Scared to Death
Yvonne Richards grasped the notepaper in her hands, the page creased within her grip.
The writing had been scrawled in haste, slipping over the blue lines that intersected the sheet.
‘I’m going as fast as I can,’ he said through gritted teeth.
The retort brought tears to her eyes as he cleared his throat.
‘What’s the name of the street again?’
She lifted her thumb off the paper, noticing the warmth from her skin had blurred the ink, and squinted at the handwriting.
She lifted the notepaper from where her hand had been resting on her leg and peered at it once more. Tony’s writing was appalling at the best of times, but now she struggled to read it – his hands had been shaking when he’d heard the caller’s voice.
‘East or West?’
He turned too early, the car reaching a dead end within a few yards. He hit the brakes, both of them straining against their seatbelts.
‘No, no. The next one!’
‘You said it was this one.’
‘No – I said West. Innovation Way West.’
He swore under his breath, slammed the car into reverse, and swung it onto the main thoroughfare before turning at the next junction.
‘No, it’s okay. It’s okay. I’m sorry.’
She let her hand drop to her lap, clutching the page for fear she would lose it before they could reach their destination, and stifled a sob.
A hand reached out for hers, and she wound her fingers around his, seeking strength.
She found none.
His hands were as clammy as hers, and he was still shaking.
‘Both hands on the wheel, Tony,’ she murmured, and squeezed his fingers.
She swallowed as her eyes swept across his tanned skin.
Even his hair had lightened in the glare of the Italian sun. Her own hair was frizzy from the humidity, her skin pale by comparison, and she’d envied him that healthy glow as they had stepped off the plane on Friday.
Before they’d reached the house.
Before the phone call.
His hand retreated, and the car accelerated towards a mini-roundabout set into the road.
Yvonne tore her eyes away from the address written on the paper and stared out of the passenger window.
The industrial estate had never fully recovered from the recession, with only a few small businesses eking out a living on the outer fringes of the area. The glass and concrete superstructures of the bigger enterprises that had lined the inner sanctum of the centre of the estate lay dormant, while empty windows stared accusingly at the quiet roads that encircled them and faded letting agency signs flapped forlornly against mesh fencing.
The ornamental landscaping that had been so carefully tended now resembled a hodgepodge of ill-placed tropical plants fighting off common weeds determined to reclaim their territory.
Yvonne shivered and tore her eyes away, then cried out and wrapped her hand around the armrest.
Tony corrected the wheel as the rear tyre clipped a kerbstone before they exited the roundabout, then exhaled.
She relaxed her grip, and retrieved the notepaper from the footwell, smoothing it over her knee.
He’d never been a great driver, and Yvonne realised he’d probably never driven as fast as this in his entire life. Certainly not in the nearly twenty years they’d been together.
Melanie had already informed them she was taking over the organisation of the anniversary party.
‘It’ll be great,’ she’d said.
Yvonne blinked, and wiped a tear away.
‘It’ll be okay,’ said Tony.
She didn’t reply, and instead focused on the road in front of them.
‘Are you sure?’
‘It could be thirty-six.’
Tony swore under his breath.
‘It’s thirty-five. I’m sure.’
The car slowed to a crawl, and she peered through the window.
‘I can’t see any numbers.’
Yvonne shaded her eyes from the sunlight cresting the buildings and strained to find a clue to their whereabouts.
Here and there, kids had taken to the walls of the industrial spaces with spray cans, familiar graffiti tags dotted across doorways and signs that warned of CCTV cameras and security guards with dogs, which hadn’t been seen on the estate for over two years.
‘Fifteen,’ Tony called out.
She spun around to face him, but he was peering through his window as he kept the car at a steady pace, his knuckles white as he grasped the steering wheel.
As the derelict buildings passed by, her mouth ran dry while she tried to push away thoughts of Melanie held captive within the confines of one of them.
She’d only been wearing a thin vest top and jeans when Yvonne had last seen her five days ago.
The phone had rung late last Friday night, four hours after they’d returned from the airport. Tony had been sitting on one of the barstools at the kitchen worktop, an open bottle of wine next to him, a glass of red between his fingers while he’d flicked through the free newspaper. She’d dropped her bag on the surface and accepted the second glass he’d held out to her.
‘Not home yet.’
Yvonne had checked her watch. ‘She’d better hurry up, or she’ll get no dinner.’
Tony had grunted noncommittally and topped up his own wine. ‘Probably hanging out with that Thomas girl.’
‘I wish she wouldn’t.’
‘Yeah, but you tell her that, and she’ll do it anyway.’
Then the phone had interrupted them, and their lives had changed forever.
Now, Yvonne leaned forward in her seat, resting her hand on the dashboard as the car eased past the next padlocked fence. ‘That’s it. That’s the one.’
Tony swerved the car over to the kerbside and cut the engine.
She heard his breathing, heavy on his lips, and wondered if she sounded the same to him. She couldn’t tell – her heartbeat was hammering so hard, the sound of her blood roared in her ears.
He reached for the door handle.
‘Wait.’ She grabbed his arm. ‘What if he’s still here?’
Tony glanced over his shoulder. ‘We just dropped a bag with twenty thousand pounds in it two miles away,’ he snapped. ‘Do you really think he’s going to hang around here to thank us?’
Yvonne pursed her lips, and shook her head.
He shrugged her hand away, and she watched as he rocked his head from side to side, as if psyching himself up, before he placed his hand against the car door and pushed it open.
She launched herself out of the car after him.
When they approached the fence, Tony grasped the chain that looped through the wire openings.
It fell easily through his fingers.
‘It’s unlocked,’ said Yvonne.
‘He said it would be.’
She could hear it then, the fear crawling through his voice, replacing the brisk no-nonsense tone he’d tried to maintain since they’d left the house.
‘Did he say where—’
‘Yes. Follow me.’
Instinctively she reached out for his hand, and he took hers between his fingers, gave it a squeeze, and then set off towards the side of the building.
She knew now how scared he really was. She couldn’t recall the last time they’d held hands. Lately all they’d done was bicker and snipe at each other over the smallest inconsequential things.
Melanie had always been a daddy’s girl, and Yvonne fought down the surge of jealousy that threatened.
She just wanted her back.
The building’s windows mirrored their reflection as they passed. A dark-coloured privacy sheen had been applied, preventing her seeing into the rooms beyond.
She craned her neck, taking in the three-storey concrete monolith.
Any corporate signage had been stripped away when the tenants had vacated the premises, and walls that had been stained an off-white tone when first built now resembled something closer to off-grey. Dirt and grime fought an equal battle with graffiti, and faded signs depicting evacuation zones and fire exits clung to the surface in places, the doors boarded up and unwelcoming.
‘How are we going to get in?’
‘He said one of these would be open.’
Sure enough, towards the rear of the building they discovered a solid steel door. Although it was closed, a discarded padlock lay on the pockmarked asphalt of the perimeter.
Tony reached out for the handle.
He frowned. ‘What?’
She swallowed. ‘Shouldn’t you cover your hand? In case the police want to check it for fingerprints?’
‘I want my daughter back,’ he said, and twisted the handle.
She paused while he stepped over the threshold, then took a deep breath and followed him. She shared Melanie’s fear of enclosed spaces, and bile rose in her throat as she imagined the terror her daughter would feel at being held here.
She squinted as Tony pulled a torch from his pocket and switched it on, the beam blinding her before he lowered it, the light falling on discarded office furniture. She turned away and blinked as she tried to adjust her eyes to the gloom beyond the torch beam once more. The pungent smell of rat droppings and damp from a leaking roof filled her senses, and she choked back the urge to vomit.
Tony had already begun to hurry towards the inner door, and she followed him through the derelict office into a narrow corridor that ran lengthways through the building.
Tony turned left, shining the torch ahead.
At the end of the corridor, a set of double doors blocked their path.
She leaned against them and pushed.
They opened smoothly, and she breathed a sigh of relief before goosebumps prickled her skin as the door hissed shut behind them. She turned, touched the handle, and pushed again, terrified that they wouldn’t be able to get out.
It swung open with ease.
‘It’s on an automatic closer,’ said Tony, and pointed to the upper framework. ‘Come on. Hurry.’
Yvonne bit her lower lip, but followed, her arms hugging her chest. ‘What was this place?’
‘A biosciences company was here. Remember the protestors always used to gather at the town hall?’
Confusion filled her, then dread. ‘The animal testing place?’
He didn’t reply, but simply nodded and shone the torch around the walls.
The European-headquartered animal testing company had moved in over a decade ago, despite a several-thousand-signature petition being delivered to the local council within weeks of the original planning application.
Aluminium sinks were bolted to one wall, white tiles grimy through neglect above each. Shelving units dotted another wall, the splintered remains of glass crunching under their feet as they progressed through the room.
Their footsteps echoed off a tiled floor with a camber set at an angle that Yvonne found difficult to walk across in her heels.
‘What’s wrong with the floor?’ Her voice wavered.
‘It’s a soakaway,’ said Tony, pointing at the large grille in the middle of the room. ‘All the water will wash towards that.’
He paced the room, his hands running over the tiles.
‘Where is she, Tony?’
Yvonne cringed as her voice bounced off the tiles, before the fear wrapped itself around her insides and squeezed.
‘He said she’d be here,’ he said. He continued to run his hands over the tiles. ‘Maybe there’s a hidden door?’
Yvonne sucked in a breath. ‘Did you hear that?’
‘What?’ He spun to face her. ‘What?’
‘Shh,’ she urged, and held up a finger.
Melanie wasn’t a big girl; in fact, she was skinny for her age, with slender shoulders and hips. Yvonne had always marvelled that her daughter had never broken a bone – she looked so fragile, as if the slightest touch would shatter her.
‘Tony?’ She pointed at the grille in the tiled floor.
His skin paled as he followed her gaze, before he dropped to his knees, his fingers pushing through the grille. ‘I can’t see anything.’
Yvonne crouched, threaded her fingers around the grille, and met his gaze. ‘On three.’
The steelwork groaned under their touch, and then lifted a little, its right-hand edge tantalisingly higher than the left.
Tony worked his fingers closer and tightened his grip. ‘Now.’
The grille slid away, exposing the dark opening.
‘There’s a ladder,’ said Yvonne, and leaned closer.
When he shone the torch down the gaping maw of the hole, she frowned, unable to comprehend what she was seeing.
Then Tony screamed, his anguish echoing off the walls of the laboratory.
Detective Sergeant Kay Hunter’s hand shot out and gripped the handle set into the side of the car’s door as Detective Constable Ian Barnes accelerated around a sharp left-hand curve.
‘Uniform reported it twenty minutes ago,’ he said, as he straightened the vehicle and eased his foot off the pedal. ‘We’re the nearest detectives, so guess what?’
‘Our day just turned to shit.’
Kay acknowledged the statement with a snort.
Up ahead a silver saloon car and two patrol cars came into view, one with the emergency lights still flashing, the passenger door open.
‘Pathologist is already here,’ she said, and silently thanked the first-on-scene police officers for being so organised.
‘Must have been a quiet day for him,’ said Barnes.
As he slowed to approach the parked cars, he ran through the known facts.
‘The father made the call. The woman from dispatch reported he was near hysterical by the time she spoke to him. Apparently, he and the wife discovered their seventeen-year-old daughter, Melanie, down a drain in one of the buildings here.’
‘How did she get here?’
‘She was kidnapped – five days ago.’
Kay sighed. ‘Dammit, I wish they’d told us.’
Barnes grunted a reply.
Despite the threats a kidnapper could make, common police practice meant many kidnappings in the UK were brought to a successful closure, simply because the police worked diligently behind the scenes, and with a total media blackout.
Kay loosened her grip on the door as her colleague swung the car to a stop behind one of the patrol vehicles.
She climbed from the car, and introduced herself to the two uniformed officers who were standing next to a couple in their late forties, a look of horror on their faces.
The elder of the two uniformed officers stepped forward. ‘I’m Sergeant Davis. We were first responders.’
She introduced herself, and then led the way across the concrete apron of the building until they were away from the couple before she spoke.
‘I understand they’ve found their daughter here?’
He nodded. ‘She was kidnapped while they were on holiday,’ he said. ‘They paid the ransom money about an hour ago, and were told to come here to get their daughter. They found her body in the old testing laboratory, down a drain.’
Kay’s eyes fell to the silver car. ‘And you called the pathologist?’
‘Yes. He arrived ten minutes before you.’ Davis jerked his thumb over his shoulder. ‘He’s in there now.’
‘Nothing you could do to save her?’
His eyes clouded, and he shook his head. ‘It’s pretty bad. Girl’s hanging down the drain by her neck.’ He frowned. ‘It’s hard to ascertain from the parents what they might have touched. They definitely removed the drain cover to try to reach the girl. We haven’t touched anything in there, and the scene’s been preserved. We got fingerprints off the parents to eliminate those for forensics.’
‘Good work, thank you.’ Kay turned to the other detective who had wandered over. ‘Right, Ian,’ she said, ‘you speak to the husband. I’ll have a word with the wife.’
‘Okay.’ Barnes nodded, and made his way over to the couple.
Kay waited a moment, and then joined him, making a beeline for the woman. ‘Yvonne Richards?’
The woman nodded.
‘I’m Detective Sergeant Kay Hunter. I’m very sorry to hear about your daughter, but I need to ask you some questions.’
The woman looked to her husband, who was already conversing with Barnes. He glanced up, nodded, and turned back to the other detective.
A tear rolled down her cheek, yet she seemed oblivious, and it was all Kay could do not to wipe it away.
Instead, she turned the page of her notebook and pressed on, keeping her voice calm.
‘Yvonne, when Tony made the triple nine call, he said Melanie had been taken five days ago. Why didn’t you call the police then?’
The woman choked back a sob, and clasped her hands together.
‘We didn’t know she was gone. We’ve been in Europe. We – we only got back on Friday, and that’s when he phoned. He said he’d kill her if we called the police. He said he’d rape her first, and make us listen.’ She broke off, and her hands fluttered to her mouth. ‘I snatched the phone away from Tony and begged the man to let her go but he said we weren’t listening. Then he made her scream.’
Kay glanced across to where Barnes was talking to Tony Richards. She frowned, and saw that he had his hand on Tony’s arm, and seemed to be steadying him.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Kay, directing her gaze back to Yvonne. ‘I have to ask these questions.’
The woman flapped a hand. ‘I know. I know. Oh, God—’
She sniffed loudly, took the paper tissue Kay handed to her, and blew her nose.
Kay took a moment, and then continued.
‘Have you any idea why Melanie was taken?’
Yvonne shook her head. ‘We’re not rich,’ she managed, ‘despite what it might look like to some. Tony doesn’t work – my business is doing well, so he stays home.’ She gulped. ‘It’s nice for Mel to have someone there when she gets home from school in the afternoons.’
‘What did the kidnapper say he wanted?’
‘Twenty thousand pounds.’
Kay kept her face passive, and wrote the figure in her notebook, placing a question mark next to it.
‘What timeframe did he give you?’
‘Today.’ Yvonne frowned. ‘He was very precise – we had to drop it off between six-thirty and seven o’clock this morning.’
‘How did you give him the money?’
‘We had to put it in a padded envelope,’ said Yvonne. ‘He told us to put it in the post box on Channing Lane – the road that runs behind the industrial park.’
‘In the post box?’
‘Only enough so the end still poked out.’ Yvonne shivered. ‘Tony had to do it. My hands were shaking so much, I thought I’d let it go, and then what would we have done?’
Kay turned to the uniformed officer closest to her.
‘Take your car. Preserve the scene. You know what to do. Go.’
The man didn’t hesitate. He called out to his colleague and they ran towards their car, the lights flaring a second before the siren wailed, and they tore from the kerb.
Kay watched them leave, and then turned back to Yvonne. ‘What happened next?’
‘We drove away, like he told us. We had to park in the car park next to the library in Allington. He called us, said he had the money, and gave the address of where we could find Mel. He told us to hurry, because time was running out.’
The roar of an engine interrupted them, and Kay turned to see a dark panel van braking next to the unmarked police car before its driver threw it into reverse and drew to a halt next to the open gates of the biosciences facility.
The driver climbed out of the vehicle and made her way over to the side of the building.
A man in overalls emerged from the facility and joined her before they began to converse in hushed tones.
Yvonne’s voice held a tremor.
‘The head of the crime scene investigation team,’ said Kay. She guided Yvonne away from the building, and turned so the woman’s back was to the two figures.
Before long, the side of the van slid open and the team assembled, their actions swift and well-rehearsed.
Kay’s head snapped round at a yell from Barnes.
‘Call an ambulance!’
Her eyes opened wide as she saw Tony Richards sink to the ground, before Barnes grabbed his arm to break his fall and helped the man to sit.
Kay didn’t hesitate. She hit triple nine on her mobile phone and rattled off the details to the control room as she ran towards the stricken man, Yvonne’s footsteps close behind.
They reached Tony at the same time.
Barnes crouched next to the man, pulled his wrist towards him, and held his index finger against the thin skin. ‘Chest pains.’
‘Oh, God – Tony.’
Yvonne Richards sank to the ground next to her husband, whose face had whitened, and grabbed his other hand.
A croak emitted from his lips, and his eyes closed a moment before he slumped sideways.
Kay reached out and ripped open the man’s shirt, buttons scattering over the ground, before she balled her hand into a fist and beat the man’s chest once, hard.
Barnes leaned over, gently straightened the man’s head, steadied it between his hands, and nodded to Kay.
She started the compressions, one hand placed over the other across Tony’s ribs.
Sweat broke out between her shoulder blades, but the man remained unresponsive after several minutes.
‘Sarge? You want me to take over?’
‘I’m fine,’ she said.
She swore inwardly.
Tony Richards didn’t look an unhealthy man, but there was no telling what shock could do to a person.
Right now, she had to remain calm. She couldn’t let the man’s wife see her panic, not with what she was already going through.
‘Sarge, I’ll take over.’
Barnes nudged her out of the way, and she rocked back on her heels, grateful for the respite.
Tony emitted a gasp, and his eyes fluttered open.
Yvonne Richards shoved Barnes aside, and wrapped her arms around her husband’s chest.
‘Mrs Richards, please,’ said Barnes. He gently pulled her away. ‘Let him get some air.’
The sound of approaching sirens carried on the wind, and Kay straightened as the ambulance rounded the corner.
She hurried to meet it; pointing out the access route they should take to reach their patient, and waited while they hurriedly pulled overalls, gloves, and plastic booties over their uniforms to avoid contaminating the scene.
She followed the path they took with the stretcher, the rattle and clang of wheels across the cracked concrete surface setting her teeth on edge.
She stood close as they assessed Tony’s vital signs, their voices calm as they worked. The elder of the two stood and gestured to her to step to one side with him, out of earshot of Yvonne.
‘We’re going to have to take him,’ he said. ‘You’ve done well, but we need to get him to hospital now. It’s too risky to wait.’
‘You were told on the way over what’s happened here?’ Kay raised an eyebrow.
The paramedic nodded. ‘We’ll let the hospital know when we get there, and request they keep you informed.’
Kay handed him one of her business cards. ‘Thank you. Go.’
He nodded, and within minutes they had loaded Tony onto the stretcher and wheeled him towards the back of the ambulance.
Kay hurried over to Yvonne Richards, who was being comforted by one of the police officers, her hand over her mouth and her eyes wide as she watched her husband be stretchered away.
The woman looked over her shoulder towards the industrial building where the body of her daughter had been found, then back to the ambulance.
Kay stepped forward and put her hand on the woman’s arm.
‘Go with your husband. I’ll stay with your daughter.’
The woman’s eyes met hers, confusion crossing her face, and Kay saw then that it was the right decision. The woman needed to get to hospital anyway, before shock set in and she too suffered any kind of medical condition.
‘Go with this man,’ she reiterated. ‘He’ll take you to the hospital with your husband.’
One of the paramedics nodded, and steered the woman towards the waiting ambulance, its blue lights blinking across the wall of the biosciences facility.
Yvonne squeezed Kay’s fingers before she was out of reach.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered, and then hurried through the back doors of the ambulance to be with her husband.
Kay flipped her notebook shut and tucked it into her handbag, then rolled an elastic band off her wrist and tied back her shoulder-length blonde hair.
‘Right, you bastard,’ she muttered. ‘Let’s see what you did to her.’
eBooks & Print
"Moves along at a breakneck speed with twists and turns"
Angela Marsons, bestselling author of the Detective Kim Stone series
"Thrilling start to a new series. Scared to Death is a stylish, smart and gripping crime thriller."
Robert Bryndza, bestselling author of The Girl In The Ice
"Amphlett has written an intriguing plot-driven police procedural, with Hunter a complicated heroine."
The West Australian