We thought we had a bomb.
That’s why Chinatown was deserted. If the public thinks the police have found a dead body then they get out their phones and settle down for a good gawp but if they think we have found a bomb then they will get on their bikes.
The lorry was outside the Gerrard Place dim sum restaurant that marks the start of London’s Chinatown, parked at an angle with its nearside wheels up on the pavement.
The lorry itself looked no different to the convoy of lorries that were lined up bumper to bumper all down one side of Gerrard Street, making their early morning deliveries to the shops and restaurants of Chinatown. But half up on the pavement and parked at a random angle, this lorry looked dumped, as if the driver couldn’t get away fast enough, and that makes our people think only one thing.
Under the bobbing red lanterns that hailed the lunar new year, Chinatown was abandoned apart from armed response officers in their paramilitary gear, paramedics from half a dozen hospitals, firemen from the station on Shaftesbury Avenue, uniformed officers from New Scotland Yard, detectives from Counter Terrorism Command, dogs and their handlers from the Canine Support Unit, and our murder team from West End Central, 27 Savile Row, a short walk from Chinatown.
It was actually a lot of people, all wound up tight, and our breath made billowing clouds of steam in the bitterly cold air. But there was nobody who was not meant to be there.
The public – the deliverymen to Chinatown, the early workers cutting across Soho to their offices in Mayfair or Marylebone or Oxford Street – had scarpered as soon as the police tape went up and the word went out. Only one local was still here – the elderly Chinese man who had seen the lorry and dialed 999. He was a short, slightly built man who had probably spent a career carting crates of Tsing Tao beer into the stores and restaurants of Chinatown, and there was a hard-earned toughness about him despite the modest frame.
The weak winter sun was still struggling to rise above the rooftops. January’s feeble attempt at a sunrise. Without looking at my watch, I knew it must be around eight by now. I sipped a triple espresso from the Bar Italia, my eyes on the abandoned lorry, as DC Edie Wren interviewed the Chinese man.
“So you didn’t see the driver?” Edie asked him.
The man shook his head. “As I believe told you, detective, I saw no sign of the driver.”
His accent was a surprise. He spoke with the buttoned-up formality of a BBC radio announcer from long ago, as if he had learned his English listening to the World Service.
“Tell me again,” Edie said. “Sir.”
“Just the lorry.” He gestured towards it. “Parked on the pavement. The driver was already gone.”
“Was the driver Chinese?”
“I didn’t see the driver.”
“You’re not protecting anyone, are you, sir?”
Edie stared hard at the old man.
“Do you have permission to be in this country, sir?”
The man, never tall, straightened himself up to his full height, his back stiffened with wounded pride.
“I have had a British passport for many years. But what’s that got to do-“
Edie’s pale face did not look up from her notebook.
“Just answer my questions, sir. Did you touch the lorry? Is there any reason why we might find your fingerprints on the vehicle?”
“No,” he said. “I called 999 and the police came immediately. And they said it could be a bomb.”
I lifted the POLICE: DO NOT CROSS tape and held it up as a handler ducked under with her sniffer dog. The handler was a young uniformed officer, shockingly relaxed, and her dog was a brown and white springer spaniel that pulled on its lead, anxious to get cracking.
“Good girl, Molly,” the handler said, and we all watched the pair of them approach the lorry.
The Canine Support Unit uses the kind of dogs who struggle to get adopted at rescue centres – high energy, endlessly curious dogs that don’t know how to stop moving. The same qualities that are all wrong in a household pet are a huge plus in a sniffer dog looking for explosive devices.
Molly sniffed the chassis of that abandoned lorry as if it was a long-stemmed rose.
I held up the tape for them when they came back.
“What does Molly think?” I said.
“Molly thinks it’s not a bomb,” the handler told me.
I scratched the dog behind the ears.
“That’s good enough for me,” I said.
I looked over at a small, bespectacled woman who was standing with an armed officer whose face was entirely covered by a ballistic helmet and a balaclava.
She was holding a small skinny latte from the Bar Italia – cops favour the Bar Italia because the coffee is so good and because it stays open for 22 hours a day – while he was holding a SIGF Sauer SG 516 semi-automatic carbine assault rifle. The woman was my immediate boss, DCI Pat Whitestone, and the man must have been the commanding officer of CTU. I nodded and DCI Whitestone acknowledged the gesture with a salute of her coffee.
This was our case now.
“Let’s open it up,” I shouted, ducking under the perimeter tape.
A fireman from the station on Shaftesbury Avenue fell into step beside me. He grinned at me, bleary with exhaustion and I guessed he must have been kept on after pulling the graveyard shift. Over one shoulder he carried bright red bolt cutters, four feet long, and as we reached the lorry, he swung them down and set the steel jaws against the rust-dappled lock that secured the back door.
He looked at me, nodded briefly, and put his back into it.
The cheap lock crumbled at first bite.
We both grabbed one door and pulled it open.
I stared into the darkness and the cold hit me first. The temperature in the street was in the low single digits. But in the back of that lorry, it was somewhere below freezing.
I climbed inside just as my eyes cleared.
And that is when I saw the women.
Two lines of them, facing each other, their backs pressed against the sides of the lorry.
All young, all silent, none of them moving, as though they had died where they sat. There was a thin coating of frost on their faces.
Some of them had their eyes open. Some of them had ice hanging from their mouth, their nose and their eyelashes. The ice had stuck and clung and froze wherever there was moisture.
I felt my breath catch in my throat.
Some of them had their clothes ripped, as though they had been assaulted. There was no smell of death in the back of that freezing lorry, and yet death was everywhere.
I felt myself sink forward, as if I had been punched in the stomach.
And then I straightened up and turned back at the street.
“We need help in here now!”
Paramedics were already running towards the lorry.
I stepped back to let them inside.
I looked down at Edie Wren, her notebook still in her hand as she bent at the waist, her hand pressed up against the shuttered window of the dim sum place, waiting to retch. Nothing happened. She straightened up and stared at me, her freckled face even paler than usual.
We nodded at each other.
I turned back to the paramedics. They were at the far end of the lorry, working back to back, each crouching over the woman closest to the cab.
DCI Whitestone stood at the open doors of the lorry, staring into the darkness. She shook her head as her eyes took in the unmoving women, her gaze settling on their torn clothes.
“What the hell happened in here?”
Then Edie was by her side.
She had something in her hands.
“I’ve found passports,” she said. “From the cab. Under the dashboard. How many bodies you got in there, Max?”
I did a quick count. There were six of them on either side.
“Twelve,” I said.
Edie was flipping through the passports.
“Are you sure there’s only twelve?”
Edie shook her head.
“But I’ve got thirteen passports.”
“Count again,” Whitestone said. “Both of them. The bodies and the passports.”
I counted the women in the lorry. Edie counted the passports in her hand. The passports were of blue and red and green. These women were from everywhere.
“Turkish, Serbian, Nigerian,” Edie said. “Syrian, Syrian, Syrian. Afghan, Iraqui, Iranian. Pakistani, Chinese, Somalian.” She held them up to me. “And another Turkish,” she said. “There are definitely thirteen passports.”
“And there are twelve women in here,” I said.
“So who’s missing?” Whitestone said.
I shook my head, and turned towards the medics as they moved down the lorry.
“Dead,” one said, not looking round.
“Dead,” the other replied.
They moved on.
The two women closest to the back door were locked in an eternal embrace, like figures from the last days of Pompeii. The way they clung to each made them look like sleeping siblings, although one of them was ebony black and the other had skin as white as milk.
I touched the wrist of the young black woman. Then I touched the wrist of the young white woman. And I could feel nothing but the cold.
”No pulse rate,” I told the paramedics.
One of them shook her head and cursed.
“Leave it to us, will you?” she said. “It’s different when they freeze, okay? Different to anything you’ve ever seen before. Their heart rate and breathing slows to next to nothing. Just because you can’t find a pulse doesn’t mean they’re dead.”
“Can you wait on the street, detective?” the other one said.
I looked at the women with the clothes torn from their body.
“It looks like they were attacked before they died,” I said.
The paramedic who had told me to wait on the street did not look at me.
“Chances are they did that to themselves,” she said, more patiently now. “There’s an old saying about hypothermia – you’re not dead until you’re warm and dead. That’s what happens right at the end. They believe they’re burning up.”
I turned back to the two women curled up beside me.
The black woman’s eyes were open. But the white woman’s eyes were closed. I felt for her pulse again but I could feel nothing. Her skin was colder than the grave.
How old was she? Nineteen? Twenty?
I hung my head, feeling a wave of grief pass over me.
And her fingers reached out and took my wrist.
Then I had her in my arms and I was screaming for an ambulance and hands were reaching out to help me get her out of the back of that death truck and onto a stretcher that we loaded into an ambulance parked in the middle of Shaftesbury Avenue, the swirling blue lights piercing the frozen winter morning. We tore through the city, the sirens howling at the world, telling it to get out of our way.
“You’re safe now,” I said, trying to stay on my feet in the back of the rocking ambulance, squeezing her hands, trying to get some warmth back into them. “We’re getting you help. Don’t give up. Stay with me.”
She did not reply.
“Don’t give up, okay?” I said.
And she did not reply.
I had never felt anything colder than that young woman’s hands.
“Will you tell me your name?” I asked.
“My name is Hana,” she whispered.