‘She’s been through a lot, you shouldn’t be so hard on her,’ Derek said. He and Penny were sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee. Tina was asleep on the couch, her face buried in the bunny toy she’d had since she was tiny. Derek’s heart caught in his throat: he hadn’t seen her cling to the toy like that in five years or more. Penny sighed, ran her hand through her hair.
‘How could she have been so stupid!’ she asked Derek for maybe the fiftieth time that morning. ‘First off, defying us, then dragging Annie into it, to share the blame, I suppose, then getting into a stranger’s car! How many times have we told them…?’
Derek covered his wife’s hand with his own. ‘She’s a kid. She made a mistake. She’s only eleven years old, remember.’
‘Annie’s only eight.’ Penny’s voice caught when she spoke of her youngest daughter, and she started crying again. Since she had opened the door to find Tina on the step, she seemed to have been either in a rage or in tears. ‘Where is she, Derek? Who has her?’
‘I don’t know, love, but the police will find her. They know what they’re doing. Tina told them everything she could, that’ll all help.’
‘I just want her home… she’s so little…’
‘I know, love, me too.’
‘She’ll be scared out of her wits…’
‘Mum? Dad? I’m sorry.’ Tina stood blinking in the kitchen doorway, fluffy bunny trailing behind her. Her father held his hand out to her and she crept into the circle of arms as the family huddled together and cried for their missing little girl.
By eight o’clock, the police were back in the house. There had been a car outside all night, but the men in it had given the family privacy. A different policewoman, this one out of uniform, was explaining her role in the investigation.
‘I’m Ruth Crinson,’ she told them, ‘and I’m your Family Liaison Officer.’ She smiled, aiming for reassurance. ‘Basically, I’m your link with the investigation and the outside world. I’ll keep you up to date with what goes on.’
‘Do you have any news for us now?’ asked Penny.
Ruth Crinson shook her head. ‘We’ve got people searching for the car, the abductor and Annie, but no-one has seen anything yet. We want to do a television appeal, if you’re up to it. We can get something on the lunchtime news. Getting the story out there can only help.’
‘Someone must know something.’
‘Exactly. Now, have you got any photographs of Annie that we could use?’
The morning wore on. People came and went. The doctor had been to check Tina over and declared her none the worse physically for her experience. Ruth Crinson wanted to talk to the girl again, to see if she had remembered anything that might help, and so Ruth, Penny, Derek and Tina took their seats around the kitchen table. Penny had made yet more tea and Tina was nursing a glass of apple juice.
‘Tina, I want you to tell me everything you remember about last night, absolutely everything. Just talk me through it as it happened. Okay?’
Tina nodded. ‘Okay.’ She started telling her story again, how she and Annie had pretended to their gran that they were really sleepy and wanted to go to bed early, then had put pillows under the covers so Gran would think they were in bed if she looked into the room. They sneaked out of the house, climbing out of the bedroom window onto the porch roof and then clambering down the drainpipe to the ground. They had walked to the Metro station, excited and giggling, and caught a train to Newcastle, then been swept up in the stream of people heading for the concert venue. CCTV would confirm timings: there were spots where the girls would have been caught on camera.
Tina told again about the concert finishing late, running to the Metro station to find that the last train to Sunderland had gone, catching the one to Heworth to get nearer home. ‘I didn’t have enough for a taxi,’ Tina told Ruth. ‘I bought t-shirts for me and Annie. They were expensive.’
‘What happened to the t-shirts?’ Ruth asked.
‘They must be in the man’s car. I left mine on the seat when I ran away.’
‘How did you get home after you escaped from the car?’
‘I recognised the road from driving along it with mum and dad. We go that way to Asda sometimes, or to Newcastle. I followed the road back home.’ She sneaked a look up at her mum. ‘It took a long time, because whenever I heard a car, I hid.’
‘Do you have a mobile phone, Tina?’
Tina nodded. ‘I lost it when I ran away. I dropped my bag.’
‘How come you didn’t ring for help when you were stranded? You could have called your parents or your gran. Why didn’t you do that?’
Tina took her time before answering. ‘I was scared to,’ she said eventually. ‘I knew we’d be in dead trouble.’ She flicked another glance at her mum. ‘I knew there’d be hell to pay.’ She sobbed, put her head down on the table. Derek stroked her hair.
‘That’s enough for now,’ Ruth said, recognising that the child had had enough. ‘We’ll talk more later.’
‘Will there be anything on CCTV from Heworth Metro station, do you think?’ asked Penny.
‘It’s possible. We’re checking that now. With a bit of luck, we’ll get a look at our man, maybe even get the car registration plate. That would be a massive help.’
Annie awoke to find the man leaning over her. She blinked and rubbed her eyes: she felt groggy and disorientated, didn’t recognise the room she was in, wondered where she was. The man had made her drink a mug of hot chocolate when they got back to his house the night before. It had made her go to sleep.
‘Good morning, Sarah. How are you today?’
‘I’m not Sarah,’ she told him. ‘I’m Annie. I want my mum.’
The man smiled and sat down on the edge of the bed. ‘No, child,’ he said to her. ‘You’re Sarah now. You have a new name and a new life.’ He stroked her hair. ‘You’re my little girl now, God’s precious gift, and I’m going to look after you properly. Not like those other people, letting you out on your own at night. Anything could have happened to you!’
Annie began to cry