What was I to say? Telling him that I had given the RFID chips and the microcoder/chip writer to Mr. John Smith was unlikely to help get Sophie released unharmed. As for the money, it was still spread amongst the juvenile delinquents. True, I had the take from the afternoon’s racing at Bangor-on-Dee in my pocket, but it certainly didn’t run to six thousand pounds after such a slow day. Perhaps, at best, there might be half of that.

“They’re at my house,” I said.

“Where in your house? I couldn’t find them.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

I thought quickly.

“In the cupboard under the stairs,” I said. “In an old paint tin.”

There was a pause.

“Go and get them,” he said.“Now. But don’t hang up the phone. Where are you now?”

“On the Warwick bypass,” I said.

“Go to your house, but keep talking to me. If you hang up, I will kill your wife.”

It was the first time he had used the word “kill,” and a fresh wave of fear swept over me. God knows how Sophie was feeling if she’d heard it.

“All right, all right, I won’t hang up,” I said quickly. “Now, let me talk to my wife again.”

There was another pause.

“Ned,” she cried down the phone. “What the hell’s going on?”

“Sophie,” I said. “It will be all right, my love. I promise. I’ll get the things he wants and he will let you go. Stay calm.”

“I will stay calm, Mr. Talbot,” shifty-eyed Kipper said, obviously taking the phone back. “Just get my things, and we can all stay calm. But do not hang up the phone.”

“What happens if I lose the mobile signal?” I said.

“You had just better hope you don’t,” he replied.

I realized why he didn’t want me to hang up. As long as I was on the line with him, I couldn’t call the police.

“OK,” I said. “I’m turning off the A46 into Kenilworth.”

There was no reply.

“Where shall I bring them?” I asked.

“Just get them first,” he said. “Then I’ll tell you what to do.”

I made the few turns in Kenilworth and drew up outside my house alongside Alice’s car, which stood alone in the parking area. Where, I wondered, was Alice?

I looked at my watch. It was ten minutes to eight, and I was hungry. I hadn’t eaten anything since a single slice of toast for breakfast, some twelve hours ago. But hunger was something I could easily endure.

“I’ve arrived at my house,” I said into the microphone.

“Good,” he said. “Go in and fetch the stuff. Take your mobile phone with you, and don’t hang up.”

“It might hang up automatically when I take it out of the hands-free system.”

“You had better hope it doesn’t,” he replied. “If you hang up the phone, I’ll kill your wife.”

“But it hangs up on its own when I take it out,” I pleaded. “It’s done it before.”

“Take it out now,” he said.

I lifted the phone out of its cradle, and, of course, it immediately hung up. Oh God, I thought, now what do I do? Do I call back or what?

Before I had a chance to decide, the phone rang in my hand.

“Hello, yes,” I shouted into it. “I’m here.”

Please let it be him, I prayed, and not my bloody voice mail.

“Good,” said Kipper. My heart rate went down by at least half. I would never have thought that I would be relieved to hear his voice.

“OK,” I said. “I’m getting out of the car and going in.”

The front door was open about two inches, and I began to fear that he might actually be inside the house waiting for me.

“Are you in my house?” I asked him.

There was no reply.

“I need to know if you are in my house,” I said again.

Once more, there was no reply.

“Stop playing games with me,” I spoke firmly into the phone. “I am not going through my front door until you tell me where you are.”

“Do as you are told,” he replied. “I’m in charge here, not you. Now, go into your house and get my things.”

“No, I will not,” I said, my heart rate climbing again. “I will not go through my front door only for you to plunge your knife into me the same way you did to my father at Ascot.”

There was a long pause from his end.

“Are you still there?” I asked eventually.

“I’m here,” he said. “How come your name is Talbot and not Grady?”

I suddenly realized he hadn’t known that the man he knew as Alan Grady, the man he had murdered in the Ascot parking lot, had been my father.

“My father’s name was really Talbot, not Grady,” I said.

“Ah,” he said. “Now, that might account for why I have been unable to find out about him.”

He obviously hadn’t traced me through the inquest records because he hadn’t known which records to look at. But he must have known that my father was dead, I thought. The stabbing had been an expert job.

“Are you in my house?” I repeated into the phone.

“If I was in your house, I would have gone to the paint tin and taken what is mine by now.”

Did I believe him? But did I have any choice but to go in anyway?

I pushed the front door open wide with my foot until it turned on its hinges as far as it would go, almost flat against the wall. There was not enough space for him to be hiding behind it.

“Have you got them yet?” he asked, making me jump.

“No,” I replied.

I stepped into the hall. I could hear nothing. I walked quickly down the hall past the cupboard under the stairs and into the kitchen. Everything from the kitchen cabinets was strewn across the floor. I stepped carefully through the mess to the house telephone, but there would be no using it to call the police. The wire had been cut right through. I went into the living room and found the same things had been done to both the phone and the cupboards in there. I had no doubt that the third extension, the one in the bedroom upstairs, would have suffered the same fate, but I still started up the stairs to check. Step three creaked as I stepped on it

I thought I could hear a slight banging.

I stopped to listen.

The faint knocking sound came again, but I wasn’t sure of exactly where from.

“Have you got the stuff?” Kipper said to me through the phone.

“No,” I said. “I’m having a pee.”

“Hurry up.”

I put the phone down to my side and listened once more.

I could definitely hear someone knocking. It was below me.

I rushed back down the stairs and opened the cupboard underneath.

Alice lay there on her side, curled around the vacuum cleaner and with her arms tied behind her back. She was banging her tied-up feet on the floor. A tea-towel gag had been wrapped around her face, so I pulled it down, and she immediately spat out a dirty dishcloth that was in her mouth.

“Ugh,” she said, and was promptly sick on the floor.

“You bastard,” I said into the phone.

Kipper laughed. “Ah, you’ve found my little surprise.” He sounded pleased with himself.

I went back into the kitchen, fetched a pair of scissors and cut through the plastic garden ties that had secured Alice’s wrists and ankles. She sat on the hall floor rubbing where the plastic had dug into her flesh. I put a finger up

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