‘I was hooked from page one and couldn’t put it down until I’d reached the end. The twists and turns just keep coming… will have you gasping in surprise.’ * 5 starsGoodreads Reviewer
"Had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. Jam packed with twists and turns… If you love crime and are as addicted to police procedurals as I am you will love this book!!! "Goodreads Reviewer
The little girl stirred and opened her eyes. A light from the landing played a shadow across her toy cupboard. It was then she realised… There was someone else in the room.
Michelle Harper’s world is shattered when six-year-old Lola Jade is stolen from the safety of her own bedroom. She says her ex-husband has taken their daughter. Lola’s father denies it was him.
Family, friends and neighbours all say they didn’t see a thing. But someone must know where the little girl is. Who is lying? And who is telling the truth?
Detective Rachel Prince knows the longer a child is missing, the less likely they are to be found alive. Can Rachel find Lola Jade, before it’s too late?
Truly addictive from start to finish, Lola Is Missing is a nail-biting crime thriller that will shock you with the final heart-stopping twist.
Perfect for fans of Angela Marsons, Peter James and Karin Slaughter.
Release date: February 7, 2018
Print pages: 312
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Lola is Missing
Chirrup. Chirrup. Chirrup. Chirr—
You were supposed to sleep more lightly as you grew older, Rachel thought, her hand groping to shut off the chorus of crickets on her phone’s alarm, but at 6.15 a.m. most mornings she still managed to be fast asleep. Deeply asleep. She lay on her back for a few seconds, then hopped off the bed and performed some tentative stretches, switching on the TV news.
An inset picture of a small fair-haired child flashed up on the screen, zooming in on her face before cutting back to the newsreader.
‘Surrey Police have released a statement in reaction to criticism about scaling back their operation into the search for missing six-year-old Lola Jade Harper. Detective Chief Inspector Clive Manners said: “We are keeping our existing lines of enquiry open, and are reaching out to other agencies with a view to establishing new leads.” Lola Jade disappeared from her mother’s home in Eastwell, Surrey, at the beginning of May.’
Rachel switched off the TV, pulled on her Lycra running gear and took the lift to the ground floor of the converted cotton warehouse, heading out into the still-dozing streets of Bermondsey. A misty autumn morning was unfurling with the promise of a warm late-October day to come. Rachel pounded the pavements of South East London to the strains of Arcade Fire and The Killers. The damp in the air had left the cobbles near Tower Bridge covered in a greasy film, and as she slowed to change direction, she slipped, twisting her right knee awkwardly. The pain made her wince, but with plenty of adrenaline still coursing through her veins, she decided to push on and run back to her flat.
It was only after she had she showered and her body was cooling that her kneecap started to hurt in earnest. Rachel ignored it, changing into her preferred work uniform of black trousers and a plain white shirt. Standard plain-clothes-policewoman garb. She twisted her blonde hair into a ponytail, applied some subtle make-up and viewed her reflection in the mirror. The woman looking back at her was tall, muscular but narrow-waisted (and a little too flat-chested, in her own opinion), nose a bit on the long side (but straight at least), large hazel eyes, decently shaped eyebrows. There were a few faint lines at the corners of her eyes, but otherwise she could still pass for thirty in sympathetic lighting.
‘Could be worse,’ she told herself, then grabbed her bag and car keys. At 8.35, she parked her car in the underground car park of the National Crime Agency’s headquarters near the South Bank and limped into the office.
‘All right, douchebag?’ Her detective sergeant, Mark Brickall, greeted her cheerily as she reached her desk. He seemed to be in good spirits today. When it came to Brickall, you never knew what you were going to get: he was distinctly moody. And consistently rude, whether the mood was good or bad. They had first worked together for a year in Serious Organised Crime after Rachel transferred there from the Metropolitan Police, then met up again when they both joined Interpol, before it became absorbed by the National Crime Agency. She liked him and, more importantly, she trusted him, despite his occasional flakiness. He was too short to be her type – at five feet nine inches; she preferred men to be at least six feet tall – but just about attractive enough for a joshing sub-flirtation to simmer between them.
‘Hold on!’ he said as she lowered herself onto her chair with painful slowness. ‘Don’t bother sitting down. The boss wants to see us. Now.’
Deputy Chief Constable Nigel Patten was the director of Major Crime Investigative Support, referred to as MCIS. The unit existed to provide expertise and advice to other law-enforcement agencies investigating complex crimes. Both Rachel and Brickall acted as international liaison officers on MCIS, remaining stationed in London after Interpol’s main UK operation had transferred to the north-west of England.
Sighing, Rachel dropped her bag, grabbed a notepad and followed Brickall to Patten’s office. Although he was well into middle age, he had recently become a father again with his second wife. He was a careworn, prematurely bald man, who had two teenage children with Wife No. 1 and had recently acquired a third courtesy of the much younger Wife No. 2. Reading his screen upside down from where she stood in front of his desk, Rachel could see that he was online shopping for sporty-looking baby buggies. Danielle Patten, from what Rachel had seen of her at departmental functions, was exactly the sort to jog behind an all-terrain buggy containing a wobbling newborn, while simultaneously checking her emails. She was a sinewy, fake-tanned marketing executive with perfectly groomed nails and hair and zero sense of humour.
‘DI Prince… DS Brickall… sit down, sit down.’
‘Lola Jade Harper. You are familiar?’
How could they not be? It was no coincidence that the case had been on the news that morning: Lola Jade Harper was still the UK’s most high-profile missing child. A six-year-old girl who had been taken from her bedroom in a Home Counties suburb one spring night and no one had seen her since. A child at the centre of a bitter custody battle, whose father had continued to protest his innocence of any involvement. The tabloids had feasted on every detail for the first few months, but now it seemed that public interest was starting to wane.
‘Surrey Police are at a bit of a dead end,’ Patten affirmed. ‘But they’ve asked for our support following a recent development, which has not yet been disclosed to the press.’
‘Surrey CID were working on the premise that the child was targeted and snatched to order. Neighbours’ witness testimony supports this, as does the mother’s – to an extent. But in the past few days, the girl’s father, Gavin Harper, has completely disappeared. As you probably know, the parents are estranged, but Family Liaison Officers were in frequent touch with them both. Only now Harper’s no longer at his home address, and his family are claiming not to know where he is.’ Patten raised his eyebrows to indicate scepticism. ‘So, given there have been some reported sightings of Lola Jade abroad, and Gavin Harper has for no apparent reason done a bunk, the hope is that a couple of support officers with international experience, such as your talented selves, might be able to help. They went to Scotland Yard, but since it’s not a Met-based case, Scotland Yard pushed it our way.’ He smiled, in what he clearly hoped was a disarming fashion.
‘Lazy Met tossers don’t want the work, as per…’ Brickall caught sight of his superior officer’s face and fell silent. Patten pushed the hefty case file towards them. ‘I’ll leave it to the two of you to get yourselves up to speed as soon as possible, and advise me on a list of actions. Obviously the media interest has been intense, so you’ll have to think carefully about what information you release, and work closely with the press office. And you’ll need to liaise with CEOP as well.’ Patten trotted out the acronym for the NCA’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection command.
‘You’ll enjoy that, then, Prince,’ smirked Brickall as they returned to the office.
‘What’s that?’ Rachel was lost in thought: specifically, that the last thing she wanted to get involved in was a case that was simultaneously cold and high-profile.
‘Liaising’ – he made quotation marks round the word – ‘with CEOP. That guy you fancy works there. Deacon.’
‘Giles Denton. And I don’t bloody fancy him,’ insisted Rachel, who absolutely did.
‘Whatever…’ Brickall glanced at Rachel’s awkward gait. ‘You’re looking even more of a spaz than normal: why the gammy leg?’
He loved to draw attention to Rachel’s occasional fits of clumsiness. She didn’t correct his insubordinate tone; she would never hear the end of it if she did. Instead, like the parent of a recalcitrant toddler, she picked her battles and only pulled rank when it was strictly necessary.
‘Twisted it running. It’s no big deal.’ She spoke with more confidence than she felt. The pain was building still further, and she was glad to sit down at her desk and take the weight off it. ‘What’s the latest update on the file?’
He flicked through the top few pages. ‘Couple of muggles phoning in with alleged sightings. Same shit; different day.’
Brickall shrugged, and slid the folder in her direction.
Rachel started turning the pages, scan-reading as much of the information as she could. Case activity was cooling, and Surrey Police CID had only made two new entries in the past month: a report that Lola Jade had been sighted on Fairfield Road, Eastwell, being ‘led away’ by a dark-haired woman; and a child saying they’d seen Lola in the playground of their school. As Brickall had said; same old. Dozens of similar tip-offs had been followed up and still no Lola Jade. But someone knew what had happened to her. Someone out there knew. Their not-so-insignificant task was to work out who that was.
After she had finished reading, she passed the file to Brickall again, but he declined to read it. ‘Sodding waste of time if you ask me. The kid’ll be dead.’
‘Either way, we still need to find her. So what d’you reckon we do first?’ Rachel reached discreetly into her bag and fished out some painkillers, downing them with water.
She gave him a hard look, suppressing irritation. ‘Given the golden rule of detecting is to start with the closest relationships and work outwards, then it’s a no-brainer. We talk to the mother. Let’s aim to go down there tomorrow.’
‘Okay, boss.’ He gave a mock salute.
‘And while you’re in subordinate mode, go and fetch me some coffee.’
Brickall opened his mouth to protest, but she pointed to her knee and he relented, trudging off in the direction of the coffee machine. While he was gone, Rachel went into the Ladies’ and carefully inched up her trouser leg. Her knee was swollen and throbbing, and the pain was intense. She had little time for the medical profession and hadn’t been near a doctor in years. In fact, she made a point of avoiding them at all costs. But she was not going to be able to ignore this. Damn.
‘You coming to the party tonight?’ Brickall enquired as he put the coffee down on her desk, slopping it over her paperwork.
‘Hayley Snowden’s leaving do. In one of the conference rooms.’ Hayley was a member of the civilian Operations Support staff, about to transfer to a position in the Queen Street offices.
‘Yeah, maybe.’ Rachel hauled herself to her feet. ‘But right now I need to go and get this bloody knee sorted out.’
A private clinic near London Bridge obligingly offered Rachel an appointment that lunchtime. Being able to flash a warrant card helped, as did the health insurance policy for serving police officers. Her right leg was X-rayed, then she was sent to a different floor for an MRI. Finally, after waiting around forty minutes, she was seen by an orthopaedic specialist.
‘You say you’re a runner, Ms Prince?’ he asked, looking at the images on his computer screen rather than at her face.
‘Yes. I was running this morning when it suddenly started hurting.’
‘Did you stop abruptly, or change direction?’
‘Thought so…’ He pointed to a white blur on the screen. ‘You’ve torn your ACL. Anterior cruciate ligament. It’s a very common sports injury, especially amongst women. And you’re thirty-nine,’ he told her, as though she didn’t know her own age. ‘Your joints are not as resilient as they were twenty years ago.’
Rachel ignored this. ‘Can it be fixed?’
He turned from the screen and made eye contact at last. ‘In severe cases, the ligament can be replaced. With a tissue graft.’ He met Rachel’s dismay with a professional smile. ‘I don’t think this is one of those cases. It should repair on its own, eventually. But you’ll need to rest it as much as possible.’
‘Will I be able to run?’ Rachel asked, although she knew what the answer would be.
‘No exercise involving running, not for at least three months.’
‘Three?’ Rachel was horrified. Running was like breathing to her.
‘Look; I’ll see you again in six weeks and we’ll assess where we are then, and I’m also going to refer you for some physio. In the meantime, ice it and use painkillers as needed. I’ll write you a script for some tramadol. If you need me to, I’ll sign you off work.’
Rachel shook her head firmly. ‘Out of the question, I’m afraid.’
‘We usually recommend crutches for a few days.’
‘Also out of the question.’
By the time she had picked up her prescription from the pharmacy it was late afternoon, and there was little point returning to the office. Instead Rachel went back to her flat and changed into jeans, heels and a floaty green top, taking down her customary ponytail and amping up the make-up. An hour later, she was in the first-floor function room in the NCA’s Tinworth Street headquarters, surrounded by balloons and a foil banner that read: ‘Sorry You’re Leaving!’. A paper-covered trestle was laid out with boxes of cheap wine, plastic glasses and an assortment of finger foods.
‘You look nice, Rache.’ Margaret, another of the unit’s admin staff, enveloped her in an embrace that sloshed tepid white wine down the back of Rachel’s top. ‘Doesn’t she, Hale?’
‘She does,’ agreed Hayley, resplendent in false eyelashes, mini dress and skyscraper heels. ‘You look fantastic when you make a bit of an effort. Ever so glam.’
‘You might even pull,’ added Brickall, with his mouth full of cocktail sausage. ‘Though sadly there’s no one from Child Protection here tonight.’
‘Ooh,’ breathed Margaret. ‘Gossip! Do tell!’
Nigel Patten loomed into view, red wine in one hand, fun-size Scotch egg in the other. He cleared his throat and brushed breadcrumbs from his chin.
‘Hayley, now might be the time for me to say a few words?’
‘Might be the time for a sharp exit, more like,’ muttered Brickall. Rachel, struggling to balance her injured leg in heels, staggered slightly. Brickall caught her. ‘Easy tiger! Bit early for the falling-down-pissed act.’
As she leaned on his shoulder and righted herself, her phone rang. She grabbed it quickly and held it at eye level to cut off the call before it interrupted Patten’s speech.
The call was followed within seconds by a text from the same unrecognised number.
This is Stuart Ritchie.
Rachel jumped so violently in shock that she dropped the phone at Brickall’s feet. He bent to pick it up, just as it stopped ringing, squinting at the text message.
‘You all right, DI Prince? You look like you’ve seen a fucking ghost.’
‘I’m fine.’ She shoved the phone to the bottom of her bag. ‘My knee’s killing me, that’s all. See you tomorrow.’
Before he could say anything else, she grabbed her coat from the chair where she’d left it and hurried out of the room and down the stairs, the four words still jangling in her brain.
This is Stuart Ritchie…
Outside the building, she leaned against the wall for a few minutes, catching her breath and waiting for the shock wave to subside.
There was no going for a run this morning, Rachel reflected miserably when she woke up. Her knee was still swollen, and so stiff that she hobbled around her stylish kitchen – all exposed brick and brushed-steel finishes – like a pensioner. Yet she managed to jump every time her phone buzzed.
Exercise. She needed exercise to settle her jangling brain; if not running, then something else. She grabbed a swimsuit and a towel and drove to the nearest municipal sports centre to join the early-morning lap swim in the chlorine tank that posed as a swimming pool. I’ll just do ten lengths and then get out, she told herself. She ended up doing forty, and her head felt better for it. The mindlessness of it was soothing, but her knee joint was now screaming, and she’d probably done even more damage to it.
On her way out of the building, she stopped and peered through the glass panel in the gym door, even though she was emphatically not the gym-going type. Everyone looked so busy and at the same time so vacuous, churning the pedals on their static bikes. The gym bunnies seemed universally bored, with the exception of the ones using the boxing punchbag hanging from a bracket in the far corner of the room. Now that did look like fun. A lot more fun than the physio her consultant had suggested. Rachel watched them for a couple of minutes before heading back to the car park.
As she sat down at her desk, wincing with the effort, her phone pinged. Hesitating, she checked the screen, wondering if it would be Stuart again. But it was a message from Mark Brickall.
Sorry, got hauled into Bogdhani case conference. Will have to do the Harper mother thing tomorrow.
The Bogdhani case was an Albanian drug-trafficking ring he had been investigating for the past three months. Sighing, Rachel composed a reply. Normally she would carry out an initial interview alone, but she was fairly confident that her knee would not permit her to drive to Surrey and back in heavy stop-start traffic.
Any excuse, you lazy git. I’ll get reading, and see what my Spidey sense tells me.
She hobbled to fetch coffee, then picked up the Lola Jade Harper file and started to read through it again. Looking for detail this time, and for whatever lay between the lines. Details were her detective lifeblood: the stuff that spoke to her instincts. Things other people didn’t even notice.
She began with the initial missing person’s report, filled out on a standard pro forma dated 10 May 2016. It gave the complainant’s details as Michelle Harper, 57 Willow Way, Eastwell. Lola Jade was described as being 48 inches tall and weighing 58 pounds. Her hair was blonde, her eyes hazel and her skin fair. She had no distinguishing marks, but her ears were pierced. There were no significant medical conditions, and her blood group was O positive. She was left-handed. When last seen, at 9.15 p.m. on 9 May, she had been wearing lilac pyjama bottoms and a pyjama top printed with pink and purple butterflies. A photocopy of her birth certificate had been appended to the report, along with a copy of her registration as a pupil at St Mary’s C of E Primary, Eastwell.
The ‘Further Remarks’ box stated that Michelle Harper had phoned the emergency services at 6.47 a.m. on Thursday 10 May. She had gone into the child’s bedroom to wake her for school and found the room empty. Lola Jade had no siblings, and her mother was currently living apart from her estranged husband.
Rachel put in her headphones and listened to the 999 call.
‘Operator: which service do you require?’
‘Hello, you’re through to the police.’
‘My name’s Michelle Harper. My daughter’s gone… she’s been abducted.’
‘And how old is your daughter?’
‘She’s six, nearly seven.’
‘Okay, can you tell me exactly what’s happened?’
‘Right, I put her to bed as normal last night, but when I went in to wake her this morning, she wasn’t there. The bed was empty and the French window downstairs was open.’
‘And you’re sure she’s not in the house: you’ve looked for her?’
‘Of course I have, I’ve looked everywhere. Inside and outside.’
‘Are you at the property now, Michelle?’
‘Yes: where else would I be?’
‘Okay, I want you to give me the address, and an officer will be with you as soon as possible.’
‘As soon as we can get a unit there; I’m contacting dispatch now.’
‘Can’t you give me a rough idea?’
‘I don’t have an exact time, but it should be less than half an hour.’
Rachel listened again, then a third time. It was unusual, she thought, that Michelle had stated straight away that Lola Jade had been abducted. Not that she couldn’t locate her, or that she had disappeared, but that she had been abducted. Past publicity surrounding missing child cases had probably put that word into her mouth. That and watching too many TV crime shows. Her tone was tense rather than hysterical. But then Rachel knew from her years as a beat officer that there was a huge spectrum of reactions to grief and trauma.
She looked at the photo of Lola Jade that Michelle Harper had supplied when the missing person’s report was filed. It was a standard school headshot, and showed a plain, stolid child with long, mousy-blonde hair, staring down the lens with a blank expression.
In a more detailed statement given after Lola Jade had been missing for two days, Michelle outlined how she had put Lola to bed as usual the evening before she disappeared, and checked on her once after she had fallen asleep and before Michelle herself went to bed, sometime around 9 p.m. There was no one in the house but Michelle, her daughter, and the family Pomeranian, the unfortunately named Diva.
‘I went to bed at 10.30 p.m. At around 3 a.m. I was woken by a loud banging noise followed by a scuffle coming from outside somewhere. I opened my curtains and looked out of the window. I saw a man standing there a few yards from the front of the house. He was average height and build and wearing a hoodie pulled up. I couldn’t see his face. I got back into bed for around ten minutes, then looked out of the window a second time. The man that I had seen was gone. It was quiet, so I got back into bed and fell asleep until 6.30.’
Elsewhere in the file, among the statements taken from neighbours during the door-to-door, a Mr Steven Arnold had said that he had seen two men, one of whom was short and of slight build, the other bigger, hanging around the close earlier on the 9th. He described their demeanour as ‘shifty’. Another neighbour, Anna Wozniak, reported seeing a white Transit van with its engine idling, parked around the corner from Willow Way. It was too dark for her to read the number plate.
Michelle’s husband, a self-employed builder called Gavin Harper, had been cooperative when police first spoke to him, but adamant he knew nothing about his daughter’s disappearance. But fast-forward a few months and he had vanished, with no one – including his own family – apparently knowing where he was. If they were telling the truth. The behaviour seemed too unusual to be mere coincidence. Yes, after such a stressful period anyone might want to take off for a while; gain some distance, clear their head. But not without telling their nearest and dearest where they were going.
Questioned further, Michelle had admitted that Gavin could be aggressive, although he had no criminal record other than petty motoring offences. There was a statement from Sonia Kenny, Michelle’s mother, corroborating her daughter’s claims but being vague about the detail; only able to offer that Gavin had shouted and thrown stuff on a few occasions, and after one argument – she couldn’t remember exactly when – he had pulled Michelle’s hair so hard that some of it had come out in his hand. From the look of Michelle’s elaborate extensions and hairpieces, that could easily happen, Rachel concluded.
After standing up and limping around the perimeter of the office to ease the stiffness in her right leg, Rachel read through the forensic report and looked at photos the SOC officer had taken at Michelle’s house. Lola Jade’s bedroom was an explosion of sugar pink and stuffed toys, exactly as you would expect for a girl her age. There were D. . .
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