Squall’s End, Essex countryside
The tiny bead of sweat that trickled down Alexandria’s forehead before plopping onto the tablet computer in front of her went unseen. So did the leaves that blew around outside the door to the small room above the garage that she used as a makeshift gym. She was blind to everything but the music and her own movement. Her legs pumped the pedals of the spinning bike, matching the rhythm of the up-tempo track as it reached a crescendo. Her lungs felt like they were about to explode and the lactic acid that had built up in her thighs was a burning fire that she had to force herself to ignore. Finally the track was over and she sat back on the bike, her breath coming in gasps for a few moments before returning relatively quickly to normal. She towelled herself down and packed up her iPod and headphones into their small case, stowing them on top of some precariously stacked packing boxes next to the bike.
She checked her watch, there was just enough time to stretch and freshen up before she picked her daughter Aryanna up from her parents where she’d been staying for the weekend. Her parents had jumped at the chance to spend time with their only granddaughter but it had been Alexandria who’d sighed the deepest when she drove away from their small chocolate-box cottage to return home to her empty, new house. Not that she didn’t love spending time with her four year old daughter, but since they’d move out of London to their new home at Squall’s End the week before it had been hard to function with all of their things half unpacked and strewn around the house and Alexandria was looking forward to some time on her own to make sense of everything and build some order into their new home.
As she stood on her right leg and leaned on their antique Captain’s table to stretch out her quadriceps her eyes rested on a small handwritten note underneath one of Simon’s law books. It wasn’t unusual for the desk to be strewn with scribbled notes, Simon wasn’t as technically adept as she was and preferred pen and paper over the note-taking apps that she synced across her phone, tablet and laptop. But this note, written in neat script on light blue paper marked with a hallmark, wasn’t written by Simon it was addressed to him. Alexandria knew so little about Simon’s role at international law firm Cutler and Bross that her interest was immediately piqued and, despite feeling a twinge of guilt at prying into her husbands things, she picked up the small note and held it up to the daylight coming through the skylight window above her head.
You know what to do. You know what is at stake. Don’t let us down.
Alexandria frowned. Phillip Hindmarsh was Simon’s boss, Managing Director of the company and the man who had just given Simon his promotion to lead solicitor. Perhaps the note related to some special project Simon had been given she thought turning the note over in her hand. Was it usual for lawyers to write each other hand-written notes like this? She wondered. Realising that time wasn’t on her side Alexandria pocketed the note in her training jacket and locked up the roof-store, vowing to quiz Simon on the note later on.
Back in the main house she showered quickly and ran a wide-toothed comb through the unruly dark blonde curls she shared with her Father and daughter before throwing on jeans, a vest and an old cashmere sweater that had seen better days. Rolling up her sleeves she reflected that it was just typical of Simon not to be here when there was so much to sort out. ‘Just bad timing’, he’d said shrugging his shoulders when she’d groaned at finding out his next business trip to Hong Kong was just the day after they’d moved. ‘Can’t someone else do it?’ she’d said, but even as the words had come out of her mouth she’d know what his answer would be. Simon was wedded to his job at Cutler and Bross. And none more so than since he’d received the promotion that had led to them leaving their small flat in North London and moving out here to the beautiful Essex countryside. They’d hardly seen anything of each other the the past three months; he’d be gone before she woke up in the morning and often came to bed long after she was asleep. It wasn’t the life that she’d expected when they’d met and married as young students twenty years ago.
Alexandria shook off the negative mood that these thoughts had wrapped her in and grabbed her car keys off the hall table that she’d pushed into place earlier that morning. She was just opening the front door when she heard her phone ringing somewhere close by. ‘Damn it,’ she thought, ‘where is it?’ Each incessant ring had her hunting closer and closer to its source until she finally found the phone in her jacket pocket, hidden under a pile of other coats on their old-fashioned hat stand.
‘Hello?’ she said.
‘Alex? Thank God you’re still there.’ Simon said.
‘Simon? Where are you? I can hardly hear you. How was your flight?’
‘There’s no time! You have to leave now, get out of the house, get Ary and go somewhere where they won’t find you!’ Simon said.
‘What are you talking about?’ said Alexandria, frowning in confusion. ‘Where ARE you?’ she said, then more cautiously; ‘Is this about the note from Phillip?’
‘I can’t tell you. There’s no time, I have to go. Just do as I said. I’m so sorry Alex, please, please forgive me.’
The line went dead.
Alexandria looked at the phone in disbelief, her stomach starting to knot. What on earth was Simon talking about? Why did she need to get out? Why was he sorry? The whole conversation hadn’t made any sense. She was just about to try calling Simon back when the phone started ringing again.
‘Hello, Simon?’ she said, trying to keep the panic from her voice.
‘Alex it’s me, Dad,’ her Father said.
‘Oh hi Dad, look I’m just on my way to you, can you ask Mum to get Ary ready…’ she started to say but her Father cut her off mid-sentence.
‘Alex stop. Just listen. I need to tell you something and you need listen carefully.’
Alexandria heard her Father take a long and strangely rasping breath before continuing.
‘Your Mother and Ary have been taken. I don’t know by who. I don’t know why. You need to get out of the house, now and get somewhere safe where they won’t find you,’ his voice got quieter as he spoke, almost as though he was running out of breath but didn’t want to waste the time breathing in.
‘What the heck is going on?’ Alexandria’s head was in a spin. First the note, then the call from Simon and now this. She felt the hairs standing up on her arms and the knot tightening in her middle.
‘Can’t talk any more…waiting for the ambulance…don’t worry I’m ok…just couldn’t stop them.’
‘Dad! Ambulance?! Are you ok? What happened? And what do you mean Mum and Ary have been taken?’ Alexandria realised she was almost shouting down the phone but couldn’t help herself.
‘Some men came, hit me over the head, grabbed your Mum and Ary. I overheard two of them speaking when they thought I was out… Alex they’re coming to you next. Now you must go, I love you my darling.’
For the second time that day the phone went dead and Alexandria slid to the floor of the hallway dazed, confused and sick to her stomach.