Book Nerds! Check out this excerpt from PLAYING DIRTY by Helen Black!

Liberty Greenwood is back.

County lines. Blurred lines. Crossed lines.

Things are looking up for Liberty Greenwood. She’s brokered a deal with the local rival gangster and it looks like the police have finally stopped investigating her. She even has a plan to steer her family away from their criminal activities.

But when a spate of violence on the estates points to a hostile takeover bid from a crew from out of the area, Liberty is forced to take decisive and dangerous action – action which ends up with her doing a stint in prison.
Meanwhile, Liberty’s partner, ex-copper Sol Connolly is recruited to join an off-the-books team who will stop at nothing to infiltrate the new drugs gang, hellbent on sending kids ‘up county.’

As Liberty and Sol attack the same problem from different angles, who will give out first? And how many people will have to get hurt as they fight for what they each believe in?







A Liberty Chapman Novel
© 2019 Helen Black



31 August 1990, Manchester


There’s a funny smell of burning that wakes me up. Please God, Fat Rob hasn’t set his sleeping bag on fire. Again.

I throw off my blanket and hurl myself at the hump at the end of the settee but he’s not in it. I’m glad not to find him in a ball of flames but there’s still smoke in the air.


He pokes his head around the kitchen door, hair like an Afro perm gone wrong. ‘What are you doing up?’

‘Wondering if I should call nine-nine-nine,’ I say.

He jerks his head towards the settee, and I roll my eyes. I mean, I can’t go back to sleep now, can I? But Fat Rob doesn’t move so I sigh and crawl under my covers. The PVC under me makes a farting sound.

When Fat Rob’s satisfied, he comes into the main room. Well, it’s the only other room, actually. We kip in it, eat in it, watch telly in it. The shower’s down the hall, but more often than not we just have a wash in the kitchen sink. The landlord calls this a bedsit. Probably cos we can only sit on the bed. And when I say bed, I mean settee. Not that the landlord knows about me. If he found out I was living here, he’d have me and Fat Rob out.

With a grin on his face, wearing only a pair of red boxer shorts and his new England tattoo, Fat Rob carries a chipped saucer in both hands. It reminds me of the time our Jay was a king in the nativity. Only Jay did a massive burp and made one of the shepherds wee his pants. There was a puddle under the crib and Mary tried to mop it up with the tea towel Joseph was wearing on his head.

Now I know what the bloody smell is. On the saucer is a Danish pastry with a sparkler stuck in it. White flecks of heat spray over the thick icing and glacé cherry. ‘What the hell’s going on?’ I ask.

Fat Rob bursts out laughing, ‘Happy birthday, Lib.’

We eat half each on the number thirty-six, though Fat Rob insists I get all the cherry.

‘Sorry, I didn’t get you a card or owt,’ he says, lips all sticky.

I nudge him in the ribs a bit too hard. ‘Shut up.’

We know there’s no money to waste on cards and that. It’s cash in hand for both of us at work. He did think about signing on as well, but a lot of people know who he is now, and some twat would dob him in. I can’t do it for obvious reasons.

What I don’t tell him is that it’s a long time since anyone remembered my birthday. So many kids came and went in Orchard Grove that we hardly knew each other’s names a lot of the time. The only two I bothered with at all were Imbo and Vicky. But they had a lorry load of problems to be getting on with and not enough head space to be thinking about birthdays. If I’d told them, they’d have gone out and nicked some ale, insist we all got pissed, but I never did.

Our Crystal and Frankie are too young to be buying cards, and I’m not allowed contact anyway. Our Jay’s back in jail and I’m pretty sure they don’t let him out to go to Smith’s or whatever.

To be honest, a cake – well, half of it – with my best mate, it’s enough. I don’t like a fuss.

‘D’you miss ’em?’ he asks. ‘On days like your birthday, you must do.’

I think about that. What would we be doing if we were all together? Our Jay would crack us up with some rubbish or other in ten seconds flat and our Frankie would laugh so much he’d probably wet himself. Our Crystal would press her face into my jumper and giggle, curly hair boinging up and down.

‘You got a shift tonight?’ Rob asks.

I nod.


But it’s not. I like my job. I like the people. I like the cash.

‘See you there,’ he says, and gets up for his stop.

He leans over and kisses the top of my head. He smells of fags and icing sugar. When he gets to the top of the stairs, he calls out, so the whole top deck can hear, ‘You don’t look too bad for thirty-two.’

I laugh and shout back. ‘Thanks, dickhead.’

Cos what else can you say to someone who’s saved your life?

Present Day

Paul Hill was smart and sombre in a black cashmere overcoat. The wife, on the other hand, looked like DFS had exploded on bank-holiday weekend: brown leather jacket, pencil skirt and knee boots.

‘Bunny.’ Liberty smiled at her. ‘How nice to see you.’

Bunny leaned in, every item she had on creaking like a ship. ‘Bloody hate funerals, I do.’

Liberty wondered if she thought this made her stand out from the crowd. If she believed that the average punter lapped up the flowers and hymns.

‘I mean, we barely knew Jackson,’ said Bunny. She wrinkled her nose in the direction of the front row of the church, where assorted members of the Delaney clan hunched in their nylon ties, desperate to get this over with.

All of Jackson Delaney’s big players were behind bars. The rag-taggle bunch here today might run some low-rent money-lending deals up in the schemes of Glasgow, but part of Jackson’s organised-crime empire they were not.

‘You know why we’re here,’ Hill muttered.

Bunny rolled her eyes and took a seat at the back, her skirt screeching against the polished wood. Hill nodded at Liberty and moved along towards his wife.


She smelt Crystal before she saw her. Juicy Fruit and lip balm. ‘Hey.’

Her sister wore a chunky black scarf wound twice around her white throat. Trademark ripped skinny jeans replaced with dark grey ones, no holes. Had she lost even more weight? Now was not the time to ask.

Bunny waved at Crystal. Crystal ignored Bunny.

‘Where’s Jay?’ Liberty asked.

Crystal pointed her head towards the doors of the church and, bang on cue, Jay arrived, sexy as fuck in a black suit that must have been tailor-made to fit him.

‘Oi, oi,’ he said. Liberty reached for the sunglasses balanced on top of his head and slid them into his breast pocket. He winked. ‘Got a surprise for you, sis.’

Liberty was about to point out that a funeral probably wasn’t the time or place, when her baby brother waltzed into the church as if he owned the place. ‘You have got to be shitting me,’ said Liberty, but she couldn’t suppress the grin as Frankie landed a smacker full on her lips.

‘Lib,’ he said.

‘Are you well enough to do this?’ she asked.

But Frankie’s answer was drowned out as the organ struck up ‘Abide With Me’.

Liberty pulled back the heavy velvet drape and entered the Black Cherry. Mel had made sure the cleaners had scrubbed the place to within an inch of its life, the smell of sweat and sex overlaid with Zoflora. Instead of the usual stomach-punching bass, classical music drifted from the speakers over the club.

Liberty was determined not to laugh as the violins of Vivaldi’s Four Seasonssprang to life, but she nearly cracked when Frankie elbowed her in the side. ‘Don’t,’ she said, but Frankie just elbowed her again, a snort escaping his mouth.

Liberty crooked her arm to retaliate but saw her brother had his hand pressed just under his ribcage. It was a habit he’d picked up. Underneath his crisp shirt was the mother of all scars, and although Frankie swore it no longer hurt, his fingers still sought it out as if to assure themselves that his insides weren’t pouring onto the floor. She grabbed his other hand and squeezed.

On the far side of the club, Jay was already at the bar, eyeing up the trays of sandwiches laid out for the funeral guests. He took a bite of a brown triangle and frowned. ‘Egg mayonnaise,’ he said. ‘When did folk stop using salad cream?’

Liberty snorted and took a cheese and pickle offering. Growing up, salad cream had been liberally applied to most sandwich fillings by their mother. When money had run low, which it often had, there was more salad cream than anything else.

Crystal ignored the food and waved over to Mel for a drink.

‘Remind me why we’re doing this,’ said Liberty.

‘You tell me,’ Crystal replied.

Mel scuttled towards them, six-inch heels clicking. She collected a bottle of Jack Daniel’s from under the bar. ‘It’s expected.’

‘By who?’ Liberty asked.

Mel slammed down the bottle and snatched up five glasses. ‘Everyone.’ She looked to Jay, who was hoovering down another sandwich. ‘Explain it to her.’

‘We’re the Greenwoods,’ he said.

‘Exactly.’ Mel sloshed bourbon into the glasses. ‘Delaney was an old-school face. We’re showing our respect.’

Liberty knocked back her drink as the first mourners arrived, and Mel sent over one of the girls to show them to a table. She was called Justina and was known for her ability to put both feet behind her head to display an impressively pierced snatch, masked today with a pair of black trousers presumably provided by Mel.

As more people spilled into the club, the other girls carried trays of food over to them and took orders for drinks.

‘How much is this costing?’ Crystal asked.

Mel pushed a glass at her. ‘We’ll be open tonight as per.’

Crystal rolled her eyes but took her JD and held it up. Mel clinked her own glass against it, then Jay followed suit. Frankie took his turn, but quickly replaced his untouched glass on the bar and reached over for a Diet Coke. He’d been on the wagon ever since he’d got out of hospital. No booze, no gear. He was even threatening to quit the fags. ‘Cheers,’ he said.

Several guests stood as a woman in her late fifties entered the Cherry. One made his way towards her and put a hand on her shoulder. Her face was tired and lined, grey roots visible in her parting. She nodded at the man, as if her head were full of stones, the weight registering in each movement.

‘Who’s that?’ Liberty asked.

No one answered as the man led the woman towards them. Clearly, Liberty was about to find out.

The woman eyed the Greenwood clan over the rim of her cup.

‘Can I get you anything stronger?’ Liberty asked.

‘No, thanks.’ She nodded at Frankie’s Diet Coke. ‘Best to keep a clear head, eh?’

One of the girls passed by with a tray of sausage rolls and dipped her hip, exposing the lace of her bra strap, so the woman could take one.

Liberty tried a smile. ‘So, you’re a relative of Jackson?’

The woman placed the sausage roll on her saucer. ‘His sister.’ She held out a hand to Liberty. ‘Innis Delaney.’ The skin of her palm was warm from the cup.

Innis held Liberty’s gaze. Not even a blink. Fair play. A shout from behind broke the spell. One of the lads was calling for a song, another already on his feet belting out a number. The kid had a voice like warm honey on a spoon. Shame he’d a face like a slapped arse.

‘Sorry you had to wait so long for a funeral,’ said Liberty.

‘They had to wait for the trial.’ Innis snorted. ‘Polis. You know how they are.’ As the lad broke into ‘Flower of Scotland’, she leaned towards Liberty. ‘Can I ask a favour of you?’

‘Depends what it is,’ said Crystal.

Liberty sighed. ‘Of course you can, Innis.’

‘If you ever hear who was behind it, let me know.’

‘Just some junkie in the nick, wasn’t it?’ asked Liberty.

Innis laughed, exposing big yellow teeth. ‘We both know that’s shite.’ The lad finished his rendition, wiping his too-big nose with a mayonnaise-smeared paper napkin. The other men called for a fresh round of drinks. ‘I need to get this lot out of here.’ Innis rose to her feet. ‘But keep me posted.’

‘Sure,’ Liberty replied.

‘Then I can deal with things properly,’ said Innis.

Liberty watched the last Delaney exit the Cherry, leaving behind plates strewn with tomatoes and lettuce. They’d eaten every sandwich in the house, including crusts, but no salad had touched a Glaswegian lip.

Liberty signalled for Mel to get the club back to normal, and in less than ten minutes the music was pumping, and Justina had taken to the stage in a transparent PVC minidress. Mel shook out five pairs of black nylon trousers and put them into a carrier, tags still intact.

‘You’re not actually going to return them?’ said Liberty.

‘Waste not, want not,’ Mel replied, and slid the bag under the bar.

‘Jacko’s sister’s in charge, don’t you think?’ Liberty asked.

‘In charge of what?’ Mel asked. ‘A bunch of inbreds?’

‘What if she knows?’

‘She doesn’t know shit,’ Mel said.

Liberty shrugged and held out her glass for Mel to top up with Jack Daniel’s. ‘She might suspect.’

Harry crossed the club to the bar, a grin on his face as he waved at Liberty. She liked Crystal’s husband, who was warm and funny. Christ only knew what he saw in her sister. Halfway over he tripped and had to steady himself against the back of a chair. Was he pissed?

When he reached the bar the smell of him told Liberty that he was. ‘Had a few?’ she asked. He swayed in front of her, so she pushed him onto a stool.

‘A couple.’ He reached over for Liberty’s glass, took a drink but missed his mouth, pouring most of it down his shirt. ‘Fuck a duck.’

Something was up. Getting plastered in the middle of the day wasn’t Harry’s style.

‘Everything okay?’ she asked.

Harry’s breathing was heavy as he searched for Crystal in the club, but she was chewing Jay’s ear off about something or other. ‘Not here.’

Liberty grabbed his hand and led him to the office. In the confines of the windowless room at the back, the stench of alcohol poured off Harry. Liberty cleared a stack of boxes from one of the chairs. Five-speed vibrators. Five speeds! Like gears in a car. Next, they’d make them with cruise control. Harry flopped down, no longer smiling.

Liberty perched on the edge of the desk. ‘What’s up?’

‘I need …’

Liberty waited but Harry put his face in his hands. At last she put a hand on his shoulder and he looked up, tears in his eyes. ‘You can talk to me, Harry,’ she told him. ‘We’re family.’

A crash came from the club beyond the office door. Then shouts. Liberty put up a finger to Harry and went to check on what was happening. Next to the stage, a table had been overturned and a man was on the floor, howling like a banshee. A small crowd gathered around him and Mel barged her way through. Likely a works do or birthday party. Mixed group all wearing T-shirts stating they were ‘On it till we vomit’.

‘If you haven’t got him up and in a chair in the next three seconds, you’re all out,’ Mel shouted. The group laughed and jeered. ‘And if you lot think I’m joking, just try me.’

Two women in the group hauled their fallen friend to his feet, and a bloke with a Glo-Stick tucked behind his ear put the table back in its place.

Mel nodded at Liberty. Crisis averted. But when Liberty turned back to the office, Harry was already on his way out. She hurried after him.

‘Got to go, Lib,’ he said. ‘Feel a bit rough, to be honest.’

‘Not half as bad as you’ll feel later.’

He tried a smile and failed as Crystal appeared at his side, face like thunder.

‘Harry’s had one too many,’ said Liberty.

Crystal narrowed her eyes, grabbed her husband’s sleeve and dragged him out of the Cherry. Liberty frowned as she watched them leave. Something was most definitely not right.

The kid was face down on the tarmac by the slide, eyes still open. A few uniforms kept the locals at bay while SOCO set up their forensic tent.

DI Rose Angel scanned the onlookers, who had congregated around the rusty swings. Mostly youngers working for the local crew. When she moved in their direction, they evaporated. No intention of talking to the police.

Behind her, Redman chuckled. Rose ignored him.

A woman stayed on in the park, watching the show. Age difficult to say. People round here didn’t wear well.

‘She won’t talk to you,’ said Redman.

‘We’ll see.’

Coppers like Redman annoyed her. All this-is-the-way-it-is schtick. A boy, not more than fifteen years old, was dead just feet from where they were standing. If that didn’t make you want to do things differently, it was time to get another job.

As Rose approached, the woman looked off into the distance, but she didn’t move.

‘Know him?’ Rose asked, with a jerk of the head towards the body.

The woman shrugged, still refusing to make eye contact. It was a windy night and a crisps packet blew across the park and landed at her feet. Cheese-and-onion. She ground down on it with the toe of her trainer, as if it were a cigarette.

‘He’s a younger, right?’ said Rose.

‘Suppose so,’ said the woman.

‘Any idea what happened?’

‘Do you care?’ the woman asked.

‘Why wouldn’t I?’

The woman zipped her fleece right up to the top, shoved her hands deep into her pockets. She still had the crisps packet trapped under her foot. ‘I’ve got a lad his age,’ she said. ‘Wants to go to college next year.’

Rose nodded. ‘Good for him.’

The woman lifted her foot and the packet flew away past the slide, eventually getting trapped in the trees at the perimeter. ‘These kids.’ She stopped and ran her thumb across her bottom lip. There was a heart tattoo on the knuckle. A blue DIY job. ‘They don’t think.’

Rose eyed the woman. It was all there in her face. Worry. Fear. Exhaustion. ‘And what do you think?’ she asked.

‘Not much if I can help it.’

‘Was this just an argument that got out of hand? Or is something else going on here?’ asked Rose.

The woman buried her nose in the funnel of her fleece so that when she spoke, the words were muffled. ‘This whole place is getting out of hand.’ Then she moved away, head down, shoulders hunched against the cold. When she reached the gate, she went through it and turned right into the estate without a backward glance at the body.

Empire Rise was deserted, most of the houses in darkness, the occupants tucked up in bed, alarms set for half seven. When Liberty opened her front door, she was surprised to find Sol still up, stirring a pan of chilli at the stove. Wordlessly, he ladled a helping into a bowl and handed it to her. She grabbed a spoon from the drawer and began to eat still on her feet. ‘Good day?’ she asked.

He shrugged and poured them both a glass of red wine. She’d already had quite a few slugs of JD, but didn’t say no. He didn’t ask after her day. Never did. It wasn’t that he didn’t care, more that nothing good could come of it. He might have resigned from the force, but he was still a copper at heart.

Liberty put down her bowl and slid over to him. ‘Tired?’

‘Not really.’

She kissed him on the mouth. ‘Good.’

‘You need to brush your teeth,’ he said.

‘You need to shut up.’

She kissed him again when her mobile sprang to life.

‘Saved by the bell,’ said Sol.

They both knew she would check it. Caller ID read ‘Frankie’.

As Sol headed for the stairs, Liberty called her brother back. He was doing well. Off the drugs. But these things could all slip in a second. He’d been clean before only to slide into a deeper and murkier pit of carnage.


‘It’s late,’ she said. ‘You okay?’

‘Yeah.’ His voice sounded clear. No hint of a pill or a cheeky line. ‘Bit of a problem up on the Crosshills.’ Car lights flooded the kitchen from the street outside, the thump of drum and bass seeping from an open window. ‘Kid got stabbed.’

Liberty’s stomach flipped. ‘Dead?’


The music stopped, but the car still idled in the street. ‘Who did it?’

‘Dunno,’ said Frankie. ‘But don’t assume it’s some turf war, Lib.’

‘I’m not.’

Frankie laughed. ‘You always assume that.’ Actually, she didn’t always assume that, but she did always fear that. ‘More than likely some row over a pair of trainers. You know how stupid these kids are.’

‘Find out.’

‘I will.’

She heard a shout and a laugh in the background. ‘Where are you?’

‘A crack house up on Carter Street.’

‘Not funny.’

‘You’re so easy to wind up.’ He snorted. ‘It’s the telly.’

‘Ha-chuffing-ha,’ she said, and hung up.

She knew she could trust Frankie to get to the bottom of what was going on and willed herself not to stress about it before she had all the information.

Upstairs, the toilet flushed, and she pushed thoughts of the family business to one side and made for the stairs.

‘Just so you know,’ she shouted up to Sol, ‘I’m taking out my dentures.’

Sol was like a dog. Never fully asleep. All those years on the job, keeping eyes and ears open had fucked with his adrenal glands.

His first wife had been the same and liked to knock them both into unconsciousness with sex and vodka. The second had tried to help him with lotions and candles and crystals (you’d think that people selling bits of purple rock would soon go out of business but, no, there were whole shops full of that sort of crap).

Liberty just accepted that sometimes sleep came and sometimes it didn’t. Bad dreams plagued her because she’d seen her mother chucked off a fifth-floor balcony. Lavender oil wasn’t going to fix that.

He watched her now, fast on, face buried in the pillow, and hoped she was somewhere far away from her childhood. He moved a dark tendril of hair from her shoulder with his finger. There was a round scar on her skin where she said she’d picked off a chickenpox scab. Jacqueline Greenwood wouldn’t have been the type to bother using calamine on her kids, that was for sure.

He felt protective of Liberty, in a way he hadn’t about Angie or Natasha. Which was bloody ridiculous, …





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