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An elderly widower teams up with a young charismatic vlogger to find his stolen grandchild.
“This smart and riveting thriller expertly blends sociopolitical themes with a central mystery of a kidnapped child in Brussels, its agonizing aftermath, and a quest to uncover the truth behind her abduction… Dialogue--including in scenes featuring multiple characters--is vivid and purposeful… Protagonist Denny--in his exile from his Belfast home--is an especially sympathetic, flawed, and vulnerable character. His pain over his granddaughter's disappearance under his watch is palpable. Additional characters, even those on the periphery, are expertly handled.” The BookLife Prize

“An exceptional missing-person’s tale that wisely centers on the emotional fallout.” Kirkus Reviews








J K Gunne




2003 Belfast

When he woke he thought he was paralysed. Only his fingers moved. His breath was short, close to gasping. His head throbbed.

Fear rose to panic as he realized he was sitting with his legs tied. His wrists were tied together in front of him, his arms were tied to his body. His head was covered with a plastic bag that touched his lips when he sucked in air. 

His swollen nose hurt badly. He knew better than to shout. Instead he listened, concentrated on catching the slightest sound. All he heard was the short rhythm of his own breath. The voice, when it came, shocked him with its closeness.

           ‘Who was it, son? Who told you?’

His answer came in a rush. ‘I don’t know anything about it. I swear I don’t.’

           ‘Don’t feck around with me, son. You’ll tell us sooner or later. Sooner’ll be a lot better for you.’

           ‘I didn’t know anything. I swear.’

           ‘They were waiting for him, the two PIRA fuckers. What we don’t know yet is how you knew where he’d be. Who told you?’

           Fragments were coming back – the car pulling up at the kerb. It was late, he didn’t stop to look. Two of them rushed him. The smaller one raised what looked like a tyre lever, hit him hard on the bridge of the nose. They half-lifted half-dragged him into the car. The plastic bag went over his head. One of them warned him not to move.

           The car drove off at normal speed. When he tried to speak someone struck him on the nose. He almost fainted from the pain. The car stopped. He was led quickly in through what seemed a doorway, down steps, down more steps. He had no idea where he was. Somewhere in the city. They hadn’t driven long enough to be out of it. Going down the steps, he lost consciousness. They must have dragged him to the chair, tied him.  

           ‘Who told you, son?’

           ‘It wasn’t me told them. I swear.’      

           ‘Who was it then?’

           ‘Someone must have seen him.’        

           ‘At half-nine on an empty street? And the PIRA getting there so fast they were there before he was?’

The plastic sucked to his lips.

‘How much did they pay you?’

Could he bluff? Give a name? They’d hold him while they checked. What more would they do to him if he couldn’t answer?

           A fist crashed on his nose hitting his head back against the chair. Blood poured down over his mouth, his chin. He fainted away from the pain. When he woke he was hanging by his arms, the back of his head against a wall. His feet hung free. A bolt of agony shot up through his arms into his shoulders.

‘You’re fecking around with us again, son.’

The man shook him.

‘You don’t have to be a hard man here. You’re amongst friends. Just give us the name of whoever told you where Sam would be that evening and you’re away home.’ 

He tried shaking his head. The pain exploded up his neck, into his skull.

‘You took Rose to the seaside the weekend after, didn’t you? Told her you were flush. Only she wasn’t to talk about it. Right? Your lass Rosie Shannon.’


‘I’m going to be fair with you, son. She didn’t want to squeal on you. She wouldn’t talk at all until we got down to business like.’

Instinctively he tried to put his hands to his ears. He shouted, ‘Fuck you!’ It came out a whimper.

‘The thing to do with the lassies is strip ‘em off before you start. Knickers an’ all. Get her naked in front of you. After that they soon crack. Rosie started whimpering after the first few slaps of the cane on her tits.’

He howled.

‘Pull him up,’ the voice ordered.

He heard the rattle of a pulley wheel, the grunts as he was raised. The muscles in his arms turned to acid and he screamed. He caught a glimpse of his bare feet beneath the edge of the plastic bag. His heart had speeded up. He could feel it hammer. The pulley jerked. He screamed again.

 ‘There now, son. We’ve hardly started. It gets a lot worse than this. And don’t we have all night for it?’

His breath sobbed as he waited for the next jolt of pain.

‘Who told you? You don’t have to worry. He won’t ever know what you said.’

‘No one.,’ he sobbed. ‘I swear. I knew nothing about it.’

‘You’re saying the PIRA turned up by accident? On a deserted street? Happened to see Sam pass by like?’

His sphincter loosened. He felt diarrhoea run down the inside of his thigh.

‘Oh Jesus,’ the man breathed. ‘Rosie did that too. What’s up with you people?’

The voice moved back from him. ‘Harder men than you have talked. Now who was it? Who told you?’

He began to sob.

‘Just the name. Just give me the name. You won’t leave this room until you do.’

Someone pulled at his legs, pulled them down hard. Hot acid raced through his arms again, his chest, into his head. 

He licked his dry lips under the plastic. He couldn’t breathe through his nose.

The man’s calm voice went on asking, sometimes giving instructions to whoever else was there.

He floated in and out of pain and blackness. 

He heard them go. He thought then they might leave him. If they did how would he get free? His arms were maybe out of their sockets. He took a breath and tried to force himself up. Then he fainted.

He heard soft footsteps. Someone approached. 

‘Do you know what I have here?’ A different voice. A hand pushed in under the bag. He looked down at it. Holding something. A pair of pliers held by the head between thumb and forefinger. Ordinary household pliers.

‘Know what these are?’

‘Answer you fucker!’ Another voice. Both speakers were younger than the man earlier. Late twenties maybe. ‘Give him a squeeze of it on his prick and he’ll see.’

‘This is a precision instrument. Medical. Not for use on his filthy prodder.’

The other one laughed.

‘Know what we’re going to do with it? We’re going to pull your teeth out. One by one.’

He’d heard of it. One of the things the Shankill Butchers did. Not for information, just for the fun. Random Catholics picked up walking home on the night streets. Occasional Protestants taken by mistake. Once taken they couldn’t be let go. They all ended up the same. Same fun, different body. Toothless corpses dumped in alleys.

‘Your last chance. How’d you know where he was going?’

 ‘I didn’t.’ He sobbed. ‘I swear.’

When the bag was lifted off his head he clenched shut his eyes.

‘Can’t see you,’ he said. If he did see them how could they let him go? 

One of them laughed again. The other pushed a chisel into his mouth, forced his teeth apart.   

.         He tried to shake his head. They weren’t going to let him go. They’d pull his teeth until certain he wasn’t holding back. Then dump his body. Like the Butchers did.












Chapter One



2004 Brussels

On weekdays, while his grandchildren were at school and their parents at work, Denny Barrett stood often by the living-room window and looked down on the biggest open-air market in Brussels. At first he stood a little back from the glass, scanning the crowds, looking for any men who seemed out of place. With time his search grew cursory. When his house in Belfast was burned down the year before, he’d moved in temporarily with neighbours, walked the local streets. Nothing more happened to him. By then his brother Sam had been dead for over a year. The gang had broken up. Without Sam they were nothing, a loose bunch of hardmen. One by one they joined other groups. Protection, already active during the Troubles, had grown rapidly after the Good Friday agreement. The papers complained, calling it the biggest industry in the north. The government money that poured in to start up new enterprises made the pickings easy. After Sam Barrett’s killing his gang was soon forgotten. Until Stevens Inquiry N° 3 was released in April 2003.

The firing of Denny Barrett’s house was a one-off act, simple but effective in its execution. The same method as had been used during the Troubles to persuade people to move. A wheelie bin stuffed with newspapers soaked in paraffin was pushed up against the wood of the back door. A single match did the rest.

As the weather grew warmer Denny took to exploring the city. Or he sat on the bench before the church, where he could watch the crowd at the market. No one was interested in him any longer, or even knew where he was.   

           With time he began to distinguish the occasional Polish and Spanish phrases from the Arabic and French that dominated the neighbourhood. His granddaughter, Aisling, dug out her old primary school grammar and, with her help, he set himself to learn French.

One day, sitting on the bench, he raised his eyes from Aisling’s grammar to see a stranger regard him. The man was rolling a cigarette and he smiled. He said something in Arabic.

‘I do not understand,’ Denny answered in English.

The man offered him the freshly rolled cigarette. Denny shook his head.

‘I do not smoke,’ he said and added: ‘Thank you.’

‘I see you before,’ the man said in English. ‘You live here?’

Denny nodded vaguely. 


‘With my son and his family.’

‘You are from England?’

Denny hesitated but lying would be pointless. Sooner or later local people would know where he came from.

‘Ireland,’ he said.

‘Ah,’ the man responded, as if he understood something. Denny let it go at that.

He had initially worried about what he would say if asked why he had left Ireland. He was an old man, he could point out, his wife had died, their only child had long since left the country, and his house in Belfast had burned down. True, the council had offered him another. Why he didn’t take it? At my age? he would ask, his bushy eyebrows raised.

In fact no one here was interested in his past life. Brussels was a largely cosmopolitan city  –  everyone seemed to have come from somewhere else and to work for the EU or its numerous offshoots in one capacity or another. Even his daughter-in-law, Chantal, who was born in France, introduced herself as anversoise, Belgian Anvers being where she grew up.

A young man stood in front of Denny. He and the first man spoke for a long time in what Denny by now recognised as Arabic. When Denny looked up from his book again they had gone.

The following day the two men were back. This time the older man introduced himself, pointing at his chest and saying, ‘Karim.’

Denny said, ‘Dennis.’

They shook hands.

The young man smiled said in only slightly accented English, ‘My name is Boutros.’

Denny shook hands with him too. 

Karim rolled and licked a cigarette and said, ‘My nephew see you with a child with glasses and maybe her mother?’

‘Yes. My son’s wife.’

‘I met them last Sunday,’ the young man said in his easy English. ‘A pretty little girl with really big glasses.’

Denny nodded. He had, he realised, a new role here as grandfather of a little girl  –  an identity that could evoke respect.

‘We laughed a lot, she and I,’ the young man went on. He laughed now too. ‘She told me she helps her mother with the shopping every Sunday morning.’


‘Next day she ran up to me here when I was sitting waiting for my uncle. She was with an older girl. Who’d picked her up from day-care. Her sister maybe?’

‘Her sister, Aisling,’ Denny said.

‘The little girl was very lively,’ the younger man told Karim in English. He added something in Arabic and looked at Denny. To see if he understood?

‘You are living in Brussels long time?’ Karim asked in English

‘Six weeks.’

‘Ah. You stay long time?’

‘I live here now.’ 

‘With the little girl and her family?’

‘Yes,’ Denny said.

When Sarah disappeared, ten days later, he would recall this conversation with great clarity.  

About the author

I was born in Ireland, finished my studies in Sweden and lived there for many years before moving to Belgium. I have written extensively in Swedish, both fiction and non-fiction. Sarah is the first of a series of thrillers written in English. view profile

Published on September 12, 2019

80000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Contemporary fiction

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