Broken Linesby Jo Bannister
After witnessing a terrible accident, Detective Sergeant Donovan is under suspicion for attempted murder--and Bannister's compelling trio of police officers must race against time to find the true criminal.
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Donovan was thinking about women. He often found himself thinking about women when he was riding his motorbike. It might have been the perfect balance of the machine between his thighs, it might have been the way it responded instantly to his every desire; it might even have been the way that keeping it tanked up ate holes in his salary. The fuel gauge was getting low now. Donovan's idea of a perfect Sunday was getting on the bike and travelling: not going anywhere, just riding. He avoided beauty spots, preferred having somewhere less pretty to himself.
He'd been to the north shore of Norfolk, to bathe his soul in an icy gale that had crossed no other land on its journey from the Arctic. Even in summer it's a quiet bit of coast: in January it's desolate. Donovan liked desolate. He'd cruised empty roads and gritty lanes with the frost still crisp in the verges, and ended up on a shingle beach miles long where the only other living souls were a man and his dog. Brian Boru would have liked it too, but Donovan still hadn't figured out how to carry a pit bull terrier on a motorcycle.
And what he was thinking about women was, how few there were who thought it was worth being cold and wet, bent double on a motorbike for hours at a time, in order to stroll on a pebble beach in the dead of winter. Off hand he could only think of one who might have enjoyed it, and not only was she married to someone else but she was his boss. Otherwise he'd have asked her along. Cal Donovan was a loner by nature and custom but he liked women, in principle. It was the practice he had difficultieswith; mainly, getting enough. He wasn't good at personal relationships. He knew what the problem was: being too intense when a degree of flexibility was called for, and letting his mind wander when it wasn't. Like thinking about women when he was riding his bike. He also did it the other way round.
A mile from home, coming into Castlemere down the Cambridge Road, he checked the fuel again and thought he'd fill up before the garage closed. He probably wouldn't need the bike until tomorrow but in his line of work you couldn't count on it.
An early dusk had set in before he left Norfolk, by now it was entirely dark. The lights of the filling station rose on the tarmac horizon like a liner at sea. Donovan swung off the road and gunned to a halt by a pump. He had all four to choose from. The place was empty, there was just him, the attendant in his brilliant emporium and a small red van left slantwise across the forecourt, the engine still running, presumably by someone who only wanted a packet of cigarettes.
Donovan had noticed how people buying fish, paint or a bottle of wine would park a car but those who wanted only a packet of cigarettes would abandon it where it stopped. Donovan could get quite ratty about inconsiderate parking. People who knew him slightly, enough to know he lived on a narrow-boat and rode a motorbike and visited the barber about as often as other people visit the dentist, had him down as a Hell's Angel. In fact he was a bit of a puritan.
When the bike was fed he padded across the forecourt, his helmet over his arm, unzipping the pockets of his leathers until he found one with some money in. On an impulse, as he passed the red van he reached inside and turned off the engine, taking the key with him.
There were only two people in the shop, the assistant behind the till and the customer he was serving, muffled against the weather in a long coat and balaclava. Donovan dropped the keys over his shoulder. `Don't leave it running,' he growled, `somebody might steal it.'
The only warning he got that he'd misread the situation was the look on the assistant's face. He knew Ash Kumani well enough to expect a nod of recognition or maybe a grin in reply. Instead the man's eyes flicked briefly at him, rimed with fear.
Donovan frowned, and his lips pursed to say `What--?' But before he got the word out the man in front of him, the small man muffled up against the icy New Year, spun on his heel like a dancer and hit him in the face hard enough to floor him.
Donovan had been a policeman for more than ten years, he'd been hit more times than he could remember. He'd taken systematic beatings from men who knew just how to do it, and collected black eyes simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But he didn't remember being taken so totally by surprise before. Pain exploded up the side of his face, and even as he reeled against the videos he was dimly aware that no fist had done that. Then he hit the tiles; the coloured lights bled together and faded to black.
It was more a lapse than a loss of consciousness, though, because when the world started to come back he knew he'd only been away a few seconds. He saw Ash Kumani coming round the counter and bending over him anxiously, and heard the roar of an engine mount and diminish as the van shot off with a Grand-Prix flourish. His hand, wandering vaguely to his face, met the cool slickness of blood.
`What did he hit me with?' Somehow that was important to him, that he hadn't been felled by a man smaller than himself equipped with nothing more than his bare fists.
`A gun. A pistol.' Kumani gestured at Donovan's face, the skin split over the outer edge of the high cheekbone. `You'll need a stitch in that. Sit still, I'll call 999 and then I'll fix you a dressing.' Kumani kept an eclectic garage shop, lint and sticking plaster were no strain on his resources, and by keeping busy he could fend off the reaction he felt as an incipient tremble in his knees. He'd be all right until he had time to acknowledge the fact that he'd just lost his weekend takings to an armed robber in a ski mask.
But Donovan was on his feet and heading for the door before the diminishing roar of the engine had entirely died. Cambridge Road offered only two possibilities: into Castlemere or out to The Levels. The police would come up the road from town so the van had headed east.
He paused just long enough to find his helmet and jam it on. `Pay you later.' He headed for his bike at a slightly unsteady jog.
Kumani's horrified exclamation -- `You can't ride like that!' -- was lost on him, and he had the bike under way before anyone arrived from Queen's Street to stop him.
He'd been riding motorbikes since he was twelve, always said he could do it in his sleep; now he was going to find out. If he'd been any less stunned he'd have recognized that it wasn't only his own neck he was risking. But that was sophisticated thinking for a man who'd just been pistol-whipped, and he was heading for The Levels at sixty miles an hour before he'd wondered if he should or even could.
After the slightly shabby Victorian suburbs around the garage Cambridge Road gave way first to a classy semi-rural area of big expensive houses in extensive grounds and then to farmland. At this time of year the fields were either in stubble or in plough and there was nothing to hide the distant lights of a speeding van; a fact which was probably not appreciated by the driver. When he turned off towards the dozen houses and a church that constituted Chevening village his only purpose could be to evade pursuit. There was nothing that way that could be of any use to him, but there weren't so many roads out here that he could afford to pass one if he wanted to break his trail.
All the same, he'd have been better passing that one. Donovan gave a little grunt of satisfaction: `Gotcha!' Narrow and cornering sharply round fields that predated the internal combustion engine, Chevening Moss Road was impossible for a four-wheeled vehicle to take at speed. If he met another vehicle coming the other way the raider would have to slow to a crawl should every squad car Queen's Street could muster be behind him. As long as Donovan kept the rhythm of his cornering fluent, which wouldn't normally be a problem but just might be this time, he could cut that half-mile lead back to nothing about the time the van reached the village.
In daylight the spire of Chevening Parish Church was visible from far out across The Levels. When the fens were trackless wetland church spires served the same purpose as lighthouses to ships at sea. But in the dark the first you knew was the road doing a sudden switchback round the graveyard wall. Donovan saw the van's brake lights flare, and the beam of the headlamps raked wildly as the rear end broke away. He braked too, ready to stop, but somehow the van recovered, vanishing out of the dogleg turn as Donovan came into it.
Though he was unsighted for a few seconds then, Donovan got a moment's warning of what was going to happen. Headlights gleamed off the reflectors on the corner: another car was on the roundabout immediately beyond the church. Donovan just had time to think, `Please God, let it be coming this way.' Then the reflectors went dark as the lights veered off, the vehicle crossing the path of the speeding van.
The raider must have seen the other vehicle, must have known it had right of way. He might have thought he could beat it across the roundabout, that it would brake when he failed to; or he may have been checking his mirror at the critical moment, aware of the single light gaining on him from behind and wondering if it was pursuit or coincidence. For whatever reason he kept going and, instead of meshing like the cogs on a wheel, momentarily the two vehicles tried to occupy the same space.
Through his helmet Donovan heard the squeal of brakes swallowed almost instantly in an impact like an explosion. Lights cartwheeled across the sky. Afraid he'd swing round the last corner and pile into them he braked again, harder, and fought the resentful machine under him to a more-or-less controlled halt. The crash scene opened up before him, lit by the three Victorian lamp-posts that constituted Chevening's public lighting scheme.
The red van had hit a white saloon and bowled it across the roundabout like rolling a bottle. Between rolling and sliding it must have covered forty metres, the tortured metal shrieking in agony, before coming to rest on its side against an oak tree overhanging the road.
The van itself had veered left into Fletton Road. Somehow it had stayed upright as it ricocheted like a pin-ball off the churchyard wall, but the whole near-side had been stripped to the metal before it ended its career under the backside of a parked digger. Now it looked as if the digger had sat on its bonnet. The van's engine had gone as far under as it could and then come back into the cab.
`God almighty!' whispered Donovan. All at once a cut face seemed small beer. He couldn't see how the occupants of either vehicle could have escaped with their lives.
But he had to be sure. Carefully now -- he was probably the only one left for whom things could get any worse -- he rode on to the roundabout and left the bike with its light shining back at the blind corner to warn anyone coming in his wake. He threw off his helmet and, fighting the weakness that adrenalin had thus far kept at bay, crossed the road to the white saloon.
It had been a good car once but it was done now. There might be a few parts deep in the engine block that could be salvaged, but in every way that counted it was a write-off. If it had had furry dice, the furry dice would have been a write-off.
Or just possibly not. Because modern cars are constructed in such a way that everything collapses and crumples and falls apart in order to safeguard the passengers inside. When Donovan steeled himself to look he met not a shatter of blood and bones and grey flesh forced into impossible contortions but shock-dilated eyes in the white face of a woman who, so far as he could see, hadn't a mark on her.
Her mouth opened and closed a couple of times before anything came out. Then she said -- whispered, rather, but with the exquisite politeness that a totally unfamiliar situation engenders -- `Please, could you help me?'
Relief almost made Donovan laugh. It certainly made him forget his manners. `Jesus, lady, I thought you were mincemeat!' The offside doors were under the car. He found the nearside handle sandwiched into a concertina fold of the door and pulled but nothing happened, and judging from the seized-solid feel of it nothing was going to. Without much hope Donovan tried the rear door but the whole frame was distorted, it would take cutting equipment to shift it.
He thought for a moment, sniffing the air like a dog. He couldn't smell petrol. The engine was dead. `Can you turn the ignition off?' She didn't answer. He tried again. `The ignition. The key. Can you reach it to turn it off?'
`Oh -- yes.' Donovan saw her right hand move, awkwardly because her body was tipped on her right side, held there by the seat-belt. He heard the key turn.
`OK, good. Now, are you hurt?'
She needed a moment's notice of that too. `I don't know. I don't think so.'
`Can you move your legs?'
`Y-yes. But not much, there's something in the way.'
From the state of the car it could have been anything including the tow bar. Donovan wiped his forearm across his eyes. `Listen, you'd best stay where you are till help gets here. It won't be long, and they'll be able to force the door and get you out easy. The only way out right now is through the windscreen, and if you are hurt I could do some damage pulling you about. Keep still and be patient. You're in no danger, there's no need to be frightened. I have to go check the other vehicle.'
That seemed to bring home to her what had happened. Until then she was the victim of some incomprehensible disaster as impersonal as a lightning strike or an avalanche, and all she knew was to be grateful there was someone on hand to help her. But that brought it back. Another vehicle? -- she was hit by another vehicle! She was driving round the roundabout when a red van that should have stopped at the broken line came straight on and hit her at full tilt. It wasn't an accident, not in any real sense -- someone did this to her! Outrage flooded through her. `He hit me! I was on the roundabout, and he crossed the line and hit me!'
Donovan nodded. `He's pretty maced up too, by the look of it. Worse than you. If there's nothing I can do there I'll come straight back.'
`Don't leave me!' From a whisper her voice rose to a wail.
Donovan flinched. `I have to. Look, there are people coming now -- I'll get someone to wait with you. I'll be back as soon as I can.'
Her free left hand came towards him through the broken windscreen, imploring, seeking contact. He stepped back quickly, then, feeling like a worm, turned his back on her.
People were coming from the little knot of houses round the church. He sent the first to phone for the police, Fire Brigade and Ambulance -- the cars from Queen's Street wouldn't be able to do much more in this situation than he could -- and the second to keep the woman company. `I don't think there's any chance of a fire now, but if I'm wrong yell for me and get out of the way.'
`What about her?'
But he had no answer. He took off at an uncertain run towards Fletton Road.
Even more than the car the van looked as if it had been through one of those compactors that reduce a ton of engineering to an Art Deco coffee-table. There was hardly enough paint left to show what colour it had been. The bonnet was crushed downwards and the pillars of the windscreen inwards. The height of the front portion of the cab had been halved.
Again Donovan gritted his teeth to look. This was a man who'd hit him in the face with a gun, but that didn't make it any easier to see him reduced to the filling in a steel sandwich.
And again he didn't see what he expected to. Firstly, though the driver had certainly come off worse than the woman in the car -- there was blood on his forehead and bubbling through a rent in the leg of his jeans -- he was surprisingly active, struggling to haul his legs out of the compacted well of the van on to the front seats. He was also too noisy for someone at death's door, sobbing in shock and terror and pain.
The second thing Donovan noticed was that he knew this man. Mikey Dickens was a junior member of The Jubilee's leading crime family, and if there'd been any time in the last ten minutes for the policeman to ask himself who was most likely to have robbed Ash Kumani at gunpoint, Mikey Dickens was the answer he'd have come up with. The small stature and ready violence should have been enough to tell him.
And the third thing he noticed was that, unlike the white saloon, all around the van stank of petrol.
Meet the Author
Jo Bannister lives in Northern Ireland, where she worked as a journalist and editor on local newspapers.Since giving up the day job, her books have been shortlisted for a number of awards.Most of her spare time is spent with her horse and dog, or clambering over archaeological sites.She is currently working on a new series of psychological crime/thrillers.
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