‘I don’t think you’re going to like this much Cramer, but your first target’s a woman.’ Richards was looking at him with his eyes slightly narrowed, awaiting his reaction. Cramer shot him a look of surprise before reciprocating the assessing gaze.
‘You can’t be serious.’
‘Deadly.’ Richards smirked. ‘Get in the car, I’ll tell you on the way.’ They had just left a block of innocuous private flats in busy but verdant suburb, both dressed casually. They got into a black BMW M5, pretty ordinary on the outside but on the inside its derestricted 500bhp V-10 was capable of accelerating to over 200mph, should outrunning a helicopter become necessary. ‘It’s another one we got from one of the Sykophantai in a council’s benefit department. That was a stroke of genius putting them in there; they can pick up the ones that escape the attention of social services, and scroungers usually lack moral fibre. Anyway, the target’s a foster mother, abuses the children in her care horrifically. She does it all on the pretence of strict religion, but takes no small amount of pleasure in it. She denies them the most basic of amenities, and they don’t go to school because she educates them at home ‘according to her religious beliefs.’ The system has failed these kids completely, they live locked up amongst rubbish and their own bodily excretions they don’t have proper clothes to wear, mattresses to sleep on, or food to eat. If she’s pleased with their behaviour they get porridge, if not pet food of various kinds. If she deems them to have misbehaved she makes them eat their own faeces, of which there’s plenty lying around, followed by washing-up liquid, and if they’re sick she makes them eat that too. Then there’s the constant corporal punishment, slapping, caning, more flogging half the time. The children suffer incredibly and can’t understand why she does it, and I’m with them on that but you’ll see it all for yourself. We’re going to pay them a visit this morning while she makes her daily trip to the supermarket. I’m starting you off with a tricky one, well, a seemingly tricky one at least from a moral point of view, and I would expect you to have some trouble with the practicality of the deed, but that will come later. First of all, you need to reconcile yourself with the fact that an apparently altruistic middle aged foster mother has become your first target, and seeing it from the children’s point of view should help with that.’
They pulled up and parked on a street of semi-detached houses with dirty grey roof tiles, pebble-dashed walls and bay windows, and trees at regular intervals. The day was crisp and bright in contrast to the one before, pleasant after the morning frost had melted, it was nine thirty and they were on the outskirts of Leicester. Richards and Cramer each lit a cigarette.
‘It’s the fourth house on the right with the blue door. She should be coming out any minute.’ There was just enough time for the car to be completely filled with smoke, the effect exaggerated by the sunlight, before a short middle aged woman dressed in a blue-grey mackintosh appeared from the house and locked the door behind her. She moved slowly but with a quick penguin-like waddle in mid-step, had greying wavy hair and wore a cold corpse-like expression on her miserable face. After she had walked the fifty yards to the end of the road and turned the corner, not having noticed the dark BMW and its occupants, Richards and Cramer got out of the smoke filled car. They ambled down the road crossing at an angle, as if they were visiting a close friend whom they called on frequently. Richards opened the garden gate and moved to the door removing his lock smith’s kit, Cramer closed it behind him. Richards had the door open in a matter of seconds and they were inside.
The house had looked respectable enough from the outside; the garden was small but tidy, the outdoor paintwork not new but not in need of maintenance, it had clean net-curtains and all the roof tiles were present, if a little lichen encrusted. As soon as the door was opened the smell hit Cramer like a brick in the face; appearances can be deceptive. The air was damp and heavy, the smell half way between rubbish on a hot day and a neglected public toilet. There was a room to the left with the door open, Cramer looked in. One sofa, two chairs, a coffee table, a few pictures and trinkets, a crucifix, all normal in that chintzy old fashioned sort of way. He could see the kitchen at the end of the hall was empty, so he turned his attention to the next room on the left, between the living room and kitchen. The door was closed so he slowly pushed down the handle to release the catch and gently opened the door, apprehensive because of what he expected to find. Just a dining room. Richards had been standing by the door the whole time watching him, with a look of patient amusement, Cramer looked at him, he looked toward the top of the stairs, Cramer went.
‘Up here’ he hissed.
‘You found a clue Sherlock?’ Richards followed him up. There were two bedrooms at the back of the house, each locked from the outside with a fist sized padlock, and the smell was stronger. ‘Do you think they might be in there then?’ Richards did like Cramer, which was why he couldn’t resist having a bit of fun with him. He set to work on the first padlock.
When he opened the door a still stronger wave of that smell exuded and Cramer covered his nose and mouth with his sleeve. At the same time he heard a rustling, and the scurrying of more than one pair of small feet. Through the open door Cramer could see old newspaper, plastic bags, empty tins of dog and cat food, and excrement in various stages of putrefaction strewn over bare floor boards, no rustling or scurrying now, and strangely no screaming either. Richards stepped aside to let Cramer take the lead. As he moved carefully through the door choosing his steps, he saw a grey bucket on the floor to right filled with, he guessed, urine and more faeces. The window had been white-washed and nailed shut, the room was light, but no-one could see in or out. A cord and light fitting hung from the ceiling but the assembly lacked a bulb. As Cramer rounded the door he looked reluctantly to his left.
Huddled together in the corner, semi-hidden by an accumulation of rubbish, on what looked like a pile of rags, were three emaciated children. It was impossible to tell their ages as they were painfully thin, obviously mal-nourished, and had been for a long time. Two brown eyed boys, one blue, all of them were filthy and had matted hair. They also bore numerous scabs, and bruises of all imaginable colours. They had the look of scared animals, like a cat being introduced to a new home for the first time; timid, wide eyed, and seeking cover whilst stealing furtive glances. The clothes they were dressed in were little more than rags, and looked as if they hadn’t been washed for months. The smallest boy had a swollen and bloodshot eye; it was infected. Another was turned so that Cramer could see part of his back; it was covered with bruises and cuts that appeared in lines amongst scars of the same shape. They’d all been beaten with garden canes, birch branches from the tree outside, and electrical flex. Cramer looked into the good eye of the smallest boy. The appearance of this previously unseen adult had stupefied the boys. It had been years since they had seen anyone but their tormentor or been allowed out of that room, the boy looked back with expectant fear.
‘It’s ok, I won’t hurt you.’ The boy’s expression didn’t change. He associated a person coming into the room with fear, pain, and what really amounted to torture. Cramer read the boy’s memory, experienced what he’d been through in the last three years, the degradation and suffering, the beatings, the hunger, the thirst. He felt his sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and lack of understanding. He felt the boy’s distant memories of happier times, in a care home where he was only bullied. He felt how he’d suddenly been brought here, and all this had begun, and gone on and on with no end in sight. A tear rolled down Cramer’s cheek as he turned quickly and walked out, heedless of his steps he went for the stairs.
‘Oi! Get back here! For a start you’ve got to lock this door again, and then you’ve got another room to look at.’
‘Why do I have to do it? You opened it.’ Cramer spat out his words petulantly.
‘Just do as you’re told.’
Cramer locked the door, only too well aware of the fact that he was once again confining the children to their own private hell. In the next room he found three girls in a similar condition which he found even more harrowing; the situation seemed to be having the desired effect. Not paying attention to the smell anymore he locked the door behind him. As they were going down the stairs Richards spoke in a low tone.
‘Remember to act naturally as we walk back to the car, just the way we did on the way in.’ Cramer’s movements were just as Richards instructed, but he was pale, visibly shocked by what he’d seen. When they got back into the car Cramer lit another cigarette and inhaled deeply; he was thinking in the same manner.
‘So do you think you’ll be able to do it now?’
‘Yeah, I do.’ Cramer replied with a steady confidence, looking somewhere into the distance.
‘With your bare hands?’ Cramer shot him a look. ‘That’s how I want you to do it. Baptism of fire. After that you’ll find what you have to do much easier, maybe even take pleasure in it eventually.’
‘Ok, the moment you’ve been waiting for.’ DI Bishop dropped a very thin file onto the table and drew up a chair opposite the newest member of his team, Detective Elgar. They were in a windowless interview room, deep in the bowels of Paddington Green Police Station. The room consisted of a square imitation wood table with metal brown painted legs, four chairs, a tape recorder, and a single light source above. Elgar had followed that file with her eyes from the second it had entered the room, and was now still looking at it hungrily like a child watching a cake being taken from the oven. ‘As expected, it turns out that we’ve been looking for Betteridge for a long time. His DNA profile matches perfectly with that of a sample obtained from the body of a nine year old girl who was raped and murdered in the mid nineties. We never picked him up because he was never a suspect; he was never arrested throughout his whole life, as far as we can tell this would have been his first offence but of course that’s not going to be the case. I don’t know if you’re aware what we found on his computer, but he’s been committing plenty of offences with that. The point is people don’t just turn from law abiding citizens to murderers overnight, it’s a process. My guess is that he was a predatory paedophile for a number of years before this happened; there must have been victims previously that just didn’t come forward. If that was the case then there must have been something that changed within him, or some unexpected external circumstance, that transformed him from a sexual predator to murderer, but that’s all irrelevant now anyway. Officially he did commit suicide, and didn’t commit a crime in his life.’ Detective Elgar looked like she was about to burst.
‘But Gov… you said it would turn out like this, which is pretty amazing in itself, but do we know anything about who was responsible?’ DI Bishop once again let his soft laugh gently roll across the room, and fixing her gaze with his habitual benevolence toward his subordinates.
‘Yes and no. No weapon, no names, no pictures or video evidence, a few unidentified fingerprints, none of which I should think belong to the culprits. We’ve got no chance of catching the individuals, but we do know they belong to a group; there’s hundreds of them, possibly thousands. On average there’s about two suicides, accidents or murders a week in London alone that we attribute to them, whoever they are. We call them ghosts for obvious reasons; they’ve been around a lot longer than me, longer than the police force itself according to the man who told me all this. They really are an enigma; the thing we can’t even begin to understand is how they find their victims, if that’s the right word. They obviously have extremely sophisticated techniques for locating them, but not one of them has ever filed a complaint of stalking or harassment, or ever reported any suspicious behaviour that can be in any way connected to their death. Whether this is because they were completely unaware that they were being monitored, or simply because they were too afraid to come forward because of their guilt, we have no idea; interviews are never an option. We only know what they’ve been up to when a body turns up, by which time they are undoubtedly working on something else. Their existence is known to people like ourselves on the ground, and certain people in the higher echelons of Government and the security services, but that’s it. The thing is that these people are almost never missed, even when there are suspicious circumstances, there’s not usually any concerned relatives asking questions. I know Miller, the particularly nasty one of the pair, has no small amount of admiration for them and would probably join them given the chance, but he won’t get it. MI5 aren’t interested in catching them, only in covering up their ‘good work’ so as to prevent a public outcry, not to mention keeping crime statistics and prison costs down.’ Detective Elgar sat in near stupor trying in vain to digest all she’d just heard. ‘Not quite what you signed up for, eh?’
‘But they can’t really be that good, surely? We’ve got ballistics and DNA profiles here, they must have been seen by witnesses at some point, I mean they’re not really ghosts are they? They’ll get caught on cameras all over the place just like everyone else, it’s only a matter of finding the footage.’
‘Descriptions vary to the point of uselessness, and things like video evidence have a habit of vanishing or being corrupted. It’s not like we can hold press conference, and if we did actually get hold of one of them what do you think we’d do with him? And what do you think his friends would do with us? We are also dealing with a national secret of the highest order don’t forget.’ Elgar was exasperated by her superior’s resignation.
‘If we have DNA from the scenes then we must be able to attribute certain murders to certain genetic profiles, and therefore know who’s doing what where and when, and if we know that then we should have at least a rough idea of their numbers too. More to the point: if we’ve got to deal with these people then surely we have the right to know what we’re dealing with.’
‘Alas not. I find it’s best not to expect too much sense in these cases, some people go to a lot of effort to make sure we stay ignorant. Think about it: if you went public with what you know now, how seriously do you think you’d be taken? All I’ve got is the stuff I collected myself and hearsay, MI5 hold everything officially, and there’s no-one I can even think of sharing information with outside the immediate team. I have been collecting for the last twenty-seven years but I’ve only had safe access to DNA profiling for the last nine so what came before that isn’t worth much in comparison, it’s just a list of unsolvable crimes they’re probably responsible for. Even with the small database of profiles I have the picture’s fuzzy at best. There are nearly fifty individuals linked to two or more crime scenes, but more often than not we get nothing. One of the men responsible for Betteridge’s demise is linked to over thirty, and that’s just on our patch. I haven’t seen a trace of him for years and now suddenly he’s back; and I can’t imagine he’s been filling the gaps with aid work. Excessive violence and carelessness are his trademarks, like shooting someone and throwing them off a building; that was quite restrained. I’ve seen too many things that I’ll never be able to forget because of him.’ Detective Elgar swallowed.
‘So he’s more of a sanctioned serial killer than do-gooder?
‘I’ll leave you to decide that for yourself. He’s not the only one don’t forget; they routinely track down the people we can’t. To me that suggests they have better resources and that scares me; I’ve given up hope of identifying them, I don’t think I even want to anymore, ignorance really is bliss, but I know they’d find me in a heartbeat if they wanted to.’