Conspire


Luce and I sat in the middle of the room, back to back, our knees raised in front of us. Blindfolded, of course, and gagged. They had made an attempt to stop us hearing, too, binding some sort of soft material arounds our heads; that wasn’t working, though.

We had been there a long time, though exactly how long it was hard to tell. All I can say is that my bum was shrieking with pain from having been there on the hard floor for so long. My ankles had been tied together, and I guess Luce’s were too, and a rope went from there to where my wrists were tied behind my back. Our chests were tied together, back to back as I said. Trussed like a pair of turkeys.

Did I say naked? Trussed like a pair of naked turkeys.

Luce was shaking, sobbing, I suppose. I felt like sobbing too, but somehow I wasn’t able to. From the moment it started, my mind had been clear and analytical. I have no idea how or why I managed it, but it was so.

There were three of them, two men and a woman. Dressed alike in dark blue, with some sort of head masks, rather like balaclavas but not knitted, some sort of woven material. They had said hardly anything since they suddenly burst in on us. Before they had blindfolded us they were using hand signals, and moving decisively and silently.

Analytical, I said: my mind was racing, checking every possibility. Nothing made sense, unless they were kidnapping Luce.

Luce’s father, Alex Bradley, is a chemist. No, not a pharmacist, an industrial chemist. I’m sure you’ve heard of Bradley Inc. I guess he’s pretty rich, but I was almost certain it wasn’t going to be his money our kidnappers were after, but maybe some chemical secret, some formula.

I suppose it must have been a shock for them to discover that I was in her house. They certainly seemed taken aback. Clearly though, assuming that my analysis of the situation was correct, they should have checked on Luce’s routine before barging in like that. Luce and I have been together for a while now; sometimes we sleep at her place, sometimes at mine. They should have known that.

So: they had barged in at six in the morning, more or less. Silently, of course: how they had got in so quietly I couldn’t tell. Did they have a key? Had they picked the lock?

Anyway, Luce had given a little shriek as they woke her, the only sound she had been able to make. The woman had knelt swiftly and put her hand over Luce’s mouth, wrenching her from the bed and pulling her upright.

On the other side of the bed I woke to Luce’s cry, and found a pistol jammed into my neck. I lay still. The third kidnapper placed a six inch length of gaffer tape over my mouth and smoothed it flat. Then they rolled me onto my belly and tied my ankles and hands behind my back, then linked the two and pulled them tight. They weren’t rough about it, but irresistibly powerful.

I was lifted by the men and carried to the front room, where we were made to sit back to back and tied together. Time passes very slowly when you’re tied and blindfolded, and it seemed like forever. It was also cold. They were dressed, we were not.

After a very long time in which nothing happened, the gaffer tape was pulled off and a straw was poked into my mouth. I was confused, but soon realised that they were offering a drink. I sucked, noted that it was tasteless so probably just water, and swallowed several mouthfuls before the straw was withdrawn and the gaffer tape pressed back into place. I made ineffectual muffled noises through my nose, but got no reaction. I had been trying to say that I was cold, but no luck there.

More time passed. Lots of it.

And then something changed: I began to hear the unmistakeable beeps and clicks of a mobile phone sending messages. There were pauses, of course, and then suddenly my blindfold was pulled off my head and the gaffer tape was pulled roughly from my mouth. ‘What the hell’s going on?’ I cried.

There was a set of lights blazing at us, so bright that I could see nothing. ‘Shut up and look this way,’ someone ordered us, which we

both did instinctively. I heard the click of a camera. Proof of life, I thought.

And that must have been it, because they immediately untied us, except for the wrists, one at a time, and led us back to the bedroom. I was first, and I threw myself down on the bed and wriggled myself under the doona. Thank heavens, some warmth at last. Luce came in a few minutes later, saw me in the bed and quickly joined me.

At first we simply lay there, spooned together, until finally our shivering stopped. It was wonderful, lying there in a warm cocoon.

But we couldn’t just lie like that, just waiting for whatever it was that was going to befall us. I rolled over so that my back was towards Luce’s back, and pulled at the ropes that bound her. Not easy. They were tight, the knots were well-made, and of course I couldn’t see what I was doing. Nevertheless, bit by bit I managed to loosen them, and eventually Luce was free. She rubbed her wrists for a while, then set about untying me, which was easier because she could see what she was doing.

She leaned forward and kissed me, just a little peck, but it meant so much to me.

‘What do we do now?’ she asked.

I got down off the bed. ‘Get dressed, for a start,’ I told her. ‘I never want to be naked in front of a kidnapper again.’ I dressed hurriedly in yesterday’s clothes that were still scattered on the floor where we had left them the night before. As I did so, I thought about my phone, but a quick pat on the pocket told me that it was missing. I looked at Luce. ‘Where’s your phone, Luce?’

‘In my bag…’ she said as she reached for it and pulled it open. I saw the look of disappointment on her face. ‘… at least, it was last night.’

‘Mine’s gone, too.’ Of course it was.

Only then did I start to wonder about our situation. I went to the door and tried it. It was locked. Not that a bedroom door lock was anything to worry about - I could probably kick the door open if I tried - but I guessed that they’d be keeping an eye on the other side. I put my ear to the door, but could hear nothing. I moved to the adjoining wall and listened there, too, but with the same result.

The light was on and the curtains closed. I went to the window and pulled the curtains aside, only to find that sheets of plywood had been screwed to the frames. And, of course, neither of us had a

handy screw-driver. ‘You wouldn’t have a nail-file in your bag, would you?’

Luce brightened, then rummaged in her bag. Again that disappointed look. ‘I did have,’ she complained.

So. Up the creek without a paddle seemed to sum up our position.

I did, however, have my watch, there on the bedside table where I had left it. I strapped it on. It was one thirty, though I couldn’t tell for certain if it was night or day. It dawned on me finally that the date would tell me that: it had to be one thirty in the afternoon. Time really had slowed down.

I checked my pockets: all my coins had gone, and the credit cards from my wallet. Other than that, nothing was missing. Luce did the same with her bag and found the same thing. Anything that could be used as a tool or a weapon was missing. The rest remained untouched.

We sat side by side on the bed, wondering.

‘I tell you what,’ Luce said after a few minutes, ‘I could go a cup of coffee.’

As she said that I realised that not only would I like some coffee, but some food wouldn’t go amiss, either. We had had no breakfast, and it was now well past my lunchtime.

Luce was looking at me oddly, a quizzical expression on her face.

After a moment she said, ‘Can you smell that?’

Indeed I could. I immediately wondered if it was the faintest aroma of coffee brewing that had suggested to Luce that that was what she needed. She stood and went to the door, her nose twitching. ‘It is,’ she confirmed. She hammered on the door. ‘We want coffee,’ she called loudly.

Almost immediately a muffled voice on the other side of the door told us to move over to the window. I wondered if I should hide behind the door and jump him when he came in, but cowardice and the knowledge that there were three of them told me to just do as I was told.

‘Okay’ Luce called out.

The door opened slowly, and one of the men, holding a tray, first checked that we really were both at the window, and that all was well in the bedroom. Careful chaps. Professionals, perhaps.

He moved slowly into the room and put the tray on the bed, then moved everything onto the bedside table: two paper cups that smelled deliciously of coffee, and two paper plates with sandwiches on them. He was still masked by the balaclava thing, but we could see his suspicious eyes watching us carefully as he picked up the tray and moved backwards towards the door. With a final check, he pulled the door closed. We heard a key turn.

I looked at Luce and grinned. ‘That worked like magic, Luce. Why don’t you try wishing for… oh I don’t know, an afternoon at the cinema?’

She grinned back as we crossed the room and took up the cups. I bent my nose to the coffee and breathed in deeply. ‘They must have brought a barista,’ I said. ‘That’s a great cup of coffee.’

The sandwiches were good, too.

And so time passed, and they left us pretty much alone. We had the en-suite, we had the bed. No television, no radio. But on the third day they passed through a gym bag full of books, and they weren’t half bad. We passed out a bag of dirty clothes and a day later back they came, clean and ironed. Altogether I began to think that it was too good to be true.

They never let up their vigilance, never slipped up on their security. They would knock on the door, we’d go and stand by the sealed windows, the key would turn and they would bring in the food, the books, the clothes. No-one spoke. Well, we did, at first, asking them all sorts of silly questions like ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Why are you doing this to us?’ and so on, which they never answered.

On the fourth morning it occurred to me that our friends, surely, would have wondered where we were. I mean, they all knew we stayed at each other’s places. In my case, that meant that my flatmate, Vincent, wouldn’t have immediately noticed my absence; but four days in a row away from my pad was a bit unusual. I said as much to Luce.

‘Not unusual enough, it seems.’ she said. Well, maybe. But what about her? She worked two days a week in a book store. She’d have missed a couple of days. They’d have checked, wouldn’t they?

‘Perhaps,’ she admitted. ‘But you know, I’m just a casual there. People disappear all the time, go off on holiday without telling anyone, stuff like that.’ She didn’t seem too interested, which I thought was a bit odd. Come to that, I ruminated, she didn’t seem all that upset about the whole affair. ‘Anyway,’ she added, ‘they’ve

got our phones, haven’t they? All they’d have to do is to message everyone in our contacts files that we’d decided to go off to the Himalayas or someplace without phone coverage, and we’d see them in a while. That’d do it.’ She smiled at me. ‘Come on Jonny,’ she added. ‘Loosen up. They haven’t hurt us so far. In fact, they’re treating us well, I reckon.’

‘Hell,’ I said indignantly, ‘they pulled us naked from the bed and tied us up for half a day. Didn’t that upset you?’

She turned and smiled at me. ‘Actually, I was very turned on. It was really exciting, knowing that they could do anything they liked to me, and neither of us could do anything about it.’

I looked at her with my jaw dropped. She had always struck me as a bit kinky, a bit of an exhibitionist… but this was, well, over the top, perhaps?

‘I didn’t realise that you were into that sort of thing.’

‘What, bondage? Neither did I. But I was just so hot… I guess I’ll have to try it some time.’

We’d been together for about eight months. I had thought I knew her. Clearly, I was wrong. ‘I could have sworn you were crying,’ I told her.

She thought about it. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I was at first. I was frightened. But then my imagination took over, and if anything, I was panting. Boy, I was up for anything.’

I didn’t want to go there, I thought. Not right then. Mind you, I have to admit I was slightly turned on myself by her admissions. I’d have to review all this, how I felt about our relationship, when it was all over.

Then three days later, which turned out to be a Friday, I woke up and immediately felt that something was different. I lay in bed for a while, thinking about things and straining to hear any sound in the apartment. There was none. Not that that was really any different to usual, because they were the quietest trio I had ever come across. I rolled quietly out of bed and tip-toed to the door. I listened again, then slowly turned the knob. It turned all the way.

I didn’t open the door, just slowly released the knob and stood there by the wall thinking about things.

Then I quietly crossed the room again, picked up my clothes from the floor and dressed, making as little noise as possible. Luce slept on, breathing steadily.

I went back to the door and turned the knob again, but this time pulled the door open a couple of centimetres. All was silent. I opened it further and poked my head out. The short corridor was empty.

The thick carpet deadened the slight creaking of my shoes, but to me they sounded thunderous. Nevertheless I advanced slowly towards the living room. It seemed a little dark, but I realised that the curtains were drawn. I looked at my watch. It was just after nine in the morning. I did a slow tour of the room until I was certain that there was no-one lurking behind a settee or an armchair, and then moved to the kitchen.

The kitchen was empty, and spotless. I looked back into the living room and realised that that, too, looked as though the cleaners had just that minute left. Everything was in perfect order.

Moving a little quicker now, but still on my guard, I checked the rest of the apartment. The second bedroom was empty, and so was its en-suite. The laundry was deserted. The big storeroom beyond that wasn’t exactly empty, but it was just as we had left it, a dumping ground for stuff we didn’t have much use for.

I went back to the living room and picked up the phone, which answered me with a dialling tone.

In the kitchen I found our phones, fully charged, and our cards and Luce’s nail file, and two small piles of change. Everything neat, everything tidy.

I felt the kettle, but it was cold. I looked for clues, but there were none. Professionals, clearly.

‘Jonny,’ Luce called, and two seconds later she was at the kitchen door, naked and looking very vulnerable. The odd thing was that I found myself experiencing a sudden lurch of lust. It was only twenty-seven years of civilised life that saved me from doing something rash.

I nodded. “Yes, they’ve gone. Looks like we’re free.’

Luce checked the front door and that opened, too.

Nobody knew, it turned out. Nobody, that is, except Luce’s father and a few of his advisors. This must have been the quietest kidnap of all time.

I was wrong about the money. The kidnappers had demanded, and got, it would seem, three million dollars. Dollars US, that is. And apparently they hadn’t even threatened to kill us, which I suppose

is a relief, in a way. They just said pay up or you’ll never see your daughter again.

And he did. Luce’s father, I mean.

I expect he did everything he could to find out where we were, but never guessed we were safe and sound at home all the time.

I had thought that going through so much together would bring us closer, Luce and I. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? But instead of that she started going cold on me the minute we were released. I couldn’t understand it. But within a week, she was hardly speaking to me. Cold? I was frozen out.

Well, it wasn’t the first time I had broken up with a girl I had thought I loved, and I guess it might not even be the last time, either. I moved back in with Vincent and got on with my life, such as it was. When I told Vincent all about it, I could tell he didn’t believe me. Frankly, I found it hard to believe myself.

Anyway, getting on with my life included finally getting a job, which sort of refocussed me. I’m a graphic designer, but until then I had never actually earned any money from it, just studied it at Uni. Working with a team at an agency taught me a lot, and I really enjoyed it, even more than I had thought I would. After a time, a long time, that is, I began to forget about Luce and the kidnapping.

Tell you the truth, I didn’t really start to forget until I started going out with Linda. I suppose it’s always like that: the rejected yearns and mopes after lost love until a new one comes along.

Vincent moved out when he got a new job in another city, and it seemed silly to keep two places going, so Linda moved in with me, and life became fun again. Fun and silly and romantic… you know the story.



And then one day I saw Luce again.

Three of us from the agency had been meeting with a client, someone who ran a restaurant. Frank, the senior guy, was discussing the final details of a campaign, and Alice and I, both too junior to do more than come up with suggestions, were more or less just sitting back at this stage, while Frank and the restaurateur were talking money. Alice, a copywriter, had gone to the loo, and I was leaning back in my chair, waiting for the final arrangements to be over, when I thought I saw Luce over at the bar. I wasn’t sure it was her at first, because we were outside, and there was a very reflective window between her and us.

‘Excuse me for a moment, would you?’ I asked, but Frank and the other guy hardly noticed I had spoken. I got up and walked into the restaurant.

It was Luce. She was talking earnestly and very closely to another woman. And they were holding hands. And peering into each other’s eyes, inches apart. I paused. I hadn’t known she was like that. But as I watched, they leaned together and kissed, a long, hard, eyes-closed kiss that seemed to go on for ages. Wow! I thought. That’s a turn up for the book.

I wove my way around the tables towards them. As I approached, Luce broke from the kiss and her eyes turned towards me. I could see the shock on her face, almost a recoil.

‘Hi, Luce,’ I said as I drew near them. The other woman obviously saw Luce’s expression and turned to me too. ‘You!’ she said.

I didn’t recognise her, but she obviously knew me.

Just then I felt a hand on my arm and turned. A big bloke dressed all in black. Good-looking, too, well-dressed and pretty cool. ‘Hi, Jonny,’ he said. Once again, I didn’t know him from Adam. He put his arm around my shoulder and turned me away from the two women. ‘Why don’t we have a drink?’ he said.

Frankly, I was stunned. What the hell was going on? But I allowed him to lead me to an empty table, and he called a waiter over and ordered two beers. ‘I don’t drink beer,’ I said.

‘Well, what?’

‘Water,’ I told the waiter. Then I turned to the man in black. ‘So, what gives?’

He smiled. ‘Look,’ he said quietly. ‘You knew Lucy once, didn’t you?’ I nodded. ‘But you didn’t really know her very well. In fact, hardly at all.’

I looked back to where Luce and the woman were sitting, and I could see, even at this distance, that they were tense and distracted, watching us with frowns on their faces.

‘So why don’t you just forget you ever knew her, eh?’

‘Who the hell are you?’

He smiled. ‘Let’s just say I’m an interested bystander. A friend.’

‘And what makes you think that I should forget her?’

He looked at me, and I got the impression he was weighing me up. The waiter arrived with his beer and my water. I took a sip.

He got up suddenly. ‘Just wait here for a moment,’ he said, and he

turned and walked towards the two women. As I watched him cross the floor I realised that I had seen that walk before. At first I couldn’t place him.

He leaned towards Luce and the other woman, and they whispered urgently, the two women eyeing me over his shoulders.

I had had enough of this silliness. I took another sip of the water and went to get up, intending to leave. I wanted no part of this.

He turned from the women and came quickly towards me, again putting his hand on my arm. ‘No, wait,’ he urged me. ‘Please, sit. Just for a moment.’

My eyes narrowed. I recognised him now. I sat and leaned towards him. I said quietly, ‘Now, say “Shut up and look this way’.’’

His head jerked up. He knew only too well what I meant. A little smile appeared on his lips. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘So you’re brighter than we thought.’

I was furious. Once again I went to rise, but his hand locked on my arm, holding me there. Boy, he was strong. ‘Where’s the other guy?’ I asked.

His eyes betrayed him as he looked behind me. ‘Not far away,’ he said. I turned, and there was another guy also dressed in black. Almost his twin, I thought.

‘Look,’ he said earnestly. ‘You really don’t want to know what this is about, believe me.’

I looked at the four of them, and a little light began to dawn. ‘What was I there for?’

He sighed. ‘To back up Lucy’s story, okay?’

‘Bloody hell,’ I said, ‘that’s a bit rich.’

He nodded. ‘Tell you what,’ he said. ‘How about a little compensation? Let’s say twenty grand?’

I paused. As you would. ‘Is that what you agreed?’

He nodded. ‘Check your bank account tomorrow, okay? Then forget all about it.’

I just stared at him as he walked back to the two women. His twin joined them. They just looked at me.

I finished my water and stood, took a long last look at them and turned away.

In the morning I checked my account, but there was nothing in it. Bugger, I thought. But it had all sounded like a pretty tall story. I

thought Linda might appreciate it, when I saw her that evening.

But I couldn’t help checking my account at ten o’clock, and then, blow me down, it was there. I closed the screen quickly. What on earth was I going to do about that?