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Thursday 30 April 2015

Writing – market - Write down these mean streets…

Gumshoe Review is an online source for new books in the mystery/whodunnit category.

It is also open to short original fiction. What they’re looking for in stories is a complete mystery in 1,000 words or less. No character studies or mood pieces. They'd like it to lean towards noir but ‘being a mystery -- telling a story is actually more important’.

The short stories should be no longer than 1,000 words. Payment will be 5 cents per word to a maximum of $50 (so if the story is longer you still only get $50).

They plan to publish one short story per month.

Submissions should be sent as plain text within the body of an email or as a .txt, .pdf (not password protected), .doc, or .wp attachment to Use the subject line "Gumshoe Short Story Submission". They will acknowledge receipt of the story immediately but it may take longer to respond about whether they will use the story in an upcoming month. Please include a short bio with the story. Submissions should be original and unpublished.

According to their Senior Editor: "We're looking for stories where the investigator is the protagonist, or at least a significant character, and the focus is on solving a crime, or getting someone out of a jam, or seeking some sort of justice."

See the website:

Good luck!




Wednesday 29 April 2015

Medieval walls, a mystic and Madrid

On our return from Salamanca, we stopped off at Avila, unfortunately only for an hour (though two couples got lost and we waited an additional half-hour for them, not amused).

The approach from the road is captivating – the centre of the city is encircled by the finest preserved medieval walls in Europe. Avila is 3,710ft above sea level, the highest provincial capital in Spain. In winter access roads can be blocked with snow and the temperature plummets at night.

The walls are a mile in length, punctuated by 88 turrets. They feature in that epic film The Pride and the Passion (based on C S Forester's book The Gun). The city has an impressive nine gateways, the most notable being the Puerta de San Vicente.  As this city is the home of St Teresa, inevitably many churches and convents are associated with her.


St Teresa
Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515-82) was one of the Catholic Church’s greatest mystics and reformers. She ran away from home when she was seven in the hope of achieving martyrdom at the hands of the Moors, only to be captured by her uncle on the outskirts of the city. A viewpoint of Avila can be appreciated at the Los Cuartro Postes (Four Posts), where the young St Teresa was caught by her uncle. She became a nun at nineteen but rebelled against her order and from 1562, when she founded her first convent, she travelled round Spain with her disciple, St John of the Cross, founding more convents for the followers of her order, the Barefoot Carmelites. Her remains are interred in Alba de Tormes near Salamanca.

Next day, on our return home from Segovia, the coach dropped us off at the Royal Palace for a three hour mooch around the capital city, the highest in the EU at 2,150ft above sea level. [Bolivia’s La Paz at 11,942ft is the world’s highest).We didn’t have time to go into the palace; it’s so immense, the tour would take at least two hours: that would have to be saved for another visit. Certainly, the palace exterior had more than a passing resemblance to Buckingham Palace with its grey stone and black railings. [We’d been to Madrid fleetingly before en route to Seville, taking in the very attractive Atocha railway station and the Prado museum, but had not been to this part of the city.]

Opposite the palace is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santa María la Real de la Almudena. Besides the twelve interesting rooms containing portraits, icons and statues, crowns, ancient documents, and church paraphernalia, there is access to the balcony that overlooks the square and the royal palace. In total there are 186 steps (Jen counted them!) to the top of the dome: from here, you can walk a full 360 degrees and view the entire city. Quite spectacular, though the sky was somewhat cloudy on our visit. The windows are modern and brightly coloured and very striking.

We had time for a meal, and then we were on our way in the coach again. The relatively new subterranean road system under the city is quite extraordinary, complete with junctions and traffic lights, and must certainly relieve the pressure on the surface streets and save in travel time.

From setting out from Segovia, the journey was about twelve hours – with stops, of course. We were fortunate to be some of the first to be dropped off; others on the coach would be deposited some two hours later!

Coach trips are not designed to give you a thorough appreciation of a destination; they’re meant to whet your appetite for a return, at a more leisurely pace. This coach trip certainly achieved that aim.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Writing – characters’ names

I’ve touched on this subject before – notably, when writing fiction, try not to use names beginning with the same letter in order to avoid confusion for the reader.

There are countless names to choose from, yet many are rarely used, writers opting for the most common. Naturally, you also want to find the name that seems to fit your character, his traits, her age, behaviour and history, even.

My latest work in progress takes place in China. Now, that country presents a challenge regarding names! With over a billion people, you’d think there’d be plenty of surnames to choose from; but this isn’t so. Of the 12,000 surnames that once existed in China, there remain now just about 4,000, though moves have been made to correct this state of affairs, by some adoption of western names. In comparison: recent surveys say that there are about 150,000 different surnames in the US.

Nearly a third of the population of China shares just five family names. Apparently, about 90% use just 100 surnames, with 90 million sharing the name Li. The most common surnames in China, in order, are Wang, Li, Zhang, Chen, Yang, Huang, Zhao, Wu and Zhou.

The most common surnames in UK are, in order: Smith, Jones, Williams, Taylor, Brown, Davies, Evans, Wilson, Thomas, Johnson, Roberts and Robinson – gleaned from a list of 300 ‘most common’.

So, with thousands of people in China sharing the same full name, there can be frequent cases of wrong identity.

Often, I find it useful to note the name’s meaning; this can help link the name to the character.  For example, the Chinese secretary of my villain is Zoo Peizhi – the surname is Zoo (that is it’s the first name used); Peizhi is the given name and it’s meaning is ‘respectful’, so it seemed to fit!

Good luck in finding that right name for your character.

See also my blogs




Monday 27 April 2015

Two-for-one cathedrals and one forbidden book – Salamanca, Spain

Our day trip (15 April) by coach to Salamanca started out from Segovia with an overcast sky. We passed about six storks’ nests; enormous and weighty structures in a field: some buildings in Segovia have specially constructed platforms on their roofs to cater for these birds, in the hope that they will do no damage to the structure.

About thirty minutes from our destination, the heavens opened. Luckily, we’d consulted the Internet and carried waterproofs and umbrellas. We were dropped off a short walk from the Plaza Mayor, the famous 18th century square – one of Spain’s largest and grandest. Here we stopped for a coffee and empanadilla. On the east side of the square is the Royal Pavilion, decorated with a bust of Felipe V, who built the square (though I believe he had some help…) 1729-1755. I spotted a bust of the Duke of Wellington, too.
Jen in Plaza Mayor                         Bust of Wellington

Cathedrals, old and new
We risked the rain and headed for the Cathedrals; there’s an old one and a new one. The terms ‘new’ and ‘old’ are relative, however: the 16th century new cathedral didn’t replace the old but was constructed beside it. So you enter the new and turn right to enter the old, the 12th and 13th century Romanesque cathedral. Here, you can see surviving wall paintings and the astonishing altarpiece with its 53 panels in lustrous colours. In the vault above is a fresco depicting scenes from the Last Judgement.

Roman Bridge
When we finally emerged from the new cathedral, the rain had stopped and we walked to the roman bridge, which crosses the river Tormes and was built in 1AD. It still retains fifteen of its original 26 arches (some have been reconstructed due to damage by flooding over the years. Still visible on the ashlars of the arches are the holes of the Ferrei forceps or ‘big tweezers’ used to place them. Similar holes can be seen on the aqueduct of Segovia.
Roman bridge

Lazarillo de Tormes
Overlooking the roman bridge and the river Tormes is a charming statue dedicated to the novella The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities, a picaresque book published anonymously in 1554. It concerns a boy, Lázaro, from Salamanca; his mother gives little Lázaro (Lazarillo) to a blind beggar to serve an apprenticeship, where he learns about the various levels of society, the ills, and the hypocrisies. Lazarillo is the fore-runner of anti-heroes such as Tom Jones and Huckleberry Finn. The book appeared on the list of forbidden books of the Spanish Inquisition, due to its critical stance regarding authority (the Catholic Church and the aristocracy). []

Jen in front of the statue to Lazarillo de Tormes

Next: University and the conch house

Sunday 26 April 2015

'On a Shout' - part 2 of 2

Firefighting - Wikipedia commons


Part 2 of 2

Nik Morton


The white helmet of Reynolds, the Guv, was visible in the crowd at the entrance to the hotel. Everywhere was glistening wet.

            Sub Officer Lewis took some men with the pump escape, while Gorton headed for the team in the BA control van and clambered up the metal steps. 'Looks pretty bad,' he observed as he entered the submarine glow of the van.

            Two men sat in front of an array of video screens; both sides of the van were choked with electronic switches, indicators and buttons, wires clustered and snaking. He shut the door, cut off the outside sounds of chaos.

            One of the men nodded, swivelled his chair. Hyslop, the BA team controller, also looked tired. He lifted the earphones from his curly black hair and let them hang on his neck.

            'It's bloody awful, this one, Bill,' he said. 'Drones penetrated to the centre before being incinerated. Yes, it's so bloody hot...' He flicked a switch and a computer graphic moved on one screen. 'This is a plan based on the drone-pix. As you can see, there's a central hotel tower block in the middle of a paved quadrangle. All access to the quad is barred by fallen debris and fire.

            'We're getting out all the neighbouring residents, but the central block is isolated. We need to send in a search party to rig ladders from the surrounding rooftops to the tower.'

            Gorton didn't hesitate. 'I'll need at least four men, and an IR-TV with talkback.' Inwardly he felt cold at the prospect; the nightmare of this morning's earlier fire resurfaced. His scorched brow tingled in fearful expectation. It was as though his whole organism were cringing, urging him to abrogate his self-destructive need to help other people.

            Hyslop swivelled round, briefly eyed his companion; that young man wore a badly burned face and looked away noncommittally. 'Walker,' he announced through the tannoy system, 'Stewart, Perkins, Bulmer, report to BA Van No.2 at once.'

            Not one was reluctant, of course, though only an idiot would face the prospect with total equanimity. All four were good and tried men; Walker had saved Gorton's life some months ago: how many fires since?

            Equipment checks were made hastily.

            Then, garbed in delta suits with breathing apparatus, Gorton and his team entered the fire.

            Fireman Walker held the charged hose, nozzle on spray to shield them from some of the intense heat. Metal ladders were carried by Perkins and Bulmer. Fireman Stewart held the camera whose light switched to infra-red, when the heat permitted, to afford an improved view of the smoke-filled interior; it also transmitted a TV picture back to Hyslop in the BA control van.


An age had passed.

            The first flight of stairs was behind them.

            Each foot was placed carefully, lest the treads or floor, weakened by fire or rot, gave way to plunge them into the rubble and flames below...

            At this moment his nerves wanted to shriek; it was all he could do to hold himself in check, then to lead once more. His body could not comprehend why he must go deeper into the building, higher, continually putting himself in an impossible situation. Dreams - no, nightmares, for he had no dreams - frequently ensnared him: he would be trapped, cut off; with only flames for company: the purging, purifying and transforming quality of fire.

            He blinked sweat away, mustn't go on like this. Protected as he was, Gorton was still uncomfortably aware of the heat. His flesh glowed and itched unpleasantly, and pockets of warm sweat collected in the small of his back and loins. Water-cooled suits had proved unsuitable as the water quickly heated up in these conditions; besides, they were too easily snagged and punctured.

            Badly burned children were in their path, having fallen down the stairwell. Depression threatened to swamp him again. He needed to save someone soon, to experience the satisfaction, to relieve the awful inadequacy that perpetually hovered.

            He was constantly alert for a sudden build-up of super-heated gases (God knows what these Orientals hoarded in their rooms!) which might detonate in a ball of flame, scorching all in its path. Mackeson had gone this morning. He'd been in the flashover's path; there was nothing he could have done about it, except pick up the pieces. He was quite good at that: picking up the pieces.

            And the children's hospital had been completely razed; the only evidence of human tenancy was the small singed cuddly bear, thrown onto the car-park, since spattered in oil and dirty water. This memento was now in his pocket, damp against his side. As they stepped onto a landing, they passed through a heat-band of high temperature gases that built up at each ceiling level, threatening to toast them. Gorton's thickly insulated yellow torch shone ahead, picked out the stone stairs to the attic rooms. Beyond was the roof. Access may be possible from there...

            Tired, wet and chilled mentally, he checked his watch: only forty minutes had passed. Safety measures had reduced lately; he was to stay as long as it took. He turned, signalled to the others to move on -

            - and the wall fell on top of them.

            Perkins had been next to the wall and took the full force; partly covered in dust clouds, the caved-in floor gaped beside them: ladder and Perkins, gone. The rest received bruising and cuts only. Incredibly, Stewart was unhurt, still filming with obstinate dedication.


‘You’re a stubborn fellow,’ remarked the doctor. ‘You should be dead…’ He felt he should be too. The dead were the lucky ones – who’d said that? ‘What is there to live for now?’ he heard, some poor soul in the prefabricated waiting-room. Memories evoked sensory triggers. He smelled the sweat and urine, untended faeces, formaldehyde. ‘Why bring children into this, what is there to look forward to?’ Life, he wanted to say, but his own pain wouldn’t let him. Life itself. In the final analysis, it’s all we’ve got…


Walker still leading, they finally reached the topmost landing where there was little fire yet. But the rising heat was intense. The landing had given way in places. They had to use the ladder to span a wide hole. Abruptly the hose jerked sideways and pulled Walker with it. Water sputtered and died. Walker fell onto the ladder and managed to hold on, hanging there. A metal beam fell and plaster walls crumbled. Bulmer was knocked down as he knelt to hold Walker’s hand. Bulmer’s scream echoed in their earphones as he fell. Mesmerised, Stewart still pointed the camera.

            Gorton urged Stewart to cross and hastened him up onto the roof. ‘Try to locate a suitable crossover point!’ he said into his BA speaker. He stood, quite lonely there, by the hole’s edge, and stared down, his restricted sight blurred with sweat. Walker was yelling, trying to pull himself up. It would be so easy to cast himself down… He took hold of Walker’s hand and heaved him up. They both stood embracing each other.

            After a moment he saw the chunk of metal in Walker’s chest, black and pulsing. And light was deserting the fireman’s eyes: his lungs were flooding.


Stubbornly clinging to life, the young lad stared down at his truncated torso: disbelief was in his wide eyes, for he mumbled something about his legs must be there, he could feel them. They had been sitting beside the hole in the street, the collapsed sewer below, a drop of some thirty feet. The boy screamed as he fell, then was silent. There had been a look of betrayal on the boy’s face. He had not wanted to die, he would have tried living even if in extreme pain and with only half a body. But Godlike, arrogantly, Bill Gorton had denied him; with unfathomable motives he had pushed the boy to his death. No cleansing tears of self-abasement came, only a terrible squirming emptiness as he knelt by the crumbling stones and stared down at the boy’s body. But he could not end his own torment; he must continue to suffer, to help others…


Gravity claimed Walker as soon as he was nudged over the edge of the hole. Walker’s words meant nothing to him: something about ‘Why?’ somewhat garbled, mixed with phlegm and blood. Peaceful rest – oblivion – would be faster this way, less traumatic. Traumatic for who, though? He shook himself, was straining to catch breath again. Slowly, he raised himself to a crouch and heaved the ladder across the gap, slung it over his shoulder. The breathing tanks clanged, metal on metal. He walked on, turned his back on memories of those whom he had helped.

            Dawn streaked the city rooftops to the east, mocking in its predictability. All things change, only the measure of time differs. He turned, noticing Stewart for the first time.

            Five storeys below, visible only through the IR camera, the quadrangle. Their flat rooftop was close, just over a ladder’s-length away from the tower block’s windows.

            ‘Drop that camera now, Stu, it’s no use till we go back down! Quick, lend me a hand!’ And Gorton scrambled down the stairs, the noise echoing even above the roar and crackle of flames. He’d remembered a loose partition-wall on the landing.

Together they demolished it with their axes and broke loose the wooden struts. Sweating heavily in their suits, they struggled with the wood back up onto the roof and dropped by the parapet overlooking the tower.

Gorton knelt, exhausted, and removed his helmet and face-mask.

The air was thick, hot and choking, but a welcome change from the claustrophobic breathing apparatus.

            He lifted his talkback set. ‘Hyslop, use your loud-hailers. Tell them to muster at the windows on the east side in five minutes and we’ll get them across!’

            ‘Aye, will do, Bill. Now take care!’

            Like a mother hen, he was. ‘All heart,’ he grinned at Stewart. The returned smile was wan; little hope in his eyes, either. Gorton knelt down to lash the struts together to form a small platform jutting out from the roof secured to the air-vents’ cowling. Sweat filled his eyes, he blinked it away. They then fastened the ladder to the struts and its furthest end barely clanged onto the far window ledge. There was a slight upward slope for the escapers to negotiate, but that couldn’t be helped.

            He withdrew his revolver, ready. Faces began appearing. Most of them were black, and not with smoke, mainly through genes. He called out, ‘Don’t rush all at once! I’ll shoot anyone who pushes! Children and women first. Now, steady! One at a time…’


Two Rastafarian women and a little boy were across, huddled near the roof exit. Smoke billowed ominously from the doorway. Now, a Malaysian girl in her teens was perched on the ladder. She looked beautiful, unblemished by the new harsh world.

            'You can do it, love,' he called reassuringly. She let go of the window-frame and began crawling.

            Without warning William Gorton's world distorted and collapsed around him. Blinding white light instantly banished all shadows and texture. His eyes watered and the after-image of the fulgent light remained with him even after his lids lowered. The deafening noise was nightmarish. He could feel his whole body vibrate disconcertingly.

            One of the lucky ones at last. One of the lucky ones...


Hyslop switched off the blank TV screen. ‘Some bastard planted bombs under that tower!’ He knew something of Gorton’s history and his death affected him. ‘Pull out!’ he felt like saying. ‘Damn them all!’ But no, perhaps others could still be saved. He thrust himself out of his seat and snatched a delta suit from the door-peg.


Her beautiful features were marred by sheer terror as the ladder swayed over the parapet. That side of the tower block was blackened and now gaped open, each floor division bared. Blood trickled from a gashed calf, her dress was torn, otherwise superficially she was all right.

            Gorton coughed on blood and dust, choking to get his breath in the clogged atmosphere. Reality and memories vied with him: a horrifying sense of deja vu ransacked his reason. As he stared through wet-rimmed eyes, the girl's features altered, disfigured and became a radiation-scorched corpse, a crushed dove, a fire-storm victim, a survivor whose visage was twisted with insanity.

He kept watching, unable to move. He screamed, agitatedly, 'Stop changing, damn you, stop it!'

He did not feel Stewart's steadying hand on his shoulder, he was not aware of the racking sobs he made.

She was all colours, all victims, from Belsen to Cambodia, from Hiroshima to the Solent, from Afghanistan to Ulster: innocence crucified.

He cried as he crawled along the swaying ladder, oblivious of the rungs digging into his stitched kneecap. He coughed on the smoke, Stewart's entreaties unheard: 'For God's sake, Bill, come back! It's too risky! Let's save these three at least!'

            He crawled and offered solace, a smile of reassurance.

            And her transmogrified face melted, became Oriental, unmarred save for beguiling dust smudges on brow and cheeks. Her dark brown eyes shone wetly. She un-tensed and reached out a hand to him, trusting.

            He would end her misery too, he decided, and prayed.

 * * *

Previously published in Cassandra Anthology, 1985

Copyright Nik Morton, 2015
If you enjoyed this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.
Or you could try my co-authored fantasy novel Wings of the Overlord (by Morton Faulkner) currently available in hardback (5 good glowing reviews):

Floreskand, where myth, mystery and magic reign. The sky above the city of Lornwater darkens as thousands of red tellars, the magnificent birds of the Overlord, wing their way towards dark Arisa. Inexplicably drawn to discover why, the innman Ulran sets out on a quest. Although he prefers to travel alone, he accedes to being accompanied by the ascetic Cobrora Fhord, who seems to harbour a secret or two. Before long, they realise that it's a race against time: they must get to Arisa within seventy days and unlock the secret of the scheduled magical rites. On their way, they stay at the ghostly inn on the shores of dreaded Lake and meet up with the mighty warrior Courdour Alomar. Alomar has his own reasons for going to Arisa and thus is forged an unlikely alliance. Gradually, the trio learn more about each other -- whether it's the strange link Ulran has with the red tellar Scalrin, the lost love of Alomar, or the superstitious heart of Cobrora. Plagued by assassins, forces of nature and magic, the ill-matched threesome must follow their fate across the plains of Floreskand, combat the Baronculer hordes, scale the snow-clad Sonalume Mountains and penetrate the dark heart of Arisa. Only here will they uncover the truth. Here too they will find pain and death in their struggle against the evil Yip-nef Dom.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Saturday Story - 'On a Shout' - part 1 of 2

Firefighters - Wikipedia commons

Part 1 of 2

Nik Morton


Without warning William Gorton's world distorted and collapsed around him. Blinding white light instantly banished all shadows and texture. His eyes watered, and even with his lids lowered an after-image of fulgent light remained with him. The deafening noise that followed was nightmarish. Disconcertingly he could feel his whole body vibrate. Pieces of masonry and timber knocked him to the floor.

            Groggy, bruised and bleeding, he lay with his legs covered by debris. His world had shrunk, had become a microcosm of pain. He coughed on blood and dust as he tried to breathe in the clogged atmosphere. He still dared not open his eyes. But he was alive! His head sang with the concussion and he could sense warm dribbles pouring out of his ears, meandering through the caked dust on his neck. The roaring of his ruptured eardrums was unceasing; no other sound impinged. But he lived! As the ground where he lay beneath the rubble stopped shaking, he did not; shock tremors persisted.

            Fearfully he opened his eyes. It was like peering through gossamer. Oh, God... No amount of blinking would improve his vision. The film of frosted glass upon his eyes was there to stay, it seemed, and the realisation greatly depressed him. Still, poor sight was better than none. Later, he would shut his eyes often and wonder...

            White flakes of plaster-dust floated eerily, like snow, and clogged the air. Only the chimney-wall seemed to be standing. So his home - his ground-floor bed-sitter - was n more. Neighbours were unknown to him, and some regret tinged his thoughts, for he would no longer need to 'make the effort to get to know them'.

            The air was heavy with yellow smoke and was abnormally dark. With grazed and throbbing hands Gorton pushed brick and plaster off his legs. There were gaps, for he kept blacking out. Pain spread from deep gashes in thigh, shoulder, and kneecap and his multiple bruises. He throbbed all over. At last he pulled himself up and leaned against the truncated chimney. So it had finally happened; his aching legs mockingly reminded him of the protest marches, the snowballing force of public opinion behind them on the heels of the nuclear devastation in India and Pakistan. Wrong, after all... Oh, God, what did we do?

            His bloodied hands trembled, veins distended; his muscles tensed as dizziness continued to wash over him in this upright position. He brushed the back of his hand against the side of his head and it came away stained dark red: his inner ear was awash, drums perforated, affecting his balance... Only with difficulty and some hidden reserve of will did he control the rising hysterical laughter; to think that he had survived the collapse of the house! Mouth clamped tightly shut, his tongue felt a tooth break loose and he almost choked, spat it out in disgust.

            Beyond the ruin of his house, everywhere more resembled a surrealist painting than a suburban street. Covered with dense clouds of smoke, the sky was as dark as pitch. Under the blackness all the visible buildings for miles were on fire. As though the world itself were ablaze, flames belching from the Earth's core. At least his eyes could distinguish colours and contrasts. The sky was dark, the ground scarlet, and shimmering between hung clouds of yellowish smoke. Stark yellow, scarlet and oppressive black, through which darted black match-stick people, the whole scene like something created by the visionary Bosch.

            Gorton vomited and strength drained from him. His heart pounded louder in the voided shell as he looked on what seemed to be the end of the world. Salty wetness trickled to his trembling lips as he stood unsteadily near the quite unscathed edge. The devastated Solent Conurbation was now becoming submerged in a sea of flames.


He was shaken violently from side to side and clammy sweat made his wet clothing more uncomfortable. He awoke.

            'Come on, Bill!' Jacko's voice. He stopped shaking him, stepped back to finish dressing. Gorton moaned and heaved himself out of sleep. Familiar, Spartan surroundings, still viewed through gauze: cots, with bedding unkempt, damp; emulsioned walls adorned with assorted posters, a television picture with the sound turned off. And the radiators steamed where the wet clothes hung. Convenience food wrappers were screwed up on the small plastic table with an untended pack of playing cards. He closed his eyes again, briefly.

            'More racist arson!' Jacko spat out and swore repeatedly. Gorton remembered thinking that Jacko's temperament was unsuited for this work; he smiled thinly. The horrible ringing was still in his ears. But of course it was not concussion this time but the fire-alarm.

            The digital said 02:23. He rubbed callused palms over his lined, drawn features and through the thinning patches of grey hair. A tremor jerked his heart: small tufts of hair still fell onto his pillow.

            'What about the others?' he asked Jacko, glancing up. 'We only got back from a shout thirty four minutes ago.'

            'Called out.' Jacko's dark brown close-set eyes glistened; his broken nose gave an attractive lopsided aspect to otherwise harsh, rugged features. Nervously unwrapping a stick of chewing-gum, he threw the paper away in a pointless gesture of frustration. He used up too much nervous energy in futile gestures and exclamations: energy that couldn't be adequately replenished these days. For the fourth time that night, Jacko said, his voice pitched high: 'If the bells go down one more time, I'll jack it in!'

            He looked like some cartoon character, his slight frame encased by a heavy and cumbersome rubber delta suit. Regulations on build had long since been placed in abeyance: the Fire Department was glad to get anyone.

            Leading Fireman Gorton swung his legs round and sat up, thrust his wet stocking feet into thick rubber boots. Medicals for recruits had been abandoned, too, otherwise he would now be one of the five million jobless. And the jobless had shrunken bellies; they had too much time on their hands to brood and to hit out in a variety of ways. Arson was but one; they also escaped, by suicide.

            In an effort to be rid of his traumatic memories and to shut out the insistent cold and insidious cramp, he collected his belt and equipment. He devoted his concentration to buckling on his harness with axe, revolver, mallet and knife. He ignored his friend's outburst: Jacko had always intended 'jacking it in', hence his name.

            It was a bittersweet realisation: they had let him sleep the longest. Somehow, they had learned about his weaknesses, his past. Strangely, there wasn't any guilt. If they knew how he cared, how he helped... they gave no sign. Did he talk in his sleep? On return, the entire crew had fallen into a sleep of physical exhaustion in their wet clothes. Now, as always, he regretted sleeping. Painful though it was, he could contend with cramp; but nightmares were a different matter.

            They met up with the others and hurried to their appliances downstairs. Jacko lagged beside him, offering moral support, for he was soon short of breath.

            R.T. crackled in the cab. Reynolds, the Station Officer, was at the scene, having been waylaid on his return from another shout. Jacko belted himself in the driver's seat and snapped the torn computer printout on the dash's clipboard. Destination, a hotel in the Chinese ghetto, behind Soho... The take-away next door had been put to the torch by another racist faction. 'All aboard!' Jacko shouted unnecessarily and gunned the vehicle through the computer-controlled doorway.

            Gorton was bounced along in the cab as the fire-engine raced through the streets. There was a depressing sameness about London now; long gone were the colourful clothing shops, the bazaars and amusements, the bijou cinemas and cosmopolitan restaurants. Instead, there were boarded-up shop windows and gutted ruins fenced off with barbed wire; consumer society rubbish was cast far and wide, clogging gutters and drains. Day and night, shadowy figures skulked, some misshapen through the evil agency of war, others carrying broken frames caused by malnutrition and general neglect. The few eyes that would meet Gorton's were empty, without hope or sentiment. An inhuman hardness was there; it was like looking into chilled water. People were clubbed to death for trifles and bodies lay where they had been attacked. The police and armed forces were incapable of containing street violence, even under a kind of martial law. Some three years after the end of the War, the country was moribund. The demoralised population was easy prey to any cancerous propaganda, so racism rose to terrible proportions; a cause to espouse, to foment...

            Seeing these fleeting images as the vehicle hurried through the city, Gorton reflected on his good fortune to be alive, even with contamination rotting his body. Life was worth hanging onto at any cost; not for him the quiet submission, the weak acquiescence, the descent to a living death, or the final admission of failure, suicide.


Bathed in the eerie yellow light, the unkempt woman clutched a brown paper parcel to her torn clothes; her flesh on the left glowed red. She knelt, trembling uncontrollably and looked up as he trod across the rubble towards her. Bloodshot whites encircled fearfully staring irises and her mouth opened in a broken-toothed grimace. The momentary distraction was enough to loosen her grip and scorched bones fell out of the tatty bundle, some garbed in soiled baby clothes that stank terribly. She scrabbled in the dust frantically to retrieve them, her fear at his presence submerged by her insane maternal distress. She did not feel his gentle touch or his merciful blow.


Not only were his sleeping moments disturbed. She had been the first victim he had relieved. He still remembered the heart-wrenching decision, the gut-feeling after the action: he felt good, merciful. He had knelt down beside her corpse and dutifully collected the baby’s remains, placed them beside her. Unbidden, prayers tripped over his quivering lips. He had never been religious, but now prayer seemed to provide a need, to salve. In the cab he licked his lips, tasted the now familiar salt; the others, sitting beside and opposite him, ignored his tears, for they were used to his introspective periods.

            Screeching round a barricaded bend, the vehicle burst through and scattered street fighters left and right. The steel-reinforced fender at the front was a potent persuader; Jacko laughed hysterically. Some fired stolen automatic weapons, but the fire-engine raced on. The siren blared stridently. The whole city was a constant noise of sirens, chafing at nerves, remarkable only when a rare lull occurred.


The conflagration was discernible two blocks away, bestowing a pale aurora upon the sky. A heat-halo from Hell, he thought sardonically. Even above the siren-wails he could hear the cries of the fire victims. Ringing in his ears. And the tears ran.


Thousands died in unbearable pain for the analgesics ran out very quickly. Often, he came across wandering survivors; vacant, insane, or simply running amok in extreme anguish, like moths about a light. Frenetic, frenzied, self-immolating.


When there were no witnesses to misunderstand his motivation, he helped to remove the pain, by taking what little life remained and it wasn’t much, usually. He spent some time trying to muster the victims’ will, to mentally subdue the agony, or he nursed them till they died of shock. Only as a last act of mercy, taken reluctantly, he told himself, did he end their soured existence. Afterwards he always felt good; but he supported profound sadness too. So much life, so much innocence: scourged.

            It was little consolation now that the Limited War had been halted, miraculously, when it was feared all-out nuclear war would follow. Some sombre rejoicing took place at the announcement of the incredible climb-down from escalation. The television screens had brought all the horror and carnage home, to every country, courtesy of the satellite stations. But the rebuilding of the nation suffered more setbacks as frustration and national grief swamped people. Easy prey to those who expressed these feelings were the black, yellow and Jewish communities.


In his white bloodstained coat the young doctor wiped sweat from his glasses; absently, Gorton noticed only one lens installed. 'I can't prescribe anything for these people,' he said, frustration shading his tone. 'Profound emotional disorders aren't curable just like that,' and he tried unsuccessfully to snap his fingers. The doctor turned away, ducked into the recently erected Army tent, and left Gorton surrounded by moaning and crying, shouting and swearing: ambient suffering.

            Turntable ladders and emergency tenders filled the roadway; water glistened in pools; rainbows were flaunted by oily surfaces. Searchlights illumined the buildings: a hotel of four storeys, bed-sitter buildings, boarded-up boutiques and take-away shops. Fire rages, spreading fanlike across the frontage.

            Firestorms had turned the few fallout shelters into crematoria. He wandered for days before a survey team found him. Blackened match-sticks huddled in the shelter corners beside their televisions, scorched and burst canned food, their air-filtration units and bio-loos. Survivors near the edge suffered severe burns that were superimposed upon the radiation effects. Protective clothes should have been but were not comforting as the teams trod through the wasteland to make readings and leave monitoring boxes.

            Many on the survey team killed themselves: the prevalent feeling was that the team members had cheated, had not shared in the torment.

            Of course the fallout had spread, for miles, invisible, deadly. As time passed, deaths mounted from infection and radiation-induced disease; lack of water, of sanitation and of contaminated food compounded the death-toll.

            Yes, he found much evidence that the living envied the dead. And jargon persisted, cold, divorced from reality: 'Suicides seem to be on an exponential curve, with no levelling off in sight.'

            Conditions worsened as there was no way to dispose of the thousands of decomposing corpses. Epidemics spread; virulence increased as the medication was exhausted.

            But that was three years ago, he reminded himself.

            'Things are improving...' More specious propaganda. But surely life was worth living, regardless?

            He was no longer so sure.

To be continued tomorrow…

Friday 24 April 2015

FFB - The Burning Girl

This is the fourth in Mark Billingham’s series about his character Detective Inspector Tom Thorne (2004), but it can be read without reference to the earlier novels.  Billingham has picked up a number of awards for his writing.  Since his first book Sleepyhead was published in 2001 he has garnered high praise from critics and readers alike. 

Thorne’s patch is London and it’s obvious that Billingham knows the territory and describes it well. This is the dark side of England's capital city and it’s brimming with nasty characters.  He knows some high-ranking officers on the flying squad and the murder squad who look over his manuscripts for him, so his accuracy on police procedure is good.
Some cases don’t seem to go away, even after eighteen years.  In 1986 Rooker, a particularly unpleasant man, was charged with setting alight a school-girl, Jessica.  She was horribly disfigured and after many painful skin-grafts she committed suicide. It transpired that Rooker had burned the wrong girl, his real target had been the daughter of the local gangland boss, Kelly.  This is no consolation to Jessica’s grieving father.  Yet now, after all this time, Rooker confesses that he didn’t actually commit the crime... Thorne investigates and meets Jessica’s best friend, Alison Kelly, who is still traumatised with guilt. 

Nothing is black and white in Thorne’s world.  As the books progress, we learn more about Thorne – as Billingham has put it, ‘to peel away a different layer with every book.’

Thorne’s also coping with his father suffering from senile dementia – these scenes are quite amusing in a sad funny way and are gently handled by ex-stand-up comedian Billingham.  When we read Jessica’s diary notes, we empathise with the poor brave girl: her character shines out of these few pages, no mean feat for any writer to achieve. 

To complicate matters, two North London organised crime gangs are at war, the Ryans and the Turkish family, Zarif.  There are convoluted connections between the Ryans and the Kelly family.  Memories go back a long way, as do grudges.  Into this simmering mix is dropped a vicious contract killer. 

Thorne doesn’t do a great deal of detecting but by his actions he becomes the catalyst that ignites both sides into murderous retaliation. 

Bruised by the murky world he inhabits, Thorne tries to do the right thing but finds time and again that he must cross his self-imposed line if any kind of justice is to be served.  He is a very human copper and we can believe in him.

Crime fiction remains ever popular and the Thorne novels are certainly worth your attention if you like your crime dark and meaningful.
His twelfth Thorne novel was published in 2014 - The Bones Beneath.

Thursday 23 April 2015

Pointed turrets and flying buttresses in Segovia, Spain

Two other places we visited during our brief stay at Segovia were the Alcazar and the Cathedral.

The greatest number of Spain’s 2,000+ castles can be found in Castile (Castilla y Leon), which unsurprisingly derived its name from castillo or castle. This region was the battleground between the Moors and the Christians in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Segovia’s Alcazar (Arabic for castle or fort) was built between 1410 and 1455. The Moors were finally expelled from Spain in 1492 (as were 200,000 Jews as a result of the Inquisition). The Alcazar had to be largely rebuilt following a fire in 1862.

With its bartizan turrets and atypical Spanish pointed turrets, it’s an eye-catching edifice perched on a rocky outcrop at one end of the city. There are many attractive chambers to tour round; the horses room is one of the oldest: here can be found mounted knights in full armour; the galera room boasts an exquisite ceiling, faithfully restored after the fire; the monarch room’s cornices are depictions of all of the monarchs of Castile, and the queens, and counts, including El Cid;

the weapons room has an impressive display of cannon, armour, crossbows, mortars, and other devastating weapons.  The view from the battlements is panoramic.

A short walk from the Alcazar is the St Mary and St Fructus Cathedral, the last Gothic cathedral raised in Spain in the Renaissance. Its construction began in 1525 and continued for 150 years (consecrated in 1678). There are many side chapels behind graceful ironwork grilles and a new cloister (built between 1524 and 1528, so it’s not that new!) to visit.

There are many great works of art and sculptures, the most striking being Cristo Muerto (Dead Christ) by Gregorio Fernandez: dramatic features and blood flowing from the wounds of Jesus’ slender body; the remarkable realism is reinforced by the false eyes, teeth and nails.

The pinnacles, flying buttresses, tower and dome create a striking silhouette. Inside, it is elegantly vaulted with immense pillars.