The Venatio – an extract

LUKE GILFEDDER tells a dark tale of Cheshire

Crime writer Stephen Niskus suspects that his long-lost school friend, Alexei Orphonov, is a serial killer. When he catches sight of Alexei in Alderley Edge, he embarks upon an urgent quest to prevent another murder. But Stephen’s investigations soon lead him into a far more tangled and deadly web than he could ever have imagined, one whose origins lie in the heathen history of The Edge, yet whose far-reaching strands threaten to re-engineer the future of humanity itself


A black-suited six-footer descended the steps of Manchester Victoria station. He twitched his Celto-Lancastrian nose like a rabbit. There was a storm coming, one of those Pentecostal storms which occur only in this region of hills and neogothic spires, tall as obelisks, when dams burst, roofs are swept away, squares are flooded, and every lead pipe becomes a fountain. After a few meaningless but magnanimous hours that had resembled good weather, so Manchester was, on cue, creaking back into its rainy groove like a tram proudly regaining its rails. The man signalled a taxi and gave an Alderley Edge address. Streets of angry red brick assumed a tone of purple as they drove out of town, until, beneath the uncertain and swinging illumination of a Northern gale, the skyline of his youth became but a badly smudged Lowry, an opaque deepening of twilight itself.

Fifteen miles later, the taxi’s headlights swept down the cobbled and very superior half-mile of Woodbrook Road, where bronchial trees soared high in the darkness, and medievalish lampposts bore aloft wavering haloes of golden drizzle. “People think Cheshire as flat as a pancake,” said the driver, “and it is for the most part, but not ‘ere.” Six hundred feet high and three miles long, the detached mass of the Edge rose from the Cheshire Plain, a long-backed hill that was tall and sombre and dark. Estates crept down its slopes, stepping on their own shadows.

At the base of the wooded sandstone hill was Alderley itself, the “best” postcode in all of Cheshire. It was Cheshire’s Kensington, its Linlithgow, its Sandycove, its Charlottenlund, and (to the Welsh at least) its Cowbridge. Alderley was rich in the early aura of old halls, fallen fortunes, and county families common to so many of too many English autobiographers. Much rarer in the North than the South, Stephen Niskus thought, but only mildly less intolerable. During the day, the Edge would hum with the sounds of Alderley villagers, be they cashmere-draped ramblers trampling down the dead leaves or the self-exiled grandchildren of the self-made racing their smoke-blue Mercedes’. But at dusk, such life withered in a moment, and the sounds became those of the wood, the crystal tongues of water and nightingale, and the heathen murmurings of Roman mines and druid bones lay beneath the marl.

The deluge was so great now that visibility was cut to a few yards; rain lashed against the windows, tearing the streetlight into golden shrapnel. The taxi turned off the bottom of Woodbrook onto Mottram Lane, which, having shaken off the shadow of the Edge, ran more straight and free. Cricket fields lay on the right, nude and white as blanched nut kernels, while a swim of oxblood manors and Mississippian mansions drifted by on the left, each with cactus and bamboo trees leaden in their greenness, sad feathery shafts dripping water, intense against the dark sky. The driver said:

“Strange weather, isn’t it?”

Stephen was slavonically mute. He had never been the type to answer a curt “yes” to such observations, nor to reply with a similarly hackneyed phrase. The driver continued:

“An’ they were sayin’ this might turn to snow overnight. Don’t think we’ve had a white Christmas since 2010.”

Stephen managed to say, “really?” and stroked a disinterested hand through neat terraces of auburn hair.

“Aye. I’d steer well clear of the Edge though tonight, it being the solstice an’ all. The crackpots’ll all be out in force.”

Alderley looked strange and melancholy in its moon-polished state, with only a few Brueghel-like characters, necks swathed in mufflers, stalking about the lanes like plump wraiths. It reminded Stephen of Prague last winter, of mist in the gingerbread gothic square, the bells of Týn Church echoing in their black Catholicly way, and of a tyrolean-hatted shadow receding into the darkness down Alchemist Alley. A nostalgia at least half revulsion affected him, only to be dissipated by the driver’s voice:

“What do you do, son, if you don’t mind my asking? Couldn’t help but notice all of them tags on your luggage.”

“I’m a crime writer,” said Stephen, “I’ve just finished a promotional tour.”

“Oh, really?” the driver replied with raised (or over-raised) eyebrows. A twenty-something living on his wits — what! — a label which, harmless as it may sound to foreign ears, somehow in England confers upon a person a moral ambiguousness. “I knew I’d seen your face around. You were in Cheshire Life, weren’t you? The missus reads it.”

He continued to talk as the taxi turned onto the high street, but Stephen no longer listened. His eyes closed. Being back in Alderley provoked other memories, the rain encouraging them to unfold like those Japanese flowers that open in water. He recalled being dressed in his confirmation suit, drenched to the skin, that first day he alighted at an autumn-leaved Alderley station which was quite unlike the godforsaken one (broken mirrors, tattered plush, arsoned vending machines) from which he had set out. Stephen had just passed the entrance exam for Manchester Grammar School, the “Eton of the North”, and it had divided his life as cleanly as Roald Dahl’s Boy and Going Solo. He had not gone to a poor primary: indeed, the best Catholic schools were all in the North, for the Reformation, like blood from the feet when the arteries harden, could not push up so far so easily. But his eschewal of the local Catholic secondaries (St. Ambrose and Cardinal Newman) meant that his life swiftly became one of two towns, two skies and two-tone shoes: streets of fatal poverty gave way onto a world of fatalistic wealth, Michaelmas blues, bonfire moons, and gothic quads, not to mention those metallic-green lawns whose edges you could slice your finger on, the eternal wait for fifth-period break after Double Latin, that most wintery of phases ‘Lent Term’, and, last but not least, Little Arthur’s History of England with its sketch of the Princes in the Tower, those two royal princes, so innocently embracing, so soon to be smothered. What only child could look upon them without a disturbance?

“Typical,” the driver tut-tutted as they hit the Christmas traffic on London Road, “would you look at the way they park…”

Stephen lowered the window to let out the smell of the driver’s cigarette, admitting a gust of rain and the sounds of swishing tyres on the wet asphalt. His taxi halted at the lights. He peered across the road. A Daimler Sovereign had drawn up outside De Trafford hotel as two silhouettes emerged from the lobby’s golden oblong. One was a boy, head held like an emperor stag, and the other a vulturine old man. The boy eased the aged fellow into the waiting Daimler, and as he did so, shot a glance up at Stephen’s taxi, sharp and swift as the click of a camera. Then he tilted the head away with that same arrogance made up of having stared at you, measured your value, and decided you were not there. That same! Stephen felt the stab of recognition as keenly as a knife on a wintery mountaintop. He was about to leap out of the taxi and shout hello when the boy vanished into the Daimler. The vehicle cleared its throat and, tyres slewing, sped toward the private road labyrinth of Nether Alderley.

The traffic lights remained mulishly red. Stephen was tempted to tell his driver to give chase, but he rapped on the partition screen and said:

“Would you please stop outside that hotel?”

“But we’re almost at Davey Lane!”

“Yes, but I’ve remembered I have to see someone. It’s urgent.”

The taxi turned into De Trafford’s horseshoe driveway, joining a flotilla of taxis who sought with the unwieldy wariness of reluctant machinery a place to park. Stephen leapt out by the flood-lit fountain and shouted:

“Wait for me here. I shan’t be two minutes.”

The trees flanking the hotel were shivering and erect. Above the half-hearted portico, smoky clouds were gathering, twirling in triskelions. Stephen took the shallow steps two at a time, the keen air of the dying year resisting each stride. He had the door open before the commissionaire could oblige. The very wood of the reception felt full of the imminent snowstorm. A teenage girl stood behind the hostess stand with her pentathletic head thrust forth. Stephen approached her.

“Excuse me, there was a young lad who left here a second ago. Do you have a name? Is he staying here?” He added: “I believe he’s an old school friend.”

“Gosh, I couldn’t say. We’ve had such a busy night tonight; it’s our Christmas buffet. All traditional Cheshire food, sir. There’s still some left if you’d like: Potted Pigeon, Fidget Pie, Rabbit Brawn, Chester Pudding…”

“I’m sure,” said Stephen. “But could I please see a guest list?”

Her eyebrows were ruched as she turned to find a manager. Stephen cursed the impulsivity which went along with his red hair— how often it led him into scrapes like this! He’d only seen the boy thirty feet away through a rain-spattered window. He could have been anyone… couldn’t he? A moment later, the girl returned with the list. Stephen scanned it twice, then shook his head and handed it back. She apologised and said:

“We did have a cancellation earlier, now I come to think of it. It was taken by an older gentleman, I would have thought he was with his grandson, but the boy didn’t seem local. His name was Alex, I think?”

“Alex?” Stephen pressed. “Could it have been Alexei? Alexei Orphonov?”

“It might have been… I’m so sorry, but I couldn’t say for sure.”

Stephen gave a rare double smile of eye and mouth. “Never mind, you’ve already been most helpful.”

“A pleasure, Mr Niskus.”

“You know my name?”

“Of course! I read your novel. How do you pronounce it, The Venatio? I love a good whodunit, but I have to say, I never saw that twist coming.”

Stephen thanked the girl again and then turned to leave. Thoughts of Alexei obscured the anonymous farewells of women pursuing him from the gaping mouth of the lobby. Before him, taxis began to purr, and keen patches of light sped over the slushy wastes of the drive. The word “venatio” echoed in his mind as he zippered his coat, offering the minuscule pleasure that one word from Double Latin had returned amid this electrifying turn of events. Vēnātiō: the hunt, a hunting spectacle. They taught Latin well at Manchester Grammar School. He climbed back into his taxi.

“Fun and games over for tonight, sir?” The driver inquired.

“No,” Stephen said, “they have only just begun.”