Patparganj Industrial Area, New Delhi, India – 2014
A blue haze from the burning of elephant grass created a murky atmosphere down the long road where they were parked. The oppressive heat of the day called out for the relief of the coming monsoon, but that was still weeks away. At midday, the tarred streets were devoid of the thronging crowds that would arrive later in the afternoon when it was cooler. Incessant droning from the tuk-tuk engines accompanied by the squawking hooters from impatient drivers ratcheted up the anxiety in everyone inside the vehicle.
The pungent smell from the uncovered sewer drain next to the car wafted through the open backdoor window. Joe Dixon swallowed hard to quell the urge to throw up over the soldier in the seat in front of him. He was a Londoner and had seldom travelled outside the great city until he’d been coerced into joining Interpol. It was that option and this putrid sewer or a long stint in prison.
Sweat ran down his back as he tried to change his position on the plastic seats of the large personnel carrier. Wiping his forearm across his brow, he looked at the wet patch on the rolled-up sleeves of his khaki shirt. The Indian soldier in the seat in front of him snorted again and sniffed hard to clear his nose. He’d been doing that for a solid bloody hour. Maybe jail would be better.
‘Mate? How about blowing your nose or something,’ Joe said, looking across to the other passenger in the front, a corporal who sat behind the wheel, also the only local support who was fluent in English. Eight soldiers were squashed in with them, body odour clouding the air between them, adding tension in the confined space.
The man sitting next to Joe was leaning against the side door, his head facing out the window to breathe. Scott Overton was also an Interpol agent, a man who’d recently been assigned to the Special Task Force within the Environmental Crimes Unit. Scott had been assigned to Joe’s team and made no effort to conceal his dislike of taking orders from him. His pain made Joe happier.
‘Do you have to make it so bloody obvious?’ Joe said.
Scott blinked a little and looked across at him, his thin-rimmed spectacles misting up in the humidity. He wiped his black fringe back over his head and rubbed his hands on his faded blue jeans. ‘It’s not exactly a perfume shop, is it?’ Scott said, his thick Scottish accent drawing attention from the driver.
‘It’s called having class, mate. We’re guests here on a joint operation. Try to represent the organisation you serve with the dignity you constantly tell us you have.’
Scott leaned across, pulling his face into a contorted smile. ‘Why should I? I didn’t ask for this dead-end assignment, let alone agree to travel to his hellhole.’
Joe clenched his jaw and rubbed the tips of his fingers together. They would come to blows at some point, and he looked forward to pounding the short arrogant idiot into the ground.
‘Mr Joe?’ said the corporal behind the wheel. ‘Is that the man we seek?’
Joe looked across the vehicle and out the opposite window. The factory they’d been watching for the past three days was a square building with four floors, all fronted with concrete and glass. A single front entrance had six steps with handrails on either side, leading up to the glass double doors. A reception desk was visible at the back of the reception area. Two heads peeked over the desk and watched the rotund man walk away from them and out the front door.
The man had on light-grey pants with a white shirt that battled to cover his bulging belly. Buttons strained under the force of the swaying girth of the man in his late fifties. He was a thousand meals ahead of the skinny people who were begging at the main gate of the factory.
‘No, Gaurav,’ Joe replied. ‘That’s not our man. I told you he is tall and athletic. Does that man look like he could run anywhere?’
Gaurav smiled a bright white grin. ‘If I throw out a chocolate, he will beat those beggers to it.’
Joe smiled at the young man who’d been his driver for the three days since he’d arrived from London. He pulled out his phone and flicked through a few apps, looking for a photograph. A face he had come to loathe over the last few months stared back. He passed the phone forward. ‘That is our man. Do they look the same?’
‘No, Mr Joe,’ Gaurav said. ‘Are we sure this is the right place?’
‘Mr Overton over here tells me this is the best intelligence we have to catch this bastard.’
Scott glared at him. ‘Come on, Joe. This was the best tip-off we’ve had in the week I’ve been here. The Intelligence Bureau told me their source, who I was not permitted to interview, was solid and reliable. You’d have made the same call.’
‘You’ve only known me for three days but can claim to know the calls I’d make. I am impressed,’ Joe said, looking out the window at the car dealership opposite their target factory. Minivans of mixed colours and prices were parked at an angle to the walled fence between him and the three salesmen who had left their desks to come and stare at the government men in the personnel carrier.
‘PADOS don’t have a huge presence here in India. Any chatter on the wire should be taken seriously,’ Scott said. ‘Even London agrees with this strategy.’
Gaurav turned in his seat. ‘What is PADOS. I don’t know this English word.’
Scott looked out the window to the factory. ‘It’s a group of wildlife activists. It stands for People Against the Destruction Of Species,’ Scott said. ‘We’ve been chasing them for many crimes around the world.’
Gaurav nodded his head and lowered his eyes in thought. ‘Eco-terrorists?’
‘Why are they in Delhi? There is no wildlife here of any value. Macaque, nilgai, wild pigs, jackal and mongoose. Not worth many dollars.’
‘We’re not sure what they’re doing here. That is why we’re all sitting in this van sharing sweat,’ Joe said.
Gaurav smiled and set about translating to the driver. The men who sat behind Joe were quiet and focused. Not a word had been said since they were collected at their barracks in the morning. The sun had drifted across the sky in all that time, baking them in the metal tin.
‘How long do you want us to wait here?’ Scott said.
‘As long as it takes. Drake and his team are a slippery bunch, so they will have lookouts all over the place,’ Joe said. He hated the smug educated types who were infiltrating all the police forces in the UK. All highly qualified, opinionated, and with no street smarts. All taught to operate by the book and not listen to instinct. He licked his lips and thought of the bottle of whiskey in his hotel room. He checked his watch again.
‘If PADOS were worried about a special Interpol team on their tail, you don’t suspect they may have noticed the large army troop carrier parked out front in broad daylight?
Joe snapped a look across at Scott. ‘I’m bloody counting on it. We’re here to put pressure on them, so they make a mistake. We need to find a weak point to press on. I gave you a pile of folders to read to get up to speed. You said you’d done it.’
‘There’s a shitload of info to digest in them.’
Joe shook his head and took a deeper breath. The task force up he headed back at HQ in London was getting bigger every day, but he was never there to interview the new members anymore. ‘Look, Overton. I understand you transferred into the team because you thought it would look good on your CV. You will need to pull your weight before I release you into whatever promotion with a corner office you think the brass will bestow on you.’
Scott’s eyes widened.
‘When I say get up to speed, I expect you to have read all the files and know the target we are tracking. I expect you to be able to anticipate PADOS’s every move from now on. Drake and his team haven’t made any mistakes, so it’s safe to assume they run a super slick operation, but they will slip up, and we need to be waiting. That is the only way I can link him and his men, personally, to PADOS. Read all the damn files tonight.’
‘Yes, sir. I just meant that it’s not as fresh in my mind as yours.’
‘Not my problem.’
Scott looked down his hands. ‘From what I can remember, we’re a long way from proving Hudson Drake and his Drake foundation are a front for PADOS.’
Joe glared at him. ‘If we could, don’t you think he’d be under arrest and in handcuffs by now?’
‘How did he end up in India?’
‘I confronted him in London about his links to PADOS, and we think he and his lieutenants took flight, or they could just have had another job. That is the reason we needed you to get here early and gather intelligence.’
‘Okay, now I get it. I read that in one of Parker’s reports yesterday. You accused him of the murder of some lawyer, but the report said nothing about how it tied Drake to PADOS.’
Joe stared at Scott and just shook his head. ‘Just watch the fucking building,’ he said, his thoughts drifting to the person he’d left back in London. An image of Parker’s smiling face, her wide eyes and breathtaking smile came to him. He wished she was on the case with him regardless of what had happened between them. He still felt for her.
Mayapuri Industrial Area, New Delhi, India – 2014
The torrent of water against the windshield was unrelenting. The short wipers struggled under the deluge to keep a decent clear view for them. The surprise downpour had caught out everyone on the street, but it was a relief from the heat. Men and women ran rather than strolling around, using all manner of plastic and cardboard to cover their heads. An old man in a light blue shirt and black pants walked proudly along the concrete pavement with his large green golf umbrella.
Hudson Drake sat in the passenger seat of the small Suzuki jeep they’d bought for cash. No money trail. He adjusted the Beretta 9mm tucked into the left front of his jeans. A quick twist of his left wrist showed one minute to go. Nausea in his gut was normal during these phases of PADOS operations. He’d led a few already and had come to expect it. Curling his toes downwards, he tested the tension in his laces. A shoe coming loose if they had to hightail it out if there was a rookie mistake he’d made many years before. It had almost cost them and the lynx cats they had rescued from an illegal roadside zoo.
The heavy breathing, of the kind only a smoker can make, came from the man next to him. Terry Slaughter was Hudson’s mentor, advisor and friend. Their history of combat training, raids and strike operations had forged a close bond. Hudson turned to his friend, who was sweating despite the fresh monsoon-like downfall. Terry wiped the beads from his bald head and stroked his grey goatee to dry his hands off. He reached towards the small console between the seats and pulled some chewing gum from a small tub, his muscular arms highlighting a conditioned man despite being in his mid-fifties.
‘Thirty seconds,’ Hudson said.
‘You ready for this?’ Terry said. ‘Tricky mission where only the right outcome matters.’
Hudson nodded. ‘They’re all tricky, mate,’ Hudson said, turning to the two PADOS men sitting in the back seat. Both had Heckler & Koch MP5s held high up on their laps. ‘Masks up, gents. Time to make a difference for the natural world.’
They pulled their black masks up over their noses and mouths. Beneath baseball caps, it would be hard for any CCTV to get a usable image. Their target was a meatpacking factory they’d scoped out for the previous twenty-four hours. No cameras could be seen, but it didn’t mean they weren’t there.
Hudson stepped out into the quiet road, closing the jeep door as he looked over the roof to Terry, whose eyes were darting around scanning the adjacent buildings. His special forces training and short stint with Interpol had made him a crucial person in these raids.
Hudson turned and walked across the faded tarmac of the main road in the industrial park. A few brightly painted tuk-tuks were parked up to the side of the pavement that ran next to their target. It was a single-storey factory, with brown brick frontage except for the double doors in front. Hudson walked towards the doors as two of the tuk-tuk drivers stared at them with eyes wide for a few seconds before starting up their motors and hurrying off, leaving their patrons inside the bank next door. Hudson grabbed the door handle and pulled it open. The security guard seated at the reception desk calmly looked up, and then his face changed to fear. Hudson pulled the Beretta as the guard was about to say something.
‘Stand up and don’t say a word,’ he said, his voice echoing in the empty reception. ‘Quickly.’
The man jumped up and raised his hands. Hudson flicked the Beretta to his left, and the guard walked around to the side of the desk and stood against the wall. Kiwi Dave, the head of the PADOS militia, stepped from behind Hudson and walked over to the man. He spun him around and pushed his face against the white wall. Pulling his hands behind his back, he cable-tied his wrists together, then went about checking his pockets, removing a small penknife and some change. He pulled a two-foot-long plastic truncheon from its leather clasp on the man’s belt and tossed it to a PADOS man behind him. As he pushed down on his shoulders, the guard started to sink to his knees. ‘Get on your bloody knees, mate,’ Kiwi Dave said, his New Zealand accent coming through.
Hudson turned to Terry, who shook his head and rolled his eyes. He walked over to Hudson. ‘We need to have a word with him again.’ Hudson nodded towards the door as the warmth spread up the back of his neck. Terry walked past the main desk to a single wooden door. The top half was covered in health and safety stickers of different colours. Most of them were red.
As he pulled the door open, a whoosh of cold air spread outwards from the corridor beyond. Hudson walked up close behind Terry as they made their way along the white corridor to a white door at the end. It had a small square pane of glass in the centre. Terry peered through, then pulled his head to the side. He held a single finger up and then grasped the metal handle. Twisting it, he pulled the door open, jumping backwards. Dropping to one knee, he scanned from left to right with his raised Beretta. Hudson walked in, both hands on his raised weapon. The freezing air in the meatpacking factory was invigorating, and it calmed him a little. Icy breath came through the cloth mask he had over his nose and mouth.
Large shelves of packed meat product extended for the entire length of the corridor ahead of them. A man in a white coat had his back to them and was halfway down the row of shelves. He wore a white hygiene cap over his hair and a long coat with white wellington boots. He shifted from foot to foot as he wrote something down on a plastic clipboard.
Hudson controlled his breathing as he tiptoed towards the man. He reached a corridor that went from left to right down to the actual production line. All was quiet because it was a Saturday afternoon. At least their contact within the company had been correct. Reaching the man, he placed the Beretta to the back of the man’s head.
‘You speak any English?’ Hudson said.
The man nodded and tried to look behind him. Hudson pressed the Beretta forward with force.
‘Take us to the Tiger products.’
The man shrugged his shoulders.
‘The tiger products that you have hidden amongst this all. Don’t make me ask again.’
The man shook his head.
Hudson felt the adrenaline spike as he looked back to Terry, who had been joined by Kiwi Dave and his men. The glares were evident above the masks. Looking between the shelves, Hudson could see no other movement. He swung the Beretta to the side and pistol-whipped the man against the side of his head.
Groaning as he fell against the metal shelves, the man dislodged boxes of packing materials as he slumped to his knees. Blood seeped from a small cut above his ear. Hudson grabbed him by the collar. ‘On your feet and answer me, or you’ll die in this freezer.’
The man groaned again as he tried to stand up, pushing down on his knees with his hands. Terry walked over and grabbed him by the armpit.
Hudson pushed the man against the shelving, gun to his forehead. ‘Tiger bones? We know that you ship them from here, one of your colleagues has already told us. Now, where are they?’
‘At the back,’ the man said, wincing with pain.
‘Lead the way then, and if you shout out or try to run, you die.’
The man nodded and held his hands over the cut on his head. He pulled his hand away and stared at the blood as he walked down the cross-aisle to the back of the production area. He stopped at a metal door and pulled on the large metal handle. A woosh came from the rubber seals, followed by a cold mist escaping as the heavy freezer door was heaved open.
‘It is in that black box at the top,’ the man said.
Hudson frowned at the man then peered through the doorway. More meat products piled from floor to ceiling. ‘And the rest?’
‘That is all, sir.’
Hudson stepped into the iced world, holstering his weapon as he reached up to grab the large plastic crate. He strained against the weight as he lowered it to the ground, popping the two plastic clasp at the front. Pulling hard to break the ice seal, he opened it, and his heart sank. The tip-off was true.
Inside was a processed tiger skin that had been folded and placed in an upright position. Filling the rest of the crate was a massive bleached feline skull surrounded by packets of yellow bones of all manner of anatomical parts. An animal traded for greed and superstition. God, he hated mankind, he thought, swallowing hard at the thought of the creature squirming against the snare that would be cutting its way into its leg. Death by starvation or a bullet if the poacher returned soon enough. Hudson took another deep breath of icy air. They would end this trafficking or die trying. ‘We were told there were tonnes of banned wildlife items here. Where have you hidden the rest?’
The man’s eyes widened as he took a step back, straight into Terry, who pushed him into the freezer. Hudson felt the anger rise even more. He looked down at the remains and swung a fast right hook at the worker next to him, connecting with his cheek as he recoiled to the left. He stumbled forward, and his head banged into the corner of a shelf before snapping back as he fell to the floor.
‘Get up,’ Hudson said, preparing to hit the man again. He felt a rage inside that he hadn’t felt before. Man had to pay. Terry dragged the man to his feet and steadied him because he was swaying, his eyes rolling for a few seconds before they focused on Hudson.
‘There is nothing else,’ the man said. Hudson hit him again on the side of his face, knocking the factory worker sideways. His knees folded under him as he fell and his head smashed against a metal railing on the side of the shelves.
Terry stepped forward and grabbed Hudson by the shoulder. ‘Let him get up so we can interrogate him properly.’
Hudson stared down at the man for a second. There was no movement, just a pool of blood forming below his head as it rested on the floor. Hudson shook the man’s shoulder a few times, then shook it again viciously. He looked up at Terry, who knelt in front of the prone man, reaching down to his neck to take a pulse. He shook his head. ‘He’s dead.’
‘Argh,’ Hudson said, standing up. He let out a loud breath. ‘Shit, man. Search the freezer. They must have hidden the products somewhere in here.’
Terry stood up. ‘You okay?’
Hudson nodded his head.
‘Stop mothering him, mate,’ Kiwi Dave said as he placed a hand on Hudson’s shoulder. ‘Welcome to the club. You’re one of us now. I always had my doubts, boss, but you are now a true PADOS eco-warrior. This will not be forgotten by all the warriors out there. You have led by example here. We will all follow you in this war against the corrupt system.’
Hudson feigned a smile as he looked down at the body again. A large pool of blood had started to circle outward, away from the man’s head. He turned and walked out of the freezer.