Read (2011) Only the Innocent Online

Authors: Rachel Abbott

Tags: #crime, #police

(2011) Only the Innocent (9 page)

‘Over the last few years, though, the work of the foundation has evolved into something much bigger than it was when Hugo first told me about it. No doubt you know all about the enormous growth in Eastern European prostitution?’

Tom nodded. He’d learned some of this from the research his team had done, but it would be good to hear about it from Laura too.

As she started to speak, he noticed that the air of detachment was being replaced by genuine enthusiasm, as if she really cared about the fate of these girls.

‘When I met Hugo I was deeply impressed by the work of his charity - helping girls that appeared to have nowhere to turn. But in comparison, those girls were lucky. They spoke the language, and they were in their own country. The girls the charity helps now are often brought to England either against their will, or under the misapprehension that they’re coming to work as waitresses or chambermaids. In some cases, they think they’ve won a modelling contract - and they are full of hope and excitement. Then, of course, it becomes obvious that life as they knew it has ended. They are smuggled in, and ‘sold’ into prostitution. The price of a girl can be as much as eight thousand pounds, making a significant profit for the smugglers. But they can earn up to eight hundred pounds per day for the gangs that buy them. They may have to have sex with twelve, fifteen, twenty men. Each and every day. It’s practically impossible for them to escape. In theory they can buy themselves out - but there’s no hope of them raising the money. Most if not all of their earnings are taken from them. They’re usually here illegally, so how can they get home even if they could get the money together? If they manage to get away from wherever they’re held and turn themselves in to the police, they’re concerned about protection, and many of them don’t want to be sent home to the lives they thought they’d escaped. They’re scared of repercussions from the original smugglers, and they’d have to live with the shame of what happened to them. It’s a truly terrible situation.’

‘So how did the charity help?’ Becky asked.

‘Hugo had a team of workers who would go out and find the girls. I suspect they set themselves up as punters. They would try to persuade the girls to go to the police, with the charity’s help and support. But that assumed that they would be happy to be sent back to where they came from, and many of them weren’t. So if that didn’t work, they would offer to find the girls a safe environment and would often actually buy the girls back from the pimps, at a pretty exorbitant rate. I had a problem with this, because I thought it would just result in them just going and buying more girls. But Hugo said I didn’t understand. He said I didn’t need to worry about that aspect, so I really don’t know. Something about supply and demand, apparently. But the rescued girls were re-housed with families - just like the original girls that the Allium Foundation helped.’

‘Approximately how many girls did the charity help,’ Tom asked.

‘Oh, not as many as they would have liked. Only about a hundred to a hundred and fifty a year. Whatever they could afford through their fund-raising, and of course Hugo did supplement the income through one of his trusts.’

At that moment, a detective constable stuck his head around the door. ‘Sir, you’re wanted for your eight o’clock appointment.’

Tom made his excuses, and thanked Laura once again for making the journey so early in the morning, promising to get to Oxfordshire as soon as possible. As he busied himself getting some papers together prior to leaving, Becky picked up the questioning. He could see that she was genuinely moved by the vision that Laura painted.

‘What happens to the girls in the end, Laura?’

‘What do you mean, exactly?’

Tom was rather surprised at the sharp tone that Laura used in response to what seemed to be a perfectly innocuous question.

‘Well, are they just kept with the families for an agreed period, and if so what happens to them when they leave? Do they get help with further work permits, passports, that sort of thing?’

‘Oh, I see. Well, it depends on the circumstances…’

Tom didn’t hear the rest of Laura’s answer as he left the office, but he sensed something that sounded strangely like relief in her voice.

CHAPTER 8

Laura slammed the front door behind her, and walked wearily towards the kitchen where Imogen was having a late breakfast. The room smelled of toast and fresh coffee.

‘Give me some of that, please, Imo. That was not my finest hour.’

‘What happened? You identified the body, I presume. Was it awful? You should have let me come with you.’

Laura looked at her and let out a deep, slow breath.

‘You don’t need to hold my hand, you know. I’m okay, and I’m in control. ‘The body’ as you put it, was just Hugo. He looked as if he was asleep, and it was nowhere near as traumatic as I thought it would be. But they asked me about the charity, and it made me very twitchy. Oh, I don’t know. I’m not sure if I should be the grieving wife, a demented nutcase, or just plain old me. I suspect I seem like a bit of all three to them. I feel as if I don’t know who I am any more.’

Laura plonked herself down at the scrubbed pine table in the kitchen, and rested her chin on her cupped hands.

‘I wouldn’t worry. Nobody would expect you to be normal at the moment, whatever normal is. You’re supposed to be stricken with grief, and so just about anything would seem normal. I thought they were coming back with you? What’s happened, did you scare them off?’

‘Tom had to go to the post-mortem, although he was too delicate to mention it. They’re coming here soon, and then they’re off to see Annabel. God knows what they’ll make of Hugo’s delightful ex-wife. You’ve never met her, have you? They have a real treat in store.’

Laura gratefully picked up the cup of coffee that Imogen had put in front of her and took a deep gulp.

‘They’re nice, though, the police that have been assigned to this case. They seem really concerned, and the detective sergeant, who by the way is my nominated Family Liaison Officer - just what I need I’m sure - got quite emotional when I explained what Allium does.’

Imogen raised her eyebrows and smiled at Laura.

‘You’ve failed to mention the good looks of the charming chief inspector. Tom, now, I note? He’s a bit of a hunk, don’t you think. And what was with the sexy tee shirt and oh so perfect jeans last night?’

‘Christ, Imo, just at this moment I’ve got other things on my mind - as you may have noticed. Anyway, he looked completely different today, as you’ll see when he turns up here in an hour or so. Smart suit - expensive, by the look of it - tie, the works. According to Becky, yesterday was supposed to be his day off, which is why he was dressed so casually. But let’s be honest, even if I thought he was the sexiest man on earth, who’s going to look at me these days?’

Imogen was fortunately spared the need to reply to this by a loud banging on the front door.

‘I’ll get it,’ she said. ‘It’s probably just the press again. I wish they’d leave you alone. There’s a policeman at the gate, but he seems to be taken in by all sorts of stories. We should never have given him the pass code. We’ve had ‘deliveries’ from more florists than you would believe this morning. Several with carefully concealed microphones in, no doubt. I’m getting very good at being rude to them.’

Propping the door open with an old brass door stop, Imogen made her way towards the front of the house, her footsteps echoing as she crossed the stone flagged hallway. Then the peace and quiet of the house was ripped apart by the high-pitched voice of a hysterical child.

‘Where’s Laura? I want Laura.’

Clearly Imogen had not had a chance to reply to this, because within seconds a beautiful young girl appeared in the open doorway to the kitchen and practically threw herself at Laura. She hung on, her slender body shaking with sobs.

Laura felt sick. Alexa didn’t deserve this. The poor child had adored her father; had practically worshipped him, in fact. She glanced towards the doorway where a young woman of around thirty was standing. Her eyes were red and swollen, although there were no signs of tears now. They exchanged unsmiling eye contact, but not a word was spoken between them.

‘Alexa, my darling. I’m so sorry. So very, very sorry. I know how much you loved him and he loved you too, you know. He would hate to see you so upset.’

Laura knew that there were no words capable of soothing Alexa, so she just held onto her tightly, stroking the white blond hair away from her face. At twelve years old, she was too young to be hurting so badly.

After a few minutes, Alexa’s sobs had subsided slightly, but keeping a tight hold of her, Laura looked up.

‘Hannah, what are you both doing here? Shouldn’t Alexa be with her mother?’

‘Annabel has gone to see her lawyer. She’s going to be gone for most of the day, she said, and Alexa didn’t want to be on her own. She’s been making such a fuss, I didn’t know what to do with her. Anyway, it was her idea to come here, not mine.’

There had been many occasions when Laura had wanted to slap Hannah hard across the face, and this time it was so tempting. Perhaps she should just do it, and put it down to her own grief.

Imogen had joined them in the kitchen, apparently having decided not to intrude until Alexa was a little calmer.

‘Did I hear that right? Her mother’s gone out and left her! What the hell…’

Imogen stopped as Laura gave her a warning shake of the head.

‘I’ll make some fresh coffee, shall I?’ Imogen asked. ‘What about Alexa, what would you like, honey?’

Alexa turned her head slowly from where it was resting on Laura’s bosom.

‘Who are you?’ she asked with a childlike ability to get straight to the point. It was Laura who answered.

‘This is Imogen, sweetheart. She used to be married to Uncle Will. Do you remember Uncle Will? You met him a couple of times when you were younger.’

‘Isn’t he your brother? Did he go away somewhere? Was it like you, Laura, when you went away?’

‘No, not like me at all. Will’s an engineer and he’s working in Africa. He’s been there for years now.’

‘So why didn’t she go with him?’

‘They got divorced, like Mummy and Daddy did.’

Alexa turned to Imogen.

‘Why haven’t I seen you before?’

‘I’ve been living in Canada, Alexa. It’s where I was born. I lived in England when I was a little girl, but decided to go back to my roots when I got divorced.’

This wasn’t strictly true, reflected Laura. Imogen had stayed in England for a couple of years after the divorce, hoping in vain to get back together with Will. Right up to the time, in fact, when Will took himself off to Africa. By then, Laura and Imogen were no longer speaking - driven apart by the events of one single night. Despite not having spoken for nearly two years, it didn’t hurt any less when Laura discovered that her one-time best friend was moving back to Canada. She had always hoped that Hugo would relent and there could be a reconciliation.

‘Lexi, darling, you know you can stay here with me for as long as you like. But you look exhausted. Why don’t you go upstairs for a bit and have a lie down. Hannah will make you a nice warm drink and sit with you until you go to sleep. I know it’s still morning, but all that crying must have worn you out, and I bet you didn’t sleep much last night, did you?’

‘How could I? I just kept thinking of poor Daddy. Why would anybody want to hurt him? He was lovely, wasn’t he? We had such special times together, and he loved me more than anybody in the world. He always told me that nothing could come between us.’

‘I know, sweetheart.’

‘Will you come up and see me, please Laura. Will you tell me some stories about him?’

‘Of course I will. Go on, I’ll be up soon.’

As Hannah and Alexa left the room, Imogen moved over towards the door and closed it firmly behind them.

‘You were right about Alexa, Laura. She’s an enchanting kid, and the photos you showed me don’t do her justice, even after all those tears. I can see why you love her so much. Poor mite, she’s going to have a bit of a tough time ahead. It’s hard to believe she’s twelve though. She’s such a little thing. But what’s the story with Hannah? You clearly don’t like her.’

Laura didn’t answer. She waited for Imogen to work it out, and it didn’t take long.

‘Ah ha! Hannah’s the nanny.
That
nanny - she’s the one, isn’t she?’

‘Yes. She’s the one. She was Hugo’s puppet, and couldn’t see further than the nose on her face. She still lives with Annabel, but Hugo pays her - or rather paid her.’

Laura paused as a thought struck her.

‘Now, that’s interesting. I wonder what’s going to happen to her, because I can’t see Annabel paying Hannah out of her own pocket, and I
certainly
wouldn’t. I wonder if Hugo has made any provision in his will for her.’

‘Do you have any idea at all what he has put in the will?’ Imogen asked. ‘I mean, this is a family property, so I presume it goes to Alexa. I don’t suppose that ever occurred to you, did it?’ Imogen as usual got straight to the point.

‘It may have escaped your notice, Imogen, but I’ve had one or two other things on my mind in the last twenty-four hours. I haven’t given the will a moment’s thought. Where Hugo’s concerned, though, it’s always wise to expect the unexpected.’

Imogen appeared unfazed by Laura’s slightly caustic response.

‘Ah, talking of expecting the unexpected, you had a phone call earlier. It was Stella. She’s on her way.’

‘Shit! The last thing I need is my mother. She was supposed to be going off to visit Will yesterday morning. I bought her ticket! What’s she still doing in the country?’

‘You know what she’s like, Laura. She got some notion in her head about malaria, apparently. She’s been taking the tablets as prescribed, but got the idea that she hadn’t taken them for long enough, so wanted to delay by a week to be on the safe side. She said you’d bought her a fully flexible ticket, so she just changed the date.’

‘Oh God. Why, oh why did I not just buy her a fixed ticket, then she’d be gone and out of this.’

Her mother had no time for pretence or artifice, and Laura could really do without her particular brand of interference at the moment. The next few days were going to be difficult enough, and she could only imagine the interrogation that would be forced upon her when her mother learned that there was apparently a woman involved in Hugo’s death. Laura grabbed the pot of coffee and poured herself another cup, not caring if it was hot or cold. She sat down at the kitchen table and looked at Imogen, who was still leaning against the kitchen door.

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