“What time is it?” Ellie Kirkwood had been unable to keep track of time since her abduction.
Every Sunday at exactly 07:30am, Ellie would leave her first floor flat in Temple House and complete a 5 mile run. The route was simple enough, taking her out of the cul-de-sac of large Victorian houses, all of which were now converted to flats, and across the main road and onto the canal towpath. Exactly 2.5 miles along the towpath was a bridge where Ellie would cross and run back along the other side.
Sunday 25th July was no different. The alarm awoke her at 07:07am and she briskly got out of bed and into her jogging gear, being sure to pick up her ipod from its position by the window where it was on charge and filling her water bottle. Although Ellie lived alone, she was conscious of the fact that at 07:20am on a Sunday, most people would still be tucked up in bed. So she was especially quiet when exiting her flat onto the first floor landing. She did not want to disturb Mr. Hardy upstairs, who she knew worked nights at the city’s landfill site; nor did she want to wake the elderly Mrs, Carvalho whose door she would have to creep past in the hallway downstairs to leave the building. They were the only people living in Temple House; although there was a basement flat available, it had not had a tenant since Ellie had moved in 6 months ago.
Ellie had considered making sufficient noise to wake Mr. Hardy, as he never seemed to bother being as conscientious when he would return from his shift at dawn. But, she didn’t want any confrontation with him or run the risk of waking Mrs Carvalho, especially because she had been so nice to her.
She would have mentioned the noise to Mr. Hardy was she ever to see him, but it was unlikely that their paths would cross. He gave her the creeps. There was no real reason for it, but Ellie did wonder if her first impression of Mr. Hardy had given her cause to be wary of him. When Ellie had first moved in she had encountered Mr. Hardy on the stairs, as he returned from working in his workshop in the garden and she was leaving for work. She had extended her hand and said hello, only to be greeted with a grunt and no eye contact as Mr. Hardy brushed quite forcefully past her. Rather taken aback, Ellie had always listened at her door for footsteps on the stairs before leaving her flat so she would not bump into him again. Her tactic had worked so far.
Something about Mr. Hardy was intimidating: he was a hulking, imposing man, unkempt with dark hair, greying at the sides and thinning on top and a growth of stubble that seemed to spread from beneath his dark eyes and across his wide face and double chin, meeting perfectly with the dark tufts of hair protruding from his t-shirt and, once fluorescent, now dirty, overalls. He walked with a stoop, but still looked well over 6 feet tall. Ellie guessed that he was in his late forties, but apart from seeing him on the stairs that one time; she had only viewed him from afar either going to or coming from his workshop.
Mrs Carvalho, who Ellie still could not call Rosa, despite Mrs Carvalho’s constant requests, was quite the opposite. She was small and frail in stature, with grey hair swept back from her dark, weathered face into a tight bun. Ellie suspected that Mrs Carvalho owned the house, as she had interviewed Ellie, discussed the tenancy details and agreed the rent. The rent was also paid in cash only to Mrs Carvalho who claimed she was just managing the property for the landlord who lives abroad. Ellie assumed it was a tax scam, but to get a flat in such a nice area of the city for such a small price, it was worth turning a blind eye to a little old lady making some cash in hand. Mrs Carvalho was originally from Portugal, although she moved to England in the 1960’s she still talked with a flamboyant Portuguese accent and dressed like she belonged on a postcard from the Greek islands; always in black. Mrs Carvalho had greeted Ellie on her first day with a warm roasted vegetable pie and had gone on to provide Ellie with many more homemade snacks and meals. Ellie had felt a connection with Mrs Carvalho straight away, as though she was the grandmother she had never had and perhaps that was why Ellie could not become familiar enough with her to call her Rosa.
Mrs Carvalho was vivacious in character and would gesticulate wildly to accompany and punctuate her pigeon English phrases. Ellie suspected that Mrs Carvalho laid the accent on a bit thick to keep herself interesting and eccentric, but as she was the only person Ellie would consider a friend, it was of no consequence. Mrs Carvalho did not think too highly of Mr. Hardy either. “He is fat. He is rude. He smells!” she would break into a chortle as she finished and wave one hand in front of her face while the other held her nose.
Ellie would stop in for tea at Mrs Carvalho’s at least twice a week. Ellie wasn’t sure how it started or how it became such a regular thing, but it was a welcome distraction from her work and her non-existent social life.
Ellie had been a solitary person for much of her life; abandoned as a baby (she was named by the nurses who gave her last name as the Kirkwood estate where she was found) but neither adopted nor able to trace her biological parents, she had moved from care home to care home until she turned 18 and found herself a job in the city. Moving around so much, coupled with the ever-changing care home personnel and residents had made it impossible for Ellie to make friends. The regular visits from prospective parents through her early childhood became much more sporadic as she got older and the realisation that she would reach adulthood before she would be adopted sank in slowly and formed a low sense of self esteem.
It was hot in the box. Ellie had felt her way around in the pitch darkness as best she could; there was hardly room to move from her position bent double in the box. It was a wooden box, she could recognise the texture, but she was unable to find where the lid to the box might be or find any source of light that might help her see where she was or to check that she was ok. She felt ok; a little woozy at first which made her wonder if she had been hit on the head, but she could feel no bruising and she felt physically fine and untouched. She was hungry which gave her no indication of how long she may have been in the box, as she always felt hungry following her run. Her ipod had gone, which would have supplied a source of light at least, but she was otherwise fully clothed. She held her breath to listen for sounds, but heard nothing.
Getting the job, albeit as a receptionist for a relatively small car and van rental company had given Ellie a boost and she had seen this as a new chapter in her life where she would put down roots, gain friends and begin to enjoy herself and feel good about herself. That’s why she took up jogging. She had always been a little overweight and not being able to afford a gym membership made her come up with an exercise regime that would help her lose weight and gain confidence. She had already lost several pounds, not that anyone had noticed yet.
The great hopes for the future had taken some hits along the way. Her work colleagues had not taken to her at all and she was largely ignored throughout her working day unless work details forced one of them to talk to her. Her new flat, although lovely, stretched her wages to a point where she could barely afford to eat, let alone socialise in the thriving bar scene. Which she guessed was ok, as she would have been drinking alone anyway.
Aside from Mrs Carvalho, Ellie’s only other acquaintance was Jill, a lady who ran a book stall on the market, who Ellie had encountered many times. Jill had said that Ellie was the most fervent reader she had ever known. Ellie’s secluded nights in consisted of a seat by the window, a good book and a glass or two of red wine. Jill and Ellie often exchanged pleasantries and talked about which books they had liked and why. It wasn’t much of a friendship, but it was good to talk to someone about a subject she cared so much about.
Ellie had tried screaming at first. She had been listening intently for sounds or movement and she thought she could hear a faint sound of a car alarm, but it was too distant to be sure. She was certain that she must not be alone; she felt that there must be someone outside the box. She tried begging and pleading and even hurling insults, but none provoked a response. Her position and her anxiousness had caused her to panic, which led to heavy breathing and hyperventilation which had made her extremely dizzy, almost to the point of passing out. She cast her mind back to try to understand what had happened.
Warm sun greeted her when she left the house. An early morning where direct sunlight offered warmth and shade seemed bitterly cold lay ahead of her. She pressed play on her ipod and began her warm up: a brisk walk to the end of the road. As usual, she saw no one on her run. It was too early for dog walkers and people heading to the shop for a Sunday paper. As a self-conscious jogger, Ellie liked to run when it was quiet. She had attempted a run one Friday evening; to take her mind off all of the people going out for the night, but it actually made things worse. People were queuing at the bus stop, dressed for a night out; laughing and joking; and the chip shop and the pizza place threw out wickedly delicious and equally nauseas smells. It put Ellie off her pace and made the run and subsequent night reading unbearable.
After crossing the main road and reaching the canal towpath, Ellie had adjusted the volume on her ipod and begun her run in earnest. The music had seemed a little lacklustre and began to fade. Ellie realised that, although she had diligently plugged her ipod into her charger, she had failed to switch the plug on. Ellie left the music to fade and be replaced by her breathing and the pounding of her trainers on the canal path.
Ellie hated running without music. Music seemed to help her focus and develop a running and breathing rhythm without being conscious of it. Without music her mind wandered from it’s usual flights of fancy to consider her pace and whether she was blowing out or sucking in air at the right intervals. This made her pace and breathing fluctuate.
She tried to remember if she had seen anyone on the towpath. No; there was no one. It was so rare to see anyone that she was sure she would have noticed if anyone had been there. She had felt that she was huffing and puffing already and that it was not going to be one of her good runs. She smelt a whiff of pollen and floral tones and made a mental note to take her hay fever pill when she got home. She drank from her water bottle and tried to focus on her pace and rhythm. She found herself humming a tune in an effort to get her rhythm back. It felt like a struggle to reach the bridge.
She had stopped at the bridge gasping and her hands rested on her knees as she tried to regain some composure. Her head tilted back and the sun warmed her face as she made her way up the steps, drinking heavily from her water bottle. The water tasted a little funny; she made another mental note to use filtered water from now on and to wash the bottle properly, rather than just rinsing.
The water; was she drugged? How could she have been unless the whole flat’s water supply had been contaminated?
She felt dizzy and staggered down the steps to the other side of the canal. Her eyes struggled to stay focused on the path ahead of her. Her vision was reminiscent of an action movie she had seen, where it was all filmed using hand held cameras to bring the action closer. It was disorientating. She clung onto the wall for support before falling to the ground.
In the darkness she closed her eyes. She could not remember seeing anything more than the towpath on which she was now fully laid upon stretching out ahead of her. But she had heard footsteps. Heavy footed; with a hollow sound, like oversized steel toe-capped workman’s boots. The view of the towpath turned to blackness. Was it a blindfold or a hood? Her sense of feeling and touch had deserted her; something she had read was a side effect of date-r*pe drugs.
More sounds followed. A grunt: a male grunt; from the effort of picking her up from the floor. Steady irregular footsteps from the same boots accompanied by soft thuds; her feet knocking against the steps as she was dragged up them. A van door sliding open, further grunts of effort and the same van door sliding shut. There were more shuffling sounds and what sounded like a heavy piece of wood moving across the floor. The noise came from over head and Ellie realised she had been placed straight into the box. The lid was hammered shut. 12 nails, at least. Ellie passed out before the hammering stopped.
She smelled sweaty. She must have cooled and reheated, although her running gear had seemed to have smelled a little lately; no big deal when you run on your own. The air in the box was acrid and hot. She had found it more difficult to focus and was breathing heavily. She wondered if the box might be air tight.
Her body ached. Her feet were numb from the position she was in. She sobbed weakly. She’d cried herself dry within minutes of awaking and realising she was trapped. She had little emotion left to offer than despair and resignation.
When her eyes had first strained at the darkness and searched the box for a source of light she had wondered not only how this happened, but why. She thought of episodes of crime documentaries and movies, but could think of no reason why anyone would choose to abduct her. She felt that she was inconsequential; a “plain Jane”, but one with no hope of the makeover that would set boys hearts a flutter. Chubby with a heart-shaped face stamped with a small hook nose and two sunken eyes with dark circles beneath she looked much older than her 18 years. She was genuinely frightened of social situations which made her demeanour and dress indistinct. People often forgot her name within minutes of meeting her. Ellie was pleased, rather than jealous that she had no invitations for work nights out, even the work experience girl got that and she was only there for a week. Nothing; nothing made her think she was worth abducting.
It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that she had been taken at random. It wasn’t unheard of. But what chance would it take for her abductor to be looking for a victim at exactly the point of her run where she had stopped, feeling dizzy? How could someone have drugged her other than within her water? And that water bottle was sat in her house all night because she filled it herself the previous evening; unless, someone had been inside her flat during the night. In the cop shows, murders are usually by someone the victim knows. Ellie thought quickly about the people she knew: it was a short list.
No one spoke to her at work. The mechanics kept away from reception and she kept away from the garage. Her boss, Mr Wilcox, barely spoke to her other than to check that everything was going ok and, other than that, there were only the customers. None of which were regular or particularly memorable. Aside from work and the book stall, Ellie only ever spent time at home. Her thoughts turned to Mr Hardy.
Following her first encounter with Mr. Hardy, Ellie had always been curious about him. She often noticed the light on in his workshop late at night at weekends whilst she sat reading. Mrs Carvalho said that he made chicken coops, but Ellie had never seen Mr. Hardy take anything to or from the workshop. Mr. Hardy was as much of an enigma to Mrs Carvalho; she did not know his first name; all his correspondence came addressed to Mr Hardy and she knew nothing much of where he had come from.
“Hardy is his name; that is all I know. He pays his rent on time. He works the night shift at the dump. Always he work the night shift. And he pay extra to use the workshop for his chicken houses. I never go in there. I care not for chicken’s houses. Oh! And he shops at Morrisons…I see the bags!”
Mrs Carvalho would laugh and pat Ellie on the arm when she said something that she knew was amusing and caught Ellie off-guard, like the time she called the postman “a sexy boy”. Her laughter would fill the room.
Mr Hardy wore workman’s boots. Mr Hardy had a van. Mr Hardy had a workshop where he could make and store a box without anyone knowing. Ellie tried to be calm, “Mr Hardy? Is that you Mr Hardy?” Silence; apart from that same distant car alarm. “Please Mr Hardy, I can’t breathe in here!” Silence. “Mr Hardy?” Her voice wavered and she whimpered quietly. She found she was wheezing slightly. She mustered up all of her strength and screamed “MR HAAARRRDDDYYY!!”
Seagulls squawked as they raced across the huge landfill site full of waste, drowning out any sound that Ellie may have forced through the walls of her box and the many feet of rubbish that it was buried under. Their regular, high-pitched hoots resembled a car alarm from afar.
Mrs Carvalho looked at her kitchen clock; 11:15am. She stirred the loose tea in the pot and replaced the tea cosy. She set aside the strainer and the cups and saucers for two alongside a plate of biscuits. The front door slammed and she listened to heavy footsteps make their way along the hallway. They shuffled to a stop at her flat door. She instinctively pulls the top of her cardigan together in a white-knuckled clench with her right hand as her left hand helps her steady herself by gripping the top of a chair. Holding her breath she heard a key slide into her front door and felt the draft as the door opened and then closed quietly. Her eyes fixed on the kitchen door as it pushed gently open. Mr. Hardy stood in the doorway with a fiendish look in his eye and a smirk on his lips. In a swift movement he reaches forward and grabs Mrs Carvalho by the forearm, pulling her towards him. He kisses her roughly and she responds in kind with small moans of pleasure.
With the tea stewed, Mrs Carvalho poured each of them a cup as they both sat at the table: A picture of domestic bliss.
“When you gonna clear the flat? I have put the “for rent” notice up.” asked Mrs Carvalho, between sips of tea.
Mr Hardy reached across to take a biscuit from and dunked it in his tea.
“I’m going to start right now. It took a long time to sell the last tenant’s stuff, especially the bits I had to break up to sell as scrap. Perhaps we should wait a while before we get a new tenant in.” He wolfs down his biscuit in two swift bites.
“Don’t be silly. All she has is books. Is books!”
They smiled and sipped their tea. Mr Hardy reached for another biscuit to dunk.