Blog tour: 4 to 24 January 2021
The cage is installed in Hannah’s kitchen. Small, the size of a shopping centre parking space. A bed, a basin, a table and chair. A hatch and metal drawer through which to exchange food and other items.
Then there’s him. Always there on the edges of her vision, no matter how hard she tries to block him out. Every day, the same thoughts run through Hannah’s mind:
What if he speaks to me?
What if he hurts me?
What if he gets out?
In a near-future justice system Jem, the murderer of Hannah’s husband, arrives at her home to serve out his twenty-year sentence in a cell. There it’s hoped he will learn the true cost of his terrible crime.
But Jem tells Hannah he’s innocent, and not only that, her husband had been lying to her. Soon Hannah begins to question everything she thought she knew. Was Jem wrongly convicted? Or is he simply a desperate man, willing to say and do anything that might grant his freedom?
Only he can unlock the truth. Only she can set him free.
I’m delighted to share an extract of The Captive with you today.
‘The worst prison would be a closed heart’
Pope John Paul II
‘Restore is an Old Norse term. It means, literally, to raise once more the
wooden stocks, staur, that have fallen down … to rebuild the house’
Professor Nils Christie, A Suitable Amount of Crime
The man who had murdered Hannah’s husband was due to arrive at midday.
Half an hour, and her home would no longer be her own.
She’d tried to keep busy all morning – cleaning, washing up, doing laundry – anything to take her mind off what was about to happen. Now though, she found herself adrift, stranded in a corner of the kitchen with nothing to do but wait.
She curled her hands in on themselves, tightening and squeezing. Still, they trembled.
I do not want him here.
The urge to scream was overwhelming.
Slowly, she approached the barred cage now fixed to the wall in the middle of the room. The cell was small, the same footprint as a shopping centre parking space, and yet they’d managed to cram in a bed, basin, screened toilet, cupboard and a table and chair. A hatch and metal drawer through which to exchange food, dirty dishes, commissary items and any post the prisoner might receive had been incorporated into a section to the left of the cell door.
No one could be sure why he did it – he’d entered a not guilty plea – but the consensus in court was that it had been a mugging gone wrong.
She ran her fingers across the steel bars. A harsh metallic noise ricocheted around the room. Heart jittering, she considered the door. Despite regular practice, she’d yet to master the lock. It was strange. She was expert at fashioning the tiny sugar-paste flowers and fondant animal figures that sat atop the bespoke cakes she made for a living but this, a key so large it looked like it had been found at the bottom of a prop drawer and a bulky government issue deadbolt, had her beat. Fear, it turned out, could do that to a person.
She wafted her apron and leaned toward the fan. It was the last week in September but the heat was oppressive, the temperature in the high twenties and set to rise. It had been the same for weeks, London looped into a nightmarish summer that showed no intention of ending any time soon. The cherry blossoms that lined her street had re-bloomed, the flowers pinking their way through crumbly autumn leaves, and everywhere you looked, confused daffodils lurched from the soil.
She steadied her fingers as best she could and grabbed the key. She wanted to try to get it right at least once before the prisoner arrived.
Technically, her ineptitude wasn’t a problem. The lock was electromechanical and operated remotely via the device she now had to wear on a rope round her neck. The deadbolt was nothing more than a fail-safe. A backup in the event of a power cut. It didn’t matter if it took her two or even ten times to get it right because she would be doing it with the prisoner already secure in his cell. For Hannah though, being able to operate the lock was important. She’d spent time on message boards in preparation for today and one of the things the more experienced Hosts talked about was how critical it was to show the prisoner you were in control right from the off. ‘This is your house,’ said Malorie21, who’d hosted her burglar in the box room of her 1930s semi for the last nine months, ‘your space. Make sure they know it. Take ownership.’
For Hannah ownership meant having the knack. Only she knew how to waggle the handle on the washing machine whenever it refused to open or how long to leave the bathroom tap before it ran hot. She wanted the cell door to be no different.
She lined the key up to the slot and was about to give it another go when she sensed someone behind her.
‘You’ll be quite safe.’
She jumped and the key clattered to the floor.
Mr Dalgleish. Hannah’s Domestic Liaison Officer (DLO). He’d been doing a final survey of the house and must have come back down to the basement without her noticing. Tall with a ‘hup-two’ posture hardwired during his military service, Mr Dalgleish refused to tell Hannah his first name (‘Helps keep things proper’) and was working full time despite being two months into chemotherapy for bowel cancer.
He picked up the key and passed it to her.
‘Just checking,’ she said, trying to keep her voice steady.
He smiled sympathetically as though he knew something about her she had yet to realise, then stopped, noticing the row of sponge cakes on the side. She’d made them the night before.
‘You better not have baked a file into one of those,’ he said, wagging a finger.
‘They’re for a client. A christening,’ said Hannah, so on edge she failed to register the joke. ‘I had to do the bases yesterday otherwise I wouldn’t have enough time to ice.’
‘I was kidding, obviously.’ He sniffed and brushed a piece of lint from his shoulder. ‘You’re the last person who’d want to help him escape.’
Hannah looked again at the cakes, each one sealed inside a glass cloche. She’d agreed to the job because she couldn’t afford to turn down new clients, no matter how inconvenient. John’s death in service pay had gone toward what had turned out to be his surprisingly large credit card debt and her police widow’s pension amounted to eight grand per annum. Not nearly enough to cover the bills, let alone her rent.
Now though she was struck by a horrible thought. Would the prisoner think she’d made the cakes for him, to welcome him? There’d been some Hosts on the message boards who believed wholeheartedly in the merits of the system. They had talked of preparing a special meal for their inmate’s first night. A lasagne, a roast chicken. One person had made a strawberry trifle for dessert.
She took the top of her dungarees between her fingers. At least there was no chance of him thinking she’d gone to any effort with her appearance. The denim was frayed, a hole forming in the right knee, her apron raggedy, its blue and white daisy pattern blotched with stains. The rest of her was no better. Her hair was the kind of white blond that emboldened strangers to come up to her on the Tube, cock their head to one side and say, ‘Swedish?’ but she hadn’t felt much like washing it this last week and so today it was more of a dirty straw colour, tied into a lank bun that lolled from side to side. No, she looked quite plain. The only thing of note was her amber pendant – a gift from John – and she’d tucked it out of sight down the front of her vest.
John was always getting her things, whether it be a daisy he’d found growing in a pavement crack on his way home, the underside of its petals tinged pink, a new Thermomix when her old one broke down, or a pain au chocolat, still warm, from the bakery at the bottom of their street. He always said that the manner of giving was worth more than any gift, that – his offerings to her aside – the most generous thing you could give someone was something they had no idea was a gift in the first place. He was fifteen years older than Hannah and his hair had been thick and white, having gone that way in his twenties, and sometimes when he went without shaving, Hannah would tease that he looked more like Santa Claus than a Met detective.
She felt for the nub of amber beneath her vest. The pendant wasn’t to her usual taste; she preferred delicate jewellery – frail strings of gold or thin bracelets of silver, tasselled with tiny charms – but she figured John had chosen it because of the way the stone matched the streak of tannin in her eyes. Like so many objects she’d once paid no mind – the bottle of hot sauce on the top shelf of the fridge that John added to everything from scrambled eggs to shepherd’s pie, the Billie Holiday vinyl they’d liked to slow-dance to before bed – the necklace helped her feel as though John was still around, that any minute now he’d walk through the front door and tell her this had all been a terrible mistake.
A beep. Mr Dalgleish’s phone. He checked the screen.
He seemed disappointed.
For a moment Hannah was visited by an impossible hope. There’d been a change of plan. The prisoner wouldn’t be coming after all.
‘Better finish up.’ He smiled reluctantly, as though he’d just conceded a point in an argument. ‘They’re two minutes away.’
A crush of disappointment and then Hannah’s head began to ring with the same questions that had haunted her since the guilty verdict.
What if he gets out?
What if he tries to hurt me?
During her Host training Mr Dalgleish had reassured her again and again that the system was secure, that the protocols would protect her, that she’d soon relax into it. But Hannah had heard the stories; she knew she couldn’t let her guard down, not for one second.
He performed a final lap of the kitchen, checking for objects the prisoner might be able to get at through the bars. His hair was black and dead straight, worn in a dashing Clark Gable sideparting. As he walked he rubbed absent-mindedly at a point just above the nape and a clump came loose and drifted to the floor. The first time Hannah had seen this happen they’d been midway through one of their training sessions. Mr Dalgleish’s face had crumpled and, after picking it up with a monogrammed handkerchief, he’d told her about his cancer and how he’d decided to continue working during the treatment, partly because he wanted to but also because he needed the money. Then he’d parcelled the hair inside the handkerchief and placed it in his pocket, a look of such naked humiliation on his face that Hannah had had to turn away.
Since then, whenever a tuft fell out Hannah would either pretend not to notice or, if he didn’t see, she would, with a sideswipe of her foot, discreetly shift the hair out of view. She did this now. Later, when he was gone, she’d sweep it into the bin.
Hannah clocked her wedding rings, still on the side by the sink. She’d taken them off to wash up. She replaced her gold band and was about to put on her engagement ring when she heard the growl of a van pulling up outside.
A thump on the front door.
What if he gets out?
What if he tries to hurt me?
‘Here we go,’ said Mr Dalgleish. He grabbed the white oval round his neck, identical to her own. ‘Black button to lock up, red in case he causes you any trouble. Remember, if you press the red one we’ll send someone out to check on you within half an hour.’ He made eye contact and held it. ‘It needs to be second nature, you understand?’
Hannah nodded, then followed him toward the stairs that led from the basement kitchen to the hall. He reached the front door and went to open it but, as usual, the Yale lock refused to play ball. He fudged it twice before Hannah placed a hand on his shoulder.
‘This is my house,’ she said, loud enough for the people on the other side of the door to hear. She stepped forward. ‘Let me.’
Buy the book
The Captive by Deborah O’Connor can be purchased from Amazon on Kindle and in hardback, and as an eBook from Kobo and iBooks.
About the author
Deborah O’Connor is a writer and TV producer responsible for well-loved programmes such as ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’ and ‘A League of Their Own’. She lives in North Yorkshire with her husband and daughter. Deborah’s first novel was the bestseller, My Husband’s Son, and she followed this with The Dangerous Kind.
Thanks to Clare Kelly at Bonnier Books for my copy of The Captive and to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for my place on the blog tour.
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