Abby sat in silence in the back of the taxi in the pouring rain, staring at the display of her mobile phone.
The bubble-wrapped envelope was sandwiched between her pullover and the T-shirt beneath. She had a belt tucked tightly around her midriff to prevent the package from falling out – and from being visible to anyone. And she felt the reassuring bulge of the Mace in the front pocket of her jeans.
The driver turned right off Hove seafront by the statue of Queen Victoria and headed up the Drive, a wide street lined on both sides with expensive apartment blocks. But she saw nothing outside the windows of the vehicle. In fact, she saw barely anything at all. There was only one image in front of her raw eyes; one image burning in her mind.
The photograph on her mobile of her mother’s head sticking out of the top of the rolled-up carpet. And the words beneath:
Snug as a bug in a rug.
Her emotions were in meltdown. She see-sawed from blind fury at Ricky to the most terrible fear for her mother’s life.
And the guilt that she had caused this.
She was so tired, she was finding it hard to think straight. She had been wide awake throughout the night. Wired. Listening to the endless traffic on the seafront, a pebble’s throw from her hotel window. Sirens. Trucks. Buses. A car alarm that kept going off. The early-morning cries of the gulls. She’d ticked off each long hour. Each half-hour. Each quarter-hour.
Waiting for Ricky to call.
Or at least to send a text saying something else. But there had been nothing. She knew him. Knew this kind of psychological game was his style. He enjoyed waiting games. She remembered the second time she had gone to his apartment. Their second secret date, or so he thought, and she had been stupid – or n"aive – enough to let him try bondage on her. The bastard had tied her up naked, in a cold room, brought her to just short of a climax with a vibrator, then slapped her and left her in the room for six hours, gagged. Then he’d returned and raped her.
Afterwards he told her it was what she had wanted.
And she had totally failed on that occasion to get what she – or more accurately Dave – had wanted. It had taken a lot longer.
Her concern at this moment was that she did not know his limits – she suspected that he had none. She believed that Ricky was quite capable of killing her mother to get everything back. And that he could kill her too.
And probably enjoy it.
She was trying to imagine the distress her mother was in at this moment, when she realized, with a start, they had arrived at Hegarty’s imposing house.
She paid the driver, peered carefully out of the rear window and then the front. She saw a British Telecom truck a short distance away, which looked as if it was doing some kind of a repair, and a small blue car parked partially on the kerb a short distance further on. But no sign of Ricky’s Ford Focus or him.
She double-checked the number of the house, wishing she had remembered to pack her small umbrella. Then, head bowed against the rain, she hurried through the open gates, past a cluster of cars and into the dark porch. She stood there a moment, extricating the package from her midriff and tidying her clothes, then rang the bell.
A couple of minutes later she was seated on a large crimson leather sofa in Hegarty’s study. The dealer, dressed in a baggy checked shirt, elephant cords and leather slippers, sat at his desk, scrutinizing each stamp with an enormous, tortoiseshell-rimmed magnifying glass.
It always excited her to see the stamps, because there was such a mystique about them. They were so tiny, so old, so delicate, and yet so valuable. Most of them were black or blue or a rusty red colour, bearing the head of Queen Victoria. But there were other colours and other sovereigns’ heads.
Hegarty’s wife, a handsome, smartly dressed woman in her sixties, with elegantly coiffed hair, brought Abby a cup of tea and a plate of digestive biscuits, then went out again.
There was something about the man’s demeanour that was making her feel uncomfortable. Dave had told her to bring them here, that Hugo Hegarty was the dealer who would give her the best price and ask the fewest questions, so she had to trust that was the case. But she had a bad feeling about him that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
She needed to sell them urgently. The sooner she banked the money, the better her bargaining position with Ricky would be. All the time she had them, he had something on her. If he wanted to cut up really rough, he could go to the police. Then they would all be losers, but she believed he was spiteful enough to do that rather than be shafted.
Without the stamps, though, he would have nothing to substantiate his story. And meanwhile she would have the money safely tucked away, hidden by a firewall of nominee trustees in a bank in Panama, a tax haven that did not cooperate with authorities in other countries.
In any case, possession was nine-tenths of the law.
It had been a mistake to wait. She should have sold them as soon as she arrived in England, or in New York. But Dave had wanted to wait until they were sure Ricky had no idea where she was. Now that strategy had backfired badly.
Suddenly Hegarty’s phone rang. ‘Hello?’ he answered. Then his voice suddenly sounded stiff and a little awkward. He shot a glance at Abby, then said, ‘Just hold on a sec, would you? I’m going to take this in another room.’