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44821125-A-Half-Life-of-One

44821125-A-Half-Life-of-One

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Published by: Jonathan B Edwards Sr on Feb 02, 2011
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01/28/2013

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Sections

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

A Half Life of One Chapter 1

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

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

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

What do you propose?” His throat was so dry he could barely whisper the words. He looked embarrassed. Nick. People never do.” Nick frowned. The Chinese have eaten our lunch. we need to get down to business. The bank has already given you time to sort things out but you’re still overstretched. The bank can’t let it go on. What I didn’t foresee was the speed with which the big oil companies would stop spending locally. on the point of surrender. Anyway. He could smell the bad news coming and it made him gag. I’ve seen it bad before but not like this. Alan. years maybe.” “Yeah. reeling from acute battle fatigue. Much worse.” “You wonder where it’s all going to end. Your overdraft…it’s growing bigger every day. He had battled so long to keep the business afloat. He said. no matter how tough you thought you were. It’s worse than ‘86. If he had been a soldier he would now be lost behind enemy lines. I guess not. History teaches us nothing until it’s too late. The bank manager coughed. “The signs were there for anyone who dared to look. There was only so much a person could take. “Sure. There was a time when he would have killed anyone who got in the way to survive.” “Unfortunately.“No one saw it coming.” . “I know why you’re here alright. 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. Everyone’s hurting.” “The numbers say it all.” 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. Nick felt his insides turning to ice. that doesn’t do you much good. This was the moment he had been dreading for weeks.” “Whatever. Not now. He had fought himself to a standstill. Suddenly he felt oddly detached from the fate of the company that had once been his whole life. Nick. Work from the North Sea has just dried up.” “No. Nick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

” Maureen worked her way through the pile of bills. He was feeling faint again and he held on to the edge of the sink to steady himself. Which was a bloody good reason for being dead. he thought. an unopened letter from the bank. but saying nothing. "It's the bank. "What is it?" he 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. He was determined to show her how it would always be left neat and tidy under his regime. He didn't understand where all the bills came from. He could feel the tension in the room mounting as the pile of letters accumulated at her elbow. worst of all. He watched her furtively out of the corner of his eye while he cleared the draining board. "What was in the mail today?" she asked. “You haven’t had time?” He laughed sheepishly. He had bought nothing in the last month so she couldn't blame him. He grabbed a tea towel from off the chair on which she was perched and ostentatiously started drying the dishes himself." ." 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. That morning he had inadvertently opened a letter from the credit card company which had exploded in his head like a letter bomb. Just existing these days. Each dish he dried felt as fragile as antique porcelain in his shaking hands. just breathing and living on bread and water. There were several obvious bills and. We've gone over our limit and they've put a stop on the account. occasionally frowning. his heart thumping. He dried the last plate very slowly. Maureen appeared not to detect the intended symbolism of his action. "I haven't had time to open it.This was perfectly true but he had set himself the task of clearing up the kitchen immediately. 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. lamely. He saw her turn pale. His heart sank. seemed to cost a fortune. not for the first time. destroying in one blinding flash the illusion that he was safe at home. They want to speak to us urgently. With each new envelope she opened he became more and more anxious. “I just never got round to it.

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

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

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

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

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

an aerial bombardment of letters and phone calls. He gazed at the picture-postcard view as if he was in a trance. a whole day with nothing to do but dwell upon his misfortune. Maureen was referring to their personal bank manager. another of the household duties that Maureen now left to him. He looked at his watch. although at this time of the year he might well die of exposure. populated only by fear. The birds depended on him. Maureen’s words of a few days earlier sprang into his mind. He decided to put the terrifying . 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.from a host of faceless enemies. he returned to the kitchen and cleared away the dishes he had left on the draining board the night before. and he wasn’t going to let them down in the way he’d failed everyone else. 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. He rammed a load of dirty clothes into the washing machine and set it running. It was important that the house looked tidy. Invariably he pictured what would happen if his creditors were to suddenly descend upon the house. This wasn’t his former business bank manager who now only communicated to him through his lawyer. that he was trapped within the bleak. He always fed the birds even if it meant going short himself. He shivered in chilled recognition that there was nowhere to run. with no chores left to do that his imagination often ran riot. It was still only eight thirty and there was a whole day stretching out ahead of him. featureless landscape of his shrinking imagination. He was boiling the kettle when he remembered that there was one thing still left to do. 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. 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. in slow motion. Mechanically. It was at this point in his day. Just the thought of picking up the phone to that granite-faced individual was enough to bring him out into a cold sweat. an even more scary individual who held their immediate well-being in his finely-manicured hands. 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. Whenever he did so a sense of dread would grip him for the rest of the day. it helped to buttress the remnants of his crumbling self-respect . Arrange the visit to the bank manager.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More chance of things going pear-shaped.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 was only too conscious of just how vulnerable his inexperience in these matters rendered him. Once again he told himself that it was better not to think too much about what he might have to do if things went wrong. He 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. Apart from the circumstances it was like being young again. He might have to dispose of a lot of things later when the time came. demanding little effort or concentration on his part. He had already figured out that the best way to remain unnoticed would be to travel within the cover provided by the ancient forest. He sighed. At the same time it occurred to him that it would be prudent to construct an alibi in advance in case he was interviewed by the police. the beauty of the hedgerows sweeping past right alongside. even as his plan was still unfolding. The wind ruffling his hair. More things to think about. Even the fact that he had renovated the bike might be deemed suspicious. At first he was alarmed by the unexpectedly rapid acceleration of the ancient machine. but gradually he was overcome by a sense of exhilaration as the old familiar pleasures of cycling returned. More stress. So many little things that could trip him up. Moving stealthily he left the track after a few yards and entered the . His cover story would have to be watertight. 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. especially since the brakes appeared to be completely useless. about four hundred yards up a disused track. He hid the bike amongst a thicket of rhododendron bushes well off the main road. He resolved to dispose of it later to be on the safe side. More fear. At that precise moment he couldn’t think of a suitable cover story but he hoped something plausible would occur to him soon. He knew it was imperative to remain inconspicuous as an insurance policy against the time when the police would begin interviewing people after the inevitable manhunt that would follow the kidnap. Much safer to focus on his plan and keep his overfertile imagination firmly in check. and set off unsteadily down the hill. Christ alone knew how he would react if the police ever did question him. his growing confidence as he mastered the balance. He shuddered. In less than an hour of pleasant peddling he came once again within sight of the denselywooded river valley that enclosed the river.

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

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

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

a black Labrador by the look of it. 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. A roaring waterfall at the head of the pool generated enough noise to drown out all but the loudest screams. before returning to his client. although without further success. He climbed into the vehicle and drove slowly back across the meadow. rooting around the bank and appearing to get the rough edge of the woman’s tongue whenever it came close enough to hamper her casting. flicking the bait out with an easy action across the full breadth of the river and letting the spinner swing round slowly in the classic manner before she started her slow retrieve. The woman eventually stopped fishing when she reached the tail of the pool and this was the first time the ghillie left her side. He walked back up the river to fetch the landrover. He watched the couple for nearly an hour. that it was reasonably shallow. . taking the dog with him. It worried him that he might be forced to deal with the dog if it got in his way. 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. A dog.planned abduction. covering every inch of water. The old ghillie shadowed her faithfully. He could not have hoped for a more remote spot so close to the main road. Just here would make a good crossing point. particularly if he needed to get back into the cover of the woods in a hurry. thirty yards downstream. She was obviously having more success with the new method too. pausing to collect the two salmon still lying on the bank at the top of the pool. most importantly of all that it was definitely wadable at its present height. Eventually all their gear was stowed safely and they headed off in the direction of the big house. Together they worked their way gradually downstream as she fished the pool methodically. The river had risen slightly since his last visit and on this occasion the woman was fishing with a spinning-rod. 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. After a brief conversation she climbed into the passenger seat. He smiled when he observed the outlines of two silvery spring salmon glinting in the sunlight on the bank behind her. made an occasional appearance. While she waited in the vehicle he got out and fixed her rod to the rod holders on the bonnet of the landrover. He made a mental note that the river immediately opposite was almost fifty yards wide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wriggling out of filial responsibility he had betrayed the only person in the world he had ever truly loved. Without a doubt the death that caused him most remorse and anguish was the one he had perpetrated while he was still a child. That ludicrous episode had claimed two more innocent lives. Just the desire to be ordinary. because he played an active role in condoning her euthanasia. Very hot. He smiled. it was too late now. His motive then was simple. 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. 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. the first with no blood connections. loved by his nearest and dearest. In the catalogue of his crimes against humanity this was the one act for which he felt no remorse. The only person who had ever really loved him in return. liked by anybody. What atrocities might he have committed. was the death of his mother many years later. Almost as bad. He felt his neck reddening with shame. He swivelled away from the window and stared down with fierce concentration at the pile of notes . Well. not to say mundanity of his moral ambitions. anybody at all. Chapter 19 It was hot. regular guy. Not even goodness. he wondered. Jesus. he had felt nothing but relief as he sat at her bedside solicitously holding her hand during the five long days and nights it took her to drown so indecorously in her own saliva. He had been sent to summons a doctor but acute shyness had overcome him as he approached the surgery. 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. On the contrary. And then there was last year. respected and liked by all who knew him. a virtual skeleton weighing less than five stone. An ordinary.branches of the old apple tree. Whichever way he looked at it the scale of the slaughter seemed totally disproportionate to the modesty. Their future too was now assured. 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 hated her. if he had been a truly evil man? He bit his lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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