Thursday, January 12, 2006

Chapter 17

Chapter 17

Nick woke up just after seven. A dysfunctional choir of overexcited blackbirds, song thrushes and assorted finches packed the branches of the trees around the house, creating a deafening dawn chorus. He sat up wearily after a restless night that had been punctuated by the usual dreams in which his creditors had lain siege to the house in a variety of guises. Everything from a murderous band of armed bandits from a cartoon South American republic to an angry congregation from the local church . The bed beside him was empty. Maureen and Martin had already left for town. He went through to the bathroom and looked out onto the drive. The car had gone. Which meant that he would have to visit his hostage on bicycle, a not inconsiderable inconvenience. He looked up at the clear blue sky. At least it had stopped raining and it didn’t look like it was too windy. Under different circumstances he might have looked forward to a pleasant trip on his bike.

Fortunately Maureen had done some shopping the day before and there was enough bread to make cheddar and tomato sandwiches for two. He added an apple and a carton of organic blackcurrant yoghurt which he thought his hostage might like. A pint of milk, a thermos of Nescafe and a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut completed the rations. It wasn’t exactly a healthy, balanced diet but it was the best he could do in the circumstances. He packed everything carefully into his old rucksack.

His next task was to go back upstairs and search through Maureen’s chest of drawers for a suitable pair of jeans and a thick woollen jumper. Maureen had plenty of old clothes which she never wore so he was pretty sure she wouldn’t notice they had gone. He selected a blue polo necked jumper from BHS and a pair of Levi’s. From the bathroom he collected a toothbrush, a small tube of Macleans, a flannel, a bar of Fairy soap and a clean towel.

He was about to set off down the hill when it occurred to him that, despite his earlier misgivings, perhaps he could safely leave the paraffin lamp with his hostage after all. When all was said and done she was hardly likely to risk burning herself alive in an attempt to escape. Convinced that this humanitarian gesture would be worth the risk if it made her confinement more bearable he dismounted and leaned the bike against the wall at the back door while he retrieved the lamp from the shed. Having taken this decision he immediately felt better. The thing was he couldn’t bear the thought of her spending any more time locked up in complete darkness. It just wasn’t right. Suddenly feeling more positive about the situation he further resolved to improve the conditions of her incarceration by providing her with something to read. He went back into the house and collected a Woman's Own, a Trout and Salmon magazine and a book, Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh, one of two copies he had been given as a kid. He made sure that it was the one without any kind of dedication that might be traced back to him. Not knowing anything about the woman’s tastes in literature he just had to hope that it was the sort of material that would help her to pass the time reasonably happily. He considered adding a bible to the collection but after a certain amount of vacillation he rejected the idea. Apart from anything else it would send out the wrong signals and might lead her to think her situation was worse than it really was. There was no point in her brooding. Light reading to pass the time was all that was required.

To pass the time until what, was of course the question. A question that overnight had become a lot more complicated. Maureen’s revelation that they were no longer going to lose the house completely undermined the justification for his action. On the other hand, their creditors were still pressing hard. A ransom would go a long way to solving their problems. Then there was the practicalities of how he was going to get his hands on the money and free the hostage safely. Despite wrestling with the problems half the night he was no nearer a solution about how he could safely extract a quick ransom out of her. The situation was further complicated by the fact that after listening to the morning news on the radio it was apparent that as yet the police had no suspicion that she had been abducted. From what he had heard it appeared that the authorities were still treating the whole thing as a tragic accident. Which meant, paradoxically, that he was perfectly safe, at least until he contacted someone with his demands. Safe as long as he did nothing in other words. Although describing himself as safe, it struck him, was a purely relative term. He was only safe in the same sense that a bomb disposal expert is safe until the bomb goes off.

He sighed. No matter how he looked at the problem it seemed impossible that he could quickly transform his captive into the money he so desperately wanted. To get the full amount was undoubtedly going to take time. Maybe as long as a fortnight. He could of course settle for much less but it seemed crazy to take such a huge risk for so little reward. A quarter of a million really was the bottom line if he wanted to change his life and engineer a fresh start for him and his family. Asking for anything less would only be a short-term compromise that would almost certainly end in unhappiness and ultimately even failure. Jesus, any middle ranking company director would expect at least half a million just for having his contract terminated early. You didn’t get much for a quarter of a million nowadays. It was hardly extortionate. If that was the correct word.

As he remounted his bike he made up his mind that when he reached the cottage he would get her to write out a ransom demand – addressed to the young man he had seen her with on the riverbank probably – saying that if the money wasn’t left somewhere safe within seven days the hostage would die. Naturally he would explain to her that he was really only bluffing and that she was perfectly safe as long as she didn’t do anything stupid. The question of what he would do if they refused to co-operate or take him seriously was one he would address only if the need arose. The thought of having to cut off her ear and send it to them, that sort of thing, filled him with revulsion, but in the end he believed he would have the courage to take whatever measures that might prove necessary to ensure compliance with his instructions. Hopefully everything would be resolved in a civilised fashion and it wouldn’t come to that. He set off from the house feeling reasonably optimistic.

The heat on his back from the late March sun was unexpectedly fierce as he pedalled up the first gentle incline on the main road leading to the cottage and he was soon sweating freely and panting heavily. He was obliged to stand up on the pedals when the bike threatened to stall going up even the gentlest inclines. Nevertheless, despite the effort required by his age-wasted muscles it was great to be out in the countryside again when Spring was in the air. It was definitely his favourite time of the year, a period of optimistic re-birthing after all the doom and gloom of a long, hard Winter. Looking up through the bud-bursting hedgerows he could see Morven Hill in the distance, still with a mantle of glistening snow shrouding its dark, powerful shoulders. When this was all over he vowed that he would climb it again, a twelve mile round trip, one of his favourite walks. Maybe Maureen would come too, even Martin. It would be like a family day out. They could have a picnic. They hadn’t had one together for years. It would be something to look forward to after the quiet desperation of recent months.

He had been cycling for twenty minutes or so when he came to a particularly steep gradient on the road where he was obliged to dismount and push his bike up the hill. At the summit he stopped to get his breath back. All morning he’d been brooding upon a safe way to collect the ransom, and gradually the solution was starting to take shape in his mind. The trick, he decided, would be to use his extensive knowledge of the local topography to his advantage, in particular the fact that the hills around the cottage formed a natural amphitheatre where any movement in the valley floor would be easy to monitor. He could lay a paper trail based on map references for the person who brought the ransom money to follow. A series of instructions leading to pre-determined locations which he could observe from the safety of the higher ground. He would be able to see without being seen. Once the money was left in the designated spot the person would then have to follow another series of directives before he finally found out where the hostage was being held captive, giving Nick plenty of time to make his escape. It was perfect. He would study the map later and work out the best route. Tomorrow, while he waited for the ransom demand to be delivered, he would lay the paper trail. He rubbed his hands with glee. The scheme was simple but effective, like all the best plans. The only issue still to be resolved was the time it would take to get his hands on the money. If what the woman said was true – and he had no reason to doubt her - he couldn’t see any way it would take less than four to five days. He would just have to live with the delay, relying on his smooth tongue to buy more time from his creditors, just as he had done with that bastard garage owner last night. He leaned on the handlebars of the bike and let out a long sigh of relief. Light was finally chasing the shadows from his soul. It was funny, but even in the darkest hours there was always hope. Somebody up there still loved him after all.

Time, of course, was still of the essence in more ways than one. For a start he certainly couldn't keep his hostage locked up for much longer. With every passing day the risk of being found out increased. To make matters worse, he was worried about what the dreadful experience must be doing to her. He couldn't bear to think what it must have been like for her in that awful place last night with rats crawling all over her in the darkness. Talk about traumatic. He felt his neck turning red with shame. He should never have left her there alone. Come to that, he should never have kidnapped her in the first place. However justified his motives had seemed at the time, the truth was there was no excuse for the pain and the anguish he was now putting her through. Prolonging her agony would amount to wickedness on his part. And yet he still hadn’t worked out how it was all going to end. He should have had it all planned down to the smallest detail before he started. For the umpteenth time he regretted embarking on such a half-arsed scheme.

Half an hour later he arrived at the disused track leading off into the woods. He hid the bike in the place where he had parked the car the day before and set off through the birch woods towards the cottage. When he emerged into the open he took a slightly more circuitous route to avoid the field of skulls which had unnerved him so badly the day before. The sky had remained cloudless and now that the sun was almost directly overhead the landscape shimmered in the heat. The still air was alive with millions of insects dancing and buzzing and swooping and diving in a dizzying spectacle. He ducked as a brilliant blue dragonfly the size of a wren shot past his left shoulder like a helicopter out of control. Almost overnight the undergrowth seemed to have cast off its wintry lethargy and thickened up so that forcing his way through the heather and knee-high grasses that fringed the broad peat bog was surprisingly hard going. By the time he finally came within sight of the cottage he was panting heavily from his exertions. To add to his discomfort blood was trickling into his right eye from a cut on his forehead where he had stumbled over an ancient field drainage system and ended up tumbling into a bramble bush.

He paused about fifty yards from the front of the cottage, leaning against a tall pine while he regained his composure. He was experiencing a growing sense of unease at what he might find within the derelict building. Seeing the woman again meant confronting the true enormity of his evil actions. There was no way the reunion could be anything other than unpleasant and he hated unpleasantness. He lingered beneath the shade of the tree for as long as he could but eventually he felt obliged to make a move. Bending double he scuttled across to the shelter of a thicket of rhododendron bushes less than twenty yards from the cottage. In order to make absolutely certain that there was no one about he sat and surveyed the scene for a further ten minutes or so. The last thing he wanted at this stage was to walk into a trap. Anything could have happened to his hostage overnight. There was no way he could even be sure that she was still in the cottage. She might have escaped and called the police. He scanned the horizon all around with his binoculars. In the distance a squawking buzzard circled lazily overhead. There was no other sign of movement anywhere else in his field of vision. He swallowed nervously. The truth was that there could be a whole army of policemen hidden in the undergrowth and he probably wouldn't spot anything. He turned his attention towards the cottage itself. The sight of a red deer grazing contentedly on the hedge at the end of the garden was immensely reassuring. As was the large flock of chaffinches squabbling noisily amongst the branches of the two ancient apple trees at the side of the house.

He lingered for another five minutes in his hiding place just to be on the safe side. Waiting was no hardship. To tell the truth he was in no hurry to confront the woman again. For a start he didn't know what kind of condition she might be in. What if she had a fever or was hysterical or something? What if she had indeed been attacked by rats and needed a doctor? At the very least she would be cold and miserable, an abject sight for which he alone was entirely responsible. Then there was the question of what he was going to say to her. How on earth do you talk to a hostage you have terrorised and humiliated in that way? And what if she asked about what was going to happen to her next? She must have realised by now that the whole thing so far had been a complete balls-up. She probably thought he was the village idiot. It seemed absurd but he was actually terrified at the prospect of confronting her again.

Eventually, when he was as certain as he could be that it was safe to approach, he began to creep closer to the front of the cottage. Despite his attempt at stealth he still managed to disturb the flock of birds in the apple trees and they flew off into the woods squawking noisily. The silence that followed was unnerving. There were no insects buzzing, no leaves rustling, even the squawking buzzard had flown off over the hill into the next valley. Indeed, the only sound was the pounding of his heart echoing painfully in his ears. Forcing himself to remain calm he tiptoed across the weed-infested granite cobblestones at the front of the cottage and pressed his ear against the door like a midwife listening to a pregnant belly for sounds of life.
At first he heard nothing. He held his breath and pressed his ear closer. He frowned. Gradually he could just make out what sounded like a low hum. It wasn’t what he had expected. The sound wasn’t really human at all. It sounded like a swarm of bees buzzing angrily inside a hive, the sound rising and falling irregularly, but continuously. He felt the hair rising on the back of his neck. What on earth was going on in there? He tried to peer through the keyhole but the inside of the cottage was pitch black.

As he knelt there wondering what to do next the sound rose to a new pitch of intensity that was now quite clearly audible from outside the cottage. He stepped back in alarm. It sounded like the bees might be attacking something. And yet, he felt sure she was the one making that awful sound. But why? What exactly was she doing in there? Maybe she was being attacked by something. Being eaten alive. By the rats perhaps. The thought horrified him. Shit, the picture conjured up in his mind was like something out of a horror film. But if she was being attacked why wasn’t she screaming or shouting out for help? The sound really was just like a swarm of angry bees, and yet that didn’t make any sense. He suddenly felt very scared. Anything could be happening inside that nightmarish world. There was no way he was going in there right now, whatever it was. No way on earth.

He crept back towards the safety of the rhododendron bush. Wrapped in the protective cover of the dense leafy branches he sat listening to the awful humming sound. Gradually, as the minutes ticked by, the noise subsided, until eventually it was barely audible, no louder than the hum from a distant electricity generator or standing beneath the faint drone of an overhead power line. Except that the soundwaves were almost tangible, as if a warm gentle breeze was caressing his ears. Several more minutes passed before everything went completely quiet as if the swarm of bees had been dozed with smoke by an unseen hand, someone dropping a smoke canister down the chimney perhaps. While he sat there in a quandary, puzzling over what to do next the finches gradually flitted back in twos and threes to the apple trees. Within a few minutes the sound of their angry squabbling filled the air. He breathed a sigh of relief. Out of sound out of mind.

He hauled himself to his feet and took an unsteady step towards the cottage. A dry twigged snapped beneath his feet and he jumped in alarm. Once again the birds in the apple trees flew off in panic. He hesitated, his heart pounding. He was trapped in a nightmare of his own making. He listened carefully. This time there was no sound of any kind emanating from the cottage, it was a dead world, even if something unimaginably awful was taking place inside. He sat down again on the damp earth, too scared to go any closer. He closed his eyes and immediately drifted off into a light, exhausted sleep. He began dreaming almost at once. It was an old dream, based on a true atrocity he’d read about years before in Idi Amin’s Uganda. In a stockade a group of soldiers had lined up dozens of prisoners. The man second from the end was handed a club and told to kill the man on his left. Then he passed the club to the man next to him, who killed him. And so on, down the line. This way everyone was a murderer and died in a state of mortal sin. The soldiers stood around grinning and cheering with the enthusiasm of a crowd at a baseball game, expertly evaluating the effectiveness of the blows. Nick always woke up before the end so he never found out what happened to the last man. He woke up again on this occasion, covered in sweat as usual.

He sat where he was for a long time. Clouds began to gather over Morven Hill, clustering round the summit like a halo. The sun slowly disappeared behind the mountain. It was growing colder as the afternoon wore on. Cold enough for snow. He felt stiff and sore from squatting for so long but he no longer had the energy to stand up. The light began to fade. Soon it would be dark in the forest. Dark and terrifying. Not for the first time that day he felt uncomfortable at being out alone in the middle of nowhere.

Suddenly he felt incredibly weary. The battle to save himself and his family had been going on for so long that it now seemed unwinnable. He had made too may mistakes to hope for victory. To make matters worse he was no longer convinced of the justice of his cause. It wasn’t just soldiers who suffered from battle-fatigue. He was sick of fighting for his life. Slowly he stood up and brushed the leaves and twigs from his trousers. At that moment he realised that for him the war was over. He had lost. It was time to go home and face the consequences. He glanced across one last time at the derelict cottage with its rusty tin roof and fissured granite walls and then turned and wearily set off on his last journey across the louring moor and into the murky forest, a refugee in a foreign country.