He was sure of one other thing too, he was the best pike angler there was or ever had been! Vinnie s record spoke for itself, hundreds of twenty and thirty pound pike lined Vinnie's photograph album. In pride of place, on the front cover, sat a picture of Vinnie's biggest pike, a huge snaggle-toothed creature just half a pound off the British record. That half a pound was the cause of Vinnie's great anguish. It just wasn't fair! He deserved the record more than anybody and yet it was held by some cloth capped northerner with barely two twenties to rub together. Vinnie's quest for a record pike had taken him to all parts of the country. He had fished all the famous big pike waters and used every trick in the book, yet that one big fish had always eluded him. Now at last he had his chance to put things right.

A chance meeting in a pub deep in the Cambridgeshire fens had put Vinnie onto the trail of a monster pike. Out for the weekend fishing one of the more remote drains, he had got into a drinking round with a small, weasel faced man who, he'd told him, was the gamekeeper on a nearby estate. It soon transpired that the estate had a lake and the lake had a pike, a very big pike from the sound of things!

"Only the one of 'em in there" the weasel man had exclaimed; "Seen im lots o times but oi carn't get the bugger". Vinnie listened intently as the tale unfolded. The estate was owned by an ex army officer, Colonel something or other who, in his younger days, had done a fair bit of fly fishing. The lake had been dug by the Colonel's father, himself an angler and for many years it had been stocked with rainbow trout. Now in his eighties, the Colonel was too feeble to cast a fly but insisted that the lake be stocked every year in the vain hope that one day his strength would return to him.

The trout lived largely unmolested except for the odd poacher from the local village and the gamekeeper himself who "took the odd one for dinner". Vinnie got the distinct impression that the man took more than the "odd one" and that in fact, he had something of a black market in trout going with the locals.

"Then this darned pike turns up." the weasel man went on, "Dunno where he came from." he went on, "Probably one 'o them lads from the village put 'im in there as a joke. Some joke, eating all my trout. Watched 'im grow an grow all these years oi 'ave. Why he's this big now!" The weasel man threw his arms out as far as they would go. Unfortunately, his head sozzled with drink, he put too much effort into the gesture and succeeded in flinging himself backwards off his stool, cracking his head on the fireplace as he fell.

The weasel man lay motionless for some time, a pool of blood spreading slowly around him. It was obvious that the injury was a bad one and the landlord immediately called for an ambulance which duly arrived and carted the unfortunate fellow off to hospital.

Vinnie had chuckled into his beer. What a stroke of luck! With no gamekeeper to worry about and only a feeble old man and his housekeeper in the Hall he would have no trouble sneaking in for a crack at that big pike.

The morning dawned cold. Vinnie had slept in his van as he often did when out on a fishing trip and was up and about early. He had parked in a lane close to the Hall and it was only a short walk through the dense woodland to get to the lake. He arrived rather breathless at the water's edge, the clamber through the wood, coupled with the excesses of the previous night had taken their toll and the bucket of transported livebaits he was carrying weighed heavier with every step.

The lake was flat calm with an oily film across its surface and a heavy mist hung in the air. All around were tall, dark trees giving the place a menacing look but the overpowering feeling which gripped Vinnie was not one of fear but of familiarity. Vinnie seemed to know this place, yet he was sure he had never been here before. He lowered his heavy bag to the ground, pulled his coat around him and set off to explore the water. It seemed a fairly ordinary estate lake, generally shallow with several weedy bays, and Vinnie decided to set up on a small point in between two of them. The point had two large rhododendron bushes growing on it and Vinnie used these to good effect, stashing his tackle out of sight should anyone come by. He plumbed the area carefully and liked what he found. The water dropped off quite deep close to the bank but then shelved up to a plateau some forty yards out. He was soon set up with one livebait working well in the trough close in and another out on the plateau. Vinnie sat back and relaxed - or tried to! The feeling of deja vu was growing stronger by the minute, why did this place seem so familiar?

The morning passed by without any sign of a pike but Vinnie did have a visitor. Each morning, after breakfast, the old colonel liked to visit the lake, weather permitting. His housekeeper would wrap him up well in a blanket and push him in his wheelchair down to the rickety landing stage where he would sit for a while. The early morning mist had cleared and the day was fine and bright when the pair descended to the water's edge.

Vinnie watched their approach uneasily and drew himself and his tackle deeper into the bush where he was hiding. The housekeeper pushed the old man up to the edge of the landing stage where she left him as she went to attend to things in the kitchen. Vinnie watched him through the branches of his bush. It seemed as if the old man was staring straight at him, though he was sure he was well hidden and Vinnie found himself sinking still deeper in amongst the leaves, hiding from that glassy stare.

Suddenly, Vinnie spotted that the float on the nearest rod had slipped under the surface. "It has to be the big one," he thought, "there's only one pike in here." All thoughts of hiding from the colonel gone, he picked up the rod as the line ran slowly out through the rings. He struck at once but was disappointed to feel only a slight resistance and even less impressed when he reeled in to see what had taken his bait. A large eel, maybe five pounds in weight came writhing to the bank. Vinnie hated eels, thinking them fit only for pike bait and he put his boot on the poor creature as he wrenched the hooks from its mouth. The second boot was brought down hard on its head as he killed it. "that'll do for a few nice sections." he thought, dropping it into a plastic bag.

Now he turned to look at the old man. His cover was blown, no use in hiding now. The colonel looked at him across the water and cried out in a cracked, ancient voice, "You should not be here" he said "I'm warning you!"

"Keep your warnings to yourself old man" said Vinnie, and he carefully hooked on another livebait and lowered it into the bankside trough. The colonel said nothing more but stared intently at Vinnie for a while before eventually drifting off to sleep in his chair. Presently the housekeeper came down to the lake and wheeled the still sleeping colonel away.

As the afternoon passed, Vinnie's thoughts became more and more disturbed. The colonel's words echoed through his brain. What did he mean, "I'm warning you" Vinnie thought to himself. "As if that old guy could do anything to me! In any case, it didn't really sound like a threat, more like a plea, a genuine warning of danger". The idea that there may be something dangerous in this strange place flashed across Vinnie's mind and caused him to shiver a little. There was certainly something odd about this lake - he had never caught an eel in such cold weather and then there was this terrible feeling that he had been here before!

A sudden rustle in the bush behind startled him. The leaves parted and a man stepped out. The man had a gaunt look about him. His hair was long and dark and his cheeks were sunken. There was something striking about this man. His eyes. He had the saddest eyes Vinnie had ever seen. The stranger stood, silent.

"How do" said Vinnie.

"Hello," said the stranger. "Fishing for pike are you?"

"That's right" said Vinnie. "I've heard there's a big one in here"

"Ay, that there is" said the stranger "but you might not want to catch it".

"Well of course I want to catch it." said Vinnie "Catching pike is what I do best" he announced proudly.

"This is no ordinary pike" said the man "They say it's a killer!"

Vinnie laughed. He had heard so many silly stories about the ferocity of pike over the years. "Pike aren't killers, they are just fish like any other"

"I heard that this one killed a man" said the stranger "he hooked it and it pulled him into the lake."

"You're talking rubbish" said Vinnie. "No pike is that big. No pike could kill a full grown man."

"Rubbish or not," said the stranger, "they say his ghost haunts this place and most folk won t come near".

"Well I'm not most folk" said Vinnie. "I'm not afraid of any ghost, this is my one and only chance to catch this pike and that's what I'm going to do!"

"Yes" said the stranger. "Your one and only chance, your last chance perhaps".

"That's right and good day to you!" Vinnie turned his back on the man as if to signify that their conversation was at an end. He heard the bushes rustle as the man left but a little while later, he realised that he had not gone completely but was standing at the edge of the wood watching him. "He won't stay for long" thought Vinnie. "Not in this temperature".

It was certainly getting colder. The weak afternoon sun was beginning to dip behind the trees and already, a frost was beginning to form on the grass around Vinnie's feet. He stood up from his chair, intending to walk around a little to warm up, but as he did so, a remarkable sight met his eyes. Peering into the water he could see a huge mass of eels writhing in the shallows in front of him.

Vinnie had never seen such a sight. Many of the eels were as big, if not bigger, than the one he had caught earlier and all of them seemed to be patrolling the margins close to Vinnie himself. Vinnie had never seen so many eels before and to see them in the depths of winter like this was quite a shock. It was then that he saw what he had been looking for. Across the bay, close to the old landing stage, a great mottled back broke the surface. It was the pikeand what a pike! The weasel man had not exaggerated, this was truly the biggest pike in all England. The fish rolled again and Vinnie was able to see its great length. "That thing must be six feet long!" he told himself.

Without hesitation, Vinnie gathered up one of his rods, grabbed the landing net and scurried around the bay towards the landing stage. In his haste, halfway round, the net got caught up in a thorn bush and Vinnie had to take a moment or two to disentangle it. As he did so, he realised that the shoal of eels had followed him along the waters edge and were again swarming in the shallows at his feet. He thought for a moment that this was truly strange behaviour but just then the great pike rolled again and only one thought ruled his brain - he had to catch it.

He arrived at the landing stage quite breathless. All at once that feeling of deja vu became almost unbearable. He had been here before but when? And what had happened and why could he not remember? Once more the huge pike broke the surface and Vinnie edged closer to the end of the landing stage. The frost was thick now and he stepped carefully on the slippery boards. Peering down into the black water he again saw that the great mass of eels were there at his feet. "What the hell is going on here?" he thought "Why are they doing this?"

Vinnie swung the livebait out ten yards or so to the spot where he had last seen the big pike and stood silently surveying the water for signs of life. He glanced up and looked towards the wood. The gaunt man was still there, standing, watching. "Ghost!" Vinnie thought to himself "Perhaps there is a ghost, perhaps that's him there!"

Suddenly there was a violent wrench on Vinnie's arm as the rod was almost torn from his grasp. The giant pike had taken the bait and was tearing up the lake at tremendous speed. Vinnie clamped down hard, his reel was packed with hundred pound braid and there wasn't a pike alive that could break that. Despite this, it was some time before the fish slowed and he was able to turn it. Vinnie reeled and pumped for all he was worth, gaining line inch by inch, dragging the monster back towards him. He tightened the clutch down so that it would not give line and pulled as hard as he dared and the fish came, but ever so slowly. Vinnie sensed he was winning the battle and allowed himself a grin as he looked across to the "ghost".

"I've got him," he cried out "he's mine now!" The stranger said nothing but Vinnie was shaken as he saw, in the dying light, that the man had shed a single tear! "Now we see the truth," thought Vinnie "He wanted this fish for himself and he's jealous!"

The pike was under the rod top now, churning the water as it fought for its life and yet the eels were still there, swarming around it, frantically jockeying for position. Gradually the pike's lunges became weaker and weaker. "It's time." thought Vinnie and he reached for his landing net. As he did so, the pike made a sudden, final surge underneath the landing stage, slamming the rod against the boards and catching Vinnie off balance.

"Let it go," called the stranger from the edge of the trees, "let go now, it's your last chance!"

"NEVER!" shouted Vinnie.

The fish pulled harder and Vinnie clung to the rod but his boots slipped on the ice and he was catapulted headlong into the freezing water. Vinnie was a good swimmer but this water was so cold that it immediately began to sap his strength. He floundered helplessly as the freezing temperature made him gulp for air. All at once the pike turned and swam towards him. The huge fish began to circle Vinnie, wrapping him in yard after yard of his own fishing line, tangling him so tightly that his feet became locked together and his arms were pinned to his sides.

A shocking reality dawned on Vinnie as his memories flooded back to him. Yes, he had been here before all right, a thousand times, maybe ten thousand and here he was again. Yes, as the freezing inky blackness enveloped him, Vinnie at last remembered the truth - the stranger in the wood wasn't the ghost - Vinnie himself was! Doomed to relive this awful day, time and again until he learned to heed the many warnings and to repent his ways, he was to die a terrible death yet again. Vinnie ceased his struggles and allowed his body to sink. Racked with pain from the icy water, he winced as the first eel tore a strip of flesh from his left hand



Charlie Collins