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The Dark Winterby David Mark
They werent here when I went to bed at midnight. Bold as brass when I got up at six a.m.” The man waves an arm, despairingly. I mean, when did they turn up?”
Detective Constable Helen Tremberg shrugs her shoulders. Between midnight and six, Im guessing.” But they made no noise! And now listen! Its bedlam. How did they not wake anybody up?”
Tremberg has nothing to offer. Perhaps theyre ninjas.”
The man fixes her with a look. Hes in his late thirties and dressed for an office job. He has graying black hair and utterly style-free glasses. Something about his manner suggests to Tremberg that he is on a low-risk pension plan, and has a tendency to examine the contents of his handkerchief after blowing his nose. She fancies that after his second glass of wine, his sentences begin to start with the words Im not a racist, but . . .”
He saw the travelers from his bathroom window as he was brushing his teeth. Saw, in his words, the sheer pandemonium” and rang 999. He was not the first person on the leafy street overlooking the football field to do so, but he is the only one who has decided to get in Trembergs face about the situation.
Until half an hour ago Tremberg had been looking forward to today. She has been pretty much deskbound since her return to work, unable to take part in even vaguely interesting operations until she completed her chats with the force psychologist and had her doctor sign the last of the seemingly endless forms promising that the slash wound to her hand has left no permanent damage. Tonight, all being well, shes allowed back to the sharp end of policing, watching her boss, Trish Pharaoh, slap cuffs on the wrists of a gangland soldier and close down a drugs operation. She wants to be involved. Needs it. Has to show willing and prove she hasnt lost her bottle. Wants to demonstrate to anybody who doubts it that nearly getting her throat cut by a serial killer has been laughed off and dealt with old-school”—voided from her system with vodka and a good cry.
When will they be gone?” the man is asking her. What are you going to do? This is a nice neighborhood. We pay our taxes. Ive nothing against them, but there are places. There are sites! What are you going to do?”
Tremberg doesnt offer an answer. She has none. She does not want to talk to this man. She wants to get to work. She doesnt want to be leaning against the goalposts of the playing fields that stitch the affluent villages of Anlaby and Willerby together. She feels like a goalkeeper watching a match take place at the opposite end of the pitch.
Should have stayed in the car,” she says to herself, and looks past the man to where the caravans are parked up, not far from the halfway line of the adjacent rugby pitch. Drinks in the pandemonium. Six caravans, four off-road cars, a Mercedes and three horse boxes, at least two generators, and, as far as she can see, a portable toilet. They are arranged in a loose semicircle around three floral-print sofas and a sun lounger on which a rapidly multiplying number of traveler women and children are sitting drinking tea, talking to uniformed officers, and occasionally shouting at the schoolchildren and bored motorists who have got out of their motionless cars to watch the commotion through the park railings.
Like most of East Yorkshire, Tremberg is stuck here. Her car is a few streets back, snarled up in the bimonthly gridlock caused by a local transport infrastructure with the breaking strain of a Kit Kat.
Bored, with nothing to do but look at the dark, gloomy sky through the dusty glass of her Citroën, she had switched on the radio in the hope of finding something soothing. She was two minutes into California Dreamin,” and idly wondering why it appeared to be the only song owned by Radio Humberside, when the traffic report cut in. Half a dozen horses loose on Anlaby Road, and travelers causing uproar on the playing fields by the embankment. Shed had little option but to get out of the car and see if she could lend a hand. Are you going to shoot the horses?”
Tremberg gives the man her attention. Pardon?”
The police! Will you shoot the horses?”
Not personally,” says Tremberg, close to losing her patience. The Animal Control Unit is on its way. Theyre stuck in traffic, too. Were doing our best. I could go get one of the bastards in a headlock if you keep hold of its legs . . .”
Ken Cullen, the thin, bearded, uniformed inspector currently in charge of trying to bring some degree of order to the scene, overhears the dangerous note in the detectives voice and hurries over.
Im sorry, sir, were doing everything we can. If you could just return to your house for the moment and allow us to deal with this . . .”
Tremberg turns away as somebody better equipped to tolerate wankers sends the busybody on his way. The inspector fixes her with a bright smile as he spins back to her.
Bet you wish youd never stopped to help, eh?”
Nothing better to do, Ken. Stuck here with every bugger else. Thought Id see if I could assist, but this really isnt my cup of tea.”
Dunno, Helen. Youve got the physique for crowd control!”
Tremberg shares a laugh with her old uniformed sergeant recently risen to inspector, who has moved, like her, across the water from Grimsby.
I was pleased to hear youre on the mend,” he says, and means it. All better now?”
Tremberg flicks a V sign at him. Lost none of my dexterity,” she says, smiling.
Cullen gives her a quick once-over. Takes in the thin sports poncho she wears over a sensible pin-striped trouser suit and white blouse. Her hair is cut in a neat bob and she wears no makeup or jewelry. He knows from quiz nights and good-bye parties that she scrubs up well and has extraordinary legs when she hitches her skirt up, but Tremberg is deliberately sexless when on duty. Many female detectives have adopted her approach, appalled by any suggestion they have used their femininity to gain favor, but in so doing have opened themselves up to suggestions of lesbianism. Tremberg frequently wishes she could possess the carefree, fuck-you attitude of Trish Pharaoh, who wears what she wants and doesnt give a damn whether people think she is after dicks or dykes.
For a while the pair of them grumble about the local council closing off the rat runs and giving commuters nowhere to go if the main arteries in and out of town are snarled up. They agree that the local authority is staffed with do-gooders and morons and that the new chair of the Police Authority will no doubt balls it up even more.
Their pleasantly English moan is turning toward the gray skies and the cost of petrol when a young WPC approaches. She looks harassed and windblown in her muddy yellow raincoat.
Weve got all but one of them, sir,” she says, in a voice that suggests she has struggled to avoid using a more vulgar term. Sergeant Parker and Dan managed to box them in. Theyre in the car park in the Beech Tree. Cant get out. Another bloke with a Land Rover blocked the gap. The owners are trying to get them roped now. Its chaos, sir. Poor Mickeys ripped his trousers trying to pull one back by the hair. The mane. Whatever. Half of Anlabys covered in horse shit. And the bloody pikey kids arent helping, singing bloody Rawhide . . .”
Tremberg has had to hide her face as she pictures the local bobbies desperately trying to round up the escaped animals, clapping and hollering and trying to stop the nags from eating the herbaceous borders of anybody important.
And the last one?” asks Cullen, pulling on his peaked cap.
Its a real nasty shit. Pikey said it was a stallion who smelled a mare in season. Put a dent in half a dozen cars so far. Seems to particularly hate Audis.”
And the animal team?”
The WPC snorts, herself momentarily horselike. Having a very helpful meeting in the back of their unit. Lots of flicking through guidelines and phoning vets. Im not expecting much in the way of action. Im backing the big fella.”
This last she says with a genuine smile.
She turns herself to Tremberg. Smiles in a way that the detective is starting to recognize. Scottish bloke from your unit. The one who . . .”
McAvoy?” Trembergs eyebrows shoot up and she looks around as if he may be watching.
Yeah. One of the lads gave him a ring. Said he knew about animals. Farmers boy, or something, isnt he? Just turned up a minute ago. Dont know where he parked his car but I think he ran here.”
And whats he doing?”
The officer takes off her hat and gives an appreciative little shake of her head.
About to start playing tug-of-war with a horse.”
Detective sergeant Aector McAvoy spent his first months in plain clothes taking the title literally. He all but camouflaged himself in khaki-colored trousers, hiking boots, and cheap, mushroom-hued shirts, tearing them fresh from polythene packets every Monday. The disguise never worked. At six foot five inches, and with red hair, freckles, and a Highlander mustache, he is always the most noticeable man in the room.
It was his young wife, Roisin, who put a stop to his attempts to blend in. She told him that, as a good-looking big bastard, he owed it to himself not to dress like a fecking Bible-selling eejit.” Roisin has a way with words.
Despite his objections, he had let her style him like a child playing with a dolly. Under her guidance, and blushing at every alteration to his wardrobe, McAvoy had become known within the force as much for his smart suits and cashmere coat, for his leather satchel and cuff links, as for his detective skills and scars.
Now, flat on his back, staring up at the swollen clouds, with mud and stallion spit on his lapels and horse shit streaking one leg of his dark blue suit, he wishes he were back in khaki.
McAvoy tries to ignore the cheers of the onlookers and climbs back to his feet.
Right, you bugger . . .”
He had been on his way to the Police Authority meeting when the call came through. One of the constables tasked with corralling the escaped animals had lost his temper after being dragged into the side of a bottle-bin by one of the mares, and had decided it was time for some specialist help. The officer had worked with McAvoy only once, up on the Orchard Park estate. They had been tasked with guarding the door to a crime scene until the forensics van turned up, and had not been made welcome by the locals. He and McAvoy had tolerated the abuse and even the first few bottles and cans, but when the snarling pit bull had been let loose with instructions to see them off, it had been McAvoy who stood his ground while the junior officer tried to persuade a brick wall to absorb him. The giant Scotsman had dropped to his knees and met the dog face-on, turning his head and opening his eyes wide, showing his broad, flat palms to the creature and flattening himself to the cracked pavement, submissive and unthreatening. The dog had stopped as if running into glass, and was on its back having its tummy tickled by McAvoys great rough hands by the time backup appeared and the crowd were chased away. The young PC had taken McAvoys number, having the foresight to realize that such a man was worth knowing. Today he had figured the big man was worth a call.
McAvoy, who would have agreed to a head-butting contest with an escaped antelope if it meant taking his mind off the impending Police Authority meeting, had been only too glad to dump his car and sprint to the scene.
He limbers up. Stretches his arms and cracks his neck from side to side. There are a few hoots from the watching motorists, and from the corner of his eye, McAvoy is appalled to see that many of those watching are recording the footage on their camera phones.
Just shoot it,” comes a voice from somewhere in the hubbub. It is a suggestion met with murmurs of approval by some.
Cant you tranquilize it?”
Ive got a tenner on the big man!”
McAvoy tries to ignore the voices, but the laughter and groans that rang out when he was knocked flat by the charging stallion have turned his cheeks the color of crushed cranberries.
You shoot that horse, Ill fecking have your eyes.”
The voice, its accent unmistakable, causes a momentary silence, and McAvoy turns. The man who has spoken stands to his left, leaning against the bonnet of a blue Volvo. The cars owner has adopted the peculiarly English expedient of pretending he cannot see the large, daunting traveler who is pressing his buttocks into the bonnet of his car.
The gypsy is squat and balding, with a round face and shiny cheeks. Despite the cold and gathering clouds, his arms are bare. His flabby gut and torso are not flattered by the white sleeveless T-shirt or too-blue jeans.
Yours?” asks McAvoy, with a nod toward the horse.
The man answers with a shrug, but the length of rope in his hand suggests he had been about to try and reclaim his property before he saw McAvoy take the burden upon himself.
The man nods again. Horny as a Cornishman, first day out the mine.”
Hed nearly had him moments ago. The stallion had only been a few feet away, tearing some daffodils from a grass verge of one of the side streets leading off the busy thoroughfare. McAvoys soft voice and gentle movements had allowed him closer to the animal than anybody else had managed since this unexpected carnival had begun, but as the beast swished its head back and forth, one of the passersby had loudly shouted encouragement, and the burst of noise had spooked it, sending McAvoy, and his expensive clothes, into the dirt.
Got a name?”
Me or the horse, sir, me or the horse?”
Fecked if I know. Try Buttercup.”
Slowly, taking care to keep his feet steady on the tarmac, McAvoy moves toward where the animal now stands. Wild-eyed, muddy, and sweat-streaked, it has moved into the garden of one of the nice detached properties set back from the road. Its occupants are staring out of the large double-glazed front windows. With no car in the driveway and the horse showing no apparent interest in their magnolia trees, they are enjoying the show.
Easy, fella,” breathes McAvoy, as he spreads his arms and moves toward the open driveway. Trust me.”
He knows what will happen if he fails. Vets will try and get near with a tranquilizer. They will fail, going in mob-handed and merely scaring the animal. Then some well-intentioned farmer will turn up with a tame horse in the hope of attracting the stallion to within range. The stallion will get overexcited. Damage cars. Damage itself. Eventually a marksman will be called and the horse will be hit with as many bullets as it takes to get the city moving again. McAvoy doesnt want that to happen. The call from the young PC had informed him that the horse had escaped from land where travelers had set up home. In his experience, travelers love their animals, and this one, though gray and with shaggy forelocks that put him in mind of traveled boots, looks like it has been looked after as well as worked hard.
Easy, boy. Easy.”
McAvoy closes the gap. Raises his hand, palm out, and whispers, soft hushes and gentle songs, in the animals ear. It whinnies. Begins to pull away. McAvoy tilts his head. Exudes both the size and the gentleness that so define him; locks brown eyes with the confused, frightened animal . . .
The horse barely shies as he slips the rope around its neck. He carries on singing. Whispering. Crooning the only traveler song he can remember and wishing he had the same soft voice that his bride uses when she softly hums it into his neck.
This time the cheer from the crowd has little effect on the horse. It allows itself to be led out of the driveway, its unshod hooves making a pleasing clip-clop on the pavement.
McAvoy looks up and sees smiling faces. His cheeks burn and he struggles to keep his face impassive as the motorists give him a little round of applause, delighted to know they will soon be in fifth gear and hurrying toward jobs they hate, to tell the story of this mornings fun and games.
Good job, sir. Good job.”
The traveler has detached himself from the crowd. Unasked, he crosses to the far side of the animal and gently takes it by the ear, leaning in to nuzzle the animals neck and call it a great eejit.”
McAvoy enjoys the display of affection. The man knows animals. Loves horses. Cant be bad.
Together, they wind their way through the cars and toward the playing fields. Three uniformed officers are leaning, exhausted, against the bonnets of two parked patrol cars. They look ragged and worn out. They nod their thanks as McAvoy passes by. The young constable who called him raises a fist of triumph and leans in to say something to a colleague. There is a burst of laughter and, instinctively, McAvoy presumes himself to have been the butt of the joke.
Well tie em up, sir,” says the traveler. We thought the fence went right round. Gave me a fright when I saw them gone, so it did.”
McAvoy, getting his breath back, looks over the horses wiry mane at the man. Its not a campsite, sir. Its a football pitch. You know you cant camp here.”
Ah, would yer not show a little leeway?” the traveler asks, fixing bright blue eyes on McAvoy and suddenly exuding a twinkly, impish charm. Weve had a bit of a barney, me and one of the families up there. Not welcome. Just a night or two, put it to bed, make friends again.”
McAvoy isnt really listening. This isnt his call. Hes just going with it for now. He was asked to round up an escaped horse and has done so. The excitement is over. Now he has to try and make himself presentable enough for a meeting with the new-look Humberside Police Authority, and try to explain to the new chairman why his unit should be preserved, and exactly why the violent crime statistics are on the rise. It is a prospect that has kept him awake as efficiently as his three-month-old daughter, and its sudden reemergence at the forefront of his mind brings a wave of nausea to his stomach.
A gust of wind brings with it the scent of frying bacon and hand-rolled cigarettes. He raises his head, eager for a breath of cleansing fresh air. Opens his eyes. Stares into a sky the color of a black eye, rain just seconds away.
They approach the semicircle of caravans. There is a whoop that McAvoy traces to one of the women sitting on the sofas outside the nearest caravan. She is in her forties, with curly blond-brown hair, and is wearing a white tracksuit two sizes too small.
Ah, yer a good lad,” she shouts as they get nearer. She puts down her mug of tea and levers her small, curvy frame off the sofa. Knew it was all reet, didnt I?”
She shouts this last at the two teenage girls who sit on the opposite sofa, each in pink nighties under gray hooded tops. One is perhaps a year older than the other, but both have sleek black hair cut in the same side parting, and wear an equal amount of hooped gold at their throats and earlobes.
McAvoy hands the rope to the man, who gives a genuine bow of thanks. Youre a good man, sir. A good man. Scotsman, yell be, yes?”
McAvoy nods. Western Highlands.”
No kilt?” he asks, with a grin.
I get enough funny looks.”
The traveler laughs louder than the joke deserves. Claps McAvoy on his broad forearm. By Christ, but youre a big one.”
McAvoys blush threatens to return to his cheeks, so he just gives a nod. Returns to business. Keep him tied up. Buttercup. Its not fair.”
Aye, sir. Aye.”
McAvoy looks around him. At sofas, the generators, and toilets. At the faces emerging from behind spotless net curtains at the windows of the caravans, as interested in what is happening on their doorsteps as the faces behind the glass in the four-bedroom detached properties that ring the fields.
He cant help but picture his wife. She lived like this when they first met. Wasnt much older than the girls on the sofa; her eyes just as distrustful, her world just as small . . .
He turns to see Helen Tremberg and Inspector Ken Cullen walking swiftly across from the adjacent football pitch. He gives a wave, not quite sure whether he is to be treated as a hero or interfering fool.
McAvoy, is it? Is that what she said?”
There is something in the way the old traveler repeats his name. Something that tells McAvoy he is known.
He gets no chance to press the man. The clouds that have been slung low, like damp laundry, finally split. Rain thunders down. Tremberg, not given to squealing, emits a shriek and stops short, pulling up the hood of her jacket. The travelers emit a cacophony of swearing, and McAvoys new friend barks orders in an accent so thick it could be a different language. Half a dozen young men appear from inside caravans, and the sofas are quickly dragged under tarpaulins and windows pulled fast shut.
Christ,” says Tremberg, beginning a swift retreat to her vehicle. They really are ninjas!”
McAvoy doesnt follow her. Hes standing, arms wide, letting the downpour soak him to the skin. He knows that he will be tried and tested at this mornings meeting. Knows it will be a painful experience. And knows, too, that he will make life slightly easier for himself if he turns up merely damp, rather than covered in manure.
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