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Stranger Child

By´╝ÜRachel Abbott

Prologue

Another ten minutes, and she would be safely home.

Caroline Joseph gave a shudder of relief that the long journey would soon be over. She never enjoyed driving at night and always felt slightly out of control. Each pair of approaching headlights seemed to draw her towards them, their white light illuminating the car’s interior as she gripped the steering wheel, struggling to point the car straight ahead.

Not long now, though. She was looking forward to giving Natasha a warm bath, a mug of hot chocolate, and tucking her up in bed. Then she could devote the remnants of the evening to David. Something was troubling him, and Caroline thought that maybe if they settled in front of the fire with a glass of wine when Natasha was asleep, she might be able to coax the problem out of him. It had to be something to do with work.

She glanced in her rear-view mirror at her precious daughter. Tasha was six – or six and three-quarters, as she liked to boast – although her slight frame made her appear younger. Her pale blonde hair fell in soft waves to her shoulders, and her delicate features were bathed intermittently in yellow light as they passed each streetlamp. Her eyes were closed, and Caroline smiled at how peaceful she looked.

Today Tasha had been her usual sweet-natured self, playing happily with her young cousins while the adults scurried around doing Caroline’s father’s bidding. He had issued one of his edicts – this time declaring that Caroline, along with her siblings and their families, must come for a pre-Christmas dinner. As usual, everybody had obeyed. Everybody, that is, except David.

The turnoff to the lanes leading to their house was fast approaching, and Caroline took a final glance at Natasha. Once they were off the main road and away from the brightly lit shop windows and the amber glow of the tall streetlamps, the back of the car would be in dark shadow. She had slept for most of the journey, but was beginning to stir.

‘You okay, Tasha?’ Caroline asked. The child just murmured in response, not quite awake enough to answer as she rubbed her eyes with her knuckles. Caroline smiled. She braked slightly and changed gear to take the turning. All she had to do was get through the last couple of miles of this journey along the narrow, hedge-lined lanes, deep in darkness, then she could relax. She felt a flash of irritation towards David. He knew she hated driving at night, and he could have made the effort – for Natasha, if not for her. They had both missed him today.

A sudden movement to her left caught Caroline’s eye, and her head spun towards it, her heart thumping in her chest. An owl swooped low over the hedgerows, its white breast catching the full beam of her headlights, bright against the black sky. She let out a breath.

There was no moon, and the black tarmac on the narrow lanes that led to their home was glinting with fragments of frost. Everything around her seemed perfectly still, as if the world had come to a stop, and now that the owl had fled she was the only thing still moving. Caroline knew that if she opened her window there would be no sound other than the quiet hum of her engine. There was no light at all ahead or behind, and for a moment her natural fear of the dark threatened to swamp her.

She leaned forwards and switched the radio on at a low volume, reassured by the jolliness of the predictable festive songs. She would be sick of the sound of them soon, but right now their cheery ordinariness relaxed her.

She smiled as the phone on the seat by her side started to ring. Certain that it would be David asking when she would be back, she barely glanced at the screen, but at the last moment she saw the call was from a blocked number. She prodded the screen and cancelled the call. Whoever it was could wait until she got home. She steered one-handed round a sharp bend as she placed the phone back on the seat, and the car slid a little on the frosty road. She felt a small jolt of fear. But the car held, and she breathed again.

Caroline took the next few bends cautiously, but her tense shoulders relaxed as she came to a brief stretch of straight road with tall hedgerows shielding deep ditches on either side. Caroline leaned closer to the windscreen, peering into the night. Her headlights were picking up a darker shadow – something in the lane ahead. She braked slightly and changed down a gear, slowing in anticipation.

She dropped down to second gear to approach the obstruction, finally recognising in horror that it was a car, slewed sideways across the road, its front wheels buried in the ditch on the right-hand side of the road. She thought she could see a shadow inside, as if somebody was slumped over the steering wheel.

As Caroline crawled slowly towards it, her heart suddenly thumping, she pushed the button to lower her window. It looked like somebody needed help.

The phone rang again.

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