Manchester, 2002. The Commonwealth Games are coming to town and the city is alive with possibilities.
The deliberate torching of a church creates outrage across Manchester. And when a charred corpse and satanic symbols are found in the smoking ruins, DI Jon Spicer and the city’s Major Incident Team are called in.
Soon DI Spicer finds himself drawn into the depths of a horrifying underworld he didn’t know existed. With fresh killings comes the realisation that those responsible are prepared to commit unspeakable acts of evil in homage to their God.
DI Spicer knows the atrocities must be halted, but even in his worst nightmares he could never imagine how close to home the investigation will take him. As the case threatens to engulf Manchester in fires of hatred, can Spicer and those he loves escape unharmed?
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”
Blaise Pascal 1623 – 1662
Jon Spicer reached up, turned on the interior light and examined the top third of his face in the rear view mirror. He sighed. It looked like a fine red gauze had settled over each eyeball.
He turned the light off, soothed by the dark, glad to be back in its comforting folds. A minicab ghosted past his parked car, its driver scanning the deserted streets for one last fare. But the clubs had kicked out over half an hour ago. Jon glanced to his left. Even Canal Street was devoid of life. As the taxi neared the set of traffic lights in front they switched to amber, then red. The vehicle’s brake lights glowed briefly in response. But there was nothing waiting to emerge from Sackville Street, and the rear lights went out as he scooted through anyway.
‘Naughty, naughty,’ Jon muttered, leaning to the side and looking up the front steps of the renovated warehouse. Come on Rick, the bloody church will be a pile of ash at this rate.
He tapped his forefinger on the top of the gear stick. His presence here in the middle of the night was part of a pre-arranged plan of action. Three other local churches had been torched in as many weeks. Evidence of satanic rituals had been discovered in the smoking remains of each one. The Christian community was outraged and media interest had reached national levels.
Following a meeting between Greater Manchester Police’s senior officers, it had been decided that – if another church was attacked – the Major Incident Team would take over the investigation. Jon was on call when the fire had been reported forty minutes ago. He glanced at the building again. Where are you? He considered tooting his horn, but then remembered how much it annoyed him when taxis resorted to that tactic outside his house.
Leaning his head back, his eyes drifted to the rear view mirror where they caught on the reflection of the child’s seat behind him. Holly. He thought of her back home, asleep in her cot. Christ, was she really nine months old already? He smiled to himself, picturing her high speed crawl round their house, determined to open every cupboard, explore every corner. He almost laughed at her frustration with the stair gate. How it denied her access to the top half of her miniature universe. How simple her life was. How free of concern and complication. If only he could keep it that way forever, save her from the shit which one day would inevitably find her. The thought of someone or something making her to cry caused a clenching in his chest. At times he concluded that was the real result of parenthood. A continual low level hum of anguish – increased by every unguarded plug socket, every swinging door, every flight of open steps. God, what will I be like when she can walk? Go to the playground on her own? He shook his head. Too much to try and even contemplate.
Movement to his side. The door to the building was opening. The limited view through his side window only allowed Jon to see a very shiny pair of black shoes emerge on to the top step. As the person started jogging down, suit trousers were revealed with creases at the front. Then a light overcoat, smooth like it had just been pressed. Definitely Rick, Jon concluded. Shit, will he regret coming out in his best gear. Next into view was a crisp shirt and perfectly centred tie. The side door opened and Rick leaned down to look in.
Jon took in his clean cut looks and slightly damp hair. ‘You been in the fucking shower while I’ve been sat out here?’
Rick slid into the passenger seat. ‘I dipped my head in a sink of cold water. Needed something to wake me up. Four thirty in the morning. Christ.’
‘You asked to come along if a church went up on my shift.’
‘Yeah, I know.’ He pointed a finger upwards. ‘I could see the glow from my windows. Looks like a big bloody blaze.’
Jon put the car into gear and pulled away from the kerb, thinking of Rick’s penthouse apartment, wondering how much it cost. ‘The Sacred Heart, a Roman Catholic church in Fairfield. All those fancy alter cloths and intricate carvings no doubt.’
‘From the direction I thought it was the big empty one by the side of the track if you’re on the train going out of Piccadilly. Next to Ashbury station, I think.’
‘The huge great thing with the green spire? That’s Gorton Monastery.’
‘Is that what it is? A monastery?’
‘Was. A load of monks used to live there. They built the church part and a school too. It was a kind of a religious centre for the local community.’
‘But no longer, I take it.’
‘No, like so many churches round Manchester, it’s been derelict for a while now. My mum used to attend mass there right up to the eighties. She could tell you all about it. Where we’re heading is about a mile east, along the Ashton Old Road.’ Waiting at a set of lights, he stared across towards the waiting figures on Fairfield Street as it ran round the back of Piccadilly Station. ‘Working girls are still out.’
‘Quick handjob to put you in a good mood for work, sir?’ Rick said in a high voice.
Jon smiled at the morning offer so many commuters received as they walked from the station towards their sterile city centre offices. Some must accept, or the girls wouldn’t keep asking.
‘No need for any of that,’ he replied, an image of Alice curled up in bed. Thank god their sex life was back on track after the long drought brought on by Holly’s birth and his wife’s subsequent post natal depression. She’d been back to her old self for a good few months now, though it would be a couple more before she was weaned off her medication completely.
‘Oh yeah?’ Rick smirked.
Jon glanced to his side, about to ask his partner if he was getting any action in the sack. But the fact Rick was gay caused the question to sink back. Try as he might, Jon just couldn’t chat to him about anything sex related without feeling uncomfortable.
The unanswered question lingered in the car and Rick turned away to look out the side window. Idiot, Jon cursed himself. Now on the A6, they passed the gently undulating glass front of the old BT offices, reflections of street lamps gliding across the black panes like comets crossing a night sky.
‘So, looks like he’s added a fourth to his list,’ Jon stated, taking refuge in the safety offered by work.
‘Suppose so. When did the call come in?’ Rick replied, now looking ahead as they sped along the empty road.
‘An hour or so ago. There’s three fire engines at the scene.’ A few minutes later Jon tapped a knuckle against his side window, just able to make out the tapering point of Gorton Monastery’s spire as it thrust up against a sky smeared orange by the massed city lights. ‘That’s the monastery. See the silhouette?’
Rick leaned forwards. ‘God, it’s massive.’
Soon a bright patch of light became visible up ahead. It shimmered slightly against the bruised amber sky, the occasional spark carried heavenwards by hot air billowing up from below.
‘That’ll be our church,’ Jon said, turning off the main road. They passed a couple of playing fields and the road jinked to the right round some houses, revealing what looked like a massive bonfire celebration gone wrong.
The church was burning fiercely, flames emerging from its many windows and shooting out of the roof at one end where it had begun to collapse. Three fire engines, two police cars and an ambulance where parked up, their flickering blue lights muted by the glare of the blaze. Several dozen residents stood beyond the cordon that stretched across the road, many in dressing gowns and slippers. A group of children were dancing in the puddles by the hoses as they snaked along the road before disappearing down open man holes. Jon pulled up behind the last emergency vehicle.
‘Quite a sight.’
Rick nodded. ‘No more wine and wafers in there for a bit.’
They opened the doors and got out, a faint wave of heat hitting their faces even though they were a good hundred metres away from the flames. Mixing with the low roar created by the blaze itself was the diesel chug of the idling fire engines and above that, occasional groaning sounds of wooden timbers being tortured by the heat.
‘Should have brought some marshmallows,’ Jon said, holding his palms towards the church and then rubbing them together.
Rick looked him up and down, taking in his ragged coat, old rugby shirt and battered jeans. ‘Dressed like that, you’re lucky it’s not November. They might have mistaken you for the guy and chucked you on the bloody fire.’
Jon held his sides and gave a silent ho, ho, ho. ‘Never attended a fire have you?’
Rick’s grin faltered. ‘No. Why?’
Jon nodded at his partner’s suit. ‘That’ll need to be dry cleaned for a start. Something about jets of water hitting red hot mortar, brick and wood. Creates a right stink.’
Rick turned towards church, registering for the first time the billows of steam, black smoke and fine particles of ash drifting down all around them. ‘Bollocks.’
Chuckling to himself, Jon began to survey the onlookers, searching for any lone males who obviously hadn’t just pulled on a tracksuit over their pyjamas. Profit, vanity, vandalism, crime concealment, psychological compulsion, revenge or prejudice. Jon knew the motives for arson. But these fires weren’t about any jilted lover getting back at his ex. They weren’t an insurance job, nor were they lit to hide an earlier crime. Prejudice seemed the most likely reason; someone harbouring a deep seated hostility towards Christianity. The satanic symbols further backed the theory up. Jon also knew many arsonists couldn’t resist hanging round the scene to witness the results of their actions. Some, he gathered, even got sexual satisfaction from seeing the blaze.
Religion is certainly a fascinating thing. Perhaps it’s the many forms it takes that interests me so much. In my backpacking days I visited a Catholic church in Mexico and inside it I was astonished to see shamans of the older, local religion, performing exorcisms on villagers. (The priest had to turn a blind eye to keep his congregation.)
There’s no doubt that in this country, as modern society makes people feel ever more disconnected from nature, interest in religions that pre-date Christianity is booming. Such pagan beliefs often seem to go hand-in-hand with tarot, healing crystals, meditation and all sorts of so-called New Age stuff.
Representatives of the church sometimes rail against this, citing the sinister influence of things like Harry Potter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They fear that, if young minds accept the notion of magic, spells and witchcraft, they become exposed to forces of the occult – and through that the Devil.
Could they be right? There have been cases of teenagers – often into Death Metal music – dabbling with Satanism. Sometimes these people have become very disturbed. In rare cases they’ve even committed murder.
But is the danger from an external force – be it a demon or the Devil? Or should we really be more scared of what human nature is capable of? Because when you add religion to the mix, people are suddenly capable of the most terrifying things.