Warwickshire, 2022 AD
In the early phases of my psychic investigations, I received letters from trolls and cranks as well as from a few people with a genuine interest in the supernatural. Thankfully, they have become fewer as my investigative work is now largely under the aegis of HM Secret Services. However, the recent events connected with the finding of the Ely Abbey Treasure has set me under public scrutiny once more. This is reflected in the number of begging letters, cranky notes and abusive missives that now overflow from bags destined to the paper recycling plant.
Luckily, my wife, Alice, acts as my assistant and sorts the correspondence, eliminating the dross and creating a small in-tray of those worthy of attention. I trust her implicitly with this task. Occasionally it happens that I’m urged by her outraged expression to inquire about some of the worst examples and to share in her indignation, generally ridiculing the sender enough to transform her face into one of amusement.
I was settled in the brown leather swivel chair of my study sorting through the mail when I came upon a letter from Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire:
Dear Mr Conley,
I’m writing to you because ¾ I’ll spare you the tedious details and get straight to the part that caught my eye¾my attention was first drawn to the line by the unusual behaviour of the birds. Geese fly along it, never deviating from place to place. At the end of the summer, swallows invariably follow the same course. Only when I studied it on an ordnance survey map, did I notice the arrow-like route passing through various sites of a particular nature. If I might be so bold, I believe there is an earth force joining them. Thus began my daily walks along the sixteen-mile route upon which I felt I was beginning to have a deeper insight into the world around me and in particular, the wildlife, the buzzards circling overhead¾there followed a long series of examples of creatures of various sizes and species ending with a discourse of communing with assorted plants and even inanimate rocks. I would have dismissed the writer as simply another crank at this point, but something written below stopped me from crumpling the sheet and tossing it in the bin. Sadly, I have been forced to abandon my uplifting walks. A shadowy being began to haunt my path. At first, I put it down to my imagination but on subsequent occasions, its presence was accompanied by sensations. The hair on my arms stood up and I felt a tingling followed by an unnatural coldness given the warmth of the day. Sir, I’m convinced this entity meant me no harm but that it was not of our time. I’m not a courageous person and could not find it in me to continue my walks. I feel sure that if I had, I would have finally seen the ghost. Surely, it would have manifested itself to me as more than a shade. Your reputation as a psychic who has had dealings with the supernatural spurred me to contact you. I hope you will not consider this imp¾again, I’ll cut to the essence of the letter¾and so, if you are interested and could spare the time, I would be honoured to invite you to a meeting in my home. Please call me on 7549 176¾ [I have truncated his number out of correctness] if you could see your way to obliging me.
Alice had thought it sufficiently interesting as not to consign it straight to the bin. She’d placed it on the small to-be-read pile and I admit my interest was more than a little piqued. I’d reached a state of boredom waiting for Sir Clive Cochrane’s dreaded call, made more fearful in my mind the longer it failed to come. I called through my open study window to Alice who was wielding a soapy spray, hunting spider mites among the multicoloured zinnias.
She came over and accompanied a smile with a raised eyebrow.
“This letter from Tewkesbury, what do you think of it?”
She frowned, pursed her lips and shook her head. “I’m not sure, but there’s something intriguing about it and more than Mr Gooch¾
“Gough, Aria Gough. Unusual name, isn’t it?”
“Yes, well, I think he’s holding something back. I don’t know why, call it an instinct. In any case, it looks quite your sort of thing, Jake. I know you’re restless. Why don’t you ring him?”
“From the letter, it sounds like a ghost is haunting his footpath and if that’s true, I’m interested, all right. I’ll phone him now.”
Alarm bells should have started ringing the moment I discovered that Mr Gough was an intelligence researcher who commuted the ten miles along the motorway to the Doughnut¾ the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham. With hindsight, it surprises me I didn’t go straight on the defensive. I put that down to his pleasant, reliable appearance. In his early thirties, he was dressed conservatively, clean-shaven, tidy haircut and a charming smile. He surrounded himself with reassuringly normal books and boxed sets of TV series, some of which I’d enjoyed myself since I tend to binge-watch those that grab me. Physically in pretty good shape, Gough was very tall with walnut skin, grey hair and green eyes. He confessed to his love of hiking, “…which of course, is why I wrote to you, Mr Conley. If you’ll allow me,” he reached for a rolled-up chart and spread it across a wide tile-topped coffee table, which looked home-made, and deliberately cleared to create space for this demonstration, which was a pity for him because at that moment, his wife, Ishbel, another scientist, chirped, “Move that map, Aria, I need the table for tea and biscuits.”
I was impressed that he obeyed instantly with nothing more than a loving smile and a nod. A very stable character, Mr Gough.
As soon as the ceremony was over¾and I must say, I do appreciate white tea, and Ishbel’s home-baked biscuits were quite delicious¾he spread out the map and with some relish pointed out the route of his regular walk, which began nine miles from his home at Pershore Abbey, where he parked, then hiked passed Bredon Hill, through Beckford, Little Washbourne, which I knew as a splendid Cotswolds village, and ended at Winchcombe Abbey. My first thought was what a coincidence as the route started and ended with an abbey and I said so.
He looked up and smiled, “As a matter of fact, it was pure coincidence, at least, I imagine the first time I walked it, I’d had enough tramping and felt that ending there was appropriate – but with what I know now,” he said mysteriously, “I’m not so sure. Look!” He moved rapidly to a cupboard and came back bearing a metre-long ruler and pencil. Laying it on the map, he joined the two abbeys and firmly pencilled a line joining them. Removing the wooden straightedge, “What do you observe, Mr Conley?”
Before I could assimilate the details, I was surprised to hear Mrs Gough, in the background, murmur, “It’s all bloody nonsense!”
Either her husband didn’t hear her or chose to pretend otherwise, his concentration on my face never wavered, waiting for my conclusions. They were quick in coming because his point was obvious.
“The line passes through religious sites,” I tapped the first abbey, St Mary’s church, Beckford, and the final abbey.”
“And?” he pressed, like a schoolmaster, which irritated me.
“And…ancient monuments,” my finger indicated again, “Elmley Castle, here, Bredon Hill¾that’s an Iron Age settlement, isn’t it?¾he nodded assent and I continued, “an ancient manor house here, and, finally, the Belas Knapp long barrow.”
He grinned at me, his green eyes shining with enthusiasm, “And look here, just off the line, but close enough to count, is Sudeley Castle. Do you know what we’ve got here, Mr Conley? A ley line!”
“Piffle!” Ishbel said. The scorn she put into the one word was worth a volume. I imagined her scientific mind was far too sceptical to cope with anything even vaguely irrational. It prompted me into a reaction, “As Cardinal Newman said, one cannot rationalise about the irrational, Mrs Gough.”
It earned me a scowl and a query, “Are you Catholic, then, Mr Conley?”
“Please call me Jake, both of you…and no, I’m not a Catholic, but the cardinal had a point. I suppose you’ve read about my encounter with a homicidal ghost at Elfrid’s Hole?”
She frowned and tilted her head, wrinkled her nose and said, “There are some things about that I’d like to take up with you.”
Her husband cut in, “Not now, darling, perhaps over dinner. You will stay for dinner, I hope Jake? Ishbel’s a great cook!” He cast her a loving glance.
Since her biscuits were a recommendation, I accepted like a shot.
“I’d be delighted, thank you very much.”
“Anyway,” Aria said, “Back to business, as I was saying, it’s a ley line, I’m sure. And my ghost proves it.” He tapped his forefinger on the pencilled line at a place called Wick. I’ve done my homework,” he smiled up at me, “there are historic sightings of the ghost of a monk here. It was a funeral path, you know, from Pershore Abbey to Wick. Jake, there’s an interesting theory, and it’s why I wrote to you, that there are heightened psychic activities along ley lines. You’ll find sightings in several places on this one.”
I have to admit, at that moment, I was so taken by the possibility of encountering ghosts that I forgot about mistrusting him, something I’d decided when I discovered his profession. Instead, I was raring to investigate the psychic phenomena along his route. Little did I realise at that cheerful moment how much the investigation would change my life and what important information he had withheld.