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Authors: Richard Hoskins

The Boy in the River

BOOK: The Boy in the River
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In memory of both Edwards.

Desperately missed.


The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity . . .

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

‘The Second Coming’ W. B. Yeats




Bath, January 2002

Kinshasa, April 1986

Bath, February 2002

Kinshasa, April 1986

Bath, February 2002

Bolobo, April 1986

Bolobo, April and May 1986

Bath and London, February 2002

Bolobo, June 1986–1987

Bath, February 2002

Bolobo, February 1988

Bath, March 2002

Bolobo, 1988-1989

London, April 2002

Bolobo, Oxford and Bath, 1989–1999

Lower Congo, April 2002

Bath and The Hague, May 2002

London and Bath, May 2002

Bath and London, June 2002

Catford and Bath, June 2002

Devon, July 2002

Royal Holloway College, July 2002

Glasgow and London, July 2002

Devon, August to September 2002

London, September 2002

Royal Holloway College and London, October 2002

London, December 2002

London, December 2002

London and Nigeria, January–April 2003

Dublin and London, June 2003

London and Dalkeith, July–September 2003

London, October 2003–January 2004

London, February 2004

Kinshasa, February 2004

London, April–July 2004

London, September 2004–June 2005

London, July–October 2005

Kinshasa, August 2005

Kinshasa, August 2005

Devon and Sheffield, August 2005–2007

Devon, 2007–January 2011

Devon, February 2011

London, March 2011

London and Devon, April–May 2011

Kinshasa, August 2011

London, October–December 2011

London, January–February 2012

London, March 2012




London, a little after 4 p.m. on 21 September 2001.

As thirty-two-year-old IT consultant Aidan Minter left the office he was, like many people, thinking about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center ten days earlier. He climbed the steps to Tower Bridge and began crossing to the south bank. Lost in thought, he glanced idly over the parapet at the river below. In that instant he caught sight of something floating in the water. He stopped. Even from the bridge it looked strange – a dummy, perhaps, with what seemed to be a red cloth attached to it. But he couldn’t be sure.

Minter walked quickly on and ran down the steps on to the south side of the river. Filled now with a need to be certain, he stepped closer to the water’s edge. As he stood there his curiosity turned to horror. He was staring at a body. Or what was left of one. He pulled out his mobile and dialled 999.

Within minutes a launch crewed by officers of the Thames Marine Police Unit was searching the area around Tower Bridge. At first they found nothing. They turned up river with the incoming tide. Then, as they drew level with the Globe Theatre, they too saw a flash of colour against the bank. The boat swung across the current and a moment later a police officer hauled the mutilated torso of a little boy from the water.

The child had no name, so the police called him Adam.



Bath, January 2002

I was at my desk when they called.

I shared the tiny, gloriously cluttered university office with my colleague Mahinda Deegalle, a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka. A prayer wheel and a terracotta fertility figurine from Syria fought for space among the filing cabinets, computers and shelves of books and binders. Stuck to the walls were yellow Post-it notes, family photos and postcards from colleagues in Nepal, Namibia, Nauru and everywhere in between.

Our room was in a temporary building – though the arrangement had already lasted for years – not far from the fine Georgian mansion at the centre of the main Bath Spa University campus. Our window gave out over fields, part of the estate’s park which had been landscaped by Capability Brown. Dry stone walls and clumps of ash and oak trees stood in the winter light.

Mahinda would drift in from time to time in his orange robes to dispense some snippet of wisdom, or – more surprisingly – to chat about the property market. But often I had the room to myself, and would sit there for long, quiet hours, wrapped up in my research or preparing lectures. I had grown to treasure the calm of the English countryside beyond that window, and I was very much at peace there.

Until the phone rang.

‘Dr Hoskins, I’m Detective Inspector Will O’Reilly from Scotland Yard’s Serious Crime Group,’ the caller said. I’d commented on the Adam case on BBC radio a couple of days earlier. I was often consulted by the media about African religions and related topics. ‘What do you make of this mutilated body they’ve found in the Thames?’ the journalist had asked. ‘People I’ve spoken to in London are saying that it’s a voodoo killing. Apparently a South African expert has told police that it’s to do with the practice of
. That’s taking body parts for magic, right? What do you think?’

I knew quite a lot about
, so I’d talked about that for a few minutes. The journalist must have contacted Scotland Yard after the interview and now DI O’Reilly wanted to pay me a visit. I was immediately worried that he would want me to come up with definitive answers to questions he didn’t even know how to ask, on what were likely to be extremely complex issues. Perhaps I also had the first inkling that the comfortable world I had built up around me might be under threat.

I was a senior lecturer in African religions at the University of Bath Spa in the West of England and had become one of very few academics in the UK who specialized in this field.

My first marriage had ended, but it had given me two wonderful children, David and Elspeth, now twelve and ten, and my relationship with Sue, their mother, remained warm. While at Bath, I’d met Faith Warner and we’d become good friends. Faith was studying psychology, specializing in cognition among African primates, and while on a research expedition to the Congo one summer we had fallen for each other.

By the time DI O’Reilly called me, Faith and I had just moved in together. Now in my mid-thirties, I was very close to being a contented man.

I reported the imminent police visit to the university director. We booked a shiny new lecture room in one of the university’s impersonal modern blocks and ordered deli sandwiches and soft drinks.

The director and I waited outside the main building as the unmarked silver car drew up.

Big, capable, serious types, painfully polite, but with a hardness in their eyes, I couldn’t imagine Detective Inspector Will O’Reilly and Detective Constable Barry Costello ever going undercover. DC Costello was young, tall and wary. He spent most of his time watching me, as if he suspected I was about to make off with something. But DI Will O’Reilly was clearly the man in charge. A powerful figure in his mid-forties, he had the air of an ex-rugby player. He had dark hair and some serious stubble, which only partially camouflaged his pale complexion and the beginnings of a double chin. His voice was slightly gruff and his eyes were both keen and kind.

I opened the door to the conference room and showed them in. I was suddenly struck by how cold it was. Cold, bright and clinical. I began to wish that I was back in my own comfortably cluttered office with Mahinda calmly getting on with his work at the neighbouring desk. Will O’Reilly produced a large brown manila envelope, laid it on the table and spread eight A5 colour prints of brutally high quality in front of me. A brown torso lay on a post-mortem slab. There were several shots of the body, most showing it dressed in orange-red shorts, and close-ups of the cuts that had severed the head, arms and legs.

I had seen some pretty tough things during my time in Africa, but for a second I felt sick. O’Reilly cleared his throat. He’d seen the expression on my face. ‘Obviously we all find this . . . distressing . . .’ he said. ‘We have next to nothing to go on, Dr Hoskins. We don’t know who the child is, or where he comes from. We’re guessing that he’s of African or Caribbean extraction. We don’t know exactly what happened to him. According to our home office pathologist, Dr Mike Heath, the cut to the neck is very precise. He thinks it was made from back to front, and that his body was drained of its blood – though you must keep that information completely confidential. We haven’t released it to the press.’

As I continued to stare at the pictures, DI O’Reilly told me that the pathologist estimated the child to have been between five and ten years old. He thought the torso had been in the water for up to ten days, but not longer or the skin would have turned white. Nothing was found in the stomach except traces of what might be a cough medicine. There was no sign of sexual interference. Dr Heath also thought the shorts were placed on the corpse up to a day after death, because there were no traces of body fluids on the material.

‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘That’s all we have at the moment.’

‘I hear you think it’s a
killing,’ I said. ‘Linked to South Africa in some way.’

‘I’ll be honest with you, Dr Hoskins, I’d never even heard of this
stuff. None of us had. Dr Heath thought that the injuries looked ritualistic. We took a gamble that the child might be of African origin, and flew in a South African pathologist to give us a second post-mortem. It was this gentleman,’ he consulted his notebook, ‘a Dr Hendrick Scholtz, who told us that in South Africa there have been cases of people being murdered and dismembered for

I put on my glasses and forced myself to look more carefully at each of the pictures. The first showed the whole of the torso. The next, a close-up of the neck. I looked back at the first photograph. The cut was indeed extremely precise, and unusually low. It would have been covered by a T-shirt. The arm and leg wounds, by contrast, were a strange mixture: at skin level there was a similarly stark precision, but the bone looked as if it had been hacked away from the body. I picked up my pen and made some notes.

I studied the photo of the boy’s front. It didn’t look as if any internal organs had been removed.

‘He’s still got his genitals,’ I said. ‘And he’s circumcised.’

‘Is that significant?’

‘It could be.’


I hesitated. ‘Leaving his genitals intact wouldn’t seem to be typical of
. Also, I’d expect his internal organs to be taken. But I guess we have to start somewhere, and if your South African specialist thinks that might be the way to go . . .’

I moved to the next picture, of the boy’s back, and then through the remaining photographs. I was looking for tribal markings but could find none. I sat back down in my chair and took a deep breath. ‘I think I can help.’

I didn’t have to say anything. The moment I got home Faith led me into the kitchen, poured a healthy quantity of gin into a couple of glasses and splashed in some tonic. It wasn’t Friday – Friday was our gin and tonic night – but to hell with it.

BOOK: The Boy in the River
7.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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