He should not have gone to the cafe that Sunday.
He should not have sat next to her.
He should not have chatted with her.
He should not have been at the cafe again next week and seen her.
He should not have asked her out.
He should not have dated her.
He should not have fallen in love.
He should not have moved into her apartment.
He should not have seen her in the park with him that day.
He should not have fallen out of love with her.
He should not have stayed.
He should not have died at the hand of the girl in black.
But he did.
Tom begins his commissioned walk from Le Puy en Velay to Saint Jean Pied de Port, the 734 km journey which I undertook in 2013 as preparation for this novel.
In 12 days time it will be one year since Anika and Tom parted and agreed to meet again in a year.
The two have had zero contact in the last year.
Much will happen to our hero in the 12 days until the two lovers are supposed to be re-united.
The weather is bad on the Aubrac plateau; snow and sleet and wind churning the path to mud and ice and few are walking in such wild weather.
Tom travels through the forests near Domaine du Sauvage and learns of the deaths of two pilgrims in the woods. A few days later he hears of the death of a third pilgrim and what was abstract when read on a computer screen becomes real as he walks the same paths upon which they walked and died and hears their stories from the locals.
The reality of the deaths is heightened by the drama of the wild weather and the handful of scared pilgrims huddle together as news of the dead pilgrims spreads along the Chemin.
In the midst of the fear and of the rumours, Tom is astonished to meet Charo, whom he had met previously when crossing the Pyrenees on another day of wild weather and who had told him a bizarre story of an elderly pilgrim ‘vanishing’ near the ancient monastery refuge of Roncesvalles: intriguingly, there was talk of Anika accompanying the woman before she died.
What is Charo, a most unlikely pilgrim, doing walking the Chemin alone?
Is it a coincidence that she has met Tom again?
Will Tom lose faith that he and Anika will meet on their anniversary (how? where?) and instead be tempted by the attractive and flirtatious Charo?
How and why are the pilgrims dying?
How can Tom combine solving the mystery of their deaths with writing his novel about their deaths?
Eventually the pieces fall into place. Mel recalls some story of Ralph leaving Iraq in hush hush circumstances and DI Kate and her team track down the truth. Jean in a previous life was a Sobranie Black Russian smoking temptress working undercover for MI and she has more to add to the story. Jeri and Jean are cleared. Bruce is eliminated as a suspect and now only a few of us are left as ‘persons of interest’. Investigations continue around the clock ( as all good police enquiries should do). Will is cleared, to Kate’s immense relief ( for there is love in the air).
Finally the breakthrough! There is a connection of names, dates and places between Ralph and one of the group and after hours of intense interrogation David cracks and confesses. Yes, David killed Ralph!
It is me! For it is Ralph who was responsible for my young brother’s death years ago in Iraq, the victim of a covert US operation gone dreadfully wrong. I could not believe my luck when I heard his name on that first day in Saint Bees; to have him before me and I simply had to wait my chance to perform the deed. I never wanted to kill sweet Maggie and smart and funny Matilda, but I had no choice. They got in the way. Collateral damage, as they said of my brother.
Ah, cruel twist for all such stories have a twist at the end. I have killed the wrong man! It was Ralph’s crazy twin brother who was responsible, not the poor innocent man I murdered! Ralph had not even seen his brother for years as he is a survivalist hiding out in the remotest part of Montana.
There is one final twist, for such stories always have one twist just when you think you have seen the last one. Bruce and Denise worked out long before DI Kate that I was the mad murderer and, under the pretence of offering me kindly morning cups of tea, have been systematically poisoning me with foxglove. Oh unhappy me!
I finish my tale and as the pen falls from my hand and the coldness enfolds me, I have a vision of the group completing their walk in Robin Hoods Bay and returning home without a backward glance to my lifeless body and of Kate and Will in the year ahead, raising a family of little adventurers in the wilds of the Antartic.
Thanks to a wonderful group for being such good sports and fine walking companions who allowed me to pen and disseminate this bit of fun. Thanks guys!
We creep down to breakfast, dreading what we may find. Jeri is clinging to life in intensive care, Jenny has returned from one of her mysterious absences and nobody else has been harmed during the night. We sniff suspiciously at our food and drink and eat only what is sealed and presumably safe. Tempers fray. David is ordered to stop writing his damned notes and Matilda to stop observing us like ants in an ant farm.
The police arrive, led by DI Kate McCuddley with her piercing blue eyes and her steely gaze and we are instructed to stay in our rooms and await questioning. Our hotel is sealed off.
Nor is the drama over yet! The DI announces that the autopsy showed that Maggie had been poisoned! Foxglove poisoning! What a cunning method. We look at each other open-mouthed and struggle to recall who had spoken before of foxglove as a poison. It is Denise and our eyes turn towards her as she protests her innocence. Jean, Jeri and Mel also had displayed impressive botanical knowledge, not to forget Will himself. And had not Jean argued with Ralph? We have our suspects and we draw away from them.
But there is more!
Will walks into the dining room and he and Kate see each other and reel back in shock, their faces pale. For what seems like hours, both are speechless and then the truth is revealed. Will and Kate had been inseparable childhood friends and then young lovers deep in the remotest part of Scotland: soul mates who should have been together for ever. But young Will yearned to be the first person to swim around the world non-stop and Kate wanted to move to the big city to fight for fairness and justice and to make the world a better place and so they parted and have not seen each other lo, these many years though always they had kept a secret part of their heart for the other and lived with the regret of ‘if only’.
Destiny has flung them together again.
Will their old love be rekindled? Will they seize this second chance of happiness?
Will any of us survive this dreadful walk?
Who is the crazed killer?
Read on, dear reader …
We await the police, too shocked to speak. One accident was bad, two deaths is beyond belief. Though we have no reason to suspect foul play, the police will deliver the body for a routine autopsy, we start to look at each other a little askance, a little fearfully.
What is going on in our little group?
Two dear companions dead.
Jenny vanished for two days.
Now Rod and Wally are leaving our shrinking group.
David scribbling notes under the pretence of writing a Gothic tale of the group.
Surely now the walk must be abondoned, if only out of respect, but no. Will insists that we must go on; the Company (unbelievably) has offered a big discount for our troubles (perhaps to keep our mouths shut and to avoid bad publicity?) and anyway, perhaps Ralph and Maggie would have wanted us to struggle on? Maybe we are simply too stunned to resist? It is agreed and off we trudge.
Where once we were 12, now we are 7 on a long walk to Keld through squelchy moors. The wind is brisk as we climb up past the Nine Guardians and onwards across the lonely moors, half expecting to see the tormented spirits of Cathy and Heathcliff wandering before us, this being the heartland of their tragic love and the perfect setting for our own horrors.
Will is looking more harassed each day as once more we plod into a village to find the cafe promised to be open and once more shut for some unknown reason: are we cursed that we can never find a place open for lunch? No matter what day of the week or what village we stumble into, all is closed for that particular day. What tricks is England playing on us?
At dinner that night, lightning flickering and thunder threatening outside our solitary inn, Jeri is persuaded to try that fine old English dessert, namely, sticky toffee pudding. She has one mouthful, a second and falls to the ground clutching at her throat, gasping for breath, her face white. She is dying before our very eyes! An ambulance is called, Will springs into action and miraculously she is kept alive until she is taken to hospital in a swirl of siren. And then silence.
This can be no accident. We cannot deny it any longer. There is a killer at large and that person must be one of us! The hotel is sealed off under police orders and we are told to stay in our rooms and await the big guns being called in from Manchester. We scurry to our rooms, all of us placed in singles now, and lock our doors. Each of us lies awake as the storm rages and each one of us ponders ‘who is the killer?’ and ‘will I be next?’ as we listen for the sound of our door being opened in the night and the flash of a blade or –
To be continued …
What seems hours later, there is a window in the weather and the rescue helicopter arrives and poor Ralph’s body is whisked away. We try to console Maggie as we wind our way down to Shap. Nobody eats or sleeps that night and our petty grievances are lost in grief for our poor companion. What a dreadful accident.
At breakfast the next day, Maggie declares that we must go on, that Ralph would want us to continue and to fulfil his dream of completing the Coast to Coast. Afterwards she will return and collect his body, take him back to the USA and have his ashes scattered over the Grand Canyon. We agree to push on; it is a joyless day of hiking despite the glorious sunshine and the pleasures of slogging through boggy pasture after boggy pasture and stepping carefully between great piles of cow and sheep manure. Stile after stile do we clamber over.
The group is losing its identity: Bruce and David are no longer speaking; Denise the gazelle walks solitary far ahead of the herd; Jean has let slip that once she was in army intelligence and now refuses to say more; Mel complains that at breakfast they gave her activated almond milk instead of soya; Rod appears out of nowhere, walks with us for a time and disappears again with a bizarre story that he and Wally are going to see a Shakespeare play and Jeri tries to explain differential calculus to the stragglers.
At dinner that night Maggie wonders how Ralph could have fallen. She knows it must have been an accident and yet it seems so improbable: Ralph was an adventurer, a mountaineer and trekker who had even lived in the wilds of outback Australia. She knows it was a horrible accident in dreadful weather and yes, he was a risk taker bounding from boulder to boulder and yet – so she will go to the police tomorrow in Kirkby Stephen and get them to double check re the possibility of foul play. ‘It is silly, I know, but I will rest easier’.
The next day there is no Maggie or Jenny at breakfast. Jenny has complained of a sore foot and disappeared for the weekend to find a doctor; a tad strange, but we shrug and accept. Maggie, the poor thing, must be overwhelmed with grief. It comes time to leave and still no sign so Will knocks on her door; no answer, they force the door open and – oh no! – there lies sweet Maggie stone cold dead! She has died in bed of a broken heart. Romantic, of course, very Juliet or Lady of Shalott and we stand dumbstruck that this can happen still in our post modern world.
What on earth is happening in our little world?
To be continued …
It was a dark and stormy night when first our little group met in Saint Bees – actually it was not; it was a mild and pleasant evening when we gathered for dinner, met our guide Will and introduced ourselves. There were 12 of us from across the globe: one couple, two good friends travelling together and an array of singletons. With one eye on the World Cup final being played that night, we chatted and inspected each other. Was a future soul mate present? Or someone who would become a true friend long after our 13 day hike had ended? Someone to whom we had taken an immediate dislike? Our ruggedly handsome leader outlined what we could expect in the coming days and we toddled off to bed ready for our big adventure.
If only we had taken more seriously the ominous local newspaper headline so evocative of the film The Birds (attached image)!
The first 2 days passed pleasantly in weather fair and foul, yet already cliques were forming and tensions rising beneath our middle class politeness. Bruce complained that his roommate David expected tea and biscuits in bed every morning. Jean and Ralph had a heated argument on whether the lesser spotted Caledonian wood warbler was the same as the Antipodean speckled pond splasher and dark looks were exchanged. Will had been seen wandering at night tearing at his hair and muttering to himself. Could Maggie really be so sweet? Seriously? What were Rod and Wally whispering about? Jeri and Denise complained and brooded over why they were exiled from the group to different accommodation every night. All of us groaned each time Will encouraged us with ‘it is just around the corner, about 200 metres, well no more than 400, certainly less than 600 and definitely not a km’.
And Matilda observed and said nothing (name changed to protect the innocent).
It was on the third day that disaster struck! The weather turned wild as we neared the summit, the wind howling from the very depths of hell and the wind lashing our faces as we clung to the narrow path and slithered and slid our precarious way forward. Will shouted that ‘it will be better just over the hill’ and we pushed on. Then a scream of terror! One of us has fallen! Can they have survived falling onto the rocks far below? Will calls Mountain Rescue on his emergency beacon and we hear Maggie’s heart rending sobs. It is her beloved Ralph who has plunged into the darkness. We call to him, no reply. We huddle and wait, shocked and scared as the rain chills us to our very bones.
To be continued …