IN A RASH moment, Harry Fletcher had promised to take Karen to see Will Young for her birthday, should he be performing anywhere within a reasonable distance of Lafferton. He had felt pretty safe there until Karen had pointed out a Will Young gig in Bevham.


‘You couldn’t bloody make it up.’


He hung back until the last minute hoping the venue would be sold out. Just his luck that there were a handful of returns when he rang up.


‘It was absolutely bloody brilliant. Thanks, love.’ Karen leaned over to pinch his cheek. ‘You didn’t hate it that much, did you? Honestly?’


‘Nah, I coped. He can sing a song, I’ll give him that. Just not the sort of stuff I’d pay good money for again.’


‘And we know what that stuff is.’


‘So, what’s wrong with Status Quo?’


It was gone eleven as they drove into Lafferton, the roads quiet. Karen’s friend Lorna was babysitting the boys, the first time they’d had a proper night out together since Harvey was born and Harvey was rising four. Bradley was five and they’d left him for the odd night quite early on. Bradley had slept and generally been laid-back with life. Harvey did not sleep and battled against life twenty-four seven.


‘Want to stop for a drink? Might as well make the most of it.’


‘Great. I’ll just text Lorn, see if –’


‘No you won’t. If there’s been any sort of problem she would have texted you.’


‘I suppose.’


‘And has she?’


‘No, only she won’t be expecting us to stop out till midnight. Maybe I should just give her a quick bell.’


‘She’ll be fine.’


‘It’s Harvey . . .’


‘I know it’s Harvey. It’s always Harvey. That’s why I slipped him a double brandy in his beaker.’


He saw her face and let out a bellow of laughter.


They parked at the end of the Lanes. Reynaldo’s Club was on the opposite corner.


‘You can’t,’ Karen said.


‘It’s gone eleven, it’ll be fine. Yellow perils don’t work night shifts.’


‘Coppers do.’


‘When did you last see a copper around at this time? Correction. When did you last see a copper?’


Harry took her arm. Seconds later, he was dragging her back by it onto the pavement as a black 4 x 4 with a wide, ugly bull bar swung round the corner, two wheels over the kerb and all but mowing them both down.


Karen screamed. The car drove up the cobbles of the pedestrian-only street, reversed, swung round again, and within seconds was ramming backwards fast into the plate-glass windows of the jeweller’s shop. The noise was sickening.


Harry spun round and as he pulled Karen, shielding her with his body, he was unlocking the door of his car. He pushed her inside, and ran round, trying to find his mobile as he did so, but Karen already had hers out, hands shaking. He was starting the car as a man with a stocking over his face was coming down the street towards them, his arm raised.


‘Oh God, Oh God . . .’


‘Get down, Kaz, lie down.’


The bullet hit the side of the car as he accelerated up the road, grabbing Karen’s phone as he went. Behind them in the Lanes, shouting, more glass breaking, another shot, the engine of the 4 x 4 revving and revving.


‘Oh God.’


‘It’s all right. You’re safe. It’s OK, Karen. Yes . . .’ he said into the phone, ‘In the Lanes, opposite Reynaldo’s.’


The jeweller was standing on the glass-strewn pavement in shock, his dressing gown unbelted, his feet bare and bleeding. Others stood around him – the man who owned the deli, Emma from the bookshop, still in her coat after a late return from the reading group meeting at Cat’s, the antique dealer and his wife, white-faced but already organising coffee from the room at the back of the shop.


PC Robin Crabbe felt someone tugging at his arm.


‘You’d better listen to me. Two of them had guns, they waved them all over the place.’


‘Thank you, sir, if you could just stand over there off the pavement, out of the way of the broken window . . .’


‘It was like in a film. That’s what I thought, you see, I thought, “This is people making a film, this is going to be worth seeing” and then –’


‘I’ll take statements in a minute, sir, don’t go away but if you could just –’


‘I knew you wouldn’t listen.’


Crabbe turned his back, that being the best way of dealing with the sort of man who tugged at your elbow, didn’t draw breath and smelled of drink.


‘Over here.’ His partner was beckoning. ‘Forget him, it’s Nobby Parks.’


‘Says they had guns.’


‘They did, two of them had sawn-off shotguns,’ Laurence from the deli said.


‘I’ll get the tape round, someone’s going to slice their foot in half on this lot. Anyway, who’s Nobby Parks?’


‘Pain in the arse. Hangs about town at night, turns up like a bad penny. Lives in one of the old canal cottages. Here’s the backup. That guy needs the paramedics as well.’


The circus swung into action. Lights were set up, crime-scene tape run out, more blues and twos screeching up. Information went round.


‘They had guns. Two of them. Should be hung.’


‘Get bloody Parks out of here,’ the DI said.


‘Says he saw it all . . .’


‘Right, and I saw the men land on the moon. Get him out of here. Someone can go round to his fleapit tomorrow but we need to get these guys sorted.’


PC Crabbe went over. ‘You,’ he said. ‘Home. Now.’


‘I want a lift.’


‘You’ll walk.’


He took a stringy-feeling arm beneath a greasy jacket and marched Parks to the end of the street. ‘Go.’


The man went, swearing under his breath, leaving a beer and body smell on the air behind him.


‘It’s minus seven,’ PC Crabbe said. ‘Anyone realise that?’


The DI who had turned up and taken charge glanced round at him. ‘And your point is?’


‘Sir.’


But Nobby Parks had been right, he thought, going over to the huddle of people just inside the bookshop doorway, it was like a film set. The lights. Radios going. Sudden bursts of movement, then a pause. A film. Weird. But not a film.


What in God’s name was happening to the quiet town he’d grown up in?


Slugs I worked with, creepy-crawly neighbours, bastard who was my dad. Wife. Ex-wife now. No, I haven’t forgotten them. Haven’t forgotten a thing. What it was like, the old biddies, cops, stir, brief, then the Big Bang. I haven’t forgotten a speck of it.


Keeps me warm at night. Even now.


Five


THE DAY BEFORE had been so cold the streets were empty at three o’clock in the afternoon. Even the teenagers who usually hung about in all weathers without a coat between them had fled to the warmth of coffee shops and, as a last resort, their own homes.


The pavements were scoured by a bitter north-east wind, the sky looked flayed, as if it had lost a skin. But just after midnight, the wind veered south-west then dropped, and clouds piled up.


‘Here we go,’ PC Crabbe said to his partner, turning the patrol car into the square. He flicked on the wipers as the first flakes came swirling down. Twenty minutes later, there was a covering over the pavements and the verges. An hour later, the roof outlines of the cathedral and the houses in the Close were softened by half an inch of snow.


Judith Serrailler, sleepless, looked out of the window and saw a pure white garden. Five miles away, Cat Deerbon, going to Felix who was thrashing and shouting from the depths of a nightmare, looked out of his window onto a world of dizzying flakes. It was still extremely cold but the wind no longer cut through every chink in the woodwork, roof and walls of the old house.


It snowed on, piling into drives and gateways and entrances.


‘Look at it this way,’ PC Crabbe said, ‘it’ll be mayhem in the morning but at least nobody’ll be out thieving and ram-raiding.’


Dawn seeped in late with a puffy, leaden sky and snow piling upon snow upon snow.


Bradley and Harvey Fletcher were out in the back garden soon after seven, padded up like moonwalkers, throwing snow, kicking snow, rolling in snow, chasing the next door’s cat through it, pushing piles of it up against the passage door, starting the foundations of a snowman, but within half an hour, inside, hands scarlet and burning, drinking hot chocolate.


‘Don’t mither your dad. He’s got to get to work somehow through this lot.’


‘He can stay at home and play.’


‘Right, and that’d pay the bills. Not. Now you heard me, leave Dad alone to have his breakfast, finish your chocolate, and then either back outside or play in your room.’


The boys sped upstairs as their father crossed the landing and reached out to pull Harvey to him in a bear hug.


‘AAAGGGH. Will you do a snowman with us?’


‘Be dark by the time I get in, son. Saturday, no prob.’


‘But –’


‘You deaf now or what?’


Harvey shot into the room he shared with his brother, and banged the door. It was the big back bedroom, with plenty of room for their space-station layout and the moon-landing area they were making out of scrumpled-up newspaper and Play-Doh.


Downstairs, Harry Fletcher sat down in front of a plate of beans and sausages, toast, butter, a pot of tea and the paper. He ate, drank and read without speaking for seven or eight minutes, then looked up.


‘You all right, love?’


Karen poured her own tea. She worked in the kitchens at the Sir Eric Anderson Comprehensive and was usually out of the house bang on a quarter to eight. Half-term: toast and a cup of tea with the paper when Harry had finished with it. Luxury.


She spread jam on her toast. Harry was looking at her.


‘Scum,’ he said. ‘They want to throw away the key. They could have run you over.’


‘They can’t throw away the key before they’ve caught them.’


‘And are they going to do that?’ He made a nasty sound in his throat.


Karen wished he hadn’t brought up the whole thing about the ram raid. He kept on asking her if she was all right, if she’d hurt herself, if she had nightmares about it all. But she didn’t. She was fine, so long as she could put it out of her mind for good.


So long as Harry would let her.


Six


BY EIGHT THIRTY, Cat was half a mile out of Lafferton, having left home just before seven. The snowploughs were out and gritters had been down the bypass the previous night but off the main roads driving was treacherous and she inched along behind other vehicles. They had rung from the hospice at six thirty and she had given advice and medication changes over the phone but there was one patient she should see, though the nursing staff were more than competent. She had learned to let go, to give them a lead but then let them do their job, though sometimes instinct told her she ought to go into Imogen House herself and since her days as a junior hospital doctor she had listened to that instinct.


She had left Hannah and Felix with Molly. It was half-term, and the children would have a day of snowmen, snowball fights, baking and hot chocolate. What Molly would undoubtedly be good at, sometime in the future when her problems were behind her, was a family of her own. There would be plenty of young men where Rob had come from.


At the end of the Flixton Road Cat came to a halt. Two cars had spun into the ditch, two drivers were standing in the cold watching two police patrolmen on their walkie-talkies. All four were shaking their heads.


One of the officers came across, waving his arms to Cat. ‘You’ll have to go back, madam, it’s – oh, morning, Doc. You trying to get to work?’


‘To the hospice, yes. Which way can I try?’


‘Hold on.’


Five minutes later, the patrol cars had moved and she was given a clear passage. Occasionally, it paid to be a doctor and the DCS’s sister.


There were only two cars in the parking spaces of Imogen House and the snow was piled up in mounds to either side. But Lois, on the reception desk, was as cheerful as ever. ‘I walked in, and I haven’t walked so far for years, but you know, once I got going I loved it. I’m glad you made it, Cat – she’s been asking for you.’


Cat shook her head. Often, as a palliative care doctor, she had to accept that there was little or nothing she could do for a patient, in the sense of curing them or extending their lives, though there was usually something to be done about pain relief, and almost always she could talk, listen, comfort. But once in a while, either because of the nature of the disease or the patient’s temperament, she felt helpless. Redundant was a word that came to mind then. Yes, she thought, going down the corridor now, in spite of all her medical training and experience, plus her innate instinct, sometimes that was it – she was redundant.


As she tapped and opened the door of Room 9, she had the momentary sensation of moving into some other-world. The sun on the snow outside radiated a silver-white light through the windows, which touched the far wall and made it gleam in an unearthly way. To die now, in this, must surely be to die in radiant peace, no matter what else was involved.


And what was one of the first things you learned? Cat asked herself, going in. Don’t sentimentalise to make yourself feel better.


Jocelyn Forbes was propped up on the backrest and pillows, breathing with the help of an oxygen mask. She was parchment-pale and her arms on the sheet were so thin the bone gleamed through the skin. She had motor neurone disease, but she was patient, uncomplaining and, above all, sanguine about her situation and apparently not unhappy. MND did not usually cause clinical depression but Cat was surprised how cheerful she was. It was her daughter Penny who had sunk into a downward spiral of misery and helplessness. Much against her will she had gone with her mother to a foreign clinic where Jocelyn had intended to commit assisted suicide. The experience had been so scarring, frightening and unpleasant that Jocelyn had fled home and continued with her life, physically deteriorating but able to get enjoyment out of the smallest things. At first, Penny, an unmarried barrister, had moved back home to be her carer but she had found it upsetting and difficult, so she had returned to her flat, struggling with work and having psychiatric help and medication for depression, unable to face even calling on Jocelyn briefly. There had been a succession of carers, some good, some poor, none lasting. After spells in hospital and in a private home, Jocelyn’s condition had deteriorated so far that Cat felt justified in admitting her to the hospice.

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