Thursday, November 24, 2005

Chapter 11

Chapter 11

Nick hurried back to where he had hidden the bicycle, flitting through the woods like a ghost, completely invisible from the road. He was elated at the way his fortunes had finally taken a turn for the better. 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.

Today he had learned a valuable lesson – never give up. 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 - he would rescue himself and his family from destitution.

After he had been walking for twenty minutes or so he paused at a mossy clearing a few yards off the track. The priority now was to start making plans for the safekeeping of his hostage. He sat down on a tree stump and spread out his ordnance survey map in front of him. 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. The key attribute of any hiding place, he decided, was security. Somewhere that was absolutely escape-proof during the highly dangerous period when he would be negotiating the ransom for the woman’s safe release.

He obviously needed somewhere remote yet accessible, somewhere that was not likely to be visited either casually or as part of any organised search. Somewhere he could visit regularly without attracting suspicion.

Distance from home was crucial too. 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. Say two hours cycle run maximum. Maybe ten miles each way. He looked at the map. 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 conical mountain that dominated the landscape for miles around. 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, interspersed with the odd derelict shooting lodge and deserted but and ben. Fortunately, with the introduction of large-scale sheep rearing in recent years the moors were no longer prime shooting country. The only casual visitors he was likely to encounter, 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. He was sure he would be able to find somewhere safe and out of the way in that desolate desert of heather and bog.

Once he’d located somewhere the other imperative was the total security of his hostage. It wouldn’t be enough for her prison to be lockfast. Because she would be left alone for long periods she would have to be restrained in some way. Reluctantly he decided she would have to be bound and, possibly, gagged as well. To be on the safe side he would probably have to blindfold her as well to keep her from recognising him. The idea of tying up a fellow human being, especially a woman who had never done him any harm, seemed an extreme, not to say barbaric, measure. The image of the woman bound and trussed like a chicken that sprang into his mind made him feel distinctly uneasy. He had spent his whole life trying to treat people with dignity and respect. This would be the first time he had ever used force to make anyone do something against their will. The least he could do was to make the experience as free from trauma and pain as possible. Maybe if the hiding place was remote enough it wouldn't be necessary to gag her. She would soon tire of screaming her head off when nobody came to her rescue. Escape was a different matter. He could not afford to take any risks whatsoever with her security on that score. Whatever happened he would have to stop her from escaping, that would be unavoidable, just no way round it. Exactly how he was going to do that posed something of a challenge. After all, waiting for the ransom to be paid was likely to take a couple of days at least. Maybe longer. Indeed, he hadn't even begun to work out how this phase of the operation was going to be accomplished. 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. If she could see the logic in that then any necessary violence and discomfort could surely be kept to a minimum.

When he had finished the crisps he carefully folded up the empty Golden Wonder packet and tucked it back into his rucksack. He was learning fast about not leaving clues behind, it was almost second nature to him now. 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. God alone knew how he was going to feed his family later in the week. If ever he lacked motivation, that challenge alone was sufficient to underline how desperate the situation had become. To contain his mounting panic at the precariousness of his family’s circumstances he forced himself to concentrate upon the main task in hand. All that mattered now was the efficient capture of his prospective victim, the one ray of hope on his dark horizon. Tying her up securely with rope or whatever would be difficult without hurting her. It might be better if she was handcuffed and chained. Chained to a wall probably so that he didn't have to stand guard over her the whole time. He bit his lip. 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, there was no getting away from it. He took a deep breath. Desperate problems demanded desperate solutions.

He sighed as the amount of preparatory work he still had to do began to dawn on him. Figuring out what he was going next to do was only the beginning. Implementing all the necessary actions would be even more difficult. For a start, where the hell would he get handcuffs and chains? He couldn't exactly borrow them from the police, that was for sure. He tried to think laterally. Handcuffs were the sort of props a magician might use. Maybe he could buy them in a toyshop. Except that they would probably be designed with would-be Harry Houdinis in mind – with one bound you would be free. Which was exactly the opposite effect to what he wanted to achieve. The only other thing he could think of was bondage gear, the kinky sort of stuff he’d occasionally stumbled across on the internet. He shivered. There was absolutely no way he would go into a sex shop and buy such stuff. He wouldn't have the nerve. Talk about embarrassment. Besides which, sex shops weren’t exactly plentiful in this part of Scotland. Didn’t exist in fact. Besides, he didn’t have the money and his credit cards were useless so even buying online was out of the question.

So handcuffs, he concluded glumly, were probably out of the question.

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. Eventually it dawned on him that he was making the problem out to be worse than it really was. Focussing on handcuffs was a mistake. It surely wasn't beyond his wit to fashion some other sort of suitable restraint. 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. There was a whole box of them in the shed. The other item in the shed that might come in useful was the length of chain they had bought years ago to tether the goat they never actually got round to acquiring. And there were any number of old padlocks in his toolbox which he had acquired over the years. So. Make do and mend. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Problem solved. No, he mustn't get hung up on details the way he usually did or nothing would ever get done. Think out of the box, that was the answer.

There are no problems, as John Lennon used to say, only solutions.

But of course there still were problems.

Without a doubt the central problem still remained the location of the safe premises. He stared down at the map. It was hard to visualise anywhere suitable just by looking at the swirling contours and empty spaces. It was just a pity that the easiest solution – keeping the woman at home in his attic – obviously wasn’t feasible. If she was blindfolded and gagged, maybe even had her ears stuffed with wax or something so she couldn’t work out where she was, if she was bound securely so she couldn’t make a sound. It would certainly make it easier to keep her under constant surveillance. Much less obtrusive too, with no need to keep coming and going all the time.

But letting Maureen into the plan was out of the question. She would never be party to anything criminal or even immoral. It was inconceivable that she would allow him to go through with such an evil course of action. Nor was it simply her moral objections that stood in the way. 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. He was sure she would rather suffer the degradation of abject poverty, of sequestration and the bailiffs coming round, 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.

There were other problems too. First and foremost was that without Maureen’s co-operation the problem of where to keep his hostage while he waited for the ransom to be paid seemed insoluble. He squinted at the map. Caves weren't really appropriate although there were a few around here. They were a bit too obvious really. They tended to attract curious tourists and youngsters looking for somewhere safe to puff the odd spliff or two. Not to mention the fact that they were usually damp and smelly and obviously without any kind of sanitation. His poor hostage was going to have to suffer quite enough without putting up with unnecessary privations of that sort. An old abandoned cottage or farm steading had to be the best solution. Somewhere he could make lockfast to keep out prying eyes. He scanned the map for a suitable site. Maybe somewhere he used to play as a kid. One of the old hideaways where they used to go for a smoke and a few bottles of beer. He sighed. Too well known. He didn’t want any of the locals leading the bobbies straight to his hiding place. It had to be somewhere he’d discovered on his own. Somewhere that no one else knew about.

Wherever he kept the woman the place would be found eventually. They were bound to mount a massive search. There’d be helicopters and sniffer dogs and God knows what all out looking for her. Her capture was bound to make front page news. A millionairess taken hostage. It would be all over the telly and the radio too which was a little bit scary. The police would probably call in the SAS which meant he might be shot if they found him. It was an unnerving thought. He wasn’t sure he wanted to die just yet, although there had been a few times recently when he had truly wished he was dead. Wishing is one thing of course. A bullet blowing the top of your head off is quite another. He swallowed hard. This undertaking was going to need genuine courage as well as brains to see it through. He forced himself to remain calm. He had to keep things in perspective. As long as they didn't find her for the couple of days it would take to complete the ransom transaction and the handover of the money that was all that mattered really. The good thing was that the authorities wouldn't have a clue where to begin looking. As far as they were concerned she could have been spirited away to anywhere in the UK, even abroad. They would surely think it highly unlikely that she was being kept right under their noses. As long as he didn't leave any clues behind he should be safe. That was obviously vital. He'd have to watch that. Didn't want them doing a Sherlock Holmes on him.

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. There were many. Great memories, they brought back waves of pleasure. The simple life, simple food, simple problems, simple pleasures, sharing the burden, back to nature.

And then it came to him

The Damson Farm. That's what Maureen used to call it. They hadn't been back there for years. The place was a bit too isolated and difficult to get to on foot. An old abandoned farm, most of the outbuildings roofless and crumbling, the old cottage with its windows boarded up. The once-substantial garden was almost completely overgrown the last time they’d visited it, totally surrounded by an encroaching forest of naturally-regenerating birches, the original orchard had mostly been subsumed by native geans and birches, except for three or four very old damson trees which were unusual in this part of the world. They had made regular visits for a number of years to collect the ripe fruit which Maureen used to turn into delicious jam. The setting in the lee of Morven Hill was a delight. 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. A very special place. No one else had ever discovered it so that each year they could be sure of their bountiful harvest of ripe damsons, certain that their journey through the old pine forest and the foothills of Morven Hill wouldn't be wasted.

He folded up the map and tucked it into his rucksack. That was the place. It was perfect. He shook his head in amazement. It was almost miraculous the way things were falling into place. He was pretty sure his search was over and in less than a day, after he had checked out the site just in case, he would know for certain. He couldn't suppress a frisson of excitement at the thought of what was happening. For once in his life it seemed that things were actually coming together the way he wanted. Someone up there must be smiling down on him at last.
While he was pushing the bike back along the landrover track several dark clouds began drifting across the sky, temporarily obscuring the sun. The woods turned dark and brooding. He shivered as the temperature plummeted. Before he reached the main road it started to snow, the mazy snowflakes drifting down prettily on the still air. Almost magically a scene straight off a Christmas card was silently created in front of his eyes. When he eventually stepped out onto the main road a swirling breeze sprang up out of nowhere and pelted him with snowflakes, momentarily blinding him. He mounted his bicycle and started peddling home, the rising wind now in his face. The return journey was mostly uphill as the road climbed out of the valley of the Dee onto the flood plain. His legs began to ache with the effort and he was forced to stand up on the pedals in order to climb the hill. Several times he was almost blown off the bike by a sudden gusts of icy wind rolling straight down from the mountains. By the time he reached the half way point he was exhausted, his empty body drained of energy. His eyes watered as the icy snowflakes pelted his eyeballs. His forehead ached from the cutting wind. His unprotected ears were frozen. To make matters worse he could hardly breathe as the driving snow filled his gaping mouth. It was hard to keep the bike on the road as his chilled hands barely had enough strength to grip the handlebars. At one point he thought he wasn’t going to make it. He was almost crying from exhaustion, the bike wobbling all over the road, leaving a long drunken trail behind him in the fresh snow.

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. Where the road was unprotected by hedgerows it was already starting to drift. He dismounted and pushed the bike up the hill, leaning into the wind, half blinded, 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.

When he turned into the driveway at the top of the hill the lights in the cottage were burning bright.

He stopped and stared in surprise as the light streamed out from the kitchen window and bounced off the dancing swirling clouds of snowflakes. Maureen must have arrived home early. Normally he would have been pleased but tonight he felt only foreboding as he contemplated the chilly reception that awaited him.

Maureen looked up from the cooker and smiled as he staggered into the kitchen, brushing snow from his hair and eyes. The smell of cooking stopped him in his tracks. He suddenly felt faint with hunger.

“What’s happened? I thought…”

Maureen looked a little self-conscious, pursing her lips. “I swallowed my pride and went round to see Mum again. She gave me another loan to tide me over. She took it out of the nest egg she was left by Gran. I had to think of Martin. I couldn’t bear the thought of him going to bed hungry.”

“Oh, I see.” Nick didn’t get on with Maureen’s mother. The feeling was mutual. She thought her daughter had married beneath herself. She was probably right. He looked enviously at the cooker. “What are you cooking?”


It was a delicate moment. After all the things that had happened he was by no means certain that he would be included in the feast. He took off his wet clothes and sat down at the kitchen table. He made an extra effort to be civil. “Where’s Martin?”

“In his room.”

“How is he?”

“He’s okay. I bought him a new dance album CD so he’s happy.”

Nick bit his lip. He couldn’t afford such luxuries for himself. He hadn’t bought any new music for months. He couldn’t stop himself feeling envious of his son, resenting the way he always benefited from his mother’s unconditional love. He was going to say something about Maureen’s favouritism but thought better of it. The money wasn’t even his after all. He had no rights in the matter, none at all. Instead he said, “Did you get a paper?”

Maureen reached into her shopping bag. “Here.”

“Thank you.” He was so hungry he felt dizzy. He couldn’t focus on what he was reading, the print swam in front of his eyes. He put down the paper. “I fixed your bike by the way.”

“Did you? Why?”

An idea leapt into his head. “I needed it to get to Banchory.”


The lies flowed surprisingly easily. “I went to the Job Centre. I’ve got a job interview in town tomorrow.”

Maureen looked dubious. “Doing what this time?”

Nick had no idea what his next lie was going to be. He opened his mouth and trusted to instinct. “It’s not much of a job. It’s labouring at a builders in town.”

Maureen looked impressed. “It’s better than nothing.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Sounds a lot more realistic than that last one you had. I always thought that was too good to be true. Something down to earth will suit you far better. Is it weekly paid? That would help our cash flow.”

His mind was racing as he planned ahead to the big day. Not tomorrow when he planned to check out the cottage. The day after when he would be ready to carry out the kidnap. Which was a Thursday. “I think so. I’ll find out at my interview on Thursday. The thing is, I’ll need the car to get into town, if that’s all right.”

After a moment’s hesitation the stern expression on Maureen’s face melted into a smile. “If it means you’ll get a proper job of course you can. I’ll make sure it’s got a full tank of petrol. What time is your appointment?”

“Two thirty. I could take you and Martin in and kill time in town till then.”

“What would you do all day? Martin and I will get the bus in that day. It’s not a problem. You take the car. And good luck.”




“Don’t be too greedy. Remember we need the money. Take whatever they offer, will you?”

“Sure.” It was an easy promise to make. “Listen, Maureen, I’m sorry about what I’ve put you through. None of this is your fault and yet you’re the one who’s suffering most. In a way I deserve it…but you. It doesn’t seem right that they can arrest your wages and take the house away from you.”

She looked at him, her face expressionless. “Maybe they won’t.”


“Take the house away from me.”

“What do you mean?”

She hesitated. “I’ve been to see a lawyer.”

Nick was astonished. “You’re kidding. When? Why?”

The seconds ticked past. “Why, Maureen? What about?”

She looked away. Eventually she said, “I went to see about getting a divorce.”

“Jesus.” He gripped the edge of the table to stop the room spinning.

“I had to think of Martin.”

“So you’re leaving me?”

“Not necessarily. Maybe not if you get a job. While I was there the lawyer looked at that personal guarantee we signed. He thinks there might be a flaw in it. Apparently we shouldn’t have taken legal advice from the same lawyer. Something about you having undue influence over me. Apparently there’s a precedent.”

“So we won’t lose the house? Jesus, that’s great news.”

“Not necessarily. Your situation is different. You went into it with your eyes open. It might be that we have to split up if I’m going to protect Martin and myself.”

“I see. What about the arrestment order on your salary? Is that legal?”

“He’s not sure. He’s looking into it. He’s thinks there’s a chance I can get the order rescinded. Particularly if I’m a single parent. I’m sorry, Nick., I have a duty to look into these things. Whatever else happens I’ve got to protect Martin.”

Nick was devastated. He felt betrayed. The ideal of the family upon which has life had been built was shattered. All the sacrifices he had made were for nothing. “What about if I get this job? Will you still leave?”

Maureen thought for a moment. “I honestly don’t know, Nick. I’ll have to take advice from the lawyer.”

“Don’t you want to stay together? Doesn’t it matter to you?”

“Of course it matters.”

“Well then?”

“I’ll have to see.”

“What kind of answer is that? Are you going to stay or not? Christ, Maureen it matters to me.
That’s why we’re in this mess.”

Maureen flinched as his voice rose. “It depends how high the price is, Nick. I think we’ve already paid enough as it is.”

“What if I get this job? Will you stay then? Please, Maureen, I’ve got to know.”

Maureen turned back to the cooker. She lifted the lid on a saucepan and peered into it. “Give Martin a shout,” she said eventually, “This is ready.”

Nick saw that he was wasting his time pursuing the matter. “Okay,” he sighed, “Give me a little time that’s all. I’ll get that job and pay off our debts I promise.”

She stared at him without speaking, her face blank.

“At least give me a chance.”

She said nothing.


She took a deep breath. “As long as Martin doesn’t suffer any more.”

“He won’t , I promise. You’ll see. I’ll get this job and everything will be all right. Trust me.”

She looked unconvinced. “All right, Nick, I’m too tired to argue. It’s up to you. But whatever happens, this is your last chance. This time don’t let me down. Now, please, give Martin a shout will you, this is ready.”

He stood up and moved to embrace her but she turned away from him. “Not now, Nick, I’m not in the mood.”

“Okay, sorry. I’ll give Martin a shout. You won’t regret this. Er, am I getting any?”

Seeing the downcast expression on her husband’s face Maureen broke into a smile. “Of course you are, stupid. Just make sure you get that job on Thursday, that’s all.”

Nick muttered something that he hoped sounded suitably grateful as he sloped off to find his son.