The Redeemed - By M.R. Hall

Chapter 1

Jenny was drinking cordial by the stream at the end of her overgrown garden, watching a school of tiny brown trout flick this way and that, quick as lightning. It was late June and the sweet-smelling breeze was warm against her bare legs. Before the telephone intruded she had managed to lose herself - how long for, she couldn't say - hypnotized by the gently swaying ash trees and the buzz of grasshoppers in the nettles.

A moment of peace. Too good to last.

She walked back across the ankle-high lawn, hoping that whoever was disturbing her on a Sunday morning would give up and leave her to her daydreams. They didn't. She had counted eight rings by the time she stepped through the back door of the cottage onto the cool flags of the tiny kitchen, ten by the time she had lifted the iron latch to the living room, which smelled of old oak and soot from the inglenook. It was much colder inside than out. The flesh on her arms tightened into goosebumps as she lifted the receiver.

'Oh, you're there, Mrs Cooper.' It was Alison, her officer, with a note of reproach in her voice.

'I was outside.'

'CID just called me. There's a body they think you might want to see while it's still in situ. Looks like a suicide.'

She was a coroner again.

'Is there any particular reason why I should? I can't go every time.'

'You asked them for closer cooperation: this is it.'

'I thought they might do something useful like email a photograph.'

'It's progress, Mrs Cooper. Between you and me, I get the impression that they're a little bit frightened of you.'

Jenny couldn't imagine frightening anyone. 'I suppose I'd better show willing. Where is it?'

'St Peter's Church, Frampton Cotterell.'

'I don't think I know it.'

'You'll like it. It's a lovely spot.'

The Severn Bridge was all but empty of traffic as Jenny crossed the mile-wide river into England. Beneath her the tide was chasing out to sea at a gallop, the best time to jump if you didn't want to be found: you'd be halfway to Ireland before low water. That's how Alec McAvoy must have judged it, over three months ago now. She thought of him each time she crossed, picturing his hair blowing over those moss-green eyes, too young for his face, as he said his final prayers.

A forensics van, a single squad car and an unmarked pool vehicle were parked in the quiet road outside the elaborate Gothic church. A skeleton Sunday crew. A handful of teenagers were loitering on the other side of the road, a skinny blonde girl talking excitedly into her phone, thrilled with the drama of it all. It wasn't even a policeman who had been posted at the churchyard gate, but an overweight community support officer who made a meal of checking Jenny's credentials before letting her through as if he were doing her a big favour. She didn't react, the Xanax she had taken with her breakfast keeping her calm.

The activity was in a far corner beyond the gravestones, an untended triangle that had been left to grow wild. A plainclothes detective glanced up and saw her coming but made no effort to step forward to greet her, his focus switching immediately back to the body. He watched intently while two men in white overalls, one with a camera, the other with a measuring tape, recorded every detail of the scene.

She made an effort to sound friendly. 'Good morning. Jenny Cooper. Severn Vale District Coroner.'

'Tony Wallace. DI.'

Somewhere in his late forties, slim and fit, he spoke with the clipped abruptness of a man who still entertained ambition. He was wearing what might have been a hand- tailored suit, far smarter than most of the policemen she had met.

She followed his gaze to the body lying amongst the rye grass and buttercups. It was that of a naked, well-built man in his thirties. His head, which was facing towards them, was shaved to a tight crew cut to disguise his balding temples. He was lying on his back, arms at forty-five degrees to his torso. Carved into his chest and abdomen, stretching all the way down to his groin, was the sign of the cross. By the outstretched fingers of his right hand Jenny caught the glint of a kitchen knife, the blade no more than four inches long. His skin was waxy yellow and his stomach and face had begun to bloat; bluebottles were gathering on the eyes, lips and genitals.

'Looks like