Monday, January 09, 2006

Chapter 15

Chapter 15

This time he remembered to pull on his balaclava before he unlocked the boot.

She lay on her side staring up at him with huge, round, terror-filled eyes. She looked as helpless as a baby seal that was about to be clubbed to death. The sight of her snapped him out of his dream-like state, and he glimpsed for the first time the full extent of the brutality and ugliness of his actions. He stared down at her. He had never seen such a piteous sight. He wanted to pick her up and clasp her to his breast and comfort her as if she was his own child. He bent down towards her and she let out a shriek. He jumped back, startled by the violence of her reaction.

"It’s all right," he whispered as he bent down and gently brushed the congealed semen from her hair with his handkerchief, "I'm not going to hurt you I promise." He spat on the handkerchief and dabbed at the worst of the mud streaks on her face. When he had finished he folded up the handkerchief and tucked it into a pocket of her jacket.

Her body was still frozen in a catatonic state when he lifted her out of the boot and set her down on the ground. She was unsteady on her feet and he held her upright for a nearly a minute, his arm around her shoulders, holding her loosely against him, terrified that she might fall over in a faint. He was surprised how tall she was, taller than Maureen. As she leaned against him she gradually became more pliable, moulding her contours into his until she fitted his body exactly as if they were matching pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. As her muscles gradually relaxed she started to shiver, gently at first and then more violently, until eventually she was twitching wildly out of control as if she was about to have an epileptic fit. He gripped her more tightly, pulling her head onto his chest, hugging her as if she was his own daughter.

“Calm down, it’s all right. Nothing’s going to happen.”

As the seconds passed she gradually began to relax and the shaking subsided. As he gently caressed her hair he thought how familiar they would have looked together, if anyone had been watching, like lovers in an embrace. When he was sure that she wasn’t going to collapse he eased her away from his side. “Stay there, please,” he commanded, as he moved away to retrieve the canvas holdall from the car. He hoisted the bag onto his shoulder and, after he had satisfied himself that the coast was clear, he took her arm and began guiding her along the path through the woods, gripping her elbow firmly with his left hand. The woman shuffled forward slowly, as if she had arthritis, as if she had aged fifty years in the last hour. He gently pushed her ahead of him and she immediately stumbled and fell forward onto her knees.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he helped her to her feet, “I didn’t mean to push you over. Take my arm. This way.”

He half-dragged, half-carried her the next two miles through the forest until they reached the peat moor which lay between them and the cottage.

The melting snow had turned the moor into a quagmire, a patchwork of tussocky islets floating on a sea of glutinous peat.

“You’ll have to jump,” he said.

She shook her head. “I can’t, it’s too far.”

He grabbed her hand. “Come on.”

“This is crazy,” she protested, “We’ll drown.”

He leapt from tussock to tussock, dragging her after him. When they stopped for breath she began to sink into the peat. He put his arms around her and pulled her out, leaving her Wellingtons behind her.

“I can’t go on,” she sobbed, “I’m exhausted. Please stop. Please.”

He dragged her across the bog. “If we stop we’re done for,” he gasped.

They were in sight of dry ground when suddenly the woman screamed. “What’s that?” she cried, pointing at her feet.

He stopped and peered down. Something round and white the size of a small football was gently bobbing in the jelly-like peat.

“And that! And there’s another one. And another. My God, what are they?”

Nick bent closer. “Christ, it’s a skull! Jesus, there’s lot’s of them!”

He grabbed the woman’s hand and began scrambling towards dry land as fast as he could. The woman started screaming. Eventually he managed to claw his way up onto firm ground, dragging the woman along behind him on her stomach. He lay on his back on the grass, gasping for breath, utterly exhausted.

The woman was the first to speak. “Those skulls…what were they doing there?”

Nick sat up and looked back across the bog. A dozen or more skulls were glinting in the sunlight about sixty yards away. They looked like a field of giant mushrooms. “I think there was supposed to have been a battle round here. In the seventeenth century. I read about it somewhere.”

“It’s horrible. I stood on one. It cracked like an eggshell.”

It took them another hour stumbling across the rough pasture before they finally reached the ruined cottage. They were both hot, wet and close to collapse. Nick’s head beneath the balaclava was sweaty and itchy, the coarse wool rubbed roughly against his skin, but he dared remove it, fearful of compounding his earlier error.

“Don’t try and run for it,” he said as he struggled to unlock the padlock he'd placed on the front door the day before.

She snorted in derision.

“Yeah, okay. Stupid thing to say.”

He motioned her to go ahead of him into the darkened room but not surprisingly she seemed
afraid of the menacing black void awaiting her. "It's all right," he said gently, "I'll put on a light once we're inside."

She did not move.

"Please, I'm not going to hurt you. Honestly."

Still she did not move.

He was almost as scared as she was but, forcing himself to stay calm, he said, "Look, I'm sorry about the ghillie. I didn't mean to hurt him. It was an accident." 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.

It took several seconds for his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. 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. A myriad unfamiliar shadows immediately danced around the room like witches round a midnight campfire, their eerie outlines casting a morbid spell upon the room. Almost at once the smell of paraffin filled the room. At that moment a scuttling noise came from the kitchen and he jumped, almost knocking over the lamp. She heard it too. "What was that?" she whispered, the first time he had heard her speak, her voice dark and throaty and well-educated.

He avoided her terrified gaze. "It's nothing," he said, bending down to take the length of chain from the holdall.

Her eyes widened even further as she watched him. "What are you going to do with me?"
"Nothing. I promise. I've just got to keep you safe for a few hours, a day at most. As long as you co-operate nothing will happen to you, I promise."

"Something already has happened."

He felt himself turning red with shame and embarrassment at the recollection of his behaviour back at the car. “I know, I know, I ‘m sorry.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what happened. It was completely out of character. Nothing like that will ever happen again I promise. You’re safe now. Please, kneel down."

She didn't move. He was so on edge that for a second he thought he might hit her again but with an effort he restrained himself. Glaring at her he said, "If you don't co-operate then I promise something bad WILL happen to you. I've already killed one person today so I've got nothing to lose. It’s up to you."

She stared straight back into his eyes and this time he did not look away. She must have seen then just how desperate he was because she suddenly knelt down, obediently, albeit reluctantly, at his feet. He placed the chain around her neck and fastened it with a small Yale padlock.
"Stand up, please," he said.

He led her towards the kitchen by the chain. "Stand there." He went into the kitchen and, using a second padlock, secured the other end of the chain, which was about fifteen feet long, to the old Aga. "Okay. You can sit down now."

She looked around for a chair.

"On the floor," he said, fetching the paraffin lamp across to the corner of the room. As she lowered herself awkwardly onto the floor he said, "Stay there and I'll bring you a blanket."
This time she did exactly as she was told, sitting with the chain fixed around her neck, her hands handcuffed behind her back, only her eyes moving as they tracked him across the room. 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. No one had ever looked at him that way before.

As well as the blanket he brought the rest of the food from the holdall and laid the little bundle down beside her. “Food,” he muttered, gesticulating towards the modest pile of tins with some embarrassment.

"I need to go to the bathroom," she croaked, her voice barely audible in the dark stillness of the musty room.

"Jesus, can't you wait?" he snapped back. Even as he spoke he realised it was an incredibly cruel way to react. His nerves were on edge. He hated this place already, felt as much a captive as she did. All he wanted to do was to get away as quickly as possible.

"I've wet myself," she whispered, her head bowed in shame.

He was shocked. He hadn't meant to scare her that much. He stared helplessly at her, once again overcome with pity. No one should have to go through the kind of ordeal he was subjecting her to. "I'm sorry...I..."

She started crying, her head slumped on her chest, her shoulders heaving. “Please don’t kill me,” she sobbed, “Please don’t.”

“Don’t cry, please. I’m not going to kill you. This wasn’t how I planned it. It’s all gone totally wrong.”

“Why are you holding me here? What are you going to do with me?"

He shifted uneasily. He hadn't exposed his scheme to scrutiny before and suddenly the whole idea seemed childish and stupid and impracticable.

“What do you want with me?”

He cleared his throat. "I know who you are. I’ve been watching you. I brought you here because I want a ransom for your safe return, that's why." His self-consciousness had caused him to blurt out the explanation far too quickly. To make matters worse even to his ears the explanation sounded ridiculous when he said it out loud. He felt embarrassed, even stupid, at the naiveté of his scheme.

She looked at him in disbelief. “A ransom?”

"That’s right.”

“A ransom?” She shook her head. "You can’t be serious. How much for God’s sake?"
He lowered his eyes. The figures he had in his head now seemed wildly unrealistic, even to him. "Well, I was going to ask for two hundred and fifty thousand pounds." Mentally he heard himself adding, in a whisper that echoed around inside his head, "If that's all right."
She suddenly started laughing, an unexpected sound that to his ears quickly turned into a loud unpleasant braying. He regarded her helplessly, mentally pleading with her to stop. As the humiliating sound grew louder, as she became increasingly hysterical, he was reminded of the fits Maureen used to throw whenever they had a major argument. "What's so funny?” he muttered, anger giving his voice a rough edge, “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 voice so low he had to lean forward to hear. “I don’t know what papers you’ve been reading but the fact is I don’t have any personal wealth.”

“Come off it, you’re loaded.”

“That’s a common misconception. The accumulation of personal wealth is against my principles.”

“That’s crap. You floated the company on the stock market. You’re worth millions.”

“There is a small trust I’ve set up for the children but that’s not my money. The rest of my shares I’ve donated to various charities round the world.”

“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.”

“I take out of the company only what I need to live on and I live a very simple life.”

“You must be fucking unique then.”

“I came into the world with nothing and that’s the way I intend to leave it.”

“I don’t believe it. Are you telling me you’re not one of the wealthiest women in Britain?”

“That’s exactly what I’m telling you. As a matter of fact I take home less than the average wage.”


“I’m sorry if that’s not what you want to hear but it’s the truth.”

He couldn’t immediately comprehend the full implications of what she was saying. He had read in the papers about her success lots of times over the years. He was certain she was worth a fortune, one of the biggest in the country. She seemed to have discovered the knack of making money out of exotic formulas that promised beauty and health and eternal youth. She had discovered the Midas touch by plundering the Third World for ideas which she then commercialised in the West, making a fortune in the process. What she was claiming now was the exact opposite. "What you’re saying can’t be true,” he protested, “I read the FT. Your company's shares have gone up like a rocket in the last couple of years. You must be worth millions."

"You’re not listening. The shares belong to the various charities I support.”

“You’ve given all your money away to charity?”

“That and a research foundation I set up in India. They’re developing sustainable business models for third world countries.”

“This is incredible.”

“In the final analysis, when it comes to material possessions, you’re probably better off than I am."

He looked aghast. If what she was saying really was the case then he was in deep trouble. “Are you saying that you can’t raise any money at all?”

“A few thousand at most. I have some endowment policies. We all grow old.”

He felt dizzy. Everything was slipping away from him again, spinning out of control. He said slowly, “Even if I threatened to kill you?”

She drew her knees up to her chin and buried her head, her whole body slowly convulsing as she burst into tears.

“I’m serious. I’ll kill you if I don’t get the money. You better face up to facts.”

Eventually she stopped sobbing. He held out a tissue and she blew her nose into it. “I’m desperate,” he explained, “You’re my only hope. Don’t make me do something I don’t want to do.”

“Why are you desperate?”

“It’s a long story. I had my own business. It went bust. I’ve got personal guarantees. They’re going to take my house…we’re going to be out on the street.”

“The bank?”


“Can’t you come to an arrangement with them? Pay them off over a number of years? They’re usually quite amenable.”

“I’m too old. I can’t get a job. We’re fucking penniless.”

“You’re married?”


“Does your wife know about this? About what you’re doing?”

“She doesn’t know.”

“Would she approve?”

“Of course not.”

“She’d rather be evicted?”

The conversation was making Nick feel extremely uncomfortable. He was only too aware that what he was doing did not bear scrutiny. “Look, I don’t want to talk about all this. All you need to know is that I’m desperate for the money. Fifty thousand minimum. Now.”

She raised her head slowly, the faintest glimmer of hope flickering in her eyes. “Maybe I could raise the money somehow. But it would take time.”

He glared at her, furious at the way she was trying to thwart him. “I don’t have time,” he snarled, “Either I get the money right away or you’re in serious trouble. And I mean serious.”
She shook her head. “Look, I’m sorry but I just can’t raise that kind of money in under a week. There’s a lot of legal stuff to sort out. I couldn’t just write a cheque for a quarter of a million despite what you might think.”

“What about your husband?”

“I’m not married. I haven’t been for some time.”

“Who was that man you were with down at the river?”

“Robert? He’s a colleague. He looks after my PR. It’s strictly professional, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Gradually it dawned on Nick that she was telling the truth. He felt his heart sinking so rapidly it almost sucked the breath out of his lungs. He leaned back against the dusty mantelpiece for support. Time was absolutely of the essence. "Jesus," he whispered. It was his turn to feel his insides turning to water, to feel the immediate and desperate need to go to the toilet. "Jesus, things just get worse and worse."

The woman seemed to gain some sort of grim satisfaction from the look of dismay on his face. "I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news," she muttered, “But you haven’t exactly been good news for me either .

He tried to think. First there was the ghillie, that had been a tragic disaster. Now her. A penniless philanthropist. He didn't seem to be able to do anything right. All he’d done was to dig himself deeper and deeper into trouble. The situation was now critical. He said quietly,
"You have to understand I’m running out of time.”

“How long have you got?”

“That depends. I’d have to convince the bank manager that I really could come up with something substantial. Two or three days at most.”

“I could probably raise five thousand immediately. If I could get to a bank.”

“It’s not enough. I need fifty thousand in cash minimum.”

“That’s impossible.”

“In that case I’ve got a real problem. And you better get it into your head that my problems are now your problems."

She replied, in a tone of voice that left her sincerity in no doubt, "I'm sorry, really I am. I just can’t do anything that big in under a week. If that means I’m of no use to you all I can do is beg for my release.”

“You’re not leaving here until I get the money.”

“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 tell them you didn't hurt me either. I'll do whatever I can for you."

It was his turn to feel contemptuous. "If only it was that simple. I must have that money right away or the whole fucking lot comes tumbling down."

"Please. Do yourself a favour. Don’t make things worse than they are. Just let me go. Please."
He suddenly felt exhausted. Everything in his life seemed so difficult these days. None of his problems seemed to have any solutions, on the contrary they just seemed to multiply, to breed almost, like a cancer, getting bigger and bigger, eating him alive. Without thinking he pulled off his balaclava and sat down a few feet from her, resting the back of his head against the damp peeling wallpaper and letting out a long low groan.

She said, in a voice that hinted at sympathy, "Is the money really that important?"

He snorted. "Money is always important when you don’t have it." He lowered his head and began fingering the balaclava, its synthetic fibres feeling soft and warm to his touch, the sensation reminding him of a soft toy he'd been given by his mother, a rare gift from her, one he hadn't thought about for years. 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. "I didn't think it was all going to turn out like this," he muttered, “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I didn’t mean to assault you. It just went wrong like everything else recently. Ever since I was a kid I’ve tried to do the right thing but now it’s all just turned to shit. No wonder I’m just about cracking up.”

She said softly, "In my experience things are never as bad as they seem."

"In my experience they're a whole lot bloody worse.”

He lapsed into a morose silence. The sound of rain splattering against the corrugated roof punctuated the stillness. The wind had risen too and every now and again the ceiling clattered as the corrugated sheets rippled in the stronger gusts.

As the minutes ticked by they both tried to think of a way out of the impasse. The temperature inside the cottage was growing noticeably cooler. Rainwater started to drip through the cracks in the roof, exploding all over the dusty floor like a field of tiny landmines going off. The cold from the earthen floor began to seep into the woman’s bones. Where she had wet herself her sodden jeans clung to her like cold wet rags. Despite the thin blanket she had wrapped around her shoulders she began shivering with cold. "I'm freezing," she muttered through noisily chattering teeth, "I need to get out of these wet clothes into something dry."

“I’m sorry but I didn’t bring any spare clothes.” Seeing the look she gave him he said, “It’s not possible to plan for every eventuality.”

“I’m going to get pneumonia like this.”

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said gruffly, "This whole thing has been a fiasco. I know that. If it’s any consolation I’m especially sorry for what I’ve put you through.”

“What about poor old Robbie McGregor?” A note of anger had crept into her voice.

“Him too. Of course him too. That was a horrible thing to happen. A nightmare. I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life. I’m sorry, truly I am.”

“Your sorrow won’t do him much good now.”

“I know, I know. Please don’t go on about it. Look, I’ll take you through to the toilet now.” He picked up the paraffin lamp. “Let me help you up.” He hauled her to her feet and lead her through to the toilet at the rear of the kitchen. There were more scratching noises as they passed the old Aga and he saw her stiffen.

“I'll bring you some dry clothes when I come back," he muttered as she pulled the toilet door shut behind her.

He sat staring at the Aga while she finished her business, praying that none of the rats would have the temerity to put in an appearance before he departed. When the woman re-emerged he picked up the lamp and led her back through to the sitting-room. He replaced the lamp on the mantelpiece.

She sat down on the bare floor just inside the sitting room with her back propped against the wall, the chain almost at full stretch. She regarded him with an anxious expression on her face. “I heard something scratching about in the kitchen just now. What’s in there?”

“It’s just mice,” he lied.

She shivered at the thought. “God, I hate mice. Just the idea of them being in the same room makes me feel ill.”

He hesitated, wondering whether he should warn her about the rats. He wasn’t sure how dangerous they really were, whether they might actually attack her or not. Praying that they wouldn’t bother her during the night he said, “You’ll be all right. They won’t come near you.”
Something in the tone of his voice made her suspicious. “You’ll be here too, won’t you?”

He looked away guiltily. “I can’t. I’ve got things to organise.”

"You’re not going to leave me alone here all night are you?"

“I’m sorry. I’ve got no choice. I’ll be back tomorrow to see that you’re all right.”

“What time tomorrow?”

"I'm not sure. It depends how I get on. I'll have to work out what I'm going to do about the ransom. Tomorrow sometime."

“You’re leaving me all on my own?”

“You’ll be all right.”

“I’m scared.”

“Well, the sooner you can get the ransom paid the sooner you’ll be set free.”

She had gone pale as she contemplated the possibility of spending several days alone in the company of mice and other creepy crawlies. Close to tears she said, “What about food and water?”

“You’ve got those tins. There’s a tin opener. You can eat them cold or I’ll heat them up for you when I come back. Are you hungry?”


“You can help yourself when you feel peckish.”

“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 had to fight to keep the irritation out of his voice. “Well, you could try thinking up ways to get me that money as quickly as possible for a start.”

“Are you going to leave me something to read?”

He looked slightly embarrassed. “I can’t do that.”

“Why not? Just something to pass the time. Surely it’s not too much to ask? Anything. Please.”

She looked miserable. Nick bit his lip. “You don’t understand. The light. I can’t leave you the light. You could set the place on fire. Trying to attract attention. I can’t take the risk. I’m sorry.”

As she looked up at him tears welled up in her eyes. “You’re not going to leave me in the dark? Oh no, please don’t. Please. Please.”

“I’m sorry.”

Several minutes elapsed before she stopped sobbing. Eventually she said softly, "Wouldn't it be better if you just let me go?"

He stared at her, his eyes burning with resentment. He shook his head firmly. "I can't do that. It’s all gone too far. You're my last chance. One way or another I've got to make enough money out of you in the next twenty-four hours to clear my debts."

She uttered a short, bitter laugh. "You haven't been listening, have you. A week maybe but twenty-four hours is impossible."

He stared unblinkingly at her. "It’s your funeral."

She turned white. "I told you...What are you going to do? You’re not going to kill me are you?"
He shrugged. "Right now I don’t know what’s going to happen to you. All I know is you're not leaving here unless I get enough money to pay off my debts. And you’ve got twenty-four hours to do it. So maybe you better put your thinking cap on."

"What if I don't find a way to come up with the money on time?"

He considered the question for a long time, nodding his head slowly as he examined his mud-caked boots. He coughed, clearing his throat carefully before he replied, "If I don't raise some money quickly I'll be better off dead." He looked across to where she was staring intently back at him. "And the same applies to you."

The woman started to cry again. Turning her face to one side, her eyes screwed tightly shut, she began sobbing uncontrollably. He felt helpless in the face of such abject misery. He wanted desperately to let her go, to put an end to her ordeal, to pretend none of this had ever happened, but he knew that was impossible. She had become an integral part of his problem, the only way out was for her to somehow become part of the solution. He reached into his bag for the thermos and poured out two cups of coffee. He handed one to her but she refused, curling up and rolling over onto her side in the foetal position, her face pressed against the bare earth floor, her legs pulled up to her chin, her arms behind her back, withdrawing deeper and deeper into herself, sobbing uncontrollably.

He sat and watched her, feeling increasingly helpless, even sharing her pain. Almost half an hour passed before she eventually stopped crying. When he considered that she had regained some semblance of equanimity he got up and gently hauled her back into a sitting position. He poured another coffee and held it to her lips. This time she accepted it grudgingly, taking short, breathless sips from the white plastic cup. He said softly, "I'm sure if we put our heads together we can come up with an answer."

She sipped the coffee in silence.

"Think about who you need to contact to release the money. I’ll take you to a public phone box to make the call. I’ll give you the instructions about where to leave the money. Fifty grand. Cheap at the price.”

She shook her head in disbelief. "I've already told I can’t put my hands on that sort of money."
Nick stood up. It was time to go. He tossed the dregs of the coffee onto the earth floor. “All right, don’t worry about it. Do your best. I’ll think of something if you don’t. Everything will turn out all right.” He paused in the doorway before he blew out the lamp. “I want you to understand that I wouldn’t have done any of this if I wasn’t desperate,” he muttered eventually.

She stared dully at his flickering silhouette, a barely human outline in her living nightmare. “That doesn’t make it right.”

He didn’t try to argue. He knew in his heart she was right. He tugged the door open. A pile of sodden leaves swirled into the room as the wind howled in. Outside thick sheets of mist and rain lashed the cottage. He shivered as he peered up at the dead, grey sky. It was cold enough for snow. He felt exhausted, his head hurt, he was emotionally drained. He surveyed the horizon to make sure that the coast was clear. There was no sign of life. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said as he tugged the door closed behind him, “Don’t worry, everything will turn out all right. Goodbye.”

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, plunging her world into total darkness, a kind of living death.She was too scared even to cry out.