Written over fifteen years ago, this prescient, suspenseful thriller is set against a backdrop of a capital city in quarantine, and explores human experience in the grip of a killer virus.
'They said that twenty-five percent of the population would catch the flu. Between seventy and eighty percent of them would die. He had been directly exposed to it, and the odds weren't good.' A city in quarantine. London, the epicenter of a global pandemic, is a city in lockdown. Violence and civil disorder simmer. Martial law has been imposed. No-one is safe from the deadly virus that has already claimed thousands of victims. Health and emergency services are overwhelmed. A murdered child. At a building site for a temporary hospital, construction workers find a bag containing the rendered bones of a murdered child. A remorseless killer has been unleashed on the city; his mission is to take all measures necessary to prevent the bones from being identified. A powerful conspiracy. D.I. Jack MacNeil, counting down the hours on his final day with the Met, is sent to investigate. His career is in ruins, his marriage over and his own family touched by the virus. Sinister forces are tracking his every move, prepared to kill again to conceal the truth. Which will stop him first - the virus or the killers?
“May ... is a classy crime writer and Lockdown is both prophetic and unnerving” GUARDIAN
Release date: April 1, 2020
Print pages: 306
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In 2005 when I was finding it impossible to secure a publisher for either The Blackhouse or my first Enzo book, Extraordinary People, I started researching a crime novel set against the backdrop of a bird flu pandemic.
Bird flu, or H5N1, was being predicted by scientists at the time as the likely next flu pandemic. In 1918, the Spanish Flu had killed anywhere between twenty and fifty million people worldwide, and bird flu – with a mortality rate of sixty per cent or higher – was being forecast to exceed that by a wide margin.
Having done a considerable amount of research into the Spanish Flu for Snakehead, one of my China Thrillers, it was a topic in which I was already well versed. But none of that prepared me for what my research on H5N1 would turn up, and the horrors that a bird flu pandemic could unleash on the world.
I began looking into the chaos it would inflict, and how society as we know it could rapidly start to disintegrate. I chose London as my setting, the epicentre of the pandemic, and a city in total lockdown. Against this background, the rendered bones of a murdered child are uncovered on a building site where workmen are feverishly constructing an emergency hospital. My detective, Jack MacNeil, is told to investigate, even as his own family is touched by the virus.
During a six-week spell of burning the midnight oil I wrote Lockdown. It was never published. British editors at the time thought my portrayal of London under siege by the invisible enemy of H5N1 was unrealistic and could never happen – in spite of the fact that all my research showed that, really, it could. Then an American publisher bought the Enzo series, and my China Thrillers were published for the first time in the States. My focus shifted to the other side of the Atlantic, and Lockdown was consigned to a folder in my Dropbox, where it has remained. Until now.
As I write this, I am hunkered down at home in France, forbidden to leave my house except in exceptional circumstances. A new coronavirus, Covid-19, is ravaging the world, and society as we know it is rapidly disintegrating. Even with its mortality rate being just a fraction of bird flu, politicians are having to fight to control the chaos and panic that Covid-19 is spreading worldwide. The parallels with Lockdown are terrifying. So this seemed like the moment to open up that dusty Dropbox folder and dig out that old manuscript to share with my readers – if only to make us all realise just how much worse things could actually be.
Her scream echoes through the dark, squeezed through a throat constricted by fear. It quivers with the terror she feels, and would make the hairs stand up on the arms and shoulders and neck of any caring mortal. But the thick walls of this old house wrap themselves around the horror of the night, to ensure that the only ears to hear her are deaf to her plight.
He curses and hisses and spits in the dark, angry and frustrated. She can hear him on the stairs, and knows that he means her harm. The man she has known and trusted, even loved. She is drowning in her own incomprehension. How is it possible? She remembers the cool touch of his hand on her fevered brow during those long, tortured days of sickness. The pity in his eyes. Eyes which burn now with anger and malice.
She holds her breath. He has gone up another flight. He thinks she is on the top floor, and she slips from the study and sees his shadow on the stairs as he heads up to the attic rooms. And she turns and hurries down, small feet padding on thick carpet, to the light that falls through stained glass windows on to the floor of the hall. Desperate fingers grasp and pull the handle. But the door is locked. There is no way out.
She freezes as she hears him bellow at the top of the house. He knows he has missed her. For a moment she hesitates. The steps to the cellar lead from the bathroom below the staircase. But she understands that if she goes down there she will be trapped. There is only the old coal chute leading up to the alley between the houses, and tiny though she is, she is not small enough to squeeze through the gap.
The house shakes with his footsteps on the stairs and she turns in panic only to find herself confronted by a little girl. A ghost in a white nightshirt, short-cropped black hair, almond eyes wide and black, face etched in chalk. The sight of the child sends fear spiking through her like the stabbing blades of the knives that await her, before she realises she is recoiling from her own reflection. Unrecognisable, distorted by fear.
‘Choy!’ she hears him bellow in the stairwell, and remembers suddenly the woman who had first shown them around the house all those months ago. The false panel in the wall of the big dining room at the front. A room they have never used. A room which has simmered always in a sweltering darkness, daylight and lamplight shining in turns through the cracks around the edges of the blinds. The estate agent had shifted a small table to remove the panel and reveal the door behind it. An old, white-painted door with a round handle which she had opened into the darkness beyond. The damp, cold, fusty darkness of a tiny brick room where a family of six had cowered in the blackout to hide from the bombs.
Choy had no idea what the lady had meant by ‘the Blitz’, but she had said that when the German bombers had finished over London they swung south again, and dropped their unused cargo on this hapless borough. And when the sirens went, people scurried like rats into their brick rat-traps to listen and wait and pray in the dark. Choy hears him scream her name again, and like the sirens of more than half a century before, it sends her scurrying for the front room.
Quickly she slides the table aside and fumbles to release the catches on the dark blue panel. It is heavy, and her tiny hands struggle to pry it loose. She can hear him on the first landing, then his footfall in the master bedroom above. She leans the panel to one side and pushes the door. It opens into blackness, and the cold, damp air wraps itself around her. She steps inside, and drags the panel back into place. She is unable to fasten it from the inside and can only pray that he will not see that. She shuts the door, and all light is extinguished. She hunkers down and wraps her arms around herself for warmth. It is so cold in here, so dark, so final. There is no way out. She cannot think how six people could squeeze themselves into this space. It is beyond her wildest imagination to know how it must have felt to hear the bombs falling all around and wonder if you might be next. But she needs no imagination to picture the man she hears now on the stairs, or the light catching the blade she knows he carries. The orphanage in Guangdong is a distant memory, the child she had been, another person in another life. So much has changed in only six months, yet still it has seemed an eternity, and that other life just the shadow of a dream.
Her breathing is shallow and rapid, and seems inordinately loud. But above it she can hear him in the front hall. Heavy footsteps on parquet flooring. The anger in his voice as he calls her name again. And then silence. A silence which stretches from moments to what seems like hours. She holds her breath now, for as long as she can, for she is sure he must hear it. Still the silence. And then she gasps as she hears the scraping of the panel on the other side of the door. Her heart beats so hard it feels like someone is punching her chest.
The handle turns, and she presses herself back against the wall as slowly the door opens. He is silhouetted against the light from the hall in the doorway behind him. She can see her own breath misting in the cold air, caught by the same light. He crouches slowly and reaches a hand towards her. She cannot see his face, but she can hear him smile.
‘Come to Daddy,’ he says softly.
The Friends of Archbishop’s Park – those who were still alive – were spitting blood. Those who were not, were certain to be turning in their graves. Years of careful planning, aimed at preserving this tiny patch of green and pleasant land for the people of Lambeth, had been brushed aside by a single emergency Act of Parliament. A flag was hanging limply in the dark above the crenellated turrets of the palace. The Archbishop was in residence. But since the bulldozers had started up at five, after only six short hours of silence, it seemed unlikely that he was still asleep. Neither did it seem likely that those of his predecessors who had gifted the park to the borough were resting in anything like peace.
Arc lights illuminated the site. Caterpillar tracks had churned and macerated the earth where once children had played, the echo of their tiny voices drowned out now by the roar of the machines. The railings around the football pitch and basketball court had been ripped up and cast aside. The mangled remains of swings and climbing frames were piled up against the derelict buildings on the west side of the park awaiting removal. The old toilet block, destined to have become a café, had been demolished. Time was of the essence. Hundreds of men had been assigned to this task. Shifts were eighteen hours. No one complained. The money was good, although there was nowhere to spend it.
They moved around under the lights without speaking. Figures in orange overalls and hard hats, and white masks. Each one kept his own counsel – and his distance from the others. Cigarettes were smoked through the fine fibres of the masks, leaving round, nicotine-stained patches, and a brazier was kept burning for the cigarette ends. Infection was too easily spread.
Yesterday they had dug the holes for the foundations. Today, the mixer lorries were arriving in fleets to fill them with concrete. A giant crane was already on site, ready to hoist and swing steel girders into place. A delegation from the emergency committee had taken the short walk from Westminster the previous afternoon to watch with hope, and fear, the vandalism they had sanctioned in desperation. White cotton masked their faces, but could not hide the anxiety in their eyes. They, too, had watched in silence.
Now a voice rose above the churning of cement and the growl of the diggers. A single figure raising his hand in the dark, calling for a halt. He was a tall man, lean and fit, perching on the edge of a ten-foot crater in the north-west corner. The concrete chute swung wide and shuddered to a halt. It was only moments away from spewing its thick grey sludge into the earth. The man crouched on the edge of the hole and peered into its darkness. ‘There’s something in there,’ he shouted, and the foreman strode angrily through the mud towards him.
‘We’ve got no time for this. Come on!’ He waved a thickly gloved hand towards the man whose levers controlled the concrete. ‘Move it!’
‘No, wait.’ The tall man swung himself over the edge and dropped into the hole, disappearing from view.
The foreman raised his eyes to the heavens. ‘God save us. Get a light over here.’
A group of men crowded around the lip of the hole as a tripod rattled and a light was tilted downwards. The tall man was crouched over something small and dark. He looked up at the faces peering down at him and shaded his eyes against the glare of the light. ‘It’s a fucking holdall,’ he said. ‘A leather fucking holdall. Some bastard thinks we dug this hole just so’s he’d have somewhere to dump his crap.’
‘Come on, get out of there,’ the foreman shouted. ‘We can’t afford any delays.’
‘What’s in it?’ someone else called.
The tall man dragged a sleeve across his forehead and removed a glove to unzip the bag. They all leaned closer to try to see for themselves. And then he jumped back, as if he had touched live electric wires. ‘Jesus!’
‘What is it?’
They could see something white, something catching the light. The tall man looked up. He was panting, short, shallow breaths, and all colour was washed from a face already pale from lack of sleep. ‘Jesus Christ!’
‘What the hell is it?’ The foreman was losing patience.
Carefully the man in the hole leaned over the bag again. ‘It’s bones,’ he said in a hushed voice which was, nonetheless, audible to them all. ‘Human bones.’
‘How do you know they’re human?’ The question came from one of the others. His voice seemed somehow shockingly loud.
‘Because there’s a fucking skull looking up at me.’ The tall man turned his own skull upwards, and his skin seemed to be stretched very tightly across it. ‘But it’s small. Too small for an adult. It’s got to be a kid.’
MacNeil was somewhere far away. Somewhere he shouldn’t have been. Somewhere warm and comfortable and safe. But there was a strange nagging at the back of his mind, an uncomfortable sense of something forgotten, something missed. And then he remembered, with a sickening start, that he hadn’t been to work for months. How could he have forgotten? But he’d done it before, he knew. He had this vague recollection. Oh, Jesus, how was he going to explain it? How could he tell them where he’d been, or why? Oh, God. He felt sick.
He heard the phone ringing and knew it was them. He didn’t want to answer it. What could he say? They’d been paying him all this time, and he hadn’t even bothered to show up. Others must have had to cover for him. To fill in his shifts. They would be angry, accusing. And still the phone rang, and still he didn’t want to answer it. ‘Shut up!’ he shouted at the phone. It ignored him, each ring a stab to his heart. It was going to carry on stabbing him until he picked it up. Sweat broke out all across his forehead. Something was sticking to him. And the more he tried to free himself the more it stuck. He turned and pulled and kicked and woke up gasping, staring at the ceiling with wide, frightened eyes, his short, cropped hair damp on the pillow beneath his head. The figures 06:57 stretched in digital fragments towards the light rose. It was the only thing he’d taken with him from the house. A gift from Sean. An alarm clock that projected infrared figures on to the ceiling. No need to turn your head to look at the clock during all those insomniac hours. There was always that big clock in the sky to remind you how slowly time could pass.
Of course, he knew that it wasn’t really Sean who’d bought it. Martha knew how he liked his gadgets. But it was Sean who’d had the pleasure of giving it to him. The innocent pleasure that only a child seems to derive from the act of giving, as real as the joy of receiving.
MacNeil disentangled himself from his sweat-soaked bed sheets and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Cold air embraced him. Wake up! The phone was still ringing. And, like in his dream, he knew that it was not going to go away. He reached for the bedside cabinet and lifted the receiver. His lips stuck to his teeth. ‘Yeah?’
‘I hope you’re sober, MacNeil.’
MacNeil unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth, and smelled stale whisky on his own breath. He rubbed grit and matter from his eyes. ‘I’m not on for another twelve hours.’
‘You’re on now, boy. Double shift. I figured since it’s your last day you could hack it. I’m another two men down.’
‘Shit’s right. Someone’s dumped in our backyard and I’ve got no one else to send.’
MacNeil tipped his head back and looked blearily at the great clock in the sky. He had no idea how else he would have filled the next twelve hours anyway. He could never sleep when it was light. ‘What’s the deal?’
‘Bones. Bunch of workmen on the site at Archbishop’s Park found them at the bottom of a hole.’
‘Sounds like they need an archaeologist, not a cop.’
‘They were in a leather holdall, and they weren’t there yesterday.’
‘Better go straight down. The ministry’s shouting blue fucking murder because they’ve had to stop work. Wrap it up fast, eh? I don’t need this shit.’
MacNeil winced as the phone crackled in his ear. Laing had hung up.
In the bathroom across the landing, MacNeil stared back at his vacant reflection as he brushed his teeth. Other people’s brushes crowded together in a cloudy tooth mug. He kept all his things in his room, and touched nothing in the bathroom. He even sprayed and washed the taps before touching them. He needed a shave. And a few more hours of sleep might have helped ameliorate the penumbrous shadows beneath his eyes. Nothing, however, was going to undo the damage of the last few months. The mask that stress had etched on a face not yet forty. It was not an image he cared to dwell on.
He scraped his razor across dark stubble and heard someone stirring in the room next door. The car salesman. When MacNeil had first taken a room here, the landlord, who still lived on the ground floor, had taken him through a roll-call of his fellow inmates. A divorced doctor, barred from practice, who could usually rustle up a medication for most ills. A handy person to have around the house, especially these days. The car salesman. Gay, the landlord thought, but not ready to accept it. There were two officials of the railworkers’ union, only it wasn’t called that any more and he couldn’t remember what they called it now. One was from Manchester, another from Leeds, and they were serving their time on the union’s executive committee in London. The union had a long-standing arrangement in Baalbec Road. There was only one woman in the house. She smelled a bit, and looked like death, and the landlord was sure she was on drugs. But she paid like clockwork, so who was he to judge her.
It was a strange collection of misplaced humanity, living on the edge of society, in a kind of twilight zone where you neither lived nor died. Just existed. When he had first moved in – was it really only five months ago? – MacNeil had felt like an outsider. Someone looking in. An observer. He didn’t belong, and he wouldn’t be staying. But they must all have thought that once. And now, like them, he couldn’t see a way out. He was no longer on the outside looking in, but on the inside looking out.
He had chosen this area because he felt it was somewhere he could bring Sean. It was no slum. There existed here, still, a sense of faded gentility. Highbury Field was at the end of the road. Somewhere he and Sean could kick a ball, walk a dog – if they’d had one. Some of the street names, too, had a ring of home about them. Aberdeen, Kelvin, Seaforth, Fergus. There was something familiar, and comforting, in the echoes of a Scotland he had left long ago. There was a swimming pool just up from Highbury Corner. The landlord told him it had once been open to the elements. But a less hardy generation had built walls around it and put a roof on top. Somewhere else he and Sean could spend – what was it they called it? – quality time. And MacNeil figured he would get them season tickets to go and see the Gunners at the Emirates Stadium.
But Sean’s mother had refused to let him cross the city to Islington. It was too dangerous, she said. Maybe when the emergency was over.
MacNeil pulled on his coat and turned up the collar. His suit needed pressing, and his white shirt was fraying just a little around the top of the collar. The top button was missing, and his tie was tied tight to hide it. He pulled on his gloves and hurried down the stairs to the narrow hallway at the bottom. There was a time, even just a month ago, when the landlord would have poked his head around the door to say good morning. But now none of them spoke. They were all too afraid.
As he pulled the door shut, he could hear his phone ringing at the top of the house. He didn’t want to speak to Laing again, and so he quickly fished his mobile from his pocket and turned it off.
The air in his car was icy cold as he slipped behind the wheel. There had been no frost, but condensation clouded the windscreen. He set the blowers going and turned down Calabria Road. The radio was playing a selection of hits from last year. No one had released anything new in the last two months. The music segued from one song to another, and MacNeil was glad of the absence of the mindless, prattling DJs who used to fill the early morning airwaves. He had missed the seven-thirty newscast.
As always, his route into the city was determined by the army checkpoints. Certain areas were simply off-limits, even to him. There were demarcation lines that would require special permission to cross. He drove south to Pentonville, turning west along Pentonville Road into Euston Road. It was nearly seven forty-five, and the air was suffused with a grey light that forced its way through low pewtery cloud that seemed to graze the tops of distant skyscrapers. In another life, taxis and buses and commuter traffic would have choked the city’s arteries, like cholesterol. MacNeil still could not get used to the empty streets. There was a chilling quiet in this early morning light. He passed the occasional troop carrier, soldiers with gas masks and goggles staring from beneath khaki canvas covers, like faceless troopers from a Star Wars movie, nursing rifles they had been forced all too frequently to use.
Now that there was daylight, there was a limited traffic of private and commercial vehicles with the requisite clearance to move around designated areas of the city, tracked by cameras and satellite. Controls were most stringent around the city centre, where much of the looting had taken place. The government had used the old congestion charging infrastructure to monitor and control all vehicles moving in and out of the area. MacNeil cruised along its northern limit, passing a deserted Euston Station, before turning south into Tottenham Court Road, where a camera recorded his number plate and fed it directly into the central computer. Without clearance he could expect to be stopped within minutes.
The city’s shopping streets were like a battlefield. Those shops which hadn’t already had their windows smashed had boarded them up. The burned-out carcasses of stolen vehicles smouldered at the roadside, the debris and detritus of a once civilised society scattered across ruined streets. The wreckage of another night of violence. The Dominion Theatre, opposite the Tottenham Court Road Underground station, was a blackened, burned-out shell. Every time it rained, the air still filled up with the charred smell from The Death of a Salesman – the last piece to be performed there. McDonald’s too, in Oxford Street, had been gutted. Flame-grilled burgers overcooked. The Harmony Sex Shop had been broken into so many times, the owners no longer bothered to board it up, and a scantily clad siren in black leather pouted defiantly at MacNeil as he drove past.
Further south, The MouseTrap had finally ended its record-breaking run, and St. Martin’s Theatre, with. . .
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