to my mouth in the universal “be quiet” gesture and pointed at the phone.

“Phone the bloody police,” she shouted, ignoring me.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” said shifty-eyed Kipper through the phone. “Not if you want to see your wife again.”

“Alice, I can’t,” I said.

“Why the bloody hell not?” she demanded.

“He’s got Sophie,” I said. “And he’s on the other end of this phone.”

“Tell him he’s a fucking piece of shit,” she said with passion, continuing to rub her wrists. I was quite taken aback by her vulgarity. Alice had always been so prim and proper, at least within my hearing.

Kipper had obviously heard what she had said because he laughed again. “Tell her she should be happy to be alive.”

I didn’t bother.

“Now, get my things,” he said, “and go back to your car.”

What was I to do? I had to make him think that I still had them or he would hurt or kill Sophie. And I needed to set up a swap, I thought. That would be a good start, but, so far, I hadn’t actually worked out how to.

But first, I needed something to swap for Sophie. I took a canvas shopping bag off the hook on the back of the kitchen door and started putting things into it. First, the wad of banknotes, the takings from Bangor races, came out of my trouser pocket and into the bag. Next, I took a clear plastic sandwich bag and put ten grains of rice in it from Sophie’s rice jar. Finally, the instruction booklet for the kitchen television, together with the TV remote control, went into the shopping bag as well.

Alice stood in the kitchen doorway, watching me with wide eyes. “What are you doing?” she said. “Call the police.”

I again put my finger to my mouth, and this time she understood. I also held up the cut phone wire, and she nodded.

“OK, I’ve got it all,” I said into the phone.

“Go and get into the car and drive back onto the A46 towards the M40.”

“OK,” I said.

I put my hand over the microphone and spoke to Alice. “I’ve got to go and give this to the man.” I held up the shopping bag. “I’ll come back here with Sophie. Are you OK?”

She nodded again slightly, but I noticed tears on her face. She was clearly very shocked. It’s not every day you get tied up and left in a cupboard under the stairs with a dirty dishcloth rammed into your mouth. Thank goodness.

I stroked her shoulders in reassurance and then went back out to my Volvo with the shopping bag.

“OK,” I said into the phone. “I’m back in the car. I’m going to put the phone back in the hands-free cradle, but it may hang up again.”

“Leave it, then,” he said. “Keep it in your hand.”

I reversed out onto Station Road and retraced my path to the A46.

“OK,” I said, holding the phone to my ear. “I’m now on the A46 going towards the M40.”

I didn’t get stopped for illegal use of a handheld mobile phone. There’s never a policeman about when you want one.

“Leave the A46 and take the A425 towards Warwick,” he said. “Take the third turn on the right, Budbrooke Road. Follow it round to the right. Go to the very end of the road.”

“OK,” I said to him. I still wasn’t sure what I would do when I got there.

I took the A425 and then slowly turned into Budbrooke Road. It was an industrial estate sandwiched between a canal and a railway line. Large, characterless modern blocks built of seamed metal stood on either side of the road. No doubt during the working day this area was busy with people and traffic, but at eight-fifteen on a Monday evening it was completely deserted.

I drove slowly down to the very end of the road and stopped between two of the big soulless buildings. I turned the car around so I was looking back up the road, but my Volvo was the only car about, and I began to wonder if I was in the right place.

“Are you here?” I asked.

“I’m here,” he said.


“Shut up and wait.”

I wondered if he was waiting to see if I’d been followed. I sat there for what seemed like ages, but it was probably only a couple of minutes. I looked all around. If he was watching me, I couldn’t tell where from.

“OK,” he said finally through the phone. “Open the car door, put the things out on the ground and drive away.”

“What about my wife?” I asked.

“When I am satisfied that I have everything, I will let her go.”

“No way,” I said. “If you want your things, you will have to let her go now.”

“Do as you are told,” he said again.

“No,” I said. “If you want this stuff, then you will have to come here now and swap it for my wife.”

“An exchange?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “An exchange.”

He laughed. “Mr. Talbot, this is not a spy movie. Leave the things on the ground and go.”

“No, I will not,” I said again firmly. “I want my wife back now.”

He didn’t answer, and I began to fear that he had gone. But then a small silver hatchback moved slowly down the road and stopped, facing me, about thirty yards away.

The driver’s door opened, and Kipper stood up next to the car. He lifted the phone to his ear.

“Where’s my stuff?” he said.

I opened the door to the Volvo and stood next to it. I too lifted a phone to my ear.

“Where’s my wife?” I said.

He reached down into the car and pulled her up from the backseat. She stood up next to him. I could see that her hands were behind her back, presumably tied, and there was what looked like a pillowcase over her head.

“Take that off her head,” I said into the phone.

He pulled the pillowcase away, and Sophie blinked in the bright summer-evening sunshine. He held her in front of him with his right arm over her shoulder. And he had his twelve-centimeter-long knife resting against her neck.

“Where’s my stuff?” he asked again through the telephone.

I could feel my heart pumping in my chest. I put my hand into the Volvo, picked up the canvas shopping bag and held it up.

“Show me,” he said.

I pulled the wad of banknotes out of the bag. I held it up above my head and waved it at him. Most of the notes were tenners and twenties, but he wouldn’t be able to see from his distance that they weren’t all fifties or even Australian hundred-dollar bills.

“Show me the chip writer,” he said.

With a dry mouth, I put the money back in the bag and carefully picked up the television remote control. I held it up with the back of it facing towards him. From where he was standing, I hoped that it would appear to be a black box of approximately the right size and shape. I held my breath for a few seconds, and then, equally carefully, I put the remote back in the bag.

“And the chips?” he asked.

I held up the sandwich bag with the grains of rice in it. I could hardly tell them apart from the real RFID chips, and I was the one holding them. He would have had no chance of doing so from thirty yards away. I put them back in the shopping bag as well.

“And here are the horse passports,” I said, holding up and waving the TV instruction booklet around so that he couldn’t see it too clearly. “Now, release my wife.”

“Go over there and put the bag on the ground.” He pointed towards the building to my right, his left.

I put the TV instruction booklet back in the bag and walked about fifteen or twenty steps over to where he had

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