Harpur ran through the alleys of tombstones. As he rushed, keeping low and running crouched, he felt a degree of consternation as he realised that his theory about the grave disturbances being the work of an animal might possibly be wrong. Inspector Boyd would love that.
Enough light from the streetlamps filtered over the wall of the cemetery for him to see his way along the dark paths between the lines of burial plots, tombs and headstones. This meant that he could also be seen, so he needed to reach the shadow beside the wall before the intruder currently climbing it reached the top.
With seconds to spare, Harpur reached the darkness behind the gate lodge and pressed himself flat against the cemetery perimeter wall. He struggled to calm his heavy breathing so that the clouds of breath billowing from his mouth into the freezing night air did not betray his position. His lungs itched to cough but that was out of the question.
Above him, on the other side of the wall, he could hear banging and clattering as someone tried to scramble up it. A harsh voice let out a curse followed by:
"Push me up God damn you! You're no help at all!"
There was obviously two-or more-of them. Harpur carefully eased the hammer of his pistol back into the firing position. Silhouetted against the street lamps the head and shoulders of a man appeared at the top of the wall. Quickly, the intruder swung his leg and body over then hung by his hands down the inside of the wall. The man let himself drop the last seven feet to the ground, alighting barely three feet away from the waiting policeman. The intruder landed heavily and rolled head over heels away from the wall, swearing like a trooper as he went.
As Harpur watched, the man rolled into a patch of light shining through the iron spikes of the gate onto Hill Hamilton's Avenue. Harpur saw his enormous, long sausage of a nose, hollow cheeks and a very high, receding hairline. The man's prominent cheekbones sat above hollow cheeks and a very wide, thin-lipped mouth. The policeman smiled. He would recognise that particularly ugly mug anywhere. It was Billy McDougal; well known petty thief, house breaker, career criminal and general ne'er-do-well of Belfast town.
Still blissfully unaware of the policeman waiting in the shadows for him, McDougal picked himself up and dusted himself down, then addressed his accomplice on the other side of the wall.
"Throw that blunderbuss over," he hissed in a loud whisper. "And get over here, damn you."
It was the time to act. Harpur wanted to arrest whoever was on the other side of the wall too but at the same time he had no desire to face an armed felon. In one swift movement he stepped forward and pressed the freezing cold steel of the barrel of his pistol against McDougal's temple.
"Don't move." Harpur said.
McDougal flinched away from the touch of the gun. He let out an almighty screech of pure terror then cowered down into a crouch, both hands raised above his head in an effort to protect himself, his cry turning to a petrified whine.
Harpur swore as he heard the clipping footsteps of McDougal's accomplice on the other side of the wall as he took to his heels and fled down the flag-stoned footpath. Turning his back to the man before him, he had to admit he was genuinely surprised at the reaction of McDougal. Bemused, he stepped forward and let the light from the gate illuminate him.
"I wouldn't have thought a hard man like you would be so scared of an old graveyard, McDougal," he said. "What are you worried about? The Ghosts?"
McDougal looked up and to Harpur's further puzzlement, a look of positive relief passed across his face when he saw Harpur's police uniform.
"Constable Harpur? Is that you? Oh thank the Lord!" he panted, trying to regain his breath while laying a hand on his chest as if to try to calm his thudding heartbeat. The two men knew each other well. Harpur had arrested him on two previous occasions.
"Billy McDougal," Harpur shook his head and tutted loudly. "You've been a pain in my arse ever since you came back to this town but you're in big trouble now. Body snatching is a very serious crime. You should have stayed in Scotland. You'll end up transported for this one. I believe Van Dieman's Land is very warm this time of year."
"Body snatching? Ach now, constable Harpur," McDougal's demeanour and expression suddenly became obsequious. "You know me. Body snatching isn't something I'd be involved in. Sure there's no money in that any more. I admit in the past I may have transgressed a bit, but I'd never be involved in a sacrilege before the Lord like that. Not a God-fearing, Christian man like myself."
Harpur grunted his derision. "Don't start that shite with me, McDougal. You're under arrest."
McDougal eyed the wicked looking gun that was pointed at his head, clearly trying to weigh up his options. Harpur's gun was not exactly standard Police equipment. The barrel was wider than most pistols which meant the calibre of bullet would do more damage when it hit you, and there seemed to be some sort of spring-loaded knife blade under the barrel. If he did not get you with the shot, he could stab you with the blade.
"Me and the lads were out for a pint. I just came in here for a pish on my way home." McDougal said.
"You were asking for a blunderbuss, McDougal," the policeman said, his tone conveying his waning patience. He could almost hear the machinations of the criminal's mind working as it raced to concoct an excuse.
At that moment a gut-churning scream rent the freezing night air.
Startled, Harpur looked towards the direction it came from, which was the little lane than ran up the side of the graveyard wall towards the vicarage. From the pitch and tone he could tell it was a woman and she sounded terrified.
The frantic trilling of a police whistle echoed through the darkness. A comrade was in trouble.
McDougal did not waste his chance. He shoved Harpur backwards then ducked sideways and sprinted off into the darkness of the graveyard. Harpur stumbled backwards but quickly recovered his balance. Cursing himself for a fool, he levelled his pistol in McDougal's direction but the felon had already disappeared behind the tombstones. Briefly he considered giving chase but suddenly the horrified scream again split the darkness and the insistent sound of the whistle demanded that he go to the aid of his fellow officer.
"Damn you McDougal!" He shouted at the silent tombstones. "I'll get you later. Don't you worry!"
Harpur uncocked his pistol to prevent it going off while he was running then sprinted for the graveyard entrance. When he got there he fumbled through the pockets of his coat till he found the heavy iron key that unlocked the little door in the wrought iron gates. The door creaked open on stiff hinges and then Harpur was out of the graveyard. He paused briefly to re-lock the entrance behind him. McDougal might well get away but Harpur wanted to make sure it was as difficult as possible for him to do it.
Once out onto Hill Hamilton's Avenue, he tore up the footpath towards Buttle's Loaney. His cold feet pounded on the flagstones, his lungs finally burst forth into a cough. The sound of the police whistle abruptly stopped but the terrified woman's screaming continued. Whoever was making the noise, she sounded utterly hysterical with fear.
Harpur reached the corner of the lane and began following the graveyard wall up the hill along the lane. On the avenue, the streetlights were at regular intervals and provided more than adequate illumination but in the lane there was only one lamp at the bottom and far up ahead through the freezing fog Harpur could just make out the fuzzy glow of another light at the very end of the lane beside the vicarage.
In between was darkness and somewhere in it lay the source of the terrified howling.
With a certain degree of trepidation, he headed into the fog towards it.