At first, she liked it in the box.
There were toys to play with, paper and coloured pens. Sometimes cartoons came on the screen, and when she was thirsty, she bent the straw into her mouth to drink sweet apple juice. She felt warm in there. Safe.
Outside the box was the silent maze of unwelcoming rooms, full of things she wasn’t allowed to touch. Outside the box was the large cold man, who pointed at the chalkboard and made her repeat the same things, over and over, staring her down when she made a mistake.
Then one day, it changed.
It changed with her waking up to see the large cold man standing over her bed. He lifted a strange and bulky set of clothes, a tail of cables streaming from the back.
‘You’re ready,’ he said, his face in shadow. ‘Put these on.’
The clothes were stiff around the elbows and knees. Metal sewn into the fabric pressed cold to her skin. As she dressed, her heart beat harder and she wished more than anything to stay in her soft pyjamas.
When they got to the box the toys and coloured pens were gone. Climbing inside, she no longer felt safe.
Images appeared on the screen. She’d played this game before and knew how it worked. When a car appeared, she said ‘car’. When a ball appeared, she said ‘ball’. But this time was different. Sometimes when she said the word her clothes grew pleasantly warm, other times they seemed to spark for a moment, making her whole body jolt.
She couldn’t understand this new game – the rules made no sense. Soon the jolts became stronger, lasted longer, leaving her shaking and desperate for breath. She wanted it to stop, wanted the man to let her out, but no matter how much she pleaded he didn’t respond.
The images came faster. Hot desperate tears ran down her cheeks. Sobbing and heaving, she put the straw between her lips but instead of sweet apple juice what came out was liquid fire.
Once she started screaming, it seemed as though she would scream for ever.
1. 6.20 p.m., Friday
I peeked around the dining-room curtain to look at the men at the top of our driveway. There were four of them, the same ones that had been outside my office all day. One holding leaflets, another shouldering a camera big enough to make him look as though he was from the nightly news, two more waving placards with my face in a red circle, a diagonal line through it, like I was some kind of menace. A danger to society.
Behind me, Gabrielle said, ‘Please, Ed. Just call the police.’
‘And say what?’
‘They’re filming us. It’s harassment.’
‘Borderline. It’s a public road.’
‘They’ve got signs with your face on them!’
‘I’m perfectly aware of what’s on their signs.’
They’d been following me around all day, ever since the courts granted the injunction to take down the Men’s Learning Centre website – first outside my legal practice, picketing clients as they came through the door, and now here, at home. I’d tried reasoning with them, threatening them with the police, but they’d laughed and filmed my frustration. It would be hard to prove they were breaking any law, and they knew it. The last thing I wanted was to take them to court to explain why I wasn’t a danger to society.
I dropped the curtain and faced my wife. She was standing behind a dining chair in her long puffy coat, not even attempting to hide the fact that she’d been out back for a cigarette. Neither of us had slept well since Ally went up against that website, and we were both slipping into bad habits, doing things we shouldn’t.
‘I told you not to carry on with this,’ Gabrielle said. Her grey eyes were murky from exhaustion, and a tight pink line had replaced the smile that usually came so readily to her lips.
‘Protecting our daughter is not carrying on.’
‘Ahhh, right. So protecting her means making it ten times worse. I get it now.’
‘This isn’t my fault. Try calling her again.’
‘Her phone’s still off. I’ve already left her three messages.’ Gabrielle sighed. ‘Oh, I don’t know. She’s probably fine.’
‘No call. No text.’
‘It’s Friday night!’
We weren’t religious – bacon sandwich Jews, that’s what I called us – but both Gabrielle and I were brought up in Orthodox houses that stayed in on Shabbat. We hadn’t raised Ally and Mitchell that way, and we didn’t partake in all the holy stuff, like lighting the candles and saying the prayers, but we still set the table nicely, placemats and everything, and ate a family meal. It was the one time of the week everyone came together. As the children grew older, the further I felt them slipping away from me, and the more important those couple of hours had become.
Ally was out most of the time these days – she was a teenager with an active social life – but on Fridays she always came straight home from school. Always.
I pointed to Gabrielle’s phone. ‘Anything from her friends?’
‘Jasmine said they had lunch together.’
‘You called all her friends?’
‘The ones I know.’
I grabbed a couple of wine glasses from the sideboard, poured myself a drink from an open bottle of red, and .
She shook her head. ‘Go easy. It’s still early.’
I sipped the wine and peered round the curtain again. My chest seized as I saw a man handing a leaflet to one of our neighbours, who accepted it with a bemused expression. They were trying to intimidate me into withdrawing the injunction, that much was clear, but I’d told Ally I wouldn’t.
Promise me, Dad, she’d said. No matter what they try.
She didn’t come to me for help much these days – it’s our kids who outgrow us, never the other way round – so I’d promised. I didn’t want to break that. But what if those men were the reason she wasn’t home? What if they had her in the back of a van, and their next move was to start sending us pieces of our daughter in the post?
Gabrielle moved round the table and took my hands. Her fingers were cold, so I lifted them to my mouth and warmed them with my breath.
‘Alison’s got her own life,’ she said. ‘We don’t know half the things she gets up to.’
I stopped warming and looked my wife in the eye. ‘Something’s wrong. I know it is.’
Fear is infectious, especially when it’s paired with conviction. Gabrielle’s reassuring air slipped, and I saw that her bravado had been an act, to convince herself as much as me that our daughter was safe.
Her chin trembled. ‘So go out there. Speak to them.’
‘I’ve tried speaking to them.’
She fixed me with a stare that could break rocks. ‘If you think those men have anything to do with Alison not being here then you go out there right now and … and demand they tell you where she is.’
Cold sweat ran down my neck. What if that was their plan? To force a confrontation? To saying I wasn’t much of a fighter would be putting it mildly. Even if those blokes were blind and turned the wrong way, they’d mash me into the pavement before I worked out what to do with my fists. The court was my boxing ring. Tomes of law reviews were my gloves.
Gabrielle started for the front door. ‘If you won’t¾’
‘I’ll go,’ I said, pulling her back. I took a reckless swig of wine, which turned into the whole glass, and was about to say something brave and funny so she wouldn’t see the frayed nerves holding my smile in place, but instead I spluttered Merlot over the dining table.
‘You can do it,’ she said, nodding harder than necessary, as though trying to convince us both that this was true.
I headed to the door. As I pulled it open, a muffled ping came from the kitchen, the oven telling us the chicken was done. Any other week that was my cue to put the roast potatoes back in to crisp, while Gabrielle did some magic to make her always perfect gravy. I can’t explain it, but as I stepped out of the house, I knew our carefree Friday nights were gone. Maybe for ever.
2. 6.25 p.m., Friday
The sun was low as I approached the four men, the light grainy. An autumn chill to the air. When I got to the top of the driveway, they booed like I was a pantomime villain. The closest one to me, a ridiculously handsome guy, leaned his placard of my face against the front wall and lifted his arms, as if we were old pals readying to hug.
‘Edgar!’ he cried. ‘So pleased you could join us.’
I bristled at my full name. I hated it, I’d always hated it, and to this day wondered what was going through my parents’ heads when they named me. Did they think I was going to grow up to be a Victorian gentleman? No one called me Edgar now, not since my mum passed away – except for Gabrielle, on very rare occasions, usually in shock at some catastrophic act of stupidity. To everyone else, I was Ed.
One of my stock-in-trade tricks was to go hard on the first question, to catch someone out. That initial reaction often said everything.
I stopped in front of Handsome. ‘Have you hurt my daughter?’
We were about the same age and height, but that was where the similarities ended. He had more hair, enough to blow-dry into a silky brown side-parting, hollows where a normal person’s cheeks would be, and the air of someone who got everything he wanted in life simply by flashing a charming smile. Definitely not the case for me. I hated him on the spot.
He dropped his arms, snorted and glanced to the side. Who, me?
‘Murph,’ he said, leaning round to look at the shaven-headed slab behind him, the sort of thug you wouldn’t just cross the road to avoid, but leave town, change your identity, and spend the rest of your life in hiding to avoid. ‘His daughter … didn’t you bang her last night?’
‘Fucked her inside out,’ Murph intoned. The other two idiots snickered.
Handsome smiled back at me. ‘Answer your question?’
As expected, I had nowhere to go with this. I wasn’t Liam Neeson, able to whip a Glock from my waistband, jam it under his chin, and demand to know where he’d taken her. I wasn’t Liam anything. I was nothing to them. They could say whatever they wanted to me, and I couldn’t do a thing.
‘All this is meaningless,’ I said, waving at the leaflets, the camera. ‘If you’ve kidnapped my daughter, you’re facing twenty years in prison. Is it worth it for a bloody website?’
‘Listen, Edgar,’ said the suave shitbag intent on ruining my reputation. ‘We’re just members of the community informing other members of the community about an unsavoury character in our midst.’
‘What community? You don’t live here!’
He gestured for his mates to look at me, as though by losing my temper I’d proved his point.
I glanced down the street. We’d been on Oakfield Road for fifteen years, moving here from our poky Clerkenwell flat soon after Ally was born. It was pleasant enough, quiet and tree-lined, only five minutes’ walk to Finchley Central Tube, the kind of street where hedgerows were trimmed into geometric shapes and almost every car was German.
Thankfully, it was quiet now, the kids and commuters home. Even so I could sense the twitching curtains, the peering eyes. Without a doubt we’d be the main discussion over dinner. I’d never given much thought to my ‘good name’ before, but you don’t, do you? Not until someone takes a dump on it, then passes the photos round your neighbours. What was on those leaflets? What were they saying about me? I wasn’t perfect. I’d done things that made me ashamed. Things not even Gabrielle knew about, let alone the whole neighbourhood.
‘Look,’ I said, forcing my voice to be calm, ‘imagine if it was your daughter being harassed by a website. I couldn’t just do nothing. Wouldn’t you want to protect your family?’
‘But you’re a dangerous person, Edgar.’ Handsome’s smile went sly. ‘You want to shut down free speech. Just like the Nazis, eh? Kind of ironic, don’t you think.’
He made a sound through his teeth like escaping gas.
He was trying to trigger me – and it was working. The throb in my temple had intensified so much it felt like my whole face was pulsing. I was clenching my jaw so tight an ache had spread down my neck. I glanced at the house and saw Gabrielle by the window.
‘Not bad,’ he said, giving her a little wave. ‘May be worth a ride, after all.’
‘If you touch her¾’
‘Then again, there’s four of us here. We’ll probably just wait for your daughter to get home and have a party.’
I stepped towards Handsome, finger out, ready to say he’d gone too far, but the giant fucker behind him shot out an arm and gave me a sharp slap to the face with a hand that I’m pretty sure was hewn from granite. I staggered sideways, disorientated, clutching my eye, pain vibrating down my spine. Someone stuck out a leg, tripping me. I dropped to my knees on the pavement.
‘That’s a warning,’ he said. ‘Next time, I’ll cave your fucking head in.’
My vision swung to the dining-room window, Gabrielle standing there, her hand over her mouth. I forced myself to stand.
The big bloke’s face soured. ‘Did I tell you to get up?’
I shook my head quickly and dropped back down.
‘Good boy,’ he said.
They started chatting about the Arsenal game, like they were down the pub instead of outside my house. I stayed on the ground for a few minutes, staring at the moss growing between the paving slabs, too scared to move, too ashamed to lift my head. Too weak to fight for my family.
Soon the shame became too much and I darted for the house. They laughed as I ran, but didn’t come after me. I stormed back into the dining room, straight to my whisky decanter, poured myself a triple, maybe more, and drank it with a shaking hand.
Gabrielle put a hand on my back. ‘Oh my God, Ed. Are you okay? Do you want some frozen peas?’
The pain from the blow had faded after the initial shock. I tried to count myself lucky not to be speeding to A&E with a broken nose, but it failed to calm me down.
‘Did they say anything about Alison?’ she asked.
I finished my drink, wincing at the burn. ‘Yes … no … I don’t know.’
‘That’s it now, Ed. This is too much. I’ve tried to be supportive, but it’s stupid what you’ve done. You don’t know these people—’
‘I promised Ally—’
‘She’s a child!’
I spun, suddenly giddy, wanting to lash out. ‘I thought she was old enough to disappear on Friday night without telling her parents.’
‘For someone so smart,’ Gabrielle said, ‘you can be a real idiot.’
‘I don’t know what to do.’ I slumped against the sideboard.
‘You know what to do.’
‘Ally made me promise not—’
‘One of them just punched you!’
‘Actually, it was a slap.’
‘I can’t do this, Ed.’
By ‘this’, she meant our little dance, our particular pattern of bickering, Gabrielle getting increasingly irritated with my nippy lawyer comments until she stormed off. Every couple has their routine for having a row, and this was ours. Most of the time we were great together – we laughed a lot, we supported each other, and even after twenty years we remained affectionate – but ever since Ally got on the wrong side of that website, practically every conversation ended up in the same death spiral.
‘Come on, Gab,’ I said. ‘It was meant to be a joke.’
‘Oh yes. Violent men outside our house. How very droll.’
Her phone buzzed on the table as a text came through. She grabbed it and unlocked the screen. ‘Alison!’
And just like that, the tension keeping me rigid dissolved, leaving my legs so weak I had to grip the sideboard to stay standing. I’d been picturing her bound and gagged in some grimy basement, or being found dead in a park by someone out walking their dog.
‘She’s gone to Brighton with friends,’ Gabrielle said. ‘Back Sunday.’
‘She’s gone where?’ It was one thing to stay out late without texting, another to disappear for the weekend, only telling your frantic parents while hurtling down the motorway in a campervan.
Gabrielle sighed. ‘At least she’s safe.’
‘Does it even say who she’s with?’ I was furious with Ally – I couldn’t believe she’d do something so selfish.
‘It doesn’t say much.’
I took the phone and read the message. Gabrielle saw my look of horror.
‘What?’ she asked. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘This text,’ I said. ‘Ally didn’t write it.’
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