She reached into the rip she’d made in her mattress and slid her finger and thumb across the steel blade of the hidden knife. Its harsh coldness reassured her.
Laying quite still she tried to regulate her breathing. She knew the drill. All too soon she’d hear the key turning in the door and the sound of drunken footsteps thudding against the wood of the stairs. It always started like this but tonight it would end quite differently.
The knife would end it all: the same knife that her grandmother had once chopped vegetables with. The fleeting memory flashed through her head before being filed away in the memory banks of another life. She missed her grandmother more than anyone else she’d lost. Not a minute went by when she didn’t curse the conflict in her head. It had taken so much from her and had destroyed most of what it had left behind. She blamed that horrible, cancerous war for everything and wondered what it would have been like to be born into another family, into another country, far away from the fighting.
The sudden, solitary chime of the clock downstairs made her jump involuntary from her rigid state. It was one o’clock. It wouldn’t be long now. The fear prickled slowly through the hairs on her neck.
She prayed that the footsteps would simply pass by her door; that a weary head would need its pillow; that a night of drinking at the tavern would have taken its toll, but she knew it wouldn’t work out like that.
She blamed the alcohol and she blamed the war; a war that had affected everyone, a war that it would take decades for her people to fully recover from.
Peace was a far off memory; the hot summers by the lake, her mother and father laughing and throwing her and her brother and sister into the air. But then it had all changed. Genocide, ethnic cleansing; it was bound to leave behind an evil legacy of mental torture for anyone close enough to witness it firsthand. For years she had made excuses, for years she had pretended it wasn’t happening. At least she was protecting her sisters.
The dull thud of his body against the door downstairs signalled he was home.
She banished the memory of the lake as soon as she heard the key meet the lock. There was no room for happiness in the task that lay ahead. The door clunked quietly shut and the slow thud of foot on step signalled his ascent. As the footsteps neared the top of the stairs she prayed again for him to just walk past her door but he didn’t. She closed her eyes tight and sensed his presence in her bedroom. His feet made no sound as they slithered ever closer. The stench of beer and cigarettes engulfed her.
His shadow loomed over her; the white of his eyes just visible in the dark. She reached again for the knife and fingered the blade feeling for the handle.
Through squinted eyes she saw him bring a finger up to his lips; a hushed warning to be quiet. As her hand found the safest part of the knife she suddenly let go and lay back and closed her eyes tightly shut to pretend it wasn’t happening. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t kill her own brother.
Undeterred by who’d been waiting longest, Declan Davenport saw the gap at the bar and pushed into it. Not that he wanted to get served. He needed to hide. The pillar provided just enough of an obstruction for him to reach undetected for his mobile so he made the call.
“Why are you ringing me so early?” his brother asked with glee. “Has she stood you up?
“I wish she had, Sam. She’s an absolute a horror, nothing like I remembered.”
“That’s one of the downfalls of the five to three pull mate,” his brother mocked.
Declan peered around the pillar to check his date was okay. She was mid-conversation with one of her work colleagues.
“First date and she’s invited me out on her works do,” Declan explained. “I’m currently hiding at the bar from her and half her department. They’re treating us like Cupid’s Friday night project. She’s been going on for the last half an hour about how much she gets paid and how her bonus levels kick in.Â She’s obsessed with it. How do I get out of this one?”
Declan glanced around the pillar again. Charlene saw him this time and waved frantically back before mouthing the words â€˜white wine spritzer’ at him.
“Just leave,” Samual suggested. “Everyone’s done a bunk on a date. It’s called snog and run.”
“I can’t do that, it’s gutless,” Declan said wincing at the thought.
“Well be honest with her then.”
“I haven’t got the balls to tell her the truth pal. No way.”
“Just see it as protecting her from the truth.”
“And what am I supposed to say?” Declan asked in a hushed voice.
“Get your drinks, go back over and I’ll ring you. Just keep saying ‘oh no’ really loudly and then tell her you’ve got to go because some kids are throwing stones at your Nan’s window.”
“But we haven’t got a Nan!”
“She doesn’t need to know that numb nuts. Now go back over and do what I’ve told you.”
Declan finished the call and struggled over with the drinks, squeezing into the booth whilst looking almost apologetically at his date. His attempt at a greeting was immediately silenced by her ring tone. ‘I’ve Had The Time of My Life’.
The irony wasn’t lost on Declan but Charlene’s first two words wiped any smile away.
“Oh no,” she said followed by a succession of ‘really’s and ‘oh my god’s.’
It was like she too had been primed on Samual’s snog and run advice.
“What wrong?” Dec asked bemused when she finally finished the call. “What’s happened?”
“It’s my niece. She’s been hit by an ice cream van.”
Declan paused for a second to digest the statement and then burst into howls of laughter.
“An ice cream van?” he said incredulously. “But it’s October.”
The show of shocked faces behind Charlene did little to deter his laughter.
“Sorry but it’s a bit farfetched. Who buys ice creams when it’s brass monkeys outside?”
The faces just stared back.
“Oh come on,” he said as his smile subsided. “I was just about to use the old ‘kids throwing stones at my Nan’s window’ blag but she’s trumped that tenfold with ice cream vans in October. Are you all in on this?”
He glanced over to her workmates for an acknowledgment but it didn’t come. Instead their collective mouths opened and eyes widened in anticipation. It was the only warning Declan was given before Charlene’s open hand made contact with his cheek.
“You complete wanker,” she hissed as she slapped him hard. “She’s broken her leg.”
Declan stretched out on his six-seat, corner sofa and read over the website’s pledge again. True love or take six months free, it promised. Charlene hadn’t been his first dating disaster, nor would she be his last. You had to kiss a lot of frogs, he knew that. It just seemed he’d been kissing a lot of toads, lizards and iguanas too. He looked around his sixteenth floor, triplex penthouse in Salford Quays. It had been all he ever wanted. Girls would drop their guard, if not everything else, the moment they crossed the threshold. But Declan wanted more than that these days; much more.
The family bathroom business was booming. The massive surge in residential properties in the city had seen to that. The Davenports played hard, worked hard and then partied even harder; except recently, in the last few years, things had kind of changed. Brother Samual was married off and Declan had been partying alone for far longer than he cared to remember. The disco lights had faded and the glare of daylight was blinding.
He was ready for the next stage of his life and he wanted it now.
The ring of his mobile interrupted his thinking. It was Samual, which meant more savage banter.
“How come you didn’t answer my get out of dodge call?” his brother asked.
“I was too busy dodging the slaps from my dodgy date.”
“You’re going about this all wrong mate,” Samual explained once the piss take had subsided. “Nights out are the worst times to find a woman into today’s ladette eats lad age. They’re not interested in one liners anymore but don’t stress, you’ve just got to change your delivery and that just means a new platform. The internet has changed everything. Tuesday afternoons are the new Saturday nights when it comes to pulling. The dance floor has been edged out by the chat room. Get them when their bored at work and not allowed to chat to their mates. Girls want to vet their men these days, speak to them online before meeting them, make sure they tick certain boxes. Plus you get to keep your dodgy dates in cyberspace so there’s no face to face embarrassment. The internet mate; it’s how I met Steph.”
It was all the advice he needed to hear.
By the end of the phone call, Declan had keyed in his credit card details and was a fully paid up, gold member of his very first dating site.
He filled out his profile; thirty to thirty five, athletic build, well nearly, dark hair, give or take a few wisps of grey breaking through on the sides. He uploaded a picture from a holiday a few years ago and pressed the search option.
He was busy getting to grips with browsing his first few profiles when a chat box suddenly popped up. It was time to chat.
“Hi sexy,” it said. “Do you want to come on an adventure?”
“Maybe,” Declan considered as he clicked on the tiny picture in the corner of the chat box.
Nice, he thought analysing the tiny detail of the thumbnail before it quadrupled in size and he realised it was a transsexual. Blocked; not a good start.
Another chat box opened immediately. It was definitely a girl this time.
“What would u do if I said I wanna lick ur belly button,” she typed, “from the inside.”
Declan didn’t need to say anything. This was not how the future Mrs Davenport would greet him. Blocked. This was worse than trawling the pubs and clubs. Sammy clearly didn’t know what he was talking about.
The popping of a third chat box looked slightly more promising in the form of a blonde, a very attractive blonde.
“Hi,” her simple message read. “How are you?”
It somehow seemed classy compared to the level of the last two intrusions.
“I’m fine now since you popped up in my life,” he typed back
“Cheeky,” the girl typed followed by a pregnant pause. “Do you wanna have some fun? I don’t cost a penny but I’m very horny. Follow this link and you can see how horny I am.”
The link to another site flashed up in his chat box.
“Don’t be scared,” the temptress typed. “I don’t bite. I don’t even type in capital letters unless you want me to.”
Was this a date in cyber space already? Declan weighed up his options before clicking on the link. It couldn’t do any harm just looking, just to find out just what it was that she did do. The link clicked through to a webcam with the girl lying on her bed in her negligee, twirling her hair.
“Do you want to watch me?” she typed.
He noticed her fingers were nowhere near her monitor; a delay on the stream maybe.
He was just about to pay her a compliment when the screen closed, leaving just a chat box. Another link immediately popped up.
“You just need to put in your credit card details. Don’t worry it’s completely free. It’s just for age verification. Type in the code and then I’ll give you a free thirty minute show.”
“I don’t think I’ll need that long,” Declan said to himself.
He reached for his card and entered his details for what declared itself to be a site for Live Cam Girls. This was virginal territory. The girl’s web cam flicked back into action. She placed her face provocatively close to the camera, pouting her succulent lips and fluttering her eyelids as she did so. She was the most alluring thing Declan had seen in a long, long time.
“So what happens now?” he typed.
“Just watch,” she replied.
The girl began opening the top of her gown, revealing her ample curves and convincing Declan to reach a hand down to his jeans. She walked up to the camera and began lowering the top of her knicker line.
“Nice,” Declan typed. “So where are you from? You look tall.”
The girl ignored the question and instead pushed her groin right up to the web cam before pulling down the hem of her knickers just enough to reveal two words in bright red lipstick.
‘Help Me,’ it screamed.
Her expression changed again as she flashed the palm of her hand close to the camera. ‘Mansion, big gates, woods,’ she’d written in Mascara.
Then the other hand.
‘Chancery Lane, Cheshire.’
She glanced behind and suddenly looked terrified, shouting something, screaming even. Frantically she spat into the palms of her hands, rubbing them together and smudging the message into oblivion.
“Please, please, please,” she mouthed silently with her face pressed up to the web cam, begging whilst flinching. “They kill me.”
Declan froze as she cowered. A shadow hovered above her and then lunged. Declan saw the fist pull back. It struck the girl out of shot, knocking her to the floor. Another figure emerged, striking the girl too, again and again. The cam fell to the floor in the struggle. Off screen the shadowy figures jostled and fought to overpower the girl. A hate-filled face suddenly filled the cam, shouting, veins bulging.
Declan jumped as the screen suddenly went blank, the chat box closed and he found himself back on the home page. The girl was gone.
Hands shaking slightly, he tried to log back in but neither his password nor his username were recognised. He checked his cap lock. Still the site wouldn’t let him in.
Then it slowly dawned on him; he’d been barred, his free subscription had been cancelled. All he was left with was the vision of the girl pleading for her life.