Here’s the cover for my second Sherlock Holmes novel, Gods Of War, due out in June 2014. Click on it to view it in its full glory.
The designer is Julia Lloyd, who also did the cover for The Stuff Of Nightmares, my maiden Holmes effort.
The Waterloo Massacre
I had just stepped off the 3.47 from Ramsgate when all hell broke loose.
One moment I was presenting my ticket for inspection and preparing to step onto the concourse at Waterloo Station. The next, there was an almighty detonation that reminded me of nothing so much as a salvo of artillery fire, a great percussive roar that seemed to tear the very fabric of the air asunder.
I was knocked clean off my feet, and briefly lost consciousness. When I came to, I was aware of a profound ringing in my ears and a sharp smell of burning in my nostrils.
Before me lay a ghastly sight. The orderly, everyday scene of a few minutes before had been utterly transformed. Where there had been people milling about, railway travellers exhibiting the usual mix of urgency and nonchalance, there was now carnage. The injured tottered to and fro, pressing a hand to some wound or other in order to stem the flow of blood. Cries of distress pierced the air, although in my half-deafened state I could only just hear them. I glimpsed a sailor-suited child gripping a toy bear, peering about himself forlornly for an accompanying adult who was either lost or worse. A bookstall owner sat, stunned, his wares cast all around him in shreds like so much confetti.
Everything was wreathed in smoke. Débris lay scattered on the board flooring of the concourse – chunks of masonry, shards of glass. Bodies lay scattered, too. Some bore no greater sign of harm than a few tattered edges on their clothing, yet their stillness spoke of nothing but death. Others were so mutilated that they scarcely resembled human beings any longer, looking more like something one might find in a butcher’s shop.
I could scarcely comprehend what had happened. In a small, distant part of my mind, a voice was telling me: bomb. Uppermost in my thoughts, however, was the imperative that I must help people. Was I not a doctor, once a surgeon with the Army Medical Department? Had I not come to the aid of countless wounded soldiers at Ahmed Kel, Arzu, Charasiab, and at Maiwand too, until that jezail bullet put me on the casualty list myself?
My army medical training asserted itself. Even as my head cleared and the ringing in my ears began to abate, I sprang into action.
Of the hour or so that followed, I have little clear recollection. It passed in a haze of frantic activity. I attended to whomever was in distress, making an assessment of the extent of their injuries and spending as much or as little time with them as I felt was required – the process of triage so familiar to me from the battlefield hospital. I tore up strips of clothing to press into service as makeshift bandages. I ascertained which fragments of ejecta from the explosion could be safely extricated from the flesh they penetrated and which were so large or lodged so deep that they were better left in place until such time as a trained surgeon could deal with them under operating theatre conditions. I offered reassurance to those not too badly hurt and gave what scant consolation I could to those who, alas, were slipping into that state which lies beyond the power of any mortal to assist them. I also, I am pleased to say, managed to reunite the sobbing child with his nanny, to the great joy of them both.
I remember one doughty old widow who pestered me time and again to examine her, despite my protestations that she had suffered no worse than a few superficial scratches. I also remember – and it will haunt me to my dying day – a mother cradling an infant in her arms, insistent that the babe was alive and well when all the evidence was to the contrary.
It was a terrible experience, one which even a veteran of the Second Afghan War such as myself found harrowing and nightmarish. All these people had been quietly, innocently going about their business, heading home from work, waiting to greet a newly arrived friend or relative, preparing to embark on a journey, none of them having the least inkling that, in a split second, their lives would be reduced to chaos and horror. Whatever feelings of hope, trepidation or expectation they might have had, had been obliterated in an instant by an act of wanton, unconscionable destruction.
I did not pause to wonder, at the time, who had committed the atrocity. I had no doubt that it was a deliberate act of terrorism, for there had been two similar incidents in London during the previous fortnight, neither bomb blast as devastating as this one but both intended to cause considerable damage and sow fear and discord among the populace. I did not let that concern me. I simply focused on the matter at hand: easing pain and saving as many lives as I could.
When the police arrived on the scene, I directed them towards the victims in direst need of proper medical attention, and soon enough, hackney cabs, private carriages, and even a grocer’s wagon, had been commandeered to ferry the injured to hospital.
Once the situation seemed to be under control and the concourse was free of all but corpses, I was able to halt and take stock. The surge of adrenaline that had borne me through the past couple of hours receded, and I found myself starting to tremble. Nausea nearly overwhelmed me. My hands, coated in the blood of others, shook uncontrollably. I had not been in such close proximity to so much slaughter in years and, unsurprisingly, I had not become inured to it in the interim. It was as horrific to me now as it had been a decade ago on the subcontinent.
Two thoughts brought me some slight comfort. One was that my Mary had not been there to witness this appalling massacre or, worse, be a casualty of it. She was some seventy miles east, in the town I had just travelled up from.
My wife was, as it happened, recovering from a miscarriage, her third since we were wed two years earlier. I have not referred to our childbearing misfortunes anywhere in my published writings, as I deem it too private a subject for public consumption and anyway of no real interest to my readers. Here, though, in this account which is likely to be seen by no eyes but mine, I can at least mention how Mary and I, in spite of our best efforts, failed to produce offspring. It is a source of great regret to me, even now, that I have no heirs, no children and grandchildren to lighten the burden of old age. My only hope for posterity, such as it is, lies in the written works that I leave behind.
Mary had taken this third setback particularly hard, so I had prescribed a stay with a cousin of hers who owned a cottage on theKentcoast. There she might find calm and relaxation and recover her mental equilibrium. Her condition had undoubtedly improved, and it had been mooted that she would accompany me on my return to London that very day, but I had seen how wan her features still were and how her eyes continued to lack their usual lustre, and had pronounced her not yet ready to resume city life with all its demands and vicissitudes. I thanked providence that I had made the decision I had.
The other comforting thought was that the perpetrators of this outrage would face the full might of the law.
I knew this for a fact, because I happened to have a dear friend who had dedicated his life and his vast intellect to the pursuit of justice and who would, if charged with the task, stop at naught to see the malefactors apprehended and arraigned.
Thinking of Sherlock Holmes, I resolved to pay a call on him there and then. Outside the station I hailed a cab and presently was on my way to 221B Baker Street.
KIDNAP IN CROUCH END
I stepped out of my flat to get my lunchtime sandwich and cappuccino, and never went back.
There was a coffee place round the corner from my house. It styled itself like one of the big chains, calling itself Caffè Buono and boasting baristas and leather armchairs and a Gaggia machine, but it was the only one of its kind in existence and it never to my knowledge opened any other branches. The sandwiches were all right, though. The coffee too.
I didn’t notice the jet black Range Rover with tinted windows prowling after me as I sauntered along the street. It was spring. The sun was out, for a change. I’d been slaving away at my drawing board since breakfast. Daylight on my face felt sweet. To be among people – the usual milling midday Crouch End crowds – was pleasant. My work was a kind of solitary confinement. It was always good to get out.
I was thinking of a plump, tasty BLT and also of the plump, tasty new barista at Caffè Buono. Krystyna, her name badge said. From Poland, to judge by the spelling and her accent. Farm-girl pretty and very friendly. Flirtatious, even. It was never likely that I would ask her out, she being at least fifteen years younger than me, but seeing her brightened my day and I chose to think that seeing me brightened hers. If it didn’t, she did a very creditable job of pretending it did.
I moseyed along, a million miles from where I was, and all the while the jet black Range Rover was stealing ever closer to me, homing in from behind, a shark shadowing its prey.
I was coming to the end of my latest commission – another reason I was so preoccupied. I was on the final straight of eight months’ solid work. Five pages left to go on a four-issue miniseries. Full pencils and inks, from a script by Mark Millar. I liked collaborating with Millar; he gave the bare minimum of art direction. Usually he offered a thumbnail description of the content of each panel, with a caption or two to fit in somewhere, along with an invitation to “knock yourself out” or “make this the best fucking picture you’ve ever drawn.” So few restrictions. Happy to let the artist be the artist and do what an artist was paid to do. I was fine with that.
But it had been a long haul. I was slow. Had a reputation for it. A stickler; meticulous. Notoriously so. Every page, every panel, every single line had to be exactly right. That was Zak Zap’s unique selling point. You only got top-quality, ultra-refined product, and if you had to wait for it, tough titties. I’d been known to tear up a completed page rather than submit it, simply because a couple of brushstrokes weren’t precisely as I’d envisaged they’d be, or the overall composition was a fraction off. Just rip that sheet of Bristol board in half and bin it. Three days’ effort, wasted. And I’d rage and fume and yell at the cat, and then maybe neck down a few beers, and then next morning I’d plonk my backside down in front of my drawing desk and start all over again.
Stupid, but that’s how I was.
It was why Francesca left me.
Not the tantrums or the fits of creative pique. She could handle those. Laugh them off.
It was the pressure I put on myself. The sense of never being good enough which constantly dogged me. The striving for unrealisable goals. The quest to be better than my best.
“It’s not noble to be a perfectionist, Zak,” Francesca told me as she packed her bag. “It’s a kind of self-loathing.”
I was within spitting distance of the coffee place, just passing the Louisiana Chicken Shack, when the Range Rover drew alongside and braked.
The doors were already open before the car came to a complete stop.
Men in suits bundled out.
I glimpsed them out of the corner of my eye. They were Hugo-Boss-clad barrels in motion. My first thought was that they must be bodyguards for some movie star. Someone famous, over in the UK from Hollywood to promote the release of his latest action-fest, had had a sudden hankering for southern fried chicken, and his security detail were forming a cordon so that he could go in and buy a bucketful. Will Smith, maybe. Bruce Willis. The Rock. One of those guys.
And then I thought, In Crouch End? This wasn’t even the fashionable end of Crouch End. This was the crouchy end of Crouch End. And no movie star in his right mind, however hungry, would want to sample the battered scrag ends of battery hen they served at the Louisiana Chicken Shack.
And then the nearest of the men in suits grabbed hold of me. And then another of them did too, clamping a hand around my elbow and whispering in my ear, “Don’t shout. Don’t struggle. Act natural, like this is nothing out of the ordinary. Otherwise you’ll regret it.”
Then, loudly so that passersby would hear, he said, “All right, sweetheart. That’s enough now. You’ve had your fun, but it’s time to go back to the Priory. Your management is paying all that money for your rehab. They don’t want it wasted.”
With that, they dragged me towards the Range Rover – literally dragged, my heels scraping the kerbstones. I was helpless, inert, a flummoxed idiot, no idea what was going on. Even if I hadn’t been warned to act natural, I’d have been too dumbfounded to resist or protest.
It happened so fast. Just a handful of seconds, and suddenly I was in the back seat of the Range Rover, squashed between two of the suited goons, and the car was pulling out into the traffic, and I wasn’t going to have that BLT or that cappuccino today and I wasn’t going to cheer up Krystyna with a smile and she wasn’t going to cheer me up either.