Gabby Goes Missing: The Complete Story

This is all 26 parts of my recent fictional series, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 20,338 words.

Benedict.

I met her at university. Most of us were nervous. Eighteen year-old first-year students, living in halls, in a new town that felt strange. Few of us had lived away from home before, cooked meals, washed and ironed clothes, or any of those things that suddenly become such a big deal when there is nobody around to do them for you.

But not Gabby.

Gabrielle was one of those people who just stood out. It wasn’t just because of her looks, or her unusually short hair. It was her vitality, the way she exuded confidence, and her desire to befriend anyone.

Even a nerd like me.

Those of us studying History tended to gravitate together. After lectures, we would end up in the Student Union bar, each paying for our own drinks, making every one of them last as long as possible. And we would watch Gabby doing the room. Chatting in their own language to the Chinese students, comparing good places to eat in Tokyo with the Japanese ones, and laughing about Christmas on the beach with two girls who had lived in Australia.

To say she was well-travelled was an understatement.

Her father had been in a job of some kind that meant Gabby had grown up everywhere but England. Yet to my knowledge, nobody ever asked her what her father did for a living. Her parents were still abroad somewhere, but they wanted her to complete her education in England, so the story went. Her older brother had died in an accident of some kind on the island of Bali, so somebody else told me.

It soon became clear that everyone who thought they knew Gabby didn’t actually know her at all. And it was also very clear that I was besotted with her. Madly in love with her in fact. I wasn’t alone, as at least a dozen others appeared to be crazy about her, both women and men.

She called me Ben, and remembered my name straight off. No mean feat, when you were introduced to at least sixty people in the first few days. Her level of attraction was so strong, she was asked out on a date by the end of the second day. Then at least ten more times by the end of the first week. Not by me of course, I was out of her league, and knew it. But she didn’t say yes to any of them.

There were a few others like Gabby in that year. Obviously well-off, more worldly than most of us. Like her, they talked about where they had been, and cruised through the routines that were unfamiliar and confusing to the rest of us. But nobody seemed to like the others. They would say they were boastful, flash, entitled, even boring.

As for Gabby, I never heard a bad word said against her. Not even a bitchy remark from any other woman about her crew-cut hair. As long as I live, I doubt I will ever meet anyone else like her. I certainly haven’t so far.

Academic excellence came along with every other talent Gabby possessed. By the end of the first term, we all knew she was at the top in History, seeming to know as much as the lecturers and tutors. But she had a generous nature too, helping out anyone who was struggling; organising trips to places of historical interest at weekends, welcoming anyone who wanted to come along.

Naturally, I went on all of them.

Looking back now, the things we saw were a blur. I went to be near Gabby, just happy to be around her, even in the company of a dozen others. For a young woman who had never lived full-time in England, she knew more about the country than those of us who had never left.

When I went home at the end of year break, looking forward to being a second year student and maybe sharing a flat when we returned, I missed Gabby. I would have given up my holiday time to still be back at uni, just to be around her.

That first day back, she walked up to me, her thick lips opening in a smile. “Hey, Ben. I have found a nice house to rent. Mikki is keen to share, and I thought you would be perfect for the third bedroom. Interested?”

My throat went dry, and I had to nod my agreement instead of speaking. I felt like an idiot.

A very happy idiot.

Michaela.

When I first noticed her, I was sitting in the back of the Student Union bar, nursing a pint of cider. I had been sipping it for well over an hour, as I couldn’t afford to buy another one until my mum had paid in the money she promised. I spotted her hair first; cropped short, and very dark. Then she turned, and I saw her mouth. Wide, with thick lips, already in a half-smile as she looked across at me sitting alone at that table.

She broke into a stride, and I looked around, wondering who she was heading for. When it turned out to be me, I was surpised to say the least.

“Hi, you are History too, aren’t you? I’m Gabby”. I raised a hand for a lame handshake, then felt stupid when she leaned over and planted a soft kiss on my left cheek. Fighting back a stutter, I said my name. “Michaela, and yes, I’m studying History”. She sat next to me, barely perching on the edge of the chair. The smells coming off of her were wonderful. Clean clothes, fabric softener, and combined with just enough of a divine perfume that I didn’t know the name of and could never afford to buy.

“I shall call you Mikki, okay? Michaela is such a mouthful. Come over and sit with us. No need to be here on your own”.

The table she led me to had two others sitting at it already. A nice boy pulled another chair over for me. “Hi, I’m Ben. Good to meet you”. Taking the lead from my new friend, I leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Call me Mikki”.

I was catching on fast.

Across the table sat a skinny girl. Possibly half-Chinese, she had that so-slim body that makes you think she would look like a skeleton when she was naked. She was giving me the look, the one I had grown up seeing.

Her eyes moved around, checking out the fat thighs and curved calves under my too-long dress, with the black opaque tights I wore winter and summer, hoping to make my legs look smaller. They settled briefly on the over-sized breasts that always seemed to arrive anywhere two full seconds before the rest of me. Then they moved up to gaze at the thick single pigtail of straw-coloured hair that reached down to the middle of my bum. The only effort at hair management I had ever used.

There was no introduction, and she suddenly thought of a reason why she had to hurry across the room to talk to an Arabic-looking guy with a huge beard.

After that night, I was in Gabby’s gang, like it or not. Fortunately, I liked it, as she seemed to hang around with nice people who never asked me why I was fat, or why my tits were so big. Ben was really nice, one of those blokes who is good-looking, but doesn’t realise it. So he had no side to him, and acted like a nerd. That made him endearing to me.

Though it was Gabby I fell in love with. Head over heels, life-changing love.

Not being anywhere near as well-off as the others, and one of the few from a single-parent family, I had to get a job. Fortunately, the Campus Cafe was recruiting, and I was taken on for as many hours as I could squeeze in when I wasn’t studying. Gabby would come in often, order a latte, and then sit at the counter chatting to me when I wasn’t serving a customer. If I was on my own, I never charged her for the coffee, and I would slip her a free brownie too.

That first academic year flew by. When I could afford it, I went on the trips she organised, usually sitting next to Ben. I knew he liked me, but both of us were fixated on Gabby of course. It was that blind devotion to her that drew us closer together, I am sure of that.

Before we all went home at the end of that last term, Gabby was waiting for me outside the cafe.

“Hi, Mikki. I was thinking. We are going to be second years when we come back. You know they will be on at us to move out of halls. I am considering renting a house, and wondered if you wanted to share with me? I’m going to ask Ben too, as it will be cheaper split three ways”.

I said yes immediately. Of course I did.

Kimberley.

When I didn’t get the grades to apply to Oxford, I had to settle for what I considered to be a lesser university. The University of East Anglia in Norwich had a decent reputation, nice grounds and accommodation, and it was close to the ancient city.

But it wasn’t Oxford, as my parents were always happy to remind me.

The others in my set looked shabby, to be honest. I got the feeling that most had been lucky to make it to uni at all, and were going to struggle financially while they were there. Many of them only wanted to be History teachers in the school system, nowhere near as ambitious as me.

Then I saw her. Standing out from the crowd with her cropped hair, her wide mouth looking like it was always ready to smile. She came straight over to me as I stood outside the Campus Shop. “You’re History too, I think. Call me Gabby”. Then she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek, close to the side of my mouth. It felt like being caressed by tiny velvet pillows.

“Kimberley, and yes I’m History. I live off campus though, my parents rented me an apartment near the river in the city”. She made no comment about that. “I shall call you Kim. Kimberley is such a mouthful. Why don’t you come to the Student Union Bar tonight, meet up with some of the others?” I didn’t even drink alcohol, but found myself agreeing instantly. Then I stood and watched her as she walked off to talk to two Japanese guys.

Suddenly, I was glad that I didn’t get into Oxford.

My parents had come to England from Hong Kong just before it was handed back to China after ninety-seven. I was young so didn’t remember much about it, though I did remember how cold it was. As my mum was from England, my maternal grandparents were here too, so settling in was easy enough. Especially at a private school in Kent that my dad insisted I went to. Studying was his obsession, and he had wanted me to be a doctor. When I was more interested in History, he accepted that, as long as I did well enough to become a professor one day. Preferably at Oxford, where my mother had studied.

There was a lot of pressure, and that was when I stopped eating. Next came private therapists, followed by a stay in a facility for girls like me who wouldn’t eat. When they thought I was cured, my parents allowed me back home. Then I threw up the food they made me eat, until I thought I didn’t look fat anymore. Naturally, that affected my studies, so when the grades were too low for Oxford, my dad hardly spoke to me. That didn’t stop him buying a flat for me to live in, next to the river in Norwich. He would sell it once I graduated, and no doubt make a good profit.

I told the others he rented it for me. I never wanted to boast about how rich he was. I even bought a second-hand bicyle to use to commute to uni.

Sitting in the bar that night, I was introduced to Ben. He seemed nice enough, though a bit of a doormat. He was obviously crazy about Gabby, but I could understand why. Then Gabby went over to the back, and returned with a hideous fat girl. Her legs were wobbling as she walked, and her boobs were repulsively huge, like cow udders.

After a few seconds, I thought looking at her was going to make me physically sick, so I pretended I had to talk to someone. I picked a guy who looked like a member of the Taliban, and asked him where the toilets were. Anything not to have to stay at that table.

Compared to most of my set, I did really well that first year. Not as well as Gabby of course. She excelled, making us all look like we were struggling. When they all went home at the end of the year, I stayed in the city. It was very clear I wasn’t wanted back in Kent. Besides, my dad was in America on business, and mum was busy writing her seventh novel.

So it was a surprise to see Gabby one morning, as I walked past the football stadium. She was crossing the road, carrying two bags of groceries. I ducked back so she couldn’t see me, and my stomach was fluttering as I watched her walking away.

Could this really be love I was feeling?

Andrew.

The few years before I first met her were turbulent ones in my life. Then the years after I met her were even more turbulent.

My wife and I had split up. She returned to Scotland, the only place where she had ever been happy. Our son joined the army, much to our consternation, then took her side during the rather bitter divorce. The thing that saved me was my grandmother dying, and leaving me her house and considerable life insurance. The benefits of being an only child.

I had an agent sell the house, then made the move from Bristol to Norwich, with a new position at the UEA as a tutor and lecturer in History, specialising in Modern History. I bought a cottage for cash in the nice village of Bawburgh, and had an easy commute to my new job. It felt good to be in a smaller city, and to be working at a university that was more relaxed in attitude.

Those years in Bristol were behind me now, and unlike my wife, I had no desire to return to Edinburgh.

Marking time in Norwich, I led a rather uninteresting life, but I was content.

Then one day, I was working through a new intake on my course. Unfamiliar faces with familiar stories, and that familiar lack of ambition. A knock at my door. I called “Come in”, in a neutral tone of voice.

There she was. Gabrielle Parker.

If you had asked me five seconds earlier if I ever believed in love at first sight, I would have snorted with derision. I was never even sure if I loved my wife, let alone anyone else. Then I saw Gabby.

She breezed into my room, with her shocking cropped hair, pillow soft lips, and oozing confidence from every pore. Suddenly, I was on the back foot. “Hello, Gabrielle, I am Andrew Donaldson, and I will be your tutor”. Her smile could have melted an iceberg.

“Call me Gabby, and I wil call you Andy. Andrew is such a mouthful”.

In those few seconds, we exchanged conventional roles. She was in charge, not me. And I was in love with her from that moment.

If she knew what I was feeling, she didn’t let on. Lectures proved to be easy for her, and the work she submitted was of a good standard, though not exceptional. I started to look forward to any contact with her, though I was acutely aware that she would not be looking at me in the same way. After all, I was forty-six years old, and she was eighteen.

That made me twenty-eight years older than her. She was only five years younger than my army officer son.

At the end of that first academic year, she didn’t go home like all the others. I bumped into her one day when I was shopping in Castle Mall, and we went for coffee. I found myself inviting her to my house for dinner, and dismissed all the conventional alarm bells associated with that behaviour. Her reply stil rings in my head.

“That would be lovely, Andy. Text me your address, and I will get a taxi on Saturday night. I might have to stop over though, as it’s not easy to get a taxi home late at night”.

I have always been a decent cook, but I was so nervous that evening, I waited until she arrived and ordered a Chinese meal to be delivered. She was so naturally at ease, I felt as if I had grown up knowing her.

You can guess the rest. The wine flowed, I gazed at her as she told me her life story. When it was late, I showed her up to the small spare room, and the single bed I had put new clean bedding on earlier.

Then her hand was on my shoulder, and she spoke very softly into my left ear. “Oh I think we would both be more comfortable in your nice big double bed. Don’t you agree, Andy?”

Before I went to sleep I lay there listening to her breathing, without a care in the world.

She was already gone when I woke up the next morning. I didn’t see her in private again for over a week, and found myself looking at the crowds of students, hoping to spot her cropped hair. When we met again, she came straight to the point.

“Andy, I am struggling with the course work. If I can’t get on top of it soon, I will be dropping out and looking for a job”. I was about to reassure her, but she put up a hand to stop me speaking, and continued.

“You are going to have to help me”.

Benedict.

Gabby was excited when she came up to me outside the Campus Shop. “I have a viewing set for Saturday morning. A three-bed end of terrace in Colman Road. It is literally behind the uni, so you can fall out of bed into class”. I knew Colman Road was close. It was also a busy main road, so just as well none of owned a car. She waffled a bit.

“Obviously, it’s not very luxurious, and there’s no bath, only a shower room. But even the smallest bedroom is a good size, Ben. We don’t have to worry about gardening either, as it’s just got a patio. It’s set up for students. You know, fire blankets, smoke alarms, all that stuff. Can you be there at ten? Mikki is coming of course”. She handed me a photocopied agent’s sheet, bearing a photo of a rather sad-looking small house on it.

But what the hell, I would be sharing with Gabby. I nodded. “See you there then”.

The agent was a flash-looking guy with a creased suit and gelled hair. Although he was probably only about twenty-five, he tried to act older. According to Gabby, the smallest room with a single bed would be mine. Before Mikki arrived, she whispered conspiratorially to me. “Mikki needs a double bed at her size, and my room, well I found the house, and I’m paying the deposit”. The kitchen was tiny, and the bathroom led off of that, built onto the back of the old house.

By the time Mikki showed up, red-faced and breathless, Gabby had already agreed to the contract.

“Hi Mikki. It’s a great place, so I have taken it. I will pay the guy the deposit in cash. But as I have no credit history in Britain, you will have to sign the agreement, and put someone down as a guarantor”. Mikki looked as if the ground would swallow her up. I stepped in. “How about I sign, use my parents as a guarantor? Mikki can take charge of the key-meters for gas and electric, and sign up for the broadband and wi-fi?”

For that, I got a kiss from Gabby. A real one, right on the lips.

I just had to get my mum or dad to countersign the agreement and send it in, and we could be in within a week. When Gabby gave the guy a bundle of money, I was impressed. Four hundred for the first month’s rent, plus a five hundred security deposit, in case we wrecked the place. He said he would give Mikki the keys for the gas and electric meters once he had the paperwork, and then Gabby kissed us both, before leaving.

“Sorry guys. I am meeting Kim in the city. Staying at hers tonight”.

Mikki looked a bit lost, so I suggested we get a bus for the short trip into the city centre, and have an early lunch. She hesitated, and I had to add, “On me of course”. I was beginning to wonder if Mikki had any spare money at all. And if not, then why had she agreed to share the house?

Over a cheap lunch, sitting outside a cafe, I tried to get to know her better. “I’ll tell you something, Mikki, just between us. I told Gabby my name was Benedict, and she said she would shorten that to Ben. The truth is, my real name is Ben, and I only said Benedict because I though it sounded upper-class”.

That backfired, and she wasn’t amused. “I think you should have been honest from the start. I don’t like deception, and don’t agree with it. I thought you were realy nice, but that worries me”. Gabby had a much stronger hold over her than I had ever imagined. I finished my panini, and kept my mouth shut as we walked back to the campus.

My dad was really irritating on the phone. “Why you? Why couldn’t she sign the agreement?” I reminded him that I had just explained why. She had been living abroad, had no credit history, but had come up with nine hundred in cash for the deposit. Once he had finished moaning, I knew he would cave. “Okay, I wil sign it when it comes, and send it back first class post”.

We had a house, we were second years, and I was going to be living with Gabby.

Life was great, and couldn’t get better.

Michaela.

Although Gabby was the only friend I connected with, I didn’t see that much of her. When I found out she wasn’t going back abroad for the holidays, I naturally invited her to come and stay with me and mum. “It’s not as grand as you will be used to, Gabby, I will say that now. But it’s a comfortable house, and mum is a good cook”. She stroked my face, and that made me tingle.

“That’s okay, Mikki. I have people I know in England, and it will be good to catch up with them. Drink a lot of wine, sleep on a few sofas, you know how it goes. Besides, we will be sharing a house next year, and seeing each other all the time”.

I didn’t know how it goes at all. When you have no friends and struggle financially, you tend not to gad about sleeping on sofas and drinking wine. But I didn’t tell her that of course.

Once the academic year started, she didn’t mess around, finding a house to view that first weekend. I was already back in my job at the Campus Cafe, and I needed the money I had saved from that for food and clothes. I knew it was going to be hard to find the cash to share with her and Ben, but I had been looking forward to it since she first mentioned it. There was a few hundred in my Post Office account, left to me by my grandad whe he died. But I wanted to keep hold of that to learn how to drive when I graduated.

Extra hours in the cafe job were going to have to make up the shortfall, and I was just hoping I would get them this year.

That Saturday, I woke up late, and by the time I had got ready and walked to Colman Road, I was hot and exhausted from rushing. It was already a done deal, and I hadn’t even seen inside yet. Gabby handed over all that money as if it was nothing, and Ben saved my bacon by agreeing to sign the contract and get his parents as guarantors. My mum’s credit rating was so low, she barely qualified for a regular bank account. At least I got a nice double room, with a big bed.

Shame it looked out over the main road though.

Ben asked me to lunch after. I thought it sounded like a date, which threw me completely. I was tempted to tell him how I felt about Gabby, to put him off. But then he said something smart about Ben being his real name, and that he had lied to Gabby by saying it was Benedict. That gave me reason enough to act angry with him.

I still went for lunch though. I was hungry, and he said he would pay.

The paperwork came through within a week, and Gabby brought me the keys for the gas and electric. You had to take them to a certain shop or petrol station, and put money on them to charge them up, she told me. I didn’t let on that I knew everything about Key Meters. It was all my mum was allowed to have at home, after defaulting on her bills too many times. So I pretended to have just discovered how to operate them. “Oh, I see. Okay then, I will put thirty on the electric, and twenty on the gas. I doubt we will be using the cooker that often”.

The day of the move, Gabby had organised a big van, with a driver who helped us carry our stuff. At the house, he complained about not being allowed to park outside. Gabby put him straight. “We are not going to be that long. It’s mainly clothes and books. Come on, just put your hazard lights on. You can stay in the van if you’re afraid of getting a parking ticket”. Then she flashed him a smile, and he actually blushed.

Once everything was unceremoniously dumped inside, Gabby produced a bottle of champagne, and a pile of cash. “Tonight, we are going to celebrate our new home. An Indian takeaway, on me. And if we have to drink the champagne out of tea mugs, I don’t give a shit. Mikki, get the electric on, I need to put this in the fridge”.

Even now, I think of it as one of the best nights of my life. We sat around on the worn-out furniture, watched rubbish on the TV, and stuffed ourselves with Indian food, washed down with good champagne.

When Gabby went up to bed, she kissed me and Ben goodnight. Real kisses, on the lips.

Kimberley.

She must have spotted me, as less than two hundred yards further on, she turned and smiled. “Kim! I thought that was you. Do you live around here? I knew you were staying in the city during the break, and hoped to bump into you”. She walked up to me, her shopping bags clinking with what sounded like bottles. The kiss she planted was awkward, more on my mouth than my cheek.

Warm, and very soft.

Turning to point back along the street in the direction of the football stadium, I smiled back. “Yeah, those modern apartments on the riverside, just behind the football club. It’s only noisy on match days, then only for a couple of hours”. She moved across the pavement, so as not to block the way for those walking by.

“Why don’t I come up and see your place? I have wine, and you can order in a pizza later. I’ve been crashing on a friend’s sofa, so could do with a shower. That okay?”

I was nodding so hard, my hair covered my face.

We had only been in the flat for five minutes when she was starting to pull off her clothes, and ask me for a towel. Wearing just her panties, she called out to me from the bathroom. “Okay if I use a couple of those bath bombs, Kim? I didn’t realise you had a bath. I love a soak in a bath”. I had been trying not to look at her, but standing by the door as she started to run the taps, I felt myself blushing. “Of course, use what you like. There are clean towels on that rack there”.

Gabby was in the bath for ages, and had left the door open. Then she yelled out, and I heard the water moving. “Kim, bring me in a glass of wine, there’s a love. There are three bottles of red plonk in one of my shopping bags. They are screw-top, no need for a corkscrew”. I poured the wine into a glass, and reached into the bathroom to hand it to her. But she wasn’t having that.

“Come in and talk to me. Put the toilet lid down and sit on that”. I wasn’t used to looking at anyone else naked, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her as I sat there, with no idea what to talk about. I needn’t have worried, as she did all the talking anyway.

“You not having wine? Come on, Kim. Don’t make me drink alone”. I explained that I didn’t drink alcohol, and she grinned. “Just fill the glass halfway, and then top it up with mineral water. It will be just like drinking flavoured water. Go on”. I went back in sipping the drink, which tasted sour. But I smiled because I wanted her to like me. And I wanted to be just like her too.

When she let the water out and stood up to dry herself, I didn’t turn away. I watched her over the rim of my wine glass, my stomach turning somersaults. She fixed the towel around under her arms, and grabbed her drink. “I’m not putting those clothes back on, so I’ll just keep this towel around me. Let’s go and sit in the living room, and we can choose what pizzas we want.

Gabby ate the pizza as if she had never seen food before. By the time she had finished it, she had opened a second bottle of wine, and insisted I had another drink. “Don’t water it down so much, Kim. It will taste better that way”. When she spotted that I had only eaten a third of my boringly plain pizza, she leaned forward. “You not eating that? Okay, I’ll have it. Shame to waste it”.

Later on, I was sleepy, and thought it must be the wine. I felt good though, and had never been so relaxed. “Gabby, this is only a one-bedroom flat. So I will sleep on the sofa, and you can have my bed”. She gulped down the last of her drink, shaking her head. “Nonsense, we can both share your bed. Girls together, and all that”. She was in bed when I came in from the bathroom. I was wearing a long t-shirt, and could feel myself trembling, wondering if something was going to happen.

Wishing something was going to happen.

And it did. And it was more wonderful than I could ever possibly have imagined. Lying in the dark after, she spoke softly.

“Kim honey, my parents have forgotten to send me the deposit money for the house we are renting. Can you lend me a couple of grand until it arrives?”

I said yes. Of course I did.

Andrew.

Once she had said she needed help, I knew I was in trouble. Not that it was unknown for lecturers to have relationships with students, but it was frowned upon. And all she needed to do was to say that I had coerced her into having sex, and my career was doomed. After all, I had invited her to my home. She would know the layout of my house in detail, and even worse, be able to describe every part of my naked body.

Even as I kicked myself for the stupidity, and knew I had been played by a teenage expert, I couldn’t get her out of my mind.

She was like some kind of feminine heroin, fatally addictive.

So of course I did what she asked, and by mid-term I was not just helping her, I was actually typing out the course work for her, which she signed and handed back as if it was her own. Naturally, it was of a high standard, though it took me some time to re-write into a form that a student would submit.

She got high marks from me too, the highest. I knew the quality of the work would stand up to scrutiny, so I wasn’t concerned.

My reward was in the form of sexual breadcrumbs. Fleeting moments with my office door locked, leaving me wanting more and more. As much as I hated her for manipulating me, I loved her more than life itself, and would have thrown it all away for her with one word.

Everything I had.

If the other students were jealous of her success, I neither knew nor cared. Truth be told, I would have given her anything for one more night in my bed. I was solid proof that a good education doesn’t necessarily make you intelligent. And it certainly fails to make you aware of the ways of the world. At least in my case.

Many evenings, I would sit alone. Not bothering with food, drinking too much wine, and wishing she was there next to me. I had imagined my wife and son reading the headlines in the newspapers if Gabby ever went public. They would nod their heads, with that justification that they had been right about me all along.

Then one night, a taxi arrived outside my house. Something unusual in my village at night.

She swept in, fragrant and confident. “Please pay the taxi, Andy. I find myself temporarily short of funds”. There was wine, and another takeaway meal delivered late. Then there was my bed, and that same joy I had been savouring in my mind for weeks. The bill for that came the next morning. Over coffee, as she waited for the taxi I had ordered and paid for, she spoke very casually. Not a question, a done deal.

Andy sweetheart, I really need to shine. I have to be top in my set, get an outstanding degree. I am counting on you to do that for me, my love”.

Like a love-struck idiot, I nodded. “Leave it to me, Gabby. You will get a double-first.” I didn’t even know if I could make that happen, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. If I kept up the high standard, there was no real reason why that shouldn’t happen.

As she grabbed her things to be ready for the arrival of the taxi, she spoke in a matter of fact way. “Let me have some cash, honey. Save me going to the bank machine. A hundred should do it”. I only had seventy in my wallet, and she took that with a shrug. “Okay, I suppose that will have be enough”.

As the cab drove away, I tried to be angry with myself. I was writing up her course work, paying for her taxis, and now giving her cash. I hadn’t said a single word that even remotely sounded as if I was standing up for myself. I had wanted to ask her what I meant to her. If I meant anything to her at all.

But I was too scared to hear her answer.

When we were next alone at the uni, I tried to be chatty, asking her how the move had gone, and what she thought of the house. How was she getting on with her house-mates. All fair questions, and very normal. Or so I thought. She was not amused.

“Why all the questions? You are getting very clingy, Andy. I don’t like clingy people”.

She left in a huff, and my voice sounded pathetic as I called after her.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that”.

Benedict.

The thing about sharing with Gabby was that she was hardly ever there. Unlike me and Mikki, she didn’t seem to have to do much studying, and we had never seen her print off any course work to hand in. Then considering she supposedly had few other friends at uni, she managed to find lots of places to crash overnight.

One good thing about her absences was that Mikki and I got to know each other better, and became more relaxed in each other’s company. I saw a different side of her, vulnerable, socially awkward, and with a lot of goodness and kindness to give to others.

In many ways, she was like a female version of me.

Gabby soon started to skip paying what she owed us too. Her monthly payment for her share of the rent to me was often late, and sometimes didn’t appear at all. That meant me dipping into my student loan to make up the difference, as I really didn’t want them to contact my dad, who was guarantor.

And every time Mikki asked her for her share of the money put on the Key Meters, she brushed it off with the same excuse. “Look, you know my parents are paying my fees, I don’t have a student loan. I depend on them sending the money from abroad, and they take their good time about doing that. Once it comes through, you know I will repay you”.

With hindsight, I appreciate we should have known. We should have stopped it all earlier. But the crazy love we both felt for Gabby clouded our judgement. Besides, you know what they say about hindsight. ‘In hindsight everything is much clearer.’ Looking back now, those evenings with Mikki were mostly spent talking about Gabby. We would start by complaining about her, then both end up defending and excusing her.

Maybe we didn’t want to face our own weaknesses, or perhaps it was because we both truly loved her. We will never know now.

In the classes and lectures, she was shining. The rest of us could only look on in admiration as her work got better and better. More insightful, almost breathtaking in its passion and form. There didn’t seem to be one aspect of the course that she wasn’t on top of, and that she understood with far more clarity than the rest of us. Mikki even suggested she could write a book on modern history, and it would be a best seller.

Mikki got a kiss on the lips for that comment, a really big and soft one.

But she never did get the fifteen pounds Gabby owed her for that month’s gas and electric bills.

By the start of our third and final year, Gabby had repaid small amounts of what she owed both of us. She also spent more time at the Colman Road house in the evenings. Mikki was working almost full-time in the Campus Cafe, and had stopped bothering to ask Gabby for the Key Meter Money. When Gabby spent evenings with us, our eyes lit up, we smiled, and felt contented.

She was funny, she was clever. She brought wine and beer, and sometimes quite exotic food that she tried to cook. Not always successfully. But we ate it anyway, just happy that she was there with us.

Then one weekend, she stayed away again. The atmosphere in the house was flat. Mikki seemed depressed, so I comforted her. Before I really knew what was happening, we were together in her room, making the most of her double bed. Every fantasy both of us had ever envisioned with Gabby was brought to life between us that night. Both virgins at the time, both embarrassed and awkward about our bodies, it took a second night of the same until we were happy to be comfortable around each other.

Suddenly, I had a sexual partner in my life. And it wasn’t Gabby.

It got to the stage when we didn’t actually want Gabby to come home. If she was out, we were together. I didn’t ask Gabby about the money she owed me, and Mikki stopped mentioning the outstanding amount due for gas and electric at all.

Yes, we struggled to pay it all, but I became used to walking Mikki home after her shifts at the cafe, both hoping Gabby would be out again.

By the time the year was coming to an end, we were sharing Mikki’s room, and paying all the bills between us. When Mikki asked me to go home with her to meet her mother, I readily agreed.

And when I finally got to stay at my parents’ place for a week or so, I told them I had a girlfriend.

Michaela.

Gabby was always out. It started to seem pointless to me to share a house with her. Sometimes she would be in all day, but then I was usually working at the cafe, so missed her. I started to think she was avoiding me, but Ben hardly saw her either.

Both of us were rinsing our bank accounts to keep things going, with little help from her. Ben always gave me his share of the key meter money, but he confided in me that Gabby was almost never paying her rent money into his account, and he was using his study loan to pay the difference.

It was making me depressed, but I started to appreciate Ben a lot more. He was always around, always doing the right thing without complaint, and only talking when he knew I needed to talk.

Then one night, we ended up in bed together. I doubt either of us know exactly how that happened, but it was better than I had expected. Tender, caring, and affectionate is how I always remember that night. Then after that, it seemed natural. Rightly or wrongly, I took it that we were together, especially as Ben always slept in my bed when Gabby failed to show up.

It wasn’t too long before we both stopped asking her for money. Our time at uni was drawing to a close, we had each other, and we could put Gabby down to a bad experience, and move on. Pretty much all that was left to do was to complete out final course work, give notice to leave the house and pack our things. Then we would come back to get our degrees at the formal graduation ceremony later.

At that point, Gabby went missing.

Not just failing to show up at the house, really missing. Not attending class, nobody had seen or heard from her, and when it dragged into two days, everyone started to get worried. I spoke to Ben late on that second night, and he looked serious.

“We have to go to the police, Mikki. They report someone missing after twenty-four hours, and it has now been twice that since she showed up anywhere”. We agreed to go to the police station the next morning, then back into uni to tell Mister Donaldson that we had filed a report.

To their credit, the police took us seriously. After all, female students are often targeted by sex attackers or weirdos, and not showing up for class was unusual for Gabby. We gave them a list of the people we knew she sometimes hung out with, and they took a description of her, with a note of what we had last seen her wearing. Then Ben gave them the most recent photo we had from his phone, taken a week earlier.

The man at the desk gave us a reference number, and told us a detective would be in touch soon.

When we got to uni, we went to see Mister Donaldson, but he was busy. So we went to the main office and told the lady in charge about the report. Ben suggested she give Gabby’s parents a ring, to make sure she hadn’t flown home, and she nodded. “Leave it with me. I will start to contact everyone now, including her tutor”. Then we asked around. Most people knew Gabby, even if they were on a different course. She was not the sort of young woman you could forget.

Still, nobody claimed to have seen her, until we ran across Kimberley and asked her. She looked embarrassed. “Gabby? Yeah, she stayed over at my place three nights back. Then she wanted to use my credit card to book a flight. She was a bit upset. I think she had to fly home. Something to do with her family”. Ben phoned the police and updated them with that information. Someone he spoke to said they would check airport departures.

Back at the house that evening when I got in from work, Ben was making a list, trying to think of anyone Gabby had mentioned in the past, and where she might have gone. At the end of the ten o’clock news, the local news came on for our area. They showed Ben’s photo of Gabby, with the headline ‘Concern for missing student’. There was a number to call for anyone with information, and a brief outline of what she might have been wearing. They used her full name, Gabrielle Parker.

The next day, the whole thing became a media circus.

Benedict and Michaela.

We stayed at home that day. There was a van outside with a film crew for the local news, and a couple of reporters holding microphones. They knocked on the door a few times, but we stayed in bed and didn’t answer. Then someone rang my mobile, and I let it go to answerphone. Mikki looked at me, her hair crumpled, and worry on her face.

“You should listen to the message, Ben. It might be about Gabby. Might even be her”.

It was the police, a detective telling me he would be there in an hour, and wanted us to be there to let him in. When he arrived, flanked by two others, the journalists were filming me as I opened the door, and shouting questions that I didn’t take in. The policeman looked tired, as if he had seen too much and wanted to be in any other job but this one.

“I’m Detective Sergeant Wright. My colleagues here would like to search Gabriella’s room while I speak to you and Miss Petersen”. When I had closed the door, Mikki showed the men where Gabby’s room was, and the sergeant accepted my offer to sit down.

“I should tell you now that there has been no trace of Miss Parker, after an exhaustive search. The lead you gave us about plane tickets didn’t work out either. She has not flown out of the country, at least not with any ticket bought using her name, or the name Kimberley Lau. Some CCTV has been searched through, and showed nobody with such a distinctive hairstyle. So if she is moving around anywhere, her head has undoubtedly been covered with a hat of some kind, or perhaps a wig”.

Without her trademark crop, Gabby could easily look like any other young woman of her age in a crowd. I had a feeling the police had their work cut out. Mikki came back downstairs, and sat down next to me on the sofa.

“They want to take Gabby’s laptop and some of her notebooks. Her address book and phone are not there though. They want her hairbrush too, Ben”. The sergeant nodded. “Yes the brush is so we have a sample of her DNA. The laptop and notebooks may reveal if she was in regular contact with anyone she may have met before she went missing. We have to cover all the eventualities, I’m afraid. There will be another television appeal once we can get her mother up to Norwich”.

That comment confused me. “Has her mother already arrived from abroad then? Is her dad in the country too?” He looked confused. “Abroad?” Her mother lives in London, in the borough of Newham. She is currently in hospital after collapsing with an alcohol-related disease. As far as I am aware, there is no father on the scene”. Mikki was as gobsmacked as I was, and after looking at me with her eyebrows raised, she turned to the policeman.

“Are you sure you got that right, sergeant? I mean, Gabby’s family live abroad somewhere. She was brought up in other countries, and didn’t return to England until it was time to start uni. Everyone knows that. I think you must have the wrong contact details”. He checked his notes. “No, we have the correct details. Her mother has not seen her for some years. Gabrielle has been living with her brother in West London, and he has confirmed that her mother is the next of kin. I spoke to him myself”.

Mikki didn’t let it go.

“But she lived all over. Japan, Australia, Singapore. And her brother is dead, killed in an accident on the island of Bali. You must have the wrong information, you must”.

He shook his head. “I have spoken to her brother, as I said. Gabrielle lived in his house with his wife and daughter until she left to come to university in Norwich. She was with his family from the age of thirteen, when a court decided that her alcoholic mother was unfit to care for her”.

As he spoke, I was starting to realise he was right. There had always been something too good to be true about Gabby, and now that truth was coming out, it all began to make sense. I leaned forward, and asked him a serious question.

“Have you spoken to Kimberley Lau, sergeant? I think she could be most helpful”. Then Mikki spoke up.

“Talk to the tutor too, Mister Donaldson. I think they were close. If you know what I mean”.

Detective Sergeant Clive Wright was standing in front of a large whiteboard, addressing the assembled officers sitting on chairs in the briefing room. To his left, his boss stood with her back to the closed door of the room, watching him intently.

It wasn’t so much that Clive resented having a female Inspector in charge of him, but he would have preferred it if she hadn’t been sixteen years younger than him, and so straight it was as if she had a metal rod up her arse.

“Okay, listen up!” Once he had the attention of the ten cops in the room, he pointed at the top photo stuck to the whiteboard.

“Gabrielle Louise Parker. Almost twenty-one, and a student at the UEA. She has now been missing for four days, and has shown no financial or telephonic activity during that time. Nobody she knows has seen or heard from her, and there was no suggestion that she was visiting anyone, or taking a trip somewhere. We now have to seriously consider she may have been abducted, so we are jacking-up the current missing persons investigation into a nationwide search”.

Turning back to the board, he pointed in turn at the other photos.

“Her housemates, Ben Halliday and Michaela Petersen. They reported her missing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know more about what happened. Kimberley Lau, a uni friend who lives in the city. She gave Gabrielle her credit card details, supposedly to book a flight. We have since discovered that seven thousand pounds was taken off the credit card and transferred to a bank account in the name of Gabrielle Parker. Moments later, that was transferred to different account in the name of Louise Parker, which is now empty. Gabby possibly stole that money, or Kimberley did the transfers to make her look guilty. Either way, Kimberley has a motive”.

Inspector Duggan stepped forward and pointed at the board. “Who’s the older guy, Clive?” Trying not to look exasperated at the interruption, he answered.

“I was getting to him, ma’am. Andrew Donaldson, a history lecturer and the tutor for the set containing the other four mentioned. According to Michaela Petersen, he was having a sexual relationship with Gabrielle. We went to see him last night, and at first he denied it. Then when I said we had a sample of Gabrielle’s DNA and could swab his whole house, he broke down and admitted an affair. It’s not illegal of course, but he acted like we were going to lock him up, and throw away the key. He agreed to a search of his house and property, and we found nothing of interest”.

Clive stopped to pull his trousers up before continuing. He had lost a full size around his waist, and wasn’t even trying to diet.

“So matey-boy is definitely a suspect, as he is the only one we know for sure was shagging her”. He didn’t see his boss wince at the crude word. Clive was old school, and as far as Duggan was concerned, he was well past his use-by date.

“So, the next thing we do is to get all of them in for interviews under caution. They can have a solicitor in with them of course, but I tend to think none of them will bother. Gabrielle’s photo and description has been circulated to other forces nationally, and also to Border Force, the National Crime Agency, and Interpol. We have also issued an international arrest warrant for her. If she shows up anywhere, she can be detained on the credit card fraud. Then at least we will know she’s alive. Her mum is still in hospital with DTs, so no good her doing an appeal. Her brother has agreed to come up from London, and we will do the appeal on BBC Look East tomorrow evening at six-thirty”.

Duggan stepped forward again.

“I think I should be on that, Clive. You know, senior officer and all that. I will take any questions and make the appeal on behalf of the force”. Clive nodded. He had expected as much. Then she took over the end of the briefing.

“Right, thank you, Clive. Good work so far everyone, now let’s get to it and find this girl. Alive if possible, or her body if not”.

Steve James had a nose for a story. He had worked for one of the serious papers when he started out, but the lure of better money had drawn him to the biggest-selling tabloid less than five years later. He made a name for himself there, always got the byline.

There was no low he wouldn’t stoop to in his lust for a lurid scoop. He would go through rubbish bins, bribe people, blackmail people, scan phone signals and online activity, and had even been known to commit a burglary looking for hidden photographs.

Nobody liked him, and he didn’t care.

He got the job done, sold the papers, and received the fat bonus cheques. He had slept with ugly women twice his age to get the dirt on someone, and on one occasion had even had sex with a man so he could write about the unfortunate guy and his ‘Gay secret life’. He was a hack at best, journalistic pond life at worst.

Four marriages later, and living in a run-down bedsit in Stockwell, he had finally fallen foul of one of the owners of the newsgroup that owned his paper, after revealing that the man’s addict daughter was selling herself to buy crack.

To nail the story, he photographed himself having sex with her for her drug money. Although he didn’t show his face, the editor knew full well it was him, and he got his marching orders. Time to move to the provinces, where he could exchange the bedsit for a decent one-bed garden flat in Norwich, and where the editor of the local paper didn’t know that much about his reputation.

Plus now they were online too, and posted videos. Steve discovered a talent for being in front of the camera.

Trouble was, it was as dull as dishwater. Council meetings, road safety on the A47, and standing doing a talking head about how snow was affecting the traffic while he froze his plums off in the dark, to be live on the website.

Schools closed when the heating broke down, old ladies protesting about changes in the pension laws, with only the occasional stabbing or dead body in the river to liven things up.

One good thing was that he had built contacts. Ther was hardly anyone working in the business that he didn’t know. Okay, they didn’t like him, and didn’t want to have anything to do with him. But without exception, he had some dirt stored away on all of them, no matter how dusty and ancient that skeleton in their closet was. So when the need arose, he could make a call. Coppers, Council officials, the mayor, anyone he came across seemed to either owe him a favour, or be afraid of being exposed.

The real icing on the cake was his new girlfriend. He had met her on a work leaving do, during a night out in the city. She was with a hen party, and they were all pissed as farts. Steve and two others had copped off with the three older women in the group, and to his surprise, Sarah had come back for more. She was a fat girl with a nice face, just his type. Not too full of herself, and short a boyfriend for years. She didn’t care about the ten year age gap, and after six months, she had readily agreed to move in with him.

The best bit about Sarah was that she talked a lot. Where her job was concerned, that was pure gold.

She worked as a 999 call-taker at Police Headquarters in Wymondham. Twelve hour shifts, four days a week. And she loved to tell Steve about the calls she received, or the ongoing investigations that she was asked to do record checks for. If it ever occurred to her that he would make use of that information, she never showed any indication of that. Even when things she told him supposedly in confidence appeared in the newspaper the following day.

If there was one thing Steve really loved to have, it was a stupid girlfriend. Especially one who had three days off to clean the flat, do the shopping, and make sure he was well-served with regular sex. If she was in a mood, he only had to gee her up with his London accent, and she would melt. “Stevie, I loves your accent, I really does”.

Now she had come home with a potentially great story. A missing girl known for putting it about with men and women. Plenty of suspects who had been checked out, money that had been swindled, and the best part of any story, sex.

He was on it like a car bonnet.

Steve was all over that story like a rash. Between his contacts in the police, and his girlfriend’s job, he was able to find out the names and addresses of everyone connected to Gabby and her disappearance. He already knew this was going to be bigger than a regional newspaper, so made a call to someone he knew in London to sell the exclusive story to a popular daily tabloid.

Not the one he had worked for previously of course, his bridges were burned there.

Telling his editor he had a lead, to excuse his absence from the newsroom, he worked more or less for himself from then on. Giving away a byline so as not to reveal his idenitity, he drip-fed his sensationalist coverage to the London tabloid, delighted to see it make national news. It was even quoted on the TV news channels, and if he kept it up, he just knew he would be back in the big time. The headlines began to have traction.

“University Tutor In Love Triangle”
“Bisexual Seductress Goes Missing”
“Where Is The Mysterious Sex-Siren Gabby?”
“Gabby’s Alcohol Addicted Mum’s Criminal Past”.

In less than a week, Andrew Donaldson’s career was in ruins. Gabby’s mum was hounded by the press waiting ouside the hospital, and Kimbeley Lau was shut away in her riverside flat, terrified of being named and her parents finding out. Ben and Mikki thought they had escaped notoriety, until Steve turned up at the house and they refused to talk to him. The next day, they were named in the national tabloid, and the toe-curling headline screamed “Shared House Of Sex. What Went On There?”

Then Kimberley’s world ended as a new headline was reviewed on a TV channel. “Lesbian Lover Pays For Gabby’s Disappearance. Why?” She was named too, and there was a zoomed-in photo of her flat.

At the local newspaper, Steve’s editor had seen enough, and called him in to discuss his future. But Steve resigned over the phone, telling the man to shove his job. That evening, Sarah packed her stuff and moved back to her mum’s. The penny had finally dropped, and she was also under investigation at work.

As far as Steve was concerned, he didn’t care in the least. He was heading for success again, and would soon be back in London.

For the police investigating, Steve’s gutter journalism was making life hard. Inspector Duggan was on the warpath, trying to find out who was leaking information. Tracing some of the computer checks back to an operator at headquarters, they suspended the woman involved, pending investigation and possible criminal charges. But for some reason, Duggan became convinced that Clive Wright was the one giving stuff to the press, and she set about looking into his life without letting him know of her suspicions.

While all this was going on, there was still not one solid lead about where Gabby might be.

To get her out of the limelight, Kimberley’s mum and dad came to get her. There was to be no graduation ceremony for her, she could get her degree in the post for all they cared. And they were not interested in bringing charges against Gabby for the missing money, or the two thousand she had borrowed previously. Mr Lau would swallow that loss, anything to avoid bringing more shame on his family.

The day after she got home, Kim stopped eating again.

Losing Sarah’s inside information was annoying for Steve, but he already knew enough to make up the rest, and in the spirit of true trash journalism, he set about inventing anything to keep the story going. Kim’s flat was described as a ‘Lesbian Love-Nest’, and Andrew’s house as ‘The Cottage Of Sin’. With people in his village shunning him, and also being asked to leave his job voluntarily or be sacked, Andrew was in hiding in a rented caravan at Caister, on the east coast of the county.

After evaluating all his remaining options, he concluded that he was going to have to work abroad, Once the dust settled, and the police allowed him to leave the country.

Because the credit card company was still happy to have the charges against Gabby outstanding, the warrant for her arrest held. Public sightings of her following the appeal were still coming in thick and fast. Any female under thirty with cropped hair was in the frame, and dozens of them had been questioned by police forces all over Britain.

Including a twenty-eight year old woman who had lost her hair following chemotherapy.

With Steve’s nonsense keeping the story on page two at least, Clive was sitting in the office one afternoon when Inspector Duggan arrived, looking like a bulldog chewing a wasp.

“Sarge, I’m taking you off the Parker case, effective immediately”.

Benedict.

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.

Douglas.

Steve replied to the text immediately, and was rewarded with a postcode, a name, and a short message.

PH6 2JZ. I’M DOUGLAS. BRING CASH. COME THURSDAY. SIX PM. CAR PARK.

Looking up the postcode, he found it referred to Crieff, in Scotland. The name of the place was Riverside Log Cabins. That was a drive of over four hundred miles, taking close to eight hours, and the cabins were literally in the middle of nowhere. His first thought was to question if he needed to pay Douglas at all. The Scottish bloke had given away the location, so if he just went there and hung around, he was sure to spot Gabby eventually.

Then again, she might be somewhere else entirely. So Steve had to go for it, and give this idiot the cash he had asked for if it came to it. He replied that he would be there, and left it at that.

Douglas grinned when he saw the text. That reporter had published his phone number in the newspaper, offering a cash reward for information about the missing girl. He had noticed her right off, when she turned up in a taxi and asked to rent a lodge. He had been sweeping up as usual, but listened in as she spoke to Mister MacIntyre. Douglas like to watch the news, and he liked taking photographs too. Especially of the women who used the hot tubs that came with the lodges. The big lens on his camera had cost him more than a month’s wages, second-hand.

But it had been so worth the expense.

His mum had been angry. “Dougie, you are a general hand up there. Why do you want to be spending so much money on cameras and such like?” He had just ignored her. One day it would come good, and not just the topless ladies. There would be something special. And now there was.

The five hundred was just the start. Douglas had lots of photos of the girl. Topless in the hot tub. Naked as she dropped her dressing-gown to get in it. Sitting on the decking in skimpy underwear. He would tell this London reporter he could buy each one for fifty pounds. If he bought the ten good ones, that would be a thousand in total. More than he took home for a month at work.

With that much extra cash, he could buy the camera he really wanted. Okay, it would be second hand. But what a camera.

Steve did the drive in one day, only stopping for petrol and a coffee. He was there just after five, sitting in his car in the site car park, waiting to be approached. In the back was a holdall, with enough clean clothes to last him four days. He had no accommodation booked anywhere. If it came to it, he would drive down some country lane and sleep in his car.

The fat kid was wearing a logo-emblazoned polo shirt that was far too tight. His hair fell over his eyes, which were made small by the fat on his face. His legs rubbed together in the joggers as he walked to the car. Steve smiled, This was Douglas, one hundred percent. Opening the window, he kicked things off.

“You Douglas? Well you get no money until I know it’s her. That’s standard, so don’t argue or I drive home. Get in the car.”

Watching as he heaved his bulk into the passenger seat, Steve relaxed. This was going to be easy. “So, big-boy, what you got for me?”

Reaching for his phone, Douglas showed the photos, including the nudes. “This is definitely her, you know, Gabrielle. Look, here she is topless, and here nude, but the photos are fifty quid each, on top of the five hundred you owe me. She’s in Cabin Six. That one, straight in front of us”. Steve felt delight rush over him. The idiot had given it all away for sod all. He shook his head. “Okay, fat boy. Piss off out my car and go home to mummy. I’m not interested. I have been driving since before breakfast, and I’m in a shitty mood, believe me.”

Confused, Douglas didn’t know what to do. But this man was very aggressive, and he wasn’t used to that. Plus he was older, and looked very angry.

So he got out of the car, and went to get his bike to ride home on.

Gabrielle Louise Parker.

As he walked across to the cabin, the door opened and a young woman walked out, smoking a cigarette. Steve straightened up, adopting his most determined stance. She shook her head, and smiled at him.

“You took your time mate! I was expecting you to show up at least a week ago. I gave that fat boy enough chances to take photos of me, but he dragged his heels getting in touch with you. Come in, and we can have a drink”.

It was not often that Steve was caught on the back foot, but he stopped walking and found himself nodding like some dumb bloke. Then he followed her in through the open door and closed it behind him. The brown wig had gone, and the cropped hair hadn’t grown back that much. Her mouth still looked so inviting, and the gentle curves under her clothes made him fully aware why so many people had fallen under her spell.

He was not about to join them, that was for sure.

“Vodka alright? It’s all I got anyway, so take it or leave it”. Steve reached out and took the glass. He still hadn’t spoken, hardly able to get over the shock that she had been expecting him.

“Sit yourself down mate. You’ve had a long drive. Then I will tell you what’s gonna happen”. Her accent was harsh, a sure sign that she had gone back to her roots in London, and was no longer adopting that international unspecified English that people had described to him. “I got a microwave spaghetti thing if you’re hungry?” Steve was famished, but shook his head. He wanted to get on with it. So he let her talk.

“Tomorrow, we are going to take your car and go to Perth. That’s the nearest big place worth seeing anyway. I have the name of a solicitor there, and I’m sure he will be capable of drawing up a legally-binding contract for us both to sign. There are two spare rooms in this dump, so you can kip down in either of them when you want to. You will get twenty percent, non-negiotiable. I’m not talking about some crappy paper headline either. This will be a book, maybe a film, at least a mini-series on the telly. You can use all your contacts to tell my story. You are going to make me famous, but not just as the girl who disappeared from university”.

Steve downed half the vodka, and felt it warm him up. Gabby took his silence as agreement, and carried on talking.

“Took me six years to plan this. I had it in mind since I was hardly fifteen. People get famous for doing shit these days, and I have done stuff that will sell books and make people interested in me, you wait and see. You want that spaghetti thing or what?” He knew he had to eat, so nodded. She brought it back still in the container, resting on a tea plate with a fork to eat it with.

As he ate, trying not to gulp it down, Gabby carried on.

“You tape it all, I won’t keep anything back. Then you find someone to write it up, just as I told it. You can add stuff about those losers at uni later, to round it off nicely like. Then tout it around your contacts. I want a real book deal with an advance, and all the options on everything from film rights, to DVD sales, and any merchandise. I want a say in who plays me in the film or on telly, and some control over the script, so they don’t make me out to be nuffin I ain’t. Okay?”

Swallowing a mouthful of the chicken carbonara, he nodded again. Christ, this girl was the real deal, and no mistake.

“How much did the fat boy want for the address?” Steve held up five fingers as he chewed. “Five hundred, what a mug. Bet you gave him nuffin anyway. Good. We can use that cash to pay the solicitor. I need to hang on to what’s left of Kim’s money, and I need to extend the stay here so we can get to work. You might have to buy some clean underwear in Perth tomorrow, ’cause we ain’t going nowhere until it’s all signed and sealed”.

That night as he tried to get to sleep on the single bed in the tiny spare room, Steve was smiling.

She was his kind of woman.

On the way to Perth the next morning, Steve managed to get Gabby to increase his share to twenty-five percent. But when she looked out of the window and smiled, he had the feeling he had only got what she had intended to give him from the start.

The solicitor was good at his job. He created a front company, with Gabby shown as holding three-quarters controlling interest, and Steve the rest. Gabby named it Parker Productions, and registered the name separately. It was all registered in Scotland, so nobody snooping around in London or Norwich would get wind of anything. They both signed in front of witnesses, and received their own copies in large brown envelopes. Steve paid the bill in cash, including the company registration fee.

On the way back to Crieff, they stopped at a supermarket to stock up for the rest of the week, and Steve bought some casual clothes and that underwear Gabby had mentioned.

After an early dinner, Gabby lit a cigarette and sat back on the only comfortable chair in the cabin. “Right then. Fire up your recorder, and let’s get started”. Steve switched on the digital voice recorder, opened an A4 notebook he had bought, and grabbed a pen to make notes as she started talking.

“So try to imagine. You don’t know your dad, and your mum doesn’t even remember who he is. Your brother is fourteen years older than you, and has a different dad. Your mum is drunk all the time. I have never seen her sober. Not once. I am more or less brought up by my brother. He does the washing, the shopping, and gives me my meals. When I am old enough, he takes me to school, and I have to wait at a strange woman’s house until he collects me. The electric and gas keep getting cut off because mum don’t pay the bills on time. So I mostly eat sandwiches, and sleep in my brother’s bed to keep warm.”

Steve is scribbling away, and she waits until he stops.

“Then I am seven years old. My brother is twenty-one, and has been working as a carpenter since he was sixteen. He’s had enough. He wants to get out, to get away. He is sick of having to look after me, sick of the men who mum lets into the flat every night, and sick of not getting a decent night’s sleep. He tells me he is leaving. He has met a girl, and they are going to move out of London. He’s found a job, and I have to look after myself from now on. He tells me how to get the money for food from her purse when she is drunk, and shows me how to take the key meters to the shop so I don’t run out of gas and electric. I should also keep money hidden to buy food for myself on the way home from school. The next day, he’s gone”.

She stopped to light a cigarette, and pour herself a good shot of vodka.

“Three months off my eighth birthday, and I am supposed to be the lady of the house. Use the washing machine, iron my clothes that need it, get myself up for school, and eat something on the way home so I’m not left hungry later. When I feel ill, no point telling mum. She’s drunk, or nasty ’cause she ain’t got no booze in. She’s waiting for one of her blokes to bring the drink, then I have to go and hide in my room or she will shag the geezer in front of me. Not exactly a normal life so far, eh? But it gets much worse, you wait and see”.

Over the years, Steve had heard so many similar sob-stories, this was nothing new to him. But he could tell from Gabby’s tone of voice that this back story was important to her, so he just nodded and carried on making notes.

“The one saving grace for me was that I was actually clever. I found school easy, and got good reports. Not that mum ever went to a parent’s evening of course, she would always say she was ill, or having to work. And she never worked, as long as I knew her. The first time one of her blokes came into my room, I was petrified. I think I was ten, it was definitely before I went to secondary school, I know that. I didn’t scream or fight him when he started touching me, I knew mum wouldn’t help me if I did. Afterwards, he gave me a ten-pound note and said I was a good girl. But then mum came into the room and took the tenner off me, heading out to the shop to buy booze with it”.

For a while, she stopped talking and stared into space, like she was remembering something.

“Then there was a bloke in my room most nights. Sometimes, mum was too drunk to steal the money so I kept it. That was how I paid for my uniform when I went to the big school”.

This was meat and drink for Steve. The more Gabby talked, the better he liked what he heard. The alcoholic mum pimping her out for a bottle of vodka, a child left alone to fend for herself. He may have heard it all before, but added to what happened more recently, he knew he could turn the whole thing into a tear-jerker of a soap opera, and no mistake. They stayed up late that night, as Gabby carried on talking.

“The only time I could shake my mum out of it was when I had to be interviewed for acceptance at my new school. A parent had to accompany me, or questions would have been asked. I didn’t want to end up in a Children’s Home. No matter how shit my life was at home, at least I had some control. Being shut up in a home was not on my agenda. I told mum that if she didn’t shape up and come with me, they might arrest her for child neglect and take away her social security money. She looked a complete mess on the day, and had to hold my arm to stay upright, but she was able to nod in the right places, and remembered to say thank you to the head teacher as we left.
On the way home, I made her buy me some panty pads, as I had started my period while we were at the school for the interview.
I only knew about periods from other girls talking, mum had never even mentioned it. She bought me one packet, and used the rest of the money to buy a half-bottle of vodka. That night I had to eat three bags of crisps for dinner. I had hidden them under my bed”.

Trying to imagine how bad her mum must have looked almost made Steve grin, but he suppressed it. Gabby sounded genuinely upset.

“I got into the school of my choice because I was clever, and they liked to have bright pupils. Then like I said, I used the money from the blokes to buy the new uniform. I also learned a good trick, which was to tell the blokes who came into my room that I had my period. That stopped most of them, but not all.
When they saw I wasn’t taking any packed lunch into school, they arranged for me to get free school meals. I forged my mum’s signature on the form, and then at least I was able to start eating properly.
I made a couple of friends too, and managed to persuade one girl’s mum to come to the dentist with me. Over that first year, I got my teeth sorted out properly for the first time. Despite my age, I was more like someone much older. I had determination, and started to develop courage too. When the blokes came into my room after that, I would tell them twenty quid or nothing, and I would tell some teacher at school about them if they said no. It wasn’t long before I was saving a hundred a week, and eating better too. I managed to do that without me mum finding out, but I sometimes had to give her some cash for drink”.

Steve had a question. “What about your brother? Did you see anything of him?” She shrugged.

“He rang the house phone one night and asked how I was. My twelfth birthday was coming up, so I hadn’t seen him for four years. I answered it because mum was out cold. I was very off with him, but he gave me his number and address, told me not to tell mum anything, then said he would send me some money in a birthday card. He came good on that, sent me twenty in a card, and I got to it before mum opened it.
That was when I started to tell other girls at school that he lived in Australia, and went on holiday to Bali. I got invited to their houses sometimes for sleepovers, but nobody could ever come to where I lived. I just told them my mum was bad-tempered, and wouldn’t allow friends to visit. One weekend I stayed at Polly Machin’s house until Sunday night, and my mum didn’t even ask where I had been. I doubt she even noticed I wasn’t there”.

Closing the notebook, Steve yawned loudly. “Time for me to hit the hay, Gabby”.

The next morning, Gabby was up early, keen to continue. She knocked on Steve’s door.

“Get up and get dressed. There’s tea and toast ready, you can have a shower tonight. I want to get more stuff down on tape”.

Not usually a morning person, Steve decided to play along. He was already liking what he had been hearing so far, and was becoming keen to discover more about how Gabby had worked that plan out so long before implementing it. He had the recorder going and his notebook ready before he had even had one bite of the now lukewarm toast.

“By the time I got to fourteen, I was working hard at school, still running things at home, and had got rid of most of the blokes who wanted to come into my room. I kept a couple of regulars on the hook, ’cause they paid the most. I moved the telly into my room, as mum never watched it anyway, so I shut myself in there and watched a lot of crap. The main thing I noticed was how some horrible slags were becoming celebrities. Fat girls who had lost weight, thin girls who had got fat, slags who shagged guys on reality telly shows like Big Brother and Love Island. Those whores were turning up all over the place. Even Mastermind had contestants described as Influencers, and even though they were as thick as shit, they still got their performance fee”.

Steve was scribbling down random notes like Influencers and You Tube, as Gabby droned on.

“Now don’t get me wrong. Men are shit. All men, bar none, including you. Shit, pure and simple. But now there were girls and young women who would shag anyone for fame. Not only that, they went on telly documentaries boo-hooing about having issues like Bulimia and Anorexia. Then the next day they were posting on You Tube and Instagram about how you needed to have painted on eyebrows and lip-plumping to get a boyfriend. You know the sort, I’m sure. It wasn’t long before I found out that some unspeakable chav in Essex had over four million followers on social media, and was earning ten grand a month just for looking fat in leggings and posting tips about make-up”.

Smiling, Steve agreed. “Oh yeah, the cult of non-celebrity, I did a piece on that”. Gabby ignored him as she carried on.

“So I thought I can do that, and can do it better than them no-nuffings. But it needed a proper plan, and I was too busy with my school work to have time to do that. Then the penny dropped. I didn’t need to do the school work, if I exploited my situation. It was obvious to me at fourteen that some of the teachers fancied me. Not just the men teachers, some of the women too. I was already cutting my own hair really short, as I couldn’t afford to go to a hairdresser. My curves were developing nicely, and my tits were already bigger than most of the girls in the school. I knew what to do, and set about doing it”.

The toast was cold by now, but Steve ate it anyway. Then he slurped down the rest of his tea.

“The women were the easiest, as it turned out. Hang back after a lesson, look sad, and they come up to you, asking what’s wrong. A few crocodile tears, a cuddle that lasted a bit too long, then that eye to eye contact that lets you know they’re interested. Most of them were married, but I was their fantasy. As for the real lezzers, they were putty in my hands. They suggested extra lessons, two of them even invited me to their houses to do those lessons. It was so easy just to end up in bed with them. I preferred them to men anyway, to be honest. But then they had completely ballsed up their careers, so when I told them they had to do my course work, they had no choice. Same with the men teachers, who were looking at serious prison time if I blabbed. Honestly, Steve, I can’t begin to tell you how easy it was. Underage sex is like a drug to those bastards”.

Making a fresh cup of tea, Steve could not help smiling. “If we do this, we will have to name all of them, you okay with that?”

Gabby replied before he got back with the tea.

“You can bet your life. They all deserve what they get”.

After lunch, Steve had some questions for Gabby before they went back to her story.

“So how is it that those teachers didn’t find out about you having a relationship with the others at the same school? I mean, staff-room gossip and all that. And how did you manage to get money if your mum was on benefits and you had stopped taking money off the drunks for sex?”

Gabby lit a cigarette, and smiled.

“Over the years until I left school, there were four women teachers, and two men. How they didn’t find out about the others, I don’t know. You would have to ask them. Most of the time it was a quick session in a parked car, or locked in a stockroom when everyone had gone home and before the cleaners turned up. They all gave me presents too, or money to buy myself something. So added to what I could pinch out of my mum’s purse, I had enough to get by, to get new uniform, underwear, tights, shoes, and make-up. I didn’t have many other casual clothes, and that wasn’t a problem as I usually only hung out with other girls straight from school”.

That seemed to satisfy Steve, and he jotted down a few notes before asking her something else.

“And how did you manage to do so well at the lessons? Were they fiddling your paperwork and homework, or what?”

She leaned forward, flicking the ash from the cigarette into her empty teacup.

“You keep forgetting I am actually clever. I didn’t need too much help, just couldn’t be arsed with too much study. So they told me what tests were going to be about in advance, gave me tips on what to write, what to feature as bullet points, and how long it should be to look convincing. They told me to make some mistakes deliberately, so it didn’t look too fishy. But once the O-levels were coming up, I had dropped some subjects like all the science stuff, and concentrated on English, History, and Geography. I had to do maths too, that was compulsory. I was shit at Maths, but fortunately Miss Devine was the teacher, and I knew she was crazy about me. She was so easy to pull, it was laughable”.

Steve’s interest was piqued.

“Miss Devine, eh. Tell me more about her. Was she a lesbian? How old was she?”

Stubbing out the cigarette in the cup, Gabby grinned.

“I could almost feel sorry for her, but only almost. She was from Northern Ireland originally, you know, with that accent you see on the news when there’s trouble there. I reckon she must have been close to fifty, as she looked really old-fashioned. One day I waited behind after the lesson, looked really upset, and told her I was going to completely fail Maths if she didn’t help me. It was like she had been waiting for the moment, I swear I saw her lick her lips before she answered. She said she could give me extra lessons at her house at weekends. But only if I didn’t tell anyone about it. She lived in the suburbs of course, not in the crap area where I went to school. She gave me directions from the closest bus stop to her house, and even slipped me five quid for the return fare. I didn’t tell her I had a free bus pass”.

With his pen moving fast on the notebook, Steve just nodded. “And you went of course?”

“Course I went. Saturday morning I arrived just after nine, to find she had breakfast ready to serve up. She went through the motions after, sitting on her sofa with lots of maths books open on her coffee table, telling me how to solve problems I had no chance of remembering. I pretended to be listening, then hit her with some more fake depression. Her arm went round me to comfort me, and five minutes later we were at it on the sofa, followed by a full-on session in her bedroom.
Then Sunday we didn’t even bother to pretend, and stayed in bed most of the day. She said the next weekend I could come on Friday evening, stay until Monday morning, and she would drop me off in a side street behind the school. She was completely in love with me, and totally hooked. Then it was every weekend for months after that”.

He had stopped writing, and as he looked at Gabby, his expression was sheer admiration.

“Angela Devine used to call me her precious girl. I let her believe I would move in with her once I had finished at uni, and she did anything for me. Bought me stuff, gave me spending money. She steered me in the right direction for the exam questions, and showed me tricks to remember how to solve the problems. I got a decent pass mark in the exam, then dropped the subject for A-level and dumped her. She couldn’t say anything about that of course, could she?”

Checking his watch, Steve closed his notebook and switched off the recorder. “Time for dinner, I reckon”.

The next morning, it wasn’t long before Gabby got busy with finishing off her back story.

“Well the girl did good. Four A-levels, with one of the top marks in the country for History, courtesy of many hours spent on the back seat of Mister Goddard’s car. I could have applied to one of the top universities, but I was happy enough to go to Norwich. After all, I knew I was never going to graduate, so it made no difference where I went.
With no chance of any money from my mum, I took the student loan to get by, arranged accommodation in Student Halls, and before I went I set about creating a whole new Gabby. A different person. I watched films to get the accent just right, and spent the summer holidays reading books and websites about the various countries I was going to have claimed to have lived in. The icing on the cake was having the complete hair-crop, which I knew would make me stand out from day one. As for what happened next, well you know that already”.

Steve checked his notes. “So, I can fill in the rest, even give Fat Boy some credit for grassing you up so I could find you. Then we start the modern-day tragedy. The abused girl who dragged herself out of her slum roots. Having to exchange sexual favours to get a good education, inventing a fictitious family so you wouldn’t be ashamed of your past. Then you couldn’t stand that any longer, so skipped before the end of year, and missed graduation. Of course, once this comes out, there can be no degree, and they may even take back your educational qualifications, all of them. As for the people you have named, they are in deep shit, Careers over, possible arrest for historical child abuse, trial by media followed by an actual trial. This is going to drag on for years”.

Gabby was rubbing her hands together and chuckling. “Serve them all right, the bastards.”

Closing the notebook, Steve was nodding in agreement. “Okay, so we have to think about packing up and getting out of Scotland. Every one of my contacts is London-based, so no point staying up here in Jock-Land. You can come back with me to Norwich and stay at my flat. You will have to stay inside though. God forbid anyone spots you before we break the story. And before you say anything, I will be sleeping on the sofa. You can have my room”.

When she got back from settling the bill at the site office, Steve was already packed. “What about the fat kid? Do you reckon he will try to sell your location to any other paper or TV station?”. Gabby shrugged. “I almost forgot about him. Give me ten minutes and I will go and find him”.

Almost twenty minutes had passed when she got back. “I took him over to the car park and told him if he tells anyone about me I will go to the police and say he raped me after taking obscene photos of me. I suggested he would be better off resigning today, and going home. I said if I heard he was working here tomorrow, I would be going to the big police station in Perth to report him. He turned very pale, and his lip was quivering. I reckon he probably pissed his pants too”.

She was packed and ready in record time, and they were soon headed south for the long drive back to Steve’s. Gabby slept in the car for a long time, waking up when they were near Nottingham. “Do you need petrol yet? I could do with a toilet, and I’m starving too. Find a place to eat, some services or whatever. I have my wig in this bag, so will put that on before we go inside”. Steve was about to say that her story was old news by now, and it was unlikely that anyone would notice her. But he thought better of that. Best to leave her edgy, that would make everything more convincing.

It was dark by the time they got to Norwich. Gabby was unimpressed with the flat that Steve thought was actually quite smart. She sniffed the bed. “S’pose this will do for now. You will have to go out in the morning and get me some cigarettes, real coffee, and something decent to eat. If I’m gonna be stuck in this place for weeks, I expect to be well looked after”.

Steve got busy on day one. A ghost-writer was contacted to prepare a synopsis and a rough draft based on Steve’s notes and recordings. He would drop them off at the woman’s place in North London before the end of the week. He wanted a woman to write it up, as he was sure the female perspective would sell better.

By early evening, Steve had a promise from a literary agent for Gabby, as well as two definite interests in a book deal if it read right. Despite his journalistic background, he knew better than to try to tout the story to any newspaper so soon. Far better to wait for the book publication date, and use any press or TV coverage to sell-on the book.

Gabby proved to be easy to please. Steve invested in a coffee percolator, lots of her favourite cigarettes, and good quality snack foods that kept her happy. She kept adding some snippets that she had missed earlier, leaving him to phone the ghost-writer to embellish some details. Steve knew it was going to cost him now, but that outlay would be recouped ten-fold later. This was going to be his Olympic Gold project, the one that would cement his name in tabloid history.

He had no doubts. None whatsoever.

The rest of the world slumbered on peacefully, unaware of the journalistic and literary bombshell he was concocting in his mundane Norwich flat. He couldn’t help himself speculating on his future earnings. Gabby would get a twenty-grand advance against future sales on the book deal. If they took the film rights internationally, that might mean as much as fifty grand, paid once shooting began. Then there was the eventual book sales for a best-seller, appearance fees on every chat show and magazine programme on telly. And he has a quarter of that action.

As he spent his money like water, he had no concerns. It would all come good eventually.

For Gabby, life was comfortable. Not allowed to go out in case she was identified, she lazed around and made the most of the leisure time. Steve got her whatever she needed, and never once asked for any money. Even if he had, she could have told him she wasn’t allowed to go to any banks or bank machines. His rules, not hers. If he was keeping an accounting of expenses, expecting some reimbursement, he would be sorely disappointed. That twenty-five percent was all he would get.

If he even got that.

One day, Steve returned with the news that her mum was back in hospital again. “She is supposedly critical, and in need of a liver transplant. It seems unlikely that she will qualify for a donor, seeing as she has been a drunk since she was sixteen”. Gabby was not at all bothered. She opened the Chianti she had asked him to get, and shrugged.

“I hope the old bitch dies, I really do. Then she can rot in hell for what she did to me”. Steve was already on the telephone, arranging for a contact in East London to get a photo of Gabby’s mum on a ventilator. When he received the good news that it was done, he gave Gabby a thumbs-up. “It’s in the bag, we can probably use that in the book”.

There might have been some inkling in the back of Steve’s mind that he would eventually have sex with Gabby. But she soon shut that down.

“You are getting very familiar around me. Shut the bathroom door when you are in there, I don’t want to see you except fully-dressed. And stop sitting so close to me when we are in the living room. I don’t like it, and don’t want it. Don’t forget you are no better than all other men, Steve. You are shit, as far as I am concerned”.

He didn’t get annoyed when she said that stuff. One day, he would get that payday, and more importantly, some recognition. Then he could have any bimbo he wanted on his arm. But he knew he was going to have to put up with Gabby for many months yet. The story had to die completely, before it could be resurrected as a success.

Just like Jesus. Nobody cared about him until the third day.

By the time the book launch was ready, six months had passed. And that was with Steve pulling out all the stops. Gabby was stir-crazy, and Steve was almost out of money. He was onto his credit card, which he had used to buy Gabby some new hair clippers, and some clothes she had ordered online. A photographer friend came and took lots of photos of her in various poses. Steve had to promise to pay him once the money started to roll in.

At the suggestion of the publisher, Gabby’s brother had been contacted. Her mum had died without regaining consciousness, news of that had made Gabby do a dance around the room in her underwear. Her brother wasn’t interested. He rang Steve as requested and said Gabby could say what she liked and do what she wanted. He would have no part of it. That was fine with Steve, as it meant he wouldn’t be denying any of the back story.

Although they had used a literary agent, the publisher who accepted the manuscript brokered a tough deal. Only five grand up front, and that to be deducted from royalities. Steve had no concerns, he was sure the book would do well, and they could sell the film or TV rights later, as well as getting a good payment from one of the tabloids to tell the inside story. He had got his share of the advance, and Gabby used the rest to move out and live in a small hotel twenty miles away. It was a nuisance having to keep running back and forth to sort things out with her, but he was pleased to have his flat to himself again.

When the first box of hardbacks arrived, he smiled at the cover. ‘Gabby: Why I Went Missing. By Gabrielle Parker’. The cover photo was a missing poster from the time of her disappearance, showing her university photo and the details from the police. The first promotional gig was the local TV news show, BBC Look East. It was a small spot on the evening bulletin, filmed outside the hotel with a girl interviewing Gabby, who was holding a copy of the book. As expected, that went online, immediately generating interest in the story.

The book went into the big chain booksellers, and was being sold on Amazon too. Steve paid someone to generate some fake five-star reviews, and it started to climb up the Amazon charts. When the second biggest tabloid contacted Gabby for a story to be published in the Sunday edition, she referred them to Steve. He did a deal for fifteen grand that gave them exclusive rights to newspaper coverage and allowed them to add the story onto their website. They had to also carry a photo of the book, and buying links. Someone else he knew who was good at playing Facebook generated hundreds of fake posts there, and just as many from fake Twitter accounts.

The Monday following the newspaper article, Gabby was trending on Twitter, had thousands of new Facebook followers, and the book had a passing mention on the main national news that evening. Whe the tabloid did a follow up story on the Friday, showing a photo of Gabby’s mum in hospital before she died, and milking the sob story of child abuse, there was an offer from the BBC magazine programme The One Show. Gabby went on that same night at seven, plugged the book, tried to claim she was speaking out for all abused children, appeared to lose the battle to fight back some tears, and then the female presenter started crying.

As he watched the show that evening, Steve was triumphant. He stood up in his flat and shouted. “Yes!”

When the tabloid ran some more stuff on the Sunday, digging deep into the teachers involved in sex for exam results, it really took off. She was on BBC Breakfast early the next morning, followed by a spot on the ITV chat show This Morning just after eleven. That got her booked for Loose Women the following lunchtime, where Gabby gave the all-female team a story of sexual abuse so heartbreaking, it jammed the phone lines into the station.

Generated by all of this, public outcry followed all over social media. Angela Devine was arrested, and the police applied to extradite Andrew Donaldson from his new job abroad. Other teachers from her past were taken in for questioning, and the book tipped number one on the best-seller list, with the publisher rushing out paperback and Kindle versions.

That was when Steve made the call about film rights.

As the book was still riding high, Gabby took every opportunity to make any guest appearance offered to her. The late-night chat shows were fertile ground, as she could be more graphic about details of her past, and there was no censorship. As well as those, Gabby got onto the shock-jock radio broadcasts, laying it on thick about how her mum brought men to have sex with her, and how teachers traded extra tution and exam questions for sex in their cars.

Every time she appeared, that generated more headlines, which in turn sold more books, and got her more offers of TV appearances.

Negotiating the film rights proved to be easier than Steve had hoped. After a couple of companies showed no interest, Gabby went on the Graham Norton show to plug her book, and Graham cried as she described trembling in fear when she knew men would be coming into her room to have sex with her.

The next day, four companies were bidding for the rights. Gabby stepped in, and accepted the offer that would allow her some say in casting, as long as her chosen actors were available, and wanted the job. She signed a fifty-grand advance to include a share of all DVD rights, streaming rights, and any merchandising. Once filming started, the book could be reissued with a photo of the star on the cover, and the words ‘Now A Major Movie’ wrapped around it.

Two days later, she appeared on the Jonathan Ross chat show, and dropped her bombshell. She accused Steve James of raping her in his Norwich flat when she was staying there while he was negotiating her book deal. In floods of tears, she eventually had to be consoled by Jonathan. Steve had been watching the show at the time, and his jaw hit the floor when she said that. He rang her mobile after she was off screen, and it turned out the number was unavailable.

Gabby had a new phone, and a new number.

When he drove to her hotel the next morning, he wasn’t unduly surprised to discover that she was no longer staying there. Dozens of calls to all his contacts failed to find her anywhere. She had gone to ground again. Back at his flat that evening, he was halfway through a bottle of whisky when there was a loud banging on the door. Three policeman were standing in the lobby when he opened it. The one in plainclothes smiled as he showed his I.D. card.

“Mister Steven James? I am Detective Sergeant Murphy. I would like you to accompany us to a police station for questioning. You may call a solicitor if you wish. You are not under arrest at this time, but if you decline to come with us I am prepared to arrest you on suspicion of a serious offence”. Steve felt as if he was going to throw up, and swallowed hard.

“Just let me get my coat and keys, officer”.

They drove him to a main police station in Norwich, and he declined legal representation. When confronted with Gabby’s accusation, he denied it. “I never touched her. I slept on the sofa”. He was aked to provide a DNA sample and fingerprints voluntarily, and agreed to that. “I have nothing to hide. This is all a set-up. I know what she’s up to”.

Someone brought him a cup of tea, and he was left in the Interview Room for almost an hour. Then Murphy came back. “Okay, you can go home tonight, but be prepared to come back in for questioning when asked. And definitely bring a solicitor next time, because that interview will be under caution, and recorded. You may also face charges on that occasion. Two officers are waiting to give you a lift home”.

After finishing the bottle of whisky, Steve slept heavily that night. He didn’t wake up until after ten the next morning, and as he stumbled out of the bedroom he almost fainted with shock to see Gabby sitting on his sofa, smoking a cigarette. Before he got his brain into gear to be able to start shouting at her, Gabby was already talking.

“It’s your day of reckoning, Stevie boy. Time to pay for all the lives you have ruined, and the lies you have told. I can make my way to the police station to give them a statement about how you dragged me to your bed and raped me, or I can say it is all too traumatic to go over it again, and drop the charges. It’s entirely up to you. Sign these papers, or get seven years inside in the nonce wing. Simple as. You’ve had it anyway, whether you go to trial or not. You will always be known as the journo who raped a vunerable girl he was pretending to help, even without a guilty verdict”.

Snatching the papers from her, he speed-read the main parts. He was signing over his twenty-five percent of her company in perpetuity, with no comebacks. There was also a non-disclosure agreement, forbidding him to write about the story in any form, or talk about it to anyone else. Forever. It was already witnessed in advance, and signed and sealed by a top London lawyer whose name he recognised immediately. It took him less than ten seconds to make his decision.

“Give me a pen”.

Benedict.

“Okay, my name is Ben Halliday, not Benedict, and I am doing this interview to just explain our part in the story of Gabby Parker. Is your camera running?”

The man nodded.

“My wife Michaela wants no part of this, so I will not be answering any questions about her. She is seven months pregnant with our first child, and I don’t want her bothered. I will only be making this statement based on the questions you supplied me via email, and that’s it. Okay?”

The man nodded again.

“So we met Gabby that first week at uni. You could hardly fail to notice her, with the cropped hair that so many girls have now. She was good-looking too. Confident, clever, with an interesting life story, none of which was true, as we know now. She was good to be around, everyone thought so. Was I in love with her? Yes. Was everyone she met in love with her? You bet they were. She knew what she was doing from the start, but we had no way of knowing that five years ago”.

He stopped to drink some water from a metal flask.

“Were we fooled by her? I don’t know about that. We were just happy to be around her, and didn’t judge, or ask questions. Kimberley Lau was certainly fooled by her. She thought they were a couple, gave her a huge amount of money, and ended up where she is today, in a mental institution. But for myself and Michaela, we escaped, I suppose. After Mikki finished teacher training, she got a job in a primary school here in Canterbury. I transferred with my Banking job, and we bought this small house you are sitting in”.

The man adjusted a light behind him, then Ben continued.

“After the disappearance, there was the book. We were described in that book as ‘love-struck losers’. I’m not denying that, and neither is my wife. But we have moved on, we have our own life now, and Gabby is not a part of it. We didn’t bother to see the film, and I was pleased that it didn’t get any Oscars, despite three nominations. But now Gabby is the face of child abuse, reporting on the BBC about child abductions and sex-trafficing, and she appears on telly every day as part of the Loose Women team. We cannot avoid her in theory, but we do in practice”.

After another swig from the flask, Ben continued.

“Then there was the second book, and after that the third. She was consulted as some kind of expert on child abuse every time something similar happened. Meanwhile, five people were serving terms in prison after she gave evidence against them at their trials. Those who escaped that have no career left. I mean, so many people, young girls and boys, have abusive childhoods. That’s horrible. But Gabby used hers as a springboard to fame and fortune. Do you know that she lives in a five-bed house in Hampstead? She has her own driver for the car she owns, and her agent got her onto Big Brother, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, and she was even a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing? She got to the final of that, but didn’t win. Sorry, I need a pee”.

When filming resumed, Ben remained calm.

“Do I resent her? Actually, no. She got me together with Michaela, and claims that was her intention all along. Either way, we are happy, and loving the idea of becoming parents. But she was so hard on people, so harsh. Even now, she has never had a boyfriend, never contemplated marriage or children, and revels in her huge following on social media. I understand that alone makes her ten grand a month, on top of all the telly stuff and books. She doesn’t travel, doesn’t spend her money on much other than the house and car. Is she remotely happy? I really doubt that”.

There was a pause. The light in the room necessitated a change of direction for the white umbrella.

“Okay to continue? Well my take on it is this. Gabby embraced the cult of celebrity by making herself a celebrity based on a youth of abuse and neglect. She has earned a lot of money, ruined many lives, and become a household name on the back of it. That is an example of everything that is wrong with society in the twenty-first century, in my opinion”.

After some camera adjustments, Ben raised his hand.

“That’s it, I’m afraid. You need to leave now”.

The End.

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