Safe House by Chris Ewan is a suspenseful thriller set on the Isle of Man (available December 11, 2012).
When Rob Hale wakes up in a hospital after a motorcycle crash, his first thought is for the gorgeous blonde, Lena, who was on the back of his bike. The doctors and police, however, insist that he was alone at the scene. The shock of the accident must have made him imagine Lena, especially since his description of her resembles his late sister, Laura.
Convinced that Lena is as real as he is, Rob teams up with Rebecca Lewis, a London-based PI who has a mysterious connection to Laura—and learns that even a close-knit community like the Isle of Man can hide dangerous secrets that will not stay safe forever.
I don’t remember much about the accident. It happened too fast. Motorbike crashes usually do. Most of what I can remember is noise. A loud pop followed by a judder. The thud of the front forks collapsing. The squeal of the engine as the rear wheel kicked up and pitched me over the bars.
And I remember Lena’s scream.The way her hands pinched my waist before slipping away. The crunch of our helmets colliding.
Or at least, I think I do . . .
The doctor was young. Too young. She looked pale and frazzled, as if really she was the one in need of hospital rest. The skin beneath her eyes was tinged purple and she gripped my chart with unsteady hands, studying it like the script of a play she was aiming to memorise. Her lips moved as she traced the words.
‘You were in a motorbike accident.’ She glanced up, her spectacle lenses magnifying her bloodshot eyes.
I pulled the oxygen mask away from my mouth. ‘ No kidding.’
‘You suffered a loss of consciousness.’
I swallowed. My throat felt raw and bloated, as if something had been shoved down there while I was asleep – a breathing tube, maybe. ‘How long?’
She glanced at a clock on the wall in the corner of the room. Made a note on my ?le. ‘You were out for almost seven hours. Before you came round the ?rst time.’
Seven hours. It must have been some shunt. Not my only one, by any means, but probably my biggest.
‘The ?rst time?’ I asked.
‘You don’t remember?’
I eased my head from side to side on my pillow.
‘That’s OK. It’s perfectly normal. I’m Dr Gaskell. We met ninety minutes ago. You were only awake for a brief spell.’
I racked my brain but nothing came up. My vision was blurred, as if someone had smeared Vaseline on my eyeballs. I blinked and the room tilted to the right.
‘Don’t worry, I’m not offended. Short-term memory loss is pretty common with a traumatic head injury.’
‘Try to relax, Mr Hale. Sleep if you need to. There’s plenty of time for you to discuss all this with the specialist in the morning.’
‘Tell me now. Please.’
She frowned. Pushed her spectacles up on her nose.
‘What’s the problem?’ I asked. ‘Afraid I’ll forget?’
She chewed her lip, like she was running through a debate with herself, but then she moved around the bed and freed the oxygen mask from my hands, settling it against my face. She plucked a penlight from the pocket of her white lab coat and shone it into my eyes.
‘Is that uncomfortable?’ she asked.
‘Hurts.’ My voice was muf?ed. My breath condensed on the inside of the mask.
‘Your speech is a little slurred. Any dizziness? Blurred vision? Nausea?’
‘All of those.’
She nodded. ‘You’ll be in hospital for a few days, at least. You’ve already had a CT scan but you may need an MRI, too. We have to watch for any secondary swelling. But that’s OK. It gives us time to treat your other injuries.’
The dimly lit room was growing dark from behind her, shadows bleeding in from the corners of my vision. I tried pushing myself up in bed, but someone stabbed me in the back and I groaned and crumpled.
‘Careful. Your left scapula is fractured.’ She placed her hands on my arm to stop me moving again. ‘Not a serious break. Barely a hairline crack. But it’ll take some healing. A nurse will be in soon to put your arm in a sling.’
I rolled my head to the side and saw the bandages that had been wrapped around my chest, under my armpit and over my collarbone. A fractured shoulder. It could be weeks until I had full movement. Months before I’d be able to lift heavy objects again. I was afraid of what that might mean for my business. There aren’t many one-armed heating engineers around. The impact on my road-racing season was likely to be much worse. Chances were, it was over before it had begun.
‘You’ve also bruised a couple of ribs,’ she said. ‘But other than that, you’ve been fortunate. You have some minor abrasions on your left side and bruising on your leg, but your pelvis, knees, ankles and feet are intact. And no broken ?ngers, miraculously. I’ve seen worse.’
I wasn’t sure I believed her. My face must have given me away.
‘I might be a junior doctor, Mr Hale, but this is the Isle of Man. I’ve had to treat more than my fair share of motorbike accidents, trust me.’
There was disapproval in her tone, but she was too young for it to carry much impact. Especially with a guy who was just barely awake.
‘And Lena?’ I asked. ‘How’s she doing?’
Dr Gaskell’s eyebrows forked above her spectacles. She squinted, as if she didn’t trust her hearing.
And I thought I was the one with the brain injury.
‘Lena,’ I said. ‘My friend. She was in the ?rst ambulance.’
That was something I could de?nitely remember. Hard not to, really. Splayed on the side of the road, my head propped against the grass bank running alongside the cold, damp tarmac, my left arm bent awkwardly beneath me. I didn’t know how long I’d been out, but I’d come round to a sideways view of the pitted blacktop and the wet, gloomy clouds pressing down from above.
A paramedic in a green jumpsuit appeared. He crouched and ?ipped up what remained of my helmet visor.
I struggled to move, but my arms and legs were numb. I told myself not to panic. That it was only the shock.
‘You’ll be OK,’ the paramedic said. He had close-cropped hair and a fuzzy soul-patch beneath his lower lip. The facial hair didn’t suit him, but I wasn’t about to say as much. ‘There’s another ambulance on the way. But the girl is hurt worse. We have to take her ?rst. Understand?’
I wheezed back at him. Trying to say that was ?ne. That it was the right thing to do. But I couldn’t speak.
The paramedic squeezed my gloved hand, and something snagged against the skin of my wrist. He paced away. I heard a door close. Then I glimpsed a blur of white as the ambulance sped off up the road, abandoning me to a sickly silence that faded to grey, then black.
Next thing I knew, I was talking with Dr. Gaskell. She looked troubled now. She bit down on her lip. Glanced over her shoulder towards the door.
‘Let me ?nd out for you,’ she said.
I watched her go, a hard lump forming in my chest. Dead, I thought. Please, don’t let her be dead.
It was typical. Just when I wanted it to, the blackness wouldn’t come. I was groggy but awake. And scared half out of my mind.
My friend, I’d called her. But was she even that? She was more than a customer, I supposed. Someone I’d liked? Without question. But how long had I really known her? An hour? Two? Long enough to know there was an attraction, at least.
And what did that make it when I’d taken her out on my bike? A ?rst date?
She’d seemed so animated when we’d ridden along the dirt track that led away from the cottage. So alive. Slapping me on the back and giggling as I accelerated beneath the rain-drenched trees. As if it was more than a trip for her. Like it was an escape, maybe.
The door to my hospital room swung open and a lanky doctor hurried inside, the tails of his white coat ?apping behind him. Dr Gaskell was struggling to keep up, looking paler and more lost than ever.
‘Mr Hale, I’m Dr Stanley.’
He clicked on a penlight and pointed the beam into my eyes. It seemed a popular thing to do. I tried to snatch my head away, but he had a ?rm grip of my eyelid with his thumb. He didn’t let go until he’d exhaled stale coffee across my face.
‘You’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury.’ He straightened and scratched at the stubble on his jaw. ‘Blunt trauma to the frontal lobe.’
I pulled my mask free. ‘So I’ve been told.’
‘You can expect any number of side effects. Headaches. Dizziness. Nausea.’
‘We’ve been through this already.’
‘And confused thinking, Mr Hale. Cognitive disruption.’
He stared at me, as if his words should penetrate in a particular way. As if there was a secret message lurking behind them.
‘I get it,’ I said. ‘There are consequences. But what about Lena? She’s not dead, is she?’
Somehow, I managed to get the question out. I could feel more than just the soreness in the back of my throat.
‘This Lena. You say she was on the motorbike with you? That she was involved in the accident?’
‘She was in the ?rst ambulance. But it’s OK – I know her injuries were more serious. The paramedic told me.’
Dr Stanley let go of a long breath. His shoulders sagged. ‘But that’s exactly my point, Mr Hale. The fact is there was no other ambulance. You were the only one found at the scene of the crash.’
My parents were sitting with me when the police arrived the following day.
I’d spent most of the morning with Dad’s palm clamped over my lower leg and with Mum gripping my hand. It was good of them to come but I wished more than anything that I wasn’t putting them through this right now. The past few weeks had been rough on all of us and I knew they could have done without the added worry. It wasn’t as if they’d been getting their lives back together – in truth, I doubted they’d ever be capable of that – but I’d begun to sense a fragile new balance emerging. A way forward for us all, maybe. And now I’d gone and upset whatever shaky foundations we’d started to lay.
Family friends had told me how well my parents were doing. That time would heal. Things would improve. But I saw it differently. It was obvious to me that a light had gone out of them. They bore the loss in their eyes most of all, and when they met my gaze straight on, which wasn’t often any more, it was like looking at precious stones that had been worn down until there was no glimmer left. Their pupils were dull and ?at. Letting nothing inside.
Maybe the change wouldn’t have been so hard to take if their spark hadn’t been so bright before. Cheesy as it sounds, my parents were a living, breathing romance novel. Mum, the vibrant, red-haired Scouse girl, who’d ignored her father’s wishes at the age of nineteen to take up with a strange Manxman on a windswept rock in the middle of the Irish Sea. And not just any strange Manxman, but one with a death wish – a daredevil motorbike racer who’d won the Senior TT two years on the bounce. A guy who liked a drink. Liked a girl. Who lived his life at speed. Or at least, he did until he fell headlong in love with the woman he’d now been married to for the best part of forty years.
Grandpa had disowned my parents in the early stages of their marriage. Nowadays, he lived with them in Snaefell View, the residential care home they own and manage, and he couldn’t have a kinder word to say about my father if you handed him a thesaurus and a magnifying glass. I live there too, in a converted barn out back, with a garage on the side where Dad and I can strip down and rebuild my racing bikes. Amazing, really, that we’d become this perfect, Waltons-style unit. Maybe that was why we’d suffered so much just recently. Cosmic payback.
The police entered my room shortly before noon. There were two of them, a man and a woman, both wearing dark suits.
The man had an engorged head that was shaped like a pumpkin, a swollen, ruddy face and a generous belly. His grey hair was grown long over his ears and at the back of his wide neck. A navy-blue tie was knotted carelessly around his collar, like he resented it being there.
The woman was younger, mid-to-late forties, with ?ne black hair cut short in a boyish style, no make-up, and a biro stain on the front of her faded blue blouse. Lean and angular, her movements had a gawky, abrupt quality. She carried a can of Diet Coke in one hand, a black raincoat folded over her arm.
Dad knew them, of course. He knows everyone on the island.
Or everyone knows him. I’m never sure which way round it should be. But the last time they’d spoken hadn’t been at some friendly get-together in a local pub, or at a Rotary dinner, and it showed. My father was slow in standing to accept the hand the man offered him, as if touching it might come at a price.
‘Jimmy.’ The man used the sombre tone of voice people had chosen to adopt with Dad just recently. ‘Sorry to see you back here.’ He spoke in a calm, measured way, like so many Manxmen of his generation. It was an easy quirk to misinterpret. Slow words for a slow thinker, you might imagine. And more often than not, you’d be wrong.
He snuck a look at me. His crimson cheeks were puffed up, reducing his deep-set eyes to slits. It made it hard to read his expression. But there was something accusing back there.
‘Mick.’ Dad accepted his palm, pressing his free hand over the top, like a politician. ‘And Jackie.’ He stretched over my bed to pull the same move with the woman.
‘Mr Hale.’ She dropped Dad’s hand like a contagious disease. ‘And Mrs Hale. How are you?’
I swear I could almost see the shutters ?ip closed across Mum’s eyes.
‘I’m ?ne,’ she replied, tight-lipped. ‘Thank you for asking, Detective Sergeant Teare.’ She found her feet now, but she was sluggish. Even standing up, she looked as if she was slowly de?ating. ‘And Detective Inspector Shimmin. How’s Jude?’
‘Fine, ?ne,’ Pumpkin-head said, but he was watching me the entire time. ‘Took a fair old bump on the skull there, hey Robbie?’
Talking like we’d met before. Like we were old friends.
‘Need to speak with you about this accident of yours. Now a good time?’
As if I had any choice in the matter.
‘We’ll stay too,’ Dad said, clenching my foot through the bed covers.
Pumpkin-head sucked air through his teeth and rose up on his toes, like a mechanic about to deliver unwanted news about a cooked engine. ‘Afraid we’re going to need to speak with the boy alone, Jimmy.’
The boy. Like I was some kind of troublesome teen all set for a dressing-down.
‘But if it’s just a chat, Mick.’ Dad tilted his head to one side. ‘No harm us staying, is there?’
Shimmin was easily a foot taller than my father, and this time, when he drew a sharp breath through his teeth, he rocked back on his heels, as if he was afraid of accidentally inhaling him. I’m tall myself, six feet two in my socks, so I understand the feeling of authority a little extra height can give a man. And Dad was shorter than he should have been, the result of the metal plates and pins that had once been used to knit the shattered bones of his lower legs back together. His racing career had been ended by a horri?c crash along the Mountain section of the TT course, when he was cruising at well over 100 mph. He was lucky the incident hadn’t claimed his life.
‘No can do, Jimmy. Procedure, see?’ Shimmin shook his bloated head, as if he was powerless to concede the point, even to a man as remarkable as my father. ‘How about you take Tess downstairs for one of those fancy coffees? We’ll come and ?nd you when we’re ?nished. Won’t be long.’
Dad was all set to try again. I could feel it in the tightening of his ?ngers on my toes. He was used to getting special treatment on the island. The best table in a restaurant. A handsome discount in a shop. A forgiving smile when he parked on double yellow lines. It was the outcome of a combination of factors. His reputation as a local sporting legend. The swagger that came from riding away from certain death. And I don’t suppose it hurt that he was handsome. Square jaw. High forehead. Unruly, tousled hair. A powerful, muscular physique, gone a little soft in later years.
‘It’s OK, Dad,’ I said. ‘It’s not as if I have anything to hide.’
My father looked at me then, a broken expression on his slackened face. Mum reached for his arm. The ghost of a smile I hadn’t seen in a long time tugged at her lips.
‘Come on, Jim. Let them ask their questions. Rob will still be here when we get back. Right love?’
‘Yeah, Mum. I’ll be here.’
But it still scared me that she’d felt the need to ask.
‘Now then Robbie, why don’t you tell us about this mystery blonde of yours?’
Pumpkin-head had taken my father’s seat. He was reclined with his hands behind his fat neck and his crossed heels resting on the end of my bed.
‘It’s Robert,’ I said.
‘Or Rob. Not Robbie. I might be Jimmy Hale’s son, but I have my own identity. Some people respect that.’
Shimmin let go of a low whistle and glanced over his shoulder towards his colleague. Teare had taken up a position with her back against the wall, one leg bent at the knee, the sole of her shoe marking the beige paint. She took a long pull on her Coke, tapping an unpainted nail on the aluminium casing.
‘Chip on the shoulder there, young Robbie?’ Shimmin asked.
I rocked my head to the right, feeling the pull of the foam sling that had been wrapped around my neck and left wrist. There was a small porthole of glass in the door to my room, but all I could see on the other side was more beige.
‘Hey fella, come on. I’m a friend of your father’s, see?’
They were all friends of my father. Or so they told themselves.
‘And I know you and he are different.’ Shimmin snapped his ?ngers and I turned to ?nd a dark shimmering in the pouched slits where his eyes lurked. ‘Anyone who’s watched you race these past three years can tell that easily enough, eh? Guess the acorn fell further from the tree than maybe you’d like to believe, young Robbie. Or maybe you remember it differently. Something else caused by that crack on your noggin.’
The blow to my head was something the neurologist had already discussed with me. I’d been fortunate, apparently. Early tests indicated there was no secondary swelling and the chances of it developing were said to be slim. I’d need to undergo more tests in a week or so, and watch for anything out of the ordinary – mood swings, dif?culty keeping my balance, a change in my sleep patterns. I also had to take care to avoid any follow-up blows until the bruising had healed. But all things considered, it could have been worse.
‘So come on, lad.’ Shimmin tugged the knot of his tie away from his yellowing collar. ‘Tell us what you told the good doctors.’
Copyright © 2012 Chris Ewan
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Chris Ewan, who lives on the Isle of Man, began his crime-writing career with the Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam, which was called one the “best books for grownups” by Publishers Weekly and AARP The Magazine, and one of the best thrillers of the year by the London Times.