Inside the single wooden door, a small stone porch barely a yard and a half long led to another door, less solid than the first and also hanging open. Augustus stopped, assaulted by a strange smell emanating from inside. He often stopped at that specific spot, particularly in the summer months when, after basking in the scents of honeysuckle or roses or freshly cut grass, he entered the porch and the lack of any smell at all struck him. It was as though the air of the natural world dare not encroach into the world of the spiritual beyond the iron studded outer door. This new smell was faintly, but repugnantly, sweet.
In the gloomy body of the building across the backs of twelve rows of wooden pews and a small, unadorned altar table, the brilliant whiteness of the cat’s fur stood out like a single tooth in the centre of a gaping mouth. It was hanging upside down, crucified on an inverted cross and slit open from groin to throat. Its head was invisible beneath a coat of congealed blood. The blood, in spilling onto the table and from there onto the stone flags of the floor, was undoubtedly the source of the smell. That smell clogged in Augustus’s nostrils and caused him to gulp back the urge to vomit.
Witchcraft. Satanists. Augustus’s head began to spin. His vision fogged. He did not realise that he had stumbled until he felt Gimbel’s strong fingers grip onto his right elbow.
“You all right, headmaster?” There was mockery in the gardener’s tone.
“Fine now, yes. Thank you, Gimbel.” Regaining his composure, Augustus pulled his arm free and moved around the rows of pews toward the front of the chapel.
At the end of the front row of seats he stopped. A scattering of cigarette butts littered the floor at his feet. Crouching, he picked one up and examined it. It was a filter tip; most of them were. Three were white rather than brown. Discarding the first, he picked up one of those between thumb and index finger. It was hand-rolled with a makeshift cardboard filter. He raised the blackened end to his nose and sniffed. Even decades after his student days, the aroma was unmistakable. Perhaps the sickly sweet smell that had assailed his senses in the porch was not due entirely to spilled blood.
In isolation, the discarded cigarette ends would have angered him. In context with the sacrifice though, they were almost comforting. Genuine practitioners of the dark arts would hardly have stood around smoking. That left the boys. He let out a long sigh. There was always something.
Gimbel had walked the length of the chapel along the opposite wall to the headmaster. He now took an exaggerated stride over the stream of drying blood. It struck Augustus that there seemed to be an awful lot of blood for one cat, but the thought was lost in his need to stand before the gardener was in a position to be looking down at him. Gimbel had that effect. Even when being irreproachably polite, the gardener gave the impression that violent mutiny bubbled just below the surface.
“Never heard of the like,” Gimbel said, scratching his head. “Not at Dunsmore. At Arlington, years ago, there was rumours, witches covens, satanic masses, all sorts of unholy goings on.”
Arlington was another school for boys and less than seven miles away across the dales. Augustus was a friend of Alex Matthews, the headmaster there, an ex-military bull of a man.
“How many years ago?”
“Eighteen,” Gimbel replied, without hesitation. “1966 it were.”
That long ago, no connection there then.