Sat
Dec 5 2015 2:00pm

Desperate Measures: New Excerpt

Jo Bannister

Desperate Measures by Jo Bannister is the 3rd police procedural in the series following Deadly Virtues and Perfect Sins, where Gabriel Ash discovers his kidnapped wife and kids are still alive some four years later and goes to extraordinary lengths to seek justice and save his family (Available December 8, 2015).

When Gabriel Ash's wife and kids were kidnapped four years ago by Somali pirates, his life spiraled out of control. He left his job working for the British government and moved to a small town where he descended into near madness. But with the help of his dog, Patience, and his friendship with young police officer Hazel Best, his focus returned. So when he discovers that his wife is still alive, Ash is once again filled with hope and fear. Hope that he has another chance to find her and their two young sons; fear that, in trying, he may bring about their deaths.

Hazel is deeply worried for Ash. But even she is unprepared for what Ash seems willing to do to secure the safety of his wife and children. In fact, nothing is as it seems and loyalty, friendship, and family bonds will be called into question. When Ash learns who was behind the events that wrecked his life and his sanity, even the resourceful Hazel might not be able to keep him from getting hurt. How much is Ash willing to sacrifice in order to bring his family home and bring justice to those responsible?

Chapter 1

LAURA FRY DROVE THROUGH THE WET NIGHT as if lives depended on it. Possibly they did.

It was a long time now since emergency calls had been part of her daily routine. She saw her clients in a comfortable office overlooking Norbold’s Jubilee Park, during office hours, over coffee and the occasional shortbread. They were all people with problems in their lives, and though as a therapist she did her best to help them, and believed she was broadly successful, it was only realistic to acknowledge that sometimes people on the edge totter over.

This wasn’t the first time she’d had a client do the mental equivalent of bungee jumping on knicker elastic. It wouldn’t be the first time if the outcome was a nasty mess on the pavement. Usually, though, it was someone else’s job to clean up. A psychiatric emergency response team if the client was still essentially intact, an ambulance if he was badly broken, a meat wagon if all the urgency had already gone from the situation. Laura would expect to hear what had happened sooner rather than later, but it was unusual these days for her to be involved while a crisis was still in progress.

This was different for two reasons. Gabriel Ash was certainly a client, had been for two years, and remained in need of her professional services, but he was not in fact mentally ill. His problems didn’t originate within himself; they’d been inflicted on him. And, perhaps because of that, she’d come to think of him as a friend as well as a client. So when he needed her, she came. If that meant coming out in the early hours of a Sunday morning, no sign yet of the midsummer sun, virtually no vehicles on the roads, only herself and the traffic lights and the streetlamps reflecting off the rain-washed tarmac, so be it.

She drove straight to the big stone house in Highfield Road, abandoned her car in the drive, and hurried to the front door. It opened before she reached it, and a young woman wearing a checked shirt and a worried expression ushered her inside.

“It’s good of you to come.”

“Where is he?”

“In the kitchen. I’ve got the range going. He’s icy cold.”

“That’s the shock.”

The big man was hunched bearlike in a fireside chair. Someone, probably the girl, had put a blanket around his shoulders, but it wasn’t enough. Gabriel Ash was shaking like a man in an epileptic fit.

The dog was there, too, pressed against her owner’s legs, as if the only comfort she could think to offer him was the warmth of her slender body.

“Gabriel,” said the girl. “Laura’s here.”

He looked up, dark eyes sunk deeper than normal, all the color gone from his face. He nodded spasmodically. “Thank you.” His teeth chattered on the words.

“Good grief, Gabriel—you look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

It had taken Laura Fry six months to get Ash to start talking to her. He’d never been the sort of client to gush out his woes at the sight of a psychiatrist’s couch. (In fact, she’d dispensed with her couch when she found clients getting too comfortable, helping themselves to the shortbread and settling in for the afternoon.) She didn’t expect he’d be able to tell her anything useful now. She turned to the girl. “What happened?”

*   *   *

Where to begin? Five years ago, when he was a government security analyst, a man with a wife and sons and a scheme for combatting Somali piracy? Four years ago, when the pirates struck back by kidnapping his family? Six months ago, when he was a shattered wreck of a man, living like a recluse in the house where he was born, barely venturing out except when the white dog he’d taken in required it?

Or nine hours ago, when he talked to his wife by video call on a computer in Cambridge?

Hazel Best took a deep breath and tried to put it into some kind of context. She knew, and was grateful, that Laura Fry was familiar with the background—that she didn’t have to start by explaining everything that had happened to Gabriel Ash, only what had just happened.

“He was following up old leads. People he’d talked to before Cathy and the boys disappeared. One of them pinged on his radar, so we followed him. To Cambridge. Gabriel was right: the man was involved—isinvolved. He wasn’t just in touch with the pirates, he was working for them. Sending them information on arms shipments. That’s his business—arms exports.”

Laura looked at her in astonishment. “You did call the police? Please tell me you called the police.”

“I am the police,” Hazel reminded her wryly. “Except when I’m on leave, like now. And no, we didn’t. For the same reason Stephen Graves didn’t. The pirates have a hostage. They’ll kill her if we don’t do exactly what they want.”

Laura was shaking her head. Casual acquaintances thought her a severe woman, with her narrow face and upswept hair and statement spectacles. None of that was for effect, but it wasn’t all there was to her. She was a strong-minded woman. She was also, even beyond the demands of her profession, a caring one.

“It doesn’t have to matter,” she said slowly and precisely. Her sharp jaw came up, daring them to argue. “It’s a horrible thing to say, but in hostage situations it comes down to damage limitation. What’s the best thing for the greatest number of people? You pay a ransom, and more people get kidnapped. You refuse, and one person dies, but that’s probably the end of it. You cannot make it a worthwhile strategy for terrorists to kidnap people. It’s one of those lines you have to hold, whatever the short-term cost.”

“It’s Cathy Ash.”

When you drop a bomb, it radiates force and matter, and light, but most of all it radiates sound. Imagine dropping a bomb that radiated silence. That was what Hazel Best had done: she’d dropped a bomb that blasted silence into all the corners of the shabby, shadowy room. Under the table and chairs, behind the dresser, into the awkward gap beside the range where Ash had squeezed a dog basket although Patience had expressed a preference for the sofa the first time she entered the house. More than that: this silence seemed to bundle within it the impossibility of sound. For longer than a man can hold his breath, it seemed impossible that any of those present would find a way of breaking it. Of returning sound to the world.

Of all of them, perhaps Laura had been in this position most often before. Startled wordless by a development unpredictable even as the expression of a damaged mind. She recovered quicker than most people would have done; and she knew that what was important now was not that she said the right thing but that she didn’t say the wrong thing.

She said carefully, by way both of clarifying and of inviting clarification, “Gabriel thought he was talking to his wife?”

Ash looked up at her. “It was Cathy.”

“You saw her? You recognized her?”

He nodded fitfully.

Laura bit her lip. “Gabriel—is it possible that you saw what you wanted to see? If this woman was being held by the people who took your wife, it wouldn’t need a great leap of imagination to think it was her. I’ve seen these video transmissions—they’re not great quality, even if they’re coming from somewhere much closer than Africa. And it’s been four years. If she’s alive, if she is with these people, Cathy won’t look like she looked four years ago.…”

Hazel said quietly, “She recognized Gabriel, too.”

This was not par for the course, even in leading-edge psychotherapy. It was the equivalent of a patient who thought he was a duck actually laying an egg. It was a game changer. Laura Fry didn’t often feel out of her depth, but she did now. “You have to go to the police.” Even to herself she sounded breathless.

“No.” Ash’s tone was not the one she was familiar with. His tribulations, the breakdown they had provoked, had left him desperately uncertain of the world and his place within it, and all the time she had known him that was how he spoke: softly, troubled, afraid of drawing attention to himself. This abrupt determination was something new. At least new to her. A flash of intuition suggested that this was how he had been, always, before the sky fell.

“This isn’t something you can cope with alone.”

“Maybe not. But I’ll decide what we do about it, and when. No one else is better equipped to. And no one has a better right.”

Laura felt her jaw hanging and shut it. He looked like hell. He was still visibly shaking. But something inside his mind was standing up on its hind legs for the first time in four years, and she had the distinct feeling that if she tried to stand in front of it, to catch or corral it, it would run her down.

She turned to the girl. This was the first time she’d met Hazel Best, but she knew a fair bit about her. The fall from grace of Norbold’s senior police officer had been documented by the local newspaper; certain aspects of it were not public knowledge, but were the preserve of an informed inner circle to which Laura Fry belonged; and some of the details were known only to those who were there when Superintendent Johnny Fountain met his death. Hazel Best was one of them. Gabriel Ash was another. And Ash told Laura things he would otherwise confide only in his dog.

So she knew that Hazel was, at twenty-six, a little older than the average police probationer—not, indeed, a girl at all, despite the initial impression created by her fresh complexion, unimproved by cosmetics, her wide green eyes, worried now into a frown, and the mass of fair curls partially tamed by an elastic band at the nape of her neck. In jeans and a red-checked shirt, she looked as if she might work on a farm.

The first hint that the whole might be greater than the sum of the parts came when the clear green eyes sought out Laura’s own. There was a depth there that, primed as she was by her uncommon knowledge, still managed to surprise the therapist. A depth of intelligence that was nonetheless open and honest and strong. These are not characteristics that inevitably go together. But that brief clash of gazes told Laura Fry that Ash hadn’t imagined anything that he’d told her about Hazel Best. This was a young woman purposeful enough to shoot a gangster dead when the alternative was something worse.

Laura cleared her throat. “You were there? You saw her, too?”

“I saw her.” Hazel nodded. “I didn’t recognize her. I’d only ever seen photographs.”

“So—can you be sure it was his wife?”

“She recognized him,” Hazel said again. “She said his name.”

“It couldn’t have been…?” But Laura didn’t bother to finish the sentence. There was no credible alternative. She made a helpless little gesture with her hands, a sort of low-level shrug. “I didn’t think she was still alive. Nobody thought so, except maybe Gabriel, and I think even he only believed because he couldn’t bear not to. What did she say to him? What did he say to her? How did he”—she groped for a word, could do no better than this—“handle it?”

Before Hazel could answer, Ash growled at her: “He probably handled it very badly. He was a bit gobsmacked, to be honest. But he’s sitting right here, and he hasn’t gone deaf, and he can probably talk to you himself if you keep the questions simple.”

Laura felt her eyes popping, made the effort to blink. “Jesus, Gabriel,” she exclaimed, “you need a therapist like I need a personal astrologer. I’m sorry. You look like shit. But obviously you’re thinking fairly clearly.”

Gabriel Ash vented an unsteady sigh. “No, I’m sorry. And I don’t know how clearly I’m thinking. But I know what I saw and heard. I know what it means. Cathy is alive. Somewhere, my wife is alive. In Somalia, being held hostage by men whose only use for her is as a human shield, but alive.”

Laura didn’t know how to ask tactfully. But worse than saying it wrong would be not saying it at all. “What about the boys?”

He shook his shaggy mane of dark hair. “I don’t know.”

“You didn’t ask her?”

His deep eyes burned like coals. “Of course I asked her. They didn’t let her answer. They moved the camera off her. They—I don’t know—I think they hurt her. I could hear her crying.” He could still hear her—the lonely, desperate wail that had less to do with fists or even guns being shaken in her face, and more because for a few brief seconds a veil had parted in the nightmare that had engulfed Cathy Ash and a face she must almost have forgotten had flickered there, and then it had gone. “When the picture came back, she was reading from a card. Nothing about the boys. Only that I had to do what they said or they’d kill her. If I went to the police, they’d kill her. If I went to the Foreign Office, they’d kill her. If I tried to find them, they’d kill her.”

“Did you believe them?”

Ash wasn’t a man to whom hatred came easily. But there was no mistaking the hatred in the whiplash glance he threw at Laura Fry. “Yes. I believed them.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Wait for them to tell me what they want.”

“They’ll contact you again?”

“I imagine so.”

Chapter 2

THE DOG, PATIENCE, STOOD UP, ALERT, all long legs and pointing nose. She was looking down the hall. The doorbell rang.

Surprised, Hazel looked at her watch. Even on a weekday the milkmen would still have been in their beds. She moved toward the front of the house. “Whoever it is, I’ll get rid of them.”

This soon after the solstice, a paleness was already creeping into the sky. But the streetlamps were still lit, and light from the hall spilled out as she opened the door. If there had been anyone standing on the step, she’d have seen him. There wasn’t.

If she’d taken another ten seconds to reach the door, she’d never have known who’d rung the bell. Thinking better of it, he’d retreated as far as the gate and was disappearing behind the hedge, a grubbier than usual teenage boy in a rugby shirt for a team that wouldn’t have let him into its clubhouse.

“Saturday?”

Hazel got the distinct impression that he wished he hadn’t come. But now he’d been spotted, he had fractionally too much pride to make a run for it. He ground to a reluctant halt, waiting outside the gate.

Hazel hurried down the path. “It is you. How are you? We haven’t seen you since … well, for weeks.” She glanced uncertainly back at the house. “Listen, I’d ask you in, but we’re involved in a bit of a crisis.”

The boy looked at her, all eyes, like a famine victim. His thin lip twisted in an ironic grin. “Another one?” On a good day he looked about twelve, on a bad one about forty. This was not a good day. In fact he was sixteen. He looked thin and cold in the early-morning chill, and more than that he looked …

She beat the thought back. If she admitted to herself that yes, that skimpy sixteen-year-old boy who lived in squats and had as near nothing as can be measured but still once risked it all for Gabriel Ash looked afraid, regardless of what was going on in the house behind her she could not for shame have turned him away—would have had to make the time to find out what he needed. As long as she could remember he’d been a street kid, a survivor; she could leave him on the back burner while the difficult events of today were dealt with. There would be a moment for Saturday later.

She returned his grin wryly. “Yes, another one. Can I tell you later? It’s all hands to the pumps in there.”

The boy nodded. “Anytime. Catch you.” He let go of the gate and it rattled a moment before the latch fell.

Deep inside herself Hazel knew she was behaving badly. Saturday deserved better. He hadn’t come with the first light of a summer’s day because a gap in his social diary had prompted him to look up old friends. He’d needed something. Ash wasn’t the only one with problems. She knew this boy, and owed him more than to tidy him out of the way until she could spare the time to help him.

Guiltily, she called after him. “Saturday—do you need anything? Money? Anything?”

Already she had only a back view of him shaking his head. “I’m fine.”

Hazel knew it wasn’t true. She knew she should have gone after him and found out what was going wrong in his life. What more was going wrong. But she told herself that his problems were probably the ones he’d always had and could wait, while Ash’s demanded that decisions be reached pretty well immediately. She bit her lip, but she went back inside.

“Who was it?”

“Saturday.”

Laura Fry looked confused.

So, for a moment, did Ash. So much had happened since then. So much had happened even in the last twenty-four hours. “Oh—yes. Was he all right?”

“He looked all right.” Hazel knew as she said it that it was disingenuous.

“What did he want?”

“He didn’t say.”

Ash nodded distractedly. “I’ll…” The sentence went unfinished because, even one word in, he knew he wasn’t going to be doing anything about Saturday anytime soon. Instead he looked at Laura. “Thank you for coming. Hazel thought I was going into meltdown. Perhaps I was. I feel steadier now.”

“I can give you a bit of sedative, if you think it would help.”

He shook his head. “No. Thank you. I need to think. Can I call you later, if I need to talk?”

Her V-shaped smile was solemn. “Of course you can. Anytime. I mean that, Gabriel—anytime. But if there’s nothing more I can do here, maybe I’ll grab another hour’s sleep before breakfast.” One uptilted eyebrow made it a question.

Ash nodded. “Next time I go ape I’ll try to do it during office hours.”

Hazel saw her out. Laura paused in the doorway. “You were right to call me. Call me again if you think you should.”

“You think he’s wrong, don’t you?” said Hazel. “About handling this himself.”

After a moment Laura nodded. “I’m concerned that, in trying to do what’s best for Cathy, he’s going to pull himself to pieces. I hope it ends well—that he finds a way of bringing her home. But there are a lot more ways this can go badly, and if it does, he’s going to blame himself. If he can’t save her, I don’t know what he’ll do.”

A chill settled on Hazel’s spine. “Suicide? Gabriel?”

“It’s a possibility. We need to be alert to it. Or he may go the other way.”

“Other way?”

“Try to destroy the rest of the world.”

This was Gabriel Ash they were discussing, the gentlest man Hazel had ever known. It was impossible for her to imagine him going Rambo. But she knew Laura wasn’t trying to frighten her for fun. “I’ll keep in touch.”

“Do.”

Copyright © 2015 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 thriller, Death in High Places, was nominated for the RT Reviewers' Choice Best Book Award.

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