Ticket to Ride
Max Tudor, returning to Nether Monkslip from a routine mission on a bitterly cold but beautiful December day, was not to know he would be pulled into the investigation of strange events at nearby Chedrow Castle—an investigation that would haunt many of his future nights.
At the little self-service kiosk at Waterloo station, Max’s biggest concern was what to eat to fortify himself for his hours-long journey. He hesitated over a slice of marzipan cake tightly wrapped in cling film. It made him think of the Battenberg sold by Sainsbury’s, a sponge cake with not so much icing as a thick slab of sweetened concrete which had not completely set. That cake had been one of his guilty pleasures ever since he was a child. This imposter of a cake had the concrete yellow icing but not the pink-and-yellow-checkered pattern to its layers. Reluctantly, Max passed it by.
He scanned the display of food for something marginally more nutritious, but this particular outpost of British Rail offered the kind of sandwich that left you wondering if an ambulance could bully its way through the crowded London streets in time to save you.
He was returning from a symposium in London, where he’d delivered a short, well-received talk on the need to preserve Britain’s churches. English Heritage had recently launched an initiative to save such Grade I and Grade II listed structures and somehow Max’s name had come up as someone having experience in these matters. Roofing and timber and masonry repairs to churches in Great Britain were endless and ongoing, and the skilled workmen needed to make the repairs dwindling in number. Worse, in some cases, the lead and copper from roofs were being stolen, so the venerable old edifices were being demolished piece by piece.
As the vicar of a small church steeped in antiquity and unparalleled beauty, Max felt he would be negligent not to exploit every avenue to funds to pay for its upkeep. If becoming some sort of expert within the inner circle of preservationists would help, so be it.
Although the symposium had gone well, he soon found himself longing to return to his isolated little village with its little frictions. Well, he thought (here hastily pushing aside the memory of a recent murder in the village) mostly little frictions.
For London seemed to be slowly turning into a madhouse. Almost, it seemed, in honor of his first foray into the city in months MI5 had raised the terror alert level to severe. Which meant not a lot these days in the face of ongoing threats from more than one group in more than one part of the world. A general acceptance of the fact the world had forever changed on 9/11 seemed the best that could be hoped for from a public worn cynical and wearied by a stream of heightened precautions. Besides, a recommendation for extra alertness seemed de trop when Max by nature was seldom not alert, watching, waiting—for what he could not have said.
He had stayed at a London hotel booked for him by the diocese with an eye on the bottom line—very bottom—as if left to his own devices Max might stop at Claridge’s and order jeroboams of champagne sent up to his suite. The place chosen for him did not even pretend to have once been a star in the galaxy of the hospitality industry; no deposed barons of even very minor baronetcies were to be found taking tea in the lobby. The place had always been shabby about the edges and now was unapologetically shabby through and through. He had been greeted by the receptionist, a gum-chewing girl of surly disposition obviously forced to work beneath her level of unrecognized genius. It may have been a job she held for the school break, although she had the look of an actress between jobs, all sparkly mascara and languorous, studied movements. There had been a certain accretion of interest in her eyes as she took in the handsome features of her new guest. The gum chewing stopped abruptly, only to be resumed as she cogitated the question he put to her. No, she didn’t think they had a room with a view. She’d check. She began flapping her long painted nails about on a keyboard and came up with the expected answer: All the rooms with views were full up.
At least, he reflected, the hotel had a plain, old-fashioned lift with deeply padded sides—none of these modern horrors made of glass, apparently conceived as a trial for people who are afraid of heights. The last time he’d had reason to stay in London, the hotel lift had been made of stainless steel with water cascading artistically down the sides—it was like being hoisted aloft in a high-tech colander.
Max, on seeing his forlorn, seedy London hotel room, longed momentarily in an all-too-human way for something gilt-edged and dripping with crystal chandeliers. But in particular he longed for the cozy if fussy and old-fashioned study of his vicarage, which he told himself now was at least rich in character.
Instead he was in an ancient London hotel whose lack of amenities in no way inhibited the management from charging an exorbitant amount for a dollhouse-sized room with no view. It was an amount that should have lent itself to luxury terry cloth robes and shower caps folded into little boxes and shampoos from the official Shampooers to Her Majesty, and yet Max was grateful to have been provided a postage stamp-sized bar of soap made from, apparently, tar and ground pepper. The room boasted a bed with a single thin mattress that might have been stuffed with straw, and a radio so old it had probably first been used by someone listening to King Edward VIII’s abdication speech. It had dials as big as scones and speakers covered in a dusty open-weave fabric like burlap. The hot water in the bathroom was as close to nonexistent as made no difference, and the breakfast the next morning made him long for the homey, calorie-laden canteen offerings of his housekeeper Mrs. Hooser, a sure sign that something in his universe had gone badly awry.
He’d had a further bad experience in London that made him eager to return to the shelter of his village. He’d seen—he could swear he’d seen—a man in the street who had been involved in the death of his MI5 colleague, Paul. At any rate, it was a man of roughly the same physical type, wearing the same weird blue sunglasses with white frames, that Max had seen hovering near the crime scene that day. He couldn’t be certain—indeed, couldn’t be certain the man he’d seen the day of Paul’s death was involved in the killing. But Max had been sure enough that he’d spun around in the push and shove of pedestrians to follow the man, thinking as he hustled after him that his clerical collar offered the perfect cover for tailing a suspect. He followed him for many blocks, thinking how well he’d retained his training from those old days. And then, somewhere a few streets away from Pall Mall, he lost him. He looked frantically left, right, and even overhead. And then he’d pounded his fist against a wall, scraping his knuckles in his rage.
He called the sighting in directly to his old boss at MI5, dialing his private line, and ended up having dinner with George Greenhouse that evening. It was a bittersweet occasion—Max had always held the man in esteem, but he knew how disappointed George had been by Max’s decision to leave the life behind for the priesthood.
He learned a few things at that dinner in Covent Garden. One was that MI5 had decided someone besides Paul and Max had been injured by the car explosion that killed Paul. For the man with those strange glasses Max had described to investigators had been recorded on one of the ubiquitous London security cameras shortly after the explosion, and he was holding his arm as if injured.
“But he didn’t go to any hospital in London despite his injuries and that’s further evidence it’s him,” George told Max. Whether he was supposed to share this information was doubtful, but then George hadn’t gotten where he was by being a company man. Nerveless, famous for his bravery, he also had more integrity than practically anyone Max had ever met.
Midway through the main course George had stunned him by saying, “She’s remarried, you know. Sheila. She got married again recently.”
Sheila—Paul’s wife. Max had barely known her, hadn’t seen her since the funeral, which she’d attended, against all advice, clutching their young son, hers and Paul’s—grimly holding the blue-swaddled bundle to her. She’d stumbled through the service looking as numb as Max had felt.
Max was brokenhearted by the news of her remarriage but struggled to hide it from George. What had he expected, though? That Sheila would go into some form of purdah forever? Life had gone on. But something about this permanent move on Sheila’s part made him realize how much he himself had stayed in the past of that terrible day.
He wondered—idle, stupid thought—why he hadn’t been invited to the wedding. And realized that in some completely mad, irrational way, this bothered him, even though he barely had known Sheila, and his presence at her marriage would have been downright odd. Then he hoped—to heaven—that it wasn’t because she blamed him, Max. For Max blamed himself, and a world of invitations wouldn’t change that. Paul wouldn’t have been the one killed that day if he hadn’t switched places on the job with Max.
Paul’s death had changed Max’s course in life completely, for it was not long afterward that he began training for the priesthood. It wasn’t as if he believed—not really believed—that his life that day in London had been spared by Divine Providence. He refused to see Paul as some placeholder for himself, simply unluckier than he. They had exchanged schedules, he and Paul, as they often had done in the past, in the chaos of a crisis elsewhere, not seeing the danger in front of them. That the blast had happened that day, at that moment, was almost a coincidence. The next day would have worked as well, for the purposes of the thugs with whom they were dealing.
And yet, his escape had forced Max to slow down, to stop, and to think. It had led directly to the 180-degree change he had made in his life.
Yet … and yet, in the furthest corner of his mind, wasn’t there a voice, a small voice that might start to jabber if he granted it freedom, a voice that said he’d left his old life behind not because of some high-flown need to serve his fellow man, but because otherwise he might die young, in the same senseless way his comrade Paul had died. This voice had a name, and it answered to either Coward or Reason, depending on the given day.
So now Paul’s wife had remarried. On the rebound, or so Max would always think. Remarried to a man he would try hard to like, recognizing his instinctive dislike had little to do with Sean’s—his name was Sean—with his shortcomings. It was that Sean was there only because Paul had gone.
Later that night as Max removed his clerical collar he thought of a different collar—a collar with a stain on it, a pinprick of red against the white linen. He’d never been able to throw away that shirt, stained on that day by a small drop of Paul’s blood. It sat now, undisturbed and wrapped in plastic, on the top shelf of his closet at the vicarage.
* * *
So it was with a sense of relief that he began the first leg of his journey back to Nether Monkslip. He would take the Great Western from Waterloo, change trains, and eventually catch the short spur on the Swanton and Staincross Minster Steam Railway connecting to his village. He would not be traveling first class on the initial stages of his journey, of course. But on the seven-mile home stretch to Nether Monkslip he would ride a gloriously restored train, where all the seats were first class. This refurbished train, at one time for the village squire’s private use, had been donated to the village in the squire’s will with a fund to keep it in good repair.
It only went as far as Staincross Minster where more modern connections could be made to the wider world. The train was seldom crowded even though it was small and the service infrequent—there were easier ways for the general populace to travel to Staincross Minster without going via such an obscure place as his village. So difficult was it to get to and from Nether Monkslip, in fact, it was difficult to say quite what the village was doing there. Apart from the presence of the river, significant in terms of early commercial transport, how and why the village had evolved was lost in the mists of time.
Since few people knew of Nether Monkslip’s existence (which was how the villagers liked it) the little mahogany-paneled conveyance suited the villagers’ purposes exactly. It had a tea trolley (dining cars being nearly a thing of the past) but service was intermittent, and the ride was too short to warrant much more than intermittent.
Nothing was as it once had been, Max reflected sadly. Hotels, trains. And George had looked to be getting on in years, the movements of the old warrior now stiff, fraught with effort. Arthritis, probably …
As Max stood in this brooding manner waiting to board at Waterloo, he failed to notice the woman who had actually stopped dead in her tracks to stare at him. Her expression seemed to say: There must be a God if he’s got vicars like you.
Copyright © 2012 by G. M. Malliet