It wasn't dark when Freddie was walking home. It wasn't foggy or dull or raining. There were people around. He wasn't cutting through an alleyway or a park. He had walked this way home hundreds of times before. In short, he had taken every precaution and no risks in choosing when, how and where to travel on his relatively short journey from his after school film club to his house. Unfortunately, this did not deter the kidnapper.
"Excuse me, young man."
A woman was standing on the kerb of the pavement by the open door of her car. It was a non-descript sort of a car in an ordinary colour – green, dark blue or grey, Freddie didn't really notice – and the woman was nothing special. Her hair was mousy brown and mid-length, not curly or straight or styled in any way. Her face was probably unmade, perhaps a little foundation or eyeliner but nothing obvious. She was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and a jacket that were plain but not scruffy.
"Can I help you?" Freddie asked politely, stopping in his tracks as her turned to address this particularly normal person.
"I'm terribly sorry about this," she said, and he saw now that she wore an awkward, apologetic expression on her face, "but I'm afraid I have to ask you to step into my car."
"Erm...what for?" Freddie asked.
"This is a kidnapping, I'm afraid. I don't want to make a scene and upset all these passers-by, so if you wouldn't mind..?"
Freddie looked the woman curiously. He was more than a little confused.
"I'm afraid I have to decline," he told her. "I'm expected at home."
"Of course, it's only natural that you'd not want to worry your parents," the woman replied with an understanding smile, "but, and it is with the upmost regret with which I inform you of this, you do not have a choice in the matter."
Freddie took a slow step away and said,
"I'm going to walk away now. I hope you find someone else to kidnap. Good luck."
The woman stepped into his path as he began to walk away and, with that awkwardly rueful expression gracing her features again and a quick apology of, "I had hoped I wouldn't have to resort to this," she lifted her jacket to reveal a hand gun haphazardly concealed beneath.
"Oh," said Freddie.
"I know. I'm so sorry. So could you..?" She gestured at the open car door.
"Sure. I guess."
The woman's face broke into a relieved smile.
"Thank you so much."
Freddie sat down nervously in the passenger seat, his school bag balancing uncomfortably on his knees.
"You can pop your bag on the back seat if you like," the woman offered.
Freddie twisted around and passed his bag through the gap between the front seats into the back of the car. As he did so he saw a big, black bin-bag on the seat behind him.
"What's that?" he asked the woman as she twisted her key in the ignition and put the car in gear.
"One minute," she murmured, the tip of her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth. "I can't talk and reverse at the same time. I shouldn't have parked so close to the car in front."
Freddie waited patiently while she backed out of her space and executed a perfect three-point turn in the road. Freddie was impressed.
"That was good. My dad always has to do a five-pointer," he told her.
"Really? I've never had trouble with turning. It's only the reverse parking I can't do," she replied conversationally.
"Oh yes, that. Well. That's a little embarrassing, actually. I'm not sure I should tell you."
"Oh, go on!" Freddie insisted. "I won't tell anyone. Honest."
The woman looked sideways at him as she swung round a roundabout and turned onto a dual carriageway. Freddie had not often travelled on this road.
"Do you promise?" she asked suspiciously.
"Sure. Promise I won't tell."
The woman seemed to consider for a moment before, with a small smile that suggested that she'd quite like to tell someone really, she conceded.
"Alright then. In that bag are some things I need to dispose of." She paused. "Go on, ask me what things," she said with a short giggle, nudging Freddie with her elbow.
"Okay. What things?"
"Well," she said with relish, wriggling her shoulders and smirking, "there are two arms, two legs and a headless torso."
"Oh. Gosh. What about the head?"
"That's in my fridge at home."
"Oh," Freddie said again. "Who do they belong to?"
"They belong to my ex-boyfriend. He was late for a date one too many times. Now he'll be late forevermore." She suddenly let forth a glorious howl of laughter, gripping the steering wheel tightly while her body shook, tears streamed down her cheeks and the hysterical giggles burst from her mouth. Freddie found his mouth twitching despite himself. It was a while before the woman calmed down. She sighed a happy sigh and wiped the tears away with the back of her hand.
"Oh dear, I apologise for that outburst. That was a particularly bad joke."
"I thought it was quite funny," Freddie told her.
"You did?" She beamed at him. "I do like bad jokes. I really shouldn't be so amused by them but I just can't help myself."
"Well, they say the old ones are the best."
"Yes, yes they do."
They drove along in comfortable silence for a while until the woman let out a little gasp and said,
"Goodness, how rude of me! I haven't introduced myself or asked for your name! Please forgive me."
"Not at all," Freddie said, brushing aside her beseeching look with a smile and a wave of his hand. "I'm Freddie."
"Then it's an absolute pleasure to meet you, Freddie. My name...ooh..." Her polite smile was replaced by a thoughtful frown. "I've never actually done this before. The kidnapping thing, I mean. Do you think it might be prudent for me to keep my name secret? I think that's what I'm supposed to do. Oh but I do feel awful, neglecting these basic niceties."
"Ah, no, yeah I think that'd be best for you. I mean," Freddie gave a short laugh, "if you told me your name I could go to the police if I escape."
"Well quite. Not that you will escape," she added. "I know it seems rather uncivil of me to say so, but you have no chance."
Freddie smiled mischievously and said, with a hint of challenge in his tone, "We'll see."
"I look forward to competing with you," the woman answered with a gracious nod. "I am sure you will perform admirably. But I'm afraid," she said as she glanced up at a road sign, "that I must change the rules a little bit now. Can you see, in the back seat, a purple handbag?"
Freddie twisted in his seat and peered into the back of the car.
"Err...no sorry, I – oh no, wait. I think that might be the strap poking out from under the bag."
"Excellent. Could you reach it for me?"
Freddie stretched his arm back and tugged at the purple strap. The bag didn't budge.
"You might have to shift the bin-bag a bit," the woman, who had been watching in the rear view mirror, suggested.
Freddie stretched his arm a little further and prodded at the bag with his fingertips. He felt someone else's fingertips beneath his and shuddered a little. It was quite unpleasant, like the time his friend had dared him to touch a slug when they were younger. Shaking off the squeamish feeling, he gave the bag a shove and shifted the arm within so that the purple handbag beneath was accessible.
"Got it," he called triumphantly, pulling the bag free and dropping it onto his lap. "What did you want from it?"
"There should be a blindfold in there. Just pop it on so you can't see where we're going for this last bit of the journey. Don't worry, it's not for long. It's just a precaution, I thought it might be appropriate."
"Yeah, I guess it's better from your point of view if I don't know where we are," Freddie agreed as he extracted the strip of dark cloth and bound it tightly over his eyes. "I can see a little spot of light by my nose, but I can't see any actual stuff. Is that okay?"
The woman's voice sounded a little unsure as she replied.
"Well, ideally you should only be able to see black," she said slowly, "but then again," she sounded more positive now, "you have been rather co-operative, excluding the initial little blip. I suppose you can leave it like that."
The rest of the journey was, on the whole, fairly pleasant. Apart from the obvious disconcertion of lacking his sight, Freddie was comfortable and content. After approximately fifteen minutes, the car stopped.
"I'm going to get out now," said the woman's voice, "but I'd like you to sit tight for a moment. If you try to get out by yourself you might trip, and we don't want you getting hurt now, do we?"
Freddie felt around to release his seat belt then sat still until he heard the door to his left open and felt a gentle hand taking his arm and easing him up.
Another hand was placed on top of his head to cushion it in case he stood too quickly and banged his head on the door.
"There we go. Out of the car and unharmed."
The car door slammed. The woman led him slowly away and, after a short distance, stopped him while she unlocked a door. She took him to the left then laughed abruptly.
"How silly of me!"
"Oh dear, I am sorry. I was about to take you blindfolded up the stairs! Imagine that! Come, the lift is this way."
As they stood in the lift together, Freddie said,
"You're being very kind about all this. You could have dragged me off the streets, blindfolded me the whole way and let me stumble my way up the stairs, but you've been really nice to me."
"Excluding the essence of what I'm doing."
"Well, yeah, that's less nice," Freddie admitted, "but no one's perfect."
"Thank you, Freddie."
The doors of the lift slid smoothly open and the woman led Freddie down what he presumed was come sort of corridor. She stopped him again and unlocked another door, led him through, locked it behind them, and said, "You can take the blindfold off now."
Freddie did so. He was in a stylishly sparse flat with a pale green and dark brown colour scheme. It was very clean and rather beautiful. There was a film camera set up on a tripod in front of the brown leather sofa.
"Right." The woman slapped her hands together. "Down to business. I need you to cry."
"Cry?" asked Freddie, bewildered.
"For the camera," she explained. "I need your parents to think you're scared or hurt, so I need you to cry. Are you a good actor?"
"Oh gee, I don't think so."
"Oh." The woman looked a little dejected. "Could you just try right now? Look scared."
Freddie pulled the most terrified face he could.
"Not bad at all," said the woman. "Can you do that for the camera?"
"I can try."
"Lovely. Now, have a quick read of this while I mix some soapy water to make your eyes a little bloodshot."
Freddie nodded and skimmed the statement she had handed him, muttering the words under his breath as he read.
"Hang on," he said when he was approximately half way down the page. "I don't get this line."
"Sorry, my handwriting is truly appalling. Which line?" asked the woman, hurrying to his side.
"It's not the writing. 'My captor disapproves of the angle blah blah blah on the news broadcast last Wednesday at nine o'clock pm.' What's that about?"
"Oh, don't worry about the details. Your parents broadcasted a story, I didn't like it, now I want a ransom and public apology."
Freddie held the paper out to her, smiling ruefully.
"I'm really sorry, but you've got the wrong kid," he said. "My parents have nothing to do with news or TV or radio or whatever. My dad's a teacher and my mum's a chef."
The woman peered at him suspiciously for a moment, hands on hips, then sighed resignedly.
"You're not even lying are you?"
He shook his head.
"Oh dear. I am terribly sorry for all this inconvenience," she said miserably. "I told you this was my first time. My sources must have been inaccurate." Her face darkened. "I'll have to deal with them later. Let me drive you home."
Freddie was two hours late home. After a quick lie about where he'd been and a meek 'yes Mum, sorry Mum, never again Mum' routine, he plodded upstairs and flopped down on his bed. All in all, it had been a rather strange afternoon.