Saturday, 4 April 2015

So who is the hunter and who is the prey?

It gives me great pleasure to announce that HUNTED, the fifth novel in my DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg series will be published on May 7 this year.

Rather excitingly, there will be an official launch party at Waterstones in Liverpool, during the course of which I’ll be interviewed by that inestimable man and fellow Northwest-based crime author, LUCA VESTE. At the time of this writing, the Waterstones launch will either take place on May 7 itself at around 6pm, or on May 6 if all involved decide that the General Election, also scheduled for that day, becomes too much of a distraction. Please watch this space for further updates.

Regarding HUNTED itself – my personal view is that this will be the best Heck novel so far, but it’s already got a bit of history to it. Originally, this book was going to be third in the Heck series, and in fact was written in first draft form almost two years ago. However, shortly before it was due to go into production, Avon Books began to note a groundswell of opinion among online reviewers that they wanted a sequel to the first Heck novel, in which our much-battered police hero was in pursuit of a rape and kidnap gang called The Nice Guys Club. A sequel to the first Heck novel had always been in the works. However, on this basis we decided to fast-track it forward into the third slot, and move HUNTED back a couple of places.  

***

And then something alighted on Dazzer's shoulder.
Despite the wild swerving of the car, it had descended slowly, patiently – on a single silken thread – and when he turned his head to look at it, it tensed, clamping him like a hand. In the flickering hallucinogenic light, he caught brief glimpses of vivid, tiger-stripe colours and clustered demonic eyes peering at him from point-blank.
The bite it planted on his neck was like a punch from a fist.
Dazzer’s foot jammed the accelerator to the floor as his entire body went into spasms. The actual wound quickly turned numb, but searing pain shot through the rest of his body in repeated lightning strokes.
Neither lad noticed as the car mounted an embankment, engine yowling, smoke and tattered grass pouring from its tyres. It smashed through the wooden palings at the top, and then crashed down through shrubs and undergrowth, turning over and over in the process, and landing upside down in a deep-cut country lane.

For quite a few seconds there was almost no sound: the odd groan of twisted metal, steam hissing in spirals from numerous rents in mangled bodywork.
The two concussed shapes inside, while still breathing, were barely alive in any conventional sense: torn, bloodied and battered, locked in contorted paralysis. They were still aware of their surroundings, but unable to resist as various miniature forms, having ridden out the collision in niches and crevices, now re-emerged to scurry over their warm, tortured flesh. Deggsy’s jaw was fixed rigid; he could voice no complaint – neither as a mumble nor a scream – when the pale-shelled scorpion reacquainted itself with him, creeping slowly up his body on its jointed stick-legs and finally settling on his face, where, with great deliberation it seemed, it snared his nose and his left ear in its pincers, arched its tail again – and embedded its stinger deep into his goggling eyeball.

***

HUNTED represents something of a return to normality for Heck. In the fourth book, DEAD MAN WALKING (the ebook of which is available from Amazon this month for only 99p!), he had been seconded to a small rural unit in the heart of the Lake District, where in the depths of a perishing winter fog, he found himself grappling with an unknown and faceless killer who was cheerfully picking off members of a remote village community high in the inaccessible fells. Nearly all the action took place over a single night of terror – so it was less about a police investigation and more about a simple game of survival.

Now, in HUNTED, Heck is back with the Serial Crimes Unit – a specialist investigation team attached to Scotland Yard’s elite National Crime Group – but is still somewhat estranged from his boss and former girlfriend, Gemma Piper. He cops for what initially looks like a straightforward case when he is asked to check out the circumstances surrounding an unlikely but fatal accident in the heart of the Surrey weald. A successful local businessman has been found burned to death in his car. However, when Heck learns that the same man only just survived another very different but equally unlikely accident a few weeks earlier, he begins to wonder if there might be foul play at work.

***

‘Possibly a silly question,’ Gail said, eyeing the large forensic tent covering the garden’s northeast corner. ‘But I assume he’s dead.’
‘I sincerely hope so,’ Gibson said, lifting the flap and standing aside. ‘This isn’t very pretty.’
Gail went through, and found herself gazing into the semi-imploded shell of a greenhouse. Its interior was all but destroyed, nothing more now than a mountainous mass of glass shards mingled with black soil, shreds of tomato plants, and hunks of freshly butchered human meat. Though she’d tried to prepare herself for this, she felt the skin tighten around her mouth, her lunchtime sandwich curdling in her belly.

***

Needless to say, it isn’t long before Heck discovers that all across the leafy county there has been a succession of bizarre, apparently accidental deaths.

He isn’t buying it, but even then could never realise that he is about to embark on a hunt for the most patient and painstaking, and yet the weirdest killer he’s ever encountered …

***

A few moments passed as man and manikin stared at each other, Heck’s neck hairs prickling. This time the thing remained stationary, even when he advanced again and came up close to it. It was exactly what he’d thought it was: a garden gnome, complete with beard, pointed nose, pointed ears, and pointed hat. It was about a foot and a half in height, and its once-garish colours had mostly weathered away. And yet it was hideous – so much so that he grimaced as he lifted it down from the shelf.
Where each of its eyes had once been, a black X had been etched, first gouged with a blade, and then filled in with black pen. Its mouth was a thin red line, with red trickles added to either side to create a vampire effect. Either the original paint job had run, or someone else had been handy with a different-coloured pen. For all his revulsion, Heck turned it several times in his hands, but could find nothing out of the ordinary. It was no more than a lump of sculpted, slightly mouldy plaster. He placed it back on the shelf and stepped back. Bewildered.
And then the disfigured gnome leaped at him.

***

One wouldn't normally associate leafy commuter belt Surrey with all this kind of nastiness, but appearances can be so decpetive. As I say, the hunt begins on May 7. The only question is, who will be hunting who? 




(The spider pic is by Jarekt. Not sure who the artists responsible for the others are, but if they want to step forward, I'll happily post their credits or will take down).

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Heck hits short form as sales top half a mill

I got a really nice bit of news towards the end of last week, namely that my Heck novel sales have now hit half a million. This is a worldwide figure rather than purely British, and of course it incorporates four titles. However, I was still happy enough about it to break one of my usual rules - which is not to talk specifics when it comes to sales figures - and to pop a few corks over the weekend in response.

It's certainly the case that the Heck series appears to be going from strength to strength. The bulk of the positive reviews seem to imply that this is down to a combination of character (Heck and Gemma, primarily), suspense, and hard-boiled action. All of this makes me very proud, as these are areas where, if you can forgive a moment of self-preening, I consider that I have some strength (it's nice to a see a plan come together, as they say).

But something else that people seem to like about the books is the wide range of locations we cover in each one.

To all intents and purposes Heck is attached to the Serial Crimes Unit, which is part of the National Crime Group based in London. It's a kind of British FBI, with a remit to cover all the police force areas of England and Wales. Loosely, this means the action moves from one end of the country to the next at a rate of knots. For example, in STALKERS, we move from Salford in Manchester down to the Thames estuary in Kent, in SACRIFICE from the Midlands to Merseyside, in THE KILLING CLUB from the Cotswolds to Holy Island off the Northumbrian coast, and in DEAD MAN WALKING to a wintry, fogbound Lake District. I don't want to say too much about the next two Heck novels due out later this year, HUNTED and RIGHTEOUS FIRE (publishers tend not to be sympathetic to writers who sprinkle spoilers around like confetti), but much of the former takes place in the leafy lanes of Surrey in the midst of a glorious English summer (though we then veer off midway through into the badlands of South London), while in contrast, the latter is set in industrial Lancashire during a cold and frosty December (though it gets pretty hot at times, but ssshhh!, no spoilers).

So, if nothing else I can promise a continuing variation of settings and climates.

For those who are new to all this, the Heck novels follow the murder investigations of Detective Sergeant Mark 'Heck' Heckenburg. He's a young but intense copper, very dogged and obsessive, who walks a tightrope through the world of crime as he pursues one heinous villain after another, and as I've said, there's much more to come from him yet.

HUNTED is scheduled for May 7, and RIGHTEOUS FIRE for sometime in November. But for those who simply cannot wait that long, a brand new Heck short story will be available for download from March 19. A WANTED MAN will take us back to the early days of Heck's career, when he was a young uniformed bobby in Manchester. I call this one a short story, but in actual fact it's about 10,000 words so it's more of a novella. Anyway, it concerns a night-shift from Hell as Heck, only two years into the job and completely alone, is forced to play a cat and mouse game along a stretch of derelict railway with a vicious housebreaker/rapist called the 'Spider'.

It's an interesting thing actually but thanks to e-books, short reads seem to be coming back into vogue. If A WANTED MAN does reasonably well, I think Avon Books will be encouraged to put some more shorties out there, and it would certainly make sense from my point of view if the next few of these at least were new Heck stories.

But I think this is good news for writers in general.

For so many years I was an advocate of the short story as a literary form. I love short stories and have written hundreds of them during my career, but you needed to sell them to magazines and/or anthologies to get them any kind of exposure, and with the best will in the world, those opportunities were always limited. At one time, I would sternly advise those starting out as writers to avoid concentrating too much effort on short stories as the rewards for that would be thin on the ground. However, if things are, as I suspect, changing and the demand for stand-alone e-stories is genuinely growing, then that could be an opportunity that an awful lot of us need to take advantage of.

*

On a non-too-different note, a couple more of my titles will be available in the next month or so, both reprints of one sort or another.

My short horror novel CAPE WRATH, which will be reissued by Telos Books very soon (complete with a snazzy new cover, and a brand new short horror story to accompany it, THE HELLION) was first published in 2001, and tells the story of an ill-fated archaeological expedition to a remote Scottish Island, where something very nasty is uncovered among the ancient rocks and sediment. I don't yet have a publication date for this one, so I'll go a little bigger on it - extracts etc - nearer the time.

The second one is the audio version of another novella of mine from earlier in my career, HELL IN THE CATHEDRAL - which comes to us courtesy of WHOLE STORY AUDIO BOOKS and is read, as usual, by Jon Keeble. This one is available for download or purchase in CD form on March 5. It was first published in 2000 and yet is still one of my favourite and I think scariest novellas. But as above, I'll try to go a little bigger on this one a bit nearer to the time. Keep checking in for more info.



Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Terrors deep under as Holmes goes to Hell

Okay ... where are we up to?

It's amazing how, brief though it is, Christmas always seems to knock everything for six. Personally, I was back at work the day after Boxing Day, but that was me clicking into auto-pilot and driving on wi't yed deawn, as they say in Wigan. Anything that required a bit of lateral thinking, not to mention some pre-planning and perhaps a bit of subtle thought, had first to be fished out of the post-festive mental mush, wherein all good plans, schedules and time-scales get mysteriously lost and distorted.

Anyway, enough excuses. Basically, it's taken me the best part of a month to get properly back on the horse and start thinking about outrageously complex and inconvenient things like blogposts again. That's my reason for neglecting January this year, and to be frank it's the closest you're going to get to an apology, though I promise I share your pain when this column remains empty for longer than it should. 

But back to the original question ... where are we up to?

Well, I have a couple of cool things to report straight away. 

Check the above cover. That comes from THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES ABROAD, a collection of new Holmesian fiction due out in paperback on April 2 this year, edited by the indefatigable Simon Clark. It tells tales of Holmes's adventure in the farthest flung corners of the Empire and beyond, and contains my brand new novella, The Monster of Hell's Gate. But don't just look out for that. Featuring stories by a host of luminaries from the twin worlds of Gothic crime and Gothic horror, this is one I'd strongly recommend you look out for.

In addition to this, I was very chuffed this week to receive my copy of the new audio version of  an old favourite of mine, GRENDEL'S LAIR. First published way back in 2003 by the late, great Joel Lane in his anthology, BENEATH THE GROUND, this story has been re-issued by WHOLE STORY AUDIOBOOKS, and read, as impressively as ever, by actor Jonathan Keeble. 

It concerns a police attempt to strong-arm a vicious prisoner into revealing the grave site of an old murder-victim, which lies somewhere in a network of derelict air raid shelters. The convict eventually complies, only to lead his captors down into the depths of subterranean horror ...

If you follow the link, there is a try-before-you-buy option. In case that fails to interest, here is a brief snippet:

“We’re almost there,” Grimwood answered, a curious half-smile twisting his mouth.
A few minutes later they entered an area of tunnel more heaped with debris than anything they’d so far seen; huge sections of its roof and walls had long ago collapsed. In consequence, this space was the tightest and dingiest yet. A black fungus coated the damp and rotted fragments of wall that were still visible – it seemed to leach away what minuscule light there was, and fuelled the sensation that the party had now burrowed to the deepest point of the air-raid shelters. In that respect, when Grimwood suddenly stopped to think, chuckled and, hunkering down, began to scoop bricks and dirt away from the piled rubble with his cuffed hands, it filled the three cops with revulsion.
“Can you imagine,” Craegan said, “this slimy little toe-rag brought a child down here!” His gun was trained firmly on Grimwood’s back; sweat gleamed on his pallid face.

On a not unrelated subject, anyone who wasn't tempted to swoop for IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, my collection of Christmas-themed ghost and horror stories, which came out in ebook form last November, might be interested to know that it's still up there on Amazon, but that the price has now dropped to 99p. Maybe it's a tall order trying to interest folk in a collection of Christmas horror in February, but all I'll say is this ... when the Christmas buying season actually kicks in again around late September, the chances are the price will have gone back up. Just saying, like.

*

And now to round off, in case anyone didn't catch it, here is another interview I did recently, this time with Nottingham crime writer, Rebecca Bradley (creator of the tough DI Hannah Robbins), for the crime blog, MURDER DOWN TO A TEA, and the crime book club she hosts online. This one aired on Rebecca's site way back last December, and the subject was that always-so-difficult 'First Draft'. I was quite honoured to be asked about this, actually, because Rebecca has put much the same questions to a number of very distinguished crime writers in the past; it's excellent company to be in. Please feel free to pop over there and have a look. Lovers of crime fiction will find stuff to keep them entertained and informed all day. Anyway, here is Rebecca's Q&A with yours truly as it appeared online last year.  

When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?

In my case, the book needs a beginning and an end before I can seriously start to write it. It works for some authors to just get stuck in and see where the story takes them. Not for me. I need a rough idea what I’m heading towards. Okay, ultimately I may not stick with that ending, but it’s a target of sorts, and that gives me impetus to evolve a workable story.  So before anything else, the very bare bones get sketched out.

Do you have a set routine approaching it?

I don’t know whether it’s a set routine as much as a familiar path. Once the full story is up and running in my mind, or on paper, I divide it into chapters, fleshing it out with more and more details along the way. None of this will necessarily make the final cut. I make lots of changes as I write, but it’s a gradual process of development that I more or less fall into with each new project.

Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?

The actual first draft starts life on my Dictaphone. Once I know what the chapter is going to consist of, I set off on foot, walking the dog and at the same time dictating into my hand-recorder. It’s partly a way to get away from that computer screen, but also I find that exercising and getting out into the fresh air enables me to concentrate. I usually type it all up later. It’s never the finished version, of course – it always requires lots of nips and tucks, but this active process tends to help create a fast, driving narrative. At least, I feel it does.

How important is research to you?

At one time I used to spend too much time researching, though that was in the days when I was writing a lot of folklore-based horror and fantasy. These days, as I’m primarily writing my Heck crime novels, I don’t need to do quite as much. My police procedural knowledge is still pretty good, but even when it isn’t I like to get cracking with the actual writing these days, so I bash it all in leaving any necessary gaps for factual stuff, which I can research later on.

How do you go about researching?

I have loads of textbooks relevant to the stuff I write. I also have loads of contacts who are only a phone-call away. Failing all that, there is also the internet – which, as far as I can see, is just about the best research tool we writers currently have available.

How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?

I store them both online and in hard copy format, in organised files. In regard to the latter, I’m probably a bit old-fashioned – I literally have shelves groaning beneath the weight of folders and ring-binders. Even then though, it all gets a bit out of hand. I have so many idea files now that, even though I store them in very orderly fashion, and more importantly as potential stories, novels or screenplays – sometimes with rudimentary plots attached, I lose track of stuff. But it’s better to have it all there somewhere than to forget it and lost it forever.

Tell us how that first draft takes shape?

It isn’t a tidy process, I’ll tell you that. It’s strictly done on a chapter-by-chapter basis. But even then there are certain scenes I find easier to write than others. Character interaction, especially if there’s lots of dialogue, tends to come very naturally to me. I’m quite fortunate in that regard – my characters do tend to speak for themselves. Anyway, those scenes are generally easier, so if I’m tired, I tend to write those first. Descriptive work often comes later – that requires more thought in my case. But most complex of all are the action sequences. There are an awful lot of those in my Heck novels, but they don’t spill out naturally. I need to craft them, paying as much attention as I can to the syntax and the pace. Even when completed, they need to be relayed onto tape and then played back – I need to be absolutely sure they have the desired impact and don’t overrun or, God forbid, drag. It may sound a cumbersome process overall, but as I say, it happens chapter by chapter … so piece by piece, the book gets built.

Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?

Not really, but I do have indispensable tools of the trade. My Dictaphone is vital. I don’t go anywhere without it … better than a notepad for me, especially when I’m out walking the dogs. Also my laptop. I don’t want to create the image that I work around the clock, but most evenings when I’m sitting in front of the TV with my family, I like to have my laptop on my knee, mainly so that I can catch up with admin and marketing stuff, but also to potter around on the latest project – try to patch up any bits and bobs that maybe didn’t work out during the day. 

(Pictured above-left is one such dictation trip on Dec 27 last year - I assure you the dogs were there with me, but something more interesting caught their attention just before the shutter clicked).  

Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?

Better ask my wife about that. I do get lost a little bit, but that’s also because I tend to wear earphones when I’m writing – either because I’m working from a draft I recorded earlier, or because I’m giving myself a musical background to help create mood; not specifically to isolate myself.

What does your work space look like?

Not as tidy as I’d like. It’s our spare bedroom, and always has been. It’s furnished as a fully operational study, complete with desk, book-packed shelves, computer gear, bulletin boards, phone line etc. But it’s not always easy convincing the rest of the family that it isn’t also a lumber room. There are times when there are way too many boxes taking up the floor-space.

Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?

Bit of both, to be honest. I try and keep it tight – I don’t regard writing the first draft as some kind of sprint to the end. It’s a lovely feeling having broken the back of the job by getting it all down on paper. When it happens, I suspect we all share that great feeling. But also, how cool would it be if that first draft was also your final draft, and something you didn’t have to rewrite in its entirety because you’d been too quick off the mark before? I try and go for a happy medium. But inevitably, no matter how careful you are, stuff slips through that needs extra work. So there’s no hard rule in my case.

I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?

Like everyone else, I have to work within word-count limitations, so though I’s easy to say I like to give a project whatever it’s worth, it’s also the case that I have to be disciplined about it, though that’s usually for later. Though I dislike busting word-limits, at first draft I don’t worry about it too much. Hence I don’t worry about the word counter too much at this early stage. Once the first draft is done, I calculate how much I’m going to have to excise in order to get it under the limit. Often it’s many thousands, but that doesn’t worry me. Nothing was ever written that couldn’t stand a bit of trimming. I find it’s a rarity when all the fat is gone and I still have to cut some of the meat.

So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?

I’m under contract to write two Heck novels a year, so there isn’t much time for artistic temperament. Though I produce and develop ideas all the time, the actual work must be conceived and completed within six months. Writing the first draft is only a part of that, of course, but as you can imagine I can’t afford to let it run over three months. I’d prefer two if possible. What shape is it in? That depends on how many sets of rapids I’ve hit en route. Ideally it will be very close to what eventually will be the last draft, and sometimes it is – but it’s different each time.

In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?

I usually read it aloud from my laptop screen – preferably with an audience: my wife, Cathy, who will happily chip in if any issues arise. If Cathy isn’t available, I read it aloud to an empty room and must trust myself to note anything that doesn’t work.

What happens now that first draft is done?

The second draft basically. Thanks to the previous read-through, I should have a pile of notes with which to work, but it will still necessitate a another complete read-through and, if the work is significantly overlong, a far more vicious editing job – taking out every single word and phrase that doesn’t help create the impact I’m aiming for. After this, it’s then got to go to my editor at HarperCollins, and an even more thorough cutting process will commence.

Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It's been a pleasure having you.

You’re most welcome. Thanks for having me.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Another year, another bunch of evil killers

Well … there’s all sorts to talk about as we close out 2014, which has been yet another year I won’t forget easily. But I’m aware that it’s almost Christmas and you’ll have lots of other more important things to do than sit here dreaming alongside me, so I’ll try and make this quick.

First of all, check out the image on the left – that’s the final cover for HUNTED, which is my next novel in the DS Heckenburg series. After Heck’s forced isolation in the wilds of a wintry Lake District during DEAD MAN WALKING, fans may be relieved to know that in this next book he’s back on the Serial Crimes Unit beat, looking into another series of weird deaths, now in the less rugged but somehow no less dangerous environs of genteel Surrey. HUNTED is published on May 7 next year, but is available for pre-order now if you’re dead keen.

Here is the official blurb from the back of the book …

Across the south of England, a series of bizarre but fatal accidents are taking place. So when a local businessman survives a near-drowning but is found burnt alive in his car just weeks later, DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is brought in to investigate.

Soon it appears that other recent deaths might be linked: two thieves that were bitten to death by poisonous spiders, and a driver impaled through the chest with scaffolding.

Accidents do happen but as the body count rises it’s clear that something far more sinister is at play here, and it may have Heck in its sights next …

On the subject of Heck and new covers, here is the next cover in the German series, published by PIPER as SPURENSAMMLER. These are really marvellous editions – my German is unfortunately poor, but I know a damn nice book when I get one in my hand. And how about that title? Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? This of course is Heck 3, as many people are now referring to it. Over here it was published as THE KILLING CLUB, but I’m reliably informed by my German pals that this German title translates as CLUE HUNTER. Interesting stuff. Works well for me.

Still on the subject of new covers, we now have the next in the series of WHOLE STORY AUDIOBOOKS spoken-word adaptations taken from my collection of 2013, DON’T READ ALONE. This is GRENDEL’S LAIR, which is possibly the darkest story in the book, and is likely to be the one that will appeal most to Heck fans, as it’s a cop story with a very grim and murderous subtext. As usual, it is read by Jonathan Keeble, who’s done an amazing job so far with the previous tales from the book – THE OLD NORTH ROAD and THE POPPET. Follow the link to find a brief snippet, as read by Mr. Keeble. Below is the short official blurb:

Gordon Grimwood, a suspected murderer, leads a bunch of cops into a network of derelict air-raid shelters to find a missing child – where a hideous evil awaits them!

And now for something not entirely disconnected to this.

Earlier in December I was interviewed by the MASS MOVEMENT website ("bringing madness to the masses since 1998"), on the subject of the inspiration behind my career choices and ultimately my writing. Given that it focusses largely on pop type interests – books, graphic novels, movies, music, TV and so on, I use the opportunity to chat about my lifelong interest in hard rock, and how that’s helped me focus on the material I’ve since brought to the written page. If so inclined, follow the link to read the full article.  

2014 has also been a damn good year for the TERROR TALES series – the regionally-themed horror anthologies that I’ve been editing for GRAY FRIAR PRESS. This year, the authors John Llewellyn Probert, Priya Sharma, Alison Littlewood and Rosalie Parker join a growing list of distinguished wordsmiths whose tales – from TERROR TALES OF WALES (in the first two cases) and TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE (in the latter two) have been selected for reprint in BEST BRITISH HORROR (pictured above), edited by the indefatigable Johnny Mains, with maybe more to come from other annual Year’s Best anthologies. 

Prior to this, Year’s Best reprints have also been awarded to Simon Bestwick for his contribution to TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, Simon Kurt Unsworth for his story in TERROR TALES OF THE COTSWOLDS, Mark Valentine for his story in TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA, Anna Taborska, Nina Allan, Marie O’Regan and Mark Morris for their stories in TERROR TALES OF LONDON, and Stephen Volk for his story in TERROR TALES OF THE SEASIDE

Yep, that’s correct, given the two honours heaped upon us this year, every volume of the TERROR TALES series has so far seen material chosen for republication under the banner of Year’s Best.

That makes me a very satisfied man indeed. On which subject, I hope 2014 has been great to all you guys. Now, all the best for a merry Christmas and a very happy New Year. 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Dark promise of 'A Christmas Yet To Come'

Well, the calendar has rolled around again - and that most wonderful time of the year is imminent. Of course, it isn't wonderful for everyone. Christmas is also seen as the occasion on which we should stand back and take stock of our lives, looking at our personal past, particularly our failures - which won't always be pretty, and then gazing ahead to the future to see if there is any way we can get it right the next time - which won't always be possible, or desirable (depending on who we are).  It's those 'hopes and fears of all the years', as the great carol says. 
     Supernatural fiction has often aided in this. Excellent festive horror stories have been written over the centuries, always seeking to be instructive as well as entertaining - and yet often in the most imaginatively chilling and ghoulish ways. 
     Though I've assessed it a number of times, not least in this blog, I've never fully understand this apparent need we have to be scared out of our wits at Christmas time. But I've never objected to it either. In fact, every year now I try to do my own small bit. I've long been a lover of the festive ghost story, and have tried my hand at it many, many times. It's a become something of an annual event - at least for me - posting one of them on this blog every year around this time. So if you'll excuse me, here we go again.      
     This time around, it's a story of mine, A CHRISTMAS YET TO COME, which first saw light of day on a spoken-word anthology called HAUNTED HOUSES way back in 1996, when it was read, rather superbly, by Ross Kemp. It's been reprinted several times in anthologies since then. I'm sure some of you will have read it before - so sorry about that, but with luck there will be plenty more to whom it's pretty new. So there we are. If you've got a few spare minutes, please feel free to indulge yourself in this ... 


A CHRISTMAS YET TO COME

It all began on a balmy August evening, when Mike joined two police constables in breaking into his father’s little terraced house.
     The neighbours hadn’t heard the old man for some while, apparently. Did Mike know if he was alright?  He wasn’t sure, he reflected, as they jemmied the front door and finally broke it down the musty smell that spread out over them was sickening. Mike led them in, wading through a ton of bills and free newspapers. The house was curtained and standing in darkness. With the ongoing heatwave it was also stifling, which made the stink even worse.
     It also made the Christmas decorations rather incongruous. Dried-up sticks of holly hung over the kitchen door. In the lounge, the small spruce fir in the bucket by the fire had shed its needles in a crisp, brown carpet, though plastic baubles and tinfoil stars still hung from its skeletal branches, attached by grubby lumps of Blue-tack. The sparse collection of greetings cards had largely fallen from the mantelpiece, but those left were furred with dust.
     However, the old man looked pretty much the way he had last Christmas: seated in his armchair facing the now ash-filled hearth, clad in cardigan, trousers and slippers. A little browner perhaps, a little more shrivelled, one shrunken claw resting on the telephone beside him. Of course, when Mike and the constables went in, disturbing the air currents, he changed pretty quickly sort of caved in on himself in a great plume of dust.
     Mike still had time to formally identify him first. Not that the police were too impressed. He could tell that from the hard, wooden expressions on their faces as they went through the motions of reporting the incident. Well – so what? It was not as if they’d cared or even known about the old git while he was alive. They certainly wouldn’t have known what a grumpy old pest he could be.
     Still, if they were going to take this attitude, Mike thought it best not to mention the fact that he’d probably been the last person to speak to his father. Last Christmas Eve in fact, around tea-time. It had only been a quick chat; a courtesy phone call. He’d wanted to tell the old man not to bother catching the bus up to their place that year as he and Chrissie had decided to go to the Bahamas for the season. They’d be there until well into the New Year. Ta-ra!
     Well? Weren’t they allowed a holiday now and then? Who were the cops to deny them that? He supposed he ought to have checked on the old fella a bit sooner than this, but well – his father had always been the one to call first. Why break the habit of a lifetime?
     A few hours later, as they took the remains out in a black bag, a scowling police sergeant told Mike something about there having to be an inquest and maybe a postmortem, though it was unlikely there’d be much to go on. Unless they found clear evidence of foul play. Course, there wasn’t much chance of that. There were ways of murdering people without even going near them, weren’t there!
     Mike nodded dumbly but wasn’t actually listening. He’d just noticed a sole package standing under the desiccated frame of the Christmas tree. Surely someone hadn’t sent the old geezer a present? When the police had finally left him to lock up, he examined it. It was a present alright but not to his father. In fact it was from the old man to Mike. The scribbled tag wished him happy Christmas. Mike snorted. It had been the first in a while. He turned the gift over in his hands. It was squarish and wrapped in faded blue paper with mugshots of Rudolph all over it now all stiff and crackly of course. Probably in that state when he bought it, Mike thought. Stingy old bastard! He’d open it afterwards.
     He stopped once in the doorway and looked back. It seemed morbid to leave the place like this a crumbling grotto to a Christmas long past, now curtained off, boarded up and mouldering slowly away in the sweltering August heat. But there’d probably have to be some legal proceedings or other before he could clean the junk out and sell the place. No rush, he supposed.
     He drove home that evening via the scenic route on the town’s outskirts, passing endless parched hayfields. The sun was low on the horizon but still giving off an intense warmth, and he sweated copiously. It had been like this since June, and the entire district was living under a hosepipe ban with the threat of further cuts impending. Mike was a summer bird, and he loved it.
     However, as he drove down the curving road onto the suburban estate where he and his wife lived in their neat little semi, he passed a bizarre figure. At first he didn’t give it a second glance; then he suddenly jammed his brakes on and looked back. The road and pavement behind were now empty. It seemed ludicrous, but he could have sworn that he’d just driven past someone dressed as Father Christmas. He’d only seen them from behind, but had clearly noticed a figure in a scarlet hood and cloak, trimmed with white fur, shuffling along under the weight of a bulging sack.
     Mike tried to laugh at the absurdity of it, but the laugh dried in his throat. He reversed a little. The quiet suburban road was still bare of life. So where had the figure gone to?  Not far behind him, a narrow shady footpath cut away from the main drag and led across the estate. Mike continued to reverse until he was on level with it, but the passage bent quickly away so he was unable to look down its full length. In any case, it branched several times. In fact, it came out at one point on the cul-de-sac where his own house was.
     Actually, that was its first port of call.
     Mike got his foot down hard.
     He reached his front drive in record time, and saw Chrissie waiting by the door with a look of concern on her face. His heart was banging as he leaped from the car; but then it transpired that she was worried about what the police had said, not some out-of-season Santa wandering about. Later, when he tentatively mentioned it to her, she said she hadn’t seen anyone like that. 
     By the time he got to bed, he’d decided he’d imagined it. But a couple of hours later, he awoke again, his teeth chattering. He sat up sharply, hugging himself. Thanks to the heatwave, they’d been in the habit of sleeping on top of the coverlet, with the windows wide open. Clearly, the weather had now changed. Another chill breeze surged in and Mike, clad only in shorts, swore loudly. It was literally freezing.
     He thought about Chrissie, lying naked beside him, and couldn’t believe that she hadn’t woken up too. Briefly, he was too confused to do anything. He realised that he was goose-pimpled all over; his fingers and toes were aching. This was ludicrous it was like the dead of winter. He scrambled to his feet, and gasped at how cold the carpet was. He blundered over it to the windows. Another icy draft cut across him like a sword. God, it was almost unbearable it must have been subzero!
     He made it to the first window, hopping from one foot to the other, and reached for the bar to dislodge it, when he saw that the glass panes were thick with frost. He stared at them in disbelief, and reached out with his fingers to touch. It was real real frost, hard and slippery and numbingly cold. Mike stood there, stupefied, his breath smoking. That was when he noticed that snowflakes were blowing into his face.
     Half an hour later Chrissie came round, hardly able to breathe. For some reason all the windows had been closed. “God almighty,” she groaned, rising wearily to her feet and stumbling over to them. “It’s like a steam-bath in here.”
     The windows swung open again but offered no real relief. Birds were twittering in the eaves, insects droning, a tropical sun rising on the horizon. When she got back to bed she found Mike still asleep – but shivering. He was beaded with sweat from head to foot, and when Chrissie touched his forehead, he moaned deliriously.

*

As severe a case of flu as the doctor had ever seen was the curt diagnosis later that day. Not as unusual in summer as people might think, but still rare. The best thing for it was several days of complete rest, preferably in bed. Under normal circumstances, the GP would have advised warm clothing and lots of hot drinks, but in this weather there was probably no need, though he did caution Mike about walking around the house wet after a shower for example.
     The patient listened glumly from his pillow. The doctor needn’t worry, he thought. He had no intention of walking around the house at all. He felt absolutely awful. Not least because he could still vividly recall the snowbound conditions he’d awakened to find his bedroom in, and was totally at a loss to explain it.
     Inevitably though, as the days passed, the memory faded and he was soon able to write it off as a fevered nightmare. In any case, he had more pressing things to worry about. The police sergeant who’d attended his father’s house came round to see him, to ask some hard questions about why Mike and his wife hadn’t been in touch with the old man sooner. Mike found it an uncomfortable experience, but knew he was in no real danger. After all, he’d committed no crime. His father had been old but in reasonably good health it was not as if he’d been abandoned without care. And if, as the Coroner had now decided, he had died last Christmas Eve probably from heart-failure there was nothing Mike could have done to help him anyway. All he was really guilty of was failing to discover a dead body.
     The policeman left grumpily, and Mike went back to bed, still feeling weak. Chrissie wouldn’t be back from work until five not that this was anything to look forward to. She found it trying having an invalid in the house, and did nothing to hide it.
     That was when he heard the sleigh bells.
     He sat up from the pillow and looked slowly round at the window. It was open, and beyond it he saw the azure sky of late summer, the rich green leaves on the trees opposite. He heard children playing still on holiday from school; the sound of someone mowing their lawn. He smelled chopped grass and barbecue coals being stoked up for another glorious evening.
     Yet sleigh-bells were approaching gaily, along with crisp, clip-clopping hooves.
     They came to a halt right under his bedroom window. Mike felt his hair prickling, but was unable to move to look. The children were still playing, the lawnmower still revving over the turf. At any second he expected a hearty knock at the door. But the next thing he heard was a foot on the stair. Then another. Stealthy, padding footfalls as though someone was coming up uncertainly, or painfully. A silvery bell tingled. Mike imagined that shabby, stumbling Father Christmas holding out a little Yuletide bell, ringing it before him to bring in custom, just like one of those old men paid to stand outside department stores in December.  The footsteps were now on the landing, the tingling bell right outside Mike’s bedroom door. It was not closed properly and someone slowly pushed it open ...
     Then Mrs. Barnard from next door walked in.
     When she saw that he was awake she looked relieved. She hadn’t wanted to disturb him, she said. But she felt she had to return the house-keys Chrissie had given her while they’d been away on holiday last July. She held them up in a bunch, and they tingled together – just like bells.
     Mike swore hysterically at her for nearly a full minute before she turned and fled in rivers of tears. When Chrissie returned from work that evening, she was ambushed by the distraught woman before she could even get into the house, and finally came upstairs in a vexed mood. Mike was still lying in bed, and his wife gave him a good four minutes of her time before she even began to get changed.
     It was no use him taking things out on her and the neighbours! Just because he wasn’t feeling so good! They had cause to get annoyed with him if they felt like it!
     But by the time she’d finished, Mike was no longer listening. He was too busy staring out through the bedroom door at the scattered white globules on the landing carpet. They steadily dissipated as he watched them. It was the sort of thing you saw in deepest winter, when somebody had come in with snowy boots on.

*

Things didn’t improve for Mike, even with time. He never seemed to recover fully from the flu, feeling always tired and on the verge of a headache. It didn’t do much for his social life, or his love life, and Chrissie had never been one to forego those two pleasures.
     He finally went back to work in mid-September, not feeling remotely fit enough, but glad at least that the searing temperatures of summer had now levelled off. As he walked unsteadily back to his desk, people clapped him in apparently Chrissie, embarrassed that he’d only had flu, had put the story out that it was pneumonia and the MD’s PA (who was also his wife) came heftily forward and presented him with a card. Signed by the whole office, she said, with her usual disingenuous smile.

     Mike nodded and looked down at it. At first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, then everything swam into focus: a Victorian coach tracking through a snowy forest towards a church with windows smeared gold by firelight; cherubs in the top corners, singing from carol-sheets; evergreens, pine-cones ...
    “You damn bitch!” he shouted. “Are you trying to be funny!”
     The gathered crowd fell into stunned silence. Mike looked back at the card it showed a summery meadow with rabbits and kittens and a big ‘Welcome Back’ slogan.
     He was given three more weeks of sick leave. Even at the end of that he felt ropy, but knew that he had to go in sooner or later. Chrissie was now past commenting, and had taken to going out and socialising with her friends again. Mike wondered if she’d kept such late hours with him, but he was not particularly bothered.
     His second return to work was less auspicious than the first, most of his colleagues preferring to mumble their greetings and the MD’s wife simply sniffing and ignoring him. The MD himself was colder than he had been in previous times. The first thing he said to Mike that morning was that he’d been planning some changes on the office floor. However, he didn’t specify what they were, which, as Mike was Systems Manager, seemed ominous.
     As a situation, it was clearly not going to last. Another couple of weeks went by things going fairly smoothly on the operational front but then, around mid-morning one day, Mike was buzzed up to see his boss. The MD was an imposing, heavy-set man who had the ability to fill rooms from wall to wall and floor to ceiling when he wanted to. In this particular instance, he was seated stiffly behind his desk, his face like thunder. He wanted to know what all these late arrivals were due to. Getting in at ten every single day, with no explanation ever offered, was hardly acceptable. He respected Mike’s work, but couldn’t ignore something like this indefinitely.
     Mike apologised profusely but said that he kept on getting stuck in the snow. He’d been shovelling for what seemed like an hour that morning alone. He was surprised nobody else had been affected. The MD gazed at him blankly for a moment or two, then swivelled round in his chair to look at the mellow autumn day outside the window. The leaves were just starting to turn yellow.
    Yet, later on, as Mike cleared his desk, he glanced down at his hands. As he’d known they would be, they were still blue with the cold and covered in chilblains.
     That night Chrissie caused a scene, and for the first time he slapped her. It was a good, hard, well-deserved slap too, he thought. It could have been that she’d called him a “raving loony who’d finally, totally gone”, but more likely it was the long silk stocking he’d found crumpled up beside the bed. Why was she still trying to make out that it was Christmas, he’d screamed! Getting stockings out to hang them up as soon as he wasn’t looking! It had never occurred to him that she’d simply dropped it from the laundry basket. Likewise, it had never occurred to him how odd it was that she’d suddenly taken to wearing such exotic lingerie. She never had before.
     It was the next day when she told him she was leaving. She couldn’t help it, but she needed a life as well and she’d now found somebody whose company was more rewarding. She was sorry, but they couldn’t go on like this. She hoped he’d forgive her and find someone else when he got better. Mike watched her indifferently, not even following her to the door. He only ran outside when he heard the vehicle that was carrying her away it had sleigh bells, and it clopped on the tarmac like reindeer hooves. When he got to the drive though, only an old Ford Escort was swinging around the corner. Even then, just for one minute, he could have sworn the driver was stooped over and wearing a red hood.
     After a moment, starting to feel the cold, he went back inside. That cold was to become an increasing problem over the next few weeks. Mike burned fuel vigorously, both gas and electricity, doing his damnedest to keep warm. Then they cut his supplies off. With no wage coming in and therefore no direct debits going out, he hadn’t paid his bills. The next day he went down to the bank and building society but found that Chrissie had beaten him to it and drained both their joint-accounts.
     And of course, now it was really getting cold. He wasn’t sure exactly what the date was, but rain was falling in freezing torrents and the heatwave was a distant memory. It went dark earlier and the trees across the road were soon wet, black skeletons. Chill drafts penetrated the building everywhere. He thought about moving the electric fire and starting to burn wood and old clothes in the grate, but realised that this would leave the chimney open and that was not an option.
     The solution was to wrap up warm and stay in bed, and continue to eat his way through what food supplies were still in the house, though most of these were now stale and dry. He grew progressively weaker and found himself flopping around in clothes that were suddenly too baggy. At least he hadn’t been having any more hallucinations, though he was now besieged on all sides by what seemed to be real Christmas regalia; it glittered in neighbours’ front rooms or the back windows of taxi-cabs. Even the weather turned seasonal, the fog and drizzle giving way to frost and flurries of snow.
     To make things worse, the day came when the cupboards were finally empty. Mike scavenged around the house for a while, chewing on apple pips or the hard crumbs of biscuits, but he knew he couldn’t survive that way. It was now blizzarding snow outside and seemed to be getting dark already even though he’d only just got up, but he had to go out and get food somehow. Under the stair he still had an old battery-operated transistor radio, which he thought might tell him how long the severe weather was expected to last.
     It didn’t, but it did, through a fanfare of trumpets and bells, reveal that it was Christmas Eve.
     After that, the battery died.
     Mike was sitting alone in his armchair, the wind howling in the rafters, darkness gathering steadily around him. Hunger was gnawing his insides out. Then, across the room, he noticed a remarkable thing. Sitting on a shelf in an open cupboard was the present his father had wrapped for him almost exactly a year before. Mike had never got round to opening it.
     He took it from the shelf, sat down again and tore off the wrapping. Inside, there was a small cardboard box, and inside that a gaudy Christmas toy, typically for his father, cheap and meaningless. It was one of those old-fashioned ‘snowstorms’ a water-filled crystal sphere, with figures inside and white flakes that swam around when you shook it. This particular one was gloomier than most. In it, a figure in a threadbare coat and scarf stood alone outside a dilapidated house, the snow swirling around him.
     In the last seconds before daylight faded altogether, Mike picked up the tag which his father had scrawled on.
     ‘Happy Christmas, Mike. Love, Dad,’ was its simple message. Underneath it there was a postscript. ‘PS,’ it read. ‘See you tonight.’



The above image comes to us courtesy of Chrissie Demant, who first produced it to illustrate this same story in the VAULT OF EVIL Advent Calendar for 2013. The pic of the nasty Christmas tree at the top was in the act of being garnished by the Crypt-Keeper in HBO's Tales From The Crypt when I purloined it. If you've enjoyed this seasonal chiller, you might also be interested in IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, a collection of five more of my scary festive tales.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Take a peek inside DEAD MAN WALKING

The pre-publication reviews for DEAD MAN WALKING have been pretty good so far, I’m happy to report, but the real business starts on Thursday this week, November 20, when the book is officially published. That’s when I suppose I should be getting nervous. It’s always an exciting time, but you’re on edge too – the general public thus far seem happy with my DS Heckenburg novels, so it’s fingers crossed that they’ll continue to be.
For anyone who hasn’t read any of the Heck books yet, and maybe needs a little encouragement, DEAD MAN WALKING wouldn’t be too bad a place to start. The Heck novels concern the investigations of a young but obsessive detective attached to an elite Scotland Yard unit dedicated to catching repeat killers, but though the books run as a series they exist in isolation from each other too. In other words, you won’t need to have read the first three to enjoy this one, which is the fourth.
Anyway, in case you still need some convincing, here, somewhat exclusively, is a chapter lifted freely from DEAD MAN WALKING, and reprinted for your personal delectation (the action takes place in the isolated Lake District village of Cragwood Keld, shortly after local police officers, Heck included, have aired a suspicion that a brutal killer may be on the loose):   

CHAPTER 11
Rather to Hazel’s surprise, the pub drew custom that evening. She’d intended to keep the front door locked, but had told all the locals she’d still be open for business – they needed only to knock.
The first knock came shortly after six; Burt and Mandy Fillingham. This was perhaps expected. Fillingham, as a gossip merchant, would hear a lot less sitting behind locked doors at home than he would in The Witch’s Kettle. Half an hour later, Ted Haveloc showed up. In this case, it was more of a surprise. For a grizzled sixty-two-year-old, Haveloc was the most robust occupant of the Keld, a long-term outdoorsman with the gnarled hands and cracked black fingernails to prove it. But he lived alone of course, so perhaps even he felt more vulnerable than usual on a night like this. The O’Grady sisters, Dulcie and Sally, lived together, socialised together, did almost everything together, and yet they turned up a short time later too, having made the short trip across the green at a scurry and knocking frantically and continually on the pub’s heavy oaken door until Lucy opened it. Half an hour after that, Bella McCarthy and her husband did exactly the same thing. In their ones and twos, the customers settled around the fire, drank alcohol and conversed in quiet, subdued tones.
‘Strength in numbers, I suppose,’ Lucy said, as she and her aunt stood behind the bar.
‘Yep,’ Hazel replied. ‘Do me a favour, Luce. Go upstairs, check all the windows are locked … yeah?’
Lucy nodded and trotted away. Hazel glanced at her watch. It was just after six-thirty.
‘Is there anything to eat, Hazel?’ Ted Haveloc called across the taproom. ‘I haven’t had a meal all day, and I’m famished.’
‘Erm, yeah … sure,’ she said, unable to think of any reason why the normal menu wouldn’t be operating. They had plenty of food in the larder, and neither she nor Lucy would have much else to do for the rest of the evening. ‘Give us a minute, okay?’
She breezed through into the kitchen, turned the ovens on and, as an afterthought, opened the top panel in the window over the sink. It was a relatively small kitchen and would quickly get hot and stuffy when they started cooking.
Then Hazel heard the ululation – the distant, eerie ululation.
Astonished, she turned to the window.
Several seconds passed as she wondered if she’d imagined it. Because it had sounded like no human cry she’d ever heard, and yet some disconcerting inner sense told her that was exactly what it was.
Beyond the window lay the yard where her maroon Renault Laguna was parked, and various crates and barrels awaited collection by the drayman. Even with the gates barred, as they were now, someone could get in there easily enough – the walls were only seven feet high. But briefly, that didn’t matter.
Hazel knew what she’d heard.
She opened the back door and stood on the step, listening. The air was bitter, the fog thick, grimy and fluffy as cotton wool. Was it possible there was some kind of error here? Had someone been fiddling around with the jukebox in the taproom? But now she heard the cry again – this time prolonged for several seconds longer than before. Weird, ululating, so filled with angst and torment that it barely sounded human. Abruptly, it snapped off.
Hazel stood rooted to the spot, deep shivers passing down her spine.
When she finally went back inside, she ensured to lock the door behind her. Almost certainly the rare atmospheric conditions were partly responsible for her hearing that sound. She had no doubt it had travelled a long distance. The normal acoustics in the Cradle would also have assisted. Whenever the drag-hunt was around, she’d hear the yipping of the hounds and the drone of the hunting horn when the pack was way up at the north end of the valley.
Two words formed in her mind – for about the twentieth time that day.
Annie Beckwith.
Hazel seriously doubted that even on a night like this, noises at Fellstead Grange would be audible in Cragwood Keld. But that poor old dear was such a long way from help should she need it, and of course she had no idea she was in danger. Lucy reappeared in the kitchen doorway, so abruptly that Hazel jumped.
‘Ted Haveloc’s still asking if there’s any food on tonight?’
‘Erm, yeah, yeah … sure. Give them the menus. Listen, Lucy …?’
Lucy glanced back in.
‘You’ll have to cook it yourself. That okay?’
Lucky looked briefly puzzled, but then shrugged. ‘No problem.’
While Lucy went back out into the taproom, Hazel crossed the kitchen and retrieved one of the police contact cards. The first number she tried was Heck’s mobile. Predictably, there was no response. Following that, she tried Mary-Ellen. That gained no reply either. She went out into the bar and tried the police station from the landline, but it was the same outcome.
‘Anyone up at Cragwood Keld police office, Ted?’ she asked Ted Haveloc. As he lived closest to the police station, he was the most likely to know.
‘The lights were on when I came out, Hazel, but I didn’t see anyone moving around,’ he replied. ‘The Land Rover’s not there, nor Sergeant Heckenburg’s Citroen. At a guess, the place is still locked up and they’re out and about.’
‘Thanks.’
Cumbria prided itself on the sense of community preserved in its small, close-knit towns and villages. Hazel supposed this had developed naturally in an environment where all occupants were lumped together. Encircled by bleak moors, fathomless forests, and high, wind-riven mountains, there was a sense of embattlement, and of course they had terrible winters here – the worst rain, the worst snow, and now it seemed, the worst fog. Lake District residents needed to get on well together and look out for each other, just to endure.
As such, Hazel wondered when it was that she’d last seen Annie.
A couple of years ago, easily. The old dear had reluctantly come down to the pub to celebrate Ted Haveloc’s sixtieth, and even then she’d been all skin and bone, wearing ragged clothes. Ted, who knew Annie better than anyone because he occasionally went up to help with chores on her run-down farm, might have seen her more recently, but not, as far as Hazel was aware, in the last few months. The water company truck went up there reasonably regularly too, to empty the septic tank, but would its crew have any interaction with the old girl? Would they even know she was there while they were working?
None of this was good enough, Hazel decided. Mark had said they’d get up there at some point, but he hadn’t held out much hope it would be anytime soon, and it probably wouldn’t be because he and Mary-Ellen would have a lot to do. But in the meantime someone had to look out for that nice old lady.
Hazel slipped out around the bar to the foot of the stairs. Nobody noticed; they were all too busy giving Lucy their food orders. Upstairs in the flat, she put on her walking boots and her fleece-lined jacket. She decided that she’d try to persuade Annie to come back down here, offer to put her up for a few nights free of charge. If nothing else, the old lady could have a hot bath, get a proper night’s sleep, and sit out the crisis in relative safety. Failing that – because Hazel knew Annie, and she could be stubborn as an ox – she’d take her some supplies up; some eggs, milk, bread, some packets of tea and dried soup, some chocolate and biscuits. She didn’t know what Annie lived on half the time. She’d once kept cows and pigs. She’d even had a pony for her trap, though said trap was now most likely decaying in some forgotten outbuilding. Ultimately, Annie had become too infirm to tend her stock, though she’d often tell anyone who’d listen that they were her only real friends. Apparently, she still grew her own fruit and vegetables, but in all honesty how easy could it be to eke out your existence like that, especially when you were an OAP?
Feeling guilty at not having done this before, Hazel quickly went back downstairs and straight into the kitchen before anyone could query her. She got everything together, placed it in a wicker basket and covered it with a fresh tablecloth. She also grabbed herself an electric torch.
Then she had another thought.
Perhaps it was a bit silly – maybe an overreaction, maybe a massive overreaction, but Mark had seemed genuinely concerned earlier on. She knew a little bit about his background. He’d been in a few scrapes, to say the least. Surely it would take a lot to discomfort him as much as he’d looked discomforted today? In which case, assuming this menace wasn’t imaginary, she left the basket on one of the kitchen work-tops and trotted back upstairs. As she did, she felt a different kind of guilt – about breaking her word. Before he’d set off on his travels, Mark had strongly advised her to stay in the pub and provide a safe haven for the occupants of Cragwood Keld. Definitely not to go to the far end of the Cradle and up the Track to Annie’s farm. But Mark had only been here two and a half months. He was a good man, but a child of the urban sprawl. He likely had no idea how much they all cared for each other in these rural outlands. Hazel made a mental commitment to teach him that – if he opted to stay with her and give it a go.
And she wasn’t ignoring his concerns either. That was why she was now back up here in the flat, why she was rummaging through the closet among her ex’s old sports gear and fishing tackle. The item she was looking for was right at the back, in a zipped canvas case. She lifted it out. It was old now, not quite an antique, but it had belonged to her father and to her grandfather before him. Slowly and cautiously, she drew the zipper down and extricated the object inside.
It was a double-barrel Purdey shotgun, a twelve-gauge. With its walnut stock, open scroll coin engravings on its sidelock, and blued carbon steel barrels, it was an exquisite piece of craftsmanship, and had been her father’s pride and joy when he’d used to go duck hunting. Even now it was in excellent working condition. Over the years, she’d disassembled and reassembled it several times, oiling it regularly. Both Mark and Mary-Ellen knew she had it in her possession, but while the two cops didn’t exactly approve, they weren’t about to turn her in. Mark would probably do his nut if he knew she kept it in an old cupboard in her lounge, but the truth was she didn’t really have anywhere else.
The one big problem of course, was the absence of ammunition. There was a cartridge box in the closet, on a high shelf. Mark had told her she was supposed to keep the ammunition away from the firearm – but as the box only contained two cartridges it hardly seemed worth the trouble. There’d only been two as long as Hazel could remember. She broke the breech open just to check, then snapped it closed again, slid it back into its case, and shoved the cartridge box into her fleece pocket.
Before descending the stairs, Hazel took off her fleece and draped it over her shoulder, to conceal the weapon. No one in the taproom noticed, but in the kitchen Lucy was now hard at work. She’d already spotted the basket of supplies, and when she saw the shotgun as well her eyebrows arched dramatically.
‘Don’t tell anyone,’ Hazel said. ‘But I’m going up to Fellstead Grange.’
‘Annie Beckwith’s place? Why?’
Hazel didn’t mention the cry she’d heard earlier. She was starting to think that had been nothing significant; an animal or some rare bird. There were plenty to choose from in the heart of the National Park. But the others wouldn’t rationalise it that way. They’d try to stop her going.
‘I don’t like the idea of her being alone up there.’
‘Heck said it wasn’t a good idea,’ Lucy argued.
It’s easy for him to say that,’ Hazel replied. ‘He doesn’t know Annie. To him, she’s just a name.’
‘He knows what he’s talking about. Anyway, M-E said she’d go and look.’
‘Will Mary-Ellen take Annie some spare food? Will she suggest she come down here and stay for a few nights in the pub?’
Lucy had no answer for that.
‘It’s not a problem,’ Hazel added. ‘I’m driving to the Ho, and walking up the Track to Annie’s farm. I’ll be forty minutes, tops. And if anyone tries to mess with me …’ she hefted the shotgun, ‘I’ve got this.’
Lucy looked more than a little sceptical. ‘Have you ever fired that thing?’
‘You point it and pull the trigger. How hard can it be?’
‘In this fog you won’t know who it is until they’re right on top of you.’
‘No one’s going to be on top of me,’ Hazel said with an airy confidence she didn’t feel. She pulled a bob-cap on, zipped her fleece and took her gear to the back door. ‘Close the gate after I’ve gone, and make sure you put the bolt on. Then lock the back door and look after our customers. They’re your responsibility while I’m gone. Like I say, I’ll be forty minutes, max.’
Lucy gave her further arguments, but knew from experience that when her Aunt Hazel’s mind was made up, there was no changing it. Hazel had a disarmingly gentle manner, but for several years she’d survived comfortably in an isolated environment which in winter was as challenging as they came. Many was the time Lucy had seen her carrying piles of firewood through the snow, chipping ice from frozen water pipes, fixing broken roof-tiles and gutters, tasks which didn’t remotely faze her. For all her soft exterior, Hazel was gutsy and independent, and she cared about her neighbours; that latter aspect of her character, in particular, was non-negotiable. So in the end Lucy did as she was asked, closing the back gate straight away after Hazel had reversed out through it in her Laguna, and ramming the bolt home; then going back indoors to cook everyone their tea.
Slowly and cautiously, Hazel’s heavy car rumbled its way around the exterior of the pub, joining Truscott Drive, the single lane that ran upward across the green and through the centre of the village. Very little was visible, even with full headlights, the beams draining ineffectively into impenetrable murk. In some ways it was encouraging, she thought, as she finally reached the top of the Drive and swung left onto Cragwood Road. Because whoever she couldn’t see out there, they presumably couldn’t see her either. Though merely thinking in those terms – that there might be someone out there – was surprisingly unnerving.
‘There’s no one here,’ she assured herself as she coasted north through sheets of opaque mist. Whatever had happened to those girls, it had been way up in the fells. Anyway, the police had already admitted they didn’t know for sure what the incident involved. It could have been an accident.
Hazel had told Lucy she’d be there and back in around forty minutes, but in fact so slow was her progress that it took her over twenty to drive the three miles to Cragwood Ho. She pulled up in the car park at the foot of the Cradle Track, and turned off her engine. She was uncertain how she felt about seeing the police Land Rover sitting there. On one hand, it might mean Mary-Ellen had now gone up the Track herself to check on old Annie, which would be great news. But it could also be that she was still on the other side of the tarn, having not yet returned in the police launch, in which case Hazel was still here alone.
She checked her phone. It was just past seven-twenty; evening was now turning into night. Even so, she sat behind her steering wheel for several minutes longer, listening. The silence was absolute, the vapour shifting past her windows in solid palls. Briefly, she could sense the towering, rock-strewn slopes as they rose inexorably to her left and right, eventually reaching the heights of Pavey Ark and Blea Rigg, though all Hazel could see in the glow of her headlights was the dry-stone wall in front of her. When she switched the lights off, even that vanished.
Several more seconds passed, while she worked up the courage to climb out.
She hadn’t expected to be frightened, but suddenly all that stuff about the fog hiding her as effectively as it might hide someone else seemed like over-optimistic nonsense. Feeling as if she was crossing some kind of Rubicon, Hazel reached into the back seat, slid the shotgun from its case and inserted the two cartridges. Snapping the weapon closed again, she climbed from the car, circled around, took the basket of supplies out from the other side, and shut the door.
The thud of the central locking system echoed in the dimness. She loitered by the vehicle as she listened to it. A few seconds later, she tried both Mark and Mary-Ellen on their mobile phones once more, but again there was no contact. She glanced down across the car park to the other houses. They were only fifty or so yards away, but the blanketing mist concealed all lights. Now that she thought about it, Hazel wondered if she ought to be concerned about the others who lived at this isolated end of the valley as well. Okay, they’d already been given a heads-up by the police, though that was no guarantee Bessie Longhorn would be safe. Hazel made a decision to call at Bessie’s cottage on the way back, and check she was okay. Maybe take her down to the pub for couple of days as well. She might even, if she felt particularly charitable, offer the same option to Bill Ramsdale, though she expected she’d get short shrift on that – which would probably be a good thing. Bessie and Annie would be hard work enough – but wasn’t that what communities were all about?
Hazel switched her torch on and ventured along the wall to the point where the gate and the stile were located. On the other side, the Track snaked uphill into the gloom. It was composed mainly of broken slate, which had deluged from the slopes above, and slithered and cracked underfoot when anyone stepped on it. It closely followed the edge of a barren, rock-filled ravine, and though at this lower level it was broad enough for a narrow-gauge vehicle to pass along it, Hazel didn’t personally know anyone who’d be crazy enough to try that in this weather.
 She slid through the stile and started upward, only now realising how challenging a hike this would be. Fifteen minutes minimum, she reckoned, while all the while the gradient increasing. It wasn’t a straight track, either. It bent and looped. The ravine, which, though it was cloaked from view, lay close on her left and grew progressively deeper, its sides ever more sheer, as she ascended, while the miasma turned steadily thicker. She’d often assumed that, as fog was heavy, the higher up into it you climbed, the thinner it would become. Earlier that day, she’d tried to imagine what this fog would look like from the point of view of a chopper lofting high above the Pikes: bare rocky islands slowly emerging from an oozing grey ocean.
Here and there on her right, clutches of young pine grew amid the jagged piles of slate. She occasionally glimpsed them through the torch-lit vapour, but there was nothing cute or Christmassy about them. Many were fantastically warped and twisted by the wind and cold. Equally unnerving, and for some reason Hazel could never fathom, climbers and fell-walkers traversing this route in the past had chosen particularly hefty shards of slate, some of them three or four feet in length, and had then used smaller pieces to prop them upright on both sides of the path – usually every hundred yards or so. What they were supposed to be – distance-markers, or even some variety of crude outdoor art – she never knew, but the illusion they created was of gravestones. Or, if one of the largest ones – some were maybe as tall as five or six feet – suddenly loomed from the fog, of malformed figures standing close by.
She ignored them as she trudged on, the crunching impacts of her boots resounding loudly. By now she was breathing hard, her knees and ankles aching as she leaned forward with each step, occasionally slipping or skidding. A couple of times she thought she heard movement – a scrape or rattle of pebbles. She would always stop on these occasions, only to be greeted by unearthly stillness. Each time it was entirely possible she’d heard an echo, though it set her nerves on edge. She filched her phone from her fleece pocket to see how long she’d been here, and was dismayed to find it was only a couple of minutes.
Sweat chilling on her body, Hazel dragged herself up the Track, which grew ever more uneven and rugged. Only after what seemed much longer than fifteen minutes, closer to half an hour maybe, did it at last level out again, and diverged into two distinct routes. The left-hand route continued ahead, still rising slowly into the Pikes, but from this point only as the narrowest of footpaths. The right-hand route remained broad enough for vehicle passage, just about, and led beneath the darkly woven branches of several firs, before crossing a low bridge into the rocky corrie where Fellstead Grange was located.
In good weather, this was a stunningly beautiful spot. Fellstead Corrie was a natural amphitheatre in the hillside, its gentle slopes thick with bracken, gorse and springy heather, and ascending on all sides to high, ice-carved ridges. The farmhouse itself stood close to a bubbling pool at the foot of a cataract, which poured from the dizzying heights of High White Stones like a helter-skelter. At its rear there was a network of allotments, greenhouses (mostly dingy with mould and filled with brambles), decrepit barns and sheds which all belonged to Annie, and swathes of overgrown pasture for which there were now no animals to graze upon. The building, which was early eighteenth-century in origin, was large and sprawling, comprising various wings and gables, and built from solid Lakeland stone with a roof of Westmorland slate. Spruced up, it would be magnificent, and in a location like this it would make a superb country house or holiday inn. But in its current state of semi-dereliction, it was an eyesore. Both the walls and roof were crabbed with lichen, the rotted iron gutters stuffed with mosses and bird’s nests. But of course, none of this dilapidation was visible at present. 
With the basket over her left wrist and the shotgun cradled under her right arm, Hazel felt her way across the rickety bridge. Fellstead Beck gurgled past underneath, having circled around the farm from the waterfall plunge-pool. A few dozen yards to her right somewhere, it dropped down a narrow gully into the lower valley, eventually at some point – Hazel wasn’t sure exactly where – flowing into the tarn.
On the other side of the bridge, beyond a pair of moss-clad gateposts, she entered the farmyard proper, her feet clipping on aged paving stones as she approached the darkened structure just vaguely visible in the fog. When she halted again, the only sound was the distant rushing of water. Meanwhile, not a single light shone from the eerie edifice. In the icy murk, it resembled an abandoned Viking long-hall; the remnant of some Nordic nightmare rather than a family home. Disconcertingly, the darkness beyond its windows seemed even darker than the darkness outside. Annie Beckwith had no electricity, no gas … but surely she would keep a fire in her living room? Didn’t she even have candles?
Hazel checked her phone again. It was now after seven-forty. Too early even for Annie Beckwith to go to bed. She approached the front door. If the old lady was sleeping, Hazel didn’t like the idea of disturbing her. But she’d not come all this way to turn back without at least trying to make contact. She knocked several times on the warped, scabby wood. There was no thunderous echo inside; the door was too thick and heavy. Likewise, there was no reply.
Hazel tried again – the same.
She fumbled for the handle, a corroded iron ring, which, when she twisted it, turned easily. There was a clunk as the latch was disengaged on the other side, and the door creaked open an inch. To open it the rest of the way, she had to put her shoulder against it, grating it inward over the stone floor.
This was also a tad discomforting. It wasn’t common practise for folk in this part of the world to keep their doors permanently locked, but surely a lone OAP like Annie would do so at night, especially living all the way out here?
‘Hello!’ Hazel called into the blackness.
Again, there was no response.
She sidled through, unbidden, and was hit with an eye-watering stench, the combined aromas of grime, mildew and decay.
Hazel shone her torch around the room, which was so cluttered with broken and dingy furniture that it was more like a lock-up crammed with rubbish than an actual living space. Dust furred everything, so that colours – the fabrics in the upholstery and lampshades and the many drapes and curtains – were indiscernible, each item a uniform grey-brown. And yet, evidence of the fine old farmhouse this had once been was still there. The fireplace was a broad stone hearth, elaborately carved around its edges with vines and animals, though currently filled with cinders, burnt fragments of feathers and what looked like chicken bones. The mantel above was a huge affair, again constructed from Lakeland stone and heavily corniced, and yet dangling with tendrils of wax from the multiple melted candles on top of it. A mirror was placed above the mantel, so old and tarnished that only cloudy vagueness was reflected there. Ancient sepia photographs hung in cracked, lopsided frames, the faces they depicted lost beneath films of dirt. These added to the house’s melancholy air, but also created the eerie sensation that eyes were upon her. Hazel turned sharply a couple of times, imagining there was someone hidden in a corner whom she hadn’t previously noticed, perhaps peering out through one of those veils of dust-web, eyes bloodshot, yellow peg teeth fixed in a limpid, deranged grin.
‘For God’s sake, woman, what’s the matter with you?’ she said to herself in a tight voice. Her and her bloody imagination. ‘Annie?’ she called out. ‘Annie, it’s Hazel Carter! You know, from The Witch’s Kettle!’
There was no answer, but her voice echoed in various parts of the house. Immediately on her left, an arched doorway led into a passage that Hazel thought connected with the kitchen and dining room, but the blackness down there was so thick it was almost tangible. She ignored it, moving into the centre of the lounge, only to freeze at a skittering, rustling sound. She turned, just as a whip-like tail vanished beneath the web-shrouded hulk of an age-old Welsh dresser.
Hazel had to fight down a pang of revulsion. The place was clearly unfit for human habitation as it was, but if it was crawling with rats as well …
A furry, grey body scuttled along the mantle, casting a huge, amorphous shadow as she followed it with her torch. Stubs of candles went flying to the floor, their ceramic holders shattering. The rat leapt after them and moved in a blur of speed down the passage towards the kitchen.
There was no question, Hazel decided – they had to get the social services onto this. Annie would hate them for it, but what choice did they have?
But this was assuming Annie was still alive.
At least there was no sign of forced entry, or that there’d been any kind of struggle in here. Not, if Hazel was totally honest, that it would be easy to tell.
Hazel glanced at the brown-stained ceiling, realising with a sense of deep oppression that she had yet to check the upstairs. So unwilling that it was difficult to set her legs in motion, she advanced across the room to a square entry in the facing wall which led to other rooms, as well as the foot of the main stair. She approached it and gazed up. Even without fog, the darkness at the top was impermeable. It seemed to absorb the glow of her torch rather than retreat from it. Hazel hesitated before placing the basket of food on a side-table and, with shotgun levelled in one hand and torch extended in the other, slowly ascended. The hair was stiff on her scalp. It was actually a terrible thing she was doing here; she’d entered someone’s home uninvited, and was now processing from one area to the next with a loaded firearm. But she couldn’t leave. She’d called out and no one had responded, and with the house unlocked, implying someone was at home, she knew there was some kind of problem here. The temptation to call again was strong, but now some basic instinct advised her that stealth was a better option.
Hazel reached the top of the staircase. The landing was all cobwebs, bare floorboards and plaster walls, the plaster so damp and dirty that it was falling away in chunks, revealing bone-like lathes underneath. Various doorways opened off it. The doorway to the room that Hazel thought Annie might use as a bedroom was at the end of a short passage on the left. When she directed her torch in that direction, the door was partly open, more blackness lurking on the other side. Someone could easily be waiting in there, watching her, and she wouldn’t see them from here.
Despite this, Hazel trod slowly forward, only halting when she was right in front of it. Even close up, the room was hidden from view. There was insufficient space between the door and its jamb for her torch to illuminate anything beyond. But now there was something else too – a faint but rather fetid smell, like open drains.
Hazel knew she was going to have to say something. It wasn’t the done thing to barge unannounced into someone’s private room, especially with a gun, not even if you were concerned for their wellbeing. Steeling herself in the face of an urge to hurry back downstairs and leave the building, she spoke loudly and clearly.
‘Annie? Are you alright in there? It’s Hazel Carter … you know, from The Witch’s Kettle down in Cragwood Keld.’
Again there was a response, but the silence was beyond creepy. It was intense, weird; a listening silence. Despite every molecule in her body telling her to flee this odious place, Hazel propelled herself forward, pushing against the door, and as it swung open, entered with torch in one hand and shotgun balanced over the top of it.
What she saw in there had her blinking with shock.
And then screeching with horror …

*

If you want to read any more, I guess you know what you’ve got to do. DEAD MAN WALKING will be available at all the usual outlets from first thing Thursday morning.

On the subject of the new novel, I recently wrote a piece for BLINKBOX (the Tesco retail site, which focusses on movies and books), describing some my own experiences as a police officer and assessing how many of them have made it into my fiction, and it’s now appeared HERE.

BLINKBOX are currently running a competition on their TWITTER page, with the prize a one-off proof copy of the book, in which HarperCollins will have added an extra page, allowing the winner to dedicate it to a person of his/her choice.

A very nice idea, I think - a different kind of Christmas prezzie maybe? Anyway, you've got to be in it to win it, so if you fancy having a go, the competition is still running - it only expires at 5pm on Monday November 24. But as I say, you'll need to do it via the BLINKBOX TWITTER page. Best of luck if you have a go.