Abbie drove into the centre of town, parked, and forced herself to step from the car.
Following her breakdown on the outskirts, she felt a little better. Given all she had suffered here, it was no wonder seeing the place again had had such a powerful impact. But memories, while they might wound internally, could cause no physical damage. Abbie would force the pain of her past into a dark corner of her mind, allowing her to focus on whatever threat the present held. Both for the teenager from her dream and for herself.
Still, Abbie would never have returned by choice. The saying that came to mind was once bitten, twice shy, but even that wasn’t quite right. This town was no rabid dog that had snapped at her hand years before. This was a pit of snakes into which she had fallen. This town had bitten her not once but a thousand times.
Twice shy did not cover it.
None of this could be helped. Fighting her worst memories, Abbie stepped from the car. Despite the history of this place and its hold over her, Abbie had to treat it like any other town. On more than fifty occasions, Abbie had seen the face of a stranger in her dreams. Knowing the face belonged to a person who would die within forty-eight hours, she had rushed from her bed and driven into the darkness with no idea where she was going. Abbie always arrived where she was needed and, upon arrival, walked until she saw or heard signs of life. Allowing instinct to guide her, Abbie soon became entangled in the incident that endangered the man, woman, or child she intended to save.
Though Abbie knew the buildings, the streets, and (no doubt) many of the people here, she had to play the same role as always. Miss No One, the stranger. If she didn’t, she was in deep water.
As though this was a town unknown, Abbie left her car—drawstring bag over her shoulder—and made her way along the nearest street. The night was neither cold nor warm, but it was at least dry. Abbie was well-dressed for it in jeans and a long-sleeved, tight T-shirt. Temperature didn’t bother her much anyway. Clear skies were what mattered. Abbie carried only one change of clothes, and this in her drawstring bag, which was about as waterproof as a net.
She wandered aimlessly through the dark until she heard something in the distance—a thunk thunk thunk which signalled heavy bass. Abbie stopped, listened. This was a residential area. There were no nightclubs for several miles, which meant this could only be a house party. Abbie imagined illegal drugs, underage drinking, and sweaty inconsiderate teens who cared not if their neighbours could sleep through the onslaught of that ridiculous bass.
Someone should say something.
With a wry smile, Abbie continued towards the source of the sound. And the smile held until she reached the road of the house party.
Like many towns, the one in which Abbie’s mother had raised her children contained areas populated by the dirt poor and areas populated by the mega-rich. The thumping bass came from a road on the wealthiest side of that spectrum.
Gates opened onto a wide, smooth road with thick pavements opening onto four or five car driveways. The cars on these driveways (and there was more than one in every instance, even though most houses had at least a double garage) often cost more than the houses found in the cheaper areas of town. Reds, yellows and blacks. The cars all seemed either to be impractical sporty numbers or huge SUVs. There were even a couple of limos on show and probably more in the garages.
The houses were beautiful, as one might expect on such a street. They were well-spaced with huge gardens and, in some cases, although this country was no tropical paradise, pools. Perfect for the three or four days of summer per year.
The street’s smallest house was a six-bedroom, the biggest perhaps 50% larger than that. From the gated entry to the street, the road rose on a slight incline to the end of the cul de sac, where sat the grandest home, surveying the smaller houses that comprised the street. The window-rattling bassline emanated from this mansion at the street’s peak. And Abbie had been there before.
Here again came the memories.
Abbie was only a couple of months from her thirtieth birthday. On her sixteenth, she had defied her mother’s wishes and snuck from her bedroom after the sun had dropped below the horizon. On her bicycle, quite alone, she had cycled four miles to this very street. Fearing how it would look to turn up on a crappy pedal bike, Abbie had left the wheels beyond the gates of this wealthy community. Had approached the house on foot, as she did now.
On her sixteenth birthday, mingled nerves and excitement had made Abbie’s approach slow and unsteady. Closing in on thirty, her coming was just as sluggish. This time, the barrage of the past and swelling anger caused the hesitation.
It was happening again. The face of the teenager Abbie had come to rescue shone in her mind. Now Abbie thought about it, the teen didn’t look so different to how Abbie had looked all those years ago, and this girl couldn’t be much older than sixteen.
It was happening again. Except, it had been around eight in the evening when Abbie had arrived at the party on her sixteenth birthday, her stomach full of butterflies, her heart beating with possibility. The most handsome boy in school and the resident of this magnificent property invited Abbie personally. Had almost pleaded with her to come. He had touched her cheek, and Abbie had practically fainted with joy.
Would he kiss her? Abbie had imagined that he might. The excitement of the consideration had almost sent her into a coma.
It was two am in the present. The most handsome boy in school had torn Abbie’s world apart hours earlier, all those years ago.
If it was happening again, surely Abbie was already too late? Harry had already—
No. Not Harry. Abbie had to push him from her mind because this could not be him. This had been Harry’s father’s home all those years ago, but Abbie had no evidence that was still the case. Even if Ian did reside here, this was not Harry’s party. Not this time. Harry was over thirty now. This was a teenager’s party. Plus, there was his disability to consider.
Abbie reached the end of the street and stopped at the foot of the sloping drive. The gates were open; so was the front door. Light spilt onto the expansive driveway. Light also shone behind the drawn curtains that shielded all of the downstairs rooms from view.
Fewer lights were on upstairs, but there were some. Abbie could not look to those rooms without feeling her heart rate rise. After drugging her drink, to which room had Harry led Abbie? He had eased her onto a bed and promised she’d be okay if only she could get some rest. Minutes later, he had invited his friends in to join him. Was that bed still here? Did Harry still sleep in it?
This was too much. But Abbie couldn’t walk away. All those years spent as an emotionless android, existing only to save lives—she had to return to that state.
Refusing to let memory overpower her, Abbie walked up to the door. She stepped inside without knocking, entering a vast hall off which lay several doors.
She knew where she was going. There would be people upstairs—couples mostly. Abbie wasn’t ready for that and instead took the first door on her right, beyond which lay a larger living room than many one-bedroom flats. Larger even than some two-bedroom flats.
The music was pumping, thumping. Earlier, there would have been dancing. It was two am, and though the volume hadn’t lowered, people mainly had moved away from the dance floor to the many sofas and armchairs and beanbags around the room. They sat in small groups or couples. A few were alone, asleep. In one corner, a group of five took turns leaning over a black counter. Abbie watched one straighten and cheer while another poured more white powder onto the surface, forming it into a line. Abbie was no police officer, nor was she here to stop people from taking illegal substances. Hence, she ignored the group and continued through the room.
She didn’t know what she was looking for. In Abbie’s experience, her best bet was to keep moving and wait for someone to approach. Which shouldn’t take long. The party’s average age appeared to be seventeen, and Abbie could see no one she believed to be beyond their teenage years. At twenty-nine, Abbie stood out. It wouldn’t be long before someone wondered what she was doing and confronted her about her presence at the party.
Moving through the living room, Abbie found another door, opened it, and stepped into a kitchen. There was no music in here, and while the door rattled when she closed it, as though the bass was attempting to force its way in, the barrier at least reduced the sound.
The kitchen was as large as the living room, containing gleaming white goods and marble surfaces. In the centre of the room was an island that could easily seat twenty. Upon the surface of this island were what appeared to be hundreds of bottles of spirits and mixers, plus heaps of plastic cups.
The fridge would be piled high with cans of beer and cider. Abbie didn’t drink while on a mission to save an innocent. Still, in her current mood, mired in memory and surrounded by this bounty of booze, she was sorely tempted. Could not one cup of vodka take the edge off without dulling her mind, reducing her effectiveness?
Possibly. But Abbie knew, in her current mood, one drink was a slippery slope. If you could overcome the hurdle of rationalising the first, rationalising the second was a far easier prospect, and the third easier again, and so on.
Abstaining altogether, Abbie moved on.
There were only a few people in the kitchen, and they paid her no attention. A couple groped one another in the corner, a group of three lads laughed about something they were watching on a phone. A skinny girl who swayed from drink poured herself another with unsteady hands.
Abbie would have liked to speak to this last, but how many teenagers at a party were ready to listen to an adult telling them they had had enough for one night? It wasn’t why Abbie was here. She moved on.
A single door connected the kitchen to the dining room. In the dining room, open double doors led into the garden, which was football pitch sized and beautifully maintained, of course. It didn’t have a pool, though. That was something.
Picnic tables had been set out across the patio, and picnic blankets were spread across the grass like lifeboats floating through the ocean after escaping a sinking ship.
On one of the picnic tables, a loud group played drinking games. At another, a girl and a guy were involved in an impassioned argument. At a third, two teenage boys kissed as though one or the other was about to go to war, and the couple was sure to be parted for several long years, if not forever. That they felt able to kiss in public—without fear of merciless bullying or even attack from their fellow teens—showed there had at least been some positive change in the world of adolescence since Abbie had attended school.
More couples lay on blankets. Some were kissing, some appeared to be on the verge of performing acts best kept behind closed doors. Ignoring these, Abbie let her eyes trace the manicured hedges that formed the garden’s perimeter. Here she spotted another boy and girl combo. They stood close, talking in hurried, quiet tones. Quiet enough that Abbie might have been unable to hear their words from a metre away, let alone from this distance, which was at least ten times that.
Lights mounted on the back of the house bathed the patio and garden in a misty glow. Although the hedges shadowed the duo, Abbie could see the teenage girl’s face.
And knew it was the girl Abbie’s dreams had sent her to rescue.
Abbie kept close to the house, made her way to the far edge of the patio, on the side where stood the girl and boy by the hedges. The guy was tall, with broad shoulders and short, dark hair. Though his back was to her, Abbie guessed he was older than the girl. Eighteen, maybe.
Still no one had noticed Abbie. Or, if they had, they had decided not to accost her. Abbie had wanted someone to come at her with an aggressive attitude because she was in her element when dealing with confrontation. Dismantling someone verbally or physically could distract from the memories of one of Abbie’s most terrible nights.
Now she was glad no one had tried to speak with her. Maybe Abbie would get a chance to communicate and connect with the girl she sought to save. If they could form an early bond, Abbie’s job would become all the easier.
Having reached the end of the house, Abbie walked to the patio’s edge and onto the grass. Her right shoulder brushed the perfect leaves and branches of the manicured hedge. The couple were now only six metres ahead.
Still unsure what to say when she arrived, Abbie made her way towards the teenage girl and the broad-shouldered guy. From her new position, she could no longer see the teenage girl’s face. It was concealed by the bulk of the tall guy with whom she conversed.
Waiting for those quiet voices to reach her, Abbie continued forward. She was perhaps three metres away from the chatting twosome (if chatting was the right word, which it did not appear to be) when the male component of the conversation turned and looked straight at her.
Abbie’s heart seemed to stop—
One, two, three.
—then kick back into gear at a million miles an hour. Like a terrified parishioner, chased by bandits, Abbie’s heart pounded against her chest as though it were the vast, heavy doors of a church. Abbie could not hear the organ yelling sanctuary but was sure that was what it was thinking.
The guy smiled an easy smile, but Abbie said not a word. She did not move. If she did, she feared it would be only to fold at the waist and throw up onto the grass as she had onto the road.
Because the man standing with the girl Abbie had come to save was Harry Delaney. The man who had destroyed Abbie’s life when she was just sixteen.
But he was not Harry Delaney as Harry Delaney should be. Not thirty-one and consigned to a wheelchair but eighteen again and standing tall. Looking exactly as he had on the night he had drugged the virgin Abbie’s drink and, with several of his friends, raped and impregnated her.