In 1996, three-year-old Maisie Matthews is abducted from a holiday resort in Spain. Twenty-three years later, someone is following romantic novelist, Anna Blake.
As Anna tries to discover her stalker’s identity, she finds herself embroiled in the mystery of the missing child. But finding answers only brings more questions and Anna becomes suspicious of the men in her life: Damien Davies, who has a grudge against her; old flame, Ewan Jacobs, who wishes to resume their relationship; and enigmatic Josh Fielding, who has recently moved into the village.
As events escalate and the search becomes a matter of life and death, Anna even doubts the people who are closest to her. Everyone is hiding something. Who is telling the truth?
How does she know Who To Trust?
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Under cover of night, the doctor slipped through the door and into the hospital. The reception area stood eerily empty in the half-gloom. Drink and confectionary machines stood silent as sentries; shuttered shop facades were the only witnesses.
The doctor strode down the deserted hospital corridor, stethoscope bumping in rhythm against the crisp, white coat. Without warning, a whey-faced nurse appeared from around a corner. A brief stab of panic, a slight nod of acknowledgement, then the woman was gone. Nothing to fear. Another turn; another empty space. Not far to go now.
Maternity ward. A moment’s hesitation before peering through the glass. A stroke of luck. The nurses’ station was unmanned. A bolt of elation fired renewed hope. It was possible. The doctor straightened, shoulders back, a figure of authority, before using a key card to gain entry. No-one saw. The murmured hum of voices drifted from the bay at the far end of the ward. Perfect. It was fate; it was meant to be.
The doctor crept into the nearest bay, enveloped in darkness. Only one bed was in use, a grey mound silently sleeping. A wheeled crib stood beside it. The baby girl briefly opened her eyes wide, pools of blue innocence, as the doctor loomed over her. An intake of breath. Waiting … The eyelids fluttered and closed. It had to be now. Slowly, gently, the doctor pushed the crib to the entrance of the bay and peered stealthily around the curtain. The coast was clear. Another deep breath. Now or never.
With a burst of feigned confidence, the doctor wheeled the sleeping infant out of the ward and along the corridor. The hardest bit was done. Swiftly along to a storeroom by the stairs at the rear of the hospital. Empty. A quick glance around. No-one there.
Abandoning the crib behind the door of the storeroom, the doctor cradled the baby, crooning softly. ‘Nearly there, my lovely.’
Down the stairs, the click of shoes beating a guilty tattoo and out into the night …
Later, looking back, I could pinpoint it exactly – a moment of silent recognition, a stab of disquiet. It was then. When it all started.
Driving to Norwich along the A47 in my black Fiesta, the sky benign with Mediterranean blues, I was unaware of what lay ahead. I’d turned off the dual carriageway, following the signs for the city centre and waiting at the first set of traffic lights. Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ was playing on the radio and I was belting it out when the words caught in my throat. That’s when it was – a glimpse of blue in my wing mirror. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the significance. But that was when the fear started and my life changed for ever.
Then, it gave me pause and I adjusted my rear-view mirror for a better look. It was an electric blue Peugeot 206. I frowned, turning my head, craning my neck to see more. A beep from behind jolted me forward, foot twitching against the accelerator pedal. The road was busy and we crawled forward to the next set of lights. Another look in my mirror. Impossible to tell. The Peugeot was about six cars back and in the same lane. I was trying to see if it had a large dent on the nearside front bumper. As the lights changed again, I switched lanes and kept checking my wing mirror. After a few seconds, the Peugeot also pulled out; I could see the dent clearly. It was the same car. And it was following me. Again.
I’d first seen the car last Saturday, driving to Swaffham to visit my parents, noticing it only because they’d bought me one, the same colour and model, for my seventeenth birthday, nine years earlier. Since its sale, two years ago, when I bought my Fiesta, I’d looked out for my trusty, old car. On that occasion, I spotted the dent in the front bumper.
‘Poor Percy!’ I’d exclaimed, the name I’d christened it. ‘Have you had a bit of a bump with your new owner?’
As I reached the drive to my parents’ house, the Peugeot had continued onwards and I’d checked the number plate. It wasn’t Percy. If only I could remember the number. Unfortunately, as soon as I realised it didn’t start with AU, I’d dismissed it from my mind.
I noticed the Peugeot with the dented bumper behind me once again on route to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn where I was taking Edith Swainsthorpe, a client of mine, for a knee x-ray.
‘Obviously belongs to someone local,’ I observed to Edith after telling her the Percy story.
Having spotted the same car twice more that week, always behind me, I began to wonder, with creeping unease, if it was something other than coincidence. I started to look out for it every time I took to the road. Then, today, as I turned off the A47 towards the city, there it was again.
Still I couldn’t quite believe it. Why would anyone be tailing me? It must be a mistake. I clamped down on the first fluttering of panic and decided to use the next set of traffic lights as a test. They were red and I sat in the middle lane, heading for Norwich city centre, planning my move. When the lights turned green, I accelerated and indicated left, nipping in front of the white van beside me with an apologetic wave. My eyes flicked again to the rear-view mirror. The Peugeot had also manoeuvred across the lanes and now sat four cars behind me. I felt a surge of anger towards the unknown driver. Who was he? What did he think he was playing at? My fingers gripped the steering wheel as I pulled out to overtake a cyclist. The Peugeot remained, locked on to the rear of my Fiesta like a guided missile.
What could I do?
Anxiety stiffened my spine as I processed my options. Pull over; let him pass. My mind played out the scenario. The Peugeot might pull in behind, prompting a confrontation. The thought of that held little appeal. Maybe it would continue past me and lie waiting, further ahead – a nerve-tingling game of cat and mouse. I didn’t like that idea either. Another option would be to do nothing, to continue on to Chapelfield’s car park. Wait and see what happened. But car parks are dark, anonymous places where a person might easily disappear. The thought sent my pulse skittering. The remaining choice would be best. Somehow, I would lose him.
A rush of adrenalin, knuckles whitening. Images from film car chases flashed through my head – drivers shooting between cars, avoiding oncoming vehicles, tyres screeching, horns blaring. Don’t be silly, Anna. I wasn’t about to attempt anything like that. It would have to be something more subtle, slipping out of sight somehow before he realised. Think, Anna! The voice in my head sounded urgent, panicky. Despite the air-conditioning, droplets of sweat tickled my brow as I waited for my chance ...
Without indicating, I swung my car left down a tree-lined avenue and then first left again, veering wildly around a parked car and earning an angry blast on the horn from the vehicle coming the other way. I swerved left again and raced to the end of the street preparing to turn right, back to the traffic lights. Cars streamed ahead of me, coming from both directions, forcing me to screech to a halt. Another glance in the mirror. The blue Peugeot was just turning into the street, wary now, maintaining a distance between us, perhaps wondering if he’d been spotted. A tiny gap allowed me to shoot forward and take my place in the steady flow of traffic. This time the lights were green.
‘Come on, come on!’ I exhorted the drivers ahead of me. They were moving so slowly; the lights would change at any moment. Sure enough, the amber light flashed and the car in front of me braked, ready to stop. Then, at the last moment, the driver changed his mind and continued forward, deciding to risk it. As I also sped past, the lights had already changed to red. I checked my mirror; no blue Peugeot.
I exhaled, not realising until then that I’d been holding my breath. Still, my eyes flipped between the rear-view and wing mirrors. At any moment, I expected to see him behind me. Every red traffic light set my heart racing; the wait for a green light felt interminable; the fear he would catch up consumed my thoughts. Another look. No blue Peugeot. I shook my shoulders, trying to relieve the tension. Surely now I was safe.
As my breathing steadied, I started to feel a bit stupid. I’d over-reacted. Nothing in my recent sightings of the blue Peugeot suggested that the driver wished me harm, I reasoned. If he’d wanted to attack, abduct or kill me, there had been opportunities.
My fear had been amplified by panic. That happened. I’d suffered from anxiety for as long as I could remember. It crept up on me, sometimes stealthily but often unexpectedly, sheer, gut-wrenching terror which left my insides squeezed dry and my muscles stiff with knots.
Still, the voice in my head argued, he was definitely following me. Perhaps I should inform the police. Almost immediately, I dismissed the notion. What could they do? No crime had been committed and I had no clue to the identity of the driver. I couldn’t even tell them the registration number. No, I’d be wasting their time. After all, they’d been unable to do anything when Alice Drinkwater, another client, had been burgled while she lay asleep in bed.
‘They just gave me a number – a crime number, I think they called it – and told me they’d let me know if they recovered any of the stolen property,’ Alice wailed over a cup of tea, her many chins shaking with a combination of indignation and distress. ‘As if I’m worried about that. It’s the invasion of my home I’m worried about. I can’t bear to think of someone creeping about, rifling through my things, while I’m tucked up in my bed. I haven’t slept a wink since.’
Poor Alice. She had not been in the village very long and her husband of thirty-six years had recently left her for his PA. I did my best to reassure her, stayed with her while a locksmith changed the locks and put her in touch with the Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator. Apart from that, there was little, it appeared, anyone could do.
I reached Chapelfield’s car park and reversed into a parking space. The dim, artificial lighting, the rumble of car engines and echoey thumps and rattles did little to soothe my frayed nerves. My mind might insist I was over-reacting but my body still quaked with pent-up fear. As I walked away from my Fiesta, I glanced nervously over my shoulder. The incident had shaken me, no question about it. A flash of blue in my peripheral vision made my heart lurch and muscles tense in anticipation. He was still following me; I hadn’t got away! I slipped through the glass doors and up the staircase leading to House of Fraser before I risked another look behind. No need to panic – it wasn’t him after all, not even a Peugeot.
‘Pull yourself together, Anna!’
An elderly woman walking towards me, laden with bags marked ‘Sale’ in big, red letters, gave me an odd look and I realised I’d uttered the words aloud.
‘Are you alright, love?’ she asked kindly. ‘You look very pale.’
‘I’m fine, thanks.’ I hurried on.
Why would someone be following me? Was he watching for a regular pattern, planning his move, deciding when best to pounce? If so, he’d soon discover I didn’t have a set routine. Most of my time was spent at home writing. I also did occasional, part-time work as a Girl Friday which meant I travelled when and wherever I was needed. These were usually one-off jobs; my writing schedule made me reluctant to commit to anything more regular. Today though, I wasn’t working. I’d driven the twenty-five-mile trip into Norwich for a shopping day with Madison, a close friend from university. A glance at my watch showed I was running late and I quickened my step.
Madison was waiting by the entrance to the café, her stocky frame leaning against the wall in an attitude of resignation. She was dressed casually in jeans and peering at something on her phone. With her shaggy, auburn curls, soulful, brown eyes and bouncy exuberance, she always reminded me of a spaniel puppy and the sight of her brought a smile to my face.
‘At last!’ she exclaimed as she greeted me with a hug. ‘I was wondering if you’d forgotten.’
‘Sorry.’ I clung to her a fraction too long. ‘Let’s get coffee. I’m buying.’
‘Is everything OK?’ Madison’s eyes narrowed as she stepped back. ‘You’re trembling!’
‘I’m fine.’ I flashed another smile, meant to reassure.
Her lips tightened as she watched me fumbling for my purse. Clearly, she wasn’t fooled but she waited until we were sitting at a corner table before interrogating me further.
‘OK,’ she said firmly as I clattered the tray onto the table. ‘What’s happened?’
She frowned, her raised eyebrows indicating disbelief.
‘Honestly, it really is nothing. I’ve probably just over-reacted to something, that’s all.’ As usual, I was reluctant to discuss my fears. I’d had a lot of practice at hiding things. My issues were a weakness I preferred to keep secret.
‘Anna, I’m sorry but I don’t believe you. Tell me what’s happened.’
I gave in. ‘You’re going to think I’m daft … the whole thing seems surreal now. Maybe I was just imagining it.’ I told her of my encounters with the blue Peugeot, concluding with today’s drama.
‘It could just be coincidence,’ Madison said slowly. ‘Have you told the police?’
‘No. It was only today I actually felt like I was being followed. Do you think I should?’
‘Maybe. It’s difficult when you have no evidence …’ She paused. ‘If you see that car parked anywhere near your house, you should definitely ring them … and you need to get the number plate.’
‘No kidding, Sherlock!’
‘Sorry!’ She gave me a rueful look. ‘If someone is following you, do you have any thoughts who it may be? I was listening to a programme on the radio the other week and they were talking about stalkers. Apparently, the majority are known to the victims, often ex-partners. Have you been out with any weirdos recently – anyone you haven’t told me about?’ She looked at me thoughtfully. ‘I know what you’re like. Men always make a beeline for you and you never have the heart to tell them to get lost.’
That was true. I’d even invented an imaginary boyfriend to put them off. Not all took rejection well.
‘You’ve been leading me on all night,’ one lad had sneered just a few weeks ago, slamming his beer glass down on the bar and pushing past me as he shuffled off. ‘Bitch!’
Disquiet at that latest incident came flooding back. What was his name? I couldn’t remember. Dave? That didn’t sound right but it was something like that. I was at a bar in Norwich with a group of friends from my spinning class. One of the girls, Fran, was celebrating her thirtieth birthday. The guy, whoever he was, had spent the evening telling me about his dad who had just been diagnosed with cancer. I’d tried to get away a few times but each time he’d forestalled me.
‘Just hang out with me for a bit longer, babe,’ he pleaded. ‘I don’t have anyone else to talk to and you’re a good listener.’
When he insisted on buying me another drink, I resigned myself to being a sympathetic ear for a little while longer. However, when he snaked his arm around my waist, I pulled away. That’s when I told him about Jeff, my boyfriend in the Marines whom I’d fabricated for just such occasions.
‘Is he here tonight?’ the guy asked belligerently. ‘If not, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.’ He reached for me again and I spun away, irritated.
‘Sorry. Look, I’m here with friends,’ I said firmly. ‘I really must get back to them.’ He stalked off with a few more choice epithets. Could he have followed me home that night and been doing so ever since? The thought chilled my bones. It was terrifying to think someone I’d met might wish me harm.
‘What about that guy you went out with a while ago? You know, the gorgeous, dark one who was a bit off the rails. What was his name?’ Madison’s voice interrupted my thoughts.
‘Ewan Jacobs.’ I knew who she meant. He was good-looking and definitely wild. Our relationship was erratic, to say the least, and ended when I suspected he was taking drugs. He wasn’t one of my better choices. Now, I put it down to my rebellious phase.
‘Yeah, Ewan. I reckon he’d be the type to hold a grudge. He always acted like the world was against him. Had a bit of temper too … and you did finish with him, not the other way around.’
I filtered through the possibility. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I can’t see it. That was all done and dusted ages ago and I haven’t seen him since we broke up. Anyway,’ I smiled as something occurred to me, ‘it definitely couldn’t be him. You know what he was like. He wouldn’t have been seen dead driving an old, blue Peugeot!’
‘Good point. Well, I suppose it could be some random weirdo.’
‘Cheers for that happy thought.’
‘Sorry.’ She pushed back her chair. ‘Look, let’s go and hit the sales. A bargain will help you forget your troubles.’
My heart wasn’t really in it but I made an effort for Madison’s sake and relaxed as the day wore on. Initially, I found myself scanning fellow shoppers for anyone who might be paying me undue attention but soon wearied of the task. I’d never make a detective, I thought, trudging back to my car, laden with purchases, at the end of the day. Madison insisted on accompanying me to the car park and together we scoured the ranks of cars on the same level of the multi-storey. To my relief, there was no blue Peugeot with a dented bumper.
‘Right,’ said Madison, giving me a farewell hug. ‘If you see that car following you on the way home, I want you to turn around and come straight back to mine. Then we’ll phone the police together.’ She paused and gave me a stern look. ‘And make sure you’re extra vigilant at home too.’
‘Yes Mum.’ I tried for a confident smile but it fell a little short. In truth, my nerves had started jangling as the return journey loomed closer. I threw the bags onto the back seat of the car and slid behind the wheel. ‘I’ll phone when I get home.’
‘Make sure you do.’
Madison watched as her friend folded her tall, curvy frame into the driver’s seat and pushed her long, blonde hair behind her ears. With a final wave, Anna turned the key in the ignition and steered towards the exit.
‘Safe journey home,’ Madison called as the black Fiesta disappeared from view.
Balancing her many shopping bags on one arm, she reached for her phone from the capacious depths of her brown, leather handbag. As usual, prickles of guilt fluttered in her chest as she scrolled through her contacts.
‘Sorry Anna,’ she murmured while she waited for her call to be answered, ‘but it’s for your own good.’