Carla took one pace back as if proximity to the photo made it undeniable. She burst the numbed silence, gulping in air as if she'd broken the surface of water.
Will felt as if the room were tilting as his eyes roved every detail. Cold dread mushroomed. Was there some giveaway that would dismiss it as a sick joke? But the digital still was saturated with such raw distress that he could almost hear their screams through the gags. “Call her,” he said flatly.
Carla snatched up her mobile and shakily punched Libby's number blinking rapidly as she waited, not looking at Will.
How long had the image been awaiting discovery? Will glanced at the time the email had arrived â 19.33 the evening before. How many hours had they been tied together like that? They'd been trapped and imprisoned and he and Carla had been making love.
She cut the call. “Just her answering service.” Hysteria warped her voice and tears welled.
“I'll try the number.” He nodded at the scribbled digits in the photo.
“I'll do it.” Carla moved back to the screen.
Will held up his hand. “No. They called me. I don't want you to speak to them.”
“Read out the number.” She brandished the phone.
“Carla, let me do this.”
Carla blinked once as if his outburst had barely registered. They both took a breath as he picked up his desk phone. It took all his concentration to punch the digits in. He held the receiver to his ear and heard a number of damp clicks before it connected to a speeded up ring tone.
While it rang he prayed Libby would pick up and that he'd soon be chiding her for playing such a twisted prank, but it wasn't her or Luke's style. The phone continued to ring. He felt a bump as Carla leaned against the back of his chair.
He looked at the bunched wrinkles of Libby's face around the rag plugging her mouth. The picture was defined enough for him to make out all the minute details â the raised white bump of her BCG injection at the top of her bare shoulder, the piercing of her ears which had got badly infected when she'd had them done for her ninth birthday and the tiny crater at the side of her left eye. It looked like a chickenpox scar, but was actually the result of her going over the handlebars of her bike after a Halloween party. During all those childhood ordeals he and Carla had been there to comfort her. They weren't there for her now.
Somebody picked up.
“Hello?” It seemed a ridiculous word to say in the circumstances, but Will repeated it when there was no response.
There was a sound though. In the background he could hear an unsettling bed of disharmony, like a room full of screaming children. Then the line went dead.
Will hit redial and waited.
“What happened?” He heard Carla brush her tongue across the front of her dry gums.
“They hung up.” He got the same muted click and then an engaged tone. He listened for a while, paralysed by the image of his daughter's anguish and the barrier of sound at his ear. The phone he was trying to connect to could be in the same room as her and Luke.
The background noise he'd heard the first time still resonated on his eardrums. Not children; animals, lots of them in unison â panicked birds.
They both dialled the number repeatedly, but couldn't get through.
“Why are they not answering?”
“They know we've seen the number. Perhaps that's all they want for now.” He dragged the slider and examined the other pictures. Libby and Luke beaming at whoever had taken the photo in the bar.
He clicked back to the website where the snaps of Easton Grey were posted.
CHECK YOUR EMAIL AND GO HOME
Carla absorbed them in sickened silence. “What is this, Will?” Suspicion trickled into the question.
“I found this site just now â after that call this morning.”
“Don't hide anything from me.” She said it as if she expected him to have an even worse revelation.
“I know as much as you.” A word in the top left corner of the screen caught his eye.
He clicked on it and the screen changed to a street, a row of houses extending across the bottom portion of the image. Above it, against a cobalt blue sky, was a message.
IF YOU LIFT THE PHONE TO THE POLICE â THEY'RE DEAD
IF YOU TELL ANYONE ELSE â THEY'RE DEAD
MR FROST MUST TAKE FIRST AVAILABLE FLIGHT
TO ORLANDO INTERNATIONAL
TAKE LAPTOP AND AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS VIA THIS
IF YOU DON'T â THEY'RE DEAD
“Why do they want you to go to Florida?” Carla's frown dug deep into her face.
Bar a holiday they'd had there, years previously, Will couldn't see the significance of the destination either. No mention of a ransom. Why was he being personally lured away from where they were holding Libby and Luke?
“Who have you been dealing with in the States recently?” Her eyes darted in time with her thoughts.
“Plenty of people. The contract with Ledwidge has just got underway, but the whole operation's in Colorado.”
“What about Ingram's ops in Thailand?”
“We completed over four years ago.”
“Perhaps somebody found out Libby was entering the country.”
“Maybe.” It was clear the kidnappers knew exactly whose daughter Libby was. “Wherever these people are from, they've taken intimate photos of our home. They know we're good for a ransom.”
“Who else knew about Libby and Luke going to Penang?” She clenched her eyes shut, trying to exclude panic and zero in on likely candidates.
It was a significant point. Somebody knew exactly where they'd be. “I've hardly mentioned it to anyoneâ¦” But he wasn't so sure.
Another disturbing thought muscled in. Was the house bugged? It seemed absurd, but then the photo of Libby and Luke as hostages was just as inconceivable. “It's pointless trying to work out how they took them. What's important is getting them back as quickly as possible.”
Carla momentarily tightened her mouth as if sealing her emotions in. She nodded rapidly and traded a glance with him, confirming they both knew how real the situation was. “What about the police?”
Will studied the message on the screen. “They've been pretty explicit about that. If they can see into our homeâ¦”
She glanced at the telephone, her own paranoia gaining on Will's. “I'll pack our bags.”
“I'm going alone,” he said before she could turn.
“Don't be ridiculous. I'm not staying here.”
“Carla, the instructions stipulate me goingâ”
“We don't have time to argue this.”
“Listen, we don't want to involve the policeâ¦yet. But if we do, you'll need to coordinate things from here. We could both end up on a wild goose chase otherwise.” He nodded at the screen. “Which is exactly what this looks like.”
Carla bit her lip.
“But I don't want you in the house.” He looked through the window and into the garden where their watcher had probably stood.
“I'll use your officeâ¦” She nodded, her eyes fixing the floor as she imagined herself there. Then she turned and went to her desk, grabbing some hair clips she'd attached to the flex of her lamp. She started rapidly piling and pinning her red tresses, a ritual to ward off the terrible possibilities of the situation.
Will tried to filter the panic out of his voice. “Stay in a hotel. Don't tell anybody where.”
“This can't be connected to the Motex protest?” Carla needed immediate assurance that it wasn't her actions that had brought about Libby's kidnap.
“Of course not.” The second's delay before his response spoke of his own fears. “Of course not,” he said with more conviction. It was ludicrous; scare tactics, doorstep bonfires...but abduction?
Carla's eyes locked with Will's again.
Nineteen years as man and wife,
And still so many years ahead,
Even though it was Saturday, Will flew Carla to Ingram in the Longranger to leapfrog any traffic. Neither of them spoke for the entire journey. Once they'd touched down at the heliport they strode swiftly along the South Bank. It was 4.58am and the sun was flaring orange on the grey murk of the Thames. They walked through the revolving door of the air-conditioned reception in silence. There would only be a skeleton staff manning the Remada op room on the eleventh floor.
The security guard, Taylor, emerged from the chair behind his station. He was new, a man in his thirties with pockmarked features. “Mr Frostâ¦”
“Car to Heathrow as quickly as possible.”
Taylor nodded and snatched up a phone.
Will turned to Carla, handing her his swipe card. “You know the password to the computer.”
She nodded, but he could see she was steeling herself for their goodbye. “Get her back. I want all of you home.” Her resolve wavered. “Is Nissa here today?”
Will felt emotion choke his throat. He held her face in his palms and kissed her lips. They tasted bitter. “Yes, tell her to give you anything you want. Use her, but don't give anything away.”
“One on its way, sir.” Taylor tried to imbue his voice with the sound of efficiency.
Will shivered. It wasn't from the cool morning air, but he swung on the leather jacket he'd been carrying anyway. “Try to think of anyone who knew where Libby and Luke were going.” The trip had been planned for so long. How many people had his daughter told? How many times had he and Carla dropped it into conversations? “I'll call you as soon as I've landed.”
“I can follow your phone by GPS. Like we did with Libby's. But keep me informed every step of the way.”
It was Will's turn to nod. There was nothing more to say, but he realised Carla was gripping his arm like she was on a roller coaster.
She released him and walked to the lifts. She pressed the button and turned to him with tightened lips. Only then did Will register she was wearing the same olive top and saffron skirt from the night before. The doors parted and she stepped inside.
He strode outside to wait, knowing she would turn again to watch him leave as they closed. He didn't want to meet her eyes again.
“Not everyone wants to smile at you, Lib.”
It was what he'd said to his daughter the first day he'd taken her out in the pram on his own. He'd been nervous about Carla not being with him, but had soon grown accustomed to showing Libby off to the other parents in the park. They'd stopped at a cafÃ© garden for a rest and she'd tried to engage the attention of a guy in jogging gear seated at the opposite picnic table. He'd glared unkindly at Libby and looked away. He remembered his daughter turning to him from the rebuttal. She was still smiling, but her young eyes were full of confusion.
His own disappointment that the stranger didn't share the enthusiasm everyone else had displayed for his daughter had punctured his mood for the rest of the day. He'd felt so protective of her then and the notion of how many hard lessons she had ahead of her had blindsided him. He'd taken her home and while Carla had unstrapped her he'd gone upstairs and sat on the bed. He'd desperately wanted to be a father, but knew his workload would exclude him from much of Libby's early childhood. It was then it had really caught up with him, the enormity of his responsibility. He felt contaminated by the thought of how Libby's innocence would gradually be eroded, that it was his obligation to remove it so she could be conditioned for what life would throw at her.
The sensation surged through him now, concentrated, like a toxin heavy in his veins. That piece of rag stuffed into her mouth, those ropes binding her in that filthy place. What had they done to her? He desperately hoped she'd told them she was pregnant. Would they even care? He thought of her nervously lifting her tee shirt to show him her lotus tattoo. A definitive means of identification.
He felt a sudden heaving in his chest and a sob forcing its way out. He had to bite down hard on his lip to halt it. Lose it now and he would lose her, he knew it. To stand any chance of getting her back, he had to stay strong.
Carla called him while he was in the car to give him the details of the flight she'd booked from his office. There was nothing else to their exchange. They both knew their feelings had to take a back seat while they focussed on getting Libby back. A minute later he had a permission request for GPS tracking on his phone. They'd had to do the same with Libby. In the UK it was illegal to track a mobile's SIM card without it. He granted it and knew as soon as he did Carla would be able to follow his progress on a website map.
At the airport, Will changed up the money in his wallet and checked into the business lounge. And while he was helplessly pacing its plush, lemon-scented interior, what at that precise moment was happening to Libby? He knew she'd be protective of her baby. It was still early days, but she already had her life planned out with Luke and her child. And what of Luke? He must be just as terrified. He was only three years older than her and his parents were completely oblivious to his predicament. But the instructions had been absolute.
He glanced at the handful of execs in the business lounge, rustling papers and absorbed by their iPads. Most of them were probably using their air miles for pleasure trips, heading off to condos and golf weekends. His phone buzzed in his jacket, but it wasn't the family mobile. It was the office one he'd been ignoring since they'd left the house. Several missed messages from the Remada op site construction manager. He switched it off and pocketed it again.
They must have been so easy to abduct, a couple of kids. Libby would probably have put up more resistance than Luke. She had her mother's fire in her belly. Luke was more an observer, an analyser. He told himself his level head was probably just what Libby needed. Would they remain incarcerated together? He still couldn't believe the questions he was asking himself.
He looked at his watch as he felt anger bubble up from the sediment of dread in his stomach. Anger at whoever had put their hands on his daughter, at Luke for wanting to take her away, but mostly at himself for allowing it to happen. If he hadn't filled her head with stories about Southeast Asia she would never have wanted to go. Had his past association with the country put her life at risk? If so, why had he been ordered to the States?
Carla had been back to Will's office since the miscarriage, but as she waited in its silence it seemed alien to her. She felt like an intruder in someone else's reality. There'd been emotional upheavals in both their pasts, but nothing that was so determinately the product of malice. The idea that another human would want to snatch Libby and use her terror as a weapon jarred with everything she'd ever experienced. She thought of whoever had Libby formulating their plan while they were oblivious, prowling the fringes of their lives in preparation for this morning.
It had to be money. Please let it be money. They were wealthy; they could pay. She told herself that this happening was maybe even inevitable. If they'd been determined to take Libby there would always have been an opportunity for them to do so, however close by she and Will had kept her.
What if they'd had the cameras fitted earlier? Will had suggested it a couple of years before, but she'd been against it. She'd firmly believed they didn't need them; that by having them would draw unwanted attention. He'd only just managed to persuade her after the bonfire incident. Nobody would have been able to get onto their property and take photographs through the windows if they'd had the surveillance in place. But would that have stopped them kidnapping Libby when she was away from their protection?
Her thoughts returned to her conversation about consequences with Will the night before. She'd told him Libby could make her own decisions; that she had to set her own life on course. She hadn't told him she'd been just as afraid for her as he was.
Ever since she'd met Will at university they'd never compromised their trust. Had she done that by concealing her reservations? Was this her punishment?
She delicately seated herself in Will's cool swivel chair. The plush calm of her surroundings accentuated the feeling that she was in exactly the wrong place. She looked through the smoked glass windows at Will's impressive vista of the South Bank. It was this success that had imprisoned their daughter. But why no ransom? Was this retribution for something Ingram had done? Did Will know what it was and was withholding from her? She doubted it. But hundreds of decisions were made every day on his behalf. Had a contravention by the company been the trigger? Libby had been taken in territory it had a significant attachment to.
Carla considered the private struggle she'd initiated on behalf of the residents of Hanworth. She knew why she'd taken it on and with even more resolve after losing the baby. Did her heightened sense of injustice mean she'd now lose her only other child because of it?
Outside the window the temperature was rising, but Carla shivered and rubbed the backs of her arms.
Will only seated himself when the steward told him they were rolling out onto the runway. He'd brought his laptop and an overnight bag. If he needed anything else he could buy it in Florida. How long was he expected to be there?
He felt utterly useless, like his body had no physical means to express the turmoil inside him. He needed to shout, injure his fist against a wall and release the build up of negative energy.
He had to centre himself and remember Libby needed him collected. But he couldn't prise away the image of her gagged. Why had he let Libby talk him into agreeing to the trip? She was barely eighteen. He could still vividly recall his emotions when Carla had first presented her in school uniform. She looked like she was playing dressing up, not ready to leave the protection of home.
Whatever they wanted from him, however much it was, he'd pay. Yesterday evening he'd been anticipating hugging his daughter tight, just to have her back from her travels. Now it was something he'd exchange his life for.
That morning he had no choice but to fly away from her. He just had to hope that whatever reasons were behind the journey could lead him to her return, the only conclusion he could consider. He belted himself in for take-off and, as the wheels broke contact with the runway, he briefly wondered when or if he would be coming back.
Her first conscious thought was that her eyes were on fire. She tried to open them, but something pinned her eyelids down. She heaved them apart, but everything was black. She heard her own exclamation of panic inside her head, tasted white spirit on her tongue and the ache of her facial muscles around whatever plugged her mouth. She bit down, heard fibres squeak against her teeth. Fear could only tense her constrained body. She couldn't move her arms or legs and when she turned her head the motion seemed delayed.
Drugged. She remembered the needle in her arm and waited for the events that preceded it to re-present themselves. Nothing came but an echo, the reverberation of something horrible she didn't want to remember.
Her name was Libby Frost. Where had she been before here? Where was she now? All around her a frenzied screeching amplified her hysteria.
Whatever was burning her eyes permeated her nostrils as well, raw and cold inside them, burning its way through the skin there. Was it petrol she could smell? Was that what was soaked into the material in her mouth? She tried to expel the bulk weighing down her tongue, but it met resistance at her lips. Something was tightly covering her whole face. She could feel a weight against her throat, the tension of some binding that made it hurt to swallow. Under the acidic aroma she could detect the vague scent of her coconut sun block.
She cried out and the familiarity of her own voice brought more of herself streaming back. Pregnant. She was pregnant and she'd been drugged and tied up.
Her arms were secured behind her and she couldn't move her fingers, didn't have any sensation that her hands were still at the ends of her wrists. She couldn't get a sense of which way her head was swinging. Her erratic breaths heated the mask of sweat clinging to her face and her lungs ached as they tried to draw in oxygen.
“I can't breathe! Untie me! I'm suffocating!”
The words formed in her brain, but were incoherent as they struggled to escape her obstructed mouth. They vibrated in her skull and through the burn in her nostrils. She could feel warm tears flowing constantly down her face.
But the sensation she experienced more vividly than anything else was at the nape of her neck, a warm buzz telling her somebody nearby was watching her.
Once in the air, Will told the steward he didn't want any meals, only black coffee. Then he plugged the laptop into the power point. He opened the website. There was no new message on the page, but as his eyes roved the area at the bottom of the screen, he realised he could move along the row of houses with the cursor. The buildings weren't figurative, but photo images of real properties cut out and pasted next to each other. There was no consistency in size; they'd been assembled like cuttings from a scrapbook.
The row moved left to right and when he reached the far end of it, he recognised Easton Grey. The picture of his home was spliced next to two more unassuming houses. A red outline appeared around the image when he rested the cursor on it. He clicked it and found himself back on the page of furtive snaps taken of the interior he'd seen earlier. He hit HOME, returned to the row and tried to click on the house that preceded his. No red outline appeared so he tried the one before it. Same again.