Hidden Agenda

Read the first chapter of Hidden Agenda:




PROLOGUE



Sarah breathed a relieved sigh as she dropped into the passenger seat of Danny’s car. It was the end of a very long week at the radio station where she worked alongside Danny. She was one of the people who worked behind the scenes, writing the DJs’ scripts. She loved her job, but every now and then, a DJ’s barbed, sarcastic jibe got to her. If they weren’t slapping her backside as she passed, they were making lewd and improper comments about her larger-than-average breasts. She had complained to her male boss numerous times in the last few months alone, but he had just waved away her complaints, telling her she should accept that it was part of the job.

For over a year, she’d been on the lookout for a new job within the industry she loved, but no one seemed to be hiring. With Brexit looming ever nearer, the economy was so unstable that employers feared a recession was inevitable.

Danny was different from the others, though. He was thoughtful and considerate, and he always treated her like a lady whenever she was within earshot. She’d never heard him speak in a derogatory manner towards any of his female colleagues. He just wasn’t like that. With her car in the garage for repairs, Sarah had mentioned needing to get a taxi home from work, and Danny had graciously offered to give her a lift. His kindness meant that Sarah didn’t have to wait in a long queue to hop on a bus. Plus, she hated all forms of public transport.

He slipped behind the steering wheel and smiled. “Sorry about that. Tim wanted a final word on the project we’ve been working on.”

“No problem. Thanks again for giving me a lift home, Danny. I know it’s going out of your way. I feel guilty about that, but appreciative nonetheless.”

He waved a hand in front of him. “It’s only a few minutes out of the way. I’m happy to lend a hand when I can. You know that. No idea what the traffic is going to be like on your side of town at this time of night, though.”

“It should be okay.” At five twenty, the traffic was usually beginning to die down from the manic rush hour. She hoped that was the case this evening because she hated to think she’d delayed Danny too much after his kind gesture. “Any plans for this evening?”

“Not really. I’ll pick up a takeaway on the way home and settle down to a few cans of beer whilst listening to a few albums, I suppose. Same old thing. What about you?”

“What would you men do without having a takeaway of choice available on every conceivable corner? Me? I’m going to have a long soak in the bath with a bottle of wine and heat up a portion of chicken casserole I had yesterday. Exciting, right?”

 They both chuckled. “It’s about as exciting as my life gets. No man on the scene at the moment then, Sarah?”

“No. Not since I kicked Gary out a few months ago. I’m better off alone, if I’m honest. Only having myself to answer to when I want to do something. I really don’t understand why people have to change so much when they enter into a relationship. Do you?”

Danny paused before answering. “I’ve never really thought about it before. It’s been a while since I’ve been in that predicament.”

Sarah laughed. “Predicament? Never thought of a relationship in those terms before. You know what? I think you’re right—you’re spot-on, in fact. A relationship is more like a predicament than a genuine coming together of minds. It’s very rare that people don’t have to make sacrifices when they enter into a relationship with a partner. I think that gets even worse once a wedding ring is slipped on your finger. Oh gosh—hark at me! Sorry for boring you with my ideas. Not everyone analyses life like I do.”

“I think it’s refreshing to hear different people’s perspectives on things: life, relationships, work. Go for it. Talking about work, did you get that nasty business with Ryan sorted?”

Sarah fell quiet before she answered, “As sorted as it’s going to be, I guess. I suspect the boss thought I was exaggerating a bit. I suppose Ryan is the big star at work, and I’m just a menial compared to him. I can understand the boss taking his word in that instance.”

Danny struck the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. “That’s so unfair. What the hell is Harry thinking about? You have a voice and deserve to be heard. Crap, you’d think everyone would be more vigilant in our business after all the high-profile sex charges that have been highlighted in recent years. Oh God, listen to me. I’m sorry for sounding so angry. It just really pisses me off that cretins like Ryan can treat women so appallingly and get away with it.”

Sarah placed her hand over his. “Thank you for defending women’s honour so vehemently. Lord knows what would happen if the tables were turned and women started sexually harassing men at work. Actually, scrub that. I reckon you guys would be in your element, lapping up all the attention.” Sarah laughed.

“I fear you could be right about that. Strange, isn’t it? The gender differences, I mean. When a girl is harassed, they scream blue murder, and when a bloke is touched up by a woman, he revels in it, deeming it to mean that his luck is in.”

“You know the saying about men being from Mars? I happen to think that’s a fair analogy. We are totally different, and anyone who denies that needs their head read in my opinion. Sorry, take the next on the right. My flat is halfway down the street.”

“I do think you have something there. Looking at my own mother and father’s relationship—crikey! That would be enough to put off anyone who was considering diving into marriage. Maybe that’s why I’m still single at thirty.”

Sarah smiled. “Nah, you just haven’t met the right person to settle down with yet. You will, one day. I’m confident about that.”

“I’m glad you are.” He smiled, pulling up outside the semi-detached house which was divided into two flats.

“Thanks so much, Danny. You’ve been a lifesaver. Well, maybe that was a tad over the top, but you know what I mean.”

“Maybe we could go out with a drink after work sometime?”

 She leaned over to kiss his cheek then left the vehicle, bending down she said, “You’re such a sweet guy, to be honest with you, I think there’s every chance Gary and I might get back together.” I hope he doesn’t realise I’m lying, not sure I’m ready to start dating again just yet.

“No worries. See you Monday,” he shouted before she slammed the car door shut.

Sarah stood in the glare of the streetlight, gave him the thumbs-up, and waved him off before she ran up the steps to her front door. Letting herself in, she shuddered in the hallway. The house dated back to the 1930s, and the hall felt chilly as she walked its length to the kitchen. The cost of heating the place was exorbitant, so she and her flatmate, Jane, had agreed they would only put the heating on once they were both at home for a few hours in the evening. Jane, a nurse on a women’s ward, was due home in an hour or so.

Entering the kitchen, Sarah made a beeline for the gas cooker. She lit the large front burner and hovered her hands over it for a few minutes, until the warmth penetrated her body. Then she walked through to the bathroom to run a bath. Thinking she’d caught a motion near the front door, she halted in the hallway. Realising what she’d thought was the outline of a person was only shadow, Sarah shook her head.

In the bathroom, she poured a big dollop of lavender foam bath into the tub. She walked into her bedroom to gather her pyjamas and towelling robe, which she deposited in the bathroom before returning to the kitchen where she filled a glass from a newly opened bottle of Chardonnay.

The next fifteen minutes were spent in the bath, sipping her glass of wine and listening to a Bee Gees CD she’d dug out of her collection. I better get out before I start resembling a dried prune. After towelling herself dry, she dipped into her bedroom to blow-dry her hair. Unsure whether she heard the doorbell ring or not, she switched off the hairdryer and tilted her head. Then it rang again.

“God, what is it now? Some Jehovah’s Witness or someone else just as annoying, no doubt.” Tightening her robe, she called out, “Just a minute!”

She opened the door, only to find no one was there. Tutting loudly, she began to close it again, but before the door could reach the jamb, someone jumped out from the shadows and rammed it open. She toppled backwards with the force, banging the back of her head on the wooden dado rail halfway up the wall. Her head instantly felt as though it belonged to someone else, and her vision became virtually non-existent as she felt the intruder gather her into his arms. She heard him muttering how beautiful she was before the front door slammed and he flicked the catch to lock it.

Weakly, she attempted to wriggle out of his arms, but bile crept into her mouth. Unable to contain the contents of her stomach, she vomited over her intruder and heard him curse. He wound his way through the flat to her bedroom and threw her on the bed. Frustration rose from her toes as she tried to sit up several times, failing and falling back against her pillow each time. Feeling vulnerable, she was desperate to secure her robe around her middle, but her limbs failed to cooperate, and she couldn’t locate the belt. My God, why is he doing this? I have to get out of here.

“Relax. You’re going to enjoy this.” His singsong voice confused her.

She had to put up some kind of fight, but the room was spinning, the man’s image was a blur, and she constantly felt as though she was going to vomit again. Her arms and legs felt like they didn’t belong to her, either. If there truly is a God up there, please help me.

His torso blocked out the light above, and she blinked several times, trying to clear her vision. Then she felt him tugging at the buttons on her pyjamas. She closed her eyes as if summoning up enough strength to begin her fight. She screamed, long and hard, hoping this would deter him. If anything, his hands became more violent in their mission.

For the first time, she noticed he was wearing a mask, a balaclava. “Please, please, don’t hurt me. I have money. Take my credit card! I’ll give you the PIN number. I have a couple of thousand in the bank. It’s yours—just please don’t hurt me.” Even to her own ears, her words sounded slurred.

His laugh ridiculed her words. “It’s not your money I want. It’s you.”

“Please… please don’t do anything that you’ll regret,” she begged, her voice sounding distant. 

His hand struck her face. She yelped as the pain sent a message to her fuzzy mind that he’d struck her. She didn’t have the strength to fight him. Her limbs appeared to have a life of their own, otherwise she would have kicked out at him or kneed him in the groin, as her self-defence instructor had told her to do in such circumstances. Instead of finding the strength to fight him off, she succumbed to an overwhelming tiredness.

“Please, I’m begging you, don’t do this,” she mumbled.

He laughed again and proceeded to tug at her clothes. Her legs and arms went in the opposite direction to where she intended them to go. She felt hopeless and helpless against this man who seemed to be blessed with super-human strength.

The tiredness subsided once more, long enough for her to think of Jane. “My flatmate, she’s going to be home anytime.”

He paused for a moment before he pulled her upright and forced her arms behind her back. The quick movement made her head swim. He tied her hands with a plastic tie and tightened it, pinching the skin on her wrist, causing her to cry out.

“Please, you’re hurting me.”

“Stop whining. If you think this is hurting you, then you’re gravely mistaken.”

She saw his arm move and flinched but then realised he was looking at his watch. Maybe her warning about Jane would be the one thing to save her. She heard a rustling noise, then a plastic bag covered her face.

She gasped. “No, please. I can’t breathe. Don’t do this. Take what you want and leave. I won’t tell the police, I promise.”

“You’re right—you won’t. Because dead people can’t speak,” he sneered against her ear. He tightened his grip around the bag, cutting off the air.

Unable to hold back any longer, she vomited. As the foul liquid filled the bag, her panic set in. She twisted her body, trying to get her hands out of her bindings and the bag off her head. The smell of her own vomit made her heave as she fought for her breath. His laughter was the last thing Sarah heard as she sank into oblivion.
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