Sat
Aug 2 2014 11:00am

Dead Line: A New Excerpt

Chris Ewan

Dead Line by Chris Ewan is a standalone thriller featuring a hostage negotiator who must locate his kidnapped wife (available August 5, 2014).

If you're a security expert, what do you do if your fiancée suddenly goes missing, presumably kidnapped?

If you're Daniel Trent, a highly trained specialist in hostage negotiation, the answer is simple: You find out who took her and you make them talk. But what if your chief suspect is taken as well? How do you get him back quickly—and alive—so you can find out what really happened to your fiancée?

Set in Marseille, Chris Ewan's Dead Line is a fast-paced stand-alone thriller that pitches the reader into Daniel's world, as he tries desperately to secure the release of Jérôme Moreau from a ruthless gang in order to interrogate him on the whereabouts of his fiancée. When things don't go according to plan, Daniel must use all his skills and instincts to find the answers he's looking for, but will he be in time?

Chapter One

Daniel Trent sensed a tremor in his finger. He was a patient man. It was an attribute he prided himself on. But even he had his limits. His denim shirt was wet at the collar, adhering to his back. His shirtsleeves were rolled past his elbows, exposing forearms slick with sweat. A tendon pulsed beneath his skin. There it was again – the temptation to drum his fingers.

Where were they?

Trent snatched up the tiny china cup in front of him. The residue of his second espresso was tepid and grainy. He swallowed. Grimaced. Set it aside.

The pavement café was jammed with customers. Tourists mostly. The German couple beside him were feasting on cheap bouillabaisse. The husband had spilled tomato and saffron broth on his beard. His wife, lips greasy with shellfish juices, slathered a rouille paste onto meagre croutons.

The waiter hadn’t been back to check on Trent in a while but he wasn’t offended. Could even understand the guy’s reasoning. Not a lot of profit in a man drinking single espressos at this time of night. And Trent was giving off a restless, keyed-up vibe. His self-control was slipping. Patience running low.

Engine noise from the left.

Trent turned his head. Just like he’d turned it every time he’d heard a vehicle approach for the past half-hour. But this time was different. This time he saw exactly what he’d been waiting to see.

A black Mercedes saloon trundled along the street. The windows were tinted, the paint buffed to a liquid sheen. Most vehicles in Marseilles were covered in a film of sand and dirt and dried salt water, but the Mercedes looked as if it had been cleaned late that afternoon. Probably got cleaned every afternoon, Trent guessed.

The Mercedes slowed until it was idling by the kerb, blocking the single-lane road as if it was parked in its own private driveway.

Sweat trickled down Trent’s neck. His throat had closed up, as though unseen hands were choking him. He gulped moist air. Felt it bulge back there, then slide and scrape downwards.

He wedged a crumpled five-euro note beneath the sugar dispenser. Came close to upsetting it. He steadied the tableware, then pushed back his chair. He was tall and long-limbed. Had been gawky as a kid and still could be on occasion. His foot was hooked around the chair leg. The metal scraped and squealed on the concrete and he drew scowls from the German couple as he stumbled sideways and ducked out from beneath the burgundy canopy that overhung the café.

The paved square in front of the Opéra was bathed in a hazy yellow light from a set of ornate streetlamps. Floodlights bounced off the masonry of the theatre house and the red fabric banners promoting tonight’s show – a performance by the Ballet National de Marseille.

The production was over and members of the audience were lingering outside. Men in dinner jackets smoked cigarettes and shook hands, speaking in low sardonic voices from the sides of their mouths. Women perspired in gauzy summer dresses, smiling tightly and clutching handbags to their waists as if they feared a violent mugging.

Trent loitered beside an abandoned scooter. Sweat pooled beneath his armpits and swamped his back. His breathing was shallow, the air warm and vaporous. It smelled of dust and heat and cooked seafood laced with boat diesel and brine from the Vieux Port.

The Mercedes didn’t move.

Trent blinked wetly and tried to see how many men were inside. Sometimes it was two – a young chauffeur plus a bodyguard. Sometimes the bodyguard worked alone.

Amber hazards blinked on. The driver’s door opened and a thickset man in a charcoal suit and crisp white shirt stepped out. The bodyguard. A lucky break. No chauffeur tonight.

The bodyguard scanned his surroundings, a full 360, his attention snagging on Trent for just an instant before moving on. He took in the seedy bars, the fast food outlets, the rusting dumpsters overflowing with noxious waste, the unlit epiceries and boulangeries and tabacs, the scruffy apartment buildings with faded, crusty render and paint-flaked wooden shutters flung wide.

He was a squat, powerfully built guy. Early-to-mid-thirties with dark hair buzzed close to the scalp. Low forehead. Light stubble. His back was broad, his arms muscular. He had large, square hands, the fingers hooked and curled as if he were wearing boxing gloves.

Trent guessed the guy’s suit had been tailored to emphasise his physique. The jacket sleeves were tight around his upper arms, the material bunched as if catching on his biceps.

He had an attentive, serious demeanour. He looked like a guy who lived and breathed his job. He shot his cuff and consulted his watch. Then he paced away through the crowds towards the lighted entrance of the Opéra, his square head swinging from left to right, probing for threats.

And then there they were. The pair of them. Exposed.

They’d stepped out through the glass doors between the stone colonnades before the bodyguard was close. A basic error. The type a guy with hostile intentions might exploit, if he felt so inclined.

Trent pressed his arm against his Beretta. It would be easy to reach under his shirt right now. He could march across the square and barge through the crowds. Fire in a controlled burst. Fifteen rounds, 9 mm calibre. More than ample to kill a man. Enough, probably, to get away from the scene.

He reached out to steady himself. The scooter rocked on its stand.

Jérôme Moreau crossed the square like he owned it. The guy oozed confidence. He radiated ego. Take an average person and show them footage of Moreau right now and what would they think? A movie star emerging from the premiere of his latest film? A city politician on the rise?

He was sharply dressed. Velvet dinner jacket, pressed white shirt, silk bow tie and shoes as dark and lustrous as his waiting Mercedes. His grey hair was oiled and set in waves, his chin clean-shaven. He shielded his eyes with a raised hand, as if rearing back from the blaze of paparazzi bulbs.

Trent clenched his hands into fists and stared at Moreau hard. So hard he felt sure that he would sense it. But Moreau showed no awareness. Maybe he was too wrapped up in himself. Or maybe Trent appeared more composed than he felt. Perhaps he was the only one who could sense the fury coming off him, pulsing outwards, like sound waves from a tuning fork.

He swallowed thickly, then risked a glance at Moreau’s wife. Not for the first time, the sight of her punched the air from his lungs.

This was the toughest part. Even thinking about it made his mouth dry as ash.

Stephanie Moreau was young, lithe and beautiful. She was short for a former ballet dancer, coming in somewhere around five foot five even in heels, but she had poise and balance and grace.

Tonight, she wore a silver dress that shimmered as it moved across the slim contours of her body. Her dark hair was swept to one side and loosely curled, exposing her delicate neck and shoulders. Her pale skin appeared almost translucent in the diffuse yellow light. Trent could see the outline of the collarbones beneath her skin, fragile as a bird’s.

The bodyguard was alongside them now, ushering them through the parting crowds towards the Mercedes. He guided them into the back of the car, then opened the driver’s door and shaped as if to slide in under the wheel.

He froze mid-way. Glanced towards the scooter once more.

But Trent was already gone.

* * *

A network of one-way streets surrounded the Opéra. Parking was at a premium. Trent returned to his car, a brown Peugeot estate that was wedged into a tight space beneath the green neon glow of a pharmacie cross. He fumbled with his key in the ignition. Fired the gurgling engine and swung out into the road.

The interior of the Peugeot was hot and airless. He wound his window low and angled his head into the thermal breeze. A series of turns delivered him to the Quai Rive Neuve. Countless yachts and passenger ferries and fishing vessels were packed into the marina, forming a vast and shifting tangle of masts and rigging. The odour of seawater was strong.

The sleek Mercedes was up ahead, beyond a cream taxi, a motorbike and a grimy delivery truck. Trent pinched the sting of sweat from his eyes and squeezed the accelerator. The dark, shifting waters of the marina flickered by, alive with quivering reflections from streetlamps and headlamps and bar signs and apartment windows.

Half a kilometre more and Trent peeled off to the right, following the Mercedes round a sweeping bend into a tunnel. The swirling yammer of engines and tyres and trapped air was loud and urgent in his ears. He sealed his window and set the fans to MAX. No air conditioning. Detritus blitzed his face. The Peugeot had been parked beneath a sycamore tree for close to a week and fallen seedpods had worked their way inside the vents.

Fluorescent lights zipped by above Trent’s head. Industrial fans twirled in hypnotic circles. His mind started to drift, lured by memories of driving through this tunnel before. Memories where he was not alone. Memories where he was laughing, even.

He thought of Aimée. How she’d insisted on playing a dumb game whenever they’d entered the tunnel together. The aim was to hold your breath until you emerged on the other side. It was impossible to do. Physically beyond them. Maybe a free diver would be capable of it. But not Trent. And not Aimée. The tunnel was too long, running under the quay, coming up far into Joliette.

Aimée had liked to pretend otherwise. She’d loved making out that she was still holding her breath long after Trent had quit. He’d tell her she was cheating and she’d shake her head and point to her swollen cheeks, her pursed lips. Her big brown eyes would implore him to believe her.

Then he’d reach across and pinch her nostrils and she’d spit air and bat his hand away and laugh her childish, breathless laugh. She’d pretend to be offended. Protest her innocence. Promise him she could really do it.

Until the next time. When she’d cheat all over again.

Except now he found it hard to believe there could be a next time.

Might never be.

His chin jerked upright and he cursed himself, wrenching the jagged visions from his mind. He crouched forwards over the steering wheel. He squinted hard at the back of the Mercedes. He locked onto its red and amber light cluster like a gambler staring at the gaudy drums of a dive-bar slot machine, willing his last desperate chance to come in.

 

Chapter Two

Trent was no pursuit expert but he’d known a few in his time. One guy in particular considered himself a real tail artist. Much of his advice was foolish or obvious but something he’d said had lodged in Trent’s brain. Picture a thread of elastic between yourself and your mark. Imagine the elastic is at its natural resting point six car lengths behind your quarry. Get too close and the elastic becomes slack and tangles around your wheels. Fall more than twelve car lengths back and the elastic snaps.

Trent knew it was just a fancy way of saying don’t get too close or too far away, but he had to admit the image was a hard one to forget. He could picture the elastic now. One end looped around Jérôme Moreau’s neck, spooling out through the tinted rear window of the Mercedes, flapping and twirling in the humid night air. The other end tied to Trent’s left wrist, tugging at him as he dropped back a short way.

Traffic was light and the road familiar to him. He knew the route they would follow. It wasn’t long before he fell into a kind of trance, and as he visualised the straining length of elastic that linked him to the man who’d occupied his every waking thought for the past nine days – the individual responsible for the terror that had taken hold of him like a fever for close to two months now – a queer sense of calm washed over him.

Perhaps it was the perfumed breeze through the churning vents – the scent of baked earth and cooling tarmac and auto exhausts. Perhaps it was the lull of the engine, the flat droning of the Peugeot’s tyres. Perhaps it was his own gnawing fatigue, barely assuaged by the two espressos he’d sipped back at the café. But he preferred to think of it as the sense of a resolution drawing close. A reckoning of one variety or another.

He recalled other nights, in surer times, when he’d driven away from Marseilles with Aimée beside him, for no other reason than he needed something to occupy his mind and she’d understood and indulged his restlessness. They’d rarely talked or listened to the radio on these spontaneous trips of his. Mostly, it had been enough for them to be simply moving together, to be hurtling through the black together, cocooned in drowsy warmth and easy silence. Until, after an hour, maybe two, Aimée would squeeze his hand and smile in a weary daze, her eyes crinkling just so, and he’d know that it was time to turn and head home again. Back to the city. Back to whatever work stress or emotional funk he’d felt the desire to escape for a spell.

Tonight, though, he was alone, and the road ahead was wide and flat and dusty. It crested and dipped beneath a cloudless night sky, spattered with stars and a waning moon. The tarmac was bleached and austere in the glare of his headlamps. Broken white lines tapped out a furious Morse code he couldn’t hope to decipher.

He passed grubby high-rise apartment buildings pocked with satellite dishes, shambling houses with sagging roofs and austere motorist hotels with glowing signs advertising low nightly rates; passed graveyards with raised stone tombs and concrete overpasses blighted with graffiti and outdoor sports pitches laid with dense red clay; passed industrial warehouses and car dealerships and a swimming-pool concession with a giant, empty piscine propped up outside; passed floodlit petrol stations and disorderly road maintenance works.

He pursued the Mercedes. Matching its speed. Tracking its movements. Rapt by those cherry-red light clusters and the fluttering elastic snare that bound him to his prey.

* * *

The Mercedes left the autoroute some distance before Aix-en-Provence. Trent followed it through a collection of junctions and turns, then along a little-travelled back road that climbed steeply up the side of the broad valley, clinging to a buff stone escarpment that looked out over fields of wheat and rapeseed and terraced grape vines, and long ribbons of streaking red and white vehicle lights.

Trent had been up here in the day. He’d seen the barren, gnarly rocks, the tufts of wild grass and weeds, the bow-kneed umbrella pines and the straggly young saplings thirsty for water. He’d listened to the chirrup of cicadas. The scrabble of lizards. The creak and sputter of swinging irrigation booms in the fields down below.

Now the scene had been reduced to monochrome. The vast black sky and the parchment moon. The salt-grain bugs spinning in the whispery light of his headlamps. The faint luminescence of the instrument panel bathing his hands.

His palms were sweating, his knuckles bunched and aching. The lonely road had made it impossible for him to pursue the Mercedes without being spotted. The bodyguard had allowed a slip in security back at the opera house but it was hard to believe he’d forget to look in his mirrors. And Trent’s headlamps were strafing the interior of the Mercedes along with the road ahead. He was as good as tapping the guy on the shoulder.

But he’d always known the time would come for him to show his hand. The Moreau family mansion was less than two kilometres away. For the next few hundred metres, the road widened out and Trent downshifted, ready to overtake exactly where he’d planned.

He was just swooping out when everything changed.

First the dazzle of headlamps on full beam. Then the squeal of rubber and the red flare of brake lights.

Then the impact.

It was savage. A deafening smack.

The Mercedes had been struck from the side by a large off-road vehicle fitted with bull bars. The impact shunted it towards the loose gravel at the edge of the precipitous drop. The Mercedes fishtailed, then straightened up, then bucked wildly to the left, back towards safety.

Defensive driving. But too late to alter the outcome. The Mercedes had lost momentum. Lost position. The big jeep lurched forwards and turned and battered into it on a diagonal trajectory. Now the bodyguard had a choice. Keep driving and tumble off the side, down the high slope into trees and rocks and gullies. Or stop.

He braked more suddenly than Trent had anticipated. The tyres bore down into sandy tarmac and loose shale, the rubber growling in complaint. They locked and released, locked and released, the ABS working hard to wrench the Mercedes to a stuttering halt.

It was more efficient than the system on Trent’s ageing Peugeot. He felt the steering go light. The front end begin to skate. Too much speed. Fatal momentum. The Peugeot rammed into the back of the Mercedes with a violent jolt. Headlamps popped and shattered, bulbs extinguishing in an instant. The bonnet buckled and creased and Trent was flung forwards. No airbag to cushion the blow. He butted the top of the steering wheel and his ribs embraced the hub, the horn barking in complaint. Knees and elbows whacked plastic. Then his seat belt bit into his shoulder, jerking him back like a tardy friend heaving him away from a drunken bar brawl just as the first blow had slammed into his chest.

A dazed silence. A moment of stillness.

Trent heaved air. He croaked feebly.

His car had stalled. It was steaming.

Doors flew open on the attack vehicle. Trent could see now that it was a green Toyota Land Cruiser. Figures leapt out into the halogen glare and the drifts of tyre smoke. They barked commands. Trent counted three individuals. They were dressed in jeans and green army surplus jackets with black ski masks over their heads.

The men carried assault rifles. Stocks wedged against shoulders. Fingers clutching triggers. The lead guy fired a burst of rounds into the front of the Mercedes, stitching the bonnet, smashing the windscreen. Sparks leapt from the rifle muzzle, accompanied by a tattoo of deafening claps.

A second guy advanced on Trent and tapped hard on his window with his rifle. Trent lifted his hands by his face. He gazed at the eyes behind the mask. They were fidgety and alert. The guy shook his head. Just once. A warning.

The final guy grappled with the rear door on the Mercedes. It wouldn’t budge. He braced his foot against the side of the car and yanked hard. Still the door refused to give. He quit trying. He hefted his rifle above his shoulder and battered the glass with the sculpted polymer buttstock. The glass splintered, then gave out. He raked the fragments clear and leaned into the car.

Trent heard a woman’s scream, high and fractured. Smoke billowed up from the bonnet of the Peugeot or the exhaust of the Mercedes, tinged red by the vivid brake lights.

Now the guy was heaving at something. He kept pulling until Jérôme Moreau’s head and shoulders appeared through the window. Moreau thrashed and scrabbled in his dinner jacket, trying to escape the man’s grip. He didn’t seem so powerful all of a sudden. He looked about as helpless as it’s possible to get.

Trent strained forwards against his seat belt, thinking of the Beretta beneath his shirt. But the guy watching over him saw it. Another tap at the window. Another shake of the head.

Now Moreau’s waist was clear. He waved his arms frantically. There was a moment of resistance – Trent pictured Stephanie clinging to his ankles – before Moreau was wrenched free amid desperate shrieks and tinkling glass. His legs failed to support him. He stumbled and was dragged backwards towards the Land Cruiser, gloved hands clasped over his gaping mouth and wild eyes.

Meantime, the lead guy fired across the bonnet of the Mercedes, throwing up spurts of rock and debris at the side of the road. The bodyguard had kicked open the passenger door and was struggling to get out, but he was pinned by the gunfire.

The guy holding the rifle on Trent began to retreat into the blue-white glare of the Land Cruiser’s headlamps. His companion did likewise, shooting even after he’d clambered inside a door at the rear.

There was a fourth man inside. The driver.

The jeep backed up fast, then jolted forwards. It turned sharply and slammed against the side of the Mercedes, tearing free the Peugeot’s wing mirror as it sped away down the road.

Trent fumbled to release his seat belt. He grappled with the lever on his door and tumbled out onto his knees. He drew his Beretta from his holster and fired two rounds, his shots echoed by a series of percussive booms from somewhere close behind. A trio of yellow flares skittered across the rear of the jeep. Trent heard the dull clank of drilled metal.

But it was no use. The Land Cruiser was speeding away into the encroaching darkness. And he couldn’t risk hitting Moreau.

Trent slumped forwards. He released his Beretta and braced the heels of his palms against the coarse road surface. Something liquid slammed into his throat from his gut. He bowed his head. Fought the rush of fear and outrage that was whirling inside him.

Then, through the warped and tinny silence, he heard distressed cries from inside the Mercedes. The tread of hesitant footsteps.

The bodyguard was crabbing towards him, knees bent, arms straight, elbows locked, a large revolver – a Ruger Redhawk – clenched in his enormous hands. He was bleeding from a wound at the corner of his eye. His shirt was torn at the collar, his suit crumpled and dirtied and glittering with beads of shattered glass.

‘Who the hell are you?’ the bodyguard snarled, in savage French.

Trent gulped air and wiped a slick of drool from his chin.

He spoke French, too. Was fluent, in fact.

‘The guy you need now,’ he replied.

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Chris Ewan is the bestselling and award-winning author of six novels: The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam, The Good Thief's Guide to Paris, The Good Thief's Guide to Vegas, The Good Thief's Guide to Venice, The Good Thief's Guide to Berlin and the standalone thriller, Safe House, which was a no.1 UK bestseller. In 2011, he was voted one of America's favourite British authors by a Huffington Post poll.

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