April sat tensely on the couch, her posture rigid and her eyes fixed on the screen without actually taking in anything that was occurring. Her mind was split between offering up prayers that any moment she would get a message telling her that others had found Sterling and trying to suppress the questions of what if should the message not come. It didn’t help that she was hyper aware of every movement made by her father, the man she currently believed was responsible for the disappearance of her girlfriend. As the titles rolled on the episode they were watching, she felt her phone vibrate. Snatching it up from where it sat on the cushion next to her, she resisted the urge to look at the screen where she sat. If the message was from Blair, then she was uncertain that she would be able to mask her true emotions...whatever the contents said. She stood from her seat and started to make her way out of the room, phone clutched in her hand.
“Everything OK? Did you not want to watch the next episode?” Her dad’s voice stopped her in her tracks.
April turned slightly to look over to where her dad sat, schooling her face into what she hoped was a neutral expression. “Everything is fine. I just need to send Hannah B a photograph of our homework assignment. She lost her sheet.” She held her breath as her dad regarded her closely. Every second that passed with his eyes focused on her made her want to shift on the spot in discomfort at the scrutiny but she fought the urge, knowing that any such movements would only lead to further questions.
“You really could do better with your choice in friends. If you want to be successful in life, you need to surround yourself with other successful people...not those you have to prop up. You should be associating with equals...who is your greatest academic competition?” The phone in her hand felt heavier with every passing moment that she hadn’t been able to read the message. She clenched her free hand into a fist, feeling her nails dig into her palm from the force. She remained silent, not wishing to speak the name of the person who was her equal on so many levels. The name of the one person who had always been right there next to her for as long as she could remember, pushing her to improve her performance through their mere existence. “April...Who is it? I taught you to always know your competition.”
“Sterling.” She dropped her gaze to the floor between them. “It has always been Sterling.” She admitted quietly. The words she uttered holding a very different meaning to her than to her father.
“I should have known.” He muttered as he shook his head with the comment. “Though from what I have learnt about her, she is not someone you should associate with.” There was no elaboration on the statement but April could imagine what her father was referring to. There was her one foray into tasting alcohol, her losing her virginity to Luke or the bounty hunting…There were plenty of reasons why her dad would deem Sterling as someone to be avoided and he didn’t even know about the intimacy they shared behind closed doors. “She has outlived her usefulness to you.” Part of April wanted to ask what he had heard about the blonde but, in that moment, her greatest focus was on finding out what Blair and Bowser had found. Rather than responding verbally she nodded her agreement to his statements, silently hoping that this would be the end of their conversation and provide her with the time to escape to her room to check her phone. “Go. Sort out that friend of yours.”
Without waiting for another word, she turned on her heel and walked along the hallway. She kept reminding herself to walk, one foot in front of the other, don’t run. Don’t draw attention to yourself and a change in your behaviour. The words were repeated in her own mind, serving as a mantra to keep her from listening to the part of her that just wanted to know immediately. As soon as the door to her bedroom closed, she pulled up the message on her phone.
She’s not here. There’s nothing here.
April read the message twice before the words sank in. Despite everything they had done over the past two days, they were no closer to finding the blonde. However, no matter what the evidence said, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her dad was behind this. There were too many coincidences otherwise. She just had to think of some way to find out where he had been for the past couple of days without raising his suspicions.
Hearing the alarm sound, April reached over to silence it. Part of her had considered shutting it off last night when she knew that sleep would be eluding her while she focused on her research and listening out for any sound that her dad was leaving the house. Unwilling to risk spending so much as a minute in slumber when he could leave the building without her knowledge. However, she didn’t want to risk losing track of the time, causing her parents to come to her room to fetch her. A quick glance around her room revealed why. The normally immaculate space was now a scene of disarray with sheets of paper scattered across the floor with various notes written on them. Her bin was surrounded by several balls of paper that had been discarded once the avenue of enquiry had proven fruitless. She rubbed her bleary eyes, allowing her hand to run down her face to try to clear the exhaustion. She had searched for property records for anyone she could think of that her dad would trust, business addresses...anything that might have a connection to where her dad could be holding someone captive.
Closing her laptop, she gathered up the sheets of paper that held potentially useful information and slipped them into a folder. She tucked it into her bag along with her iPad that contained a selection of photographs from records in her dad’s office that might be of use. Photographs she had captured during the small hours of the morning when everyone else slept. Making sure that everything incriminating was out of sight, she set about getting organised for church. Once she felt she was presentable, she picked up her bag and made her way out of her room, her sanctuary, to maintain the façade of perfect member of team Stevens once more for the general public.
“Good morning.” April’s head snapped up at the sound of the cheery greeting from her dad.
“Morning. What’s going on?” The question slipped past her lips before she could stop it, the lack of sleep clearly affecting her usual filter.
“Why would something be going on?” The smile didn’t falter on her dad’s face.
“I...It’s just when you have had problems at work before, you haven’t been so positive.”
The sound of his laughter only served to increase the feeling of unease that had taken root in the teen since the potential of her father being responsible had first been mooted. “Very true little Padawan. However, after some consideration last night I decided to just bring that little situation to a conclusion today...after church, of course. There are some things that are just not worth wasting another minute on when you can just eliminate them once and for all.” April felt her stomach drop with the comments. She swallowed, trying to stifle the feeling of nausea that was building rapidly within. “You OK?” She flinched back at the feel of her dad’s hand on her cheek. “You’re looking pale.”
“Just stressed about exams.” She threw out the first thing that popped into her head, hoping that it would be sufficient to bring any further questioning to an end. She forced her eyes to meet those of her dad, willing herself to not look away as his brown eyes searched hers. She didn’t realise she had been holding her breath until he turned away from her.
“If you have prepared properly, you have no reason to worry.” Breathing out a sigh of relief, she let her eyes drift close for a second. “You all ready to go?”
“You go get into the car while I get your mother.” Without waiting for a response, he turned back into the hallway leaving April alone once more. Knowing better than to not be where her dad expected her to be when he was ready, she headed out to wait in the car. As she slid into the backseat, she pulled her phone out. With a quick glance back to the house she sent a message to Blair.
Are you going to church?
No…mom and dad don’t want to leave the house in case someone calls or Sterl turns up.
I did some more research last night and have an idea of somewhere to check. Can you meet me before the service?
I’ll be cutting it close if I can get out.
There’ll be a folder tucked behind the planter to the right of the main door.
Seeing her parents emerge from the house, she opened her bag to stow her phone. As she did so, her eyes caught on her iPad. She glanced back over towards the front step where her parents were approaching and made a decision. She pulled her iPad out and tucked it under the seat, sitting up and closing her bag just as her dad opened the door. April turned her attention out of the window as her dad pulled out of their drive, willing the journey to pass quickly. The car ride was silent with the exception of the radio quietly playing in the background which April was glad of as her mind was occupied with how she was going to be able to secure the folder she had for Blair without drawing attention to what she was up to.
As the car pulled up into the space, April waited until her parents had exited the vehicle before stepping out herself. She cast a quick look around the parking lot for any sign of the brunette, but she was nowhere in sight. She followed behind her parents as they approached the front of the church, greeting various others on their way. As they approached the door, April slowed her pace hoping that her parents would enter and not check on her progress. As they passed through the doorway, she breathed a sigh of relief and almost let a smile appear that things were going her way. That was until her dad turned to call her over. Just as she was about to head over to join him, frantically thinking about an excuse she could use to delay the entry just for long enough to drop off the folder someone stepped into her path. She was instantly aware of arms wrapping around her and a body that dwarfed her own smaller stature. She felt herself tense the second this person made contact with her, that was until she heard the familiar voice.
“Sorry for invading your space and touching you without asking but Blair told me that you might need help with dropping something off for her before church and I couldn’t think what else to do with your dad watching.”
April allowed herself to relax slightly against Luke’s chest. “Thank you.” She whispered before pulling back and reaching in her bag for the folder. She was aware of her dad approaching the pair of them so handed him the file with a look that was hidden by Luke’s taller frame. She saw him nod as he took the folder and tucked it into his jacket.
“What’s going on here?”
April watched as Luke turned to face John Stevens, a kind smile on his face. “Morning Mr Stevens. I just had to thank April for the help she gave me on my Spanish. I found out on Friday I got a B on my last assessment and it is all down to her taking the time to tutor me in study hall.”
“Luke Creswell, sir.” He held his hand out for the man to shake.
“And April is just tutoring you?” The tone in his voice made it clear that the real unvoiced question had nothing to do with tutoring. April noted the way her dad held firmly on to Luke’s hand as he waited for the response.
“Yes sir. April and I are just friends. I have chosen to spend this year focusing on my studies and my golf.” The answer seemed to satisfy her dad as he ended the handshake.
“That’s a smart choice. Come on April, your mother is waiting for us.” April followed her dad into the church, casting a quick look over her shoulder at the door to mouth a thank you at the tall boy. She received a smile and nod in response before she turned and followed her father into the church.
“So, the Creswell boy?” April had barely sat down in their pew before the question was voiced.
“He’s just a friend.” As the words slipped past her lips, she felt the truth in them. She hadn’t stopped to consider what kind of relationship she and Luke could have. Initially it had been tarnished by the association with the 5th grade incident which had continued for the entire duration of Sterling and Luke’s relationship. It was only after the pair of them had broken up that April started to notice that he was a genuinely nice guy and she had reluctantly admitted to understanding why Sterling had been with him for so long.
“Good Christian boy, you could do worse.”
April had to remind herself to keep her mouth closed at the suggestion from her own father to date Luke. “He’s not my type.” Catching the look her father gave her from the corner of her eye, she knew she had to justify that statement. “He’s not on the same level…intellectually.”
Before any further questions could be asked, Pastor Booth made his way up to the lectern to start the sermon. April tried to focus on what was being said but found it increasingly difficult between the combination of a lack of sleep and concern for Sterling rendering her with very few functional neurones.
It wasn’t until the collection plate was passed that April really managed to refocus on her surroundings, drawing her attention out of her own spiralling thoughts. Since she was seated on the position closest to the aisle, she accepted the plate from the usher and patiently held it while her father retrieved his wallet from his pocket. As he opened his wallet, April felt everything stop. The sounds of the congregation became muted, everything around her faded and blurred until the only point of clarity was her father’s wallet. Or more specifically, the item that had emerged from his wallet along with the notes. The gold of the ‘S’ reflected the light as it swung gently from the edge of the chain. April felt her heart stop with the sight, her whole body frozen from action with the exception of the hand holding the offering plate which had begun to shake. She felt like time had ground to a halt as she stared at the pendant from the corner of her eye, unable to move her head to look closer, unwilling to risk alerting her dad to her observation. The gold pendant vanished from sight as swiftly as it had appeared. As soon as it was out of her eye-line, it was like someone had hit play once more. The sounds returned as the rest of the room returned to focus, bringing with it the control of her own body. April glanced down towards the front of the church before her dad turned to look her way.
“All done.” Without looking his way, April nodded and passed the plate back to the usher giving him a smile as she did so. She knew that the smile was forced, that should anyone look closely enough that they would see the way her lips and her eyes were in conflict. One exuding happiness while the other fear. In that moment, she started to count down the seconds until she could get away from the man beside her. The man she now knew had been responsible for the abduction of her girlfriend. The man who she knew had caused harm to others without any real provocation had the person who he held responsible for his fall from grace at his mercy.
As the band continued to play, she processed her options. She could call the police and report the pendant as Sterling’s. She knew that they were involved and there was hard evidence that he had her. However, if she did that and he didn’t tell them the blonde’s location there was the risk that they would never find her. April’s mind flashed with images spurned April’s mind flashed with images sparked from too many true crime podcasts of Sterling being trapped somewhere nobody found until it was too late, slowly losing strength as nobody brought her food or water. The risk was too great.
The next option was Blair and Bowser. She knew that they should have got the file by now and the location of the hunting cabin that belonged to her father’s business partner, Gerald. While she had been searching for any addresses that may be of value, she had seen the photograph on her dad’s desk of them at the cabin. Somewhere she hadn’t considered as an option initially due to it not belonging to her family but when she really thought about where he would feel safe, she knew that Gerald would provide an alibi so the loan of his cabin would go without question. She hoped that the pair of them were almost there but if she was wrong…if that wasn’t the location, then she had just sent them two hours away from Atlanta. Potentially two hours in the wrong direction. So, she couldn’t count on them. It was in that moment she realised that there was only one option…herself. She was on her own for this.
When the service ended and the congregation filed out of building, April was thankful that her parents stopped to talk with some of their friends. With a quick check to make sure nobody was watching, she slipped away towards the edge of the building. Pulling her phone out she quickly dialled Blair’s number. She cast a glance over to where her parents stood still deep in conversation as she waited for the brunette to answer.
”We’re not there yet. About thirty minutes out.”
“It’s him. He has her.”
”That’s the theory and why we are driving to the middle of nowhere.”
“No. You don’t understand. I know he has her. He has her necklace.”
“In his wallet. I saw it.”
”Does he know?”
”Ok, good. Watch him. If he leaves, call me.”
“April?” She hung up without another word when she heard her dad call her name. As she slipped her phone into her bag, she returned to where her parents stood. “David has kindly offered to drive the pair of you back home.”
“Can’t you drive us?” She knew her voice sounded strained, the pitch higher than usual as the knowledge that if her father didn’t drive them home, she had no way to know his whereabouts.
“I’m sorry honey but I really must get back to finish up that situation I left yesterday.”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
April saw the frown appear on her dad’s face at being questioned in front of others. He had always made it very clear that his instructions were to be followed to the letter, yet here she was going against that ingrained teaching. “I’m done having it hang over me. The sooner I get going, the sooner I can tie up the loose ends and all this is behind us. Now, no more questions. Go with your mother and David.” His tone made it clear that he expected his instruction to be followed.
She desperately wanted to argue. To come up with some reason why he needed to drive them back but there was nothing that wouldn’t raise his suspicions. “Yes sir.”
“Good girl.” She watched as John turned to David. “Thank you for this once again.”
“No problem John. When work calls, we all have to answer.”
“So true.” John clapped him in the shoulder and shook his hand in a final thanks before turning and heading to the parking lot.
“Ready ladies?” April watched as her mother nodded her agreement and she followed the pair to David’s car. Part of her focus remained on her father as he reached his vehicle and climbed in. April now knew that time was against them. As soon as she was seated in the car, she pulled her phone out to text Blair, unable to make a call while the two adults were in such close proximity.
He left church without us. Got a friend to drive us home. He’s going to tie up the loose ends – his words.
April could feel her leg bouncing with impatience as she spun the ring on her finger, every second in the car felt like an eternity and she wanted nothing more than to get back home. She blanked out the small talk between the two adults and just ran through everything she had found out. Blair and Bowser were almost two hours ahead of her dad so they would be at the cabin in advance of him. They had the time to find Sterling and get out of there before he could get there. She kept repeating the facts to herself as if the words could somehow become reality if she said them enough. The mere act of focusing on the words over and over helped to stop her from snapping at the man to drive faster. Finally, they pulled up at the house and she was out of the car as soon as the vehicle was stopped, shooting a quick thank you over her shoulder she pulled her keys out of her bag and rather than heading for the house, turned to make her way to the garages. She was vaguely aware of her mom calling after her but right then, she didn’t have the time to worry about engaging in any form of conversation.
As she sat behind the wheel and started the engine, she pulled her phone up. She saw the message from Blair that they had arrived at the cabin but rather than focus on that, she pulled up the Find My app. She waited while it opened and selected the devices before scrolling down the list to select her iPad, quietly offering up a prayer of thanks for her dad having opted to buy her the cellular connected version rather than just WiFi. She looked at the map location and frowned. He wasn’t heading south towards the cabin, he was headed north. April felt the realisation hit her, making her breath catch in her throat. The two people who were equipped to deal with her father had been sent in the wrong direction, by herself. She pulled the car out of the drive and headed north. She had to follow him and buy enough time for Blair and Bowser to get there. She just needed to know where to tell them to go. Her dad had a head start so she pushed every speed limit to make up ground. Her time split between focusing on the road and checking the map on her phone screen. It didn’t take long before she recognised where he was headed. Reaching over, she dialled Blair as soon as she saw his intended destination.
“Get to the lake house.”
“We already checked there.”
“Don’t argue with me. I’m following him and that’s where he is heading. Just get there as soon as you can.”
“What are you going to do?”
April could hear the brunette start to argue with her plan but she couldn’t hear that now. She couldn’t afford to be distracted by the thought of what might happen to her. Her whole focus had to be on the blonde and keeping her safe until the bounty hunting duo could arrive and intervene. She clicked to end the call returning her car to its previous quiet state with only the sound of the engine and her heart pounding filling the space. With one more glance at her phone screen she saw her dad creeping closer to his destination. Not willing to let the thought of what that meant for Sterling if she didn’t get there soon, she pressed her foot down on the gas willing the road to be clear and that she could close the distance between them.