Alastair Sheridan has it all. Wealth, good looks, a beautiful wife and children and, in the chaotic world of British politics, a real chance of becoming Prime Minister. But Alastair also has a secret. He’s a serial killer with a taste for young women. Only a handful of people know what kind of monster he is, and disgraced detective Ray Mason is one of them.
Awaiting trial for murder, Ray is unexpectedly broken free by armed men and given an offer: assassinate Alastair Sheridan and begin a new life abroad with a new identity. The men claim to be from MI6. They say that Sheridan is a threat to national security and needs to be neutralised. Ray knows they are not who they say they are, and that their real motives are far darker. The only person Ray trusts is ex-cop and former lover Tina Boyd, who’s keen to settle her own scores with Sheridan.
With enemies on every side, only one thing is certain: no one wants them to get out alive.
Read on for the first chapter of Die Alone by Simon Kernick!
One of the saddest stories I ever heard took place on a sunny summer’s day in 1989. A thirteen-year-old girl called Dana Brennan had planned to bake cakes with her mother and younger sister, but they were short of ingredients. The family lived in a cottage in an especially pretty part of north Hampshire, less than a mile outside Frampton, one of those picture-postcard bucolic English villages with a church, a pub and, in those days, a shop. Traffic was quieter then and when Dana offered to cycle to the shop to buy the ingredients, her mum had been happy to let her go.
Dana cycled away and never came back. Her bike was found abandoned next to some trees at the side of the road, with the shopping bag containing the cake-making ingredients lying a few feet away. A huge police search for her was launched that same evening. The spot where her bike had been found was on a quiet back road and, aside from the shopkeeper who’d sold her the produce, no one else had seen her on her journey. It was as if she’d disappeared off the face of the earth.
What followed was one of the biggest investigations in British policing history, assisted by blanket media coverage. Every sex offender within a twenty-mile radius was picked up and questioned, but to no avail. There were no obvious suspects, no witnesses, and no body. No reliable sighting of Dana was ever reported, and no trace of her was found, and eventually the investigation had been wound down and, finally, closed altogether, while the media moved on to other stories with more likelihood of an ending.
And then, twenty-seven years later, in 2016, Dana’s remains were unearthed in a small patch of woodland close to the River Thames, which had once been part of the grounds of a private boarding school but which had since been sold off for development. The remains of a second body, that of a young woman called Kitty Sinn who’d gone missing in 1990, were discovered nearby, and suddenly the case was open again.
I’d been twelve years old when Dana had gone missing, a year younger than she was. And yet it was her murder that had destroyed my own life and meant that I’d ended up in here, awaiting trial for double murder, having already survived two attempts on my life in the past year, and knowing that another one could be coming at any moment.
It had been going for hours. A slow-motion riot, steadily gathering pace. Getting closer and closer.
Let me tell you one thing. There’s nothing much worse than being trapped in the Vulnerable Prisoners wing of a huge Category A prison while all around you the other wings burn as the prisoners seize control of it from an outgunned and outnumbered staff. I’ve been in some very bad situations in my life, and have come close to death on more occasions than I’d like to admit, but I had an especially bad feeling about this one.
The VP wing is the worst, most claustrophobic place to be in any prison. It contains the lowest of the low in the prison hierarchy. The rapists and the child molesters; the informants who’ve either betrayed or are about to betray their criminal brethren; and then, of course, men like me – former police officers. We were supposedly safe here, although I could testify to the fact that there was no such thing as safety in a prison when there was a price on your head as large as the one on mine. And the atmosphere in here now was the tensest I’d known it in the year I’d been here.
It had all begun just after six p.m., during recreation time when the cell doors are unlocked and the inmates have the freedom of the wing. The alarms had gone off. There’d been four guards on duty in our wing at the time and they’d disappeared en masse, almost without a word, locking the single exit door behind them. That had been more than three hours ago now and none of them had come back, which was pretty much unheard of. We were on our own in here, and what made it worse was that we could see everything that was happening on TV. Every cell had one and there were a further two, with wide screens, in the main communal area. Prison life might be claustrophobic but it wasn’t without its comforts.
I was standing on the first-floor balcony while my cell mate Luke, a thin, nervous nineteen-year-old with bad skin, gave me a running commentary on what was happening from inside our cell. And it was bad. The inmates had completely taken over two of the other wings, and on B wing they’d taken three guards hostage.
The speed and scale of the riot was a shock, but the fact that it had happened wasn’t. This prison was built to hold twelve hundred and now it housed two thousand. According to a report I’d read, there was also a 30 per cent shortage in staff. Add to that a heatwave that had sent temperatures soaring in recent days, as well as riots in two other prisons in the past week, and it made for a combustible mix.
‘The Tornado Teams are coming in,’ called out Luke, referring to the specialist squads of officers deployed whenever there was a major prison disturbance. ‘Hundreds of ’em. And riot police too,’ he added, sounding mightily relieved at the prospect of the outbreak soon being brought under control. But then he would do. This was his first time in prison, and he was on remand for unspecified sexual offences. I didn’t want to know the
details, but I was pretty certain it involved a minor, which just made me feel sick. He’d always claimed he was innocent but I didn’t believe it. I doubted anyone in here was, and that included me. I knew too that if the other prisoners got in here, they weren’t going to be spending too long establishing guilt or innocence. They’d tear the place apart and everyone in it.
I was glad the Tornado Teams were coming but they were going to have to move fast. Even over the sound of the alarms coming from the other wings, I could hear the rampaging mob. They made a kind of ecstatic howling noise. It was the pure joy of destruction and violence. The release of all the frustrations that build up when you’re locked away for years on end, unloved and forgotten by everyone outside. It was a rage against their powerlessness.
I knew that feeling. I had it every day in here.
The problem was that there was no way out for these prisoners. The first thing the staff always do is secure the perimeters, lock all the outside gates, so that no one can get out and everything can be contained away from the public eye. Which meant their violence was going to be directed at something else. I’d been hoping it would be against property, or even the staff. But now I knew they were coming for us.
They were getting closer. I could hear them. Inside the walkway that separated us from the rest of the prison. They must have stolen keys.
Which meant there was nothing between them and us.
Everyone else in here knew it too. Some of the inmates were grouped round the two full-sized pool tables in the centre of the wing, talking quietly in frightened huddles. I recognized almost all of them. There was the grossly fat Roger Munn, who raped and murdered his stepdaughter, then cut up her body and hid it in the loft where, incredibly, the police missed it twice during their searches. He was slouched on the sofa in his wifebeater vest, watching the news footage of gouting flames on the big-screen TV. Then there was Ricardo Webster, the night caller, who liked to rape old ladies in their homes, and who was now standing watching the doors, armed with a pool cue, while a group of prisoners huddled behind him for protection.
And there, standing at the back of the communal area, partially hidden behind a larger group so he wouldn’t get spotted if someone came through the door, was the worst of them all. Wallace Burke, the infamous child killer, who’d abducted and murdered two ten-year-old boys more than twenty years ago and who was also suspected of at least two similar murders, for which there’d never been enough evidence to prosecute.
These were the lowlifes I now lived with. Men who I’d gladly put in the ground myself. As a former soldier and police officer I was a long way above them, but I had a feeling that this wasn’t going to help me. Because I was a bigger target than any of them.
The bounty on my head was half a million pounds. Now, half a million isn’t much use to you when you’re in jail, but most of these guys were planning to get out at some point, and even if that wasn’t a possibility, that amount of money can do a hell of a lot to help a family on the outside. And it wasn’t just the prisoners I had to watch either, it was the guards. As a general rule they were honest and hard-working but, even so, the average prison officer’s wage is £27,000 per year, and that’s before the taxman gets his hands on it, so it was a big temptation for them too.
All of which meant I had to watch my back. A month after I got here, I found ground glass in my food. A month after that, my cell mate at the time, a bent cop called Pryce who was on remand, put smuggled sleeping pills in my water and tried to smother me in my sleep with a pillow. I’d liked him too. He was good fun to be around with a raconteur’s love of tales. Unfortunately for him, he’d got the dose wrong, and I’d only drunk half the water, so I woke up and broke his arm, and after that he’d been transferred.
From then on I was constantly alert. I was in the gym every day for my allotted hour. I did weights. I did cardio. I practised my self-defence moves. Right now, I was as fit as I’d been in a long time.
But even so, I’ll be honest, I was scared. I could almost smell the closeness of the mob.
Then I heard it. An unintelligible howl just beyond the reinforced door – and a couple of seconds later it flew open and two guards rushed inside. One was bleeding from the head, but they were moving fast. As I watched, they tried to shut the door only for it to be forced open from the other side, and they were flung to one side as a crowd of screaming and yelling prisoners streamed in.
I stepped back inside the cell, watching as the vulnerable prisoners scattered in all directions while the invading inmates ran among them, throwing punches and howling insults, while a separate group, their faces masked, ran into the nearest cell, grabbed hold of its occupant – Fanning, who’d killed his own baby – and dragged him outside. It looked like they were interrogating him.
A second later, I saw him turn and point up towards my cell.
So they had come for me.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Luke, in a whimpering voice. ‘What are they doing?’ He was crouched in a foetal position in the far corner of the cell, shaking like a leaf.
‘Stay put and you’ll be OK,’ I said, watching as the masked group, close to a dozen strong, turned as one in my direction.
Another alarm had gone off now, this time in the wing itself, and it would now be clear to the authorities that lives were in imminent danger. But there was still no sign of the cavalry and, even if they’d already entered the prison, it was going to take them a few minutes at least to get here. And I didn’t have a few minutes, because already the group – their faces covered with a mixture of scarves and rags, several of them carrying makeshift weapons – were racing up the steps towards the first floor, and my cell.
A primal fear rose up from somewhere in my gut. Like I said, I’ve been in frightening positions before. I’ve faced down guns, both as a soldier and a police officer, and I’ve even been caught up in a full-scale street riot, with hundreds of people baying for my blood, but at least then I’d always had colleagues not far away. Here, I was on my own, and trapped. The only two guards who could have helped me were backed up in a corner surrounded by jeering inmates, several of whom were throwing missiles at them.
I made a fast decision. There was no point trying to hide in the cell. I’d be finished. I had to go out and meet them.
The group coming up the steps caught sight of me as I came out on to the landing. One of them howled my name like some kind of mocking battle cry.
One thing I’ve learned is that, channelled correctly, fear is good. It concentrates the mind, makes you physically stronger, and gives you new reserves of energy. The key is not to let it overcome you.
Pulsing with adrenalin, I ran to the top of the steps. The masked gang could only come up one at a time and the front guy was wielding a bloodied chair leg so, putting a hand on each of the rails, I launched a snap-kick at him as he came into range, putting all my force into it.
The kick was a good one. It caught him full in the chest before he could strike me with the chair leg, and he fell backwards into the guy behind him, dropping it in the process.
But the guy behind pushed him out of the way and kept coming. He was ripped, hard, and a lot younger than me. Worse, he was carrying a homemade shiv with a short but wicked-looking blade, which was already bloodied. His face was partially concealed behind a mask made from a torn shirtsleeve but I could see the thick black beard poking up above it, the short curly hair and the dark eyes and, though we’d never met, I recognized him as a convicted gangland thug called Troy Ramone who was serving a life sentence for the murder of two rivals, one of whom he’d burned alive. I’ve got a good memory for killers, even ones I haven’t put away myself, and Ramone was one of the worst. He was serving a minimum term of at least thirty-five years, and he hadn’t been in here that long, so he had very little to lose if he killed a third time, and a lot to gain in terms of prestige and power.
I launched another kick as he came into range, but he was expecting it and retreated a step, so my foot fell short. He then threw himself at me, bringing up the shiv in an upward stabbing motion.
I jumped backwards out of the way, then swung my body forward into a bowing motion with arms crossed over to the top of each other in front of me, slamming them down on to his forearm to block the blow. It’s an old martial arts trick that I’d practised plenty of times before, and if you do it right, it’s incredibly painful for the guy holding the knife.
It worked this time and Ramone yelped and dropped the knife as I twisted out of the way, elbowing him in the side of the head, before taking off down the corridor.
‘You fucker!’ he roared, picking up the blade and setting off after me.
I knew I hadn’t hurt him badly, not even dazed him, and had bought myself only a couple of seconds at best.
In front of me I could see two more inmates in makeshift masks racing up the wing’s central flight of steps, cutting off my escape. If there’d just been the two of them, I’d have risked taking them out, but I knew I’d never manage to get past them before Ramone and his friends caught up with me.
That only left me with one option.
I jumped over the guardrail and on to the safety netting that stretched between the balconies. As I half ran, half stumbled across it, I heard Ramone leap on to it behind me, the force of his landing causing a shockwave in the netting that sent me sprawling.
As I scrambled to my feet, I felt his presence only feet away and turned just in time to see his shiv arm sailing through the air. Instinctively I put an arm up to protect myself, and felt the searing white-hot pain as the knife cut through the flesh of my forearm. I stumbled backwards on the netting, trying to keep my balance. I could see some inmates watching from their cells – some of them cheering, as if this was a tussle in school rather than a life-and-death struggle – while the other masked inmates who were with Ramone climbed over the guardrail and came towards me like a pack of wolves.
I knew that Ramone was smiling at me behind the mask. His eyes gleamed. He had the advantage and he knew it. Blood seeped through my torn sweatshirt, dripping down on to the floor below.
Ramone lunged again and I stepped backwards out of range, conscious that the others were only feet away now, and lost my balance on the netting. I went down on my back and Ramone was on me like a puma, pinning me down. I managed to free my injured arm and grab him by the wrist of his knife arm as the shiv bore down towards my face, using all my strength to hold it at bay.
But he was stronger. He had the momentum too, and slowly the blade bore down until it was taking up my entire field of vision, although I was conscious of the other inmates gathered round in a tight circle so that no cameras could film what was happening. Someone stamped on my leg hard but I barely felt it. All I could think about was the blade.
It continued its descent bit by bit, the tip now through my skin, drawing blood. In a moment it would all be over.
And then I heard it. The sound of something ripping.
Ramone realized what was happening and hesitated, and I drove myself upwards, grabbing him round the neck and yanking him round, just as the net gave way and split. And then suddenly we were all hurtling through the air towards the next floor, except this time I was on top of Ramone.
We slammed straight into the communal area pool table which collapsed under our weight and we ended up entwined in each other’s arms on the floor while all around the bodies of the others on the net came crashing down, one missing me by inches.
The force of the landing had taken the wind out of me but Ramone had come off a lot worse, and his features were contorted with pain. I pulled out of his grip and climbed to my feet but he wasn’t giving up that easily, and with a roar he sat up and made a grab for me.
I jumped back out of the way, grabbed a pool ball and threw it at him as hard as I could, catching him square on the forehead. At the same time I retreated across the floor, counting five other inmates lying there, most of them writhing around in pain, none of them offering an immediate threat. Two other guys, their faces covered, both holding broken pool cues, stared at me. At their feet, next to the overturned TV, lay a bleeding paedophile called Jones, whom they’d clearly just been beating.
The two guys started towards me, moving warily, knowing that, as the only man still standing, I was obviously no pushover. I was bleeding from the arm, and from a cut to my face where the blade had made contact, but I could feel my confidence returning as I grabbed one of the pool table’s broken legs and turned to meet them.
‘Leave him, he’s mine!’ came a shout from my right. It was Ramone. Even after the punishment he’d taken, he was getting to his feet, the shiv still in his hand, a huge lump already appearing on his forehead. I knew he had a reputation as a hard man, and unfortunately for me, he was excelling himself tonight.
The two inmates paused, and once again it felt like the whole place was watching us. I risked a look over my shoulder, but there was no one behind me, just a wall.
‘You’re going to fucking die, Mason,’ snarled Ramone, his muscles rippling under his T-shirt.
‘Well, come and kill me then,’ I said, dropping the table leg, and throwing my arms wide.
It might have seemed like a suicidal gesture, but it was a calculated move. A pool table leg was more of a hindrance than a help in this situation, and I wanted Ramone to lose his wariness and charge me.
And he did. He came straight at me, leading with his free arm so he could grab me by the shirt, pull me in close, and then drive the knife in. It’s the classic knife attacker’s move.
Except it didn’t happen like that. I tensed, waiting, and then launched a snap-kick with my back leg. Ramone might have been younger and stronger than me, but I was six feet two and he was a good six inches shorter and, in this case, height counted, because my foot connected with his groin before he had enough reach to strike me, and it connected perfectly. There are many injuries a man can withstand in a fight without it affecting his performance and, to be fair, Ramone had withstood quite a few of them, but a kick in the groin, particularly when delivered with real force (and mine was), isn’t one of them.
As Ramone bent double, I delivered a second kick, this time straight to the face, and he took an unsteady step backwards, lost his balance, and fell over on his back, dropping the shiv in the process.
The rage took me then and, grabbing a pool ball from the floor, I leapt on to his chest, pinning down his arms, and, before he could recover, I drove the ball into his face again and again, turning it into pulp, unable to stop myself. No longer caring about anyone or anything else as all the frustrations of a year of incarceration came tearing to the surface.
I could hear shouting, a commotion behind me, and then suddenly hands were grabbing my arms and I was being dragged off him.
Still consumed with rage, I struggled furiously, determined now to fight until the end, but a baton came out of nowhere, striking me on the shoulder, and suddenly my vision was filled with the black boots and flameproof trousers of the Tornado Teams, the riot-trained prison officers always brought in to quell jail disturbances.
I let go of the cue ball as I was forced round on to my front with a knee pushing my face into the floor and, as I watched more and more of the riot officers pour in, some of them lashing out with batons and sending the inmates scurrying in all directions, I’d never felt so relieved in my life to be handcuffed.
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