The Scorpion Sting is a short story by Life on Mars writer Tom Graham. It occurs between the events of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes on Christmas Eve, 1973. The story was published in December 2010 on various websites. It appears to incorporate elements of the fable of The Scorpion and the Frog.
A cold, grey Christmas Eve at Manchester CID, A-Division, 1973. A few limp strips of Christmas tinsel hung from the concrete pillars of the incident room. A tatty, plastic fairy in mini-skirt and suspenders dangled obscenely from DCI Gene Hunt’s office door.
DI Sam Tyler sat at his desk, ignoring the report he was supposed to be writing and staring, instead, through the window, out at the ominous black clouds that were forming over the city skyline.
He was thinking of the future—the world 30 years from now from which he had been so suddenly hurled—of the home he would never see again. Would they have a white Christmas in 2006, he thought. Here in ’73, there was nothing but rain.
Would the snow fall when everyone settled down for the big film on TV? What were they watching—Toy Story? The Lord Of The Rings?
‘I take it you’ll be like me, getting plastered in front of The Great Escape on Christmas Day, Christopher,’ announced DC Ray Carling, lounging at his desk.
Ray looked at him evenly: ‘That’s for pooftahs, Chris.’
‘I know,’ Chris added quickly. ‘It’s rubbish. It don’t make me cry or nuthin’.’
But Ray was incredulous: ‘You prefer to watch dancing bloody midgets rather than Steve McQueen getting chased by Germans?’
‘I just watch it for a laff. If one of them munchkins walked in here right now I’d kick his balls off. Obviously, Steve McQueen’s boss and all that.’
Trying to look macho, he fiddled with his radio until 10CC’s Rubber Bullets emerged from the static.
‘Turn it up!’ called out Ray.
‘Turn it down!’ frowned Annie Cartwright. ‘Some of us have work to get done before Christmas!’
‘A bit more respect from you, jugs,’ Ray came back at her, speaking with the fag still between his lips.
Sam felt a flush of anger, a sudden urge to intervene and defend Annie’s honour. But she was used to being treated like this. She could handle it. He watched her shrug off Ray’s remark and get back to her work.
Lost now in a world of his own, Chris was up and playing an imaginary air guitar, singing his heart out into an imaginary mic.
‘I can see one slug in here who looks all too real to me,’ intoned Gene Hunt, looming suddenly out from his office door like a bad-tempered grizzly emerging from its cave.
Chris, madly windmilling at his air guitar, froze, then guiltily killed the music. Gene glowered and said: ‘Right. Now perhaps we can all start acting like coppers for a minute. Have a gander at this, children.’
He threw a Christmas card down on a desk. Sam, Annie, Chris and Ray all peered at the snowman on the front of the card; somebody had turned its smiling face into a screaming visage of agony; that same somebody had also added the crude image of a butcher’s knife jutting from the snowman’s chest, complete with fountains of blood.
‘What’s this, guv?’ asked Ray. ‘New range of cards at Woolworth’s, is it?’
Sam picked up the card and read out the message inside: ‘“Ho ho ho, coppers, you’ll never catch me, you are too … stuped?” I assume he means “stupid”. “Go to the Deluxe IM Hotel and see if you can stop me doing a MURDER next week, on NEW YEAR’S EVE!!! You won’t stop me, ha ha ha, and I will be laffing to see you try, you wazzocks!! Signed—The Scorpion.” ’
Sam and Annie exchanged a look. Ray smirked. Gene scowled. Only young Chris seemed disturbed by the message, and said in a worried voice: ‘It’s just a joke, right?’
‘This fella’s English teacher wouldn’t think so, he writes like a four-year-old,” said Sam, disdainfully passing the card back to Gene. ‘Are we taking it seriously, guv?’
‘Yes and no,’ said Gene. ‘Personally, it sounds like bollocks. However, as an officer of the law I’m obliged to pay heed to any threat to commit murder, however dopey that threat might sound.’
‘The Deluxe Imperial Hotel,’ said Ray. ‘They’re holding a big beauty contest there on New Year’s Eve.’
‘How do you know, Ray?’ Sam asked.
‘I like to keep abreast of these things, boss,’ smirked Ray. Chris, at least, was amused.
‘Ray’s right,’ put in Gene. ‘The Deluxe will be crawling with skirt. If we’ve got a nutter on the loose any one of them birds could be his target. Right, Sammy boy, when the day comes round, you and me will have the onerous duty of checking out the beauty contest for signs of a knife-wielding maniac.’
‘Can I come an’ all, guv?’ Ray and Chris asked in unison.
‘Nope,’ growled Gene. ‘Don’t want you two ‘erberts frightening the horses. But WPC Bristols can come along — we might well need the feminine touch on this case.’
‘Are you referring to me, guv?’ asked Annie.
‘Well, unless our esteemed colleague Sam Tyler’s hiding a few surprises under his shirt, then you’re the only one in the department with a set of melons.'
One week later . . .
Jangling his car keys, Gene Hunt was prowling around the room, eyeing his officers menacingly.
‘Let’s get moving—I want this nonsense wrapped up ASAP—I do not want it impinging on my New Year’s Eve drinky-poos.’
At that, he swept out. Sam tipped Annie a wink and together they hurried after him.
Their imaginations full of images of bright-eyed buxom beauties in swimming costumes, Chris and Ray sadly, silently, enviously, watched them go.
‘Being a copper . . . ’ muttered Chris, ‘. . . sometimes, it can’t half be cruel.’
Minutes later, with a wild scream of tyres on Tarmac, Hunt’s Cortina lurched to a halt outside the Deluxe Imperial Hotel.
Gene, Sam and Annie emerged and looked up at the huge sign emblazoned in silver letters above the door:
‘TONIGHT! Joey Lester Promotions presents . . . the grand finale of the North’s glamorous beauty pageant! Which one of our gorgeous gals will be crowned MISS MANCHESTER & SALFORD EAST, 1973’
‘Not quite the Oscars,’ said Sam. ‘What are we looking for here, guv? This so-called “Scorpion”, he’s hardly likely to show himself.’
‘He wants us here for a reason,’ said Gene. ‘He’s playing some sort of a game with us.’
‘Makes him feel important,’ put in Annie. ‘That’s how the minds of certain psychopaths work, guv. It’s not enough just to kill—they’ve got to prove themselves, out-wit the police, boost their ego.’
‘There’s only room in this city for one boosted ego, playmates, and it ain’t no bloody scorpion’s,’ Gene declared.
His camel hair coat billowing dramatically behind him, he led the way inside. The large function room where the beauty contest finals were to be held was buzzing with activity. The last dress rehearsal was being carried out prior to the real thing.
Up on a stage, girls in skimpy outfits were teetering to and fro to the strains of Eye Level playing from a speaker system; the girls smiled, shimmied, sparkled this way and that on their tiny, dainty feet, while a sweating fat man in a luxurious silk shirt shouted instructions to them.
‘Not so fast, Joan! Minnie, keep in line with the others! Ingrid, it’s right hand on right hip! That’s it, girls! Laaaaah-vley! You’re all looking laaaah-vley!’
Gene tapped the man heavily on the shoulder.
‘You in charge round here, porky?’ The man turned and gave Gene a confrontational look.
He was all jowls and bald head and combed-over wisps of hair. Sam tried to ignore the ghastly black mole on the man’s nose, the size and colour of a huge sultana.
‘What’s it to you?’ the man said. Gene thrust his CID badge into the man’s face. The man sighed and nodded: ‘I’m Joey Lester, the organiser. And if this about them parking tickets, it’s like I told the fella on the phone …’
‘It’s not about parking tickets,’ said Gene. ‘I’m DCI Hunt, this here’s DI Tyler and a bird from the office, Annie something-or-other. We’ve had an anonymous note from a nutcase calling himself The Scorpion. Name mean anything to you?’
Joey shrugged and shook his head.
‘The Scorpion’s threatening to …’ Sam put in, then lowered his voice as he realised the girls on the stage had all stopped and were staring at them. ‘… threatening to carry out some act of violence here tonight.’
‘Act of violence?’ gasped Joey. ‘But it’s the grand finale of Miss Manchester & Salford East!’ Then his eyes narrowed knowingly. ‘Ahh, I understand …’
‘What do you understand?’ asked Sam.
Joey smoothed down his expensive silk shirt and said: ‘You don’t climb as high up the ladder of success as Mr Joey Lester without stepping on a few toes en route. Like any successful entrepreneur I’ve made a few enemies on my rise to the top. This “Scorpion”—I’ll bet you five of my best silk shirts it’s just some disgruntled rival in the promotions business, out to scupper this glorious evening of high-class glamour. Ignore him. We’ll have security on the doors tonight—any undesirables try and turn up, they won’t get far.’
‘And what if this “undesirable” is already in the hotel?’ said Gene. ‘If the Scorpion means what he says, one or more of your girls is gonna wind up dead.’
This last sentence coincided with Eye Level being suddenly switched off. All the girls heard his words, and as one they reacted in terror, screaming and flapping about the stage.
Joey Lester raised his hands and called to them: ‘It’s all right, my little nymphs, keep your knickers on! Nobody’s murdering no one, it’s just a spot of hoo-ha with the rozzers. Minnie! Minnie, don’t upset yourself, luv!’
But blonde-haired, heftily-bosomed Minnie ignored him. In a fit of terror she staggered wildly towards the edge of the stage and launched herself off it.
With the reflexes of a jungle cat, Gene caught her. Minnie flung her arms around his neck and buried her face in his manly chest.
‘Don’t let any bad man hurt us, Mr Constable!’ she blubbered. Lifting her face to his, she implored him with tears in her eyes: ‘Save us. Protect us!’
And now she became transfixed, staring into Gene’s eyes, her lips wet and expectant, her voice breathy and alluring. ‘You’re so big … so strong … like a … like a Greek god or summut.’
‘I eat me greens,’ Gene intoned back, and he put Minnie down. ‘Don’t fret, luv. And this goes for all of you. There’s a thin blue line stands between you birds and the forces of darkness—and that thin blue line is me, the Gene jeanie.’
‘And me,’ put in Sam indignantly. ‘And Annie.’
‘Whatever,’ growled Gene. All eyes were on him, and he knew it.
The girls had all returned to their hotel rooms to prepare for the big night with instructions to lock their doors and be vigilant.
In the function room, chairs were being laid out for the expected crowd as, up in the gantry above the stage, technicians made last-minute adjustments to the lights.
Joey Lester tipped the bouncers on the door a few quid to be on the extra look out for troublemakers, and with that he lumbered off to change his shirt and freshen up.
‘Don’t you worry about this “Scorpion” nonsense,’ he said over his shoulder to Gene, Sam and Annie as he waddled off. ‘My lads at the gate’ll keep us all safe ’n sound in ’ere tonight.’
‘He’s probably right’ said Gene to Sam and Annie. ‘That note from the Scorpion was no more than a malicious prank … a prank that threatens my evening’s revels.
‘I have no intention of starting the New Year with an empty bladder and unpunished kidneys. Let’s join Chris and Ray down the Railway Arms.’
‘Hold up, guv,’ said Sam. ‘It might well all be a prank, but don’t you think we should have a look around the place first, just in case?’
Gene thought about it for a moment, then said: ‘Nah.’
‘I think we should stay too, guv,’ put in Annie. ‘I think there might be more to this Scorpion business than just a prank. I mean, why would a business rival try to ruin the beauty contest by bringing us here and putting the whole place on alert? It don’t make no sense, guv.’
‘And it don’t make no sense getting birds into CID and promoting them above the level of tea-girl,’ Gene came back at her. ‘When you make DCI, toots, that’s when I’ll take lectures from you on how to police a city. But until that day ...’
He got no further. His words were cut short by a terrible, blood-curdling scream.
‘One of the girls!’ hissed Sam, and at once he broke into a run, pounding away in the direction of the scream. Annie raced along with him; Gene came lumbering none-too-nimbly along behind.
They found themselves in one door-lined corridor after another. Sam looked one way, Annie the other. They had lost their bearings.
‘This way?’ Sam asked.
‘That way?’ Annie shot back.
‘My way,’ panted Gene heavily, leading them round a corner. At once they saw the door to room 237 standing ajar, a great gash cut roughly into the wood.
Sam dashed ahead, pushed the door open, and looked in. On the floor at his feet, face down and unmoving, lay the body of one of the pageant girls, all dressed up in her glamorous pink costume.
‘So, the Scorpion does mean business,’ muttered Gene through clenched teeth. He raised his head and looked fiercely about him. ‘But so does Hunt … So does Hunt!’
Groggily, Ingrid raised her face from the floor. Annie pushed past Sam and gently helped her to sit up.
‘Am I dead?’ she stammered.
‘Only from the neck up,’ barked Gene. ‘What happened?’
Looking frightened and confused, Ingrid said: ‘Somebody knocked … I opened the door and … there was a man—in a white shirt—with a knife!’
‘The Scorpion …’ muttered Sam.
‘He tried to kill me! But I slammed the door … and then I must have fainted.’
‘He can’t have gotten far!’ said Sam.
‘You girls stay here,’ ordered Gene. ‘This is bloke business. Tyler—let’s roll.’
He thrust his hand deep under his camel hair coat; in the next moment, he was brandishing six inches of darkly glittering steel. It was his trusty Magnum, loosed and eager for action.
‘Put that bloody Howitzer away!’ Sam yelled at him as they ran together along the corridor. ‘This isn’t Dodge City!’
‘Daddy needs his baby,’ Gene snarled back, and shoving past Sam he powered ahead.
The corridor came to a dead end; the only way out—the only way the Scorpion could have made his escape—was through the fire escape door in the far wall. Gene slammed into it like a charging bull elephant; the door exploded off its hinges. Sam sprinted after him.
They found themselves in a courtyard round the back of the hotel. Something on the ground was burning. Gene stomped on it, extinguishing the flames.
Sam rushed around the courtyard, but there was no sign of anyone.
‘We’ve lost him,’ Sam panted.
‘But we’ve got his laundry,’ said Gene, and he held up the charred remains of a white silk shirt. ‘I could teach this Scorpion a thing or two about destroying evidence.’
‘That shirt looks familiar,’ said Sam. He fingered an unburned sleeve, feeling the quality. ‘Joey Lester — he wears expensive silk shirts just like this one.”
‘He does indeed,’ said Gene, slipping the Magnum back into its body holster. He glowered grimly. I’ll ask him for the name of his tailor. In fact, I think I’ll ask him right now.’
CRASH! A hotel room door flew open violently.
‘WHAT THE..!’—Joey Lester, dressed only in his pants and vest, span round in terror.
‘Room service. We’ve got your dry cleaning.’ Gene Hunt strode through the door and threw the burnt remains of the shirt into Joey’s face.
‘Wha … what the hell do you think you’re doing?’ stammered Joey, his jowls quivering with fear.
‘Looking for a killer,’ Gene said, and pushed Joey onto the bed.
‘Easy, guv,’ Sam urged. ‘Let’s not let things get out of hand.’
‘Why not, Tyler? I like things getting out of hand. Right, Joey, explain why we’ve just found one of your posey shirts burning in a courtyard out back?’
Joey held the tatters of silk in his hands and stared at them stupidly: ‘I … I don’t understand …’
‘Then let me aid your concentration.’ Gene reached out and grasped the huge, sultana-shaped mole on Joey Lester’s nose, squeezing it hard between his thumb and forefinger. Joey cried out and frantically flapped his hands.
‘Not the mole!’
‘Start talking, Lester, or Dr Hunt commences plastic surgery! That’s your shirt, right?’
‘Yes! It’s my shirt!’
‘The Scorpion just had a pop at one of your sex kittens, then legged it. Why was he wearing one of your shirts?’
‘I don’t know!’
Gene gave the mole a sharp twist.
‘No need for anaesthetic, Dr Tyler, we’ll just get on with it the old-fashioned way. On the count of three …’
‘I swear, I swear, I don’t know anything about it!’
‘I’ll have your badge for this, Hunt!’
‘I got friends in very high places!’
‘OK, OK, I’ll tell you! But for the love of God, let go of the mole!’
Joey sprawled on the bed as Gene shoved him back, his fat belly wobbling beneath his vest.
‘Get talking,’ grunted Gene.
Nursing his battered mole, Joey looked up at Gene and Sam wretchedly and said: ‘Listen. What I’m about to tell you is strictly between us blokes, right? No need for Mrs Lester to get wind of it.’
‘I’m ahead of you, Lester, but get on with it anyway.’
‘You don’t climb as high up the ladder of success as Mr Joey Lester without encountering a spot of temptation along the way. A fella in my position, he can do things for a girl … and there’s things a girl can do for him.’
‘Stop talking about yourself in the third person, Joey. Gene Hunt, he doesn’t like it,’ said Gene. ‘So—you’ve been sowing wild oats. I’m amazed your ugly conk doesn’t put them all off.’
‘What a thing to say,’ said Joey, genuinely hurt. ‘I help the girls and the girls help me, and Mrs Lester lives in a big house and spends a hundred quid a week on clothes. And so long as everything stays discreet and low key everybody’s happy, there’s no harm done, and it’s smiley faces all round.’
‘But not tonight.’
‘Look,’ said Joey, desperation in his face, ‘I admit, I may have gotten a little closer to one of them girls than perhaps a married man should.’
‘Which one of them girls?’
‘Well … one or two of them. Three or four, you know. Well, the whole lot of ’em’ since you’re insisting. It’s because of my business prowess, you see. I’m a self-made man, and power is a great aphrodisiac.’
‘That and your Burt Reynolds physique,’ said Gene, jabbing a finger into Joey’s flab. ‘So let me guess what you’re saying: running round all them birds, Manchester’s answer to Warren Bloody Beatty, you might well have left behind a shirt or two without realising it.’
‘Any one of my business rivals could have gotten hold of it!’ Joey insisted. ‘They could have paid one of the girls for it and cooked up this whole “Scorpion” thing to frame me! You don’t climb as high up the ladder of success as Mr Joey Lester without having business rivals try and frame you! Ooh, there’s some unscrupulous b*****ds in this world, you mark my words.’
‘Never met any meself,’ said Gene, and he turned to Sam. ‘What do you think, Tyler? Is Joey our man?’
‘I think,’ said Sam, ‘that we need to talk, guv. In private.’
Gene nodded, then turned back to Joey and levelled a finger at him: ‘You leave this hotel, Lester, and you’re nicked. Got that?’
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ said Joey, his confidence starting to return. ‘Now—if you gentlemen would allow me to carry on getting dressed …’ He glanced at his watch and gasped. ‘The crowds will be pouring in! They’ll want to see Miss Manchester & Salford East crowned, and by gum Mr Joey Lester will not disappoint them! I can’t muck about with you lads any longer. Out! Out!’
Sam and Gene stood in a corridor, the sound of the arriving crowds filtering through to them from the big function room.
‘Joey’s not the Scorpion,’ Sam said. ‘I reckon he’s not too far off the mark with what he says — this is all a put-up job to discredit him in some way.’
Gene thought for a moment, then nodded: ‘Whoever attacked Ingrid certainly went out of his way to point the finger of suspicion at Joey. It was a pretty pathetic attempt at burning that shirt. We were meant to find it.’
‘It looks to me, guv, like whoever the Scorpion is he’s in cahoots with one of the girls. It’s like Joey himself said, he’s left his shirt with one of them after a spot of hanky-panky’—and for a moment, both Sam and Gene grimaced at the thought of Joey Lester’s nasal mole wobbling during the throes of passion—‘and she’s passed it on to somebody who’s got it in for him.’ The Scorpion strikes: Will he be caught before he murders again?
‘If you’re right, Sam, then the Scorpion’s playing us two like a couple of mugs.’
‘Us three, guv,’ Sam corrected him. ‘Annie’s here too, remember?’
Gene fixed Sam with a hard look: ‘Any excuse for you to suck up to that dopey bird …’
‘She’s as much part of the team as any of us, guv.’
‘Don’t start all that women’s lib cobblers with me, Tyler. Now is not the time. We’ve got a would-be killer on the loose—and worse than that, a would-be killer who’s in grave danger of making me look like a right chump for not nicking him—and to top it all there’s only four hours left of the night and I am deeply, catastrophically sober!’
They went to the function room and found it heaving with people. Joey Lester appeared, as groomed as ever; he shot Gene a sour look, then turned on his best oily smile and started shmoozing with various local dignitaries who were there to act as judges. He was damned if he was going to let anyone or anything ruin the big night.
‘The Scorpion could be any one them …’ mused Gene, peering intently at the crowds.
‘It’s a needle in a bloody haystack, Sammy boy. But I’ll find him … I’ll find him …’ And his gaze bore into the crowd like a laser beam.
‘Excuse me a few minutes, guv,’ said Sam. ‘I’m going to find Annie, see how Ingrid is.’
But Gene said nothing; his entire attention was focused on the people pouring into the function room, as if, by sheer force of the Gene Hunt will, he would pick out which one was the Scorpion right then and there.
Sam left him and headed back. But before he reached Ingrid’s room he was stopped by Minnie, one of the would-be Miss Manchester & Salford East girls. She was dressed alluringly in almost nothing at all.
‘Oh, thank heavens it’s you!’ she breathed, and fluttered delicately into Sam’s arms.
‘I’ve been so frightened! Oh, make the nasty things go away!’
‘We’re doing our best,’ said Sam, gently trying to disentangle himself from her embraces but unable to get free. “Now, I really do have to get on and …’
‘Oh, don’t leave me!’
Sam found himself being manoeuvred through a doorway and into Minnie’s hotel room. The next thing he knew she had shut the door and was standing with her back to it. Sam laughed nervously.
‘I really do have things to do,’ he said.
‘So do I … Mr Policeman.’
‘Please, Minnie, let me out.’
She made eyes at him, chewed her bottom lip coyly, gave a little seductive wiggle—and then, glancing past Sam, she saw something. Her face changed. Her eyes went round. Her mouth fell open. She seemed about to scream.
Sam span round, tensed for violence, ready to spring at the Scorpion with both fists—and saw nothing but an empty hotel room.
‘Minnie? What was it? What did you …’
Something smashed sickeningly against the back of Sam’s skull, sending him sprawling on the floor. Dazed, his head spinning, he tried to drag himself up.
‘Oh no you don’t!’ snarled Minnie, and she struck him again.
Sam went down. For some reason he could smell the sharp stink of petrol. He peered up and saw that Minnie was splashing liquid all over the room from a metal canister—a metal canister dented twice from its impacts with Sam’s skull.
‘You’ve let him go, you b*****d!’ she hissed as she doused the floor and bed. ‘You were supposed to arrest him! You were supposed to lock him up for being a psycho! And instead you’ve let him go!’
Sam painfully dragged himself across the floor away from the reeking petrol. Minnie emptied out the last drops and then hurled the canister at him.
‘One of the boys, is he?’ she howled, her face twisted with rage. ‘Joey and your DCI, buddies in the Masons, is that it? Arrest Joey Lester? You must be kidding!’
Sam tried to speak, but his head was pounding, his brain reeling.
‘That b*****d promised me the moon on a flamin’ stick!’ Minnie shrieked.
‘He were gonna leave his ’orrible wife for me! He were gonna buy me fur coats and pearls and a ruddy great diamond the size of a baby’s head! He were gonna make me Miss Manchester & Salford East 1973! All I had to do was, you know, do it with him—with the lights on—though he said it were OK if I closed me eyes. So I did it with him like he wanted. Five times! Five ‘orrible times! “You’ll be crowned Miss Manchester,” he said! He promised! “Leave it to me,” he said! “You’re special, Minnie—you’re the only one for m —there ain’t no other—I’ll give you everything, luv, everything!” And then you know what I found out? Eh? You know what I found out?! That’s what he says to ALL the b*****ding girls!’
Minnie was insane with fury. Her make-up was running down her contorted face making her look like some sort of monster from a nightmare.
‘The fat stinking pig!’ she snarled. ‘He must think I’m nowt but a wazzock. Well … we’ll see, eh? We’ll see!’
Wazzock … It was the same word that had been used in the Scorpion’s card to CID, the one where he—or rather she—had taunted the police to come here and try and stop him … her.
Minnie’s the Scorpion! Sam realised, looking up at her. She got us here to frame Joey Lester out of revenge. But her plan’s failed.
Sam shook his head and tried to focus: ‘Minnie … listen to me … setting fire to yourself isn’t going to solve anything!’
Minnie gave him a look, laughed bitterly, and said: ‘Well, I know that. But it’s not me who’s gonna burn!’
She produced a large cigarette lighter, cast from solid silver.
‘It’s Joey’s,’ she said. ‘Another memento, like that shirt. Another piece of evidence to point to him as a killer. A cop killer. Not even the ruddy Masons will get him off the hook for this one!
‘Minnie, think what you’re doing! Sam called to her, struggling to get to his feet. The room was stinking of petrol—it was everywhere. ‘Think what you’re doing!’
Minnie smiled coldly. ‘Oh, I’m thinking all right,’ she said, and clicked the lighter.
The petrol ignited with a whoosh. A blast of blistering heat slammed into Sam. He felt his eyebrows singe. Desperately, he crawled away from the roaring flames engulfing the room.
Minnie shrieked from the doorway: ‘I saw it all! Joey Lester is the one going down for this! I saw everything, your honour! Ha ha ha!’
And with that she slammed the door and was gone, leaving Sam to his fate. Hell hath no fury like a Minnie scorned.
The room was an inferno. If he was quick, Sam figured he might just make it through that great wall of flame to the door. But even as he nerved himself to go for it, the flames rippled across the ceiling and brought down great chunks of burning timber that crashed against the door, hopelessly blocking it.
Why the hell haven’t the smoke alarms gone off? Sam though frantically. What’s happened to the sprinkler system?!
Then he remembered this was 1973. Health & Safety meant a fire bucket and a first-aid kit. He would be burnt to a cinder before the fire brigade were even called. Sam found himself gasping and choking for breath. The burning room was an arsenal of toxins and poisons: the bed sheets, the carpets, the wallpaper, the curtains—they were all made from fabrics and flammable materials long since banned and outlawed in his own time.
The air was filling up with carbon monoxide, cyanide, and God alone knew what other killers. If the fire didn’t get him, the poisoned smoke certainly would.
Sam scrambled into the tiny en suite bathroom and slammed the door. At once, he saw thick, noxious smoke billowing in underneath it. He covered his face with a wet towel, praying it would filter out the worst of the toxins.
But what’s the point, he thought. There’s no way out of here.
The bathroom door began to blister from the heat, then to smoke, then to smoulder.
It’s over. I’m going to die in here.
Suddenly, there was a shattering explosion from the wall beside Sam, followed moments later by another one. Smashed tiles showered across him as he flung himself to the floor. There came a third impact, a fourth, and more.
Something was blasting its way through the wall from outside, creating a set of perforations. There was a pause, and then a fist crashed powerfully through the brickwork. The wall collapsed; Gene Hunt peered in through the rubble and dust, the Magnum hot and smoking in his hand.
‘I was right,’ he growled, holstering the gun. ‘Where there’s a fix, there’s always a Sam Tyler.’
Sam scrambled through the shot-out wall, coughing and choking. Smoke was pouring into the corridor; the fire was spreading, racing out from Minnie’s room and fingering its way through the hotel.
‘We need to get everyone out!’ spluttered Sam. ‘Minnie—she’s the one who did it—she’s the Scorpion! She’s trying to frame Joey Lester out of revenge and …’
‘Save it for the pub, Sammy boy—this ain’t quite the time and the place.’
The door of Minnie’s room collapsed in a blaze of sparks as huge tongues of fire gushed out. People were racing into the corridor—girls mainly, the screaming, howling would-be Miss Manchesters all togged up in their finery.
Disdainful of fire and danger, Gene strode manfully amid them, ordering them all to get their dopey behinds out, out, out! As the last of the beauty queens came shrieking by, Sam recognised her as Ingrid, the girl they had left with his colleague Annie. Sam caught her as she dashed by.
‘Ingrid! Where’s Annie?!’
‘Don’t know!’ Ingrid cried back at him. ‘She left me and went off somewhere—I don’t know where!’
She broke free and went screaming off with the other girls. Sam looked back along the corridor into what was now a blazing, blistering hell.
Gene loomed over him: ‘Annie’s got her head screwed on all right, Sam—she won’t be back there—she’ll have gotten herself clear. And so should we!’
Sam hesitated, staring into the fire, his imagination torturing him with horrible images of Annie amid the flames—but then a powerful hand grasped his shoulder, turned him roughly around, and thrust him away along the corridor.
They raced into the large function room. It was already filling with smoke. The assembled crowd was panicking, screaming, yelling, fighting to get out. Christmas decorations were being trampled in the crush; as Sam watched, the huge Christmas tree was barged over by the crowd, crashing to the floor, its glass baubles shattering, its fairy lights sparking and exploding.
A huge banner that read MISS MANCHESTER & SALFORD EAST 1973 hung limp, ripped and smouldering—and beneath it, standing alone on the stage that should have been the catwalk for the most beautiful crumpet in the North to strut their stuff was Joey Lester, all dressed up in his best tuxedo, his fleshy face aghast, looking wretchedly at the destruction and chaos that was his big night.
‘Ruined …’ he sobbed, raising his hands imploringly to the uncaring forces of Fate. ‘All ruined!’
Fire licked at the torn banner and it fell from the wall, bursting suddenly into flames.
As the last of the crowds escaped from the hotel, Sam suddenly saw a figure striding bravely back into the function room.
‘Annie!’ he cried out, and raced towards her. They embraced. ‘Oh Annie, I thought I’d lost you!’
‘I was doing my best at crowd-control,’ Annie said, hugging him. ‘It was all a bit messy but I’ve managed to get everyone out. Except for us and Gene and Joey Lester.’
‘Guv!’ Sam shouted across at Gene. ‘Grab Lester and let’s get out of here!’
‘Lester ain’t going nowhere!’
Out of the billowing smoke appeared a terrifying figure—it was Minnie, her eyes blazing as fiercely as the inferno that now raged all around the function room. In her hand she brandished a huge butcher’s knife, and around her body she had draped the silken Miss ‘Manchester 1973’ winner’s sash. In her murderous madness, she had awarded herself that illustrious accolade.
‘You said you’d make me the toast o’ the town, Joey!’ she hissed, advancing on a horrified Joey Lester. ‘Well, I’ll see to it that I’m toast all right—and you’ll be toasting right along with me, you lying, cheating pig!’
She lashed out at Joey, grabbing him, thrusting the knife against his throat.
‘Help me, lad!’ Joey howled imploring to Gene. ‘Don’t let her do me in! You don’t climb as high up the ladder of success as Mr Joey Lester only to die at the hands of a looney bird in a burning hotel in Manchester!’
Gene drew the Magnum and levelled it Minnie.
‘You dancin’?’ he barked.
‘You askin’?’ Minnie hissed back.
‘Believe me, I’m askin’.’ Gene narrowed his eyes and tightened his finger on the trigger.
‘Well, I ain’t dancin’!’
DCI Hunt pulled on his trusty Magnum. 'This killer means business,' he said. 'Let's roll!'
Gene fired a warning shot to show he meant business — but the hammer of the Magnum clicked down on an empty chamber. He had used all his rounds blasting through the wall to save Sam. Minnie shrieked hysterically.
‘All gun and no bullet!’ she cried, and she drove the point of the knife harder against Joey’s saggy, quivering throat. ‘Well, you’re not getting me, Inspector Hunt! I brought you here to arrest this stinking pig—that’s how I wanted to see Christmas in, watching him led off in cuffs! But that plan’s been ruined—which only leaves me one option. I’m staying right here—and Joey’s staying with me! We’re going up in smoke together!’
The roar of the flames was deafening now. Sam looked anxiously about; if they weren’t out of here in a matter of minutes, none of them would make it as far as Christmas Day.
Joey howled for help, but Minnie held him fast.
Without warning, something went flying across the room—something glittering and metallic, spinning end-over-end as it sailed through the air. The Magnum struck Minnie square in the middle of her forehead, sending her reeling backwards, the knife flying from her hand.
Joey broke from her grasp and lumbered away from her as fast as his fat, stumpy legs could manage. Gene strode towards Minnie, but with a terrible scream of rage she leapt up and flung herself at a metal ladder that led up into the overhead lighting rig. She scurried up it as swiftly as a monkey.
‘Get down here, luv!’ Joey called up to her. When all was said and done, he loved all his girls, even the murderously insane ones. ‘I won’t press no charges! Come down! I don’t want to see you singed, my little valkyrie!’
Sheets of flame flashed all about the room. Smoke rolled across the ceiling in great billows, obscuring Minnie as she clambered into the lighting rig.
Sam felt Annie push past him. He called out to her, but she raced to the ladder and went rapidly up it in pursuit of Minnie. Sam went after her. The metal rungs of the ladder were blisteringly hot to the touch. As he hauled himself up, he felt the ladder starting to pull free from its housings as the fire consumed the wall.
Up he went, hand over hand, into the thick smoke above. When he glanced down, he saw, to his shock, Gene Hunt’s face only feet away.
‘Guv! Get off the ladder!’
‘I ain’t letting my officers kill ’emselves, Tyler! Not without me, anyways!’
‘You’re too heavy for it, guv! You’re going to be bring it all down!’
‘Too heavy?!’ Gene barked. ‘You saucy sod, Tyler. I’ll show you who’s too b*****ding heavy.’
He got no further. Something shifted, screws and bolts clattered to the floor, and the whole ladder swung away from the wall.
Sam threw himself at the lighting gantry and grabbed hold of a hot metal girder. As he swung from it, his legs kicking in the air, the whole gantry shuddered and lurched beneath his weight. There was a scream, and Minnie fell helplessly towards him, thrown wildly off balance. She tumbled against Sam, her blue silk sash catching on a spar of ragged metal—then, with a cry, she fell, leaving the sash swinging from the gantry.
Beneath him, Sam saw Gene riding the ladder as it fell away from the wall; he landed heavily on Joey Lester—and then Minnie landing heavily on Gene.
Smoke and fumes swept into Sam’s eyes, blinding him.
‘Annie! Where are you!’
‘Sam! I’m here! I can’t get down!’
Through the smoke, Sam could just make out Annie hanging precariously from a collapsing chunk of ruined gantry. In moments, she would fall—and below her was not a big soft DCI to land on but a mass of roaring fire.
Sam grabbed the silk sash that Minnie had left dangling. He flung out one end of the sash like a lasso, looping it over Annie’s body. With all his strength, and praying that the silk didn’t split, he hauled Annie towards him.
The silk sash did not let him down. He dragged her close enough to let her fall safely onto Minnie, who was still atop Gene, who was still atop Joey.
When she landed, he heard Minnie, Gene and Joey all let out a mighty OOF! in unison.
Sam had a glimpse of Annie leaping to her feet and wildly beckoning him to jump, jump! She still had the silk sash around her body — the silk sash that declared her to be MISS MANCHESTER & SALFORD EAST 1973.
‘You are that, Annie—and more,’ said Sam to himself, and with that he jumped.
‘Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to ride on a one horse open sleigh. Oh jingle bells ...’ It was ten seconds past midnight. Sam and Annie, Chris and Ray—and, of course, Gene Hunt—were together in the warm, fag-stained snug of the Railway Arms, singing in Christmas Day. Their rendition was ragged, out of tune, dreadful—but heartfelt.
Sam looked at Annie as he sang, and wondered how many more Christmases he would spend with her. Would they still be here, together, in 1975? Or ’76? Or as far as the Eighties?
Would he one day find himself celebrating in the 21st century? Would he come full circle, and return, at last, to the time from which he had been so suddenly and violently expelled?
One year at a time, Sam told himself. Let’s just take it one year at a time.
‘Everyone shut their traps and listen!’ Gene suddenly bellowed. He glared at his colleagues and intoned: ‘Some of us nearly didn’t make it here to the Arms this evening. Some of us nearly got our arses roasted—some of us nearly got flattened. But all’s well that ends well—no one got fried tonight, and we’re all here to tell the tale … thanks in no small part to DI Tyler and what’s-her-face, the soppy bird.’
‘You love me really, guv,’ grinned Annie.
‘In your dreams, toots,’ Gene came back at her. But he raised his glass and said: ‘To Sam and Annie. The department needs you. Both of you.’
The toast was taken up by Chris and even Ray: to Sam and Annie.
‘OK, enough of this cobblers, it’s time for some real music,’ announced Chris, fiddling with his beloved transistor radio. He twirled the tuning dial—and out blasted Suzi Quatro. Chris’s face lit up, and he hollered out right along with Suzi:
So make a stand for your man, honey!
Try to can the can!
Put your man in the can, honey!
Get him while you can!
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