Desire was not the word for it.
Yearning didn’t even express the magnitude of his hunger for her. He wanted her so badly that she infected every one of his thoughts like a plague, hell-bent on defeating him entirely.
It started out as a playful infatuation, but blossomed into an obsession not even he could control. It was like there was someone else behind the wheel and he was just along for the twisted ride.
When she was near, the world seemed to dissolve around him and he could hardly contain himself. Her eyes, her lips, her hair, and her voice: all subliminally called to him, fueling his secret, inner-most fantasies. It was a perversion he hid from the world but one that he coveted and cherished.
There was nothing else, nothing more important than her.
He had to have her all to himself. With every passing day, that truth grew into a mission, one that had to be completed. Once they were together, she’d see. She’d learn. She’d adjust.
She’d love him just as he loved her.
She had to. She didn’t have a choice.
It would be so.
He was sure of it.
* * *
The heat from the rehearsal lights warmed her cheeks. The blinding iris of the beaming lights kept her from seeing what she knew was already there. The air around her was thick and humid. Basking in this glow, she felt like the center of the universe, even though her insignificance was amplified by the enormous space. The warmth blanketed her whole body. The light gave her new life, one that was not her own. She was alone. Closing her eyes, she felt even more alone. Silence rang in her ears, embedding an unsettling edge in the emptiness.
The ghost stories, as unbelievable and unrealistic as they were, always seemed to get to her. She always felt like someone was watching her, which was silly to say. Where she was standing, hundreds of people had watched her and they hadn’t given her any gleam of nervousness. It was the times when no one was watching that shook her in the slightest way.
Words. So many words fluttered in her mind, muddling her own words from others. Why was it she was so good at concentrating in a crowded, noisy room, but couldn’t get a grip on one thought or another in such a quiet space? She closed her eyes for another minute, gathering up all the words and slowly sorted through them.
Her eyes popped open. His voice echoed through the theater, breaking the silence and bringing life to the emptiness. She turned to see Luke standing in the wing. Her long strawberry blond hair, which had been neatly tucked behind her shoulders, swept down the front of her as she turned.
“Hey, I’ve been waiting outside for you for almost fifteen minutes,” he added.
Venna looked down at her watch. It was twelve after eleven. Where did the time go? “Are you ready?”
“I’m sorry. I lost track of time,” she told Luke. She walked towards the end of the stage to get her bag which was sitting on the first seat of the first row. Stepping out of the light, she was able to see clearly now, all the way to the back row in the house. Even though it was frowned upon in the theater, she jumped off the front of the stage. No one was there to scold her anyway.
“What was taking you so long?” Luke asked as Venna hoisted herself back onto the stage and headed for the stage right wing.
“I was trying to rehearse but I couldn’t concentrate.” Luke leaned in to kiss her. She invited his advance, turning to meet his lips with hers. Luke threw his arm over her back side, pulling her tighter into the embrace. It was a welcomed greeting and much needed affection. “It’s creepier in here than I thought,” Venna said when they parted, brushing her long hair out of her face.
They cautiously wove through the curtains and pulleys back stage until they reached the side door, leading to the alleyway next to the theater. It was almost always unlocked for performers. Since Venna was the last one there that night, she shut off all the lights, consuming the little theater in total darkness.
“Well, you’re used to a lot of people in here. Being completely alone would be a bit strange.” Luke held the door open for her. “It would creep me out too. Besides, I don’t much care for you being here on your own this time of night, especially with this door unlocked like that.” He closed the door; pulling on the handle to make sure it had latched and was locked.
After standing in the smoldering spotlight for so long, the fresh London air hit her like a ton of bricks. They took the short side alley out to North Street. The night breeze flushed her lungs of the humid air, replacing it with light, cool air. Luke’s car was parked just outside the theater, still running. “Who would want to bother me? Besides, Merrick was there.”
Merrick was considered the theater’s assistant stage manager, but was more of a jack-of-all-trades. He built most of the sets, did maintenance for the building, and kept the grounds tidy. He had been working at the theater as long as Venna could remember; longer than she’d been performing there.
“Merrick,” Luke said. “Would Merrick even know what to do if some bloke slipped into the theater and started ransacking it? He’d just stare them to death.”
People frequently poked fun at Merrick. He was uncomfortably quiet. He’d keep to himself and would hardly ever make eye contact. Venna hadn’t heard him say more than five words at a time in the 12 years she’s known him.
“Oh come off it. He’s a big guy. I’m sure he’d handle himself,” Venna said.
Merrick’s physique was part of the reason the other performers whispered about him. He was actually quite attractive. He had a chiseled jaw line, which was normally cloaked in a stubbly five o’clock shadow. His eyes were vibrant, even though he was lacking the personality to wield them properly. He was tall and lean with thick, brawny arms and legs. Venna, and a few of the other girls, had once seen him without his shirt on. He had been on a ladder adjusting the stage lights a few performances ago. They were all aghast at his sculpted mid-section.
It was always strange to Venna how someone so seemingly ‘normal’, whatever normal is, could be so withdrawn. When all the other girls giggled at him, Venna wondered who he really was. She’d smile kindly at him when they would meet eyes and would always greet him while passing in the lobby or backstage. The only reactions she had ever got from Merrick were his eyes quickly darting to his feet and his pace quickening.
The only time she ever got any sort of reaction out of him was the first time she sang a solo in rehearsal. It was for Rent where she held the part of Maureen. She sang ‘Over the Moon’ to the rest of the cast. All the way in the back of the house, Venna noticed Merrick had stopped what he was doing and was watching her intently. She was so far away from him; she couldn’t really read his reaction.
Coincidently, that was the same moment she met Luke. He was delivering food to one of the actors and had walked into the theater while she was auditioning. Venna saw the two men standing motionless in the back of the house, simply captivated by her performance. Luke was such a fan of Venna; he waited for her in the lobby until auditions were over, only to get turned down. Luke would spend the next week stalking Venna, showing up at the theater in hopes of getting a shot to woo her.
In the end, he was the victor.
Singing had always been one of Venna’s strong suits and one of her biggest passions. She was always singing, listening to music, humming. She hated complete silence and always managed to fill that void with a good tune.
“How was rehearsal tonight anyway?” he asked, walking around the car.
Venna shrugged as she pulled open the passenger door. “It was fine, same as usual. Working with Elliot isn’t as easy as I thought it would be though,” she told him as they both buckled their seat belts.
Luke put the car into drive and cautiously pulled out into traffic. “This is his first professional production, isn’t it?”
Venna nodded with a sigh. “His first musical too. They’re much, much different than plays. He’s struggling, needless to say. It wouldn’t bother me any if I weren’t the lead. I’m almost dependent on his directing abilities, the ones he’s lacking at the moment. It can be quite frustrating.”
“I’m sure everything will come together nicely. It always does. You still have one more week.”
One more week. Most actors would start worrying, crunching, maybe even panicking if they only had one more week to rehearse for their lead role but not Venna. She was what the others called ‘seasoned’. She’d been performing at Bromley Little Theatre for almost 14 years now. The 24 year old had been in 44 productions and was currently embarking on her 19th starring role. Nervousness was a thing of the past. The stage was home to her.
One more week. A smile spread across her face. All of her costumes had been finished and most of the finishing touches had been put on the set. The production was almost visible in the back of her mind. She could see it play out as if she were sitting in the front row.
One more week. In one week, on May 13th, opening night, she’d be portraying the person she’d waited years to portray. ‘Christine Daae’. When she was only 15 years old, she played an extra in The Phantom of the Opera. Elizabeth Newbon held the part of ‘Christine’ at the time. Venna was hypnotized by Elizabeth’s voice, her presence, her believability. Since then, Venna longed for the day when she could up-stage Ms. Newbon and play ‘Christine’ in a way no one had ever seen.
Her day was opening night, one week from today.
“Could you take me to my parent’s house?” Venna said after noticing that Luke was headed towards Greenwich, where Venna lived. “They’re leaving tomorrow and apparently Mum needed to show me a few things before then. I think, at least I hope, she’s going to give me the car for the weekend. That would be lovely.”
“How long do you think you’ll be there?” Luke asked, turning back towards the center of Bromley.
Venna shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
“I’ve got to meet Albert at Peeboe. We’re hiring a new Sous-Chef. We’ve had the ad posted for a while and we’ve gotten loads of calls.”
Luke was head chef at Peeboe, a fusion restaurant in Lambeth. He’d worked there for years while going to culinary school. All his years of delivering and serving paid off after graduation. He was offered a Sous-Chef position and was recently promoted to head chef after the former head chef opened his own restaurant in Cheshire.
“That’s good. He’s letting you in on the hiring?” Venna asked.
Luke nodded with a smile, keeping his eyes on the road. “Yeah. That’s how it should be though. The Sous-Chef is the head chef’s right-hand-man, so he should hire someone we know I’ll work with well.”
“Well, don’t worry about me. Dropping me off without a ride home will only better my odds of getting the car.” Venna chuckled. “You’re coming over tomorrow night though, yeah?”
Luke bobbled his head from side to side. “Depends on what Albert and I decide tonight about interviews. The sooner we can get the position filled, the better.”
“Alright. You’ll have to call me tonight, then, to let me know.”
“I will. It’ll be nice to have the house to ourselves.” Luke’s hand left the steering wheel to stroke the top of Venna’s thigh.
She gave him a sideways glance. “I’m not sure of your intentions, sir. I don’t want you to get anything started that you can’t finish,” Venna teased, brushing his hand away. “Besides, you know my mum would have your head if she knew you were trying to convince me to have a baby before the wedding.”
Just saying the word ‘wedding’ made Venna’s eyes drop to her left hand to gaze at the mesmerizing diamond wrapped ever so nicely around her ring finger. Luke had proposed to Venna almost a year ago. He’d dropped to his knee in the middle of Primrose Hill Park in Greater London, presenting her with the ring his mother had once adorned. A solitaire round cut diamond on a silver band connected to a diamond encrusted wedding band. It was technically a wedding ring, not an engagement ring, since it had the wedding band on it but Luke had promised a matching wedding band for the other side of the solitaire for their wedding day. It was timeless and held a lot of sentimental value to Luke and his father. Venna was proud to wear it.
Luke dropped his head to the side and started pouting. “Why should we wait? A wedding ring and marriage certificate doesn’t warrant the start of a family.”
“No, but it would help. Plus, we don’t even have a place of our own. And how on earth do you expect me to fit into my gown when I’m all fat and pregnant?”
“You won’t be fat,” Luke added quietly. “You’ll be beautiful.”
“They can only alter a wedding gown two sizes bigger.” Luke gave a little whine, aiming his touch back to her thigh, but Venna dodged his hand. “No, we can wait until after the wedding. We’ll have a house then. Patience is a virtue.”
“Venna, I’m 31 years old. I just feel like in all my years, I don’t really have much to show for myself. I haven’t really done anything worth-while. Bringing a child into this world is probably going to be the greatest thing I’ll ever do. Just having you and knowing we’re going to be together until the end, it brings me that much closer to being where I want to be in my life, regardless if we’re married or not. We could start a family and not ever get married and I’d still be the happiest man alive.”
His big wanting eyes struck her in the worst way. Venna felt a twinge of guilt; only a twinge. He was so good at manipulating her. “You make a valid and awfully convincing point. But we need to wait. It’s only a few more months. I promise.”
Defeated, his hand returned to the wheel as he turned the car onto Weald Close. The third house on the left was the house Venna had grown up in. As Luke pulled into the drive, she could see the parlor light was on. “Alright, I’ll call you when I leave.” Venna leaned over the car and met Luke’s lips. “Love you,” she said.
“Me more,” Luke called to her as she stepped out of the car.
Luke waved as Venna headed up to the front door. Even though it was 11:30pm, she knew her parents were up. It was only 6:30 in Washington. She knew that her father wrapped up his work day around this time every night.
Venna’s father, Alex Caldwell, was a Lt. Colonel at the United States Marines naval base in Hillingdon, working as a Marine Aviator. He was on the brink of retirement. He’d be retired now if it wasn’t for a big ‘project’ he’d been working on for the past year. The details of that project are unbeknownst to Venna and her mother for top secret reasons of course. Venna didn’t know much about anything her father did.
Venna pushed her way through the unlocked red front door, not bothering to knock. This was, and always would be, her home. There was never a need to knock. The smell of vanilla and blackberries greeted her as the door swung open to the dimly lit entryway.
Slipping her feet out of her shoes, Venna routinely nudged the shoes with her toes, pushing one right next to the other, lining them up perfectly against the baseboard. “Hello?” she called, stepping onto the neatly vacuumed carpet.
“I’m up here,” Venna heard her mother’s voice calling from upstairs. Down the hallway to her right, she heard her father’s fingers furiously clicking the keyboard and the hushed melodies of John Mellencamp. She knew he had to be deep into his work if he didn’t even call to greet her.
Clasping the thin banister, Venna headed to the second floor. At the top of the stairs was her old bedroom, right next to the water closet. There was a guest room just down the hall from there and at the very end was her parent’s room. The house was small, ‘quaint’, as her mother referred to it, but had been enough for them. Mr. Caldwell was not the showy type and didn’t believe in flaunting their money. He’d only had two cars in Venna’s lifetime and would wear clothes until they practically shredded right off of him.
The door to her parent’s room was ajar. Light streamed out into the hallway as Emily Caldwell, Venna’s mother, paced quickly around the room. Venna leaned up against the door frame. “Hi Mum,” she said.
A large suitcase was laid out on the foot of the bed. Mrs. Caldwell didn’t even look up at Venna. The short, slender woman was busy pulling open bureau drawers, digging clothes out, and dropping them into the suitcase. She was so thin and petite; it was almost to the point of frailty. It was her perky and demanding demeanor that deceived everyone. How could someone so small be so bold and captivating? Her thick brunette hair was pulled back into a ponytail, something Venna didn’t see very often. It wasn’t until Venna was in her teens that she realized just how superficial her mother was, a trait she did not understand, or agree with. Her mother was always presentable and had a plastered smile stuck to her face, playing a part. Some would call her classy, sophisticated, and even elegant. Venna had a few other choice words in mind.
“Hi, darling. How are you?”
Venna shrugged, even though she knew her mother wasn’t looking. “I’m fine. You?”
“Oh, I feel like I’m going mental. Your father has been at that computer all night and hasn’t done a thing to help me get ready. I know I’m going to forget something.” She stopped in front of the luggage, hands on her hips, trying to figure out what was missing. Her lips moved ever so slightly as she recounted and went over everything in her mind, checking items off her mental list.
“You won’t have to put up with it much longer,” Venna tried to reassure her. She heard her mother sigh. “What time is your flight?”
“9:11a.m, silly isn’t it? Why don’t they just say 9? Or 9:15? I have some things I need you to take care of for me while we’re gone, is that ok?”
“Your wish is my command,” Venna joked.
“The refrigerator has been acting up. I need you to check it a couple of times a day to make sure it’s still running.” Her mother was still pacing around the room as she gave instructions. “If it does by chance stop working, call Mr. Arbaghast. He’s already assured me there’s room in his refrigerator for our perishables. He’s more than happy to help. I left his number on the counter in the kitchen. I also left our flight and hotel information on the same paper, in case you need to get a hold of us.”
“Alright,” Venna acknowledged.
“I also left you some laundry detergent, in case you wanted to bring your laundry over here. I know how much you hate going to the mat.”
Mrs. Caldwell stopped and ran her hand over her ponytail. “Bloody hell, it’s almost midnight,” she gasped. “I need some tea.” She turned and walked out of the room, right past Venna.
Annoyed, Venna felt she couldn’t stop herself. “You’re still cross with me, aren’t you?” she asked, knowing this was going to turn into an unneeded argument, which her mother would twist around to make herself look like the victim.
Mrs. Caldwell kept walking, but Venna heard her tisk and watched her head shake lightly. “That’s absurd.”
“You don’t have to admit it,” Venna said, walking behind her as they both descended the stairs and headed for the kitchen. “I can hear it in your tone. You haven’t even looked at me since I’ve gotten here.”
“What do you want from me?” Mrs. Caldwell stopped and leaned against the counter.
“I want you to stop holding this against me.”
Mrs. Caldwell sighed, tightly crossing her arms in front of her. “I’m just disappointed in your decision. This is one of the biggest days in your father’s career and you won’t even be there to share it with him.”
“He doesn’t need me to sit at a supper table to know how proud I am of him. He knows, I promise. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not like I won’t be here when he gets back. He understands, so why can’t you?”
“It’s just a play,” Mrs. Caldwell said snidely.
Venna scoffed, trying not to laugh at the silliness of her statement. “No. No it’s not. This isn’t just some play. This isn’t some new script from a local playwright. This is The Phantom of the Opera. This is an internationally famous production. Don’t you realize what this could do for my career? Dad’s is ending, mine is just beginning. I’ve been dreaming of this role for years. It’s the most important performance of my life. Don’t you think that’s a little more important than a retirement supper?”
“We’re having supper with the president and his family!”
“And twenty other retirees.” Their voices were rising along with the frustration level. “He’s going to be just another face in the banquet hall.”
“After all that your father sacrificed for this family, you can’t give him one night?”
“It’s opening week! You’re asking me to miss dress rehearsal and the first curtain rising? You’re mental!”
“One opening night, out of how many you’ve had? You think you could spare one.”
Venna shook her head, pursing her lips, feeling the frustration level rising by the second. “You know what this production means to me. You know what you’re asking me to do. It’s not just an opening night, it’s a job offer. Do you really, truly want me to miss out on that?”
Mrs. Caldwell looked just as upset and Venna felt. Just as she was about to answer the question, Mr. Caldwell walked into the room, snuffing out the argument.
“I thought I heard your voice.” He turned to Venna with a smile. He walked right over to Venna and wrapped his long arms around her shoulders. He was almost two heads taller than she was. Her head rested against his chest as he hugged her.
Mr. Caldwell knew he had just walked into an argument, but it hadn’t fazed him. Venna couldn’t remember a time she’d been in a shouting match with him. He was always rational and sedate when arguing, which was much different than Venna’s mother.
They always say opposites attract.
Venna had always been spoiled by her father. He loved her so much and it showed in all of his doting. He was the protective-hero type of father, swooping in during times of need. He always seemed to find time for her, even amidst his busy schedule. They were opposites, yet so much alike, making it easy for them to find things to talk about and do together.
“How are you? I feel like it’s been a while since I’ve seen you,” she said, looking sideways at her mother, wondering if they were going to finish their argument or not.
“I’m fine,” he said, dropping his arms to his sides and stepping back to look at Venna. “How are you kid?”
“You know, the same as always. No complaints here,” she joked.
“How are rehearsals going?” he boomed, bringing up the very topic Venna and her mother had just been arguing about as if he hadn’t overheard them. He was always so clever.
“They’re going great. I’m really excited. It’s going to be spectacular.” Venna beamed, hearing her aria in the back of her mind.
“I can’t wait to come home and see it,” he practically cheered in his booming voice. Venna admired his American accent and how unique it was. It made him even more distinguished than the gray hairs now speckling his head. He was a terribly timeless sort of man. He had a face made for the movies, as Venna has always referred to it, comparable to Gregory Peck, one of her all-time favorites.
Mrs. Caldwell dropped the tea kettle onto the burner, huffing with annoyance. “Would you like some tea, Venna?”
“No thank you, Mum,” Venna replied obediently.
She didn’t offer any tea to Mr. Caldwell. He had never been a fan of tea. Even after living in England for almost 30 years, he still had a distaste for it.
“How much longer are you here for tonight?” Mr. Caldwell asked.
“Not much longer. I’ve got to get some sleep sometime. I’ve been rehearsing every space minute.”
“Well, if you were planning on using my computer while we’re gone, you’ll want to bring your laptop, because I’ll be remotely accessing my PC, so you won’t be able to use it.” Venna nodded to her father’s instruction. “Could you run in there and make sure the power is on every once in a while. I won’t have access if the power goes out.”
“Sure thing, Dad.”
“I’m pretty much all packed,” Mrs. Caldwell said. “Are you going to load the car tonight or in the morning?” she added, turning to Mr. Caldwell.
“Oh, I should probably do it tonight. One less thing to do when we wake up.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Mrs. Caldwell’s voice trailed off, tapping her finger impatiently waiting for her water to boil.
There was an unnerving silence between the three of them. “Well, I’m going to let the two of you hug this one out. I’ll be in my office. Come say ‘good-bye’ to me before you leave,” Mr. Caldwell said, turning and walking out of the kitchen with a yawn.
Venna looked up at her mother. “Well, I hope you have a safe trip,” she said as politely as she could, trying not to sound sarcastic.
“Come here, darling,” her mother finally said, opening her arms. Venna went to her, interlacing her arms with her mother’s. “I’m sorry. I’ve waited so long for your father to get the recognition he deserves, and I just wanted the whole family to be there. Don’t stay cross with me,” she explained as they hugged.
“Hadn’t planned on it,” Venna said.
Mrs. Caldwell kissed her on the cheek before loosening her embrace. “Break a leg next weekend,” she winked. Venna smiled and headed for her father’s office. “Oh Venna,” her mother stopped her.
As Venna turned, her mother’s car keys flew at her. Venna caught them before they collided with her nose. “You break it, you buy it,” she warned.
“Thanks Mum.” Venna smiled wider.
At the door to her father’s office, Venna poked her head through the entrance silently. She found her father sitting behind his large U-shaped desk. Shiny plaques with golden name plates and vibrant emblems hung from the walls and rested on stands towards the back of his desk. There was even a titanium plated hand gun in a glass case on the small side table in the corner of the room. She didn’t know what they were all for; she only remembered the countless dinners and cocktail hours she attended to recognize her father with these symbols of honor, commitment, and achievement. Alex Caldwell was a true American, even after all the years he’d spent with Englishmen.
She knocked lightly, but loud enough to be heard over the music. Jim Croce was playing now.
“Hey, kid, come on in,” he said and waved her in. For as long as Venna could remember, her father had always called her ‘kid’. She wore it like a crown, feeling privileged to have such a title. Venna thought it was just her father’s way of not being too ‘girlie’ when referring to his only daughter. He, after all, had an image to uphold as the only man in the house.
Venna came in, dropping into one of the plush chairs in front of the desk.
“How did that go?” He gestured out the office door, referring to Mrs. Caldwell.
“We hugged it out, like you suggested. And I got a car out of the deal.” Venna smiled, dangling the key ring from her finger.
“Just goes to show it’s best to stay on your mother’s good side,” her father said.
“I can’t go on acting like it doesn’t bother me, though. She needs to know when I’m upset.”
Mr. Caldwell nodded. “I know. You’re right but dousing the fire in lighter fluid isn’t going to make it stop. It’s all about your approach.”
She got a chuckle out of her father for that one. “That’s always important too.” He sighed heavily, leaning his forehead on his fist, looking at her. “It’s disgusting how much you’re like me,” he mumbled, getting lost in his own thoughts. “I’m sorry we won’t be there opening night.”
“Don’t be sorry. I’m not. I’m excited for you. I wouldn’t want you to miss your retirement supper for anything, not even your only daughter,” Venna replied.
“Are you nervous?” he asked, leaning back in his chair.
Venna sucked in a long breath. “I heard Julia Albright is going to be there.”
Mr. Caldwell nodded. “Oh yeah,” he continued to nod, acting as if he knew exactly who Venna was talking about. “Who’s Julia Albright?”
“She’s the production director at Lazarus.” Lazarus was a theater company in England who mostly performed classic theatrical masterpieces and traveled all around the island performing in some of the most prestigious theaters. “She’s scouting.”
“Venna, that’s great. Did you tell your mother?”
Venna shook her head. “I think it will just stir the pot. She’ll chalk it up to me trying to make her feel guilty. I’ll tell her when you lot get back.”
“Do you think Julia will talk to you opening night or when will you hear from her?” her father asked, sounding interested. When Venna talked to her mother about things like this, her mother always seemed distant and distracted, not really putting much effort into the conversation.
“If anything she’ll probably end up talking to Elliot, the director, if not, Georgina,” Georgina was the theater’s resident director.
“What will she say to them?”
“Just tell them she’s interested in talking to me. I’ll have to contact her but only if she’s interested.”
“Venna, this is great. I’m so proud of you.” His smile brightened her mood. “No wonder you’ve been practicing so much.”
Venna mimicked his reaction. “Can you imagine? I’d be performing in some of the most prestigious stages in all of England. The Phoenix, Cambridge. Novello. Victoria Palace.” Venna’s eyes glazed over. She’d been to all of those theaters to watch performances like King Lear, Chicago, Betty Blue Eyes. They were all old and magnificent, yet still very much alive with a pulse of the arts. Most performers would give their right leg to stand center stage, directly under the tepid spotlight, in those theatres. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Julia might be more interested in John or Malcolm.” John and Malcolm were playing the two male leads opposite Venna. “They’re just happy thoughts is all.”
“I’m sure you’ll do wonderful, and I can’t wait to hear all about it when we get back.” He stood up and made his way around to the front of the desk. “Have fun while we’re gone.” Venna stood up and fell into another one of his bear hugs. “I love you.”
“Love you too, Dad. Tell the Obama’s I said ‘hello’.”
Mr.Caldwell’s laugh resonated through her body as well as his. “I will. Be good and be safe, alright, kid?”
* * *
“Alright, stick out your leg in the direction of stage left,” Lilly called to the twelve nine-year-olds spread out on the stage in front of her. The kids all did as she asked, although a few of them pointed the wrong way initially. Lilly smiled, “Great. Now lean your shoulder towards stage right.” Again, the kids did as she asked, a few giggling.
“Ok, use your elbow and point to center stage,” Venna called out. She and Lilly had been running a theater class for some kids in the area. They did this every weekend on Saturday mornings. “Very good. Ok, enough of that. What we’re going to do now is assign you to certain scenes and you are going to work on them with one or two other kids. So come over to Lilly and grab a slip out of the hat and we’ll get you the scripts.”
Lilly held up the hat and each child picked a piece of paper out of it. When their roles were decided, Venna and Lilly handed them the scripts, divided them into their groups, and split them up for practice.
“Ok, just do a dry run right now. Sit down and read through it together a few times. We don’t have much time left today, but we will work on these scenes next class,” Venna instructed.
Lilly sighed as she plopped into the seat next to Venna in the third row. “Anthony and Mick got The Odd Couple scene. That’s going to be hilarious,” she noted as they watched all the groups get to work, laughing with each other as they read through their lines. “So what are your plans for this weekend?”
“I’m house-sitting, remember?” Venna replied.
“Oh, that’s right. Is Luke going to be with you?”
Venna shrugged, “I haven’t talked to him yet today. He might have to work.”
“That’s no fun. He’ll come over afterwards though, right?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It just depends. If he has to work extra late, he might go out with Albert for a few drinks or might just want to go home. It’s a farther drive to my parent’s house than it is his own.” Venna stretched her arm over the back of the seat next to her, keeping an eye on the kids. “It’s no problem either way, though. I don’t mind having time alone. I’m sure you’ll enjoy your night alone too.” Lilly and Venna shared a flat in Greenwich. They’d known each other since primary school and moved in together when they both enrolled in the University of Greenwich. They’d been living in that little duplex ever since.
A wide smile appeared across Lilly’s face. “Well, Javier will be in town this weekend,” she said in a giddy tone. “Haven’t seen him in months so who knows if I’ll be alone or not.”
“In that case, I’m glad I won’t be home,” Venna said jokingly. Lilly followed up with a school-girl giggle. Venna looked down at her watch. “It’s just about that time. What are your plans for the rest of the day?”
Lilly was like the sister Venna never had, but had always wanted. It started out that they were just connected by the theater, but as they got to know each other more and more, they became inseparable. They couldn’t go 24 hours without speaking to one another, which wasn’t a common occurrence as they went to school together and performed together outside of school and on the weekends. There were no secrets between them. There weren’t any lies or deceit or jealousy. It was the kind of friendship you only hear about in the movies.
Before Lilly could answer, a tall man slammed his way out of the side door from backstage with purpose, as if in a hurry to be somewhere. Venna looked up at the sound to see Merrick making his way down the front aisle. He stopped dead in his tracks when he realized the theater was full of kids. Embarrassed, he retreated back through the same door he’d come, nearly tripping over his own feet.
Lilly chuckled again. “What was that? He’s so weird.”
Venna sighed, “Be nice. Not everyone can be as outspoken as you. Besides, Elliot told me how brilliant he actually is when he really has a go at it.”
“Oh come off it, him?” Lilly pointed to the stage door, referring to Merrick.
“Well think about it. He rewired all the stage lighting on his own. He’s a great carpenter. He can repair the toilets and the heating system. You’ve got to have some sort of post-secondary education for that kind of training. Maybe he’s just misunderstood.”
Lilly shrugged, “Maybe he’s just thick in the head, and creepy to boot,” she said, unconvinced by Venna’s argument. “I have to give him one thing; he’s not as creepy as Mr. Gourley.”
Mr. Gourley was the owner of the theater. He was a rich old widower with no children and a lot of free time. He could frequently be found mingling in the theater with the performers, watching rehearsals, sitting in on auditions, or milling around back stage during performances.
“That man is just,” Lilly finished her sentence with a shiver, showcasing her distaste for him. “Did Gretchen tell you what he said to her after opening night of Fiddler on the Roof last year?” Venna shook her head. “He told her she looked like a goddess in the spotlight and he’d love to get her under his own spotlight.”
“You’re joking with me,” Venna exclaimed in disbelief.
“No it’s true,” Lilly gushed. “He comes on to all the girls here. He’s a dirty old man. Didn’t he say something to you once?”
Venna sighed, nodding. “Just once and it was when I was like 13 or 14. He told me I was beautiful and was a great performer and he wanted to give me private lessons. When I told my mum, she sort of went mental and wanted to pull me out of the theater. Of course, my father had a talk with him and he hasn’t bothered me since.”
“What did you’re father say to him?”
Venna shrugged. “Who knows? Probably put him in his place.”
“Or scared the piss out of him,” Lilly added.
“He hasn’t ever said anything to you?” Venna asked.
Lilly shook her head. “Not directly to me, but you can see him, watching and sort of analyzing us when we rehearse or perform. It’s just unorthodox the way he’s so involved and vocal with the performers. You don’t see him giving that much attention to the blokes. He gives the girls flowers and candies and takes all those pictures.”
“Those are for the website,” Venna protested.
“Or so he says.” Lilly raised her eyebrows, trying to act mysterious.
“It’s harmless though. Like you said, he’s just an old man,” Venna smiled, trying to lighten the subject.
“Is it harmless? What would he have done if you had actually gone to those lessons he offered? How harmless would those have been, you think?”
Venna had never considered that. She shook her head, being optimistic. “I just don’t want to think about it like that because it changes my opinion of the man. I think he’s very good at what he does and he’s given the theater and the community a lot. He’s a nice man.”
Lilly sighed. “Venna, you’re just too bloody nice to see the bad in people.”
“Well, if I saw the bad in everyone, I’m not sure I would be such good friends with you, you naughty little minx,” Venna joked and both girls chuckled.
They let the kids practice for a few minutes longer until the first of the parents started making their way into the theater. Venna and Lilly collected the scripts and got everything tidied up on the stage just as the last of the kids were being picked up.
“I’ll have to get the key for the prop room for next time. Don’t let me forget to ask Elliot for that,” Venna said to Lilly. Lilly was sorting through the scripts, putting them back into their piles with her legs dangling over the edge of the stage.
“Yeah, and we’ll also want to get a bulletin out to the parents about the performances, so they can plan ahead,” Lilly added.
“Right,” Venna said, plopping down next to Lilly.
The door to the theater opened. Margaret and Caroline strutted down the aisle, talking loudly. The two tall and slender girls were disgustingly cute and their charming demeanors certainly didn’t hurt their image. Each girl had long, shiny reddish brown hair, cascading over their shoulders and down their backs, all the way to the edge of their shoulder bones.
“Oh, bloody hell. What do these two want?” Lilly grumbled. Lilly was not terribly fond of the twins. They were a few years younger than Lilly and Venna and twice as many years younger intellectually. It bothered Lilly how immature they were.
“Morning girls,” Caroline said as she and Margaret approached Venna and Lilly. “What are you two doing here?”
The twins were not identical, contrary to their appearance. Most would disagree at first glance. After working with them for a year or so, Venna had spotted a number of subtle differences between them. For instance, Margaret had a tiny mole on her jaw line that was nowhere to be found on Caroline, while Caroline’s eyebrows were thinner than Margaret’s.
“We were about to ask you the same,” Lilly said, smugly.
“We had the little kids group this morning,” Venna deflected politely.
“Oh. We just came in to work on a few of the dance numbers. We needed the space on stage is all,” Margaret explained.
“Oh, well we’re finished,” Venna said, pushing herself to her feet. “We’ll clear out for you.”
“Do you want to stay and practice with us?” Margaret asked, setting her purse on the first seat in the house.
“I’ve got to be somewhere,” Lilly responded quickly, shrugging them off.
Caroline shrugged. “No worries. How about you Venna?”
“Uh, same. I was here late last night anyway. I think if I practice any more than I already have, I’ll be performing this musical in my sleep.”
“Are you lot going to see John’s band tonight?” Caroline asked practically squealing with excitement.
John held the part of Raoul in Phantom and had the hearts of all the young girls in the production. All things considered, Venna did find John attractive, but was completely turned off with how full of himself he was.
“I can’t wait,” Caroline gushed.
“Oh, I’ve got plans with an old friend,” Lilly gushed also, thinking of Javier.
“What about you Venna?” Caroline asked, not at all bothered that Lilly couldn’t make it.
“She’s house-sitting or she would,” Lilly answered for Venna snobbishly. “Sorry.”
“House-sitting?” Margaret asked.
“My parents are going to the States for the next week. I’m staying at their place while they’re gone,” Venna elaborated.
“What are they going to the States for?” Caroline asked. Both girls stood staring at Venna with the same look.
Lilly interrupted again, “Didn’t you know Venna’s father is a Yank?”
Both Margaret and Caroline shook their heads.
“He’s retiring from the Marines so they’re going for a commemorative dinner with the president,” Venna continued.
“Of the United States?” Margaret gasped.
“No, the president of Albania. Yes, the president of the United States.” Venna chuckled. “Who else?”
“Wow, that’s exciting,” Caroline exclaimed. “And what, you weren’t invited because you’re British?” She laughed at her own joke.
Venna shook her head. “No, I was invited. I can’t go because of the play, not because I’m British. I just wouldn’t be home in time for opening night. That’s the reason I’m staying behind. I’m American also.”
Margaret and Caroline both looked confused. “You’re British and American? Isn’t that blasphemous or something?”
“No. My mum is British and I was born in England, which makes me British. But since my father is an American, I’m also an American.”
“Well, you learn something new every day, don’t you?” Caroline said.
“Yeah, I guess,” Venna chuckled, watching Lilly shake her head out of the corner of her eyes. “We’ll see you on Monday. Cheers,” Venna called back to the girls as she and Lilly made their way up the aisle.
“And I probably won’t see you until Monday either,” Lilly said, pushing open the door to the lobby. The twins already started playing ‘Masquerade’, one of the bigger dance numbers in the musical.
“Probably not. Have fun this weekend. Give Javier my regards,” Venna said with a wink.
“Oh, I think I’ll be giving him a little bit more than regards. See you later,” Lilly said with a wink of her own as she headed out the front door.
Venna, instead, headed down the right wing of the building to the office. There wasn’t anyone working on Saturday, but she needed to drop off the scripts. Venna worked for the office on weekdays doing mostly office work, but did some promoting and marketing for the theater. She got her degree at the University of Greenwich in performing arts with a major in theater, but was also working on a business management degree.
The light in the office was off, but there was enough natural light coming from the window so she could navigate her way. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shadowy figure standing at the other side of the office. She gasped and jumped, stifling backwards into the door frame.
“I’m sorry,” Merrick uttered slowly and virtually inaudibly. He’d been sifting through an open filing cabinet drawer when she interrupted him. Merrick straightened at the sight of her.
“Oh, Merrick. You startled me.” She chuckled nervously, trying to shake off the embarrassment. He stood like a statue as she walked over to the desk, dropping the scripts on the corner. “Um, were we in your way earlier? When you came into the theater?” She waited for Merrick to respond. He seemed to be too preoccupied, trying to find a place to put his eyes. It seemed he wanted to look anywhere but upon Venna’s face. “I hope we weren’t keeping you from your work. You’re certainly not a bother to us. If you need to work around us, you can.”
“Thank you,” his low voice replied a moment later. He ruffled the tops of the files with his fingers, shifting his weight nervously; impatiently.
Venna could tell she was making him uncomfortable. “Well, I hope you have a good weekend,” she added, hurrying out of the room, wanting to escape that uncomfortable one-sided conversation.
As odd as it was for Merrick to be in the office, with the lights off, it was even stranger that he was searching through files. She didn’t even know he used the office for anything.
Maybe he had old receipts and documents for maintenance on the building. She was sure if he had a key to the office, he’d have stuff in there that he needed. The thought left her mind. It wasn’t anything she needed to concern herself with.
She took one last look into the theater, at Caroline and Margaret spinning and kicking on the stage to the music, half tempted to join them, but decided against it. She turned and left the theater.
* * *
Luke’s head appeared in the tiny window of the swivel doors. “Hey!” He beamed, approaching the hostess stand. “What are you doing here?” His smock was already riddled with stains and crumbs from prep. He spent a great deal of his time at Peeboe, not only during service, but to prepare for each night.
“Oh, I just got done at the theater. I was going to go get a bite to eat, but I thought I’d stop and see if you were free and what your plans are for the rest of the day,” Venna said.
Luke sighed. “Oh, it’s going to be a long day for me. I’ve got two blokes back there. I’m showing them the menu and prep. They’re both doing a dry run on tonight’s service and we’re going to hire one of them based on their performance. I can’t get away right now.”
“Oh that’s fine,” Venna said. “It was a shot in the dark. No worries.”
“I wish I could spare a few minutes for you though,” he added. “I missed you last night.”
“Do you think you’ll be over to my parent’s house tonight?”
Luke frowned. “Probably not. Albert and I will have to mull over the applicants after service tonight. I’m sorry.”
Venna shrugged. “It’s fine. I’ll see you tomorrow sometime,” she said, pulling the car keys out of her pocket.
“Well, let me make you some supper.” He stopped her. “I can get you a risotto and maybe a Wellington?”
Venna smiled. “Why not?” she agreed, taking a seat at the trendy bar while Luke pushed his way through the swivel doors. Like clockwork, Venna opened her purse and pulled out her copy of her lines. Her scripts were always torn and tattered with highlighter markings and notes in the columns. The Phantom script was no exception. She sat quietly, mumbling the words to herself, as Luke prepared a grand meal for her.
“You know, if you read that thing anymore, you’ll be performing it in your sleep,” a gravelly voice said from behind her.
Venna spun in her chair to see Mr. Gourley standing behind her with a yellowing grin. “Mr. Gourley, fancy meeting you here.”
“I was just about to say the same thing,” the older man gushed. “How are you doing, young lady? Working diligently I see,” he joked, eyeing the script.
“Oh yes, it’s an awful habit. How are you?”
“I’m wonderful. It’s nice to see you’re so dedicated to the production,” he noted. “You just out for some lunch?”
Venna nodded. “Yes, my fiancé is the head chef here. I thought I’d be able to steal him away, but he’s training some new recruits and can’t leave. So he opted to make me some gourmet lunch.”
“Oh how charming of him,” the old man gushed. “So how are things going on the musical? I haven’t been by in a few days. Are you all ready for opening night?”
Venna nodded. “I think so. Everything seems to be going as smoothly as it should, so opening night should be a hit.”
“Good. That’s good to hear,” Mr. Gourley nodded. “How about you? Are you all ready for your big debut?” He leaned in closer to her, lowering his voice.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Venna said with a smile.
“You know, when I heard your audition for Phantom, I just gasped,” Mr. Gourley admitted. “I remember the first time you came into the theater as a little girl and here you are, so grown and mature. It’s amazing to see the wonderfully talented woman you’ve become,” he said, resting his hand on her arm.
Venna smiled politely. “Thank you. Little Bromley is like my second home. I can hardly remember life without it. You know, Lilly and I were talking about you this morning about how thankful we are to have such an involved owner who brings the arts to the community in such an intimate setting,” she said, trying to divert the conversation away from her.
“You’re so kind to say,” Mr. Gourley smirked. “I can hardly remember my life without that theater either,” he said, chuckling a little. “It’s great to have such talent at my disposal. I’m grateful for you and all your other cast mates for enticing the crowds through the doors. The theater wouldn’t be anything without the lot of you. But it’s not about them. Next week, on opening night, it’s all about you.”
Venna continued smiling. “Well, I don’t want to keep you from your lunch. I look forward to seeing you again,” she said, kindly trying to end the conversation.
“As do I, Venna, like always.” Mr. Gourley smirked back at her, patting her arm twice before walking off towards his table, leaving Venna feeling a bit grungy.
A few minutes later, Luke emerged with two steaming plates of food and presented them to her. “Oh this looks amazing,” Venna said, picking up her fork. “How is training going?”
“It’s promising,” Luke said, leaning on the other side of the bar.
“Lunch service looks pretty promising as well,” Venna said, looking around the dining room. Peeboe recently started offering a lunch menu on weekdays before dinner service. Since Luke was busy prepping during lunch service, there was another chef, Toby, who oversaw lunch service.
“Yeah, we’ve been getting a steadier crowd now that more people know about the lunch service,” Luke said, looking around the dining room. “Hey, isn’t that the, oh what’s his name? Don’t you know that bloke?” Luke said, gesturing to Mr. Gourley.
Venna nodded slightly, not needing to turn and look. She knew who he was talking about. “Yeah, Mr. Gourley.”
“That’s right. He owns the theater, right?” Luke asked. Venna nodded. “Did he see you up here?”
Venna nodded, taking her first bite of the risotto. “He stopped to talk to me,” she said, after enjoying her first bite. “It’s weird because Lilly and I were just talking about him this morning and here he is. His ears must have been burning or something.”
“What were you two talking about him for?”
Venna shrugged. “Lilly thinks he’s creepy.”
Luke nodded. “I can see that.” Venna rolled her eyes, taking another bite. “Can’t you?”
“I guess, sometimes, but it’s nothing. I told her he’s harmless and I’ll tell you the same,” Venna said, pointing her fork at Luke. “Now you should get out of here and let me eat. I don’t like an audience.”
Luke smiled. “Not here you don’t.” He winked. “Don’t leave without saying good-bye. Enjoy your meal, ma’am,” he said, bowing slightly and backing up into the kitchen.
Venna chuckled at him. Looking over her shoulder carefully, she found Mr. Gourley looking at her from his booth all the way on the other side of the restaurant. Venna flashed a weak smile before turning away quickly. Maybe they were right about him.
* * *
After Peeboe, Venna found herself bored, which was rare. She really wanted to go back to the theater to rehearse some more, but knew she was coming off as obsessive. Instead, she drove back to her parent’s house to do her laundry and pound the ivories for a while. Rehearsing at home wasn’t nearly as obsessive as rehearsing at the theater, right?
Venna couldn’t remember the last time she had all of her laundry clean at one time, aside from the outfit she was wearing. She even got around to cooking herself stuffed chicken breast and asparagus. When all was said and done, she plopped down on the couch to catch up on Torchwood, one of her favorite shows.
With a full belly and tired feet, Venna stretched out on the couch and dozed off, only twenty minutes into the first episode of Torchwood. A creak coming from her bedroom, just above where she was napping, startled her awake. She sat straight up on the couch, waiting to hear the noise again.
When nothing came to ear, she rubbed her eyes and stretched, assuming it had been the house moaning and groaning. “One thirty,” she yawned, looking at the clock. Dazedly, she turned off the TV and shut off the lights. Rather than heading upstairs to go to bed, she went to the front and back doors and locked them.
Her heavy footsteps on the stairs were even louder than usual in the total silence of the house. Once at the top, she nudged the door open, still yawning, and fell right into bed. Venna rolled over, pulling her engagement ring off her finger, tucking it neatly into the ring box on her nightstand. She then burrowed under the covers and immediately started drifting off to sleep again.
Just as her mind drifted off, she heard another creak, this time from her parent’s room. It sounded to her like someone was stepping on a floorboard in just the right spot to make it whine.
It’s nothing, she thought to herself, waiting for another noise. You’re just going to make yourself mental. Go to sleep.
The thought was in the back of her mind now, and she found it much more difficult to fall back to sleep. She turned onto her side with her back to the door. She took a deep breath, exhaling it out of her nose, hoping to calm herself down, but she was still restless with suspicion.
I’m just going to check, to ease my mind, she thought, starting to get out of bed she froze, hearing the noise again, and this time she could have sworn it was coming from the hallway.
By now, she was too frightened to even dangle her feet over the edge of the bed. She sat stiff in bed, straining to hear something, anything else. The refrigerator kicking on, a clock, dripping water from a sink, the ceiling fan, anything that wasn’t ominous or unnatural.
A few moments of silence passed and Venna shook her head in frustration. Why are you getting yourself so worked up? she thought, throwing the covers off of her and stepping onto the cool, wooden floor. She tip-toed to the doorway and stopped, leaning her body over the threshold a little to hear into the hallway. Satisfied that the coast was clear, she stepped one foot onto the carpeted hallway.
Before she could even lift her other foot, a hand reached out and slapped over her mouth, covering both her mouth and nose with a piece of cloth. At the same time another hand slid around her waist. She was pulled backward against a solid body. Instantly, she started kicking and throwing her arms in all directions, screaming under the cloth. She kicked so hard that she was lifted off the ground by the intruder in an effort to dodge the blows from her legs.
The two of them stumbled backward, knocking into the far wall of Venna’s bedroom. Venna screamed as hard as she could, but her screams were muffled and traveled no farther than the hand on the other side of the cloth. All she could hear was the breathing from the intruder and the sound of her own heart in her ears.
She kept telling herself to fight and kick, but eventually her limbs became heavy and strenuous to move. Her breathing slowed and her head started to bob back and forth. The grip on her waist loosened as her world tilted sideways.
Venna could feel herself falling to the ground. She could still hear even though her eyes were now closed and her body laid uselessly motionless in a crumpled mess. Heavy feet stepped around her a few times. A pair of large hands slid underneath her, hoisting her into a cradle against a massive chest.
She wanted to scream, but she found herself mute and immobile. She was aware of being carried out of the room and down the stairs, before feeling the cold night breeze on her skin as she was carried outside.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got you,” a quiet voice whispered to her as everything faded away.
Her cracked lips opened slowly and she sucked air in between them. She tried to open her eyes, but they disobeyed and remained shut. She laid still, the way she’d taught herself to and waited for the pain to catch up with her still sleepy mind; the pain she knew would be coming. It would come in a wave, all at once. Her neck, head, back, and limbs all started to ache in unison, like violins in an orchestra being conducted to life. Each bow glided lightly across the strings, bobbing up and down, like the pulsing throbs now playing a painful melody through her whole body.
It took some convincing, but her eyelids eventually parted. The sunlight pooled at the foot of her bed blinded her initially. Eventually, her vision was restored to normal. This room was not the one she’d come to know. It was different, clean, safe.
A word she believed to be unattainable. Doing a quick survey of the room, she realized she was alone, a comforting, yet frightening thought.
Venna could hear hushed voices and the pitter-patter of feet coming from outside the room. It was not at all intimidating. The sound didn’t make her body tense or her pulse sky-rocket. It was hypnotizing, soothing, and much more welcome than sheer silence.
She cocked her head up and sideways to see the headboard. A bright red button was in the corner with the word ‘Call’ on it. She lifted her hand and pushed the button. An ear piercing bell sounded in her room and out in the hallway.
A minute later, a nurse stepped through the closed door. “Hello,” she said with the voice of an angel.
“Where am I?” Venna’s voice nearly gave out as she spoke. “Am I in London?”
“You’re at St. Michael’s Hospital in Bristol,” the nurse replied.
Venna had been to Bristol once. It was almost three hours from London, on the other side of England. “How did I get here?” Venna asked.
The nurse hesitated. “I should call the doctor.”
“Please,” Venna stopped her before she could turn and leave. “How?”
“You were found outside of Chelwood. They brought you here last night. Can you tell me who you are?”
“Did they catch him?” Venna deflected again.
The nurse swallowed hard as her face became somber. She shook her head.
“My name is Venna Caldwell.”
The nurse’s shoulders dropped with relief and a small half smile appeared. “You were on the telly. Everyone has been looking for you. They’ll be pleased to know you’re ok. You didn’t come in with any ID, so it was only speculation that you were you. I’m going to call the doctor and the detectives right quick and I will be back. Would you like anything?”
“Just my parents please.”
“I’m Abby, by the way. Call if you need anything,” Abby said, before slipping out of the room.
Venna’s thoughts sped through her mind a mile a minute. She took a deep breath, hoping to make sense of it all.
I was kidnapped.
I was held hostage in a town three hours from home.
I was gone, missing, for days. How long? I don’t know.
People were looking for me. People, strangers, know I was missing.
I was found. I’m safe, for now.
He’s still out there.
Is he looking for me? Does he know where I am? Is he going to come for me?
“Dr. Westemen is on his way as well as the police,” Abby said, returning to her bedside. “They wanted to be informed straight away when you awoke,” she told Venna. With a big clip board in hand, Abby skimmed over the monitors Venna was hooked up to.
“And my parents?”
“The police were going to call them for you.” She smiled warmly at Venna before returning back to her paperwork. “How are you feeling?” That was a loaded question. “A lot of pain?”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Venna replied quietly.
“Is it bad enough that you need more medication?”
“No,” Venna shook her head. “How long was I gone, I mean, how long have I been missing?”
“Uh, 16, 17 days,” Abby said with a sigh.
“My God,” Venna gasped. What had happened while she was gone? She imagined her parents trying to get a hold of her from Washington. She imagined Luke and Lilly calling all her friends, wondering where she had gone. She pictured her mother sobbing in her father’s arms when they returned to Weald Close to find an empty house. It broke her heart to imagine what her family had gone through while she was missing.
“The doctor will go over everything with you when he gets here. Shouldn’t be much longer,” Abby explained to Venna. “Are you hungry? Can I get you some water or anything?”
“Nothing, thank you. I’d like to sit up, please.”
“Oh, sure, no problem.” Abby pressed a button on the outside of the bed and Venna’s head started to elevate until she was comfortably sitting upright. She tilted her head, hoping to crack some of the kinks out, but had no such luck.
There was a light knock on the door and an older gentleman walked in holding his own clipboard. “Hello, glad to see you awake,” he said, walking right up to the side of the bed. “I’m Dr. Westemen. I saw you last night when you arrived.” He sat on a small stool next to Venna. “How are you feeling?”
“How’s your pain level?” he asked.
Venna shrugged. “Tolerable.”
“Would you like more pain medication?”
Again, Venna turned it down. She wasn’t hip on being drugged up all the time.
“Let me just give you an overview of what we found,” he said. Abby handed him the clipboard she’d been scribbling on. He looked over her stats and handed it back to Abby, apparently satisfied.
“For the most part,” he started, “you look fine. You were dehydrated when you arrived, so we ran some fluids through you. You have a number of gashes and bruises. There is one cut on your ankle that seems to be on the mend; it looked fresh, but very well taken care of. Then there’s one particularly large one on your back and another on your inner right thigh. We gave you two different sets of stitches. Both wounds have internal stitching that will dissolve in time. There are also external stitches to close the gashes. There were only eight stitches needed for your thigh, but 49 for your back.
“You’ve also got some infection on the cuts around your wrists and ankles from the metal cuffs you were wearing. What happened was the cuffs had caused reoccurring wounds, which is why there was infection. As soon as one wound started to heal, it was broken open again by the cuffs. We treated those with an ointment. You’re going to want to keep them covered for a few days.
“We also have been giving you an antibiotic through your IV to help fight any infections you might have elsewhere, just as a precaution.” Dr. Westemen nodded, making a note on his paper.
“We found bruising on your side,” he pointed to his own ribcage, just under his arm, “so we did an x-ray to insure there wasn’t any internal bleeding. You have two bruised ribs, but no breaks and no bleeding, which is good. You’re going to be sore for about a week. There were no other major problem areas. The bruise on your eye is rather ghastly and will take a couple of days for the swelling to go down, but nothing lasting.
“The last thing I wanted to touch on is your hand.” He looked at her right hand, lying lifeless next to her. Venna lifted the heavily bandaged hand. The gauze was so thick, it looked like there was a softball on the end of her arm. “Can you tell me how you got that?”
Venna hesitated. “I was stabbed with a knife.” She felt that was enough information to help his diagnosis. She didn’t need to go into all the details nor did she want to.
“Well, you’re actually quite lucky. The stab wound was through and through. It missed the bones in your hand, sparing you of reconstructive surgeries and continual physical therapy, not to mention loss of motor skills. We took an x-ray, sewed it up, and covered it. You’re not going to have much strength or dexterity until it heals fully. You’ll still want to do some physical therapy for it, to make sure you don’t lose any range of motion or flexibility.”
Dr. Westemen shifted his weight and leaned a little closer to Venna, clearing his throat. “Now we did a rape kit and tested you for a battery of STDs as well as the HIV/AIDS virus. Normally we need consent, but since you were unresponsive and there wasn’t any family to speak of, we went ahead with testing. You don’t have any STDs; all of those tests came back negative, including HIV and AIDS.” He explained with a smile.
“What, what about pregnancy? Was I tested for that?” Venna asked through clenched teeth, holding her breath.
Dr. Westemen nodded. “That also came back negative.”
Venna could breathe again, letting out a huge sigh. That was one of her biggest concerns. The tears started to moisten her eyes. She could feel her body relaxing. “All of this, none of it is to be told to my parents or my fiancé. I know they’re going to ask, especially my mum, but they don’t get any information. They don’t need to know. It’s my problem, not theirs.”
“Understood,” Dr. Westemen replied professionally. “The way it looks now, you’ll be out of here tomorrow. You just need a lot of rest to let your body start putting itself back together. Do you have any other questions for me?” Venna shook her head. Dr. Westemen stood up, holding out his hand for Venna to shake. “Glad to see you’re alright. You have a very strong will to live. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Thank you,” she managed to mumble. At the moment, though, she didn’t know what would be worse, living with the memories and the fear, or not living at all.
* * *
“Now listen,” Peter started as he and his rookie partner, Kelly, headed for Venna’s hospital room. “This is your first victim interview. It’s not going to be easy. The things you’re going to hear aren’t going to be pretty, especially in a case like this. You’ve got to keep it together.”
The young detective didn’t say a word as they maneuvered through the crowded lobby towards the elevator. Peter and Kelly had only been working together for the past month. The only thing they’ve even worked on together was this case.
The disappearance of one, Ms. Venna Marie Caldwell.
At first, Peter was convinced she was more of a runaway than a kidnap victim. There were no signs of a break in or a struggle in the house. The victims mobile had been left behind. There wasn’t a ransom, there wasn’t a suicide note, or any other kind of explanation. She’d even left her engagement ring behind.
Peter didn’t want to break her fiancé’s heart, but he had to make them aware that she might have just skipped town without warning.
“No, not Venna,” Luke, the victim’s fiancé, had insisted to the detectives a few days after reporting the disappearance. “She was happy. She was right where she wanted to be with her education and her career and with the two of us. We were trying to have a baby for Christ’s sake.”
Peter exhaled deeply, shrugging his shoulders. “Sometimes people just crack. They can’t take the pressure. We’re not through investigating, but you do have to accept the idea that she might have just up and left on her own accord.”
This was all before the fiancé was a suspect. Again, there was no evidence of foul-play, but in order to cover all their bases, they had to question him. If Peter thought he didn’t take their first theory well, Luke was even more upset when the finger of suspicion was pointed in his direction.
“Hold the door,” Peter called, as the elevator door slowly started to close. The two detectives sped up as one of the elevator passengers stopped the doors from closing.
“Also, remember, she’s hurt, confused, disoriented, and traumatized. We need answers from her, but we don’t want to push too hard. This is our first encounter with her and not the last. We don’t want to make enemies out of ourselves.” Peter looked at the young man to his right.
“Got it.” Kelly nodded firmly. Peter could see the excitement in the rookie’s eyes. This was the first action he’d actually seen since starting at Scotland Yard, and he was enjoying every moment of it. For the past few days, though, Peter was afraid this case would fizzle to a stop before they even found the girl.
It wasn’t until Commander Day from Bristol gave Peter a ring. “I think we’ve got something out of your jurisdiction that you might want to know about,” Commander Day said. “A woman was found today chained to a bed, badly beaten. Fits the description of a missing persons out of Bromley. Ms. Caldwell? Name ring a bell?”
They couldn’t be sure it was her, of course, since the woman was in and out of consciousness and unresponsive. The perp was gone and no identifying evidence for the perp or the woman. Peter was shocked to receive the call, needless to say, thinking they’d never actually find Venna, let alone find her in the depths of a nightmare.
When the elevator doors parted, opening to a long hallway of rooms, Peter realized he forgot the room number. Thankfully, there were two police officers standing guard outside the woman’s room, given the fact that the perp was still at large and at the moment:
* * *
Venna had no time to sort through the diagnosis Dr. Westemen had just given her because as soon as he and Abby were out of the room, there was another knock at the door. Two men strode into the room with authority, letting themselves in. The first was older, more seasoned, with a modest slouch in his shoulders. The second was much younger, hot off the press, puffing his chest out as if he had something to prove. They marched to the foot of Venna’s bed. “Venna Caldwell?” The older one spoke first.
“Yes,” Venna mumbled.
“I’m Detective Peter Hillings. This is Detective Kelly O’Rourke. How are you feeling?”
If one more person asked her that, she might just scream. “The nurse told me you were to call my parents. Do they know yet? Are they coming to get me?”
“They’re on their way,” Hillings explained. “We wanted to come and get your story so we could open the investigation fully. We still don’t have a suspect. We were hoping you’d give us some information and let us in on what happened to you.”
Venna was afraid if she opened her mouth, she’d vomit. She stared at the two detectives, who were waiting anxiously on the tips of their toes for her to share her nightmare. How could she explain it? It’s like admitting you have a gambling or drinking problem. You know exactly what the problem is, but you don’t want people to know about it. Venna’s problem was the truth about her captivity. It’s a dirty little secret, not meant to be shared.
“I know we’re asking a lot of you,” O’Rourke started, stepping closer to the bed and talking with his hands, “but the perp is running free right now, probably getting farther and farther away from us as we speak.”
Venna shook her head. “He won’t run. He’s not just going to give up and walk away. He wants me. No, he’s still here, if not, he’s back in London, waiting for me to return.”
“Who is he?” Hillings asked, pulling a tape recorder out of his pocket and clicking it on. “You have a name for us?”
“You don’t know! How could you not know?” Venna’s brow furrowed, painfully putting stress on her bruised eye. She stared at them in disbelief, mouth hanging agape.
“We normally use DNA samples at the crime scene to help us identify the suspect. We unfortunately had a hard time collecting any DNA evidence that wasn’t yours,” O’Rourke started. “We found blood, hair, finger prints, they were all yours. The fact that we’re working in a small space with a dirt floor, it’s been hindering our investigation. A lot of the scene was compromised when the medics went in to get you out. So far, this perp is virtually nonexistent. We were hoping you’d be able to point us in the right direction,” he said, pulling a small notebook and pen out of his pocket.
“Merrick,” Venna whispered, afraid to say his name too loudly. He had told her how much he enjoyed hearing her utter his name. It made her physically ill to say it now.
“Merrick? Is that his first name or last?” Hillings asked. O’Rourke was on his phone now, dispatching the information as Venna gave it to them.
“I don’t know. That’s all I’ve ever known him by.”
“You know him, personally?” Hillings’ bushy gray eyebrows elevated.
Venna nodded. “I’ve known him for years. He’s a worker at the theater I perform in. He’s worked there for at least 14 years, if not longer.”
O’Rourke spoke quickly and quietly into the phone while Hillings continued to ask questions. “Can you tell me how he kidnapped you? Where were you? How did he do it? What time was it? You know, the particulars.”
Venna took a deep breath. Just get it over with, she thought. “It was Saturday. He came to my parent’s house while I was there alone. I suppose he had come in when I dozed off earlier that night. When I went to bed, I heard noises. I went to see where the noises were coming from when he grabbed me and drugged me with something he’d put on a rag. I blacked out and I woke up in a room I’d never seen before. I had no idea I was on the other side of the island.”
“Did he tell you why? Was he planning on asking for money from your parents? Did this have something to do with your father’s work with the U.S.? Maybe he wanted some defense secrets or computer access codes of some sort? Intel?”
Venna shook her head. “No. He just wants me,” Venna mumbled slowly. “He told me he had a fantasy,” that word seemed like an understatement to Venna, “about the two of us, one he’s been thriving off of for years, years. I never knew.” She gasped.
Venna’s memories took her back to that moment.
**She woke up with a start, coughing. Her mouth was dry and full of what tasted like dirt. Her hands were heavy and clumsy as she reached to rub her head. She pulled herself off the bed instantly and stood next to it, still hacking. Where am I? What happened? Who did this? How did I get here? What time is it? What day is it? Thoughts raced through her mind as she looked around the plain, ramshackle room. The bed, a chair, and a small wooden table were the only pieces of furniture. The floors were dirt and the walls were just wooden planks. There were no windows and only one door that was adorned with four sturdy dead bolt locks. In the corner of the room was a bright light, one you’d see at a construction site. A yellow extension cord poked out of a tiny hole in the wall, delivering electricity to the light.
Looking down at herself, she realized she was in different clothes than before. On her wrists and ankles were heavy metal bracelets that seemed to be welded shut. Venna pulled at the one on her right wrist, but couldn’t squeeze her hand through. They were so heavy and thick, each with a small ring dangling from it. Her adrenaline started rising.
As scared as she was, she went over to the door and tried to turn the knob even though she was afraid to see what was on the other side. The knob didn’t turn. She shook the door a little to see if the door would give. That was no help.
“Ok, think. What’s going on?” Venna said out loud to herself. “I’ve got to get out. There’s got to be a way.” She paced around the small room, not sure what to do.
She returned to the door, pulling more violently on the handle. The door looked flimsy enough. She tried pulling harder; hoping the knob would come lose or the door would give. She yanked and jerked at the door until, before she knew it, she was pounding on it with her fist. Then she was screaming, uncontrollably. “Hello! Someone help me! Is anyone there? I need help!” she yelled, as loudly as she could.
When no one came and the door showed no sign of opening, Venna dropped to the floor and began to sob. “What is going on?” she cried out loud.
That’s when she heard a loud click, and then another, both coming from the door. She stood up quickly and backed away until she was flat up against the opposite wall. There were two more clicks and then the door knob started to turn. Holding her breath, she watched the door swing open slowly with a great screech.
Venna gasped when she saw a familiar face on the other side. “Merrick?”
He didn’t say anything. He stood motionless, as he always did, and just looked at her with his penetrating eyes.
“What’s going on? Did you do this? Did you bring me here? Why? Why? What do you want from me?” Venna’s tone grew impatient while Merrick continued to stare speechlessly.
Merrick took a step into the room. Under these circumstances, Venna thought he looked bigger than he normally did, bigger and much more intimidating. His eyes weren’t as gentle as she usually saw them. In fact, she usually didn’t see them at all. Merrick had very rarely looked her in the eye. Now, he was looking right at her, not trying to avoid her gaze. It was unnerving. Those eyes were dark and direct.
“Did you sleep well?” The deep register of Merrick’s voice was amplified by his hushed tone.
“Why are you doing this?” Venna asked again on a breath.
“I hope you don’t mind. I put a sweatshirt and trousers on you. You would have frozen to death in the tank top and shorts you were wearing.” Merrick spoke to her calmly and casually, creating even more frustration and impatience for Venna. It was as if he wasn’t hearing her at all and only hearing what he wanted to hear.
“Merrick, please,” she started to beg.
Merrick closed his eyes and smiled wickedly. “My name sounds like a song when you say it like that. Music to my ears.”
“What do you want from me?” Huge tears pooled up under her eyes. She felt so small and defenseless compared to him. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to fight him off.
“I just, I just want you. You’re the only thing I want. You’re the only thing I can ever think of. You’re always on my mind. You make me crazy. The way you walk and smile and the light you bring into a room. You look at me like I’m a person, not many people do.” He took a step closer. “I knew you were different the first time I saw you.”
“I was only 12. I was just a little girl.” Venna cried, casting off the tears on the journey down her cheek.
“And I’ve watched you grow into a wonderful, vibrant, beautiful woman, only empowering me more and more with each passing day!” he exclaimed poetically.
Venna shook her head. “No. I didn’t mean anything by it. I didn’t mean to lead you on.”
“I was led nowhere. It was fate for our paths to cross. This was meant to be, you and I.”
“No, no. I’m engaged. I’m in love with someone else,” Venna said, trying to reason with his insanity.
Merrick’s euphoric smile drooped instantly into a hateful gaze. “He doesn’t love you the way I do and he never will. I will give you more. I will be better, you’ll see,” he said, as he started towards her.
“Wait, wait, please, you don’t have to do this,” Venna put her hands out in front of her as if he were pointing a gun at her. “Please, this isn’t right. Just let me go. Let me go home, please. I promise I won’t tell. I won’t say a thing to anyone, ever, if you just let me go. I want to go home.” Venna trembled, sobbing wildly.
All this time, Merrick had been inching closer and closer to her. Venna’s hands, only stretched out a few inches in front of her, were now practically touching his stomach. “You’re not going home. I’m home. It’s just me now. You have nothing else. You don’t need anything else but me.”
Venna let out a cry. She felt her knees getting weak as she pushed herself harder into the wall, hoping to stay as far from him as possible by cowering closer to the floor.
“I’ve waited so long for this moment.” His eyes crystallized as he towered over Venna, looking down on her like prey, practically salivating. “I’ve dreamt of the day when I could have you to myself. When I could simply reach out and touch you.” He lifted his hand to her hair, just barely touching his finger tips to the strands.
Venna snapped herself upright, bringing her knee up at the same time and clocking Merrick in the groin. With her hands already out in front of her, she shoved him to the side as he groaned in pain, tumbling out of her way. She darted for the open door and was two steps out of the room when her left foot snapped out from under her.
Next thing she knew, she was on the floor, face down, in the hallway; a poof of dust rising around her. She looked back, trying to catch her breath, and saw the cuff on her ankle was attached to a thin cord. The other end of the cord was secured to the wall next to the bed. Merrick was rolling on the floor in the fetal position, moaning.
Frantically, Venna pulled at the cord, hoping to break free before Merrick regained his composure. When neither the cuff nor the cord would give, she turned and started groping the walls and the floor, hoping to get a hold of something, anything, to give her leverage against the restraint.
“Help me! Help!” she screamed. The hallway came to a ‘T’ intersection. From where she was lying, she couldn’t see any farther than the end of the hall. There were no other doors in that hall. No frames to grab on to. No base boards. Nothing. She scratched and clawed, trying her hardest to get away.
“No, no, no!” she screamed in protest, as she watched Merrick get to his feet. She felt his heavy boot steps vibrate the ground beneath her as she scrambled to get away.
As Merrick reached his massive hands to grab her off the floor, Venna rolled to her side and threw a few kicks at him with her right leg. Merrick easily deflected every kick and snapped his hand onto the front of her shirt, pulling her up all at once and pinning her to the wall.
One hand tightened on her neck. “Stop fighting me,” he spat in her face angrily. He was speaking in a tone Venna had never heard or even imagined Merrick possessed. “You’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Get used to it.”
“No, let me go! Let me go!” Venna shouted at him.
“I’ll let go of you, but if you kick me again, I will have to punish you and I promise you, you don’t want me to have to punish you. Are you going to behave? Are you?”
Venna held her breath, trembling with anger and desperation. She nodded silently, not wanting to say anything civil to him. She even found it difficult to look him in the eye when she could see how much he enjoyed this.
Slowly, Merrick loosened his grip on her sweatshirt and stepped back. Venna’s foot was at the end of her leash and sticking out in the air. She and Merrick eyed each other for a moment, both uncertain of what the other was going to do.
“Go.” Merrick’s lips were tight as he pointed to the room.
Venna looked into the room, hopelessly. What choice did she have? She couldn’t fight him, at least not while she was tied up. She couldn’t manage to get loose from the binds. What else could she do? What was he going to do to her in there? She didn’t want to think about it. She wanted those thoughts out of her mind. How could she willingly walk to that fate?
“Please, I can’t,” she cried slowly, shaking her head. “Please just let me go,” Venna begged frantically.
“You’re going to make this harder than it needs to be.” Merrick said, shaking his head, trying to carefully get a hold of Venna’s arms as she continued to pull away from him. Venna’s arms would slip away from his grasp each time he would start to wrap his fingers around her forearm.
“Don’t make me go in there. Please, don’t make me. I just want to go home.” Venna’s eyes were flooded with tears as she pulled away from every one of his advances. “Please, please, no, please!”
Merrick lost his patience. He ducked down, pushing his shoulder into Venna’s waist and hoisted her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Venna was so immobilized with fear, she couldn’t even fight him. She just bawled as Merrick carried her over the threshold and closed the door behind him.**
A tear rolled down Venna’s cheek. “Then what happened?” Hillings asked, pulling her out of her memory and back into the hospital room. “What happened next Ms. Caldwell?” he asked again when she didn’t respond right away.
Venna hesitated. “I can’t, it’s difficult to say. Do you need…” she could feel more tears surfacing.
O’Rourke shook his head, stopping Hillings from pushing Venna any farther than she wanted to go. “No, not today, but we will need your full statement eventually.”
“What made you say he’s close? How do you know that?” Hillings asked, brushing off O’Rourke.
“Merrick felt compelled to tell me every thought that popped into his head. I know him better than I know my own fiancé. I know he’s not going to stop until he gets what he wants, not after all his hard work.”
Hillings and O’Rourke looked at each other. “Was there anyone else? Did he have an accomplice?” Hillings kept jabbing questions at her. Venna shook her head. “Did he ever mention anywhere he’d go if he were in trouble, maybe a childhood home or a family member nearby?” Venna shook her head again. “Do you have any other information that might help us find him?”
“I can’t think of anything at the moment,” she said. Hillings took a deep frustrated breath, wishing he could have gotten more information out of Venna. “How did you get me out of there anyway?”
Hillings fumbled with his recorder before slipping it back into his pocket. “The place Merrick was keeping you had been abandoned for some years. A farmer who lived nearby noticed lights on and a car there. He called patrol. The first officer arrived while Merrick was away, unfortunately. If that officer would have known beforehand what he was walking into, that it was you in there, we could have waited and capitalized on it by calling for backup, and we would have waited for him to return. We could have Merrick in
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG Sonnenstraße 23 80331 Munich Germany
Text Copyright Holder: No part of this book may be reproduced in any form. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the events, characters, and/or persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Copyright ©Jessica Wygle
Images Copyright Holder: Cover art by Rebecca Bowslaugh
Proofreading and Editing by: Edited by Rebecca Bowslaugh
Release Date: 09-04-2012
All Rights Reserved
To Frank, my first and most enthusiastic reader.