Manchester, 2002. The Commonwealth Games are coming to town and the city is alive with possibilities.
Out walking with his family in the local park, Jon Spicer’s life is shattered forever. The dog – aggressive and huge – appears from nowhere. At first, Jon assumes the attack was random. Soon, other events force him to think again. With his family under threat, Jon can do only one thing: fight back. The pursuit leads him far from his home city to the unfamiliar territory of Ireland – and a remote village where his family are originally from.
Trees stood gnarled and naked beneath a dead winter sky. Everything was still: mist hanging motionless above grass made white by the cold. Jon Spicer looked around for his Boxer dog, Punch. The animal’s nose was low to the ground, legs moving fast as it sped along the zigzagging trail of a rabbit long gone.
Trying to keep up was his six-year-old daughter, Holly. Her bright red wellies made it difficult to cope with the sudden changes of direction and with each turn she let out a breathless giggle, the sound contrasting sharply with the park’s subdued air.
‘So, could it have been him?’ asked Alice, her voice low.
His eyes went to his wife and he let his gaze linger on the smoothness of her skin. She was wearing a knitted beret, the wool dyed with a rich mix of russet and maroon. The colours seemed to emphasise the blondness of her hair, fine strands of it hanging over the raised collar of her quilted coat.
It was lucky, he reflected, that she had chosen such a loose-fitting style; the swell of her stomach was now plain to see beneath it. Another two months and their second child would be born. Before he could reply, she glanced up at a point somewhere near his ear.
‘Here,’ she frowned, ‘your scarf is all twisted at the back.’ Twirling a finger, she indicated that she wanted him to turn round. He did as she asked, bending his knees to make it easier for her to reach up. Fingers probed at the back of his neck.
‘Cow!’ he gasped, straightening as a fragment of ice slipped down his back to lodge in the waistband of his boxer shorts.
She let out a cackle of laughter and he span around, tugging at the back of his trousers. ‘No!’ His eyes widened as he felt it slide lower. ‘It’s in with the crown jewels!’
Half-doubled with laughter, she started backing away.
He kicked a foot about and, finally, the freezing shard fell out the leg of his trousers. ‘Where did you get that?’ he giggled, raising his arms and closing in on her.
‘Pregnant woman! Pregnant woman!’ she gasped, directing a finger at her stomach. ‘You can’t get me!’
He dropped his hands, the questioning look still on his face.
Wiping a tear from her eye, she pointed to the group of trees they’d just emerged from. ‘The frozen puddle back there.’
Holly called across, a confused smile on her face. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Just putting a spring in your daddy’s step,’ Alice replied, tugging on Jon’s sleeve. Their daughter looked at them for a moment longer before turning away. They resumed their slow walk.
‘Had it really gone right inside your grundies?’ Alice smiled.
‘Yes,’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘Touching my plums, it was.’
She giggled. ‘Well, that’ll teach you for getting me up the duff again.’ A hand touched her bump as she let out an amused sigh. ‘Where were we? Oh yeah,’ her voice dropped, ‘you weren’t sure if it was your grandad or not.’
He felt his smile fade. ‘I’m pretty certain it was him,’ he replied, relieved the dank conditions meant the sound of his voice couldn’t carry. ‘But there’s only that one photo in mum’s house – taken God knows when, where he’s tucked away in the background. He must be knocking on ninety, now.’
Alice linked a gloved hand through the crook of his elbow. ‘Was the person like you? I mean in size. In that photo he looks pretty big.’
Jon thought about his own height. Six feet four and now knocking on sixteen stone; still mostly muscle. He knew about his great-grandfather, Padraig. The giant navvy who, back in the early 1900s, had gathered enough money through bare-knuckle fighting to get his family out of the Manchester slum known as Little Ireland.
How, he reflected, did the man he thought was his grandfather compare? ‘He was tall,’ Jon stated. ‘And heavily built, once. You could tell that from the size of his hands.’ He lifted his own thick fingers, most of which bore nicks and scars. The legacy of a lifetime spent playing rugby. Stamps from the opposing team’s boots. He examined the old wound running across one thumb – caused when a punch he’d thrown had caught on the other player’s tooth. ‘Called me a wee fucker, he did.’
‘You what?’ Alice’s voice was incredulous.
Jon chuckled. ‘He was just sitting there in a porch-type thing, staring out across the bay. Making the most of his view while it lasts.’ He looked off to the side, checking for Holly and Punch. ‘Someone’s building a dirty great house on the plot of land directly in front of his bungalow. Once it goes up, he won’t be able to see anything at all.’
‘Why did he swear at you?’
‘I was standing there – a stranger wearing trousers and a ski jacket. I think he mistook me for the site manager or something.’
‘Obviously not happy with it being built, then.’
‘Neither would you be, Ali. The thing will dominate everything.’ A snapshot of the tiny fishing village appeared in his head: a row of pastel-coloured buildings overlooking a quiet bay lanced by a short stone pier. Feeling cold air on his neck, he tucked his scarf back into the collar of his coat. They were now on Heaton Moor golf course, following the footpath that clung to its outer edge. Away to their left loomed the faint form of Mauldeth Hall, a phantom in the haze. Holly was jogging towards them, cheeks flushed. ‘So,’ he continued more quickly. ‘How do you reckon I should mention it to mum? She might hit the roof I’ve been out there or she might be relieved to know he’s still alive.’
‘I don’t know,’ Alice murmured. Then, more quickly; ‘But, tread carefully, Jon, whatever you do.’ She turned to Holly. ‘Hi gorgeous, you OK?’
‘Can I have a sweetie now? You said once we got to the golf course.’
‘I did,’ Alice replied, reaching into her pocket for the mini-pack of Jelly Babies. Bribes given at set intervals to lure their daughter along.
As Holly peered into the bag, trying to decide which colour to choose, Jon’s mind went to the reason he’d made the trip over to Ireland in the first place. His wayward younger brother, Dave, had been murdered a few years before. During what turned out to be the last years of his life, he’d formed a relationship with a troubled young woman called Zoë. The two of them had made a home of sorts and she’d given birth to a boy who they’d named Jake.
But Zoë had always found it hard to care properly for her son, and, unable to cope with the news of Dave’s death, she’d simply abandoned the boy and disappeared. Jon’s parents had taken guardianship of Jake, the youngster seeming to act as some kind of substitute for their murdered son.
For the next four years they’d heard nothing from Zoë. Then, in the summer, a postcard arrived. On it, she’d written that she was travelling over to Ireland to find a friend who also used to sleep rough on the streets of Manchester. The friend’s name was Siobhain. Zoë had heard she was now living in Clifden, a small town that, like Roundstone, was in Connemara.
A few weeks after that another postcard had arrived, this one sent from the city of Galway. The image on the front was of a narrow cobbled lane, both sides lined with cafés and bars. Zoë had written that Galway was great – she was hanging round the city for a while to earn money by working in a pub, then she was getting a bus out to Clifden where she’d start trying to find Siobhain. The postcard had ended with a few kisses for Jake, crammed in the corner almost as an afterthought.
And that had been all they knew about Zoë’s whereabouts until the call from a few nights before. It was almost midnight when the phone had started to ring. A woman with an Irish accent was on the other end of the line. Quickly explaining that her name was Siobhain, she pleaded that Jon come to Clifden straight away. Zoë was out of her depth with some very nasty people. He had to get her out of there, fast.
His mind snapped back to the present and he glanced about. His wife was now a few metres ahead of him. ‘Alice, where’s Holly?’
She paused and looked around. A small frown appeared on her face. ‘I think she ran off after Punch. Over there.’
Jon looked to his left, feeling the familiar tickle of unease whenever he lost sight of his daughter in a public place. On the other side of the fairway was a tight screen of laurel bushes. Beyond that was the golf course’s clubhouse. Sure enough, a twin trail of pawprints and footprints led across the silvery grass and through a narrow gap in the hedge. ‘Probably helping Punch find his tennis ball – it got lost somewhere over there yesterday.’ Cupping his hands round his mouth, Jon set off towards the far end of the bushes. ‘Holly! Where are you? Punch! Here, boy!’
He stared at the mass of green leaves, waiting for the pair of them to reappear. Aside from a couple of golfers ambling towards the nearby green, nothing moved. Jon was about to call again when a terrified scream pierced the air. His heart jolted in his chest. Holly! The noise came again, this time even higher. He broke into a run.
Further down the fairway, the two golfers had stopped to stare beyond the laurel screen. Then one clapped both hands to the top of his head. A gesture of impending disaster.
‘What?’ Jon shouted in their direction, still running.
The other golfer simply shook his head in horror.
His daughter’s scream abruptly died away and he rounded the far end of the bushes. What he saw caused him to falter, then stop.
A grassy area stretched away before rising steeply to the perimeter of the clubhouse car park. Holly was motionless, half-way across, standing with her back to him. Closing slowly in on her was a dog like no other Jon had ever seen.
My God, he thought, it’s massive. Bigger than my girl. Its muzzle was black, the dark fur spreading up to encompass deeply-set amber eyes. Two cropped ears looked like a pair of sharp horns. Teeth bared, it edged nearer to Holly like a leopard about to strike. Jon looked wildly about for its owner, for anyone. There was no one to call it off.
Holly’s hands were clamped over her ears and he knew that her eyes would be tightly shut: her standard response to anything scary. As Jon gauged distances a sickening realisation hit home. I’m too far away to stop this. He started forward, waving his arms and yelling in desperation. ‘Get away from her! Get away!’
Eyes not leaving Holly, the beast flattened its ears and sank down on its haunches.
‘No!’ Jon bellowed. ‘No!’
From the direction of the clubhouse, a bolt of brown entered the edge of Jon’s vision. Punch. His pet’s paws made a rapid drumming sound as it hurtled straight at the other dog. The thing’s spadelike head swung round and it circled to calmly face the Boxer.
Punch streaked closer, seeming like a toy dog in comparison. Jon could only look on helplessly as, at the last moment, the other dog leapt forward. The two animals met in mid-air with a loud and meaty slap. Punch instantly went backwards and they transformed into a snarling blur of limbs and teeth.
The terrible sound broke the spell which had paralysed Holly and she looked over her shoulder. ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!’
He scooped her clear of the thrashing animals. ‘You’re OK.’ Running back towards the laurels, Holly’s red boots banged against his knees. Her arms grasped his neck tightly and she started sobbing in his ear.
The sound of fighting continued behind him as Alice appeared at the screen’s end, one hand on her stomach, face full of fear. Eyes widening, she took in Jon and her daughter coming towards her. ‘What…?’ She looked beyond them and all colour vanished from her cheeks.
By the time Jon had covered the last of the ground, the snarling had been replaced by a series of yelps. ‘Take her!’ He extricated himself from his daughter’s grip and thrust her towards Alice, now aware the noise had dropped to a desperate whining mixed with a deeper, throaty growl. The sound a dog made when its jaws had locked on another.
This novel was like a twelve pound baby: awful to deliver.
For a while, I’d wanted to delve further into DI Spicer’s history, knowing rich pickings were to be had if I did. His mum’s family are originally from Ireland – and his Great-Grandfather, Padraig, had used his winnings from bare-knuckle fighting to climb out of Manchester’s slums. I also had the loose-end that was Zoë (the girlfriend of Jon’s murdered brother, who had vanished at the end of The Edge).
Then, one Christmas, the Simmses headed over to Ireland. We went to spend the festive season with the family of my middle-brother’s wife – who are from a remote village in Connemara. I immediately knew it would be the ideal setting for my plot. A plot that would need to be wild and raw if it was to match the untamed beauty of Ireland’s west coast.
So I began my favourite part of the novel-writing process: research. The fact this rugged coastline is also known as the graveyard of The Armada grabbed my attention. Could I create a plot incorporating that? More research revealed information about a particular type of dog – long thought extinct – that the Spanish army-of-old favoured.
A call to the RSPCA’s chief investigation officer gave me lots of material on the modern-day practice of dog-fighting. I began to see a way of tying the strands together.
The only other thing I wanted the novel to feature was a real physical ordeal for Jon Spicer. He’s a prickly character – abrasive, pig-headed, often arrogant. How, I wondered, would he handle a proper beating at the hands of some real head-cases?
Many, many hurdles later, Sleeping Dogs was finished.