To celebrate Alias winning a 2019 Goldie Award for Best Thriller, I thought I’d share the first chapter of Breathe, my forthcoming romantic- suspense-action adventure-thriller (heh!) for anyone who wants a sneak peek.
The text is beneath the cut, and the novel is set for release September 1st, exclusively at the Bold Strokes website, and then wider release on the 10th. You can pre-order here at BSB.
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“Oh God, don’t let me die. Help! Please help me!”
The wind tore at the man’s thin wail, breaking it into pieces, half of his entreaty heading south to the Manchester Ship Canal and the other half whipping across Barton Bridge. Lying flat on her front, her boots hooked over the rim of the hard shoulder and her elbows in a puddle, Jem trained her torch on the hapless bloke and tried not to look at the water swirling a hundred feet below.
“Bloody hell,” she said. Trevor, her crewmate for this latest run of weekend nights, stalked toward their ambulance, his curt request for assistance drowned out as the rope suddenly slipped and the man shrieked.
“I’m falling! Tell Bella I love her!”
Jem rechecked his position: he wasn’t falling. He was dangling in midair a few inches lower than he had been, but he wasn’t falling.
“Try to keep still,” she shouted.
He gave her an incredulous look as the wind spun him in a slow three-sixty. “Fucking brilliant advice! Any other bright ideas?”
“No, not really,” she muttered and then jumped as a hand clapped her on the shoulder and a policewoman in a scarlet beanie hat and a high-vis jacket squirmed into a prone position beside her.
“What’ve we got?” the officer asked, apparently oblivious to the puddle she was now sharing with Jem. She peeked over the ledge and snorted. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. I’m guessing he’s the groom?”
“The L-plate would certainly imply that,” Jem said.
The “Learner” tag, and the loincloth to which it was attached, were the man’s sole items of clothing. His friends had stripped him before tethering him to the stanchion and leaving him to it, and although they probably hadn’t intended his current predicament, a combination of slip knots, high winds, greasy metal, and a shitload of alcohol had been a recipe for disaster.
“My mate’s requesting Fire and Hazardous Response,” Jem said.
The officer shook her head. “We’re stuffed there. A warehouse went up in Ardwick about an hour ago, and every man and his dog are otherwise engaged.” She eyeballed Jem. “How are you at abseiling?”
“What?” The question squeaked out, and Jem felt her palms begin to sweat. “No, no, we can’t! You don’t understand. This kind of thing, it doesn’t—not for me…” She couldn’t explain. She could barely raise her voice above the traffic on the motorway and the rain that had started to batter the tarmac. “We need to wait for backup,” she said, but the officer brushed off her feeble plea.
“It’ll be fine. Trust me.” She shuffled forward and called down to the man. “Hang in there, pal. We’ll be back in a jiffy.”
“Stop taking the piss!” he yelled, twirling again, the L-plate flapping to reveal exactly how cold he was. He was still ranting as the officer tugged Jem’s hand, encouraging her to her feet.
“I’ve got a tow rope in my car,” she said. “Do you have anything we can make a harness out of? For him, not for us. I was joking about the abseiling.”
Jem’s instinct for career preservation made her falter, but she was already thinking, imagining a rough design fashioned from lifting belts and stretcher straps. “Possibly,” she conceded, dragging the word out. “Give me a couple of minutes.”
They parted at the kerbside, the officer rummaging in her car boot while Jem headed to the ambulance. She found Trevor hastily crushing a fag beneath his boot.
“HART gave an ETA of ninety minutes, and control reckon that’s optimistic at best,” he told her, none too subtly blocking the rear doors.
When she went to step around him, he parried her move.
“No,” he said. “Whatever you’re planning, just—no.”
He was older than her but less experienced, and in terms of qualifications she outranked him. Given her reputation, though, she understood his reticence.
“We can’t leave him there for ninety minutes,” she said. “He’s already panicking. He’ll do something stupid and end up in the canal.”
“Or you’ll do something stupid, and then it’ll be our fault.” Trevor seemed to ponder this for a moment and then smiled sweetly. He reached for his radio with one hand and unlocked the ambulance with the other. “Okay, okay, go ahead. I’ll have a word with our dispatcher.”
With no time to worry about ulterior motives, Jem scrambled into the back and started to pull equipment from the cupboards. Trailing luminous strips of plastic, she met the officer on the hard shoulder and sat with her on the kerb to clip and tie and rearrange their kit until they had something resembling a scaffolder’s harness, if they squinted at it and used a lot of imagination.
“Think it’s big enough?” the officer asked, holding the rig in front of her to check its size. She only had an inch or so on Jem height-wise, but she was slimmer around the waist and backside, and two of her would have comfortably fitted into it.
“Try it against me instead,” Jem said, and felt a flush of heat in her cheeks as the officer’s gaze wandered over her.
“Yeah, as if you’re a fair comparison.” The officer widened the left leg, seemingly on a whim, and slung everything across her shoulder. “Your mate going to lend us his muscles?” she asked as they walked to the side of the bridge, careful not to trip on the rope they’d secured around a lamppost.
Jem glanced back at the ambulance. She could see the puff of smoke marking Trevor’s position on the far side of the vehicle. Out of sight, out of mind. She had literally taken the rope, and he was hoping she’d hang herself with it. Ignoring a renewed bout of fear, she coughed through the wheeze that had started to accompany her every breath.
“I think we’re on our own,” she said.
The officer shrugged, unfazed. “We’ll manage. I bet you’re stronger than you look.”
Jem smothered another cough. Nothing could be further from the truth. On a good day she could dead lift the defib and the response bag, but not when she was scared shitless and needed her inhaler. She wanted to run to the ambulance, lock herself in the cab, and wait for the experts. Instead, she concentrated on breathing through her nose and knelt by the officer at the side of the bridge.
“You still with us, pal?” the officer shouted, directing her torch at the man. Jem realised how young he was: twenty-five at most, and sober enough now to appreciate his predicament.
“Hey, what’s your name?” she called. “I’m Jem, and this is…” She looked at the officer.
“Rosie.” The officer raised a hand to underscore her introduction.
“Sean. My name’s Sean.”
“Okay, Sean.” Jem took the strap attached to the harness and began to feed it down. “Without loosening anything that’s holding you, we need you to grab this and get into it.”
He watched the multicoloured contraption descend, his eyes so wide that they flashed like twin moons against the darkness surrounding him.
“Don’t be fucking stupid. How am I supposed to get into that?”
“One leg at a time,” Rosie suggested helpfully. She pulled on a pair of leather gloves and gathered the lamppost rope.
“He’s giving it a go,” Jem told her. Despite his protest, Sean had wriggled a foot through the first loop, and she was manoeuvring the guide strap to inch the second loop into position. He caught it with a toe and yanked it up his leg. Jem saw Rosie’s stance widen as she took the strain, and she sprinted across to help her, grasping the section in front of Rosie and hauling on it.
“Keep going,” Rosie said, her breath puffing warm on Jem’s neck. “Keep going, you’re doing great.”
Jem nodded, gritting her teeth as her muscles burned. The rope shifted in fits and starts, grinding around the concrete lamppost. She waited for it to snap, for the scream as Sean plunged to his doom, for her own inevitable capitulation. What she saw instead was Sean’s hand flailing, trying to find purchase. She gave a yelp of encouragement, and she and Rosie tugged harder, invigorated. Caught up in their heads-down, heels-dug-in rhythm, they launched him over the railing, and he landed in a heap on the tarmac, his arse quivering and his limbs tangled.
“Holy shit,” Rosie gasped. “It worked.”
Jem’s hands were shaking. She dropped the rope and bent double, struggling to draw in a full breath. “Didn’t…didn’t you think…it would?”
Rosie laughed, a joyous, raucous sound. “Fuck no, did I hell. I have bollock-all luck with this kind of thing. Hey, maybe you’re like a, a—what do you call ’em?” She clicked her fingers, searching for the word. “A talisman?”
Jem coughed and gave in, sucking on her inhaler, no longer bothered about keeping up appearances. “I really doubt that,” she said once she could speak without the accompanying bagpipes. “I’ll get him a blanket.”
On her own in the ambulance, she leaned against the oxygen cupboard and closed her eyes. Her knees were knocking.
“Come on, you’re being a berk,” she whispered. She found a blanket and clasped it to her chest for a moment before reopening the back door. The door stuck, the step catching as it dropped, so she pushed harder, throwing her weight behind it when it met unexpected resistance. She heard a cry and a scuffle, followed by the sound of screeching brakes, and she peered around the door in time to see Sean bouncing off a car’s windscreen. He landed with a thud, rolled back onto the hard shoulder, and came to a stop in front of Rosie’s boots.
“Jesus wept!” Rosie said.
Dumbstruck, Jem froze on the top step as Trevor ran across to them.
“Have you killed him?” he shouted. “I bloody knew it! I knew something like this would happen.”
She shook her head convulsively, unable to move. One thought was rolling through her mind on a loop: please no, please no.
“He’s not dead, you pillock,” Rosie snapped, and Sean gave a groan, attesting to the fact. “The car was only doing five miles an hour. Stop gobbing off and help him.” She went over to Jem and touched her arm gently. “Hey. You okay there?”
“I’m fine,” Jem managed through a renewed bout of wheezing. “I need to—” She gestured toward Sean.
“You need to sit down,” Rosie said. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Jem’s laugh bordered on hysterical. “Not this time,” she said as Rosie stared at her. “Not this time.”