The Sleeping Season

The DI Sloane Series. Book 1

Pre-order your copy.

Coming 27 March, 2020

Someone going missing is not an event in their life but an indicator of a problem.

Detective Inspector Harriet Sloane is plagued by nightmares while someone from her past watches from a distance. In East Belfast, local four-year-old River, vanishes from his room.

Sloane must put her own demons to bed and find the boy. Before it’s too late.

You can read all about The Sleeping Season on my blog.

‘This is a novel of style and verve, that explores the darkness within relationships and the choices we make to protect those we love. The Sleeping Season is unapologetically feminist.’

Sharon Dempsey

‘A breath of fresh air for the genre. The novel holds a spotlight to difficult societal issues. I’m already a fan of the series.’

James Murphy

‘What I loved most about The Sleeping Season is how much of a feminist anthem it is. I’ll definitely be anxiously waiting as each book releases.’

Amanda Sloan for Geek Herring

Chapter 1

I wasn’t supposed to be on shift that Monday in October. I was supposed to be off, and free to wake on my sofa at some senseless hour as usual, then potter about my third-floor two-bedroom apartment in St. George’s Harbour overlooking the Lagan and the towering yellow profiles of Samson and Goliath beyond it.

My living room was a rectangle partitioned off by the dining table where I completed my casework. The window had no blind, letting the sun stream in when it was ready to.

I never knew my neighbours: the young English couple renting the top floor apartment above and the older local couple living below, nor the ones below them. But I knew their sounds. The people above liked to listen to The Strokes. Last Nite was a favourite; they always played it before going out. Their footsteps were noticeable but soft and beating. I knew that the woman had the manners to take her high heels off when she entered the apartment. I learned this when the woman from the floor below commented on my mine the morning after I staggered home from a night out. Did I know the clacking stilettos made on my wooden floor? After that I avoided her.

Family never visited the apartment. Father would have called, only I put him off in case Greg was there. Charlotte didn’t call because the place was unreasonably small if she had her kids with her – five, like we’d grown up with. And Brooks would have dropped in any time, but he’d disappeared off the face of the earth. Greg was the only person who came by invitation.

Jason Lucie, on the other hand, liked to surprise me. He was the most charming man I had ever known, with his pale skin, eyes the colour of sandy silt, red hair and a wide smile that put people at ease. When he stood on the bridge looking up at my window he would be wearing a hoodie, the hood pulled up, his smile imperfectly still, sending a message to me. He wore that hoodie because I bought it for him, and because sometimes I slept in it at our house in Osborne Gardens when I was cold in bed.

Jason knew my routine, so when I jogged along the Lagan, he would be standing on East Bridge Street, doing nothing but staring. For over a year – once he found out where I’d gone – he was there almost every night. That’s why I liked to shake up my work shifts and my runs. I wasn’t giving anything up; I was just timing it differently.

At other times the thought of going anywhere outside of work terrified me and I would sit at home and wait for Greg to call. My life became like that – a waiting game. Waiting for people to give up on me, you could say.

Anyway, I was supposed to be off that day. I was eating breakfast when Detective Inspector Diane Linskey, my partner, phoned with the news.

‘I said we’d take it. Is that alright, Harry?’ Linskey paused hopefully.

‘Yep. Of course,’ I said.

‘It’ll get us both out from behind the desk.’

‘Oh yeah, we’ve been getting much too cosy behind our desks.’

Linskey laughed.

An hour later I pulled into Strandtown PSNI station, then went inside and put my handbag in my locker. Outside Linskey was waiting by our navy-blue Skoda hatchback.

‘Hello, stranger,’ she said with cheery routineness. She put on her sunglasses and attempted to stare through the low, strong October sun.

‘Tell me more about this boy,’ I said as we drove down the Holywood Road.

‘A missing four-year-old – River, you call him. He’s gone missing from his home in Witham Street. His mother called it in.’

‘Anything strange or startling?’

‘The mother was hard for the operator to get much more from. An officer has been out, but I thought this was one for us.’

‘Great.’ I yawned.

‘You need an early night, Harry.’

‘Chance would be a fine thing.’ I yawned again. I hadn’t slept for a couple of weeks.

‘You can drive on the way back to the station,’ she said. ‘It’ll stop you falling asleep on me.’

‘Aren’t you funny!’ I said.

We stopped at the lights at Holywood Arches from where there was a glimpse of CS Lewis Square, a small community garden with murals of long-haired hippy women dancing through fields, a welcome replacement for ones of men nursing rifles and resentment.

Fronting the Newtownards Road, a fair old smattering of shutters were permanently down, only unlocked for potential buyers. Or there were fake shop fronts that were trying to dupe those not paying full attention. The road was a graveyard for businesses in their infancy; the only shops awake were those that had always been there. But this didn’t stop the constant pulse of traffic. It was a go-through, get-past place as much as anything, reminding us Belfast people that there’s life beyond our floating city.

In between the Gold Buying Centre and the Charter for Northern Ireland office, turning right into Witham Street, we toured a lane of small red-brick terraces, ending with five relatively new three-bed homes that sat proudly facing the hunched shoulder of the old graffiti-scarred transport museum. Four of the newish-builds were semi-detached, but the address we were going to was a detached property with a tasteful dim pink door and a topiary plant either side of it and without the small audiences of weathered garden gnomes that adorned most of the houses in the street.

‘This is surprisingly cute,’ Linskey said.

We got out of the car. A woman with short red hair came out hurriedly to greet us. She was still in her pyjamas.

‘Mrs Reede?’ Linskey asked.

‘Yes.’

‘We’re here now and we’ll help you find your boy.’ She shook the woman’s hand and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. This kind of case got Linskey going; the stakes were high – a child was involved. She loved cases where she could help a family.

We followed Zara Reede into her home where she clawed the cream-coloured throw off the sofa and placed it around her shoulders like a shock-absorber. She raked her fingers through the tormented locks of her hair and told us what happened. After she woke that morning she went downstairs, made a cup of tea, had a smoke at the back door and got back into bed, thinking that her son River – the missing child in question – was being unusually quiet.

‘I called out to my partner Raymond,’ said Zara, ‘asked if he would check in on Riv. I thought Raymond was shaving in the en suite bathroom. But he didn’t reply when I called him, so I called Riv. But he didn’t reply either. Then I knew something was wrong. I got up, looked out, saw Raymond in the garden. When I went into River’s room he wasn’t there. So I went downstairs again … usually River puts the TV on soon as he gets up. I don’t like him to, but you know how wee boys are.’

At this Linskey nodded, being the mother of two boys now aged eighteen and twenty. ‘Yes, I remember,’ she said.

We watched Zara pace. Linskey grew her eyes at me and gave a slight tip of her head at the banging coming from the back garden.

‘May I take a look around?’ I asked.

‘Yes, Detective.’ Zara pressed her lips inside her mouth, a dimple forming in each tear-stippled cheek. ‘But you’ll not find River here. We’ve looked everywhere. You know, in cupboards and places like that.’

Up I stood anyway, glancing at the wall to the right of the fireplace which was a shrine to the boy: six photos of River in various toothless stages. I took a moment to take them in, to learn his face.

‘He’s changed loads since those were taken,’ said Zara.

On the Mexican pine mantel was a small gold carriage clock and an overloaded pot of amaryllis trumpets. The photo Zara had set out for us rested against the plant pot. I lifted it up.

‘We’ll get this image of River circulated as soon as possible, Mrs Reede,’ I told her.

I knew there was a lesson to be learned from the pied cheeks of mothers of missing children. It was on their top lips, shiny with the glassy liquid that streams from their nostrils and spreads all over their faces like a rash of fire.

‘And he was wearing his pyjamas?’ Linskey asked. ‘Isn’t that what you said on the phone?’

At this point Raymond came in: a stout man with a head of thick, black, curly hair. He wore a pair of grey cords and a bland pullover, and walked as though he was soaking wet. He wiped his hands on a rag, reached out and shook mine.

‘Thanks for coming,’ he said.

‘Detective Inspector Harriet Sloane,’ I said, then gestured in Linskey’s direction. ‘This is Detective Inspector Diane Linskey. We’re going to get this photo and the description of River straight into circulation. It’s best to act fast, Mr Reede.’

‘Marsh. My surname’s Marsh,’ he said. ‘We’re not married.’

Zara turned to look at him, cloaked in the plush throw. It fell in pleats around her like a baptismal cloak. She gave us a feeble smile, showing her teeth, straight and white if not a bit big for her small face. She was attractive. Would be any normal day. Beautiful and repulsive.

‘I’ll have that look around now,’ I said.

‘Knock yourself out,’ said Raymond.

In the kitchen, dinner dishes from the night before were jammed in the sink and there was a strong scent of sesame oil, soy sauce and stale beer. Linskey was asking the same questions of Raymond we’d already put to Zara. He wasn’t answering but using all his concentration to lower himself onto the sofa with the rigidity of a person who had just undergone an operation. Eventually he sat, his left leg out straight. He took a deep breath from down in his belly.

‘Mr Marsh, would you say that River is wearing his pyjamas?’ Linskey tried the question again.

Raymond straightened himself up, then slouched backwards, his fleshy hand still pressing the rag on the arm of the chair.

‘Pyjamas,’ he finally said. ‘Yes, stripy pyjamas. Blue and green.’

The far end of the kitchen dissolved into something of a dining area containing all the paraphernalia typical of a couple for whom this home was not their first. The rooms were small but cushy, and the house seemed to fold in at the corners to better support all the furniture inside. A square table was pushed flush to the wall and there was an imposing book case shored up against the opposite side. In it was an array of cookbooks with names such as Healthy Eating for Children, and Eat Yourself Happy, Eat Yourself Smart – for Children, umpteen books about Omega oils, and organic, sugar-free, gluten-free and GM-free eating, and parenting self-helpers – Raising Boys, Breastfeeding Now and In the Future, The Good Mother’s Handbook and How to be a Good Mum.

Another thing I noticed about the house was a distinct lack of toys: not one truck or dinosaur, no puzzle pieces anywhere among the rubble of Raymond and Zara’s lives. I asked if there was a sibling we could speak to; I’d noticed that on the cream leather sofa was a cross-stitched cushion bearing the legend, Excuse the mess, my children are making happy memories. Children. Yet the house wasn’t messy, not with child-mess anyway.

‘No, no other children,’ said Zara. ‘Just Riv.’

She looked affronted and I found myself apologising for what, I wasn’t quite sure.

There were some things, however: a packet of extra-large nappies on the counter, and on the side of the bookcase, three charts pasted onto primary-coloured sheets of paper. The soothing cornflower blue chart was for sleep; the traffic-light red one was labelled ‘good/bad boy’, and a suitably urinal yellow chart was apparently for the potty. Each sheet was ruled out into lines, with red crayon Xs and little sticky gold stars summing up the success/fail rating of each day.

Zara’s pacing grew impatient in the living room. She asked Linskey when we would be going, and when we would be coming back, and when she should expect to hear from us again. Raymond told her these things take time.

‘Yes,’ Linskey murmured. ‘The moment we have any information.’

In the sink, among the plates and glasses, were numerous plastic spoons. Little Calpol measures. And on the mini island, its body constructed from wooden pallets, a steel toolbox was opened out, a hammer lying beside it, nose angled against the cold Formica surface. Zara came in, crouched to the bottom shelf of the bookcase, pulled out a huge hardback catalogue, eased it open with both hands onto the island: Next Catalogue, Autumn/Winter 2015 – last year’s.

‘I’ve no photo,’ she told me, ‘but what I noticed …’ 

She paused, flicked through silky photographs of pleasant-looking children posing in starchy school uniforms. 

‘His coat.’

She pressed her fingernail into a photo of a blond boy with a broad white smile, then tore the photo from the catalogue and handed it to me.

‘River has taken his coat?’ I asked, somewhat surprised.

Zara nodded. Her shoulders shuddered, then shrugged. ‘It wasn’t on his hook in the hall,’ she said.

‘So, you think …’

‘Yes, he must have. I can’t find it anywhere.’

‘We’ll ask all the neighbours to look for River too,’ I told her.

‘Raymond did that already … I’ve stayed here, in case.’

‘Children usually come back pretty quickly.’

‘When they get hungry?’

‘Zara,’ I said gently, ‘do you have any enemies?’

‘Do you?’ she replied.

When the floorboards chirred above us her eyes darted to the ceiling. She frowned, dashed into the living room, calling Raymond. He sat in stillness. Linskey, however, was gone. Zara strode to the hall, bare feet slapping the tiled floor.

‘Hello? Detective?’ she called. ‘Can I help you?’

‘She’s just checking the lad’s bedroom,’ Raymond told her, his hand reaching out for the TV remote control.

Zara’s feet banged their way up the stairs.

‘Doing some work?’ I asked Raymond. He gave me a distrustful look. ‘The toolbox …’ I added with a smile.

‘Yeah.’ He set the remote control down and levered himself up. ‘Come here till I show you, Harriet.’

He walked to the back door; bin lorries beeped in the distance. He pointed. ‘See the fence?’  

My eyes landed on the house behind, hidden behind the fence he was talking about. The slats of the fence were diagonal, all butted together, but there was a patch where a mismatching piece of darker wood overlapped.

‘The builders never gave us a fence,’ Raymond said. ‘That belongs to the woman out the back. It’s rightly rotted through. That’ll have to do until we get the money to put up our own. She has these dogs, you see. And there was this gap … River can get through. Has no fear, like.’ He blew out, his tumbling fringe breezing about his eyes.

He had bad skin, his nose misshapen by crystallised acne. I held the photo of River and the picture of the coat he may have had on when he left. I tried to envisage the boy at the fence. Willed him to appear over it.

‘He’s not over there, if that’s what you’re thinking,’ Raymond said. ‘First place I looked. Anyway, River left through the front door.’

‘Any signs of forced entry?’

‘None.’

In the hall was a photo of Zara and River on the wall, and the coatrack, just like Zara said there was. I was aware I was being watched from the landing as I looked at Zara’s and Raymond’s winter coats, and the hook that held a little navy-blue gym bag that said strandtown preschool on it in white lettering.

‘Just his little gym gutties in there,’ Zara shouted, helium-lunged, pre-empting my question. 

‘So, River would’ve come down here?’ Linskey asked, walking down the stairs marginally in front of Zara who no longer had her throw; it swathed the bannister instead. A pair of baggy grey pyjama bottoms were wearing her.

‘River would’ve taken his coat from this rack,’ Linskey went on. ‘And … where would he have gotten the door key from, Mr Marsh?’

‘The keys are in here, Diane,’ Raymond answered. He stooped to open the drawer in a pine telephone table.

Zara pursed her lips, but Linskey couldn’t see it.

‘There’s a little canvas pouch,’ Zara announced. She edged past Linskey and lifted it into her palm – tilted it so we could see into it, as if she was offering us a boiled sweet each from a bag. Only, nothing.

She tossed the weightless pouch in her hand. ‘The key’s in the door,’ she said, ‘but it’s usually kept in here.’

Raymond gestured at the top of the door. ‘Got a bolt put up there too,’ he explained.

‘And did either of you put the latch on last night?’ Linskey asked.

Raymond’s jaw hung open slightly, his eyes flickering softly to the side giving the impression he was trying to remember. He leaned against the door jamb in the axis of the hall and the living room, his face grey apart from the white spikes of October morning light that flickered over him through the trees out front, like he was being seen through fluttering eyelashes. He scratched his head.

‘I can’t be certain,’ Zara interjected. ‘Maybe … But was it last night that I double-locked? Frig it, the days are rolling into one!’

‘River would’ve let himself out easy enough anyway, Zee,’ said Raymond. ‘He was a wee climber, sure.’

Was? My interest piqued at his use of the past tense.

Zara explained. ‘River used to climb something dreadful, especially when he was two and three. Desperate for it!’ She looked out their front door at the woman standing at the end of the gate that twinned theirs. ‘Raymond, she’s still out there,’ she said. ‘Flip sake, get a life, love!’

‘Who is that woman?’ I asked.

‘Ness.’ Raymond smiled. ‘She’s a neighbour. Ness’d be able to tell you about River’s climbing. He climbed into her tree before – remember, Zee? Couldn’t get him down, wee monkey man.’

Linskey told them that boys were more likely to hide outside while girls were more likely to stay indoors. Zara ran her hands through her hair; she reached for her throw and slung it over her shoulders.

‘I don’t need to hear about what girls do,’ she snapped. ‘It’s not a girl I have.’

*

The neighbour backed off as Diane and I proceeded down the short path. Vanessa ‘Ness’ Bermingham, a woman in her sixties, petite with a titanium globe of hair like she was growing out a shorter style, went into her house, easing the front door of her end terrace shut.

‘Well done, Harry,’ said Linskey, ‘you didn’t yawn once.’

I started up the Skoda and looked side-on at the house. Through the window I could make out Raymond who had nestled himself back into the sofa, finally able to turn on the TV to wash away the awful silence. And there were two women, Zara and Ness, who stood looking out of their own living room windows, neither of them pulling away.

Buy The Sleeping Season