Behind the desk of his book-lined study, Augustus Braithwaite, headmaster of Dunsmore School for Boys, pushed his wide-rimmed spectacles back over the bridge of his nose and looked down at his breakfast plate. A mound of unappetising scrambled egg congealed atop a plinth of damp toast.
It was half term and Mrs. Thorpe would cook dinners only. For the next week, her daughter Mabel would take care of breakfast and tea for him, for the boys who had not travelled home for the holidays and for matron—the only other member of staff who was lodging at the school that week.
He shoved his plate across the leather top of his desk, picked up his coffee cup and knew from the first tentative sip that it was instant and not the Colombian roast Mrs. Thorpe always provided.
Mabel would be back soon to remove the tray. Picking up his unused cutlery, he sliced up the meal and pushed half of it into his waste paper basket. A few scrunched up pieces of notepaper followed, hiding it from view.
A sharp knock on the door drew his attention. Just in time.
The door swung inward.
Augustus manufactured a welcoming smile, which lasted only until his morning visitor stepped into view.
George Gimbel, the school’s gardener, took three paces into the room. His downcast eyes appeared to be studying the pattern of the threadbare Persian carpet. He was rotating the flat cap, which was his constant companion, through the fingers of both hands. He held the cap in front of his groin, as if it were protection from some expected attack to that quarter.
“Sorry to disturb you, headmaster.” Gimbel looked up, his arrogant glare negating his subservient stance. “But there’s been a bit of an incident. In the chapel.”
Augustus studied the gardener’s lined and weather-beaten face, waiting for him to continue. “Incident, what sort of incident?” he asked, when it became evident that no more information was likely to be forthcoming.
“It’s not very pleasant, headmaster.” Gimbel’s eyes darted up and right as if to address the bust of Herodotus that stared down at the pair from the top of the tall bookcase which covered one wall of the room. “I think you’d better come see.”
The gardener’s failure to maintain eye contact worried Augustus more than the words. He rose and rounded his desk, arm outstretched. “Lead on, Mr. Gimbel.”
Outside, the spring air was colder than the bright sunshine promised. Augustus thought about returning for his scarf, then reconsidered and followed the gardener down the wide stone steps from the school’s front door.
It was unusual for Gimbel to have called at his study or involved himself in anything that he was not confident in dealing with himself. Keep a low profile was Gimbel’s motto. Weeks would often pass when the only indication of the gardener’s existence was a recently trimmed hedge or freshly painted gate. Augustus had once toyed with the theory that Gimbel was actually a nocturnal creature. The idea had amused Stanley Shaw, Head of Lower School. Stanley had been the first member of staff to use the word vampire when referring to the school’s gardener.
The chapel was a short distance away from the main body of the school and, from the steps Augustus now descended, out of sight to its left. As they rounded the corner of the main building, he saw that the arched door of the small sandstone structure stood open.
Gimbel quickened his pace as he neared the entrance. Augustus, never one to be rushed, did not follow suit and the gardener had to wait for him to cover the final few yards of gravel pathway.
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. Augustus took one more look at the unfortunate feline and the floor beneath it. Bloody footprints trailed off in the direction from which Gimbel had approached, small footprints, too small for an adult to have made them.
“Clean this up, Mr Gimbel, if you would be so kind,” he said, “and please not a word to anyone else. No one at all. You understand?”
“Yes, headmaster. Not a word from me. Not to no one.”
“Very good.” Augustus turned and strode toward the door. It was hardly likely that the cat had strolled into the chapel at an opportune moment, which meant premeditation. His hands tightened into fists at his sides. He’d get to the bottom of this, and with so few boys in residence for the holidays it wouldn’t take long.
Excerpted from "The Cycles Turn (The Kyklos Trilogy)" by David Toft. Copyright © 2013 by David Toft. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.