Authors: Peter James
FOR PAT LANIGAN
This book would never have happened without your generosity in sharing your family history with me.
Brooklyn, February 1922
The boy’s father kissed him goodnight for the last time – although neither of them knew that.
The boy never went to sleep until he had had that kiss. Every night, late, long after he had gone to bed, he would lie waiting in the darkness, until he heard the door of his room open, and saw
the light flood in from the landing. Then the shadowy figure and the sound of his father’s heavy footsteps across the bare boards. ‘Hey, little guy, you still awake?’ he would say
in his low, booming voice.
‘Yep, big guy, I am! Can I see your watch?’
His father would take out the watch from his pocket, and hold it up by the chain. It was shiny, with a big, round face, and there was a winder on the top with a hoop the chain was attached to.
In the top half of the face was a section that showed the phases of the moon. The sky behind the moon was dark blue and the stars were gold. Sometimes the moon was barely visible, just peeping out.
Other times it was whole, an ochre disc.
Every night the boy would ask his father to tell him a story about the Man in the Moon. His father always did. Then he would tousle his hair, kiss him on the forehead and ask, ‘You said
The boy would nod.
‘You go to sleep now.’
Then his father would clump back out of the room and close the door.
That’s how it was the very last time.
Four men lurched their way up the street towards the house of the man they had come to kill. Three of them were unsteady because they’d drunk too much; the fourth because
he had drunk too much and had a wooden leg.
They had been boozing to steady their nerves, to get some Dutch courage, they had reassured each other a while earlier, over clinking glasses and slopping beer and whiskey chasers, in the packed
Vinegar Hill bar. The one with a wooden leg wasn’t convinced they were doing the right thing, but he went along with his mates, because that’s what you did when you were part of a gang.
You either went along with them or they killed you too.
It was a few minutes to midnight and the street was dark and deserted, steady rain glossing the cobblestones. Each of them had a handgun, and two of them carried baseball bats as well, concealed
inside their coats. It was a cold night. Cold enough for Hell to freeze over. They all wore fingerless mittens.
‘This is it,’ their leader said, peering at the number on the front door of the row house. Vapour trailed from his mouth and nostrils like smoke.
Number 21, it read.
‘Are we sure this is it?’
‘This is it.’
‘He’ll be here; he’s just up the road now.’
Even in the darkness, the house looked shabby, like all its neighbours in this Brooklyn waterfront district. There was a curtained window to the right of the door, with no light on behind it.
They tugged their balaclavas out of their pockets, and wrestled them down over their damp heads. Their leader raised his baseball bat in his hand, and stepped forward.
The boy lay in the darkness, snug in his pyjamas beneath the heavy bedclothes, listening to the ticking of the big, round clock in his room. Listening to the familiar sounds of
the night. The drone of a passing ship on the busy, inky water of the East River close by. The clatter of a train, high overhead. The creaking of bed springs through the thin wall to his
parents’ bedroom; moans from his parents. His mother crying out. His father’s loud grunt. The gentle patter of rain on the roof above him. The night had its own sounds. Its own
The tinkle of breaking glass was not part of it.
He froze. It sounded like it came from downstairs, right below him. Had the cat knocked over the whiskey bottle and glass his dad left out, empty, every night? Then he heard footsteps coming up
the stairs. Not his dad’s. His dad was already upstairs, in bed.
Several sets of footsteps.
He lay, motionless, his fear increasing. The door opened. A powerful torch beam struck his face, blinding him, and he shut his eyes. Heard footsteps in his room. He could sense a whole group of
people, and was shaking with fear. Could smell tobacco and alcohol and wet clothing and sweat. He felt his throat was closing in, he couldn’t breathe, and his heart was going crazy. He opened
his eyes and all he could see was dazzling light. He closed his eyes again, shivering, quaking in terror. Heard footsteps approaching the bed.
A hand patted his head, then his right cheek, playfully, the wool itchy against his skin.
Then a voice, coarse but soft, an Irish accent, right above him. Breathing heavily. ‘Just checking you out, kid.’
‘You – you – you’ll wake my ma and pa,’ he stammered to the stranger, suddenly finding the strength to speak and then to open his eyes again. But all he could see
was the glare of light.
‘And where would we be finding them?’
He pointed, squinting. ‘Through there.’ He put a finger in front of his mouth. ‘They’re sleeping. Be quiet. You’ll wake them, and my sister.’ Maybe now
he’d told them that they would go away.
The flashlight moved off his face. But still dazzled, all he could see for some moments were pink flashes of light. He heard the sound of footsteps, on tiptoe, moving away. A floorboard creaked.
Then his door closed.
Maybe they had gone home. People often came into this house, at all hours of the night. Drinking, smoking, shouting, laughing, arguing. Mostly arguing, and sometimes fighting. When they fought,
his dad would throw them out. He was a big man. No one argued with his dad.
He pulled the bedclothes over his head so they would not see him if they came back.
Moments later, he heard his father bellow something. Then a loud thud, followed by another. He heard his mother scream. A terrible, terrible scream. Then she cried out, ‘Leave him, leave
him, leave him! Please don’t! Please don’t. Leave him!’
Then he heard one of the strangers say loudly, ‘Get dressed!’
Then his mother, her voice quavering, ‘Where are you taking him! Please tell me? Where are you taking him?’
A minute went by. The boy lay frozen beneath the bedclothes, trembling.
Then his mother screamed again. ‘No, you can’t! You can’t take him! I’ll not let him go!’
Then five loud bangs, as if a door, close by, was being slammed repeatedly.
‘Ma! Pa!’ he screamed back, his whole body electric with fear for his parents. And now the footsteps were much louder, clumping down the stairs as if they no longer cared about being
silent. He heard the click of the front door opening, then the roar of an engine and a squeal of tyres. And no sound of the door closing.
Just the echo in his mind of the terrible sound of his mother’s screams.
Then the silence that followed.
It was the silence that echoed the loudest.
He lay, listening, under the bedclothes. All was quiet. Just a pounding roar in his ears and the puffing sound of his own breathing. Maybe it was just a bad dream? He was
trembling all over.
After some moments he climbed out of bed in the darkness, in his pyjamas, into the cold, then hurried across the bare floorboards to where the door was, fumbling around until he found the
handle, and stumbled out onto the landing. He could feel an icy draught, as if the front door really had been left open. There was a faint smell of exhaust fumes from a motor vehicle.
And there were unfamiliar smells. A reek of oil, and a sweeter, denser smell that he vaguely recognized from fireworks on the Fourth of July. And a coppery, metallic smell.
He felt around until he found the switch for the electric light and snapped it on. And, for an instant, wished he had not. He wished that darkness could have stayed for ever. So that he had
never seen it.
The terrible sight of his mother on the floor beside the bed. Blood leaking from her shoulder; the whole front of her nightdress sodden with a spreading, dark-crimson stain. Blood everywhere,
spattered across the walls, across the sheets, the pillows, the ceiling. She lay on her back, her black hair matted by blood. Part of her head was missing, exposing something wet, gnarly, a brown
and grey colour. She was twitching and shaking.
Then, as if someone had reached over and pressed a switch, she fell silent.
He ran forward, crying out, ‘Mama, Mama!’
She did not respond.
‘Mama, wake up!’ He shook her. ‘Mama, where’s Pop? Mama!’
She did not move.
He fell to his knees and crawled up to her and kissed her. ‘Mama, wake up, Mama!’ He hugged her and shook her. ‘Wake up, Mama! Where’s Pop? Where’s Pa?’
Still she did not move.
‘Mama!’ He began crying, confused. ‘Mama! Mama!’ His arms and face felt sticky. ‘Mama, wake, Mama, wake up . . . !’
‘What’s happening? Gavin? What’s happening?’ His sister’s voice.
He backed away, took a step forward, then backed away again, uncertainly. Kept backing away through the door. And collided with his sister, Aileen, three years older than him, in her nightdress,
chewing a pigtail as she always did when she was afraid.
‘What’s happening?’ she asked. ‘I heard noises. What’s happening?’
‘Where’s Pop?’ he asked. ‘Where’s Pop? Pop’s gone!’ Tears were streaming down his face.
‘Isn’t he in bed?’
He shook his head. ‘He’s gone with the bad men.’
‘What bad men?’
‘Where’s Pop? He has to wake up Mama! She won’t wake up.’
‘What bad men?’ she asked again, more urgently.
There was blood on the landing. Drops of blood on the stairs. He ran down them, screaming for his pa, and out through the open front door.
The street was deserted.
He felt the rain on his face, smelled the salty tang of the river. For some moments, the rumble high overhead of another train drowned out his cries.
Brighton, 28 June 2012
From a distance, the man cut a dash. He looked smarter than the usual Brighton seafront crowds in their gaudy beachwear, sandals, flip-flops and Crocs. A gent, with an
aloof air, in a blue blazer with silver buttons, smartly pressed slacks, open-neck shirt and a natty cravat. It was only on closer inspection you could see the shirt collar was frayed, there were
moth holes in the blazer, and his slicked-back hair was thinning and a gingery-grey colour from bad dyeing. His face looked frayed, too, with the pallor that comes from prison life and takes a long
time to shake off. His expression was mean, and despite his diminutive stature – five foot three in his elevated Cuban-heeled boots – he strutted along with an air of insouciance, as if
he owned the promenade.