Burning Bright by Chris Green
You will be walking along Kipling Street bright and early, on your way to work at the packaging museum. For no accountable reason, you will be thinking about Alicia Keys, and one of her tunes will be running through your head when two young men in dark clothing will jump out from behind a black four by four with heavily tinted windows. The taller one of the two, a gangly figure with slicked back hair and Police sunglasses, will grab you forcibly and point a gun at your head. He will order you to stay silent and to put your hands on your head. You will be afraid and do as he asks. The shorter one who will have a fleur de lys tattoo on his arm will give you a swift blow to the stomach. They will then bundle you roughly into the back of a Nissan Pathfinder, a big ugly thing with menacing black dials. They will blindfold you and tie your hands behind your back. They will tell you to lie in the back seat, and with a textbook skid and a screech, they will drive off.
There will be a silence for a while, just the noise of the Pathfinder’s diesel engine as it makes its way through the early morning traffic. Fleur de Lys will break the silence. He will say that they are taking you to a safe house and as long as you behave you will come to no harm. He will explain that they are Second Year students on the Criminality course at the university and this is the assignment for their ‘Kidnapping’ module. They are both hoping for First Class Honours, having got marks in the 70s for the ‘Burglary’, and the ‘Theft’ modules. Fleur de Lys, despite his short stature, has achieved an incredible 93% for the ‘Impersonating a Police Officer’ practical. If these are Year 2 modules on the Criminality course, you will speculate what the Year 3 modules might be. Murder perhaps? You will let the thought pass.
You will be taken to a house at the end of a quiet cul de sac, but as you will be blindfolded you will have no way of confirming this. Birds will be singing and you will be able to smell cherry blossom in the air. They will drive right up to the garage door at the front of the house and you will be quickly hustled in. They will remove the blindfold. The rooms will have blackout curtains. There will be little furniture, a grubby black leather three piece suite, a small table and a DVD television. There will be no everyday items to suggest the house is lived in, no pictures on the wall or plants. Miscellaneous electrical equipment and cables will be piled up in a corner of the main room, its purpose not clear. In the gloom, with nothing to focus the eyes on, the room will feel subterranean. The rank smell of the kitchen will make you retch. The cooker will be filthy. The sink will be filled with a pile of condemned dishes. The sticker laden fridge will be completely full of energy drinks.
Your captors will not tell you their names but they tell you they know yours, James Wright. You will think they have got the wrong James Wright. If they phone and ask Saskia, your wife, for a ransom, she will in all likelihood refuse. You are in the early stages of divorce proceedings. You will try to explain this but it will only meet with hostility. Gangly will then trash your mobile phone, with extreme prejudice.
After an hour or so they will untie your hands but they will not make any of the errors that kidnappers seem to make in films, like leaving the gun on the table. Apart from Gangly pushing you around a bit, the pair of them will be quite pleasant through the rest of the morning. Fleur de Lys will offer you cups of tea and toast and marmalade. Gangly will show a preference for Red Bull, and make his way through several cans. Gradually, the two of them will become chatty, in a guarded kind of way. You will learn that they are both Queens Park Rangers supporters and in their spare time play in an experimental jazz band. Gangly plays bass (probably with extreme prejudice) and Fleur de Lys, tenor saxophone. Why does Gangly need his sunglasses in the house, you will wonder?
The subject will keep coming back to their hopes for a good mark for Kidnapping. Beneath the gangster act, and the disdain for the kitchen, you will see two diligent students. Fleur de Lys will ask you to look over the Risk Assessment they have drawn up. It will seem to be very thorough, running into six pages. You will notice that their calculation of the residual risk of a fatal accident is high because they, in fact, have a real gun, a Beretta 92 semi-automatic pistol to be precise, with real bullets, a 9 x 19mm Parabellum cartridge, whatever this is.
You will spend the afternoon watching The Godfather on DVD. Once the horse-head in the bed scene is out of the way (Gangly’s favourite scene, he will confide), he will go off to make a discrete phonecall. In a quiet passage in the film, you will overhear some large numbers being mentioned. You will imagine that this had something to do with their ransom demand. Gangly will not refer to the call when he returns, although he will use his SmartPhone to take a photo of you holding a copy of that day’s newspaper, and send it. At about four ‘o clock, just as Michael Corleone is arranging the simultaneous murders of the various Dons, there will be a knock at the door. It will be the module assessors, Craig and Simone, along with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier called Caesar.
At first glance, they will not strike you as university lecturers. You will estimate both Simone and Craig are in their forties but trying desperately to look younger. Craig is a thick-set man with a swarthy complexion, designer stubble and a selection of piercings. Although a warm day, he will be wearing a heavy leather coat with about forty pockets. Simone is of dual heritage, with olive skin and smoky black eyes. She will be wearing a low cut top. She will be wearing a tight skirt that nearly comes down to mid thigh. She will have fleur de lys tattoos on both ankles. You will be cautious and try not to read too much into this.
They will settle into easy conversation while Caesar sniffs out his surroundings in a confrontational manner. Craig and Simone will get down to the business at hand, the assessment of Gangly and Fleur de Lys’s kidnapping assignment. Simone will go over the GANTT chart they have given her. She will feel it suffers from ‘analysis paralysis’, – too much information, yet at the same time needs more ‘project alignment’. She will not elaborate about what this means, but you will assume that her students understand, even though their gaze will seem to be focussed firmly on her legs. The skirt will seem to have moved up her legs as she leans forward, offering a glimpse of her lingerie. For a moment, you will almost forget about the predicament you are in.
Craig will explain to you the origins of the course. Despite his rugged appearance, like Simone, he will use academic language. The idea for a Criminality degree, he will tell you, has developed out of the excess of Criminology-related courses. There are now so many graduates trained for police work, probation service, prison service, social work, criminal law and community development work that it seems a good idea to balance it up by training a few offenders. It all comes down to social engineering.
‘The university needs to compete in the market place by developing new courses,’ he will say. ‘Bums on seats is the key. So far we are the only university in the country that offers this programme. We are oversubscribed for next year’s intake.’
Although of course it will be comforting to hear this, you will not want to get too complacent. You will just want to get out of there alive.
‘So the abduction went well,’ Craig will say, addressing Gangly. ‘No one saw you making the capture.’
‘No,’ he will say. ‘Ze-ro! It was flawless. The streets were as empty as my bank account.’
‘And you’ve recorded all of this on the spreadsheet for evaluation.’
‘Indeedy,’ Gangly will say, opening up a complicated looking document in Excel on his laptop.
‘And the neighbours are away on holiday, I understand.’
‘Fo’ shizzle. They are at this moment in time stretched out on a beach somewhere in Costa Packet.’
‘No one coming round to feed the pets?’
‘Oh No! The dog died last month,’ Gangly will say, leaving open the suggestion that he might have had a hand in the dog’s passing.
‘Good. What about the ransom money?’ Craig will say. ‘You’ve made the call?’
‘And the other party’s response was favourable?’
‘They need some time to put the cash together. I told them I wanted a reply by midday tomorrow,’ he will say, taking a pull on his can of Dr. Pepper.
Meanwhile, you will wonder who on earth the other party is.
‘You will have thought about how you will prevent the captive from escaping, for instance, tonight,’ Craig will continue.
‘Yes we are planning to tie him up again and sleep in shifts,’ Fleur de Lys will reply, his glance at Gangly suggesting that this is something they have not considered.
‘What about the feedback form?’ Simone will say, pulling the hem of her skirt down. ‘Did you remember to create one?’
‘I jigged the one from the ‘Shoplifting’ module,’ Gangly will say.
‘Now there’s one very important thing you need to remember and this will count as twenty per cent of the overall mark we give you,’ Craig will say. ‘The handover! A lot of things can potentially go wrong here, so I want you to think it through very carefully.’
‘Firstly, as it says in Marciano and Trattler, you must select a suitable site, at least a mile from a main road,’ Fleur de Lys will say. ‘We have driven around a fifteen mile radius and have several places in mind.’
‘Because as yo’ man, Gorenje, says in Bronowski, Kray et al, you must rearrange the exchange at least once,’ Gangly will say, smiling. ‘A last minute switch can be advantageous.’
‘That’s right,’ Simone will say. ‘Don’t forget the literature review counts for another ten per cent.’
Once Craig and Simone leave, you will spend the evening watching The Silence of the Lambs, in silence. Your captors will not feel inclined to share any more information with you. You will wonder if there is a psychological motive behind this cold silence, or whether they just enjoy gory films? Gangly, in particular, will seem entranced by the violence. You will be left in a state of uncertainty, both scared and perplexed at what is happening, wondering how real this episode is. Even if the whole kidnapping exercise is just a mock up for the assessment, it will be impossible not to feel some unease. And all the other possible scenarios will appear to be dire. They have a real gun and have made a ransom demand, which you will be certain that no one is going to pay, and you have no means of escape.
When the film finishes, Gangly will tie your arms behind your back and bind your legs together. He will hand the Beretta to Fleur de Lys. Then, still wearing his sunglasses, he will take his can of Full Throttle upstairs, leaving Fleur de Lys to guard you for the first shift. While it would be unreasonable to suggest that you like either of your kidnappers, you will feel definitely more comfortable with Fleur de Lys. He is more sophisticated, more laid back, and less edgy than his comrade.
You will start a conversation, hoping to gain some information about what is really going on. You will want to establish why they have picked you, who has agreed to pay the ransom and what will happen tomorrow, if they do not. You will be unlucky on all three counts
‘I’m not really into Kidnapping particularly much,’ Fleur de Lys will say. ‘Or some of the other modules we are doing on the course. Most of the others seem to be quite happy with traditional crime, whereas I’m more into Identity Theft, but they haven’t written a module for the Degree programme for it yet.’
You will nod, pretending to be interested in his choice of career path.
‘Watch this,’ he will say opening up his laptop.
He will key in a few commands and within seconds get into FaceBook by the back door. He will not be not logged in as anyone but a number of options will open up.
‘Clever stuff,’ you will say.
He will put in a search for Paul Rutherford. He will then have a choice of dozens of Paul Rutherfords.
‘Pick one,’ he will say.
You will select one at random.
‘OK,’ he will say. ‘Let’s see what we can find out.’
Within minutes, he will have home address, date of birth and full-face and profile photographs. By going into another site he will have national insurance number and credit card details. He will not even have had to become one of Paul’s FaceBook ‘friends’.
‘I can now get a duplicate driving licence with a change of address and a passport,’ he will say. ‘And of course, I can buy items online as I have the bank details. See how easy it is. He’s even told the whole world that he will be away for two weeks and he has booked the dog into a kennel. And look how easy his signature is.’
‘But eventually the real Paul Rutherford will discover that someone has stolen his identity,’ you will say to him.
‘Well, of course, you have to do it step by step,’ he will say. ‘You have to do things in the right order and know what you can use, when, and for how long, but this is something that with practice you can learn. For instance, this Paul Rutherford is hardly going to check his bank statements in Marrakesh.’
‘Can’t it be traced back to you?’
‘Obviously, I use a proxy server.’
You will wonder if Fleur de Lys has already stolen your identity. He will not say that he has, but he will not say that he hasn’t. Might there be a connection between this and the kidnapping?
It will be three or four a.m. by the time the shifts change and Gangly takes over, by which time you will have found out about John the Ripper (the password cracker), Wireshark, Kismet and Eraser, all of which can get up close and intimate with your hard drive. You will have even had a tour of the Google UK server. It will seem nothing is safe from the practised hacker.
Gangly, on his own, will seem to have lost some of his composure. He will seem nervous and edgy. He will light one Camel after another, making his way through the packet. Halfway through Reservoir Dogs, he will go off to make a call. He will now have a different phone, a brand new Samsung. He will have changed the phone as a security measure. After a few moments, you will be able to hear him shouting, but you will not be able to make out the words because of Mr White and Mr Blonde shouting on the soundtrack of the film. He will be changing the terms or the location of the ransom demand.
You will have often read reports in the Standard or seen grainy footage on the regional news of police in bullet-proof fatigues carrying out commando-style dawn raids on the perpetrators of serious crime. They are called the Armed Response Unit and they undergo close quarters battle training to carry out the task with a degree of menace. They quietly gather outside the premises. The officer in charge shouts out an order, then two burly constables beat down the door with a door breach, which is basically a twenty-three kilo battering ram. The rest of the team then pile in, point their weapons at anything that moves or looks as if it is about to move, and shout ‘freeze’. You will be praying that you are about to get such a visit. …… Alas, you will not.
The thought will keep returning to you, why would anyone want to kidnap you? There seems to be no chance of a payoff. You have no liquid assets, are overdrawn at the bank, and since the breakup with Saskia, you have let your life insurance payments lapse. The packaging museum where you work is going broke, unable to compete with more glamorous leisure attractions, like the Space Simulator or the Reality TV Museum. You will be on short time and all the staff will have been issued with redundancy notices. It will seem likely that they have kidnapped the wrong person. But how does this help the situation? And, wouldn’t such an error have come to light earlier with the sending of the photograph? You will cast a glance at the minatory black weapon sticking out of Gangly’s hip pocket. This, you will feel, is the real problem.
With your mortality seemingly under threat, you will begin to regret that you haven’t done a little more with your life. More often than not you have played it safe. You have always lived in the same town; you have not taken any chances. You are nearly forty and have only had three jobs. The only time you’ve been abroad was to France on a school trip. You’ve never been to a night club, put a bet on a horse, or had a single speeding ticket. You have never been to a big football match or been to Glastonbury. Even with such a cautious approach, you have not been able to avoid mistakes. Both your marriages have been a failure. Melanie was not able to live with what she called ‘your total lack of ambition’. She ran off with an oil rig technician and took your two children, Ben and Alice to live in Nova Scotia. You only see them now through Skype. Saskia told you, you were the least adventurous person she had ever known. She will be still living in the flat you bought together, meanwhile you are renting a room from your friend, Bazza in his house in Kipling Street.
You won’t have had chance to read the papers or watch the news. If you had, you would have discovered that there had been a near collision over Heathrow, civil unrest on the streets of several European capitals in protest against austerity measures, and someone had hacked into the GCHQ computer. You would also have found out that there was a tiger on the loose, a mature alpha male, having escaped from a private zoo. You would have been aware that there was panic after a golfer was mauled to death and that police had launched a large-scale operation using helicopters and thermal imaging cameras. Tigers are able to cover a large amount of ground quickly and sightings had appeared in three different counties. You would realise that so far the killer tiger had evaded the search teams.
The ride to what you will assume is the exchange point will be less than comfortable. You will be tied up and once again blindfolded, lying in the back seat of the Pathfinder. Furthermore, you will not have been allowed the toilet before setting off. Gangly will seem particularly surly following his earlier phonecall. You will wonder if some element of the negotiations has not gone to plan. It is easy to see that such a thing might occur, the capacity for misunderstanding being immense. After a few minutes of the journey, you will go off road. Each bump will bounce you mercilessly up and down.
The Pathfinder will stop with a lurch. Your captors will throw you roughly out on to the scrub. Gangly will take off your blindfold and untie your hands and legs. You will be in a clearing in a wood. Shafts of sunlight will be piercing through the canopy. Gangly will point the gun at you and order you to walk on ahead. From out of the undergrowth there will be a loud roar. The titanic beast will launch its attack. Gangly will be bowled over, knocking the gun from his grip. The big cat’s giant claws will rip into his flesh. He will scream. Fleur de Lys will scramble back to the car.
You can never tell what will happen in this unpredictable world, can you?
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved