Roger left the tackle shop in a jubilant mood. He couldn’t believe the bargain he’d just had. Sure, he had spent rather more than he had meant to in total, but then again, he’d walked out with a far better deal than he had thought he’d get. Such a low price… How could they do it so cheaply? Those rods were virtually brand new! He’d thought he might get away with spending perhaps a ton each on them if he was lucky, but to get three for £200 was just too good a bargain to resist. And so what, if he had blown another couple of hundred on the reels to match and those top quality buzzers? He didn’t have to answer to anyone.
Since Julie had blown him out four months ago, he no longer had to worry about lack of cash. The witch had just been a gold digger anyway, only after him for his hard won money. Hard won it was too, stuck in front of a VDU when the fishing conditions were perfect outside. Sure, these contract jobs paid damn well, but you had to give up a lot for it. He’d hardly fished at all throughout the summer and had only managed one or two weekends in the autumn. Anyway, the contract had come to an end now. The mortgage on his new flat was covered for at least six months and the next job the agency had sorted out for him, in Saudi of all places, wasn’t ready for him for another 12 weeks.
Saudi Arabia. Hmm. Not too much in the way of carp fishing there, so he would have to make the most of his break. Three months fishing would suit him very well. Shame it was so late in the season, a bit cold for carp fishing really, but sod it. He was a carp angler and he’d rather blank for a carp in cold weather than not fish at all. And anyway, maybe he wouldn’t blank. There was always the chance that this new Leaverbait might do the trick.
“Oh, it works all right” the guy in the shop had said. And the photos in the recent press seemed to confirm it. Chris Leaver’s bait company had emerged from nowhere and had taken the carp-world by storm. Priced at four times what other bait companies charged, Leaverbaits had flown to the top of the boilie bait-tables within one season of coming on the market. Added to the amazing success of the bait was the phenomenal growth of Leaver’s used tackle shops. He had opened the first Exchange Y’Tackle only a year ago, now there were four of his shops carrying that name in the London area alone. Not hard to see why they had succeeded though, selling second-hand items, (though most of it almost indistinguishable from new) at a mere fraction of the new price. And with guarantees on everything!
The next morning at dawn saw Roger at the Park Lake. He sat on the edge of his bedchair tying a rig. Occasionally he would look up at the matched set of rods and smile. Smug thoughts ran through his head. What kind of fool would sell a beautiful set of carbons like these so cheaply, he wondered. I mean, the shop had sold them to him at a profit, so they must have picked them up for next to nothing. I wonder what they paid for them? Really, the guy who originally owned them must have been a right dork to part with them.
He shook his head at the stupidity of some people and concentrated on the task at hand. The new bait was pre-packed in black bags with red lettering. “Leaverbaits. Your money back if you don’t catch”. Even taking into account the disclaimer, a paragraph of very small print, it was a bit of a wild statement, thought Roger, but with each little bag costing over twenty quid, if I don’t catch, I will go and get my money back too!
The late December sun rose slowly, doing little to warm the air. Roger put a stringer of 6 free baits onto his critically balanced rig and cast to the horizon. The deeper water probably gave him a better chance than the shallows in these temperatures, he thought. The next bait was cast to where the pads grew in the summer. Nothing to show that now of course. The third rod never did get cast out. Before Roger had finished putting together a stringer, the right hand rod was away! The new Delkims screamed their warning and, on auto-pilot, Roger was suddenly playing a fish. The hook pulled out as the fish entered the net and sudden panic set in as Roger desperately scooped, left-handed and awkward. He need not have worried. Up on the scales the fat mirror pulled the needle around to 16lb. Damn good result for this weather, thought Roger, and it looks like I won’t be taking that bait back after all!
Two hours later there was another take on the third rod. He’d finally got around to casting this bait out to the left hand rush bed, but the bait was dropped after a short three second burst from the Delkim. A third take on the same rod at midday produced a 12lb common. Roger was very pleased indeed. Two fish in a day from the Park. In December. This new bait really, really was something else.
Nothing happened during the night. It was very, very cold. As the daylight came Roger warmed himself by frying up some breakfast. With food in his belly and a mug of hot tea he was really enjoying himself again. Around 8am, he fired out just a few more free samples of the bait. Even on his high programmers wages he wasn’t going to waste stuff that expensive.
On the other side of the lake he could see a dog walker making his way around, otherwise Roger was the only one on the lake. Suddenly, the distance rod was away. This fish was much bigger than anything he had caught yesterday. It wasn’t that it was fast. It wasn’t. But it just would not give up. Even when Roger had pumped it back from 80 yards away, it doggedly thumped along the bottom under the rod-tip. Ten, fifteen minutes passed, with it circling deep in front of him, then, like a rising moon, it surfaced. Roger looked around for the net. It was leaning against the thorn bush on the right of the swim. He reached for the handle and tried to lift it. Damn. It was snagged in the brambles. The wide mesh had caught badly in the thorny tangle and would not come free. Cursing, Roger switched the rod to his left hand and heaved on the net. It came partway, then stuck fast again. Roger dropped the net handle quickly as the fish made another bid for freedom. Two hands were needed on the rod as the fish powered off on another clutch-stripping five yard bid for freedom.
“Can I help?” It was the dog walker. As Roger brought the fish to the surface again, the man, for man it was, quickly freed the net. “Want me to net it?” the smiling stranger asked. “It’s okay, I’m an angler too. I won’t stuff it up, but if you want to net it yourself…”. He let the question hang but retained hold of the net, positioning it in the water with obvious long practice, crouching down to allow Roger to see where the fish was. Roger sensed rather than saw, a huge black dog sitting patiently at the back of the bivvy.
Roger stammered. His first words to another human being since leaving the tackle shop. “Er.. Thanks, yes. No… I mean, I could do with the help, this is a real whopper and I don’t want to lose it”.
As the great carp came up and wallowed on the surface, Roger walked back a few steps, drawing the fish closer. The newcomers voice called softly “Oh yes. It’s Jenny. The big common. Well done matey!” With this, he suddenly lifted, drawing the net handle high and back. “Got her! Yes!” The stranger, still crouching, turned and beamed, and held his right hand out. Two steps took Roger to the bankside, and the two men slapped their hands together in mutual congratulation.
The man’s name was Joe. The fish, he said, was the big common named Jenny and was normally caught at around 26lb. Together, they weighed her in at 27lb 4ozs. A new personal best for Roger by over 6lb and a new lake record. He was over the moon. Joe took a roll of 35mm, changing Rogers camera settings ‘just to be sure’ now and then. As an added precaution they also took a couple of shots with a fully automatic digital Cannon that Joe produced from somewhere within his voluminous feather-down padded coat.
Joe was a tall man. Obviously well built, even under all the heavy clothing, Roger could tell that. Pretty well off too by the clothes he was wearing. Good. Roger didn’t like the noisy ‘Oiks’, as he privately thought of the majority of anglers he encountered on the banks. Poorly educated louts with too much lager and too little class, most of them. Joe was obviously a cut well above that standard. He was a lot older than Roger too, Maybe forty, forty-five and very well spoken. Rare that, on a carp lake.
The dog was a German Shepherd. Perfectly behaved, it sat aloof throughout the proceedings but with one wary eye on Roger.
Roger found himself offering this man some tea and was somewhat embarrassed when the older man accepted. Roger only had one mug, so he apologised and they shared it and chatted together as anglers do. Solitary individuals, rarely socialising, recognising in each other a kindred spirit perhaps.
The dog just watched. And waited…
Roger told Joe all about his remarkable catches the previous day and mentioned that although he originally intended to stay at the lake for five days, that he was going to have to cut the session short as he was now running very low on the new wonderbait he was using. When Joe enquired as to which particular bait, Roger attempted the old joke. “I could tell you, but I would have to kill you afterwards”. They both smiled and an awkward point in the conversation was avoided. Then Roger paused and considered for a moment. He reached a decision. “Actually Joe, it’s called Leaverbait. Some new stuff I picked up the other day. It certainly works, but by Christ it’s expensive”. Joe’s eyebrows went up and he guffawed. “Tell me about it! But I can sort that problem for you. I work for Leaverbait. I’ve got a rucksack full of it in the car!”
After perhaps half an hour of more angling talk, incomprehensible to anyone but a carp angler, Joe left with the dog, promising to return the next morning with some fresh bait. Roger was left to fish alone again, pondering over the information that Joe had given him. So Joe worked for Chris Leaver, as his bait factory manager. From what Roger knew of the Leaver operation, the bait plant was run from Croast House, an ancient stately home, deep in the Surrey Alps. Quite a famous place in the carp world, as this was also the location of Black Lake, probably the most private big-fish water in the South-east. Only the odd tale ever circulated about the place but it was rumoured to hold several 40lb and 50lb fish and even a potential record breaker. But nobody was ever given permission to fish it.
The rest of day was quiet by the standards of the previous 24 hours, producing only one more fish, a 8lb mirror. The night was no busier than the previous one and, but for a fairly heavy snowfall, was unremarkable. When Joe returned the next morning, minus the dog, the banks were covered with a virgin white coating. He found Roger bright and refreshed after a good night’s sleep. As well as a small rucksack containing, he said, a fresh supply of bait, Joe had also brought with him an extra mug. With each of them holding a mug full of hot tea and after a little friendly chatter, slowly Roger brought up the subject he had been mulling over for the past 12 hours.
“So I suppose, with you working at Leaverbaits, you get to fish Black Lake a fair bit. What’s it like?” Roger enquired innocently. Joe was not fooled for a moment. “I think what you really mean to ask is, can you get a chance to fish it?” He smiled at Roger’s sudden discomfort.
“Well, no. Not really, but.. well. Is there a chance then? I always thought there was none”.
Joe hesitated for a second. He looked skywards for a moment, considering before replying. “Hmm. Well, there’s not normally, but I suppose…”.
Joe again went silent for a moment and scratched his chin. “I’ll tell you what…”. He then went on to explain that the company had just shut down for the Christmas break and that nobody was around for a few days – even the boss was in Barbados on his Christmas holidays. Joe was going to take the opportunity to fish the lake himself – he was going there that afternoon in fact, to fish until the weekend, and that if Roger wouldn’t mind going on the spur of the moment, they could fish together for two days and two nights on the lake. “As long as we are off it by Friday evening, don’t leave a mess and for God’s sake, you don’t tell anyone!”
There was no question. In a jubilant mood, Roger, with some help from his new friend, started to break camp immediately. To fish Black Lake was a rare prize indeed! He had no qualms about leaving the Park lake. After all, he’d already caught its biggest resident fish so it had little more to offer him.
At Joe’s suggestion, they agreed to travel together in Joe’s big estate car which would easily accommodate all of Roger’s tackle, Joe’s being kept permanently at the factory for convenience. By midday they were on the road.
The big BMW estate car skidded slightly on a patch of black ice as it turned into the main gateway of the ancient stately home and stopped beside an electronic card-swipe machine. Joe pressed a button and his driver’s window slid down. A cold chill entered the car. Joe picked a credit-card sized piece of plastic from the visor and, leaning out of the window, swiped it through a hidden slot. A video security camera glared a baleful red eye as the 15 foot high, wrought iron gates silently swung open. The car started forward again. Roger watched in the wing mirror as they closed behind them again.
“Wow. Pretty impressive security you have here” Roger said. Joe muttered something about needing it these days, then went silent, concentrating on the snow banked gravel path ahead.
The path wound up a hill through a copse, the pines heavy with snow. As the car topped the hill, the whole estate became visible. A huge sprawling mansion, obviously hundreds of years old was half-way down the hill, its roof-line topped with snow-hung gargoyles. No lights burned in any of the many windows and the chimneys issued no warming smoke to cheer the scene. In the front of the vast edifice, a frosted lawn led down onto the dam of a beautifully kept, tree lined estate lake of some eight or ten acres.
“Black lake” Roger breathed. Joe nodded.
“This is it?”
Joe nodded. “This is it”.
The large estate car swung around to the rear of the mansion, to a group of outhouses, where a much newer building of breezeblock construction was sited. It had no windows and only one entrance, at least, as far as Roger could tell. A large black van, sign-written in red with the legend “Exchange Y’Tackle – Leaverbaits” was parked in the small carpark in front.
“So this is this where you make the bait?” asked Roger. Joe switched off the engine and opened the driver’s door. He turned, nodding seriously at the younger man and got out, swinging the door closed behind him. It shut with a firm, dull thud that echoed in the stillness.
Roger got out too. It was quiet here. Very still, and quite dark in the looming shadow of the great mansion. Overhead, the clouds hung heavy with the promise of more snow to come.
Joe had opened the hatch of the expensive estate vehicle and was taking tackle out of the car. Roger moved around to help him, reaching in to pull out a rucksack first, then a rod holdall. Joe laid it all carefully down on the gravel path and rummaged in one of the rucksacks as Roger reached inside the car for the cold weather clothing he had brought with him.
It was a very quiet place, he mused. Only the distant sounds of far-off traffic on a motorway somewhere reminded him that they were only a few dozen miles from civilisation. He couldn’t quite pin down what was missing, then he had it.
There were no birds singing.
He was still puzzling over this when the meat-cleaver started its descent.
When it was over, Joe unlocked the rear doors of the van and loaded it with the dead angler’s fishing tackle. He then unlocked the door of the building and stepped inside, swiftly reappearing with a large plastic sheet. He dragged the mangled remains of the young man onto it and, with practised ease, rolled it into a tight bundle. Somewhere inside the building a telephone started to ring. Ignoring it, he dragged the grisly package inside the building and slammed the door behind him. A sign on the door, previously obscured by snow became visible as the slamming door shook free its covering of snow. ‘Leaverbaits Bait Factory. Strictly No Admittance’
Inside the doorway, he picked up a ringing wall-mounted phone and answered with a curt “Leaverbaits”. He listened for a moment before speaking.
“Yes, I’m sorry about that, we had a few problems with our supplies”. He looked down at the plastic rolled body on the floor and continued “..But our new ingredient consignment has just arrived, so I should have your order ready by Saturday…”.
Outside, it started to snow again…