Max China's Blog
My father was Polish, a WWII veteran who settled in England after the war and married my mother, who was English. I’m proud of my heritage and family name. It just doesn’t look good on the cover of a book. I also liked the idea of remaining incognito. Apart from that, there’s no difference between who I am and Max. We’re one and the same.I read a lot as a youngster, and when I was seventeen, I promised myself one day I’d join the ranks of the international thriller writers of the day - a guy can dream can't he? Then life and reality got in the way. I followed my father into the construction industry, but it never quite satisfied my ambitions.It would be a long time before I learned enough about life to write anything meaningful. I needed to find a voice, and in those days, just keeping body and soul together was a full-time job. It didn’t allow the time or space for any kind of creative thinking.In 2009, I met up with a friend. Once we’d covered just about everything else, we started talking about unfulfilled desires and ambitions. The subject of ‘the book I never wrote’ cropped up, as it often did, but this time when I got home, I started work on it straight away.The book was about a man who’d never forgotten a ghostly tale he’d heard in his youth, and who by some quirk of fate, gets to stay in the house where the story took place. I wrote sixteen chapters of The Man in Brown before a stronger idea developed. At this point, I’ll just explain that I often wake up at three in the morning and dash a chapter out on my iPhone, emailing what I’ve done for editing on my computer later. This particular morning, I woke up with the idea for a completely different book and wrote for hours. I immediately shelved what I had been working on, and continued with Finding Her, the working title of my latest project.By this time, I was using a piece of writing software, which was completely self-contained, and had its own version of Word embedded within. To cut a long story short, the software crashed, I lost everything. Frantic calls and emails to support followed, but I got nowhere.Thirty thousand words had gone.My heart sank.I had the feeling I should get down as much as I could remember while it was reasonably fresh in my mind. So, I wrote like a man possessed for the rest of the day and into the night. When I woke up in the morning, the idea for The Sister was born. I bent Finding Her into a new shape. Working in my spare time, including experimenting with several book covers, it took around three years to complete. Finding Her, the original title, was about a girl who’d never known her sister. She’d disappeared before she was born.The story carried this pitch: Twenty-three years ago, a nurse went missing. Her younger sister never met her. Two people know the truth about what happened, but they’re not telling…The Sister introduced further depths, a supernatural aspect and also introduced a character I’d developed during the writing of The Man in Brown: Miller, a private investigator who specialises in solving mysteries and finding missing people.As a debut novelist, I wanted to be different and approach the story in a somewhat unconventional manner. Looking back, I’m proud of what I achieved. At over two hundred thousand words, it’s a hefty book, and it sold well, at one point reaching 81 in Amazon UK’s top one hundred kindle chart.So far, I’ve published four titles:The Sister, I’ve covered pretty much what it’s about above, however, the origins of the all-knowing clairvoyant stemmed from a meeting I had with a medium in my early twenties. Always a sceptic, but no disbeliever, I sensed I was in the presence of the real deal, and of course she found her way into the book. More on that later…The Life and Times of William Boule, a self-contained spin-off from my debut, featuring characters from the story.The Night of The Mosquito, which is the story of an escaped psychiatric patient with a taste for blood, and a retired hypnotherapist who suffers a bad reaction to a mosquito bite. Set against the backdrop of an apocalyptic event, which wipes out power and communications in Europe, it’s a compelling thriller filled with drama and suspense. A story with a powerful message, it’s scheduled for release in a couple of months.Don’t Turn on The Light – Crossing the Line, (an expansion of a short story I released sometime back).I’m hoping at some future point to write full time and catch up on the thirty or so storylines I have in development including The Sister – Salvation.
Dad was still alive when I started the novel version of the Don’t Turn on the Light. He read the first few chapters sitting on my sofa, about a month before he died.
So much has happened in between. The river of life flows on.
The other night I was listening to a song called 1971. The lyrics got me thinking about that year. What could I recall of that time? I remembered I'd been to a Pink Floyd concert - with Dad. I wasn't allowed on my own - mum worried about me becoming exposed to drugs and sex. I was sixteen. Although I don’t suppose much has changed, it seemed things were different in those days.
I decided to record the gig on a BASF 240 cassette, or was it a 180? Difficult to recall that detail now, but anyway, I taped the show and in the following years, my brothers and I wore the thing out. The songs, the voices in the crowd I came to know by heart. Eventually, it broke, got tangled up around the rollers of the player. I never would have thrown it, but someone in the household did. I can’t tell you how many times I lamented the loss of that tape.
In the morning, I got up and checked YouTube for any footage of that particular show. There was none. A couple of audience recordings of really poor quality, just as mine had been. Then I spotted one which said, good quality. The Return of the Son of Nothing, the original title of Echoes. I selected play. Roger Waters announced the name of the song and I heard a familiar voice say. 'Do you know that one?' Moments later, another, perhaps even more familiar, 'No I've never heard it.'
My father and I!. Forty-five years later, his familiar tones had reached out from a place in time to reunite me with those memories, on a copy of my own recording!
Discovered while writing a story about time and space.
I'm still reeling from the coincidence...
The Sister complicated? It's like a small town. You have to live there a while before you get to know what's going on, but once you connect, there are several levels. Mainstream and underground.
It's like getting introduced to a bunch of people at a party. At first, you struggle with their names. After a while, it's like you've known them forever. The Sister is like that, once you get through the introductory scenes. I always felt if the reader was able reach that position, the story would get better and better.
Waiting for the first review on your latest book is always a little nerve wracking, luckily its a good one! Don't Turn on the light: Crossing the Line ebook is #FREE all week to download, so don't miss out!"Once again, Max China reeled me in by evoking an intense emotional attachment to his cast of unforgettable characters! The author effectively blends love, action, scientific theories and time travel into a complex story full of unforseen twists and turns. What should have been a bright start in a new home for Frank and Shelley Cassidy and their two young children is thwarted by dark and ruthless time traveling magician, Edward Sparkes. We soon learn this egotistical villain with a propensity to play God is behind more than one disappearance in their home over the years and takes perverse pleasure in creating overwhelming adversity for Frank and his wife. What transpires is a testament to belief, love and sacrifice. This story is laden with suspense, heartbreak and brutality yet the courage, determination and epic victories woven into the storyline keeps the reader engaged, and on edge, throughout!"
A lot of people believe in ghosts. Me included, within certain parameters. I've been lucky enough to have experienced the manifestations that 'genuine' phenomena produce. On several occasions, I've had people with me who saw or felt the same things. Mostly, I'm a debunker. There's usually a simple explanation if one cares to look. However, the majority of people flee at first contact!
I worked alone in a house which seemed to possess an atmosphere of stark dread. I always left around eight, when the oppressive vibes became too much and imagination would start kicking in. One night, I turned off the power to the house from the mains rather than go from room to room turning out lights. I had a short walk to the front door from the under stairs cupboard where mains switch was located. With the light gone, the darkness felt like a living thing.
As I reached the door, the central heating boiler fired up. How could it go that with no electricity to trigger the ignition? My hackles rose. My first instinct was to get the hell out of there. I overcame my trepidation and walked to the kitchen where the boiler was housed. The off switch didn't work, turning the thermostat down was equally unsuccessful. Nothing I tried would kill the power. Skin crawling with goose flesh, I exited the place in a hurry!
The following day, I had the wiring checked out. The electrician found the house was cross-wired at the mains, so even when it was off, it remained on.
Simple explanation, see? My other experiences were not so simple... The fact that mine is based on personal experience and turned out to be something other than supernatural is great, but wait until I tell you what happened a couple of nights later, when I went into the garage...
Q: When did you first start writing?
A: Like most people, I’ve always written something from time to time over the years, and I first said I wanted to be a writer when I was seventeen, but life gets in the way.
I started creative writing seriously, about five years ago.
Q: Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
A: I do indeed. I was around ten years of age and doing a paper round - whether that would be allowed these days or not, I don’t know - but there was a huge old house with a creaky wrought iron gate, and a long path that wound its way through overgrown laurel bushes. For some reason it used to terrify me, so I wrote a little piece of fiction about it.
Q: What is your writing process?
A: I’ll often wake up in the early hours, usually between 3 and 5 am and type a thousand words into my iPhone ready to email myself for further editing on my computer. I often write stepping stone scenes that connect all through the story, coming back to fill in the details later. The central part of the story I’ll often keep fairly flexible until I’m ready to fix the pieces in place. Because I write in my spare time, I have to fit the work in wherever I can. When I’m firing on all cylinders, I can complete a thousand words that I’m happy with, each day. Part of the reason I could be considered slow, is the research process. Although I write fiction, I like the facts to be correct, so for instance, in my debut novel, The Sister, when I say there was a Dire Straits concert in 1983 at the Hammersmith Odeon - there really was, and it occurred on the night that I said it did.
Q: What’s the story behind The Sister?
A: I’ve always wanted to write a novel and I guess it had been building in me. It went through several incarnations before becoming what it is today. I had some things I wanted to say about choices and what can happen if under pressure the wrong ones are made, how easy it is to do that, and the possible consequences of getting it wrong. So, in a nutshell, it’s about a man having the chance to make some sense of his life in his dying moments, and the story of what he sees as his last breath escapes. It is based on the concept that you see your whole life flash by in those last moments. All this plays out against the backdrop of a serial killer and the families of his victims whose lives have been blighted.
Q: Tell us about your main character.
A: The book is written in an unconventional way so that a variety of people are introduced fairly quickly, cameo fashion. The early lives of Bruce and Vera are explored, the effects on Bruce from witnessing a killer disposing of a body when he was seven years old, and of course, the effect it had on Vera viewing the same thing, but remotely from two hundred miles away. She is older and born with a wisdom that belies her years and other properties which enable her to cope so much better than he does. Bruce develops mechanisms that shield him from the fear, but blind him to the truth . . . I think I have to just clarify at this point that there are several main characters which come and go throughout the book. You never know when they will appear next.
Q: How do you approach cover design?
A: All my covers are professionally created by a Royal Academy of Arts qualified graphic artist. I bounce ideas off him. If something feels right, I go with it. For The Sister, I used a photograph of the full moon reflecting on the surface of an ancient moat, taken one cold February night. The images were exactly perpendicular, as above so below. It just seemed to fit. I like to use photographs I’ve taken for the background imagery. For The Man in Brown, a future release (late summer) - I used a picture of the same moat, this time showing a blazing sun. The reflection in the water is like a portal into another world.
Many writers wait patiently for years hoping for that elusive book deal. I wanted to write, I wanted to be read and I wanted to be in charge of my own destiny. The landscape has changed sufficiently to make those things possible. I’ve sold thousands of ebook copies of The Sister to date. I’m happy with the decision to go it alone.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: I’m finishing my latest novel Don’t Turn on The Light: Crossing The Line. Release date 21 March 2016. As I said previously, I further projects nearing completion, more spin-offs from The Sister, all of which completely self-contained, complete stories. Although not a series, many of my books are linked.
Q: Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
A: I was born in the east end of London, but grew up in a seaside town in Essex. Apart from the odd mention of seagulls, I don’t think where I grew up influenced my writing at all.
Q: Describe your desk
A: Organised chaos. If it were tidied, I’d never be able to find anything.
Q: What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
A: Daylight, birdsong and sunshine. The sunnier it is, the more inspired I’ll be...
Book preview. Seven chapters uploaded.
Churchend, Bristol. Monday, August 10, 1987. 7:57 am.
Dragged over uneven ground between the gravestones of the churchyard next to St. Michael’s Orphanage, five-year-old Timothy Salter stumbled, almost falling. ‘Stop it. You’re hurting my hand,’ he squealed.
Ahead of him, the girl’s blonde pigtails swished from side to side as she ran. She didn’t turn round. ‘Quiet, Timmy,’ she said, in low tones. ‘Do you want us to get caught?’
He pulled against her, digging in with his heels.
Six years older, and twice his size, his sister, had little trouble jerking him back into a slow trot.
‘Sarah, where are we going?’ The little boy said.
‘We can’t stay. We have to get as far away from here as we can.’
‘But why’? He tried snatching his hand from her grasp.
Sarah tightened her grip. ‘Stop that,’ she said, her voice harsh, yet barely above a whisper.
Tears brimmed in Timothy’s eyes. His lips trembled. ‘But why?’
Sarah’s face crumpled. Oh, Mum. Dad. wherever you are. How can I tell him? Her mother spoke softly, as if she were right next to her, and not just in her mind. He’s too young to understand. ‘When you’re older, Timmy,’ Sarah said. ‘I’ll explain.’
‘I’m scared,’ he sobbed.
‘So am I,’ she said. ‘Now, come on.’
A hundred yards further, where the churchyard met the lane, they reached a low stone wall and stopped, both of them panting. Sarah released him, placed both hands palms down on top of the smooth coping, and swinging her leg up, she straddled it. ‘Give me your hand, Timmy.’
He held it out. She took it. Bracing herself, she hauled him up next to her. ‘Everything will be alright,’ she said, jumping to the ground. Reaching up, she helped him down.
The caretaker stood in the boiler house doorway and watched the children clear the wall. A simple man, he’d done what he thought best. He knew the men who came to the home in the dead of night were powerful, untouchable. He’d seen what had happened to the new girl the night before, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before they went into the little boy’s wing. If he blew the whistle, they’d destroy him. The magistrate would have him put away in prison.
He decided to give the children a few more minutes, and then report that he’d mislaid his keys.
In the dry and dusty country lane, tall trees leaned over the fleeing children. Up ahead by the crossroads, alert to their approach, a crow hopped, reluctant to leave the remains of his meal behind. Sarah stared at the carrion with disgust as they ran past. The head flattened against the road; she recognised what the dead animal was by its ears.
‘Yuk,’ the little boy said. ‘What is it?’
‘A rabbit, I think. Come on, Timmy, you’ll have to run faster than this,’ she urged. ‘We have to hurry. Any minute now, they’ll find out we’re gone and come after us.’
Sarah stopped at the crossroads. The little boy fell in behind her. ‘Oh, God, Timothy. Which way do we go?’
‘That way,’ he said, without hesitation, pointing to a lane that ran downhill. With barely enough room for a car to pass between its high tree-lined banks, it seemed the safest option. Overhead, the canopy of leaves gave the appearance of a long, dark tunnel. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘Let’s go. I don’t think they’d expect us to go down there.’
Sarah hadn’t a clue where they were. They’d passed only one house in the last five minutes. She’d almost knocked for help, but the cottage being so close to the orphanage worried her. She needed to get them to a police station. Running downhill gave them a brief respite. At the bottom of the lane, there was a level crossing. The barriers were down. ‘There’s a telephone box, Timmy; she said, excited. Then she remembered they had no money. You don’t need to pay for a 999 call; she recalled her mum had once told her. ‘Timmy, over here.’ She heaved on the door with all her might and squeezed through the gap as quick as she could before the door closed on her. She stared in disbelief. The handset was missing. Pushing her way out backwards, she took Timothy’s hand and approached the railway track. She looked both ways and saw nothing. She listened intently. A car! Coming down the lane. She shot round the end of the barrier, pulling her brother alongside. ‘Come on Timmy, we have to go!’ Beside her, the rails hummed. She looked down the track. A train approached in the distance. The car’s engine grew louder as the driver changed down through the gears.
‘Let’s go,’ she cried, ‘We’ve got enough time to make it. She ran forward. Timothy pulled back. Dragging him forward, she tripped. Her foot wedged behind the rail. She tugged at it to free herself, screaming, ‘Go, Timmy! Go! I’ll follow.’ Metal screeching against metal, sparks flew from the beneath the wheels and rails. Through the glass of the cab, Sarah could see the driver’s face, his mouth open and his eyes wide, full of horror. It isn’t going to stop! Her little brother’s feet skidded, scrabbling for purchase as he held onto her hand, desperately trying to pull her clear. The train sped towards them. Sarah screamed and let go of his hand. Timothy fell backwards out of the path of the train.
He would never speak again.
Ashmore top security hospital. August 10, 2014. 8:07 am.
Blood. Warm. Sweet. Saline. The man named Wolfe acknowledged the contradiction. Salt has a sweetness all of its own. A sweet taboo. He sighed. The taste of his own blood could not compare. Hunger consumed him. Forbidden fruit. Fresh meat.
Salivating, becoming erect, he touched himself, cursing the devil. You promised me the Earth for my soul and delivered nothing.
Biting down hard on his lower lip, he closed his eyes and then swallowed. The flavour, vile, tainted by hospital diet, revolted him.
They were moving him. On a bloody Sunday. Somewhere, he’d been told, better equipped to deal with him. From the angle of the sun, he knew it was almost time. Will I go quietly? He grinned. A trickle of bloody saliva escaped the corner of his mouth. Wiping it on the back of his hand, he examined it before licking it clean. Lull them into a false sense of security. That’s what I’ll do.
The tramp of heavy boots announced the approach of a squad of guards. They paused while steel doors were opened and banged shut.
More men than before. After the last time, it was to be expected. He’d got a taste of meat before they’d overpowered him, before tenderizing his six-foot ten-inch frame to a bloody pulp.
The footsteps resumed and then came to a halt outside his cell. He jack-knifed from the bed, and crossed the room, ready.
Nurse Chisolm peered through the observation panel in the steel door. The other side, Wolfe glowered at him.
‘Stand away from the door,’ Chisolm said.
‘You coming in?’
‘Step back, Wolfe.’
Instinct dictated he should stay where he was, defiant. And then he changed his mind. Lull them into a false sense of security...Wolfe took a backward step.
The outer skin of the medication hatch grated as it slid open. At just a couple of inches short of Wolfe’s height, Chisolm stooped with some discomfort and put the plastic cup he carried on the flat surface. ‘Drink this,’ he growled, and slamming the steel plate shut, peered through the viewer, to watch the giant patient’s approach.
‘Got anything good in it?’
‘Something to help you relax. That’s all.’
Wolfe shrugged, took a step forward, and collected the cup.
‘You know how this works,’ Chisolm said. ‘Easy or hard. Now, let me see you drink it.’
The patient swallowed it like a fine whisky.
‘Best get on the bunk, Wolfman. That little cocktail’s going to hit you hard. We don’t want any accidents, do we? And you know what they say, the bigger you are, the harder—’
‘You’d know better than me about taking a fall, Chisolm,’ Wolfe sneered.
‘Is that right?’ the guard said. ‘Now, get on the bed.’
Hilltop Cottage, Churchend. 8:12 am.
Michael Anderson carried a silver breakfast tray, laden with toast, marmalade and coffee through the open French doors, and onto the timber patio deck. He checked the position of the sun, and satisfied the shadow he cast was conducive to glare-free reading, he put the tray on the open slats of the hexagonal table and went back inside to collect his latest reading material.
He thought about his trip to Brighton, wandering the lanes as he so often did with Margot. Did I really go there yesterday? If it wasn’t for the book, the whole thing could have been a dream. He’d browsed as if she were still with him, peering into stores that held no interest for him out of a habit that hadn’t existed in years. He did a double take as he walked past the front of a second-hand bookstore called Fortunes. The shop had been decorated in gipsy themes, the centrepiece an old vardo. At the base of the steps to the caravan, he’d spotted a bargain bucket. Anderson wasn’t usually given to rummaging for cut-price deals, but a book, its title poking out from one side caught his attention. Problem Child, by Stella Bird. The author wasn’t anyone familiar to him. He extracted it from the piled up contents of the wicker basket and purchased it on a whim without looking at the pitch on the back cover.
It was after nine o’clock when he arrived home, the evening all but gone. Stuck in traffic, he’d chewed on mints to stave off hunger and now that he’d made a cheese sandwich, it tasted of cardboard. After two bites, he threw what was left in the bin and climbed the stairs to run a bath. He turned the taps on and then stood by the washbasin while it filled, staring at his reflection in the mirrored cabinet. A familiar debate started inside his head. You’re tired. You don’t need those. But I sleep so much better when I’ve had them. He opened the cabinet, took out a box of Nytol, and automatically popped two of them through the foil. He no longer took the pills to help him sleep. He’d acquired a psychological dependency on them. He swallowed them and then got undressed. He lowered himself into the water.
Half an hour later, already in the grip of the pills he’d taken, his initial glance at the back-page pitch, stirred long forgotten memories. The author stated that the book was a tribute to a psychiatrist who hadn’t been afraid to experiment with new ideas. That she’d assembled the book based on the notes and diaries of Dr Ryan. My old friend Ryan? Couldn’t be. A sense of jubilance had risen in him. How right he’d been to purchase the book! Stella Bird’s introduction ran to several pages. She apologised for not using his Christian name and explained that she’d only learned it after his death. Out of respect, she’d refer to him by his surname, the way he’d preferred in life.
Ryan, he mused, such a character. Although a friend, he never knew his first name either. Once, when Anderson had asked him for it, he’d said, “Just call me Ryan. Shall I call you Mick?”
Anderson’s smile broadened, lifting his spirits as he recalled his answer. “No, call me Michael.”
Ryan never did address him by his first name.
Anderson retrieved the book from the coffee table in the conservatory. He relished the idea of reading for a couple of hours with nothing to disturb him, but chirping birds and the lazy buzz of fat bumble bees. He strode through the house and returned outside with the book tucked under his arm.
The chair legs juddered as he dragged it back, preparing to sit. The desktop magnifying glass and book set down, he sat and shuffled himself into position, arranging the magnifier to straddle the page he’d bookmarked the night before.
Spreading jam on a piece of toast, he poured coffee. A final adjustment to the layout of the book, he lifted his cup and sipped, before taking a bite, savouring the taste. He leant forwards and peered through the convex glass.
With no clear recollection of what he’d already read, beyond a fuzzy memory, Anderson flicked through and realised he’d only completed two pages. Beginning again, he skipped through the author introduction until he reached the last page. His eyes locked momentarily on her justification for releasing the book.
"I was with Dr Ryan in his last hours and he’d been remarkably lucid. Although I was only a secretary, he’d treated me like a confidante for much of the time I worked for him. He told me of his great interest in the supernatural, and how he’d hoped to one day use his notes to write a book, something he never got around to doing. He had no children. His wife had died some years before. I’m not sure why, but he decided to bequeath me everything, including his personal notes and files. I believe his hope was that I’d find a way to publish them." Stella concluded with the legend: Patient’s names have been changed to protect their identities.
Will you recognise any of them? How long ago did Ryan and I part company? Anderson sat back in his chair and squinted at the walls of the house made brilliant by the sun, as if caught in a spell. His mind rolled back through the many milestones carved from joy and pain. Thirty-five years. His life as it was then danced before him. He smiled wistfully. Finally, he blinked and turned away.
He resumed reading.
When I was a young doctor working in Ireland in the late sixties, I met a girl who would change the course of my life. She was little more than fifteen. I had attended her following a report from her aunt that she was sick. Her family doctor could not be summoned. I was his stand-in. From the moment she told me, “Doctor David’s not coming,” and then whispered word for word, the contents of a note later found with David’s body, I knew she was something special. How had she known? I’d already begun to develop an interest in the paranormal, and here I was in the presence of a child, who without doubt, had been blessed with powers of clairvoyance. I wanted to study her further, an opportunity that was to be denied, but she triggered an interest that became a lifetime obsession. If I’d never met her, would I have become a child psychiatrist? Would I have tried alternative treatments where conventional methods had failed? If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have never dreamed of it. And I certainly wouldn’t have become involved with some of the most interesting events imaginable.
Fully engrossed, and with Ryan’s voice in his head like he’d last heard it yesterday, Anderson didn’t notice the shadow encroaching on his peripheral vision. Instead, a strange sensation drew his focus. Numbed pain. Dull, and insistent at the soft corner of his left eyelid. What the? He cuffed himself as he swatted the thing away. Some kind of insect.
Anderson drew a finger across the affected area, a bump already forming. Leave it alone; or it’ll start to itch. If it did, he’d call in at the chemist and buy some antihistamines. Damned mosquitos. He’d never been bitten there before. He swivelled his eyeballs left. The swelling, a skin coloured blur, irritated him like a smear on a pair of reading glasses. Damn. He pushed back in his chair, and as he stood, glanced through the magnifier, at the page beneath. What the hell? Peering closer, against the background of a two-line break – between scenes, apparently dead, lay the biggest and blackest mosquito he’d ever seen. The magnified image held him fascinated.
The creature had come to rest on its side. In profile, it looked like a grotesque parody of an ostrich. Attached to a tiny head, the petrol-tank body was fuelled by means of an enormous proboscis. The hind legs, disproportionate in size, intrigued him. Designed for walking? No, more like landing gear.
His eyelid began to itch.
The irritation too much, he’d find some lotion to relieve it temporarily. He turned away, got up, and went inside.
St. Michael’s Church. 8:21 am.
A silent scream parting his lips, Timothy Salter jolted upright in bed and pitched himself forwards, eyes wide, hands outstretched, snatching at empty air. Crushed by nightmares as surely as his sister under the wheels of the train, his shoulders slumped. His first thought, always his sister. He fell backwards onto the dishevelled bedding.
Arrows of light beamed through the boarded up slats of the presbytery window and stabbed at the darkness of the squalid room. His eyes adjusted. On top of the bushel crate he’d turned on its end to use as a makeshift bedside table, was a photograph of him and Sarah taken by his father in the garden of their home. It was a tenuous link to the only happiness he’d ever known. His gaze lingered over her. She was ten, wisdom beyond her years already apparent on a face faded by exposure to daylight. She stood with one hand on his shoulder, and a wan smile at her lips. Her hair swept from her face by the breeze blowing that day. Blonder than he, she seemed to look right back at him. Dressed in a black and white cowboy outfit, he wore a too-big Stetson. He was sitting astride a tricycle, a toy gun aimed at his dad, while Sarah, smiling at his antics looked straight ahead. He touched his shoulder. He always thought of her hands. They seemed too big for a little girl. He remembered his mother’s words. “Smile for the camera, my lovely angels.”
A flashbulb went off in his mind.
Long lost voices came back to him. His mother and father. He’d already been alive longer than they had been.
‘Are you sure it’ll be all right to leave the children with your sister, Russ?’ His mother saw him watching, and she moved with his father out of earshot. Though he couldn’t hear them, Timothy read their lips, a talent he’d picked up from a deaf boy at the nursery. ‘She isn’t really old enough.’
‘Don’t be daft,’ his father replied. ‘She’s eighteen next month, and she’s lived with us long enough to know what’s what.’
‘I know. I just worry Jane isn’t mature enough to look after them without us around.’ She sighed. ‘I wish mum and dad hadn’t gone to live in Australia.’
‘And I wish mine weren’t dead. Look, it’s just for the weekend,’ his father said, embracing her. ‘Don’t worry. We’ll have fun.’
Timothy lifted the photograph and began the ritual he repeated every day. He scrutinised the shiny surfaces in the background of the picture. A dark garage window had caught the shadowy image of his parents; their faces obscured behind the brilliant star-shaped flash from the camera. What happened to you? Even today, he didn’t know for sure. He knew they’d been killed, but there was some reluctance on the part of the authorities to explain exactly how. On the day his parents were due home, the police arrived with a man and woman he didn’t know. Social workers. Despite Jane’s protests, ‘I’ll call nan and grandad,’ she’d yelled, he and Sarah had been taken away and placed into care.
If Sarah had only known their grandparents had left Australia almost straight away, she might have been able to hang on. No, she wouldn’t. We ran away because she wanted to protect me.
After the accident, he’d been returned to the home. The same night, the men came and took him out of the dormitory to another room. He shook his head violently, but the experience remained. The men were fascinated by his apparent refusal to cry out. They drank, laughed and took photographs.
When it was over, and he’d been returned to bed, the caretaker came. ‘Come on, boy. I’m getting you out of here.’ Snatches of what the man had said in the car journey came back to him. ‘One day, Timothy, you’ll see what I did was right. I’m taking you to a woman I know. She couldn’t have a kid of her own. She’ll see you right. Her people are rough and ready, but they’ll not allow any harm to come your way.’
He lived with the woman among travelling people for twelve years. Always moving, there wasn’t a part of the country he hadn’t seen. They’d accepted his refusal to speak, assuming he was mute. He learned to work the land using only basic tools, earning his keep doing odd jobs; he became a skilled gardener.
One night, sitting around the fire somewhere in the wilds outside Scotland, a wandering woman came by the camp. She stayed for just one night. He listened enthralled as she told stories, but one, in particular, struck him. The woman never took her eyes off him as she related the tale. It was his story. The story of him and Sarah, right down to what happened with the train. The old woman concluded by saying the little girl’s ghost will find no rest until her brother returned to the lanes she haunted.
As soon as he had the chance, he returned to Churchend. The orphanage had been closed for years. The old priest had accepted his offer to work on the grounds; he’d seen how destitute the boy appeared.
‘Where are you staying?’ the priest asked.
Timothy took a pad from his pocket and scribbled on it with a pencil, and held it out.
Father Raymond took it. ‘I’ll not see you sleeping under the stars, not while there’s room under God’s roof.’ The old man had never discovered Timothy's true identity. He revealed snippets of information to his guest over the years, usually when in drink. ‘My predecessor, he knew what was going on. How could he not have?’ He’d scrutinised Timothy. ‘If that’s what you’re thinking, you’d be right. The drunken pervert kept a diary. I found it over there.’ His hand indicated the altar. ‘There, of all places. Brazen. No shame. Died of a heart attack when he heard the caretaker had gone to the police. And then the whole sorry tale came out.’ The priest took a sip of his whisky, swilled it around the glass and then drained the last of it. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘It took a while for the authorities to close the place down. They never found the little boy. His grandparents had come all the way from Australia to apply for adoption. Heartbroken they were. That family was cursed, I tell you. The caretaker stood before the courts and testified, but I think he knew more about what had happened with the children than he let on. With the men involved convicted and jailed, it didn’t take long for the stain to spread over the church. People began to stay away.’ He stood and swayed, gripping the edge of the table. ‘Pass me the bottle would you?’
Father Raymond poured himself another and offered the open neck to his guest. Timothy shook his head.
The priest lowered his voice, and holding the back of his hand to his mouth, spoke with theatrical discretion. ‘You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but sometimes on the anniversary of that day, I’ve seen a little girl running among the graves.’ Distracted by his recollections, he failed to see Timothy sit up, more attentive. ‘I always think there’s more to ghosts than we can fathom. You know, there’s a reason for everything on God’s Earth. Life has a way of negating evil things, the same way you always find a dock plant among nettles. The cure is never far away if you know what to look for.’ After Father Raymond said that, Timothy walked the lanes, the tracks, the graveyard, endlessly searching. But he never saw Sarah.
His reverie over, he picked up the tear-off calendar. August 9. The words of wisdom beneath the date were attributed to Abraham Lincoln. “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”
Twenty-seven years had passed exactly like that, but nothing had changed. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror on the wall. Gaunt. His deep-set eyes stared back at him. He saw nothing in them other than a bleak wilderness and ever-lasting guilt. He touched them expecting to feel pain. He’d lost weight. He had to eat. If his death was judged self-inflicted, that would be suicide, and he’d be consigned to purgatory, never to see his loved ones again. He hesitated, and then ripping the page clear, crumpled it into a ball and placed the calendar back by his bed.
He got dressed and slipped his Bible into the top pocket of his boiler suit and prepared for what he had to do.
Ashmore top security hospital. 8:25 am.
The guard pushing the wheelchair bearing the oversized prisoner along the corridor glanced down at Wolfe. The giant’s head, dipping lower with each stride, slumped and came rest on his shoulder.
‘He’s gone,’ the guard said, like a parent who’d succeeded in getting a wayward child to sleep, and continued towards the lift.
Although the patient was strapped in and flanked by a contingent of ten men, Chisolm eyed him warily. ‘Do not assume for one moment he’s less dangerous because he’s doped up,’ he said, without breaking stride. ‘I heard he came up like a Jack-in-a-box last time he was moved. Doctors underestimated the dose needed to keep him under. Took a bite out of someone’s arm, right through the shirtsleeve, swallowed it before anyone could stop him. He knew he wasn’t going anywhere. Did it for pure devilment.’
‘I heard that, too.’ The guard steered the wheelchair round a corner. ‘No one knew what he was like back then, did they? To be honest, I’d gladly finish him if I had the chance. Do society a big favour.’
‘I think that goes for all of us,’ Chisolm replied. A chorus of grunts signalled the squad’s approval.
Impassive, if Wolfe had heard their words, he gave no sign. Face pressed close to his exposed upper arm, a trickle of fluid oozed from the corner of his mouth, staining the high cut sleeve of the blue gown he wore. Wolfe had long ago perfected the art of swallowing and sly regurgitation after studying early twentieth century magicians and escape artists, particularly Houdini. The cocktail was strong enough to fell an elephant; that’s what Chisolm had told him that once he’d drunk it. The effects, though diminished by his slow expulsion, were enough to dull his senses. He wondered absently if they’d deliberately overdosed him. He needed to be sick, and fast. But not yet. Outside, that’s when he’d do it – if he was still conscious. He focused on the whisper of rubber wheels against the hard vinyl floor, on the stopping and starting, as he was reversed into the sterile security zones between doors, one banged shut and locked, before the other unlocked and opened.
The last of the liquid expelled, Wolfe’s tongue felt huge, rubbery. He bit into it, focusing on the pain. Sheer force of will prevented him from falling under the spell of the residual chemicals.
Another door. Fresh air on his skin. The sun shone through his eyelids, the colour reminded him of tomato soup. He was outside. The August warmth soothed him. Suddenly spun around, he was being hauled in reverse. The wheelchair bumped up something with a metallic clang. A ramp. The whine of an electric lift. He daren’t peep beneath his eyelashes. Chisolm would see. The motor stopped. He was in a vehicle. His concentration lapsed, and he slipped into the dark streets he inhabited in his dreams, lurking in the shadows, away from the gas-lit pools of light that gleamed off wet cobblestones in the midnight mist, looking for prey.
His body sagged.
‘Finally,’ Chisolm said, checking his watch. 8:28 am. ‘Now he’s really under.’
Copse Hall. 8:31 am.
George Kotlas turned into the visitor’s car park and pulled up close to the reception building. He looked around as he opened the back door and unhooked his suit jacket from the holder above the window. The tarmac and white-lining was obviously new. Only one other car was parked there. A mixture of excitement and anticipation fluttered in his stomach. He recalled the letter Dr Rubenstein had sent three weeks ago. It had contained a brief introduction, together will an invitation to call him, but it was the title, Director of Forensic Psychiatry, Proof and Experimental Unit, that drew Kotlas in.
‘Dr Rubenstein? It’s George Kotlas. You wrote to me—’
‘Dr Kotlas.’ Rubenstein cleared his throat. ‘Yes, I did. I take it you’re interested?’
‘At this stage, I’d say I’m more curious. Why approach me?’
‘Haven’t you heard, Kotlas? There’s an acute shortage of psychiatrists per se. And practitioners with your provenance are rarer still. I sent a non-disclosure form with the letter. Sign and return it to me. Until then I’m not at liberty to discuss anything further.’
Kotlas complied. A flurry of correspondence followed, a formal interview was arranged and confirmed in writing along with a list of procedures to be followed on his arrival at the hospital. It occurred to him that Sunday was an odd day to ask him to come in, but it was his day off. It suited him. He still didn’t know exactly what his new role, if successful, would entail. He patted his pocket to check his passport hadn’t fallen out, locked the car and then followed the directional signs for Reception.
Once Kotlas had completed his security induction, he sat examining his knuckles, comparing one hand to the other. When he’d finished that, he turned to his palms. Unsurprisingly, the calluses on his right were harder and thicker than his left. The security guard that had recorded his fingertip biometrics had remarked on them. ‘Are you sure you’re a doctor? Your hands look like you lay bricks in your spare time.’
Kotlas had grinned. ‘I do a lot of work with my hands.’
The door in front of him opened. A bespectacled middle-aged man stepped through and locked it behind him. ‘Mr Kotlas, I presume?’ He closed the space between them with surprising speed and held out his hand. ‘I’m Dr Rubenstein. Philip, but we use last names around here. Welcome. I’m sorry about the delay. Control Room protocol I’m afraid. Come on through.’ He unlocked the door again. ‘I’ll escort you up to my office.’
Rubenstein used his keys to open and close the numerous doors that barred their way. Finally, he led the younger man into a long passage around the corner.
‘I’ve lost my bearings a little bit,’ Kotlas said, and paused in the middle of the corridor. ‘Is this new? It’s just that I noticed a large, older building close behind where Reception would be?’
‘Keep moving, Kotlas.’ Rubenstein glanced at the CCTV monitors projecting from the ceiling. ‘You’ll make security nervous. To answer your question, it's a blend of new construction and the adaptation of the existing. This facility is the first of its kind in the country. Aside from those who work here, few are aware of its existence. Copse Hall is a private facility, located on a vast country estate, well away from prying eyes. Here, we hope to gain greater insight into the minds of some of the worst former juvenile killers in the world. What goes on here, is not for discussion beyond these walls,’ Rubenstein said. ‘You know, I’m envious of you, Kotlas. At your age, the possibilities of being at the cutting edge, the opportunities that will present themselves...’
‘We’ll see.’ Kotlas nodded thoughtfully. ‘Very quiet isn’t it?’
‘We have just a few patients at the moment, and the staffing levels are commensurate with that. I’ll explain further when we get to my office. Right. Here we are.’ Rubenstein stopped by a passenger lift. He placed his fingertips on the reader control. The steel sleeves of the doors slid open. They stepped inside. The doors automatically closed and they began to ascend.
Rubenstein unlocked his office door and ushered Kotlas through. ‘There’s another reason for the facility appearing quiet. We’ve sent ten guards out to collect our star patient, from Ashmore.’
‘Ashmore? I worked there for a while,’ Kotlas said.
‘I must confess, that’s a part of why I approached you.’
‘So, not so much about shortage, more about provenance.’ Kotlas’ eyes narrowed. ‘Ten man security detail? Not many warrant that. I think I know the answer to my next question. What’s his name?’
Rubenstein indicated the vacant chair. ‘Take a seat,’ he said, walking around his desk. ‘First things first. I already know a lot about you. Let’s fill in the blanks.’
‘No. Wait. How can you have arranged to do that without me knowing?’ Kotlas shook his head.
Rubenstein peered over the top of his spectacles. ‘Patience, dear boy. We’ll come back to that in a few moments.’
Ten minutes later, Rubenstein pushed away from the desk and walked to the window. He turned, and leaning against the window board, faced Kotlas. ‘Look, as far as I’m concerned, based on what we’ve discussed, the job’s yours.’
Kotlas smiled. ‘That’s great, but you haven’t explained exactly what my role is...if I accept. Or how you managed to find out so much about me. You said this is a private company?’
Rubenstein rubbed his lower lip with a forefinger. ‘Yes, I did.’
‘So tell me, who leaked the information?’
Rubenstein strode back to his seat, sat down, propped his elbows on the desk, and clasped his hands together. ‘I want you to continue your work with Wolfe.’
Kotlas leaned back in his chair. ‘And the leak?’
‘There’s no leak. All this may seem presumptuous, but if you accept, you’re cleared to begin working with us right away.’
Kotlas pulled on the lobe of his left ear. ‘Forgive me. I just have to be sure of a few things...’
‘I told you, this establishment is top secret. We’re in partnership with the government. It’s an arm’s length arrangement.’
‘In case things go wrong,’ Kotlas said, tight-lipped. ‘And if I don’t accept?’
‘Someone else will. But you are our preferred option. What do you say?’
‘I get to continue working with Wolfe?’
‘Under my stewardship, yes.’ Rubenstein paused. ‘Do you accept?’
Kotlas reached for a sheet of paper. ‘Can I?’
‘Of course.’ Rubenstein watched, puzzled, as Kotlas took a pen from his inside pocket and scribbled a list of notes. He pushed the paper across the desk. ‘Subject to these terms.’
The older man took the sheet and read. ‘I can live with those things. We’ll get a contract drawn up. Now, tell me what you know about the man.’
‘I’m sure you know most of this already, but this is my resume. Wolfe weighed in at twenty-three pounds when he was born.’
Rubenstein raised his eyebrows.
‘You didn’t know that?’
‘Of course I did, but hearing of such an abnormality never fails to stagger me,’ the older man said. ‘Carry on.’
‘I think it’s obvious he was delivered by Caesarean section. His parents were both six-footers, but neither side of the family had had a child that big before. Destined for greatness, some might say, but he was never going to have a normal life. He outgrew his parents by the time he was nine-years-old. He claims he first killed when he was ten, but there’s nothing to substantiate that. By the age of thirteen, he was uncontrollable. Killed two girls that year, and despite a massive police hunt, went on to kill five more people before they caught him. Bad isn’t it? The savagery of the killings shocked even hardened detectives. The method used pretty much the same in each case. They all had something in common. He ate bits of them. Took different parts from each. Trying different things on the menu; he told me. As you’re aware, he’s been in the system ever since.’
‘You’ve worked with him for the last two years. How do you see him? Mad or bad?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Kotlas, I asked you,’ Rubenstein said.
‘He’s had dozens of psychiatric assessments, and not one of them agrees. To me, he’s both. He sees himself as a victim of his genes.’
‘He does? That one is news to me,’ Rubenstein said. ‘Elaborate.’
‘Wolfe,’ Kotlas said softly. ‘What’s in a name, eh? It comes from his mother’s side. As you probably know, he adopted it when his father died.’
‘Yes, I found that strange. You’d have thought he’d want to keep his father’s name alive.’
‘Maybe. You also know he claims a psychic link to Jack the Ripper?’
‘That wasn’t taken seriously.’ Rubenstein, perhaps sensing a change in tack, viewed Kotlas with suspicion. ‘Why do you bring it up?’
‘Wolfe became more difficult to deal with, complaining that no one listened to him. He went berserk during a routine transfer. Bit one of the staff. He almost overpowered eight burly nurses, all of them highly trained. He ended up in seclusion for a long time. It took me ages to get through to him again.’ Kotlas moistened his lips. ‘Can I have a glass of water?’
‘Over there,’ Rubenstein pointed at the water-cooler. ‘Help yourself.’
The young candidate, got to his feet, continuing to speak as he approached the machine. ‘I told him there was only one way to prove what he was saying was true.’ He filled a clear plastic cup and took a sip. ‘Submit to a DNA test.’
‘They went along with that at Ashmore?’ Rubenstein seemed incredulous. ‘For that to work you’d have needed a sample from the Ripper.’
‘There is DNA. It was recently recovered from historic samples found at the scene of one of the murders.’
‘I heard about that, but honestly, that semen could have come from anyone.’
‘That’s what they said at Ashmore, but I wanted to take it further, if only to get Wolfe to see that what he was experiencing had no basis in fact.’
‘Did they relent?’
‘No. I took some of Wolfe’s hair. It wasn’t hard; he consented. I sent it for independent testing.’
‘I’m going to stop you there, Kotlas. What you did is in contravention--'
‘Hear me out, Rubenstein,’ he said harshly.
The older man, reddened, unaccustomed to being addressed in such a manner.
‘I’m sorry. But guess what? It was a match. He’s related. Now you can argue till you’re blue in the face that it may not be the Ripper’s DNA, but even if it isn’t, what are the odds of Wolfe’s sample coming up positive? Answer me that? And what is even more bizarre, I read somewhere that the Ripper had a taste for blood, and that certain body parts were missing from his victims. The official line from those days, was that he’d taken them as trophies, but I now believe he ate them. Maybe blood thirst runs in the genes, and if we accept that, it could be where Wolfe gets it from.’
Rubenstein stared, measuring the younger man. ‘It seems you’re not above a little experimentation yourself, Kotlas.’ He stood abruptly and strode around the desk, offering his hand. ‘Welcome aboard.’
St Michael’s Church.
Timothy Salter looped a piece of string around the stems of the wildflowers he'd collected and tied it. Every year he performed the same ritual, increasing the number of species collected by one. He had to find twenty-seven this time.
Kneeling on the grass by the grave, he put them in the vase he’d filled with water earlier. He teased the spray of multi-coloured blooms to best effect, the delicate reds of Burning Love fashioned into a heart-shaped centre piece, then placed the vase on the weathered Yorkstone slab at the foot of the headstone. He shuffled in close and ran his outstretched fingertips over the letters carved in the light riven face.
Russell Timothy Salter July 8, 1955 - Aug. 9, 1987
May Marie Salter May 31, 1956 - Aug. 9, 1987
Sarah Grace Salter Feb. 29, 1976 - Aug. 10, 1987
On a tour of the graveyard soon after Father Raymond had provided him with shelter, he’d told him how the grandparents of the little girl had arrived from Australia to bury their daughter, only to discover Sarah, their grandchild, had died tragically the next day. Timothy’s parents had been murdered in the early hours of the Sunday morning on their way home from a night out. All three had gone into the same grave.
‘The tragedy was their grandson had disappeared, and despite an investigation by the police, the little boy was never seen again. They paid for the plot to be deep enough for the boy,’ the priest had said. ‘Not that they expected him to be found dead. The grandmother said she hoped he’d find out where they’d been buried one day. And if he chose, when his time came, he could be buried there, too.’
Timothy marked the anniversary each year only on the day Sarah had died. He carried her more in his heart than his parents. Head bowed, he crossed himself and prayed in silence, remembering her and what he could of his mum and dad.
‘Why were you screaming in your sleep last night, Timmy?’ Sarah asked.
‘I can’t remember,’ he’d replied.
The two of them were laid alongside each other outside, in the garden at home, on the lawn. Sarah plucked a blade of grass and carefully stood it between her thumbs. Holding it firm. She blew over it gently, producing a low, reedy sound.
He’d plucked a blade for himself and tried it, but only succeeded in dribbling.
‘Here, Timmy,’ Sarah said, ‘let me show you.’
And he’d watched her and he’d learned. Soon, they played a chorus of screeching notes before falling about, overcome by laughter. Sarah laid on her back. ‘Timmy,’ she said.
Sarah blew a devastating shriek. He tried to match it. And on and on they went.
Five minutes later, their mother came out. ‘What’s all that awful noise?’
He and Sarah giggled.
‘Pack it in, before the neighbours complain.’
In the quiet moments that followed, remembering his nightmare, he became sombre.
‘What is it Timmy?’
‘I just remembered what I dreamt about,’ He began to wail. ‘I got lost and I couldn’t find any of you.’
Sarah sidled up close and put her arm around his shoulders. ‘Timmy, if you ever get lost, just do this.’ She blew between her thumbs. The blade of grass screamed its song into the air. ‘And no matter where you are, if I hear it, I’ll find you.’ She smiled. ‘Better now?’
‘Oi, you two.’ Their father stood, hands on hips in the doorway. ‘Your mum says, stop making that racket and get inside for your supper.’
Timothy plucked a blade of grass, clamped it top and bottom between his thumbs the way Sarah had shown him years ago, and replicated the sound he’d heard her blow.
No one came.
I hope you enjoyed the preview and if you did, don't forget the book is available on Sept. 29, 2015.
To pre-order The Night of The mosquito click here.
I've sold books in almost every country, but Mexico still eludes me and so did India - other than free downloads - until some point in the last couple of days. I just noticed my book, The Life and Times of William Boule sold a copy there. Yeah ... I know, but it's a start...
I've sold kindle books in every other country, but never Mexico. Not even for free. I have a free promotion running over the next few days and though it's early, I've had sales in all the other countries so far except the Netherlands, Brazil and, you guessed it - Mexico. Still a few days to go. I'm wondering if I'll break the duck. In truth, it highlights the potential benefits of a Spanish translation. I'm told it's a huge market...
For anyone interested, after fourteen and a half hours, the free download figures worldwide are 1888, of which 1641 are for the USA. Be interesting to see how the free sales convert back to paid.
Going back over my notes from around five years ago, I was surprised to see that the story I referred to in my last post was written in the present tense. In those early days, I thought it worked quite well, but then I recalled what happened as I neared the end of my first novel, The Sister. I came to the conclusion, after one hundred and fifty thousand words, that the story would be better told in past tense. So I changed it. Half way through the change I began to think it was better as it was and should have left it alone. I had a back up copy, of course, but in the end I persevered. I rewrote scenes I probably wouldn't have touched if I'd let the book be. I now believe the time taken carrying out the revisions, resulted in a stronger storyline and therefore a better book.
Apart from facebook and twitter, I haven't blogged very much before. The freedom to use unlimited characters is somewhat daunting.
My first attempt at blogging a few years ago met with little success. I decided to try blogging a ghost story as it was written, live so to speak and post an episode when I'd written each one. It was experimental, in that I'm not sure it was a conventional blog. I had to fiddle around with the timeline - so what looked like it was written later - was in fact written earlier.
Also, it wasn't a conventional story, but grew out of the desire to record a diary of real events that at some point became fictionionalized - well some of it anyway.
I posted an episode every day or two of somewhere between five hundred and a thousand words. The work was not finally polished, edited only two or three times to try to retain the feel of a story unfolding on the hoof.
It proved to be a useful exercise. What emerged were the bones of an unpublished story, entitled, The Man in Brown. I will in the course of the next few days add the first few chapters, and I look forward to engaging with a wider audience, as and when the story progresses.