Sterling raised her head from where it had come to rest against her knees when she slid to the floor. She reached her hand up to wipe away the traces of the tears from her face, wincing as she brushed against her left cheek. Glancing around the room from her position on the floor with her back to the door, she saw the corridor that led back towards the bedrooms and a bathroom. Gingerly touching her cheek again, she made a decision and pushed herself up from the floor. With one last look at the locked door, she made her way across the living space to the bathroom she passed earlier.
Pushing the door open, she stepped into the room and the lights came on automatically to reveal a simple bathroom. She made her way over to the sink and looked into the mirror hung on the wall above it. The face that is reflected in the glass is certainly not what she usually sees when looking at her own reflection. She takes in the bruising already visible on her left cheek, her eye slightly swollen. Her mind giving her a replay of the moment it occurred. She tracks across to register the cut on her eyebrow with a dry trail of blood down the side of her face. An injury she must have sustained when she was taken, something she still doesn’t recall clearly. She probes the cut on her lip with her tongue before noticing her neck. Tilting her head back slightly she takes in the bruising already forming across the pale skin. As she reaches her hand up to run across the area, she sees the marks against her wrists from the ropes. Her eyes fall to look at her wrists, pulling back the sleeves of her shirt to see how extensive the rope burns are. Her hands fall to the edges of the sink as she takes a moment to catalogue her injuries, glad that aside from cuts and bruises she doesn’t think there is anything more serious. She reaches out to turn on the tap before dampening the towel to carefully wipe some of the blood from her face. Once she had done the best she can to clean up the wounds she has sustained, she makes her way back into the corridor with the intention to use whatever time she has before he returns to her advantage.
Eight hours ago
April heard her phone start to ring from where she had placed it on her nightstand. She turned to face the side and grabbed the phone, blearily looking at the screen with the hope that Sterling’s name would be the one she was greeted with. She felt that hope fade when she was instead greeted with a number she didn’t know. There was part of her mind that suggested that perhaps it was Sterling, maybe it was just her phone was out of action for some reason and she was using someone else’s to phone her. She slid her thumb across the screen to answer the call.
“Hello?” As soon as the word was out she felt herself hold her breath, unwilling to let even the sound of an exhalation potentially mask any words or sounds she may hear if it was the blonde.
“April?” She felt her heart sink with the sound of a distinctly male voice.
“Who’s asking?” The voice sounded familiar but she couldn’t place it, the lack of sleep and inability to focus on anything other that thoughts of Sterling certainly weren’t aiding her in summoning a face to go with the voice.
“It’s Bowser…from the Yoghurt shop.”
April shot up in bed, her eyes already scanning for what she would need to be ready to leave. “Has someone found her?” Just saying the words aloud made her heart race and that flicker of hope reignite.
“No, not yet.” As soon as she heard the words, she felt the lump return to her throat and her shoulders slump forward. “Can you come down to the shop this morning? There’s something I need your help with.”
April glanced at the clock on her dresser, surprised to see it was nearly 11am. She fully expected to have to explain her whereabouts last night before she would be able to leave the house. Doing a quick calculation of how long that might take plus the journey to the yoghurt shop , “I can be there in an hour.”
Hearing the call end, April dropped her phone from her ear and set about getting ready. Her body was going through the motions while her mind was occupied by trying to come up with an explanation for why she missed her curfew last night that wouldn’t result in a slew of additional questions she couldn’t answer. At least not without adding an extra layer of issues to the already dire situation.
As she placed her hand on the door handle, she took one last deep breath to steady herself before emerging from her sanctuary to face her parents. The descent down the stairs wasn’t greeted with the usual sounds of her dad’s music drifting out of his office as he worked, nor could she hear any voices. Once she had reached the bottom of the stairs, the quiet had become unnerving. It was Saturday morning and her parents would usually spend their Saturday mornings at home for what had always been classed as family time, despite the fact that they hadn’t really spent the time together since April had been in elementary school. She cast a quick glance to the front door and contemplated if she could make it out without detection. Making the decision to at least try, she took a step towards the door before her mom’s voice called out.
“April? Is that you?”
April glanced over at the door for a few more seconds before sighing and turning towards the kitchen. “Morning mom.”
“Can you pick up some more food for Bilko today?”
“Sure mom.” April waited for any further questions but when her mom just returned to drinking her coffee, she took the chance to make an exit. She opted not to question the reasons why she had escaped an inquisition about her activities the previous night and just be grateful that it gave her a faster out. “I’ll be back later.” Her mom barely responded to the comment, merely sending a vague sound of acknowledgement in her direction without even looking up from her book. As April passed by her dad’s office, the door was ajar providing the opportunity to see in. When she peered through the gap, April frowned as she saw the office was empty.
“Hello? Mr Bowser?” She called as she walked into the yoghurt shop.
“None of that mister stuff, just Bowser is fine.” The voice came from the back office. “Come on back.”
April made her way around the counter and through the door into the back room where she was greeted by the sight of Bowser sitting behind his desk. From what she had seen so far, he generally wore a serious expression so the look on his face was not unexpected. However, it certainly didn’t help to relieve the feeling of unease that had settled in her the moment she had answered his call earlier. When he gestured to the couch, she took a seat.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you down here.” April nodded. She watched as Bowser picked up a file from his desk before standing and moving to lean against the edge of his desk. “We’ve only got this one skip left and I’m hoping you can help with that.”
“Shouldn’t Blair be here? She knows how to track card transactions and...” April trailed off seeing the way Bowser shook his head.
“That may be so but it’s your insight we need.”
“Mine?” April frowned at the remark. She had no idea what insights she could bring to finding a skip unless...She looked at the file Bowser still held before extending her hand for it. As she accepted the documents, she had the sinking feeling she knew exactly what name would be written on the front. Dropping her gaze to the file in her hand she read the name...John Stevens. Obviously she knew that Blair and Sterling had been the ones to take her dad in after he skipped his bail and somewhere deep down she had expected that his name had passed through their discussions about who could be involved in blonde’s disappearance. Yet she hadn’t really considered the possibility that she would be asked for insights and information on her own father as a potential suspect for the kidnapping of her girlfriend.
April stared at the cover of the file, frozen in place as her mind raced through many different thoughts in a short space of time. She knew that in that file would be the information from the case that had been dismissed against her dad. Potentially there would be certain aspects that she was not aware of at that time, parts that neither Sterling nor her parents had shared with her. The same conflicting emotions flared up within her once more. She could feel her hand start to shake as the warring feelings collided with a fierce intensity. Closing her eyes, April recalled the breathing technique Blair had used with her the night before and forced herself to draw in a long slow breath, hold it and exhale slowly. Using the focus on the simple act to quieten down everything racing in her head until she could focus on one image...Sterling.
She flicked the folder open and scanned over the information, trying her best to view it from an emotionally detached point of view but knowing that she would fail in that endeavour. Seeing the photographs of the woman her father had beaten made her feel sick. Despite being cleared of the charges, she knew that he wasn’t innocent of them. He just had enough money and power to get away with them. He had proven himself to hold a level of hatred for others that made the accusations against him perfectly believable.
“What do you want to know?”
“Has he been acting differently these past couple of days?”
April thought back to Thursday. Her morning had begun as usual with an awkward and strained conversation over breakfast while her dad tried to engage her in discussions about what them day ahead held. She hadn’t seen him that night but in truth, following her extra curricular activities with a certain blonde, she had made her way up to her room as soon as she got home. She had spent the remainder of the evening in her room opting to preserve the feeling the blonde had instilled within her rather than interact with her parents and potentially lose it. “Thursday was nothing out of the ordinary. We spoke at breakfast...the usual small talk about what was going on at school. Once I left Sterl, I headed home. Then I didn’t see him or mom that evening, I spent it in my room alone.”
“When you say you spoke about school, did he know you had a forensics meeting?”
“Yes. I would have mentioned it.” A gnawing feeling starting in April’s stomach. The potential for her having provided information that led to the blonde being taken started to take hold in her mind. She flashed back to an earlier interaction with Blair where she blamed her for Sterling being kidnapped the night of the lock-in. What if this time, she really was at fault? What if she provided the information needed to know exactly where the blonde would be to someone who wished her harm?
Bowser nodded, his voice snapping April back out of her spiralling thoughts. “What about Friday?”
“I didn’t see him. He sent a message Friday morning saying he’d been caught up with and urgent issue at work.” April had to swallow as her mouth had gone dry as a queasy feeling had settled in. “He wasn’t around when I got in last night.”
“Didn’t see him. I don’t think he was there.” Her mind raced through the past two days and beyond. Her dad’s disappearance coinciding with Sterling’s. His continual attempts to find out information on the blonde. The way some of the things he said set off warnings in April’s mind that she had tried to ignore. The threat he had made to Blair and Sterling when they took him in. Every thought, every feeling of unease flooded her consciousness at once leaving her with the terrifying reality that her dad could have Sterling. April dropped the file and ran from the office, pushing the door to the toilets open before dropping to her knees and emptying the contents of her stomach. She clenched her eyes shut as she continued to heave. Trying to stop the images flooding her mind. Images triggered in the knowledge that despite what she had wanted to believe for so long, her father was not a good man. He was a man who thought nothing of beating women. A man who would destroy multiple lives for revenge against someone who had wronged him. The question of just what that would mean for one of the girls who had humiliated him by catching him refused to stop circling her mind. The images from the file merging with the images of the blonde to produce an ever worsening series of pictures that she clenched her eyes shut against.
When there was nothing left and she had been able to get some level of control to stop the retching, April flushed and made her way to the sink on shaky legs. As her eyes caught sight of herself in the mirror, she saw how pallid her skin looked. She splashed cold water on her face, using some to rinse her mouth out. She gripped the edge of the sink as she stared at the water circling the drain. Reaching out she shut off the faucet and opened the door. Bowser was standing just outside the door and offered her a cup of water which she accepted.
“What do we do now?” Her voice sounded rough, the bile having burnt her throat.
“We call Blair.” April nodded at the statement. She knew that the brunette would find out their line of enquiry soon enough but it didn’t help to ease the feeling of dread that settled at knowing the other girl would hold her responsible for whatever had happened to her sister.
“We find where he has been the past couple of days.”
The sound of the door to the store opening roused April from her reading of the files. There were several details she had not been privy to prior to today, especially the details surrounding the case that her father had got dropped. While she knew the general information, actually seeing the images of the injuries the woman had sustained at her dad’s hands was something she certainly hadn’t been prepared for. As much as he had been cleared of the charges, she knew he was far from innocent. That didn’t mean it was easy to reconcile the man who had perpetrated the crime in the file and the man who had picked her up when she had fallen. That those same hands that caused such harm had cautiously stuck plasters on scuffed knees when she was younger. Amongst the inner turmoil of trying to resolve these two sides to her own father was the voice telling her that he may also be the one who had kidnapped her girlfriend. The end result left her feeling numb.
“Bowser? You said you had a plan.” Blair’s steps faltered in the doorway as her eyes fell on April.
“Have a seat and I’ll explain.”
April closed the file in her hand as Blair sat down beside her on the couch. She could feel the taller girl’s eyes on her and couldn’t quite bring herself to make eye contact with the other girl.
“As you know we’re still waiting on an update on where Durbin is but there is one more skip we need to investigate.” The pause in Bowser’s explanation gave April the chance to mentally brace herself for what she knew was coming as soon as the brunette heard the outstanding name. “John Stevens.”
April sucked in a breath as the name was uttered, waiting for the inevitable explosion beside her. The seconds dragged out with nothing more than silence leading to her eventually turning to look at the girl beside her. The sight that greeted her was unexpected. Rather than the fury she had been prepared for, Blair looked…scared. Every other skip they had checked hadn’t elicited such a response but the name of her father led to the colour draining from the other girl’s face.
“I have spoken to April this morning to get some information, to see if we could eliminate him. We can’t so we have the two skips to find.”
Blair turned to face the shorter girl. “Don’t you know where he is?”
Shaking her head, she forced herself to meet the brown eyes of the other girl. “I haven’t seen him since Thursday morning.”
“And you didn’t think to mention that yesterday?” Blair shot out of her seat with the exclamation. She started pacing around the small space in the office. “Sterl goes missing the same day as your woman beating father and you didn’t think to mention it?”
Bowser came out to place his hand on Blair’s shoulder to try to calm her. “Come on now, it’s not like she knew he was a threat.”
“Didn’t she?” April watched as Blair stepped around Bowser to meet her gaze. “So Sterling didn’t tell you that he threatened us when we took him in? Didn’t tell you that was the reason she backed off when you said he was out?”
April could feel the sting at the back of her eyes signalling the impending tears. “She did.” Her voice was quiet even to her own ears.
“So what…are you protecting him?”
“I’m not.” April shook her head in denial, feeling the need to emphasise her answer with more than just words.
“Then why the fuck didn’t you say he went missing the same day she did?”
“Blair…” Bowser tried to interject, attempting to step between the two girls but Blair sidestepped him.
“I didn’t think…”
“No…you didn’t think.” Blair snatched the file from her hands. “What if he has her?” She waved the file between them. “That’s another day with someone who did this to a woman.” April’s eyes caught on the photograph of the prostitute’s injuries. “And she hadn’t pistol-whipped him and dragged his ass to jail.” April could feel the tightening of her throat, her heart pounding as every word hit. “You think he’ll not do worse or don’t you care?”
It was as those last words registered that something inside broke. “Of course I fucking care! I love her!” April found herself standing in front of the brunette, her chest heaving. She glanced down and saw she had gripped the front of Blair’s shirt in her fists. She unclenched her hands and stepped back, wrapping her arms around herself. The silence in the room was only punctuated by the sounds of their breathing.
“That’s enough! You both need to stop. This ain’t gonna help us get Sterling back. We need to work together but if you both can’t do that then get out.”
Both girls looked to Bowser, his face left no room to question if he was serious with his statement. April looked back over to Blair who scowled at her in return. When no further arguments were forthcoming from the brunette, April adjusted her focus back to the bounty hunter. “What do we do?”
“Call him.” April stared at Bowser with the suggestion, her mind racing with all the possibilities of what could go wrong if she said the wrong thing. It seemed Blair wasn’t faring much better if the silence and look on the other girl’s face was anything to go by. “All you need to do is call your dad and see when he’ll be back. Try to find out where he is. I’ll be right here to help you out.”
“What if he suspects something?” The tone of concern was evident in Blair’s voice.
“He won’t.” April spoke up. “He doesn’t even think Sterl and I are friends so would have no reason to think I knew anything.” Their eyes locked and April held the gaze, trying to communicate her certainty in that fact through the look. Blair gave a finally barely perceptible nod. The shorter girl turned to face Bowser as she pulled her phone out. “You’ll be here the whole time?”
“Right beside you. When you talk to him, keep it casual. Is there something you’d normally do with him that you can be checking on if he will be there for?”
“Church. Tomorrow is church.”
“Good. That’ll work. See how things are going and if he will be back for church. While you are talking, listen for anything else you can hear. It might seem like nothing but really listen...cars, trains, even birds it all gives an idea of where he might be.”
“Ok.” April looked at her phone as she steadied her breathing. Slowly she scrolled to her dad’s number, her finger hovering over the call button. She glanced up at Bowser’s face once more and got a nod from him. She offered up a silent prayer and hit call. Bringing the phone to her ear she listened as it rang.
“Hi daddy. I know you’re busy with work but I was just wondering if you were going to be back for church in the morning?”
“This problem is taking a bit longer than I expected to resolve. I’ll try to be back by tomorrow but sometimes people just take a bit more convincing.”
“I understand but...” April lost her train of thought as she heard something, she pressed her phone closer to her ear as she strained to listen to the sounds in the background.
“But I look forward to our time as a family. I know work is important but I guess I just want to spend that time together.”
”I understand Padawan. It’s going to take me a little while to get back but I’m sure things here can wait one more day. They’re not going anywhere tonight.”
“That’s great. So I’ll see you later?”
” You sure will. Maybe we can watch an episode of The Mandalorian when I’m home?”
“I’ll look forward to it. Bye daddy.” April hung up the phone and dropped it on her lap, bringing her hands up to cover her face.
“So? Anything?” Blair’s tone held both hope and dread.
“He wasn’t alone. Someone was coughing in the background. He’s coming home tonight.” April spoke the words but felt detached from her body at that time. Her mind replaying the sound of someone coughing in the background having the images of Sterling added by her subconscious.
Bowser knelt down on the floor before her. “Where would he be?”
April dropped her hands to look into the kind eyes of the man before her. Eyes that held a gentleness, a look that was so different to those of her own father. “I don’t know. Maybe the lake house.”
“Ok, let’s go.” Blair started towards the door.
“Hold on there. We are not going in guns blazing here. He is coming home today, so we wait to be able to search the place without a confrontation. Can you get us keys?”
“It’s a keypad combination lock on the door, I can give you the code to it and the alarm.”
“You let us know when he gets home and if he leaves.”
April nodded. She knew that as much as she wanted to stay as far from her father as possible, she needed to spend the time with him to ensure Blair and Bowser could search for Sterling. She could keep up the act of loving daughter for another night, even if the thought of being close to someone who may have harmed the blonde made her skin crawl. For Sterling, she would face a lot worse.