Where had it gone wrong? How had Straker escaped from his captors? As Mason hunched there on the greasy oil-stained concrete floor, yet another question burned into his mind. Where was Straker now? If he was out there, alive, he should have emerged.
Hope flared in Mason’s breast. There might still be a chance.
Chapter 1 – Monday am
‘Why not?’ the voice was dark, with undertones of hidden aggression. He stood there, refusing to move, arms folded. Lips sneering with contempt. A woman. She was not going to order him around.
Rebecca looked at the closed door. She had been a fool to let him in the building let alone into the office, but he had asked for a meal and a chance to shower and get cleaned up. A reasonable request. And then, cleaned and fed, and utterly polite and compliant, he had asked for a room.
She had gone through the usual interview; after all, it was to be expected that John Shepherd would soon be reunited with any family that must be searching for him. Over the weekend the local police would have been too busy dealing with drunks and trouble-makers to concern themselves with one solitary man. But today was Monday. They would be starting their enquiries, asking questions, looking on the national databases and this new arrival fitted all the requirements for the Shepherd bed. So, like a stupid fool she had gone into her office to get the necessary paperwork and he had followed her and closed the door.
And then told her.
She could feel the slow panic rising inside, the sick feeling, the desperate need to get out, to push past him and escape. He was between her and the door.
‘We can’t take anyone with your background. It’s not possible. I’m sorry,’ she told him, trying to stay calm, to stop her hands from trembling. There had been no-one on the Reception desk either, Barry having gone for his coffee while the building was quiet, and no-one close at hand. The place was deserted, a typical Monday morning with the drunks recovering from their weekend binges and the addicts all out at the drug clinic getting their supply of fresh needles and Methadone prescriptions.
He was young. Young and strong and cocky and a Schedule 1 offender. Christ. What had she been thinking about? Just letting him in had put her, and the other women, even the older ones, at risk. And the worst thing was that he was blatantly open about it, as if it was a badge of honour.
Alone. Trapped. It was going to happen to her again, and her face must have signalled her fears because he stepped forward to invade her space, close and threatening.
‘I want a room.’ Each word was enunciated with precision as, leering, his hand moved to hold her arm in a grip that terrified her. It was as if she was carved from marble, unable to move, to look away from eyes that menaced her, the sneering mouth that breathed into her face with such absolute arrogance. Too scared to even call out for help.
Forcing herself to remain calm, she stood there, his fingers tight over her bracelet, its fine silver chain with the single precious charm digging into her wrist, knowing that if she tried to remove his hand he would just grin before tightening his grip.
He pulled her closer, wrenching her arm up and behind her in a hold that was even stronger now. His other hand now on her jaw, twisting until she was forced to look up at him, to stare at those thin lips, the heavy-lidded dark eyes that flickered with casual contempt at her. And he kissed her.
Not a kiss. Never a kiss. A kiss should be tender, passionate, shared. He raped her mouth with his tongue. Forcing himself deep inside her, and she was powerless. Yet again.
She had no idea how long they stood there, his hand imprisoning her, his breath, his touch foul in her mouth like vomit. She was frozen, waiting for that moment when he would…..
‘Rebecca? Can you….’ the door opened, Barry standing there, his bulk filling the frame, his presence offering her salvation. Her wrist, released as she was pushed away, the pain of her bruised lips, the worse pain of her fear. She fell back against her desk, to stumble, twisting away from him as he ran out, up the stair well and onto the street. Away.
Despite all her resolve and the armour of professional detachment that she had fostered over the past years, she found tears filling her eyes. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, to take away his last touch, she pressed her lips as if to stop herself sobbing. She wanted to cry as she had cried that time before. But she would not. Not here.
‘What the hell was all that?’ Barry’s voice accused her, blamed her, just as she had been blamed once before.
She turned away, her voice cold, hard, controlled. ‘Nothing. A Schedule 1 guy wanting a room. You know how it is. They can get a bit awkward.’ Palms flat on the desk so he would not see her shaking, she waited until, with a snort of disbelief he left her alone, closing the door. She looked down at her hands pressed hard on the oak veneered surface. Her bracelet. Where was it?
It had been on her wrist for so long that she had almost forgotten it was there. One of the last things she had been given by her mother, on her graduation day. She had hardly taken it off since. Her mother had been so proud of her. That simple piece of jewellery had been a reminder of a world of parties and friends and innocence. And it had been taken from her.
She sat down, put her head in her hands and wept.
John Shepherd noticed the two gossiping project workers in the reception area as he came to do the security upgrades that he had promised Miss Steel. The outer door was open as residents returned, traipsing with heavy footsteps down into the basement to head for the warmth of the common room. There was a glint of metal on the floor and he bent to pick up the thin chain with its small charm, dangling it over his fingers as he looked at it with interest. He had seen it before somewhere. Not a valuable piece of jewellery, but obviously a treasured one. The chain was worn thin in places, and had snapped. Not doubt it had not been missed as it fell. A small scrap of silver, frayed and abandoned.
Barry was still talking, his voice low and scornful. ‘You know what she’s like. Cold as a fish. She got what she deserved letting a Schedule 1 offender in her office, if you ask me.’ He looked up frowning as Shepherd stepped forward, the chain now hidden in his closed fist.
‘Miss Steel? What happened to her?’ he tried to keep the concern from his voice, to ask in as natural a tone as possible, but he had heard the contempt in Barry’s voice and he had a sudden recollection of that thin silver chain around Rebecca’s wrist.
‘Her? Nothing.’ Barry turned away as if the question was irrelevant but Shepherd persisted with a growing sense of unease,
‘Schedule 1? What does that mean?’
There was a bark of laughter, cut short, abrupt. ‘That? That’s someone who has a conviction for rape or child abuse. Depends on the charge.’ He looked up at Shepherd. ‘The guy in her office obviously preferred women.’
Barry gave a knowing smirk and for one irrational moment John Shepherd wanted to hit him, hard, but he controlled himself, fists clenching, the small heart-shaped charm digging into the pads of his fingers, before he turned away and walked with brisk steps back to the common room.
She was sitting behind her desk, head in her hands, trying to stop the trembling, the sheer panic, the desperate need to hide somewhere, anywhere. The door opened, she heard footsteps, across the carpet, the clink of a mug on the desk. She didn’t look up. Couldn’t bear to see the derision in Barry’s face, to have to admit that she had been terrified.
The voice startled her. ‘Are you alright? Did he hurt you in any way?’ and it was close to her. Not so close that she felt threatened, but close enough that it was soft and anxious and discreet. Rebecca looked up, wiping her eyes. Shepherd, hunkered there, beside her, eyes full of concern, hands nowhere near her. An unthreatening presence. She sniffed, reaching out for a tissue with a still trembling hand.
‘Here.’ The box under her groping fingers. She blew her nose, grateful for his silence, his tacit understanding.
Then, despite all her resolve, all her determination, she started to cry again, deep racking sobs this time. He hesitated, unsure and unwilling to subject her to any unwanted physical contact, but her distress was apparent. So, with shy diffidence, he placed one gentle hand on her shoulder, a delicate touch, just sufficient to signal his willingness to be there for her.
And she turned to him, arms reaching out.
He was still as she clung to him, her head on his chest, her sobs gradually easing as he smoothed her hair away from her face and then held her. She leaned into the embrace, despite her initial reluctance, her distress overcoming older fears, and he felt her tears lessen as he comforted her, his hand soothing her.
It was some time before she lifted her head away from him and he released her instantly, stepping back to perch on the edge of the desk before handing her the mug of tea he had made and brought through.
Later, when she was calm and the worst had passed, he stood up, looking down at her. ‘Will you be alright?’ She nodded, unwilling to risk further tears, and watched as he left the room, closing the door to shield her.
The small toolkit appropriated on the second day in the shelter, was tucked away in his room, away from prying eyes, or inquisitive hands. He pulled it open, selecting tools and placing them on the surface of the chest of drawers in a regimented order. Then with meticulous care he stretched out the broken length of chain and examined it. With a slight smile he set to work.
Rebecca finished her report for the monthly committee meeting. One hour of solid work had been sufficient to recover her sense of calm and, picking up the mug that Shepherd had brought in earlier, she headed out to the common room to get a fresh brew. He looked up as she entered, and smiled at her, before coming over.
‘This is yours, I think.’ His fingers trickled a waterfall of silver chain onto her palm before he turned away, leaving her standing there, her fingers closing around the neat links and the heart-shaped charm.
She watched him for a moment, watched as he moved across the room to make himself a drink before she took her own mug over there to rinse and refill, standing close to him, not speaking. While the kettle boiled she tried to fasten the chain on her wrist, but the clasp was tiny, and stiff with disuse and it slipped from her fumbling fingers. But not onto the floor this time. His hand was there again, catching it, holding it out to her. Without a word she held out her arm, and he looped the chain around her wrist, bending close to her as he fastened the catch. Nothing was said, but she waited while he spooned coffee into clean mugs, and then poured the water in and added milk. ‘You don’t take sugar do you?’ he said, passing one to her, before adding sugar to his own.
‘No, and….’ she paused, ‘thank you.’
‘My pleasure,’ and he nodded at her before heading away to sit at the computer.