Chapter 1: RUNAWAY
The girl stole along the rain damp lane, snatching furtive glances over her shoulder. Iris Nichols, twelve years old, flicked aside her limp wet hair and looked up at the storm clouds.
“Mum will make things okay,” she whispered, as the rain dashed off her pale lips.
Her glistening brown eyes were alert to every movement and her slender body moved with the rhythmic precision of a long distance runner. She was dressed in a black jacket and had a backpack over her shoulders. It was three a.m. and the country lanes were deserted. There were no streetlights or cars and only a few isolated houses. Dense hedgerows lined the way and giant oak trees loomed overhead.
Iris was alone and although she felt scared, she was glad to be free once more. Escape was never difficult, avoiding capture was the tricky part. This time, nothing had been left to chance, not even the weather. She’d been watching the forecasts for weeks – a veil of rain was always a runaway’s best friend. But now she felt exhausted and all she wanted to do was sleep.
Above the sound of the storm, Iris heard a car approaching and instinctively dived into the hedgerow. The lush foliage cocooned her and for a moment she felt safe. She waited as the car drew nearer – hoping it would pass. Suddenly, a light flashed across her face and she dropped to the ground. A police car had stopped in the lane a few feet away and Iris’s body went stiff as two shadowy figures climbed out.
“She’s got to be round here somewhere,” said the first, his voice rough and flat. “Let’s do one last sweep, then call it a night.”
“We’re wasting our time,” complained the second, as he shone a torch into the bushes. “She could be halfway to Peacehaven by now. I tell you, she’s a first class loser just like her mum. With any luck she’ll go for a walk in the sea as well.”
“Where’s your compassion?”
“Back in bed, which is where I should be,” replied the policeman, as he struggled to be heard over the pounding rain.
Iris wanted to be sick and her head was throbbing. She shivered as icy rainwater ran down her chest. She couldn’t go back. She wouldn’t go back, not this time.
Beyond the hedge, the silhouette of a large country house and several outbuildings could be seen. The prospect of a cosy hideaway for the night was appealing – but it was too dangerous to move just yet. As she waited anxiously, the sky turned deep purple and the rain redoubled its force, chasing the policemen back to their patrol car. Behind the misty windscreen they looked like ghosts, their voices muffled by the deluge.
Iris began to claw her way through the dense undergrowth. Thorny branches snapped at her face and the sodden earth clung to her numb pink fingers. Soon, she broke through to the other side and stepped onto a cobbled driveway. As she did so, a deafening alarm sounded and she was bathed in a sea of light. Rainwater filled her eyes and she could hear dogs. Seconds later, the police car slid into view. She was trapped.
Iris sat at her usual place at the bottom of the stairs, with her head resting against the balustrade. Her eyes were empty and her mouth was silent – the scratches on her face were the only evidence of the previous night. She’d had some soup and a cheese roll at the police station.
Her grey-haired foster parents stood at the front door talking to a policeman. John and Sophie were okay, they had never actually beaten her. But it was clear they didn’t approve of Iris or her family. The policeman leaned into the doorway.
“Make sure this is the last time we have to come looking for you,” he said, sternly.
John folded his arms and pushed out his chest. “It will be.” Iris got to her feet and started walking wearily upstairs.
“Stay right there!” Sophie bleated. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
The girl tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear. “I’m-”
“More excuses?” snapped John. “After everything we’ve done? Don’t you care about all the upset you’ve caused? Your absurd behaviour isn’t acceptable and I won’t tolerate it in this house. One day you’ll learn the meaning of respect – something your parents clearly never taught you.”
“Don’t waste your breath,” said Sophie. “She hasn’t got a caring bone in her body. Waltzing off in the middle of the night – she’s just like the rest of her family. Well this is the last time!”