From the author: Originally featured in the marvelous Darkhouse Books "Sanctuary" anthology, this is the tale of some cathedral based breaking and entering and strange friends. Based in Orkney's beautiful St Magnus Cathedral, an earlier version of this short story placed second in the Marjory Linklater Award 2006.
Pushing against the door, Marc forced his frozen hands to work at the handle. Hearing the unmistakable snap of the lock breaking, he smirked to himself. He was good at this. The gale pulled at his coat, almost tugging it from his body and whipping a tangle of hair about his face, but he managed to fall unceremoniously into the St Magnus Cathedral.
He hated these islands.
Pulling himself up, he took in the silent building. He grabbed a chair and jammed the door shut, sealing himself in for the night. The few lights on left an eerie shadow clinging to the chasm of the rising roof. So, this was a church at night. He examined it, eyes wandering over every inch they could find.
The stones were amazing, he had to give them that, sandstone of contrasting colours that stood out against the gloom. A dull red, like dead blood to Marc’s eyes, mixed with bone white to form the body of the leviathan church, the shadows flickering like breath. Woven wooden chairs sat like soldiers on parade, with a tile spine running the length of the main wing. Rib like pillars supported the roof, and an alter sat proud at the heart of the space.
He let out low whistle, listening to it echo back while walking between the columns and the walls, along a wide corridor that seemed to encircle the whole place. In the mid-winter darkness the stained-glass windows weren’t at their best, but the images were still enchanting, even to a little heathen like Marc. Magnificent shades depicted valiant knights, tragic saints, and intricately detailed biblical scenes. He recognised a few, long ago memories of Sunday school meetings he’d almost slept through stabbing at his mind. He didn’t care for the headstones upon the walls — the dead held no interest for him — but he knew it would be safe enough to sleep under them for two or three hours. They’d open the doors at around seven; he would have to leave at around six, so it would be two hours. Better than nothing.
He was right at the back of the cathedral now, looking up at an immense, flower-like main window. The glass branched off into thin slices of colour and shape from a sphere in the centre, some pattern he couldn’t identify snaking through them.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” A voice rang through the darkness. Marc spun around, fists up: living rough had taught him to swing first if necessary. He saw someone approaching, and mentally swore: he should have checked if anyone else was sleeping here.
“What, can’t you speak?” she asked, and now he could tell it was a woman. She entered the sparse light and he saw she was only a touch older than him, twenty-two to his twenty maybe. She wore a short denim skirt and black halter-neck top, with knee length boots that held a wicked heel. Her hair was in a messy bun with a few soft curls falling about her face, all soft focus make up and batting lashes. She looked amazing, far too good to be hiding in a spot like this. She checked him up and down slowly, her emerald eyes meeting his thunder-grey ones briefly with a quirk of her brow.
“Is there something wrong with your voice?” she pushed, smiling. Her glossed lips shone a pale blue, an odd choice, to his mind, but it complimented the outfit. Each to their own and all that.
“No, my voice his fine,” he replied, frowning at her as he brought his hands down.
“You’re not from Orkney, are you?” she asked, the smile broadening. “I’m not taking the Mick, it’s your accent. Not local.”
“It won't be. I’m from Southport.”
“Never heard of it.” She laughed.
“I’d never heard of this place until last week.”
“So how come you’re up here?” she asked, leaning against one of the pillars.
“Why do you care?” he asked, disliking the asking. You didn’t ask, living rough. No one cared, or they care enough to let you have your own shit kept just that. His family hadn’t, that was why he’d been living on the streets for the past four years.
“I’m being polite. And I’m interested. That so rare?” she asked, bristling just a touch at his tone.
“Yeah,” he bit back. Deafening chimes rang through the air, making him flinch. Quarter past four then.
“Oh that bell, my poor ears. So, how come you’re up here?” she pushed, not letting the question drop.
“Why are you here?” he shot back.
“Had an argument with my colleagues on a staff night out. We split up, I couldn’t get home because I live in the middle of nowhere — also known as South Ronaldsay — and there's no busses this late, so I went to the kirkyard. It’s the most sheltered spot on the main street, other than the police station. You?”
He sighed, knowing she wouldn’t let it drop.
“I’m hiding from someone.”
“I’d ask who, but I doubt you’d tell me. I’m Elsbeth, by the way.”
“From someone I was supposed to meet up here,” he said, crouching with his back against the rough stone. He could easily outrun her if he had to, no harm in resting his legs.
“Where’s Southport?” she asked, changing track.
“It’s in England, South Lancashire. Near Liverpool.”
“Now there I’ve heard of. Must have been a hard job if you needed to come this far north. And if you have to claim sanctuary,” she said, a hint of knowledge in her voice.
He looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “Claim sanctuary?”
“In the old days, when someone was on the run, from the law or whatever else, they could enter a church and stay there. No one could take them out of the church, and they could live there as long as they needed to. They'd do jobs and help the priest, that sort of thing. You’re sleeping here, right?” she asked.
“Look, why are you asking this?” He was too tired to be bothered with this, or manners, or retelling his life story.
“You look like you could use a chat. And a good meal,” she added, nodding to his loose clothes.
“Well I don’t. Why don’t you just run off and find your friends?”
“Because it’s four am and they’ll all 've crashed out somewhere. I won’t be able to find them. Anyway we're having such a good chat.” She grinned at him, a lazy, pouty look that he liked on her. Maybe she was a symptom of sleep deprivation. She took his silence to mean he didn’t mind, and began to quiz him once more.
“So, why do you need to hide: running from the law? Dodging some big villain? Were you delivering drugs or something?” She laughed. He stayed silent, hunching into himself and avoiding her gaze. “Oh shit, you were, weren’t you? Are you Marc?”
“How do you know my name?” he growled, jumping up with the spike of fear.
“Good old Radio Orkney. Your name and appearance were broadcast today as a missing person. But you’re deliberately missing, right?”
“And? What does it matter to you?” he snarled, ready to leave. He did not need this right now, he was on too little sleep and he only had to last till tomorrow. He just had to make it onto the boat, he didn’t want the police involved.
“I’d like to help if I can,” she said, shrugging herself off the pillar.
“Why?” He paused, curiosity niggling at his mind. Help never came for free.
“Tell me about yourself and I’ll tell you why,” she offered, her head tilting to one side.
He summarised his past four years, and why he’d left home. He explained his dad’s drinking problem, the frequent beatings, the fights, Mum dying. He was never going to meet Elsbeth again, it didn’t matter what she knew. He could have made it all up for all she knew.
“So why the drugs?” she asked after he’d stopped, head spinning a little.
“I was staying in Aberdeen and someone tapped me up for a job. Four hundred quid if I’d take a rucksack on the next ferry up here, then give it to someone on this side. Gave me an address and a ticket, just asked my name for the booking. I took it.”
“Where was the problem? Sounds like good money.”
“I got curious, which is stupid. Opened the bag, found drugs. There were clothes on the top, you know, the main compartment, but in the bottom, there were bags of stuff. White powder, tablets, resin pretty sure I saw some scragg in there, you name it. Easily a few thousand quid, probably more.” He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.
“And?” she ventured. “You said you didn’t do the deal.”
“And I got scared! I don’t get involved in drugs; my dad's a damn alcoholic. The odd joint now and again, sure I’ll turn a blind eye, but that was way too much. Too expensive. I’ve seen people OD on that kind of shit, not always accidentally. As soon as I got to dry land I dumped the bag over the harbour and bolted. I’ve been sleeping here and there for two days, but the wind’s as cold as hell. I’d freeze outside tonight.”
“Aye,” She nodded with a thin smile. “So, what are you going to do?”
“I’ve got a ticket. I’m gone tomorrow. Keep my hood up, don’t talk much, and stay in the corners of the boat where I won’t be found.”
“How’d you get a ticket?”
“First rule my mum taught me; keep enough cash to get out of a bad situation. A ticket off island is my best bet. What did they say?” he asked, wondering if he’d be able to leave.
“Who?” she yelled over the clanging of the bells once more. Half past four now.
“On the radio,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Just that you were missing, that your family was worried for you, and that if you were seen it should be reported. You’ll need to be careful.”
Danny cursed as he neared the hulking stone shape of the cathedral. It was too early in the morning for this bollocks, it was cold as an icebox and he should have either been in bed or partying.
Thousands of pounds worth of supply that boy was carrying, that was Danny's sales for the next three months, riding out the January blues through to when the kids were on holiday. He’d got the call from Aberdeen, been given a name and a meeting place. Then the boy hadn’t turned up.
He’d been looking for the brat for the last two days, then had finally got his details on the radio to try and drum up interest. No one on the scene had seen him, so he must have been lying low somewhere. Danny needed to find the idiot, Marc was the name he was given. Marc had seen the main supplier, he knew who the stuff came from. Marc had to be dealt with.
An overdose somewhere quiet, maybe a doorway. He’d just be another junkie on too much of a high, with a cold, lonely body found the next morning. Rare in Orkney but not unheard of; all it needed was a bit of some powder and a bubble in the syringe. Easy way to get rid of a problem.
He knew, in this weather, there were only two places a street sleeper would go, either the graveyard or the cathedral. They’d never upgraded the back doors to that place; anyone with half a brain could get in there. He pulled himself up to peek through one of the warped glass windows and saw a chair pushed up against it. Yeah, Marc was in there.
They heard the slamming against the door at the same time, Marc was back on his feet like a deer at a gunshot.
“Oh shit, that’ll be him!” he said, his eyes frantically searching for the other exits. He'd started to sweat, prickling damp down his back as he looked for options.
“How do you know it’s him?” Elsbeth asked, watching the alcove of the door. The chair was beginning to give way, another few minutes and whoever was at it would be inside.
“Oh, who else is it going to be?” He rounded on her, glaring. “Shit! How do I get out of here?” He was scared out of his wits. He’d thrown too much over that harbour wall — they were going to be after money or skin. He looked hopelessly at Elsbeth, heart hammering in his throat.
“I know somewhere you can hide. We'll get you in there and I can lead him out of here, I'll be safe enough getting away.” She smiled, flashing surprisingly white teeth and moved towards him. He frowned, guilt nagging in his gut. This was his mess; he should deal with it
“Are you sure?” he asked after another round of hammering against what was apparently his only exit.
“What’s he going to do, kill me?” she asked with a laugh. “Even if he gets hold of me, I’ll just say I was staying here because I got separated from my friends. Now come on,” she said, grabbing his thin wrist by the coat sleeve and yanking him down a set of dark stone steps. She shoved him into a small, cramped toilet.
“Are you really sure about this?” he asked once more. “He’ll hurt you if he finds you.”
“If being the important word there. Now shut up and stay here until half past six; they’ll be opening up just before seven, should be safe for you to leave. Good luck.” She smiled, pecking a kiss to his head and running back up the steps. He heard the heavy door shut and was left in the brooding darkness.
Marc didn’t know how long he sat there for before the quarter-to-five chimes. He could hear someone walking around the cathedral in heavy boots, then someone with heels running across the floor. She must have been slamming her feet; he’d not heard her make that noise with him. The boots gave chase, a door slammed shut, the wind howled just once, and then he could only hear his own shallow breathing.
He carefully made his way up the steps, tugging the door open a sliver. There was no one else in the echoing space, the door he had used was closed, the chair discarded beside it. He didn't try to go to sleep. He didn’t bother to put the chair back either.
The bells rang for their final time in Marc’s ears; half past six and time for him to get the hell out. He’d spent the last hour pacing underneath the largest stained-glass window, worrying over Elsbeth. He hoped she got away. The guy hadn’t come back, so he’d presumed she had managed to at least lead him away.
Marc rubbed his hands over his face as if to drag away his fatigue, then went back to the door he’d broken through. As he emerged from his hiding place he saw the unmistakable blue flashes of an emergency vehicle at the wall of the graveyard.
She turned him in: the thought stabbed through his mind quicker than the dreaded needle. Panic jolted him and he felt his heart jump but saw now it was an ambulance, not a police van, and that was worse. He ran deeper into the graveyard, stomach dropping into his hips as the thought blossomed in his head. The guy must have caught her, there must have been an accident around the stones.
He saw the crowd of spectators gathered about one of the taller monuments, milling around a cordon line. There was a stretcher, blanketed and full, it’s burden hidden from the curious bodies dotted about.
Marc approached a small older woman with hair the colour of frost.
“What’s happened?” he asked, hoping she wouldn’t recognise him. She didn’t have any glasses.
“It’s tragic, some poor lass has frozen to death last night! Name of Elsbeth Tait, the police man said, she’s been there all night. They said she’s frozen stiff, probably slipped away with that wind around midnight."
"Oh god," Marc said, chest twisting hot and vicious.
"He’s over by the ambulance; he’ll be able to tell you some more. Oh, it is tragic.” She sighed, fiddling in her bad for something.
Marc stepped back, looking over at the trolley once more. The height was about the same, but that could be coincidence. One of the paramedics came over to him, putting a hand to his shoulder.
“Are you all right? You look ill.” He was a tall man, older, with grey encroaching on his dark blond hair.
“The girl, what was her name?” he asked, praying the old woman was just a gossip, she’d gotten the names confused.
“Elsbeth, we can't confirm the surname just now.”
“Could I see her?” Marc asked uneasily, the adrenaline in his system spiking. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the trolley now.
“You family?” the paramedic asked.
“Nah. I was out with a girl called Elsbeth last night, she got separated from the group late on and she’s not answering her phone. Please, just to put my mind at rest,” he implored. Sighing, the paramedic nodded.
“I shouldn’t really be doing this,” he said, glancing about. “But just so you know it’s not your friend. We have to do an examination of course, but we think she’d be dead by around one o’clock, so it's probably not her,” he explained as they walked.
He led Marc to the stretcher and pulled the blanket away. Marc’s eyes widened; tears springing up at the sight. Pale skin with blue lips, soft brown hair, and such dark lashes.
“Is that her?” the paramedic prompted.
“No,” Marc lied, “Thank god, no, it’s not. My Elsbeth's probably on someone’s sofa. Sorry to have bothered you mate: I was just worried when I heard the name.”
He nodded to the paramedic and left, dodging the policemen at the gate and pulling his hood up against the morning chill. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and made for the library, another sanctuary, until his boat. He just had to last till the ferry. He could hold it together till then. If she could haunt a damned cathedral till morning he could last that long.