Protected Species

“No one deserves to see a burnt baby.”

They warned him not to view the bodies, but he insisted – shock, stubbornness, disbelief, blinkering him to reality. The charred corpses were entwined together on the metal autopsy slab, twisted black shells, skin, hair, eyes stripped away by the flames. Even in the antiseptic stink of the room the smell of burnt meat was inescapable. It was so strong he could taste it, choke on it.

She was in a foetal position, cradling her baby. The heat of the fire was so intense he was fused to her stomach, in their final moments melting back into the womb, as she tried to protect her child against the inferno that raged through the flat. The corpses had been found in the bathtub, a desperate attempt at survival as the block exploded around them. Rosie and Thomas, his Rosie and Thomas were gone. The horror on the slab was not them anymore, just a reminder of their terror he would imagine over and over, an image seared into his retinas never to be removed.

They had been so happy that morning when he’d left for work. A low paid job in a tacky publishing house, offering such classics as “Sex Lives of the Popes” and “Sex Lives of the Presidents” in their stellar list. A run down two bedroom flat in a leafy North London enclave they could afford only through an uncle’s inheritance, but it was their home. Rosie cut out furnishings from magazines to design a luxury abode they could dream around them, her imagination and humour throwing a protective disguise over the paucity of their lives, her throaty laugh a constant cheer.

Nothing mattered, they had each other, they had Thomas, one year old, with a future too bright to be tarnished. Things were going to get better, nothing could take that away from them. Love made them as rich as kings. Until he returned home from work to the cacophony of fire engines, police and screaming neighbours, the perfection of their oh-so imperfect lives but a smouldering ruin.

NO LATE REALISATION COULD TURN THE CLOCK BACK

Shock and anger soon gave way to the growing burden of guilt. He had not protected them. He’d ignored all the warnings, the subtle threats to sell up, his stubborn refusal to move a youthful ignorance of the true nature of the world. Naive belief they were safe, untouchable, was no excuse. It was his fault, but no late realisation could turn the clock back.

The ruin of the block was pulled down, replaced with luxury apartments gifted with the famous name of the family estate that increased their exclusivity. Foxglove Park. Another Winchester development, and with that name he found a way to release his guilt, focus his anger, provide him with an enemy he could at least share some blame.

The more he read of them, the more he realised his tragic little tale was a speck amidst the brutal plunder their fortune had been built on. Pensions stolen, homes razed, jobs lost, everyone but an ant under the boot of the industrious Winchester brothers. Each catastrophe they inflicted only increased their wealth, and by turn power, lauded by those too scared to object, or paid to agree. They became protected by their fattening coffers, each million strengthening the shield around their decadent lives, knighthoods a further defence against any would be plebeian assassins.

Jack did not care. His life was worthless now, as much of a shell as his burnt loves. He was willing to do anything to get close to them, to prostate himself in the gutter, to humiliate himself, throw himself into such danger he could never be considered a threat. He was ready to die, because he already had.

The glass wall of the skyscraper lift shone with the glory of the London night, a venal hell that shimmered below him as he rose up the gilded tower. He was finally going to meet the sick old heads of the Winchester clan. Apparently, they desired a baitman. Whatever happens, this will be for you Rosie and Thomas. It’s all been for you. The lift stopped, the steel doors glided open and Jack stepped out into the penthouse to face his demons.

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