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A Lexi Ryder Crime Thriller
By Kasia Radzka
This is a work of fiction. That means it’s made up. Names, characters, incidents, events, places or organisations are either the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. This ebook is for entertainment purposes only.
Copyright © 2016 Kasia Radzka
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the author.
Cover design by Robin Ludwig Design Inc.
To my family…
Rain tapped heavily on the window, obscuring the view to the inside of the vehicle. No one would make out his features if they walked past or glanced from across the road. His view wasn’t the best either, he could just make out her outline as she walked along the path, umbrella in hand, a pair of red wellingtons against her black stockings and above-the-knee denim skirt. A white sweater hung down from underneath her black hip-length coat.
His job was to watch. Observe. Take notes and make contact should the need arise. He didn’t completely understand the purpose of the operation but he was getting paid a mint and he had learnt from another’s error that questioning the boss’s motives was a bad idea. The other guy ended up sliced and diced and thrown in the river. He wasn’t prepared to experience the same fate.
The rain began to subside but the grey clouds hovered above, threatening another downpour. He stayed in the car and watched as she walked towards her building. She reached for the keys in her pocket, and slid the key through the front door before disappearing behind it.
He counted to ten and the lights in the second floor flat switched on, illuminating what was the living area. He knew this because he had been in the cramped flat before. His instruction had been to observe but he needed to understand the subject; the information he had obtained had not shed any further light on the woman, except to confuse him some more.
She came from money. She could live in Kensington with views of Hyde Park and not bat an eyelid at the rent, and yet she chose a modest one bedroom flat in Camden, a short stroll from the Tube. The only personal touches that he had seen in the flat were postcards from a few European countries, Spain, France, and Croatia. There was only one shot of the woman but it was one taken from behind where she was staring out to the Mediterranean coast, her hair caught in the breeze. One hand held the wide-brimmed hat securely on her head, and her tanned bronze back accentuated by the white strapped singlet she wore. And the flowers. She had vases of fresh flowers in the kitchenette, living area and her bedroom. There was even an orchid in the bathroom. An odd place for a flower but after a bit of research he had discovered that they thrived in the humid conditions.
And so he was confused. Lexi Ryder was not what he had expected. But then his job had taught him not to make assumptions. More importantly, not to underestimate people; and life had taught him not to underestimate any woman.
He realised that Lexi Ryder was not going to be an easy assignment. She might just be one of his hardest.
Lexi Ryder sat on the grass staring at the stone walls of University College London, otherwise known as UCL. Once upon a time she had been a student there on an exchange programme during her university days. A time that included as much partying around Europe as it had studying.
This time she wasn’t there as a student. Nor was she making a social visit to reminisce about old times, as fun as they might have been. This time it was work. A story that had piqued her interest while the newspapers had left it as two paragraphs at the bottom of page three. The benefit of being a freelancer was that she had the luxury to choose what she reported on and to dig where some budgets failed to reach. But that wasn’t the only reason Lexi pursued the story, she realised a long time ago that she had an instinct that got her into trouble but got the job done. She had picked up on the scent of the story after overhearing a conversation between two reporters. A few minutes of research and she had found that not everything was as it seemed and so she found herself here, at the campus, waiting for a woman that would have some answers.
Students roamed the campus, a couple lay on a blanket, both engrossed their books, their legs entwined. A lone boy sat at the table furiously typing on his laptop, oblivious to his surroundings. The wind rustled the leaves, students walked with books under their arms, backpacks strapped over their shoulders. Music blared from a speaker somewhere in the distance, a Katy Perry song. Everyone seemed to be making the most of the rare London sunshine, Lexi included.
She sat observing the world in front of her, soaking up the natural Vitamin D and wondering what possessed her to stay in London for so long when she had sunshine all year round back home. But where was home? After two years she was no longer certain what the term meant. Home had become wherever she placed her roots at any given time. Today it was London, tomorrow it could be anywhere in the world. Life seemed much easier this way. The only thing she needed to be emotionally involved in was her work.
Lexi spotted the person she had come to see. Hannah Brown, a student in her final year of a masters in Criminal Psychology. An honour student from what Lexi had read up, and one that was equally smart as eccentric.
A week earlier, Hannah had contacted the police about a missing overseas student. The police checked it out but found no evidence of foul play, instead there was the one-way ticket to Ukraine and three dropped classes. The police believed she had left on her own accord. Hannah Brown was not convinced, and neither was Lexi, hence why she had agreed to speak with Hannah at the campus.
Hannah Brown was medium height, with auburn locks and heavy around the middle. She walked down the stairs of the main building, hips swaying in a 50s style knee-length skirt, carrying a bagel in one hand and a laptop bag in the other. As she approached, Lexi stood and smiled. Hannah’s lips moved but the smile, if that’s what could be called, wasn’t convincing anyone.
“You’re new in town,” she said. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“I recently relocated to London,” Lexi said, although recently would no longer cut it, almost two years had passed since she’d landed at Heathrow. Not that she had set a time limit for her stay. It had become a day by day decision to stay or go. At least here she was close enough to the heart of Europe to explore many countries at her whim.
Hannah Brown looked her up and down. Lexi waited for the judgements to be made before speaking again.
“Look Hannah, I’m here to hear your side of the story. I understand the police didn’t take your worries seriously. You don’t think Tatiana Petrenko left the country on her own accord?”
“Worries? Is that what you call them? They looked at me as if I was an idiot and weren’t too far from charging me with wasting their time,” Hannah said, pulling out a picture and handing it to Lexi. “This girl is missing. She was on campus one week and gone the next.”
Lexi took the picture and studied it. In the photo, Tatiana Petrenko didn’t look older than twenty. Dark brown hair that curled as it drooped around her face and onto her shoulders, she was smiling in the photo but there was hesitancy in her eyes; something being held back. She was happy for the camera but that spark that should have been in the young woman’s eyes was missing. Instead, Lexi saw a sense of fear, a lost innocence that could never be regained.
“It’s a big campus, Hannah. People come and go all the time.”
“I won’t argue with that. But I know that she didn’t just drop from her classes and go back to Ukraine.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because she had no one to go back to.”
“How do you know?” Lexi asked. “How do you know there was no family, no friends or boyfriend waiting for her back home?”
“Have you ever had a gut feeling that you knew to be true?” Hannah said.
“Sure, but that’s not exactly evidence of foul play,” Lexi said, playing the devil’s advocate. She believed Hannah’s concerns but she wanted to be convinced of the theory that Tatiana Petrenko had been taken against her will.
“What piqued your interest in the story?” Hannah said changing her tune. Lexi noticed something alter in her expression, a sudden interest instead of the initial annoyance.
“I was curious about your suspicions.”
“Why this one in particular?”
“I take a special interest in these stories.”
“These? You mean when women disappear into thin air and you know that something sinister is going down?”
Hannah was spot on with her assumption. Lexi’s primary motivation to get into investigative journalism had been to right the wrongs that were being done to people, especially women. The world was filled with people who had no voice, Lexi wanted to be that person who gave them one. Now she thought Tatiana Petrenko needed a voice and Lexi was determined to give her one.
“You could say that. Now do you want to tell me what you saw?”
“It’s more what I didn’t see,” Hannah said.
“Dropping out, packing her bags, letting anyone know, leaving,” Hannah said, throwing the remainder of her bagel in the bin. “You don’t just disappear without someone noticing.”
And yet hundreds if not thousands of people around the world did just that. How many missing persons’ reports had been filed every day? Not one or two but dozens of them. Over two hundred thousand people went missing each year in the UK alone.
“Did she live in student accommodation?” Lexi asked.
“Yes, I can show you.”
“You can get into her room?”
“I have connections,” she said, motioning for Lexi to follow her.
Tatiana Petrenko lived in the student residence of Connaught Hall on Tavistock Square, a building of Georgian architecture that was pleasantly situated between two gardens – although back home Lexi would have called them parks. The residence hall was just a few minutes’ walk from the main building of UCL.
Lexi followed Hannah across the street and down past Russell Park Gardens towards the building. Tatiana Petrenko had spent the past year there and until last week, she was meant to renew her student visa for a further twelve months. Leaving didn’t make sense, not with just a year of a four-year degree remaining.
They passed a girl sitting on the steps reading from a text book, headphones on her ears. Taking the stairs to the second floor rooms they paused outside the first door to the hallway. Hannah disappeared behind the door while Lexi waited outside, leaning against the wall tapping her fingers against her leg.
Lexi’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She pulled it out, recognising the international code. Someone was calling from home. It could be any of the people she’d left behind, but most likely one of the five who didn’t understand why she had left in the first place.
She chose not to answer, returning the phone to her pocket and letting it ring out as Hannah came out of the room flashing a key in Lexi’s face. “Told you I had connections,” she said.
They took another flight of stairs and walked towards the end of the hallway where Hannah unlocked a door.
Tatiana Petrenko’s room was bare but not empty. There was a desk, an empty bed by the window, a set of bookshelves on the left wall, a wardrobe and a bright green rug on the floor. Tatiana Petrenko did not just pack up and leave. The smell of disinfectant hung in the air. A brand new rug lay on the floor and Lexi wondered whether it was Tatiana’s personal touch before she disappeared.
Lexi pulled out a pair of gloves. They had become a staple in her handbag long ago. A past relationship with a detective back home had provided her with a few tips and tricks to keep on standby and more importantly to keep her out of trouble, although where Lexi was concerned, trouble seemed to come knocking more often than not. She didn’t know how to be a good investigative journalist without stepping on a few toes.
Lexi started with the drawers, pulling them out and checking the contents. They were all empty, free from dust, still a remnant of disinfectant hanging in the air. The wardrobe gave nothing away, three coat hangers hung neatly next to each other. The compact bathroom was spotless and hair free.
Hannah followed Lexi out of the cramped bathroom space and stood by the door. “UCL will have someone in here by the end of the week. No one will give Tatiana a second thought,” Hannah said, looking around.
Lexi knelt down on the floor and peeked under the bed. Just because the place had been cleaned didn’t necessarily mean that they hadn’t missed something. How could they if they weren’t looking for it? But what was she looking for? Lexi didn’t know. Something. Anything that might validate Hannah’s theory and Lexi’s gut instinct that Tatiana Petrenko had been taken.
Lexi sat on the floor, cross-legged on the green rug, and closed her eyes. If she had lived here, where would be the spot she would hide something of importance? She opened her eyes and stood up. She moved across the room and slid her hand between the wall and the back of the wardrobe and felt around for anything that might have been glued to the back or a compartment for documents or jewellery. More empty space.
She looked at the bed. The mattress. Lexi lifted it up and felt around the bottom and top of it, making sure to include all sides. On one there was a zip. She unzipped it and put her gloved hand in. Her hand brushed against something. She pulled it out.
“She wasn’t going anywhere without this,” Lexi said, holding up a passport.
“The EU has open borders,” Hannah said.
“Yes, but according to this, Tatiana was a Ukrainian citizen and they haven’t joined the EU yet. She would have had to show her passport if she was leaving or entering England.”
“That means there’s a chance that she’s still here.”
“Unless whoever took her had means to get her out of the country without passing border security. The other possibility is a fake ID, but that would only work if she was cooperating. And we’re assuming she wasn’t.”
“Or someone has contacts at border security to let them pass undetected. Money has no limits,” Hannah said.
Lexi stared at the photo in the passport. A young woman stared back at her. A hardness in her eyes that made her seem much older than her twenty years. Where are you, Tatiana? What happened to you?
Lexi glanced across the road and saw a familiar car parked between two scooters. She couldn’t be sure but she thought it was the same one she had seen parked outside her apartment several times over the past week. She gave it a glance then shook her head, realising that she was being silly. She followed Hannah past the Royal Square Gardens, then down Cosmo Place towards the Metropolitan police station at Holborn. Inside they were asked to sit in the waiting area.
Lexi tapped her fingers on her knee, looking around. The station was empty other than an officer sitting behind the front desk and another standing at the fax machine pulling out a sheaf of paper.
Memories of another life came flooding back. She couldn’t believe it had been almost two years that she had been living in London. Back home, her relationship with the detective had been a convenient and passionate one. They had worked well together. Once. Then she left. Now it was all just a distant memory. Lexi thought of Matt more often than she cared to admit, but that was life. At the time, leaving had been the right decision to make. Everything had moved so fast, and then there was the incident and Lexi needed air to breathe. London had been the answer and before she knew it two years had gone by.
“Lexi Ryder,” a woman’s voice brought Lexi back to the present. Enough of reminiscing about what was not meant to be.
“Yes,” she said, standing up and offering a handshake. “Thank you for taking the time to see us, Detective.”
“Detective Constable Cara Simmons,” the woman said. “Why don’t we talk in here.”
Detective Cara Simmons stood an inch taller than Lexi. Beneath her suit she looked like a lean fighting machine. Her posture straight, head held high, an almost military style about it, but it seemed almost as if she was trying to hide it. Her hair in a ponytail didn’t mesh with the ‘tough detective’ look, but softened her hard features.
They followed her into a small room. The interrogations were done behind closed doors but Lexi could still see a camera in two corners of the room, and the detective caught her staring. “Privacy is overrated,” she said motioning for them to sit down while she took a seat on the opposite side of the table.
Lexi took a moment to assess the woman sitting in front of them. She looked hard. Tough. Like she had seen too much in her life. She placed her in her mid to late thirties but it was hard to tell. She wore the minimum of make-up. A bit of mascara. Lip gloss. She was attractive if you looked close enough but was by no means model material. Her broad shoulders suggested a swimming background but it was only a guess.
“Tatiana Petrenko disappeared last week,” Lexi said. “She was attending UCL, studying psychology. Top grades, a quiet achiever. Suddenly she stopped going.”
“That case is closed,” Detective Cara Simmons said. “Ms Petrenko decided to go back to her home country. She left a message with the administration at UCL. Her social media accounts also show that she had returned home.”
Lexi pulled out the passport and put it on the table between them. “Not without this,” she said.
The detective picked up the passport and flicked through it as Lexi spoke. “How could Tatiana Petrenko leave the country without her passport? England is strict on checking incoming and outgoing passengers. Someone may have checked in at the airport but it couldn’t have been Tatiana Petrenko, not without her Ukrainian passport.”
“Where did you get this?” the detective asked.
“Her dorm room.”
“Breaking in and entering is a crime, Ms Ryder,” Detective Simmons said.
“We had a key,” Hannah cut in.
Detective Simmons looked at Hannah then back at Lexi. “Give me a moment please,” she said, getting up and leaving both of them in the room.
As soon as the door shut Hannah turned to Lexi. “She’d better get her finger out of her ass and do her job. That passport says it all.”
“It might not be enough,” Lexi said. “There are a number of ways to leave the country and head into Europe. It’s difficult but not impossible to get out undetected. Plane, boat, car and train. If she did leave, it could have been by any of those means.”
“Or fish food,” Hannah said.
“What do you mean, fish food?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time a body was dropped into the Thames. Just attach a few weights and it will sink to the bottom for the fish to feed on, and by the time the cops find it, it’ll be too late to identify the remains or match it to a missing persons’ case.”
And Lexi had thought she was the only one with a morbid imagination. Hannah seemed to think in a similar fashion and Lexi wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t too far off the truth. How many bodies had been recovered from rivers and lakes? Thirty, maybe forty per year from the Thames? How many were still lying at the bottom waiting for acknowledgement? She just hoped Tatiana had not met her watery grave.
Detective Simmons returned five minutes later. “We’ve made a note of the passport. It’ll be in safe custody until its owner reports it missing. Our official investigation is closed.”
Hannah was about to speak but Lexi stopped her by putting her arm up in front. There was no point arguing. Experience had told her that arguing with the police was ineffective and downright stupid unless you wanted more trouble. They’d have to look into the case themselves.
“Thank you for your time, Detective,” Lexi said.
“Ms Ryder,” the detective said as Lexi was walking through the door, “Officially there is no investigation, unofficially I’ll knock on a few doors. If that provides no results, the case will be closed officially and unofficially.”
“Thank you, Detective,” Lexi said. “That’s all we can ask for.”
Once outside the police station, Hannah took a cigarette from a pack and lit it.
“You know those will kill you,” Lexi said, declining the offer for one.
“Sure, in about fifty years when I won’t give a damn,” Hannah said, taking a puff. “Seriously, how can they not reopen the case? The passport is evidence of foul play.”
“No, it isn’t,” Lexi said. “The passport merely suggests that she either forgot it, it had been stolen or she didn’t need it. Whoever took her cleaned up and made sure not to leave any crumbs to follow.”
“What do we do next?”
“We?” Lexi said, not realising they had become a team. “We go home and reassess. I’m sure you have places you need to be, as do I. I’ll contact you if I find any information.”
“Likewise,” Hannah said. “I have that awful feeling in my stomach that something terrible has happened to Tatiana, or will happen.”
“So do I,” Lexi said.
She had learnt long ago to listen to her gut instinct. So instead of going home she parked her butt down in a coffee shop with a full view of the station, ordered a coffee and patiently kept her eyes on the station’s entrance. There was something about Detective Simmons drawing Lexi to her. She wasn’t sure whether it was good or bad, but she knew that the female detective could be key to figuring out what really happened to Tatiana Petrenko.
The sky was transforming to a hue of dark blue, the sun hidden behind the clouds and the moon making its first appearance of the evening. It was going to be a starless night. Lexi was on her third coffee, a decaf this time. She couldn’t help but wonder if this was all a waste of time.
A few minutes later, Detective Simmons walked out of the station. A second officer followed her and they stood on the pavement chatting. Lexi recognised the other officer; he had been at the front desk when she and Hannah had entered earlier that day. It looked like they were finishing their shifts for the day while Lexi’s was just beginning.
Leaving a half finished cup of coffee on the counter, Lexi rushed out in pursuit of the detective who was now walking away from the station. Lexi thought she’d grab the Tube but the detective continued past the stairs to the Underground. Lexi followed, staying out of sight, weaving through people, ensuring she kept enough distance.
She realised they were heading for Hyde Park when she recognised the familiar sign and the area she had frequented when she first arrived. The park was just around the corner and it had been a place she had spent much time during the warmer months.
Lexi kept her pace, keeping about fifty yards behind, enough distance to avoid being noticed but not enough to lose sight. The detective walked with purpose, never bothering to turn around.
Lexi entered the park from Hyde Park Corner, assuming Detective Simmons was metres ahead; she was surprised to find no sight of her. Other than a few random people up ahead, Detective Simmons was nowhere to be seen.
Lexi was sure she had entered the park only moments before. Where could she have gone?
Lexi moved slowly, keeping her eyes peeled for movement around her. The rustling of the leaves in the wind, the noise of the cars to her right, and a couple making out on one of the benches, it could have been a pleasant night to be out in. For most, it probably was. Lexi breathed heavily turning around to see if she had missed anything.
Moving deeper into the park, she heard footsteps, before she had a chance to turn around, someone grabbed her from behind, twisting her arm up behind her back and pushing her towards the toilet block while keeping one hand over her mouth preventing her from screaming out. Her body slammed against the wall, and pain ran through her as her arm was pulled higher up against her back.
“Why are you following me?”
“You saw me?” Lexi said, recognising Detective Simmons’ voice.
“You were at the cafe all afternoon watching the station. It didn’t take a genius to figure out you were up to something. Why are you following me?”
“I have a theory,” Lexi said.
“Don’t we all. You know I could arrest you for this.”
“But you won’t.”
The detective smiled. Lexi knew she was winning her over. Maybe she still had a way with bringing people to her side of thinking.
“Let’s take a walk,” she said, letting go of Lexi’s arm.
They walked side by side through the park like two old friends catching up in the green surroundings. Except they weren’t friends, both wanted something from the other. And whether they’d cooperate was another matter.
“How long have you been in England?” the detective asked as they walked towards the water.
“Almost two years,” Lexi said. The time had flown by so fast. It felt like only yesterday that she had packed her bags and left without saying much of a goodbye.
“Planning on staying indefinitely?”
“I haven’t really thought about it,” she said. “How about you? I’m sure you’re not from around here.”
“Yeah, what gave me away?”
“You speak with a British accent but sometimes there’s a hint of something else.”
“I grew up in France and Spain.”
“So why London?”
“That’s where the interesting crimes seem to happen.”
“Right,” Lexi said.
“That’s the place I am meant to be in right now,” Detective Simmons said, her face hardening, making Lexi wonder about the woman’s past. Although if someone asked her, she’d probably have a similar response.
“So what’s your theory, Lexi?” she asked. “You’ve got enough balls to tail a police officer so you deserve my attention.”
“Tatiana Petrenko didn’t voluntarily leave the country.”
The detective knelt down to the ground. She picked up a rock and threw it into the lake, the rock skipped twice through the surface of the water.
“Tell me something I don’t already know,” the detective said.
“You believe me then?”
“I never disbelieved you.”
“So why not reopen the case? The passport proves Tatiana didn’t leave the UK.”
“No, it only suggests she didn’t. No hard evidence either way. Why are you so hung up on this particular case?”
“I like when justice is served.”
“Then we have at least one thing in common.”
“I think Tatiana Petrenko was taken and is still in the country. I know her passport isn’t conclusive evidence but it should ring alarm bells.”
“Like I said, I will look into it.”
“Seriously? Or is that just a way to get me off your back?”
“I take my job seriously, Lexi. When I say I’m going to look into it, that’s exactly what I intend doing. I’m not sure how things work down under but here we have procedures to follow, rules to abide by, and we try not to step on other detectives’ turf, if you know what I mean. Are you going to cause me trouble, Lexi?”
“That’s not my intention. What I don’t understand is, why was the case closed so quickly?”
“One woman’s suspicion and gut feeling are not enough to sustain an investigation. We already have an understaffed and underpaid workforce. It’s about prioritising. Budget cuts and the like.”
“Shouldn’t they all be equal?”
“That’s a very naive way of thinking, and one thing I’m certain of is that you are anything but naive, Lexi,” the detective said. “I am curious though, what brought you to this murky part of the world?”
“I needed a change of pace, away from my family,” Lexi said, wondering why the last bit had come out. Normally, she wouldn’t give the family a second thought.
“You don’t like them?”
“We don’t always see eye to eye. I like to do things myself, my family like to pay for things to be done. They don’t understand my need for simplicity where they require opulence and fame.”
“Your family is famous?”
“Not really. My father runs a large import-export business and my mother enjoys entertaining in the social circles of the wealthy and snobby. I can have everything money can buy but not much of what it cannot. Gosh, doesn’t that make me sound like an ungrateful bitch?”
“Just a little,” she said, smiling. “So I suppose journalism is not a career they’re proud of.”
“No. Ideally, I’d finish a law degree, marry well, have children, let nannies look after them, and attend brunches and galas all year long while resembling a well-kept Barbie doll.”
“Sounds like a tough life, though I’m not sure whether the Barbie look would suit you.”
“Not my style,” Lexi said. Sure she could tolerate a fancy brunch or a charity event occasionally, but if it was on her repertoire on a daily basis she’d soon enough go crazy. She needed more, much more. So, from a young age she turned herself away from her family as much as she could and continued to do so.
“So you turned to journalism.”
“I wanted to do something that had some significance. Plus, I get to meet interesting people instead of those just interested in my bank balance,” Lexi said. “What’s your story?”
“I like solving crimes.”
“That’s it. I’ll look into Tatiana Petrenko, now please try to stay out of trouble. London can be a dangerous place when you start stepping on the wrong toes.”
Lexi couldn’t help but wonder if that was a threat or a warning.
The next morning, Lexi got dressed early and decided to do some of her own investigating. The dreary London weather had decided to clear up for the morning, but she carried an umbrella in her handbag regardless. It was the first habit that she had picked up after moving to London; heading outside without one was like asking to be caught in a downpour. She was getting used to the rain, but it didn’t do much to keep her mind from drifting to the warmer and drier climate she had left behind.
The detective’s words from the previous night stayed in her mind. How dangerous could London get? Was she putting herself in danger by getting involved? Stepping on toes was part of her job description, she’d just have to remember to be extra careful. And besides, what harm could asking a few questions do?
Lexi’s first stop was the bakery where Tatiana Petrenko had occasionally worked.
It was one of those Eastern European bakeries that had opened up shop since the EU opened its borders. The cakes and pastries melted in your mouth and there was always a ‘babushka’ in the back, kneading dough or folding flour.
As soon as Lexi walked in the sweet smells hit her senses, from the freshly baked bread to the jam donuts sitting on the counter, and the cheesecakes and pastries behind the glass. Lexi’s mouth salivated. She’d have to grab a slice of cake when she finished otherwise her taste buds would never forgive her.
The owner was a short older man. He was balding on the top but keeping the thick sides intact. His belly protruded just above his apron; a spot of icing remained on the corner of his mouth. He wiped it off with the back of his hand as he approached Lexi and introduced himself.
“When was her last shift?” Lexi asked.
“Thursday, week ago. Came in for eight hours. Worked through without a break and left. We haven’t seen her since,” he said in good English with a hint of an unfamiliar accent coming through.
“What about her next shift?”
“We tried calling Tatiana two days ago but she never responded. Poor girl. She was so quiet, there was something very sad about her.”
“What do you mean?” Lexi asked.
“It was her eyes. You know, they say the eyes are the windows to the soul. It seemed like her soul had been eaten away by something dark. She was just going through the motions.”
“Did she ever say anything? Talk to anyone?”
“Other than pleasantries to be polite, she was not a social butterfly. Tatiana was kind and thoughtful but she didn’t go out of her way to make friends. There was one girl she spoke with. Grace. But I doubt she would know any more than I have already told you. She finishes her shift in ten minutes if you want to talk to her.”
She wasn’t convinced how much Grace might help but girls chatted, gossiped, let go of frustrations by spilling their hearts. Maybe Tatiana had confided in someone? And what better way than to the person you worked with, especially since Tatiana’s schedule was sporadic.
Grace was short and petite, with a gaunt face, and short spiky hair. She could have been in her twenties or pass for a teenager. Lexi didn’t waste any time on pleasantries but as she had expected, Grace couldn’t tell her much at all.
“Tatiana was nice. Quiet. She helped out a lot when she was here. I asked her once if she wanted a few of my extra shifts, you know I sometimes like to spend time with my boyfriend and if I can’t get someone to work my shift… well, taking a day off is not an option. But she said she didn’t need the money and wasn’t interested. Which is weird, because she only worked a few days a month. And whilst she always looked well put together, you could tell that the clothes on her back had come from a charity shop.”
“Thank you, Grace, you’ve been most helpful,” Lexi said.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Grace said, her gaze shifting towards Lexi’s feet.
“I hope not,” Lexi said and moved towards the door, wondering why Grace would have automatically drawn such a conclusion.
“Wait,” Grace said, grabbing hold of Lexi’s arm with her delicate hands. “I need to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
“I didn’t think anything of it at the time. It seemed innocent and normal but now that Tatiana is gone, well, I think someone needs to know.”
“Yes?” Lexi said, feeling hopeful that maybe a piece of useless information could be the clue she needed to find out what happened to Tatiana.
“A man and a woman came looking for her. They came into the shop when I was on a shift and wanted to know if Tatiana worked here and when.”
“Who were they?”
Grace shrugged. “They said they were family from Ukraine and they were worried about her. They wanted to get in contact and take her back home because of a sick relative.”
“Did you tell them anything?”
“I told them that I saw her heading towards UCL once. There’s one more thing. I swear I saw one of them parked in a car across the road several times last week. Just sitting there, watching the shop and the people walking by. It sort of creeped me out.”
Interesting, Lexi thought. Maybe visiting the bakery hadn’t been a waste of time after all. The information may have meant nothing but Lexi saw its significance. If someone was making the effort to search for Tatiana, they may have gone to the trouble to take her too.
“Can you think of anything else? Even if it seem insignificant? Did she talk about family? Friends? Anyone she was close to?”
“I don’t know. She never talked about herself. It was weird everyone talks about themselves.”
“If you think of anything, give me a call,” Lexi said, handing her a card. “Anything at all.”
Lexi sat down in one of the parks and contemplated the information she already had as she enjoyed the freshness of the fruit tart she had picked up at the bakery. The couple Grace had mentioned could be significant. What purpose did keeping an eye on Tatiana serve?
They could have been Tatiana’s family but something in her gut told Lexi that they were definitely not. The vague description didn’t help but the knowledge of the couple suggested foul play. Where was this story headed? Initially she wanted to learn about the disappearances that plagued the city. Then came Tatiana Petrenko. One woman who disappeared without a trace. There was a chance that her disappearance was linked to many others, and a group of individuals who treated women as nothing more than a commodity. Once again, Lexi felt drawn to the dark side, to solve a mystery and not just write a story.
It wasn’t her job to solve crimes but she was always drawn to investigative pieces that left her in such a position, and she was beginning to question what was more important to her: getting the story or solving the crime.
Considering what little she knew about Tatiana, her next thought was to look at her money. Where did she get it? Where did she keep it?
Lexi tried calling the detective. Taking a look at Tatiana’s bank statements could give them an indication of where her money was coming from. Money had a power over people and if Tatiana had been getting hers from unsavoury sources it could explain her disappearance.
“I can’t help you. I need a warrant to access bank details and no judge is going to give me a warrant on a closed case based on a journalist’s hunch,” Detective Simmons said. “And I told you to stay out of trouble.”
Before Lexi could ask for another favour, the detective had hung up and she was talking to a dial tone. Bugger it, she thought. There had to be another way. She phoned Hannah instead and was not at all surprised with her response.
“Sure I know someone who can help,” she said as soon as Lexi explained her theory.
“Are we going to break any laws?” Lexi said.
“Do you really want me to answer that question?”
“Probably not. If we can get a look at her bank statements, we might get an idea of what else she was doing besides working at the bakery. You can’t afford the UCL lifestyle on a pauper’s wage. And if she had no family, well, the money had to be coming from somewhere.”
“She could have worked on the side. Cash in hand. No record. A lot of people do that. Especially in the clubs.”
“What sort of clubs?”
“Most of them, but especially the sleazy ones.”
“You think she might have been stripping to make the extra cash?”
“This is Europe, Lexi. I’d say she could have been doing much more than taking her clothes off for a living. Times might have changed but the Soho district is still a popular spot for quickies and male clientele getting into trouble.”
“Now Lexi, you don’t strike me as the prudish type and yet you sound as shocked as a twenty-year-old virgin,” Hannah said.
“I guess UCL and prostitution don’t go well together.”
“We all have to make a living somehow. Some simply choose the easier route,” Hannah said. “But I don’t think Tatiana was that sort of girl.”
Obviously Lexi didn’t know Tatiana, but from what she gathered, the girl did not strike as the type to turn to prostitution for quick cash. But then again, how did one explain the UCL lifestyle, a random job, two people searching for her and then the sudden disappearance no one noticed? Or was paid not to notice?
How many girls disappeared in London on a yearly basis? How many washed up in the Thames? How many did the police ignore or put down to suicide or drug induced accidents? It was cheaper and faster if no one reported them as missing. How many Jane Does were there?
“I’ll call you back when I have something,” Hannah said.
It was the second time that day Lexi was speaking to a dial tone. She didn’t get to tell Hannah to be careful. But Hannah seemed to function on her own planet. She was dangerously curious and didn’t see any obstacles in her way. Lexi saw this both as an asset and a liability but she could also tell that Hannah had her own motives for looking for Tatiana. Maybe it was just her studies, but Lexi suspected there was more.
Lexi made her way towards the university campus, on foot again, her stomach grumbling. She needed to start eating more before her energy was completely depleted. She grabbed a sandwich but as she walked out of the shop a few metres down, an older man was huddled against the wall, a raincoat and blanket beside him. She stopped and handed him the sandwich that she had just bought and walked on, her hunger could wait. She arrived at UCL for the second time in two days and headed for the administration building.
The lady behind the reception desk didn’t bother smiling. Lexi sensed she was interrupting a busy moment reading the latest OK! magazine that was quickly slipped beneath some documents as Lexi glanced down. No doubt the woman would return to the riveting stories as soon as Lexi left.
“We don’t give out student information,” she said in a brusque tone.
“I wanted to surprise her, I’ve come all the way from Australia,” Lexi pleaded. “I really was hoping to see her today.”
“It’s against campus policy to give out student information,” she said.
Lexi smiled at the woman, thanked her for nothing and turned to walk away.
Not wanting the visit to be wasted, she explored the campus and asked students for various departments. Most ignored her until she mentioned she was considering studying at the campus. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find anyone who knew anything about Tatiana Petrenko. She had attended the university, several students and staff mentioned seeing her, but that was all. Tatiana remained a mystery. There was also the possibility that they knew the consequences of believing the fact that one of their own could have gone missing. If it happened to Tatiana, it could happen to anyone.
They didn’t want to believe that she had possibly been taken because that would suggest that their safe haven, their city, their campus, was a place where bad things could happen. Ignorance was bliss and so many people chose to live in it.
Lexi returned outside just as her phone started buzzing.
“We’ve got the info,” Hannah’s voice echoed.
“That was fast.”
“My source doesn’t like to mess around. Do you want to know the interesting part? Tatiana Petrenko had over a hundred thousand pounds in her bank account until yesterday.”
“I don’t know. Cash was transferred on a regular basis over the past year. Two to three thousand pounds per month, with an initial deposit of fifty thousand.”
“Do you know where the money was coming from?”
“No. My guy is still checking that out. But the withdrawals are interesting. Most are fairly ordinary – groceries, a cup of coffee, that sort of thing. But when my guy put in the locations of all the transactions on a map he found that they were all within the same vicinity, in clusters.”
“That’s normal though, most people tend to shop in the same places.”
“Yes, but this was different. There were several clusters where she used her card. And they were all within Soho’s red-light district at various times of day and night, I doubt she was going there to check out the art.”
During the day the Soho was like any other suburb. Time had changed it to an artistic scene of poets and musicians over prostitutes and dancers, although the signs that would light up in neon as soon as dusk hit remained. The other crowd, the one that came out at night, hunting, deceiving and seducing for their livelihood, was nowhere to be seen, but that was no surprise for that time of day. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest they were sleeping off the previous night’s escapades. Soon they would rise to prepare for yet another long night of business; night after night, day after day. Could Tatiana had gotten involved along the line? It was a never ending cycle that roped you in, took everything from you, only letting go when there was nothing left to take. Lexi had seen it before, the partying stayed the same, just the faces changed with time.
“Two for the price of one,” said a woman, dressed in a tight skirt and top that barely covered her cleavage, as Lexi and Hannah passed. Lexi had to glance a second time just to be sure she had seen right. The woman was prancing about as high as a kite during the lunchtime hour.
They ignored her call outs and propositions and walked on.
The first place on their list was a small family grocery store.
Bells jiggled as the door swung open and they crossed the threshold. The cashier looked at them before returning his attention to the customer emptying out her grocery basket on the counter. Lexi walked down the aisles, stopped at the drinks station and grabbed a bottle of water; in the confectionary aisle she picked up some chewing gum. As soon as the bells above the door chimed again, she made her way to the checkout with her items and the picture of Tatiana Petrenko. She flashed the photos and was only met with a stare of indifference.
“Never seen her,” he said, shaking his head.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. We don’t want no trouble.”
“I’m just looking for a girl. She’s my cousin, my aunt is worried. I said I’d help.”
“Too many girls get lost here. No family, bad friends. So many young losing their innocence. I want no part. I sent my wife and daughter away. Away from all this dirty business.”
But you remain, Lexi thought, right in the centre of it all.
Lexi paid for the water and gum and went back outside where Hannah was waiting with a half-finished cigarette. The other spots on their list hadn’t brought any luck either. No one remembered Tatiana – or chose not to. Sometimes it proved safer to be forgetful, to be ignorant to the truth.
The next stop was a cafe, three doors down. Lexi was ready for another coffee. They ordered and took a seat where they had full view of the street and the cafe itself.
The place was filled with businessmen lunching as well as women with sunglasses covering their eyes. A lunchtime quickie at an establishment that happily charged by the hour. Whether it was tasteful or not didn’t matter, the supply was there and so demand followed or vice versa depending on where one stood. Lexi watched from afar, observing movements, behaviour, listening in on conversation. Just one of the perks of the job. Most often than not, it wasn’t interesting chatter but it gave her mind time to reassess.
“What is the common denominator here?” Lexi asked. “She obviously spent quite some time in the area, day and night. Why? What is here that was of such interest to her?”
“Besides the hookers?” Hannah said.
“Tatiana was, is, an interesting person. A quiet achiever with a stone cold expression that gave nothing away. There was something dark about her. Something she kept hidden deep inside. I wanted to get to know her as a person, as well as her psychology. My studies deal with the behaviour of victims rather than perpetrators. She would have made an interesting subject,” Hannah said.
“Do you think she was a victim?”
“Yes. Definitely. I think she had a difficult upbringing. She excelled academically and removed herself from social interaction which suggested that someone had hurt her in the past. She had trust issues. Her only routine was her study calendar. Something she had no control over. And she always looked like she was searching for something or someone.”
“That’s an interesting observation. There was also the red-light district. Why did she frequent it so regularly?”
“Maybe it gave her a sense of security.”
“It sounds like you paid a lot more attention to her than you let on,” Lexi said, wondering what Hannah had omitted to tell her.
Hannah took a sip of her coffee and stared out the window speaking slowly. “She was an unknown subject for my studies.”
“I am writing a thesis on victimology. I needed a real person to make the study more convincing. I reached out to others but most people don’t want to deal with their demons. The ones that did were actors craving attention, and while I don’t want to be a judgmental cow or tell people how to deal with their issues, some really need to grow some balls,” Hannah said.
Lexi smiled at Hannah’s use of terminology. But she agreed completely, she nodded which encouraged Hannah to continue. “Tatiana approached me. I had been watching her for a few days. There was something about her that had grabbed my attention and I was trying to find a way to approach her as a test subject. She beat me to it. I think she was so alert, so aware of her surroundings that she knew exactly what I was doing.”
“And what demons did she reveal?” Lexi asked.
“Tatiana came from a world with little sympathy or empathy. She told me about a childhood where there had been days when all they had to eat was a loaf of bread. A drunken father who came and went as he pleased, and a mother who had lost all hope until she died when Tatiana was in school.
“She came from a home where love and violence collided like a truck and a freight train during a tornado. So she studied and dreamed of a better life. She left her father to drink himself to death while she sought a better life.” Hannah said, “or that’s what she had led me to believe.”
“So her demons were a terrible childhood?”
“No. I think she had gotten over that a long time ago. I think there was something else she hadn’t told me. Something she didn’t want me to find out.”
“Figure that out and we may find out what happened to her.”
“And then she disappeared.”
“Yes. I remember the last time I spoke with her. She had looked over my shoulder and the expression on her face remained the same, but her eyes, I could see the fear in her eyes. I turned but saw nothing. After that she said she had to rush off and she’d be in touch. I haven’t seen her since.”
Lexi wondered if Tatiana may have noticed the couple observing her.
“That’s why you believe something happened to her?”
“I don’t believe she packed up and left. I also don’t think she came here to get away from her life in Ukraine,” Hannah said. “I think she was looking for someone who didn’t want to be found.”
Finishing her coffee and sandwich Lexi took her cup and plate to the counter just as it had cleared from the lunch hour rush. The assistant was a woman who could once upon a time have been in fashion magazines, with her strong jaw line and almond eyes outlined with black eyeliner. Her name tag read Brigita.
“I’m looking for this woman,” Lexi said handing her a picture of Tatiana. Brigita took the picture in her hand and stared at it for a few moments. Her face scrunching up as her mind worked.
“Yes, I see her. Couple times,” she said in an Eastern European accent. “She drink coffee at table your friend sit at.”
“When was the last time you saw her?” Lexi asked.
Brigita shrugged. “I do not know. I have many customers here. A few days. Week maybe.”
“Was she ever with anyone else?”
“Nie. Always alone.”
“Did she stay long?”
“Minutes. Hours. Long time. She watched through the window all the time. Window and door. Never look away,” Brigita said, then turned her attention to a customer who had just entered.
“Wait,” she said. “This girl, one time she was here with someone. An older girl, she looked few years older than her. More wrinkles, more wear and tear, as they say. She looked like the call girls we get in here. Tired, sunken eyes, drugs probably. They argued. The sick-looking girl slapped this girl’s arms away and ran out of the cafe. The other girl followed but returned for her bag looking upset, defeated.”
Lexi thanked her and motioned for Hannah to get up. They were leaving. It was almost certain now that Tatiana wasn’t hiding. She was looking for someone. Maybe she had found them and that’s when she went missing herself.
The English downpour caught her just as she exited the Tube at Camden station. The walk to her flat was only a few hundred metres and by the time she got her umbrella out she was already drenched from head to toe. Throughout the entire walk after she had had left Hannah to head towards the West End, she couldn’t stop thinking about the girl Tatiana had been seen with. A new lead in a story that didn’t make much sense.
On her way down the path to her apartment she passed a homeless man, he was often there. He looked young, maybe in his thirties or forties with a shaggy beard, but always well groomed. From time to time she offered him a sandwich or a piece of fruit for which he always seemed grateful. Occasionally she had even seen some other tenants pay him to sweep outside the unit block for cash and food. Lexi greeted him with a smile and left a sandwich she had bought. He returned her smile and bid her a good day. She wondered if he’d ever be willing to share his story.
An hour later, after freshening up, Lexi poured herself a glass of wine and sat on the reading chair by the window. A good book, a glass of wine and some cheese was the perfect end to a draining day. Tonight she enjoyed the company of The Times, reading up on the latest events. Taxes were on the agenda. The Royal family were attending a charity gala. The stock market was going down because of the latest European terrorist attack. A local hospital was opening a new wing. London thrived.
Once she had caught up with the news, Lexi turned her attention to the latest issue of Marie Claire. The pages were cluttered with ads, just like every other glossy magazine. She flicked through, pausing on the fashion pages. A handbag caught her eye, it would go great with the shoes she’d purchased the other day. She made a note, then moved to one of the feature stories; her byline against it. Just as she was about to start reading there was a knock on the door.
Lexi unfolded her legs, put the glass and magazine down and went to the door. She wasn’t expecting anyone and felt annoyed by the distraction. Looking through the peephole she saw two men standing in the corridor. She didn’t recognise them and she hesitated with her hand on the door handle wondering if they had the wrong flat.
“This is the Metropolitan Police,” one of them said, flashing the badge at the peephole.
The police. What in the world were they doing at her front door?
She unlocked it and opened the door ajar, just enough for the security chain to tighten but not enough for anyone to walk through. Although she doubted it’d hold if anyone wanted to kick the door in. Not a reassuring thought, she’d have to get a better lock.
“How can I help you?” she said, looking them both up and down. They wore the uniform, but no gun at their sides, but that wasn’t unusual. The police didn’t usually carry armed weapons, it would have been more suspicious if they had been.
“Yes. What is this about? Has something happened?”
“We received a nuisance call.” The shorter one of the two said looking her up and down, she didn’t like it one bit.
“You must have the wrong address.”
“Several business owners have advised that you’ve been bothering them. They are considering pressing charges.” The taller one said.
Lexi had to think about what they just said. Charges? That was quick. She didn’t recall harassing anyone. She held the door with one hand, the other taut on her hip.
“That’s absurd,” Lexi said, not believing a word they said. “I haven’t harassed anyone. Who is making the accusations?”
“We’re not at liberty to say.”
“You show up at my door in the middle of the night accusing me of god only knows what and you don’t have the decency to explain yourselves. I could file harassment charges of my own,” she said, knowing she was letting them get the better of her. The tiredness starting to show, she felt it even if they didn’t see it, but she had lost control of the situation.
“That wouldn’t be recommended, Ms Ryder. Just keep away from the red-light district,” the shorter one said. “Good night, ma’am.”
Lexi closed the door and leaned against the wall. This was ridiculous. What just happened? Did two officers really just rock up on her front door to tell her to stop doing her job? What had she stumbled upon? And how were the cops involved? She should have grabbed their identification numbers, their names at the least. For all she knew they could have been anyone, the IDs a fake.
She was reaching for the phone when it started to ring.
“Lexi, thank fuck you’re home,” Hannah’s voice boomed through the phone. “We’ve got something.”
“Hello to you too,” Lexi said rubbing her eyes. She needed another glass of wine, a lead and a good night’s sleep, not necessarily in that order.
“My computer whiz has figured out where the money came from,” Hannah said with excitement in her voice. Lexi heard someone mumbling something in the background and then Hannah said something but it sounded as if she had her hand over the mouthpiece and was speaking to whoever was with her.
“What have you got?” Lexi said, still thinking about the two men at her door.
“The account is linked to a Metropolitan police officer.”
Alarm bells went off in her head. She went to the door and double-checked it was locked, then she went to the window. Standing to the side she looked down to the street, a lamp post flickered, a horn beeped in the distance, but she couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Two cars parked across the road looked empty from where she was standing, but with the shadows from the buildings and trees she couldn’t be sure. The two men claiming to be from the Met were long gone.
Why was a Met police officer depositing chunks of cash into Tatiana’s bank account? A list of possibilities entered her mind. Each was plausible but none made sense.
“If someone is paying her off than they have a motive to get rid of her.”
“Two thousand pounds a month is a lot of money.”
“No wonder she didn’t need to work more hours in the bakery, and could afford the UCL degree as an international student.”
“The payments are fairly regular over the past twelve months. Only the last three payments seem to be out of whack. According to the history of the deposits, another deposit should have been made last Wednesday. Surprised that never happened?” Hannah said.
“I’m going to have to call you back,” Lexi said, then hung up.
The clock digits flashed 9:05pm. She stood against the wall looking out the window, her phone still in her hand waiting to dial emergency. Her paranoia radar up a notch.
The police were responsible for the money in Tatiana’s account. That just made things even trickier. She hesitated just a moment before finding the detective’s saved number in her phone.
No answer. Lexi persisted two more times, letting the phone ring out each time. She was about to grab her keys and head out when finally the detective answered the phone.
“Detective, it’s urgent that I speak with you,” Lexi said.
“I’m working a case right now,” she said. “I’ll have to call you back.”
“Wait, I just need a minute. We found where Tatiana was getting money from. It turns out someone from the Met was transferring money into her account on a monthly basis until last week.”
As soon as the words left her mouth she realised that maybe she shouldn’t have told the detective. It was too much information to give a woman she did not know. Could she be trusted? That was yet to be determined. But it was too late to go back on what she’d just revealed.
“That’s not possible.”
“There are over a dozen transactions from the same account.”
“How did you get that information?”
“I can’t reveal my sources.”
“Bullshit. That’s an obstruction of justice. There’s no way you obtained them legally.”
“The information was passed on to me by a source I cannot reveal, but one I do trust. It’s credible, Detective, there’s no doubt in my mind.”
“You can’t go accusing the Met without proof,” she said. “You can’t use illegally obtained evidence in a court of law, either.”
“I’m not a lawyer, Detective, I don’t need to use anything in court. That’s up to whoever gets the case.”
“I can’t do this right now,” Cara said, annoyance in her tone.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Lexi, I don’t work for you.”
“No, but you do work for the community. You have a duty to look into this,” Lexi said. “To save a woman’s life.”
“Yes. I also have a duty to the murder victim I’m looking at.”
“It provides a strong motive to get rid of her. Two thousand pounds a month is not short change. And it’s too much of a coincidence that it suddenly stopped just as she disappeared,” Lexi said pretending not to hear.
“Look, Lexi, I’d like to entertain all your theories but I actually have a job to do. I’m looking at a dead body right now in the red-light district.” Lexi noticed an impatience in her voice.
“We were there earlier today,” Lexi said.
“Hannah and me. We were hoping to find someone who may have seen Tatiana.”
“Why the red-light district?”
“That’s were the evidence pointed. According to her spending habits, she spent a lot of time in the area.”
“Those could have been manipulated.”
“Look, I have to deal with this mess,” Cara said. “Wait a minute. Ask your friend if Tatiana owned a locket with the initials TP on it.”
“Just ask her. I’ve got to get back to the crime scene.”
TP. Tatiana Petrenko. Could it be? Had the police just found Tatiana dead? No, Lexi didn’t want to believe it. A piece of jewellery didn’t mean a thing. It was a coincidence, nothing more. It didn’t have to mean Tatiana was dead. Did it?
Lexi dialled Hannah’s number and after two rings the phone went to voicemail. “Hey you’ve reached Hannah, I’m currently in a compromising position and can’t come to the phone. I’ll endeavour to return your call as soon as my hands are untied.”
Lexi shook her head and just said, “Hannah, call Lexi.” She hung up.
What in the world was that girl thinking? She didn’t know Hannah at all and she was learning she was all sorts of colourful.
Ten minutes later Lexi’s phone rang and Hannah’s number flashed on the screen.
“Did Tatiana wear any jewellery?”
“Just answer the question,” Lexi said, not wanting to lead her with an answer that would suit the situation.
“Yeah, she wore a chain around her neck. It could have been a locket. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was a locket. She liked to fiddle with it when she was talking but thinking about something else.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, it even had her initials engraved on it. TP.”
If she had any doubts before about the locket belonging to Tatiana, they were all obliterated now. Lexi just hoped it wasn’t Tatiana’s body that was being stuffed in a body bag to be violated further in the morgue.
A chain around a neck meant nothing. It was no definite conclusion that Tatiana Petrenko was dead. But Lexi wasn’t prepared to wait till the morning to find out. She put on her coat, tied her hair in a high ponytail, and headed out the door.
Cars buzzed along her street, she headed towards the station but hoped she’d pick up a cab rather than grabbing the Tube. She looked behind her several times, glancing from side to side, making sure she wasn’t being followed. She was lucky to find a cab standing on the corner which had just switched its lights on. She didn’t hesitate about grabbing its attention and getting in, but not before having another look around to make sure that no one was keeping an eye on her. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Five minutes later she was instructing the cabby to pull over on the corner of Great Windmill. Up ahead she saw a police cruiser’s lights flashing, blending into the lights on the street. People crowded the scene but that wasn’t a surprise. People had a morbid curiosity especially when they were the spectators and not the victim.
Lexi paid the driver and got out. The taxi quickly drove off to pick up another fare a few metres down the road. Lexi glanced around and headed for the crime scene. She felt herself being pulled into the darkness. Her instincts were driving her to find what was wrong with the world and bring it out in the open. Right now a girl lay on the ground. Someone’s daughter, sister, friend. Dead. Gone forever. It shouldn’t matter how or where she was found. It shouldn’t matter what she did for a living. No one had the right to take another life. No one had the right to force these women into this life.
Lexi noticed at least three hookers still offering a service, not at all phased by the team of police officers or the dead pro. The job still had to be done as pimps kept an eye from the shadows.
“You looking for some action, darling?” a man said, grabbing her arm. “I’ve got something real good for you.”
Lexi tried pulling her hand away but he held on tight. A hungry glare in his eyes. She should have been afraid but with the police only metres in front. Lexi remained calm. He looked familiar somehow but she couldn’t place his face as anyone she knew.
“Let me go.”
“Girls like you shouldn’t hang around here unless you give some meat. You’ve got nice meat on your bones. You could make good money,” he said, pulling her towards the alley.
His grip loosened enough for her to pull away with all her strength, then side step him and run towards the officers. She heard laughter behind her but when she finally stopped and turned around, the man was long gone. She shook the encounter off and concentrated on her objective. But the crime scene she came to see was already being cleaned up. The body was gone, and so was Cara.
The officers that remained were removing the police tape that kept the curious onlookers at bay. Looking around she hoped to spot anything of use. She noticed the Windmill International’s lights to her left, a man stood at the entrance looking at the scene, maybe at her, smoking a cigarette. He wore a black T-shirt, slicked back hair in need of a haircut, at least three days’ worth of stubble, black trousers, and shiny loafers. He could have been a waiter, a dancer or a pimp, or just a random guy out for a good night. He looked so at ease that it would be easy to assume he belonged there.
How long had he been standing there? Had he seen what had happened?
She had just been accosted, what was she doing approaching another strange man in Soho’s red-light district? Against her better judgement, she went towards him. He didn’t look like he was going anywhere. Maybe he had been waiting for someone to notice him.
“You saw the whole thing,” she said, stating a fact rather than posing a question. It seemed easier just to get to the point.
He stared at her, there was no shift in his gaze, just straight at her as he tapped his cigarette, put it to his mouth for one last draw before flicking it on the sidewalk.
“I see everything,” he said.
“Did you see who killed the girl?” Lexi asked.
“She meddled, she died.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“They’re looking at you too. Seen you around these parts. Asking questions. Poking around where it’s none of your business,” he said.
She should have been bothered by his comment, concerned that someone was keeping tabs on her but that would mean giving in and giving up. Neither were an option. She didn’t choose the job for self-preservation.
That gaze still on her, not looking away. She wondered if she should be afraid. With his narrow shoulders, hallowed cheeks, and long pianist fingers, he looked like she could overpower him but she wasn’t prepared to assume anything. For all Lexi knew he could have been the one who murdered the prostitute. Wasn’t it common for murderers to return to the scene of the crime? It gave them an ego boost. Made them think they were smarter than everyone else.
“What did she meddle in?” Lexi asked.
“She should have kept her mouth shut. You keep your mouth shut in these parts or you get dead.”
“I ain’t saying nothing.”
“Have the police spoken to you?”
“The police don’t speak to us. No one cares there’s one less pro on the streets. More demand for the rest of them. The police turn a blind eye to the activities around here. They turn a blind eye until they want something,” he said, lighting up another cigarette.
“What would the police want?” Lexi asked.
A tip off? An informant? A hand job down a dark alley?
“You’d have to ask them that. But I’ll give you two words of advice; these parts aren’t for a lady like you and you should be careful about who you trust.”
He finished and flicked the second cigarette which landed next to the first one. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his trousers and turned to walk away.
“I’m looking for someone,” Lexi said, shoving the picture in front of him. “Have you seen her?”
“They all look the same to me,” he said. “But the dead girl might have. The coppers might have too.”
They say a picture can speak a thousand words, and the one being painted was becoming even more puzzling. Her brain pumped information and while she should have been sleeping she couldn’t help but wonder if they were missing a piece, and then once they had it, the mystery would be solved. But this wasn’t Sherlock Holmes. She hadn’t stayed at the scene long. After speaking with the odd guy with the cigarettes who hadn’t offered his name, she tried one of the officers but the only thing she got was a ‘buzz off’ glare, so she gave up and returned to her flat.
Another day passed. The good news, at least in Tatiana’s case, was that the body found in Soho, in a back alley often frequented by johns hiding from their wives, or pimps counting their night’s profits, was not Tatiana’s. The bad news was that another girl lost her life for no reason at all. It was the risk they all took but it didn’t justify the crime. The police had no ID but the face did not match Tatiana’s passport. Lexi felt both relieved and saddened at the same time.
She couldn’t stop thinking about what the man underneath the Windmill had told her. The coppers might have too. What could they have known? Seen? Done?
The questions arose and she felt no closer to figuring out the answers. She thought back to the previous night. The telephone conversation with the detective. The police officers at her door. Visiting the crime scene. The man grabbing her. Then the police disappearing before she could get a chance to talk with Cara, the detective. She wondered if Cara had seen her at the scene. No, it wasn’t possible. By the time she had gotten there, there was only a few officers cleaning up, the detective and the body were gone. Then there was the man. Watching, observing. Creepy, standing from afar never shifting his gaze. He knew something. He had told her something but she still couldn’t figure it out.
Lexi glanced out the window. Hadn’t that grey car parked across the street been there yesterday? Did her neighbours even drive? She recalled a young couple with a child, an older lady who was sometimes visited by people that looked to be her children and grandchildren, and the odd tenant that changed on a regular basis. She didn’t recall anyone driving. No, she was being paranoid. This was ridiculous. She shut the curtain and grabbed the cleaning products. Disinfecting the flat might clear her mind and help her think through everything she knew, everything she still needed to know. Lexi wondered if the detective had a clue. It seemed she’d get a chance to find out.
By the evening the house was spotless, and just as she was planning to sit back and enjoy the fruits of her labour she was surprised to get a phone call from Cara asking her to meet for a quick drink. The pub was a Tube ride and a short walk away. Lexi dressed in a wool sweater and grabbed a jacket and a scarf, and made her way towards the bar. She crossed the road and took the stairs down to the Tube station, swiping her Oyster card to get onto the platform. The Tube ran every few minutes and she didn’t have to wait long for one to arrive. It was still fairly busy for the time of evening and she stood by the door observing the passengers. There were a few spare seats but she was only going a couple of stops. She got off at Oxford Street and walked the rest of the way, not noticing the person keeping an eye on her.
Lexi walked into the pub, three people sat at the bar clinking glasses, the tables were occupied with small groups. Detective Cara Simmons sat at a table towards the middle end of the pub. She had a beer in front of her and another was waiting for Lexi.
“I don’t like journalists,” she said as Lexi slid into the booth.
“Is that your way of inviting someone for a drink?”
“No, I just want to make things clear. I’ll make an exception for you, though. There’s something that I see in you, it’s not just about the story, is it? I don’t know if it’s the Aussie blood in you or something from you past. Whatever it is, it’s making me soft.”
Lexi laughed. “Well, let’s drink to that,” she said and they clinked glasses. Two years and she hadn’t made an effort to make too many friends, it was nice to have a drink with someone, even if it was related to a story.
“That’s not permission to just rock up at our crime scene and start asking questions.”
“You saw me.”
“Everyone saw you.”
“Not even the sleazy pimp turned you off.”
“You saw him grab me?”
“I did, I also saw you take care of yourself. There were police officers on standby, nothing would have happened to you.” She dismissed it all.
“Why did you disappear so quickly?”
“The red-light district is not my favourite hangout spot.”
“So the girl wasn’t Tatiana?”
“No, just another girl who chose a dangerous path. Most of these girls choose the lifestyle, they know what they get themselves into. Sure there are a few who’ve been sold into the business believing they’re going to make a fortune and retire early. Maybe one in a hundred does. The others get caught up in the drugs, the violence, the pimps. There’s no way out but out cold.”
Lexi couldn’t imagine anyone choosing that life.
“Do you think Tatiana made that choice?” Lexi asked.
Cara’s gaze shifted. It was just a flicker but Lexi had observed people enough to know when they were hiding something. And it was clear to her that Cara hadn’t been completely upfront.
“What haven’t you told me?” Lexi said sensing there was more to this meeting than just a friendly catch up over beer.
“This is off the record,” Cara said. “I mean completely off the record. We’ve never had this conversation.”
“Yes, I understand. Everything we say here is off the record.”
“And you’re not recording this conversation?”
“Of course not.”
“Tatiana Petrenko was an informant for one of our departments.”
“What sort of informant?” Lexi said, not at all surprised by the revelation.
“The type that is completely off the books. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.”
“Until she disappeared. Does that mean you know where she is?”
Cara shook her head. “No idea. She never showed for her last check-in.”
“That’s why the payments stopped.” It was more of a statement then a question. Lexi didn’t need Cara to answer. “That’s why no formal investigation was pursued. You didn’t want questions that couldn’t be answered. Tatiana was a liability to the reputation of the department.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that.”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss the case, Lexi. I’ve already told you too much and I trust that I have your discretion. This investigation isn’t just about a missing woman.”
“How long has the department been looking into the crooked cops?”
This time it was Cara’s turn to look surprised, but she straightened up before answering.
“And Tatiana is, or was, the link.”
“To a degree. Now she’s gone.”
“What’s the red-light district got to do with it?”
“Tatiana came looking for someone. She was in the right place at the right time. We used her, she used us.”
“From where I sit it seems she got the short end of the stick.”
“It was a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Lexi had heard of those types of relationships. Rarely did both parties benefit equally. It seems Tatiana was the only one who had placed her life in danger, the only one who had put everything on the line.
They both sat silently sipping their beers.
“So why London?” Cara finally asked.
“I could think of far more interesting places to settle in. London is cold and wet most of the year.”
“It’s novel for me, for the time being. I’m here now but I’m not sure what my next move will be.”
“You like to investigate, you should have become a detective.”
“You’re not the first to tell me that. But no. That would mean following rules and protocol. I prefer the grey area.”
“The grey tends to get people into trouble.”
“I’ve heard that before too,” Lexi said, thinking back to her old life. Her life back home. Trouble was her middle name. There was always something to get mixed up in when she was pursuing a story. That was just one of the reasons that had drawn her to investigative journalism.
“From someone close.”
“They’re not a part of your life any more?” Cara said eyeing her carefully. Lexi wondered what she was searching for.
“No, no they are not.”
“And that makes you feel sad? Angry? Frustrated?”
“What is this? An episode of Dr. Phil?”
Cara laughed. “Sorry, I’m interrogating you. It comes with the territory.”
“I guess that’s like me searching for a story everywhere I look.”
Except now she looked everywhere but at her own back and she failed to notice the tail over the past few weeks.
He sat on the barstool, a mirror providing him with the perfect view of the booths across the side wall. He had followed her to the bar and was surprised to find her meeting one of the police officers for a drink. He had seen the detective constable at work before and he wondered how much trouble the woman was going to cause. He had heard she was one of the best in the Met and was headed for a promotion. She was a woman but she took no slack from any men, nor did she bother to expect special treatment due to her gender. She did the job and she got out. Which to him meant more trouble than he was getting paid for.
He ordered a whisky on the rocks and nursed the glass in his hand, pretending to watch Manchester United on the big screen but stealing glances at the two women in the booth. They appeared to be in a serious discussion, then their faces scrunched into laughter. Women, he didn’t get them either.
Someone cursed loudly in the pub. A glass jug slammed against the table. Glass shattered behind the bar. He ignored it and glanced at the booth again.
The detective was now moving. To the bar or towards him? He couldn’t be sure but the ladies room was in the opposite direction and her beer on the table was still half full. She had made him.
He got off his stool, left the untouched whisky on the bar and walked out of the bar as casually as he could manage, feeling the detective’s glare on his back. He knew she would follow him out. He had all of fifteen seconds to get out of view before the door opened and she’d be asking questions. He couldn’t afford questions. He had answers but now was not the time to arouse suspicion.
He broke out into a jog and five seconds later passed the entrance to an alley that he turned into. He slid behind the rubbish bin and noticed up ahead a door opening into what may have been a kitchen or the back room of a club or restaurant. Just as the door was shutting he slid his fingers against it and stopped it from closing completely. He counted to three and went inside. Whoever had opened it had moved on to the next activity and he was sure that the detective had not seen where he had gone.
He shut the door just as he heard the tap of shoes against the cobbled street. He heard a woman curse. She too had assumed that he had entered the alley. He waited. If he had to then he would have no choice but to confront her and fight. That wasn’t part of the agenda but she might leave him with no choice.
Another thirty seconds passed but no one came to try the door. The footsteps grew quieter until he was sure the detective had gone back to the pub. He wasn’t going to take any chances and so he looked for another way out.
Lexi watched as Cara got up and moved out of the booth and towards the bar. Just as she did a man got off the stool, making a quick exit out the door. Cara followed. Lexi got off her chair and moved towards the door also. Outside a gust of wind slammed the door shut behind her. Looking to the left and right she couldn’t see Cara or the man. A man and woman walked past bickering. Night-time traffic passed. A black taxi pulled up and a businessman got out cursing at the driver as he threw notes through the passenger window.
Then Cara came walking up towards her fast.
“Are you OK?” Lexi asked.
“I’m fine. You?”
“What was that all about?”
“I think you were being followed,” Cara said.
“I don’t know. The man at the bar, I saw him enter thirty seconds after you did. He looked around the pub. Focused a little bit too long at you before taking a seat at the bar. His back was facing us but he could see you clearly through the mirror behind the bar. He had been looking at you and glancing at his watch for the past twenty minutes.”
“That doesn’t mean he was following me. He could have been waiting for someone.”
“So why make a move as soon as I headed towards him?” Cara said. “Did you see anyone suspicious on your way here?”
Lexi shook her head. The truth was she hadn’t been paying attention. Her guard hadn’t been up. It probably should have been in an unfamiliar place but two years in London was long enough for her to grow comfortable and complacent in her surroundings.
“You need to be careful, Lexi. There are people involved who don’t like outsiders meddling in their business,” Cara said.
They were back at the booth, a fresh pint of beer for both and a bowl of hot chips in the middle.
“You sound like you know something is going on.”
Cara sighed and took a swig of beer.
“We’re still off the record Lexi.”
“Of course. I didn’t think we were meeting just so I could get juicy story quotes from you.”
“You’re smart. Keep going and you’ll be my favourite person in town.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Lexi said. “So what’s really going on?”
“There’s an internal investigation being conducted that may have links to Tatiana Petrenko’s disappearance. I say links because I’m not privy to all the details, not yet anyway. The detectives on the case are sitting on nothing and haven’t made a dent in the investigation. The Commissioner is getting antsy, he wants this wrapped up, and extra bodies, even if they are prostitutes, are not doing any good for his reputation or this city’s trust in him.”
“You think cops are involved?”
“I have no doubt,” Cara said. “But not just cops. I think that we’re talking about businessmen and politicians with too much money to burn. They think if they pay they won’t get caught. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to be dirty just to stay in the game.”
“Nothing concrete. That’s why you need to be careful. As soon as they figure out someone is snooping and getting close to the truth they are not going to second-guess themselves. It’ll be them or you. You won’t have time to react. If I were you, I’d stay as far away from the sidelines as possible. You don’t want to get killed over a job.”
“I’ve heard that one before too,” Lexi said, all too familiar with the warning she never adhered to.
“What in the world did you get involved in back home?”
“I tell stories people don’t want told. Everyone is in the comfort of their own homes. They don’t want their precious lives to be disturbed. Heaven forbid that their idealistic existence becomes threatened by reality. People don’t see the terror that goes on in their own backyard. They are oblivious to the sex trade, to domestic violence, to the war on drugs, the dirty politicians and businesses that are functioning around them. As long as they get to go home to their pretty houses, throw parties, watch their kids go to school, who cares what happens to everybody else? It’s a problem. No, it’s an epidemic. I don’t want to be a statistic. I want to tell stories that people don’t want to hear but need to. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
“That’s very noble.”
“I’m not trying to be noble. I’m just sick of living in a superficial and selfish world. People need to watch each other’s backs. We’re nothing without each other.”
“I agree with you there. But how are you going to manage that?”
“One story at a time. It’s impossible to change the world, but by impacting even one person positively with my story, my job, my dedication, it’s one step closer to making a world of difference.”
“Cheers to that, Lexi Ryder,” Cara said. “Just make sure to stay alive while you do it all.”
She’d managed to stay alive thus far. It wasn’t that she purposely got herself into trouble, it just seemed that trouble followed her. Trouble followed what seemed to matter most.
“I’ll do my best,” Lexi said, just as Cara’s phone buzzed.
She answered it and listened to the person on the other end. Lexi saw her facial expression change.
“What is it?” Lexi asked as Cara put the phone down.
“A late night jogger just found Hannah Brown’s body.”
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. This wasn’t how the job was supposed to go down. No one was supposed to get killed. Not yet anyway. The order was to watch. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. What the hell was he supposed to do now?
It wasn’t the first time he’d killed. The first was a bar fight ten years before. He was provoked. A wanker was giving him shit about his date, a pretty redhead he had picked up during his jog in Hyde Park. He tried to grab her butt and so the sucker punched him. The guy was dead before his head had hit the ground.
An arrest was made. The redhead testified he hit in self-defence. Technically it could be classed as that. He had been protecting his date’s right not to have her ass groped by a stranger in a bar. The courts let him off with a warning and a month’s worth of community service in a hospital.
He vowed to avoid sickness and death.
But fate had other things in store.
After a time he realised getting off a prison sentence for killing an idiot in the bar was not because the courts believed he was innocent. Someone had made a significant payment and made a deal to ensure that he would stay on the streets. It hadn’t been a free deal. He would repay the debt in full. He had been recruited. Quickly, silently, but recruited, and now he had no choice. So he had killed several other times. Premeditated kills that he had learnt to emotionally disengage from. But he had never killed a woman nor had he killed without a clean-up plan in place.
The woman lay on the ground bleeding, within minutes he knew she would bleed out. The knife slashes had cut the arteries on her wrists. They looked like defensive wounds. And so with his gloved hands he picked up her handbag and rummaged through it, grabbing whatever he could find of value, purse, phone, earrings, then chucked the bag to the ground next to the body for the police to find. Then he disappeared into the darkness.
Hannah Brown had lived an interesting life. From a difficult upbringing, to getting into UCL and studying forensic psychology. She would have been a cop or an investigator, or a criminal psychologist or anything she wanted to be for that matter. Lexi realised she had never asked her. One thing was certain, even in death, Hannah Brown had been a fighter. She fought for what she wanted and that was a life of her own choosing.
Hannah’s body lay on the ground, face down, her arms outstretched in front of her, her hands covered in slashes, her bracelet lying beside her, the contents of her bag spilt on the asphalt. The blood pooling around her. Gone. Dead. Never to spin a wild tale or help the needy. The click of the camera, the hushed tones of the officers, a bolt of thunder in the background, even in death Hannah would have the last word.
Lexi stood behind the police line, her gaze fixated on the body. It was only hours ago that they were speaking on the phone. What had happened between then and now? Hannah had been found two roads from where she lived. The time of death had been estimated at under an hour. From the time of their conversation to when the body had been discovered had only been a couple hours, so what had happened in that space of time? Who had she spoken to? What had she found? Lexi could only think of the cop connection.
Now as Lexi looked around they all looked suspicious. Any one of them could have been responsible for Hannah’s death, any one of them could have figured out what she had discovered. It wouldn’t have been that hard to follow her, maybe stop her for a chat, play friendly, and then strike. Hannah was approachable. If she felt no danger she would have chatted and probably flirted just for kicks. Whoever killed her may have known just how to approach her, maybe even catch her by surprise.
“She’s got no purse,” Cara said ducking underneath the police line and urging Lexi to come to the side. “Would she have left her house without her purse? Wallet? Keys?”
“Probably not. Do you think this was a mugging gone wrong?” Lexi said, knowing that would be too great a coincidence. A mugging was out of the question. A mugger would have taken the bag and run.
“No. No, I don’t,” she said, her arms at her hips.
“She was on her way to see me,” Lexi said, her apartment was only a few minutes away.
“How do you know that?”
“I live around the corner. Plus there’s a text from her on my phone, it came through an hour and a half ago,” Lexi said. “She could have been followed. Someone could have been watching her, waiting to make a move. A mugging is too coincidental and doesn’t add up.”
“Do you think she found something incriminating?”
“I don’t know. But why else would anyone kill her?” Lexi asked. “Why go to the trouble? Why take such a risk, especially here? Someone could have witnessed the murder. It’s a public spot and not that late at night.”
“Was she involved in anything other than this investigation?”
“All I know is she was determined to find out what happened to Tatiana.”
Back in her apartment Lexi made sure that the door and windows were locked. She went from room to room, and even checked her cupboards, underneath the bed, and behind the curtains, before she dared going to the bathroom. She stood under the shower, her tears blending with the water until the stream became so cold she couldn’t handle it any more.
Sleep wouldn’t come immediately. She was tired, overtired. But that was the problem. Her mind was unable to relax. Her thoughts kept her awake. The investigation; the story. Hannah was dead. Tatiana, a girl she had never even met, was missing. Why was she doing this to herself? Why was it so damn important? She should have become a florist; life would have been much easier or at least simpler.
Finally, Lexi fell asleep but even in sleep her dreams forced her mind in overdrive. There was no retreat in her slumber. She dreamt of Hannah. She dreamt of her family back home. She dreamt of the love she had left behind.
A life that seemed far away but one she hadn’t really left behind. She’d be lying to herself if she thought any different. She had run away from the problems her family posed but they were still there. Still with a grasp over her. She was still Lexi Ryder, and while that may have not had any significance in London, it was like a pair of handcuffs Lexi fought against every day. Sooner or later she’d have to face them all.
When she awoke in the morning, she reached for her mobile and found she had slept well past eight, but her body felt like she hadn’t slept at all. Reality hit within moments. Hannah had been murdered. The police were going to treat it as a mugging, there was no evidence to say otherwise. But Lexi knew better. Coincidences didn’t exist when murder and deception were at bay.
She lay in bed for another ten minutes or so before flicking on the television and catching up on the latest news. Dirty politicians, the civil war in Syria, a car crash on the outskirts of London, a small mention of a woman’s body found last night. Hannah. Smart. Interesting. Paranoid.
Lexi grabbed her phone and checked her emails. Her phone beeped. Ten new messages popped up. She scrolled through them.
Why hadn’t she checked them last night?
The time stamp was at around eleven at night. Maybe only half an hour before she was attacked? Two hours after Lexi had got to the scene. Hadn’t Hannah said she didn’t understand why people did such silly things in movies like not back-up the information they were going to share? Murphy’s Law suggested that if you were going out in the middle of the night to share juicy evidence, chances were that you weren’t going to make it. Why risk losing evidence when there was the invention of email? Send the email then go share the info in person. Had Hannah known she wasn’t going to survive the night?
The email was enlightening to say the least. A photo. A name. A date. An address. It didn’t mean much to Lexi until she googled the details realising that Hannah, or whoever Hannah had at her beck and call, was smarter than Lexi or anyone else had given them credit for.
Lexi couldn’t get the picture of Hannah on the pavement, the blood pooling around her, out of her head, nor stop her voice from echoing in her mind.
She read the email again. She had a name, an address. She googled both.
A Metropolitan police officer. Several awards. A decade in the service.
Was he dirty?
Hannah’s email implied so.
A few articles popped up. ‘Decorated police officer busts drug lab… Decorated officer shot in the line of duty… Decorated detective questioned over sex worker murder… Decorated officer reinstated into the Met after false accusations laid to rest.’
But were they really false? Lexi couldn’t be sure. She’d have to check with Cara when they spoke again.
Then there was the address. When she looked it up on Google Maps it looked to be near the water; a shipyard of sorts not far from town. At first she thought it was the Docklands but realised that had turned into a more residential area. More hipsters than ship workers.
Lexi threw on some comfortable clothes, grabbed her bag and headed for the Tube. She wanted to check out the address in person.
Twenty minutes later, Lexi got out of the taxi and made her way onto the port. The smell of sea water, oil and metal floated in the air. The sea breeze reminded her of home. It wasn’t the same as the Gold Coast’s sea but it was the pleasantness of the moisture and salt in the air. In the distance a cargo ship was docked, cranes lifted containers, placing them strategically on the deck.
She made her way across the port, passing containers towering over her casting shadows. She found her way to an admin-like building in search of a manager of the docks. Finally, she noticed a man in a hard hat who looked like he was in charge.
“No trespassing,” he said when he saw her.
Lexi smiled, ignoring his comment even though she had clearly read the sign upon entry. If they really didn’t care for trespassers they ought to have put a lock on the gate.
“Sorry about that, I’m just looking for the person in charge of this port; I have a couple of questions.”
“You safety control?”
“No,” she said.
“Who are you?”
“I’m working on a story on the benefits of this port for the city of London,” Lexi lied.
“Yeah, you work for The Guardian?”
“Among others,” she said.
It wasn’t a complete lie. She had written an article or two for them in the past, it was likely that she would again in the future, but there was no plan to write any stories relating to the port unless there was an involvement in the trafficking of young women.
“What do you need to know?” he said, dropping the folder against his side and slipping a pen in his shirt pocket.
“How does the port operate? How much employment does it offer? What’s the traffic within a twenty-four hour period? What are your quiet periods?”
She listened as he responded in more detail than she had expected, but regardless she made an attempt to take notes, while she tried sneaking glances at the containers.
The port was great for the local economy. With hundreds of people employed, it was easier for things to be missed. Every business had their protocols but it was human nature to make mistakes, to not see what was right in front of them, or for the right amount of money turn a blind eye.
“What about security issues? Do you have security here? Any breaches?” Lexi asked once he had finished talking fifteen minutes later.
“A couple of dogs. Four security guards on split shifts. Cameras at the entry points, near the buildings and random spots around the port.”
“Do you keep a record of all the cargo that comes and goes in the containers?”
“Gives an idea of how much work is involved in running the port,” Lexi quickly said.
“Right, yeah, we try to keep records. Customs and such to go through. We have regular checks.”
“For each container?”
He shook his head.
“The inspectors come in and choose random ones for checking. There’s no pattern. At least not one I’ve noticed.”
“So you could have anyone transporting anything?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that. There are forms to fill, scans to pass. If not here thenn at the arriving destination.”
“Have you ever had any issues with trafficking?”
“What’s that got to do with the economy?”
“Are you suggesting we allow illegal activity?”
“There have been allegations. I’d like your take on the topic.”
His phone beeped. He looked at it then told Lexi the conversation was finished and she had to get off the property. He didn’t walk her to the exit so she took her time and tried to open a few containers. She edged her way, trying to stay out of sight, she tried opening the doors but they were locked. She shouldn’t have expected anything else.
Was that growling she just heard? She stood still, quiet.
A bark. The guy did say there were several dogs. Lexi assumed they hung out at night and slept during the day.
Fuck. There was a dog. Maybe fifty metres away, he was growling. She saw the teeth, the saliva drooling down its jaw. It was a mutt she didn’t recognise and did not want to come in contact with.
Lexi inched backwards, keeping her gaze fixed on the dog. Lose eye contact and he was going to start the chase.
She guessed there was maybe two hundred metres to the exit. Far too long to outrun the dog. It’d be on her within seconds. His four paws versus her two feet. She didn’t stand a chance, even if she had been blessed with Bolt’s speed.
Lexi continued to inch backwards, the dog continued to growl. Would this be her demise? Then she remembered the sandwich in her bag. Would this nice little doggy like the sandwich? Would it buy her enough time to get the hell out of there?
As she reached into her bag, the dog must have sensed something he didn’t like as he inched forward. What was she to do with the sandwich? Hold it out for him to eat or leave it on the ground and run? But running, she imagined the dog jumping on her back, digging his claws into her skin and pushing her to the ground.
Lexi wasn’t afraid of dogs. But she didn’t go out of her way to befriend vicious-looking growling ones either.
She took half the sandwich out of the wrapper and threw it towards the dog. Her throw wasn’t a champion shot, the sandwich landed maybe twenty metres ahead. The dog went for it and she slowly continued easing her way back. But the sandwich was gone in seconds and the dog was growling again. No doubt it could easily have her for breakfast.
Lexi still had the other half of the sandwich in her hand. She saw the gate ahead. Could she make it? Was she willing to risk it? How long was she supposed to have this dance with this dog that did not look like he was going to stand down?
She threw the other half of the sandwich towards it and made quicker steps backwards. Her instincts told her to run but her logic won over and she didn’t turn around. Then, with one step, she felt her back walking into something or someone.
She finally turned to see a man, six feet tall, staring down at her.
“No trespassing,” he said, pointing to the sign.
He looked fierce, his face didn’t break out in a smile. Grease covered his tanned cheeks and arm, he wore overalls with oil on the front and he was wearing an orange hard hat.
“Can you call off the dog?” Lexi asked, not certain whether she was more afraid of the man or the dog.
“He has you pinned for a trouble maker. I’d have to agree with him,” the man said.
Lexi held her hands up to her chest. “I’m not looking for trouble. I just got lost on the way out.”
The man whistled, the dog bolted towards them. Lexi’s stomach turned, she almost closed her eyes and waited for the moment when the dog ripped into her flesh, but it never came. The dog obediently sat down next to the burly man and continued growling at Lexi.
“This is no place for a young woman. Unless she’s looking for trouble,” he said, the tone of his voice changing to a suggestive one.
“I just got lost on my way out after a chat with the port manager. Call him if you must,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t. She had been snooping and it had been over half an hour since she had spoken to him.
“I am the manager,” he said, glaring at her.
“Well then who was the guy I was speaking with?”
“Just get out of here,” he said, bending down to hold on to the dog’s collar.
Lexi didn’t need to be told twice. She stopped herself from running but walked very fast towards the exit and the nearest bus or Tube stop or whichever came first.
She shivered at the thought that a dog could have mauled her to death only a few hours ago. But it hadn’t. And in the process she had managed to obtain some information on the port and its business. Enough to make her suspect that something sinister was going down. Those instincts again. What in the world was it that made her sense the nastiness around her?
But what had she expected to find at the port? Women being packed into containers in broad daylight? Stranger things had happened but she had seen none of that. That wasn’t proof that the port was not being used as an entry and exit point, in and out of London, playing Russian roulette with the officials.
She spent the late afternoon filling up on buttered toast and multiple cups of tea, hungry and motivated she finished off a quick evergreen piece for a women’s magazine. They’d send payment through which would cover the week’s rent and had only taken her two hours to write. The perks of being a freelancer. The investigative pieces were her heart, and the evergreens her bread and butter. She didn’t need them but they gave her a break from all the heavy investigating and writing in between. Within minutes she got an email back offering another article assignment. She politely declined and recommended another writer for the piece.
Fifteen minutes later she was showered, dressed and leaving her apartment with a picture of Tatiana in her back pocket. She made sure to look around her when she left the apartment but saw no one suspicious. Her first stop was a cafe for a sandwich and a strong coffee. As she ate she considered her plan. The reality was she had none. She would wander around and see if anything pricked.
Breaking and entering while someone was inside the house was a risk he didn’t want to take. Sometimes a situation arose that left him with no choice but that didn’t mean he had to like it. There was too much that could go wrong for both parties. Knowing the layout of the flat beforehand helped him but there was no certainty that she wouldn’t wake up when he was inside. It would only lead to violence and one of them getting hurt or killed. Most likely her, given her lack of fighting skill. The self-defence classes would do little against his boxing background. But the job wasn’t to terminate. At least not yet.
He felt drawn to Lexi. There was something about her that intrigued him like no one had before. He had to remind himself that getting emotionally involved in the assignment was not an option, so any personal thoughts towards the woman were removed immediately from his mind.
She was a job. An attractive one, but a job nonetheless.
Finally, the lights in her flat switched off. He was going to give it an hour before he made his way up, drive around the block and then park a few flats down the road so that no one would notice the same vehicle parked in the street. No doubt a nosy neighbour might notice and call the police. He didn’t need the attention.
Just as he was about to start the engine the lights in the foyer turned on, behind the glass window panes of the door he saw the outline of a person, a woman. He slid down the seat a little further so he wouldn’t be easily seen and watched. A few seconds later the door opened and Lexi Ryder walked out.
Where was she headed so late at night?
Now he had a choice. Stay and turn her flat upside down out or follow her. It didn’t take more than a moment to make a decision. His job was to observe. And so he did.
He slipped out of the car and locked the door. He pulled the hood on his head and stayed behind Lexi, following her to wherever she went, and making sure he didn’t lose sight of her.
By the time Lexi hit the red-light district for the second time in three days, it was night-time and the area was buzzing with sex. Lexi kept an eye around her to see if there was anyone who seemed to be watching her, but all eyes were on the next job. She wore jeans and a T-shirt and jacket, so no one could mistake her for a pro as she made her way down the street. But it didn’t stop the random hoots and call outs which she ignored, and carried on with what she came to do.
The women had already started coming out from the safety of their flats or rooms, or from wherever. Lexi noticed the disparity in ages. From those who looked far underage to those who should have known better were hustling on the streets trying to make a few quid. Their eyes glazed over from either drugs or alcohol, or simply the allure of making some quick and easy cash. Although Lexi would not consider it easy money. The price of dignity and self-respect were too high. But everyone had their own reasoning, she wasn’t there to judge.
“Have you seen this person?” Lexi asked a girl who looked barely legal. Her blond hair curled to look like one of Charlie’s Angels, her tiny body covered by a tight mid-riff sparkling top and an even shorter mini skirt, her stilettos making her at least two inches taller than Lexi.
“How much you gonna pay if I say yes?” she said, her words slurring.
Her eyes were glazed over more than Lexi had first noticed. She was high on something and there was nothing Lexi could do about it. She wanted to help her but how did you help someone who wasn’t prepared to help themselves?
She thanked the girl, gave her ten pounds and told her to go and get something to eat. Lexi heard swearing behind her and saw that the girl did not move away from her corner. Instead a pimp came by, took the money and left the girl standing there waiting for the next score to come by and use her expertise, whatever that may be.
Lexi shook her head. It made her sad, the way people destroyed their lives. So much potential ruined by stupid choices.
Lexi was going to approach another girl, just twenty yards in front of her, when a car pulled up and the girl leaned in to the window. Lexi didn’t catch what she was saying but she guessed that a transaction was being made. Twenty seconds later, the door opened, the girl got in and the car sped off to an unknown destination. Either way the client would be satisfied and the girl would make her dough for the night before a pimp took it away from her. She hadn’t spotted any pimps out in the open but they were there, watching, observing, making sure their business performed.
Lexi carried on, she had spoken to a dozen women who had given her the same response. For fifty pounds they’d tell her anything she wanted to hear. That wasn’t the information she was chasing. She moved on checking the bars and clubs without yielding a result.
After another hour she took a break and walked into a coffee house that opened till late. Patrons filled the premises, the smell of brew wafted in the air. She ordered a coffee and wondered if she should be coming up with plan B. Walking the streets was not working. She wasn’t surprised. It was likely that even if they did know something, they wouldn’t talk. The risk was too great, especially for fifty pounds. They were in this lifestyle for life, and there was nothing Lexi could offer them to get them out.
She considered the familiarity of the place. Back home there wasn’t a red-light district per se, sure there were certain spots women and pimps operated from but nothing of this magnitude. The major capitals were another story, they had their own areas where it was better to keep away from once the sun went down.
“Word’s going round you’re looking for someone.”
Lexi turned to see a woman looking her up and down. She stood maybe five foot five in heels, wearing tight leggings and a gold singlet that accentuated her frontal assets. Her eyes didn’t wash over like the others. The woman didn’t look high, and if she was, she knew how to handle it without getting noticed. She could’ve been a prostitute but she could have been a pimp. It was hard to tell. Once upon a time she may have even been a looker.
Lexi took the picture out of her bag and handed it to the woman. She took it and looked at it without saying a word. Lexi waited. And waited. The woman’s eyes remained fixated on the picture for a moment too long before returning her attention to Lexi.
“I might ’ave seen ’er,” she said flicking the picture back.
“Are you sure?” Lexi asked.
“Yeah I’m sure. What’d I just say?”
“Do you remember where?”
“I’ll give you an address.”
Lexi listened as the woman gave her the directions. Her first break. Maybe she might find Tatiana Petrenko alive after all.
Lexi decided to walk. She made her way out of the Soho district passing clients and pimps, suspicious glances followed her, she kept her eyes down and avoided making eye contact. She looked behind her, checking for anyone suspicious but each time she looked there was no one there.
So, just as a safety precaution she phoned Cara. The call went to voicemail. Lexi left a quick message. Given what had happened to Hannah, she was erring on the side of caution. Not that it might matter. If someone wanted her dead it didn’t have to take more than a few seconds. A gun shot in the back, a knife slashed across the throat, her neck snapped. God, get a grip, Lexi, she thought trying to remove the images from her mind. She shivered at each possibility and wondered which she’d prefer. She shook her head. Yes she was aware of all the alternatives but there was no need to imagine them as she walked the streets at night.
The scream in the night sent chills spiralling down her spine. She looked to the left, to the right. Where had the frightened call come from? Standing on the bridge she could see Big Ben up ahead, lighting the sky, the clock ticking, tick-tock, tick-tock, as the time clicked on ten and the clock began to strike ten times. Traffic passed slowly, there was no congestion at this hour but the amount of cars that zoomed by was still noticeably more than back home. Thoughts of home came to mind – but no, this was home now and she had to focus on the task at hand.
Lexi was certain the scream had come from the left and under the bridge. She moved down the steps and towards the darkness. This was a bad idea. She knew it and yet she couldn’t stop herself from moving away from the safety of the curb, the street lights and the passing traffic. She ignored them all, ignored the instincts screaming, ‘Danger! Danger!’.
She felt to her back pocket, her phone still sat there waiting to be used. She should be calling the police, the paramedics, any form of back-up. One step, two, three, and then a cold object plunged into her and she fell to the ground.
He stood over her body, taking in her presence. She was so close to him. So precious and in need. He had played out the scenario of them meeting a hundred times in his mind. Then the opportunity had come and he could play the knight in shining armour. If he rescued her then she’d have no reason not to trust him.
The knife he used had only a two-inch blade. It wasn’t meant to cause terminal damage. He had read up on knife attacks and the anatomy of the human body. He knew very well where to puncture the skin so that no serious organs were damaged.
The plan wasn’t too kill her, not yet anyway. Whoever this Lexi Ryder was, she was definitely not just a business interest to the boss. And so he had done some research of his own and realised that he had not only been lied to but used. Someone had to pay and the only way to do that was to get close to the woman.
She still lay unconscious. The stab to the side of her back was nothing but the slam to the head that followed, forcing her to the ground. He needed her unconscious for a few minutes for the plan to work.
He knelt down beside her and with two fingers he brushed the strands of hair off her face. It would be a shame to kill her. But maybe he’d have some fun with her first. Eventually death was inevitable.
Sirens blurred in the distance. He ignored them and picked up her fallen phone. The phone was locked so he couldn’t check the last number dialled. Then the sirens drew closer. He cursed and realised she must have called the cops before following the scream. But it hadn’t been a woman screaming. But a recording he had in his pocket. Everything had to be orchestrated perfectly. Even the pimp who had easily been persuaded with enough cash.
Once again he disappeared from under the bridge leaving Lexi bleeding on ground. When he was far enough not to be noticed, he ducked behind a car and watched as two police cruisers and an ambulance pulled up, blocking traffic across the bridge. They’d find Lexi in seconds. She’d come to in minutes, and wouldn’t have a clue what had just happened. The game would have to wait.
Cold. Damp. Sore. She was alive. If she were dead she would feel nothing. She felt water around her. Heard it too. Was that the river flowing? A boat sounding its horn? No, that was definitely a car beeping somewhere from above. Her head throbbed but she was alive. Thank god she was alive. Her side, stomach, rib cage, everything hurt like hell.
“Lexi,” a familiar voice was saying, “how are you feeling?”
She opened her eyes and they adjusted to the lights around her. She was still outside. Blue lights flashed to the side of her. The Thames to her right.
A man was leaning over her, tending to her side. She tried to sit up. The man told her to relax before helping her to an upright position. Then he returned to the ambulance, having been dismissed by Cara.
“The girl. Is the girl OK?” Lexi asked, looking around her. They were still underneath the bridge but other than her, the police and the paramedics, there was no girl. She hadn’t seen anyone but she had definitely heard the scream.
“What girl?” Cara asked, looking around and back to Lexi.
“I heard her screaming. Down here. I followed the screaming and then someone must have–” she didn’t get to finish the sentence as she touched her side, the pain finally registering.
“What were you doing here?” Cara asked.
Lexi told her about the woman in the red-light district. The lead that she had to follow. The hope of finding Tatiana alive. Now that she thought back it all sounded too good to be true.
But the woman had given her no reason to disbelieve her. She seemed genuine in her desire to help out. Lexi should have known better. Her instincts had failed her and almost gotten her killed.
“You fell for a con. The woman you described is a pimp. She’s been running the show for almost a decade. She runs more girls than half the male pimps combined. She’s a businesswoman and she doesn’t appreciate outsiders on her turf. She played you well. There’s nothing at this address but an abandoned building that shelters the homeless on cold and rainy nights. I’ve had a couple officers check it out and there’s definitely no sign of Tatiana Petrenko or anyone else. Even the homeless have made themselves scarce.”
“At least they didn’t kill me,” Lexi said, standing up.
“Yes, that’s definitely a consolation prize,” Cara said.
“Believe me, every scenario went through my head as I walked here.”
“Not enough to wait for the police.”
“You didn’t answer your phone,” Lexi said.
“I was working.”
“Do you ever sleep?”
“Yeah, when I don’t have criminals to chase after.”
“Thanks for showing up.”
“As soon as I got your message I got my ass down here. Who knows what trouble you could be getting yourself into, Lexi Ryder. Have you checked your bag?”
Lexi shook her head. Her phone and purse were gone. She hadn’t had more than a hundred pounds but it was a hundred more than someone else had. She was more concerned about her missing phone. There was a lock on the SIM that wasn’t necessarily a deterrent to a professional thief. She’d have to call the phone company and get it cancelled and moved to another SIM. Everything was backed up so it was just going to be an inconvenience more than anything.
“I need to get some sleep.”
“Later, first stop is the hospital. You’re going to need stitches. These fine paramedics have cleaned you up but it’s best if a doctor checks you out. You don’t want an infection.”
Cara was right. Lexi hadn’t even considered it. Her only thought was of the girl that was never there.
“You can drive,” Lexi said turning towards the car as she held her hand to her side against the bandaged wound.
Cara got into the driver’s side and started the vehicle. Lexi struggled with the sea belt; once it was buckled in place she sat back and closed her eyes. What the hell was she doing?
There was a fine line between doing her job and getting herself killed. Had she just crossed it? Her instincts had failed her. She should have known better then to trust the woman on the street. Now that she thought about it, she hadn’t even known where the woman had appeared from. She could easily have been followed.
“We’ve received information of a shipment heading out of the port tonight. At 02:00 hours,” Cara said, breaking the silence.
“Apparently the cargo is being moved. If we don’t get them tonight we don’t get them at all. We have several officers staking out the shipyard as we speak. I’ve asked for satellite images and cooperation from the dock owners. So far it’s going well, as long as none of the officers get noticed we should be OK.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I figured you might want to tag along, given your earlier visit there.”
“Someone saw me?”
“You spoke to one of our undercover officers.”
The first man, Lexi assumed, the one acting as the manager but really keeping an eye on things. That explained why he wasn’t impressed when she had starting treading a fine line suggesting trafficking. At least the info from Hannah had been legit. She wanted to see the takedown and it was kind of Cara to offer, but first the hospital. The ambulance may have expedited the procedure but maybe with Cara with her they’d do it on the spot. Her body ached, she was lucky, no doubt about it. Then she noticed that they missed the hospital exit.
The wound was superficial, the knife hadn’t penetrated any vital organs. Either it was a short blade or the intention was not to kill her. The knock on the head would leave a solid lump.
She had left Soho on foot and headed for Westminster Bridge, the woman had given her an address that was not far from Waterloo. Walking had been a great idea at the time, then there were the screams underneath the bridge. But how could the pimp set up the attack so quickly?
“How did you get to me so quickly?” Lexi asked.
“You weren’t out for long.”
“How do you know that?”
“You left me a message within the last hour. So between then and now, you weren’t out for long,” Cara said, keeping her eyes on the road.
Lexi sat in silence. She was just being paranoid. Everything Cara said made sense.
Lexi closed her eyes and opened them again. They were heading away from the city. Wasn’t the hospital in the opposite direction? She didn’t know the layout of the docks in comparison to the city centre but she was certain they were going in the opposite direction, away from the river. She saw Cara tapping on the steering wheel, catching glances in the rear-view mirror, her gaze shifting constantly.
How could she have been so stupid?
Lexi began weighing up her options. They were driving at about sixty miles an hour. If she jumped out of the car there was a high probability that she would be seriously injured. The road they were heading on was lit to the sides; there were buildings that housed people and businesses. A few windows shone in the distance but they were few and far between.
The other option was to wait it out.
Lexi pretended to relax, she glanced at Cara, her body language, both hands on the steering wheel, her jacket reaching up her arm, baring her wrist. What was that? A scratch, a fresh one at that.
Her phone, she needed her phone but whoever had attacked her had taken it, possibly thrown it in the river.
She was trying to understand it all. She may have even suspected it at one point but it hadn’t come together. The two police officers. Someone following her. Keeping her close.
A knot turned in her stomach, the pain in her side was growing worse, travelling all the way up and down her spine. The tension in her neck was converting to a massive migraine that she fought. Now was not the time. She needed to think.
“So, what now? You’re going to dump me in the Thames and hope I never wash up on the river bank?” Lexi asked trying to figure out how to buy herself time and get out of this mess.
“I’m not the bad guy here,” Cara said, glancing at the rear-view mirror. “Fuck, we’re being followed.”
Lexi felt the car increase in speed. Her head felt dizzy as she glanced out the window and through the side mirror. Indeed there were several cars behind them at various distances apart but she couldn’t tell if they were being followed or not.
She touched her side, the bandage was seeping.
“I need a hospital,” Lexi said, feeling the blood on her fingers.
Cara glanced at her, she could see her reaching for something in the glove box as she kept her eye on the road.
“Here, take these.” She handed Lexi some pills. “And put this over it. You’ll be fine. It’s a flesh wound.”
“I should have taken the ambulance.”
“If you had stayed there you’d be dead.”
“I don’t understand,” Lexi said, she could swear the pain was making her disorientated.
The evidence pointed towards Cara. She was the one who had taken her out of the ambulance, told her they were headed to catch the bad guys, then proceeded to drive her out of town. Cara had killed Hannah. She had helped orchestrate Tatiana’s disappearance. Cara was the bad guy. But why was she keeping her alive? Why were they being followed? Why hadn’t the knife plunged into an organ and let her bleed out? None of it made sense. The pain. She took the pills and swallowed them dry. Closing her eyes she tried to shut out the throbbing pain running through her body and numbing her senses. This was not the way she was going to die.
“It’s complicated. Now’s not the time for explanations,” Cara said.
Now was as good a time as any.
“The innocent women. You knew Tatiana. You knew what she was getting herself into.”
“We were doing our job. Sometimes a line is crossed.”
“But Hannah, she was innocent.”
“I had nothing to do with Hannah’s death. Wrong place, wrong time.”
Lexi didn’t believe it.
“How did you get the scratch on your hand?”
“A neighbour’s cat.”
“What you believe is your choice.”
Lexi’s head spun. She was seeing stars before her eyes.
“Lexi, stay with me. The painkillers will ease the pain shortly. You’re going to be fine.”
“Fine,” Lexi said quietly her eyes closing, her mind drifting. She heard a skid, her body slamming against the side, a door slamming and then nothing at all.
Voices. Loud ones. She couldn’t make out what they were saying but she knew they were there. Male. Female. She strained to listen and finally recognised Cara’s voice. The male voices she did not know but there were two of them. There was a smell of fish in the air, mixed with oil, and trash. A horn sounded in the distance, possibly a ship arriving or departing port.
Lexi opened her eyes. She was lying on the passenger seat of the car, the window was down, Cara was outside kneeling on the ground, a man was pointing a gun at her, another stood behind and watched. Lexi recognised them from their visit to her flat. A single street lamp illuminated the area. A warehouse stood in the distance dark and gloomy.
She checked her watch. It was after midnight. The shipment was due to depart in under two hours. If they shot Cara then they’d easily dump her body in the water, followed by dumping her too. There was no chance they were going to let her live, and then the ship would be gone and so would the chance of saving a life or the lives of many. They had left her in the car out cold. Maybe assumed she was a goner given the amount of blood on her clothes giving Lexi an advantage and she had to think fast.
Lexi slowly shifted her leg, pain ripped through her again, and she was reminded of the wound to her side. She touched the area; dried blood mixed with fresh, but the seeping had subsided at least. The painkillers Cara had given her had worn off too.
Think, Lexi, think. Her options were few. She could distract them by showing herself but she’d have no doubt that the gun would be aimed at her and they wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. No, first she needed to figure out what her options were, and she had to do it fast. She had no idea how much time Cara had. Whatever it was, the time was about to expire.
Lexi moved her arms and reached underneath the seat, feeling around for a weapon. Nothing. She expected as much. Then she felt a vibration. A phone. She shifted her buttocks and leaned her head, Cara’s phone was vibrating beside her. No caller ID. She hit cancel. Then she dialled emergency. She put the phone to her ear and didn’t have to wait long for it to be answered.
“Help me,” she said. “The port, the port of London,” she whispered leaving the phone on and placing it underneath the seat hoping that the two men hadn’t seen the light illuminating from the car. She closed her eyes and listened as she counted to ten. No doubt emergency would trace the call. They would send someone out to help them. At least that’s what Lexi was counting on.
The two men hadn’t noticed the sudden movement, the moment of light or hushed tones, they were still talking with Cara. Negotiating. She tried making out what they were saying.
“Last chance, Detective,” one of them said.
Lexi heard the click of a safety catch.
Shit. She needed a diversion.
Come on, Cara, you can do this. Fight them. Do something. Please.
She needed a weapon.
Lexi looked in front of her. The glove compartment. Opening it ajar, she saw a gun.
She reached for it, felt the metal in her hands. It wasn’t the first time she’d held a gun; her father had taken her shooting on more than one occasion. But it was one thing going to a shooting range and another pointing it at a human target. Right now she didn’t have much of a choice.
She took a deep breath, counted to three and held the gun towards the black sky, pulling the trigger as she did.
The shot had been enough. The men were distracted.
Cara was now on her feet and she had managed to kick the man holding the gun and force him down to the ground, then she struggled with him for the gun as the other reached for his.
Lexi opened the door and half-sitting half-bending out she pointed the gun at him.
Sirens blared, growing louder as they drew near.
“I’ll shoot,” she said in barely a whimper. She held the gun but he just looked at her. He didn’t stop. She aimed lower and pulled the trigger. The bullet went wide.
“Fucking bitch,” he yelled, coming for her.
She pulled the trigger again, this time aiming for the side of his thigh. She didn’t miss and he dropped to the ground letting off one of his own rounds. The back window shattered, glass sprayed everywhere.
Cara was still fighting with the other man. He was on top of her. Lexi tried to aim at him but then Cara’s body blocked her shot. The gun was only metres away.
Then he was on top of Cara again. Grabbing hold of her head and pushing it against the ground. Pulling her up with her hair he slammed her head against the cement. She yelped and returned the hit with a knee in the groin and her palm in his solar plexus. Lexi could see blood streaming from Cara’s head. The man fell to the ground, Cara pushed herself to sit up. He reached for the weapon.
He was holding the gun at her. Lexi forced herself to aim at him too. She pulled the trigger but nothing came out. No more bullets. The gun hadn’t been full.
“You should’ve known better than to get in my way,” he said, pointing the gun at Cara.
But the shot never came, another one rang out and the man toppled over, beside Cara. Blood oozed from his back. The gun clunked beside him. Cara lay back down on the cement and stayed there.
Lexi slumped back on the passenger seat shutting her eyes and dreaming of home.
Lexi got a front row seat to the bust of the history. Theoretically at least. She wasn’t with Detective Simmons on the ground but in a van with two other officers listening to it all and seeing everything unfold on two screens. She had dosed up on more painkillers but refused hospital treatment at her own risk. It was an irresponsible move but the ambulance officers had disinfected the wound and put on a clean dressing.
Hannah’s information had checked out. As Lexi and Cara had been held at gunpoint by the rogue cops, information had been sent to the supervisors. Hannah’s source had been correct. Except it hadn’t been just one officer on the take. There had been several involved in the trafficking of women. Their mistake had been targeting Tatiana, or better still, Tatiana’s big sister who Tatiana had been searching for. Lexi just hoped they were both in that container, alive and well, praying to be rescued. Cara’s role was sketchy. Her claim of being undercover with the bad guys was plausible but Lexi wasn’t convinced. Nothing was ever black and white and it seemed she was treading the grey area all too often.
Two containers were being loaded onto the deck. The crane was moving them slowly upwards from the dock and towards the ship.
Lexi heard voices in between static and a few moments later, the crane was bringing the two containers back down again. A loud bang came through the speakers as they hit the ground. She watched with knots in her stomach, anxious with what they would find inside.
A whistle sounded. A shot rang out. People moved, more shots were fired. Two bodies fell to the ground. The police moved in, several bad guys came running towards them with guns blazing. There was yelling but Lexi couldn’t make out the words. A hand reached for the handle. Locked. Cara motioned for them to move away, Lexi watched the screen as Cara stepped back before firing at the lock.
The camera angle moved towards the doors again. This time a hand reached for the handle, loosened the chains and let them fall to the ground. As Cara moved to the side, two other officers came into view standing opposite, guns pointed ready to fire.
The door to the container slowly slid open. At first there was only darkness, then the lights shone inside and Lexi knew what she would see but was shocked nonetheless. At least a dozen women were huddled inside the container, sitting or lying towards the back and sides of it. Arms around their knees, clutching to whatever they could for safety. The fear swimming in their eyes. A flashlight shone from face to face, women no older than twenty or so, their eyes sad, drooping, tired, scared, drugged.
“We’re good to go,” Cara’s voice came through the speaker. “I count twelve, no fifteen females. We’re going to need more back-up.”
Then the camera lens went in closer as Cara stepped into the container. Two girls were lying towards the sides, another leaning over them. Stroking her head. At first it wasn’t clear but then she recognised the face of Tatiana Petrenko, and the woman beside her, the resemblance uncanny, her sister.
The second container held more women. Bodies scattered on the floor. An officer knelt down and checked one for a pulse. He turned and shook his head. They couldn’t save them all. They would have taken the bodies out and disposed of them in the middle of the sea. There was less chance of finding them that way. Lexi gagged at the sight, even though she was seeing it through the screen.
Within minutes it was all over. Bodies lay strewn on the ground, Cara’s camera was still on and Lexi could see the damage that had been done as she walked back towards the safe zone. At least some of the women were going to be lucky enough to get a second chance at life.
Three days later.
Lexi had a story. She never had a doubt in her mind there wasn’t going to be one but she didn’t expect the epic climax. Fifteen women were going home. Five were dead. Premeditated or accidental, it didn’t matter to the traffickers. They simply needed to dispose of them without leaving any evidence. No one would notice a missing hooker off the street.
Three officers were arrested and a prominent trafficker was being buried in the ground. It was success all around. Front page news. A decent pay cheque and a human interest piece that was going to be one of her best yet. Of course she wasn’t naive enough to think that her story solved a major issue. Far from it. But at least it had made an impact on those involved. Maybe shed some light on the harsh reality for others.
Lexi stood at the door of Tatiana’s hospital room. Her sister Lera sat beside the bed, holding her hand and humming a song. She too looked tired but the doctors had looked her over and found nothing wrong. Other than some malnourishment, she was fine. Tatiana on the other hand had been drugged and beaten; bruises covered her face and body but she was a survivor.
The night before, she had explained her story. How she had run from her home leaving her drunken father behind in search of her sister, who had apparently been sold off for a few hundred pounds to a dapper-looking gentleman that had come through town looking for attractive women for his modelling agency. Anyone in their right mind knew it to be a scam but Tatiana Petrenko’s father believed every word the man had eloquently spat out. Including the fact that he would receive a monthly payment. The payments had dribbled in for the first few months. Then after about six months they had stopped, and so had all contact. Lera Petrenko was gone, as was the dapper gentleman with the empty promises. Then Tatiana, knowing her father would do nothing to look for his daughter, took the responsibility upon herself to find her sister. Spending six months working, saving and studying before she ran off to UCL, catching a lucky break and getting a grant.
“And the money. Where did you get all that money?” Lexi asked.
“People will do anything to keep their secrets hidden. I took advantage of it for as long as I could. If it wasn’t for Hannah, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Tatiana said
Secrets, why did there have to be so many of them? Lexi thought, thinking back to the secrets that had caused her to leave her home town and settle in London, a bustling city on the opposite side of the globe.
She spoke with Tatiana and Lera some more, hearing their tale in even more detail. Details that she would not publish but they would stay with her, reminding her of the courage, the sacrifice and the danger some people had to live through. Tatiana and Lera were strong. They had each other, and they would survive.
Lexi said her goodbyes. Telling them if they ever needed anything they could call her. She doubted they would. They would probably want a fresh start away from all that had transpired.
Then she went home, exhausted, relieved and ready to put her feet up even though she had made plans for this evening a month ago. Another story was put to bed. Another investigative piece that kept her awake at night. It was one of the most draining weeks she’d had in a long time. She poured herself a glass of wine, got into her pyjamas instead of getting dressed up for a gala that she had RSVP’d to over a month earlier. She was in no mood for socialising, neither was her body. The wound would heal but rest was in order for that to happen.
The phone rang, she wasn’t going to answer it but experience had told her that it was better to answer, you never knew who was at the other end. An editor, someone in need. The possibilities were endless.
Lexi answered. The voice on the other end was the last one she had expected to hear.
The taxi pulled up in front of the building. He watched as she placed a suitcase and carry-on luggage in the boot and got into the back of the taxi. From what he had gauged of her apartment, most of the items hadn’t belonged to her. The flat had been fully furnished so everything she owned easily fitted into her luggage. Which meant she was not going on holiday. She was leaving permanently. That foiled his plans. Or at least postponed them to a degree.
He followed the taxi, keeping two to three cars behind. Taxi drivers weren’t programmed to look out for tails. And it was unlikely that Lexi Ryder would be looking for one either.
Just as he guessed, twenty minutes later they were entering Heathrow Airport. The taxi pulled up in front of departures. He parked his car in the first available spot and rushed towards the departures desk. Lexi was still in line. He hovered around the area pretending to check the flights board, blending into the crowds.
He watched as Lexi purchased a ticket, business class all the way to Australia. He followed until she got to the security gates at which point he couldn’t pass. She had escaped his grip once again.
A few minutes later his phone beeped. A text message. Only one person had the phone number.
End of job. £30,000 delivered.
Good, he thought. Now he had the time and the cash to figure out his next move and how it would involve Lexi Ryder.
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About the Author
Kasia Radzka is an author, blogger, mum, and amateur athlete. She lives in the Gold Coast, Australia with her family.
You can find her at www.kasiaradzka.com and on Twitter at @kasiajradzka.
Lexi Ryder is in London investigating the disappearance of a young woman. Her search leads her to Soho’s red light district; a detective who might be hiding something; and a danger that lurks in the darkness. Lexi was never one to back down from trouble, not even a little threat is going to get in her way. Except this time, she has no idea who she’s dealing with. The instincts she's always relied on could get her killed.