Monday, November 21, 2005

Chapter 10

Chapter 10

Nick could hear the clock in his head ticking down the minutes until the final showdown with the bank manager. With no salary going into his account that month he knew they must already be over their overdraft limit. Somehow he would have to solve all their problems within the next nine days. Whatever plan he came up with he would have to implement it fast. Their salvation was going to be touch and go.

The challenge seemed almost overwhelming. He sat in the freezing kitchen with his head cradled in his hands. He didn’t know where to start. Obviously he had never contemplated a kidnapping before. And abduction was only the start. He had no idea how to issue a ransom demand or even to whom he would send it. He spent more than an hour trying to figure out where to begin with his plan. Every scenario he mapped out in his mind ended up a blind alley. Each scheme he dreamt up seemed so hellishly complex with so much that could go wrong. 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.

An hour later he still hadn’t figured out a foolproof way to execute his plan. In the end he decided that his only hope was that the outline of a plan might somehow emerge from the cauldron of synaptic connections that were popping off like champagne bubbles in his turbulent brain. He had filled both sides of the foolscap sheet with various scenarios as well as lists of all the tools and equipment he might need before he suddenly realised that with every stroke of the pen he was creating a mass of damning evidence that could quite possibly be used to put him in prison for the rest of his life. The incriminating notes would have to be burned. Whatever happened he mustn’t leave any potential evidence lying around. He sighed. This whole crazy scheme was about as easy as walking blindfold through a minefield. It was obvious that his salvation wasn’t going to come cheap. If indeed it came at all.

The more he considered the problem the more evident it became that transport was his greatest problem. Maureen had first call on the car during the week and he couldn’t change that arrangement without good reason. A harebrained plot to kidnap a rich lady that he had caught a glimpse of almost a fortnight before was definitely not a good reason. And yet his need to get down to the river in order to carry out an initial survey had become urgent. Walking there and back would take far too long and anyway would make him far too conspicuous. The only alternative he could think of was the local bus service. Yet he didn’t dare travel on public transport in case he created a trail that might subsequently lead to his door. The fewer people that saw him the better. The problem was that the river was nearly six miles away. He might have to visit it several times before he spotted his quarry again. He sat at the sitting-room window staring blindly into space, stumped by the challenge. He turned the problem over and over in his head until he felt like his brain was beginning to seize up. He started to think about the bank manager and his army of creditors again. The thought that any one of them could confront him again in his home at any moment was terrifying.

He felt his pulse quickening. It was hard to concentrate on the problem in hand. He could feel he was on the verge of panicking, of losing all self control. 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. 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. If he lost his nerve now he knew he would lose everything. Despite his determination to fight he was close to tears, knew he was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown, only a step away from unconditional surrender. The river might as well have been a million miles away. The whole idea was totally impracticable. Pie in the sky. Just like all his other grand ideas. Building up a successful business. Becoming wealthy. Buying a house abroad. Even a boat at one point. Ideas above his station. All his grand schemes were just that. Schemes. Dreams. Wish fulfilment. Childish fantasies. Just like all those other occasions in the past he had fallen at the first hurdle. He shook his head. The old familiar feeling that had dogged him all his life had returned with a vengeance. The conviction, inherited from his mother and drummed into him throughout his childhood, that he was born to fail.

His spirits had sunk to their lowest ebb since that day the bank had pulled the plug on his business. If there had been any drink in the house he would have sought oblivion in a bottle. Drugs would have been even better. With the cupboards bare there was no easy way out. He was trapped inside his own head. Maybe there was only one solution. Maybe his time had come.
And then suddenly, out of nowhere, the answer flashed into his brain. Maureen’s bike! Of course! The darkness shrouding his soul was suddenly illuminated by a blinding burst of light. 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. As far as he could recall her old bike was still out in the barn that they used as a garage. That long- discarded, rickety conveyance was the answer to his prayers. He punched the air with exhilaration. “Thank you God,” he cried, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

He remembered how in the second world war German soldiers had made extensive use of bicycles to conduct covert reconnaissance near the front lines. 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. Now the same vehicle would be deployed with the same deadly effect in his own personal battle for survival. He hurried out to the barn, praying fervently that the ancient contraption hadn’t been thrown out without his knowledge. Frantically he rooted around in the gloom, picking over the debris of their early married life. A split table, broken chairs, an ancient sofa, several corroded saucepans, a broken down pram, a cracked mirror that was still bringing them bad luck ten years on, a rusty paraffin lamp, rolls of old carpet from the sitting room upon which they had once made love, as worn and faded as their threadbare dreams.

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. The faded red bicycle was so heavily shrouded in dust and cobwebs it was barely recognisable. The chain and the handlebars had rusted solid, the wheels barely turned and worst of all the tyres were completely flat. He wasn’t even sure he could restore it but with no alternative, and with his future hanging in the balance, he hastily retrieved his toolbox from the house and immediately knelt down on the bare concrete to begin work on the restoration. He wrestled with the rusty skeleton for the rest of the morning. The atmosphere grew thick and acrid with WD-40. Within an hour his hands were bloody and bruised and his back was sore enough to bring tears to his eyes.

He was exhausted by the time he finally managed to free the wheels. 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. Fortunately in the saddlebag he found the tyre repair kit he had used as a child. It took him another hour to rectify the leaking tyres. 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. It took him another hour to free up the pedals, oil and tighten the chain and finally to raise the height of the saddle. 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.

Only when he was convinced that the bike was serviceable did he dare to take a break for lunch. It was nearly 2 o’ clock. He was ravenous. He heated up a tin of own-label beans and gobbled down the lot. There was one more tin of beans and a tin of Heinz Vegetable Soup left in the cupboard. Together with a few stale slices of white bread, an apple and an old packet of cheese and onion crisps that represented the sum total of their remaining food supplies. Barely enough for two more meals for Maureen and Martin. The realisation of how close they were to the breadline made him feel ill. It was another ten days before Maureen got paid again, several weeks before he would get any benefit money. Christ alone knew how they were going to survive, living on air. He could feel the familiar acrid taste of another panic attack rising in the back of his throat. At times like this it was better not to think too far into the future.

Concentrate on the task in hand, that was all that mattered. 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 cleared the table quickly and washed the dishes so that he left the kitchen tidy. If something went wrong and Maureen arrived back before he did he wanted everything to look normal.

It was time to assemble the final items he would need to carry out the initial survey of the river.
He consulted the notes he had compiled earlier. At the top of the list were his binoculars, an old pair of Swift Audubons with scratched lenses. They weren’t perfect but they would do for basic surveillance. He packed them in a side pocket of his rucksack where they could be easily retrieved. Next he looked out the ordinance survey map for the area from the dozens he kept stowed away under the stairs. The cardboard-covered sheet was badly torn through heavy use over the years. He invested more precious minutes in patching it up with sellotape. If he was forced to hide out for any length of time it might prove vital. He consulted his list again. A groundsheet. He knew they still had one from their camping days. Eventually he tracked it down to the blanket compartment under the bed upstairs where Maureen had neatly stowed it away. 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….well, he preferred not to think too much about its other potential uses. No point in getting too graphic – or melodramatic – at this stage. 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. His old Barbour in particular was the perfect camouflage for hunting down quarry on a riverbank, that’s what it had been designed for after all. When he was sure he had everything he needed he finally packed a necessarily frugal lunch box with an apple and the last remaining packet of crisps together with a thermos of weak black coffee. It was all he would get to eat that day, maybe even for the rest of the week. Finally, as an afterthought he added the Collins Book of British Birds to his rucksack, reckoning that it might prove useful in constructing a plausible alibi if things went wrong.

After checking to ensure that there was no one around in the immediate vicinity of the house he gingerly mounted the newly-restored bicycle, and set off unsteadily down the hill. At first he was alarmed by the unexpectedly rapid acceleration of the ancient machine, especially since the brakes appeared to be completely useless, but gradually he was overcome by a sense of exhilaration as the old familiar pleasures of cycling returned. The wind ruffling his hair, his growing confidence as he mastered the balance, the beauty of the hedgerows sweeping past right alongside. Apart from the circumstances it was like being young again.

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, demanding little effort or concentration on his part. In less than an hour of pleasant peddling he came once again within sight of the densely-wooded river valley that enclosed the river. He dismounted on the outskirts of the wood about a quarter of a mile from the same bridge where he had observed Angela Roberts flyfishing nearly a fortnight before. He hid the bike amongst a thicket of rhododendron bushes well off the main road, about four hundred yards up a disused track. He knew it was imperative to remain inconspicuous as an insurance policy against the time when the police would begin interviewing people after the inevitable manhunt that would follow the kidnap.

He had already figured out that the best way to remain unnoticed would be to travel within the cover provided by the ancient forest. 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. At that precise moment he couldn’t think of a suitable cover story but he hoped something plausible would occur to him soon, even as his plan was still unfolding. He was only too conscious of just how vulnerable his inexperience in these matters rendered him. Christ alone knew how he would react if the police ever did question him. His cover story would have to be watertight. He sighed. More things to think about. More stress. More fear. More chance of things going pear-shaped. So many little things that could trip him up. Even the fact that he had renovated the bike might be deemed suspicious. He resolved to dispose of it later to be on the safe side. He might have to dispose of a lot of things later when the time came. He shuddered. 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 over-fertile imagination firmly in check.

Moving stealthily he left the track after a few yards and entered the penumbral world of the birch forest, setting off in the general direction of the bridge, 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, less than a quarter of a mile away. The snow was thinner below the canopy of leafless trees and the going was relatively easy, except in the places where he had to force his way through the dense undergrowth of tangled bracken and overgrown rhododendron bushes. 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. Almost inevitably he scratched his face on an overhanging bramble branch. He cursed himself for his carelessness as he dabbed at the blood running down his cheek with a tissue. It was yet another unplanned event that he might subsequently have to explain away. Once he had staunched the bleeding he threw away the bloodstained paper tissue and resumed his journey. He had only taken half a dozen steps before he paused. Evidence. Evidence of his movements, more parts of the jigsaw puzzle that could send him to prison. He retraced his steps and retrieved the bloodstained tissue. Stuffing the potential evidence into his inside pocket he made a mental note to burn it later when he got back home.

He continued his clandestine progress through the woods for another twenty minutes before he eventually came within sight of the bridge. To his dismay, from his new vantage point on the northern edge of the woods, 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. 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. Unnerved, he sat down on an uprooted tree trunk in a small clearing while he regained his composure and tried to work out his next move.

Although he had always known that sooner or later he would be forced to emerge from the safety of the wood to get closer to his quarry it would obviously be safer if he was seen as little as possible, whether it was by local residents or passing motorists or the ghillie or even Angela Roberts herself. Keeping a low profile therefore meant keeping under cover, hiding in the bushes, using the lie of the land. He thought about his strategy for a long time. He had absolutely no training in fieldcraft. On the other hand. On the other hand he was used to staying concealed when he was fishing. 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. And of course, just as in fishing, he had one big advantage: the prey did not know it was being pursued, that it was a player in someone else’s game. A game whose rules were known only to the hunter. As in life, knowledge was power. The power of life and death. If he kept his head Angela Roberts would soon be as helpless as any of the many beached salmon he had landed over the years. The principle was the same except that the game he was playing now was, he suddenly realised, even more like playing God. 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.

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, clutching his binoculars to his chest and scanning the surrounding trees as if he really was a genuine birdwatcher. If he was spotted by any unseen eyes he wanted his behaviour to appear as natural as possible. Once across the road he climbed the low fence that ran alongside the rhododendron bushes shielding the exclusive beat from prying eyes. By now his heart was beating so hard it was knocking the breath out of his lungs. 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, a rare bird in these parts. He was pleased with this story - he felt it demonstrated that he was beginning to think constructively at last, that indeed he was astute enough to cover all the angles, maybe even clever enough to succeed.

To his surprise he realised that in a strange sort of way he was even beginning to enjoy himself, pitting his wits against the most important quarry he had ever hunted. 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. It just showed you – if you had faith in yourself you really could do absolutely anything. He stopped and smiled at this thought. For the first time in months he was no longer suffocating under a blanket of despair. He actually believed in the prospect of his own salvation. It was a wonderful feeling, one that was worth fighting for, whatever the price. Freedom from fear and anxiety. It was a basic human right after all, one which he had been denied for far too long. Hell, he thought bitterly, people had died for a lot less.
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, its wings flapping noisily. He froze in terror. In the ensuing silence that engulfed him the only sound was that of his heart thumping against his ribcage, the drumbeats of his coursing bloodstream roaring in his ears. He was terrified his cover was blown. For several long seconds he waited for something awful to happen. A tap on the shoulder, his ignominious ejection from the wood for trespassing.

Standing there in that unfamiliar, hostile environment he had an inkling of what it must have felt like for the GIs in the jungle in Vietnam back in the sixties. Now he too was stranded in a foreign country. The enemy was all around him. It was a weird feeling. The land he had loved and thought of as his own had been transformed into enemy territory. Maybe it always had been – he’d just been too dumb to realise that he had been trespassing all his life. Thankfully nothing further disturbed the stillness of the air. Not far away a pigeon cooed contentedly. A few seconds later a hare loped slowly across the snow on the other side of the clearing. That was all. No gamekeeper appeared, his presence in the grounds remained undetected. He was safe. 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.

Eventually he emerged from the edge of the woods to find himself directly opposite a large Victorian mock-baronial mansion. He gazed in awe at the huge pile. 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. Surreptitiously he drew back into the anonymity of the bushes and waited, fearful that he might have been spotted by the inhabitants. 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. Taking a deep breath he stepped out of the forest and crept down towards the river across the empty, exposed meadow.

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. He dropped down onto his belly and scanned the river upstream and down. 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. Against all the odds the dark outlines of the old ghillie and Angela Roberts were silhouetted on the skyline, on the bank opposite, about twenty yards below him, fishing a fast-running pool at a shallow bend in the river.

Forcing himself to remain calm he began to scrutinise his surroundings through his binoculars, looking out for hollows and hiding places, assessing the suitability of the terrain for the part it would play in the planned abduction. He made a mental note that the river immediately opposite was almost fifty yards wide, that it was reasonably shallow, most importantly of all that it was definitely wadable at its present height. Just here would make a good crossing point, particularly if he needed to get back into the cover of the woods in a hurry. 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. A roaring waterfall at the head of the pool generated enough noise to drown out all but the loudest screams. He could not have hoped for a more remote spot so close to the main road. Satisfied that what he had in mind was feasible he once more trained his binoculars on his quarry, thirty yards downstream.

The river had risen slightly since his last visit and on this occasion the woman was fishing with a spinning-rod, 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. Although her method of fishing had changed to one that required a lot less skill the look of fierce concentration on her face remained the same. He smiled when he observed the outlines of two silvery spring salmon glinting in the sunlight on the bank behind her. She was obviously having more success with the new method too.

He watched the couple for nearly an hour. Together they worked their way gradually downstream as she fished the pool methodically, covering every inch of water, although without further success. The old ghillie shadowed her faithfully, resting his elbow on his wading staff a few feet from her right shoulder while she remained stationary between casts, never straying more than a few yards from her side. A dog, a black Labrador by the look of it, made an occasional appearance, 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. It worried him that he might be forced to deal with the dog if it got in his way.

The woman eventually stopped fishing when she reached the tail of the pool and this was the first time the ghillie left her side. He walked back up the river to fetch the landrover, taking the dog with him. He climbed into the vehicle and drove slowly back across the meadow, pausing to collect the two salmon still lying on the bank at the top of the pool, before returning to his client. After a brief conversation she climbed into the passenger seat. While she waited in the vehicle he got out and fixed her rod to the rod holders on the bonnet of the landrover. Eventually all their gear was stowed safely and they headed off in the direction of the big house, presumably for a well-deserved lunch. Nick timed the whole performance carefully. 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, during which time he was out of sight for just over two minutes. Two minutes which was just about long enough for what Nick had in mind. Two minutes that would change his life forever. His heart thudded against his ribcage as the adrenalin kicked in. He rolled over onto his back and stared up at the glorious blue sky, a sky that for once was devoid of clouds. He took a deep breath, flooding his brain with oxygen.

At long last it was good to be alive.

Overhead an invisible flock of skylarks sang gloriously, celebrating his imminent release from the fear and despair that had dogged him for so long. He closed his eyes and felt the sun beating down on his face. The ensuing warmth felt like God’s beneficent smile bathing his whole body. It was a cathartic moment. In those few seconds it seemed to him as if he was present at the rebirth of his lost soul, that he was floating in warm, celestial amniotic fluid, a born-again member of the human race. He felt like he was floating, hovering, an out-of-body experience where he was witnessing his own redemption.

He breathed a long, glorious sigh of relief. Against all the odds his crazy idea really did seem feasible after all. He started to pray. 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. He thanked God from the bottom of his heart.