Deadly Virtues by Jo Bannister is a standalone thriller set in the town of Norbold, England (available March 19, 2013).
The town of Norbold, England is famous for its low crime rate, thanks to the zero-tolerance policy of Chief Superintendent John Fountain. And Norbold’s newest police recruit, Hazel Best, is happy to help keep it that way. But numbers never tell the whole story, do they?
Jerome Cardy knew he was going to die. He also knew that it would be made to appear like an accident. He might not be able to prevent it, but Jerome was determined to make sure that someone knew what was going to happen—even if that someone was Gabriel Ash, a recovering mental patient with a concussion lying with his dog in a jail cell next to him.
After Jerome is found beaten to death by a fellow inmate in another cell, Ash is unable to forget Jerome’s last awkward words to him: “I had a dog once. Othello. That was its name. Othello.” Certain there is a hidden message in these words, Ash is determined to discover the truth. But it won't be easy—no one believes his account of that night. And Hazel Best must decide whether pursuing the truth is worth her career.
Jerome Cardy knew he was going to die the moment he saw the other car in his rearview mirror. He knew it wasn’t going to stop: it was already too close, if it was braking at all it was too little too late, and he had nowhere left to go. As soon as the lights changed, a milk tanker the size of Rutland had moved into the junction. With enough milk to protect a generation from rickets in front and the big silver hatchback coming up fast behind, all Jerome could do was brace himself for the inevitable. He knew what was going to happen. He’d known for weeks. He could have got out while there was still time. But he’d had too much to lose. He’d told himself that it might never happen. That the future isn’t set in stone. That if he was careful, if he kept out of trouble, no one could touch him. If he played it cool, stayed out of reach, he might never have to choose between the love of his life and, well, his life. . . .
And now it was too late to choose. The choice had been made for him. All Jerome could do was close his eyes, make himself small behind the wheel, and wait.
The impact, when it came, was less than he’d been expecting. Jerome’s car stayed where it was, held by its own handbrake; the milk tanker found the gap it had been waiting for and moved o?; Jerome rocked for a moment in his seat belt, then settled back, still waiting.
When nothing else happened, cautiously he opened one eye.
It hadn’t been enough of an accident to stop the rush-hour traffic. The cars that had been in line behind him were now carefully edging past and on their way home. Not so much an accident as a shunt: if nobody’s hurt, you exchange details and you, too, get on your way. Jerome wasn’t hurt. He turned slowly in his seat to look behind him.
The other driver was a middle-aged woman, her mouth shocked to a dark round O. She made no move, nor did her expression change, as he slowly got out of his car and walked back to her. “Are you all right?”
She blinked, and went from total paralysis to frantic hyperactivity without passing through normal. She didn’t answer him but dived into the well of the passenger seat, scrabbling for her handbag. “We have to call the police! Have you got a phone? I have a phone—in here somewhere. I can’t ?nd it! Have you got a phone? We have to call the police.”
“Well, actually,” said Jerome gently, “we don’t. Unless you’re hurt. I’m not hurt, and nobody else was involved. We can just exchange details and let the insurance sort it out.”
Her eyes stretched almost as wide as her mouth. She was a well-dressed, middle-aged, middle-class woman who might never have been in an accident before. The little card from her insurers that told her what to do in the event of an incident hadn’t warned her how distressed she’d be, how difficult she’d ?nd it to act logically or even to make sense.
Jerome said again, “Are you hurt? Do we need an ambulance?”
After a moment she shook her head. “No. You?”
“I’m ?ne,” he assured her. “Listen, why don’t we park your car, I’ll drive you home, and we’ll swap details over a cup of tea?”
It was as if she was drowning and he’d thrown her a lifeline, but she didn’t like to grab it because she didn’t know where it had been. “Can we? Don’t we have to call the police?”
He shook his head. “It’s a minor traffic accident. Nobody’s hurt—nobody’s drunk—nobody’s committed an o?ense. We pass it over to the insurers. I’ll park your car if you don’t want to.” He opened her door and extended a courteous hand.
Her name was Evelyn Wiltshire. She was a middle-aged, middle-class Englishwoman, and she was also shocked, which may have been part of it, but mainly she just wasn’t used to young black men trying to take her by the hand. She recoiled instinctively. “Police! We need to call the police. I have a phone, somewhere. . . .”
Jerome fought to keep calm. If he snapped at her, if he frightened her, the opportunity to sort this out in a civilized fashion would be gone. And he had much more to lose than she did. “My name is Jerome. I’m a second-year law student. Really, I wouldn’t tell you this was all right if it wasn’t. Why would I? The accident wasn’t my fault. It’s not me the police will accuse of driving carelessly.”
Mrs. Wiltshire had ?nally found the phone. She stared at it as if it might bite. She stared at Jerome, ditto. His future hung by a thread.
She’d been brought up to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t in her own best interests. She started to dial.
Jerome felt himself grow desperate. “If you’re worried about the cost, why don’t we just ?x our own dents? We don’t even have to involve the insurers, if you don’t want to. There really isn’t that much damage. Is that all right? Can we do that?”
“But . . . I ran into you. . . .”
“Yes. That’s okay. My father owns a garage—he’ll sort me out. There’s no need to involve the police. Is that all right?”
For a moment longer it hung in the balance. Then Mrs. Wiltshire swallowed. Fifty years of middle-class morality weighed more with her than her own immediate wishes. “No, I’m sorry. I’m going to call the police.”
Jerome was backing away before she’d ?nished dialing. “I’m sorry, too. I really am sorry. But I can’t wait.” He ran back to his car and drove o? without knowing or even caring where he was driving to, only that he was putting distance between himself and the scene of the accident. Such a little accident. Such a trivial reason to die.
“I see you took my advice.” The woman had a nose meant for pince-nez: sharp as a blade, with a pair of diamond gray eyes above. Everything about her—the nose, the glasses, the tailored suit she wore, the way she scraped her dark hair away from her face and pinned it into a ruthless bun—said severe. But as she glanced at the dog curled up on her rug, she smiled, and the smile knocked ten years o? her age and softened her face in unexpected ways. Her name was Laura Fry, and she was a trauma therapist. The man looked at the dog, too. As if he couldn’t quite remember where it had come from. “Yes.”
“Is it helping?”
He considered. “I’m not sure.”
“It’s a nice dog. I’d have thought you’d enjoy the company.”
“Being alone can become a habit that’s hard to break.”
Laura Fry smiled again. “Gabriel, this process would be more useful if you didn’t spend words as if they were fifty-pound notes.”
The man blinked, managed a pale flicker of a grin. “Sorry.” Then, as if he was trying to cooperate, to enter into the spirit of the thing: “I talk to the dog.”
“Good.” Laura nodded reassuringly. “Talking to the dog is good.”
A faint, fragile frown. “Is it?”
“Of course. She likes you talking to her, doesn’t she?”
“And you feel better for talking to her?”
Again, he had to think. “I suppose so.”
“Then where’s the downside? Unless you start thinking she’s talking back.” He didn’t return her sly grin, so she pressed on. “Gabriel, this was always going to be hard. We both knew that. Getting a dog isn’t going to turn your life around— make you forget what happened, or make it hurt any less. It’s a dog, not a magician.
“But it will help. You need to ?nd ways of relating to the world again, and looking after something that needs you is a start. It doesn’t actually matter whether you like dogs or not. She’s your responsibility now. She was a stray dog with nothing, not even much time left, until you came along. Now she has a home and someone to love. You don’t even have to love her in return. A square meal every day and she’ll think you love her, and that’s what counts.”
“Then what’s the point?” His brow was creased, as if he was genuinely trying to understand. He was a man in his late thirties with rather a lot of dark curly hair and creases that looked like laughter lines around his deep-set brown eyes. They’d been there a long time. He hadn’t laughed much recently.
Laura elevated a pencil-sharp eyebrow. “Apart from the fact that because of you she lives instead of dying? Looking after things is good for us. It makes us feel needed. It makes us think about something beyond our own hurts. It forces us into some kind of routine, and routine is good, too. You’re eating better, aren’t you? I can see. You make her meal, and then you get something for yourself. She needs walking, so you walk her—fresh air, exercise, nod an acknowledgment at other people doing the same thing. You were hardly leaving the house, and now you are. That’s the point.”
She looked down at the dog again, all nose and legs, curled on the rug as if posing for an illuminated manuscript. “What do you call her?”
“Ah.” Just that.
Gabriel Ash looked at her warily. “That’s significant?”
“Possibly. Do you know why people talk to dogs?” He waited. “Because they feel silly talking to themselves. It isn’t always easy to ?nd a human confidant. The dog is an uncritical listener”—the diamond gray eyes twinkled mischievously—“a bit like a therapist. Talking to a dog is like holding a conversation with yourself— with another aspect of yourself. The fact that you call your dog Patience suggests to me that, somewhere inside yourself, you recognize the fact that patience is what you need. To be gentle with yourself, to give yourself time to come to terms with what happened. You could have called her Spotty, or Snowball.”
He almost ?inched as he looked down at the animal at his feet. “If I’d called her Snowball, she’d never have spoken to me again.”
He darted a furtive sideways look, as if he’d let something slip, something that would cause him trouble. But then, he always looked as if he was afraid of causing trouble. “Again with the ‘ah’?”
“You think she wouldn’t like it because it’s an animal’s name?”
“Because it’s not a name at all— it’s a thing. Like a chair, ora tablecloth. If we want animals as companions, why would we name them after inanimate objects? It’s not . . . respectful. Giving them a proper name—a person’s name— makes you think of them as someone rather than something. Encourages you to treat them decently.”
He saw the way Laura Fry was looking at him and rocked back in his chair, his gaunt face catching the light from the window. “And now you think that because I chose a bitch and gave her a woman’s name, I’m thinking of her as a wife substitute.”
The therapist shook her head. “Not at all. Gabriel, there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with how you’re feeling or what you’re doing. Something terrible happened in your life, and you’re struggling to deal with it, and anything that helps, even a little bit, is a good thing. Getting a dog is a good thing. Caring about her is a good thing.
“You’re not mad. You’re not even slightly unhinged. In the normal way of things you and I would never have met. All I’m trying to do, all these conversations are about, is to help you find a way of managing what happened without it destroying you. Whatever you call her, if the dog gets you out of your chair and makes you go into the kitchen, and then makes you walk as far as the park, she’s already had a positive in?uence.” She leaned down and patted the white dog.
“She doesn’t . . .” He bit his lip.
“What?” He wasn’t going to answer; she pressed him. “What, Gabriel?”
“I’m not sure she likes being patted.”
“No? Well, in that case you chose her name well—she’s very patient.” But she had the grace to leave the dog alone.
She saw the pair of them out. Her o?ce looked over Norbold’s Jubilee Park, a view she enjoyed, even if most of her clients were too wrapped up in their own troubles to appreciate it. “Next Wednesday, yes?”
Behind the pince-nez Laura Fry’s sharp eyes were concerned and almost a?ectionate. “I’m always afraid that you won’t come. That you’ll decide therapy is for wimps and you can manage without. That you’d rather manage without. You’ve thought about it, haven’t you?”
He wouldn’t lie. “I was never much good at sharing. Even . . . before.”
“I know that. I know these sessions are a trial to you. All I can tell you is, you are getting better. Stronger. I can see you getting stronger.”
“Yes? Then why—” He stopped.
He looked across the expanse of the park, the trees in their fresh spring livery, so he wouldn’t have to look at her. “Then why do I feel afraid all the time?”
He was a client, and Laura Fry didn’t weep for clients. She helped them instead. She said softly, “Because the wounds are still raw. Because the situation is unresolved. Because not knowing is worse than knowing the worst. Because not enough time has passed yet for you to pack the hurt and the uncertainty away where you can get on with your life without constantly tripping over them. Because you need”—she looked at the dog, now tugging with gentle insistence at her lead—“patience. You won’t always feel how you feel today.”
He nodded, and walked away and didn’t look back. Not until he judged she’d have gone back inside did he wipe his sleeve across his eyes.
Jerome Cardy was heading for the motorway. From there, all England was before him. He should have done this before. He could call, explain. She could join him. They’d be safe. Anywhere but Norbold, they’d be safe. He almost made it. He could actually see high-sided vehicles on the motorway overpass, to his right and maybe a mile ahead, when the police car swung out of a side street and into line behind him, and his heart shot into his throat.
For ten or ?fteen seconds, driving with in?nite care and watching it in his rearview mirror, Jerome tried to tell himself it was a coincidence. A patrol car, patrolling. That everyone experiences a momentary anxiety when a police car comes up behind them, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s just doing what it does, showing the ?ag and deterring people from dropping litter and murdering their neighbors.
But at the end of those ten or fifteen seconds the police car didn’t turn away and vanish as mysteriously as it had appeared. It turned on its siren and ?ashing blue light, and when Jerome looked back in dread, he saw the officer in the left-hand seat signaling him to pull over.
There was no time to think. Either he did as he was told or he made a run for it. No one who knew him, no one who knew what had happened at the junction, would have thought there was any question about what he would do. But then, almost none of them knew what he was facing. What falling into the hands of Norbold’s police would mean. And the motorway was less than a mile away. All England waiting . . .
Like the woman in the silver hatchback, Jerome was a law-abiding citizen. It went against every tenet to run from the police. If there’s been a misunderstanding, you stop and sort it out. Running only makes you look guilty. He swallowed. He passed a hand across his mouth. And then, acting on purest instinct, the instinct for self-preservation, he ?oored the accelerator.
Once again luck was not with him, so the escape attempt was over almost before it had begun. It was the middle of the evening—people heading out formed a bottleneck at the approach to the motorway. Tra?c slowed to ?fteen miles an hour. You can’t make a dash for freedom at ?fteen miles an hour, but neither was he prepared to risk lives by driving up onto the pavement or against the traffic ?ow. Jerome Cardy clenched his ?sts on the wheel, wiped the sweat o?his brow with his cu?, and, feeling sick, pulled over.
Half a mile away, in a shady corner of Jubilee Park where the steps of the war memorial provided the youth of Nor-bold with a convenient stage to drink themselves stupid, a small gang of teenagers was indulging in a bit of dummy baiting. It wasn’t that they nurtured any particular dislike for the man with the white dog. They didn’t even know his name. They saw him most days, but he didn’t bother them. He didn’t seem to bother anybody. All they knew of him was that he walked his dog in the park every morning and every evening, rain or shine, and muttered to himself as he went.
It was enough. They were between about ?fteen and nineteen years old, they’d given up on school not because—as they’d told friends and family— it was stupid but because they’d come to believe that they were, and they didn’t see any way that their lives were ever going to improve. On top of that they’d run out of cider. One of them grinned a vacuous grin and nodded at the man with the dog, and the others hauled themselves o?the stone steps and followed. Partly to see what happened, partly to make sure that something did.
Gabriel Ash didn’t so much mutter to himself as talk to his dog. If this was indeed a sign of madness, a great many of us would be eating our meals with plastic cutlery, but in fact it’s nothing of the kind. It can be a sign of loneliness. Or just that your social circle is such that there’s more satisfaction in talking to a dog.
Patience saw the group approaching before Ash did. She turned toward them with a low growl. She wasn’t a big dog, but there was a lean athleticism to her that emphasized those features hounds have always been bred for: speed and bite. The boys broke stride before they came within range of the long muzzle, which was nothing more than teeth covered by a curtain of lip, currently lifting at one corner.
“Hey, dummy—your dog’s growling at me!”
Gabriel kept walking and didn’t look around. He didn’t want trouble. He’d already had all the trouble one man could cope with.
“Hey, dummy, I’m talking to you! Your dog’s growling atme. What you going do about it?”
He still didn’t look around. “Take her home,” he said quietly. “Right now.”
“Shouldn’t have brought it out in public, a dangerous dog like that.”
“She isn’t dangerous, and she’s on a lead.”
“That’s a pit bull terrier, that is. Them’s illegal.”
Another voice, oddly reasonable: “No, it’s a lurcher.”
The boy who had spoken ?rst turned on the one who’d joined in. “Who asked your opinion? Anyway, what’s a lurcher?”
“It’s a sporting dog. Gypsies use them to chase rabbits. Mostly got a bit of greyhound and a bit of terrier in them.”
At least he’d diverted attention away from Ash. His friends were staring at him as if they thought that knowledge, any knowl
edge, was a dangerous thing. “What makes you such a frigging expert?”
“My granddad used to breed lurchers. That one’s got a bit of pointer in it. He’d have called it a ‘gentleman’s lurcher.’ ”
The older youth was shaking his head darkly, perplexed and disapproving in equal measure. “You’re a constant frigging wonder to me, Saturday. Mostly, that I’ve known you for nine months without punching your frigging lights out. Now, ?nd me a stick. I’ll teach this dummy to bring his dangerous dog into our park.”
The boy called, apparently, Saturday took a step back, shoving his ?sts deep into the pockets of his battered jeans. “You don’t need a stick. Just thump him. Like you usually do.”
“I need a stick,” said the older boy with a kind of heavy insistence, “because before I thump him I need to put that thing out of action. Get it?”
Saturday’s eyes flared unhappily. “My granddad says, ‘Only a coward takes a stick to a dog.’ ”
“Yeah? Well, I’ll thump your granddad as well, then, all right? Now ?nd me a stick.”
“No!” But before his rebellion cost him too much, he added hurriedly, “But I’ll hold the dog while you thump him. That do?”
The older boy looked at Patience, looked at Saturday, looked at Ash. “You’ll hold the dog? That dog?”
“While we thump him?”
“What if you let it go?”
“What if it bites you?”
Saturday considered. “Thump him quickly. If it bites me, Trucker, damn sure I’m letting go.”
“Oh, for frig’s sake!”
But Saturday was already moving toward Ash, one hand out for the lead. “Give me your dog, mister,” he said softly. “Otherwise she’s going to get hurt.”
Ash held his gaze for a moment. He looked like the rest of them—maybe sixteen years old, thin, and none too clean—but there was something in his eyes, a spark of humanity, that made Ash think maybe he could trust him. After a moment he proffered the lead.
Saturday nodded and took it. “Come on, girl, you come with me. Your dad’s going to be . . . busy . . . for a minute or two.” He led her—growling and whining her protests, digging in her long paws and leaning all her weight into her collar—behind the group as it split and then gathered around the man.
He’d told Laura Fry that he was afraid all the time. But perhaps this wasn’t what he was afraid of. Or perhaps he’d lived with the fear long enough to learn a kind of fatalism. He made no attempt to evade what was coming, either to escape or to fight back. He stood with his head bowed and his hands spread slightly from his body, and he waited.
He was a grown man; even now he was probably the match of any of these youths. But they were eight, and they hemmed him in so tightly that no one passing on the road or on foot through the park would have seen what was happening.
So there really was no need for the ?rst blow to come from behind. That was Trucker, of course. Though Saturday couldn’t actually see him through the press of backs, it was always Trucker who struck the ?rst blow, and usually from behind. He winced, bracing himself against the dog’s urgent e?orts to free herself.
Ash thought he was ready. He knew he was going to take a beating. But a lot worse things had happened to him, and part of him didn’t even care.
But he was wrong. He wasn’t ready for the direction the assault came from, the lack of any warning, or the sheer vicious force of the blow. It took him in the small of the back and dropped him, gasping, to his knees, and down there it was only a matter of moments before they started using him as a football. He curled up tight, trying to take the worst of the assault on his arms and legs, but eight is a lot of people. Sixteen ?sts and sixteen feet. Half a minute of it and he couldn’t have risen to save his life. A minute more and there might have been nothing left to save.
Even Saturday, who’d seen it before, was startled by the mindless violence of the attack. He knew Trucker had a nasty temper and the others would follow where he led, but he hadn’t known they were capable of murder. In his head, in one of the long, terrible seconds while he watched, he amended that to we. If he hadn’t been holding this dog, he’d have been in there, too, doing what the rest of them were doing. Beating a man senseless. And then, if nothing came to stop them, beating him to death. For nothing. No reason, except that they were bored.
He looked about him, for once in his life hoping that a police patrol might cruise by. There were more of them than there used to be—it was called “zero-tolerance policing,” and apparently it went down well with the tax-payers—but not here, not now. The only other person in the park was an old lady walking a Westie, and she was shu?ing away in the opposite direction as quickly as her lisle stockings would carry her.
Which left him and the dog. He thought about it for another crippling second; then he shrugged. “See what you can do,” he whispered, and dropped the lead.
Then, with a ?ash of foresight, he let out a yell. “Ow! You . . . bitch! Sorry, Trucker, she got away from me. . . .”
Impossible to judge if this attempt to cover himself had been registered, because before he had the last words out the loosed dog struck into the melee like an Exocet missile with teeth.
These are civilized days. Even the wolves around our hearths are for the most part pretty well behaved, with the result that most people have never seen a real, serious, mean-it dog attack and have no idea the destructive force of the canine mouth. Tacticians who talk about bringing power to a point could hardly find a better example than in the dentistry of the domestic dog. The canines, up front, sharp and penetrating to wound and grip; the serried ranks of the carnassials, farther back, where the shearing power of the jaw is greater, angled and honed to strip flesh o? bone and then to splinter the bone. Two or three times a year, due to bad breeding, bad handling, or maybe just badness, somebody’s dog leaves the reservation—stops begging for biscuits, running after Frisbees, and Dying for England—and rips a child’s throat out. And everyone expresses horri?ed astonishment. But that’s what a dog is: a killing machine. You only have to look at the anatomy. The wonder is not that once in a blue moon it fulfills its potential, but that it happens so incredibly seldom. That an animal that could quite literally take your hand o?almost always chooses to lick it instead.
The lurcher bitch Patience made the transition from faithful pet to apex predator in the time it took her to cross ten meters, which was about a second, and she arrived fangs-?rst at the wall of vicious aggression surrounding her owner.
A human backside is only soft ?esh lightly upholstered. Her teeth met in the middle.
In another second the accompanying sound track, which had been grunts of e?ort and hoots of derision, turned to howls of pain and frantic yells of “Gerrito?ame!” A space opened up as the gang abandoned its murderous sport and redirected its energies to self-defense. A few of the braver ones swung a leg at the flashing dog, but they were far too slow, presenting only another target for her to snap at in passing. The space widened, the little mob lost focus and organization, and then suddenly they were fleeing, overtaking one another in the desire to put distance between themselves and the furious animal. Saturday ran with them. A few seconds more and there was only Gabriel Ash, lying on the ground, bloody and unmoving, and Patience, prowling a defensive circle around him, long jaws panting wide, the white hairs still erect between her shoulder blades.
From the edge of the park, the two-tone of a fast-approaching police car. The old lady with the Westie had had a mobile phone in her handbag. Ignoring the signs, the driver came the direct route across the grass and his companion got out, edging cautiously toward the injured man while keeping her eyes constantly on the dog. But Patience, as if she understood, sat down and let her come.
Copyright ©2013 Jo Bannister
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Jo Bannister began her career as a journalist after leaving school at sixteen to work on a weekly newspaper. She was shortlisted for several prestigious awards and worked as an editor for some years before leaving to pursue her writing full time. She lives in Northern Ireland, and spends most of her spare time with her horse and dog, or clambering over archaeological sites. Her last thriller, Death in High Places, was nominated for the RT Reviewers' Choice Best Book Award.