The protector, p.34
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       The Protector, p.34
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           Jodi Ellen Malpas

  Until four years ago. Everything changed. My life turned upside down. My wife hadn’t missed me. She hadn’t mourned my absence. She’d found her comfort elsewhere. I had no purpose anymore.

  Living wasn’t just having the ability to breathe, a heartbeat in your chest. It was having people to live for. I lost all sight of my other purpose in life—the one spiked by my parents’ deaths in the Lockerbie disaster. It didn’t seem to matter anymore. I was no longer able to think straight and act on sensibility.

  I became careless. Reckless. I became a danger to myself, and worst of all, I was a danger to everyone around me. I couldn’t change anything, but after drowning in a sea of Jack, spending too many months lost in a haze of drunkenness and misery, balancing on the edge of the black pit to hell, I grabbed onto the only thing I could do to give myself some kind of self-purpose again. I couldn’t have my life back. But I could protect others.

  All my subjects were a job. A duty. A way to maintain my selfish purpose. I needed to forget everything about my previous life. My subjects gave me focus.

  Camille Logan spun that on its head. She gave me a reason to confront my demons. She made me feel and love again. I had everything arranged in my mind, all of the hard truths set to be faced head-on, cushioned by a hope I couldn’t let falter.

  I handled it all wrong, and now I might have lost her forever.

  Her face. The devastation when I looked up and found her in Abbie’s kitchen. And then the understanding that came after I’d poured my heart out on the street, rushing to explain, my hope rebuilding by the second.

  Then she was taken.

  My phone startles me, vibrating in my hand, and I rush to answer, praying for something. Anything. “Luce?”

  “Where are you?”

  “Outside Scott’s block of flats.” I look across the car park that’s littered with abandoned cars and piles of rubbish. Kids who should be in school are climbing in and out of the smashed windows of cars, some jumping from the roof of one abandoned vehicle to another. The grim high-rise apartment block has more windows boarded up than not, and grubby rags hanging at the smeared, filthy glass of the ones that are still intact. The monstrosity of a building stretches up into the sky, casting a shadow as dull as the brickwork across the landscape before it. It’s the pits.

  “Anything?” Lucinda asks.

  “Nothing. No sign of any white van and the apartment is empty.” I glance up to the apartment window that’s in plain view, shuddering when my mind’s eye reminds me of the squalor I found beyond the door after I kicked it down. And the stench. It’s still embedded in my nostrils.

  “I might have something.”

  I’m upright and quickly alert. “What?”

  “Scott served his last sentence in Borstal. He was granted probation eight weeks ago and one of his parole conditions is to check in weekly with his parole officer in Shoreditch. Jake, today’s check-in day. If he’s following his parole conditions, he should be there now. I’m sending you the office address.”

  I start the car and race out of the car park, leaving a cloud of dust and crowds of tatty kids cheering in my wake. “He’s doing well keeping himself out of trouble,” I growl, not bothering to stop at the junction, forcing a beat-up old Escort to swerve from my path. “I think someone’s hired Scott to take Camille. Keep an eye on Logan’s e-mails. I expect he’ll be hearing from whoever it is.” I throw my phone onto the seat next to me and drive like a demon to Shoreditch.

  * * *

  The high street is busy, hampering my speed as I scan every face I pass. I drive up and down every road around the vicinity of the parole office at least ten times, my pulse dulling with each precious minute that passes. No white van. She’ll be scared. It’ll be another week before Scott has to sign in with his parole officer. It could be another week of waiting for something that could lead me to her.

  “Come on!” I say to no one, taking a left and then an immediate right, coming to a stop at a zebra crossing when the road floods with schoolchildren, marching across the concrete like ants, all laughing, holding hands in pairs. Their little backs are covered with high-visibility waistcoats, making them unmissable to everyone around them. What age are they? Four, maybe? Charlotte’s age.

  She’s mine. That little girl is mine. Shirking that sense of knowing was easy. Running away from my miseries was easy. Telling myself she wasn’t mine was easier than taking care of her. I didn’t even know her. She didn’t know me. I couldn’t be a dad. Didn’t know how to be. Abbie could take care of her, bring her up and nurture her into a fine young lady without my toxic blackness affecting her life. That was best for her. For everyone.

  My eyes follow the children across the road until they’re disappearing down the park path, their teachers spread down the line evenly, keeping them safe. Making sure no one can take them.

  Beep!

  I jump in my seat, being brought back to my fading existence by a car honking impatiently behind me. “Fuck,” I mutter, grasping my bearings before pulling off, having to round a parked car and put myself on the wrong side of the road.

  It’s then I see it.

  A van.

  A white van.

  I just catch the back of it as it disappears around a corner, maybe three hundred yards up ahead. My heart shoots up to top speed and my foot slams the pedal to the floor. I fly up the high street at a dangerous speed, keeping one eye on the pedestrians, any of which could step into the road, and my other eye trained on the turn the van just took.

  “Come on.” I will my Range Rover to go faster and take the turn, wincing when the tires screech with the strain I’m putting them under.

  Don’t draw attention to yourself. Keep a safe distance.

  Scott’s been watching Cami. He’ll know my car. He’ll know me. I follow a few cars behind, hyper-alert. A roundabout appears on the horizon, and though the road splits into two lanes, I keep myself where I am, concealed behind the line of cars behind him. When the van pulls onto the roundabout, I get my opportunity. I reach for my glove compartment and grab my binoculars, zooming in on the plate’s numbers. The rush of air that deflates my lungs could fog the screen.

  It’s him.

  I dial Lucinda, never taking my eyes off the van, seeing it take the third exit onto the City Road. “I have him,” I say when she answers. “Have there been any e-mails? Ransom requests?”

  “Nothing. I’m watching,” she informs me. “Jake, be careful.”

  I nod and hang up, unable to ease her concerns. Then I take the wheel with both hands and center my attention forward. It’s the longest journey of my life.

  He makes two stops on the way. One at a service station, picking up some water and a crummy sandwich, and then a few miles down the road at an industrial park, where he picks up a scrawny, scruffy man with long greasy hair and a hooked chin.

  “Take me to my girl,” I whisper, edging out slowly and following them. Countless turns, stops, and too many skips of my heart later, they rumble up a deserted road toward an abandoned ruin of a factory.

  I pull over to the side of the broken-up lane, positioning my car amid some sad-looking evergreens, its branches dead and woody but still perfectly dense. I run the rest of the way, half-bent, keeping myself low, seeing the van circle around the back of the unit. I reach the crumbling masonry of the building’s face and take a few moments to gather some air, keeping my breathing steady as I pull my phone free and turn it to silent, not leaving anything to chance. Then I replace it in my pocket and fill my hand with my Heckler, pulling back the slide.

  To this point, I’ve had to rein myself in, hold myself back when all I wanted to do was ram Scott off the road and torture him for her whereabouts. Telling myself not to jump the gun, that she might not even be here, has been a fight like no other I’ve had. I walk in calm, measured steps, treading carefully, keeping my shoulder close to the flaking brickwork of the derelict factory building. My ears are hyper-sensitive. I hear the closing of the van doors, I
hear one of the scumbags laugh, and I hear the scuff of their boots on the ground.

  The echo of metal hitting metal invades the air, and I round the corner carefully, spotting a huge iron door. I reach up to my brow and wipe away the beads of sweat, blinking rapidly to keep my vision straight and focused.

  Remaining unseen and unknown—it’s built into me. I can’t allow my personal desperation and attachment to affect me. Not again. Creeping to the door, I take the handle and pull gently, flinching when the iron scrapes against the rusty frame. A damp stench smacks me in the face, along with a cool gust of air and the echoes of their voices.

  Once I’ve let the door close softly behind me, I follow the sounds of the voices coming from the throats I plan to slice. I’m surrounded by abandoned machinery, all of it ancient and resembling torture devices rather than industrial equipment. I can still hear them in the distance, the old dilapidated building carrying the sound through the musty air. I pass through room after room, my gun constantly poised to fire, my eyes surveying every inch.

  Then they stop talking, and my feet stop moving. I pull in behind a huge piece of machinery and hold my breath. The sounds of moving metal rings loudly all around me, followed by the labored breaths of one of the men.

  One of the men.

  “What the fuck!”

  I swing around, finding the snarling, scrawny man Scott picked up en route, raising an old handgun. I don’t fuck about. Instinct has me aiming and firing before his finger even finds the trigger of his weapon. The noise is ear-splitting. The blast ricochets off the metal machinery around me, and I watch as the man drops like a rock.

  As soon as he hits the ground, I break into a run, sprinting through the factory, trying my hardest to keep the pounding of my boots against the concrete to a minimal volume. Easier said than done when potent purpose is coursing through you, burning your veins, making your head spin. I wipe the sweat away from my forehead again before it trickles into my eyes and hampers my vision, and round corner after corner, listening carefully. Then I hear something. I slow to a stop. A distant shift of metal on metal registers in my chaotic mind, and I back up, my back pressed against a rusty metal-paneled wall. I slowly raise my gun and edge around the corner.

  I know the second I find where they’ve been keeping her. The door is half-open, and slight sounds of a scuffle come from beyond. I pace forward quietly, cautiously, and push the door open farther. Only a little, but enough to see inside.

  The scene beyond could break me. I shoulder the door open the rest of the way and fill the entrance, stance wide, gun poised.

  I recognize Scott from his picture. And he has Cami held against him, her back to his chest, a blade at her throat. His hands are shaking wildly, sweat pouring from his brow. He’s panicking, and that only makes him more dangerous.

  Cami is quiet, her head pressed back onto the shoulder of his filthy shirt, the length of her beautiful neck extended, her face pointed toward the ceiling. Her hands are bound. Her mouth is gagged. Her eyes are covered by a scrap of ragged material. Not seeing her eyes is my only consolation. Seeing her fear would tip me. I need to maintain my composure. Now, more than ever, I need to lock down my control.

  “I’ll slit her throat!” Scott yells, backing away, dragging Cami with him. Her feet clumsily slip and slide along the dusty floor. “Don’t think I won’t do it!”

  I force my eyes to his and make sure I keep them there. You can tell the most about a person from their eyes. There’s evil lingering in Scott’s, past the apprehension. I have no doubt this man is guilty of all of the crimes he’s been accused of.

  Rape.

  I momentarily lose my focus, having to blink the horrors away. If the thought has even crossed his mind, I’ll…

  I force myself to concentrate. “Who are you working for?” I ask evenly, keeping my gun low but poised. He’s an uneducated piece of shit. He wouldn’t know how to mastermind a kidnap.

  “I’m telling you nothing.”

  “How do you communicate?”

  “Fuck you.” He backs up some more, his face close to Cami’s, breathing on her. She flinches when a spray of his spit hits her face, and my focus wavers again. She’s twenty feet away from me and I can’t get to her. The blade pushing into her flesh, pulsing against her throat as she breathes, is smeared with filth, the handle rusty and bent. It won’t slice. It’ll saw.

  I gulp, my grip tightening round the handle of my gun. “You made a really stupid mistake when you took this job,” I say, my voice loaded with a threat he shouldn’t underestimate. I cock my head, forcing the sight of Cami into a blur of nothing, the hollows of my cheeks pulsing as I bite down on my back teeth. “Really stupid,” I murmur.

  His comprehension of how serious I am comes in the form of a jerky movement that pushes the knife into Cami’s throat, spiking a muffled murmur and a drop of blood to appear. It trickles down her neck.

  The rage. Deep, hot, raw rage.

  I step forward, feeling it consume me, my blood on fire.

  Keep cool.

  I. Must. Keep. My. Cool.

  It’s hard when I’m mentally lining up the most important shot I’ve ever made.

  “Stay back!” Scott shouts, panicked.

  “Good-bye.” I close one eye, raise my hand, and pull the trigger. Bang! I see the bullet. I watch as it travels toward my target, the accuracy frightening, and I watch as it sinks dead center into his forehead. He drops like lead as blood splatters Cami’s face.

  Chapter 34

  CAMI

  My constant praying and picturing him has worked. There wasn’t a second of our time together that I didn’t revisit. It was the perfect diversion, something to take me away from the cold brutality of my reality. The second I heard that distant shot, I knew he’d found me. I was manhandled up from the floor by panicked hands, and then I heard Jake’s voice.

  The pressure of my captor’s sweaty body against mine was unbearable. I could feel his shakes rippling through me, but fought to repel the effect. I forced myself into stillness. I used the remaining scraps of my energy to keep myself frozen, hardly breathing.

  Because I knew what Jake was going to do. I could hear his intention. I could see the wood of the dead tree in his bluebell woodland burst. I knew without question that my kidnapper would be dead within seconds.

  The ringing in my ears is painful and the warm liquid coating my face excruciatingly unbearable, but I’m powerless to wipe it away. Without the support of my captor holding me up, my knees give out and I collapse to the concrete floor. All of my held breath tries to break free on the impact, the force of air against the gag making it impossible to catch a breath.

  I know it’s only Jake and me in the room now—alive, at least—but I still jump like a frightened animal when I feel his big hands grab me and pull me onto his lap.

  He works fast, unbinding my wrists until my bones crack with relief and my muscles spasm back to life. I flex gingerly, pain searing up my arms as he yanks the blindfold away. I slam my eyes shut, the bombardment of dusky light too much after being kept in the dark for hours.

  “Oh, Jesus, Cami,” he whispers, stroking at my face, his hands working fast and frantically, feeling me. “Open your eyes, angel.” He pulls away my gag, and I drink in air, my lungs burning in gratitude.

  I allow my lids to peel open a tiny bit, needing to see him but still being unable to tolerate the light. His strong thighs beneath my shoulders are the only comfort I can seize and run with, my arms refusing to lift and feel him, my eyes sore, my mouth dry.

  Regardless of all that, though, I still feel the most at peace I ever have. I feel safe and hopeful. I feel determined. After what we’ve both just been through, nothing can stop us from being together. Not Jake’s hidden demons, not my dad’s enemies, and not his expectations, either. Nothing.

  I open my eyes and blink some focus back, squinting. He’s just a blur of darkness floating above me, the outline of the man I love.

  A shadow.
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  I become agitated, pissed off with my lack of ability to see him more clearly. My hands come up to my face in broken, jerky movements, and I find my eye sockets with my fingers, rubbing some sight back into them. Then I try again, opening my eyes and searching him out.

  The blur slowly fades, and Jake slowly forms. All of his face, clear and perfect. It’s the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. Swallowing, I open my mouth to speak, but my lips stick, frustrating me further. There’s so much I want and need to tell him. He needs to know that I accept him. His secrets, his mistakes, his regrets. He needs to know that I’ll help him to make things right. But the words refuse to come, and when he places a finger over my mouth, settling me, I give up trying to talk.

  “I know,” he says quietly, smoothing his hand onto my cheek and cupping it. “I already know, angel.”

  I can only nod. It’s feeble and weak, but it’s all I can manage, and when he smiles—a sad but relieved smile—I know he understands.

  “I’m taking you home,” he says softly, maneuvering and negotiating my weight into his arms. “Can you hold on?”

  It takes everything I have, but I strain to lift my arms around his neck, clinging to him as he rises to his feet.

 
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