After four months of sweaty, emotional toil, my latest novel, Devil’s in a Different Dress, is about to hit the Kindle Store. This thriller is set in post-war Germany, following a group of soldiers who lock horns with the locals to try and solve a grisly murder. Bit different from my usual council tower efforts, but just as sweary. Here’s how it starts…
Even after everything I’ve witnessed, those everlasting horrors and lifeless faces that haunt me every time my eyes squeeze shut, the scene in that kitchen was macabre enough to set me off. It was the blood, that’s what did it. I’ve probably seen a couple hundred corpses in my lifetime, maybe more (I can only imagine the kind of man who would keep count), but those bodies had either been moved from the place they fell and cleaned up as best as possible, or else they’d died right there in the dirt. And when a man dies in the dirt, all his blood ends up in the soil. It just seeps away, in some kind of symbolic ‘returning from whence we came’ gesture that would make most poets piss themselves with glee.
But when this poor bastard was bludgeoned to death in his own home, his blood had spattered over a dozen surfaces and leaked across the stone floor and basically coated half the room. There was nowhere for all that liquid to trickle away to, so it was still shining brightly when we turned up around twenty minutes later. With all that fresh claret spread around the place, it was a good few seconds before I even focused on the body, sprawled face-down alongside the cooker. By then, the familiar cold and tingly sensation had swept right through my skin from scalp to scrotum and I knew I was in trouble.
“Oh, God,” Corporal Lane said in a hushed, almost respectful tone, squeezing past into the kitchen. His face slumped into his usual contemplative grimace, his brow furrowing and making him look a lot older than his twenty one years. “What a mess. Looks like someone caved the guy’s head in.”
“Yeah,” was my forced reply. I could already feel my heart hammering my ribs, perhaps hard enough to smash right through and burst from my chest. A second later, the world seemed to fade to grey and warp horrifically, as if the walls and ceiling were bending towards me. “Back in a sec,” I whispered, pushing from the room and staggering down the hallway. I quickly found the toilet, a tiny cubby joined to the back of the house and I dove inside, slamming the door behind me. I could feel the sweat pouring down my face, soaking into my uniform. My arse hit the toilet and I slapped my palms against the walls, holding myself steady and desperately trying to keep the room from closing in on me.
“Sweet baby Jesus,” I muttered, closing my eyes and sucking down great gulps of air until my lungs were aching. Usually it worked; on some occasions, I woke up a few minutes later with my face crushed into the floor. This time, thank the Lord, the dizziness and the nausea began to fade. When I was reasonably sure that I wasn’t about to keel over, I reached inside my jacket and found the tiny plastic bottle that lived inside the lining pocket, fumbling the lid and tipping one of the tablets onto my tongue. I swallowed it down whole, then waited. Counted how many breaths I took. Listened to the mumbled voices on the other side of the door, discussing the dead guy with the broken head.
When I finally emerged, I saw Lane stood by the kitchen door, chatting with some girl with tangled, mousy hair. She couldn’t have been any older than fourteen, a scrawny, short little thing with a nose like a Jew and mud-streaked clothes. The kid kept staring into the kitchen, goggle-eyed. Lane glanced at me as I walked up and gave me a funny look.
“Feeling alright?” he asked and I rolled my eyes.
“Stomach cramps,” I replied. I patted my belly for extra emphasis, then forced myself to drink in the bloody spectacle once more. The old man, Herr Schmidt, had probably been taken by surprise and struck from behind. That much was apparent from the way he was sprawled across the ground. But even after he’d face-planted the floor, it looked like he’d maybe been bludgeoned another couple of times, given the amount of blood spattered about the place. Maybe he’d still been alive, struggling to push himself up off the floor. These old Germans were tough as hell, a whole other breed. They’d lived through too much godawful shit to be anything else. I saw that some of the blood had been smeared across the floor tiles, most likely where the murderer had stepped in the spreading puddle. A couple of partial prints led towards the door, but that told me nothing besides the obvious: the killer had been wearing shoes.
My amateur eyes roamed across the rest of the kitchen, struggling to pick out anything else that could be useful. Nothing appeared to be missing, at least not at first. There were plenty of possessions spread around that a thief could have made off with, from silver cutlery to the china plates. I gazed at the painting hanging on the walls, the same kind of artwork that seemed to be dotted around the entire house. Each picture was World War I era, mostly grandiose images of Wilheim looking majestic on horseback with the sun shining down over his shoulder. I guessed that old Schmidt must have fought in that war. Funny, in a not-actually-funny kind of way. Imagine surviving two worldwide conflicts, two bloody battles on such an epic scale, only to be pummelled to death in your own kitchen. Quite a cruel little joke.
“This is Katherine,” Lane said, and I turned to see him nod at the young girl. “She’s a witness, saw someone leaving here.” Lane smiled at the girl and jabbed a thumb towards me. “Go on, you can tell him what you told me.” Katherine chewed her bottom lip, her gaze still fixed on the gore in the next room, then she peered up at me and shrugged her waif-like shoulders.
“I saw old Herr Jurgen hurrying out of here just a little while ago,” she said, her words smothered in a thick German accent. “He was carrying a sheet on his back, like a sack. I don’t know what he had inside. But I saw there were blood spots on the sheet, and on his shirt.”
“Well,” I said, “guess that’s this one solved. Sounds like a robbery, nice and simple.”
“Do you know where this Jurgen fella lives?” Lane asked the girl and she rattled off an address that was just three streets down. With our expert detective work done, we passed the mess over to the other boys and agreed to head straight to Herr Jurgen’s house, before he had a chance to destroy any evidence.
“Might want to usher her out too,” I muttered to Lane. The girl had tiptoed her way into the kitchen and was marvelling at the sudden and violent redecoration, her worn-out shoes edging dangerously close to the pool of blood. Lane nodded.
“Katherine, come on, come with us. We’ve got a few more questions need answering.” The girl pouted but followed us out anyway, kicking her heels as she shuffled along behind us.
The date was June 22nd, 1945. Europe had allegedly been at peace for 45 days and the Allies had total control of Berlin, while our personal occupation of the southern town of Rottstein had dragged on for almost two entire months. No one wanted us here, least of all us. I could see it in the looks the locals gave us, every time we passed them in the streets or strode into one of their stores. They weren’t just apprehensive, afraid, they were probably angry. Hurt. Some of the other lads didn’t understand, but I sympathised alright. To these people, we were just the Nazis in a different uniform. We had overrun their town, imposed our own laws, fucked with their way of life. The get-up we wear might be a different colour, but we still carry guns and we all look alike. Even worse, we speak a foreign bloody language.
“Should we swing by base first,” Lane asked as we stepped outside onto the cobbled street. “See if Shaw’s turned up?” I shook my head, pulling my second-from-last cigarette from the battered old pack and slipping it between my lips. It was only 5pm but already the sky was dark thanks to the sheet of jagged clouds, which had only just started to spit down at us. I grimaced, sparking up the cigarette with a match.
“Even if he is there, he’ll be bugger all use to anyone. Probably so hungover he can’t even strap on his boots, never mind lift his gun.”
Myself, Lane and Shaw had all served in the same regiment during the war, 165th Royal Armoured Corps. We were part of the operation that took the town by force, removing the Fuhrer’s grip on the southern border and helping to trap the bastard in his own goddamn hellhole. When our illustrious major slapped me with the dubious honour of head peacekeeper for the duration of the occupation, I chose Michael Shaw and Alex Lane as my partners. Faults and all considered, I had trusted them with my life out on the battlefield.
“How are we going to do this?” Lane asked as we strode down the street. He suddenly seemed anxious, reaching up and tugging on his ear lobe every few seconds. The guy was so mature for his age that I often forgot he was only twenty one. I’d seem him keep his cool even during outright carnage, when his superiors, myself included, were completely wigging out. It was only during these quieter moments that I saw the mask slip, and understood that he was really just a kid beneath it all.
“Let’s play it by ear,” I said, wondering how real police back home would handle a situation like this. Smash their way in, guns drawn? Better not. We had a bad enough rep around here as it was. If we started kicking down suspects’ doors, we’d be labelled tyrants for sure. “Try the polite approach, then as soon as we find the evidence, we take the bastard in.” I turned to make sure the girl was still following. Sure enough she was just a stride behind, craning in to hear what we were talking about. “Katherine, right?” She looked up and nodded, her lips parting to reveal a gap in her front teeth. “Katherine, does Herr Jurgen live alone?”
“Yes,” she replied. “He had a wife, but she was taken away by the Nazis.”
“Okay. So why do you think Herr Jurgen would want to kill…uhh, what was that old fella’s name again?”
“Herr Schmidt,” Katherine replied, her mouth twisting into a frown. “I don’t know. Herr Schmidt was nice. He never said anything bad about anyone. He used to let me take apples from his tree, when I was hungry. That’s why I was in his garden when Herr Jurgen left.”
“And Herr Jurgen, is he nice too?”
“No,” Katherine said with a sharp shake of her head. “He’s mean. He always looks at me bad, like he wants to kick me.”
“Okay.” I took a deep drag of the cigarette, which was still just about lit despite the rain. Between the glorious lungfuls of smoke and my magic pill, I was feeling almost human again. “So were those two friends?”
“Sometimes.” Katherine said, and I raised an eyebrow.
“Yes. Sometimes Herr Jurgen would go to Herr Schmidt’s house to help him…uhhh.” She crushed her eyes tight shut and pushed her fist into her brow, until finally her eyes flew open again. “Handy work,” she said with a flicker of a smile. “He helped Herr Schmidt in the garden. Herr Schmidt was too old. He gave Herr Jurgen money, to fix the garden.”
“Is that Jurgen’s job?” I asked. “Gardening?”
“Any kind of handy work,” Katherine said with a shrug. “House, garden, what you need. A lot of people in this town, they are old or….frail. They cannot work.”
“Right.” I turned to Lane. “What do you think, then?”
“Well…” He stared up at the blackened sky through narrowed eyes, the raindrops pattering across his face. “Maybe a botched robbery?”
“Yeah, could be,” I said with a nod, “but all that blood. This Jurgen guy must’ve beat the old bastard a good few times to open up his head like that. It wasn’t just a tap on the noggin, that guy really went to town.”
“You think it was some kind of personal vendetta?” Lane asked and I flicked away the dying cigarette.
“Aye, I’d say it was personal. Only one way to find out.”
When we got to Jurgen’s street, we told Katherine to wait at the end, out of sight. Of course, it was like telling a cow not to shit, for we’d only gone ten steps when she began to follow. We played statues for a little while, her freezing every time I glanced over my shoulder, until we reached number 8 (sechs…sieben…acht). Like Schmidt’s house, it was a detached cottage-style building with a compact garden between the front door and the street, but Jurgen’s little outdoor space was filled with all kinds of colourful plants and shrubs that I couldn’t even begin to name.
“Quite a feminine touch for a murderer,” I said off-hand to Lane. He smiled.
“He’s got greener fingers than my wife.”
“Okay.” I took a deep breath and scratched my chin, my other hand resting on the butt of my service pistol, which hung in its holster at my hip. “I guess we don’t want to panic him or anything, so maybe we go knock on the door and ask to come in. I’ll keep an eye on him while you search the place and try and find some bloody clothes or that sheet Katherine told us about. Make sure you check every cupboard and the back garden if he has one. Once we’ve got some evidence, we’ll take him in.”
Herr Jurgen’s curtain fluttered a few moments after we knocked and his face pressed up against the glass, all flabby and blotchy. Two pin-prick eyes peered out suspiciously through pink rolls of flesh. I made sure he got a good look at the uniform and soon after the door creaked aside. The man was nervous as hell, even I could tell that much. His gaze flickered between myself and Lane non-stop and he fumbled with his fat sausage fingers as I spoke to him, tugging each digit in turn.
“Herr Jurgen?” I began, with a straight expression. He nodded in response, the flab beneath his chin wobbling slightly, like flesh jelly. “You understand English?” Another nod. “Good. Can we come in, please?” A brief hesitation, then another shallow nod. I stepped past him into the narrow hallway and cut left into his front room, wondering if he actually had a tongue.
The place seemed rather cosy for a man of Herr Jurgen’s stature, with a low ceiling and quite a lot of gaudy furniture packed in. I positioned myself to the side, near the fireplace. Jurgen shuffled in behind me, followed closely by Lane. I smiled at the German, one hand still sat on the butt of my gun.
“What do you want,” he asked, confirming that he did indeed possess the ability to speak. His voice was even gruffer than I imagined, like an old man’s after a lifetime of cigars and whiskey.
“Were you at Herr Schmidt’s house about half an hour ago?” I asked him. Jurgen’s expression darkened.
“I visit him a lot,” he replied. “I help him tend to his plants.”
“That wasn’t what I asked. I asked if you were there half an hour ago.” As we talked, Lane slipped away to begin his search of the house. Jurgen noticed my colleague’s departure and turned to me, lips curled back in a snarl.
“Where is he going?” he asked. I sighed and tapped my fingers against the pistol’s grip.
“Never mind him. So, half an hour ago. You were at Herr Schmidt’s house.”
“Yes, I was.” The German folded his arms and glared at me. I shifted my stance and stepped a little closer, suddenly worried that he’d try and run. Not that he’d get far anyway. I figured that planting petunias was the limit of his physical exertion these days.
“Okay,” I said. “Did anything unusual happen while you were there?”
“Unusual,” he repeated.
“Right, unusual. Like, did you have an argument? A few angry words?” Jurgen paused before he answered, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, and when he finally replied his tone was deadly serious.
“No. Herr Schmidt was dead when I arrived.”
His answer took me completely by surprise. I should probably point out that I’d never interrogated a murder suspect before, only enemy soldiers. In that case, there’s no question of guilt or innocence. The aim of the interrogation is simply to extract information from the other man; attack plans, base locations, formations, that sort of thing. In this moment, I realised that I’d plunged deep into a foreign ocean, with no idea which direction land lay.
“Right,” I said. “You’re saying you showed up at his house and half the contents of his skull were already spread around his kitchen?”
“Then why come straight home? Why not report his murder?”
“To who?” he asked. “To the British military? So you can blame it on me, lock me away without trial?” He slowly shook his head. “No.”
“Found it,” Lane called out, turning the corner a moment later and striding to the centre of the room. He was carrying a flowery table cloth, bunched up like a sack. I could hear soft clinking coming from within and my eyes were drawn to the red speckles dotted across the surface of the cloth. When Lane deposited the thing on the floor, it flopped open revealing dozens of tins and boxes. Gherkins, corned beef, cereal, sardines, peas, pretty much everything you could think of. It was a big enough stash to feed a family for weeks. I turned back to Jurgen, who hadn’t budged an inch. He was still staring at me with fear in his eyes, biceps folded across his enormous chest.
“What’s this?” I asked him.
“Food,” was the begrudging reply.
“Food you stole from Schmidt?”
“He didn’t need it,” Jurgen answered, turning his head to let out a throaty cough. I offered him the thinnest of smiles.
“Tell me you didn’t murder him just for a few tins of beef.”
“A few tins?” Jurgen jabbed a finger at the pile, eyes suddenly blazing. “That might mean nothing to you, but to me it’s better than a sack of gold. Ever since the British took over, our supply routes have been cut off. We’ve been living off meal and corn for weeks!”
“But Schmidt had this big old stash,” I interrupted, taking a step towards him. “And I guess he wouldn’t share with you?”
“Like I said,” Jurgen said, his arm dropping back to his side. “He was dead when I arrived. I saw the food, I took it.”
“How did you get inside if he was already dead?” Lane asked, brow furrowed. I kicked myself for not asking the same already, but Jurgen didn’t miss a beat.
“The door was open,” he said, aiming his withering glare towards Lane. “He may have been out in the garden and forgot to shut it.”
“Well, another question, then,” Lane said, his voice wavering slightly. “Where’s your hammer?” This seemed to throw the German off-balance, a ripple of emotion dancing across his face. Lane glanced at me and added, “I checked his tool box out in the kitchen. No hammer inside.”
“It broke,” Jurgen said with a hefty dose of vitriol, but I could see the despairing look in his eyes and I knew that we had the bastard.
“You’ll have to come with us,” I told him, my fingers curling around the pistol’s grip. His shoulders slumped a little, his hefty frame rocking back and forth like a flower caught in a breeze. I was worried that he might keel over right in front of us, so I stepped towards him with the intention of taking him by the arm and turning him around, before gently escorting him out.
Somehow, I don’t know how, I must’ve let my guard down. I didn’t see his elbow come up until that solid chunk of bone was driving hard into my nose. All I remember was a blinding flash of pain that shot through my entire skull, literally blinding me as my vision blacked out for a split second. I felt myself stumble backwards, then my calf caught on something hard and I collapsed against the fireplace, the rough stone scraping my back up through my uniform. By the time my brain stopped vibrating and my sight faded in again, I was sprawled at the base of the fireplace, in a half-sitting, half-squatting position.
The pain was horrendous, but swiftly forgotten when I saw what was happening in front of me. The German was fighting against Lane, the two men locked together and desperately trying to get the upper hand. Lane’s hand came up and grabbed Jurgen’s throat, but the move left him off-balance. Jurgen responded by twisting his body and forcing Lane away with his meaty shoulder. I saw my partner stagger away, but not before Jurgen reached down and snatched his service revolver right out of its holster…