Street lights flickered against the thick dark smog engulfing the city. Mystique was heading home. Her neon heels struck the cracked concrete violently, struggling to cope with her inebriated swagger. Her real name was Clare – Clare Trent – she was thirty–two, pretending she was twenty–three; a lie that was starting to show.
It was a cool July night, but she'd been working hard and the sticky Autumn breeze helped relieve her aching shoulders. She carried her coat over her arm, not caring that her sequined costume underneath left nothing to the imagination. To hell with what anyone thought – that had always been her motto. Sure she was a prostitute, but she wasn't one of those girls standing on the street corners paying off a habit that was never going to go away. Clare worked at Lulu's. She had fans, she was drunk on champagne, and the tiny dress she wore was worth more than most people in S'aven could save in a year.
It was four in the morning, the streets were gently swaying as the nightclubs started to close. Swarms of rich Londoners piled out into the streets, singing and whistling at her. She smiled and slipped past, casually shouting that she'd be at Lulu's tomorrow for anyone who could afford her.
London closed the border for curfew at ten, leaving any pass holder in S'aven to party all night or find some hovel to crawl into until morning. The bars stayed open until the first crack of dawn, but usually by now Londoners were already deep into sampling all the sordid delights S'aven had to offer – and there was a lot to sample.
The groups that lurched around the streets had missed their window. They were either too drunk or too poor to benefit from a room in one of the many brothels lining the border. But it was hot and nobody cared about staying outside when dawn was so close.
Another crowd that passed her jeered excitedly. She contended with their snatching hands and danced away from them. The trick was to do it in good humour. Creating a scene drew attention and the last thing Clare needed was trouble. She quickened her step, ignoring the blisters screaming at her heels. Some of the crowd broke away and followed her. Two called out, offered her the time of her life and she couldn't help but laugh out loud. They persisted for another block and she ignored them. It was always like this and she had survived her thirty–two years using the right blend of ruthless determination and a cast iron nerve.
She walked another two streets before realising she was still being followed.
This wouldn't be the first time some asshole thought he could take his chances with her. But Clare had been around long enough to know how to handle herself. She casually withdrew the flick knife she kept in her coat, along with the mace spray Lulu handed out to all the girls. With a quick shuffle of her coat she was ready. She slowed her steps, enjoying the control she had.
The presence was nearing. She felt something behind her, something big and cold. Felt hands reaching around the back of her neck, closing in, fingertips brushing her skin. This was her moment of power. She turned, choosing the knife over the spray.
It plunged into nothing.
There was no one there.
The empty street rolled out into darkness, but the tightening of her neck continued. The knife dropped to the ground as she tried to push away the crushing force against her throat. She couldn't breathe. Her body lifted. She kicked out, her heels barely scraping the pavement beneath. The hold tightened and she lost control of everything; her breathing, her bladder, her life. The bones in her arms and legs started to bend. She wanted to cry out, but all she could do was croak.
As her eyesight started to blacken she saw a shape – a figure in the distance with an arm outstretched toward her. She tried to reach out, but it was too late.
This wasn't how it was supposed to happen – her last thoughts before the end came.
Harvey's hurried footsteps slowed.
At the end of the street he could see the body of a woman. Hesitantly he approached, checking around for signs of anyone watching. This was the third girl. He took out his phone and captured the moment for his collection.
The countryside suffocated under the heat. A knot of indigo clouds, twisting menacingly in the sky, threatened another downpour. England was a martyr to the summer, steaming under a morning sun like boiled meat. The rain would come soon, quenching the abandoned fields and roads, making everything fresh for the briefest moment and then the simmering would start again. There was nothing to grow in this weather, leaving the countryside more barren than it had ever been in the winter. The small villages making up the quaint south of England had long been abandoned after the worst of the flooding a decade ago. Wide lakes and marshes now stretched across plains of lowlands, the roofs of lost communities poking chimneys out of the reduced water level; monuments to a better time.
Rachel had travelled the width of the country. Enduring the winter freeze in an abandoned farmhouse and then hitting the road at the first sign of spring. The snow had come fast and lasted until April, but as she sat in the backseat of their stolen range rover, with sweat streaming down her neck and back, she wished she was back by that open fire, trying to stave the frostbite from her feet.
It wasn't just the heat making her lament. This was the closest she had been to her former home in ten months. Since meeting the Smith brothers and changing her life forever. Back then she had been the pray, a prize for ruthless men playing a vicious game, but the time away had changed her and made her stronger. Safe Haven, the old shanty town surrounding London, was less than a half hour's drive. Being so close she couldn't help feeling on edge. She'd left a lot of blood in that town, along with a life she had no desire to return to. She didn't belong there anymore. She didn't really belong anywhere; just like the two men in the car with her.
The brothers were supposed to kidnap her, but their change of heart had not only saved her life, it had saved theirs too. The eldest brother, Charlie, had been a wreck, carrying a life-destroying guilt since his wife’s murder. All the while, the younger, John, lived in denial, unwilling to acknowledge Charlie’s failings. It had been Rachel’s addition to their dynamic that had pulled them out of trouble ten months ago and it had been Rachel that had kept them tight over the winter months.
"We should be in the right area," Charlie said, lifting his head out of the map and scowling at the open road. Beads of perspiration clustered in the stubble on his cheeks. A life on the road kept him perpetually dishevelled, but he'd been sober for two months now and it was starting to suit him. His eyes were brighter, his mood infinitely more bearable. Although he lacked the fine chiselled good looks of his brother, there was an inner beauty to him now, an essence that made it easy to warm to him.
He twisted the map and turned it around, throwing a guilty smirk her way through the mirror.
John had been driving all morning while Charlie directed him down dead end country lanes and broken roads. The heat didn't seem to bother John as much as the others. In the ten months of sharing a backseat she hadn't even seen him break a sweat. What was making him red faced was another dead end. They were lost and with each retraced lane the tension in the car started to rival the storm brewing above them.
"It would help if we knew what we were looking for," John growled, his patience waning by the second. He gripped the steering wheel so tightly the car itself seemed to tense.
"It's a small chapel, I told you. It looks like a chapel. Do you need me to draw it?"
"Who the hell puts a chapel in the middle of nowhere?"
"Darcy said it was on the road, we can't miss it."
There were no churches or chapels, only ruins – relics of a forbidden religion. When the state forced secularisation on the country, everything went – religion, tolerance, common sense. It meant that those still clinging onto faith had to make do with a nomadic God. Churches, synagogues, and mosques moved around the country, sometimes alongside one another – persecution loves company.
Rachel had come from a convent herself, an orphaned child with special powers raised by nuns who liked to think she was more than just a mutated gene. That was thanks to Father Darcy, but it was also thanks to him her sister was gone and the legacy Isobel left behind had already caught up with Rachel once. She wasn't sure how she felt about seeing the old priest again, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Darcy was like a father to Charlie and John, and even though they hadn't parted on the best of terms, they still held a lot of value in family. It dawned on Rachel suddenly; that family now included her.
"Why do you think he called?" John asked, relaxing now they had found a longer stretch of road with more tarmac than holes.
"I don't know. I got the impression he had a job, but he wouldn't talk over the phone."
"Why wouldn't he tell us if it was a job?"
"I don't know, John. Ask him when we see him." Charlie wiped his face on his shirt sleeve, then tapped the dashboard excitedly.
There was a blemish in the brown scenery.
A small stone building perched precariously on the end of the road, spilling bricks and slate from the broken walls and roof. The graveyard was swamped under a field of brambles and nettles, but the main yard to the chapel had been cleared recently. There were track marks along the ditch leading up to the church, people had obviously parked there before attending service. It may have been crumbling under the elements but God had not yet left this hovel. Rachel looked up at the jaunty cross on the roof, clawing at the sky just as the rain broke.
The water hit them so hard the car started to rock. Rachel glanced down at her boots. They were watertight and brand new, like most of her other things. She'd left S'aven with nothing, not that she had much there anyway. Now she had new well-made clothes, two pairs of shoes, and even a working watch. It had been a hard winter but it certainly had its rewards.
John stopped the car as close as he could to the chapel gate. He pulled up the handbrake and kept the engine running.
Charlie scowled. "You're not staying out here."
"Someone should watch the road."
"For what? We've been driving for two hours and we've only seen one other car."
John placed his hands on the wheel, he clearly wasn’t going anywhere.
"Is this about your phobia?"
"What phobia?" Rachel asked.
"John has a fear of churches."
Rachel failed to suppress a laugh. It was hard to imagine John being scared of anything. "You have a church phobia?"
"I do not have a phobia!"
Charlie shook his head. "Fine, but switch the goddamn engine off. We've got to think about the state of the planet."
"I like to think I'm giving it a mercy killing," John grumbled and Rachel still, after ten months, couldn't tell if it was a joke or not.
He switched off the engine anyway and an uncertain lull settled in the car. If John wasn't going in it meant that Rachel didn't have to go either. She couldn't help being tempted, it would be a lot easier than confronting Darcy.
"You can stay if you want Rach," Charlie offered.
She shook her head, being part of the family meant taking the good and the bad. For everything good she would have to overcome something bad. She had her new shoes, it was time now to confront Darcy.
"What are we waiting for?"
Charlie's mobility was improving by the day. The damage from the stab wounds in his back was never going to completely heal, but he was coping with the residual pain now and learning how to use his body again. Using his crutch, he made every move look effortless. He pivoted himself out of the car and swung around to open the door for Rachel.
The rain fell in heavy sheets. They were soaked before they even reached the porch. There was a makeshift door left ajar and, inside, the remains of the old chapel battled against the elements leaking through the holes in the roof. Decaying pews were haphazardly scattered as though someone had tried to shield them from the water, but the roof was in such a state now it poured just as heavily inside as it did out.
The windows on the left side of the building had survived. Their modest stained glass darkened by the absence of the sun. The right side were long gone, unable to stand the decades of storms battering the country.
It was a chapel once belonging to the Church of England and now occupied by Catholics. The effect was a strange one. The statue of the virgin and a few indistinguishable saints were perched on nearby pews, as out of place as an atheist in the house of God. Rachel inspected them with a slight fondness. She wasn't particularly religious, but these were symbols from her childhood.
Charlie walked passed the statues. He headed into the vestry calling Darcy's name while Rachel walked around the dark nave trying to make out the stone saints. A large, crucified Christ hung over the altar. It was too big for the size of the church, looming over the nave and scrutinising parishioners. Rachel remembered a similar icon from her childhood, and how the nuns had got so angry with her when she happened to query Jesus' apparent Aryan ethnicity. A smile touched her lips at the memory. She glanced up at this Jesus and was surprised to see his bare black feet. Then frowned when she noticed the cuffs of his jeans. Her eyes widened as she saw a face she hadn't seen since she was a little girl.
"Charlie!" she screamed.
Darcy was stripped at the waist. His ribs poked out of his leathery skin, an omen of malnutrition. His arms had been tied with bloody ropes to a crude cross constructed from a broken pew. There had been no rope left for his feet so instead a belt held the eighty-year-old's legs in place. There were other marks too – burns on his chest and face, dried blood on his bruised body. How long had he been up there?
"Get John!" Charlie said. He desperately tried to liberate the body and failed. "Get John!" he ordered again, snapping Rachel from her shock.
She yelled from the doorway and if John did have a phobia this was enough to overcome it. He was with them instantly. He took the full weight of the cross, lowering it to the floor with Charlie's help. The wood was heavy and slippery from the rain. Water dripped on Darcy's emaciated body while John cut away at the ropes.
"Who would do this to an old man?" Charlie was trembling with anger. This was his father, his mentor. It didn't matter that their last words had been bad ones, this man meant everything to him.
Rachel knelt down and checked for a pulse, more out of habit than hope. There was a way to pronounce people dead, she'd done it enough times working at St Mary's Hospital in S'aven. Her fingers touched his icy neck and she was about to pull away when she felt a faint movement.
"He's not dead," she said and pressed her ear against his chest. "I can't believe it, he's still breathing, just about." He was close to death and even with all of her medical training she had no idea if he would survive the next few minutes. But there was one thing she could do. If he was still alive then his brain was still functioning and with her powers she would be able to read his memories. "I might be able to see who did this."
Before she could put her hand on the priest's forehead John caught it.
He held her back, firmly. "Don't," he said. "Darcy wouldn't want you to."
Rachel frowned. "This might be the only chance you have to know who did this."
"John's right," Charlie agreed. "Everything Darcy knows about every Reacher he's ever met is all in his head. He would never want anyone in there. Even if it means his killer getting away."
John released her. She checked Darcy's breathing again. "Then we have to get him to a hospital now, there's nothing I can do for him here."
"S'aven's a half hour away," John stated.
The storm surrounding them bashed against the walls. The stones started to shake. Water poured harder through the ceiling, tossing roof slates into the aisle. Rachel leaned over Darcy to protect him and John leaned over her. The noise grew louder.
This wasn't wind. This was something else.