Innocence: A Grace Chibwana Thriller
Grace Chibwana is a young woman with an African father and European mother. She is a fighter, toughened by a history of abuse, prostitution, and drug taking before she was rescued, rehabilitated and given commando-style training by a group of soldiers of fortune led by her supposedly dead father.
Now she finds herself at the centre of a struggle to rescue her twin sister’s eight-year-old son from a gang of people traffickers run by Thornton, a sadistic serial killer living in Las Vegas. Grace has an unusual ally, Chi, her imaginary friend from childhood but now her ‘second personality’ whose re-emergence was triggered by her use of LSD. Chi sees things Grace may fail to see. Between them, they miss nothing and have developed a strong mutual trust.
Together they have to find where the child has been taken before it is too late to save him.
In this fast moving story of no holds barred, the brutal action we see the sheer speed and intelligence of her decision making and her merciless treatment of her foes bringing results which would not be possible for a more conventional investigator.
Michael Lekas was feeling good about himself. He had only arrived in England from Albania four years earlier and already he was close to being king of his patch here in Manchester. He and the men who came with him, men he trusted and who trusted him, had taken the city by the throat and carved out a growing share of the illicit trade in girls, boys, drugs, and guns. He already owned a luxury penthouse apartment near Parsonage Gardens, where he rubbed shoulders with lawyers and accountants from the top firms, he drove a Bentley, and he had Grace, the most beautiful of his stable of beautiful girls, on his arm.
Tonight would be Grace’s last with him. He had already seen her replacement, Maria, a seventeen year old fresh from Croatia, who had undergone her ‘acclimatisation’ and would be only too happy to be rescued by him from the life she found herself facing as a whore. As he always did, when swapping one girl for a new one, he had taken Grace out for a no expense spared meal at one of Manchester’s Michelin-starred restaurants, the excuse for the celebration being that today was his mother’s birthday. Lekas had murdered his parents and stolen their savings when he was seventeen, but no one knew that. As far as the world was concerned, his sainted mother was, thanks to him, living comfortably in Tirana.
In some ways, he would be sorry to let Grace go. She was an accomplished dominatrix when he met her, the best he had ever seen, and the only girl to have come to his organisation voluntarily. She had an instinct for keeping the perverts happy when she was demeaning and hurting them. Her educated English accent seemed to add to her attraction. It was his good fortune that she had been the victim of a persistent and increasingly threatening stalker. When she turned to him his offer of protection coupled with a supply of free heroin in return for a share of her income had been enough to draw her in. He’d decided to take her for himself from the start, but now he was tired of her and her constant demands for a fix. There was also her independent streak. When his other girlfriends came to him, they had already been conditioned to obedience. That, he thought to himself, was the downside of taking a girl who was not one of his own imports.
At the end of the meal, he had told her it was time she started work again and that she would be moving out of his apartment the next day. He was surprised she did not complain. He was doubly surprised when, again without complaint, she accepted the news that he was passing her on to his second in command, Konstandin Luga. He had already decided to let Luga be the one to tell her that, instead of having only a share of what she earned, he would be keeping it all. Luga would give her spending money and take a cut himself, of course, but Michael would keep everything else. He was looking forward to raking in the thousands a day she had commanded when she had operated as an independent. It was doubtful that she would last more than a couple of years, but by then he would have recouped all he had spent on her many times over.
As was usual when the weather was warm, he had decided to walk the short distance home. As was also usual, Konstandin had urged him to use his car, or at least allow a couple of men to accompany him, for protection.
“Why? This is England. I am not going to skulk around this city. I own it. No one in Manchester would dare try to harm me. They know the price they would pay would be more than they can afford. I have proved twice now that those who cross me die, as do their families, close and distant, wherever they live. Who would risk that? No, stop worrying Konstandin, I am safe here”, he had insisted, before telling his men to take his car and leave it in the underground parking at his apartment building.
It was half past midnight. The city was quiet, the night air was warm and yes, for him, life was sweet. They walked arm in arm across St Peter’s Square from Princess Street. Ahead of them to the left were the raised platforms of the Manchester Metro tram station. Further ahead was the colonnaded front of the Central Library, the Rondel-shaped design copied in miniature from the Library of Congress in Washington. Their route would have taken them right by the impressive columns which stood in front of the main library doors, but, as they crossed the tram tracks, a large man, who had been sitting on the ground, resting his back against the side of the outbound platform, pulled himself to his feet and began shuffling in their direction. His shabby clothes and the blanket wrapped around his shoulders identified him as one of the homeless beggars who were an increasingly common sight in the city. Michael instinctively steered Grace away to the right, grasping her hand as he did so. She leant against him slightly as they headed into the narrow roadway which led along the western side of the library, to Mount Street. Their shoes made a loud clipping sound as the high buildings enclosed them.
The beggar watched the couple as they disappeared from sight, satisfied his part in guiding them on their way had been successful. He spoke quietly, as though to himself, then returned to his seat against the platform.
“Listen to that echo,” said Michael, all thought of the homeless beggar erased from his mind. “Look at the way the convex curve of the library matches the concave curve of the Town Hall. It always reminds me of Tirana. Such fine buildings. You British don’t really appreciate hidden treasures like this.”
“I do appreciate it Michael, but I must admit I hadn’t noticed it until you pointed it out to me”, Grace replied.
“Exactly, my dear, and as I share my appreciation of culture, some of it is rubbing off, don’t you agree? It goes to show, even an ignorant whore like you can become more cultured if a cultured man is willing to make an effort with her”.
“Yes Michael, I am becoming more cultured, but I don’t suppose I will ever know as much about culture as you do”, she said submissively.
Michael’s announcement that he was putting her back to work had not surprised her. She had always known that living as his girlfriend was too good to last. It was a surprise when he told her that he was passing her on to Luga but she hid her shock from him. Luga had a reputation for treating his girls violently. It was rumoured he had killed at least one. Her mind had gone into overdrive as she thought frantically about her options but the need for her next fix was getting in the way. Try as she might she could not work out how long it would take her to accumulate enough money to get away, move to another city or even another country. She realised that the first thing she had to do was to break the hold heroin had on her. As she walked she thanked her stars that she had never let anyone know that this was her home city and that her family lived nearby. Once she left his organisation Michael would be out for payback in the only way he knew how. He would harm her family if he knew they existed. As far as he, and everyone else, knew, she was an orphan who had been brought up in a home in Guildford, which was where she had acquired her accent.
Once again, Michael interrupted her thoughts.
“This is like walking through a narrow canyon where we have to watch out for outlaws”, he exclaimed loudly, the amusement and intoxication audible in his voice as he looked around them, up towards the tops of the surrounding buildings.
They continued walking, following the curve of the narrow road. Soon Mount Street came into view. Ahead of them was yet another homeless man, moving erratically in their direction. As he got closer, Grace could see he was holding out a tin in his left hand, begging, and she felt Michael tense.
“Don’t get angry”, she chided as she squeezed his hand. “Just give him some money”.
Michael stopped dead and turned to face her. He squeezed her hand in return, but painfully, and glared into her face.
“For fuck’s sake, how many times have I told you not to tell me what to do?” he hissed.
She looked down submissively as he began walking again, this time more quickly, dragging her behind him and reaching into his pocket with his free hand. The beggar raised his head and she could see him more clearly now. He was black and very big, a few inches over six feet and broad shouldered. His straggly beard looked filthy, as did his clothes and the blanket in which he was wrapped despite the warmth of the night. His dreadlocks stuck out around his head in a dirty, unkempt jumble.
Michael stopped and let go of her as he rooted around in his pocket. She continued for a couple more steps and found herself closer to the beggar than she had intended. He towered over her. Suddenly he reached out and grabbed her by her left elbow, dropping the tin in the process. He pulled her and she staggered around behind him. He stepped forward so that he was between her and Michael. His right arm swung towards Michael and she saw a flash of yellow street light reflect off something in his hand.
She tried to shout a warning, but her tongue seemed to stick to the roof of her mouth. Thankfully Michael had already seen the knife and was starting to move away.
The beggar kept on, still holding her by the arm and pulling her along. Michael continued moving away but, as he came clearly into view again, she saw the beggar’s right hand strike the lower left side of his chest. Michael’s eyes widened in shock and there was a sharp intake of breath. Everything seemed to stop as she waited for him to breathe out. When it came, the exhalation was accompanied by an awful bubbling sound. His body began to fall and the beggar wrenched his arm back. The bloodied blade came out of Michael’s chest and swung back behind the beggar, towards her. There was a searing pain in her arm and she looked down. Blood was spreading darkly from a line running between her elbow and her wrist. The beggar’s blade had slashed her as it had swung back. He turned as she grasped her arm and looked at him. He released his grip on her and seemed hesitant. As Michael’s limp body settled onto the ground, she turned and ran. She could hear a woman screaming and then realised the voice was her own. Clamping her mouth shut she kept running, back the way they had come. She was trying to remember where she had seen a police station and realised, with a growing sense of despair, that she should have run the other way, towards the Town Hall, where there would have been taxis, even at this time of night.
The footfalls of the murderer were soft and well-spaced behind her. Her own stilettos were making a lot of noise and she realised that she was taking many more steps than he was. She felt he was gaining on her as she burst out onto St Peter’s Square again. There was nothing in sight, no one at the tram station, no one to help her, only the homeless man they’d seen earlier. He now had a companion; a ragged-looking woman. They were between her and the Metro track, cutting off her route back to Princess Street. She veered to the right and looked over her shoulder as she ran. The murderer was twenty yards behind her, lumbering rather than running, but still gaining. She headed across the front of the library building towards Peter Street, where she hoped she would see some people. She looked past the threshold of the building, searching for anyone but what little she could see of the road was deserted.
Suddenly she noticed that the homeless man and woman were running. She did a double take. They were running towards her, as if they were trying to cut her off. Were they working with the murderer? She realised they were. She might just get past them if she went under the library portico, behind the massive columns. This meant hurdling the two steps, which lead to the entrance threshold. She concentrated on pumping her legs, gaining a little more speed in her race to reach the safety of Peter Street, however temporary. As she tried to take the two steps together, she caught her right heel. Her shoe came off and she stumbled. She reached out for something to hold on to but her hand only found the stone of the second column. Decades of library patrons touching it as they passed by had polished it to an almost frictionless finish and it offered no grip. She fell to the flagstones, bouncing painfully and landing, winded, on her back. The murderer was on her before she could move, the blade in his hand, Michael’s blood still glistening along its length.
He stood with his feet on either side of her hips, looking down at her lying there. She tried to squirm away from him, but he shifted his weight and placed one foot on her stomach, pressing just hard enough to make sure she stayed still. He bent forward and looked at her face. She was scared, but she tried to glare back at him. She sensed rather than saw the homeless man and woman arriving behind her, blocking her in. There was nothing she could do; she was alone, there were three of them and he had the weapon and the strength. He brought the knife down next to her cheek, touching her with the blade. She knew she was going to die and she was surprised to find a strange feeling of calm acceptance coming over her. She even kicked off her remaining shoe and relaxed her whole body.
In what seemed to be the final moments of her life, she reflected on how different things might have been. Only three years ago, she had been studying law at Oxford. Then she had found herself pregnant. The father was a Finnish exchange student who had already gone back home. After giving the child up, initially to her mother and then to her twin sister, she had gone downhill fast; drugs, and more drugs. Then came the inevitable dropping out and the discovery that the only way she could afford her multiple drug habits was high-class prostitution. Michael Lekas had rescued her from that life, if only temporarily. She had known he owned a number of brothels and the girls working there. She had known that his interest in her would only be a brief reprieve but she had been more than grateful. She may not have realised it at the start but, having been by his side for months she was left with no illusions about what would happen to her now that he was dumping her for someone else. She would have only a few short years as an asset in his business before she ended up begging on the streets and turning tricks for some low-life pimp. To die now, tonight, would be something of a relief. It would end the ache at the heart of her life, her son, Ben, nearly three years old, who had just been adopted by her identical twin sister, Helen.
A drug-addicted hooker of a natural mother was a complication his life could do without. She took a deep breath and through the tears gathering in her eyes, she looked into the face of the murderer.
“OK, big man, do it. Be brave and kill me too”, she said, surprised at how firm her voice sounded.
She kept her eyes on him. He lifted the knife away from her face, holding it above her body, a drop of Michael’s blood hanging from the tip. Suddenly there was a shout and a scream, and he straightened, put the knife away somewhere in his filthy clothes and stepped away from her. He turned his head to look back towards where he had murdered Michael.
Get up, you’re not dead yet, girl.
Grace heard the voice in her head, a voice which had been all but silent for months, the voice of Chi, her one time imaginary friend. It spurred her back to life. Thankful that she had shed the shoe she took the opportunity offered by the murderer’s distraction and used her heels and elbows to crab backwards a couple of feet before flipping over onto all fours and propelling herself across the flagstones, lifting her upper body and diving through the gap between the man and woman. As she hurtled past them, she found the last pillar blocking her path. She was close to gaining her feet, and was twisting her body to avoid the pillar, when she felt something wet and soft under her bare foot. Both her feet lost traction and she began to fall. She was only travelling at seven or eight miles an hour, but when her shoulder smacked into the pillar, her head jerked to the left and struck the granite, hard. There was a brief flash of light and pain, then darkness as she lost consciousness.
Grace awoke in the passenger seat of a big 4 x 4 being driven by a very large black man who was wearing a white dress shirt and dark trousers. She looked at him closely. If he was the man who had just murdered Michael he had undergone a dramatic transformation. Gone were the straggly beard, the filthy clothes, and the dreadlocks. Now his hair was short, cut close in tight curls. She immediately tried to strike him, but found her wrists were tied firmly to her thighs and she was held in place by the car safety belt. She winced when she saw the bandage on her left arm. Blood was starting to seep through.
“Don’t get excited now, Gracie. For the time being, you are under our control”, the man said, his voice surprisingly cultured. It felt familiar but she could not make the connection.
She twisted her head and looked behind her. In the back seat were three people, two men and a woman, all dressed in smart casual clothes. The woman looked to be in her 20’s, as did one of the men. The other man was markedly older. The younger man was black like the driver. He smiled at her engagingly. Grace ignored him and turned her head so she faced forward again.
“Who the fuck are you people and what do you want with me?” she screamed.
“Who are we? Well, to start with, I’m your father”, came the reply.
“You can’t be. My father is dead!” Her outrage made Grace forget her predicament, here in the middle of the night trussed up in a fast car with a gang of murderers. Her father had been killed eight years earlier when she was twelve. Her parents had been divorced for years by then. She had only seen her father rarely, always when he came to England because her mother wouldn’t allow her children to visit him in Africa where he lived. She had worshipped him and the pain of his loss had been acute.
“You sick fuck! You murder my boyfriend and kidnap me, then try to pass yourself off as my father. What are you on?” she shouted.
“He wasn’t your boyfriend, he was your pimp. If I’d left you with him you’d have been dead inside two years”.
Grace turned away from him and looked at the road ahead, her thoughts in turmoil, not helped by her overwhelming need for a fix. She tried to concentrate on where they were taking her. They had been driving down a dark lane, but now they came to a well-lit junction. There were no other cars about. From the clock on the dashboard, Grace saw that it was a few minutes after 2 a.m. The driver stopped the car and turned to face her.
“Look at me”, he growled.
She turned her head. The light inside the car was still poor despite the brightness outside and he was partially in shadow.
“When did you stop sucking Tigger’s ear, Gracie?” he asked as he tilted his head to one side, bringing the side of his face into the light of the street lamps. She stopped breathing, her confusion going up another notch. Tigger had been her comfort right up until the age of eleven when she had started at the big school. And only one person had ever called her Gracie.
She stared at the right side of his face, his cheek brightly illuminated. She saw a sickle shaped scar, just like the one she had seen countless times on her father’s face. It was a scar he had acquired as a young man, caused when he and his best friend had been experimenting with fireworks, trying to make a hand grenade out of a beer can. The thing had gone off in his face and blown the ring pull through his cheek. She looked more closely and recognised the slight distortion in the man’s right eyelid, another result of the accident.
He reached into a pocket and when he brought out his hand it was closed around something. He held the hand out to her and opened it, revealing a cameo brooch. The image was of the two-faced Janus. She and her twin sister had given a brooch just like it to their father for his birthday, the last time they had seen him. It was only a few months before he was killed. She knew there should be an inscription on the back. He turned it over. She tried not to look, but couldn’t help herself. She read, the few words they had been able to afford to pay the jeweller to have inscribed, “Two from One, Love you Dad”.
“You died”, she whispered.
Grace sat in silence, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Their journey continued, out of the city and south, into the Cheshire countryside. After fifty minutes they drove off the road and into a field. The man she could now not deny was her father sent a text message on his phone and a few minutes later they heard the sound of a helicopter coming in to land. Her father got out and went around to open her door. He undid the seat belt and she cringed when he produced the knife he had used to kill Michael. This time, he used it to cut the rope binding her wrists to her thighs. Grace followed in a daze as he walked her to the aircraft, placed his hand behind her head as they passed under the spinning rotors and half pushed and half lifted her on board. He and the other three from the car climbed in behind her and someone shut the door. There was too much noise for them to be able to converse and Grace sat in silence. She soon drifted into a shallow doze, only to be awakened by the lurch of the helicopter as it touched down and the door was thrown open. Seventy yards or so away she could see some large buildings, which might have been aircraft hangars. Only a few yards from the helicopter there was a small executive jet. Its door was open and the steps had been lowered. The older of the two men from the back seat took Grace by one arm while her father took the other and walked her to the jet. Once they were inside and strapped into their seats the jet began to taxi and was soon in the air. Grace began to feel cold. She looked at her watch, it was after 3.30 a.m. Michael had promised her that he had her regular fix waiting for her at his apartment. She’d needed it then and that had been hours ago. Now she was on a plane to who knew where. When was she going to get that fix?
“Where are we going?” she demanded, “and who are these people?” She pointed to their three co-passengers from the car.
“The answer to your first question is that the next stop is Portugal. The answer to the second is more complicated”, said her father. She realised then that she had fully accepted that it was him. “You’re sweating. Are you feeling unwell?”
“I’m going hot and cold”.
“I have something for that”, said the young black man. “Do you want to try it?”
He was suddenly standing over her. He had a hypodermic in his hand and a questioning look on his face. Partly because she was having so much difficulty keeping herself together and focussed, she merely looked at the syringe and nodded. He leant forward and inserted it into her arm before depressing the plunger. Nausea began creeping up from her stomach and she looked in confusion at the needle as it was withdrawn.
“You’ll feel sick for a few minutes, and then you will begin to feel better.
“Nothing makes sense. I want to go home”, she said as she passed out.