By Iain Rowan
Iain Rowan lives in the north-east of England. He's had crime stories published recently in Ellery Queen's and Alfred Hitchcock's, and stories in other genres in a variety of publications, including the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. More information on Iain's writing can be found on his website, www.reynir.co.uk
Harry could never resist an easy job, and the place on the moors road was the king of easy jobs. Harry had only found it because he’d been out for a drive with a woman he’d met in the Lion, her hair and her conversation all out of a bottle. She'd been banging on all night about the joys of nature, and Harry had thought that driving her out to a peaceful and secluded spot might be a nice way to spend a warm September evening. Romantic.
It didn’t quite work out as planned. They’d fooled around for a bit and it was all looking very promising when she’d burst into tears and told him how much she missed her husband since he had been sent down. Bucket of cold water that was, Harry thought.
“Sorry to hear that,” he mumbled, although he was only sorry that she'd remembered her husband before rather than after. Then he was unable to resist.
“What’s he in for?”
This started the crying off again, but after a couple of minutes and some sympathetic hugs which got him quite in the mood again, she sniffed, wiped a smear of mascara across her face, and told him. And that, for Harry, was most definitely that. He didn’t have many rules in life, but cavorting with the wife of someone doing time for putting a policeman out of the force and onto an early sickness pension was definitely a no-no. What a waste of an evening, Harry thought. Then he drove past the house.
It stood back a little from the road, a square, stone-built house with a neat front garden. A light was on in an upstairs room, and a red hatchback was parked at the side of the house. No obvious alarm box. No other house in view, no other sign of human activity. Lovely, Harry thought. Worth a closer look if nothing else. Mind, a house like that, no alarm, middle of nowhere, bet there's a dog. Harry hated dogs.
He drove back the next day, parked up in the entrance to a field half a mile away, and wandered along the road. He had a pair of hiking boots on and a stupid pair of shorts he’d dug out of his bottom drawer. Add to that the Gore-Tex anorak he often wore to watch the football when it rained, a pair of binoculars and the old rucksack he used on the job and he was every inch the happy rambler. When he got to the bend in the road just before the house, he paused, looking around. The only thing looking back at him was a dirty-faced sheep.
“Baaa.” Harry said.
The sheep stared at him thoughtfully, and let fly a stream of urine.
“Charming.” Harry dawdled along, occasionally lifting his binoculars to look at the distant hills. No alarm box. Car not there. No sign of a dog. No bowls outside. No kennel. No squeaky plastic bone. No dog-dirt in the road. Harry heard the sound of a car engine and resumed his stroll. He was just beyond the driveway when the hatchback pulled in. Harry gave a cheery walker’s wave, trying to get a good look. Bingo. Old lady, pleasant smile, smartly dressed. Money.
He wandered a few yards down the road, close enough to be in speaking distance, but far away enough to be unthreatening, pulled his rucksack from his back and started rummaging inside it. He heard the car door open and then slam shut.
“Lovely day for a walk.” Posh. Voice like she’d spent half her life out in India ordering the servants around.
Harry put on his best smile, and looked up.
“Not at all bad for September. Bet it’s hard here in the winter.”
“Oh, we get snowed in for a few days every year, but we don’t mind that.”
We? Harry thought.
“Plenty of oil for the heating, plenty of food in the freezer for me and plenty of milk in the fridge for Mr Topps, we can last for weeks.”
“Mr Topps, he’s a cat?” Harry said. “Love cats myself. Got three.”
“Well, he’s certainly not my husband.” She laughed, a creaky scratchy laugh. “Still, he keeps me company.”
“Mine do too - when they feel like it. Always had cats though, never liked dogs myself.”
“No.” she replied. “I was never much of a one for dogs.”
Bingo, thought Harry. Better and better. I’ll be back tonight. “Ah well, I ought to be on my way now, got a fair few miles to cover.”
The woman waved and walked towards the house. Harry doubled back to the car, not looking back once. He drove home the long way round, so he wouldn’t pass the house again.
When he got home he took a long bath, grilled himself some cheese on toast - always cheese on toast, always, before a job - and then had an early night. His dented alarm clock coughed its usual half-hearted clank at three in the morning, but he was already awake. He shaved, dressed in some nondescript clothes, threw a flask of tea into his rucksack, stuffed his tool roll into his back pocket, grabbed his Gore-Tex jacket and a pair of gloves and left the house.
The roads were empty; by the time Harry pulled into the entrance to the field he had only seen one other car. This time he didn’t park by the road, but pulled the car round onto the grass so that the thick hedgerow hid it from view. He put on his gloves and grabbed the rucksack from his seat. The air was still cool, but he took his Gore-Tex jacket off and left it in the car. It was too bright, rustled too bloody much. He left his keys in the ignition. No-one was going to nick his car here in the middle of bloody nowhere, and if something went wrong it meant that he could be off quick, without any fumbling around for keys.
Harry walked along the road, keeping close to the hedge. Near the house he stopped and unfastened his fly. He peed into the hedge, not much coming out, but it was a nervous habit turned good luck totem, so he had to do it. When he finished he did himself up, took a deep breath, and walked straight down to the house. No lights on, everything quiet, everything still.
Harry popped the catch on the gate quietly, took a step through and paused, his head cocked to one side. Not a sound. He walked straight down the path to the front door, and again paused. Still no sound. No lights showed in any windows, and not a single car had passed since he had parked up. Carefully, slowly, he tried the front door. Locked. Worth a try, you never know, no point messing round the back when you can just stroll in through the front. He walked around the outside of the house, keeping close to the walls. When he reached the back door he smiled when he saw the catflap, gave the handle a quick try just in case, knelt down, and pulled the tool roll from his back pocket. He pulled out a stiff piece of wire, inserted it into the keyhole, made careful positioning movements, and then paused. All quiet. He gave the rod a push, and heard the key fall. Very quiet, must have been a doormat there. Bingo, Harry said to himself. Open up, quick scout round, a nice in and out and away. He’d be home before six, bacon sandwiches, a mug of tea and then straight round to Costas' place to get rid of as much of the stuff as he could. Then back home, bed for a few hours, and then out on the town to celebrate. Easy job.
Harry carefully put the wire back into his toolkit, rolled the leather up, laced it and stuffed it back into his pocket. He slid his hand in through the catflap. The rough bristles of the doormat scraped at his hand as he groped around for the key. Where the hell was it? He suddenly felt metal, but not under his fingers, it was to the side of his arm, there was a rustle from inside the house and then a sharp metallic click-clack and suddenly there was a coldness around his wrist. Harry yanked his arm back quickly, and then screamed. He had pulled his arm back with some force, but his hand had only travelled a few inches before coming to an abrupt halt, and something hard and cold and sharp had squeezed his wrist in a tight embrace. A wave of pain washed up Harry’s arm and he felt very sick. Everything was silent in the house. No doors opening, no lights coming on, no thud of footsteps towards a telephone.
Something had trapped his arm. Something was holding him there, kneeling down on the stone of the back doorstep, bent over with an arm through the cat flap. Harry tried to see through the cat flap but the kitchen was too dark. Think, Harry, think. What the hell just happened? Was someone there or was it just an accident? Or a trap? Oh Christ, the old cow’s only gone and put some kind of mantrap at the back door. Country bumpkins, he should have known better, it’s all shotguns and wire snares with them, should have stuck to the city, Harry, should have known better. Think, Harry, think. A story. That’s what’s needed. A story. Some kind of explanation, some kind of cover. There’s a challenge. Nearly five in the morning, middle of nowhere, at a sweet old dear’s house, equipped with an interesting range of tools, and with his hand stuck through the cat-flap. Come up with a story for that one, Harry boy.
I had a psychic flash that you had suffered a stroke and I was coming to rescue you. I have amnesia. I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, and rather than bother you I thought I’d just come in and leave one of our magazines for you to read at your leisure. Harry laughed despite himself, and his stomach turned and he just managed to turn his head to the side before he threw up, hot bitter bile, which hung in strings from his mouth. Christ, his hand hurt. He dug his free hand into a pocket to find a tissue to wipe the vomit from his mouth, and then cursed himself. Idiot. Moron. Equipped with an interesting range of tools.
He rubbed the tissue over his mouth and threw it to one side, then pulled his toolkit out of his inside pocket. Harry fumbled with the knot for a few seconds, and then lifted the roll and gripped one end of the cord with his teeth, and pulled the other with his free hand. The knot unravelled, and the roll fell open. Screwdriver, bits of coat hanger, various other picklocks and bits of metal. Big help. Something he didn’t recognise, but which on closer inspection turned out to be a strip of sandpaper. What the hell was that doing in there? Junior hacksaw blade. Bingo. Harry took tight hold of the hacksaw blade, and eased his free hand in through the cat flap. Carefully, carefully. There wouldn’t be two traps, but with both arms through he couldn’t have seen what he was doing even if there had been light in the house, and he didn't want to saw his own wrist off. He slowly advanced the hacksaw blade, running it gently along his arm until there was there was a clink of metal against metal. Harry angled the blade, and began to draw it backwards and forwards. It slid across the metal and then began to bite into it.
All sorts of things then happened and it seemed to Harry that they all happened at once. There was a slight rustle, like that of fabric moving. There was a whistle of air being displaced, and there was a dull crack. The hacksaw blade dropped from his fingers and fell into the darkness. His head was full of pain, there were lights flashing in his eyes, and he felt more bile surging up in his mouth. His free hand was back out of the door and tucked under his armpit to try stopping the hot pain that began in that hand and traced its fingers all the way up his arm. He could not make a fist with either hand. He had screamed a horrible noise like a wounded animal, and had pulled back from the door so violently that he felt as if his trapped hand was going to come off. He wanted desperately to urinate. When his scream had subsided to a sob, a quiet, polite voice behind the door had said “No.” in a very matter of fact way. His hand hurt. Both hands hurt. Oh Harry, what have you done, what have you done, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry. Then darkness.
Harry felt water cover his face and thought he was drowning. Then the pain in his hands barged its way into his consciousness and he opened his eyes. The sky was light now, and he could hear birds in the field behind the house. The old woman stood a few feet away, holding a bucket, observing Harry, face expressionless.
“Please.” Harry said. The woman did not move or speak. Harry ran his tongue over his lips. They were dry and cracked, and tasted of vomit.
“Look, I’m really, really sorry. You’ve got me, alright? Call the police and let’s have done with it. I’m sorry. I am. I know I shouldn’t have.”
Still no expression, no reaction, just that cat-like stare.
“I don’t normally do this, it’s just that well, my little boy, he’s very poorly, a brain tumour, we’re desperate, if we can get him to the States there’s a chance they might save him - experimental treatment - you know, but the government won’t pay. We’re desperate.”
At last a reaction. Contempt. The woman stared at Harry as if he she’d just turned over a rock and found him wriggling there, and then turned and walked away.
“Please.” said Harry. “My hands really hurt, I think I’m still bleeding. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. For God's sake just let me go, come on, this isn’t right, I’m just a thief, not a murderer or a rapist, it's not fair, it's not fucking fair.” But he was only talking to the crows which circled round and round the field.
At some point that morning, Harry slept for a while, despite the pain. The pressing ache of his bladder woke him. He shouted through the cat-flap a few times, but there was no sound from inside the house. He held on for a while longer, then could not wait anymore and urinated where he lay. His trousers hung wet and heavy on his legs. He kept listening out for a car, but didn’t hear one pass. The old cow was trying to teach him some kind of lesson by letting him suffer before she called the police. Bitch. Sod the burglary charges, he’d cough to them - not that he had much choice, given the circumstances - his priority would be getting his solicitor to sue the old cow for all she was worth. The thought occurred to him that he might end up making more from her in the courts than he would have done from the burglary, and that made him laugh despite the pain.
Harry didn’t see the woman for hours. In the middle of the afternoon he started shouting, calling out in the desperate hope that someone might pass by, a walker, a farmer. One car passed, and Harry shouted and shouted, but the sound of the engine receded into the distance, and then it was just birdsong again. His voice was hoarse, he was desperately thirsty from being sick and from the loss of blood, and after a while his shouts were just rattles in his dry throat. At one point he cried, the big fat tears of a child. As they ran down his face he held his lip out to catch the salty water, trying to moisten his cracking lips, his raw throat.
The sun was beginning to drop behind the hills, and the crows were gathering on the branches of the trees when the old woman reappeared. She was carrying a small tartan suitcase in one hand, and a wicker cat basket in the other. Unblinking green eyes stared at Harry through the wire door of the basket.
“I’m going to stay with my sister for a month.” the old woman said. Her voice was flat, as if she were just reading out a rather dull official letter, and her eyes were like those of her cat. “I don’t get anything delivered, and I’ve asked for the post to be kept at the post office while I’m gone. You left the keys in your car. I drove it into town, parked it in the railway station, caught the bus back out to the village and walked home the rest of the way. Try and free yourself if you wish, but to get out of the snare you will have to pull your hand right off, and you’ll bleed to death before you finish. Of course, if you don’t try and free yourself, you’ll die of thirst anyway. It’s your choice. All this was only ever your choice.”
There were a thousand things that Harry wanted to say, but he could not say any of them. The old woman turned, and walked round to the front of the house. Harry heard a car door open, then shut, and a few seconds later he heard the car start, and then the sound of the tyres on gravel. Harry listened to the engine fade in the distance. The crows hopped and bickered on the branches of the trees, and the sun sank lower behind the hills.
Iain Rowan ©2004
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