more recently. He was found dead on the steps. Strangled. Naked. It was hard for O’Malley to shake the thought. Someone left him there on purpose. So purposefully. But why, was it a warning? Who knew something? He wiped the greasy sweat from his forehead.

The doors opened at the far end of the church and he tried to convince himself that it was the sudden blast of air that made him shudder. The detective walked in, wearing a plain black trouser suit and white blouse. She sat at the back, looking straight up the aisle. It was her that questioned O’Malley the morning they found the filthy wretch. She had been back again a few days later, keen to speak to Remo, after all it was he that found the body. Remo could not handle questioning though, certainly not alone. O’Malley had managed to intervene and keep her at bay. But this was a murder investigation, the second at the church in the past few years. It wasn’t going to go away. He looked over to Remo, still standing dutifully by. Remo had noticed her too. He wasn’t a complete fool. A tilt of the head and Remo left his post. Leaving by the side door at the back of the altar. O’Malley’s eyes burned into the detectives as Remo left, watching to see if she would notice. She was too busy though, scanning around at the mourners. Probably looking for suspects. Any of them were probably capable. Although, with what motive? Who would benefit from murdering a homeless, penniless waste of space like him? And why leave him on the steps like that? The question would not leave him alone. Sleeping was hard this past week. The nightmares were coming back. Had to focus on work. Let’s get this farce over with.

He gathered his hands together. The day’s sheep did the same. A few more words then get one of this lot up here to say something nice about the stiff and then get rid of the cop.

O’Malley stood to the side as one of the brothers got up to have a cry and say his piece. He slowly scanned around with the appropriate gestures and occasional sombre nods. He knew how to behave and automatically performed what was expected of him. If only he wasn’t so tired maybe he would have kept his gaze from the detective. Glancing once or twice was ok, but fatigue had gotten the better of him. Their eyes met. She offered a little nod. He returned it with an acceptably mute smile, but when he looked again, less than ten seconds later she was still watching him. He felt caught. Exposed.

Remo appeared back at his side as the weeping idiots carried on their reminiscing. As Remo leaned in to whisper in his ear O’Malley once again was unable to keep his eyes from the detective. She sat poker faced staring straight at them as Remo handed a mobile phone to O’Malley. He pocketed it immediately and then stepped forward towards the small lectern where the brother was just finishing his eulogy.

“Thank you Derek.”

“I’m Gaz.” Derek looked confused.

“Of course, of course.” Father O’Malley gently guided him towards his seat.

Remo moved over to the CD player again and put the next disc in. The coffin would be carried back out the doors of the church and then a short drive to the cemetery. He wouldn’t be buried in the churchyard of course. Couldn’t afford it for one thing, but also his type didn’t belong here. The fact he died here made it feel slightly macabre as well. O’Malley did not want him anywhere near the place.

Oasis. Live Forever. God, these people.

Father O’Malley followed the coffin up the aisle and out the door. The cars were waiting outside and the family took a short while arranging who was going with who, who would follow. He was going with the family, an unusually nice gesture. He took his place in the back of the dated limousine. Others were still milling around or making their way to their own cars. Christ, with this lot it was lucky there wasn’t a party bus parked out front.

He always made a point to stare down anyone that started talking in these cars. No good could come of it, there was nothing to say. Besides, today he needed peace to think. He looked out the window as they made ready to drive away slowly behind the hearse. Remo was standing on the steps of the church, he would lock up once everyone had left. The detective was standing at the bottom of the steps. She looked at O’Malley again. Another nod. Then turned and walked up the steps towards Remo. Remo looked at O’Malley now, with panic in his eyes. The cars started to move away.

O’Malley realised what was happening. The bitch wanted to question Remo without him there. This bloody funeral was becoming a major headache. Sweat was forming on his brow again despite the chill in the air. The phone in his trouser pocket started to vibrate. It would be him. It was too early though. He had explained this already. The man never took no for an answer. As the cars started to circle out of the small gravel stoned churchyard car park he looked again at Remo and the detective. They were moving inside the church. His church! The buzzing of the vibrating phone was getting louder, deafening. He would be expecting an answer. Demanding it. O’Malley started counting in his head. One, two, three. He had to think, had to focus.

“So Father what do you…” Derek began.

“Christ!” O’Malley all but screamed it.

“Are you alright, Father?” Gaz looked at him sideways.

“I just remembered, I’m sorry. I need my book, my hymn book. I’ll just pop back in for it. Stop the car! Only be a moment.”

He opened the door before the car had stopped moving, was out and half running up the path back to the church. The line of cars behind all stopped now as well, the passengers all agog at the sight of the priest running back to the church. He remembered himself and managed to slow down to a fast walk. Up the steps and inside.

The detective had her back to O’Malley. He could so easily walk up to her now and snap her puny little neck. Remo was standing next to the font, facing the door and looking stressed.

She followed Remo’s gaze and spun around to see the panting priest standing in front of her. A big smile glued on his face.

“Remo, we almost forgot you.”

“Father O’Malley. Don’t you have a funeral to officiate?” Said the detective.

“Haha, I certainly do. But how can I without my faithful assistant by my side?”

“I was just asking Mr. Remo a few questions.”

“He really cannot right now. I am sure he will be happy to answer them later.” He replied through gritted smiling teeth.

“Well, if you’re sure you can’t spare him.” She smiled in return.

The threesome stood still, looking at each other. The vaulted arches took all silences and amplified them. They did the same with any sounds. The buzzing of the phone bounced around the high stone walls.

“Shouldn’t you get that?”

“I’m sure it can wait.”

The phone went quiet.

“Come Remo. Let’s not keep these poor people waiting any longer.”

They made their way outside and back to the lead car. O’Malley opened the door and gestured hurriedly to Remo to get in, then squeezed into the seat beside Remo. The detective watched them drive away.

The black leather seats squeaked as Remo shifted uncomfortably. There was not enough room in here for them all.

“Did you get your book, Father?”

“Yes,” O’Malley said. Despite the complete absence of any book at all.

The rest of the short drive was in complete silence. O’Malley kept eyeing Remo. Remo knew there would be more questions of him.

After arriving at the cemetery, they walked side by side to the grave. The weak wept beside them.

“What did she ask you?”

“About the dead man.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing. I told her I don’t know nothing.”

“What else did she ask?”

“She said lots have went missing, homeless people. She asked if they still came to the church at night.”

“What did you say?”

“I told her we don’t see them anymore. We close the doors at night nowadays. They aren’t allowed in.”

“Good. Well done.”

They trudged along the damp grass. The mourners clustered together. Close relatives staying close, distant relatives keeping their distance. The service was brief and to the point. A cold wind was coming from the East and nobody wanted to be out in it any longer than they needed. Father O’Malley and Remo were invited to the wake, but politely declined. There were much more important matters to attend. They got a lift back to the church.

At last, they were alone and he could check the phone. There were fourteen missed calls and a message, two words. Rosa’s escaped.

“Destroy this.” Father O’Malley handed the phone to Remo as they walked up the steps and through the main doors of the church. Neither of them saw the detective standing quietly amidst the gravestones and oak trees.

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Ben’s escape.

Ben hurried through the brightly lit corridors of the hospital, desperate for a way out. Keeping his eyes down whenever he passed any doctors or nurses. They were looking at him he could tell. Got to get out of here, should never have come. It was her idea. She had forced him – said he would be in trouble if he didn’t but he was in even more trouble now.

He walked along a low, glass corridor. Outside there was a small garden courtyard with some benches. It looked so much nicer out there. There were no people. He found a door in the corridor and pushed it open. The cool air hit him in the face. He instantly felt dizzy again. He staggered onto one of the wooden benches and sat gasping.

He had to get home. It would soon be sunrise and being out in the daylight was impossible, there would be people everywhere. His hand closed around the Saint Christopher around his neck and a mumbled prayer fell out his lips. Please make it home. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes. Had to rest, just for a minute.

Terror overcame Ben as he woke. How long had he been here? An orderly was shaking his arm. It was almost dawn! The sound of the city coming to life was so loud in the dim light.

“Are you ok mate? You need some help?”

Completely ignoring the stranger, Ben got to his feet and turned and shuffled away from him.

“Here! There’s no way out there! Mate?”

Ben had to get away from the shouting man. He was at the edge of the courtyard, dark green ivy climbed up and over the wall.  The man was right behind him, blocking the way. He had no choice, he started to scale the trellis.

“Here! Mate!”

Without looking back, Ben hoisted himself over the short wall and crashed onto the hard concrete on the other side, landing on his hip. He didn’t let out a cry but it hurt bad. Can’t wait, keep going. He pulled himself to his feet, leaning on the red brick wall for support. A delivery van beeped as it reversed in the small car park, the driver eying at Ben in his mirrors. Ben could feel the eyes on him, examining and judging him. It wasn’t fair. No one should judge anyone else. Other than God of course. That was the deal. That was what it was all about, wasn’t it? But they all did it, all the time and it isn’t fair. Ben limped past the van, bumping off it as he staggered. The driver braked sharply, he would be annoyed, would want to shout! Ben could not stop now. He was out the gate and onto the main road. He looked left and right as cars sped past, could hear the driver behind him shouting something. He was disorientated but desperate to get away from here and get home.

Finding his bearings was never usually an issue, Bens world was too small to get lost. The flat, the church, the market. He was like a cat with a small prowling area that was his and he understood it. There was never any need to travel any further. When he was young he had. Went to the day schools organised by the church, they were good, they got to play in the country, run around the fields and climb the trees. He went to the overnight schools too. He didn’t like them though.

Buses of tired faces flew passed on the road while people in skirts and suits walked fast and purposefully with comfy trainers on their feet, jostled by Ben. They were looking at him as well. They all were. Had to keep his eyes down. Had to get away from the main road. He turned into the large park that was next to the hospital. He could cut through here to get home. It was longer but much quieter and sometimes there were ducks and swans in the pond. His sister took him there once or twice after mum died. It was always too busy though.

She was going to be so angry. She would come today and visit and ask what the hospital said. He would have to look much better so she didn’t ask the questions. If she did not ask anything then he would not have to say anything. Had to get home and get looking better and tidy up, the flat was messy.

He scurried through the park. Sticking to the bushes and the trees. There were people on the path, joggers and cyclists exercising in the dim pre-dawn light. Ben felt safer in the greenery. He didn’t know that someone from the hospital had already called the police. They were on their way.

He pushed through the bushes and bracken in the wooded area behind the pond. His jeans getting damp and dirty from the grass. Soon he would emerge on the other side of the park and then home would be so close. He was exhausted now and would love to sit for just a minute, rest his legs, his bruised hip. He pushed through another wall of branches and his foot kicked against something. He looked down. Another foot. Not his. There was a man lying under a filthy sleeping bag, he fixed Ben with a harsh stare. Right in his eyes.

“What the fuck you doin?” His deep booming voice made Ben jump.

Ben recognised his eyes instantly, he saw so few eyes. It was the man from the graveyard. The man that had barged into him and stared at him and ran away.

“You? What the fuck you doin here?”

Ben wanted to get away but the man was on his feet now, his hands shot out of the sleeping bag as it fell to the ground. He gripped bens jacket tightly, pulling him closer.

“How’d you find me? Eh? What you want?”

“I want to go home.” Ben couldn’t look away. The man’s eyes intense and terrifying.

The man’s face was inches from his. His toxic breath made Ben feel sick. He knew the park gates were just through the bushes, they were so close. He could run but the man was stopping him. He started to shake Ben back and forth. He was too weak to fight it.

“What the fuck you want with me! What did you see!”

A noise in the trees. They both turned instantly to look. There were two police officers in bright yellow jackets walking through the gloomy green light towards them.

“You got the polis on me?” He spat as he pointed at the approaching officers. “Ya fuckin rat!” The whispered grimace and foul whisky breath made Ben want to scream. He couldn’t take it anymore. He turned sharply, breaking the grip and stumbled off through the trees towards the gate as fast as he could.

“Hoi!” The man roared after him.

The police started running and were on the man in seconds. Pinning him down as he fought violently.

“It’s no me! Its him! I done nothin!”

Ben did not dare to look back. He was shaking as hobbled onwards.  This had been one of the most frightening days of his life. He didn’t want to ever go back to this park or that hospital and that man was too much, he looked at him too hard, his eyes were starting to sting.

He left the park onto the busy side street and went straight over the road at the crossing, not waiting for the green man. A car slammed to a stop as he stepped right out in front of it. Everyone was looking at him. Tears were welling up in his eyes, he just needed it to stop. Must get home.  He was across the road and down the alley next to the churchyard. The high stone walls on either side protecting him. His mum was buried just over the wall from here, he felt safer. The alley was quiet. Not a soul. Not a single soul other than Ben.

He turned the corner and saw more police, the front of the church was blocked off by two officers and some blue and white tape. They turned to look at him, but he kept his eyes low and went straight past. Not even looking at the church. They watched him the whole time, he knew they did, but they didn’t say anything.

Finally, home. The building was cold and cramped. The walls of the neighbouring buildings so close it was hard to distinguish one from the other. Ben ducked through the small main door and into the stairwell. Up the winding steps to his own front door. He unlocked the door with the blue key. Shutting it behind him and leaning on it. Finally, home. He slid the bolt into place and closed his eyes.  He took the small silver Saint Christopher, lifted it to his lips and kissed it. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Tears streamed down his cheeks. Finally, home.

He moved painfully through the hall to the bathroom. His hands supporting him against the wall the entire time. It was dark. The electricity had been cut off weeks ago. It was ok. He would sleep soon. Go to the toilet first then sleep.

Ben entered the tiny bathroom. Precious little light came through the tiny frosted glass window. He turned and pulled down his loose jeans without undoing belt or buttons and sat straight down on the avocado green toilet seat. He made eye contact with the dead boy in the bathtub. He could look at those eyes easily. There was no soul in them.

Mary’s Night

A typical night in Accident and Emergency.

It was rough, loud and potentially dangerous. Luckily it was also exciting. These were the longest shifts and went by so quickly. Mary loved it, was born to it. Also, with only a few years under her belt she was still a newbie, as the older nurses regularly reminded her. Give it time. The love may fade, but the vomit and blood are permanent.

This latest admission was particularly vile, a strange and quiet little man who had walked in alone, checked himself in and sat there silently waiting. Not complaining, or coming up to the desk to ask how much longer or making little moans to prove he was genuinely ill. He was odd enough to capture Mary’s attention. It was the quiet ones you had to watch as her dad used to warn as she left for a night out, before himself quietly nursing a bottle for the remainder of the evening, and his life. Drink had been his downfall and she was reminded of it again every weekend in this place. But this new patient wasn’t drunk, he wasn’t rowdy, and it only him even more intriguing. Short, balding, overweight and dressed from the charity shop reject box. His top lip curled upwards and looked swollen. Mary didn’t like to be cruel but she knew it would be a serious stretch for anyone to find him attractive. He stared straight ahead with large glassy eyes that barely moved but still gave her the feeling that she was being watched, examined.

He had sat unmoving and quiet for four hours before projectile vomiting across the entire waiting area. Then stench was unbelievable, the sticky shiny brown liquid had spattered even to the far wall. The few people sitting near him, not freaked out by his unusual demeanour, had leapt aside and away, sprains and ailments be damned. Just eager to be as far away as possible from the acidic reek.

The patient himself hadn’t moved though. He sat solid and still. Chin dripping, mouth open, lip curled, and his lazy glazed eyes, staring at nothing and right through Mary at the same time.

“Are you ok?” Mary’s latex gloved hand gently patted his back.

He flinched violently. Pulling away from her.

“It’s ok, its ok. Are you Ben?” She soothed.

“I’m sick.”

“So I see. Can you stand up?”

“I’m sick.”

“OK love. Just you sit there and I’ll…”

Ben roared as his mouth opened. The volume of his roar was almost as impressive as the volume of his vomit. Mary screwed her face up and screamed back at him as it coated the thin plastic apron that was supposed to protect her. She tried in vain to move out the way. Tried to use her hands to protect herself. It just made the splashing worse. A riot shield wouldn’t have helped. It was in her hair, on her face, in her mouth! She looked around for support. The waiting room was all but empty. Patients and staff alike had found hiding places out of the danger zone.

An hour later and she was washed as best she could be, in a clean uniform, standing by his bed.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok Ben. These things happen.”

The waiting area had been taped off and hosed down and mopped up. The stink of bleach mixed with the sickly-sweet aroma of Ben’s insides and wafted through the corridors. The queue had gone down by half. A lot of the patients had decided their drunken injuries could wait till tomorrow.

Mary couldn’t just go home and get away from it. She could taste it. Endless gargles of mouth wash and even the salts hadn’t helped, nothing would shift it.

“’I’m sick.”

“We know you are love. We’ll make you better.” She went to pat his side but remember the way he flinched before and reconsidered.

There was a cardboard bucket by the bed. He had been sick twice more since the initial incident. It was all just retching now. He was finally empty. Thank God.

Mary wrote on his chart and stood to the side as Dr Ann Salmond entered the cubicle.

“Hello Ben. Feeling a bit poorly yes?”

“I’m sick.”

“So we see. It is more than a little food poisoning, isn’t it? Have you been doing anything that you shouldn’t have?”

“I want to go home.”

“Soon I hope. I think its best you stay in tonight though. We will find you a bed upstairs. Somehow.”

“I need to go home!”

“Soon Ben. We will look after you, alright.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt anyone!”

He got over excited and started retching again. Pushing and heaving into the bucket. Mary and Dr Salmond stood back a little just in case. A wet croaking noise accompanied his tortured strains. The Doctor looked at Mary and with a tilt of the head motioned for her to move the curtain.

“Hi Mary. How are you?” Ann smirked. She knew fine well how she was.

“I don’t think I will ever feel clean again.”

“Yes I heard.”

“The whole building heard.”

“Did you also hear what was in it?”

“In what?”

“The cleaning team. They found meat in the vomit. Raw meat. Undigested.”

“Oh my god.” Mary turned pale.

“Yes I think Ben will need someone from psych.”

“But he was sick all over me, I can still taste it in my mouth.”

“I can still see it in your hair.”

Doctor Salmond pointed at her hair. Marys hand went up to her temple. A piece of undigested muscle fell onto the floor.

“I’m going to be sick.”

She burst into the cubicle and took Ben’s cardboard bucket and filled it up for him.

“Sorry about that.” She looked embarrassed and terrified.

“I want to go home.”

“So do I.”

“Come on Mary, let’s get you along to the staffroom for a sit down and a cup of tea.” Dr Salmond took Mary by the shoulders and guided her away.

“I need to go home.” Ben repeated.

“You will get to go home soon. We just need to make sure you are ok. I will be right back to see you in five minutes.” Dr Salmond pulled the curtain behind them.

They walked the short distance to the staff area and sat together on the uncomfy chairs. A plastic cup of dirty brown liquid was put in Mary’s hand. She looked away hurriedly and set it on the floor.

“This has been the worst shift of my life Ann.” Mary held back tears.

“That’s good, get a new benchmark. None of the other nights will seem so bad again.”

“Ha, thanks for the support.” She said sarcastically.

“Anytime.” She smiled. “So I better go tell Ben he’s headed upstairs for the night. And call psych. Bit of a weirdo isn’t he?”

“A bit? He’s like an extra from the walking dead!”

“He gives me the chills. Those eyes. I would hate to know what he is thinking.”

“Not sure he’s thinking anything at all. I’ll tell him. He’s my mess. You crack on.”

Mary made her way back to the cubicle. She just had to get through this. Get him moved upstairs. Get the area cleaned out and prepped for the next unlucky soul who had to follow. Then she could go home and fall asleep in the shower and hopefully forget tonight ever happened.

“Time to get you a bed for the night.” She said as she pulled the curtain back. Ben was gone. The bucket of sick was gone too. God, why! She thought. We got a runner.

Remo, the verger

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.

“Yes, Father.”

“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.”

“Used to.”

“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.

Ben’s Time

A long walk at night was Ben’s solace, a little peace from his world. That infernal house and the constant noise. It made him angry sometimes but he knew anger was bad. His left hand flitted around and around the rosary beads in his pocket. Mumbling hail Marys under his breath.

Walking soothed it. Praying soothed it. He often thought of drilling a tiny hole in the top of his skull to let out the built-up pressure, like steam from a kettle. He needed it. He would spend hours walking some nights. In his old cracked leather jacket and bright orange trainers, ill-fitting jeans that sagged under his stomach. Ben’s right hand circled through his long spindly hair that in turn circled his shiny bald head. He knew they laughed at him. Kids and adults. All of them. Night time was better. His Time.

As he walked down the cobble stone lane enclosed by the high wall of the churchyard on one side and the old stone wall of some fancy house on the other, he felt a safety, a security. He was getting closer to her. The streetlamps hummed softly. The gentle orange glow the closest he got to sunlight.

His peace was broken by a muffled shout. This was the worst thing about his Time. There were others. People who also liked the night. On the weekend so many and so loud that he couldn’t venture out at all. Drink done for them all. He was forced to just watch from his high window. But in the week, the others were different. They had their own missions. Their own reasons to walk. He never looked directly at them. Eye contact led to nothing good. Another shout. Closer this time. Be resolute. He turned the corner at the end of the lane and walked towards the front gate of the churchyard.

The church used to be open in the night. It used to be open all the time. You could go right inside and pray, anytime. It was where he received his first communion and made his first confession to Father O’Malley. In recent years, the other night people started to come there. Sleep there. Then they started locking the church doors. But you could still get into the graveyard, where his own mum was laid to rest. Once he found a man sleeping on his own mum’s grave. He had cried and asked him to move but the man was drunk sleeping. Wouldn’t move. No matter how much he pushed and pulled at him. the next few nights after that there were loads of people there. Police. He couldn’t get in. Couldn’t go near the gate even. Too many people. Tonight was quiet though. He would be able to see her.

Approaching the large black wrought iron gates always felt good to Ben, like a homecoming, the intricate curves and spikes looked nice. When he was a boy he could get his entire head through them, he would play around them as his mum spoke to the Father O’Malley. He entered the churchyard just as a man came running out. The man barged right into him and looked. Looked right at him. Ben looked back. In his eyes. He didn’t mean it. It happened too quick. That happened sometimes. In the supermarket or on a bus. Sometimes if you weren’t careful you could see someone’s eyes and they seen yours. It was scary. He froze, completely still. His arms by his side, looking at his feet. The man didn’t stop he just ran off straight down the road. Ben didn’t know if he looked back or not. He didn’t move for about a minute. Just wanting to be alone.

Mum would help him. she always helped him when he was scared. He remembered when he was little, he was being bullied by a boy in the street. They stole his bike. He was only five. The boy had a knife. What could he do. His sister ran and got his own mum and she had come and scared the boy off and held him so tight for so long that all the badness went away and he didn’t even think of it again that often.

He walked through the quiet graveyard towards her grave. She had a lovely spot. In the middle near the church but also next to a lovely big oak tree. She loved it there but she missed Ben.

He crunched along the grey gravel path and could see her stone now. She would be happy to see him. she would make him feel better too. He’d give her a kiss and it would be ok and he wouldn’t be scared anymore.

A man stood up. He had been hiding behind her tombstone. The man pulled up his pants and trousers. Ben looked at the grass. There was fucking shit everywhere! All over his own mums grave and her stone! The man looked Ben in the eye.

“Alright pal.” He rasped.

Ben screamed a guttural roar. His hands went around the man’s neck. How dare he, how dare he.

Ben held tight as the man lay down. Onto the grass. Onto the shit. He wept as he squeezed. He had never been this angry before. He knew he shouldn’t be, but couldn’t stop squeezing.  His eyes moved to his mother’s name on the stone and he let go.

“I’m sorry mum!” still weeping.

They were both covered in shit. It was all over Bens jacket and his jeans. He couldn’t touch his rosary beads. They would get dirty. Everything was dirty. Had to get it clean.

He stood up and dragged the lifeless man to the path and up the steps to the large dark studded doors of the church. The man didn’t have a cross or beads or anything around his neck. Another soul too late to save. You have to try though.

He began stripping the man. He stunk. Not just of shit. He needed a bath. Shouldn’t judge though. There are many less fortunate than us. That’s what mum used to say. He took off the mans’ socks and shoes. And put them neatly on the step.  He took off his trousers and dirty hoody. And folded them and placed them there too. Then, once he was naked. Used his t shirt and underpants to wipe him clean. Cleanliness was next to godliness. Once he was satisfied he made sure the man’s feet were together and positioned his arms out at ninety degree. Had to be certain God could see him.

He took the man’s clothes and went back to his own mum’s grave and used them to mop the stone clean. He wiped and wiped until it was as clean as could be. The little green plastic vase of pretty flowers had been knocked over and cracked when he was strangling the life out of the man. Ben straightened it up and took the new flowers out of his pocket. A tiny posy of daisies he had picked himself this morning. Then he knelt next to her and gave the stone a kiss.

“I’m sorry mum.”

It began raining.

Homeless

A graveyard. A dark night.

“He’ll be deid.” a hushed raspy voice.

“Gie him another ten minutes, make sure he’s out.” a voice like gravel.

“Fuck it lets just roll him now.”

“No, wait. No yet.”

They were no more than 12 feet away, behind one of the larger gravestones that served as upright pillows for the living damned, but the voices carried in the still autumn night. Fra lay perfectly still. Foetal position. His back to the voices but ready to turn any second. Clutching his knife close to his chest and playing out scenes of chaos in his head.

“You got any fags left?”

“Here. Leave me twos.”

The scratch and click of a lighter. The deep intensity of that first inhale. Fra imagined what they looked like. Big, unshaven, unkind. Mercenaries against the weak. He knew he had to get out of here. The black of the night was punctuated by the orange glow of the lampposts that surrounded the graveyard like sentinels keeping the darkness in. The darkness that was supposed to provide sanctuary.

“That bag looks stuffed full.”

“Aye, wee man’s got plenty.”

“Probably got cash, looks fresh.”

“Gimme that fag.”

Fra instinctively moved his hand towards his left foot. His money was wrapped up and tucked in. He had about twenty pounds left. Hiding it felt pointless now. These men would take it and everything else in his keep bag and his carry bag too. He was scared to move too much. If they knew he was awake they would come for him right now. At least if they were speaking about it they weren’t doing it. He imagined his knife slipping into them. Up and under the ribs, the long thin blade penetrating and panicking them, forcing them away. Or slashing at their faces, the sudden heat from the warm blood on their cheeks, would it be enough to deter them? What would be better?

“Come on man let’s just take him.”

“I dinny want to fight him.”

“Just fucking gut him then.”

The fear was absolute. Spreading out from his throat and down through his chest. Hitting his stomach like a cut pint glass and churning inside him. He resisted the urge to retch. Eyes scanning his surroundings for hope. The thick old oak trees of the grave yard reminding him suddenly of being a child. Playing by the tiny trickling burn near his family home. Laughing and splashing in the water. A million lifetimes ago when happiness was absolute and guaranteed and all it needed was some sunshine and some friends. How he ached now for that feeling again.

“I’m dying on a shite.”

“Fucking what?”

“I need to go man.”

“You’ll wait 5 minutes. Let’s do this.”

He had to move. Checking the straps on his keep bag around his shoulders and eyeing up the wall of the graveyard. It was close and there was a large stone tomb he could easily get up onto. His carry bag would have to be left behind. His shoes were always tied tight. Take a deep breath. Count to three. One, two …

“I’m going for a shite. I’m gonna shit masel!”

“Fucksake. Do it over there ya dirty bastard.”

He could hear Raspy Voice moving. Careful steps taking him further away. This was his chance. There was only one of them. He silently folded his blade and slide it into his jacket. Real slow. His carry bag was under his head. Taking it would slow him down but it was all his clothes and his photos were in there. They should have been in the keep bag. That was a mistake.

A grunt and a delicate splashing pitter patter of crap in the near distance. Fra got on his feet in one movement, let his blanket fall and grabbed his carry bag, moving away, keeping low. Deep voice wouldn’t be able to see him from here. A head start would help. He crept towards the wall. Looking up at the moths dancing and dodging around the warm sodium street lights. Fra longed for the peace and warmth those moths had.

“Cunts running!”

“What?”

“Come on!”

Run run run run towards the grey tombstone with the aged religious relief. He knew he could scramble up. Loud footfalls behind him. Now on grass. Now on stone. Getting closer. Fear gave way to survival. Raw and dangerous. When any animal in the night with teeth can kill. Fra could kill, in that instant he knew it without doubt.

“Come on!”

There was still only one of them.

Fra reached the wall and threw his carry bag over and sprang onto the warm stone tomb. His fingertips finding a faded virgin Mary. His toes clinging to a decaying dais that was once a widow’s catharsis, now a climbing frame for a vagrant’s survival. The buzz of the orange lamp so close. The dance of the moths like night time fairies performing just for him as his fingernails ripped and he climbed, climbed towards heaven and salvation and light. His hand reached onto the top of the wall. One big push to get up and over and away. His hand dug deep into the sharp shards of broken glass that had been cemented into the wall years ago to keep his kind out.

Instant pain and understanding. Fra couldn’t hold in a cry. Blood came quickly and ran down to his fingers. He fell back onto the hard, flat stone below. Staggered to his feet and turned to face his challenger.

Standing panting after such brief exertion. The cool air burning his lungs. Deep Voice stood in front of him. Stoic and still. Somehow Fra expected a grin. Like a cartoon villain who revels in wrongdoing. This man didn’t grin. He looked devoid of emotion. Looked like it would mean nothing to him if any of them lived or died. Blood dripped from Fras bent fingers onto the slab under his feet. Filling the carved words that defined the life of a man long dead. They stood in slow complete silence. A loud fart and a flurry of slurry onto already wet grass. Raspy Voice was too preoccupied to join this fight.

“I’m no gonna hurt you.”

Fra stared back at him. the complete lack of menace more fearsome than any threat of violence.

“I’ve got nothing.”

“ye’ve got your health and your legs lad. Be grateful for that.”

“I don’t want to fight.”

“you’re no gonnae. Be clever.”

“I’ve got fuck all!”

“then it’s no gonnae hurt to lose it, is it?”

The gate was too far. He would never be able to run past this man. The wall was too dangerous now. One handed, over glass. It couldn’t be done. Blood dripped by his side. Warm in his palm but cool by the time it dripped off his fingers. The folding knife was right there in his jacket. His good hand held it tight. Bad hand started to sting. Adrenaline wearing off. It started to throb. How long till agony? His hand tightened around the knife. What to do? Pull it out, blade out. One motion. There wouldn’t be time for a mistake.

“Is it worth it lad? For a few measly quid? What is your life worth?”

Drippy sticky wet shit sprayed out again in the dark distance. Deep Voice turned to shout at his accomplice.

“Fuckin hell man you no done yet!” The world changed forever.

Fra moved forward at the same time as he drew the knife. His bad hand gripping the blade and opening the knife as he lunged. His good hand lifting the knife out and up as he leaned down. Deep voice turned his head back towards him. too late to dodge out of the way. Raising his own weapon ready to strike but too late again as Fra slammed the knife full force into his lower leg. The thin filthy tracksuit bottoms tearing like expensive silk as the point of the blade entered his flesh. The folding knife’s blade sprang back onto Fras fingers. Deep Voice roared. Fra pulled his hand away but the blade sliced up his fingers. The dull metal not sharp enough to slice right through but enough to make a rough rugged cut. Deep Voice drove down hard with his own knife. Down into the back of Fras neck.

The blade was the cleanest thing Deep Voice owned. The flesh gave way so easily to the hard shining steel. There was hardly any blood at first. It was so clean.

Fra didn’t even make a sound.

Falling forward. Face down on the grass, surrounded by the peaceful dead.

His throat gave a gentle gurgle like a burn in the summer. With midges everywhere and children playing and raspberry brambles in the thickets.

Fra heard himself dying.

Life wasn’t worth shit.

Tourist

She wore a long wraparound top with loose trousers underneath, like so many of the other travellers. Designer glasses on her head and a long tacky glass bead necklace were all that stood between her and no accessories whatsoever. This truly was a place of adventure.

The market was bustling with friendly locals and eager tourists. She allowed the throngs to carry her this way and that. Not looking at anything in particular and no plans to buy anything at all, unless it was cute.

She could see other members of the tour group scattered around, haggling with stall holders, eating exotic fried insects or other things the locals found would sell. A troop of children ran by laughing and jostling each other and careless of anyone in their path. They bumped her and surrounded her and were away again. She laughed at their backs.

The sun was beaming down from its azure kingdom; everything was bathed in light and bright and beautiful. An old man smiled at her and proffered whatever he was selling. A polite smile and shake of the head was enough here. She wandered on with the crowd. Enjoying the smell of the pipe smoke that constantly clouded the men.

The phone buzzing by her side turned out to be a phantom vibration. Her hand went to her pocket and the panic at finding it empty was immediate. Her hands moved from one pocket to another desperately searching but she knew it was gone. She looked around the market place. As if it would offer an answer. The laughing kids, the friendly vendors, the smiling tourists, none admitted to taking it.

It would not ruin the day she persisted, but was unable to shake off the sense that something had spoiled this perfect place.  She arrived at a large covered arcade with brass lamps swaying by the entranceway and a scent of jasmine and lemongrass enticing her. Inside were far fewer tourists and her eyes struggled to adjust to the relative darkness. She walked on by mysterious shops selling god knows what and the stares from the shopkeepers were less smiling, more eager. She kept her eyes down and moved onwards. An old lady crouched by a wall and rocked back and forth chanting to herself in a mumbling mantric drone, a pipe smoking in her hand.

She increased her step, looking for a way out now, looking left and right for an exit from this depressing den. Each way she searched looked the same. Rows of crowded clustering stalls and dull hanging lamps. Staring eyes and ugly unwelcoming expressions. She glanced back over her shoulder looking to retrace her steps. The crowd blocked out any light or hope of egress and the unfriendly eyes of those behind her urged her onwards and away from them.

The old woman droned on, just audible above the stifling din. Panic began to claw at her, where was the way out of here? She strode on, trying not to hurry or look harried, desperate to stay calm, this was a holiday. She turned a corner into another endless avenue of shop fronts and foul faces. Here there were only men. Sitting or squatting at low tables drinking tea from tiny cups and smoking those godawful pipes. All eyes came up to meet hers, there were no smiles here, the teeth only showed to sneer.

She was wishing her head was covered, she was wishing she had stayed with the group. Her eyes found the floor and she took a sharp left down a narrower alley. She had to get away from those men. The smell was worse, mixed now with urine and poultry and the complete lack of fresh air. She passed a tiny girl cradling a baby who babbled at her incoherently as she tracked her with her red eyes. She dodged puddles of piss and empty upturned baskets on top of others full of chickens and other animals. On each dark curtains shielded god only knows what from her sight.

A dull light was just around the next corner. She was drawn to it like a desperate moth to its blissful death. The air was so dense here, she struggled to breathe. She rounded the corner, her hands clinging to the bare broken bricks and was immediately face to face with a large bearded man. He spat words of disapproval at her. Another man appeared at his side. They approached as she backed away stuttering apologies and longing to be as far away from this place as possible. She backed into another man, just like the others, plain robes and dark hair and eyes. He started shouting at her. Louder than the first had.

Surrounded now and delirious with heat and panic she took off her necklace. Offering it to them. Trying to buy freedom or a moment to think. Someone grabbed her arm. Another hand on the other side. Screaming now. The necklace ripped apart spilling beads across the dirty ground. She tried to pull away but they forced her forward. She stumbled and they pulled at her again half dragging her. Her legs kicking, her lungs bursting with the effort. The young girl with the baby watched her wordlessly as the men shoved passed towards one of the darker curtained areas. They pulled the black sheet to the side and dragged her through into the black. she kicked one of them in the crotch, he cursed and immediately slapped her hard across the face. She cried out again. The little girl started crying and received the same back handed slap, it reeled her onto the floor where she stayed, eyes down, the baby quiet too.

The biggest of the men grabbed her roughly by the neck and pushed her forwards against the wall. Pinning her against the grimy brick. Tears streamed as she gasped soundless sobs. She could feel him standing right behind her, his stinking breath invading her. His hand appeared above her head, the black hair on his hand contrasting the plain gold rings of his fingers as they wrapped around another black curtain and pulled it aside. He shoved her roughly out into the blinding light of the outdoor market. Barking at her, berating her loudly. She fell in a heap on the ground. The people of the market looked on and laughed at the scene. The tourists stared, not laughing, not sure. The little gang of children trooped past her again. The big man grabbed the smallest child, murmuring something at him. The tiny hand reached into a pocket and handed over her mobile phone. The man tossed it to her and re-entered the darkened arcade laughing. The curtain closing at his back.