by David G. Thorne
‘God what a day,’ Darren Chambers rubbed his red rimmed eyes, squinting to make out the road ahead.
The windscreen wipers beat uselessly at the rain thudding on the windscreen like a barrage of machine gun fire. He tugged his silk tie off and struggled to unbutton his collar with one hand whilst steering with the other. He glanced distractedly at the empty coffee flask on the passenger seat and flicked the control which lowered the electric windows, allowing a blast of icy wind to enter the car. Perhaps a bit of cool air would reinvigorate him.
As the luxury saloon car purred along, eating up the miles, Darren began totalling today’s sales up in his head. A couple of orders in Bristol this morning, three more in Gloucester and a dozen more in Manchester. Pity about missing the appointment in Carlisle, but it didn’t matter. He would make it up on the next visit. Of course all the driving was an absolute killer, but it was worth it. He reckoned he had taken over £300,000 worth of orders today alone. That would put him top of the quarterly league table for his division and meant he would be in line for a serious bonus. Sometimes he even surprised himself by how good he was.
He gave an enormous yawn, not bothering to cover his mouth. He briefly considered pulling over at a roadside cafe but dismissed the thought. Why bother when it was barely fifteen miles until home. Thoughts of snuggling into his warm king-size bed began to drift through his mind.
He eased the large auto down a gear and swung onto the roundabout where the A695 intersects with the A68, searching for the exit which would take him on down the river valley towards the Tyneside conurbation.
Away from the dual carriageway the amber street lights petered out and the road became as black as the colliery shafts which once littered this valley. The sharp beams of the car headlamps picked out eerie shapes in the hedgerows and threw grotesque shadows on the slick tarmac. Darren flicked the CD changer over to radio and found a late night phone-in show. The sound of human voices came as a welcome relief from the gloom. A reedy young caller was imparting his knowledge that seventeen percent of people claimed to have had a paranormal experience. “He’s had one shandy too many,” thought Darren. The bored sounding DJ chattered for a few moments before terminating the inane call. The midnight news bulletin broke in, followed immediately by Bobby Picket and the Crypt Kickers singing The Monster Mash.
Darren chuckled quietly to himself, squirming to make himself more comfortable in the plush leather seat. He settled back, nodding his head in time to the beat of the song. He stretched his stinging eyelids wide and yawned again. Just a few miles now.
Darren didn’t know how long he had nodded off for. Probably not more than a few seconds. The low rumbling of the car’s low profile tires crunching over loose gravel jolted him back to full wakefulness. Jesus! The car was jolting along on the hard shoulder. A few centimetres more and he would be over the edge and heading straight down the steep embankment. He glimpsed the turbulent waters of the river below as he wrenched the steering wheel back towards the carriageway. He let out a long breath. That was a near thing.
He turned his attention back to the road ahead and almost screamed. There was a young woman standing right in the path of the car. Through the wind driven sheet of water Darren just had time to register that she had her arm outstretched, thumb up in the classic hitchers pose. Swearing, he spun the steering wheel to full lock, slamming on the brakes. It was impossible to avoid the collision. He squeezed his eyes shut, expecting to feel the thud as the woman’s body crashed onto car bonnet.
The car slewed from side to side as the brakes fought to find traction on the wet surface. It skidded onto the embankment churning ragged furrows of mud in the grass, ploughed through a patch of bushes and came to a halt back on the hard shoulder.
Darren’s stomach lurched. He sat shaking, beads of perspiration forming on his brow. Visions of the girl’s broken body sprawled in the mud swam before his eyes. He fought to quell the growing panic, as the realisation set in that he had just killed someone.
The passenger door popped open with a loud click. Darren couldn’t prevent a strangled exclamation leaving his mouth. The dripping face of the young hitcher peered in.
‘Oh, thank you so much,’ she said through chattering teeth.
’I didn’t think anyone was ever going to stop. Could you drop me off in Prudhoe please?’
Darren stared at her blankly. The wave of relief washing over him was so intense that he could feel tears welling in the corners of his eyes. His heart pounded like a piston engine and his throat felt as if he had swallowed a golf ball.
She was looking at him expectantly.
‘Sure, he said, struggling to keep his voice from quivering.
Prudhoe was only about a mile out of his way, and it was the very least he owed her. She didn’t have to know the circumstances that had led to him stopping. Or how he had believed he had killed her.
The girl folded herself into the leather seat and Darren put the car back into gear and moved off.
“You must be frozen. How long were you waiting there?” he asked, casting a sideways glance at his bedraggled passenger. Rivulets of rainwater trickled down her brow and cheeks, her soaking hair clinging in thick strands to her attractive oval face.
He turned up the heating control on the centre console.
‘We’ll soon have you warmed up.’
‘Oh, I’m always cold,’ she replied with a coy smile, pushing back her sodden hair. Her voice was soft with barely a trace of accent. She had large doe eyes which, Darren flattered himself, had a flirtatious glint. She was probably about nineteen years old. Blonde with nice fresh skin and long eye lashes. Even in the dim light cast by the dashboard instruments Darren could see she was more than a little attractive, in spite of her rain drenched state.
They drove without speaking for a few minutes. The topic of conversation on the radio moved onto road safety. Ironic thought Darren. The DJ began an earnest debate with his studio guest about the dangers of using mobile phones whilst driving.
Darren was fully recovered from his earlier shock now. The alluring company of the girl beside him banished tiredness and thoughts of sleep from his head. He couldn’t resist sneaking appreciative glances at his new companion, frustrated at not being able to get a proper look at her. Her clothes were fashionably retro. A fawn turtle neck sweater and denim miniskirt topped off with a fur edged afghan coat. Calf length suede boots, ruined by mud and rain showed off slim, sun bronzed legs.
Her perfume filled his nostrils. It was an old-fashioned scent, like his mother used to wear when he was a child. It went with the outfit he supposed.
He glanced up at his own reflection in the rear view mirror. Despite the five o’clock stubble and the dark shadows under his eyes he wasn’t bad looking. He considered asking her if she fancied stopping off for a drink at a pub they passed. They would be just in time for last orders. He grinned and shook his head.
‘Behave yourself,’ he told himself.
‘What kind of music do you like?’ He motioned toward the car stereo. An elderly woman caller was waffling on about her daughter who had been run down and killed by a drunk driver over thirty years ago.
The girl didn’t seem to hear him. She gazed out of the window as they sped through a rural village. Darren looked over at her again. She looked pale and wistful. The passing street lights cast nebulous patterns on her temple and cheek which had the appearance of thick gouts of blood.
‘Let’s have something a bit more cheerful on the radio,’ Darren said, more to himself than to the girl. He reached forward to switch the station, but something the caller was saying made him stay his hand. A feeling of uneasiness gripped through him. He stared hard at the stereo, unwilling to look away.
‘The accident that woman is talking about happened on this stretch of road,’ he said, unable to to keep his voice from trembling. ‘You must have been waiting on the very spot where that girl died.’
‘This stretch has always been a black spot for accidents. You should keep your eyes on the road,’ said the girl.
An icy chill crawled through Darren’s body. With a supreme effort of will he twisted his head to look at the girl. He never saw the truck coming the other way.
—- END —-