Henry realized he could say adios to what little remained of his day, but for the life of him he couldn’t bring himself to spoil Rik’s and Tope’s day any further, after having told them they could go home. He asked Tope to email details of the misper to his Blackberry and set off eastwards from Blackpool after first checking on his mother’s condition: no worse. Then he called Alison but she was too busy to get to the phone, so he left a message with the word ‘sorry’ in it numerous times.
A few minutes later he was gunning the Audi east along the M55 out of Blackpool, his phone connected to the hands-free and a mike clipped to his ear, making him feel ridiculous as always.
When he did retire, one of the things he promised himself was to ditch technology updates for ever. He would keep what he had, but stuff the upgrades. It bored him. Rigid.
The Audi responded superbly on the virtually empty motorway, Henry keeping the speed around the eighty mark and trying to enjoy the drive, the feel of the car under his arse and through his hands and feet, and trying not to think about leaving his mother with his daughters, his sister still not having surfaced. . and Alison getting further and further away in Kendleton, hoping she didn’t lose the engagement ring in the soup of the day. The ring he had bought from Astley-Barnes jewellers, a fact he didn’t have the bottle to admit to Rik.
‘Jeez,’ he sighed. A train wreck of a day.
He had soon joined the M65, heading east as the day continued to darken, clouds thickening like broth. Within thirty minutes of leaving Blackpool, the Audi was climbing up through the village of Belthorn. At the top of the village, he bore right into Tower View — so called because a few miles across the hills to the south was Darwen Tower — though as Henry glanced in that direction there was no way the structure was visible that day.
The tarmac road petered out to become a gravel track, but he only had to travel a hundred metres further to reach his destination, pulling in to the side. He got out, feeling the bitter cold up-here, high on the moors. He walked to the closed wrought iron gates of the large detached house which lay at the end of a curved driveway.
The house was new, large and garishly decorated, festooned with Christmas lights, illuminated reindeer and several huge inflated figures, including Santa himself, Rudolph and a sleigh.
He had been told to use the intercom set into the gatepost and not to enter because of the dogs, and a red-lettered sign on the gatepost proclaimed he had to beware of them.
He pressed the talk button, which buzzed. Then he waited. . and although he knew his day had already been ruined in more ways than one, this might just make up for it. He could not help but be excited by standing there in the chill of the approaching evening.
After all, it wasn’t often a cop got the chance to visit the lair of one of the county’s biggest and most ruthless crime families.
‘Run that by me again,’ Henry had said to Jerry Tope, amazement in his voice.
‘I know — incredible, isn’t it?’ Tope had chuckled at his news.
‘You’re telling me that one of the Cromer family has gone AWOL and they’re reporting him missing? To the police?’ The rising inflection in Henry’s voice reflected his disbelief.
‘That’s exactly what I’m telling you: Freddy Cromer has gone missing and yeah, they’re reporting it.’
Henry pouted thoughtfully at the news.
‘Accrington section have reported it,’ Tope explained, filling in the silence. ‘All they’ve done is send a response patrol and the PC took the report and circulated it. Just treated it as an adult gone missing, as they would, and not really attached much significance to it yet — as they would,’ he said again. ‘Obviously they don’t know what we’re up to, which is why they’ve done the normal thing. But the FIM spotted it, as it fits our missing person criteria.’
‘Mmm, normal except it’s the Cromer clan and Freddy Cromer isn’t the full shilling, as I remember,’ Henry said.
‘And it’s a bit odd they’re telling us,’ Tope mused. ‘Perhaps because Freddy isn’t all there, maybe they’re concerned.’
‘Should we be?’
‘On the face of it, not really. He’s apparently stable enough to go out on the lash, which he did last night, and he just hasn’t landed home. And he hasn’t got his keep calm tabs with him.’
‘Does he fit our victim profile?’
‘Totally. . right age group, the Belthorn link — although I think he was actually born in Preston — and he’s even sitting in the class photo I told you about, like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, although we all know he eats car parts. You’d never guess how he turned out. Looks like an angel.’
‘Shit,’ Henry said, thinking. ‘Runt of the litter.’ He made his decision at that point. ‘I’m going up to speak to them.’
A distorted, tinny voice spoke on the intercom and Henry responded by introducing himself. There was a pause, then the voice said, ‘What do you want?’
‘I’d like to speak to Mrs Cromer please. About Freddy. I believe he’s missing.’
‘And you are?’
Henry repeated his name and rank.
‘Wait there.’ The intercom clicked dead.
Henry took a step back and looked through the wrought- iron gate at the house, which was about a hundred metres away. A new build, with various outbuildings, garages and a small stable block, it looked a very nice house, with a view from the rear across the hills to the south which on a clear day must have been outstanding.
Four cars were drawn up outside: an old Jaguar XJS (a real gangster’s motor, Henry thought), a new Kia Sportage and a couple of smaller, older saloons, a Mondeo and a van.
The front door opened, light flooded out, and then two dogs rushed out and pelted towards the gate, a figure following them.
They were German Shepherds, big, good-looking, well cared for, mature dogs. They skidded up to the gate, snuffling their wet snouts through the iron railings, but neither barked at Henry. They stood side by side and looked balefully at him through golden eyes.
Henry took a step back and swallowed. Not a great fan of dogs. He could recall the incident over thirty years ago when as a probationer constable, he and his training class had been shown around the police dog training facilities at Moor Farm, Hutton, where the dog unit was based. Being nineteen and stupid he had foolishly volunteered to be a ‘robber on the run’ from a police dog and after being well briefed, had set off like a hare, convinced he could outrun a well-trained German Shepherd. He had even been given a hundred-metre start, but the dog caught him in a flash. Fortunately a padded protective sleeve had been fitted over his left arm, which he had been told to present to the dog, for it brought him down with the force of a small truck and sank its fangs into the many-layered protection. Even now, Henry could feel the fangs sinking in, causing him to shiver at the memory.
‘They won’t bite. They’re softies,’ a female voice came from the darkness behind the two dogs. Henry looked up and saw that the figure who had accompanied them from the house was a young woman, maybe early twenties, dressed in tight jeans, cowboy-style boots, a figure-hugging roll-neck sweater. She was also astoundingly pretty with a rounded jaw, full lips, nice eyes. Her hair was cut into a well-trimmed bob that framed her face.
Henry thought he had come to the wrong property.
The Cromers were a northern English version of a hillbilly criminal family and Henry expected to be greeted by — yes, two hounds from hell — but also pitchfork-yielding rednecks.
The woman stepped between the two dogs, easing them gently away, and placed her face between two perpendicular bars, so it looked as though she was looking out of a prison cell.
Henry fished out his warrant card. ‘Detective Superintendent Christie.’
‘Janine Cromer,’ she responded.
Henry squinted at her, maybe seeing some family resemblance. She looked second generation.
‘I’ve come about Freddy. I’m informed he’s gone missing.’
‘We’ve already reported him. A police constable has been up to take details.’
‘I know. I’m just doing some follow-up.’
‘A detective superintendent?’ she questioned, amused.
‘A detective superintendent,’ he confirmed. ‘You going to let me in, or not?’
She surveyed him thoughtfully up and down, her eyes narrowed, weighing him up.
‘Because,’ he continued, ‘I’m not going to stand out here for much longer.’
She unlocked the gate, took hold of each dog by the collar, then turned and manually guided them back towards the house. Henry followed at a respectful distance, knowing he was much slower than he’d been at nineteen, but with his bottom twitching again at the thought of entering the domain of the Cromers. That said, he wasn’t foolish enough to think he would see or find anything of interest inside. He guessed that business and home life were kept separate. It wasn’t as though he would be shown into a room where the cocaine was being diluted with talc and bagged up or where the cannabis was being grown. That would be something that happened elsewhere — though he had no idea exactly where. The Cromers were rumoured to have at least a dozen cannabis farms, but the police had yet to find even one of them.
Janine led the dogs and Henry up to the house, the dogs constantly pulling at her as they looked over their shoulders at Henry, tongues lolling, lots of slavering going on, pointy teeth visible. At the door, she held the dogs to one side and indicated for Henry to go into the house ahead of her. He gave them a wide berth and stepped inside, into a wide hallway. A moment later she was with him, having left the dogs outside.
‘Nice dogs,’ he commented.
‘Through here.’ She pointed up the hallway to a door on the left which led into a large kitchen. Henry passed another door on his left, from behind which he heard raised male voices.
He went into the kitchen, which was expansive and expensive-looking. There was a double-sized range cooker and a large island unit in the centre of the room on which were the remnants of a buffet. A few plates with sandwiches, bowls of crisps, breadsticks and dips and a wide array of bottles, wine, beer and spirits. Looked like a family Christmas get-together, Henry thought, and maybe the family was in the other room he’d walked past — at least the male members, because here in the kitchen were four ladies. One looked old and wrinkled, two were perhaps mid forties and the fourth in her twenties. All sat at the table, each with a glass of wine in hand.
Their eyes spun to him, this interloper. He flashed a thought: crims’ wives, crims’ mums — crimwags — then forced a thin smile and said, ‘Merry Christmas, ladies.’
Not one of them looked either happy to see him, or happy in themselves. Their faces were all deadly serious, as Henry had seen in the moment before they had turned to him. Each had anger and concern across their faces, but that didn’t stop them from regarding him like prey.
‘This is Detective Superintendent Christie,’ Janine announced. ‘He’s come about Freddy’ — and the tone of her voice meant that she didn’t need to add, ‘If you believe that!’
One said, ‘Well fuck-a-doodle. Just what we need — a cop. Shall we gobble him up?’
Henry’s forced smile remained fixed as he quickly tried to work out who was who. The oldest woman was easiest — Granny Cromer, clan matriarch, all-round vicious cow. He knew her face because he’d seen the mug shots a few times, but not recently. She had a long history of violence and debauchery. Knocking seventy, her hell-raising days were over, but only just. This, Henry thought, was Freddy’s mother.
The other women were not so easy to pinpoint. One had a Cromer look about her: angular, dark eyed, pretty in an austere sort of way. Henry thought she could be Lizzie — who had once been convicted of attacking another woman with an axe and was known as Lizzie the Blade — but he was not certain. She looked like Granny, maybe was her daughter, maybe Janine’s mum. He would have to look at the family tree on his next visit to the Major Crime Unit. The others didn’t have any family resemblance and Henry could not place them. Maybe they were friends of the family.
So he thought Janine could be Lizzie’s daughter. Janine certainly had a similarity, but now that Henry saw her in proper light, she had a softer edge to her features.
‘So why’ve you turned up?’ Granny Cromer asked, interrupting his recollections. She was smoking and blew out a lungful as she spoke, her voice rasping like sandpaper. ‘Snoopin’? ’Cos this isn’t a job for a detective superintendent. My son’s gone missing and I’m worried about him because he hasn’t taken his freakin’ psycho tablets with him. That’s all.’ She scowled like a witch.
‘Professional service,’ Henry said.
‘Have we ever had anything to do with you?’ she asked, peering suspiciously at him. ‘Personally, like?’
‘Yes, you have,’ Henry said, and caught the look of realization on Granny’s face.
‘You’re the bastard who put Jimmy away!’ she accused him.
‘It doesn’t matter what my past involvement with you was,’ Henry said equably, aware that he had entered a nest of vipers. ‘I’m here to help now, that’s all.’ He opened his hands in a gesture designed to say that he was here to offer peace, not war. All he was short of were the butterflies.
Granny’s old head shook and her thin corrugated lips sneered at him. ‘Yeah, fucking right.’
‘So who can I talk to?’ Henry asked. ‘I mean, you’re clearly concerned about Freddy. .’
‘No we’re not!’
Henry rotated slowly at the voice and looked at the man now framed in the kitchen door.
Terry Cromer, undisputed head of the Cromer family.
‘We’re un-reporting him,’ he said firmly. ‘Thanks for your concern but we don’t need any police involvement. We’ll find him ourselves.’
‘Can I have a word?’ Henry said, knowing who he was speaking to and aware that, not two years ago, Henry had put his son away for life on a murder charge.
Henry Christie had been a member of Lancashire Constabulary for over thirty years and he had known about the Cromer family and their activities for most of those years.
Henry’s first posting had been as a PC to Blackburn and, at nineteen, he’d had plenty of run-ins with the wild, out of control Cromer family. They had various homes throughout the east of the county and although the core of the family came from Belthorn, some were based on the Shadsworth council estate in Blackburn, an area they ruled with intimidation and havoc, continually at war with other families and criminal factions. Henry had come face to face with a few of the younger Cromers, usually for minor offences and public order incidents.
As they had matured, their activities became more subtle and old father Cromer — Granny’s husband — took a grip of the family and realized the potential of drug dealing, especially as he could call on some of the more dumb, but violent members of the family to act as enforcers. He harnessed one of his two sons and they moved into the nightclubs of Blackburn and other towns, taking control of the doors — and therefore the drugs trade — and eventually some of the clubs themselves.
The business expanded quickly, but even old man Cromer could not stop the onset of cancer, which killed him as ruthlessly as any bullet, leaving the son — Terry — in charge of the business.
Terry was the favoured son because the other, Frederick, was always a liability. Weak-willed, mentally unstable and prone to outrageous violence, even against his own family. Nor did it help that he was built like a brick shithouse. Freddy was farmed out of the way to live in Rossendale with an aunt, but his isolation from the family only increased his paranoia.
Henry had come across Freddy in the mid eighties when, as a teenager, he tried to strangle his aunt, then attempted to kill Henry. It was during Henry’s days in uniform, working on the crime car in the Rossendale Valley before he moved on to CID
Frantic neighbours had called in the job after every window of the council house in Rawtenstall was smashed from the inside, closely followed by items of furniture being jettisoned into the garden — and, as Henry drew up in the police car, Freddy’s aunt joining the broken furniture from an upstairs window.
Henry was alone, not unusual for a cop down the valley, and he just missed catching her as she slammed down hard and awkwardly onto her pelvis, which he distinctly heard go crack, and which he later learned had shattered into six brittle pieces. He had been doing the obvious, caring thing and bending down on one knee to check out the moaning lady, when Freddy leaned out of an upstairs window and fired an air rifle at him. The pellet thudded into his chest, hitting the personal radio swinging around his neck, one of those Burndept things made of tough plastic, about the size of half a house brick slit lengthways.
Incensed, the younger, angrier Henry kicked open the front door and barged through, only to meet Freddy leaping down the stairs like a silverback gorilla, uttering a terrible demented scream. He launched himself at Henry from the fourth step, landing on him and driving him backwards out of the door, catching the raised threshold with his heel. Henry tipped over, cracked the back of his head — which split — and Freddy straddled and started to strangle him with big, thick thumbs and fingers, about the circumference of pork sausages.
Henry struggled, punching young Freddy on the side of the face repeatedly and as hard as he could, but even though Freddy was only a teenager, he was impossible to dislodge. Freddy’s red, rage-filled face still often came to Henry in nightmares, the wild eyes bulging, the sweat dripping, the jagged but smooth-surfaced lines of a burn mark down the side of his face.
Fortunately, backup was en route, though for Henry it couldn’t get there quickly enough. Freddy’s windpipe-crushing grip was having a serious effect on his vision as blood and oxygen were effectively cut off from his brain and his punches were losing force and coordination, becoming more like weak slaps as Freddy simply rolled with them.
The real ignominy for Henry was that he was going to die at the hands of a deranged teenager, which would only go to prove the old police adage that it was the routine jobs that were always the most dangerous.
First on the scene to assist was the local detective inspector, who just happened to be in the neighbourhood on an unrelated matter. He ran up and kicked Freddy’s head like it was a rugby ball — which did the trick momentarily.
Freddy released the killing grip on Henry’s throat as he rolled away. Beautiful, fresh, clean, lovely air rushed back into Henry’s lungs and he sat up, clutching his throat, but he didn’t have time for much convalescence because Freddy simply rolled over a few times, came back up as though he was on starting blocks and charged Henry and the DI.
The ensuing scuffle was messy and a bit dirty.
The DI — a certain Robert Fanshaw-Bayley — got stuck in and he and Henry managed to subdue Freddy, but only by getting him face down on the front lawn and, Henry having dropped with all his weight on one knee onto his spine between the shoulder blades, forcing Freddy’s thick arms around his back. They got him double-cuffed: in those days the police were issued with rather flimsy cuffs connected by metal links, not rigid handcuffs, and sometimes it was prudent to put two sets on a violent prisoner, ratcheting them tight into the skin. They then both sat on Freddy, gasping for breath as he continued to squirm and curse underneath them like a trapped crocodile.
‘Can’t believe this fucker is only a teenager,’ FB said, ruddy faced. Even back then he was a big, unfit bloke.
‘Big lad,’ Henry agreed, massaging his neck.
Freddy was arrested — thrown into the back of the section van by four officers. Having caused a lot of problems in the cells down at Rawtenstall nick, not least because he suffered severe claustrophobia, he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and spent much of the rest of his life after that in secure and non-secure institutions, depending on his state of mind.
Henry didn’t bother to pursue the assault on himself (and neither did Freddy’s aunt, even though she was badly injured). The main reason was that when Freddy’s room at his aunt’s was searched, Henry found fifty beheaded pigeons, the heads having been bitten off by Freddy, two dead dogs that had been gutted, four dead cats — hung from the ceiling by their tails — and numerous rodents that had met their deaths in various ways, all stacked neatly away in Freddy’s sock drawer.
It was plain that Freddy was not remotely stable ‘up top’ and to prosecute him would be a pointless exercise, a waste of public money. It was going to cost the state enough to provide him with the care and treatment he needed, so Freddy pretty much disappeared into the system, never to be heard of again.
Terry Cromer looked at Henry through half-lidded eyes, an expression of contempt on his face, and a little surge of something skittered through the detective. Apprehension and excitement.
Henry knew about this family. Despite their outward appearance as country hicks, they had become a well-oiled money-making machine, very disciplined and ruthless. To be honest, Henry hadn’t had much contact with them over the years. He was someone who investigated murders — and if asked, he would say that he had been put on this earth to do just that.
In an earlier period of his service, Henry had been a detective sergeant on the Regional Crime Squad, involved in long-term operations against outfits like the Cromers. Now he wasn’t, and he only really came into contact with such people when they had some connection with a murder that had been committed. But he did know that the Cromers were often the subject of long-range investigations by major crime units; they may possibly have been so at that moment as Henry stood there, facing off with one of the north-west’s scariest gangsters — a man who shared a little of his younger brother’s mental state. Henry wasn’t routinely kept up to date with ongoing operations, which were often run very secretively.
He could imagine that if the Cromers were the subject of any sort of ongoing job by NCIS or the MCU, he might easily end up being bollocked by someone further up the line for stepping on toes without permission and putting a well-planned op in jeopardy by simply barging up to their house.
But needs must. Everyone had a job to do. He just hoped that he wouldn’t come across an undercover cop he might recognize who had infiltrated the family and was having Christmas dinner with them.
So, Terry Cromer.
He was the older brother. Mid forties, and although he was a stocky, muscled guy, he wasn’t built to the same proportions as Freddy. But he was still intimidating — or would like to be. He obviously worked out with weights, his arms being all Popeye muscle and tattoos and the tight vest he wore outlining his pecs and rippling six-pack. His shaved head and accompanying snarl harmonized with his tough persona.
He didn’t faze Henry, who loved stuff like this. Eyeball to eyeball. Henry and a crim. ‘Can I have a word?’ Henry had said.
‘You’re gate crashing our celebrations. . and to be completely honest with you, no one here’s really that worried about Freddy. . He’s nuts, always has been, always will be, and he’ll turn up somewhere drunk and incapable, hopefully face down in a ditch.’
Tension is a strange thing. Invisible, yet possible to slice with a sharp knife. And tension surrounded the two men. Henry watched Cromer as he spoke, could smell a whiff of alcohol on his breath, but could tell he wasn’t drunk.
Cromer’s forehead furrowed as he realized who Henry was. He jabbed a finger at him. ‘You’re the fucker responsible for getting Freddy sectioned all those years ago. . and on top of that, you got my lad convicted for murder, too.’
Cromer had a good memory. In terms of the former allegation, Henry had actually had very little contact with the Cromer family and the sectioning had been done by social workers and doctors. In fact the only time he’d met any of them back then was when he had visited the aunt’s bedside at Burnley General Hospital to check on her progress and the family had turned up en masse to visit. Young Terry had been part of that entourage, Henry recalled; then he had been a slim, wiry youth with a cop-hate, sneery attitude well embedded in his psyche.
Years later, of course, he had got Terry’s son — Terry junior — convicted of murder. That had entailed a lot of very fractious encounters with Terry senior, but at that time no mention had ever been made of the incident with Freddy many years before.
The murder committed by the junior member of the family had taken place outside a nightclub in Blackpool, when he had stabbed a doorman to death in a frenzied attack witnessed by too many people and had been jumped on and restrained by other bouncers, still with the knife in his hands. A simple enough murder — bang to rights — but one for which the real reason was never properly explained. Henry knew it was about drugs and turf, but neither that nor the murder itself were ever admitted by Terry junior, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that included disturbing CCTV footage of the killing. Not that it mattered, because he was stuffed — and the family did not like it.
Henry’s only role had been to oversee the investigation, just to ensure nothing was overlooked. Everyone else did the work, as it should be.
But as SIO Henry could not avoid coming into contact with the Cromers, and at one point he had a stand-up row with Terry senior that almost came to blows in Blackpool police station foyer. Terry’s threatening rants then became a personal attack on Henry, who he blamed for taking away his only flesh and blood.
The lad was eventually jailed for life, with a judge’s recommendation that he must serve a minimum of fifteen years. The full story behind the killing was never revealed and it was played out as just another night out in Blackpool that had gone sour. As they often did.
And now Henry was back facing Terry senior, a man with pure hate etched across his features. Henry said calmly, ‘I’m simply responding to a missing person report.’
‘Fuck off, Christie,’ Cromer spat. ‘You’re just nosying. Just a friggin’ excuse to get into my house. I know. I’m not thick.’
‘OK, fine, have it your way.’
‘Yeah — my house, my way. You’re trespassing, so you’d better get out now or else I’m gonna smash your head in.’
Cromer looked over Henry’s shoulder at the young woman who had let Henry into the house. It jolted Henry to learn she was his daughter, mainly because he didn’t know that Terry had one.
‘Keep out of this,’ Terry warned her.
‘Dad. . Gran’s worried about Freddy. . you should be, too,’ she said forcefully, standing her ground. ‘He is your brother.’ She raised her chin defiantly.
Henry saw Terry’s right fist bunch up like a rock as he looked at Janine and seemed to want to utter something. His fist shook.
Henry said, ‘Look — seriously, we are concerned about him, Mr Cromer. I’m not here nosying, as you put it,’ he fibbed a little. He was being nosy, but he also had a right to be there, because he thought there was the outside chance that Freddy was the target for a serial killer.
Should he tell Terry that? As he looked at the man, Henry thought, No, sod it, you bastard. If he gets dead with feathers stuffed in his mouth, then so be it. He actually said, ‘Are you bothered or not?’
‘Get out,’ Terry stated. ‘Janine — show him past the dogs.’