The Betrayal

A writer and an escaped convict find their lives meeting in this thrilling and tense Morgan Vine short story.

Image Credit: 
© 2015 Flash Totty / Used With Permission

When news of the prison escape comes on the car radio, it’s little surprise to Morgan Vine. She’s heard the drones for weeks, cruising above her house, waking her in the small hours as they head for HMP Dungeness. Dozens of night flights controlled from who knows where, dropping contraband behind prison walls.

Drugs.

Weapons.

Mobile phones.

Maybe diamond cutters to saw through the bars, like the ones used in a recent breakout from a London prison.

She has no idea how inmates retrieve the packages from the exercise yard. Perhaps with help from prison officers, either ‘on the take,’ or threatened unless they cooperate.

We know where you live…

Taking a swig of Evian, she wipes away a bead of sweat and steers the Mini along the tarmac strip that cuts through the deserted shingle beach. The heatwave is entering its second week. Morgan has been sleeping with the windows open, allowing the sea breeze to ruffle the stifling air. And now a man is on the run. Did she lock up before leaving?

Yes.

No.

Maybe…

Shielding her eyes against the afternoon sun, she increases the pressure on the accelerator and turns up the radio. The escapee is Jack McCrory, a butcher convicted of murdering his wife with a single stab to the heart.

Morgan knows McCrory. He attended her HMP Dungeness reading group, showing keen interest in the works of George Orwell, particularly Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. She remembers how newspaper coverage of the man’s trial focused on his size. Six-foot-six and weighing in at 220 lbs, the tabloids dubbed him ‘Giant Jack’ – a gentle soul according to his friends from church; a menace to society if you believe the judge.

Morgan figures the truth lies somewhere between the two. It usually does.

As she draws up outside her house, the news item ends with the customary warnings about the escaped prisoner being a danger to the public.

Anyone seeing McCrory should call the police immediately. He should not be approached.

Morgan silences the radio then turns off the engine, feeling the sweat trickling between her shoulder blades as she steps out of the car and surveys the sun-baked shoreline and converted railway carriage she calls home. A relic from the 1920s, when rail workers and fishermen colonised the desolate beach, the original structure has been extended by a succession of oddball owners with little talent for DIY and no interest in design. A higgledy-piggledy clapboard lean-to faces the old black and white lighthouse. The water tank sits on the roof, encased in what Morgan calls the attic, but is no more than a rusted shipping container. It gives her home the appearance of a lop-sided double-decker bus, or one of those monster trucks in Mad Max movies.

Locking the Mini, she stands still, listening to the wind thrumming in the cables strung between the pylons that tower overhead. She scans the horizon. No sign of life apart from gulls circling a fishing boat out at sea. Her nearest neighbour lives half a mile away, on the far side of the vast nuclear power station that dominates the landscape. Her eyes rove over the distant features of the place she calls home: the deserted quarry pits, abandoned fishing boats and piles of scrap metal. To most people Dungeness is weird rather than wonderful. To Morgan it’s both.

Entering the house, her sun-seared eyes adjust to the gloom. It’s a moment before she realises she’s holding her breath, fearful of what – or who – she might discover hiding inside. To her relief, everything is as she left it. Her MacBook sits on the kitchen table next to a twenty-pound note. An intruder would surely have taken both. She exhales slowly. Her shoulders begin to unclench.

In the bedroom, the window is not wide open, as she feared, merely ajar. Locking it, she chastises herself for being so careless. She checks the second bedroom, then the bathroom, before returning to the galley kitchen where she sets the kettle to boil and boots up her laptop.

Checking her emails, thoughts of ‘Giant Jack’ McCrory are replaced by a flicker of irritation. Her daughter is in California visiting her father, a successful screenwriter, and has run out of money. Again.

I don’t like to ask Dad. He’s so grumpy.

Morgan’s fingers fly across the keyboard.

FFS! He’s richer than God.

She stares at the words then deletes them and sends a more measured response.

Rolling a cigarette, she takes a mug of tea out to the shaded deck. She sits in the rickety plastic chair, watching the waves while trying to decide if she feels lonely or alone. The latter, if not a good thing, has the virtue of being melancholy, verging on romantic.

Well, sometimes.

Dragging on her roll-up, she reaches a weary conclusion. Right now – a muggy Saturday afternoon at the height of the holiday season with only white space in her diary – lonely and alone suck.

* * * * *

By midnight, she has swum in the sea, eaten an omelette and finished writing chapter six of her follow-up to Trial & Error: a History of Miscarriages of Justice. Feeling pleasantly woozy thanks to a large glass of Merlot, she climbs into bed, re-reads half a page of a legal tome then lays the book aside and stares at the ceiling. It’s usually guilt that keeps Morgan awake: remorse about not being a good enough mother – a poor excuse for a daughter, too – but not tonight. Tonight her eyelids grow heavy. Sliding into sleep, gazing up at the wooden hatch that gives access to the attic, she notices the cobwebs have disappeared. She’s been meaning to clean for weeks.

Good. One less thing to worry about.

She turns out the light. Within seconds she is asleep.

* * * * *

An hour later she wakes with a start. Heart pounding, disorientated and dry-mouthed, she assumes the creaking was part of a dream. For a while (minutes? seconds?) she dozes in and out of consciousness, trying to drift back to sleep.

The second creak is louder. And right above her head.

Her eyes spring open. She stares up at the ceiling.

A fox?

Mice?

Rats?

She raises herself on her elbows, hears a third creak, and watches in disbelief as the hatch splinters and the ceiling collapses under the weight of the man who crashes onto her bed. Onto her.

Shock combines with pain. Winded, Morgan gives a muffled cry, trying to struggle free, but the man’s weight pins her to the mattress. She can smell his stale sweat mingling with the plaster dust that is rapidly enveloping the room.

She hears his voice: breathless, gruff.

Christ almighty…

He shifts his weight, skewing to one side, allowing her to move. She springs to her feet and runs for the door. But he’s already blocking her exit, moving with speed and agility that belie his weight.

Morgan feels the blood thudding in her ears. The room is in darkness. She can’t see the man’s face. When she speaks, her voice is a croak.

Please…

‘It’s OK…’ he says.

He reaches for the switch. Morgan blinks against the light that floods the room. The intruder’s nickname doesn’t do justice to his size. Huge. Beefy. Bull neck. Head almost touching the ceiling. But it’s the smell of ‘Giant Jack’ she’s most aware of.

Sweat.

Fear.

He raises his hands, palms facing her in a pleading gesture. ‘I’m not going to hurt you, Morgan.’

Her voice is a hoarse whisper. ‘Please, get out.’

He shakes his head. ‘Not yet.’

Her brain races as she considers her options. Fight or flight? Neither seems possible. She feels rage and panic surging through her veins but struggles to remain calm. To keep her voice steady.

‘Go, Jack. Please. I won’t tell anyone I saw you.’

He shakes his head. ‘We both know that’s a lie.’ He gestures to the bed. ‘Sit.’

She coughs, choked by plaster dust. Her eyes itch and her brain whirrs as she tries to remember where she left her mobile. Somewhere at the back of her mind is an article she read long ago… some kind of procedure for alerting police to an emergency… when people are unable to speak for fear of making a bad situation worse. Victims of domestic violence, say. Or home invasions.

How does the procedure go? Dial 999 – obviously – but then what? And where the hell is her phone?

‘Sit down, Morgan.’

She meets the man’s gaze then obeys, tugging her T-shirt over her thighs and looking up at his sweaty face.

‘How did you know where I live?’

‘I got one of the screws to follow you after the reading group.’

She frowns. ‘You bribed him? Threatened him?’

A flicker of impatience. ‘Does it matter?’

Does it matter that you’ve escaped from prison? That you’re targeting me? Yes, it matters.

‘Why me?’

‘I don’t know many people,’ he says. ‘No family, no friends. Not since the trial.’ He wipes the back of his hand across his mouth. ‘I read your book. Everyone in prison reads it, to see if they can figure out how to work the system.’

‘Is that what you call this? “Working the system”?’

He shakes his head. Gives half a smile, revealing a broken front tooth. ‘I like you, Morgan,’ he says. ‘You’re a decent sort. If I had another wife I’d want her to be like you.’

Remembering what happened to the man’s spouse, Morgan feels a chill spread through her bones. Glancing over his shoulder, she spots her phone, its outline visible in the back pocket of her jeans lying on the rattan chair.

Dial 999 but then what…? The police can’t automatically trace every call, or send patrols without good reason.

She brings her focus back to the intruder looming over her. He’s saying something.

‘I need to see my son. He won’t speak to me. Hasn’t visited since the day I was arrested. He’s emigrating tomorrow, going to live with his mum’s parents in New Zealand. This is my last chance.’

Morgan’s mouth is dry. ‘What does that have to do with me?’

‘I need someone to talk to him. Persuade him to let me see him.’

Morgan frowns. ‘Why would he listen to me?’

‘You’re a writer. You know how to use words. And you’ve no axe to grind.’

Morgan’s heart is hammering; she’s still in shock but is starting to feel less petrified. The man has a plan, a purpose in being here. Perhaps he won’t hurt her. So long as she does as he says.

‘I’m not who the papers say I am.’ He swallows. ‘I didn’t kill my wife.’

‘Do you know who did?’

He looks away.

‘If you won’t talk to me, Jack, I can’t help you.’

He wipes a meaty hand across his mouth. ‘No one can help me.’

She lets the silence stretch. Her brain is in turmoil trying to work out how to gain control of the situation, how to feel less vulnerable.

‘Can I put some clothes on?’ she says.

A pause. ‘OK.’

Morgan gets to her feet. To her relief, he has the decency to look away while she dons her jeans. She can feel the phone pressing against her thigh. She puts her hand in her pocket, hiding the tell-tale bulge.

‘I’m starving,’ says Jack. ‘Got something to eat?’

‘Eggs. Cheese. But I need the loo.’

He narrows his eyes. ‘I’ll come with you.’

‘Seriously?’ says Morgan.

‘Do I look like I was born yesterday?’

She gives in to the inevitable. ‘OK, let’s go.’

He opens the bedroom door, staying close behind as she leads the way to the bathroom. He looks inside, his eyes ranging over the clutter. The shower. The basin. The lavatory. There’s no window. No escape route. He turns, studying her face.

‘OK,’ he says. ‘But the door stays unlocked.’ He leans closer. She can smell the sweat on his tracksuit. ‘And no funny business.’

He nods her inside. She enters the bathroom. He jams his foot in the doorway. Morgan bristles with indignation.

‘You’re not seriously going to watch?’

He sighs then turns his back, his foot still blocking the door.

Unzipping her jeans, Morgan yanks her knickers to her knees and sits on the toilet seat. Jack’s back is still turned. Holding her breath, she takes the phone from her pocket. She mutes the clicker, flicking it to ‘silent’.

Dial 999… then what?

In a flash of realisation, the answer comes. But she needs to play for time.

‘I can’t pee with you standing there.’

He speaks without turning. ‘No hurry.’

Morgan can feel the triple-quick beating of her heart.

‘Can’t you make some noise?’ she says.

‘What kind of noise?’

‘How should I know? Hum or something.’

The man clears his throat then starts whistling between his teeth. It’s tuneless but will do the trick. Pressing her thumb over the phone’s earpiece, Morgan brings up the keypad and taps 999. The call is answered almost immediately – she can tell by the vibration in her hand – but the operator’s voice cannot be heard above the sound of Jack’s whistling.

Morgan taps 55 on the keyboard – the ‘silent solution’, emergency code for anyone unable to speak to the operator. Has she remembered correctly? Is that all there is to it? If so, they will trace the phone then use GPS to figure out her location. Then they will send help. But only if the system works. Not long ago, a woman died at the hands of her abusive husband because the 999 operator failed to follow the correct procedure. Morgan pushes the thought away. The system will work. It must. She hangs up, slips the phone into her pocket then tears off a strip of loo paper and wipes herself before pulling up her knickers and jeans. She flushes the lavatory then starts to wash her hands. He turns.

‘For God’s sake, get a move on.’

He follows her along the narrow corridor and into the small kitchen. She opens the fridge.

‘I could make an omelette.’

But the man seems to have lost interest in food. ‘Any beer?’

Morgan takes a can from the fridge door. He snaps it open and savours the moment before downing half the beer in three greedy gulps. He burps loudly then sits at the table.

‘Where’s your phone?’ he says.

Morgan plays dumb. ‘Sorry?’

‘You heard.’

She considers her options. As bad as things are, a lie will make matters worse. Turning to face the intruder, she fishes the mobile from her pocket.

McCrory tuts.

‘Naughty girl.’ He takes the phone and motions for her to sit at the table. ‘No landline?’

‘Nope.’

His eyes search hers then range over the room, searching for a phone. He seems satisfied.

‘It’s best if you call Sam on yours. He won’t recognise the number.’ He lays his own mobile on the table. ‘I’ve tried a million times.’

Morgan isn’t surprised the man has a phone – she’s far from naïve about life behind bars – but tries not to think about where he usually hides it.

‘What do you want me to say?’

‘I want to see him. At his place. Just an hour, before he goes away. Then I’ll leave him in peace.’ He takes another swig of beer. ‘You have no idea how good that tastes.’

‘There’s more,’ says Morgan.

He gives a knowing smile. ‘Trying to get me drunk? So you can take advantage of me?’

She ignores the question. Another half-remembered article is coming to mind.

First rule of being a hostage: humanise yourself. Make your captor see you as a person, not a thing.

‘How old is your son?’ she says.

‘Twenty.’

‘Same age as my daughter. Her name’s Lissa. She’s in America, visiting her dad.’

He grunts, taking another swig of beer.

‘What’s his name?’ says Morgan.

‘I told you – Sam.’

‘How do you know he won’t tell the police where you are?’

‘I know.’

‘But how?’

‘He may have refused to speak to me for five and a half years,’ says Jack, ‘but he’s still my son.’

As if that settles the matter.

He produces something from the pocket of his fleece and hands it to Morgan. A photo of a baby.

‘Sometimes you have to do the right thing,’ he says. ‘All my life, I’ve done the wrong thing. I was an arsehole. Drugs. Alcohol. Women. Thieving. Then we had Sam and things changed. I tried to do right by him.’ He sighs. ‘But sometimes doing the right thing means you have to take a hit. Know what I mean?’

He takes back the photo and scrutinises it for a moment, running a tender finger over the baby’s face. He closes his eyes. Morgan lets the seconds tick by.

‘Is there something you want to tell me, Jack?’

The man opens his eyes then exhales slowly. She can smell the beer on his breath.

‘I don’t suppose you have many people to talk to in prison,’ she says.

‘I talk to you.’

‘Only about books.’

He gives a pained smile. ‘Better than nothing.’

Morgan leans forward in her chair. ‘You could have gone anywhere, but you broke in here and hid. Why me?’

He gives her a sideways glance, as though weighing her up. ‘Can you keep a secret?’

Morgan nods. ‘Absolutely.’

Jack blinks several times in quick succession then seems to reach a decision. Pocketing the photo, he leans forward, resting his elbows on the table. ‘This is hard,’ he says.

‘Is it about your wife?’

A nod.

‘What was her name?’

‘Lesley.’

‘Do you want to tell me about her?’

‘Not much to tell. She was pretty. A good laugh. I loved her.’

‘But…?’

He meets her gaze and sighs. ‘But she could be a nasty piece of work. Split personality. Nice as pie one minute, horrible the next. Like the Incredible Hulk or Jekyll and Hyde.’

‘That must have been difficult to live with.’

He nods then falls silent. Morgan chooses her words with care. ‘Some women can be violent. People don’t like to talk about it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.’

Jack clears his throat but says nothing.

‘Was Lesley violent?’

A tiny muscle twitches beneath the man’s eye. His nod is almost imperceptible. When he speaks again, his words come in a rush, as though he’s been waiting a long time – years – to unburden himself.

‘She couldn’t help it. She had a lousy childhood so she was damaged. Serious anger issues. She used to get these terrible rages and lash out over little things, like me chewing too loud or talking to other women.’

‘Just talking?’

He nods again, running a finger around the rim of the can. ‘I remember this checkout girl at the supermarket. She can’t have been more than eighteen, just a kid. It was Christmas Eve and she was wearing reindeer antlers. We had a laugh while she was ringing up our shopping. Lesley didn’t say anything at the time. She waited till we got home then whacked me on the back of the head with the iron. I told the hospital I’d fallen downstairs. I lost count of the number of times I had to pretend I’d walked into a door or fell in the bath. But I knew what had made her that way so I put up with it.’

He takes another swig of beer and rubs a hand across his forehead. ‘And that’s the hardest thing. If I’d got help she’d probably still be here. Sam would still be talking to me. And I wouldn’t be doing life.’

Morgan studies the man’s face. ‘Why didn’t you tell anyone?’

He meets her gaze. ‘There was a saying when I was a kid: “real men don’t eat quiche”.’

Morgan manages half a smile. ‘Or tell on abusive women?’

His expression darkens. ‘I don’t like that word. She wanted to change.’ A muscle flickers in his jaw. ‘But then she started picking on Sam…’

He tails off. Morgan waits before prompting him again. ‘That must have been hard to bear. For Sam and for you.’

‘Poor kid couldn’t take it. He’d grown up watching her be violent to me. It used to make him so bloody angry. But he wouldn’t take crap from anyone, not even when he was knee-high to a grasshopper. If she smacked him, he’d smack her back.’ He takes a deep breath. ‘And then came the day.’

‘The day?’

‘His fourteenth birthday. She caught him smoking a spliff. Went ballistic. Totally out of control. Threatened him with a knife.’ His voice grows soft. ‘He grabbed it out of her hand.’

Morgan is perfectly still – her gaze steady, her tone even. ‘And?’

He looks up and meets her eye. His voice is almost a whisper. ‘I can’t say it.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because saying it makes it real.’

‘It’s already real, Jack.’ She resists the temptation to take his hand. ‘Tell me what happened.’

The man closes his eyes and takes another deep breath, steeling himself.

‘One stab, that’s all it took. I was at the shop, working. Sam phoned, told me to come back straightaway but wouldn’t say why.’ He opens his eyes. ‘I was too late. By the time I got home she was a goner.’

They fall silent for a moment, listening to the waves breaking on the shore.

‘And you took the rap?’ says Morgan.

A nod. ‘He’s a gentle lad. Wouldn’t stand a chance inside. I’ve seen tough guys top themselves because they can’t handle the bullying, the pressure, the violence. I knew he’d kill himself and I wasn’t going to let that happen – not to my boy. The day he was born, I held him in my arms and made a promise: I’d look after him, whatever happened.’

Morgan studies the man’s face. There is no doubting his sincerity.

‘That’s a heavy burden,’ she says.

He shrugs. ‘What choice do I have? Either I’m banged up or my son’s dead. Either way, I’m in hell.’

Morgan says nothing. He looks at her, meeting her steady gaze.

‘You won’t tell anyone?’

‘Not a soul,’ says Morgan.

‘Promise?’

‘Promise.’

The man seems relieved to have unburdened himself. Clearing his throat, he enters a number into her phone then pushes it across the table.

‘Call him,’ he says.

Morgan picks up the phone. ‘What do you want me to say?’

The man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a crumpled piece of paper. He smooths it out and lays it on the table. Morgan studies the handwriting – all capital letters.

‘You’ve been planning this a long time.’

A nod. He jabs a finger at the sheet of paper.

‘The important stuff first. If you get any further, that’s great. But I need you to get the first point across. Make the call.’

Morgan picks up the phone and taps the number then the speakerphone icon. The call connects. A sleepy male voice answers.

‘Yeah?’

‘Is this Sam?’

‘Who wants to know?’

She looks into Jack’s eyes. ‘My name’s Morgan. I’m calling on behalf of your dad.’

A pause. ‘Don’t chat shit. I’m asleep, innit.’

‘Wait,’ says Morgan. She picks up the piece of paper. ‘He knows why you won’t talk to him – because you feel guilty about what happened – and he forgives you.’

No response. Morgan works her way through the talking points. ‘He doesn’t blame you for anything. He wants you to have a good life in New Zealand. He’s sorry he couldn’t keep his promise.’

‘What promise?’

‘To look after you. And he’s sorry he couldn’t protect you from your mum.’

Morgan hears a cough. The sound of a cigarette being lit. She presses on, moving to the penultimate item on the list. ‘He wants you to understand: he knows you feel guilty but he will always keep the secret. No matter what happens. He let you down, so he alone will pay the price for what happened to your mum. He doesn’t want you to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder. He’s happy to take the hit.’

Jack nods. Points to the last item on the list.

Morgan takes a breath before continuing. ‘The reason he did what he did today is because he wants to see you one last time.’

She hears Sam dragging on his cigarette. Then a sigh. ‘When?’

Morgan is about to reply but Jack leans forward and speaks into the phone. ‘In the morning, Sam. I’ll come to your place.’

A long pause. Morgan locks eyes with Jack. He’s holding his breath. Finally, his son breaks the silence. ‘Nine o’clock. Just half an hour. Then I’m going out. I’m selling the angry wasp to a mate.’

‘Nine o’clock,’ says Jack, clearly not wanting to push his luck. ‘I’ll be there.’

Another pause then the line goes dead.

Morgan notes the time – 2.26 a.m. How long since she made the 999 call? How long before help arrives?

She does her best to sound normal, raising an eyebrow at Jack. ‘The angry wasp?’

‘My old scooter,’ says Jack. ‘A Vespa. When he was a kid he used to say it sounded like an angry wasp.’

He closes his eyes and exhales. He seems lighter, as if a weight has been lifted. ‘He spoke to me. He actually spoke to me.’

‘Yes.’

They fall silent for a moment. A thought strikes Morgan. ‘Did he ever try to talk you out of it?

The man opens his eyes. ‘Out of what?’

‘Taking the blame for what happened.’

A frown. ‘No. Why would he?’

The answer seems self-evident. It feels odd to have to spell it out. ‘Because you’re not guilty. And if I took the blame for something my daughter had done – a murder – I’d expect her to feel guilty about it, at the very least, not to just carry on as if nothing had happened.’

‘You’re missing the point, Morgan. I’m the guilty one because I couldn’t protect him. Sam’s been through enough. I don’t want him to feel guilty, I want him to have a life.’

He finishes the beer in two swigs then gets to his feet and heads for the fridge.

‘Right.’ He rubs his hands together. ‘Food.’

Morgan decides to say nothing more on the subject of Sam. Jack seems to have made his peace with the way life has turned out; who is she to stir things up by suggesting that he might have been manipulated – guilt-tripped – into taking the rap for his son? What matters now is keeping things on an even keel. What matters is survival.

Her eyes flicker towards the front door, just two tempting paces away. She made sure to lock up before going to bed, unaware that the intruder was already inside. The bolt is stiff. He’d be on her in a flash.

He’s scanning the contents of the fridge, taking out a carton of cream and some cheese.

‘Any pasta?’

She blinks. ‘You don’t seriously expect me to cook for you?’

He turns and grins. ‘I’m cooking for you.’

Morgan gives silent thanks that the man is hungry and focused on doing something normal. For the next twenty minutes, she watches as he forages in her cupboard, finding cans of tuna, sweetcorn and tomatoes, then sets about making a tuna pasta bake that smells as good as it looks.

They talk about prison. His cellmates. The first, Rashid, suffered psychotic episodes and would self-harm every day. The second was a skinhead with ‘hate’ tattooed on his forehead. The third, Lee, never spoke, not once in the sixteen months he and Jack shared a cell. Last Christmas Eve, Lee used a bed-sheet to make a noose. Hanged himself from the top bunk.

Jack seems content to talk, requiring little input from Morgan. Throughout his monologue, she resists the temptation to look at her watch. Finally, the meal is ready. He places the tuna pasta bake on the table then motions for her to help herself. She shakes her head.

‘I’m not hungry.’

His smile fades. ‘I made it for you.’

His tone brooks no opposition. Wary of antagonising him, Morgan spoons the food onto her plate. He watches carefully as she takes a bite.

‘Tasty?’

She nods. ‘Very good.’

He grins. ‘I work in the prison kitchen. The lads call me Jamie Oliver.’

He starts eating then snaps open another beer. Morgan’s palms are sweating. She grips her fork tightly, struggling to keep her hands from shaking and determined to make her voice sound as normal as possible.

‘What will you do after you’ve seen Sam?’

‘Take my chances.’

‘On the run?’

He swallows a mouthful of pasta. ‘I’m not giving myself up, if that’s what you mean.’

She watches while the man finishes his meal, taking his time, savouring every bite. They talk about Jack’s wife, Lesley. About Sam. All the while, Morgan’s mind is working overtime, wondering how long it will take to trace the emergency SOS. Will they track her phone by GPS? She has only the faintest idea of how the system works, she just hopes to God it does. If she believed in a deity of any kind she would be on her knees, praying.

As the clock ticks past three a.m. they talk more. About her visits to the prison, the satisfaction she gets from helping a prisoner discover a book that makes him see the world in a new light.

‘Maybe when he gets out he’ll be able to live a different sort of life,’ she says. Then she blushes, painfully aware of how patronising and naïve her words must sound.

He shrugs. ‘Wouldn’t count on it.’

‘You don’t think people change?’

Another shrug. ‘Change is hard.’ He lays down his fork. ‘Tell me a secret.’

Morgan is startled. The question comes out of the blue. ‘What sort of secret?’

‘Anything you like. I confided in you, now it’s your turn. Show you trust me.’

A smile plays on his lips. Morgan considers inventing something outlandish, just to fob him off, but what would be the point? Better to be truthful.

‘I don’t know if it counts as a secret,’ she says, ‘but I was disloyal to my father. He was accused of doing something terrible – raping one of his pupils. He swore he was innocent but I didn’t believe him, not completely, and he knew it.’

‘Was he telling the truth?’

Morgan manages a nod, suddenly unable to speak. After all this time, the guilt is still close to the surface, the emotion still raw. An image comes to her mind’s eye. Her father’s nursing home deathbed. His bony hand stroking hers.

‘I’ll bet he understood,’ says Jack.

She studies the man’s face. ‘What makes you so sure?’

‘Because I know I’d forgive my son anything. It’s what parents do.’

And then she sees it.

Over his shoulder, out on the darkened beach: a glimpse of movement.

He frowns. ‘What?’

‘Nothing.’

But her voice lacks conviction. He turns and follows her gaze. ‘What did you see?’

Before she can answer, she hears the unmistakable sound of footsteps crunching on the shingle.

Jack springs to his feet. His voice is a hiss. ‘Who is it?’

‘I’ve no idea.’

He studies her face. ‘You’re lying.’

Morgan’s brain is racing. She wants him out of her house, but she believes his story. Can’t help feeling a pang of sympathy. The man is about to be denied his wish: to see his son one last time. But what choice did she have? An escapee… A man on the run…

‘It’s the police, Jack. They’re here for you.’

‘How do they know where I am?’

Morgan spreads her hands, a gesture of innocence. ‘I don’t know.’

He narrows his eyes. ‘How did you do it?’

‘Do what?’

He steps towards her. She can feel his breath on her face. ‘How do they know?

To her relief, he doesn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he springs forward, opens a drawer and grabs a knife. He runs to the back door and peers out of the window. There’s no sign of life.

‘Don’t make things worse,’ says Morgan.

But he’s not listening. He unlocks the door. Steps outside. And suddenly, he’s running, running, running. She can hear his feet crunching over the shingle, receding into the distance.

And now comes a shout from the other side of the house. ‘Go, go, go!

Light spills from her window, illuminating the beach. She can make out four figures chasing after Jack. Police officers: three plainclothes, one in uniform. They disappear into the darkness.

Morgan stands at the window, watching, waiting. She tries to focus on the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. Then comes the sound of shouting in the distance. She does her best to make out what is being said but the voices are indistinct, too far away. It’s barely a minute before she sees the police officers returning. Two of the men have Jack in their grip, hands cuffed behind his back.

Catching sight of Morgan, his eyes blaze. He calls out. ‘I trusted you! Bitch!’

The police officers steer him away. Reaching their car, they bundle the prisoner into the back seat. Jack glares at Morgan one final time then averts his gaze and stares ahead as he is driven away.

One of the plainclothes police officers catches sight of Morgan. He makes his way across the shingle, towards her house. She opens the back door and walks onto the porch, arms folded against the cold night air. The policeman is overweight and breathing heavily, puffed after the brief chase.

‘You OK?’ he says.

Morgan nods. ‘He hid in my attic.’

‘Did he hurt you?’

She shakes her head. ‘He wanted to talk to his son.’

‘About what?’

She hesitates. The man’s secret is not hers to share. She gave a promise. ‘I don’t know,’ she says.

The man scratches his head, watching as the taillights of the police car disappear into the distance.

‘They pulled out all the stops to sort this,’ he says. ‘An escaped con doesn’t look good for the prison service, or us.’

Morgan nods. ‘At least the system works.’

He frowns. ‘What system?’

‘The “silent solution”,’ says Morgan. ‘I dialled 999 then tapped 55.’

The police officer looks bemused. ‘That’s not what I heard,’ he says. ‘I was told they tracked your phone. After a tip-off.’

It’s Morgan’s turn to frown. ‘What tip-off?’

The man shrugs. ‘Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe it was you tapping 55.’

‘Could it have been both?’

He shrugs again. ‘I can try and find out.’

Morgan is on the verge of responding but hears a noise in the distance – the whine of an engine – and knows she has her answer. If her ‘silent emergency’ SOS worked at all, it is still in the system, awaiting a response.

She remembers McCrory’s words.

Sometimes doing the right thing means you have to take a hit. Know what I mean?

Her decision is made in an instant but will endure for the rest of her life. She will take the hit. She will live with the knowledge that Jack McCrory believes it was she who betrayed him.

The truth would be hard – impossible – for the man to bear.

She has an image of him hanging in his cell, purple-faced, twisting on the end of a knotted sheet. The thought stiffens her resolve.

Turning to go, she listens to the dying strains of the engine receding in the distance.

The sound of a Vespa heading away, along the tarmac road.

The sound of an angry wasp.

Simon Booker writes prime-time drama for BBC1 and ITV. His crime novels Without Trace and Kill Me Twice are published by Bonnier Zaffre.

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