J. S. Law Excerpt: The Fear Within

The Fear Within by J. S. Law is a high-octane military thriller where a teenage sailor disappears on HMS Defiance, an infamous closed case reopens, and Lt. Danielle Lewis fights for truth and survival (available February 6, 2018).

After events on board the submarine HMS Tenacity, Lieutenant “Dan” Lewis of the Royal Navy’s Kill Team was warned not to pursue those responsible. She should walk away, stop investigating, but her thirst for justice means she can’t let it go.

But even as Dan defies the order, continuing to track a sailor on the run, her investigative skills are needed on a new case. A young naval Wren has gone missing from the warship HMS Defiance. Last seen going on board, but never seen leaving, there is no trace of the girl and Dan must work her way through a web of witness accounts to uncover what might motivate her to run, or what might motivate a predator to take her.

Following in the wake of the missing girl, Dan soon closes in on her quarry, but is forced to question whether she is the one who was being hunted all along.

1

Sunday, January 25

“Boss, just wait.”

Dan felt her shoulders tense at the name.

There was only one person in the Royal Navy, and possibly the whole world, who called her that and got away with it.

It felt like a man’s name, something the boys called each other as a compromise between the formality the navy required of them and the friendship they developed from social outings to the local pubs and clubs.

“Boss. Wait!”

The second time it sounded like a command.

Dan stopped and paused, then turned slowly to face him.

John Granger had called her Boss when they’d first worked together on the Hamilton investigation, too, but that seemed like a lifetime ago.

In the beginning, she’d felt too new, maybe too young and inexperienced, to call him out on it. She hadn’t wanted to rock the boat with the more experienced master at arms; and she may have liked it, too, a little, but not much. Now it’d just gone on too long to try to change it, and it also signaled that he was starting to relax around her again, that things were returning to whatever normal had once been. Dan wanted that.

She waited for him to realize that she didn’t like his tone, but he stared back at her, defiant.

“I’m going to go and look,” she said.

Dan saw a flash of anger spark in John’s eyes, watched his lips set hard and his eyebrows furrow.

“Just wait for backup. He’s dangerous,” said John through gritted teeth.

“You go and call in the cavalry. I’m only going to confirm they’re here.”

Dan crouched and ran along a fence that separated the open parking area from a small wooded copse. She could no longer hear the cars that were motoring down the main road through Hampshire’s New Forest, and the sound of her feet crunching on the loose stones and broken asphalt of the parking lot seemed amplified against the near silence around her.

After a moment’s pause, John moved in the other direction, heading back down the lane that’d led them to this place, to where they’d parked the car and where they’d last had a signal on their mobile phones.

Dan chose to ignore the little shake of his head just before she’d turned away.

Single-story industrial units framed the parking area on three sides, and Dan ran low across the mouth of the large courtyard, heading toward the corner lot and a vacant shop set on the very end of the row.

She hugged the fence that ran next to her for what little cover it might offer. She reached the building and walked slowly across the short gap between fence and brick wall.

The slatted shutters of the shop were down and locked, the shop and all the other units around looked long unused, abandoned.

Dan peeked around the edge of the grimy shutters and looked through the slim gaps into the shop. She could see no movement, not at first, then Dan saw her; almost naked, utterly filthy, with streaks of darkness running down her pale skin. Only the rusty red tinge when the light caught her just right showed what the smears were.

The woman’s hands were bound behind her back. Her skinny shoulder bones pushed against her skin, tenting it, prodding out at impossible angles.

Dan checked behind her.

John was several hundred meters away now, across the parking lot. He was moving quickly and Dan knew he wouldn’t want to be out of sight for long.

She looked back through the shutters.

Evelyn wasn’t moving, and her husband, David Simmons, was nowhere to be seen.

She turned again just in time to see John disappear from view.

The sky was a dull gray and the light was leaving, the sun ducking behind the building opposite and presenting it to her as a silhouette.

She looked along the wall, toward the back of the shop.

There was a small red hatchback car parked off to one side. Only the back end of it was visible, sticking out from behind some bushes and a rusted metal dumpster that was overflowing with building debris and other rubbish. The car had been well hidden, would be almost invisible unless you were there specifically to look for it.

It’d taken time to find the car since the moment of pure fate when a half-dressed child ran out onto the road and nearly beneath Dan’s tires while she drove to work; the girl had stood crying and staring back toward a house set into a terrace almost identical to Dan’s.

The child was hysterical. Dan managed to talk the girl into the back of her car. Another worried passerby waited with her while Dan went into the house to see what had happened.

The social worker would have had no chance.

Amanda Collins, a naval petty officer and Armed Forces social worker, had been sent to investigate concerns of domestic violence in one of the military families that lived in the small housing development near Dan’s own home.

Dan could see from the patterns of blood that Collins had been set upon as soon as she’d stepped into the kitchen. She’d later learn that David Simmons was supposed to have been at work but that he’d hidden in the garden shed, suspicious and watching, before entering the house by the back door and beating Amanda Collins unconscious with a claw hammer.

When the sheer volume of blood made it impossible to grip the wooden shaft, he’d continued to bludgeon her with his bare hands.

He’d dragged her limp body to the raised threshold of the backdoor and had used the concrete step to stamp repeatedly on her head. By some miracle she had yet to succumb to her injuries.

Then he’d fled, taking his new wife with him.

The hunt for David Simmons had spun up quickly, a multiforce effort to track him down.

He had a prior record, but the law meant that Evelyn may not have known about it. He also had served in the British army for five years, joining relatively late, when he was already in his midtwenties.

With nothing else to go on, Dan had pulled his service records and found the address—not of a house, but a shop.

It was listed as his next-of-kin address at the time of his joining.

His family still owned the unit. They’d sold food and general supplies to the seasonal RV crowd, complementing the other units around them, which had also catered to this trade.

Now the place was deserted, and it looked as if nobody came here at all anymore, except those who’d plastered the graffiti over the walls, doors, and shutters.

Dan looked back at Evelyn and then around in John’s direction.

He’d raise the alarm and be back any second.

She ran again, crouched low, and made for the red car. She looked through the windows, felt the hood for heat, and decided it hadn’t been driven recently.

The leaves strewn across the windshield and the beginnings of spiderwebs growing out from behind the sideview mirrors and fenders showed it’d been some days since this vehicle had been moved; he must have come straight here after the attack.

She bent down and screwed the dust cap off the rear tire. She pulled her house key from her pocket and used the end to compress the valve, gritting her teeth at the noise the air made as it hissed out and the wheel moved slowly toward the ground. When it was done, she moved around to the other side and did the same, until the metal of the rear wheels was separated from the gravel only by the layer of flat black rubber. He wouldn’t be driving away from them this time.

She stood up, nervous, looking at the building and then checking behind her. Then she went back toward the fence to wait for John.

He was on his way, running along the fence line toward her, trying to stay low.

“I’ll kill her.”

The words echoed around the silent spaces, vibrating off the walls and disappearing into the trees.

“Stand still.”

The voice was loud, violent in its delivery, and Dan saw John stop, stand straight, and look up toward the roof of the shop unit.

Dan froze, unsure if she’d also been spotted, whether the sound of the escaping air had given her away, then she moved quickly away from the fence and pressed herself against the wall, hoping that she couldn’t be seen.

“If you move any closer, I’ll flay her.”

“I won’t move,” said John. “Relax, David, just relax. I only came to talk to you.”

“No, you didn’t. You want to arrest me for sorting out the interfering bitch who accessed my house without my permission. Even though she was trespassing. Even though she was trying to talk my wife into doing things she didn’t want to do, trying to break up my family for things that aren’t any of her business. It was self-defense. Defending myself, my home, and my family from her.”

“Amanda’s in a bad way, David, I can’t say different; you really hurt her.”

“She was trying to hurt me,” said Simmons. “Trying to take what’s mine.”

Dan couldn’t see Simmons and he hadn’t yet addressed her, so she assumed she hadn’t been seen.

John was looking up toward the roof. He wouldn’t dare glance at Dan and give her away. But his right hand, the one nearest to Dan, was at his waist and held flat toward her. He was telling her not to move.

Dan ducked away and followed the line of the shop wall toward the back, past the car.

The front door of the shop and all the windows were locked and shuttered, Dan had seen that. They were padlocked from the outside, so Simmons hadn’t been using them for entry or egress.

She turned the corner, leaving John out of sight, and saw a rear entrance.

The door had been blue once but was now dull gray with cracked paint flaking down from it, the undercoat showing through where the paint had conceded to time and weather. The wood was buckled at the bottom, sticking out three inches, so that Dan could see the dark inside through the gap. Much of the black paint on the handle was still bonded to the metal, though it looked gray, dirty, and worn—most of it snuggled in thick cobwebs. In the center of the handle, however, she could see that the debris had been cleared away. There were marks, greasy fingerprints, where a hand had touched the dry, cold metal.

Dan reached out and leaned down on the handle. She was determined to open the door slowly, soundlessly. She could see that the wood was swollen, could see on the floor that there were marks where the metal weatherstrip had dragged repeatedly against the concrete as the door was opened and closed.

“David. Evie and Eric are safe. I thought you’d want to know that,” said John, his voice echoing around the space.

Simmons laughed in a way that broke Dan’s concentration and made her shiver.

“I think we both know I couldn’t give a shit about them kids. They were ninety percent of what was wrong with their bloody mother. Always fussing around them, wrapping them in cotton wool, neglecting what should’ve been her priorities. That boy would’ve grown up a fag if I hadn’t taken them on. I was the only chance he had of becoming a man, and look where that got me.”

The handle resisted and Dan had to go up on her tiptoes, leaning with all her weight to force it. Then, once the handle was down, she pulled back with her whole body, moving the door open just an inch so that the lock couldn’t reengage.

The noise made Dan freeze, gritting her teeth. It was more of a pop than anything else, and she waited for a reaction.

“What was that?” Simmons shouted.

“It could be the police coming down the entrance road, David. My partner’s at the car now, calling this in. But you know what, if we sort this out now, between you and me, if you were to let me come and get Evelyn and walk her out here, safe and sound, then it’d go much easier for you, David, much easier for us all.”

Simmons laughed again.

“I don’t think Evelyn feels like moving at the moment,” Simmons shouted. “We’re married now, remember? We consummated our union until she could barely walk, the lucky lady. She also found out what happens when you shoot your mouth off about private family business. She’s knackered after all that excitement; she’s just chilling out for a while.”

Simmons’s voice echoed off the walls of the other units.

Dan was still waiting, not wanting to make another noise so soon after the last. She looked down at the marks on the floor where the door had rubbed against the concrete, and then she hooked her forearm under the handle, standing up to try lifting the door, reducing the weight of it on the ground as much as possible before leaning backward and slowly walking the door open without making a sound.

The door moved, the rubbing against the ground low and soft, lost in the wind, and Dan pulled it open just wide enough for her to squeeze her small frame through the gap.

Her senses were heightened and she couldn’t help but look behind her again before she entered the dark interior at the rear of the shop.

She was alone now, felt alone, as she so often did, but John’s voice carried to her, and the threats that Simmons had made against Evelyn were enough to give her the confidence to continue, to recognize that she had an opportunity while the two men talked, and that time could be running out.

She pulled a small flashlight from her pocket and shone it around. She was in a storeroom. She panned her beam, taking in high shelves and stacked boxes.

Large shelf racks lined the walls along three sides of this area. Directly across from where she stood by the door, the fourth side was a glass window running along the whole wall, from waist height up to a false ceiling. Through the glass, Dan could see an office, a computer chair, and a dusty monitor set against a backdrop of filing cabinets and a number of children’s drawings pinned to a corkboard. She wondered how many, if any, were drawn by David Simmons.

The shelves around her looked full, as though the business hadn’t died slowly, the customers coming in smaller and smaller numbers, but had instead been deserted without warning, as if some attack or event had driven people to leave in an instant.

The storeroom felt cold and damp, and the boxes that were left on the shelves looked as though they had begun to droop and disintegrate over time.

She moved farther into the room.

The shop was silent. She could no longer hear John and David Simmons talking outside.

There was a door at the far end of the room on Dan’s left, framed by shelves.

Dan walked quickly toward it, looking around, realizing that she couldn’t see the roof access and wasn’t sure what route David Simmons had taken to get up there. She reached into her other pocket and pulled out a telescopic military-issue police baton.

It was heavy and hard and could extend quickly at the flick of a wrist, as it did now.

She scanned the door again with the flashlight. There were bolts top and bottom, extra security in case someone broke into the shop, perhaps, but they were unlocked. Dan looked for gouge marks on the floor, but there were none. She reached for the handle, pushing down steadily, and opened the door.

The shop floor on the other side was brighter than the storeroom, some of the retreating light from outside making it in through the slatted shutters. It was also cold, like a room with a door left open, and Dan knew that the access to the roof was in the main shop somewhere, maybe a fire exit toward the back.

She stepped inside.

The shop was larger than Dan had expected. It was at least as long as a basketball court, and aisles ran the full length of the shop floor.

To her right she could see a fire escape sign. The cold breeze was coming from that direction.

The door started to close behind her and she grabbed a bag of pasta from the shelf next to her, wedging it quietly between the door and the jamb to keep it open.

She scanned her flashlight in both directions again, wondering whether she might be able to secure the fire exit from the inside, locking Simmons on the roof while she tended to Evelyn. She listened carefully, heard Simmons’s voice as a few words echoed down to her before the rest were lost to the wind; he was still talking to John. Then she heard a rasping, gurgling sound. Dan moved quickly to her left, toward the front of the shop, where she saw the tills.

There were two of them, side by side, and behind them were empty shelves where cigarettes would once have been; somebody had remembered to come and take those away when the shop had stopped trading.

She heard shuffling behind her, was sure she had, and spun around, turning off her light and listening for Simmons’s footsteps coming into the shop.

Silence again.

She looked at the shutters, then moved toward them, turning right and looking down at the spot where she knew Evelyn Simmons had been lying when she’d looked only a short time before.

Evelyn was gone.

What was left was an area smeared with dark fluids, blood, and urine, as though someone had tried to clean up a mess with a blood-soaked rag.

“Evelyn,” Dan whispered, hoping that the woman might be conscious and had moved herself.

She turned her light back on and saw the trail of dirt disappear deeper into the shop. She could see now that it could’ve only been made by dragging a bloodied body along the floor; Evelyn hadn’t moved herself.

Dan followed the trail, walking beside it so as not to get the slippery blood on the soles of her shoes. She held the flashlight in her left hand, her right gripping the baton, which was raised, cocked, resting on her shoulder as she walked and listened, aware of every sound around her. She reached the junction, the point at which the shelves running lengthwise met others that crossed the store, and she stopped.

In front of her was an old gift section beneath a sign that read GIFTS 4 THOSE U LOVE.

In the center of the gift section was a rocking chair, an old wooden classic, and on it was a large teddy bear, huge in fact, the kind of thing that her sister, Charlie, had loved to try to win at the fair ground when they were kids. She remembered how they’d often walk back with something like it, Charlie smiling, clutching some enormous soft toy as tightly as she could, barely able to carry it, and her dad looking a bit grim as he wondered where on earth they were going to keep it.

“Evelyn,” Dan whispered again, but there was still no reply.

On the floor, the trail of human fluids was no longer as clear as it had been, instead the whole floor was dirty, and Dan moved farther into the shop, shining her light along another aisle as she moved away from the gift section.

The noise was there again.

She heard it, no question this time, a shuffle, a rasp, the rattle of labored breathing. It was near her, behind her, and she turned quickly, shining the light and almost losing her balance.

Then she saw it.

Next to her was a large double-door fridge with a bright handwritten sign declaring that this was the Last Chance section.

Dan could already see that inside the fridge on the upper shelves were the remnants of rotten produce, probably so long gone that there wouldn’t even be a smell, but at the bottom, curled up and not moving, was a body. Evelyn Simmons. Dan could see every single vertebra of the woman’s spine as it pushed against her thin, bruised skin.

The fridge was big, as big as a wardrobe, with two glass doors as wide and tall as the shelves around them.

Dan pulled at one of the doors to open it, but it didn’t budge.

The fridge wasn’t powered on and she spotted what looked like a bike lock at the very top of the door.

It was looped and locked through two security eyes.

Dan tried the other door and was sure she saw Evelyn breathe as the glass door opened a tiny bit, until the bike lock at the top prevented it from going any farther.

“Evelyn, can you hear me?” whispered Dan.

Evelyn didn’t move, though Dan was sure she heard the sound of breathing. She was alive, at least.

Dan wedged the end of her police baton into the gap and tried to lever the door wider. The bike lock looked solid, but the eye loop it was fed through looked weak, as though it were only riveted in place to stop the doors from falling open in transit and maybe to dissuade a casual thief.

With all her strength, she forced her weight against the end of the lever again and again, bouncing against it, and she felt the door move a little bit farther each time.

The eye at the top of the door gave way with a crack and the door flew open.

Dan stepped back, her foot hitting a patch of fluid, and she slipped and stumbled, falling against a shelf of canned fish and knocking several cans to the floor.

“Shit,” she said, but she knew she had no time.

She stood up, the flashlight beam spilling across the floor, illuminating the dirt in a rusty red glow. Dan collapsed the baton and put it back in her pocket. Then she picked up the flashlight and held it in her mouth, gagging at the taste of the dirt that covered the handle. She reached in through the open door and grabbed Evelyn’s body, reaching under her arms and dragging her out of the refrigerator.

The woman was emaciated, but even so, she was bigger than Dan’s five-foot-two-inch frame, and as she dragged Evelyn out, she was unable to stop the woman’s skinny legs from slapping against the floor with a crack that made Dan wince.

She laid Evelyn on her back, straddled her, and gritted her teeth as she lifted her under the arms into a sitting position. Then she took one of Evelyn’s arms, wrapped it behind her head, and tried to heave the woman’s unconscious body up onto her shoulder in a fireman’s carry.

Dan knew that Simmons might well be on his way, but she also knew that that meant John would be, too, and she had to trust him to be here so that she could get Evelyn out of harm’s way.

It took her three attempts to lift Evelyn’s naked, unconscious body, and she staggered at first, struggling to find her balance beneath the weight. When she finally did, she turned to head for the front of the shop, just in time to see David Simmons jump at her.

He was already in the air, flying toward her, and he landed a two-footed kick to her stomach.

The blow doubled Dan over and collapsed her, throwing her back hard against the fridge and shattering one door as both she and Evelyn crumpled to the floor.

Dan was dazed and winded. Her arms and legs seeming to be tied together with Evelyn’s bare limbs. She barely registered Evelyn’s body being dragged off her in a single movement and being tossed out of the way, flying through the air, the limbs as loose and free as a child’s rag doll, before landing with a sickening wet thud on the floor more than six feet across the aisle.

Dan was convulsing, the wind knocked out of her, and she wasn’t able to fully avoid a blow that caught the front of her face, skimming her cheek and catching the side of her nose hard enough to make her head flick over her right shoulder and blood start flowing.

Her nose was blocked in an instant, her eyes filled with reflexive tears, and instinctively she leaned away again, her head moving into the space that would have been blocked by glass as another wild punch whistled past her head.

Even in her dazed state, Dan knew she was in big trouble. The ferocity of Simmons’s attack had left her winded, her airways blocked at her throat, her nose numb and pouring blood, her vision obscured. The fear she now felt was intensified by the fact that in her mind, the images flashing faster than anything she’d ever seen, she replayed the result of his animal aggression on Petty Officer Amanda Collins.

Dan felt a sickening pain on her left shin and knew, though she couldn’t properly see, that he’d stamped down on it with all of his weight.

Simmons wasn’t trying to win a fight, he wasn’t trying to subdue her or keep her down, he was trying to break her bones, to disable her, to kill her if he could.

There was a loud crash and through her tears she saw the shadow before her disappear.

John Granger, her partner and friend, had arrived.

Dan blinked repeatedly, clearing the tears from her eyes and trying to calm herself so she could recover her breath.

John had tackled Simmons to the floor, was on top of him now.

She could see that John wasn’t trying to restrain Simmons, the violence she was watching had gone too far for that, John was fighting for everyone’s safety, and she watched as Simmons drove his hand up into John’s face, keeping his fingers there and reaching to gouge at John’s eyes.

Both of John’s hands were trying to fight off this attack, and Simmons, a former soldier who was physically fit, large, strong, and aggressive, reached out with his other hand, grabbing a large tin of fish, ready to use it as a weapon.

Dan willed her body into action, though it was slow to respond. She tried to stand, the leg where Simmons had stamped her giving way, and she hurled herself at Simmons, catching his thick forearm, unable to stop him, but diverting the direction of his arm and forcing the weapon to bounce off John’s shoulder just a split second before it would have slammed into his temple.

Simmons was strong, very strong, easily a foot taller than Dan and more than twice her weight. He had the overdeveloped forearms of a man who loved lifting weights and training hard, and he turned to Dan, his teeth bared. In the instant that he looked away, his attention divided, John Granger leaned back enough to free his face from Simmons’s grip and sweep his other arm aside.

John dropped forward fast, driving his elbow down onto the bridge of Simmons’s nose.

Simmons didn’t make a sound. He easily ripped his arm free of Dan’s grip, dropped the can, and grabbed John’s head in both of his hands, drawing John’s skull down toward him at the same time that he drove his head upward, head-butting John in the center of his face.

Dan watched John go limp for a second, watched as Simmons easily reversed their positions, and in what seemed like an instant, John was rolled onto the floor, Simmons atop him, and Dan saw Simmons again drive his head down into John’s face.

She grabbed her baton and extended it quickly, the cracking sound drawing Simmons’s attention. He reached for her, looking away from John, who immediately swung a punch at Simmons’s head.

Simmons looked back at John, grunting for the first time and torn between two opponents. His arm was still outstretched toward her, and Dan, taking her chance, whipped the baton down hard onto Simmons’s forearm, feeling the vibration travel up the length of it to her hand as it impacted. He screamed in pain as the loud crack of his radius bone breaking rose above the other sounds.

John looked as though he was spent, was on the edge of losing consciousness, and Dan looked at Simmons as his arm hung limp.

Simmons stood, leaving John on the ground, and swung his good arm at Dan, missing, but making her stumble backward. He seemed to take in his surroundings, unsure what to do, and Dan saw the first flashes of blue light as they touched his features and glinted in his eyes.

He looked at her and then at Evelyn, sneered, and then headed for the unconscious woman.

Dan rushed him, swinging the baton, but he ducked.

The baton glanced off his shoulder and he swung at Dan again, catching her clean on the side of the head and knocking her back against the broken fridge.

She was confused. She looked across at John, who was out cold, his face like road kill, and then she saw Simmons dragging Evelyn into the middle of the aisle.

He was making a sound under his breath, that same one again and again, and it took Dan a moment to realize he was repeating the word “bitch.”

He laid Evelyn flat and raised his foot above her head.

Dan knew exactly what he was going to do. She’d been the one to find Amanda Collins, her skull almost split open from where he’d repeatedly stamped on it. He meant to crack Evelyn’s skull before he was taken.

Dan pushed herself up and threw herself at him. She swung the baton, aiming for his lower back, but he was ready, a trained fighter, clad in muscle and pumped with adrenaline.

The baton landed, but not hard enough, and this time, instead of striking Dan and pushing her away, he clubbed her to the ground.

She slumped at his feet and he smiled down at her.

“Bitch,” he said. “Her first, so you can watch, then you.”

He moved his feet, placing one next to Evelyn’s head as he raised the other. His broken arm was hanging limp at his side and Dan forced herself up off the floor, reaching for that hand and grabbing it tight.

With everything she had left, she pulled hard on the broken arm, twisting her whole body so that the arm contorted, too. Then she reached up for his elbow and bent his forearm as far back on itself as she could.

He howled, stumbled back, swung at her, but missed, and he fell away, Dan hanging on to his arm like a terrier. He fell to the ground and only then did she let go. He was sitting against some shelves, his breathing heavy, sweat pouring from his brow.

Dan could hear more people in the shop now, could see flashlight beams.

She willed them to come.

He looked at her, was close to enough to push himself forward and grab her one last time. The word was coming out again, “bitch, bitch, bitch.” He heaved himself forward and Dan felt a hard object in her hand.

She’d swung the can of fish at his head before she even realized what it was.

It struck him on the temple, hard, and he slumped to the floor in front of her just as the first of the military and civilian police appeared round the end of the aisle.

 

Copyright © 2018 J. S. Law.

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J. S. Law served in the Royal Navy Submarine Service, rising through the ranks to become a senior nuclear engineer. Tenacity is his first novel. He lives in Portsmouth, England.

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