We drove down the Welsh coast in silence. There was no need to ask where we were going. We bumped up onto the kerb by the bus stop to walk the last four hundred yards to the cottage. The path, long overgrown, dipped and yawed so violently only the hardiest land rover would attempt to navigate.
Frank turned to face me from the front seat. “Don’t even think about doing a runner.”
“Frank, I’ve no idea where your stash is.”
It was all I could do to stop myself fingering the Mr Goldstein’s letter hidden in my pocket.
“I know you don’t lad. Because if you did you would have said. You’re not stupid.”
Frank’s barrel chested Goon sitting next to him looked disappointed, like he was looking forward to beating me up.
“So if you know I don’t know, which I don’t – why are we here?”
I decided that if things got out of hand I would show Frank the letter and let him take the money – if that’s what it revealed. But of course it could mean something else completely, I had no idea.
The path, pebbly and overgrown, wound it’s way through the woods until the cottage came into view.
Although I had visited not three weeks previously, Joyce’s home of forty years was unrecognisable. Overgrown gardens, dusty windows, rubbish in the porch, free newspapers half-shoved in the letterbox. But there was no time to clean up, Frank was in a hurry. He got my attention with a shove.
“How do we get in?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t a key.”
The cold slap warmed my Cheek.
“Don’t fuck with me. I know you know.”
Miserably, I led them round to the side of the house where I lifted the latch on the side frosted side window and hopped up. I was in.
The house smelt damp and spicey. Aromas filled the hallway. The stuffed Pine Martin stared down from the plate shelf. Kicking away the pile of junk mail from the thick wooden door, I pulled the latch and let them in.
Frank pushed past and with a nod to his fat-faced accomplice, began to ransack the place. Tables cupboards, draws, desks, shelves – all cleared, upturned or emptied.
“What the hell do you think you are doing? You have no right!”
Frank pushed past. He was like a demon, possessed by some wild spirit. He stopped in mid ransack and turned to me, his face contorted with rage.
“You better hope I find the cash, or else it’s your head on the block next.”
The turmoil continued. Of course, Frank found nothing. In a rage, he grabbed me, sat me down on the chair in the hallway while his accomplice produced some rope and tied me down into the seat. Next, Frank grabbed the newspapers lying in the hallway, scooped them up in a pile and produced a lighter from his pocket.
“Now, either you tell me where the money is, or I’ll set fire to this place and burn it down with you in it!”
The life drained from me. I knew this was it. There was nothing else to do.
“Ok, ok. Untie me and I’ll tell you what she said.”
Frank loosened the rope and I dug around in my pocket and produced the letter.
Before I could open it Frank grabbed the letter and tore it open. The paper stretched and tore in his hand as his knuckles went white. He flung the paper at me. I scanned the words, desperately trying to make sense of what it said.
Below the usual dry solicitor instructions was a letter from Joyce.
My Dear Tom.
Unfortunately, I have nothing to leave you. The house I have left to the Welsh people as a thank you for the wonderful years that I have spent at the foot of this ancient Celtic mountain.
I know Frank has been giving you a hard time about the money I hid for him, but that has gone too. I either spent it or gave it away to the tramps and vagrants who live in Colwyn Bay. Their need is greater than mine, or yours (or Frank’s!).
So there we have it. I don’t want you to feel disappointed, because we both know I have given you something more precious than money or objects. Take care Tom and be careful of what you wish for!
Ps If you want, you can take all the rhubarb. You know how to make the pie by now, you watched me enough times!
“What the fuck does that mean? She’s given it away to the tramps?”
I shrugged my shoulders, that was news to me too. More importantly, I felt relief that I didn’t have any of Frank’s cursed money. I was free now to go. I had nothing more to give him. But I was wrong, dead wrong.
“Tie him back down.”
I was back in the chair, only this time the knots were tighter. They burned my wrists.
“I’ll tell you something Tom, you don’t know where my money is? That’s fine, you can go and see Joyce and see if she’s telling the truth!”
Frank’s sidekick grabbed all the newspapers, put them into a heap, then from the kitchen produced some paraffin oil, poured it on the papers and set light to them. In no time the acrid smoke filled the hall. Frank called out through the smoke as he exited the front door.
“Say hello to Joyce for me!”
The flames quickly took hold, they spread up the dry walls, licking up towards the plaster work. The ancient wiring began to spark and catch fire. I tried to bump myself along in the chair to smother the flames but the chair was too heavy and the bounds too tight.
The coughing began. At first it was a sweet sickly taste at the back of my throat, then as the flames increased, I wretched and swung violently about, like a condemned man in the execution chair.
I couldn’t see a thing. It was unbearable, the heat scalded may hair and choked my throat. I cursed Joyce, I cursed my own greed, I cursed the cottage. This was it, my last day on earth. Sat in an old horsehair chair, choking to death.
It was then I heard it. The sound of smashing glass. Had Frank got second thoughts? Was he fearful of a murder charge?
But it wasn’t Frank. It was someone else. Someone who was there to save my life and in doing so, change theirs forever.