June 2007, England
The road south out of Little Stanhope village could have been any one of hundreds that spider the picturesque Thames valley, south of the city of Oxford: narrow, with dense hedgerows—often blocking the view on both sides—and fraught with unremitting curves.
To anyone following the Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle, it would be apparent that the leather-jacketed rider was familiar with the quirky road, its capricious twists and turns. Allowing for the light drizzle, he maintained a steady but not excessive speed, barely slowing for some of the shallow bends, and swaying fluidly from one side to the other, like a boxer dodging blows, as he coaxed the sleek machine through the blind hairpins.
He was headed for the market town of Wallingford, one of many picture-postcard towns and villages that straddle the Thames on its slow-.owing journey southeast to Windsor, thence to London, and to the sea.
Despite his familiarity with the road, he knew that concentration was critical: The margin for error, for both him and the driver of an oncoming vehicle, would be slender. Physically and mentally committed, setting up his line through a particularly long curve, he was at first unaware of the car that had appeared suddenly from behind. Only when he emerged from the curve, accelerating for the straight stretch of road ahead, did he spot the fast-approaching car in his side mirror.
He heard a swish of tires on the wet road and glanced over his shoulder to see that the dark-colored car had closed the gap and was now on his tail. He sensed a road rage situation in the making but was in no mood for a confrontation—or the inclination to outrun the car, which would have been easy. He slowed and pulled over to the left as far as the narrow road would permit. The hedgerow leaves whipped the sleeve of his jacket as he beckoned for the car to pass. He glanced in his mirror again to see why the driver, a man wearing a cap and wraparound sunglasses, wasn't taking what was a clear opportunity to pass.
Suddenly the hedgerow stopped; in its place was a raised grass verge with a post-and-barbed-wire fence farther back. The road widened, too, and there was no oncoming traffic. Now the drizzle had turned to rain. Wiping his face shield with his glove, the bike rider waved again for the car to pass. At last it accelerated and pulled alongside.
The rider glanced to his right, curious to get a closer look at the hot-footed driver, careful to make it quick. He wasn't about to give the man the slightest reason to think that he was being challenged.
The instant their eyes met, the car swerved hard to its left, slamming the rear wheel of the bike, spinning the 450-pound machine into the verge. Sliding on the slick road, it careered off the grassy mound in a twisting somersault, hurling the rider several feet into the air. The bike landed first,fragments of metal, chrome, and glass showering the road. Two seconds later, beyond the mangled machine, the rider plummeted headfirst to the ground. He crossed his arms in front of his face, but it did little good. His helmet hit the tarmac with a sickening crack, and his body rolled several feet before coming to rest facedown, unmoving.
An eerie silence fell on the scene. The white sound of gentle rain was foreboding.
Then flames started to lick around the ruptured tank.
Suddenly, a roaring explosion, as the motorcycle's twisted remains erupted into a searing ball of flame and smoke.
With a screech of tires and the smell of burning rubber, the car sped off.
Approximately forty-five minutes later, an NHS Oxfordshire ambulance arrived at the Accident and Emergency unit of St. George's Hospital on the outskirts of Oxford, where the unidentified rider, on life support, was rushed to the trauma center.
Excerpted from The Trail of the Wild Rose by Anthony Eglin
Copyright © 2009 by Anthony Eglin
Published in April 2009 by St. Martin's Press
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