Read An Act of Evil Online

Authors: Robert Richardson

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers, #Crime, #Mystery

An Act of Evil

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© Robert Richardson 2014


Robert Richardson has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.


First published in Great Britain in 1985 by Victor Gollancz Ltd.


This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.


To my Mother


’s Note


That St Albans exists is beyond dispute; that Vercaster bears a marked resemblance to that city is acknowledged; that the characters and incidents of this book are imaginary is certain.


Chapter One


“REBECCA, MY DEAR,” said Augustus Maltravers, “you are a child to make one contemplate the possible attractions of celibacy.”

reasonably well turned aphorism, which he had spent some minutes mentally constructing, was totally ignored by his three-year-old niece who contentedly continued to dismantle his retractable ball-point pen which had proved a greater attraction than a scattered and rejected collection of ingenious toys marrying education with entertainment. There was a slight twang as the spring jumped out, much to her delight, and, quite inexplicably, a further streak of ink appeared on her hand; the exit of the spring appeared to trigger a total self-destruct mechanism and the entire pen collapsed into its component parts. Her mother, Melissa, came back into the kitchen, instantly comprehended the scene and took appropriate action. In a single maternal movement she scooped Rebecca up with one arm, planted her in the middle of a previously demolished yellow plastic construction and stepped expertly through the various pieces of debris to the sink.

Don’t give her things like pens, Augustus,” she said. “At this age everything ends up in the mouth.”

retrieved what he hoped were all the dismembered parts and began the formidable task of reassembly in the proper order. His wife, with whom he had shared a physically satisfactory but otherwise hollow brief marriage, had once remarked that he only just understood the principle of the hammer and that he approached anything more technical than replacing a light bulb with caution and a profound sense of the hostility of the inanimate.

Isn’t it time to go and collect Diana?” asked Melissa, and Maltravers realised from her tone of dissolving patience that he had failed to fulfil the role of avuncular child-minder as surely as he would never make a manufacturer of pens.

She’s not due for nearly an hour,” he countered cautiously.

’s back made subtle but eloquent movements plainly indicating that that was not the required response and Rebecca’s coincidental demands of a lavatorial nature convinced him that his departure would be prudent. Like all people without children, he found their basic natural functions threatening.

I’ll wander round to the cathedral,” he said.

What an excellent idea. Oh, and you can buy some avocados while you’re out. They’re for dinner before we go tonight.”

instructed on the correct methods of assessing avocados, Maltravers set off into the streets of Vercaster. As a residentiary cathedral canon, his brother-in-law Michael occupied a handsome, if tied, Georgian house in the cathedral precincts of Punt Yard, conveniently central but constantly plagued by the cars of tourists and shoppers. The only possibility of punting lay on the lethargic waters of the River Verta, nearly a quarter of a mile away in the hollow of the valley which the cathedral and its compact city had once dominated; before, that is, late Victorian development brought by the railways, and the questionable pleasure of commuting the twenty miles or so into London, had spread the stain of urban growth about the adjacent land.

Maltravers irreverently — and to Michael’s mild annoyance — referred to as God’s desirable detached property loomed to his left as he stepped through the front door, the end of the Lady Chapel almost opposite him. Vercaster Cathedral owed its existence to a Saxon peasant girl, its splendour to sheep and its survival to tobacco. Etheldreda, an otherwise unremarkable child, had fallen into a transported fit one day on the hill where it now stood, crying that she could see hosts of angels and hear the sound of bells. Shortly afterwards, she died in a similar state of ecstasy and the contemporary authorities, with an eye to their vulnerable immortal souls, had erected the first church on the site of her experience. The Normans had developed the building but their work had been gloriously overtaken in the fourteenth century when Flemish immigrants, combining their weaving skills with the abundant supply of wool, created vast local wealth coinciding with the soaring burst of Perpendicular architecture. The result was an ascending masterpiece of Man praising God in stone and stained glass, with the particular magnificence of the Chapter House by the south transept. Its incredibly delicate stone tracery cascaded in a dome of lace-like interlocking triangles of woven masonry above eight burning windows of polychromatic glass. After the Benedictine monks had been summarily evicted to provide Henry VIII with some much-needed cash, the structure had declined until the early nineteenth century when one Thomas Reade, a son of the city who had made his fortune in the plantations of Virginia, had paid for its complete and intelligent restoration, saving it from the later ham-fisted attentions of the Victorians.

it was marred only by an external folly, the hundred and forty foot tower at the west end whose height had been increased in 1620 to make it theoretically visible throughout the diocese. The additional weight thus imposed had caused dramatic but inelegant flying buttresses to become necessary at its base. The whole enterprise had suffered an unfortunate start when the aging Bishop who was to dedicate the extension collapsed and died while climbing the additional stairs. He had been granted the post mortem compensation of having the entire tower named after him and in distant parts of the diocese the rhyming couplet,
When Talbot’s Tower’s by morning seen/ Then rain will come before the e’en
had formed part of local weather lore ever since with its alternative,
When Talbot’s Tower you cannot see/ It’s raining cats and dogs on thee
completing the inevitable meteorological logic of such phenomena.

turned left out of the house, away from the main road at the opposite end of Punt Yard, and followed the silhouette of his shadow towards the south transept door. He was a tall, angular man whose movements fell just short of clumsiness. Beneath erratic brown hair was a long face which seemed to have lived only the summers of his thirty-four years; what had been irritatingly youthful features ten years earlier were becoming increasingly advantageous with the passage of time. He was in Vercaster for the city’s resurrected Arts Festival, an event originally started to celebrate Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee but which had gone into a marked decline and eventual death after being left during the 1930s in the care of an elderly citizen whose exclusive passion for pastoral dance had first limited, then totally suffocated, its appeal. It had now been reborn to mark the 400th anniversary of a visit by Elizabeth I to grant the city’s charter. The cost of feeding her camp-followers had regrettably bankrupted the first Earl of Verta; happily for the family his great-grandson had restored their fortunes after the Restoration by prudently supplying his sister as a mistress to Charles II.

augured well for the reborn festival. A respectable string quartet, symphony orchestra and jazz composer of whom even the Bishop had heard, were to perform; a poet with some claim to rival Larkin was to give a reading; the not unaccomplished Vercaster Players’ amateur dramatic society had dusted off and adapted the city’s ancient Mystery Plays cycle, which had lain dormant for more than a century, and other sundry local artistic talents were to add to a fortnight of general activity. The climax was to be a Medieval fair on the long green slope that ran down from the cathedral to the river, with the final Mystery Plays being performed in the evening and fireworks to bring the whole affair to what it was hoped would be a satisfactory conclusion.

was involved that first Saturday evening, following a request from his sister who was on the organising committee. About a year previously he had had a trilogy of plays called
put on by Channel 4 with a hitherto unknown actress called Diana Porter in the lead. While critically successful, the plays had not posed any threat to the audience figures enjoyed by endless narratives of life in the North of England or South of Texas, and Diana had been quite happy to accept an invitation to put on a one-woman show in Vercaster. Thereafter things took an unexpected turn when she appeared in an iconoclastic production of
, including a full-frontal nude scene which Ibsen had inexplicably overlooked. This experimental and obscure theatrical event might have passed unnoticed had not a Fleet Street paper of flimsy content but ludicrously high sales obtained a picture of the scene and published it under the words “Hedda Liner!” in the size of type one would have anticipated them reserving for an elopement from the Vatican.

million readers, previously unaware of Mrs Gabler, Mr Ibsen and even the general location of Norway, were briefly titillated and Diana became the legitimate target for gossip columnists and news editors looking for a new personality to pursue in the interests of a free Press. She accepted the benefits of such abundant publicity with cynical amusement and exploited them to some considerable financial advantage; she could rely on her acting talent to carry her through once the silliness had passed.

, while acting with restraint as a local paper in a polite cathedral city and not actually publishing the notorious photograph, drew attention to Diana’s proposed appearance at the festival, causing murmurs of discontent in civic and clerical circles. Matters were redeemed, however, when she appeared in a Sunday evening religious television programme, reading extracts from the works of Julian of Norwich with intelligence and impeccable taste, wearing a demure and becoming dress not dissimilar to one owned by the Bishop’s wife. A further performance in a “traditional” — Old Vic circa 1936 — production of
attracted critical approval in papers with smaller circulations but of the quality to be found in clergymen’s households. Having established there would be no repetition of the Gabler incident in Vercaster, the popular press went off to be a nuisance somewhere else and the festival was able to benefit from a more acceptable level of publicity. Melissa, originally appalled, was delighted and awarded Maltravers the ultimate household accolade of a hero biscuit.

Maltravers approached the south transept he observed a new addition to the local scenery in the shape of a uniformed policeman standing outside the door. The presence of the constabulary, or their fellow conspirators the traffic wardens, was not uncommon in Punt Yard where the love of God took second place to the carved tablets of parking restrictions, but clearly this representative of law and order was performing some manner of guard duty.

Good morning,” Maltravers said cheerfully as he reached him.

Good morning, sir. I’m afraid that if you have business in the cathedral you can’t go in.”

raised an eyebrow. “My business might be going in to pray.”

uncertain as to the powers of secular authority with regard to the obstruction of such a blameless activity, the officer was caught off balance and looked uncomfortable.

Yes, sir. Well…I’m afraid there’s been a bit of trouble,” he said.

Trouble? What sort? Human sacrifice? Black Mass at the High Altar? Surely not naked nuns?”

policeman felt he was being mocked in the course of his duty which, while falling short of actual interference, was still to be deplored.

I’m very sorry, but I can’t allow you to go in,” he said stiffly, having noticeably dropped the “sir” from his address.

But I do have a rather important appointment with Canon Cowan,” said Maltravers. “It’s in connection with the festival.” This was totally untrue but his curiosity had been aroused and he was determined to gain entry. “Is it just this door that’s cut off?” He had correctly assumed that it was unlikely that all the entrances to the cathedral would have their own separate uniformed guardians.

Canon Cowan is with Detective Sergeant Jackson,” the policeman replied, with the obvious feeling that he had played an untrumpable ace of argument.

Then he’ll certainly want to see me. I’m his solicitor.” Having started lying Maltravers could see no reason for not carrying mendacity as far as necessary.

I don’t think it’s a matter that…” began the policeman but Maltravers became unnervingly authoritative.

I must be the judge of that,” he snapped and walked swiftly round the obstacle and straight through the door reflecting that when the young constable later discovered that he had been outmanoeuvred he could use the experience to future benefit.

strode through the transept, past the tourists’ shop and bookstall, without having any idea where Michael and the law might be. Almost immediately he saw them standing to his left by the north wall of the nave, in front of a small display case with a flat glass top which stood near the organ. The Detective Sergeant, broad shouldered and with a thick brown moustache, was writing in a notebook as Maltravers reached them.

What exactly was it called, sir?” he was asking.

The Latimer Mercy,” Michael replied. Maltravers looked at the empty display case.

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