The fallen tree had disrupted the whole neighbourhood on that morning after the storm. The few men not already at work had tried in vain to ease its trunk over to the side; they just needed enough of a gap to get a car through. Despite the weather people still had to get into work, mothers had to drive their kids to school and Trent had to go to college for an important exam. There was no way he was going to walk the seven miles through the drifting snow, but the tree was seemingly immovable and the small cul-de-sac remained blocked.
'What about Phelan’s pick-up truck?' Trent suggested. 'It's got a winch on the front and we could just drag the thing out of the way.'
The others looked at him, then down at the tree. Almost in unison they turned their heads in the direction of Phelan’s 1960s bungalow with its crumbling stucco, paint-peeled woodwork and shut-tight shutters making it look like an abandoned shack. The only sign of habitation was the brand new bright red Toyota pick-up truck standing proudly on the frozen driveway, wearing a fresh cloak of iced snowfall.
'I don't think he'd appreciate us disturbing him this early,’ said Mr Stevenson, the American ex-airman who managed Drakes shoe store in town. ‘He came home pretty wasted last night. I heard him a- hollerin’ and that started my dog a-howlin’ like a lone wolf.’
‘You can say that again,’ said Gillan. ‘He woke Mrs Gillan up and so she woke me up to complain about it, and I didn’t get back to sleep until after four.’
‘Maybe we could draw lots,’ said Andy Warren. ‘You know, to see who’ll wake him up.’
‘I don’t know if we should wake him at all.’ said Stevenson in his southern American drawl. ‘I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him unnecessarily. Iffin’ y’all know what I’m tryin’ to say here.’
Everyone knew what he was trying to say here, and there was an uncomfortable silence as if each man was calculating the odds of drawing the short straw.
‘I’ll go,’ said Trent, throwing down his shovel.
Stevenson placed his gloved hand gently on the young man’s forearm.
'Are you sure, kid?' Stevenson said, with a genuine look of concern. 'I mean, I’m fifty six but you're just a teenager with your whole life ahead of you.'
‘He’s just a man with a hangover,’ replied Trent. ‘How bad can that be?’
They stared after the young man as he hurried across the road to Phelan’s place. He stopped by the driver’s door of the Toyota, scraping some of the frost from the side window to peer inside.
‘It’s a shame he didn’t leave the keys in the ignition,’ Trent said loudly, almost shouting over to the men. ‘We could have borrowed it for ten minutes and he would’ve been none the wiser.’
‘Why not holler a bit louder, Rob,’ said Warren, in a hoarse-sounding whisper. ‘I don’t think they quite heard you over on the far side of town.’
The triple-glazed front door of Phelan’s place was coated in powdered snow, and the opaque glass resembled patterned ice frozen in a moment. Trent moved away from the concrete step and trod carefully along the icy path running down the side of the property towards the small rear garden. The red paint-flaked kitchen door was a few inches ajar, jutting inwards and seemingly wedged open. It needed a hefty push before it would open any further, and its warped wooden frame juddered as it rubbed against the outside step.
Trent stepped inside the house as quietly as possible, listening for any sign of its disagreeable tenant. He knew it was too early in the day for Phelan to be awake, way too early. He’d rarely seen him up and about before noon; usually getting into his truck before dashing off somewhere at break-neck speed.
The kitchen looked sparse and almost devoid of white-goods gadgetry and home comforts, but it seemed clean enough. A 1970s yellow Formica-topped pine table stood in the centre of the chessboard-patterned tiled floor, with four matching chairs neatly tucked-under like polite dinner guests. The American-style larder fridge looked even older, standing tall and wide and looking like someone had whitewashed a jukebox. Its long chunky chromed grab-handle tempted people to take a peek inside, and Trent pulled at it to reveal wire shelf after wire shelf of empty space. The moulded baby-blue plastic door pocket held a carton of milk and a bottle of fresh orange juice and below an opened pack of whole herring stared up at him from a broken salad drawer.
Trent pushed the door shut with a muffled thud, and moved cautiously into the hall, his eyes darting everywhere hoping to spot the Toyota’s keys hanging from a hook, or nestling in something used to dump things in. He put his head round the half-open door leading to the next room, which was illuminated by the gloom of the new day and smelled of stale beer, Indian takeaways and yesterday's socks. Trent caught the unmistakable whiff of a freshly lit cigarette and stopped dead as a grey-blue haze rose slowly towards the low ceiling from the antimacassar on an old-fashioned armchair, facing the window.
'She's in the bedroom,' a gruff invisible voice stated matter-of-factly.
'The girl, who d’you think?'
The figure belonging to the voice rose from the chair slowly, expelling a hard plume of cigarette smoke as he turned to face Trent. A double barrelled shotgun was cradled his arms like a sleeping infant.
'Don't worry, I'm not about to blast a cop to death for the sake of it,’ the figure assured him. ‘Especially not one who looks like he's just left school.'
Trent was just about to correct the man on this clear case of mistaken identity, when a strong natural leaning towards self-preservation kicked-in.
'I gave into temptation, always been my trouble,' said the man softly, before sucking on the cigarette as if his life depended on it. 'The bitch was giving me all the chat and signalling like a set of traffic lights, so I brought her back here.'
'In your truck?'
'We were hardly going to walk here through that blizzard.'
'Who is she?'
'Clara Frayne of course.'
The fifteen year old had been reported missing two days before following a row with her parents. According to TV news reports she'd been sighted in London, Brighton and even Benidorm but none had been confirmed. Police had been concentrating the search a little closer to home with both parents hauled in for questioning, along with her twenty year-old step-brother.
'So why d’you need the shotgun, Mr Phelan?'
'I was thinking of using it on myself,' he said with a wistful half-smile. ‘I’ve been thinking about nothing else since I found her dead, but it’s not easy.'
'What would be the point?' said Trent, feeling unusually bold. ‘Why not just put it down, you’re making me nervous.’
‘I think I’ll keep hold of it for the time being.’
‘Well at least point the thing down at the floor.’
‘Okay, but don’t try anything clever, these things have a habit of going-off.’
‘If the police know you’re armed, Phelan,’ warned Trent. ‘They might decide to bring in marksmen.’
‘Not with a hostage in tow, especially not one of their own.’
Trent stared at Phelan blankly for a moment or two, wondering why the man was so convinced that he was a police officer. He thought about pointing out to him that he was just a humble student, but as the gunman tightened his grip on the weapon the young man decided to keep his mouth shut.
'Is it okay if I see the girl?'
‘In the spare bedroom down the hall,’ said Phelan, sounding almost cheerful. ‘But don’t get any ideas about running off, I’ll be right behind you.'
A nude Clara Frayne lay on her back upon the bare blue-pinstriped mattress on a tatty-looking double divan. Trent’s legs trembled and his forehead burned hot as he looked down at the lifeless form. He wanted to do was to rush from the room and out of the house, but a glance over his shoulder confirmed that Phelan was true to his word. Standing in the doorway with the shotgun wavering in his grasp, he shook his head and sobbed.
‘They can’t blame me for thinking she was old enough,’ he said, almost choking on a smoke-filled whisper. ‘I mean, look at her. How old would you say she was?’
‘If you knew it was Clara then you must have known her age.’
‘Yes, but I didn’t know it was her, did I?’ Phelan protested. ‘Not until half an hour ago when I put the TV news on for the weather forecast and her picture came up.’
Trent knelt beside the bed and felt the girl's wrist for a pulse, but there was no sign of life. Her skin felt waxen and chilled and the merest touch made him feel nauseous.
Remembering similar scenes from a hundred Hollywood films, Trent pressed his fingertips against her neck but felt nothing. He rose to his feet and leaned right over the bed, placing his left ear gently to her chest.
‘She’s very cold,’ said Trent.
'What d’you expect, she's fucking dead,’ said Phelan angrily through his tears. ‘Don’t ask me how because I just don’t know, but she is and ……..’
Trent gestured with an outstretched hand for silence.
'No she isn't, be quiet, ' he said excitedly. 'How much did she have to drink?'
‘I don’t know, but she’d been putting it away way before I got there,’ Phelan mumbled in reply. ‘I had to pull-over a few times on the way home so she could throw-up.'
Trent grabbed the bedside phone and started to dial.
‘Put that down,’ said Phelan, jabbing the shotgun towards him almost as if it had a bayonet attached.
‘Take it easy,’ said Trent, replacing the receiver gently and fanning both hands to try and calm the man down. ‘I just wanted to call an ambulance, but the line’s dead.’
‘It must have been the storm,’ said Phelan. ‘But an ambulance would never make it all the way out here anyway, the B-roads are nigh on impassable.’
‘I suppose not, but I bet your Toyota would so where are the keys?'
Two minutes later Phelan emerged from the front door of the bungalow and climbed in behind the wheel of the pick-up truck. He pulled the vehicle off the drive and manoeuvred it over to the fallen tree before clambering out and squatting by the front bumper. The other men stood around in silence and watched as Phelan deftly encircled the trunk with the winch cable, before starting the motor. Within minutes, the tree had been dragged almost effortlessly across a fresh fall of snow to the side of the road.
'The kid really wasn't scared of Phelan,' said Stevenson, leaning on his shovel. ‘If it wasn’t so damned cold I’d take my hat off to him.'
'Well come on everybody,’ ordered Gillan. ‘Let's get out of here before he changes his mind and drags the thing back.'
The neighbourhood onlookers dispersed, and after disconnecting the cable Phelan reversed the Toyota back up the drive almost to his front door. Disappearing inside the building he re-emerged moments later with Trent, carrying the girl between them. She was wrapped in every sheet and blanket the young man could find, and together they placed her carefully in the open flatbed load area of the pick-up.
As Phelan bumped the vehicle along rutted snow-covered country lanes towards Bristol, Trent sat alongside the girl in the back. He patted the stock of the shotgun, now concealed in a bed sheet beside them.
The two uniformed police officers led the hand-cuffed Phelan away from the hospital entrance to a waiting car. He glanced back at Trent and nodded curtly, and the young man smiled at him reassuringly before turning to face the detective inspector. The policeman handed Trent a vending machine cup of coffee before lighting a cigarette.
‘I’m sorry, but my budget wouldn’t run to champagne, Mr Trent,’ said the inspector, exhaling into the mid-morning sky. ‘You deserve a case of the stuff after bringing in both the girl and her abductor.’
‘I don’t think Phelan meant to abduct her, inspector,’ Trent replied, warming his hands gratefully on the hot cup.
‘You don’t?’ said the policeman, his smile vanishing in an instant. ‘And what gives you that idea?’
‘He’s just a lonely bloke who went out for a drink and some drunken young woman came on to him, big time.’
Trent had just introduced an unpleasant shade of grey into the policeman’s straightforward world of black and white, and he didn’t seem to like it one bit.
‘Fifteen is hardly a young woman.’
‘No, but she looks older.’
The detective shook his head with a knowing smile.
‘If I had a quid for every time I’d heard…’
‘She looks eighteen or nineteen at least,’ Trent interrupted.
‘Well, thankfully that’s not for us to debate,’ replied the detective dismissively. ‘But at least the poor girl survived her ordeal, thanks to you.'
'I didn’t do a thing.'
‘Come now, Mr Trent, you saved her life.’
‘Not really, I was only interested in saving mine.’
‘I don’t quite follow.’
‘I thought she was dead.’
‘My best chance of getting out of that house alive was to convince Phelan that she wasn’t.'
'Taking a bit of a risk, weren't you?'
'Staring down the wrong end of a shotgun was a bigger one.'
'I suppose so, but how did you manage it?’
‘We had a lecture at college recently about drug and alcohol abuse,’ said Trent, sipping at his coffee and wincing at the taste. ‘So armed with the most basic of knowledge, I was able to convince Phelan that Clara was showing all the classic signs of alcohol poisoning.’
‘Good for you.’
‘Then when he realised he may not be facing a murder or a manslaughter charge after all, well, he couldn't have been more helpful.'
‘I don’t suppose you’ve ever thought about a career in the police have you, son?'
'Not really,’ replied Trent. ‘I’m studying to hopefully practice law, inspector, not enforce it.’
'You could do worse.'
‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I could do a lot better as well.'