Monday, 11 May 2020

Billings is Back!

COMING SOON - A new Billings mystery!

A disgruntled detective looking for meaning in his life.
A psychotic young man making his darkest fantasies come true.
A secretive society searching for hidden wisdom in ancient manuscripts.
When these three meet, a series of events is set in motion which leads to one of the most horrific crimes in late Victorian England.
A Glimpse of Heaven is a thrilling, page-turning mystery about spiritualism, the occult... and the quest for magic.

An Excerpt

Spitalfields was far removed from the quiet middle class avenues of Battersea, where Mrs Appleby had her boarding house. The noise here never ended. It started at an ungodly hour in the morning with the knocker-upper tapping on her client’s windows to wake them up. This alarmed the dogs, including Tilly, and soon the whole street sounded like a kennel.
Then came the rattling cans of the milkman’s cart as he pulled his horse down the cobbled street. Then, as the men set off for work, came the fog-horn voices of women reprimanding their children, or husbands for being late. The bustle of daily live followed. The time when the lamp lighter put his ladder up against the lamp posts, was the time when the pubs started filling. As the sky darkened, the music, laughter and singing gradually evolved into shouting and fighting.
But it was when the pubs closed and the drunks stumbled home, that the strangest noises occurred. For two nights running, Billings was kept awake by a wailing woman, running down the street, knocking on people’s doors, asking them if they had seen her baby. A neighbour told Billings that the woman had lost her baby five years ago and never recovered.
At around one o’clock, each night, a quartet of prostitutes marched arm in arm down the street singing a song:

Off we go, we four, to work
We shall not waver
We shall not shirk
By no John Bull
Shall we be fooled
We’re wise and old
And worth our weight in gold
We’re precious dames
With courage and pluck
And you’ll be lucky
If you pay us to…

It was half past one in the morning. Billings leaned against the window sill, watching a drunk banging against the locked door of the pub, demanding to be let in. This was his second night without sleep. How could he ever get used to living in such a circus? A small box with morphine ampoules was stored in a desk drawer, nestled somewhere in the pile of crates and boxes which still littered his room. He had managed to stay off the morphine for the last four months, but kept a stack ready in case of an emergency. Could this be considered an emergency, he wondered.
He heard a small, quivering voice calling him. 
“Mr Billings! Mr Billings, is that you?”
He looked down. A woman stood below his window staring up at him, her head hidden inside a kerchief. She kept looking over her shoulder, anxiously.
A charwoman, Billings thought. Or another drunk.  “What do you want?”
“I need to talk to you. I want to hire a detective.”
“A detective?” How did she know he was a detective? Must have been Mrs Appleby, he concluded. That blasted woman said she’d spread the word around. “We’re not open yet. Come back on Monday.” Billings drew his head back in and closed the window .
“Please, Mr Billings, it’s urgent! My life is in danger. They’re after me!”
The woman’s voice trembled. Her despair sounded genuine. Billings lifted the window sash again.
“Who’s after you?”
“Let me in! Please Mr Billings!”
“How do you know my name?”
“It’s me, Mr Billings. Don’t you remember?”
She pulled the kerchief off her head and took a step towards the street lamp. Billings saw the pink skin of her scalp beneath her thin, grey hairs. Craggy, leathery skin covered her face. “Please,” she begged with pleading, desperate eyes.
The woman’s fear was real. He couldn’t ignore it. “I’ll be right down.”
He closed the window. Grabbing a stiletto knife from the floor and hiding it in the pocket of his dressing gown, he rushed down the stairs. He opened the door. The woman pushed past him and ran up the stairs.
“Just one moment, ma’am!” Billings grabbed her arm and stopped her. “What do you want?”
“We must go up to your apartment!”
“In case they come in and kill me!” The woman was shaking.
Billings closed the door and locked it. “They are not going to come in and kill you, whoever they are. Now what is it you want from me?”
“Please, Mr Billings. I would feel so much safer in your apartment.”
“There is nothing of value in my apartment.”
The woman looked offended. “I’m not going to steal from you, Mr Billings. It’s me.”
She looked straight into his eyes. There was something vaguely familiar about those large brown eyes, but Billings couldn’t place her.
“Who are you?”
“Take me up to your apartment. I’ll explain everything there.”
Billings agreed reluctantly and the woman followed him up the stairs.
“Now, what is this all about?” Billings asked, shutting the apartment door behind them. “How do you know my name?”
“You really don’t recognise me, do you? Well, it’s no matter. This is what it’s about.” She took a pocket mirror out of her skirt pocket and gave it to him.
Billings looked at it, confused.
“Open it.”
Billings flipped open the mirror. It was cracked.
“They sent it to me this morning. It means they want me dead.”
“Who sent it to you?”
They. When it’s cracked it means they want you dead!”
The woman rushed towards the window and looked outside.
“You’re not making any sense, ma’am. Who are they? Why do they want you dead?”
The woman’s face suddenly went pale. “That’s them! That’s them over there!” She pointed out of the window. “Oh, dear Lord! They’ve followed me! They’ve followed me all the way over here!”
Billings approached the window and looked out. All he saw was the drunk still banging on the pub door.
“I don’t see anything.”
“They just ran past. Two of them. Big men with long dark coats. You must follow them. Keep track of them and tell me where they are.” She grabbed the detective’s hands. “Please say you will.” She stared desperately into his eyes. “I will pay you of course. I have no money on me, but I have a box under the third floor board from the window. There’s money there. You know my address. Take as much as you want. It’ll be no good to me when I’m dead.”
Billings pulled his hands away. “I don’t know your address, ma’am. I don’t know who you are. You must have me confused with someone else.”
“I do not have you confused. You are Detective Sergeant Billings. Of Scotland Yard.”
“Not anymore.”
The woman stared at him. Disillusioned. “You’re scared. That’s what it is. They got to you already, didn’t they? They’ve threatened you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are they?”
The woman put her hands to her face and shook her head. “It’s hopeless. They’re everywhere. I’m lost.”
Defeated, she walked towards the door.
“Where are you going?”
“To hell, Mr Billings. That’s where I’m going. Not even God can save me now.”

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Me, at my work station, being serious about writing.

Who Am I?

I’m trying to take my writing career to the next level and one of the issues I’ve been struggling with is finding the right audience for my books. I like to write different kinds of stories, but most readers tend to stick to one genre, so there is no crossover.
I’m very reluctant to pigeon hole myself. I need to enjoy writing, because if I don’t, what’s the point? However, for marketing purposes, I do feel it’s necessary to define exactly who I am and what I write, so that my readers know who they’re dealing with. So by way of an introduction, here’s a little interview I did with myself.

Who are you and what do you write?

I am a story teller. Making up stories is the part of writing I most enjoy. And I don’t want to limit myself to one particular genre. I enjoy  picking an established genre and putting my own twist on it. So far I have published historical mysteries and a collection of Noir thrillers, but I am about to release my first light-hearted romance.

Do your books have anything in common?

Although I write different genres, I do think there is a common thread. My books are all character-based. There are no heroes in my books.  My characters are real people, filled with flaws and insecurities, just like everyone else. They’re not always likeable, but I hope they’re always interesting.

Why do you always write gay books?

I don’t write gay books. I write books with gay protagonists. I need to relate to the main character, otherwise I’ll never get the book finished. I am aware that having gay protagonists may put some readers off, but this is something I won’t compromise on. Representation is important (I know it’s a buzzword nowadays, but it’s true. I know this from growing up in the 80’s, where the only gay characters on television were flamboyant and effeminate and only there to serve as comic relief or to be the butt of jokes). But you don’t need to be gay to enjoy my books. They’re not preachy, you don’t need any foreknowledge of the gay scene and there won’t be any descriptive sex scenes which will make you feel uncomfortable. They are just good stories where the main character just happens to be gay.

What is the hardest part of being a writer?

Self promotion. Without a doubt. Like many writers, I am a shy, introverted and modest and I hate talking about myself. But one of the great advantages of being a self-published writer is the ability to have a personal interaction with my readers. So with this (rather ridiculous and self-indulgent) auto-interview,  I’ve decided to put myself out there and let the world know exactly who I am. :)

Thursday, 27 February 2020

You or No One (part one in the Doggerland Trilogy)

Is the world ready for an openly gay king and his prince consort?
Joel is happy, confident and working class. 
Eric is shy, insecure and a member of one of the oldest aristocratic families in Europe.
When they meet in university sparks fly. 

They say opposites attract, but when Joel discovers that Eric is the crown prince and future king of Doggerland, he starts having doubts.

They want to get married. They think their greatest battle will be convincing the King and the Prime Minister to give their consent. But estranged relatives coming out of the woodwork, intrusive tabloid press, and the traditional, stifling lifestyle of the aristocracy conspire against them. 

Are Joel and Eric secure enough in themselves and each other to overcome a world which is not as tolerant as they thought?


The King And I

Breakfast was at ten. I’d agreed with Button-eyes that he’d pick me up at half past nine and brief me on regal rules before escorting me to the breakfast room.
At eight o’clock, I was sitting, fully dressed, on the edge of my bed, nervously twiddling my thumbs. I hadn’t slept at all. The butterflies in my stomach had multiplied overnight. Not only was I going to meet my potential in-laws – that would’ve been nerve-racking enough –but I was also going to meet the king and queen of Doggerland. It was still beyond me how I had ended up in this situation!
Tired of not being able to sleep, I got up at seven, showered, shaved, and spent a further hour agonizing about what to wear. I went for the outfit that Eric had bought me in Brighton. The shirt and trousers were a little wrinkled, but I thought I looked presentable enough.
Button-eyes, however, disagreed. As soon as he opened the door and saw me, he frowned and shook his head. 
“No, no, no, this won’t do at all,” he said, without even a good morning or did you sleep well?“You should’ve told me you needed your clothes pressed and ironed. Have you anything else?”
“These are the smartest clothes I’ve got.”
“Well, it won’t do. The queen is very judgmental, and if she sees you like this, she’ll think you’re a slob.”
He walked over to the telephone table, picked up the horn, and barked out an order in his own language. Then he replaced the horn in its cradle and took a watch out of his jacket pocket. “I’ll take you to the laundry room. We’ll find you some decent clothes there.” He looked at his watch and frowned. “But we must be quick about it. Follow me; I’ll explain about royal etiquette on the way.” Putting his watch back in his pocket, he marched out of the room.
“First of all, the king of Doggerland never shakes hands.” Button-eyes strode down the long corridor. I tagged along behind him, struggling to keep up. “When you greet the king and queen, you stand before them with your arms by your sides, you look at their foreheads – not their eyes, but their foreheads – and you nod. You nod until your chin touches your chest. Do you understand? You greet the king first. Then you greet the queen. You do not sit down until the king asks you to. You will call the king and queen your majesty, but do so only once. After that, you can call them sir and ma’am. Don’t leave the room before they do, and never show them your back.”
I followed him into the laundry room, where a woman in a black uniform was waiting for us beside the washing machines.
“This is Ingrid,” Button-eyes said. “She will give you something suitable to wear.”
I stepped towards the woman and smiled. “Hi, Ingrid. I’m Joel. I don’t actually need different clothes. I just need my shirt to be ironed and my trousers to be pressed. I can do it myself if you show me where things are.”
“You need a different outfit, Mr Bottomley.” Button-eyes checked his watch and frowned. “You’re wearing dining clothes. Breakfast is a casual affair. The queen cares about these things. Now, hurry up and take off your clothes. We haven’t much time.”
Ingrid gave me a dark blue turtleneck jumper and a pair of brown corduroy trousers, both a few sizes too big for me.
“Whose clothes are these?” I asked. 
“They’re Eric’s,” Button-eyes said.
“Won’t the queen recognise them?”
“He’s never worn them.”
“They’re too big.”
“They’ll do. Just roll up your sleeves. Ingrid will adjust your trousers.” As he said this, the woman knelt down before me and began rolling in my trouser legs.
I wasn’t at all comfortable with these clothes. The jumper was too baggy. And corduroy? Who still wears corduroy? But I had no say in the matter. As soon as Ingrid finished with my trousers, I followed Button-eyes back down the long corridor towards the breakfast room.
Eric was waiting for me outside, his face pale and tense. He smiled as we approached.
“You look good,” he said, patting me on my shoulder. “Have you been briefed?” He looked at Button-eyes for an answer.
“He has,” was the reply.
“Good. We will go in together, and I will introduce you. The queen is in a bad mood, but don’t let that put you off. She can huff and puff all she wants, but my father is the one in charge, and he is usually quite reasonable. Are you ready?”
I nodded, and we both stepped into the room. It was a large, bright room. The breakfast was laid out on a buffet table, but no one was eating. The king sat in an armchair, a newspaper on his lap. He was in his fifties; a handsome man with a full head of hair, brown and slightly curled, with a dignified sprinkling of grey on his temples. He wore corduroy trousers – like me – a green cardigan, and a gold-and-black-chequered cravat.
 The queen and Petra sat next to each other on a sofa. The queen had a stern face. I could tell that she had been a great beauty in her youth, but time had been unkind to her. The wrinkles around her mouth gave her a permanently sour expression, and her blonde hair, tied tightly into a bun, did nothing to soften her image.
Petra smiled at me. Radiantly. Encouragingly. Both ladies held a steaming mug of tea in their hands while they stared at us.
“Mother…  Father…” Eric’s voice cracked, and he stopped to clear his throat. “This is my friend… my dear friend from Oxford. Joel Bottomley.”
I turned towards the king, placed my arms by my sides as instructed, and nodded slowly. Then I turned towards the queen and did the same.
“Joel is a first year PPE student,” Eric continued. “He has been a great companion to me at Oxford and has helped me out on numerous occasions.”
“Pleased to meet you, Joel,” the king said. “Do sit down.” He pointed at a chair opposite the sofa. I took my seat. Eric sat down next to me.
“Now, Bottomley…” the queen said, looking me up and down. She spoke with a thick German accent. “Are you the grandson of Lady Bottomley?”
I was confused. “Beg your pardon, your majesty?”
“Of Kelston in Somerset?” the queen clarified.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t know who that is.”
Petra frowned and rolled her eyes. “He’s not related to Lady Bottomley, Mother. You know he’s not. Lady Bottomley doesn’t have any grandchildren.”
“Well, whose child are you, then?”
“You don’t know his family, Mother,” Eric said. “He comes from Wales.”
“Wales? Where in Wales?”
“A village called Tonypandy, ma’am.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“Not many people have.” I smiled. I hoped that remark would break the ice, but it didn’t. The queen seemed offended that I had the gall to come from a village she’d never heard of.
“You’re very skinny,” she said, looking me up and down again. “That jumper looks like a potato sack on you.”
Eric’s jaw dropped, and Petra almost choked on her tea. Even the king was forced to raise his eyebrows.
“I had to borrow this jumper, ma’am. My shirt got wrinkled in the suitcase.”
“Who gave you that jumper?”
“It was… um…” I had to be careful. I’d been calling him Button-eyes for so long, I’d almost forgotten his real name. “Mr Boersma. Mr Boersma gave it to me.”
“How long have you known each other?” the king asked.
Eric answered. “Since September.”
“That’s only four months.”
“Yes, but we’ve become good friends during that time.”
There was a pause in the conversation. A long, awkward pause. Eric nervously bounced his knee up and down. The king gently tapped his fingers against his newspaper, and the queen kept playing with the pearls around her neck.
“So…” the queen said, finally. “What is this thing you want to tell us? Why have we been summoned back from Denmark so suddenly?”
“Well…” Eric sat up nervously. “I wanted you to meet Joel.”
“Can’t you guess?”
“Is he ill?”
“Well, he looks so skinny in that jumper.”
Petra rolled her eyes. “Mother, he already told you that he had to borrow that jumper.”
“Well, what is it then?” The queen frowned with impatience. “Why have we been forced to interrupt our tour?”
Eric took a deep breath and blurted it out. “Joel and I are in love. We want to get married.”
A quiet fell over the room. Eric, Petra, and I kept staring at the king and queen, wondering who would answer first. The king cast his eyes to the ceiling while he thought of a reply, but it was the queen who finally spoke.
“Marry? You want to marry?” She laughed. A fake, bitter laugh. “I thought at first that you were ill. That this friend of yours had given you AIDS or something. That we’d been summoned back from Denmark to help you with that. But it turns out you want to marry.”
“Surely that’s better than getting AIDS,” Petra chipped in, looking as astonished by her mother’s inappropriate remark as I was. But the queen was not amused. 
“You can’t marry a man, Eric. It’s ridiculous!” she said.
“Why can’t I?” Eric protested. “It’s legal, isn’t it?”
“Not for us, Eric! Not for people like us! I’ve had enough of this!” She slammed her tea mug onto the glass coffee table and stood up. “How dare you interrupt our tour for something like this! How dare you!” She stormed out of the room.
Petra called after her. “Mother, stay. Please. Hear him out.” But it was of no use. The queen had gone.
The king finally turned to face Eric. “Your mother is stressed and tired. You know how she gets when she’s on tour.” He didn’t look angry or shocked. He was the complete antithesis to his wife: calm, mild, collected. “Perhaps you should’ve waited with this news until the tour was over.”
“Why should I wait?” Eric protested peevishly. “I’m tired of having to do everything on my own. I want Joel by my side. He gives me strength. He gives me confidence.”
“It was inconsiderate of you to summon us back for this. You’ve only known this boy for a few months.”
“His name is Joel!”
“Sorry, Joel.” Finally, the king turned to face me. “What do you make of all this? You’ve been very quiet.”
“Well… I… I don’t know.” Not the most eloquent answer, I know, but what else could I say? I wasn’t expecting such drama.
“Do you think it’s wise to marry someone you’ve only known for a few months?”
Eric answered before I got the chance.
“I’m not asking to marry him now. I can wait a year. Or two years. I just want to know if it’s possible.”
“That’s not for me to decide, Eric. It’s the prime minister who decides that.”
“Yes, but the prime minister will need your approval first. What I want to know is, will you support me? Will you help persuade the prime minister?”
The king thought about this. “I’m not sure the government will think it’s in the country’s best interest for the crown prince to marry another man.”
“Why not?” It was Petra who asked. She was leaning forward on the sofa, her elbows resting on her knees, preparing herself for a good argument. “It’s the prime minister who legalised same-sex marriage in Doggerland. He made a whole speech about how he wanted everyone to have the same chance of happiness. He can’t turn around now and deny this opportunity to Eric.”
The king looked at his daughter and frowned. “I suppose you’re the one who put him up to this.”
Petra looked indignant. “I did not put him up to this. It was his idea. I’m just supporting him.”
“It’s not about being gay, Eric.” The king leaned in towards his son. “I don’t mind you being gay. Your great uncle was gay. Uncle Dagobert. I don’t know if you remember him. He was in a relationship with a man for nearly forty years. Walter, his name was. Nice chap. The whole family knew about it, and nobody cared. But then Dagobert had a wife, too. Frida. Do you remember great aunt Frida? She knew about Walter when she married him, but she didn’t care. She was happy just to be a countess and to live in a castle. They had separate bedrooms. And she had her lovers. But they lived together. That was the important thing. They were seen together. They attended events together. They went on holidays together.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Eric asked.
“I’m just telling you that it is possible to be gay without breaking from tradition. We are one of the oldest royal families in Europe. We represent stability and continuity. We are not like ordinary people. What would be the point of us if we lived like ordinary people? We’d be redundant.”
“Are you suggesting I have a sham marriage?”
“You can call it a sham marriage, but you can also call it a marriage of convenience.”
“I call it a sham marriage!”
“Come on, Eric. Be reasonable. You can’t marry another man. What will the Church think of this? What will the other royal families think?”
“What the devil do I care what they think!”
“You should care. When you’re king, you will be representing the people of Doggerland. You will be the defender of the Christian faith in these islands. You will be head of this family. What people think of us is important.”
“The reason we’re important, Father,” it was Petra speaking again, “is because we have influence. I think we should use this influence. Imagine how we can help change attitudes towards homosexuality if Eric comes out. And marries his boyfriend. And tours the world with him on diplomatic visits.”
The king frowned. “Eric is not one of your political causes, Petra! He’s your brother.”
“Listen to her, Pa,” Eric said.
“I read a report recently,” Petra continued. “About how the young people of Doggerland perceive the royal family. They see us as pointless. As irrelevant. They don’t understand why we exist. We need to change if we want to survive. Eric and Joel can become gay rights ambassadors at a time when homophobia is rearing its ugly head again. Joel Bottomley could be the best thing that has ever happened to this family.”
They all turned to face me. I think I blushed.
“Has Eric met your parents?”the king asked me.
“My parents?” I felt as if I’d been struck by lightning. Not once, throughout this whole whirlwind, had I given my parents any thought. But the king was right, of course. They’d have to get involved at some point. The very thought of it filled me with terror.
“No, I haven’t,” Eric replied.
“What sort of people are they?”the king asked me.
“What sort of people?” Well, what could I say? I broke out in a sweat. “They’re simple people.”
“What do they do?”
“My mother is a housewife.”
“And your father?”
“He… um. He’s dead.”
Oops! That just came out.
“I didn’t know that,” Eric said. “You never told me.”
“Oh, it was a long time ago.”
“What did he die of?”
I felt sweat beads form on my head. My father was an arsehole, but I didn’t wish him dead.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the king said. “Do you get on well with your mother?”
“Oh, yes. Yes. She’s a wonderful woman.”
“Does she know about you and Eric?”
“Well…” I looked at Eric. “Eric and I decided to keep things secret until we talked to you.”
“Quite right.” The king leaned back in his chair. “Family is very important to me. You’ll need the support of your family if you’re going to join our clan. It’s not easy being a royal.”
Eric sat up in his seat. “Does that mean you accept?”
The king frowned at the interruption and gestured for his son to sit back down. “In the past, of course, the custom was to marry people from other noble families. I myself married a German countess, and, although she is a little temperamental, as you have seen, she has served me well. But nowadays, there aren’t enough royals to go round, so some royal families have had to let in commoners. This hasn’t always gone smoothly. It’s hard to adjust to our lifestyle when you’ve not been brought up in it. It can all go to your head. You can lose yourself in this life. Lose all idea of who you are. Try to become someone you’re not. I don’t know, Joel, if you are strong enough not to let that happen to you.”
“He is,” Eric said, but the king ignored him and continued to stare at me.
“The way you’ve been brought up is key to this. Have you been brought up to be confident, strong, self-assured? Will you be able to retain a positive image of yourself, even when the press does nothing but demonise you and publish lies about you? Will your family be able to cope with your newfound fame? Or will they use your celebrity to profit from it?”
“Joel is strong, Pa. Stronger than me. And he’s honest.”
“Well, I want corroboration of that, Eric. I’d have to meet his family before I can make a decision.” He turned his attention back to me. “If you marry into the royal family, it won’t just be you who’ll be thrust into the media spotlight. Your mother will too. Do you think your mother is strong and courageous enough to face that prospect?”
I gulped. My mother? My poor, anxious, pill-popping mother? She wasn’t even strong and courageous enough to step outside her own house.
“Well… I… um…” I felt a bead of sweat trickle down my neck. “It’s hard to say.”
“I must be sure of that before I can make a decision,” the king said. “I won’t be able to speak to the prime minister until June, so I suggest you speak to your mother and introduce Eric to her in the meantime. Maybe you can invite him over for Easter? And in the summer, you can come and visit us in Doggerland again. And bring your mother.”
Eric looked at me, gleaming with happiness.

I wish I could’ve felt the same, but my God! The thought of my mother meeting the king of Doggerland! This whole thing was turning into a nightmare.