Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Chapter 13

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 co-operation, 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. A box of matches completed his preparations. He carried the holdall out to the car and loaded it into the boot. On the way to the river he would stop off in the village and buy food with the money Maureen had left him for his supposed visit into town to attend the job interview. If he was careful he reckoned he might be able to buy enough food to last his victim for three, possibly even four, days. He planned to get packets of soup mostly, 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. Certainly not fresh meat or anything that might attract the rats. No fresh fruit either, but that was simply a question of lack of finance. He remembered to add a toilet roll to the little box of supplies he was planning to take. And a couple of blankets to keep her warm. Unfortunately no pillow. He knew that he was being somewhat inconsiderate but there wasn’t a spare one in the house and Maureen was bound to notice if he took one off the beds. Besides, there was a limit to the amount he would be able to carry across the moor in his rucksack. 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, although rusty, 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. He hadn't yet worked out the correct form of wording for that either, but he didn't think it would be too difficult to think of something suitably authentic once he actually had her captive. What was it they said? Cometh the hour cometh the man?
Something like that anyway. Besides, she'd be able to help him get it right. It would be in her own interest after all. She would know who he should send it to as well.

When he had completed all his preparations he locked up the house, loaded the rucksack into the boot and set off down to the village shop to collect the necessary rations. He took his time in the little Spar shop and bought astutely. Fortunately they had an extensive range of packet soups. In the end he reckoned he had enough food to last for five days, which allowed him some leeway in his timetable if anything went wrong. He still had a pound left. He promised himself he would spend it on a celebratory can of beer once the first phase of his operation was successfully concluded. Everything was now in place to begin the mission. He packed the new food supplies into the rucksack and drove sedately down to the river. Ten minutes later he parked in a clearing a quarter of a mile along the track through the woods where he had previously hidden the bicycle. He 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, unless they actually tracked down the vehicle which he thought was unlikely now that the snow had melted. Maybe later, when he came into the ransom money, he might buy some new tyres to be on the safe side.
Reconditioned ones would probably be best. Pay cash too. Used fivers. He smiled to himself.
He was learning fast.

He climbed out of the car and spread a map on the bonnet and pretended to examine it for five minutes. Nothing happened. 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. Besides, there was more chance that he would do himself a serious injury if he fell crossing the rough ground than anything else. He finished dressing and retrieved the air rifle from the boot and slung it diagonally across his left shoulder. With this one symbolic act he felt transformed. His mission truly had begun. His hand shook with excitement as he locked the car. 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. 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, the hunter becoming the hunted. After finally checking to see that he remained unobserved he set off through the woods towards the river as nervously as a sun-dappled deer in the hunting season, his senses on high alert.

It took him twenty minutes to reach the edge of the wood where it bordered the river. He could hear the river in the distance rumbling like a motorway. He waited until he was certain that the coast was clear before he sprinted the hundred yards across the open meadow, bent double, to his vantage point on a grassy knoll overlooking the river. He had a quick look up and down the river but there was no sign of anyone. He spread out a groundsheet on the damp grass and lay down and stared in dismay at the roaring water cascading down the river channel. He’d overlooked the effect of the overnight melting snow. The river was in full spate, almost unfishable. He felt sick in the pit of his stomach. All his preparations had been for nothing. All his hopes had vanished with the melting snow. He gazed morosely at the pulsing, bucking, muddy current. The woman had probably taken one look at the river earlier and decided that it was a complete waste of time. Maybe she’d packed her bags and headed for the airport and the next plane back to London. The very best that he could hope for was that she was waiting for the water level to drop an inch or two. It was just possible that in an hour or two, perhaps longer, the river would drop sufficiently to try a large Toby. Even a heavily weighted Devon might get down to the fish. Or maybe she had decided instead to spend the day shopping in town. Stocking up the wine cellar perhaps. The possibilities were endless, unfortunately. He cursed under his breath. So much for God smiling upon him,

Whatever she was up to right now all he could do was wait.

The minutes ticked by and turned into hours. He was lying there speculating on what sort of wine the woman would drink with her catch –Chablis, maybe, or a fashionable Pinot Grigio – when a large salmon splashed in the fast water at the head of the pool. He could see it was a silvery fresh run fish, a lovely head and tail rise, almost certainly a taking fish. He pondered on the irony that if she didn’t show up she would be missing a grand opportunity to add to her basket. As well as screwing up his life in the process, of course. As the hours dragged by he began to doubt that she would turn up at all. He imagined she’d probably spent a heavy night carousing and feasting or whatever it was that rich folk did to pass the time. Maybe he was doing her an injustice. 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. Perhaps rattled off the Times crossword. Maybe played backgammon or a rubber of bridge with the servants. Certainly wouldn’t have frittered away her time watching East Enders or any of that rubbish. Maybe Bloomberg on satellite.

At that moment – which would have been lunch time if he had had any food - 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. It was like listening to an unruly heavenly choir. He lay on his back and closed his eyes. Just at that moment he hadn’t a care in the world. He stretched out upon the groundsheet and filled his lungs with the crisp clean air. It was one of those spring mornings when it felt good to be alive, when the world seemed to be bursting with a myriad wonderful possibilities. What was it Scott Fitzgerald had written? Ineffable toploftiness? That just about summed it up. Despite the collapse of his rescue plan at that moment he felt ineffably toplofty. He knew the feeling was as transitory as the clear blue sky but he was determined to enjoy it while he could. That was what life was about after all. Snatching simple pleasures, stealing beauty, living for the moment.

As another hour dragged by and his spirits subsided he forced himself to remain optimistic that his quarry would eventually appear. Most fisherman, he reminded himself, periodically come down to look at the water in a spate. That moment when the water level starts dropping can often be the most productive. Once again he scanned the horizon with his binoculars. It was strange but on what was probably the most important day of his life he no longer felt in the least bit nervous or even excited. The truth was, he realised, that even at this stage the whole thing still seemed unreal. 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. It was like being in a dream. A dream not a nightmare, that was important. A good dream. A dream that ended with riches and happiness all round. Imagine there's no...however it was the song went. That sort of dream. Like a fairy tale with a happy ending. Money. Lots of money would secure a happy ending. It occurred to him that he would need to ask for cash to prevent the authorities spotting any suspicious movement in his bank account. And anything above a five pound deposit was going to look suspicious given the dire state of his finances. He smiled to himself. 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. Maybe he was still human after all. On a more serious note, he knew he’d need to find somewhere safe to keep all that money. Out in the shed probably. Or was that too close to home? He frowned. Twenty pound notes. Half a million pounds. How many notes was that? A lot. A shedload, as Martin might say. Might give some to charity actually, he thought, that would be a nice idea. All right, conscience money. Not that he needed to feel guilty about what he was doing. He had been pushed into corner by forces beyond his control. As a result he was simply applying other market forces of his own devising to solve a huge debt problem. The same principle the World Bank imposed on debt-ridden African countries. Imposing a unilateral tax on the rich. Attacks on the rich. Redistribution of wealth. Just like Robin Hood. The comparison gave him a warm glow inside. What he was doing was not entirely selfish. Giving to charity would be okay. Do some good for once in his life.
And then, when he had almost given up hope, he heard the sound of a Landrover some minutes before the vehicle itself nosed into view.

He swivelled round and trained his binoculars downstream. A few seconds later the vehicle appeared, rolling across the lumpy meadow like a small boat beating against a heavy swell. It stopped at its familiar place at the head of the first pool on the beat, just out of sight of the water where it wouldn’t scare the fish. Nick fiddled with his binoculars but he couldn’t get them to focus properly. He picked up the air rifle and nestled the stock against his cheek, reassured by its coolness, and squinted through the telescopic sight at the landrover. He could just make out figures moving inside the vehicle. “Than you, God, thank you,” he muttered aloud. Suddenly everything was going to plan once more.

Then everything stopped going to plan.

Three people, small black figures in the distance, climbed out of the vehicle. "Shit," he whispered, a feeling of despair tightening its icy fingers round his chest. He held his breath, trying to keep the rifle steady. The third figure appeared to be a young man in his twenties, ginger-haired, smoking a small cigar and laughing continuously as he darted around helping to unload the rods. Dressed in a long check waistcoat and green corduroy trousers, he looked like a caricature of a country squire, a figure straight out of Country Life, and Nick cursed him vehemently. Three against one considerably increased the odds against him. He watched in dismay as the unanticipated new arrival carried the rods down to the river. Twice the man fell over the springer spaniel which kept leaping up at him to lick his face. Nick couldn’t believe his eyes. This totally unexpected appearance fatally undermined all his plans. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he swore out loud, thumping the ground with his fist. 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, he wondered? Some fucking Hooray Henry straight out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh. A fucking toy boy. A wastrel. Someone who had never done a day’s work in their lives. He raised his eyes heavenwards, glaring up into the expressionless, cloudless blue sky. “Christ, God,” he muttered, “You’ve got some fucking sense of humour all right. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down.” He started to feel sick as he contemplated the consequences of failure. He remembered the cheque he had written to that fucking garage owner, the one that had bounced. Jesus, that guy was after his blood all right. Then there was the debt collector. And the rest of his army of creditors would be queuing up right behind him. The bank manager, the sheriff’s officers, the inland revenue. No doubt about it, they were probably battering down the door of the house right now.

He buried his head in his hands and cursed his luck. He might have guessed it would turn out like this. In his heart he knew he’d fuck it up. He just wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing. Christ, when he went to confession as a kid he had to make up sins to tell the priest he was such a goody-goody. The whole idea had been stupid from the start. Pure fantasy. Like everything else he had done in his life. He should never have started his own business in the first place. Anyone with any sense in his position would have been a lawyer or an accountant. Even a teacher for Christ’s sake. At least they did some good in the world.

He lay down the air rifle and buried his head in his hands and began to cry. In a funny sort of way it didn’t really matter any more what happened next. Whatever the outcome he was a condemned man. A secret life as a sinner if he successfully carried out the crime. A public life as a bankrupt if he didn't. He shook his head. How had he got himself into this predicament? A lose-lose situation. Yet again he asked himself the old question that had tormented him continuously for the past six months. 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. Emerging triumphantly from his unhappy childhood, escaping the clutches of his manic-depressive mother, an alcoholic father. Appointed Head Boy in a tough comprehensive, a glittering future ahead of him. Four good highers, a credit to the school, a place at university. And all he had ever tried to do was be respectable. He had yearned for respectability. Let nothing stand in his way as he struggled and clawed his way into the middle classes. Dedicated his life to building up a successful business. All those sleepless nights. The anguish and the worry. Only to fail in the end. And for what? To be kicked in the balls by some idle bastard who had probably never done a stroke of work in his life. He picked up the air rifle and trained the sights on the group who were now standing beside the bonnet of the landrover. The ginger-haired idle bastard was tying on a fly for the woman, biting through the nylon with his teeth, laughing as he did so.

Nick snarled at the sight. If he’d had a real gun, a sniper's rifle, he'd have dropped the guy there and then. Dropped the lot of them in fact. Declared war on them and all their class. A one man revolution.

Eventually, after an interminable amount of toing and froing the woman finally began to fish. Nick shook his head scornfully. He couldn't understand how it took these people so long to get themselves organised. If it had been him he'd already have had his first fish on the bank in the time they had wasted pratting around.

The young ginger haired man lay sprawled out on the bank behind the woman, smiling and laughing the whole time. The woman turned frequently, laughing and gesticulating. They were obviously very close, lovers perhaps. Every few minutes the man jumped up and waved his arms about, conducting some kind of elaborate pantomime. His exuberant behaviour irritated Nick. He had always believed fishing should be a serious business, truly a matter of life and death, a contest in which you treated your prey with the utmost respect, a deadly game where you always accorded your quarry dignity, especially in death. The way the guy was behaving demeaned the sport, 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. Nick saw the line snap taut and the rod bend double as she hung on desperately. He observed her technique through the scope of the air rifle. After the initial excitement of the take had died down she became cool and determined, keeping the rod up and the line tight. 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. Two more salmon splashed in the pool, right alongside the hooked fish, showing in sympathy. A few seconds later three more fish, one after the other, showed in the tail of the pool a hundred yards downstream. The river was suddenly alive with fish. It was almost as if they knew that something dreadful was happening. Calmly the old ghillie climbed out of the landrover and ambled down to the bank clutching a large landing net. He took up position a few yards downstream from where the woman was playing the fish.

The fish took nearly twenty minutes to land. Nick saw the flash as the ghillie finally hauled the flapping bar of silver up onto the steep bank. Through the scope he could see that it was a beautiful fresh-run fish, not long out of the sea. He felt a twinge of envy. It was a long time since he’d caught a fish that big. Above the roar of the cascading water he heard the young man whooping with delight, as if he was the one who'd actually caught the fish.

The ghillie despatched the salmon with a couple of firm blows over the head from a large wooden priest. He strung up the fish on his wading staff and held it out in front of him for the woman to admire. The ginger-haired man danced around the fish, prodding and jabbing at it like a boxer in the ring. A few minutes later the ghillie unhooked the fish from his wading staff and handed it over to the young man. More animated conversation ensued, before the young man finally set off across the meadow in the direction of the big house, about a mile away, with the fish slung across his shoulder in a salmon bass. The excitement over, the ghillie folded up his net and returned to the landrover out of sight of the woman, where he resumed his half-finished breakfast as if nothing had happened. Not surprisingly, thought Nick. He’d probably killed thousands of fish during his career.

The woman was left alone on the riverbank to resume the pursuit of her next prize.

Alone and unprotected.


Nick realised with a start that this was the chance he had been waiting for. He hesitated, his pulse thumping, his mouth suddenly dry. Once he embarked upon his plan there would no going back. It was now or never if he was going to transform his elaborate daydreams into reality. He took a deep breath. He was so nervous he felt sick, desperately wanted to relieve himself. He knew only too well that this was a turning point in his life. Maybe a fatal one. Salvation or damnation awaited him, he had no way of knowing which. He sat up and closed his eyes, momentarily feeling dizzy as the blood drained from his face. All the old self doubt was seeping back into his bones. For a second he was tempted to give in and face the consequences of his impending bankruptcy. At that moment, while he knelt beside the riverbank as if in prayer, the face of his bank manager leapt into his mind, closely followed by the angry garage owner at the head of a whole army of baying creditors. Nick visualised the look of terror in Maureen's eyes as the angry mob hammered on the front door. He saw the look of shame on Martin's face as they were chased from the house. There was no way he could betray his family now. In the final analysis he’d rather throw it all away than have it taken from him.

This was it.

He picked up the air rifle and cocked it and put a pellet into the barrel. Crouching beneath the skyline he scurried along the floor of the valley that meandered from his vantage point down to the river. Five yards from the river he dropped onto his stomach and wormed his way to the top of the ridge. He could clearly see the upper half of the back of the woman, fishing intently, her feet straddling the track that skirted the river, about a hundred yards downstream from where he lay. The landrover was hidden from view behind a grassy knoll. To reach the woman he would have to cross a patch of open ground about forty yards ahead. As long as the woman didn’t turn round he would be safe. Still bent double he followed the valley until it petered out on the edge of the open ground. He paused to get his breath back. The adrenaline was pumping through his veins, almost deafening him. As soon as he stepped out onto the open ground he would be visible from the road bridge two hundred yards away. There was no alternative. He took a deep breath and sprinted across the meadow. He reached the path that ran alongside the river without being seen. He crept downstream, moving quickly, staying below the skyline. He stopped just before the bend in the river which marked the tail of the pool where he knew that the woman, just out of sight round the corner, was still fishing. His heart was thumping and he was gasping for breath. He needed time to compose himself but he dared not delay in case the young man or the ghillie reappeared. As he crept forward he could hear the swish! and the plop! as the woman cast her bait across the pool. With shaking fingers he pulled the balaclava down over his face. This was it. Taking a final deep breath he stood upright and, after a second’s hesitation, charged round the bend in the river. He was immediately confronted by the sight of the woman with her back turned to him, in mid cast, the rod raised above her head, the monofilament line arcing out across the pool.

“Do exactly what I say or I’ll blow your fucking head off!” he screamed, pointing the air rifle at her anonymous back.

The woman swung round in amazement and gaped up at him. She remained frozen in astonishment as the line collapsed into the river behind her where it was immediately carried downstream by the strong current.

He ran up to her and pointed the gun at her chest. "Move downstream," he yelled, "Do it or I'll fucking shoot you!"

The woman simply gawked at him.

It was a pivotal moment during which his courage almost deserted him. They stared at each other for several seconds. He though about Maureen and what would happen to her if he failed. It was all the encouragement he needed. He lunged forward and stabbed the woman’s chest with the barrel of the gun. 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.

“Ouch. What the hell’s going on,” the woman protested, dropping her rod as she stumbled backwards.

"Get moving," he screamed, jabbing her again, harder this time, "Run!"

“That hurt! Stop it! Get away from me.”

“Do what I say!”

“Leave me alone.”

He pulled the gun back ready to jab her again.

Seeing the murderous look in his eyes the woman turned round and slipped headlong onto the muddy path. “Help,” she screamed at the top of her voice, “Help me.”

He hit her over the back of her head with the butt of the air rifle. There was a noise like a cricket bat hitting a ball to the boundary. “Shut the fuck up or I’ll fucking kill you.”

“Leave me alone.”

He hit her again. A six this time.

Momentarily, as her face was pushed into the mud, she was stunned into silence. Then she started sobbing.

He reached down and grabbed the collar of her Barbour and started hauling her to her feet.
Suddenly the ghillie appeared on the bank above them. The old man must have heard her screams. He peered down on the scene in astonishment, bending forward. "What the hell’s going on?” he demanded.

Nick looked up and saw an old, white-haired man dressed in a green tweed jacket and baggy plus twos gazing down at him with a face frozen in horror. A spindly red tartan tie dangled from his neck. Nick jumped up and grabbed hold of the tie and jerked it towards him with all his might. The old man, caught off balance, tumbled like an acrobat through the air in a graceful arc over Nick’s head. He landed head first on the footpath, his neck snapping loudly. Immediately he crumpled up like a concertina. Slowly he toppled forward into the swirling water, uncoiling as he did so. Nick and the woman stared down in disbelief as the suddenly inert body slowly swung out from the bank and began to float off downstream. The face-down head bobbed gently in the current like a cork.

Nick swallowed hard to suppress the nausea rising in his throat. He dragged the woman to her feet and pushed her forward along the muddy path. "Run or you’ll follow him!" he yelled.

The woman could not tear her eyes away from the sight of the old man’s body floating down the river. “My God,” she gasped, “You can’t leave Peter to drown. You’ve got to save him.”

Nick had heard the man’s neck snap. “It’s too late,” he snarled, “He’s dead. Now run!”

As they stumbled back up the river the woman kept turning round to look back at the ghillie. Nick too glanced over his shoulder. He was appalled to see the body being swept along the shallows at the tail of the pool, slowly rotating with the force of the current. The woman pointed. “He’s waving at me,” she cried, “Peter’s still alive.”

When the woman tried to turn back towards the ghillie Nick hit her across the front of her neck with the rifle butt, as hard as he could. She fell backwards and he grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and hauled her up the bank and onto the grass. The edge of the wood was about a hundred yards away. “Run, run,” he shouted, pushing her in front of him. She stumbled forward. Twice she fell over and twice he dragged her to her feet. After what seemed like hours they finally reached the safety of the rhododendron bushes at the edge of the wood. "Follow that fucking track," he hissed, prodding her forward with the gun. She staggered slowly forward. Her clumsiness and stupidity infuriated him. “Faster, faster,” he screamed, his face purple with rage. He wished he had an Alsatian to bite at her ankles. It was important to keep her moving, disoriented, unable to work out what was happening. “Run, run,” he screamed into her face whenever she slowed down.

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. Then he made her climb into the boot. "If you make a single fucking sound I'll stop the car and kill you right away," he said, slamming the lid down upon her.

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. The past few minutes had been unbelievably violent and horrible, far beyond his worst imaginings. He eventually started the engine and reversed back along the track at high speed, cursing himself as he did so for letting everything get so totally out of his control.