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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

metallic silence. I didn’t open the letters because I didn’t know what I could do about them. He couldn’t bear the thought that his ideal might just be an illusion. a saccharine. The reality was that their solidarity was rapidly disintegrating at the first real sign of trouble. So much for being a closeknit family bound together by love. that was all. I’m just living in fear the whole time. He shouldn’t be blaming them. It's just all been too much for me recently. "I'm sorry. I really am. working himself into the ground." She wasn't used to seeing her husband looking beaten. And I can’t see any way out. and you know it. Nick. What do you want him to do. He had done it all for them. This wasn't how it was meant to be. He had to take responsibility for his shortcomings. go out and get a job at Macdonald's to pay the bills? You want him to sacrifice his future to save your skin. He hated it when they fought like this. He said softly. That was the whole point of being a family. Nick. It just makes me feel worthless. They were supposed to present a united front against the world.” “I just think we should stick together as a family in a crisis. He was only too aware that if Maureen had married someone else – as she could easily have done. The least they could do when it all went wrong was to stand by him. feeling so sorry for . love. Just a bit of solidarity wouldn't have gone amiss.” “You expect too much of him. starting the business. risking everything. He knew it wasn’t their fault that everything had gone to pieces. It hurts so much. Every time the postman calls I’m just terrified. He’d always believed in the family ideal.Maureen moved the candle onto the table and sat down opposite her husband. Then everything just spiralled out of control. "That’s not a fair comment. He sighed. He’s just a child. That’s what had driven him ever since he’d got married. helping herself to a little of the stew. This whole thing is my fault. All those letters of rejection. He pushed his plate away and buried his head in his hands. Of course that wasn't what he wanted. When the phone rings I nearly die of fright. Maureen turned off the primus and the room rang with an echoing. sentimental product of fifties Hollywood. is that what you want?" Her words wounded him deeply. 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This whole crazy scheme was about as easy as walking blindfold through a minefield. The only alternative he could think of was the local bus service. 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 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. The fewer people that saw him the better. The more he considered the problem the more evident it became that transport was his greatest problem. He turned the problem over and over in his head until he felt like his brain was beginning to seize up. He might have to visit it several times before he spotted his quarry again. 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. The thought that any one of them could confront him again . 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. Whatever happened he mustn’t leave any potential evidence lying around. 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. Each scheme he dreamt up seemed so hellishly complex with so much that could go wrong. He sat in the freezing kitchen with his head cradled in his hands. Yet he didn’t dare travel on public transport in case he created a trail that might subsequently lead to his door. He sighed. Obviously he had never contemplated a kidnapping before. Walking there and back would take far too long and anyway would make him far too conspicuous. He spent more than an hour trying to figure out where to begin with his plan. He started to think about the bank manager and his army of creditors again. He didn’t know where to start. He had no idea how to issue a ransom demand or even to whom he would send it.The challenge seemed almost overwhelming. If indeed it came at all. And abduction was only the start. And yet his need to get down to the river in order to carry out an initial survey had become urgent. He sat at the sitting-room window staring blindly into space. The problem was that the river was nearly six miles away. stumped by the challenge. Every scenario he mapped out in his mind ended up a blind alley. The incriminating notes would have to be burned. It was obvious that his salvation wasn’t going to come cheap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To contain his mounting panic at the precariousness of his family’s circumstances he forced himself to concentrate upon the main task in hand. He tried to . 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. Desperate problems demanded desperate solutions. that was for sure.people with dignity and respect. After all. For a start. 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. Whatever happened he would have to stop her from escaping. Figuring out what he was going next to do was only the beginning. All that mattered now was the efficient capture of his prospective victim. Escape was a different matter. Indeed. If she could see the logic in that then any necessary violence and discomfort could surely be kept to a minimum. it was almost second nature to him now. If ever he lacked motivation. She would soon tire of screaming her head off when nobody came to her rescue. When he had finished the crisps he carefully folded up the empty Golden Wonder packet and tucked it back into his rucksack. that would be unavoidable. Maybe longer. It might be better if she was handcuffed and chained. The least he could do was to make the experience as free from trauma and pain as possible. where the hell would he get handcuffs and chains? He couldn't exactly borrow them from the police. the one ray of hope on his dark horizon. waiting for the ransom to be paid was likely to take a couple of days at least. Maybe if the hiding place was remote enough it wouldn't be necessary to gag her. He bit his lip. just no way round it. he hadn't even begun to work out how this phase of the operation was going to be accomplished. He could not afford to take any risks whatsoever with her security on that score. God alone knew how he was going to feed his family later in the week. He sighed as the amount of preparatory work he still had to do began to dawn on him. He was learning fast about not leaving clues behind. there was no getting away from it. 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. Implementing all the necessary actions would be even more difficult. He took a deep breath. 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. Exactly how he was going to do that posed something of a challenge. 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As he crept forward he could hear the swish! and the plop! as the woman cast her bait across the pool. charged round the bend in the river.in the river which marked the tail of the pool where he knew that the woman. It was all the encouragement he needed. “Do exactly what I say or I’ll blow your fucking head off!” he screamed." he screamed. was still fishing." he yelled. With shaking fingers he pulled the balaclava down over his face. pointing the air rifle at her anonymous back. after a second’s hesitation. This was it. “Ouch. "Do it or I'll fucking shoot you!" The woman simply gawked at him. "Get moving. the rod raised above her head. His heart was thumping and he was gasping for breath. just out of sight round the corner. He was immediately confronted by the sight of the woman with her back turned to him. jabbing her again. What the hell’s going on. harder this time. "Run!" “That hurt! Stop it! Get away from me.” the woman protested. He ran up to her and pointed the gun at her chest. in mid cast. Taking a final deep breath he stood upright and. It was a pivotal moment during which his courage almost deserted him. She remained frozen in astonishment as the line collapsed into the river behind her where it was immediately carried downstream by the strong current. "Move downstream. 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 lunged forward and stabbed the woman’s chest with the barrel of the gun. the monofilament line arcing out 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. The woman swung round in amazement and gaped up at him. He though about Maureen and what would happen to her if he failed. dropping her rod as she stumbled backwards.” “Do what I say!” “Leave me alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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