Chapter One of what is here?

Chapter One of The Key to a Murder is here so as to give you a taste of it.  See my recent post about this book to get some context.

The Key to a Murder: Chapter One

Falling accounted for 6,217 out of 530,841 accidental deaths in 2019. This fact always struck me as rather boring, so much so that I never enquired as to the number of non-accidental deaths for which falls were responsible, until the whole subject took on a relevance I had never imagined. I had also never imagined anything could happen that would upset my plans.

“Murder! You can NOT be serious!” exclaimed Samuel Owain Hoyle, braking far too sharply as we approached a junction on our way back to the centre of Cardiff from the rugby ground at Llanrumney. We had been dissecting the match our team had just lost, mainly, in his opinion, due to my poor performance as scrum half. He had rightly deduced that something was troubling me.

“It’s true, Esso. I heard only the other day. I find it hard to believe too.” Sam’s friends called him Esso because he was S O ’Oyle, just as mine called me Charlie because my name is Matthew Chaplin. I often wondered if it was a coincidence that there had been lots of real chaplains in my family: school chaplains, army chaplains, prison chaplains. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d produced a chaplain to the secret service, not that anyone would know.

Esso was silent for an unusually long time before saying, “Hang on! Didn’t you tell us your old man died a couple of years ago – not long before we started here – and that it was an accident or something?”

I replied, “Yes. I told you he fell off the tower of our church – well, the one he was rector of – and the coroner’s court gave an open verdict because they couldn’t rule out suicide, but it was probably an accident.”

“Yeah! Now I remember you said.”

“For a computer-scientist, you’ve got a memory like a 1980’s desktop pc.”

“Yeah, but my processor’s awesome. Anyway, what’s changed to make them think it’s murder. If it wasn’t before?”

“At the time everyone said he’d been up there alone, as he often was, birdwatching. The women polishing the pews and the candlesticks said they’d have noticed anyone coming or going after he went up there. But now someone’s come forward to say there were definitely two people on that tower at the time. He was hang-gliding and had a good view. So the police think whoever was there must have been responsible for my father’s death or they’d have been there to explain what happened.”

“But why’s this hang-glider bloke waited years to tell anyone?”

“He says he didn’t see the significance of what he saw. Didn’t even know anyone had fallen off the tower. Then he read a piece in the paper about the new rector and it mentioned the previous one had died in that way. There was even a photo of the church, so he realised that was the one.”

Esso said, “No wonder you’re off your game. You sure you should be here? Don’t you want time off to be with you family or anything?”

“It’s funny. I think it’s because we did all our crying and grieving back then. We’ve moved on. Or thought we had. Now, I don’t know. I don’t know what to think or feel. I mean, I always thought it didn’t make sense. He went up there so often, he was always careful. Not that he’d have to try too hard to be safe. There was a sort of battlement thing round the top of the tower well up to your waist. He’d have to have tried hard to lean over far enough to fall over it. And as for suicide – forget it! He wasn’t the type. He was so laid back, nothing got to him that badly and it was against his principles. He saw it as a serious sin, although he never said so to relatives of parishoners who’d killed themselves, obviously.”

Esso cursed as we caught up with the Saturday afternoon traffic near the city centre. I refrained from telling him we should have taken the longer but quicker route via Western Avenue. He asked, “Do you know if they’ve got a suspect or anything?”

“If so, nobody’s told me. I certainly can’t think why anyone would want to kill him. Come to that, I can’t think how anyone could’ve got up there without being noticed.”

“Yeah. Right. They’d have to get out again without being noticed an’all.” As a cyclist pulled out to pass a parked car without looking, he cursed again before asking, “Did you say you only heard about the murder the other day? Well, how come you’ve been, err, not your usual cheery self for weeks? What else is up?”

“I’ve not been happy doing theology and I’m wondering about giving it up, if only I could think what to do instead.”

“Does that mean you don’t want to be a vicar any more?”

“Yes.”

“I can hardly see you as anything else.”

I said, “That’s what everyone says, but I’ve always had misgivings. I don’t like dressing up and doing all the rituals and stuff. I tried to tell Father not long before his death, but he said it just meant I’d be what they call low-church, like my Uncle Andrew. He said I could sort out all my questions at uni or afterwards, at theological college. I think it was his death that made me go ahead and apply to read theology. You know, so as not to disappoint him.”

Esso asked, “Your studies haven’t helped, then?”

“No. They’ve made things worse. You see, until I came to uni, I hadn’t worried about the basics of the faith. I’d just gone along with what I was taught in Church, in Sunday school and school as well as at home.”

“Didn’t you do religious studies at A Level?”

“Yes. But you know the public school I went to had a strong Christian tradition. Faith was hardly a problem. Once I started my studies here, I was amazed that most academic theologians don’t believe the Bible at all. It was written centuries after the things it records and there are lots of bits that must’ve been altered or added later too and the writers must’ve put their own ideas about God into what they wrote. And it’s all a bit dated by now, obviously.”

The traffic had stopped. We waited. After what seemed like hours, we began to move. Esso sighed, “I thought we were gonna be stuck here for ages.”

Then everything stopped again. A student we knew was strolling towards us along the pavement. I opened my window and called out, “What’s going on?”

“Road works.”

Esso leaned across and said, “Hang on! I didn’t see a ‘road works’ sign and anyway, it’s a Saturday. You don’t mean council workmen work weekends now do you?”

“Must be an emergency. Could be a gas leak.”

The cars in front of us began moving again and we followed without taking our leave of our source of information. When we finally got to the roadworks, water was covering the road and most of the pavement. Esso said, “Gas leak? Didn’t the dozy dipstick notice all this water?”

“Calm down! It doesn’t matter what it is. We’re stuck in this for as long as it takes.”

Esso said, “Speaking of things that don’t matter, why are you so bothered about all the arguments about the Bible? Does it matter?”

“All the Church’s teachings are based upon the Bible – well, sort of. I don’t see how anyone can go on and be a vicar if they don’t believe half the stuff they’re spouting. I wish I could go and talk to Father. He must have sorted it out in his own mind. He can’t have been a hypocrite, surely? He always seemed so assured of his faith. That’s why I always believed everything he said about it.”

“What about the other theology students? How do they deal with it?”

“Obviously, not all want to be vicars or anything. Some want academic careers, others want to go into something else but want to do a subject they enjoy for now. The ones who want to be vicars don’t seem to have any problem with the issue. Some say it’s OK not believing all that’s in the Bible, so long as you do the job well. Others say it’s a way of being a sort of social worker or political activist without having to fit in with the powers that be. I think there’s a couple of those in my family, actually.”

Esso said, “So you think the God-squad are right?”

“What?” I knew the God-squad was a nickname for the Christian Union. They tended to be evangelical non-conformists.

He said, “They say all you theology students are in it for the wrong reasons and lack real faith. They always surprise me at their simple faith, when you think that they’re students, I suppose they must apply serious thought to the subjects they study, but not to religion.”

“I see what you mean. Well, yes, they may have a point about theology students, but I couldn’t be as unquestioning as them – about anything. Nor could you.”

“I couldn’t. Hmm. You are in a mess, aren’t you? I’m afraid I can’t help. You know me: not quite an atheist, but not exactly devout. I want to go into the IT business and make lots of money, just like my father.”

“Is he in the IT business?”

“No way! He’s just good at making money. I don’t suppose I could tempt you – oops! Perhaps an unfortunate choice of words, but please think about it. If money doesn’t make you happy, it lets you suffer in comfort. Oh! And another thing. Women like men with money, even the supposedly independent, selfreliant ones. Trust me. I know.”

“I have noticed that you are never short of female company. I put it down to your good looks and charm. Do you think your family’s wealth and your good prospects have something to do with it?”

Esso laughed, “I’m sure of it. Of course, it’s nice having a dad and a step-dad who are both loaded. My real dad’s a typical entrepreneur. He’s managed to make money in several businesses. He’s even helped my step-dad to do better.”

“But he’s a racehorse trainer, isn’t he? Does your first dad know anything about horseracing?”

“No. He knows about money, and a racing-stable’s a business – among other things. He says my step-dad had been too focused on all the rest of it until he had a chat with him about making it pay.”

“So now I know the secret of your attractiveness to women.”

“It all helps! By the way, a few women I know say they find you attractive, so don’t think they all go for big strapping types like me. Some like little guys, especially tough little scrum-halves. But I don’t think potential vicars are top of their lists.”

I said, “Do both your father and step-father send you a lot of money? You never seem to be short.”

He chuckled. “You know I do a bit of work for a company that investigates cybercrime for business clients? It pays well. So well that I’ve never had a student loan. I borrowed a bit from my father’s business at first, but I’ve nearly paid it off now.”

We pulled up outside our flat on Cathedral Road. It was part of a double-fronted redbrick Victorian house that had been converted into four self-contained flats, as had many of its neighbours. Esso asked, “What are you doing tonight?”

I checked my phone for messages as he went to unlock the front door. “I suppose I’ll do a bit of reading. I’ll see what’s on TV and I might make a few notes for my next essay.”

Esso cursed as he fumbled through his pockets. “My keys aren’t here. I know I had them in my trouser pocket as usual earlier.”

I took out mine and opened the door, saying, “You had your other trousers on earlier.”

He hurried to his room and checked the keys were in his other trousers before emerging with a big smile and saying, “I think you need to go out and enjoy yourself. If you stay in you’ll just get depressed.”

“I don’t feel like being the life and soul of the party.”

Esso said, “You’re letting things get on top of you. Tonight. I’m going to that dance in the students’ union. I’m helping with the sound but I hope to find time for a few dances too.”

I said, “And to fix yourself up with a woman for night. But I’m not in the mood.”

“You will be once you’ve got a few beers inside you.”

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The cover of The Key to a Murder. Only Chapter One is posted here.

The cover of The Key to a Murder. Only Chapter One is posted here.