Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The Snow Killer’ by Ross Greenwood
I must have been ten years old when I first tidied up his drug paraphernalia. I didn’t want my sister crawling over it. We called her Special – a take on Michelle – because she was an enigma. Special was a term of endearment for us, funny how nowadays it could be considered an insult. She never spoke a single word and seemed more of a peaceful spirit than a physical entity. Give her a crayon or pencil and a piece of paper, though, and her smile filled the room.
I monitored my father’s habit through his mood swings or by how much time he spent in bed. The foil and needles increased rapidly just before we escaped London a few years back. I cried because both my parents left evidence of their addiction.
In many ways, my mother was as simple as Special. Swayed by my dominant father, she did everything he said, even though she had more common sense. Joining him in his heroin habit was inevitable.
Until the night we left, we took holidays and ate out in restaurants. I didn’t know where the money came from because I had no idea what my father did.
The evening we fled London, we packed our suitcases at ten at night and caught the last train to Peterborough, arriving at two in the morning. I recall beaming at my parents, especially when we checked into a huge hotel on the first night. My mum’s brother, Ronnie, lived nearby. When we eventually found him, he helped us move into a cottage in rural Lincolnshire, which was cheap for obvious reasons. The single storey building had five rooms and no internal doors. You could hear everything from any room – even the toilet.
Six months after we settled in our new home, I lay in the damp bed with my sister’s warm breath on my neck and heard my father casually say he’d shot the wrong man. The fact my mother wasn’t surprised shocked me more.
Life carried on. My parents continued to avoid reality. We ate a lot of sandwiches. Lincolnshire is only two hours north of London but it felt like the edge of the world after the hustle and bustle of the capital city. I walked the three miles to school. Special stayed at home where she painted and coloured. My mum sold Special’s pictures. She drew people and animals in a childish way, but they captivated people as the eyes in the pictures haunted the viewer.
One freezing night, my sister and I cuddled in bed and listened to another argument raging in the lounge. We had our own beds but only ever slept apart in the hot summer months. At six years old, she didn’t take up much room.
‘You did what?’ my mother shouted.
‘I saw an opportunity,’ my father replied.
‘What were you thinking?’
‘We’re broke. We needed the money.’
‘What you’ve done is put our family in danger. They’ll find us.’
‘They won’t think I took it.’
I might have been only fifteen years old, but I had eyes and ears. My parents constantly talked about money and drugs. By then, that was all they were interested in. That said, I don’t recall being unhappy, despite their problems. Normal life just wasn’t for them.
My mother’s voice became a loud, worried whisper. ‘What if they come for the money? The children are here.’
‘They won’t hurt them,’ my father said.
A hand slammed on the kitchen table. ‘We need to leave.’
‘It’s three in the morning and snowing. No one will look now. Besides, where would we go?’
‘We’re rich! We can stay where we like.’
Crazily, they laughed. I suppose that’s why they loved each other. They were both the same kind of mad.
That was the sixties and a different time. Not everyone spent their lives within earshot of a busy road. In fact, few people owned their own car. If you’ve ever lived deep in the countryside, you’ll know how quiet the long nights are. So it makes sense that I could hear the approaching vehicle for miles before it arrived. The put-put-put we gradually heard in unison that night sounded too regular for it to be my uncle’s ancient van. And anyway, good news doesn’t arrive in the middle of the night.
Mum understood and her bellow filled the cottage. ‘Grab everyone’s coats and shoes. I’ll wake the kids. Move!’
We slept more or less fully clothed due to the draughty windows and non-existent central heating. The warmth from the fire failed to reach the bedrooms. I rammed my boots on in seconds, and I slid Special’s warm feet into her little red wellies. Even at that time of night, my mother wore full make-up, but her beauty couldn’t disguise her wild eyes and trembling jaw. She hustled us kids to the back door where our jackets hung.
I held my hands out to my father. ‘Come on, Dad. Please, let’s go.’
My father peered through the window. Judging by the volume of the car’s engine ticking over, they had arrived. Then, a heavy silence. He glanced past me at my mother.
‘I’ll stay and talk to them. Get the children safe.’
Until that point, the extreme danger hadn’t registered. The expression of grim acceptance and resignation on my father’s face told me what I needed to know. I grabbed his wrist and pulled him away from the window.
‘Go. Don’t worry about me. See you at Uncle Ronnie’s when I get there.’
I frowned at him. If it was going to be all right, we wouldn’t need to go to my uncle’s. The loud, hard double knock on the front door jolted us from our inertia and my sister, mum and I fled through the back door.
We waited at the side of the house. Even the clouds seemed to hold their breath. The inches of settled snow cast an eerie light over the fields. I peeped around the corner at our visitors and recognised three men: a gaunt man, a fat man, and a man with weird sticking-out teeth. They’d been to our place on numerous occasions. Goofy, as I’d secretly nicknamed him, watched Special in a manner that gave me goosebumps. I always took her to our room if they arrived and we hadn’t gone to bed yet. I called the other two Laurel and Hardy for their different sizes.
Perhaps, it would be okay after all. Even though they talked down to my father, I thought they were friends. They joked that they all worked in the same line of business. Our front door opened. With the fire long dead and no electricity, the interior showed black and solid. Out of this darkness came my father’s outstretched hand holding an envelope.
A flash startled me, followed by a deafening, frightening bang. It lit my father up like a photograph. Terrified like rabbits, we panicked and left our hiding spot. Stupid, really. The cottage sat on a straight track. There wasn’t another house for miles. We ran in a line up the snowy lane towards the wood. If you run like that, holding hands, you can only go at the pace of the slowest runner. Special’s little boots slipped and skidded across the surface. She rarely went outside.
The first trees and only cover remained distant. I stole a glance back, knowing if they came after us, we would never make it. They stood in a line in the centre of the road, unmoving. Weirdly, considering the weather, they wore similar blue suits. Each had a raised hand. They were colour on a blank canvas, and clear as if it were daylight. We were sitting ducks. This time, multiple booms crashed around our ears.
Incredibly, we carried on running. A sound not dissimilar to a whip cracking whistled by my right ear. A lone crow in front of us launching into flight seemed to be the only consequence of the volley of bullets until my mother stumbled. She dragged herself up with gritted teeth and spat on the floor. Her eyes fixed on the distant tree line, and we continued to move forward. I heard the men laughing. Another torrent of cracks echoed from behind, and my mother hit the ground face first with a sickening thump.
I crouched and scraped the bloody hair from her cheek. Blood poured from her mouth. The snow devoured the liquid even though it gushed out. Her eyes lost focus and, with her dying breath, she gasped, ‘Run.’
The men’s footwear crunched closer. I swung Special onto my back. She adored that: playing horses. She weighed nothing but could hang on like the finest jockey. I set off much faster, terror loaning speed and strength to my legs. I reached the wood and burst in. Branches rustled and scratched my face. But just the trees at the edge were thick conifers, the ones beyond only skeletons. I prayed that our hunters would give up if I put enough distance between us.
It wasn’t a forest by any means, and soon I reached the edge. A large expanse of white opened up before me. The voices behind me echoed louder and closer. Special’s soft, slow breath warmed my ear. I clung to that fact. She didn’t understand. I had no choice and fled into the snow field. Beneath the covering of white, rutted uneven ground unbalanced me. I managed twenty stodgy paces when I heard chuckling again.
Special’s grip loosened after the next succession of shots boomed out. I grabbed her little arms to stop her sliding off my back. Another bang shattered the silence, and a stabbing pain seared my right thigh. After lurching a few more paces, my leg gave way. I collapsed onto my side and Special rolled off. She stared at me. She wasn’t sad or frightened. Her face only displayed kindness. Special had never uttered a word, but she tried that night.
‘Sorry,’ she mouthed. And then the light inside her died. My beautiful sister faded. My sister who gave the best hugs in the world.
A few seconds later, a man appeared in my vision. It was Goofy. He reached down and put his hand towards Special’s neck. I didn’t want him touching her. Energy coursed through me and I pushed up with my arms. The agony in my leg stole my power as I attempted to stand, and I crumpled backwards.
The killer shrugged and removed his hand from Special. His fingers came away dripping with blood. He ran a parched tongue over misshapen teeth and put a finger in his mouth. He regretted that she’d died, but only because it prevented him from having her.
A voice in the distance barked out, ‘Finish them off.’
Goofy leaned over me. I smelled the whisky my father drank when he couldn’t get what he needed. His eyes narrowed. I’d often been called Junior at school. A smattering of freckles below cautious green eyes hinted at an age beneath my years. My parents didn’t waste money on haircuts any more, and my mother was no hairdresser. One of the other kids in my class called me Oliver Twist. Perhaps my innocence made Goofy pause.
The wrinkles between his eyebrows deepened, and a cheek twitched. The snow fell again and flurried behind him. Maybe he thought twice, but he remained ruthless at heart. I stared at his eyes as he leaned back. I kept my gaze on him and implored for mercy until I peered into the barrel of his gun.
The next retort and flash were muffled as though the weather had taken the brunt. And darkness fell.
They left us in that bleak field in the depths of winter without a care. The papers would be full of the news for weeks. They called them the snow killings.
A veterinarian on his way to a morning call at a nearby farm found me covered in blood and lying in the middle of the road. I was two miles from where they discovered my mother, and a mile from my sister. I’d tied my belt around the injured leg and crawled and dragged Special, even when hope was gone. A drunken Goofy had aimed for my face, but his wavering hand meant he hit the top of my head. The strong skull bone broke, but it deflected the bullet away leaving me only with an extremely bad concussion.
They said I should feel lucky to be alive, but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re alone in the world. They mentioned the possibility of a Traumatic Brain Injury, but they hoped for no permanent damage. I would never be the same after that, anyway. I don’t think that’s surprising. Any hopes of a normal future perished in that field.
They removed the bullet from my thigh, and the leg healed fine. Curing a mind was a different matter. Bruised and battered, it vanished to a distant place and left me a vacant creature who responded to little.
I tried to talk to the police. I stuttered about three men, but when I attempted to describe the murders, it finished with me choking and crying. They’d nod at each other and exchange meaningful glances. I assumed they would do their jobs and catch the killers. The visits from the detectives upset me for the rest of the day though, and I’d forgotten about Uncle Ronnie.
As my only living relative, he became my legal guardian. Arriving a week after the deaths, he said he’d overheard someone talking about the shootings. Lucky really, because he didn’t read newspapers. The cottage still had a patrol car outside when he arrived. The police found him cautious and evasive when questioned, but he wasn’t a suspect, and they soon left him alone. The police had determined a clear line of events by examining the murder scenes, and I assumed they had suspects.
My screaming ruined the funeral for the few present. In fact, more police and gawkers attended than mourners. I wondered who paid for the family graves, three in a line, until I caught a subtle glance from the vicar to my uncle. The church was in Peterborough, Orton Longueville. I asked why that particular one and Ronnie told me that he’d saved the vicar’s life once. He gave no further explanation.
After three weeks of little change in my mental state, I managed to describe the man I called Goofy to the police. Uncle Ronnie stayed throughout the chat with them. Afterwards, he tutted and shook his head. All he said was, ‘No good.’ He arrived the next day and told the nurses he wanted to take me for a walk. Fresh air would help waken me up. He borrowed a wheelchair and trundled me to his car. I never returned to hospital and didn’t see the authorities again.
It turned out that Ronnie existed off the grid. Eccentric and crazed, he lived a solitary existence without rules. He slept in a touring caravan pulled by his old van, and had five spots where he would camp for a month at a time. He later told me that was the only way my mother found him. She visited each spot in turn. Some considered him a kind of gypsy, but he said he just didn’t want to live with other people.
To his credit, he took me in. The cramped caravan unsettled me at first. Despite owning little, he’d hung old photos on the wall. He removed them after I mentioned they scared me. I had nothing. Ronnie asked me if I wanted to go back to school. He smiled when I said, ‘No, thank you.’
Ronnie disappeared often in those early months. When I asked where he went, he simply replied, ‘Putting affairs in order.’
Ronnie could best be summed up as ‘the son of a poacher’. His father taught him all he knew, but it wasn’t only animals that Ronnie stole. Pretty much anything not nailed down was fair game. Even securely fastened things were loosened and quickly sold on. In the end, I became his partner in crime. He didn’t speak a great deal, but I think he began to enjoy having me around. There was great value in another pair of eyes in his line of work.
The only thing he’d kept of his father’s was a hand grenade. The story behind it was the only tale of any note that he ever told me. The first time he spoke of it, he stood me up next to the fire and leaned in. This is what he said:
‘The Japanese overran my father’s position at the fall of Singapore in the Second World War. The regiment knew well the enemy’s cruelty to prisoners. With his ammo used and the enemy just feet away, he clutched his last grenade. He couldn’t bring himself to pull the pin and, even though he survived, he left his health and sanity on the Death Railway. After being rescued at the end of the war, he acquired another grenade. He kept it as a souvenir to remind him of his decision.
‘Back in England, he found his son, me, staying with an aunt after an air raid had buried his wife. He took me to the woods and we lived an isolated life. He said he’d never be taken alive again, but died of a heart attack in his sleep, so he never had to make that drastic choice. He raised me to feel the same way.’
I heard that story often. And that belief grew in me too.
We visited the vicar on numerous occasions. He was partial to game, hare being a favourite of his, although he received a TV once. He often gave me a few pennies and a wink. To my astonishment, Ronnie knew nearly everyone. They cheered his arrival. Backhanders and deals filtered through every office and factory.
I put the murders to the back of my mind. Tears wouldn’t help my predicament. We only made one visit to the family graves in Peterborough. When we arrived, fresh flowers lay on the stone. Ronnie had left instructions and money for them to be placed there regularly.
I existed as Ronnie did; a hand-to-mouth life with brief flashes of danger. He taught me how to shoot and lay traps. We relieved washing lines of their contents when we needed new clothes.
Ronnie instilled in me a desire to keep fit. His twenty-minute exercise regime most mornings also became mine. It stilled my mind. We would run together, sometimes by choice, other times when people chased us.
Gradually, I emerged from the shadow of that terrible night. I read anything from books to the magazines and newspapers we’d find. Mainly to relieve the boredom. Ronnie only needed cigarettes to achieve the same goal. When we were out, I’d notice other young men and women in brightly coloured clothes and striking hairstyles. By contrast, my own clothes reminded me of vagrants I’d seen in London. I also remembered the cinema trips of my youth. I wanted to see movies again and mentioned this to my uncle.
That was when we finally talked. I should have known something was wrong because he’d lost weight when he had few pounds to spare. There were places where he hid his money, and we visited them. He also had a leather bag of jewellery, which he kept behind a panel in the caravan. I asked him if he knew who killed my family. He refused to answer, insisting that they’d still be searching for me. He said I should never trust the police. That was why he removed me from the hospital. Besides, revenge wouldn’t bring my sister back.
It turned out he was quite a few years older than my mother and, even though they were both called Smith, he was only a half-brother. I never really knew who my mother was, and Ronnie didn’t enlighten me.
A little later, he took me out for a drive. He wanted to take deer from one of the royal estates in Norfolk. It was a rare venture because the rich have the best gamekeepers. I think he just hoped to feel the rawness of the hunt one final time. His carelessness on that last day shocked me. His laboured gait betrayed any reassurances of being okay.
He crouched and shot a target from a good distance and gave me a melancholic smile. His lack of urgency surprised me. I stepped from foot to foot as he struggled to rise. A big deer is incredibly heavy. We gutted it on the spot to make it lighter and left the innards for the foxes, but it still took some dragging. It was slow going, made worse by Ronnie’s obvious weakness. Human voices whispered nearby. Ronnie fired in their general direction. My pulse quickened as he’d never done anything like that. He wobbled and lurched as he ran.
It’s strange to think that all those close to me have been killed by guns. The bullet that arrived as we got in the van pierced Ronnie’s back and zipped out the front of his stomach. Must have been a powerful rifle as I later found the bullet embedded in the passenger seat. He managed to pull the door shut, and I drove us away. He’d shot his last deer, but he wouldn’t get to taste it. I headed for the hospital but Ronnie stopped me with a final request. He declared himself ready.
‘Take me home,’ he insisted. The caravan had always been his sanctuary.
‘Come on, Ronnie. They’ll be able to fix you if we go now.’ I didn’t know if that was true, but it had to be worth trying.
He placed his hand on my leg and left it there. I gently covered it with my own, not recalling him deliberately touching me before.
‘I’ve been bleeding.’ He focused on the distance and swallowed. ‘From the back passage.’
I returned to the campsite and helped him into a deckchair. He pushed me away when I tried to check the wound.
‘Do you want a drink?’ I asked.
‘Yes. Some water, please.’
‘Just quiet.’ His head tilted backwards.
At that point, I decided I had to know and there wouldn’t be another chance to ask him.
‘Who murdered my family?’
He didn’t reply, but his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down.
‘Come on, Ronnie. Where can I find them?’
His lips remained shut. His breathing slowed, and I assumed the worst. Suddenly, he whispered the words I needed to hear. ‘The Boy’s Head, Oundle Road.’
I sat next to him in silence because that was all he wanted. I thought about the killers, and guessed that if they weren’t in prison then they’d got away with it. A plan hadn’t formed at that point, but I understood the life I lived would expire when Ronnie did. He took an hour to die.
I know Ronnie believed that retribution would not bring my sister back, and he worried that the men were still searching for the only living witness to the crimes.
I disagreed. I was sure they would have forgotten me, but I would always remember them. And the need for revenge consumed me.
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