Mehmet is just eight years old when his father uses him as a stake in a card game – and loses. At least this is what he is told as he is snatched away to begin a new life in the Little Dog gang. He battles for daily survival in the murky Istanbul of 1951 while being forced to learn the craft of theft and violence alongside the other street children. Come evening he curls up under a stinking jetty in a waterway off the Bosporus Strait. Desperation fills him as he yearns to break free from the life inflicted on him by his drunken, womanizing father, little knowing that his rotting body lies at the bottom of those same waters.
Mehmet reaches adulthood before finding out that it wasn’t fate that had taken control when he was a boy, but a very real nemesis. Is it too late, can he yet turn things around and get his life back?
Levent shaded his eyes and stared from the street towards the three-storey building where Beyrek lived. But his gaze veered and a glint from the low sun caught his eye. Dry pain coursed through his head. He cursed. He shouldn’t have drunk that fourth Raki. The throbbing increased when a couple of duelling motorists honked horns and shouted abuse through rolled-down windows. A narrow street, too much heat, too much noise: he needed to get indoors.
The lobby was high ceilinged and refreshingly cool. A hall porter sat at a small table next to a glossed sidewall with his head lost between the sheets of the Aksam newspaper. He lowered the paper and smiled. “He’s away on business. There isn’t anyone up there.”
“I have to pick something up,” Levent answered, rattling his pocket.
The porter nodded and returned his attention to the newssheet.
Levent climbed the stairs. Only three flights, but at the top he was again reminded of the Raki. Up on the large landing, he took a breather while studying the lock on Beyrek’s front door: a three-pin tumbler. He took out the lock picks he’d rattled at the porter and sifted through them. Any other time, he might have laughed at the irony: Beyrek had supplied the tools.
Inside, a long passageway ran half the length of the building, but it was the nearest door that was of interest: the sitting room – and more specifically, the safe within.
The lounge had a single unit of cabinets against the far wall. Other than a small space for photographs, expensively bound books filled the middle shelf. One picture was of Beyrek’s wife and sons. His wife, Gizem, had the right features, but she wasn’t an attractive woman: thin lips underscored an unforgiving face.
But why should Levent care about her? He just wanted the money and be gone.
He turned his attention to the bottom-right corner of the units, knelt in front of it and opened the cabinet door. In front of him was the shiny green door of the safe.
Right, remember what he told you, Levent thought. Two full turns clockwise – a click – now carry on in the same direction to the first number … and the other way to the second. He spun the dial back and forth until all six cams had clicked into position then pushed the handle down, gripped the lever and swung the door open to reveal wads of brand new banknotes.
In the excitement he’d forgotten about Yuri, but a document at the bottom of the safe reminded him. A poor reader, Levent had to persevere to make sense of it. It mentioned a club in Icmeler, someone called Otto Mitrokhin – sounded Russian, but how could he be sure? He searched further afield, checking every part of the apartment where documents might be stored. Nothing. Mitrokhin had to be the man. He found a small suitcase and stacked it with the cash, but still he hesitated as he laid the document on top of the money. It must be what Yuri wanted, he told himself. It had to be.
Daylight had faded. He’d been there too long; time to make his escape. He left the lounge and entered the long passageway on a cushion of air. For the first time since losing Emel, things were going right. He opened the main door out of the apartment with a big smile on his face, but…
“Hello, Levent,” Beyrek said, returning the smile. “The porter tells me I sent you for something. Did you find it?”
The Little Dogs crowded in and the buyers moved away quietly as if none of this was their business. Mehmet pulled his knife and pushed the blade against the man’s chest. The man looked surprised and tried to step away, but half a pace put his back against the wall. Mehmet’s confidence grew seeing his target lower his gaze and spread his arms in submission. The suit the man wore was old and wrinkled, like Zeki’s; he didn’t look well off at all, but Mehmet hadn’t chosen him, so if he had nothing it wouldn’t be his fault.
As Mehmet rifled through the man’s pockets, a thought crossed his mind: he could use the opportunity to practise the stare Senturk had been teaching him. But as he locked eyes with the man, he didn’t fold. Instead, he stared menacingly back, only for a moment, but long enough for Mehmet to find himself absorbed by an unnatural darkness that frightened the life out of him. He felt evil had invaded his soul. He had to get away.
His arm dropped. The knife slipped from his grip. He made to run, stubbed his toe and kicked a small urn up into the market traders other jugs. Shards of pottery splintered off in every direction and he was lucky none of it had stuck in him as he moved through it. The stoneware seller couldn’t say the same; shrapnel sent him scurrying. But then he got to his feet and began flailing closed fists at Mehmet while spitting a string of obscenities.
Mehmet’s woes were yet to end. Ducking down while moving, he stomped on the paste jewellery, powdering it underfoot, and then, to round off the mishaps, he kicked the final trader’s flatbreads everywhere. The trader reached to grab him, but slipped on the breads and fell forward onto the concrete, but as he fell he caught Mehmet’s ankle, bringing him down too. Mehmet couldn’t move. He’d been caught and the police would arrest him. But then a vice-like grip took hold of his arm and he was up and running again. Senturk had come to the rescue.
The other Little Dogs must have taken the panicked moments as a signal that the police had turned up and had already run for it. Mehmet and Senturk were quick to follow, running with all the strength they had, gaining their freedom with every step. But when Mehmet turned his head, he caught a glimpse of the tall, scruffy man. He was giving chase – and quickly closing the gap. Mehmet looked sideways, expecting to see Senturk in a panic, as he was himself, but Senturk was almost wheezing with laughter.
Over his shoulder, Mehmet heard the vendors shouting and saw them waving their arms in the air; their goods were useless, scattered everywhere, broken or inedible. He was about to lose his freedom, but he couldn’t help it – he began laughing along with Senturk and his pace slowed. However, the laughter died and renewed fear gave him the strength to spurt forward and run harder when a hand clawed at his shoulder. Then the sound of ripping material was followed by Senturk going backwards, but as quickly, he surged forward and was by Mehmet’s side again.
Mehmet’s stamina began dwindling. He wouldn’t be able to keep going for much longer. He saw an alley ahead and pictured the two of them giving their follower the slip. Senturk had other ideas and kept running in a straight line. But as they came alongside the alley, he unexpectedly raced ahead and pushed Mehmet sideways into it. The pursuer hurtled past. Whether the ruse had put him off or he just got fed up wasn’t clear, but the chase seemed to end at that point. They’d made it, but a new worry came to bear: what would Zeki do to him for this?
They ran through a few more alleys before slowing to a walk. Senturk began laughing again, but when the laughter eased, he said, “Zeki won’t be very happy with you. Our total profit for the day is minus one knife.” He twisted to look over his shoulder. “And a ripped shirt.” Mehmet flinched and Senturk laughed.
A spot of blood ran down Mehmet’s cheek. He wiped it away and felt a small gouge. It was probably from when he broke the jugs. He ran a finger over the nick and wondered if he would get a scar. If so, he would look like most of the other boys. The idea appealed and he walked alongside Senturk with the swagger he’d been trying to learn for ages.
The man with Zeki had seemed friendly enough, so why did Mehmet feel like the worries of the world were burdening him? He couldn’t understand what, but there had been something strange about him. And to add fuel to the thought, Zeki had been too friendly since the meeting.
“Senturk, Mehmet, come over here for a minute, please.”
The pair hadn’t long been back from the markets and Mehmet was shattered. He’d been on his feet all day, walking, running, worrying for his security after a series of small robberies. It was too hot and humid for that time of year, especially under the jetty where there was no chance of picking up a breeze. He just wanted to be left alone. But now Zeki was calling them over with a sickly sweet voice. And he said please – so unbelievable. What was he up to? Senturk rose from his nest and Mehmet came into line beside him. They sat next to Zeki on the beam behind the ladder, dangling their legs over the side.
Zeki smiled. “I’ve been doing some thinking about the markets,” he began. “The two of you are a good team and it’s time to move you up. I want to expand the target area and start by hitting those markets on the other side of the Golden Horn. I’ve decided to let you two head up a gang there and I want you to start with the quayside market at Sirkeci. Take the cell you usually work with and do it tomorrow around mid-morning.”
“But that’s crazy,” Senturk said. “Nobody over there knows our reputation, so seven won’t be enough. You know from way back that if we’re not in a mob and the victim isn’t scared, he’ll turn on us. If the crowd see that, they’ll help. No, it’s crazy. We’ll be in prison by the end of the day.”
“If what you just said were true then yes, but there won’t only be seven of you. I’ve been collecting boys in Sirkeci for months now and I’ve set them up under a jetty over there. I told you to do it mid-morning because that’s when the new boys will be there. Including the boys from here, you’ll number about thirty. When the jobs done, they’ll take you to your new home. Any problems with that?”
“Are these new boys any good?”
“You know you don’t need to ask me that, Senturk.”
The following morning, Mehmet and Senturk hung over the railings on the upper level of the bridge and watched the activity in the open-air market below. There were stalls all the way to the barrier at the jetty edge, most selling fish. However, every so often, blankets of smoke clouded upward highlighting the kebab stalls. Buses lined up where the market ended and made a natural perimeter fence. Mehmet had been scouring the place for over an hour and was beginning to feel edgy. Until now, the only boys he’d seen had come from Galata with him and Senturk.
“Our group is clear enough, so where are these new boys?” Mehmet asked. “Maybe a few could’ve melted into the crowd, but more than twenty? I don’t think so.”
Senturk made no response.
“I don’t like this,” Mehmet continued, almost pleading now. “I think we should cut and run. This doesn’t feel right. You must’ve noticed how weird Zeki’s been since we followed him.”
Senturk gave Mehmet a long-suffering stare. “Look, I don’t like the idea of moving over here much either and that’s the only reason you’re worrying now. But there’s no need; if they don’t turn up, we leave – simple. And as far as Zeki goes, he didn’t even know I was with you at the bridge.”
Senturk wouldn’t be moved and Mehmet supposed he was probably right. If the boys didn’t show then they wouldn’t rob. Like he said, what could go wrong?
“Let’s see if we can get a better handle on things from below,” Senturk said. “They might be underneath the bridge where we can’t see them.”
They went down onto the lower jetty and Mehmet stared over to the floating pontoons that held the centre of the bridge up and watched a small boat motor through and towards the strait. Black smoke billowed as it chugged towards the main stream. The backwash from its wake lapped small white horses against the floats.
Senturk pulled on his arm and Mehmet went along – reluctantly. “Let’s get to the main part of the market. Maybe they’re there now.”
But they weren’t.
“Still no sign of the boys, but there are two of the gang we came over with,” Mehmet said and pointed to a couple of boys who stood making faces at the dead fish on the stalls and laughing. They went and chatted to them, but they hadn’t seen any potential gang members either.
It was midday now and the smell of food was everywhere. “I should be feeling hungry, but I’m not. Something isn’t right here, Senturk,” Mehmet said, and just as he finished speaking, as if the words themselves had signalled his demise, gunfire rang out and an undulating crowd flowed from whatever had happened. The boys went off one way while Mehmet and Senturk went the other. Two shots in quick succession and then a third; someone was firing at the two boys who’d just left them. Mehmet picked up speed. A shot whizzed past close by and a child ahead of him fell. It could only have been the mother who screamed, as she bent over the boy, clutched his blood-spattered body to her breast.
“Quick, get along to the end of the lower level,” Senturk yelled. “If we can get to the rail, we can jump onto one of the floating pontoons and hide.”
They raced the length of the jetty but a crowd of people had gathered near the rail. More gunfire echoed, the boys raced straight at the throng and it separated into folds along the boardwalk, like Moses parting the Red Sea. They crouched down and arched arms protectively over their heads as if it were the boys who had the guns. As the minutes passed, the shooting seemed to be moving further away. There was still a chance they could make an escape. Mehmet’s heart pounded in his ears. Fear had stopped his legs working properly, but surely he could make it a few more strides. If he could get to the railings and jump to the pontoon, he’d be safe.
Another shot cracked out; they were closing in again. Senturk was running a couple of steps ahead when a sudden thud resounded and sent his body forward that much faster. His head turned sideways as blood spurted from his mouth and he fell to the jetty, his chest exploding in front of him.
“I grew up in Naples, in Italy. My mother was a puttana, a whore.”
Mehmet slapped the side of his thigh. “Yes! I knew it… Oh, I err, I meant… when I first saw you I had an idea you were Italian.”
She huffed through her nose. “You did?”
She raised her eyes. “Okay, my life… I never knew anything about my papa. But I don’t suppose my mother could have told me much if she’d wanted to. And she wouldn’t have wanted to. She treated me like one of the city’s stray cats: a pat on the head followed by a kick up the ass.”
He grinned. She didn’t.
“On my twelfth birthday she was in the bedroom turning tricks. I could hear her laughing and groaning on cue. And then it stopped for a minute. Then she shouted, ordered me into the bedroom.”
“Oh, she didn’t expect…”
Nina nodded. “Yes. I nearly ran away. I wanted to, I should have, but to where? So, trailing my feet and sobbing, I went into the bedroom.”
Mehmet could see in her eyes that Nina was reliving every moment. He wanted to stop her, but felt compelled to hear her out. She licked indecently full lips and drew in a deep breath before continuing. Mehmet stared as her cleavage grew with the intake of air and felt guilty because the heat continued burning in his lower gut.
“Anyway, it happened, and after that Mamma realised there was more money to be made by including me in her bag of tricks. She got a slot prostituting in a nightclub near the port. I was too young for admission, so I became her hook to get the punters back home.
“One evening, the police raided the club. My mamma slipped out the back and ran across the street. She was hit by a police car as it sped to the scene. She died.”
Mehmet wanted to say ‘served her right’, but held his tongue.
“I thought God had smiled on me that day and I swore to him I’d never sell myself. Then I was thrown out of the hovel where we’d lived. I remained determined. I even spent the next couple of years living on the streets, begging. I made it through until I was eighteen, but a couple of years ago I saw an advert for dancers in Turkey. Mamma had lived with a Turkish man for a few years when I was a child. He was probably her pimp because she still sold herself during her time with him. Indoors, he insisted we spoke Turkish, so I got to speak your language as well as I speak my own.”
Mehmet understood that. He and Yuri only spoke Russian when there was no one else around.
“What happened to the Turk?”
“I heard he knifed someone and was caught by the police, but I’m not sure whether that’s true. Never mind that, the advert seemed a wonderful opportunity. But thinking back, I was such a scruff. I should’ve known better. Why would they want someone like me for a dancer? But I was accepted. They brought me to Turkey and they kept me poorly fed so that I would stay slim enough for the clothes they’d given me. When I wasn’t with a punter, I was locked in a room with other girls. Always different girls, so I never made friends. When my masters believed I was broken, the beatings lessened.”
The hairs on Mehmet’s neck rose and he wanted to kill somebody.
She sighed. “So, you see, Mehmet, it was just the surprise of seeing the carnage that made me catch my breath. Other than that, I was glad to see the bastards die.”
Mehmet backed up the steps. “One thing you were wrong about, Nina. You would have made the most beautiful dancer I’ve ever seen.”
She looked away and began laying out the cards and then she picked up her cigarette and tapped the long ash from it. As she took a drag he noticed her fingers were trembling.