Friday, 22 December 2017

Brightly Shone the Moon that Night: Part 3


Welcome to the third and final installment of BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT, a brand-new Heck novella written specifically for this Christmas season, and thus far at least, unpublished anywhere else. And please don’t be fooled by the festive setting. Regular readers of my Heck novels will know that he’s a cop who often walks a tightrope through some of the deadliest criminal worlds imaginable.

Other readers may be tuning in, expecting that, as usual in mid-December, Ill be posting one of my Christmas ghost stories. Well ... this is a continuation of that custom. Its true that I have a firm ‘no supernatural rule in my Heck novels, but in that chilling spirit of Yuletide fiction, I still went all out to make this particular adventure as scary and horrific as possible. 

Hopefully, Ive succeeded.

Just a final reminder that this is Part Three of BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT. If you havent already done so, it would be much better if you were to scroll down this column and read Parts One and Two first. Youll find them respectively at December 8 and December 15.

Happy reading, everyone. All the best for Christmas and the New Year.



BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT

3


Heck and Gemma sidled through the open gate, halting to examine the cut chain. In the light of Heck’s torch, it had been recently and cleanly sliced. If that wasn’t evidence enough of illegal entry, the tyre-tracks ploughing through the snow to the other side came to rest about twenty yards into the field, where a vehicle had been abandoned. It was a beaten-up old rust-bucket of a van, the VRM alone dating it back twelve years. Its back door hung open, and when Heck shone his torch inside, he saw a bare metal floor covered with rags and bits of wire.
     They moved round to the front, Gemma now on her phone to CAD, running a PNC check. While she awaited a response, Heck tested the driver’s door. It wasn’t locked, and opened on a cab filled with old food-wrappers, crumbs and empty pop tins. The partition wall behind where the driver and his two co-pilots would sit was covered with faded centrefolds from lower-end girlie mags of years past.
     ‘Stolen three nights back,’ Gemma said, pocketing her phone. ‘From Acton.’
     ‘I’m impressed they made it this far.’ Heck’s torch-beam played across the van’s tyres, those
sections of which not encrusted with snow were worn down until there was no tread remaining.  ‘We’ve got four-wheel drive police vehicles marooned until a tow-truck comes, and these bastards just cruise through it all.’
     ‘Luck of the Devil,’ Gemma replied.
     He turned to face the open field. ‘So, what’s Christmas Land?’
     ‘Think I read something about it,’ she said. ‘Pretty sure it’s one of these new seasonal theme parks. You know, farmers set unused land aside for them. You get rock festivals in summer, ghostly fun at Halloween, this time of year … Christmas Land.’
      As she spoke, the moon emerged from a patch of cloud, and turned the level landscape a luminous white. Immediately, about four-hundred yards away, they spotted the black, huddled outlines of unlit structures: stalls and tents most likely, probably a few of those flatpack Germanic-style buildings that always appeared in town centres for Christmas fairs.
     Heck extinguished his torch. They no longer needed it, plus he didn’t want to warn the suspects that he and Gemma were here – though if these goons were even vaguely alert, they’d surely have noticed his car pull up on the other side of the gate. Even so, they advanced stealthily, trying to keep the crackle of their footfalls to a minimum – only for Heck’s phone to start ringing in his pocket. It was a straightforward ringtone and wasn’t pitched at an especially high volume, but in this frozen air its jangle no doubt carried for hundreds of yards.
     He turned an apologetic look to Gemma, who simply shrugged, before putting it to his ear. ‘DC Heckenburg.’
     ‘At last.’ It was Gwen Straker. ‘What’s going on, please?’
     Again, Heck activated the speaker, so Gemma could also hear.
     ‘We’re off the grid a little, ma’am,’ he admitted. ‘Somewhere in Essex, five miles from junction 7a on the M11. Place called Christmas Land.’
     Gwen didn’t initially say anything. Some SIOs would have blown their tops straight away, envisaging a big administrative mess, and demanding to know why the first-responder to two major crimes (who also happened to be the first investigating officer in attendance), had left everything in the care of others while he followed a lead that had taken him right out of the Metropolitan Police area, but Gwen Straker trusted her detectives enough to at least wait for explanations.
     ‘I received intel,’ he said, ‘that the proceeds of several armed robberies carried out by Ronnie Askew, Leroy Butler and Keith O’Malley were buried in the field where this thing, Christmas Land, now appears to have been set up. The obvious assumption was that our three suspects for tonight, who we think we’ve identified as Gideon Goodfellow, Damien Goodfellow, and Gideon’s girlfriend, Janet King, would bring Doreen Butler here so that she could show them exactly where the cash is buried.’
     ‘Have you got a visual on these three targets yet?’
     ‘Not yet, ma’am.’
     He and Gemma continued advancing, Christmas Land gradually emerging into view. The closer they got, the more of those Germanic-style buildings it seemed to possess. This was clearly no small affair knocked together in half a day.
     ‘But it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that our quarry has eyes on us,’ he added.
     There was a brief silence, and then: ‘Mark, I want you and Gemma to hold back … okay? At least until support arrives.’
     ‘Ma’am …’ He tried to keep the frustration from his voice. ‘They killed Mary Byrne after deciding she didn’t know anything. They then took Doreen Butler hostage, having set a fire-trap in her house, knowing full well that if anyone tripped it, the whole place would burn, along with any children who night be hiding there. Most likely that was to make Doreen realise she was on a clock and that she had to take them to the exact spot as soon as possible. But what this all adds up to is how ruthless these guys are. Once they’ve found the loot, I’m sure they’ll just wipe Doreen out as another inconvenient witness.’
     ‘Mark …’ He could hear the DI’s uncharacteristic stress. She’d always been a cool-headed manager, but even she was struggling with conditions so unprecedented that most of her usual options had been taken off the table. ‘Look, Mark … if they’re digging down to find this cash, that’ll take time. Doreen Butler won’t be in danger until they uncover it.’
     ‘I was told it’s only under four feet of earth.’
     ‘Earth that is currently frozen solid.’
     Heck glanced at Gemma, and shook his head.
     ‘She has a point,’ Gemma replied. ‘Could take them a good couple of hours.’
     ‘Seriously?’ he said, openly annoyed with them both. ‘We just hang around in this field?’
     ‘I want you to hold back, Mark,’ Gwen reasserted. ‘At least until support arrives.’
     ‘Ma’am … I wouldn’t be surprised if Doreen Butler is suffering right now. To start with, she may still be in her nightclothes, so she could be freezing. Secondly, they’ll do anything they want to her because they think they’re going to get away with this … and you know, if we dawdle, they might.    They didn’t take a chance with Jenny Askew in case she had some yob in the house who could give them a hard time – so there’s no evidence we can use there. Likewise, in committing arson at Doreen  Butler’s house, they’ll have eradicated many clues …’
     ‘Mark … I’m at Mary Byrne’s right now. We have a full and complete crime scene.’
     ‘Mary Byrne lived a troubled life,’ he argued. ‘Drugs, alcohol, endless inappropriate partners.  All Goodfellow and his people would have had to do was be reasonably careful not to leave anything that would obviously implicate them, and it wouldn’t take an especially clever defender to make it look like she’d been murdered by someone else.’
     Again, Gwen didn’t immediately reply. As before, he could sense her frustration, marooned in that appalling little flat, the minutes ticking by while she waited helplessly for even the most basic crime scene services.
     ‘Bloody hell, ma’am!’ he said. ‘We’re not just concerned citizens … we’re coppers! We can’t stand by and let whatever’s happening here happen!’
     ‘Alright!’ she snapped back. ‘I hear that. But be careful, the pair of you … you understand?’
     ‘Affirmative, ma’am.’
     ‘I’ll get some support to you ASAP.’
     ‘Thanks, ma’am. I’ll speak to you later.’
     Heck cut the call and shoved the phone back into his pocket. As he did, a range of festive lights shimmered to life ahead of them. The frozen air was suddenly filled with Christmas voices, slightly tinny thanks to a crackly old tannoy, but nevertheless singing their joyous way through a succession of carols. The cops could only halt in fascination as Christmas Land, now only a hundred yards ahead, glittered and sang. The place was much, much bigger than they’d expected. It virtually bisected their vision, running off across the fields in various directions.
     ‘You think the lightning tree’s still going to be here?’ Gemma said quietly. ‘I mean, if they went to this much trouble, wouldn’t they just cut the damn thing down, or even uproot it?’
     Heck was thinking along similar lines.
     In truth, it seemed more than likely.
     And without the lightning tree as a marker, the burial spot would be undetectable.
     Which meant that Doreen Butler’s ‘good couple of hours’ could rapidly diminish to no time at all.
     Without needing to communicate this to each other, they dashed forward side by side, progressing about fifty yards before suddenly realising to their bewilderment that a vehicle was approaching across the snowy waste on their left. They spun to face it, seeing the bright lights of what initially looked like a jeep trundling towards them. But it was only when they heard the booming, stereophonic laughter – Ho Ho Ho … Ho Ho Ho! – that Heck realised the truth. A truth he confirmed by flicking his torch on, and seeing two parallel lines of steel glinting in the snow just ahead; the tracks for a miniature railway line.
     They backed off a couple of yards as the vehicle drew closer, now able to see the wording mounted on its front in cheerily glowing letters:

Santa’s Toy Train

     Its engine resembled a motorised sled rather than a locomotive, with a large, white-bearded figure seated where the driver would normally be, while to the left of him, a spangly Christmas tree stood upright from a bulging sack.
     Ho Ho Ho … Ho Ho Ho!
     Behind it came what looked like ten open-topped cars, decorated down their sides with fairy lights, which cast towering, multi-hued reflections across the pristine white terrain. It was moving at no more than twenty miles an hour, and their immediate perception was that, aside from the figure of Santa, which was clearly made from fibreglass and glowing from within, his mouth fixed open, his red-mittened right hand raised in a gesture of greeting, there was nobody else on board – until it passed directly in front of them, and two cars behind the sled, they saw a second figure slumped sideways in one of the seats.
     It was the size and shape of an adult human, but it was stiff, unmoving, and rather appallingly, had been completely wrapped in Christmas paper.
     Gemma lurched forward instinctively.
     ‘Hey, whoa!’ Heck shouted.
     He tried to follow, but, in his lace-up leather shoes, slid in the snow and fell full length. In contrast, Gemma, whose slender heels spiked her to the ice, was able to totter forward to the edge of the line. The train was almost gone already, the last couple of its cars passing. She jumped forward without thinking, planting her right foot on the final car’s running-board, catching hold of the top of its door. Fleetingly, she was in a very precarious position. The train wasn’t exactly speeding, but with the air deep-frozen, the added wind-chill brought hot tears to her eyes. In addition, she was jolted and buffeted, and had to cling on with numb fingers – only then realising that Heck wasn’t with her. She risked turning round, the pinpoint of her heel sliding on its ice-slick perch, and saw his dark shape getting back to its feet but rapidly receding behind her.
     Ultimately, it didn’t matter.
     She knew what she had to do.
     Each of the open-topped cars comprised two facing seats, each with room for two people sitting abreast and only a narrow foot-space in between. While the exteriors of the cars were painted green, the interiors were done entirely in lush red velvet. The doors had brass bolts, and brass handles for opening and closing. Of course, Gemma wasn’t going to chance opening the door while standing on the running board – it only came to waist-height anyway, so, nimble and lithe thanks to regular gym sessions, she comfortably straddled the top of it.
     Once inside, she glanced back again.
      Heck was no longer in sight, snow-covered fir trees having closed in. The railway line now appeared to be curving south, no doubt following the boundary of the theme park.
     As she stood there, deliberating, the phone rang in her pocket.
     ‘That was a clever move,’ Heck said, when she put it to her ear. ‘You’ve split us up.’
     ‘Hey … you know what we saw,’ she retorted, raising her voice to be heard over the clack and clatter of the wheels. ‘There’s a body near the front of this train.’
     ‘Have you made your way forward to it yet?’
     ‘No, but I’m about to …’
     ‘Gemma …’ He sounded uneasy. ‘Wouldn’t it be better if you just got off? It’s soft snow, you’re not going fast …
     ‘And is that would you’d do, Mark?’ she wondered. ‘When Doreen Butler may be at the front of this train, all tied up?’
     ‘If that is Doreen Butler, there’s no saying what state she’ll be in.’
     ‘I’m aware of that.’
     ‘But they didn’t put her in there just for a laugh. And that train didn’t start running automatically when the rest of the electrics came on, because I smelled diesel when it passed us. That means this is a set-up. Probably designed to divert us – which it has done. Maybe even to divide us – which it’s also done. And if we’re divided, of course, we’re easier to …’
     ‘Mark, I’m here now,’ she said. ‘I might as well at least check.’
     ‘Which may be exactly what they want.’
     ‘Look,’ she said, ‘if this is an ambush, they can’t have planned it in any detail. At best, they can only have realised we were here a couple of minutes ago. Anyway, I’m obviously following some kind of route round the perimeter of the park … I’ll be back where you are in a few minutes.’
     The dark, snow-clad trees had now closed in from both sides. It admittedly looked sinister, though she knew she was correct. This was a miniature railway, for Heaven’s sake. She’d be through it all and back to the start in a fairly short time.
     ‘No way!’ Heck was breathing hard, which meant that he was walking again. ‘If I’m not hanging back for Gwen Straker, the best DI I’ve ever worked under, I’m not hanging back for Santa’s bloody Toy Train. Look, Gemma … if you’re intent on making your way to the front, try and climb into the driver’s seat. I know it’s probably automated, but there may be a simple ignition switch. When it gets to the other side of the park, it’ll probably pass through some kind of station. Try and stop it there, and I’ll meet you.’
     ‘Okay …’
     ‘Just be careful, yeah?’
     ‘I will.’
     ‘I’d still rather you got off, but if you’re determined not to, stay in contact.’
     ‘I’ll let you know how I get on,’ was her terse reply.
     She’d bitten down on what she’d really wanted to say, which was that if Mark was in her shoes right now, he wouldn’t even consider getting off the train without checking the body first, regardless of whether he suspected it was a trick.
     Not for the first time, Gemma wondered about the wisdom of dating a fellow detective.
     It was convenient, for sure – the convenience factor was massive given that non-job suitors could never be expected to tolerate your work patterns or even get close to understanding the pressures you were under. But so often there was a hidden price-tag.
     At first, she’d thought that wouldn’t matter, because the truth was that she’d been fascinated by Mark Heckenburg from the moment she’d met him. It wasn’t just his wolfish looks and his rogue charm, it was his energy and enthusiasm for the job, which was strangely at odds with his innate rebel streak. Add the easy affability and blue-collar toughness, and he was unlike any copper she’d ever met, so many of which were either London boys of the bad old school, or new breed careerists who did the job to the letter but never adventured. But increasingly – and the house-fire earlier that evening had been another case in point – she worried that Mark was starting to show his true persona, namely that he was a northern lad at heart, whose first instinct was still to protect his woman.
     On one hand, Gemma didn’t totally mind that. It showed that he cared for her. But it was hardly ideal when she too was a police officer, at least as determined as he was to make a big impact in the world of law-enforcement.
     Though at present, it was all she could do not to make a big impact of a different sort.
     Getting from the back end of the train to the front wasn’t as easy as she’d expected. In purely physical terms, it wasn’t a great challenge; the gaps between the cars were perhaps half a foot, but the cars were linked together by flexible metal joints, so even if she slipped down between them, the likelihood was that she’d find one such joint with her foot and be able to stabilise herself again. But as she clambered steadily from one car to the next, that extra wind-chill was vicious. Her fingers and cheeks were now bloodless. On top of that, the ride was uneven, bouncing and lurching as it passed through fathomless ranks of dense, snow-packed trees. At least the front of the vehicle was soon in view. She could already see the glow of the lights on the Christmas tree alongside the Santa Claus driver.
     Ho Ho Ho … Ho Ho Ho!
     The mechanical voice came back to her faintly. But the fact that she could hear it was good.  Another few moments of progressing forward, and she sighted the figure that had caused her so much concern. It lay sideways in the second car from the front; and no, she hadn’t made a mistake – as the train’s side-lights now revealed, it was parcelled like a Christmas present.
     Gemma forged on, and was one car behind the motionless form, when the vehicle jerked violently. She grabbed the left-hand door, while the packaged outline ahead jolted out of place, only to then fall lifelessly back into its former position, clunking on the woodwork.
     ‘Doesn’t sound too good,’ she muttered to herself.
     She considered Heck’s warning that the body had been deliberately placed on this train and the train deliberately set in motion as a form of diversion, or maybe worse.
     Inevitably, she paused before climbing over into that next car.
     They’d already walked blindly into one trap, and in consequence someone’s house had burned down. What might the outcome be here?
     She pivoted where she stood, scanning around her, but still saw only snowbound trees and occasionally, when they broke apart, moonlit snow blanketing farmland. She and Heck been forcibly separated, yes, but it was difficult to see how she was in danger.
     She clambered on, crossing the last gap and slumping down onto the seat where the festively-wrapped figure lolled.
     It was an abhorrence, of course; the whole thing. Gemma was nearly seven years into the job, and near-enough thought she’d seen everything. But a murder victim wrapped up like a Christmas present was something new. She used the light from her phone to examine the figure more closely. The paper covering it was bright red and speckled with holly leaves, but it was immediately evident that an adult person lay underneath. The outlines of arms, legs, feet, shoulders – even breasts, when she looked closely – were recognisable. There was no obvious sign that blood or any other bodily fluid had seeped out, but she couldn’t be certain of that.
     ‘Doreen?’ she said, raising her voice again. ‘Are you conscious, love? Doreen … if you’re hurt, just hold on. I’m a police officer and I’m going to try to get this paper off you, okay?’
     When she touched the form it was rigid, but the paper came away easily. Working around the head first, she found joins with her gloved fingers and simply tore it back, though beneath the red layer, there was yellow one, this – in an irony of ironies – patterned with cherubs singing from carol sheets as they fluttered around the manger in which the Christ-Child lay. As this last lining was peeled back, Gemma caught glimpses of deathly pale flesh.
     Which flummoxed her.
     Because Doreen Butler, like her husband, was second-generation West Indian.
     Had the maniacs claimed another victim then?
     Gemma tore at the wrapping frantically, rending what remained of it away – as she did, finding herself in possession of a baffling heavy-duty staple, some three inches in length – before exposing the whole of the victim’s head.
     It was some relief to find herself looking at a mannequin; life-sized and female, but at this proximity rather basic, the facial features crudely carved in wood, the eyes and mouth little more than blotches of blue and red paint. What passed for hair was a bunch of yellow strings, little more than doll’s hair, fastened to the scalp with more of those overlarge staples.
     She sat back, perplexed, letting the doll-thing drop. Again, it struck the door with a clunk.
     On one hand, this was good. It meant they didn’t have a second murder victim.
     Not yet, at least.
     Which was when she sensed the shadow lying over her.
     Gemma twirled around, but the light from the front of Santa’s Toy Train was blocked by the figure that had risen into view from the next and last car along, where it had evidently been crouching out of sight. It was tall – slightly taller than Heck, and though of a lean build, it looked rangy and powerful in its loose-fitting harlequin suit, topped as it was by a jester’s coxcomb and what looked like a full-head mask depicting the brutal features of Mr Punch.

*

For the first few minutes of his advance into Christmas Land, Heck could have been at any town centre festive market.
     Narrow, snowy footways led between wooden, hut-like stalls, again built and painted in the Germanic or Scandinavian style, and though closed at present and with steel lattices over their fronts, all clearly on the same electrical circuit as they’d lit up simultaneously. They offered a variety of seasonal goodies, from exotic cheeses to pancakes and waffles, from warm cider and mulled wine to Bavarian Gluhwein and Feuerzangenbowle, from Cumbrian sausages and hot chocolate to strudels, pretzels and egg nog punch.


     From some central point he hadn’t yet reached, he heard that choir again, men and women singing harmoniously together, now having moved on from carols to more recent Christmas hits: Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. At a junction between ‘Lapland Leatherware’ and ‘Jams, Jellies and Chutneys’, he halted to listen, wondering if a male voice he could hear crooning along might not actually be on the tape but was in fact someone singing separately. It galvanised him to search more thoroughly, upping his pace, scanning every signpost for something that might sound like a railway station.
     ‘Toytown Halt’ seemed promising; this sent him to the right and felt as though it was taking him away from the village centre. But that didn’t matter unduly. The priority was still getting back with Gemma. Speaking of which, he took his phone out to call her for an update – and was promptly slapped on the side of the head by a snowball.
     It was a stinging blow, and it brought him angrily about-face.
     All he saw were more white-carpeted passageways winding off between the fairy-lit stalls. He pivoted in a full circle, but only when he was back to where he’d been before did he catch sight of someone: a sturdy figure in a top-hat lumbering at speed down an alley on the left, and vanishing through a narrow gate in a slatted wooden fence.
     Almost as though purposely, the gate was left hanging open behind him.
     Another trap?
     It was frustrating the hell out of Heck that their opponents seemed constantly to be several steps ahead. Maybe it was some minor consolation that on a night like this, especially when he’d been forced to wing the enquiry from the outset, he and Gemma had managed to make it here and find themselves within grabbing distance of the villains – but he still had to go through that gate, and no doubt expose himself to whatever was waiting on the other side.
     He strode warily forward. Each time he passed a gap between stalls, or another avenue leading off at an angle, he slowed to peer down it first. But increasingly now, a spectral, sparkling mist – infinitesimal ice-crystals suspended in the frozen air – cast a shimmery gauze over the labyrinthine passages, progressively obscuring his vision. He also checked behind him, more than once. Even in snow so hard-frozen that the lightest footfall would crunch, he didn’t put it past these people to try and sneak up from behind, and as the ice-fog rose, it would get easier still for them.
     But nothing of this sort happened before he reached the gate in question.
     He opened it with his foot, and peeked through.
     Initially, what he saw was confusing. It was an open space at the foot of a snowy slope rising on the left; not a steep slope, quite gentle in fact, but in due course reaching an elevation of thirty or forty feet. Initially, knowing that he was on flat farmland, this confused Heck. Where had such a gradient come from?
     But then he realised.
     It was artificial, a ramp – possibly a miniature ski slope or toboggan run, erected on top of an under-structure, perhaps with a coat of Dendix or Snowflex on the surface to provide slick, fast running (though the present conditions made that redundant). Heck wandered cautiously out there. Looking left and right, he saw that the slope was hemmed in on either side by more slatted wooden fencing, which gave it a breadth of about fifty or sixty yards. When he glanced uphill, he couldn’t see the top of it owing to the thickening mist. There was one curiosity, though: dotted up and down the slope at various levels and points of longitude, there were upright plywood flats, roughly humanoid in shape in that they seemingly had shoulders and heads (with hats on), though they were exaggeratedly large in terms of height and width. Heck couldn’t count how many there were, maybe twenty in total. Possibly, they were intended to form some kind of obstacle-course for the downhill racers, though at present, they, or one of them at least, could also be providing a hiding place.
     Warily, he trudged uphill towards the nearest.
     When he actually reached it, he gave it wide berth as he circled round to the front. There was no one concealed there, but now he saw something else. While, from behind, these figures were nothing but bare wood, from the front, this one at least, and probably the others too, had been painted as a snowman – a jovial one of course, with a happy face, a pipe in its mouth, a scarf at its throat and a top-hat on its head.
     As Heck stared at it, something struck the snowman in the middle of its chest.
     It wasn’t a heavy blow, and whatever the missile was, it dropped into the snow with a soft plop. Heck glanced back up the slope. Nothing moved up there save curling twists of mist.
     He strode forward, bent down and picked the object up.
     It was a white beanbag.
     Immediately, it struck him what this place was, because he’d seen something similar on a television show.
     It was a Snowball Range. What would normally happen here was that participating families would ascend to the top of the slope by a stair at the back, where there was a gas-operated launcher, something like a massive blowpipe, which they would load with snowballs – i.e. white beanbags – and use to take shots at staff members dressed as elves, whose job was to dart back and forth between the wooden snowmen. Every time a staff-member was struck, harmlessly of course, he or she would be out of the game, but if any of them made it to be the top, the shooter – usually some cheeky, rascally kid – would himself be eliminated. Prizes were only won if the elves all fell before the shooter did.
     Great fun for the youngsters, and even under the current circumstances it didn’t seem much of a threat to Heck. That was until a second missile was projected downhill at him. This one came twirling much more quickly, a dark blur against the white backdrop, and missed him by inches, striking the snowman and smashing its plywood head clean off.
     Heck promptly dropped to all fours, aware that in his dark trousers and heavy, dark blue parka, he himself would be clearly visible. He scrambled sideways, getting as far from the damaged figure as he could before jumping to his feet and running uphill towards the nearest next snowman. Before he reached it, another projectile came hurtling through the mist. He dived into the snow, and it skimmed over him closely, landing with a soft but heavy thud a few yards away.
     When Heck spotted it jutted upright in the snow; it looked like a bottle of German lager.
     ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ he said to himself.
     The bastards were bombarding him with beer?
     It might even have seemed funny – he got up again, and as he slogged on, he almost laughed. It showed a certain style, he supposed. But it would be no joke if one of those bottles hit him. These beanbag-launchers were designed to propel lightweight missiles a considerable distance, which meant that they packed significant power. A glass bottle full of liquid would travel like a rocket.
     As if in proof of this, the snowman he next took shelter behind was struck full in the chest with shattering force, breaking at the ankles and sagging backwards on top of him.
     Heck didn’t immediately scramble somewhere else. He kept low and gazed back towards the gateway he’d come in through. The obvious thing to do was scamper back over there, work his way around to the front entrance of the Snowball Range, and ascend the steps. Except that if this lunatic was waiting at the top of those steps, and he had a crate of German lager, it wouldn’t be difficult for him to hammer those bottles down onto Heck from directly overhead. Either that, or simply descend the steps himself first, and depart the scene before Heck even arrived. In addition, that gate was now a hundred yards distant, and that was a hundred yards of open ground, whereas if he kept going forward, at least there’d be cover. He craned his head up, and saw the next plywood figure about thirty yards ahead of him on the left, though another stood equidistant on the right.
     Instead of beating a retreat, Heck opted to try and bamboozle the marksman, jumping up and zigzagging forward towards the space between the two figures, his eyes focussed on the pall of mist covering the top of the slope – out of the middle of which, a black flash emerged as another bottle came whistling down. This time, he’d even heard the sound of the weapon being triggered; a hollow glop, again like the noise a blowpipe makes.
     At least it gave him time to dart behind the figure on his left.
     The beer bottle cartwheeled past, ploughing a deep trench in the snow. Heck peeked around the snowman, looking for his next route – and jerked back immediately as another bottle came arcing down. This one impacted on the woodwork just above his head, detonating in a shower of glass and foam. The snowman shuddered violently, but remained upright.
     Heck took a moment to compose himself as he crouched there.
     Only pure luck had prevented him being brained just then. It also indicated that the guy could load and fire quickly.
     ‘Goodfellow, this is sheer lunacy!’ he bellowed uphill. ‘You realise we’ve got more and more units closing in on this place? You’re only going to make things worse for yourself!’
     ‘Ten green bottles standing on the wall!’ came a tuneful response. ‘And if one green bottle should accidentally fall …’
     Glop.
     Another missile followed a downward-curving trajectory, and struck the snowman as Heck scrambled away from it, this time smashing clean through. Heck swerved uphill towards the next figure, now running frantically. As he did, the fourth projectile in almost as many seconds spun its way down, and this one hit him cleanly …

*

Gemma tried to jump to her feet, but the figure of Punch took a massive swipe at her.
     She glimpsed steel in its red-gloved fist, and more by instinct than design, dropped to her knees, the huge, heavy blade of what looked like a Bowie knife skimming the air, decapitating the Christmas-wrapped mannequin in a single chunking blow. Absurdly, she then remained crouched – as if that could possibly protect her. Half a second later, as the shock subsided, she tried to get up again – only for her assailant to grab her hair with his free hand and yank her to her feet.
     She stood helpless, staring at him.
     He released her hair, only to grab her throat.
     It was a crushing, vicelike grip, trapping the air in her chest, bruising her to the back of her larynx. She struggled and grappled with his arm as he lifted her off her feet, and then, to her incredulity, clean out of her own car, flinging her down into the foot-space alongside him. She struck the frontward seat with her back. It was covered with velvet, but there was wood underneath. The nauseating blow shot shivers of pain up her spine, but there was no time for self-pity. The nightmare figure turned again to face her, swinging his free hand down to deal a stunning blow to the side of her head. Lights literally flashed before Gemma’s eyes. She was too stunned to resist as he grabbed the roll-neck of her sweater and lugged her back to her feet, holding her there as though to scrutinise her from close up with those sightless pits of his. Smoking breath wove dragon-like from the nostrils of his mask, filling her face. The mingled aromas of sweat, onions and alcohol was hideous; Gemma would have gagged if he hadn’t been crushing her throat again.
     As she came round, she tried to kick his groin, but he was wise to that, clamping his knees together, and in response, squeezing her throat all the harder.
     In Gemma’s right-hand vision, that terrible blade reappeared, a Bowie knife without doubt, its cross-guard glinting in the moonlight, the ‘clip point’ tip resting on her cheek. Horrific images flooded her mind: Mary Byrne, who’d been cut up, down, left and right before she’d died, with particular attention paid to her face …
     ‘No, please …’ she stammered. ‘Please … Damien!
     If he’d been about to start eviscerating her, this certainly delayed him.
     There was a brief, wondering silence, his grotesquely masked head cocked to one side as he regarded her with new interest: this handsome woman, who he’d never seen before let alone knew why she was here – and yet who was aware of his name.
     It was all the distraction Gemma needed to jam the thick, three-inch staple into the underside of his wrist. He squawked, yanking his hand back, unintentionally releasing her.
     Gemma didn’t wait for him to grab her again, but launched herself across the narrow car, and leapt overboard. It was unfeasibly dangerous given that she couldn’t even see what she was jumping onto, but she’d gambled that it would be snow.
     That might have cushioned her fall to a degree, but the impact of collision still knocked the stuffing out of her. Winded, she rolled for yards through plumes of frosty white powder, before clambering dazedly to her feet and stumbling off in the first direction she found herself facing. As the train thundered away into the distance, she risked a backward glance.
     Punch had also leapt clear.
     He too had fallen and rolled.
     He too was back on his feet and running, blade still in hand.
     Whimpering, Gemma was goaded to greater efforts. It was still a struggle, each step plunging into snow past the tops of her ankle-boots, but ahead now the evergreens parted, and she saw the outer wall to a tall, timber structure. She’d figured that the train would never stray too far from the outskirts of Christmas Land – and this looked like proof of that, though the building was bigger than anything she’d expect to find on a normal fairground. With its low-slung roof and eaves hung with icicles, it resembled a Viking long-hall, but there were no doors or windows, so she had to work her way along the length of it, glancing back again and seeing Punch coming in pursuit. He looked somewhat more exhausted than she was – if nothing else, she was well-fed and gym-trained, whereas this loser allegedly spent much of his time on the street – though after breaking from the trees, he was now crossing the open ground diagonally, which enabled him to gain on her.
     There were few better times to come to a door.
     It was narrow and fixed with a wooden bar, which Gemma lifted with ease. The door swung outward, and a rank, musky heat spilled from the darkness within. She blundered forward anyway, and immediately felt large, furry, four-legged bodies on all sides of her, though once she was truly among them, they scattered, their hoofed feet thundering on straw-coated wooden boards. She was buffeted and jostled as the beasts sped away, but none of them knocked her over. Disoriented by the cloying blackness, she pulled her phone out, hoping that its fascia would create some degree of light.
     It wasn’t much, but it was enough to reveal a group of reindeer at the nearest end of the barn-like interior, eyes glinting as they nervously watched her. She looked the other way, but saw only empty stalls, each one hung with a green leather harness with bells attached. Just past those, there was a pen heaped with hay, a pitchfork propped against its fence.
     There had to be another way out. The door she’d come in through was a single, and there needed to be an egress for the animals. But beyond the pen hung only opaque darkness.
     With a resounding CRASH, the single door was thrown open.
     Gemma spun back round, pocketing her phone so as not to give her position away.
     The gangling form of Punch filled the rectangle of snow-light. Clouds of his breath hung around him as he lumbered forward, wheezing.
     Gemma backed away, hoping and praying that he couldn’t see her.
     He whirled with a growl as one of the reindeer darted past behind him. Even though it moved in a blur of speed, Punch lashed at it with his heavy blade. There was a thunk, and a freshly-severed antler landed a yard from Gemma’s feet.
     That was too much even for her.
     She ran for the pen, staggering through clots of trampled straw.
     He heard her, and gave noisy chase. Gemma struck the fence surrounding the pen before she saw it, but the adrenaline denied her any pain. She grappled her way along it, hand over hand, finally locating the pitchfork, seizing it and whirling round like a soldier with a bayonet. As she did, she pulled her phone out again.
     The costumed figure blundered into the pall of greenish light, and halted, having spied the pitchfork’s needle prongs.
     ‘Back off!’ Gemma shouted. ‘You want me to stick you with this? I damn well will!’
     The pits of his eyes fixed on her; more thick breath gushed from his borehole nostrils. Then he lunged. With no other choice, Gemma lunged back, but Punch was quicker. Sweeping the blade down, he caught the pitchfork’s shaft guillotine-style, lopping it clean.
     Gemma gazed in disbelief at her truncated weapon.
     Punch came on in a fury.
     She spun away from him, fleeing pell-mell. All that lay ahead was the shed’s darkest recess, but her eyes had now attuned just sufficiently to help her pick out the heavy double-doors at the back of it. Again, there was only a single bar holding them, but this was on the inside. She lifted it and threw it away, before driving forward with her elbows. The doors opened and a blast of winter air surged in.
     But when Gemma tottered outside, a surreal sight greeted her.
     A row of seven-foot tall Christmas trees, glittering with on/off, multi-coloured lights, trailed away both to left and right. Festive music, sung in eerie, elfin voices, issued from the midst of them. The wall of foliage was only ten feet away, and could easily provide concealment, but when Gemma ran towards it, she saw that it stood behind a chest-high wrought-iron fence.
    Desperate, she veered right, again hearing those heavy feet clumping in pursuit.
    The way ahead was not at all clear, a spectral dimness rising from the lying snow. But when a gateway appeared on her left, she ducked through it. She’d half expected to enter some small section of garden or parkland, perhaps see handsome topiary capped in white. But in fact, it was nothing so elegant, nor so relaxing,
     It was maze.
     A maze made from singing trees …

*

The flying bottle only hit Heck on the heel of his shoe, but it was a furious, heavy blow, and it felt as if he’d been kicked by a horse. It knocked him off balance and twirled him around, so that he sprawled full-length onto his back. As he got up again and limped on towards the snowman, the next missile got there in front of him.
     With a BOOM, it took the snowman’s head off even as Heck dropped down behind it.
     Another bottle followed immediately after, hitting the snowman dead-centre, splitting it apart, so that it fell across him in two halves.
     Completely exposed again, Heck had no option but to keep blundering up the slope.
     At least he’d now ascended sufficiently to be able to see the top, which was a steel gantry with a fence along the front of it and a canopy above. By the looks of its vague outline, the beanbag-launcher was located in the centre. But it was still a good fifty yards away.
     He veered across the middle of the slope, aiming for the next snowman. Another bottle came whipping down. He threw himself flat, and it swished over his head with less than a single inch to spare, before burying itself in the snow.
     But that, strangely, was the last one.
     When Heck made it to his next point of concealment, nothing else happened.
     He sat it out for several taut seconds, increasingly frozen thanks to the snow that had travelled up his sleeves and down his socks, and now was melting through his trousers.
     But there was no further attack.
     In the end, he ventured out and stood there in the open, literally inviting another shot.
     Still nothing.
     ‘Bastard’s done a runner,’ he decided, scrambling forward and uphill as quickly as he was able. Either he’d run out of ammo, or he’d realised that it was pointless, or he was now moving onto the next phase of his plan. Whichever, Heck ascended the remaining distance to the fence with no difficulty, apart from the frigid air sawing in his throat.
     As he climbed over onto the gantry, he felt for his phone so that he could check on Gemma’s progress, but his pocket was now empty. He lumbered along the gantry anyway. He ought to have expected to lose something during all that ducking and diving. He could find the phone later, but for the moment he had to close down Goodfellow.
     When he encountered the beanbag-launcher, it was everything he’d anticipated: a long fat barrel pointed downhill, with an OTT telescopic sight on top, a hefty gas canister underneath, a kiddie-sized swivel-seat, two big triggers built into its grips, and a crank-handle to replenish the gas after each shot was fired. By the looks of it, the ammunition was fed in through a breech-loading compartment at the rear of the barrel.
     Next to this, a few spare bottles sat in a wooden crate, alongside several other empty crates.
     Heck lifted one out and examined it: Weihenstephan, 5.4%. He checked another: Fruh Kolsch, 4.8%. He shook his head. ‘Something else I’m locking you up for, Goodfellow. The criminal waste of damn good beer.’
     He followed a passage under the canopy, and emerged at the top of a flight of metal steps, which were no longer covered in snow down the middle because someone had recently descended by this route. But Heck didn’t follow straight away. He’d found himself in an adequately elevated position to see across many of the roofs and gables of the surrounding structures. He could even see above the mist, which ebbed through the narrow passages below like a Hollywood special effect.
     But almost immediately, his eyes were drawn to movement of a different sort.
     Some forty yards away, he spotted a ring of buildings larger and more detailed than most of the others, and built in the archetypical Bavarian style: pale plaster and black beams, but with tall, steep roofs currently shrouded in snow. The Christmas music he’d heard earlier, the male and female choir, appeared to be emanating from over in that direction. But more importantly, there was a narrow gap between the two houses facing towards him, an entry or alleyway, and even as Heck stared at it, he saw people passing by its far end; numerous people, of different shapes and sizes.
     He descended the steps slowly, one hand gripping the rail, soles constantly slipping on crushed snow, utterly perplexed.
     More people continued to pass the far end of that alley.
     Was part of the park still open then? Was there a private party in progress?
     Or worse still, did Gideon Goodfellow have considerably more acolytes than anyone had guessed?

*

As the first avenue of the maze trailed off into foggy dimness, Gemma could scarcely believe her situation. At first glance, it resembled that terrifying end-scene in the movie, The Shining. The snow-filled passage led on and on, though with numerous turnings to left and right, which she could choose or ignore at her own whim. But instead of hedges, these interwoven paths were divided by thickly enmeshed Christmas trees.
     Christmas trees which sang in fluting, ethereal voices …

     On Christmas night all Christians sing
     To hear the news the angels bring …

     … and glittered hypnotically, patterns of kaleidoscopic colour sweeping through them. If that wasn’t enough, holographic trickery had also been employed, the shapes of white winter sprites flitting back and forth through the dark foliage, sometimes crossing the path ahead of Gemma, sometimes darting alongside her.
     Whichever way she turned, left or right, it was the same story. In less than a couple of minutes of weaving blindly into the heart of this hallucinogenic attraction, she’d lost all sense of direction (if she’d had any to start with) – so she couldn’t imagine what effect it was having on the unhinged character pursuing her. Several times as she ran, she glanced back, always seeing him turning the corner some forty yards behind. It wouldn’t be difficult for him to keep track of her – all he had to do was follow her footprints, but with all this strangeness abounding, and he in his mentally ill state, it had to be a challenge for him.
     Not that Gemma was having it easy.
     With her own energy flagging, she was probably no less likely to die lost and frozen in this place than he was. Deciding that a desperate measure was needed, she turned sharp right and plunged into the nearest wall of evergreens, hands clawing ahead of her to tear open a pathway. No doubt, he would copy her. And indeed, within a few yards of forging into the icy thicket, she heard a succession of hacks and slashes as he used his great knife to chop his way in. But if she could get a reasonable distance ahead of him, it would be harder for him to tail her in here because he wouldn’t be able to see her prints so well.
 

     Gemma’s own progress was slowed, however, as she found herself stepping over or ducking underneath loops of tubular Christmas lighting woven between the trees, while the trees themselves – real of course, young, strong and full of sap – could not simply be brushed aside or snapped at the stem. They scratched, prickled and whipped her as she battled her way through them. She had no real idea which direction she was headed in, but knew that she must reach a perimeter at some point. Several times, she broke out into other passages, though always she crossed over these and burrowed into the next wall of vegetation.
     Despite suffering similar hindrances, the madman, initially at least, remained close behind. In fact, he was so close now that she could hear grunts and snarls only a few yards to her rear. But was it possible that they weren’t snarls of anger now, as much as snarls of confusion, or even distress? More mesmeric colours – oranges, blues, indigos – washed over her as she fought her way on. Shrill voices sounded on all sides from concealed speakers.

     Joy to the world
     The Lord has come …

     More darting, sprite-like figures hurried this way and that. Gemma found herself dazed, stumbling sideways as she tried to turn, tripping over a tube of lights and landing in pine-cones and mulch because so few snowflakes had managed to penetrate the canopy of firs.
     Before she could jump back to her feet, there was a snapping and popping of saplings, and Punch came within a few feet of her.
     She lay on her side, perfectly still but watching intently as his tall form swayed into view, fresh snow showering over him as his fierce struggle through the trees shook it loose from overhead boughs. More spiny branches whipped him, more strands of lights tangled around him. Enraged, he swiped wildly with his knife, shearing limbs, lopping through greenery, but only making things more difficult, entwining himself in swags of severed foliage. When he saw the darting sprites, he lunged at those as well, to no avail. Fleetingly, Gemma glimpsed his face: the Punch mask now was jammed at an angle, so it seemed doubtful that he could even see through it properly. As he blundered around, turning progressively more violent circles, growling as he ripped and sliced at every tree that got in his way, she took a chance, raising herself up into a crouch.
     He didn’t notice, and continued to fight his way out of sight, curtains of evergreen finally closing behind him, the elfin choir singing on in a state of transcendental bliss.

     And heaven and nature sing …

     Gemma scrambled to her feet, and headed back the way she’d come, keeping low and moving as stealthily as possible. Thankfully, Punch had already ploughed that route for her. She followed it, and in next to no time was back on a snowy avenue, and running leftward. She had no idea why she chose this direction. It was pure pot-luck; it could only ever be pot-luck in a maze like this, late at night.
But for once, it paid off. Because at the next junction, she glanced right and saw another straight avenue leading back to the maze entrance. The frozen air rasped in her aching chest, as she hammered down towards it, stumbling out into open space again, whereupon two things immediately struck her.
     Firstly, she’d exited via a different gate from the one she’d used to get in. But that was okay, that was perfectly fine. Because the second thing was that about fifty yards to her left, the tall, widely-spread outline of a black, leafless tree was etched against the winter moon.
     The lightning tree …

*

Heck emerged from the alley between the two houses. What lay before him was a town square – not a real one of course, but an impressive recreation all the same. Despite the snow-cover, he saw handsome paving stones, very neatly laid, while on all sides, open, well-lit doorways led into bierkellers, delicatessen and other ‘Alpine village’ shops, though all were empty and closed at present.
     And this was the whole crux of it, for though, as with the rest of Christmas Land, everything here had the distinct appearance of life, in actual fact it was all automated. The charming music – at present it was Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – descended on the square from evenly-spaced overhead speakers, the festive lights glimmered and glittered in pre-programmed patterns.
     And then there were the people.
     Not all were in motion. A good number, cute waxen effigies of traditional Germanic folk, corpulent chaps in whiskers and lederhosen, or ladies with coiled blonde hair, wearing pretty rustic dresses, were seated at tables located under thatched canopies encircling the square, as though awaiting their beer and Bratwurst. Children too were present; one stood quite close to Heck, but was frozen in time, wearing a jumper, mittens and a long bobcap, the bobble hanging alongside his freckle-covered face as he leaned on his upright sledge and watched the ice-skating. That was the second group of people in the square, the one that had drawn Heck here.
     The ice-skaters.
     He walked forward, fascinated by this particular aspect of the place.
     A low, snow-covered fence separated the ice rink from the public area, mainly, he suspected, because it wasn’t a real rink. A flat, semi-opaque surface covered a circular area with a diameter of fifty or so yards, and all around the inner edge of it pairs of figures, in each case a male and female arm-in-arm, moved in clockwise procession, legs stiff, but gliding smoothly as though on skates.
     Heck stepped over the fence, and moved to the very edge of the rink.
     One after another, the serene duos drifted past.
     Up close, whereas the waxwork effigies seated around the square were sufficiently lifelike to merit inclusion in a Tussauds gallery (no doubt because these were the figures that visitors would most closely interact with and use for photo-calls), the mobile mannequins, though dressed well, again in folksy winter attire reminiscent of rural Germany, were crudely constructed from wood, with only basic paintwork to give them human features. A couple of the women had bundles of string for hair stapled to the sides of their heads.
     It was still a remarkable illusion. After all, visitors weren’t supposed to climb over the fence to get so close a look. It was only from Heck’s position that it was possible to see that the figures weren’t actually skating. In reality, they were attached to mechanical runners beneath the ice, which when he tapped it with his foot, was a thin, plasticky material pulled taut but filled with well-concealed slits along which the mannequins travelled. Doubtless some heat was generated by the process, as no snow had settled on the rink itself.
     Fleetingly, Heck had been so startled by this scene – it was literally as though he’d walked into some clockwork Teutonic wonderland, as if he was an extra in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Tom Thumb – that he’d forgotten why he was here. Now, he turned and scanned the miniature town centre, wondering if one of the shops was perhaps more open than it appeared, or maybe if someone was sitting quietly amid the motionless figures. He felt again at his pocket, more by instinct than design, newly irritated that he’d lost his phone.
     Pivoting around, he checked the brightly-painted signposts above the windows and doorways, looking to see if any of them offered directions to Toytown Halt, but nothing revealed itself. The only option, it seemed, was to exit the square via one of its other passages, and see where that took him to.       He turned a circle one last time, his gaze again arrested by the hypnotic movement of the skaters, and the rapid approach of another arm-linked couple: a tall man in tweeds, the woman with him in full-skirted Edwardian garb and a fur cape, the pair of them wearing feathered Tyrolean hats. Only a few yards behind these came two more figures: an upright soldier in peppermint green, with a gold-embroidered green tunic, a plumed green shako and a green, fur-trimmed pelisse slung over his shoulder. The figure on his left, somewhat surprisingly, was also male, and clad in tawdry Victorian wear, which had nothing prepossessing about it. Heck’s eyes roved away, only to dart back as the odder of the two couples swished quietly towards him – at which point, the tawdry Victorian, who hadn’t just been clutching the military figure by his arm, but had hitched a ride with him by standing on his boots, now leapt clear, at the same time ripping the sabre from the soldier’s scabbard.
     Heck tottered back onto the snowy paving slabs, at which point his feet slid from under him and he fell backwards over the low fence. Even though he landed in more snow, it winded him, and he struggled to crab-crawl backwards.
     Gideon Goodfellow, his bad eye like a frozen grey marble in his dementedly grinning face, leapt over the fence with a litheness that belied his hunched, heavy outline.
     ‘And a merry Christmas to you, sir,’ he said in a resonant, richly English voice. ‘What a charming environment in which finally to make your acquaintance.’
     Heck’s eyes locked on the sword as he continued to scrabble backwards. It was long, curved and gleaming, its guarded hilt hung with golden tassels.
     ‘You’re already in serious trouble, Gideon,’ he warned. ‘Do you want to make it worse?’
     He didn’t rate his opponent in purely physical terms. The guy was older than he was and considerably more overweight. Plus, he likely had limited vision. But he’d just got the drop on Heck through sheer cunning, and of course he had this weapon. It was highly possible that he also possessed that much whispered-about ‘strength of the insane’.
     ‘Whom do I have the honour of addressing?’ Goodfellow asked, pursuing Heck in a slow, catlike crouch.
     ‘DC Heckenburg. Bethnal Green CID.’
     ‘Bethnal Green. You’re some way off your patch, detective.’
     ‘Given that Broadmoor’s about seventy miles from here, so are you.’
     ‘Ah hah!’ The felon seemed to be genuinely tickled by that.
     ‘Find that funny, do you?’ Heck talked desperately as he scuttled backwards, acutely aware that even the fleeting time it would take him to jump to his feet might leave him open to that lethal blade. ‘The prospect of spending the rest of your life in a lunatic asylum?’
     ‘They’ll have to catch me first,’ Goodfellow chuckled – all the more when he saw Heck’s back collide with the unmoving obstacle of a fixed wooden bench. ‘And alas, that won’t be through your gallant auspices.’
     His grin turned manic as he drew the sword over his shoulder to deliver a tremendous one-handed stroke. Panicked, Heck kicked into the snow with both feet, to try and project himself up and backwards over the obstruction – only to land in the lap of a waxen effigy. A quick sideways glance showed the apple-red cheeks, blonde walrus-moustache, and jutting clay pipe of the Christmas Land burgomaster.
     ‘Your police service concludes,’ Goodfellow said solemnly, and the blade whistled down.
     Heck had no choice but to raise his left forearm.
     The sabre struck it square-on.
     Any normal person would have expected an instant cleaving of flesh, muscle, bone – not the wholesale shattering of the blade.
     The faces of both cop and robber registered total disbelief as it fell to pieces in the snow.
     Dully, like an ox, Goodfellow raised the guarded hilt, staring in disbelief at the few glittering shards remaining. Heck reached down and picked one up. He didn’t need to remove his glove to work out that it was no more than plastic, rendered extremely brittle by the frost.
     Promptly, he jerked himself upright. Suddenly, the twosome stood nose-to-nose.
     Goodfellow was only an inch shorter than Heck, but now seemed significantly less authoritative. ‘I, erm … I …’
     ‘There are two ways we can do this,’ Heck told him quietly. ‘The easy way or the hard way. It’s your call, Gideon.’
     ‘I … I …’ Again, belying his size and shape, Goodfellow whirled speedily around, but this time Heck was faster, snatching his wrist, twisting it, and hacking a low punch into his unprotected belly.      Choking melodramatically, the felon sagged to his knees. The guard-hilt of the broken sabre clattered onto the shivered remnants of its blade.  
     Heck hunkered down. ‘That was the easy way … just in case you were wondering.’
     From the manner of his hung head and the way he clutched his midriff, not to mention the nauseated grimace on his pallid face, Gideon Goodfellow wasn’t wondering any such thing.
     Heck showed him the handcuffs. ‘So why don’t we stick with that, eh?’

*

Heck wasn’t answering, so Gemma pocketed her phone and walked on towards the towering and distinctive outline.
     She had to believe that this was the tree they were looking for, because the closer she got to it, the larger and more magnificently it loomed. She was near enough now to see that it had canted slightly to the left, while on its right a great explosion of roots had risen partly from the earth. Up close, no doubt, they’d be covered with ice and snow, and forming something of a fantastical feature in their own right. But before Gemma got close enough to check, she became aware of artificial lighting on the other side of it. Some of this clearly issued from the line of Germanic-style huts and cabins about fifty yards beyond it, but there also appeared to be light among the roots, which puzzled her.
     She hurried forward over the last few yards, the blackened, leaning hulk ever more massive. It was difficult to say what it had once been – an oak maybe, or a horse-chestnut – but the blagger gang couldn’t have found a more recognisable marker for their buried loot, even with a festive theme park erected here.
     Thanks to the sheer mass of roots, Gemma had to follow a wide semi-circle to get around to the other side, but when she did, she stopped in her tracks.
     It seemed that the creators of Christmas Land had also been impressed by this wondrous natural feature; so much so that they’d chosen this specific spot in which to remember the original meaning of the season. In the very midst of the tangled roots, where a natural grotto had formed that was about twenty feet across, they’d set up a Nativity scene with glowing life-size figures. It would have been a remarkable sight, a heart-warming sight, a delightful sight – had this evening’s intruders not turned it into something poisonously vile.
     Though the figures of the holy parents remained, St Joseph on the left, leaning on his staff, the Virgin Mary on the right, kneeling in thankful prayer, and at the back the mighty figure of the Archangel Gabriel standing tall with arms and wings outspread, in the very middle, the manger had been kicked aside and the minuscule form of the Baby Jesus lay broken and trailing cables. In its place, a bundle of rags sat alongside a recently-dug pit, no more than a foot in depth, the earth around it hacked out in frozen chunks. But on the other side of that, at the foot of the splendid angel, a short, plump woman knelt in agony and exhaustion.
     Despite the aching cold, she wore only pyjamas and a dressing gown. Her hands had been tied behind her back, the length of clothesline then pulled taut both to left and right, and knotted to the nearest roots on either side. Perhaps most horrific of all, her head had been wrapped in plastic bags and bound with duct-tape. This clearly blinded her, though a hole had been ripped for her mouth, so that she at least could breathe – not that it was easy.
     Gemma gazed in horrified disgust as the plastic packaging inflated and then deflated in time with the woman’s anguished sobs. She rushed forward, only for a figure to leap seemingly from nowhere, and land in her path.
     It could only be Gideon Goodfellow’s disturbed girlfriend, Janet King.
     Having divested herself of the outer Victorian garb and bonnet, she now, bizarrely, wore only Victorian underwear, though there was nothing enticing or sensual about the image she presented. It was baggy and dirty, while the girl herself possessed a wiry, muscular frame, and currently was bent forward like a predator poised to strike. Strands of lank, mouse-brown hair hung over her eyes, which were slitted and malevolent; clenched teeth showed through lips set in a feral snarl. Most frightening of all, she wielded a small pickaxe – presumably the one she’d been working with, though now she passed it from hand to hand, like a weapon.
     ‘You would be Janet, I’m guessing?’ Gemma said slowly. ‘Gideon Goodfellow’s girlfriend, fiancĂ©e, pet, skivvy, punchbag …’
     With a reptilian hiss, King swept forward, swinging the pickaxe up and down. Gemma, who’d had just about enough of these cruel but stupid opportunists, stepped aside and watched the woman flinch as the steel tip jolted back from the iron-hard ground.
     ‘Aren’t you the least bit ashamed of yourself?’ she said.
     King swung the pick at her again, but she was visibly tired as well cold. Again, Gemma sidestepped with relative ease.
     ‘What’s the matter with you, for God’s sake?’
     The pick came up and over a third time, King grunting harshly, but still Gemma dodged.
     ‘We’ve got one female hanging on a Christmas tree …’
     King tried a backhand slash, but that didn’t work either. She lost balance and tottered.
     ‘We got another one freezing slowly to death …’
     The curved steel came up and over again, and again it clanked on rock-hard ground.
     ‘He’s even got you digging … through soil that’s more like concrete.’
     Clank!
     ‘While he gallivants off, doing God knows what!’
     Clank!
     ‘Are you insane?’ Gemma asked her.
     Clank!
     ‘Or just plain thick …’
     Unfortunately, she was so busy lecturing that she failed to notice the bundle of swaddling rags, and when she struck it with the back of her heel, the heavy implements concealed inside it clattered, and she tripped.
     Gemma landed hard on her tailbone. It was a sharp blow, and it fleetingly knocked her sick. At the same time, it gave Janet King new energy. She scampered forward eagerly. Gemma tried to scrabble away, but the ground was slick, and she couldn’t get a grip. With a grin like a jack o’lantern, King loomed over her, raising the pickaxe on high – at which point someone grabbed its haft and yanked it from her grasp.
     ‘Sorry about that,’ Heck said. ‘Just thought I’d even the odds a little.’
     The woman goggled at him non-comprehendingly.
     As he tossed the weapon far away across the snow, she noticed a second newcomer, this one slumped down on his side some twenty yards off. It was Gideon – her Gideon – scowling with impotent anger, his two hands cuffed behind his back. Heck now made to grab her, but she jumped backwards, before twirling around to run. She fully intended to escape, though she wasn’t sure where to. At that moment, any direction would do. But before she’d covered half a yard, the blonde policewoman had blocked her path.
     ‘Silly cow,’ Gemma said simply.
     With a smack of fist on bone, King went down in a groaning heap.
     ‘Nice shot,’ Heck said.
     Gemma glared at him, as she dropped to her knees alongside the fallen figure. ‘I only did that because it’s what she deserves’. 
     He shrugged. ‘That’s usually why I do it.’
     ‘This one deserves it more than most. Give me your tie, please.’
     ‘My tie?’
     ‘I’ve no handcuffs, so I need something …’
     ‘Ah.’ Heck zipped his parka down and stripped his tie off, throwing it over.
     As Gemma bound the girl’s hands together, she hissed into her ear: ‘You know what it’s like to be on the end of violence, Janet. And yet you participated in this anyway. That makes you equally as guilty as Gideon. So, guess what, idiot … you’re bloody locked up!’
     Before she could add the official caution, a whimper from the still-bound Doreen caught her attention. She hastened over there, asking Heck to watch the prisoners. He nodded, moving back to Goodfellow, hauling him to his feet, marching him forward a few yards and dropping him into the snow again.
     ‘Doreen?’ Gemma said, sliding to her knees alongside the plastic-wrapped figure. ‘I’m DC Piper from Bethnal Green. You’re safe now … and your children are safe too.’
     The figure visibly sagged with relief on hearing this.
     ‘We’re going to get you out of this.’ Gemma pulled her gloves off and attacked the complex knots holding the woman in place. ‘And then we’re going to get you somewhere warm. Just hang on.’
     But she was only half way through the process when she sensed another figure emerge into the light. She and Heck glanced around, and about twenty yards away, still tangled in greenery, his clothing ragged, his gruesome mask gashed and dented, but still wielding that huge, shining blade, they beheld Mr Punch.
     He came at Gemma with a piercing, hellish shriek, crossing the open space in three strides.
     It all seemed to happen in slow motion; Heck was the furthest away and couldn’t possibly have intercepted him. But even Gemma, who’d just plucked open the last knot, had no time to drag the weakened, whimpering form of Doreen Butler out of the way. Punch’s shriek rose shrilly as he bore down, so intent on slicing though the pair of them that he never even saw the half-dug pit – and so trod in it with his right foot, tripping and toppling sideways, though his momentum still carried him forward. It bought Gemma a vital split-second, though only sufficient for her to throw herself on top of the hostage and flatten her on the ground. Punch sailed over both of them, plunging his knife into the Angel Gabriel instead, the plastic moulding puncturing cleanly, the steel blade carving the live filaments within.
     For what seemed like an age, Damien ‘Mr Punch’ Goodfellow held that awkward stance.
     Body arched, right foot rigid in the air, but his left foot, in fact his whole lower left leg apparently fused to the snow-covered ground. This latter was the point where blue sparks danced and flashed – along with the point of his blade, of course. Only when a stench of burning flesh enveloped Gemma did she realise what was happening, and it was a perilous moment – because both she and Doreen’s legs extended underneath the juddering, sparking figure.
     Frantically, she wormed her way forward, dragging the groaning captive with her.
     No sooner had they got clear than, with a thunderous BANG!, the archangel blew itself apart, and all the lights in the snowy meadow and the Christmas tree maze and the whole of the festive theme park were extinguished, temporarily blinding everyone.
     With a thud, Damien Goodfellow slumped to the ground.
     Heck tottered slowly forward, aghast.
     ‘Gemma?’ he said. ‘Gemma!
     ‘I’m … I’m alright,’ she replied. ‘We’re okay … both of us.’
     ‘For Gawd’s sake, check the boy!’ a gruff Cockney voice called from somewhere behind them. Gideon Goodfellow had reverted to his native South London.
     ‘We can’t do that,’ Heck replied over his shoulder. ‘He could still be live.’
     He flicked his torch on, holding its beam only briefly on the blackened, smoking husk that had once been Damien, before pushing it sideways, and, to his immense relief, finding Gemma. She and Doreen Butler were sitting up together, the hostage leaning wearily against her rescuer as Gemma peeled away what remained of the tape and plastic.
     ‘Gemma … you sure you’re okay?’
     ‘We’re okay,’ Gemma confirmed, though scarcely a glimmer of the glamorous elf-girl remained.         She looked battered, beaten and bedraggled.
     Then, there came a clunking sound from behind them – though actually it was more like a crunch, the sort of noise metal makes when it’s cut or broken.
     Gemma glanced past Heck in alarm. Heck turned as well, his torchlight sweeping the trampled snow, alighting on Gideon Goodfellow. In the distraction, the prisoner had risen to his feet, and Janet King was now alongside him. Her own hands were still bound with Heck’s tie, but they were bound at the front, not the back, and this had not impeded her from picking up the roll of swaddle left near the pit, taking it to her lover and emptying out its contents, a variety of tools. One of these was a pair of bolt-croppers, possibly the same item they’d used to open the park up. Now, she’d used them again – on the chain of Gideon’s handcuffs.
     He massaged his wrists and flexed his hands, and gave a deep theatrical belly-laugh. ‘Free … free at last.’
     ‘Okay.’ Heck strode quickly over there. ‘Now we do it the hard way.’
     Goodfellow laughed again, but then swooped down and grabbed another tool. It was a second Bowie knife, almost identical to the one his brother had used. Without a word, he pulled the startled Janet King to him and held the wicked blade at her throat.
     She froze in astonishment, eyes bulging, too stunned even to yelp.
     Heck slowed cautiously.
     Goodfellow laughed again as he began retreating, dragging his human shield with him.
     ‘I knew this dozy tart would come in useful someday,’ he guffawed.
     ‘Don’t be bloody stupid,’ Heck replied. ‘Where are you going to escape to on a night like this … in your condition? You haven’t got more than a hundred yards left in you.’
     ‘More than this one has if you don’t stay put!’ the fugitive barked, bringing Heck to a standstill.
     There was already about thirty yards between them, but Goodfellow was retreating fast, increasing that distance steadily. He was soon at the full extent of Heck’s torch-beam. Once he and his captive vanished into the dark, it could be a real problem despite his physical shortcomings. He still had the keys to the van. If he managed to work his way back to it …
     Heck started forward again, unwilling to let that happen.
     ‘Don’t think about it, copper!’ Goodfellow yelled, pressing the edge of his blade so forcefully against King’s neck that it visibly drew blood.
     Heck halted again, seeing how stiff with terror the girl now was.
     ‘Yeah, that’s it,’ Goodfellow chuckled, aware of the night slowly embracing him. ‘You lot back off and stay backed off … and we can all have ourselves a merry little Christmas after all.’
     Ho Ho Ho … Ho Ho Ho!
     Santa’s Toy Train came out of nowhere, just to the right of them.
     Goodfellow hadn’t realised that he’d backed onto the snow-covered railway. Startled by the brightly-coloured shape suddenly ballooning at speed towards him, he lost his grip on the woman, who frantically threw herself out of the way.
     Belatedly he tried to follow her.
     Too belatedly.
     The bone-jarring impact echoed across the icy countryside.

*

‘You cocky little bastards,’ Goodfellow groaned. ‘My brief’ll rip you apart for this.’
     ‘Think he’ll do as good a job of it as you did with Mary Byrne?’ Heck replied.
     ‘I didn’t do any of that … awww my Gawd!’ Goodfellow tried to adjust his position on the sledge Heck dragged behind him as they headed across the meadow, but with both his legs fixed in improvised splints, it wasn’t easy. ‘Oh Gawd … this hurts. Naaah, nah that was all Damien …’
     ‘Yeah, I’ve absolutely no doubt that’ll be your life of defence,’ Heck said. He didn’t bother looking back, because he didn’t want to take his eye off Janet King, now meek and acquiescent as he frog-marched her along, but still not someone he felt he could trust, hence the wrist-lock he had on her.
     ‘You want another?’ Goodfellow said, trying to jeer despite his very real pain. ‘You murdered Damien … threw him into them electrics. Then you pushed me under that train. And now I’ve got two busted legs. How does that measure up for police brutality, eh?’
     ‘You must tell whatever lie you think you can get away with, Gideon,’ Gemma said, plodding alongside them, doing her utmost to keep the hypothermic Doreen Butler on her feet.
     ‘I tell no lie. I’ve got my witness right here. Ain’t I, Janny?’
     Janet King still didn’t reply. They’d allowed her to put her outer clothes back on, having searched them first, and now she walked with head drooped. Her air was that of the defeated.
     ‘Don’t think you’re her favourite person right at this moment, Gideon,’ Heck said.
     ‘Bollocks! Janny … listen to me, girl. All that stuff I said back there … Janny?
     ‘No legs, no witness,’ Heck mused. ‘Perhaps you’re the one who’s being too cocky.’
     ‘You shaddap … oh, Gawd help us, my legs.’
     ‘Maybe you’re forgetting that we’ve got a witness too,’ Gemma said.
     Goodfellow tried to laugh; it came out as a coarse, ratcheting sound – but he tried nevertheless. ‘You ain’t gonna grass, are you, Doreen? She knows her old fella wouldn’t like that.’
     ‘You know …’ Heck glanced at Gemma. ‘Speaking of her old fella, maybe there’s a deal to be done?’
     Gemma pondered this. ‘You mean if we pull a couple of strings, we can perhaps get Gideon sent to Frankland?’
     ‘Yeah,’ Heck said. ‘Where Doreen’s hubby’s doing his time.’
     ‘Perhaps we could even get him a cell off the same landing.’
     ‘Stow it, copper!’ Goodfellow scoffed. ‘You ain’t got that pull. You’re nothing. A wooden-top in a suit.’
     ‘You’d be surprised what DC Heckenburg can make happen,’ Gemma replied. ‘I’ve known him four years now, and I’m never less than astonished.’
     ‘Yeah, I’m really scared.’
     ‘You should be, Gideon,’ Heck said. ‘Because even if we can’t get you into Frankland, you know how well-connected Leroy Butler is. He’s likely to have a long reach.’ He leaned down to Janet King’s ear. ‘That’s something for you to think about too, Janet. When you’re weighing up the odds about which side to give evidence on …’
     The girl glanced round and locked eyes with him. She didn’t say anything, but he was left in no doubt from her expression that she understood his drift.
     Goodfellow continued to utter expletives, alternately threatening his girlfriend in case she betrayed him, and them begging her to remember which side her bread was buttered on. But no one was really listening. They were now approaching the park gates, beyond which swirling blue lights were visible.
     ‘Cavalry got here at last,’ Gemma said.
     ‘Better late than never,’ Heck replied.
     Several motorway units had finally managed to respond, one of these now ready to play the role of ambulance so that Butler and Goodfellow could be taken to hospital, while another would provide prisoner transport for King. As a dead body was still on the site, one well-wrapped Traffic man agreed to stand guard until the crime scene techs arrived.
     Even so, it only seemed to take a few minutes before the two detectives found themselves alone on the snowy lane, alongside their CID car.
     ‘Loading the dice in our favour again?’ Gemma said reprovingly. ‘And don’t give me that “who me, ref?” face. I’m talking about Janet King. We’re foot-sloggers, Mark. We’re not authorised to offer her a deal.’
     Heck shrugged. ‘Can’t hurt to sew a few seeds, can it? But I think you’ll find we’ll be deemed important enough to the case to have to spend the rest of the night form-filling.’
     ‘Wasn’t quite the way I intended us to spend Christmas together,’ Gemma agreed, as they climbed into the car. ‘But the sooner we get going, the more chance of us making dinner at mum’s. It’s already Christmas morning.’
     ‘And, as such …’ he turned to face her, ‘do I get a Christmas kiss, or what?’
     ‘A kiss?’
     ‘We could both use one.’
     In the glacial moonlight, her expression was one of stern reprimand. ‘Mark Heckenburg … I’ve had a pretty rough night, tonight. You won’t believe what I’ve gone through simply because I popped into the nick to keep you company. Now … do you seriously think a kiss is going to make all that better?’
     ‘It’s the job, babe,’ he dared to say. ‘It’s what you signed up for.’
     ‘No one signs up for the job the way you do it.’
     ‘Okay,’ he sighed, switching the engine on and putting the car in gear. ‘I get the picture.’
     ‘Wait up.’ She put her hand on his. ‘I could have phrased that better, I suppose. What I should have said is … do you seriously think one kiss can put all this right?’
     ‘Ah … one kiss?’
     She nodded brightly.
     ‘Well, in that case …’ He unclipped his seat-belt again.
     ‘When we’ve finished the paperwork,’ she added.
     He gave her a mournful look. ‘Seriously?’
     ‘I’m afraid so. First things first.’
     He snapped his belt back into place. ‘Be cramped and cold in here, anyway.’
     ‘Wouldn’t it just.’
     He commenced a three-point turn, which eventually turned into something like a fifty-point turn and involved much cursing and annoyance, before he finally managed to get them facing the right direction again.
     ‘But you’ve got to promise to put that Santa dress on,’ he said, edging them forward.
     ‘If it’s still Christmas, I will.’
     ‘The amount we’ve got to do, it’ll probably be Easter.’
     ‘And if it is, I’ve got a nice little Easter Bunny number, which I feel sure you’ll appreciate.
     Heck cracked a smile as he drove. ‘Now you’re talking.’


***

If you have enjoyed BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT, 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: STALKERSSACRIFICETHE KILLING CLUBDEAD MAN WALKINGHUNTED and ASHES TO ASHES. In addition to those, the seventh in the series, KISS OF DEATH, which is due for publication in August next year, is now available to be pre-ordered.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for the story - Merry Christmas to you :)

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  2. Many thanks, Karen. Happy Christmas right back at yer.

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  3. Thoroughly enjoyed this. Love Heck, I have a soft spot for this character! Also liked the insight into his and Gemma's early relationship. Thanks Paul and best wishes for 2018.

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    1. Many thanks, Katie. Heck and Gemma started out in that soft fuzzy light of true love, as so many of us do ... but time would test this to the limit.

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