She locked the door, double-checked the gun was in place and took up position on the bed, drawing the laptop towards her, ready for her next customer.
She sat with her legs folded beneath her, wearing an off-white vest top and short denim skirt. Her lips were dark crimson, cheeks thick with blusher. And as she regarded herself in the tiny communication window of the laptop – dispassionately, as though it were some other twenty-four-year-old staring back at her – she remembered a time when she wouldn’t have dreamed of slathering on the make-up. Not unless it was for a student fancy-dress party. Rocky Horror theme, tarts and vicars, something like that. Uh, gross, she’d have said. How obvious.
But those days were history. She didn’t go to fancy-dress parties any more. Although she often invited men ‘to party’.
Fixed to a tripod at the foot of her bed was the camera, its impassive eye trained on her, ready to take her image to screens in hotel rooms and upstairs studies and man caves; to laptops opened furtively in back rooms or maybe in the living room if the wife and kids were out, where she’d be appraised as though she were stock options, or a good deal on beef at the supermarket, or a bargain on Amazon. Yes. No. Dunno. Maybe.
Again, it was a thought that should have disgusted her, and once upon a time it had. The thought of all those unseen eyes on her body. The mortal dread of being recognised. But not any more.
The camera light turned green, which meant that somewhere out in the world of the Internet a man was looking at her right now, assessing her, sizing her up, deciding if she was worth it.
Her laptop cursor blinked. In the office sat her supervisor, Jason. Right now he’d be peering at his own monitor through a cloud of weed smoke and wondering why she wasn’t typing, so she stitched on a smile for her audience and reached to the keyboard: Hi, I’m bored, want to play?
They hardly ever wanted to play. Mostly they came here via triple-X pop-ups and knew that ‘play’ meant ‘pay’. All they wanted to do was ogle for a few seconds and then click off in search of free porn elsewhere.
But sometimes they did want to play, and this was one of those times.
What did you have in mind? came the reply.
She smiled, licked her lips, and wrote, I can show you something you’ve never seen before.
Hidden beneath the duvet, the gun dug into her thigh.
Great, wrote the punter.
There was a pause. Payment details were entered. Plenty baulked at this stage, but not this one. He was on the clock now.
Get in! wrote Jason on the IM. He always did that. In a funny way, she was going to miss Jason.
How about we lose the top? wrote the punter, emboldened, wanting to hurry things up, knowing the score. Most likely he was an old hand at cams. They were the worst, the regulars. Treated the girls like cattle, like slaves. No manners.
She turned and dipped a shoulder, dropping a strap of her vest top. Trying to smile, she found she couldn’t. Instead her mind went elsewhere – to her parents, to whom she said a silent ‘sorry’; to the man in the hat from when she was little, her SAS man, her very own special forces, who’d protected her from the bad guys but couldn’t protect her now. Wishing she could have heard his voice one last time and told him what she knew.
Why are you crying?
She hadn’t even realised. But yes, a tear had slipped down her face.
Babe, WTF? What’s up? wrote Jason, but she ignored him, writing to the punter instead.
What’s your name? she typed.
For a second or so she thought he might not respond, things getting a bit weird for him, maybe. But then it came back. Peter. That was probably a lie, but as one who’d been living under a false identity for so long she could hardly judge. Either way, it felt better knowing his name, alias or not.
I’m sorry for what’s about to happen, Peter, she wrote.
What’s about to happen? wrote Peter.
It isn’t your fault, she typed.
What isn’t? came the reply.
This, she wrote. And she pulled the gun from under the duvet, using two hands as she put the barrel upside down into her mouth. She closed her eyes, and for a moment or so she paused in order to look for the courage inside, trying to find the strength to do what she needed to do.
And she found that strength. She found it because she had no other option. Because she had no choice. She said something around the barrel of the gun, two final words, and then pulled the trigger.
The street in Finsbury Park was much like any other residential London road: rows of terraced homes bunched up on either side, cars nudged into every available space, each house telling its own story. This one: home to a retired couple, well kept, tidy and house-proud, wheelie bins neatly arranged out front. This one: student digs, overgrown patch of yard out front, windows dirty, shabby curtains that never seemed to open. This one: stickers in the window, paper chains hanging off the frame, home to a noisy family of four.
There was one particular house, however, where things weren’t quite so easily delineated. Neighbours knew that a family of Eastern Europeans lived there – Bulgarians? Russians? Nobody was sure – and that they had a lot of visitors. The woman always had a smile, and the husband – if that’s what he was, no formal introductions had been made – was a big chap, no stranger to the tattooist, and maybe not the sort you’d want to meet in a dark alley on a foggy night. But always perfectly pleasant if you saw him in the street.
And that was it. If you passed and looked into the front room, often you’d see a much older man who whiled away the hours watching TV, and you’d probably think it was heart-warming that the older members of their family were being looked after in their dotage. Not like the British, who’re happy to let them rot in an old folks’ home.
One of the regular visitors to the house was Sergei Vinitsky, now walking along the pavement, hunched up against the chill of the pre-dawn, his hands thrust into the pockets of the hooded parka he wore, feeling dog-tired.
He opened the low gate and let himself into the yard. Raising his hand to knock, he noticed that he still had blood beneath his fingernails and he made a mental note to wash his hands thoroughly before he slept, which would, with any luck, be very soon indeed.
He knocked at the front door – one, two, pause, one, two, pause, one, two. As he was knocking, he glanced into the front window of the house. Sure enough, sitting in his favourite chair in the front room was the man they called Grandfather, glued to an episode of some TV programme, cup of tea at hand. To look at him you’d never know that this particular old man had killed and killed again, and that his favoured method of execution was to remove body parts one by one, literally to cut his victims to death.
The door was opened by Dmitry’s English wife, Karen. A welcoming smile dropped from her face like falling bricks as she closed the door behind Sergei and indicated for him to make his way along the hall.
He remembered himself, stopped and called to Grandfather in the front room, ‘Hello, Ded,’ he said, Ded being the name reserved for those unrelated to Grandfather. Dmitry, his actual grandson, called him Dedushka. Karen too.
At the sound of the greeting the old man turned his head in Sergei’s direction and grinned toothlessly, his beady eyes gleaming. He inclined his head in reply, then switched his attention back to the TV.
‘The Skinsman’, they called him. Just to say his name made men beg for mercy. But his ways were the old ways. Sergei and Dmitry were seeing to that.
Venturing into the bowels of the home, Sergei was struck afresh by the marked contrast between the front of the house and what lay further inside. Leading off the hall was an adequately furnished kitchen with the full complement of washing machine, dishwasher, fridge and cooker, but otherwise all semblance of domestic normality was absent, the pretence so carefully projected for the benefit of neighbours and passers-by abandoned. There were no photographs on the wall, no lamps or light shades where a listening device might be concealed, ditto no carpet. Just a stretch of corridor – bare, as though awaiting refurbishment – which led to a door and the lair of the man who to the neighbours seemed a pleasant enough fellow.
This was Dmitry Kraviz, and he spent the bulk of his days peering through spectacles at a mosaic of computer screens arranged above his desk.
Sergei knocked, walked in and stood close to the door, just as Dmitry preferred. He had called ahead to warn his boss that he had news of some importance, but of course the information itself had to be delivered in person.
‘So, what do you have to tell me, Sergei?’ asked Dmitry. He swivelled in his seat in order to give his second in command his full attention. A gold tooth gleamed, but there was no malice in his smile, not like his grandfather.
‘There has been trouble, Dmitry, at one of our studios,’ explained Sergei, and he told Dmitry about the girl.
When he had finished, Dmitry processed the news without comment or even apparent emotion, turning lazily in his chair, his eyes flicking over the screens. On one a young girl was removing her bra. Another showed men gambling in a dimly lit room. Another displayed a list of what Sergei took to be prices, but of what he couldn’t say, while yet another rested at a Google search screen. Who knew where Dmitry’s interests might take him? As head of the organisation’s London operation, Dmitry had excelled in numerous areas of business: drugs, pornography, prostitution, gambling, protection and trafficking among them. Having the family connection to the Skinsman had certainly done him no harm, but Dmitry had also earned a reputation as a thoughtful tactician in his own right. Ruthless, maybe, but never wilfully cruel. Again, not like his grandfather.
‘Is Karen aware?’ he said.
‘She didn’t mention it when I arrived.’
‘Is that so? I thought it was her job to look after the girls.’
Sergei gave him a look that he hoped would convey at least two things. One, that Karen was not exactly conscientious when it came to those duties. Two, that Sergei did not consider it his place to say so.
Dmitry understood. ‘Stupid bitch,’ he said. ‘But you, Sergei. You have done well.’
‘Thank you, Dmitry,’ said Sergei. He recalled the clean-up operation with a barely restrained shudder: calming down Jason, trying not to spook the other girls, keeping a lid on the whole thing during a process that had gone on into the early hours of the morning until, finally, they had deposited the body in a hostel in Clapham then left via the fire exit, stepping over an unconscious junkie on their way out.
Oh yes, it had been a very, very long night indeed.
‘Which one was she, the girl?’ asked Dmitry.
Sergei gave a small half-shrug. ‘Her name was Faye. She was only with us for a couple of weeks.’
‘How did she come to us?’
‘From our street people.’
Sergei kissed his fingers, Italian chef style.
‘Such a shame. I’ll have to refresh my memory.’ Dmitry indicated his screens. ‘But a junkie, though, yes?’
Sergei nodded. ‘She owed us money. Our boys referred her to me and I put her to work.’
‘Will you tell Grozny, Dmitry?’
Dmitry thought a moment then asked, ‘It is all taken care of, yes? No comebacks?’
‘I believe so.’
He considered. ‘Then there is no need to upset Alexander,’ he said.
Moments later Sergei was excused, and on his way out he bid farewell to Karen and then to Grandfather, who returned his goodbye with a curt nod and a strange and malevolent smile.
Briefly, Sergei wondered if there was anything more to that smile than an old man losing what few marbles he still had left. But then he decided he was way too tired to care.