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Wicked

by

Stephen Collicoat

 

Five hours before, he was a happy man. Now Howard Dane was living a nightmare.

They had planned the day for some time. Nothing special. Just time for father and daughter to enjoy each other's company, free from the demands of his work and her study, exploring the Southland Shopping Centre.

'You look very sparky,' he greeted Eva when she joined him for breakfast.

'I feel great,' she smiled.

'Wouldn't you prefer to spend the day with your uni friends?' he teased. 'Some handsome young man perhaps?'

'You're my choice, Dad,' she kissed him lightly on the brow. 'Anyway, you can hardly talk. You should be on a date today. After all, it's been two years since Mum...,' her voice trailed off, then continued, 'Whatever happened to Susan Forbes? You guys were an item two months ago.'

'Hardly that,' he demurred. 'Now, are you sure you want to go to Southland? It's not too late to hire a boat from the Marina. I remember you used to love fishing.'

'There's no decent fish left in Port Phillip Bay,' Eva sniffed with all the certitude of a 17-year old. 'No, Southland's fine. Besides, it's your company I want. Window shopping's just an extra.

It was always like that. Did any man get on better with his daughter?

'Teenagers,' his secretary, Emily had scoffed. 'My two are hopeless. Absolutely uncontrollable. I sometimes wonder why I had them. Cheap champagne has a lot to answer for!'

'Eva's not like that,' Howard said defensively, hearing and disliking the trace of smugness in his voice. 'She's never given me a moment's trouble. In fact, I don't know what I would have done without her when Alice died.'

'Mark my words,' Emily persisted. 'She's too pretty to remain Daddy's little darling for long. She probably already has a secret lover. Believe me, I know. Girls that age can be very sly. I was the same.'

That wouldn't worry me,' Howard said, tiring of the conversation. 'So long as the boy is good to her and they love each other. She's had other boyfriends. I'm not as old fashioned as you think. I just hope she's careful.'

Seeing Emily about to comment, he hurried on. 'Can you bring me the Thornton papers? Where are we on issuing depositions?'

Howard wondered how detached he really was. How would he feel, for instance, if Eva asked if a boyfriend could stay overnight?

It hadn't happened. She dated, but they had only been casual affairs. For the last six months, noone seemed to share her life. Howard hoped this was because she was concentrating on study. He felt pleased she spent so many evenings at the university library.

Medicine, like Law in which he had majored was a tough course. Over half the new entrants didn't pass first year, with 40 per cent of the remainder flunking second. The last thing any first year med. student needed was the distraction of a passionate affair.

As they drove from Mentone to Southland, Eva asked, 'Dad, do you ever awake with the feeling that something tremendous was about to occur? That nothing after that would ever be the same?'

'Not for some years,' Howard admitted dryly.' It was a question that was to haunt him for many years.

They arrived at the centre shortly after the shops opened at 9.00 am. By mid-morning, Howard was tired.

'Let's stop for coffee,' Eva suggested. 'It'll put new heart in you.'

'Good idea. You can park me here while you look around.'

After drinks, Eva asked,' Now dad, are you sure you'll be alright?"

'Of course. I see a newspaper and some magazines on the rack. Go and enjoy yourself.'

'I'll be about a half an hour.'

'Don't hurry,' he said absently, taking down the newspaper and scanning the headlines.

Time passed. Howard ordered another coffee and continued reading. Finally, he pushed the paper and magazines aside and checked his watch.

He frowned. That's odd, he thought. An hour and a half had passed. Still, he reasoned, Eva had probably met some friends. Perhaps she was trying on clothes.

As the minutes dragged by, he became annoyed and concerned. Couldn't she have used her mobile to tell him she was delayed? It was unlike Eva to be so thoughtless.

He took out his mobile and checked the battery wasn't flat. then he punched in his daughter's number. The call was diverted to a message bank.

Howard cursed. Now he couldn't reach her.

He told the waiter where he was going in case she returned and began searching. Noone had seen Eva.

When he reached the car, his phone rang. He fumbled it hurriedly out of his pocket.

'Eva?'

There was a long pause. When she spoke, her voice was broken and fearful.

'Daddy?' It was as though she were a child again, not the proud, clever young woman he knew. 'Daddy, help me.'

'What is it Eva?' he asked in alarm. 'What's happened?'

'Two men took me away.' She broke off and he heard her crying. 'They're here now. They say if you don't do what they say, they'll hurt me.'

'I I don't understand,' Howard faltered.' Eva, don't worry. I promise I'll do everything needed. I love you. I...'

He was interrupted by a deep, masculine voice.

'Shut up and listen,' the voice ordered. Howard was given simple instructions. he was to withdraw $700,000 from his savings and bring it in an unmarked, brown paper parcel to the cafe where Eva and he had been drinking coffee. Howard was given three days to raise the money.

'Tell the cafe' owner that Mr. Green will be coming by to pick up the parcel.

'Don't try to contact the police,' the voice warned. 'If you do, we'll rape your daughter , then torture her to death. Do you understand?'

'Yes,' Howard whispered. The shock had drained him. Murderous anger would come later.

'Then do it! Pay the money and you'll see Eva again. Fail us and...' The speaker left the threat hanging in the air and hung up.

Howard stood beside his car, staring with horror at the phone. Oddly, amid his turmoil, the voice on the phone suggested some vague memory.

Within 24 hours, Howard Dane had raised the ransom.

He was not a wealthy man. For much of his early life, he had only short-term, casual work. It was only in his late thirties, that he began studying at night for a law degree. The degree completed, he gained his articles as a clerk in a suburban law firm. Howard met Alice Somerset when he handled some of the wash-up from her failed first marriage. They shared a spirit of independence and quirky sense of humour. After several dates, they fell in love. A year after their marriage, Alice gave birth to Eva, their only child.

The next 15 years were wonderful. One day however, Alice complained of terrible stomach pains. She died within six months, barely conscious most of the time, massive injections of morphine dulling the pain. Her death devastated Howard.

The Danes had carefully saved their money, planning for Howard's early retirement. Now nearly every cent was to paid as ransom.

How did they even know I had that sum of money? Was it a bank teller or perhaps a stab in the dark? Many thought every solicitor was rich.

Howard did exactly as he had been told. He withdrew cash from his superannuation account, sold all his shares and surrendered the units in his managed investment funds. Finally, he parcelled the money and took it to the cafe' where he left it for 'Mr. Green'.

He wondered as he left the parcel, if the cafe' owner knew what was happening, but decided it was unlikely. As he drove home, he realised that there was nothing now to stop the kidnappers killing Eva, if they hadn't done so already.

An hour later however, his front doorbell chimed and Eva stood there trembling.

'Oh Eva, Eva,' he sobbed with relief, drawing her inside. 'Are you alright? Should I call a doctor? Did they hurt you?'

It was as though the light had died within his daughter's eyes.

'No Dad,' she assured him quietly. 'They didn't do anything. They felt sure you would pay the money.'

'But who are they? Did you know them? Recognise a voice? There was something about the person who I spoke to...' He broke off, 'Now that you're safe, I'll call the police.'

Eva shuddered. 'Don't,' she begged. 'They said they'd come back and take me if you did. I don't know who are. When I left you, I wandered through the centre. I remembered I had left my mobile on the front seat of the car. I went to get it and was just closing the door when they grabbed me from behind. I was gagged and blindfolded, then thrown into some sort of van. I was driven about an hour to a home and remained blindfolded all the time until I was dropped off today at the top of our street.'

Howard wanted to ask more questions, but Eva began to softly cry.

'Tomorrow, Dad,' she promised.' I'll tell you anything else I remember when my head is clear. I must sleep.'

'Of course, darling,' he gently agreed. 'I'm sorry. I'm so happy you're here. You go to sleep. We'll talk in the morning. Nobody can harm you now.'

She paused anxiously by her bedroom door. 'You won't call the police will you?'

'We'll talk about it tomorrow,' he promised. 'I won't do anything until then.'

The next day, Howard looked in to find Eva sleeping soundly. He wrote her a short note, telling her breakfast was waiting and that he had decided to go to work to allow her to ease back into normal life.

On the short drive to the office, he wondered if he should have been there when she woke. At the same time, he felt a desperate need to bury himself in work. Much needed to be done. Eva was safe. If she needed him, she could easily phone. Anyway, he decided, it was better that he gave her plenty of space. She needed sympathy, not smothering.

Howard returned home at 6pm, which was earlier than usual. Opening the front door, he called her name. The house was quiet.

Panicked, he went from room to room, calling her name.

This can't be happening, he thought. I've done everything they asked. They wouldn't come back.

He went into her bedroom. It was empty, all the small, treasured items having gone. He opened the wardrobe and drawers of the chest. All were bare. The suitcase he bought her for last season's ski trip was also gone. Noone had taken Eva. She had left by herself.

Howard sank exhausted onto her bed, trying to understand what had happened.

He recalled the threatening voice and suddenly knew the answer. It was one of the things that Alice had noticed. Eva had only been five at the time. 'She's a wonderful mimic,' Alice had laughed. 'Did you hear the way she imitated your cousin, Vin? She's caught his voice perfectly. One day, Eva will become an actor.'

She hadn't displayed this gift for years and he had forgotten it. Now, he knew that he hadn't been speaking with a kidnapper, but with his daughter.

Feeling sick, he rushed to the bathroom and vomited. When he recovered, he phoned the police.

A week later, the sergeant who interviewed him, rang back.

'Mr. Dane, I have news on your daughter. The Queensland police have detained her on the Gold Coast.'

'How was she caught?'

'It was as you predicted. She was using some of the banknotes with the serial numbers you supplied. Actually, it wasn't just Eva that they took in. She had a boyfriend. He was a fellow med. student, named Paul Hoskins. Comes from a good background, but he's a nasty piece of goods. He committed a number of offences that his parents were able to quash. Mind you, the Queensland police believe that it was Eva, not Paul who planned the crime.'

'Have they spent all the money?'

'No, but it wouldn't have taken them long. They went through $200,000. Most of your money is safe and some they spent can be recovered.'

'So, where do we go from here?'

'Well, I need you to prosecute so we can arrest them. They'll then be extradited to Victoria to face charges. Her age may help, but extortion's a very serious crime.

'What a stupid, wicked thing to do,' the policeman added with surprising feeling. 'She's thrown her life away.'

'I won't prosecute,' Howard said. 'Set her free.'

'Are you sure, Mr. Dane?' There was no disguising the surprise and disapproval in the sergeant's voice. 'We can't go to trial without your evidence. She shouldn't get away with this.'

'That's my decision.'

'Very well,' the policeman sighed. 'We'll be in touch regarding the return of your money.'

A week later, Eva phoned.

'Dad,' she began. 'I'm so sorry. Paul's left me. It was all his idea. We need to talk.'

'I have nothing to say,' Howard replied.

He replaced the phone.

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