As part of a flash challenge to write a story in 72 hours on the subject of mistaken identity, this was my offering:
A Walk in the Park.
I’m a sucker for Noel Coward. I don’t know if it’s the dressing gown or some weird cravat fixation, but an addict I am.
That morning, as Fudge and I headed off for our regular stroll around the park, I popped on my headphones to listen to one of his tales just as the song “Mad dogs and Englishmen” played. I couldn’t resist a wry smile. The same could be true of us dog-walkers. Only a crazy man would step out of a dry, centrally heated home to enjoy a walk with his most faithful four-legged friend on such a gloomy morning. We certainly hadn’t seen much evidence of any sunshine lately, not even of the midday variety.
Suitably attired in multiple layers that disguised my paunch, spreading my bulk more evenly around my 5 foot 10 frame, I pulled up my hood and prepared for the howling wind to greet me. Fudge, my three-year old chocolate Labrador, strained on his lead. If the wind didn’t topple me, then his enthusiasm surely would.
The park lay at the end of our street, but might be better described as a wooded area with a patch of grass and a children’s playground comprising three structures in varying states of decline. A warped wooden gate marked the street entrance, giving it a tad more gravitas than it deserved. It always struck me as strange to have a gate at this residential end, yet its opposite side ran parallel to a busy main road across from the local primary school with little more than a two foot fence to mark the boundary.
Fudge guided me at speed to the chosen place, the place where he could run freely amid muddy puddles, tall oak trees and waterlogged trails. At this hour, our regular slot, we rarely met another person. That suited us both just fine. But that morning, despite the lingering mist and the relentless drizzle, I spotted a figure near the picket-fence border. The lamplights, intermittent due to council cutbacks, offered me little assistance in gleaning any further information about my co-walker. I strained my eyes, but could make out no other dogs, so I unleashed Fudge and watched him flee for the trees, sniffing and marking his spot frequently as was his habit.
The stranger didn’t move. His bulky stature seemed more menacing in the half-light and his stillness disturbed me. I paused the Noel Coward story and kept my eyes on Fudge. Well as much as was possible with a brown dog in a dark wood on a grey day. A sombre palette indeed. His exuberance defined his location for me, as he barked at a bird daring to invade his territory.
The bird was not the only curiosity. Our gate-crasher friend remained stock-still, so inactive that I began to doubt his humanity. Was it a new statue? An advertising board? Surely not. Just as my mind veered out of control pondering innumerable possibilities, Fudge darted from the copse and headed straight for the shaded figure, who squatted as though to greet my over-friendly mutt.
Paranoia averted, I whistled for Fudge to come back to me and sloshed my way through the waterlogged trail in the same direction.
Fudge ignored me, intent on meeting a new friend, and came to a sudden stop at the stranger’s feet. I increased my pace, but the mud held me back, clinging to my boots like quicksand.
‘Fudge!’ I yelled, ‘come back, boy. Leave the nice man alone.’ I tried to instil levity in my voice, but my heart thumped in my chest, beating like a Ferrari racing for the chequered flag. ‘Fudge, come here now, there’s a good boy.’ My beautiful buddy slumped to the floor with a yelp. ‘Fudge!’ my voice climbed the decibel scale and I tore my feet from my boots and propelled myself towards them, just as the man scooped up all seventy pounds of my beloved pal and jumped the picket fence to place him in the boot of a black estate car. I hadn’t noticed the car before, but then again I wasn’t concerned about the traffic – until now.
‘Don’t come any closer,’ the dog-thief said, his stance as threatening as his tone.
I hesitated but then reconsidered and continued my forward approach. ‘What are you doing with my dog? Give him back now and I won’t call the police. Just give me my dog back.’
‘Not yet. Later, maybe.’
‘But why? What do you want?’ I asked, my chest tightening.
‘As if you don’t know.’ His voice was stern, with a hint of a sneer.
‘Money? I’ll get you money. How much?’
‘This isn’t about money. Now, stay back and we won’t harm you or your dog.’
‘HARM? Why would you harm him? He’s just a pet.’
‘Oh, I think we both know he is more than that.’ He slammed the boot shut.
I leapt the fence, a mighty feat for one so unfit, and hurled myself at him.
‘Stupid man. Do you want to come too?’ he laughed, a sound so chilling that, much like last night’s gin-soaked ice cube hitting the back of my throat, it made my spine tingle.
‘Yes, take me with you.’ I begged him, just as something sharp smashed against my head.
When I came round, a cold concrete floor lay beneath me. My head throbbed and an icy blast blowing in from the skylight above made me shiver. Around me, metal shelving units filled one wall, housing all sorts of home DIY gear, and stepladders of varying sizes leaned against another.
Where am I? A garage? It bore a striking resemblance to my own garage. Minus the tools though. My den was filled with paint pots, canvas boards and odd picture frames. I’m an artist, specialising in pet portraits. Fudge has been the star of many a painting during those days when I have no clients and can only hone my skills through practice. My garage had heating too. Here, my one leg was numb from the cold, but the other was warmed by Fudge’s snoring body
Tears welled up on seeing him safe and as I struggled to sit up, he woke and jumped to his feet. Before I knew it, I was assaulted by slobbering licks and wet nose nudges. His tongue lapped my face with the exuberance of a puppy.
‘Hey, buddy. How you doing?’ I said between licks. He seemed fine, better than me actually.
There was a bowl of water for Fudge, but nothing for me. My stomach rumbled – I hadn’t had breakfast. Never do before our walk. Fudge sniffed at my pockets, at least I had a few treats for him, but nothing to sustain him for very long. My watch read 10:37, less than four hours since we had left for our walk. No-one would be even looking for us yet, Carole didn’t get home from her late stint at the hospital until midday.
But why are we here? Why did they want, Fudge? When are they coming back? Are they coming back?
Shaking my head to eliminate the demons running amok in my mind, I shoved my hand deeper into my pocket, I couldn’t find my phone. Had I dropped it or had they – whoever they are – taken it from me? With a groan, I got to my feet and stretched out my limbs. Creaking and cracking like logs on a fire – Hmm, a fire. If only.
‘Aargh!’ my socked feet did not suit the cold, hard surface and just shuffling around the confined space brought my delicate size tens into contact with a myriad of nasties, sharp and pointed, prickly and then the final delight, something soft and squidgy. Sensing a deposit from Fudge, I bent down, extracting a plastic bag from my pocket and scooped up the offending item. Once a responsible dog owner, always a responsible dog owner. I placed another bag over my sodden sock and savoured the warmth it delivered to my toes.
Encouraged by my own ingenuity, I checked the garage door. Locked. No sign of a lever to operate from the inside. Probably needed a fob or some electronic device. No other doors or windows, the only light coming from the skylight, along with the draught. A slow, painful climb up the stepladder brought further disappointment, the skylight was jammed stuck. My attention fell on the tools. Not being a DIY guru, I barely recognised half of the gadgets, but was hopeful that even I could break a lock with a drill or something similar.
I listened first for any sign of voices, straining to hear anything above my own heavy breathing and Fudge’s panting. Hearing nothing and emboldened with a sense of foolish – and until this stage in my life, completely indiscernible – bravery, I banged on the garage door, hoping to attract attention. If it brought back the thieves, at least then there’d be a chance for dialogue. To negotiate with them and maybe learn why they’d kidnapped us.
No response. Not even the sound of passing cars, pedestrians or life in general. There was no other option, the power tools it had to be. I spent the next few minutes fumbling along the walls for a light socket or a power outlet and once again came up lacking, aside from a few more bumps to my already-suffering body. No switches meant no power. That was it. Dejected, I slid down the wall and sat back on the floor. Fudge came and sat beside me, nudging his head under my arm to offer some much-needed warmth and comfort. ‘Thank you, boy.’ I ruffled his furry head and planted a kiss atop. The sound he made implied he appreciated the gesture.
‘So, what now, Fudge?’
He whimpered and nuzzled my hand. ‘Sorry boy. No more treats yet, you’re on rations from now on.’ Out came the puppy dog eyes, the look that breaks even the stoniest of hearts. To distract him, I stand again and hunt out an old pair of gloves. After a sniff to rule out any nasty chemicals, I scrunched the glove in my hand and then held it under Fudge’s nose. With an order to sit facing the garage door, I hid the glove on one of the lower shelves, behind a cardboard box labelled ‘sundries.’
‘OK, Fudge. Find the glove. Find the glove.’ He sprang to his feet and began sniffing all around. Within seconds he pawed at the right shelf. So much for that game. But Fudge wasn’t done yet. He ducked behind the box and tugged on the glove. When I’d pushed the box back into place, the damn glove must have snagged on a screw or something similar. Fudge growled as he pulled on the fabric, baring his full set of pearly whites. The material tore and Fudge’s sudden release saw him fall back on his haunches just as the shelving unit wobbled and a large black toolbox fell from the uppermost shelf. Its once metallic sheen now dulled by layers of dust, the box plummeted to the floor, landed with a thud, causing the lid to open and a flurry of screwdrivers bounced into the air and headed like arrows in Fudge’s direction.
‘Fudge! Come boy!’
He turned his head a mere millisecond before a red-handled implement with a sharp slotted edge whistled past his left eye. Fudge howled, startled but safe as the other deadly instruments clattered to the floor, the noise of wood and metal on concrete akin to a choir of tuneless cats.
‘Phew, that was a close shave.’ I pulled Fudge to me and stroked his head, calmly whispering his name. We sat for a while, still and quiet. The light was fading. I glanced at my watch again. Dammit, still 10:37. It must have stopped, damaged during our journey to this hell-hole. That meant it had to be at least 4pm, dusk came early at this time of year. Somebody must be looking for us now. Carole would have alerted the police.
Fudge’s ears pricked. ‘What was that, Fudge? Did you hear something?’ I strained my ears to catch the sound. A car? No, a bus maybe. I heard the wheeze of an automatic door sliding open and then whooshing shut. Someone must have got off the bus. I pounded on the garage door.
‘Help! Help! Is anyone there? We’re trapped in here. Help! Please, help.’
‘Hello? Who’s there?’ An elderly woman’s voice trembled.
‘We’re in here. In the garage. They locked us in here.’
‘Who did? Who’s we?’
‘Just me and my dog.’ Fudge barked, as if on cue.
‘Wait there. I’ll fetch my grandson,’ her voice trailed off.
‘No! Please don’t go. Call the police.’ But she must have already gone, or else she couldn’t have heard me. ‘Wait there, she said. Like we have a choice, eh boy?’ Fudge lifted his paws onto my shoulders and gave me a thorough licking, the warmth from his tongue never as welcome as at that moment.
Darkness fell and the garage became a death trap. We dared not even move for fear of dislodging some lethal implement or slipping on the many screws scattered around from the now severely dented toolbox.
Where had she gone? Was she just a ruse? To give me hope?
Time dragged, Fudge whimpered and I was forced to feed him the last of the treats. His stomach gurgled in unison with my own. Thirst was more of an issue. On all fours, I stretched out an arm, searching for Fudge’s water bowl. As though threatened by my action, Fudge set off to protect his territory and his gentle lapping gave me a clue to his, and the bowl’s, whereabouts. I dipped my finger in the bowl, Fudge’s tongue licked it dry. ‘Come on now. Fudge, share. I only need a little.’ He must have sat back as I managed to scoop a mouthful of water and suck it up from my hand. Had it come to this? Was this how it would end?
Fudge was on his feet again. His paws pattered on the bare concrete. ‘What’s up, Fudge? Did you hear something?’ He simpered. There were voices outside. More than one this time.
‘In there,’ a woman’s voice said. ‘I dunno which one.’
‘Hello, hello. We’re in here.’ I yelled at the top of my voice.
‘Hey mate, can you bang on the door? Make as much noise as you can so we can find you,’ said a local man, his characteristic dialect loud and strong. ‘We’ve called the police and the council. Just make yourselves known.’
I thumped on the door, ably assisted by an excited Fudge barking for all his worth. ‘They’re coming, Fudge. We’re getting out of here. It’s going to be OK.’
A flashlight shone under the gap.
‘Yes, this one, we’re in here.’ I said, shrilly, leaning against the door to steady my nerves.
‘Okay, mate. We’ll have you out in a jiffy.’ Those words filled me with delight and I reached out for Fudge, pulling him into a big embrace. His head bobbed enthusiastically against my chest.
Tyres screeched, indicating a car pulling up outside.
‘It’s okay mate, the police are here now.’
Within no time, the door rose open and Fudge and I were blinded by torches and car headlights. The air, though still cold, seemed warmer outside, yet still I shivered. A blanket was soon draped over my shoulders as a young policeman guided me to the rear of the car. Fudge followed me, closer at heel than he ever was in our training sessions. He jumped into the car ahead of me, tempted by the kibble in another PC’s hand. The same PC then took down my name and address before offering me a flask, ‘Coffee, sir?’ My hero.
Someone tugged at my sleeve. I turned to see an old lady. ‘Sorry I took so long. Jimmy wasn’t home and the bloody phone’s on the blink.’ Her smiling eyes twinkled in the glare of the headlights.
‘No matter. We’re safe now. We can’t thank you enough. You must let me give you something. A reward, I mean.’
She looked me up and down, and shook her head. ‘Not necessary. I’m just glad you’re safe. Both of you. She leaned into the car and stroked a contented Fudge now chewing his way through a rawhide stick.
‘So how did you end up in there? You don’t live ‘round ‘ere, do you?
‘That’s what I’d like to know too,’ I said between sips of the best-tasting instant coffee ever.
‘’Scuse me, sir,’ the policeman interrupted my momentary lapse into silence. ‘We’ve checked with the council and the garage is rented to a Mr. Green. Don’t suppose you know anyone of that name?’
I shook my head.
‘Anyway, someone has gone to his address to make further enquiries. Let’s get you home then.’
At home, later that evening – it had only been 6pm when we’d left the lock-ups – I received a call from the police. It appeared that Mr. Green (not his real name) was working for someone else. His boss, Julian Gladstone, had paid Green and his cronies to temporarily kidnap Barnabus Jones III, a prize-winning chocolate Labrador owned by the same breeder from whom we’d obtained Fudge.
The regional heats for a prestigious dog show were to have taken place earlier today and Barnabus Jones III was odds-on favourite to win. It seemed that Mr. Gladstone wanted the title for his own dog and was prepared to resort to kidnap to ensure his own success.
The police had caught up with a disgruntled Mr. Gladstone after the competition, claiming that Barnabus was an impostor and demanding the dog’s credentials be investigated. The policeman said, with a chuckle, ‘his bark was far worse than his bite, sir. He was not a happy man when we took him away.’
Sipping my gin and tonic after a rather filling roast chicken dinner, I lounged before the fire with Carole, who’d cancelled her night shift, for once. ‘Who would have thought that an everyday walk in the park could create so much drama,’ I said, stretching my arms and yawning.
Fudge jumped up from his bed alongside the sofa and paced the room, panting and whimpering expectantly.
‘Dammit, I said the ‘w’ word again, didn’t I?’