Mummy's Favourite (DC Charlotte Stafford #1)@Sarah Flint

Prologue

It was cold under the floorboards. Cold, sticky and wet. And so very dark. Pitch-black almost. Only the tiniest chink of light. Not enough to give her a clue as to where she was.

Julie Hubbard tried to speak but the thick cloth around her mouth prevented any movement of her dry, cracked lips. Only a thin whimper in the blackness could escape briefly before the sound died in the tiny cavity in which she lay. She moved her tongue and felt the cold liquid fill her mouth. Water. Cool, thirst-quenching, life-prolonging. She gulped it down, moving her tongue again to cover the small tube sticking through the cloth, knowing instinctively that this was her only hope of survival. She didn’t dare drink the water too quickly. It had to be rationed, eked out slowly. She didn’t know how long she was going to be there. She didn’t know anything in fact.

She tried to shift herself carefully. Every muscle hurt. A wad of bedding underneath her body took away some of the cold and discomfort, but her body felt stiff and achy from lying in the same position. Her head pounded in time with her breath, each temple following the same rhythmic pulse. She could barely move her limbs; they were bound together with cord, wrapped around and around and around her wrists and ankles. She could just wriggle her fingers and toes to keep them from getting numb, but that was all. Her fingernails scraped the dirt from the backs of the floor-boards but there was little room to squirm, never mind to bang against the wooden planks. She didn’t know where she was but she knew it was remote, away from civilization, away from help. She was on her own. Or was she?

Every sense was heightened now as the muzziness wore off. The air around her was dank, claustrophobic, sweet smelling. It was earthy, musty, but with occasional wafts of cooler, fresher fragrances that slipped in through the gaps. The darkness too was slightly less black and cloying at these tiny spaces. She pushed her body up against the chinks but the boards refused to move, the gaps disappearing into her clothing, a sense of panic overwhelming her at the loss of even these tiny symbols of escape.

She tried to move sideways but the hardness of the impacted earth stopped any further movement. She shifted the other way and her body met something softer. Squirming towards it she managed to twist herself slightly so that her hands touched the softness. She could feel clothing, a belt buckle, flesh. She pulled herself up as close as she could so that she was half facing the form. Her hair slipped across her face into the wetness she had felt earlier. It was sticky and smelt strangely sweet. She wanted to taste it but she daren’t. A familiar smell wafted into her nostrils. A smell that she recognized from home, the scent of grown-up children, the scent of boy to man aftershave.

The pounding in her temples grew harder. She strained to see through the pitch-black but there was nothing. From somewhere far away she heard the sound of undergrowth being kicked and stamped upon. The noise was getting louder, joining forces with the noise inside her head, pumping and stamping and pumping. She tried to scream but no sound came out, just the gurgling of the water as it moved down the tube. She swallowed noisily and coughed. Then the pounding was joined by light, streaming all around her, surrounding her as the boards were moved away. She screwed her eyes up as the torchlight bathed her in cold, clammy sweat. Fear, ice-cold and debilitating, stopped her breath as she struggled to make sense of what was happening. She could see nothing but bright light burning into her retinas. Everything behind was shadow. She craned her neck round at the person beside her, wanting to know who they were but fearing the answer. She knew already. She had smelled him. She remembered now. As she opened her eyes, she heard the voice. It was a smiling voice, melancholy, sing-song, pleased with what she was looking at. Laughing at what she was looking at.

And as she recognized the soft curves of her youngest son, Richard’s handsome dead face, she saw the vivid red, yawning gash sliced into the soft skin of his neck and the wetness of his blood in her hair and across her shoulders. She heard the voice louder now, mocking her.

‘Mummy’s