A mechanical reindeer serenaded the city with a rendition of Away in A Manger. It was like a call to arms for crowds of people who flocked to Manchester’s centre to stand out in the freezing cold, getting drunk on overpriced beer. All in the name of celebrating the festive period.
The smells of cinnamon and hot dogs competed as Shaun Moseley walked through the packed crowds. He had woken up to the wonder of Christmas late in life. His upbringing had been a long way from the perfect families he had watched with envy on the television. His mother thought good parenting had been to let them sit in the pub with her and her mates instead of leaving them at home. Shaun had preferred to stay at home. At least then his younger brother, Liam, could fall asleep in his own bed instead of a pub floor.
Even with those thoughts milling around in his head, the cheer bursting out of Manchester this drizzly afternoon was infectious. He got his mobile phone out of his jacket and dialled.
“If you’re ringing to tell me we’re not having curry for dinner tonight, I’m going to be upset.”
Typical of Liam. No hello or anything. Straight to what he’d be fed that night. He didn’t deserve to be so slim.
“Have no fear, I’ve already made it,” Shaun grumbled. “Bloody hell, do you always think with your stomach?”
“No,” Liam replied with a laugh. “Ask Marco.”
“Shut up. How gross.”
“You’re only jealous.”
Talk about an understatement. “Too bloody right I am,” Shaun muttered. “Three months without any action is like being in lockdown all over again. It’s not natural.”
“It must be hard,” Liam said before collapsing into hysterics at his own joke.
“Hilarious,” Shaun replied drily.
He walked deeper into the markets. It might have only been midday but already people were the worse for wear. Manchester had earned a reputation for hard partying many decades ago and the city still wore it as a badge of honour. It gave Shaun a strange sense of pride in his birth town. After being away for years, he had enjoyed spending the last few months here. Well, on the outskirts, but he took trips into town whenever he could.
The stalls were packed with things. Food, cooking implements and, for some reason, bird tables. Shaun could just imagine a husband leaving his Christmas gift shopping until the last minute and panic-buying one. He had no idea how one of those things would be wrapped.
“So, what did you want? Not to ask about my sex life, I’m sure,” Liam continued.
“Nothing much. I’m in the markets and it made me feel all Christmassy,” Shaun replied. He stopped and examined a stuffed robin in a waistcoat. Who on earth would buy that?
“It’s bloody weeks away yet,” Liam moaned. “I haven’t even thought what to get Marco. It’s a bit hard when he won’t let me out of his sight.”
He had a point. Ever since Liam had been released from hospital after being shot by crime boss Jonny Wellingham, Liam’s boyfriend Marco Ponti hadn’t let him move without being by his side. That would drive Shaun mad, but Liam was in love and lapped it up.
Careful, Shaun, you’re beginning to sound like a jaded old queen.
“They’ve invented a new thing, little brother,” Shaun said. “It’s called the internet. I’ll show you when I get home. It’s brilliant.”
“Funny guy,” Liam replied. “You’re as bad as him, anyway. You’ve only been gone an hour and you’re checking up on me.”
Bored of the stuffed animals, Shaun moved on to a stall that had a revolutionary garlic press whose sign proclaimed he’d been living half a life without. Shaun examined it and wasn’t sure that was strictly true. He’d managed for over thirty years without this essential piece of kit. He had an inkling he could struggle on for the rest.
“Actually, it wasn’t about you, believe it or not. I wanted to talk to you about Christmas,” he said. “I might go home to Blackpool. It would be nice to see some of the guys.” Silence on the other end of the line told him what Liam thought of that idea. “Liam? Are you still there?”
“You know you can’t,” Liam said quietly. “Marco said it isn’t safe yet.”
Shaun slammed the garlic press back down onto the stall.
“Breakages are paid for,” said the stall holder.
It was hard to take someone seriously who had garlic bulb earrings with a matching necklace.
“Sorry,” he mouthed to her. But the ever-present frustration had risen up in him. “Fuck’s sake, Liam. It’s been three months. Wellingham is probably on the Costa del Knobhead, drinking sangria or something.”
Liam sighed. “Until their uncle comes and gets things properly running, you can’t. It won’t be for much longer. Besides—”
“Besides what?” Shaun snapped.
“I thought it might be nice for us to spend it together,” Liam said shyly. “It’s been years.”
A flash of guilt replaced the anger. They hadn’t had Christmas together since Shaun had left Manchester many years ago. He’d been travelling too much. Then when he went to Blackpool, Liam had taken up with Wellingham’s gang and couldn’t be persuaded to come to his. Shaun had found it hard to tempt him to a nut roast in a yoga bed and breakfast when Jonny offered drink, drugs and God knew what in a mansion.
“I suppose I’m cooking the dinner as well, am I?” Shaun asked.
“It will give you something to think about,” Liam answered. “You love planning shit like this. Remember your thirtieth? You choreographed your own surprise party.”
Shaun couldn’t deny it. He didn’t like to leave things to chance. “So we’ll all sit around eating turkey and Christmas pud?” he asked.
“Don’t forget the crackers.”
“Like one big happy family, eh?”
“You could make an effort, seeing as it’s Christmas,” Liam offered.
“I will talk to you, Dolly and Claire,” Shaun said haughtily. “Maybe Marco if he doesn’t keep banging on about being a big gangster.”
“Fine, whatever,” Liam said.
Shaun could hear himself being mean—a frequent occurrence since he’d been caught up in this whole nightmare. Staying by Liam’s bedside those awful days in the hospital, he’d vowed to take better care of his brother. Now he was being childish because he couldn’t go to his mates at Christmas. They still thought he was looking after Liam so it wasn’t like they even expected him.
“Well, I suppose I’d better get the rest of my shopping done. I thought I’d do those homemade naans you like.”
“Ace. I’ll tell Marco, he loves them. Oh and, Shaun…”
“What now?” Shaun laughed. “You’re very needy today, Li.”
“Remember that fudge stall on Brazenose Street? I wonder if it’s still there.”
When their mother would spend the afternoon in the pub, she would give them a ten-pound note to spend on the markets. Shaun would always go straight for chocolate, but Liam plumped for as much fudge as he could buy. Then he would nibble his collection every day to make it last. Of course, Shaun’s chocolate would be gone before the Queen made her speech.
“I reckon it will be,” Shaun said with a smile.
“Pretty please,” Liam begged.
Shaun sighed. “You soft lad. It’s miles back the way I’ve just come from.”
“Pretty please with cherries on top?”
How could he refuse him? Liam had missed out on so much in his short life and even though Wellingham’s bullet had nearly killed him, he was happier than Shaun had ever seen him.
“Fine, seeing as it’s you,” Shaun said. “But I get to choose the flavours. You always had weird shit like cherry fizz or lemon meringue.”
“I only did that to keep you off them,” Liam confided.
“Crafty little shit.”
Shaun set off the way he had just been. In doing so, he walked straight into an incredibly good-looking young man behind him. But that wasn’t what made Shaun jump. Keeping as calm as possible, he pushed past and set off towards the edge of the market, his heart racing.
“I’ll let you go then,” Liam said with a chuckle.
“Wait,” Shaun said, unease flooding his system. “I don’t know if I’m being paranoid, but I think someone’s following me.”
“What? Tell me what you mean,” Liam said. All traces of amusement had left Liam’s voice.
“This guy. I saw him in Marks and Spencer and in the food market. Now I’ve just headed back to that bloody fudge stall and he’s there. Right behind me.”
“Are you sure it’s the same person?” Liam replied.
“Course I am. He’s gorgeous. I never forget a fit lad. Like I said, I’m probably just being paranoid. Manchester isn’t all that big.”
He wasn’t sure if his mind was playing tricks on him, but it felt like the crowds had become denser. Office workers still in their formal clothes but with flashing antlers on their heads shouted to one another over the din. Shaun wanted to fight his way to the street now. He glanced back and to his horror, the guy wasn’t far behind him.
“Okay, I’m not being paranoid. He’s following me. Absolutely sure of it,” he whispered. He half expected a hand to grab his shoulder at any moment. He might be surrounded by people, but Shaun could hardly beg a stranger for help.
“Act natural. I’ll dial Marco in,” Liam said.
Shaun wanted to run, but they had rehearsed this so many times he remembered what Marco had drilled into him. Don’t give away that you know. If you panic, they will panic, then things can get out of hand.
With every bit of his self-control, he walked slowly past the little wooden chalets selling their wares as though he were browsing like anyone else.
Marco Ponti had the thickest Italian accent to go with his brooding good looks. If he hadn’t been an ambitious gangster who’d nearly got them killed, Shaun would have been happy for his brother. But now Shaun needed his confidence and knowledge.
“What do I do?” Shaun replied.
“Stay calm. Can you get a photo?” Marco asked.
Shaun frantically scanned the markets. He saw a man dressed as an elf, giving out free chocolates. He dashed over.
“Any chance of a pic?” he asked him. “My brother is after an outfit like this for Christmas morning. I said I’d make him one.”
The man nodded and Shaun made a big fuss of positioning himself to get the selfie absolutely perfect. He managed to get the mysterious figure in one of them and sent it off to Marco.
“You have a happy Christmas,” Shaun said to the elf and carried on towards the street.
He tried to work out the best escape routes out of the city. He’d got the train in from the little village near their old farmhouse hideout. The last thing he wanted was to lead any would-be attackers there. He had to lose them somehow.
“Did you get it?” he asked.
“Just looking,” Liam said. “Shit, fuck. It’s Deano.”
Terror gripped Shaun. Deano was the worst of Wellingham’s henchmen. He’d hated Liam when they had both been in the gang together. Him along with the rest of Wellingham’s Boys had been on the missing list ever since Marco had burned Jonny’s pool house to the ground. Shaun had been sure that Jonny would cut his losses and leave town. He’d been wrong.
“Okay, Claire has been on to Giovanni and Enzo. Giovanni is miles away, but Enzo is only in Moston. He’ll be at Aldi in Ancoats in twenty minutes. Can you get there?”
Enzo and Giovanni were Marco’s muscle-bound cousins. Exceptionally handsome but constantly preoccupied with pumping iron, Shaun had given them a wide berth ever since they’d arrived.
“Ancoats is fucking miles away.”
“I know, but if he comes any farther in, he’ll get caught up in traffic. Can you do it?” Marco asked.
Shaun glanced around again. Every young man could be a potential attacker.
“I’m scared, Marco,” he said quietly.
“Listen to me. You have to keep up the pretence. You’re just on a shopping trip. Laugh.”
“Laugh. I’ve just told you the best joke ever. You have no cares in the world. Fucking laugh.”
Shaun did as he was told, he wouldn’t have won an award for his performance, but it would do. “I’m nearly at the street. Then what?”
“Stop and browse at the stall next to you. You’re in no rush, remember.”
Shaun found himself showing an interest in an apple-shaped wine cooler. The hopeful stall holder approached.
“Once I get to the street, what do I do?” Shaun asked, ignoring the man who seemed determined to impress him with a demonstration on how to get the top of the cooler off.
“Get to the Northern Quarter,” Liam said. “It’ll be crowded.”
A bead of sweat trickled down Shaun’s back even though the December air had chilled him all day.
“I’m not cut out for this. I don’t think I can—”
Panic rose within him. He’d been sure he wouldn’t be affected by this life. He’d refused to have anything to do with their dodgy deals ever since Liam, Marco and the others had turned up on his doorstep in Blackpool. Shaun had accused Marco of being paranoid for making him stay with them all these weeks. He’d only done it so Liam would focus on getting well again.
“Shaun,” Marco barked down the phone. “You have no choice. Get yourself ready. Swallow it down and do everything I tell you.”
Shaun tried to control his panic and fought the temptation to lay into Marco. None of them would be in this position if he’d just done what his uncle said and waited for reinforcements from Italy. Instead, he’d taken it upon himself to try and ruin Jonny Wellingham. That had resulted in Liam taking a bullet and Shaun being trapped with the rest of them. Jonny evidently did see him as a target and now he needed Marco to get him out of there alive. “Okay, ready,” he managed.
Shaun wandered to the edge of the market. Crowds were spilling out onto the pavements and tired security guards kept telling them to get back in with their drinks. Shaun desperately wanted to throw himself on their mercy and beg for help, but that would only cause bigger issues further down the line. He had no appetite for being labelled a grass on top of everything else.
“Tell Enzo he’d better bloody be there,” Shaun said.
“He will be, and I’ll be on the other end of the phone all the time. You can do this, Shaun,” Marco coaxed.
Summoning all this inner strength, Shaun stepped out of the seemingly safe confines of the markets. He’d been on the pavement mere seconds when a car roared up from a side street. It screeched to a halt metres from where he stood.
To his horror, Deano grabbed hold of his arm and hauled him towards the car. Shaun heard Marco calling his name down the phone, but it all happened so quickly.
The rear door of the car opened, and Jonny Wellingham’s long-time deputy, Harry, glared at him from the back. There were no prizes for guessing who would be at the other end of this joyride. If he got in that vehicle, his life might very well be over.
Then the rage built within him. He would not die like this. He had escaped these bastards once in his life. He would do it again.
There were plenty of people around to witness what was going on. Surely he could use that to his advantage. Then a sharp stab of pain stung in his side, telling him that this Deano had a knife to him.
“If you say anything, I’ll stick you,” Deano whispered in his ear.
But Shaun wasn’t going to be scared that easily. “Help,” he screamed. “This man is trying to rob me. He’s got a knife.”
The security who had been dealing with unruly drinkers spun around. A young couple stood open-mouthed.
Deano slapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, Shaun. These people won’t know you’re joking. Sorry, he gets a bit confused when he’s had one too many.”
To Shaun’s relief, Deano released his grip ever so slightly.
“Get him in the fucking car,” Harry shouted.
Deano jabbed the knife harder.
Shaun didn’t fancy bleeding to death while day trippers took selfies with him. “Help me,” he screamed. Shaun wriggled out of Deano’s clutches, exposing the knife. A woman screamed when she saw it.
The security guards were approaching at speed now. Shaun could see one talking into his headset. He prayed it would be to the police. Deano pulled the blade away from him. Relief flooded through Shaun’s body, making his legs turn to jelly. But now wasn’t the time to lose it, not when he was a long way from safety.
Two lads were getting out of the car, but before they could do anything, Shaun shoved Deano with all his might. He fell against a handmade candle stall. The stall tipped over, sending hundreds of candles in all the colours of the rainbow rolling along the floor. The stallholder shouted and grabbed hold of Deano, who was trying to get up. Shaun saw his opportunity.
He ran as fast as his legs would carry him out of the markets and into the main shopping streets of the city. When he reached the corner, he glanced back to see lads scrambling out of the car. One hollered when they saw him.
The chase of Shaun’s life was on.