This is the fifteenth part of a fiction serial, in 837 words.
One more thing Gabby managed to ruin for us was graduation. Talk around the uni was that her degree would not be awarded, as it was being investigated. They were comparing her course work with the style and content of Andrew Donaldson, and it looked like she would be accused of cheating. That would mean no qualification for her, and a lifetime of living down her reputation. As for Mister Donaldson, he was already gone, and nobody knew where he was hiding.
We were not going back for the graduation ceremony. Too many eyes staring at us, whispers behind hands. And no doubt the press would be there, milking the last drops of scandal left in the story It was all too much for our parents, though the thing that upset my mum most was finding out I had been calling myself Benedict. “What was wrong with the name I gave you? That really hurt me, Ben”.
Mikki came to stay at my parents’ place before going home to her mum. Dad said we might as well share my bed, seeing as we had been doing that in Norwich anyway. I suppose we saw ourselves as a long-term couple from then on, and it just didn’t occur to us to imagine life with someone else. We stopped talking about Gabby too. If we had got into that again, we would have ended up having to admit we were both still in love with her.
I tried to contact Kimberley Lau through Facebook, but she had made her page private. We both felt sorry for her, though the main emotion was jealousy, to be honest. Kim had managed to go to the next level with Gabby, something Mikki and me had only ever dreamt about.
Four weeks after we got our degrees in the post, Mikki applied for teacher training, to become a primary school teacher. She was so pleased to be accepted, I went down and visited her at her mum’s. I had to sleep on the sofa that weekend though. Her mum was old-fashioned in that way. I had no idea what I wanted to do. The events of those final few months had messed with my head, but I had to do something to start earning a living.
That’s how I found myself working for a bank, in the call centre for their online customers, offering tech support. That was about as far removed from my earlier ambitions as I could have imagined. But the money was good.
Steve James was not one to let a story die. The Missing posters might have fallen off the lamp-posts and trees, and no newspaper in the entire country was still interested in his story, but he would not let go. Like a terrier shaking a dead rat, he kept on at his contacts, and went the extra mile to shake up anyone remotely involved with Gabby.
Turning up at the Lau house early one morning, he took photos as he shouted questions at her surprised father. When the door was slammed in his face, he took photos of the closed door. Then he climbed over the side gate and took photos of the windows at the back of the house, smiling as he decided which one he would claim to be Kimberley’s bedroom.
His favourite moment was when he discovered that Gabby’s mum had been discharged from hospital. He drove to London, found her flat, and knocked on the door holding a litre bottle of vodka up to the spy-hole. As he suspected, she let him in. Then once half of the bottle had gone, he had her on his voice recorder, slurring all the sordid details of her own past, and Gabby’s too.
With the money running out and needing to do something fast, he took that story to the tabloid editor. Adding some photos taken on his phone showing the state of the flat inside, and the state of the alcoholic woman slumped almost in a coma, wearing only a filthy, flimsy nightdress. They ran with it, dragging in the entire backstory, and making it look like it was all Gabby’s mum’s fault.
When he got back to Norwich, Steve took stock. Not enough money to make the move yet, and the last story didn’t get the traction he had hoped. It never even got a mention on the telly news, and only a couple of other newspaper websites ran it. Not for the first time in his life, he was wondering where to go next. Then his phoned pinged, a message alert.
It was a long-lens close-up photo of a woman sitting on the decking of one of those log-cabin lodges that you see in holiday parks. She had brown hair, and was wrapped up in an oversized dressing gown.
She could have been anyone, except for those lips like little pillows.
Steve read the message under the photo, which was all written in caps.
£500 CASH FOR THE ADDRESS. YOU GOT 24 HOURS. TEXT BACK.