The Croaking Raven

Chapter One (Click to Chapter Two)

“Here’s to Johnny.” Harper saluted with her glass to an audience of zero, and then drained the contents. It wasn’t a proper way to show appreciation for the expensive whisky, but the memory she was trying to erase couldn’t be wiped away with anything less than eighteen-year-old single malt.

She waved the empty glass towards the barman at the other end of the curving bar, who was chatting with the only other customer in the pub, a sales rep type of man having lunch. “Hit me again.”

The barman frowned – and was it just her or were barmen getting younger by the day? He couldn’t possibly be old enough to drink legally, let alone to serve alcoholic beverages that were. “I think you’ve had enough.”

“And what, pray, is considered enough these days?” She wasn’t even slurring yet, and her sarcasm came through clear enough. He lifted his hands in defence.

“Hey, no offence. Just an observation.”

“If I were a bloke you’d pour me another.”

He shrugged. “Could be. But you’re not. And women your size can’t really take as much as a man.”

Harper sat up straighter on the barstool, a reaction of hers whenever her short size was mentioned. All her psychological training hadn’t cured her of the habit. “Ah, but you’re not taking age and practise into consideration. And those say I’m good for at least one more drink.”

“Fine, but this is the absolute last one.” He poured her a generous portion of whisky and she paid for it. “The next one is coffee.”

“Yes, Mom.” There were other pubs in London.

“Let me guess. Broken heart, am I right?” the sales rep type asked.

She gave him a slow look. “Because a woman couldn’t possibly have any other reason for drinking than a man.”

He flustered slightly. “Clearly something’s brothering you.”

“You mean I can’t get plastered at…” She glanced at the clock on the wall behind the bar. She had to squeeze her eyes a little for the numbers to come in focus. “Two-thirty on a Monday afternoon just for the heck of it?”

“Well, it does seem peculiar. Is it work related?”

The question made her want to empty her glass. “Yep.”

The man wouldn’t give up. He wasn’t actually bad looking, which probably meant that she had, in fact, had enough to drink. “A deal gone bad? Did you lose a lot of money?”

“Money? Who drinks because of money?”

“We are practically in the City, and the way you’re dressed, I assumed you’d be working there.”

Harper glanced at her red skirt suit, custom made like most of her clothes had to be. At five foot four she was slightly too short for her weight, the excess of which concentrated mostly on her backside and front top, making it nearly impossible for her to find readymade clothes that fit. Shoes were black pumps with higher heels than were regulation, but she needed every extra inch they gave her.

“Well, you got that wrong.” She doubted any City executive would deign to show up in this dump of a pub in Whitechapel anyway. She had only chosen it because it was close enough to work that she hadn’t had to go far, yet was devoid of any co-workers.

“What is it that you do then? A doctor? Did you lose a patient?”

She was a doctor, actually, but not of medicine. Psychology. “If doctors got blasted every time someone died, they’d be permanently incapacitated.” She wasn’t looking for a conversation, but he looked so expectant that she sighed and gave in. “I’m a crisis negotiator.”

“Oh. What’s that then?”

She stared at her drink. “I mediate in crisis situations so they can be resolved without violence or loss of lives.”

If she was successful.

“Who for?”

“The police.”

“Bank heists and such, where people are taken hostage?”

She shook her head. “There hasn’t been a single bank heist that needed a negotiator during my almost decade with the Metropolitan Police Service.”

“So what do you do?”

She sighed, not really wanting to explain. “It’s ninety per cent domestic situations that the police can’t defuse by themselves, and attempted suicides.”

“So no hostage situations at all?”

“Yes, but they’re usually domestic too. Custody battles where one parent takes the children. Or a guy threatens to blow himself or his family up if his wife doesn’t return home, or he doesn’t get his job back.” Maybe I should try that one. “The rest is counselling after traumatic incidents.”

“Did something bad happen to get you drinking? Did someone blow something up after all?” He gestured for the bartender to turn on the TV.

She braced herself for the news that would definitely bring up the cause for her drinking. But she had a more mundane reason for it, too. “No. I was fired. Budget cuts. Nothing ever blows up, so the powers that be decided we’re not actually needed.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. That’s a hell of a way to start the week.”

“You have no idea.” She squeezed her eyes tightly to forget the video she had seen that morning, but the images were clear in her mind. The drinks weren’t working. A barrel of whisky couldn’t erase the memory.

The news was rolling on the BBC 24. There was a police operation underway in London, a large one by the look of it. Blokes from the Specialist Firearms Command were on the scene too, geared up, ready to offer the unarmed personnel armed support if needed – or defuse a bomb. They all operated from the Leman Street station, as did the crisis negotiators, so she knew most of them. She tried to detect familiar faces, but her gaze was too blurred to see the screen clearly.

Then Johnny’s face blasted on the screen and she was filled with the agony of sorrow and failure. “Islamist militants have this morning killed a British hostage, Jonathan Hooper, a photojournalist working—” She covered her ears, and closed her eyes not to see the rest, but too late. A picture of Ashley flashed on the screen with the text ‘journalist still held captive’.

Her beautiful, wilful little sister.

The thought of Ashley in the hands of people who had beheaded her partner was too much to bear. She emptied her glass, but the alcohol had stopped working.

Her phone rang, mercifully claiming her attention. Her boss. Ex-boss. “What?”

“Where are you?” Hugo Cobb barked in the phone.

“In hell. Why? You want to join me?”

“I need your arse down here, immediately.”

“I was fired, remember?”

“Not yet you weren’t. Now move! There’s a situation on.”

“Tough. I’m drunk.”

That made him pause. “How drunk?”

“Halfway between pissed and arse over the elbow.”

He growled. “Can’t be helped. I’m sending someone to fetch you.”

That piqued her interest. “What’s so important anyway?”

“You’ll hear it soon enough. Text me your address. And start drinking coffee.” He hung up.

“Well, fuck.”

A man walked in the pub when Harper was down to her second cup of coffee. She gave him a onceover and approved of what she saw, fairly sure it wasn’t the alcohol affecting her opinion this time.

He looked around, ignoring her and the sales rep at the bar. When the place proved empty of other people, he turned to them, frowning. “Harper George?” The question was military sharp.

Harper gave him a lazy salute. “Aye.”

He startled, as if he hadn’t expected her, but recovered and walked to her. “Garret Thomson, from Thomson Security.” He offered his hand to her. She shook it automatically, trying not to wince when his grip turned out to be military sharp too.

She had come across the type before — ex-soldier who had put his training to use by starting a security business. This one was so new to civilian life he hadn’t let go of his training yet. He was tall and fit with lean muscles, and alert like not even the cops were, as if constantly prepared for getting killed.

“Are you ready?”

“Could I see some identification first?” To his credit, he didn’t hesitate to whip out his ID, and she tried to peer at it. Close-up didn’t work so she pulled it arms-length away from her face.

He snorted, amused. “I was warned that you’d be drunk. But … wow.” He shook his head.

“Yeah, well.” She finally managed to read the ID. He was thirty-four to her thirty-six. He looked older than that, courtesy of the harsh conditions of military life. His skin looked like it had been sand-blown, and there were crow’s feet around his brown eyes. His near black hair was military short with a hint of grey at the temples. The picture was fairly recent, or he always wore a similar black T-shirt. His black cargos looked well-worn too, so he probably lived in them.

“Are you the boss himself, or is there another Thomson pulling the strings?”

“There’s only me.” His tone, a mixture of pride and annoyance intrigued her, but she was too drunk to analyse it.

“Well, aren’t I flattered. Who sent you?”

“Not trusting my word?”

“Nope.”

He nodded, approving. “Hugo Cobb, the chief crisis negotiator for the Metropolitan Police Service.”

“And why you?”

“He couldn’t spare anyone else.”

That sparked her interest. “What’s going on?” She should have paid better attention to the news after all.

“I’ll tell you on the way. Let’s go.”

Harper began to climb down from the tall barstool, an operation for her even when sober. Her legs gave under her, and he reached to steady her by her arm. “Whoa. Give me a second.” The room was spinning uncomfortably and she had to swallow to keep the contents of her stomach in.

He frowned. “We don’t have a second. Take off those stupid shoes. You’ll break your ankles.”

“Well excuse me, but not all of us are over six foot tall. I need every extra inch to make an impression.”

“You’ll make an impression all right.”

“Hey, I’m not the one dragging a drunken woman to a crime scene.”

He huffed, and before she realised what he was about, wrapped an arm around her waist and marched her out of the pub. A large black off-roader sporting the name of his security firm on its side was waiting outside the door, and he helped her onto the high back seat. “Don’t throw up in there.”

He took the front seat next to the driver, who got the car moving before he had properly closed the door. “This is Riley Wilkins, my right hand man.” Riley gave off a similar military vibe as Garret, but his hair was completely shaven and he had greater upper body bulk, which made him appear both younger and much larger.

“There’s coffee and bacon sandwiches in that bag,” Garret said, pointing at a Tesco bag on the seat next to her.

“Thanks,” Harper said, peeking in. The notion of eating didn’t exactly entice her, but she had to sober up. She opened the sandwich package and the smell of greasy bacon hit her nose, making her gag.

She didn’t want to sober up that badly.

Fighting the nausea, she didn’t pay much attention to where they were going. West, towards the City at first, but then Riley turned to the ring road that circled central London from the north.

“Where are we going?”

“Paddington.”

“What, the bear took everyone hostage at the station?” She snorted at her own witticism, but the men weren’t amused.

“No. A man has locked himself in a small branch of NatWest with hostages and explosives.”

Harper’s hand paused midway in stuffing a sandwich in her mouth. “Really? Well, that’s convenient timing. Who’s at the scene?”

“Pretty much everyone.”

“Then why am I needed?”

“Because, Miss George, the hijacker requested you.”

Chapter Two

Harper had eaten the contents of the bag without throwing up by the time they reached Paddington. She was vaguely proud of the feat, so she probably wasn’t sober yet. She didn’t care.

It took forever to get to the scene. The immediate area was closed for traffic, which caused chaos on the streets leading to the station. There were regular checkpoints, and at each of them they had to convince the uniformed officers that they had legitimate business there. Harper’s obvious drunkenness didn’t help in that. Only a call to the detective in charge got them through the last checkpoint.

They were at Sheldon Square, a business park between the Paddington station and the canals of Little Venice. It was paved with grey stone, and bordered by modern ten storey office blocks, also grey and utilitarian. Not even the bright August sun and the tiny patch of greenery in the middle of the square could make it look anything but dreary.

The square was a pass-through to the railway station, busy on a normal day, now eerily empty of commuters. Uniformed officers guarded the entrances to the square, the only people around save the press, who were being kept well away.

Riley pulled over behind one of the office blocks and they exited the car. Harper got out without help and her legs held. Now she only had to get in without fumbling. Garret looked like he would offer to help her, but she straightened her spine and walked to the door on her own.

Another uniformed officer was standing guard there, and they had to state their business again. Harper showed her MPS badge and they were through. “Good thing I didn’t give this up yet,” she mused, hanging the lanyard over her neck. She had almost thrown it at her boss as she stormed out of the station.

“Why would you hand it over?”

“I was fired this morning.”

“Was that why you were getting drunk?”

“No.” He kept staring at her. Annoyed, she told him: “Not solely. A hostage I tried to negotiate free was beheaded by Islamist militants this morning.”

He wasn’t shocked, as she had expected - had intended him to be. He nodded, as if it was an acceptable reason to get drunk, and led her down a small corridor to the back door of a café.

They went through the kitchen to the café proper. It was a large establishment, now filled with Met personnel. Most of the detectives and uniforms were from other stations and Harper didn’t know any of them, but she nodded at the Specialist Firearms Officers of SCO19 who were standing by the door in full gear, led by Inspector Shepherd. In his early forties, he was excellent at his job, yet he didn’t give off vibes similar to Garret. He wasn’t an ex-soldier.

Huge windows opened towards the square, shielded by an awning above a terrace. The bank was across the square on the ground floor. Harper could see its sign, but trees and shrubs in the middle of the square covered the view to its windows. Nevertheless, all the tables in the café had been moved away from the windows, and the awning was lowered for maximum cover.

It was a good place for the OP centre, especially since it came with an endless supply of great Italian coffee. And a proper loo. “Not yet,” she halted the people who approached her the moment they spotted her, and headed to the toilet instead. Alcohol and coffee weren’t a good combination.

When she emerged she was met with a frowning wall of detectives and other MPS personnel. First among them was her boss, Hugo Cobb, a short and stocky man in his late fifties with thinning hair and a lousy taste in clothes. He eyed her critically and she pulled herself straighter, unable to prevent the reaction.

“You’re drunk.”

“Very astute of you.”

“I mean, you didn’t manage to sober up during the drive here.”

“You should’ve seen me before.”

“I can’t have you here in this condition.”

“Hey, I’m not exactly volunteering to be here. I had a very good bender going on and you’ve ruined it. But if I leave now I can still catch up.”

Hugo frowned. “Is this about your tantrum this morning?”

“Tantrum? I’m thirty-six. I don’t throw tantrums. I was furious. And thank you for reminding me I had cause for it. Now, why exactly am I here?”

“Because the hijacker requested you.” He didn’t sound happy about it. They got along well, but he wasn’t one to tolerate unprofessional behaviour. And she had been unprofessional even before she showed up at his scene drunk.

“I got that part, but why me? Who is he?”

“We haven’t the foggiest,” the younger man at Hugo’s elbow pitched in. Richard Black, the bane of her existence. He was fairly new at the Met and extremely opportunistic. He never failed to take credit for other people’s work and blame them for his mistakes.

She eyed him in dismay. “Are you saying they let this brownnose stay while I got the boot?”

An angry flush rose on Richard’s face. “Watch it, bitch.”

“Oh, that’s original.”

“Cut it out, the pair of you,” Hugo barked.

Harper turned to him, and maybe it was the alcohol talking, but right then she didn’t miss working with these people at all. It must have shown on her face, because Hugo shook his head.

“No, he’s not staying either. But if you’d listened to the briefing instead of storming out, you’d have learned that your contracts won’t be terminated until the end of your notice period. That’s three months for you, Harper. Until then, you’re all of you MPS employees. And I’d thank you to remember that and behave accordingly.”

“In that case, why wasn’t I called here from the start, before I got drunk?”

“I thought it was best to let you cool off. There were the two of us to handle matters.”

“Must have been an unpleasant surprise, then, that he requested me.”

“Perhaps you orchestrated this to get your job back,” Richard sneered.

Her reaction was immediate and unprecedented, a combination of inebriation and impotent anger. She swirled to him and sank her fist in his stomach with everything she had. Years of training made it a great punch even when drunk. Richard bent over, gasping for breath.

“Harper!”

She smiled, satisfied, and she wasn’t entirely sure she could blame the alcohol. Richard straightened up, and there was genuine hatred in his eyes.

“You’ll pay for that.”

“With what? You’re going to beat me up? You’re welcome to try.” He was an average size man with the physique of a desk worker. It still made him bigger and stronger than her, but she trusted her years of self-defence training to carry her through.

“That’s enough!” Hugo roared. “Harper, you drink more coffee, and Richard, you can go take a breather outside.”

“You know what, I think I’ll leave since I’m not needed here anymore. Good luck with handling this with her. She’s already got one hostage killed today.” With this parting shot, he headed out the kitchen door.

Harper stared after him, holding herself absolutely rigid. She couldn’t breathe, her throat constricted with acute pain. The room full of people around her went quiet, waiting for her reaction. She didn’t dare react. It would be a total meltdown that would shadow the one from that morning.

A hand landed on her shoulder, warm and heavy. It began to knead it gently. “Breathe.” Garret.

“Can’t.” A chair was pressed against the back of her legs and she was eased down on it. She was so stiff it took some manoeuvring.

Hugo cleared his throat, a signal for everyone to start behaving normally again. “You know it wasn’t your fault what happened to Johnny.”

His words barely registered. All she had energy for was pushing away the image of Johnny in that orange jumpsuit, on his knees, shaking with uncontained terror as a masked man prepared to behead him. She hadn’t been able to watch the actual beheading, but she knew it had happened.

It was her fault.

Garret continued to knead her shoulders, and little by little she was able to breathe properly again. The pain in her throat wouldn’t ease. She would need a good cry for that to go away, but this wasn’t the place for it.

“I could really use a stiff drink.”

Hugo snorted. “You’re not getting any. Take some coffee and pull yourself together. There’s work to do.”



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