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A Half Life of One

A Half Life of One

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Publicado porJagan Loganathan

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Published by: Jagan Loganathan on Dec 07, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  • Chapter 6
  • Chapter 7
  • Chapter 8
  • Chapter 9
  • Chapter 10
  • Chapter 11
  • Chapter 12
  • Chapter 13
  • Chapter 14
  • Chapter 15
  • Chapter 16
  • Chapter 17
  • Chapter 18
  • Chapter 19

A Half Life of One Chapter 1

Nick Dowty sat huddled alone in the empty office surrounded by ghosts. The clamour of unanswered phones bombarded his brain like shrapnel bouncing off a tin roof. Below him the factory lay silent, no angry whine of machines tearing steel, no familiar judder from gantry cranes shifting ten tonne blocks of solid metal onto the machining centres. It was eleven o’ clock on a bright Tuesday morning in the middle of January but it felt like he’d been there all day. Time moves slowly – inexorably slowly – on death row. This was the seventeenth year he had ruled over his tiny empire from the comfort of his familiar leather swivel chair. He stared out with unseeing eyes over the snow-covered golf course. The bank manager was due at any moment. Nick had spent the whole of the previous week trying to make sense of the December management accounts. Despite his best efforts he’d totally failed to construct a plausible escape plan from his company’s precipitous plunge into losses. They were in deep trouble and for the first time since he’d started the business all those years before he hadn’t been able to conjure up another plausible strategy to keep the business alive. The last strategic review they had conducted with the help of highly paid consultants had been implemented only two years previously. That solution – to lower prices and diversify away from their overdependence on one customer hadn’t worked. Now the situation was even worse. The scale of the losses was such…their debts were so great… Things were so bad it was hard to think straight any more. All that was left was to throw himself upon the mercy of the bank. He closed his eyes. He was desperately tired but sleep was impossible. There was no escape from the nightmare he was living. From down below in reception he could hear the angry buzz from the steady stream of creditors demanding to be paid. Lorna was doing her best to placate them but he knew there was no cash to pay them. It was just a matter of time before they breached the company’s flimsy defences. Any minute now the electricity could be cut off and the building would grind to a halt. Eventually even the phones would fall silent. Starved of cash, the oxygen of business, the company was rapidly dying. The bank was his last chance, he had nowhere else to turn. He knew that this meeting was going to be the stage for the most important performance of his life. If the bank manager swallowed the flimsy story he was about to spin, his thin tale of distant hope and uncertain redemption, they still had a chance. He closed his eyes and tried to shut out the noise of those bloody phones. They didn’t

have a job on their books, he’d fired half his staff, there was nothing more to be done, and yet still it was bedlam in here. Starting a business was like going to war, he thought to himself. Easy to start but almost impossible to stop. The creditors were the enemy, like religious fanatics they never gave up. The phones were like gunfire, a nonstop bombardment, assaulting your senses, driving you mad. Nick would give anything for five minutes peace and quiet. He was still slumped in his chair when Alan Tait, the senior business director from the bank, walked into the room, smiling self-consciously, his right hand extended in apparent friendship. Nick had dealt with him ever since he had founded the business. Over the years they had become professional friends. “No chance of a game today,” Alan Tait said, nodding at the view through the picture window as he deftly avoided direct eye contact. Nick stood up and grasped the familiar limp, damp hand, suppressing a shudder as he did so. It was the kind of grip you would expect an undertaker, or maybe a priest here to administer the last rites, to have. “Not in this weather, Alan.” “Sit down, Nick. You don’t have to stand on ceremony with me.” Nick lowered himself back into his leather reclining chair and stared up at the bank manager as he stood over by the window surveying the view he was about to repossess. It was the first time anyone had ever told Nick what to do in his own office, his own little kingdom. Suddenly, everything had changed. “Still, the forecast is good,” continued the bank manager, smiling pleasantly, “The snow might have gone by tomorrow. Something to look forward to.” Nick was looking forward to the future with as much pleasurable anticipation as he did when he leaned back in the dentist’s chair. “Maybe I’ll get a round in at the weekend. If I get time.” Alan Tait smiled sympathetically. “You look like you could do with a break.” “Yeah. This business grinds you down all right. Firefighting the whole bloody time. I feel like I’ve been doing it all my life.”

“It’s been a tough year.” “You’re not wrong there.” Nick waited. He knew from innumerable similar meetings over the years that they would quickly reach the limit of their ritual small talk. What happened next was what counted. Although he was in a tight corner he had done his best to prepare for the fight, drawing on all his experience to marshal his depleted defences. He knew he could offer some genuine reasons for the grim numbers. Orders cancelled at the last minute. Cost overruns due to the increase in the price of steel. More work being switched to India and China by cost-conscious multi-national oil companies. Despite the recent gloomy trading performance he had rehearsed his tale of an exciting future a thousand times in his head. Another new strategy. Even lower prices and higher volumes. More emphasis on marketing. Additional investment in new, cleverer machines. He sighed. The scenario was depressingly similar to many others he had recited over the years. Years when he had struggled to build up the company from nothing, to turn his dreams into reality. He sometimes thought that it had only been his dogged faith in the future which had kept the company alive for so long. Alan Tait opened his briefcase and took out a buff-coloured folder. “I’ve studied your management accounts for December, Nick. As you rightly say in your commentary they’re pretty bad. Disastrous in fact. No cause for any optimism at all.” “It’s the Chinese, Alan. There’s no way we can compete with their prices. We’ve tried to fight back by cutting overheads. It’s not enough. We need more investment. I’ve made the case in my Business Plan. Smart manufacturing is the only way we can compete against foreign labour costs.” Alan Tait shook his head slowly. “You’re way too highly geared as it is, Nick. You don’t see an upturn here in the North Sea?” “They’re spending more but it’s all being made abroad.” Alan Tait nodded. “It’s the story of British manufacturing.” “I should have seen it coming.”

Not now. I’ve seen it bad before but not like this. Alan.” Nick frowned. He looked embarrassed.“No one saw it coming. Nick.” “No. There was a time when he would have killed anyone who got in the way to survive. Nick felt his insides turning to ice. People never do. It’s worse than ‘86. What do you propose?” His throat was so dry he could barely whisper the words. Nick. “The signs were there for anyone who dared to look. Your overdraft…it’s growing bigger every day. If he had been a soldier he would now be lost behind enemy lines. He had battled so long to keep the business afloat. Work from the North Sea has just dried up.” “Unfortunately. “Sure. He had fought himself to a standstill.” “Whatever. Much worse. Anyway. Everyone’s hurting. This was the moment he had been dreading for weeks. The Chinese have eaten our lunch. that doesn’t do you much good. Although he knew what was coming he still wasn’t prepared for the speed at which his world was collapsing. Suddenly he felt oddly detached from the fate of the company that had once been his whole life. Nick. “I know why you’re here alright. on the point of surrender.” “The numbers say it all. reeling from acute battle fatigue. I guess not. years maybe. The bank has already given you time to sort things out but you’re still overstretched.” Nick swivelled round in his chair and gazed out across the snowy blanket that had completely obliterated the familiar bumps and hollows of the adjacent golf course. we need to get down to business. no matter how tough you thought you were.” . The bank manager coughed. There was only so much a person could take. None of our competitors have got a job in their workshops. History teaches us nothing until it’s too late. What I didn’t foresee was the speed with which the big oil companies would stop spending locally. He could smell the bad news coming and it made him gag. He said.” “Yeah.” “You wonder where it’s all going to end. The bank can’t let it go on.

That’s the nature of this industry. “I’ve always been overstretched.” A flicker of irritation darted across the bank manager’s eyes. Nick. The decision has already been taken. As soon as they start looking for oil again in the North Sea we’ll be making money hand over fist. despite the gravity of the situation. Those machines out there in the workshop cost a small fortune. You’ll even be asking me out to lunch again. Alan. He smiled wryly to himself. Who can say where the price of oil will be in six months time? If Japan falls back into recession and China cools down it could quite possibly go lower. I really am.” Alan Tait didn’t smile. Who knows? I’m sorry.” “And the people? Are they worried about the people who are going to be thrown onto the scrapheap? What about them?” “They’ll find other jobs. This is a capital intensive business. There’s a skill shortage in this country even if we don’t have any manufacturing industries left. it’s too late. “This thing has gone beyond my level. Anyway. The guys in head office are deeply uncomfortable with the extent of your borrowing. This is a great little company we’ve built up. They want to get as much of their capital back as they can while there’s still some residual value left in those machines. The bank manager was already distancing himself from the bad news that was about to follow. In six months time it will all be different. When the customer gets busy you’ve got to put in extra capacity if you want to stay on the merry-go-round with them. That hasn’t changed just because we’ve had a couple of bad months. “It’s too much of a risk.Nick noted how the conversation had suddenly taken an impersonal turn. No longer equals. He said. They’ll probably be better off in the end. Nick.” .” “They’re worried about the machines?” “That’s right. Now the merry-go-round has suddenly stopped spinning. “I don’t want to get into a debate with you. They can re-train as plumbers or electricians. Alan.” Nick clenched his fists and stared defiantly at the bank manager. If you don’t they’ll go elsewhere. If the chancellor slaps on another windfall tax. The sad truth is the bank isn’t in the risk business. “That’s so short-sighted. The irony is that the more successful we are the deeper in debt I get. The games these people played. I promise you.” Suddenly they were no longer old friends.

You can’t push water uphill.” “Not the receivers? You’re not even going to keep the business going while you look for a buyer?” “It’s not worth the effort. I’ve slashed our capital spending. Everyone else is in the same boat. “Nick. Look.” He glanced at his watch. Alan. All they want to do is flog off those machines for whatever they can get and cut their losses. as if he had been drenched . I’m the one who’s borrowed all the bloody money. The liquidators will be here shortly. We’ve all taken a pay cut. “That’s it? After all these years? That’s it?” The bank manager didn’t move. That shows how much faith I’ve got in the business.” Nick absorbed the bitter news through his skin. The bank’s got me by the fucking balls. I’ve just told you it’s too late for all this. Nick. I warned you six months ago. I’m proud to work with them. If you want my opinion the whole bloody country’s going to the dogs. they’re like my family. I’ve already taken all the tough decisions. Like I said the time for action is past.” Nick was getting desperate. You should have acted tough then. Alan. We’ve got some great people here.” “I’m sorry. I’ve put my house on the line for the bank. “Jesus.Nick had been determined to stay cool but the dam holding back his emotions finally burst. Six of my friends. You’ve been in the last chance saloon for too long. “I told you this would happen if you breached your loan covenants. The bank wants to sell off the assets for whatever it can get and wrap things up as quickly as possible. what kind of a risk is it for the bank? I’m the one taking all the risk. it’s not just you. Manufacturing in this country is dying on its feet.” “Liquidators?” “Within an hour. “Please. Despite that I’ve made cutbacks. A fantastic team. I’ve even put one of the big machines up for sale. Don’t waste your energy trying to fight them. Last week I paid off six people. All I need now is a bit more time and this will all work itself out.” Nick pleaded. With any luck that’ll bring in three hundred grand.

in cold water. He shook his head. “It’s a criminal waste and you bloody know it, Alan.” “I’m sorry, Nick, I really am.” “You know what really pisses me off? I came so close, that’s what. I nearly made it. One more contract and I would have been right up there with the best of them. One more contract and you would still be licking my arse.” “But I’m not, am I Nick.” Nick sighed. In his heart he knew it wasn’t the bank manager’s fault. Alan wasa man whose advice and opinions he had come to respect over the years. He was only the messenger. Come to that, maybe this disaster wasn’t even the bank’s fault. The world was changing. George Bush’s war on terror. Al Quaeda. China booming. The Russian oligarchs. Who knew what was going on in the world?. Shell overstating its reserves. A butterfly flapped its wings in Saudi Arabia and the price of oil was all over the place. You couldn’t build a secure future on chaos. “Don’t be sorry, Alan. I was expecting it. Most small businesses are only a few months away from failure, even the successful ones. A couple of months of losses and suddenly you’re staring into the abyss. It’s the game we’re in. I knew the risk I was taking running my own company. I don’t blame you.” The bank manager moved slowly towards the door. He looked genuinely unhappy at the turn of events. “It’s always sad when something like this happens to a well-run company like yours, Nick. Especially when it’s due to circumstances beyond your control.” The bank manager seemed reluctant to leave, as if he was fascinated by the sight of a still-twitching corpse. “What will you do now?” “Me? I don’t know. Get a job I guess. If anyone will employ me at my age. Maybe if I can persuade Maureen to leave her teaching job we can sell the house and make a fresh start somewhere else. Go abroad perhaps. Somewhere where they still make things.” The bank manager coughed. He peered down at his feet, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “About the house, Nick. Don’t forget you put it up as security for all those loans. You must understand it belongs to the bank now. It’s no longer yours to sell.” Nick went white and his heart seemed to stop beating. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It couldn’t be true. “They’re going to call in my

guarantee? I thought that was just a token gesture. A bit of paper.” “They’ll let you stay there for a bit of course. Maybe a couple of months. But after that they’ll want vacant possession so they can put the house on the market. I know it seems harsh but that was the deal you agreed at the start of all this.” “Jesus. I never thought they’d do that. How am I going to tell Maureen? She loves that house. This’ll kill her. You can’t do it, Alan.” Alan Tait shrugged. He stared at Nick with a blank, pitiless expression on his face. It was almost as if he was enjoying Nick’s distress. Revenge for years of licking his client’s arse. Nick glared at the bank manager, a man he’d once considered a friend. This reminder that their home – Maureen’s pride and joy – no longer belonged to him was the bitterest outcome of all. He cursed himself for the cavalier way he had gambled with the family home, an act of incredible folly based upon his hubristic faith in his own ability. He’d gambled everything on making a success of the business. It was rapidly dawning on him that having lost the battle to save his company his world was about to be plunged into turmoil, a civil war with horrific untold consequences. He swallowed hard. “I can’t wait to tell Maureen,” he said dryly. “I’m afraid that’s not all.” Nick frowned. “Oh. What else?” “You’ve given personal guarantees as well.” “But I haven’t any money. Everything I have is tied up in the business. Jesus, they can’t get blood out of a stone.” “They’ll take it out of your unemployment benefit if they have to. And Maureen’s still working, isn’t she? She’s a joint signatory. They’ll go after her too. And if you get another job they’ll take the repayments out of your wages. They’re going to be on your back for a long time.” “I’ll fight them.” “You can’t win, Nick. They’ll sequestrate you. They won’t show any mercy.” “So I’ll be bankrupt?”

“I’m afraid so.” Nick turned and stared again over the frigidly beautiful white undulations of the empty golf course. It was a landscape suddenly devoid of life and hope. “It’s a hell of a price to pay for trying to make something of myself. Trying to provide for my family.” “You have to face the consequences of your actions, Nick. You gambled and lost. Look, don’t quote me, but my advice is to get yourself a good lawyer.” Nick shook his head in disbelief. When he finally spoke again he couldn’t disguise the bitterness in his voice. “Twenty years ago I started with nothing and that’s exactly what I’ve ended up with. No, less than nothing. A mountain of debt which I’ll be paying off for the rest of my life.” He sighed. “To think I could have been a fucking teacher or a civil servant or something working for the state. An ordinary guy without any kind of ambition whatsoever. Instead I took a chance and ended up a fucking idiot. A bankrupt fucking idiot at that.” The bank manager shrugged. “I’ve got to go.” He turned and walked briskly out of the office. Their friendship was over. Nick turned back to the window and stared out for the last time at the view he had come to know so well. Everything looked so serene in the winter sunshine. Beautiful but bleak with no trace of life of any kind. It could have been the surface of the Moon. He closed his eyes and leaned back in the swivel chair. He had never felt so tired before and yet at the same time he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. For the first time in years someone else had made a decision for him. At long last he didn’t have to think for himself any more, didn’t have the future of his business and everyone connected with it depending on him calling all the right shots. It was like being a kid again. With the death of his dream his old world had vanished. He knew that it wasn’t going to be easy to start a new life at his age but in a funny sort of way he was already looking forward to the challenge. Starting off with a blank canvas. His metamorphosis could even be a lot of fun. He was still young at heart, had more energy and drive than many people half his age. Then there was all that hard-won commercial knowledge, wisdom even, that he had accumulated over the years. That had to be worth something. All he needed was to find someone to give him

expressionless face hewn out of the granite of bitter experience.” .” “They’ve pulled the plug on us. There’s not a job in the shop. Alex. “What’s up?” the old man demanded gruffly. How long have we got?” “They’re closing the place immediately. Maybe they’re right. he had to tell the remnants of his staff the bad news. “I was kind of expecting it to tell you the truth. Some thought it was close right enough.” Alex Robertson was in his sixties with a hard. They’d worked together for over eight years through good times and bad. “Bad news. to come up at once. They don’t believe me any more. ay.another chance. “It’s the bank. before he could start thinking about himself.” “Aye well.” “I’ve been telling them that for months. shit happens.” “Oh. First though.” “The bastards. Can you not fight them? Tell them things will pick up.” “Ah.” “It’s the guys out there in the workshop I feel sorry for. his workshop foreman. I knew they might withdraw their support but it’s still a shock. What do those buggers want from you now? Dae they nae ken ye canny get blood from a stane. He was certain he could make a go of things second time around even if it meant working for someone else.” The old man shrugged.” “I’m sorry. He picked up the phone and asked Alex Robertson. We all were. The factory floor is like a graveyard out there. He’d learnt his trade in the shipyards on the Clyde and later with Rolls Royce making Spey jet engines at Prestwick.

” They both laughed.” “How has Maureen taken it?” Nick frowned. He dreaded the thought of breaking the news to her.” “Nick?” . He never discussed business with his wife. What about you? What will you do?” “Me? Och.” “Sounds like your arse is oot the windae and the crows are pecking at it. The old guy had a quaint way of putting things into perspective. Then there’s the house which I put up for security. tried to shield her from the pressures of running a small business. Nick? What does this mean for you?” Nick thought for a moment. what about yourself. I really don’t know what the future holds to tell you the truth. “You better go and call the men together.” Nick bit his lip. “You could say that.” ”That’s putting it mildly.” “I guess. “Ouch. After that? Who knows? Maybe I’ll get a job collecting trolleys in a supermarket. She knew things had been difficult lately but this development was going to come as a major shock.” Despite himself Nick smiled.“I wouldnae worry about them. Telling her would be the hardest thing he had ever done.” “Aye. They’ll be all right.” “I’ll see you there. I need a break anyway. I’ll take the wife off to Tenerife for a few months till the winter’s past. it’s tough on her right enough. I’m worried sick about what she’s going to think. “Seriously.” The old man winced. “That’s a good question. He felt sick at the thought. The old man frowned. I’ve got all this shit with personal guarantees and stuff. “She doesn’t know yet. This’ll come as a bit of a shock then. They’re always screaming for skilled men. I just never believed it would come to this.

The phone rang. Spending money they no longer had.” Nick sighed.“What?” “I’m nae much given to speeches but…weel. The Murrays and the Binneys remember.lightly. You dinna deserve this. I knew you’d forget. “Hi. “Thanks. “Nick. Alex. dear.” “Tonight?” “The dinner party. Yeah. His eyes seemed so dull.” “What’s wrong?” . I jist want tae say you’re the best boss I’ve ever worked for. You’d said you’d pick up some nice wine on your way back. before I burst into tears you better get everyone together.” The old man went off to assemble all the men in the canteen so that Nick could break the bad news. are you still there?” “Sorry. I invited them months ago. He crossed to the mirror in the corner and patted his hair and straightened his tie. I’ve got a rack of lamb from the butchers. and I’ve worked for a few in ma time. That was all he needed. “Hello?” “Hi. I’m just phoning to remind you about tonight. it’s much appreciated. Okay. Forced to perform in front of his wife’s oh-so-successful friends in the present circumstances. She almost never phoned him at work. The place had often felt like a prison in the past as he battled to keep the business afloat but he would still miss it. Are you free to talk?” It was Maureen. He stood up and looked around the office for the last time. He did not hand out compliments – or condolences . he looked utterly defeated. Not to mention the expense.” Nick felt a lump forming in his throat. What’s up?” “Nothing’s up. He felt a lump in his throat. Keeping up the pretence when all he wanted to do was crawl under a stone and hide. He was shocked to see how much older he looked. He wondered if she’d somehow heard the bad news already. Alex was a hard man who’d had a hard life.

“Nothing. I’m tired, that’s all. I’m having a tough day.” “You will remember the wine won’t you?” “Yes.” He wondered how he was going to pay for it. He’d have to chance his arm with one of his credit cards. With any luck his Visa card might allow him to go even further over his limit. Just long enough for him to get out of the off-licence with a bottle or two of half-decent red - like a bank robber making his getaway. “And you won’t be late.” “No.” He’d be early in fact. There was nothing for him here any longer. “Okay. Well. See you soon.” “Er.” Maybe this was the right moment to tell her the bad news. Get it over with. “What is it, Nick?” “Er…nothing.” “Are you all right, Nick? You sound very strange. Croaky. Are you getting a cold or something?” “I expect so. My throat is sore.” “Wrap up well in that case. Wear that scarf I bought you.” “Okay.” “And Nick.” “What?” “Cheer up, will you. These parties are hard enough as it is.” “I don’t know why we bother.” “Because it’s our turn, that’s why. Don’t be so antisocial.”

“All right. Sorry. See you later.” He put down the phone and tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. It was the middle of January, they were only half way through another tough winter. The future looked bleak. The office suddenly seemed cold as if they had already turned off the central heating. He started shivering. It wasn’t just the cold though. He realised he was scared. More scared than he had ever been before. Some times in life you are on your own. Like when you’re sitting in that dentist’s chair. Or going bust. Or dying. As he sat in his office for the last time he realised he was indeed totally alone.

Chapter 2
Chapter 2 In the event Nick’s much-abused credit card proved resilient enough to support the purchase of several bottles of fairly expensive claret. He was, he decided, in the mood to get drunk. Very drunk. Paralytic in fact. Well and truly smashed out of his head. Why not? Tomorrow he would be sober. And bankrupt. Time enough then to face the consequences. “You’re early!” exclaimed Maureen, beaming, “And you’ve brought the wine!” “I’ve brought lots of wine.” “Oh dear. I don’t like that look in your eye. You’re not going to get drunk are you, Nick?” “I think it’s a distinct possibility,” Nick reached up for the bottle of gin in the cabinet beside the cooker. “Want one?” “It’s too soon for me. Listen, dear, go easy will you. You know what you’re like when you’ve had too much to drink.” Nick tasted his gin and tonic, looking thoughtful. ”Witty? Entertaining? The life and soul of the party?” Maureen made a face. “Argumentative. Boring. A royal pain in the butt.” He took his drink through to the lounge and settled down with the local

paper. It occurred to him that he’d probably be featuring in it soon. If not on the front page at least in the Public Announcement section where the liquidators would publish the winding up notice. Fame at last. Or notoriety at least. Soon everyone would know. All his friends. His fellow businessmen at the Chamber of Commerce. Public degradation would inevitably follow. At the very least he would be the talk of the village. Ritual humiliation manifested in scandalised whispers and knowing sideways glances from the other side of the street. And why not? He deserved his fate after all. Hubris. No question about it. Positively arrogant. So confident in his own abilities that he had been blind to what was really happening. He turned to the back page of the paper. Scotland had lost another home friendly and the coach was being excoriated again. He took some comfort in the knowledge that there was always one person in the country who was in deeper trouble than he was. Sometimes he thought this country positively luxuriated in failure, wallowed in a sort of inverted jealousy. By the time their guests arrived he was onto his third gin and already feeling light-headed. While the three women stayed and chatted in the kitchen the men stood with their backs to the big open fireplace, drinks in hand. They were all around the same age, early fifties, and had been friends since their university days. Alastair Murray had worked for the council all his life and was some sort of director of strategy in the planning department. His rise had not exactly been meteoric but there was no doubt he was now considered a success. Raymond Binney, on the other hand, a short, tubby man with an unnaturally smooth complexion that was positively waxy, was a primary school teacher who spent most of his waking time meticulously planning for his early retirement. “How’s business then, Nick?” said Alastair Murray, sipping his sherry appreciatively. “Still making millions?” “Not exactly. It’s tough out there right now. Very tough.” “Where’s the Merc by the way?” asked Raymond Binney, squinting suspiciously towards the driveway, “I don’t see it anywhere.” The liquidator had taken the Merc. “It’s in for a service,” lied Nick. He’d spun the same story to Maureen earlier, having caught a taxi home. “That car must cost you a fortune to run,” continued Raymond, looking envious. “Makes my Polo look a bit downmarket I must say. Still, at least I’m not harming the environment quite as much as you two.” Alastair Murray drove a big grey Audi of which he was inordinately proud.

he wondered. admiring the spread.” said Raymond.” said Isobel Binney. At that moment Maureen announced that dinner was ready and ushered them through to the room that she usually used as her study but which doubled as a dining room whenever they had guests. You pay a bit more but it’s worth it.” said her husband defensively. Bread and water probably.” They all laughed but Nick wasn’t joking. “That looks good. My next mode of transport will be a bike. “You’ll get a good pension. Nick took a deep draught of the wine.He beamed delightedly at the insult.” “You’re right. “Not on my salary.” agreed Nick.” he murmured. How many variations on bread and dripping did she know. “This wine is delicious. Anyway. It’ll be even worse once I’ve retired.” “They’re all right.” I wonder what Somerfields ready meals are like.” “This lamb is meltingly tasty. “I don’t know where you find the time to cook like this. wondered Nick gloomily.” “I think Markies are definitely the best when it comes to pre-prepared meals. “Always have been. “In our house we seem to live on ready meals the whole time. “Especially in my position.” “Not a patch on this. “Got to keep up appearances.” said Claire Murray. Mm. You can’t beat a really good French wine. “It is irresponsible. licking her lips appreciatively.” said Alastair. “We can’t afford Markies any more. Her skills would be fully tested over the coming months. Everyone knew that Maureen was a brilliant cook. Even better than the Local Authority. Teachers do all right. Raymond.” .” Alastair snorted derisively. There was a general murmur of assent.” “Some of the newer Spanish wines are pretty good too. that’s how everybody eats these days.” said Raymond Binnie. “Sainsbury’s are pretty good.

I’d have buggered off to the south of France long ago. “You’ve never had to sit across the table from a fucking VAT official whose got you by the balls because you’re in arrears when some fucking customer can’t pay you. the mood round the table was buoyant.” he said angily. I wish I’d started my own business instead of going into education. Nick? I tell you. No worries about getting paid. Jobs for life. This is the world of . They had no idea.” said Raymond Binnie. They all thought he was rolling in it. “You’ve done it for long enough. Never mind all the people that will lose their jobs. fuck them all.” Nick shook his head in disbelief. “Maybe you shouldn’t take on work if you don’t think you’ll get paid. you’d get eaten alive. Or the fact that you’ll lose everything because the bank have forced you to put your house on the line as security. He swallowed hard. “That’s total crap. “Get real.” Nick looked rueful. he thought to himself. Little did they know. Alastair coughed. A big fat pension at the end of it all guaranteed by the government. Nick drained his glass and poured some more drinks. He looked embarrassed and annoyed at the same time. he wasn’t sure if there’d be much left after the bank had taken their cut to help towards repaying the loans they’d guaranteed. Besides. She was a teacher too but she’d left the profession for several years to bring up their son – her pension wouldn’t amount to all that much. Working for the public sector was a doddle compared to working for yourself. That’s their mantra. Those guys in the pubic sector don’t give a toss for your problems.” said Alastair. which was now worthless. you wouldn’t last five fucking minutes in the private sector. Alastair. “Nick’s the one who’s going to score. Isn’t that right.” Everybody laughed again.” Nobody laughed. Alastair. Pay up or we’ll close you down. making a face. Nick felt his hackles rising. “If only it was that easy.” Everybody laughed. He’d be relying on Maureen in the future. including Maureen. No fighting for business.Nick’s pension was his investment in the company. Plenty of holidays. “It can’t be that hard. “He’ll sell out his business for a fat profit and go and live the high life in Spain or Monaco or somewhere. Fuck them.

The evening gradually petered out.” “You never know if you’re going to get paid. Whenever he felt under pressure he took it out on her and anyone else who came within range.work I’m talking about. Something must have happened at work which she didn’t know about. “Unfortunately we can’t all work for the public sector. She knew that for some reason Nick had toppled over the edge. if the truth were known. Even the biggest companies can go tits up these days. wished she’d never married him. subdued and embarrassed.” “There’s no point doing work for someone if you’re not going to get paid. Jesus. out to the world. your language. Christ. right now we’ll take anything you can get. I wish I had taken the easy way out and become a fucking teacher. Or find a reason for not paying you which is just as bad. clinging to the edge. It meant more to him than she did. Something very bad.” said Claire Murray. his mind silted up with the fallout from his company’s collapse.” said Maureen. looking distraught.” “Nick. Fucking mugs like me in fact. He’d had his chances. Fear made her feel faint. Had been for years. She wished he’d never started it. Was the only thing he really cared about. suffocating itself on a familiar chorus of complaints about kids who refused to cut their financial umbilical cords. grandparents who refused to fade away gracefully. Their guests left just after nine. Someone’s got to go out there and create the wealth to pay your wages. We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing our customers. please. pushing her halffinished plate away from her. “Suddenly the Health Service doesn’t feel so bad after all. Not the public sector. That doesn’t make sense. It’s fucking dog eat dog out there. Nor do we have a guaranteed income stream .” “It all sounds very unpleasant. In the event Nick retreated into his shell. It was always the same. If we need more money we can’t just turn round and put up taxes or raise the rates like you guys. When she finally joined him he was snoring gently. At times like this she hated him. Wished he had become a bloody . Another performance like tonight’s and she really would leave him. That bloody business he ran was the problem. She climbed into bed and turned her back on him. sliding as far away from him as possible. Rising unsteadily from the table Nick dragged himself off to bed while Maureen tidied up in the kitchen.” Nick looked at her balefully.

teacher. She wiped away a tear in the dark, and eventually, after an hour or more during which she tossed and turned, her brain whirling, she fell into a fitful sleep, balanced on the edge of the world, staring into the void, utterly exhausted Chapter 3 Nick charged about the kitchen frantically attempting to put the evening meal on hold. He glared at his watch for the twentieth time in twenty minutes. “Bastards,” he hissed loudly, “Bastards, bastards, bastards.” They were ten minutes late already and the frozen petits pois were soft and overcooked even though he'd strained them in cold water and put them to one side on the draining board. He’s bought them as a special treat, after much prevarication, down at the local Spar shop. They should only have been blanched for a minute or so to make them al dente which was absolutely the way they were supposed to be. Then served immediately with a nob of butter (or marge in their case) and a twist of coarsely ground pepper. Now they were ruined, and with them the meal, and with the meal his attempt to create a safe haven for his family in a dangerous and demented world. He cursed himself for his own stupidity. He shouldn’t have put a heat under the peas until he actually saw their headlights coming up the farm track. It was always a mistake to rely on other people. He screwed up his eyes in despair. He could weep at his own stupidity. "You're late," he snarled when they finally lugged their baggage into the kitchen, "Why didn't you phone me on your mobile? These bloody peas are ruined." Maureen hoisted a heavy bag of shopping onto the table, in the process covering over the place mats he'd arranged so carefully. "We got stuck in traffic," she said calmly. "Don't put that bag there," he snapped, furious at the way they were spoiling all his painstaking preparations for a perfect meal. He couldn't understand why Maureen was always late. She seemed to have no sense of punctuality whatsoever. Not like him, he was never late. In the time before the business had gone bust he was famous for his punctilious timekeeping. Whenever he made an appointment with one of his customers he always made a point of being early so as not to inconvenience them in any way. Equally he was careful never to be so early that he became an embarrassment. It was just good manners, that's what it came down to in the end. It was obvious really. That was what

made civilisation work when you thought about it. But Maureen just didn't seem to bother or understand. She seemed to drift through life without a care in the world. She didn’t notice how much she hurt him, how much her lack of consideration for his efforts devalued his struggle to be a good and caring husband. Sometimes he even thought she did it deliberately just to annoy him. Only it did more than annoy him. It drove him crazy. Right round the bend. Sometimes she made him so furious that he wanted to kill her. Really wanted to…not just a figure of speech. "And shut that bloody door," he yelled at Martin, "You'd think you were born in a bloody field." Martin, his son, was sixteen years old and acutely conscious of the unfairness of life. He slouched wearily back through the hallway and shut the inner glass door, a long-suffering look on his face. He was used to his dad's temper tantrums. When they were really bad they were scary, but mostly his dad just made a fool of himself. It was something he had learned to make allowances for. Maureen smiled bravely at her husband. "I bought you a present." She held out a new canister of Gillette shaving foam for sensitive skin. He looked at it in dismay. He didn't want to appear ungrateful but he resented her spending money on luxuries. Especially since he was trying so hard to economise himself. Christ, he'd given up breakfast because they couldn’t afford it. He always bought the cheapest, most disgusting sandwich pastes he could find for his lunch just to save a few pennies. What’s more he now only shaved every second day, unless he had something special on. Which had only happened twice in the four months since the business had failed. He stared at the canister of shaving foam. What really annoyed him was that no matter how frugal he was it made no difference. She still leaked money from their joint account. She might have been a lottery winner the way she splashed out. Hardly a day passed when she wasn’t frittering away their overdraft on food and shoes, shirts, bras, school uniforms, council tax demands, telephone bills, electricity bill reminders and now fucking shaving foam. Christ, if it wasn’t for the fact that he might one day actually have to attend a job interview again he would have grown a beard by now. Shaving foam. SHAVING FUCKING FOAM!! And why was she trying to be nice to him anyway? He didn’t want presents. He didn’t want to be patronised or bought off like some rich man’s mistress. Like a kept man. He just wanted her to come home on time and eat the bloody meal he had slaved all afternoon over for Christ’s sake. Just keep her side of the marital bargain. Was that too much to ask? Was he being

unreasonable? Simply by being punctual they could have had perfect peas ten minutes ago but now it was all ruined. Completely and utterly ruined. With a supreme effort he stopped himself from throwing the peas into the waste bin. He took a deep breath. He felt dizzy with anger and had to hold onto the side of the cooker to stop himself from falling over. Another deep breath. When he closed his eyes he saw stars. His heart was pounding. He was sweating profusely. Another deep breath. He staggered across to the sink and poured himself a glass of cold water. Water was free, it came from their own well. How long can you live on water? Thirty days and thirty nights? If they got any poorer his fasting would reach biblical proportions. While they hauled their bags through to the sitting-room he gradually calmed down. He stared down at the small pyramid of overcooked peas in the colander and shook his head, despairing at his own stupidity, the way he got everything out of perspective. He knew Maureen meant well. Her motives were good. It was just that her direction was all wrong. Spending money on luxuries they didn’t need. As if she was some bleeding Salvation Army general offering charity to a bloody down-and-out or something… If only she would listen to him instead…really listen and get some sort of handle on the mess they were in. Instead of throwing money they didn’t have at a problem they weren’t addressing. Try as he might he couldn’t make her see what she was doing to him by her crazy spendthrift behaviour. She had no insight whatsoever into the panic he was feeling, the waves of desperation in which he was daily drowning. When Maureen returned to the kitchen he held out the canister of shaving foam. "Thanks," he said gruffly, "But shaving soap would have done just as well." Maureen sometimes felt she could do nothing right as far as her husband was concerned and this display of ingratitude was typical of his meanspiritedness. She hid the hurt look on her face as she turned away and took off her old anorak. "Why do you always have to be so bad-tempered?" she said, struggling with only partial success to keep the intense irritation she felt out of her voice, "It's not our fault we're late." "It's his bloody fault for not shutting the door," Nick shouted back, glaring at his son, immediately on the defensive. He was perfectly aware that lately he had become increasingly bad-tempered and petty and stupid but he

yesterday's corned beef leftovers fried up with a finely chopped onion and a clove of garlic . "I'll take it back if you like and change it for shaving soap. "Fine. He knew all this but it didn't stop him becoming angry and bitter. turning their poverty into a battleground. It was just that by being late they inadvertently belittled his efforts to make himself useful and valuable to them. the massed forces of impending economic disaster. he said to Maureen. “They’re great. whatever they might be. Nick was too weary to argue about the peas. of structural unemployment. “The peas are all right. It was bad enough that he had to fight the outside world. . of high prices and artificial demand. of imports and balance of payment deficits and a sheaf of threatening letters from the bloody bank manager and the credit card bloody usurers without her acting as some sort of fifth columnist trying to undermine his position from within. would be glad when it was all finally over. Making one more supreme effort.” agreed Martin. He had already eaten . and he wasn't even sure about that. as she always did. Just the way I like them.” said Maureen. nor about the people eating it. A bloody war on one front against the massed ranks of their creditors was as much as he could handle at the moment.but he sat with them for company and watched the news for the fourth or fifth time that day. "How was work?" It was the same question he put to her at this time every night. He knew he was losing the battle against imminent bankruptcy and in a way he almost welcomed defeat. wolfing down the peas which he had mashed into a lumpy. What did it all matter anyway? So you fucked up your life." she said. gelatinous mass topped with lashings of tomato ketchup. They ate with their plates balanced on their laps. To tell the truth he didn’t really care about the food any more." He shook his head.couldn't stop himself. Now she was the one who was being petty. in front of the television. Silently he served up their meal and they took it through in the sitting room. Maureen sighed. in an attempt not to appear churlish. Whose fault was that? Was it the hand you were dealt or was it the fact that you had screwed up your chances on your own because you were totally feckless? Either way he had reached the stage where he was prepared to face the consequences. He was too tired to care. by way of gentle reproach.

End of conversation. Just like any father he had wanted give his son the best possible start in life – the start he had never had – but the reality was that it took money. Being a good father nowadays was an almost impossible challenge. Just thinking about the cost brought Nick out into a cold sweat. His teachers all said he had it in him.That was it. colleagues he had worked with for years. What would happen after the summer holidays was anybody’s guess. so many material distractions that made you irrelevant. much more lonely than when he was on his own. Nominal because of their joint personal guarantees which meant the bank was threatening to take almost half her income. both materially and spiritually. A bright kid – a very bright kid – he wanted to go to University to become a doctor. They might as well have been strangers at different tables in an empty café in a nameless city. on most occasions. No-one argued with that. The fact that in so many ways he had failed him as a father was the worst thing of all. Thank God they’d paid this year’s school fees in advance before the business went bust. Martin was a tolerant child. It was a classic case of Catch 22. During the remainder of the meal she never took her eyes off the television. In some ways their relationship had been a history of failure. A situation made worse by his discovery after the business had folded that she was his only friend. so much more that could go wrong. Martin’s higher education was a looming problem that seemed insoluble. to communicate. All the rest. You didn’t have to be an accountant to work out that what would be left would . The problem was how they could possibly afford it. At least that gave them a few month’s breathing space. He was the one who needed support and understanding. had deserted him. Nick felt tolerated by him. Just by being there she made him feel lonely. a mutual inability to communicate their love for each other. Maureen’s nominal salary meant that they wouldn’t get a grant to defray the costs. It was so dispiriting. even. He watched Martin cramming food into his mouth. a commodity that was now in very short supply. Theirs had never been an equal relationship but recently the balance had changed and now he increasingly felt like the junior partner. He sighed. He had always tried hard to love the child more than anything else in the whole world. when there was so much that was out of your control. He had always tried to give the boy unconditional love but the reservoir from which he drew this most basic emotion had been too shallow – a result maybe of his own unhappy childhood. In quiet desperation he turned to his son. He had wanted desperately to ensure that his son had a happy childhood.

That was yet another one of his bright ideas. Unfortunately the reality fell a long way short of the ideal. Real life was lived in the city. Always assuming of course that Maureen would agree to move back into town which was by no means certain since she loved the countryside so much. supposedly a more prestigious university in the medical field. graphic images of further atrocities committed during the so-called peace in Iraq. The truth was they should never have moved out into the country the way they had ten years before. In a way. not taking his eyes off the latest pictures on the television news. In the meantime though they were stuck here. in limbo. away from the temptations and the ugliness of the city. of course. He knew he was supposed to love him more than anything in the whole world.fall far short of what was needed to pay for Martin’s university education. As far as he could remember now he had harboured some sort of romantic notion that his son would benefit from a bucolic upbringing out in the middle of nowhere. a forkful of bloody-looking peas suspended in front of his open mouth. Martin hated the countryside. He even continued to go to school in town. And of course he did. creating a hole in his affections the size of Denmark. Which might indeed be the eventual outcome once the bank repossessed the house and they were forced to look for rented accommodation. of having a son. boring and. travelling in and out every day with Maureen. Edinburgh. naff. You know. And it went without saying that Nick’s chances of getting a job at his age that would allow him to pay off his huge business debts and leave enough to cover the fees and their living expenses were virtually non-existent. That place you go to every day. the concept. . his preferred choice. The reality was a person whose table manners left a an enormous amount to be desired. It didn’t help that to study properly Martin would have to live in town – either Aberdeen or. Nick regarded his son with distaste. entirely predictably. Martin? How was school today?" "What?" said Martin. Making an effort to hide his inner turmoil Nick fixed a smile upon his face and leaned across to his son. As it turned out. How was it?” Martin’s gaze remained fixed on the television. above all. “School. "What about you. Inasmuch as he loved the idea. All his friends were in town. in the middle of nowhere. The answer. would be for them to up sticks and move back into town. In his eyes the countryside was barren. Nick bit his lip.

” “Fine? Fine? Is that it? Is that all they’ve taught you to say after all these years? Fine!” Martin turned and regarded his father with open-mouthed. It was at times like these that Nick felt most desolate.” said Nick. “Chill out. fine. “All right. The highlight of their day – breaking bread together . Fair point. paralysed by the direct brutality of the question. “Er…” “Any replies at all?” “Replies?” He was immediately on the defensive. dad. who had cleared his plate in a matter of seconds. without looking up. Martin sniggered and turned back to the television. It’s school. With my family. That’s all it is. tiptoeing around this thorny subject.” “I’m trying to make conversation. unable to recall precisely the previous gloss .” said Maureen. quality time. There had to be more to life than this.was already over and now there was nothing left to say. He knew he couldn't go on this way. Nick?” He froze. dad. was already bounding up the stairs to the fastness of his bedroom for the night. even for someone who had failed as badly as he had.” “Leave the boy alone. Maureen continued to peruse the paper and Martin. “Have you had any news on the job front. You know. “No interviews coming up or anything?” “Interviews?” He felt exposed. He got up and started clearing away the dirty dishes. Within seconds the vacuum enveloped them once more. Suddenly Maureen spoke. How was your day?” “Fine. barely disguised contempt. before he could stop himself.“Martin!” “What? Oh.

Maybe it had a virus. Not with the bank taking…” “I know.” “What about the employment agencies?” “Nothing.” This was true. you need to start bringing in some money soon. I don’t give a damn about the tap in the bathroom. Nick?” “I was busy doing things to the house. you’ve got to get a job. The list was endless and despite his efforts had grown longer since he became unemployed. The antidote for which he had yet to discover. An hour on the bus and then into a building that felt like something out of Eastern Europe. Broken towel rails. full of strange and frightening people. “How many jobs have you applied for this week?” “This week?” “Nick.” “Nick.” “I fixed the leaking tap in the bathroom. He had kept himself busy doing all the things Maureen had been nagging him about for years. loose tiles in the bathroom. a leaking tap. a noisy central heating pump. Sometimes he imagined the house was afflicted by some sort of sick building syndrome. The trouble is nobody seems to be hiring at the moment. Not people my age anyway. Lots of other people my age are in the same boat. “Did you go today. “Finding a job is more important than faffing around the house all day. I know. the first time she had refused to be fobbed off by his . If I was twenty years younger it might be different.” This was the first time Maureen had really pressed him on his search for employment. humiliating. The unemployment virus. He found the whole process degrading.he had put on his job hunting progress.” “The Job Centre? Were you there today?” Nick hated the Job Centre. We can’t survive on what I earn.

But the fact that she had been brooding on his failure to find a job was unnerving. I just couldn’t. She was obviously getting seriously worried about their situation." . I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again." She didn’t look up. He said. very deep. Anything. Once he had thought of something. Since she obviously had no faith in him any more there was no way he was going to convince her that he could still rescue them from their plight. "Just leave them to drain. He would show her though. Nick. listen. hoping that Maureen would notice his predicament and give him a hand instead of just taking him for granted. I could do anything.” “We need money now. “No way. He stacked another pan precariously on top of the pile. "It might help if you dried a few dishes. treating him like some sort of nearly-invisible domestic help. Through gritted teeth he muttered. “I’ve got intellectual capital. The draining board on which he was piling the cleaned dishes was already dangerously crowded.vagueness. believe me. She was deep. Consultancy maybe. Absolutely not. Anything in fact. If she was worried about his unemployability that was a very bad sign indeed.” “No. Corporate trouble shooting. “I’ve been thinking about having another go at running my own business. They'll dry themselves. He had always found it impossible to tell what Maureen was thinking. Any bloody thing at all.” He gave up. Management temping. Maureen didn't seem to notice his problem with the dishes as she glanced through the mail.” “What kind of business?” “I don’t really know.” Maureen looked aghast. I’ve got the whole world to choose from.” “What about capital?” It was typical of Maureen to get bogged down in detail. While he was washing up in the kitchen Maureen came through to make herself a cup of tea. I wouldn’t need money. trying to suppress his anger. I couldn’t go through that again. I’ve learnt a lot over the past few months.

he thought. He had bought nothing in the last month so she couldn't blame him. Each dish he dried felt as fragile as antique porcelain in his shaking hands. occasionally frowning. Which was a bloody good reason for being dead. his heart thumping. "I haven't had time to open it. There were several obvious bills and. Momentarily panic overcame him and he had to restrain himself from running out of the house and being sick. destroying in one blinding flash the illusion that he was safe at home. "It's the bank. They want to speak to us urgently." . He was feeling faint again and he held on to the edge of the sink to steady himself. Her refusal to co-operate in his selfimposed pursuit of perfection infuriated him. worst of all. There seemed to be no way of avoiding bills while you were still alive no matter how hard you tried. Just existing these days. He saw her turn pale. just breathing and living on bread and water. He grabbed a tea towel from off the chair on which she was perched and ostentatiously started drying the dishes himself. He watched her furtively out of the corner of his eye while he cleared the draining board. He could feel the tension in the room mounting as the pile of letters accumulated at her elbow. His heart sank. “I just never got round to it. not for the first time. Maureen appeared not to detect the intended symbolism of his action. "What was in the mail today?" she asked." he lied.” Maureen worked her way through the pile of bills. With each new envelope she opened he became more and more anxious. He didn't understand where all the bills came from. That morning he had inadvertently opened a letter from the credit card company which had exploded in his head like a letter bomb. "What is it?" he asked. He was determined to show her how it would always be left neat and tidy under his regime. but saying nothing. watching her as she read the letter from their bank.This was perfectly true but he had set himself the task of clearing up the kitchen immediately. He dried the last plate very slowly. an unopened letter from the bank. lamely. He had been so upset that he had forgotten to hide the rest of the mail which now lay unopened on the window sill. “You haven’t had time?” He laughed sheepishly. seemed to cost a fortune. We've gone over our limit and they've put a stop on the account.

" he groaned again. They were living beyond their means. Debts that they would be paying for the rest of their lives. In a matter of days the bailiffs would arrive. for a miracle to happen.” He slumped into a seat at the table and cradled his head in his hands. They were going to lose everything." he groaned. as if he was sinking into quicksand. Time for something to turn up. What letters? We haven’t had any letters from them. By the end of the month they would be out on the street.” “I can’t get a job. the worst he had ever received. Then you’ll have to get a job. that was the problem. I keep telling you. I’m too bloody old. He had warned Maureen continually about spending money but she wouldn't listen. Then if they were lucky a council house on a crime-ridden housing estate where teenage gangs and drug addicts roamed the streets and people were mugged and burgled and threatened by neighbours from hell on a daily basis. He had known that on their hugely diminished income they were bound to run out of money eventually but he thought they might have survived for a few more weeks. Martin’. "I knew this was going to happen. Now they had dug themselves into a hole and there was no way out. After that the best they could hope for was bed and breakfast accommodation in some ghastly place full of DHSS claimants. His heart was thumping so violently against his chest that he could hardly breathe. The shaving foam was a typical example." “It says we’ve ignored all their previous letters and if we don’t respond they’ll have no choice but to place us in the hands of their debt recovery agents. have we?” “What the fuck are we going to do?” “First you’ll have to talk to them.It was the news he had been dreading for weeks. Her ." Maureen flinched. Her apparent calmness infuriated him. "Jesus Christ Almighty. It was all very well to adopt a reasonable and rational approach to their problems but that didn’t actually help in the slightest as far as solving anything was concerned. I’ve tried. I fucking knew it. feeling as if the ground had opened up beneath his feet. Maureen.” she chastised him softly. First their furniture would be carted off. “There’s no need to swear. "Jesus. And still they would be left with massive debts hanging around their necks. We can’t go on like this. "Christ.

"I’ve never accused you of anything. Have you spoken to the lawyer again?" “He said he’s still looking into it.” “What about going bankrupt? What did he say about that?” “We’ll still be stuck with those personal guarantees. I haven't even got any mates any more." "We can't sell the house. When was the last time I went out for a meal. Whatever happens we’re going to lose everything. The bank won’t let us. speaking rapidly. I don't even smoke because I'm too mean to buy fags." she whispered. God? I mean it's not even as if I spend any money. that's the only thing left. They're all out there at their golf clubs having a good time. I've become the . his voice rising as hysteria swept over him. He didn’t sound very optimistic. “What are we going to do?" he blurted out. Christ. "I mean I don't spend any money do I? I don't drink or gamble or go with women do I? I don't have expensive hobbies do I? I mean I gave up going fishing because I couldn't afford it. tell me?” “Martin. What he wanted was solutions. not sweet reasonableness. I hate spending money now. that’ll be the next thing.” “Jesus I’ve been living on bread and water for the past month. I don't go out with my mates do I? Christ. I haven't had a holiday for years. I mean you can't accuse me of being profligate can you? Can you?" Maureen continued to stare down at the pile of threatening letters. What about the house? We'll have to sell the house. “Why us. I’m starving myself to death. you know that. stop it.demeanour was as much use as someone staying calm in front of a firing squad. go on.” Maureen stared at the pile of bills. spending a fortune at the bar and look at me. I've got an old insurance policy somewhere. "What the fuck are we going to do? Is there anything we can sell? If only I could get a job? What about your parents? Will they lend us money? We could sell the furniture. Christ knows how we’re going to pay his bill. "Why has this happened to us?” he moaned. “We’ll have to do something.” Nick thrust his right hand to his mouth and bit hard into his knuckles.

. hitting his forehead with his fist. Upstairs Martin was playing the Beatles at what seemed like full volume. He didn’t think he could take much more. the child whose education had become a monkey on his back. All that struggle for what? For this?" Maureen began to grow alarmed as her husband became more and more hysterical. Now he just hated them. the electricity board. that was what she meant. But I flew too close to the sun. And all because I had a bit of ambition. believed that the world was full of promise and opportunities and endless excitement. the whole bloody business scared him. Nick had idolised them too. above all hated that bloody nightmarish racket banging on above his head. that’s the only solution. tell me. She said softly. hated the bank. that’s what. The whole fucking thing was a bloody nightmare. "I wish I had never been born.or else. The thought terrified him. it’s all my fucking fault. those mercenary bastards. All these fucking years for nothing. their hypocritical wealth. insistent demands. believed in them somehow. hated Maureen too for the way she took everything in her stride." Her words sent a chill through him for what they left unsaid. hated all those other fucking leeches with their fat prosperous lives and their thin. their absurd optimism. the credit card company." "Nothing's fucking helping. "I fucking wish I was dead. something that only ever happened at the very worst times in their lives. She would leave him. The sight of her heaving shoulders as she sat at the table cradling her head in her hands scared him. the milkman. because I wanted to do my best for my family. that bastard who thought of no one but himself. didn’t I? I had it coming. when he was young. Taking Martin with her. Nick. Or else what? What would happen to him if he failed to find work? He knew the answer.. hated Martin too if it came to that. "This isn't helping. Maureen suddenly started crying. hated himself too for failing to cope with them. making himself sick with worry. that's the problem. hated their fatuous lyrics." he continued. He knew he was getting hysterical but he couldn't stop himself. isn’t that right? Go on. the garage. the newsagent. Get a job.meanest fucking man you'll ever meet. Once. He stood . the coalman. Abandon him. there was nothing else left. nowhere else to turn. Nick. like the night their baby daughter had died eighteen years before. "You'll just have to get a job." he shouted." Maureen was looking increasingly distressed. leaving him to do all the worrying.

tearing his muscles in frustration. Which of course it wasn’t. tearing at it." He stormed out into the crisp. following his frosty sojourn beneath the stars. in that fairytale time when they could afford presents. and money was no object. slamming the door behind him. Not directly at least. As the sound of his footsteps crunching on the hard snow died away Maureen closed her eyes once more and slumped forward. using all his strength. Downstairs the phone was ringing. as if their dire predicament was somehow her fault. tearing the fabric. He bitterly regretted not apologising to Maureen for his behaviour the night before." he gasped. fumbling frantically with the zip that no longer worked properly. her blue eyes already turning bloodshot. The house was so cold that his breath condensed in front of his eyes. he had slept as deeply if he had been drugged. After years of putting up with him and all his unpredictable emotional demands and endless dramas she had finally reached that point where she knew she couldn’t take much more either. This time. He hated it when he was the cause of her unhappiness. He bit his lip.up. He climbed out of bed and pulled on his thick towelling dressing-gown. It's driving me totally totally fucking crazy. "I'm going out for a walk. "Where are you going?" sobbed Maureen looking up at him. He ignored it. He could imagine how she must be feeling after he had stormed off in a temper. or at least of no great concern. tears of frustration in his eyes. "Jesus. his brain enveloped by a blackness that was unilluminated by the usual dreams and nightmares. He checked the upstairs rooms but the house was definitely empty. I can't take any more of this. Usually he got up and made them breakfast before they set off. starlit night. the one she'd given him as a Christmas present years before. He hadn’t heard them go. He peered out of the bedroom window into the murky dawn light. He struggled frantically into his old Barbour. her forehead resting on her clenched fists. Chapter 4 Chapter 4 Maureen and Martin had gone by the time he woke up. There .

In the months that had dragged by since his company had folded he increasingly missed the warmth of human contact. He was unmoved by other people’s problems. Beneath the birdfeeder that hung from the old apple tree the daffodils were flowering at last. Although the scene from the window was truly beautiful. He sighed. unable to cope with the intellectual content of the discussion programme that followed. He went through to the sittingroom window and stood at the picture window and watched a flock of blue tits at the end of the garden feeding on the stale bread he had put out for them the day before.was no sign of any activity on the narrow farm lane leading up to the house. existing in a sensory vacuum. He padded downstairs to the kitchen in his slippers and switched on the radio. pleading and threatening. illuminating the shadows with bold splashes of colour. The Thought for the Day enraged him with its banality. These days his mind was occupied by the all-pervasive sense of dread that came from the knowledge that his world was about to implode. ruthless pursuit of the next mouthful. where you were part of a team fighting to win orders with all the fervour of the birds fighting for food at the end of the garden. The phone stopped ringing. the stimulus of surviving in a challenging environment where time flew by. A woman with a husky voice read out the headlines. He listened with distaste to the perennial diet of bad news: another suicide bomber wreaking havoc in a crowded restaurant in Israel. admired their single-minded sense of purpose. the same old tawdry political intrigues at home. At least the weather forecast was good which cheered him up a little. louder this time. He was under assault . Cold but sunny. at the end of the day it was no more real than looking at a landscape painting in an art gallery. detached from the action. shattering the silence. He recalled how the phone had once dominated his life in a good way. The echoing emptiness threatened to overwhelm him. He closed his eyes and tried to blank out the noise. dazzling them all with its beauty. organising and cajoling. at least for a while. The phone rang again. He comforted himself with the knowledge that with the imminent advent of warmer weather the garden would spring fully into life. The house fell silent again. He envied their boundless energy. an entirely predictable man-made famine in southern Africa. The phone was the instrument that had driven his business forward in his dealings with the outside world. He was safe for a while longer. He loved the sun. John Humphries was giving a hapless minor official in the department of transport a grilling about the underground. When the programme ended he switched off the radio. their uncomplicated. Wheeling and dealing. where all your energies were focused on solving tough but soluble problems. Not an outsider looking in at life.

Mechanically. it helped to buttress the remnants of his crumbling self-respect . he returned to the kitchen and cleared away the dishes he had left on the draining board the night before. When the phone fell silent he opened his eyes and gazed out beyond the hedge at the bottom of the garden across to the snow-capped eastern Cairngorms poking up into the shining blue horizon about twenty miles away. Whenever he did so a sense of dread would grip him for the rest of the day. Invariably he pictured what would happen if his creditors were to suddenly descend upon the house. When he had finished all his preparations he took a small heap of scraps and leftovers out to the bird table in the back garden. He always fed the birds even if it meant going short himself. He peeled enough potatoes for three and cleaned and chopped up half a cabbage. another of the household duties that Maureen now left to him. an even more scary individual who held their immediate well-being in his finely-manicured hands. in slow motion. Just the thought of picking up the phone to that granite-faced individual was enough to bring him out into a cold sweat. He decided to put the terrifying . that he was trapped within the bleak. an aerial bombardment of letters and phone calls.from a host of faceless enemies. and he wasn’t going to let them down in the way he’d failed everyone else. featureless landscape of his shrinking imagination. It was still only eight thirty and there was a whole day stretching out ahead of him. Maureen’s words of a few days earlier sprang into his mind. To postpone the looming vacuum of his pointless day he began to prepare the evening meal in advance of the far-off return of his family that night. He shivered in chilled recognition that there was nowhere to run. A fugitive could hide out in the hills and never be found. The birds depended on him. This wasn’t his former business bank manager who now only communicated to him through his lawyer. He was boiling the kettle when he remembered that there was one thing still left to do. It was important that the house looked tidy. He gazed at the picture-postcard view as if he was in a trance. although at this time of the year he might well die of exposure. Arrange the visit to the bank manager. Maureen was referring to their personal bank manager. a whole day with nothing to do but dwell upon his misfortune. populated only by fear. It was at this point in his day. He found a tin of corned beef in the back of the cupboard over the sink and left it unopened beside the cooker in readiness. He rammed a load of dirty clothes into the washing machine and set it running. He looked at his watch. with no chores left to do that his imagination often ran riot.

As the weeks had passed he had developed a routine designed to lessen the unpleasantness. He looked at his watch. or even until the electricity was actually cut off and they were tossed out onto the streets and there were no alternatives left. It was just a shame that the mail wasn’t the only way they were able to get at him.call off until tomorrow at least. and whenever the phone exploded into life his nerves were sent jangling. the threats of the credit card company. He’d considered taking the phone off the hook but he was worried in case that might actually precipitate a visit. Every second that ticked by was another merciful postponement of his final reckoning. Day by day. And every time the postman passed by without stopping meant another day's grace free from the wrath of the bank manager. just before the regular cascade of threatening letters and failed job applications came crashing through the letterbox. It was better to let them keep trying. In this near catatonic state he only stopped his vital organs giving up on him by dint of willpower alone. If he did and it actually turned out to be his Bank Manager – as had happened a couple of months before when their financial situation was only just starting to become uncomfortable – he knew that this time he would just die. He waited anxiously for the postman's van to appear at the bottom of the hill. Nine fifteen. As usual his decision to do nothing left him with a massive guilt complex and simply exacerbated the all-pervading sense of anxiety and unease that continually haunted him these days. . even though the constant ringing was driving him mad. another endless day on death row. After he had checked the view out of the front and back windows he sneaked back upstairs to the safety of his bedroom. the insistent demands of the tax man. His only consolation was that this particular instrument of persecution wouldn’t survive for much longer – the phone bill reminder was already way overdue which meant that they would be cut off any day now. As well as the ultimate threat of an actual visit there was always the latent danger from the telephone. By standing on tiptoe he could just see out of the window from the back of the room. or maybe even the day after. Hour by hour. That was how he lived now: in constant fear of the final showdown. Hidden in the shadows he hoped he would fool the postman into thinking that the house was empty just in case there were any recorded deliveries or warrants or whatever it was they sent you when you defaulted on your bills. As usual he prayed silently that the van would pass the house without stopping and that for just a little while longer he would be unmolested by human contact. The feeling of impending disaster was now so suffocating that it made breathing difficult and somehow mechanical. Minute by minute. The postman was due at any minute. This was the most tense time of the day. He knew he was being cowardly and stupid but he simply couldn’t take the risk of picking up the phone. They continually tried to get to him that way now.

He made himself a weak coffee and took it through to the sitting room. When he was certain the coast was clear he shuffled stiffly back down to the kitchen. His immediate relief was tempered by the knowledge that no delivery also meant no invitations to job interviews nor acknowledgements of his multiple job applications and therefore not even a faint glimmer of hope for the immediate future. they didn’t happen to people like him. There was a white Range Rover which he had never seen before sitting at the foot of the road Chapter 5 Garry Brown wound down the window of his white Range Rover and trained his powerful binoculars upon the cottage nestling half way up the hill. The only possible course of action was to keep on looking until he found a solution. waiting for a miracle to happen. Sure he was in a fix but somewhere. He was only days away from disaster. No matter how hopeless things seemed he knew had to be positive. licking his lips in anticipation. Beside him in the passenger seat Rip his Alsatian raised his head and looked at his master with quizzical eyes. Even if miracles did sometimes happen. He stood and watched them enviously for several minutes. He stood on tiptoe and watched it disappear from view at the end of the road. . He waited in the corner of the bedroom until he heard the postman’s van roar back down the hill. The bird table was still alive with chaffinches and blue tits feeding on the scraps he had put out earlier. somehow there had to be an answer. He knew he couldn’t go on this way. No. not to give up prematurely or spend his time perpetually casting around for excuses. He was just about to sit down when he noticed something beyond the skeletal branches of the apple tree that turned his insides to ice. even worse.This particular morning nearly an hour dragged by before he postman's van finally buzzed past the house without stopping on its way to the house at the top of the hill. After taking a deep breath he sat down again at the breakfast table determined to confront his problems head on. To make sure it wasn’t a trick he kept watch until his calves ached and his legs were shaking. It was time to finally recognise that enduring reality. or. He knew he couldn’t go on burying his head in the sand. He simply had to come up with a solution that would finally put him out of his misery. the only person that could save him now was himself.

As he approached the cottage he dialled Nick Sterling’s number on his mobile. calloused knuckles. “I seen you through the binoculars. Rip leapt down after him and he tied the dog to the door handle of the vehicle. Let the target see the dog. He was well-prepared for a long siege. “Anybody in?” he barked politely into the shadowy void. He had only just bought the debt from the credit card company but the acquisition already looked like it was going to turn into a profitable investment. He made a note of the time in his notebook. He’d bought the debt for twenty per cent of face value – the issuing bank behind the credit card reckoned it was a hopeless case – so any result was bound to be a good one. The object was to create maximum confusion in his target’s mind. There was no doorbell so he knocked loudly on the wooden door with his big. He had a baseball bat in the boot but he knew he wouldn’t need it here. knowing it wouldn’t be answered. It didn’t matter. He repeated his assault on the door a further four times as the morning . He didn’t attempt to calm it. He kicked the dog so that it snarled at him and began barking. grinning. and even then most people gave very little trouble once he had cornered them. “I know you’re in there. Catching the debtor before he made a run for it was half the battle. Generally speaking you had to be pretty feckless to get so deeply into debt. There was no response. he thought. That instrument was mainly for inner city use. Taking his time he first fed the dog then clambered back into the vehicle where he poured himself a cup of coffee from a thermos and took out a mutton pie from his plastic lunchbox. Garry Brown was a big man and he clambered out of the Range Rover onto the driveway with difficulty.Garry Brown surveyed the house with professional precision for five minutes before he lowered the binoculars. to disorientate him. He patted the Alsatian’s head and turned the keys in the ignition. not the kind of person who usually put up much of a fight. When he had finished his meal he switched on Radio One and tilted back his seat and dozed lightly. He had spotted someone moving through an upstairs window.” he called through the letterbox.” When there was still no response he ambled back to the Range Rover. There was no reply so he bent down and opened the letterbox. The big car began moving up the hill with all the finality of a Sherman tank. a knowing smile playing on his lips. While he ate he read the Sun. He only wished that he was allowed to use stun grenades the way he used to do when he was in the SAS.

not yet.” the debt collector said. smiling pleasantly.” “You certainly look like shit.” He grinned. His whole body trembled with terror. I don’t owe you anything. So. cannibalistic grin.” “Blimey.” “What is it you want?” The debt collector’s eyes twinkled.” The debt collector laughed. see. innit. His ashen face was unshaven. Do it all the time in fact. You owe the money to me now. you must be constipated all right.” “I…I’ve not been well. “What do you mean? They can’t do that. “Come on. what do you think? Money. that’s why I’m here. It’s all legal and above board. his shoulders drooping in defeat. “You deaf or something. Have you seen a doctor?” “I…no.” “Your wife’s working.wore on until finally. what you used to owe.” “I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. just before midday. the door was slowly opened. sunshine. I’ve bought the debt. The stuff that makes the world go round. isn’t she?” . I’ve come to collect the money you owe on your credit card. I’d like to help but the fact is I’m absolutely broke myself. Now you belong to me. what about it then? What about the money you owe me? When am I going to get it back?” “I’m unemployed. A large. “You took your time. toothy. pal. sunshine. “I know that matey. Don’t look so upset. Or rather.” “Oh yes they can.” “I was in the toilet. A gaunt middle-aged man dressed in pyjamas lurked in the shadows of the hallway. “Debt collection agency. Who are you?” The man flashed a business card.

People never think of the consequences. “Why’s that then? You owe them too?” “I put the house up as a guarantee for my business loans. I’ll have some of that. Very good. tugging ferociously on its chain. Them’s mine then. What about the house?” “It’s signed over to the bank.” “Maybe. A Smeg is it? That’ll be worth something for a start. I see it all the time.” The debt collector turned and whistled to his Alsatian. “There’s always a way. He enjoyed the challenge of extracting blood from a stone.” “You’re getting brew money though. Most of the time you COULD get blood from a stone.“My wife? It’s got nothing to do with her. very silly. Is she working?” “She’s working but my old company’s bank is already stopping half her salary. Soon.” “Did you? Very silly. “That’s a nice looking fridge.” “Oh. Maybe not. . Very.” “Of course I mind. “What about the contents?” “I don’t know. a smile playing on his lips. which was mostly a question of thinking laterally and then applying pressure in the appropriate place. The dog immediately leapt to its feet and started barking. eh?” “It’s a pittance. Not enough to live on. He turned back to Nick and shrugged his shoulders sympathetically.” “Good. There’s no way you’re coming in here.” the debt collector frowned.” The debt collector thought for a moment. even if you ended up having to crush it to dust. Mind if I come in and look around?” He looked over Nick’s shoulder. do they? When are they going to take possession?” “I don’t know.” “Ha!” he exclaimed triumphantly.

He stopped to .” “You’re going to take everything?” “I wish I could. He felt like a refugee in wartime. Georgian if I’m not mistaken. running his hand across the mahogany table in the hall. He dressed with feverish haste.” he said admiringly. “Nice piece of furniture. his heart was thumping. brushing aside the illusion of safety. He was out of breath and his stomach was churning as if he had been poisoned. Never in a million years would he have believed that a debt collector would have penetrated his house. leaning blindly into the teeth of an icy blizzard. You got any paintings? Any originals? What about antiques? Silverware? Jewellery? Any heirlooms? Books even? Oi. I can take the rest. do you?” Suddenly feeling that the situation was hopeless Nick stepped back and the debt collector sauntered into the hallway. pulling on his old Barbour as he tumbled out of the house. Only when he reached the foot of the hill did he pause to lace up his walking boots. The debt collector took out a pair of scissors and cut it in two. Look at that. Right. When he bent over he almost threw up. “Should get at least a grand for that in the auction.“You don’t want to have to put up with that all night.” Chapter 6 Nick was close to tears as he stood at his bedroom window and watched the white Range Rover drive off down the hill through a whirling snowstorm. to get away from the scene of his humiliation before he broke down completely. He struggled on for nearly and hour until eventually the snowstorm abated sufficiently to reveal an unfamiliar cotton wool landscape. He took out his notebook and started making an inventory. “That’s yours.” Nick fumbled in his wallet and handed over his platinum card. it would never be the same again. He felt degraded. Got to leave the necessities unfortunately. Somewhere to sleep. The sanctity of his home had been desecrated. He was breathing hard. his hand shaking. his face constantly whipped by stinging snowflakes. He staggered off southwards. “Wow. The cooker.” He whistled when he peered into the sitting-room. He felt as if he had been raped. less of a person. He knew he had to get out. He handed one half to Nick. give me your credit card. somehow unmanned. That’ll do nicely. I’ll have that DVD player for a start.

He . Later. He stared thoughtfully down at the water wondering how deep it was. he wondered? The prospect of an end to all his problems was a beguiling one. it was his duty to somehow put things right. He leaned out over the parapet of the old military bridge and peered down into the dark churning water below. Immediately beneath the bridge was a fine pool almost a quarter of a mile long that often held large shoals of salmon. almost at early summer levels. devoid of life. He sighed. He picked himself up and slithered on until he came to a T-junction where he deserted the main road and clambered over a wooden fence beyond which was the birch wood forest he used to play in as a child. Despite the recent heavy snowfalls the river was running free of ice and grue. He waded through waving fields of waist-deep icy bracken and fought his way past massive banks of bramble bushes that tore at his exposed skin like rolls of barbed wire. He had read somewhere that drowning was a good way to die. Eventually he picked up the tracks of an old drove road that he knew would lead him to the river.collect his thoughts. It would be a lonely grave. Underneath the skeletal canopy of trees the snow was sparser and the going was a little easier. In the event the water appeared empty. His brain was so numbed he didn’t feel the pain. potential companions on his next journey. He was exhausted and he leaned against the stone parapet of the bridge and stared down into the steely grey water below. He knew he would have to turn back eventually. How long it would take or the river would embrace him. He imagined himself plunging into the icy depths. When the track petered out after about a mile he emerged from the forest adjacent to the main road at the point where it crossed the river Dee. He tried to re-connect with the past but failed. So many fond memories. when the snow melted up in the mountains Nick knew that the river would rise and the big spring runs of salmon would commence their journey to the spawning beds in the headwaters of the river. Over the years he had spent many happy hours fishing the river. As a result the river was running low. He was the cause of all the problems. throwing up a slushy tidal bow wave that knocked him sideways. At that moment a lorry roared past. The river looked inviting for a different reason. searching for the tell-tale flashes of silver that indicated the presence of fish preparing to dash through the rapids at the head of the pool. He couldn’t abandon his family. The clear nights had led to a succession of hard frosts which had reduced the run-off from the land as the earth froze. He was ready to admit defeat. He gazed down for several minutes into the powerful swirls and eddies thirty feet below.

When you are the keeper on a top salmon beat every stranger is a potential poacher. The ghillie simply scowled back while the young woman. The harsh sunlight glinting on the rippling water had turned the pool into a silvery mirror. upside-down. From the blackness of the fish’s silhouette he decided that it was probably a kelt. glaring at him with all the warmth of a store detective greeting the arrival of a serial shoplifter. sending the line out and across and down the river in a smooth and effortless delivery that he would have been proud to emulate. He returned the old man's malevolent stare with equanimity. exhausted after spawning. can’t he? I might be a bankrupt and a failed businessman at the end of my tether but I am still a human being. Finally he decided that the rest of the pool was empty. whom he reckoned was in her early thirties. Nick wasn’t surprised by his reaction. the cat can look at the queen. The ghillie looked up once more. at two equally startled people looking up at him from the riverbank below. appearing . drifting back to sea on the current. Fuck you. He had often in the past watched the dark. He smiled self-consciously at them. The woman wielding the rod fished on oblivious to his presence. He leaned further out over the parapet to get a better view into the shaded depths beneath the arch of the bridge. As if to make a mockery of his conclusion that the stretch was empty a big fish splashed languidly in the tail of the pool sending out a huge concentric ring of ripples.craned his neck to examine a stretch of pale sandy gravel running along the edge of the river. proceeded to ignore him completely as she performed a superbly executed Spey cast. he thought to himself. He saw at once that the couple was a young female fisherman and her much older companion. almost thirty miles from the sea. He squinted at the burnished surface until his eyes watered. Either the fish had already run on upstream after the last spate or they had not yet arrived this far inland. Shortly afterwards he heard the sound of the fly swishing through the air beneath his feet and a few minutes later the couple appeared on the grassy bank immediately below him. almost certainly a ghillie. ominous torpedo shapes of cock fish gliding upriver in their relentless drive to reach the spawning grounds. Just about. so early in the season. To his surprise he found himself staring. Unable to breathe properly in his bat-like position he regained his footing on the road and waited for the couple to emerge from under the bridge as they worked their way down through the pool. a burly dark-skinned man of about sixty dressed in thick brown tweeds.

will often appear lethargic and disinterested unless the lure swims slowly right past the end of its nose. an actress perhaps or maybe someone from the world of modelling or music. Despite the almost-tangible waves of animosity beaming up towards him Nick continued to watch the pair for another twenty minutes or so as they fished down through the pool. She looked like the kind of person who would always think she knew best. When they had fished down through the pool the couple walked back along the bank to a landrover parked beside the bridge. plainly resenting his presence. although she rose nothing.utterly intent on expertly covering every inch of the pool. but he was sure she was some sort of celebrity. For the time being he could not put a name to the face. one of the most exclusive beats on Deeside. For the first time he could see her face clearly and he felt certain that she looked familiar. he admitted to himself with a rueful smile. that was for sure. actually. She was dressed in a well-cut Barbour wading jacket. The underclass. The sudden realisation of what he had gone . A cool. in any other context he would have been invisible. Whoever she was he could see she was a looker. And she wanted a fish and no ill-mannered rustic gawping down at her from a public road was going to stop her. He assumed that they were talking about him. about thirty metres from where Nick was standing. like something that had just stepped out of the pages of Country Life. He was surprised the ghillie hadn't pointed this out. Despite her good casting technique Nick reckoned that she was moving the fly through the water too quickly for the time of year. The woman on the other hand never took her eyes off her fly. He could hear them muttering to each other and once more he was the recipient of a murderous look from the ghillie. especially a big springer. and at this time of the year the fish always lay deep. She wore fashionable sunglasses. Round her neck was wrapped a white scarf. Three times more the old ghillie looked back up at him. She would certainly have to be either rich or very well-connected to be able to fish this stretch of water. Although he had never been a political animal for once he felt like he was doing his bit for his class. He knew from experience that a spring salmon. Someone who knew exactly what they wanted and how to get it. haughty beauty. not allowing it to sink down far enough to reach the fish. From the safety of the bridge he enjoyed a mild feeling of satisfaction at the discomfiture his presence was creating – he had fallen so far below them in society’s pecking order this was probably the only way he would ever appear on their radar screens. or maybe he had but she thought she knew better. It struck him at that moment that this was the first time he had smiled for weeks. jeans and a smartlooking pair of green wellingtons. She was bare-headed. Her blonde hair was short and quite straight.

The sacrifices had all been in vain. He frowned as he stared down at the river. bouncing irritably across the rough pasture. hated the social hierarchy that perpetuated it. Nick watched them go with mixed emotions. which he wasn’t. All the pain of trying to build up his own business simply wasn’t worth it and he’d been a fool to think otherwise. giving him at least six months in which to make enough money to keep a roof over his head and get that ghastly debt collector off his back. a rough and ready way with the . Cash in hand. He knew they were equipped with walkietalkies and night-sights and other high tech devices. Not the least of which was that the Dee was well policed by bailiffs. He could certainly eke out an existence from poaching. But maybe that was the wrong way to think about it. Maybe he had once aspired to join them. A big net and a tin of poison from one of his farmer friends more like. An idea was beginning to take shape in his mind. He had regularly subsidised his fishing in the past by selling his catch in just such a way. Worth quite a bit when proffered round the back doors of some of the local fish merchants in town. Tax-free. The price per pound for wild salmon was high. ten yards below the first. They were mobile too. The idea wasn’t too farfetched.through in that time made him immeasurably sad. There were other drawbacks naturally. He should have remained poor but happy. or at least indulge in that kind of lifestyle. scattering a herd of cows as they did so. There were problems of course. He presumed they were off in search of a more promising stretch of water away from the public gaze. To make matters worse he felt snubbed by their abrupt departure in some strange way that he didn’t understand. It sounded crazy but…what if…poaching…on an industrial scale…Maybe the answer to his predicament was actually staring him in the face. He knew the river like the back of his hand. he was sure of that. Another fish splashed in the river right below the bridge. And then another. For a start his debts were so enormous that he would have to catch every fish in the river if he was ever going to pay them off. The spring run was just getting under way. Envied their privileged way of life. No questions asked. Maybe even buy him enough time to get a proper job that would finally get his life back on track. reputedly. He realised that he simultaneously envied and hated them. They had also. Yet another fantasy that had caused him to take risks he shouldn’t have done. Nick had caught hundreds of fish in his time and he could tell that these were big fish. He suddenly felt himself getting exited. Not with a rod and line. A few minutes later the ghillie strapped the rod onto the bonnet of the landrover and the couple drove off across the meadow at speed.

he hadn’t eaten all day. she was good at that sort of thing. At least while he was still within the river’s ancient floodplane the track was flat and mostly free of snow and ice. On the other hand… On the other hand there was an awful lot of river to watch and provided you were well-camouflaged and kept your wits about you… Nor would he be operating in an alien environment. expecting to be fed. A silvery ribbon of hope weaving its way through the rich green pasture. He was pretty sure he could spice up the tin of corned beef and maybe he could do the potatoes in a different way. He couldn’t wait to tell Maureen.poachers they caught. After the meal he would tell Maureen about his plan to . Nick retreated into the wood. After a while he gave up puzzling about the woman and started thinking about the meal he would prepare for Maureen and Martin. She was the one who had really suffered in all this. He took a last look at the deserted river. He reckoned he was about eight miles from home. It was up to him to make it work. Despite his tiredness he quickly got into his stride and was soon marching along at a brisk pace. he was chilled to the marrow. But for the first time in weeks he was happy. his feet were lumps of ice. There was no doubt about it: the idea had legs. He wasn’t beaten yet. She was definitely famous. A ribbon he would soon untie to claim his prize. There was still hope. It was a shame there wasn’t any drink in the house to celebrate his Big Idea. He checked his watch. They would just have to make do with spring water. The afternoon was wearing on and he was a long way from home. He knew the river round here at least as well as any keeper. almost certainly a film star. maybe even royalty. Martin in particular loved spicy foods . He had played in the woods as a child and despite the encroaching darkness he soon found a track he recognised. He clenched his fists in front of his chest like a boxer. Now he had a plan he would make it all up to her. He had found a potential solution to his problems. As he walked he tried to remember who the fisherwoman was that he had observed earlier down at the river. It really irritated him that he could not put a name to her face. He knew it was his last chance. Even the cabbage could be glamorised if he stir-fried it for example. He would be lucky to get back before Maureen and Martin arrived back from town. He was ravenously hungry and he started to salivate as he imagined the intensity of the flavours he would create. His legs were stiff from standing still for so long. He strode out with a sense of purpose. Maureen would have known who she was.

they’d probably been held up by traffic in town. Normally whoever was first back put on the outside light and of course the inside lights but everything here was still in darkness. If they did arrive home before the meal was ready it would mean that Maureen would be all harassed and resentful. gooseberries and damsons harvested in the summer. It wasn’t a game was it? A surprise? Or… a …. Where there had been despair there was now hope. despite his tiredness. while Martin too would be indignant that his tea wasn't ready and waiting as usual. He could reap salvation from the land not just by poaching salmon but by snaring rabbits and hares and shooting pheasants. And he was just thinking about the meal either. What he was doing was entirely pragmatic. He hesitated. trap? His heart began to beat faster. sheep and pigs were probably out of the question. Once again. To his great relief there were no lights showing so he figured Maureen and Martin weren’t back yet. Raising animals to kill them wasn’t something he felt too comfortable about to tell the truth. What a feast that would make – like a medieval banquet. he quickened his footsteps. He wasn’t being romantic about it either – he wasn’t some old hippie or like someone out of the Good Life. That was odd. Really he should have been home a couple of hours ago to get the tea ready. A short term solution to tide them over until he got a proper job. in trying to work out a solution to their problems. He felt guilty at the length of time he had been away. Chapter 7 Nick limped into the driveway and was immediately taken aback to see Maureen's Saab parked outside the garage. An hour later he reached the foot of the farm road. Now that spring was here he could dig up the garden and plant seeds and potatoes too. Mushrooms and chanterelles could be picked in the autumn. an increasingly regular occurrence nowadays. brutish and short.rescue them from financial ruin. he would have failed them abysmally. Maybe even chickens. Nor did he hark after the good old days when he knew only too well that life for most people on the land was nasty. Maybe there . maybe even the odd deer. Wild raspberries. It occurred to him that he didn’t have to stop at salmon. His nerves were on edge. In future they would live off the land just like their ancient ancestors had done. please let me get it right this time. Being realistic. An owl hooted in the woods opposite the house and he jumped. They had a bit of land after all. Wearily he trudged up the hill in darkness towards the cottage. Something was wrong. In desperation. He frowned. All the same he smiled to himself at the miraculous way the day had been transformed. Please God. he prayed as he struggled up the hill. nearly half an acre.

ready to run at the first sign of trouble. Nick understood immediately what had happened. as if he was a ghost. Probably the weight of the frozen snow had snapped a power line although it could be anything. "What? It must be. holding his breath. relieved that nothing worse had happened. making him feel small and insignificant.” Maureen looked up for the first time. acting almost as if he wasn’t there." he said breathlessly. mechanically stirring the saucepan on the primus. Sometimes Maureen’s stupidity amazed him. Just to make sure he tried switching on the television . although on this occasion snow was the more likely culprit. "It's not a power cut. Famously." He tried the two different light switches in the hall and the kitchen and nothing happened." she said softly. Maureen continued to ignore him. Of course it was a power cut.was a posse of creditors lurking in the darkness ready to leap out on him? Or the bank manager? Worst of all maybe the debt collector had come back to take the shirt off his back. it certainly wasn’t a fuse. Power cuts were a regular feature of life in the country.” he exclaimed with unconvincing vehemence. His voice was almost drowned out by the roar of the primus. staring into it like a witch casting spells over a cauldron. usually associated with bad weather and high winds. She was stirring a pot by the light of a single flickering candle. unlit kitchen was Maureen hunched over a roaring primus stove. “Christ. the electricity company had once discovered that it had been cows rubbing up against an electricity pylon which had caused a whole winter of disruption. “Couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery that lot. on tiptoe. She was staring at him as if he was a total stranger. Very slowly and cautiously he slid open the back door and felt his way into the house. The way she was behaving unnerved him. “It’s the same every bloody year.” he shouted. The first thing he saw when he entered the shadowy. He watched her for a moment like he was watching a scene from an old silent movie. She did not look up when he entered the room. She turned down the jet on the primus. you’d think the power company would have got their act together after all this time. Nick was puzzled. "Don't tell me another power cut. The reek of paraffin pervaded the room. The condensation from her breath flamed in the jet from the primus as though she was breathing fire. the lights were on different circuits. These blackouts were a regular occurrence.

No-one else's lights have gone off. He could tell from the sound of her voice that she was really upset.” said Maureen. Nick?" He frowned again. He shivered. first one way then the other. The house was freezing. He wanted to turn and run back out of the house and hide out in the fields but he couldn’t move. As the implications of her observation dawned on him Nick felt as if someone was slowly pouring a bucket of cold water over his head. banging his knee painfully against the sideboard as he did so. I told you. "See. He stared in dismay at the familiar view. I can’t figure it out. His brain too was slowing down. Their world was coming to an end as they entered a new Ice Age. he rejected the evidence of his own eyes. "Why is it just us?" "Don't you?” “It’s bizarre. There’s no other explanation. hoping against hope.” “Can’t you." Maureen continued stirring the contents of the saucepan on the primus. He was drowning in terror. "it's not working either." he declared triumphantly." she said eventually. tasting the contents of the pot with the wooden spoon as steam rose up around her. “Look for yourself. as if he was suffering from some kind of mental hypothermia. It must be a power cut. This has never happened before. rubbing his knee. He tried to think. Although he dreaded what he was going to find Nick forced himself to cross the sitting-room floor in the darkness and look out through the picture window down upon the valley below. her voice reduced to a whisper behind the hissing flame of the primus. He couldn’t breath in. If it wasn’t a power cut…if it wasn’t a power cut…if it wasn’t a power cut…He couldn’t get his brain to work properly.in the sitting room. Nothing happened." he said. "I don't understand. "Look outside. gently with a wooden spoon. If it wasn’t a power cut they…they must have been cut off. The lights from a dozen scattered houses twinkled merrily like a scene on a Christmas card. He felt as if the blood was congealing in his veins. What did she think had happened to them? What did she . He felt his way back through to the kitchen. There was no doubt about what happened and yet. His teeth started chattering. he just couldn’t think straight any more. Normally when a power line went down the whole valley was plunged into darkness.

All unopened. A big pile of threatening letters from your credit card company. the day of reckoning. still in denial." he interrupted. I'll phone the electricity people right now and find out what's happened. It was possible. the rates." “Did you?” “I could have sworn I sent off a cheque a week ago. The phone bill is well overdue too. An age passed before she finally spoke. This was it then." Nick frowned. Along with all the other unpaid bills and final reminders. Perhaps the final link had been broken in some kind of accident. She knew. "I knew it was bad but I didn't think it was that bad. So what's the problem? When are they coming to fix it?" She stopped stirring the saucepan and stared at him through dead eyes. She knew everything.know? Maybe she thought it was just the power line into their house. "Jesus." "You needn’t bother.” “I’ve already phoned them. Leave it to me. Car insurance. “What?” “They said they’ll turn it back on…” "Jesus. "They said they’ll fix it when we pay our bill. He had been caught red-handed. "I found the bill stuck behind the clock on the mantelpiece unopened. He said. I'm amazed that hasn't been cut off already.” "Oh. even to himself. I’ll put a rocket up their arse I can tell you." His legs suddenly went weak and he was obliged to sit down at the kitchen table. The moment when all his dreams of salvation were about to be slaughtered on the altar of harsh reality. a bill from the garage. The showdown he had been dreading for months had finally arrived." he said fatuously. half a dozen letters from the bank.” Maureen continued to stare blankly at him. "Don’t worry. ." “It’s no problem." He stared at her in horror. Maybe it was just them. "I thought we'd paid it. He felt the blood draining from his face.

If you hadn’t hidden them like that we might have been able to do something before it got to this. How? What.” It was his turn to stare in disbelief. I was terrified. "All right. Suddenly she seemed like a different woman. I know." She shut her eyes. He knew there was no defence for his behaviour. If she left him now she would be leaving him for dead." "Oh yes. Nick. I just know they'll have to be paid somehow. No. I know. had always stuck by him. close to tears. If she abandoned him now he was finished. The next thing you know they’ll be turning up on the doorstep asking for money. now it’s your . After all. There was no way he would get through the impending crisis on his own. But how? We’re broke Maureen.She stared at him in disbelief. write a cheque. tried to have reached an accommodation somehow. Tell you what. what did you think? Did you think all those bills were going to go away if you ignored them? Is that what you thought? I couldn't believe it when I found them. Nick. Put them on the credit card. Maureen. How about that? No? What about the house? Sell the house? Oh.” He hated being in the wrong. you tell me how we can pay them all off. “I know. I’ve spent bloody weeks worrying myself sick about them trying to come up with an answer. I know. It was stupid of me to ignore them. I’m stumped. He felt absolutely wretched. but what was I supposed to do?” “Why didn’t you talk to me about it? I’d no idea it was this bad. "You didn't think it was that bad? Oh.” He didn’t tell her about the visit from the debt collector. There going to throw us out onto the street. How could you have been so bloody stupid?" It was the first time he had ever heard her swear and it scared him. I was too scared. I forgot it belongs to the bank doesn’t it. No. "I don’t know the answer. she had always been loyal. “I didn’t want to worry you. “I know.” “They’ll have to be paid somehow. “If you hadn’t ignored them we could have talked to them.” he muttered. I admit it. Up until that moment she had always been supportive whatever his failings.

” Nick grimaced. “This isn’t helping. We survived then.” “You can’t blame me for that.” “There’s no point blaming anyone. spitting out the words. Maureen turned away. She thought for several seconds.turn.” “You do blame me though.” “So it is all my fault. How was I to know that would happen. don’t you?” He was becoming hysterical. I didn’t know what you were doing. Maureen.” she said. I think that’s fair. Rows were his way of avoiding the truth. I’m not a bloody magician you know. We had nothing when we first go married. don’t go on about it. “You never discussed the business with me. don’t you.” “All right. If you don’t do what they want they’ll get someone else who will. I never understood why you were always trying to make the company bigger. I can’t read the future.” “The loss of your major customer didn’t help I suppose.’” She didn't smiled at his feeble attempt to make light of the matter. You blame me for running the business into the ground. foam flecking the corners of his mouth. You can’t plan for something like that. “Just like the old joke. It came out of the blue. I had to trust me. Nick. Go on. say it. through clenched teeth.” It was a difficult question. She hated rows. we can survive now. ‘I started out with nothing and I’ve still got most of it left. did they?” . The customers always want you to do more. “I know it’s all my fault.” “You can’t stand still in business. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have taken on so much debt trying to grow the business.” “And where were those customers when you needed them? They didn’t care what happened to you when the work dried up.

Jumped ship at the first sign of trouble did he? Aye. But I did it because I loved you both. almost as if it was somehow their fault.” “I know. I’ve tried everything. I was perfectly happy to get by on a living wage. I just wanted the best for you and Martin." she said. Nick. “We didn’t need a fortune. Anything.” “Maureen. She said. "What about Martin?" "He's gone off to stay with one of his friends.” She didn’t reply immediately. "You'll have to have bread with it. I’ve run out of ideas. "Oh has he.” “Nick.” “Well." . You’ve got to start bringing some money into the house.” “I’ve tried Maureen.” “I don’t know. “The question is. She was aware that in a way he was using their love as a justification for his lofty ambitions." He frowned. I’m sorry. That doesn’t stop me going out every day and knocking my pan in at school.” Maureen sighed. what are we going to do now. I don't know what to do next. You understand that.” “You can’t give up Nick. I know. he's a great comfort to us all. I was wrong. That’s not fair. I might have guessed it. If you hadn’t borrowed all that money we wouldn’t be in this situation now. how do you think I feel? This thing has been a nightmare for me too." Nick took the news badly. I did it for al the right reasons. The tinned stew she had been heating on the primus was starting to bubble.Nick shrugged. It could have gone the other way and I could have made a fortune. I’m a beaten man. “That’s the nature of the game I was in. don’t you. No one will take me. Okay.” For the first time a hint of resentment had crept into her voice. What’s going to happen to Martin and me? You’ve got to get a job. "I can't cook potatoes as well. you can’t leave it all up to me to sort out. She placed the saucepan on the table in front of him. Nick.

When the phone rings I nearly die of fright. "I'm sorry.” “I just think we should stick together as a family in a crisis. I really am. That was the whole point of being a family. that was all. is that what you want?" Her words wounded him deeply. That’s what had driven him ever since he’d got married. love." She wasn't used to seeing her husband looking beaten. They were supposed to present a united front against the world.” “You expect too much of him. Why shouldn’t he spend the night with his friends? Would you rather he sat here in the dark feeling miserable. It just makes me feel worthless. working himself into the ground. Of course that wasn't what he wanted. Maureen turned off the primus and the room rang with an echoing. He was only too aware that if Maureen had married someone else – as she could easily have done. The reality was that their solidarity was rapidly disintegrating at the first real sign of trouble. All those letters of rejection. He’s just a child. she had no lack of choice when she was young – she wouldn’t be in this mess now. Every time the postman calls I’m just terrified.Maureen moved the candle onto the table and sat down opposite her husband. a saccharine. Just a bit of solidarity wouldn't have gone amiss. feeling so sorry for . He hated it when they fought like this. He sighed. It's just all been too much for me recently. "That’s not a fair comment. Nick. Then everything just spiralled out of control. He shouldn’t be blaming them. risking everything. He had done it all for them. So much for being a closeknit family bound together by love. The least they could do when it all went wrong was to stand by him. He said softly. He pushed his plate away and buried his head in his hands. This wasn't how it was meant to be. and you know it. It hurts so much. I’m just living in fear the whole time. What do you want him to do. starting the business. He had to take responsibility for his shortcomings. He couldn’t bear the thought that his ideal might just be an illusion. sentimental product of fifties Hollywood. I didn’t open the letters because I didn’t know what I could do about them. helping herself to a little of the stew. metallic silence. go out and get a job at Macdonald's to pay the bills? You want him to sacrifice his future to save your skin. Nick. He knew it wasn’t their fault that everything had gone to pieces. And I can’t see any way out. This whole thing is my fault. He’d always believed in the family ideal.

sometimes even foolish. He was just too old.himself. It wouldn’t be long before his brain gave up too and that really would be the finish. so that at times she hardly recognised him any more. At the end of the day he knew the only real answer was to get a job. She loved him too much to see him hurt any more. I’m so uptight my head is spinning like it’s about to come off. The collapse of the business seemed to have changed him completely. optimism. She felt desperately sorry for him even if a lot of his present problems were self-inflicted." "Perhaps you're right. Explain the position. That and finding someone to take him on at his age. As it was he was struggling to come up with any new answers. Nick.open up a bit. To tell you the truth I sometimes feel like I'm carrying the problems of the whole fucking world on my shoulders. Unemployment for the likes of him was here to stay. she had no wish to twist the knife in him when he was down." She waited patiently for him to calm down. He didn't need her to tell him that. any halfsensible suggestions. you'll just have to go and see the bank manager tomorrow. what are we going to do about all those bills? We can't just go on ignoring them.. His present demeanour was a worrying contrast to his usual blithe. as she always did. He was so overwhelmed by the situation that he was losing control of his bodily functions. Ask him for a bigger overdraft to tide us over. dribbling gravy down his chin and onto his shirt. Eventually she said. Even so. no one needed his outdated skills any more. Perhaps we could find the solution together." . however responsible he might be for their current dire straits. knocked all the stuffing out of him. whatever he might think. Even the idea of poaching salmon suddenly seemed far-fetched when it was set against the reality of the pile of threatening letters. "If only you'd talk about these things more. "Nick. "The question is. I don’t suppose the mortgage has been paid either." She flinched at his violent language but on this occasion left her customary reprimand unsaid. forcing the meat between his sullen lips. throwing in the towel like this. Not unsympathetically she said. Doing what though? That was the real insoluble question. the world had changed and left him far behind. maybe could have been avoided with a little common sense." He ate his stew in silence. I do keep these things bottled up inside me. “Christ..

No electricity means no central heating. that’s more important. leaving her to somehow pick up the pieces. "I suppose I'll have to."You mean dig ourselves deeper into debt?" She stared across at him through the shadowy light." "Go to the bank first. no microwave. "All right." The thought of confronting their personal bank manager." he agreed reluctantly. She felt her sympathy turning to anger as she contemplated the way he had thrown in the towel. Just don't go on about it. Not that there's much in the fridge. “I've got to get up in the morning. Nick pretended he was asleep but Maureen nudged him with her elbow. "You get it. He no longer looked remotely like the man she had married. no water being pumped from the well. Nick?" Maureen persisted. "We can't go on like this." They ate the rest of their meal in silence and because the house was so cold without the central heating and there was no television to watch and the candle stumps gave out too little light to read by they retired to bed before nine. no television. And the coal ran out nearly a week ago and the logs are almost finished. no washing machine. Nick. That night they were too angry and hurt and bitter to reach out to each other for warmth or love as they usually did. She knew how to turn the screw when she had to. "All right." The vehemence of her outburst scared him. all right.” she muttered sleepily." He shifted in his seat. pulling the blankets tight up to their chins in the freezing cold room. that's all. We'll have to get money from somewhere otherwise we really will be thrown out onto the streets. no fridge. determined to pin him down for once. a man with whom in the past he had regularly shared a laugh and a joke as if they were equals. I'll go. "Promise me you’ll go. At ten twenty-three the phone rang in the sitting-room downstairs. filled him with dread. "Will you. the loving husband who until recently had run a successful business." . no lights. no cooker. I'll go down to the Job Centre first thing in the morning.

He stumbled downstairs in the darkness. a new clutch. Maybe one of the companies he had written to was suddenly desperate. Couldn't pay. "Hello?" "Nick Dowty?" The voice sounded vaguely familiar. "That's strange. deliberate way of speaking that was timeless. What about it?" "Weel. If it was it would truly be a miracle. The garage up the hill. Was it one of his old customers who wanted to offer him a fresh start? "Yes. The car. "Yes. The authority of the soil. had unexpectedly lost a key member of staff. "I'm sorry. not just the brakes that he'd buggered up.” he said. A new exhaust. “That's me. They had serviced the car over a month ago. of course Ronnie." "Oh yes. Who could possibly be phoning them at this time of night? Surely it wasn’t a reply to one of his many job applications. the bill hasnae been paid." The name was vaguely familiar. I'll speak to her about it in the morning. of generations past eking out a living from a hard and unforgiving earth. It had needed a lot doing to it too after his amateurish attempts to make it roadworthy. We repaired your wife’s car the other week." The garage! Oh shit. he prayed as he picked up the phone. A toughness that was accentuated by his thick Aberdeenshire burr. wise and immutable. the bill for your car for a start. Maybe this was his lucky break at last. He had a slow. new tyres. Who's calling?" "It's Ronnie Sutherland. It happened. Please God. what can I do for you?" Ronnie Sutherland came from a farming family that had lived on the land for generations. barely able to contain his excitement. "Weel. Maureen usually likes to pay all the bills promptly. please. He felt his spirits rising as he felt his way across the floor in the darkness. A fortune which they hadn't yet paid. please God make it good news. Who?" "Ronnie Sutherland." . She must have overlooked it." Nick affected surprise at this news.

you bastard. Just because you owed someone money it didn’t mean they could treat you like shit. “You’ll get your money I promise. I’ve sent you three reminders already. he was determined to insulate Maureen as much as he could from the unpleasant consequences of their dire financial state.” Another long pause. I'll . He said.” “Like I said. just a guy who was down on his luck.“The thing is.” A pause. "Will it be cash or a cheque?" Despite his dread of creditors Nick was intensely irritated by this persistent. but I'll speak to her in the morning like I say. "Well. "Will you no speak to her aboot it noo?" Considering the time of night Nick thought this was coming it a bit strong. someone going through a bad patch. “I’ve got a business to run. chiel. Cash will be fine. she’s asleep right now. I promise. She might want to use her credit card or perhaps she’ll pay you cash.” Nick was shocked by the unpleasantness of the remark. My suppliers won’t wait. I canna afford to be oot of pocket jist because supposedly she’s too busy to pay me. I’ll speak to her in the morning. “Look. you leave my poor wife out of this.” The man sounded really angry. intrusive form of interrogation. "Right. in a slightly posher accent than the one with which he normally spoke. he thought angrily. I'm afraid she's asleep right now. I’ve got better things to do than to go round hounding clowns like you for money.” “I dinna like being made a feel of. I’ll speak to her in the morning.” “She’s been so busy recently. I don’t discuss these matters with her in any detail. He wasn’t a criminal for Christ’s sake. Besides. ye ken.” Ronnie Sutherland pondered this suggestion for a moment. Fuck you. Nick’s legs suddenly started trembling." “I’d prefer if you could speak to her right noo. She must just have forgot." Ronnie Sutherland was having none of it. "I really don't know how she intends to pay.

" He put down the phone and climbed the stairs back to the bedroom. He switched the bedside light off and closed his eyes and tried to sleep.” “Not cash?” “A cheque would be more convenient. He didn’t attempt to keep the exasperation out of his voice." he said quickly.” "What time will you bring this cheque?" Jesus Christ! Talk about hounding someone for payment. Jesus! it made him angry. He had to put him off somehow. Look. Maybe time to come up with another solution. In the darkness his anger turned to . He said.” “A cheque. The man obviously had plenty of experience of dealing with bad payers.come round in the morning and collect it. "Before the banks shut?" The thought that he might delay his visit to prevent the cheque being presented the same day had never occurred to Nick. Or a rapist even. The trouble was there was no way they could pay his bill in the morning. His heart thumped as he climbed back into bed. What right did that arsehole have to hound him like that? Invading the sanctity of his own home just like a burglar in the night. "What time does she leave the house?" Christ.” “Honestly. almost respectful tone. It would take several days for the cheque to bounce. I'll bring it round in the afternoon. We don’t keep cash in the house. "Yes. "Well. in a conciliatory. The phone call had shaken him. the man was persistent. further undermining the sense of security that being in his own home used to bring him. before the banks shut. I promise. I'm busy in the morning. "She's got to work tomorrow. all right. I'll bring you a cheque round myself tomorrow. "She leaves very early I’m afraid." The idea of being confronted on his own doorstep by the burly garage owner filled Nick with horror. his voice rising in panic. is that all right?" Nick knew this was his only possible course of action.

driven by the primal urge to procreate. He pulled the sheets up around his chin and lay safe and warm in his own bed beside his loving wife. Maureen groaned. his heart thumping. At a certain moment. Soothed by the din from the waves of sheeting rain that the storm was flinging against the roof tiles he finally started to drift off to sleep. destitute. Torrential rain and gale force winds lashed the bedroom window and rattled the slates. an angelic expression on her face. Instinctively they would crowd together at the river’s mouth. The shame of it all. A life not worth living. Dawn was breaking. It somehow put the severity of his plight into perspective. Over and over. begged him to go to sleep. He could not lie still for a moment. And it was all his fault. It was around three in the morning. He couldn't sleep. If Maureen lost the car she risked losing her job. Maureen had already left. into the gutter. half awake. Or even a couple of hard men to give him a good hiding. He rolled over but the bed was empty. No future. buildings were damaged. triggered by a hidden signal buried in their genes they would suddenly charge en masse upstream. Then there was the bank manager to face tomorrow. flinging themselves into the rising current. shoals of valuable fish swimming unwittingly to his rescue. There would be people in real danger out there in the wind and rain. Sitting up . rivers flooded. great shoals of silver fish swimming to the spawning beds far upstream. People died in storms. You couldn’t rely on the buses round here. At about midnight it started to rain. What the hell was he going to say to him? What if he called in their overdraft? What then? How were they going to eat? What about the car? If the garage owner took the car in lieu of payment they would be stranded.fear as he imagined what tomorrow was going to bring. In a few hours the water level would begin to rise. In the tidal estuary far away the shoals of salmon would smell the imminent spate. Rock bottom. He kept thinking about the phone call. the very real possibility that the garage owner might actually come round to confront him about the unpaid bill. He slept fitfully for three hours or so before waking up in a cold sweat. There was no way he could pay the garage. his head throbbing. his pyjamas soaked. Beside him Maureen slept soundly. any cheque he wrote would bounce. He found the noise – the sound and the fury – oddly comforting. As the rain drummed upon the roof his thoughts turned to the river. Endlessly. Then what? Without her money coming in they would be tossed out onto the streets for certain. His fear turned to anger again and then to fear and back again. forests were flattened. but then what? What if the man then came round to the house to have it out with him? Or sent in the bailiffs. He groaned. Soon a storm blew up. No hope. The best that he could hope for was a few day’s grace while it went through the system.

a miracle happened. Chapter 8 The postman delivered the mail at the usual time and drove off up the hill in his red landrover. however. Even his soul felt leaden. Just like all the rest. How naïve he had been! He weighed the envelope in his hands for several seconds. And then. stood out from the others. It took him a few seconds to recall that it was a company he had written to several months previously in response to a recruitment advertisement in the local paper. The blue and yellow corporate logo on the front of the envelope looked vaguely familiar. even in the dazzling morning light. with the birth of a bright new day dawning. postponing the almost certain disappointment that would follow when he finally opened it. “Nexab International”. He picked it up gingerly. One letter. just as he hit rock bottom. In certain circumstances no news was good news. no way of avoiding his dreadful fate. This letter was almost certainly a standard rejection. a polite disavowal of the need to deploy his undoubted talents in the company. Or at least it wasn’t bad news. Scattered on the carpet lay the familiar collection of threatening-looking letters which he hid unopened in a new hiding place at the back of the airing cupboard. Nick crept back downstairs from his usual hiding place as soon as he was sure it was safe. He tried to clamber out of bed but the effort exhausted him. The sun was shining benignly on the massed flocks of finches and blackbirds that were singing their hearts out in the trees around the house. The name seemed familiar. Sometimes it was better not to hear back from a company at all. And yet. He hesitated. A senior post in a fast-growing young company that was making a name for itself in the software industry. He looked closer. an almost deafening dawn chorus. As far as he could recall he had applied for the position of Marketing Director. A few remaining innocuous-looking circulars he left on the kitchen table as decoys for Maureen to open when she came home from work. He frowned. he could see no way forward.and looking out through the bedroom window he saw that the skies had cleared and the wind had dropped. one of many he had responded to during the brief period of heady optimism that had gripped him in the immediate aftermath of his business failure. Another blow to his diminishing residue of self-esteem left over from the good old days when he had been a .

animation was suspended. determined to prolong his blissful ignorance for as long as possible. The minutes dragged by in a funereal procession and the news ended. a disappointment postponed. With no morning paper to read he sat staring at the envelope in front of him while he drummed his fingers on the table. the probable precursor to something much worse. He would wait at least until he had finished a second cup of tea before opening the letter. None of what they said made any difference to him. most of it unintelligible. Breathtaking. He imagined that this was how life closed in on you at the very end. Even in the cold light of day – and it really was cold without the central heating . He took another sip from his cup of weak tea but the dregs . Twice he had woken up dreaming he was drowning. All he wanted now was silence but he was too tired to get up and switch the damned radio off. At least judging by the postmark it wasn’t the news he had been dreading . Trying to conserve fuel he boiled the water on the primus with the jet at half strength. His fear of the outside world had reduced him to such a state of torpor that time itself had almost ground to a halt.successful entrepreneur.he had looked around in relief at his familiar surroundings. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t much of a reprieve but when you’re living precariously on the slopes of an active volcano every second of tranquillity before the next eruption is a bonus. he wasn’t sure which one. he had more than enough troubles of his own to preoccupy him. He could almost feel his synapses popping from anxiety as the inevitable denouement approached. After the confrontation with Maureen and the shock of having their electricity cut off he hadn’t slept at all well. The Crucible.a summons from the sheriff officers. He pushed the letter away from him. Any more bad news would almost certainly tip him over the edge. Too many wild and vivid dreams had left him struggling to distinguish between fantasy and reality. blocking off all escape routes. Even more than usual he wasn’t in the mood for bad news that morning. Glittering. precipitating another bout of crippling despair. amazed that he was still alive. They were discussing a new production of one of Arthur Miller’s plays. darkening your horizons. A disappointment postponed was…well. One solitary cup of tea would constitute his whole breakfast. In the event the tea was surprisingly good considering the cheapness of the yellow label tea bags he had bought so shamefacedly from the local village shop. Soaring imagination. The radio continued to churn out the sound of people talking and for a moment he imagined he was back at work listening to the hum of conversation all around him. just the odd familiar word. probably. The Today programme was on the radio but he wasn’t really listening – he didn’t much care about the rest of the world right now.

his eyes darting dizzily across the blue company letterhead: “Dear Mr Dowty Unfortunately the post for which you applied in February has been filled. forcing himself to read what he was sure would be the latest rejection letter from a prospective employer. When Maureen and Martin came home that evening they found the house transformed. . “I’ve been Spring cleaning. If (IF!!!!!!!) you wish to be considered for this post please phone me to arrange an interview at your earliest convenience. The intervening period would be nerve-wracking but exciting.were now cold and he recoiled in disgust as the cold. While this is a less senior position than the one for which you originally applied we do feel that it is one with the potential for promotion within the company. Yours sincerely David Millen Personnel Director” As soon as he had recovered from his initial shock Nick excitedly phoned the company to arrange an appointment for his interview. If we do not hear from you within the next five working days we will assume you are not interested in this position and will accordingly delete your file from our records.” explained Nick. He read quickly. Even cowards finally reach the point where it’s easier to confront the truth than to live in permanent fear. (He knew it!) We did however put your application on file and as a result we wish to invite you to a preliminary interview for the position of Business Development Executive which has arisen due to the rapid expansion of our company (Good God! A miracle!). They were in a hurry and gave him a date in three days time. greasy liquor swilled around his mouth. He knew he could not put off the inevitable any longer. Bracing himself for bad news he lunged across the table and grabbed the envelope and ripped it open. beaming.

I’m sure I’ll get it. without electricity. I need that job to set my mind free again. You know. I could do it standing on my head.” While they waited for the day of his interview to arrive they continued to live off scraps of food in the cold house. He was so ashamed of Maureen’s banger that he made her drop him off a mile from his school. All I can think about are our debts and what’s going to happen. He hadn’t been able to sleep the night before and he was . Nick.“Have you been to see the bank manager?” demanded Maureen.” “Oh. Come home after an honest day’s work and collapse in front of the fire with a glass of wine and a good book. sparing them any more bad news. “Give him a chance. It means everything to me. bathing all of them in its warm glow. Evelyn Waugh. Fitzgerald. Optimism flooded the house.” “I can’t concentrate.. Free from fear. Like ordinary people. He hasn’t got the job yet. living in constant fear of a knock at the door announcing the arrival of an irate creditor. Hemingway. Re-read all the authors I loved when I was younger.” “I’ve got a good feeling about this one.00 o’clock that afternoon. Miraculously no-one came near them. I read the words but I can’t take them in. “Will you get a company car?” asked Martin wistfully.” Maureen looked close to tears.” He held out the letter from Nexab International. For all our sakes. Maureen. Maureen laughed. Even the postman passed them by. I really do. It’s made for me.” “I just want to live again.” “The right way up will do fine. you promised. “Read this. “No need. Finally the waiting ended. looking tired and worried. Re-connect to the things that really matter.” “You’ve got plenty of time to read now if you wanted to. The phone remained silent. Get back to being the kind of person I was before I took a wrong turning in life. His appointment was scheduled for 1.” “I hope you get it. Give my soul the kiss of life.

a sensible mortgage. everyone loaded down with bulging . Soon he hoped to be just like them. He was dressed in his now unfamiliar best dark blue suit. dad. Maureen bent down and kissed him on the forehead before she set off into town with Martin. For a start nearly everybody now seemed to be striding around with a mobile phone pressed to their ear. a steady income. He envied them their apparent sense of purpose. “Good luck. As soon as he alighted from the bus in the centre of town it struck him forcibly how much things had changed in the six months during which he had been exiled deep in the countryside.” she whispered. The bus arrived on time for once and he climbed aboard to attend his first job interview for almost two months. living in another world. Battling through a tidal wave of earnest shoppers he commenced his dazed progress along the crowded High Street where it ran through the centre of town. There seemed to be many more young people too. giving him a big thumbs up. mundane worries about cutting the grass and cleaning the car. The milling crowds rushed around from shop to shop. It was a world so different from his own aimless. He felt a pang of envy. When the time came he set off to walk the half mile down to the bus stop. with a job. frantically snapping up bargains. making plans over their phones. Everyone was in a hurry. anticipating their glass of wine at the end of the day. He realised that to be like them was all he had ever wanted from life. Even a schoolteacher.still in bed when it was time for the others to leave. Anything that would have made him ordinary. their floodlit windows plastered with posters announcing massive discounts on just about everything in huge screaming letters. darling. It was impossible not to notice that all the shops seemed to be holding sales. tortured existence that he ached with jealousy. averagely happy. “You can do it. manageable debts. a sight that in his day had been a comparative rarity. more like other people. He should have been a lawyer or an accountant. As they entered the outskirts of town Nick watched the sporadic groups of people scurrying about their daily business. all of them exuberantly self-confident. the same grim expressions on all their faces. glowing with a modicum of self respect. their lives bursting with purpose. with Maureen’s best wishes still ringing in his ears and his heart pounding wildly. from the bedroom doorway.” “Sock it to them. I know you can.” said Martin. even aggressive. After the emptiness of the countryside it was a pleasure to see this sprinkling of humanity at work. enduring a reasonably happy marriage.

Something else struck him in this alien environment. he was beginning to panic. They seemed almost subhuman. it was hard to breathe. It didn’t make sense. Carried out through a heavy glass door into the chill fetid air of the main street he stood in a daze as the traffic raced past in an endless stream. Nick was only too conscious of the fact that he couldn’t afford lunch and the pervasive smell of fast food that lingered around the entrances to the shopping malls made him feel nauseous with hunger. litter piled up everywhere. snell March wind. a few feet away. pushed backwards. as if their snarling humanity had somehow degenerated in his absence into something primitive. snarling at his ankles whenever he attempted to sprint across to the other side of the road. glaring at him as if he was an imbecile. swimming against the prevailing current. As he fought his way along Union Street. perhaps tribal. a sandwich made at home before setting off to work? Vast numbers of people were eating in the street totally without shame or embarrassment. He felt like a stranger amongst these pagan hordes. All the fast food shops were packed. He felt claustrophobic. Over the years he had become conditioned to living frugally. eventually reaching the stage where he actually hated spending money. What was the secret of their wealth? Christ. the abandoned churches now were all pubs and restaurants. By the time he finally reached Nexab House in the West End he was already ten minutes late for his interview despite running the last half mile through the broad leafy avenue lined with granite mansions built by fish . Everyone seemed to have money to spend yet no one seemed to be working. wishing he’d never left home. elbowing him out of the way. hordes of people charged past him. The shopping malls through which he passed became a series of brightly-lit nightmares. He stopped and gaped. a character trapped in the bustle of a Breughel painting. swept into corners by a swirling. he thought to himself in bewilderment. It was all so different today. The feeling of latent violence in the air was oppressive. especially on himself. The expressions on the faces of the people in the crowds. He felt like he was drowning in a whirlpool of heartlessness. cursed at. His clumsiness meant he was continuously jostled. To make matters worse he realised that he had lost his ability to navigate through crowds. He’d been hard up all his life. Christianity had deserted the city. In his short time away people had begun worshipping a different God with a fervour he had never observed before. Whatever had happened to home cooking? A flask of soup. Universally aggressive. Shopping truly was the new religion. he wished he knew.plastic bags as if the world was coming to an end. Empty food cartons were discarded on the pavements without a second thought. disoriented. people were lining up outside in the streets to get in. had ploughed every spare penny back into the business.

merchants and Baltic traders back in the nineteenth century.” he observed. all of whom were much younger. smiling encouragingly at Nick across the highly polished expanse of desk. cool. He was mildly irritated at the way the bored receptionist did not attempt to engage any of them in conversation or offer them coffee. After a while he noted that the switchboard on the receptionist’s desk hardly ever rang which was surprising for such a supposedly busy company. modern reception area of the converted town house along with half a dozen other candidates. He sat on a plastic seat in the large.that’s right…no… Luton… then we’re flying Virgin to Barbados…I know…Garry booked it on the internet…I know…he’s brilliant that way. self-important. . He needn’t have worried. The man flicked through Nick’s CV. casually dressed. It’s all inclusive…I know. a gulf that was wider than he would ever know. He squeezed into the proffered seat opposite his two interviewers. The way he drinks we might even make a profit. “We’re flying down to London on Easyjet in September…. Instead she spent most of her time on the phone to a friend. Garry says we’ll get our money back on the booze alone. When he stood up he felt light-headed from hunger. and. A smartly-dressed young woman led him into a smallish boardroom which was almost totally filled by a large and expensive-looking rosewood desk. It’s dead cheap over there anyway…No…I’ve been to Spain and that with my folks lots of times but this is the first time I’ve been properly abroad…What?…as long as the food’s okay I don’t mind…What?…And the weather yeah…The sea’ll be warm at that time of year…I know…Garry says” As the minutes stretched into hours Nick began to hate Garry. He’d scare him off…What?…Too right. mercifully. What? My mum’s met him…yeah. than he was. Darkness was falling outside he was finally summoned to his interview. He was dismayed to discover that he was one of at least twenty candidates for the post and his prospective employers had already fallen well behind with their interviewing schedule. A man and a woman both in their early twenties. she likes him…My dad? No way. he does it all while he’s at work. This is my last chance and there’s no way I’m going to let my dad screw it up…What?…Two weeks. They seemed completely at ease in his presence which immediately unnerved him. a conversation he was obliged to overhear. “You’re obviously a self-starter if you’ve run your own business. even more apprehensive.

I’m numerate of course. helpfully.” “You’re quite a bit older than everyone else round here. The challenges you have to face if you want to succeed in business are the same whether it’s your own business or someone else’s. He’d managed to avoid waffling or saying anything stupid just by sticking to the truth. isn’t it? Cash flow? That’s not how we measure success here. profit and loss. what did he know? His attempt to build a successful company hadn’t exactly been a rip-roaring success despite the years of careful investment. Nick’s first reaction was that this was a pretty dumb strategy for a small business. On the other hand. Exactly the opposite impression to the one he was trying to convey. We’ve got first mover advantage in our field and our primary objective is to leverage that into a dominant market share. I know how to monitor the way a company’s performing and discover what is and isn’t working. Before he could organise his thoughts his mouth opened and he heard himself saying.Nick nodded.” “How would you feel working for someone else? Not being your own boss any more?” “Not a problem. Just like Microsoft. I’d also like to think I could put all my experience of running a business to good use to achieve the company’s key objectives. in a surprisingly confident voice. “Well. All the key financial ratios. . Cash flow. He couldn’t get the nasal twang of the receptionist’s voice out of his head. refined voice. Cash flow was all-important in the early days. forcing himself to smile deprecatingly. “I don’t lack motivation.” agreed Nick. Nick thought for a minute but it was hard to concentrate. He knew he had to say something if he was to have any chance of getting the job. You wouldn’t mind that?” “I’ve been around all right. I can run the numbers.” he added. without looking up. “What special attributes would you bring to this job?” asked the woman in a bored. He was taken aback when the young man winced. “That’s a bit old economy. Cash in the bank earns peanuts. It made him sound like an old whore who was past her sell-by date.” He was pleased with his answer. balance sheet. As soon as he uttered the phrase he regretted it.

“We’re growing too fast to worry about cash flow.” “Supply chain management?” Naturally Nick had heard the term but he had no real idea what it meant in practice. How we spend it will be the problem. With .” “Truly differentiated. “I thought the technology bubble had burst?” “We’re not technology.” explained the woman brightly. max. When we’re number one in the market then the cash will come flowing in. We’re enterprise systems.” Nick had dedicated half his life to growing his old company. nodding his head sagely. looking up from her notes for the first time.” he said. his eyes burning with all the fervour of a true believer.” Nick couldn’t stop himself from looking doubtful. And in our field we’re unique.” “Ten years!” The young man rolled his eyes and whistled. When it obviously didn’t pay to disagree it was a technique that had served him well in the past.” continued the young man airily. Nick felt at this point that it would be prudent to guide the conversation back onto safer ground where he actually knew what they were talking about. “We plan to sell out within three. He coughed politely. Business process engineering. “Do you think you could deliver that concept to the key players in the industry?” the woman asked him abruptly. “When we’ve burnt up our cash reserves our exponential growth means we’ll have a queue of investors dying to pump fresh capital into the company. “Do you mean could I sell the software?” “Well. “We’ve developed an innovative suite of enterprise software that will completely revolutionise supply chain management in the oil industry.“I see. Definitely not. “So what is your product exactly?” The young man leaned forward. yes.” “I did all the sales and marketing for my own company for ten years.

That’s why we need an interpreter like you.” . They really believed in what they were saying.” “The quill pen and the computer. “We’ll have to train you of course.” enthused the young man. the oil industry is just the start.” “I’m not too old to learn. A bridge between the old and new. “Our upgraded beta version is currently being evaluated by some of the biggest names in the business. Maybe the young man had the right answers after all.” he said. I’ve probably played golf with most of them. Nick. Today and tomorrow. “That’s exactly why we asked you here.” “It’s a GREAT product.” Nick tried to look positive as the two young people stared triumphantly at him. nodding deliberatively. Once I figure out what your fancy software actually does I’m sure I can sell them the benefits in a language they can understand.” The young man’s grin grew even broader.” “It’s an international product. “If you’ve got a good product I guarantee I can sell it. someone who’s on their wavelength. If the product was half as good as they thought it was this could be his big break. There’s still a lot of old farts in this game who don’t speak our language.” added the woman helpfully. There are dozens more applications in just about any market segment you care to think of. You could be one of them. beaming. Maybe they were right.” the woman added. “I know how to talk to buyers at that level.” “The feedback is very positive. A lot of these guys in senior positions are my age too. “Who’s bought it so far?” The young man’s eyes widened and an idiotic smile spread across his face as he began nodding conspiratorially. mirroring the actions of the young man opposite him. Even if it sounded like they hadn’t actually sold anything yet. “Once we’ve ironed out the bugs we’ll have an army of sales guys hitting the road running.” “That’s right. He said. Most successful companies were built on faith.disastrous consequences. “Okay.

Will you be allowed to keep all of your wages? What about the . The empty fridge whirred back into life. The pump on the central heating started circulating. that beneath their confident surface these young people were rather in awe of his age and experience.” the woman added. Well. starting immediately. For once.” Maureen laughed.” “Oh. Maureen phoned just as he was settling back to watch some horse-racing on the afternoon telly. Best of all. A few days later Nick’s quiet confidence was amply rewarded when he received a phone call from the company offering him the position of he’d been interviewed for. He had the feeling that he’d done rather well. you don’t need to know much. That afternoon the electricity came back on. I…” “Maureen.” They laughed and Nick laughed with them. “Bright young techies who write computer games as a hobby. On the strength of your good news I borrowed some money from mother and went round and paid off the arrears. Once you’ve got your foot in the door we’ll send in the real experts after you. Nick.” “Guys with brains. It’s a miracle. he thought. Even his creditors had remained quiescent.“Oh. you won’t believe it but the electricity has come back on. He couldn’t believe his luck. the past might just be working in his favour.” “It is. “Not exactly. He phoned Maureen and told her the good news. Ten minutes later he left the meeting feeling ten years older but for once he was not disheartened by his age. The house grew warm. “Nick. The video recorder re-set itself. the debt collector had not reappeared. It really did seem as if his fortune had finally changed for the better. The salary was double anything he’d earned before and there were stock options attached which would be worth a large amount of money if the company went public. it’s still a miracle isn’t it. They were very good about it actually.

enjoying the novelty.” They both laughed. Even Martin had a glass. tears in his eyes.” “We never stopped living. As a special treat Maureen cooked them some rib eye steak from the local butcher. a nuclear family that had somehow avoided meltdown.” “To the man upstairs.” “YOU deserve it.” said Maureen. Nick. don’t leave it so late. despite everything. didn’t we. I always knew you would. “Next time though. But they’ve got to leave us enough to live on. “To the man upstairs. smiling. When it was time for bed Martin hugged his father before he went off to his room. After the meal the three of them watched television together. I’m starving. Listen. “A toast. He was slightly tipsy and spoke slowly and deliberately so as not to slur his words. Martin. dad. Thanks to you. I’ll stop off at the shops on the way home and get something nice for tea. “Listen. At the end of the meal Nick tapped the table with his knife and held up his glass.” “Yeah. “I knew you’d get a job eventually.” he said. It’s the law.” “We did. Our lord Jesus Christ.bank?” “They’ll take the lions share I’m afraid. we deserve it. Besides. We survived. life can be tough .” he declared. Who works in very mysterious ways but who came good in the end. why not. We can start living again. Nick. They accompanied the meal with a modest Italian red wine from the Co-op which Nick warmed by a log fire he lit specially to give the room a festive air. a proud father once more.” they chorused. You’ve come good in the end. Nick raised his eyes to the ceiling. Maureen and Martin raised their glasses. That night he and Maureen celebrated with Australian champagne. We’ll see a huge difference compared to what it’s been like.” “Don’t let there be a next time. We’ll celebrate. Nick smiled.” “And you.

“All you’ve got to do is whistle.” She hit him with a pillow. a short time after he had completed his initial induction training. “I needed that.” Maureen leant across and kissed him on the cheek. “Jesus. Nick smiled in the darkness. You’re the greatest. for the first time in weeks. I’ll always be here for you. I feel like I’m a whole man again.” “It’s good to be back. Miraculously they had weathered the storm together and he felt that they had never been closer. Whatever happened in future things would never be so bad again. As long as I live. It’s what families are for. You hear me? If ever you get into trouble.” “I’ve been in such a state these past few months.” “So are you.” “That’s the first time you’ve ever said it was too long. you really are.” “Does this mean I can go to university?” “Definitely. “Welcome back. That afternoon the building was full of stunned employees. You understand?” Martin nodded. dad. I’ll stand by you.” “Don’t make it so long next time.” Later that night he and Maureen made love. It’ll still mean sacrifices but it’ll be well worth it. just as he was about to set out on his first proper sales call. The way you stood by me. no matter what it is.and pretty unfair at times but I’ll make you this promise. Nick joined the crowd staring in disbelief at the notice in the canteen explaining what had . Three weeks later. It’s called unconditional love. lover. Nexab International went into liquidation.” Nick gasped as he rolled off onto his back. You have my word on that.” Maureen laughed. son. Getting a job changes everything. “I know.

The former receptionist who had ignored him when he had arrived for his interview tottered past in a very short skirt and improbably high heels clutching a laptop and a printer to her bosom. eventually. He felt ill at the thought of having to tell Maureen what had happened. “What’s wrong?” . “I’m entitled. As a result sales had not materialised as anticipated in the business plan. after Martin had gone upstairs to do his homework and he had finished the dishes. There were still bugs in the software. tears streaming from her eyes. In fact. “Bunch of fucking wankers. without looking up from the paper. “The bastards owe me this at least. You?” She replied. Apparently the cash burn had been greater than anticipated.” As he left the building Nick was handed a note telling him he would get the wages due to him from the liquidator.” she gasped. turning away from the noticeboard with a look of fury on his face. The company’s auditors had come in the same day and after a brief scrutiny of the books had advised immediate liquidation. there was not even enough money to pay that month’s salaries. all her senses alert. He took a deep breath. Chapter 9 That night Nick forced himself to eat along with his family as if nothing had happened even though every forkful of the shepherd’s pie he had cooked for their tea tasted like sawdust in his mouth. “Not so good. he rejoined Maureen in the sitting-room where she was reading the paper while watching the Channel Four news. the usual signal that he wanted to speak.” spat the man who had just become Nick’s former boss. He felt like he was drowning. He coughed politely. The share options were worthless. And another. So ill he wanted to die. The bank had reluctantly called in the company’s overdraft.happened. he wished that he was. Then another. Later on. The current cash reserves were insufficient to take the company through to profitability.” Maureen looked up immediately. “How was work today?” “Fine. Despite the best efforts of the original investors and their corporate advisers the directors had been unable to raise further capital.

.” he said. “Please don’t cry. Everything will be all right. They pretended to watch the news while they each struggled to come to terms with this calamitous development. she simply stared at him.” At first she said nothing. turning off the television with the remote. I…” “You’ve quit?” “No.. causing many deaths and injuries. I. I didn’t make you.” “What about them?” “They’ve gone bust.” “I’m trying for Christ’s sake. The half hour that followed was framed by a ringing. You won’t let me finish. I’ll get another job. “Look. The programme was dominated by graphic pictures of a terrorist bomb that had gone off in London that morning in a crowded department store.” Maureen stared at him as if he was speaking a foreign language. looking stunned.. Trust me. cascading silence that drilled into Nick’s head like tinnitus.” “What is it then? Tell me. Out of the corner of his eye Nick saw his wife starting to cry.” .” “That’s not fair. “It’s the company. I’m sorry. making it impossible to think.” “You’ve been sacked?” “No. When she finally spoke her voice was thick with resentment. honest I will.” “What’s happened? You haven’t done something wrong have you?” “No. that’s all it is.” He sighed. you’ll see. “I knew I’d live to regret those personal guarantees you made me give to the bank.“It’s not good news.. It’s just a setback.

” Martin squared up to his father.” “I should never have trusted you. it’s the whole fucking world.” “It was the only way I could raise the capital. “Stop being bloody silly.” .” Disturbed by the commotion Martin bounded downstairs to see what was wrong. “What’s going on? Why are you crying.” “Nick. please I’m tired…” “I’ve been a bloody Jonah since the day I was born. You know she can’t afford it and I promised I’d pay her back out of your first pay packet. “Don’t worry mum. Don’t worry. Almost instantly anger replaced shame and remorse. “Leave mum alone or I’ll batter you. it’s other people too.” “I’m not blaming you.” Nick felt a wave of resentment welling up inside him at this usurpation of his role as head of the household.” “Oh. mum?” “Your father’s lost his job again.“You blackmailed me into doing it. Martin. Martin hugged his mother. So it’s not just us your hurting. We’ll be all right. If you really want to help get back up those stairs and do your homework. I’ll get a job stacking shelves. okay. I had no choice. becoming hysterical. Maureen. I’ll sort everything out. “They’re going to put us out onto the street”. The co-op’s looking for people. I’ll leave school and get a job if I have to. I promise. you don’t think I do this deliberately do you? How the fuck was I to know this lot would go bust? You blame that on me I suppose? Yeah. “I’m responsible for making everyone who’s ever lived miserable now. “Jesus. “You’re right! I’m a bloody Jonah. Moral blackmail. I simply want you to face up to things. I’ll look after you. I borrowed money from my mother on the strength of you having a job. why not? You blame me for everything else.” He was shouting now.” screamed Nick.” Maureen explained tearfully.” It wasn’t the reaction he’d been expecting from the person he relied on most for support through all the ups and downs of their married life.

The boy was almost as tall as he was and he was well built and fit from the rugby he played into the bargain. All right I admit I’ve made mistakes along the way. Sort it out now. I’ve spent my whole life trying to sort things out. Everybody does.” Maureen eyes narrowed. You blame everyone but yourself for your own shortcomings. Nick.Nick was taken aback at the way his son was suddenly standing up to him. “Martin. Now because of you we’re going to lose the roof over our heads. Maureen.” When the boy had gone back upstairs Maureen turned to Nick. disfiguring her face like a third degree burn. No more putting it off. Maureen gently guided her son away from his father. Nick. her eyes blazing with anger. the first time it had ever happened. At that moment another familial relationship changed for ever. Jesus. We’ve been living in fear of your moods and your temper for as long as I can remember. her hatred of him was plain to see. darling. Not tomorrow or the next day. it’s all right darling. And you’re selfish. You know that. his fists clenched by his side. Your father and I will sort everything out down here.” he shouted at Nick. But I’ve been unlucky too.” The vehemence of her attack shook him almost as much as the unfairness of her accusations. To give you both a decent quality of life. “If you lay a finger on my mum I’ll bloody well kill you.” “I did it for the family. “You’re a bully. The truth is you’ve been a rotten husband and a bad father and I don’t see why we should have to put up with it any longer. “Go and finish your homework. She spoke quietly. That’s why I started the business in the first place. What’s happened to this family is nobody’s fault but yours. Martin was as white as a sheet. It flashed through his mind that if it actually came to a fight he wasn’t certain he would win. It’s about time you took a long hard look at yourself and accepted your responsibilities. “You have to take responsibility for your own failings. so softly he strained to hear what she was saying. It’s nothing to worry about. You need to sit down and work out exactly how you’re going to sort out the mess you’ve created. “Sort out the mess? You think I haven’t been trying. And you need to do it now. Maureen. do as you’re asked.” whispered Maureen.” “You did it for yourself.” .

Her eyes were red. “I’m sorry. Instead he said simply.” . I wish you’d never started it. Maureen. It was almost a relief to know that things couldn’t get any worse. The next morning Maureen got up early before he was fully awake. Maureen. He sat up in bed and lay with the bedclothes pulled up to his chin watching her dress. as their creditors closed in upon them. “I’m shouldn’t have lost my temper last night.” He sat up until the early hours of the morning watching the telly with the sound turned down.” “When did we ever see any of the benefits?” “I had to plough everything back into the business. Proving to everyone how good you were. We were perfectly happy with what we had. Eventually Maureen got up. wrapped in his raincoat for warmth as the last embers of the logs in the grate slowly turned to ash and died.” Her words left him stunned. Maureen wasn’t one to bear grudges.” “We didn’t need more money. fearful of the consequences now that the truth about their feelings towards each other was out in the open. It was all about you. What had happened yesterday was no laughing matter.“That’s unfair. I didn’t mean to upset you and Martin. usually with a joke and a muttered apology. never blamed him directly for what had happened. Like any married couple they had had disagreements in the past which they had always managed to patch up without too much trouble. “I’m going to bed. She had never spoken to him this way before. it would be even worse. hating each other. brooding on their predicament. You have to make a business grow if you’re ever going to make decent money. And he certainly wasn’t going to apologise for something that wasn’t his fault. This time he couldn’t think of anything witty to say about the situation. knowing that tomorrow.” she whispered. That was the only way to make it grow. It wasn’t about us. That business became an obsession. He felt lonely and defeated. They sat together in front of the television in silence for the rest of the evening. After all the trials and tribulations of the last six months he had finally reached rock bottom. really I am.

“Martin. He heard Martin coming out of the bathroom and crossing the landing. There was only the usual pile of bills.” She left the room without speaking. it was all his fault. He was drying the plates when the postman arrived with the mail. It hurt him more than he would have believed possible to see her this way. Instead he was treated with the customary civility of indifference. He was alone in the house once more. Instead he hid them in another new hiding place behind the chest of drawers.” he called out. his abject failure to confront reality. nasty world with nothing but pain and bitterness in her heart. “Can I speak to you for a minute. His utter fecklessness. had forced her out into a cruel.” Martin never appeared. none of which he dared to open. Even in his worst nightmares he had never imagined it would come to this. He made a weak cup of coffee and then. He wash the breakfast dishes in lukewarm water. A few minutes later he heard the car drive off. Nick had no idea what his wife was going to do next or even if she would ever return. Anything to tide us over until I get a real job. because he feared Maureen even more than he did the bank manager. a small and inadequate penance that did little to salve his conscience. There didn’t seem any point in saving them any more.She looked at him with dead eyes as she buttoned up her blouse. After he got up he gathered some kindling from beneath the beech hedge in the front garden and built a fire with the last of the logs. “Then I’ll go down to the Jobcentre. another letter from the bank and one from the Inland Revenue. He lingered out of sight in the shadows until the van drove off.” She continued to button her blouse in silence. crucified him to think how badly he had failed her. The manager's secretary said that the earliest the manager could see him was the Wednesday of the following week so he . She was right too. I’ll take anything they’ve got. I’ll clean lavatories if I have to. he finally plucked up enough courage to phone the bank to arrange an appointment with the manager. half expecting to be hit by an immediate torrent of threats and abuse. “I’ll get in touch with the bank manager this morning. He felt giddy as he spoke into the phone. At least the back boiler also heated the water so he was able to save on electricity.

Of course. or perhaps she had deliberately adopted a lower profile. His heart leapt as he put down the phone. but maybe fish didn't count. just like them. forcing the dozen or so tits and finches perched on it to cling on for dear life. Later. There was a time a couple of years back when she had never been off the television thanks to the success of the unique organic fast food franchise she had created. Besides. Perhaps it might be better to let things take their course. Nine whole days for a miracle to happen. She was even more successful now. Losing his job meant that he was right back to square one in his struggle for survival. It was a miracle. He wasn’t sure they would be left with enough money out of Maureen’s salary to pay the next electricity bill. anyway these days she rarely appeared in the media. he sat down at the sitting-room window and watched as the blue tits flocked around the apple tree at the foot of the garden.made an appointment for that day at eleven. Now he thought about it he vaguely remembered reading somewhere that she had bought an estate in this part of the world in order to indulge her passion for the countryside. He was still free. There was still a thick collar of snow where the big beech hedge shaded out the sun and the powdery snow swirled around on the same bitterly cold wind which spun the hanging bird table with its vindictively icy fingers. Usually when his brain was in turmoil he liked to go out for a walk to clear his head but this time he didn’t have the energy. Some battles you just couldn’t win. he wasn’t sure there was a solution to his problem. The home-made contraption rocked crazily like a spinning top. The future was looking bleak once again. Angela Roberts. the famous organic fast food entrepreneur. There were no more logs left. He realised that he too was clinging on for dear life. appeared to have conquered most of Europe and even America had succumbed to the fashionable organic formula that differentiated her restaurants and takeaways. Nine days grace. Soon the fire in the grate would grow cold. even if it was only an illusion of safety. . a totally artificial environment of his own creation. He had to think of something quickly. It seemed a bit incongruous to him that such a well-known vegetarian and animal lover should also be a keen fisherman. Spring seemed a long way off. Even at the most basic level it was starting to get difficult. He was sipping the last cold dregs of his coffee when out of the blue he suddenly remembered who the woman was that he had seen fishing down on the river Dee the week before last. Recently the novelty of a successful self-made woman seemed to have worn off. He was still euphoric over his stay of execution as he fed the birds with the remains of the stale bread.

Rowling. What did it mean? Did people once kidnap their king and then hold him to ransom? Poor people taking the law into their own hands? Was this something they did regularly to supplement their meagre income? He put the kettle on to make another coffee. and beautiful to boot. All the same. There was no milk left but he could drink it black. displaying a brilliant flair for marketing that had left all her male rivals gasping in her wake. if it was in use today. He wondered if she might lend him something to tide him over. the vast majority of whom she almost certainly ignored. some people had to struggle harder than others. Besides. Some people have all the luck. He smiled to himself. Or. No. He sat at the window again and watched the birds still struggling to feed in the near gale force wind. Not very likely. A king's ransom. Such a stratagem. She was reputed to be one of the richest women in Britain. to be more precise. right up there with the Queen and Madonna and J. People like that usually made their own luck. She was still only in her early thirties too. But the security that surrounded her made such an idea totally unfeasible. Probably the other way round in fact. People like that were inundated with begging letters.Not that she needed to worry any more about what people thought of her. you had to draw the line somewhere and kidnapping . she must be worth a small fortune. that was one of the reasons why they were rich people. She'd made her fortune in a remarkably short time. More likely to get yourself killed. It was a trick that had signally eluded him. would certainly solve all his financial problems. There was no reason on earth why she should treat him any differently from all the other beggars that must continually pester her. Of course. Rich people were generally pretty tight with their money. Actually that wasn't really the case. The endless battle against the elements. An impossible task. He was willing to bet Angela Roberts didn't live in constant fear of her bank manager. He finished his coffee and put the last log on the fire. A packet. about twenty miles further inland. he thought to himself. He smiled ruefully to himself. A king's ransom? The phrase intrigued him. Nowadays you wouldn't be able to get near her with all that surveillance stuff and armed detectives and walkie talkies and the SAS lurking in the rhododendrons and God knows what else besides. the very idea smacked of treason. of disloyalty to the old country. The amazing thing was that Queen did actually live just up the road at Balmoral. Perhaps that was the fate of everyone who was put on this earth. a large fortune. K. The idea of holding a king to ransom intrigued him.

a complicated pattern of logistics to work out. And her being a woman too. Kind of ironic if they were put to a new use to get redress from the rich. Grab the target when she was out fishing. Wouldn't dream of it in fact. a lot of field research. The more he thought about it the more the idea of kidnapping Angela Roberts intrigued him. She'd be easy to handle. On the other hand. rarely told lies. The thing was. but in essence the idea itself was simple. never cheated anybody. Of course he'd need to hide the woman somewhere while he waited for the ransom to be paid. Never stolen anything. Following the Clearances there were plenty of derelict cottages that would serve the purpose scattered in the isolated landscape round here. not even financially. He stared unseeingly at the bird table which was now being mobbed by a flock of angry bullfinches fighting over the few remaining scraps of stale bread. The sort of thing where no-one needed to get hurt. There was even a cave or two that could be adapted for the purpose. He'd get paid cash in a couple of days. She might even forgive him. not to say politically incorrect nowadays.. Indeed. They’d get to keep the house. the more you looked at it the more the idea really did seem to be feasible. He paused as a potential fly in the ointment occurred to him. in time to settle all his debts and get all his creditors off his back. Best of all though. This crime was different though.. They’d soon come looking for him. even if some people thought his behaviour was somewhat old-fashioned. he wouldn't need to rough her up or anything unpleasant like that. He suddenly realised he was beginning to get excited by what on the surface might seem like a ludicrous idea. he'd always made a point of being extremely chivalrous towards the opposite sex. there was a lot of planning to be done. since she was bound to be insured against that sort of thing. the scheme would be quick to deliver a payoff.the monarch was pretty much beyond the pale whatever people might have done in the past. The perfect victimless crime. Not exactly an insurmountable problem. that made it ideal. Even though he’d never done anything wrong in his life before. the last remaining legacy of his being brought up as a Catholic. All he would have to do was keep her in captivity for a couple of days and then release her with barely a hair out of place. Maureen would be happy. Okay. Hardly even a sin. He could tie him up and leave him in the landrover. Angela .On the other hand Angela Roberts wasn't anything like so heavily protected and even if she wasn't quite so rich either he was sure somebody would be happy to pay a decent ransom for her release. always paid his taxes. Just that old ghillie to deal with when she was down by the riverbank but that would be easy enough if he took the pair of them by surprise.

If by some miracle she was still around there was no time to lose. Except that it wouldn’t. Maureen was a devout Christian. It was time to get dressed and get down to the river. She could afford it after all. they were entitled to that after a lifetime's hard work surely. The only thing in his favour was that the river was in excellent condition after the recent rains and he had read in the local paper that there were plenty of fish being caught. that probably wasn't enough what with the way the Health Service was going. Wouldn't get that on the National Health. Or what if they both did. there was absolutely no way she would sanction a criminal act. Even if he couldn’t convince the money was legitimate would she really refuse it? He pondered this possibility. two hundred thousand to be on the safe side. The provenance of the money was another problem. Well. On reflection one hundred and fifty thousand sounded more like it. At that moment another thought struck him. His pulse quickened. Enough to purchase an annuity that would see him and Maureen into a happy and secure old age. All he could do was hope. twenty-five thousand. Actually. not to say downright feeble. A white lie. Even then he wasn't sure if she would accept the money. Suppose either of them had to go into a nursing home. He frowned. All right. The idea of only asking for enough money to settle his immediate debts was a somewhat unimaginative. Although she might demur on moral grounds. Say a round quarter of a million. Besides. not entitled perhaps. but it would be nice. the bird might have flown. any foreknowledge of the crime would turn her into an accomplice which would be a disaster if anything went wrong. No.Roberts might already have gone back to England. Say. He needed to ensure that he was left with a sizeable lump sum after he had settled all the immediate bills. Considering the enormous risk he would be taking it would be far more sensible to demand enough to pay off the mortgage AND send Martin to university as well while he was at it. It would be just his luck. In fact it was probably prudent to assume that at his age he was never going to work again and take that into account. The way people . Absolutely no way. he was pretty sure that her ethical perspective would change once the bailiffs started hammering at the front door. The ransom would be more like a pension really. Maybe he would have to lie about where the money came from. He could just picture the look on Maureen's face when he handed her the money. He’d think of something. That really would be a sight worth seeing. It all depended on how passionate she was about the sport. and the cost of living and all that. And what about a holiday every year. the best thing would be to present her with a fait accompli. in the circumstances.

This was it. the best he could hope for was to skim something off the margin without getting destroyed in the process. It was a daunting prospect but there was no alternative. Whatever plan he came up with he would have to implement it fast. That would be hard. His heart was beating fast. He took a deep breath. He stood up. His circumstances left him no alternative. Was he up to the challenge? All he could do was try his best. Their salvation was going to be touch and go. That was Robin Hood's justification in the olden days and no-one today blamed him for what he had done. To have any chance of success he had to plan and execute his mission with the precision of an SAS raid. He had run out of time for second thoughts Chapter 10 Nick could hear the clock in his head ticking down the minutes until the final showdown with the bank manager. to see if his quarry was still there. What Nick was proposing after all was a similar tax on the rich levied by the poor. It was at this point that Nick realised to his surprise that he had suddenly come to a major. . decision that. And then to act. the only way left open to him. In his present circumstances anything was worth a shot. was bound to change his life for ever. hoping for a miracle. Recent history had shown that he couldn’t beat capitalism after all. For the first time in months he had glimpsed a ray of hope penetrating the gathering storm clouds. It was worth a shot. Desperate times required desperate remedies. his only option in the present situation. and extremely radical. It was finally time to stop daydreaming. He had spent the last six months daydreaming. A hunter gatherer. With no salary going into his account that month he knew they must already be over their overdraft limit. Somehow he would have to solve all their problems within the next nine days. There was no doubt that this was a crunch time in his life. He was in the last chance saloon a minute before closing time.behaved was just a question of circumstances. Whatever happened he had to act. to start to figure out a solution to his previously intractable problems. The first thing to do was to go down to the river and reconnoitre. Quite literally. that was all. whatever the outcome. Without a second thought. What was needed now was the courage and the clarity of vision that would allow him to formulate a workable plan. He had to become a man of action. He needed to concentrate and to think clearly about his next steps.

He turned the problem over and over in his head until he felt like his brain was beginning to seize up. The more he considered the problem the more evident it became that transport was his greatest problem. And yet his need to get down to the river in order to carry out an initial survey had become urgent. If indeed it came at all. A harebrained plot to kidnap a rich lady that he had caught a glimpse of almost a fortnight before was definitely not a good reason. The problem was that the river was nearly six miles away. And abduction was only the start. Maureen had first call on the car during the week and he couldn’t change that arrangement without good reason. This whole crazy scheme was about as easy as walking blindfold through a minefield.The challenge seemed almost overwhelming. Obviously he had never contemplated a kidnapping before. Walking there and back would take far too long and anyway would make him far too conspicuous. The only alternative he could think of was the local bus service. The thought that any one of them could confront him again . He might have to visit it several times before he spotted his quarry again. It was obvious that his salvation wasn’t going to come cheap. He sat in the freezing kitchen with his head cradled in his hands. He had no idea how to issue a ransom demand or even to whom he would send it. Yet he didn’t dare travel on public transport in case he created a trail that might subsequently lead to his door. He sat at the sitting-room window staring blindly into space. In the end he decided that his only hope was that the outline of a plan might somehow emerge from the cauldron of synaptic connections that were popping off like champagne bubbles in his turbulent brain. An hour later he still hadn’t figured out a foolproof way to execute his plan. He had filled both sides of the foolscap sheet with various scenarios as well as lists of all the tools and equipment he might need before he suddenly realised that with every stroke of the pen he was creating a mass of damning evidence that could quite possibly be used to put him in prison for the rest of his life. The fewer people that saw him the better. He began making notes on a sheet of foolscap in a desperate attempt to give some form to the jumble of thoughts cascading around inside his head. He started to think about the bank manager and his army of creditors again. stumped by the challenge. He sighed. He spent more than an hour trying to figure out where to begin with his plan. The incriminating notes would have to be burned. Each scheme he dreamt up seemed so hellishly complex with so much that could go wrong. Every scenario he mapped out in his mind ended up a blind alley. He didn’t know where to start. Whatever happened he mustn’t leave any potential evidence lying around.

His brain was becoming enveloped by the same dark cloud that had benighted him during the final few traumatic months before his business had gone into liquidation. The old familiar feeling that had dogged him all his life had returned with a vengeance. Pie in the sky. Wish fulfilment. If he lost his nerve now he knew he would lose everything. Dreams. He shook his head. It was hard to concentrate on the problem in hand. only a step away from unconditional surrender. “Thank you God. that he was born to fail. out of nowhere. He felt his pulse quickening. of losing all self control. Maybe there was only one solution. If there had been any drink in the house he would have sought oblivion in a bottle. Building up a successful business. The conviction. thank you. More recently in the Vietnam war this modest form of transport had played a major part in helping to defeat the mighty American war machine. With the cupboards bare there was no easy way out. His spirits had sunk to their lowest ebb since that day the bank had pulled the plug on his business. That longdiscarded. knew he was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown.” he cried. thank you. The whole idea was totally impracticable. All his grand schemes were just that. the answer flashed into his brain. And then suddenly. He could feel he was on the verge of panicking.” He remembered how in the second world war German soldiers had made extensive use of bicycles to conduct covert reconnaissance near the front lines. inherited from his mother and drummed into him throughout his childhood. Buying a house abroad. Despite his determination to fight he was close to tears. Just like all his other grand ideas. Maybe his time had come. . Schemes. Childish fantasies. Just like all those other occasions in the past he had fallen at the first hurdle. Maureen’s bike! Of course! The darkness shrouding his soul was suddenly illuminated by a blinding burst of light. As far as he could recall her old bike was still out in the barn that they used as a garage.in his home at any moment was terrifying. Becoming wealthy. rickety conveyance was the answer to his prayers. He was trapped inside his own head. Even a boat at one point. He punched the air with exhilaration. For some reason the image of Maureen cycling into the village the way she used to do when they had first moved here from town leapt into his mind. Ideas above his station. He knew only too well that in these situations his body would quickly follow his brain into shutdown: it wouldn’t be the first time recently that he had been so overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness that he had been paralysed and sunk into a catatonic state. Drugs would have been even better. “Thank you. The river might as well have been a million miles away.

There was one more tin of beans and a tin of Heinz Vegetable Soup left in the cupboard. Only when he was convinced that the bike was serviceable did he dare to take a break for lunch. an ancient sofa. It took him another hour to rectify the leaking tyres. he hastily retrieved his toolbox from the house and immediately knelt down on the bare concrete to begin work on the restoration. an apple and an old packet of cheese and onion crisps that represented the sum total of their remaining food supplies. a rusty paraffin lamp. a cracked mirror that was still bringing them bad luck ten years on. Frantically he rooted around in the gloom. Barely enough for two more meals for . He wrestled with the rusty skeleton for the rest of the morning. He was exhausted by the time he finally managed to free the wheels. A split table. The faded red bicycle was so heavily shrouded in dust and cobwebs it was barely recognisable. The overhaul of the bike represented a major investment in time and effort which he could ill afford and he prayed that the rest of his plan would prove easier to implement. Fortunately in the saddlebag he found the tyre repair kit he had used as a child. several corroded saucepans. The tyres presented the biggest a challenge since the rubber in the valves was perished and even the bicycle pump had lost most of its vacuum. He was ravenous. He squirted oil down the barrel of the pump which partially restored the vacuum sufficiently to enable him to blow up the tires so that they were reasonably hard.Now the same vehicle would be deployed with the same deadly effect in his own personal battle for survival. The atmosphere grew thick and acrid with WD-40. and with his future hanging in the balance. Within an hour his hands were bloody and bruised and his back was sore enough to bring tears to his eyes. rolls of old carpet from the sitting room upon which they had once made love. It was nearly 2 o’ clock. The chain and the handlebars had rusted solid. a broken down pram. It took him another hour to free up the pedals. Eventually he found the bicycle in the far corner of the garage propped up between an old washing machine and an ancient second-hand fridge that was on its last legs when they originally bought it. He wasn’t even sure he could restore it but with no alternative. oil and tighten the chain and finally to raise the height of the saddle. as worn and faded as their threadbare dreams. praying fervently that the ancient contraption hadn’t been thrown out without his knowledge. He heated up a tin of own-label beans and gobbled down the lot. the wheels barely turned and worst of all the tyres were completely flat. picking over the debris of their early married life. Together with a few stale slices of white bread. He hurried out to the barn. broken chairs.

several weeks before he would get any benefit money. Next he looked out the ordinance survey map for the area from the dozens he kept stowed away under the stairs. . If he could just work out how he could secure a decent ransom after he had kidnapped his target then all their other worries would vanish.well. reckoning that it might prove useful in constructing a plausible alibi if things went wrong. that was all that mattered. He packed them in a side pocket of his rucksack where they could be easily retrieved. he preferred not to think too much about its other potential uses. It was time to assemble the final items he would need to carry out the initial survey of the river. They weren’t perfect but they would do for basic surveillance. He cleared the table quickly and washed the dishes so that he left the kitchen tidy. He could feel the familiar acrid taste of another panic attack rising in the back of his throat. an old pair of Swift Audubons with scratched lenses. that’s what it had been designed for after all. Christ alone knew how they were going to survive. Finally. A groundsheet. When he was sure he had everything he needed he finally packed a necessarily frugal lunch box with an apple and the last remaining packet of crisps together with a thermos of weak black coffee. The lightweight plastic sheet would have a variety of uses ranging from a temporary shelter if he had to camp out in the woods to something for lying on while he was watching the target to smothering…. From the wardrobe in the bedroom he retrieved his old Barbour jacket and Orvis moleskin trousers which were suitably shabby and nondescript – perfect camouflage in every way. Concentrate on the task in hand. living on air.Maureen and Martin. He consulted the notes he had compiled earlier. At the top of the list were his binoculars. Eventually he tracked it down to the blanket compartment under the bed upstairs where Maureen had neatly stowed it away. The realisation of how close they were to the breadline made him feel ill. If something went wrong and Maureen arrived back before he did he wanted everything to look normal. No point in getting too graphic – or melodramatic – at this stage. At times like this it was better not to think too far into the future. He knew they still had one from their camping days. It was all he would get to eat that day. maybe even for the rest of the week. His old Barbour in particular was the perfect camouflage for hunting down quarry on a riverbank. It was another ten days before Maureen got paid again. as an afterthought he added the Collins Book of British Birds to his rucksack. He consulted his list again. He invested more precious minutes in patching it up with sellotape. The cardboard-covered sheet was badly torn through heavy use over the years. If he was forced to hide out for any length of time it might prove vital.

At the same time it occurred to him that it would be prudent to construct an alibi in advance in case he was interviewed by the police. He hid the bike amongst a thicket of rhododendron bushes well off the main road. but gradually he was overcome by a sense of exhilaration as the old familiar pleasures of cycling returned. Moving stealthily he left the track after a few yards and entered the . and set off unsteadily down the hill. In less than an hour of pleasant peddling he came once again within sight of the denselywooded river valley that enclosed the river. More things to think about. especially since the brakes appeared to be completely useless. He had already figured out that the best way to remain unnoticed would be to travel within the cover provided by the ancient forest. He dismounted on the outskirts of the wood about a quarter of a mile from the same bridge where he had observed Angela Roberts flyfishing nearly a fortnight before. He shuddered. He might have to dispose of a lot of things later when the time came. He was only too conscious of just how vulnerable his inexperience in these matters rendered him. He resolved to dispose of it later to be on the safe side. When he reached the main road the rest of the route to the bridge lay across gently sloping countryside that formed the ancient flood plain of the river. Even the fact that he had renovated the bike might be deemed suspicious. At that precise moment he couldn’t think of a suitable cover story but he hoped something plausible would occur to him soon. He knew it was imperative to remain inconspicuous as an insurance policy against the time when the police would begin interviewing people after the inevitable manhunt that would follow the kidnap. He sighed.After checking to ensure that there was no one around in the immediate vicinity of the house he gingerly mounted the newly-restored bicycle. Much safer to focus on his plan and keep his overfertile imagination firmly in check. Apart from the circumstances it was like being young again. the beauty of the hedgerows sweeping past right alongside. More chance of things going pear-shaped. even as his plan was still unfolding. his growing confidence as he mastered the balance. demanding little effort or concentration on his part. At first he was alarmed by the unexpectedly rapid acceleration of the ancient machine. Christ alone knew how he would react if the police ever did question him. So many little things that could trip him up. More stress. His cover story would have to be watertight. about four hundred yards up a disused track. Once again he told himself that it was better not to think too much about what he might have to do if things went wrong. More fear. The wind ruffling his hair.

from his new vantage point on the northern edge of the woods. making sure that he kept well out of view of the anyone driving along the main road which skirted the eastern boundary of the forest. Evidence. he had one big advantage: the prey did not know it was being pursued. He continued his clandestine progress through the woods for another twenty minutes before he eventually came within sight of the bridge. he discovered he was too low down to see the actual river which was obscured by a high bank as far as he could see in either direction. He retraced his steps and retrieved the bloodstained tissue. He thought about his strategy for a long time.penumbral world of the birch forest. hiding in the bushes. Stuffing the potential evidence into his inside pocket he made a mental note to burn it later when he got back home. that it was a player in someone else’s game. Unnerved. Almost inevitably he scratched his face on an overhanging bramble branch. A . Evidence of his movements. more parts of the jigsaw puzzle that could send him to prison. He had absolutely no training in fieldcraft. And of course. Once he had staunched the bleeding he threw away the bloodstained paper tissue and resumed his journey. There was no escaping the fact that if he wanted to observe his quarry properly he would have to leave this part of the wood and cross the main road again to get to higher ground. less than a quarter of a mile away. except in the places where he had to force his way through the dense undergrowth of tangled bracken and overgrown rhododendron bushes. setting off in the general direction of the bridge. To his dismay. Although he had always known that sooner or later he would be forced to emerge from the safety of the wood to get closer to his quarry it would obviously be safer if he was seen as little as possible. The snow was thinner below the canopy of leafless trees and the going was relatively easy. On the other hand. using the lie of the land. When you looked at it that way there wasn't all that much difference between trying to catch a salmon and trying to catch Angela Roberts. just as in fishing. Keeping a low profile therefore meant keeping under cover. He had only taken half a dozen steps before he paused. He cursed himself for his carelessness as he dabbed at the blood running down his cheek with a tissue. whether it was by local residents or passing motorists or the ghillie or even Angela Roberts herself. It was yet another unplanned event that he might subsequently have to explain away. At one point he was obliged to bend double as he forced his way through the tangled masses of bramble and hawthorn bushes that blocked his path. he sat down on an uprooted tree trunk in a small clearing while he regained his composure and tried to work out his next move. On the other hand he was used to staying concealed when he was fishing.

Freedom from fear and anxiety. The principle was the same except that the game he was playing now was. It was a basic human right after all. Hell. He froze in terror. In the ensuing silence that engulfed him the only sound was that of his heart thumping against his ribcage. For the first time in months he was no longer suffocating under a blanket of despair. knowledge was power. he suddenly realised. maybe even clever enough to succeed. If he kept his head Angela Roberts would soon be as helpless as any of the many beached salmon he had landed over the years. clutching his binoculars to his chest and scanning the surrounding trees as if he really was a genuine birdwatcher. By now his heart was beating so hard it was knocking the breath out of his lungs. His mind too was racing. After years of helplessness when his destiny had always been in somebody else’s hands the thought sent a thrill through him exactly like the rush he used to get from cocaine when he was younger. the drumbeats of his coursing bloodstream roaring in his ears. a rare bird in these parts. The power of life and death. If anybody accosted him he had fabricated what he hoped was a believable cover story: he would claim to be looking for kingfishers. He lurked impatiently amongst the trees until the busy road over the bridge was finally clear of traffic in both directions before he stood up and strolled across to the bridge as nonchalantly as possible. He was terrified his cover was blown. that indeed he was astute enough to cover all the angles. its wings flapping noisily. He stopped and smiled at this thought. people had died for a lot less. If he was spotted by any unseen eyes he wanted his behaviour to appear as natural as possible. whatever the price. even more like playing God. He had barely tiptoed another ten yards through the dense bushes towards the river when a pheasant flew up at his feet and lurched up into the sky squawking in alarm.he felt it demonstrated that he was beginning to think constructively at last. It was a wonderful feeling. To his surprise he realised that in a strange sort of way he was even beginning to enjoy himself. one that was worth fighting for. He was pleased with this story . pitting his wits against the most important quarry he had ever hunted. Once across the road he climbed the low fence that ran alongside the rhododendron bushes shielding the exclusive beat from prying eyes. It was all so different from the aimless weeks and months he had wasted recently sitting at home fretting about the future while he waited for something to turn up. one which he had been denied for far too long.game whose rules were known only to the hunter. For several long . As in life. It just showed you – if you had faith in yourself you really could do absolutely anything. he thought bitterly. He actually believed in the prospect of his own salvation.

about twenty yards below him. Forcing himself to remain calm he began to scrutinise his surroundings through his binoculars. Taking a deep breath he stepped out of the forest and crept down towards the river across the empty. It was a weird feeling. his presence in the grounds remained undetected. There was no-one upstream but his heart immediately started racing when he saw once more the figures that had become familiar in his imagination. Again nothing happened and when he had regained his composure once more he began to work his way along the edge of the forest for another fifty yards or so until he was sure he could not be observed from the house. fearful that he might have been spotted by the inhabitants. A tap on the shoulder. on the bank opposite. After a couple of tense minutes during which it seemed like he had been frozen in time he resumed his stealthy progress towards the river.seconds he waited for something awful to happen. No gamekeeper appeared. The enemy was all around him. Thankfully nothing further disturbed the stillness of the air. The vast and immaculately manicured front lawn stretched at least a hundred yards from the ivy-covered front of the house all the way down to the river. Not far away a pigeon cooed contentedly. Standing there in that unfamiliar. That was all. Maybe it always had been – he’d just been too dumb to realise that he had been trespassing all his life. Now he too was stranded in a foreign country. fishing a fast-running pool at a shallow bend in the river. assessing the suitability of the terrain for the part it would play in the . his ignominious ejection from the wood for trespassing. He was safe. hostile environment he had an inkling of what it must have felt like for the GIs in the jungle in Vietnam back in the sixties. looking out for hollows and hiding places. A few minutes later he reached a grassy bank about fifty feet above the river at a point where it overlooked a long slow-flowing pool of glassy water. The land he had loved and thought of as his own had been transformed into enemy territory. Against all the odds the dark outlines of the old ghillie and Angela Roberts were silhouetted on the skyline. He gazed in awe at the huge pile. exposed meadow. Surreptitiously he drew back into the anonymity of the bushes and waited. He dropped down onto his belly and scanned the river upstream and down. A few seconds later a hare loped slowly across the snow on the other side of the clearing. Eventually he emerged from the edge of the woods to find himself directly opposite a large Victorian mock-baronial mansion.

covering every inch of water. Although her method of fishing had changed to one that required a lot less skill the look of fierce concentration on her face remained the same. thirty yards downstream. Together they worked their way gradually downstream as she fished the pool methodically. He could not have hoped for a more remote spot so close to the main road. A dog. He climbed into the vehicle and drove slowly back across the meadow. rooting around the bank and appearing to get the rough edge of the woman’s tongue whenever it came close enough to hamper her casting. pausing to collect the two salmon still lying on the bank at the top of the pool. He watched the couple for nearly an hour. She was obviously having more success with the new method too. made an occasional appearance. flicking the bait out with an easy action across the full breadth of the river and letting the spinner swing round slowly in the classic manner before she started her slow retrieve. The river had risen slightly since his last visit and on this occasion the woman was fishing with a spinning-rod. After a brief conversation she climbed into the passenger seat. A roaring waterfall at the head of the pool generated enough noise to drown out all but the loudest screams. It worried him that he might be forced to deal with the dog if it got in his way. He walked back up the river to fetch the landrover. that it was reasonably shallow. taking the dog with him.planned abduction. Just here would make a good crossing point. Fortunately the uninhabited cattle pasture he would have to cross to reach his target and then return across with his captive to reach the anonymity of the woods was out of sight of both the main road and the big house. He made a mental note that the river immediately opposite was almost fifty yards wide. before returning to his client. The woman eventually stopped fishing when she reached the tail of the pool and this was the first time the ghillie left her side. While she waited in the vehicle he got out and fixed her rod to the rod holders on the bonnet of the landrover. He smiled when he observed the outlines of two silvery spring salmon glinting in the sunlight on the bank behind her. resting his elbow on his wading staff a few feet from her right shoulder while she remained stationary between casts. The old ghillie shadowed her faithfully. Satisfied that what he had in mind was feasible he once more trained his binoculars on his quarry. particularly if he needed to get back into the cover of the woods in a hurry. Eventually all their gear was stowed safely and they headed off in the direction of the big house. most importantly of all that it was definitely wadable at its present height. a black Labrador by the look of it. . although without further success. never straying more than a few yards from her side.

As long as he continued to enjoy God’s blessing he knew he there was a chance he could still save his family from ruin.presumably for a well-deserved lunch. His heart thudded against his ribcage as the adrenalin kicked in. He thanked God from the bottom of his heart. glorious sigh of relief. The ensuing warmth felt like God’s beneficent smile bathing his whole body. It was a cathartic moment. Overhead an invisible flock of skylarks sang gloriously. Two minutes that would change his life forever. a sky that for once was devoid of clouds. Today he had learned a valuable lesson – never give up. Two minutes which was just about long enough for what Nick had in mind. From the moment he left the woman’s side at the tail of the pool it had taken the ghillie six minutes to return with the landrover. Most of the time life might seem like a maze of blind alleys in which you were forever trapped but actually if you persisted long enough you could always find a way out. Nick timed the whole performance carefully. hovering. He rolled over onto his back and stared up at the glorious blue sky. He was elated at the way his fortunes had finally taken a turn for the better. that he was floating in warm. After he had been walking for twenty minutes or so he paused at a mossy .he would rescue himself and his family from destitution. At long last it was good to be alive. He breathed a long. He closed his eyes and felt the sun beating down on his face. a born-again member of the human race. an out-of-body experience where he was witnessing his own redemption. He felt like he was floating. Chapter 11 Nick hurried back to where he had hidden the bicycle. Against all the odds his crazy idea really did seem feasible after all. during which time he was out of sight for just over two minutes. completely invisible from the road. celebrating his imminent release from the fear and despair that had dogged him for so long. flooding his brain with oxygen. flitting through the woods like a ghost. He might be on his uppers now but in a few days if everything went to plan – albeit a plan that was still evolving in his mind as the situation developed . He took a deep breath. celestial amniotic fluid. In those few seconds it seemed to him as if he was present at the rebirth of his lost soul. He started to pray.

Somewhere he could visit regularly without attracting suspicion. While he ate the apple and the packet of stale salt and vinegar crisps that he had packed for his lunch he pored anxiously over the map. Reluctantly he decided she would have to be bound and. He needed somewhere that was within cycling distance since he would be obliged to visit his captive regularly in order to feed her and attend to her needs and he could hardly borrow the car from Maureen for that. interspersed with the odd derelict shooting lodge and deserted but and ben. He obviously needed somewhere remote yet accessible. seemed an extreme. possibly. Say two hours cycle run maximum. The image of the woman bound and trussed like a chicken that sprang into his mind made him feel distinctly uneasy. was security. somewhere that was not likely to be visited either casually or as part of any organised search. Maybe ten miles each way. with the introduction of large-scale sheep rearing in recent years the moors were no longer prime shooting country. He sat down on a tree stump and spread out his ordnance survey map in front of him. Thanks to the effects of the Clearances and the general drift from the land the whole area in the immediate vicinity was dotted with abandoned farms and shielings. measure. He was sure he would be able to find somewhere safe and out of the way in that desolate desert of heather and bog. the conical mountain that dominated the landscape for miles around. The key attribute of any hiding place. Once he’d located somewhere the other imperative was the total security of his hostage. The only casual visitors he was likely to encounter. apart from occasional hillwalkers who would almost certain follow the well-known ascent routes up the mountain. Somewhere that was absolutely escapeproof during the highly dangerous period when he would be negotiating the ransom for the woman’s safe release. The idea of tying up a fellow human being. were likely to be either sheep or the odd deer driven down off the high tops by bad weather. He had spent his whole life trying to treat . Fortunately. gagged as well. Distance from home was crucial too. To be on the safe side he would probably have to blindfold her as well to keep her from recognising him.clearing a few yards off the track. It wouldn’t be enough for her prison to be lockfast. Because she would be left alone for long periods she would have to be restrained in some way. he decided. especially a woman who had never done him any harm. A ten mile radius from the house took him into the foothills that formed the natural amphitheatre of the Howe of Cromar and beyond into the bleak and empty moors surrounding Morven Hill. The priority now was to start making plans for the safekeeping of his hostage. He looked at the map. not to say barbaric.

The least he could do was to make the experience as free from trauma and pain as possible. Whatever happened he would have to stop her from escaping. that was for sure. He tried to . Escape was a different matter. it was almost second nature to him now. there was no getting away from it. just no way round it. He took a deep breath. Maybe if the hiding place was remote enough it wouldn't be necessary to gag her. At least it shouldn’t be too hard to convince her that it would be in her own interests to co-operate if she wanted to bring the ordeal to a fast and satisfactory conclusion. All that mattered now was the efficient capture of his prospective victim. waiting for the ransom to be paid was likely to take a couple of days at least. God alone knew how he was going to feed his family later in the week. Maybe longer. He sighed as the amount of preparatory work he still had to do began to dawn on him.people with dignity and respect. Figuring out what he was going next to do was only the beginning. It might be better if she was handcuffed and chained. he hadn't even begun to work out how this phase of the operation was going to be accomplished. He was still hungry but the food was finished and there was only an empty cupboard to look forward to when he got back home that evening. where the hell would he get handcuffs and chains? He couldn't exactly borrow them from the police. the one ray of hope on his dark horizon. He could not afford to take any risks whatsoever with her security on that score. When he had finished the crisps he carefully folded up the empty Golden Wonder packet and tucked it back into his rucksack. Desperate problems demanded desperate solutions. This would be the first time he had ever used force to make anyone do something against their will. Exactly how he was going to do that posed something of a challenge. To contain his mounting panic at the precariousness of his family’s circumstances he forced himself to concentrate upon the main task in hand. He was learning fast about not leaving clues behind. If ever he lacked motivation. He bit his lip. Tying her up securely with rope or whatever would be difficult without hurting her. She would soon tire of screaming her head off when nobody came to her rescue. After all. For a start. The thought of the poor woman being left alone at night while chained and blindfolded in a deserted hiding place in the middle of nowhere was pretty gruesome. that challenge alone was sufficient to underline how desperate the situation had become. If she could see the logic in that then any necessary violence and discomfort could surely be kept to a minimum. Implementing all the necessary actions would be even more difficult. Indeed. Chained to a wall probably so that he didn't have to stand guard over her the whole time. that would be unavoidable.

if she was bound securely so she couldn’t make a sound. sex shops weren’t exactly plentiful in this part of Scotland. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. He sat in the clearing for over an hour turning the problem over and over in his mind without getting any nearer to a satisfactory solution. Think out of the box. No. with no need to keep coming and going all the time. Except that they would probably be designed with would-be Harry Houdinis in mind – with one bound you would be free. And there were any number of old padlocks in his toolbox which he had acquired over the years. The only other thing he could think of was bondage gear. maybe even had her ears stuffed with wax or something so she couldn’t work out where she was. Eventually it dawned on him that he was making the problem out to be worse than it really was. It would certainly make it easier to keep her under constant surveillance. So. Maybe he could buy them in a toyshop. Problem solved. he concluded glumly. he mustn't get hung up on details the way he usually did or nothing would ever get done. Didn’t exist in fact. It surely wasn't beyond his wit to fashion some other sort of suitable restraint. only solutions. The plastic ties the police used as handcuffs nowadays were probably not much different from the ties he used in the garden to stake out young trees. that was the answer. Besides which. But of course there still were problems. as John Lennon used to say. were probably out of the question. he didn’t have the money and his credit cards were useless so even buying online was out of the question. . There are no problems. Which was exactly the opposite effect to what he wanted to achieve. Much less obtrusive too. If she was blindfolded and gagged. the kinky sort of stuff he’d occasionally stumbled across on the internet. The other item in the shed that might come in useful was the length of chain they had bought years ago to tether the goat they never actually got round to acquiring. He shivered. Handcuffs were the sort of props a magician might use. So handcuffs. He stared down at the map. Make do and mend.think laterally. It was just a pity that the easiest solution – keeping the woman at home in his attic – obviously wasn’t feasible. Focussing on handcuffs was a mistake. There was absolutely no way he would go into a sex shop and buy such stuff. He wouldn't have the nerve. Without a doubt the central problem still remained the location of the safe premises. There was a whole box of them in the shed. Talk about embarrassment. Besides. It was hard to visualise anywhere suitable just by looking at the swirling contours and empty spaces.

Wherever he kept the woman the place would be found eventually. Maybe somewhere he used to play as a kid. He squinted at the map. He forced himself to remain calm. Wishing is one thing of course. As long as they didn't find her for the couple of days it would take to complete the . She would never be party to anything criminal or even immoral. One of the old hideaways where they used to go for a smoke and a few bottles of beer. of sequestration and the bailiffs coming round. First and foremost was that without Maureen’s co-operation the problem of where to keep his hostage while he waited for the ransom to be paid seemed insoluble. This undertaking was going to need genuine courage as well as brains to see it through. He had to keep things in perspective.But letting Maureen into the plan was out of the question. He wasn’t sure he wanted to die just yet. They tended to attract curious tourists and youngsters looking for somewhere safe to puff the odd spliff or two. It was inconceivable that she would allow him to go through with such an evil course of action. It had to be somewhere he’d discovered on his own. The fact was that she would never believe he was capable of pulling off such an audacious scheme. It was an unnerving thought. A bullet blowing the top of your head off is quite another. A millionairess taken hostage. Somewhere that no one else knew about. An old abandoned cottage or farm steading had to be the best solution. He didn’t want any of the locals leading the bobbies straight to his hiding place. There’d be helicopters and sniffer dogs and God knows what all out looking for her. He swallowed hard. of being turfed out on the street with only the clothes she was dressed in rather than commit a mortal sin or do anything that would bring shame to the family. It would be all over the telly and the radio too which was a little bit scary. There were other problems too. Not to mention the fact that they were usually damp and smelly and obviously without any kind of sanitation. He was sure she would rather suffer the degradation of abject poverty. Nor was it simply her moral objections that stood in the way. Somewhere he could make lockfast to keep out prying eyes. His poor hostage was going to have to suffer quite enough without putting up with unnecessary privations of that sort. The police would probably call in the SAS which meant he might be shot if they found him. He sighed. Caves weren't really appropriate although there were a few around here. He scanned the map for a suitable site. They were a bit too obvious really. Too well known. They were bound to mount a massive search. Her capture was bound to make front page news. She would think he was mad even to consider it. although there had been a few times recently when he had truly wished he was dead.

Someone up there must be smiling down on him at last. simple food. the old cottage with its windows boarded up. That was obviously vital. They hadn't been back there for years.ransom transaction and the handover of the money that was all that mattered really. except for three or four very old damson trees which were unusual in this part of the world. As long as he didn't leave any clues behind he should be safe. He recalled how they had been so enchanted by the magic of the place that once they had even made love inside the old cottage on the cold earth floor. certain that their journey through the old pine forest and the foothills of Morven Hill wouldn't be wasted. Didn't want them doing a Sherlock Holmes on him. sharing the burden. He was pretty sure his search was over and in less than a day. With the help of the map he retraced in his mind's eye some of the walks he'd done with Maureen over the years. For once in his life it seemed that things were actually coming together the way he wanted. the original orchard had mostly been subsumed by native geans and birches. As far as they were concerned she could have been spirited away to anywhere in the UK. The good thing was that the authorities wouldn't have a clue where to begin looking. The setting in the lee of Morven Hill was a delight. A very special place. He folded up the map and tucked it into his rucksack. And then it came to him The Damson Farm. simple pleasures. No one else had ever discovered it so that each year they could be sure of their bountiful harvest of ripe damsons. he would know for certain. after he had checked out the site just in case. That was the place. It was perfect. . They would surely think it highly unlikely that she was being kept right under their noses. they brought back waves of pleasure. back to nature. The place was a bit too isolated and difficult to get to on foot. That's what Maureen used to call it. He shook his head in amazement. totally surrounded by an encroaching forest of naturallyregenerating birches. most of the outbuildings roofless and crumbling. There were many. They had made regular visits for a number of years to collect the ripe fruit which Maureen used to turn into delicious jam. even abroad. An old abandoned farm. He couldn't suppress a frisson of excitement at the thought of what was happening. simple problems. The simple life. He'd have to watch that. Great memories. The oncesubstantial garden was almost completely overgrown the last time they’d visited it. It was almost miraculous the way things were falling into place.

He stopped and stared in surprise as the light streamed out from the kitchen window and bounced off the dancing swirling clouds of snowflakes. leaning into the wind. He dismounted and pushed the bike up the hill. his empty body drained of energy. By the time he reached the turnoff to the farm road leading up the final steep hill to home it was dark and the snow was coming down as thick as goose down shaken from a heavenly pillowcase. He mounted his bicycle and started peddling home. Normally he would have been pleased but tonight he felt only foreboding as he contemplated the chilly reception that awaited him. When he turned into the driveway at the top of the hill the lights in the cottage were burning bright. To make matters worse he could hardly breathe as the driving snow filled his gaping mouth. His unprotected ears were frozen. The woods turned dark and brooding. Before he reached the main road it started to snow. Several times he was almost blown off the bike by a sudden gusts of icy wind rolling straight down from the mountains. the bike wobbling all over the road. It was hard to keep the bike on the road as his chilled hands barely had enough strength to grip the handlebars. Maureen must have arrived home early. He was almost crying from exhaustion. The return journey was mostly uphill as the road climbed out of the valley of the Dee onto the flood plain. His legs began to ache with the effort and he was forced to stand up on the pedals in order to climb the hill. leaving a long drunken trail behind him in the fresh snow.While he was pushing the bike back along the landrover track several dark clouds began drifting across the sky. His eyes watered as the icy snowflakes pelted his eyeballs. Almost magically a scene straight off a Christmas card was silently created in front of his eyes. When he eventually stepped out onto the main road a swirling breeze sprang up out of nowhere and pelted him with snowflakes. the rising wind now in his face. At one point he thought he wasn’t going to make it. temporarily obscuring the sun. By the time he reached the half way point he was exhausted. half blinded. Where the road was unprotected by hedgerows it was already starting to drift. dreading the thought of going home to a cold cottage and bare cupboards where he would be forced to sit with an empty belly and await the arrival of his family. Maureen looked up from the cooker and smiled as he staggered into the . He shivered as the temperature plummeted. His forehead ached from the cutting wind. the mazy snowflakes drifting down prettily on the still air. momentarily blinding him.

kitchen.” “Did you? Why?” .” “How is he?” “He’s okay. He took off his wet clothes and sat down at the kitchen table. resenting the way he always benefited from his mother’s unconditional love. He hadn’t bought any new music for months. He put down the paper. “Where’s Martin?” “In his room. After all the things that had happened he was by no means certain that he would be included in the feast. “What’s happened? I thought…” Maureen looked a little self-conscious.” It was a delicate moment. the print swam in front of his eyes. “I fixed your bike by the way. He had no rights in the matter. I bought him a new dance album CD so he’s happy. The feeling was mutual. “Here. He couldn’t afford such luxuries for himself. He looked enviously at the cooker. The money wasn’t even his after all. I had to think of Martin.” He was so hungry he felt dizzy. He was going to say something about Maureen’s favouritism but thought better of it. She gave me another loan to tide me over. “Did you get a paper?” Maureen reached into her shopping bag.” Nick didn’t get on with Maureen’s mother. He couldn’t focus on what he was reading. She was probably right.” Nick bit his lip. I couldn’t bear the thought of him going to bed hungry. none at all. The smell of cooking stopped him in his tracks. pursing her lips. He suddenly felt faint with hunger. “I swallowed my pride and went round to see Mum again. She thought her daughter had married beneath herself. Instead he said. brushing snow from his hair and eyes. She took it out of the nest egg she was left by Gran. He made an extra effort to be civil. He couldn’t stop himself feeling envious of his son. I see.” “Oh.” “Thank you. “What are you cooking?” “Stew.

I’ll find out at my interview on Thursday. Is it weekly paid? That would help our cash flow. “It’s better than nothing.” “That’s what I thought.” “Banchory?” The lies flowed surprisingly easily. I always thought that was too good to be true.” Maureen looked dubious. Something down to earth will suit you far better. Remember we need the money.” “What would you do all day? Martin and I will get the bus in that day. It’s labouring at a builders in town. I’ve got a job interview in town tomorrow. I’ll make sure it’s got a full tank of petrol. “I think so. The day after when he would be ready to carry out the kidnap. He opened his mouth and trusted to instinct. Which was a Thursday.” “Thanks.” “Sounds a lot more realistic than that last one you had. I’ll need the car to get into town.An idea leapt into his head.” “Yes?” “Don’t be too greedy. “I needed it to get to Banchory. Not tomorrow when he planned to check out the cottage. Take whatever they . I could take you and Martin in and kill time in town till then. It’s not a problem. “Doing what this time?” Nick had no idea what his next lie was going to be. You take the car. The thing is.” His mind was racing as he planned ahead to the big day.” After a moment’s hesitation the stern expression on Maureen’s face melted into a smile.” Maureen looked impressed. if that’s all right. What time is your appointment?” “Two thirty.” “Nick. And good luck. “It’s not much of a job. “If it means you’ll get a proper job of course you can. “I went to the Job Centre.

He thinks there might be a flaw in it. that’s great news.” “So you’re leaving me?” “Not necessarily. When? Why?” The seconds ticked past. “You’re kidding. Apparently we shouldn’t have taken legal advice from the same lawyer. It doesn’t seem right that they can arrest your wages and take the house away from you.” “So we won’t lose the house? Jesus. “I had to think of Martin. Something about you having undue influence over me. What about the arrestment order on your salary? Is that legal?” .” “What?” “Take the house away from me.” It was an easy promise to make. Maureen. “I’ve been to see a lawyer. While I was there the lawyer looked at that personal guarantee we signed. Apparently there’s a precedent.” “What do you mean?” She hesitated. “Listen.” Nick was astonished. Maybe not if you get a job. will you?” “Sure. It might be that we have to split up if I’m going to protect Martin and myself.” He gripped the edge of the table to stop the room spinning.” “Jesus. Maureen? What about?” She looked away. In a way I deserve it…but you.offer. her face expressionless. “Maybe they won’t.” “I see. Your situation is different.” She looked at him. I’m sorry about what I’ve put you through. You went into it with your eyes open. None of this is your fault and yet you’re the one who’s suffering most. “Why. Eventually she said. “I went to see about getting a divorce.” “Not necessarily.

I think we’ve already paid enough as it is. “At least give me a chance. He felt betrayed.” she said eventually. Particularly if I’m a single parent.” She stared at him without speaking.” he sighed.. “What about if I get this job? Will you still leave?” Maureen thought for a moment.” She said nothing. “Okay. All the sacrifices he had made were for nothing.” “Well then?” “I’ll have to see.” Maureen turned back to the cooker. “Give me a little time that’s all. Whatever else happens I’ve got to protect Martin. her face blank.” Nick saw that he was wasting his time pursuing the matter.” Nick was devastated. Maureen. That’s why we’re in this mess. Nick.” “What kind of answer is that? Are you going to stay or not? Christ. She lifted the lid on a saucepan and peered into it.“He’s not sure. I’m sorry. .” “What if I get this job? Will you stay then? Please. “This is ready. He’s thinks there’s a chance I can get the order rescinded. Maureen it matters to me. I have a duty to look into these things. The ideal of the family upon which has life had been built was shattered. I’ve got to know. Nick. Nick. I’ll get that job and pay off our debts I promise. “It depends how high the price is.” “Don’t you want to stay together? Doesn’t it matter to you?” “Of course it matters. He’s looking into it.” Maureen flinched as his voice rose. I’ll have to take advice from the lawyer. “Give Martin a shout. “I honestly don’t know.

Chapter 12 After he waved goodbye to his family the following day Nick set off on Maureen’s bicycle to re-locate the Damson Cottage. Now.“Please.” Nick muttered something that he hoped sounded suitably grateful as he sloped off to find his son. The derelict farm where the cottage was sited wasn’t marked on any map and he was relying totally on memory to guide him back.” “He won’t . please. I’m not in the mood.” “Okay. You’ll see. Nick. “Not now. stupid. In the event it took him the whole morning just to find the overgrown track running through the pine forest where he and Maureen used to leave the car all those years before. this is your last chance. He hid the bike amongst a clump of ferns about a hundred yards in from the road and set off along the narrow footpath through the trees. “As long as Martin doesn’t suffer any more. Er. “Of course you are. As far as he could remember the Damson farm was situated around a mile and a half or so beyond the edge of the forest. give Martin a shout will you. am I getting any?” Seeing the downcast expression on her husband’s face Maureen broke into a smile. I’ll give Martin a shout.” She looked unconvinced. The hills in front of him formed a natural amphitheatre which looked vaguely familiar but he was unsure in which . But whatever happens. this is ready. This time don’t let me down. sorry. Just make sure you get that job on Thursday. I promise. heather-clad foothills of Morven Hill. Trust me. It’s up to you. I’ll get this job and everything will be all right.” He stood up and moved to embrace her but she turned away from him. I’m too tired to argue. “All right. that’s all. up towards the brown. Half an hour later the muddy track petered out as it emerged into the open on the far side of the wood. You won’t regret this.” She took a deep breath. Nick.

Another hour passed before he finally stumbled upon the ruined farmhouse nestling amongst a thicket of spindly birch trees at the base of the rolling foothills of Morven Hill. It was only the knowledge that he was running out of time.direction he should strike out. Every few yards he was obliged to make a wide detour around boggy ground and twice he sank up to his ankles in waterlogged peat. as he slithered towards them down the embankment of some ancient peat lots. As the rain dripped off the end of his nose and ran down his back he laced up his boot and seriously considered abandoning his search. retained its own particular resonance when he recalled their good times together in later years. He sat down upon a clump of heather and took off his right boot and emptied it of water. He was surprised that he should have forgotten so much about a place that had once been so dear to him. on the far horizon he spotted a copse of trees shimmering in the in the misty rain like an oasis. In those innocent days of long ago when they were first married he had been head over heels in love with Maureen and everywhere they went assumed a special significance. an unbroken sheep track which meandered in the general north westerly direction where he thought the farm should lie. he eventually found a promising-looking path that struck out decisively across the moor. A small flock of bedraggled sheep watched his lack of progress with blank disinterest. damsons and mushrooms when they were younger. To make matters worse there was no sign whatsoever of human habitation. He was disconcerted by how disorientated he felt and how different the landscape appeared compared to his vivid memories of the times they had foraged there for wild raspberries. over an hour later. He retrieved his compass from the rucksack and took a sighting a few degrees north-east of the snow-capped summit of Morven Hill. At last. wet and exhausted. After several false starts following various twisting tracks that quickly petered out. In a very short time he was cold. “Thank Christ. On . Maybe it was inevitable that as the years had passed and their love had metamorphosed into a kind of fond indifference so too the way he viewed the world had changed beyond easy recognition. His heart leapt. and that there were no real alternatives left. which forced him to press on with his desperate quest. The building itself was almost totally hidden behind a thick barrier of brambles and ivy and rampant rhododendron bushes.” he muttered. tossing the occasional sleety shower into his face as he trudged across the heather. Out in the open moorland away from the shelter of the trees a stiff breeze bowled down the mountainside.

the place didn’t feel like it had ever been a happy house. the kind of clammy cold that quickly ate into your bones and dampened your spirits. like green flock wallpaper. The door itself looked stout enough and he was confident that he would soon make it lockfast with the padlock and screws he had brought along for the purpose. If anybody did stumble upon the cottage in the next few days it would look as if no one had been near it for years. Gradually he was able to make out a wooden staircase to the upper floor on the far side of the main room which appeared to be rotted through and partially collapsed. Exactly as he remembered the front door had been forced open long ago but fortunately it was still on its hinges. He paused at the threshold to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. The green wood ceiling of the room had numerous broken timbers hanging down and looked like it could fall in at any moment. All the windows were boarded up and the only light within the cottage came from the open front door. It was cold too. taking care to keep all traces of disturbance to a minimum. a giant wooden mincing machine. several rolls of barbed wire. he reckoned that once the door was repaired and padlocked the place should be wind and waterproof at least on the ground floor. Inside the low-walled garden the carefully cultivated landscape had been totally subsumed beneath an enormous bramble bush which was in the process of swallowing up the whole house. On the other hand. a horse-drawn plough. The air of dereliction was oppressive. The only furniture was a crude wooden table with one leg missing that dominated the centre of the room. all decorated in a thick layer of bird droppings. for all its shortcomings. Even an optimistic estate agent might be pushed to come up with a description like that. he thought gloomily. Thanks to the poor state of the corrugated iron roof which was rusty and torn the cottage obviously . The bare earth floor was cluttered with bits and pieces of farm machinery. He forced his way gingerly through the brambles towards the front door. Cautiously he toured the perimeter of the garden looking for any signs of recent human occupation but to his relief there appeared to be none. He shivered. which was the main thing as far as his particular requirements were concerned. The damp walls were covered in fungus. “A potential holiday home in need of some renovation” he muttered aloud.hearing his approach a deer ran out of the narrow opening where a gate had once guarded the entrance to the neat cottage garden many years before. He congratulated himself for having the foresight to bring a padlock that was suitably rusty in order to blend in with the surroundings. climbing almost up to the gutters of the black tiled roof like some enormous prickly octopus crawling out of the ocean.

picking his way carefully past the barbed wire.wasn’t soundproof but the location was so isolated it hardly mattered. a crude precursor of the modern Aga. but not particularly startled. Back in the kitchen he examined a huge antiquated wood-burning stove which was set against one wall. her brief confinement. Miraculously there was still running water in the taps although it was brown and oily. expression on its . blackened and seatless. He froze in horror. On closer inspection he could see that the large rickety table was riddled with woodworm and dry rot and seemed about to collapse under the weight of birdshit. hopefully. A far older tragedy than the one he was involved in right now. While he was bending down to examine the stove for suitably robust anchor points he suddenly heard a scratching sound. desperation and eventual defeat of the working man. What was important was that the toilet. Drinking water wouldn’t be a problem though. He reckoned that the thing must weigh at least a ton. although this time he was going to do his damnedest to make sure that his sad little drama would have a different ending. there were plenty of streams nearby. At least his captive guest wouldn't be deprived of all her home comforts during what would be. a tale of grinding poverty and tarnished dreams. he was in no doubt about that. a life of honest toil unrewarded. The silence that ensued lasted for several seconds until it was eventually broken by a shuffling sound that rapidly grew louder and eventually culminated in the appearance of a rat's head poking out from underneath the stove. but one with a resonance to his own. He stumbled though to the kitchen where he discovered a huge old enamel double sink beneath the boardedup window which would once have looked out upon the tidy back garden. Standing there in the middle of the decaying room he could smell the sad history of the place. The degradation. about two feet away from his own head.something immovable to which he could securely tether his prisoner and render her immobile. Although rusty and seized solid it would be ideal for what he had in mind . most likely vacated after the war when the land became uneconomic for whatever reason. although cracked. The age old story in fact. with a surprised. like sandpaper being rubbed against wood. Looking round he thought the dwelling was probably an old farmhand’s cottage. not the sort anyone would wish to drink. He stepped inside. still flushed when he pulled the chain. which was located in a room no bigger than a cupboard off to the side of the kitchen. There would be a poignant story behind it. He tried the old bakelite light switches but not surprisingly the electricity had long since been disconnected.

Actually eating her alive. He felt utterly deflated. The perfect hiding place in every respect except one: it wasn’t habitable. Beneath one of the boarded up windows he could just make out the shape of an old wooden bench covered entirely by the rampant bramble bush. He backed out of the house. Silence followed his outburst. It was out of the question. “Fuck off!” he screamed at the invisible adversary. Jesus. holding his head in his hands. a sort of slow unconcerned. Rolling his jacket around his arm he cleared a space on the end and sat down to contemplate this fatal setback to his grandiose scheme. blinded by the realisation that his plan had failed. Nothing moved. “No way. as if it knew it was safe inside its metal home. his heart pounding. The rats had beaten him. there could be hundreds of them. He pictured the disgusting creatures sniffing round her feet. With time . he thought wildly. "Jesus!" he gasped. everything had been slipping seamlessly into place. A shiver ran down his spine and he hunched his shoulders and shook his head in defiance. Only the thought of the fate that awaited him and his family if his mission failed through his cowardice persuaded him to stay. The idea was too gruesome to contemplate. Up until that moment everything had been going so well. There might be a whole plague of rats lurking under it. He would rather risk being eaten alive than fail now. He shook his head again. Against all the odds his plans had been coming perfectly to fruition. Nick stumbled back rapidly to the safety of doorway and stood there staring in horror at the stove. The rat seemed unimpressed. The rat sniffed the air while it considered the situation before eventually retreating in a dignified manner back beneath the stove.” he protested out loud. lazy scraping sound. degrading treatment. climbing over her face and body.face. “Fuck off! Fuck off! Fuck off!”. maybe even attacking her. He struggled to restrain the urge to turn and flee. The idea of being attacked by an army of rats was his worst nightmare. Nick thought of poor Mrs Roberts being forced to share the house with a plague of rats. No fucking rodent was going to screw up his plans at this stage. Now this. There was absolutely no way he could subject the poor woman to such inhuman. jumping back in alarm. Once again he heard the rat shuffling about underneath the stove.

Maybe that’s what this setback was all about. eating him alive from the inside. He lay back against the wall with his eyes closed. his face tilted up towards the heavens. He might as well end it here. Rivulets of sweat began to trickle down his temple. It was God’s curse upon him and. Rats crawling all over him. Not even purgatory. his plan would be in tatters. It was hard to breathe in the airless heat. It was even worse to have deluded himself into thinking that he would have been capable of putting his crazy scheme into action. he thought glumly. It was bad enough to dream up such an outrageous scam. he had been guilty of breathtaking hubris. tearing at his flesh. The rats would feast well tonight. If he left now he knew it was all over. that they should share the punishment. A warning not to commit such a heinous crime against nature. Maybe that was the fate that was waiting for him in purgatory. The sins of the father. Perhaps God was saying that he and his family deserved everything they got. He had to make a decision about which route he was going to take. that they should all do their penance in conditions of abject poverty. He knew he was at the crossroads on the road to his salvation. He’d been a fool to allow himself to be dazzled by the faint glimmer of hope that had flickered so precariously in his benighted soul. accepting that their suffering on earth would expiate their sins. Life never is. Walking away from the cottage meant he would .rapidly running out the presence of the rats was an insurmountable problem. This was the end. his last crazy scheme. feasting on his febrile imagination. Of course he should have guessed that it wasn't going to be easy. Here on earth. Maybe they were God's way of punishing him for contemplating something so wicked and inherently evil. At that moment the sun broke through the clouds and he felt its late Spring warmth focussed on the top of his head as if through a lens. He opened his eyes and saw that nothing had changed. his family. his dreadful penance for the rest of his life. bathing in the life-enhancing warmth. A plague of rats upon their house. He stood up. There was no getting away from it. In a matter of moments the heat was so fierce he imagined the sun’s rays might even set his hair on fire. Rats gnawing at his sinners' soul. Or maybe it was a warning. The rats were gnawing away at his dream. it was too late to think up an alternative scheme. He seemed to have learned nothing from the collapse of the business. He was beaten. by association. He heard a now-familiar shuffling noise within the cottage. Hell on earth. He felt like he was already in hell.

Maybe the rats wouldn't worry her that much anyway. She had come across as a pretty tough woman. The rats in the cottage were simply part of the price Mrs Roberts would have to pay for her part in his salvation. He clenched his fist and shoved his knuckles into his mouth and bit hard until he could stand the pain no longer. There was no other way. for his recurrent hubris. Although he had been an agnostic for years he was still haunted by the fear instilled in him by the priests and the nuns at his primary school. maybe she wasn't as . His life for the past six months had been hell on earth. It was cooler within the thick granite walls and he could breathe again. A rustling sound from the direction of the cooker told him that he still wasn’t alone. They were all that mattered to him. Even if the price of their salvation meant that others would have to suffer. brushing away the blood. He cursed his Catholic upbringing. Whatever price he might have to pay in the afterlife – if there was one . For the first time he could see clearly that his sins alone had brought his whole family down. for his persistent envy of other people’s success. He made up his mind. He closed his eyes and concentrated with all his might. At the end of the day he was prepared to sacrifice everything to save his family. He could see clearly in the darkness for the first time. He owed it to them. He realised that ever since that day he had been living in constant fear of the telephone call from the bank manager. As the pain gradually subsided his felt his brain easing. As for his own fate. of the constant scanning of the road for the approach of his creditors. of the terror of the morning post with its endless demands for money. he was prepared to pay for his release from fear with the biggest sacrifice of all. go to any lengths to make amends for all the sins of omission he had committed over the years. Nothing could be worse than what he’d been through since the business had folded. Time to think. He wiped the back of his hand on his jumper.for the evil deed upon which he was about to embark. And there was no doubt that what he was proposing was a mortal sin. He picked up a piece of roofing timber and threw it at the cooker. and more importantly. Every night’s sleep had been an extended nightmare. He couldn’t give up now. Taking a deep breath he turned and went back into the cottage. think. above all for his utter failure to provide for his family as any decent husband should. Silence followed. He’d seen her speak once at a Chamber of Commerce dinner. it would be worth it if it brought some sort of earthly peace to him and his family. It didn’t matter. the eternal damnation of his soul. Every waking second had been hell. He would pay any price.lose everything. This plan was his only hope.

That night he went to bed early. It had taken him far too long to get to the house. He was exhausted by his efforts but also excited at the prospect of the imminent resolution of his problems. He stood up and made the sign of the cross in expiation for the crime he was about to commit. From now on he was committed. . He reckoned it would take him less than half an hour from where he planned to park the car even if he had to forcibly drag his reluctant hostage along with him. Notwithstanding the conditions it had taken him a little over thirty minutes to return to his bicycle which was now almost hidden beneath a thick blanket of snow. Everything was in place. exhausted by the physical effort and the rapid draining of nervous energy from his body. it started to snow. Tomorrow. Next time he would be able to head straight for the cottage. In a matter of minutes a blizzard sprang up and soon he was engulfed by a total white-out. Guided by his compass he eventually reached the relative shelter of the woods. and he tossed and turned endlessly until dawn finally arrived. He took out his compass and took a bearing on Mount Keen in the distance. He checked his watch. He would still be travelling down a rocky road that might turn out to be a blind alley or even the road to hell but from this moment there would be no turning back. whatever the consequences. Nothing in life was easy. By the time Maureen joined him in bed later that night he was already asleep. he knew. including Mrs Roberts. his life would change forever. He regretted the inevitable misery he was going to cause. As Mrs Roberts was about to find out. He stood up and took a last look round. Half an hour later. It was hard work.cowardly as he was. much to Maureen’s relief. as he stumbled back across the moor. On the way home the snow built up on the road ahead of him. He took out the screwdriver from his rucksack and started work on repairing the door. During the night his brain worked frantically to make sense of the days ahead. but in this world everyone had their cross to bear. drifting to a depth of several feet in places. forcing him to dismount and plough his way through the drifts on foot. Maybe it was the rats who would have to look out. Once he had made the house lockfast he sat down again on the front seat and studied his map. For the first time he felt truly confident that his plan would work. He had made up his mind. The screws were rusty. He realised he had been wandering in a circle. an outcome that only a few days previously would have seemed like a miracle. No one had ever said it was going to be easy. There was only one way forward. it never had been.

Chapter 13 Nick woke up in a sweat but for once it wasn’t caused by fear. He had overslept and the sun was streaming in through the bedroom window, bouncing off a million particles of dust in a tight shaft of light, firing a laser stream of focussed rays that was burning him up. He groaned. His head was buzzing as if there was a swarm of bees flying around inside his skull. He hauled himself upright and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. Beside him the bed was empty. The house was as quiet as the grave. Maureen and Martin had obviously already gone off into town. He dragged himself out of bed and peered out of the bedroom window. The car was still parked in the driveway. They must have gone off early to catch the bus. Miraculously the heavy snowfall of the day before had vanished. In its place all the newly-washed colours of Spring had emerged to light up the gravid landscape. The field that surrounded the house glowed a lurid green. The bursting buds on the clump of silver birches at the end of the garden formed a shimmering purple haze that swayed in the breeze. Overhead there were no clouds in the deep blue sky. He blinked. The world hadn’t looked this good since his one and only acid trip a lifetime ago. He felt his spirits rising. He realised that the thaw had obliterated the tracks he had left on the landscape in the past couple of days. Overnight he had become invisible. No one would ever know he had been roaming in the woods. Finally the Gods were smiling on him. At long last things felt right. He washed and dressed quickly, not bothering to shave. The noticeable stubble on his chin enhanced his unsavoury appearance. He hurried downstairs and ate a light breakfast of toast spread thinly with the last of the marmalade. It was enough. He was too excited to feel hungry. He lingered over a cup of black coffee while he constructed a mental checklist of the equipment he would need to execute his covert operation. At first the lack of a suitable weapon stumped him. A convincing weapon was vital to establish his credibility. A shotgun would have been ideal but he had never owned one. There was absolutely no way he could obtain one at this late stage. It was a major problem. The next best thing he could think of was an old pickaxe handle that he knew was lying in the shed somewhere, but that seemed inadequate to the task, even, somehow, crude. He didn’t want to appear like a thug after all. A knife seemed equally unsuitable in the countryside, it was much more of an urban weapon, designed for close range. He racked his brains for a suitable alternative, without success. He was starting to become discouraged again when he

suddenly remembered Martin's old air rifle. A Christmas present from one of the neighbouring farmers who Martin had occasionally helped with the milking a few years back. Ostensibly for shooting rabbits and small vermin it had immediately become the cause of a number of family rows. Its total unsuitability as a present in Maureen’s eyes had not been enhanced by the fact that to the casual observer it looked exactly like an AK47. Maureen had loathed the thing and had insisted that it was kept out of her sight, out of the house indeed. Ironically, in the context of what Nick was planning to do, it was hard to think of a more appropriate weapon. As an object that would create the maximum effect with the minimum of danger it was ideal in every way. In the event that he did actually have to fire the thing in anger it probably wouldn’t kill anyone but the .22 slug it projected would definitely slow someone down. In addition, the faithfulness of its design meant that the woman almost certainly wouldn't know the difference between it and a real assault rifle even if she was one of the hunting, shooting and fishing set who was familiar with guns. Just in case his bluff was called when he confronted the woman he decided to back up his makeweight arsenal with a large kitchen knife which he intended to stick down the belt he was going to wear outside his Barbour jacket. An old skiing balaclava and a pair of dark sunglasses completed his vaguely paramilitary uniform. He assembled everything he needed in the kitchen. When he was certain that he had forgotten nothing he took the clothes upstairs and checked out his appearance in the bedroom mirror. The effect was startling. Even menacing. He puffed out his chest and snarled back at his reflection. The overall effect was undeniably impressive. He doubted if even his own mother would have recognised him dressed like this. He felt different too in his new identity. Bolder. Braver. Maybe even capable of extraordinary feats that stretched beyond his normal imagination. Even though he knew that he was simply acting a part this feeling made a big difference to his confidence. After all, cowing his victim into immediate and total submission was vital to the success of his plan. He would be scared too, but she wouldn't know that. He pointed his gun at his reflection. “Okay, lady, get your hands up,” he snarled. His voice was so squeaky she would have burst into laughter. He tried again. “Move, or I’ll shoot you!” he muttered gruffly. It didn’t sound very convincing. He tried to recall some of the many gangster films and B-movies he had watched over the years for some pointers on which he could base his performance. Tarantino’s stuff naturally sprang to mind but he couldn’t immediately visualise any scenes

that actually fitted the vague screenplay he had in mind. He dimly recalled a film that had shocked him some years before. Was it directed by Oliver Stone? “Natural Born Killers”? Except that he’d walked out on that one, disgusted by the violence, somehow feeling degraded by the experience, sitting in the dark enjoying other peoples suffering. The telly wasn’t much help either despite the thousands of hours of dreary cop dramas he must have watched since he was a kid. Z Cars. The Sweeney. The Bill. The real problem was that he didn’t know anything about kidnapping - or any kind of violence come to that - from a first-hand, factual perspective. As a consequence he found it impossible to visualise how events were likely to unfold. Maybe if he’d read Terry Waite’s autobiography or something similar he would have had a better idea of what to expect. Too late now. Even Amazon wasn’t that quick. He tried again. “Do what I say or I’ll shoot you!” he snarled at his reflection. It was better but still not terribly convincing. It didn’t help that his loss of self-esteem following the collapse of the business had fatally eroded his former assertiveness, destroyed the natural leadership qualities he had developed over the years. These days neither Maureen nor Martin did what he said any more, which wasn't exactly reassuring. He smiled ruefully at himself in the mirror. Fortunately a rather scary stranger leered back. He realised that he was probably underestimating the effect his sudden appearance was likely to have on his intended victim. People usually paid attention to aggressive strangers, especially when they were bawling instructions at you while they poked a gun in your ribs. The main thing was probably to act quickly and decisively in order to disorientate his intended victim. Just like the SAS storming the Libyan Embassy. He stared at his reflection. It was only play acting after all. A means to an end. It was a mistake to think too deeply about it. What he was planning to do had nothing to do with the real him. Violence was not at all in his nature. In fact he couldn't recall ever shouting at anyone before, apart from Maureen of course, and even then he always regretted his outbursts afterwards. On the whole he much preferred to reason with people, to win over their cooperation, even their approbation, with cogent arguments. Clearly that approach wasn't appropriate in this situation. When he had finally satisfied himself that he at least looked the part he removed his disguise and put the clothes and the gun into the large canvas holdall that Martin used for carrying his rugby kit. He remembered how dark the cottage was and he rooted out from the box room an old paraffin

Ten minutes later he parked in a clearing a quarter of a mile along the track through the woods where he had previously hidden the bicycle.lamp they sometimes used during power cuts. He knew that he was being somewhat inconsiderate but there wasn’t a spare one in the house and Maureen was bound to notice if he took one off the beds. Besides. He remembered to add a toilet roll to the little box of supplies he was planning to take. After he had finished packing the basic supplies into the rucksack he went out into the shed and retrieved the old goat chain and a couple of small padlocks which. And a couple of blankets to keep her warm. He carried the holdall out to the car and loaded it into the boot. although rusty. Everything was now in place to begin the mission. He planned to get packets of soup mostly. He took his time in the little Spar shop and bought astutely. were still in working order. On the way to the river he would stop off in the village and buy food with the money Maureen had left him for his supposed visit into town to attend the job interview. there was a limit to the amount he would be able to carry across the moor in his rucksack. unless they actually . He promised himself he would spend it on a celebratory can of beer once the first phase of his operation was successfully concluded. but he didn't think it would be too difficult to think of something suitably authentic once he actually had her captive. If he was careful he reckoned he might be able to buy enough food to last his victim for three. A box of matches completed his preparations. Certainly not fresh meat or anything that might attract the rats. but that was simply a question of lack of finance. He knew that the police would find the tracks the Saab made in the mud but he couldn’t see what they would learn from that. Last but not least he took a pen and some paper on which his hostage could write out the ransom demand which he would dictate to her. which allowed him some leeway in his timetable if anything went wrong. When he had completed all his preparations he locked up the house. He hadn't yet worked out the correct form of wording for that either. It would be in her own interest after all. She would know who he should send it to as well. Fortunately they had an extensive range of packet soups. Besides. loaded the rucksack into the boot and set off down to the village shop to collect the necessary rations. days. He still had a pound left. He packed the new food supplies into the rucksack and drove sedately down to the river. In the end he reckoned he had enough food to last for five days. Unfortunately no pillow. No fresh fruit either. she'd be able to help him get it right. stuff that was light to carry which could be heated on the old primus they used to use when they went camping on the west coast in the old days. possibly even four. What was it they said? Cometh the hour cometh the man? Something like that anyway.

He gazed morosely at the pulsing. In the event he decided against carrying the breadknife – if he did meet anyone in the woods or down by the river it would look far too conspicuous. Used fivers. there was more chance that he would do himself a serious injury if he fell crossing the rough ground than anything else. he might buy some new tyres to be on the safe side. All his preparations had been for nothing. The woman had probably taken one look at the river earlier and decided that it was a complete waste of time. Maybe she’d packed her bags and headed for the airport and the next plane back to London.tracked down the vehicle which he thought was unlikely now that the snow had melted. His mission truly had begun. Satisfied that he was alone and unobserved he removed his combat gear from the car and started changing into uniform. His hand shook with excitement as he locked the car. After finally checking to see that he remained unobserved he set off through the woods towards the river as nervously as a sun-dappled deer in the hunting season. He finished dressing and retrieved the air rifle from the boot and slung it diagonally across his left shoulder. his senses on high alert. Nothing happened. He felt sick in the pit of his stomach. bucking. He was learning fast. He smiled to himself. to his vantage point on a grassy knoll overlooking the river. All his hopes had vanished with the melting snow. He had a quick look up and down the river but there was no sign of anyone. It took him twenty minutes to reach the edge of the wood where it bordered the river. Pay cash too. perhaps longer. bent double. He climbed out of the car and spread a map on the bonnet and pretended to examine it for five minutes. His apprehension was heightened by the knowledge that if he was spotted now he would be forced to abort the mission and run for it. when he came into the ransom money. The very best that he could hope for was that she was waiting for the water level to drop an inch or two. He’d overlooked the effect of the overnight melting snow. He spread out a groundsheet on the damp grass and lay down and stared in dismay at the roaring water cascading down the river channel. He waited until he was certain that the coast was clear before he sprinted the hundred yards across the open meadow. muddy current. It was one thing to plan things in his head but standing there in the woods dressed like a terrorist raised everything onto a different plane. the hunter becoming the hunted. Reconditioned ones would probably be best. almost unfishable. The river was in full spate. It was just possible that in an hour or two. With this one symbolic act he felt transformed. He could hear the river in the distance rumbling like a motorway. Besides. the river . Maybe later.

Just at that moment he hadn’t a care in the world. Even a heavily weighted Devon might get down to the fish. Despite the collapse of his rescue plan at that moment he felt ineffably toplofty. As the hours dragged by he began to doubt that she would turn up at all. . Maybe he was doing her an injustice. So much for God smiling upon him. As well as screwing up his life in the process. living for the moment. He pondered on the irony that if she didn’t show up she would be missing a grand opportunity to add to her basket. stealing beauty. He was lying there speculating on what sort of wine the woman would drink with her catch – Chablis.would drop sufficiently to try a large Toby. The possibilities were endless. He cursed under his breath. maybe. Snatching simple pleasures. almost certainly a taking fish. It was one of those spring mornings when it felt good to be alive. It was like listening to an unruly heavenly choir. He knew the feeling was as transitory as the clear blue sky but he was determined to enjoy it while he could. Perhaps rattled off the Times crossword. What was it Scott Fitzgerald had written? Ineffable toploftiness? That just about summed it up. As another hour dragged by and his spirits subsided he forced himself to remain optimistic that his quarry would eventually appear. Whatever she was up to right now all he could do was wait. At that moment – which would have been lunch time if he had had any food . He imagined she’d probably spent a heavy night carousing and feasting or whatever it was that rich folk did to pass the time. He lay on his back and closed his eyes. Maybe played backgammon or a rubber of bridge with the servants. Stocking up the wine cellar perhaps. Certainly wouldn’t have frittered away her time watching East Enders or any of that rubbish. Maybe Bloomberg on satellite. of course. He could see it was a silvery fresh run fish. The minutes ticked by and turned into hours. That was what life was about after all. Most fisherman. a lovely head and tail rise. He stretched out upon the groundsheet and filled his lungs with the crisp clean air. unfortunately. when the world seemed to be bursting with a myriad wonderful possibilities.the sun came out and the gorse bushes all around him were suddenly alive with flocks of finches singing their hearts out. or a fashionable Pinot Grigio – when a large salmon splashed in the fast water at the head of the pool. Or maybe she had decided instead to spend the day shopping in town. The sound transcended the roar of the river and filled his heart with joy. She’d probably spent a sedate evening listening to opera or Mahler or somebody on the gramophone with a glass of port in her hand.

He picked up the air rifle and nestled the stock against his cheek. Giving to charity would be okay.however it was the song went. What he was doing was not entirely selfish. as Martin might say. He swivelled round and trained his binoculars downstream. It was like being in a dream. Imagine there's no. Lying in wait to ambush somebody was such a bizarre experience for him that it was impossible to relate it to anything else he'd ever done. The same principle the World Bank imposed on debt-ridden African countries. Out in the shed probably. A few seconds later the vehicle appeared. Imposing a unilateral tax on the rich. he thought. Attacks on the rich. A dream not a nightmare. He found it oddly comforting that even at this desperate juncture in his life he still managed to retain the vestiges of a sense of humour. All right. It was strange but on what was probably the most important day of his life he no longer felt in the least bit nervous or even excited. Redistribution of wealth. that even at this stage the whole thing still seemed unreal. As a result he was simply applying other market forces of his own devising to solve a huge debt problem. just out of sight of the water where it wouldn’t scare the fish. and squinted through the telescopic sight at the landrover. Like a fairy tale with a happy ending. he realised. How many notes was that? A lot.. Nick fiddled with his binoculars but he couldn’t get them to focus properly. Half a million pounds. Might give some to charity actually. Money. Once again he scanned the horizon with his binoculars. A dream that ended with riches and happiness all round. conscience money. Or was that too close to home? He frowned. Lots of money would secure a happy ending. that would be a nice idea. he knew he’d need to find somewhere safe to keep all that money. He had been pushed into corner by forces beyond his control. A good dream.he reminded himself. That moment when the water level starts dropping can often be the most productive. when he had almost given up hope. It occurred to him that he would need to ask for cash to prevent the authorities spotting any suspicious movement in his bank account. The truth was. Do some good for once in his life. On a more serious note. And anything above a five pound deposit was going to look suspicious given the dire state of his finances. Maybe he was still human after all. It stopped at its familiar place at the head of the first pool on the beat. A shedload. Not that he needed to feel guilty about what he was doing.. The comparison gave him a warm glow inside. Twenty pound notes. He smiled to himself. Just like Robin Hood. he heard the sound of a Landrover some minutes before the vehicle itself nosed into view. that was important. That sort of dream. periodically come down to look at the water in a spate. He could just make out figures moving . And then. reassured by its coolness. rolling across the lumpy meadow like a small boat beating against a heavy swell.

The third figure appeared to be a young man in his twenties. thumping the ground with his fist. “Christ. He buried his head in his hands and cursed his luck. He might have guessed it would turn out like this. Anyone with any sense in his position would have been a lawyer or an accountant. glaring up into the expressionless. Then there was the debt collector. Pure fantasy." he whispered. A fucking toy boy. fuck. He held his breath.” he muttered. “Than you. smoking a small cigar and laughing continuously as he darted around helping to unload the rods. In his heart he knew he’d fuck it up. when he went to confession as a kid he had to make up sins to tell the priest he was such a goodygoody. Someone who had never done a day’s work in their lives. fuck. Dressed in a long check waistcoat and green corduroy trousers. Then everything stopped going to plan. Nick couldn’t believe his eyes. he wondered? Some fucking Hooray Henry straight out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh. Three people. God. Jesus. trying to keep the rifle steady. cloudless blue sky. a figure straight out of Country Life. At least they did some good in the world.” he swore out loud. "Shit. Twice the man fell over the springer spaniel which kept leaping up at him to lick his face. Like everything else he had done in his life. climbed out of the vehicle. He should never have started his own business in the first place. The bank manager. He raised his eyes heavenwards. No doubt about it. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down. Three against one considerably increased the odds against him. He just wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing. and Nick cursed him vehemently. God. He remembered the cheque he had written to that fucking garage owner. “Fuck. Surely to fuck he wasn't going to be thwarted by some gormless twat who had nothing better to do than play the clown on the riverbank? Who the fuck was he. A wastrel. the inland revenue. “You’ve got some fucking sense of humour all right.” He started to feel sick as he contemplated the consequences of failure. they were probably battering down the door of the house right now. And the rest of his army of creditors would be queuing up right behind him. Christ.” he muttered aloud.inside the vehicle. he looked like a caricature of a country squire. that guy was after his blood all right. Even a teacher for Christ’s sake. thank you. ginger-haired. He watched in dismay as the unanticipated new arrival carried the rods down to the river. small black figures in the distance. the sheriff’s officers. Suddenly everything was going to plan once more. a feeling of despair tightening its icy fingers round his chest. This totally unexpected appearance fatally undermined all his plans. . The whole idea had been stupid from the start. the one that had bounced.

If he’d had a real gun. a sniper's rifle. conducting some kind of elaborate pantomime. Only to fail in the end. If it had been him he'd already have had his first fish on the bank in the time they had wasted pratting around. escaping the clutches of his manic-depressive mother. Whatever the outcome he was a condemned man. A one man revolution. after an interminable amount of toing and froing the woman finally began to fish. laughing as he did so. he'd have dropped the guy there and then. a glittering future ahead of him. a contest in which you treated your prey with the utmost respect. All those sleepless nights. Dropped the lot of them in fact. smiling and laughing the whole time. biting through the nylon with his teeth. And all he had ever tried to do was be respectable. a credit to the school. Let nothing stand in his way as he struggled and clawed his way into the middle classes.He lay down the air rifle and buried his head in his hands and began to cry. He shook his head. His exuberant behaviour irritated Nick. And for what? To be kicked in the balls by some idle bastard who had probably never done a stroke of work in his life. He had yearned for respectability. Yet again he asked himself the old question that had tormented him continuously for the past six months. Appointed Head Boy in a tough comprehensive. truly a matter of life and death. lovers perhaps. an alcoholic father. He couldn't understand how it took these people so long to get themselves organised. Dedicated his life to building up a successful business. The ginger-haired idle bastard was tying on a fly for the woman. How had he got himself into this predicament? A lose-lose situation. especially in death. A secret life as a sinner if he successfully carried out the crime. Nick snarled at the sight. Every few minutes the man jumped up and waved his arms about. The way the guy . The woman turned frequently. He had always believed fishing should be a serious business. Just where exactly had he taken the wrong turning in his life? The image of himself as a bright-eyed sixth-former at school flashed into his mind. In a funny sort of way it didn’t really matter any more what happened next. Eventually. The anguish and the worry. A public life as a bankrupt if he didn't. They were obviously very close. Declared war on them and all their class. He picked up the air rifle and trained the sights on the group who were now standing beside the bonnet of the landrover. a deadly game where you always accorded your quarry dignity. a place at university. laughing and gesticulating. Four good highers. Nick shook his head scornfully. The young ginger haired man lay sprawled out on the bank behind the woman. Emerging triumphantly from his unhappy childhood.

not long out of the sea. with the fish slung across his shoulder in a salmon bass. A few minutes later the ghillie unhooked the fish from his wading staff and handed it over to the young man. where he resumed his half-finished breakfast as if nothing had happened. He felt a twinge of envy. right alongside the hooked fish. one after the other. More animated conversation ensued. Nick saw the line snap taut and the rod bend double as she hung on desperately. The woman was left alone on the riverbank to resume the pursuit of her next prize. about a mile away. Not surprisingly. keeping the rod up and the line tight. the ghillie folded up his net and returned to the landrover out of sight of the woman. thought Nick. The ghillie despatched the salmon with a couple of firm blows over the head from a large wooden priest. The ginger-haired man danced around the fish. The fierceness of the take almost jerked the rod out of her hands. The excitement over. showed in the tail of the pool a hundred yards downstream. It was almost as if they knew that something dreadful was happening. before the young man finally set off across the meadow in the direction of the big house. The man had leaped to his feet and was frantically jumping up and down and yelling as he tried to attract the attention of the ghillie who was still sitting twenty yards away in the landrover drinking from his thermos. showing in sympathy. He observed her technique through the scope of the air rifle. A few seconds later three more fish. . Calmly the old ghillie climbed out of the landrover and ambled down to the bank clutching a large landing net. as if he was the one who'd actually caught the fish. The fish took nearly twenty minutes to land. He strung up the fish on his wading staff and held it out in front of him for the woman to admire. The river was suddenly alive with fish. prodding and jabbing at it like a boxer in the ring. Nick saw the flash as the ghillie finally hauled the flapping bar of silver up onto the steep bank. He’d probably killed thousands of fish during his career.was behaving demeaned the sport. Through the scope he could see that it was a beautiful fresh-run fish. Above the roar of the cascading water he heard the young man whooping with delight. He took up position a few yards downstream from where the woman was playing the fish. denigrated the sanctity of life itself. Two more salmon splashed in the pool. It was a long time since he’d caught a fish that big. And then the woman got into a fish. After the initial excitement of the take had died down she became cool and determined.

Once he embarked upon his plan there would no going back. As soon as he stepped out onto the open ground he would be visible from the road bridge two hundred yards away. He knew only too well that this was a turning point in his life. There was no way he could betray his family now. fishing intently. staying below the skyline. This was it. It was now or never if he was going to transform his elaborate daydreams into reality. Crouching beneath the skyline he scurried along the floor of the valley that meandered from his vantage point down to the river. There was no alternative. Still bent double he followed the valley until it petered out on the edge of the open ground. For a second he was tempted to give in and face the consequences of his impending bankruptcy. he had no way of knowing which. The adrenaline was pumping through his veins. The landrover was hidden from view behind a grassy knoll. He took a deep breath and sprinted across the meadow. To reach the woman he would have to cross a patch of open ground about forty yards ahead. while he knelt beside the riverbank as if in prayer. momentarily feeling dizzy as the blood drained from his face. He could clearly see the upper half of the back of the woman. In the final analysis he’d rather throw it all away than have it taken from him. almost deafening him. Nick visualised the look of terror in Maureen's eyes as the angry mob hammered on the front door. He crept downstream. He was so nervous he felt sick. As long as the woman didn’t turn round he would be safe. He stopped just before the bend . her feet straddling the track that skirted the river. closely followed by the angry garage owner at the head of a whole army of baying creditors. the face of his bank manager leapt into his mind. He picked up the air rifle and cocked it and put a pellet into the barrel. desperately wanted to relieve himself. Five yards from the river he dropped onto his stomach and wormed his way to the top of the ridge. He sat up and closed his eyes. At that moment. Vulnerable. Salvation or damnation awaited him. his pulse thumping. Nick realised with a start that this was the chance he had been waiting for. He hesitated.Alone and unprotected. moving quickly. Maybe a fatal one. his mouth suddenly dry. He took a deep breath. He paused to get his breath back. All the old self doubt was seeping back into his bones. about a hundred yards downstream from where he lay. He saw the look of shame on Martin's face as they were chased from the house. He reached the path that ran alongside the river without being seen.

"Move downstream. just out of sight round the corner. “Ouch. She remained frozen in astonishment as the line collapsed into the river behind her where it was immediately carried downstream by the strong current. They stared at each other for several seconds. He lunged forward and stabbed the woman’s chest with the barrel of the gun.” “Do what I say!” “Leave me alone.in the river which marked the tail of the pool where he knew that the woman.” . jabbing her again. The woman swung round in amazement and gaped up at him. This was it. charged round the bend in the river. He though about Maureen and what would happen to her if he failed. Taking a final deep breath he stood upright and. “Do exactly what I say or I’ll blow your fucking head off!” he screamed. As he crept forward he could hear the swish! and the plop! as the woman cast her bait across the pool. It was a pivotal moment during which his courage almost deserted him. What the hell’s going on. was still fishing. He needed time to compose himself but he dared not delay in case the young man or the ghillie reappeared.” the woman protested. His heart was thumping and he was gasping for breath. after a second’s hesitation. the rod raised above her head. harder this time. pointing the air rifle at her anonymous back. It was all the encouragement he needed. "Do it or I'll fucking shoot you!" The woman simply gawked at him." he screamed. With shaking fingers he pulled the balaclava down over his face. in mid cast. "Run!" “That hurt! Stop it! Get away from me." he yelled. "Get moving. Despite the protection afforded by her jacket and the thick woolly jumper she was wearing he felt the end of the barrel bouncing off her breastbone. He ran up to her and pointed the gun at her chest. the monofilament line arcing out across the pool. He was immediately confronted by the sight of the woman with her back turned to him. dropping her rod as she stumbled backwards.

” “Leave me alone. she was stunned into silence.” He hit her again. “My God. He landed head first on the footpath. “Help me. Nick jumped up and grabbed hold of the tie and jerked it towards him with all his might. Suddenly the ghillie appeared on the bank above them. He peered down on the scene in astonishment. There was a noise like a cricket bat hitting a ball to the boundary. as her face was pushed into the mud. bending forward. Nick swallowed hard to suppress the nausea rising in his throat.” she screamed at the top of her voice. “You can’t leave Peter to drown. Nick looked up and saw an old. Nick and the woman stared down in disbelief as the suddenly inert body slowly swung out from the bank and began to float off downstream. He reached down and grabbed the collar of her Barbour and started hauling her to her feet. "What the hell’s going on?” he demanded. tumbled like an acrobat through the air in a graceful arc over Nick’s head. “Help. Immediately he crumpled up like a concertina. "Run or you’ll follow him!" he yelled. A six this time. Then she started sobbing.” .He pulled the gun back ready to jab her again. Seeing the murderous look in his eyes the woman turned round and slipped headlong onto the muddy path. The old man. You’ve got to save him. Momentarily. Slowly he toppled forward into the swirling water. A spindly red tartan tie dangled from his neck. caught off balance. white-haired man dressed in a green tweed jacket and baggy plus twos gazing down at him with a face frozen in horror.” she gasped. “Shut the fuck up or I’ll fucking kill you. uncoiling as he did so. He dragged the woman to her feet and pushed her forward along the muddy path. The woman could not tear her eyes away from the sight of the old man’s body floating down the river. The face-down head bobbed gently in the current like a cork.” He hit her over the back of her head with the butt of the air rifle. his neck snapping loudly. The old man must have heard her screams.

disoriented." he hissed. prodding her forward with the gun. as hard as he could. Then he made her climb into the boot. “He’s waving at me. "Follow that fucking track. far beyond his worst imaginings. She fell backwards and he grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and hauled her up the bank and onto the grass.Nick had heard the man’s neck snap. Nick too glanced over his shoulder. When they eventually reached the car he handcuffed her hands behind her back with the plastic garden tie and taped over her mouth with thick brown sellotape. slamming the lid down upon her. “Run. After what seemed like hours they finally reached the safety of the rhododendron bushes at the edge of the wood. the engine screaming. “It’s too late. He wished he had an Alsatian to bite at her ankles. Twice she fell over and twice he dragged her to her feet. He was appalled to see the body being swept along the shallows at the tail of the pool. He eventually started the engine and reversed back along the track at high speed. Her clumsiness and stupidity infuriated him. "If you make a single fucking sound I'll stop the car and kill you right away. She staggered slowly forward. cursing himself as he did so for letting everything get so totally out of his control.” she cried. It was important to keep her moving. She stumbled forward. He burst onto the main road and slewed the car round in the direction of the cottage. He knew that if he panicked now he .” When the woman tried to turn back towards the ghillie Nick hit her across the front of her neck with the rifle butt. Chapter 14 Nick backed the car along the track at high speed. pushing her in front of him.” he screamed. “Run.” he snarled. the spinning tyres churning up mud. his face purple with rage. unable to work out what was happening. He clenched his teeth and shut his eyes. “He’s dead. Now run!” As they stumbled back up the river the woman kept turning round to look back at the ghillie." he said. faster. The woman pointed. “Peter’s still alive. The edge of the wood was about a hundred yards away. slowly rotating with the force of the current. When he climbed into the car his hand was shaking so violently that it took him several attempts before he was able to fit the key into the ignition.” he shouted. The engine stalled. run. run. “Faster.” he screamed into her face whenever she slowed down. The past few minutes had been unbelievably violent and horrible.

He forced himself to calm down. He could never be one of them now. not even aspirin. and. as it had turned out. He slowed right down to let it pass easily. A few miles further on he overtook a tractor whose ancient driver gave him a cheery way and. He counted to three and turned the ignition and the engine burst into life. two cyclists both wearing bright yellow crash helmets. Despite his best endeavours his behaviour was attracting attention. He found it difficult to think straight any more. So far so good. His left leg was shaking so much that whenever he tried to change gear he couldn't depress the clutch properly. he had packed no medical supplies of any kind. His mental and physical fitness for the task was something he hadn’t considered. so bad it made his eyes water. He took one perfectly ordinary bend so fast he nearly drove off the road. He drove off at his normal. the more mistakes he seemed to make. To his immense relief the vehicle pulled out and overtook him as soon as they reached the straight stretch of road that bordered the marshes at Drem. Fortunately the road was empty. the twelfth century motte he often walked to from his house. dangerously close to giving up if anything else went wrong. . one of the worst headaches he'd ever had. Murderers are not nice ordinary people. He was utterly exhausted. He hadn't planned for such contingencies when he’d been dreaming up his Hollywood-style version of the kidnap. He bit his lip. Several times in quick succession he selected the wrong gear. a little later. He almost fainted with fright. As he breasted the brow of a hill a woman weeding in her garden looked up as he drove past. Which in a way he was now. All those other people in their nice new cars. He had been driving for ten minutes when he passed the site of the ancient Peel Ring. it was one of the first things to go wrong. The simple task of driving the car to the turnoff for the ruined cottage proved to be extraordinarily difficult. Typically. His head was splitting too. His heart was pounding so hard he thought he might have a heart attack at any moment. certain that he was being followed. The harder he concentrated on driving normally. nice ordinary people leading nice ordinary lives. Every time an oncoming car approached he was sure the driver was staring across at him as if he was piloting a vehicle from outer space. but his relief was short-lived when he saw the driver shoot him a curious backwards look in his mirror as he pulled away. They were all witnesses who might later recall seeing his car. He heaved a sigh of relief. safe speed. As he drew level with the signpost pointing to the ancient monument a car pulled up behind him and tailgated him for several minutes along the narrow winding road. It loomed large in his rear view mirror even after he slowed down to let it overtake.was lost. just like a learner driver.

She was simply an innocent victim. When he eventually realised that he had driven miles past the turning he cursed his stupidity. Despite the threat she represented his heart went out to her. He pulled over at the first opportunity and reversed into a farm track and turned the car round and drove back as fast as he dared. Christ. She knew exactly what he had done. At that very moment she was rolling around in the dark terrified at what was happening to her.that he missed the turn off into the woods where he had planned to hide the car. He had an obligation to try and comfort and reassure her. Jesus Christ. just like the ghillie. The last thing he wanted in the present circumstances was to be seen driving round aimlessly in the car. He drove on for another half hour vaguely aware that something had gone wrong. What had he done? What had he done? Then there was the poor woman in the boot. Oh God. Whatever happened next he had to try and minimise the trauma to which he was subjecting her. He kept seeing the old man flying through the air over his head and hearing the splash he made when he crumpled head first onto the footpath. He bit his lip. He was furious with himself for his ineptitude. Jesus. Oh God. As soon as they got to the cottage he would try and convince her that he hadn't meant to hurt the old ghillie. At first he thought that somehow time had slowed down. He had to get her to the cottage as quickly as possible and release her from her tiny prison before she died of fright. Finally. to minimise her pain. He would explain how he had panicked. He wondered if maybe once you've killed somebody the physical laws of time and place that you've known since childhood no longer hold true. she must be absolutely petrified. Jesus what had he done? Jesus. The sickening sound he had made as his neck broke. Jesus.He reckoned he still had another fifteen miles or so to go before he reached the safety of the turn off into the woods. He turned right at the T junction at Logie Coldhouse and the narrow road immediately emptied of vehicles. he thought miserably. . he would implore her forgiveness. Jesus. He put his foot down on the accelerator as far as he dared. She could condemn him to life imprisonment. Above all he would try and make her understand the desperate circumstances that had driven him to embark upon this lunatic scheme. Driving on automatic he began to reflect on what he had done.how do you explain away a murder to someone you are abducting . what was he going to do with her? She knew everything. that the world was changed forever in ways you couldn’t hope to understand. He was so preoccupied with what he was going to say to her . She probably thought she was going to die.

He considered stopping to check but the thought of what he might find was too frightening. He was damned for all eternity. How had this happened? How had he been so stupid as to get himself into this ghastly mess? At the second attempt he found the turn off into the woods. He was sure about that. A brief interlude before he was cast down into eternal damnation. a sigh. He tried not to think about the way the woman in the boot must be being thrown around. “What a fucking idiot.drawing even more attention to himself. He should have checked the boot beforehand to make sure that it wasn’t airtight. one of the unfathomable ways the world had changed since he had first contemplated his terrible crime. It was easy to imagine the possibility that he would be confronted by his victims in the hereafter. Tears began to well up his eyes. The lane was more deeply rutted and pitted with potholes than it had been on his visit the previous day when everything had been blanketed in snow.” he muttered out loud. A sob. That was something else he hadn’t thought about in advance. Although he had long proclaimed himself an agnostic his thinking was still tainted by the ingrained shibboleths and oppressive rituals of his Catholic upbringing. He manoeuvred the vehicle into the bushes until it was completely obscured from sight to anyone passing along the farm track. even a scream would have been welcome. This was one more of the many things he hadn't thought about. He squeezed the steering wheel until his knuckles went white. no absolution for the crime he had committed. To make matters worse he began to imagine that the woman in the boot might be dead by now. The concept of the afterlife was a powerful one that still haunted him. exacting upon himself some sort of retribution for his criminal fecklessness. quite possibly suffocated to death. a truly horrible way to die. As their paths crossed briefly in purgatory he would be haunted by their ghosts. At last he reached the natural layby where he planned to hide the car. That was inevitable now. As the rays of the overhead sun filtered down through the . Even as he contemplated the idea of suicide another dreadful thought struck him. He switched off the ignition and sat and held his breath while he listened for any sign of life from the boot. There was no way back. appalled at his stupidity. buried within a dense thicket of rhododendrons. If she was dead he vowed he would take his own life too. The car bounced and rolled so much it was difficult to steer. Anything. He sat for several minutes and prayed that he would hear some signs of life. You couldn't kill someone and go to heaven. He drove as carefully as he could but he couldn't avoid all the potholes. The only sound was the regular ticking noise from the engine as it slowly cooled.

kneeling down in front of the same altar Nick had served at as a boy. First his dead father’s face leering at him. drooling. like something out of a childhood nightmare. he blinked and tried again but this time Maureen was screaming at him. preferring instead to seal himself off hermetically from the horrors of the outside world. To make matters worse it was becoming increasingly airless inside the car but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to wind down the windows. misshapen. his forehead banging upon the steering wheel. desperately trying to clear his head. Yet another disaster of his own making. Why had the good Lord put him on this earth and then forsaken him so completely? Why? God moves in mysterious ways but this wilful neglect on the part of his Creator defied all explanation. the noise she made was deafening. randomly bouncing around inside his head. Two people whose lives had been ended through his stupidity. No matter how hard he tried he found he couldn't remember the words to even the simplest prayer. It was yet another example of his failure to do the right thing in life. How could he have been so stupid? How could he have been so deluded as to come up with a scheme like this? If only he had done the sensible thing and taken a menial job and worked for the rest of his life to pay off his debts like any sane person would have done. Whenever he closed his eyes to pray his mind was immediately filled with a jumble of crazy kaleidoscopic images. He tried even harder to concentrate. She was still alive! Thank God! Thank God! He was so relieved he immediately began to offer up a prayer of thanks. his arms outstretched as he tore up the Eucharist and scattered the pieces into the air like confetti. Perched in the pulpit at the side of the altar Bob Dylan was wailing about the hard rain that was going to fall as he smashed his guitar over the head of a nun. smiling at him with laughing eyes as she sat up and . Accepted his living penance here on earth instead of choosing a course of action so evil that it was bound to result in his eternal damnation. The possibility of seeing a second dead body within the space of an hour filled him with dread. As the silence lengthened he began to grow increasingly afraid of what he was going to find when eventually he was forced to open the boot. It didn’t work.treeless branches it grew warmer inside the car. screwing up his face with the effort. young and pretty. Beads of sweat started trickling down his forehead. a man who had been dead for years. as if he was on LSD or something. A muffled groan came from the boot. hammering on the inside of his skull with her fists. This time in his mind’s eye he saw his local parish priest. stinging his eyes. Nick covered his eyes with his hands and lurched forward in the seat. He shook his head. Shaken. huge. And then the car moved. The face of the woman he now held captive in the boot leapt into his mind.

Try as he might he could not expunge the impure thoughts erupting out of his brain. The vision. her long blond hair cascading over her shoulders. He felt his pulse beginning to quicken. The image of her naked body triggered his imagination into . He had never been in a situation like this before. Compared to murder nothing else mattered. He really did have a beautiful woman captive and alive in the boot of his car. Not only was she completely at his mercy. Her head was bent. She was the kind of woman he had dreamt about all his life. He was shocked by this carnal reaction. A few seconds later he heard her groan and the car swayed more violently. He had fallen so far from grace that nothing he did now could make matters worse. For the first time in his life he was so far beyond the pale that there were no longer any rules or moral sanctions to constrain him. Having already committed the worst mortal sin he was freed from the constraints of normal behaviour. he began to feel light-headed with excitement. At that moment the car shivered perceptibly as the woman in the boot moved. His swallowed hard but his mouth was dry. not even in his wildest fantasies. Yet it was hard to ignore the reality of his present situation and the temptation it presented. He opened his eyes and the vision vanished. She was struggling to get free. was entirely naked. What he was contemplating now totally debased the moral justification for his actions. His breathing quickened. He pictured her lying back there in the boot. her arms still bound behind her back. maybe she was also his reward. he realised with a start. He was free to do what he liked with her. He stared out through the windscreen at the dense screen of rhododendron branches. In a funny sort of way he was free. months maybe. She was smiling demurely. her nipples erect. his pulse raced faster. She was totally in his power in a way no other woman had ever been. She was his to do with as he wished. his first for weeks. He opened his eyes and for the first time he began to consider the true consequences of what he had done. Some sort of compensation for his headlong fall from grace. Her breasts were round and firm. bound and gagged in the darkness. He closed his eyes once more and her naked image once again drifted into focus. He was no longer daydreaming. As his exhilaration grew at his new-found sense of power he was surprised to feel himself developing an erection. Up until that moment his motives for kidnapping the woman had been totally pure within the boundaries of his own twisted logic.tossed back her long blond tresses. He was alone in the forest with a beautiful woman completely in his power.

moaning figure in the boot. He slammed the boot shut and staggered back from the car. He was consumed by the desire to do something dirty to her. something unspeakably filthy. Feverishly he tugged open the boot. Her face was grotesquely bruised and swollen. He was dizzy with excitement. “Oh God forgive me. It was wrong but…everything he did from now on was wrong. Jesus. there was no sin he would not commit. Her fear-wide eyes blinked in the sunlight. just like the Nazis had over their prisoners. He could do things to her he'd only read about in dirty books. his knees pressed against the bumper for support. A slideshow of perverted and unspeakable acts that had once shocked him to the core. He could wait no longer. He recalled a catalogue of half-forgotten scenes from the dirty books he had read when he was at university and the pornographic films he had watched as a young man before he got married. “What have I done?” His cock instantly grew limp in his hand. gasping for breath. he had absolute power over her. a billion synapses popping in the darkest recesses of his brain like a firework display. the . Hastily he opened his fly and pulled out his cock and began to masturbate as he leant forward over her. Again and again and again." he gasped. He climbed out of the car and staggered round to the boot. There was no justification whatsoever for what he was thinking of doing but when your soul is already as black as it can be what difference did one more mortal sin make? The thought of total domination over another human being was so intoxicating. Tears streaked her face. driving every other thought from his mind. The thought of her lying helpless made him ache. really ache. even torture. The desire was so bad it actually hurt. He could perpetrate acts he wouldn't dare think about doing to Maureen. groaning loudly as he ejaculated onto the writhing. The bound and gagged figure lifted her head and stared up at him. Her long blonde hair was matted with mud.” Now at last he knew that there were no depths to which he would not sink. his brain pounding. "Oh Jesus. He sunk to his knees on the wet ground and lowered his head into his hands and began to pray in a low moaning voice. holding onto the boot lid with his raised right hand. He leaned against the car. He came almost immediately. By now his imagination was ablaze. Anything was possible. weak with desire.feverish activity. Alone out here in this isolated stretch of woodland he could do anything he wanted. stared at on the internet. He stared down at his prostrate captive. within seconds. eyes closed. She was completely in his power.

She looked as helpless as a baby seal that was about to be clubbed to death. holding her loosely against him. The implication of this oversight immediately struck him. . moulding her contours into his until she fitted his body exactly as if they were matching pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Slowly he hauled himself to his feet. She lay on her side staring up at him with huge. round. He had never seen such a piteous sight. taller than Maureen. he pleaded for forgiveness from the God he had forsaken so many years before. Her body was still frozen in a catatonic state when he lifted her out of the boot and set her down on the ground. abandoned figure in the empty forest. his self-abasement drew to an end. "I'm not going to hurt you I promise. terror-filled eyes. As her muscles gradually relaxed she started to shiver. He bent down towards her and she let out a shriek. He stared down at her. without disguise.tears streaming down his ashen face. startled by the violence of her reaction. and he glimpsed for the first time the full extent of the brutality and ugliness of his actions. His face would be indelibly imprinted on her memory. Eventually. The woman now knew exactly what he looked like. terrified that she might fall over in a faint. The tables were turned. As long as she remained alive and could identify him he was completely in her power. all energy spent. The balaclava that had previously protected his identity lay where he had left it on the passenger’s seat. She was unsteady on her feet and he held her upright for a nearly a minute. after several minutes had passed. "It’s all right. He was surprised how tall she was. The sight of her snapped him out of his dream-like state. When he had finished he folded up the handkerchief and tucked it into a pocket of her jacket. Chapter 15 This time he remembered to pull on his balaclava before he unlocked the boot. He wanted to pick her up and clasp her to his breast and comfort her as if she was his own child. a forlorn. At that moment he realised that in his frenzy he had defiled his victim while he was bare-headed." He spat on the handkerchief and dabbed at the worst of the mud streaks on her face. his arm around her shoulders." he whispered as he bent down and gently brushed the congealed semen from her hair with his handkerchief. He jumped back. As she leaned against him she gradually became more pliable.

Please stop. it’s all right. please. as if she had aged fifty years in the last hour. hugging her as if she was his own daughter. he took her arm and began guiding her along the path through the woods.” As the seconds passed she gradually began to relax and the shaking subsided.” He leapt from tussock to tussock. “Stay there. “I’m sorry. He gently pushed her ahead of him and she immediately stumbled and fell forward onto her knees. as he moved away to retrieve the canvas holdall from the car. gripping her elbow firmly with his left hand. As he gently caressed her hair he thought how familiar they would have looked together.” she protested. He put his arms around her and pulled her out.” he commanded. “I can’t. “We’ll drown. “I didn’t mean to push you over. leaving her Wellingtons behind her. half-carried her the next two miles through the forest until they reached the peat moor which lay between them and the cottage. a patchwork of tussocky islets floating on a sea of glutinous peat. “I can’t go on. She shook her head. as if she had arthritis. like lovers in an embrace. The melting snow had turned the moor into a quagmire. When they stopped for breath she began to sink into the peat.” “This is crazy. until eventually she was twitching wildly out of control as if she was about to have an epileptic fit.” he said as he helped her to her feet. pulling her head onto his chest. Please. He gripped her more tightly. He hoisted the bag onto his shoulder and. Take my arm. “Calm down.gently at first and then more violently. “I’m exhausted. dragging her after him.” he said. after he had satisfied himself that the coast was clear. The woman shuffled forward slowly. “Come on.” He grabbed her hand. Nothing’s going to happen.” He half-dragged. This way.” she sobbed. When he was sure that she wasn’t going to collapse he eased her away from his side. it’s too far.” . if anyone had been watching. “You’ll have to jump.

utterly exhausted. “Don’t try and run for it. It cracked like an eggshell. They were both hot.” He motioned her to go ahead of him into the darkened room but not surprisingly she seemed . dragging the woman along behind him on her stomach. “What’s that?” she cried. In the seventeenth century.He dragged her across the bog. “I think there was supposed to have been a battle round here. He stopped and peered down. Something round and white the size of a small football was gently bobbing in the jelly-like peat. “If we stop we’re done for.” It took them another hour stumbling across the rough pasture before they finally reached the ruined cottage. “Yeah. fearful of compounding his earlier error. Nick’s head beneath the balaclava was sweaty and itchy.” he said as he struggled to unlock the padlock he'd placed on the front door the day before. “And that! And there’s another one. I stood on one. A dozen or more skulls were glinting in the sunlight about sixty yards away. but he dared remove it. They were in sight of dry ground when suddenly the woman screamed. it’s a skull! Jesus. She snorted in derision. Eventually he managed to claw his way up onto firm ground. wet and close to collapse. I read about it somewhere. gasping for breath.” “It’s horrible. the coarse wool rubbed roughly against his skin. “Christ. okay. pointing at her feet. “Those skulls…what were they doing there?” Nick sat up and looked back across the bog. what are they?” Nick bent closer. there’s lot’s of them!” He grabbed the woman’s hand and began scrambling towards dry land as fast as he could. He lay on his back on the grass. Stupid thing to say. And another. The woman was the first to speak. My God. The woman started screaming. They looked like a field of giant mushrooms.” he gasped.

he said. their eerie outlines casting a morbid spell upon the room. I didn't mean to hurt him. It was completely out of character. He avoided her terrified gaze." Still she did not move. As long as you co-operate nothing will happen to you. her voice dark and throaty and well-educated." He felt himself turning red with shame and embarrassment at the recollection of his behaviour back at the car. "I'll put on a light once we're inside. He was so on edge that for a second he thought he might . I've just got to keep you safe for a few hours. A myriad unfamiliar shadows immediately danced around the room like witches round a midnight campfire." he said gently.” He shook his head. I know." he said. It took several seconds for his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness." She did not move. "Look. I promise. Nothing like that will ever happen again I promise. Her eyes widened even further as she watched him. kneel down." "Something already has happened. "Please. a day at most. Honestly. "What are you going to do with me?" "Nothing. bending down to take the length of chain from the holdall. “I know. I ‘m sorry. Please. “I don’t know what happened. He was almost as scared as she was but. the first time he had heard her speak. "It's all right. Once he could see sufficiently to make out the layout of the room he opened the holdall and took out the old paraffin lamp which he lit and placed upon the mantelpiece. forcing himself to stay calm. She heard it too. I'm sorry about the ghillie. "What was that?" she whispered. I'm not going to hurt you.afraid of the menacing black void awaiting her. almost knocking over the lamp." She didn't move. You’re safe now. Almost at once the smell of paraffin filled the room. It was an accident. I promise. At that moment a scuttling noise came from the kitchen and he jumped. "It's nothing." Trying not to think of the noise the ghillie's neck had made when his head had hit the riverbank he reached out and took her arm and pushed her gently but firmly into the cottage.

He led her towards the kitchen by the chain. fetching the paraffin lamp across to the corner of the room. "On the floor. using a second padlock. He could sense the expression of pure hatred on her face and when he turned his back on her he felt her eyes boring into him. "Stay there and I'll bring you a blanket. He hated this place already." She stared straight back into his eyes and this time he did not look away." She looked around for a chair. can't you wait?" he snapped back. gesticulating towards the modest pile of tins with some embarrassment. "I need to go to the bathroom. to the old Aga. sitting with the chain fixed around her neck. No one had ever looked at him that way before. He placed the chain around her neck and fastened it with a small Yale padlock. As well as the blanket he brought the rest of the food from the holdall and laid the little bundle down beside her." This time she did exactly as she was told. secured the other end of the chain. He hadn't meant to scare her that much. All he wanted to do was to get away as quickly as possible. You can sit down now. her hands handcuffed behind her back. which was about fifteen feet long." He went into the kitchen and. "Stand up. "Okay. felt as much a captive as she did. He was shocked. her head bowed in shame. As she lowered herself awkwardly onto the floor he said. albeit reluctantly.hit her again but with an effort he restrained himself. Glaring at her he said. obediently. She must have seen then just how desperate he was because she suddenly knelt down. Even as he spoke he realised it was an incredibly cruel way to react. "If you don't co-operate then I promise something bad WILL happen to you. her voice barely audible in the dark stillness of the musty room. at his feet. “Food." he said. "I've wet myself." she croaked. He stared . "Jesus." she whispered. It’s up to you. please. only her eyes moving as they tracked him across the room." he said. I've already killed one person today so I've got nothing to lose.” he muttered. "Stand there. His nerves were on edge.

I brought you here because I want a ransom for your safe return. It’s all gone totally wrong. He hadn't exposed his scheme to scrutiny before and suddenly the whole idea seemed childish and stupid and impracticable. he was reminded of the fits Maureen used to throw whenever they had a major argument. an unexpected sound that to his ears quickly turned into a loud unpleasant braying. please. as she became increasingly hysterical. The figures he had in his head now seemed wildly unrealistic. He felt embarrassed.helplessly at her." Mentally he heard himself adding." She suddenly started laughing. "I'm sorry. This wasn’t how I planned it. mentally pleading with her to stop.. in a whisper that echoed around inside his head.” “A ransom?” She shook her head. "What's so funny?” he muttered. As the humiliating sound grew louder. that's why. even to him.I. He regarded her helplessly." She started crying. She looked at him in disbelief. at the naiveté of his scheme. How much for God’s sake?" He lowered his eyes. her head slumped on her chest. “Don’t you think it's enough? Or are you insulted by the low valuation I’ve placed on you?" A long time passed before she finally spoke again. No one should have to go through the kind of ordeal he was subjecting her to. "If that's all right. her shoulders heaving.. I’ve been watching you. "You can’t be serious.. “I don’t know what papers you’ve been reading . I was going to ask for two hundred and fifty thousand pounds. I’m not going to kill you. in a voice so low he had to lean forward to hear. "I know who you are. “Please don’t kill me." His self-consciousness had caused him to blurt out the explanation far too quickly. “What do you want with me?” He cleared his throat. even stupid. “Please don’t. once again overcome with pity.” she sobbed.. “A ransom?” "That’s right. anger giving his voice a rough edge. "Well. To make matters worse even to his ears the explanation sounded ridiculous when he said it out loud.” “Don’t cry.” “Why are you holding me here? What are you going to do with me?" He shifted uneasily.

” “There is a small trust I’ve set up for the children but that’s not my money. You floated the company on the stock market.” “I take out of the company only what I need to live on and I live a very simple life.” “You must be fucking unique then. “I read the FT. one of the biggest in the country. making a fortune in the process.” He couldn’t immediately comprehend the full implications of what she was saying.” “Come off it. Your company's shares . What she was claiming now was the exact opposite.” “I came into the world with nothing and that’s the way I intend to leave it. You’re worth millions. He was certain she was worth a fortune. She had discovered the Midas touch by plundering the Third World for ideas which she then commercialised in the West.” “That’s a common misconception.” “I’m sorry if that’s not what you want to hear but it’s the truth. Are you telling me you’re not one of the wealthiest women in Britain?” “That’s exactly what I’m telling you. The rest of my shares I’ve donated to various charities round the world.” he protested.” “That’s crap. you’re loaded. "What you’re saying can’t be true. He had read in the papers about her success lots of times over the years. She seemed to have discovered the knack of making money out of exotic formulas that promised beauty and health and eternal youth.but the fact is I don’t have any personal wealth. As a matter of fact I take home less than the average wage.” “What about your salary? You’re the MD aren’t you? What about stock options and dividends and bonuses and all that stuff? I bet you’re earning a fortune.” “Jesus. The accumulation of personal wealth is against my principles.” “I don’t believe it.

” He felt dizzy.” Eventually she stopped sobbing.” he explained. “Even if I threatened to kill you?” She drew her knees up to her chin and buried her head. “I’m serious. when it comes to material possessions. I’ll kill you if I don’t get the money. The shares belong to the various charities I support. Don’t make me do something I don’t want to do." "You’re not listening. spinning out of control. You must be worth millions. you’re probably better off than I am. He held out a tissue and she blew her nose into it. Everything was slipping away from him again. I had my own business.” “You’ve given all your money away to charity?” “That and a research foundation I set up in India.” “This is incredible. her whole body slowly convulsing as she burst into tears. They’re developing sustainable business models for third world countries. “I’m desperate." He looked aghast. We all grow old. “You’re my only hope. If what she was saying really was the case then he was in deep trouble.” “In the final analysis.” . He said slowly.” “Why are you desperate?” “It’s a long story. They’re going to take my house…we’re going to be out on the street. “Are you saying that you can’t raise any money at all?” “A few thousand at most. You better face up to facts. I have some endowment policies.have gone up like a rocket in the last couple of years. It went bust.” “The bank?” “Yes. I’ve got personal guarantees.

” “I’m too old.” “Would she approve?” “Of course not. if that’s what you’re thinking.” he snarled.” “What about your husband?” “I’m not married. I’m sorry but I just can’t raise that kind of money in under a week. But it would take time. I haven’t been for some time. It’s strictly professional.” “You’re married?” “Yes.” She raised her head slowly. I don’t want to talk about all this. I couldn’t just write a cheque for a quarter of a million despite what you might think. Fifty thousand minimum. All you need to know is that I’m desperate for the money. “Look. He was only too aware that what he was doing did not bear scrutiny.” He glared at her.“Can’t you come to an arrangement with them? Pay them off over a number of years? They’re usually quite amenable. There’s a lot of legal stuff to sort out.” “Does your wife know about this? About what you’re doing?” “She doesn’t know.” She shook her head. We’re fucking penniless. Now.” “Who was that man you were with down at the river?” “Robert? He’s a colleague. “Look. the faintest glimmer of hope flickering in her eyes. “I don’t have time. “Maybe I could raise the money somehow. And I mean serious.” “She’d rather be evicted?” The conversation was making Nick feel extremely uncomfortable. furious at the way she was trying to thwart him.” . “Either I get the money right away or you’re in serious trouble. I can’t get a job. He looks after my PR.

"I'm sorry. He tried to think." she muttered. All he’d done was to dig himself deeper and deeper into trouble.” “You’re not leaving here until I get the money. He felt his heart sinking so rapidly it almost sucked the breath out of his lungs. Now her. I'll tell them you didn't hurt me either. that had been a tragic disaster. really I am. I’d have to convince the bank manager that I really could come up with something substantial. And you better get it into your head that my problems are now your problems. He leaned back against the dusty mantelpiece for support. things just get worse and worse." The woman seemed to gain some sort of grim satisfaction from the look of dismay on his face. "Jesus.” “I promise that if you let me go I'll tell the police that what happened on the river to Sandy McGregor was an accident. to feel the immediate and desperate need to go to the toilet. Two or three days at most. I just can’t do anything that big in under a week.” “How long have you got?” “That depends. "If only it was that simple. I'll do whatever I can for you.” “It’s not enough. I must have .Gradually it dawned on Nick that she was telling the truth. A penniless philanthropist." he whispered. The situation was now critical. If I could get to a bank. He said quietly.” “I could probably raise five thousand immediately. "You have to understand I’m running out of time. First there was the ghillie. "Jesus. He didn't seem to be able to do anything right. "I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news. in a tone of voice that left her sincerity in no doubt." She replied." It was his turn to feel contemptuous.” “That’s impossible.” “In that case I’ve got a real problem. Time was absolutely of the essence. “But you haven’t exactly been good news for me either . I need fifty thousand in cash minimum. It was his turn to feel his insides turning to water. If that means I’m of no use to you all I can do is beg for my release.

" "In my experience they're a whole lot bloody worse. Do yourself a favour. Please. the sensation reminding him of a soft toy he'd been given by his mother. He rubbed the balaclava against his cheek the way he used to do when he was a kid alone in his bedroom where he felt safe and warm and happy." "Please. exploding all over the dusty floor like a field of tiny landmines going off. I didn’t mean to assault you. Everything in his life seemed so difficult these days. The temperature inside the cottage was growing noticeably cooler. Ever since I was a kid I’ve tried to do the right thing but now it’s all just turned to shit. "Is the money really that important?" He snorted.that money right away or the whole fucking lot comes tumbling down. No wonder I’m just about cracking up. The sound of rain splattering against the corrugated roof punctuated the stillness. in a voice that hinted at sympathy. Just let me go. "I'm freezing. She said. The cold from the earthen floor began to seep into the woman’s bones.” She said softly. Despite the thin blanket she had wrapped around her shoulders she began shivering with cold. to breed almost. Where she had wet herself her sodden jeans clung to her like cold wet rags. The wind had risen too and every now and again the ceiling clattered as the corrugated sheets rippled in the stronger gusts. "I didn't think it was all going to turn out like this. a rare gift from her. its synthetic fibres feeling soft and warm to his touch." he muttered. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone." He lowered his head and began fingering the balaclava. eating him alive. "I . As the minutes ticked by they both tried to think of a way out of the impasse. "Money is always important when you don’t have it. on the contrary they just seemed to multiply. getting bigger and bigger.” He lapsed into a morose silence. It just went wrong like everything else recently. Without thinking he pulled off his balaclava and sat down a few feet from her. Rainwater started to drip through the cracks in the roof." she muttered through noisily chattering teeth. resting the back of his head against the damp peeling wallpaper and letting out a long low groan. None of his problems seemed to have any solutions. "In my experience things are never as bad as they seem." He suddenly felt exhausted. one he hadn't thought about for years. Don’t make things worse than they are. like a cancer.

When the woman re-emerged he picked up the lamp and led her back through to the sitting-room." “I’m sorry but I didn’t bring any spare clothes. If it’s any consolation I’m especially sorry for what I’ve put you through.” Seeing the look she gave him he said. praying that none of the rats would have the temerity to put in an appearance before he departed." he muttered as she pulled the toilet door shut behind her. He replaced the lamp on the mantelpiece. “Him too. A nightmare. “I heard something scratching about in the kitchen just now.” “Your sorrow won’t do him much good now. “It’s not possible to plan for every eventuality. Please don’t go on about it.” “I know.” He picked up the paraffin lamp.” “I’m going to get pneumonia like this. She sat down on the bare floor just inside the sitting room with her back propped against the wall.” He hauled her to her feet and lead her through to the toilet at the rear of the kitchen. She shivered at the thought. “I'll bring you some dry clothes when I come back. There were more scratching noises as they passed the old Aga and he saw her stiffen. I know that. truly I am. I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life. “Let me help you up. the chain almost at full stretch. I’m sorry. I know. That was a horrible thing to happen.” he lied. She regarded him with an anxious expression on her face. Just the idea of them being in the same room makes me feel ill. He sat staring at the Aga while she finished her business. “God. What’s in there?” “It’s just mice.” “What about poor old Robbie McGregor?” A note of anger had crept into her voice. I’m sorry.” .” he said gruffly.need to get out of these wet clothes into something dry. I’ll take you through to the toilet now. Look. Of course him too. I hate mice.” “Look. "This whole thing has been a fiasco.

I’ll be back tomorrow to see that you’re all right. won’t you?” He looked away guiltily. Close to tears she said.” “I’m scared. “You’ll be all right. “What about food and water?” “You’ve got those tins. They won’t come near you.” “You can help yourself when you feel peckish.” “Well. There’s a tin opener. wondering whether he should warn her about the rats. whether they might actually attack her or not.” "You’re not going to leave me alone here all night are you?" “I’m sorry. I’ve got no choice. Praying that they wouldn’t bother her during the night he said. I'll have to work out what I'm going to do about the ransom. “I can’t. I’ve got things to organise. Tomorrow sometime. the sooner you can get the ransom paid the sooner you’ll be set free. You can eat them cold or I’ll heat them up for you when I come back.” Something in the tone of his voice made her suspicious. He wasn’t sure how dangerous they really were.” She had gone pale as she contemplated the possibility of spending several days alone in the company of mice and other creepy crawlies.” “What am I supposed to do to pass the time while you’re away?” He was beginning to feel a little pressurised by all her demands and he .” “What time tomorrow?” "I'm not sure. Are you hungry?” “No. “You’ll be here too.He hesitated." “You’re leaving me all on my own?” “You’ll be all right. It depends how I get on.

“I can’t do that. It’s all gone too far. A week maybe but twenty-four hours is impossible. clearing his throat carefully . “Well.. have you. "Right now I don’t know what’s going to happen to you. He shook his head firmly. He coughed.What are you going to do? You’re not going to kill me are you?" He shrugged. Eventually she said softly. Please. Please. Please. So maybe you better put your thinking cap on. “You don’t understand. The light." He stared unblinkingly at her." She uttered a short. Trying to attract attention. Nick bit his lip. One way or another I've got to make enough money out of you in the next twentyfour hours to clear my debts. please don’t. "It’s your funeral. I can’t take the risk. "I can't do that. I can’t leave you the light. bitter laugh.” She looked miserable. nodding his head slowly as he examined his mud-caked boots. You could set the place on fire. “You’re not going to leave me in the dark? Oh no. I’m sorry. "Wouldn't it be better if you just let me go?" He stared at her.” “Why not? Just something to pass the time.” “Are you going to leave me something to read?” He looked slightly embarrassed." She turned white.” Several minutes elapsed before she stopped sobbing." "What if I don't find a way to come up with the money on time?" He considered the question for a long time. his eyes burning with resentment.. And you’ve got twenty-four hours to do it. "I told you. All I know is you're not leaving here unless I get enough money to pay off my debts.” As she looked up at him tears welled up in her eyes. you could try thinking up ways to get me that money as quickly as possible for a start. "You haven't been listening.” “I’m sorry. Surely it’s not too much to ask? Anything. You're my last chance.had to fight to keep the irritation out of his voice.

I’ll take you to a public phone box to make the call. She stared dully at his flickering silhouette. He poured another coffee and held it to her lips." He looked across to where she was staring intently back at him." The woman started to cry again. Everything will turn out all right. It was time to go." She sipped the coffee in silence.” He didn’t try to argue. "I'm sure if we put our heads together we can come up with an answer. “All right. When he considered that she had regained some semblance of equanimity he got up and gently hauled her back into a sitting position. sobbing uncontrollably. her legs pulled up to her chin. to put an end to her ordeal. This time she accepted it grudgingly. but he knew that was impossible. He wanted desperately to let her go." Nick stood up. He felt helpless in the face of such abject misery. He tossed the dregs of the coffee onto the earth floor. to pretend none of this had ever happened. the only way out was for her to somehow become part of the solution. her arms behind her back. Fifty grand. "And the same applies to you. Almost half an hour passed before she eventually stopped crying. she began sobbing uncontrollably. “I want you to understand that I wouldn’t have done any of this if I wasn’t desperate. even sharing her pain.” he muttered eventually. He reached into his bag for the thermos and poured out two cups of coffee. a barely human outline in her living nightmare. withdrawing deeper and deeper into herself. curling up and rolling over onto her side in the foetal position. "I've already told I can’t put my hands on that sort of money. "Think about who you need to contact to release the money. taking short. don’t worry about it. She had become an integral part of his problem. her eyes screwed tightly shut.before he replied. I’ll think of something if you don’t. He said softly. He tugged the . her face pressed against the bare earth floor. Do your best. Turning her face to one side. feeling increasingly helpless. He handed one to her but she refused. “That doesn’t make it right. breathless sips from the white plastic cup. "If I don't raise some money quickly I'll be better off dead. I’ll give you the instructions about where to leave the money.” He paused in the doorway before he blew out the lamp.” She shook her head in disbelief. He knew in his heart she was right. He sat and watched her. Cheap at the price.

almost dreamlike. He couldn’t believe the time. The pain was intense.” With great difficulty she manoeuvred the thin blanket up around her chin and curled into a tight ball as the door on the outside world slammed shut with the dread finality of a coffin lid shutting over her.door open. His headache had worsened with the effort of driving safely without attracting attention. aroused by the sound of his own voice screaming for mercy. Maureen was lying at his feet prostrate with grief. a kind of living death. He woke up with a start.She was too scared even to cry out. He had dreamt that he was on the gallows surrounded by a baying crowd. It was cold enough for snow. While he worked he tried to recall some of the extraordinary events that had taken place earlier in the day.he still felt exhausted. The stuff with the old man…he wasn’t sure but looking back he thought maybe…it was possible…that it was an accident. Gradually the familiar shapes of the old dressing table and the half-empty bookcase emerged from the gloom. a sharp metallic pain. as if he had been drugged. There was no sign of life. Confused.” he said as he tugged the door closed behind him. Maybe the guy . He surveyed the horizon to make sure that the coast was clear. Chapter 16 It was three o' clock in the afternoon by the time he finally got back to the house. “Don’t worry. A pile of sodden leaves swirled into the room as the wind howled in. a deep.and wearily began peeling potatoes. Already it all seemed unreal. He shivered as he peered up at the dead. plunging her world into total darkness. He thought he’d only been dozing for a few minutes but it was already six forty-five. An old man had placed a noose around his neck. as though he had been hit over the head with an iron bar. as if he'd been out on a fifteen mile hike . for a second he thought he was back in the derelict cottage. He was so tired he could hardly climb out of the car. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Outside the light was fading fast and the room was almost in darkness. As soon as he got inside the house he took two aspirins and lay down on the settee in the living-room and fell asleep almost at once. Goodbye. dreamless sleep. He rubbed his eyes and peered at his watch. grey sky. He was confused about what exactly had occurred down at the river. Outside thick sheets of mist and rain lashed the cottage. everything will turn out all right. With an enormous effort he dragged himself through to the kitchen . his head hurt. Maureen and Martin would be arriving at the village on the bus any time now and he hadn’t even started their tea. He felt exhausted. he was emotionally drained.

“Where’ve you been?” he . He checked his watch. it would be just like starting over. They were probably already standing in the bus shelter opposite the post office wondering what the hell had happened to him. It was hard to say. Most people would have caved in before such overwhelming odds. But there was no denying the fact that with the hostage safely hidden away it was just like having money in the bank. He was aware that he still had lots to figure out before he got his hands on the money. of the courage and bravery he had shown in implementing his daring plan. They had no way of knowing that their little inconvenience would be compensated a thousand times over. What he had done had taken real courage and it was a fantastic feeling and just at that moment he felt like he could do absolutely anything he put his mind to. of the way he had finally confronted their problems head on. Martin threw his schoolbag into the back seat and dived in after it. His euphoria was heightened by the fact that he was intensely proud of what he had done. He took a deep breath as he felt himself tingling all over with excitement. He’d used hardly any force. And this time he would avoid all the mistakes of the past. He was running five minutes late. There undoubtedly remained a number of loose ends still to tie up to ensure a successful conclusion to his scheme. It was better not to think about it. When he had peeled enough potatoes for the three of them he put them into a pan of salted water and placed them over a medium heat on the stove. What was done was done. Would do anything too. He smiled at the thought. But not him. After months of vacillation he had finally taken an enormous step towards solving his financial problems. just as soon as he got his hands on the money and began a new life at the ripe old age of fifty. Rather a lot of money in fact. He hurried out to the car and drove down to the bus shelter at high speed singing at the top of his voice. His thoughts turned to the hostage safely locked up in her remote hideaway. In the final analysis he had kept his nerve and gambled everything and won.had stumbled. As John Lennon had once said. There was no doubt about it…the future had been transformed into something wonderful. In all the years they had been married this would be the first time they’d ever had a nest egg of their own. Indeed. the vast majority of poor wretches would have let their creditors barge in and walk all over them. He shook his head. not since he’d last smoked dope in fact. He immediately became suffused with a sense of almost mystical wellbeing the like of which he hadn’t felt for years. They were waiting in the bus shelter when he arrived. He smiled to himself at the thought. it was the first time in his life when he had been solvent and without money worries and it was an intoxicating feeling after being crushed so long beneath the weight of a lifetime’s accumulation of debt.

” Which was just about the right timescale.demanded angrily. “What about you. “The bank? I don’t know. “Any more word from the bank?” asked Maureen. “The usual I suppose. I’ve still got a load of exam papers to mark tonight. He suddenly felt nervous driving the car.” Nick was desperate to tell them about his own glorious. How did your interview go?” For his part Nick had forgotten about the pretext he had invented in order to borrow the car but he hardly even hesitated as he fabricated an answer. In a few more days. “How was your day?” he asked as they headed at a more sedate pace back to the cottage. He should have hoovered it out as soon as he got home. “Do you think you’ll get the job?” “I do. Martin.” “Even so.” “They work you too hard. In fact I’m certain. I didn’t manage to do half the things I intended. “We’ve been waiting ages. Don’t worry. once he had safely collected the ransom. She looked tired. how was your day?” “Fine. I’ve been out most of the day. At the moment it was a forensic time bomb. He forced himself to stay calm. love. looking anxious. Maureen. we’ll soon be back on the . yes.” “Oh yes of course I forgot.” Maureen climbed into the front seat beside him without saying a word.” Nick glanced into the rear-view mirror to see if they were being followed. then he would be able to astonish them with the brilliant news that was going to change all their lives for ever. exhilarating. “Pretty good. I should know in a week.” “It’s my job. Things were slotting into place nicely. he thought with satisfaction. fantastic day but for the time being he knew it was prudent to contain his excitement.

Speaking to camera he said. Seeing it on the television was a shock.” muttered Martin. "Hey. "The millionairess woman. There had been renewed fighting in Bosnia with the inevitable civilian casualties. “They should have been wearing life jackets or something. Yet another sectarian murder had been perpetrated in Northern Ireland. She had learned from bitter experience to take nothing Nick said on trust. No longer something that existed in his mind only. Mrs McKillock in the village does for her. Now that the genie was out of the bottle the world seemed a much more dangerous place. Nick pushed the inedible remains of a gristly pork sausage to the side of his plate. Something about an accident on Deeside. “At the moment we are treating this tragic incident as an accident." “It sounds like a fishing accident. There are some very deep pools downstream of where the incident is believed to have occurred and with the current so strong it could be some time before we find anything further. A young girl had been abducted and murdered in Kent. A woman still missing. The news presenter went on to say that police divers were still looking for the body of the businesswoman but that flood levels due to the rain and melting snow were hampering their search. suddenly sitting up." said Maureen. Two people feared drowned. Says she’s loaded. framed against the backdrop of the fast-flowing river. The one with the chain of beauty shops. Frost was predicted overnight in the north. "It's that woman." shouted Martin. Due to the high river levels our diving team is unable to carry out a thorough search.gravy train. A man’s body recovered from the river. her eyes widening. Somehow he’d hoped that what had happened down at the river would go unnoticed. The third item in. somehow made it all much more serious." It was the longest speech he had made for years. I wouldn't mind a fraction of her money. his mouth full of potato. "That's near us. A big police search. She bought an estate over on Deeside. At that point a police inspector appeared. Nothing much of interest. Then it was the turn of the local news. The national news was very gloomy.” Nick stared at the screen in dismay. They ate their meal on their laps while half watching the evening news on television in the usual silence.” Maureen said nothing. Unemployment had risen for the third month in a row.” .

Depressing too in a way. even if they were a bit big (and not very fashionable). He managed to watch about ten minutes before his attention started to wander. he never normally went out in the car at night and it was vital that he didn’t vary from his routine in order not to arouse suspicion. he just didn't fancy going back to the cottage in the dark. Then again.the weather forecast said they were in for a spell of cold weather and he didn’t want her catching a cold. If he was any kind of a gentleman of course he would deliver them tonight. He could just imagine Maureen’s likely reaction if he was to casually announce that he was going out for a run in the car without a damned good excuse. Maybe another jumper as well. All the bad things that had happened today. having already lost interest in the news as soon as the weather forecast came on. Nick was momentarily nonplussed. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about his hostage.Nick stood up. The fact was he simply couldn't face the sight of that poor woman in his present state of mind. The only thing was. He thought that was extraordinary. It was just too soon. it would be difficult to explain away if anyone spotted him. For the time being at least it seemed as if nothing had happened. looking for something for the pot. there were other possible risks too. The . jumped up and bounded off to his room saying that it was all right for some but that he had a mountain of homework to do. It appeared that even after you go on the rampage murdering and kidnapping. Besides. "Can I get anybody anything else?" Maureen asked for tea. even just to get people’s attention. He would have to remember to take her a pair of clean knickers and some jeans. Mundane thoughts at first. He could easily steal some of Maureen's warmer clothes that would do. Very suspicious. Stumbling around in the forest in the middle of the night. After he had done the dishes he sat watching Coronation Street with Maureen. Anyway. Creepy. All those skulls and things. These weren't the only reasons for his reluctance though. Although he could say something like he was out poaching. She was a too solid reminder of his evil actions. There could be roadblocks for a start. It made you wonder what you had to do round here to make things change for the better. as soon as you get home everything returns to normal. nothing has really changed. Maybe if they knew what he had been up to that day they might have treated him with a little more respect instead of taking him for granted as they always did. unable to watch any more. her favourite programme. He hadn't watched it for ages but he soon picked up the storyline again. nothing had really changed. to get out of the rut. Martin.

We’ll have to sign it next week. By then there might even be something left for Martin.” “She was told by one of the senior partners that the bank won’t want the bad publicity.” “That’s not what my lawyer says.” “You’re kidding.” “I don’t believe it.” “His wife’s a lawyer. Nick frowned. She represented something he preferred not to think about.” “You seem confident about this latest one. The bank are going to toss us out on our ears.” “Well.” “She spoke to the bank. Robert Fleming. she doesn’t think they will. She’s been looking into the bank taking the house from us.” “She drawing up some kind of deed. As long as you make a . His still-living penance.” “And they’ll leave us enough to live on?” “If we’re careful. I haven’t even got a job. She says that we should be able to come to a scheme of arrangement to pay off the loan in part over the rest of our working lives and then when we die they’ll sell it and pay off the debt.personification of his wickedness. He focused his attention back on Coronation Street. “What you doing?” “I was talking to one of my colleagues at school today.” “Maureen. Suddenly Maureen picked up the remote and turned off the sound.” “Oh yes. You remember him?” “Vaguely.

It had to be the police. Eventually Maureen got up from the settee and answered it. He closed his eyes and rubbed his fingers through his hair. Any job.contribution. I put my trust in you and you betrayed it. I promise. He felt so guilty neglecting her this way. A problem that would sooner or later come home to roost unless he could think of some way of getting a quick ransom in return for her freedom. Bound in chains on a rough earth floor not knowing what her fate might be. His heart sank when he saw her frown. With you working we should even be able to put Martin through university. Which meant that everything he had done had been rendered unnecessary. desperately trying to massage the images out of his brain. Except that she had seen his face and she knew what he had done. He froze.” “I’ll get a job.” Nick watched the rest of Coronation Street without taking anything in. If you want to regain that trust you’ll have to earn it back. In solving one problem she had created another for him. Or even a noose. They were coming to get him. He could feel the blood draining from his face. This was the beginning of the end. Ever. I’m not sure I can ever forgive you.” “Nick. Any minute now he would hear the police car pulling into the drive. The fact that there was no one he could talk to about his anguish just made it a hundred times worse.” “So we’re not going to be turfed out. I think you should understand that I’ve been deeply hurt by what has happened. Far from being money in the bank she had turned into a bloody great millstone round his neck. The game was up. Maureen had solved their most pressing problem at a stroke. Which means getting a job. Surrounded by rats. He pictured her huddled up alone in the cold and dark.” “And don’t ask me to sign anything ever again. He could see it in the policeman’s eyes on the television. The thought of the terrible suffering that she must be going through at that moment made him feel slightly ill. Or even some way of letting her go. He waited with baited . Whatever he did with her at the moment he still had a moral obligation concerning her welfare which he absolutely felt obliged to fulfil. Filled with trepidation he could hardly bear to watch her as she placed the phone to her ear. Even if it is stacking shelves in ASDA. He knew it. At that moment the phone rang.

A dysfunctional choir of overexcited blackbirds." she muttered. She listened for a minute and her eyes narrowed and her expression became very grave. her face ashen." Nick looked up helplessly at his wife. "He wants to speak to you.” she said. Maureen had plenty of old clothes which she never wore so he was pretty sure she wouldn’t notice they had gone. Fortunately Maureen had done some shopping the day before and there was enough bread to make cheddar and tomato sandwiches for two. A pint of milk. He's being really abusive. He went through to the bathroom and looked out onto the drive. his legs shaking. “Just a minute. Chapter 17 Nick woke up just after seven. "It's the man from the garage. It wasn’t exactly a healthy. I’ll get him for you. He packed everything carefully into his old rucksack. At least it had stopped raining and it didn’t look like it was too windy. His next task was to go back upstairs and search through Maureen’s chest of drawers for a suitable pair of jeans and a thick woollen jumper. Maureen and Martin had already left for town. He selected a blue polo necked jumper . creating a deafening dawn chorus. Under different circumstances he might have looked forward to a pleasant trip on his bike.breath. He looked up at the clear blue sky. a not inconsiderable inconvenience. The bed beside him was empty. holding the receiver out to him. Which meant that he would have to visit his hostage on bicycle. Everything from a murderous band of armed bandits from a cartoon South American republic to an angry congregation from the local church . all thoughts of his hostage’s discomfort instantly vanishing as he tried desperately to think of yet another excuse that would give him the breathing space he needed to execute his plan. a thermos of Nescafe and a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut completed the rations. He got up slowly. song thrushes and assorted finches packed the branches of the trees around the house. He sat up wearily after a restless night that had been punctuated by the usual dreams in which his creditors had lain siege to the house in a variety of guises. balanced diet but it was the best he could do in the circumstances. He added an apple and a carton of organic blackcurrant yoghurt which he thought his hostage might like. The car had gone.

He went back into the house and collected a Woman's Own. There was no point in her brooding. a Trout and Salmon magazine and a book. Light reading to pass the time was all that was required. A question that overnight had become a lot more complicated. When all was said and done she was hardly likely to risk burning herself alive in an attempt to escape. a small tube of Macleans. Having taken this decision he immediately felt better. a bar of Fairy soap and a clean towel.from BHS and a pair of Levi’s. at least until he contacted someone with his demands. perhaps he could safely leave the paraffin lamp with his hostage after all. He made sure that it was the one without any kind of dedication that might be traced back to him. Maureen’s revelation that they were no longer going to lose the house completely undermined the justification for his action. was of course the question. despite his earlier misgivings. From the bathroom he collected a toothbrush. Which meant. a flannel. Suddenly feeling more positive about the situation he further resolved to improve the conditions of her incarceration by providing her with something to read. He was about to set off down the hill when it occurred to him that. The situation was further complicated by the fact that after listening to the morning news on the radio it was apparent that as yet the police had no suspicion that she had been abducted. one of two copies he had been given as a kid. paradoxically. Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh. Despite wrestling with the problems half the night he was no nearer a solution about how he could safely extract a quick ransom out of her. . Then there was the practicalities of how he was going to get his hands on the money and free the hostage safely. Not knowing anything about the woman’s tastes in literature he just had to hope that it was the sort of material that would help her to pass the time reasonably happily. The thing was he couldn’t bear the thought of her spending any more time locked up in complete darkness. Convinced that this humanitarian gesture would be worth the risk if it made her confinement more bearable he dismounted and leaned the bike against the wall at the back door while he retrieved the lamp from the shed. their creditors were still pressing hard. Safe as long as he did nothing in other words. Apart from anything else it would send out the wrong signals and might lead her to think her situation was worse than it really was. He considered adding a bible to the collection but after a certain amount of vacillation he rejected the idea. that he was perfectly safe. A ransom would go a long way to solving their problems. From what he had heard it appeared that the authorities were still treating the whole thing as a tragic accident. To pass the time until what. It just wasn’t right. On the other hand.

As he remounted his bike he made up his mind that when he reached the cottage he would get her to write out a ransom demand – addressed to the young man he had seen her with on the riverbank probably – saying that if the money wasn’t left somewhere safe within seven days the hostage would die. still with a mantle of glistening snow shrouding its dark. It was definitely his favourite time of the year. He sighed. No matter how he looked at the problem it seemed impossible that he could quickly transform his captive into the money he so desperately wanted. The thought of having to cut off her ear and send it to them. The heat on his back from the late March sun was unexpectedly fierce as he pedalled up the first gentle incline on the main road leading to the cottage and he was soon sweating freely and panting heavily. To get the full amount was undoubtedly going to take time. filled him with revulsion. If that was the correct word. Naturally he would explain to her that he was really only bluffing and that she was perfectly safe as long as she didn’t do anything stupid. Hopefully everything would be resolved in a civilised fashion and it wouldn’t come to that.Although describing himself as safe. He set off from the house feeling reasonably optimistic. a period of optimistic re-birthing after all the doom and gloom of a long. He could of course settle for much less but it seemed crazy to take such a huge risk for so little reward. Jesus. The question of what he would do if they refused to co-operate or take him seriously was one he would address only if the need arose. was a purely relative term. despite the effort required by his age-wasted muscles it was great to be out in the countryside again when Spring was in the air. that sort of thing. He was only safe in the same sense that a bomb disposal expert is safe until the bomb goes off. It was hardly extortionate. Asking for anything less would only be a short-term compromise that would almost certainly end in unhappiness and ultimately even failure. You didn’t get much for a quarter of a million nowadays. He was obliged to stand up on the pedals when the bike threatened to stall going up even the gentlest inclines. Looking up through the bud-bursting hedgerows he could see Morven Hill in the distance. Nevertheless. any middle ranking company director would expect at least half a million just for having his contract terminated early. it struck him. Maybe as long as a fortnight. A quarter of a million really was the bottom line if he wanted to change his life and engineer a fresh start for him and his family. powerful shoulders. hard Winter. but in the end he believed he would have the courage to take whatever measures that might prove necessary to ensure compliance with his instructions. When this was all over he vowed that he .

even Martin. At the summit he stopped to get his breath back. like all the best plans. he decided. It would be like a family day out. The scheme was simple but effective. Maybe Maureen would come too. He leaned on the handlebars of the bike and let out a long sigh of relief. It would be something to look forward to after the quiet desperation of recent months. The only issue still to be resolved was the time it would take to get his hands on the money. a twelve mile round trip. and gradually the solution was starting to take shape in his mind. The trick. while he waited for the ransom demand to be delivered.would climb it again. If what the woman said was true – and he had no reason to doubt her . relying on his smooth tongue to buy more time from his creditors. He would just have to live with the delay. giving Nick plenty of time to make his escape. of course. Somebody up there still loved him after all. A series of instructions leading to pre-determined locations which he could observe from the safety of the higher ground. Once the money was left in the designated spot the person would then have to follow another series of directives before he finally found out where the hostage was being held captive. They could have a picnic. he was worried about what the dreadful experience must be doing to her. To make matters worse. He could lay a paper trail based on map references for the person who brought the ransom money to follow. It was perfect. Come to that. he would lay the paper trail. Light was finally chasing the shadows from his soul. he should never have kidnapped . He had been cycling for twenty minutes or so when he came to a particularly steep gradient on the road where he was obliged to dismount and push his bike up the hill. They hadn’t had one together for years. He felt his neck turning red with shame. Time. He would be able to see without being seen. All morning he’d been brooding upon a safe way to collect the ransom. He rubbed his hands with glee. For a start he certainly couldn't keep his hostage locked up for much longer. in particular the fact that the hills around the cottage formed a natural amphitheatre where any movement in the valley floor would be easy to monitor. but even in the darkest hours there was always hope. With every passing day the risk of being found out increased. It was funny.he couldn’t see any way it would take less than four to five days. He couldn't bear to think what it must have been like for her in that awful place last night with rats crawling all over her in the darkness. one of his favourite walks. was still of the essence in more ways than one. He should never have left her there alone. He would study the map later and work out the best route. Tomorrow. Talk about traumatic. just as he had done with that bastard garage owner last night. would be to use his extensive knowledge of the local topography to his advantage.

For the umpteenth time he regretted embarking on such a half-arsed scheme. Bending double he scuttled across to the shelter of a thicket of rhododendron bushes less than twenty yards from the cottage. He scanned the horizon all around with his binoculars. He lingered beneath the shade of the tree for as long as he could but eventually he felt obliged to make a move. Seeing the woman again meant confronting the true enormity of his evil actions. He paused about fifty yards from the front of the cottage. She might have escaped and called the police. He ducked as a brilliant blue dragonfly the size of a wren shot past his left shoulder like a helicopter out of control. He was experiencing a growing sense of unease at what he might find within the derelict building. There was no way the reunion could be anything other than unpleasant and he hated unpleasantness. To add to his discomfort blood was trickling into his right eye from a cut on his forehead where he had stumbled over an ancient field drainage system and ended up tumbling into a bramble bush. He swallowed nervously. In the distance a squawking buzzard circled lazily overhead. The last thing he wanted at this stage was to walk into a trap.her in the first place. Anything could have happened to his hostage overnight. There was no way he could even be sure that she was still in the cottage. Half an hour later he arrived at the disused track leading off into the woods. The still air was alive with millions of insects dancing and buzzing and swooping and diving in a dizzying spectacle. Almost overnight the undergrowth seemed to have cast off its wintry lethargy and thickened up so that forcing his way through the heather and knee-high grasses that fringed the broad peat bog was surprisingly hard going. He should have had it all planned down to the smallest detail before he started. However justified his motives had seemed at the time. And yet he still hadn’t worked out how it was all going to end. When he emerged into the open he took a slightly more circuitous route to avoid the field of skulls which had unnerved him so badly the day before. Prolonging her agony would amount to wickedness on his part. He hid the bike in the place where he had parked the car the day before and set off through the birch woods towards the cottage. In order to make absolutely certain that there was no one about he sat and surveyed the scene for a further ten minutes or so. . The sky had remained cloudless and now that the sun was almost directly overhead the landscape shimmered in the heat. the truth was there was no excuse for the pain and the anguish he was now putting her through. There was no other sign of movement anywhere else in his field of vision. By the time he finally came within sight of the cottage he was panting heavily from his exertions. leaning against a tall pine while he regained his composure.

when he was as certain as he could be that it was safe to approach. It wasn’t what he had expected. the only sound was the pounding of his heart echoing painfully in his ears. He frowned. What on earth was going on in there? He tried to peer through the keyhole but the inside of the cottage was pitch black. She probably thought he was the village idiot. How on earth do you talk to a hostage you have terrorised and humiliated in that way? And what if she asked about what was going to happen to her next? She must have realised by now that the whole thing so far had been a complete balls-up. Indeed. he began to creep closer to the front of the cottage. There were no insects buzzing. Forcing himself to remain calm he tiptoed across the weedinfested granite cobblestones at the front of the cottage and pressed his ear against the door like a midwife listening to a pregnant belly for sounds of life. He lingered for another five minutes in his hiding place just to be on the safe side. He turned his attention towards the cottage itself. Waiting was no hardship. no leaves rustling. For a start he didn't know what kind of condition she might be in. It sounded like a swarm of bees buzzing angrily inside a hive. Then there was the question of what he was going to say to her. Despite his attempt at stealth he still managed to disturb the flock of birds in the apple trees and they flew off into the woods squawking noisily. As he knelt there wondering what to do next the sound rose to a new pitch of intensity that was now quite clearly audible from outside the cottage. an abject sight for which he alone was entirely responsible. At first he heard nothing. Gradually he could just make out what sounded like a low hum. He felt the hair rising on the back of his neck. but continuously.The truth was that there could be a whole army of policemen hidden in the undergrowth and he probably wouldn't spot anything. He held his breath and pressed his ear closer. The sight of a red deer grazing contentedly on the hedge at the end of the garden was immensely reassuring. even the squawking buzzard had flown off over the hill into the next valley. the sound rising and falling irregularly. Eventually. To tell the truth he was in no hurry to confront the woman again. The sound wasn’t really human at all. It seemed absurd but he was actually terrified at the prospect of confronting her again. The silence that followed was unnerving. What if she had a fever or was hysterical or something? What if she had indeed been attacked by rats and needed a doctor? At the very least she would be cold and miserable. As was the large flock of chaffinches squabbling noisily amongst the branches of the two ancient apple trees at the side of the house. He .

And yet. The soldiers stood around grinning and cheering with the enthusiasm of a crowd at a baseball game. The thought horrified him. Then he passed the club to the man next to him. Wrapped in the protective cover of the dense leafy branches he sat listening to the awful humming sound. He sat down again on the damp earth. This time there was no sound of any kind emanating from the cottage. based on a true atrocity he’d read about years before in Idi Amin’s Uganda. And so on. Being eaten alive.stepped back in alarm. whatever it was. In a stockade a group of soldiers had lined up dozens of prisoners. But why? What exactly was she doing in there? Maybe she was being attacked by something. he felt sure she was the one making that awful sound. who killed him. the noise subsided. He closed his eyes and immediately drifted off into a light. someone dropping a smoke canister down the chimney perhaps. as the minutes ticked by. Gradually. There was no way he was going in there right now. Within a few minutes the sound of their angry squabbling filled the air. until eventually it was barely audible. Shit. He crept back towards the safety of the rhododendron bush. He was trapped in a nightmare of his own making. Except that the soundwaves were almost tangible. Once again the birds in the apple trees flew off in panic. as if a warm gentle breeze was caressing his ears. A dry twigged snapped beneath his feet and he jumped in alarm. He breathed a sigh of relief. his heart pounding. While he sat there in a quandary. He began dreaming almost at once. It sounded like the bees might be attacking something. This way everyone was a murderer and died in a state of mortal sin. It was an old dream. He listened carefully. He suddenly felt very scared. By the rats perhaps. the picture conjured up in his mind was like something out of a horror film. But if she was being attacked why wasn’t she screaming or shouting out for help? The sound really was just like a swarm of angry bees. down the line. He hesitated. it was a dead world. too scared to go any closer. No way on earth. Out of sound out of mind. exhausted sleep. The man second from the end was handed a club and told to kill the man on his left. even if something unimaginably awful was taking place inside. puzzling over what to do next the finches gradually flitted back in twos and threes to the apple trees. Several more minutes passed before everything went completely quiet as if the swarm of bees had been dozed with smoke by an unseen hand. expertly . He hauled himself to his feet and took an unsteady step towards the cottage. Anything could be happening inside that nightmarish world. no louder than the hum from a distant electricity generator or standing beneath the faint drone of an overhead power line. and yet that didn’t make any sense.

He felt stiff and sore from squatting for so long but he no longer had the energy to stand up. Cold enough for snow. The sun slowly disappeared behind the mountain. He scanned each letter with a practised. Soon it would be dark in the forest. A plain white envelope with a typewritten address whose ordinariness made it stand out from the rest. He paused at the foot of the road leading up to the house to see if there was any sign of visitors. He had lost. Chapter 18 The way back home was mostly downhill and he pedalled flat out.evaluating the effectiveness of the blows. Nick always woke up before the end so he never found out what happened to the last man. The sight of the little pile of letters on the floor inside the back door made his heart beat even faster. He woke up again on this occasion. clustering round the summit like a halo. one from his lawyers. The light began to fade. To make matters worse he was no longer convinced of the justice of his cause. It was time to go home and face the consequences. Slowly he stood up and brushed the leaves and twigs from his trousers. Clouds began to gather over Morven Hill. covered in sweat as usual. He glanced across one last time at the derelict cottage with its rusty tin roof and fissured granite walls and then turned and wearily set off on his last journey across the louring moor and into the murky forest. The battle to save himself and his family had been going on for so long that it now seemed unwinnable. Not for the first time that day he felt uncomfortable at being out alone in the middle of nowhere. one from the credit card company) he hid unopened behind the breadbin. the wind streaming through his hair. When he was certain the coast was clear he remounted and cycled up to the house. He sat where he was for a long time. He was sick of fighting for his life. It was growing colder as the afternoon wore on. It wasn’t just soldiers who suffered from battle-fatigue. At the end of the sorting process only one letter remained. At that moment he realised that for him the war was over. The free offers and the junk mail he perused only peremptorily before binning them. . circumspect eye like a security guard checking for letter bombs. Suddenly he felt incredibly weary. He had made too may mistakes to hope for victory. Once inside he discovered that the postman had been while he was out. yet another from the bank. The bills and the threatening letters which were easy to identify from their postmarks (one from the Inland Revenue. a refugee in a foreign country. Dark and terrifying. He circled the pile warily before he picked it up.

Job. living or dead. As he read the contents he couldn't believe his eyes. of which he had no recollection whatsoever. since he had had any of that through the post. Fat chance. He wasn’t certain. In the end he came to the obvious. He was pretty sure the same thing applied to a warrant. Perhaps one of his three premium bonds had come up and he had won first prize. The print swam in front of his eyes. As far as he knew he had no relatives of any kind. In thirty years as a patient investor he had won nothing. The same went for the lottery. not long after he got married. they felt sure. A. shaky hand. A BLOODY MIRACLE. It was truly a miracle. Maybe a distant relative had died and left him millions. A three year . That was the real danger. Odd things did happen of course. rich or poor. He hesitated for many minutes. He didn’t know what the odds of winning were but so far the results had not been encouraging. On the other hand the innocuous looking letter might well be a trick. he reasoned. It was from the local area enterprise agency. Would he. There were other possibilities of course. He felt giddy. When he tore it open it didn't explode but the effect was just as earthshattering. that it might actually be good news. if uncomfortable. had been successful and due to a re-organisation in the way the government-funded organisation was tackling economic development they were pleased to offer him the post of DEVELOPMENT OFFICER with special responsibility for High-Growth Start-Ups in which position. be in a position to START RIGHT AWAY? Would he? WOULD HE! He couldn't believe it. although it was months. his EXPERIENCE of running his OWN small business would prove invaluable.Gingerly he placed it on top of the television and sat down opposite on the settee where he ate some of the sandwiches he had made that morning and drank a lukewarm coffee from the thermos while he debated with himself whether or not to open it. but he had a hazy idea that such a legal missive had to be handed to him in person. near or distant. He read the letter for the sixth time. A JOB OFFER. An interview he had apparently attended six months before. The football pools were an even longer shot – particularly since he had stopped doing them years ago. At least it was unlikely to be a summons. conclusion that there was only one way to find out. a metaphorical letter bomb from any one of his numerous creditors and pursuers. There was always the chance. He rose from the settee. Someone up there had finally taken pity on him. strode across the carpet and picked up the envelope with a reckless. maybe even years. They apologised for the DELAY in making the offer but this had been caused by a NATIONAL STRATEGY REVIEW and they hoped he was still in a position to ACCEPT the post. Offer. It was a job offer. in fact. He read and re-read the letter.

It took him ages to get through to the right person. For the last six months it had been his prison. Pay off that garage bill. A new shirt and tie. It was too important. Another week and he would either be dead or completely round the bend.contract (equivalent to a lifetime). His hostage. Had anyone ever received such wonderful news? He looked slowly around the room. Work his balls off for them in gratitude. Save his marriage. A weight lifted from his shoulders. A lifeline. A generous (their words – but true) mileage allowance. Buy chocolate and cream cakes. The freedom to do what you want. Shoes that don't let in rain. He felt an absurd twinge of regret. A salary that made his eyes water. Resume his sex life. They would be on to him in no time. He was half way through dialling the number on the letter heading when he realised there was a fly in the ointment. His brain whirled. He closed his eyes and shook his head. Could he set her free without risking getting caught? He couldn’t see how. Eat meat. Joy unbounded. Apart from anything else he was determined to give one hundred per cent to the new job to make it a success. Pension provision. to get up when you want. He didn't hesitate for long. to do nothing if you felt like it. Life after redundancy. Mrs Roberts. How could he possibly look after her and hold down a full time job? There was no way he could do both. He picked up the phone again and dialled the number on the letterhead. Say a prayer of thanks. Sleep no longer murdered. Self respect. He read the letter once again and this time the tears welled up in his eyes. Send Martin to university. Keep a roof over their heads. The freedom to go mad with boredom. Six weeks holiday a year. She had seen his face after all. glorious thoughts. Bursting. he must have been transferred to at least four different . The latest millstone round his neck. to sit at the window and count every second of every day. A thirty-seven hour week. The queen's pardon. No. now it was about to become paradise once more. a kaleidoscope of random. Look the world in the eye. Presents for all. His last chance. Literally bursting. Bursting with fucking happiness. the letter had arrived just in the nick of time. Please phone back at your earliest opportunity and confirm on receipt of letter. Hark the herald angels sing. He was about to lose that peculiar form of freedom that comes with being unemployed. the freedom to feel totally useless. That was downright silly. He bit his lip. Tell the bank manager to call off his hounds. There was no way on earth he was going to allow himself to fail at that. With one bound he was free. He hesitated then put down the receiver. Yours sincerely etc. Reasonable expenses. The only alternative he could think of was to keep her as a long-term captive.

then an early night. Byee. So in the final analysis he hadn't let her down. no more hourly dramas. All the old certainties that went with being a valued member of society would soon return. And then he discovered. No longer a second class citizen. That was the most important thing. "No one tells me nothing round here. For better or for worse. The freedom from fear. the so-called executives in charge haven’t got a clue. Okey dokey then. you won’t catch her working late. a final cruel joke by Him up there. you can rely on us. and even when he spoke to the person named in the letter she didn't seem to know what he was talking about. This miraculous development called for a celebration. Over the years there had been plenty of times when it had very definitely been for worse. Even the littleness of life. All the things that made life worth living. He should never have doubted her. She’s gone home already. to his enormous relief. It would be easy to be ordinary once again. perhaps even the start of the retribution which would be exacted on him for all the dreadful sins he had committed recently. No. As always. No longer inferior. We always end up organising everything round here. You just come to reception tomorrow at." So he had got the job. all right. see you at ten. Raring to go. He punched the air with delight. say. He’d lived up to his half of the bargain that was enshrined in the marriage vows they had taken all those years ago. No way on earth was he going to screw up this opportunity of a lifetime. For a moment he thought it was all a mistake. Don’t worry. a lost soul without hope. Okay. She was right too. he had to give her credit for that. Who signed the letter? I might have known. He was employed once more. Don't go overboard. Buy a few cans of beer when Maureen came home. But from now on it was going to be for better. "What? Tomorrow? Yeah. the post and the telephone friends once more. that it just seemed to be the way the organisation always operated. I’ll have to get your ID card ordered and get someone from IT to come in and hook your workstation up to the network. A few chaffinches sat forlornly in the lifeless . He stood up and looked out of the window. ten and we’ll have everything ready for you. Start the new life with a bang. She'd always said he would come up trumps in the end. The bird table at the foot of the garden was devoid of food. Leave it to me I’ll organise it for you. He couldn't wait to see the look on her face when he told her the news. And Maureen. a good night’s sleep. if that's what you want. would be welcome after the heightened drama of the past six months. Bright eyed and bushy tailed. the humdrum grind.departments. Don’t worry. wait. No doubt about it. She'd always had faith in him though." sniffed the woman on the other end of the line.

What atrocities might he have committed. he had felt nothing but relief as he sat at her bedside solicitously holding her hand during the five long days and nights it took her to drown so indecorously in her own saliva. he wondered. the first with no blood connections. a virtual skeleton weighing less than five stone. Jesus. was the death of his mother many years later. Without a doubt the death that caused him most remorse and anguish was the one he had perpetrated while he was still a child. He swivelled away from the window and stared down with fierce concentration at the pile of notes . loved by his nearest and dearest. Almost as bad. He had been sent to summons a doctor but acute shyness had overcome him as he approached the surgery. if he had been a truly evil man? He bit his lip. He hated her. not to say mundanity of his moral ambitions. Hardly a day had passed during the last thirty years when he hadn’t recalled how he had failed his father as he lay upstairs on his deathbed. because he played an active role in condoning her euthanasia. Their future too was now assured. Chapter 19 It was hot. When the fortunes of his business took such a vertiginous turn for the worse that he had embarked upon a desperate scheme to avert bankruptcy and with it the ruination of his family. He knew only too well that no useful purpose could be served by dwelling upon the collateral damage that had resulted from his pursuit of goodness. Well. respected and liked by all who knew him. The only person who had ever really loved him in return. During a rare lull between appointments Nick Dowty stared out of the first floor window of his office upon the parched lawn and recalled some of the innocent people he had played a part in killing during a lifetime of ruthless propriety. Not even goodness. In the catalogue of his crimes against humanity this was the one act for which he felt no remorse. His motive then was simple. it was too late now. An ordinary.branches of the old apple tree. Very hot. Whichever way he looked at it the scale of the slaughter seemed totally disproportionate to the modesty. That ludicrous episode had claimed two more innocent lives. On the contrary. liked by anybody. Wriggling out of filial responsibility he had betrayed the only person in the world he had ever truly loved. Just the desire to be ordinary. He smiled. anybody at all. regular guy. And then there was last year. He felt his neck reddening with shame.

Indeed. Except of course that in reality if their projects took off they would gain all the rewards. He was sure that they believed he could somehow guarantee them success in their mostly half-baked ventures. completely worn out with the demands of the job. Thank God he was busy. Experts in their respective fields they were invariably commercially naïve. There was no mistaking how busy he was. enough to start their own business deserved everything they got. It didn’t help that he was no longer . he found it scary the way they hung onto his every utterance. The verdict of the market was the only opinion that mattered. Despite the fact that they knew nothing more about him than they did about a stranger they had just bumped into in the pub they trusted his judgement absolutely.strewn across his desk. Brilliant though they all undoubtedly were without his input they hadn’t the remotest possibility of developing their high-growth business concepts to the point of even modest profitability. as if his they were catching pearls of wisdom scattered by Richard Branson himself. more likely failure. of their ventures onto him. Their blind faith placed an enormous burden on his shoulders. Sometimes he felt as if he was the one gambling everything. Satisfied that he was properly briefed he folded shut his file and leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Although it was only three in the afternoon he had already conducted meetings with six client groups. not them. Anyone who was brave. Not that he resented this unequal risk/reward ratio. He was so weary. Blanketing the unpleasant memories of the past beneath the humdrum problems of his everyday working life was the only chance he had of staying sane. And all of them demanded the same intensive brain-mangling support and guidance. The constant intellectual challenge he faced in deconstructing and remoulding their half-formed ideas into schemes that would eventually turn a profit was stimulating but exhausting. It didn’t help that every group demanded instant answers. He always gave the same reply. not his. He wasn’t sure whether they actually listened but they invariably wrote down everything he said. subtly transferring much of the responsibility for the success or. or foolhardy. “What do you think of our idea?” was the earnest chorus they all repeatedly bleated like sheep released into an unfamiliar field. They simply couldn’t grasp the point that no one could predict the way the market would react to their propositions. With the benefit of hindsight he knew only too well how they risked losing everything. None was even remotely streetwise. as he had almost done a year before. as if he was in some way omniscient.

ever since he had been born. the inevitable outcome of his growing awareness of how far his life had gone off the rails.” His father had been lying ill in bed for the past six weeks. yet his time on this earth failed to stand up to even the most cursory forensic examination. “Please. making her voice hoarse. That it had all started with the death of his own father was particularly shocking. She suffered from depression. her tatty pink nightdress hanging from her fleshy shoulders. Nick loved his father more than anything in the whole world and he prayed continually for him. She always had done. Because she hated his father and was terrified of her own impotence his mum maintained at first he was just putting it on. When he stopped eating altogether his mum began to panic. “What’s wrong?” “It’s him. terrified by the responsibility. the characteristic bitterness in her voice tinged with fear. As the days turned into weeks they both knew that this couldn’t be true. pleading with God for a miracle.” “Don’t be damned so lazy. Even sleeping tablets couldn’t prevent him dreaming about that fateful morning when his mother had appeared wild-eyed and ashen-faced at his bedroom door. On the face of it he had led a perfectly ordinary existence. And wipe that stupid look off your face. a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions.” His mother never went out. Looking back it was extraordinary how subtly this moral degeneration had developed. “You’ll have to go and fetch the doctor. tossing and turning continuously. “Can’t you go?” he replied. “You know fine I can’t leave the house. Because of her guilt she hadn’t let Nick in to see his father for more than a week.” “Why can’t you?” “You know I’m not well. mum.” she had gasped. He hated his mother. getting down on his red raw knees on the linoleum in his bedroom. So many nightmares recently.sleeping at night. Get dressed and go and fetch the damned doctor otherwise it’ll all be your . you go. His constant groaning kept them awake at night.

glaring at him in such an accusatory way that Nick figured that his mother had already blamed him. The recent killing of his mother had none of the drama surrounding his father’s death He recalled the brief. fraught years when he had struggled to survive. He stayed overnight at his best friend Billy Beckworth’s house until a man in a black raincoat he didn’t know came for him the next morning. his head forever buried in books about goodness knows what. The sense of loss stayed with Nick all his life. If he hadn’t been such a coward his dad might still be alive. as she always did. She referred to him as “six foot of nothing”. During his frenzied . lurking up in his room all the time. thereby ensuring the termination of an existence almost unique in its total pointlessness. So did the remorse. without a hint of remorse. while at the same time absolving herself from all responsibility. a devout Catholic. They lived with his aunt and uncle on a farm in the middle of nowhere. She hated him. She made him scrub his neck until it bled but still his shirt collars got filthy. the cuckoo that had been dumped in her nest. Nick was sorry for the trouble he was causing her just by his very existence. In between the two incestuous killings. “Your father’s dead.” the stranger told him without preamble. The deaths of his father and mother created a strange symmetry in the family history. two of them violently. When he got home the house smelled of burnt mince and they had taken his father away. another three people had died at his hands. His mother got back out of hospital six months later and they fled to Scotland on the train because his mum couldn’t cope. to the discontinuation of his mother’s treatment for pneumonia. matching bookends of familial slaughter. separated by the forty hard. “ He ran all the way to the doctor’s surgery but when he got there it was packed and everyone turned and stared at him like he was something the cat had brought in and he panicked and turned round and fled back across the playing fields. He spent the next few months being looked after by old Mrs O’Brien next door. After a while he came to believe that the way she treated him was his punishment for killing his father. giving her more work to do because they didn’t have a washing machine like other people. The realisation that he would never see his father again almost drove him mad. His aunt hated him because he was clever and lazy. He had agreed. When he grew into adolescence she scolded him constantly. pious discussion with the family doctor on the telephone three months before. innocent victims all.fault. After they had been there a few weeks and there had been lots of rows his mother threw some plates and was taken back into hospital where she stayed for the next six years.

He sat up and rubbed his eyes. the last person to hear his carefully sanitized confession. but it certainly made him wonder. And yet. Companies that would expand beyond their parochial Scottish base and go on to develop lucrative niche markets around the world. If the application of his vision succeeded in helping to recreate the country’s entrepreneurial spirit that might be the catalyst that could unleash forces that would . even towards those he had crushed and. he loved every minute of it. Nothing had been allowed to stand in the way of his desperate need to attain society’s approbation. His catalogue of death remained securely tucked out of sight. especially in the nineteenth century. He was dead tired. Never an inkling. despite his lifetime of lawless conformity. bullied. There was no doubt about it. Which begged the rather terrifying question: what did the other “respectable” people all around him have to hide? What dirty little secrets were hidden in their apparently spotless closets? Or was it just him? Was he the only one? It was impossible to know. he had adopted a pleasant and solicitous air. Not his wife nor his son nor his closest friends. He wouldn’t finish work much before nine for the third night in a row. its pages turned only behind the unscaleably high walls that protected his innermost thoughts. Despite what people thought. sacrificed. neglected his family. despite all the pressures of his job. In the process too they would established political influence far beyond the country’s tiny size. cheated. Some of the guys he advised would surely go on to create companies that would become world leaders in their fields. creating yet more opportunities. manipulated and killed as he had clambered up the social ladder. proved as much. Amazingly. sweated blood. The world might be in recession but at least in his own small way he was doing something positive to help turn things round. no-one had ever suspected him of committing any crime. A brief glance at the history of commerce. such was his desperate desire to be liked. his brain hurt. He smiled to himself at the thought. every new client represented a leap into the unknown. and all the while. nor even his long-neglected priest Canon Murphy. That was the most extraordinary thing of all. every meeting was a brush with failure.pursuit of middle-class respectability he had lied. the Scots held a special place in the annals of innovation and industry. being a business adviser was a tough occupation. ultimately. Replicating the achievements of Marconi and Dunlop and Carnegie they would once more reclaim Scotland’s place as an industrial powerhouse in the developed world. If his own experience was anything to go by the world was a far more dangerous place than anyone imagined.

The proposal. Eugenics. of failures waiting to happen. Innovation. All that was important was the presence of the vital ingredients that could be melded into a sustainable competitive advantage. A vision that culminated in nothing less than the creation of an all-powerful mittelstand. Cloning. He knew only too well . even had the potential to alter the future of the Third World. with its sinister historical overtones. He studied the notes for his next scheduled meeting. He sighed. This one was all about re-mapping the human genome. This dream of regaining his country’s trading pre-eminence was an exciting prospect. Morality didn’t come into it. he gladly accepted the challenge. one that drove him to work as hard as he did. His mission to transform the country was heady stuff. Nor did he need to know anything about the detailed science behind the proposal. Given that there was bound to be a market for such a product. that was the most important . cash flow. which was based upon the ability to alter certain genes relating to an individual’s susceptibility to various malarial-type diseases. It didn’t sound quite right somehow. Success was all about the people. Not that the ethics of the underlying science mattered to him. seemed like a good idea to him. He would address that problem when he came to write up their business plan. Eugenics? He wondered if that was the correct term. which he had already been working upon for several weeks. They were for the most part a sad succession of tiny minds and timid aspirations. what really mattered to him was the presence of the essential commercial framework that underpins every successful company launch. His confidence was underpinned by a growing belief that the country’s industrial renaissance was most likely to emanate from the universities as they increasingly recognised the benefits that could accrue from the commercialisation of their research. although he knew in his heart that he had an enormous task on his hands to turn his vision into reality. After years in the spiritual wilderness during which his only dream had been to build up his own company he knew he had finally found a vocation that might offer him some hope of redemption. time to profitability. the group of world-class medium-sized companies upon which Germany had built its industrial might. With the right people in place almost any idea could be made to work.challenge even the industrial might of America. especially since the reality of his daily meetings with his coterie of aspiring entrepreneurs was very different. differentiation. That and getting the right people to implement the strategy. Nevertheless. He didn’t think it was too far fetched to say that the proposal. A shadowy legacy that might scare off potential investors. Indeed. whereas in the wrong hands even the most brilliant scheme was doomed to failure. The business plan had a decent pedigree for a start.and most difficult challenge. being based upon a research project which had originated in the local university.

a recurring metaphor for lunch. elegant. the strange. “Don’t give me your pretend sympathy. just like the rest of us. tall. Dangerously like lovers. “How about just occasionally you schedule me a proper lunch break for pity’s sake?” She laughed. She was only twenty-five. her wide smile lighting up the office.” “Stop complaining. The dim. It was part of his special relationship with her. I’m sure they admire you as a person too.” he grunted. There really was something special about her.” Sarah laughed again. his young PA. He gazed in dismay at the crowded printout. He enjoyed it immensely whenever they embarked on one of their mildly combative dialogues. The truth is you collude with them. . Sarah.” “Do I? For your information most of the time I feel like a my brain is being squeezed in a vice. Everybody wants a piece of you these days. The trick.” “You know you love it really. He was ruthless in his suppression of those who lacked the necessary attributes. short blonde hair that exposed a long slim neck that was almost swanlike. she didn’t give a damn what anybody thought. It wasn’t just that he was an emotional accident waiting to happen. How does it feel to be wanted by the way?” “You know what. as he punched the latest figures from the group’s business plan into a spreadsheet. She had worked for him for nearly a year and he knew he was falling in love with her. he had rapidly discovered. Sarah. He wolfed a tiny tuna sandwich. “Jesus. “You don’t have time to eat. waltzed into the office holding his revised daily meetings schedule. the feeble.” She had a facetious grin on her face as she spoke. the downtrodden. the weak. utterly calculating. In his short time in the job he had already learned that it was almost impossible to pick winners. He sought out entrepreneurs red in tooth and claw.that in life there were only winners and losers. Keeping me here on a caffeine drip while these guys come by and expect me to solve all their problems for them. Bright. dedicated. Which was hardly surprising. their private language. you know that. beautiful. visionary. the indolent. Tough. was to screen out the obvious losers. No vegetarians need apply. I feel like the only thing these people are interested in is my brain. almost like lovers. confident.

I’m working late too. Because you only see one dimension of a colleague at work you have to invent the rest. Fortunately. and he couldn’t be bothered. Some sort of penance for his adulterous thoughts. dear. How is he getting on?” “He got top marks in his essay.” . Nick switched instantly into loving husband mode. by the way I got an e-mail from Martin. “Hi. Definitely not in thought where Sarah was concerned. It means I won’t get finished much before nine. not a pretence. if not in thought. And what dreams they were. In deed at least. I could murder an Indian. I’m afraid I’m going to be late again tonight. up until now he had kept his feelings about Sarah to himself and under firm control. Besides.” “That’s good. At that moment. And that wouldn’t be easy even though he had been faithful throughout his married life. it wasn’t fair to expect Maureen to cook after a hard day’s work. Trapped in a happy marriage to be more exact. Happily married. And of course it didn’t help that she was twenty years younger than he was. the stillbeautiful student he had met at university twenty years before. Naturally. Sarah meanwhile hovered nearby.” He didn’t really want to go out to eat but it felt like the decent thing to do. more a way of being. Oh. Why don’t you come round here when you’re finished and we’ll go out for a meal. as if she had been reading his thoughts from afar and had sensed the looming danger.” “I always said he was bright. Recently he found himself thinking about her more and more. love. his wife phoned. To Maureen. “Oh yes. “That’s a lovely idea. Every second she was out of his sight was agony for him now. leaving the imagination free to construct the person of your dreams.she laughed at the world. for her life was a ball. busily rearranging papers on an adjacent desk. Or that he was already married. how are you?” he said. not all of them entirely fake.” Martin was in his first year at University studying mechanical engineering. Sort of.” “That’s a bummer. Like most people who lead busy lives he was a man of many guises. The trick would be to keep them that way. with genuine affection in his voice. Had to call a staff meeting about another new set of guidelines we’ve been issued from on high. “Nick.

Maureen. Let’s not argue. I just wish he would acknowledge that fact occasionally. I’ll come round to your office about nine.“You did. You know how much he worries about trying to please you. Maybe not to you. But he’s often told me how grateful he is for what we’re doing.” “Nick?” “Yes?” “Is everything okay?” “What do you mean?” “You sound…preoccupied. I’m sure he’s working hard.” “Bye. Don’t worry about it.” . “I am pleased.” “Nick.” Nick sighed. He has his pride too. I’ll see you later. “I’ve had a tough day.” “All right then.” “Okay. I’m too tired. We’re the ones making the sacrifices after all. love. These days getting a degree was essential to survival in a world where everyone had some sort of qualifications after their name and full employment was rapidly becoming a distant memory. okay. Her slim silhouette made him feel faint with desire. Nick. He loved his son but…but the truth was he wasn’t convinced that the boy worked as hard as he should.” Nick was watching Sarah out of the corner of his eye as she leaned over a desk with her back to him.” “But he does. As long as he passes his exams it’s money well spent. Martin was so laid back about everything. he made it all seem so easy.” “I’ll look forward to it. that’s all. you might sound a bit more pleased. Which it wasn’t.” “Bye.

meaningful look that set his pulse racing. Once when they were having a drink together after work he had told her that his marriage was not a happy one. There were limits to their flirting beyond .“I do worry.” Sarah came back to his desk holding out his revised diary printout. though. Probably did say. The way her eyes twinkled with laughter made him feel light-headed as he breathed in her beauty. It’s only a job after all. You’re the one who really works hard. “Anyway. Take it easy yourself. She laughed. in fact. Nick. She regularly quizzed him about his home life. This time her laugh disturbed him. where a once-exciting future had faded into the dull certainties of the present. that the only thing worse than a marriage that fails is one that succeeds. perhaps. no more unhappy than the average marriage where longevity had dulled romance. how happy he really was.” She laughed coquettishly. is it?” “Aren’t you dying to rush off home?” “That depends. made his stomach churn with apprehension. “What middle-aged man does?” he responded eventually. “As usual.” She gave him a bold. chancing his arm.” He immediately wondered what was behind this last observation. mock heroically. The proof. The relationship was.” he sighed. “No rest for the wicked.” “You’re sweet. As Oscar Wilde might have said. “You’re going to be working late again you poor thing.” “Just don’t take it so seriously. doesn’t it. his marriage. I don’t think you really want to go home that badly.” “When have I ever been wicked?” “That’s what I’ve been wondering. “It’s not about being middle-aged. where familiarity had bred a thousand irritations.” He leaned back in his swivel chair and looked up at her. I’ll see you later. which was actually only true in a very particular way. You work far too hard and they take you for granted.” “You’re right.

For the first time in his life he felt appreciated and he responded with a superhuman effort on behalf of both his clients and the organisation that had unexpectedly given him a second. Besides. As a result it was no surprise that in a short time he was promoted to head of department. there was something vaguely shocking in her forwardness. Now he was gainfully employed once again.” She made a face. It was only eighteen months since his business had gone bust and his world had collapsed around him. maybe a last. a brazenness which dimmed the aura of innocence he preferred her to radiate. had even been able to put his harrowing commercial experience to good use. he frequently reminded himself that it was easy to float to the top in a sea of mediocrity. in his heart he knew it was all too dangerous. the catalyst for a dozen new initiatives. keep your shirt on. he said sternly. broken. Equally amazingly. I’ll be your slave as usual. He had found himself unemployed for the first time in his life. he would break her heart. “Alrighty. following an external appraisal by an international firm of . up to his ears in debt. nothing like it had ever happened to him before. Only last month. Even more amazingly. if their relationship became serious it would raise difficult moral questions that he wasn’t sure he wanted to confront. all sorts of questions that a middle-aged man is not equipped to answer. Not just moral questions either. chance. fearful. even. He smiled to himself.” As he waited in Meeting Room Three for his next clients to be shown in he stared out of the window across at the row of copper beech trees shimmering in the autumn breeze and reflected once more upon the remarkable change that had taken place in his circumstances. a respected member of the business community. Although. to keep things in perspective. at least not yet. things just kept getting better. Although he was addicted to the thrill of flirting with her. Nevertheless. his depleted energy reserves had increased by leaps and bounds. a role in which he felt safe. scary. beaten.which he daren’t go. His rehabilitation had been so remarkable that within a matter of weeks of starting his new job he started to galvanise everyone around him. he had to admit. His brain hummed continually with brilliant initiatives designed to enhance his department’s performance. At the moment though. “How about doing something useful and making me a fresh coffee before YOU go home. To lower the temperature. at the end of his tether. which he knew from experience could easily become febrile. One day. He soon became the star of their weekly team meetings. He preferred the status quo where at least he enjoyed the illusion that he was always in control of the situation. as he had grown into his new job his crushed spirit had become revitalised. the wise old uncle expertly taking the lead. he knew.

for example in his wilderness years. Creeping desertification. even if it was floating above a distant horizon. Hardly a cloud in the sky. Like Churchill. Water the new oil. So far he had successfully re-built his life out of the rubble of the past. He had been told that his ideas on nurturing high growth start-ups were being evaluated at the highest level. What lay decomposing in that isolated cottage could still bring his world tumbling down. Climate change. his paper advocating the creation of an elite cross-network team of successful businessmen to promote the development of ultra highgrowth companies capable of becoming world-class players had been adopted as official policy. He shivered. You had to pay the price to join the club. Leith a major port. What was the half life of a corpse? How long would he be haunted by the ghostly traces he had left behind at the scene of the crime? His past lay dormant like a fossil waiting . Looking back on his life.consultants shortly after his promotion. Except that there was a cloud. Fleets of supertankers laden with pure Scottish water sailing around the clock to arid countries all over the world. Once he had finished the business plan he intended to use it to leverage his newfound influence with the country’s movers and shakers to make sure he got a share of the action. just the thought of how close he had come to disaster was enough to make him break out into a cold sweat. DNA was a potential time bomb. In particular. He smiled as he ran his cherished idea through his mind for the millionth time. Even now he wasn’t sure he was safe. Polluted water supplies. It was more than a dream. Without a doubt the future was looking bright. of course. Scotland the next Saudi Arabia. The one that he had been nurturing for years. he could see that it was axiomatic that all great leaders throughout history experienced periods of extreme adversity in their lives. Scotland a wet country. He tugged at his shirt collar. Water shortages. Suddenly he had an entrée into the world of politics too. It was a mistake to dwell on the dreadful events of just over a year ago. Almost overnight he found himself in a position of influence in the business community. Thanks to his recent forays into the political sphere he now knew the right people to help him get the scheme off the ground. his department had been singled out for praise. He’d thought about it a million times. Already in the past six months he had twice been summoned to an audience with the Industry Minister in Edinburgh. getting wetter. All the same. suddenly finding it hard to breathe. Droughts. carbon dating could destroy any alibi. His department’s budget was about to be doubled. And he was confident that he would join the club when he revealed his next big idea. He had to put them behind him.

She struggles a bit but she doesn’t really protest. Always. A really strange dream. You know what he said? What the deep significance of it all meant? What my unconscious was telling me? You know what he said?” . I told him about my dream. Before I can find out what happens next I always wake up. “Why ever not? I showed you how to do them when you were here the last time. an earnest young man with a long curly ginger beard and a faintly unwashed appearance. bounced into the room. I’ve been having the same dream for a while now. “A chance to study some cash flow forecasts that aren’t based on complete fantasy. let me tell you a story.” “I’m afraid we couldn’t do them.to be discovered. trying to bend her double. “What’s wrong?” said Nick. I keep putting my arm around her and pulling her head towards me. “The cash flows…” “I can’t wait to drool over them. I keep dreaming that I’m in a room with Jane Fonda. “I’ve no idea. the quartet of exuberant biologists in their early thirties who were going to rid the world of malaria. “Guys. “At last.” His clients laughed. It’s so vivid.” he enthused. I don’t know what it means though. We’re sitting together on a couch. Listen. These guys were so out of touch with commercial reality which was mostly based on fiction anyway. We couldn’t figure out the rate at which the company will grow its market share?” Nick shook his head.” “It’s too complex. The market. He immediately switched into professional mode as he greeted them warmly. coughed nervously.” Nick couldn’t hide his disappointment. Their leader. you’re making it way too complicated. At that moment the door opened and his star clients. The competitive forces at play.” admitted their bearded leader. “A friend of mine’s a Freudian psychoanalyst. All that stuff you told us about. What does it all mean I ask myself? Is it symbolic? What is the earth-shattering significance of that dream?” The group looked blank. deprecatingly. a wry smile on his face. We’re scientists.

” said the bearded leader. None at all. all that was left was penance.” Nick stared at the group expecting them to burst out laughing but they gazed back at him in bewilderment. The group were watching him expectantly. No one understood the way his childhood dreams had decayed. The others were dead and he had killed them. He looked back and smiled. make the miracle happen. the washing of his sins. maybe the woman in the cottage hadn’t died after all. “You don’t get it. “He said it meant I wanted Jane Fonda to give me a blow job. the half life he had led. . radioactive debris of the past. eventually. God.” “I don’t understand. There was no point pretending otherwise. Maybe her story had a happy ending too. their eyes troubled. Which was why he would help them now. Not exactly complicated was it? The point being that the answer is often staring you in the bleeding face. deeply worried. No-one did. Couldn’t miracles happen? Please. They didn’t understand what was going on in his head. waiting for him to break the lengthening silence. That was all he could do. To atone for his sins. There was no doubt about it. Salvation was beyond him. “Who is Jane Fonda?” And suddenly Nick thought. the new beginning he was trying to build out of the contaminated.More blank looks. Except that such an outcome would defy logic.The End .

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