INQUEST: Short Listed for 2013 Ireland AM Crime Fiction Book of the Year

International Bestselling Author



Dr Frank Ryan is CMO to Harmon Penitentiary, Europe’s most dangerous jail. Holding terrorists, serial killers, gang leaders, drug barons, arsonists and sex felons the Dublin institution is a seething, violent and drug-ridden hell with high rates of HIV and Hepatitis. Frank Ryan considers it perfect. The doctor has a strong interest in prisoner health issues and wants to further his research.

But Harmon simmers with mystery and intrigue, its inmates constantly plotting, always trying new scams. Soon Ryan is embroiled in a chaos of criminality. Lured from his fortress apartment in the dead of night he is attacked and abducted. When finally set free he discovers his girlfriend Lisa is missing, his ordeal denied by everyone, including police protectors and government ministers. All enquiries are met with lies, misinformation and betrayal. Determined to resolve the mystery and find Lisa, Ryan teams up with cell block king Dan Steele and goes to the very heart of the jail where he believes the conspiracy hatched.

Now his nightmare really begins.

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The ringing tone finally penetrated my sleeping brain. I groped in the dark and found the receiver, succeeding only in knocking it off my bedside locker and somewhere in the distance a tinny voice called out. Reaching over the edge of the bed I found the coiled wire and slowly dragged the phone upwards. The red digits on my alarm clock flicked to three thirty and I sensed immediately whoever was calling wasn’t bringing good news.
“Dr Ryan?”
“Sorry to disturb you but we need you at the prison right away.”
I groaned, not tonight of all nights. It was February 12th and freezing outside. For the previous four days Arctic gales had buffeted the east coast of Ireland, icing roads and leaving snow on high grounds. The wind chill made it even more dangerous along Dublin’s dark and wet streets and the met office was advising against unnecessary journeys. So I was in no mood to be dragged out at such an ungodly hour, especially as I was very comfortable curled up beside my girlfriend, Lisa. I could feel her stir as I pulled myself into an upright position and arched away from her body.
“What’s up?” I was whispering so quietly I wondered could I be heard.
“We’ve had a suicide.”
Dammit, not another. Now I was wide-awake and trying to get my thoughts in order. This was the fourth at Harmon jail in six months. The media would have a field day. “What happened?”
“Convict in J-Wing found hanged about an hour ago.”
“Any more details?” I was half out of the bed and feeling for my boxers. My hand brushed against Lisa’s naked backside and for a delicious moment I left it there before rummaging at the bottom of the duvet. I discovered them and Lisa’s panties at the same time and had to block out some very carnal images.
“Not much. I think it’s a young guy in on an assault charge. He was only processed today.”
I kept the phone pressed to my ear with a shoulder and flicked on a sidelight. Now I could see my clothes, scattered to the corners of the room where I’d dropped them in a lustful hurry to get into bed. Lisa was already there, wearing a half smile and little else. Just a minute.” I had one leg inside my trousers and was skipping to connect with the other. And my mind was racing. The caller said the dead man was found in J-wing but J-wing had been closed for the past week for refits. Also, he was ‘a young guy in on an assault charge.’ Not true, I thought. Newly processed prisoners are never put into J-wing because it harbours dangerous recidivists. Moving this group of psychos to another centre while the repair work was going on had been a national emergency. Army, air force and armed police had escorted the convoy of murderers as it trundled to a hastily commandeered barracks outside the city. “Where is he now?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know that.” I tried to link the voice to a face but it wouldn’t come. It was male, sounded youngish, maybe thirty or forty, but there was no accent to give me a clue. I pulled a vest, then a heavy sweater over my head and buckled my belt.
“I mean is he still in the cell? Did anyone touch him?” There were specific guidelines for prison suicides including resuscitation procedures and as sole doctor to the facility such attention to detail made my life a lot easier in subsequent inquiries. Resuscitation efforts often leave marks on the body that can be mistaken for assault injuries. Equally, leaving a corpse as discovered helps in murder cases. In Harmon penitentiary it wasn’t uncommon for feuds to be settled with a contrived self-hanging. Usually the efforts were clumsy and required little more than common sense and basic forensic skills to know the man dangling from his window bars had first been throttled, then dragged to the cell and strung up. Getting witnesses was the problem. Despite forty-four prisoners to a block nobody ever saw anything. So as I slipped on my overcoat I was trying to get as many facts as possible. But the line went dead leaving me listening to a dialling tone. Then, about two seconds later I heard a distinct click and I stared at the receiver, puzzled. A husky voice interrupted my thoughts. “What’s wrong Frank? Why are you dressed?” Lisa cocked an eye at me from behind the safety of a pillow. I leaned over and kissed her lightly on the forehead and warm fingertips caressed the back of my neck, making my skin tingle. “I have to go out.”
Lisa squinted at the digital clock. “At this hour?” The duvet slipped down from her breasts, distracting me totally. I sat on the edge of the bed and stroked her long blond hair, coiling a tress between my fingers and brushing it against her face making her crinkle her nose. But I was in a rush and decided this was not the time to explain the significance of prison suicides. “I’ve had a call,” I offered, searching for the right lie. “One of the inmates is throwing up and they want to know should he be moved out of his cell. They’re worried he could start an epidemic.” It was as good as I could come up with considering the time and my need to flee. And, as always, I was trying to shield Lisa from the darker side of my work. But in the back of my head worrying thoughts niggled. Was someone listening in on that conversation? Then, have the newspapers been tipped off? If so I would face a barrage of cameras when I arrived at the massive steel gates in front of the jail.
“I hate that job you do.” Lisa pulled the duvet over her shoulders and pouted. “Why don’t you get a proper hospital position like every other doctor?”
“This conversation is going no-where,” I said as I reached for my Gladstone bag. I flicked open the lock and checked I had a full complement of emergency drugs, needles and syringes. The patient who awaited me wouldn’t need medical attention but from past experience I knew it looked good to arrive fully prepared. So into the bag went my stethoscope, auriscope and compact sphygmomanometer. I made sure everything was in place including a nine-millimetre Beretta handgun. Without removing it from the Gladstone I snapped a full magazine into position and checked the safety catch. Fortunately Lisa didn’t hear the ratchet of metal against metal, the gun issue really freaked her out. “I work at Harmon because that’s where the pathology is.” I stuffed a stun grenade into my right pocket and a can of Mace into the left. “Where else can I see patients with AIDS, hepatitis B and C and a multitude of other infections all under one roof?” I closed the lock on the Gladstone and stood up. “They’re human beings just like you and me and don’t deserve to be abandoned like dogs. I treat them and at the same time further my research. Now that’s the last time I’m going to defend this.” Lisa put on her hurt look, a cross between a frown and a come-on and I had to steel myself from crawling back in beside her. “Hurry back,” she cooed. “We could have breakfast in bed.” She fluttered her eyelashes provocatively and blew me a kiss. “Afterwards.” For a daft moment I almost said after what?
The front door to my apartment is bullet proof. There is a quarter-inch of steel plate bolted to the heavy-duty wooden frame and five separate locks for added protection, including a three-minute time delay mechanism. I slid the top and bottom free and then turned keys in the two Chubbs and waited. I yawned and scratched my stubble and pressed a switch to my right. Seconds later a TV monitor fixed to the wall flickered and then glowed. The digital sharp colour CCTV image showed puddles rippling in the wind and sheets of rain but the front entry to the complex was clear with no suspicious movements or shadows. Recently I’d become a failed expert on shadows after calling out an armed response unit when I spotted dodgy shading on the ground underneath my car. It turned out to be an oil leak and this discovery did little for my credibility. Still, the Justice Department insisted on strict security precautions including firearms training, wearing a Combo SPV stab proof vest when on duty and living in an apartment structured like a fortress. Harmon prison was run by the prisoners and solely for the prisoners’ benefit. To the cellblock bosses the governor and warders were no more than peripheral figureheads. And while the position of Penitentiary Chief Medical Officer sounded grand in reality it was the job from hell. My immediate predecessor had been brutally murdered in front of his family because he’d refused to smuggle heroin into the jail for a notorious drugs baron. The word along the wings was the system had to be taught a lesson. Before that four other doctors had packed their medical kits and quit after a few months, unable to handle the intimidation and harassment. One found he was being shadowed by a Glasgow hit man while another had bullets sent to him through the post. The other two resigned when they discovered their children were being tailed to and from school. So in many ways that’s why I was an ideal candidate for the vacancy when it was advertised. I was a tall and strong single thirty year old. I did have a beautiful girl friend but she was showing no signs of settling into a permanent relationship and not considered a risk. In addition, as an Australian national with no family ties in Ireland the crime lords couldn’t target my siblings or parents. More importantly I was genuinely interested in prisoner health issues, especially the scourges of HIV and hepatitis, and wanted to carry out a research project where the subjects would stay in the same place. In Harmon few of the inmates were going anywhere, many on life stretches.
The facility was a Victorian dump with the dubious reputation as Europe’s most dangerous prison. Built in castellated style the ten-acre site resembled a razor wire stronghold from the outside. The perimeter walls were sixty feet high and fifteen feet wide with viewing towers every hundred yards. The five holding wings shot out like spokes on a wheel with upper and lower levels. The design allowed end-to-end observation of all cellblocks from a central HQ, which was a semi-circle bulletproof glass unit with a battery of CCTV and listening devices. Solid lock steel doors, multiple rolls of razor wire and crash bollards protected the entrance. In a country that took great pride in having an unarmed police force, this high security institution was its sole exception. After a series of hostage taking scares, knife attacks on warders and two cellblock riots the authorities were forced to adopt a harsher regime, including the use of firearms with live ammunition. The measures reduced the number of violent incidents but didn’t enhance the prison’s standing. A visiting committee of human rights lawyers described it as a diseased and drug-ridden nightmare and after twelve months working there I found it hard to disagree with them. There had been a number of attempts to escape over the years, including a recent daring helicopter drop into the exercise yard. However no one had actually succeeded and the remains of the helicopter is on show somewhere as a reminder of what can happen when seven Uzi submachine guns let rip at the same target at the same time. Inside the blocks were strictly segregated with separate eating and exercise regimes. Wings A and B detained terrorists and increasingly this meant Islamic extremists caught with bomb making equipment and literature linking them to al-Qaeda. There was also a small quota of diehard IRA volunteers determined to shoot Ireland free from British oppression. Blocks C and D were the lock-ups for murderers, serial killers and arsonists while wings E and F kept violent sex offenders. The row of cells on landings G and H were reserved for less physically vicious types such as counterfeiters, fraudsters, con men and Internet child porn perverts. There was also a women’s wing but no woman doctor so I visited that unit twice a week. J-wing, where I was headed, was the most dangerous division of all.
I changed CCTV camera angles and inspected the immediate corridor outside which seemed clear. Then I surveyed the well-lit stairwell and street level halls. They were deserted with the audio links silent, not even a draught picked up by the hidden microphones. A separate button activated halogen lights on all sides of the apartment building and I switched to outside views. The small car park was empty apart from three cars and driving rain. The six-year-old badly dented Saab belonged to me while the other two I recognised as owned by a couple living on the ground floor. I don’t much care for cars, unlike some doctors who spend much of their time coveting top-of-the-range Mercs and BMW’s and Porsches. I prefer public transport but Harmon penitentiary is five miles away through narrow streets and busy roads so my beloved but neglected Saab kept me mobile. I clipped my personal alarm pager onto my belt and tested the batteries. Then I turned the Yale lock, stepped outside and waited until the door shut behind me. For a moment I stood still and tried to collect my thoughts. The click on the telephone line still bothered me and I considered going back to check that the message had actually come from the prison. Then the clunk of bolts self-engaging echoed along the passage. I knew the time delay mechanism had also re-connected. The hallway was freezing and I was anxious to get the call over with so I pressed ahead.

I was half way down the stairs when the niggling doubts became major worries. The J-wing mistake jarred, it’s significance too important for a simple error. Shifting the recidivist inmates had caused a major stir, not easily forgotten. Why didn’t I read the caller ID? And the click on the line, was someone listening in? I stopped in my tracks, my heart thumping in my chest. Relax; I told myself, this could still be an error. It could be a genuine request with the warder just getting the blocks mixed up. Then the lights went out, plunging the building into darkness. I felt ice course up and down my spine.