Guilt. The Four Horsemen had a brother. An implacable, remorseless sibling wielding a ferocious blade that cut deep, slicing my soul and hacking chunks of wet flesh from me, digging, rooting out my core. Blood ran its length from the cross guard to the point, then sprayed, arcing, reflecting in white hot eyes that glared pitilessly in accusation. He rode me relentlessly, day in, day out. Intolerably heavy, my muscles creaked beneath him, groaning, threatening to split like an ancient shipwreck. Physically broken, sunk, I waited, hoping for my mind to snap, but there was no rest for me, not even in my dreams, especially not in my dreams. When too weary to hold them open, when I dared to shut my eyes, instead of sleep my eyelids became a simple, black screen where projections of my worst nightmares flickered interminably from then to now and back again. No, there was no peace to be found in this life, not for me. I was tired and I was drunk. Red rimmed eyes looked out from my face, staring at the bottle that was lending me courage, then at my hoard, the pills that I knew would get him off my back, release me...
February 12th 2008
An intense police search for missing toddler, Ellen Hood, has resulted in the discovery of the body of a child. The three-year-old was reported missing during a shopping trip by her distraught Mother, Sacha. Police are appealing for witnesses and have taken away security camera footage from The Markham Shopping Centre for study. Police are attempting to contact Ellen’s Father, Tom Hood, currently abroad on business and apparently unaware of his only child’s disappearance.
Tom and Sacha Hood would never have claimed to be a happy family. Not that they weren’t, they simply never felt the need to quantify their contentment. And if the need to calculate it had ever arisen, they would probably have done no more than show you their daughter, Ellen.
The child had arrived relatively late in Tom’s life. At 35, he had married Sacha, 10 years his junior. Sacha, one of life’s enthusiasts, auburn hair, honest blue eyes and the widest, most generous smile Tom had ever had aimed at him. They’d met on line, on a dating website. In Victoria’s era, courtship might have involved a carriage and a chaperone. The latter part of the twentieth century saw it evolve into pubs, nightclubs, the workplace, even the occasional supermarket encounter. Now, partnerships could be hatched electronically. It was the new way. They both knew they had something straight off the bat. They bounced off each other. Intelligent and articulate, her typed responses matched Tom’s sense of fun going from the whimsical to the bizarre and back again turning a messaging session into something more than a simple hunt for a mate. They progressed to allowing access to their Facebook accounts and on her pages, her potted history illustrated someone normal. Not thousands of ‘friends’ harvested worldwide to fulfil any need for acceptance or sense of self-worth, just a fairly small group going back to schooldays and forward to the present. Book and music ‘likes’ reflected her femininity and interest in the world around her. Nothing wacky or overtly political. No campaigns, no vitriol, no raging against the machine. Simply an individual with a life. But it was the photographs that bewitched him. Over the year’s fashion had dictated her hairstyles and while not slavishly following the trend of the day, there was the occasional eccentricity in evidence, rebelling in her teens, he guessed. Clearly attractive, she had good bones and skin tone but there was something else about her face, her expression, that caught his attention. Attractive for sure, but there was an evident candour, an openness of expression and a light in her eyes. A zest for life that beguiled him. His own page, a bit of family, Rugby, and Supertramp though basic and perhaps a little lightweight in comparison clearly didn’t deter her interest in him. They exchanged phone numbers and on hearing her voice for the first time, discovered that she was in fact, American, born in Great Falls, Montana. Her father had been USAF resulting in long tours abroad one of which had been in the UK. She’d liked the lifestyle here so much and having little in the way of family in the States, that she had opted to make it her home, moving here permanently when she was twenty-one. Their first conversations had been tentative but over the weeks, these grew into long conversations where they’d talk about nothing and everything and quietly hope they were both real. A few weeks later, they met. She’d phoned from a friend’s wedding. She was the only single girl there and needed a man. Would Tom come? It was typically impetuous. Friends without having laid eyes on each other and they both knew they were taking a chance, but if not now, then when? Tom drove the hundred miles or so arriving just in time for the evening reception. Meeting outside the hotel, he’d tripped on the kerb as they’d walked towards each other. It couldn’t have started sweeter, his denials that he’d fallen for her met with a low, throaty chuckle. It may not have been love at first sight but for sure they felt there was something going on that neither of them ever wanted to stop.12 months later, after some domestic, mental and social adjustment, Ellen was born. Tom worked for an airline and travelled a good deal. Sacha was HR in a multi-national. Good jobs, good people, leading the good life, living the dream. In the centre of their world, Ellen.
He was first off the aircraft. His status within the airline meant he invariably travelled Club Class, which always boarded and deplaned ahead of other passengers but mid-flight, the cabin crew had sought him out and explained that he would be met by police on arrival and VIP’d off. There was the familiar presence of colleagues who had to be there, the airbridge operator, a scattering of ground staff, all with duties to perform and all wishing they were anywhere but there and not knowing what to say, not to him, not to each other. Amongst them, a stranger, suited, official looking and clearly troubled. His policeman, he guessed, his guts churning. There was no good news to be found in that face. Tom saw tears in most eyes and fought to control his own, Alan Jameson, head of operations in New York, had sought him out, explained what he knew of the situation and got him on the first plane out and now, on arriving back in the UK, looking at the distressed policeman, then at a sea of devastated expressions on faces trained to cope, he knew that life as he had known it these past 3 years, was over.
“Where is my wife?” They were the only words he could muster, the only normal utterance he could contrive.
“At the hospital.” Said the suited man, coming forward and gently but firmly taking Tom by the elbow.
A mean flicker of hope passed through him. ’At least Ellen was still...′ The spokesman noted the light of optimism in Tom’s eyes and could think of nothing crueller than allowing it to burn.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hood. It’s better we talk in the car.”
Confused by Sacha’s stated presence at the hospital and the morgue like atmosphere of the airbridge, Tom allowed himself to be led down the outer stairs and onto the ramp. A dark Range Rover waited where normally a baggage truck might be.
“Unmarked. The press are all over the place.”
“But what about…?” Tom stammered, desperate for the normalcy of Customs and Immigration. He fished in his jacket pocket and pulled out a dog-eared passport.
“Taken care of.” The policeman put his hand over the document. “One of my men will clear your bags.”
The rear door was opened for him and Tom slumped inside. Other doors opened and closed and Tom became aware the vehicle was moving. “My wife? At the hospital?”
The policeman had to end it. Now. Knowing that this wasn’t the kind of conversation he could go into blind, he ’d spoken to some of Tom’s colleagues while waiting for the aircraft to touch down. They’d told him Tom was a direct, straight to the point kind of guy so that’s how he was going to handle this.
“My name is Detective Inspector Stuart Ames. I wish I had better news for you but unfortunately, there really isn’t any other way to say this.” He paused, then continued, reluctantly, in police speak. “The body of a 3-year-old girl has been found. Your wife has gone to the hospital to formally establish the child’s identity.”
The enormity of it struck home at the same time as the logic. “Are there any other 3-year old’s missing?”
“To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Hood, no.” Ames paused briefly as if the next sentence finalised the affair as, in truth, it often does. “I’m more sorry than I know how to say.”
“Are we going to the hospital now?” Tom asked quietly.
“To the station.” Ames paused. “It’s more secure than the hospital. I’ve asked my officers to bring your wife there as soon as she’s ready. You’ll have some privacy there and of course, there are we must go through. It can’t be helped. After that, well, that’s up to you I don’t think either of you should go home, at least not for the time being. We’ll know more when we get to the station.”
As a reflex, Tom covered his eyes. They were gritty and sore from lack of sleep. Going east to the States was easy but coming back west to east, the jet lag was a killer unless you slept your way home as Tom usually tried to do. There had been no chance of that this time. His mind had played out a thousand scenarios based on the scant information he’d been given before leaving, but none of them, not one had prepared him for the finality he’d just heard. Though an emotional man, he had always tried to hide his feelings, suffering in silence rather than giving vent to overt displays. “Oh, God.” The whispered, unconscious and unanswered plea escaped his lips. At that moment, there was nothing left to say and only one possible thing to do. His eyes brimmed with tears and his throat constricted, shoulders shaking, Tom bowed his head and let go. Sobbing quietly, for the first time since Ellen had been born, Tom cried. Full realisation would come later but meanwhile, Tom just cried. The girl was dead. The girl was dead. ‘Cope dammit.’
Inside the station more shocked faces had greeted him as he’d been led to a small waiting room. Ames left, saying he’d be back shortly. For the moment, and having nothing else to do, Tom sat and waited, thinking about the journey here. Ames had understated the presence of the press. They weren’t just all over the place. They were everywhere. As they’d exited the airport ramp through the fenced gate. An attempted pursuit down the motorway. As they’d entered the police compound. It was madness, cameras had even taken up vantage points to overlook the station’s car park. Ames had been right. They wouldn’t be able to go home, as if that mattered, then a thought struck him, something that did matter. Candidly, as if separated from reality, a notion that young children become victims every day went through his mind. What was it that made his daughter so special? He checked his phone. Nothing. The door opened and Ames came into the room.
“Will you tell me what happened? Why all this? Has Sacha arrived yet?”
Ames sat opposite and placed 2 cups of tea on the small table. “I carry a hip flask if you’d like a drop in your tea?”
It was easier for Tom to nod than to shake his head. It seemed to him also that Ames needed time to prepare, to present, to tell him what had happened to his child. “My people at the hospital have been in touch. Your wife is under sedation. It would be best if she stayed that way at least for tonight. The body, you see...”
Tom looked up from his tea. The policeman appeared to be in his early 40’s. He wore a smart suit which was sharply in contrast to his rumpled, careworn expression. What was most apparent to Tom though, were his eyes. They looked tired and were trying not to say too much. “Mr. Ames,” he said softly, “sooner or later the full details will come out. I’d rather have them straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, avoid unnecessary distress, that sort of thing. Then. If it’s ok with you, I’d like to be with my wife. Given what you’ve said, what’s happened, surely anything else can wait until tomorrow. I think I need to be with her.”
Ames had been a policeman all his adult life and had seen it all. This kind of clarity was not unusual, it showed a detachment, if anything. It wouldn’t last. But while it did, he’d relate the facts and let the questions take care of the less palatable aspects of the crime. “We already have the killers.”
“There were 2 of them. Your wife was out shopping. In one of the bigger clothing stores they were briefly separated by aisles of hanging racks. As soon as your wife realised she couldn’t see Ellen, she called out for her, hearing nothing and still unable to see her, she went looking. It really was only a matter of seconds, but unfortunately, she’d gone. Simply disappeared.”
“She’s a sod for it.” Said Tom, still detached. “The times I’ve had to hunt for her and found her peeking behind shelving, giggling, playing hide and seek.”
“Kids’re like that.” Agreed Ames. There was a moments pause.
“Please go on.”
“Your wife didn’t hang around. Within a couple of minutes, she’d reported Ellen missing and when security drew a blank, we were called in. That would’ve been within 20 minutes or so.”
“No time at all, really.” Tom sipped from the teacup. “What happened next?”
“We’re not really sure how she was taken. We reviewed the Mall CCTV footage but there was nothing on the tapes we could work with. We really started to worry then, this abduction, or at least that of a child, perhaps any child, rather than Ellen specifically, was clearly planned. Surveillance had been avoided. Routes in and out most likely surveyed. No one saw anything out of the ordinary, we had nothing to work with, frankly, we were stuck.”
“How then? I mean, how did you catch them?”
Ames knew how bad this was going to sound and could only imagine the images it was going to throw into Tom’s head. But it had to be said. “The whole thing, the killing and all, it was all filmed, on a mobile phone.”
Tom looked up from his cup. Right now, he had no words, there was nothing in his head that could make sense of what he had just heard. Flashes of violence nowadays so commonplace on social media were plucked randomly from his memory and presented as a montage. At the edge of his mind came the realisation that images of Ellen, pixelated scenes of her last physical existence, were now digitised and were never, ever going to go away. Not his imaginings of it, not the hard evidence of it. His daughter was now immortalised.
“You really shouldn’t see it.” Ames paused. “There really aren’t any circumstances where doing so it is going to help you.”
Tom’s eyebrows knitted. The shot in his tea had begun to dull his finer senses so practicalities were all he could deal with. “Has it gone viral?”
“No. At the moment, it seems to have been contained.” Ames sat down next to Tom. “They were clever, for their age. They appear to have been planning this, or something like it for some time. Their first real mistake was filming it. Somehow, someone at school saw it on their phone, told someone else, who told someone else until teachers called us in. They’d panicked, thought they’d deleted it from their phones but nothing is ever irretrievable, not these days. Our people recovered the images. There can’t be any doubt they did this.”
“They? You keep saying they. Who the hell are they?” His voice was even, the expletive purely an expression of frustration.
“Edward and Verity Christian. 13 years old. Brother and sister. Identical twins, actually.”
“And they did this? All of this?” In his detachment, Tom could ask, “Were they pimping for a paedophile?”
“That was one of our first thoughts. But no. The phone evidence is clear. It’s them. No doubt. It led us to where we found Ellen, early this morning while you were mid-Atlantic. The twins are in custody. For obvious reasons, I can’t tell you where but I can tell you we can’t get a word out of either of them.”
“Yes. Ellen. We’re struggling with the questioning. Mrs. Christian, the Mother, is something of a leading legal light. She’s making the process difficult. We’re having to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’.We’ll get them, but everything about this case, everyone in it, well, it’s just a minefield.”
Now Tom realised the Press interest. What made Ellen so different from other victims. “You mean my daughter was killed by two 13 year olds?”
“We’re certain of it.” Ames hesitated. Sensing there was more, Tom asked, “And?”
Another pause then Ames continued, his voice lower. “The reality is that children are occasionally victims of other children and press interest under those circumstances goes off the chart. But these two, this time, it’s different. The fact that they’re twins. Mummy’s a high flying human rights lawyer and Daddy’s something in the City. They’re not short of a bob or two.” Ames paused again. “These aren’t disadvantaged street kids. Straight A’s in school, bright futures predicted and then this, this inexplicable act, but planned, premeditated, deliberate.”
“We could be wrong but we think it’s a unique combination of factors. Twins have killed before, sometimes in partnership but never, as far as I know, have twins so young murdered a toddler. I’m sorry, Mr. Hood, but I have to tell you that the simple reality is that the press aren’t about to let go any time soon, if ever. And if that footage ever gets out...”