Friday, 8 December 2017

Brightly Shone the Moon that Night: Part 1

Those who regularly tune in here will probably regard me first and foremost as a crime and thriller writer, but they may also be aware that I’m no stranger to writing horror stories. And usually, at this festive time of year, I like to post one of these in full, unabridged form right here on this blog. Invariably, in accordance with the season, I pick one that has a Christmas or wintry atmosphere. This year will be no exception. However, on this occasion, things are to be slightly different.

It’s long been my ambition to write something for my main cop character, DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg, set during Yuletide. And, earlier this year, an idea suggested itself that I knew I simply had to go with.

Now, your first reaction may be that cops and Christmas ghost stories don’t always mix, and you know what, I suspect you’d be right. But, I’d also remind you that horror fiction does not have to concern the supernatural to chill us to the marrow. And while in the world of Heck, I have a strict ‘no supernatural’ rule, our hero still has terrifying experiences while pursuing the worst of the worst in some of the very darkest places imaginable.

I won’t say any more about that now. But hopefully, you’ll be intrigued enough to continue. Because what we have here today is a brand-new Heck novella – BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT – which, as you’ll guess from the title, has a Christmas theme, and will hopefully scare you as much as any of those classic spook stories.

For those who are newcomers to Heck, you join him here in the early 2000s, when he’s about seven years into the job, and is currently still a divisional detective constable. Though a northerner by origin, Heck is displaced from his family and living and working in London, where he doesn’t yet feel entirely at home.

So, here we go. This is PART ONE.

(PART TWO will appear right here next week, Friday December 15, and PART THREE, the final installment, on Friday December 22).

Hope you all enjoy, and best wishes for the season …


BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT

 

1

When they’d forecast snow for that evening, Jen hadn’t expected the real deal. How often did you get proper snow in central London, especially at Christmas?
     On Christmas Eve itself it was a real rarity, whatever had happened back in Charles Dickens’s day. Jen had once read that London was a hotter city now than it had been in the nineteenth century. Apparently, back then, they’d even used to hold a Christmas fair on the River Thames, with stalls and tents erected on top of the ice. Yet the Thames had never frozen in her memory, and she was a London girl through and through; she’d never lived anywhere else in her whole forty years. But apparently that was because there were lots of underground fixtures these days. Not just the Tube, but sewers, electric cables, pipes full of gas and hot water, all of which pumped heat up through the pavements and the road surfaces. And of course, there were more and higher buildings too, and these were also centrally heated and full of electricals and hot water cisterns, and apparently the warmth from these would permeate the whole atmosphere above the city.
     So, though inner London could be cold, it had to be really cold for a traditional snowy scene to develop. Tonight, therefore, it must be really, really cold.
     Everyone would think it was wonderful, of course. All those idiots out there, getting drunk as mops. They’d say it made everything ‘dead Christmassy’ as they blundered from one pub to the next, the blokes in short-sleeved shirts with their collars undone, the girls in strappy dresses with high hems and even higher heels, all of them so blotto that they wouldn’t realise how frozen they were. By midnight, some of them would be lying in gutters, or snoring on park benches, and still not feeling it.
     You really had to be inebriated to get into that state, which was another ridiculous thing. How many Christmas Days did these people spend feeling like Hell, suffering with sledgehammer headaches, turning nauseous at the first sniff of brandy-cream on the pud?
     So self-defeating. So childish.
     As Jen cogitated on this, she stood by the front window under the loops of fancy paper, smoking and watching the snow come relentlessly down, covering Jubilee Crescent in a pristine white carpet. But, she told herself, even if she had indulged in a glass of Sheridan’s coffee liqueur this evening, even if it was still in her left hand, the ice cubes clinking as she struggled to suppress her annoyance with the rest of the drinking public, she was not being a hypocrite. She wouldn’t be having much more than this. Oh, she enjoyed a glass or two, but she knew about the downsides of heavy drink; she’d gone through too much of it, firstly with her old fella, and then, later on, with Ronnie.
     She had similar contradictory viewpoints where Christmas itself was concerned.
     On one hand, it was a holiday – so that was a positive. Anything that got her away from the supermarket till for a day or two. And as a child, she’d loved it. Even though they’d never had a spare penny, her mum had done what she could with their Stepney Green council flat, somehow getting their single strand of fairy lights to work each year, using tin foil shapes on the sideboard Christmas tree, snipping real holly from the bushes in the park and putting it on the mantel, behind the Christmas cards. And Jen had received gifts, as well. Nothing hugely expensive, none of the luxury toys you saw in the front windows of Harrods or Hamleys, but delights all the same. A pretty dress maybe, or a pair of new shoes; possibly a selection box as a back-up present, or a Christmas annual. She’d done all right.
     And of course, it wasn’t just about the presents.
     Christmas had been … well, Christmas, with its atmosphere of fun and excitement, its aura of magical mystery. She’d always enjoyed participating in the Nativity shows at school, or going to church at midnight, seeing the candle-light flicker on the evergreens and the crib.
     But then, there was that other side of the coin.
     As a child, it had never been perfect that she and her mum had spent so many Christmas Day afternoons up at Pentonville, visiting her dad. And it fascinated and bamboozled her that things were exactly the same now, only this time it was Belmarsh, which took longer to get to, though at least it was in London (for the first two years of his sentence, Ronnie had been in Wakefield, which had been a half-day’s train ride). Of course, wherever these loved ones were incarcerated, there was no real joy to be had. And that was despite Jen trying very hard, putting on a face for Ronnie, dressing sexily for him. That latter was a challenge in itself, as she got older and heavier.
     Perhaps it was no surprise that when she actually sat down and thought about Christmas, it was unavoidably tinged with melancholy.
     But there was no point pondering such things.
     She drew the curtains on the tumbling flakes, crossed the living room of her little terraced house, turned the gas-fire up till it filled the room with its furnace glow, and then settled in the armchair, putting her slipper-clad feet on the poof.
     Christmas was what it was, and you had to make the best of it.
     Anyway, it wasn’t like she’d be completely alone. She’d be going to see Ronnie tomorrow. Have a good couple of hours with him. And in the meantime, she had her other best friend, which was the telly. Its screen was alive with festive frolics. Ken Dodd was presenting a pantomime from Blackpool. That bloke was honestly amazing; seventy-odd, and still going strong. As if that wasn’t enough, Hale and Pace were the broker’s men. Plus, in case she got peckish, she had a couple of slices of pizza left – the box was on the floor in front of the fire, while a bowl of popcorn sat on the table to her right, and a box of chocolates on her left. And if all else failed, and her defiant bonhomie didn’t last, there was still that bottle of Sheridan’s in the fridge. Okay, it wouldn’t be the epitome of a happy Christmas, but there were lots of worse things.
     At which point, there came knocking on Jen’s front door ...

*

‘You sure you really want this?’ Gwen Straker asked.
     Heck looked up from his desk. ‘I’m here, ma’am. Nobody else.’
     She walked to the office window. Heck continued leafing through the pile of documents in front of him. Heck was only his nickname, of course. In reality, he was Detective Constable Mark Heckenburg; mid-twenties, six/one, of a lean but athletic build. He had black hair, usually in a state of collar-length unruliness, and rugged but likeable features. Though he’d been in the Metropolitan police for several years now, he’d not yet honed away his native Lancashire accent, though it was fading slightly.
     In contrast, Gwen Straker, whose full title was Detective Inspector Gwen Straker, was a native Londoner all the way, born not far from here, in Shoreditch. She was still something of a rarity in the police, even in the forward-thinking Met, in that she was a black woman who’d made rank. It hadn’t been easy for her, but she was in her late thirties now, so she’d got past all the ‘Cleopatra Jones / Foxy Brown’ mickey-taking. Hell, she’d often thought, she’d have given a lot to look even a little bit like Tamara Dobson or Pam Grier – but she was where she was on merit, not through any form of positive discrimination, and was now well respected both for her detective skills and her man-management style, the latter in particular. In truth, she did look a little like Pam Grier – she’d even had the long hair at one stage, though now she kept it short and curled, and she never, ever played the hardcase honey. Gwen knew about life, but had taken a leaf out of her church-going Grenadian parents’ book, and prided herself on being affable and approachable, almost maternal where her own officers were concerned – so long as they didn’t wind her up too much.
     She stood by the window and teased open the blind, looking more than ready to go home in her jeans, block-heels and long leather coat, but stopped in her tracks by the whiteout that greeted her.
     ‘Damn … check out this seasonal weather, and you stuck in the office!’
     ‘Think I’d rather be out there, chucking snowballs?’ Heck asked. ‘Building snowmen?’
     She watched him for a second or two, vaguely disapproving. ‘Mark … you absolutely sure you want to cover tonight?’
     He laughed. ‘I don’t think any of the others would be happy if you called them back in now, saying I’d changed my mind at the last minute.’
     ‘I could step in for you. I‘m on-call, anyway.
     He pulled a face. ‘You’ve got two kids.’
     ‘They’re not really kids.’
     ‘Okay, they’re teenagers. They’ll still want their mum with them on Christmas Eve.’
     ‘Joking, aren’t you? They’ll be out on the razzle. Santa’s not that big a draw these days.’
     He shrugged. ‘Just leaves you and Dom. Hey, perhaps this year you can treat him to a different kind of stocking-filler.’
     ‘Cheeky sod,’ she said. But then seemed to think about it. ‘Not the worst idea, though.’ She moved to the door. ‘Okay, I’ll love you and leave you.’
     ‘G’night, ma’am.’
     ‘Happy Christmas, Mark.
     ‘And you.’
     ‘Try to have a good one, okay?’
     He nodded.
     ‘Nothing you need?’
     ‘All I’ve got to do is knock this court file into shape,’ he said. ‘Assuming I don’t get a call-out.’
     She pondered that with a grimace. ‘There’ll be lots of work for Uniform tonight, I’m sure. Especially Traffic. With luck, nothing so serious will happen that it requires a detective.’
     ‘Ten out of ten for making it sound like you believe that’ll be the case, ma’am.’
     ‘Humour me, Mark.’ She opened the door. ‘I just don’t want something terrible to happen on Christmas Eve.’
     ‘Whatever it is, ma’am … I doubt it’ll be terrible.’

*

Before she even reached the front door, Jen was surprised to hear what sounded like carol singing. She halted, listening in wonder, even though a chill blew into the tiny hallway from where she’d forgotten to apply the draught-excluder, turning it into an ice-box.

          O Little town of Bethlehem
          How still we see thee lie …

     It was delightful. A deep, harmonious baritone. Male of course, the product of a single voice. Ordinarily, that latter fact wouldn’t fill her with enthusiasm, especially on this night of all nights. But it penetrated the frigid air in a most stirring, emotionally affecting way, evoking memories long buried …

          Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
          The silent stars go by …

     The distorted view through the fisheye lens of the peephole didn’t always tell the full story. In all the time Jen had been living alone – this was her third Christmas without Ronnie – she’d felt most vulnerable during the long, dark nights of winter. It was never difficult to picture someone with bad intentions perhaps setting up an innocent-looking lure, a woman or a child, in front of the peephole, while he crouched just out of sight, ready to spring as soon as the door was opened. He wouldn’t even need to do that. Her narrow strip of front garden contained only rubbish, but there’d be nothing to stop him stepping to one side of the door and concealing himself there. And in the heavy snow, it could be even more deceptive. 
     She peered out anyway, and rather to her surprise, because she could still hear only one voice …

          Yet in thy dark streets shineth
          The everlasting light …

     … there were three of them, and they’d donned fancy dress. It was difficult to be sure as the snow was pasting everything solid white, but it looked as if they were in period Victorian costume. Which was kind of nice – and not at all what Jen had expected.
     Was this part of a church choir then? It was suitably melodious; more than that, really. An amateur dramatics group, perhaps? Either way, someone raising money for charity.
     And that was no bad thing on Christmas Eve.
     ‘Not be a minute,’ she called through the door. ‘Keep singing. It sounds really nice.’
     She had some loose change on the mantel, a few pound coins and a fiver left over from when she’d ordered the pizza earlier. On which subject, it was a damn good job she’d ordered that pizza when she had. It was highly unlikely they’d be making deliveries now. The roads were all but blocked. Perfect festive conditions, but a nightmare if you had to drive anywhere.
     She bustled back to the door, shoving the loose change into the pocket of her dressing gown, deciding to give them the fiver.
     That was rather a lot, but it was all in a good cause.
     In truth, Jen didn’t remember when she’d last heard carol singers on the doorstep. It had happened all the time when she was a child. At least, she’d assumed it would have done, had she not lived on the fourth floor. She’d been out carol singing, herself, back then. Okay, it was a form of begging; she and her mates must have looked a right set of urchins in their scruffy bob-caps and ragged old scarves and mittens, their dirty cheeks tinged winter-pink under ratty fringes as they offered terrible renditions of those few carols they knew.
     And O Little Town of Bethlehem had probably been one of them. Mind, the chap outside had now moved on to God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, and it was equally enchanting.

          To save us all from Satan’s power.
          When we were gone astray …

     For some reason, just as Jen was about to open the front door, that word induced a temporary pause.
     Satan.
     How ridiculous, though. Why should it mean anything negative in this context?
     Erm … maybe because there was someone at her front door and it was ten o’clock at night, and she didn’t know who they are … and yet she was still about to open up.
     Yeah, but it’s Christmas, she told herself. And these people are carol singers.
     Which, as she’d already acknowledged, were so rare on the streets these days as to be almost non-existent.
     She still intended to open the door, but now she put the safety chain on first.

          O tidings of comfort and joy,
          Comfort and joy …

     It seemed curious that this was the chorus and yet only the soloist was singing. Had the cat got the other two’s tongues? Jen turned the lock and opened up the narrowest of narrow gaps.
     It was an enormous surprise to see how close the soloist was actually standing. He was virtually on the step, his face no more than ten inches from her own.
     ‘Ahhh … good evening, my dear,’ he said, breaking off from his song.
     The immediate odour was of halitosis, followed promptly by stale sweat and nicotine. His garb, though reminiscent of a hundred adaptations of Scrooge – a double-caped greatcoat and muffler, a cravat and a high collar, a tilted topper and Faginesque fingerless gloves – was worn and moth-eaten, a pantomime costume purloined from some forgotten cellar. His face was pudgy and discoloured, with overgrown side-whiskers, brownish teeth, and a left eye milky and rolling independently in its narrowed, unblinking socket.
     Even then, she thought, in some vague way, a wholesomeness might lurk there – that lovely baritone voice! – or might have lurked there once even if now long departed.
     ‘And a merry Christmas to you,’ he said, in a voice rich and resonant.
     It bespoke education and breeding rather than the hardscrabble streets of the East End, which seemed to fit with the impression she had of a gentleman gone to seed.
     She observed the twosome with him.
     They stood to his rear, one partly behind the other. The furthest away loitered in the gap between the gateposts. Despite the deluge of flakes, which continued to obscure much, this was clearly a woman. Not especially tall, about five-foot-six – a little shorter than Jen – but also done up in shabby Victorian garb, and clutching a bundle of rags as though it was a baby. She wore a coal-scuttle bonnet and a drab, floor-length dress, much patched, and was huddled into a ragged shawl. The bonnet completely concealed her face because, all the time Jen watched her, the woman stood with head drooped, motionless even as the snowflakes gathered on her wool-clad shoulders.
     The second of the visitors, the one immediately behind the soloist, was much more alarming.
     From his size and shape, he was clearly male, and he wore a parti-coloured red and green suit, like a harlequin costume, but this too was baggy and threadbare. On his head, there was a red coxcomb hat, which rose to several peaks, all dangling with bells; underneath that, his face was concealed behind a protruding papier-mâché mask, a basic, crudely-made thing whose exaggeratedly moulded and painted features – the axe-blade nose in particular, and the jutting, knifelike chin – denoted the malign visage of Mr Punch. Though perhaps the most disturbing feature of this particular character was the eyes. They were nothing but empty holes, and though real eyes undoubtedly lay behind them, at present they were pits of inscrutable blackness.
     So swiftly had Jen’s enthusiasm for the troupe evaporated that initially she could barely speak. ‘What … erm, what do you want?’
     ‘My dear lady, surely that is obvious?’ the soloist replied. ‘We are here to spread good will and festive cheer.’
     ‘Okay, yeah. Well, the song was very nice. Thank you.’ She scrunched the fiver in her hand, and slid it into her dressing gown pocket. ‘It was nice, but you’ll have to go now. I’m doing something.’
     ‘Oh … for shame. On a lovely Christmas Eve like this. With the weather so fitting.’
     Despite the snow mounting on the brim of his topper, the more she saw of him, the more repellent he appeared – those yellowish, pock-marked cheeks, those brown-stained incisors, that one unfocussed eye – and the more certain she was that he wanted both him and his acolytes away from here.
     ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m too busy.’
     ‘All we wish is to entertain you.’
     ‘You’ve already done that.’
     ‘You hardly gained the benefit through a closed front door.’
     ‘I heard it. You were very nice.’ 
     Jen spoke in a consciously flat voice, doing everything she could to be unwelcoming without sounding overtly hostile.’
     ‘Please, good lady,’ the soloist urged her. ‘Allow us to enter the warmth of your hall. We ourselves,’ … he waggled the grubby digits protruding from his fingerless gloves, ‘we ourselves are feeling the effects of these inclement conditions. But if we were to come indoors to sample your fire, and perhaps a little sherry, a mince pie, who knows … we might entertain you right royally. We have many Christmas songs in our repertoire. Not just carols, in case you eschew the religious aspect. If, for example, you were so inclined …’ mischief twinkled in his one good eye, ‘we have a range of bawdy adaptations too. Backdoor Santa per chance, Frosty the Pervert, or maybe Jingle Bell Co …’
     ‘No, thank you.’ She made to close the door. ‘I’ve heard enough.’
     ‘Oh, my dear … I’ve offended you.’ He extended a hand. ‘Forgive me. It’s merely that we cater for all tastes. But sincerely, one should not be alone on Christmas Eve …’
     ‘And what do you mean by that?’ Jen asked sharply. ‘Alone? I’m not alone. I’ve got company. Do you want I should bring him to the door?’
     ‘You have company?’ It was a question rather than a statement, but a subtle one – as though the soloist was attempting to ascertain information. Jen knew that because she’d been around villains all her life, and she understood their ways.
     ‘Yes, I’ve got company,’ she lied forcefully. ‘Like I say, do you want me to call him?’
     The soloist licked his lips, his single eye glinting. Before bowing solemnly, tipping his hat, and turning and lumbering away around the figure of Punch, who watched her a couple of seconds longer with those empty sockets of his – achingly long seconds, it seemed – before also turning. As the threesome trudged up the street in single file, dwindling from view in the fluttering white anonymity, the soloist recommenced singing:

          ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out
          On the Feast of Stephen
          When the snow lay round about …’

*

Heck stood by the window and stared down.
     He had to admit that it all looked dreamily festive. It had been an unexpectedly cold winter so far, with frost on the ground for much of December and spears of ice hanging from gutters since long before the snow had arrived – though, of course, when it had, that was when the real magic had kicked in. For several days now, house windows and shopfronts already aglow with tinsel, mistletoe and other wintry emblems had been complemented by relentlessly falling flakes, while residents had emerged in their droves, in hats, scarves and gumboots, to shout and chatter and generally enjoy the good old-fashioned freeze. Now, however, after several days of this, there was notably less enthusiasm. The conditions had worsened as Christmas Eve drew on, temperatures dropping steadily, the snow falling in a non-stop cascade, covering roofs, roads, pavements, yards, filling every ginnel and side-passage, and of course, having settled on a pre-existing layer of hard-pressed ice, creating traffic chaos as commuters and last-minute shoppers crammed both into and out of the city, leading to log-jams of vehicles, masses of accidents, and tonight – when you added the drunkenness factor – a police shift from Hell.
     In contrast, he wondered what his own family would be doing.
     Not that there were many of them left. His mum, his sister, Dana, his little niece, Sarah. They’d be together, most likely. Probably huddled in their small, neat living room, Dana and his mum in their dressing gowns and slippers, Sarah trying hard to let the telly distract her from the nerve-numbing excitement, constantly traipsing to the window to look up at the sky and see if there was any sign of him yet. Or kneeling by the presents under the tree, checking out their labels for the umpteenth time, having a furtive squeeze here and there.
     There’d be nothing among those parcels from her piece-of-crap father, that was for sure. But Heck didn’t care. And neither would Dana. Some prices were worth paying. But he wondered how Sarah would respond when, in the morning, she came to open the present he himself had sent her.

Happy Christmas, Sarah
Love, Uncle Mark

     Superficially, of course, it would just be another gift, one which she’d divest of its wrapper with further shrieks of excitement, barely cognisant of the family politics surrounding it. And perhaps his mother and sister, not wishing to cast a dark cloud on that happiest morning of the year, would sit back and allow it to happen, only frowning a little bit. Mind, he wasn’t entirely sure that the Barbie Saddle ‘N Ride Horse wouldn’t be something Sarah didn’t already have.
     That was the problem when you were only tenuously connected to people. You couldn’t even pick up the phone to ask a question or two.
     But that was the only problem with it, he reminded himself – as he watched the snowflakes teeming in their billions over the chimneys and roofs of this foreign city where he’d had no option but to make his new home. Christmas only came once a year, thank heaven; so it wasn’t like it made you suffer all the time.
     ‘Now … you know,’ came an alluringly husky voice, ‘most people are at home right now, or in the pub, thinking that your voluntary decision to work the graveyard shift, tonight of all nights, was an absolute Godsend. A genuinely heroic, self-sacrificing gesture.’
     Heck turned from the window, smiling.
     ‘But all I could think about,’ the voice added, ‘was the girl in your life, and how miserable it might mean she’d end up feeling.’
     Despite being wrapped in a lengthy, beige raincoat, Detective Constable Gemma Piper struck a flirtatious pose in the office doorway.
     Heck shrugged. ‘I wouldn’t worry about her. I don’t think she’s the sort to sit at home and let things get on top of her.’
     ‘No,’ Gemma agreed, as she entered the office and unfastened the belt holding the flaps of her coat together. ‘Especially not when she could be letting things get on top of her here.’
     Her normally unmanageable flaxen hair had been styled into a fetching pageboy bob, which was most uncharacteristic of her, but underneath the coat she’d gone a whole lot further, wearing only black ankle-boots and a Santa-themed minidress, red with white fur trim, which left her arms and shoulders bare, not to mention nearly the entire length of her lithe, shapely pins.
     Heck’s tie already hung in a loose knot. Unconsciously, he loosened it even more. ‘You’re aware we’re not alone in this building?’
     ‘Oh dear,’ she said with an air of mock-innocence. ‘You mean we might be putting on a Christmas show for someone?’
     He approached his desk. ‘The phone could ring at any minute.’
     She stood with cocked hip. ‘If you couldn’t multi-task before, this is your chance to learn.’
     ‘Gotta load of paperwork to get through.’
     ‘Listen, man of mine …’ Her sweetie-pie expression – he’d never seen her as cutely made up, orange/brown shadow enhancing the blue of her eyes, bright cherry-red lipstick accentuating her mouth – gradually straightened into something more typically fierce and leonine. ‘I’ve dressed as a sexy elf tonight. You know how rarely I do that sort of thing … so you saying you’d rather be form-filling is taking a bigger chance even than you’re used to.’
     With a sweep of his right arm, Heck cleared the paperwork from his desk. He glanced round at her with an impish smile. ‘Enough room?’
     She pursed her lips, as if wondering whether or not he deserved her.
     In reality, of course, this was all a game.
     Heck knew that, and Gemma knew it too.
     It wasn’t long after ten, the night shift having only recently commenced – and it would be no ordinary night. There might be a skeleton crew indoors, but there’d be lots of cops on the manor generally, and so, though the CID office (or DO, as they preferred to call it), was up on the first floor, someone could still walk in. If they did and they caught Gemma in her saucy outfit, it would be easy enough to spin the line that she’d called in en route to a party. But any more than that, and it might be a disciplinary job, regardless of how much Gwen Straker approved of Heck and Gemma being an item.
     ‘Seriously, babe,’ Heck said, ‘why’re you here?’
     ‘Seriously?’ She feigned outrage that he should ask such a question. ‘How could I go off on Christmas Eve and have a good time, knowing my boyfriend was stuck in here?’
     ‘I thought you were spending Christmas at your mum’s.’
     She gave that only brief thought. ‘Doesn’t appeal massively.’
     ‘She’ll miss you tonight. Doesn’t she always have a Christmas get-together, and enjoy showing off her hotshot detective daughter to all her friends?’
     ‘Funnily enough, that doesn’t appeal much either.’
     ‘She’ll have a place set for you at her Christmas table tomorrow.’
     ‘I’ve cancelled that place.’
     ‘Seriously?’ This genuinely shocked him. Gemma was notoriously a tough cookie. She might be a beauty, but there was nothing of the girlie-girl about her. And yet, with her mother relatively recently widowed, she’d been much more attentive on the family front of late.  
     Gemma merely shrugged.
     ‘She’ll be upset,’ he warned her.
     ‘I’ve had her lay two places instead.’
     ‘Oh,’ he said.
     ‘You’re coming for Christmas dinner with me,’ she explained. ‘It’s about time I introduced you. Especially as we’re thinking of moving in together next year.’
     ‘Ah. We’re not going to tell her that, though?’
     Gemma looked puzzled ‘Why not?’
     ‘Well … I’m sure she’ll be a bit more modern about it than my mum and dad would have been, but I still don’t think she’ll like it.’
     ‘No, she won’t like it,’ Gemma agreed. ‘But she will like you. And that’s going to be the main thing.’
     ‘Kind of you to say.’
     ‘May be a bit much to expect her to let us sleep in the same room tomorrow night, of course …’
     ‘It would be rude of us to expect her to.’
     ‘But fortunately …’ She hustled up and pecked him on the cheek, ‘she’s got a spare bedroom, which is conveniently located at the other end of the house from her own, but is very, very close to mine … oh!’ Suddenly, she looked concerned. ‘You’ve not done anything really stupid like volunteer to work tomorrow night as well?’
     ‘No. Well … I did, but Gwen said no.’
     ‘Good.’ Gemma nodded. ‘She was listening then.’
     ‘You cooked this thing up with Gwen?’
     ‘Not quite.’ Gemma withdrew to the office door, and from just outside brought in a red sack with white fur around its neck. ‘She agreed that you ought to have some kind of Christmas, but she didn’t know it was starting tonight …’
     ‘Prezzies?’ he said, as she humped the sack to her shoulder, and carried it to his desk.
     ‘In a way.’ The first thing she took from the sack after she’d laid it down was a small Santa hat, which she placed neatly and prettily on her bob. ‘Got to get into character first.’
     Next, she brought out a kind of miniature all-in-one Christmas tree, no more than a foot tall. It was a fake obviously, though it looked real, as did the frosting on it. When she unwound the cable, and plugged it into the one of the power-points in the middle of the desk, blue, red and purple lights twinkled out from amid its foliage. After this, came a tin foil package; square in shape, about twenty inches by twenty. When she unravelled it, it contained a Styrofoam carton, also square, and fastened with strips of glittery Christmas tape. Before opening this, she laid a cellophane wrapper on the desk, containing a folded napkin and a plastic knife and fork.
     A mouth-watering aroma already emerged from the carton, before Gemma unfastened the tape and flipped the lid, revealing four slices of tender white turkey, ladled with gravy, with a generous amount of stuffing at one end and a dollop of cranberry sauce at the other, plus sprouts, parsnips, carrots and baked potatoes.
     ‘If nothing else,’ she said, ‘I thought I’d spare you a crappy take-out.’
     Heck sank onto his swivel-chair. ‘You’ve done all this for me?’
     ‘Who else?’ She rummaged in her sack again. ‘And of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas without a little tipple.’
     She set a bottle of Bushmills on the desk, alongside two plastic beakers.
     ‘Gemma … I’m on duty.’
     ‘You’re a detective,’ she whispered, leaning down and giving him a long, moist peck on the lips. ‘There are perks.’
      Without another word, she pulled up a chair and sat down to watch.
     Vaguely self-conscious under her affectionate gaze, Heck opened the cellophane to get at the plastic knife and fork. It was true; assuming he’d opted to venture out into the snow, he’d only have gone looking for a pizza or a kebab – if he could find a shop still open so late on Christmas Eve, and would have had to share its waiting area with all kinds of inebriated idiots and their vomit. The food itself would be fine, no doubt, but it wouldn’t be much different from his normal Friday or Saturday night fare – whereas this delightful alternative didn’t just smell sumptuous, it was completely different and very unexpected.
     ‘I can’t believe you’ve done all this,’ he said.
     ‘I know.’ She gave a kittenish pout. ‘And I’ve had my hair done, and my nails …’
     He regarded her with fascination, as always, amazed by his good fortune.
     Gemma Piper could be a real spitfire when the mood was on her. And yet somehow, he and she had hit it off from the moment they’d met. He might feel some vague regret about the way he’d left things at home, but meeting Gemma within such a short time of transferring from the Greater Manchester Police down to London had been one of the best things that had happened to him in his adult life.
     ‘You can feast on me with your eyes, if you wish,’ she said coyly.’ And frankly, I don’t blame you. But you’d probably be better eating the food. Otherwise, it’ll get cold. And like you say … the phone could go at any minute.’
     He nodded, seeing the wisdom in that. And commenced eating.
     And the phone went.
     Gemma couldn’t conceal a smile.
     Heck checked and saw that it was his mobile, which lay on the desk just to his right. He didn’t recognise the caller’s number, and so hesitated before answering.
     ‘You really planning on staying here tonight?’ he asked her.
     She shrugged, wide-eyed – like the helpless little girl she totally wasn’t. ‘The snow’s so terrible that I’m trapped here now.’
     ‘I mean … under any circumstances?’
     ‘How can I venture outside wearing so little?’
     He answered the call. ‘DC Heckenburg.’
     ‘Heck … thank God!’ It was a woman, Cockney. She was breathless, shrill.
     ‘Who is this please?’
     ‘Heck … it’s Jenny Askew.’
     ‘Oh … Jen.’ He was surprised, and indicated as much to Gemma by raising his eyebrows. ‘You okay?’
      ‘No … not in the bloody least.’
     ‘What’s the problem?’
      ‘I’ve just had three real weirdoes at my door.’
      He glanced at Gemma again, who mouthed a curious ‘What?’
      He hit the speaker button. ‘Jen … what do you mean “weirdoes”.’
     ‘Three carol singers in fancy dress.’
     Gemma covered her mouth.
     ‘Jen, love …’ Heck said, trying not to sound tickled. ‘It’s Christmas Eve. I’m sure it’s …’
      ‘No, NO!’ Her assertive voice echoed round the DO. ‘I’m not talking about a bunch of drunks having a giggle. There was something wrong with this.’
     ‘Hey, listen,’ Heck said semi-sternly, ‘you know we have an emergency number for this kind of thing. I mean, there are patrols out and about who can easily pop round and see you …’
     ‘No, no!’ Again, there was a desperate edge to her voice. ‘Don’t do that to me, Heck. You gave me this number at the time Ronnie went down. You said anything I needed, all I had to do was call you.’
      ‘Jen, that was three years ago.’
     ‘Listen, Heck … this isn’t good. I mean I was scared. Really scared.’
     ‘Okay ...’ He sat back and indicated to Gemma that maybe she could cover his food for him. ‘Exactly what was weird about these guys?’
      ‘How about everything. The way they looked, the way they behaved. They wanted me to let them in, so that they could sing carols for me. How often does that happen?’
     ‘Well …’
     ‘And after I fired them off, they went to my back door and tried to get in that way.’
     Heck sat slowly upright. ‘They did?’
     Gemma also glanced round, her amused expression hardening with professional curiosity.
     ‘Yeah … as God’s my witness.’
     ‘Are they still hanging around?’ he asked.
     ‘Well, I can’t see them anymore, but I can’t see a bloody thing. It’s like the North bleeding Pole out there.’
     Heck glanced at his watch. ‘What time was this?’
     ‘I don’t know. Twenty-five minutes ago. Heck … can you come round?’
     ‘I don’t know, Jen.’ He watched gloomily as Gemma re-wrapped the carton in foil. ‘I’ve got quite a lot on. And a bunch of carol singers on Christmas Eve? It’s hardly unusual …’
     ‘They also know I’m here on my own.’
     Further objections faltered on his lips. Again, Gemma glanced round.
     ‘How do they know that?’ he asked.
     ‘You tell me. But the main one, the singer … he mentioned it, and he didn’t look happy when I told him I had company. Come on, Heck … what’s so important? You’re only round the corner.’
     Again, he looked at Gemma, who shrugged his implied question back to him: he was the one on duty; it was his call.
     ‘Okay, Jen,’ he said. ‘I’ll come round. But if there’s nothing to be done, there’s nothing to be done. Like I say, there are patrols out all night. And if you get on the blower to 999, they’ll only be a few minutes away.’
     ‘I don’t want them. I want you.’
     Gemma arched an eyebrow.
     Heck rolled his sleeves down and fastened the cuffs. ‘I’ll be there in ten.’
     ‘So, who’s Jenny Askew,’ Gemma asked when he’d cut the call.
     He stood and adjusted his tie. ‘Remember Jen the Girl? Ronnie Askew’s missus?’
     ‘Ronnie Askew … the armed robber?’
     ‘Yeah. It was three years ago. When I was in Tower Hamlets Robbery. We nailed him and his two mates, Leroy Butler and Keith O’Malley. Sent them down for doing two bookies and a security van. They got seventeen years each.’
     ‘Seventeen? Seems steep.’
     He walked to the coat-rack, to collect his parka. ‘The swag totalled three-hundred grand, and they wouldn’t return a penny. Never told anyone where they’d stashed it.’ He pulled the coat on, and dragged some suede gloves from its pockets. ‘Look, babes, I don’t know how long I’ll be, but …’
     ‘It’s okay, I’m coming.’ She fished her locker-key from her drawer, and headed to the door. ‘Give us five and I’ll get changed.’
     ‘Be warmer waiting here,’ he said.
     ‘I’m not waiting here. I’ll end up doing some work.’
     She returned a few minutes later, wearing ski-pants, a sweater, woollen gloves and a big puffer jacket. Heck rang CAD to tell them he’d be out and about, and they exited the nick via the personnel door. Taking one of the CID pool cars, a beaten-up blue Ford Escort, they spent the first five minutes scraping iron-hard ice from the outside of its windscreen, and the next five, even though the heating was switched on, watching their own smoky breath freeze into a new layer on the inside. Fully eight minutes passed before sufficient heat had seeped through the interior to prevent this process continually repeating itself, and ten in total before Heck reckoned he could see enough to risk driving.
     They were still chilled to the marrow, of course, as they ventured out onto a road network now mostly buried. Heck drove ultra-cautiously, tyres crunching as they made slow but steady progress.
     ‘Now you mention it, I do remember Jen the Girl,’ Gemma said. ‘Didn’t you arrest her too?’
     Initially, he was too distracted to reply. The local authority had done their bit to foster the Yuletide atmosphere. Snowmen, reindeer and luminous cherubs adorned the streetlamps. Fairy lights shaped like Cinderella coaches dangled overhead. With the added bonus of the snow, it was as picturesque as any Christmas card.
     ‘Didn’t you?’ Gemma asked again.
     ‘What … oh yeah,’ he replied. ‘Yeah, I did arrest her. At the time, there were all kinds of reasons for thinking Jen was involved, at least as part of a support crew. But none of them panned out. She was seriously upset when I took her in. I mean seriously. Not so much because she’d been locked up herself … more because she just couldn’t believe that Ronnie had been blagging. I’m certain she wasn’t playacting. Talk about floods of tears. She’d honestly had no clue what he’d been up to.’
     Heck threw his thoughts back three years to the morning of the arrests: Jenny Askew clinging to him inside Finchley Road high-security police station, begging him not to leave her alone in the holding-cell, in a state of such heart-rending distress that he’d been moved to breach all protocols and let her sit in the Custody Area, much to the Custody Officer’s chagrin.
     ‘She was as innocent as her worthless bloody husband was guilty,’ Heck said. ‘It was a relief to release her without charge.’
     ‘And since then … does she ring you up every time she has a bad experience?’
     ‘To be honest, this is the first. She’s a nice girl, Jen. Well … you know, nice-ish. A bit tough, a bit streetwise, but a pretty decent sort. She wrote to me after the trial, to thank me for playing it straight with Ronnie.’
     ‘Wrote to you too, eh?’ Gemma shot him a sidelong glance. ‘You sure this shaggy dog story about the carol singers isn’t just because she wants some hunky company on Christmas Eve?’
     ‘Give over. She’s more than ten years older than me.’
     ‘And does she look it? Gangster’s moll and all that.’
     ‘Oh yeah, she looks it. And she’s not a moll.’
     He drove on, still taking it easy on the treacherous surfaces, their journey made slightly speedier by the remarkable lack of traffic. They were only a few streets on, but Heck had already noticed how many other vehicles looked to have been abandoned by the roadside, their users, presumably eager to get home, having opted to walk or take the Tube. There weren’t even as many pedestrians about as he’d expected. Most revellers would likely be installed in pubs and bars by now, which gave the empty, snowbound streets a truly spectral aura.
     ‘And she doesn’t, as a rule,’ he added, ‘cry wolf.’

*

Jubilee Crescent was much like any traditional terraced East End street, though it looked a little different under its fluffy white topcoat. The parked cars down either side of it were no more than smoothed-off hummocks of snow, with only their upper wheel-arches visible, and here and there, a wing-mirror protruding. 
     When Heck and Gemma finally found a gap, they wallowed through it and ground to a halt on the pavement. Heck did this deliberately, given that the gutters were likely to be iced underneath, which might have meant that leaving this place would be more problematic than arriving.
     ‘Feels like an American movie,’ he said, as they traipsed along the pavement to no. 44.
     ‘Gremlins,’ Gemma said matter-of-factly.
     ‘Hmm.’ He wasn’t at all comfortable with that analogy.
     When Jenny Askew answered the door, she was exactly as Gemma had pictured her.
     An early-forties bottle-blonde, who routinely went so heavy on the lippy and mascara that there was plenty in evidence now, even though she was down to her slippers, pyjamas, and a dressing-gown. There was no doubt that she’d once been attractive – she’d evidently possessed an hourglass figure back in the day – but times had been tough since; she looked haggard and had put weight on, which, as she was only about five-seven, gave her a squat, dumpy outline. She welcomed them inside, pouring out the whole story as they stamped their feet on the doormat. There was no doubt that she’d had a genuine scare. She was pale-faced and glassy-eyed. Much of what she said was only semi-coherent, as she led them through into her small, cluttered, overly warm living room.
     ‘Whoa … wait a minute,’ Heck said, consciously interrupting. ‘What’s frightened you so much, Jenny? Three carol singers? A bit weird, okay … but they’ve gone.’
     She shook her head adamantly. ‘I told you they came around the back too.’
     She showed them through her kitchen to the house’s rear door, which she unbolted and opened, before flicking a switch and activating an outside light. The yard beyond was deep in snow, but several rounded dints were visible trailing to the back gate, which stood ajar.
     ‘You always keep your gate open?’ Gemma asked.
     ‘Not normally,’ Jen replied. ‘But it’s easy enough for someone to open it from the outside. You just reach your arm over the top and lift the latch.’
     Though the gate’s narrow top was entirely covered in snow, Heck noted one point of it, just above the latch, where only a narrow band remained. He looked again at the tracks in the yard. This incident had happened approximately forty minutes ago. In the ongoing snowfall, much of the evidence had already been covered – but someone had unquestionably been here.
     ‘Maybe a neighbour came round?’ Gemma suggested.
     The woman now looked irritated as well as scared. ‘What do you guys not understand about me saying I heard someone trying the back door? And that was about ten minutes after I sent them packing at the front.’
      Heck glanced at the window over the sink. It gave out onto the yard, but its lower pane was frosted glass. She couldn’t have looked out to see who it was.
     ‘Thank God it was locked, that’s all I can say,’ Jen added. ‘I mean, they were banging the handle up and down like there was no tomorrow. It was a good ten minutes after they’d gone before I plucked up the courage to open the door and have a look. Those tracks were a lot clearer then.’
     ‘You definitely hadn’t seen this fella before?’ Heck asked her.
     ‘Never in my life. Wouldn’t have forgotten him, if I had.’
     ‘With Ronnie perhaps?’
     Her expression froze. ‘You don’t think it could be to do with …?’
     ‘I don’t know, Jen. That’s why I’m asking you.’
     ‘But that was three years ago!’
     ‘It’s probably unconnected. Just a thought, that’s all.’
     She shook her head. ‘I’ve never seen this bloke before. On my life. Apart from anything else, he had this really nice singing voice.’
     Both Heck and Gemma regarded her blankly; even though they thought they’d seen and heard everything, they both of them struggled to process that bit of information.
     Jen shrugged. ‘I know it sounds daft, but if I knew some villain who was also a really good singer, I’m sure I’d remember him. That’s the kind of thing that sticks in your mind, isn’t it.’
     ‘Okay …’ Heck nodded slowly; that made sense, if nothing else. ‘Okay … here’s the deal. We’re going to go and look around for a bit. What time are you hitting the sack?’
     ‘I don’t know. Not much point me staying up late, is there? Assuming I can sleep.’
     ‘Don’t lose sleep over it,’ Gemma advised. ‘Your locks kept them out last time. Makes it even more unlikely they’ll try and come back.’
     The woman turned a scornful look on her, as if to imply that only a police officer could think so glib a statement reassuring to a householder living alone. Heck could have responded with equal scorn, advising Jen that if her husband hadn’t been one of these very same criminals who people lived in such fear of, she wouldn’t be living alone. But he opted to keep it friendly.
     ‘Remember, if you do hear anything, we’re only a phone-call away,’ he said. ‘But use the emergency number. You’ll get a faster response.’
     ‘Why do you want to know what time I’m going to bed?’ she asked.
     ‘So, I can update you,’ he said. ‘Assuming I’ve got something to report.’
     ‘Fat chance, eh?’ Only now did it seem to occur to her how superficially ridiculous the situation was. ‘Carol singers on Christmas Eve. Be a piece of cake pulling them in. Anyway, I’ll be up till … I dunno, midnight at least I suppose. There’s a film on later. A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim.’ Her features tightened. ‘“You will be visited by three spirits …” Lord help us!’
     ‘Jen, don’t let your imagination run off with you, okay?’ Heck said. ‘This is most likely nothing. Just keep your doors and windows locked. Listen out, but don’t get panicky.’
     By the time they were back out on the pavement, the deluge of flakes was easing somewhat, but the sub-zero chill lingered. A deep winter silence hung over everything.
     Heck got on the radio. ‘DC Heckenburg to Foxtrot Bravo, over?’
     ‘Go ahead, Heck,’ came the voice of PC Cassie Raeburn in CAD.
     ‘Yeah, Cass … I don’t suppose we’ve had any reports tonight of … this is going to sound odd, troublesome carol singers? No prowlers, no unwanted door-knocking, over?’
     There was a brief, pregnant silence. Then: ‘Is this a wind-up, over?’
     ‘Negative, Cass. I’m serious. Three individuals, at least one of them is male. Late forties, IC1, approx six feet tall, wearing Victorian garb. No details on the other two, except that one of them might be female. They too are in fancy dress, over.’
     ‘I say again, Heck … is this a wind-up? Carol-singers?’
     ‘I’m guessing the carol singer thing is a disguise, Cass.’
     There was another silence as she conferred with her fellow operators.
     ‘That’s negative,’ she finally confirmed. ‘No complaints about any suspicious characters of that nature, over.’
     ‘Nor,’ cut in Sergeant Ian Lavenham, currently occupying the command seat at CAD, ‘have we got a lead on where Santa might be at this moment. Or any of his elves. Though I suppose on a night like tonight, he can park his sleigh wherever he wants, eh, Heck? And we won’t even know if it’s legal or not? So we can’t even give him a ticket, over.’
     ‘Roger, thanks for that, sarge. Over and out.’ Heck cut the transmission. ‘Smartarsed tosspot.’
     ‘You know, they have a point,’ Gemma said. ‘You’re actually going looking for carol singers on Christmas Eve?’
     ‘Won’t be so bad with two of us,’ he replied.
     ‘I’m not even on duty.’
     ‘I know, but you’re here. And you’re all I’ve got.’
     ‘Wow … good job I’m easily charmed. Okay, what’s the plan?’
     He pointed to opposite ends of the street. ‘You go that way and I go this way.’
     ‘How many doors?’
     ‘Might as well do all of them.’
     They trudged off in their separate directions, warrant-cards in hand, but the outcome was exactly as Heck had expected. In those few houses where there was anybody present, or which weren’t swept up in party antics, no one reported having received a visit from any carol singers, weird-looking or otherwise.
     ‘So, they just picked one house to sing at on this whole street?’ Gemma said, when they were back in the car, banging their gloved hands together as the interior warmed with its customary torturous slowness. ‘That doesn’t happen, does it?’
     ‘No,’ Heck said grimly.
     ‘You know, that tin foil will only keep your Christmas dinner warm for so long … especially if we’re going next where I think we’re going.’
     He pulled cautiously off the pavement and back onto the road. ‘Fortunately, my darling, I’m having my real Christmas dinner tomorrow.’
     ‘You got any idea how long it took me to prepare that dish?’
     ‘The thought was wonderful. But having you here is more wonderful still.’
     ‘Aww …’
     ‘Especially as, on a night like this, any official backup will be slow to arrive.’
     ‘Like I say ... you utter charmer.’

*

Aberline House, where a certain Mary Byrne lived, was a low-rise, boxy structure in a badly run-down neighbourhood.
     It was actually one of four similar blocks, all pretty faceless and drab, and desperately in need of a refurb. The car parks between them, which ordinarily would be sparkling with glass or adrift with litter, lay under another crisp blanket of white, so it didn’t look as dark and ominous as usual. But not even the magic of a proper wintry Christmas extended to nullifying the effects of boarded-up windows and broken light fittings. By the looks of it, at least two thirds of the apartments in Aberline House were no longer occupied. As Heck and Gemma ascended the bare concrete stairwell to the first floor, there was no sound beyond the echo of their own footfalls. But the steps were damp, which indicated that someone had been this way in the last few hours. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, of course.
     ‘You think they’re after the loot from the robberies, don’t you?’ Gemma said.
     Even though they were indoors, both she and Heck’s breath billowed thickly.
     ‘If they are, they’re barking up the wrong tree, I reckon,’ he replied. ‘Mary Byrne was Keith O’Malley’s girlfriend at the time of those blags. Keith was the youngest of the crew. About twenty-two, if memory serves. Mary was even younger than that. She wasn’t the brightest button in the box, either. Druggie, alkie. She looked a bit like that famous photo of Myra Hindley … you know, thin face, hard around the eyes. But instead of shocking blonde, she always wore this pink rinse. Think she thought it was cute and punky. Never had the heart to tell her it made her look thirty years older than she was. So, if  they didn’t trust Jenny Askew with knowledge about the cash’s whereabouts, they definitely won’t have trusted Mary Byrne. She’d have been pilfering from it in the first week.’
     ‘Foxtrot Bravo to DC Heckenburg, receiving?’ came Cass Raeburn’s voice.
     Heck halted half way up the stairs. ‘Go ahead, Cass?’
     ‘Yeah, Inspector Khalid wants to know what you need a spare uniform for?’
     Just before they’d arrived here, Heck had spoken to CAD and requested that they send a foot patrol to meet him. He’d been advised at the time that everyone was pretty busy, but the message had been passed on to the duty officer nevertheless.
     ‘I have an insecure premises, Cass,’ he replied, ‘and want a guard to sit on it while I make further enquiries, over.’
     ‘Roger, Heck. Thanks for that.’
     ‘That’s a bit naughty, isn’t it?’ Gemma said, as they started up again ‘Suppose they pull someone off something important.’
     ‘This is important,’ he replied.
     ‘We’ve not knocked on Mary Byrne’s door yet. We don’t know what we’re going to find.’
      ‘If this plot’s okay, we send whoever we get back to Jubilee Crescent. I’m sure Jen Askew’ll be glad to have a sentry at her front door. It won’t be for long.’
     ‘You seriously think we’re onto something here?’
     He didn’t reply immediately, but when he did, it was a simple: ‘It’s got to be worth checking.’
     In response to that, she had no argument.
     Gemma was every inch the detective that Heck was. Okay, she preferred the analytical approach rather than going with her instinct, which was his forte. But she’d worked in the same department as him for long enough to know that good instinct wasn’t something to be sniffed at. The famed JDLR principle stated that if something ‘just didn’t look right’, it probably wasn’t – and yes, it was always worth checking.
     Not that she was sure about diverting resources from ongoing public order operations. But she still kept any further reservations to herself.
     Which turned out to be for the best.


     The flats’ main upstairs corridor was a bleak, bare passage scarred end-to-end with graffiti; they were half way along it when they spied the door standing ajar ahead of them. It wasn’t instantly obvious that this was no. 17, the one they were seeking, but it was located at a point where the lighting up here ran out, leaving only darkness beyond it – so it seemed kind of inevitable.
     Heck broke into a run, barging straight inside, and only stopping briefly to note that entry hadn’t been forced – the door and its lock remained intact.
     They wanted me to let them in, so that they could sing carols for me.
     All power inside the flat appeared to have been cut. It was deathly cold and pitch-dark, causing Heck to bang his torch up to full beam – which revealed that the place had been ransacked. 
     It wasn’t much to look at anyway. A suite of bare, grey-toned rooms, with little in the way of furniture, ornaments on shelves or pictures on walls, the few there had been, in fact, now on the thinly carpeted floor, in pieces – along with pulled-out drawers, scattered cutlery and broken crockery. In the living room, some attempt had been made to commemorate the season. As Heck’s torch-beam slashed back and forth, he picked out paper-chains hanging in strips, bits of festive greenery here and there.
     And a Christmas tree.
     This was in the part of the room where Heck’s torchlight finally came to rest. Again, it wasn’t much of one. Tall, dusty and skeletal with age, its fake boughs made from blue/silver tinsel rather anything resembling real-life foliage.
     A few baubles remained on it, but one extra decoration had been added recently.
     Heck’s spine went rigid; he felt Gemma’s gloved hand claw at his wrist. Several seconds passed before either of them, hardened inner city cops though they were, could make a sound.
     It was Mary Byrne, that decoration.
     She’d been stripped naked, and bound to the tree upside down with what looked like strands of fairy lights. Her pale, bony body was streaked crimson from the succession of brutal slashes now zigzagging it top to bottom: not just the torso, but the arms, the legs ... the face.
     That face had been worked on with particular energy, her assailant inflicting such savage lacerations that one might have thought a leopard responsible rather than a human being. Either way, Heck could only identify her from the few strands of bright pink hair visible through the clots of gluey red.
      ‘Lord …’ Gemma breathed, before they broke simultaneously from their shock and dashed forward to check for vital signs.
     Instantly, the vibration through the floor brought the entire gory display down in a crashing heap, poor Mary landing head-first, with a limp, legs-splayed inelegance that no living woman could ever have matched. As Heck only had a single pair of gloves with him, Gemma had no choice but to stand back and hold the torch, while he hunkered down and made the few futile checks that he was authorised to.
     At length, he too stood back.
     ‘I’m no doctor, as you’re aware,’ he said, ashen-faced, ‘but aside from everything else, her jugular’s been severed. She’s gone ... and we need to clear out of here.’
     Gemma nodded tightly, and they backtracked, following as close as damn it the exact same footpath that had led them in, ensuring not to touch a single thing in the lounge, though inevitably having to check the other rooms en route, in case any of the perpetrators were still here, or additional victims present who had not yet expired. All the way, Heck jabbered into his radio. With the other rooms cleared, he halted in the hall, continuing to outline the situation, while Gemma stepped into the corridor, dragging in lungfuls of fresher air. There was no discernible change in the temperature out there, and it was only marginally less stale in reality – though in Gemma’s experience, this kind of thing was psychosomatic. No place, no matter how much it stank of squalor and urine, no matter how much graffiti defaced its walls and doors, afforded a less preferable clime to a murder scene.
     Determinedly, she got herself together.
     She’d seen killings before, she’d dealt with rape and child abuse victims. She wasn’t easily upset. But that momentary shock of suddenly confronting the ultimate horror could weaken anyone in the legs. Back in the hall, she heard Heck in animated conversation. He was now on his phone rather than the radio. Then she heard something else.
     What sounded like several pairs of heavy feet were coming down the corridor towards her.
     She spun the way of the stairwell. There was nobody there. Almost belatedly, she realised her mistake, twirling to face the wall of shadow in the other direction.
     Grunts and pants accompanied that thunder of feet.
     Whoever it was, they were running.
     Fast.
     Right towards her.

To be continued (December 15) …

***

If you have enjoyed this first part of BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT, please feel free to check in for the next installment - which youll find free-to-read right here. But you might also be interested to know that there have been six Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg novels published to date (Avon Books, HarperCollins). They are, in chronological order: STALKERS, SACRIFICE, THE KILLING CLUB, DEAD MAN WALKING, HUNTED and ASHES TO ASHES. In addition to all that, the seventh in the series, KISS OF DEATH, which is due for publication in August next year, is now available to be pre-ordered.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Rogues to gather in dark, dangerous north


One event of this year which I have been anticipating more than many others is now almost upon us.

It is HULL NOIR, a celebration of northern crime writing, which I’m delighted and flattered to be participating in as chair of one of the panels. There have been Hull Noir events throughout this month, but it really gets going on the weekend of November 17-19. More about that in a few paragraphs, though it sets the tone for this week’s post overall, because today I am going to be discussing crime fiction that is both written and set right here in what used to be considered the Dark Half of England ... for which reason I probably couldn’t pick a better novel to review and discuss this week (in my usual forensic detail, I think you’ll find) than one of the original slices of urban Brit grit, Ted Lewis’s seminal JACK’S RETURN HOME, aka GET CARTER.

Again, more about that shortly – as always, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s post.

Before we get to any of that, but still on the subject of northern crime, I’m very happy to reveal that SHADOWS, the second installment in my series of Lucy Clayburn novels, will only be 99p in ebook form from now until the end of this month.

SHADOWS is every inch a northern crime novel, because, whereas my other main crime-fighting character, Mark Heckenburg, though a northerner by origin (born in the fictional Lancashire town of Bradburn, 17 miles outside Manchester) has a remit as a homicide detective to travel the whole of England and Wales, Lucy Clayburn (STRANGERS was her first outing) is an inner-Manchester girl, and her home borough and workplace (the again fictional Crowley) is located somewhere between Wigan, Bolton and Salford, which makes it the absolute epitome of the industrial Northwest.

In the last book, as a uniformed officer, Lucy went undercover as a prostitute to try and catch a female sex killer of men, and in this new one, as part of the elite Manchester Robbery Squad, she embarks on the pursuit of a band of gun-toting robbers, who aren’t just causing horror and fear because of their crazy cowboy antics – they will shoot anyone for the slightest reason – but who, as they are mainly targeting the underworld, look likely to cause a major gangland war.

So there we are, if you’ve got an e-reader, and you haven’t yet got on the Lucy Clayburn train, now is your chance … and for the bargain basement price of 99p.

I’ll say no more on that subject, because now onto HULL NOIR.

From Craphouse to Powerhouse

Associated with the Hull 2017 UK City of Culture event, HULL NOIR looks set to be one of the major crime literature festivals of this year, so it was a real honour to be asked to get involved. The stars of the show are undoubtedly Martina Cole, Mark Billingham and John Connolly – and they’ll all be playing significant roles. Martina will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of her first published novel, Dangerous Lady, in the company of top crime critic, author and aficianado, Barry Forshaw, while Mark and John will be contemplating the worst and best of their careers with Daily Telegraph crime critic, Jake Kerridge. But in addition, there some amazing panels lined up for next weekend.

Check these out, just as a sample (because there are many others too):

On Sleeping with the Fishes, Nick Quantrill, David Mark, Lilja Sigurdardottir and Quentin Bates will be discussing the style and influence of Hull and Iceland as locations and inspirations for crime writing.

On Getting Carter, Ted Lewis and the Hard Boiling of British Crime Fiction, Howard Linskey, Russel McLean, Sean O’Brien, Andrew Spicer and Nick Triplow will chat about the influence of American-style hardboiled crime writing on the British school.

In Brawlers & Bastards, Steph Broadribb, Craig Robertson, Mick Herron and Harry Brett will debate the genre’s hardmen, and look at how crime writers have made antiheroes from some of the most reprehensible characters.

But the panel I’m most looking forward (me being biased, this being my own), is From Craphouse to Powerhouse, on which I’ll be joined by northern crime luminaries, Liverpool’s Luca Veste, Newcastle’s Danielle Ramsay and Glasgow’s Jay Stringer, to kick around the subject of crime fiction along the M62, the noisy but straight-as-an-arrow motorway which, running as it does from Merseyside on the west coast, through Manchester, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and finally arriving in Humberside on the east coast, is often seen as drawing a straight line through the very heart of the old smoky, sooty north.

We’ll be talking about all kinds of crime-related northern stuff, I imagine, from industrial might to post-industrial decay, from the numerous terrible murder cases in this part of the world that might have influenced us, to the development of organised crime in our vast inner city areas now rendered dark and desperate by unemployment, and to the emergence from this chaos of hard-bitten northern heroes, like Veste’s Murphy and Rossi, like Ramsay’s Harri Jacobs, like Stringer’s Sam Ireland, and, if I say so myself, like my own Lucy Clayburn and Mark Heckenburg, all of whom, though they’re not gangsters per se, (Hell,  some of them are actually cops!), whether intentionally on our part, or subliminally, have taken a leaf out of Jack Carter’s ‘Don’t Argue’ playbook.

As I say, HULL NOIR officially gets going this weekend, at the Britannia Royal Hotel, Hull. From Powerhouse to Craphouse starts at 11:30am on Saturday, November 18.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

JACK’S RETURN HOME 
by Ted Lewis (1970)

It’s the late 1960s in Scunthorpe, and Jack Carter is coming home.

Jack, born and raised in the northern steel town, left home quite some time ago to make his fortune in London, and, being a handy lad and inclined towards pitiless immorality, he eventually found his place as a mob enforcer. Since then, Jack has done all kinds of awful things at the behest of his employers, East End racketeers, Les and Gerald Fletcher, and in so doing, has earned himself a real reputation. Quite often, though, he lets his heart rule his head. For example, the clandestine affair he is conducting with Gerald’s wife, Audrey, is very ill-advised. But even more so is this return to Scunthorpe.

Long estranged from his family, Jack has only two close relatives remaining: his older brother, Frank, and Frank’s daughter, 15-year-old Doreen. But now Frank is dead, killed in an apparent drink-driving accident. The police, or ‘scuffers’, as they are known locally, see nothing suspicious in this. Frank was a barman, after all, and he worked in a particularly rough part of a particularly rough town. However, he was not known to be an unstable character, and in fact, compared to his brother, was a clean-living citizen – and this is the point where Jack becomes curious, refusing to believe that Frank would have climbed into his car having consumed an entire bottle of whiskey.

Though he came north ostensibly for his brother’s funeral, he now begins snooping around, asking questions, and it soon arouses the attention and eventually the ire of a number of local underworld figures.

Chief among these is Scunthorpe’s own godfather, Cyril Kinnear, but there are others who are no less dangerous in their own way: overly ambitious rival gang-boss, Cliff Brumby, for example; not-so-tough-but-well-connected loanshark, ‘Steelworks Thorpey’; ex-teddy boy and pool-room bully, Albert Swift, who became an underworld go’fer; and the ultra sinister Eric Paice, an old enemy of Jack’s, who, though he works superficially as a chauffeur, is mainly valuable to the mob for his ability to seduce and/or snatch young girls from lives of respectability for futures in pornography and prostitution – and Jack soon suspects that this latter is the key to the mystery.

It is only 1968, and blue movies are still taboo, but there is a voracious demand for them on the underground circuit, particularly among those interested in the sex adventures of very, very young females.

Increasingly firm attempts are made to dissuade Jack from continuing his investigation, gentle persuasion gradually giving way to violence, initially directed against those around him, such as Frank’s old mate and fellow barman, Keith Lacey, and Jack’s attractive if earthy landlady, Edna Garfoot, but finally against Jack himself – by which time it is verging on the lethal.

Jack continues to resist, even when he receives direct orders from Gerald and Les, as delivered by a pair of London hitmen, the brutal Con McCarty and camp-as-hell Peter the Dutchman ... and this latter makes him even more suspicious. How is his own firm involved in Frank’s death? And what role does Doreen play? – she may only be 15 and an orphan to boot, but her name crops up increasingly and in ever more lurid circumstances.

The more Jack evades attempts on his life, the more unedifying truths he uncovers, and the more personal this becomes. Soon, it is one man against the combined forces of both the London and the Scunthorpe syndicates, from which point there is no going back …  
     
It’s very difficult to disassociate the novel, Jack’s Return Home, from the seminal Michael Caine and Mike Hodges movie adaptation of 1971, Get Carter. In fact, later editions of the novel were republished under that very title.

In truth, there are a lot of similarities, even down to certain lines of dialogue, but there are some differences too.

To start with, Caine, though a mesmerising screen presence in his heyday, was ‘ethnically wrong’ to play Jack Carter, who in the book is a displaced northerner rather than a Cockney. In addition to that, perhaps the most famous liberty the movie took was in its transposition of the story from Scunthorpe to the even more grimily picturesque Newcastle. That said, none of these are really major issues. Where both the novel and the movie are united is in their warts-and-all portrayal of an unforgiving British gangland, setting their narratives against dingy working-class backdrops, and underscoring them with a level of sleaze that has shocking power even today.

In regard to all that, Jack’s Return Home is the original slice of Brit grit, the novel that opened the door to countless generations of Brit-Noir fiction to follow, while Get Carter, the movie, in taking the X certificate as far as it could go, presented us with a serious, grown-up thriller that would usher in a new age of UK-set hard-as-nails crime movies, much the way The French Connection did in the States (without Get Carter, it is doubtful we’d have had Villain, The Squeeze, Sitting Target, The Sweeney or The Long Good Friday).

But back to the novel.

In terms of negatives (and there aren’t many of these), Jack’s Return Home may have lost a bit of its authority in the 21st century simply because time and society have moved on. It’s probably true to say that Ted Lewis was never a wizard with words. He could create atmosphere for sure, but he was no poet. Most of the impact his book originally made stemmed from it’s in-yer-face style. And even today, everything I’ve just said notwithstanding, it’s a bit of an eye-opener to see such a stark, matter-of-fact depiction of a rough, tough town, with its depressing rows of terraced houses, its fiery backcloth of factories and steel mills, its backstreet pubs full of drunks and strippers, and its smoke-filled billiards halls where a single wrong word can get you into serious trouble.

I can only imagine the strength of this narrative back in 1968.

That said, Ted Lewis wasn’t ploughing a completely lone furrow even then. Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) had already blazed a trail for blue-collar fiction, with its energised tale of a resentful tough-nut and the lives he either ruins or enriches (but mainly the former!) as he crashes selfishly through post-war Nottingham, while Barry Hines’s wonderful A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) focussed on an unwanted boy from a Barnsley council estate, and his doomed friendship with a hunting bird he rescued as an orphanned chick. In this regard, Ted Lewis’s great innovation was to take the ‘kitchen sink’ template, and pile on the villainy, creating a very difficult reality where near enough everyone is corrupt, including the police and local dignitaries, where eff-words are the norm, where heavy drinking and the use of casual violence are the mark of manliness, and women in particular are treated like dirt.

This latter is perhaps the part where Jack’s Return Home is really at odds with modern thinking. Because at the heart of this tale lies the underworld’s all new money-spinner: hardcore porn. And it’s porn of the sordid, seedy, homegrown variety, in which desperate, cash-strapped actors participate for peanuts, especially the women, and in which almost no age restriction is put on them – in fact, the younger the better.

An accurate depiction of a squalid world, perhaps, but the novel has dated generally in the context of its female cast, almost all of whom are tarts of a sort: Frank’s ex-wife, Murial (who had sex with Jack after getting drunk); Frank’s former girlfriend, Margaret; good-time girl, Glenda; and even middle-aged landlady, Edna, who happily sits across the room from her lodger, with legs apart so that he can see her stocking-tops (and later on gets brutally beaten, to which Jack is stingingly unsympathetic).

It’s no surprise that not everyone these days sings the novel’s praises.

Jack Carter’s character is itself ambiguous. Caine’s appearance in the movie caused a stir at the time, everyone’s favourite cheeky chappie turning hard and vicious in his quest for revenge, but in the novel there is barely a hint of a pleasant side to his personality. On occasion, he reminisces about his early youth – the last happy time he knew, we suspect – when he and Frank got on their bikes and explored the woods and wastelands on the outskirts of town. These are moving sequences and poignant reminders that even monsters once were children. However, later on things changed for Jack, possibly in response to Frank’s gentler nature: Jack idolised his older brother, but as they grew older, Jack came to revile Frank’s habit of turning the other cheek, feeling increasingy betrayed by it. As such, for the bulk of this novel, Jack is a coldly merciless figure. He doesn’t go at it shouting and swearing, because he’s got nothing to prove – all the hoods in Scunthorpe know who he is, and most of them fear him. Even in casual conversation, you suspect it’s only the calm before the storm.

A staple of ‘tough guy’ fiction these days, I suppose Jack was one of the very first who you could say ‘didn’t start fights, but certainly finished them’.

So successful was Jack’s Return Home, that Ted Lewis wrote two additional Carter novels afterwards. But with his sad and premature death at the age of 42, the series ended there. Even so, he created an iconic character in the annals of British crime fiction, one who’s been copied many times since but has rarely been equalled, and set him in a world long lost but utterly unforgettable (even if mostly for the wrong reasons).

I’m in the habit of ending these book reviews with some fantasy casting, putting forward a ensemble of actors who I feel would be perfect in the roles. But given the two major movie adaptations that Jack’s Return Home already has in the bank – the totally awesome Get Carter (1971), and the significantly less awesome, Vegas-set Sly Stallone vehicle, Get Carter (2000), I don’t think there’s much point. 

The cracking image topping todays blog was taken in Newcastle during the filming of Get Carter (1971), and depicts Michael Caine and Ted Lewis. It currently graces the cover of GETTING CARTER, Nick Triplow’s new and amazing account of Lewis’s short-lived career. If anyone knows the name of the photographer, please tell me and Ill be delighted to credit him. 

The image at the top of todays book review is the original cover art, as used by Michael Joseph on the first edition of the novel.