Running Towards Danger
Running Towards Danger was published in 2015 by Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie. It is available from this website, from New Zealand book stores and from Amazon.com. The ebook is available from Amazon.com
Karen’s flat-mate Nick is executed in a drive-by shooting right in front of her and her life is turned upside-down. Everything she thought she knew about him turns out to be a lie. She becomes a suspect in the police investigation and criminals think she knows where Nick has hidden a large sum of money. When her life is threatened she decides to leave Auckland and disappear. Karen becomes Cara and creates an anonymous existence in a small community in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. She changes her appearance, severs all links to her past and adopts a cash-based way of life that leaves no electronic traces.
Graeme Beattie of Beattie’s Book Blog: “An impressive debut.”
Trish McCormack (thriller author): “Pacy page-turning read with good twists & a satisfying ending.”
Quentin Bennett (reader): “I read Running Towards Danger in two sessions because I couldn’t put it down.”
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RUNNING TOWARDS DANGER
THE DANGER DREAM
I can stay no longer, he knows where I am. Whatever is about to happen I cannot bear to think that I will die cowering on the wet ground. I push off and leap up the slope, toes digging in for better grip, arms bent and pumping, slightly hunched in instinctive concealment mode. I run toward a cluster of dark trees further down the river bank in the direction that will take me away from the road and danger. The trees are a long way off but the only thing that offers possible shelter.
I run so fast I can hear the water being sucked out of the wet ground as each foot lifts off. I reach the trees unharmed and stop, trying hard to suppress my panting breaths, lean against a tree trunk and try to blend in with its shape. Gradually my heart beat slows, my breathing becomes calmer and I move slowly away from the tree to look back to where I have come from. And as I stand there listening, searching the shades of grey and black for any sign of movement, arms grab me from behind.
A hand comes round my head and clamps hard over my mouth, the other arm clasps me tightly round the rib cage, locking my arms to my body. I freeze in the position I am in, one foot slightly raised, consider fighting, kicking back into the shins of the person holding me or biting the hand over my mouth. My heart is pounding; this is the danger dream. It is like re-living a past event. I am waiting for what must come, for the harm or the threat. We stand silently and very still for what seems like an age. His head moves closer, warm breath brushes the side of my head and a nearly soundless whisper reaches me through the sound of the wind in the trees. “No noise! Don’t move.”
I slowly lower my foot to the ground and nod my head against the hand over my mouth, indicating that I will obey.
Until that spring day I had never seen anyone die. I was walking home from the bus stop at a leisurely pace, enjoying the spring weather and planning a quiet evening watching a film on TV. I was only a hundred meters from my apartment building when I heard footsteps running behind me and someone called my name. I turned round and saw Nick about twenty meters behind me, out of breath and running hard. Then two shots rang out in close succession and Nick fell to the ground, in a sort of slow motion movement that left him lying, slightly skewed, at the edge of the sidewalk.
I stood as if paralysed; for a moment my mind did not connect the sound of the shots and Nick falling to the ground, then realisation hit me and I ran towards him. He was badly hurt; his head was angled to one side and blood was pooling under his neck and shoulder. When I knelt beside him he lifted a trembling hand and his voice came out in a panting whisper. “Help me!” His eyes closed but his hand was still raised just above his chest, clenched and shaking.
I was vaguely aware that a car had drawn up alongside us, but I did not look up. Then there was a burst of three rapid shots and I flinched with shocked surprise as Nick’s head seemed to disintegrate. My head snapped up and I just caught an impression of a dark car accelerating away; sound seemed muffled and muted. I looked down at Nick again and I knew that there was nothing I could do to help him now.
The hand that had reached out towards me was now resting on the ground, as if tossed aside. I lifted the limp hand and put it on his chest; it was a shock that it felt so warm when I knew Nick was dead. There was a key on the sidewalk beside his legs and I picked it up as I rose and saw three people running towards me, one of them was shouting something but I could not hear the words.
A middle-aged man got there first and looked down at Nick in horror. “My god! That’s awful!” I was feeling oddly removed from the scene, as if I was observing it and myself from a distance, as if this was not happening in real time. “We must call the police,” I said to the man; I hesitated, unsure of quite what was needed. “And an ambulance?”
“I’ll do it.” He pulled out a mobile phone and I stood watching him without moving. The other two had reached us now; one of them was an older woman carrying a guitar. She looked at Nick and then at me and put the guitar case on the ground and pulled a tissue from her pocket.
“Oh, you poor thing – let’s get some of that blood off your face.”
I stood quietly while she dabbed at my forehead and cheeks. I knew I was unhurt so it must be Nick’s blood, but somehow it did not concern me, everything seemed unreal and remote still. While the stranger cleaned me up I tried to think of what I must do next, but my mind was blank. The man tucked his phone in his pocket and looked down at Nick again. “Should we cover him up with something? It doesn’t seem right to leave him like this.” He looked round as if expecting someone to hand him a blanket, but what he got, held out at arm’s length, was a shawl clutched in the hand of a young girl. I had not really noticed her till now; her face was white and shocked and her lips were trembling. “Here, take this – oh, the poor man!”
She took a step backwards but her eyes were still on Nick. The man bent down and covered Nick’s shattered head with the shawl and as he straightened up we heard the sound of sirens and I turned round towards the sound. A crowd had gathered without me noticing, some on our side and a bigger group on the other side of the street, staring across at us.
And that was how it all started. Sudden and horrifying, but with no indication that it would soon change my entire life and make me do things that I would never have thought myself capable of until circumstances forced me to confront violence and danger.
A police car came to a halt right beside us and two men jumped out. “What happened?” The man who had called the emergency services replied. “This man was shot by someone who followed him in a car.”
The other policeman lifted the shawl that covered Nick’s head. “Definitely dead,” he said and straightened up. He went to the car and we heard him talking over the police radio. Then he got out again and started moving everyone who had not been an eye witness away from the scene, telling the rest of us to stay where we were. We stood a slight distance from Nick’s body, a little clump of white-faced people, not talking or even looking at each other, just waiting.
Within minutes the place was a hive of controlled chaos: more police officers, an ambulance, yellow ‘police incident’ tape, more calls on the police radio and more people. A van arrived with a PVC structure like a square tent that was immediately erected over Nick’s body.
I stood there, watching with a kind of detached interest as the scene was quickly transformed into an organised and tidy operation by people who knew exactly what to do. A chubby man in plain clothes appeared in front of me, studying my face as if he thought I might suddenly faint or burst into tears.
“I am Senior Detective Sergeant Benson. I believe you were first on the scene? Do you mind telling me what you saw?”
I hesitated, not quite knowing where to start. “Well, I was on my way home; I was coming from the bus stop, from that direction. I heard someone shouting my name and I turned round and saw Nick running towards me.”
His eyes narrowed slightly. “So you know him?”
“Yes, he’s my boarder. I thought he was out of town, I didn’t know he was back.”
“Tell me what you saw.”
“I heard him calling and turned round. Then there were two shots and Nick fell, so I ran up to him and knelt beside him. I thought I might be able to help him. A car came alongside us and they shot him again, three times in the head – and face.”
I shuddered at the memory and for the first time I realised I could have been killed myself. “And then the car sped away.”
“Did you see what kind of car it was? Did you get a look at who was in it?”
“I didn’t see anyone. I didn’t look up until they had fired those shots and all I saw was a dark, medium-sized car driving away. I don’t know what make it was. There must have been two people in it because I saw the arm of someone on the passenger side window sill as it drove off.”
The man who had called the police was right beside me giving his details to another officer and now he turned to us. “I’ve just told the constable here that it was dark blue or black, Honda Accord, a fairly recent model. I think the registration plate started with GF or GE.”
Benson turned back to me. “I would like to talk a bit more with you. Would you prefer to come to the station or can we come to your place? This is probably not the best place for you right now.”
“I think I’d like to get home and get cleaned up. I live just a few doors down the street.” I knew from the way Benson’s eyes were roving over my face that I still had at least smears of blood on me.
“OK, let me write down your name and address and phone number. I’ll come and see you a bit later. Just give me Nick’s full name before you go.”
“His name is Nick Cheviot.” I gave him my details and turned to go, but he was not quite finished.
“Is there anyone at home at your place? No? We can get Victim Support to send someone over to be with you.”
I shook my head and said, “No thanks. I’ll be better on my own. At least for now.” I gave him the PIN code for the street door and he wrote it down in his notebook.
“All right! I’ll be with you as soon as I can – give me fifteen or twenty minutes max.”
As I walked the short distance to the entrance of the block of flats where I lived I was hoping that I would not meet any of my neighbours. I had lived there for two years and Nick had rented my spare bedroom for a year and a half. He had been the ideal flat-mate, because he was on the road for his job nearly every week and when he returned to town he spent very little time at home.
A look in the hall mirror showed me a distressing reflection; there were streaks of smeared blood on one cheek and splatters in my hair and on my neck. Suddenly some primitive instinct gripped me and I knew that I could not bear having a dead person’s blood on me for one moment longer. If Benson turned up too soon he would just have to wait; the urge to shower was compulsive. I dropped my bag in the hall, tore my clothes off in the bathroom and stepped into the shower. I scrubbed my face and neck and shampooed my hair twice before finally turning the water off. As I stood there letting water run down my body a sudden brief fit of shivering travelled through me. I think I realised even then, at that very early stage, that I was more resilient than I had known. I was upset and shocked by what had happened, but I was not going to break down and cry or need someone to hold my hand and I was surprised by the discovery.
Benson rang the door bell about five minutes after I had dried myself and got into clean clothes. He did not introduce the young uniformed man who was with him as I showed them into the living room. We sat down and the constable got a notepad out ready to take notes while Benson explained that it was important that I tried to be as accurate and descriptive as possible even if some details might seem unrelated or unimportant.
“So let’s start at the beginning” said Benson. “How long have you known Nick? And what was your relationship?”
Already at that stage I knew instinctively that I had to make it clear that I had no ‘relationship’ with Nick. I could tell that Benson had reservation about me, that I had been moved from ‘witness’ to ‘potentially involved’ when I told him that I knew Nick. Now it I wanted to put a distance between Nick and myself, to ensure that his murder was not seen to be part of my life in any way apart from by circumstance.
“He replied to an advertisement I put in the paper for a boarder, about eighteen months ago.”
“Did you have a relationship with him?” Benson was not letting go of the relationship angle and I suspected that to him it seemed unusual that a man and a woman could share a flat and not have some sort of involvement.
I kept my voice neutral and friendly. “No, not apart from the fact that he rented a room from me. He had a girlfriend of long standing, since before he came to live here.”
He was like a dog with a bone, refusing to give it up. “Why didn’t he live with her?”
I did not reply straight away, just looked at him, hoping to convey that I found him a bit ridiculous now. “I didn’t think it was any of my business so I didn’t ask him.”
“Can you give me her contact details?”
“I’ve never met her. He used to go to her place; he often stayed overnight and sometimes the whole weekend. I don’t think he ever mentioned her name – he’d just say ‘I’m off to see my girlfriend’ or something similar. He never brought any of his friends here at all, at least not when I was at home.”
The constable was writing busily and Benson paused for a moment. “But you do know where he worked and where he was from?”
“Yes, I do. He was a salesman, or perhaps he was the sales manager, for a big printing company. They make customized stationery and brochures. He travelled nearly constantly – I think he covered the entire top half of the North Island.”
“And the name of the company?”
I had to stop and think: had Nick ever told me? But a vague memory from when he first answered the advertisement surfaced slowly. “I think they’re called Goodwin or Goodson or something very like it – I asked him when he came to look at the room and he said he had been there for two or three years and intended to stay there.”
“What sort of car did he drive? I have his wallet with his driver’s licence, but there’s no next of kin listed and we can’t find him in the vehicle registration database.”
“Well, he had a company car of course, but that’s all I know for sure. I don’t think he had a car of his own; he never mentioned a car.”
“Do you know where he was from and how to get hold of his family?”
“No, I’ve never had reason to find out. He mentioned a brother a couple of times; I think he lives somewhere near Palmerston North.”
I could see that my sparse information was raising further doubts in Benson’s mind and I must make him understand that I was not being evasive, so I said in my most reasonable voice: “I know it must sound odd to you that I don’t know more about Nick. But he spent so little time here and he was a very private person – I imagine this was his private space, and his life involving others was elsewhere. He never once cooked a meal in the kitchen here and he never spent a whole evening with me watching TV or talking, not once. For me it was the perfect arrangement – he paid rent for his room but he didn’t interfere in my personal life in any way at all.”
Benson studied his finger nails for a moment and frowned; was he thinking or was he trying to put me on edge? Then he looked up and said: “But didn’t you think that it was a bit strange? That he might be using this place as a bolt hole?” He studied my face as he asked the question and I thought he was hoping to catch some unguarded reaction.
“No, I never thought of it that way. I just felt lucky to have such a quiet – and often absent – boarder and we got along fine when he was here. He was a nice person, very calm and cheerful. Sometimes I made him a cup of tea and very occasionally he sat down for half an hour in the living room to watch the news with me. But mostly he was in his room when he was here. He has a TV there and I think he liked to watch it in bed. And as I said, his social life seemed to be either out on the town or with his girlfriend.”
The constable cleared his throat and looked at Benson. “Sir, can I interrupt?”
“Go ahead” said Benson and the young constable looked at me with great curiosity. “Why do you think someone saw fit to shoot him? I know it’s just happened, but it must have occurred to you to wonder?”
“Yes, of course I’m thinking of it – I can think of little else at the moment! He must have upset someone really badly for them to come after him with a gun. It’s not what you expect to happen to a normal, average sort of person, is it? He must have been involved in something illegal.”
The men looked at each other for a very brief moment and Benson replied. “Yes, you’re probably right. It’s either that or someone wanted to punish him for something, maybe even something as trivial as stealing their girl friend to use the popular phrase.”
He stood up abruptly and stretched. “I think that’s all for now but we might want to talk to you again. Can we have a look at his room please?”
I hesitated for a moment, not sure if I was being a bit over-the-top detail conscious.
“I need to tell you something first and I don’t know if I mentioned it before or if someone else told you, but those shots – they were very close together. They sounded a bit like in the movies when they fire machine guns.”
It was clear from Benson’s face that nobody had told him this and his eyes sharpened. “Could you demonstrate how close together?”
I thought for a moment and then I said “bang, bang, bang” very fast. But even as I said it I knew it was not fast enough. “No sorry, that’s far too slow – it was more like this I think, nearly one continuous noise.” And I did it again much faster: “bangbangbang”.
Benson’s face had a thoughtful look now. “Mm, that’s rapid fire. We’ll find out from forensics, but thanks for telling me – it’s always useful to have a bit of advance information.”
We went out into the hall where the door to Nick’s room was half-open as it usually was when he was away. I took a step inside and looked around. “I don’t think he’s been back here since he returned from his sales trip, it looks exactly the same as it has done for the last couple of days. He must have just got back.”
Benson glanced around the room and said: “We’re going to have to seal the door until we have time to go through his things. We have no explanation why he was killed so this isn’t only a murder investigation but it’s potentially about some other criminal activity as well.”
“Of course, that’s fine. I have no reason to go into his room anyway.”
The constable was sent down to the car to get whatever they needed to seal the door and while he was gone Benson and I stood in silence until a thought struck me.
“Would you allow me to have that table under the window? It’s mine – I lent it to Nick when he moved in and I have often regretted it. It was useful in the hall and it might as well be back there. Unless it’s against the rules?”
“No, not at all. There’s no reason why you can’t have it back. We can move it out now, before Bart seals the door.”
Together we lifted the table out from Nick’s room and pushed it up against the wall under the mirror in the little hall. Bart returned and Benson and I watched him seal the door and then they left.
It was half past seven now and once I was alone I felt restless and unsettled. I rang my friend Lorraine and talked to her for half an hour with a glass of wine in one hand and a sandwich on a plate beside me. Lorraine is a couple of years younger than I am and just qualified as a lawyer after working and studying alternate years to pay her way through law school. She’s very funny and smart and her partner is a middle-aged police officer, so talking to her was very enlightening. She told me some things that might happen during the next stage of the investigation and made sure I knew what my rights were.
“You do realise, don’t you, that if he was involved in something criminal you are going to have to be very careful that you don’t appear to have had any involvement with him. I mean apart from being his landlady?”
“Yes, I know – I thought of that when Benson was asking me about Nick. He kept using the word ‘relationship’ but I tried to make it clear that Nick never involved himself in my life at all and that he never brought any of his friends here. I hope he believed me!”
Settling down to watch the film now would have been impossible so when we finished the phone call I wandered round the flat trying to think of something to do.
I went into the hall and looked at the seal on Nick’s door and tried to imagine what they might find in there and when I turned around I noticed that the table was round the wrong way with the drawers facing the wall. It was an old-fashioned hall table, long and narrow and quite high, with two wide drawers side by side; I had stripped it back and oiled it after I bought it and I was pleased to have it back in the hall. Now I dragged it out from the wall and swung it round before pushing it back in and thought that it must have had the drawers facing the wall in Nick’s room too, or Benson would surely have checked them before letting me have it back. I pulled out one drawer and to my surprise it was full of bank statements. I pulled out the other one and that too was full. I was surprised that Nick had so many bank statements; it looked like several years’ worth and not what I would have expected from someone his age in the era of online banking.
Either Benson or Nick’s family should have these, so I fetched a carton and started taking untidy bunches of papers out of the drawers, straightening the edges and glancing at them as I worked. And then I noticed that there were bank statements from several different banks, so I flicked through them again and became increasingly puzzled. They were for half a dozen different people and only one account was in Nick’s name, though they were all were addressed to the same Post Office box. Intrigued now, I looked through more of them and my interest grew as I sorted them into separate piles on the table, which soon became too small to hold them all.
I dumped the lot into the box, carried it into the living room and sorted the statements into piles for the different accounts on the dining table. But the piles got too big to deal with, so I picked out statements for the last four months for each account and put them in date order to have a closer look. In the end I had to get a pad and a pencil to keep track of what I began to see as a pattern. And an hour later I had a rough analysis of the way money moved through the accounts and I knew what I was looking at, though I had never seen it before – this was money laundering!
The whole thing was very cleverly constructed. Some of the accounts had quite large cash deposits at irregular intervals and money was transferred to the other accounts, some for the same amount and on the same date each month but there were also random amounts moving between banks.
I could trace payments in and out from one account to another and I had to admit that the illusion those movements created was brilliant. Most of the accounts received regular income and could have passed as someone’s only bank account; salary going in, expenses and bill payments going out, and occasional cheques. It was magnificent and mind-boggling. Nick must have had an extensive record keeping system to be able to juggle so many bank cards and create the ongoing debits for this number of accounts. But why would he do it instead of just spending cash? And how could he possible use so much money?
I made a cup of coffee and drank it standing beside the table looking down at the piles of papers, trying to find a rational explanation. But there was no denying it – the total coming in, discounting the sums transferred between banks, was astounding. I did some mental arithmetic, extrapolated it to cover a year and decided that the money fed into the accounts must account to more than four hundred thousand dollars over a year, possibly more than half a million.
I imagined Nick regularly going to different banks and different branches and using his many identities to deposit cash, which would then filter through in an orderly fashion into all those other accounts. It would require meticulous planning and recording to work well and it must have taken up a lot of time. Maybe this was what he did when he was at my place; maybe he spent his evenings working on this scheme when I thought he was watching TV? And what did he spend the money on? I had to admit I was baffled.
It was not until I realised that there were online payments from all the accounts to one company that I figured it out and a quick internet search confirmed the theory: a sharebroker! Now I knew what he was doing; he filtered illegal cash through many accounts and invested considerable sums in shares, the perfect retirement fund. I tried to imagine how he had organised it; presumably he had multiple identities with the sharebroker, using the names on the bank accounts, which seemed logical, but how did he cope with the Inland Revenue department? He must have registered these imaginary people with the tax department somehow. It was hard to reconcile the cheerful young man who had been living in my flat with the clever criminal mind I had now discovered.
By now I was starving and highly energized, so I made another sandwich and sat down to watch the late news. The leading news story was Nick’s murder, presented in typical vulture style. There were close-up shots of blood in the gutter and the canvas ‘tent’ over the body, an interview with the middle-aged male who had been the first to reach me and a statement from the police. But I was thankful there was no mention of names; just a rather exaggerated and dramatic account of “a young woman running to help the victim and who was kneeling in his blood when he was shot a second time.”
While I ate my snack meal I tried to decide what I should do. Naturally I had to hand the bank statements over to the police, but I thought it would be safer not to mention money laundering, because I was reluctant to admit that I had been snooping and I did not want to make Benson even more suspicious. Keeping a low profile and not getting involved in any way seemed the safest option in case they took it into their heads that I was part of Nick’s activities. I would leave the bank statements sorted into their separate bank bundles, so that anyone looking at them would straight away see that there were many accounts from different banks and in different names. The natural conclusion would be that Nick had kept them sorted and it removed me from the equation so I sorted the older ones too and put them all back in the drawers. They were now in tidy piles with alternating bunches lying crossed, which meant that to fit them into a normal document box the person who took them out would need to turn them the same way round – another way of making sure that the many identities were obvious.
I was getting ready for bed when I remembered the clothes I had dumped into the washing machine when I got dressed in a hurry after my shower and I decided to start the washing machine right away even though it was late. I checked the pockets before turning the washing machine on and felt something hard in the pocket of the jacket I had worn; it was the key that I had picked up from the sidewalk. I started the cold wash cycle and went to bed with a book until I could hang things up in the bathroom.
When I was finally ready to call it quits for the day I noticed the key again on my bedside table. I sat on the edge of the bed and looked more closely at it, trying to imagine what it might fit: it was not like any key I had ever seen before. Compared to normal keys it seemed very flat and un-detailed and the end you hold on to was just a flat disc with the letter C on one side and 9 printed in blue on the other side. Was it Nick’s or had it already been on the footpath and he just happened to fall next to it? I put it on my bedside table and got into bed.