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.

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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.