Monday, 30 April 2012

A taste for blood

A couple of weeks ago I uploaded a few hundred words from one of the crime books I have on the stocks waiting to be published. It got a lot of good reaction and more page views than any other blog I've written.

So it seemed a good idea to give the world a taste of book two.

This is the prologue of War Games, but the main action takes place in and around my old stamping ground in the Borders and features my hero, a Falklands War veteran with a guilty secret and an unlikely talent. A girl has gone missing, but has she been kidnapped, as her industrialist father claims, or has she run away from an arranged marriage as her friends believe? When the police give up the hunt Assad Ali calls in the last resort after all the other last resorts have run out: a psychic investigator. But as the investigation develops Gurya Ali isn't the only teenager who's vanished. And when they start turning up dead it becomes clear he's in a race against time with a serial killer - a serial killer with a liking for gruesome trophies and an obsession with a Medieval hero.

Let me know what you think

War Games

Jose Caracol was the first, but I wouldn’t find that out until much later. Jose was a street-savvy, sixteen-year-old Spaniard, but he was part-Tunisian, part-Gitano, which made him a one hundred per cent outsider. In the summer, he scraped a living fleecing the tourists who throng the concrete-canyoned resorts around Malaga, but in season he walked the dusty roads along the Guadalteba River looking for work as an olive picker to raise money for his much-extended and entirely undeserving gypsy family. No-one was able to figure out why he should be in the heat-scorched Andalucian hill village of Teba that Friday, August 25, when thousands of red-nosed guiris were asking to be shorn of their euros forty miles away down on the coast.
Not many guiris make it as far as Teba, because it’s a long and dusty drive on bad roads, through alternating rocky outcrops where only the buzzards and the vultures soar, and dull, characterless hillsides lined with regimented ranks of olive trees. The main reason tourists make the effort is to visit the Castillo de la Estrella - the Castle of the Stars – the ruin which has dominated Teba and its people since the Romans came to Spain more than two thousand years ago.
Local legend says that from the castle tower you could reach up and touch the heavens, but now you make the climb to look down on the village, which shines like a silver jewel on a plain of sun-baked red earth that stretches away towards the distant hills of the Sierra Ronda. Teba is pretty enough, in the white-walled, red-tiled Andalucian fashion. Its narrow streets will lead you to a couple of fine churches and a quiet village square. A mile to the south is the garganta – a precipitous gorge which attracts butterfly collectors and bird-spotters. And that’s about it. It’s not really a very interesting place to die in. Or to die for.  
 But looks can be deceptive. Seven hundred years ago that innocent plain below the castle echoed to the thunder of a thousand charging war horses. Men fought and cursed and died, and their blood stained the red earth of the plain redder still. The battle they fought has never really ended. Jose Caracol was one of its casualties. But, of course, he never knew that.
A farmer discovered the body close by a dirt roadway, in one of the narrow, rush-filled ditches that split the plain. Prudently, he decided to leave Jose just where he was. By the time the local police summoned their national counterparts up from Malaga the August sun had turned the corpse almost black. Still, it wasn’t difficult to work out how he’d died. Lieutenant Alvares, in charge of the investigation, studied the intensive pattern of knife wounds concentrated around the victim’s face, neck and chest, and wrote the word ‘frenzied’ in his black notebook. His interest was drawn to a particularly large gash in the left breast and his moustache twitched with distaste as he recognised the reason for it. ‘Cabrons,’ he muttered.
 A search of the dead boy’s clothing had already placed Jose’s identity card in his hand. When he studied the bony, dark-skinned face with its barely concealed sneer it was difficult to keep his interest from waning. He knew what he would find when he typed the name into the Malaga police computer system. A dozen – maybe many dozens – of arrests for theft and other petty crimes, a few short stays in youth prison. His view was confirmed when he questioned the shopkeepers and the villagers of Teba. Sure, we get gypsies around here. They’re pests – no-one actually used the word vermin, but it was there just the same - to be watched like the stray dogs that wait to steal from your kitchen. No, nobody remembered this particular gypsy.   
Lieutenant Alvares decided to stay overnight in Teba, for form’s sake. He – politely – asked his counterpart in the local police to identify any groups of gitanos in the surrounding area. Relationships between the two forces had to be conducted like the first tentative steps of the flamenco dancer; one at a time, and always with delicacy. He would question the gypsies the next morning, with the local officer at his side. The thought of the blank, uncooperative faces gave him a slight feeling of indigestion. He tried very hard to fight it, but in his mind he had already filed Jose Caracol as the victim of a turf war between two rival gitano clans. The only thing that disturbed this certainty was the mutilation done to the body. It seemed very – deliberate, yes that was the word – deliberate, compared to the savage nature of rest of the attack. It raised certain doubts that would stay with him for many weeks. But, no, these people, they were without morals, without conscience. He studied the thing the dead boy had clutched in his hand. Who was to know what messages they sent to each other in their crude un-Spanish way? Still, he would do his best to discover the killers. The location and the date didn’t strike him as significant, unless that it was, for Jose Caracol, the wrong place at the wrong time. He was right, but not in the way he thought. But he wouldn’t find that out until much later.

Monday, 16 April 2012

A Grand day out

Well, I survived the stag weekend more or less unscathed, though I can cheerfully say that the experience of a Saturday night out in Liverpool city centre will stand me in good stead the next time I write about Roman depravity and debauchery.

We started the day with an interesting trip from our waterfront hotel to the Grand National meeting at Aintree, courtesy of a Scouse taxi driver who had clearly decided that red lights and speed limits only applied to other people. Gambling and I tend to be mutually exclusive thanks to a salutary lesson during my misspent youth, and half a dozen losers only served to reinforce that. The fact that three of them were second by less than a head, and the one in the National by a literal whisker, made it all the more masochistic. But the pain of losing didn't detract from what was a fantastic experience. The Grand National is an epic event, and, the tragic equine losses notwithstanding, a truly magnificent sporting occasion, with genuine superstars in the saddle and under it.

Seventy thousand people packed the Aintree stands and bars and if there's a recession I can assure you it hasn't reached Merseyside. I've never been anywhere like it for conspicuous consumption by loud young men in never-before-worn suits, and girls in skirts so short they didn't actually qualify, wearing skyscraper heels and trying valiantly to negotiate four flights of stairs. The ladies of Liverpool certainly know how to glam up for the big day. Elegant ball gowns were all the rage, with upper works (as George McDonald Fraser's Flashman would say) proudly on show. I surveyed all this young fashion with a fatherly affection, thinking 'You may one day regret having your young man's name tatooed on your neck in letters an inch high, my dear' and that the man who persuaded women that spraying themselves with mottled orange paint and calling it a tan was a good idea is one of the business geniuses of our age.

The least said about the evening the better. Suffice to say that being bought a double is only a good thing if you're not drinking large glasses of red wine and that the aforesaid red wine and something called a Jaegerbomb don't mix all that well. Being of more mature years I didn't even bother trying to persuade the groom to dress in anything stupid, but much respect to the chap in the banana suit and the bearded young man disguised as Snow White, leading his reinforced squad of dwarves on the road to ruin.

Roll on the wedding!

Monday, 2 April 2012

Wha's like us!

We live, as they say, in interesting times. As we enter the two and a half year marathon debate on whether or not Scotland should be independent again, my thoughts turned to the good old days when Scotland was run by Scots - albeit French-speaking Scots whose relatives robbed and murdered their way to power

To put it bluntly, many of Scotland's rulers have been a dead loss, with the emphasis on dead.

Take the Stewarts.

James I - came to the throne after 18 years in English captivity. Murdered by rivals, including members of his own family. Didn't do his memory any favours by hiding in a sewer.

James the Second was blown up by his cannon
James II - crowned at the age of seven, spent most of his rule obsessed by destroying the rival Douglases. Blown up by his own cannon trying to get Roxburgh Castle back from the English.

James III - aged eight when he was crowned at Kelso Abbey. Annoyed just about everybody. Killed in a battle against his own son.

James IV - tried not to rile the English and ruled with a steady hand until he fell out with Henry VIII and nipped over the Tweed to Flodden to show him two fingers. Hacked to death with billhooks along with one bishop, two abbots, nine earls, fourteen lords and several thousand other people who didn't really matter much except to their relatives.

James V - seventeen months old when crowned. Kept himself busy fleecing the nation to build palaces and fathering nine illegitimate children. Died of fever after taking a bath in the Solway while his army was losing (there's a theme here) to the English.

Mary, Queen of Scots - dad passed away when she was six days old, husbands had a habit of dying on her. Bit of a schemer. Lost her head after annoying her rich English cousin, Liz.

So when people talk about the good old days, we shouldn't forget that in the couple of hundred years before the Union of the Crowns, everything in the garden was far from rosy. Scotland was riven by internal rivalries and run by vested interests who were happy to sell out to their bigger neighbours whenever it suited them. There's a lesson there somewhere, I'm just not sure what it is.