The second gripping instalment in the DI Paolo Sterling crime series. Detective Inspector Paolo Sterling is determined to shut down the syndicate flooding Bradchester’s streets with young prostitutes. When a child is murdered, Paolo becomes aware of a sinister network of abusers spread across Europe and spanning all levels of society. But Joey, the shadowy leader of the gang, always seems to be one step ahead in the chase. Has Paolo come up against a criminal he cannot defeat?
Release date: February 21, 2019
Publisher: Audible Studios
Print pages: 352
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Children in Chains
6th October (early morning)
Joey held the blade against Edona’s neck. A tiny line of red trickled down, collecting on the edge of her blue sweatshirt. He didn’t want to kill her. She’d always been one of his best money earners, still looking like a schoolgirl even though she was almost twenty.
“Make the call,” he whispered. “Make the call and you can live.”
He could feel her trembling against his body as he pulled her closer.
“Make the call,” he repeated.
She nodded and dialled. Her fingers shook so much Joey wondered if she’d hit the right buttons. He’d know when the call was answered. His head was close enough to hers to hear the ringing tone and then the copper’s sleepy voice.
The call had obviously woken him. Not surprising. It was five in the morning.
Joey released the knife just enough to enable Edona to speak. If she tried anything stupid, he’d put an end to her before she had chance to betray him again.
“It’s me. I…”
Joey touched the knife gently against Edona’s neck; a reminder of what they’d agreed.
“I’m listening,” Sterling said. “What have you got for me?”
“Some girls, they come tonight.”
“Where? What time?”
“I not know what time, but they bring them to motorway. Change van in car park outside restaurant and shop.”
“Tell me who is bringing them in. Who are you working for? I can protect –”
Joey took the phone and ended the call.
“What a kind man! He wants to protect you. It’s a bit too late for that, Edona. I wonder what else you’ve told him. I don’t suppose I’ll ever find out. Not that it matters to you now, but I’ve always been very fond of you. What I have to do to you breaks my heart.”
“No hurt me. Please no. You say me, I make call, you forgive.”
“And you believed me? Shame on you, Edona. I could never forgive such a betrayal. You’ve been working against me for too long now. I’ve heard you telling the young ones that they’d get free, someday.” He laughed. “You’re such a fool. For girls like you, someday never comes .”
He felt her tears dripping onto his hand.
“Ah no, don’t cry. I don’t like to have my girls crying. No more tears.”
He pulled the knife across her throat. As the blood spurted, he pushed her away, smiling as her body tumbled into the foundation pit.
“Edar, Bekim!” he called to the two men waiting by the car. “Cover her up.”
They moved forward and began shovelling rubble and sand. Joey watched for a while, but soon got bored. He went and leaned against the car until Bekim signalled for him to come back and approve what they’d done.
He looked down into the pit and smiled. There was no trace of Edona. He glanced at his watch. It was now five- thirty. The concrete was due to be poured in three hours’ time. Perfect.
“That’s cleared up that loose end. I’d wondered how Sterling seemed to know so much, but without you two pointing her out, I’d never have guessed it was Edona. Good work,” he said, smiling at the two men. He passed her phone to one of them. “Get rid of that, Bekim. Make sure it can’t be traced back to us. Right, let’s get everything in place for tonight’s delivery. Now that we know Sterling will be on the other side of town, the transfer will be, as the Brits like to say, a piece of cake. I wonder what the fuck that means, a piece of cake.” He grinned. “Talking of cake, it’s time for breakfast.”
7th October (early hours)
Detective Inspector Paolo Sterling’s foot had gone to sleep, but that was the least of his worries. Staying awake after spending several hours in a parked car, listening to Dave Johnson, his detective sergeant, list the reasons he was in love, was a bigger issue. The darkened car they were in, partially hidden behind bushes, faced the entrance to the car park of Bradchester Motorway Services. Paolo felt as if he’d been there half his life.
He moved about on the seat, trying to get the circulation going in his foot. It felt like a lump of dead meat on the end of his leg.
“Rebecca isn’t like any other girl I’ve known,” Dave said.
Paolo smiled in the dark. That must be the hundredth time Dave’s said that tonight, he thought. But he didn’t really mind. It was nice listening to Dave saying positive things these days. It wasn’t that long ago Paolo would have classed his DS as a misogynist.
Giving up on trying to coax his foot back to life, Paolo shifted his position again and almost screamed as pain shot the length of his spine. They should get medical compensation for stake-outs, he thought. Wear and tear on muscles forced to stay in one place for too many hours.
“I think it’s her hair I love the most,” Dave said. “Or maybe it’s her smile. Yes, that’s what it is.”
Paolo thought about the list Dave had given over the last few hours and felt as if he knew more about Rebecca than she did herself. He peered out into the night. No sign of the lorry they were waiting for. He checked his watch. It was no longer night. The time was just after five in the morning. A full twenty-four hours since the call had come in. Maybe his tip off had got the day wrong. Paolo decided to give it another couple of hours until the sun came up at and then tell the teams scattered around the car park to go home and get some sleep.
Paolo wouldn’t have that luxury. He had the joy of a meeting with his ex-wife and his daughter’s psychiatrist to look forward in only a few hours’ time. Another couple of turns of his ankle and suddenly the circulation was back in his foot. The pins and needles were agony, but at least he could feel both feet once more.
“Do you think we’ve been given duff information, sir?”
It took Paolo a moment to realise Dave had stopped talking about Rebecca and was back into police mode.
“It’s beginning to look that way, Dave, but I don’t want to give up too soon just in case the tip off was a good one. I can’t bear to think of more kids being smuggled in. If they’re being transferred here, we need to get to them before they’re handed over and put to work.”
Through the gloom, Paolo could just make out Dave’s head nodding in agreement. They settled back into silence and Paolo wondered about the series of phone calls that had led to this point. It had been the first break they’d had. Albanian girls were turning up on the Bradchester streets. Someone was smuggling them in, getting them hooked on drugs and then putting them out to work to earn enough to pay for their addiction.
They’d picked up many of these kids and placed them in social services, but not one of them could, or would, tell them who was behind the trafficking. Terrified and addicted, they all told the same story. They’d been abducted and kept prisoner in Albania, then sent here. What happened to them once they arrived remained a mystery. Paolo hadn’t been able to discover any connection to the Albanian community in Bradchester.
Then came the tip off. It seemed the girls came in elsewhere and were shipped to Bradchester in various vehicles, often hidden behind false panels. The caller, a woman, had sounded terrified and was only on the phone for a few minutes each time, but managed to give enough information for Paolo to set up this operation. Now it looked as if they’d camped out all night for nothing. There’d been a procession of various vans and cars, but none of them had done anything even remotely suspicious.
Paolo felt himself dozing off and jerked awake just as a van drove past and parked in the darkest corner of the car park, diagonally opposite their car.
“Dave, I think this might be our man. Let’s see what he does next.”
As they watched, the driver climbed out and lit a cigarette. Leaning against the van, he took out a mobile phone and made a short call. When he’d finished, he slipped the phone back in his pocket. He looked around the car park, as if searching for something, then turned and climbed back into the van.
“What do we do now, sir? It looks as if he might be pulling out again.”
“We’ll watch for a bit. If he drives off one of the teams out on the road can follow at a safe distance. At least until we’re sure this isn’t our man. But he hasn’t started the engine, so maybe he’s waiting for someone.”
Twenty minutes later a dark van swept past Paolo’s and pulled up next to the lorry. Both drivers got out of their vehicles and embraced. Then the first driver took the second man to the rear of his vehicle and unlocked it. From where they were parked, Paolo couldn’t see into the van, so signalled to Dave to wait.
The second van driver returned to his vehicle and manoeuvred it so that the two ends faced each other, blocking any view of what was being transferred between the two vans.
“Now,” Paolo said into his phone.
The car park lit up as several police vehicles switched on their lights and moved forward, blocking any chance of the vans making a getaway. The two men took off, one towards the services and the other towards the motorway.
Paolo jumped out and ran after the one aiming for the motorway. He was almost past him when Paolo threw himself at the man and brought him down with a flying rugby tackle. As the air whooshed out of Paolo’s lungs, he forced himself to hang on to the man’s legs.
Panting, he held the man down and waited for Dave to arrive. Between them, they got the man handcuffed and dragged him to his feet. They handed him over to the uniformed officers to put into a squad car. The other man was already sitting in one of the other cars.
It took Paolo a while to get his breath back and he realised how unfit he was. He’d turn forty later this month; too old to be throwing himself about the place like a kid.
“Right, let’s see what they’ve got hidden in those vans,” Paolo said when he had enough air in his lungs to be able to speak again.
He and Dave walked over to the open doors of the first van. Cartons of cigarettes filled the entrance floor to ceiling like a wall.
“Pull them all out,” Paolo ordered the uniformed officers. “There might be kids hidden behind there.”
An hour later both vans had been stripped bare. A fortune in stolen cigarettes filled the area around the vans, but there was no sign of any children. Paolo swore, but it didn’t relieve his frustration. Whoever was bringing the girls in had taken him for a mug.
6th October (night) / 7th October (morning)
Pete played back the track, not quite happy with the mix. The session musicians had done well, but the heavy beat thundered against the guitar melody. He tweaked a bit and listened again.
“Të më ndihmojë, nënë. Të më ndihmojë, nënë,” a child’s voice, sweet and plaintive, whispered behind his vocals. That was better.
Help Me, Mama was the best thing he’d ever recorded – better than any of the hits he’d had with The Vision Inside. If this didn’t get him back at the top of the charts there was no justice in the world. Fuck those bastards, all his so-called mates. They’ll be green when they hear Help Me, Mama. As the song filled the studio he realised he was glad now that they’d said no to getting back together again. He didn’t need them. There were too many other bands reforming and singing their tired old crap. Wankers, all of them. With this as his first solo track he’d be out there riding high on his own. No longer just Gunnar Tate Reed, lead vocalist for The Vision Inside.
Maybe he should reinvent himself completely. Go for a new name. Say something like Zak Babcock or Maxx Payne. He shrugged as the song came to an end. Time enough to decide about names when the album was ready. He had plenty to do before that day came round.
Through the glass partition separating the mixing area from the rest of the studio, Pete watched the child struggle to her feet and stagger across the room, eyes unfocused, as if sleepwalking. She looked like she needed another fix. Was he up for it though? Nah, he could screw her anytime, the music was more important right now. Besides, she wasn’t going anywhere. Judging by the way she was falling over the furniture, she’d be out soon.
He continued mixing. Altering pitch and tone until he couldn’t bear to listen to the track even one more time. He glanced through the glass. The girl had fallen in a heap in the corner behind the sofa. Time to wake her up.
As he wandered through from the recording area, picturing his name in the headlines once more, his cock throbbed at the memory of the young chicks who’d thrown themselves at him in, back in the glory days. He hadn’t had to buy them then. Not like now where that bastard Joey upped the charges every time he brought a new girl over. He undid his belt. Time to rock and fucking roll.
The kid normally scrambled behind the furniture as soon as she heard him coming, but not this time. The stupid bitch was just lying there, waiting for him; ruining his fun. He liked a bit of foreplay; enjoyed the chase when she tried to get away.
“Hey, come on. I’m ready. Get up.”
She lay on her stomach with her arms covering her head, leaving her bare arse on show. Did he want her that way? Nah, not this time.
“Turn over,” he said and nudged her with his foot. Nothing. Not a flicker of movement. Sighing, he flipped open his phone and hit speed dial. While the number rang he tried nudging the brat again. Nada, zilch, fuck all. The phone rang on and on. Why was it taking so long for the bastard to pick up? When the voicemail message kicked in, he ended the call and tried again. This time it was answered almost immediately.
“At last. Where the fuck you been, Joey?”
“I had someone with me. Couldn’t talk with her listening.”
Pete wandered into the centre of the room and flopped down on the couch. Shit, he was tired. What time was it? He shrugged his sleeve back and managed to focus on his Rolex. Nearly midday. He’d started working on the track well before midnight. No wonder he was whacked. All he wanted was to get laid and then he’d go over to the house and sleep.
He glanced at the unmoving girl. What a waste of space. He needed someone able to keep up with him. “I want you to pick up this piece of shit. She’s stopped moving; passed out or something. Bring me a new one. Make sure she’s got more go in her than this one.”
“What do you mean, not moving? She’s not dead, is she?”
Pete peered over his shoulder and studied the girl’s back. “Nah, I think she’s still breathing. Hard to tell though. Might not be.”
“Fuck it, Pete, what did I tell you? Huh? What did I say? Don’t overdo it, that’s what I said. Do what you want, but leave them fit for work. If she’s dead, that’s money down the fucking drain, man.”
Stretching to pick up the whisky bottle, Pete fell forward, just managing to slop some liquid into his glass. Shit, he was more tired than he’d realised. He struggled back up onto the couch and listened to the voice droning on. Eventually Joey ran out of steam and Pete was able to get a word in.
“So what if she’s dead? I pay you enough to cover any future earnings. You said I can do what the fuck I like with them. Anyway, this one’s batteries’ve run down. Whatcha got for me this time?”
He heard a long drawn-out sigh, as if the idiot wanted to say no to him. Yeah, like that was ever going to happen. He grinned. It didn’t matter what he did to the girls, his money would always buy him more. Thank you, God, for royalty payments. The gift that keeps on giving.
“I had a delivery last night,” Joey said. “I’ve got two that haven’t yet been taken that might suit you. Just arrived in the country, untouched. Very fresh, just as you like them. One fair, one dark. Which one you want?”
Pete swallowed another mouthful of whisky before answering; wondering if he should take both. He was tired, but could always keep one for tomorrow. “How much for the pair? One to watch while I do the other one could be fun. Hang on, though, they street kids? I don’t want no gutter stuff.”
“I’ve just told you, they’re both fresh. You don’t need to know their backgrounds, but these two are from good families. We picked them up on their way to school and shunted them off to the home. They were only in there for two days and they’ve been in transit since.”
“School? That mean they speak English? You know it freaks me out if I can understand them when they start jabbering on.”
“The dark one does a little, just a few words.”
“Knowing my luck she’ll start spouting when I’m at it. Can’t stand that. Don’t mind if I don’t know what they’re saying, but can’t stand it when they speak English.”
“Then you’d better just take the blonde. She speaks only Albanian.”
“Pity. Two would’ve been neat. She a natural blonde?”
“She’s ten, not likely to be dyeing her hair.”
“No, but you wouldn’t think twice about bleaching it to suit a punter. So, I’ll ask again. She a natural blonde?”
“You know, Pete, you are getting close to being scratched from my list.”
Pete laughed and reached again for the bottle. “Yeah, right. I pay way over the odds and you know it. I keep you in business, my friend. Now, let’s cut the crap and talk money. How much and how soon can you get here? I’m up for it and having that useless piece of shit on the floor is pissing me off.”
“I’ll be there in an hour.”
“I’ll be in the studio. Call me from the side gate. I’ve got decorators in the main house and I don’t want them seeing I’ve got visitors. You can’t trust any of the fuckers not to spot something and decide to sell a story to the redtops.”
Pete disconnected the call and cleared a space on the coffee table. As he cut a line of coke he cursed his boring sex life. Whatever he did these days, nothing seemed to give him the buzz he got from his music. Whether he took them up the arse, or thrust his prick down their throats, it all felt the same. Pity he couldn’t have had both girls, though. That might have done the trick. Then it hit him. Shit, he could gag the dark one. In fact, that’s what he’d do. Shove something in her mouth to keep her quiet. He could tie her up and make her watch her mate on the job. That would add a bit of spice.
He picked up the phone again. Fuck, he deserved some excitement in his life. In fact, after all the work he’d done on the new track, he owed himself a bit of a treat.
7th October (morning)
Paolo could barely keep his eyes open. His body craved sleep, but there was little chance of that until much later. He glanced over at Lydia, his ex-wife, and wondered if it was worth trying just one more time to start a conversation. Somehow she must have felt his eyes on her, because she looked up from the magazine she clearly wasn’t reading and glared. She held his gaze for a few seconds. He felt her disgust and anger wash over him in a torrent and was relieved when she went back to pretending to read the magazine. Okay, maybe reaching out wasn’t such a good idea, he decided.
Every time they came to one of these conferences with their daughter’s psychiatrist, they sat in complete silence in the waiting room. Lydia couldn’t even seem to bring herself to greet him without snarling. He looked at the clock for what seemed like the thousandth time, but it was only five past ten. How could it be possible that only five minutes had passed since he’d sat down?
Eternity dragged on and on and then, finally, the door to Jessica Carter’s office opened. Before the psychiatrist could speak, Paolo was on his feet and moving towards her.
“Good afternoon, Dr Carter.”
“Good afternoon, Detective Inspector. Please come through.”
Lydia took her time replacing the magazine on the table next to the chair. She stood up and Paolo felt guilty at how frail she looked. Her hollow cheeks and drawn face emphasised her weight loss. Something else to lay at his door. Maybe one day, if he stayed alive long enough, he’d be able to forgive himself.
He waited for Lydia to enter the office and then followed her in. He prayed today would be the day they heard some good news about Katy. Maybe, just maybe, she’d break through her silence. He might be able to get over his guilt regarding Lydia, but he knew if he lived forever he’d never, never forgive himself for what had happened to Katy. Sighing, he took the seat next to Lydia’s. Please, he begged silently, please let the news be better than last week.
Dr Carter moved behind her desk and sat down. Paolo tried to gauge what she might have to tell them by the expression on her face but, as always, she gave nothing away. She leaned back and smiled. Paolo hated this part. This was where the hopes and prayers he’d built up all week came crashing back down again. He could sense it. Surely if the news was good Jessica Carter would show it in some way?
“Thank you both for coming,” she began and Paolo’s heart sank. Her voice told him all he needed to know, but he still held out a tiny hope. Her next words crushed it. “I’m sorry; there has been no change in Katy’s mental and emotional state.” She turned to Lydia. “I know you are anxious to do so, but I’m afraid I have to advise against taking her home.”
“Why?” Lydia demanded and Paolo winced at the anger in her voice. “It’s been three months since the attack. She looks fit enough now. I’m sure if she came home, back to her old life, she’d start talking again. It can’t be good for her, stuck away with… with… real nutcases.”
“Mrs Sterling, if I felt she would get better by going home, then that is exactly what I would recommend. I agree with you that physically she has recovered remarkably well, but she remains locked in her head and won’t communicate with anyone outside of therapy sessions. As I’ve explained before, this is purely trauma related and she will recover, but the recovery process cannot be forced.” She turned her head slightly, so that she was no longer just addressing Lydia. “I’m sure you both want her to be discharged, but when I mentioned the possibility of going home, she became so agitated she had to be sedated. I really don’t feel she is ready yet to face the outside world.”
Lydia leaned forward. Her distress was almost physical. Paolo wished there was something he could do to help her, ease her pain in some way, but knew anything he said would just make matters worse.
“With all due respect, Dr Carter, I don’t agree with you. Her home, my home, is exactly where she should be. I want a second opinion.”
“That is your right, of course, but…”
“There’s no but about it,” Lydia hissed.
Paolo put his hand on her arm. “Sorry, Lydia, I don’t agree. I think getting someone new in to see Katy would upset her too much.”
She shrugged off his touch as if burnt. “What do you know? It’s your fault s. . .
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