Hot and Spicy
'Here you go,' I say, offering the gaudy bottle bag to Hathaway who is seated behind his desk. 'A present from the Christmas Markets in Manchester.'
Hathaway stops what he's been engrossed in and looks up at me, the angle and the florescent lights in our shared office turning his eyes bright blue.
'A bit early for Christmas, isn't it? What is it?'
'Open it and see,' I intone, trying to sound all knowing and wise but ending up sounding like bad Geordie Vincent Price impression instead.
'Thank you very much, Sir,' he replies, examining the bottle of raspberry flavour gluwein I'd picked up for him. The boyish grin adorning his face makes him look at least ten years younger.
I hang my jacket up and switch on my monitor.
'I didn't expect you to bring any thing back for me.'
'Enjoy. Lyn wanted to do some shopping in town so Tim and me sampled a few of the hot wines on offer. Thought that one was the nicest. It certainly keeps the Mancunian chill at bay,' I finish, reaching for my desk phone which has been ringing since half way through that sentence.
Jean Innocent on the other end of the call brings me down with a bump as she tells me about a body found dumped on the outskirts of Cowley.
Hathaway is already shouldering his way into his jacket and locking the bottle in his desk drawer.
When we finally reach the site the place is crawling with SOCO and locals, uniforms keeping the most persistent of the rubber neckers at bay. We flash our warrant cards and are waved through.
Laura looks up from her position crouching by the body of the victim. I glance down, feeling sorrow welling up at the sight of the young face, pale, pinched and arrested in death. He's laying on his side, curled up in an almost foetal position. His dark eyes are open and staring forward towards his eternity.
'Good morning,' I say jovially, testing the emotional temperature. No need to test the literal temperature, the tip of her nose is red as are her cheeks. Judging from the barely melted hoar frost on the grass in the vicinity and the bitter wind blowing through my suit jacket like it's not there, I'm willing to bet my pension she's freezing cold too.
'Is it?' she snaps.
OK, cold to freezing here too.
'What have we got then?' I ask, pulling on and zipping up the oversuit.
'The beginnings of a head cold and a ruined day off. You?'
'Anything on the body?' I ask carefully.
'IC one male, twenty-five to thirty-five, been dead around ten hours. Makes it about eleven pm last night.'
'Cause of death?'
She nods at one of the technicians and together they roll the unfortunate young man onto his back.
'Three stab wounds to the chest. I'd hazard a guess that at least one of them has punctured the heart. And, very kindly, they left us the knife to go with them,' she replies, pointing to the black handle sticking up from his chest which is almost invisible against his dark shirt.
He looks about the same age as my son. Suppressing my empathy for him I switch to detective mode and look carefully at the rest of his body. He's wearing an old, but serviceable, black, short anorak which is unfastened to show a grey woollen cardigan with an undone zip at the front over a plain, black shirt. He's wearing black trousers rather than jeans.
'Is that frost on the coat?' I ask, seeing tiny droplets on the fabric.
Laura nods. 'Temp didn't drop last night until the very early hours. He'd been laying her for a few hours by then. Probably had a bit of a walk to get here so had undone his jacket and cardigan.'
The collar and several buttons on his shirt are unfastened too. Some old bruising is visible on the 'V' of his chest glimpsed through his shirt and he has healing cuts above his eyebrow and along his cheekbone. I'm willing to bet there are other cuts and bruises under his clothing too. There's something strange about the shirt collar. I reach over to touch the material and realise what.
'Buttons are missing.'
'Yeah, we've found a couple. Looks like he was grabbed and pulled forward with the left hand, then the assailant lets go at the last moment and plunges the knife in with the right.'
'So, he was in a fight a few days ago and then gets stabbed to death. Not his month, was it? Not much blood, unless it's soaked in to the ground. Was he killed here?'
'There wouldn't have been much blood. I'd say yes, he was murdered here.'
I look around. We're standing on a patch of waste ground just off the road. The nearest building is a good twenty yards away. Last night it would have been pitch black. Ah, street light across the way. Not that dark then.
'Anything in the pockets?' I ask.
'Not had a look,' she replies, motioning us to help ourselves.
Hathaway's gloved hands dip into the man's trouser pockets withdrawing a slim wallet from the back pocket, and, unusually, a cloth hankie from the side pocket. There are a couple of crumpled tissues in the jacket pocket, nothing else. He passes the wallet across. Inside there are three ten pound notes - robbery not the motive then. What looks like a library card, no credit cards and a driver's license. The face, wreathed in curly black hair, looking back out at me from the small photograph looks happy and hopeful. Since that had been taken there has been a major change of image. The man laying on the ground has a number one buzz cut and his clothing is very loose fitting suggesting that he has lost quite a lot of weight recently and not in a healthy way either. I can feel my heart sink when I read the name; Father Philip Laidlaw. I tip the license so Hathaway can read it.
'A priest. And a long way from home.'
I check the address, Our Lady of Lourdes, Smithy Street, Oldham.
'Maybe he was visiting a parish down here. Where's the nearest Catholic church to here?'
'Our Lady Help of Christians is about the nearest, I think,' Hathaway replies, frown marks evident as he continues to stare at the driver's license.
Laura getting to her feet disturbs us both. 'You can have my report tomorrow morning and the post-mortem will be at eleven today. Good morning, gentlemen.'
Hathaway raises his eyebrows at me. 'Are you to blame for that?' he asks, sotto voce.
I hold my hands up. 'Not guilty, your honour!'
Just before midday we make our way down to the mortuary. The door to door where the body was found has yielded nothing. No-one heard or saw anything. Although the priest was only three minutes walk away from the Catholic church Hathaway mentioned, but the priest there had no knowledge of Father Philip Laidlaw.
Laura is still examining the body and speaking into the voice activated recorder. When she sees us she almost smiles.
'As I thought, two of the stab wounds, the second and third, pierced his heart, he would have died almost instantly. Interestingly, no defensive wounds. After the first wound, which hit his lung, he wouldn't have been incapacitated but he made no attempt to either get away or to try and stop the killer.
'He'd also been in a fight, or been attacked and beaten in the last month or so. Healing cuts, bruises and scrapes and one slightly cracked rib, which would have hurt like hell at the time. After that we have these.'
She turns his arms so that we can see the underside of his forearms. Several parallel marks decorate both forearms. The marks look like cuts and there are more of them on the left arm than on the right. Consistent if they were self-inflicted by a right-handed man.
'These were definitely deep enough to have caused life threatening blood loss. He may have been left with a slight weakness in his left arm as well, judging from the tendon damage. Professionally dealt with though, so there should be a hospital admission record somewhere. Tox screen not back yet, obviously.'
'Obviously,' I say. 'A suicide attempt?' I check.
'Yes, and not just an attempt either. He meant it. He would have bled out very fast so either he changed his mind and got some help or someone with some first aid training found him first.'
'Is the weight loss related to any of the injuries?'
'Nothing so far. He'd eaten a few hours before he died. Stomach contents show some kind of stew with meat and vegetables, bread and fruit. Good healthy food. The weight loss may be associated with the suicide attempt. Otherwise, apart from the last month or so, he was in very good health.'
'Murder weapon?' Hathaway asks.
Laura nods at her technician who hands Hathaway the knife in an evidence bag.
'Common or garden kitchen knife, I'm afraid. New, as in not been used. No distinguishing marks or finger prints. It's also a moulded handle onto the blade so no chance of getting any skin fragments from the killer between the blade and handle. Sorry!'
'No mobile phone found near the body?' I ask, hopefully.
'Sorry.' Then she adds cheekily, 'Maybe he didn't believe in them.'
I blow my cheeks out. There isn't a lot to go on here. We pick up the rest of the evidence bags and return to our office.
Preliminary work on the case takes up lunch and early afternoon. I ring the church in Oldham and speak to the Priest in charge, Father Machin, who, when told his colleague is dead, makes all the right noises but doesn't seem to be unduly surprised but when told we're contacting him in connection with the murder of Father Laidlaw, is genuinely shocked. I quickly establish that the church is basically Philip Laidlaw's next of kin as his parents died when he was very young, leaving him to be brought up by his grandmother, who has also passed away.
'Father Machin, what was Father Laidlaw doing in Oxfordshire?' I ask.
There is an infinitesimal pause before he says, 'He was on retreat down there, at Pennwoodly convent. He'd not been well lately so the bishop arranged for him to spend some time with the sisters. It's a nursing order so he would get the best treatment and be well looked after.'
'And when did he get to Pennwoodly?'
'It would have been about a week ago. Yes, I put him on the train at Piccadilly on Thursday the 17th then I had to hurry back for a requiem mass at midday. Mother Bernadine telephoned me that afternoon to say he'd arrived safely and was settling in.'
'Why he was sent on retreat?'
Across the room I can see Hathaway raise his head at my question but I make sure I'm not making eye contact. I want to push the man on the other end of the phone because I'm sure he's going to find someway of not giving me the whole truth.
'I can't tell you that, Inspector. You understand I can't divulge anything which was said to me in the confessional.'
I can feel my temper rising and there it is, the overwhelming excuse.
'Even if it helps me catch whoever took his life?'
'I can't pick and choose Inspector Lewis, it doesn't work like that.'
'Thank you for your time, Father Machin. I may need to speak to you again.'
'I'll give you whatever help I can Inspector. Is it alright if I telephone Mother Bernadine and let her know what's happened? The sisters will be beside themselves if they don't know where he is.'
'Leave that with us, Father. We'll let Mother Bernadine know.'
I finish the call then ask Hathaway, 'What do you know about a nursing order based at Pennwoodly?'
'Not a lot but I can find out. What did he say about being on retreat?'
'That's what you're going to find out. You've got an hour then we need to take a trip out there to let the good sisters know what's happened to their missing patient.'
James' research skills being second to none meant that within a short space of time he had a pile of notes, not just on Pennwoodly but on Father Philip too which he went through with me as we drove out to the convent. He'd even found time to check the missing persons database and found that Father Laidlaw hadn't yet been registered as missing. So either the nuns hadn't realised he was missing or they weren't that careful about their patients.
'Pennwoodly is a nursing order, Sir, specialising in mental health issues. Founded in 1893 to take care of the rich and genteel mentally ill whose relatives could afford it and who didn't want them to be incarcerated in either a prison or a county asylum under the 1845 Lunacy Act. Always placed great emphasis on provision of spiritual well being as well as physical and mental nursing. Seems to have been an early adopter of modern psychiatric medicine...'
'That's amazing,' I interrupt, heavy on the sarcasm. Hathaway ignores me and continues.
'...being known for it's humane treatment of patients.'
'So Father Philip was sent from Oldham to a Catholic nut house in Oxfordshire probably because he tried to commit suicide.'
Hathaway shuffles the papers in his folder. 'I found an admission record for November 10th. He was admitted to The Royal Oldham Hospital on that date with severe blood loss. Once stabilised and out of danger he was then detained under section two of the Mental Health Act.'
'He was sectioned. Wonder what the trigger was? If there was a trigger?'
'I couldn't find any evidence of prior outpatient or inpatient appointments with the mental health department so there probably was a trigger event. Must have been a hell of a trauma. Statistically fewer Catholics than Protestants commit suicide.'
'And very few priests?' I hazard a guess.
Hathaway nods in agreement. 'It's a mortal sin, Sir. He would be risking his immortal soul.'
'Father Machin told me whatever he did to get sent down here was covered by the seal of the confessional.'
'And you know Father Machin is quite within his rights to withhold that kind of privileged information. He's constrained by his vows as a priest.'
'I know! I don't have to like it, but I know!' I growl.
We arrive at Pennwoodly at nearly four in the afternoon. Hathaway has telephoned ahead to tell the Mother Superior we were on our way and that we wanted to speak about Father Laidlaw.
The place is a revelation to me. Secure gates, electronic entry system, high fences but once inside it is a calm, tranquil oasis. There are beautifully landscaped gardens all around the huge house at the end of the drive with a large wooded area spread behind the house. Through the trees I think I glimpse what appear to be cabins in amongst the woods although in the growing dark it's difficult to be sure.
'Nice place,' Hathaway comments as we park up.
Before we reach the imposing entrance, the door is opened for us by a small woman in full nun's habit. Probably the same one who opened the gates at the end of the drive for us.
We show her our warrant cards as I say, 'Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Hathaway. We have an appointment to see the Mother Superior.'
'Good afternoon gentleman,' she greets us in a firm voice. 'Mother Bernadine is expecting you.'
'Thank you, Sister,' Hathaway replies.
The hall inside has an empty desk to the left with a modern computer sat on it. Probably where our pint sized nun has been sitting. Beside the outside door is a numeric keypad with a slot in the top. Security is taken seriously here. Immediately I wonder if what I'd taken to be a library card in Father Philip's wallet was an entry card.
We're shown along a corridor on the ground floor, both of us following the tiny nun ahead of us. She stops and knocks once on a door at the very end.
'Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Hathaway, Mother.'
The office is lit by the faded remnants of the day from the picture window to the left of the wooden desk and a powerful desk lamp. The walls are covered, floor to ceiling with bookshelves, and volume after volume is crammed in there. In the opposite corner to the window four tall, lockable metal filing cabinets stand sentry against the wall. The whole room is spotless.
The woman sitting behind the desk is oddly ageless. With her hair concealed by wimple and veil the colour isn't evident. Intelligent but kindly blue eyes keep a knowing look on the world. Her cheeks are ruddy with good health and few lines mar her skin. Her voice is deeper than I expect but a very pleasant timbre.
'Thank you Sister Frances. Please,' she motions us towards the two chairs set out in front of her desk as she closes the file she had been reading.
As Sister Frances leaves the room she flicks on the overhead lights which immediately plunge the twilit window into deepest black.
'I'm Mother Bernadine, your Sergeant said you had news on Father Laidlaw. What's happened?'
'I'm very sorry but Father Laidlaw's body was found earlier today.'
Bernadine takes hold of the large cross hanging around her neck in her right hand, closes her eyes and lowers her head, whispering softly,
'Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace. Amen.'
Beside me Hathaway's head is bowed as he echoes the final Amen.
Taking a deep breath she asks, 'How was Father Philip killed, Inspector?'
'Why do you think he was killed, given he tried to commit suicide a few weeks ago?'
'I hardly think two detectives would have driven all the way out here for a suicide, even if he was a Catholic priest. How did he die?'
'He was stabbed in the heart. Our pathologist says he would have died almost instantly.'
She nods. 'When Sergeant Hathaway phoned this afternoon, I went up to Father Philip's cabin to make sure it wasn't a mistake. All his personal possessions are still there apart from the clothes he stood up in and his coat.'
'Father Philip wasn't staying in the house? He was free to wander where he wanted?'
'Whilst some sections of the compound form a secure unit, not everywhere has the same level of security. I judged Father Philip well enough to be allowed to wander at will.'
I slide the evidence bag with plastic card from the murdered man's wallet in it across her desk.
'Is this anything to do with the security here?'
She takes the bag and after a cursory look replies,
'Yes. We each have a personal key code and a card. Put the card in the slot at the top of the reader, key in your code and the doors will open.' She turns to her computer screen and taps a couple of keys. 'He left his cabin at nine fifty last night and went out through the entry gate at the end of the drive at quarter past ten. We have a log of all the cards and when and where they were used.'
'In view of his previous state of mind, you weren't worried he'd try to commit suicide again?' Hathaway asks.
'No. He'd come to terms with what triggered his previous despair. Besides, more fundamentally, he'd given me his word and I saw nothing in his demeanour to doubt him.'
'What was the trigger for his suicide attempt?'
'Father Machin didn't tell you?'
I lean back in the chair waiting for the tired old explanation of 'the confessional' to be trotted out.
'No. He said he couldn't break the seal of the confessional.'
'Mmm. How soon can you get a warrant for my medical notes, Inspector?'
I can feel my hackles starting to rise as I reply evenly, 'It'll take some time to drive back into Oxford, ma'am.'
'You may use our email account or the fax, if you prefer, to get the documentation over to me.'
She takes a card from the top drawer in her desk and slides it across the desk to us. It is printed up with the email address and the fax number.
'I need the procedures to be in place before I can break doctor/patient confidentiality. And I want whoever took Philip's life found. A stabbing to the heart shows potential issues with the church, the softer emotions and men in general. He, maybe she but unlikely, could be a danger to others.'
'Shouldn't take too long at all,' I reply just as briskly.
'You may use my office to make any calls, then, whilst we're waiting, please join us for some refreshments. Afterwards I'll go through Father Philip's notes with you.' She presses a button on her phone and we hear Sister Frances' voice.
'Could you come in please, Sister?'
Bernadine then reverses the phone so I can use it and gets up from behind her desk. She is surprisingly tall, not that much shorter than I am. I nod at Hathaway who takes the receiver and begins to dial. Bernadine goes to the first filing cabinet near the door, unlocks it, replaces the file she had been reading when we entered then goes through the suspended folders in there, extracting a medium sized one. Sister Frances enters after her customary one knock.
'Sister, can you copy the whole file for me please and tell Sister Mary Joseph we have two guests for refreshments in the visitors lounge.'
The visitors lounge is a cosy room. Cream painted walls make it appear light and airy whilst dark floorboards, polished to a high sheen and very comfortable crimson leather chairs and sofas dotted around the room are inviting. A cheery fire in the grate provides a decent level of heat as we sit around a small table and are served tea by Mother Bernadine.
Personally I prefer my tea in a mug but I can't really complain at the delicate cream china cup I'm given, especially as the tea is piping hot and strong, just as I like it. An array of fresh sandwiches, cakes and biscuits cover the table top.
'Please help yourselves,' Bernadine invites us. 'If you require anything else simply ring the bell beside the door. I will be back shortly.'
It hasn't escaped our notice as she leaves we've just been locked into this snug little prison.
Hathaway immediately reaches for a piece of madeira cake, eating it quickly with every sign of enjoyment.
'Didn't realise you were a cake man.'
'Nun's baking, Sir, try it,' he replies somewhat thickly around a mouthful.
He's not wrong. Having missed lunch the food is more than welcome and it's all delicious. I'm just sitting back, replete, with a third refill of tea when the door buzzes open to admit Mother Bernadine with a file in her hand and a couple of fax sheets of what I recognise as a warrant. We both get to our feet.
'No, please,' she says. 'I thought we could remain here, whilst I talk you through Father Philip's case notes and you can finish your tea.'
I realise immediately it's not really a suggestion, it's what we are going to do. Hathaway is way ahead of me and has already settled back into his chair and armed himself with his notebook and a pen.
She sits down opposite us and opens the file.
'You wanted to know what caused Father Philip's attempt on his own life. It was a well intentioned but ultimately very destructive attempt to change the core of his being and it was done in a manner which wasn't conducive to helping him come to terms with himself and his own needs as a man and as a priest.'
If this was a sample of the notes Mother Bernadine had made I was glad she was going to be talking us through them, I was feeling pretty lost already.
'He wanted to leave the priesthood?' Hathaway asked.
Trust him to be up on mind speak.
'We were still discussing his future but, internally, I believe he had already made his decision. He no longer felt he could dedicate his life to God through the Church but he still wished to dedicate himself to helping others. Philip is fundamentally a good man. Was a good man. An honourable man.'
'He hasn't been here very long, that's a big decision to make in such a short time,' Hathaway says.
'Yes, that's true, but once we'd cleared the air he was making very good progress. Also his thoughts on leaving the priesthood weren't new. He had made enquiries earlier in the year.'
'Was there a specific reason or just that he didn't feel he could be a priest any longer?' I ask before I'm drowned in the words.
'There was a specific reason. He fell into a close relationship with a parishioner at his church. He'd been at Oldham for three years now and he told me for almost the whole of that time period he had been fighting the attraction. Both parties had fought against this.'
'He broke his vows?' I ask.
'Emotionally, most certainly, but he vehemently denied the relationship had progressed physically.'
'And you believed him?' Hathaway asks.
'I tried every method I know to get him to tell me the truth but he never once changed his story.'
So, this was going to turn out to be a love triangle between a priest and a woman and probably her jealous husband.
'Did Father Philip give you the name of the parishioner?' Hathaway asks, his mind reaching the same conclusion as mine.
'Yes, Alsop. Mr Michael Alsop. He's almost two decades older than Philip and has an adult son and an estranged wife who live a few minutes away from Mr Alsop in what was previously the family home.'
The silence in the room was profound for a few seconds. Hathaway had scribbled down the name and I was trying not to be so crass as to choke on my tea. I could just see that one flying past the bishop. No wonder the poor sod had slashed his wrists.
'Father Philip made enquiries about leaving the priesthood late summer this year but was asked to consider carefully and pray for guidance. However, in the meantime, the relationship came to public attention in October of this year when Mr Alsop's son, also called Michael, saw them and confronted them both in Manchester one evening. That ended with Father Philip being punched and kicked to the ground by the son and a group of his friends. In the fracas, Mr Alsop, Senior, was also slightly injured but they both managed to get away.'
'I take it this was never reported to the police?' I ask.
'No. Mr Alsop, Junior, then went to Father Machin and made a formal complaint that Father Philip was harassing his father and making unwelcome sexual advances to him. Father Philip denied this but Father Machin basically put him under house arrest, took away any means of communicating with the outside world from Father Philip and eventually contacted his bishop. Bishop William made arrangements to come and see them both within two days. In that time Philip managed to contact Michael to tell him what was happening. Father Machin found out when Michael arrived at the church but he denied him entry. On the way home, no doubt upset, Mr Alsop was involved in a car accident which resulted in him being injured and hospitalised but the injuries were not life threatening. On hearing about the accident Father Machin thought it would help Philip to stay with the Church and move on from, what he termed, 'this obsession', if he thought Michael had died in the crash, so this is what he told him. Father Machin then went to take the evening mass. Already distressed at his treatment and, feeling himself wholly to blame for Michael's 'death', as he'd summoned him to the church to help him, Father Philip dismantled his razor, got into the bath fully clothed and made several deep cuts, down to the artery on both arms.'
Both Hathaway and myself are silent as we listen to this catalogue of mental and emotional abuse visited on Philip Laidlaw.
'He admitted he had homosexual feelings for another man, so Church policy is to put priests under house arrest for that?' I ask, unable to quite believe the implications.
Hathaway jumps in here.
'The Church has no problem with homosexual priests, as long as they are not practising homosexuals.'
'Quite correct Sergeant Hathaway. Priests, and nuns, make vows of chastity, among others. We dedicate ourselves to the Church in mind, body and spirit and pour all the energy which would normally be spent on emotional and sexual union into our work for the greater good.'
'Who found him before he bled out?' I ask, slowly, trying not to look at Hathaway's rhythmically grinding jaws.
'Father Machin. He knew enough to apply a tourniquet and get immediate help. Reading the medical report, I gather it was touch and go several times both on the way to the hospital and also once there. He survived. Revived without apparent brain damage, was sectioned and put on anti-depressants and tranquilisers. His mental and emotional state at that point was extremely fragile.'
'Did Philip ever know that his boyfriend hadn't died in the car crash and Machin lied to him?' I can't keep the anger and scorn out of my voice even though it's not directed, personally, at the nun.
She smiles at me, and immediately I feel like I've just walked into a trap but can't see where the steel jaws lie.
'Within two days of arriving here, Philip was on the lowest therapeutic dose of tablets and he'd spoken with Michael Alsop on the Sunday when he'd been discharged from hospital. Michael was ecstatic to hear from him.
'You see, Inspector Lewis, I believe part of my job is to bring peace to the soul as well as calm and clear thinking to heal the mind.'
'I bet he was impressed with his old boss, Machin.'
My mouth drops open at her reply.
'As I told you, Inspector, Philip Laidlaw was a good man. He unequivocally forgave Father Machin and Michael Alsop, Junior.'
I really don't know what to say to that but I knew if Philip Laidlaw had really forgiven Machin and Alsop Junior, he was a hell of a better man than I could ever hope to be.
'What can you tell us about the day Philip was murdered?' Hathaway asks, his voice uncharacteristically husky.
'Philip kept to his room in the morning making his private devotions then taking some gentle exercise in the form of walking around the grounds. Those not on nursing duties heard Mass at midday, Philip with us. We all ate lunch together afterwards. Then we had our one to one therapy session from two until four. Private devotions until six, then supper. He wanted to do some research on working with troubled teens, so he would have been using one of the computers in the library after we'd eaten. He was given his last medication for the day at eight. Then he said he would retire to his cabin to read until he got ready for bed. He had suffered major physical and mental trauma and needed a lot of rest. I have no idea why he would have left the grounds at that time of night.'
'Did he have a mobile phone?' I ask, an outline of an idea taking shape.
'Yes. I returned his mobile to him. Didn't you find it on his body?'
'Then we need to look in his cabin,' Bernadine said immediately. 'He also could access his own email account from the library computers. He may have received a message that way.'
The religious life in the twenty-first century was very high tech, in my humble opinion. But they seemed to do well on it.
Hathaway turned and smiled at me, as if he'd heard my thought.
'Computers in a convent, Sir. Whatever next?'
Bernadine was on her feet looking between Hathaway and myself.
'Believe it or not, he's the Luddite,' I respond, nodding my head in Hathaway's direction.
She acknowledges the remark with a flick of her head and says,
'Let's check his email first then look for his mobile.'
I can recognise a given command as well as the next man.
'Won't his email account be password protected?' Hathaway was asking as I follow them both from the room.
'More than likely,' Bernadine agrees placidly. 'We can get to his email from my computer.'
Hathaway remained silent as we follow her back to her office.
It takes Bernadine precisely two attempts to guess the password for Philip's email account then we were in and looking through the messages. Most of the very recent ones are junk mail, of the personal messages quite a number are from 'Mike'.
Of the three dated the day of Philip's death, the emails can comfortably be characterised as affectionate and loving as are the replies from Philip to 'Mike' in the outbox. The ones dated today from 'Mike' contain increasingly worried overtones.
'He doesn't know Philip's dead,' I say. 'Machin hasn't said anything.'
Father Philip's mobile phone is the only thing missing from his cabin. Mother Bernadine locks the cabin in preparation for a SOCO team to take it apart the next day. She also agrees to present herself at the police station, to formally identify Philip's body, on the morrow.
We say our goodbyes but as I go towards the car, Mother Bernadine halts my Sergeant, speaking quietly to him, letting me go on ahead.
'Is there a problem?' I ask.
'No, I just want a quick word with your Sergeant.'
Hathaway shoots a look at me then puts his attention back to the woman. I get into the car, start the engine and drive slowly to where they're standing on the stone steps, outlined in the light spilling from the hall and the courtesy lights outside. I see Hathaway nodding then see an unmistakable sign of embarrassment in my Sergeant as he drops his head and rubs the back of his neck with one hand. Bernadine gives him her hand, which he shakes. Half smiling he quickly swings himself into the passenger seat. The few seconds of light as he'd opened the car door was plenty to enable me to see the burning shade of red all over his face.
'Everything alright?' I ask, facing the side of his head. 'What did she want?'
'Nothing to do with the case.'
I wait for a couple of seconds. When nothing further is forthcoming I shrug and put the car into gear, heading back to Oxford.
On the way back to base, late though it is, I get Hathaway to bring Innocent up to date with our progress. Whilst she paves the way for us to liaise with the local force in Lancashire, Hathaway and myself return to our respective homes to pack a bag for our trip to the North. I think about prevailing on Lyn to let us stay with her and Tim but decide against that. They only have the one spare room and a pull out sofa bed in the lounge. One of us isn't going to be very comfortable and we don't yet know how long the investigation is going to take. Plus, the thought these days, of trying to work after being kept awake by a baby for half the night fills me with despair. There is a reason the young have the babies.
The next day I begin the drive whilst Hathaway works with his mobile stuck to his ear and his right hand making copious notes, which he shares with me once he's completed the calls. I still haven't forgotten the mysterious conversation he and Bernadine had but I know he won't tell me until he's good and ready. Halfway up we swap over.
Innocent and her opposite number at Greater Manchester Police have decided between them that the best place for us to be based whilst we're on this investigation is at Bootle Street, right in Manchester city centre. On the upside, it's walking distance to the accommodation they have found for us, on the downside, it's several miles away from Father Machin and Michael Alsop, Senior and Junior. However, once we arrive and have been meeted and greeted by Chief Superintendent Nick Greenford, allocated desk space and a computer each we're also lent the services of Detective Constable Rinki Hameed as our local area liaison.
DC Hameed must just about meet the minimum height requirements for a police officer and is very slim to boot. However, she's as tough as nails, knows the area like the back of her hand and has the thickest accent I've ever heard.
'Me, Inspector? Pure Owdam, me, born and bred. Have to work with these Mancs nowadays but they'll learn 'ow to do it proper event'ally.'
Roughly translated I think that means that she was born and brought up in Oldham but works out of Manchester now. Her sally on Mancunian brain power is greeted with good natured boos of derision from her colleagues.
Rinki was also the one who got landed with the task of telling Michael Alsop that his boyfriend had been murdered the previous day.
'How did he take it?' I ask her.
'Like the bottom fell out of his world. Poor begger. If you're hoping for an interview I doubt you'll get much sense out of him.'
'We need to see him, sooner rather than later. What are your impressions of him, Rinki?'
'Genuine fella. He was shocked and proper cut up about it. If he was acting, it was Oscar worthy.'
'Alright, divide and conquer. You take Machin and I'll talk to Alsop Senior, then we'll regroup and track down Alsop Junior,' I decide. 'Can you drop us off, Rinki?'
'Sure thing boss.'
Hathaway is grinning broadly as he follows Rinki out to the compound at the back of the police station.
Rinki drops me at Alsop's address then carries onto Our Lady of Lourdes with Hathaway.
I tap on the door. After a long pause I finally hear someone making their slow way to open the door. The man who looks out at me is grey haired, still has a trim figure and would be reasonably handsome but for the red, swollen, tear-filled eyes and the blotchy complexion. His right leg is in plaster up to the knee which accounts for the long wait on his doorstep.
He nods so I show him my id. 'Inspector Lewis, Oxfordshire Police. I need to ask you some questions about Father Philip Laidlaw.'
He stands aside to let me into his home without speaking.
The house is small but neat and tidy. Lounge, kitchen off, stairs to bedroom and bathroom above. The TV in the corner is blank and silent and I don't see any books or magazines near the chair he was obviously sitting in.
'Can I get you anything, Inspector?'
His voice is hoarse and I can see a fine trembling in his hands, arms and shoulders.
'No, thank you.'
He sits back down, propping his broken leg up on the footstool in front of his chair.
'I'm very sorry for your loss, Mr Alsop.'
Fresh tears gather and run down his face as he gulps and nods.
'I need to ask you about the night your son attacked Father Laidlaw.'
'Michael? He was drunk and it was a bit of a shock when he saw Philip and me in a bar together.'
'Does he usually attack your friends when you're out?' I ask, trying to provoke him.
Alsop gives a rueful smile through his tears as he answers, 'I don't usually sit and hold hands when out drinking with my other friends.'
'So your relationship with Father Laidlaw was a physical one?'
He shakes his head sadly and sniffs. 'No. We very occasionally held hands in public and in private we did nothing more than kiss and cuddle.'
'That was very restrained of you both.'
'Philip was very loyal to the church and didn't want to break his vows until he was released from them. I was worried about the age gap between us. Stupidly worried about what other people would say or think.'
'So your son saw you both in the pub, then what?
'He started shouting at Philip to leave me alone. He called him... some names, so we decided to leave the pub, get out of their way. There was a group of them, bully boys, by that point and they followed us out. We walked up towards the station intending to get on the metrolink back home, keeping in the crowds and to the well lit streets, but they somehow got ahead of us and jumped Philip when we were crossing the car park at the side of Aytoun Street. I shouted and yelled, a few blokes ran over from Canal Street, the bully boys ran off so we thanked our rescuers, picked ourselves up and left too. Michael wasn't there when we were getting a kicking.'
'I take it your son didn't know until recently you're bi-sexual?'
Alsop is quiet for a time. I am just about to repeat the question when he answers very quietly,
'I'm not sure I am.'
Silence is my ally now. I wait.
'I've never looked at another man, that way. I only ever went out with girls then married Sarah. We had Michael. As he got older we just drifted apart. Sarah wants a divorce she's found someone she wants to be with. Which is fine. I don't want her to be miserable.'
He stops speaking again. His expression is one of someone looking back on an momentous but confusing event.
'Then Philip happened. You never actually met Philip, I mean when he was alive, did you, Inspector?'
'The goodness, the love just shone out of him. It barely even registered he was a man. He was just... Philip. Can you understand that?'
'You had a sudden, massive crush on the good-looking new priest,' I reply, downgrading his mystical description to the purely physical.
'No, no, that wasn't it. I wasn't attracted to... to the outer packaging, to his physical appearance. It was what was on the inside. Who he actually was, what animated him. Spirit to spirit. Soul mates if you like. It didn't matter that he was a man. I loved... him, the human being. I would have waited for him, for as long as it took.' Alsop was shaking, overcome with another paroxysm of grief.
I pick some tissues out of a box on the table and pressed them into his hand then I go into the kitchen and pour him a glass of water. I agree with Rinki, if Alsop is acting, he's missed his calling. With this level of genuine grief, he hadn't been involved in Philip Laidlaw's death. He is heartbroken, and broken, at his loss. I'm intimately familiar with what losing your mate feels like and I can recognise it in others.
Deliberately I keep the image of short, ash blond hair atop a tall, gangly body to the back of my mind. Maybe, if there is a merciful God, he'll send this man his own version of a Hathaway to comfort and heal him and perhaps if and when he's ready, be more to him.
When Alsop has calmed down a little I ask my final question.
'Where were you on the 22nd, Mr Alsop?'
'Anyone with you?'
He shook his head. 'Philip had phoned here on the 19th. Michael had initially taken the call, he was here then wanting to look after me. Philip explained what had happened. What Michael had said to Father Machin and what Father Machin had told him about the car crash. I knew Philip would want me to forgive him but I just couldn't at that point. I can't say I was very pleasant to Michael afterwards, I told him to get out of my sight. So there wasn't anyone here with me on the 22nd.'
'Did you speak to Philip again?'
'No. It was difficult to find set times to speak to him at Pennwoodly, it was better to email.'
'Do you have a mobile phone, Mr Alsop?'
He puts his hand in his pocket and hands it to me. It's not the same brand as Philip Laidlaw's phone.
'What are you looking for?'
'Do you mind showing me the text messages?'
He shrugs. 'Just don't lose any, some of them are from Philip.'
I scroll through them quickly. There isn't a text for the 22nd at all. It could have been deleted but I didn't think so.
'Did Michael know where Philip was?'
'I don't know. Michael couldn't kill anyone, Inspector. He's a hot head and he can be rude and unpleasant but he's not a killer.'
Outside I can hear a car draw up and I know it's Hathaway. I make my excuses to Alsop and see myself out, leaving the man to his lonely sorrow.
I can't say it would be surprising to hear that in the near future Alsop had succumbed to something and died. I don't think I've ever seen anyone, man or woman, with less will to live. And that feeling I have in my bones, that his son is deeply implicated in the death of Father Laidlaw, if it turns out to be correct, is going to completely destroy him.
Hathaway is leaning against the car smoking. Rinki is sitting in the driver's seat, on her mobile. We communicate; he by a lift of the eyebrows and a plume of smoke blown away from my face, me by a shake of the head. I pass on all I've learned speaking to Alsop. Hathaway doesn't have to express his compassion for the stricken man, it's in the set of his shoulders and his face.
'It's a long time since I've heard anyone express deep love for the essential human being,' he says reflectively.
'Not sure I've ever heard it before.' I lean against the car beside him, our shoulders touching. Like a magnet pulling a compass needle, he automatically presses against me to get that tiny bit closer. I'm so used to it, I don't even notice any more.
'How was the good Father Machin?' I ask.
'Guilt-ridden,' Hathaway answers succinctly. 'But not about Father Philip's murder, about his part in his mental breakdown.' After a pause Hathaway says, 'I still like the son for this.' He takes a final drag, dropping the tab end on the floor and grinding it out under his shoe. He stands straight and pulls his coat closer around his slim frame.
'Me too but I bet he's got a heck of an alibi for the 22nd. Alsop, Senior couldn't have driven with his leg in plaster like that and I'm willing to bet Alsop, Junior knew exactly where Philip had been sent.'
'Let's go and pay him a visit then and listen to this great alibi.'
Even with Rinki's help, Michael Alsop, Junior proves difficult to run to ground. The house he shares with his mother and her new partner has two cars parked in the drive, Alsop's dark blue VW and his mother's black Lexus but the house is empty and his place of work helpfully inform us he's on two weeks leave.
Even though we post cards through the door of his home asking him to contact us, I don't expect much joy from that approach.
'If he did do a quick trip down to Oxfordshire, he wouldn't have to square his absence with work,' Hathaway suggests as we're all sitting in the car considering our next move.
'Maybe he's gone back to one of his drinking haunts. Can you remember the name of the pub where he saw his father and Philip?'
'Soul Street,' Rinki replies. 'It's a mixed gay and straight place on Richmond Street, city centre around the Gay Village. If you want to check out the bars around there, just a thought, but we'd do better dumping the car and going on foot.'
'OK,' I agree.
Rinki turns the car and we head back to Bootle Street.
'Boss, I know it's not strictly speaking a homophobic murder but, if we suggest that might have been a motivating factor, the bar staff at any of the pubs around the Gay Village will drop us the nod if Alsop's seen supping there.'
'That's not very ethical, Detective Constable,' Hathaway says. 'Wouldn't that work better if we had photos as well as a name?'
'Certainly would, Sarge,' she replies, crisply, getting onto base to get a few sets of photos run off for us.
The photos, we are informed, will take about an hour to be printed. As it's now dark, Rinki proposes we get some food before we set off flashing photographs around the fleshpots of Manchester. The place she takes us to is a small Indian restaurant which is packed to the gills with a good mix of Asian and European clientele. As soon as the older lady in a brilliant turquoise shalwar kameez, who is dealing with seating arrangements, sees Rinki she sweeps her off her feet into a big hug. A rapid fire conversation, in a language I don't know, follows then Rinki turns and introduces us.
'Auntie, this is Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Hathaway.'
'Pleased to meet ya,' Auntie replies in perfect English with an accent as thick as Rinki's. 'Come on through, let's get you sat down.'
She leads the way down a set of stairs to a lower room in the restaurant which is only about three quarters full. We're given menus and left to choose. I can see Hathaway trying to hide a smile at about the same time as I realise the whole menu is vegetarian. I decide to show my superior, smirking, Sergeant that I'm not just a chicken madras, rice and naan bread man, I'm well up for this.
'This looks grand, Rinki. What do you recommend?'
The menu card rises higher in front of Hathaway's face as his smile stretches from ear to ear.
'I'm a bit boring me, I always go for vada's to start and the vegetable kofta. But the dosa's are fantastic and the paneer lal is great if you like things on the spicy side.'
'Do you have mushroom rice with your kofta or pilau?' I ask.
'Oh mushroom, definitely!'
The smirk on Hathaway's face has fallen somewhat as he turns astonished eyes in my direction.
'Anyone want to share a karafe of lassi with me?' I ask the table in general, having already noted not only is this a vegetarian restaurant but it's also alcohol free too. I can see Hathaway's eyes frenziedly searching for an Indian lager but he's going to be out of luck here.
'Have you ever tried strawberry and mint lassi?' Rinki asks.
'Strawberry and mint it is then.' There's a squeak from Hathaway's corner but I comfortably ignore it, getting Rinki to talk instead.
Suitably replenished we collect our supplies and split up to cover as much ground as possible. I strike lucky on Sackville Street.
'Yeah, I know him. Soapy can be a bit of a wanker at times. He's not been here for a day or two though. Sunday was the last time I saw him and he was pretty far gone then, said he'd had a really bad day. Leave us the photo and I'll tell the rest of the crew to call if he comes in. Just a thought though mate, have you checked out the markets? He's been getting loosened up over there before getting in the bars just lately.'
I thank him and leave a couple of photos then spread my news.
It's just gone eight and Rinki has told us that the Christmas Markets close at nine thirty, which will be when Alsop, Junior decamps to the pubs. We each take a section of the Christmas Markets and check the bar areas. It doesn't take long for Rinki to text us.
"He's at Albert Square. Far end, Hog Roast Bar. Wait outside bar, I'll get him to you."
I get my bearings from where I am on Market Street, head up to Cross Street and along to Albert Square. Hathaway catches me up on Cross Street coming in from St Anne's Square. Together we move quickly to the far end of Albert Square. Inside the crowded bar we can see Rinki chatting up Alsop a storm. It's easy to see he's been drinking for a while but he's taking an interest in Rinki. Hathaway lets her know we're in position. Within seconds she's leading Alsop out into our waiting hands.
Surprisingly he's eminently suggestible and readily consents to going down to Bootle Street to talk to us about his Dad's dead friend. Luckily the police station is very close to where we've picked him up.
His alibi is just tenuous enough to be believable and it doesn't depend on just one person.
'I was out.' When asked for his whereabouts on the 22nd.
'Out where?' I ask.
'I went out with one set of mates. We had a few at various places, I got separated then met up with some other pals and carried on drinking then I got chatting with this girl and we left together.'
'What time was this?'
'One, two, I dunno. I was a bit drunk.'
'Did you get a name? Number? Address?'
'Lily, Lisa, something.'
'No contact details?'
'Wasn't exactly like that, you know.'
'You must know where you woke up. What street you were on, how you got back home.'
Alsop grins at this.
'Didn't need to. I was in my own bed. I got up about lunchtime. She'd gone. I vaguely remember her saying she had to get to work, we had an early one then she left.'
'You share the house with your mother?'
'So she can vouch for you bringing this girl home?'
'Not likely, Mum and Ken are in Frankfurt at a Trade Fair until tomorrow. They've been there since last Wednesday. I was over at me Dad's until his friend rang on Sunday and told Dad I'd complained to Father Machin, so he kicked me out. Told me he never wanted to see me again.'
'So you thought you'd take a trip down to Oxford on Tuesday and make sure he never spoke ill of you again?' Hathaway asks.
'No, course I didn't. I didn't go back and get my car out of the car park in town until after lunch yesterday. Look.'
He takes out his wallet and pulls out a pile of receipts and notes. Fishing through them he extracts a parking receipt, which is dated and timed, Wednesday 23rd, 14:11:04.
'They've got camera's in there. You can check them,' he tells us.
After that the duty brief insists on a break from questioning until morning.
We check CCTV cameras and Alsop's VW does indeed get parked in the car park at five-thirty on the Tuesday afternoon and doesn't get moved again until the Wednesday afternoon. And the clock until we either charge him or have to let Alsop go is still ticking.
'Explains why there's no record of his car around Cowley,' I sigh.
'Train? It's certainly doable down to Oxford then get a taxi out to Cowley.'
'Check it. While you're doing that I'm going to run every car that Alsop has access to. Rinki, are there enough camera's to check where Alsop goes after he parks his car?'
'Should be, I'll get onto it.'
Hours later, in that slow three am time zone, when the body is at it's lowest is when we start getting results. Hathaway's is negative, he hasn't found any evidence of Alsop using the train. Alsop's car wasn't seen in Cowley or Oxford but his mother's Lexus was. It was tracked running a red light getting onto the Cowley Road.
'He used his mother's car,' I say out loud.
Then Rinki comes up trumps.
'I tracked him from the car park, across town to Market Street where he disappeared into Boots. There's a cookshop in there, boss, sells knives. He then appeared by the taxi rank on Cross Street, got in a cab. I spoke to the cabbie, he dropped the fare off end of the road going into Talbot Place.'
'He dropped his car off, probably bought the knife then went home and picked up his mother's car,' Hathaway says.
'Make sure his mother is still in Frankfurt and didn't catch a flight home at any point on Thursday,' I tell Hathaway.
'We've got a date and time span now, I can check with Boots in a few hours see if they have that kind of stock and made a sale then.'
'Good. Do it. Let's get SOCO over to Talbot Place as well, check out his mother's car and the house. Until then, let's get a couple of hours shut eye. Rinki?'
'Thank you, Sir.'
Hathaway and I make our weary way up to the hotel on Portland Street, past the silent, closed Christmas Market on Albert Square, along the side of the majestic Town Hall building, across the tram tracks and Metro stop of St Peter's Square, along Dickinson Street and in the back entrance.
We both know how this might go; forensics will go over Alsop's mother's car and house and we'll get the evidence we need to charge him with Philip Laidlaw's murder or we have to bail him, put in lots more legwork in the hope we'll get the evidence from somewhere else to charge him.
The hotel isn't as quiet as I assume it would be for a Thursday evening. In fact, when we get inside, there seems to be some kind of party going on in the bar area and, as it's passed closing time, the ones buying drinks in there must be residents. The hotel clerk happily takes our names and asks if we've seen the game that evening.
'I'd say these people are all Manchester United fans, Sir,' Hathaway says. 'Hence why they need accommodation in the city when coming to watch a match.'
I know there is a sarcastic comment in there about the team's supporters but I can't be bothered to work it out. Instead I'm watching the clerk's face as he messes with the booking in system.
'Problem?' I ask, too damned tired to get angry.
'I'm terribly sorry Sir, but due to your late check-in we don't have a twin room available.'
'Do you have any kind of room available,' I ask carefully, almost knowing what his answer is going to be before he speaks.
'We have just the one room available, Sir, a triple.'
'A double bed and a single, Sir.'
'It'll do. And it had better not be where we can hear that lot partying on down.'
'Er, no, Sir. The room is on the 4th floor at the other side of the hotel from the bar,' he replies with a sickly smile.
The room is pleasant enough and it's not like we haven't fallen asleep at each other's homes times without number over the years.
'You want to go first for the shower, Sir?' Hathaway asks, as polite as ever.
'Nah, you get on, lad. Fill the kettle first though will you?'
Hathaway fills the kettle whilst I unpack my bag, make us each a drink, then unpack Hathaway's bag and put his stuff away seeing as he's still under the shower. I work my shoes, tie and jacket off, undoing the first couple of buttons on my shirt and lie down on the single bed, thinking.
The next time I open my eyes, the room is in darkness, I'm still dressed and my mother hen Sergeant has covered me with a blanket. I check my watch. Cat nap over, it's ten past seven, time to get something to eat and get back to Bootle Street for eight. Quietly I get up and get a fresh set of clothes together, leaving the Hathaway shaped lump asleep in the double bed. He still hasn't moved by the time I've completed my morning routine. I stroke his upper arm firmly to wake him.
The eyes flicker open but life is slow to return.
'Sir?' he croaks.
'It's half seven, James. I'll be downstairs having breakfast if you want to join me.'
The day brings more painstaking work for us. Rinki gets a result with the knife sale and a bonus of Alsop completing the sale on the shops' CCTV. James spends hours tracking Alsop's route through Oxford and into Cowley. We don't see where he leaves his mother's car though. We only see him driving back along the Cowley Road at eleven forty-three, which would be after the murder was committed.
'Judging by the speed he's going there, Sir, I'd say he stopped for a minute or two. To get rid of something,' Hathaway tells me over the phone.
'Well it wasn't the murder weapon, so it must have been Philip's mobile. That must be how he lured him out of Pennwoodly.'
I spend the morning with SOCO at Alsop's home. Towards lunchtime they find dark droplets on the collar of a freshly washed t-shirt, a few drops on a pair of trainers and luminol spray glows blue in a characteristic cast off blood pattern across a dark fleece jacket. We have blood.
An image of Alsop flashes through my mind; when we arrested him last night, he was wearing a chunky gold chain around his neck, under his shirt and a watch. Good quality stuff. Chances are good that he wore those on the night of the 22nd. I speed dial Hathaway.
'James, get Alsop's watch and neck chain checked for blood. We've got a cast off pattern on a jacket as his home.'
Four hours before we need to charge him or let him go, we get a match on the blood on the jacket, his trainers, his watch and his neck chain, plus SOCO find a smear on the underside of the steering wheel of his mother's car. It all belongs to Philip Laidlaw.
Alsop's brief, unsurprisingly, advises silence. With a martyr like expression on his face Alsop says,
'I might be going to prison but my father is free of that disgusting, perverted priest!'
'Your father loved Father Laidlaw and he loved your father,' I reply. 'Or couldn't you see that?'
'No, he didn't! Before Laidlaw got his claws into him, we were a family. Before Laidlaw was around my father would never have ordered me out of his sight.'
'Father Laidlaw isn't to blame for your parents breaking up.'
'Of course he is! You know what he said to me? He said, I forgive you. He tried to touch me on the forehead and said I forgive you. He should have been begging for my forgiveness, for my mother's forgiveness, for my father's forgiveness.'
'He told you he forgave you when?'
'The first time I stuck the knife into his skinny chest.'
'Then you stabbed him again?'
'Yeah. He just sort of stood there after the first time, didn't try to stop me or anything and I didn't want him speaking to me ever again so I did it twice more to make sure. Picked up his mobile and got rid of that over a bridge on the way home. He was scum,' Alsop snarls.
It's dark outside by the time we are in a position to wrap things up and leave, at a more reasonable time tonight.
We've said our goodbyes earlier to Rinki, as well as leaving some glowing feedback for her with her Sergeant.
Both Innocent and Chief Superintendent Greenford have telephoned with congratulations on wrapping the case up so quickly. The rest of it can wait until we're back in Oxford.
James is simply sitting, staring unseeing at his monitor.
'I wish I could have met Father Laidlaw before he died. He must have been quite an amazing human being.'
'According to Michael Alsop, Senior, he was.'
'When he was stabbed he was trying to give Alsop, Junior absolution.'
'When he was trying to touch his forehead?'
James nods. 'He must have known he was dying but even with everything he'd been through in the previous couple of months, he still found enough faith to forgive and give absolution to the man who was cutting short his life. A life he really wanted to spend with his partner.'
He goes quiet for a few seconds then lifts his head and looks at me. 'I don't think I ever had that kind of faith, that kind of love for humanity. I was so wrong for the priesthood.'
I put my hand on his shoulder as I say,
'Don't take this the wrong way but I'm really glad you didn't go ahead and become a priest. We'd have lost a damned good detective and I wouldn't have had such a good friend.'
He smiles and replies,
'You're the second person this week to congratulate me on not becoming a priest.'
'She told me that I'd done the right thing by leaving the religious life and that I'd found my niche in life.'
'She's not wrong. You're damned good at your job.'
'She wasn't talking about the job, Sir,' he replies as he looks directly at me.
I wait again but there are no further revelations.
'Come on, let's get out of here.'
Together we retrace our steps of the night before towards Albert Square. It's very different from the silence of the early hours of this morning. Now all the Christmas lights are lit, lots of people are milling about, smells of roast pig, bratwurst and frying onions make my mouth water. The little market stall at this end of the square is selling fresh hot chocolate with cream and a shot of any kind of booze you want. In the middle of the collection of wooden cabins and stalls is where Tim and I were last week, drinking gluwein. On a whim I say,
'Let's go in.'
Hathaway looks at me and smiles.
We buy hot wine and sip it from decorated mugs and eat freshly cooked bratwurst in bread rolls walking among the stalls and laughing at some of the goods on sale, picking up and examining other things.
'Christmas presents, Sir?' Hathaway asks.
'It's a thought.'
'Are you going to stay over with Lyn? It is the weekend now.'
'I haven't even told her I'm back up here, I haven't had chance.'
We buy another round of wine, each mug holding a different flavour so we can try them all. When I turn around Hathaway is standing back looking up at something on top of the cabin.
I hand him the mug and he nods his head towards the animated stuffed reindeer head up there which is singing Christmas songs in Bing Crosby's voice and bestowing benevolent 'Ho, ho hos' on the people below.
'Think it's meant to be Rudolph, Sir.'
'Nose isn't very bright,' I mutter.
Behind us on the steps of the imposing town hall, a man, well wrapped against the cold, is taking money for a trip to look out over Manchester from the clock tower, high above us.
'The view will be amazing from up there,' Hathaway says, divining my thoughts with no difficulty.
We don't need to say anything more as we walk forwards and pay the fee. Once inside I can see why not many people have taken up the offer, there isn't a lift. The stone stairs are shallow though and there's plenty of interest on the way up in the way of paintings and architectural features as well as plaques giving historical facts on the city. It doesn't take us long at all to reach the top and step out onto the balcony our breath fogging in the cold air.
The view is spectacular. The whole city laid out in front of us, picked out in multi-coloured sparkling lights. I can still hear the noise from the market below but it's muted. I can pick out the other clusters of wooden Christmas cabins dotted around and about the squares and streets of Manchester too.
'It looks almost magical from up here,' I say, taking the last sip of wine from the mug then putting it down on the stone balustrade and putting my hands in my pockets. A minute or so later, Hathaway's mug joins mine.
I can't say I'm too surprised when Hathaway turns me and puts his warmed hands on my face, tilting my head to the right angle so his wine washed lips can meet mine in a gentle, respectful kiss. It's nice, well, it's more than nice actually, as far as it goes. But I don't want gentle and respectful, I want breathless, passionate and life-affirming. Everything I know is lurking under that buttoned up exterior of my Sergeant. I slide us sideways a little so we're completely in the shadow of the clock tower arch and I put my arms around him and hold him close and hard. There's a moment of stillness when he opens his eyes and his lips lift and hover a millimetre above mine then he gets the idea. Then there's teeth and tongues and pressure and breathless sighs, arms holding each other closer and closer still, moving in restless patterns, caresses seeking where to fall and stroking hands rubbing over shoulders and backs and arms and waists. Somewhere gentle enters again, nips become a smoothing, soothing massage of lips against lips. He lifts his head away, his eyes swimming in unshed tears, shinning with reflected light in the umbra of our little world.
'Soft lad!' I say with affection, pulling his head down to my shoulder and holding him there my other arm wrapping him in the rest of my love.
He sniffs and breathes a gusty short laugh of wine flavoured breath into my neck, wrapping his arms tightly around my back.
We don't move until we both hear ascending footsteps on the stairs below then he reluctantly stands straight and wipes his face. I take one more kiss to sustain me for the next few minutes I must spend without his lips on mine.
'Grab the mugs,' I whisper.
Then our private haven has been breeched.
'Oh, isn't this amazing! What a view!' the woman gasps to her companion, clearly out of breath from the climb.
'Aye, it is, that. It's absolute magic,' I agree as we leave.
We descend to ground level in a dignified silence although the smile shaping Hathaway's face is bright enough to light the whole building. Not sure but I think mine may not be many watts behind.
In companionable silence we drift onwards and enter the hotel at which point Hathaway mutters,
'I'll catch up.' Then heads around to the further end of the hotel desk.
I get the keycard and take the lift to our room. I've had chance to hang my coat and suit jacket up and get out of my tie, loosen my collar and switch on the television by the time Hathaway returns. In his hand is a good bottle of red and two glasses. He hands them to me, the implication clear, whilst he wastes no time in getting down to my level of clothing and comfortable beside me on the bed by which time his glass of wine is ready.
It's nice just laying here, taking kisses whenever we want and not thinking further ahead than the next kiss or stroke or hug. I can see hope and wonder blossoming in his eyes as he looks into my face and I run my fingers through his short ashy blonde strands of hair. It's fine for a time, drinking in his lips and loving the feel of his sensitive fingertips tracing the features of my face then I see worry creeping in to hijack this carefree version of James.
'You're thinking too hard, James. Let's just enjoy what we have for now and worry about the details later, bonny lad,' I say softly.
My reward is a slow, lazy smile of agreement before he lays his head on the hollow of my shoulder, my arm naturally falling around his back, his glass of wine balancing on my chest.
I watch his hand relax around the stem of the glass until it's quite obvious he's fallen asleep. Just before it spills I carefully take it from him and place it on the side table, he responds by wrapping his long arm further around me and working a long slim leg between mine. James is a very friendly octopus when he's relaxed like this. It's quite incredible really how well we fit together, mentally and now physically.
I lower the room lights just leaving the flickering light from the TV washing over us. He wriggles a little more before optimum comfort level is achieved and he slides into a deeper sleep, each exhale ending in a tiny, gentle huff across my chest.
My promotion to Sergeant mattress has been several long years in the making.
I twist my head so I can see a little of my sleeping beauty's face. He really is totally out of it.
So much for the energy of youth eh?