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The dark blue, paint peeled door of the Fox creaked as Paul pushed it open. The light was dull and unwelcoming and not what he had come to expect from a small country pub. There was no atmosphere at all with just a low chatter of conversation coming from inside. In the dim light, swathed with a heavy fog of cigarette smoke, all the faces he could make out turned to see him enter. The chatter died away to silence in an instant. The interior looked as if it had at one time been a decent place for an evening meal or a drink. However, the neglected decor and lack of ambiance now left a lot to be desired. The walls were whitewashed, for convenience, and the carpet, a worn blue, was reduced to tatters around the edges. The pictures adorning the walls showed various hunting scenes and practices that had been utilised throughout the centuries. All were of a bloody nature and depicted animals being taken to pieces by varying obscene methods. None of it looked inviting and seemed to have been purposefully done to discourage custom. There were at least a dozen people scattered around the inside that he could see through the smoky veil. They all stared in silence as he stepped further into their domain. A small voice piped up within his head, ‘get out you idiot.’ With some reluctance he silenced it.
‘I’m here to rescue an angel,’ Paul told himself, firmly, as he descended the steps and crossed the short distance to the bar. A trickle of sweat ran down the centre of his back even though it did not feel hot.
‘You’re an idiot,’ the small voice managed to reply before he turned his attention to the bar.
Paul was glad of the dim lighting because the smoke haze filling the air stung his eyes to the point they watered slightly. It took considerable willpower not to start coughing as it filled his throat. The top of the bar had not seen a good clean for days, with glass stains and spilled patches smearing its lacklustre sheen. The man standing almost in shadow at the back deliberately moved over to meet Paul and for a moment they stood face to face. At once Paul knew he was looking at the man Richard Stanford. He fitted the individual he had seen indistinctly in the dark nightmares. Calmly, he realised his sanity was intact and that every word
On sizing Stanford up he stood at Paul’s own height of five foot ten, although in build he weighed a good few pounds heavier. He stood, with his arms outstretched on either side, grasping the edge of the bar with both hands so his knuckles showed. They were hard and callous at the end of powerful forearms. He was a man who lacked the milk of human kindness in any form. A savage man, with a lined face and dark grey eyes that stared with mistrust at any stranger. His hair had at one time been fair, but was greying considerably. The dark areas around the eyes and a two-day growth of facial hair showed he had been without sleep. Also, once Stanford had stepped from the shadows, Paul noticed the fresh scars running down his left cheek. They were not very deep, but instinct told him they had been inflicted during a struggle. He sensed that Stanford had used violence against Rebecca and she had tried to protect herself. It seemed the logical explanation for the wounds. All that was missing from the equation was Rebecca. Where were they holding her?
The blood began to pump inside Paul while at the same time he could feel an expression of anger blazing across his face. If Stanford could see it then he would surely figure out why he was there. He still stood motionless, his face an unmoving study of Paul. With his shirt open, halfway down his chest, and sleeves rolled up to the elbows, Stanford’s arms sported several garish tattoos. The largest was a fearsome green serpent, coiled around a long golden sword.
“What d’yer want?” Stanford snapped, in a grunt to break the silence.
‘To bury my fist in your ugly face you fat bastard,’ was what Paul wanted to say, but he knew the odds were against such a statement.
“A coke if you don’t mind,” he replied, politely, and smiled. He was trying hard to pass for a tourist, but felt he must have looked idiotic instead.
Stanford said nothing as he poured the drink from an already open bottle. The glass was slammed down on the bar in front of Paul as he paid. The money was quickly taken, but there was no change returned. Still the rest of the patrons around them remained silent as the little scene was played out. He could almost feel the many pairs of eyes staring into his back as he casually leaned against the bar and took a sip from the glass. The cola was warm and flat. On the other side Stanford continued the staring match with his piercing eyes. Paul assumed it was either the normal greeting for a newcomer or that he had been seen through. The latter was true although he was unaware that they had been expecting him. The only question he would have liked an answer to was; how long were they going to give him before making their move? Could he try to bluff a way out? It seemed unlikely they would let him go and that his best chance to leave had passed. Only then, when it was too late, did Paul see his approach was fatally flawed. It was obvious there were going to be no answers from anyone there and a quick exit was needed.
“What d’yer want ’ere?” Stanford hissed.
Paul met the cold stare with another simple smile.
“Just passing through and needed a drink,” he replied, lightly, betraying the tension knotting his stomach. He picked up the glass of foul cola and tipped it animatedly in Stanford’s direction.
“At this time of day? What’s a stranger doing so far off the main road?”
Paul knew they were onto him and tried to bluff it further.
“A few days holiday. Thought I’d try and get into the Lakes today. Trouble is I started late and only got this far,” he shrugged. “I was hoping to find a bed and breakfast place, with a bit of luck. Still, if you can’t recommend one, I’ll be on my way.” He deliberately took another mouthful of the unpalatable drink and stepped back from the bar. And in that moment Paul was acutely aware that someone had managed to step up behind him unheard. Without much difficulty he could smell the body odour of the unwashed newcomer wafting over his shoulder above the acrid smoke.
Stanford again looked at him coldly. “Yer lying, what are yer doing ’ere?”
Paul spat the vile cola into his face. “Your fucking pub stinks.”
Much to his surprise Stanford did not react angrily, but instead an unfeeling smile parted his lips, as he took a bar towel to wipe his face dry.
“So there’s a bit of fight in yer,” he said. “That suits me just fine.” He leant across the bar, swiftly grabbing Paul by the collar of his jacket, and jammed his face close to his. Paul could smell the alcohol and stale cigarettes on his breath.
“If it’s luck yer after consult