Authors: Jo Bannister
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the name well enough. But he wouldn't have recognized Gabriel Ash if they'd passed in the street. He'd struck Graves as a big man when they first met: tall, big-boned, powerful of build and of intellect. The man before him now seemed entirely shrunken. He even seemed shorter, thanks to a slight apologetic stoop.
Graves ushered him to a chair, quickly, as if afraid he might fall down. But his anxiety was unwarranted. Ash was in better shape than he looked. He was in better shape than he'd been for years.
With his visitor safely seated, Graves called his PA and asked for coffee. Ash waited politely, aware that these days his host's time was more important, or certainly more expensive, than his own.
Finally Graves overcame his surprise enough to open the conversation. It wasn't difficult to guess why Ash was hereâthere was only one issue that concerned them both. “I imagine it's the same matter you want to discuss.”
Ash nodded. Thick black curls fell in his eyes. Graves doubted he'd spent proper money on a haircut since they'd last met. Only the suit was the same, and though clean and pressed, it now hung from Ash's cadaverous frame. “Some things have come up. Queries. I hoped you could cast some lightâ¦” Graves didn't interrupt him. The sentence just petered out, as if he'd lost interest in it.
The CEO of Bertram Castings took a moment to realize he'd finished. “Yes,” he said. Then, keenly, “Yes, of course. Anything. If I can. If there's anything I haven't already told you. But first”âhe bit his lipâ“can I say how sorry I am about what happened? When I heardÂ â¦ I couldn't help feelingÂ â¦ guilty, I suppose. If you hadn't been trying to help us, perhapsÂ â¦ none of itâ¦” It was his turn to run out of words.
Ash smiled. It was an oddly innocent smile for a man of forty, apparently without bitterness. “I was just doing my job. If I hadn't been doing it here, I'd have been doing it somewhere else. The consequences would very probably have been the same.”
Whether or not it was true, the manufacturer appreciated him saying it. He'd assumed that Ash had been hating his guts for the last four years. It would have been understandable. “Has there been some news?”
“No,” said Ash quickly. “At least, nothing”âhe sought an appropriate adjectiveâ“reliable. But someone said something, in a different context, and he was probably just winding me up, but I didn't feel I could let it go without at least trying to be sure.”
“Who?” asked Graves, almost holding his breath. “Said what?”
“It was a policeman. A senior policeman, who might well have heard things that weren't public knowledge. But who also had a good reason for wanting me to think he could help me.” Ash swallowed. “He saidâhe gave me to understandâthat he knew what had happened to my family. And I thinkâI
âhe was saying that my sons are still alive.”
Graves took a steadying breath and let it out slowly. “That would be wonderful.”
“Yes, it would,” agreed Ash. His voice was gossamer-thin. “If it's true.”
“You said a policeman?”
“But not a very good one.”
“You mean, you think he's lying?”
“He could have lied.”
Graves frowned. “How can I help? Surely the one you need to be talking to, or someone needs to be talking to, is this policemanâto establish whether he actually knows anything or not.”
“You're right, of course.” Ash nodded. “Unfortunately, he's dead.”
The man across the desk froze. “Who killed him?”
“A criminal. It's a long story,” said Ash tiredly. “Before he died, when he was anxious for my help, he said he knew where my boys are. He might have meant where they were buried, but that's not what he said. Before I could ask him to explain, he died in front of me. And now I don't know, and don't know how to find out, if he was telling the truth.”
It was a much abbreviated version of that desperate day's events, but it was accurate and it was as full an account as a peripheral player like Graves would need. Being a weapons manufacturer didn't make him an expert on gang culture. The whole of the arms trade is so ringed about by regulations that he couldn't have sold weapons to gangsters if he'd wanted to. He was an engineer by training, a businessman by choice, a pen pusher by necessity. The government inspectors cast such long shadows over his trade that he'd once found himself photocopying his wife's birthday card, just in case.
“Gabriel, I don't know what to say.” The use of his visitor's first name didn't come naturallyâthey'd never been on first name termsâbut it felt more awkward still to call him Mr. Ash when the man had stripped his soul in front of him. “Tell me how you think I can help.”
Ash smiled again, gratefully. “In all honesty, I'm not sure you can. I just couldn't think where else to go. The thing is, this policeman had been working in Norbold, where I live, for the last eight years. Before that he was up north somewhere. He was never in Africa. If he knew anything about Somali piracy, he heard about it while living and working in England. And that's what he saidâthat he heard it from a local criminal. In fact, the one who shot him.
“And if he really did know something, if it wasn't just a bait he was dangling in front of me, I think that had to be true. I'm pretty sure he didn't get it from an official source. I've been to WhitehallâI still know people thereâand what they told me is that they've learned nothing new about my family in the last four years. I believe them. If there'd been anything to report, my old boss would have told me, with or without his minister's approval.”
Ash had worked for Philip Welbeck for five years. He'd known he was a good boss. He hadn't known how good a friend he was until his world fell apart. Admittedly, Ash had broken Welbeck's nose in a highly public brawl in Parliament Street, and Welbeck had had him committed to a psychiatric institution, but both these acts had long ago been forgiven. Ash had been far from rational when he took a swing at his superior. And Welbeck had been absolutely rational, as cool and clinical as always, and totally focused on the safety of Ash's family, when he called the men in white coats.
There was no knowing if Cathy and the boys were still alive when Ash, insane with worry, stormed down to London, demanding to know what was being done to find them. But if they were alive, it was to keep Ash from returning to his job in national security and hunting down those responsible for the hijacking of British-made munitions. This was what he was good at, what he was perhaps better at than anyone else. It had taken the pirates some time to recognize the fact. But when they did, they had moved quickly to neutralize the threat he posed. Holding his family hostage gave them control of Gabriel Ash.
After the scene in Parliament Street it was impossible to pretend he hadn't disobeyed Welbeck's instructions by returning to London. All Welbeck could do to salvage the situation was make it clear that Ash wasn't working, on his family's abduction or the acts of piracy that preceded it, because he wasn't fit to work, and quite possibly never would be again.
That was then. This was now. Ash couldn't use official channels to pursue the search anymore. This was what he was doing instead: picking up the threads of the investigation that had cost him everything and trying to find out if they still led anywhere.
He was grateful Graves had agreed to see him. Ash wanted him to understand that, though he had little in the way of new evidence, he wasn't just raking over the same old coals. “If this policeman was telling the truth, he learned what happened to my family from a Norbold drug dealer. And that means that everyone involved in these hijackings isn't half a world away in Somalia. There's a local dimension. Someone here is involved.”
“Here?” Graves's eyebrows shot toward his hairline. Although he was no older than Ash, his hair was gray and he kept it clipped short to teach it a lesson. He did spend proper money on haircuts.
“Sorry,” said Ash hastily, “I don't mean here at Bertrams. I mean here in England. And I found myself wonderingâyou're going to think I'm crazy,” Ash interjected with the painful wryness of someone who knew what it was like to be thought crazyâ“if there was any chance that someone you work with could be selling information on your shipments. Not necessarily one of your employeesâit could be an auditor or a tax inspector, or someone from Health & Safety, someone who comes and goes without exciting much interest. But someone who has access to your shipping details, so the pirates know when you're sending munitions in their direction, what aircraft you'll be using, and which airfields you'll be putting down at.”
Graves was obviously taken aback. His company had lost a small fortune in goods hijacked en route to their end users in Africa, but the general understanding had been that that was where the problem layâin Africa, with the customers' security arrangements. Five times in four years it had happened, and it wasn't just the munitions that had disappeared each time but also the aircraft and the crew. People had died trying to deliver his goods, and the only consolation was that the British police had looked at Bertrams's security protocols and told the CEO there was nothing more he could have done to protect them.
Now Gabriel Ash seemed to be telling him something different. “How would I know?” he asked, concerned.
“Maybe you wouldn't. Maybe there was nothing to notice. But maybe there was someone who showed just a bit more interest in your shipping arrangements than seemed natural. Who asked where aircraft would be refueled, or which carrier was carrying which shipment, or how crew were recruited. Something like that. Or something quite different, but still not quite what you'd expect. Not quite right.”
Graves was trying to think, but this had been sprung on him. He'd had a couple of hours' notice that Ash wanted to call, none at all that this was the reason. His face creased with the effort to remember. Finally, regretfully, he shook his head. “I'm sorry, nothing's coming to mind. But can I have some time to think about it? I'll go through the records, see who was in the office in the days before each hijacking. See if any pattern emerges. Give me your number. I'll call you if I come up with anything.”
Ash gave him the number of his new mobile. “Call me anyway. It doesn't need to be a concrete suspicion. If you think of anyone with access to the relevant information, I'll talk to the other firms that lost shipments and see if the same name comes up again.”