Friday, 15 December 2017

Brightly Shone the Moon that Night: Part 2

Very proud today to present the second installment of my brand new Heck novella, BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT. As you may have guessed from the title, it has a Christmas theme, but because this is also the dark world of DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg, good will and festive cheer is likely to be thin on the ground.

Regular readers will be aware that I always like to post one of my Christmas ghost stories on this blog in mid-December. This is a continuation of that tradition, because, though I have a firm ‘no supernatural’ rule in my Heck novels and novellas, I’ve gone out of my way to make this a Yuletide horror story as well as a crime thriller.

However, before you commence reading, just a quick reminder - this is PART TWO. If you want to start at the beginning, aka PART ONE, and you haven’t done that already, just scroll down to the previous post, which you will find on December 8.

Aside from that, the only other thing you need to know is that BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT is set before the Heck novels commence, when he is still a divisional detective constable working in the East End of London. 

Hope you enjoy ...



Sammy Penrose was a big, raw-boned black lad. Still only a probationary PC, but hugely impressive to look at, he stood about six-four and had ox-like breadth. Such an imposing physical presence and a natural aptitude for the job made him the ideal copper for pounding the East London beat. But he was still relatively inexperienced. So, having been dispatched from anti-disorder duty at the top of Bethnal Green Road to an insecure crime scene at Aberline House, and then, ten minutes later, while still plodding over there on foot, to be called again and advised that this was a matter of extreme urgency, he assumed that he was the one at fault, and took off at high speed, following little-known shortcuts through snow-filled backstreets, which finally brought him to the north end of the estate in question and gave him access to the apartment block by an unlit rear stair.
     Because he’d been running through snow, he was puffing, panting and grunting by the time he ascended to the upper floor. Much of its central corridor, where flat no. 17 was located, was in darkness, though he spotted DC Gemma Piper waiting outside the open door long before she saw him. As such, he was taken aback a little when she stepped away in alarm, shouting and assuming the combat position.
     Penrose slammed his anchors on and slid the last couple of yards on the still-slushy soles of his size thirteens, stopping only a foot short of her.
     ‘Sorry,’ he panted, taking his helmet off and mopping sweat with the sleeve of his anorak. ‘I, erm … I got told …’
     ‘Yeah, it’s okay, Sammy,’ she replied. ‘God almighty, you scared the crap out of me!’
     ‘Yeah, sorry.’ Only now did he see how pale her cheeks were. He glanced at the open door, just as DC Mark Heckenburg came out through it.’
     ‘Ah, Sam,’ Heck said. ‘Just the man … and what perfect timing. Here’s the situ. We have a recently deceased person on these premises, with overwhelming suspicious circumstances. I strongly suspect that person to be the occupant, Mary Byrne, but I’ve not had the chance to verify this. Now, the flat is secure, and the only people we’re aware who’ve been in there since the offence was committed are myself and DC Piper … who is not here, by the way.’
     Penrose glanced from one to the other, bewildered. ‘She isn’t?’
     ‘Well …’ Heck shrugged. ‘Okay … if someone asks, she is. Just not officially. Now listen, Sam. I’m no medical expert, but I reckon this murder happened in the last half-hour or so.’
     The PC glanced again at the black doorway. ‘Bloody hell …’
     ‘That makes this a very hot crime scene,’ Heck added. ‘You understand?’
     ‘Yeah, yeah …’
     ‘And you’ve got to sit on it.’
     ‘Me?’ Penrose was visibly shaken.
     ‘Yes,’ Heck confirmed, aware that Gemma also looked discomforted by this. ‘Look … I’ve already phoned in an initial assessment, so you don’t need to worry about that. You don’t even go in there unless it’s absolutely, desperately necessary. Just stand guard till the acting-SIO gets here. That’ll probably be DI Straker from Bethnal Green. SOCO are en route too, along with the FMO to pronounce life extinct. Just bear in mind … it’s Christmas Eve, so everyone’s had to be called in specially. On top of that, it’s Snowmaggedon. The upshot of all this is that no one’s going to get here fast.’
     ‘So … I’ll be on my own?’ Penrose asked, clearly hoping he’d misunderstood when Heck had told him this before.
     ‘Like I say,’ Heck said, ‘Gemma’s not here. And I’ve got a lead on a possible perp, but I’ve got to act on it quickly. We’re well inside the Golden Hour, and I don’t want to waste it. So … you know what you’re doing?’
     ‘Yeah … I think.’
     ‘You don’t let anyone in here apart from authorised personnel.’
     Penrose nodded worriedly.
     ‘That’s not going to be as easy as it sounds,’ Gemma said, in a tone which might have been as much for Heck’s benefit as Penrose’s. ‘There’ll be neighbours coming out, wanting to know what’s going on, people arriving home from the pub, drunk …’
     ‘Yeah, you could have some annoyance,’ Heck acknowledged. ‘Look, just guard this door, Sam. CAD are sending extra bodies ASAP. You got a major incident logbook?’
     The PC looked even more unsure. ‘Erm …’
     ‘To make a record of everything that happens from this point on until you’re relieved?’
     ‘Erm …’
     ‘Here, take mine.’ Heck pulled a beige booklet from his coat pocket. ‘My notes and observations are on the first few pages. It’s mainly scribble. Not had time for much else. You just take up where I left off. You can sign it later. With luck, you won’t need to make a single entry, but just in case, yeah?’
     Penrose nodded and took the book. He still looked worried.
     ‘And relax, okay?’ Heck put a hand on his shoulder. ‘This is the job.’
     The PC nodded again and gave a tight smile.
     Back outside, before heading to his own vehicle, Heck checked the other car park, halting on the pavement and staring at a single set of tyre-tracks, which carved their way erratically across the snowy surface, halting by the side entrance to the flats, before meandering back towards the road.
     ‘Okay,’ he said, half to himself, turning and trudging away. ‘So, it’s safe to say they’re mobile.’
     ‘Mark?’ Gemma said, struggling to follow in her spike-heeled boots. ‘Are we not maybe getting ahead of ourselves here?’
     ‘Gemma, you’ve just seen that Mary Byrne was tortured …’
     ‘Yes, and I’m not at all happy about leaving that crime scene …’
     ‘And like I say, I’m certain that poor girl wouldn’t have known where the cash was hidden … and subsequently couldn’t tell them anything. Which means the bastards who did it are now headed somewhere else.’ He shot a sidelong glance at her. ‘To see Leroy Butler’s wife, Doreen, perhaps?’
     ‘I hear what you say, but Sam Penrose is pretty green …’
     ‘And maybe her two young children.’
     Gemma’s expression stiffened. ‘Children? You’ve passed this concern on to CAD?’
     ‘Of course. They’ll get someone up there … as soon as they can.’
     They reached the Escort, where Heck cleared the latest coat of flakes from the windscreen.   Gemma stood and watched, saying nothing as she tried to process this new info.
     Finally, Heck opened his driver’s door, but he didn’t get in immediately.
     ‘You can stay with Sam Penrose, if you want, Gemma. But all he has to do is prevent busybodies entering the flat. He’s new to the job, but he can manage that, I’m sure.’
     She made no response other than to climb into the vehicle alongside him.


‘DC Heckenburg to Foxtrot Bravo, receiving, over?’ Heck said into his radio, distracted by his efforts to manoeuvre along roads no longer just deep in snow but now littered with the half-buried outlines of abandoned cars.
     If that wasn’t enough, bands of pedestrians on opposing pavements, overflowing with festive cheer, continually stopped to engage each other in good-natured snowball battles. The few cars still moving simply got caught in the crossfire.
     ‘Go ahead, Heck,’ Cassie Raeburn replied.
     ‘Cass, I need you guys to expediate that assistance at 17, Aberline House, over.’
     ‘Are you not there, yourself, over?’
     ‘That’s negative, Cass. I have an immediate lead to follow. Sam Penrose is standing on the door at present, but he’s on his own and he’s going to need support.’
     ‘Are you on your way to 38, Fir Oaks, then?’
     ‘That’s affirmative,’ Heck replied, just thankful that he’d been able to remember Doreen Butler’s address. ‘If any units can meet me there, it would be appreciated, over.’
     ‘Heck … that’s a non-starter at present. We haven’t got the numbers. It’s not just the weather. It’s kicking-out time. There are incidents everywhere, over.’
     Heck glanced at Gemma. ‘Looks like it’s me and you again.’
     She shrugged. ‘Well, you’re certainly showing a girl an interesting time.’
     Heck got his foot down as much as he dared, because Fir Oaks, which was in Walthamstow, was a good five miles away. Again, the absence of other traffic helped, but just turning corners proved hazardous under these conditions, and reaching any kind of decent speed was impossible. As he ploughed through Hackney, he encountered a series of icy patches, against which his wheels spun frenziedly, gaining zero grip. For all this, they pressed doggedly on, headlights spearing through relentless swirls of flakes.     
     ‘DC Heckenburg to Foxtrot Bravo?’ Heck said again.
     ‘Go ahead, Heck.’
     ‘Cass … I could use someone to cast an eye on CrimInt for me, over?’
     ‘Heck …’ Even through the crackle of static, which was worse than usual owing to the conditions, Cassie Raeburn sounded stressed. ‘We’re a bit pulled out, over.’
     ‘I wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t important.’
     No immediate reply followed.
     ‘That bastard, Lavenham, will be trying to find a reason why no one can do it,’ Heck grunted.
     ‘Yeah,’ Gemma replied, ‘because the last time he was uncooperative with you left him with no egg on his face at all.’
     ‘Foxtrot Bravo to DC Heckenburg.’ It was Sergeant Lavenham himself. What do you need, Heck, over?’
     Heck glanced at Gemma. ‘Just goes to show ... I’m not always right.’
     She shook her head.
     Heck described as best he could the main suspect Jenny Askew had reported, emphasising the damaged left eye, and – bizarre though it still sounded, even to Heck’s own ears – the pleasant singing voice.
     ‘You might also want to look at any known associations with these three faces …’ he added. ‘Ronald Askew, Keith O’Malley and/or Leroy Butler. All well-known to us, over.’
     ‘Thanks for that, Heck. Look … it’s going to take a few minutes, over?’
     ‘Don’t worry. As long as you get something to me at some point.’
     ‘We’ll try.’
     ‘Cheers, sarge. Over and out.’
     ‘That’ll be next week then,’ Gemma commented.’
     He shrugged. ‘Catching the bastards isn’t as big a priority as getting to Fir Oaks.’
     Which they managed about five minutes later, finally gliding onto a residential estate sitting so quiet and serene beneath the endless fleecy cascade that it was difficult to imagine anything bad ever happening here. The Escort crunched quietly across it, following what they assumed was the main drag, though it was difficult to tell in the unbroken vista of white. Not that this concealed the quality of this neighbourhood in general
     Fir Oaks was a sure sign that the days of the old East End were passing.
     Most of the properties here were recently-built four and five-bed detached or semi-detached houses, with large front gardens and impressive cars on their drives. Several glittered with outdoor lights, while in one of them a late-night party was still underway, every window fogged by the revellers crammed inside, so much heat radiating out that the snow on the roof had slipped, revealing a thrown-open skylight from which music and laughter could faintly be heard. However, once they were round the next corner, any racket dissipated into the general hush of falling flakes. It was now after midnight, and the majority of the houses here were lying peacefully asleep.
     ‘Not the sort of place I’d normally associate with a bank robber,’ Gemma said.
     ‘Leroy Butler,’ Heck replied, as if that explained everything. ‘He was the head of the firm. Delivery driver and churchwarden during the day, die-hard villain by night. Prolific burglar in his youth. Graduated to blagging in his teens. By the sounds of it, he’s been doing that ever since. The three jobs we sent him down for were only the tip of the iceberg … but now it sounds like he’s going to pay a steeper price.’
     He braked as they approached no. 38, which was close to the end of an inner cul-de-sac.
     The house stood side-on to an immense Scots pine, as heavily laden with white as any tree Heck had ever seen, even on Christmas cards. The property wasn’t entirely in darkness, a wavering reddish light emitting through the downstairs curtain, but there was no sign of movement. Any recent tyre-tracks had been obliterated by the snowfall, though there was some evidence of disturbance along the gutter in front and leading up the empty drive.
     They climbed out and stood listening, again hearing only that elegant, whispering hush.
     ‘Maybe we got here ahead of them?’ Gemma suggested.
     Heck pondered that, but it didn’t seem realistic. He set off up the drive. Gemma followed, glancing over her shoulder, but seeing nothing suspicious here whatsoever – and yet she understood Heck’s concern. You didn’t need long service as a copper to develop the knack of simply knowing when something was wrong.
     This wonderfully tranquil Christmas scene was just a tad too tranquil.
     Heck pressed the front door bell-push, and the ringer echoed through the house. No other sounds responded. He pressed again, longer this time, holding his finger in place until he was certain that everyone indoors would surely have been woken.
     Still the house remained silent.
     He glanced again at Gemma.
     With wordless agreement, they moved to the side-path, which passed under the boughs of the Scots pine, and filed along it.
     They found the entry-point about midway.
     A letterbox-shaped window connecting with the garage had been crowbarred open. It was ajar by less than an inch, but they noticed it because the snow had been knocked off its sill.
     ‘The alarm didn’t go off?’ Gemma said, bemused.
     ‘Probably best not to have the alarm on tonight, eh?’ Heck replied. ‘With youngsters on site?’
     On reflection, Gemma couldn’t disagree.
     Most property-owners now used the new motion-sensitive alarms, which, once live, would not just cover doors and windows, but would also detect movement in certain specified areas; and in residential properties, that usually meant the ground-floor. And that patently wouldn’t work on Christmas Eve, when you could expect children to make repeated trips downstairs from about 3am onwards, to see if the big guy had visited.
     It was a truly hideous thought that someone else might have been waiting there instead.
     To Heck’s mind, this completely cancelled out the latest protocol for dealing with break-ins, which stated that you called it in, stood by the break and waited for back-up before entering to investigate. There were two officers here, anyway, so it didn’t really count on this occasion, but even if there’d only been Heck, he’d already made it plain to his supervisors – and had received robust bollockings for it – that he would never allow what he considered to be H&S-related over-cautiousness to get in the way of assisting potential crime victims.
     He fitted his fingers under the panel, lifted it, and eased himself up onto his elbows, shining his torch inside – revealing an aqua-blue Freelander 2.
     ‘Whoever thought delivery-driving paid so well, eh?’ he muttered.
     Gemma stood on her tip-toes to peer in alongside him.
     The rest of the garage was neatly organised, arrayed along its walls with tools and gardening equipment, while several stacks of free-standing shelves were crammed with canned foodstuffs. But immediately on their right, an internal door stood open, and what looked like the kitchen lay beyond it.
     Heck gave Gemma a stirrup-lift, allowing her to clamber inside first, and then, raising himself on his forearms, wriggled his body forward, sliding through and landing noisily on a pile of boxes and plastic bottles – not that making a noise felt as if it would be a problem now. Warrant cards in hand, the pair of them proceeded though the ground-floor interior. In the kitchen, they tried a couple of light switches, but as with Mary Byrne’s flat, none appeared to be working – no doubt, the intruders, who were clearly practised at this sort of thing, had sabotaged the fuses while back in the garage.
     Bit by bit, as all this evidence of illegal entry became clearer, Heck felt his guts twisting ever more tightly. You couldn’t function in this job if you allowed the horror of the average serious crime scene, or even the anticipation of what it might look like, to get on your nerves. But unless you were made of stone, it was easier to say you could handle that stuff than it was to actually handle it.
     In the kitchen, meanwhile, faint smells of ginger and cinnamon competed for dominance. The pale hump of a turkey defrosted on the draining board; on the worktops, peeled and chopped vegetables sat in bowls of water.
     ‘Getting ready for tomorrow,’ Gemma said.
     Heck shook his head as he moved into the hall, which was decked its full length with evergreens.
     The thought of some innocent woman and her two children preparing the treats for Christmas Day … and then the memory of what he and Gemma had seen back at Aberline House, almost had him running, especially when he spotted that reddish light flooding out from under the closed lounge door.
     He banged the door open and barged through, Gemma right behind him.
     The room beyond was a virtual shrine to Christmas.
     Oodles of presents wrapped in shimmering paper and sparkling ribbon were heaped to thigh-depth around a spruce fir festooned with candy canes and gleaming glass ornaments. Holly and mistletoe adorned the walls, cards lined the bookshelves, and a painted wooden Advent house, beautifully carved in the Germanic style, now with every door open and festive figurines revealed, sat in a place of honour on the mantelpiece. Beneath it, two specially crocheted Christmas stockings were suspended, just out of reach of the real-flame gas fire, the flickering light of which played over everything in rolling, liquid patterns.
     But then, before the door was fully opened, it seemed to snag on something.
     There was a thrumming sound and a ping, as of a taut wire snapping.
     Whatever that wire was, it was connected to another wire, and then to another, a whole system of them deployed around the edges of the room, linking, at its other side, with a kind of counterweight, a small dumbbell, which now descended from the mantelpiece.
     Heck and Gemma watched, helpless, with no time to dash over there and prevent the small coffee table alongside it upending and depositing the three bottles of spirits – a bourbon, a malt and a brandy – from which the tops had already been removed, onto the open flames.
     Instantly, fire ballooned upward and out, embracing and igniting the two hanging stockings and the Advent house. At the same time, it exploded across the carpet, shooting in particular along three lines of evergreens that had deliberately been trailed from the fireplace to the mound of presents at the foot of the tree, which, even as Heck and Gemma stood gaping, went up in its own blinding sheet.
    ‘God almighty!’ Heck shouted, somewhat belatedly.
     Gemma grabbed his collar and tried to yank him backwards, but fleetingly, his sense of duty kept him rigid in the doorway, scanning to check that there was nobody present they hadn’t noticed; no one sleeping on the sofa, no dog curled in a corner. Already, the smoke and fumes engulfed him, the stench of burn stinging his nose, peppery tears filling his eyes. This was a modern house, and yet it appeared that almost everything in that room was combustible, though most likely that was because it had been drenched with spirits beforehand. 
     Coughing hard, he backed out and slammed the door closed. Gemma had now gone for the landline on the hall table. She hammered in 999.
     ‘Yes, Fire Brigade!’ she shouted. ‘38, Fir Oaks, Walthamstow. It’s a family home, a semi-detached residential property. I don’t know if there’s anyone here. We’re going to make a quick recce. Yes, we’re police officers. We’re on the scene. Yes, quick as you can please.’
     Heck wafted at the thick grey tendrils spilling out under the door, which was heating up so rapidly that its white paintwork had already started bubbling and peeling.
     ‘I’ve just set fire to someone’s sodding house!’ he snapped in disbelief.
     ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she replied. ‘You’re not at fault. It’s whoever laid that trap.’
     He mopped sweat from his brow. She had a point, but he still felt responsible. Like an oaf, he’d blundered straight into this. But who in God’s name were they dealing with here?
     ‘I’ll check upstairs,’ Gemma said. ‘You do the rest of the downstairs …’
     ‘No, no!’ He grabbed her and wheeled her around.’ Gemma, you’re not even supposed to be on duty!’
     ‘For God’s sake, Mark …’
     They stood nose-to-nose, Gemma’s defiant, warrior-queen gaze boring into him.
     Their relationship had never been a ‘leave it to me, dear’ kind of thing. You went there with Gemma Piper at your absolute peril. But there was no time to debate it now. With a gunshot crack, the lounge door split down the middle. More foul smoke gushed out.
     Heck launched himself up the stairs.
     ‘I’ll check the bedrooms,’ he called back. ‘You check down here and warn the neighbours.’
     In four strides, he’d cleared the stairs and was on the upper floor. Despite this, smoke had got there ahead of him. He felt heat rising through the floorboards as he scrambled from one room to the next, his torchlight bobbing from wall to wall. The first room was the largest – clearly Doreen Butler’s. At first, he wasn’t sure what kind of appalling scene he was going to find in there, but in the event, though much wreckage had been done, there was no blood and no sign of a body. 
     ‘Anyone here?’ he shouted.
     When no answer came, he hurried to the next room, which was little more than a lumber room containing boxes and luggage, and also was empty.
     The room after that was the one he feared most: the children’s.
     When Leroy Butler had been sent to prison for seventeen years, his wife, Doreen, had recently given birth to a baby girl, Jemima. She’d already had a two-year-old boy, Benjamin. Which meant they’d now be three and five respectively.
     God forbid …
     Heck entered the room.
     But it wasn’t messy even by kid’s room standards. The blankets on the two single beds were rumpled; a few toys and books were scattered about. But there was nothing ominous about it – unless you considered that the kids themselves were absent.
     ‘No one in here?’ he said.
     When no reply came, he scampered along the landing and back downstairs. Gemma waited by the now-open front door in a thickening dirty fog, talking quickly into her mobile. As he descended towards her, she broke off.
     ‘I’ve got Gwen here, Mark … do you want to speak to her?’
     ‘Yeah, I’ll …’ But then he hesitated, stopping and glancing back upstairs.
     ‘What’re you doing?’ Gemma said.
     ‘Didn’t look under the beds in the kids’ room.’ He set off up again.
     ‘Think about it, Gemma … how many times have we been in houses where there’s been bad stuff? And where do the children always hide?’
     ‘Just clear next door. This is a semi, remember. Tell Gwen I’m sorry, I’ll call her back.’
     He clumped along the landing, blundering into the children’s room again.
     ‘Benjamin? Jemima?’ he shouted. ‘You in here?’
     Again, there was no response. But there was something about the atmosphere in the bedroom this time – it was wary, tense. He dropped to one knee and peeked under the bed on his left. All he saw was soft toys, books, box-games. But when he spun to check beneath the one on his right, two small, brown faces peered nervously back at him.
     ‘Ah-ha,’ he said, giving them his best, friendly smile. ‘So here you are.’
     Neither child made a reply, but their eyes were wide and bright as buttons.
     ‘Hey, I’m a friend of your mum,’ Heck said. ‘Doreen, isn’t it? See, I know her name.’
     Again, there was no response. They were like waxworks.
     ‘My name’s Mark, but you can call me “Heck”. All my close pals do. So …’ He smiled again, shrugged. ‘Are you going to come out for me then, or what?’
     The little boy shook his head once; a quick, tight, nervous movement.
     Heck might have been able to reach in and grab them, but it wouldn’t have been easy: the underside of the bed was ribbed with steel, which meant that it would probably be too heavy for him to lift on his own, and the two youngsters were cowering at the farthest side of it, their backs to the wall. He’d be more likely to hurt them than rescue them.
     ‘Benjamin, Jemima … see, I know your names too. You need to come with me, okay?’
     ‘Mum said we should stay here and not come out for anyone,’ the boy replied in a voice that was almost a whisper.
     ‘Not even for a policeman like me?’
     ‘If you’re a policeman … where’s your uniform?’
     ‘It’s Christmas, silly,’ Heck replied. ‘We don’t wear uniforms at Christmas.’
     The little girl half-smiled, the mere mention of the happy season reminding her that this was supposed to be a wonderful time, and that maybe, just maybe, everything horrible that had happened tonight would all be forgotten when they opened their presents in the morning.
     But the boy looked less sure.
     ‘You do,’ he said solemnly. ‘I’ve seen.’
     ‘Okay, Benjamin …’ Heck tried not to let an explosive crash downstairs, or the sound of Gemma calling his name, visibly panic him.
     ‘Here’s the thing,’ he said. ‘I’m a different kind of policeman. I’m the sort who helps children. I don’t wear a uniform because some little ones are scared by that. But I can prove it to you, anyway.’  He fished his radio from his coat pocket. ‘You see this? It’s real, not a toy.’
     The children watched him intently, little Jemima’s eyes widening in wonder when she heard the urgent messages crackling back and forth on it. She looked ready to come out, but her brother held her back. Heck was about to try and coax them again, when, just to the left of him, he saw wisps of smoke spiralling up through the carpet.
     When he spoke next, it was stern and to the point: ‘Ben … you’ve done the right thing. You brought your sister here, and you’ve been keeping her safe. But I have to get you guys out of here right now … there’s no time left. Look.’ He nodded at the rising smoke.
     The two children gazed at it.
     The little girl seemed puzzled, but the boy’s eyes bugged, like something from a cartoon.
     ‘I know, mate,’ Heck said. ‘We’ve got to go, okay?’
     This time, Benjamin nodded, pushing his sister ahead of him. Heck caught them both as they emerged. They were only in pyjamas, of course, and barefooted – and it was well below zero outside.
     ‘Quick as you can!’ he said. ‘Dressing gowns and slippers, yeah?’
     He almost objected when Jemima ran to her bed to retrieve a cloth rabbit with ridiculously overlong ears and limbs, but held back because he didn’t know how many toys she’d have left by this time tomorrow. Aside from that, the twosome got ready in record time. All three then hastened along the landing, having to fight through thick, cloying smoke. Heck told them to cover their mouths, but when they reached the top of the stairs, the stink was overpowering – and it was plain why. 
     Heck found himself peering down into an inferno, which didn’t just fill the hallway but was fast eating its way up the staircase too.
     Thankfully, the children were too busy coughing to realise what was going on.
     ‘Okay …’ Heck dragged them along the corridor in retreat. ‘I’ve got a better idea.’
     Back in the bedroom, he slammed the door and crossed to the window. It was contemporary in design, comprising a large double-glazed pane, which, once unlocked, would swing outwards to about half a foot. He could get the kids out that way easily enough, though there might not be room for himself – though he’d worry about that when he came to it. The window overlooked the street at the front, and though the glass was too fogged to see clearly, he could sense movement out there. If Gemma hadn’t woken the neighbours, the howl of the blaze below almost certainly would have.
     Right on cue, choking smoke began surging under the bedroom door.
     Placing the torch on a sideboard, so that it lit the room, Heck grabbed the key from the sill, unlocked the window and shouldered it open.
     When he glanced down, Gemma was directly below, gazing up from the snowy front path. Locals were gathered a few yards behind her, some still in nightclothes.
     ‘No Fire Brigade?’ he shouted.
     ‘They’re doing their best to get here,’ she called back.
     ‘Okay, I’m sending you two Christmas parcels.’
     Backing into the room, he began ripping sheets off the beds, twisting them into ropes and knotting them together end-to-end, the children watching in fascination. The sheets were each about six feet in length, so in next to no time he’d made himself an eighteen-foot safety-line.
     ‘Okay, Jemima.’ He moved back to the window. ‘You first.’
     She stood obediently, as he wound the sheet-rope around her waist and then once over her shoulder, securing it like a harness. There was another thunderous CRASH, this time just beyond the door, from underneath of which flames were visibly flickering.
     ‘How does that feel, darling?’ Heck asked. ‘Tight enough?’
     The little girl looked genuinely frightened, but nodded anyway.
     ‘Excellent.’ He lifted her to the window sill. ‘Now, don’t you worry … there’s a police lady down there. You see her?’
     Gemma waved up, but Jemima could only stare down glassy-eyed, mouth clamped shut.
     ‘I promise she’ll catch you,’ Heck whispered. ‘Hang on tight.’
     Before Jemima could object, he’d scooped her up one-handed and fed her down through the open window, clinging tight to the sheet-rope with his other hand. She squealed, but with Heck paying the rope out after her, descended quickly and safely. Gemma caught her with no trouble, passing her to the people behind. When Heck turned from the window, Benjamin had already completed his own safety-line, and was in the process of wrapping it around his waist.
     ‘Good man!’ Heck clapped his shoulder, before taking over, fashioning a proper harness for the boy, and lifting him to the sill. As he did, the bedroom door exploded down the middle, flames erupting through, filling the room with a glaring, roiling light.
     ‘Go!’ Heck instructed, all but pushing Benjamin through the gap, again paying out the rope. 
     As before, Gemma caught the nervous bundle with ease, and handed him to more grateful neighbours.
     Heck glanced over his shoulder, coughing again and shielding his face from the heat. The fire swirled furiously, scorching the bedroom walls, turning the ceiling black. He looked back at the window, which definitely wasn’t wide enough. Wild thoughts flickered through his head; he’d seen so many action movies where the hero simply escaped by leaping shoulder-first through a plate-glass window. Unfortunately, in real life, he’d be shredded, assuming he could even bash his way to the other side, which was unlikely. And then he’d have a fifteen-foot fall to contend with. He wondered if there was anything in the room he could use to smash the pane, but as this was a children’s bedroom, it was unlikely to be well-endowed with heavy implements. Still coughing hard, in fact struggling to breathe, he retrieved his torch – but that was mainly rubber, and would have no impact. That was when he spied a thin wooden pole propped in the nearest corner. It was light and flimsy, but he grabbed it anyway, and when he had it in his hands, noticed a small brass hook on its end.
     He glanced at the ceiling. Directly above his head, he saw the trapdoor to a loft.
     Heck remembered his arrival here – hadn’t there been a skylight on the roof of that house where the party was being held? That was the only roof he’d been able to see, owing to the snow, but the houses on these modern estates were often all built to the same specs.
     With flames roaring on all sides of him, there was no time to deliberate.
     He jammed his torch into his pocket, climbed onto the nearest bed, reached up and hooked the latch free, the trapdoor falling open. Heck leapt, catching the edge with his hands, and swung himself up onto his elbows. Fire lapped the soles of his feet as, with much grunting and strenuous, sweat-inducing effort, he hauled himself into the dark, dusty recess above.
     Once up there, he switched his torch back on, though it did little to illuminate the confined space, which was already filling with scalding, noxious smoke. At least the loft had a proper floor rather than bare joists, but this was already turning brown and smouldering. It was also cluttered with boxes, bags and stacks of string-tied paperwork, several of which erupted in flames even as he watched.      Turning his torch upwards, he scanned the ceiling, and initially thought there was no skylight. Even in these kiln-like temperatures, his blood ran cold.
     But then he saw it in the farthest corner.
     A simple window, perhaps three feet by two, built into the slant of the roof.
     He lurched over there, tripping and scrambling amid burning boxes. This window also was locked, but when he felt around its edges, he found a bolt, which he quickly drew back. The window lifted – but wedged in place after a couple of inches. Heck’s heart caught in his mouth. With bright flames blossoming all over the narrow loft-space, he rammed the glass repeatedly with his shoulder. 
     And by a miracle, the window panel shifted upwards again, the snow that had held it dislodging, enabling it to open all the way.
     Heck clambered out – to wild shouts and cheers from the street.
     But the instant transition from scorching heat to perishing cold was a stunning shock.
     He went dizzy, slumping backwards onto the snowy slates.
     Overhead, the turgid clouds had broken, revealing a flat, black sky studded with glacial stars. That in itself was mesmerising, but the chill, intensified by clothes sodden with sweat, took his breath away. He lay there limply, barely able to think – until he sensed a raft of snow breaking away beneath him, and sliding downwards. He threw himself sideways, scrabbling for a grip, though all his clutching fingers found was more soft, powdery snow.
     Gasps and shouts sounded from the street, as he careered downhill.
     In response, Heck dug the toes of his shoes in as well, applying four brakes instead of two.
     It brought him to a halt a foot above the guttering.
     Panting, streaming sweat, he turned to look down.
     Swirling blue light had announced the arrival of three fire engines, though they were several hundred yards off and struggling not just to negotiate the deep snow, but also the crowds of people. At a rough estimate, they were still several minutes away from being able to raise a ladder. And from the heat increasing underneath him, that wouldn’t be soon enough. On hands and knees, Heck scurried towards the roof’s gable-end, where the Scots pine stood. He rose back to full height, swaying, dizzied again.
     More warning shouts assailed him.
     He glanced back and saw that, some ten yards to his rear, the roof had caved in, flames and smoke pulsing out in volcanic fashion. Even as he stood there, he felt the slates beneath his feet tremble and crack. He turned back to the pine tree.
     It was about five feet away, but all he could see was a dense tangle of heavy, snowy boughs.      They’d be strong, but they’d also be flexible – and if he jumped onto one, it might dip steeply and, being deep-frozen, deny him a proper grip – meaning that he’d fall anyway. With an ear-splitting rumble, wood and tilework collapsed right at his heels. Fierce, skin-melting heat swamped him from behind.
     Heck jumped.
     He was vaguely aware of shrieks from the watching crowd, but then was enveloped in icy, sappy, greenery, which whipped and prickled him as he fell down through it, jolting from one springy obstruction to the next, but his speed of descent decreasing until he managed to wrap both arms and legs around a particularly fulsome mass of snow and needles, and though it again bowed beneath him, drooping towards earth, he was able to slide down the last part of it as though along a fire-pole. When he finally dropped, he travelled three feet, before landing on a patch of frozen soil quite close to the window where he and Gemma had first entered.
     He straightened up and stumbled out into the snowy front garden – to frenzied cheering from the onlookers. His heart still hammered, the breath ached in his lungs, and his face and hands both smarted – whether from flash-burn or frostbite, or both, he couldn’t be sure – so he was briefly oblivious to the sea of happy faces and their hearty thumps on his back and shoulders.
     Until Gemma was there.
     Unconcerned either for her position or his, she grabbed the lapels of his coat.
     ‘What …’ She shook her head, white-faced ‘Mark … what did you think you were doing?’
     ‘The … fire cut us off,’ he stuttered.
     ‘Yeah … yeah course it did.’ She looked bewildered, as though she couldn’t believe that, fleetingly at least, she’d been angry with him. She hugged him fiercely. ‘Course it did.’


Even though she hadn’t got particularly close to the flames, Gemma was smudged with soot and reeked of smoke. Heck was all that and worse, of course, so once together, gazing blankly through their windscreen at the fire-fighters working amid clouds of steam, they rendered the atmosphere inside the CID car almost unbreathable, though exhaustion made them oblivious to this. It made them oblivious to almost everything, until Heck stirred irritably to life.  
     ‘This is no bloody good,’ he grunted.
     ‘What do you mean?’ Gemma asked.
     ‘We can’t just sit here.’
     ‘Mark … we’ve got to sit here. Supervision’s on its way. And the children are safe.’
     ‘But the mother isn’t.’
     ‘You’ve no clue where the mother is. These people could have taken her anywhere.’
     Heck reached for his radio, intent on discovering if CAD had obtained a result from CrimInt yet.    Only to find his pocket empty. He remembered laying his radio on the carpet in the bedroom while trying to encourage the kids out from under the bed, but he didn’t remember picking it up again. He dug for his phone instead - only for a new idea to strike him.
     Gemma noted his change of expression. ‘What is it?’
     Heck gazed at the phone long and hard, before checking his list of recent calls, and hitting redial on one particular entry near the top, ensuring to activate the speaker so that Gemma was kept in the loop. The call rang out for several seconds, before it was answered.
     ‘Hullo?’ came a querulous voice.
     ‘Jen … it’s Heck.’
     ‘Oh … thank God.’ Jenny Askew sounded massively relieved. ‘Listen … there’s a bobby stood outside my front door.’
     ‘Yeah, I arranged for that.’
     ‘Oh, right … well, he’s not knocked, or anything …’
     ‘That’s because he didn’t want to wake you up.’
     ‘Wake me up?’ She chuckled bitterly. ‘As if I can sleep on a night like this. Doesn’t he even know what’s going on …?’
     ‘No,’ Heck said. ‘No one knows what’s going on. Except me and you.’
     ‘Well, look … I …’ Suddenly detecting anger in his voice, her tone changed, became more guarded. ‘What’re you trying to say?’
     ‘I’m not trying to say anything, Jen. I’m saying it straight. What’s playing out tonight is a bloody disaster. One person’s already died … maybe two.’
     ‘I don’t understand …’
     ‘Oh, I think you do, Jen. I think you know perfectly well why those three creeps came to your house earlier. Or at least, you had a strong suspicion.’
     ‘I’ve already said it can’t be anything to do with Ronnie …’
     ‘Interesting that’s the first thing to come to your mind,’ he cut in.
     To the woman’s credit, she sounded genuinely nonplussed. ‘Is that what this is, then?’
     ‘Of course that’s what it bloody is. Whoever these characters are, they’re after the stolen cash that your lovely hubby and his mates hid three years ago. They were going to make you tell them where it was, but you conned them into thinking you had company. So, you know what they did next, Jen?     They went to see Mary Byrne.’
     ‘Mary …? Is that silly little mare still around?’
     ‘Not any more, as it happens. Because unlike you, poor Mary was daft enough to let them inside for a sing-song.’
     ‘Oh …’ The aggravation in her voice faltered.
     ‘Yeah … oh! But it actually gets worse than that, because as Mary was never trusted enough to be told where the loot was hidden, she couldn’t tell her guests anything useful. So, I’m afraid it was rather a long evening for her.’
     ‘Heck … why are you saying this to me as if it’s my fault?’
     ‘Didn’t you at least suspect this was going to happen, Jen?’
     ‘No!’ And about that at least, she sounded sincere. ‘I didn’t know those people from Adam. They could have been anyone … drunks, thieves, druggies. And I called you straight away, didn’t I?’
     ‘Okay, Jen … well knowing what you know now, where do you think they went after Mary’s?’
     She sniffled. ‘I don’t know but I can guess.’
     ‘Sure you can. Because unlike Mary, you’re not a dimwit.’
     ‘It must’ve …’ Her voice half-broke. ‘My God, it must’ve been to Doreen’s.’
     ‘Totally. And you know what, Jen. That’s where we are at present, at Doreen’s … watching the whole place go up in flames.’
     ‘Oh no, no, nooo …’ Her whiney tone became a wail. ‘The children, what about the children?’
     ‘Well, on that subject there’s some good news and some bad news.’
     A breathless silence followed.
     ‘The good news is … Doreen and the kids weren’t in the fire.’
     She sighed with relief, but then drew in another tight breath as if she didn’t dare to ask the next question. ‘So … so, what’s the bad news?’
     ‘The bad news, Jen, is that our three friends have got clean away and have taken Doreen and the kids with them.’
     Gemma frowned, but Heck signalled her not to say anything out loud.
     ‘Oh … oh God …’
     ‘Now, the only possible reason I can think why they might have done that, Jen, is because Doreen made a deal with them. If they spare her children’s lives, she’ll show them where the money is …?’
     There was no answer, which was telling in itself.
     ‘Am I right, Jen?’ Heck demanded. ‘Does Doreen know where the money is?’
     ‘I suppose …’ She swallowed hard, but her voice had turned faint. ‘I suppose she must.’
     ‘And does that mean you know where the money is too?’
     ‘Look, Heck, I’ve already told you …’
     ‘What you’ve told me is a load of baloney!’ he barked. ‘Right from the start … when you cried those bloody crocodile tears back in the charge office at Finchley Road.’
     ‘Damn you, Mark Heckenburg! Those were real tears.’
     ‘You bloody lied to me, Jen, and I did everything I could to get you off the hook.’
     ‘No, I didn’t lie. It was genuine … I didn’t know Ronnie had been out blagging. Not then, anyway.’
     He paused. ‘Not then, eh, Jen?’
     Another silence, before: ‘Heck, are you seriously telling me these people have taken the children?’ Her voice quavered, the words thick with snotty tears. ‘You’re not lying?’
     ‘God forbid someone should lie to you, eh?’
     At the other end of line, she broke into a series of sobs.
     Heck glanced at Gemma, who looked troubled that he’d put an already frightened woman under so much additional stress, though by her lack of intervention, she clearly understood that he’d only loaded the dice this way because he’d had no choice. Jenny Askew was not an innately villainous person, but evidently was loyal to her husband and to the nest-egg he’d set aside for them. It might have taken more than a mere threat to Doreen Butler to break that bond.
     ‘Tell me about the money, Jen,’ Heck said.
     ‘I wasn’t involved in those blags. Heck, you’ve got to believe that …’
     ‘Just tell me where it is, so I can intercept the bastards.’
     ‘All I know … is that after Ronnie went down, he was in a bad way. Never expected to get such a long stretch, and he knew he’d serve all of it because he wouldn’t give the money back. When I went to visit him, he told me that if he didn’t … if he didn’t …’
     ‘If he didn’t make it, you should help yourself to the cash?’ Heck suggested.
     She didn’t reply to that, which meant the answer was yes.
     ‘And that’s when he told you were it was?’ he said.
     ‘Look, Heck, you have to understand …’
     ‘All I understand, Jen, is that time’s running out on your last chance to save those children’s lives and spare yourself an extraordinarily long prison sentence.’
     ‘He said Junction 7a on the M11.’
     Gemma grabbed Heck’s pocket-book from the glovebox and scribbled the info down.
     ‘Apparently, it’s about halfway between Harlow and Bishop’s Stortford,’ Jen added. ‘You go east from the motorway. It’s just a country lane. Leads to a couple of farms. There’s not much else there.’
     ‘Keep talking,’ Heck said.
     ‘You go about five miles along it. Like I say, nothing but woods, fields. Then you stop at this farm gate. You’ll know which one, because there’s an abandoned cottage on the other side of the road. Go through the gate into the field … and about eight-hundred yards straight south of there, there’s a lightning tree. Just stood there on its own. It leans over partly, and the roots on the east side of it are exposed. The money’s buried there … beneath those roots. It’s wrapped in bin-liners. There’s six of them, all buried one on top of the other. The top one’s about four feet down.’
     Heck cut the call, and threw the phone onto the dash. Tyres spinning snow and slush, he turned a rapid three-point turn in the midst of the still-crowded cul-de-sac, and careered off the estate, slewing across three front gardens in order to get past the fire engines.
     ‘Okay,’ Gemma said, clutching her seatbelt. ‘Any point calling for support?
     ‘You can try,’ he replied. ‘We might be lucky and get Traffic off the motorway, though I expect they’ll have a raft of RTAs to deal with.’
     But as they headed north, there was no sign of Traffic or anyone else. 
     In fact, the further up Woodford New Road they travelled, the more surreal it became. One of Northeast London’s major arteries had literally frozen into immobility. Again, abandoned vehicles were littered all along either verge, and though the snow had now stopped falling, they were buried up to their wheel-trims. With so few drivers chancing their arm – even taxis and minicabs were notable by their absence – the snow level on the road itself was flat and unbroken, allowing Heck to progress steadily. Although there were fewer obstacles for him to hit, if his wheels ever locked he fought hard against the resulting skid. One thing they couldn’t afford was to get caught in a drift. For the same reason, he didn’t dare accelerate past twenty-five. By this method, they reached the North Circular without a problem, and then Chigwell. But it wasn’t so straightforward when they came to the slip-road connecting with the M11. It had been blocked off by Motorway Division sawhorses.
     The sign in the middle read:

Motorway Closed Until Further Notice
Metropolitan Police

     Heck rode to an uncertain halt.
     He’d known this sort of thing happen once or twice in the past. Usually that had been back home in the north, when the trans-Pennine M62 or the Lancashire and Cumbria sections of the M6 had been shut to the public, not just for their own safety, but so officers could retrieve the wreckage and the wounded from the innumerable smashes without risking being killed themselves. But he’d never known it happen this far south.
     He turned to look at Gemma, whose face said it all: an emergency was an emergency.
     They climbed out, stumped forward and shifted the sawhorses aside. Heck returned to the car and edged it through the gap, while Gemma replaced the blockade behind him. She jumped back into her seat, and they recommenced the journey.
     From here, it was easier. Though earlier traffic on the motorway had prevented a deep accumulation of snow, the same flying vehicles had compressed the snow that had already fallen into something like polished glass. Heck accelerated past thirty and immediately lost traction. The Escort turned one-eighty degrees before sliding to a halt on the verge. No one else was currently using the motorway, so no real harm was done. But the further north they proceeded, the more shells of battered cars they saw awaiting collection along the shoulder. Some had been cordoned off with cones and visi-flashers, but other, more recent wrecks hadn’t even been towed off the carriageway yet, and still were strewn across all three lanes.
     ‘Everyone loves a white Christmas,’ Gemma sighed. ‘Until it actually happens.’
     ‘It’s you soppy southerners,’ Heck replied. ‘You’re not used to it. Different story where I was born.’
     She shot him a hostile look. ‘You’re from Manchester, not Norway.’
     ‘Hey … we get it worse than the Norwegians. They’ve got chains on their tyres and snowploughs running twenty-four/seven. We have to tough it out in the extremes, while you southerners let leaves on the track stop trains.’
     She glowered at him, but when he gave her one of his trademark mischievous grins, her scowl turned crooked. ‘Just don’t miss our junction, Mr Northern Tough Guy. It’s coming up.’
     Heck didn’t miss it.
     The slip road at 7a, which, according to Jenny Askew, led virtually nowhere, was untouched by tyre-prints even from earlier that evening. They ascended it warily and turned east, as instructed. The next thing, they were grinding along a tight, winding lane hemmed in from either side by leafless trees, the snow-laden branches of which interlaced overhead, forming a virtual roof.

     On the dashboard, Heck’s phone began ringing. Gemma answered it.
     ‘DC Heckenburg’s mobile, DC Piper speaking. Yeah, Cass … hang fire.’
     She switched the speaker on, and held the phone to Heck while he drove.
     ‘Heck, it’s Cass …can you hear me?’
     ‘Loud and clear. Go ahead.’
     ‘I’ve been on CrimInt, and I think we’ve got a candidate for your wonky-eyed carol singer.’
     ‘I’m listening.’
     ‘He could be Gideon Goodfellow. Forty-six years old. South Londoner by origin. Five-eleven in height. Medium-to-heavy build.’
     ‘Sounds about right so far.’
     ‘His two main distinguishing features … blind in the left eye, the result of a childhood injury, when he was stabbed with a pen.’
     ‘Also … and get this, Goodfellow is renowned for his baritone singing voice.’
     Heck glanced at Gemma. ‘Is he, indeed?’
     ‘Choir-boy when he was a kid. Regularly sang at St Paul’s in Deptford. So natural was his talent that the local choir-master gave him singing lessons free of charge. He’s also sung in various prison choirs.’
     ‘Plenty form, then?’ Heck said.
     ‘And how. Sheet as long as your arm. Burglary, deception, handling, robbery, arson, assault …’
     ‘Arson, eh?’
     ‘And it doesn’t end there. His MO’s varied over the years. He’s well known as a confidence trickster, talking his way in to OAPs’ houses – apparently, he can do a range of different accents. But he’s also got form for climbing through windows, and on some occasions, simply knocking on the door and punching whoever answers in the face.’
     ‘Jack of all trades, eh?’
     ‘Yeah, but there’s more still,’ Cass said. ‘During the ’80s and ’90s, Goodfellow was questioned in connection with three separate murders carried out during burglaries in South London. The victims were all elderly females living alone. They’d been beaten and strangled.’
     Silence briefly reigned, the glistening white lane spooling out ahead as Heck pondered this.
     ‘He was never charged with any of these?’ he asked.
     ‘In the end, no. His CRO notes say the murder investigation teams liked him for it each time, but there was always insufficient evidence. Heck … you also wanted me to look into any known association with Ronald Askew, Keith O’Malley and/or Leroy Butler?’
     ‘I did.’
     ‘Well check this out: Goodfellow was released from his latest stretch just over three weeks ago … which he served in Belmarsh.’
     ‘That’s where Askew’s doing his time.’
     ‘Correct. So, I made a couple of phone-calls. I wasn’t the most popular person at midnight on Christmas Eve …’
     ‘Money never sleeps, Cass, as they say … and nor do the people who like stealing it.’
     ‘Try telling that to the deputy security governor at Belmarsh, who was pretty pissed off with me. Until I told her who we were looking into.’
     ‘Knows Goodfellow of old, does she?’
     ‘Knows him and fears him. She said he kept his nose clean during his last stretch, but that this only ever happens when he’s cooking something up. Anyway, get this … for three months earlier this year, Gideon Goodfellow shared a cell with none other than Ronnie Askew.’
     ‘That cannot be a coincidence,’ Gemma chipped in.
     ‘Just what I was thinking,’ Cass said. ‘You know how cons like to talk?’
     Heck did. He could easily picture Askew bragging about the trio of lucrative robberies he’d pulled, and the pile of untraceable money he’d squirrelled away for when he finally got released. No doubt, he’d have resisted dropping any tell-tale hints about where it was hidden, but that didn’t matter because Goodfellow would have his own way of locating it. The main thing was that he’d confirmed the cash was still in its hiding place, and waiting to be collected.
     ‘Heck?’ Cass’s voice cut through his thoughts. ‘You still there?’
     ‘Yeah … sorry.’
     ‘You say you thought there were three carol singers at these houses?’
     ‘Yeah, three.’
     ‘Okay … well, this is where it gets tasty. I know Gemma’s with you as backup … but listen. Goodfellow’s got a younger brother, Damien, who’s got serious mental health problems. Lots of form himself, much of it violent. Spends most of his time in and out of institutions. Either that or homeless. Things only seem to come together for him when his older brother’s back out and they hook up again.’
     Mr Punch, Heck thought to himself.
     ‘Anything on the woman?’ he asked.
     ‘The woman could be Janet King, Goodfellow’s on/off girlfriend. She’s another one with lots of form. Her main offences in recent years are for possession, D&D and breach of the peace … but back in 1980, she completed a four-year sentence for manslaughter. Seems she’d skewered her father in the heart with a knitting needle.’
     ‘She only got four years for that?’
     ‘The court accepted self-defence as a mitigating circumstance. She was only nineteen at the time, but he’d already been raping her for years.’
     Gemma shook her head in disbelief; Heck knew it baffled and tormented her that so many girls they dealt with who’d had a nightmare time with their fathers later seemed to replicate those animals with their choice of boyfriend or husband.
     ‘Thanks for all that, Cass,’ he said. ‘While you’re on, I’ve got a possible location for these three goons … which is where me and Gemma are headed now.’
     He relayed the info to her that Jenny Askew had passed on. In her turn, Cass promised to do everything they could to get support units up there, though she didn’t hold much hope that it would be imminent.
     ‘Just be careful, Heck,’ she warned. ‘We’re talking three seriously messed-up specimens.’
     ‘That’s okay, Cass,’ Heck replied. ‘People say that about me.’
     ‘Yeah, but even you have limits. I don’t think this lot do.’
     ‘One limit I have is what I’m prepared to tolerate when it’s my watch,’ he replied, thinking again about Mary Byrne. ‘I’m going to introduce them to that one in no uncertain terms.’
     ‘Okay … just stay safe, yeah?’
      They’d now travelled a good five miles from the motorway, as Jen Askew had described, and right on cue, a derelict farm cottage emerged from the darkness on their left: a skullish outline with hoardings over its windows. Opposite, was the gate they’d been expecting.
     Except that things had changed since Ronnie Askew had last been here.
     It was still a gate, and it was open, its chain-fastener hanging loose where someone had severed it.
     But it was no longer the gate to an everyday farm-field.
     It now comprised two swing-gates, which stood about fourteen feet in height. They were fashioned from decorative wrought-iron, and immediately on their left there was a green-painted wooden stall, rather like a pay-box, though its upper and lower sections were both closed and locked. Over the top of the gates, meanwhile, in letters made from light-bulbs, which, no doubt, when the power was on, would flicker in a multi-coloured array, arched the wording:


To be concluded on December 22 …


If you have enjoyed these first and second parts of BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT, please feel free to check in for the third and final installment next Friday. 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: STALKERSSACRIFICETHE KILLING CLUBDEAD MAN WALKINGHUNTED 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.


  1. How on earth am I going to be able to wait until next week to read the conclusion?
    Excellent Heck story as usual

  2. Many thanks, Karen. Feel it will pass quickly. And then you'll have Christmast to look forward to ;)

  3. Really enjoying the story so far. Looking forward to the final installment next week. Michelle