A clerical detective story by PDJ Aymes

Commander Eve Melhuilish awoke to the first four bars of the second movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. It was her telephone. She skilfully disentangled herself from the hirsute arms of Ben, the rugby-playing counter-tenor who shared her life. He was fast asleep. His evening had been spent – as appeared from his present condition – in Will Carling rather than James Bowman territory. She answered it.

‘I suppose you realise that it’s bloody six-thirty.’

‘Indeed.’ The voice was that of Adrian Haygarth, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Time was when a Commander of the Met would have stood to attention at the sound of so exalted a voice, even on the telephone. As it was, Eve merely smiled to herself at the thought of responding to his clipped and precise diction, perched, as she was on, the edge of a somewhat mangled duvet in nothing but her Janet Regers. That, she told herself, was girl power.

‘This Lambeth Palace business. The Home Secretary wants the matter dealt with successfully and expeditiously – culprits arrested, property returned, etc, etc. I have information from a very reliable source that a prime suspect, one Jack Springer, an American bishop from somewhere on the East coast, is presently in West Sussex. He’s about to fly off to Melbourne, or Adelaide, or one of those places. Get down there today will you, and put the pressure on?’

The name of the Rt Revd John Tracey Springer was not unknown to the Commander. She had always supposed, from her Church History, that heresiarchs were, like dragons, a thing of the past. But not so. Springer, she discovered, had, in a thoroughly modern way, made an industry out of unbelief. As Bishop of Newhaven he had skilfully denied, in a series of notorious books, every doctrine which Christians have ever held dear. Those slender volumes had paved the way for him, in retirement, to tour the lecture circuit, like a discredited Soviet statesman – thus enhancing his (not overly generous) pension and paying off, at one and the same time, the alimony from his latest (somewhat acrimonious) divorce.

Eve dressed hurriedly, grabbed her keys from beside the overflowing dishwasher, and made for the car. Once she had safely negotiated the Elephant and Castle (where traffic was already building up), she phoned Whelan.

Tom Whelan, a detective sergeant of pedestrian intellect and no ambition, was her chosen assistant on cases of complexity and import. He was reliable, thorough and unopinionated. What is more, he held the Commander in a respect, not to say affection, which might have caused Ben concern had he learned about it. Whelan answered immediately from the intensely private tidiness of his one bed-roomed flat in Maida Vale.

‘I want everything you can get on Bishop Jack Springer. A copy of all five of his books, a curriculum vitae, and any rumblings from the CIA. Meet me at the Goring Arms on Steyning High Street at 11.30 sharp.’

Springer (as Eve had learned from Haygarth) was staying at a retreat house and convention centre, ‘Buncton Lees’, somewhere between Steyning and Bramber. ‘The Lees’, founded as a grateful nation’s memorial to Archbishop Frederick Temple, was celebrating the hundredth anniversary of its inception with a course of lectures which would have rendered the Grand Old Man apoplectic with rage. Bishop Jack’s contribution was to be a hatchet job on the doctrine of the Incarnation, billed, of course, as a spiritual preparation for Christmas.

* * *

Whelan had some difficulty in tracking down all Springer’s publications, but he arrived with his bag of books and a sparse collection of papers about two minutes ahead of time. Melhuilish told him to get a drink and offered her own glass for a refill. The sergeant returned with a pint of Guinness and a gin and tonic. Eve was going over the assembled evidence.

‘Three times divorced; four times married. Is that about par for the course for American bishops, or are we dealing with an enthusiast? The books are predictable – all of the A Bishop Rethinks the Virgin Birth type, except for the most recent one, Liberal Evangelization’

‘Not so much a title, more an oxymoron, ‘said Whelan. Melhuilish ignored the comment. Wit was not a quality to be encouraged in a sergeant.

‘Well,’ she said, finally dumping the books and papers back into his lap, ‘nothing much there. Nothing more interesting than a little non-violent protest about the Vietnam draft. We had better go and encounter the Beast of Newhaven face to face.’

Buncton Lees is an extravagant exercise in Victorian Jacobean, all heraldic newel posts and linenfold panelling. They found Jack Springer, as the bursar predicted, making a telephone call to Johannesburg from a vast wing chair beside the Library fireplace. He was, thought Eve, a classic example of the matinee idol gone to seed. His skin was reptilian; but his smile was radiant from a lifetime of unremitting charm.

‘It’s rather entertaining to be a suspect in such a very churchy affair,’ he began when the purpose of the interview became plain. ‘At least it goes to prove that I am still well thought of – or thought of, at least – in those clannish circles. But I am not sure that I can say anything that will help you. On the evening of March 31 I was lecturing on ‘St Paul as a Closet Gay’ to a private association of Anglican clergymen calling itself ‘The Central Line’. We concluded with a glass of whisky about 11.00pm and I returned to my lodgings at St Matthew’s, Westminster by about midnight. I slept alone (my wife is presently visiting an aunt in Toronto) and came down to breakfast the next morning promptly at eight. Not much of an alibi, I agree; but then I don’t need one. I am myself my own alibi. What would a post-Christian bishop like me be doing scrabbling around in a medieval cellar in order to abduct a sub-credal scrap of paper. Look elsewhere, my dear Commander, is my advice to you.’

Next month in ‘Quadrilateral’: Commander Melhuilish visits South East Asia.