I woke hungry. The grease from last night’s meagre meal still lined my mouth. The cold of the bare concrete floor had seeped into my bones. Shivering made the wound in my leg ache. It was a nasty purple colour now. I looked around. Mum, Dad and my little brother, James, were still asleep. Through the bars of our cell I could see that the skies were slowly starting to lighten. Morning had arrived at long last. The weak dawn light picked out streaks of grey mould on the once-whitewashed walls, and there were patterns of green stuff where monsoon rains seeped through cracks in the plaster; it almost looked like a map. The team of ants that found a gecko’s tail on the floor last night had managed to pull it half way up to the ceiling. I was so hungry I almost envied their feast to come.
I heard footsteps and jangling keys. Suddenly everyone was awake.
“This was earlier than I expected,” Dad whispered. “You’ve got to really focus, Alex. No day-dreaming. Don’t forget the plan.” I gave him a dirty look but he didn’t notice. He went on, “Get away, and get word to the Embassy – then we might have some chance of rescue, and of clearing up this big ugly misunderstanding. Once we’re out, we must separate straight away. You boys, go straight to the Irrigation office. Ask Dinesh if he’ll let you phone Kathmandu. We can trust him. Tell him what’s going on. Mum and I’ll head for the main Post Office and try to phone from there. If there’s no Maoist reception committee, we’ll meet at the Post Office and take a tanga to the ferry at Kothiyaghat and then the bus for Kathmandu.”
Keys rattled in the lock. A junior policeman we hadn’t seen before opened the door of our cell. He looked as if he’d slept in his uniform. He looked tired. He waved the four of us into the gloomy corridor. Wordlessly he indicated we should just go.
Dad said quietly, “Head straight for Dinesh’s house. As soon as you can boys, just run!”
Outside the sun was dazzling but the air still felt dank. Mum pushed me and stage-whispered, “Run!”
As we moved away from Mum and Dad, I saw four big men close around my parents and bundle them towards a waiting vehicle. James and I watched from a safe distance.
One of men was the Maoist leader – the little guy with the deep voice and expensive sunglasses. He was the one who looked as if he’d been feeding on someone’s blood because the betel* nut he’d been chewing had coloured his teeth red. He said nastily, “We’re taking a little tourist trip to Bhalubang.” A fifth man joined the group. He was dressed very differently and he began an argument with the others. He was trying pull the strangers away from my parents. It was Ramdin, Dad’s field assistant. He was the zoologist who had taught us so much about the wildlife of Nepal, but he had betrayed us. Now, though, he seemed to be trying to get my parents free. I desperately wanted to ask him what the hell was going on, but there was no time.
I heard the leader of the group ask Dad nastily, “Where are your sons?”
“Oh, they’re inside the police station still,” Mum said, fixing her sweetest smile on her face. She was doing a very convincing impression of being a complete dough-brain. “They’re using the toilet. You know what it’s like – prison food....” She laughed a silly high-pitched laugh. I’d never heard her do that before. You’d never guess she had a PhD.
Dad was gesturing for us to run. When his gesticulations attracted the thugs’ attention, he coughed and asked, “Any chance of a drink of water?”
Deep Voice said, “Who do you think we are? Your servants? Do you understand nothing? Do you not understand why we do not want you in our country?”
Then he spotted us and cursed. I heard him swear again as we started to move away. He shouted for one of his henchmen to bring us back. We sprinted off like startled hares. The guy who was chasing us was big, heavy and not at all fast. We put on more of a sprint. James was on my heels.
We dived into the tunnel-like maze of stalls in the main bazaar. We darted under a table stacked with bangles and cheap hair slides. We scared a skinny cat and a couple of rats. On we rushed, taking a zigzag route through the bazaar that we knew so well, racing on until we were sure that we’d lost the fat henchman.