CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Endless tree trunks danced in the light of the full moon as it dodged in and out of the clouds. A menacing eeriness settled around Gina as she walked along the uneven track that sliced through Epping forest. 

Something ahead moved. Gina stood still. Her heart thumped a fast rhythm. Her chest felt as though it was clamped in a vice.

A short distance away, the shadow of a man with a big stomach splashed onto the ground, before disappearing.

Panic gripped Gina. Swivelling around to look back to where she’d come from, her fear deepened. She could no longer see Joe’s car, but the thought that she hadn’t heard the engine start up, comforted her. Joe must still be nearby.

What was it with him? He regularly brought her out to Epping Forest to fuck her, but always took her back to the station where she caught the last underground to London. Tonight he’d kicked her out of the car and told her to walk as he’d things to do.  

Swallowing hard to try to relieve the tightness of her throat, Gina stumbled towards the trees, and hid behind one. An owl hooted. The sound compounded the feeling of terror that gripped her.  

Leaning forward to try to get an idea of where the man was, she gasped in a silent breath as she saw the outline of him within feet of her!

The rough bark chaffed her back as she tried to shrink out of sight. Her stupid four inch heels dug into the soft earth. Sweat bathed her body.

A child’s cry cracked the silence around her. The man’s agitated, sharp, ‘Bloody shut up, will you?’ echoed in the stillness, disturbing a flock of birds. The air filled with annoyed squawking and flapping of wings.

Realisation that the bulge of the shadow hadn’t been the man’s paunch, but a child, filled Gina with horror.

Not moving a muscle, she listened as the snapping twigs and the crunching of fallen fir cones, trodden underfoot, slowly faded until she felt safe enough to take another peek. The man was no longer in sight.   

Inch by inch, Gina eased herself away from the tree and stepped back towards the track. She’d go back to Joe. He’d know what to do. That kid was in danger; she was sure of it.

The sight of Joe’s huge, black four by four Merc gave Gina a sense of relief. But as she came up to it and found it empty, despair quashed her hope. Christ, where is that bastard?

Tendrils of her long, dark hair caught in the breeze and fluttered around her face, giving her the feeling of a dozen fingers clasping her. Frantic, she fumbled in her bag for her mobile phone. Cops weren’t her friends, but they had their uses, and right now she needed them.

Lippie, fags, lighter, purse and fucking packets and packets of condoms. Christ, where’s me fucking phone?  Tapping the pockets of her jacket told her it wasn’t in any of them. Damn! Instinct had her checking down her bra. The notes were still there.  Joe had pushed them between her cleavage and told her in his slimy way that there was a bit extra for her trouble. Trouble? No money could compensate for the fear she felt at being in a forest alone and with a stranger lurking nearby.

Peering around as if searching for an answer as to what to do next, every part of her trembled. She felt sick. Oh God, why didn’t I take the longer route that Joe told me to?

Walking back the way that Joe had driven into the forest would have taken her to the lane, which would eventually have hit the main road. But she’d chosen to carry on along the track because it was a shorter route to Epping and the station.

Well, she could walk the long way now, couldn’t she? Just go, and forget what she’d seen. But even before this thought died, Gina knew she couldn’t do that. She’d have to try to help the kid. She’d have to try to catch up with the man and challenge him.

Afraid of every noise – the persistent owl, and the debris crackling under her feet; Gina made her way back. Passing the place where she’d hidden, she walked on towards the bend where he had disappeared from her view. Clambering out of sight, into the trees once more, the silence crowded her. Which way to go?  

A click had her turning her head. A tiny flame flickered in the distance. Not daring to move, Gina watched as the light died and then a smaller light glowed, and went duller, and then glowed again.

The drifting cloud uncovered the moon, its hazy beam, broken by many branches, outlined the tall, lean figure ahead. Something about him was familiar, and now she realised his voice had been too. A thought came to her who it was, but she dismissed this as impossible. If only she could see him properly. And, where was the kid, now?

Dropping his fag, the man ground it with his foot and moved off. His walk precise. A man on a mission. Gina jumped back behind the tree. The steps came nearer, the trodden dried foliage, sounding louder and louder. She held her breath. But his tread veered to the left. He was making for Joe’s car!

Within seconds the throaty, diesel engine roared into life. Headlights glared into every space around Gina. Clinging to the trunk she watched as the car sped the way she had been walking.  

Unsure of what to do, Gina stood a moment. Questions pounded her head. What had he done with the kid? Where was Joe? The idea came to her to call out, but if Joe was in on whatever was happening, he wouldn’t like to know that she had witnessed anything. You didn’t mess with the Joe Parrondski’s of this world. Better she went on her way and played innocent of knowing anything. If he asked, she’d say she’d done as he’d said and walked down the lane to the main road.

*

 

The blackness of the walls of the underground enclosed Gina as the train sped her towards home. How she’d made it to the station, she didn’t know. The lane had gone on for ever. She had blisters on top of blisters, and tiredness consumed her, but at least she felt safe. Leaning her head back she tried to ignore her throbbing feet and relax, but her mind knew no peace. The child’s pitiful whimper came back to her.

Why didn’t I call out there and then? I should have stopped the man and challenged him.

She knew why. Fear. She’d put her fear for her own safety above that of a child’s.

Feeling like the shit she thought herself to be, she gave her mind to Amy. Her own beautiful child. How distraught she would be if that had been Amy in that man’s arms! But then, trying to deny the horrors that pecked away at her, she allowed herself some comfort with the speculation that maybe the man was the child’s father. Maybe there was an innocent explanation?

None of this helped. The dread of hearing tomorrow that a child had been abducted weighed heavily on Gina. A tear ran down her cheek. Unchecked it traced a path through her thick make-up and plopped on to her breast.

Her life was a nightmare and it had just got worse.

 

Joe Parrondski, to all intense and purposes, was a respectable man. A business man who owned a string of jewellery shops. High class places that demanded you made an appointment to view. Joe was looked up to, but he’d dragged her down further than she’d wanted to go. Not that her life had been a bed of roses when she’d met him, but at least then she’d earned her living in an honest way. Granted, her nine to five in a cake shop hadn’t paid for much, but tax credits and housing benefit had helped her to get by.  

A legacy of rape, Amy was the only good thing to ever come into Gina’s life. She’d thought she’d hate her, and had planned an abortion, but at the time, she’d been told there were many more couples wanting to adopt, than there were available babies. This had stopped her getting rid, and given her the notion that her child could go to a good home and have all the chances she herself hadn’t had. One look at the tiny form had put paid to any idea of giving her away. She’d taken her baby back to her one room in a hostel in Soho.

Memories of her own childhood in and out of care homes and foster placements, had given Gina a determination to do whatever it took to keep Amy, and had led to her accepting all the help offered by the do-gooders. Eventually, they’d found her a flat in a tenement block in Stamford Street, owned by the Southwark Housing Association.

A rare night out in Soho, with her friend and neighbour, single mum of three, Zoe Feldon, had changed Gina’s life. Zoe, always flush with money, had treated Gina to a meal.

On a pub crawl afterwards, they’d bumped into Joe Parrondski. He’d stepped out of a restaurant in front of them. Zoe had introduced him. When Gina heard his name she was shocked that Zoe knew him. Not a handsome man, but one with presence, Joe’s bulk had barred their way. His piercing grey eyes had flicked from Zoe and swept over Gina in a way that had stripped her naked. Apprehension had gripped her, but had left her as his eyes had met hers. At that moment it was as if he’d possessed her. And yet, nothing about his physical appearance attracted her. Slightly overweight, and not much taller than herself, Joe’s features were square. His swarthy skin tone contrasted with his floppy, fair hair. His voice had a hint of an accent. He’d spoken to Zoe, but kept his eyes on Gina, ‘Something to make your evening more pleasant, Zoe.’ Without a murmur Zoe had taken the package, no bigger that a wrapped sweet.

‘And one for your friend.’

‘She don’t–’

‘Then introduce her to its delights. And bring her to the walk-up, later.’

Without another word Joe had turned from them and walked away.

Gina told Zoe: ‘No way. I’m not taking that stuff, and I’m not going to no fucking walk-up!’ She did both.

That night Gina learnt that Zoe was always flush with money because she worked in the walk-up in Brewer Street, prostituting herself.

That night Gina learnt that Joe Parrondski was ‘The Boss Man’ who came and went through a door connected to the property at the rear that housed a newsagent’s.

That night Gina learnt what real sex was. Joe Parrondski taught her.

That night, Joe Parrondski got her hooked on cocaine.

Waking up in her own bed the next day, Gina had no idea how she’d got there. All she knew was that she needed more of the same – the sex and the powder. Weed would never do it for her again.

Wrapped around the wad of twenty pound notes on her dresser she’d found a message. Take the underground to Epping tonight. I will meet you at the station at seven thirty. Inside the wad had been a small paper wrap.  

In those heady days of big bundles of cash and all the coke she needed, Gina had thought she was Joe’s girl. But she soon found that to continue to earn her money and her fix, she had to work in the walk-up as well as be at Joe’s beck and call. Joe had a fetish for sex in his car. Well, if he’s going to treat me like this, I’ll think twice about pandering to his whim! But even as she thought this, she knew there was no way that she could refuse him.

 

To accommodate their working hours, she and Zoe had fallen into a pattern of working alternate shifts so that there was always one of them taking care of the kids.

Hers was a shit life.

Yes, she had money now, and nice clothes for herself and Amy. And, Amy had everything she needed, but . . . Another tear trickled the same path as those that had gone before as Gina thought: If only I could go back in time.

Fifty-four minutes later, after changing from the Central Line at Bank, to the Waterloo and City Line, Gina arrived at Waterloo. Feeling weary beyond anything she’d felt before, she made her way home.

Headline news on the local radio bulletin the next day announced: ‘There is a mystery surrounding the whereabouts of local business man, Mr Joseph Parrondski. In the early hours of this morning his car was found outside the family’s Mayfair jewellery shop. The door was wide open and there were signs of a struggle having taken place. The police are appealing for witnesses. We will broadcast more details as and when we receive them.’

Gina waited. No mention was made of a missing child. 

From the pen of

SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER

MARY WOOD

A gripping Gangland Thriller

NOT FOR THE FAINTHEARTED