The Stolen Child- Alex Coombs (Digital Sample)

Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The Stolen Child’ by Alex Coombs.

The Stolen Child

Alex Coombs


The compact, concrete shape of the World War Two gun emplacement crouched, hunkered down into the shallow, gravelly soil above the beach on the Essex side of the Thames Estuary near Southend. It overlooked the wide, grey shallow waters on whose far side lay the Isle of Grain and Sheerness. Hanlon guessed it was somewhere out there in those cold, steely waters that the proposed island airport for London might one day take shape. She thought, fleetingly, it would be a pity in a way if it happened. The North Sea waters had a chilly quality that she found rather beautiful. She looked around her slowly, the sky above enormous after London’s claustrophobic horizons. A heron stood on a boulder near the beach, shrugging its wings like an old lady arranging a shawl around her shoulders. Cormorants bobbed along on top of the water and she could see guillemots, their wings folded back like dive-bombers, thundering into the water. The calls of the birds floated towards her on the stiff sea breeze.

The tarmac track that led down from the main road above them was old, cracked and weed-grown. The ex-army building’s pitted, grey, artificial stone surface was now camouflaged with yellow, cream and blue-grey lichens and grey-green moss, so that it seemed almost organic, a part of the landscape like a strangely symmetric rock formation. There was a fissured, concrete apron next to the bunker and Hanlon pulled up adjacent to the large, white Mercedes van that she guessed belonged to the forensics team, then got out of her car. She stood for a moment by her Audi and closed her eyes. She felt the cold, fresh sea air against her skin and the breeze tugged at her shoulder-length dark hair. She could smell the metallic warmth of her car engine and the salt tang of the sea. The sound of the small waves breaking on the stony beach a hundred metres or so away were nearly drowned out by the throbbing of the generator next to the Mercedes. She could hear the keening of seagulls, much louder now, wheeling above in the sky. Hanlon stretched the powerful, sinewy muscles in her shoulders and arms and opened her eyes, which were as expressionless as the North Sea in front of her. She looked out over the water, feeling its call. Hanlon loved swimming in the open sea. Earlier that morning, at 6 a.m., she had swum for a steady hour in her local swimming pool, but pool swimming was nothing compared to real salt water. She guessed at this time of year the temperature would be only two or three degrees, colder than a fridge. That wouldn’t deter her. She could taste its saltiness, carried to her lips by the wind.

A red power cable looped its way from the generator through the heavy, open metal door of the bunker. The door was rusted and pitted by time and the elements, but still substantial. Hanlon stepped over the line of police crime-scene tape that secured the area, blowing like bunting in the sea breeze, and approached the building. Earlier that day, the place would have been bustling with her colleagues from Essex. Now the uniforms had gone and the outside of the bunker, included in the search area, reopened. She didn’t go inside through the forbidding-looking portal designed, she guessed, to be blast-proof, but walked instead along the side wall until she came to one of its long, slit windows that overlooked the beach and the far horizon.

Hanlon had already spoken to the crime scene manager in charge to clear her access to the site and she remembered her conversation on the phone with the CSM. It had been straightforward enough. ‘We’ve done what we can with the access route to the crime, DI Hanlon. It was vehicular, we’ve searched the surrounding radius of the bunker to within half a kilometre, foreshore, beach, in case the body was brought in by sea or inland, on the off chance it was carried here, but nada. We assume it was driven here.’ The CSM had carried on. ‘Basically, you’re fine by us as far as access is concerned. Why the interest anyway?’

The intonation of Hanlon’s voice conveyed a shrug. ‘AC Corrigan wants me to have a look. Ask him.’ And that’s how the call had ended.

The World War Two building still had a certain forlorn power about it even though its original purpose – observation? Defence, maybe? – was long forgotten or possibly preserved somewhere, buried deep in a government archive. Now it was being noted by officialdom again.

Hanlon peered in through the glassless window. Inside the hexagonal interior of the building she could see the two CSI men in their white disposable overalls, gloved and booted, masked, and in plastic caps, working in the blaze of two powerful arc lights powered by the generator outside. She watched as they carried on with their high-intensity light source photography. The inside of the bunker was comparatively clean. The chained door had kept people out and there was none of the usual smell of urine or detritus like old beer cans, food wrappers, odds and sods of soiled clothing, cigarette ends or the drug paraphernalia of roaches from joints and needles that you’d normally find in abandoned, solitary buildings – the spoor of kids, tramps and junkies, the natural denizens of places like this. When she’d first joined the force, places like this were always littered with scraps of photographs torn from pages of porn magazines. She’d often wondered why. If you wanted to look at porn, why do it in a dank, derelict building? Maybe you had to. That sort of litter had become a rarity these days. She guessed it was the digital revolution. Times moved on.

The bunker certainly wasn’t odour-free, though. Hanlon had a keen sense of smell and her nose could detect the lingering aftermath of charred flesh and petrol that still coated its concrete shell. It smelt like burnt cooking, a barbecue gone horribly wrong. She looked upwards at the ceiling and there, as she thought she might, she could see small patches of black, greasy soot where bits of burnt remains had drifted in the updraft from the flames and come to rest.

Hanlon was invisible to the men inside working behind the glare of the lights and she watched unseen as the taller of the two figures started to put photographic equipment away into a dimpled, metallic, silver-coloured carrying case. Despite the noise of the breeze, she could hear their conversation clearly.

‘So, are we done now, Jim?’ one of them asked.

The smaller of the two men removed hat and mask, revealing a bald head and a thin, good-humoured face. She recognized him. Hanlon was glad it was James Forrest. He was old school, thorough and experienced, not the kind of man who’d make foolish mistakes. In the last year Hanlon had seen two perfectly good verdicts overturned by defence lawyers because of stupid, procedural blunders. Forrest wouldn’t do that.

‘Pretty much,’ Forrest said. ‘I’d like you to start packing all this stuff away. I’m going outside now, Hanlon’ll be here soon.’ ‘What about the PolSA?’ asked the other man. Only after the scene had been signed off by that officer, the police search adviser, could the scene actually be cleaned and returned to

normality. Hanlon guessed that in this case there’d be no big rush. It was hardly in anyone’s way, like a stabbing on Oxford Street would be. The only people inconvenienced out here would be dog walkers and beachcombers.

‘We’ll secure the premises and speak to the SIO later,’ said Forrest.

The younger man carried on disassembling the cameras and putting the parts away in their respective compartments. It had been an unpleasant day. The girl’s naked body had been so charred they’d had to wrap her limbs carefully in oiled clingfilm so that when they moved her, she didn’t break up. One of the officers present had made a joke about liking his meat well done. No one had laughed. ‘So what’s she like, boss, this Hanlon? They say she’s a bit of a ball-breaker,’ said the young CSI.

‘Is that what they say, Thomas?’ said Forrest courteously but firmly. His tone made it clear he had no interest in this line of conversation. He was annoyed with his assistant now. He disliked gossip. ‘You shouldn’t listen to tittle-tattle.’

Ball-breaker, Hanlon thought. Is that what I am? Well, she thought dispassionately, I’ve kicked a fair few in my time. She had the rare quality of not caring what others thought of her. She had long ago reached the conclusion that she had risen as far as she was likely to get in the police force. Hanlon didn’t particularly mind.

She’d forgotten Forrest’s old-fashioned turns of phrase. Tittle-tattle. Stuff and nonsense. Argy-bargy. Golly. Those kinds of expressions. He’d never been known to swear. Forrest was a kind of living legend for that alone.

She’d once been with him at the scene of a triple homicide. A drug deal gone wrong. Shotguns had been used. Two of them. Great chunks had been blown out of the victims’ bodies. A shotgun is a very messy weapon; it does an all too predictable amount of damage to a human body. It looked like the room had been painted and decorated in blood and tissue, arterial spray and brains, far worse than an abattoir. Even Hanlon had been impressed by the carnage. Two or three police had to go outside and be sick. It was memorably horrible. Forrest had slowly surveyed the scene, eyebrows raised, cocked his head to one side and said simply, ‘Good Heavens.’ Hanlon had savoured that moment. She appreciated understatement.

‘She’s always been perfectly pleasant to me,’ said Forrest. ‘Now, get this lot cleaned down and I’ll see you outside.’ He was very fond of Hanlon. His voice was suddenly acerbic. The way he emphasized ‘Now’ was like the crack of a whip. His young assistant jumped and set to with alacrity.

She turned and retraced her steps and waited for Forrest to emerge from the bunker. He did so, looking tired and preoccupied, then, as soon as he saw Hanlon, a delighted smile transformed his thin, mobile, slightly ugly face.


‘James,’ she said. They shook hands, both pleased to see each other.

‘So what brings you down here?’ asked Forrest. The sea breeze whipped again at Hanlon’s hair and she pushed it away from her eyes as she looked out over the water at the mouth of the estuary. She could see in the far distance the low bulk of two tankers heading for the port facilities on the unseen opposite shore.

By way of explanation she said, ‘You heard about my new job?’

‘Vaguely,’ said Forrest. ‘Congratulations on the medal, by the way.’ Hanlon smiled thinly. Her mouth wasn’t designed for humour. In December she had been given the Queen’s

Award for Gallantry, a decoration for bravery usually awarded posthumously to dead police. It was almost the equivalent of a Victoria Cross. It was this that Forrest was referring to.

She shrugged, dismissing all talk of the medal. ‘Corrigan gave me this post on the back of it.’ Her hard eyes looked out to sea. ‘He wants the Commissioner’s job, it’s no secret, and he’s worried that there’ll be some internal cock-up that’ll get in the way and screw his chances up.’ Forrest nodded and Hanlon continued. ‘You can imagine, another Stockwell, another police killing, some stupid balls-up that we’ve made.’ She looked out to sea, the wind still whipping her long, dark hair.

‘Like Tottenham,’ said Forrest pleasantly. Hanlon narrowed her eyes; it was the riots that had nearly finished her own career. ‘Exactly. No more own goals, well, not in our bit of the Met anyway. If anyone else cocks up, preferably one of his rivals, so much the better for us. We don’t care if heads roll so long as it’s not ours. If Corrigan’s a bit paranoid, I can’t say I blame him. How many police have we got in the Met anyway?’

‘Thirty-one thousand officers the last time I counted. Bound to be a few bad apples.’

‘Well,’ said Forrest diplomatically, ‘Public Relations is part of his job after all. I suppose this one,’ he jerked his head in the direction of the bunker, ‘is going to generate a bit of press interest. It’s not on your patch, though.’

‘May as well be. You’re only down the road,’ she said. ‘So, what have we got here then?’ she asked the forensics man. ‘Witchcraft killing, is it? At least, that’s what I was told.’

Corrigan had heard this might be the case and had sent her down to check up on the facts rather than wait for an official report to be delivered. The AC shared Forrest’s view. A witchcraft killing in his opinion was newsworthy. If reporters were going to ask questions he didn’t want to look uninformed.

It was off his patch as Forrest had said, but it was so close to London it might as well be there.

Forrest started removing his protective suit. ‘What we’ve got, Hanlon,’ he said in his gentle, measured way, ‘is the charred body of a pubescent African girl who was killed elsewhere, brought here, and set alight. I’m guessing diesel was the accelerant but we’ll have to wait for the GC results on that. Her teeth and hands are intact so I’m guessing she won’t feature on any UK or Interpol DNA database, she won’t have any dental records and there’ll be no record of her fingerprints on NAFIS or HOLMES.’ Hanlon nodded. Anyone who had the kind of personality needed to do this to a child would not hesitate to remove such obvious clues to identity.

‘That’s only a guess, mind you,’ said Forrest. ‘We’ll obviously know soon enough.’

‘OK,’ said Hanlon. ‘What else, James?’

‘There are also some crude designs scratched on the floor and the remains of a chicken and a couple of candles. And a crucifix. That would seem to indicate some kind of occult mumbo-jumbo, some sort of ceremony, but…’ Forrest looked at her keenly.

‘But?’ asked Hanlon. They were both thinking of two similar cases. The ‘Adam’ killing in 2001 when the torso of an African boy was found in the Thames – just the torso, no limbs or head. That had been a witchcraft killing, most probably Nigerian. Then, more recently, there had been the murder of Kristy Bamu in London by his sister and her boyfriend. They had accused the boy of Kindoki or witchcraft. Attempts to exorcize him had led to horrific injuries and the boy’s death. Hanlon thought that had been Congolese. African Christianity seemed keen on this sort of thing. While driving through London recently she’d been listening absently-mindedly to

Radio Four and heard two African Anglican ministers discussing the existence of witches as a verifiable fact. She’d turned angrily to another station.

Forrest smiled at her. ‘But a cursory examination showed extensive vaginal trauma.’ He sighed. ‘The poor girl was naked, legs splayed so it’s just visual evidence. We’ll know more after we’ve examined her properly but she had been circumcised, the clitoris excised, the labia sewn up. It’s partly why it was so easy to see she’d been assaulted.’ Hanlon frowned. FGM, or female genital mutilation, in her view was not taken nearly as seriously over here as it should be. The French, she knew, adopted a much harder line. There were virtually no prosecutions over it in this country. ‘I’d guess, personally, she was Somali. They’ve got a 98 per cent female circumcision rate. Well, she looks Somali anyway. As I said, it’s early days yet. We’ll know more after we’ve run tests. So I think we’ve got a murdered rape victim, not a witchcraft victim. I think I’m correct in saying that witchcraft victims are usually the by-products of African Christianity, often Congolese or Nigerian, not Islam. Do they have witches in the Qur’an?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Hanlon. ‘I don’t think so. I seem to remember that there’s something about women blowing on knots as a form of sorcery, but I don’t really have a clue. Mind you, I don’t think there’s much about them in the Bible, come to that. Witches, I mean. That hasn’t stopped anyone before, has it.’ Certainly not you two idiots, she thought back to the two men of God she’d heard on the radio. The unspoken implication had been that killing a witch was quite reasonable.

‘I guess not. Well, anyway,’ said Forrest, ‘I think it was just staged. The body made to look like a witchcraft killing. I think it’s old-fashioned rape, murder. But, of course, that’s your job, not mine. I just do forensics.’

Hanlon nodded. She could see that if the motive was sexual rather than occult it would widen the search parameters hugely. There were only a certain number of Kindoki practitioners in London, but a vast pool of potential rapists. Several million.

‘Then,’ said Forrest, ‘and this is purely a personal observation by someone who’s from this area, you don’t get many Congolese or West Africans around here, not near Southend. Whoever dumped the poor child here knew this part of the Essex coast very well. You wouldn’t find this place by accident. I think, for what it’s worth, when you find him, he’ll be white and local. And as for that poor girl, well, I’ll email you the post-mortem results together with any relevant forensic information. I’m assuming you’ll just want the highlights of any report?’

Hanlon nodded; she just needed the gist of things. It wasn’t her case.

‘When’s the management team meeting on this, James?’ she asked.

‘There’ll be one tomorrow morning. I’ll send you any relevant info. Martin Horrocks is the SIO for this one, do you know him?’

Hanlon shook her head.

‘He’s good,’ said Forrest. He looked out over the estuary and watched as another gannet exploded into the sea, putting an Olympic diver to shame with its easy grace. ‘There’s quite a lot that needs follow-up, obviously, but whoever did this was careful. There’s no trace evidence. No useable tyre prints or footprints; nothing left by whoever deposited her here. I’ve got prints to run through the PNC but I doubt if they’ll have any relevance. This looks like a relatively professional job, but you never know. That’ll be in the next couple of days, we haven’t got a great deal on.’

‘Who found her?’ asked Hanlon.

‘A woman walking her dog,’ said Forrest. ‘Thank God for dog walkers. Dog walkers and joggers. If it wasn’t for them, God knows how many bodies would go undetected.’ Hanlon nodded in agreement. ‘The door there,’ he indicated it with a nod of his head, ‘is usually chained and padlocked but today her dog ran inside. It was open, so she went looking for it. That’s when she called us.’

‘It was open?’ said Hanlon in surprise. She’d have expected it to be at least pushed to, more of an attempt at concealment made. It was as if someone had intended the body to be discovered. Forrest nodded. ‘Open. The chain was cut with bolt cutters.

It was lying on the ground. It’s bagged and back at the lab.’ ‘How long’s she been in there?’ asked Hanlon.

‘Not long,’ said Forrest. ‘One of your lot told me the dog walker comes by every day and yesterday the door was chained and padlocked. I’ll know more when I’ve got back to the lab.’ Hanlon nodded and Forrest’s assistant appeared through the doorway of the bunker, carrying lights and cabling. Thomas stood blinking in the afternoon light, staring at the slim, controversial figure that was Hanlon.

During the London riots a police community support officer had found himself, through a mixture of bad luck and unfortunate timing, caught up on the fringes of the Tottenham riots. When he’d started his beat patrol, alone, as his partner had called in sick, everything was more or less normal. Elsewhere in the borough, sporadic acts of vandalism, like Brownian motion in a lab, were coalescing into what eventually turned into the most alarming street violence in living memory. To James Brudenell, the hapless PCSO, it was like being trapped on a mudflat by a tide racing in, as the flood of lawlessness bore down on him from all sides, leaving him bobbing around like a piece of helpless driftwood. It was the speed of it all that was maybe the most frightening thing. One minute the shopping parade had been a picture of normality. Five minutes later the street was full of noise, rampaging masked youths shouting, normal people caught up in it running for cover or in flight, the strident, deafening wails of alarms from businesses and cars, shopkeepers frantically pulling down security screens if they had any, sirens in the distance, news and police helicopters overhead, shouting and screaming, breaking glass.

The PCSO had stood bewildered, paralysed with indecision, feeling ridiculously conspicuous in his uniform, very much alone. He had never imagined anything like this happening. He felt he couldn’t have been much more of a target if he’d tried. It was then that he felt a blow strike him from behind. He wheeled round to confront his assailant and found himself looking at a group of about ten youths. One of them had thrown a half-empty can of Red Stripe at him, which had splashed him with beer as it hit him and now lay at his feet. He could smell it. The faces of the kids suddenly seemed very adult, very hostile as they stared at him. Brudenell thought with a sudden, terrible clarity: they want to kill me. They threw more things at him. Various missiles struck the PCSO: stones, a half-brick, a bottle and a full can of Coke which hit him on the forehead, breaking the skin. Blood coursed down his face and the sight of it was like a signal to the group, who surged forward towards him.

There were police officers in an adjacent street who had been ordered not to engage with the crowd, even though there were reports that an officer was under attack nearby. They stood around helplessly, trying to look purposeful. The truth was that nobody really knew what to do. The helicopter overhead had called the situation in but they were impotent. They were not to ‘inflame’ the situation or ‘escalate’ tension. They were to contain it. No one was quite sure exactly what that meant. Hanlon had been with them.

Ignoring orders, she had taken a baton from one of the PCs, walked away from the police line and strode through the rioters, round the corner, just in time to see the fallen PCSO surrounded by half a dozen figures, all kicking and stamping. Hanlon didn’t weigh up the risks of what she was doing. She didn’t calculate the odds. She just acted.

Accounts didn’t differ as to what happened next. What caused the argument was the legality of Hanlon’s actions. The police federation lawyers argued that Hanlon had identified herself as a police officer and that it was all by the book. Civil rights lawyers claimed that Hanlon, not in uniform and not readily recognizable as a police officer, had attacked innocent members of the public. It was unprovoked assault by a dangerous thug hiding behind a police badge. The PCSO’s blood on their clothing and shoes was proof of proximity, but not of guilt. The CCTV cameras that could have caught the action had been damaged by this time and no one came forward as an eyewitness on either side. What was uncontestable was that, on the one hand, Hanlon had hospitalized three men aged between seventeen and thirty-two and, on the other, had saved the life of a fellow officer. Several doctors had testified to the fact the PCSO would have probably died had the attack continued for very much longer. The list of his injuries was extensive, from skull fractures to broken wrists to smashed cheekbones to ruptured kidneys. One of the rioters had stamped on his face so hard you could see the imprint of the sports shoe manufacturer embedded on his skin from the sole of the trainer.

Throughout the following investigations and enquiry by the IPCC, apart from when directly questioned Hanlon had preserved an enigmatic silence.

It was a tricky problem for the Met. She was certainly guilty of disobeying orders, flagrantly so, but then again, to discipline her or sack her would make them look ridiculous. Not only ridiculous, but unpopular and out of touch with public opinion, which was in a vengeful mood. People wanted the rioters punished. Society wanted an eye for an eye. Prosecuting Hanlon would have been a PR disaster. They’d compromised on a medal and a decision to sideline her from front-line duties. In an ideal world, and heavy hints were dropped, Hanlon would resign through some unspecified stress- or health-related problem and would be handsomely paid off, pension intact. Irritatingly, she showed no signs of wanting to do this. She’d spent about three months in limbo in the system and no one really knew what to do with her, no one wanted her, until Corrigan had taken her under his wing. Thomas thought she looked disappointingly ordinary. She was tall and slim with a long, unsmiling face and bleak, grey eyes. She didn’t fit his warrior princess preconceptions. There was no glamour. She was wearing dark clothes and they made her face even more pallid. There were smudges under her eyes as if she habitually slept badly and her shoulder-length black hair was slightly greasy and ragged-looking.

As if suddenly aware of Thomas’s scrutiny, she turned her eyes on him again and he blushed and started busying himself securing the halogen lights away in the van. She had hard eyes, cold, unfriendly.

Forrest bent down to help Thomas stow the lights in the back of the van, then he turned back to Hanlon. ‘There is one thing. It might be important.’ He took an iPad out of the van and scrolled through images until he found one he was looking for.

‘Here,’ he said and passed the tablet to Hanlon.

She took it and found herself looking at an image of a section of rough concrete wall next to a ruled mark that showed the distance in centimetres from the floor. There was a downward slash and next to it an inverted V. She looked at Forrest and shrugged.

Forrest said, ‘I went to Morocco on holiday last year and I learnt some Arabic, including the way they write numerals. That,’ he indicated the twin marks, ‘says “eighteen”. This mark means “one”.’ His finger pointed to the downward stroke. ‘And this one “eight”, here.’ This time he pointed to the inverted V. ‘Written in pencil. Whoever left the body, left that. The pencil mark runs through some of the carbon deposit on the wall from the girl’s body, so it’s post-mortem, post-burning. I just thought you’d better know.’

Hanlon handed the tablet back. Eighteen. The unspoken thought, just in case someone’s keeping count, hung in the salty estuary air.


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