Bees buzzed in the shrubbery behind the church and sunlight fell through a gap in the trees and onto the occupant of a deckchair. He was not quite. Not quite tall, not quite thin, not quite balding, not quite smiling. His hat, a brown fedora that was turning to black as the stains accumulated, was clutched to his chest despite that his thinning hair wouldn’t protect his scalp enough and he’d need to rub cream on it later for the sunburn. His shirt was buttoned to the neck, and his coat, though open, was still worn and looked warmer than the weather really warranted. The coat was brown as well, and might once have matched the hat, but it was fading with use and wearing holes in elbows and pockets.
There were two other deckchairs in the little clearing, and they were set discreetly behind the first one. Both of these were occupied by large gentlemen wearing suits and the kind of patient expressions that suggested that their patience was just about to run out. They were relaxed but tense, as though they were ready to unrelax in an instant and stand up and block the sunlight out.
“Uh, excuse me,” said a worried sounding voice, and the man in the front deckchair opened his eyes and shaded them with a hand. Approaching on nervous, quick-moving feet, was the local vicar.
“Your holiness,” said Des politely, not getting up. The Vicar looked first embarrassed, and then awkward. His hands twisted each other, writhing around like restless snakes in sun-trap, and Des noticed that they were so pale as to be bloodless; even the chill blue of veins was absent.
“I believe that’s an appropriate form of address for the Pope,” said the Vicar, his voice slow and careful. You could almost hear him trying to find a way of saying it that couldn’t offend. “I, of course, am from a different Church–“
“You’re still top dog around here though, eh, Pope?” Des sounded bluff and cheerful, and he waved the hand that wasn’t still shading his eyes casually. “But if it makes you feel more comfortable I can call you something else. What would you like?”
“Uh, well,” said the Vicar who now looked a little taken aback as though he’d been expecting to have to keep pushing away the overgenerous epithet of Your Holiness for a little longer. “Well, how about Nathanial? It is my name, after all.”
“I know,” said Des. “But it’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? Don’t you have a nickname? What do your mates call you?”
“Nathanial,” said the Vicar patiently. “And what should I call you, Mr…?”
“Des,” said Des. There was a long silence, when even the bees had stopped buzzing. Finally they got fed up of waiting for anything to happen and started buzzing again.
“Des?” said the Vicar, his face screwing up as though he were in pain. His hands gripped each other so tightly that they went whiter still, and Des found his eyes drawn to them, wondering if the man would snap his own fingers off. “Des, as in, Presiding Religious Authority Des?”
“That’s me,” said Des. “You’re new aren’t you?”
“I came after Mr. Felicity’s little accident–“
“You mean where he jumped from the belfry after what was found on his computer hard drive.” It should have been a question but Des’s tone made it clear that it wasn’t. “Yes, that was very unfortunate. The police were quite curious to talk to him.”
“Mere accounting irregularities,” murmured the Vicar. “The Bishop told me all about it.”
“Yes, well,” said Des. “That would certainly interest the police, but they were all the more curious about what the money appeared to have been used for.”
“Medicinal purposes,” said the Vicar, his voice barely a whisper now. “Of a kind.”
“A meth lab,” said Des. “In the crypt. Employing the bloody choir boys.”
“…profitable…” Des had to strain to hear the new Vicar now.
“Not the point,” said Des. “The people he was selling it to, now that’s the point.”
“The Bishop said it was mostly sold to distributors who took it quite a way away,” said the Vicar, returning to audibility at last. “Which is a blessing of a kind, in such a sorry story.”
“Mostly,” said Des. “Mostly. When he got wind of the police closing in he tried to pack the operation up temporarily, and he had stock left to get rid of.”
“I wouldn’t kno–“
“He baked it into the communion wafers,” said Des. “Not one of his better ideas I should think.”
“That does sound a little stupid,” said the Vicar, staring at his feet. Little spots of red burned in his cheeks.
“He left a note, saying that he thought that God would transubstantiate it along with the bread,” said Des. “Quite sincere, I think.”
“…the Lord moves in mysterious ways?…”
“Very bloody mysterious,” said Des. “In that apparently the good God decided to leave the meth untransformed and let it affect the entire congregation.”
“Jenny was a friend of mine,” said Des. He put his hand down from his eyes, and hauled himself out of his deckchair. The Vicar immediately took a step back. “I wasn’t pleased,” he continued, “being called in to exorcise a woman who’s no more possessed than you are. Vicar.”
“No-one would have known what they were seeing!” The Vicar looked up, his eyes brimming with tears. “They weren’t used to that kind of thing. This was a nice community!”
“Still is,” said Des. “A bit smaller than it used to be of course, and not all the folks we buried are those that deserved to be. But it’s still a good community. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll never get a mastermind contestant from this lot, and if they don’t buck their ideas up soon the mud’ll be brighter than them, but they try hard. When they’re pointed in the right direction at least.”
“What note?” said the Vicar. He was staring at Des, his eyes reddened but suddenly clear of tears. “You said there was a note, but the police never found a note.”
“No,” said Des. “They wouldn’t have. But it was a very interesting note anyway, and it said another thing too. Would you like to guess what it said?”
“That he was very sorry?” The Vicar’s words were flat, as though he knew what was coming.
“No,” said Des. “He wasn’t sorry at all. Not even after the push. Never understand why what he’d done was wrong. But he did mention how he reached the distributors, and you know, it was the obvious way, and the one you really wouldn’t think. But there you go, sometimes you just don’t want to believe how far the corruption goes.”
“The Bishop is a powerful man,” said the Vicar. He had stopped fidgeting now and was staring straight at Des.
“Just so,” said Des with a smile. “Though I think you may find that he’s had a little accident of his own. When the news reaches you.”