The collection chest stood by the door of the cathedral. It had become, over the years, a curious amalgamation of the old and the new. The bottom section had been made many years before, from oak. It was said that some pieces of the wood went back to pre-history times. Nobody knew for sure or if they did they weren’t about to make themselves look foolish by offering an opinion. It had a few carvings but these were not elaborate. Even at the beginning of its life the chest had been designed to be functional not decorative. The original top had been unsympathetically replaced by a clear perspex sheet. People liked to see their money in the chest or, better still, other people’s money. This sheet was held down with several silver screws with, for obvious reasons, no slots in their heads. Two, narrow slits had been cut in the perspex to allow visitors to the cathedral to drop their donations into the chest. The whole thing stood on a solid-looking trestle table.
Miss Wallis, in all her years of sitting by the entrance to the cathedral since her husband had died, had never liked it. When visitors were few and she was not occupied handing out leaflets and information about the huge cathedral, her old and rheumy eyes would sometimes stray across to the chest a few yards away. Even near the entrance to the cathedral it was gloomy in the way that early Romanesque / Norman cathedrals and churches often were. In those days walls were thick and windows restricted. One of these days she would ask for a light, she thought. Not this bishop though. Sometimes, in the gloom, she thought the chest spoke to her but she never told anybody this and certainly not what it said.
The young couple, she noticed spent longer than usual looking into the chest.
“Jen, there must be over a hundred quid in there,” the thin, weasel-like man said to the young woman next to him.
“I’ve watched them. They don’t empty it every night,” he whispered to her. “You can’t steal from a church no matter how much you’re hurting,” she replied. He looked at her with scorn.
“Why not, this church owes us. That bastard, the bishop, wouldn’t marry us would he? Said he thought we were too ‘unorthodox’ to be married in a Christian institution.”
“I suppose the bishop had his reasons,” said the young woman now looking down the cathedral to the huge and impressive stained glass window above the altar. She seemed lost in thought. His mind was made up and he needed the money. There was, she knew, no saving him. There was no saving him.
Gary waited impatiently for the last of the visitors to leave. It was half past four and already getting dark outside. Bloody crap country, he thought, dark already. He moved towards the door with the little group of tourists. When he was sure he wasn’t being watched he broke away from the group. He slid easily into the small room alongside stacks of prayer books, kneeling pads and various mops, brooms and bottles of cleaning fluids. He sunk into the gloom in the comer furthest from the door. He knew he would not be found here because they only cleaned on a Monday and today was Thursday. He also knew that the security guard never looked in here, as he was supposed to probably, before he locked the massive cathedral doors for the night. There were a dozen such spots the guard clearly didn’t think he needed to check. He would after tonight. He smiled to himself, he would have money for the weekend. He would be happy for a while.
Through the crack in the door he could see Miss Wallis tidy her desk, walk to where the security guard waited for her. They exchanged a few words, which he could not hear, then the guard swung the huge, brass doors to with a muffled clang. Gary kept the door of the small room open just a little to watch the guard set off on his circuit of the cathedral before locking up and going home. When the footsteps of the guard had faded away, he looked through the crack out into the gathering darkness. The cathedral seemed much bigger in the gloom. He noticed the silence. After a few circuits he knew the security guard would slip out a side door and go to wherever he went, home he supposed. Lucky bastard. Then he would be alone. He closed the door to wait.
Along the walls, every twenty or thirty feet small, electric lights gave off a feeble half-light. He was alone in the cathedral. Almost at once he felt the temperature drop. Bloody drugs, he thought, they mess you up, that bit’s true. He would wait an hour or so before breaking into the chest. Just to make sure nobody was coming back. He sat down on one of the pews near the gigantic organ. He could relax for a while, if anybody came back he would be sure to hear them opening the doors.
He awoke with a start. How could he have fallen asleep? He looked disbelievingly at his watch. It said ten minutes to midnight. He held his wrist closer to his face and twisted the watch so that the faint glow of the nearest light fell across the face. Yes, that was the time.
“Bloody hell,” he said aloud.
His words echoed around the vast, empty space and immediately he regretted having spoken this profanity out loud in a cathedral. He laughed or tried to. Since when had he been so sensitive to the conventions of religion?
He rubbed his eyes. The sleep had made his eyes itchy and sore. In front of the altar he saw what? Smoke, mist, he thought he saw the smoke rising. Bloody drugs, he thought again. I need to score and quick. He rubbed his eyes again. What he saw made him shudder. The smoke had changed shape into that of a man. He could not believe what he saw. He looked away. When he looked again the figure was wrapped in a cloak and hooded and all he could see was the eyes of the figure under the hood, almost glowing in the dark. He thought about getting up from where he sat but felt himself pinned as if by some unseen hand on his shoulder. He wanted to scream but no sound would come out. He must still be asleep, in a few moments he would wake from this terrible dream.
He did not, however, awake from his dream. The figure moved towards him but not in any human way. The figure moved slowly at first then seemed to move several yards without appearing to move at all. Kind of in spurts the figure moved towards him. The whole episode seemed to Gary to be in slow motion. In a second the figure of the bishop stood over him. The familiar face smiling a terrible smile. Then the cloak enveloped him. Gary knew then he would die and he screamed and screamed as the clock struck twelve. By the time the chimes had died away Gary was dead. Just another addict whose heart finally gave out under the strain.
They found him the next morning when the security man opened the doors. He was on his knees in front of the box. The box still containing the money. He seemed to have forced his hands through the narrow gap into which the money was dropped. Having managed this he had, apparently, been unable to pull them out again. The police said he must have died of heart failure trying to free himself. Of course they probably knew, as Miss Wallis did, that this was impossible. Only a supernatural strength could have driven his hands through that impossibly narrow gap. The post-mortem revealed he had died of heart failure and the look of terror on his face could be explained by his sheer panic at not being able to escape from his, self-inflicted, awful trap. That, and the state of his health, of course. The police showed little interest in a young man with a substantial record of petty theft and drug abuse.
Miss Wallis tidied the leaflets on her desk just as she always did before locking the one drawer in the desk. With one last look at the cathedral she shuffled towards the huge doors where Jim, the security man, waited for her. “I think we’re getting back to normal,” said Jim, nodding towards the collection chest.
Miss Wallis stopped. She stared at the security man with a rare clarity in her eyes. The watery film, which always seemed to coat her aged eyes, suddenly absent.
“No I don’t think it’s over yet, she said quietly.
Jen waited for a few minutes after the doors clanged shut and then walked confidently from her hiding place and towards the altar. She reversed the sign of the cross and spoke out loud.
“I will put it right,” she said.
Then she turned and walked back and sat down to wait for what she knew was to come. She could tell she was sitting where Gary had sat. She could feel his aura still slightly warmer than the surrounding space even two weeks after he died.
She waited patiently. After a few hours he came. At the far end of the nave she saw the figure appear. One second there was nothing, then, the next moment the black, hooded shape stood there silently. Even from a distance she could tell he was watching her. The hooded figure seemed to glide towards her. She stood to meet it. The bishop moved towards her with intent. When he spoke his voice was low and barely human.
“I knew you’d come. That terrible curiosity of yours. I always knew it would get you into trouble and now here you are.”
“Yes, here I am. Funny thing though. It’s not me that’s in trouble. You will follow those who were corrupt before you,” she whispered.
He ignored her warning, if that is what it was, and moved towards her. His hands went to the collar of her long coat. He started to undo the buttons. She made no attempt to stop him. His lust fuelled by her apparent compliance grew beyond his control.
“You took him to the chest didn’t you and then the box did the rest.”
“He had it coming,” he panted.
“He didn’t need to die. He was harmless and amusing.”
He did not hear her. He was beside himself with passion. How could he have explained, had he lived, that inside her coat was no body. But of course he had never lived. Eventually he understood but by then it was too late. The bishop had moved on to another diocese more terrible than this one.
A steady stream of visitors, driven inside by the winter cold, passed through the cathedral the next day. Inside the cathedral was almost as cold as outside. Many did not approach the collection chest. They believed they had a right to admire the cathedral without having to pay for the privilege. Others glanced at the money already there before slipping their donations through the holes in the top. None thought to study the chest carefully.
Even if they had done so they wouldn’t have seen the figures. In the gloom and, small as they were, they escaped even the most observant of visitors. Had they had a torch available and stood for a long time a visitor, who knew what he was looking for, might have seen them. They might just have seen the seven tiny figures sitting motionless around the sides of the bottom of the chest. They rarely moved knowing that there was no escape. On this particular morning the really observant visitor with time on their hands might just have seen the tiny, hooded figure standing screaming silently as the money fell towards him.
Miss Wallis could see the bishop and the seven other tiny figures of former bishops that sat around the edge of the chest. She looked at the latest figure, curious for a while.
“They’ll be looking for a new bishop again,” she said to herself. She did not see Jen behind her. Jen spoke.
“Better get a good one this time,” she said.
“Yes, they’d better,” said Miss Wallis. “Or there will be hell to pay.”