The hysterical screams lasted perhaps fifteen minutes before exhaustion consumed Laura’s body and she fell to the floor, alone and afraid.
She found the pup’s body and clutched it to her chest, taking comfort from the still warm cadaver.
Eventually she cried herself to sleep in the darkness, lulled by the gentle motion of the vehicle.
The van stopped only twice on the journey, once to change the licence plates on a secluded road, once for fuel, paying cash. Now it was parked in the pay and display car park on Rhyl promenade, the driver in the Sun Centre, an imposing glass-fronted leisure complex combining pool and theatre, over-looking the Irish Sea. To the east, the Dee Estuary poured forth its effluent, while on its Queensferry banks anxious neighbours joined the police scouring the area for signs of the missing child.
Being the last weekend of the school holiday the leisure pool was well-attended, locals and late holidaymakers alike determined to make the most of it.
Though a competent swimmer he never ventured into the water once during the three hours he spent there. He stripped to his trunks, spread out a towel and lay out on the window seat to enjoy the view, watching the little girls run past from the lagoon pool to the surfing pool, wet costumes clinging to young bodies. It was an enjoyable afternoon spent building up an appetite for delights yet to come.
It was nearly six in the evening, a good few hours of daylight remaining, when he returned to the van. He retrieved a lunch-box from beneath his seat and satisfied his hunger on a selection of cheese and pickle rye-bread sandwiches, washed down with a flask of decaffeinated coffee.
He unrolled a copy of the Telegraph, casually browsing through, taking in the headlines, but skipping the details. He preferred the Guardian, for its keener coverage of social issues, although he found its politics too liberal for his taste. Having spent the previous night in a hotel in Bradford he’d not had the benefit of his usual paper and had made do with what the foyer offered.
By eight o’clock there were perhaps three vehicles still remaining. He slipped in the CD, then made his way to the back of the van, checking about him before opening the back doors. It was dark inside. He climbed in and secured the doors behind him before tugging a lever that illuminated the van’s rear interior.
Little Laura lay semi-comatose, the trauma too much for her young mind, curled in foetal position, her thumb in her mouth, her other arm around the dead puppy.
The scene brought a smile to his face. Her cheeks were streaked with tears, her hair dishevelled, her dress creased and bloodstained where the pup lay against her. He grasped the now cold animal by its already stiffening tail and gently eased it from her tiny fingers.
The girl stirred as she felt the puppy move and she opened her eyes. For a second she stared blankly at the man before her, uncomprehending, then her young mind focused, the brown eyes widening. Her body shook as she sat up and prepared to scream.
Far too young to understand his intentions.
Old enough to be so very afraid.
He drove the few miles back to Prestatyn, staying in a cheap bed and breakfast overnight, affecting a convincing Welsh accent during his dealings with the landlady. He gave his name as Jones. Tom Jones. If only, she’d sighed. He wriggled his pelvis for her in a poor imitation and for the rest of the evening he received the red carpet treatment.
He said he wouldn’t be wanting breakfast. He had to continue his journey first thing, to be back in Swansea for his next shift. The landlady was delighted. Thirty pounds for changing a few sheets was fine by her. But for fifty-three year old Mrs Gwyneth Humphries the best was yet to come.
When he put on his Tom Jones accent and said he’d like her to join him for the optional evening meal she was in seventh heaven. When he took to the upright piano in the guest’s lounge after dinner and ran off a passable rendition of Delilah, followed by Green, Green Grass she almost wet herself. The other guests applauded loudly, adults and children alike.
The little girl from Manchester sat on his lap, her parents looking on, delighted with the free entertainment. “You should be on the stage,” they said, oblivious to his hand beneath their daughter’s dress. The child too excited to notice, too young to think anything of it if she had.
At eleven thirty he disappointed them all by announcing it was time for bed. He had a long drive ahead of him in the morning. He kissed the little girl good night, shook hands all round and settled with the landlady before retiring. She couldn’t quite bring herself to waive the fee for the evening meal, but let him off the two pound surcharge for parking his van on the drive.
He awoke at six on the Monday morning and left the building unnoticed. Mrs Humphries wouldn’t be stirring for another half hour. Breakfasts were served strictly between seven-thirty and nine. No exceptions. On the way out he picked a single rose from a neighbouring garden and put it in a glass of water on the kitchen table, with his compliments. His calling cards were strictly reserved.
A brisk wind had brought broken cloud scudding across the Irish Sea. He drove into the town centre and took coffee and toast at a cafe in the High Street, collecting a Guardian on the way. With an Irish accent, he made polite conversation as he paid, enquiring how to get back on the A55 to Holyhead. He had to be in Dublin by mid-afternoon and couldn’t afford to miss the ferry, he explained to the disinterested proprietor.
It was eight o’clock when he drank up, leaving a few pound coins, polished on a napkin, as a generous tip, and slipped out while the café owner tended fried eggs out back. Driving out of town, back towards Rhyl, he spied a girl on her way home after a sleep-over at a friend’s house, struggling to pedal her bike against the strong breeze.
He drove past slowly, watching her in the wing mirror. The wind whipped her skirt about her legs revealing glimpses of thigh. He felt the stirrings in his groin.
He pulled to a halt ahead of her, watching in the mirror as she drew closer, savouring the view. He switched the engine off, leaving just the sound of the wind and the gulls. He pushed the CD into the player and turned the volume down low. His lips parted in a smile as the music started.
There was no-one else about. A car disappeared into the distance.
The girl pedalled nearer, oblivious to his presence, ever closer, behind the van, moving out to overtake. He put his fingers on the door handle and stopped, taking deep breaths.
She was nine. Ten, maybe.
White ankle socks.
A skirt much too short for cycling.
A glimpse of her underwear and he was breathing heavily.
She was alongside now.
Riding alongside the van, level with his door.
And then she was past, her hair flailing behind her in the wind.
She’d never know how close she’d come.
How lucky she was to have been in the wrong place at the right time.
He turned the key and drove slowly away.
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