The Caretakers – Sydney Jamesson

EVEN BEFORE THE SUN shows its winter face, commuters are congregating on platform three at Bristol Temple Meads train station; some have their eyes fixed on phones checking emails, others are engrossed in ebooks or newspaper articles. An impatient young man in a dark suit takes a step forward and tips his head to the right, hoping to spot a train which is already ten minutes late. A foot or so from his polished shoes the platform ends abruptly. There is a three-foot drop onto railway lines, parallel streaks of silver encased in grey mulch—a no man’s land where only the suicidal or the foolish dare to venture. He doesn’t know the owner of the pink, now muddied bobble hat wedged between the nearest strip of metal and the concrete wall. He has no way of knowing that she wasn’t suicidal and, even though she exhibited the foolishness of an adolescent, that she had been hunted down, drugged and abducted. No one does. In days to come mud will be sifted, sweet wrappers will be discarded and the pink bobble hat containing the DNA of missing sixteen-year-old, Louise Travis, will become the only clue that she had been taken. The identity of Louise’s kidnappers and her whereabouts are unknown. The police have little to go on and the one person who knows exactly what happened can’t tell them without incriminating herself in a heinous crime. The clock is ticking for Louise and the only witness, Emily Parsons. CHAPTERONE EMILY I WOKE FROM A troubled sleep, haunted by images of a beautiful, blond-haired girl being abducted in broad daylight. Louise Travis, waiting alone in Bristol Temple Meads train station, had been in my charge. Her fate had rested in my hands and yet… I woke up to find myself in bed, still wearing my blouse and my underwear, my face caked in stale makeup and crusty streaks of dried tears. My mind was reeling with the memory of what I’d done—what we’d done, Robert and I—and the unforgivable error of judgement I had made.

Yesterday I pronounced myself judge, jury and prosecutor in the case of Callum Mitchell. I alone had determined his fate and the means of his execution—and felt nothing. No guilt. No remorse. Having witnessed his malevolence up close, I knew he’d never stop torturing and killing vulnerable young girls and, as a consequence of my involvement, he would come after Rita, my sister, and me. His reprisals would be relentless. I had no choice. I felt duty-bound. When we stepped into that taxi together, only one of us would be getting out alive. I made sure that person was me.

I didn’t expect to feel imbued with super human powers but, what I did expect was to feel a modicum of success at having purged the world of such a menacing young man. Instead, my reward was a searing pain so agonising it crushed my chest. I was free from constraint, the duvet was soft against my skin, and yet my lungs clung to my ribcage as if a boulder had been placed on my heart. I recognised the symptoms; I’d felt the same kind of pulsating pain before. I was internalising, turning an emotional response into actual physical pain. What I felt was unadulterated disappointment … in myself. There were voices in the hallway outside my bedroom. I recognised them. Rita, my sister recently risen from the dead, was speaking softly to Robert, my friend, my lover; a computer genius who had walked a tightrope with me when insurmountable grief had left me unsteady and teetering on the edge of oblivion. The truth is, the crossing of our paths had been one of the best things that had ever happened to me.

If he’d not given me the benefit of the doubt, seen through the bravado; and if I had not lowered my guard just a little, we would both have missed out on a life-changing discovery—we were perfect for each other. Our life experiences had made us tenacious and uncompromising. An ex-lover once said I was like a dog with a bone—I would not give anything up without a fight. Robert Blackmoor was wired the same way. If there was a problem to be solved or a secret to be unearthed, then he was the man to scratch away at the dirt until he found what would, inevitably, turn out to be a bounty of clues. I sensed Robert’s presence, his warm breath over my right ear, the tickle of his beard on my earlobe. “I know you’re not asleep, Emily. I can tell by your breathing.” Robert spoke in earnest, his American accent still audible even after living for ten years in our ‘green and pleasant land.’ I didn’t answer.

“You were exhausted and in shock, you blacked out. Remember?” I didn’t remember. I’m not prone to hysteria. I don’t faint at the sight of blood and I’d be the last one to panic in a crisis, but when I returned home that Monday evening I only made it as far as the hallway before everything went black… Robert edged away slightly. “It’s nine o’clock … at night. Come and have something to eat. Rita’s worried sick about you.” He paused, waiting for my response. “Emily?” He rested his hand on my right shoulder; it felt warm, strong, reassuring. I focused on his grip, pictured the tendons in his forearms tensing, his potency bleeding through my tattered blouse into my skin, finding its way to my broken heart.

He had helped me heal before, perhaps by some miracle he could do it again. I removed my clothes, threw on a clean T-shirt, a pair of joggers, tied back my hair and prepared to make my way downstairs, but not before checking my face. I wished I hadn’t bothered; eyes the colour of khaki green quartz stared back at me; dark circles were etched onto alabaster cheeks. The strain of the past month and the snatching of Louise Travis before my very eyes had really taken its toll on me. I approached the kitchen door and paused. Mercifully, Rita wasn’t too upset. I was grateful for that; I didn’t have the emotional fortitude to deal with her anguish on top of my own. It came to me then … even as a baby she rarely cried. Why? We had a wonderful mother who sensed what she needed—what we both needed. Together we watched Rita wriggle in her cot, wrestle with soft toys and I got to experience the most perfect kind of sisterly love, even when her gurgling turned to incessant chatter—and still no tears.

It wasn’t until our mother died that she cried for the first time and, who could blame her? I cried too. I strode into the kitchen. “So, what’s going on in here? From the looks on your faces you’d think someone had died.” I shot Robert a smile, reached out my hand to Rita and she grabbed it. One look at her told me it was time for me to pull myself together; I was her rock, and rocks are built to withstand all kinds of conditions—fair weather and foul. I pulled back a kitchen chair and waited for them to follow suit. “Robert said I fainted.” “You did,” Rita announced. “Scared the bejesus out of me.” I patted her hand.

“No need to worry. I’m fully conscious now … and hungry. What have you been cooking up?” Rita sighed loudly. “Well, from the limited ingredients you had, I’ve rustled up some mac and cheese with salmon, topped with a pesto dressing.” “Great! Let’s eat.” I reached over and took a sip of water from Rita’s glass while she poured herself a fresh one. Robert commented with a wink, “Good to see you back to your old dictatorial self. I thought you’d had time to think about what we’d done and couldn’t handle it.” I shook my head. “No.

No regrets. Not about Callum.” I turned to Rita. “You should have seen him in the taxi, Reet. It was like coming face to face with the devil himself.” Rita placed the steaming food in front of me. “Mind the plate, it’s hot.” She did the same for Robert, before sitting down to join us. “He was wicked through and through, Em. If you hadn’t taken him out, that bastard would be organising more rape videos…” She stopped in her tracks before her emotions got the better of her.

“You’ve done society a service by removing him. Mothers, fathers, daughters, and sisters everywhere should be thanking you. Amen.” With her sermon at an end, she picked up her fork. “Bon appetite.” Between mouthfuls, Robert began his interrogation. “So, if it wasn’t Callum who got to you, what was it? Last time I saw you, you were about to catch a train. What happened?” Robert Blackmoor didn’t do polite conversation; his idea of small talk involved putting the world to rights in twenty easy steps and even fewer sentences. He knew me well enough to sense that there was more to my blackout than exhaustion and a bout of illtimed remorse. I placed down my fork.

“I fucked up!” They looked up at me, forks aloft. Rita appeared to be holding her breath. “How so?” Robert asked. I took a sip of water and relayed the events from the moment I left the taxi, to the time I climbed aboard Robert’s motorbike. I tried to keep my summary factual, emotionless; there was nothing to be gained by addressing my feelings, besides I was only surmising that Louise Travis had been abducted while she was standing by the luggage rack on the train. How they had managed to get her off the train without her kicking and screaming was still a mystery to me. The three of us sat in a kind of stunned silence, trying to come to terms with what had taken place. When we took hold of our forks and returned to the food, it was stone cold. While Rita placed our meals in the microwave, I thought it only right that I should apologise for my miscalculation. I was finding it hard to accept just how much the day’s events had affected me; my emotional armour had been pierced and I’d become exposed —I was guilt-ridden.

Robert would hear none of it. “You didn’t ask for this, Emily.” There was no disguising his exasperation. “It’s not as if you took out a page in the local newspaper announcing yourself as libérateur. You’re acting as if the life of this kid rests on your shoulders.” He raised my chin, bringing our eyes together. “You can walk away from this one. Let the police do what they do.” Rita passed over our plates of re-heated food. I shook my head.

“No. I can’t do that. It was because of my stupidity that they took her. I should have taken better care of her—” “She wasn’t your kid or your kid sister….” Robert picked up his fork. “It doesn’t matter—she’s someone’s kid. I was the only person who could have saved her, Robert, and I didn’t.” I took my plate from Rita and gave her a smile. “It smells even better second time around.” “Let’s hope we all get to eat it.

” She rested her hand on my shoulder for a split second. Robert rubbed at his beard roughly. “Okay. Then we’ll get her back.” I snickered. I’d been impressed from day one by his talents; there was no limit to what he could do with a computer keyboard, a laptop or a phone. I’d seen that with my own eyes. But this…? “Just like that. You’ll tap away on your magic keyboard and hey presto?” I blew on the food and forked it into my mouth. He tipped his head.

“I’m not saying it’ll be easy. But you’ve got the photos of her kidnappers on your phone and an idea of how they operate, so that’s a start.” “He has a point,” Rita added. “That’s more than the police have.” “Yes it is, but where do we go from here?” “We strip everything back, find out who the guys are who took her, discover their MO, find their weaknesses and hit them where it hurts.” He shrugged as if bringing down what was probably a well organised trafficking ring was no more than a walk in the park. “And can we do that?” I asked, in need of persuasion. He took hold of my hand across the table. “This isn’t our first rodeo, Emily. We rid the world of a monster today and you’re okay with that, right?” I leaned back and raised my chin, my mood improved by a single thought.

“I am, but do you think he could have been working with the men who took Louise?” He presented a flat smile before returning to his food. “Who knows?” “Hopefully, you in a couple of days, if you decide to stick around.” I noticed Rita’s arm stilling. We were both waiting for his reply. He huffed, the way you do when someone amuses you with their naivety. “You’re kinda hard to break away from, Emily, even if trouble seems to follow you around like a goddam shadow. “ Not being one to miss an opportunity to strike while the iron was hot, after the meal Robert forwarded the photos I’d taken at the railway station to his phone and began researching young girls reported missing in the Bristol area. Rita turned on the news and sat facing the TV, her hands bound together as if praying for Louise’s speedy return. No such luck. Louise hadn’t been missing long enough for the police to make a formal announcement or call a press conference.

Give it twenty-four hours and it would be a different story.

.

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