Short Fiction

Hi,

On this page I sporadically post my short fiction. This week it's 'For the Girls'. This story was originally published on the e-zine Espresso Fiction five or six years ago. So it's an oldie, but it gives you a good idea of where my writing was heading even back then. I hope you enjoy it.


For the Girls


Tom was burning leaves in the back garden when Angela got home from work. She fixed herself a drink and stood at the backdoor, watching him rake up fallen leaves and dump them onto the fire. After a while, she called to him, “How’s it going?”

Momentarily, he seemed startled. Then he glanced over his shoulder. His face was blotchy and damp from exertion and the heat of the fire. He put down the rake and approached her.

“How long have you been stood there?”

“Not long.” Angela tapped a fingernail against her glass. “Do you want one?”

Tom shook his head. “I’ve got to drive the girls to dance practice.”

“Let them walk, it’s not far.”

Tom looked shocked at the suggestion. “It’ll be dark soon.”

“Lauren’s twelve and Claudia’s thirteen going on thirty. They’re both perfectly capable of getting around on their own.”

“I know, but...”

“But what?”

“Well, you don’t know who’s lurking around do you? There are a lot of crazy people out there.”

“Come off it, Tom, everyone knows everyone in this town. Any strangers, especially crazy looking ones, would be noticed at once.”

“I suppose you’re right,” murmured Tom, clearly unconvinced, “but I’d still rather drive the girls to dance.”

Smiling, Angela slid an arm around her husband’s waist and pulled him close. “I always said you’d turn out to be an overprotective father.”

She tried to kiss him.

“Not now, darling,” he said, turning his head to one side. “I’ve got things to do.”

***

The instant they got in from school, Claudia and Lauren rushed up to Angela and said simultaneously, “Mum, Mum, have you heard?”

“Heard what?” she replied.

“Molly Frazer’s gone missing.”

“How do you mean, missing?”

The sisters began to speak at the same time again. Angela raised a hand, palm outward. “One at a time, please.”

Lauren lapsed into a sullen silence, as Claudia continued quickly, “She went out to meet some friends the day before yesterday and never came home. The police were in school today trying to find out if anyone knows where she is.”

Angela turned to a doorway and shouted for Tom. A moment later, he poked his head into the room. “What is it?”

A troubled frown creased his face as Angela repeated what Claudia had told her. “That’s terrible,” he said. “Do the police have any idea what might have happened to her?”

“No one has a clue,” said Claudia. “It’s like she just vanished into thin air.”

“There’s going to be a prayer vigil at the school tonight,” said Lauren. “Can we go?”

“Of course,” said Angela. “Now hurry and get changed. Tea’s almost ready.”

“Imagine what that poor girl’s parents must be going through,” sighed Angela as she watched her girls leave the room.

“It doesn’t bear thinking about,” said Tom, shaking his head.

Angela took her husband’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For accusing you of being overprotective. You were right, there are a lot of crazy people out there.”

***

The headmaster’s wife greeted them at the school gates and led them into the packed assembly hall. Faces turned toward them, anxious, worried, inquisitive. Mostly, they belonged to people that Angela had known all her life.

A middle-aged couple waved them over. The woman put her hand on Angela’s wrist and said, “Absolutely awful, isn’t it.”

Angela nodded. “Any news?”

“They’re using dogs to search the woods to the north of town,” said the man.

“And there’s a rumour going around that they’re draining the fishing pond at Chapel Farm,” added his wife.

The hum of voices in the hall died down as the local vicar appeared on the stage. “Thank you all for coming here tonight to pray for Molly’s safe return,” he began sombrely. “Before proceeding with the prayer, the police have asked me to inform you that they’d like to speak to anyone who visited The Avenue Shopping Centre on Saturday afternoon.”

The crowd bowed their heads as the vicar continued, “Lord, we ask for your blessing and comfort. Please go with us. Please send Molly home safe.”

Later, as the vicar spoke of the light of hope promised by God, candles were lit and carried out into the night.

***

Molly Frazer’s pretty, smiling face stared at passersby from fliers stuck up in the windows of every town centre shopfront. Printed beneath it in large blood-red lettering was the word, ‘Missing’. And beneath that was a brief narrative that read, ‘Molly Frazer has been missing since 13th of January 2007. Her parents and the police are concerned for her safety. If you’ve seen her or have any information regarding her please contact us on the number provided below.’

Figures stood in the rain, handing out fliers to shoppers and motorists. Tom approached one of them and said wearily, “I’m starting to wonder whether we’re wasting our time.”

“Don’t say that,” exclaimed Angela.

“I’m just being realistic. It’s been almost a week since she went missing. The light of hope’s getting pretty dim, wouldn’t you say?”

“Maybe, but that doesn’t mean we should give up.” Angela stabbed a finger at Molly’s picture. “That could just as easily be one of our girls.”

“You’re right,” agreed Tom. “I’m sorry.”

The telephone call came later that day. After a brief conversation, Angela hung up and wandered dazedly into the lounge. “Girls, would you leave the room please,” she said to her daughters.

“I’m watching the-” Claudia began to protest, but some instinct warned her not to continue. She switched off the telly and followed her sister from the room.

“What’s wrong?” asked Tom.

“They found a body.”

Tom didn’t look surprised. “Where?”

“In the woods.”

“Is it her?”

“They’re not sure. Apparently, the body’s been beaten so severely that they can’t-” Angela broke off, her voice choked with tears.

Tom put his arms around her and rubbed her back. “Poor little girl,” he murmured, as she sobbed into his shoulder.

***

The roads leading to the school were even more clogged with traffic than was usual for a Monday morning. “I’m going to be late,” said Angela, glancing at her watch.

“We can walk from here,” offered Lauren.

Angela considered this briefly, then shook her head. “I’d rather drop you at the gates.”

“It’s not fair,” muttered Claudia. “I wish things could go back to the way they were.”

“So do all of us,” said Angela. She knew, though, that things could never return to the way they’d been. Not even if Molly’s killer was caught and jailed for life. The damage that had been done to the community was as irreparable as the injuries Molly had suffered.

Angela pulled into the kerb. “See you at half-past three,” she called after the girls as they got out of the car. She waited until they were well inside the gates, before accelerating away.

***

“By the way,” said the shop-assistant, “how does the blind look?”

Angela gave her a quizzical glance. “What blind?”

“Tom was in here the Saturday before last. He bought a Venetian blind.”

Angela’s face took on a thoughtful expression. She wondered why Tom hadn’t mentioned the blind to her. Or, for that matter, that he’d visited the shopping centre on the day Molly went missing. A possible answer came into her mind, but it was so absurd, so appalling that she disregarded it at once, feeling deeply ashamed for thinking such a thing.

During the drive home, however, the same thought kept nagging at her.

Tom was pushing Lauren on the swing in the back garden. Her feet brushed the grass. Soon she would be too big for the swing, like Claudia already was. Angela watched as, laughing, Lauren stretched her legs out and leant back to look at her dad upside down. He smiled back at her.

A sense of sudden urgency prompted Angela to call to Tom. He waved and started toward the house. “Stay there, honey,” shouted Angela, when Lauren stood to follow him, “I need to talk to your dad alone.”

Tom frowned a little. “What’s up?”

Angela motioned for him to follow her inside. She was aware of her heart beating faster than usual, as they made their way to the lounge. When she turned and saw his crinkled red face, which was as familiar to her as her own, she was tempted not to ask the question. But she knew that wasn’t really an option.

“Why didn’t you tell me about the blind?”

She saw that he knew what she was talking about. And she saw him think about denying it. Then a look of resignation came into his eyes and he said, “I was embarrassed.”

“Why?”

“I wanted to fit the blind as a surprise, but I made a real mess of it. I got so angry that I took the damn thing into the garden and burnt it.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Was there anything else?”

Angela shook her head. After Tom had left the room, she picked up a newspaper and read again how Molly’s body was found in a ditch, naked, her ankles and wrists bound with cord. She’d been beaten so savagely that detectives initially thought she’d been blasted in the face with a shotgun. One veteran police officer was quoted as saying that it was the most brutal case he’d ever seen.

When Tom re-entered the room a while later, Angela was sat with the newspaper on her lap, deep in thought. She looked up at him, her eyes narrowing. “I still don’t quite understand why you didn’t mention the blind to me,” she said.

“I told you,” replied Tom. “I was embarrassed.”

“But we’ve been married nearly twenty years. I’ve seen you lose your temper over that sort of thing hundreds of times.”

“Why do you have to keep going on about this?” Tom’s voice rose in irritation. “Can’t you just accept what I’ve told you?”

“Sure, but-”

“But what? Just what the hell are you getting at?”

“Nothing. I’m just trying to get it straight in my mind why you kept this from me.”

They stared at each other for a moment, her eyes curious, his steadily filling with anger. Then he looked away. “I’ve had enough of this,” he said, storming from the room and out the front door.

Angela heard the car start up and pull away from the house. She stood and made her way to a patch of scorched earth in the garden. A few lumps of melted plastic were all that remained of the blind’s slats. There was, of course, no trace of the cord that would have connected the slats together.

Claudia came into the garden and asked, “Where’s Dad gone?”

“I don’t know.”

“Will he be long?”

Angela shrugged. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as Claudia whined, “He promised he’d give me a lift to Lisa’s house after tea. If he doesn’t come back in time, I’ll have to walk there.”

“Don’t be silly, Claudia, Lisa lives on the other side of town.”

“So what? I can walk there easily.”

“You’re not walking anywhere by yourself.”

“I am,” Claudia retorted defiantly. “And you can’t stop me.”

“You’ll do what I tell you, or you’ll-” Before Angela could finish speaking, Claudia turned and ran inside the house.

“Get back here,” shouted Angela, chasing after her.

Claudia darted into the downstairs toilet and locked the door. Angela hammered on it with both fists. “Let me in,” she demanded.

“No!”

Suddenly, all the anger that had been brewing in Angela for the past fortnight bubbled to the surface and she hit the door so hard that the bolt gave way. Claudia screamed and cowered against the sink, her face pale with shock. Angela stood over her, breathing hard.

“You’re not going anywhere by yourself,” she said. “Do you hear me?”

Claudia nodded. “Are...are you going to punish me,” she stammered.

Seeing her daughter so scared made Angela’s anger disappear as fast as it had arisen. She shook her head. “I’m sorry, darling, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” she said softly. “It’s just that you and Lauren mean everything in the world to me. I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to us, Mum.”

“I know,” said Angela, “because I’m going to make sure it doesn’t.”

***

Angela was lying awake in bed when Tom returned home. She closed her eyes as he climbed the stairs. He opened the door quietly, approached the bed and stood staring down at her. His breath reeked of alcohol. He shifted a foot and cleared his throat, but she kept her eyes shut.

After what felt like a long time to Angela, he turned and left the room.

Hearing him look in on the girls, she sat up, listening intensely. She was on the verge of getting out of bed, when he went back downstairs and into the living room. There was a muffled clink of glass, followed by silence.

Angela looked at her hands and saw that they were trembling.

***

“You alright, Mum?” asked Claudia. “You look really tired.”

“I didn’t get much sleep,” admitted Angela, checking her reflection in the mirror and applying a little more blusher. Hearing movement in the room below, she dressed quickly in a black skirt and jacket and made her way downstairs.

Tom was at the drinks cabinet pouring himself a whisky. He was still wearing his clothes from the previous day.

“The funeral service starts in an hour,” said Angela.

“I know.”

“Well hadn’t you better start getting ready?”

Tom made no reply, but took a big mouthful of his drink.

Angela said carefully, “You do realise how it’ll look if you don’t go.”

In response, Tom treated her to a look of such contempt that she raised her hands and backed out of the room. Half-an-hour later, she looked in on him again. He was slumped in an armchair, staring at a recent photo of Claudia and Lauren. His eyes jerked up to her face, bloodshot and glistening. “I’d do anything for them,” he said. “Absolutely anything.”

“Time to go,” said Angela, biting back an angry retort. “Are you coming or not?”

Tom’s gaze returned to the photo. “You and the girls get going,” he murmured in a strange, distant voice. “I’ll see you at the church.”

“Fine.”

Angela called the girls downstairs and hustled them out of the house.

***

Every pew in the church was full to overflowing. Angela and her daughters were sat near the front, a couple of rows back from Molly’s parents, who looked as though they’d aged ten years in a fortnight. The coffin rested on a bier to the right of the pulpit, which was draped in black.

“Where’s Dad?” whispered Claudia.

“He’ll be here soon,” Angela assured her, glancing toward the vestibule.

She looked around at all the familiar faces. Almost the whole town had turned out to say their final goodbyes to Molly. The vicar mounted his pulpit and began the sermon by asking the congregation to bow their heads. Angela felt sick.

After all the prayers for the living and the dead had been said, the organ started up, curtains closed in front of the coffin and the congregation filed out of the church.

“Why didn’t he come?” asked Lauren.

“I don’t know,” lied Angela.

On the way home, Angela dropped the girls off at her sister’s house. “No arguments,” she said, when they began to protest. “I’ll pick you up later. Me and your dad have got stuff to sort out.”

Alone in the car, Angela struggled to hold herself together. She sat in the driveway for a full ten minutes, before she managed to summon up the courage to go into the house.

Tom wasn’t in the living-room. She shouted his name and got no response. The silence gave her a cold feeling inside.

She climbed the stairs slowly. The bathroom door stood slightly ajar. She pushed it open and stepped forward.

The first thing she saw was the blood. The bath seemed to be full of it. Tom was laid on his back with his arms folded across his chest. A thick, dark stream flowed from his wrists into the water. He looked dead, but then his lips moved.

In a barely audible whisper, he said, “Call an ambulance.”

Angela snatched out her mobile-phone, started to dial, then hesitated. In that moment she saw the future in vivid detail, like a waking nightmare. She saw the newspaper headlines. She saw the trial dragging out for months. She saw all the silently accusing – or pitying – looks she and her girls would have to put up with as long as they lived in their hometown. And in the far distant future, she saw the whole agonising mess being stirred up again when Tom was released from jail. The nightmare would never go away, unless...

Very slowly, Angela returned the phone to her pocket. Tom’s drowsy eyes widened a fraction in horrified disbelief. His lips moved again, but no sound came. His gaze remained fixed on Angela, as his head gradually slid beneath the water. And she returned his stare steadily with eyes that seemed to say, “You’re not the only one who’d do anything for our girls.”


The End


'If In Doubt, Think Murder', was previously published in First Edition Magazine, and treads similar ground to my novel 'Blood Guilt'.


If In Doubt, Think Murder


Caroline was lying on the bed, face pressed into the pillow so that our son, Sean, wouldn’t hear her crying. I was crouched on the carpet, praying for the safe return of our sixteen year old daughter, Lisa, who’d been missing a fortnight. Fourteen seemingly endless days and nights during which we’d endured every parent’s worst nightmare.

The phone rang, making both of us jump. Caroline stared at me, the long hours of worry etched on her face, as I answered it.

Upon hearing the voice of detective inspector Tom Benson, the policeman leading our case, a familiar mix of feelings welled up inside me – anxiety, hope, nausea. “I’ve got some news,” he said. “Several calls have been made from Lisa’s mobile phone.”

I began shaking.

“What is it?” hissed Caroline.

I raised a hand to quiet her, as Benson continued, “We’ve traced the calls to Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Can you think of any reason why Lisa might be there?”

“No.”

“Has she got friends there?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Have you ever been there on holiday?”

“Never.”

Benson hung up, promising he’d be in contact as soon as there were anymore developments. I told Caroline the news, and her eyes lit up with feverish hope. “She’s alive,” she said.

“Not necessarily,” I warned, but she wasn’t listening. She began pulling her clothes out of the wardrobe. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to Scarborough.”

“No you’re not. Sean needs you here. I’ll go.”

Caroline didn’t argue - she didn’t have the energy or time to waste on it - she just began frantically packing a bag for me instead.

I looked in on Sean. He was fast asleep, clutching a stuffed toy that Lisa had given him for his seventh birthday. I watched him for several minutes, before heading downstairs.

As I got into the car, Caroline caught my wrist and said with an intensity that made her voice harsh, “Find her, bring her back to me safe.”

“I’ll try.”

“Don’t try, Ian, do it.”

It was after midnight when I set off on the two hundred odd mile drive north. There was blood on my arm where Caroline’s fingernails had cut into me. The radio said it was snowing in Yorkshire.

***

The last time I saw Lisa, she was heading out the front door on her way to college. I said to her, “Do you want a lift?”

“No thanks, dad,” she replied. “I’ll walk. I need the exercise.”

Like I told the police, she looked and seemed perfectly normal. She’d skipped breakfast, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. Ever since hitting puberty, she’d been concerned about her weight. Not obsessively, just in the way that most sixteen year old girls are. She had a serious look on her face. But again, there wasn’t anything unusual in that. She was a very serious-minded person. She got that from me.

When Lisa hadn’t returned home by seven, Caroline called her mobile phone. There was no answer. Then she called Lisa’s boyfriend, Jack, who said that Lisa hadn’t made it to college. Caroline rang around Lisa’s friends. None of them had seen her either. That was when we started to get worried, and with each passing hour our anxiety increased.

At ten o’clock I rang the local hospital, but it hadn’t admitted any unidentified females. Then I contacted the police. They said it wasn’t uncommon for girls Lisa’s age to go missing and that the majority return home safe and sound within seventy two hours. I told them it was totally out of character for Lisa to take off without telling someone where she was going, especially as she suffered from epilepsy. That galvanised them into action. Within half-an-hour two constables were at our door.

The first thing they did was make a thorough search of our house and garden. “You’d be surprised how many missing kids we find hiding in the shed or loft,” said one of them. After that turned up nothing, they started firing questions at us. What did Lisa look like? What was she wearing? Were any of her clothes missing? Had she ever disappeared before? Were there any family, relationship, money or college problems? Had she ever been bullied? Did she have a history of drug or alcohol abuse? Was there any reason to suspect that she was likely to commit suicide?

When they asked that, my gut clenched up like a fist. The possibility that she might have harmed herself hadn’t occurred to me. Just thinking about it made me feel queasy. I could tell from the look on Caroline’s face that she felt the same way.

“No,” she said, almost savagely.

They left with a recent photo of Lisa, promising that her disappearance would be made a priority. I took to the streets in search of her. After scouring them for several hours, I returned home exhausted. Caroline was sat hunched over the kitchen table, hands trembling in her lap. “Oh God, Ian, I just know something bad’s happened to her,” she said.

“You mustn’t talk like that. Just remember what they told us, most missing people return home safe and sound.”

She began to repeat like a mantra the words, “Safe and sound.” I put my arms around her and she burst into uncontrollable sobs. We stayed like that for the rest of the night.

In the morning a thickset man with a police veteran’s moustache turned up at the house and introduced himself as detective inspector Tom Benson. “Lisa’s description has been circulated locally and a search of the surrounding neighbourhood and wooded areas is under way,” he said. “I’ve also spoken to Jack Rutherford. He says he broke up with Lisa weeks ago. Has she mentioned this to you?”

Stunned, we shook our heads. “I can’t understand why she’d keep something like that from me,” said Caroline, who’d always prided herself on the closeness of her relationship with Lisa.

“What was their relationship like?”

“It was puppy love,” I said.

“It was a lot more than that,” said Caroline. “Jack may have been Lisa’s first boyfriend, but she was pretty serious about him.”

“Was Jack ever aggressive towards Lisa?” asked Benson.

“Not to my knowledge. Why? You don’t think he’s done something to her, do you?”

“Right now, we don’t know what to think. We simply need to cover every possibility.”

Then Benson told us what was going to happen next. We were to contact relatives, friends, neighbours and anybody else who might be able to help find Lisa. And while the search went on outside, a team of investigators would scrutinise Lisa’s computer, diaries, notepads, letters, phone records, even her rubbish, for any clues to her whereabouts.

The feverish activity of the next few hours kept at bay, to some extent, our gnawing doubts and fears about what had happened to Lisa. At lunchtime a journalist from a local newspaper came knocking.

“By all means speak to him,” said Benson, “but don’t tell him what Lisa was wearing, remember clothing can easily be changed.”

“What about the necklace?” I asked, referring to the Egyptian cartouche pendant with Lisa’s full name etched on it in hieroglyphics, which she’d worn constantly since we gave it her at Christmas.

Benson thought a moment, then said, “Alright, but don’t mention Jack Rutherford.”

Caroline gave him a quick suspicious look. “Why not?”

“Because it’ll only lead to wild speculation, gossip and rumour, and those are the last things we need right now.”

After the journalist had gone, Caroline said to me, “The more I think about it, the harder I find it to believe that Lisa wouldn’t have told me about breaking up with Jack.”

“But why would Jack be lying?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”

Caroline marched outside to the car. As she drove away, I called after her, “Don’t do anything stupid. Remember what Benson said.”

Ten minutes later the phone rang. It was Jack’s mum, Sally. “You’d better get around here and fetch your wife, before I do something I’ll regret,” she said, her voice vibrating with anger.

When I got to the Rutherford’s house, Caroline was hammering on its front door, shouting, “What did you do to my daughter!”

I hauled her away and shoved her into the car. Then I approached Sally, who’d poked her head out of a downstairs window.

“I understand she’s going through hell, but that doesn’t give her the right to accuse my Jack of hurting your Lisa,” she said.

“I know, and I’m sorry.”

As we drove home, I said to Caroline, “Just what the hell did you think you were doing?”

She looked across at me, grim certainty lining her features. “He’s lying. It was written in his face.”

That night we lay in bed too exhausted to talk, but too worried to sleep. When the newspaper hit the mat in the morning, I ran downstairs. Lisa’s pretty, smiling face stared at me from page five. Next to it was a headline that ran, ‘Parents of Missing Girl Appeal for Information’.

Caroline made Shaun breakfast and got him ready for school. “Why don’t we let him stay home today?” I suggested.

She shook her head. “I want to keep things as normal as possible for him.”

At midmorning Benson called around to inform us that there’d been a sighting of Lisa. “At around eight a.m. on the day Lisa disappeared, a male college acquaintance bumped into her in a church car park on Briarfield Avenue. According to him, they chatted for a while, then Lisa said she was heading into town to buy some cigarettes before class started.”

“Who is this boy?” asked Caroline.

“I can’t tell you that.”

A look of furious surprise spread over Caroline’s face. “Why not?”

“This isn’t a criminal investigation. And until we have reason to suspect foul play, I have a duty to protect the privacy of anyone who comes forward to speak to me.”

“Don’t you think my daughter’s wellbeing is more important than somebody’s privacy?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think, I’m just following procedure.”

“Well you know what you can do with your fucking procedure,” yelled Caroline. Then she stamped upstairs and started throwing things around.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Benson. “She’s close to the edge. We both are.”

We sat talking awhile about the missing person posters that were to be printed and put up throughout the area. Then we heard Caroline sobbing, and Benson quietly excused himself.

I went to her. “The police are lying to us,” she said.

“Don’t be absurd.”

“It’s true. They keep telling us how in all likelihood Lisa’s safe and well somewhere, but that’s not what they really think.”

She shoved a sheet of paper at me which had, ‘Guidance on the management, recording and investigation of missing persons’ at the top of it and, ‘IF IN DOUBT, THINK MURDER’ at its the centre.

“That’s what they really think,” she said. There was a note of hysteria in her voice that scared me almost as much as the words on the page. I tried to comfort her, but all my efforts were futile. Eventually, though, she cried herself into a state of exhaustion resembling sleep.

That night I searched the streets again, jumping red lights every chance I got, for sitting there, waiting for the light to change, I’d have time to think, and then the words would flash through my mind: IF IN DOUBT, THINK MURDER.

It was getting light when I returned home. I sat in the kitchen, mechanically eating toast. At half-seven Caroline came into the room, her face pale and rigid. “It’s over,” she said.

“What’s over?”

“They said most missing people return home within seventy two hours. It’s now been longer than that since Lisa went missing.”

My throat closed up so tight I was forced to spit out my toast.

After breakfast, I marshalled together a group of friends and relatives to help put up missing person posters. By midday we’d covered most of town. At half-twelve I got the call from Benson. He’d been contacted by someone who’d seen a girl fitting Lisa’s description at a petrol-station near Chain Bridge on the day she disappeared. “We found Lisa’s purse under the bridge,” he said. “And close by there were some words scrawled on the bridge.”

I found myself struggling for breath. “What do they say?”

“Lisa Thompson, February twentieth, two thousand and seven, R.I.P.”

“Oh God, she jumped into the river.”

“We can’t know that for sure, until we find a body. We’re dredging the river right now.”

I just managed to say thank you, before breaking into loud sobs. Passersby glanced at me concernedly. Somebody asked, “Are you okay?” I couldn’t reply. All I kept thinking, over and over was, how am I going to tell Caroline?

***

Never give up hope. In the days following the discovery of Lisa’s purse and the etching, I held onto those words as tightly as a drowning man clutches a log. I quickly lost count of the times I said to Caroline, “Nothing has changed, and it won’t until they find a body. We’ve got to keep busy, keep looking.” We handed out reams of leaflets with Lisa’s face on them, spoke to dozens of journalists and spent countless hours exploring the banks of the river Lisa was thought to have thrown herself into. But despite our efforts, as day after day went by, hope faded. Then, just as despair threatened to overtake us, Benson provided the straw of hope we so desperately needed.

So I dashed north through the worst snowstorm of the winter. The drifts piled high against the roadside. More than once I almost lost control of the car. I arrived in Scarborough at eight a.m. It looked as bleak, cold and grey as the North Sea. I shuddered to think what it must be like to try and survive on its streets at that time of year.

I booked into a hotel, ate a quick breakfast, then set off into town. Starting at the south bay, I worked my way along the promenade, putting up posters and handing out leaflets. By late afternoon I’d covered most of the town. I returned to the hotel to grab an hour’s sleep and a bite to eat. At six, after a brief, fraught telephone conversation with Caroline, I headed out to the pubs and clubs.

It was in the seventh pub I visited that I came across the woman. She was somewhere in her twenties, pinch-faced, plain looking. She shook her head when I showed her Lisa’s photo. I was about to move on, when I noticed the necklace. I recognised it instantly. My heart began to beat so hard it made my voice tremble, as I asked, “Where did you get that from?”

“What’s it to you?”

I fought to keep calm, not wanting to scare her away. “I’d like to buy one for my wife.”

“It was a present from my boyfriend. I don’t know where he bought it.”

“Is he around?”

The woman pointed to a man stood at the bar. Like her, he was young, gaunt, unremarkable. There was a mark on his left cheek that might have been an old bruise. The woman called to him, “Liam, where did you buy my necklace from?”

“Why?”

“This bloke wants one for his missus.”

“I don’t remember.”

“What do you mean, you don’t remember? You only gave it me a couple of weeks ago.”

“I got it from some shop near a factory I was delivering to.”

“What shop?” I asked.

“I don’t know its name.”

“Well, where can I find it?”

“Somewhere down south, near London.”

Liam turned his back on me. I put Lisa’s photo on the bar in front of him, watching closely for his reaction. “Have you ever seen this girl before?”

“No.”

“Are you sure? Take a closer look.”

A spasm of irritation crossed Liam’s face. “I don’t need to.”

He paid for his drinks and took them to his girlfriend. I moved to stand beside the front door, so that they wouldn’t be able to leave without me knowing, and phoned Benson. “Stay where you are,” he said. “Someone’ll be with you as soon as possible. And whatever you do, don’t approach them again.”

They drank their drinks quickly, then left the pub. I followed them. They walked up a hill, turned onto a street of terraced houses and went into one of them. I knew I should call Benson again, wait for the police, but my mind said, there’s no time to wait. What if he’s got Lisa in there? He knows you’re onto him. He might panic and do something dreadful.

I knocked on the door. The woman opened it. I pushed past her, shouting for Lisa. Liam rushed into the hallway. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Where’s Lisa?” I demanded.

“I’m warning you, mate, you’d better get out of my house or else-”

“I’m not going anywhere, until you tell me where she is.”

Liam came towards me. I hit him and he fell down. His girlfriend ran into the street, screaming. I stooped over him and took hold of his throat. Blood was streaming from his nose.

“Where did you get that necklace from?” I asked.

“I found it.”

“Where?”

“Under a bridge. I found it, a mobile phone and a purse.

“Why didn’t you take the purse?”

“Because there was no money in it.”

Heavy and slow, like a death-knell, the words came back to me: IF IN DOUBT, THINK MURDER. “You’re lying,” I hissed.

“I’m not, I swear.”

I clamped my hands onto the sides of Liam’s head. “Where’s Lisa?”

“I don’t know.”

I slammed his head into the floor and repeated the question. His reply was the same. He struggled to get free. I kept on slamming with increasing savagery, until he lay still.

After that I started tearing the house apart. I was in the kitchen flinging stuff out of a cubby hole so that I could open a cellar trapdoor, when the police arrived. One of them took me firmly by the arm and led me outside. Another was bent over Liam, giving him the kiss of life.

I was taken to the station and put in a room. After what seemed a long time, a policeman came to tell me that Lisa hadn’t been found at the house. Later still, three more policemen came into the room. Two of them stood at my shoulders, while the third informed me that Liam Morley was dead. That was when they read me my rights and took me to a cell.

***

Three weeks later a group of teenagers found a body floating in the river thirty or so miles downstream from Chain Bridge. It was the body of a female who’d been in the water for a considerable period of time. When I heard, I just wanted to get into my car and drive there to see if it was Lisa, but of course that wasn’t possible.

I was permitted a phone call to Caroline. She was distraught and incoherent. Nothing I said could calm her down.

In the afternoon the prison governor came into my cell and told me they were ninety-nine percent sure it was Lisa.

When I could speak, I asked, “How did she die?”

“They don’t know yet. There’s going to be an autopsy.” The governor looked at me sympathetically. “It’s an awful thing to say, but for your sake I hope they find that she suffered some sort of significant injury.”

So now I’m waiting to hear if my daughter died by her own or someone else’s hand. Either way she died in fear without anyone she loved around her. Either way I suspect that for me, perhaps for us all, the worst horror is yet to come.

The End

I hope you enjoyed the story, and thanks for dropping by.