Tag Archives: Blog Tour

#blogtour ‘The Family Lie’ by @PLKane1

Thank you to HQ and P L Kane for inviting me to take part in the blog tour for Paul’s latest novel: ‘The Family Lie‘. I’m thrilled to be sharing the prologue of the novel with you today.

P L KANE is the pseudonym of a #1 bestselling and award-winning author and editor, who has had over a hundred books published in the fields of SF, YA and Horror/Dark Fantasy. In terms of crime fiction, previous books include the novels ‘Her Last Secret‘ and ‘Her Husband’s Grave‘ (a sell-out on Waterstones online and Amazon), the collection ‘Nailbiters’ and the anthology ‘Exit Wounds‘, which contains stories by the likes of Lee Child, Dean Koontz, Val McDermid and Dennis Lehane.

Kane has been a guest at many events and conventions, and has had work optioned and adapted for film and television (including by Lionsgate/NBC, for primetime US network TV). Several of Kane’s stories have been turned into short movies and Loose Cannon Films/Hydra Films recently adapted ‘Men of the Cloth’ into a feature, ‘Sacrifice‘, starring Barbara Crampton (‘You’re Next) which sold to Epic Pictures/101 Films.

Kane’s audio drama work for places such as Bafflegab and Spiteful Puppet/ITV features the acting talents of people like Tom Meeten (‘The Ghoul‘), Neve McIntosh (‘Doctor Who’ / ‘Shetland’), Alice Lowe (‘Prevenge‘) and Ian Ogilvy (‘Return of the Saint’). Visit Paul’s website for more details. 

Vic x

The Family Lie

Prologue

It was the noises outside that woke them. Woke him

Noises outside the tent they were sharing, camping in the woods, part of the region known as Green Acres. Todd had woken first, sitting bolt upright when he became aware of the sounds – of someone . . .  something out there in the undergrowth. The snapping of twigs on the ground, the swish of leaves and branches being pushed aside. He glanced across at Candice in the dimness, tucked up in the sleeping bag beside him. She was just starting to stir, though whether it was because of his movements or the ones not far away beyond the thin material surrounding them was unclear. 

‘D-Did you hear that?’ Todd asked her, trying and failing to say it without his voice cracking. 

Bleary-eyed, Candice gaped at him. ‘What time is it?’ 

Todd had no idea. Late. Middle of the night. It only felt like he’d been asleep for a few minutes, having taken ages to drop off in the first place. Candice, on the other hand, had been fast asleep as soon as her head hit the inflatable pillow. And, in lieu of any kind of proper rest, he’d simply watched her by the light of the small battery-powered lamp before he’d had to turn it off, as she breathed in and out softly. That beautiful face, skin the colour of caramel, jet-black hair that hung in ringlets, Todd reckoned he was pretty much the luckiest man alive. And not for the first time he wondered just how he’d managed to end up with her. 

They’d met at uni, both studying psychology – a class taught by one Dr Robyn Adams, who worked with the police on certain cases so was a bit of a celebrity on campus. They’d been best friends first, then it had developed into something more. And when they’d finished their course, he’d suggested this holiday because who knew where they’d end up in the future. Something cheap, because they were skint, and he knew Candice loved the outdoors. They could go on walks in the daytime, cook on an open fire and eat under the stars. Didn’t get much more romantic than that.

And at night-time, snuggle up in a sleeping bag and . . . well, you know. 

Hadn’t exactly turned out the way he’d imagined though, had it? First, they’d spotted those creepy-looking folk out and about, when they’d been searching for somewhere to set up camp. Just two or three of them out for a walk in nature probably – but they’d all been wearing the same thing, those weird cream-coloured tunics and trousers. 

‘They look like they’re in a cult or something,’ Candice had joked, fan of horror movies that she was. ‘Probably doing a bit of Devil worshipping!’ But Todd hadn’t found it funny. Hadn’t found it funny at all and was glad when they’d passed by out of sight. 

Then there was getting stung by that wasp which apparently set a precedence. Everything that walked, flew or crawled in those woods seemed to have it in for Todd, it was like they knew he wasn’t used to being out here. He was also absolutely knackered, had barely slept since they got here – and not in the fun way. Todd just found it so hard to drift off with all the strange noises around him, was too much of a city boy he guessed; and this was just such a long way from it all. The sounds of nature were louder in his own skull than the hum of traffic and buzz of people he’d grown used to. More alien to him than anything, though nothing like the noises that particular night. 

‘Listen!’ he whispered to Candice. 

‘What . . . ?’ she answered, looking for her phone so she could find out the time, flicking on the light. ‘I can’t hear anything.’ 

‘There!’ said Todd, who could distinctly hear something stumbling about outside. Maybe it was those people in tunics back again?

‘It’s just the sounds of the woods, babe,’ Candice told him. The same thing she’d been saying for ages. ‘Probably a deer or something.’

‘A deer?’ He was aware he wasn’t really coming off as manly by this point, but the thought of something trampling their tent with them inside it wasn’t exactly relaxing. 

Candice couldn’t keep the grin from her face. ‘Yeah, you know. A deer. Don’t worry about it. Won’t hurt you.’

‘Doesn’t sound like a deer to me,’ he informed her. And it didn’t. It sounded bigger than that kind of animal. What if it was something else, some other kind of wild creature? 

Something more ferocious. 

As if reading his mind, Candice said, ‘Hey, did you ever see that movie with the soldiers and the werewolves? How that started, with one of those things ripping into the tent?’ She was doing this deliberately to wind him up. Candice knew he didn’t care for those kinds of films, that he had a tendency to let his imagination run riot. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.’

Might not be a werewolf – because those didn’t exist, he wasn’t that stupid – but what if it was something else? A nutter or whatever, a crazy cabin person living in the woods with a taste for human flesh? Or a witch, like in that old found footage movie people had thought was real at the time? This place definitely had a history. And hadn’t he read somewhere it was also a UFO hotspot, out in the middle of nowhere? That there had been abductions and such? Those kinds of things he did believe in, Close Encounters and all that. Spoilt for choice with the options . . .

He thought about voicing his concerns, but he was already going down in his girlfriend’s estimation he realized. God, who’d want to be with such a wuss?

Then the noises came again and this time Candice looked up. Looked worried. ‘Now that I did hear.’ 

Thank Christ for that, it was loud enough! Sounded like Godzilla and King Kong wrestling out there. ‘What should—’

‘We should probably take a look,’ she suggested. ‘At least see what we’re dealing with.’

But what if it deals with us first? thought Todd, who’d changed his mind. He was beginning to wish this was a horror flick, because then he could simply switch it off. Or be safe in the knowledge that good triumphed over evil. Usually. 

‘Really?’ he asked. 

Candice nodded and took his hand. ‘We’ll look together.’

‘O-Okay,’ he said, voice cracking again. 

His girlfriend led the way, unzipping the tent and peering out. After a few moments, she turned and said in hushed tones, ‘I can’t see anything. Can you?’

Todd joined her and his eyes searched the space in front of him. It was pitch black out there, and he had a job even making out the shapes of trees, of branches. Maybe they should flash that phone light around, or grab the lamp? Would that attract attention? Would it be worse to see than not? ‘No, I—’

He froze, squeezing her hand. The loud rustling noises were coming again, only this time he could see the source of it. Something was lit up, stumbling through the darkness: a figure. Todd’s mind went to those UFOs again, to glowing aliens. 

More alien to him than anything. 

‘Is that . . . Jesus, Todd – I think that’s a person!’ cried Candice. ‘But what’s . . . Is that a torch they’ve got or—’

No, definitely not a torch. Because the whole figure was shining with the kind of brightness not even the strongest torch would give off. And the light was coming from everywhere at once. 

That was when he smelled it, the unmistakably sweet aroma of cooking flesh – similar to the smell of the meat they’d been cooking themselves on campfires. That they’d cooked earlier on the one outside, before making sure it was totally out. It was also then Todd realized what the figure reminded him of. Not an alien at all, but a certain figure that was thrown onto the bonfire every fifth of November in this country. 

Because the shape, stumbling through the undergrowth and making all that noise – looking for all the world like some kind of stuntman – was, from head to toe, on fire. Ablaze, covered totally in flames. How it was still moving was a mystery to Todd, but moving it was. Crashing on and on towards them, the noise of crackling and popping accompanying the other sounds now. 

Then all of those noises, the ones that had woken them – woken him, Todd – were drowned out by something. The sound of screaming, high-pitched and blood-curdling. 

The sounds of someone who’d finally realized, who understood now that they were being roasted alive. 

Or, more accurately, were burning to death. 

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#BlogTour #BeforeSheDisappeared @LisaGardnerBks

Today it’s my turn on Lisa Gardner’s blog tour for her first standalone novel in ten years: ‘Before She Disappeared‘. I’d like to thank Penguin Random House for allowing me a sneak peek at this brilliant book and for having me on the blog tour.

Frankie Elkin is a middle-aged woman who spends her life doing what no one else will: searching for missing people the world has stopped looking for. When the police have given up and the public no longer remembers, that’s when Frankie starts looking. Carrying little more than a backpack and her own demons, Frankie travels around the US looking for people who have been forgotten.

Arriving in Mattapan, Boston, Frankie starts her search for Angelique Badeau, a Haitian teen who vanished after school almost a year earlier. Although Mattapan’s reputation precedes it, Frankie doesn’t let it stop her from asking around – but she’s met with resistance from the police department and Angelique’s family, who seem pretty wary of the white lady who’s sticking her nose in. Frankie soon learns, though, that she’s asking too many questions – questions someone doesn’t want answered.

I’ve got to admit, the first chapter didn’t grip me and I was worried that this might be a bit of a slog but once we arrived in Mattapan with Frankie, the story completely lifted and I enjoyed not only the mystery but also the descriptions of Mattapan and the people that live there. Gardner really creates a strong sense of the community that Frankie inserts herself into. It was a pleasure to learn about the rich Haitian culture that exists within Boston.

Frankie is a well-rounded character. She may be ballsy but she’s not infallible by any stretch of the imagination and this lent her an air of authenticity to me. Gardner portrays the insidious nature of alcoholism perfectly but manages not to hit the reader around the head with it. There were almost times in the story where I forgot that Frankie had a problem with booze, only for the demons to rear their heads again and I genuinely believe this is what it’s like for addicts. I really liked the idea that Frankie has swapped one addiction for another – she may not be obsessing over her next drink but she’s certainly consumed by the case she’s investigating.

Although there are references to police investigation techniques, I didn’t feel that I was reading a police procedural novel and that, for me, meant that ‘Before She Disappeared‘ wasn’t bogged down in the minutiae of police work. I did, however, feel that the details that were included were not only relevant but also interesting.

Thanks to the interesting cast of characters that Lisa Gardner has created, I found myself heavily invested in the outcome of this book. ‘Before She Disappeared‘ is a well-paced mystery that really packs an emotional punch.

This may have been the first Lisa Gardner book that I’ve read but it won’t be my last.

Vic x

#BlogTour #The Push by @audrain

I’m thrilled today to be reviewing Ashley Audrain’s debut novel ‘The Push‘ which was published yesterday.

Here’s a little snippet of ‘The Push‘ to whet your appetite:

The arrival of baby Violet was meant to be the happiest day of my life. But as soon as I held her in my arms I knew something wasn’t right.

I had always known that the women in my family aren’t meant to be mothers.

My husband Fox says I’m imagining it. He tells me I’m nothing like my own mother, and that Violet is the sweetest child.

But she’s different with me. Something feels very wrong.

Is it her? Or is it me? Is she the monster? Or am I?

As most readers of this blog will know, I became a mum for the first time in 2019. The Push takes place over a number of years so although I can’t recognise some of the feelings that Blythe, the narrator, feels as her child Violet gets older, I can attest that Ashley Audrain certainly captures the all-encompassing terror felt by some new mothers.

The Push‘, although being fiction, taps into the fears that many women experience when they become mothers: am I supposed to feel like this? Am I doing this right? Am I good enough? Is my child … ok? Normal?

This explosive novel explores subjects that still remain taboo: the pain and discomfort around breastfeeding, post-natal depression and how your relationship with your partner changes after the arrival of a baby. Yes, this novel takes those elements to the extreme but there certainly were scenes that had me nodding firmly in recognition.

Audrain has weaved natural fears around motherhood into this perfectly pitched novel, leaving the reader unsure whether they can believe what they’re being told.

Interspersed across three different timelines, this layered story is absorbing, emotional and terrifying, some might say like motherhood itself. Featuring complex, nuanced characters, ‘The Push‘ will leave ice running through your veins long after you have turned the final page.

There were scenes that left me feeling physically sick with fear, my emotions completely in Audrain’s thrall. I also wept repeatedly when reading this book thanks to the powerful nature of the prose combined with an utterly intoxicating plot.

I think ‘The Push‘ is the kind of book our society needs. It is definitely a great choice for a book club – it will generate conversation and no doubt some controversy but I genuinely think it will open the minds of those who read it. This novel isn’t just about the relationship a mother has with her child but also those around her – from her partner to strangers – and the expectations that are placed on her as a result.

Perfect for fans of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin‘, ‘The Push‘ is beautifully written, perfectly plotted and deserving of the hype it’s been receiving.

Vic x

#BlogTour #HerHusband’sGrave by @PLKane1

It’s my pleasure today to be taking part in the blog tour for PL Kane’s ‘Her Husband’s Grave‘ by P L Kane.

A hint of gold glistened in the sand. It was a watch, no doubt about it. A watch… attached to a body.

Criminal psychologist Robyn Adams is at breaking point after a previous case resulted in an attempt on her own life. But as she sits in the car about to head home, she receives a phone call from her long lost cousin, Vicky.

Vicky’s voice cracks as she explains to Robyn that her husband, Simon, has been found buried on Golden Sands beach. Desperate to help and determined not to let her last case get the better of her, Robyn returns to the coastal village where she spent summers with Vicky as a child.

Robyn knows that she has let Vicky down in the past and is set on making up for lost time. Throwing herself into the case, she combs through evidence, intent on discovering a lead that will help the local police.

But there is clearly someone who wants Robyn gone. She is convinced someone is watching her and when she begins to receive threatening notes, Robyn knows that she could be risking her life…

But Robyn won’t leave again – she owes it to Vicky to stay.

I’ve been treated to the prologue of this exciting new thriller – and here it is for you all to enjoy!

Vic x

Her Husband’s Grave
Prologue

He’d been looking for something else when he made the shocking discovery. The grisly, stomach-churning discovery that would change everything…

He had been walking along, here on the beach, looking for treasure no less – buried or otherwise – if you can believe such a thing. And he did, had done all his life. Believed the tales his father had told him about this place when he was young, about the smugglers and the pirates. Loved it when his old man had read Treasure Island to him at bedtime when he was little. 

Jeremy Platt had only recently moved back to the area, partly to keep an eye on his ageing dad now that the man’s wife, Jeremy’s mum, had passed away; partly because his own marriage to Alice – who he’d met at college in the nearby town of Mantlethorpe – had fallen apart. Now, here they both were… alone, together. 

They’d joke about it sometimes, over a pint in their local, or a game of dominoes, though their laughter would fade quite quickly. But at least they had each other, the roles reversed from when Jeremy had been little; now he had to read to his father because of his failing eyesight. Something that had put paid to the old bloke’s hobby of amateur writing, and one of the reasons why he liked to stand at the window with those binoculars, looking out over the sea. Or had done, until a couple of days ago. 

Until the heart attack. 

Jeremy had been the one to make the discovery then too, calling round early because he couldn’t reach him on the phone; all the while telling himself it was just lines down because of the storm. Instead, finding him collapsed on the floor, phone off the hook after clearly trying to reach it and ring for help. Jeremy had rung for an ambulance instead, straight away. They’d whisked him off to hospital, and there had followed an anxious few hours, waiting to hear the worst. 

When the doctor came out and told Jeremy his dad had stabilised, he’d almost hugged the fellow. ‘What he needs now, more than anything, is rest,’ the physician had said to Jeremy, ‘time to recover.’ He’d been allowed to sit by the bedside, even though Mr Platt snr was still pretty out of it – wires running in and out of him, like some kind of robot. And Jeremy had cried, watching him, realising just how frail he was for the first time. How he might lose another parent before long. 

To be honest, he’d come here today to give himself a break more than anything. The hospital had promised to call if there was any change and he could be back in no time.

So here he was, on said beach, looking for excitement, looking for treasure. Just like his old man had promised. All part of a hobby he’d taken up, something to occupy his time while he looked for – and had failed so far to find – work in the area. So, with what was left over from the redundancy package and the marital savings, he’d treated himself to a metal detector. 

Jeremy had often spotted people wandering up and down the sands, sweeping those things from left to right, and thought it looked like fun. Well, you never knew what you might find out there. The guy in the shop, that fellow with the beard and cargo trousers – front pockets bulging, so full Jeremy wondered how he walked without falling over – had done nothing to dissuade him. Had been a self-confessed expert on the subject, happy to give him lots of tips… Not to mention sell him the best detector on the market, or so he claimed: the Equinox 800 with the large coil, perfect for places like beaches. 

It had continued to rain off and on since the storm, and that made for perfect conditions as far as detecting was concerned. ‘When everything’s wet,’ the bloke from the shop had told him, ‘it soaks into the ground and helps you spot anything that’s deeper down. Ground’s had a drink, see?’

He’d also advised Jeremy not to be in a rush, to expect lots of trash. ‘95% of what you’ll find,’ cargo guy had said, simultaneously showing him how to swing the machine – not too fast and not in great arcs – ‘it’ll be junk.’ 

He hadn’t been wrong. In the months he’d been doing this, Jeremy had found enough bottle-tops to pebbledash a house, old-fashioned keys, the backs of watches, tin cans, safety pins, bits of shiny metal that looked like mirrors…

However, he’d also found enough to encourage him to carry on: toy cars (a couple of which had actually ended up being collectors’ items); an old whistle once (which he hadn’t dared blow, recalling an old ghost story he’d read in his teens); a few lighters; a couple of rings; and, though they weren’t doubloons as such, quite a few pound coins that must have fallen out of wallets, purses or pockets. The point was, he had fun while he was doing it – and at the moment he needed that, needed to take his mind off things. Off his dad lying there in bed looking like C3-PO. 

He stopped when the beeping in his earphones intensified. Jeremy stared at the screen in front of him: 12… 13… no, 14! A pretty good reading, he thought, pulling the ’phones from his ears to wear them around his neck. Bending and taking out his trowel from his pack, he placed the detector down and began digging in the spot it had indicated. What would it be this time, a gold chain perhaps? Down, down, and further down…

Jeremy stopped when he saw the metal, couldn’t help grinning to himself. The last few bits of sand he dug out with his gloved hands, fingers clawing, eager to see what it was he’d uncovered. 

He stopped when he reached it, plucked the item out and held it up in front of him – where it glinted in the early morning sun. His smiled faded. ‘Just an old ring-pull,’ he said to himself, the kind you wouldn’t get these days because they were fixed to the lid. Sighing, he bagged it anyway, to stop another hunter from making the same mistake – and to keep those beaches clean, of course. They were a far cry from what they’d been when he was a kid, or indeed when his father had been a boy, and Jeremy wasn’t even sure they deserved the name that had been given them now, their colour dull even when it hadn’t been raining. 

But it was as he’d contemplated this that he spotted it. Something in that dull sand, along the beach. Something not that well buried at all, sticking out in fact – just ripe for the taking. He looked around him, the beach deserted – though to be fair you wouldn’t really get many tourists on this stretch of it anyway. They’d stick to the main beach for swimming and so they were closer to the pier and shops. Grabbing his stuff, he clambered to his feet and started over. He couldn’t be sure what it was really, but it was glinting. 

It was metal. It was gold… Golden at any rate. 

Didn’t even need his detector this time, which was real irony for you. All that sweeping, all that beeping. The closer he got the more he saw of it, some kind of strap… a watch strap! Looked like it belonged to an expensive one, too. Just a bit of it sticking out, but there it was. 

Jeremy got down again, started to uncover the find as he had done with the ring-pull. He hadn’t been digging for long, perhaps only a few seconds, when he pulled back sharply. It was a watch strap all right, with a watch attached. But there was also skin there too.

And a wrist. 

Swallowing dryly, he moved forward again. His imagination surely, eyes playing tricks on him. He dug a little more, pulled back again. 

There was a hand attached to that wrist. A human hand. 

Jeremy hadn’t uncovered much of it, but he could tell now – and though it was at an angle, it looked for all the world like a much dryer version of The Lady in the Lake’s hand reaching up for Excalibur. Except there was no sword to catch. And this was no lady’s hand. 

He scrabbled backwards again, felt the bile rising in his mouth. That was a body, no doubt about it – and his mind flashed back to when him and his mum used to bury his dad when they went on the sands (might be burying him for real soon, a little voice whispered and he promptly ignored it). But surely nobody would have done that by accident? Left a relative here, especially in this isolated spot. 

Jeremy frowned, then reached into his pocket for his mobile. Began to dial a number. 

There you go, that same voice had told him, you wanted excitement. An adventure. He shook his head again, shook those thoughts away too. 

‘Yes, hello,’ he said when the ringing at the other end stopped and voice came on the line. Not asking for an ambulance this time, because it was far too late for that. Instead: ‘Yes, could you give me the police please.’ 

Her Husband’s Grave‘ is available now.

#BlogTour #TheCurator #MWCraven

I’m delighted to bring you a sneak peek of the latest in the Washington Poe series, ‘The Curator‘, by M.W. Craven.

As many of you already know, I loved ‘The Puppet Show‘ and ‘Black Summer‘ so I’m really excited to get stuck into ‘The Curator’. I know that, after reading this extract, you will be too.

My thanks to Little Brown for including me in the blog tour for this brilliant author. If you missed M.W. Craven at Virtual Noir at the Bar, check out the archives.

Vic x

‘The player who understands the role of the pawn, who really under- stands it, can master the game of chess,’ the man said. ‘They might be the weakest piece on the board but pawns dictate where and when your opponent can attack. They restrict the mobility of the so-called bigger pieces and they determine where the battle squares will be.’

The woman stared at him in confusion. She’d just woken and was feeling groggy.

And sore.

She twisted her head and searched for the source of her pain. It didn’t take long.

‘What have you done?’ she mumbled.

‘Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s old-fashioned catgut so the sutures are a bit agricultural, but they’re supposed to be. It’s not used any more but I needed the “wick effect”. That’s when infection enters the wound through the suture. It will ensure the scar stays livid and crude. A permanent reminder of what has happened.’

He picked up a pair of heavy-duty rib shears.

‘Although not for you, of course.’
The woman thrashed and writhed but it was no use. She was bound
tight.
The man admired the exacting lines of the surgical instrument.

Turned it so the precision steel caught the light. Saw his face reflected in the larger blade. He looked serious. This wasn’t something he particu- larly enjoyed.

‘Please,’ the woman begged, fully awake now, ‘let me go. I promise you, I won’t say anything.’

The man walked round and held her left hand. He stroked it affectionately.

‘I’ve had to wait for the anaesthetic to wear off so this is going to hurt, I’m afraid. Believe me when I say I wish it didn’t have to.’

He placed her ring finger between the blades of the rib shears and squeezed the handles together. There was a crunch as the razor-sharp edges sliced through bone and tendon as if they weren’t there.

The woman screamed then passed out. The man stepped away from the spreading pool of blood.

‘Where was I?’ he said to himself. ‘Ah, yes, we were talking about pawns. Beginners think they’re worthless, there to be sacrificed – but that’s because they don’t know when to use them.’

He removed a coil of wire from his pocket. It had toggles at each end. He placed them between the index and middle finger of each hand. In a practised movement he wrapped the wire around the woman’s neck.

‘Because knowing when to sacrifice your pawns is how the game is won.’

He pulled the garrotte taut, grunting as the cruel wire bit into her skin, severing her trachea, crushing her jugular vein and carotid artery. She was dead in seconds.

He waited an hour then took the other finger he needed.

He carefully arranged it in a small plastic tub, keeping it separate from the others. He looked at his macabre collection with satisfaction.

It could begin now.

The other pawns were in position. They just didn’t know it yet . . .

Chapter 1

It was the night before Christmas and all wasn’t well.
It had started like it always did. Someone asking, ‘Are we doing Secret Santa this year?’ and someone else replying, ‘I hope not,’ both making a pact to avoid mentioning it to the office manager, both secretly planning to mention it as soon as possible. And before anyone could protest, the decision had been made and the office was doing it again. The fifteenth year in a row. Same rules as last year. Five-quid limit. Anonymous gifts. Nothing rude or offensive. Gifts that no one wanted. A total waste of everyone’s time.

At least that’s what Craig Hodgkiss thought. He hated Secret Santa.

He hated Christmas too. The yearly reminder that his life was shit. That, while the colleagues he outwardly sneered at were going home to spend Christmas with their families and loved ones, he’d be spending it on his own.

But he really hated Secret Santa.

Three years ago it had been the source of his greatest humili- ation. Setting himself the not unreasonable Christmas target of shagging Hazel, a fellow logistics specialist at John Bull Haulage, he’d wangled it so he was the one who’d bought her Secret Santa gift. He reckoned buying her a pair of lace panties would be the perfect way to let her know he was up for some extracurricular activities while her husband long-hauled across mainland Europe.

His plan worked.
Almost.
It had been the perfect way to let her know.

Unfortunately she was happily married, and instead of rushing into his bed she’d rushed to her husband, who was between jobs and was having a brew in the depot. The six-foot-five lorry driver had walked into the admin office and broken Craig’s nose. He’d told him that if he ever so much as looked at his wife again he’d find himself hogtied in the back of a Russia-bound shipping container. Craig had believed him. So much so that, in front of the whole office, he’d lost control of his bladder.

For two years everyone had called him ‘Swampy’. He couldn’t even complain to Human Resources as he was terrified of getting Hazel into trouble.

For two years he hadn’t made a dent in the girls in the office.

But eventually Hazel and her brute of a husband had moved on. He took a job driving for Eddie Stobart and she went with him. Craig told everyone that Hazel’s husband had left the com- pany because he’d caught up with him and given him a hiding, but no one had believed him.

Actually, one person seemed to.

By Craig’s own standards, Barbara Willoughby was a plain girl. Her hair looked like it had been styled in a nursing home, her teeth were blunt and too widely spaced, and she could have done with dropping a couple of pounds. On a scale of one-to-ten Craig reckoned she was a hard six, maybe a seven in the right lighting, and he only ever shagged eights and above.

But there was one thing he did like about her. She hadn’t been there when he’d pissed himself.

So he’d asked her out. And to his surprise he found they got on really well. She was fun to be with and she was popular. He liked how she made him feel and she was adventurous in bed. He also liked how she only wanted to do things at the weekends. During the week she would stay in and study for some stupid exams she was taking.

Which suited Craig just fine.

Because, after a few weeks of dating Barbara, he’d got his swagger back. And with it he began carving notches again.

To his amazement he discovered it was actually easier pulling the type of woman he went for when he told them he was in a long-term relationship. He reckoned it was the combination of his boyish good looks and the thought of doing over someone they didn’t know. Which gave Craig an idea: if those sort of women enjoyed the thrill of being with someone who cheated, they’d go crazy for someone who had affairs . . .

So Craig Hodgkiss, at the age of twenty-nine, decided he would ask Barbara to marry him. She’d jump at the chance. She was in her early thirties, had some biological clock thing going on (but was unaware he’d had a vasectomy two years earlier) and would almost certainly be left on the shelf if she said no. And then he’d reap the rewards. A faithful doormat keeping his bed warm and a succession of women who’d happily shag a man wearing a wedding band.

And because he wanted everyone in the office to know he was about to become illicit fruit, he’d decided to put past experiences behind him and propose during the office Secret Santa.

Arranging it hadn’t been straightforward. He’d got Barbara’s ring size by stealing her dead grandmother’s eternity ring, the one she only wore on special occasions. While Barbara turned her flat upside down looking for it, he’d been asking a jeweller to make the engagement ring the same size and to recycle the diamonds and gold. The whole thing had only cost him two hundred quid.

The next thing was to think of a cool way of proposing.

Something that would get the office girls talking about how romantic Craig was. A rep like that could only help. He decided on a mug. It was the perfect Secret Santa gift as it met the five- quid limit set by the office manager and, although half the gifts under the cheap fibre optic Christmas tree looked like they were mugs, half the gifts under the tree didn’t have ‘Will You Marry Me?’ printed on the side.

When Barbara read the message and then saw what was inside . . . well, he reckoned she’d burst into tears, shout yes and hug him for all she was worth.

The office floor was strewn with cheap wrapping paper. All reindeer and snowmen and brightly wrapped presents tied with ribbons.

Barbara was next. She picked up her parcel and looked at him strangely.

Did she know?

She couldn’t. No one did. Not even the girl he’d persuaded to swap with him so he was the one buying for Barbara.

Tiffany, Barbara’s best friend, began recording it on her mobile phone for some reason. That was OK, though. Better than OK actually. He’d be able to post it on Twitter and Facebook and keep a copy on his phone. Ready to show girls at the drop of a hat. Look at me. Look how nice I am. Look how sensitive I am. You can have some of this . . . but only for one night.

Craig caught Barbara’s eye. He winked. She didn’t return it. Didn’t even smile. Just held his gaze as she lifted the wrapped box from one of his old gift bags.

Something wasn’t right. The wrapping paper was thick and white with black pictures; he thought his had been cheap and brightly coloured.

Barbara ripped it off without looking at it. The mug was in a polystyrene box. He’d taped the two halves together to increase the suspense. Barbara ran a pair of scissors down the join before separating them.

She pulled out the mug and Craig’s confusion intensified. It wasn’t his. He hadn’t seen this one before. Something was printed on the side but it wasn’t proposing marriage. In inch- high black letters it said: #BSC6

Barbara didn’t know she’d opened the wrong parcel, though. Without looking inside the mug, she glared at him and upended the mug’s contents.

‘Cheating fucking bastard,’ she said.

Craig didn’t protest his innocence. He couldn’t. He was unable to tear his eyes away from the things that had fallen on the floor. They were no engagement ring.

He recoiled and gasped in revulsion.

A familiar and unwelcome warmth began spreading from his groin.

And then the screaming started.

**Bones in the River Blog Tour**

I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for Zoë Sharp’s “Bones in the River“. I’ve known Zoë for many years now but here’s a little bit of background to the enigmatic writer.

Zoë Sharp began her crime thriller series featuring former Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox, after receiving death-threats in the course of her work as a photo-journalist. Zoë opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve and wrote her first novel at fifteen.

Zoë’s work has won or been nominated for awards on both sides of the Atlantic, been used in school textbooks, inspired an original song and music video, and been optioned for TV and film.

When not in lockdown in the wilds of Derbyshire, she can be found improvising self-defence weapons out of ordinary household objects, international pet-sitting, or crewing yachts in the Mediterranean. (It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.) Zoë is always happy to hear from readers, reader groups, libraries or bookstores. You can contact her via email.

My thanks to Zoë for having me on her blog tour.

Vic x

Don’t Quit the Day Job:
Zoe Sharp

I suppose there was half a chance that writing fiction might have been my day job, right from the start. After all, I penned my first novel at the age of fifteen—and I do mean ‘penned’. I wrote the entire thing, long-hand, in a month, and gave myself the most appalling writers’ cramp in the process.

That early effort did the rounds of all the major publishers, where it received what’s known in the trade as ‘rave rejections’—everybody said they loved it but nobody actually wanted to publish it.

Looking back, I’m rather glad about that.

Because, in order to be a writer, you need different experiences under your belt. At the age of fifteen, I’d had few worth mentioning. Apart from living aboard a catamaran from the age of about seven and leaving school at twelve. But that, as they say, is probably another story.

Having failed at my first attempt to be a novelist, I became side-tracked by a variety of jobs in my teenage years, including crewing boats and learning astro-navigation. I was mad keen on horses, rode competitively, and once even took part in a rodeo. I learned to shoot—did a little competing there, too. Long guns, mostly. I considered myself an average shot with a handgun but, as I discovered on my last visit to a US indoor gun range, most people can manage to miss the target entirely at less than ten feet.

As for jobs, I became a freelance motoring writer at the height of the classic car boom of the late 1980s. That quickly transmuted into being a photojournalist, having taught myself both how to write commercial magazine articles and also how to take images good enough for numerous front covers and centre spreads.

It was hardly surprising, then, that eventually I’d have to start writing a character who was a photographer. Enter Grace McColl, first in Dancing on the Grave and now in Bones in the River. Grace started out as a keen amateur photographer, who became involved in providing evidence for the defence in a court case. She was then approached by the Head CSI at Cumbria police, who asked her if she’d ever thought of joining the side of the angels. Always nice to be able to write any parts of the story concerning photography without having to do lots of research.

My time spent writing about cars also played a part in Bones in the River, which begins with a hit-and-run incident. Understanding how the mechanics of a vehicle work makes writing scenes with them in so much easier and, I hope, more accurate.

Plus, all that time spent with horses came in very useful for a book that takes place during the largest Gypsy and Traveller horse fair in Europe. There were still plenty of times when I had up to a dozen different scientific research books laid on the table at the side of my desk as I wrote, though. Fortunately, forensic science and pathology are such fascinating subjects.

They tell you to write what you know. I disagree. I think you should write what you’re desperate to find out instead.

Bones in the River“, the second book in the Lakes crime thriller series, was published worldwide on May 26 2020 by ZACE Ltd. You can grab a sneak peek of the first three chapters, and is available from all the usual retailers.

**I Will Miss You Tomorrow Blog Tour**

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I’m really pleased to be taking part in the blog tour for Heine Bakkeid’s ‘I Will Miss You Tomorrow‘, the first in a new Norwegian crime series.

Fresh out of prison and a stint in a psychiatric hospital, disgraced ex-Chief Inspector Thorkild Aske only wants to lose himself in drugged dreams of Frei, the woman he loved but has lost forever. 

Yet when Frei’s young cousin goes missing off the Norwegian coast and Thorkild is called in by the family to help find him, dead or alive, Thorkild cannot refuse. He owes them this.

Tormented by his past, Thorkild soon finds himself deep in treacherous waters. He’s lost his reputation – will he now lose his life?

My thanks to Raven Books for inviting me to be a part of the tour and to Heine for taking the time to answer my questions. 

Vic x

Tell us a little about yourself…
I grew up in the North of Norway, in a place called Belnes. Just five houses, with the polar night looming above, the mountains behind us and the sea in front. It’s the kind of place where, as a kid, you can run around all day, play, and not see another human being. I used to read a lot, and developed a sturdy imagination, something that resulted in me getting lost I my own thoughts whenever and wherever I was. I still get lost in my own thoughts, usually thinking about characters I have created/want to get to know better, scenes I want to write, plots, and forget that I’m with other people, people that expect me to answer back when they talk to me. (My wife especially, finds this hilarious😊) Growing up in such a small place, you kind of get to be comfortable in your own skin and being on your own. Becoming a writer was therefore the perfect match for me, also because writers are often easily forgiven for being kind of weird sometimes, so …

And what can you tell us about ‘I Will Miss You Tomorrow’? 
One of the things that has always fascinated me is how men, the kind of men I grew up around, handled their problems. It’s kind of expected that you sort yourself out and get on with your day. The main characters in crime fiction always seem to have certain traits; when you first meet them, they are broken in some way or form, and I always wondered why. How did they get there, to this point? So, when I first started writing about Thorkild Aske, I knew that this was something that I wanted to explore in the series. But also, what happens with a lone investigator-type, who doesn’t even want to fix himself, who can’t put himself together and just get on with it, but who actively sabotages his own well-being. So, when we first meet Thorkild in ‘I Will Miss You Tomorrow‘ he’s just been released from prison, has lost his job as an Interrogation Officer with the Internal Affairs and is heavily abusing the pain medication his psychiatrist has given him. He is then forced to travel to the far north to investigate the disappearance of a young man who was renovating an old light house. What he then finds, is a young woman without a face in the breaking sea.

How long have you been writing? 
I started writing in my late twenties in 2003. I was studying programming in Stavanger and was well on my way to become a System Developer. Being a writer isn’t really something people from where I come from see as an option. Programming is as close to the inner circles of hell as you can get; it’s so structured, narrow, and has no freedom to go beyond the boundaries of the programming language, and I hated it.
One night, I had been hung up on this scene with this character (which later became Thorkild Aske) for a whole week and couldn’t sleep, so I just got up and started writing, hoping the scene would go away so that I could get some sleep. I wrote about fifty pages the following days, but quickly realized that I was way too young to write about such a character and decided that I was going to wait with the Thorkild Aske books until I got older.
But I still loved writing, this new-found way to escape the pains of programming, so I just kept writing and finished my first novel for young adults the same month as I completed my bachelor’s degree. I told myself that if the manuscript got published, I would become a writer, and if not, I would go on to my Master’s degree and slowly die, one day at a time, in some stupid office.

What was your journey to publication like?
I still know by heart the first line in the official letter from the publishing house that took on my manuscript. They had sent the manuscript to a well-known Norwegian YA-author who was consulting for them. “Finally, something that is pure gold, in an otherwise regular work day where everything is just so-so.” (I’m really butchering the English language on this one😊) So, with those words in mind I felt that I had moved a couple of inches away from that office space in hell, and decided to tell my wife that I was starting over again, from scratch with only my student debt in my backpack. I was going to become a writer. The book got published in 2005, and three years and three books later, in March 2008, I quit my day job and became a writer full-time.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us about it?
Right now, I’m working on the fourth installment of the Thorkild Aske series. The story takes place in Stavanger, where the police have just dug up the body of one of their own, a dirty cop who went missing in 2011, a man that Thorkild Aske shares a personal past with. This one is going to get pretty intense.

What do you like most about writing?
As I said in the beginning, for as long as I can remember, I have been reading and making up my own stories and creating scenes in my head. Becoming a writer was the perfect outlet for this affliction. Telling stories is also the one thing that makes me truly happy.

What do you like least?
Editing. If I find a better way to tell a story, I will go and rewrite. This makes the editing process longer and more painful.

What are you reading at the moment?
The Secret History‘ by Donna Tartt. Very promising😊

Who has been the biggest influence on your writing?
The Norwegian writer and poet André Bjerke. He wrote children’s books, poems and psychological mystery novels in the 1940’s.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I did these writing courses for school kids in Norway after I got published and saw all the raw talents that were out there, young girls and boys that reminded me of myself at that age. I used to tell them to forget the “good student” type of writing and find their own expression, their own way to tell a story, to portray characters, their emotions and so on. Because that is what readers (and publishers) are looking for: something unique, different. That, and to edit, edit, edit and edit.

What’s been your proudest moment as a writer?
This one, most definitely😊 Being published in the UK, the land of Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter and C. J. Sansom, among so many others. Though, I must admit that my new favourite author is actually Irish: Adrian McKinty. The Sean Duffy series: wow, just … wow!

**The Secret Santa Blog Tour**

 I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for ‘The Secret Santa‘, the debut novel by Trish Harnetiaux. Follow Trish on Twitter and keep an eye out for the #TheSecretSanta hashtag. 

Vic x

When an international pop starlet rolls into town looking to buy the most expensive house on the market, struggling real estate agents and husband and wife duo Claudine and Henry think their terrible luck has finally turned.

The mysterious mansion has hidden secrets, and Claudine and Henry’s survival depends on no one finding out the truth about what really happened there. In a desperate move to secure the sale, Claudine decides to bury the house’s dark past and show it at its best – by inviting the singer to a lavish holiday party hosted inside the majestic mountainside mansion.

But when a murder weapon turns up as part of the party’s game of Secret Santa, Claudine’s carefully curated lie and the lives of all the party goers is threatened as they race to find the killer before they can strike again.

How far will Claudine go to protect her secrets? Is she prepared to kill to make a killing, or will she fall prey herself?

 

Extract: ‘The Secret Santa
by Trish Harnetiaux

I want to go on record saying I was not the one who brought that gift to the party. It couldn’t have been me. Look at the facts: I’d only flown in that day. I’d never met any of these people and I didn’t know what a Secret Santa game was until Claudine told me. Sure, yes, I brought a gift; we all did. That was the point. But no way did I bring that gift. Don’t even think it. See, this was a really weird time for me even before what happened that night. It was right after my breakup with Liam. Six months we’d been together. Personal record. I know that’s longer than most people thought we would last. I was twenty- three. He was thirty- four.

I was a former Disney TV child actor turned music sensation. He was a shock rocker who’d been mentored by Marilyn Manson and boycotted by conservative religious groups. 

Sometimes I wonder if that’s the reason he pursued me. If it was all just a joke or a prank. People seeing him as the devil corrupting this perfect angel. I admit that was part of the initial appeal for me. I was tired of being thought of as a goodie- goodie. Which is why I decided to dye my hair blue. I wanted to stir shit up. But it doesn’t matter how it started, because feelings got real.   Fast. Most relationships in Hollywood are publicity stunts. Not this one. I’m sure about that. And Liam would say the same thing if you asked him.

There were definitely parts of his public persona as ‘the prince of darkness’ that were genuine. Dude keeps serious vampire hours. Blackout curtains. Sleeps all day. And is obsessed with the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. Of course, you know that already. You’ve seen the giant tattoo on his back, the one that goes from shoulder blade to shoulder blade of her smiling that pretty, perfect pageant smile. Duh, I know: Maybe that’s what attracted him to you, Zara. Young, driven, innocent. Trust me, that’s the first thing I thought of when he hit on me that night at the Grammys after- after- party at the Chateau Marmont.

In fact, I called him out. I’d had a few drinks and was clutching my Album of the Year statuette close when I told him, “Don’t even think about trying to fulfill your perverted dead- girl sicko fantasies with me.” At first he laughed. I don’t think he expected that kind of attitude from me. Then he got real serious. Said there was nothing the least bit sexual about his interest in JB. To him, she represented the innocence of the world and how senseless and violent and vicious and evil humanity can be. And the injustice of it all— it sickened him that her killer had never been caught.

Liam had a whole library of JB footage. I’m talking dozens of VHS tapes. (He had to explain to me what VHS was. I’d never heard of it before. The eighties were so weird.) Most of them were those cheesy true- crime network TV shows that only run on Saturday night. We watched all of them. Both of us were in between albums and tours, so we didn’t have much else to do. 

The more we watched, the more I was convinced— knew, the family was somehow involved. So obvious. Liam raged against my theories; he thought it was an outsider. Hours and hours we’d argue, each of us getting firmer in our conviction. 

“What about the autopsy report?”

“Forget the autopsy report. The key is the 9- 1- 1 call.”

“Okay, well, what about the ransom note?”

“What about it? Faked obviously.”

“The boot print.”

“Three words: Burke Fucking Ramsey.”

Back and forth we’d go. Neither of us could let it go. I don’t know why. It was literally so stupid. We’d start raising our voices in exasperation and then the two pits would start barking, which would cause Pip to start yipping her head off until one of us picked her up and stormed out of the room. This happened often. Then one night I got a text. 

Zara, I’m afraid this isn’t going to work. I’ve enjoyed our time together but I can’t be with someone who sees the JB case the way you do. 

**When I Lost You Blog Tour**

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I am delighted to be today’s host on Merilyn Davies’s ‘When I Lost You‘ blog tour.

As most of you will know by now, I am due to have a baby very soon and therefore my review for this book will be posted in due course (will I ever have time to read again?!).

However, today, we have an excerpt from ‘When I Lost You‘ to whet our appetites. I am sure it will make you want to put this book to the top of your TBR pile. 

My thanks to Merilyn and Rachel Kennedy for allowing me to be part of this wonderful tour. 

Vic x

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A screen sits to the left of the judge, and displayed on it is my child: a fragile, beautiful daughter, who had barely begun her life before the chance to live it was taken from her.

‘Not lost,’ the lawyer is saying, his wig a little frayed, in sharp contrast to the fresh youth of his closely shaven skin. ‘Her life wasn’t lost, it was stolen.’ He emphasises the words, ones I’ve heard endlessly during the two-week trial, by looking in my direction. He doesn’t linger, it’s more a glance – the way a painter uses a gentle brushstroke to shape the outline of an image before colouring it in – but it’s enough to make sure the jury remember I am the image he is painting: mother, killer, guilty.

I shift a little in my seat. The packed courtroom is hot and the white blouse I’m wearing sticks to my armpits, the polyester scratching against my skin. I see a juror glance in my direction and freeze; he’s the one my lawyer warned me about. 

‘Third one from left, hipster beard,’ he’d said in the cell as we waited to be recalled on that first day. ‘Jeans and a tight jumper. He’s got it in for you, so make sure you don’t fidget too much or it makes you look guilty, but move a bit, because too little makes you look heartless.’

I am a trapeze artist – one wrong move and I fall into a cell, seven foot by nine. I steady my breathing and look down at my feet, concentrating on the new brogues I’m wearing, their brown shine complementing the sky-blue suit my husband bought me for the trial.

‘Here,’ he’d said, handing me the plastic bag he’d paid five pence for, then sitting down across from me in the noisy, smelly visiting hall. ‘I’m pretty sure it’s your size, but I kept the receipt just in case.’

I didn’t remind him we had no time to exchange it. I just smiled my thanks and stuffed it by my feet next to the cooler bag full of fruit and biscuits. He took my hand. ‘We’ll get you out of here, my love,’ he’d said. ‘As soon as they see you, they’ll understand, and then this nightmare will be over.’

I lost myself for a moment in his touch, the lightness of it, a soft caress. I marvelled again at how resolutely he’d stood by me. Against all evidence to the contrary, he’d refused to ever accept my guilt. But then his words returned – ‘This nightmare will be over’ – and they dragged me back to the bowels of the prison where the whispered threats told me otherwise.

Extracted from When I Lost You by Merilyn Davies, out now in eBook and published in paperback by Arrow, Penguin Random House on 22nd August. 

**Out of the Ashes Blog Tour**

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I have known Vicky Newham – author of ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ and ‘Out of the Ashes‘ – for several years. As regular readers of this blog will know, ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ was one of my top reads in 2018 and I’m now delighted to be part of the blog tour for the next book in the DI Maya Rahman series: ‘Out of the Ashes‘. 

A flash mob in Brick Lane is interrupted by an explosion. With fire raging through one of the city’s most infamous streets, DI Maya Rahman is called to the scene. With witnesses too caught up in the crowd to have seen anything, Maya must lead an investigation with no leads. And when Maya is faced with a second, more horrifying crime, she knows she is in a race against time to solve the crimes before East London burns. 

Feast on the first chapter of ‘Out of the Ashes‘ here and then order / download the rest of it. I guarantee you will not be able to put this fantastic book down.

Vic x

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Rosa, 2 p.m.

Rosa Feldman stood at the door of her Brick Lane newsagent’s, staring out at the street she’d known since she was four. She couldn’tshake the feeling that something was wrong. It was the shop opposite,run by the young Lithuanian couple. Since first thing this morning, the lights had been off and the shutters down. Initially, she was relieved that for once, the ugly neon sign, with its air of Margate or Blackpool, wasn’t flashing outside her bedroom window, but as the morning progressed, she felt increasingly uneasy.

It wasn’t like them at all. She couldn’t recall ever seeing the shop closed in the daytime.A tap on the glass snapped Rosa back into the afternoon. It was Mr Walker from the off-licence a few doors down. He shouted a cheery greeting and waved as he passed the window. Regular as clockwork, off to get chips for tea. Rosa raised her hand to return the gesture, but the pain in her wrists and knuckles bit again. Damned arthritis.

Mr Walker’s knock was usually her reminder to think about their meal. Today was Friday after all. But without Józef, the Sabbath meal wasn’t the same and she didn’t bother with the rituals any more. In the last year, she’d lost weight and clothes hung off her spare frame. What was the point of lighting candles when there was only one of you? She’d steam a plate of yesterday’s chicken and potatoes. That would do her. Fortunately, she didn’t have to go far to get home, just upstairs to the flat, even if it was still freezing at this time of year.

Over the dusty window display, two men were putting a new shop sign up where Rosenberg’s jewellers used to be. Work had been going on for weeks, and it looked like the place was nearly ready to open. Alchemia, it said. A swanky new Polish bar by the looks of it, slap bang next-door to Mr Hamid’s curry house. He wasn’t going to be happy. So much had changed in Brick Lane since she and her family had arrived, and life moved so fast on the other side of the window, it made Rosa dizzy. The pace was relentless and the change uncompromising. Inside the shop, though, she felt safe. Change there was slow and predictable. Above her head, by the door, the fan heater droned noisily and made little impact on the chilly air, but she didn’t mind. It had always done that. And she barely noticed the crumbling plaster of the ground floor walls, or the mildew which clung to ceiling corners like a nasty rash.

Her thoughts slid back to the shop over the road. The place was usually open all hours of the day and night, selling its fancy five-quid soups to whoever could afford them. She had no objection to people earning a living, but her parents would be turning in their graves. They’d survived the Ghetto on two hundred calories a day. When they left Warsaw, and arrived in London, it was the handouts from the Jewish soup kitchen in Brune Street that kept them alive. It was extraordinary to think that what had been humble subsistence for many families was now a fad-food. She’d been over for a spy at the menu, of course, when they were shut. Apart from some matzo ball soup, she couldn’t find much she fancied and didn’t know what most of it was, let alone how to pronounce it. Keen-war, or something, a youth with a bicycle and a dog had told Rosa.

She sighed. She missed her old neighbours. Those were Sabbath meals to look forward to. They were exactly how her mother described Warsaw before the war. Mrs Blum from the bagel shop would make the challah. Rich, eggy and sweet. It had been ages since Rosa had felt one of those in her hands, soft and warm, in its pretty braid shape. The Altmans would bring the wine. The Posners, candles. And the Rosenbergs, the jewellers, always came with freshly made kugel.

But now her parents were dead, and all her Jewish neighbours were either dead too or had moved away. Except Rosa.

And there was that feeling again, a gnawing emptiness, a sense that life had moved on without her. It was so unsettling. Every fibre of her being was exhausted by the continual need to think about whether to follow her compatriots out of the East End and into the London suburbs.

The sound of voices jolted her back into the present. Yelling. Music. Outside in the street, a thumping bass beat started up. Tremors vibrated through the shop, and a booming noise invaded the silence of her thoughts. Yobbos, probably, spitting everywhere and pumping out music from one of those dreadful sound-systems. They’d pass in a minute.

But they didn’t.

The music got louder and louder, and – oh, typical – the group had stopped outside Rosa’s shop. All guffaws, swearing, floppy hair and hoodies. More voices, bellowing and cheering, and one by one, people were joining them. What on earth was going on? On a Friday afternoon, from lunchtime onwards, she was used to the steady trickle of people down Brick Lane, getting ready for a night on the tiles and a curry, but it was unusual to see so many people together. She edged over to the corner of the shop window to get a

better view. The music had changed, and one by one people pulled black bandanas into masks, over their mouths and noses, and were dancing, if jabbing a finger in the air and screaming counted as dancing these days. Teenagers, by the look of them. Some younger. She wasn’t very good at judging age, and they all wore such similar clothes, but she’d put money on some of them not being a day over ten.

Rosa pressed her nose against the pane of glass. Outside, the street hummed with joy. There was an innocence to their dancing, even if the masks were a bit scary. And they weren’t doing any harm, were they? She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She used to know all the kids round here; knew their families by name, but none of this lot were familiar. There were at least ten of them, dancing in the street, throwing themselves about like acrobats, bending, leaping, twirling each other around. For a moment, Rosa was reminded of the tea room dances she and Józef used to go to before Agnieszka and Tomasz were born. They’d save for weeks, get dolled up in their best clothes. Oh, how much fun they’d been.

There were more than twenty of them now, maybe thirty. Someone was lighting sparklers and passing them round for the kids. She adored sparklers. And before she knew it, her fingers pulled the door handle and she was outside, the bell dinging shut behind her. The sulphurous smell set light to her dulled senses and she felt the day’s irritation shake itself from her shoulders. She was a kid again, at crisp November bonfires and balmy mid-summer street parties, with people passing sparklers round.

Rosa cleared her throat. Coughed. Her lungs weren’t good these days, weakened by years of a poorly heated flat, the damp shop walls, and Józef’s cigarette smoke.

 

She joined the throng of passers-by who were huddled, mesmer- ised by the dancing. Was it a student gathering? She was puzzled. Who was in charge? She couldn’t see any organisers or anyone giving instructions, and had no idea where the music was coming from. People were merging with the group of their own accord and encouraging others to do the same. They all looked so carefree.

 

The music brought a smile to Rosa’s cold lips. Her heel began to tap and she was lost to nostalgia. It was such a relief to forget the pain and drudgery of the last year. To forget her arthritis and money worries. Was that Lulu and ‘Shout’? Her heart leaped. Many a time she and Józef had danced to that tune. Her mind was flooded with memories of all the occasions when they’d danced together, his warm hand in the small of her back, guiding her forwards, the other clasping hers, keeping her safe. She felt a lump in her throat. They were glorious memories, even if they were now tainted by the agony of loss. It had only been a year and she still missed him so much.

A waltz kicked in, floaty and dramatic. Initially, it had been youngsters dancing but now it was people of all ages, lured over by the infectious atmosphere of Brick Lane on a chilly April afternoon. Hearing the waltz start, a Sikh man checked his turban and, with a huge grin, he clasped the hands of a woman in a navy-blue trench coat. She was giggling like a schoolgirl, a small flat bag diagonally across her body, her head tilted back, carefree and stunned, as though she hadn’t had so much fun in ages. Rosa guessed the woman was about her age. Perhaps she was a widow too?

Rosa’s hips started to sway, and she was tempted to go over and join in. What was she thinking? She was being silly. She couldn’t. Who would mind the shop while she was cavorting in the street?

Another crowd of youths piled in, hee-hawing and smoking, in their thin cotton clothing and baseball shoes. Some with their bottoms hanging out of their trousers, others in drainpipe jeans. Didn’t they feel the cold? Several more children were in tow. Why weren’t they all at school? Before Rosa knew it, one of them had taken her hand and led her towards the group. Elvis’ crooning tones wafted down the street and once again Rosa’s spirits soared. The teenagers looked so funny, impersonating the rock ’n’ roll moves of ‘All Shook Up’. It was the most fun she’d had on a Friday afternoon since . . .

Józef would have enjoyed this.

‘Come on, Rosa,’ he would have said in his calm, decisive voice, and he’d have locked the shop, led her out into the street and begun whirling her around with that boyish grin of his.

A quick head count told her there were about fifty people dancing now and a good twenty more hanging around. The street whiffed of whacky-backy. Rosa had forgotten her nagging joints and aching legs; the grimy shelves with mounting dust; the delivery boxes she couldn’t carry. For a few sweet moments, she’d stopped feeling sick to death of the damn shop, of book-keeping and fretting over decisions. She didn’t care about any of it anymore. All she wanted was—

A loud splitting sound tore through the air, followed by a series of cracks and bangs. Rosa gasped as orange flames burst out of the top floor windows of the shop opposite, and billowed upwards. Swirling streams of black smoke inked the pale sky. Fire raged behind the first-floor windows, and the ground floor shop was filled with smoke and flames. She cried out in pain as acrid fumes hit her lungs, forcing her to clamp her hand over her mouth. Everyone was shouting and running for cover as burning timber peeled away from windows. Screams pierced the air as lengths of wood and red-hot embers rained down on the crowd below. Rosa’s legs were like jelly and she felt dizzy. She stumbled over something on the ground in front of her and lurched forwards. She made out a woman, clutching her arm.

 

‘Help,’ came the agonised cry at Rosa’s feet. ‘Please help me.’

Panic engulfed Rosa, and she was transported back to the sensory onslaught of the Warsaw Ghetto, to primitive memories of endless screaming, to the cacophony of bombs and blasts and gunshots. From behind, someone shoved her out of the way and she stumbled forwards. All around her, people were coughing, retching and staggering, scarves and hands clasped over their mouths, desperate to escape the blaze. The air was cloying. Putrid. She was plunged into blind terror, realising she could die. This wasn’t Poland, and it wasn’t the end of the war, but she had to get away from the fire and ring 999 before someone died.

As the blaze ripped through the roof, smoke continued to spiral upwards into the sky. Rosa staggered blindly towards the blue door of her shop, to the step and doorway, arms groping ahead for something to grab. The fumes bit at her lungs and she was gasping for air so much she was retching. Finally, her hands grabbed the handle. She used all her weight to heave the door open and stumbled inside, pushing it shut behind her as quickly as she could.

She sucked in some air. It was like breathing through needles. She had to get to the phone in the back room. Stands and magazine racks flashed past her as she lurched towards the till, gasping for breath and snatching for a hold. She hauled her way round the counter, head spinning, and grabbed the phone receiver from the wall. Her eyes were streaming.

Keep blinking, she told herself. Breathe. She tried to calm herself; to rub away the tears that the fumes had produced; to steady her shaking hands and press the buttons. What should she say? Was it terrorists? Had there been an explosion?

Just say FIRE.

Rosa felt her head starting to spin. Lights flashed, dots appeared and she went floppy. Her mind slipped sideways and everything stopped.