Finding Daniel – Chapter 57

Going through the paperwork and filling in forms seemed interminable.  They’d booked on-line why did they have to do it all again?  When they came to the driving licence and credit card bit they had to charm the receptionist. The names on both were supposed to match but a story about a break in at their house, a suggestion of emotion from Sally, causing Dan to wrap his arm around her shoulder and whisper quietly to her did the trick and eventually the forms were completed. It was a neat bit of acting and they surprised themselves.  Feeling a mixture of guilt and triumph they walked around the white van, inspecting the paintwork and signing that they agreed with the condition.  Sally tried not to think beyond the moment because when she did her stomach clenched with nerves and she was continually fighting nausea as the urge to run almost overtook her.

“So this is a twenty-four hour rental?”  The receptionist didn’t look at them but typed continually into the computer, and you will be returning the vehicle to this depot?”

As Sally opened her mouth to respond Dan placed his foot on top of hers, pressing down gently.  She glanced at him but held her tongue.

“Can we leave it somewhere else then?”

“Oh yes, we do one way hire and you can leave the van at your destination providing we have a depot nearby.”

“Okay, we’ll do that then.”

“Where will you be leaving it?  I need to change the booking, again,” she sighed and rolled her eyes. “And I’ll have to give you details of our collection point.”

“Newcastle.”  It took all her resolve not to glance at him.  Sally bent to fiddle with a shoelace until her expression was back under control.  What the hell was he thinking? They were going to Dover weren’t they?  They were taking the women to the coast.”  He slid an arm around her waist and gave a little squeeze.  Okay, she would wait, he’d thought of something.

Eventually it was all done.  By the time she sat in the driver’s seat Sally’s hands were damp with sweat and shaking with nerves.  Daniel laid a hand on her leg.  “Take a deep breath Sal, you can do this.  Don’t screw it up, just drive slowly and then as soon as we’re out of sight I’ll take over.  She couldn’t speak, but nodded and conjured up a smile.  She let in the clutch and the big vehicle moved towards the yard gate and turned into the mercifully light flow of traffic.

“Hey, it’s not that hard really.”

“Watch the parked cars Sal, you’re awfully close.”

“Right, right, sorry that’s the only thing, getting used to the size but apart from that it’s no different from driving a car.

“Do you want me to take over or can you manage?”

“No, actually I think it’s okay.  I need to know which way to go though.”

“Take the next left and head towards the motorway.”  She rolled her shoulders and took a deep breath.

“Okay, why on earth are we going to Newcastle?”

“We’re not.”

“But you said… …”

“I know, but it was a spur of the moment thing.  I thought it might be better if we didn’t have to bring the van back here, then I thought we didn’t want to tell them where we were going.”

“What, why?”

“Well, we don’t know what’s going to happen.  If the police get involved and they have the registration and so on it might be better if they don’t know which way we’re headed.  I’m just trying to think on my feet here Sal, I could be completely wrong – how the hell do I know?”

“Yeah but they’ve got our address and my driving licence details and stuff.  If we don’t leave the van where we said we would we’ll be in trouble.”

“I have a horrible feeling we are going to end up in trouble anyway love.  I don’t know how we’ll get away with all this without some sort of comeback.  I’m sorry.”

“Stop bloody apologising will you. But why Newcastle?”

“It was just the first big town I thought of, I remembered your face when I said we could go to Newcastle, you looked so shocked.  To be honest it was a bit funny. We’ll just leave the van in Dover, they must have a depot there.  We’ll tell them there was a change of plan.  The most they can do really is keep our deposit.”

“Hmmm.  Right, am I going on the motorway?”

“No, at the roundabout take the second exit and then I should be able to find the Paint Ball place.” … …

There were a few frustrating wrong turns.  Sally struggled reversing and manoeuvring the clumsy vehicle in narrow roads but after forty-five minutes Daniel reached across and touched her arm.

“Pull in Sal, over there by those trees.”

Once the engine was stilled she took a moment, flexing her cramping fingers and easing tense shoulders, rolling her head from side to side.  “Well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought but I’m glad it’s over.”

“You did brilliantly.  I’ll drive from now on if you like but you really had it sorted.”  They looked at each other.  It was happening and they had no idea what “it” was going to be.  “Do you see just down beyond that broken gate?”  Dan had leaned across to point along the lane.

“Yup.”

“Okay well the road turns up ahead and the house is just beyond the bend. We need to have the van nearer.  The closer the better I should think but let’s go and have a look round first.”

“I need to pee.  I’ll go over there.”  She pointed to a narrow hedge.

Once she was comfortable Sally leaned against the trunk of an old tree.  Tears flooded her eyes, she had never been so scared.  Even when they had locked her up in that horrible little room she had dealt with things as they had happened and hadn’t had the time to feel this accumulation of fear.

Why was she doing this, becoming involved with women she didn’t know, crime that she had no part of?

It was for Daniel.  All for him.  Those endless days not knowing where he was had proved that life without him was not what she wanted.  She took in a deep breath of the thin country air.  She would do this and they would put it behind them and then they would go back to being Sally and Daniel, ordinary and simple.

She waved across the road to where she knew he would be watching from the cab of the little van.  A moment later he clambered out and closed the door quietly.  He crossed the road to join her.  They didn’t speak as they bent below the level of the hedge and moved away towards the rambling house up ahead.

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Finding Daniel – Chapter 56

“So, who do you usually rent your vans from when you rescue damsels in distress?”  They had left the park and were striding, hand in hand back towards the station.

“Oh I use a bloke down near the canal.”  Sally glanced up, unsure how much of his answer was a desperate attempt at levity.

“Really, do you know someone?”

“Kind of, I did rent a van once when Freddy moved out of the flat we shared.  It was years ago, but I suppose it’s a start.”

In the event the old van rental company was long gone and they found a dingy internet café, browsing on a slow old machine, questioning Google incognito.  They were on edge and nervous the whole time.

“One of the first things I’m going to do when this is over is replace my smart phone. I wonder where my poor car is.”  As she said it Sally was swept by a wave of shame.  “Bloody hell, listen to me.  Women with no money, no freedom and no way out and I’m moaning about my mobile and my car.”

“Yes, but Sal, we live in our own realities, we have to.  Don’t beat yourself up.  Think about what you’ve just agreed to do eh?”

Initially it seemed they would be out of luck.  The first two places had nothing for immediate rental and suggested that in future they book in advance.  All that remained were the nationwide companies.  It would be more expensive but according to the information at least they could pick up a vehicle quickly.

“We’ll have to use your driving licence Sal, mine was in my wallet and they kept that.  Do you have your cards with you?”

“No of course not, the replacements haven’t arrived yet.”

“Huh, how were we going to pay for a train anyway, I just assumed you’d have cards I haven’t got any.  They took everything off me. I don’t believe this. Oh bugger do you have your licence?”

“I do.  I know you’re always going on about me carrying it with me, but it was in my dresser drawer as usual.  See I was right after all.”  She dragged out the little plasticised card and waved it at him.  It’s all I’ve got just now for i.d.  Can we do the van hire on line do you think?  Can you remember your card number?”

“I’ve got it written down at the house.  I know, don’t look at me like that!  It was such a pain always having to go and get it to do online shopping so I wrote it on the inside of my desk drawer.  I didn’t write the security number down though.”

“Can you remember it?”

“I can as a matter of fact.”  He grinned at her.

“We’ll have to go back then, back home.”  As she said it Sally remembered watching with sick horror as their house was invaded and she shivered.”

“Are you okay?”  She shook her head but her words contradicted the negative gesture.

“Yes, it’s just that – you know they’ve been in there and we don’t know what we’ll find.”

“Oh right.  Would you rather not come?  I can go and get the number and meet you.”

“No, no come on we’ll go and we’ll face it and fix it and then we’ll carry on.” … …

It wasn’t as bad as they had feared. The window was smashed but Andrei and his mate hadn’t torn up the place, they had obviously been there just to find Daniel and when they didn’t, they had left things as they were.  There was an air of threat but Sally knew it was mostly because she had watched the insult to their privacy taking place rather than anything more concrete.  So, she pushed the feeling aside and helped Daniel to secure the door temporarily with wood and nails.

He dragged out the top drawer of his desk and copied the numbers from where he had scrawled them on the inside.

His laptop and tablet were long gone and Sally’s needed to be plugged into the mains to power up but then it was a matter of a few minutes to book a van and arrange for collection within the hour.

“I’ve never driven a van Daniel.”

“Well if you can manage to drive it away from the place I can take over.  Okay, we’re not supposed to, but I think that’s the least of our problems right now isn’t it.”

“Let’s get on with it then. Do you need to get a map, you know to find the place?  We don’t have any up to date ones since we bought the Sat Nav.”

“No, I can remember where the Paint Ball place is and I think I’ll be able to find it from there.  Anyway I bet the van’ll have a map in it.”

“Come on then.”  As they reached the door he stopped and wrapped his arms around her.  “Sally, I am so sorry I got us into this mess.  If I’d have known I would never have gone poking my nose in.  If I had known I was going to put you in danger for one second I wouldn’t have done it.”

“I know.  But, at the end of the day someone has to do something about this stuff and it looks as though that’s gonna be us!”

“You amaze me.”

“Yeah well, we haven’t done it yet and I don’t mind telling you I’m scared stiff.  Let’s just get on with it, apart from anything else we don’t know how long we’ve got.”  As she turned away Sally’s face grew hot with shame.  Daniel wouldn’t have been quite so impressed had he known just how hard she was praying that when they got there they would find the house empty and everyone long gone.

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Finding Daniel – Chapter 55

“Have you any sort of a plan, more than just hope Dan?”

“Not really, I thought that if I could just help them to get out; then maybe they could avoid the police.”

“But where would they go?  How would they live?” For a while he didn’t answer; then he mumbled.

“Maybe there’s someone who could help?”

“How do you mean?” Sally could imagine no-one they could turn to if not the authorities.

“Well, you know the Salvation Army, something like that?”

“I’ve no idea, what the hell do we know about this stuff?”

“Well, they can’t just run out into the country can they?”

“No, no of course not. Do you think they would go home?”

“I imagine so, if they had the chance.  What they have isn’t what they thought was going to happen and surely going back home is better.  Isn’t it?”  He turned to her, a frown creasing his brow.  Wouldn’t you rather go home, no matter how poor it was rather than that, being used like that?”

“Well of course but then we’re so lucky aren’t we.  It’s hard for us to imagine what it’s like.  What if we give them the chance to leave?  I don’t know how we could do that, but just say we did what if they don’t want to go back.”

“It’s all too complicated anyway isn’t it?  I don’t know if they have money or anything.”

“How many of them were there Dan?”

“Oh, I don’t know, about twelve or so.”  He closed his eyes, trying to visualise the house where they had all been together but it was impossible to guess.  “No, I don’t know, not accurately, does it really matter?

“Oh, I don’t know, I just thought you know, we have some savings and if we could afford it we could pay for them to go on the ferry, you know to France, at least they would be on the way.  It’s not that expensive is it, for foot passengers?”

“And you’d do that?”

“Well, it was just a thought. It’s stupid though.”

“I love you so much Sal.”  For a moment emotion overwhelmed them both and robbed them of further conversation. “Do you think we could?  You know get them out.  Okay, we can’t realistically arrange for them to get home, it’s a lovely thought but it’s just not happening is it?”

“No, it’s not.”

“But if we gave them the choice, what if we just gave them the choice?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, just imagine if we could go and help them to get out and you know, take them somewhere.”

“How?  Where?”

“Okay, stay with me on this.  What if we were to get a van or something, you know rent one, or a minibus.  What if we did that and then go and take them away. Down to the coast perhaps, Dover, near the ferry.  What if we just gave them the chance?”

“No, it’s ridiculous Dan, we sound like the bloody Famous Five or something. We can’t… … Can we?”

“Just the chance, we could just give them the chance.”

“But what about their papers, they can’t leave the country without their passports can they?  I mean really what’s the point of them turning up at Dover and not being able to get onto a ferry because they can’t get through emigration.  No, it’s stupid.  There’s no choice Dan, if you want to help them you have to go to the police.”

He slumped forward, his hands hanging limply between his knees.  “Yeah, you’re right, I hate it but you are right.  We can’t help them on our own.” And then she saw the tear fall from his lowered face and splash against the denim of his jeans.

“Oh sod it Dan lets go and hire a van.”

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Finding Daniel – Chapter 54

He kissed her and for a while they sat in silence watching the birds and the sway of the tree branches in the slight breeze.  Babies in buggies and toddlers on tiny scooters and three wheeled bikes, it all went on around them, normality.  In the end though they had to move, nothing had changed with the sharing of knowledge and they still had no plan.

“So, what do you want to do Sal?”

“I want to close my eyes and open them again with all of this gone.  I want to go to Spain or Portugal and sit on the beach and for everything to be ordinary.”  She turned to him.  “More than anything though Daniel I want to be with you.  When I thought that you had left me I was lost.  When I believed that I was going to have to carry on without you, I didn’t see how I could do it and when I thought that I might never see you again, life seemed worthless.”

“I’m so sorry.”  He wrapped his arms around her and held her close, sheltering her from the chill and taking comfort in the closeness of their bodies.

“We have to do something though don’t we?”  She was murmuring now, her voice muffled by the cuddle.  “If you won’t go to the police, we have to just do something else.  We have to find a way back.”

“I have tried Sal, I really have.  When I came to the house, to collect my stuff I wasn’t intending to run, I wasn’t just going to leave you.  I was going to try and sort it and then come back.  I want you to know that I never had any intention of leaving for good.  The thing was, being there, in our place, seeing your things I couldn’t even do that.”

“Well, I’m glad.  Tell me though; what were you planning on doing?  Had you thought it out?”

“I had a sort of an idea.  Not much more than a wish really to be honest.  What I would like to happen.”

“What was that?”

“Well, I thought, if I could get the women out.  The ones I know about anyway.  If I could get them out and away then maybe it would be okay to call the police after that.  If it was just about Braithwaite and the Russians and property, maybe I could report it.  I didn’t know he was dead but, maybe in a way that makes it even better.  If the girls weren’t there maybe we could somehow point the police in the right direction and they would investigate.  At the least they would find out about the money laundering and the fraud and if his death wasn’t suicide well, maybe it would all work out for the best. Do you think?”

She didn’t answer, it was all too big, too scary but at least now she understood.  Her instinct was still to take it to the police.  She wanted to lay it all out in front of Sharon Bleasedale, let her take over and for them to just walk away.  She had to respect Dan’s instinct though, this desire he had to help the women.  She knew that if she didn’t help him then it could haunt them for a long time, maybe forever.

“Are they still there do you think?  The women, are they still at the stables or whatever it was?”

“I don’t know, I suppose so. Now they don’t have access to the other properties I don’t see what else they can do except to stay put.  When you think about it though that can’t last for long because soon now somebody is going to start looking at Braithwaite’s files and then the shit is really going to hit the fan.  They must know that.”

“Maybe then whoever looks at the files will see the fiddling and you won’t have to do anything.  You can be as surprised as everyone else.”

“God Sal, you’re right.  It’s all going to come out anyway.”

“You could just say nothing about any of it.  The office seem to think that you’re off sick.  You could just go back in next week and keep your head down.”  She felt him pull away, his arms loosening slightly in the embrace, a distance developing between them.  He wasn’t going to turn his back on the trafficked women and she loved him more in that moment than she ever had before and hadn’t believed that could be possible.

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Finding Daniel – Chapter 53

“When I first understood what was happening I was going to go to Braithwaite.  I intended to tell him I knew.  I was still unsure though, it seemed impossible.  He was there every day just as normal.  Swanning into the office, going out to lunch with clients, all the ordinary stuff and it just didn’t compute with what I was seeing.  On top of that I didn’t want to screw up my chance of promotion, that seems so puerile now but it’s true. So I decided to go to one of the properties.  One of the ones that he seemed to be renting out without permission.  I was so caught up in it all, all the drama.  It felt like a play, a film or something.  God what a prat I am.”   Sally didn’t speak; she remembered her own actions, following first Braithwaite and then the white van.  She knew only too well how easy it is to be stupid and do irrational things, caught up in the moment.

“But why didn’t he just keep them secret, how come the information was there?”

“They are long standing accounts Sal, he couldn’t just suddenly delete them, that would look really odd don’t you see?  He had to keep things looking normal.  I went back a way and up to about three years ago everything was just as it should have been.  Something happened back then but I don’t know what it was.”

“Right, sorry carry on.”  Daniel glanced around and shifted in his chair.

The café was busy now and people were crowding against them.  They collected their bags and moved out into the crush of rush hour.  “Let’s get out of here.  The rain’s stopped lets go down to the park.  Somewhere out in the open but away from this crowd.”

They moved quickly through the busy streets and into the green space where they sat on a damp bench.  There hadn’t been time for talking and so Sally had turned all the information over in her mind.  There was still so very much that she didn’t understand.

“Right, where was I.  Okay, so I decided that I would go to one of the properties.”  She nodded to let him know that she had kept up with the story.  “I thought that if I went and found that this house, supposedly empty, was actual being lived in then I would confront him.  I thought that he would have no other option but to confess and – oh I guess I wanted him to resign and so on.  At that point I thought it was all still about money you know.  So, I waited until you were asleep and I crept out.  I didn’t take anything with me because I didn’t intend to be gone long.  I bought a cheap phone but one with a decent camera.  I didn’t want to risk using my own phone.  I couldn’t have anyone else seeing the pictures and you know what it’s like with Google, you take a picture and before you know where you are it’s on all your social sites and stuff.  I didn’t feel confident that I could control all that.”

“That was one of the things that I didn’t understand, how you’d left your phone.”

“Well, I had one didn’t I?  I didn’t think I might need another one.”

“I took a taxi to near the house.  When I got there it was obvious it was being used so I took some pictures; you know the lighted windows and so on.  I made sure I had the date stamp on the phone.  Bloody clever wasn’t I?”  He gave another bitter laugh.  It was tearing her apart to watch him, so disgusted with himself, so disappointed. She laid a hand on his thigh and he wrapped his fingers around hers.

“Anyway, then I thought I’d get nearer and take pictures through the windows.  Proper proof you know, people actually inside the house. Well I got some pictures alright.  Clambering around on garden furniture and stuff to see into places.  It was horrible Sal. The stuff that was going on was awful.  These poor girls, the way that they were being treated, made to do stuff, oh stuff I don’t want to even talk about to you.  I was appalled.  I took some pictures and I was going to go to the police, at that point I’d decided.”

“Well there we are.  That’s what I’ve been saying all along.” He held up a hand to quiet her.

“I was sneaking away when the door opened and a couple of blokes came out.”

“Oh God, Oh Dan.”

“I was trapped wasn’t I?  You’ve met em Sal.  You know what they’re like.  So, I told them that I worked with Braithwaite; I told them that he had sent me to the house.  They didn’t seem surprised.  That’s how come I can’t risk taking all this to the office, I think others there are involved and have used the place, the girls you know.  I was terrified he’d be there but he wasn’t.  To be honest I don’t think he ever did go to those places himself; he kept it all at arm’s length.”  He shook his head.  He didn’t look at her but stared ahead, she knew he wasn’t watching the ducks or the children but reliving the fear and the disgust.

“They thought I was there for the women, you know for sex.  I was so bloody scared, and appalled.  I spun a yarn.  I told them that I was just checking up because the house owners had been in touch, they were coming back and we needed to see what the condition was so we could arrange cleaning, repairs  and so on.  The more of a story I concocted the worse it got, I mean it was the middle of the night.  They wanted to know when the owners would be returning.  I couldn’t give them a date because it was a lie.  They wanted to know why Braithwaite hadn’t been in touch personally, I said it had been a sudden thing and anyway I worked for him.  It was all so flimsy and it was obvious they were becoming more suspicious but they went along.  Looking back I guess they assumed I really wanted the girls, that I’d want to, oh what was it they said, ‘Use the facilities’.  I guess they thought I was a right dork, too embarrassed to say what I really wanted.  Anyway they just took me inside. That’s when I met the girls, one girl in particular.  They just picked one from a group sitting around in a room downstairs and told her to ‘be good to me’.  They treated her like a servant, a slave, she had no choice but to do as they said.  They expected me to have sex with her, took us to a room upstairs, gave me drinks and I had to appear to go along with it but I didn’t Sal, you have to believe that, I didn’t have sex with her.”  When he looked at her now she couldn’t speak but she nodded, giving him reassurance, showing him faith.

“What I did do though was to talk to her.  She told me about it.  They believe they’re coming to UK to get jobs as secretaries, nannies and so on.  They’re smuggled in and then they have to work to pay for their passage or their families have to find the money back in their own countries.  If they don’t do as they are told then the families back home are threatened, beaten up and so on, it’s ghastly.  I told her I didn’t want sex, that I was from a solicitors; that we were landlords for the house owners and maybe that meant something. Perhaps she thought I was official and could help, I don’t know.  It all seems so ludicrous now but I was winging it and somehow it worked with her, mind you her English was poor so I don’t know how much she understood really.  She may just have been scared and wanted to let me know it wasn’t what she had chosen, but I think she hoped I could help her, they are all desperate.”

“What about the phone?  Did they find the phone, the pictures?”

“No, I’d dropped it into the shrubs.  That’s how brave I am.  Some super hero.  Anyway, obviously they couldn’t be sure about me so, they were pretty polite, not knowing whether or not I was legit.  Of course once they’d been in touch with Braithwaite they took me to one of the other properties and kept me there.  I was locked in a room.  I ranted and raved and told them that people knew where I was and so on but it was no good.”

“So, that’s why he came to the house, Braithwaite, he wanted to know whether or not you really had told anyone. He was clever, he pretended he didn’t know where you were.  Oh yes, Do you think he could have booked you time off work, in the records.  They thought you were on holiday.”

“Oh yeah, that would be easy for him. Well of course up until then he had been clever hadn’t he?  I think you pretty much know the rest.  They went to our house a couple of times, for my phone and so on.  I guess they just wanted to see how much I knew, whether or not I had anything to use.  Anyway, in the end they knew it all, I had copies of files and stuff.  They told me their big boss had sent for Braithwaite. He was in trouble, had to explain how I’d found out and they were going to make him involved in what they decided to do about me.  I think they were going to get rid of me, you know permanently.  They enjoyed telling me all this, scaring me.”  Sally gasped and he pulled her close. “I think that was when they found you.  Though they terrified me with the story of them abducting you it seemed to have wrong footed them.  Of course I know why now, you turning up like that.   Anyway, they just kept me there, at the house.  I don’t quite know what happened after that but there was mayhem a couple of days later, all the girls brought to the house I was in.  No parties, no sex things just everyone kept locked in.”

“That must have been when I got away.  They knew that I would tell people so they gathered everyone and ran. How did you get out though?”  She was surprised when he began to laugh.

“Through a toilet window!  Yes you might well look surprised.  It’s one of the daftest things about this whole story.  The place we were kept in is way out in the country.  There’s no mains drainage just a septic tank.”  He turned to her and at the look on her face, puzzlement and confusion he laughed again.  “Yes, because everyone was now in the same place the toilets blocked up.”  He was shaking his head, he ran a hand across his face.  “They had to adapt!  The place was beginning to stink and they had to use the toilet block outside.  I think it’s some sort of outdoor pursuits centre or something, or at least it has been, maybe it used to be stables. I remember it from way back, it’s near that Paint Ball place we’ve been to on Stag weekends. Anyway, there are blocks of toilets with a separate tank, like a campsite or something and they had to use those.  Well Xander and Andrei are not the sharpest tools in the box and they were really brassed off the way they suddenly had to escort people to the bog and having to rough it a bit and then, day before yesterday I just slipped out of the toilet window.  It was old and rotten, really easy to push out and they were bored and sloppy, no security at all to speak of and I just took off and ran. It’s bloody stupid isn’t it?  I knew they’d be after me but I ran anyway.  Thank God for all the jogging, I’ve never run so fast in my life, wish I’d had my Garmin with me.”

His laughter had broken the mood and they found themselves giggling, there on the soggy bench in the watery sunlight with their lives in turmoil, they sat and held each other and snickered like teenagers about blocked toilets and overflowing drains.

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Finding Daniel – Chapter 52

The station wasn’t empty of course, but it was quiet.   Some of the coffee stands were open and the newsagents.  There were a couple of groups and a few single travellers studying departure boards or fiddling with bags and mobile phones.

Sally and Daniel stood hand in hand before the electronic read out.  “So, where do you think?” As he spoke Dan turned and looked down into her worried face.  She just pursed her lips and shrugged her shoulders. He lifted his eyes back to the list of cities and timings.

“I don’t know Dan, I just don’t know.  This feels surreal.  I mean what are we doing?  Why are we running?  What are we going to do when we get to wherever we’re going?”  She looked up at him now, tiny lines furrowed between her brows as she waited for him to answer.

“Well, we could go north,” He gave a short laugh, “probably not Newcastle.  But you know just away from here, somewhere safe.”  He felt her move and glanced from the board again.  Sally was shaking her head.

“It’s wrong Dan.  It’s just wrong.  I don’t understand it, you need to tell me all about it, everything.  But this –running away – being driven away from our home and our lives, why should we do it?”

For a moment he just watched her.  “Come on,” he pointed in the direction of Costa, “it’s time to talk about it all.  I’ll tell you what I know and we can decide together what we should do.  Is that okay.”

“Yes, please.”  Sally even managed a small smile as he bent to kiss her lips.

“Do you want something to eat?”

“No, oh well okay.  A cherry Danish, and a cappuccino, large.”  She left him at the counter and made her way to a table for two in the corner of the little space.  She could see the door and watch through the window.  The crowd was already swelling as the station came to life and the first of the trains came and went.

After he joined her they unloaded the tray, fiddling with little tubes of sugar and wooden stirrers.  They took a moment to simply be together and sip the coffee and take a couple of bites of sweet pastry.  It was ordinary, for just a couple of minutes they were back in their own lives,  back when they had gone away for weekends, starting early just like this.  When life was simple and easy.

“Right, well here we go.” Dan reached across the table to squeeze her fingers.  Then he cradled his huge coffee cup with both hands and, after a moment sorting his thoughts began to speak, his voice low and private. “I’ll just go through it, I think that’s best and then you can ask me whatever you like and we can think about what to do.”  Sally didn’t speak.  She just waited.

“When they first told me that I was being considered for promotion, do you remember?” She nodded, “Well I was really chuffed and I wanted it, of course I did.  I did some studying, things I thought they might ask me at the interview, you know all the stuff you do to prepare.  Then I thought I’d go a bit further and really bone up on some of our other clients and properties and accounts.  As I was going to be in Braithwaite’s team it made sense to concentrate on the ones that he handled.”

“But, didn’t you know all about that anyway, you have worked under him for a while now?”

“Yes, I knew quite a lot, the ones that he had me working on.  But, I knew he had some bigger accounts and I supposed those would be the ones that I would work on if I got the promotion.”

“Oh right, and that was okay you looking at those?”

“Well, yes, it wasn’t wrong, not illegal or anything but it is just not what you usually do.  Let’s face it most of the time I was so busy with my own work I didn’t have time to go digging into anyone else’s and in any case there would be no need.  So, I just picked on a couple of his bigger accounts to familiarise myself so I could impress him with my overall knowledge.  I had no idea what a rat’s nest I was getting into and once I had started I had to carry on.”  He stopped for a moment and took a sip of the coffee.  His shoulders heaved with a sigh and he gazed out into the concourse at the mix and meld of moving colours.  “I don’t know now how I feel about it you know.” He glanced across the table where Sally sat quiet and still, giving him time and space to tell his story.  “Part of me wishes I’d just minded my own business, just done what I had to and never known what I have found out.  Then a part of me is convinced that, not only did it need to be found out but that something has to be done about it.  Of course the problem now is that I am the person who has to do something.”

“Yes, but Braithwaite is dead Dan, does that not make it easier?  I mean if he was doing something illegal, or whatever, it doesn’t matter now.  He’s dead.  Nobody can be hurt if you go to the police or your own people, the partners, and tell them.  I mean he’s dead.”

“Yes, he is love but the trouble is I don’t know how many other people are involved.  I don’t know if it was just him and the Russians or whether other people at the firm know.  Anyway, there are the girls and their families, and you and me and it’s so bloody complicated and I really wish that I could just turn away and pretend I don’t know but that was never on, not really.  Well, now with all that’s happened – shit Sal I just don’t know what to do for the best. Apart from anything else,” He stopped and stared at her, “I have doubts about how he died.  I don’t want to be dramatic here or anything but… …”

Sally tried to swallow the lump that had formed in her throat, he had verbalised her deepest fear.

“Really, do you really think it’s possible that it wasn’t suicide?” Daniel shrugged.

“It’s nasty Sal, all very nasty.  The first thing I noticed were that there were some properties in a couple of portfolios that didn’t seem to be properly listed.  I mean they were on the books but the paperwork, either the hard copies or the electronic records were odd.   There were bits missing.  So, oh now, how can I explain it.  To put it simply he was doing conveyancing on properties that hadn’t actually been sold.”  He shook his head.

“I’ll try to make it simple and quick.  Basically he was pretending to sell properties that weren’t for sale.  They existed, but mostly the owners were out of the country.  There are plenty of them, foreign owned ones where the Limited Power of Attorney has been signed over to the firm and he was buying and selling them but the owners just weren’t aware. It was money laundering.  He would sell one, put the money in an account and then just buy it back again.”

“Well okay that’s bad I know but Dan, what about the girls?”

“The more I looked into it the more involved it became and then  I found that not only was he laundering money through bogus property sales but he was renting out the houses, the client’s houses and the rent was going into an offshore account. Well you can see how that looked.”

“But, you never said.  You never gave me any idea.  I said that to Tess and Freddy over and over that you seemed fine.”

“Well, to be honest at first I thought I was wrong.  Then when I realised I wasn’t I had to hide it from you Sal, from you and everyone else.”

“Well you hid it well I have to say.”

“It moved pretty quickly and half the time I still believed it was all a mistake.  And then there was that night.  The night I had to go away.”

“Okay, it’s time then.  You need to tell me about that, all about that, because you nearly broke my heart Dan, you did.”

For just a moment they sat hands entwined, eyes locked on each other and he raised a finger and brushed away a tear from her cheek.  He took another big breath.  “Look the truth of it is that I’ve been stupid.  Really stupid.  I thought I was some sort of Super Hero or a – oh I don’t know – a private eye or something.  I should have stayed as I was, as I am, a junior conveyancing solicitor.”  Sally was shocked to see the glint of moisture in his eyes.  She pulled her chair closer and leaned to lay a hand on his arm.

“Dan, oh Dan – you’re not stupid.  You couldn’t ever be stupid.” He made a huff noise and shook his head.

“Yeah right. Okay, let me tell you Sal just how stupid I was.”

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Finding Daniel – Chapter 51

She could go back to the house now.  They had gone, hadn’t they?  Or, she could run away.  Off down the street towards the town and the station and escape.  Then again, maybe she could go to Tessa and Freddy’s and bring them up to date, call the police and tell them what had happened.

She didn’t do any of those things.  Sally simply slid to the floor and sat, legs bent and head lowered to her knees.  She didn’t cry there were tears enough but they didn’t flow, the helplessness and despair overwhelmed them.  Daniel had come back, after all the fear and worry he had come back.  She had felt his arms around her and now in a cruel twist he had been whisked away again.

It was impossible to see how she could go on now or which way to turn.  There was still mystery and confusion and more than ever there was fear.

“Sal, Sal.”  Though she heard him it didn’t make sense.  She stopped breathing, she didn’t even dare blink her gritty eyes.  “Sal, come on, you have to get up.”

She raised her head and slowly turned towards the entrance to the playing field.  “Dan?”

“Come on Sal we have to go.”

She rolled to her knees and pushed herself up and forward.  He was there, just around the corner with a black bag in one hand and the other arm out reaching for her. “I thought you were in the car, I thought they had taken you away.”

“Oh Sal, I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry about all of this.  Don’t cry love.  I’m here, I hid behind the bins, I was just lucky.  It’s okay but we have to move now and get away in case they come back.”

“But why would they come back now.  They broke in, they broke the back door, we have to go back and fix it.  They trampled the plants and broke the door and went into our bedroom, we need to go back.”

“We can’t, not now.  Once we get away I’ll ring Freddy, I’ll ask him to sort out the door but we can’t go home, not yet.”

He had taken her arm and pulled her with him across the field towards the gate at the other side.  “We’ll just get into town and decide where to head and once we’re safe we can think things out.  It looks as though I’m going to have to go to the police after all.”

“But, it’s the right thing to do Dan.  Fraud, robbery, break-ins – of course you should go to the police.  They can go after them and stop it all.”

“For us.”

“How do you mean, for us?”

“They can make things right for us but there are other people involved and for them the police are just about the worst option.”

“Who?”

“The girls.”

“Which girls – oh right the ‘sex slaves’.”  She raised her hands and flipped her fingers in the air – virtual quotes.

“Sally, you have no idea.  There are about two dozen of them and if they fall into the hands of the police it could be disastrous for them.”

“But why, the police can help them.  Can’t they?”

“If it was just England yes, possibly but it’s not.  They have families, children, sisters and the net stretches back to their own homes, their own countries and the English police can do nothing about the threat to them.  I don’t think so anyway.  I don’t know enough about it – all I do know is that they are vulnerable and frightened and I feel as though just dobbing them into the police is the wrong thing.”

“But where are they, all these girls.”

“Well, a couple of them were at the farm where you were.”  In the back of her mind Sally remembered the tapping, the communication through the wall and then the sobbing dying away slowly in the hallway.

“But you said there are a couple of dozen.”

“Yes, they move them around, in houses all over the place.  Big houses, empty ones, in areas where the police don’t go very often.”

“But how, you can’t hide people like that.  Do you mean slums, rough places, like squats?”

They had reached the main road now.  The early sun had given way to grey clouds and a dampening drizzle caused them to screw up their eyes and hunch shoulders as they dashed onwards towards the town centre.

“No, not slums. They use empty houses.  Big, empty houses where the owner’s are away.  That’s how I found out.”

He stopped and turned her towards him.  “Look Sal, it’s incredible – I know that and I’ll tell you all about it.  It’ll be a relief to talk about it, Braithwaite, the properties, the fraud and the poor girls, but first of all let’s just get somewhere safe.  Let’s get on a train or a bus or anything and get away from here.

Sally nodded and took his hand.  It was unbelievable that they had become embroiled in a world of crooks and fraudsters and danger.  But for now she concentrated on the feel of Daniel’s hand, warm in hers a comfort in the chill rain, and she placed her faith in him and just put one foot in front of the other on the increasingly rain drenched pavement.

 

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Finding Daniel – Chapter 50

She heard the car in the road, at first quiet in the distance, but coming closer.  It caused her no alarm, a car in the early morning why would she worry.  As the rumble of the engine grew louder though she could tell that it was speeding, the tyres squealing on damp tarmac.  It was close now, as the brakes screamed, surely just at the other end of the path, beyond the house.  There were shouts, the thunder of feet on the pavement and she pushed in beside the old wooden shed.  The side gate flew back on its hinges and bounced against the house wall.

She knew Xander immediately.  From where she hid pushed between dirty old wood and damp stone, she could see part of the lawn and the little border with bright flowers that were trampled beneath his running feet.  He tugged at the French doors and cursed when he found them locked.  He must have expected it because he thrust a hand into his jacket pocket and drew out a dark object which he used to hammer at the glass near the lock.

It was a good, modern door with double glazing and the toughened glass resisted the blows.  He tried smashing at the handle and she heard it crack under the onslaught but the multilevered bolt held and still he couldn’t pull back the sliding panel.  As she watched in disbelief he leaned back and screwed a silencer on to the gun he had been using as a hammer.  A dull thud barely disturbed the morning hush and the noise of the lock, handle and pieces of the door frame falling to the ground was louder by far.

By the time he slid the door open and stepped inside Andrei had joined him and they vanished into the little office space.  It was hideous to watch the intrusion, but even more frightening was the car engine still rumbling out in the road and she had no idea where Daniel was.

A shadow passed the landing window and then the curtains in the bedroom shifted and she assumed that was where they were now.  She couldn’t stay.

There was an old metal bucket and a step stool discarded beside the shed.  She dragged the rusting frame towards her but there wasn’t room to fully open it in the narrow gap where she hid.  All that was possible was to pull the legs slightly apart and then prop it against the wall.  She threw the back pack over into the field and waited, breathless and afraid to find whether or not they had heard the bump and rustle as it landed in the long grass.  After a few moments with no sound of running feet or yelling voices she assumed the two thugs were still searching inside the house.  Now, she must go quickly.  The old steps cracked and squeaked alarmingly and the shallow tops of the rungs had not been designed for standing on, but the whole was wedged tightly in the gap.  It gave her enough height to reach the top of the wall and scrabble and drag her lower body and legs up behind her, swinging them round to perch, wobbling and insecure almost on a level with the shed roof.  It was probably not quite six feet but, sitting astride the slimy top seemed a long way from the uneven ground on the other side.  Sally knew that she must roll when on landing, if she wanted to avoid a broken ankle or worse, and before fear took away the last of her courage she swung her legs over, sat for a second or two and then with a deep breath let herself go.

The ground was hard but cushioned a little by overgrown grass and weeds and, in the event the landing winded her but didn’t cause real harm.  She grabbed her backpack and then in a running crouch she made her way along the wall towards the gate several houses along the street.

The gate was never closed and she edged through until she had a clear view of the road and the car, still idling outside her own place.  She could see the driver who was leaning towards the window peering at the open gate where his companions had disappeared.  He turned and spoke to someone in the rear seat.  Was it Daniel?  There was no way to tell from where she was.

Racked with indecision and flooded with panic she clutched her bag to her and flipped her head back and forth.

The old mobile was in her pocket, if she called the police, could she convince them that the need for help was immediate?  There was no choice but to try.  She pushed her hand into her pocket and brought out the little handset, even before she looked at it her fingers felt the ugly crack in the case and though she stabbed in desperation at the lifeless buttons she knew that it had been destroyed when she landed in the field.

There was only one other option and that was to show herself and create mayhem.  As she steeled herself for exposure the house gate thumped again and the two Russians scuttered back to the car.  Andrei threw himself into the front passenger seat and Xander dragged open the rear door and before he had time to slam it shut the car sped away into the distance.  As it passed she had a fleeting glimpse of the occupants but no time to see who the fourth man was before it reached the end of the road and turning the corner it was gone, leaving Sally alone with the early morning quiet.

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Finding Daniel – Chapter 49

“I haven’t got the car Dan.  I don’t know where it is.  The police didn’t find it at the farmhouse.”

“Oh right, I didn’t know.  Why was it at the – ah, okay –  Braithwaite.”

“What do you know?  About all that stuff?”

“I thought I knew but, well now I see I was wrong.  They said they came here, they said that they took you from the house.  I was furious and scared for you, but they wouldn’t tell me where you were and then suddenly they said they’d let you go.”

“Oh Dan, that is so far from the truth, it’s just nothing like what happened.  But why were you talking to them, how did you get mixed up with them, Russians! What do you have to do with Russians.   And, where were you, I thought you were at the farmhouse?”

“No, I was at one of the other places, they own a lot of houses, that’s part of the whole thing.  Okay, it started because of work.  All because of work and Braithwaite.  I knew there was something going on and then I thought I could sort it, but I couldn’t.  It was all so much bigger, so much nastier.”

“What was it, what was going on?”

“Oh hell.  Erm, money laundering, that’s a start, fraud, but the worst of it, the reason I got so bogged down is the people.”

“People?”

“Yeah, people.  They traffic people.  Girls, they bring them here and they have them as slaves and they buy and sell them and they abuse them – God Sal you have no idea.”

“No, all that – it’s not true.  I’ve seen it on the tele, it’s just scaremongering and stuff.  It’s not to do with people like us.”

“Yeah.  Six months ago I would have agreed with you, shit six weeks ago I would have but that was before the promotion thing.”

“Your promotion?”

“Yeah, the promise of promotion really.  Do you remember?”

“Of course, I was talking to Tess about it.”

“Right, well, you know I really wanted it don’t you?”  She nodded, Dan moved to the bed and lowered onto the flowered duvet.  He looked weary and worried and her heart was sore for him. She slid beside him and took his hand.  “We don’t have time for this now Sal.  We should go.”

“Where though, where are we going?”

“Let’s go down to the bus, we’ll go into town and get a train. We’ll get away, just away.  Scotland maybe or Newcastle.”

Newcastle?” she looked at him, eyes wide, “Why Newcastle?”

He gave a small laugh when he saw the look on her face, it was as if he had suggested flying to Mars. “Oh I don’t know it just sounded far away. “Let’s just go, I’ll fill you in once we’re on the move.  I’ll feel better once we’re on the way from here and safer if we’re moving and in public.”

“Okay, but what time is it anyway?”

He glanced at his watch.  “It’s just after six.”

“I don’t think there are any buses until seven o clock.”

“Well we can walk.”  He shook his head and moved to the window.  Pulling aside a corner of the curtain he looked out into the grey gold light of coming dawn.  “Though actually, maybe not.”

“Why?  Are they there?”  Sally crowded in beside him, “Have they come?”

“I don’t think so but it’s only a matter of time.”  “God Sal, I don’t know what to do.  I really don’t.  What a failure I’ve turned out to be.”

“No, no don’t say that you haven’t, you’re not.”

“But look what I’ve done, Braithwaite’s dead, you were locked up and now I’ve brought more danger to you.”

It had begun to occur to her that he didn’t know the whole truth about her captivity.  He had never asked her if she was okay, he’d said nothing about the attempted rape.  Surely if he knew he would have mentioned it.  She didn’t know whether she should tell him about the horror and the wounds, physical and mental.  He was operating on adrenaline and was close to the edge of panic, if she told him it could be just too much and so she held her tongue.  Later, she would tell him later.

“Let’s risk it.  Let’s sneak out the back way, over the fance and down across the playing field.”

“I need to get my bag; it’s hidden by the bins.”

“Right, I’ll wait for you in the garden down at the end.” She hefted the backpack containing all that she could manage and slung her handbag across her body.  She didn’t have cards or identification. She had a little money and the old phone but she wouldn’t fuss about all that for now.  For now all that mattered was leaving with him which was infinitely better than staying without him.

They didn’t turn the lights on and when they opened the kitchen door Daniel held out a hand for a moment while he listened and peered out of the half open door.  When he was happy that he could detect no immediate danger he turned and kissed her quickly.  Sally stepped down the shallow step and turned left.  Clinging close to the wall she ran along the edge of the lawn and down to the end of the garden.

Daniel turned right, heading for the bin store near the side gate where he had hidden his bag.

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Finding Daniel – Chapter 48

“I can’t stay.  It’s not safe and I wish you’d go to Cyprus.  Your mum would love to see you, it’s over a year.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you know I can’t do that.  I can’t leave you now.  I’ve been lost Daniel.  I’ve been so lost and lonely and scared.”

“I know and I can’t even begin to tell you how it makes me feel.  To think that I’ve put you through any of this.  I would have cut of my arm first, but I had no choice.  It was all so sudden.”

“What happened? Why did you go, just disappear like that?  You must have known what I would think.” Then she remembered.

“Daniel do you know about Braithwaite?”

For a moment he just stared at her, uncertainty creasing the skin of his brow.  “How do you mean?”

“He’s dead.”

“Don’t be silly, what do you mean he’s dead?”

“He is, I went down there today.”

“Why?”

“Oh look.  Let’s sit down this is all so complicated.”

“I can’t, I can’t stay.  There are people, well those people from the house.  They mustn’t find me here with you.”

“Dan, they already know about me, they’ve already done just about anything they can do to me that they can.”

“I know, oh love I know – that tears me up but for now I think they are willing to leave you alone, but not me, not now.  Sally, this is so much more involved than I can explain just now but what makes you think Braithwaite’s dead?  That can’t be right.”

“It is.  I went down there today.  Of course you don’t know;  he came here, not long after you went away.”  As she said the words she reached out and took his hand, “He was really odd, threatening and unsettling.  That’s why I followed him to the house.”

“What do you mean you followed him?”

“Before they caught me, I followed him.”

“They didn’t come here?  They didn’t grab you from here?”

“No, I followed Braithwaite, I wanted to talk to him and then they grabbed him, least I thought they had and so I followed.  It was stupid and look where it ended.”  She shook her head.

“I didn’t know, I thought, well they let me think that they’d taken you from here.  They used it to scare me, to make me see that they would do whatever they wanted.”

“Well, anyway after I got away I decided that I would go back and find out what Braithwaite knew.  The police wouldn’t do much, they said they weren’t able to but I couldn’t stop.  They thought I should just stop looking for you and wait, but how could I.”  The tears had begun now and she wiped them away with her sleeve.  Daniel drew her back into his arms; stroking her back, kissing her hair.

The warmth of his body and the strength of his hands on her felt like home.  She drew in a breath.

“Well, when I got to the office Sharon was sitting at the desk crying and everything was really quiet and odd.  She told me, that he’d committed suicide by gassing himself in his garage.  It’s awful isn’t it?”

“Braithwaite!  Sal, put some stuff in a bag.  All we can do is go away.  Let’s just go away now you and me and then I’ll have to sort it all out.”

“Sort what out?”

“This bloody mess that I’ve got myself mixed up in. Let’s just go away.”

“Dan, why don’t we go to the police?  I have the number of a woman.  I was supposed to tell her if you came back.  We could just tell them everything.  Unless…”

“I can’t.”

“Have you done something criminal? If you have I’ll stand by you, we’ll get through it.”

“No.  I haven’t, truly I haven’t but there are other people, vulnerable people.  If I go to the police they will be in a real mess.  I don’t want to do that to them.  I promise you Sally, I haven’t done anything illegal.  That’s one of the reasons I have to get away, the Russians know I won’t.  Bloody hell, this is all so complicated.  Look, pack a bag and come with me.  If we can get away from here and I have time, maybe there’ll be a way to sort it out without too many people getting hurt, well any more hurt.”

“Russians?”  He simply nodded, “Crazy isn’t it.”

I’ll get my things.”

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