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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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

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

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

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

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

“The peas are all right. He had already eaten . They ate with their plates balanced on their laps. whatever they might be. would be glad when it was all finally over. Now she was the one who was being petty.” agreed Martin. "How was work?" It was the same question he put to her at this time every night.” said Maureen. He was too tired to care. “They’re great. in front of the television. gelatinous mass topped with lashings of tomato ketchup. A bloody war on one front against the massed ranks of their creditors was as much as he could handle at the moment. wolfing down the peas which he had mashed into a lumpy. in an attempt not to appear churlish. the massed forces of impending economic disaster. Making one more supreme effort.but he sat with them for company and watched the news for the fourth or fifth time that day. 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." she said. of structural unemployment. nor about the people eating it. and he wasn't even sure about that. "Fine. as she always did. .yesterday's corned beef leftovers fried up with a finely chopped onion and a clove of garlic . Nick was too weary to argue about the peas. Maureen sighed. he said to Maureen. turning their poverty into a battleground. It was bad enough that he had to fight the outside world." He shook his head. by way of gentle reproach. of high prices and artificial demand. Silently he served up their meal and they took it through in the sitting room. He knew all this but it didn't stop him becoming angry and bitter. To tell the truth he didn’t really care about the food any more. It was just that by being late they inadvertently belittled his efforts to make himself useful and valuable to them. "I'll take it back if you like and change it for shaving soap. He knew he was losing the battle against imminent bankruptcy and in a way he almost welcomed defeat. What did it all matter anyway? So you fucked up your life. Just the way I like them.couldn't stop himself. 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.

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

Nick bit his lip. away from the temptations and the ugliness of the city. entirely predictably. naff. travelling in and out every day with Maureen. 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. That was yet another one of his bright ideas. a forkful of bloody-looking peas suspended in front of his open mouth. Nick regarded his son with distaste. He knew he was supposed to love him more than anything in the whole world. boring and. All his friends were in town. 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. Making an effort to hide his inner turmoil Nick fixed a smile upon his face and leaned across to his son. “School.fall far short of what was needed to pay for Martin’s university education. He even continued to go to school in town. In the meantime though they were stuck here. above all. As it turned out. Martin? How was school today?" "What?" said Martin. in the middle of nowhere. That place you go to every day. The reality was a person whose table manners left a an enormous amount to be desired. Edinburgh. And of course he did. Inasmuch as he loved the idea. would be for them to up sticks and move back into town. 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. Unfortunately the reality fell a long way short of the ideal. It didn’t help that to study properly Martin would have to live in town – either Aberdeen or. Martin hated the countryside. In his eyes the countryside was barren. in limbo. of course. How was it?” Martin’s gaze remained fixed on the television. of having a son. Which might indeed be the eventual outcome once the bank repossessed the house and they were forced to look for rented accommodation. supposedly a more prestigious university in the medical field. The truth was they should never have moved out into the country the way they had ten years before. his preferred choice. not taking his eyes off the latest pictures on the television news. In a way. graphic images of further atrocities committed during the so-called peace in Iraq. "What about you. creating a hole in his affections the size of Denmark. The answer. You know. . the concept. Real life was lived in the city.

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

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

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

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

I’m too bloody old. Maureen." he groaned again. the worst he had ever received." Maureen flinched.It was the news he had been dreading for weeks. “There’s no need to swear. I keep telling you. 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.” “I can’t get a job. for a miracle to happen. They were going to lose everything. feeling as if the ground had opened up beneath his feet. "Christ. Debts that they would be paying for the rest of their lives. By the end of the month they would be out on the street. We can’t go on like this. He had warned Maureen continually about spending money but she wouldn't listen. I fucking knew it.” she chastised him softly. "Jesus. as if he was sinking into quicksand. Time for something to turn up. Her . that was the problem." he groaned. What letters? We haven’t had any letters from them. Her apparent calmness infuriated him. And still they would be left with massive debts hanging around their necks. In a matter of days the bailiffs would arrive. The shaving foam was a typical example. 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. They were living beyond their means.” He slumped into a seat at the table and cradled his head in his hands. Then you’ll have to get a job. "I knew this was going to happen. First their furniture would be carted off. His heart was thumping so violently against his chest that he could hardly breathe. After that the best they could hope for was bed and breakfast accommodation in some ghastly place full of DHSS claimants. "Jesus Christ Almighty. Now they had dug themselves into a hole and there was no way out." “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. I’ve tried. Martin’. have we?” “What the fuck are we going to do?” “First you’ll have to talk to them. 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.

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

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

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

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

from a host of faceless enemies. He always fed the birds even if it meant going short himself. an aerial bombardment of letters and phone calls. Mechanically. Maureen was referring to their personal bank manager. it helped to buttress the remnants of his crumbling self-respect . It was still only eight thirty and there was a whole day stretching out ahead of him. Just the thought of picking up the phone to that granite-faced individual was enough to bring him out into a cold sweat. It was important that the house looked tidy. a whole day with nothing to do but dwell upon his misfortune. and he wasn’t going to let them down in the way he’d failed everyone else. He gazed at the picture-postcard view as if he was in a trance. Whenever he did so a sense of dread would grip him for the rest of the day. although at this time of the year he might well die of exposure. Maureen’s words of a few days earlier sprang into his mind. Invariably he pictured what would happen if his creditors were to suddenly descend upon the house. He shivered in chilled recognition that there was nowhere to run. with no chores left to do that his imagination often ran riot. It was at this point in his day. He peeled enough potatoes for three and cleaned and chopped up half a cabbage. 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. Arrange the visit to the bank manager. He was boiling the kettle when he remembered that there was one thing still left to do. 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. in slow motion. he returned to the kitchen and cleared away the dishes he had left on the draining board the night before. A fugitive could hide out in the hills and never be found. He rammed a load of dirty clothes into the washing machine and set it running. The birds depended on him. that he was trapped within the bleak. He decided to put the terrifying . featureless landscape of his shrinking imagination. He looked at his watch. another of the household duties that Maureen now left to him. populated only by fear. 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. This wasn’t his former business bank manager who now only communicated to him through his lawyer. an even more scary individual who held their immediate well-being in his finely-manicured hands. 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.

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.call off until tomorrow at least. By standing on tiptoe he could just see out of the window from the back of the room. . As the weeks had passed he had developed a routine designed to lessen the unpleasantness. 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. As well as the ultimate threat of an actual visit there was always the latent danger from the telephone. Minute by minute. It was better to let them keep trying. or even until the electricity was actually cut off and they were tossed out onto the streets and there were no alternatives left. 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. And every time the postman passed by without stopping meant another day's grace free from the wrath of the bank manager. It was just a shame that the mail wasn’t the only way they were able to get at him. 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. another endless day on death row. just before the regular cascade of threatening letters and failed job applications came crashing through the letterbox. That was how he lived now: in constant fear of the final showdown. Every second that ticked by was another merciful postponement of his final reckoning. He’d considered taking the phone off the hook but he was worried in case that might actually precipitate a visit. He waited anxiously for the postman's van to appear at the bottom of the hill. Nine fifteen. or maybe even the day after. the threats of the credit card company. and whenever the phone exploded into life his nerves were sent jangling. the insistent demands of the tax man. 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. even though the constant ringing was driving him mad. Hour by hour. They continually tried to get to him that way now. He looked at his watch. This was the most tense time of the day. In this near catatonic state he only stopped his vital organs giving up on him by dint of willpower alone. Day by day. After he had checked the view out of the front and back windows he sneaked back upstairs to the safety of his bedroom. He knew he was being cowardly and stupid but he simply couldn’t take the risk of picking up the phone. The feeling of impending disaster was now so suffocating that it made breathing difficult and somehow mechanical. The postman was due at any minute.

It was time to finally recognise that enduring reality. He stood and watched them enviously for several minutes. He knew he couldn’t go on this way. He knew he couldn’t go on burying his head in the sand. waiting for a miracle to happen. the only person that could save him now was himself. He waited in the corner of the bedroom until he heard the postman’s van roar back down the hill. 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. 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. 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. He was only days away from disaster. Beside him in the passenger seat Rip his Alsatian raised his head and looked at his master with quizzical eyes. 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. No. even worse. The only possible course of action was to keep on looking until he found a solution. The bird table was still alive with chaffinches and blue tits feeding on the scraps he had put out earlier. Sure he was in a fix but somewhere. not to give up prematurely or spend his time perpetually casting around for excuses. Even if miracles did sometimes happen. No matter how hopeless things seemed he knew had to be positive. . somehow there had to be an answer.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. To make sure it wasn’t a trick he kept watch until his calves ached and his legs were shaking. they didn’t happen to people like him. or. After taking a deep breath he sat down again at the breakfast table determined to confront his problems head on. licking his lips in anticipation. He simply had to come up with a solution that would finally put him out of his misery. He stood on tiptoe and watched it disappear from view at the end of the road.

He only wished that he was allowed to use stun grenades the way he used to do when he was in the SAS. It didn’t matter. 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. The big car began moving up the hill with all the finality of a Sherman tank. There was no doorbell so he knocked loudly on the wooden door with his big. calloused knuckles. He kicked the dog so that it snarled at him and began barking. He repeated his assault on the door a further four times as the morning . As he approached the cottage he dialled Nick Sterling’s number on his mobile. “I know you’re in there. He was well-prepared for a long siege. He had a baseball bat in the boot but he knew he wouldn’t need it here. knowing it wouldn’t be answered. “Anybody in?” he barked politely into the shadowy void. Let the target see the dog.” he called through the letterbox. That instrument was mainly for inner city use. 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. and even then most people gave very little trouble once he had cornered them. Generally speaking you had to be pretty feckless to get so deeply into debt.Garry Brown surveyed the house with professional precision for five minutes before he lowered the binoculars. The object was to create maximum confusion in his target’s mind. Catching the debtor before he made a run for it was half the battle. “I seen you through the binoculars. 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. he thought. While he ate he read the Sun. He patted the Alsatian’s head and turned the keys in the ignition. There was no response. Garry Brown was a big man and he clambered out of the Range Rover onto the driveway with difficulty. 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.” 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. to disorientate him. a knowing smile playing on his lips. not the kind of person who usually put up much of a fight. Rip leapt down after him and he tied the dog to the door handle of the vehicle. He didn’t attempt to calm it. grinning.

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

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

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

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. almost at early summer levels. throwing up a slushy tidal bow wave that knocked him sideways. How long it would take or the river would embrace him. The river looked inviting for a different reason. 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. In the event the water appeared empty. He imagined himself plunging into the icy depths. Immediately beneath the bridge was a fine pool almost a quarter of a mile long that often held large shoals of salmon. Underneath the skeletal canopy of trees the snow was sparser and the going was a little easier. He sighed. he wondered? The prospect of an end to all his problems was a beguiling one. it was his duty to somehow put things right. His brain was so numbed he didn’t feel the pain. Despite the recent heavy snowfalls the river was running free of ice and grue. He had read somewhere that drowning was a good way to die. 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. It would be a lonely grave. He . He leaned out over the parapet of the old military bridge and peered down into the dark churning water below. So many fond memories. He stared thoughtfully down at the water wondering how deep it was.collect his thoughts. He was ready to admit defeat. Over the years he had spent many happy hours fishing the river. He tried to re-connect with the past but failed. devoid of life. 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 gazed down for several minutes into the powerful swirls and eddies thirty feet below. As a result the river was running low. At that moment a lorry roared past. Eventually he picked up the tracks of an old drove road that he knew would lead him to the river. 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. Later. He was exhausted and he leaned against the stone parapet of the bridge and stared down into the steely grey water below. potential companions on his next journey. 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 was the cause of all the problems. He knew he would have to turn back eventually. He couldn’t abandon his family.

Fuck you. He leaned further out over the parapet to get a better view into the shaded depths beneath the arch of the bridge. proceeded to ignore him completely as she performed a superbly executed Spey cast. 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. Just about. 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.craned his neck to examine a stretch of pale sandy gravel running along the edge of the river. drifting back to sea on the current. sending the line out and across and down the river in a smooth and effortless delivery that he would have been proud to emulate. 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. the cat can look at the queen. a burly dark-skinned man of about sixty dressed in thick brown tweeds. exhausted after spawning. Either the fish had already run on upstream after the last spate or they had not yet arrived this far inland. 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. He smiled self-consciously at them. ominous torpedo shapes of cock fish gliding upriver in their relentless drive to reach the spawning grounds. glaring at him with all the warmth of a store detective greeting the arrival of a serial shoplifter. He squinted at the burnished surface until his eyes watered. To his surprise he found himself staring. so early in the season. The woman wielding the rod fished on oblivious to his presence. almost thirty miles from the sea. From the blackness of the fish’s silhouette he decided that it was probably a kelt. The ghillie looked up once more. He had often in the past watched the dark. upside-down. almost certainly a ghillie. When you are the keeper on a top salmon beat every stranger is a potential poacher. He saw at once that the couple was a young female fisherman and her much older companion. The ghillie simply scowled back while the young woman. whom he reckoned was in her early thirties. Finally he decided that the rest of the pool was empty. he thought to himself. He returned the old man's malevolent stare with equanimity. The harsh sunlight glinting on the rippling water had turned the pool into a silvery mirror. Nick wasn’t surprised by his reaction. at two equally startled people looking up at him from the riverbank below. appearing .

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

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

He wasn’t beaten yet. Martin in particular loved spicy foods . After the meal he would tell Maureen about his plan to . Nick retreated into the wood. He clenched his fists in front of his chest like a boxer. After a while he gave up puzzling about the woman and started thinking about the meal he would prepare for Maureen and Martin. He knew it was his last chance. He had found a potential solution to his problems. His legs were stiff from standing still for so long. But for the first time in weeks he was happy. A ribbon he would soon untie to claim his prize. At least while he was still within the river’s ancient floodplane the track was flat and mostly free of snow and ice. Maureen would have known who she was. She was definitely famous. he hadn’t eaten all day. It was up to him to make it work. They would just have to make do with spring water. The afternoon was wearing on and he was a long way from home. Even the cabbage could be glamorised if he stir-fried it for example. Now he had a plan he would make it all up to her. He was ravenously hungry and he started to salivate as he imagined the intensity of the flavours he would create. He couldn’t wait to tell Maureen. 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. maybe even royalty. 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 strode out with a sense of purpose. He reckoned he was about eight miles from home. 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. almost certainly a film star. He had played in the woods as a child and despite the encroaching darkness he soon found a track he recognised. she was good at that sort of thing. He took a last look at the deserted river. his feet were lumps of ice. He checked his watch. She was the one who had really suffered in all this.poachers they caught. A silvery ribbon of hope weaving its way through the rich green pasture. expecting to be fed. It was a shame there wasn’t any drink in the house to celebrate his Big Idea. There was no doubt about it: the idea had legs. He would be lucky to get back before Maureen and Martin arrived back from town. He knew the river round here at least as well as any keeper. There was still hope. Despite his tiredness he quickly got into his stride and was soon marching along at a brisk pace. he was chilled to the marrow.

rescue them from financial ruin. His nerves were on edge. Mushrooms and chanterelles could be picked in the autumn. An owl hooted in the woods opposite the house and he jumped. And he was just thinking about the meal either. In future they would live off the land just like their ancient ancestors had done. He hesitated. If they did arrive home before the meal was ready it would mean that Maureen would be all harassed and resentful. It wasn’t a game was it? A surprise? Or… a …. It occurred to him that he didn’t have to stop at salmon. please let me get it right this time. they’d probably been held up by traffic in town. sheep and pigs were probably out of the question. Being realistic. in trying to work out a solution to their problems. 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. An hour later he reached the foot of the farm road. All the same he smiled to himself at the miraculous way the day had been transformed. while Martin too would be indignant that his tea wasn't ready and waiting as usual. He wasn’t being romantic about it either – he wasn’t some old hippie or like someone out of the Good Life. nearly half an acre. Please God. In desperation. Maybe even chickens. He could reap salvation from the land not just by poaching salmon but by snaring rabbits and hares and shooting pheasants. He felt guilty at the length of time he had been away. He frowned. an increasingly regular occurrence nowadays. Wild raspberries. Wearily he trudged up the hill in darkness towards the cottage. That was odd. brutish and short. he would have failed them abysmally. Normally whoever was first back put on the outside light and of course the inside lights but everything here was still in darkness. gooseberries and damsons harvested in the summer. To his great relief there were no lights showing so he figured Maureen and Martin weren’t back yet. he prayed as he struggled up the hill. Once again. Raising animals to kill them wasn’t something he felt too comfortable about to tell the truth. A short term solution to tide them over until he got a proper job. Where there had been despair there was now hope. he quickened his footsteps. They had a bit of land after all. Something was wrong. What a feast that would make – like a medieval banquet. Maybe there . Really he should have been home a couple of hours ago to get the tea ready. Now that spring was here he could dig up the garden and plant seeds and potatoes too. trap? His heart began to beat faster. Chapter 7 Nick limped into the driveway and was immediately taken aback to see Maureen's Saab parked outside the garage. What he was doing was entirely pragmatic. despite his tiredness. maybe even the odd deer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

" 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 fridge." "Go to the bank first. that's all. that’s more important. determined to pin him down for once." he agreed reluctantly. no washing machine. "I suppose I'll have to." The thought of confronting their personal bank manager. Nick?" Maureen persisted. That night they were too angry and hurt and bitter to reach out to each other for warmth or love as they usually did. no lights. leaving her to somehow pick up the pieces." The vehemence of her outburst scared him. She knew how to turn the screw when she had to. She felt her sympathy turning to anger as she contemplated the way he had thrown in the towel. He no longer looked remotely like the man she had married. We'll have to get money from somewhere otherwise we really will be thrown out onto the streets. No electricity means no central heating." . all right. a man with whom in the past he had regularly shared a laugh and a joke as if they were equals." He shifted in his seat.” she muttered sleepily. "All right. no cooker."You mean dig ourselves deeper into debt?" She stared across at him through the shadowy light. At ten twenty-three the phone rang in the sitting-room downstairs. Nick. "All right. “I've got to get up in the morning. I'll go. Just don't go on about it. "We can't go on like this. filled him with dread. "You get it. Not that there's much in the fridge. the loving husband who until recently had run a successful business. pulling the blankets tight up to their chins in the freezing cold room. And the coal ran out nearly a week ago and the logs are almost finished. Nick pretended he was asleep but Maureen nudged him with her elbow. no microwave. no television. "Will you. no water being pumped from the well. "Promise me you’ll go. I'll go down to the Job Centre first thing in the morning.

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

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

I'm busy in the morning. Maybe time to come up with another solution. His heart thumped as he climbed back into bed. He switched the bedside light off and closed his eyes and tried to sleep.” "What time will you bring this cheque?" Jesus Christ! Talk about hounding someone for payment. further undermining the sense of security that being in his own home used to bring him. in a conciliatory. He didn’t attempt to keep the exasperation out of his voice." he said quickly. Look. "She's got to work tomorrow. The phone call had shaken him. The trouble was there was no way they could pay his bill in the morning.” “Honestly. In the darkness his anger turned to . The man obviously had plenty of experience of dealing with bad payers. He had to put him off somehow.” “A cheque. is that all right?" Nick knew this was his only possible course of action. It would take several days for the cheque to bounce. his voice rising in panic. "Well. Or a rapist even. I promise. almost respectful tone.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. the man was persistent." He put down the phone and climbed the stairs back to the bedroom.” “Not cash?” “A cheque would be more convenient. He said. I'll bring you a cheque round myself tomorrow. "She leaves very early I’m afraid. "What time does she leave the house?" Christ." The idea of being confronted on his own doorstep by the burly garage owner filled Nick with horror. before the banks shut. all right. We don’t keep cash in the house. 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. Jesus! it made him angry. I'll bring it round in the afternoon. "Yes.

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

just as he hit rock bottom. “Nexab International”. In certain circumstances no news was good news. 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. with the birth of a bright new day dawning. Just like all the rest. Or at least it wasn’t bad news. a polite disavowal of the need to deploy his undoubted talents in the company. Nick crept back downstairs from his usual hiding place as soon as he was sure it was safe. A few remaining innocuous-looking circulars he left on the kitchen table as decoys for Maureen to open when she came home from work. 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. A senior post in a fast-growing young company that was making a name for itself in the software industry.and looking out through the bedroom window he saw that the skies had cleared and the wind had dropped. stood out from the others. As far as he could recall he had applied for the position of Marketing Director. He picked it up gingerly. He tried to clamber out of bed but the effort exhausted him. an almost deafening dawn chorus. postponing the almost certain disappointment that would follow when he finally opened it. Sometimes it was better not to hear back from a company at all. This letter was almost certainly a standard rejection. He hesitated. a miracle happened. Even his soul felt leaden. And then. And yet. 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. even in the dazzling morning light. 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. How naïve he had been! He weighed the envelope in his hands for several seconds. he could see no way forward. One letter. Chapter 8 The postman delivered the mail at the usual time and drove off up the hill in his red landrover. He frowned. The name seemed familiar. He looked closer. no way of avoiding his dreadful fate. however. Another blow to his diminishing residue of self-esteem left over from the good old days when he had been a .

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

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. “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. They were in a hurry and gave him a date in three days time. Bracing himself for bad news he lunged across the table and grabbed the envelope and ripped it open.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.” explained Nick. He knew he could not put off the inevitable any longer. 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. Even cowards finally reach the point where it’s easier to confront the truth than to live in permanent fear. . beaming. greasy liquor swilled around his mouth. his eyes darting dizzily across the blue company letterhead: “Dear Mr Dowty Unfortunately the post for which you applied in February has been filled. When Maureen and Martin came home that evening they found the house transformed. He read quickly. forcing himself to read what he was sure would be the latest rejection letter from a prospective employer. The intervening period would be nerve-wracking but exciting. (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!).

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

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

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

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. 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.merchants and Baltic traders back in the nineteenth century.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. A man and a woman both in their early twenties. Garry says we’ll get our money back on the booze alone. smiling encouragingly at Nick across the highly polished expanse of desk. What? My mum’s met him…yeah. Instead she spent most of her time on the phone to a friend. mercifully. even more apprehensive. cool. 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. self-important. . than he was. The man flicked through Nick’s CV. “We’re flying down to London on Easyjet in September…. casually dressed. she likes him…My dad? No way. and. Darkness was falling outside he was finally summoned to his interview. They seemed completely at ease in his presence which immediately unnerved him. He needn’t have worried. A smartly-dressed young woman led him into a smallish boardroom which was almost totally filled by a large and expensive-looking rosewood desk. When he stood up he felt light-headed from hunger. a conversation he was obliged to overhear. modern reception area of the converted town house along with half a dozen other candidates. This is my last chance and there’s no way I’m going to let my dad screw it up…What?…Two weeks. It’s all inclusive…I know. a gulf that was wider than he would ever know. The way he drinks we might even make a profit. he does it all while he’s at work.” he observed. all of whom were much younger. He was mildly irritated at the way the bored receptionist did not attempt to engage any of them in conversation or offer them coffee. He squeezed into the proffered seat opposite his two interviewers. He’d scare him off…What?…Too right. “You’re obviously a self-starter if you’ve run your own business. He sat on a plastic seat in the large.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently the cash burn had been greater than anticipated. The company’s auditors had come in the same day and after a brief scrutiny of the books had advised immediate liquidation. The current cash reserves were insufficient to take the company through to profitability. He felt like he was drowning. eventually. he rejoined Maureen in the sitting-room where she was reading the paper while watching the Channel Four news. “The bastards owe me this at least. 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.” spat the man who had just become Nick’s former boss. “How was work today?” “Fine. The share options were worthless. tears streaming from her eyes. the usual signal that he wanted to speak. there was not even enough money to pay that month’s salaries. He felt ill at the thought of having to tell Maureen what had happened. “Not so good. 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. You?” She replied. There were still bugs in the software. without looking up from the paper. “I’m entitled. all her senses alert. after Martin had gone upstairs to do his homework and he had finished the dishes.” Maureen looked up immediately. He coughed politely. Despite the best efforts of the original investors and their corporate advisers the directors had been unable to raise further capital. “Bunch of fucking wankers. As a result sales had not materialised as anticipated in the business plan. Then another. “What’s wrong?” . And another.happened. he wished that he was.” As he left the building Nick was handed a note telling him he would get the wages due to him from the liquidator. He took a deep breath. turning away from the noticeboard with a look of fury on his face. So ill he wanted to die. Later on. In fact.” she gasped. The bank had reluctantly called in the company’s overdraft.

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

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

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

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

There was only the usual pile of bills. 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. There didn’t seem any point in saving them any more. It hurt him more than he would have believed possible to see her this way. it was all his fault. 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. He wash the breakfast dishes in lukewarm water. his abject failure to confront reality.She looked at him with dead eyes as she buttoned up her blouse.” She continued to button her blouse in silence. “Then I’ll go down to the Jobcentre. “Can I speak to you for a minute. He was drying the plates when the postman arrived with the mail. had forced her out into a cruel. another letter from the bank and one from the Inland Revenue. I’ll clean lavatories if I have to.” Martin never appeared. He made a weak cup of coffee and then. half expecting to be hit by an immediate torrent of threats and abuse. He was alone in the house once more. He felt giddy as he spoke into the phone. crucified him to think how badly he had failed her.” She left the room without speaking. He lingered out of sight in the shadows until the van drove off. I’ll take anything they’ve got. Instead he was treated with the customary civility of indifference.” he called out. The manager's secretary said that the earliest the manager could see him was the Wednesday of the following week so he . Instead he hid them in another new hiding place behind the chest of drawers. “I’ll get in touch with the bank manager this morning. His utter fecklessness. She was right too. Even in his worst nightmares he had never imagined it would come to this. He heard Martin coming out of the bathroom and crossing the landing. A few minutes later he heard the car drive off. nasty world with nothing but pain and bitterness in her heart. he finally plucked up enough courage to phone the bank to arrange an appointment with the manager. because he feared Maureen even more than he did the bank manager. none of which he dared to open. a small and inadequate penance that did little to salve his conscience. “Martin. At least the back boiler also heated the water so he was able to save on electricity.

anyway these days she rarely appeared in the media. Nine days grace. He was still euphoric over his stay of execution as he fed the birds with the remains of the stale bread. Some battles you just couldn’t win. Angela Roberts. Recently the novelty of a successful self-made woman seemed to have worn off. just like them. He realised that he too was clinging on for dear life. 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. He wasn’t sure they would be left with enough money out of Maureen’s salary to pay the next electricity bill. His heart leapt as he put down the phone. Losing his job meant that he was right back to square one in his struggle for survival. forcing the dozen or so tits and finches perched on it to cling on for dear life. 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. Of course. The home-made contraption rocked crazily like a spinning top. .made an appointment for that day at eleven. a totally artificial environment of his own creation. Soon the fire in the grate would grow cold. Later. It seemed a bit incongruous to him that such a well-known vegetarian and animal lover should also be a keen fisherman. Nine whole days for a miracle to happen. She was even more successful now. He had to think of something quickly. 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. appeared to have conquered most of Europe and even America had succumbed to the fashionable organic formula that differentiated her restaurants and takeaways. 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. 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. He was still free. or perhaps she had deliberately adopted a lower profile. The future was looking bleak once again. Perhaps it might be better to let things take their course. It was a miracle. he wasn’t sure there was a solution to his problem. the famous organic fast food entrepreneur. There were no more logs left. Spring seemed a long way off. Besides. even if it was only an illusion of safety. but maybe fish didn't count. Even at the most basic level it was starting to get difficult. 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.

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

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

Roberts might already have gone back to England. Or what if they both did. If by some miracle she was still around there was no time to lose. any foreknowledge of the crime would turn her into an accomplice which would be a disaster if anything went wrong. Except that it wouldn’t. All he could do was hope. 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 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. not to say downright feeble. At that moment another thought struck him. She could afford it after all. that probably wasn't enough what with the way the Health Service was going. He could just picture the look on Maureen's face when he handed her the money. 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. Besides. The idea of only asking for enough money to settle his immediate debts was a somewhat unimaginative. the best thing would be to present her with a fait accompli. It was time to get dressed and get down to the river. not entitled perhaps. The ransom would be more like a pension really. Absolutely no way. there was absolutely no way she would sanction a criminal act. The provenance of the money was another problem. A white lie. Actually. Wouldn't get that on the National Health. He’d think of something. His pulse quickened. He frowned. Suppose either of them had to go into a nursing home. Say a round quarter of a million. twenty-five thousand. he was pretty sure that her ethical perspective would change once the bailiffs started hammering at the front door. Although she might demur on moral grounds. and the cost of living and all that. It would be just his luck. And what about a holiday every year. Maureen was a devout Christian. Maybe he would have to lie about where the money came from. All right. two hundred thousand to be on the safe side. the bird might have flown. Even then he wasn't sure if she would accept the money. Say. but it would be nice. It all depended on how passionate she was about the sport. Even if he couldn’t convince the money was legitimate would she really refuse it? He pondered this possibility. in the circumstances. The way people . Well. That really would be a sight worth seeing. On reflection one hundred and fifty thousand sounded more like it. Enough to purchase an annuity that would see him and Maureen into a happy and secure old age. No. they were entitled to that after a lifetime's hard work surely.

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. 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. He had spent the last six months daydreaming. to start to figure out a solution to his previously intractable problems. and extremely radical. What Nick was proposing after all was a similar tax on the rich levied by the poor. Somehow he would have to solve all their problems within the next nine days. Was he up to the challenge? All he could do was try his best. hoping for a miracle. the best he could hope for was to skim something off the margin without getting destroyed in the process. There was no doubt that this was a crunch time in his life. Their salvation was going to be touch and go. His heart was beating fast. His circumstances left him no alternative. whatever the outcome. With no salary going into his account that month he knew they must already be over their overdraft limit. It was a daunting prospect but there was no alternative. And then to act. A hunter gatherer. . Quite literally. That would be hard. that was all. the only way left open to him. Whatever plan he came up with he would have to implement it fast.behaved was just a question of circumstances. He had to become a man of action. his only option in the present situation. Without a second thought. It was finally time to stop daydreaming. To have any chance of success he had to plan and execute his mission with the precision of an SAS raid. Desperate times required desperate remedies. He stood up. He was in the last chance saloon a minute before closing time. It was at this point that Nick realised to his surprise that he had suddenly come to a major. was bound to change his life for ever. What was needed now was the courage and the clarity of vision that would allow him to formulate a workable plan. It was worth a shot. He needed to concentrate and to think clearly about his next steps. The first thing to do was to go down to the river and reconnoitre. This was it. Whatever happened he had to act. to see if his quarry was still there. In his present circumstances anything was worth a shot. That was Robin Hood's justification in the olden days and no-one today blamed him for what he had done. He took a deep breath. decision that.

He sat in the freezing kitchen with his head cradled in his hands. If indeed it came at all. The fewer people that saw him the better. Whatever happened he mustn’t leave any potential evidence lying around. Yet he didn’t dare travel on public transport in case he created a trail that might subsequently lead to his door.The challenge seemed almost overwhelming. The only alternative he could think of was the local bus service. Each scheme he dreamt up seemed so hellishly complex with so much that could go wrong. The problem was that the river was nearly six miles away. Obviously he had never contemplated a kidnapping before. 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. And abduction was only the start. Walking there and back would take far too long and anyway would make him far too conspicuous. It was obvious that his salvation wasn’t going to come cheap. The more he considered the problem the more evident it became that transport was his greatest problem. 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. He sighed. The incriminating notes would have to be burned. He turned the problem over and over in his head until he felt like his brain was beginning to seize up. And yet his need to get down to the river in order to carry out an initial survey had become urgent. He didn’t know where to start. The thought that any one of them could confront him again . This whole crazy scheme was about as easy as walking blindfold through a minefield. 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. He started to think about the bank manager and his army of creditors again. He spent more than an hour trying to figure out where to begin with his plan. stumped by the challenge. 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 had no idea how to issue a ransom demand or even to whom he would send it. He might have to visit it several times before he spotted his quarry again. Every scenario he mapped out in his mind ended up a blind alley. An hour later he still hadn’t figured out a foolproof way to execute his plan. Maureen had first call on the car during the week and he couldn’t change that arrangement without good reason.

Maureen’s bike! Of course! The darkness shrouding his soul was suddenly illuminated by a blinding burst of light. .in his home at any moment was terrifying. As far as he could recall her old bike was still out in the barn that they used as a garage. That longdiscarded. out of nowhere. 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. 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. He could feel he was on the verge of panicking. only a step away from unconditional surrender. Drugs would have been even better. Ideas above his station. Buying a house abroad. He felt his pulse quickening. The conviction. thank you. Schemes. knew he was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. “Thank you God. Even a boat at one point. He shook his head.” He remembered how in the second world war German soldiers had made extensive use of bicycles to conduct covert reconnaissance near the front lines. Dreams. Wish fulfilment. Building up a successful business. 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. Maybe his time had come. He punched the air with exhilaration. The whole idea was totally impracticable. 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. Pie in the sky. Becoming wealthy. He was trapped inside his own head. And then suddenly. Despite his determination to fight he was close to tears. that he was born to fail. inherited from his mother and drummed into him throughout his childhood. “Thank you. It was hard to concentrate on the problem in hand. All his grand schemes were just that. If there had been any drink in the house he would have sought oblivion in a bottle.” he cried. If he lost his nerve now he knew he would lose everything. Just like all those other occasions in the past he had fallen at the first hurdle. rickety conveyance was the answer to his prayers. With the cupboards bare there was no easy way out. The river might as well have been a million miles away. The old familiar feeling that had dogged him all his life had returned with a vengeance. Childish fantasies. thank you. Maybe there was only one solution. His spirits had sunk to their lowest ebb since that day the bank had pulled the plug on his business. Just like all his other grand ideas. of losing all self control. the answer flashed into his brain.

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

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

After checking to ensure that there was no one around in the immediate vicinity of the house he gingerly mounted the newly-restored bicycle. More things to think about. At first he was alarmed by the unexpectedly rapid acceleration of the ancient machine. 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 sighed. but gradually he was overcome by a sense of exhilaration as the old familiar pleasures of cycling returned. He resolved to dispose of it later to be on the safe side. More fear. Much safer to focus on his plan and keep his overfertile imagination firmly in check. More stress. and set off unsteadily down the hill. His cover story would have to be watertight. Christ alone knew how he would react if the police ever did question him. 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. He was only too conscious of just how vulnerable his inexperience in these matters rendered him. Even the fact that he had renovated the bike might be deemed suspicious. 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. 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. about four hundred yards up a disused track. 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. The wind ruffling his hair. He shuddered. In less than an hour of pleasant peddling he came once again within sight of the denselywooded river valley that enclosed the river. his growing confidence as he mastered the balance. More chance of things going pear-shaped. At that precise moment he couldn’t think of a suitable cover story but he hoped something plausible would occur to him soon. He might have to dispose of a lot of things later when the time came. So many little things that could trip him up. the beauty of the hedgerows sweeping past right alongside. even as his plan was still unfolding. 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 hid the bike amongst a thicket of rhododendron bushes well off the main road. Moving stealthily he left the track after a few yards and entered the . Apart from the circumstances it was like being young again. especially since the brakes appeared to be completely useless. demanding little effort or concentration on his part.

except in the places where he had to force his way through the dense undergrowth of tangled bracken and overgrown rhododendron bushes. more parts of the jigsaw puzzle that could send him to prison. he had one big advantage: the prey did not know it was being pursued. 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. Keeping a low profile therefore meant keeping under cover. And of course. just as in fishing. He had only taken half a dozen steps before he paused. On the other hand he was used to staying concealed when he was fishing. On the other hand. 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. Evidence of his movements. He thought about his strategy for a long time. 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. Once he had staunched the bleeding he threw away the bloodstained paper tissue and resumed his journey. hiding in the bushes. whether it was by local residents or passing motorists or the ghillie or even Angela Roberts herself. 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. It was yet another unplanned event that he might subsequently have to explain away. Evidence. Stuffing the potential evidence into his inside pocket he made a mental note to burn it later when he got back home. He retraced his steps and retrieved the bloodstained tissue. 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. 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. 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. He cursed himself for his carelessness as he dabbed at the blood running down his cheek with a tissue. A . less than a quarter of a mile away. Almost inevitably he scratched his face on an overhanging bramble branch. setting off in the general direction of the bridge. The snow was thinner below the canopy of leafless trees and the going was relatively easy. To his dismay. that it was a player in someone else’s game. He had absolutely no training in fieldcraft. Unnerved. He continued his clandestine progress through the woods for another twenty minutes before he eventually came within sight of the bridge. using the lie of the land.penumbral world of the birch forest.

the drumbeats of his coursing bloodstream roaring in his ears. Hell. For the first time in months he was no longer suffocating under a blanket of despair. It just showed you – if you had faith in yourself you really could do absolutely anything. a rare bird in these parts. he suddenly realised. clutching his binoculars to his chest and scanning the surrounding trees as if he really was a genuine birdwatcher. that indeed he was astute enough to cover all the angles. It was a wonderful feeling.he felt it demonstrated that he was beginning to think constructively at last. He was pleased with this story . He was terrified his cover was blown. Freedom from fear and anxiety. 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. 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 power of life and death. The principle was the same except that the game he was playing now was. He stopped and smiled at this thought. Once across the road he climbed the low fence that ran alongside the rhododendron bushes shielding the exclusive beat from prying eyes.game whose rules were known only to the hunter. As in life. If he was spotted by any unseen eyes he wanted his behaviour to appear as natural as possible. 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. even more like playing God. His mind too was racing. pitting his wits against the most important quarry he had ever hunted. He actually believed in the prospect of his own salvation. one that was worth fighting for. its wings flapping noisily. By now his heart was beating so hard it was knocking the breath out of his lungs. knowledge was power. 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. It was a basic human right after all. He froze in terror. people had died for a lot less. he thought bitterly. For several long . one which he had been denied for far too long. whatever the price. To his surprise he realised that in a strange sort of way he was even beginning to enjoy himself. In the ensuing silence that engulfed him the only sound was that of his heart thumping against his ribcage. If anybody accosted him he had fabricated what he hoped was a believable cover story: he would claim to be looking for kingfishers. 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. maybe even clever enough to succeed.

Surreptitiously he drew back into the anonymity of the bushes and waited. 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 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.seconds he waited for something awful to happen. 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. Now he too was stranded in a foreign country. fishing a fast-running pool at a shallow bend in the river. He was safe. on the bank opposite. about twenty yards below him. Thankfully nothing further disturbed the stillness of the air. The enemy was all around him. exposed meadow. He dropped down onto his belly and scanned the river upstream and down. fearful that he might have been spotted by the inhabitants. Eventually he emerged from the edge of the woods to find himself directly opposite a large Victorian mock-baronial mansion. No gamekeeper appeared. The land he had loved and thought of as his own had been transformed into enemy territory. He gazed in awe at the huge pile. Maybe it always had been – he’d just been too dumb to realise that he had been trespassing all his life. Not far away a pigeon cooed contentedly. Forcing himself to remain calm he began to scrutinise his surroundings through his binoculars. 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. assessing the suitability of the terrain for the part it would play in the . Taking a deep breath he stepped out of the forest and crept down towards the river across the empty. 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. It was a weird feeling. his presence in the grounds remained undetected. A tap on the shoulder. his ignominious ejection from the wood for trespassing. That was all. looking out for hollows and hiding places. Standing there in that unfamiliar. 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. Against all the odds the dark outlines of the old ghillie and Angela Roberts were silhouetted on the skyline. A few seconds later a hare loped slowly across the snow on the other side of the clearing.

A dog. particularly if he needed to get back into the cover of the woods in a hurry. 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. He watched the couple for nearly an hour. The old ghillie shadowed her faithfully.planned abduction. Eventually all their gear was stowed safely and they headed off in the direction of the big house. He walked back up the river to fetch the landrover. 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. resting his elbow on his wading staff a few feet from her right shoulder while she remained stationary between casts. Together they worked their way gradually downstream as she fished the pool methodically. a black Labrador by the look of it. 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. . He made a mental note that the river immediately opposite was almost fifty yards wide. He climbed into the vehicle and drove slowly back across the meadow. 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. although without further success. pausing to collect the two salmon still lying on the bank at the top of the pool. The woman eventually stopped fishing when she reached the tail of the pool and this was the first time the ghillie left her side. A roaring waterfall at the head of the pool generated enough noise to drown out all but the loudest screams. thirty yards downstream. never straying more than a few yards from her side. before returning to his client. covering every inch of water. taking the dog with him. Just here would make a good crossing point. 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. He could not have hoped for a more remote spot so close to the main road. that it was reasonably shallow. It worried him that he might be forced to deal with the dog if it got in his way. 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. made an occasional appearance. She was obviously having more success with the new method too. most importantly of all that it was definitely wadable at its present height. Satisfied that what he had in mind was feasible he once more trained his binoculars on his quarry.

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

was security. not to say barbaric. 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. 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. Once he’d located somewhere the other imperative was the total security of his hostage. Fortunately. It wouldn’t be enough for her prison to be lockfast. gagged as well. possibly. Reluctantly he decided she would have to be bound and. apart from occasional hillwalkers who would almost certain follow the well-known ascent routes up the mountain. 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. were likely to be either sheep or the odd deer driven down off the high tops by bad weather. He obviously needed somewhere remote yet accessible. He sat down on a tree stump and spread out his ordnance survey map in front of him. He looked at the map. 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. he decided. Maybe ten miles each way. the conical mountain that dominated the landscape for miles around. To be on the safe side he would probably have to blindfold her as well to keep her from recognising him. Because she would be left alone for long periods she would have to be restrained in some way. with the introduction of large-scale sheep rearing in recent years the moors were no longer prime shooting country. He had spent his whole life trying to treat .clearing a few yards off the track. The image of the woman bound and trussed like a chicken that sprang into his mind made him feel distinctly uneasy. The idea of tying up a fellow human being. The only casual visitors he was likely to encounter. The key attribute of any hiding place. measure. seemed an extreme. Somewhere that was absolutely escapeproof during the highly dangerous period when he would be negotiating the ransom for the woman’s safe release. Distance from home was crucial too. especially a woman who had never done him any harm. He was sure he would be able to find somewhere safe and out of the way in that desolate desert of heather and bog. somewhere that was not likely to be visited either casually or as part of any organised search. Somewhere he could visit regularly without attracting suspicion. Say two hours cycle run maximum. interspersed with the odd derelict shooting lodge and deserted but and ben. The priority now was to start making plans for the safekeeping of his hostage.

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

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. And there were any number of old padlocks in his toolbox which he had acquired over the years. Make do and mend. only solutions. Which was exactly the opposite effect to what he wanted to achieve. maybe even had her ears stuffed with wax or something so she couldn’t work out where she was. were probably out of the question. 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. It was just a pity that the easiest solution – keeping the woman at home in his attic – obviously wasn’t feasible. It surely wasn't beyond his wit to fashion some other sort of suitable restraint. he concluded glumly. So handcuffs. There are no problems. If she was blindfolded and gagged. Besides which. Maybe he could buy them in a toyshop. the kinky sort of stuff he’d occasionally stumbled across on the internet. He stared down at the map. Didn’t exist in fact. He shivered. Focussing on handcuffs was a mistake. It was hard to visualise anywhere suitable just by looking at the swirling contours and empty spaces. that was the answer. Except that they would probably be designed with would-be Harry Houdinis in mind – with one bound you would be free. if she was bound securely so she couldn’t make a sound. Handcuffs were the sort of props a magician might use. Eventually it dawned on him that he was making the problem out to be worse than it really was. with no need to keep coming and going all the time. No. So. sex shops weren’t exactly plentiful in this part of Scotland. he didn’t have the money and his credit cards were useless so even buying online was out of the question. he mustn't get hung up on details the way he usually did or nothing would ever get done. But of course there still were problems. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. There was absolutely no way he would go into a sex shop and buy such stuff. Problem solved. 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. The only other thing he could think of was bondage gear. It would certainly make it easier to keep her under constant surveillance. Without a doubt the central problem still remained the location of the safe premises. He wouldn't have the nerve. as John Lennon used to say. Besides.think laterally. Think out of the box. There was a whole box of them in the shed. Talk about embarrassment. Much less obtrusive too. .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s up to you. “Not now. You’ll see. 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.” Nick muttered something that he hoped sounded suitably grateful as he sloped off to find his son. This time don’t let me down. please. Nick.” She took a deep breath. up towards the brown. “As long as Martin doesn’t suffer any more. 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. “All right. Half an hour later the muddy track petered out as it emerged into the open on the far side of the wood. Trust me. But whatever happens. The hills in front of him formed a natural amphitheatre which looked vaguely familiar but he was unsure in which . 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. this is ready. Er. stupid. heather-clad foothills of Morven Hill. this is your last chance. I’m too tired to argue. 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. Nick.” He stood up and moved to embrace her but she turned away from him. I’m not in the mood.” “Okay.” She looked unconvinced. Just make sure you get that job on Thursday. give Martin a shout will you.” “He won’t . “Of course you are. Now. I promise. You won’t regret this. that’s all. 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. I’ll get this job and everything will be all right. I’ll give Martin a shout. sorry.“Please. am I getting any?” Seeing the downcast expression on her husband’s face Maureen broke into a smile.

He sat down upon a clump of heather and took off his right boot and emptied it of water. over an hour later. and that there were no real alternatives left. A small flock of bedraggled sheep watched his lack of progress with blank disinterest. In a very short time he was cold. He was surprised that he should have forgotten so much about a place that had once been so dear to him. Out in the open moorland away from the shelter of the trees a stiff breeze bowled down the mountainside. The building itself was almost totally hidden behind a thick barrier of brambles and ivy and rampant rhododendron bushes. damsons and mushrooms when they were younger.direction he should strike out. which forced him to press on with his desperate quest. wet and exhausted. To make matters worse there was no sign whatsoever of human habitation. as he slithered towards them down the embankment of some ancient peat lots. His heart leapt. an unbroken sheep track which meandered in the general north westerly direction where he thought the farm should lie. tossing the occasional sleety shower into his face as he trudged across the heather.” he muttered. 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. on the far horizon he spotted a copse of trees shimmering in the in the misty rain like an oasis. “Thank Christ. 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. After several false starts following various twisting tracks that quickly petered out. 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. he eventually found a promising-looking path that struck out decisively across the moor. retained its own particular resonance when he recalled their good times together in later years. 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. 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. 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. It was only the knowledge that he was running out of time. At last. He retrieved his compass from the rucksack and took a sighting a few degrees north-east of the snow-capped summit of Morven Hill. On .

like green flock wallpaper. all decorated in a thick layer of bird droppings. he reckoned that once the door was repaired and padlocked the place should be wind and waterproof at least on the ground floor. He shivered. climbing almost up to the gutters of the black tiled roof like some enormous prickly octopus crawling out of the ocean. Even an optimistic estate agent might be pushed to come up with a description like that. He forced his way gingerly through the brambles towards the front door. a giant wooden mincing machine. the place didn’t feel like it had ever been a happy house. He paused at the threshold to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. 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. The air of dereliction was oppressive. for all its shortcomings. several rolls of barbed wire. Exactly as he remembered the front door had been forced open long ago but fortunately it was still on its hinges. The green wood ceiling of the room had numerous broken timbers hanging down and looked like it could fall in at any moment. a horse-drawn plough. On the other hand. It was cold too. The damp walls were covered in fungus. All the windows were boarded up and the only light within the cottage came from the open front door.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. 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. the kind of clammy cold that quickly ate into your bones and dampened your spirits. he thought gloomily. 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. Thanks to the poor state of the corrugated iron roof which was rusty and torn the cottage obviously . which was the main thing as far as his particular requirements were concerned. taking care to keep all traces of disturbance to a minimum. The bare earth floor was cluttered with bits and pieces of farm machinery. The only furniture was a crude wooden table with one leg missing that dominated the centre of the room. 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. “A potential holiday home in need of some renovation” he muttered aloud. 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. He congratulated himself for having the foresight to bring a padlock that was suitably rusty in order to blend in with the surroundings.

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

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

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

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

In a matter of minutes a blizzard sprang up and soon he was engulfed by a total white-out. He checked his watch. Everything was in place. Maybe it was the rats who would have to look out. his life would change forever. He stood up and took a last look round.cowardly as he was. including Mrs Roberts. it started to snow. and he tossed and turned endlessly until dawn finally arrived. Nothing in life was easy. The screws were rusty. 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. He realised he had been wandering in a circle. Next time he would be able to head straight for the cottage. . He regretted the inevitable misery he was going to cause. forcing him to dismount and plough his way through the drifts on foot. That night he went to bed early. an outcome that only a few days previously would have seemed like a miracle. Tomorrow. On the way home the snow built up on the road ahead of him. as he stumbled back across the moor. It was hard work. No one had ever said it was going to be easy. He was exhausted by his efforts but also excited at the prospect of the imminent resolution of his problems. it never had been. He took out the screwdriver from his rucksack and started work on repairing the door. He had made up his mind. He stood up and made the sign of the cross in expiation for the crime he was about to commit. he knew. 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. much to Maureen’s relief. It had taken him far too long to get to the house. During the night his brain worked frantically to make sense of the days ahead. whatever the consequences. 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. 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. Guided by his compass he eventually reached the relative shelter of the woods. As Mrs Roberts was about to find out. There was only one way forward. exhausted by the physical effort and the rapid draining of nervous energy from his body. By the time Maureen joined him in bed later that night he was already asleep. but in this world everyone had their cross to bear. drifting to a depth of several feet in places. Half an hour later. From now on he was committed. He took out his compass and took a bearing on Mount Keen in the distance.

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

Fortunately they had an extensive range of packet soups. It would be in her own interest after all. 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. Unfortunately no pillow. He took his time in the little Spar shop and bought astutely. He remembered to add a toilet roll to the little box of supplies he was planning to take. He still had a pound left. possibly even four. No fresh fruit either. He promised himself he would spend it on a celebratory can of beer once the first phase of his operation was successfully concluded. He planned to get packets of soup mostly. 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. 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. loaded the rucksack into the boot and set off down to the village shop to collect the necessary rations. but he didn't think it would be too difficult to think of something suitably authentic once he actually had her captive. Besides. Everything was now in place to begin the mission. He packed the new food supplies into the rucksack and drove sedately down to the river. She would know who he should send it to as well. she'd be able to help him get it right. In the end he reckoned he had enough food to last for five days. although rusty. What was it they said? Cometh the hour cometh the man? Something like that anyway. He hadn't yet worked out the correct form of wording for that either. 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. When he had completed all his preparations he locked up the house. Certainly not fresh meat or anything that might attract the rats. were still in working order. 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. A box of matches completed his preparations. If he was careful he reckoned he might be able to buy enough food to last his victim for three. days. And a couple of blankets to keep her warm. Besides. there was a limit to the amount he would be able to carry across the moor in his rucksack. 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. unless they actually .lamp they sometimes used during power cuts. which allowed him some leeway in his timetable if anything went wrong. He carried the holdall out to the car and loaded it into the boot. 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. but that was simply a question of lack of finance.

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

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

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

" he whispered. The whole idea had been stupid from the start. “You’ve got some fucking sense of humour all right. Dressed in a long check waistcoat and green corduroy trousers. fuck. Three people. climbed out of the vehicle. Like everything else he had done in his life. He just wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing. ginger-haired. cloudless blue sky. they were probably battering down the door of the house right now. 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. when he went to confession as a kid he had to make up sins to tell the priest he was such a goodygoody. The bank manager.” he muttered. he wondered? Some fucking Hooray Henry straight out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh. Then there was the debt collector. “Than you. At least they did some good in the world. A fucking toy boy. Someone who had never done a day’s work in their lives. A wastrel. He held his breath. Jesus. and Nick cursed him vehemently. This totally unexpected appearance fatally undermined all his plans. he looked like a caricature of a country squire. glaring up into the expressionless. No doubt about it.” he swore out loud. trying to keep the rifle steady. the inland revenue. He remembered the cheque he had written to that fucking garage owner. thumping the ground with his fist. Twice the man fell over the springer spaniel which kept leaping up at him to lick his face. He raised his eyes heavenwards. a figure straight out of Country Life. the sheriff’s officers. a feeling of despair tightening its icy fingers round his chest. Anyone with any sense in his position would have been a lawyer or an accountant. Suddenly everything was going to plan once more. He might have guessed it would turn out like this. “Fuck. smoking a small cigar and laughing continuously as he darted around helping to unload the rods. that guy was after his blood all right. the one that had bounced. Pure fantasy. small black figures in the distance. Even a teacher for Christ’s sake. Nick couldn’t believe his eyes. thank you. Three against one considerably increased the odds against him.” he muttered aloud. “Christ. God. He watched in dismay as the unanticipated new arrival carried the rods down to the river.inside the vehicle. He should never have started his own business in the first place.” He started to feel sick as he contemplated the consequences of failure. Christ. The third figure appeared to be a young man in his twenties. . Talk about kicking a man when he’s down. God. And the rest of his army of creditors would be queuing up right behind him. fuck. Then everything stopped going to plan. In his heart he knew he’d fuck it up. He buried his head in his hands and cursed his luck. "Shit.

In a funny sort of way it didn’t really matter any more what happened next. truly a matter of life and death. He shook his head. He had yearned for respectability. laughing and gesticulating. he'd have dropped the guy there and then. after an interminable amount of toing and froing the woman finally began to fish.He lay down the air rifle and buried his head in his hands and began to cry. The anguish and the worry. His exuberant behaviour irritated Nick. Appointed Head Boy in a tough comprehensive. The ginger-haired idle bastard was tying on a fly for the woman. Eventually. a deadly game where you always accorded your quarry dignity. an alcoholic father. Dedicated his life to building up a successful business. lovers perhaps. If it had been him he'd already have had his first fish on the bank in the time they had wasted pratting around. A secret life as a sinner if he successfully carried out the crime. Four good highers. And all he had ever tried to do was be respectable. escaping the clutches of his manic-depressive mother. If he’d had a real gun. biting through the nylon with his teeth. Declared war on them and all their class. Let nothing stand in his way as he struggled and clawed his way into the middle classes. Only to fail in the end. The woman turned frequently. laughing as he did so. 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. The young ginger haired man lay sprawled out on the bank behind the woman. a contest in which you treated your prey with the utmost respect. He couldn't understand how it took these people so long to get themselves organised. A public life as a bankrupt if he didn't. He had always believed fishing should be a serious business. conducting some kind of elaborate pantomime. How had he got himself into this predicament? A lose-lose situation. All those sleepless nights. Yet again he asked himself the old question that had tormented him continuously for the past six months. a credit to the school. Whatever the outcome he was a condemned man. Dropped the lot of them in fact. smiling and laughing the whole time. Every few minutes the man jumped up and waved his arms about. The way the guy . 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. Nick shook his head scornfully. He picked up the air rifle and trained the sights on the group who were now standing beside the bonnet of the landrover. They were obviously very close. A one man revolution. a glittering future ahead of him. especially in death. Emerging triumphantly from his unhappy childhood. Nick snarled at the sight. a sniper's rifle. a place at university.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She probably thought she was going to die. The last thing he wanted in the present circumstances was to be seen driving round aimlessly in the car.He reckoned he still had another fifteen miles or so to go before he reached the safety of the turn off into the woods. At that very moment she was rolling around in the dark terrified at what was happening to her. Jesus. When he eventually realised that he had driven miles past the turning he cursed his stupidity. Jesus Christ. He turned right at the T junction at Logie Coldhouse and the narrow road immediately emptied of vehicles. Driving on automatic he began to reflect on what he had done. As soon as they got to the cottage he would try and convince her that he hadn't meant to hurt the old ghillie. Jesus. She knew exactly what he had done. he thought miserably. 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. At first he thought that somehow time had slowed down. Jesus what had he done? Jesus. Despite the threat she represented his heart went out to her. Whatever happened next he had to try and minimise the trauma to which he was subjecting her. He had an obligation to try and comfort and reassure her. what was he going to do with her? She knew everything. Finally. He had to get her to the cottage as quickly as possible and release her from her tiny prison before she died of fright. What had he done? What had he done? Then there was the poor woman in the boot. He put his foot down on the accelerator as far as he dared. to minimise her pain. that the world was changed forever in ways you couldn’t hope to understand. He would explain how he had panicked. Christ. Jesus. He drove on for another half hour vaguely aware that something had gone wrong. she must be absolutely petrified. 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 was simply an innocent victim. just like the ghillie. He bit his lip. He was furious with himself for his ineptitude. 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 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. The sickening sound he had made as his neck broke.how do you explain away a murder to someone you are abducting . Oh God. Oh God. he would implore her forgiveness. .that he missed the turn off into the woods where he had planned to hide the car. He was so preoccupied with what he was going to say to her .

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

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. Nick covered his eyes with his hands and lurched forward in the seat. The possibility of seeing a second dead body within the space of an hour filled him with dread. And then the car moved. He shook his head. his arms outstretched as he tore up the Eucharist and scattered the pieces into the air like confetti. a man who had been dead for years. This time in his mind’s eye he saw his local parish priest. the noise she made was deafening. screwing up his face with the effort. randomly bouncing around inside his head. First his dead father’s face leering at him. No matter how hard he tried he found he couldn't remember the words to even the simplest prayer. drooling. young and pretty. smiling at him with laughing eyes as she sat up and . It was yet another example of his failure to do the right thing in life. The face of the woman he now held captive in the boot leapt into his mind. Yet another disaster of his own making. Two people whose lives had been ended through his stupidity.treeless branches it grew warmer inside the car. 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. desperately trying to clear his head. he blinked and tried again but this time Maureen was screaming at him. 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. 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. It didn’t work. huge. his forehead banging upon the steering wheel. preferring instead to seal himself off hermetically from the horrors of the outside world. 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. stinging his eyes. kneeling down in front of the same altar Nick had served at as a boy. He tried even harder to concentrate. A muffled groan came from the boot. Whenever he closed his eyes to pray his mind was immediately filled with a jumble of crazy kaleidoscopic images. as if he was on LSD or something. hammering on the inside of his skull with her fists. Beads of sweat started trickling down his forehead. like something out of a childhood nightmare. misshapen. Shaken. To make matters worse it was becoming increasingly airless inside the car but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to wind down the windows. She was still alive! Thank God! Thank God! He was so relieved he immediately began to offer up a prayer of thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there was no denying the fact that with the hostage safely hidden away it was just like having money in the bank. Martin threw his schoolbag into the back seat and dived in after it. He was aware that he still had lots to figure out before he got his hands on the money. Indeed. the vast majority of poor wretches would have let their creditors barge in and walk all over them. it would be just like starting over. Would do anything too. His euphoria was heightened by the fact that he was intensely proud of what he had done. He shook his head. They had no way of knowing that their little inconvenience would be compensated a thousand times over. After months of vacillation he had finally taken an enormous step towards solving his financial problems. What was done was done. He hurried out to the car and drove down to the bus shelter at high speed singing at the top of his voice. 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. 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. He took a deep breath as he felt himself tingling all over with excitement. just as soon as he got his hands on the money and began a new life at the ripe old age of fifty. “Where’ve you been?” he . In all the years they had been married this would be the first time they’d ever had a nest egg of their own. It was better not to think about it. He immediately became suffused with a sense of almost mystical wellbeing the like of which he hadn’t felt for years. They were probably already standing in the bus shelter opposite the post office wondering what the hell had happened to him. They were waiting in the bus shelter when he arrived. It was hard to say. of the way he had finally confronted their problems head on. not since he’d last smoked dope in fact. 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. In the final analysis he had kept his nerve and gambled everything and won. There was no doubt about it…the future had been transformed into something wonderful. He checked his watch. Most people would have caved in before such overwhelming odds. He was running five minutes late. As John Lennon had once said.had stumbled. There undoubtedly remained a number of loose ends still to tie up to ensure a successful conclusion to his scheme. of the courage and bravery he had shown in implementing his daring plan. Rather a lot of money in fact. He smiled at the thought. His thoughts turned to the hostage safely locked up in her remote hideaway. But not him. He’d used hardly any force. And this time he would avoid all the mistakes of the past.

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

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

Mundane thoughts at first. there were other possible risks too. He would have to remember to take her a pair of clean knickers and some jeans. her favourite programme. as soon as you get home everything returns to normal. Maybe another jumper as well. The . It appeared that even after you go on the rampage murdering and kidnapping. nothing has really changed. Anyway. nothing had really changed. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about his hostage. Martin. even just to get people’s attention. Depressing too in a way. it would be difficult to explain away if anyone spotted him. He thought that was extraordinary. The only thing was. 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. He hadn't watched it for ages but he soon picked up the storyline again. Then again. He managed to watch about ten minutes before his attention started to wander. Very suspicious. The fact was he simply couldn't face the sight of that poor woman in his present state of mind. Nick was momentarily nonplussed. For the time being at least it seemed as if nothing had happened. Besides. unable to watch any more. Stumbling around in the forest in the middle of the night. he just didn't fancy going back to the cottage in the dark. All those skulls and things. She was a too solid reminder of his evil actions. It made you wonder what you had to do round here to make things change for the better. There could be roadblocks for a start.the weather forecast said they were in for a spell of cold weather and he didn’t want her catching a cold. even if they were a bit big (and not very fashionable). having already lost interest in the news as soon as the weather forecast came on. These weren't the only reasons for his reluctance though. 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. All the bad things that had happened today. looking for something for the pot. "Can I get anybody anything else?" Maureen asked for tea. Although he could say something like he was out poaching.Nick stood up. Creepy. After he had done the dishes he sat watching Coronation Street with Maureen. It was just too soon. He could easily steal some of Maureen's warmer clothes that would do. 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 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. to get out of the rut. If he was any kind of a gentleman of course he would deliver them tonight.

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

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

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

From the bathroom he collected a toothbrush. He made sure that it was the one without any kind of dedication that might be traced back to him. It just wasn’t right. He was about to set off down the hill when it occurred to him that. one of two copies he had been given as a kid. perhaps he could safely leave the paraffin lamp with his hostage after all. Safe as long as he did nothing in other words. When all was said and done she was hardly likely to risk burning herself alive in an attempt to escape. On the other hand. a small tube of Macleans. at least until he contacted someone with his demands. despite his earlier misgivings. a Trout and Salmon magazine and a book. 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. . A question that overnight had become a lot more complicated. Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh. He considered adding a bible to the collection but after a certain amount of vacillation he rejected the idea. He went back into the house and collected a Woman's Own. Having taken this decision he immediately felt better. paradoxically. There was no point in her brooding. a flannel. was of course the question. To pass the time until what. Light reading to pass the time was all that was required. Suddenly feeling more positive about the situation he further resolved to improve the conditions of her incarceration by providing her with something to read. their creditors were still pressing hard. The thing was he couldn’t bear the thought of her spending any more time locked up in complete darkness. 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. 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. 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. Maureen’s revelation that they were no longer going to lose the house completely undermined the justification for his action. A ransom would go a long way to solving their problems. that he was perfectly safe. a bar of Fairy soap and a clean towel.from BHS and a pair of Levi’s. Then there was the practicalities of how he was going to get his hands on the money and free the hostage safely. 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. Which meant. From what he had heard it appeared that the authorities were still treating the whole thing as a tragic accident.

still with a mantle of glistening snow shrouding its dark. Nevertheless. He was only safe in the same sense that a bomb disposal expert is safe until the bomb goes off. It was definitely his favourite time of the year. that sort of thing. He could of course settle for much less but it seemed crazy to take such a huge risk for so little reward. It was hardly extortionate. 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. 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. Maybe as long as a fortnight. filled him with revulsion. 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. 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. If that was the correct word. When this was all over he vowed that he . any middle ranking company director would expect at least half a million just for having his contract terminated early. hard Winter. Looking up through the bud-bursting hedgerows he could see Morven Hill in the distance. a period of optimistic re-birthing after all the doom and gloom of a long.Although describing himself as safe. To get the full amount was undoubtedly going to take time. 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. 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. was a purely relative term. 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. He set off from the house feeling reasonably optimistic. You didn’t get much for a quarter of a million nowadays. Asking for anything less would only be a short-term compromise that would almost certainly end in unhappiness and ultimately even failure. Hopefully everything would be resolved in a civilised fashion and it wouldn’t come to that. He sighed. He was obliged to stand up on the pedals when the bike threatened to stall going up even the gentlest inclines. 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. The thought of having to cut off her ear and send it to them. Jesus. it struck him. powerful shoulders.

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

The sky had remained cloudless and now that the sun was almost directly overhead the landscape shimmered in the heat. 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. He should have had it all planned down to the smallest detail before he started. There was no way he could even be sure that she was still in the cottage. He lingered beneath the shade of the tree for as long as he could but eventually he felt obliged to make a move. For the umpteenth time he regretted embarking on such a half-arsed scheme. Prolonging her agony would amount to wickedness on his part. He paused about fifty yards from the front of the cottage. 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.her in the first place. Seeing the woman again meant confronting the true enormity of his evil actions. He ducked as a brilliant blue dragonfly the size of a wren shot past his left shoulder like a helicopter out of control. He swallowed nervously. 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. The last thing he wanted at this stage was to walk into a trap. leaning against a tall pine while he regained his composure. He was experiencing a growing sense of unease at what he might find within the derelict building. the truth was there was no excuse for the pain and the anguish he was now putting her through. Half an hour later he arrived at the disused track leading off into the woods. Bending double he scuttled across to the shelter of a thicket of rhododendron bushes less than twenty yards from the cottage. There was no other sign of movement anywhere else in his field of vision. 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. Anything could have happened to his hostage overnight. She might have escaped and called the police. There was no way the reunion could be anything other than unpleasant and he hated unpleasantness. . He scanned the horizon all around with his binoculars. In the distance a squawking buzzard circled lazily overhead. By the time he finally came within sight of the cottage he was panting heavily from his exertions. However justified his motives had seemed at the time. And yet he still hadn’t worked out how it was all going to end. 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.

She probably thought he was the village idiot. no leaves rustling. 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. when he was as certain as he could be that it was safe to approach. The sound wasn’t really human at all. He frowned. As was the large flock of chaffinches squabbling noisily amongst the branches of the two ancient apple trees at the side of the house. Then there was the question of what he was going to say to her. It wasn’t what he had expected. To tell the truth he was in no hurry to confront the woman again. The silence that followed was unnerving. the only sound was the pounding of his heart echoing painfully in his ears. an abject sight for which he alone was entirely responsible. but continuously. 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. The sight of a red deer grazing contentedly on the hedge at the end of the garden was immensely reassuring. 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. What on earth was going on in there? He tried to peer through the keyhole but the inside of the cottage was pitch black. Indeed.The truth was that there could be a whole army of policemen hidden in the undergrowth and he probably wouldn't spot anything. At first he heard nothing. Waiting was no hardship. It sounded like a swarm of bees buzzing angrily inside a hive. For a start he didn't know what kind of condition she might be in. There were no insects buzzing. the sound rising and falling irregularly. he began to creep closer to the front of the cottage. He . 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 turned his attention towards the cottage itself. even the squawking buzzard had flown off over the hill into the next valley. 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. Gradually he could just make out what sounded like a low hum. He felt the hair rising on the back of his neck. He held his breath and pressed his ear closer. He lingered for another five minutes in his hiding place just to be on the safe side. It seemed absurd but he was actually terrified at the prospect of confronting her again. Eventually.

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled. Without a doubt the death that caused him most remorse and anguish was the one he had perpetrated while he was still a child. 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. On the contrary. because he played an active role in condoning her euthanasia. 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. loved by his nearest and dearest. Wriggling out of filial responsibility he had betrayed the only person in the world he had ever truly loved. Their future too was now assured. a virtual skeleton weighing less than five stone. respected and liked by all who knew him. That ludicrous episode had claimed two more innocent lives. 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. Almost as bad. regular guy. the first with no blood connections. he wondered. it was too late now. liked by anybody. Whichever way he looked at it the scale of the slaughter seemed totally disproportionate to the modesty. He hated her. What atrocities might he have committed. In the catalogue of his crimes against humanity this was the one act for which he felt no remorse. Well. if he had been a truly evil man? He bit his lip. Jesus. Very hot. Just the desire to be ordinary. was the death of his mother many years later. He felt his neck reddening with shame. Not even goodness. His motive then was simple. not to say mundanity of his moral ambitions.branches of the old apple tree. The only person who had ever really loved him in return. Chapter 19 It was hot. He swivelled away from the window and stared down with fierce concentration at the pile of notes . He had been sent to summons a doctor but acute shyness had overcome him as he approached the surgery. And then there was last year. anybody at all. An ordinary. 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. 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.

“What do you think of our idea?” was the earnest chorus they all repeatedly bleated like sheep released into an unfamiliar field. Satisfied that he was properly briefed he folded shut his file and leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Anyone who was brave. enough to start their own business deserved everything they got. Sometimes he felt as if he was the one gambling everything. He wasn’t sure whether they actually listened but they invariably wrote down everything he said. It didn’t help that every group demanded instant answers. 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. subtly transferring much of the responsibility for the success or. more likely failure. There was no mistaking how busy he was. Except of course that in reality if their projects took off they would gain all the rewards. or foolhardy. He was sure that they believed he could somehow guarantee them success in their mostly half-baked ventures. With the benefit of hindsight he knew only too well how they risked losing everything. Not that he resented this unequal risk/reward ratio. 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. 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. Indeed. They simply couldn’t grasp the point that no one could predict the way the market would react to their propositions. Although it was only three in the afternoon he had already conducted meetings with six client groups. he found it scary the way they hung onto his every utterance. None was even remotely streetwise. not them. Thank God he was busy. Their blind faith placed an enormous burden on his shoulders. He always gave the same reply.strewn across his desk. It didn’t help that he was no longer . as if he was in some way omniscient. He was so weary. completely worn out with the demands of the job. And all of them demanded the same intensive brain-mangling support and guidance. of their ventures onto him. 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. The verdict of the market was the only opinion that mattered. Experts in their respective fields they were invariably commercially naïve. as he had almost done a year before. as if his they were catching pearls of wisdom scattered by Richard Branson himself. not his.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just wish he would acknowledge that fact occasionally.” Nick sighed.” “Bye.” . 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. “I’ve had a tough day. you might sound a bit more pleased. “I am pleased. he made it all seem so easy. I’m too tired. 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.” Nick was watching Sarah out of the corner of his eye as she leaned over a desk with her back to him.” “All right then. Her slim silhouette made him feel faint with desire.” “Nick. Which it wasn’t. okay. love.“You did. I’ll see you later. I’ll come round to your office about nine. Maybe not to you. Martin was so laid back about everything. that’s all. You know how much he worries about trying to please you. He has his pride too.” “I’ll look forward to it. As long as he passes his exams it’s money well spent. We’re the ones making the sacrifices after all.” “But he does.” “Okay. Maureen. Don’t worry about it. Let’s not argue. He loved his son but…but the truth was he wasn’t convinced that the boy worked as hard as he should. Nick.” “Bye.

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

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

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

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

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

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