The Distance: A Thriller

The Distance: A Thriller

by Helen Giltrow


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The Distance: A Thriller by Helen Giltrow

A dark, ultra-contemporary, and relentlessly paced debut thriller about a London society woman trying to put her secret criminal past behind her, and the hit man who comes to her with an impossible job she can't refuse.

Charlotte Alton is an elegant socialite. But behind the locked doors of her sleek, high-security apartment in London's Docklands, she becomes Karla. Karla's business is information. Specifically, making it disappear. She's the unseen figure who, for a commanding price, will cover a criminal's tracks. A perfectionist, she's only made one slip in her career—several years ago she revealed her face to a man named Simon Johanssen, an ex-special forces sniper turned killer-for-hire. After a mob hit went horrifically wrong, Johanssen needed to disappear, and Karla helped him. He became a regular client, and then, one day, she stepped out of the shadows for reasons unclear to even herself. Now, after a long absence, Johanssen has resurfaced with a job, and he needs Karla's help again. The job is to take out an inmate—a woman—inside an experimental prison colony. But there's no record the target ever existed. That's not the only problem: the criminal boss from whom Johanssen has been hiding is incarcerated there. That doesn't stop him. It's Karla's job to get him out alive, and to do that she must uncover the truth. Who is this woman? Who wants her dead? Is the job a trap for Johanssen or for her? But every door she opens is a false one, and she's getting desperate to protect a man—a killer—to whom she's inexplicably drawn. Written in stylish, sophisticated prose, The Distance is a tense and satisfying debut in which every character, both criminal and law-abiding, wears two faces, and everyone is playing a double game.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385536998
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/09/2014
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

HELEN GILTROW is a former bookseller and freelance editor whose writing has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award and the Daily Telegraph's Novel in a Year Competition in the United Kingdom. She lives in Oxford, England. This is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Day 1: Wednesday–Day 2: Thursday


I’ve always known the past might hunt me down—despite all my precautions, the false trails and the forged histories and everything else I’ve done to distance myself from it.

But not like this.

It happens while I’m standing in the interval crush of a Royal Opera House bar, listening politely as a portly banker expounds on the proper staging of Gotterdammerung’s final act: I glance up, and in that second my two lives—lives that I have taken so much care to keep apart—grind against each other like tectonic plates and set the room rocking.

He’s loitering at the edge of a nearby group but angled fractionally away from them: he isn’t with them, though you might be forgiven for thinking that he is. The beautiful suit, the tie, the glass of champagne held loosely in the fingers of his right hand, even his haircut and his stance, mark him as someone who belongs here. Only I know that he doesn’t.

Two years. Two years, and only one reason he’d be here. He’s come for me.

A beat—I swallow my shock—then I turn back to my companion and smile and provide the right response. But my peripheral vision strains for a fix on him: I need to watch him, as if he’s some unpredictable animal, potentially dangerous. I want to turn and stare. But right here, right now, I’m Charlotte Alton—polite, wealthy, idle Charlotte Alton—and she emphatically doesn’t know the man I’ve just seen. Instead I must maneuver myself so I can survey the crowd over the banker’s shoulder. By the time I’ve done so, he’s vanished.

Carefully, discreetly, I sweep the room.

It’s a sold-out performance, and the bar—the biggest in the opera house, like a giant Victorian glasshouse under a high curved roof—is packed, the north and south balcony tables full, people crowding around the circular copper counter of the central servery. Too many men in dark suits who could be him but aren’t. A wall of rippling mirrors doubles the size of the place, reflecting the elaborate ironwork of the huge arched window and turning the crowd into a throng. He and his reflection have melted into it. At the top of the mirrored wall, the glass oblong of the upper bar’s balcony seems to float suspended above us: the people lounging against its rail look like boxed exhibits. I glance up there, too. He isn’t among them.

But he’s here, somewhere, and he’s found me. Of course he has. And whose fault is that?

The five-minute bell goes. Around me, glasses are drained. “Here, let me”—the banker takes mine, but as he turns away another of our party, a senior City lawyer, lays a hand on my arm—“Charlotte, I was hoping for a word—shall we?” So I fall into step beside him as we join the patient shuffle toward the auditorium, and I smile, and focus, while the blood beats harder behind my eyes.

Even though I’m searching for him, I don’t see him until he’s right beside me. He doesn’t look at me, but his hand finds mine. Then he’s gone, blending into the crush around me.

The lawyer and I move along the corridor toward the grand tier: the lawyer is on the board of a charity, there’s an auction coming up, might I possibly . . .  The object nestles in my closed hand. It’s sticky and warm with perspiration when, bending to take my seat, I slip it into my clutch bag.

It is a tiny Christmas-tree decoration, a little red-and-purple bauble that has embedded glitter into the skin of my palm.

The lights dim. The final act begins. Wagner’s tale of assumed identities, broken promises, betrayal, and murder storms toward its end. I barely register it.

The bauble is a message, a prearranged signal in a code devised on the fly years ago. Simon Johanssen wants a meeting. But not with discreet, well-bred Charlotte Alton. Johanssen wants a meeting with Karla.

The easy excuses come unbidden. You haven’t been near a client in months. You’re out of the game. Send Craigie. He’ll deal with it. It’s what you pay him for.

It’s a pointless debate. I’m going anyway.

The early hours of the next morning. The cold is like grit, stinging the eyes.

Up on the main road in this part of East London there are glass-fronted office blocks and smart, new light-industrial units, and in the distance the towers of Docklands—my apartment building among them—glitter like something out of a fairy tale, but from down here they’re invisible and a world away: a burned-out van slumps on its axles beside the approach road, and the gutters are choked with rubbish.

An amusements company uses the site for storage: decrepit fairground rides, tatty street decorations. Broken machinery litters the yard like the fossilized remains of prehistoric beasts: a giant petrified octopus with its tentacles drawn up around it, a stretch of track like the curved spine of a tyrannosaur. Inside the warehouse, underpowered fluorescent tubes send a grimy wash of light across the aisles, illuminating a sheared-off dodgem car still with its pole, a painted board with the words the ultimate thrill.

It’s January, I’ve been here for twenty minutes, and I’m cold. Perhaps that’s why I miss it.

Not movement. I would have spotted movement. He is simply there, in the gloom, watching me.

“I’m sorry,” he says, but still I find myself sucking in air.

It’s as if he’s been here all along, among the grinning plastic Santas, the concertinaed Chinese New Year dragons, and only a change of focus has brought him into view. Or as if he’s developed fractionally, like the grass growing or the accumulation of dust: the shadows thickening into human form.

He’s thirty-eight years old. Six feet tall and spare, with the lean muscle mass of a distance athlete. The beautiful suit’s gone; now his clothes are understated, anonymous, his wristwatch mass produced. The bones of his knuckles are prominent, and scarred.

As always I’m struck by his stillness.

“I wanted to be sure we were alone,” he says. His voice is quiet, polite. The flat northern vowels betray his roots; nothing else does.

Two years since we last met. Fielding couldn’t tell me where he’d gone. The trail he left petered out in Amsterdam. A scatter of rumors after that came to nothing. I’d almost come to believe that he was dead. But here he is.

So why now, after all this time? Why come to find me now?

Instead I ask, “You didn’t try the number?” and I sound calm.

He says, “I didn’t know the man who answered.”

“He works for me. He’s safe.”

He nods, but his gaze goes sideways, away from me.

“Two years,” I say. “I thought we’d lost you.”

“I was keeping my head down.”

“Any particular reason?”

He just shrugs.

What does he want? Up until two years ago a meeting like this meant he simply needed an ID, or information for a job. That’s what people came to Karla for: the unauthorized obtaining of data, whether by bribery or blackmail or hacking or straightforward physical theft; the deliberate destruction of other data that would, if left intact, be of benefit to law enforcement agencies; the forging of identities or their deletion.

It can’t simply be that; not after two years of silence. But perhaps he’s out of the game, too, perhaps he’s ceased to be the man who—

“Tell me about the Program,” he says.

One extra second of silence, that’s all. But I’ve schooled myself too long and too hard, and nothing else shows.

You could call it a prison, but it’s like no other prison standing, apart from the wall and the wire.

When Johanssen left two years ago it didn’t exist. It came only after the prison riots. Which came after the recession and the crime wave and the prison overcrowding and the budget cuts . . . Five thousand inmates dumped out of overflowing jails and into the care of a private security firm, to be housed—temporarily—in a collection of rundown suburban streets that had been emptied for redevelopment just as the economy crashed. A stopgap, certainly—but a stopgap that might run for years, so they pasted on a snappy Americanized name and set up a website extolling the theory behind the move.

And they came up with the experiment.

“And this experiment?” Johanssen asks, though he must know the answer already. It’s on the Internet, after all.

“Teaching criminals to function within a self-regulating society.”

“A self-regulating society made up of other criminals.”

“That’s right.”

“And in return for taking part they get—?”

“ ‘Enhanced individual liberty and responsibility within a secure environment.’ ”

Keys to their accommodation. Access to TV and newspapers. The opportunity to sit on self-governing councils, make rules. Educational support, vocational training, small-business initiatives. Health care, sports facilities, even a restaurant. According to the website.

“Sounds too good to be true,” he says.

“Then it probably is.”

“Is it safe?”

“ ‘Regular patrols by armed officers ensure the safety and well-being of all residents.’ ” Then, “Charlie Ross went in there when it opened. One of the first batch. He was dead in three months. Came out in bits.”

He doesn’t blink. Of course: he knew that, too.

“So who’s in there?”

“Mainly career criminals. Thieves, racketeers, pimps, dealers, human traffickers, murderers . . . but no pedophiles or terrorists.”


“Officially, no: can’t be trusted to take their medicine. Unofficially? Dozens at least, maybe hundreds. All learning to be good citizens.”

“You know people in there?”

“Knew.” I smile. It feels glacial. “We’re no longer in touch.”

“Internal surveillance?” he asks.



“A landline system for inmates, all calls recorded. No mobiles.”


I’ve been asked that question so many times that I can reel it off in the blink of an eye; in a heartbeat.

“Double perimeter wall: forty feet high above the surface, thirty feet below. Electric fence, razor wire, heat and motion sensors. Twenty-four-hour guard on the walls. Air exclusion zone above. All underground connections are sealed apart from the main sewer; the contents of that are—processed—as they pass under the perimeter. A rat couldn’t get out.”

“What about in?”

“No one wants to get in.”

“What if I did? Could you get me in?”

I say, “There’s limited visitor access—”

“More than that.”

More than that? “A staff ID? Something that will get you in as a guard—”

“More than that,” he says, and he looks at me . . .

“As an inmate?”

And then away again.

So it’s a job. An anticlimax with a whiplash sting of irony: a job, it’s just a job, for which he needs an ID. Guards work in teams, to strict rotas; civilian staff are heavily protected. Only inmates can move freely in that place. He has to pass for an inmate, for what he’s planning to do—

A sudden sense of dread.

“It can’t be done,” I say.

He glances at me. “You sure?”

End this now, just end it. “We don’t have an in with the operating company, and we can’t hack prison system records. Too well defended. Believe me, it’s been tried.”

He says, “By people who wanted to get out. Not in.”

I just shake my head.

A silence between us, as if there’s something else to say. At last I break it. “Is that everything?” A fractional nod. “Well, then: if you need me again, use this.”

I hand him a card with no name, just a phone number. He reads it once, twice, and passes it back. We’re done. Two years, and this is all we have to say to each other.

I push the card back into my coat pocket. “I’d better be going.”

He doesn’t say good-bye.

The car—not the Merc Charlotte Alton’s used for the last year but a Ford with shell-company plates—is parked a street away. Robbie’s on watch beside it, arms folded across his barrel chest, breath smoking in the cold air, heavy grizzled head cocked, alert to every sound.

A year since I last called him, since I last asked him to do anything like this, but he’s worked for the network right from the beginning, and he knows the rules: he opens the door for me without a word or a look.

I slide into the passenger seat, and there it is, that brief smothered pang, You should have stayed, you should have said something, you should have asked . . .

I close it down. Close down, too, the image of Johanssen standing there in the shadows, listening as the car pulls away. For all I know, he’s gone already.

We take the usual precautions. It’s gone 4:00 a.m. when I get back to Docklands.

The building I live in overlooks an arm of the West India Dock, on the north side of Canary Wharf. Once they unloaded cargoes of sugar here, but all that’s left of the industrial past is a pair of monumental cranes on the wharf, the dock itself—a shivering oblong of water that has to be skimmed periodically for cigarette butts and takeaway paper cups—and a run of low brick warehouses converted into bars for the tourists and the office workers. Everything else is new, and my building is among the newest. It caters to the nervous rich: overscaled rooms, heavy on security, cross-webbed with CCTV. It’s possible to hermetically seal the place from the outside world; I don’t get surprise visitors. Even at this hour there’s a uniformed guard on patrol out front and, inside, a night porter on duty behind a bank of switches and monitors. We nod to each other as I cross the lobby to the lift.

From the forty-first floor the views are glittering—the offices of Docklands, the riverside warehouse conversions of Limehouse Reach, the curve of the Thames and the skyline of the City of London—but tonight when I look out, I barely notice them.

Did Fielding track him down in some obscure corner of the world? Something’s turned up, son. Right up your street. Or did he just decide to come back and discovered this waiting for him? A job inside a prison. Looks impossible.

That sense of dread again: of course he’ll try to do it.

I walk into the small room I use as an office. Switch on the computer, plug in a hard drive. Enter passwords, run decryption, and open a file I haven’t touched in a year.

The first click brings up a set of five colored rings, one inside the other—outer security, inner security, the first wall, a narrow no-man’s-land, and then the second wall—all formed around a dark, blank heart. I click on the central blank, and a numbered grid appears. Place a cursor on one of the squares and click again, and that square expands to fill the screen with detail: roads and buildings, a canteen, a vocational training block, a football pitch. Click again, and a delicate tracery of sewage pipes and electricity cables runs beneath the streets like veins under skin. Again, and icons scatter themselves across the plan: a random punctuation of little blue diamonds, green dots, yellow squares. Some are command centers or observation posts; some represent cameras and listening devices. Others we simply can’t decipher.

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The Distance: A Thriller 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
CharlotteLynnsReviews More than 1 year ago
Who doesn’t love a good mystery?   Murder, suspense, mayhem, and the unknown all make The Distance a great read.   I stayed up late reading and when I wasn’t reading I was thinking about what might happen next.  I guessed, changed my guess, and then changed it again and still got it all wrong.    I love when that happens.   Figuring out an ending before I get there almost always annoys me, The Distance did not annoy me.   There is a strong woman character, Karla and Charlotte, that knows people, gets things done, and gets it done intensely.   There is a strong male character, but I wouldn’t call him an alpha male, Simon Johanssen.  He has a strong sense of right and wrong, although I believe the lines blur for him often.  And then there is a whole cast of characters that are shady and untrustworthy.   Sometimes I was confused on who was to be trusted and who was not to be trusted.   If you are looking for a book full of twists and turns that will keep you on your toes, reading at all hours, this is the book for you. 
BHnovi More than 1 year ago
I found the storyline very hard to follow. The writing felt very disjointed and  because of this, the characters are never fully developed. The author put so much intrigue in the story, the was no room to give detail to characters. I found the book a difficult read and not enjoyable.