Author: Robert Parker
Publisher: Endeavour Press
Genre: Crime Thriller
It’s down to fathers and fatherhood.
Ben Bracken, ex-soldier, has just got out of Strangeways.
Not by the front door.
With him, he has his ‘insurance policy’ – a bag of evidence that will guarantee his freedom, provided he can keep it safe – and he has money, carefully looked after by a friend, Jack Brooker.
Rejected by the army, disowned by his father, and any hopes of parenthood long since shattered, Ben has no anchors in his life.
No one to keep him steady.
No one to stop his cause…
The plan: to wreak justice on the man who had put him in prison in the first place.
Terry ‘The Turn-Up’ Masters, a nasty piece of work, whose crime organisation is based in London.
But before Ben can get started on his mission, another matter is brought to his attention: Jack’s father has been murdered and he will not rest until the killers are found.
Suddenly, Ben finds himself drawn in to helping Jack in his quest for revenge.
In the process, he descends into the fold of Manchester’s most notorious crime organisation – the Berg – the very people he wants to bring down…
This action-packed and fast-paced story will keep you turning the pages. Manchester is vividly portrayed as Ben races around the city seeking vengeance.
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My two years in prison ended just how they started – with a stabbing. As soon as Craggs drove the makeshift dagger into Quince’s belly and the recreation room filled with prison staff waving batons, I was moving. I knew they would arrive quickly, and I knew that the door would swing shut just slowly enough for me to slip through. The place erupted in noise and violence, but I didn’t look back. I haven’t done since.
Now, I am running. I can feel my mind bathing in the electric warmth of adrenaline. People are looking at me from a bus waiting at the traffic lights and I try to rein in my stride just a touch. If only they knew what I knew, they might understand why I can’t adopt a more leisurely pace. I need to keep moving.
Hello, Manchester, it’s me, Ben Bracken. I am back. It’s nice to see you, my adopted home town. I’m just sorry it’s under circumstances like these.
I’m arrowing right into the heart of the city, right into the bustling centre, with the sole intention of hiding in the urban congestion. I’m familiar with the city, its quirks, crevices and people, and I know just what to do when I get in there.
The suit I wear, a gigantic, ill-fitting grey coverall of stinking, sweat-soaked canvas, was the chief warden’s only moments earlier. As is the shirt, which will soon be dripping with both our sweat, at this rate. I took both from him as I left the prison – I couldn’t very well come out in my prison issues – and left him there on the steps of the prison in his underpants. He is such a nasty, vile shit of a man. He absolutely deserves it.
He shouldn’t be bothering me for a while, which is thanks in full to the contents of the only item I carry, hanging off my shoulder: a tattered green duffel bag. I can scarcely believe what is inside, but as insurance policies go, this one is ironclad. And I know that as long as it is safe, I am safe with it.
I cross the road and head north towards the Printworks, an entertainment oasis from where I can easily head to my destination, the Northern Quarter. But first, I need to make a call. And the Printworks has a bank of payphones.
It is mid-afternoon, just about 3:45, I think. Thursday. Cold, late October. The city has that quiet afternoon throb about it. The long-lunchers have all gone back to work
by now, hiding boozy excesses on their breath with too much gum, and the early leavers haven’t quite summoned the courage to sneak for the door just yet.
It feels so good to walk on these streets again, for so many reasons. It is a surrogate home now, and after all the travelling it’s still one of the only places on earth where I feel comfortable. I was sent overseas as a soldier, one of Her Majesty’s loyal hounds, setting right the wrongs others had perpetrated against human rights and democracy. A ten-year career mainly stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan saw me reach captain. I was the pride and joy of my family, the ‘Toast of Rawmarsh’ they used to call me back in my home village in Yorkshire. Such memories become more vague all the time. Then I had to make a very difficult choice, which was my undoing. I was cast out, ripped of my purpose, medals and duty, viewed as scum by my peers, dishonourably discharged and sent home in disgrace – and hated by the society I gave everything to protect.
That same society changed a lot in the decade I was away fighting for it, and now I barely recognise it. It now strikes me as an ideal dining out on its rich history. Yet somehow my sense of duty remains. I can’t help it. I don’t believe in My Great Britain anymore, nor even trust it to do the right thing for the people on her shores... But it’s like we were married, Britain and I, long since divorced – yet I’m still inexplicably devoted to my bitch of an ex.
The Printworks is just ahead. I cross the street again, bobbing between the cars, and head in via a side entrance. The Printworks, once the largest printing house in Europe, is now a cavernous converted warehouse, filled with bars, restaurants, cinemas, and a bank of cash machines and payphones. I head straight to the nearest phone and check the pockets of the suit. Two twenty-pence pieces and a ten. Perfect. Thanks, guv’nor. Picking your pocket felt damn good. I know I could call the number reverse charge anyway, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying getting one over on Chief Warden Harry Tawtridge just one last time.
I dial the number I’ve committed to memory for this very moment. Three rings, then the call is answered not with words, but with silence. I know he is there, though. Bob ‘Freckles’ Froeschle got out three weeks before me, although his exit carried Her Majesty’s consent. This moment was rehearsed, and I feel a buzz at putting our prep into practice.
‘The package will be there from midnight tonight, and I’ll cover it with you as agreed,’ I say. ‘Thank you. I am grateful.’
I hang up. Job done. The insurance policy is almost there. The last strand of the escape plan executed to perfection. I am pleasantly surprised. I’m used to responding to instructions ordinarily with violence. Not this time: I’d used my brains and hadn’t laid a finger on anybody myself. I’m inwardly pleased, which is a damn sight better than the bitterness and anger I was stuck with before.
I know I shouldn’t but I find myself popping another coin. I dial again from recollection, having called Kayla’s house countless times when I was on leave. Before prison, before everything changed.
A voice answers, but it is not Kayla, it is a young boy. ‘Hello?’ he says, not a care in the world.
‘Joshua?’ I say.
‘Yeah, who’s that?’ he replies, playing along. I can feel myself ready to bottle it. So much for being ruthless and decisive.
‘Tell your mum it was Uncle B. Tell her, Uncle B sends love to you all, that includes you, Joshua. And tell her I’m going to do my best.’
What the hell am I doing?
‘Bye, pal,’ I say, before hanging up. I wish I had more in me to say, but I don’t know
how to say it.
I owe that family so much, more than they will know, but I also know that hearing
from me will hurt. It was a selfish gesture to call, damn it all. But they need to know I’m thinking of them. Of him – of Stephen, the man I killed. Joshua’s father and Kayla’s husband. Because if I forget about them, none of what I broke out to achieve will mean anything.
I leave the booth and crack on with something I’m far more comfortable with.
I see a bar opposite, Waxy O’Connors. An Irish bar. I would bloody love a pint, perhaps a cold pint of Guinness. I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol in twenty months now – the length of my stay in Strangeways. I could easily pop in for one, and head into the Northern Quarter after, but my remaining thirty pence probably wouldn’t get me much in there save for a bag of pork scratchings, and I’m almost gagging in this filthy suit anyway.
I use the front exit of the Printworks, passing the Big Issue sellers, and head left, up towards the Northern Quarter. Within a couple of moments, I’m running again, inhaling
the cold, grey air that only Manchester ever really seems capable of providing. It’s like an elixir and I gulp it down.
Between a pair of streets I see the entrance to an alleyway that I recognise. Above the mostly garish shop fronts, the second floors of the buildings are still all set perfectly in the 1940s. It gives the Northern Quarter away immediately: Manchester’s little piece of Manhattan. Movie crews come in to shoot period-set New York films here because it’s cheaper, and it’s a nice little corner you can always head to for a warm welcome, a cold beer, and a good atmosphere.
Damn. The beer popping into my head again. I wasn’t expecting to only be out of the nick for twenty minutes and already be thinking about having a beer. But it signified freedom to me when I was inside, and I certainly have that freedom now. I’ll get my chance. Besides, I’m nearly there. Church Street.
The street is very quiet, and a scrappy alley cat slinks along the pavement, pausing to look at me with that look all cats give humans: how’ve you managed to get this far with just one life compared to my nine? It leaves me to it and I walk up to the glass doors of an apartment complex nestled between two businesses. I call up to the fifth-floor flat I have been to only once before.
A female voice answers. ‘Hello?’
‘It’s an old friend. Last time I saw you, you were in your nightclothes,’ I say, keeping an eye on the street.
The intercom is quiet for a moment, presumably while a decision is being made. I hope she recognises either my voice or the occasion I was alluding to. She should do.
‘Please come straight up,’ she says.
The door buzzes open, and I enter and head for the lift. I am not expecting anyone to be looking for me, at least not quite yet, but I don’t want to stay here long. I’m convinced I’ll be ok, and my previous captors will leave me to it, because it is simple: if they reveal I’ve escaped, I break out my insurance plan. The authorities would come crashing down on that prison like a ton of bricks, and the disgraceful, corrupt management of that facility would be dragged into the light. So I would imagine that for all intents and purposes, Ben Bracken is holed up in his cell, patiently living out the remaining fifteen years of his sentence.
Fifteen years – that should be enough time to get more than a few things done.
It’s heartening to know that nobody will be looking for me, but still, taking care keeps you alive. Care means I should keep this visit fairly brief. Especially while I still carry the damn insurance policy under my arm.
The flat’s at the end of the corridor, and the door is ajar. I knock and push it open a touch.
‘Hello?’ I call out.
The door is slowly pulled open, to reveal a beautiful woman staring at me, her eyes filling a little, her hand creeping up to cover her mouth. She has shoulder-length brown hair, eyes wide as side plates and browner than melted chocolate, and I instantly recall the last time I saw her. Bruised, frightened, and in a very bad way. Her name is Freya, and last time I saw her, I saved her life.
‘I stink. I really smell bad,’ I say, holding my hands up, but she is on me before I can say anything else.
‘Ben,’ she whispers, throwing her arms around me. I’d been nervous about what welcome I might receive, but that has been quickly put to bed.
‘I’m sorry for dropping in out of the blue,’ I say, hugging her back. I’m genuinely glad to see her. We both went through a lot that day, and we haven’t seen each other since I sent her scampering down an emergency staircase in her nightie.
‘What the hell are you wearing?’ she asks, wrinkling her nose and smiling.
‘You don’t like it? It’s always a bit hit and miss when you buy suits off the rail.’ She lets me go, and we enter the apartment. It is as nice as I remember – warm wood
floorboards under an open living space, bare brick walls, and vast floor-to-ceiling windows, which overlook the low rooftops unique to this end of town. If I ever were to settle down anywhere, it would be in a place like this.
‘Tell me to get stuffed, or whatever you like, but I wondered if I could trouble you for a change of clothes, fifteen minutes internet access and, if you are feeling especially generous, a shower?’
Freya smiles and dabs at the corner of her eyes with the sleeve of her dark jumper. ‘Of course,’ she replies.
I love seeing her like this – doing well, and safe. Then, I notice a glitter on her hand
that makes me catch my breath.
‘The wedding ring... You and Trev?’
‘Yes,’ she says, looking at the ring. ‘After what happened, we... didn’t see any reason
to wait anymore.’
I find myself beaming. Everything I did, and the reasons I had for doing it, has been justified. I feel new strength – new steel in my resolve. I feel reinvigorated.
‘We wanted to invite you,’ she says softly.
‘Don’t be daft – I can be tough to pin down.’ I smile. ‘I’m thrilled for you both. Were you ok after what happened?’
She sighs, looking pensive, but she retains the slight fundament of a smile.
‘Yeah. It took some time, but we both got there.’
‘That’s great, Freya. I mean that.’ I need to get down to it. I’d love to reminisce but
with any luck there’ll be less pressing times. ‘Freya, I’ve just got out of prison – kind of. I don’t believe that anyone is after me, but I don’t want to put you in a difficult position – and I already have, just by being here. I need to keep moving but I need help, and yourself and Trev are my best bet. I’m afraid I’m not supposed to be out of prison. But I am. And I don’t want it to come back to bite you.’
Freya takes a step towards me and puts a hand on my shoulder. That warmth again.
Trev is a lucky man, but it was nearly so different. Two years ago, he got home late from his IT job to find the apartment ransacked and Freya missing. A nasty piece of work called Keith Sinfield was running a child sex ring from a flat in the biggest high- rise at the other end of the city, and by accident his laptop, from which he conducted the whole operation, ended up in Trev’s possession. Sinfield kidnapped Freya to force the return of the laptop.
Trev called me. Truth be told, when the phone rang I was being sick into a bin at a crummy budget hotel on the other side of town, on the bottom end of a self-pity bender, but I helped get her back. It was a messy one.
‘After what you did for us, we will do anything we can to help.’ She turned me and gave me a little push. ‘Hit the shower, and I’ll get some of Trev’s clothes together. He’ll be home soon after five, so if you can wait that long, please do, he’d love to see you. Bathroom’s second door back there. We owe you our lives, Ben.’
I have spent what feels like a lifetime undertaking grim tasks and never getting a word of gratitude in return. Receiving it now renders me awkward, overwhelmed and grateful.
Freya leaves me to it, and I head for incredible luxury: a real, private shower, in freedom. Such a simple thing, but a signifier of so much. It feels like a new dawn, a symbol: to wash away my previous life, all its mistakes and sadness, and start afresh.
About the Author
His latest book is the crime/thriller, A WANTED MAN.