Her Missing Daughter
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Abbie was thrilled for her friend Nicole when she met her perfect match in Steve Carlson. Rich, successful and charming, he seemed too good to be true.
When Nicole moves into an immaculate designer home with her attentive new husband who adores her daughter, she seems to have it all. Her life is perfect.
Five years later, Abbie receives a shocking late night phone call. Nicole is dead and her daughter is missing.
Release date: June 3, 2018
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 334
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Her Missing Daughter
I’D ALWAYS BEEN close to my mother, but when things started to go wrong, the situation spiralled fast. I didn’t see it coming. I couldn’t stop it. How could I? I was only fifteen.
I thought I had all the answers. I was wrong.
I keep going over things in my mind, trying to pinpoint the exact moment things shifted to the point of no return. I’d like to rewind time and go back and live it all again. I wouldn’t make the same mistakes. It’s easy to see where I messed up now. Looking back, everything is crystal clear, but I didn’t see it coming.
Not until it was too late.
People look at me differently now. They talk in hushed whispers when I enter a room. It’s pretty bad. I can’t imagine what they’d do if they knew this all started because of something I did.
But they don’t know everything. They don’t even know the half of it. No one does.
THE DAY my friend was murdered, I was five thousand miles away.
Nicole Carlson was my oldest and closest friend, but on the day her life ended, I hadn’t given her a second thought. Why hadn’t I sensed something? At the very least I should have felt a shiver of apprehension or a pang of sadness at the exact moment she passed.
I didn’t, though. I was too wrapped up in the events of the day and hadn’t paused for a moment. I didn’t think about her, at all. Not once.
I’d been working for the Trela Health Foundation Charity in India, and we were setting up a new project, which kept me frantically busy. After I found out, I tried to remember what I was doing at the precise moment she died. I tortured myself, wondering if I was counting out pipettes or stacking bottles of reagent or some equally mundane, repetitive task as Nicole’s life faded away.
The phone call came at one a.m., and I knew straight away it was bad news. No one rings at one a.m. with good news, do they? I thought it had something to do with the project, though. My first guess was someone had a medical emergency in the village.
The unrelenting, chirpy ring from my cheap mobile phone woke me from a deep sleep. I’d had one too many glasses of whiskey before I went to bed and regretted it as soon as my eyes opened. I don’t usually drink much, but Bettan, one of our local suppliers, had brought a case of whiskey on his last visit. Because it had been such a long day, I thought the whiskey would help me sleep. The incessant rain drumming on the tin roof of our temporary Foundation building, accompanied by the night crickets’ chorus had given me many sleepless nights so far this monsoon season. I thought whiskey might blot it all out. I’d tried just about everything else, including earplugs, meditation and music.
We had been tasked with setting up a new Trela Health Foundation initiative just outside a small village seventy kilometres south of Kochi. Our plan was to offer the local community advice on healthcare issues, particularly focusing on education. We had the funding in place, but as it was a new initiative in the area, I only had one person helping me. A very green behind the ears young man called Rich Michaels. He was a twenty-one-year-old American, working for the Foundation on his gap year. He wanted to get into politics eventually. That made sense. I could picture him wearing an expensive suit, striding down the halls in Washington. He never looked completely comfortable dressed casually in his baggy T-shirt and cargo pants. He worked hard, but he had a nervous character and didn’t like making decisions without direction.
As our team contained a grand total of two people, it meant a lot of the work fell to me. I didn’t mind. I liked being busy. It kept my mind off things and made me feel like I was making a difference.
When the telephone rang, I sat bolt upright in bed. Being woken by the phone in the middle of the night never bodes well, and my heart thudded as I reached for the light cord beside my bed. It didn’t work.
I didn’t use it much, preferring the lamp in the corner of the room, because the main light in the middle of the ceiling had a fan attached to it, which made the fitting swing in wide loops around the ceiling. I was terrified the whole thing was going to fall down and electrocute me one of these days.
With a groan, I pushed back the sheets and staggered out of bed. I reached down to switch on the small lamp, but again nothing happened. It took me a second or two to realise the generator wasn’t working.
I cursed in frustration and headed towards my mobile phone, which was glowing with a faint green light and vibrating on the table by the window. I’d never been able to see well in the dark, and with the heavy monsoon clouds blocking out the moon, the room was pitch black. When I was almost at the table, I stubbed my toe on a chair leg.
I swore loudly as I picked up the phone. “Hello.”
I didn’t recognise the voice on the other end of the line, and my first thought was that it had to be a wrong number. I reached down to rub my sore foot, and facts started to filter through to my sleepy brain. The person on the phone was speaking in English… Or was that a Scottish accent I detected?
They repeated their question. “Am I talking to Abbie Morris?”
I nodded and rubbed my eyes before realising I would actually have to reply. “Yes, that’s right. I’m Abbie.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line, and it annoyed me more than it should have. My tensed muscles relaxed. So it wasn’t bad news after all. What sort of person would call in the middle of the night unless it was important? If this was some sort of telesales call, I was going to give her a piece of my mind.
“I’m terribly sorry to tell you this,” she said, and my stomach responded with a somersault.
I pressed a hand against my chest. My first thought was that she was phoning to give me bad news about one of my parents. They had left the UK to emigrate to Australia over ten years ago now, and though I saw them as often as I could, it wasn’t enough.
But it wasn’t my parents.
“It’s Nicole,” the voice said. “Something awful has happened. She’s dead.”
Maybe it was the fact I’d only just woken from a deep sleep, or it could have been because I’d never thought of Nicole as being vulnerable, but it took time for those words to sink in.
She couldn’t mean my Nicole. Not the Nicole I’d gone through secondary school with. Not the Nicole I’d shared fun things with, like sleepovers, and watching Dirty Dancing three times in a row, eating whole pints of ice cream, and not the Nicole I’d shared teenage tragedies with, like over-plucked eyebrows, unrequited crushes and the hideous combination of violet lipstick and blue mascara. Not the Nicole who’d moved to Southampton with me so we could struggle through our nursing degrees together, balancing studying with frequent nights out and too many vivid blue Jucy Lucy cocktails. She was so vivacious and full of life. It just wasn’t possible.
“I’m sorry? Are you talking about Nicole Carlson? Are you sure?”
There was a strange shuffling noise on the other end of the phone, as though the woman was covering the mouthpiece with her hand. Finally, she replied, “Yes, Nicole Carlson. You were good friends, weren’t you? And you’re Sienna’s godmother?”
At the mention of Sienna’s name, the horror of what this woman was telling me hit home. Sienna was Nicole’s daughter. This wasn’t a mistake. She was really talking about my Nicole. It felt like all the air had been sucked from my lungs. I groped around wildly, trying to find the chair and then sat down heavily. How could this have happened? Had she been ill? I’d spoken to her the day before yesterday, and she hadn’t mentioned anything.
I hadn’t been back home to the UK for almost five years. In fact, the last time I had returned, it was for Nicole’s wedding. She’d fallen for a rich, successful man and joked he was going to keep her in the manner she wanted to become accustomed to. We kept up-to-date with Skype and FaceTime video calls, every week, but it was never the same.
I realised I hadn’t spoken for some time and could hear the steady breathing of the woman on the other end of the line.
“Can you tell me how it happened? Was it an accident?”
The woman drew in a sharp breath and hesitated before answering. “It was no accident.”
I shook my head in confusion. Her voice sounded bitter and angry.
My eyes were slowly getting used to the dark now, and I looked down at my toe and saw the injury had drawn blood.
I had so many questions, but I didn’t know which one to ask first. “I’m sorry… I didn’t get your name.”
“I’m Angie,” the woman said, irritation lacing her voice. She spoke as though I should know who she was, but I couldn’t place her name or her voice.
“I work for Mr and Mrs Carlson,” she added eventually.
Realisation dawned as I remembered a short, firecracker of a lady who had worked as their housekeeper. Shortly before she got married, Nicole had confided to me she would prefer to get a cleaner from one of the local agencies, but Angie Macgregor had worked for Steve for more than a decade before they got married, and he wouldn’t even consider letting her go. Nicole said Angie was as efficient as a sergeant major and just as stern. I’d only met her on a couple of occasions and only briefly.
“Thank you for letting me know, Angie. Do you know when the funeral will be held? I’d like to come back for it. How is Sienna doing?”
“I don’t know,” Angie’s voice wavered, and I felt like an idiot for asking such a stupid question.
Of course, Sienna would be distraught. I needed to get back to the UK and help her as much as I could. We’d spent a lot of time together when Sienna was a little girl, but I’d left the UK when she was only ten, and the last time I’d seen her was at Nicole and Steve’s wedding. She’d only been eleven. Of course, she was older now, but I couldn’t help picturing her as that little girl, who would be lost without her mother.
“I really think you should come back straight away,” Angie whispered. “There’s no time to waste.”
“Excuse me?” I blinked in confusion. What a strange thing to say. What did she mean by that?
I heard another voice in the background, and Angie muttered, “I’m sorry. I can’t talk now.”
Then the line went dead.
I SAT IN THE SMALL, rickety chair staring at my mobile phone for a long time. How could Nicole be gone? It didn’t seem possible. Maybe the phone call had been a bad dream. Maybe I was still asleep and in the middle of a nightmare.
The throbbing pain in my foot told me otherwise. I was definitely awake.
Functioning on autopilot, I stood up and gingerly slid my feet into a bright green pair of Crocs. Not exactly a winning fashion statement but practical when I needed to go walking outside in the mud. The generator was kept in a separate building next to our accommodation.
It was just next door, but I paused in the doorway, scanning the dark, water-logged ground for snakes. Then stared into the thick bush that surrounded the clearing. I had a torch shoved into my back pocket and pulled it out, shining it toward the trees, looking out for any reflections from the eyes of creatures lurking amongst the towering plants. When I was sure it was safe, I made a run for it, dashing across the clearing, muddy water splattering my legs.
The door was only a few feet away, but by the time I got there, I was soaked through. The rain was incredibly heavy and unrelenting, and I couldn’t wait for the monsoon season to come to an end.
It took me ten minutes to get the generator up and running again, and when I got back to my room and stripped off my soggy nightclothes, I heard Rich’s soft snoring through the thin walls separating our sleeping quarters. When he heard I would be returning to the UK, leaving him in charge tomorrow, he would freak out.
I rubbed my hair dry with a towel and tried to plan how to break the news.
As we were on the edge of the village, we weren’t yet connected to the main electricity supply and had no Internet service. I wanted to get online and check out flights back to the UK, but I didn’t want to venture to the village at this time of night in the dark on my own. We weren’t far from Chimmini Wildlife Reserve, where panthers and tigers roamed. I’d never seen one as they were very elusive, but there had been reports of a panther sighting close to the village last week. They liked to hunt at night, so I wasn’t taking any chances. I’d wait for daybreak and then head over to the village and book my flight.
There was no way I was going to risk bumping into a big cat. Bumping into the chair leg had been bad enough. I winced as I looked down at my injured toe. I tried to clean away most of the blood with disinfectant. It wasn’t easy. I was a fully-trained nurse, but it was never easy working on yourself, and I was no contortionist.
I dumped the disinfectant-soaked cotton wool ball in the bin and washed my hands. His complete lack of medical experience was another reason Rich was going to be upset tomorrow. He was what the Foundation referred to as technical support. In other words, he was the general dogsbody of the camp, helping to set things up, communicating with the locals and keeping a close eye on the budget. He was a good communicator, though. Certainly better than me. He spoke six languages, while I relied mainly on hand waving and gestures.
It was a miracle the Foundation had accepted my application. They preferred multilingual employees, but timing had been on my side when I’d applied. Someone had left them in the lurch, and I offered to step in. I gave them the usual spiel in my interview. I wanted to make a difference…to help people…to make the world a better place. But I have to admit my motives weren’t entirely unselfish. I’d desperately wanted to get away from the UK and couldn’t pass up a fresh start in a new country.
I didn’t fancy sticking around with everybody staring at me, gossiping and perhaps even laughing behind my back.
I’d needed that change of scenery after I’d been jilted at the altar. Yes, I was a cliché. Technically, I hadn’t actually been at the altar. I had been left shivering outside the church, waiting to make my entrance, calling my childhood sweetheart on my Dad’s mobile, trying to find out what was causing the holdup.
Humiliated in front of my family and friends, I was too embarrassed to face anyone and asked my Dad to tell the congregation there wasn’t going to be a wedding. That wasn’t even the worst of it. Later, I found out Rob had been having a yearlong affair with his secretary. Cliché stacked upon cliché. I would have laughed if it hadn’t hurt so much.
Through it all, Nicole had been amazing. She’d kept me company as I ranted about all the years I’d wasted on a no-good scumbag, and she’d helped me out by eating her share of the chocolate ice cream when my anger turned to melancholy. She set me up on blind dates, including one with Steve’s business partner, Toby.
Her heart was in the right place, but I don’t know whether it was Toby or me who was more embarrassed by her matchmaking. With absolutely nothing in common, we endured Nicole’s multiple clumsy attempts to bring us together until I finally put an end to it. Toby seemed a nice enough bloke, but he wasn’t for me.
Nicole hadn’t wanted me to go to India, but when I’d made up my mind, she’d supported me one hundred percent.
Nicole Carlson had been a good friend, the best. But now she was gone. I would never be able to repay her kindness to me, but I would be able to help Sienna. I would do everything I could to help her. I owed it to Nicole.
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