NOT DROWNING BUT WAVING

 

silecroft beach

Years ago, I was walking along a beach in the Lake District and spotted two little boys having a great whale of a time splashing around on the shoreline. I think it’s the only time a particular sight inspired me to write a short story. I wrote it for my daughter whose birthday it is today. And without being presumptuous, I share it with you now as an early festive gift. present.

Merry Christmas and happy reading.

Not drowning but waving

Stunned by the news story on the radio Bert clung to the bathroom sink for support. Surely they’d made a mistake? With trembling fingers he turned the dial, raised the volume, anxious to catch the headline again at the end of the bulletin. After taking a deep breath or two, he continued shaving, almost convinced he’d misheard. The newsreader’s voice was louder this time, the message clear.

…police want to trace an elderly man spotted yesterday near the scene of a tragedy at Silecroft beach…

Bert closed his eyes, barely aware of the falling razor, the clatter as it struck already cracked tiles. Casting his mind back, he was sure the beach had been empty, deserted but for the two youngsters playing at the edge of the ocean. The stinging rain and leaden skies had deterred less hardy holidaymakers; Bert had passed the caravan park, seen families cooped up, probably squabbling over board games as they waited for a break in the summer storm. But clearly someone else had been there, someone else had been watching…

 

beach light

It was the beauty of the little blond boy that had caught Bert’s attention, brought a welcome diversion to another solitary walk. His heavy boots had made deep impressions in the wet sand, but he couldn’t take his gaze from the little boy whose blond hair bobbed golden on a canvas of greys. The daft little beggar must have gone in the freezing water without a second thought. Clothes were strewn around anyhow and there was no sign of anything as sensible as a towel. But the boy was screaming in delight, kicking and splashing, revelling in his minor rebellion. The youngster’s unbridled excitement was infectious; Bert’s smile, involuntary.

He’d never seen a child so full of life. Radiant, that was the word. The lad couldn’t keep still, and every time he ventured a little further into the waves, his delight – and maybe a touch of defiance – rose.

Bert was about to turn away when the boy gave a huge grin. He saw the child’s eyes then, a breath-taking sky blue. There was a spark of mischief as well, an invitation to join or at least condone the forbidden fun. Bert smile back uncertainly. The boy waved again, then raced into the ocean once more, his feet kicking spray high into the air. He appeared younger than Bert had first thought. Nine? Ten? It seemed no age to be out alone. Bert scanned the beach for signs of the child’s parents. He’d been so entranced, only now did he fully register the youngster’s friend, an older lad with long dark hair whose frame looked painfully thin even through a couple of layers of clothes. The older boy stood well back from the water’s edge, veering it seemed between caution and curiosity. Bert sensed a longing to join in but, perhaps like Bert, he was afraid of the water. The little blond boy looked as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Wading in further and further, he turned every now and then to cajole and coax his reluctant pal.

Bert glanced at his watch: nearly tea time.  His face lit up, he’d certainly have something to tell Enid when he arrived home. The little fellow’s high jinks would make his wife chuckle, it was just the sort of story she liked. Then Bert remembered. His smile vanished. Enid wouldn’t be there, wouldn’t be there ever again. He’d always thought he would go first. Even now there were times he had to fight the urge to join her. They’d been so close – not having kiddies of their own.

The little boy’s excited screams broke Bert’s dark thoughts. There was delight and devilry in the high-pitched squealing as he kicked and splashed oblivious to the cold, thrilled by his daring. He was in no danger. Bert knew this stretch of the Cumbrian coast better than the back of his hand. There was no steep shelving to trip the unwary, no powerful tides to drag the boy out to sea. As long as the child didn’t go out of his depth, he’d come to no harm. The thought comforted Bert and allayed to some extent the old man’s vague unease at leaving the youngsters alone. He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and continued trudging along the beach. As he reached the coastal footpath, he turned back for a final glimpse. The little blond boy was waving.

Still gripping the sink Bert opened his eyes, though the scene still played in his head. He must go to the police, help in any way he could. But what could he say? He’d seen a child playing in the sea and now the child was dead, drowned. He felt a dreadful sense of guilt. But what could he have done? Bert couldn’t swim to save his own life let alone anyone else’s. And anyway, he argued, the boy had been in no danger. When he’d left, the little lad had been having the time of his life. Bert peered at his reflection through the mist in the mirror. There was a shiny red bead of blood above his top lip.

         * * *

‘There were two boys in the sea, Mr Glover. Is that what you’re trying to say?’ The inspector was tall, powerfully built, with a thin dark moustache. He reminded Bert of that actor in Gone with the Wind. Bert tried recalling the name but – like much else – it had gone. He smoothed a hand over thin silver strands of hair then scratched the back of his neck. He’d been through his account several times but Inspector Read made him feel like a doddery old fool.

‘No.’ Bert tried to stay calm. ‘Not in the water. Like I said, the older boy as hanging back, just watching. Never ventured in at all.’

‘I don’t mean to be rude, Mr Glover, but do you normally wear glasses? See, you’re the only witness who’s mentioned two boys.’

The inspector tipped his chair back against the interview room wall. ‘So are you quite sure about it?’

The hard seat was uncomfortable but not as unsettling as the inspector’s stare.  Bert folded his hands in his lap. ‘Perfectly. Thank you.’

‘See there’s another thing, Mr Glover. You said there was no one else around yesterday, but we’ve taken statements from a young couple who saw you watching the boy. Fact is they thought you were his granddad. Standing so close, smiling, waving, staring and all that. Otherwise they might have hung around, made sure he came to no harm.’

‘The boy wasn’t in danger.’

Bert jumped when the inspector’s chair hit the tiles.  ‘He drowned, Mr Glover.’

‘Not when I was there.’ Bert cleared his throat but there was still a catch in his voice. ‘He was just a little boy having fun.’ He still couldn’t believe the youngster was dead – all that vitality snuffed out. ‘What about the dark-haired lad?’ Bert asked. ‘Why hasn’t he come forward? He was a good few years older. I thought they were together, that he was looking out for the little ’un. I assumed they were mates but I suppose they could’ve been brothers’

The inspector picked a piece of loose skin from the side of his thumb. ‘The dead boy was an only child. The family’s holidaying at the caravan park. Only been there three days. The boy slipped out on his own.’

Bert wiped his nose surreptitiously with the back of his hand; there was a cold wetness on his cheeks. He wanted to go home; he wanted a hug, a comforting word from Enid.

Suddenly alert, the inspector leaned across the desk; a sharp edge to his voice. ‘Tell me again about the boy in the water.’

Bert dashed the tears away, tried to meet the younger man’s gaze.  ‘He was very blond. It’s what made me think the other lad was just a friend – him being so dark, see.’

Eyes narrowed, the inspector took a photograph from a file on the desk.  ‘This is the boy who drowned. James Tyler. Is this who you saw in the water?’

Even before he turned the print round, Bert recognised the face. It was a picture of the dark-haired lad who’d kept well back from the waves.

* * *

That evening the local newspaper dropped through Bert’s letter box at the usual time. He shuffled down the hall and stooped to pick it up. He’d not been feeling well since arriving home from the police station. Inspector Read hadn’t accused him of anything but it didn’t stop the guilt and grief. Bert blamed himself – if only he could go back, have the time over again. He recognised the signs of another depression but couldn’t snap out of it. He was lonely. He missed Enid so much. Retirement wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and he wasn’t one for the pub with what few friends hadn’t moved on or passed away. He ought to get out more, take up a hobby or something. He brewed a pot of tea, settled himself in his favourite wing-back armchair and picked up the newspaper. The place was a ghost town in the winter but now at the height of the season there’d be lots going on. Maybe there’d be details of a club he could join or . . .

Bert struggled to hold the pages still. There was a follow-up story on the boy’s drowning. There’d been a similar incident thirty years ago on the same stretch of beach. It had been big news and the reporter had retrieved the original article from the archives.

The boy back then had been younger than James Tyler. Details were sketchy but he was described as a solitary boy who loved the sea. The police thought he’d sneaked out of his home one night during a storm. His clothes were found strewn across the sand but the body had never been recovered. Bert couldn’t tear his gaze from the child’s photograph. It was dusk when he eventually laid down the paper. He needed air, exercise. The storm had passed, he reached for his coat.

He’d stared at the picture so long the image might have been fixed on his retina. He saw it when his eyes were closed – saw it still when they were open. Even here, on the beach, in the dark, the image shimmered in front of Bert.  A little boy with blond hair, a hint of devilry in his laughing sky blue eyes and a hand held frozen in the air.

better beach

 

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THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT . . .

DOES SIZE MATTER?

criminal crop

Six years ago I was asked to contribute a short story to an anthology of crime fiction. The book would be sold in aid of charity and my then publisher thought it would be a good opportunity to showcase my series detective. Helping cancer research and introducing DS Bev Morriss to a wider audience? What’s not to like? I jumped at the chance.

I’d also add that having written five books in the series by then, coming up with a short story didn’t strike me as a big ask.

Don’t shoot me down in flames. I’m not suggesting for a second that short stories are easy to write.  In some ways, they need similar discipline and focus as full-length fiction. But, for me, novels are long haul not short hop. I find working on them more demanding and considerably more difficult. They need a different approach, and I have to make a bigger commitment – many months not several days.

It's what I do . . .

Not everyone sees it that way. I once had a heated debate with a woman who was absolutely adamant that short stories were harder to write and needed more skill and imagination from the author. Nothing I said budged her opinion an iota.  How much experience did she have, I hear you ask?  She’d not produced a word of fiction in her life.  I shrugged mental shoulders and moved on. Each to their own – that’s fine by me.

The anthology’s available via Amazon and here’s my offering, should you wish to read it. Before The Fall is still the only short fiction in which Bev appears.  Maybe I should rename it, Morriss Minor?

BEFORE THE FALL

‘Thank God you’re here, sarge. He’s threatening to jump.’

A line of sweat glistened above the young officer’s lean top lip; his voice held an uncharacteristic catch. Detective Sergeant Bev Morriss divined the signs. For rookie PC Daniel Rees this was a first: pavement huggers as they’re known in the trade.

‘Over my dead body,’ she muttered. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder on a patch of slightly tacky tarmac. Squinting against the fierce midday sun, Bev’s gaze followed the none-too-steady line of Rees’s finger. Her strikingly blue eyes put the azure sky in the shade. Not that she was aware of that – she’d blanked everything bar the young man hunkered on a flat roof four floors up, trainers just jutting over the edge.

‘What d’we know, Danny?’

‘Not a lot.’ Rees turned his mouth down. ‘Says he’ll take a dive if anyone goes near. He was chucking bricks a minute ago.’

Hand shielding her eyes, Bev focused on the hunched figure. Playing in her head were various ways the incident could pan out. ‘How long’s he been up there?’ She caught her breath surreptitiously. The sprint from the hastily abandoned police motor now straddling a near-distance kerb, had led her to make a mental note or three: join a gym, re-join old gym, attend any gym. Rees was fitter than a surfing whippet.

‘Not had time to ask around yet, sarge.’ The hankie he dabbed round his neck was already damp. Summer in the second city.  Constable Rees – tall and dark – was losing his cool. ‘We got the call-out ten-twelve minutes back.’

She nodded, knew that the ‘we’ included fire and ambulance crews on standby down the road. She’d clocked them as she cruised past looking for a space. The alert had gone out over the police radio, Bev happened to be in the vicinity, offered to take a look. Her partner Mac Tyler was hooking up, soon as. The turnout might be over-kill but, better safe . . .

It wouldn’t be pretty if Batboy spread his non-existent wings. The mean-looking pebbledash structure wasn’t one of Small Heath’s poxy high rises, but taking four floors without a lift wasn’t a good move.

‘One of this lot might know something.’ Rees jabbed a thumb over his epaulette. Gawpers were gathering behind a police cordon that was still being erected round the ugly squat block. Bev presumed the defunct building had housed council offices, tenant support, something of that ilk. Whatever, the show was gratis and the audience was rapt.

‘Spectator sport, Danny.’ She delved in a voluminous bag for aviator shades. ‘Free fall . . . better than the Olympics.’

Sunglasses in situ, she checked out the crowd. Several faces and craned necks were vaguely familiar. The Coppice estate – known round Highgate nick as the cop-it – was little more than an annexe to Winson Green prison. She noted a couple of uniforms mingling with the jobless, feckless and, in at least two cases, legless voyeurs. The officers were jotting names, numbers, addresses, covering the basics. Anything earth-shattering would be filtered back pronto.  Earth-shattering? Maybe not.

‘I reckon he wants his mam.’ The grating vocals emanated from behind. Bev and Rees whipped round so fast they almost collided. An old woman had slipped through the police tape and now stared skywards, scrawny arms folded tight across a faded Playgirl T-shirt.  Her rust coloured perm framed a face like a sepia doily.

‘No worries. We can sort that . . . Mrs . . .?’ Bev paused but her prompt was ignored. The old dear hadn’t wrested her glassy-eyed gaze from the roof. Bev registered fluffy mauve slippers and thick Norah Batty tights. Wrinkles must live close by, probably one of Batboy’s neighbours, which meant a squad car could whisk the mother to the scene before you could say trained negotiator.  Bev rubbed her hands. Sorted.

The old woman gave a derisive sniff.  ‘She’s gone AWOL.’

Or maybe not. She stifled a sigh. ‘I’m DS Morriss. Bev Morriss.’ She flashed her trust-me-I’m-a-detective smile. ‘And you are . . .?’

‘Six kids. And she buggers off just like that.’ Fingers clicked like snapping twigs.

A tinny Green Sleeves issued from an ice cream van; frying-onion-odour wafted in the sultry air. Bev took a calming breath. ‘Look, love,’ she said, tapping the woman’s arm. ‘If you can just give us . . .’

‘Be with some bloke.’ Dazzling dentures had come adrift. A darting worm of a tongue nudged them back in line.

Bev’s fists were balled. The clock was ticking and the Jammy Dodger wannabe was still up there. ‘If you can just give us the boy’s name, love.’ Priority. Establish communication. Forge a rapport. Police procedure. Common sense, really.

‘Cheap tart.’ The old woman could’ve been talking to herself.

‘Enough already.’ Bev stowed the sunglasses in her Guinness coloured bob. ‘Give, lady. Who’s the lad? Where’s he from? What the freak’s he playing at?’

Wrinkles blithely curled a crimped lip. Bev moved in close, recoiled at eau de old lady.  ‘Listen up, grandma. If that kid jumps . . . on your head be it.’ Rapid blink. Mental cringe. I can’t believe I said that.

‘Yeah, well, that’s one way o’ putting it.’ The flicker of a grin crossed the old girl’s lace-face. Bev’s stunning oratory had won the booby prize: Wrinkles looked as if she was about to share.

Or might have – but for a communal gasp from the crowd. Twenty plus heads angled back. The youth, now standing, teetered precariously, arms flailing, baggy combats flapping. Put Bev in mind of an octopus on heat. Like she’d know. Then a glint from a Zippo lying on the gravel caught her glance, and a pack of Embassy shot overhead. Didn’t take Sherlock. Some joker on the ground must’ve thought Batboy needed a smoke. The lighter had been lobbed first, grabbing for it had almost sent the lad over the edge. When balance was restored, the crowd’s released breath could have powered a wind farm.

‘Knock it on the head you lot,’ Bev yelled. ‘Go and have a word, Danny. You were saying, Mrs . . .?’

‘Parton. Dolly. And ’fore you ask . . . I don’t sing.’

Thank God. ‘And the kid is?’

‘Kevin Skipton. His mates call him Skippy.’ A not helpful image sprang to mind – Bev  banished it and focused on Dolly’s words. ‘Lives in one of them maisonettes on the Grove Road? Kev’s the eldest. Lad’s only fifteen, but he looks out for the little ones. Makes sure there’s food on the table, clothes on their backs.’

Yeah. Bet he’s got a tree-house in Sherwood Forest. Bev lifted a sceptical-stroke-cynical eyebrow. ‘Sounds a regular little Robin Hood.’

Dolly shrugged. ‘Okay he thieves a bit, but only to feed the kids. Mind the youngest’s just a bab. Kylie-Anne.’ An indulgent smile faded fast. ‘Sort of crap name’s that?’

‘So.’ Bev joined the dots. ‘The mother’s legged it and Kevin’s cut up? Reckons this’ll get her back?’

‘Summat like that.’

Books. For. Up. Turn. Bev had Batboy pegged as a loser, but not in the family break-up sense. Rough on the lad that. Not that topping himself was any answer. Talk about defeating the object. Empty threat then? On the other hand, if he lost his footing and fell, he’d be more than a crazy, mixed-up kid. He’d be a crazy, mixed up, dead kid.

She looked again at the boy on the roof: the hunched shoulders, pinched features, lank mousy hair and dirt-streaked face. Poor little sod. Most teenagers on the cop-it carried blades, but Skippy carried a cross the size of a cathedral. He’d had to play ma, and presumably pa, to a bunch of snotty-nosed siblings. Skippy’s skinny shoulders weren’t just hunched they were bowed. And his world had come crashing down anyway. God forbid the lad followed.

Bev cleared her throat. ‘Is there a dad in the picture, Mrs Parton?’

‘Be a team photo,’ she sneered. It figured. In this neck of the woods family values were on a par with Aldi price cuts. ‘No,’ the old woman said. ‘The mam’s not much cop – but she’s all they’ve got.’

‘Any idea where she is?’

‘Ain’t you the detective round here?’

*****

Bev did her detecting bit and within minutes patrol cars were en route to half a dozen properties across the city, addresses elicited from Dolly where the errant Sharon Skipton might be shacked up. It wouldn’t take long and no one on site was going anywhere. Least of all Kevin. In between taking and making calls and liaising with Highgate, Bev had shouted up offers of food, drink, a mobile – all in the hope of getting him to open up. Lad had barely opened his mouth let alone his heart.

‘How goes it, boss?’ Mac Tyler. For a guy the size of a grizzly, Bev’s DC was amazingly light on his feet.

‘Whoop-de-do-not.’ She brought him up to speed, asked what had taken him so long.

Mac waggled enigmatic eyebrows, took a warm KitKat from one pocket, an ice-cold coke from another and handed them over with a conspiratorial wink.

‘Ta, mate.’ She took a few glugs, pressed the can against her forehead. The goodies were from the newsagent’s on the corner. Mac wouldn’t have been shopping just for sustenance. ‘And?’ she asked.

‘The lad was banned from going in. Owner says he lifted more stock than a pick-up truck.’

Fitted with the old lady’s story. Bev frowned, glanced round. Where was Dolly?

Mac loosened his collar with a stubby finger. ‘A door at the back’s been forced.’ And he’d had time for a recce. ‘I mentioned it to the rookie. Suggested he keep an eye? The press boys are sniffing round out there.’

‘Tell me about it,’ Bev drawled. The media were chomping at the bit out front, too.

‘How we playing it, boss?’

She’d had a word with the guv. Detective Superintendent Bill Byford wanted a watching brief. No percentage forcing the issue. ‘Softly softly,’ Bev said. ‘No rush, is there?’

And then movement and a flash of colour on the roof caught her glance and everything went into overdrive.

‘Tell me that’s not what I think it is.’ She narrowed her eyes but it was still there.

A baby in a yellow romper suit was being dangled in midair. Kevin Skipton was doing a Wacko Jacko. Was it Kylie-Anne? Kev’s kid sister?  The spectators’ buzz descended into sudden absolute silence. Bev’s mind raced as fast as her heart. It was think-on-feet-time.

Then time ran out.

It seemed to happen in slow motion with a soundtrack of gasps and screams. The sickening crunch of the impact, the scarlet splatter and spray.  Blood soaking through the tiny yellow jumpsuit. Every horrified gaze was on the crumpled bundle. For what seemed an age no one moved; bodies, expressions frozen in shocked disbelief.

It took Bev several seconds to recognise the smell. Her senses were primed for blood. Not the fumes she was inhaling. Her brain needed a few seconds more to collate the data. Then she scowled, spitting feathers. It was a frigging joke. The baby gear had been wrapped round a doll and a load of paint. The lad must’ve poured it in to something flimsy, a plastic bag maybe. Why the hell…? If the tosser was just having a laugh – she had a damn sight better punch line.

‘Right. You little sod.’ But when she raised her furious gaze to the rooftop, Skippy hadn’t so much flown – as done a runner.

*****

It was more sprint than marathon. The kid must’ve realised he’d not get away. When Bev, breathing hard, arrived at the back of the building, Kevin Skipton was indeed hugging the pavement. Danny Rees, she found out later, had brought him down with a rugby tackle, but it was Dolly Parton’s slipper that was now planted across the lad’s nape.

He gave out a plaintive, muffled, ‘Let me go.’

‘Let me go please.’ Dolly pressed down with her foot.

‘Please!’

‘Never did know when to stop did you, Kevin?’ The old woman released the foothold and turned to Bev. ‘He’s not a bad lad.’

‘Scuse me while I get his knighthood.’ She tapped a Doc Marten on the gravel. Mac ambled over, helped the youth to his feet then frisked him. The only thing Kevin carried was a bit of extra weight.

‘I tried talking him out of it,’ Dolly mumbled.

‘Give, granny.’ Bev chewed her lip; arms folded. ‘Ten seconds. Or you’re both down the nick.’

Blink of an eye and she gave. ‘Ernie Watson was after a decoy. Said Kev could earn himself a bit of pocket money if he created a bit of a stir.’

Bev exchanged glances with Mac. Ernie ‘Tools’ Watson was a small-time villain with a big payroll.  He used a lot of kids in the business, made Fagin look like a child protection officer. Ernie had apprentice dealers, carriers, tea-leafs, you name it, all over south Birmingham.  The cops had been on his case for a couple of years. ‘Decoy for what? When? Five seconds, lady.’

Dolly gave a resigned sigh. ‘Hold-up at the Eight-till-Late.’

‘And?’

‘Don’t say nothing,’ Kev pleaded. ‘He’ll go ballistic.’

‘Cuff ’em, Mac.” Bev made to leave.

Dolly reached out twiggy fingers. ‘Birches Arcade. Chippie one side, hairdresser’s the other. It’s takings day.’

Not rich pickings then: it was a row of shops on the estate.  Still, gift horse, mouth and all that. First things first, though . . .

‘Danny get the cars round there,” Bev ordered. ‘And stand the emergency crews down.’ She glanced at Mac who was already on the phone to Highgate rustling up reinforcements. Hands on hips, she treated Skippy and the old woman to a glare apiece. ‘Decoy I can just about get my head round. But that freaking charade?’

‘Tools come up with the idea,’ Kevin mumbled. ‘I just had to make it convincing.’

‘Don’t hold out for an Oscar, kid. And the sob story?’ Bev glowered at Dolly. ‘That was a load of balls?’

The old woman found her slippers fascinating. ‘It just sort of came out.’

Bev sighed, shook her head. ‘Mac when you’ve finished . . .’ The troops on Sharon Skipton’s trail needed calling off. Waste of frigging time.

‘Kev is good with the kids though. We’re a close family.’

‘Oh, well. That’s all right then.’ Like she meant it. ‘Whose idea was the bloody doll?’ she snapped.

Kevin lifted a tentative hand. ‘Saw that on the box. The Bill? Casualty? Something like that. Looked good didn’t it?’

‘Not as good as your CV’s gonna look, kid. Let’s think . . . breaking and entering, criminal damage, conspiracy, wasting police time, aiding and abetting, perverting the course . . . you getting the picture?’

‘He’ll get a damn good hiding an’ all when I get him home.’

‘Home?’ Bev narrowed her eyes.

‘Shurrup, gran.’ Kevin’s trainer toed the ground; his face was puce.

‘You are joking?’

‘Course I’m his gran. Looking out for him, wasn’t I? I don’t want him getting in trouble.’

‘Glad that worked, Dolly.’ Bev groaned, pictured the paperwork. She was sorely tempted to let him walk. He was only fifteen. No previous. No weapon. No one was dead. He’d likely just get a caution. He wasn’t the sharpest knife in the canteen, but maybe he’d learn a thing or two from this fiasco.

‘Boss.’ Mac slipped his phone in a pocket, beckoned her over. ‘A word.’

She skewered Skippy and his gran with another glare.  ‘Don’t move an eyelash. Either of you.’

Mac had just spoken to Danny Rees. It was what you call a partial result.  Danny and four other officers had apprehended three goons coming out of the Eight-till-Late. Ernie Watson hadn’t shown, he’d sent his minions, but if Kevin coughed . . .

Bev sauntered across. ‘Okay Skippy. Here’s the deal.’ She didn’t actually say, Spill the beans and save your bacon, but that’s what it came down to.  His gran’s hefty two penn’orth plus dire warnings tipped the scales: Tools Watson was no match for the formidable Dolly Parton. Kevin agreed to give a detailed statement later in the afternoon and evidence during the trial.

‘Thanks, officer.’ Dolly tucked her arm affectionately into the boy’s. The warmth seemed genuine on both sides. ‘Come on, love. Let’s get home.’

Bev watched them walk away, chatting and having a laugh. The lad was lucky having Dolly to look out for him, keep him on the straight and narrow. It might all go pear-shaped, but when the case came to court, hopefully Kevin would be in the witness box not the dock.

Job done, sort of, Bev and Mac headed for their motors. She kicked a stone, apparently deep in thought.

‘Okay, boss?’

‘Nah.’ She sniffed. ‘Well pissed off.’

‘Why’s that?’ He tugged a ring pull on a can of Red Bull.

‘Missed a great line, didn’t I?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Hawaii Five-o? Rees the rookie?’ She flashed a grin. ‘Never got to say: book ’em, Danno.’

‘Lucky that. His name’s Danny.’

‘Pedant.’

DEAD MEN DON’T SMILE

Is the title of the first short story I wrote nearly twenty years ago – and it still makes me happy.  Not so much its dark humour (well, I think it’s funny) but the fact it broke a long and frustrating publishing duck.

Over the previous five years, the three crime novels I’d been sending out had garnered a fine collection of rave rejections from countless publishers.  Some pretty close calls but no contracts.

Then in November 1998, the editor of The New Writer magazine threw me a career lifeline. She showed faith and published my first fiction. I’ll never forget how good that felt or how much I owe her.

new writer cover

Ahead lay a further three years of ‘thanks but no thanks’ rejections for my full-length fiction.  But throughout that time, I kept TNW open on my desk so that every morning when I sat down to work my story was there proving I could do it. Seeing it acted as a spur and helped me through the self-doubt and dark days that every writer – published or not – faces.

Persistence can pay off and success in the shape of an offer finally came in 2001. Working Girls my first crime novel was published later that year.  I didn’t know it then but it turned out to be the first title in one of two crime series that I now write.

Copy of working girls cc

Anyway, I didn’t start a blog to dish out advice or deliver lectures but, for me, the lesson I learned way back was, and is: never give up, and maybe don’t try and run before you can walk?

I look back on those eight years as my apprenticeship and on the publication of that first piece of fiction as the start of a new chapter for me as a writer. This is that story . . .

dead men

For a woman who didn’t believe in ghosts, her first book signing was fast becoming a spiritual revelation. George Cornwell – so solid a presence in her recent life – was putting in a late appearance due to his untimely death.

Claudia Connor – fake tan and false smile – was approaching the end of a painstakingly prepared spontaneous address when she looked up and spotted George in the middle of the back row. She stared mesmerised as he puckered full lips and blew a light kiss. Claudia lifted an eyebrow; he was more expansive in the afterlife than he’d ever been in this one.

She almost returned his smile until she remembered that dead men don’t. Dead men don’t do anything. Do they? She shivered despite the heat.

‘Ms Connor. Are you OK?’

The voice broke the spell. Claudia tossed big blonde hair and turned to the small bland man hovering at her side. She flashed a beam that could have powered a small continent and which had already paid for her orthodontist’s holiday in one.

‘I’m fine.’ Claudia ran a moist pink tongue over impossibly red lips.’ Perhaps a glass of water?’

The little man – whose badge said Manager – but whose manner said Uriah, scuttled off.

Claudia looked round attempting to dismiss the apparition as a temporary aberration. The place was packed and what Claudia lacked in literacy she more than made up in numeracy. A quick head count times the cost of her book equalled fair recompense for the start of her holiday.

Studiously avoiding the space George had appeared to fill, she treated her waiting fans to a full range of batting eyes and beatific sighs. Even her retinue of runners and fixers, PAs and POs was impressed, sensing previously unsuspected depths of dissembling. The adoring multitude was less sensitive, concentrating exclusively on Claudia’s physical dimensions.

For an aspiring actress it was a bravura performance. She thanked God for all those years on the catwalks and front covers. Despite the shock, she’d kept her cool. All the posing had endowed a superficial calm. Quite what it had contributed to her talent as a writer was considerably less clear.

But Roll Model: Kittens on the Catwalk was the reason Claudia Connor was standing in the middle of Waterstones, in the middle of London, in the middle of August when she should be lying on a beach, smoothing on sun cream and sipping on cocktails, not perspiring and seeing spirits.

The Scuttler returned, hand out-stretched.

‘Thank you so much.’ Claudia sipped slowly. She was in no hurry to put her theory about George to the test.  She glanced at the display table to her left. It was stacked high with copies of Roll Model. She sashayed over, her red satin sarong as tight as a second skin except for the thigh-high slit. She felt slightly unsteady on her long legs and was relieved she’d eschewed the four inch heels in favour of soft leather flats. She bent over to put down the glass, fully aware of the impact on The Droolers but not so prepared for the dizziness that came on as she lifted what felt like a very light head. All the more reason to take her time.

She’d decided to count to twenty before letting her gaze rove along the back row again. She  returned centre stage, averting her eyes until the last second.

Thank God. He’d gone.  Well, of course he had. He couldn’t have been there in the first place.

It must have been a trick of the light. Or the heat. Or something.

She switched on her brightest smile. ‘Perhaps, after that little interruption, we could do some Q and As?’ Claudia simpered. Then get down to the signing, Claudia thought. Then get the hell out of here, Claudia gloated. Felix was waiting in the penthouse; the helicopter was waiting on the roof; a St Lucia beach was waiting in the . . .

God, she couldn’t remember, but it was somewhere hot where she wouldn’t be bothered. She dragged her mind back to the dreary little people in front of her. Their contributions were ranging from the banal to the full of bull. Did anyone really give a shit about her favourite colour?

Claudia answered everything with a fixed smile and a winning manner. She couldn’t lose. Instead of punters, she saw pound signs. The session seemed to have run its course. There were no more hands in the air . Then she heard another question.

‘Do you think you’re a good writer, Ms Connor?’

The emphasis was on the adjective and the inference was on the negative. Claudia was unaware of either, she wouldn’t know an adjective from a conjunctive but she’d recognised the voice. She’d know it anywhere. She moved her gaze in its direction. No one else moved a muscle.

Couldn’t anyone see him? Had they heard? They must have. She’d have to answer. She did, but faltered.

‘I . . . I think I’m a f. f. f. fine writer.’

There was a pause and puzzled expressions. Shit! They hadn’t. Get a grip girl. She fought a wave of nausea. God. She was so hot. Her body was on fire. Sweat was seeping from her armpits and trickling between her thighs. Damn the air conditioning. The sooner she got on, the sooner she could get out. She managed a weak smile. ‘And I hope you do, too.’

The Scuttler took his cue and took Claudia by the elbow to a second table where a short line was already getting longer.  It was more of a challenge now to keep the smile in place and there was little she could do about the tremor in her hands. Her signature was barely decipherable.

By the time she’d written mind numbing messages in sixty or so books, she was beginning to relax again. The furtive glances she’d been taking suggested George had vanished.

Her thoughts – although she couldn’t place it – were in the Caribbean. Felix hot in one hand and a Pina Colada cool in the other.

And then the glass shattered.

Not the one that had been in her head; the one that had been on the table. She’d placed it there herself only a few minutes ago. No one was anywhere near it. Yet she’d just seen it rise and fall and heard the smash. Her books were showered with sharp fragments and drenched in cold water.

Scuttler raced across to investigate. ‘How on earth . . .?’

‘It’s nothing on earth,’ Claudia murmured, tight hands clutching her even tighter chest. She lifted her glance to find that the queue has dispersed. Only one figure remained.

‘What on earth are you doing here?’

Claudia didn’t bother to look at him. He could have been part of the furniture. George Cornwell was installed on the three-seater and had no intention of leaving until she’d handed over what he’d come for. He’d spent enough of the last year in this place to last him a lifetime. He had no desire to stay any longer than necessary.

Claudia moved to the drinks cabinet: all hard liquor and soft lighting. She poured a large vodka then strolled to the black leather Chesterfield opposite her uninvited guest. George wondered idly whether she’d bought the trousers to match.

‘Look, darling,’ she ran scarlet-tipped fingers around the rim of the cut crystal, ‘No hard feelings. It’s over now. Let’s put it behind us.’

George looked round for a purring cat until he realised that only he and Claudia were in the room.

‘Move on? Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve given you everything. You can’t pretend it never happened. You needed me.’

Claudia laughed. It was a mistake.

George – a man of many words – decided for once in his life that action might be louder. He covered the distance between them before Claudia had finished crossing her legs.

‘You owe me. You dumb bitch.’

‘Who’re you calling a bitch?’

George laughed. It was a mistake.

Claudia – a woman of limited vocabulary – always took decisive action. In this instance it took the shape of ramming a four-inch steel-tipped heel into George’s groin. The other found its way into his neck. The fact that it hit the jugular was pure chance. Claudia neither knew what it was or where it lay.

She knew one thing for certain: George would have to go. Six hours later, a man wearing women’s shoes in unorthodox parts of his anatomy was anguishing at the bottom of the Thames.

So why – fourteen hours after that was the same man standing in line, book in hand, waiting for her to sign?

The newspapers told a story but not The Story. The Mail was typical . . .

Claudia Connor has died during a book signing at a well known London store. Shocked bystanders desperately tried to revive the former model but she was dead on arrival at hospital. It’s believed she suffered a massive heart attack. Ms Connor (27) one of the best known faces in the world of fashion had recently turned her hand to writing. She’d cut short a holiday in the South of France to promote her first book. 

Roll Model, a racy look behind the scenes of the catwalk, has been speeding up the bestseller lists. Ms Connor, who’d been hoping to play herself in a Hollywood film version had angrily denied not having read the book let alone written it. Her publishers acknowledged the invaluable given by Mr George Cornwell. Mr Cornwell, a highly regarded writer who has ghosted work for a number of international celebrities, was not available for comment.  

Later editions carried a few lines on an inside page about a man’s body being discovered by an angler on the Thames. Police were appealing for help as there was nothing on the corpse to identify it. They were also asking the owner of a pair of gold leather stilettos to come forward. A brief description of the man was issued: five feet eight inches tall, slightly overweight, thinning grey hair; an expensive suit and handmade shirt.

A police spokesperson said, ‘He was obviously a professional gentleman who appears to have been fairly well-heeled.’

Even Claudia might have laughed.

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