Skip to content

A Word If You Please – Chapter 7

Trilby knew the contented hum her little car made, and this wasn’t it. Either someone other than Buddy had arrived at the shed, or Buddy had swapped to an upmarket sedan.

Trilby’s situation hadn’t changed much, except that she was bored and tetchy. The ropes had not yielded to her attempts to loosen them. Her ankles were still tied to a leg of the workbench and her wrists were stuck behind her back, tethered to an iron ring in the wall. Serge lay in relative comfort on the bed at the opposite end of the room, but his chain held him captive just as effectively as her ropes.

It was time for a change in tactics. Besides, Trilby was hurting and that made her angry. Anger was good. It led to creative thinking. For a technical writer, that meant harnessing the power of language as well as action.

Heavy steps approached the shed. Metal met wood as a padlock bumped the door. Buddy’s stocky figure filled the doorframe.

“Yo!” Buddy announced. “My brother sent me to check you’re both good for the night.” Trilby noted a forced cheerfulness in his voice. He strode into the middle of the room, coming up short against the workbench. He surveyed Serge at the far side of the room, then turned to face Trilby. A knife sheath protruded from his jeans pocket. He had his brother’s knife again. A means to control Trilby and Serge, no doubt. Two captives might prove too much for Buddy without the help of cold steel.

“Good?” questioned Trilby. “Hardly. You bashed me on the head, knocked me out, tied me up, and brought me to this dump in the middle of nowhere.”

“You asked for it, bitch.” It hadn’t taken Buddy long to revert to fury. “What you did… My brother could have been killed.”

“Mmm. How is he?”

“I took him to the hospital, got him patched up. He’s OK. But without me there… Let’s just say, he’s lucky to have me around. Strong, I am, and smart. Bro said so himself.” Buddy calmed down as he remembered Amity’s rare words of praise. “I pulled him up that cliff. He couldn’t do it himself. Broken arm, blood all over his face.”

“I bet the police were interested in all that,” commented Trilby.

Buddy grinned. “Oh no, we’re not that dumb. James says to keep it quiet.” He nodded towards Serge. “Like I told your mate over there, we just have to keep everything quiet for a few more hours, then we’ll have our money. We’ll get out of everyone’s reach so quick, no-one will even realise we’ve gone. That’s what my bro says.”

“What about us?” asked Serge.

“Oh yeah. James said to tell you we’ll let you out of here before we go. No worries about that. We don’t want anyone hurt. Don’t want to give the cops extra reasons to look for us, right?”

Trilby shifted uncomfortably. Buddy noticed the expression of pain that crossed her face. So did Serge.

“Hey mate, the lady’s in pain. Can’t you loosen the rope a bit?”

Trilby shifted again. “My legs are killing me. They’ve been stretched out tight for hours. And the rope has rubbed my ankles raw.” She noted Buddy looking at her bare legs below her skirt, and the blood seeping up from under the ropes around ankles. The effect did look conveniently vulnerable. She blessed the warm weather that had made her choose a light dress and sandals for today. Some day at the office this had turned out to be.

“Isn’t it enough just to tie her arms?” asked Serge. “She’s not going anywhere, tied to that metal hoop like that.”

“I guess, yeah,” said Buddy. “Bro did say to keep you safe.” He grabbed at his brother’s knife sheath in his pants pocket. It was a sturdy leather holder, weathered tan in colour, with a secure snap fastener. Just the ticket when attached to a belt as designed. Not so handy when jammed into denim jeans. Buddy pulled it out, grimacing in quick anger as the fastener caught on the edges of the pocket. He opened the sheath, took out the knife, and put the sheath on the workbench.

“Don’t try anything,” he warned Trilby. “I know you’re one tricky lady.” He knelt down, taking care to keep his face far from her feet. Even with those little sandals, she could do some damage.

Trilby, however, had other plans. Plans with more of a future to them. She measured the distance from the bed where Serge sat to the knife sheath on the table. Serge might manage it, even within the limits imposed by his chain. If he was resourceful. She worked with engineers often in her line of work. Engineers loved solving problems. Serge would be resourceful.

“Thanks, Buddy,” she murmured as the ropes fell away from her feet. “There’s something else I need before you go. Your brother said to look after us, didn’t he?”

“I guess.” Buddy’s tone was grudging.

“I need to empty my bladder,” Trilby said, with a look of studied mortification on her face.

“Huh?”

“She needs to take a piss, mate,” offered Serge.

Buddy put the knife down and made a move towards the bucket that stood against the wall near Serge.

“I can’t use the bucket.” Trilby was absolutely clear on this. “You really don’t want to have to clean up after I’ve used the bucket. Trust me.”

Buddy paused in confusion, looking from Trilby to Serge, who was nodding emphatically in agreement.

“Just take me outside,” urged Trilby. “I’ll go behind a bush. But hurry now. It’s urgent. If we don’t go now, you’ll have to clean up a big mess anyway.” As she spoke, she nudged the knife under the workbench with her foot. Buddy had forgotten about it in the confusion of decision making.

“OK, OK, no need to nag like you’re my mother.” Buddy moved behind Trilby to untie the rope that held her wrists to the iron hoop on the wall.

Trilby caught Serge’s eye, and glanced down deliberately at the open knife holder on the workbench. “Talking about parent scope,” she said playfully, “how about some JavaScript, heh?” Despite her tone, her gaze was deadly serious.

“What?” said Buddy.

“Nothing. Just an in joke. You know, a nerdy computer joke.”

There was a short silence, then an appreciative snort from Serge. “Good one. Got it,” said the engineer.

“That’s enough, both of you. Too much talking leads to trouble.” Buddy yanked the rope. “Let’s make this quick. Outside, now.” He led the way. Trilby followed.

Alone, Serge considered Trilby’s parting words. She wanted him to close the knife sheath. That was clear enough. Parent scope, JavaScript, closure, close… The chain of associations was obvious. Why would she want him to close the sheath? Probably so that Buddy didn’t notice the missing knife when he got back. The knife must be still on the floor somewhere. It could be useful to them once Buddy left for the night. Smart.

Serge slid off the bed, hobbled a few steps, and stretched his hand out towards the knife. The chain around his ankles brought him up short. Only a few inches short, but a few inches were as good as a mile. He looked around for something that might be useful, might gain him those last few inches. The bucket? Perhaps, but its contents made that thought unappealing. Besides, if he spilt the contents Buddy might notice and become suspicious.

The sheet, that was it. His bed had a mattress, fixed to the frame, and a thin sheet as covering against the cold. The autumn nights could be chilly here in the hills.

Must hurry. Trilby will keep him out as long as she can, but even her inventiveness has its limits.

Serge grabbed the sheet, held it at each edge to form a primitive lasso, and looped it around the knife sheath on the table. Carefully, he drew it back towards him. He was just about to snap down the sheath’s cover when a thought struck him. The sheath will be lighter without the knife. That thug might notice the difference in weight. Serge’s thoughts moved like lightning. He had a snack bar in his pocket. He had a habit of stashing them around his person, for those all-night coding sessions when preparing a meal would make him exit the zone. My energy bar is about the same weight as the knife. It’s my last one, saved for tonight. But this is more important. He drew the bar out of his pants pocket and slid it into the sheath. A perfect fit.

The next trick was to put the sheath back on the table, in more or less the same position as it had been before. Calculations streamed through Serge’s head. Force and distance and inertia and friction. Too many variables. Just rely on my body’s innate judgement of how hard to push the sheath. Learned from 26 years of being on this planet. He laid the sheath on the table, put the heel of his hand against its longest edge, and shoved gently but firmly. Too hard! But no, the table’s rough surface slowed the sheath down nicely. It came to rest almost exactly where he wanted it. Yesss!

Not a moment too soon. Footsteps outside heralded the return of Trilby and Buddy. Still in action hero mode, Serge flapped the sheet open, spread it over the bed, and hopped up onto the bed as agilely as his ankle chain allowed.

The door opened and Trilby entered first, stumbling over the threshold as Buddy pushed her from behind. She glanced at Serge, who gave an imperceptible nod. She raised her eyebrows, and Serge realised that one can carry imperceptibility too far. He smiled, and flicked his eyes towards the knife holder on the table. Trilby smiled back, then turned to Buddy.

“Hey, John, remember your brother said no nasty business!”

“Don’t call me that!” Buddy’s anger was instantaneous. “I told you already. I go by ‘Buddy’.”

“Mmm. James says you have to treat us right. Why’s he so keen nothing should happen to us?” Trilby was intent on keeping Buddy riled up. His anger would distract him, make it less likely he’d remember that he hadn’t returned the knife to its sheath.

A grin creased Buddy’s countenance. It wasn’t a pretty sight. “Bro says we’ll be outta here tomorrow. We’ll have all that money, then we can go wherever we want. You can’t stop us. And the cops won’t look too hard, so long as we don’t do anything stupid. Money scams are just a white collar crime. The cops don’t chase white collars far.”

“So,” supplied Trudy, “you can’t do anything stupid, like hurting me and Serge.”

“Yeah. Especially not kill you or anything like that. My bro says there’s no statue of limits. That’s his way of telling me not to kill you. We’d be on the run for ever if I did that.”

“Statute of limitations,” said Serge quietly.

“What? Whatever. You shut up.”

“How can you be so sure everything will come right tomorrow?” asked Trilby.

“There’s a big loan coming in from the bank. Our stuff’s all packed. James knows what he’s doing.” Buddy became more confident as he spoke. He was sure his captives would be convinced too, even though he was securing the ropes around Trilby’s wrists and tethering her to the hook on the wall as he spoke. “So, you just have to wait here one more night, and you’ll be right. We’ll send someone to set you free.”

Trilby was not convinced, but she kept that to herself.

Serge had figured out Trilby’s strategy. “Hey John,” he said, “why do you and James need a loan? The business seems…”.

“Man, I said shut up!” In a few quick steps, Buddy was round the table and towering over Serge, who shrank back against the wall.

“Buddy! Buddy, remember, tomorrow’s just one night away.” Trilby’s voice was calm but authoritative. Buddy turned towards her, and his gaze travelled over the knife sheath, still laying on the table. He reached for it.

Trilby continued in the same calm tone. “Anyway, Serge has a point. You have such a good thing going with Amity Loans. Why get a bank loan?”

“Dunno. Bro says things are unravelling. A loan is a quick way out. But there’s a problem. Some sort of come-on in a contract. Lawyers fussing over small print, Bro says.”

“A comma, probably,” said Trilby quietly. Buddy glared at her, not understanding and not wanting to.

“Why keep Trilby and me working in the office,” prodded Serge, “if things are unravelling?”

“Man, I told James we should get rid of you. Told him again and again. He said we need to keep things looking normal.” Buddy was getting worked up again. He grabbed the knife sheath and stuffed it into his pocket. “Gotta go. Bro said don’t talk too much.”

The door slammed, the padlock knocked against it, a car started up, and Buddy was gone. Trilby and Serge waited a few minutes before releasing the lungfuls of breath they’d each been holding.

“It’s a good thing Buddy didn’t try to use the knife on me,” commented Serge. “It would have been messy. Not to mention the waste.”

“Don’t even joke about it!” Trilby wondered if Serge was in a state of shock, induced by his narrow escape from the very real possibility of serious injury.

“Nah, I mean, what with the chocolate and all. I put my favourite energy bar in that knife sheath. It’s mostly chocolate and caffeine.”

They both laughed, perhaps a little too loud and too long, but it felt good to relieve the tension.

“Right,” said Trilby, when their chuckles had subsided. “Time to get out of here.”

She stretched out across the floor, reaching under the workbench with one long leg, curling her toes back around the knife, which had slid behind one of the iron legs. After some careful maneuvering, she had the knife at her side. It took a little longer to get the knife into her hands behind her back, but she wasn’t worried. They had just one night, according to Buddy, and a night was a long time. A few minutes and a bit of blood later, her ropes were cut and she was free.

“You’re next,” she told Serge. “Have you noticed any pieces of wire lying around?”

“There’s some wire under the bed. With the marble I dropped last night.”

“A marble?”

“It was my Dad’s. I keep it for good luck. I took it out of my pocket for, you know, a bit of company. Anyway, I dropped the marble and couldn’t get it back, because this chain is too short. The marble rolled down to the other end of the bed. I noticed the wire because it would have been useful for hooking around the marble, but I couldn’t reach the wire either.”

Trilby slid under the bed and grabbed both the marble and the wire. “It’s a beaut,” she said, dropping the marble into his hand.

“A hand cut, banded agate goon. Dad was a wiz at marbles.” Serge’s fist closed around it.

Trilby examined the rest of her catch. “We’re lucky. This wire’s just the right thickness. About 19 gauge, or 1 millimetre.” She held the middle of the wire between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand, and used her right hand to rotate the remaining section of wire in wide circles. “It’s a good length too.” The wire snapped cleanly at the point where she held it. Her deft fingers made short work of bending the two sections of wire into a pair of L-shaped tools.

“What are you doing?”

“I once wrote a guide to locks and how to pick them.” She picked up one of the wires, inserted it into the lower part of the keyhole in the padlock, then bent the wire to form a handle. The other wire was her pick. She stuck it into the top end of the keyhole and jiggled it up and down inside the lock. At the same time, she gently nudged the wire handle in a clockwise direction, encouraging the lock mechanism to rotate. The first two pins unlocked quickly in response to the movement of the pick. The remaining three took more careful prodding. Then a quick turn of the handle, and the lock popped open.

“Cool.” Serge had been watching in bemused silence. “You’re totally cool. Though, to be fair, I guess that’s not a high quality padlock. Doesn’t require an expert to pick it.”

“Right. The Egyptians invented tumbler locks around 6000 years ago. Theirs were made of wood, but we’ve been using this type of lock since 1861. People have been picking them since then.” And every technical writer knows you must be able to do something yourself, before you can write the manual.

Serge massaged his ankle, pleased to be rid of the chain. “Next step, getting out of here,” he said, walking across the room to the door. “Looks pretty solid. The frame too.” He kicked the door, then yelped and grabbed his foot.

Trilby winced in sympathy. She walked up to the door and turned the handle. The door gave slightly, but stopped short after a few millimetres. “It’s padlocked from the outside. I heard Buddy opening it and then locking it again.”

They both looked around the room. No windows. No trapdoors in the cement floor. The walls were solid, rough brickwork. There was no ceiling, and the sloped wooden roof looked pretty solid too.

“Pity we don’t still have the tools that were here when I arrived,” remarked Serge.

“Tools?”

“There was an old toolbox here in the shed, with a random set of stuff inside. James told Buddy to take it out, in case it gave me any ideas of escape. Dunno how I was going to escape, anyway, with that chain and all. James was probably just making a point.”

They looked around some more.

“Just before Buddy came back, a possum came in. Did you see it?” Trilby spoke slowly, thinking things out. “It was a big ‘un. Went back out again when it saw us.”

“I didn’t notice that one, but I heard them during the night.”

“So, there’s a way out up there. Probably at the top of the wall, between the wall and the rafters. Maybe we can get out that way.”

Serge looked doubtful. “I’m a big guy. Not so cool with heights, either.”

Trilby was tall, willowy, strong and supple. Serge, more of a gentle giant. “No worries,” she said. “Let me see what I can see. Give us a leg up, would you?”

She hopped onto the bed. Serge followed, then bent over and cupped his hands. She placed a foot in the proffered brace, and he lifted her so that she could grab the top layer of bricks, where wall met roof. She pulled herself up enough to see over the top of the wall. Definitely should have kept up those gym sessions, but still not seeing any necessity to drop her chocolate consumption.

“There’s a gap up here. There are a few gaps, actually, where the boards that should plug the space between the wall and the roof have fallen off. I think I can get through.” She dropped back down onto the bed.

“Here’s a plan. I’ll get outside, then do my best to open the door and let you out. If that doesn’t work, I’ll go find help.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Trilby pocketed her lock-picking kit, otherwise known as two pieces of bent wire. She found the knife, and attached it to a piece of the rope that had tied her ankles. Lastly, she wrapped herself in the sheet from the bed. Lightweight dresses weren’t designed for her next act.

“I don’t suppose you have a torch?” she asked Serge.

“Nope. Not even a match or a lighter. Even if I had, they’d have taken it. They took my mobile and my toothbrush. They tried to take my marble and my energy bar, but I said I needed those.”

“Mmm. OK, boost me up again.” Trilby took one end of the rope that was attached to the knife, and stepped into Serge’s braced hands. Once she was stable, one hand holding the top of the wall, she pulled up the knife and dropped it over the wall. “Right, give me a bit of a shove, but not enough to make me bump my head on the roof.”

Serge thought about that, then decided for the second time that afternoon not to think too much. He lifted her up just enough. She eased her head and shoulders over the edge of the wall. It crossed her mind that this was where things got serious. The gap was high enough to fit her body, but too narrow for her to turn around. If she got out of here, it’d be head first.

Immediately below her was a Hakea bush. Prickly. Better than a Banksia for softening a hard landing, though not much better.

A wriggle or two, and the front part of her body was hanging over the outside wall, head down. Her legs acted as counterbalance on the inside. She released her grip on the wall and stretched her arms below her head.

“OK,” she called to Serge, “push my feet, as hard as you can.”

“That’s probably going to hurt.”

“Yep, that’s OK. I’m ready.”

He pushed. She wriggled, scraped her thighs, bumped her knees, bent her feet the wrong way, destroyed the gloss on her sandals (should have taken those off), then landed head first in a prickly bush. All in a day’s work for a technical writer.

“You OK?”

“All good.” She retrieved the knife, which had fortuitously found a resting place a foot away from hers in the Hakea, and pushed her way through the undergrowth to the front of the shed.

That’s when her run of good luck came to an end. The padlock on the door, a Mul-T-Lock Classic, was better quality than the one that had secured Serge’s chain. Experts could pick this lock, but not Trilby. Not in the time she’d consider reasonable, with night coming fast, and with only a couple of pieces of wire as her tools.

The hasp and staple were another matter. The hasp was fixed to the door with big, friendly screws. The staple was fixed to the door jamb with equally big, friendly screws. The wood of the door, though solid, had seen some extreme weather in its time. The relentless heat of the Australian summer. The bitter cold of a night in the hills. The lashing of subtropical rainfall. Funny how often people paid attention to the lock, but ignored the other factors that protected their security. Though perhaps, in this case, the owner of the shed simply had a lock lying around unused, and put it to work to keep the shed door closed.

The knife might be able to turn the screws. Before resorting to that second-best solution, Trilby went searching for the toolbox Serge had mentioned. James had told Buddy to take it outside. Trilby would bet that Buddy had not taken it far. Sure enough, there it was, resting at the base of a Scribbly Gum. The dark outline of the box stood out against the tree’s pale bark, even in the growing evening gloom.

Inside the toolbox was a screwdriver. Four screws, ten seconds each. In less than a minute, the hasp came free and the door was open. The right tool for the job. Works every time.

Serge was at the door when she opened it. “Aced it!” he said, offering her a high five. She grinned and smacked his hand with studied nonchalance.

Trilby glanced around the room that had been their prison. Nothing left in there that was useful. No container for water except a mug and that bucket. The sheet was still wrapped around her, torn here and there by her recent encounters with brick and bush. The sheet would come in useful, if only to keep off the mosquitoes that were already making a nuisance of themselves.

The toolbox held nothing else useful either. No torch, nor any other form of light.

Trilby gave the screwdriver to Serge, who put it in his pocket. “That may come in handy,” she said. “Let’s go. We’ll keep to the edge of the track, so we can hide if Buddy or James comes back.”

It was a clear, warm evening, but night was coming fast. A bevy of kookaburras cranked up nearby, their mad laughter heightening the age-old instinctive apprehension brought on by the deepening dusk. Cockatoos screeched their territorial objections. Serge and Trilby set off down the track at good speed, Trilby wincing as the sharp stones made themselves felt through her flimsy sandals, and wishing she had a torch.

END OF CHAPTER 7