She stood in the spot where the piles of clothes had been discovered; the part of Brighton Pier where a young mother had thrown herself and her young child to their deaths, twenty three years earlier.
The gale force wind whipped itself off the waves, wildly blowing Superintendent Needham’s short, blonde bob from her face. She turned to face Thomas Pike, a retired Brighton-based detective who’d worked on the case.
“So what was your gut feeling, detective; suicide or murder?”
Pike’s face still wore the wounds of a troubling, unsolved case that had stayed with him long since he’d handed back his badge. The chilled wind forced a watery haze onto his eyes. He deliberated over his answer before speaking, detailing the case once more in his head.
“It was impossible to say,” he eventually opted for as he stared across the pier’s attractions and out into the sea. “The ocean took the young child but the mother’s naked body was washed up five days later in Southwick, just a few miles down the coastline. Once a body has been thrown about in the ocean for a few days it’s impossible to determine its state when it entered.”
“Did you see her yourself?”
The detective nodded as if the image still haunted him.
“No part of her was left untouched. She was covered in cuts and grazes, small bites even,” he detailed. “Her skin was swollen and blistered. She’d completely changed colour.”
“But there were no obvious signs that someone may have killed her before dumping her body?”
Pike shook his head slowly as if still showing some level of respect for the deceased.
“Her friends spoke of financial problems, mental health even. She worked part-time as a waitress; a single mother. She’d fallen behind on her rent and was struggling to feed and clothe her children.”
“I didn’t know there was another child,” Needham said, intrigued.
“She had a boy too, slightly older, and to another father. He was staying with his dad when they went into the water.”
“And the girl? Where was her father?”
“He was long since off the scene.”
“So the only links to it being anything more sinister than a tragic suicide were the other two?”
“Tragic doesn’t really cut it for me, Superintendent,” Pike replied. “I find it completely sinister that a mother could dress her little girl in the middle of the night, walk her down here under some misguided pretence of a treat and then jump into the sea holding her hand. To betray such innocent, infantile trust isn’t tragic, it’s inhumane.”
He broke his stare from the breaking waves to face the superintendent head on.
“I didn’t believe a mother could be capable of that twenty three years ago and I still don’t,” he added. “But like you said yourself, hers was just like the other deaths, there was no evidence left behind to suggest anything untoward; not a shred. No D.N.A., no witnesses, no nothing. The only thing linking them to each other was him.”
“That they all dated Vyacheslav Khasbulatov,” Needham said, finishing off the sentence and beckoning that it was time to leave the pier.
“I think ‘dated’ might imply some sort of romantic connotation. It’s probably more accurate to say they all knew Khasbulatov in some capacity, then all died or disappeared within a few weeks of each other. His link was something we explored; certainly the motive that the women he bedded disappeared once they stopped… being bedded was central to our investigation. We looked at how he might have flown into a jealous rage and killed them once they started new relationships, how they refused to accept it was over and caused problems until he silenced them but it just didn’t fit.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Look, these women all disappeared within two weeks of each other. They all dated Kashbultov. I tied myself up in knots with those two strands but he saw these women years before they disappeared.”
“But the Khasbulatov connection can’t be one big coincidence can it?”
Pike shrugged despondently.
“We didn’t leave any rock unturned, ma’am, no matter what we saw crawling out of it. I saw on the news that he died; about time. Death’s been a long time coming for that bastard.”
The pause enveloped decades of cases and unsolved cases linked to Khasbulatov.
“Is there anything we could go on, Pike, any shred we could possibly use, does anything stand out as being unusual with this suicide?”
“There were no witnesses,” Pike replied. “I found that unusual in itself. At four in the morning not one person recalled seeing a young mother and her daughter walking through town. There was no taxi, no car but no sightings. They should have stood out.”
“I don’t think that’s enough for us to launch a fresh investigation, detective.”
As he broke the stare, Needham knew something else was unsettling Pike.
“There was one more thing; in the end we had to rule it out. Like I said there was a complete lack of D.N.A. Her house was spotless; I mean unusually clean. I know single mothers can be scrupulous in how they look after their children but this was clinically clean; like a hospital, like no one lived there.”
Needham strained her eyes as the wind blew into them.
“People like to clean their houses before they go on holiday,” Pike continued, “maybe that was just a sign that she knew they were leaving, that people would come into her house and make judgements on her mental health.”
“Maybe,” Needham replied. “Or maybe it was cleaned for them…expertly.”
Pike stopped walking to face the superintendent again.
“I don’t want to get your hopes up,” he added. “But the level of D.N.A. found in the child’s clothing was also minimal. We investigated whether the pile was even hers…but it was. It concerned us all but if the girl had been bathed…and the clothes were fresh and she only wore them for the short journey down to the pier, the low level of D.N.A could have been consistent.”
“Or the pile of clothes could have been completely manipulated without the child ever being there? Why would it be important to the mother that her child must jump to her death whilst naked? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Try and find some evidence Superintendent. Lack of evidence was why we closed the case. Can I ask why you’re so desperate to reopen it?”
“We’re not,” Needham replied, taking a last look up at the Brighton Pier sign, proudly adorning the white façade of the amusement centre.
The union Jack flags on top of its twin turrets flapped defiantly in the strong wind, clinging on for dear life but refusing to let go. It was no coincidence that a fleeting thought of Walker flashed into her mind. She was holding on with both hands too, refusing to let go.
“But I will need to see the case files,” Needham added. “Let’s just say I’m looking for some answers to put an old friend’s mind at rest.”
The metallic smell of blood hung in the air in the confined carriage. The wound gaped open just above the hem of her knickers, a clean cut; the width of a kitchen knife.
As the train rocked from side to side, Vitali stood back, waiting for its momentum to ease.
Amy’s life lay on hold. Unconscious and quite still, she lay in just her underwear, her innards as exposed as her flesh. There was no way of knowing how deep Belenko’s weapon had plunged; all he could do was stem the exodus of blood. It covered everything, his hands, his face, the bed sheets.
The small, sleeper carriage to Chechnya had been turned into a murder scene within seconds of their arrival.
He checked the door was locked and reached for the array of Amy’s toiletries laid out on the bed. She groaned in her semi-conscious state as he cleaned around the wound with the wet wipes.
Using the greatest care he could muster, he placed the first tampon where the laceration ate into her skin, before pushing it deep into the wound, testing the resolve of the organs inside. Amy’s groan intensified as it penetrated her. He let her writhing calm before repeating the insertion with another tampon. They wouldn’t stop the internal bleeding, she needed surgery for that but they would ease the build-up. Their journey to Grozny was over before it had begun. Instead Amy’s final destination loomed on the horizon. She wouldn’t last the forty odd hours. Vitali wasn’t naïve or stubborn enough to not accept it was over.
He reached for the first sanitary towel, ripped it from its plastic wrapping and placed it over Amy’s wound, quickly followed by another, strapping layer after layer of duct tape on top of them, sticking it to her skin and sealing the wound as best as his improvisation would allow. If the internal bleeding didn’t kill her, the infection would; the lining of her abdomen would inflame as blood and bowel contents filled the cavity.
Vitali cursed himself for leaving Amy Walker for those few seconds at Paveletsky Station, then cradled her head and poured water over her lips. It was another five hundred miles and seventeen hours to Volgograd, the scene of the Battle of Stalingrad, World War Two’s bloodiest battle. If Amy Walker wasn’t operated on there, Volgograd would take her too.
The breaks suddenly hit hard on the train. By the time it had screeched to a halt, Vitali was peering out of the window. Through the pitch black, a tiny, green station pulled into view. They weren’t scheduled to stop so soon in Ryazan Oblast but they were stopping anyway. Then he saw them; a dozen or so armed Militsiya with dogs straining on their leashes, barking wildly as the train came to a complete standstill. He rushed out of the sleeper compartment and into the corridor.
“What’s happening?” he said calmly in Russian at a passing inspector. “Why are we stopping?”
“Usually the sniffer dogs search the train for terrorists or bombs in the other direction going into Moscow,” he shrugged. “But I wouldn’t worry. It’s quite normal.”
Vitali did worry. A glance into the next carriageway brought more concern; fear and panic was etched onto the face of every passenger.
The Militsiya approached from both sides. Each of the train’s doors had been blocked; no one could leave. Vitali heard the scream from one end of the carriageway. An officer held the jaw of a petrified woman before slapping her face with the back of his hand.
“Speak to me in Russian,” he ordered.
The boyfriend remonstrated until he too was assaulted, punched full in the face and pulled back down to his seat by the girl, speaking Russian as she was instructed.
It was no coincidence they’d picked on the couple. It was no coincidence he’d demanded the girl speak Russian.
As Vitali stepped into the toilet to wash the blood from view, he knew all the other passengers had nothing to fear. They’d be quite safe; surplus to Militsiya requirement; it was him and Amy Walker they were looking for.
“Don’t fob me off Uncle Yury. I’m not the little girl you think I am.”
Ekaterina pushed her chair away from the breakfast table and strolled over to the huge double fridge, helping herself to a glass of orange juice.
“Come Ekaterina, sit down, your blini is going cold,” he said having already commenced with washing the frying pan he used to cook the pancakes.
“I didn’t come downstairs for breakfast uncle. I came down to talk about her; Amy Walker.”
The schoolgirl sat back down in her chair; an amassed collection of Russian pancakes with cold cuts of ham and cheese were left virtually untouched on the breakfast spread laid out in front of her.
“I want to know who she is.”
“Milaya moyna. Listen to me; we don’t need to speak of this woman anymore. You have given me the names of the people that she wanted to visit and this tells me she is a long way from here. There is nothing more we can do. If you are right and she did kill your papa, the police will deal with her when she returns from her travels.”
“Bull shit they will, Uncle Yury,” Ekaterina scoffed.
She knew the swear word would stab into her uncle’s attention, she’d never sworn before in front of him.
“Why do you think I am so naïve when it comes to yours and papa’s business? I know exactly how you made your money.”
“Believe me Ekaterina… you do not.”
“I know enough. I know the restaurants and bars, the bookies and the jewellers are all just a cover.”
“A cover for what exactly, what are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the vory v zakone.”
Ekaterina knew the word alone would stop her uncle in his tracks. She smiled at its undoubted power. Her uncle casually placed the frying pan on the kitchen side to dry and turned to face her.
“You will never use these words ever again, Ekaterina,” he said sternly before softening his face slightly. “I don’t know where you have learned this phrase but there is no such thing as vory v zakone… not here in London anyway. It is just a myth.”
“So what should I call you then?”
“You call me Uncle Yury and nothing else ever,” he snapped as his anger resurfaced.
“It’s just that I’ve been struggling recently with what to call papa too,” she said vaguely but with a knowing smile that she knew would annoy him.
Uncle Yury stared sternly at her and then smiled as he forced the anger to calm within himself. He finished wiping his hands on the tea towel and then bent down to her level, straining against the pain in his back.
“I know these are difficult times,” he began, sympathetically. “You are at an age when we can no longer protect you from the lies written in the newspapers and spoken on the news broadcasts, lies spread by the police to hurt us all. Many lies are spoken about your papa, Ekaterina, many accusations about when he did this or when he did that but I will tell you now, he did none of these things. You must remember the police have been doing this for years. It is only now that you hear them, because of your age, but you mustn’t let their lies ruin your memory of your papa.”
“Believe me uncle, THEIR lies really couldn’t ruin his memory. And I don’t care if they’re true.”
She waited for an emotional response from her uncle but there was none, so she pushed it further.
“It’s nice that you’ve moved in here to help Varvara look after me since papa’s death… but you really should do what he did and keep business out of the home.”
She smiled as Uncle Yury looked back blankly, knowing she’d enticed his attention.
“I heard you speaking on the phone last night,” she added. “Your actions are too obvious. The great Vyacheslav Khasbulatov would never have done this. Your time in the business really should have taught you to be more like him, more astute, more cunning.”
The hint of her smile remained throughout. She had always found Uncle Yury the easiest of the adult males in her life to play. He wasn’t as clever as the others.
“I heard the phone call you made as soon as I gave you the names that Amy Walker wanted,” she explained. “And I heard you say that it didn’t matter; Moscow or Grozny, she was never to step foot back into England again. You said she must disappear, that it was imperative. You said she was Target No. 1. I even heard how much you were willing to pay…half a million U.S. dollars? You must hate her as much as me.”
The pensive look strained Uncle Yury’s face. Instead of replying he collected the plates and began scrapping the discarded breakfast into the bin. Ekaterina sat silent, waiting patiently for the truth, as she had her whole life.
“Perhaps your Russian is better than I imagined,” her uncle eventually said.
“Perhaps, but perhaps I just want the same thing as you.”
Uncle Yury turned from the bin and looked at the schoolgirl, clearly unaware of the implication behind her sentence.
“She took something away from me that no one will ever be able to give back. I want that woman dead as much as you, Uncle, probably more. She killed your bratva, your blood brother.”
Ekaterina knew the aggression in her voice would unnerve her uncle but she could forgive him that; he’d never heard it resonate in her before.
“I know you have people who can deal with any situation, so please don’t fob me off with any more mention of police involvement when she gets back.”
Her smile was all knowing, all adult. She patted the chair next to her.
“Now please, Uncle, sit down. If you won’t tell me about Amy Walker… tell me all about the great Vyacheslav Khasbulatov.”
She couldn’t bring herself to use the word father… or grandfather.
“I want to know everything… like who he really was… his loves, his enemies… his daughters.”
She placed the black and white Polaroid onto the breakfast table. She could tell its very appearance had shocked her uncle, more than any mention of Russian mafia. She smiled as her eyes detailed the beauty of her mother as a young girl.
“I want to know who she is, the lady holding the hand of your proud brother. She looks just like me… don’t you think she looks just like me, Uncle? And please don’t lie. I can tell when you’re lying. It’s one of the many things your brother taught me.”
The Militsiya passed through the carriageways like a deadly plague. The anguished cries of passengers and barked orders told they were near. At least the outbreaks of bullying aggression had slowed their progress to him, giving him time to clean the sleeper carriage.
Vitali sprayed more of Amy’s deodorant and perfume to mask the smell of her blood, covering the stains with blankets so just her head was visible.
And then the first hand made contact, shaking the door on its flimsy lock.
He had just seconds to think; to gamble. He reached for his rucksack, slid the weapons into the jacket of his suit and then unclipped the lock. Angry, aggressive barking instantly filled the small compartment. The Alsatian strained on its short lead, snapping relentlessly as it reared onto its back legs, salivating at the opportunity to bite flesh.
“I.D. papers,” the officer shouted as aggressively charged as the dog. “Passports, visas, I.D. papers, now.”
“But we are Russian,” Vitali said, cautious of the snapping teeth as he reached into his rucksack to pull out two fake Russian passports. “We don’t have any I.D. papers or visas. Me and my girlfriend are Russian. We’re travelling home to Volgograd to announce our engagement to her parents.”
“So wake her.”
“But she’s not well.”
The officer allowed his dog a little more freedom to snarl and bark closer to where Amy slept. It scrambled its front paws onto the bed, barking ferociously.
“Why isn’t she waking?” he demanded to know before searching for his own answers and throwing the clean, bed sheet back.
Thick, red blood clung to every inch of the sheets underneath.
“She’s pregnant,” Vitali blurted out. “It’s why we are getting married. We had to run to catch the train and she started bleeding. I think it’s a miscarriage.”
The officer turned to Vitali with a look of abject disgust. His lips snarled as he cast the rest of the bed sheets off Amy, scouring the skin of her breasts, and then staring in disbelief at the layers of grey duct tape stuck to her stomach.
“If she is having a miscarriage where is the blood from between her legs,” he hissed. “What is this; a home-made abortion?” he shouted. “Wake her up now.”
He shook Amy violently by the shoulders.
“Please don’t do that to her,” Vitali asked, tugging at the officer’s arm.
“Stop, please,” Amy murmured in her state of sleep.
Her English sentence pricked the officer’s ears.
“English? You said she is Russian yet she speaks in English,” the officer spat.
Instinct drove his finger to the rifle strapped over his shoulder.
Vitali had no choice; his decision had been made. It was a gamble either way. He cracked the handle of his gun against the man’s temple then placed the barrel onto the dog’s head, silencing it before freedom filled its lead. High-velocity blood splatter sprayed Vitali’s face.
The hound’s body was still in spasms as he pushed its body under the bed and ripped off his jacket, cleaning himself and the compartment of as much of the bloody evidence as he could. He glanced at Amy and then at the officer unconscious on the floor. The noise filtering through the open door suggested more Militsiya were nearing. Leaning through the doorway he saw them immediately, uncompromising in their march from the previous carriage.