Never Stop on the Motorway
Diana had been hoping to get away by 5:00, so she could be at the farm in time for dinner. She tried not to show her true feelings when at 4:37 her deputy, Phil Haskins, presented her with a complex twelve-page document that required the signature of a director before it could be sent out to the client. Haskins didn’t hesitate to remind her that they had lost two similar contracts that week.
It was always the same on a Friday. The phones would go quiet in the middle of the afternoon and then, just as she thought she could slip away, an authorization would land on her desk. One glance at this particular document and Diana knew there would be no chance of escaping before 6:00.
The demands of being a single parent as well as a director of a small but thriving City company meant there were few moments left in any day to relax, so when it came to the one weekend in four that James and Caroline spent with her ex-husband, Diana would try to leave the office a little earlier than usual to avoid getting snarled up in the weekend traffic.
She read through the first page slowly and made a couple of emendations, aware that any mistake made hastily on a Friday evening could be regretted in the weeks to come. She glanced at the clock on her desk as she signed the final page of the document. It was just showing 5:51.
Diana gathered up her bag and walked purposefully toward the door, dropping the contract on Phil’s desk without bothering to suggest that he have a good weekend. She suspected that the paperwork had been on his desk since 9:00 that morning, but that holding it until 4:37 was his only means of revenge now that she had been made head of department. Once she was safely in the elevator, she pressed the button for the basement garage, calculating that the delay would probably add an extra hour to her journey.
She stepped out of the elevator, walked over to her Audi suburban, unlocked the door, and threw her bag onto the backseat. When she drove out into the street the stream of twilight traffic was just about keeping pace with the pinstriped pedestrians who, like worker ants, were hurrying toward the nearest hole in the ground.
She flicked on the six o’clock news. The chimes of Big Ben rang out before spokesmen from each of the three main political parties gave their views on the European election results. John Major was refusing to comment on his future. The Conservative Party’s explanation for its poor showing was that only 36 percent of the country had bothered to go to the polls. Diana felt guilty---she was among the 64 percent who had failed to register their vote.
The newscaster moved on to say that the situation in Bosnia remained desperate, and that the UN was threatening dire consequences if Radovan Karadzic and the Serbs didn’t come to an agreement with the other warring parties. Diana’s mind began to drift---such a threat was hardly news any longer. She suspected that if she turned on the radio in a year’s time they would probably be repeating it word for word.
As her car crawled round Russell Square, she began to think about the weekend ahead. It had been over a year since John had told her that he had met another woman and wanted a divorce. She still wondered why, after seven years of marriage, she hadn’t been more shocked---or at least angry---at his betrayal. Since her appointment as a director, she had to admit they had spent less and less time together. And perhaps she had become anesthetized by the fact that a third of the married couples in Britain were now divorced or separated. Her parents had been unable to hide their disappointment, but then they had been married for forty-two years.
The divorce had been amicable enough, as John, who earned less than she did---one of their problems, perhaps---had given in to most of her demands. She had kept the apartment in Putney, the Audi suburban, and the children, to whom John was allowed access one weekend in four. He would have picked them up from school earlier that afternoon, and, as usual, he’d return them to the apartment in Putney around seven on Sunday evening.
Diana would go to almost any lengths to avoid being left on her own in Putney when they weren’t around, and although she regularly grumbled about being saddled with the responsibility of bringing up two children without a father, she missed them desperately the moment they were out of sight.
She hadn’t taken a lover, and she didn’t sleep around. None of the senior staff at the office had ever gone further than asking her out to lunch. Perhaps because only three of them were unmarried---and not without reason. The one person she might have considered having a relationship with had made it abundantly clear that he only wanted to spend the night with her, not the days.
In any case, Diana had decided long ago that if she was to be taken seriously as the company’s first woman director, an office affair, however casual or short-lived, could only end in tears. Men are so vain, she thought. A woman had to make only one mistake and she was immediately labeled as promiscuous. Then every other man on the premises either smirks behind your back, or treats your thigh as an extension of the arm on his chair.
Diana groaned as she came to a halt at yet another red light. In twenty minutes she hadn’t covered more than a couple of miles. She opened the glove compartment on the passenger side and fumbled in the dark for a cassette. She found one and pressed it into the slot, hoping it would be Pavarotti, only to be greeted by the strident tones of Gloria Gaynor assuring her, “I will survive.” She smiled and thought about Daniel as the light changed to green.
She and Daniel had majored in economics at Bristol University in the early 1980s, friends but never lovers. Then Daniel met Rachael, who had arrived a year after them, and from that moment he had never looked at another woman. They married the day he graduated, and after they returned from their honeymoon Daniel took over the management of his father’s farm in Bedfordshire. Three children had followed in quick succession, and Diana had been proud when she was asked to be godmother to Sophie, the eldest. Daniel and Rachael had now been married for twelve years, and Diana felt confident that they wouldn’t be disappointing their parents with any suggestion of a divorce. Although they were convinced that she led an exciting and fulfilling life, Diana often envied their gentle and uncomplicated existence.
She was regularly asked to spend the weekend with them in the country, but for every two or three invitations Daniel issued, she only accepted one---not because she wouldn’t have liked to join them more often, but because since her divorce she had no desire to take advantage of their hospitality.
Although she enjoyed her work, it had been a bloody week. The two contracts had fallen through, James had been dropped from the school soccer team, and Caroline had never stopped telling her that her father didn’t mind her watching television when she ought to be doing her homework.
Another traffic light changed to red.
It took Diana nearly an hour to travel the seven miles out of the city, and when she reached the first two-lane highway, she glanced up at the A1 sign, more out of habit than to seek guidance, because she knew every yard of the road from her office to the farm. She tried to increase her speed, but it was quite impossible, as both lanes remained obstinately crowded.
She had forgotten to get them a present, even a decent bottle of Bordeaux. “Damn,” she repeated: Daniel and Rachael always did the giving. She began to wonder if she could pick something up on the way, then remembered there was nothing but service stations between here and the farm. She couldn’t turn up with yet another box of chocolates they’d never eat. When she reached the traffic circle that led onto the A1, she managed to push the car over fifty for the first time. She began to relax, allowing her mind to drift with the music.
There was no warning. Although she immediately slammed her foot on the brakes, it was already too late. There was a dull thump from the front bumper, and a slight shudder rocked the car.
A small black creature had shot across her path, and despite her quick reactions, she hadn’t been able to avoid hitting it. Diana swung onto the hard shoulder and screeched to a halt, wondering if the animal could possibly have survived. She reversed slowly back to the spot where she thought she had hit it as the traffic roared past her.
And then she saw it, lying on the grass verge---a cat that had crossed the road for the tenth time. She stepped out of the car and walked toward the lifeless body. Suddenly Diana felt sick. She had two cats of her own, and she knew she would never be able to tell the children what she had done. She picked up the dead animal and laid it gently in the ditch by the roadside.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, feeling a little silly. She gave it one last look before walking back to her car. Ironically, she had chosen the Audi for its safety features.
She climbed back into the car and switched on the ignition to find Gloria Gaynor still belting out her opinion of men. She turned her off and tried to stop thinking about the cat as she waited for a gap in the traffic large enough to allow her to ease her way back into the slow lane. She eventually succeeded but was still unable to erase the dead cat from her mind.
Diana had accelerated up to fifty again when she suddenly became aware of a pair of headlights shining through her rear windshield. She put up her arm and waved in her rearview mirror, but the lights continued to dazzle her. She slowed down to allow the vehicle to pass, but the driver showed no interest in doing so. Diana began to wonder if there was something wrong with her car. Was one of her lights not working? Was the exhaust billowing smoke? Was...?
She decided to speed up and put some distance between herself and the vehicle behind, but it remained within a few yards of her bumper. She tried to snatch a look at the driver in her rearview mirror, but it was hard to see much in the harshness of the lights. As her eyes became more accustomed to the glare, she could make out the silhouette of a large black van bearing down on her, and what looked like a young man behind the wheel. He seemed to be waving at her.
Diana slowed down again as she approached the next traffic circle, giving him every chance to overtake her in the outside lane, but once again he didn’t take the opportunity and just sat on her bumper, his headlights still undimmed. She waited for a small gap in the traffic coming from her right. When one appeared she slammed her foot on the accelerator, shot across the roundabout, and sped on up the A1.
She was rid of him at last. She was just beginning to relax and to think about Sophie, who always waited up so that she could read to her, when suddenly those high headlights were glaring through her rear windshield and blinding her once again. If anything, they were even closer to her than before.
She slowed down, he slowed down. She accelerated, he accelerated. She tried to think what she could do next, and began waving frantically at passing motorists as they sped by, but they remained oblivious to her predicament. She tried to think of other ways she might alert someone, and suddenly recalled that when she had joined the board of the company they had suggested she have a car phone installed. Diana had decided it could wait until the car went in for its next service, which should have been two weeks ago.
She brushed her hand across her forehead and removed a film of perspiration, thought for a moment, then maneuvered her car into the fast lane. The van swung across after her and hovered so close to her bumper that she became fearful that if she so much as touched her brakes she might unwittingly cause an enormous pile-up.
Diana took the car up to ninety, but the van wouldn’t be shaken off. She pushed her foot further down on the accelerator and touched a hundred, but it still remained less than a car’s length behind.
She flicked her headlights onto high, turned on her hazard lights, and blasted her horn at anyone who dared to remain in her path. She could only hope that the police might see her, wave her onto the hard shoulder, and book her for speeding. A fine would be infinitely preferable to a crash with a young tear-away, she thought, as the Audi suburban passed 110 for the first time in its life. But the black van couldn’t be shaken off.
Without warning, she swerved back into the middle lane and took her foot off the accelerator, causing the van to pull up with her, which gave her a chance to look at the driver for the first time. He was wearing a black leather jacket and pointing menacingly at her. She shook her fist at him and accelerated away, but he simply swung across behind her like an Olympic runner determined not to allow his rival to break clear.
And then she remembered, and felt sick for a second time that night. “Oh my God!” she shouted aloud in terror. In a flood, the details of the murder that had taken place on the same road a few months before came rushing back to her. A woman had been raped before having her throat cut with a knife with a serrated edge and dumped in a ditch. For weeks there had been signs posted on the A1 appealing to passing motorists to phone a certain number if they had any information that might assist the police with their investigation. The signs had now disappeared, but the police were still searching for the killer. Diana began
to tremble as she remembered their warning to all women drivers: “Never stop on the freeway.”
A few seconds later she saw a road sign she knew well. She had reached it far sooner than she had anticipated. In three miles she would have to leave the motorway for the side road that led to the farm. She began to pray that if she took her usual turn, the black-jacketed man would continue up the A1 and she would finally be rid of him.
Diana decided that the time had come for her to speed him on his way. She swung back into the fast lane and once again put her foot down on the accelerator. She reached a hundred miles per hour for the second time as she sped past the two-mile sign. Her body was now covered in sweat, and the speedometer touched 110. She checked her rearview mirror, but he was still right behind her. She would have to pick the exact moment if she was to execute her plan successfully. With a mile to go, she began to look to her left, to be sure her timing would be perfect. She no longer needed to check in her mirror to know that he would still be there.
The next signpost showed three diagonal white lines, warning her that she ought to be on the inside lane if she intended to leave the freeway at the next junction. She kept the car in the outside lane at a hundred miles per hour until she spotted a large enough gap. Two white lines appeared by the roadside: Diana knew she would have only one chance to make her escape. As she passed the sign with a single white line on it, she suddenly swung across the road at ninety miles per hour, causing cars in the middle and inside lanes to throw on their brakes and blast out their angry opinions. But Diana didn’t care what they thought of her, because she was now traveling down the side road to safety, and the black van was speeding on up the A1.
She laughed out loud with relief. To her right, she could see the steady flow of traffic on the motorway. But then her laugh turned to a scream as she saw the black van cut sharply across the freeway in front of a truck, mount the grass verge, and career onto the side road, swinging from side to side. It nearly drove over the edge and into a ditch but somehow managed to steady itself, ending up a few yards behind her, its lights once again glaring through her rear windshield.
When she reached the beginning of the side road, Diana turned left in the direction of the farm, frantically trying to work out what she should do next. The nearest town was about twelve miles away on the main road, and the farm was only seven, but five of those miles were down a winding unlit country lane. She checked her gas gauge. It was nearing empty, but there should still be enough in the tank for her to consider either option. There was less than a mile to go before she reached the turn, so she had only a minute in which to make up her mind.
With a hundred yards to go, she settled on the farm. Despite the unlit lane, she knew every twist and turn, and she felt confident that her pursuer wouldn’t. Once she reached the farm she could be out of the car and inside the house long before he could catch her. In any case, once he saw the farmhouse, surely he would flee.
The minute was up. Diana touched the brakes and skidded into a country road illuminated only by the moon.
Diana banged the palms of her hands on the steering wheel. Had she made the wrong decision? She glanced up at her rearview mirror. Had he given up? Of course he hadn’t. The back of a Land Rover loomed up in front of her. Diana slowed down, waiting for a corner she knew well, where the road widened slightly. She held her breath, crashed into third gear, and overtook. Would a head-on collision be preferable to a cut throat? She rounded the bend and saw an empty road ahead of her. Once again she pressed her foot down, this time managing to put a clear seventy, perhaps even a hundred, yards between her and her pursuer, but this only offered her a few moments’ respite. Before long the familiar headlights came bearing down on her once again.
With each bend Diana was able to gain a little time as the van continued to lurch from side to side, unfamiliar with the road, but she never managed a clear break of more than a few seconds. She checked the speedometer. From the turnoff on the main road to the farm was just over five miles, and she must have covered about two by now. She began to watch each tenth of a mile clicking up, terrified at the thought of the van overtaking her and forcing her into the ditch. She stuck determinedly to the center of the road.
Another mile passed, and still he clung to her. Suddenly she saw a car coming toward her. She switched her headlights to full and pressed on the horn. The other car retaliated by mimicking her actions, which caused her to slow down and brush against the hedgerow as they shot past each other. She checked the speedometer once again. Only two miles to go.
Diana would slow down and then speed up at each familiar bend in the road, making sure the van was never given enough room to pull up with her. She tried to concentrate on what she should do once the farmhouse came into sight. She reckoned that the drive leading up to the house must be about half a mile long. It was full of potholes and bumps that Daniel had often explained he couldn’t afford to have repaired. But at least it was only wide enough for one car.
The gate to the driveway was usually left open for her, though on the odd rare occasion Daniel had forgotten, and she’d had to get out of the car and open it for herself. She couldn’t risk that tonight. If the gate was closed, she would have to travel on to the next town and stop outside the Crimson Kipper, which was always crowded at this time on a Friday night, or, if she could find it, at the steps of the local police station. She checked her gas gauge again. It was now touching red. “Oh my God,” she said, realizing she might not have enough gas to reach the town.
She could only pray that Daniel had remembered to leave the gate open.
She swerved out of the next bend and speeded up, but once again she managed to gain only a few yards, and she knew that within seconds he would be back in place. He was. For the next few hundred yards they remained within feet of each other, and she felt certain he had to run into the back of her. She didn’t once dare to touch her brakes---if they crashed in that lane, far from any help, she would have no hope of getting away from him.
She checked her speedometer. A mile to go.
“The gate must be open. It must be open,” she prayed. As she swung around the next bend, she could make out the outline of the farmhouse in the distance. She almost screamed with relief when she saw that the lights were on in the downstairs rooms.
She shouted, “Thank God!” then remembered the gate again, and changed her plea to “Dear God, let it be open.” She would know what needed to be done as soon as she came around the last bend. “Let it be open, just this once,” she pleaded. “I’ll never ask for anything again, ever.” She swung round the final bend only inches ahead of the black van. “Please, please, please.” And then she saw the gate.
It was open.
Her clothes were now drenched in sweat. She slowed down, wrenched the transmission into second, and threw the car between the gap and into the bumpy driveway, hitting the gatepost on her right-hand side as she careered on up toward the house. The van didn’t hesitate to follow her, and was still only inches behind as she straightened out. Diana kept her hand pressed down on the horn as the car bounced and lurched over the mounds and potholes.
Flocks of startled crows flapped out of overhanging branches, screeching as they shot into the air. Diana began screaming, “Daniel! Daniel!” Two hundred yards ahead of her, the porch light went on.
Her headlights were now shining onto the front of the house, and her hand was still pressed on the horn. With a hundred yards to go, she spotted Daniel coming out of the front door, but she didn’t slow down, and neither did the van behind her. With fifty yards to go she began flashing her lights at Daniel. She could now make out the puzzled, anxious expression on his face.
With thirty yards to go she threw on her brakes. The heavy car skidded across the gravel in front of the house, coming to a halt in the flower bed just below the kitchen window. She heard the screech of brakes behind her. The leather-jacketed man, unfamiliar with the terrain, had been unable to react quickly enough, and as soon as his wheels touched the graveled forecourt he began to skid out of control. A second later the van came crashing into the back of her car, slamming it against the wall of the house and shattering the glass in the kitchen window.
Diana leaped out of the car screaming, “Daniel! Get a gun, get a gun!” She pointed back at the van. “That bastard’s been chasing me for the last twenty miles!”
The man jumped out of the van and began limping toward them. Diana ran into the house. Daniel followed and grabbed a shotgun, normally reserved for rabbits, that was leaning against the wall. He ran back outside to face the unwelcome visitor, who had come to a halt by the back of Diana’s Audi.
Daniel raised the shotgun to his shoulder and stared straight at him. “Don’t move or I’ll shoot,” he said calmly. And then he remembered that the gun wasn’t loaded. Diana ducked back out of the house but remained several yards behind him.
“Not me! Not me!” shouted the leather-jacketed youth, as Rachael appeared in the doorway.
“What’s going on?” she asked nervously.
“Call the police,” was all Daniel said, and his wife quickly disappeared back into the house.
Daniel advanced toward the terrified-looking young man, the gun aimed squarely at his chest.
“Not me! Not me!” he shouted again, pointing at the Audi. “He’s in the car!” He quickly turned to face Diana. “I saw him get in when you were parked on the hard shoulder. What else could I have done? You just wouldn’t pull over.”
Daniel advanced cautiously toward the rear door of the car and ordered the young man to open it slowly, while he kept the gun aimed at his chest.
The youth opened the door and quickly took a pace backward. The three of them stared down at a man crouched on the floor of the car. In his right hand he held a long-bladed knife with a serrated edge. Daniel swung the barrel of the gun down to point at him but said nothing.
The sound of a police siren could just be heard in the distance.
Copyright © 2005 by Jeffrey Archer