The Collectors, a short story by Jaki McCarrick
An unusual relationship develops between a kidnapper and his victim
“The stag did not bolt but I felt sure he was aware of us.” Photograph: Maxpix/Julien Behal
I put the tissues in my pocket, cocked my gun, assumed my hitherto authoritative demeanour. I was already regretting the whole enterprise, but I would’ve been a dead man had I let her go before the exchange. A. Dead. Man. So I persisted with our mostly one-sided conversation mainly so as to keep both of us awake, an effort I thought she failed to appreciate. “So you’ve been married a long time, Penelope,” I said.
“Pen please,” she said, curtly. She was posh alright, formal. Her accent smooth, tidy, but not condescending – as if she’d known, maybe, a long time ago, a hard day or two in her life. And even if she hadn’t, I’m of the opinion you can’t hold someone’s poshness against them. Though try telling that to Anto.
“Alright then, Penelope-who-likes-to-be-called-Pen, as we were saying earlier: twenty-two years. It’s a long time.”
“It is,” she said.
“Does it feel like a long time?”
“Yes and no,” she said.
“Your husband’s an awkward man, Pen. Those twenty-two years mustn’t have meant that much to him. That’s all I’ll say.”
“He’s busy,” she said. Of course I’d not mentioned our research. How weeks before knocking her and her husband up at the crack of dawn in their Malahide mansion, Anto and me had done our homework, and we knew for a fact her precious husband had a serious coke habit and a penchant for a certain dark-haired waitress in Tallaght. He was a busy man alright.
“Aw, we’re all busy, Pen,” I said.
Anto had been nervous from the off about the woman’s co-operativeness. She’s not even struggling, he kept saying all the way up the M1, like a mantra, while I’d detected a note of embarrassment in her, sadness even. What must it be like to be her, I’d wondered: a woman of evident depth and culture (whereby the more you looked at her the more you found something to like, like an iconic painting, a Caravaggio or the Mona Lisa), now being left to rot in these dank woods by that womanising, cocaine-snorting so-and-so she was married to? Had she been my wife I’d have killed to get that money for her, to get her home, safe in my arms. But she wasn’t.
I offered her a cigarette, which she accepted. I lit it, and, despite the plastic tie, she was able to slide one hand away from the other to smoke it: a Carroll’s Major, strong as fuck but no bother to her. She really seemed to enjoy that smoke.
I looked up. The clouds were blue and angular, one the shape of a wolf’s head. It would soon be night. I was now secretly thinking that something had gone wrong with the plan and/or Anto that I was not yet privy to. I don’t know for sure why I thought this though the fact I’d not spoken to Anto in nine hours might have had something to do with it.
“Not like your usual streamlined pine forest. Has a lot of, you know, atmosphere. Don’t you think, Pen?” I said.
“They all seem the same to me,” she said, and stared straight ahead. Her cheekbones were high and fine and in the evening light seemed to cast shadows on the other parts of her face.
“The trees?” I said. She nodded. I’ll get her with that, I thought. For we’d now arrived at my speciality. Now I’ll be able to shake her (and myself maybe) out of this prolonged gloom by dazzling her with my scintillating tree knowledge. “Oh no. See that one? That’s a lime tree. And that-a wingnut-see by the seeds? The wings? And there, a very rare Spanish oak. There, a Scots pine. There, a cedar.”
“Oh,” she said, unimpressed, and looked around. “So are we in the north now, or –?” She became a little animated then, and I wondered if, perhaps, she’d been in these parts before.
“We’re northerly,” I said, not wanting to give her exact co-ordinates in case she might have to recount this story to the police later on. Then, just as I was about to continue with my tree bedazzlement I heard a sound. A sort of animal’s cry, well, like a roar of some kind. It came from much deeper within the forest, from several yards behind us. I walked back a few steps, looked up through the corridors of trees. The upper part of the woods was long and vast and lined with neat rows of tall old pines. There was no movement after the sound.
“Just – sounds of the forest, surely,” Pen said. She dropped her cigarette to the ground and stamped it out. It was a particularly forceful butt-crushing, I thought. Dramatic and elaborate. “I suppose you get used to things, don’t you?” she said. “In forests and such. I suppose you attune. Then as you do you notice other things. Other sounds. Twigs. Little creatures. Wild animals. Bats. Ferrets,” she said, with, it seemed to me, an enormous amount of relish.
“Shut up, will you!” I said, as she was now seriously freaking me out. I came out with it then, the thing I’d been thinking ever since I’d been alone with her.
“You’re a bit of a strange one, you know that, Pen?”
“Aye. You are.” At this she turned as if to avert a smile. I looked at my watch. It was late. Where the fuck were Anto and the lads? Where was the call? The confirmation that the banker had gone to the bank? Where was the money? Surely the banker wouldn’t refuse Anto? Who had ever refused Anto? I was starving – and what if I wanted to take a slash? I could hardly do it in front of Penelope-Pen – who, I was beginning to think, would have no trouble at all in making a dash for it, given half a chance.
“Virgil – can I call you that – Virgil?” she said.
“Sure,” I replied, and sniffed. Earlier that morning, in the van, I’d given her a foil-wrapped sandwich, and my Easy Pay electricity card, which had somehow gotten stuck to the foil, had fallen onto her lap and she saw my name. I wanted to beg her not to tell Anto she’d discovered that piece of information, but I felt sure she’d have some power over me then so I played it cool and didn’t refer to the card-stuck-to-the-foil moment at all.
“It’s an unusual name.”
“Aye,” I said.
“A poet’s name.”
“Ah now. You can blame me ma for that. Though she named me after some puppet from Thunderbirds, not the poet,” I joked, and she laughed. It was the first time I’d seen this strange woman smile since we’d “borrowed” her (the term Anto preferred, better than “kidnapped”, he said). Up until then I’d assumed she was not the smiling type. But then, when she did smile, she revealed a vast array of uniformly even white teeth with the most alluring gap in the upper set. I was gobsmacked by that gap. The gorgeous dark space between her glittering toothiness. I think she knew I was impressed by it, too. I bet she plays that smile like a fucken ace, flashing it at the exact opportune moment, I thought.
“So what was it you wanted to say to me, Pen?”
“Well, Virgil,” she said, “did you ever hear of a thing called Stockholm Syndrome?” I didn’t answer immediately, and I could see she was about to explain – actually explain – what the term meant. I might be a criminal but I am not a stupid man.
“It’s a –”
“I know what it is, Pen!” I said. “What you trying to say, eh? That you’ve fallen for me or something?” (A bit of me wanted to pause right there, hoping she was going to say that exact actual thing. Though it would, for sure, have been something of a meteorite, it was one I’d have been in a position to welcome considering the day I’d had. But of course she wasn’t going to say anything of the sort.) “Look, this is how it goes, Pen,” I said, “I take you up here, nice and quiet. Your husband, the banker, he goes back to the bank. He gets the money, pays up, we release you. Simple. Your standard ‘tiger kidnapping’. But no. Here I am, nine fucken hours later, half fucken starved, no fucken phone call, phone battery dying... no fucken phone call, and the fucken hostage is telling me she’s in love with me. Jesus. That’s fucken unbelievable that is.”
“I’m not,” she said.
“You’re not in love with me – or you’re not telling me you’re in love with me?”
“Both,” she said.
“You just said about the Stock–” and she interrupted me with a sort of “talk to the hand” gesture. She got all school-mistressy, and it was then I remembered the other details of our research, that this is exactly what Pen had been before she’d married the banker. She’d been a teacher. She had a pile of languages. She was smart.
“There’s another one. Lima Syndrome,” she said. “It’s from Peru.” She was very animated now. She wet her lips and her nose seemed suddenly sharp and direct and wolfish, and I noticed for the first time that her eyes were a greeny-yellow colour, like dark mustard.
“Peru – as in South America?” I said.
“Yes. It’s the opposite of Stockholm,” she said.
“The opposite. Oh.” And slowly I twigged what she was trying to say. “Hang on, you think... you think that I’m in love with you, Pen. Is that it? Is that it? Aw, you’re funny. You. Are. Funny.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Though my face went bright red, which I did feel somewhat undermined my protestations.
“Well, what am I supposed to think, Virgil?” she said. “You’re being very nice. Very patient. Offering me your Handy Andies when I went to the loo back there. Sharing your cigarettes, chatting away like Billy-o. And I think if I were in your shoes I wouldn’t be so nice and patient. I mean, why’ve we stopped? Hmm? My husband’s not playing ball, is he? That’s why. They – your friends – told you on the phone, hours ago, if there was no money you’d have to get rid of me. The short guy. I heard him. And here we are and you haven’t got rid of me. Why is that?”
I had hoped she’d not heard that last conversation with Anto.
“Look, I happen to be a mean and brutal man, Pen,” I said, and clenched my fists. “A particularly mean and –” and just as I was about to get as particularly mean and brutal as I could muster, I heard it again, the roar-cum-rumble from behind us in the forest, over which the sky was now turning a swiftly deepening shade of mussel-blue.
“Can’t you hear it?” I said. She shook her head.
“Describe the sound to me,” she said and crossed her legs. Her long grey Romany-style skirt swished as she moved so that I got a healthy glimpse of her smooth sorrel calves.
“Well, actually, it sounded like – like a bear or lion or something.”
“Don’t be stupid, Virgil. There are no lions in this part of the world that aren’t inside zoos.”
“I’m just saying that’s what it sounded like,” I said, fully aware that a dense forest such as the one we were in could easily distort sound. Then she laughed and her hands reached up to her tied-back hair and unloosed it, shook it out to reveal a Medusa-like mop of long blonde knotted ropes woven through with wiry threads of silver. The locks cascaded over her sculpted face, and for a second I thought she looked like Brigitte Bardot – when the actress was just a teeny bit past her prime, around the time – or just before, perhaps – those reports emerged in the media about her drinking her own urine.
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Lions and tigers and bears,” Pen whispered in a singsong way.
“Shut up will you?” I said. It annoyed me that Pen seemed to be getting a thrill from my fear, was making some kind of personal fun out of it. “I know there’s no lions or tigers or bears up here for fuck’s sake,” I said. “What kind of mug do you take me for? The sound was strange, that’s all. Like a howl or something. Like a wolf or something. Probably just a dog.” Pen nodded, slowly, as if to apologise.
Earlier that morning I’d been so strung out by what lay ahead of us I’d almost hurt this woman. She’d been slow to get out of the house and I was terrified we’d be seen by her Malahide neighbours. Adrenalin coursed through my body and I’d had this desperate urge to push her into the van. I resisted, however, and was glad now that at least there’d been no violence shown to the curious sprite-like creature now sitting close to me in the woods. But why had no one come for her? Why had no one come for me? Just then my attention was caught by something moving below us. I cocked my gun.
“Thirty yards south. Two o’clock. By that old oak,” I said, and remembered then that Pen didn’t know her oaks from her pines so I elaborated: “Tall one, with the squiggly leaves.”
“Wow!” she gasped. “I didn’t know there was deer here.”
“That’s a stag. Sika.” I said. “I thought they’d all gone with the Foot and Mouth they had up here – but Jeez, he’s beautiful. See how he rubs his horns up and down the bark?”
“What’s he doing that for?”
“A sort of mating ritual,” I said, “though it can make them bleed sometimes, doing that.”
“Sure. It hurts them. Poor guy.” Pen sat back on the rock and watched the stag burrow his antlers into the tree. She turned her neck from side to side as she watched the animal’s thrusting movements, cracking her neck-bones with each head-tilt. The stag did not bolt but I felt sure he was aware of us. When Pen’s neck cracking became especially loud the stag would stop, remain completely still.
“You know a lot about nature, Virgil. Trees, stags,” she said. The one thing Anto had insisted upon was to tell the hostage as little personal detail as possible – and I had pretty much blown that directive already. Pen had my name, and now she had much more, like a whole personal profile. So, I figured, why stop now?
“Well, that’s because I grew up on a farm, Pen. We had deer. Hundreds of them. But my father would cull them. I hated when he did that. But you see, the timber was more valuable to him, and come the mating season all that rubbing can really destroy the trees.” She seemed fascinated. I couldn’t recall ever before telling a woman about life on my father’s farm, at least not one who was fully awake and keen to know more.
“But you understood? When he killed them? When your father killed the deer?” I nodded. She seemed genuinely moved by what I was telling her. There was tenderness in her voice.
“Aye. But it was still shit, Pen, you know?” It was like I was spilling my guts. I could not stop talking – though I’m guessing that by now I had, at some subconscious level, given up on the whole enterprise, as if I knew Anto was never going to call.
“When I was small I’d gather up the horns. Oh, Pen, you’ve never touched anything soft as the velvet of a stag’s antlers. Softer it is than fur or water.”
“Yeah?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Then kill it,” she said.
“Kill the stag.”
“Why? Why would you –”
“Because if you can kill that stag, Virgil. You’ll be able to kill me. When my husband doesn’t deliver, which he won’t, you’ll be able to kill me. Whatever has stalled you in this forest, you’ll be able to reverse it, turn it around. You’ll find the courage. Your blood will be up. It will be good practice.”
The stag was close to us now, radiant in the gloaming light. His eyes were saucer-like, liquid. It occurred to me that perhaps he was stuck, lost along his own path (probably because it was blocked by us), and I could see by his glancing-up-and-down movements that he was trying to figure out a way to get past us.
“Nothing has stalled me,” I said.
“Yes it has,” she said. “The others haven’t called for hours.”
“They will,” I said.
“He isn’t going to get you the money, Virgil. My husband. He loves that bank. His father worked there and his father before him. There’s no way he will take funds from the bank for me. In fact,” she said, and her pupils completely widened at this, “right now he’s probably looking on this whole thing as an opportunity. Don’t you read the papers? Don’t you know what bankers are like? Can’t you imagine how someone like that might treat his wife? The coldness, the controlling, the calculating.” I reckoned then that she probably knew already about the dark-haired waitress in Tallaght.
“Yep, I get the picture, Pen. But I don’t see why you want me to kill–”
“Because if your phone dies before your friends call then they’ll come here. And then you’ll probably have to kill me in front of them.” The thought had already occurred to me that Anto would want to kill her if the ransom was not paid. I knew he was capable of it. The question was, was I?
“I can’t kill that stag,” I said.
“My husband won’t pay,” she said.
“Now look, Pen. Your husband’s just calling our bluff. They’ve, we’ve, seen it before,” I said. But I was just playing for time. The banker had probably stiffed us alright, but I was not going to kill her. Of that, at least, I was certain.
“Before?” she said, and she looked at me, coquettishly.
“Aye. Before,” I said. “You are not my first hostage, Pen. And way things are going out there, nor will you be my last. Besides, gunfire might alert someone.” I realised then that this was probably what she had wanted to do, to cause a ruckus with the stag-shooting, bring attention to us up here just in case there was anyone else in the woods, people close by or out working on farms. She seemed to back down then, made herself more comfortable on her rock. The stag was now directly before us, out in the open. I could see he was plotting how to get to the avenues of trees, the rows of planted pines behind us. He bowed his head, chomped at the small clumps of vegetation that lined the forest floor.
“Peru,” I said, nervously, “they say it’s fierce hilly country.”
“It is,” she said, “very.”
“Maybe I’ll see it someday.”
“When I get paid.”
Pen smiled again at this, shook her head. She muttered something to herself. She thinks I’m a complete untravelled moron, I thought to myself.
“The sound you heard – perhaps it was him, the stag?” she said.
“No. A stag, see, he grunts. He bellows. That’s not the sound I heard.” I could feel her eyes boring into me. I looked straight ahead.
“Do you enjoy it, Virgil? Kidnapping. Bank robbery. Crime. Do you get a buzz out of it?” I glanced back at her.
“A buzz? Not doing this shit for a buzz,” I said. “If you must know there are two reasons I’m here. And the first is for the money.”
“But there isn’t any.”
“There was meant to be,” I said, angrily, and slumped into the moss and leaves.
It felt good to relax. I rested my head on my hands. My thoughts raced. I reached into my jacket, pulled out my phone. I called Anto for the umpteenth time but of course he didn’t pick up. By now the stag had moved behind a large cedar and was partly hidden from view. I pulled out a small bread roll from my jacket. It was still crisp. I brushed the crumbs from my pocket as the jacket was newish, a genuine Harrington, red, with tartan lining. I’d wanted to look good for the job that morning though Anto was annoyed when I’d shown up in it, said I stuck out like a sore thumb. I prised a bit off from the roll and walked over to Pen, put the bread into her hands. It crumbled and fell everywhere. She looked down at the plastic tie.
“Maybe you could cut the tie so I can eat?” I almost cut it. Jesus, the big, intelligent, imploring almond-shaped eyes of her. I was tempted to just leave with her then, to walk down to the van with her and leave, only the moronic face of Anto came instantly into my mind and I decided, stupidly, to stick to the plan, the plan that was already unravelling.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well then, could you feed me, please, Virgil?” she said. I took small amounts of the bread and placed each one into her mouth, waited for her to chew and swallow. Each time I got a full view of the gap in the upper set, two or three millimetres of dark space, of intoxicating mystery. Once or twice I accidentally touched her moist tongue with my fingers. Was her husband mad or what? I thought to myself. Why had he not co-operated? It wasn’t even his money. What was wrong with the man? (What was wrong with Pen? I might more readily have asked). A morsel of bread fell to the ground.
“Sorry,” I said and picked it up. I went to throw it away but she moaned for it. I gave it to her. She chewed and swallowed the retrieved morsel as if it was nectar.
“Thank you, Virgil,” she said when finished. I tried not to look at her as she licked the crumbs slowly from the side of her face. I mean it was pure fucken pornography, the whole thing. I wanted to kill Anto for putting me in this predicament. Finally she spoke: “You didn’t tell me your second reason. For all of this,” she said.
”Aw, just, to do something for the little guy. Make a stand, you know?” I said. “A one-man uprising against the rogues who destroyed this country. See, the way I see it, me and the little guy – we already own that bank money, Pen.” I had hoped she might see something valiant in me, I suppose, as the truth was I was actually – to some extent – politically motivated.
“I guess you do,” she said, and smiled. She brought her knees together, smoothed out her skirt over the exposed bits of her legs.
“Are you cold?” I said. She lowered her eyes. I took my jacket off, went to her, wrapped it around her shoulders. I went back to the mossy mound, sat back and glanced at my hands and wrists. They looked frail, veiny. I had grown thin in recent weeks, probably with the stress of the kidnapping, all the planning. It really had been a last resort for me-and now it had all gone so wrong. I wanted to cry. I started fiddling with bits of twigs and grass and nearly forgot about the gun, which was half-buried in the clump of harebells I’d placed it in earlier. My hands felt so free and light without it. I wouldn’t do well in jail, I thought to myself. I would be some butch dude’s bitch for sure.
“What did you do with the deer horns, Virgil? The antlers. When you gathered them as a child?” Pen said, her voice now warm and relaxed. I turned around to her and laughed. It was nice to be brought back to the days of my childhood. It really was. But what a place to be going down memory lane in. Why couldn’t we have been in a bar? In a nice bar, being served Guinness, in the Aran Islands maybe, watching the sun set on Bungowla on Inis Mor, maybe, somewhere far from all this madness, this futile crime.
“Aw nothing. Just lined them up in size and width order and then looked at them. Wept for the poor deer. Stupid wee fucker that I was.” She laughed. I had told her the strange predilection of my boyhood and she had understood. Maybe in another life we’d have been friends, I thought. Or more.
“I collect things, too,” she said. “My parents have a house on the coast. I’ve been going there a lot lately. Sometimes I gather those little pieces of smoothed-over china you see among the shells and sand. You know the stuff I mean?”
“Aye. I know the stuff,” I said. “Why would you do something like that?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe I feel that, if I pick them up, bring them home – these abandoned, broken pieces, these shards of life, then the lives they’ve been in will somehow be remembered. No, not remembered – honoured – in some way.”
“Collecting broken china is not the pastime of a happy woman,” I said.
“No,” Pen said, and pulled herself up from the rock. She walked over towards me, lightly, and sat beside me on the leaves. Neither of us said a word. Then she spoke, quietly: “Virgil, I think he’s coming this way, our stag.”
The whole thing lasted only a few seconds. But the entire space seemed to become full of grandeur, love, grace. The stag was huge as he approached. He passed us slowly and proudly, with great deliberation – as if he had chosen this very moment to move on, evidently the one in which he saw us side by side, me and Pen, as if in our apparent closeness, or weird sort of bonding, we were less of a threat to him. It was a powerful, majestic scene, and I swear it was as if the air filled with music – something grand, like Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. (That piece had always been a favourite of mine. I would play it in the van, regular. I could honestly hear refrains of remember me, remember me as the stag passed. Then, as soon as he was gone from us, I knew I could not continue. I took the penknife from my trouser pocket and cut Pen’s plastic tie.
“Go,” I said to her, “go quick.”
“But –” she said.
“Straight up there. Two, three miles. On the other side there’s a bay. Carlingford. Walk towards it. You’re in the village then. Set yourself free, Pen. Do whatever you need to do. But go. Now.”
“But you –”
“I’ll tell them you got away. You wanted to pee so I cut your tie. I’ll say you, you picked up a stone and hit me on the head. I’ll get a hiding that’s for sure, but that’s it. Go over there and pick out for me a rough-looking rock.”
“I can’t do that,” she said, appalled at what I was asking her to do. She seemed genuinely shaken by her new freedom. I wanted to tell her not to go back to the wanker banker, to hook up with me sometime in the future, but thought maybe that would be a step too far. I walked to a heap of rocks set by the exposed roots of a mountain alder, selected a big stone – but not so big as she could crush my skull with it – one the size of a tennis ball, flecked with quartz and with a few jagged edges. I placed it in Pen’s hands.
“Do it,” I said. “Put your hands round it – that’s it, that’s it – and, you know, give me a few whacks. Go easy, mind.” She gasped and dropped the rock. I would obviously have to do this myself. I went immediately to the cedar that had given shade to the stag and launched my head at the bark. Blood pumped from my forehead. Pen ran to me and pulled me away.
“Stop! Stop it!” she said. She took out the pack of Handy Andies from my pocket, pulled a tissue out and cleaned the blood from my face, gently dabbed at my head-wound.
“Come with me,” she said.
“Come with me, Virgil. I don’t want to go alone. I’m frightened.”
“Go, will you?” I said. “They’ll be here soon. Too late for me now, you know that. You live a free life, Pen. Go on. Before I change my mind.”
“I’m frightened, Virgil. It’s getting dark... and I’m all alone. That sound you heard. You said it came from up there. What if it... what if –” I felt so sorry for her then. I knew what she wanted. I bent down, plunged my hand into the harebells.
“Here,” I said, “take this for protection.” She took the gun and stepped away. She turned around, gun in one hand, her other arm wrapped around the waist of my jacket. Her eyes seemed narrow now, knowing, as they had been when I’d first seen her that morning.
“He’ll never pay, Virgil. In fact, he was probably glad to get rid of me.”
“Well, he’s a damn fool,” I said. Then I realised what had just happened. “The van keys,” I said, “I think I’ve left them in the Harr–” At this, Pen reached into my newish red Harrington jacket and held out the keys. She jangled them, teasingly.
“You’ll understand, won’t you, Virgil?” she said.
“Aw Jeez,” I said. The gun was being pointed directly at me now and I knew then I’d been had, tricked by a vastly superior mind.
“You’ll understand because when you were a child you understood about the deer. You know all about pain, Virgil, I can tell that about you.” I heard the gun being fired, and a heap, a bony weight clatter to the ground. Birds flew noisily about the tops of trees. Pen sat on the rock and lit up my last cigarette. At least she’s waiting for me to slip away, I thought. At least I won’t be alone. I could not believe that soon I’d be no more than a carcass, like the culled deer I once wept for on my father’s land. I became at once delirious and scared so I kept talking:
“Oh everything is getting dark and cold, Pen, as if I was, as if I was on a train or going through a tunnel. But look ahead – oh Pen – there’s light – a bright sky – and fields – and it’s all so new – and Pen, oh isn’t it fierce hilly country they have in Peru? Fierce hilly country.”
The Collectors is included in an anthology of short stories, Into the Woods, published by Hic-Dragones earlier this year. Jaki McCarrick’s debut story collection, The Scattering (Seren Books) was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. She is currently editing her first novel and a second collection of short stories, Night of the Frogs, which includes The Collectors