I must admit that 2020 has been an unusually busy year for me on the short story-writing front. Though I’ve been eyebrows deep in my novels as well (ONE EYE OPEN came out in August), I’ve somehow managed to find the time to bring out a new collection of Christmas ghost stories, THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE, to re-issue an older collection and an older novella, IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER and SPARROWHAWK, and to publish via SAROB PRESS a hardback collection of four brand-new folk horror novellas, ILL MET BY DARKNESS.
It’s called THE FIMBULWINTER, and while I wouldn’t call it a Christmas story per se, it’s set deep in a very dark December indeed, and hopefully can be categorised as one of my scariest stories of the wintertime.
So, we’ll get straight to it this year. I won’t bore you with any lectures about why we love spooky stories at Christmas. There’s an awful lot of stuff on that subject already out there, I’ve noticed; something to do with this grimmest of all years, I suspect. But before we get going, I’ve at least got time to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and, in case we don’t have contact again before 2021, a Happy New Year (certainly a much happier one than many folk had in 2020).
Hope you enjoy the story …
Had it fluttered down for an hour and melted, he’d probably have forgotten about it by the following morning. But as it came down thick and heavy, smothering the hills of northern England and continuing uninterrupted for day after day, week after week, his misgivings grew. By November, it covered the entire country and what felt like polar winds were blowing. Bonfire Night was unofficially cancelled; a few hardy souls chanced it, but temperatures were six below that day and it was blizzarding again, so scarcely a firework was seen. Come December, the dales around Heatherby, the Yorkshire town where Manning and his two constables ran the sub-divisional police station, were more like the Russian Steppe. The wolds were wind-blasted tundra; rivers and streams had lain frozen for longer than anyone could remember; climbers and walkers were lost on a daily basis. Things were no better in the town itself: there was traffic chaos, pipes and cisterns broke, power lines came down.
The weather people remained cheerful about it. It was the same all over Europe, Asia and North America, they said. Even Africa was having its coldest spell this century. And anyway, Britain was long overdue a hard winter. We’d been spoiled in previous years. The Met Office admitted some surprise at the protracted severity of the weather, but blamed it on a high pressure system sitting stubbornly over Scandinavia and pulling cold air down from the Arctic. Opinions were divided among Greenhouse Effect theorists, some concerned that it discredited their viewpoint, though as one frizzy-haired, jumper-clad professor insisted on a TV chat show, it could also be considered proof positive that things were “going wrong”, many of his colleagues fearful that the first casualty of global warming was always going to be the Gulf Steam, which tended to keep Britain warm and moist during all but the deepest months of the winter.
Sergeant Manning didn’t know much about the Gulf Stream, but he did know that something was “going wrong”. As he guided his police Range Rover up the precarious road to the Mawby Hill estate on the afternoon of December 13, his wheels crunching and sliding in deep snow, he thought about Geraldine’s odd mood that morning. His wife taught at Heatherby Juniors, and had been working with her pupils on Norse myths. Thus, when she’d drawn back the curtains that day on a world yet again blanked-out, she’d spoken about the legendary winter-of-winters, and how it was supposed to herald the destruction of the world. She’d tried to laugh about it, but only in a sombre way.
Manning hadn’t been listening. Instead, he’d grabbed her from behind, kneading her breasts through her nightie, nuzzling her neck, hoping for a spot of nookie before work. But Geraldine hadn’t responded. The same despondency had settled on her recently that had affected so many others over the last few weeks. Her handsome features were morose and drawn; there were dark circles under her eyes. She wasn’t at school that day; the plumbing was down and they were waiting for engineers to arrive from Huddersfield to fix it, but normally she’d still be up and about. On this occasion, she didn’t even get dressed, let alone start the day’s routine of tidying-up and marking.
Manning wished he had time for such fancies. He didn’t say it openly, but civies made him laugh. There hadn’t been a single day in his entire working life when something as mundane as fractured plumbing had sent him home early. And on a day like this, it was a good thing. Harsh weather kept the criminals at bay, but it brought in a rash of other irritations. There were frequent road accidents for example, not to mention regular checks to make on the district’s more remote hamlets.
On top of all that, a fissure had appeared alongside the trunk road leading south to the M62, and another at the bottom of the seventy-foot escarpment at the top of which sat Mawby Hill. They’d been impressive to look at: yawning cracks in the ground, perhaps a metre or so across and in both cases of indefinite length. He wasn’t sure how deep they were, either, but the snow was pouring in and showing no sign of filling them up. Born and raised in the West Yorkshire coalfields, Manning had seen this sort of thing before and it disturbed him. Heatherby had originally been a farming village located at the confluence of several high valleys. However, it had expanded and changed over the centuries to meet the demands of industry and parts of it, especially those residential districts along its southern edge, had been built on uneven coal tips now long disused. As far as he knew, these were safe, heavily compacted, while more recent and therefore looser workings were further down the valley, out of harm’s way. It was just possible though, that the extreme cold had caused some kind of subsidence. Manning wasn’t taking any chances; he’d fenced the cracks off with traffic cones and bright yellow incident tape, just about every inch he had in the station, and was now waiting for word from HQ. Inevitably, in this weather no one was able to do anything in a rush.
Now he had an even weirder job on. Someone on Mawby Hill had reported children frightened by “a very tall man”. As he reached the estate and slowed to a halt at the end of the first street, he wondered just how tall you had to be to frighten the kids of Mawby Hill. Since the pit closure, the estate was almost fully unemployed and what youngsters there were tended to be tearaways.
The road ahead, meanwhile, was bare of life, arrowhead flakes sweeping over it. No-one had gritted, so every surface was deeply buried. Parked cars were visible as rounded hummocks. The Pennine hills, which always made for a scenic backdrop, were indistinguishable from the sky. The few Christmas decorations sparkling from windows had a meagre, half-hearted look about them. Theoretically, white Christmases were adorable, but the weeks and weeks of persistent snow, and the endless problems it caused in a country not geared up to deal with it, were subduing everyone’s mood.
Slowly, Manning gunned the Range Rover forward, the windscreen wipers thudding. Aside from that, there was a muffled silence. He prowled the streets with painstaking slowness, but saw no-one at all, let alone “a very tall man”. He didn’t doubt that something had gone on, however. Even this weather, too cold for children to sit in class, would not be too cold for them to go out snowballing. So, it was hard to explain why they weren’t. He grabbed his radio. “Manning to Six!”
“Go ahead, sarge,” came a tinny voice from the Comms Suite at Slaithwaite.
“Yeah, Jen. I’m on the Mawby now. No trace of anything unusual. No trace of anything, in fact. I’m not happy, though. Think I might knock on a few doors.”
“Received, sarge. Listen ... before you do, can you look at a ‘vulnerable’?”
Manning groaned. Likely as not, this would mean a trip to some even more remote spot. He was glad he had his shovel in the back. “What about 1415, Jen?”
“Negative on that, sarge. I can’t raise Marty.”
“What do you mean you can’t raise him?”
“Not answering his radio, sarge. You know what he’s like.”
Manning snorted. He knew exactly. Marty Culvin was a long serving street-bobby but prone to extreme laziness. Days like this were ideal for parking up somewhere and having a snooze. He’d often turn his radio down so as not to be disturbed by static. “Keep trying him, Jen. And when you get him, tell him he’s in for a bollocking. Let’s have the details.”
Charlie Hardaker had been a gamekeeper during his working life. Now he was retired. Very, very retired.
Manning stood by the broken-down door, staring at the corpse in the middle of the kitchen. He’d been in the job twenty-five years, most of it spent in inner city areas of Bradford and Leeds, and had seen some abominations: a lonely woman who’d died from a heart attack and over the following month had been devoured by her starving Alsatian; a teenage girl raped then macheted, both arms lopped off at the elbows; a motorway crash so severe that one victim’s broken spine had come out through the side of his neck.
But nothing could have prepared him for this.
Thankfully, the snow, which had been billowing in through the open door for the last few hours, covered much of the horror, though Manning could still see enough: the iced blood coating every surface, the indescribable mutilation of the corpse. He took it in at a single glance, before turning away to vomit.
Hardaker, for whatever reason, had gone out through the rear door of his lonely cottage. Whoever he’d met out there had then thrown him back in. Possibly, the wind had closed the door behind the old man, but that hadn’t mattered, because whoever had thrown him in, had thrown him clean through it, bursting it from its hinges and bringing down huge chunks of plaster. It wasn’t clear whether the unimaginably savage beating the victim had taken had come before that or after, but old Charlie’s face was a blackened ruin, the bones smashed inward. Both eyes had ruptured, only blood-glutted sockets remaining. More horrifying than any of this, however, was the actual murder weapon.
It was Charlie’s bottom jaw.
The killer had torn it off and bludgeoned the old man to death with it. It now lay beside him, an angled piece of bone clad in crimson shreds of flesh. Three yellowing teeth were still visible in it.
Manning vomited again before he was able to muster the strength to look around outside the property. The moorland encircling it was a white wilderness, snow whistling across it in spiteful flurries. There was no trace of footprints. Manning doubted that even tracker dogs would make headway in this. He took shelter by the gable wall and tried to contact Comms, but his message broke repeatedly. He plodded back to the Range Rover, now buried to the wheel-arches, and tried to use the force radio. Even that gave out only crackles. From what he could gather, some kind of incident was going on in the neighbouring sub-division. Eventually, he re-entered the house, stepped gingerly past the body and tried to use the telephone in the old man’s hall. Inevitably, it was dead.
He stood there, darkness growing around him. Manning had attended many murder scenes before, and the usual feelings assailed him: revulsion at being there – Hardaker’s house was impeccable, but somehow these dens of death always seemed squalid; anger – the futile yearning for revenge against the faceless murderer was often overpowering; and guilt – no cop in the world could attend a murder without thinking that if he or she had been there earlier it might not have happened, that the helpless victim would not have died unprotected and alone, the law unaware they even existed.
Ordinarily, he couldn’t leave the scene, especially as the broken door meant it was impossible to secure, but this time he had no option. It was vital that CID and Forensics arrived before the evidence deteriorated. He also, laughably, needed to certify death, and that would take a doctor. He glanced around the interior of the house before leaving. Only the kitchen showed signs of physical damage. There was no indication that any other part of the building had even been touched, which suggested that robbery wasn’t the motive. That didn’t surprise Manning; he’d already marked this one as the work of a maniac.
It was only as he climbed back into the Range Rover that he thought about the “very tall man”. It was an ugly notion, but he dismissed it. Mawby Hill was over twelve miles away, which in this weather might as well have been a hundred.
However, by the time he was half way down the rough track to Heatherby, something even more worrying had happened. The swathe of snowy moorland to his left appeared to have fractured. A brand new zig-zag line bisected it in an east-west direction. Manning jammed his brakes on, skidding thirty yards and hitting the kerb before he was able to jump out. He stood gaping. Short of an earthquake, there was surely no explanation for this. He was up in the hills, here. As far as he knew, there’d never been colliery excavation on the northern side of the town.
As far as he knew.
When did that ever mean anything? Who was to say there hadn’t at least been tunnelling? Who was to say the town’s foundations weren’t riddled with galleries now in-filling one after another?
Briefly, he was beset by a nightmarish vision of Heatherby itself, the entire town, subsiding, of horrendous casualties, of a thousand people suddenly rendered homeless in the worst possible weather. He leaped into the Range Rover and set off at a reckless pace, snow spurting out to either side. This was getting way too big for the skeleton staff of a sub-divisional nick. He needed help and he needed it fast.
“Have a bump?” Manning asked, keying in the access code.
The PC shook his head groggily. “Can’t remember. Was up on Pit Meadow Lane. Bert Longshaw said someone killed his sheep, battered ’em like. Whole flock.”
Culvin shook his head again. They entered the locker room, which was dark and empty, though the central heating had been on full blast for so long that it was stultifying. They stripped off their gloves and anorak. Manning hung his hat on a hook.
“I never got there,” Culvin said. “I was half way up, when I went off the road. Bloody weird, I’ll tell you. One minute I was driving, the next my front wheels’d gone down this hole ... you know, like a crack, but straight across the tarmac. I mean right across it. All jagged.”
Manning felt a twitch at the back of his neck. Bert Longshaw’s farm was four miles east of Heatherby. So … first south, then north, now east. “Go on.”
“Like a landslip, it was. Honest sarge, I’ve been up that road fifty times this year, and I’ve never seen that before.”
Manning nodded. “Course ... if you’d been wearing a belt, it might have been less painful for you.” This was an issue they’d discussed at length several times. Manning had discussed it with many junior officers.
“I was wearing a belt.” Culvin touched the gash on the side of his head, where blood was still seeping. “This happened when I got out. Someone lobbed something at me.”
“Didn’t see ’em, it was snowing that bad. When I came round, I found a piece of granite the size of a breezeblock. Must have used a bleeding ballista …”
Manning could only stare at him. He was thinking of the strength it took to throw a man through a solid wooden door.
“Good job it only glanced me,” Culvin added. “Good job I had my helmet on an’ all. Bert picked me up about ten minutes later. Reckon I’m going to need stitches and a tetanus.”
Manning nodded, but he was still thinking about Charlie Hardaker. “I can’t let you go for them yet, Marty.”
Culvin stood in amazed silence as his sergeant related what had happened. He might have been a lazy sod, but he was basically a conscientious copper. Five minutes later, he’d popped into the first aid room to get an Elastoplast and some antiseptic, and was then off to the garage at the back to check out the supervision car. He’d stand guard at the Hardaker house until someone relieved him, he said.
“And for Christ’s sake, be careful!” Manning shouted after him from the personnel door. “It’s bad news up there. I’ll be up as soon as I’ve got CID.”
Manning walked down the passage to the office, but heard someone shouting inside it before he even went in. It was Gary Parker, the youngest copper at the nick, and the shift’s front desk clerk and custody officer. When Manning entered, Parker was stripped to his shirt and tie, and trying to raise someone on one of the telephones. He glanced up with what could only be described as immense relief.
“Sarge ... thank God. I’ve been trying to get you. There’s an Operation Response!”
Manning halted mid-stride. “What?”
Parker nodded, his young face pale and bewildered. “Yeah. I don’t know the details ... the line went dead. Something’s going on at Halifax. They need every spare body they can get. A riot, or something.”
“In this weather?”
“I only heard a bit of it.”
Manning struggled to make sense of the situation. “Who were you trying to call?”
“Comms. I can’t get ’em on the radio.” The young officer seemed close to panic. “I don’t know what’s going on!”
“Just keep trying,” Manning said.
Parker did, while Manning picked up a different line and dialled Force HQ at Leeds. There was no response. The number didn’t even ring out. Manning stood back. The control he exercised daily in so smooth and professional a fashion that he barely needed to think about it anymore, was slipping away like water through his fingers. He glanced sideways, to where flakes the size of feathers tumbled past the fogged window. Darkness was falling as well. Another vehicle thundered by at what seemed like suicidal speed, swishing through the snow, headlights glaring. This was wrong ... all wrong.
Manning opened the radio cupboard, took out a new pack of recharged batteries and fitted them into his PR. Changing the frequency, he tried to contact the next division. “Sergeant 1768 Manning, Foxtrot Division to Tango control, over.”
A hiss of static erupted from the receiver, then a voice. It was not the clipped, efficient voice of the average radio-operator however, but a falsetto screech. “Urgent message, repeat, urgent message ... officer injured on ...”
With a crackle, it died away. One of the phones began to ring. Manning turned eagerly, but Parker had already grabbed it. “Hello ... West Yorkshire Police at Heatherby. Yeah ... what ... I’m sorry, love, I didn’t ... what do you mean ... no you’ve got to ... Jesus wept!” He slapped the side of the phone, knocked the receiver against the desktop, then turned to his sergeant. “You’re not going to believe this ... some woman’s just said her husband’s been murdered!”
Manning stared at him.
“Line’s gone dead,” Parker added. “Didn’t even get a name and address.”
Only after what seemed like minutes, did Manning manage to get himself together. “What ... what happened?”
“She was screaming herself hoarse, but it sounded something like the back garden. Someone came over the fence and killed him in the back garden ...”
“And we don’t know where?”
Parker shook his head.
“Dial a recall.”
The PC tried, but again slammed the phone down. “It’s dead! Totally dead. They’ve all gone dead. We’re cut off ... Christ!”
“All right!” Manning snapped. “It’s a blizzard, that’s all! Get it together!”
Parker nodded and tried to calm himself down.
“I’m going up to Charlie Hardaker’s place,” Manning said. “He’s been topped too. Hold the fort, if you think you can manage it.”
He snatched a hi-viz slicker from a row of pegs and left by the front desk; but when he reached the steps, he stopped short. The snowbound town had come alive, vehicles screaming past in both directions, their drivers apparently oblivious to the danger. Some were already showing accident damage. As Manning watched, a Ford Escort went into a horrifying skid and crashed headlong into a lamp post, knocking it backward through a shop window and buckling its own bonnet and fender. Even more astonishing, the Escort driver simply threw the car into reverse, backed up and took off again at high speed, kicking up fountains of slush.
The snow continued to cascade. Where it lay, it was banked against walls in drifts that were maybe six or seven feet deep, but it made no difference: pedestrians were out as well, racing back and forth; some weren’t even wearing coats. The deadened air rang with frantic voices. Manning heard a terrific crash, an explosion of wood and metal. It sounded like a house roof caving in, yet he stood there in a daze, barely noticing as someone approached him. Only at the last second did he turn … just as a solid fist smashed into his jaw.
The next thing he knew, he was lying face-down, his mouth full of hot, metallic fluid.
“Useless pigs!” someone hissed in his ear. A steel-toed boot whumped into his ribs. “Where’s your Orgreave army now when we need it?” The man kicked him again, before lumbering away.
It was several minutes before Manning had come round sufficiently to sit up, ten minutes before he could stand. He suspected his jaw was broken, but knew he didn’t have time to worry about it. He tottered groggily to the Range Rover and climbed inside.
Driving was a nightmare, the blizzard reducing pedestrians to vague phantoms in the murk, obscuring vehicles down to their headlamps. If it was possible, the temperature had dropped even further. The roads were rivers of ice and Manning had several minor collisions before getting out of the town centre. Ordinarily, each one would have meant a written report and probably disciplinary action. Now, he didn’t give them a second thought; he only had one interest, to get up the mountainside.
But it was too late.
He was only halfway to Charlie Hardaker’s house, when he saw the wrecked police vehicle in his headlights. It was lying on its roof, its windows shattered. Black pools of oil were visible around it.
Manning leaped out, torch in hand, and approached. The wind whipped the snowflakes at him like stinging wasps. He ignored it, circling the crashed supervision car. There was no movement from inside, only darkness. Any tell-tale tracks had already been buried.
He halted, peering around, at which point the ground began to shake.
At first, it was a rumble under his feet. He lurched backward, alarmed.
The wrecked shell of the supervision car rattled violently, and from beneath it came another fissure. Initially it was visible only as a deepening groove in the snow, but it made rapid progress, and when the snow fell into it Manning saw a deep, widening split in the road surface. It lengthened speedily, scurrying away towards the Range Rover. He bolted for the vehicle, jumped in and slammed it into reverse …
And a torn-off human head landed on the bonnet.
The first Manning knew there was a thump of metal, and then a waxy white face under a mop of blood-sodden hair was screaming silently through the windscreen. In that first second Manning didn’t recognise it; the eyes had popped out, the mouth gaped wider than was humanly possible. Then he saw the Elastoplast still fastened over the wounded temple.
“Culvin!” Manning shrieked, jamming his foot down.
The head toppled, showing a jagged stump of smoking red meat. A film of blood sprayed over the windscreen, the wipers smearing it in a livid slick. Manning reversed like a madman, the wheels losing their grip repeatedly, the vehicle careering sideways. Still that face of lunacy gaped at him through the crimson fog. Manning looked back through his rear window but saw nothing for the cake of frost. It didn’t matter. He revved harder and harder, the car, borne by its own weight and velocity, turning sideways on the double-glazed surface. Manning fought the wheel, shouting, his lips flecked with froth. He saw himself going over some precipitous edge, turning end on end, beating his cranium to sponge on the roof, engine flames searing his flesh to parchment long before the all-engulfing anaesthesia of death.
But there was no edge. There were no flames. There was only the maelstrom of snow and darkness, the treacherous road of ice, the smashed and laughing face, now pressed against the glass by G-force, imprinting its visage in gore. And something else: the figure pursuing the car down the road. Or rather … the figures.
The Range Rover turned like a top, spinning madly, bouncing kerb to kerb, the world passing it by in a blurry kaleidoscope. But with each revolution, Manning caught flickered glimpses of grey, cyclopean figures bounding down onto the road, pursuing his vehicle like maddened apes, or elephants, or rhinoceroses, or all three merged into some fevered biological blasphemy.
What could throw a man clean through a wooden door?
The ground thundered, or was that the wind, or the constant clash of bodywork on rock and kerb, or Manning’s faltering heart beating a tattoo of terror beyond imagining.
Fleetingly, the empty downward road appeared before him, and he tromped the gas. In his crazed eagerness, he almost overshot, but he righted at the last second, a wall of sparks blazing along the Range Rover’s offside as he blasted down the high verge, hubcaps shearing off like bottle-tops, and then he was moving freely, only the beautiful empty darkness in front. And the crusty gauze of blood, of course. And Culvin’s head, somehow moored to the bonnet, wagging from side to side as though in disapproval. Manning hit his brakes to try and dislodge it, skidding uncontrollably, though at the next bend it flew into the night of its own accord. It couldn’t have done so more impressively had it sprouted bat wings.
A moan tore from his lips.
He floored the accelerator with everything he had.
The Mannings lived at the end of a cul-de-sac on the southern outskirts of Heatherby. Aside from the various new housing estates being constructed atop the south bank of the M62 motorway, theirs was the last district of habitation. Nothing much happened there. The neighbours liked each other. The children were civil. There was no possible danger. Apart from the fact the entire estate was built on a wide plateau long ago reclaimed from a Coal Board slag heap. Steep slopes fell away on three sides of it.
And now they were literally falling away.
As Manning’s Range Rover skidded down the road towards his front door, he saw a gigantic fissure wriggling across the ice at the far end, saw pavement flags upending in the snow, heard the staccato crackle of rocks and boulders as they snapped like rotten bones. When, with an ear-splitting roar, the farthest house vanished from view, toppling backward into a void, it was four doors from his own.
Manning hit the brakes so hard he almost turned the car on its side. Somewhere ahead, a telephone pole came down, cables lashing and sparking like electric eels. There was another explosion of timber and the next house began to slide, its roof lopsiding, windows bursting outward. Was anyone inside it? Was anyone in the street even? Manning didn’t care so long as he found Geraldine. The road juddered beneath his feet as he ran up his drive to the front door. As it opened, cracks spider-webbed over the lintel.
“Geraldine!” he bellowed.
His wife waited in the lounge, white-faced, eyes glazed. She already wore a coat and had a bag in her hand. The television was on, but the screen was a haze of static. Vague figures moved ponderously about in it, someone was screaming. An American newscaster said something about “international calamity”. Manning didn’t care. He wasn’t listening. He took his wife by the hand and dragged her out of the house. As he did, the floor began to tilt. Boards sprang under the carpet. The burglar alarm went off.
Snowflakes danced into their eyes as they blundered towards the car. As they climbed in, Manning saw a branch-line of the fissure working its way along the centre of the street towards him. He turned the vehicle around and sped away with seconds to spare. In the wing mirror, his house distorted as it fell backward out of view. A split-second later, the fissure widened and with the cacophony of an earthquake, the entire southern side of the cul-de-sac slid away, paving, front gardens, houses, cars, all vanishing.
And then he saw something else. Just before he spun around the next corner, the copper glanced down alongside his vehicle and saw something that he simply refused to believe. Something vaguely humanoid deep down in the cleft, its back braced against one rock face, its massive feet planted on the other, its legs bent double, thighs bulging with granite muscles as it strained and heaved and pushed.
Manning tried to blot it from his mind as he drove for the M62. Everyone else had had the same idea, however. The slip-roads were chocka with vehicles packed with frightened people and travelling at furious speeds. Collisions were frequent, skids a constant hazard. Screams and curses echoed over the yowling engines, but no one stopped to swap addresses or demand restitution. No one dared. Behind them, spread in vast panorama, were the twinkling lights of Heatherby. Many of those lights now winked out, in their place the spreading crimson glare of house and shop fires, massive, lumpy figures moving among them.
“It’s the end of everything,” Geraldine said in shaking monotone.
“Don’t talk wet!” Manning spat, but he had trouble getting the words out. “Just ... just a landslide or something. You know ... an earthquake. Pits ... pits have caved in.”
They sped down the access ramp past the first of the new housing estates, onto the yellow-lit motorway, where true Pandemonium reigned. The M62 was a troubled route at the best of times, but now had to be seen to be believed. The traffic was moving, but it was solid as a log-jam, vans and trucks crammed in with the cars, many running five or six abreast, some on the hard shoulder. An unending dissonance of horns and engines raged through the frozen air. That was the west-bound carriageway. Incredibly, east-bound the lanes were deserted. Though maybe that wasn’t so incredible, Manning thought. Because if you went east on the M62, you also went north, into the teeth of the storm ... and whatever it had brought with it.
He pushed his way out onto the crowded motorway, only to be buffeted repeatedly.
“I don’t know where they’re running to,” Geraldine muttered. “There’s no escape ...”
“For Christ’s sake!”
“It’s the Fimbulwinter. It’s happened like the legend said. And now they’ve come back. To reap the discord and reclaim the world.”
She sounded as if she was quoting something, but Manning was too distracted to wonder what. He swore loudly as they crashed into a car in front and then were jolted from behind. Amazingly, the log-jam continued to move, totalled vehicles dragged along with the rest. “What … what’re you gibbering about?” he shouted.
“What I say,” she said. “Them. The giants.”
Manning wanted to slap her and shout at her, tell her that the last thing he needed now was for his wife to go crazy on him. But he’d already seen things that day that defied explanation. That surely couldn’t exist in the world of law, order and science, where up until this morning he had spent his entire life.
That was when the first missile hit the car.
Initially they thought it another collision. Then the second missile struck, crashing over the bonnet with terrific violence. Geraldine screamed. Manning swore.
A house-brick. A full-sized house-brick flung from the embankment like a tennis ball. Two others hit home in quick succession, sending shockwaves through the chassis. By now, missiles were striking other vehicles too, raining down all along the motorway, smashing on roofs and bonnets. As far as the eye could see, snowflakes billowed in the yellow glare of the street-lights, but showers of a more terrible sort were falling with them. Projected from the embankment.
Only then did it dawn on Manning what was happening.
This was an attack. A full-scale, preplanned attack.
An army had emerged from the tempest and overrun him and his people in their own encampment. Then it had herded them down into this narrow gully where their vast numbers were a disadvantage. That army was now deployed alongside, hidden by the driving snow and thanks to those miles and miles of half-built houses on the new estates, provided with stockpiles of ammunition.
He got his foot down hard, but only succeeded in shunting the Jaguar in front. It scarcely mattered, for one second later the black blur of a twirling brick swooped on the Jaguar’s windscreen, staving it in like paper. The Jag went wildly out of control, skidding sideways and flipping onto its side. Manning swerved around it as it exploded. In his rearview mirror, orange flames mushroomed into the air, but still the missiles came down, thrown with horrendous force by the unseen foe, sleeting into the sea of headlights, shattering windows, gashing bodywork. It was the same directly ahead. Bricks, stones, breeze-blocks, girders even, bounced from the roofs and flanks of the sliding cars. Sparks flashed from repeated impacts. There were further detonations, plumes of flame and smoke. Dams of crumpled metal appeared as vehicles, filled only with the dead and battered, careered into one another, tangling wheels and bumpers, losing speed, slithering upside-down. In many places, people were getting out and trying to run, though swarms of missiles felled them. Either that, or other cars cut them down. Broken bodies flew ragged in the air, or rolled in the gutters between grinding, slewing wheels. The stink of petrol was everywhere, the screams and shouts deafening. Manning screamed along with them. He’d long forgotten that he was a policeman. He forced Geraldine down into the foot-space, then ducked himself as a doorstep-sized chunk of brick and ice came glittering at his windshield. By a miracle, the glass held, though it frosted with cracks. He drove on regardless, hitting and knocking things, keeping as low as he could, cringing with every shuddering blow.
A piece of paving stone skittered across his roof, slamming through the front passenger window of an Audi on his right, crushing the skull of whoever was sitting there, spraying the inside of its windscreen scarlet. Even in his dazed condition, Manning heard a male voice going hysterical, the driver maybe, and the howls of what sounded like children from the back. Then the Audi front-ended the rear of a stationary HGV, and fragmented with the force of its erupting fuel tank.
Manning stomped his pedal to the floor to escape the blast, unable to look at the writhing, blazing figures in his rear-view mirror, only to run aground himself, bullocked sideways by an out-of-control van. Another vehicle hit him, this time from behind, spinning him. A second later the Range Rover was stationary, hemmed between smoking wrecks, the icy air seeping into it. Then the driver’s window imploded, and what felt like a fist in a mailed glove hammered into Manning’s cheek. His head flew to one side, and he heard Geraldine crying out and grabbing at him.
“I’m ... I’m all right,” he stammered, his thoughts swimming. A bloodied half-brick lay in his lap.
“Oh my God, George,” she gasped. “You’re bleeding.”
“I’m all right!” he insisted again, though he knew that he wasn’t. Loose bones ticked in the side of his face. Half of his head had gone numb. Fighting off unconsciousness, he kicked open his door and clambered out. “We’ve got ... got to get out of here.
But in both directions now, the motorway was jammed up with burning, twisted vehicles, many skew-whiff or on their sides. Hapless figures milled among the smouldering hulks, climbing over them, or lying trapped, shrieking for help. Close by, a businessman, still in his pin-striped suit but with a cut forehead and broken glasses, was trying to drag a sports bag from the boot of his Bentley.
“For Christ’s sake!” he shouted hysterically. “It’s my life’s savings ... for Christ’s sake, someone help me!”
His bag was trapped, however. Haul as he may, he couldn’t shift it. He was about to shout again when a brick impacted in his open mouth. It sounded like a hammer hitting a pumpkin. His arms flopped bonelessly as he sank to the ground, his head a pulverised mass of brick and bone. Then a missile struck Manning’s shoulder. He went down with a gasp, falling over a mangled car bonnet. He knew instantly that his shoulder was broken. The pain was nauseating.
Black moments passed before he realised that Geraldine was tugging at him. In a daze, he levered himself up and walked. Like a stumbling, drunken man, he allowed his wife to lead him across the motorway, threading through the debris. Behind them, voices still moaned and wept, the deluge of missiles still beat a thunderous tattoo on chrome and concrete. When they reached the north side of the motorway, the unbroken snow on the embankment was too deep for them to make any headway. It was several feet in places, and as they ploughed into it, simply swallowed them to the waist. Sapped of strength, it became a futile battle. They attempted to struggle up anyway, the slope rearing above them like the south face of Everest. Manning, one side of his body leaden and useless, leaking blood by the pint from his slashed-open face, was the first of the two to collapse. He toppled forward, half-burying himself. Compared to the ice-edged wind, the enveloping snow was warm as a blanket.
Slowly and awkwardly, he rolled onto his back, gradually becoming aware of Geraldine hunched down beside him. Somewhere below, the streetlamps winked off post by post. Darkness spread, only islands of flame holding it at bay. The crashing and banging endured with renewed intensity, for tall shadows were now slinking down from the snows, carrying cudgels. Where the rain of bricks ceased, the slamming of clubs – scaffolding pipes, football goalposts, the stems of traffic lights – commenced.
Manning wasn’t interested. He wasn’t cold any more. He couldn’t even feel his broken shoulder. He sensed Geraldine lying down with her head on his chest, her thin, shivering form coating over with flakes.
“How ... many of them, I wonder?” he stammered.
If Manning could have nodded, he would. “Better ... this way, then.”
“Better this way,” she said.