This is all 25 parts of my recent fiction serial, in a complete story.
It is a long read, at 25,020 words.
Anita watched as he tightened his tie, then grabbed the suit jacket off the bed. Even after eight years, she still loved to look at him. The broad shoulders, thick dark hair always neatly trimmed, and just that much taller than her so they fitted together perfectly. His aftershave smelt strong first thing in the morning, but she loved the way it hung around the bedroom after he left for work.
The kiss was brief, but welcome. Toothpaste-fresh, reminding her she hadn’t brushed yet. He didn’t seem to care. Picking up the car keys from the dressing table, he turned with a broad smile. “Don’t go overdoing it today, Nita. I will see you later, love. Should be home about six”.
Stretching out her legs under the duvet, she rubbed her belly, and spoke to her unborn child through the considerable bump. “Daddy’s gone to work now. It’s just you and me until he gets home”.
Three months to go, give or take a few days. As they had discussed, Anita had given up work for now. She wanted to be around for the baby, at least until she started school. At first it had seemed like a holiday, but with Mike out at work all day, the hours started to drag. Sometimes she would drive over to see her older sister, Jill. But there were only so many times she could drink tea and eat cake whilst listening to her moan about the lack of activity in her bedroom, since the divorce. At one time, she had expected Mum to get a lot more involved and excited. But after Dad had died, there had been the dancing classes, Yoga for Oldies, and tennis club too. Now she was even going on dates arranged online.
There were times when Anita felt as if she was the old fuddy-duddy in her family.
Evenings in, sat on the sofa after dinner, cuddled up with Mike watching the latest thing on Netflix. That was her idea of heaven. And now the new baby girl would be the icing on the cake, making their small family complete. It was funny how they kept arguing about a name. Mike wanted something traditional, even Victorian. His current favourite was Eleanor. Anita fancied something short, snappy, and modern. She was hoping they would come to a compromise on Zoe, as Mike didn’t object too much when she suggested it.
After making some tea and toast, she took it back up to bed. Two hours before she had to think about getting ready for the doctor’s appointment. Just a routine checkup, and so far everything was going well. She sent a text to her best friend Claudia, the girl she had asked to be her birthing partner on the day. Claude liked to know she was fine every morning, especially as she had moved a long way away with a new job.
Showered and dressed, it was time to make a shopping list. Something nice for Mike this evening, she thought, regretting not being able to add a nice bottle of wine to the list, as she had sworn off the booze as soon as she had the test confirmed as positive. It always felt good driving the yellow mini-cooper, but it would have to go soon. No way was she going to fiddle around with a two-door car, baby seat, baby bag, and whatever else. Mike had a company car, so he said they could afford to change to something practical for her. They looked online, and Mike suggested a strange-looking thing with a siding door on one side. He had smiled when her eyebrows raised. “You are going to hate driving around in something like that, Nita, but you will thank me for it later, believe me”.
They were going to the dealer to look at one on Saturday morning. That sort of car made her feel very grown up.
In and out the doctor’s in record time, and straight onto a free checkout at Waitrose. Anita was beginning to think she must be doing something right. She had been careful with the shopping, even though Mike had told her not to worry. His team were doing great, and he was in line for a huge bonus as he was nationwide top salesman this year so far. She didn’t understand much about his job. Industrial glues and fixings were a mystery to her, and one that she had no desire to learn more about. Still, he earned twice as much as she used to at customer services for the gas supply company. And even though he had to drive all over the place to see clients, he always did his best to be back home by six.
With a low backache necessitating a rest on the sofa for a while, Anita finally got around to preparing the meal. One of Mike’s favourites, Chicken Kiev with dauphinoise potatoes, and green beans. She hadn’t had any particularly unusual cravings during her pregnancy, but her love for garlic seemed to have increased tenfold, so as well as the garlic butter in the chicken, she added more to the potatoes too. Mike wouldn’t mind. I was all soon ready to go into the oven, which she would do when he got home. After laying the table at the other end of the long living room, she sat back down on the sofa, and switched on the TV to watch the six-o-clock news.
He would be home soon, and she would see the headlights of his car as it pulled into the parking space next to hers outside.
The national news finished at 6:30, and the local news programme started. Anita checked her phone. No text message, no missed calls. He must be stuck on a road somewhere, unable to use his phone. But it was hands free, so surely he could call. When the second news finished at 7 pm, she started to be a little concerned.
This wasn’t like him at all.
By quarter past seven, Anita could wait no longer. She rang Mike’s mobile. There was no ringing tone, and no answerphone message. Just a long beeping sound. She tried again, then again. Scrolling down her contact list, she found ‘Office. Mike.’ After two rings, that went to answerphone, with a message about opening hours being from nine until five-thirty. She didn’t leave a message after the tone as the voice suggested.
She was getting hungry now, but couldn’t face cooking the meal she had prepared. She covered the dish with foil, and put it in the fridge. Then she ate two bananas and half a packet of chocolate biscuits, washed down with a cup of tea. Her mind was exploring possibilities.
Maybe the car had broken down?
Maybe he had dropped his phone and broken it?
Maybe he was held up with a client, and unable to make a call?
He had definitely said he would be home about six. If there had been a late meeting, he would have known. He always knew.
Maybe one of his parents had been taken ill?
Maybe he had to rush down to where they lived?
They lived over two hundred miles away, retired to the coast. He would have called her first, and told her he had to go.
It was after nine now, and she had a bad feeling.
Maybe he had been mugged, and was lying in a back alley somewhere?
Maybe there had been a terrible car crash, and they were fighting for his life in a hospital?
Anita rang the police non-emergency number. The young woman who answered sounded friendly.
“Hello, my name is Anita Hollis. My husband Michael hasn’t come home from work. He is three hours late, and I’m getting worried. He’s a salesman you see, drives long distances in a car. His phone is dead, and I’m worried he might have been in an accident”. Even as she spoke, she knew it sounded rather pathetic. So she added something. “And I’m six months pregnant, all alone”.
The woman was kind, but unimpressed. She went through a similar list of possibilities that had occurred to Anita, then suggested ringing Mike’s family and friends, then her own family and friends. If she got no joy with that, she could ring the hospitals to see if he had been admitted. There were only three emergency hospitals in almost a sixty mile radius, so it shouldn’t take long. She concluded with the obvious. “He might just have gone out for a drink or meal after work, Mrs Hollis. Perhaps he forgot the time because he is with colleagues or friends”.
That wasn’t working for Anita. “Sorry, but you don’t know him. He would never do that without telling me. He’s not that sort of bloke. He is always home for dinner, always. I think it best if you report him missing. Then you can look for his car, trace his phone, do whatever it is you do”. There was a stiffness in the police operator’s voice as she replied. “I’m afraid I cannot do that until he has been missing for twenty-four hours, Mrs Hollis. He is an adult, and free to come and go as he pleases, even if that is upsetting for you. If nobody sees him or contacts him until tomorrow night, and he fails to come home or turn up for work, then you can call us back and we will take an official missing persons report. That’s all I can advise you to do at the moment”.
As she hung up, Anita got a bad taste in her mouth. She dropped the phone and ran upstairs to the bathroom, vomiting onto the floor before she could get the toilet seat up.
The tears had started to flow by the time she got back into the living room. She switched the TV to a rolling news channel, in case there were reports of a big accident on a motorway somewhere. But it was all about a film star dying, and some big argument in parliament. Taking her i-pad from under a sofa cushion, she checked out the numbers of the hospitals that had been suggested, and started to call them.
Close to ten forty-five, all three hospitals had confirmed that no Michael Hollis had been admitted, and no unidentified man fitting his age and description was in their departments.
Perhaps she should ring his parents anyway. They might have spoken to him at some stage. But it was getting late. They might be in bed. A call like that would worry them, and Dorothy had a bad heart.
After five hours, Anita started to consider the thing that she hadn’t wanted to think about. Could Mike be with another woman? It didn’t seem possible. He had always been so loyal and loving. He never went out alone, not even for a drink with friends, or to the various birthday drinks or office parties at work. Since the day they had become engaged, she had never had a single reason not to trust him one hundred percent.
Even though it seemed hopeless, she carried on ringing his mobile. Time after time, she just got that continuous tone, until she could bear it no longer.
It was close to one in the morning when she started to actually hope that he was with someone else. Anything would be preferable to not knowing. They could have a huge bust-up, talk it through, and sort things out. That almost made her feel calm, to consider the fact that her husband might be having an affair.
In the kitchen, she moved a few pans in a cupboard, then reached into the back with some difficulty.
With the wine open, and a glass in her hand, she started to feel much better.
The wine bottle on the coffee table was empty when Anita finally woke up, still sprawled out on the sofa. Despite the pounding in her head, and a shiver running through her joints, she jumped up and ran upstairs. Mike would be there. He would be asleep in bed. She would shout at him in a rage, then fall into his arms and be so glad he was home.
Even as she pushed open the door, she knew that the bed would be empty. In the bathroom, she splashed water over her face, and drunk some straight from the tap. Time to make some calls.
Still nothing on Mike’s mobile. Next she tried his company. Sitting through the automated options, she hit nine, to talk to a member of staff. The receptionist sounded bored, but Anita woke her up with the urgency in her voice. “I need to talk to someone about Mike Hollis. He hasn’t come home all night, and I am worried about him. This is his wife Anita speaking, so please put me through to someone, his manager, or a person in charge”. The music played as she was put on hold.
“Mrs Hollis, Ian Winkowski here, sales manager. How can I help you?” The voice was guarded, businesslike. “Mike hasn’t been home all night, Ian. That’s not like him. I’m terrified something bad has happened. He’s not answering his mobile, in fact it sounds dead. Do you have any way of getting in touch with him? I am beside myself with worry. And you may know that I am six months pregnant too”. As she waited for him to reply, she unscrewed the cap on a bottle of water, and gulped down as much as she could in one breath.
“Mike didn’t come into work yesterday, Mrs Hollis. He rang in sick quite early, left a message on the reception phone. In fact I thought you were calling to let me now how he was. If he was out all day and last night too, perhaps you should contact the police. I would be grateful if you could let me know what you find out, as I will have to reschedule his business meetings, and get someone else to contact his clients”.
Anita was angry. All this guy cared about was that Mike wouldn’t be around to make it to his appointments. “So he wasn’t at work yesterday, Ian? He left at the usual time, and drove off in his car”. Businesslike again. “As I have just told you, he rang in sick. I’m sure reception will still have the message, they have to save them for the people in HR”. That was something. “Okay, Ian, please ask them to make sure to save that for the police, and can you send me the registration number of his car so I can give that to them too?” She gave him her email address, and waited until he read it back to her before hanging up.
As the kettle boiled for some tea, it occurred to her that the news from Ian changed everything. If Mike hadn’t gone to work, then surely he had been missing since just after seven yesterday. Plucking two paracetamol from a packet in the drawer, she put her mobile on charge, and went into the living room to get the house phone. This time, she rang the police emergency number, and it was answered immediately. The man at the other end took her seriously, and said he was making a missing persons report that Mike had been missing for more than twenty-four hours. Anita checked the email from Winkowski on her i-pad, and gave him the make and colour of the car, along with the registration number. When he had repeated all the names, checked the spelling, and confirmed the contact numbers, he asked her to write down a reference number that was unique to the case.
“Someone from missing persons will contact you later today, Mrs Hollis. Meanwhile, keep trying your friends and family, and please let us know if and when your husband turns up somewhere”.
Some food would be necessary before she starting making more calls, but she only managed half a bowl of muesli before her impatience got the better of her.
Mike’s Dad answered the phone. “Hi, Jim, it’s Anita. I hope I’m not disturbing you, but I wondered if you had spoken to Mike recently?” He was very jolly. “Hello, love. How’s my granddaughter? You both doing well? Mike? No, he hasn’t phoned. I think Dotty spoke to him last weekend, but not since. Hang on, I’ll go and ask her”. Dorothy came back on the phone. “What’s wrong, Anita? Why are you asking about Mike? She sounded worried, which was to be expected. “Well Dotty, he didn’t come home last night. I can’t get him on his phone, and his boss says he wasn’t at work yesterday. I got so worried, I have reported him missing with the police, and they said to call all the relatives and friends.
Her mother-in-law was angry now. “Why did you wait so long to let us know, Anita? For God’s sake, I know we are a long way away, but we should have been told. Anything could have happened to our only son, and you wait a whole day to tell us. What’s wrong with you?” Anita wanted to explain her reasons, but she didn’t get the chance as Dorothy rambled on. “We are coming down. As soon as I can pack some things and tell Jim what’s going on, we will drive down. It’s going to take almost four hours, so make sure you are around the house when we get there. I don’t want us to be stuck outside”. Without waiting for a reply, she hung up. Anita didn’t have time to think about her angry in-laws now.
She had more calls to make.
Dreading the arrival of her fussy mother-in-law, Anita rushed around to tidy up. Then she changed the bedclothes in the spare room, did some dusting and hoovering, and finished off with a quick rub around the bath, toilet, and sink. Housework could really wear you out when you were heavily pregnant, she had discovered. Time for a sit down, and a cup of tea. She would get to the rest of the phone calls after a break.
It took a while to realise she had been asleep. A combination of last night and the exertions of the morning had worn her out. On impulse, she walked to the window to see if Mike’s car was outside, already knowing it wouldn’t be. It had been well over four hours since she had spoken to Mike’s parents, and they hadn’t turned up yet. She called Claudia’s mobile, hoping for the opportunity for a chat before the fearsome Dorothy arrived. It went to answerphone, and she decided not to leave a message. Claude lived almost one hundred and eighty miles away now, and she didn’t want to get her in a panic about Mike.
Anita thought she should tell her Mum, and Jill too. It was unlikely they would have heard from Mike, but she should at least let them know. Mum’s phone went to answerphone, so she left a message. Same with Jill, who was probably still at work, and unable to answer. Hunger kicked in, and she made herself a sandwich after checking the meal she had prepared last night. It would be useful to serve to her in-laws later. She could spread it to three people easily, with some extra vegetables.
When the house phone rang, she presumed it would be Dotty, explaining why they were late. But it was the police. “Mrs Hollis? This is Jane Dawes here. I am a detective working in the missing persons department, and I would like to come and take some more details about Mike. Would six tonight be too late?” Anita didn’t want to put her off. “That’s fine. My in-laws might be here though. Just so you know, they haven’t heard from Mike either”. She waited as the policewoman typed on a keyboard. “Very well, Mrs Hollis, I will see you at six”.
By five-thirty, there was still no sign of Dotty and Jim. Anita started to hope that they had changed their minds about coming, but knew she should phone them to check. Their house phone went to answerphone, so she tried Dotty’s mobile, knowing Jim would be driving. The number was unobtainable, with no tone or message, just a short beep, then nothing. Dotty had probably forgotten to charge it, or top up her pay as you go credit. Mike was always teasing her about that.
Ten minutes later, Mum rang back on the mobile. “Sorry darling, I was at the gym. I had a gym-date, something new for the over sixties. A very nice man, and much younger than me too. He must have been impressed, as he asked me out for dinner this evening. I had to rush to the shops to find a nice new dress to wear”. Anita explained what was happening. Mike’s disappearance, the police involved, and Dotty and Jim on their way too. She knew her Mum couldn’t stand Dotty, and was not at all surprised by her response.
“I’m sure Mike will be in touch soon. It must be a work thing. He’s such a good man, so reliable. It won’t be anything bad, I’m sure. And at least you will have his parents there to look after you. I will call you in the morning and see what’s going on. I’ll be able to tell you all about my hot date”. Anita hung up, and shook her head in resignation. Mum hadn’t really listened to what she had told her. She had never been an affectionate mother, and the girls had grown up doing what they were told, soon realising that Mum was not only selfish, but didn’t seem to like Dad very much either. When he died unexpectedly from a brain haemorrhage, she had seemed completely relieved to be shot of him.
Detective Sergeant Dawes had been in the police for all of her working life. She was worn out, and felt tired all the time. The job had cost her two marriages, and then her only daughter had committed suicide whilst at university. That had almost broken her, and she took a lot of time off, before attending counselling. Her old boss had suggested a transfer from the Crime Squad to Missing Persons. A small department, regular hours, and less stress. She could do her last years there, and then take her pension. Sitting outside the neat-looking house with its well-painted exterior, gravel forecourt, and extension over the garage, she tried to imagine the people who lived there, and get some sort of feeling about them before she went inside.
Before leaving the police station, she had received some information about Michael Hollis. Also his car details, work address, and the fact that he had no criminal record. He had never even had so much as an unpaid parking ticket. As they said in the police, he was of ‘no interest’. She rang the doorbell at exactly six.
Anita opened the door with a stressed look on her face. She could feel the tightness around her jaw, and had a strange tingling sensation in her belly. “Come in, detective. Have you heard anything? Have you found Mike? Would you like a cup of tea? Maybe you prefer coffee?” She was babbling, and she knew it, but couldn’t stop herself. Jane smiled at her. “I’m fine, Mrs Hollis. Please call me Jane. Let’s just sit down and go through a few details, shall we?”
Looking across at the pregnant woman, Jane chose her words carefully.
“There has been some progress, and I have something to tell you”.
“What? What have you found out?” Anita was leaning across the coffee table, almost tipping it over with her knees. Sergeant Dawes consulted her notes. “Your husband’s car has been traced. It was towed away at lunchtime yesterday, illegally parked close to the ferry port terminal in Portsmouth. I contacted the Immigration Service there, and they tell me that nobody used Mike’s passport to board a ship. She assured me that she will examine all CCTV records to see if anyone matching his description can be seen, but a recent photograph would obviously be helpful”.
Anita stood up. “Passport? Mike wouldn’t have his passport. We keep them in the drawer here”. She knelt down on the floor in front of the huge flat-screen television. At the bottom of the unit supporting it, she slid out a narrow drawer, and stood up holding a leather folder that looked like a large wallet. “We keep them in here, so we always know where to find them”. Unzipping the folder, her face fell. “My one is here, but Mike’s has gone. I don’t know why he would take it. I have a photo on my phone that I took the other day. Tell me your number, and I will send it to you now”.
The house phone rang, making them both jump. It was Jill, responding to her sister’s message. Anita was rather abrupt. “Jill, Mike has gone missing. I have the police here now, can I call you back?” Her sister told her not to bother, she would come round in an hour.
They sorted out the photo, and Sergeant Dawes forwarded it to her contact at Ports Immigration, Cathy Cade. As she waited for it to send, she tried to reassure Anita. “I have some of my team on this. One of them is staying on late, checking all the hospitals in southern England, and waiting to hear back from the airports side of Immigration too. She’s young but keen, Constable Soni. If anyone will make sure to cover all the bases, it’s Richa”. Something seemed to dawn on her. “Didn’t you say your in-laws were coming down? Have they gone out? I would like to talk to them”. Anita shrugged. “They didn’t show up, and they are not answering their phones. Either they changed their minds, or left a lot later than expected”.
Sitting back down on the sofa, Anita spoke in a serious tone. “Jane, what can you tell me? Do you think something bad has happened? I can take the truth you know. I would sooner be told now, than find out later”. The detective leaned back in the armchair, feeling as if she could easily drop off to sleep. Closing her notebook, she clasped her hands together. “Anita, may I call you Anita?” A nod. “In all honesty, there is usually another woman involved. The man almost always comes back with his tail between his legs, and it’s panic over. But finding Mike’s car at Portsmouth has confused me, to be honest. Why there? And why dump it somewhere it will get towed away? There were no keys in it, and no personal effects. Did he usually have a laptop, as well as his phone?”
Nodding furiously, Anita replied. “Yeah, he had a work laptop, and a work i-pad. There’s another laptop in the bedroom that he used sometimes, his own one. I just have this”. She held up her i-pad. The sergeant opened her notebook again. “I would like to take his laptop, if that’s okay with you. We have requested his mobile phone records from the provider, and if you agree, we will get your home phone records too. I would also like to have a look through any recent paperwork, you know, bills, letters, anything that he might have left around”.
Anita stood up to go and get the laptop. “You can have anything you need, Jane, with my blessing. Anything that will help to find Mike, just let me know what you want”. When she came back down with the laptop and a small stack of papers, Jane took some plastic gloves from her shoulder bag and put them on before she took them from her. “I will be requesting information from Mike’s bank too. Use of credit cards, debit cards, cash machine transactions, the usual stuff. Do you two have a joint account?” Anita shook her head. “No, Mike deals with all the finances. When I was still working, I used to transfer a set amount each month into his account from mine. He does all his banking online, I’m sure.”
Jane Dawes stood up. “That’s about all we can do for now. Keep trying his friends and relatives, and yours. You never know who he might decide to ring. I checked with his employer today, and they say they have heard nothing, so I have to believe them for now. I will send you a receipt for this laptop, we will need it for a couple of days. Here is my card, feel free to call me on the mobile number, as well as the office one. If you have a light bulb moment, and think of something, let me know”. Anita saw her to the door, and thanked her.
Jill turned up twenty minutes later. Anita was pleased to see that she was clutching two bottles of Chablis. She had held them up as the front door opened. “One each, sis. Tell me all about it”. They sat drinking wine for an hour, as Jill was filled in on everything that was known so far. Only then did they both realise that they had hardly eaten anything. Jill offered to order a takeaway, using an app on her phone. Anita shook her head. “Leave that. I have a delicious meal in the fridge. It will only take twenty-five minutes to warm through”.
After they had tucked into the chicken kiev and vegetables, Jill opened the second bottle of wine. She hovered the neck of the bottle over Anita’s glass, suggesting a top-up. “Why the hell not” she grinned, lifting the glass. When the doorbell went at well after ten, Anita almost fell over in her urgency to get to the door. It was Jane, the police sergeant. She looked exhausted, and was wearing casual clothes under her coat. Her expression was grim.
“I have to come in, Anita. Something terrible has happened”.
Sergeant Dawes nodded to Jill as she walked into the living room. Anita was wide-eyed. “This is my sister Jill, Sergeant. Jill, this is Jane Dawes. Please sit down, Jane”.
Taking a deep breath, Jane began to tell them why she was there so late. “There’s no real way to break this to you gently, Anita. I received a message tonight from Lincolnshire Police. They were responding to my missing persons alert about Michael Hollis. There was an accident this afternoon, and the car registration came back to a James Hollis. They thought it might be connected, so let me know. Two people were found dead in the car, badly burned. It appears that it had somehow run off the road, overturned, and caught fire. No other vehicle is believed to have been involved. The bodies are unrecognisable, but are those of an elderly man and woman. Dental records will be used to confirm who they are, but it is almost certain that they are your in-laws”. Anita was just staring at her, saying nothing, so she continued.
“I thought you should know, before you saw it on the News, or heard it from anyone else. I’m so sorry to have to bring you this, on top of all your worries about Mike. I will of course let you know as soon as what we fear is confirmed, but as you had been expecting them to arrive here, I thought it was only fair to come and tell you in person”.
Anita finally cracked. A combination of stress, worry, hormones, and now this terrible news was just too much to cope with. The tears came first, running down her face and off of her jaw. That was followed by a crying sound that developed into body-shaking sobs. Her sister Jill wrapped her arms around her, and made soothing sounds. Jane sat awkwardly for a while, and then felt she should do something. Catching Jill’s eye, she spoke quietly. “I will make some tea, okay?”
It was almost twenty minutes before she had calmed down enough to talk. “Thanks for coming to let me know, Jane. I appreciate it is late for you, and you have had a long day. I don’t know what to do. Mike would have sorted all this out, funerals and stuff. What about their house? Can someone get a neighbour to check on it? They have a cat, Percy. Somebody must have a key so they can go in and feed it”. Jane was reassuring. “The local police will deal with all that, Anita. Let’s not worry about the details for now. I will speak to them in the morning. You should also know that Mike didn’t travel on any passenger plane, or pass through an airport. At least not using his own passport. My team are scouring the CCTV footage to try to track the movements of his car after he left home that morning”.
Sergeant Dawes stood up to leave. “I will come and see you again once there is any new information. I will have a list of all Mike’s contacts from his laptop and phone records tomorow, and I might want to go through those with you. Try to get some rest now”. She glanced at Jill, who nodded. “I will stay here tonight, and go into work late tomorrow”.
After her sister had left the following day, Anita knew that she had to try to get on with her routine. Showered, make-up applied, she poured the last of the wine down the sink, and started to go through their address book. It hadn’t dawned on her before how few friends they had now. Other than Claudia, she hadn’t kept in touch with anyone from school, and she had never bothered to get that close to her work colleagues over the years. Mike had always been adamant that he didn’t want to do what he called ‘the couples and barbecues thing’, and they had both happily drifted into a life that was all about them, with occasional contact with family members.
When she got to the page in the book for ‘S’, she glanced at the only name on it. Micky Steeden had been Mike’s best man at the wedding. His oldest friend, they were known as ‘the two Mikes’ at the time. But Micky had been offered a very good job in the Middle East years ago, and now lived in the Emirates somewhere. She picked up the house phone, and dialled the number on the page. Expecting to leave a message, she was surprised when Micky answered. “Michael Steeden here, how can I help you?” He obviously hadn’t recognised the number that had come up on his mobile.
Anita went over the events of the past couple of days, and included the news about Mike’s parents. “Micky, I was wondering if you had heard from Mike? If he was going to talk to anyone, it would be you”. He sounded distracted, but made the right noises when it came to being concerned about Mike, and was sympathetic about his parents too. “I haven’t spoken to Mike for months, Nita. I think the last time was on his birthday last year, and he was driving, so I kept it short. He told me about the baby though, seemed so excited that you were pregnant”. Micky had to go, something to do with work. He ended the conversation on a lighter note. “Listen, I’m sure he will turn up with some wacky explanation. You can trust Mike, you know that. He will find out about his parents, and sort that out too, I’m sure. Let me know when you hear from him, and tell him to give me a call”.
She hung up feeling strange about the call. Micky had said all the right things, but he hadn’t sounded surprised, or even genuinely concerned.
In the bedroom getting dressed to go out, she suddenly thought of something else. Claudia hadn’t phoned her yesterday, or the day before.
For the first time since she had told her best friend she was pregnant, there had been no daily call.
Anita decided to postpone the shopping trip, and try to get hold of Claudia. She rang the mobile, but it went to answerphone. This time, she left a message. “Hi Claude, don’t worry, I’m not having the baby, but some bad things have happened. Mike has gone missing, and his parents got killed in a car crash on their way to stay with me. The police are dealing with it all, but I could really do with a chat. I am going to ring your office number and see if I can catch you there. Ring me back if you get this, as I am holding fire on going to the shops until I know you are okay”.
The woman who answered Claude’s office number made it clear she wasn’t her. “Claudia Hyslop’s phone, Jennie speaking”. Anita didn’t mess around. “Can I possibly speak to Claudia, Jennie? I know she is probably in a meeting, but this is urgent. I’m her best friend, Anita Hollis, she will verify that if you ask her”. The woman sounded hesitant. “Hang on, I will put you through to the production manager”. After a series of beeps, a different voice came on. “Hi, Anita. My name is Lucinda Clarke, Claudia’s boss. I have heard her talk about you. Sorry to say that she is not in today. She took some time off, something about a domestic crisis with her partner. She hasn’t been in for a couple of days now, but she did promise to let me know as soon as she could come back to work. You will have to try her mobile, I’m afraid”. Anita thanked her, and hung up.
Shopping in the supermarket for some healthy food and bottled water, Anita was distracted by what she had heard earlier. Claude hadn’t let her know about any domestic issues, and it was unlike her not to reply to a text, or get back to an answerphone message. She had hung around at home for a good hour before deciding to drive to the shops.
Claudia was probably the best-looking girl at their school, but she made it very clear from a young age that she wasn’t interested in boys. Nor was she that interested in girls her own age, she had told Anita, just in case her friend was nervous around her. By the time they were both sixteen, Claude was calling herself a ‘lipstick lesbian’ to anyone that asked. So many boys around the town were disappointed, especially as she refused to fit into any of the stereotypes about gay women that they had in their minds.
When they left school at eighteen, Claude went on to university to study journalism, but Anita was happy to settle for a marketing job at the gas supply company. It was at a university function for the graduations that Claude had introduced her to Mike. He was studying engineering at a different part of the university, but they knew each other as they had once been neighbours as children, and the families had kept in touch. He asked Claudia for her phone number, and it had all developed from there.
The BBC had been the natural place for Claudia to apply for a job, and they were keen to have her. She worked her way up from production assistant on a news programme, and then was asked to move on a promotion to the new television complex at Salford, near Manchester. By then, she was living with her lover, a much older woman named Elizabeth Pike, who Claude affectionately called Betsy. She was already retired early from her job at the BBC in London, where they had met. Betsy didn’t hesitate to put her London house on the market, and the pair bought a luxury flat at the desirable address of Salford Quays, close to the BBC studios.
A more unlikely couple, Anita had never seen. But it worked so well. They were besotted with each other, and there was even talk of a wedding next year. When Claude had been her bridesmaid, many of the guests had thought that Betsy was her Mum, as she was around the same age, But Claude had eyes for nobody but her, and Anita was really pleased for them.
Only now she couldn’t get hold of her, and all she knew was some sort of domestic situation was keeping her incommunicado. She couldn’t imagine it was a break-up with Betsy. They had only recently bought a new car, and booked a holiday for the autumn. She kicked herself for never getting Betsy’s mobile number. At least she could have spoken to her, and found out what was going on. As she was wheeling the shopping trolley to the car, Anita’s phone began to ring in her shoulder bag. In her rush to get it out, she dropped the car keys. Bending down awkwardly to pick them up, the phone fell out of her bag and slid across under a car that was reversing out of a space.
Even as she walked over to get it, she knew it was unlikely that it would have survived being crunched under the huge tyres of the Toyota pickup truck that had just driven over it. And she was right. On top of everything else, she now had to go and get a new phone. At least she had insurance, and the phone shop was just across the shopping precinct from where she was parked.
Raising her face to the sky, she yelled out loud.
“What’s next? What else have you got in store for me?”
It only took around an hour to sort out a new phone, but there was no record of the missed call that was ringing at the time it fell from her bag. Anita was concerned, and knew it could have been the police, Claudia, her Mum or Jill, perhaps even Mike. She drove home and unpacked the shopping, then sat waiting with a cup of tea.
The house phone rang first. It was Sergeant Dawes. “Anita, I would like to come and see you tomorrow. The searches on Mike’s laptop history and phone usage have thrown up a lot of names. It would help if we could go through them, and you tell me what you know about them”. It was agreed that she would come round about ten the next morning. Still very peeved that she hadn’t heard from her Mum, Anita rang her mobile, intending to leave a message. When she answered, she sounded very distracted. “Can I call you back, dear? Only David is here at the moment, and we are rather busy, if you know what I mean”. Furious, Anita shouted. “My husband is missing, his parents have been killed in a car crash, I can’t get hold of my best friend, and I am six months pregnant. But as long as you get your shag with some random bloke, that’s okay then! Just forget it, Mum, I don’t know why I bother with you, I really don’t!”
She hung up before there was time for any reply.
When her Mum rang back immediately, she dismissed the call.
Over two hours later, Claudia finally rang her mobile. “I was worried, Nita. I rang you earlier, and your phone went dead. I tried loads of times after that, and got nothing. Anita was still very pissed off, and launched into a verbal assault about how her supposed best friend in the world had left her in the lurch. She went over everything that had happened, hardly pausing for breath, or to allow her friend to speak. Then she added about finding out she was off work due to some domestic crisis, and how she couldn’t believe Claudia hadn’t told her what was going on. When she heard crying at the other end, she stopped. “Claude, sorry Claude. I didn’t mean it. I’m just so wound up I feel I might explode”.
There was some sniffing at the other end of the line, and then Claudia came back on.
“Nita, it’s Betsy. She’s in a coma. She had a heart attack and then a stroke. I have been by her bedside since it happened, but they told me to come home and rest. They can’t say if she will ever wake up, Nita. I don’t know what to do. We should never have moved up here, everything was fine in London. I’m sure it was the stress of the move that caused this, I will never forgive myself, never.”
Anita took the phone away from her face. It was shocking news indeed, and terrible for both Betsy and Claude. But at least she knew where her other half was. Mike was missing, his parents dead, that had to be worse, surely? Reluctant to play some game of ‘My news is worse than yours’, she consoled her old friend as best as she could. Sounding positive, making the right noises, and offering to be a shoulder to cry on. But in the back of her mind, she had some thoughts that made her feel guilty.
At the time she needed Claude the most, she would be stuck in Manchester, dealing with her own shit. Her own Mum was selfish and useless, and though Jill was around, she really only wanted to get drunk and complain about how useless her ex was. Urging Claudia to ring anytime of the day and night if she needed to talk, she told her to get some rest, and hung up.
She was on her own.
That night, she had a nice chicken salad, then ate two oranges. It was time to concentrate on keeping her and the baby healthy, she decided. Too much stress and heartbreak in such a short time, who knows what that could do? If everything else failed, she would get through the pregnancy, and have a healthy baby to look after. Time enough to worry about all the rest later.
Using the notepad facility on the mobile phone, Anita started to jot down things to remember, including names and phone numbers. She had started to realise just how heavily she depended on Mike. She didn’t even know what day the bins had to be put out, and hadn’t a clue about the bills that might need paying, as Mike did all that online. She made a note to ask Jane Dawes about his laptop tomorrow, and ask how she could access those accounts. As she got ready for bed, she became increasingly annoyed with herself.
How had she let so much slide? Why had she just presumed it was alright for Mike to take care of everything from the broadband contract, to the mortgage and insurances? And she was going to have to forget about going to look at that new car next weekend. That would have to be put on hold for sure. Shaking her head, it dawned on her that she didn’t even know how to adjust the central heating controls. And she had worked for the gas company that supplied their gas. After brushing her teeth, she spoke to her own reflection in the mirror.
“Nita, girl, you’ve got to shape up!”
With no idea how long she had been asleep, Anita woke with a start to the house phone ringing. Reaching over to Mike’s side of the bed, she answered the call, her voice raspy from a dry throat. It occurred to her that she must have been snoring. The voice at the other end was female, and the accent wasn’t English.
“Hello. Hello, can you hear me? I need to speak to Mike Hollis please. It’s urgent”.
With her brain still fuddled by sleep, Anita bought some time to think. “Er, can I tell Mike who is calling? It’s the middle of the night here you know” There was hesitation at the other end. “Sorry, I forgot about the time difference. Mike doesn’t know me, I got his name and number from someone else. But I would like to speak to him, it’s not something that can wait. Tell him it is Shaily Agrawal. It won’t mean anything to him though”.
Anita flicked on her mobile, and added the name to her notes. She didn’t ask how it was spelt, but got it near enough to remember.
Wondering what to say next, and not wanting to give anything away, she waited a few more seconds before speaking again. “He says can you leave your contact number, and he will call you back when he is fully awake”. For a moment, it seemed as if the woman had hung up, then she spoke quickly. “Don’t worry, I will call back another time”. The line went dead.
It took a long time for Anita to get back to sleep. The voice had been well-spoken, the English perfect, but from the discernible accent, and the name, she concluded that the woman might be Indian. The mention of time difference seemed to confirm that she was calling from somewhere in the world that was a long way East too.
By the time Sergeant Dawes arrived that morning, Anita was showered and dressed. Jane was carrying Mike’s laptop, along with a thick folder of papers.
“We have finished with the laptop now, Anita, and I want to go through some of the contact names with you, see if anything rings a bell”. Anita told her about the phone call, and that she had made some notes on her phone. Taking out a small notebook, the detective wrote everything down. “I can try to trace the call that came into your house, and see if they have a record of the number. But my guess is that whoever it was blocked their number, or used a mobile that they got rid of. Her name was probably made up too. See if you can Google it on your i-pad”.
There were quite a few people on Google with that name. Most were in India, and a couple in Kenya. Two of them were in Britain. They all had some sort of online profile, mostly Twitter accounts, or Facebook pages. Just one had a website, and she was a writer, with a few novels for sale on Amazon. Jane thought for a moment. “Could you guess her rough age from the voice do you think?” Anita thought for a moment. “Not a teenager, I’m sure. Not an old woman either. I would say thirty to forty, perfect English, and not a very heavy accent”.
Jane leaned over and tapped the screen of the i-pad. “That one looks favourite to me”. She was indicating the profile of a journalist, a reporter on the New Delhi Times. They both looked at the photo, and agreed the age was about right. Jane made some notes in her book, and pulled a sheet of paper from the folder. “I will check out that reporter later, let’s start going through these names now”.
“Pete Springer?” Anita shook her head. “Never heard Mike mention him”. Jane moved her pen down the list. “We can’t find out that much about him online, but all six we found live in America. Has Mike ever been to America? Anita nodded. “He has been there on business trips a few times. And we had a two-week holiday in Florida, but he didn’t meet anyone while we were there”.
“What about a Lorraine Lewis? There are loads of those in the UK, and America too. Without a date of birth, we can’t get an exact match. A driving licence search returned more than fifty women of that name in England alone”. Anita shook her head. “Maybe she works at his company? Jane smiled.”That was the first thing we thought of. None of the names are of people employed at his company, or any of the international subsidiaries”. She carried on with the next name.
“Audrey Driscoll? Not so many people online with that name, but the only one with a website lives in Canada”. Anita shook her head, then had a thought. “Did you tie up any of those names from his laptop to calls on his phone?” Her face was serious when she replied. “That’s something unusual, I have to say. Those names came up on his contacts on the laptop, but none of them are in his phone contacts. However, he has a lot of numbers listed with the name of the contact in some sort of code. Letters and numbers, instead of a full name or nickname. Were you aware of that?”
Anita was shaking her head. “We never looked at each other’s phones. We trusted each other, Jane. We had personal space, you know, despite being so close and together as a couple”.
The next name on the list was Ian Hope. “I know an Ian that Mike works with, but his surname is Winkowski. A Polish name, I think, but he’s English”. Jane nodded. “No it’s not him using another name. We found someone in the north of England who looks likely, as there have been calls from his house to Mike’s mobile. I have sent a request to the local police to go and talk to him. I don’t want to ring him first and tip him off, just in case”. The pen moved down to the last name.
“This one is very interesting. Have you ever heard Mike talk about a Judith Harley?” Anita shook her head. “Never heard that name mentioned”. Jane leaned forward. “She is on his laptop, and her email address is current. I tried to find out some more about her on the police systems, and didn’t get anywhere before being blocked. I was referred to my lack of authority, and have no access to look up her file. That probably means she works for Special Branch, or the S.I.S”. Anita was looking perplexed, and rubbing her face. It was a lot to take in. “What’s S.I.S?”
Jane closed her notebook, and looked serious. “It stands for Secret Intelligence Service”. Anita was wide-eyed as Jane continued.
“I reckon she is something to do with MI6”.
Anita was confused. “MI6? What, you mean like spies and stuff, James Bond? That’s crazy. Mike is just a hard-working glue salesman. Why would he ever be mixed up in anything like that?” Jane Dawes thought about her words. “I’m not saying he is mixed up in anything, but not everyone has someone like Judith Harley in their contacts list, that’s for sure. And what about Susan Judd? Have you ever heard her name mentioned? She used her home phone to call his mobile. When I checked her out, she was definitely secret squirrel, and I am talking ‘no information disclosed’ here. I can see I am going to end up being called in over my search history at work, but I guarantee they will tell me sod-all”.
Shaking her head in disbelief, Anita started to get annoyed. “Jane, I have never heard of any Susan Judd either. This is all getting too silly for words. The point is, as I see it, that it isn’t helping us find out where Mike is. Shouldn’t you do a broadcast on the TV news or something? I could put an advert in the newspapers, or speak to journalists about all this. It’s a mystery I know, but it seems to be getting too convoluted. My husband is missing, and all I am hearing is lists of names”. Jane was sympathetic, but realised Anita wasn’t considering the implications of this news.
“It’s not that simple, I’m afraid. We have all the usual missing person stuff in place, but we can’t start mentioning those contact names, not when some of them might go underground as a result. I have Constable Soni going over everything to do with the names we can trace. She’s very good, and I’m sure she will dig deep. But we have no decent CCTV images of Mike anywhere. The last confirmed sighting of his car on CCTV was at a motorway services on the way to Portsmouth. He only stopped for petrol, then nothing. Where his car was found isn’t covered on camera, and the approaches into the city don’t show up his car at all. It’s as if it was taken there by helicopter or something, and dropped into the street. My best guess is that it was taken there inside a larger vehicle, and off-loaded in plain sight. I don’t actually think Mike went to that city at all”.
Jane packed her stuff away, and stood up. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you something more positive, Anita. It is still early days as far as missing persons go, and we are doing our best for you. But we have a backlog of other cases to work on too, and not that many staff. I will be sure to let you know as soon as I have anything new. Meanwhile, you have to try to take care of your health, for the sake of you and the baby”.
When the detective had left, Anita tried Claudia’s mobile. She was going to tell her all the crazy stuff about the secret service, and see if Claude could shed any light on it. After all, she had known him at university, and might remember a name or two from his past. “Nita, great news! Betsy is awake! She came round in the early hours. Not speaking yet, but she knows who I am, and smiled at me. I’m just having a coffee in the hospital canteen. Are you alright, love?” Given the good news, Anita didn’t want to go into all that other stuff now. Best to let Claude enjoy the moment. “That’s great news, Claude. I just rang to check how she was. Please give her my love”.
Something else had occurred to her, and she rang Mike’s boss, Ian Winkowski. “Mrs Hollis, how can I help you? Do you have news of Mike?” She had thought about what to say, and repeated it as if from a script. “No, nothing new at the moment. He is still listed as missing. The reason I am phoning is to ask about his pay. I don’t know how it works, you know, when someone is missing. Will he still get paid?” He had obviously been prepared for this to be asked.
“Well, he is absent, and since he rang in sick, we ar treating it as that for one week. After that, we would usually need a medical certificate. I appreciate that the circumstances are exceptional, but we cannot continue to pay someone indefinitely, when they are not here. I would say that I will allow him paid holiday leave. That is thirty days for the year, added to one week counted as being off sick. After that, I will keep his job open for three months, in the hope he returns. But after that thirty days, I am afraid he will no longer be paid”.
After thanking him, she hung up, her mind ticking over.
Something else suddenly popped into her brain. Even if Mike got that thirty days pay, she wouldn’t be able to access his bank account, to draw it out or transfer it to hers. She knew there were some savings, but not how much. And they were in accounts in Mike’s name too. Beginning to get really worried, she got her i-pad, and logged in to her own online banking. It was no surprise to discover that she only had just over four hundred in her account. Hopefully, Mike’s arrangements would continue to pay the regular bills, but she didn’t have a clue how much was in his main account.
Once her cash ran out, she would have to depend on her credit card.
As the water from the shower head cascaded over her face and body, Anita could hardly believe that a week had passed since Mike had gone missing. Last night had been bad. Restless with indigestion, and the baby seemed to have shifted onto her bladder, so she had been up a few times to pee. Twenty-eight weeks pregnant tomorrow, only twelve more to go to the due date. And so much to take in, as well as to deal with.
Her first stop that morning was at the bank. She asked to see someone privately, and had to sit waiting for almost an hour until an adviser was free. The young woman listened patiently as everything was explained. Husband missing, the money worries, what to do about bills, how to access cash. When she was sure that the customer had stopped talking, she nodded, deliberately placing a concerned look on her face.
“I do sympathise, Mrs Hollis. However, you do not have a joint bank account, and your husband has not given you power of attorney to access his. I’m sorry to tell you that I cannot discuss his banking or finances with you. It is simply not allowed. Not only is it against bank rules, it is contrary to the Financial Services Act, so technically illegal. But you are also a customer, and have been for some time. I am sure if you experience any financial problems, we will be happy to extend your overdraft, or perhaps you could apply for a loan? What do you earn at the moment?”
Anita pointed at the large bump on her abdomen. “I gave up work on Mike’s suggestion, when I got pregnant. I am not earning anything, and depended on him completely”. She could feel the tears forming, and fought against them. The woman was wearing a name badge, ‘Joan Hall’. Anita tried another approach. “Joan, you can see the situation I am in. Isn’t there someone who can transfer some money from Mike’s account to mine? You don’t have to tell me how much is in it, or anything about it. But I can prove we are married, and I will soon need extra money for the baby stuff”.
But her face was set. “I can only repeat what I have just told you. Perhaps family members could help you out with some cash? Or maybe you should consult a solicitor?” Angry now, but feeling deflated, Anita stood up. “Well thanks for nothing, Joan. A solicitor? How am I supposed to pay for that? So much for being a loyal customer of your bloody bank!” With that, she picked up her shoulder bag and stormed out. The tears came once she had got into her car, and she waited until they stopped before driving home.
Claudia rang in the afternoon, and told her that Betsy was much improved. “She is already having some physio, Nita. Her speech is slurred, but they are sure it will improve with therapy”. Although she didn’t want to burden her friend with her own troubles, Anita couldn’t stop herself telling her about the money, and the issues at the bank that morning. “Christ, Nita, you should have said something. Come on, I’m your best friend. Text me your sort code and account number, and I will transfer a thousand today. When that runs out let me know. We made a huge profit on the London house, and Betsy doesn’t even touch her pension at the moment. You must tell me whenever you need anything, promise me. And what that woman said about a solicitor made sense. Contact the guy who did the house sale, you must remember who it was. See what advice he can give you”.
Although she was feeling guilty now, Anita didn’t refuse the offer. She knew she would need it. “Thanks so much, Claude. What would I do without you? You will get it back once this mess is all sorted, I promise you. Give my love to Betsy when you see her”. It was only a temporary reprieve if Mike didn’t reappear, but a very welcome one.
The name of the solicitor was still on her contacts, so she rang the office and made an appointment for the next morning. Still suffering with indigestion, she knew she had to eat something, so made a big bowl of porridge with honey stirred into it. That was comforting, just what she needed after the stress of the day.
It seemed impossible not to think about all that was happening. She was missing Mike badly, even though her anger against him was building. One moment she was sure something terrible had happened, as he would never have left her in this awful situation. But then she started to imagine that he had just walked out on her for someone else. Uncaring, unconcerned, leaving without a thought for her, or their unborn baby. Still, the anger was actually a positive thing. It made her stronger. If she imagined that Mike was gone, and she was on her own now, it provided the incentive to get on with trying to sort her life out.
I was getting close to six, and she got ready to watch the evening news. You never knew if something might turn up, some report of a man found somewhere, having lost his memory. As she picked up the remote control, there was a loud knocking on the front door. They weren’t using the doorbell.
Three people were outside. One of them was a woman; middle-aged, short hair, and a stern expression. The other two were men, dressed in dark suits and looking blankly at her. The woman held up a sheet of paper, and spoke in a loud voice.
“Anita Hollis? We have a warrant to search this house. Please sit down, and do not touch anything”.
Anita let them in, and turned to the woman, who seemed to be in charge. “What are you searching for? You need to contact Sergeant Dawes, she’s dealing with this case. She has already looked at Mike’s laptop, taken some papers away, and checked his phone records. Do you want me to ring her?” The woman didn’t seem to be listening. “Please sit down, madam. This is nothing to do with the local police, or about the fact that your husband is missing. It is another matter entirely, and I am not at liberty to tell you what we are looking for. Just be calm. We won’t be long, and will try not to disrupt you unduly”.
That didn’t satisfy Anita. “What’s your name please? If you aren’t with missing persons, then what the hell is all this about?” As the two men rifled through units and drawers wearing plastic gloves, the woman turned. Her mouth twitched, in what appeared to be her idea of a reassuring smile. “My name is Susan Judd, Mrs Hollis. I am with the Security Service, nothing to do with the police. Please do as I ask, sit quietly, and do not use your phone”. Anita wanted to tell her that she had heard that name before, shout out something like ‘You called Mike’s phone, tell me why’. But a bad feeling made her keep silent. Besides, she didn’t want to get Jane into anymore trouble than she was in already.
Ten minutes later, one of the men came into the room carrying Mike’s laptop, still in the bag that Jane had returned it in. The other one was going through everything in the kitchen, making enough noise to wake the dead. The woman looked at the guy with the laptop and nodded. Turning back to Anita, she did her worrying smile again. “Do you have any outbuildings, Mrs Hollis? A garden shed, storage container, something similar? And we will need the key to the garage, as it appears to be locked”.
Anita didn’t feel very cooperative, but there was no point in lying. “There’s a plastic storage thing against the back fence. I don’t know what’s in it though. The key to the garage is on a hook in the hallway. It’s full of Mike’s junk though, as well as his tools, the lawn mower, and some of his work stuff”. The taller man put down the laptop and went into the hallway to get the key. There was the sound of the garage door creaking as it was opened. Then the other man came out from the kitchen, shook his head at the woman, then opened the French windows to go out into the garden. Moments later, he came back in holding a large can. It was a shiny metal, with a number or code of some sort stencilled on it. The woman seemed pleased. “Take that out to the car, get it bagged up”.
Sensing a change in mood, Anita tried her luck. “Isn’t there anything you can tell me about what’s going on? I’m so worried about my husband, as it’s been over a week now. And as you can see, I am heavily pregnant”. Before the woman could reply, the taller man came back in and said just one word. “Nothing”. The woman turned to face Anita. “We will be taking the container that you saw, as well as the laptop. My colleague will give you a receipt for both items. As I told you, this is nothing to do with your missing husband”. Anita scoffed. “Yeah right, like I believe that. Mike goes missing, and suddenly the house is full of spooks searching for stuff and I have no idea why. Please don’t insult my intelligence by telling me it is not related, I’m not just some stupid pregnant woman who can be fobbed off”.
The man handed the woman some paper, and she passed it to Anita. “Here is your receipt. I thank you for your cooperation. When we have finished with the laptop, it may be retained as evidence, same with the container. I cannot say at this time when or if they will be returned. I bid you good evening, Mrs Hollis”.
As soon as they had left, she was on the phone to Jane Dawes. She told her everything that had happened, and that one of them was the Susan Judd who had been mentioned. “I can tell you, Jane, she was a really cold fish, that one. Not a glimmer of concern for Mike, or for me”. There was a long pause before Jane replied. “They worked fast. I thought they might show up, but had no idea they would be so public about it, and arrive with an official warrant. My guess was that they would just break into the place while you were out and get what they wanted without leaving a trace of being there. They must have been desperate to show their hand like this, Anita”.
Worried now, Anita started to wonder if Jane knew more than she was saying. So far, she was the only person dealing with this, and the only one she thought she could trust. “But what did they want, Jane? You have already been over the laptop, and they took some weed-killer or something from Mike’s box in the garden. What the bloody hell could they want with that? What’s happening, Jane. What has all this got to do with Mike?”
Her voice sounded weary as she replied.
“In all honesty, Anita, I haven’t got a sodding clue”.
The solicitor seemed to be expecting her, as he didn’t ask her why she had made the appointment. Offering her a comfortable chair, and after she had declined tea or coffee, Mr Rossis tapped a file that was already on his desk. Anita had only met him briefly on two occasions, when he had dealt with the legal conveyancing during the house purchase, but she was hoping he could give her some general advice on her situation. Before she could say anything, he started talking.
“When your husband came in to see me that day, I must confess I found his request rather strange. But it is not up to me to question the intentions of my clients, especially when they appear to be in good faith”. She raised her hand. “I have to stop you there, Nicholas. I don’t have a clue what you are talking about. I came in to ask your advice about finances. Mike has gone missing, you see, and I have no access to any money”.
Opening the file, he nodded. “Exactly. A little over six months ago, Mike came in to see me. He asked me to transfer the deeds of your house into your name, changing it from the usual joint ownership. I witnessed the change, and you also signed it. Do you remember signing anything?” Anita shrugged. “I had just found out I was pregnant, so I don’t remember any specific occasion. Mike always got me to sign things to do with accounts, bills, or the house. I never asked him why. Does that make me sound stupid? I suppose it does”. He shook his head. “Ordinarily, I would counsel you against signing anything that you haven’t read, but in this case I am happy to tell you it was a good decision”. She was confused. “Please spell it out, I have no idea what’s going on”.
The file was pushed to one side. “He told me that he might have to suddenly disappear. You were going to have a baby, and if anything happened, he wanted to make sure that you were provided for. I have letters giving you power of attorney to draw on his bank account, as well as lists of all your current suppliers and their bills, along with the payment information. In addition, there is a savings account in your name at a different bank that I have all the paperwork for. It currently has something around forty thousand pounds in it. I know that is not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things, but it will certainly tide you over for now. Bear in mind that with the house in your name now, you can always sell it if you need to, and release substantial equity if you downsize. House prices in this town have increased dramatically since you bought it”.
It was a lot to take in, and a huge shock. “So where is he? Why did he do all this? I can’t believe that he knew all about this and never told me, not even a hint. What more did he tell you?”
Nicholas leaned forward. “Please believe me, Mrs Hollis, that’s all I know. He didn’t tell me anymore, and it wasn’t my place to ask him. He paid me for a service, and I supplied it, simple as that. Oh, and there is also a life insurance policy, in addition to the one covering your mortgage. It is for five hundred thousand pounds, in the event of his death. I had wondered if that was the reason you were coming to see me today, that something bad had happened to him. But if he is just listed as missing, I do have to tell you that no insurance company will pay out for seven years, and then only once he has been declared dead, after missing for that long”.
Anita had a thought. “Surely he left a letter for me then? Something explaining why? He must have realised that I would need to know. The stuff about the house and money is all very well, and will obviously help when the baby comes. But I want to know where my husband is, and what has happened to him, Nicholas. He left the house as normal, and said he would be home about six. I don’t want to think that he knew he was never coming back that morning, and didn’t tell me. The police are dealing with this, and I am sure the sergeant will want to talk to you. I will have to give her your details”.
His tone was sympathetic. “I am more than happy to tell the police everything I have just told you. Mike told me that this might happen. He said that if his wife came to see me, I should tell her about the house, and the financial provision. Everything is completely legal, and will stand up to any scrutiny. By all means tell the sergeant to come and see me. Meanwhile, I will give you this file with copies of all the documents. In this time of trouble at least you can be reassured that you have a home, and are financially stable for now. Take the letter to the bank, and they will let you draw on his salary, as long as it is paid. Contact the companies on the list, and tell them too. They will change the name on the contracts so you can make the monthly payments. All the account numbers and contact details are on a sheet in the folder. If you need to talk to me, call anytime during business hours”.
Taking the file he held out, Anita thanked him, and walked out onto the street in a daze. So Mike knew he was going to disappear, and as long ago as the confirmation of the pregnancy?
She was too dizzy to walk across to the car, and supported herself on a lamp post.
Once she was back at home and fully recovered, Anita thought more about the implications of what Nick Rossis had told her. For Mike to have done all that, he must have known something bad might happen. It was also possible that nothing would happen, which was probably why he had said nothing. But what could it possibly be? How could she have lived with and loved someone for eight years and never had an inkling of anything so huge going on in his life? As she had said to the solicitor, she was beginning to feel very stupid for being so accepting of anything she had been told.
Leaving a message on Claudia’s phone, she transferred the money back to her friend. No point taking cash from her, when she could manage for now on what Mike had arranged. After a snack and a hot drink, she went back out to go to the bank, and show them the paperwork that would allow her to access Mike’s account. The larger amount in the separate savings account could be left alone for now. That would be needed later, if her worst fears turned out to be correct.
The dark blue van was distinctive. Definitely not a work vehicle, it had alloy wheels, and tinted side windows. She didn’t normally pay much attention to other traffic, but something about the van behind her car jogged her memory. It had been in the Market Place car park yesterday when she had come out of the solicitor’s office. And now it had appeared from a side turning close to her house, and was driving slowly behind her, keeping a reasonable distance. For all she knew, it might belong to someone living nearby, and they might just be going shopping.
Given what she had been told, the van made her nervous, so she didn’t go into the car park behind the bank as planned. Cancelling the indicator, she carried on around the one-way system, appearing to head back the way she had come. Sure enough, the van was still in her rear-view mirror, although it had dropped back two places in the town centre traffic. When she got back to the entrance to the car park, she accelerated without indicating, and turned suddenly. Checking the mirror, she watched the van go past at the end of the street.
This time, she got to see the manager of the bank, after a ten-minute wait. He looked at the paperwork, and told her it would all be in place by the end of the day’s trading. She asked him to transfer whatever was in Mike’s account to hers, and he also said he would arrange the changes for the payments to the various companies for her. Anita was wondering if the solicitor had spoken to him. But she didn’t ask.
Back at her car, she stopped dead as she opened the driver’s door. The blue van was there, only fifty feet away. Finding courage from her anger and curiosity, she closed the door and marched across to it. Taking out her phone, she intended to take a photo of the number plate, and anyone who might be sitting in it. As she raised the phone to look at the screen, the van’s engine started, and it began to drive out of the car park. She switched the camera to zoom, and left her finger on the button as it took at least a dozen shots. Scrolling through the results, there were at least three clear photos of the rear number plate. She rang Jane Dawes, and got her answerphone message.
“Hi Jane, it’s Anita Hollis. Can you possibly come and see me at my house later? There have been some strange developments, and I think I am being followed too”.
When her house phone rang, it wasn’t Jane. It was her Mum. “Anita darling, I have some exciting news. David has proposed to me. What do you think about that? I said yes of course. My head’s in a whirl, and I feel like a teenager again. We are not going to wait, and he is arranging the wedding at The Grange, you know, that gorgeous country club hotel. It is on Saturday week, at two in the afternoon. I have let Jill know, and will of course be expecting you too. Please try to find a nice dress to wear”. Anita shook her head. Her Mum’s degree of selfishness was almost inconceivable. But rather than get stressed out by telling her what she thought of her, she just hung up.
The afternoon dragged a little. The thing with the blue van had unnerved her, and she couldn’t stop herself from going to the window to see if the van was anywhere outside. For the first time, she was also beginning to wonder if the crash that had killed her in-laws was really an accident. Only able to face eating a toasted cheese sandwich, she sat down on the sofa and switched on the TV to watch the news. Flicking around all four news channels, there was nothing on any of them about a missing person being found. And nothing about finding a body either. As it finished, and the regular nighly chat show started, her doorbell rang.
Anita made Jane a cup of tea as she listened to her apologies about being busy, and not calling her back. Then she told her everything that had happened at the solicitor’s , and about the blue van. When she showed her the phone photos, Jane rang her office, and asked for a check on the number plate. She didn’t seem to be surprised by the result. “It’s Ian Hope’s van, Anita. He was one of the contacts I mentioned. The police in Yorkshire went to talk to him at my request, but there was nobody at home. If he is in town following you around, that explains why he wasn’t there”. Anita raised her eyebrows. “But why would he be following me, Jane? Should I be scared? What do you know about him?” Jane put her mug down on the coffee table.
“He is a private security consultant, a fancy name for what they used to call a private detective. He served in the SAS for twenty years, then started working for himself once he left the Army. I think I need to talk to him as a matter of urgency”.
Before her tea had even started to get cold, Jane had been on to the control room to get her colleagues organised in looking for Ian Hope’s van. She had asked for CCTV coverage of the car park and surrounding roads, and said she wanted the driver stopped and detained if found, with her to be notified immediately. Before returning to her lukewarm drink, she made the decision to tell Anita some things she had found out.
“Detective Soni has discovered something interesting. That Indian reporter, Shaily something, well she has disappeared now. Richa asked the editor what she was working on, but he claims not to know. She is an investigative journalist, and normally keeps her stories to herself, until she is ready to submit them. Now she has gone missing, along with her laptop, notebook, and camera. She tried to talk to Mike’s friend, Mick Steeden. After a lot of calls to Qatar, she discovered that he has quit his job, and gone back to his place in Australia. Richa sent a request to the New South Wales Police to call on him, and ask him to call the office to answer some questions. Guess what? His flat was empty, and nobody knows where he is”.
Anita shook her head in disbelief. “What do you think is going on, Jane? You can be honest with me”. Jane drained her tea, and put the mug down on the table. “In all honesty, I am at a loss, Anita. If you take it all as a whole, then something is definitely going on. But as well as Mike, it seems to involve this Ian Hope, Mike’s friend Steeden, and an Indian reporter too. Add the secret service into the mix, and it is getting way beyond the usual procedures of a missing persons inquiry. I think I am going to have to expand this whole investigation into something larger. But I fear if I do, then it will be taken off me, and quietly suppressed, For now, I am keeping it in my department, but I have no idea how much longer that will be possible”.
Jane was getting her stuff together to leave when her mobile rang. “Already? Oh, good. Okay, stay there, and I will come to you. Five minutes”. She smiled at Anita. “They just stopped his van and detained him. He was only two streets away from here. I am going to see what’s going on, and I will let you know as soon as I have spoken to him”.
Less than twenty minutes later, Jane was back at the door. She was accompanied by two uniformed police officers, and a rugged-looking man wearing a tracksuit. “Jane, this is Ian Hope. Can we come in?” The uniformed men stayed outside, and Jane was smiling as she walked into the living room. “Ian, this is Mike’s wife. Tell her what you just told me”. He spoke quietly, with a pronounced northern accent.
“Five months ago, a man came to see me at my house. I use it as my office too, you see. He gave me a photo of you, your home address, car details, and home and mobile phone numbers. He told me that something might happen that would mean he would have to disappear at short notice. Either that, or something bad might happen to him. He said his wife was pregnant, and he feared for her safety if he was no longer around. I couldn’t get anything specific from him about why, but he was sure that his family would be in danger, including his parents, and you. He paid me a retainer, and told me to wait for a text message. I asked him what I should do if he didn’t disappear, and he said that if I didn’t hear anything I could just forget I had ever met him. It was a strange job, but I am used to that sort of thing in my line of work”.
Anita asked him to sit down, and offered tea or coffee. He shook his head, and continued.
“He was a very genuine guy. I pride myself in knowing when someone might be pulling my chain, and he definitely wasn’t. He said that if I got the text message, I would also receive a transfer of a considerable amount of money to pay for my time, and to compensate abandoning any jobs that I had on. I was to drive down here, find somewhere to stay, and keep an eye on you. Check out anyone near your house, or who might be following you when you went out. If I saw anyone, I was to intervene”.
Anita raised a hand to stop him. “Intervene? What did he mean by that?”
Ian smiled. “Make them go away. Anyway, last week, I got the text message, from an unknown number. I tried to call it of course, but the line was already dead. Then I checked my business account, and the money had been transferred. So I packed a few things, and came down here. I have been watching out for you ever since. So far, your visitors have all been police or spooks, aside from your family. I know someone who checks the number plates for me, and they came back as government registered, or police vehicles” He paused, but when Anita had nothing to say, he carried on.
“I check on your house now and then during the night too, and I have not noted any suspicious activity. But my contact told me that your in-laws were killed in a car crash on a safe road, in good weather. I have to tell you that I am not happy about that. There is enough money to pay for my time until you have had the baby, and a few weeks after. If you want me to carry on with the job, I am happy to do so. This police sergeant has checked out my story, and she believes me. I showed her the contract, and all the stuff Mike left with me”.
Anita didn’t have to think about her reply.
“You are going to need a much less distinctive car. I will pay for you to hire one”.
After agreeing to hire a nondescript car, Ian was allowed to leave, and get back to his van. He had told them he would park it somewhere away from town for now, and get the car rental company to pick him up from a different location. Anita agreed with Jane that he seemed reliable, and looked pretty tough too. But it had amused her that he thought it was alright to use a van that was so easy to spot. Jane left shortly after, promising to keep her updated on any developments.
Settling on having a takeaway meal delivered, Anita sat eating her Pad Thai noodles, thinking about how Mike had managed all of this without so much as a hint of what was going on. Going over everything that had happened in the last six months, she had to admit to herself that she hadn’t had a clue that anything out of the ordinary was occurring. Either she needed to pay more attention to life, or Mike was a great actor. An early night wasn’t much help, as her mind wouldn’t stop whirring.
The next morning, she got a call from the Lincolnshire Police. They wanted her to contact an undertaker about what should be done with the bodies of her in-laws. Red-faced, she apologised. “I’m so sorry, there has been so much going on, I had completely forgotten about Jim and Dorothy. I will call that number now”.
Although it sounded awfully uncaring, she had no option but to tell the undertaker to go ahead with a double cremation, and that nobody would be attending any service. “I don’t want to travel that far, I am pregnant you see. And my husband is currently missing. As far as I know, there are no other relatives”. He sounded as if that was nothing unusual, so she agreed to pay the basic price for the funeral, and that the ashes would be sent to her later, delivered by a courier service. Any guilt she was feeling was assuaged by the fact that Mike had left her to sort everything out.
There was also the matter of any will they had left. There would surely be some inheritance, as well as their substantial house to be sold. She knew that Mike would be the only beneficiary, and decided to wait until she could be certain he was never coming home. The house would have to be left to the attentions of the neighbours in the meantime. The last thing she needed was to have to worry about their empty property.
In the afternoon, her Mum phoned. She saw who it was on the caller I.D. and rejected the call. All those years of indifference followed by the recent display of selfishness had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. As far as she was concerned, Mum could just do one, and clear off with the wonderful David. Claudia phoned with good news. Betsy was talking, and might be discharged next week. Claude was going back to work tomorrow, trying to get some normality back in her life. She said that Anita was more than welcome to come and stay for a while, if she wanted to get away. But they both knew she was never going to leave the house until she knew what was going on with Mike.
No sooner had Claude hung up, then Jane rang. “Hi, Anita. I have just had a meeting with Ian Hope. I went to meet him at the motorway services. He has rented a car, and wanted me to let you know that it’s a silver Ford Focus. Thousands of those around, but if you see one following you, or near your house, then it’s likely to be him. I have given him some of the names to look into. He has some good contacts, like ex-military Ministry of Defence people, and former SAS colleagues now working in the private sector. He can do some of the digging for me, so I can avoid the attention of my superiors. It’s not something I would usually ever do, but then again, this is not a usual case”.
Then Jill phoned, to talk about Mum getting married, and to ask what was happening regarding Mike. Anita was wondering if she was going to spend the whole day on the phone. “Jill, are you at work? I will call you at home this evening”. Jill told her she had taken a sick day. “I hit the voddy last night, Nita. Woke up with a mouth like a wrestler’s jockstrap. I’m a lot better now though. Shall I come round?” Anita lied. “I’m feeling really tired, Jilly, thought I might have a lie down. I will ring you after dinner, and talk about it all then. I’m not going to Mum’s wedding though, I tell you that now”.
After pretending to Jill that she was going to bed, it suddenly sounded like a good idea. But she had no sooner climbed under the duvet, than the house phone rang. Sitting up, she yelled out loud. “For Christ’s sake! What’s going on with that bloody phone!” But she answered it anyway, as there was always a chance it might be Mike. It was a man’s voice, but not Mike.
“Mrs Hollis, this is Ian Hope. Sorry to disturb you, but I have a few things I would like to talk to you about. And I have also found out some things that might interest you. Will it be alright if I come and see you early this evening, sometime after dark?” Anita was impressed, he was working fast now he was out in the open.
“That will be fine, Ian. Shall we say about six?”
Watching him as he set up, Anita couldn’t fail to be impressed by his ease of movement, and obvious confidence. Although he was perhaps fifteen years older than her, he had a presence that was undeniably attractive. In another life, she would definitely have fancied him, and wanted to get to know him. He had even brought a whiteboard. Just a small one, but still. That was unexpected. He had photos and documents too, paper printouts from websites or emails, by the look of them. Spreading those out on the coffee table, he started to write on the board with a marker pen.
“The names the sergeant gave me were interesting, Mrs Hollis. Let me show you what I have found out”. As he wrote each name, he turned and spoke about it. Anita felt as if she was in a company meeting, or back at school.
“Okay, Judith Harley. She comes up as someone important in SIS, but I have discovered that she quit her job almost nine months ago. She now works for a company called International Security Systems, based in Dublin. That’s merely a front though, and the company is almost certainly dabbling in something dark and secret.” He wrote another name.
“Pete Springer. He is recently retired from the US Air Force. He writes a blog about travelling, and flying his private plane. That’s irrelevant though, and almost certainly a diversion. I doubt he has actually retired from the Air Force. What is interesting to me is that he was a senior Colonel in charge of a base of Stealth bombers, new ones in development and testing. So new, they haven’t been made public yet”. He changed the colour of the marker from red to blue, and wrote a name on the right hand side of the board.
“Audrey Driscoll. She is a housewife in Canada. Her only claim to fame in this incident is that she is currently taking Air Canada to court over the loss of a relative in a plane crash four years ago. Then there is Lorraine Lewis. I narrowed that down to a definite connection, as she was on that same Air Canada flight, and survived the crash with life-changing injuries. Someone is trying to find out for me if they have had any email exchanges, but Mike obviously knew both of them”. He changed back to the red pen.
“Shaily Agrawal. The Indian reporter that has gone missing. My contact has found out that nobody is actually looking for her. There is no current police report active in India, and as far as we can tell, she has no relatives. The only person remotely worried about her is the editor of the New Delhi Times, and he’s not that concerned, as he suspects she is working undercover on a story”. After he had written the next name below Shaily’s, he turned with a wide smile on his face.
“This is definitely a lead worth following. Susan Judd works for the Ministry of Defence. She served in the Royal Air Force Police, then worked for the Counter Terrorism Command in the Metropolitan Police in London. For the last few years, she has been some sort of investigator with the MOD, working from the office of what is called Air Command”.
Anita sat back against the big cushion on the sofa. “You have really found out a lot, Ian. But none of it makes any sense to me. Other than the phone call I answered from that Indian reporter, I have never heard any of those names mentioned until Mike went missing. How did you manage to discover all this in such a short time?”
Sitting down opposite her, Ian looked serious. “Before I left the Army and went into business for myself, I made sure to build a network of contacts. I had served in pretty much every part of the world, either on missions, or on training exercises. I guessed it was going to be crucial to my new job to keep in touch with all of them. So far, I haven’t needed to call on many of them, but this case has proved my hunch right, as they have all delivered”.
Rubbing her face, Anita raised her legs onto the sofa. They felt heavy, and she was still tired from that earlier nap.
“Are you going to tell Jane about all this? And I am wondering why you never let me know that you were following me, keeping an eye on me. I was quite scared when I saw that blue van”. Ian shook his head.
“For now, I don’t want Jane to know much more than she already does. She is sure to write it all up on the case notes, and all sorts of people can access those. It will have to be between us, and I’m sorry if that adds more pressure to a difficult situation. As for not contacting you openly, Mike insisted that I didn’t do that. He said he didn’t want you to know that I was around. I presume that he had hoped to come back, and for you to be none the wiser about what had gone on. To be honest, I never thought you would make that connection with my van, but I see now that was a huge error on my part. Anyway, you are obviously tired, so I will make a move. I will be sure to let you know what else I find out”.
As she saw him to the door, Anita had one more question. “Tell me the truth, Ian. Do you have any idea where he is, or what has happened to him?”
He nodded, which surprised her.
“I do have one theory, but I am not going to say what that is until I have spoken to some more people”.
Jill didn’t ring that night, and Anita was pleased. Her sister was probably drinking heavily again, and she wasn’t in the mood to have a argument with her about Mum’s wedding. She checked her online banking on the i-pad, and was pleased to see that Mike’s money had been transferred as promised. After eating a decent meal, she was still hungry, so decided to have some rice pudding before bed.
As she was brushing her teeth the phone rang, and she answered it on the bedroom extension. It was Ian Hope. “Sorry it’s so late, Mrs Hollis. I have had some interesting communication about Shaily, the Indian reporter. And the same contact has found out something worth knowing about Mick Steeden too. But he needs five hundred dollars to pay an informant. Are you prepared to pay that? I cannot guarantee it will help find Mike, but it might expand a few leads”. Anita hesitated. Could Ian be trying to get money out of her? Did he know about the financial arrangements that were now in place?
“I was led to believe that Mike had paid you for your services in advance, Ian. How do I know that the money will go to your contact, let alone this mysterious informant?” He was honest with her. “You don’t know that, and neither do I. But if no real information is forthcoming, my contact knows me well enough to be aware that he will regret crossing me. As for the money Mike gave me in advance, that was for my time and expenses. I had no idea then that I might be having to pay for information as to his whereabouts”. That seemed reasonable.
“Very well, text me your account details, and I will transfer the money online tonight. It will be the British equivalent of the five hundred dollars though. I don’t want to mess around buying dollars to transfer”. Ian thanked her, and hung up.
It was the phone ringing that woke her up the next morning. Expecting it to be Jill, her hand hovered over the handset, reluctant to answer. When she did, it was Ian, sounding excited. “The time difference paid off, Mrs Hollis. I was able to speak to my contact a few times during the night, and have some really good stuff to tell you. But I am not going into details over the phone. I will come and see you later, same time as yesterday”. When she put the phone down, it suddenly occurred to Anita how her life had started to so heavily revolve around the time of six pm.
The next call was later. Jill was on her lunch break, and making apologies for not ringing last night. When she tried to get onto the subject of Mum’s wedding, Anita cut her dead. Jill tried another tactic. “Look, I will pick you up. Just come for the service, so it looks like she has some family there. Then you can say you don’t feel well, something with the baby or whatever. I will bring you back, and that way we both get out of having to wear fake smiles at the after-party”. There was no shifting Anita.
“Forget it, Jill. I’m not going, and that’s that”.
During the afternoon, Anita had to do some shopping, and also popped into the chemist to get some indigestion tablets. Eating so late at night wasn’t a good idea, it seemed. Even a short trip around town had made her back ache badly. Walking across to her car, she rubbed her back with her free hand, and smiled. It was such a cliché, a pregnant woman with backache. On the drive home, she was sure she spotted that silver Ford car. It was reassuring to think that Ian was watching out for her.
There was something inside, snagging as she tried to push the front door open. Anita was thinking that there must be a lot of post today. But it was just one large envelope, one of those long padded bags designed to just fit through a letter-box. After putting her shopping away, she sat on the sofa and looked at the package. Her name was written on the front, but there was no postage mark, and no address. It made her nervous, as it was so thick. Turning it over slowly, she was relieved to see a message on the back. ‘From Ian Hope’. She opened it by pulling the tab, and tipped the contents onto the coffee table.
As well as page after page of printouts, there were also photos. Most of it was taken from newspapers all around the world, but there were also some documents that looked very official. Anita went to get some fruit juice from the fridge, and then sat down to read. Forty-five minutes later she had some of the papers laid out in date order. The oldest one went back six years, and the latest was just over six months ago. She picked that one up again, then started to go back over the rest.
‘Tragic plane crash in India claims 240 lives’.
‘Three fatal airline crashes in 9 months cause concern in India’.
‘Emirates Airline grounds 43 aircraft after technical faults discovered’.
‘US Air Force denies fatal crash was pilot error’.
‘Second RAF air disaster in 3 months. MOD to investigate’.
‘Boeing denies responsibility after 8 fatal air crashes in one year’.
‘Kazakhstan air disaster blamed on technical fault. 108 killed’.
‘Air Canada crash. Survivors and relatives of victims to sue in class action’.
A creak from above made her drop the papers onto the sofa. Listening carefully, she heard it again. Anita grabbed her phone and walked hurriedly to the front door. Once outside, she walked away from the house, dialling Ian’s number on her mobile. He answered after three rings.
“Ian, can you come quickly please? There is someone in my house”.
When the silver car pulled up at the corner of the street, Anita handed Ian the door keys. “I closed the front door behind me, and the windows are all locked. Whoever it is should still be in there”. Ian was smiling, obviously enjoying the situation. “Leave it to me. You get in my car and lock the doors. Don’t open them for anyone except me. If I am not back in five minutes, drive to the police station and ask for Jane”.
She took the car key from him, and sat in the driver’s seat.
He was back a lot quicker than she expected, and beckoned her to get out of the car and follow him back to the house. “The place is empty, Mrs Hollis. The window lock on one of the bedroom windows has been forced. It still closes, but the lock will have to be replaced at some stage. My best guess is that they jumped down into the garden, then away over the back fence. No point me searching around, they will be long gone, and I have no idea who I am looking for”.
Inside, the house looked completely normal. Nothing was obviously disturbed, no drawers or cupboard doors open, and no sign of anything missing. Anita was puzzled. “What do you think they…”. Ian’s finger was over her lips, and he was shaking his head. He made a zip motion across his own mouth, and went back outside to his car. Moments later, he returned with something that looked like a portable radio with an extending aerial. Still motioning for her to be silent, he waved the aerial around for a few moments until a red light came on when he was close to the house phone. Reaching under the side table, he produced a small button-like device. It reminded her of the expensive hearing aid Mike’s Dad had bought a couple of years ago.
After sweeping the device around the living room and kitchen, Ian went upstairs. Shortly after, he returned, showing her three more identical devices in the palm of his hand. Unlocking the doors to the garden, he walked over to the stone bird-bath, and dropped all four into the murky water.
“One in the bedroom, under the phone extension. One in the room Mike used as an office, under the desk, and one in the toilet, behind the cistern. Whoever was in here wasn’t looking to take anything. They were planting listening devices”. Anita shook her head in amazement. “Why would they want to listen to me using the toilet?” That made Ian, chuckle, and Anita noticed that he looked very handsome when he was laughing. “When people think they might be bugged, and being overheard, they often go into the toilet and run taps or the shower, to muffle their voices. It’s not a place they ever expect to find a listening device, so it has become quite common for those in the know to start leaving one in there”.
Anita sat down on the sofa. She was still recovering from the trembling that had affected her when she heard the floor creaking. She indicated that Ian should sit. “Ian, won’t they realise that they have been found now? Surely dumping them in the bird-bath will make them stop working?” He nodded. “I want them to know. Besides, it would have made life very difficult for you, knowing someone was listening in. Your conversation wouldn’t have sounded natural, believe me”. Anita could see that he knew what he was talking about. “Won’t they just break in again though, put them somewhere else? And who do you think it was?” He was very certain of his answer. “No, once they realise that they were rumbled, there would be no point. As for who it was, it could be the Secret Service, or it might be the other interested group. They all want to try to find out where Mike is, and I’m betting that they think you know”.
Before she could ask any more questions, he nodded at the pile of papers that were still on the sofa and coffee table. “I hope some of that made sense to you?” Anita stood up. “I have no idea what it means. I will make us some tea, and you can tell me”.
By the time they had drunk their tea and Ian had finished talking, Anita had a headache. It was starting to make some sense though.
He had laid it all out for her, and although it was still mainly a theory needing to be proved, it was a good theory.
Some time ago, Mike’s company had come up with a new formula for an industrial glue. Thicker and longer lasting than even Super Glue, it was discovered to be able to bond anything together. Metals of all weights, plastics of any description, and one to the other if necessary. It also worked on wood, and even stone. More importantly, it could withstand extreme stress, and any temperatures, hot or cold. It was taken up by all the aircraft manufacturers, as they could save weight by replacing metal parts with glue. Then the military here and in the US became interested too.
Although it was bought by many companies and governments, the news of the invention was never made public. Nobody wanted to fly in a plane that they imagined might be glued together, even if it wasn’t used on huge areas like the wings and fuselage. However, they did use it in areas like landing wheels, crucial control levers, and some internal structures. Ian was adamant that all this was fact.
“As you can tell from the documents, Mrs Hollis, failure of the glue over time caused some terrible air crashes. At first, nobody associated it with the glue failing, but people at Mike’s company started to suspect it, as they knew who had bought it. When it was hushed up by the governments in various countries, Mike took it upon himself to become a whistle-blower and contacted some of the victims, as well as leaving a message for the reporter in India”. Still trying to take it all in, Anita was wondering where they would go from there. “So what do we do now, Ian? What’s our next step?” He smiled.
“We have to find Mike. And I think I know where he is”.
Ian was happy to see his comment had cheered Anita up, but felt he should add a note of caution. “Obviously I cannot be completely certain, but what I have found out is encouraging. Someone I know in Ireland looked into some things for me. He is sure that Mike arrived in Northern Ireland on a sea ferry. From there, he took a flight from Belfast to Amsterdam, then connected to a flight at Schipol leaving for Dubai. He was certainly using a fake passport, but one good enough not to attract attention. As for his car being found at Portsmouth, my guess is that someone else arranged that”.
Anita was looking confused. “Why would Mike go to Dubai? And who could have arranged the passport, and the car thing? I don’t get it”. Ian was still smiling. “Mick Steeden is my best guess. He still has contacts in the UK, and he was working for Emirates Airlines, based in Dubai. No doubt Mike warned him about the problems with the aircraft, which is why they were grounded. Mick is a senior engineer at that company, or at least he was, until he skipped to Australia. He worked for Qantas at one time, so kept his place on over there. My theory is that Mike met him in Dubai, and they travelled back to Australia together, but avoided going to Mick’s apartment. You told me he didn’t seem too concerned when you phoned him, remember?” Anita felt a lot happier.
“So you think Mike is alive, and hiding out somewhere with his best friend? I could ring Mick now, and tell him we have worked it all out”. Ian smiled at her use of ‘we’. “You mustn’t do that, Mrs Hollis. For all we know they have a trace on your mobile, and probably Steeden’s too. We will have to wait until someone contacts us, when they think it is safe. Meanwhile, you are still potentially in danger, if they think you know about the glue. But I doubt they will do anything for now, as they hope you will flush Mike out. That means I could be in danger too, as well as Mick Steeden. Let’s hope they don’t think you have told your Mum, your sister, or your friend Claudia. I am sure they caused the accident that killed your in-laws, but it was probably opportunistic, once they were on the way down here to see you”.
She finally asked the question Ian had been expecting. “Who are ‘they’, Ian? Who would go so far as to want Mike dead, and anyone he might have told?”
Looking a bit lost without his whiteboard, Ian jabbed fingers into the palm of his other hand instead. “One. Governments. Definitely the UK and US ones, and very possibly the Indian one too. Imagine if it got out that they were using military and civilian aircraft that they knew might be dangerous because of a failed glue? That would explain Pete Springer trying to contact Mike, as well as Susan Judd from Air Command becoming involved. It might also be the reason why the Indian reporter has gone missing, though my best guess is that she will eventually turn up in Australia”. He shifted his weight on the sofa, and leaned forward.
“Two. Aircraft manufacturers and Airlines. Just think about what it could cost them if their use of that glue became public knowledge. Nobody would buy their planes, or use their airlines. Compensation claims could run into the tens of millions or more, and then they would have to refund the purchase price of hundreds of aircraft. Share prices would crumble, and the whole aviation industry would start to collapse. Not only that, there would be criminal charges too; probably deliberate negligence, as well as the cover-ups”. Anita nodded. It was starting to sound completely plausible. Ian smiled again.
“And lets not forget the company Mike works for. It is only a UK subsidiary of a huge Japanese company with offices and plants all around the world. They have companies in the US, China, and also in South America. They would go bust overnight if the news got out. I imagine Mike went to Winkowski, expecting him to be shocked, and to agree to expose the scandal. But then that manager passed Mike’s information down the line, and your husband knew he was running out of time. After finding out about Judith Harley and her ISS being involved, I can only assume that she is working for the parent company, and trying to find out where Mike is. So, Mike has few friends, and at least three very large professional organisations trying to find him and silence him”.
After making them both a cup of tea, Anita had an idea. “Why don’t I go to the media? The newspapers and television would eat up a story like this. Once it was public, Mike could come out into the open, and come home. We have enough proof already, and the information from your contacts will all add to it”. Ian looked glum. “Sorry to tell you, but it will never be printed, or reported on TV. The governments will just shut it down, say it is a matter of national security. I’m guessing that Mike has already tried that, and that was what alerted everyone to him in the first place”. It seemed to her that every time she heard good news, the bad news cancelled it out.
“Then what do we do? What’s the point of even finding Mike, if all that will do is maybe draw them to him, and nothing will be published anyway?” Ian was smiling again.
“Never underestimate the power of social media, Mrs Hollis. We are about to unleash a Twitter and Facebook avalanche”.
At long last, Anita felt she had a real role to play, and was no longer a bystander. Always active on every social media platform imaginable, she had worked out a relevant message with Ian, and started to post it everywhere that morning, bumping it constantly, linking it to the names of everyone she had as contacts online, as well as names of bloggers, journalists, and websites that loved to write about conspiracies and government cover-ups. Her friendship with Claudia paid dividends, as Claude shared it with scores of people she knew from her job with the BBC.
Watching as the shares, views, and likes began to increase in number before her eyes, she could feel some movement from her baby inside. Although it seemed crazy, Anita convinced herself that the baby knew something positive was happening. She stroked the fast-growing bump and smiled. “I’m going to get your Daddy home, wait and see”.
Claudia phoned just after eleven. “I’m so sorry, Nita. What you must have been going through, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me everything. But I am with you one hundred percent, and Betsy is sharing with all of her contacts too. She says that some of the platforms might take down your posts once pressure is applied today, but it is already out there, and too late to suppress it completely. I have just created a blog for you. I have sent the blog name and account password by text, so get on that soon, and send a link to it to everyone you can think of. Is everything okay with the baby? Be careful, and try not to stress yourself out. If you need me down there, I can pay for a carer to look after Betsy and drive down, let me know”.
Feeling the best she had since all this had started, Anita made a nice lunch, and sat eating watching the shares as they added up to the thousands. The blog site that Claude had started for her was getting dozens of shares and loads of comments, and she realised that her afternoon was going to be very busy sorting out replies, and continuing to bump the tweets and posts. By the time she finished lunch and tidied away, the blog alone already had almost nine hundred followers. She sent Ian a text to his unregistered mobile, telling him how exciting it was, and thanking him for the suggestion.
The rest of the day went by in a blur. Her eyes were aching from looking at the i-pad and phone screens, but by early evening, the shares and messages were enormous. It was much more than she could ever hope to keep up with, so she stopped trying to. The house phone rang, and she didn’t recognise the voice, which was undoubtedly American. “Mrs Hollis? This is Lisa Howeler. You don’t know me, but I am a reporter with the New York Times. I wanted to interview you about what’s happening on social media. That’s one hell of a story. Do you have time to talk to me now?” Anita was happy to talk, even though she hadn’t confirmed who the woman was. After ten minutes, she had outlined everything, and received assurances that it would be on that newspaper’s website soon.
Almost as soon as she had hung up. it rang again. “This is Don Ostertag from the Chicago Tribune. Am I speaking with Mrs Hollis?” She readily gave him his requested telephone interview. Even though he sounded a lot more sceptical than the previous reporter, he promised that some people on his paper would start their own investigation into her allegations. Once the excitement of all this started to calm down, she then became worried. How had they got her number so easily? When it rang again, she was guarded. “Is that Anita Hollis? This is Jennie Fitzkee from The Boston Globe. I would like to talk to you about your blog, and the amazing story you are telling”. Anita decided to ask.
“How did you get my number, Jennie?I have had a series of reporters ringing from American newspapers in the last forty minutes, and I am starting to become suspicious, to be honest”. The woman was friendly. “Bless you, honey, it’s just the time difference. It is the morning here, that’s all. We are at work, and looking at all the trends on social media for story ideas. As for your phone number, we have lots of contacts in the UK who can get those for us. If you have already spoken to other US papers, I have lost my exclusive, but I would still like to hear what you have to say”. Anita told her everything, and she promised to do her best to get it on the front page tomorrow.
Nobody had telephoned from any British newspaper. No TV companies had come to her house to ask for interviews, and there had been nothing on the radio either. That hadn’t gone unnoticed by her, and Anita remembered what Ian had said about the story being pulled by the authorities. But the amount of views on all of her social media was by now unimaginable, and she was sure something had to break soon. Her mobile beeped. It was a text message from Claudia. ‘Just out of a meeting with the News production team. Watch the six pm bulletin. It might be featured’.
Just as the main headlines were announced by the presenter, the doorbell rang. It was Jane Dawes.
“Can I come in, Anita? I have something to tell you”. Anita was upbeat, sure it was to do with her story. She grinned. “What is it, Jane? Do you have good news for me? The policewoman’s expression didn’t look as if she did.
“Sorry, but I have some bad news. Ian Hope was found dead in his hotel room an hour ago”.
Even though she had hardly known Ian Hope, Anita felt the tears flowing down her face at Jane’s news. “How? I mean, why? Sorry. What happened?”
Jane pointed at the TV screen, and through the tears Anita could see a report about the news spread by her social media activity, now being headlined as ‘Aircraft Glue Scandal’. “That happened”, the sergeant replied, her tone cold, sounding frustrated. “What were you two thinking of, Anita? Okay, you got it on the news, and now the governments and the airlines are all red-faced and trying to make excuses. The downside is that it also meant they shut Ian up, and Mike is now in more danger than ever”.
“Wiping her face with some tissues, Anita sat up straight. “How was Ian killed, Jane?” Shaking her head, Jane still sounded pretty fed up. “The way I would have expected. No signs of forced entry, no weapon used. The Police Surgeon could only come up with natural causes so far, until the post-mortem. The best guess is that they used some drug that mimics a heart attack. If it hadn’t been for a maid going in to change the towels, the body wouldn’t have been discovered for some time, I suspect. The cheap hotel has no CCTV other than over the reception desk, and there is nobody on that except other paying guests who can be accounted for”.
Anita was still upset, but trying to keep it together. “So where do we go from here, Jane?” The policewoman raised her eyebrows, and also raised her voice.
“We? Well, ‘We’ don’t go anywhere, Anita! This is no longer a missing persons case, as according to you and Ian, Mike absconded with his secrets about the glue. He knew he was going, to the extent that he must have obtained false documents, and made provision for you financially, as well as getting Ian Hope to keep watch on you. So as far as the police is concerned, he is not missing, just gone into hiding. The case will be closed, and I will no longer be able to help you. Ian’s death will be investigated by the murder squad, and likely covered up, written off as heart trouble. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you are on your own now. Except for the press and TV news, who will soon be all over you”.
Although inside she had to admit that she hadn’t thought about that happening, Anita was determined to at least appear to be resolute. “Well if the press arrive at my door, that’s a good thing. I will give them statements, tell them the facts. Anything that helps Mike come home. I don’t think anyone is going to chance doing anything to me in the full spotlight of press interest, don’t you agree?” Jane just smiled, waiting until she had finished talking.
“It will be all over the papers and TV, I agree. But give it a few days, and you will see another story will suddenly appear. Something like a royal engagement, an unexpected fairytale love story involving one of the young Princes or Princesses. Perhaps a scandalous royal divorce? They have ways and means of getting hold of the front pages, Anita. Likely one of the senior royals will suddenly become gravely ill, the nation waiting with bated breath to hear if they live or die. That’s how it works, I’m afraid”. Anita set her face, defiantly.
“Then I had better work faster, Jane. Thanks for letting me know about Ian. I will see you out”.
The first task was to update the blog with news of Ian’s death, and her theory that he had been killed by either interested parties, or governments trying to silence him. As she typed, Anita suddenly realised that she didn’t even know if he had left a family behind. That was something she was going to have to try to find out about. Then the phone started to ring. Now, she was wary. Rather than speak to any other reporters on the phone, she told them she would be happy for them to call on her the next morning, when she was prepared to give a small press conference in her front room. She wanted witnesses, and didn’t intend to be alone in the house with anyone.
There wasn’t much in to make a meal with, so she had a strange dinner of toast and jam, followed by some cream crackers and Camembert cheese. The phone kept ringing, but she let it go to the answer machine. There were already two TV news companies and three reporters set to arrive tomorrow, and that would be enough for now. Upstairs later, she had just got undressed ready for a nice bath, followed by bed. When the doorbell sounded, she put on a dressing gown and walked to the window in the front bedroom. No way was she going to open the door without seeing who was there.
When she saw it was Claudia standing outside, her heart skipped a beat, and she walked quickly downstairs to let her best friend in. Claude wrapped her arms around her, and kissed her warmly on the cheek. “I had to come down, Nita. As soon as I read about Ian Hope on your blog, I just couldn’t leave you on your own. I got someone in to keep an eye on Betsy, and drove down as soon as I could”. She was carrying a small weekend bag, and lifted a bottle of wine in her other hand . “Let’s open this, and you can tell me what’s going on”.
After telling Claudia everything, and answering all her numerous questions, Anita was feeling very tired. But her friend was buzzing. “Let’s put the rolling news on, Nita. See if they are still talking about your story, and Mike”. She picked up the remote, and switched on the television.
Anita thought she would faint when she saw what was on the screen
He needed a shave, and his hair was untidy, but the man being interviewed was Mike.
Both women were squealing like excited schoolgirls at the sight of Mike on TV. They were making so much noise, neither heard any of the segment. “Look! It’s Mick too! Steeden’s with him, Nita!” Claudia was hugging her friend, and Anita was crying happy tears, as well as sounding like a playful piglet at the same time. The next report was about a politician who had resigned his seat after an allegation of sexual misconduct. Claudia grabbed her laptop from the weekend bag, connected to Anita’s wi-fi, and brought up the BBC News website.
Anita was rocking back and forth, fists bunched, and looking down at her baby bump. “He’s coming home, your Daddy is coming home!”
The report had come from Sydney, Australia. Although the video clip wasn’t up on the website yet, the story was marked as ‘Breaking News’. Claudia read it out loud.
“Man who leaked aircraft glue scandal comes out of hiding. Mike Hollis left Britain for Australia, terrified for the safety of his family if he stayed. Aircraft manufacturers and Airlines around the world are rushing to refute his leaks about the use of unsafe glue that has caused numerous crashes resulting in hundreds of fatalities. He now plans to return to Britain after his wife exposed the story online, also alleging that his parents and a private investigator he hired have all been killed as part of a conspiracy to try to silence him.”
With her friend still hardly able to take it in, Claudia shook her by the shoulder. “Nita, get your phone and try Mick Steeden’s number. If he’s with Mike, you can talk to him. I’m so excited, I’m going to ring Betsy and tell her, I don’t care how late it is”.
Mick’s phone rang out, with no answering message. Anita was disappointed, but not about to let anything get her down. They left the news on, hoping that the report would be shown again. But a discussion feature started, so Claudia went into the kitchen to make them both a cup of tea. Then they sat and worked out the time difference, with Anita checking on Google. “It says that if its almost one am here, then the time in Sydney is midday”. Claudia was about to bite into a chocolate biscuit. “So by the time we wake up tomorrow, it will almost be the day after down there, or close to it. That stuff does my head in, Nita. At work, we have like six time clocks on the wall, always checking on New York Time, Moscow Time, L A time, and China too. It’s a pity there couldn’t just be one time”.
As soon as she had said that, she realised how silly it sounded, and they both began to have a fit of the giggles.
Claudia went back to her laptop, and reloaded the BBC News website. “Look, Nita, there’s a clip now. See? That’s Mike’s face!” As she watched the short video of Mike talking to some reporters in Sydney, Anita felt more joyful tears running down her cheeks. She had instantly forgiven him for all the stresses and strains of the recent events, as she was so overwhelmed with relief that he was alive. When the clip ended, she played it again, and once more after that. Mike seemed so strong, despite his appearance. And what he was saying made her heart leap.
“I now just want to get home to my wife, and make sure she and our baby are well. If she is watching this, I love you Anita, and I am so sorry for what I had to put you through”. One of the reporters pushed a big microphone in his face, and asked a question that they couldn’t hear. Mike nodded. “Absolutely. I will be seeking justice for my parents, for everything that my family has suffered because of this, and I will also be urging the police to investigate Ian Hope’s death as a murder”. Mick Steeden leaned forward, and said something close to Mike’s ear. He turned back to the reporters. “Thank you ladies and gentlemen, but I have to go now. I have a plane to catch”.
She could hear Claudia snoring in the guest room, but Anita didn’t feel as if sleep was ever going to come that night. Her mood fluctuated between sheer joy at seeing Mike alive and well, and overwhelming sadness about Ian Hope, and Mike’s parents. It had all been so pointless, and she started to convince herself that nobody would ever be held to account for any of it. That thought made her angry, and she tried hard to calm down, not wanting to transfer any stress onto her unborn baby.
Positive thoughts made her feel better. A baby in a nursery, sleeping peacefully in a lovely crib, with her and Mike looking on from the doorway. Beautiful baby clothes, tiny, and so soft. A new life that they would love without hesitation, and protect until their dying day. Her first day at school, her first boyfriend. Teenage tantrums, then mother and daughter bonding when she got older.
A wedding perhaps, with her as Mother of The Bride, and Mike looking handsome as he walked his daughter down the aisle. Much better to think about all that, than the bad stuff that had been happening.
She woke up feeling the need to pee. It was still dark, with no morning light peeping through the curtains yet. Feeling sleepy still, Anita shifted in bed, and threw back the duvet. Her nightdress was wet, and she was annoyed with herself that she had already peed in her sleep. She would need to change, maybe put a towel over the mattress for now, so she switched on the bedside lamp.
The red stain sent shivers down her spine. It hadn’t been pee at all. It was blood.
Startled by Anita’s shouts for help, Claudia rushed into the bedroom in a complete daze, to find her friend white faced and trembling. “Claude, phone for an ambulance! Quick!”
Fifteen minutes later, a paramedic was attaching a drip bag to the needle he had placed in Anita’s arm. “The ambulance will be here soon. Don’t be too worried, it’s really not that much blood. Believe me, it looks worse than it is. Because you are close to seven months gone, they will take you straight to the Maternity Unit, and a doctor and midwife will be waiting”. Claudia had dressed hurriedly, and was now stuffing a change of clothes for Anita into a holdall to take with them. Her friend looked up at her from the bed.
“Sorry, Claude. You have just left Betsy recovering, and had to come down to all this. But I’m so glad you are here”. Claudia would hear none of it. “I’m glad I am here too, so don’t worry. Stop bothering about all that stuff, and think about yourself and the baby. Should I ring your Mum, or Jill? Even both of them?” Anita shook her head. “No, I don’t want to worry Jill just yet, and Mum will only be concerned about whether it might spoil her wedding arrangements”.
The staff at the hospital were surprisingly unconcerned. The midwife dealing with Anita told her not to worry. “Bleeding at this stage is normal for some women, believe me. And it seems to have stopped some time ago. We are going to keep an eye on the monitor for now, and you will see a doctor later this morning. They might send you for an ultrasound, but based on my experience, I reckon you will be home for lunch. Your observations are all completely normal, and baby’s heartbeat is fine too”.
Despite those reassuring words, Anita was still concerned. Claudia was cheerful now, but then she had never been pregnant. “Try to relax now, Nita. See if you can get some sleep”. Claudia sat in the hard armchair next to the bed, and checked her phone. “Shall I check your mobile, Nita? Just in case?” Anita had a thought. “What about the TV crews and reporters, Claude? They are going to be showing up at the house in a few hours”. Claudia shook her head. “Last thing you need to worry about, love. If you are not at home, I’m sure they will come back another time”.
There was no message on either phone, and despite the worry, Anita managed to settle down and sleep.
When she woke up later, Claudia wasn’t in the chair. But she came back soon after, holding two cups of coffee bought from the hospital cafe. “It’s not great, Nita, but at least it’s warm and wet”. An auxiliary came in and asked if she wanted breakfast, but she declined. Claudia was checking both phones, and looked up. “Still nothing, but at least no news is good news”. Anita was wondering when Claude had started to spout such old-fashioned sayings, when a breezy young female doctor came in to see her.
“Everything is fine, Mrs Hollis. According to what I have read from your observations, you have nothing to worry about. I’m just going to give you a quick internal examination to make completely certain, and then you will be able to go home”. She took some latex gloves from a box fixed to the wall. The friends shared a look, with Claudia screwing up her face in disgust, and looking away as the doctor started to move the bedclothes.
“As I thought, nothing to worry about. A nurse will be here soon to take down your drip, and you will be able to go home after that”. She dropped the gloves into a bin, operating the lid with a foot-pedal. The nurse arrived before they had finished their coffees. As she removed the needle in Anita’s arm, she chatted about baby names, and then asked “What about the Dad? Is he picking you up?” Anita shook her head, and Claudia spoke instead. “No, he’s working abroad at the moment, I will arrange for an Uber Cab now”.
On the way back in the taxi, Claudia used Anita’s phone to speak to the reporters who were supposed to be arriving at the house, and to cancel them. She managed to speak directly to two of them, and left messages for the others. “I hope they don’t just show up, Nita. You need to rest. Time enough to speak to reporters once Mike gets home”. Then she rang Betsy, and told her everything that had happened. “Betsy sends her love, Nita. She sounds really good, and said the lady that spent the night at our place was really caring and professional. One of her colleagues has just arrived to take over”.
When the taxi pulled up outside the house, there were no journalists to be seen. Claudia smiled. “Good news, Nita. They must have got the messages”.
But as she helped Anita to the front door, and the taxi drove off, a car stopped outside.
It was a marked police car.
Seeing the two police officers approaching, Anita stopped dead. “What is it? Do you have some news of my husband?” The female officer turned to her colleague, and he gestured for her to speak. “Can we all go inside, Mrs Hollis? We have something we would like to talk to you about”. Once in the living room, they didn’t keep her in suspense. “Jane Dawes asked us to come and see you, as a favour to her. She was worried about you, but I’m glad to see you have a friend with you”.
Turning to look at at Claudia, then back at the policewoman, Anita sounded confused. “Worried about me? Jane? Why?” The male officer stepped forward.
“I take it you haven’t seen or heard any news recently, madam?” Reaching forward instinctively for the remote control, Anita shook her head as she pushed the button to turn on the TV. “No, I have just come from the hospital. Why? What’s going on?” Before he could reply, the rolling news channel was on the screen.
A serious-faced female presenter was talking against the background of a live feed from Australia. The headline bar across the bottom read ‘Qantas plane crashes after taking off from Sydney. Casualties unconfirmed but first reports suggest there were no survivors’.
Anita sank to her knees on the carpet, and Claudia rushed to wrap her arms around her friend. The policewoman spoke quickly. “It happened a short time ago, and reports are coming in. Jane said to tell you that she has no idea if your husband was on the aircraft, but she knew you might fear the worst, and wanted us to come round to see if you were okay”. Claudia looked up at her. “But we saw Mike interviewed last night, and he said the that he had a plane to catch. He would have flown out much earlier than that one. “The man looked at them as if trying to decide whether or not to say something. Then he did. “Michael Steeden is listed as one of the passengers on the flight manifest. Jane thought that if you heard that, you might assume that Mike was with him”.
Still on her knees, Anita waved a hand at him. “Can you just go now, please. Tell Jane thanks for me, I have my best friend here now, and she will stay with me”. They looked relieved to be leaving, muttering sympathetic goodbyes as Claudia showed them out. When she walked back in, Anita was on her mobile, trying Mick Steeden’s number. She looked up at her friend, whose face was a mask of concern. “Nothing. The line is dead, Claude”. Helping her up to stretch out on the sofa, Claudia did her best. “Just because Mick was listed on the flight doesn’t mean he was on it. And it certainly doesn’t mean Mike was flying with him. I’m going to make us both a cup of tea. Actually, I’m going to make you a cup of tea. I need something stronger”.
It was a big enough story to keep the news focusing on it for now. The presenter kept giving updates, then chatted to someone from Australia via Skype. By the time Claudia got back with the tea, and a huge glass of wine for herself, the woman on television was setting her best face for bad news. “It is now confirmed that there are no survivors from the Qantas flight that crashed in open countryside in New South Wales not far from Dubbo, earlier today. The airline confirms that there were three hundred and three people on board, including the aircrew. The cause of the crash is so far unknown, and you can call the following number for more information”. As the news switched to a fatal shooting in Nottingham, Claudia was already dialling the number.
“It’s a recorded message, Nita. Says they are busy with calls and will update the message when they know more. They are giving out a phone number in Australia. Shall I ring that?” Anita looked overwhelmed by sadness. “Leave it, Claude. Wait until the fuss dies down, and try again later”. In an effort to break the mood, Claudia suggested making some lunch. “I can’t face food, Claude. I might just have a lie down upstairs. But you have something. You might have to drive to the supermarket though, I doubt I have got anything in worth eating”. Grabbing her car keys and Anita’s door key, Claudia picked up her bag. “I will get some more milk too. Something for tonight as well. Anything you fancy, love?” Anita looked completely disinterested. “Just get something to chuck in the microwave”.
As she was putting the shopping away an hour later, Claudia heard the house phone ringing. But before she could get to it, it was answered on the bedroom extension. The wail from upstairs made her run up to the bedroom as fast as she could. Tears were streaming down Anita’s face, but she was smiling. She turned to look at her friend. “It’s Mike. He’s on the phone. He’s alive. He wasn’t on that plane!” Claudia kissed the top of her head, and left the room. She wanted to give them some privacy to talk.
Fifteen minutes later, Anita came down, wiping her eyes and nose with some tissues. As she sat on the sofa, Claudia couldn’t stop herself. “Well? For Christ’s sake, Nita, tell me what he said”. Anita rubbed her face with the palms of both hands. “Mick Steeden was on the plane that crashed, as far as Mike knows. He was flying to Dubai, to get back to his job there. But Mike took a flight much earlier, using a different airline, and flying to Amsterdam. He’s there now, at the airport. He is boarding a flight to London soon. That Indian reporter met them in Sydney, and he told her the full story. She will get it out all over India and the Far East. Then Mike will contact people here”. Claudia wasn’t satisfied.
But what about him going missing? Ian the detective, the money, his car being in Portsmouth, all that other stuff? Does he know about his parents? Anita nodded. Yeah, he knows about that, and Ian too. He said he will tell me everything when he gets back. He was mainly worried about me and the baby, and the fact that he will have to find another job now” Claude thought for a moment. “Have you got his flight number? We could drive to the airport in my car, and meet him off the Amsterdam flight”. Anita smiled. “Thanks, Claude, but he says not to bother. He will get the train, and a taxi from the station”.
She looked down at the baby bump, and stroked it lovingly.
“He said he will be home about six”.