Repeat after me

When he finally swam back into painful consciousness, Alex found himself in absolute, pitch-black darkness.

He hurt, everywhere. He moved his hand to his face and found his cheeks swollen. He touched his nose but the sudden, jabbing pain made him stop. His top lip was so badly swollen that it brushed the bottom of his nose. It was wet and sticky. Blood, he supposed.

He slowly sat, and found himself on some sort of shelf, cold and hard. His head throbbed with the movement, and for a moment he thought he was going to vomit. He sat quite still for a minute or two until the swirling sensation eased.

He could smell a musty dryness, as though he was in some long-closed room where dust had recently been disturbed. There was not the slightest glimmer of light. He could hear nothing.

‘Hello,’ he called. There was no echo, nothing to give him any sense of the size of the room he was in, if it was indeed a room. He felt behind him, half turning, and as he did so a pain shot through his rib-cage, sudden and intense. Nevertheless he felt a wall behind him, cool and dry and hard. He rapped his fist against it, but all he could tell was that it was solid. The surface was smooth and powdery.

With his hand still touching the wall, he stood. He stretched his other hand upwards, but felt nothing except, again, the pain of movement. Hesitantly, one hand before him and the other trailing along the wall, he took a step forward, then another; small, careful steps, each foot feeling its way forward across the floor, fearful of the unknown.

After three paces he met another wall. It felt exactly as the first one had: smooth, powdery, solid. He turned right and followed the wall once more. Five paces, then another wall. Two more paces and he found a recess, set back a hand’s breadth. One more pace and he came to the other side of the recess. A doorway? He rapped on the recessed section. It sounded like a door. A thick, heavy door. He could feel no panelling, just a smooth, unjointed surface. He felt around the edges. At the bottom of the door he found a gap of about a centimeter. He could slide the tip of a finger under it. A door, then.

He continued his circuit until he came back to the wall with the shelf, and sat on it once again. Where was he? How had he got here? What was happening?

The last thing he could remember was standing at a bar with a schooner in his hand. He couldn’t think of the name of the settlement. It was just another of those insignificant villages upon his route, one which just happened to have a hotel open just as he was beginning to find himself thirsty. One beer wouldn’t hurt, he had thought. Ten minutes later he had headed for the car-park and his car. Then nothing.

But he had clearly been beaten up. Why? By who?

Alex heard a distant muffled noise, then an uncertain line of light under the door, moving from side to side. Footsteps. A jangle of keys. Shadows of legs, many of them, under the door. The door opened wide and he was blinded by a beam of light so bright that he couldn’t bear to look at it. He held his arm over his eyes, partly to protect his head, partly to give his eyes time to habituate to the sudden light.

‘Get up, you bastard.’

He still couldn’t see properly, but rose to his feet nervously.

‘Put your fuckin’ arm down.’

Slowly, he lowered his arm.

‘Shit.’ A girl’s voice, surprised. ‘That’s not him.’

A moment’s silence. Then ‘Wadderyer mean, it’s not him?’

‘You got the wrong guy, you fucken drongos.’ She sounded disappointed.

There were four voices, three men and a girl. Whatever this was about, Alex felt it was going to end now. Slowly, he sat on the ledge, waiting. ‘Christ,’ said a man with a deep voice.

The girl started giggling nervously. ‘What do we do now?’

Deep Voice answered after a few seconds. ‘First, we get out of here,’ he said, and the torch immediately moved away. Alex’s eyes had almost habituated to the light, and he could see shadows of the

four behind the torch, illuminated by reflection from the wall behind him. The torch retreated and the door was slammed shut, leaving only the line of light under the door.

Quickly Alex moved to the door and lay down with his ear to the gap. He heard their footsteps retreating. Another door slammed and he was left in utter silence and impenetrable darkness. Carefully, Alex stood and made his way back to the shelf.

How could he be the wrong guy? Who was the right guy? What the hell was this all about?

He had no idea how much time had passed since they left. Half an hour, perhaps? Suddenly the light re-appeared under the door, and he moved to his left and cowered into the corner, fearful of what was going to happen.

The door crashed open again, the same light hunted around the room until it found him. There was no pause. The three men rushed forward and pulled him to his feet. In the brief scrabble he realised that all three were masked, one with some sort of balalava, the other two with handkerchiefs around their faces. He had no time to wonder what this might mean before something was tossed over his head and pulled down to his shoulders, a bag of some sort. He could see the light through the material. His hands were forced behind him and a cord was tied around them.

‘What the hell’s this about? For Christ’s sake stop it,’ he cried, but they ignored him.

‘Okay, out,’ said Deep Voice, and he was immediately rushed from the room. At the door he stepped out into space, it seemed and he fell to the ground, despite being held by each arm. He was dragged from the ground and rushed headlong through a house, by the sound of their feet on the floorboards. The nature of the light through the material over his head changed as they moved.

‘Up,’ someone commanded, and he realised that there was a step; he didn’t fall this time, forewarned.

Steps down,’ the same voice told him, and he was out of the house and in sunlight, crunching across gravel. ‘Get in,’ the voice told him and a hand forced his head down. A small push sent him sprawling into the back of a car. Three other doors slammed and an engine was started.

‘Where are we going?’ he asked.

‘Shut the fuck up.’

Someone was fastening the seat belt around him, and the car took off with a lurch, forcing him into the upholstery. Seconds later they roared around a corner, and he fell to the side, his head hitting the person sitting beside him.

The three in the car were silent.

After a quarter of an hour he began to feel sick, and he realised that it was because he couldn’t see out, and that they were on a winding road. ‘I’m going to throw up,’ he gasped.

‘You better not,’ Deep Voice said. The girl giggled again.

Alex struggled to relax despite the metallic taste in his mouth. He found that by closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the headrest the nausea reduced.

They seemed to travel for a very long time. The road became straighter and faster, and on they went.

‘This’ll do,’ Deep Voice said, and the car braked and pulled over to the side. No sooner were they stopped than the door beside him was opened and he was pushed out onto the roadside, his head hitting the gravel beside the tarmac. With a roar the car took off again, the door slamming as it gathered speed.

Stunned, Alex rolled to his side and got unsteadily to his knees. He tried everything he could think to dislodge the bag over his head, but for some reason he just couldn’t manage it. He knelt there and waited.

It was less than five minutes, Alex thought, before a car stopped beside him. He heard a door open and suddenly the bag was lifted from his head. ‘What happened to you?’ a woman said.

Alex blinked and looked at her. ‘I haven’t a clue. Somehow I was kidnapped. Can you untie my hands?’

A man appeared beside him. ‘Hang on, Phyllis... not just yet, eh?’

‘What do you mean?’ Phyllis said.

‘We’ve no idea who he is, do we?’

‘Oh,’ said Phyllis, perplexed.

Alex tried to struggle to his feet, but the man stopped him. ‘Now, don’t get ahead of yourself, okay?’ he said. He took a mobile phone from his pocket and started punching keys. Just three of them. He held the phone to his ear while looking Alex up and down. ‘Police, please,’ he said. Then ‘Yes, look, we’ve just found a man bound and hooded beside the highway.’ He paused. ‘No, he looks okay, but I’m guessing he’s been beaten up.’ He listened for a while, then told them his estimated position, rang off and put his phone away.

‘Untie me,’ Alex asked.

‘Just be patient, okay? The police are on their way.’

It is a month later. It has taken this long for his body to heal, for his face to return to normal.

Alex approaches the hotel warily. It is an old building, and not in good repair. The big double-doors are chipped and scratched, as though it is a long time since anyone has cared too much about them.

It is dark inside. The windows under the verandah are small, the walls painted drably in brown and green. Only the bar itself looks cared for, the thick timber glowing under the only light in the room, a long strip of fluorescent illumination. The usual mirror behind the bar is crowded with opened bottles containing alcohol of every colour under the sun.

Alex has his hat pulled low over his face, and his eyes are hidden behind dark glasses. He approaches the bar and looks at the bartender who looks up and is about to speak but then does a double-take. ‘Hey,’ he says, ‘I thought you were someone else.’ He smiles apologetically. ‘What can I do you for?’

Alex smiles. ‘A schooner. The pale ale, okay?’

The bartender takes a glass and tilts it under the pump. ‘Passing through?’ he asks without looking up.

‘Yeah, sort of. Came through here a month ago. Stopped for a beer.’

The bartender hands it to him, placing it on a soaking towel before him. ‘So good you had to come back for more, eh?’

‘Something like that.’ Alex pays for his drink, and takes it to a table beside the door.

There are four tables in an arc around the corner of the room. Only one is occupied. A big man sits with his back to Alex, a man with a heavy black beard. Opposite him is a much smaller man with a stubble. He is thin and many years older than the big man. They are discussing something quietly. Alex tries to hear what they are saying, but there is music coming from a radio behind the bar, and their voices are muffled. Alex takes a newspaper from his pocket, and a pencil, and turns to the crossword. He appears to concentrate on it, and from time to time scribbles something.

Two young men enter the bar and order drinks. Alex surveys

them as they wait. One of them is quite big. He says something to the bartender, and Alex realises that he is not who he is looking for. The two men move with their drinks further along the bar where there is a row of high stools.

After ten minutes a woman comes in and orders a Campari. When she has paid for it she joins the two men at their table. The conversation becomes animated, the two men joking with her. She giggles as she sips her drink. The big man has a very deep voice.

Alex gets up and puts his paper back in his pocket along with the pencil. He takes what remains of his drink, and approaches the other table. He stands beside the woman. The three of them raise their faces to him, surprised. Slowly Alex removes his dark glasses and pushes his hat further back on his head. The smaller man gasps, and looks at the big man, who half raises himself from the table.

Alex leans closer to the woman. ‘Repeat after me,’ he says. ‘You got the wrong guy, you fucken drongos.’

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