Perhaps it was the sheer volume of weekend traffic – or were Sundays especially popular with boy racers or motor cycle posses? Whatever, Monday morning on the road was like driving through a battle-field. Flattened, blood-stained corpses of rabbits, hedgehogs, foxes, even, although usually in more solid heaps at the side of the road, deer and badgers, lay strewn in his early-morning path as if Armageddon had passed over during the night.
Not that it bothered him particularly. Animals should, he felt, know better. It was not as if roads or the vehicles that used them, were new inventions. Surely by now the collective wisdom which he had been told existed among animals should have grasped this fact?
There was something unpleasant, however, about the feel of mashed innards and squashed skeletons underneath one’s tyres; not to mention the blood on the bodywork. And a sense of waste in passing, as now, the large, grey body and proud striped head of what must, yesterday, have been a pretty massive badger, lodged against the mud-spattered hedgerow and sprayed with grit and bits of twig.
It was a bleak enough morning in any case.
Mid-November and neither golden autumn nor festive December. Mist hanging in drifts across brown fields. Trees, mostly bare of leaves after last week’s gales, standing black with moisture, their branches silhouetted against the jaundiced yellow-grey of the seven am sky. The grey and muddied winter grass in the verges littered with sodden, discarded, fast food packaging and plastic carriers.
Not that this bothered him much either. It wasn’t as if he had to walk along them – unlike the poor sod he’d not long passed, trailing droop-backed with a petrol can in what he must hope was the direction of the nearest garage, thumb held up in vain hope of a lift to somewhere.
He hadn’t stopped. Partly out of caution – for one never knew – and partly because it was, after all, the bugger’s own fault. There was no need to set out without sufficient petrol. It was simply a matter of planning ahead.
He had no patience with people who didn’t plan ahead. People who arrived late for meetings, for example, because there were no parking spaces or the train was delayed, when everyone knew that car parks filled up early and trains were always delayed.
Which was why he was on the road by seven, for a meeting scheduled for nine thirty…
Which was why he was doing so well. Why he was seen as the coming man. Daniel Morrison. The man to beat in the scramble to the top.
He almost didn’t see the boy. Against the wetness of the road and the shadowy, spiked outline of a bare bush on the verge he might have been, in his dark clothing, a tree stump or a piece of broken fence.
Until he stepped into the road ahead of him.
He missed him but no thanks to the boy. On this stretch of country road and at this time of the morning there was no reason not to do eighty. Perhaps more. OK, so it was over the limit but he was a competent driver and his in-car detector gave warning of any speed cameras.
What it couldn’t warn him about was idiot small boys stepping out straight in front of him.
It was lucky his braking system was so efficient that he didn’t swerve or even skid more than a couple of feet and, although he must have lost a few millimetres of rubber off his tyres, they were almost new and filled to the correct pressure.
‘You bloody stupid little sod! What the hell are you playing at?’
Daniel rarely swore, rarely allowed himself to get angry; keeping control being part of the game, but this time he was rattled. He was yelling even as he lowered the window on the passenger side. Even before the kid could hear him.
‘’E needs help mister. ‘’E needs help or ‘e’s gonna die!’
Christ! There must be another of them! Heaped against the sodden verge like the deer or the badger or crushed, for fuck’s sake, against his V-spoke alloys?
And then – he was already halfway out, smashing his knee against the door-frame; not that he noticed the pain until later – he saw the kid had something in his arms. Something small and furry, although the fur was dark and tangled with twigs and stones.
And then he had the passenger door open and was halfway into the car.
‘What the hell?’
‘I said. ‘E needs help. You gorra take us to the vet’s.’
Filthy jeans – smeared with paint and oil, as well as mud from the road and the bleeding animal – scrambled around the door and onto the unmarked upholstery of the passenger seat. The arm of an anorak, also soaked and filthy, jolted against the sleeve of Daniel’s Paul Smith jacket – fresh from the cleaners because today’s meeting – today’s presentation, for Christ’s sake! – was an important one. And a face smeared – for Christ’s sake! – with blood, stared across at him, its eyes – very dark, very large eyes, he couldn’t help but notice – a mingling of appeal with belligerence.
‘Get out of my fucking car! ‘
It was a trick. Quite obviously. A cunning, bloody risky trick by some gang of thieves who would appear any second from behind the gateposts of the long driveway outside which he had slewed to a stop. Who would have him out of the car, his wallet out of his pocket and be off down the road in his top of the range BMW, with Daniel’s Ipad, his Jaeger overcoat and his laptop on the back seat, slinging him onto the verge with the mud, the carcases and the discarded coke cans.
If he was lucky.
If he was unlucky they’d shoot him first.
‘I said, get ou-t! ’
This time he heard the fear in his own voice. Heard it crack down the middle of the word as if he were about to break down and sob.
(Was reminded, for one anguished split second, of Mark Rickard and the look on his face when he’d told him to clear his desk.
‘Couldn’t I have one more…?’ he’d whimpered before he’d cut him off. Losers like Rickard never deserved another chance.)
The boy huddled against the seat as if to stop himself being physically ejected. Then reached out to close the door, revealing, as he did so, the thin, brown-furred creature whose bleeding guts were probably already ruining the upholstery.
It was some sort of weasel or possibly a stoat – he was no good at animals. Its skinny body was furled in against the boy, heaving with great, juddering heart-beats that pumped blood over fur that was already blood-stained and into the filthy anorak.
‘Leave it. It’s going to die.’
‘Tha’s what I said din’ I?’ the boy snarled. ‘‘F we don’ get ‘im to the vets. It’s not far. Julie took me with the dog. It’s only in Bishop’s Stortford. We could be there in ten minutes in this thing.’
He looked round, as he spoke, at the ‘thing’ into which he had forced himself and his dying rodent, seeing for the first time, it seemed, the understated luxury of the interior. The black and silver fascia. The glinting instrumentation. The ivory leather upholstery. The state of the art Ipad mount…
‘Please,’ he added belatedly. Giving the impression that this was not a word he often used.
Daniel let out a breath he was not aware he had been holding.
He was not, it seemed, going to die. He was not even going to lose his wallet, his lap-top or his phone, although the filthy tyke was going to cost him at least a hundred to get the car valeted.
‘For Christ’s sake!’ he muttered, glancing at the clock. Just after seven fifteen. Then, ‘All right. But stop it bleeding on the seat.’
It was a tense drive. And took more than ten minutes – off the main road, into the town, long wait at the slowest traffic lights in the universe, wrong turning at the roundabout because the little fool didn’t know left from right and down a narrow street, hazardous with parked cars. But then – bizarrely – the sign for a veterinary surgery and a car park concealed behind a line of gloomy bushes – as good a place as any for a mugging.
‘Get out then. There’s your vet‘s.’
The boy stayed still, huddled over the animal, one filthy hand clutching at the blood-soaked fur.
‘E’s still breathing. I c’n feel it.’
‘Good. Now get out.’
Almost seven thirty – still early but the M11 could easily get clogged and if he was going to make Cambridge in good time… Which, for Daniel, meant eight forty five. Not nine twenty five or twenty nine. Time for a leisurely tidy up, check the room, set up the lap top, sort the hand-outs – none of this last minute, terribly-sorry-chaps, shan‘t-be-a-moment stuff for our Daniel. If you want to be on top of the game, get ahead of the rest. That was his mantra.
‘’S’not open yet.’
Of course it wasn’t bloody open. It was seven thirty in the morning for Christ’s sake. The flaming vet would still be chewing his muesli.
‘Well that’s not my fault. You’ll just have to wait. I’ve an important meeting to get to.’
‘What about what?’
‘What’s yer meeting about?’ The boy stared across at him, then wiped his spare hand across his forehead, leaving another smear of blood. Outside a slight breeze moved the branches of the bush next to them, scattering drops of moisture on the car.
It was still hardly light. He couldn’t just leave the child. He glanced at the clock – give him another ten…
‘Targets like in a fair ground?’
‘More or less’. A reasonable analogy. ‘It’s figures – numerical – to aim at.’
(‘Positioning ourselves for the next five years‘, was how he put it in his presentation.)
‘It’s all about money.’
Pale rays poked their way between two skinny pines, casting a sickly sheen on wet and pitted tarmac and the lager cans and KFC packaging of someone‘s late-night picnic.
It underpinned everything, finance. The rest – what the C.E.O. called the ‘sexy stuff’ – was just window-dressing, the visible tip of the iceberg. Without a firm financial structure they’d be in deep shit.
Which was why they needed to close those three outlets north of Birmingham. No good the wimps on the board whinging about job-losses; they had to face the facts. Under-performing units had to go.
(Another flashback. Suzie, the half-baked Head of HR. ’We need these people, Daniel. They’re the life of the company. And we have a responsibility to them.’
Not when they were pulling them down they didn’t. There was a recession on – or perhaps she hadn’t noticed. Only the leanest and keenest would survive.)
Seven forty two. It was getting chilly and he switched the engine back on, creating a cocoon of internal warmth.
‘This seat heated?’ The boy squirmed his skinny behind.
‘Cool!’ For the first time he grinned, eyes gleaming with interest.
‘How is it…he?’
He nodded towards the creature in the boy’s arms. The blood appeared to be drying on its matted fur.
‘I think he’s asleep.’
Dead, more likely. But, daring to look more closely, he detected the faintest rise and fall below the dull, bedraggled fur.
‘Has he stopped bleeding?’
God knows how much had seeped already onto the seat.
‘Think so. I’m keeping the wound closed with my fingers.’
‘You din’t want ‘im bleeding all over your car, did you?’
They settled back into silence. Out on the road beyond the bushes cars passed, a bus paused, air squealing from its brakes. A bird, impossible to tell what kind and in any case he was no good at birds, arced across his sightlines, a dark projectile disappearing back into the foliage. Back, he supposed, to its nest.
‘What about your parents?’
Madness not to have thought of this before! Picking up a child – ok, the kid had forced his way into the car but others might not see it this way – driving him to this god-forsaken car park overlooked by no-one… Sudden terror dried his mouth and clambered down into his stomach to pluck at tight-drawn strings.
Who would they believe? This scruffy, helpless, however-old-he-was boy or the sleek young man in his top of the range car? ‘No, your Honour, I am not married. No I am not in a relationship. My work keeps me fully occupied.’ They’d heard it all before. It’s always the ones you least expect, people said.
‘Mum’s dead.’ The answer to the question he’d already forgotten he’d asked. ‘Cancer. Dad got the push – he couldn’t work when she was ill so they laid him off. Only job he could get was truck driving so he couldn’t manage us.’
‘I’m a looked-after now.’
‘ A what?’
‘A looked-after child. My little sister got adopted but they don’t want twelve year old boys, Tamsin said. So I’m looked after.’
The fear coiled snake-like in the pit of his stomach and he needed to clear his throat to speak.
‘My social worker. She placed me at Wickam ‘All. ’S’all right there. There’s ten of us – and chickens, rabbits and such. And a mini-bus – takes us to school and that.’
The pillars and the long driveway, of course. Some old manor house turned into a children’s home – or whatever they called them nowadays.
‘So Tamsin – or whoever… When they find you’re… not there…‘
Clearing his throat again. And another glance at the clock. Seven fifty three. Shit! Any institution would have its inmates up and checked by now. Washed, dressed and breakfasting, ready for the minibus…
And would have a hotline, no doubt, to the nearest police station.
Guts churning, he shifted on his warm seat. Too bloody warm. The whole car was a bloody hothouse. Lowering the window he let in the sound of a siren somewhere, not that far away.
‘There’s Julie. She’s the house mother. And Alan. They won’t be bothered. I’m always out early. Gettin’ eggs ‘n’ stuff. I’m a wandering wonder, Julie says.’
Thank God for that. But could he trust him not to come up with some tale later on?
‘I’ll ring them, shall I?’
Probably the best plan. Pre-empt trouble. ‘Disarm with Charm’ – hadn’t he used that once in some Negotiations seminar? They’d know what the little wretch was like. It shouldn’t take much to convince them – so long as he took the initiative; contacted this Julie, or Alan, before they started to get concerned.
‘What’s the number?’ He pulled out his phone. ‘Or the name of the…place. That’ll be enough.’
A car, small, red with grimy hub caps, turned into the car park, followed, as if in convoy, by a black Volvo estate. Passed him and parked in the Staff spaces in front of the surgery.
Eight o’clock on the dot. Two women, one very young – black tights, red winter coat, shorter than the green uniform skirt she wore underneath – the other older, taller – hair swept back, old-fashioned, navy duffle coat, smart new laptop case… Pausing, keys in hand, as the boy undid the car door and slid himself cautiously out so as not to disturb the blood-stained animal.
‘You again!’ But her expression was not unkind. ‘What is it this time?’ she asked and, as Daniel climbed out to join them, bent to look closer, pulling gently at the matted fur. ‘Bring him in.’ She straightened, looking questioningly at Daniel. ‘We’ll see what we can do.’
‘I er…’ Daniel smiled his most charming smile, ‘got hi-jacked by this young man. On the roadside. He didn’t leave me much choice but to…’ He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness and the woman laughed.
‘He does care about animals. He doesn’t let much get in his way…’
‘I can see that.’ His stomach, thank God, seemed to be settling. ‘I was just a bit concerned about… the place he comes from. They won’t know where he is.’
‘Don’t worry, Jenny can ring them – and run him home. I’m sure,’ she glanced towards his car, ‘there’s somewhere you’re meant to be.’
‘Certainly is! I’ll leave it to you then. I hope the… creature makes it.’
The vet looked down at the skinny mass of fur, then, looking across at Daniel, shook her head – so slight a movement that the boy would not have noticed.
‘We’ll do our best,’ she said. ‘Thanks for doing your bit Mr…?’
‘Robinson. Daniel Robinson.’
He smiled again.
Turning back onto the road he turned on the radio in time for the eight o’clock catalogue of distant disasters. In ten minutes he reached the motorway, sweeping unimpeded, as John Humphreys sniped at some beleaguered junior minister, into the fast lane, the mist on the fields giving way at last to sullen sunlight.
No congestion – or nothing worse than usual – and just after nine the automatic doors slid automatically open to admit him to the gleaming towers of the company’s flagship headquarters building. A little later than anticipated but, if you were Daniel Robinson, you allowed for the unexpected. His knee twinged where he had caught it against the car door but his shirt and jacket appeared mercifully free of blood or fur as he strode, confident, focussed and untroubled, towards the real business of his important day.