A Half Life of One | Business

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bird table was still alive with chaffinches and blue tits feeding on the scraps he had put out earlier. somehow there had to be an answer. He waited in the corner of the bedroom until he heard the postman’s van roar back down the hill. To make sure it wasn’t a trick he kept watch until his calves ached and his legs were shaking. He was only days away from disaster. they didn’t happen to people like him. He stood on tiptoe and watched it disappear from view at the end of the road. He knew he couldn’t go on burying his head in the sand. the only person that could save him now was himself. It was time to finally recognise that enduring reality. Beside him in the passenger seat Rip his Alsatian raised his head and looked at his master with quizzical eyes. His immediate relief was tempered by the knowledge that no delivery also meant no invitations to job interviews nor acknowledgements of his multiple job applications and therefore not even a faint glimmer of hope for the immediate future. No. even worse. He made himself a weak coffee and took it through to the sitting room. He stood and watched them enviously for several minutes. Even if miracles did sometimes happen. waiting for a miracle to happen. There was a white Range Rover which he had never seen before sitting at the foot of the road Chapter 5 Garry Brown wound down the window of his white Range Rover and trained his powerful binoculars upon the cottage nestling half way up the hill. . licking his lips in anticipation. or. The only possible course of action was to keep on looking until he found a solution. not to give up prematurely or spend his time perpetually casting around for excuses. He knew he couldn’t go on this way. No matter how hopeless things seemed he knew had to be positive. 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. He simply had to come up with a solution that would finally put him out of his misery. After taking a deep breath he sat down again at the breakfast table determined to confront his problems head on. Sure he was in a fix but somewhere. When he was certain the coast was clear he shuffled stiffly back down to the kitchen.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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He walked back up the river to fetch the landrover. a black Labrador by the look of it. He made a mental note that the river immediately opposite was almost fifty yards wide. taking the dog with him. covering every inch of water. . Eventually all their gear was stowed safely and they headed off in the direction of the big house. A roaring waterfall at the head of the pool generated enough noise to drown out all but the loudest screams. never straying more than a few yards from her side. resting his elbow on his wading staff a few feet from her right shoulder while she remained stationary between casts. 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. particularly if he needed to get back into the cover of the woods in a hurry. Satisfied that what he had in mind was feasible he once more trained his binoculars on his quarry. 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.planned abduction. It worried him that he might be forced to deal with the dog if it got in his way. While she waited in the vehicle he got out and fixed her rod to the rod holders on the bonnet of the landrover. After a brief conversation she climbed into the passenger seat. Fortunately the uninhabited cattle pasture he would have to cross to reach his target and then return across with his captive to reach the anonymity of the woods was out of sight of both the main road and the big house. thirty yards downstream. although without further success. He watched the couple for nearly an hour. pausing to collect the two salmon still lying on the bank at the top of the pool. Just here would make a good crossing point. that it was reasonably shallow. before returning to his client. The old ghillie shadowed her faithfully. 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. made an occasional appearance. most importantly of all that it was definitely wadable at its present height. He smiled when he observed the outlines of two silvery spring salmon glinting in the sunlight on the bank behind her. 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. He climbed into the vehicle and drove slowly back across the meadow. A dog. She was obviously having more success with the new method too. 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 could not have hoped for a more remote spot so close to the main road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

" she muttered. Fortunately Maureen had done some shopping the day before and there was enough bread to make cheddar and tomato sandwiches for two. 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.breath. a thermos of Nescafe and a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut completed the rations. He went through to the bathroom and looked out onto the drive. He added an apple and a carton of organic blackcurrant yoghurt which he thought his hostage might like. 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. Chapter 17 Nick woke up just after seven. He got up slowly. A dysfunctional choir of overexcited blackbirds.” she said. 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. He packed everything carefully into his old rucksack. "He wants to speak to you. He's being really abusive. Under different circumstances he might have looked forward to a pleasant trip on his bike. It wasn’t exactly a healthy. "It's the man from the garage. Maureen and Martin had already left for town. The bed beside him was empty. song thrushes and assorted finches packed the branches of the trees around the house. Everything from a murderous band of armed bandits from a cartoon South American republic to an angry congregation from the local church . her face ashen. He looked up at the clear blue sky. a not inconsiderable inconvenience. I’ll get him for you. A pint of milk. creating a deafening dawn chorus. “Just a minute. his legs shaking. She listened for a minute and her eyes narrowed and her expression became very grave. The car had gone. Which meant that he would have to visit his hostage on bicycle. 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. balanced diet but it was the best he could do in the circumstances. At least it had stopped raining and it didn’t look like it was too windy." Nick looked up helplessly at his wife. He selected a blue polo necked jumper .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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