What do you want first?

The good news is the commissioning editor from Bookouture was delighted to hear from me and will gladly look at Of Black Bulls and White Horses. Book sales in the Sam Green series are pottering along (still looking for 10 sales a day … managed 7 yesterday – none today, yet). It seems my work for the MoD was really appreciated having spoken to the boss on Monday, and the mentoring of a Head teacher in a school in Wiltshire, who I also worked with on Monday, also went down well.

nobody here but us chickens

And we are parked in a field not 200 metres from the Severn (£10 a night) and there is no one else here. It is quiet and relaxing and pretty perfect. We had an easy day yesterday – short runs and not much else – and today we were going to go for a long walk with a picnic …

… and that’s when the bad news came along. Doris was behaving perfectly. The new Li-Ion leisure batteries are working well and, at some point, I will stop looking at all the dials and meters. I think the batteries are going to be a game changer.

However. As we were preparing to walk I noticed a water leak coming from one of the hot air ducts in the main door’s footwell. Well, that shouldn’t be happening. Our hot water and heating comes from a Truma combi boiler. So I had a look at it and there didn’t appear to be leaks, although there was a pool of water under the boiler (it’s quite tricky to get to and the van is double-floored, which hides everything, but makes life tricky). I looked at some internet diagrams and it seems that the only way for the water to get into the heating duct is for the cylindrical water container, which sits on the outside of the boiler (middle cylinder is the hot air heat exchanger and the inner cylinder the gas boiler) to have cracked, or for a seal to have gone. That would allow water to drip into the middle air container, collect at one end and let gravity take it to the lowest point in the air heating system – the footwell.

that’s not right

That’s sounds like quite a job. A brand new system is £1600 (yikes), without fitting – I could probably manage it, although I’d have to get a gas man in to check the gas connection. There’s a Chinese company that makes the exact equivalent (sounds like industrial espionage to me) for under £1000. The stainless steel water container, if that’s the problem, is £450. £450 for a bent piece of metal.

you can just make out the bottom hot air duct. That’s where the water is escaping from

What to do? First, we’re not moving. We’re here for C’s birthday, which is on Sunday, and that’s final. We will strip wash etc … we’re both ex-Army and that will be fine. In a spare moment, of which I will have a few, I might try and strip off the casing of the boiler in situ, to see if I can discover the problem. Then, next week I shall take the whole thing out. If I can’t fix it then at least the hole’s there for someone to fill. Whatever, it could be a cheap fix, but very likely it’s going to be expensive.

Yikes!

Oh well. It’s only money.

Keep safe everyone. And enjoy the sunshine.

Decision time

Just over 7 miles on the Mendips on Wednesday with old school teacher friend, Nicky.

We’re heading off into the sunset. Probably from Tuesday. Possibly for a week, maybe longer. I think that we’ve come to the end of our staycation and, frankly, we both need a bit of space. And that has brought something to a head.

Yesterday we popped out in the car to recce a couple of certified locations just up from us. We found one we like (large, open field with views and just a cricket ball throw from the Severn) for £10 a night, without any services except water and dumping. To get there the route is a bit twisty and a bit narrow. And that got both of us thinking about the trike trailer.

I’ve taken Doris everywhere. I have backed her up 500 metres along the narrowist of roads in Scotland. There is nowhere I’m not prepared to give a go … and we have wild camped in the most fantastic of places, with the best possible views. Sure, she’s not as nimble as a VW transporter, but she will go everywhere and, unlike a VW transporter, you can go away for months and not worry about cabin fever. After all we did live in her and her sister for almost five years. Inclement weather is not a problem.

The disadvantages are that once on site, moving her takes a little bit of will. The bikes, now both fitted with super big batteries will take us 50 miles, but having the 300cc trike was going to make further than local sightseeing a breeze. But … you have to pull it, you have to park it and you have to reverse with it. And both of us, who are as seasoned motorhomers as you could wish to meet, now – as we face the first proper opportunity to take the trike with us – are not so sure. Parking easily would require more effort. Reversing any distance is next to impossible, and whilst we both say that we can unhook the trailer and push her around, that’s fine without a queue of traffic waiting. And, actually, it’s not fine if you’re on a slope; the trailer weighs 500 kg.

So, the trike and the trailer are both going. Hopefully later this month. Sure, we’re going to lose some money and that’s a shame. But technically we are going to find ourselves with a fairly sizeable wodge of cash which we weren’t expecting.

What about less than local travel? Well, we have hired a car and a moped before and that’s fine. And we could easily throw the push-bikes on a rack on the back, buy a 50cc moped and stick her in the boot. Ok, so we not going to be going places at 50 mph … but, even that bit of the trike experience worried C a little. Anyhow, that can all wait for next year. With Spain closing down it seems very likely that out longer trip (end of August to end of September) will be Scotland. We’ll leave travelling abroad until next year for now.

fitted a new oven yesterday. Mmmmmm….

That’s it, pretty much. The beta readers have all finished their work on of Black Bulls and White Horses and the mood music there is all good. So I have dispatched the finished article to my friendly publisher, knowing that the answer is likely to be ‘no’!

getting ready for the off

Stay safe everyone …

I could weep

a happy picture before …

So the Russia Report tells us that, as early as 2014, the government knew the Russians had been trying to influence the British electoral process but didn’t do anything about it. Nothing. They let it run, unchecked. And then, when the report was ready in the autumn last year, His Borisness not only purposefully delayed the publication of the report, in its own way influencing the result of the general election and getting the withdrawal agreement through parliament, but actually lied about why he couldn’t release it. Four times, with different excuses each time.

Personally I don’t think the Russian report (or a lack of Russian influence) would have changed the result of the GE. Johnson was too affable, Brexit was a mess which Johnson was offering a solution, and Corbyn was as close to hopeless as any opposition leader could be. But, I do believe that if the Russia report had been out there before the rigmarole of getting the WA through parliament, there would have been much more of a fuss and maybe, just maybe, the government would have fallen – as they were very close to doing – and a national unity organisation would have risen from the ashes. And that may well have led to a second referendum … which may have changed what every commentator now believes will be a disastrous Brexit. And Johnson did that.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so disenfranchised in my life. Brexit, the awful response to covid-19, the lies, the bluff, the incompetence and the ‘other actors’ – oligarchs, media moguls etc, all having an influence in mine and my family’s life. It really does, at times, make me want to weep.

Oh well.

new table, mmmmm

What’s new? Well I’ve finished the new table for Doris. I have to say I’m really pleased with it. The anglepoise lamp normally sits on the table with a huge round, heavy base. I’ve replaced that by drilling a hole in the (second hand) table top and fitting some washers to make it look fab.

Oh, and the Focus had a puncture. A screw straight through the main thread. Kwikfit (there’s none quicker – searches for a music emoji, but can’t find one) charged me £25 to fix it, which I thought was good value. And that’s good, because we’re off for a long walk in the Mendips tomorrow, meeting up with an old school teacher friend of ours, Nicky and her dog. It’s meant to be hot tomorrow, but not the 30+ temperatures we had when we did the Seven walk a few weeks back. And then we’re having tea with other teacher friends of ours in Wells. It should be a good day.

Finally, I’m still waiting on two beta readers to come back to me with comments on, Of Black Bulls and White Horses. Both are millennials and I really want them to say they liked it. Three out of three so far, but these two are key. Then it should take me about a week to turn it round … and then off to my friendly publisher. Fingers crossed.

Stay safe everyone. And get your masks ready … Friday’s the day.

A varied life …

It’s been a bitty few days – leaving aside the miasma of politics, the near-death of the United States, the FT’s latest Brexit update which predicts a 5% reduction in GDP over the next 15 years with no discernible benefits (Project Fear becomes Project Fact) and, apparently, His Borisness’s prediction that ‘it will all be over by Christmas’. I have to say that that turn of phrase was so poorly placed – any of us who have been to school (not just to Eton) know how poor a prediction that was in 1914. Ho hum.

What have we done? Well we’ve been to look for ovens, this time coming away from Currys with an AEG which is being delivered next week. We did try John Lewis, but there were far too many maskless old people bumbling around, we didn’t feel safe. So we left. Anyhow … I have taken the old oven out and noticed that it was poorly fitted, so I have sorted the junction box. I will fit the new oven and then we’ll pay a leccy to come in and just check the wiring for old time’s sake. The old one will go on Gumtree for free.

oven replacement … start of the job

I have also, eventually, fixed the rear alarm light on Doris. It flashes red every few seconds when the alarm is primed … but it doesn’t, because when I was fixing the brake light a year back the wires snapped off the housing (the light is in the reversing light housing) and I couldn’t re-solder the thing back together. VanBitz, who fitted the original (excellent and very loud) alarm quoted me £21 and £4 delivery for a new bulb and wires, which I thought was a bit steep. Three different e-bay LEDs later (£4) and we’re back flashing again. Hurrah!

blink … blink … blink

I got a phone call from the team I was working with in the MoD (I’ve probably told you this already). I have agreed to run a remote 360 – and yesterday I put out a questionnaire to the team. I am interviewing them all next week at the end of which I hope I can give the boss an update. We’re going to focus on news ways of working … so we’ll see how that goes.

had another go with the bike, this time with industrial straps

We’ve been exercising (my latest 4.6km is now down to 19.25, don’t you know … getting close to my best over the past 5 years and don’t my knees know it) and scrumping apples and blackberries from the local nature reserve. We have also been considering going away and we might be getting closer to that, certainly a week at a campsite somewhere local might be the answer. I think our longer term plan is six weeks in France, probably from the end of August before we fly off and have a baby in late October (Bex in Seoul). That, like everything of course, is virus dependent.

And we still have a close eye on those we support. My mum has been more fidgety this week, bless her. She’s 87 on Monday, which is a ripe old age. We never thought she would see 80 when she went under the knife for heart surgery and then had the massive stroke in 2012.

Off to Jen and James’s now. Painting a room, I think. That’ll be fun!

Oh … and if you have Amazon Prime and haven’t yet watched The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, please do. The script is as sharp as anything I’ve seen since The West Wing.

Keep safe everyone.

Wear a mask; it’s the least we can do

So the government now think that wearing masks in shops is a good idea – which I assume will equate to a reduction of covid-19 infections and, at the end of that, less dead and seriously ill people. Good. About time. Actually, if we think it’s going to stop infections (and reduce dead and seriously ill people) why wait ten days? Why not say from Thursday, give people enough time to find a scarf or fashion something from an old pair of pants – anything. Why not? It absolutely beats me. And … come on, you know this is true … the government have known about the benefits of mask wearing since March. They have. And even if at that point the reduction in infections was only considered to be 10%, that would have saved in the order of 5,000 lives. Which is a lot of lives. And might have included my brother. 

Ten percent. Now, today, some statistics say 75% in enclosed spaces. Just think … if His Borisness had said in April, ‘We’re going to steal the march on the rest of the western countries and mandate that masks be worn in all workspaces and indoor public places. We know there’s a shortage, so please make one using a piece of cloth and two elastic bands (video follows). Now I know some of you will be uncomfortable with this, but I really do think it will save a lot of lives and mean we will come through this quicker and more able to open schools, etc. Work with me. Let’s be world-beating.’

All of a sudden, when we’re shopping once a week, everyone’s in masks … and all workplaces have people in masks. And the numbers stay low. And we get ahead of the curve … and when it’s time to open up, we can do so quickly, but masks have now become part of our fabric until we’ve beaten the disease, so we’re very happy to continue to wear them. And we would look as a together country; people would admire the fact that we pulled together to beat the disease. And …

Just imagine if he’d said that?

I give up. This government has let us all down, has likely been party to the death of someone you know with covid-19, has failed to deliver a decent track and trace system, a working track and trace app and has opened up too early … and the numbers point to that. We are not world-leading, I’m afraid. And it makes me want to weep.

Never mind, because we’re heading for a Brexit deal which at best case will be not what was voted for and, at worst case, will be a no deal. The list of disbenefits is very long … and I’m not going to rehearse them here. The list of benefits is? Well, I can’t for the life of me name one. Not a single one. I like my Polish neighbour, so you can cross that one out. No … nothing. What a bunch of clowns we have in charge at the moment. 

On more positive news …

major satellite servicing on Doris’s roof

We walked along Offa’s Dyke yesterday. It was our weekly ‘long walk’, although we only did five miles, but there were some ups and downs – and some fab views. And the MoD have been back in touch to do some more work for them, which I have accepted. I was in two minds, having not done anything over the past ten weeks. I was really enjoying not having any responsibility, other than writing. Anyhow, I’m doing a remote team 360 and then making some recommendations for how to get the best from a small team, split between office working and working from home. It’s money in the bank, so I can’t complain.

walking (close to) Offa’s Dyke

And we keep getting flashes of photos of what we were doing four or five years ago … us in Doris, all relaxed and carefree. Ho hum …

Keep safe, all of you. And wear a mask in the shops today … please. It’s for everyone else’s safety, not yours. Thank you.

I am a fraud.

First, we’re at mum’s, having stopped for an al fresco lunch with Mary on the way to Colchester on Friday. And things are fine. Mum’s actually in a good place. Today we popped into Clacton and got mum a new watch and a new ‘stroller’, which should mean she can make it to her local Tesco and back again without tripping unnecessarily. We’re leaving later today and going back via Kevin’s kids (they’re both young adults now). It’s the first time we will have seen them since his death.

like mother, like son

Other than that I wanted to talked about me for a bit – I know, it’s always about me.

I woke very early on Friday morning and felt a bit glum. Having self-published Blood Red Earth the previous week and sent Of Black Bulls and White Horses to four beta readers, I was devoid of writing. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was I felt a fraud. That my writing was okay, but it was hardly worth me getting excited about and expecting others to do the same. What was I thinking? If the books were good they’d have gone viral by now. And they haven’t. I’m thinking I’m delivering something loads of people will pay money to read … but I’m delusional.

I was up early on Friday …

And I’d like to think I know a thing or two about art/music. For example, I play the guitar and piano. I am probably best described as semi-competent. But there is no way anyone would ever pay me to play professionally. If, maybe, I’d played relentlessly since I were a kid there might be a chance I could play in a bar somewhere for £40 a night. But there is no way I’m anywhere close to being a professional musician. Nor will I ever be. And, to be clear, playing an instrument is not subjective. You are either good, or you are not. And I know the difference.

I’ve done some art as well. 70% the pictures on our walls are mine. And I’ve given a few away and people seem to like the stuff. Visual art is more subjective than music. But, even so, you and I both know that when you see good art you know you’ve seen good art. Could I be better? Possibly. Could I sell stuff on an international stage? No … even if I worked and worked, I know my imagination and technique would never be good enough.

So, to writing. Who am I kidding? Because that’s what I’m trying to do. With almost no experience (I’m a maths teacher/engineer by background) I’m telling myself that my books can sell internationally and can compete with the very best spy thriller writers, like Le Carre and Deighton. The key here is what I can’t do, like you can do with art, is sell my books proportionately cheaper than the best-sellers. Art masterpieces sell for millions … less experienced artists for a tenner. In books, Jack Reacher ebooks sell for £2.99, the same price I’m putting out my latest novels. Any less and I’d be paying you lot to read my books. And they also get the added advantage of selling paperbacks at discounted prices – because they’re printed in their thousands. Mine are all print-on-demand and cost over a tenner.

I’m a fraud. I’m marketing, asking for beta readers, pushing for reviews with novels which, in comparison to the million pound masters, are worth a tenner. (I’m not asking for compliments – I’m just telling you how I feel.)

Ho hum.

Back home tonight and, hopefully, a week of Mrs Sun. We have some stuff to do around and about, so it would be good to have her on board.

Keep safe everyone.

We haven’t done badly

Yesterday, on our, now weekly, long walk along the Severn, C got one of those reminders on Facebook that tells you where you were some time ago. Yesterday’s was from six years ago. It was a photo of the pair of us sat on a bench halfway up a grassy hill behind our house in Wells. We both remember the selfie really well as we took it straight after the school’s speech day on my last day of formal work. Two days later we were in our first Doris van, spent three months wandering around the UK, before heading off to Europe for seven months.

Doris 1 – we lived in this van for three and a half years – yes, three and a half years! Note the skis on the roof …

That was a special time. It was novel, exciting and different. It was, without doubt, as free as I’ve ever felt. Now, six years later we are back in a house, we have tighter commitments than we had then, and the yoke of freedom doesn’t look anywhere near as yellow as it did then. We could, of course, just b**ger off into the sunset … notwithstanding covid-19 and Brexit. But, our conscience is quite a magnet. Is that such a bad thing? Dunno. But I do miss that time.

As we walked we discussed whether or not we had made the most of that purple patch in our life? Well, and I don’t list this to boast, but just as a reminder, we have done some things. In no order: our seven-month European tour did Italy – and Sicily, Greece and much of France; we have skied in Chatel five times, the last in January was for four weeks; we have been to the south of France three times for five weeks at a time, Germany twice (including taken Bex and Steven on their honeymoon) – both four weeks; the Loire – three weeks; Brittany and Normandy – three weeks; Scotland five times; New York and The Bahamas – three weeks; Virginia visiting friends – a week; six weeks in southeast Asia; Croatia for four weeks; and most of England and bits of Wales. We have married off both of our girls and I have written seven novels and published six of them – and C has knitted for Europe. And I have set up and had some fun with a leadership consultancy business and, not quite so fun, I worked in a Bristol state school for six months. It’s not all been good news, however. In that time I have lost my dad and my brother.

But, all-in-all, it’s been a breeze and, if we hadn’t had the virus here, we would have had six weeks in Spain this Spring to add to that.

We have, therefore, burnt the candle a bit and, on reflection we’ve have filled the gaps. I suppose much of my itchy feet is based on the fact that we are (now self-imposed) stuck at home, self-isolating. I’m unconfident that will change any time soon. We’ll see.

And Doris Too. This time (on Sunday) with me practising reversing with the trike and trailer

Other than that, the books? They’re selling okay and C and I are three-quarters of the way through Of Black Bulls and White Horses. I have my two millennials lined up for the end of the week … and then a friendly agent.

Fingers crossed.

another 7-miler along the Severn

Oh … and if any of you have any thoughts having read Of Black Bulls and White Horses, I’d really appreciate your views.

Off to see mum on Friday, overnight and then back on Saturday. She’s fine … if more fragile. We’ll test the water when we’re there.

Tis done

So, Blood Red Earth is now available in ebook and paperback (tap on the title to go to Amazon). That’s the sixth in the series and I am currently working on a plot for the seventh. It is another labour of love although, as friends of mine point out, neither the genre nor the writing style is necessary everyone’s cuppa. However, there are a few of you out there who love the series. All I ask is if you do read it, please, please pen a review. A single line would do. Thanks.

And, still on books, Of Black Bulls and White Horses has now been through edit one. Edit two starts this afternoon and I’m trying a new approach. C is going to read it out loud … let’s hope we both have the patience for it. And then it’s off to my two millennial readers for their once over. For those of you dutifully reading the chapters (the final two chapters are below), huge apologies for the spelling errors. I did warn you. When I put the full version through Microsoft’s editor yesterday there were 526 spelling errors. OK, about 150 of them were Gbassy, one of the characters, but it’s still a lot. You do have to remember that I am a maths graduate – and I write how I think … as you can tell from these missives.

socially distant heaven
Peter and Karen’s back garden

We’ve been following our routine, staying as safe as we can. We’ve run and walked (another lovely 8-mile trek along the Severn on Wednesday). We did have supper out at Peter and Karen’s on Thursday evening – Annie and Al were also there. We were socially distant and enjoyed the spectacular views from their Cotswold home. It felt something close to normal.

delightful walk by the Severn

And we will not be going to the pub this evening. I have moments of complete and utter frustration with this government, as you know. There are so many inconsistencies and, I seriously do believe, some downright deceit. I do not trust them – and, as a result, we follow our own rules now. You all know I lost my brother and, having read a number of survivor posts, people wracked with pain and fatigue, this is not a disease you want … certainly not if you are older. We will continue to wear masks (Scotland has made them mandatory from 8th July – England, not a peep … grrrrrr) and shop only when necessary. Hopefully we will avoid it, although I’m not sure about everyone else.

That’s it from me. C tells me we’re off to walk across the Severn bridge now and then back for edit two. Hurrah!

Enjoy the last two chapters. I’d be delighted to hear what you think.

++++++++++++

Chapter 17

Emily was precariously perched on the seat of Luis’s bike. Her feet were dragging and her hands were gripping, as best she could with one hand poorly bandaged, the back of the small seat. They’d only been cycling for a minute and already her arms and wrists and fingers were all at breaking point. Her left hand, in particular, was hollering at her to stop. As they bumped and twisted along the track – Luis’s bum bouncing at her chest height – the madness of it all caught up with her as her body reminded her that she couldn’t do this for long.

They were at least putting distance between the barn and themselves. She glanced over her shoulder, almost fell off the bike – righting herself just in time – but still managed to spot the vehicle’s light beside the barn. Thankfully they were not moving. Emily could only imagine what might be happening. Whoever had driven the car would be dancing with a barn full of agitated bulls, for sure.

‘Who took you to the barn?’ Luis raised his voice over the clanking from the bike frame and the whirring of the gears and sprockets.

‘Two men. They looked and smelt liked tramps. Big, Mexican-style moustaches. Cowboy boots and waistcoats. All that was missing were their horses,’ she responded, her arms taking another shock – her left hand screaming for mercy. They’d be more tears soon if this didn’t stop.

‘Oh yeah, That would have been a pair of the Chevrolet brothers. They own a couple of ranches. They work for my father, as and when.’

All Emily could see in front of her was the dark of Luis’s shirt. Either side was as black as peat, high clouds hiding the night sky. Hopefully the tarmac road would arrive soon. She only had so much energy, and that was draining fast … and there was still so much she needed to know.

‘What were you doing in Guinea-Bissau?’ In for a penny

Luis kept pedalling.

And then …

‘It’s not what it seems. I’m not involved with the people smuggling …’

The shock of what Luis had just said meant she lost the next few words. 

‘… I went to a couple of West African countries on the wrong premise’ He stopped talking suddenly as he braked and turned to miss something Emily couldn’t see. ‘I thought it was for the town’s church. That’s what my father told me. I didn’t expect it to end up as it did.’

The news flooded through her. Pieces of the jigsaw that were scrambled up in the lid of the box flew out, orientated themselves and slotted right into place.

It wasn’t drugs.

It was illegal migrants.

Her mum’s church. 

My mum

Had Emily seen any evidence? Was her mum involved in this? 

Maybe. The church – some of the photos? There was one of a couple of black people being welcomed into the congregation. 

Was her mum the English end of a people smuggling operation?

Really?

But she’d be doing it for all the right reasons? Wouldn’t she? Even if it were illegal.

She would … 

… Emily wasn’t sure if she needed to place a question mark at the end of that two word sentence. 

Clunk.

The bike’s front wheel hit a sizable rut and any semblance of normal was lost. Emily fell – she had no direction which way. Her inner-ear gyro was all that gave her any sense of up and down, left and right. She twisted and turned as she fell. And then, smack, she found the ground with her shoulder. And then all was still.

Bugger.

Bugger! Everything hurt. Her head span and now there were stars. It took her a few seconds to come properly to. 

Luis?

‘Luis! Are you okay?’ She shouted. She thought she was probably facing backwards. Hang on. Yes. She could pick out the vehicle’s headlights in the distance.

Luis moaned. It was both a good sound … and a bad one.

Her body did its own lightening MoT. Everything seemed intact. She probably had some cuts and bruises, but nothing was crying out for attention.

Luis.

With her hands still tied it took her two awkward attempts to find her feet.

‘Luis?’

Another moan in response.

She followed the noise. He was just there. In a dark pile, on a dark verge ,beside to a dark track.

She knelt down next to him. She couldn’t touch him. She had no free arms.

‘Are you okay? 

He moved his head.

Merde, ça fait mal,’ he said.

‘What?’ Emily didn’t get it.

‘My leg. It’s really sore. I may have broken it. I …’ He let out cry as he moved one of his feet. ‘Merde!’

‘Look …’ There was no sentence to finish. Not yet. She scrambled through her school’s first aid training. Airways first. Then loss of blood. Then breaks.

Check the airways, although he’s talking, so that should be fine.

Blood next. If there was too much, there’d be trouble. 

Phone. 

A torch.

An ambulance.

In which order?

First check Luis for blood. Then phone for an Ambulance.

Yes, that would do it. If the vehicle from the barn headed this way to, the arrival of flashing lights should be enough to protect them from … whoever.

‘I need your phone. I need to put the torch on to check your wounds. And then we …’ she stuttered, ‘… I won’t be able to do it on my own … need to phone for an ambulance.’ Emily rushed out the sentences in a stream.

‘No. Not the ambulance!’ Luis said.

‘Why not?’

There was no further time for a discussion. She’d spotted another pair of lights. This time from the direction they had been heading. It seemed likely that the lights had just turned off the main road and were bumping in their direction. She was surprised how close they were to the turning. Luis must have been pedalling like a mad man.

‘Give me your phone. I need to check your wounds.’ She sounded as frantic as she felt.

‘My jacket pocket.’ Luis’s words were slurred. He was losing consciousness.

Bugger, bugger.

She turned herself around, sat down and felt for his phone. There. She shook it to get the torch working and then … what do I do now?

It was impossible. Her hands were tied behind her back. She could point the phone at Luis, but would struggle to see anything over her shoulder.

Put the phone down.

And prop it up, somehow. Then turn round.

No. Give it to hi. He can phone for an ambulance.

But he doesn’t want to phone for an ambulance.

Why were things so complicated?

She fretted, stuck between too many decisions and not enough time.

But it didn’t matter. The lights from the oncoming car were getting brighter by the second. Soon she’d have the same wattage on hand as an operating theatre.

Whether she could do anything or not depended upon who was driving the car.

She turned to face it, Luis’s phone backlighting her whilst the headlights of the car blinded her.

A few seconds later it was with them. It pulled up ten metres short. There was more light than she needed – she glanced down. Luis was lying at an odd angle on the floor, his bike beyond him, its front wheel buckled. The gouge from the bull was a wet, red/black stain on his jeans. His other leg didn’t look natural, although she couldn’t see any blood. But there was too much shadow to be sure.

She looked up.

The car was a black outline punctured by two bright lights, a myriad of insects flirting with the beams.

Nothing happened. There was clearly someone in the car, but they weren’t keen on showing themselves.

What the hell is happening?

She hesitated. Then … 

‘Help me! Please! This man’s been injured!’ Emily screamed at the car.

Nothing happened.

Shit.

She knelt down. 

‘Luis?’

Nothing.

Was he breathing?

She dropped her head to his mouth and felt the warmth of exhaling air on her cheek.

Thank goodness.

She looked up; across to the car.

‘Help me!’ Emily was angry now. ‘Help me!’ She felt so incapable with her hands trussed behind her back. Her breathing was erratic and her mind was everywhere and nowhere.

Clunk.

The driver’s door of the car opened, a figure got out …

…. and relief flooded through her.

It was Pierre.

Pierre the policeman.

All was going to be okay now. 

Gbassy knelt up. He peered over the roof of the cab. Forward and off to the left was a barn, not much bigger than the restaurant. A large, single door was facing them. 

Monsieur Dupont was out of the cab. He didn’t go straight for the door. Instead he took a torch from his belt, lit it and walked to the left of the barn. There was a track between the building and the shallow water of a lagoon – his boss disappeared along it, the light from the beam preceding him. 

Gbassy dithered. Should he get out and follow the man? Or wait in the truck, listen and watch for developments? He made a decision. He jumped out and waited by the pick up in the dark – he was one step closer to action, if needed. He didn’t have to wait for long. His boss’s torch beam appeared at the far end of the barn, main track side. And then it, and he assumed Monsieur Dupont, headed his way. Gbassy guessed he’d been checking the perimeter.

Would he go inside the barn now? 

Yes

His boss stopped at the door and fiddled with a padlock. When that was done, he threw it on the floor. He then forced back a metal holding rod and pulled the large wooden door open …

… and quickly slammed it shut.

‘Qu’est-ce que?’ his boss said angrily. He was standing, hands on hips, staring at the door.

He turned and strode towards the pickup.

Gbassy was already crouching out of sight by the passenger door. He shuffled backward and slipped around the rear of the vehicle – and listened.

His boss didn’t open the driver’s door, which surprised him. Instead he reached into the bed and gathered something, turned and walked to the barn.

Gbassy glanced around the back of the truck. 

It looked like Monsieur Dupont was carrying a cowprod. Gbassy’s father had one. It was old and unreliable – and he never used it. ‘Kindness works with animals, just like humans,’ his father always said. Clearly his boss had other ideas.

Gbassy watched the man as he tentatively opened the door, cowprod ready, and then disappeared inside the barn. In the still of the night Gbassy’s hearing was excellent. The noises that followed were a combination of bangs and bellows, and then more bangs and more bellows. He could only guess what was going on, but he sensed that Monsieur Dupont was having trouble with some cows.

There was a pause – maybe twenty seconds – and then his boss appeared from the barn, still holding the cowprod. He pulled the latch across and was just about to secure the door when his phone rang, He took it out of his pocket and answered it.

Que?’ he asked.

Gbassy couldn’t hear the response. And Monsieur Dupont didn’t answer. Instead he thrust the phone into his pocket and then jogged over to the pickup, threw the cattle prod into the bed and got back into the cab. Gbassy used the noise of his boss alighting into the vehicle to stealthily jump back onto the pickup’s rear bed.

And then they were off.

Monsieur Dupont drove quickly and with purpose. As he had on the way to the barn, Gbassy lay flat on an old tarpaulin, his body pushed and shoved by the motion of the pickup – but no damage was being done. After a couple of minutes something changed. 

A glow appeared ahead of them. Was it the light of a village? Or a farm?

No. It was headlights.

On a track wide enough for only one vehicle.

They were getting brighter and brighter – and then the pickup stopped. The driver’s door opened and Monsieur Dupont got out. 

Gbassy very carefully lifted his head until everything became clear. What he saw he didn’t like.

Luis Dupont was on the floor. He looked unconscious, maybe even dead. His bike was beside him. Kneeling next to him was Miss Emily. She had her hands tied behind her back. She was staring at his boss – her mouth open, her face a combination of surprise and, what was it, fear? In the glare of the headlights he thought he saw that she was crying. 

Ahead of them was the man he’d seen a couple of times at the restaurant and who Miss Emily had told him about. The policeman – Pierre. He was standing, with his arms crossed, in front of a car with the headlights. Gbassy didn’t trust the man. There was something about him – something deeply unreliable and unpleasant.

And Monsieur Dupont; he was heading away from the truck towards Miss Emily and his prostrate son.

What?

His boss had stopped short of Miss Emily. All Gbassy could see was the back of his broad shoulders. He appeared to be looking at Luis – but from a distance.  

And nobody was saying anything. Miss Emily’s mouth was still open. Pierre was still standing nonchalantly in front of his car. And Monsieur Dupont … he was, as he always was, the focus – in charge. Everyone was waiting for him to do, or say something.

That’s when Gbassy spotted why Miss Emily was looking so distraught; why the atmosphere was as thick as damp mud. 

Monsieur Dupont was holding a handgun of some sort. His left hand was rocking – a finger out straight, pointing towards his son. His right hand, full of pistol, was directed squarely at the woman. 

Emily stuttered. She looked to the monster, his face reflecting red in the sharp lights of the policeman’s car. His eyes were close to popping from their sockets; his breathing short.

And his hand was clasping the metal of death. 

Then the policeman – she looked his way. He’d been here for a minute, maybe more. He was still motionless by his car, all collected and at ease. She’d tried to talk to him, but had got nothing in return. She’d expected the cavalry and got an audience.

‘Pierre. Help me. It’s Luis …’ Of course it is. ‘ … he needs help. He’s been injured by a bull and now, I think … I think he might have broken his leg. Help, please?!’ Her last sentence was more a question than a statement. At the moment Pierre didn’t appear to be offering anything.

Then …

‘We must wait.’ A three-word answer from the policeman

‘Wait? What do you mean, wait? Call a sodding ambulance, or something. Come and untie me so I can help him.’ Still kneeling, she half turned so he could see her hands. ‘He’s unconscious. Can’t you tell?’ She nodded, frustratingly, in Luis’s direction.

The policeman offered no response. He just stood there.

And then she sensed action from behind her. She turned her head. It was the lights of another car. Heading their way.

Her heart fell and her anxiety rose.  

It could well be the two Chevrolet brothers – her previous captors?

That made her even more angry. She stood – clumsily, looked behind her to the emerging headlights, and then, squinting, back towards the policeman. 

‘The car coming could be the two men who kidnapped me – who did this.’ She threw her nose over her shoulder. ‘They’ll lock me up again. And what will they do with Luis?’ As the sentences came out her desperation grew. By the end she was pleading with Pierre.

She took a step towards him. He immediately put out a straight arm and a raised hand.

‘No. Stay there … please.’ The ‘please’ was an afterthought. ‘This will be sorted soon enough,’ he said authoritatively.

She didn’t know what that meant. She didn’t know if Pierre was on her side. She didn’t know if he had some master plan.

She didn’t know …

It didn’t matter. Because the car was here: she and Luis caught between two sets of headlights like a pair of foxes on a busy road, one already downed by a merciless driver.

She stared in the direction of new headlights – at one point she thought about running. But she was drawn by a macabre fascination as to who was in the vehicle.

The driver’s door opened … and then she knew.

The monster got out of the car, all pistol and pent up fury. Just then she knew this wasn’t going to end well for someone. Probably her. His first words confirmed that.

‘What have you done to my son?’ His voice was sharp and accusative.

Emily was absolutely petrified. She was so scared, finding the right thoughts and making them audible was going to be difficult, if not impossible.

Her mouth hung open. She couldn’t effectively grasp the thought to speech process. 

With her mouth still open, she glanced to Pierre for support. He remained steadfastly where he was, arms crossed, his head on one side.

The monster took the final few steps and thrust the gun in her face, the metal catching her forehead sending a spark of pain through her body and almost knocking her over. Then, with the strength of a powerlifter, he used his spare hand to thrust her to the floor. Her knees buckled and she ended up sitting on her heels. 

‘Stay there.’ he spat out the words. With the gun still pointing in her direction he stepped towards the downed cyclist, knelt and shook his son by the shoulders. 

‘Luis?’ he asked. 

Luis murmured painfully back at him.

‘We need to get him to a hospital.’ Emily surprised herself. She had been convinced she wasn’t capable of speech.

The monster turned to her. Now also kneeling, he was the same height as her.

‘You don’t get it, do you. Any of it?’ He rose as he spoke, the inflection in his voice ever more menacing. 

‘I don’t … I don’t …’ she stammered. 

He pushed the pistol towards her again. It stopped a few centimetres from her forehead. She couldn’t keep her eyes off it. The barrel wobbled ever so slightly as Dupont’s hand shook with anger.

‘Everything was fine here until you turned up. You and your big nose – your interfering, do-gooding ways. You are just like your mother.’

My mother?

Emily’s mind couldn’t hold onto anything, it was running out of control, stoked further by fear and foreboding. But she grasped just like your mother. And something close to clarity briefly returned.

‘What about my mum?’ Her words were hardly indignant, but there was strength there now.  

‘She was up to help. She loved it. Her and her pathetic church of faire du biens.’

As Marc Dupont spoke he pushed the pistol forward; it scratched at her forehead. She ignored it.

‘You used her to traffic illegal immigrants. She’d have done that willingly to help the poor and the afflicted. That was the sort of woman she was.’

Dupont scoffed. 

‘You’re right. Her and her church helped with the beginning of the process.’ He was spitting as he spoke – the venom within pouring out. ‘They were the perfect cover. We got the immigrants into the country and your mother and her pathetic helpers made sure that there was a welcoming party – and the blacks got to where they were destined.’

… the beginning of the process?

‘What do you mean, “the beginning of the process”?’ she asked.

‘Don’t say anything.’ It was the policeman who answered Emily’s question. She spun her head round. He hadn’t moved. His demeanour hadn’t changed – he was still detached and emotionless.

‘Why not?’ Dupont responded. ‘It ends here. Just here.’ He pointed at the ground with his free hand. ‘We will finish this.’

Ends?

Emily looked back and up at Dupont. He was a huge, brute of a man made more ferocious by the presence of a gun and the spite of his words.

The monster moved his thumb and the pistol made a light, metallic clunk as though some switch had been flicked.

‘I lied the other day. Your mother was a good woman. She was the perfect host for the immigrants – she was discrete and trustworthy. That was until she found out where the blacks were eventually going.’ His voice was deep and gravelly.

‘What do you mean?’ Emily’s response was weak. She had lost all of her fight.

‘She found out that the illegals were not moving on to safe places, into sensible jobs with secure futures.’ He had lifted the pistol from her head at that point, and was using it to tell the story. ‘They were going to run drugs, become sex workers and other criminal activities …’ 

‘You mean slaves.’ It was a new voice. One she recognised immediately. 

It was Gbassy.

Marc Dupont tried to turn to face a new, unknown threat which had emerged from the dark. But he didn’t make it. Emily heard a fizzing sound and then a yelp from the monster as he buckled and fell.

Gbassy was over him, a long implement – the likes of which Emily had never seen before – in hand. He pushed the end of the prodder into Marc Dupont’s side and the fizz noise accompanied by a neon-blue, electric arc attacked the man again. There was no response from the restaurant owner.

But it was far from over.

‘Gbassy!’ she shouted, a mixture of relief and fear.

Bang!

The noise of the gunshot was the loudest thing she had ever heard.

Gbassy pitched and turned. And fell, the prodder flying from his hand.

‘No!’ she screamed, following the trajectory of the bullet back to the shooter.

There he was. Pierre the policeman. Up until now a sideshow in the crazy events of the night. Three men down, one woman kneeling and the final one – possibly a murderer – standing expertly with a gun nestled in both hands, his feet slightly apart, knees bent and the smoke from the pistol’s barrel swirling in the headlights of his car.

She wanted to scream. She wanted to run. She didn’t know which way to look.

‘Oh my God! What have you done! Gbassy!’ Emily, who was still on her knees, turned and shuffled towards the waiter, tears already dripping from her eyes.

Merde! Merde!’ Pierre shouted to himself. 

He was moving now. Five steps and he was past Luis. Two more and he was beyond Marc Dupont, and then he was next to Emily. He grabbed her hair and pulled her to her feet.

‘Ow!’

He forced her head back into her neck. And now it was his turn to thrust the barrel of a pistol in her face.

She was beside herself. She closed her eyes. It was all going to end. The policeman had shot a man. He was now going to shoot a woman.

‘You … you.’ Pierre was spitting out the words. ‘You should have gone home when I told you to. Look what you’ve done!’ He pulled the gun away, and with force that really hurt he twisted her head from left to right, stopping each time so she could see the three men who were lying on the floor.

‘This. And this. And this,’ as she faced each body. ‘Merde! Merde!!’ his head bobbed and his hand pulled at her hair as he spat out the expletives. 

This could go anywhere.

He threw her to the floor. She collapsed in a skin-coloured bag of limbs, head and torso. 

Merde! Merde!’ He continued swearing as he walked away from her – three, maybe four steps. Emily was lost. Her comprehension skills had deserted her.

‘Why didn’t you go home when I told you to?’ He had his back to her. The question was clearly a rhetorical plea.

Merde! Merde!

He turned. And then he was beside her. He grabbed her by the hair again and pulled her back to her knees. Ow! She caught a glance of his face, all angles and five o’clock shadow. Any hint of male beauty was gone. And she was sure she saw tears in his eyes. 

‘You should have gone home.’ The softly spoken words slipped out between clenched teeth. There was a finality in the sentence as he placed the pistol back on her forehead.

She closed her eyes and something close to prayer came to her. And, as she waited for the inevitable, all she could hear was the policeman’s sharp and heavy breathing through his nose.

…      

Bang!

Clump.

Nothing.

She felt nothing. She saw nothing. Everything was black. Her heart was as far north as it could be. She was weak and defenseless. 

She was done. 

She opened her eyes.

And immediately threw up, only just avoiding Pierre’s lifeless body which was in a plie beside her, his unused pistol still in his hand, his eyes wide and … 

… dead.

Emily turned to the seat of the explosion. And everything became clear.

Luis was lying on his side, his face racked with pain, his hand outstretched, his father’s smoking pistol, which bounced rhythmically to the beat of his heart, pointing to where Pierre the policeman once stood.

‘Phone for an ambulance and then check on Gbassy – I think I saw him move just now. He might be okay. Do it as quickly as you can. Do it now.’ Luis’s call was breathless and weak.

She didn’t know if she had the energy to follow any of his instructions.

And my hands? They were still tied behind her back. 

‘Now, Emily. And watch my father. He will only be unconscious. I will keep the pistol aimed at him. But I can’t be completely sure I’ll stay conscious. Work quickly.’

Instructions. 

Follow them.

Okay. 

She would do as she was told – they could do it between them – if Luis remained awake. But first she needed to find the energy. Breathe. She needed to get the authorities here. Breathe. And she needed the two new men in her life, Luis Dupont and Gbassy, to be well again.

With Luis’s help she could do that.

Chapter 18

The Millau bridge. This time from the other direction – and it was just as magnificent. Emily slowed her Fiat Panda down to a speed which was steady enough to enjoy the views, whilst not so slow as to piss off all of the other drivers. She needn’t have worried. Almost everyone else was doing the same thing. 

She had a chambre d’hôtes booked in Clermont-Ferrand for this evening. The satnav was telling her she’d be there at just after six. Then the ferry the next day. Another day’s drive, And then home. She could handle that.

Probably.

The last week had been a whirl. Most of it had been spent either at the police station or in the hospital – both were in Arles. 

A police car had arrived within fifteen minutes of Luis’s call – she hadn’t been able to make the call; between them they had managed. Two ambulances had followed on shortly afterwards. They couldn’t have come quickly enough for her.

Within a few minutes of Luis shooting Pierre – she was very certain the policeman was dead – the monster had stirred. Marc Dupont had grunted and moaned. And turned his head, and then collapsed again.

Qu’est-ce qui se passe?’ The man’s words had been a slur.

‘Stay where you are, father.’ Luis had replied in English.

Half a minute later the restaurant owner was more awake. He’d lifted his head, looked across at his son and said, ‘Put the gun down, Luis. You’re not going to shoot me,’ and he had started to raise himself up with his arms.

Emily sensed that a bad situation was about to get a whole lot worse. She couldn’t see Luis shooting his dad – family and all that. So she looked around. It took her a few seconds to spot the electric prodder, work out which end was which, squat, turn and pick it up …  and, just as Marc Dupont was about to stand, she thrust the business end into his back and squeezed the trigger. He dropped like a large bag of carrots and didn’t come round until the ambulances arrived.

‘Thank you.’ Luis had called out.

‘My pleasure,’ Emily replied, feeling really good about herself for the first time in a while.

As she checked on Gbassy – he was breathing erratically and his pulse was weak –  she’d spotted the blues and reds of the police car with, in the distance, a second and third set of flashing lights of the ambulances. It was at that point she felt any remaining strength drain from her and she sat with her back to the bumper of Marc Dupont’s car. She kept the electric prod in her hands, just in case.

The officials were all very kind and efficient, and she got in the same ambulance as Luis – by which time a policeman had removed the tie from behind her back. And she’d slept – all the way to the hospital. And then again in the waiting room as all of the on-call doctors were rushing around attending Gbassy and Luis – the two men needed much more attention than she did. After a thorough check up which included plenty of antiseptic, numerous plasters and some painkillers, she had been released just after dawn. And then, having showered, slept, revisited the hospital, returned to the town and slept some more, the long round of interviews and meetings with the police started later that day.

The good news was both Gbassy and Luis would make a full recovery. Interestingly Marc Dupont had suffered a heart attack at some point in the proceedings. It may have been the fault of the third electric prod, but she didn’t care. He was still in hospital, under police guard, when she’d left the town this morning. The fourth man in her mad, temporary, French life, Pierre, was in the morgue. And she didn’t want to think about that. Not necessarily because it was Pierre – she felt nothing but contempt for the man – but because nobody deserves to die young. 

Both Gbassy and Luis had made their escape from the surgeons in under a week. With the restaurant temporarily closed, the three of them had spent a lovely couple of days eating and drinking at Tiki Ill, watching the Petit Rhône do its meanderings, whilst they soaked up each other’s friendship.

By the time she left Emily reckoned she had nearly the whole story. The only thing none of them knew was whether or not her mum’s hit and run had been an accident. It was well before Gbassy’s time and Luis had been out of that side of the business for a long while. 

‘I overheard my father talking on the phone to someone at one of the restaurant tables. I’m sure it must have been just before your mother’s death,’ Luis had said. ‘I only got half of it. But he was speaking to someone in English and, at one point, he said something along the lines of, “what do you mean, she’s going to go to the police?”. And then he intimated this shouldn’t be allowed and the person he was speaking to needed to “do something about it”.’ 

The three of them had been sitting on the bank of the river. Emily had cried again at the futility of it all. At which point Luis had, rather awkwardly, put his arm around her and she had nestled her wet face against his t-shirt. The pair of them had stayed like that for a long time, certainly long enough for Gbassy to walk back to the restaurant and make them all a fish sandwich.

What Luis had been clear on was that Pierre the policeman was bent. His job had been to keep the village closed during the nights when the boats came in.

‘So, when I spotted him and he grabbed me and told me to go home, the police car in the distance was preventing people from coming into the village – not doing some other vital police work?’ she’d asked.

‘Correct. It’s a small town. My father is the gauleiter. Everyone knows something is up, but it’s been like this for generations – smuggling, prostitution etc … it’s a way of life.’ Luis had replied.

‘What will happen now? I assume your father will go to jail. Will you …?’ she teased him. And he had laughed.

‘Me? King Luis – like the jungle book? I think not,’ he’d laughed a reply.

And that had been that.

She had given multiple statements to the police and had been told she would be asked to come back for the trial, probably later in the year. The French police commissioner had spoken to his English counterpart and they reopened the investigation into her mother’s death. 

There was, however, one outstanding issue. She’d asked Luis about it this morning.

‘What will happen to Gbassy?’

‘I’m on that,’ Luis had replied. ‘He has work here in the restaurant and he needs to stay for the trial. And, I will attempt to sponsor him … we have ways here in France. If not, there is enough money to help him disappear.’ He accompanied his answer with a Gallic shrug. ‘Properly this time. He won’t go home, not unless he wants to.’

There had been more hugs at that point, with Emily doing her best not to knock Luis’s pot which stretched from his ankle to his knee. She’d then gone and found Gbassy, who was working one-handed in the kitchen, his other arm bandaged after they’d taken a slug out of his collar bone. She’d hugged him, carefully, and thanked and thanked him – with accompanying tears. He’d reacted as he always had, like one of life’s true gentlemen. 

She would miss him.

And she would particularly miss the lanky, clumsy but ultimately adorable Luis Dupont. She had an open invitation back to Saint-Marie-de-la-Mare. They had exchanged email and WhatsApp details and she’d already received a message from him – her phoned had pinged on the autoroute, just short of the bridge, 

She pulled over at the first available motorway stop. She needed fuel, a pee and a leg stretch.

Before she got out of the car she opened the WhatsApp from Luis. It read: I might be messaging you a lot. Is that OK?

Emily smiled at that.

She’d replied immediately. 

Of course. You might lose the competition, though. 

Without any particular thought she stuck a red-heart emoji on the end. And then pressed send.

As she walked across the carpark to the restaurant there was a reply from Luis.

It was another red-heart emoji.And three kisses.

Getting there …

First an update on my bike battery, the one that I bought from China, sent back to Germany because it was broken, was fully refunded and then they sent it back again – still broken. I had a conversation with them, told them they’d refunded me … and they replied saying they thought their people had fixed it. Anyhow, I took the new and the old batteries apart to see if I could swop over the battery management systems … but they are completely different beasts and there was no way I was going to be able to switch. So, I threw my old, broken one away (to the recycling centre) and was about to do the same to the new one. Instead I put it back together, stuck it on charge for fifteen minutes and, hey presto, it works. That means I have a brand new bigger bike battery for free. I do not feel bad about it. I told them and they still sent it back to me. Hurrah!

I’m 8/17 chapters through the first edit of of Black Bulls and White Horses. And I love it. Much more than I thought I would, I would hope to have the first edit complete by the weekend. And then we’re trying something different. C’s going to read it to me by way of a second edit. And then it’s off to my millenial beta readers. By the end of the month it should be ship shape. Another hurrah!

And Blood Red Earth? Well … that’s done. It’s available to pre-order in e-book (£2.99): press on the photo below. It will be delivered to your kindle on Friday. If you want the paperback (£12.49, I think – I make absolutely nothing from the paperback, sorry), you’ll have to wait until Friday. I’ll remind you all again on Sunday.

press me to pre-order!

We’ve moseyed along. We met up with Jen and James and Jame’s folk for a very windy picnic by the Severn on Sunday. That was fab. Apart from that we have continued to stay safe, run/walk and keep out of trouble. C’s been cooking and knitting an awful lot – and I’ve been writing.

a blustery, Sunday picnic

We’re off for another 6 mile trek along the Severn tomorrow and then to Jen and James for a cuppa. Oh, and Bex and Steven in Korea are fine. They’ve finished school and are ‘going up into the mountains’ on Thursday for a week. Covid-19 means they’re not home this summer, but I guess that’s the same for all of us?

Anyhow, Chapter 16/18 is attached – unedited and unproofread. I hope you’re enjoying it.

flowers

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Chapter 16

Emily was hot. And bothered. The two men had fed and watered her – pain, brie and coffee you could stand your spoon up in – and then left. She had been retied and re-gagged, her ankles tethered to the floor but, and it was a big but, she was now longer hooded. They were about to reapply the hessian sack when she violently shook her head. ‘Noh, noh!’, was as loud a cloth-covered mumble as she could muster, her eyes imploring them not to put the bag back on.

The man missing a front tooth with the sack in one hand dithered. The two men then had a conversation in guttural French which was lost on her; the outcome of which was a huge relief – they had relented. Five minutes later the two men were gone, and she hadn’t seen them, or anyone else since. 

She reckoned it was probably mid-afternoon, but she couldn’t be sure. She had got herself reasonably comfortable, her back against a wooden post, her legs outstretched and her hands resting on the floor by her bum. She stank … she was easily the most pungent smell in the barn – and the competition was tough.  

Her mind had spun, and then relaxed. As the temperature in the barn rose she struggled to keep her eyes open and she had catnapped. She couldn’t stop herself. And then she’d woken and rehearsed all of the same arguments again.

The two men were working for someone else. They had affected the kidnap and now their job was to keep Emily secure. That’s what she felt. After her initial disquiet – that the men had come this morning to do her harm, or, God forbid, ‘do things to her’ – she felt more comfortable with them, which made her feel happier with her incarceration. If that were sensible conclusion, and she wasn’t sure it was. 

Yes, the men looked ragged, dirty and uncouth. And both had looked at her with eyes that couldn’t but betray a deep down, unhealthy lust. But … they hadn’t touched her. Maybe their boss, and she could only imagine that that was Marc Segal, had given very clear instructions: kidnap, but don’t touch.

Marc Segal. He, as he always did, led to so many other questions. 

He’d been very clear. Both about her staying out of his business and the danger she was in. 

You have already been warned. The Camargue is a notoriously lawless place.

She sighed to herself.

What were they going to do with her? Had she seen too much – did she know too much? If that were the case, what were Segal’s options? Surely they couldn’t keep her locked up indefinitely? Maybe there was a big drugs operation going down soon and they needed her out of the way for that? Then they’d release her?

If she were Marc Segal, would she release her? What damage could Emily Copeland do? She had already been to the Gendarme. They knew that. She’d been kidnapped from Pierre’s apartment. 

Right under his nose!

The audacity of it.

She had to assume that Marc Segal thought she’d already told Pierre everything: the bank account; the photo of Luis in Guinea-Bissau; her mum’s exchange with Marc Segal; and the rekindling of their relationship. 

What else did she know? 

Not a great deal. But he didn’t know that.

In any case, was it enough to …

She couldn’t finish that sentence. 

She was too young to contemplate death. She had too much to do. Too many young people’s lives to influence. She had a Scottish croft to buy and some chickens to purchase. 

She had a man to find – to spend the rest of her life with.

She had …

Emily was crying again now. Soft, nodding sobs. Her tears dripping onto her – what were originally yellow, but were now a kaleidoscope of browns and fawns – shorts.

She didn’t want to die. She had so much to live for.

She sniffed and tried to rub her nose, which was a dribbling combination of tears and snot, onto her shoulder, but couldn’t reach it. Frustrated she leant forward and managed the job by using the bottoms of her thighs,

It’s not fair.

It wasn’t.

She sat up straight again, sniffed and closed her eyes. Her hand was gently throbbing and her jaw was reminding her that it had taken the brunt of last night’s fall. Her wrists were sore, as were her ankles. She was a mess. And, sometime in the future, things might go downhill further. There was no escaping that fact. 

Should she try and escape again?

There was nothing within reach that looked useful enough to cut through thick cable ties. The main door had been bolted from the outside and, whilst the barn looked rough, it didn’t look ramshackle enough for anyone to break out of, let alone a shortish woman.

Escape, on the face of it, seemed pointless.

One of the bulls – there were three – mooed, a gravelly, masculine noise. And then there were snorts and a kerfuffle. Even the bulls were restless.

So. It was just her. And the bulls. And two men, who looked and smelt like tramps. And a white 4×4 which had been used as a battering ram. And an older Frenchman who was doing something illegal and who had roped her mum into the business in some way. And a chef, a waiter and a policeman. The three amigos. 

And her.

A teacher – a good teacher. A millennial.

And three bulls.

She opened her eyes. The sun was streaming in through a thin gap in the corrugated iron ceiling. Its fan lit up a slither of hay, just beyond her feet. Dust and a busy fly took their few seconds of fame under the lights of nature’s transient supertrooper. She watched the beam as it reached the hay-covered floor. It moved imperceptibly towards her as the sun ran its course for the day. Soon her feet would be bathed in its light and, not long after that, she would become the star.

She shook her head.

Was she dillushional?

Had they fed her something to quieten her down? 

That was funny – funny, ha-ha..

She snorted, a small female snort. And then again.

Yes, it was funny. Wasn’t it?

She shook her head. The humour was lost in that instant.

No, there was nothing wrong with her. No toxins flooding her bloodstream sending her high and delirious. It was just …

What was it?

Fear. That’s what it was. Her mind was reacting to the fact that this could well be her last day on the planet. 

Fear. 

The humour was gone – it had dashed away as quickly as it had arrived.

And so there were more tears now. Her whole body shook, her shoulders bouncing in tune to some unheard drum.

Fear. She was scared to death. 

There was no other way to look at it.

Just then she wished they’d get on with it, whatever ‘it’ was.

And still the tears came. 

There were no children. That was a huge relief. Gbassy had helped all the migrants off the trawler, onto the pleasure boat and then across to the breakwater.  There were fifty-one; mostly men. One of the men could hardly walk so Gbassy, with the help of another man, had to half-carry the injured party to the truck. A few minutes later and they were on the way back to Tiki Ill. Gbassy had some chocolate and bottles of water. That was all gone in seconds.

The other good news was the cowboys hadn’t eaten in the restaurant that evening and weren’t waiting around to pick and choose – with their grubby, filthy hands – the women they wanted for their own pleasure.

It was still the worst of experiences and he knew he would hate himself when the separating came and when he had to watch the poor people forced into the three trucks, destined for somewhere he didn’t know – or want to know.

The truck turned off the main road and onto the track leading past the campsite. It bumped and banged and its cargo, the ones not already hanging on for dear life were knocked around like beans on a tray. He couldn’t look at them, so he did his usual trick: he hung onto the final roof bar of the truck and looked out over the tailgate, back the way they had come. Away from the miserable, anguished and exhausted people who were hoping that this was one of the last legs of their journey to a better life.

He didn’t want to look at them. 

He didn’t want to be complicit.

So why had he come? Why had he stayed? He should have escaped last night – with three thousand Euros in his hand.

Why hadn’t he?

He didn’t really know. It was a mess; a combination of the fear of actually breaking clean, with all its perils and detachment – leaving something he was very uncomfortable with to take on something he knew absolutely nothing about, and that was fraught with its own danger. And Miss Emily – her plight. And that Luis Segal had not risen when he’d mention that she was in danger. He hadn’t hinted that he might confront his father. And, although agitated, he’d shown no enthusiasm for confronting the issue. Instead he had disappeared into the night – running from, rather than toward Miss Emily’s predicament. 

Today had been no different. He’d got in late for lunch, said barely two words to Gbassy, and then disappeared like a scurrying rat as soon as he were able. This evening had been the same. Such was the chef’s tardiness, at one point Gbassy thought he might have to cook himself. Luis had arrived just as the first clients had taken a seat, looking all hot and distressed. He had quick hands, there was no getting away from it. And, as a result, the first plates of food were ready just on time and looked as delicious as they always did. 

Again nothing had passed between them other than the details of the food orders. And, again, the chef had left as soon as the last plate had been served. He disappeared. In the kitchen one moment; gone the next.

It was hugely frustrating for Gbassy. He had lost a whole day and was now faced with a huge dilemma. Should he leave then, in the gap between the restaurant closing and the boat arriving? The opportunity was short and he was never sure when Monsieur Segal would turn up to take them all to the port. If he had left, what would his boss do? Gbassy may have made it across the river by then, but all Monsieur Segal would need to do was contact a couple of his people who weren’t involved with the boat and the search would be on.

How far could he have got? 

Not far enough, he suspected.

And – what about the boat? The migrants?

At least with Gbassy in attendance their passage between the trawler and the trucks would be as humane as he could make it. If he hadn’t been there, one of the French men would have to take charge and who would know how he’d treat the new arrivals? 

It was a split, in the moment decision … 

… but it wasn’t. 

Not really. 

The migrants from Africa – his people – they’d come first.

But then he’d escape. After. After they migrants had been packed in the drums. Once Monsieur Segal and his men had left the restaurant.  

He’d have about three hours before dawn and another three before Monsieur Segal arrived for his coffee. Six hours. He could get a long way in six hours. 

And there was a bonus. They’d had their best day in the restaurant. And he had another day’s salary and tips. A quick total added up to around three and a half thousand Euros. Those extra five hundred would mean a huge amount to his village.

He hoped it was the right decision. He would know soon enough. 

As the truck pulled up his heart began to beat heavily in his chest.

He had two jobs. Neither were without a huge amount of angst.

First, he had make the human transfer as trouble free as possible.

Second, he had to gather his things together and, once the coast was clear, disappear into the night like a fox.

He dropped the tailgate, jumped down and immediately started the process of unloading the migrants.

Faites attention,’ he said kindly as an elderly woman fell into his arms.

Deux groupes, femmes et hommes, s’il vous plaît,’ he shouted over his shoulder.

As always there was a kerfuffle as the couples amongst the group pulled and pushed, desperately trying not to be separated. One of Monsieur Segal’s men was already prising a pair apart, his fist raised threatening to hit the man if he didn’t do as he was told.

Then they were all off and, as his boss’s men carried out the further separation of the older cargo into the third group, he jumped on the back of the truck, found a black bag and started to clean up the rubbish.

A new noise. 

Another vehicle

Gbassy looked over his shoulder, out through the back of the truck. There were a pair of headlights. He shielded his eyes with his forearm.

It was a pickup. It was too dark and the headlights too bright for him to work out whether or not he’d seen it before. It turned and skidded to a halt. Both doors opened at once and two men quickly got out.

The smell of the men hit him before his eyes could make out who they were.

It was two of the cowboys. And they were in a hurry.

Segal!’ One of them shouted.

Gbassy swiftly picked up the last of the rubbish and jumped out of the truck. In front of him were the three groups of migrants; they were quietly murmuring amongst themselves. Behind them and to the left were the three trucks. Beyond that was the cowboy’s pickup. To Gbassy’s right were three men, soon to be five. Monsieur Segal was centre stage; he was flanked by two of his men. And now came the two cowboys. They put themselves between the three men and the groups of immigrants.

What did they want?

More women?

Gbassy’s jaw tightened. And his fists clenched. He wasn’t expecting a fight. Not tonight. 

If I have to

Que?’ Monsieur’s Segal’s response was curt. He had things to do.

Nous venons de voir ton fils. Il était à vélo. Il est passé devant nous. Nous pensons qu’il se dirige vers la fille.’ One of the cowboys blurted out.

Gbassy’s second language was French. He got every word. 

Pourquoi ne l’as-tu pas arrêté?’ Monsieur Segal’s response was sharp and angry.

‘Nous nous dirigions vers la ville. Nous sommes venus directement ici.’ The talking cowboy was frantic. He had just been chastised by the boss and that wasn’t going to be good news for him and his pal.

Idiots!’ Monsieur Segal shouted. ‘Je traiterai avec toi plus tard.’ His boss was already on the move. ‘S’occuper des migrants. Je veux qu’ils disparaissent au moment où je reviens!’ He shouted orders at his own two men. 

And then he was off, stepping around Gbassy past the truck towards his vehicle which was out of sight.

Que veux-tu que nous fassions?’ One of the cowboys shouted.

Va te saouler en ville, et te noie dans ton propre vomi pour tout ce que je veux!’ Now past the truck, his boss’s voice could be clearly heard.

You can drown in your own sick, for all I care.

Gbassy looked at the two cowboys and then to Monsieur Segal’s men. The cowboys were looking very sheepish. His boss’s men were already busy ordering the migrants towards the trucks.

Which presented Gbassy with an opportunity. 

He turned and stealthily followed Monsieur Segal in the direction of his pickup, staying in the shade of the army truck until …

His boss’s 4×4 was backing up at speed. But it had to stop. And it had to turn. And when it did …

now!

The vehicle was moving much quicker than Gbassy expected, but it wasn’t moving so fast he couldn’t grab at the shoulder of the rear bed and, with one agile leap, he was in the back. He immediately dropped down … and held his breath.

The vehicle didn’t slow. And there was no shouting in his direction from either Monsieur Segal’s men or the two cowboys.

He was safely in the back of his boss’s truck. A truck that, if the cowboys were right, was chasing Monsieur Seagl’s son to where they were keeping ‘the woman’. 

He knew exactly what that meant. And, whilst the cowboy’s intervention had been the perfect distraction for him to collect all the money and slip away into the night, if he were able to help Luis Segal and Miss Emily in any way, that might right some of his previous wrongs. It was an instinctive decision and he didn’t regret it. 

And he regretted it less when he picked up some of the telephone call Monsieur Segal was currently making in the cab, his shouty orders easily louder than the noise of the truck. Luis Segal and Miss Emily were going to need all the help they could get.      

Emily woke to frantic banging on the barn door. It was pitch black even without a sack on her head.

‘Emily! Emily!’ It was Luis’s voice. ‘Are you there?’

It took her no time to get her bearings. She forced herself upright so that her back was pushed up against the wooden upright.

‘Luis!’ she screamed. It was as loud as she could make it; inevitably it was muted by the gag and was a poor attempt at calling out for being rescued.

‘Emily! Emily! It’s Luis! Are you there!’ More shouts were accompanied by more bangs.

She screamed again, this time hoping that closing her eyes and scrunching up her face was going to make a difference. 

Then, ‘Emily!?’ A single word. No banging.

She screamed again. 

‘Is that you?’ His voice was softer – from the other end of the barn he was difficult to make out at all.

One of the bulls bellowed.

Merde, taureaux sanglants.’ Luis banged the door as he swore at the bulls.

He thought it was the bulls!

She screamed again. And again.

Nothing.

Bugger!

What could she do?

She was … no, too far from the wall to bang on its wooden side.

Bucket.

There was a metal bucket. It was six feet away, maybe?

Could she reach it? Could she, literally, kick the bucket?

She screamed a muted scream again to fill the void of her dropping to the floor, onto her side and then pushing and sliding into a position where she could stretch her tied feet …

… and, yes, that was it. Wasn’t it?

Feet meet bucket.

She screamed again. And then, with all her might, she pulled her feet back and let rip.

It was a pathetic effort. Something happened with the trajectory of her legs. They got caught up in the straw and the rope that was still tethering her to the floor and … she didn’t know … but only her toes connected with the bucket. It moved a little, toppled over and made a dull clank as it fell.

She listened.

Nothing.

Just absolutely nothing.

Her one chance to persuade Luis that she was in the barn was lost in a miserable attempt to make noise with a bucket falling onto hay.

She was so tired. And scratched and cut and hurt and … miserable.

And defeated.

She couldn’t stop herself, she cried again. Sobs and sobs of the stuff.

‘Emily?’

It was so quiet a call from just over her shoulder – on the outside of the barn – she almost didn’t hear it.

She sniffed and sniffed.

‘Emily, is that you?’ Louder this time.

‘Yes, Luis. Yes!’ A cloth reduced bleat. But loud enough to be heard if you were just there – on the other side of an old wooden wall.

‘Emily! Wait …’ Luis was thinking. ‘I need to get into the barn. Bear with me. It’s not going to be easy.’

Relief flooded through her. And more tears came.

She was to be rescued by the man she hadn’t trusted. He had come looking for her. And he had found her. Pierre had not. She’d been snatched from the policeman’s apartment – from under his nose. He had the whole of the gendarme at his service – and yet, she’d been found by the son of the man who had abused her mum.

It wasn’t making any sense. 

There was banging here and there.

‘If you can hear me, Emily, I’m looking for a way in. the door is bolted and I don’t have any tools.’

More banging, from further around the barn. And then more.

And more. 

‘Wait.’ It was a call from the far end of the barn, next to the bulls.

‘I’ve found a loose plank,’ Pierre shouted.

A series of rips and grunts followed. The process lasted a few minutes. As Luis did his superman thing, she righted herself again against the post.

Another rip, followed by plenty of ‘Merdes!

And then … a pause.

Whoa, whoa, mes amis,’ was the call from the far end of the barn.

Emily could only assume Luis had found the bulls.

It was a frantic few seconds. Luis yelped at one point and the bulls, who had been quiet until they had company, became noisy and unreceptive very quickly.

Then she saw him. He’d vaulted the metal fence at the far end of the barn. It was a black silhouette against a black wooden wall, but she knew from its gate it was him.

He ran – although he seemed to be favouring one leg over the other – to where she was.

Luis was with her now.

He crouched, his face next to hers. And then there was light. He’d lit the torch on his phone.

‘What have they done to you?’ His face dripped with sympathy and hurt. ‘Are you okay?’

She mumbled; he raised his eyes to the ceiling.

Idiote.’ He chastised himself.

He had the gag off in seconds. And didn’t that feel good?

As he worked he spoke.

‘My father did this?’ He said as he tried to loosen the plastic grips around her ankles, the phone on the floor, its torch’s beam catching his earnest face. She didn’t know if it were a question or a statement.

‘I think so.’ Emil hadn’t said anything for over twenty-four hours. She was surprised her vocal chords worked.

Luis didn’t respond to her. Instead he spat, ‘Merde.’ to himself.

He stopped what he was doing, half smiled at her and then looked around.

‘We need to get you out of here. I’m looking for …’

Emily interrupted him.

‘There’s an old scythe. At the end of the barn by the door.’ She’d noticed it when she’d been taking for the loo first thing.

He didn’t reply. He got up and jogged, with what looked like a lame leg, down to the end of the barn, his torch bouncing with him. He was back with the scythe a few seconds later. She couldn’t fully make it out in the intermittent dark but he looked like the grim reaper. 

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’m going to put the blade under your ankles.’ He paused, staring at her. ‘I can’t assure you that this will be pain free.’ 

She nodded meekly in response.

D’accord.’ This time to himself.

It took him a minute to sort her ankles and the blade so its outer edge was on the ground, with the cutting edge pointing upwards. He’d positioned her ankles – just – either side of the blade. Luis was standing, the wooden handle in both hands, ready to pivot.

‘Hold your feet down as hard as you can,’ he ordered.

She did.

And he pressed down and pulled on the handle. The blade lifted and tugged at her feet. Emily was pulled along a few centimetres, but the tie held fast.

No luck.

‘Okay.’ He smiled at her again … and then she noticed a dark mark on a leg of his jeans. ‘Let’s do this again. This time I’m going to stand on one of your ankles. Okay?’

‘But, Pierre, you’ve been …’ she tried to say.

He was having none of it. He put a foot on her left ankle, and pulled the scythe down with such speed that, whilst her feet twisted and lifted, the blade did a better job and snapped the plastic tie.

Ping!

And. That. Hurt!

‘Ow!’ She tried her best not to sound like a baby.

‘Sorry.’ He said. He knelt down quickly to face her. ‘Can you stand?’ 

‘Yes, but, you’ve been hurt.’ She nodded in the direction of his thigh.

‘Bloody bulls’, he gently dismissed her. ‘Now, come on, let’s do your hands.’

The next few minutes were fruitless. It was a much more difficult job to break the tie around her wrist. There was no obvious way to get traction and leverage, and the scythe’s blade was too blunt to use as a cutting tool.

And then it didn’t matter.

Because Emily spotted something which changed their plan.

A light through the crack in the barn door. It was just a flicker. But it hadn’t been there before.

‘Luis!’ she said.

‘What?’ He was still unsuccessfully working the scythe as a saw.

‘There’s a light. Over there, through the door. It wasn’t there before.’

He stopped what he was doing, looked … and then dropped the scythe and headed for the barn door. She followed on, hands still tied behind her.

Merde!’ he spat.

‘What is it?’ she asked.

‘A vehicle. It might be my father. It could be some of his men. Whatever, they’re coming here. There is no other reason for them to head this way. Merde!’ He was turning around, looking for options.

‘What …’ Luis didn’t give Emily the chance to finish her question. He moved around to the sturdy metal gate which held the bulls in their pen. He paused, as if thinking of a plan.

He came back to her.

‘Okay. I’m going to put you on the fence, by the door.’ He shone the torch to where the metal fence met the end of the barn. ‘Lean against the wood. Whatever you do, don’t fall off.’ She picked out a half-smile in the dark.

‘I … what?’

He didn’t let her finish again. Instead he lifted her by her arms as if she were a doll, walked the few steps to the barn door and perched her on the fence.

‘Stay there,’ he ordered.

She didn’t have a choice. She pushed her right shoulder against the wood of the barn and did her best not to fall, either back from where she came, or in with the bulls.

In the meantime, Pierre had opened the gate and was calling at the bulls to make their escape.

Nothing happened.

Allez vous putain de choses!’ he shouted.

Still no movement.

He rattled the gate. As he did, Emily noticed that the light over her right shoulder was getting brighter.

‘Pierre!’ She hated sounding like an incapable woman, but there was little she could do but warn him.

But he was gone. He’d pushed the gate to and was hobbling down to where she had been tied up. He was back a few seconds later with the scythe.

And then all hell broke loose.

She had seen the bulls at first hand – as close as you’d ever want to get to one, even if they had been surrounded by horses.

They were intimidating then. Now they were bloody frightening.

Luis was in the pen, prodding and shouting – shouting and prodding, his torch twirling and flashing. The bulls were making more noise than she ever thought animals could make. They were dancing around Luis. At first, from what she could see, they appeared to be scared themselves. And then they seemed to get very angry.

But Luis had the upper hand. One bull was out of the pen, encouraged by a poke to the backside. Then the second, with Luis giving it a mighty slap with the scythe’s wooden handle. The third seemed intent on a fight, but Luis pirouetted like a master bullfighter, screaming and toying and then it was gone, through the pen door and … 

Shit! 

The bull had turned right – towards her. It was coming at her. She could see it now, the lights from the oncoming vehicle providing a laser-show of illumination through the cracks in the barn wall.     

It was going to … she flinched, and ducked – every muscle tightened as if she were in a slow motion car crash.

Smash!

The bull hit the fence and the barn wall simultaneously. The noise was terrifying. 

But it hadn’t hit her. Just before impact Luis had whipped her off the fence and into the pen – the bull left behind with no victory, all snorts and grunts.

And she could see it clearly, because the vehicle was with them now. It had stopped outside the barn, its ghostly, segregated beams slicing the bull and the flying dust – all of the animal’s anger and contempt captured in a disco-like trance.

‘We have to go now.’ Luis whispered to her. ‘Through the crack.’ He was pointing.

She nodded.

And then he led her out through the gap in the barn wall and into the night. 

I am not a one-shot pony

So. I have finished of Black Bulls and White Horses. It’s proper novel length (81k, which is industry standard. Apart from Unsuspecting Hero the Sam Green books are all ‘epics’ at over 120k words) and it has a beginning, a middle and an end. I think I like it. A lot. And now the editing process begins. Yesterday I couldn’t stop myself from having a first go at the cover. It comes from an original photo of mine I took when we were down on the Camargue a couple of years ago. I hope you like it.

And Blood Red Earth will be out on Friday in both paperback and ebook form. I’ll drop a link next time I write. That means I have written seven books. Seven. Two this ‘year’ (September to August – I can’t stop myself, I am an ex-teacher). I still struggle with: what do you for a living? Oh, I’m a writer. But, and I know I’ve rehearsed this argument a couple of times before, that’s what I am. I earn almost no money from it – although the potential is there. But it’s what I do (mostly).

We’re OK. Whilst the country opens up and the social distance comes down to a single metre and foreign holidays look possible, we’re still not sure. It’s a combination of things. First we don’t want to be a burden. Second, we don’t want to catch the disease whilst we’re abroad. And with England in particular looking like it’s not going to defeat or control the disease in any sensible way, we just need to stay as safe as possible.

For the record I timed my first run today in three months. It’s the usual 4.6km for which I now have a target time of 20 minutes. I have been running six days out of seven, but only rarely have I run quickly. Today I surprised myself. It didn’t feel that quick, but I got round in 19.55 which I was really happy with. So that’s good news.

that’s my sock, Cassie – we had her overnight on Wednesday

We are thinking of going to mum’s in the next ten days or so. And we have a picnic planned with Jen and James tomorrow. And I’m off writing for the weekend … I need a break.

Stay safe everyone. Chapter 15/18 attached. Remember it’s unedited!

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Chapter 15

Emily had had the whole afternoon to check out Pierre’s flat – at the same time trying her best, via her phone and the net, to find something which might add to her mum’s story.

Pierre’s flat gave nothing away, other than he had a wardrobe full of smart, chic clothes, more shoes than Clarks, a chemist’s worth of toiletries, an immaculate kitchen – but nothing in the cupboards that was healthy – and a locked, metal box, which she couldn’t find the key to. There was nothing which let on he was a policeman; not even a hint of uniform in any of the cupboards. And she couldn’t find the walkie-talkie.

What little paperwork there was lying about was all incidental stuff: a pay cheque from the cafe which elicited his surname: Legrand; a couple of official letters which looked like they might come from an insurance company; a booking reference for a holiday later in the year to Goa – for just him. A single man to his bones. An empty bed waiting to be filled.

There was nothing. 

Apart from a metal box which looked easily big enough to hold all sorts of paperwork, a walkie-talkie and who knew what else – he could keep a Tommy-gun in there. She had to assume he was what and who he said he was. And, if that were the case, everything about the more official side of this particular two-sided coin was locked securely away. Which made sense, didn’t it?

And, after a fruitless couple of hours on her phone, she had been about to give up on trying to break into her mum’s email address. Then she had one final idea.

Emily decided to send her mum a test message, something which, as she hovered, typed and deleted, and typed, deleted and hovered, really, really unnerved her. It was though she were trying to communicate beyond the grave. 

In the end the message she sent had been a simple one – just a title. It read: I miss you, mum.

She held the phone in front of her face as it pinged her message into the ether. She then put her phone on the table, stood and helped herself to a glass of water.

Ping.

What?!

Emily froze. Dead still.

She looked across at her phone. There was a tiny white LED flashing in the top right corner.

She had a message.

It her took her a few seconds to get her bearings – to overcome her unease.

Sod it.

She picked up the phone, swiped and dabbed, and there it was.

Her heart sank.

Address not found.

Of course. 

She put the phone down again, picked up her glass of water and walked to the window which overlooked the beach. It was on the latch. She pulled it open completely so that she and the world were on the same page.

The sun was a big ball of burning orange gas. It hung just above the horizon like a tentative bather afraid of the temperature of the water 

Directly below her was the cafe’s terrace blind. In this light it was a deep red, almost purple. Under it were three tables, probably some tourists and, possibly, Pierre. She’d not seen him since he’d dropped her off before lunch.  

Beyond the blind was the main road – two narrow lanes with a smattering of car headlights moving in both directions. Then the raised, concrete boardwalk adorned with the darkened silhouettes of people caught between her and the setting sun – an in-line skater, moving quickly left to right, meandering expertly around some older folk enjoying an evening promenade. After which was the beach and then the sea, all early blues and greys leading in the distance to oranges and reds. 

To her right was the bull ring, to her left the promenade and road disappeared into the distance where they were eventually met by scrubby trees and the expanse of the Camargue.

The beach was beautiful – one colour, fine, dark sand leading gently to a Mediterranean which, after the last day or so of being abrupt and noisy, had given up its fight and was now as placid as a mid-summer pond. She could see where, the other night, she’d sat by the breakwater and waited for Pierre. And, when she looked far left and let her eyes focus, she picked out the lighthouse in the distance, a matchstick of dark brown poking up against a brush of greeny-oranges and, away from the sun, penetrating blacks as the land welcomed the dark of the night. 

As she stared, her mum came to her. 

And then the monster. 

Don’t be so sure that your mother was a good woman.

What the blazes was that supposed to mean?

Marc Segal was a crook. He was also not beyond violence. She had been knocked off her bike because of him. He would say anything that suited. Crooks lie. That’s how they become successful at what they do, whatever that was in his case. 

Her mum was a good woman. Emily knew. And there was nothing Marc Segal was going to do to besmirch her memory.

Emily continued to stare at the view, picking out little things she hadn’t noticed before. An elderly woman carrying a dog the size of a small rabbit. Two young lovers doing everything other than having sex on the beach. A family of four on a late cycle ride. Mum and dad on a tandem. The two kids following on on children’s bikes.

If only I had been able to look at mum’s emails.

But the address wasn’t recognised anymore.

Did that make sense? Do email providers close down accounts? Facebook hadn’t. Her mum’s was still there, with tales of a rekindled romance between her and Marc Segal.

So why was her mum’s account now closed? And was that why Emily hadn’t been able to break into it? Maybe she had the right password, but the account wasn’t recognised?

The emails … the ones she and Marc Segal had used because Messenger was considered to be too public. Of course the account would be closed down. Because the exchanges on it were incriminating.

Marc Segal had reach. There was no doubt about that. 

Clunk.

A key turned in the front door lock and the handle dropped.

Pierre was popping up. It was very late and she was getting hungry. Perfect timing, therefore. She was feeling better now – more trusting. Hopefully he would be able to fill some of the gaps. She turned to welcome him.

Except it wasn’t Pierre.

‘Who … who are you?’ she said, almost as a gasp.

It was two men. They looked like tramps: dirty jeans, checkered shirts, leather waistcoats, scuffed cowboy boots and belts with big buckles. Their faces were more wrinkles than skin, their black hair looked in need of carbolic soap and a scrubbing brush, and both wore ridiculous gaucho moustaches. One man was carrying what looked like an empty sandbag, which struck her as ood. Their entry was quickly accompanied by a smell. It was a combination of sweat, horses and something she couldn’t put her finger on. It was enough to make her feel nauseous. It certainly didn’t make her feel at ease.

She felt even less comfortable when they didn’t respond to her question.

They were halfway into the apartment. She stepped backwards, her bum hitting the window ledge. With any more momentum she’d have likely toppled through it. She steadied herself with the frame, and then decided to perch her bum on the ledge – which was a better choice than falling out. She crossed her arms in semi-defiance, water splashing from the glass onto her bare arm.

‘’Who are you?’ This time she was more resolute. The men were looking around the apartment; searching for something.

Soyez tranquille, Dame.’ The taller of the two men spoke. He had a gap where one of his front teeth should have been. 

Tranquille sounds like ‘quiet’.

He was telling her to shut up.

Were they robbers?

What were they?

Pierre was downstairs.

A multiplicity of thoughts in quick succession.

The window was still open.

I should scream?

But they had a key?

‘Does Pierre know you’re here. He’s just downstairs, you know.’ She tried a different tack.

There was no response. The shorter man, who had all his front teeth, took a couple of steps towards her. The other looked beyond her to the open window.

And then it all happened – so quickly.

The man with all the teeth lunged at her. She threw both arms out in front, the hand with the glass finding the side of the man’s face. The glass splintered and, as she screamed something which might have been ‘help’, the searing pain of glass cutting across the palm of her hand and took all of her attention. 

She had started to fall from the window – literally – the force of the man’s lunge had caught her by surprise and as her body pivoted on the ledge, her shoulders dropped and her knees rose. But she didn’t fall. The man with all his front teeth, but now with a face awash with red which may have come from her hand, but just as likely was seeping from a cut somewhere on his face, had her thighs. A second later, without any ceremony at all, she was back inside Pierre’s apartment, smacking the floor with her shoulder.

Then she screamed. She gave it all she had. But it lasted for nothing. The second man was on her, his hand over her mouth – which she instinctively chewed at, biting into flesh which gave way to bone …

… which was a mistake.

Because the man without a front tooth smacked her on the side of the head. With what? She didn’t know. Probably his fist. All she saw was a brief set of stars. And then darkness.

Emily woke. Smell was, she’d read somewhere, the first sense which returns after being unconscious. She got salt. And a farm smell. And … what was that? She had all her senses now. Except she couldn’t see anything, her blinking eyelids catching the sack which was over her head.

The missing smell was hessian. Of course it was.   

She had the headache from hell and a hand which cried out for attention. She remembered that she’d cut it on the glass as the man with all the teeth had lunged at her. She felt to see if it had been bandaged and she immediately realised that they were tied behind her back – and the harder she pulled, the more the plastic ties dug in. The good news was a damp cloth was wrapped around her hand, possibly not expertly. But it was better than nothing.

She wiggled her wrists. 

Everything hurt.

She stopped that. 

Her feet? Tied also, her ankles shouting at her to calm down as she moved one leg against the other.

She tried to shout – but a gag prevented that.

Where am I?

What she did know was she was lying on the floor. Her bare flesh scratchy against … hay? 

She stopped moving. And listened. 

Nothing. 

Nothing human. 

No. There was something.

A rustling. Close to. Louder now. 

A snort. 

And then a masculine ‘moo’ sound, short but rough.

She was in with the bulls. In a barn or similar – although it was difficult to tell through the hessian.

Her survival instincts had run their course. She had been expertly tied, gagged and hooded. Kidnapped by the two disgusting men.

Kidnapped.

It hit her then.

Kidnapped. Stressed and tied and abandoned in a barn with the bulls.

Emily closed her eyes. Her mum’s face met her. 

She tried to stop it. But she couldn’t.

Her bottom lip wobbled.

And then she wept, pitiful floods of tears.

Gbassy was sat in the still of the wood. It was close to pitch black. Next to him was a shallow hole surrounded by earth and pine needles. On his lap was his metal box. It was open. In it was six hundred and seventy Euros – the culmination of all of his wages and tips. In his hand was another two thousand, three hundred and fifty Euros. Today’s takings. Add them together and he got more money than he could ever dream of. 

Was it enough?

If he left now, would three thousand Euro be enough for him to start a new life. Would it give him a buffer, buy him time to find new employment, scratch around for accommodation and, eventually, procure the correct papers so he could do what his village has asked him to do – gather money and send it home so that others might follow him? His last email exchange to the elder hinted that there was money coming soon. Gbassy had the cash.  And he had seen a Western Union sign in town. The process had been explained to him before he’d left Guinea. It was uncomplicated.

All he needed to do was find the time to get to the village when the shop was open. And that opportunity hadn’t yet presented itself.

Maybe it never would?

Maybe he’d be tied to the restaurant until his time came to be dropped in the river – to become fish food? If tomorrow was the last boat for the summer, perhaps that time had already come? Maybe his successor would be on tomorrow’s boat? If that were the case, his village would never see his money. He could well have been working for no reward. At least if he escaped, if nothing else he could send some money now – possibly tomorrow? He’d have made one precious payment to his village. 

He looked down at the cash in his hand. It was so dark he almost couldn’t make it out.

But he could feel it.

He pressed the notes together until they were squashed as one. 

It felt thick – a wodge. It was definitely more money than he’d ever seen.

If he were to go, he needed to go now; to get as much distance between him and the restaurant before Monsieur Segal came mid-morning for the takings. He had little to pack. He could be away in half an hour; even less. That gave him eight hours, or so. He could travel fifty kilometres in that time. He’d be in the next town well before dawn. And once he was there …

… a new life. Free from the shackles of Monsieur Segal, the restaurant and the dreaded boats.

He’d picked a route. He’d walk along the river to begin with; stay off the main road. There was a bridge over the Petit Rhone about a kilometre away. Once across it, he would head back down to the beach. GoogleMaps showed a long stretch of sand to the west, cut by two rivers, both of which had bridges close enough.

If he ran and walked, he’d easily make the next town by dawn. He could hide during the day, wait until the night and then head off again. There were plenty of seaside towns on the coast. One of them would have work for him. 

He squeezed the money together again. And released his grip.

Three thousand Euros.

The price of freedom.

And yet …

… it wasn’t as simple as that.

Not now.

It was, or had been. 

That was until Miss Emily had met Monsieur Segal this morning. 

And since Gbassy had spoken with the chef this evening.

The conversation hadn’t lasted long.

‘Luis.’ Gbassy had been standing at the entrance to the kitchen, his boss had just turned his back on him and had headed over to one of the tables. The news of the impending boat had taken everything from Gbassy – except one thing: his determination to confront Luis Segal.

‘What?’ Luis had his back to him; he was working a frying pan with sliced potatoes, olive oil and paprika.

‘I need to talk with you.’

The chef continued with his cooking. ‘Go on.’ It wasn’t a dismissive reply. But it lacked enthusiasm.

‘Face to face. Please. It’s about the woman.’

Luis didn’t stop pushing the potatoes around the large skillet, but Gbassy noticed that his shoulders tensed.

‘What about her?’ He still hadn’t turned around.

Gbassy knew that the opportunity to talk was short. There was work to do front of house, and the chef had a final table’s worth of food to prepare. Talking to the chef’s back wasn’t getting them anywhere.

He quickly dropped the dirty plates on the drainer and moved to Luis’s side.

The chef looked at him, still working the potatoes. His face was stern, his mouth tight.

‘She came here today. To see your father.’ The chef’s stirring slowed, but didn’t stop. ‘She was confronting him about his relationship with her mother.’

‘It was years ago.’ The chef seemed to lose interest, looked back down at the pan and worked the potatoes further.

‘No. Your father has been in contact with her mother since then. It started a couple of years ago. Your father was encouraging her to help him.’

The stirring stopped. Luis seemed ready to say something. But he didn’t. Instead he turned up the gas under the pan.

Gbassy took a deep breath.

‘Miss Emily wanted to know what your father did, other than the restaurant. He was paying money into her mother’s bank account. Large sums of money.’

The chef stopped stirring. He bit his lip. And then he raised his eyes to the window which was behind the stove. It was dark outside now. There was nothing to see but four small panes of black and a reflected kitchen.

But still he didn’t say anything, the smell of burning paprika filled the void.

‘She asked him what you were doing in Guinea-Bissau.’ 

Gbassy flinched as he said it. He knew it would be something the chef couldn’t avoid – so big was the piece of information. He waited for an explosion.

But there wasn’t one. The chef continued to stare out of the window. And the potatoes continued to burn.

Gbassy reached forward and turned the gas to the hob off. The chef didn’t flinch.

‘Are you going to say anything?’ Gbassy asked.

Nothing.

‘What were you doing in Guinea-Bissau? Were you finding people like me – for your father’s business? People with hopes and ambitions? With children and families? People determined to find a better life?’ Gbassy had started something he couldn’t stop. He tried to sound calm and respectful, but he knew he came across as goading and hurtful.

The chef looked at him then, a face full of … what? Regret? Disappointment? The stare didn’t last long. It was moments. And then the chef turned his attention back to the skillet.

‘I have a table to prepare. And these potatoes are beginning to burn.’ Luis nodded in the direction of the sink. ‘And you have dishes to clean. We have jobs. We should do them.’

There was no malice in the chef’s words – just resignation.

Gbassy didn’t move.

‘Your father organised for Miss Emily to be knocked off her bike – he could have killed her. And he threatened her, before she left – today. It is not safe for her here. We both know that.’

It was Gbassy’s last shot. He let it hang.

Luis Segal’s face stiffened further. His eyes sunk deeper into their sockets. And he pushed the potatoes around the skillet without flourish. It was then that Gbassy noticed the muscles in the man’s forearms. All of the man’s limbs were long and sinuous, his muscle definition pronounced. Those Gbassy could see on his arms now were raised and tight, as if the chef were about to take on some massive endeavour.

‘We should serve this table.’ Luis’s final response was said through gritted teeth.

And that had been that. 

Except …  

… Luis Segal had left the restaurant within a minute of the final dish being served – he had handed the last plate over to Gbassy and was gone. Normally the chef hung around for a little while; for the last three nights he had left Gbassy some food.

But not tonight. Either he was so disgusted with their conversation that there would be no more free dinners. Or he had somewhere to go – quickly.

As Gbassy sat in the dark, holding more money than he had ever seen, their exchange had left him with a problem. He had hoped Luis Segal might have opened up to him; maybe shared his concern about Miss Emily. Perhaps Luis would have his own confrontation with his father. Something, anything, to put Gbassy’s mind at rest.

That hadn’t happened.

And that presented him with a problem. 

He didn’t have two options, stay or escape, the latter of which was calling him from the towns down the beach. 

He had three: stay, escape or … it was madness to even think it … go and find Miss Emily – and help her.

Whatever that meant.  

Clunk and then a grating sound of wood on concrete. It was enough to wake Emily up from a deep and disturbed sleep. It took her a while to come to.

She was stiff. Everything ached. 

She had fallen last night. 

It was a stupid thing. She thought only her hands and ankles had been tied. If only she could get to her feet, she could stumble to a door, if she could find one. Turn her back to whatever the lock might be, open it and escape. Sure, she could only waddle – blindfolded, but maybe she could make it to a road and alert someone?

She was on her backside seconds later. She had made it to her feet, after a couple of attempts, and shuffled to find at least one side of the barn. But before she’d got there a rope, which was tied to whatever was securing her feet, reached its maximum arc. And that was it. With no free arms, her chin hit the floor before any other part of her body. Thankfully, the straw had cushioned the fall, but it still hurt like hell. 

She had fallen.

And then she had cried – it hurt so much. 

As did the ignominy of where she found herself. And the fear and anxiety of what may be coming. It was all too much. There wasn’t room in her head – it was nursing too many wounds – to think through the detail about where she was, or who had taken her.  

So she cried some more. And then promptly fell asleep.

She was awake now. A door had been opened and a waft of warm air rushed in at ground level. She was still lying on her side, her feet tied and her hands still behind her back. The hessian sack smelt as it did – if she were ever to get out of this, it would be a smell she would hate forever. And her gag was damp; its taste something akin to snot that dries in the back of your throat when you wake up with a cold.

She smelt like a gap year backpacker. She hadn’t eaten since yesterday lunchtime, her hand hurt – more so if she tried to move it, and her chin, where she had fallen, ached like a bad tooth.

And she needed a wee. Badly.

It was a pitiful state to be in and, regardless of what was following on from the open door – be it good or bad – she couldn’t stop herself from crying a little more.

Enlever sa capuche.’ She recognised the voice. It was from one of the men from last night.

A hand grabbed her head, Then – light.

She blinked, the tears spraying the straw.

It took her a few seconds to get her bearings.

She was in a barn, about the size of … the one she’d had lunch by the other day. It was split seventy – thirty along its axis by a metal fence and several gates. She was at the far end of the thirty, away from the door. As far as she could tell, there were three bulls at the other end of the seventy, next to the door. She was sure the bulls hadn’t been in the hut when she’d stopped and looked at the egrets. Maybe it wasn’t the same hut?

Apart from the bulls and the metalwork, a lot of straw and the odd feeding and water trough, it was a plain, ramshackle wooden barn. Which might be next to a pond and some egrets. 

She had been joined by the two men. The one closest to her, who had a hessian hood in one hand, had some steristrips on his cheek; they crossed a deep red cut like a kid’s drawing of a railway. 

Good.

Did she mean that? Was she really comfortable having hurt somebody?

The second man, the one missing a tooth, was behind him. He was carrying a plastic box. She had no idea what was in it – it could be anything. That thought sent a spasm to her bladder and she did all she could not to wet herself.

She lifted her head off the straw and tried to say, ‘I need to go to the toilet’, but the words were lost in the gag. She tried again, this time louder; her eyes wider.

The man with the hessian sack looked at her quizzically.

Emily closed her eyes and took a deep breath. And then opened them.

The second man was with them now. He put the plastic box on the floor and she immediately recognised the top of a flask. That made her close her eyes again. She had no idea why she thought the box might contain something with which damage could be done. It was a relief that the worst these two thugs might do was feed her.

The man with the sack put his hands under her arms and lifted her to the sitting position. She let out a gagged, ‘yelp’. Everything hurt.

He then crouched, his face – that of an antagonist in a spaghetti western – was very close to hers. He studied her for a while and then, with some tenderness, lifted her fringe from her forehead and pushed it up onto the top of her head. It was a remarkably kind act … until he smiled, his yellow teeth and bad breath reminding her that she was at these two men’s mercy.

But he didn’t touch her any further. Instead he said, ‘Mangez …’, and used his hands to demonstrate eating.

Relief washed through her. She wasn’t going to be tortured and, as of yet, they weren’t going to do other unpleasant things to her.

‘Toilet.’ It didn’t come out like that. She took a quick look at her crotch and then nodded her nose in the direction of the open door.

The man looked confused … and then a light bulb went on.

Toilette?’ he said, nodding.

Oui, s’il vous plaît.’ It was another gagged response.

It took both men a couple of minutes to get her to her feet, untie the plastic shackles around her ankles and then, with one man at her side, his hand on her upper arm, she stumbled past the bulls and into the light of the day. 

She was exactly where she thought she was. And that was miles from nowhere. It was a beautifully clear day, the sun already strong enough to burn exposed skin and, as she remembered, there was nothing in any direction other than lakes and scrubland and a single, straight track that linked the two main roads.

But there was a car. It was facing the same direction she’d taken the other day on her bike. It was an old Renault, more rust than paint, which looked as if it would never pass an MoT back in the UK. 

The man stepped in front of her and turned so they were face to face. He then pointed around the back of the hut and nodded.

Deux minutes,’ he said.

She still had her hands tied. And she was still gagged.

How on earth …?

She tossed her head over her shoulder, half turned and wiggled her wrists.

The man looked unsure.

‘Come on, pleeease.’ It was another gagged response, but her face was telling the story.

The man  was unsure. He looked around, checking for who knew what. And then he took a knife off his belt and cut the cable tie behind her back. 

The relief was instantaneous.

Deux minutes,’ the man reaffirmed. 

Emily hobbled around the shed until she was out of sight. Her mind was racing, although any hint of a plan was being interrupted by her need to pee.

Car. Keys? Two men.

Could she make a break for it?

It was no good.

She crouched, pulled down her skirt and pants and …

… the egrets were there. All awkward and swan-like. 

She peed.

As she did and against the backdrop of somewhere she had lost herself in just two days ago, the enormity of it all washed through her again. Tears welled up and then ran down her cheeks, lost their battle with gravity and fell to the floor joining the river of wee which was meandering down to join the lake.

Get a grip.

She finished, pulled a leaf from a small, stunted bush and wiped herself.

Could she outrun the men? Could she knock one down and take the car?

Really?

Did she need to? They had brought a flask and probably some food. Was the ordeal nearly over?

Emily stood and dressed herself. She then tentatively walked around the barn away from the direction she had come. She reached the track, looked left … ahead of her there was at least three kilometres of straightish, hard-packed, muddy road until she would hit tarmac. Right, beyond the car, the same, but this time five kilometres before any help.

Oi!’ It was the man. He had followed her around the barn.

She jumped. He had scared her. Which sent a spike of adrenalin rushing through her veins.

Her decision was instantaneous. She was wearing pumps. He wore cowboy boots. She was late twenties. He was … who knew what.

Could she run three kilometres faster than him?

There was only one way to find out.

The race lasted longer than she thought it might. She sprinted to begin with and easily left the thug in her wake. She kept glancing behind. First he was very close … and screaming blue murder. Then she had a couple of metres on him. Then five. Then ten. Soon she looked behind and he was stood still, bent double – hands on hips. She had outrun him! And she knew she was fit enough to keep outrunning him all the way to the main road. 

But he wasn’t the problem.

The Renault was.

It must have taken the pair a couple of minutes to turn the car around. And then it took them a few more to catch up with her. The thing was, she could have turned left or right between the many lakes and ponds where a car couldn’t follow. Off the track she would have had the legs to keep ahead of them.

But, by the time Emily realised the car was her next competitor, she had reached a point on the track where there were large expanses of water on both sides of her. There was literally nowhere for her to get off the track. Not without swimming, or wading. She hadn’t thought it through. And, by the time the Renault was on her ankles, she was so hot and so tired – she had little fight in her.

They could have knocked her over. But they didn’t. They got close enough to be a threat and stayed that way for no more than a minute … and then she slowed, and then jogged and eventually stopped. It was her turn to bend double and take gulps of fresh air.

The tears came again now. More of frustration than fear. She had got so close … and had failed.

She was manhandled into the back of the Renault by the two men – it was two door, so there was no way for her to escape again. They turned the car around at the next opportunity and she was back in the barn a few minutes later.