Dick Francis



They both wore thin rubber masks.


I looked at the two identical faceless faces in tingling disbelief. I was not the sort of person to whom rubber- masked individuals up to no good paid calls at twenty to midnight. I was a thirty-four-year-old sober-minded businessman quietly bringing up to date the account books at my father's training stables in Newmarket.

The pool of light from the desk lamp shone squarely upon me and the work I had been doing, and the two rubber faces moved palely against the near-black panelling of the dark room like alien moons closing in on the sun. I had looked up when the latch clicked, and there they were, two dim figures calmly walking in from the hall of the big house, silhouetted briefly against the soft lighting behind them and then lost against the panelling as they closed the door. They moved without a squeak, without a scrape, on the bare polished floor. Apart from the unhuman faces, they were black from head to foot.

I picked up the telephone receiver and dialled the three nines.

One of them closed in faster, swung his arm, and smashed downwards on the telephone. I removed my finger fractionally in time with the second nine all but complete, but no one was ever going to achieve the third. The black gloved hand slowly disentangled a heavy police truncheon from the mangled remains of the Post Office's property.

'There's nothing to steal,' I remarked.

The second man had reached the desk. He stood on the far side of it, facing me, looking down to where I still sat. He produced an automatic pistol, without silencer, which he pointed unwaveringly at the bridge of my nose. I could see quite a long way into the barrel.

'You,' he said. 'You will come with us.'

His voice was flat, without tone, deliberate. There was no identifiable accent, but he wasn't English.


'You will come.'

'Where to?'

'You will come.'

'I won't, you know,' I said pleasantly, and reached out and pressed the button which switched off the desk lamp.

The sudden total darkness got me two seconds advantage. I used them to stand up, pick up the heavy angled lamp, and swing the base of it round in an arc in the general direction of the mask which had spoken.

There was a dull thump as it connected, and a grunt. Damage, I thought, but no knock-out.

Mindful of the truncheon on my left I was out from behind the desk and sprinting towards the door. But no one was wasting time batting away in the darkness in the hope of hitting me. A beam of torchlight snapped out from his hand, swung round, dazzled on my face, and bounced as he came after me.

I swerved. Dodged. Lost my straight line to the door and saw sideways the rubber-face I'd hit with the lamp was purposefully on the move.

The torch beam flickered away, circled briefly, and steadied like a rock on the light switch beside the door. Before I could reach it the black gloved hand swept downwards and clicked on the five double wall brackets, ten naked candle bulbs coldly lighting the square wood-lined room.

There were two windows with green floor length curtains. One rug from Istanbul. Three unmatched William and Mary chairs. One sixteenth century oak chest. One flat walnut desk. Nothing else. An austere place, reflection of my father's austere and spartan soul.

I had always agreed that the best time to foil an abduction was at the moment it started: that merely obeying marching orders could save present pain but not long-term anxiety: that abductors might kill later but not at the beginning, and that if no one else's safety was at risk, it would be stupid to go without a fight.

Well, I fought.

I fought for all of ninety seconds more, during which time I failed to switch off the lights, to escape through the door, or to crash out through the windows. I had only my hands and not much skill against the truncheon of one of them and the threat of a crippling bullet from the other. The identical rubber faces came towards me with an unnerving lack of human expression, and although I tried, probably unwisely, to rip one of the masks off, I got no further than feeling my fingers slip across the tough slippery surface.

They favoured in-fighting, with their quarry pinned against the wall. As there were two of them, and they appeared to be experts in their craft, I got such a hammering in that eternal ninety seconds that I soundly wished that I had not put my abduction-avoiding theories into practice.

It ended with a fist in my stomach, the pistol slamming into my face, my head crashing back against the panelling, and the truncheon polishing the whole thing off somewhere behind my right ear. When I was next conscious of anything, time had all too clearly passed. Otherwise I should not have been lying face down along the back seat of a moving car with my hands tied crampingly behind my back.

For a good long time I believed I was dreaming. Then my brain came further awake and made it clear that I wasn't. I was revoltingly uncomfortable and also extremely cold, as the thin sweater I had been wearing indoors was proving a poor barrier to a freezing night.

My head ached like a steam hammer. Bang, bang, bang.

If I could have raised the mental energy I would have been furious with myself for having proved such a pushover. As it was, only uncomplicated responses were getting anywhere, like dumb unintelligent endurance and a fog-like bewilderment. Of all the candidates for abduction, I would have put myself among the most unlikely.

There was a lot to be said for a semi-conscious brain in a semi-conscious body. Mens blotto in corpore ditto – the words dribbled inconsequentially through my mind and a smile started along the right nerve but didn't get far as my mouth. My mouth anyway was half in contact with some imitation leather upholstery which smelled of dogs. They say many grown men call out for their mothers in moments of fatal agony, and then upon their God: but anyway I hadn't had a mother since I was two, and from then until seven I had believed God was someone who had run off with her and was living with her somewhere else- (God took your mother, dear, because he needed her more than you do) which had never endeared him to me, and in any case this was no fatal agony, this was just a thumping concussion and some very sore places and maybe a grisly future at the end of the ride. The ride meanwhile went on and on. Nothing about it improved. After several years the car stopped with a jerk. I nearly fell forwards off the seat. My brain came alert with a jolt and my body wished it hadn't.

The two rubber faces loomed over me, lugged me out, and literally carried me up some steps and into a house. One of them had his hands under my armpits and the other held my ankles. My hundred and sixty pounds seemed to be no especial burden.

The sudden light inside the door was dazzling, which seemed as good a reason as any for shutting one's eyes. I shut them. The steam hammer had not by any means given up.

They dumped me presently down on my side, on a wooden floor. Polished. I could smell the polish. Scented. Very nasty. I opened my eyes a slit, and verified. Small intricately squared parquet, modern. Birch veneer, wafer thin. Nothing great. A voice awakening towards fury and controlled with audible effort spoke from a short distance above me.

'And who exactly is this?'

There was a long pin-dropping silence during which I would have laughed, if I could. The rubber faces hadn't even pinched the right man. All that battering for bloody nothing. And no guarantee they would take me home again, either.

I squinted upwards against the light. The man who had spoken was sitting in an upright leather armchair with

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