3,258 words – approx. 11 minutes
It had been dark for hours when Carole switched off the lights and turned the key to bring the shutters down. From behind her counter she’d watched the light leach from the sky through the gaps in the posters plastered to the windows, advertising special offers that were still more expensive than the regular prices at the supermarket two miles down the road. Even she’d started shopping there, but what could she do?
She’d never liked this time of year, not just for the darkness and cold, but for the way it showed up problems that she could usually ignore: the broken lights in the forecourt, the temperamental boiler, the stiff lock on the staff toilet. All things that needed fixing and paying for that in the summer were minor annoyances, but now seemed to press constantly on her mind.
It had been a long day. Pauline had called in sick – food poisoning – and at such short notice none of the other supervisors could make it. So she’d worked the afternoon with Bradley as well as her usual evening shift, and neither had been easy: they’d been short of Daily Mails, and then one of the pumps had broken just after eight. While she was sorting that, someone had managed to steal a crate of beer. No point calling the police; she knew from experience they’d take hours to arrive, then spend ten minutes looking around and she’d never hear anything more about it. The CCTV didn’t work anyway, not that they’d try much if it did. Poor Kayleigh had been horrified – and only on her second shift, bless her. Carole had insisted the girl left early; to hell with her usual rule about having two people lock up.
She stifled a yawn and extracted the shutter key. She’d be home soon. A quick check on Gordon, who’d seemed to be moving awkwardly that morning, empty his litter tray, then bed. Tomorrow she’d call someone to sort out those lights, she thought as she looked towards the space below the dead bulbs. Her car was just around the corner.
The younger one was prettier. He watched her leave, her head low, walking quickly across the tarmac, rubbing her face as if she’d been crying. He could comfort her, promise her it was going to be alright, whatever it was. Blithe reassurances, that’s what they wanted. And then what? Nothing. Just another cold rejection, having extracted what they wanted from him like a bird sucking the juice from a fruit, leaving a withered, empty skin.
Focus. He tapped his fingers on the wheel to centre himself. He couldn’t risk missing his chance. He’d stayed in the car when she came out and inspected the pumps about twenty minutes earlier. He’d stay here again. His eyes followed the girl until she was out of site, then he turned his attention back to the shop. Not long now. Until then he’d wait at the forecourt’s edge, where no light reached and you could see nothing unless you were looking for it.
He left the car door open so she wouldn’t hear it shut. She was perhaps twenty metres away, but it was better to be careful. He stayed on the fringe of the shadow, then when she had her back to him he crept round the grassy edge of the forecourt. As he got nearer he could see she hadn’t brought a coat – she still wore the green tabard from the shop. A childish excitement rose in his stomach like sherbet in water.
His last three steps were quick. He pulled her arm up sharply behind her back and pressed his hand over her mouth. “Don’t say anything. Don’t scream.” He felt her nod and he removed his hand. Her thin, shivering body heaved with breathing.
“Do you want money?” she managed to say before his hand smacked back into place.
“I said don’t say anything!” he hissed. “No, I don’t want money.”
Her stomach fell. There was a silence, broken only by the cooing of a woodpigeon in the trees. Carole focused on her breath. Should she bite his hand? Try to kick him between the legs? In this position she couldn’t see how big he was, whether she had a chance.
He spoke again, quieter this time. “I’m going to take my hand away so you can answer me. Is anyone waiting at home?”
She thought of Gordon, meowing pitifully at his empty bowl. “No,” she said. He’d been a rescue cat; she couldn’t bear the idea of putting him in danger. And besides, what could a lame old cat do?
He nodded. That made sense: he’d seen no wedding ring, and she didn’t seem the type to have boyfriends. He kept her arm pulled up to the brink of pain and marched her across the forecourt. She stuttered and stumbled on the tarmac – his feet behind hers kicked accidentally against hers more than once, making her fall. The shape of a car emerged from beneath the busted lights as they reached the dark edge of the forecourt, like a creature from the deep. She squinted, trying to memorise the numberplate: TN62PRF. TN62PRF. TN62-
“Get in!” He shoved her into the passenger seat and she fell, startled. By the time she’d righted herself he was in front of the steering wheel. The locks clicked shut. “Buckle up!” he said, in a peculiarly jaunty tone, like a parent trying to make amends for some earlier harshness. For the first time she looked at him. She didn’t recognise him, and a half-remembered fact bolted into her mind: most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. He had a red, round face that was softening a little age, although he looked younger than her. His hair was brown and neat. He needed a shave.
As the car pulled out onto the road Carole tried to keep all her thoughts in her mind at once: the numberplate, the man’s appearance, the roads they were taking. It could be useful later. She felt strangely calm at this prospect. The person in the car felt distant, someone from a TV show she was only half-watching while ironing, or putting out food for Gordon.
But her peace was disturbed by the thought that crashed through her mind. He’d let her see his face and had made no effort to hide the numberplate. The conclusion hit like a lorry: he was going to kill her.
Sweat broke through the tight skin of her forehead and she felt warmth between her legs. He didn’t notice anything was wrong until they were on the dual carriageway.
“What’s that- ah Jesus,” she said, his eyes flicking between the road and the piss-darkened patch of the seat. “There’s tissues in the glovebox.” She was grateful despite herself, and stuffed a fistful against her crotch. He shook his head. “You don’t need to be scared.”
It was like he hadn’t heard her. “It’s sad that the first thing you jump to is that I’m some sort of lunatic. I mean, look at me! Hardly the physique of a killer.” Carole forced a laugh, which he seemed to enjoy. “Although I’m trying to eat better,” he added.
“Right,” was all Carole could say. A talk show was on the radio, and a caller was telling the sympathetic host about her family history. Her father had used drugs in front of her, and a family member – it wasn’t clear, but it could have been a cousin – had abused her. Throughout the story the man tutted, and when the call ended he turned to Carole.
“Get my phone out of the glovebox?” She passed it to him. “And give me yours, too,” he added as an afterthought. Carole did as she was told. At a set of traffic lights he connected a handsfree kit to his phone and dialled.
Carole realised she didn’t know where they were. Jumbled thoughts ricocheted, a kaleidoscope of snapshots and scraps of advice that refused to settle. You should stand your ground; you shouldn’t do anything to anger them; wrap your keys around your knuckles.
His voice brought her back to the ominous present. “Yes, hello, is that Refuge? I’d like to make a donation please.” She could hear the distant chatter of a voice on the other end of the line. She could shout for help, say she’d been kidnapped. But then what? The man continued speaking. “Well can you put me through to the right department?” Again she heard the chatter, and she watched his knuckles whiten on the wheel. “I’m sorry, I thought you’d have wanted my money. I must have been mistaken!” He yanked the cord from the phone and stared straight ahead. His jaw ground furiously.
“That was very kind of you,” she said at last.
His narrowed eye scrutinised her, then he appeared to decide she meant it. “Yeah, well, they didn’t want my money.” His finger flexed and relaxed on the wheel.
“But you tried.”
He almost interrupted her, and spoke loudly as if to drown her out. “Do you know why you’re here, why I got you here?” The last few words blurred together, as if he was trying to put the reality of how she’d come to be in this car safely out of focus.
“No,” said Carole quietly, and waited.
The air was running out, her chest beginning to ache. She felt precarious, and when he drew a deep breath a shiver travelled outwards from her stomach like an explosion.
“This is the only way you would give me a chance.”
The words were gunfire through his teeth.
“What?” Carole couldn’t help herself. No sooner was the word out of her mouth than she shrank back in the seat. His head moved slowly from side to side.
His voice started quiet, then rose to a shout. “You haven’t got a fucking clue, have you?”
They were travelling at speed now – surely faster than they should be. Lights whipped passed the windows like close stars against the darkness. It was only when she blinked and they blurred that Carole noticed her tears.
“Please slow down,” she whispered. He snorted, then looked over her.
“Hey,” he said, and the car began to slow. “Hey, don’t worry. I’m sorry I snapped. I just…” He let out his breath. “I just always find it hard to speak to women, and when they ignore me…”
Carole cut in before he could work himself up further; their speed was already creeping back up. “I know, I’m sorry too.” Had he been in the shop? She hadn’t recognised him, but then dozens of men came in every day, with flirty asides and winks or time-pressed smiles. She responded in kind when she could, but she’d been so tired lately that it must have shown. She choked on a sob. “Can you tell me where we’re going?”
“Why do you want to know that?” he demanded. “Don’t you trust me?”
“I’d just feel better.” She could see his jaw working again. “Okay, don’t if you don’t want to. But tell me something about yourself at least. I don’t want to sit here in silence.”
The man took a deep breath, looking straight ahead at the cat’s eyes that studded the road.
“It’s not easy, you know,” he began. His voice caught and he swallowed heavily. “I’ve always tried. At school-” He trailed off. Carole hesitated. Should she speak? But before she could push pushed on through his discomfort. “At school I’d smile at the girls, I’d be friendly. I used to get bullied, you know. Because I was fat. More than now I mean. My mum said if I was nice to people and ignored they’d leave me alone. So I tried to talk to the girls, the ones I liked. Charlotte Hawkins, Sarah Kinsella, Sophie Burke.” The names were spat from his lips. “And do you know what they said?” Carole waited. He adopted a high-pitched sneer. “Ugh, did you hear something?” He leered down towards the dashboard. “Ew, it’s trying to speak. Let’s get away before it touches us!”
“I’m sorry,” said Carole after a moment.
“Yeah.” He sounded very tired.
“What’s your name?” Carole ventured. Like coaxing some small animal towards her, a squirrel in the woods.
“I like that name,” said Carole. She meant it. If she’d ever had children she would have called them Robin and Holly. When she’d got Gordon she’d considered renaming him Robin, but at the time that seemed like too great an admission, so the name the rescue had given him stuck.
“You’re Carole,” Robin said suddenly, halfway between a question and a statement.
“That’s right.” There was little point asking how he knew.
“Be honest with me. Do you find me handsome?”
She took in, as best she could in the gloom of the car, the pouches of his cheeks and the scrape of hair, his reddened, uneven skin. “I do.” The softness of her voice masked her insincerity, giving her lie a confessional tone. She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear.
“I think you’re very pretty,” said Rob.
“Thank you,” Carole replied. The road they were on was almost deserted now – was it the motorway? – but then a cacophony of flashing lights lit the windows, the unmistakable blue blaze of a police car accompanied by the familiar siren whine.
“Shit,” muttered Rob, and Carole’s heart leapt like a caged animal hearing the key turn in the lock. Was it signalling them to pull over? His numberplate had shown up on a database somewhere, someone had seen her be shoved into the car, he had a broken tail light. Phrases streamed through her mind, words to end this nightmare and start the journey back to safety. Kidnapped… Help… I thought he was going to rape me. The lights were closer now, in the rear window, through the back window, level with the driver’s window.
The metronomic click of signalling and the car swung left. Carole could see the stark neon signage: petrol, fast food, slot machines. Rob parked and got out of the car. Her hope had been unguarded, and now it was replaced with a black, vast fear. At first she thought he was leaving her inside and she tentatively pulled at the handle, scanning the car park for potential rescuers. Both actions were in vain: the door was locked, and the few vehicles at a service station at this time of night were scattered across the tarmac. None were close to the saloon into which Carole had been forced – an hour before? More? Less?
She heard the latch on the boot open, and when it closed a shudder ran through the car that made Carole start in her seat, straining against the seatbelt’s constraints.
Her door opened, just a crack.
“Are you going to make a scene?”
Carole shook her head, her hand on the seatbelt latch. Rob paused. Then he opened the door. An indistinct shape in his hand. Her heart quickened. He gripped her forearm below the shoulder and they walked towards the light of the service station units. They glowed against the dark. From the corner of her eye Carole saw the gun, the knife, the hammer’s uncertain outline swinging with his arm’s rhythm.
Scenarios – ludicrous, but no more so than the one she found herself in – roared through her head. A robbery? A hostage situation? The staff member would be young, frightened, and would make a mistake. She would look like Kayleigh.
After the darkness of the car the café was painfully bright. The plastic tablecloths were patterned with sudsy swirls of residue from the cursory attention of the aproned woman making her way around the seating area. Rob pushed Carole into a chair and pulled her arm harshly back. Her eyes searched for the woman as cold metal forced its way over her wrist. A cry escaped her at the shock.
Rob tensed and straightened behind her. The woman was nowhere to be seen, and when after a few moments she didn’t reappear he finished his fiddling and went up to the counter. It was round a corner, and once he was out of sight Carole tested her arm – she could only move it a small amount before it met with resistance. She was pinned to the chair.
“I wasn’t sure if you took milk or sugar,” Rob apologised upon his return, carrying two coffees in large white mugs. With her free arm Carole took a sachet of each and emptied them into her cup. Rob watched and nodded, committing it to memory. He drank more quickly than her and after a nervous scan of the café he disappeared towards the toilets at the back of the café.
Inside the small, cream-coloured cubicle Rob reached into his sock and pulled out a thin, covered blade. It shook in his hand: the police car had unsettled him, made him change his plan and come in here. He didn’t like that; it was hard to think clearly. Perhaps he could leave the knife here somewhere, maybe in the cistern. There was no need for him to have it now they’d talked, now she understood. He was pleased about this, pleased that she hadn’t been a bitch.
But still. The memory of the sick terror he’d felt at the siren remained like the imprint of a brightly lit scene, and he pocketed the knife, then splashed water on his face and went back. He was pleased to find Carole had drunk her coffee – another good sign. He tried to make small talk but was distracted by the way she seemed to be looking slightly past him, searching for something. He turned; no sign of the woman from earlier. He went to the counter, but the narrow corridor behind it stretched empty too. She wouldn’t do this to him, would she?
“Come on, we’re going.” He unlocked her and she rubbed her wrist.
“What? Why?” Was that panic in her voice?
“Come on,” he repeated. He glanced back as he marched her out and to the car. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary; no-one came running out to confront him. He didn’t want to accuse her, to risk the fragile thing he – they – had created.
“Where are we going?” Carole asked. She sounded frightened but Rob forced himself not to reply. There would be time for questions and answers, for recriminations and reconciliations later. Right now he had to get them away.
In the passenger seat Carole fought to control her breathing. Why hadn’t the woman come back? She had to have got the numberplate – if only she’d returned before Robin had pulled her away, if only Carole could have some certainty that the police were now looking for a white Peugeot, looking for the car she was now travelling in at speed down an empty motorway.
The further they went, five minutes, ten minutes, the silence cheesewire-taut between them, the wider the helplessness yawned beneath her. For the first time that evening she felt tears fall. And then: a helicopter, thrumming overhead. Her heart seemed to speed up to match the rhythm of its blades. She thought of Gordon, of the shop, and to her surprise of Kayleigh. Robin gave no sign he’d noticed anything. His left hand gripped the steering wheel, the knuckles bone-white, his right in his pocket, fingering the knife, as his headlights picked out the police cordon up ahead.