'What shall we do with the body?' The other one rubbed his chin. 'Let's not get ahead of ourselves, eh? We've been through all this. It'll be like she disappeared. She'll be walking down the lane and then-' he held his palms open, fingers splayed, as if releasing a tiny bird. 'There, and then gone.' I couldn't stop watching those hands. Thick fingers and cracked skin that would feel like sandpaper. He'd done hard graft once. I could see them through a gap in the plastic foliage dividing our seats. 'They'll not find her.' I didn't want to move; I was terrified yet transfixed. And I was certain I'd heard something that was dangerous. Something that would bring harm to me. So, I kept listening, unable to help myself.
It's my business being nosy. I'm a writer, and a lot of what writers do is stealing. We don't invent; we take from what we see around us and give it a little tweak here and there. A favourite spot of mine for nosing and people-watching is the motorway services, and that morning I was sipping a latte, trying to finish a story I'd promised a magazine but was three days late in sending. I'd gone there to escape the four walls of my home office and the constant drilling that was next door's latest property makeover.
They'll not find her. I got drawn in, hooked by the words that came in the quiet gaps between the chimes of the fruit machines and the clatter of dropped cutlery. 'They all got tats' he said, and a chair was dragged across the floor, interrupting him. 'A black rose, yeah-' and a blast from the coffee machine drowned him out before I might hear where.
I know it's risky letting the imagination fill in the gaps, but what would you think if you heard two fellas – proper hard cases and handy looking – talking like that? A mobile phone rang, its vibrations causing it to dance across their table. 'Leave it,' he said. He had a Black Country accent, blunt and heavy vowels, and while I still couldn't see his face, I'd clocked him when he'd strolled over clutching a cappuccino. It was a large one but seemed tiny in his gloved fist. He wore a heavy grey woollen overcoat, the lapels pricked up against the icy wind, and black leather gloves. He had a few days' stubble, and his grey-black hair was slicked back tight from his forehead and temples, so it curled where it met his collar. He wore an expensive citrussy scent that drifted across the food court in his wake.
I slid down in my booth, worried their silence meant they might've noticed me. I was obscured by the divider of plastic plants, but it wasn't much comfort knowing they might walk round this way and think I'd overheard everything. I could go to the toilet, but what if they followed? I'd have to wait them out. Perhaps it was all a prank, I told myself. They probably did stuff like this all the time in case some nosy sod like me was listening in.
The other fella was on the phone, but I couldn't hear what he was saying. When grey coat set off towards the toilets, hands stuffed in his pockets, I slotted in my headphones and offered up a silent prayer, but he didn't notice me. Most days I got my favourite spot here, this little corner booth where I got to hear things. I was out of sight of the other tables and, as it was a good twenty metres from the coffee shop queue and toilets, people got careless, especially when it was quiet later at night. I'd seen bags left and collected a moment later by someone else. I'd heard football agents promise they'd get a striker in by the weekend, but they were smart not to name players or teams. I saw a heavy gold chain pulled from bubble-wrap and handed over; cash swapped once for an oil painting. I watched a couple kiss, lost in each other as hail rattle the veranda, as if they'd never see each other again in this life.
They'd gone their own ways with grey coat standing in the food court, chatting into his phone. The second bloke wore a black bomber jacket. His scalp was shaved to the bone. He had pale, blue-tinged skin and was prone to spots, reminding me of a kid in my year cruelly tagged Pizza Face. No one was going to call this guy Margherita. He barged the fire-doors and strolled out onto the terrace, lighting and puffing on a cigarette, blowing smoke into a blue sky.
I typed the words out. They'll not find her. I stared at them, forgetting my story, forgetting my deadline. When the tune for the grabbing machine kicked in, or Clifford the Dog or whatever, I tilted to my left on the pretence of tying a shoelace, to see if I could get a better look at them. The grey-haired one was facing me but didn't see me. He was talking into his phone but was too distant, and his words were obscured by Nickelodeon music. I started typing. When I looked up, I saw ponytail had gone. His cigarette lay where he dropped it, smoking among the gravel and windswept leaves. Grey coat pushed through the double doors to the car park. And then they were gone.
George was mopping the corner of the courtyard. I beckoned him over. 'Those fellas,' I said. He shrugged, twisting the mop head. George was Portuguese but wouldn't share his real name. He said English people were terrible at saying it. He was the utility man of the services team. He mopped floors, cleaned the courtyard fountain, fixed the chairs and parasols, and got cars going on winter mornings with his jump leads. He patrolled the site on smoking breaks, seemingly lost in thought, but I knew he never missed a trick. 'Two big men. One had a grey coat.'
'Yeah, I see them.'
'Do you know them?'
George grinned. 'They've been in before.'
'What car do they drive?'
George leaned on the mop handle. He whistled through his teeth as if it was a big ask. 'Silver Merc. Nineteen plate,' he said. 'Other fella has a Range Rover.' George was staring at me. 'Did they say something to make you sad?'
I leaned in, lowering my voice. I didn't want to say too much until I was sure of myself. 'They were arranging something. Bad things.'
A grin flashed across George's face. He shook his head. 'He's in sales. I've seen him have meetings here.'
George shrugged. 'You get lost in writing, thinking. I can mop round your feet, and you hardly notice me.'
'Something bad was happening.'
George propped his mop against the wall, dragged out a chair, and sat down. 'You come here how often?' He answered before I could. 'Three, sometimes four times a week. This is your little hideaway, but we all know you're here. Perhaps they know you are here too.'
'You think they were doing it on purpose?'
'Having fun Mr Saxby, that's all. Maybe they know you are the Great Writer, and they are supplying you with your next story.'
'Maybe,' I said, but I didn't believe it. I decided I'd give the services a rest for a few days.
I woke at three with a start, next door's Rottweiler set off barking by the foxes up on the ridge. I couldn't sleep after that, so went downstairs and dropped onto the couch with a glass of water. I got out my laptop, signed in before it drained of charge, and scanned the notes I typed.
They'll not find her. 947am. M6 Services. CCTV? One drives a silver Merc, the other a Range Rover.
I'd added descriptions of them. I typed kidnap and abduction and did a local search, but nothing came up that was recent. The nearest was a body found in mid-Wales, with the detective leading the search appealing for information to identify a woman 'believed to be in her 40s.' I guessed the poor woman was in a grim state of decomposition if they were hoping to ID her through a charm bracelet and pink cotton blouse.
The story did nothing to quell my fears. Had the two men acted last night, after I'd overheard them? Perhaps it was too early for news. What if the person they'd snatched hadn't been reported missing yet? Or they had no one to report them missing? I'd have to do something. Thankfully, fifteen years in local journalism wasn't entirely wasted. You build up your contacts.
Clive Petrie sat on the bench outside the Shire Hall. He wore tinted glasses, a tweed hat, and the kind of oatmeal slacks and jacket you'd find in the Sunday supplements. A fisherman involved in espionage. Those who wouldn't know Clive would've thought he was dozing, but I knew what he was doing. 'Shoplifters. Just come in on the train. Look at them.' He spoke through the side of his mouth without turning to acknowledge me. I don't know what he did to relax. Retirement was killing him. 'What's the problem?' he asked.
'You'll say it's nothing. That it's daft.'
Clive hadn't taken his stare off the group. I saw some East Europeans queuing for steak bakes. Clive saw organised crime groups, stripping shelves of Christian Dior and Chanel No.5. 'Don't give me the chance I can't say, can I?' he muttered.
I waited for his full attention and outlined everything I'd seen and heard that morning. He took off his glasses, huffed on them, and wiped them with a handkerchief. 'The problem you've got is hearing fragments of the conversation, isn't it?'
'I didn't think you'd believe me.'
'You asked for an opinion, and I've given it. I wasn't there, but going on what you've said, I reckon you misheard them.'
'I know what they said.'
Clive replaced his glasses. I caught my reflection in the lenses and didn't like what I saw. 'Yes, but you don't have any context. They could've been chatting about something perfectly innocent. They could've been talking about wives or girlfriends. She's out shopping. They'll not find her. You know the sort of thing.' Clive tried to look sympathetic. 'Do you know how many calls we used to get like this?' I shook my head. 'Hundreds every year, and that's just on our patch. God knows what it's like now with social media. You know, people mess about and fool around, and sometimes they do mean stuff like that when they say it. But it's just talk. Have you never said you could kill someone or felt like wringing their neck?'
'But aloud? You get my point. Hold on, we're off.' The first of the Romanians had shuffled into Boots. None of the others followed, preferring to eat their pasties out of the biting wind. I didn't see what harm they were causing or what service Clive thought he was providing.
'They met at a services though, didn't they?'
'Ah, so it's all about the location.'
'It's a bit dodgy, isn't it?'
'No, not really.' Clive's knees creaked as he got to his feet. 'Make a story of it. Or just forget it,' he said. 'That's my advice.'
Two days I kept away until escaping the hammering of plasterboard tacks got the better of me. Anna said she'd bring my latte over. 'I know where to find you.'
'I don't always sit there.' The corner of her mouth twitched. 'George in?'
'Not till Thursday.'
I opened up my laptop and began to type 'kidnap' in the search bar. The screen flickered and dimmed. My battery was running on dregs again, less than ten percent. I rummaged through my bag, but there was no sign of my charger. It was at home or had maybe fallen out in the car. Anna set my latte down and asked what I was writing. 'Sorry to be a pain, but could you keep an eye on my stuff?'
'Sure,' Anna said. And added, 'if you're quick.'
'Two mins. Promise.' I jogged out of the main entrance, dodging a junior football team in their shiny tracksuits. The car park was busy, and I had to wait for an old woman to reverse park tightly between two people carriers when she could've had six spaces to herself just a few strides away. I stepped onto the crossing as a silver car shot around the side of a minibus, almost hitting me. I raised a heel and turned sidewards instinctively, like a footballer in a free-kick wall about to be struck by a thunderous shot. It was a silver Merc. The driver waved a fist and swore at me and as he leaned forward over his dashboard. I recognised the man in the grey coat. I clocked the plate. Three letters and three numbers. A private plate. I made a rhyme of them so I wouldn't forget. He took off his sunglasses, and I ran off, nipping between tightly parked cars and vans. I glanced back and saw his Mercedes shoot off past the trailers and vans. I watched him till he'd disappeared between the gap in the conifers. I should get away before he came back. I should shoot off, but I didn't have my laptop.
I jogged across to my car, checked the footwell and beneath the seats and the seat pockets, but I couldn't find the stupid thing. I had enough useless chargers for phones and laptops to make a spaghetti of plastic leads. I clicked and opened the boot, knowing I hadn't been in the boot for weeks, so it wasn't going to be there. I just try to rule places out when I'm looking for something; it's like a system. I lifted the boot and was leaning in, poking past the petrol can and tatty AA road atlas, when I heard a boot scrape. A sole on gravel, like a match striking. I turned as something struck my neck. I stumbled forward, but someone caught me. Hands gripped tight under my armpits. I got a whiff of something sharp, lemony. My knees buckled, and I was lifted and tipped, and the car park and the trees and the sky span. I remember lying on my side, but I don't remember anything else.
Anna checked her phone. Two minutes? He'd been five already, and she wasn't paid for minding bags and laptops. She glanced over to the main door, and seeing there was no sign of Mr. Saxby, she snapped his laptop shut, slid it into his case, and cleared his things. She asked her manager, Greta, what to do and was told to put the things in a bag in the cleaning cupboard. 'I hope he's alright. It's not like him.'
'I'm sure he can look after himself.'
Two coaches came in, and then some football fans, so they got busier, and Anna was told to 'jump to it,' and she forgot all about Mr. Saxby's things. She forgot to label them too, which would delay things even further when the police called for them six days later. When the digital forensics team accessed the laptop, they found notes of a conversation in a document he'd created, but they didn't mean much. They'll not find her. They knew Tim Saxby was a writer and dismissed the document as prelim notes for a story or piece he was working on.
Kids were playing near a flooded quarry in Derbyshire, some thirty miles to the east, when they spotted something shiny in the murky waters. One of them threw stones and got a metallic sound. Despite the weeds and debris, they made out a car just beneath the surface. It hadn't been there the week before, and they called the police. It was Tim Saxby's car, but he wasn't inside it. The national newspapers reported on the mystery of a missing writer, suggesting his fate could've been similar to one of the stories he penned.
Three days before the car was found, a woman was let out of a van in the Staffordshire Moorlands. She tripped in the grass verge, leggy and exhausted, and sat down, sheltering against a drystone wall. She was pale, her long blonde locks dirty and greasy, and her skinny jeans filthy with rust and grit. She'd lost weight, and she was sobbing. She'd been given a chocolate bar and a bottle of mineral water and told which way to walk. There hadn't been proper food, and she was light-headed and suffering from cramps. She took her shoes off to walk, carrying them despite the frost. She crouched and wiped her ankle with a dock leaf, where it was sore and swollen. She'd scratched it, so a thin red stripe ran into the rose tattoo. She stared up at the golden ball of the sun obscured by the cloud. She wore YSL sunglasses and a jacket cropped above the waist that seemed to be made of eagle feathers. She was an odd sight for anyone who might've been walking or cycling the lane that morning. She could've tottered out of a city nightclub if the nearest one wasn't thirty miles away.
She was crying because she was free and no longer – perhaps for the first time in her life – cared how she looked. She'd been kept in a cellar and had lost track of the days without a watch and a phone, listening to drips in the darkness or the scrape of the bolt in the door. As she stood leaning on the weathered fingerpost at the bottom of the lane, an immaculate black car pulled up. They didn't pip the horn or say anything, not wanting to alarm her. The back door opened, and she saw her husband. He jumped out and hugged her. He cried too. She'd never seen him cry before. 'I hope you're not crying about the money,' she sobbed.
'Don't be so bloody daft.' A policeman helped her into the back, where she was wrapped in a blanket. An ambulance was on standby, where it wouldn't be seen, to check her out. All had been prearranged. Nothing would be written about this. There would be no newspaper stories. The woman was returned. She could give no description but was sure there were two men. A mask had been pulled over her head, and she'd caught something. A scent. Did they say anything? No, they'd been careful not to talk. But he wore a strong scent. Citrussy. She rubbed her ankle where she'd been scratched. 'They took a photo of my tattoo, didn't they? The police officer said it had been to prove it was her, that she was captive. They'd held her foot as they'd done it, and she'd kicked out, blindfolded, and one of them had grunted and dug his nails in. She was safe now, but she'd prayed for hours in that cellar. Prayed that someone out there would see or hear something and help her. Everyone in the car, except her, thought she'd been lost. Something had rattled the men who took her, but no one knew what.