The sound of Lou clattering in the kitchen and the smell of coffee roused Rachel from a troubled sleep. Although a spare duvet and some pillows should have made the sofa a reasonable place to stay the night, Pluto had decided that he should share the space with her. In an effort to flatten his sleeping area, he had performed several circles before he settled down, and seemed confused that Rachel was less easy to flatten than the duvet. She wriggled out from under him and made her way to the kitchen.
“Did I wake you?” said Lou. “I can’t face a day in the shop without coffee and toast.”
“It was a relief. Pluto is not a good bed mate.”
“Any news from Mark?”
“No. He said he’d text if he was home, but nothing so far.”
Rachel accepted the glass of orange juice and sat at the breakfast bar yawning. The sounds and scents of the kitchen brought Sally and Sarah downstairs, and Pluto from his nest on the sofa.
“No Jenny?” said Rachel as she handed round toast and cereal.
Lou shook her head. “She’s probably been up all night, watching YouTube or texting with her mates. If she’s not down by eleven o’clock, can you go and knock on her door, please Rachel? Sally, Sarah. I know that you two will be very good for Auntie Rachel while I’m at the shop but I don’t want either of you to leave the house today. I’m sure Pluto can make do with the garden.”
“I’m not picking up his poo!” said Sally.
“Nor me!” Sarah echoed her sister’s sentiments.
“Good job I came prepared with poo bags then.” said Rachel as she kissed the girls on top of their heads. Lou loaded the food for the shop in her bicycle baskets and panniers, and rode off prepared for a quieter day after the previous day’s events. Rachel washed up the breakfast dishes, took Pluto out for a walk in the garden and tried not to breathe in as she cleared up after him. Sally and Sarah watched her from the window, nudging each other and giggling. All four of them settled on the sofa to watch the endless display of films on the children’s TV channels; Pluto and Rachel slept.
Waking with a start at a distant noise, Rachel looked at her watch and seeing that it was gone eleven o’clock, and there was still no sign of Jenny, set off upstairs to wake her. There was no response to her knock, and very gingerly, Rachel opened the bedroom door. The room was in darkness and she tiptoed in, calling Jenny’s name softly. Still no response, so she walked over to the window and drew the curtain back just enough to let a little light in. There was a lump in the bed that reminded Rachel of her boarding school days, and the attempts that were made to fool the teachers who prowled the dormitories making sure everyone was tucked up safely and asleep.
As she suspected, the lump was a pillow and judging by the coolness of the bed, Jenny was long gone. Rachel hesitated about calling Lou; she had enough to worry about. There had been no message from Mark, but if he’d had a late night, he might still be asleep or had gone back to the station. She decided to call the house anyway, and help came in the comforting form of Mrs Kneller. Mark hadn’t come home, so she was relieved to hear Rachel’s voice and get a brief explanation of what had happened. “That Pete! He’s always been trouble. I suppose it was him that left the bathroom in such a state. Do you want me to get people out looking for Jenny my love?”
“Could you? Discreetly of course. I’d go myself but I can’t leave Sally and Sarah.”
“I’ll make a few calls and tidy the bathroom first, then I’ll come down and look after the little girls so you can nip out with Pluto. I’ll make us some lunch while I’m there.”
“You really are a saint Mrs K. See you soon.”
Rachel went back downstairs and explained to the girls that Jenny had gone out, and she needed to go and look for her, but that Mrs Kneller was coming down to make them some lunch. Relieved that she had changed into jeans and trainers before they left the house, Rachel found an old jacket of Lou’s and filled the pockets with articles that she felt might help in her search for Jenny.
True to her word, Mrs Kneller wasn’t long and brought with her a bag full of sweets that she kept ready and waiting for her grandchildren. “Jeff from the Gun’s got some lads out on the Quay and the Common. I warned them to be careful in case there was any rough stuff. I’ve also heard that a group of Jenny’s friends were seen in the Square earlier, but not Jenny. She’d probably steer clear in case her Mum saw her from the shop, so I’d say that they’ve arranged to meet up elsewhere. I rang Ben as well; he said to tell you that he and Dr H are available to help if needed. I’ve got their numbers too. Good luck, and don’t you go taking any risks neither!”
Pluto looked extremely happy to be out for a proper walk, and remembering that he still had the trained ability to recognise bad people, Rachel squared her shoulders and set out for the beach via the Quayside but avoiding the Square. On the way, she saw Jeff from the Gun, his brother and some mates lounging around the boats and trying to look casual. Jeff shook his head, and Rachel headed on down to the beach. As she was nearing the Bofors gun, Rachel heard a voice calling her very softly. It was Jenny! Down behind the concrete blockhouses, Rachel found her, and three of her friends crouched on the shingle.
“Please don’t tell me off Auntie Rachel. Maria was so scared; she was desperate to get away from her uncles and we thought it might look more normal if some of the girls went round to call for her. We usually go out together on Saturday mornings. I went on ahead in case the uncles were looking for me because of Dad. We don’t really know what to do now though.”
“Stay here for now. I’m going back to the Quayside and I’ll get Jeff and the lads to come down and collect you. You might have to hide under a smelly old fish tarpaulin in the back of his truck though.”
“Where will we go?”
“Back to yours. Mrs K is there with Sally and Sarah; I believe there is still a policeman keeping an eye on the house, but he can’t be that good if you managed to get past him Jenny.”
Jenny looked sheepish. “Don’t tell Mum but there’s a way of getting out through the garden without being seen.”
Rachel took the rape alarm out of her pocket and handed it to Jenny. “Okay. Just stay put and, if anyone you don’t know approaches you, press the red button.”
“Cool. I think we should all have these. The Dim twins would never come near us again.”
“Don’t take any risks. Your Uncle Mark thinks these men are pretty dangerous. Maria is right to be scared of them. I’ll see you back at the house.”
Trying to maintain a casual dog-walking pace without looking as if she was in a hurry, it still didn’t take long for Rachel to reach the Quayside and ask Jeff for assistance. In a similarly nonchalant manner, he threw a couple of old tarpaulins into the back of his truck and drove back down to the beach with his brother. Rachel stayed where she was; chatting about the weather and fishing until Jeff returned with a suspiciously giggling load. He winked at Rachel and drove on up the main road to Lou’s house where the girls shook off the fishy covers and went inside to wash and spray themselves with anything that didn’t smell of fish.
Out of the corner of her eye, Rachel had seen a group of men walking down to the beach, and headed back to Lou’s house where a very confused police constable was standing outside. She assured him that the girls were safe but that there might be something going on down by the Bofors gun. Once inside the house, Rachel texted Mark to update him, but didn’t expect a response. She made sure that the other girls contacted their parents to say where they were. Maria wisely chose not to, in case her parents unwittingly let the uncles know that she was with Pete’s daughter. It was a nervous wait, only relieved by the array of sandwiches that Mrs K had made for lunch, and which she insisted on taking out to the police constable as well. The girls all seemed to find the whole thing hilarious; Rachel wondered if she was the only one who was aware of how dangerous the men might be, and she couldn’t stop thinking about Mark, and whether he might be at risk.
His text, when it finally came through, made her heart beat faster but in a good way.
Four in custody. Taken by surprise so no one hurt. Teenagers can go home. See you at Lou’s later xxx.
By the time Lou returned from the tea shop, the number of girls in her house had been reduced to three again, and Mrs K had gone back to finish the housework. Jenny had begged Rachel to explain to Lou what had happened, and retreated to her bedroom in case there were repercussions. Initially cross, Lou had to admit that although Jenny was in the wrong, her intentions were good because she and her friends had been so worried about Maria. Rachel took on full responsibility for Jenny’s escape by admitting that she had fallen asleep and not heard her leave the house. She didn’t let on about the secret exit in the garden however.