Robert Parker Excerpt: Crook’s Hollow

Crook's Hollow by Robert Parker is a thrilling country noir involving greed, betrayal, secrecy, and more blood than farmer Thor Loxley could ever imagine (available March 22, 2018).

In the quiet village of Crook’s Hollow, almost exactly between Manchester and Liverpool, land and pride are king.

And now someone has just tried to kill Thor Loxley—but Thor has no clue as to why. As the estranged youngest of the omnipresent Loxley farming dynasty, all of whom view him as a traitorous turncoat, in a village where everybody knows everybody else’s business, life is hard enough.

But here, farmers do things the old way. You deal with problems on your own terms. You keep everything in house where possible. You avoid involving the authorities. With nobody to turn to, Thor sets out to uncover who wronged him. But with corrupt land developers circling, the rival Crook family seeking to unsettle the Loxley’s at every turn, his own family despising him, and jealous old acquaintances lurking, the mystery plunges ever deeper—and up floats more greed, betrayal, secrecy and blood than Thor could possibly imagine.

1

There was just the shallowest crescent of moon, high above. Everything else was black, and still.

The perfect night to get yourself killed, thought Thor Loxley.

‘I know you might find it pathetic, but I think I’m going to beg for my life any minute now,’ he said, just as a skull-jangling blow sent him down into the long grass. Wet tongues of green licked his face. He lay breathing heavily and caught sight of the disposable plastic overshoes on his assailant’s feet.

‘Decorator by trade? I have a feature wall I need repapering, if you’re interested,’ Thor said through ragged breaths, tensing as another fist ploughed his guts to tangled mush, sending him retching into the ground.

Thor was talking so much because he knew that if he didn’t, his fear would rise and take over. He couldn’t see anything of his adversary, it was far too dark; and whoever it was appeared to be dressed fully in black, even around the face.

Suddenly, he was pushed onto his front, his nose horribly close to his own fresh vomit, while a hand went fishing in his back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

‘This is a robbery? That’s it?’ said Thor, but his assailant merely threw the wallet deeper into the field, lost instantly in the gloom. ‘I don’t get it,’ Thor protested. ‘What the fuck are you do—’

A backhand shot electricity through his jaw, shutting him up in an instant, putting him face down again, and he lay breathing shallowly, not sure if he was awake or not; everything inside and outside of him was equally dark.

‘You should have got on with it,’ said the figure, in deep, aggressive tones that revealed that he was not only a man, but a man with very bad intentions indeed.

He must have been knocked out briefly, because he awoke with a start. The peace of the field was shattered by the growling bellow of an engine firing up, and Thor was flooded in light.

He struggled to see through the blinding glare, but could just make out the teeth of the thresher as they began to rotate, a wide bank of long knives spinning murderously. Then, just as suddenly, the whole rig started to crawl inexorably towards him. His panic surged and he watched in terror as a combine harvester bore down on him.

The teeth tore huge chunks out of the long grass just a few dozen feet in front of him, clawing it through its jaws into the pounding belly of the metal beast. He shuddered, thinking what this machine could do to a human body, what horrors it would make as it punctured and macerated the flesh and gristle, and struggled to rise but could not.

Through the whirling blades, as Thor lifted his head from the grass, he saw his assailant exit the cab of the combine and jump to the ground, leaving the machine lurching forward, evidently left in a low gear. ‘You should have got on with it,’ he shouted again as he ran into the inky night.

Panic wrung Thor tight. There was ten feet to go, and he could hear the knives whistling through the air. Move, he needed to move. Anything. Backwards. Get up. Go. Now.
 

2

He wouldn’t go like this. He started scrabbling backwards, his legs feeling weak; it was like trying to run or hit someone in a dream—you try your hardest but you just can’t do it.

In a weak gleam of moonlight, Thor recognised the missing letter on the front of the combine grille, just visible through the whirling teeth. He knew this machine. Knew it well. It was his father’s, and Thor himself had used it in the past.

He scrambled on all fours like prey just ahead of the jaws of its hunter. He managed a few yards but the infernal machine kept pace with him.

With terror he felt his jeans snag and was yanked back as one of the twirling blades caught him, but as soon as he realised it had cut him through the denim, he was pulled forward by another force. Gravity. He hadn’t seen it, but he was sliding down into a shallow ditch. He must be at one of the ends of the field, where the constant turning of machinery over the years had created a depression in the earth.

As he landed on his back, the blades spun just inches over his face and he was sprayed by fresh-cut greenery. Gears ground angrily as the blades buried themselves in the thick boundary hedge next to the depression, and the combine juddered, stuck. Still in gear, it fought to free itself. If the hedge gave way, and it sounded like it might, the wheels of the rig and the combine itself would soon drop down on top of him. He had seconds, no more.

He turned away from the roar of the combine and the groan of the hedge’s roots, and began to crawl for his life, as unwanted thoughts clattered into his mind. What is it he should have ‘got on’ with? And why in hell was someone trying to kill him?
 

3

Thor got in around four in the morning. He was dripping wet and stank of mud and piss. He went straight into his dingy little bathroom and turned the hot taps on. He was stone cold sober now, the final dregs of the booze he had had last night long flushed away by adrenaline.

Nowt like attempted murder to get your head right after a night on the sauce, he thought; but in future, he’d stick with Alka-Seltzer, black pudding and paracetamol.

The steam in the room felt merciful on his skin as he peeled off the layers of nearly destroyed clothing. Flecks of shed mud rained down onto the curled lino. He checked himself over: aside from a few cursory scratches, some worse than others but no worse than if a cat had swiped at him, he had really got away with this one. The call had been close, the escape even closer. But here he was.

He had brought a bin bag in from the kitchen with him and, standing there starkers, stuffed all the clothes into it. He’d bin them later. He smelt himself, and scrunched his nose up. In the terror of the twirling knives, he had involuntarily gone number one. He had always thought he would have acted cool under extreme pressure, and he ended up doing the exact opposite.

The mystery of that hour loomed hard and heavy in the background, but his main thought was of how relieved and amazed he was to be alive. He lowered himself into the foamy water of the bath, shoving other thoughts back for a while.

It didn’t take long for them to sweep back in.

Someone had just tried to kill him. There was no question of that. Someone wanted him out of the picture.

But why? What possible thing could he, Thornton Loxley, of shittest name known to man, twenty-five years old, youngest brother of five much more accomplished siblings, and massively average in every way, have done to warrant being savagely attacked and left for dead?

He had no money—well, no real money. He had about four grand in his bank account, and double that figure in credit card debt. He worked on the bar in his local pub, The Traveller’s Rest, and hadn’t even done so much as pour a bad pint for one of the finicky locals. He had kept his head down most of his life, and couldn’t imagine that he’d upset someone enough to make them want to kill him. He was a nobody, who had done nothing.

Well, he thought, as he pulled his head under the water, his short crew cut spreading the warmth quickly across his entire scalp, that had changed. Maybe he had done something serious. Maybe he had upset someone in a grand way. He must have.

And now that the door to such possibilities had creaked open, doubts snuck in and his mind raced. Now that he thought about it, maybe he did have a couple of ideas.

But he was sure that whoever had tried to kill him, hadn’t seen that he’d survived—and that would give him the element of surprise. He’d find out who did this, and settle the score in some way. If that meant the police, it meant the police, but for the time being he would keep them out of it. No point flooding Crook’s Hollow—the little village of three thousand souls that he had lived in all his life—with fluorescent jackets and door-knocking. All that ever does is make local people clam tight and stick to their own. Like him. He knew the community, and was sure he’d find out more by himself.

He decided to start first thing.
 

4

At seven sharp, he left his flat above the post office and made his way down the steep stairs at the back of the building, the rusted iron structure his only access to and from his front door. He didn’t need to keep quiet; the landlords, Ahmed and Mo, would be opening up the post office about now. When the two brothers of Indian descent had bought the village post office, the purchase had caused a stir that Thor felt, even at fifteen. A decade later, the brothers were a big part of village life, loved by many and respected by most, and good friends to Thor.

The village of Crook’s Hollow, named after a small valley secreted away in the fields on Crook’s Farm, was the archetypal England village, both in scale and mindset. No more than a stopping point between bigger settlements on either side of it, it was a picture of bygone quaintness, from its simple street structure to its traditional architecture. Old brick framed by greenery. There were basic amenities, that’s all. You could use your bank card in the post office, but that was made possible only a couple of years ago. The village hall was a decrepit, asbestos-insulated hovel housing a collection of old wooden chairs. The church, on the edge of the village, had lost most of its roof on nothing more than a blustery night a decade earlier, and the rector and his parishioners were still trying to fix it.

Over the years, a couple of housing developments had cropped up. An estate was built in the mid-sixties near the village school, and for a time in the decades either side of the millennium it became fashionable amongst what some would call the young and upwardly mobile. Others would call them yuppies. Of the village’s three thousand residents, you were either a local or what the locals called a ‘tourist,’ but a village so small meant that the two groups brushed against each other every day, and the tourists had now started to outweigh the locals in both numbers and influence.

Thor himself was a local, and as he walked across the road from the post office in the direction of the estate, he pondered the state of the village he had lived in all his life. Everybody here knew everybody else’s business, whether you liked it or not. For finding out why he was attacked last night, it was unnerving. On one hand, he was exposed— the Crook’s Hollow grapevine was that short. On the other, someone would likely know something. The length of that grapevine again. He was confident he could get to the bottom of it.

The November morning was cool yet breezeless, and grey clouds hovered like smudged Zeppelins. Thor walked briskly, clad in thick boots, scuffed jeans, and a thick waterproof jacket—the same outfit he wore every day.

Dropping through the ginnel from the main road onto the estate, within five minutes he was at the house on Deadfern Road. Number 32, a house where he had spent many afternoons as a child after school, was a two-story detached affair with a single garage, small garden, and two-car driveway. It looked just like the one next to it, and the one next to that, and so on and so forth. It seemed that in the sixties there had been a dearth of architectural invention. Thor walked up the drive, noticing that all three cars were there, wedged into the smaller space like a game of automobile Tetris. They were all at home.

During the night, he had come up with a few names, a few tentative lines of enquiry he wanted to check out, and this was the first and most likely on his list. He rang the bell, and knocked three times. Getting no answer, he knocked again. A couple of moments later, a white shape loomed in the frosted glass panel of the door, and the door swung open. A middle-aged woman wearing a once-fluffy, now off- white bathrobe, her dyed blonde hair mussed and her face so uncharacteristically shorn of thick make-up that he was taken aback at how tiny her eyes really were, stood before him.

‘Morning, Barb,’ he said to the woman he had known since preschool. ‘Sorry for the early wake up. Is Jason home?’

Barb looked both relieved and disappointed at the same time.

‘Yes, Thornton, I’ll get him,’ she sighed, turning to the bottom of the stairs. ‘Jason!’ she bellowed.

‘Thank you,’ Thor said as Barb retreated up the stairs without a word. He heard her shout a second time to her son, and then heard a deeper, muffled response. Thor walked back out to the driveway; he didn’t want Jase’s parents to hear what they were about to talk about. He waited while the morning birds trilled at the clouds, then heard the door opening.

The man who came down the steps was the same age as Thor, and looked like he’d lost a fight with both the Sandman and Jack Daniels.

‘The fuck d’you want?’ Jason said, while smoothing his bedhead. Thor surveyed him closely, looking for a giveaway.

‘Surprised to see me?’ he asked, folding his arms across his chest, unconsciously puffing himself up to look more imposing.

‘Well, you’ve got balls showing yourself at my house after last night,’ said Jason, his voice a ragged croak.

‘Yes, last night, let’s talk about that.’
‘You’re no better than me, Thor.’
‘Oh, I am. It takes a certain kind of shithouse to come after me like

that.’
Thor could feel the rage rising in his chest, the anger at Jason’s

affront. ‘Years we’ve been mates, Jase. Years. And you piss it all away because I was just doing my job, and you couldn’t handle it.’

‘You think I was in the pub last night because of you?’
‘I’m not talking about the pub. I’m talking about afterwards.’
Jason knitted his brows. ‘After the pub? What, you mean after you

kicked me out in front of half the village?’
‘You were doing coke off the disabled toilet seat, Jase. Pathetic. This

is Crook’s Hollow, not L.A.’
‘There you go, up on your high horse again. The Hollow isn’t as innocent as you think. You’re in the minority, you know.’
Thor knew that Jason was right. Cocaine had seeped into the village and the neighbouring, flashier settlement of Windle Heath, starting with the younger sons and daughters of the wealthy in the early 2000s. Now even the housewives were at it, packing their septums in between school runs.

‘You don’t do it in the pub. If you can’t go to your local pub without needing to line your nose with that garbage, it’s a sorry fucking state of affairs isn’t it?’

‘Whatever.’ Jason looked down, embarrassed to be admonished by his childhood friend. They had gone their separate ways as they’d matured, pursuing different things, and their relationship had been strained for a while.

‘But dragging me out to the field… well, that’s a new low. Even for a druggie scumbag like you.’

Thor was really fuming now, but Jason’s expression was confused.

‘After the pub? After the pub I went to Thompson’s house. I was nowhere near any fucking field.’

‘Give over.’

‘Fuck off if you don’t believe me.’ Jason took a step closer, and for the first time in their lives, the two men squared up to each other.

‘You jumped me, assaulted me, and dragged me out to the field on the edge of the farm, just because I did the right thing,’ said Thor, his chest pressed primally against Jason’s.

‘Watch the shit coming out of your mouth.’

The look in Jason’s eye spoke volumes, his own hangover long since adrenalised with the buzz of accusation.

‘You’re saying you had nothing to do with it then?’

Thor was not a violent man, but since the previous night, something had clicked in him. A fail-safe had been activated, a preservation mode engaged; he was ready to defend himself if he had to.

‘I don’t know what you’re on about. I’m saying that me and Thommo hung out in his living room, watching Storage Hunters and drinking knock-off ciders. Whatever you do on that bloody farm your family cares so much about is something I’m definitely not interested in. Your family have been lording it over everyone for years. Well, here’s a tourist telling you to fuck off.’
Thor felt both furious and sad. He knew that people thought the

Loxley family were on odd breed, with their deep roots and their wide grip on the land. It was one of the reasons Thor had distanced himself from his own blood; he didn’t feel the same pull of the land and their place on it. He felt it was weird to be so obsessed with the past that it had such a daily impact on the present, so he had gravitated away.

But hearing these home truths from an old friend, and to hear those same words used in a way that would bury their old friendship once and for all, was a bitter pill for Thor to swallow, one that would stick fast on the way down.

‘If I find out you lied to my face,’ Thor said, backing away slightly but retaining eye contact, ‘I’ll be back here. And no amount of beak or booze will be able to numb what I’ll do to you.’

Jason laughed. ‘You always had a quick gob, but I’ve never seen you try to play hard before. I wouldn’t recommend keeping it up.’

Head down, Thor walked back up the street to the ginnel to begin the walk back home.

 

Copyright © 2018 Robert Parker.

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Robert Parker is a new exciting voice, a married father of three, who lives in a village close to Manchester, UK. He has both a law degree and a degree in film and media production, and has worked in numerous employment positions, ranging from solicitor’s agent (essentially a courtroom gun for hire), to a van driver, to a warehouse order picker, to a commercial video director. He currently writes full time, while also making time to encourage new young readers and authors through readings and workshops at local schools and bookstores. In his spare time he adores pretty much all sport, boxing regularly for charity, loves fiction across all mediums, and his glass is always half full.

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