Social worker Johnny Malkin is battling a crippling workload and a hostile local community. That’s on a good day: things are about to get a whole lot worse.
Two fourteen-year-old girls are found wandering Aitken Wood on the slopes of Pendle Hill, claiming to have been raped by a gang of men. With no female social workers available, Johnny is assigned to their case. But what, at first, looks like yet another incident of child exploitation takes a sinister turn when the girls start speaking of a forthcoming apocalypse.
When Johnny interviews one of the girls, Jenna Dunham, her story starts to unravel. His investigation draws him into a tight-knit village community in the shadow of Pendle Hill, where whispers of witchcraft and child abuse go back to the Middle Ages.
One name recurs, The Hobbledy Man. Is he responsible for the outbreaks of violence sweeping across the country?
Is he more than just myth?
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.58(d)|
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The call came in at 2 a.m. Johnny Malkin rolled off the couch, grabbed his phone and swiped the unlock button. The number was withheld, a sure sign of bad news. Sky Sports was still on, regurgitating last night's Champions League results. He grabbed the remote, turned the volume down, and answered. 'Hello.'
'Johnny?' It was Kat. 'You need to get down to the cells now. It's one of yours.'
'Yeah? Who is it?'
'For fuck's sake. What's he done now?'
'Breaking and entering ... resisting arrest ... the custody sergeant will go through itall.'
'Tell them I'll be there as soon as I can. Is he okay?'
'They say he's acting funny. Actually, they said he's off his head. Taken something but he won't say what.'
Johnny kicked a Domino's pizza box towards the TV and searched for his trainers. 'He probably doesn't know himself. The boy's a walking pharmacy.' He found the trainers and laced them up. 'You're on late tonight.'
'Cath's on maternity leave.'
'Is she? When did that happen?'
'About nine months ago, I reckon.'
'Nine months?' It slowly sank in. 'Ah, yeah. Very good.'
He wrestled with his coat, ran his hand through what was left of his hair, and grabbed his keys from atop a large pile of unopened case reports.
'Hey, Kat. You still there?'
'You want to catch up later? Lunch?'
'Are you free?'
There was a pause, then a laugh. 'We'll see.'
She hung up. He shook his head, pulled a face at the phone.
'Like you've got any better offers.'
He picked the pizza box up, tried another bite of Margherita, and spat it out. He opened the front door. The cold hit him full on. It was amazing how much colder it was on this side of the hill. Someone had once told him the reason for it but, like a lot of things recently, it had been forgotten. He threw the pizza box in the wheelie bin at the end of the drive and climbed into his black Ford Focus.
Nathan Walsh: if ever there was a kid with problems, it was him. His care plan was longer than the Bible, with as many twists and turns as a bad soap opera. Then again, how many ways were there to escape a life like his? His dad was locked up, his mother an alcoholic who hired her mouth out, and whose lovers regularly beat him black and blue to remind him that neglect wasn't the worst fate you could inflict on a child. The hospital had no record of what she was taking when she was pregnant, just the stuff she declared, but he was suffering withdrawal symptoms the moment he came into the world. You could spend every day with Nathan and you wouldn't sort him out – even if you hadn't another twenty-one Nathans on your files. You were a sticking plaster at best.
He sped down the A682 towards Nelson. On his right, the dark, rolling landscape was wreathed in silver, spectral moonlight. Pendle Water, flush from the recent rain, trailed him towards the village of Barrowford. In the darkness, the beige Yorkshire stone embankment looked like the ramparts of some mediaeval castle and the terraced houses looked like one building with a hundred front doors. The river eventually meandered away towards the M65 before crossing again underneath Scotland Road. Then the greenery ended and the bleak outline of Nelson came into view. This was Nathan's patch: a town with nothing to do and nowhere to go, long forgotten by time. Johnny drove past Bingo Playland Amusements and the old 70's bus station, where kids gathered to smoke late night weed, and parked round the corner from the police station.
The desk sergeant nodded when he came in. He was, perhaps, forty, but looked older, with short, grey hair at the temples and a bald patch on top like a monk.
'You the cavalry?' he said.
Johnny nodded. 'How is he?'
The sergeant looked down at the charge sheet. 'Been keeping us busy. Drug possession, criminal damage, assault and making a right mess of his cell. You any idea what he's on?'
'Ketamine. Crystal meth sometimes.'
'Lovely. I'll tell the FME. You want to see him?'
Johnny looked at the clock on the wall. It was 2.21. 'Someone has to.'
The desk sergeant called the custody sergeant who was reading a copy of the Metro in the corner of the waiting area. He came over, took out a bunch of keys, and led Johnny down a long, white corridor. At the end was a large white door with a grille at the top. He slid back a panel and had a look inside. 'Fuck!' he exclaimed. 'Fuck, fuck, fuck!'
'What is it?' said Johnny, suddenly alarmed.
The custody sergeant shouted down the corridor, 'Dan, get the FME now! Hurry!'
The desk sergeant appeared from round the corner, then ran through a pair of double doors to the other end of the corridor.
The custody sergeant fumbled with his keys, made several attempts before he got the right one in the lock, then pushed open the door.
Johnny was right behind him. Over his shoulder, he could see Nathan. He was in the middle of the cell, lying on his side. A stream of vomit had spewed across his t-shirt and onto the floor. It wasn't the only thing that stank. There were some brown smears along one wall. What the hell had he done? Stencilled it in shit?
The custody sergeant looked panicked. 'He's fucking overdosed, hasn't he?' He bent down beside the body and checked the pulse. 'He's barely breathing. Fuck. I only checked him ten minutes ago.'
Johnny pushed past him. 'Where's the FME?'
'He could be anywhere. Out on call.'
Johnny knelt down. Nathan's face was paler than he'd ever seen it. He'd lost consciousness. 'Nathan, can you hear me, son?' More vomit slewed out of his throat, with what looked like bile. He'd been mixing it again. His breath smelt of booze. 'He's going to choke to death, if we don't do something. His stomach needs pumping.'
'So how do we do that?' asked the custody sergeant.
'We don't. We need the FME fast and we need an ambulance. I'm going to try and keep his airwaves free.' He opened Nathan's mouth to make sure he hadn't swallowed his tongue.
The custody sergeant ran out, shouting. Whether he'd really looked in on Nathan ten minutes ago was of no importance now. It was all about keeping the kid alive. The term on the streets was falling into a K-hole, but it may as well have been a black hole. You left the real world behind, out of body, out of mind, locked in tranquiliser heaven, just you and the fucking wild hallucinations. When you got out, if you got out, you'd remember nothing.
'Nathan, listen to me, we're gonna get you out of this,' Johnny urged. 'You're going to be okay. The ambulance is going to be here in a few minutes and they're going to pump your stomach and you're going to be okay.' But in Johnny's head, he was thinking the worst already and wondering if he'd done everything he could.
Have I missed something?
It was written above his desk in the office. It was written on his desk at home. It was imprinted in his mind, the mantra of the social worker. Could he have predicted it? He saw Nathan yesterday; he'd checked the room he was staying in, he'd checked he'd eaten, he'd checked he wasn't on anything and needed urgent medical attention. He'd spoken to him, and though Nathan had hardly been on the best form, he wasn't on the worst either and had responded. He could fill a progress report in and say things had been okay. But now things weren't okay and Nathan had inhaled more of this fucking horse tranquiliser. He was overdosing and this was far out of the reach of his training.
Have I missed something?
Of course, he'd missed something. That was why Nathan was like this.
More bile came out of Nathan's mouth, covering his hand. Where the hell was the ambulance? He kept Nathan on his side with his head pointed slightly down. He felt his pulse. It was feeble.
Don't die, you bastard.
He looked at the shit on the wall and suddenly realised the smears weren't random but made into badly drawn letters. He'd written something there.
C O H M
What the fuck was that?
It was then he heard the footsteps running down the corridor and the clang of metal. There were two paramedics, one male and one female, in the doorway. One had a wheelchair.
'Ketamine?' the male paramedic said.
'Any idea when he took it?'
'None.' He was covering his back. Should he have known?
The male paramedic put an oxygen mask over Nathan's mouth. 'Give him point five mill of atropine,' he said to the female paramedic.
She prepared the needle.
They managed to get Nathan onto the wheelchair. The man held his head while the woman stuck the needle in his arm. Nathan's eyes remained closed. They wheeled him out the door, down the corridor, and past the desk sergeant's counter.
The desk sergeant eyed them stoically as if he encountered this kind of thing every day, but he nodded at Johnny with something approaching understanding and not his usual cynicism.
'You coming with us?' the male paramedic asked him.
'I'm all he's got.' Johnny said.
'More than some, then,' the paramedic said.
As they left, Johnny caught the time on the station clock. It was 3.11.
A light drizzle was coming down. Johnny followed the ambulance to Burnley General.
It ran through his head all the way there.
Have I missed something?CHAPTER 2
'You look terrible,' Kat said.
'I feel it.'
'Have you slept?'
'No. I'm back at the hospital later.'
'How is he?'
Kat looked at him sadly. She hadn't touched her food, just kind of messed with it the way women did when there was something on their mind, or they weren't happy, or both.
'I suppose you'll be tired tonight, then?'
'Yeah, I guess so.'
She stared at him as if she was about to say something, then changed her mind.
'You must be tired, too,' he said.
'I am. We're really busy at the moment.'
He looked down at the pie he'd ordered.
'The boss thinks something's going down,' she said.
'Yeah? Like what?' he said.
'Those grooming gangs ...'
Johnny rolled his eyes. 'Them again?'
'Some girls have come forward.'
'They say that all the time, but they won't.'
'They may this time.'
'No, what will happen is what always happens. Front office will get the call, it will be referred up top, and it will come straight back down again. The department doesn't want to offend anyone. Meanwhile, some fourteen-year-old white girl, who shouldn't be on the streets anyway, will be passed around and poked by a gang of Asian men who are laughing at us because we aren't doing anything about it.'
She let the rant end. 'They need evidence, Johnny.'
'They don't need evidence. They need a backbone. No one in the community is going to talk to us, are they? They pretend they don't speak English. Close ranks.'
'Well, isn't that what all families do?'
'Yeah, but we still go after them, don't we? We'd go after Seamus for fiddling with his sister but we won't investigate Saleem for doing the same thing because the council don't want the bad press. Isn't that right?'
She shook her head sadly.
'You know what would happen if a white gang were abusing young Asian girls on the streets?' he continued. 'There'd be a fucking war. They'd take the law into their own hands and shoot the bastards. And, you know what? They'd be right to do so.'
Kat sighed. 'Weren't we coming for something to eat, Johnny? You know, relaxing?'
It was true.
'You're right,' he said. 'I'm sorry.'
She stared at him in that way again. 'I don't think this is working out, John.'
So there it was, what she'd been meaning to say all along. He could tell it was serious when she shortened his name. All the familiarity was gone.
He looked round the room at the other diners in the Bay Horse Inn. He heard the clink of cutlery and the chime of polite conversation and the laughter of children pretending to be grown up, and then he thought of a hospital bed in Burnley General and a sixteen-year-old boy with a tube down his throat, undergoing gastric lavage. He couldn't eat, either.
He looked at Kat. Her bleached blonde hair was cut into a bob and clung to her newly bronzed skin. The Barrowford tanning parlour had done a grand job. She was twenty-nine and could do a lot better than him, there was no denying it.
'Yeah, I know,' he said.
'I've been thinking ...'
He knew those words only ever prefaced something bad.
'I think we should have kids.'
An elderly lady with silver-rimmed spectacles, pretending to read her menu on the table to his right, raised her eyebrows and gave him a saucy look.
'You know. Kids. I think we should settle down.'
She'd blindsided him, taken him unawares. That wasn't in the rulebook.
'Well, what do you think?'
The elderly lady regarded him mirthfully. 'I hope you don't mind me intruding,' she said, craning her neck confidentially. 'Of course it's none of my business, but my advice would be to say yes.'
Kat smiled. Her teeth were white as snow.
'She's a very beautiful girl,' the elderly lady went on, 'and very beautiful girls don't come along every day. Children are a great blessing.'
Johnny nodded and wondered if the whole thing had been planned. They'd been coming here long enough to get to know the regulars. 'You know that for a fact?' he challenged her.
'I most certainly do,' she said. 'Now, I'm going to get back to my menu and you're going to be a gentleman.'
Kat had a huge smile on her face. For a moment, the tiredness was forgotten, and a shot of life came coursing through her. 'Well?' she said.
'Well,' he said. 'Looks like we're going to be a family.'
Her face glowed in pregnant expectation. He didn't think he'd seen her so beautiful or so happy. Maybe Cath having a baby had done it to her, set her biological clock ticking? Now she was overdosed on the realisation.
'Things are going be different, though,' she said.
'Different?' he said.
'Yeah. You're going to get your priorities right. You're going to find time for us.'
'For me and baby. And you're going to stop drinking.'
She had a long list of things she wanted changing. He listened carefully, then less carefully, until it became a background noise, like the babbling of a stream far away.
'So?' she said finally.
'So?' he repeated.
'Are you going to be tired tonight?'
It suddenly all made sense.
He smiled. 'No sleeping on the job, eh?'
As they left, the elderly lady caught his eye and gestured to him to come over. 'She's just getting the nest ready, as we used to say. Well done. And good luck.'
For a moment, the years fell off her and he glimpsed what she would have looked like when she was younger. She had beautiful eyes and a petite face, slightly foreign looking. He guessed she would have been quite a catch in her heyday. Even now her history and her manner gave a kind of foxiness bordering on sex appeal.
'Thank you,' he said. 'Really.'
They drove back down Pasture Lane to Barrowford. Pendle Valley stretched out on either side, bathed in warm afternoon sunlight. On a day like this, the place was as inviting as the holiday brochures in the local tourist information centre made out: a rambler's paradise. He didn't say much, and Kat seemed happy enough to stay in the moment, thinking of babies and the future. When he dropped her off she had a smile on her face, and when he kissed her goodbye it meant something, the way it often didn't. It didn't feel like he was saying goodbye to anything. It felt like a new beginning.
He saw her in the rear-view mirror and wished he could take a picture of her, to remind him. Then he turned a corner and she vanished. Time? How was he going to find time when there was no time even to sleep? A kind of haze descended on him as he headed back to the hospital. He was taking Nathan back to the police station, back to answer questions, so his life could be reset and the same old crap happen again. There'd never be a new beginning for Nathan, just a million false dawns. If he left his job, sure there would be someone to take his place, but the continuity he promised, that he promised all of them, would be gone. He would have passed the buck, moved on, forgotten them all, like every social worker before him.
Nathan was in a bed at the far end of the ward. He didn't look at him when he sat down next to him, he just kept staring straight ahead.
'How you doin', son? They looking after you?'
There was no reply.
'You don't have to talk if you don't want to. I'll do it for both of us.'
No reply again.
'We have to go to the station when you're better, have a talk with the police.'
Nathan shook his head.
'You'll have to, son. We have to sort you out.'
'Leave me alone or I'll call the nurse.'
'I'll call her for you, if you like. I need to speak to her, anyway.'
An amiable ward sister in a light blue dress approached them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Pendle Fire"
Copyright © 2018 Paul Southern.
Excerpted by permission of Bloodhound Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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