Authors: Jacqueline Ward
‘OK. Look, Jan, I’ll report him as a missing child. Get it broadcast. When you come in today bring some photographs. And when did you last see him?’
‘I haven’t seen him since Friday. He was staying with his dad.’
‘OK. We’ll need a statement from him as well. Bring all Aiden’s details.’
‘He could come in with me.’
I heard Ian miss a beat. He was thinking what to say next to placate me.
‘He could, yeah, but then there’s all the waiting.’ Roughly translated as we’ve got other things to think about. Things that aren’t a fifteen-year-old who’s gone off with some mates. Even at that point I was beginning to understand how this would be treated. ‘I’ll get some uniforms out to him. Might be later on today. Get a statement. I’ll see you when you get in. OK? Don’t worry.’
Don’t worry. Easy for him to say. Don’t worry. I know from years of policing that it’s highly unlikely that he’s dead. It’s hard to conceal a dead body. Much easier to keep someone alive.
I also know that nine out of ten missing teenagers are acting out, flexing their freedom muscles. But not Aiden. And I’ve got my reasons. Everyone thinks he’s run away from home. But I know he would never do that. He would never do this to me, his mother.
Even now, right at this moment, in the middle of the night, I can’t drag my mind’s eye away from the lead up to Aiden’s disappearance and the aftermath. The surface of the storm was tumultuous, with Sal losing the plot and wrecking an interview room as I watched through the one-sided glass, frozen. It was like viewing my whole marriage, summed up in ten minutes of temper-fed violence.
He’d tried to blame me. He’d told the interviewers that all this was my fault for being a bad mother, for having a job I loved, for making us split up. He’d told them about the time Aiden stayed out before, how he’d slunk off in the middle of an argument between Sal and I and not come home. How we had to phone his friends, until he waltzed back in at nine o’clock in the morning to get his football gear.
At that point Stan had closed his notebook. Stan Bores, the elderly detective interviewing him, all they could spare for a ‘runaway’ case, as they labelled it, told him that the police force weren’t social services and whatever the reasons, it was their job simply to establish Aiden’s location.
Poor Sal. It seemed that no one wanted to listen to his continual character assassination of me; every conversation wheedled around to that subject. So he reverted to type and blew. But what bothered me was that, in his anger and recrimination, he had more or less suggested that he too thought Aiden had run away. I knew he hadn’t.
If the surface was choppy and rough going with sleepless nights and endless wondering, the undercurrent was more dangerous.
Sal heaved the blame for Aiden running away—he had become convinced that this was what had happened now after copious amounts of statistics and data provided by officials who just don’t know where to look when nobody turns up—squarely on my shoulders. It was clearly all my fault.
This was the main current driving the investigation forward, scaled down after a week of nothing—no use of bank card, no CCTV, no evidence at all.
Yet I knew where to look. The underlying current was my doubt. Doubt that he had just upped and left. True, there had been arguments and there had been playing up, but nothing out of the ordinary. He was like Sal—quick tempered and unforgiving. At times I thought he hated me; he would just sit and stare at me. But that was no reason to run. He had two homes, always an alternative if one got too much.
And I knew where to look. In the weeks running up to Aiden’s disappearance I’d received some menacing text messages. Then a couple of threatening emails. There’d been a dead rat left on my doorstep and my car door handles had been covered in anti-vandal paint.
I’d dutifully reported all these things, and they were linked to the case I’d been working on for the past two years. Operation Hurricane. I wasn’t the only officer receiving threats.
Julie Winters was told that someone would shave her head. Stuart Peterson received a letter with a picture of his Jack Russell saying that it would be decapitated. All par for the operational course, when you’re dealing with a lowlife like Connelly. Even so, nothing had actually happened so far.
Connelly’s henchmen concentrate on killing or maiming rival gang members, or occasionally each other. They leave us alone because, let’s face it, to harm one of us would launch a major, blood-fuelled investigation.
Or so you would think. When I went to Jim Stewart and spewed out my accusation, that Connelly had kidnapped Aiden in an attempt to get revenge, he shook his head.
‘Has he threatened you? Is there something you haven’t told us? Because all I can see in your Hurricane report log is a couple of texts and emails and some notes telling you to be careful and so on. No mention of your family. And we don’t even know all these texts and emails and associated behaviour are from Connelly’s lot. Don’t forget. Innocent until proven guilty. We don’t have anything at all on Connelly yet. Looks like it, but all bark and no bite so far. And we’ve got undercover around them, as you know, and no mention of a kidnap.’
He might as well have hung a huge sign on me saying ‘I am paranoid. Disregard anything I say.’ He was tapping away at his keyboard, checking my file, running a search on Aiden’s case. Not really listening, but I answered all the same.
‘No. He hasn’t threatened my family directly. But I know it’s him. There’s something funny going on with Connelly. It’s not just the drugs and the violence, sir. It’s more than that. I’ve put it in a detailed report. I think there’s more going on here.’
He was nodding, and I could see pity in his eyes.
‘Right. To be honest, Jan, I think you should take a break from it. Just for a few weeks. I’m putting together a renewed campaign against Connelly, one that’ll work this time. One where we all focus just on one case, with no distraction. Focused on the most probable place that he can be operating from, based on renewed activity. Old Mill. We know that much. So until then, just everyday work. Got that? If we get any evidence about Aiden you’ll be the first to know. But my opinion is that it’s nothing to do with Connelly. And until we have some solid evidence, neither is anything else. Have you considered that it might not be Connelly running Old Mill? Maybe he’s retired now and someone else is at the bottom of all this. What we do know is that he runs a kitchen factory and he’s inherited a property business. Both of which are legal. We do know there are criminal goings on, but maybe we’re on the wrong track and the girls on the game and the drugs are down to someone else. But I think that it’s a hierarchy that’s hiding him. Always someone else to do the dirty work while he looks clean. Until we get some evidence, no one’s in the frame. We won’t know until we’ve completed the investigation, will we?’
I wanted to believe him, I wanted to believe that I was obsessed with Connelly and on the wrong track, but as soon as Aiden disappeared the threats stopped. A week later I was back in Jim’s office.
‘The messages stopped. They’ve got him. I know it.’
My hand was shaking around my coffee cup, splashing coffee onto my jeans. He stood up and opened the door.
‘Get a grip. You know we’re near to Connelly. If Aiden is there, which I don’t think he is, we’ll find him. We’re all over that place.’
Sean Connelly had a little empire. He and his own family lived on a bought up council estate on the outskirts of town. Northlands. It was semirural, on the edge of the river.
A large cotton mill hung behind the estate, until recently, used as a catalogue clothing distribution company. Connelly had bought up all the units, then the building, and branded it as a fitted kitchen outlet. It was even registered with Companies House. All nice and legal.
I’d done my homework, sitting for hours outside, hoping to catch a vibe from Aiden.
Are you in there, son?
I discovered that Connelly had been buying up rented houses all over town. When I dug deeper, I found out that his father, dead now, had started this, and owned a good portion of the tiny mill houses in the surrounding areas. Signature two-up, two-down poverty houses for those people of a bygone age who worked in the mills.
Connelly Snr appeared to have gotten funding in the sixties to tart them up and install inside toilets. It looked like Connelly Jnr had carried this on, opening a letting agency to manage it. None of this made finding Aiden any easier.
At first I’d imagined that they had him captured in the mill, but I quickly realized that he could be anywhere, lying dead in one of Connelly’s tiny box houses. Why would they though? To get at me. Us. The police. To try to blackmail us into slowing down the operation. The threats, they all point to this.
He could be lying dead anywhere, my son. No one would know. No one would suspect. It had been six weeks now, and he could have been lying dead all that time, all alone.
Which is how I came to be at 57 Ney Street. I had an Ordnance Survey map with all Connelly’s houses marked in green on it. I’d listen on the radio for any suspicious reports at any of the addresses, and attend. Usually it was a fight or a burglary, nothing to concern me, but this one had been different. No one seen at the property for weeks and there was a horrible smell when someone looked through the letter box for signs of life.
And this brings me to now, standing here in my nightgown, a bundle of money in front of me. I have a surge of guilt, a moment when I realize this is probably the end of my policing career, even if I never get found out. Now I’m a criminal, aren’t I? How could I ever do my job knowing I’d stolen from a scene of crime?
Then I remember that it’s potential ransom money. That’s why I took it. If they have him, they’re going to want a paying off, aren’t they? I count the money and put it in a nearly empty washing powder box under the sink. Even acting like a criminal now. Using tricks I’d seen others use. If you can’t beat them, join them.
I can’t sleep. It’s two thirty now and I can hear the distant rumble of the M60. Twenty-four-seven travel. Percy is lying on the end of my bed, reminding me that, even though I’m in turmoil inside, I still have to get up and feed him, change his litter tray—do all the things I and he need to survive. It’s comforting, though, the feeling that Percy needs me.
I search around for something to occupy me, something that isn’t late-night TV or old family videos of Aiden when he was young. I remember poor Bessy in the chair, and the birds.
I stiffen with shock as I realize that I’d hardly flinched at the baby’s tiny, flesh-free hand as it fell into mine, my mind on the money and a ransom and, at the end of a long train of thought, Aiden. Aiden. Aiden. Aiden. I need a break, something to distract me just for a moment.
My hand strays to the papers bundled in with the money. Some bills, a birth certificate for a Thomas Swain. Mother Bessy, father Colin. Receipts and a book of old cooperative divi stamps. Another book of Green Shield Stamps.
At the bottom, an exercise book, grey and well thumbed, with narrow, feint, ruled lines. I expect to see a child’s hand, maybe English or maths, but the writing inside is fine handwriting, looped and formal. It draws my eyes and I’m gripped.
Lucky I’m writing it all down. Because it’s the only way I’m ever going to explain what’s bloody well gone on here. It started on 26
August 1963. I’ll never forget that day. I was in the middle of getting my life back after raising a son right after the war. Thomas was a big, strapping seventeen-year-old, in the middle of a training course to be a joiner. He’d been left school less than a year.
I’d had Thomas when I was seventeen myself in 1946, when rationing was still in force. His dad, Colin Swain, was a little bit older than me. He was eighteen when he got me into trouble. We had to get married at the local chapel and I wore a grey suit that’d cover my big belly.
No white dress for me. No bouquet. Just two witnesses and a tiny cake. My mam and dad were there, glad to get me off their hands so they could see to my younger brothers and sisters. Off he goes to do his two years National Service, so I had to birth Thomas on my own and look after him on my own for nearly two years until his daddy gets back.
Not that I’m complaining. It made us closer. We were like two kids playing together, in my little terraced house that I didn’t know how to clean. I didn’t know how to cook either, and I’d go to the shops and ask how to cook things before I bought them.
I fed Thomas myself until he was old enough to eat porridge, then somehow I managed to keep him alive until Colin came home and his mam took an interest in us.
Well, Colin really. She wanted to know he was looked after, and that meant teaching me to cook. It bloody annoyed me at the time, and I used to grit my teeth at her, but now I can see her reasoning. She just wanted to see her son safe. I can see that now.
So Thomas went to school and did ever so well, took his eleven plus and went to the grammar. When he was fourteen he got scarlet fever and missed a lot of school, so we transferred him to the local school. Not academic, our Thomas. No. More handy like his dad. More of a maker. Wanted to be a joiner, he did.
We bought him a bike for his seventeenth birthday and he’d ride it round like Billy-oh. Him and Phil, his friend, would ride round to a different part of town and drop in a pub for a pint. They would have been hung, drawn and quartered round these parts, drinking so young, but they were after girls and the new music; they rode everywhere together. Phil was courting a young woman from Ainsley Street, but Thomas hadn’t found anyone.
On that day, he’d gone off to work on his bike. He had an apprenticeship in Hyde; a joiner took him on, training him in cabinet making. He liked it, and even though he got paid a small amount, he gave most of it to me, saving only a tiny bit for himself. Mostly for new tyres or the odd pint. I’d kissed him goodbye and given him a Billy can with tea in it, and his butties. Had corned beef on them. He’d shrugged me off.
‘Geroff, Mam! I’m too big for that now!’