Extract: Die Last by Tony Parsons
Die Last is the brilliant new page turner by Tony Parsons, bestselling author of the DC Max Wolfe series – out in paperback on 22 February.
As dawn breaks on a snowy February morning, a refrigerated lorry is found parked in the heart of London’s Chinatown. Inside, twelve women, apparently illegal immigrants, are dead from hypothermia. But in the cab of the abandoned death truck, DC Max Wolfe of West End Central finds thirteen passports.
The hunt for the missing woman will take Max into the dark heart of the world of human smuggling, mass migration and 21st century slave markets, as he is forced to ask the question that haunts our time: what would you do for a home?
Read on for an extract from Die Last!
The Girl from Belgrade
The first thing they took was her passport.
The man jumped down from the cab of the lorry and snapped his fingers at her.
She already had her passport in her hands, ready for her first encounter with authority, and as she held it out to the man she saw, in the weak glow of the Belgrade streetlights, that he had a small stack of passports. They were not all burgundy red like her Serbian passport. These passports were green and blue and bright red – passports from everywhere. The man slipped her passport under the rubber band that held the passports together and he slipped them into the pocket of his thick winter coat. She had expected to keep her passport.
She looked at him and caught a breath. Old scars ran down one side of his face making the torn flesh look as though it had once melted. Then the man clicked his fingers a second time.
She stared at her kid brother with confusion. The boy indicated her suitcase. The man wanted the suitcase. Then the man with the melted face spoke in English, although it was not the first language of either of them.
‘No room,’ he said, gesturing towards the lorry.
But she gripped her suitcase stubbornly and she saw the sudden flare of pure anger in the man’s eyes.
Click-click, went his fingers. She let go.
The suitcase was the second thing he took. It was bewildering. In less than a minute she had surrendered her passport and abandoned her possessions. She could smell sweat and cigarettes on the man and she wondered, for the first time, if she was making a terrible mistake.
She looked at her brother.
The boy was shivering. Belgrade is bitterly cold in January with an average temperature of just above freezing.
She hugged him. The boy, a gangly sixteen-year-old in glasses that were held together with tape on one side, bit his lower lip, struggling to control his emotions. He hugged her back and he would not let her go and when she gently pulled away he still held her, a shy smile on his face as he held his phone up at head height. They smiled at the tiny red light shining in the dark as he took their picture.
Then the man with the melted face took her arm just above the elbow and pulled her towards the lorry. He was not gentle.
‘No time,’ he said.
In the back of the lorry there were two lines of women facing each other. They all turned their heads to look at her. Black faces. Asian faces. Three young women, who might have been sisters, in hijab headscarves. They all looked at her but she was staring at her brother standing on the empty Belgrade street, her suitcase in his hand. She raised her hand in farewell and the boy opened his mouth to say something but the back doors suddenly slammed shut and her brother was gone. She struggled to stay on her feet as the lorry lurched away, heading north for the border.
By the solitary light in the roof of the lorry, she saw there were boxes in the back of the vehicle. Many boxes, all the same.
Birnen – Arnen – Nashi – Peren, it said on the boxes. Grushi – Pere – Peras – Poires.
‘Kruske,’ she thought, and then in English, as if in preparation for her new life. ‘Pears.’
The women were still staring at her. One of them, nearest to the doors, shuffled along to find her space. She was some kind of African girl, not yet out of her teens, her skin so dark it seemed to shine.
The African gave her a wide, white smile of encouragement, and graciously held her hand by her side, inviting the girl from Belgrade to sit down.
She nodded her thanks, taking her seat, and thinking of the African as the kind girl.
The kind girl would be the first to die.
Eight hours later the women stood outside a service station, taking turns in the cracked and broken bathroom in a last desperate attempt to keep clean.
The girl from Belgrade looked at the cars on the motorway. The winter sun was rising milky white on what looked like miles of farmland, as barren as the surface of the moon.
‘What country is this?’ she said.
‘Austria?’ said one of the young women in the hijabs. ‘Germany?’
‘A rich country.’
The man came out of the toilet, pulling up the zip of his trousers with one hand and clicking his fingers with the other.
‘No more,’ he said, and the women must have looked confused. He impatiently snapped his fingers in their faces. ‘No stops no more,’ he explained, rolling his eyes at their inability to understand his fluent English.
Soon they were back on the motorway.
‘No stops,’ the kind girl said, her face splitting in that wide white smile. ‘No suitcase. No time.’
‘No parking!’ the girl from Belgrade laughed.
‘No smoking!’ said an Asian woman.
One of the women in a hijab waggled her dead phone. ‘No signal!’
They all laughed together. It was the last time they laughed. For it was cold inside the lorry now, far colder even than midnight in Belgrade in January. At first she thought it was because the ground was steadily rising and they seemed to be passing through mountains.
But then she saw the steam on the breath of the other women.
The cold was not outside the lorry.
The cold was inside the lorry.
And it was getting colder by the moment, far too cold to sleep.
And in the end, far too cold to live.
The girl from Belgrade shivered. Even the air was freezing. It hurt her eyes.
She touched the metal door next to her and it was so cold that it burned her fingertips.
The blood drained from her hands, flooding deeper into her body, trying to protect the organs that kept her alive, and she felt that the icy air had seeped into her blood like poison.
She stamped her feet, flexed her hands, trying to bring some warmth to them, some movement, some life.
The kind girl was looking at her.
‘So cold,’ the girl from Belgrade said, feeling foolish for stating the painfully obvious.
But the kind girl nodded.
‘Yes. Share my gloves.’
‘Please, sister. Put your hands inside with me.’
And so they sat like that for a while, with her numb hands squeezed together inside the kind girl’s gloves, palms pressed against palms.
But then her feet began to hurt. And it was so much more than cold. It was the presence of a blinding, aching pain. As she stamped her feet, she felt the muscles in her neck and shoulders tighten. She moved her head in a horizontal figure of eight, the way she had seen her mother do when her neck was tight, and it made not the slightest difference. She saw the kind girl begin to shiver and watched with silent horror as the shivering became a kind of trembling.
She looked around at the other women. One of the women in a hijab was already in something deeper than sleep.
She looked at the kind girl and saw that there were icicles hanging from her thick black eyelashes and the sight of them sent a flood of terror through her.
She stood up, abruptly pulling her hands free from the kind girl’s gloves, suddenly aware that the freezing cold that first gripped her hands and feet had now spread everywhere.
Everything was tight. Everywhere hurt. She began to shake with dread.
They were all going to die in here.
She banged on the windowless slab of steel that separated the back of the lorry from the driver’s cab. She could smell cigarettes. She could hear voices. A man and a woman.
She banged harder.
The lorry kept going.
But she kept banging on the wall of the driver’s cab, the other women silent behind her, although some of them were watching her with half-closed eyes.
And still the lorry kept driving.
Long after she had given up and slumped down next to the kind girl – was it hours or minutes? – the lorry finally stopped. She could hear the sound of big diesel engines, distant voices and – was she dreaming? – what sounded like the horn of a large ship.
She got on to her numb feet and stood alone at the back of the lorry and hammered the door until her hands were bruised and bloody. But the man who drove was as good as his word.
The doors remained closed.
Eventually the lorry pulled off again.
The cold had reached her brain now. She dropped to the floor. Her mind was cloudy. She was going to do something very important – she was certain of that – but now the plan had somehow fled from memory. She stood up and stared at the other women, dumbfounded. What was this glacial fog inside her head? She was very afraid now – a wild, unnameable fear that skittered across her heart and clenched her teeth.
And she had the urge to pee.
And her fingers were covered in small blisters.
And she was very tired.
Above and beyond everything else, there was exhaustion like nothing she had ever known. She sank to the floor again and knew that she would not be getting back up.
Her eyes were closing. She needed to sleep.
As her eyes were closing, she looked around at the unfamiliar faces.
Where was her brother? Why were they apart? They had no one in the world but each other. They should have stuck together. Where was that boy? She would remember if she could only concentrate. Sleep now, she thought. Worry about it all after your long sleep.
It was only the voice of the kind girl that pulled her back.
‘Would you please hold me, sister?’
Her eyes jerked open and she stared at the kind girl without recognising her face, although suspecting she had seen it somewhere before.
Now the trembling was more violent and her entire body spasmed with a terrible will of its own. There was a young Asian woman sitting directly opposite and her eyes were wide open and yet she was sleeping. And she knew, somewhere deep inside her foggy mind, that it was the sleep without end.
The faces of the other women seemed to melt in the darkness, dissolving into shapes that had nothing to do with human faces. Then one of the women stood up and began removing her clothes. Ripping at them, not bothering with buttons, desperate to be free of them.
‘I am burning,’ the woman said in English, and then abruptly sat down, curled into a foetal ball and closed her eyes.
The girl from Belgrade stared dumbly at the boxes that seemed to crowd in on them. Birnen – Arnen – Nashi – Peren, said the boxes.
Grushi – Pere – Peras – Poires. Pears in what felt like every language except for Serbian, every tongue on the planet except her own.
What was the word for the fruit in Serbian?
‘Kruske,’ she said out loud.
She could hear her mother calling, saying her name loud and clear, even though her mother was five years in the grave.
How could these things be? How were they possible?
Sleep now, she told herself, and think about it all later.
But the voice pulled her back again.
‘Please, sister. Hold me now.’
So she held the kind girl – she had forgotten to do it before – and she kept holding her, long after the kind girl’s trembling had stopped. It was all silence in the back of the lorry now and the silence was matched in the world outside, for at some point in the endless night, the lorry had stopped, and remained stopped, even though nobody came to open the door.
She could no longer see the steam of her breath. Indeed, she was no longer aware of the need to breathe.
And as the kind girl died in her arms, she suddenly understood. Dying is easy.
Living is hard.
The Woman Who Fell Through the Ice
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 dialled 999. He was a short, sturdily built man who had probably spent a career carting crates of Tsingtao 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 kinds 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 slight, 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 skinny latte from the Bar Italia – cops favour the Bar Italia because the coffee is so good and because it stays open for twenty-two hours a day – while he was holding a SIG 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, Iraqi, 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 hours 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, OK? Different to anything you’ve ever seen before. Their heart rate and breathing slow 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 on to 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, OK?’ 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.