Parker Bilal is the pen-name of Jamal Mahjoub. Born in London and brought up in Khartoum, Sudan, Mahjoub originally trained as a geologist and has written seven critically acclaimed literary novels.
She was sifting through the discount bins in the supermarket on her way home from the library, looking for something that was both affordable and edible, two qualities that seemed mutually exclusive, when she spotted the man smiling at her. Instinctively she looked away. Throwing something into her basket she headed for the check-out. She was halfway across the station concourse when he caught up with her.
– Excuse me? Would you mind?
She gave him her coldest look. Mid-forties, maybe older, greying hair, puffy face.
– I have a proposition for you.
Why was there never a policeman around when you needed one? A conductor, porter, whatever, someone in uniform? It was as if the whole world had been handed over to machines. Press this, pull that. No wonder people were losing their social skills.
– I’m not that kind of girl.
– No, no.
– I didn’t mean… I just thought…
He nodded at her carrier bag,
-You could use some extra cash. A hundred pounds?
– You were looking for someone short of money?
Either he was a devious maniac, or he was pretty sad.
– What’s the catch?
– No catch. All you have to do is make a call.
– Nothing. You don’t even have to say anything except where you are.
– That’s it?
– It’s as simple as that.
She sniffed. Her mother was always on at her about it. She sniffed when she was nervous.
– What is it, like a practical joke?
– Something like that.
His smile was forced.
– Where’s the money?
He produced a wallet and counted out five twenties. How much trouble could you get into for making a phone call?
She made to walk on.
– Two hundred. He was pulling notes out of his wallet like a magician.
– Two fifty.
It was a good chunk of next month’s rent.
– All I have to do is dial a number, right?
– And say where you are.
At a pay phone on the far side of the station he handed her a card with a number on it. She dialled. It startled her when someone answered.
A woman’s voice.
There was a long pause. She could hear the woman thinking.
– Mallory? Is that you?
Another long pause. Then a choked sob made her heart leap.
– Please, darling. Say something. Anything. Just tell me where you are.
This was her cue.
– Paddington station.
– Oh, thank god! Stay there, I’m on my way.
The line went dead. She stared at the phone, then her eyes met the man’s.
– Who’s Mallory?
– That doesn’t concern you, he said, handing her the money.
Later that evening she stared at the folded notes lying on the table, wondering about the consequences of what she had done. The woman had been crying. She sounded frightened. Was Mallory her daughter? Had the man picked her because she was roughly the same age? Did he enlist her help to make the woman think her daughter was ready to come home? Why? Obviously, because he couldn’t get near the woman any other way. She didn’t trust him. More than that. She was scared of him. And now she was going to walk right into his arms.
Stuffing the money into her pocket she ran out.
It was late now and the station had cleared. It wasn’t hard to spot the woman. The only other person in sight was a thin man, sitting staring at the cup in front of him as though it might speak if he waited long enough. She was in her fifties, wearing a mohair coat and fiddling with the rings on her fingers. Was it all some kind of sick joke? The kind of cruelty couples inflicted on one another after years of loveless marriage? There was no sign of the man.
She circled carefully, looking into every corner she could find. Finally, unable to restrain herself any longer she approached the table. The woman looked up.
– Are you waiting for somebody?
– I might be.
Her face grew serious.
– I’m the one who called.
– You’ve seen her? You’ve seen Mallory? Is she all right?
The woman was frantic.
– I haven’t seen her.
– Then… I don’t understand.
So she explained the whole story. The supermarket, the conversation with the man, the money, which she now held out like an offering.
– Look, I’m really sorry if I caused you any pain.
The woman grabbed her firmly by the shoulders.
– This man, have you seen him again?
– No, I looked around, but he’s not here.
– Thank God!
The woman looked into her eyes;
– You have to leave, right now.
– I don’t understand.
– You’re in danger, don’t you see? This is how he caught my Mallory.
She suddenly felt very afraid.
– We both have to get out of here.
– Yes, but, what about Mallory?
– I have a car parked around the corner. Mallory will have to wait.
She was swept along by the urgency of the whole thing. They headed outside. The air was dark and cold. She was wondering what she had got herself mixed up in. As they hurried along a row of parked cars a door slid open and she was shoved into the interior of a large van. A cloth was pressed over her nose and mouth until she lost consciousness.
When she opened her eyes it was cold and dark. Her hands were tied. They were driving, somewhere far away. No other cars around. A road in the middle of nowhere. Two people were talking. A man and a woman. Both voices sounded strange, different, but she recognised them.
– How did you know she would come back?
– They always do. Conscience or something, never fails.
The woman chuckled.
– She’s pretty.
– I thought you’d like her, my love. We’re going to have some fun with this one.
In the back she rolled onto her side and tried to sit up. She wanted to scream but the gag was tied too tightly.