Friday, 15 December 2017

Brightly Shone the Moon that Night: Part 2

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

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

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

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

Hope you enjoy ...


BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT

2

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

*

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

*

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

Motorway Closed Until Further Notice
Metropolitan Police

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

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

CHRISTMAS LAND


To be concluded on December 22 …

***

If you have enjoyed these first and second parts of BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT, please feel free to check in for the third and final installment next Friday. But you might also be interested to know that there have been six Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg novels published to date (Avon Books, HarperCollins). They are, in chronological order: STALKERSSACRIFICETHE KILLING CLUBDEAD MAN WALKINGHUNTED and ASHES TO ASHES. In addition to all that, the seventh in the series, KISS OF DEATH, which is due for publication in August next year, is now available to be pre-ordered.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Brightly Shone the Moon that Night: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

So, here we go. This is PART ONE.

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

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


BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT

 

1

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

          Yet in thy dark streets shineth
          The everlasting light …

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

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

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

          O tidings of comfort and joy,
          Comfort and joy …

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

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

*

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

Happy Christmas, Sarah
Love, Uncle Mark

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

*

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

*

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


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

To be continued (December 15) …

***

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