The Burnt Child
We storm through the compound, heavily armed with a shoot to kill protocol, as the sound of the helicopter whirs outside, the repetitive chuff of metal blades acting as our own personal timer as we clear room after room. Our senses are isolated, closed to the outside world as our brains fine-tune to the frequency of the operation ahead.
Simon Haines is at the front. I’m in the middle. Charles McGuire and Wayne Gibbs are on each side. We stalk ahead, carrying HK-53s, standard SAS rifles. Our fingers guard our triggers, ready to react as we burst into the penultimate room. Haines and McGuire begin shouting instructions as we encounter multiple female occupants pleading in Arabic. It bothered me at first, but after countless ops, you get used to it. After shadowing an explosives technician in Damascus, I’ve seen what a desperate, pleading woman is capable of. We call out to each other as we assess the threat level and secure the nooks of the large living area, moving around the kneeling women. Haines instructs them to put their hands above their heads. They do as they’re told whilst their suspicious eyes follow our movements.
McGuire drops his rifle. ‘No sign of target.’ He chatters into the radio. ‘Room at the end of the hall is the last one.’
We follow McGuire in single file down the hallway toward the last room, our boots creating synchronised treading sounds against the stone floor. He reaches the door and turns to Haines; Haines nods his head. McGuire uses the tip of the HK-53 to push the door slightly, taking a step forward. We brace to follow his lead, ready to secure the last room as distant shrieks and wailing protests from detained occupants can be heard throughout the compound.
McGuire throws up a fist: he wants us to wait. The target should be somewhere in this compound. We’ve searched every room and found nothing. This is the last. If he wants us to wait, it means he’s seen something unexpected. If it’s not the target, then it means MI6 have bogus intel. Adrenaline pumps through me, my pulse beating to the dull ticking of the helicopter as we stand obediently still, waiting, watching, observing McGuire as he peers through the small crack in the door. After a few drawn-out seconds, his body exhales tension as he drops his gun and beckons us forward. Charging through the doorway, he begins the standard process, yelling in Arabic, shouting clear instructions. But somethings off, I can hear it in his voice. This time, it’s different. This time, his words aren’t the same.
‘Step away. Listen to me and step away. We are here now. You don’t have to do this.’
I look to Gibbs, who shrugs. McGuire is repeating it. There’s no sign of the usual, abrasive tone in his commands. He’s trying to appear calm and controlled. He’s attempting to reassure someone. I watch Gibbs file in after Haines. I’m the last to go, and finally, as I step through the doorway, I understand. Three young boys are in the middle of the room; not a single one wears any clothes. Their small, trembling bodies are kneeling in front of rows upon rows of dismantled IED equipment. They can’t be more than eight years old; bare-skinned, dirty, their hair covered in dust, their lips dried and cracked, they stare up at us, confused and skittish. I drop the rifle, letting it hang across my shoulder, and take out the Sig strapped to the holster around my waist. I train my eyes down at scattered heaps of battery parts, wires, and metal scraps in front of the boys as McGuire begins to describe our findings over comms. Evidence support needs to confirm, but we’re all aware of what an explosive kit looks like. Haines crouches down, picking up bits of equipment as he starts questioning the tallest of the three. He asks his name. The boy tells him it’s Abeer, as he stares back with wide, startled eyes. Haines shifts position suddenly, and Abeer’s hand twitches toward the machete at his bare feet. I step in and point my gun at him, instructing him to stay still as I kick the machete out the way. That’s when I’m close enough to get a good look. That is when I finally take stock of the boy’s appearance. Every limb: every arm, every leg, and each side of his face is covered with burns; some old, some scarred and healed, others bold and standing out, red and blistered. He has one working eye; the other has been so badly burnt it has healed shut, and the skin around his eye socket fused in strange patterns. As we wait for the evidence team to arrive, I turn to the others, running my eyes over the smallest boy. He is missing his left ear and most of the hair on his left side. My eyes flit from one child to the next, each one showing more injuries than the last. Haines steps in; he’s asking Abeer if he knows Abu Ahmed. That’s the target. Abeer looks at me, his working eye quivering with fear as he starts shaking his head. He doesn’t know, he says. He repeats this in English, as the other two boys tremble beside him, their gaze fixed on Gibbs’ weapon. Abeer begins to mumble in Arabic as he rocks on his feet. Haines repeats the question about Abu Ahmed. Abeer continues, and I tell Haines to back off and give him a moment; he’s praying.
He scowls and steps back; he thinks I’m soft. We’ve seen our fair share of death out here, but this feels worse; this is indoctrination, abuse, and even torture. I could never admit that it bothers me; Haines would berate me and take great pleasure in it. He would say that we’re soldiers; he’d tell me that death and tragedy are our currency. Honestly, I’m more than aware of what we’ve done. I’ve dealt enough bullets into bodies to understand what I am. But those targets understood consequence; these boys are children with no detailed understanding of what they’re being asked to do.
Tired of waiting for the support team, McGuire stalks off to the back of the room. With a sudden urgency in his voice, he beckons me over. I look to Haines, who nods and steps in to take my place, shouting at the explosives team to get a move on. When I reach McGuire, I look up at the surrounding walls, noticing crumpled maps of Islamabad pinned up, with scribbled annotations and coordinates pencilled across them. McGuire’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline as he scans each one. Judging by this evidence, Abu Ahmed might not be here now, but he was, and it appears he was planning a highly coordinated attack. Moving to the south side of the room, McGuire begins reading the blueprints of a hotel in Islamabad. It looks like the Marriott. Something catches his eye, and he hurriedly disappears behind a pile of dirty rugs as I hear him mumbling to comms, asking for urgent support. I swing the rifle into my hand as I move to join him, noting the concern in his voice as he repeats the request. I swallow past my instinctive fear as I train the HK-53 in front of me, moving toward him cautiously until I reach the rugs and follow his eye line.
At first, it looks like a pile of washing in a neat row; a few clothes harmlessly put out to dry. And then my brain processes the full image. Vests. Three child-size vests have been laid out in an organised line, each rigged with countless explosives. Both of us take a synchronised step back before looking at each other.
Three vests, three children. They aren’t making the bomb. They are one.
My ears shudder from the shrill whining that fills the tiny room, I look around disoriented as the previous night’s memories flood in, assisted by the presence of the body splayed out next to me. I lean over the twentysomething, who’s seemingly unfazed by the piercing sound as I hover over her, fumbling for the off button.
Who even has an alarm clock anymore? Are millennials going backwards in time? The redhead, another nameless one-night stand with little significance, stirs next to me, shifting herself further up the bed before mumbling in her sleep. I freeze in the dark, barely allowing myself to blink as I will her to stay asleep. Hopefully, the previous night’s mindless sex should be enough to keep her in a deep slumber, helping me avoid an unwanted conversation. My job usually provides a sure-fire excuse to make a quick exit if not. I could mumble the words casefile, operation, or emergency, as a speedy, no-questions-asked getaway. It was during Fresher’s Year that I learned it’s easier to get myself out of someone else’s bedroom than it is to get them out of mine. Hence why sleepovers are prohibited at my place. I’d rather be the one escaping than spending the whole morning wishing they would fuck off.
I yawn, acknowledging how small this bed is for my six-foot-three frame, and suppress a groan as I swing my legs out, feeling a dull ache in my lower back. This is the downside of sleeping with strangers in your thirties; I don’t know how I even did it in my twenties. Maybe I should start determining sleeping arrangements before making a committed decision, but probably a bit of a mood killer.
Having successfully dressed in near silence, despite stepping on Hannah or Heather’s dreamcatcher twice, I make towards the door, destined for freedom.
‘Don’t fancy giving me a lift to the station, then Guv?’ a small voice croaks behind me, and I freeze, mouthing Fuck! a few times, grateful to the darkness of winter mornings for hiding my disappointment.
‘Heading for a meeting. Didn’t want to wake you,’ I respond, barely even trying to sound genuine as I back out the door.
‘Bye then,’ she says sharply as she turns and pulls the covers over her naked body. And I don’t bother replying as it takes me two strides to reach the front door.
I start the long journey back to my place, hoping to catch a twenty-minute power nap and a shower before I have to be at HQ. I call Julian to let him know I’ll be a little later than expected, owing to unforeseen circumstances. Technically, the sexual advances from Hannah or Heather were moderately unforeseen, so it’s not too far from the truth.
After freshening up, I throw on black jeans, a long-sleeve T-shirt and fling on a jacket and boots before leaving the apartment and jumping in the car. Pulling out of the mews onto Upper Street, I make the journey to the headquarters of the National Crime Agency in Westminster, tapping the steering wheel with anxious energy in anticipation of the day ahead.
To my disappointment, Director Alison Collins is stood at the entrance as I pull in. I immediately clock the disapproving expression etched in the tired lines of her gaunt face, the strands of her cropped blonde hair messing in the wind.
‘Don’t look so pleased to see me,’ she says on my approach, pursing her thin lips.
‘I’m just surprised you’re greeting me at the front door.’
‘I was looking for you.’
‘Well, you found me.’
‘We’ve got a meeting in five minutes.’
‘Ma’am.’ She stops and turns, raising her eyebrows, like a disappointed headmistress.
I return her gaze with a blank stare. ‘I’m busy, Ma’am.’
‘Meeting first. Then you can run off and do whatever you need to do.’ She tries to pat me on the shoulder but, on realising she can’t reach, extends an arm to my lower back instead before wandering ahead.
‘Well, that wasn’t patronising,’ I rebut as I swipe through to our department and head toward my desk.
‘Don’t be late!’ she calls out as the assertive stomp of her boots march across the floor before she disappears into her office. I sink into my chair and look around. Everyone seems to be engrossed in their individual tasks, which is good news for me – it reduces the likelihood of people approaching my desk with stupid questions before I’ve had caffeine. Julian catches my eye, an expression of eagerness on him, and I take a deep breath before nodding him over.
‘You alright, Guv?’
‘What have you got?’
‘An Albanian kid in custody is willing to flip on the Hellbanianz Gang.’
‘Where’d we pick him up?
I nod. Prime Albanian territory. ‘Charge the kid and release him on bail.’
‘Really?’ he looks puzzled.
‘Aldyn Wolfe will kill him if we flip him. Besides, Hellbanianz isn’t the priority right now.’
Julian nods and looks down at the next one. ‘Border police have intercepted a shipment for the Turks in Harwich. Looks like a hell of a lot of cocaine.’
I pause, considering this one. The Turkish mafia is a hot priority right now; any lead on their organised activity could prove useful. ‘Give me that one,’ I tap on the file.
‘Speaking of the Turks, Nicky Black is in protective custody. I’m just waiting on some paperwork.’
‘We’ll do the interview regardless,’ I say as I stand up, walking to the coffee machine.
‘I know what she said, Jules, but it’s taken weeks to get him in.’
He nods, suddenly reassured by my insistence. ‘No, ’course, Guv. There’s one more thing...’ He lowers his voice as he steps closer. ‘Your father was here this morning, talking to Collins.’
‘Do you know why?’
‘He was here on an official capacity.’
I nod and clear my throat, looking over his shoulder and into Collins’ office. ‘Cheers for the heads up.’ I take the freshly filled coffee cup from the machine and take a sip. Julian stares at me with a questioning look. ‘What?’ I snap.
‘I don’t know how you drink that. It’s like gravy.’
‘I’ve had worse.’ I flash a smirk, grateful he’s decided not to push me further on my father’s visit.
He chuckles and wanders back to his desk, shaking his head.
‘James!’ Collins bellows from the doorway of a meeting room, and I roll my eyes before turning and walking towards her.
As I enter, I notice the usual crowd of nerds and junior investigators is missing, save for Amber, a senior analyst, who’s sat in between Collins and Julian.
‘Where is everyone?’
Collins sighs before parting her hands and holding her palms out. ‘This is it for the time being.’
‘What are you talking about?’ I stare down at her as I sense an awkward tension between Amber and Julian.
‘Well, if you sit down, I can give you an update.’ I huff, planting myself in the nearest chair. ‘We’ve got to be sensible Gabriel. You did a stellar job with the Christofi organisation, but we can’t fund the same resources when the matter is largely dealt with.’
‘Operation Sandbank is an ongoing case to tackle the big three. Toff was about to give us details on the Turkish operations.’
‘That may be, but he’s gone now, and until we have concrete evidence, we need to scale back.’
‘So, this is it? Amber and Julian? I get two people.’
‘Gabriel, you’ve tackled one of the biggest crime families in the world. Take the win, have some down time.’
‘Ma’am, I don’t think you’re understanding—’
She turns to Julian and Amber, breaking into a smile before turning back to me. ‘For now, the Board is saying congratulations; you did well. And of course, all three of you, keep up the good work.’
‘Funny timing, that’s all.’
‘Well, take some time to recuperate.’
I almost bite through my tongue, attempting to stay quiet whilst she continues to reel off bullshit textbook responses before swiftly leaving the room.
Julian exhales suddenly, as if he’s been holding his breath for the entire meeting. ‘What do we do now, Guv?’
‘We interview Nicky Black.’
Amber’s eyes light up. ‘So, we’re not giving this up?’
‘No fucking way,’ I say, standing. ‘But whatever we get from Nicky, it stays between us three.’
‘Understood.’ She nods.
‘Julian, let’s go. You’re with me.’ I gesture for him to follow me as we walk through the office and down the corridor.
Nicky Black, a short, plump man, is sitting with his hands behind his head as if he might be waiting for a bus. I take a seat opposite him, gesturing for Julian to do the same as I lean back and plant my hands deep in my jacket pocket. As we sit in the bland, colourless room, both impassively staring at Nicky, his whole body begins to shake from the repetitive, tedious jerking of his knee under the table. I lean forward as amusement stirs in his eyes.
‘Did anyone ever tell you that you look like that actor Gabe?’ he gestures toward me before grinning at Julian. ‘You know the one I mean, don’t you? The pretty boy?’
Julian affords Nicky a disapproving look before slapping the file down on the table and fiddling with the tape. ‘07.36 am, October 9th, for the benefit of the tape: officers present are Senior Investigating Officer and acting Team Lead Gabriel James and Investigating Officer Julian Sleet. Nicholas Black is here as a material witness. The purpose of today is for Nicholas Black to voluntarily supply the NCA with relevant information on illegal activity within Organised Crime Groups.’
Sweat begins to form over Nicky’s brow as he nervously picks the skin on his fingers, waiting for Julian to finish. I lean over the table, inches from his pock marked face, and gesture towards the recorder. ‘Make sure you speak up for the tape, Nicky boy.’
He clears his throat, aggressively hurling phlegm from his chest before speaking. ‘What guarantee do I have?’ he pauses before his tongue darts out and licks the sweat from his upper lip.
. ‘…that I won’t get killed doing this?’
I sit back, observing him with puzzled curiosity. ‘Haven’t you been snitching for years?’
‘The Turks are paranoid; Paytak could have had me followed.’
‘It’s entirely possible.’
His eyes widen, ‘I’m not saying anything today. You just said I had to sign something.’
‘Surely Paytak’s nowhere near as paranoid as Toff.’
‘He’s the Head of the Turkish mafia, what do you think?’
‘So, tell us…’ Julian interjects.
‘Do you know how much shit I’d be in?’ His knee starts up again.
‘It’s alright,’ I interrupt. ‘He doesn’t have to give us anything.’
Relief floods Nicky’s face as his posture sags, his shoulders rounding over his round stomach. ‘Be sure to let us know whether you want to be cremated or buried...’ He snaps his head up, confused from the abrupt gear switch. ‘…because without helping us, without our protection, that’s the only way you’re getting out of any of this, isn’t it?’ I say as I gesture around the room.
His eyes dart between us. ‘I’m going to end up like Toff either way, so it doesn’t fucking matter, does it?’
Julian opens the file, showing his eagerness to press on. ‘Tell us what you know, and we’ll see what we can do.’
Ignoring Julian’s instructions, Nicky stares ahead for a moment, weighing up his options, the cogs grinding slowly in his vacant brain. We sit in silence for a time before he scratches the back of his head before sniffing and shuffling in towards the table.
’I don’t know much.’ He rests his elbows on the surface. ‘Paytak is using this online chat. Something on the dark web. I think they used it to hire someone to get rid of Toff.’
‘Why do that now?’
‘They’re stepping into new territory. Stuff that Toff would never allow.’
‘Be more specific.’
He sniffs, making me wonder if his earnings have gone full circle and straight up his nose. ‘The Turks have taken over the Ports; they’re working with someone new, someone that gave them access to the chat and all other kinds of resources.’
‘Nah, Aldyn was loyal to Toff, he wouldn’t help them.’
‘A new cartel?’
‘This is different. It’s not mafia or cartels.’
‘What is it?’ Julian presses.
He shrugs. ‘It’s like an organisation.’
‘Who’s in it, Nicky?’
‘Paytak won’t say, but I know they’re nothing like Toff. They’re not working the system or making deals.’
Toff, otherwise known as Mario Christofi, had been the most successful gangster in London for many years; he had just the right balance between violence and charisma. He was merciless but incredibly smart. He worked out everyone’s pain points and made it his business; he was the only gangster to forge strong working relationships with criminals and law enforcement in the same breath. Nobody fucked with him, he was ruthless, but he had a code.
‘Why would this new group choose the Turks? Everyone knows the Greeks have the best connections,’ Julian asks as he starts making notes.
‘The Greeks are finished. And like I said, Mario Christofi would never have agreed to any of this.’
‘Tell us about the organisation.’
‘They’re called The Singularity,’ he reveals as he flashes an ugly smile, pleased with himself for holding the cards. ‘I know it’s a fucking stupid name.’
‘Who runs it?’
‘Some bloke called Higgs.’
‘What are they doing with the Turks?’ Julian taps his pen on the folder; he’s losing patience now, too, as Nicky closes his mouth in a sharp line.
‘What does Higgs want the Turks to do, Nicky?’ I push, sensing he’s shutting down.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Don’t bullshit me—’
‘Where do you fit into all of this, Nicky?’ Julian asks. ‘You used to roll with Toff, but now you’re with the Turks? Isn’t that a bit risky?’
His beady eyes slide from side to side. ‘Paytak wants followers; he doesn’t give a fuck.’
‘You still haven’t told us what he’s doing,’ Julian pushes.
He looks down at the tabletop. ‘They got me as a runner, helping out here and there.’
‘Nicky, if you don’t start talking, this deal is off.’ His nostrils flare under the heat of my stare as he starts to play with the cracked skin on his lips. His wild eyes start to search the room, glancing toward the blacked-out windowpane.
‘It’s trafficking. They’re trafficking in and out of the country.’
The word is inserted into the air quickly, causing my body to tense as I recall memories of trafficking cases over the course of my time at the NCA. Human trafficking, for whatever purpose, is, hands down, one of the most hateful, cruel, and despicable acts one person could inflict on another. I’ve witnessed, first-hand, the evil, animalistic exploitation of under-privileged, vulnerable men, women, children, of all ages, of all nationalities, and unfortunately, it goes hand-in-hand with organised crime. The thought of a new group injecting resource into this specifically pricks at my senses as I’m reminded of the endless missing-child cases that land on my desk with evidence that points to abduction for modern-day slavery and forced prostitution. It’s part of the sick, twisted underbelly of crime in this country, and if it were up to me, every single person involved would suffer an excruciating end.
‘What are they doing with the victims?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Could you venture a fucking guess?’ I move my hands off the table, removing the temptation and means to throttle him.
‘Probably for sex, but it’s not just women, it’s men too… most of them young…’
Julian’s body stiffens, and I sit back in my chair, my eyes scorching into Nicky’s as I look at his pathetic face, afraid to open my mouth for fear of what might come out.
‘Where does this happen, Nicky?’ Julian asks.
He shakes his head.
‘When did this start?’
He looks down, unable to bear the disdain emanating from our side of the room.
‘You’re a fucking disgrace,’ I say before nodding toward Julian, gesturing for him to continue.
‘So, this Higgs bloke comes along, the Turks join his organisation, and they’re trafficking for him, is that it?’
‘Paytak dabbled a bit before. The Singularity has paid him to step it up.’
‘Have you met any other members of this new group?’ He shakes his head.‘Have you had any contact with Higgs?’ He continues shaking his head. ‘For the benefit of the tape, Mr. Black is shaking his head,’ I shout over him, making a point.
‘Do you have any evidence Higgs exists?’ Julian questions.
I sigh and close my eyes, becoming bored with his relentless stupidity. ‘Find out which Ports they’re using, and I want evidence of this new group.’
He nods slowly before hanging his head down, this time having the decency to look ashamed.
‘Right…’ Julian takes a heavy breath and shuffles some paper before continuing. ‘Details of an undisclosed location will be sent via text. You’ll convene with an NCA Investigating Officer at a given date and time where you will be required to share relevant intel. Do you understand?’He continues looking down as he brings his thick, grubby fingers back towards the corners of his mouth, once again plucking at the loose skin. I grimace at the sight of him, noticing beads of sweat collecting in his hairline, indicating that he’s overly stressed from merely having to use his brain.
I allow a minute to pass before my patience wears too thin, and I raise my voice as I repeat Julian’s words, ‘Do you understand Nicholas?’
Julian leans forward and speaks in a low tone, ‘You’re a criminal, Nicky. We have all the evidence we need to put you away, and it won’t be a jolly old trip to Centre Parcs. If the information you give us checks out, then we can protect you.’He fidgets, and I look at Julian, making him aware that I’m on the edge of my threshold when Nicky reluctantly begins to nod. ‘For the benefit of the tape… Mr. Black is nodding his head.’
I sigh. ‘Well, we’re getting somewhere now, aren’t we?’ I flash him a wide grin across the table and watch his face turn an unhealthy grey.
A muffled knock on the door interrupts us, and I call out for the person to enter without moving my eyes away from our witness, who immediately appears panicked at my willingness to let a third party see his presence here.
Amber pokes her head in the door and clears her throat. I turn, noticing her eyes flit to Nicky before offering an apologetic look. ‘Guv, I have an urgent message for you, from a DI Stanley?’ she phrases it as a question.
‘Who?’ I stare up at her before looking back to Julian, who curls his bottom lip and twitches one shoulder to his ear. Amber’s eyes shift back to Nicky nervously before settling on me again. ‘Can you tell them I’ll call back?’
She pauses for a moment, her eyes weighing up the consequences of pressing me further.‘Of course,’ she nods and politely closes the door.
I turn back to Nicky, who appears panicked. ‘You just going to let people see me like that?’
‘Not everything is about you, Nicholas,’ I goad, smirking across at him as I place my hands in my pockets and lean back in the chair, getting comfortable. ‘Where were we?’