Contrary to His Company's Code of Conduct

First Published by Wistman Publishing in She Knows How to Look After Herself, Volume 1 of Michel Dignand's Collected Stories



One


Will drives the long and boring route he knows so well. His parents call him Bill, but Heather, his wife, feels that Bill sounds rather common, working class. Frankly, Will would rather be called Bill, but nothing is going to make Heather change. It’s not that important, he feels. Every now and then, though, he thinks about it and scowls to himself. Nevertheless, he is known generally as Will.

Will is a middle-level executive in a large printing company, a company which has spent the past three years busily buying up printing works around the country. Eventually they will be rationalised, all printing brought to a central point, probably in the capital. Will has established a once-every-two-month circuit which brings him to each of the seven printing works in his region where he supervises accounting and management procedures. It is not a very efficient system, and he is the first to condemn it; for the time being, though, it is the way things work.

Today’s run will take him more than three hundred kilometres. He has allowed five hours for the trip, which will leave time to inspect the printing works before the end of the day. He has been on the road for three days, and will not return to his home until the day after tomorrow. Five days of driving, five wasted days. He sighs to himself.

It’s not that he minds driving. He has a large, comfortable car, one of the many perks of his position, a car that reflects his status while being extremely tax-efficient; so efficient, in fact that it actually pays him a dividend over the course of its depreciation period. He is fond of his car.

It is, though, boring to drive so often and so far. He has many toys to entertain him as he drives: the radio, of course, though it is only in the vicinity of the larger cities that it can receive a usable signal; a compact disc player, far more useful—he carries a selection of music to suit every mood, as well as discs borrowed from his public library on which are recorded books read by professional actors. He finds that listening to stories keeps him alert as he drives.

He also carries with him his iPod, which is held in an adapter which also charges the battery, and which connects to the car’s stereo through a system with the unlikely name of Bluetooth. He knows what it does, but has no idea how it works. His telephone connects in the same way, so that he can receive calls hands-free. He regards this as being close to miraculous.

The seating in the car is leather, comfortable and rather sumptuous. Will loves the feel and smell of the leather. The temperature control is highly efficient, even capable of dividing the cabin of the car into four zones in which passengers can set the temperature to suit themselves. And of course there is cruise control, removing the need to be alert to speed regulations—an occasional adjustment is all that is required. He always sets the speed of the car to four kilometres per hour below the maximum speed allowed, and smiles grimly to himself when he is overtaken by less cautious drivers.

Will has been driving for two hours before dropping in to one of the motorway service centres. He has filled the car with petrol and has visited the toilet. He would have liked a cup of coffee, but knows that the swill they serve here would give him no pleasure. Getting out of the car and stretching his legs, though, has relieved some of the tedium of the morning. He settles himself comfortably and considers which music to select for the next couple of hours. He chooses some classical music, Górecki’s Sorrowful Songs this time. He loves the incredibly slow build-up of the first movement, the bass almost inaudible, rising to a soaring repetitive crescendo.

He presses the disc into the machine, selects a gear and moves off, gaining speed as he approaches the motorway.

Some distance ahead he sees a woman step towards the road with her thumb out, a bag beside her. Stupid, he thinks to himself, and continues to accelerate. He is only too aware of the dangers of hitchhiking, both to the hitchhiker and to the unwary driver. He doesn’t pick up hitchhikers. It is, in any case, contrary to his company’s code of conduct.

As he passes her he glances towards her, takes in in a split second her youth, her obvious beauty, her smile. Her hair tumbles around her shoulders, glistening. Her mouth is wide, her teeth gleam.

Without knowing why he takes his foot from the accelerator and the car begins to slow. Don’t be so stupid, he tells himself. His foot presses lightly on the brake pedal. This is lunacy, he says out loud. The music from the stereo is beginning to swell, adding an air of unreality to the moment. He turns the wheel to bring the car to the edge of the tarmac, and draws to a halt.

He looks in the mirror. The girl has picked up her bag and is walking unhurriedly towards the car. He can still drive away, he says to himself, thinking of Heather and what she would say if she ever discovers his indiscretion. He lowers the passenger side window and waits.

The girl leans forward to see into the car. She is not going to accept the lift until she has inspected the driver. She is only too aware of the dangers to hitchhikers, particularly to girls, and even more so to girls hitchhiking by themselves. Why, it was on this very stretch of the road that seven hitchhikers, mostly women, were murdered a decade before, their bodies hidden in the forest that surrounds them. She bends and looks into the car and sees a well dressed man, in his late forties, she thinks: nice, metal-framed glasses, a business shirt, a suit-jacket carefully placed on a hanger in the rear of the cabin. Nice classical music which she doesn’t recognise, the interior of the car clean and very tidy. ‘Hi,’ she says. There is no need to specify a destination: she is heading west, and so, clearly, is he.

‘Can I put my bag in the back?’

Will smiles, though he is already regretting his impetuousness. ‘Of course’, he says, and she opens the back door and slides her bag onto the leather seat. She closes the back door gently and opens the front door, turning away and sitting on the seat before swivelling to the front as though she was wearing a dress. She is actually wearing neatly pressed jeans, a large billowy shirt with a dark, flowery pattern. On her feet she is wearing light walking boots, and on her left shoulders she carries a bag on a long strap. She turns towards him and holds out her hand. ‘I’m Heather,’ she tells him. He takes her hand and presses it gently, smothering a laugh.

‘What?’ she asks, puzzled by his reaction.

‘It’s your name,’ he explains. ‘My wife is called Heather.’

She looks surprised, but sees the humour in the situation. ‘Well, you won’t be calling her my name by mistake, will you?’

He is embarrassed. He still has hold of her hand. ‘No,’ he shakes his head. ‘Anyway, I’m Will.’

‘Nice to meet you, Will,’ she says, and he releases her hand.

Heather turns to fasten her seat-belt, places her shoulder bag at her feet and wriggles herself into a comfortable position. Will puts the car into gear again, and carefully pulls out. The car builds speed rapidly, and Heather is pressed back into her seat. Oh God, she thinks, he’s not going to be a show-off driver, is he? But it is simply because he has to reach motorway speed in what is now a very short distance. Will sets the cruise control to his habitual four under and settles back to continue the drive. Heather watches this and approves, relaxing.

‘Where are you headed, Heather?’

She tells him, and he nods. ‘I’ll be turning off about half an hour before then,’ he tells her. That’s fine by her, though it would have been better if he was going her way, naturally. But she never has any trouble getting drivers to stop, so she thinks it’s no big deal.

He turns the music down as the first crescendo is reached, and she asks what the music is. He tells her, and explains what it is about. She is interested, though she cares little about classical music. They sit quietly and listen through to the end of the first movement. Will thinks she has endured enough of that, and switches the music off. Heather asks him about his trip, where he’s going and why, and he tells her in some detail. He takes his eyes from the road every so often to look at her, and she smiles at him and nods, seems interested, impressed even.

She is wearing a perfume that slowly fills the cabin of the car, so subtly that he only realises it after half an hour. It is a perfume quite unlike the one his wife favours, which is stronger and sweeter than this one. He knows that his wife is fairly sophisticated but much older than this girl, and it crosses his mind that his passenger might be, in her own way, at least as sophisticated as his wife. Maybe more, if subtlety is a guide to sophistication.

He realises that he is talking of himself too much, and turns the conversation to her: her destination and her purpose in traveling. She is a student, she tells him, going home for a few weeks. Her father is a solicitor in a country town not far from the capital, her mother a partner in a very fashionable shop of bric-a-brac, items imported from around the world and selling like hot cakes in the current wealthy environment. She laughs deprecatingly, though in fact she admires her mother’s business acumen.

The morning passes very pleasantly, and he finds himself wondering what she thinks of him, realises he is trying to present himself in a favourable light. Absurd. He can’t, however, stop himself.

At lunchtime, under her direction, he pulls off the motorway and heads into a small village, dying in the years since the motorway by-passed it. Most of the buildings in the main street are empty, but she directs him to a small cafe which is clearly catering successfully to travellers grown weary of motorway service centres. He makes a mental note of the café, deciding immediately that he will drop in next time he is on this route. The coffee is very, very good. Will lingers over lunch, more animated and outgoing than he usually is. He is elated, and knows that it is the interest that Heather is showing in him that is the major factor in his elation. He wishes that they could travel together for ever. He knows he is being stupid.

He settles down once he is driving again, and Heather chats brightly about this and that. He considers altering his plans, ringing ahead to let the printers know he won’t be in until the following day, taking her instead to her destination. It is no more than a brief day-dream: he is completely incapable of such action.

At two thirty he pulls off the motorway and Heather directs him to a spot from which she can walk easily to the approach lane back onto the motorway. She turns to him and offers her hand, then leans forward to give him a peck on the cheek. Will feels himself blush, but he is excited by the contact. She takes her bag from the back seat and waves him goodbye. He drives a little more slowly, arriving at the printing works a little later than he might have.

On Friday night he arrives home tired and a little snappy. Heather serves dinner through which he is quieter than usual. He pours himself a rather large glass of whiskey, drinks it quickly and decides to have an early night. ‘Bit of a headache,’ he tells his wife.

An hour later she stands by the bed. He is moving restlessly, his head turning this way and that on the pillow. ‘Heather,’ he calls out in his sleep. ‘Heather.’

His wife smiles fondly.





Two


Will drives the long and boring route he knows so well.

Today’s run will take him more than three hundred kilometres. He has allowed five hours for the trip, which will leave time to inspect the printing works before the end of the day. He has been on the road for three days, and will not return to his home until the day after tomorrow. Five days of driving, five wasted days. He sighs to himself.

Will has been driving for two hours before dropping in to one of the motorway service centres. He has filled the car with petrol and has visited the toilet. He settles himself comfortably and considers which music to select for the next couple of hours. He chooses some Dylan— Highway 61 Revisited, which he bought in Florida as a youth. Of course, he has replaced the vinyl with a CD version. Ballad of a Thin Man is his favourite track, followed closely by Desolation Row. He presses the disc into the machine, selects a gear and moves off, gaining speed as he approaches the motorway.

Some distance ahead he sees a woman step towards the road with her thumb out. Stupid, he thinks to himself, and continues to accelerate. He is only too aware of the dangers of hitchhiking, both to the hitchhiker and to the unwary driver. He doesn’t pick up hitchhikers. It is, in any case, contrary to his company’s code of conduct.

As he passes her he glances towards her, takes in in a split second her youth, her obvious beauty, her smile. Her hair tumbles around her shoulders, glistening. Her mouth is wide, her teeth gleam.

Without knowing why he takes his foot from the accelerator and the car begins to slow. Don’t be so stupid, he tells himself. His foot presses lightly on the brake pedal. This is lunacy, he says out loud. Dylan is playing his mouth organ, adding an air of unreality to the moment. He turns the wheel to bring the car to the edge of the tarmac, and draws to a halt.

He sees he has stopped a long way ahead of the girl and reverses back to her. She walks towards the car and bends to peer in at him. She quickly decides that he is just right, and opens the door. ‘Hi,’ she says.

She is wearing a very light summer dress, almost transparent. On her feet are leather sandals, no more than a sole and a few straps. Her hair is like fine silk, blond but with just a hint of red in it. The sun is behind her, and a halo seems to surround her. She sits and swings her legs around, pulling the dress towards her knees. It is, however, very short. Her legs are smooth and tanned. She holds out her hand. ‘I’m Heather,’ she says.

He takes her hand and presses it gently, smothering a laugh.

‘What?’ she asks, puzzled by his reaction.

‘It’s your name,’ he explains. ‘My wife is called Heather.’

She looks surprised, but sees the humour in the situation. ‘Well, you won’t call her my name by mistake, will you?’

He is embarrassed. He still has hold of her hand. ‘No,’ he shakes his head. ‘Anyway, I’m Will.’

‘Nice to meet you, Will,’ she says, and he releases her hand.


He puts the car into gear and it moves forward, gathering speed quickly. He switches Dylan off. Quite inappropriate, he tells himself. ‘You don’t have any baggage?’ he asks her.

She holds up a tiny shoulder bag, showing him. ‘Travel light’, she says. She opens the bag and takes out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. ‘Mind if I smoke?’

Will is torn. Of course he minds. It is also against company policy. But he looks across at her and knows he doesn’t want to offend her in any way. He reaches forward and pulls open the ashtray below the dash. It has never been used before. He nods. ‘That’s okay,’ he says.

He has always hated the smell of cigarette smoke, but strangely he finds himself relaxing and enjoying it as Heather inhales deeply then blows a thin stream from pursed lips. ‘So tell me about yourself, Will,’ Heather says. ‘Where are you off to? How far are you going?’

He tells her. She leans towards him, sliding her hand over the leather seat, asking him about his job, his family. He can’t seem to stop talking. He is unused to being with a woman like Heather. She is wearing a rich and powerful perfume, strong enough to overwhelm the smell of the tobacco smoke. Her hand moves across the divide to stroke, this time, the leather of his seat, all the time leaning towards Will and gazing at him. He is unnerved. He realises he is sweating.

He suddenly realises what is happening, and looks sharply at her. She recognises the sign and smiles, letting her hand trail over his thigh. ‘What are you doing?’ he asks, but he knows only too well what she is doing. He has to stop the car and tell her to get out. He must.

‘Don’t be silly,’ she tells him with a chuckle. She squeezes his leg with her right hand while her left moves to the front of her dress, deftly undoing the first and second button, and holding the material away from her. Will can see her left breast, perfectly shaped, the nipple tense and dark. Heather slides her hand inside and caresses herself, almost offering her nipple to him.

His eyes dart back to the road, and he slows considerably. ‘Stop it,’ he tells her. ‘Do yourself up.’ He pulls over into the breakdown lane, slows to a stop and puts the handbrake on. He turns to her, bright red. Nothing like this has ever happened to him before. ‘Get out,’ he says.

‘Don’t be silly,’ she says again and her hand finds his penis, erect despite himself, and she squeezes gently, smiling. ‘There’s a rest area just the other side of this hill. I’ll get out there.’

He can’t force her out, he understands. Not here where there is nothing but the motorway. He releases the handbrake and drives on. She releases him, but leaves her hand on his leg, smiling at him all the time. He stares straight ahead, trying not to think of her hand.

Very shortly they come to the rest area. There is another car at the very end of it, far from the little lavatory block and the picnic tables. He pulls up beside the tables and switches off the engine, and she immediately takes hold of him again.

Will tries to stop her. He puts his hand on hers but finds himself pressing her to him, not pushing her away. His breath is coming in gasps, and she unbuckles his belt, takes his left hand and puts it on her breast as she pulls down his zip with the other hand. She leans forward over him and frees him from his underwear and takes him in her mouth. Will is leaning back, thrusting his groin upwards, hardly able to breathe. He is ashamed of himself, even now, but he is powerless to resist. ‘Heather,’ he shouts, and she smiles, but it is his wife he is calling for, his wife to help him in his time of weakness.

There is little room in the front seat of the car, and she puts her arms around his waist and pulls herself closer to him. Despite himself he is fondling her breast, tugging at her nipple, running his fingers around the bulging flesh in his hand. He has never experienced anything remotely like this. It is heaven, but at the same time it is a very real hell. Her hands are all over him now, under his shirt and running over his back, running around to the front and fondling his belly and the root of his penis. He feels as though he is going to explode and, indeed, in a few brief minutes he does.

Will is drained. He cannot move. All energy has flowed from him. He is also deeply, deeply ashamed. He doesn’t want to look at her. He pulls his hand away from her breast. She lifts her head from his lap and smiles at him. ‘There,’ she said. ‘That wasn’t too bad, was it?’

He cannot look at her. ‘Get out,’ he shouts. She sits back and refastens her buttons, turns the rear-view mirror so that she can check her reflection, runs her fingers through her hair to straighten it.’

She puts her hand on the door handle. ‘So long, Will,’ she says. ‘Say g’day to Heather, won’t you?’

She opens the door and is gone. He leans his head on the steering wheel and closes his eyes. After a short time he hears a car engine start somewhere not too far away, and when he looks up the other car has disappeared. So has Heather. He wonders what on earth that was all about.

He wonders if he will ever be able to explain it to his wife, but very soon realises that she will never understand.

Eventually he rouses himself, climbs out of the car and, holding his trousers around his waist, enters the small lavatory block. He looks down at himself in disgust, but everything looks normal, everything looks clean. He can hardly believe it. He splashes water over his face, tucks his shirt in and zips up, fastening the button and pulling his belt tight. As he does so he realises that his wallet is not in his back pocket. He pats the back pocket, then the front pockets, but he knows that it is missing. He rushes outside to his car and leans in to search around the driver’s seat, but finds nothing. Oh my God, he says to himself. That’s what it was about.

The truth is slowly dawning, and he reaches into the space under the stereo, where he puts his telephone when he is driving. It is missing.

He sits, utterly dejected, for almost half an hour. Other cars arrive at the rest area, the drivers and passengers looking at him oddly while going about their business. One elderly lady taps on his window and and asks if he is alright. He winds down his window and explains that he’s just a little tired, he’ll be on his way shortly.

Eventually he drives on. He stops at the next town and looks for the local office of his bank, goes in and explains that he has lost his wallet and his cards. The teller directs him to a tiny side room, and there he tells the manager what has happened. Well, not what really happened, but that he has lost his wallet. The manager taps some details into a computer and scans the results. ‘How long ago did you loose it?’ he enquires, and Will tells him that it was about an hour and a half ago that he realised it. ‘Well, fortunately you have a limit on that card of three thousand dollars, but I’m afraid it was used to withdraw almost that amount, two thousand seven hundred dollars at eleven thirty.’ He looks at his watch. An hour ago.

Almost three thousand dollars, he thinks. Three thousand dollars. He will discover later, though, that his other card, drawn on his Credit Union, has been used to purchase a very expensive digital camera and a plasma television, naturally one of the larger ones. A further four thousand three hundred dollars.

The manager cancels the missing card and makes arrangement for a new card to be issued, inviting Will to use the bank’s phone. He calls his telephone company to cancel his current contract and arrange for a new phone to be sent to his company, and his Credit Union to cancel and renew the second card. The transactions on the camera and TV have been carried out manually, and the Credit Union will not be aware of the theft for a few days. Will is led to the teller’s position and withdraws six hundred dollars from his account, pocketing the cash. He leaves the bank and sits in his car considering his position.

He is lucky he knows: the first card is the property of his company, used to pay all his expenses while on company business.

This means, of course, that he will have some explaining to do. He will have to report the theft of his wallet to the police, or the bank will not cover the loss. How can he pretend to have simply lost the wallet? He decides that he will claim to have accidentally left it on the table at the motorway service centre. So long as they never catch Heather and her accomplice, how will they ever prove otherwise? He finds the police station, a cottage at the very end of the main street, and goes in to tell his tale. A tired-looking officer with three stripes on his arm takes down the details, and promises to speak to the bank manager about the theft of monies. He will also be the first to know about the camera and television, but not until several days later.

Hours late, he arrives at his original destination, and carries out his discussions with the local print manager with rather less than his usual attention to detail. When they have finished he rings his office to report the loss and the actions he has taken. The insurance officer he speaks to takes it phlegmatically: it is far from the first time losses like these have been reported. Whatever the losses involved, the company will be reimbursed.

On Friday night he arrives home deeply depressed. Heather serves dinner during which he tells her the story he had invented for the police. She is disturbed by his careless behaviour in leaving his wallet and telephone at the service centre. Quite unlike him, she thinks, he who is usually obsessive in these matters. Is he ill, she wonders?

Heather is awoken in the early hours of the morning. Will is moving restlessly, his head turning this way and that on the pillow. ‘No,’ he calls out in his sleep. ‘Oh no, Heather, no.’

His wife wonders what on earth he can be dreaming about.



Three


Will drives the long and boring route he knows so well.

Today’s run will take him more than three hundred kilometres. He has allowed five hours for the trip, which will leave time to inspect the printing works before the end of the day.

Will has been driving for two hours before dropping in to one of the motorway service centres. He has filled the car with petrol and has visited the toilet. He settles himself comfortably and considers which music to select for the next couple of hours. He decides to listen to the next chapters of the book he had been listening to yesterday, a recording of Harlan Coben’s thriller Long Lost. It is a rather silly story, he thinks, but entertaining enough. He presses the disc into the machine, selects a gear and moves off, gaining speed as he approaches the motorway.

Some distance ahead he sees a woman step towards the road with her thumb out. Stupid, he thinks to himself, and continues to accelerate. He is only too aware of the dangers of hitchhiking, both to the hitchhiker and to the unwary driver. He doesn’t pick up hitchhikers. It is, in any case, contrary to his company’s code of conduct.

As he passes her he glances towards her, takes in in a split second her youth, her obvious beauty, her smile. Her hair tumbles around her shoulders, glistening. Her mouth is wide, her teeth gleam.

Without knowing why he takes his foot from the accelerator and the car begins to slow. Don’t be so stupid, he tells himself. His foot presses lightly on the brake pedal. This is lunacy, he says out loud. Steven Webber, the actor reading the book, is setting the scene for Myron Bolitar’s next dramatic meeting, so Will punches the pause button. He doesn’t want to miss any of the story because of lack of concentration. He turns the wheel to bring the car to the edge of the tarmac, and draws to a halt. The girl leans forward to inspect the driver. She has very specific requirements, and will not jump in with just anyone who offers her a lift. Will lowers the passenger side window and she smiles, taking in the rich leather seating, the tidiness of the car, the rather geeky expression on the driver’s face, an expression of keenness, perhaps even of longing. She puts her hand to the door handle and pulls it wide. ‘How far are you going?’ she asks, and Will tells her. Very suitable, she tells herself. She stands once more, and Will wonders if she is hesitating.

Suddenly the door behind him opens, and he turns in surprise to see a young man entering the car. He has a small bag with him that he pushes across the seat. He slams the door shut as the girl climbs into the front seat beside him. He makes an inarticulate noise, a sort of strangled sound of surprise. What the hell is going on?

‘What the hell is going on?’ he asks when his immediate panic has given way to flaring anger.

The girl leans towards him and pats his leg. She is wearing a roll-neck skivvy, dark blue, over tailored blue trousers. She wears leather boots into the tops of which her trousers are tucked. The boots exactly match the skivvy in colour, and are very well polished. Her hair is a deep, lustrous brown, the sort you see in shampoo advertisements. Her face is perfectly even, nicely made up, rather in the way he would expect a model to present herself.

‘Don’t worry about it. Why don’t you just start driving? My name’s Heather, by the way. Who are you?’

Will doesn’t even notice that her name is the same as his wife’s. He is furious, and more than a little afraid. He is about to tell them to get out when he feels something hard and cold press against the right hand side of his neck. ‘Do as she says,’ the young man orders him. He tries to turn his head to see what it is pressing against his neck, but he realises with horror that he already knows. What else could it be? He selects a gear and does as he is told, his mind already reaching ahead to the possible outcomes of this event. None of them offer the slightest glimmer of hope.

Heather settles herself back into her seat, relaxed. She could be settling in for a nice day’s drive into the country. The man behind him pokes him with the cold metal object. ‘Go on, then,’ he says.

Will looks in the mirror. He sees a thin face staring back at him. Younger than the girl, he thinks. Hair dark, trendily pricked up and held in place with some sort of mousse or wax or whatever it is that young people use these days. He has seen it in his office. In fact, this young man could easily be one of the junior cohort of his company. He is wearing a business shirt, but open at the neck. He sports the tiniest of hairline beards edging around his jaw and culminating at the chin in a tidy, well-cut goatee. Put a loosely-fastened tie beneath his collar and he could easily be one of the boy wonders in Finance back in Head Office. ‘Go on what?’ he asks, perplexed.

‘She asked your name,’ he growls back at him, but the voice is too high-pitched to be taken as a serious threat. Still, there is the gun at his neck.

‘Will,’ he says.

‘You will what?’ the man asks, somehow assuming that this joke has never been made, and already laughing at his own cleverness. From the corner of his eye Will can see the girl, Heather, arch an eyebrow in disbelief that her accomplice could be so stupid.

‘Put the gun away, Stephan,’ she tells him in a flat and rather threatening tone. She pronounces the name in the Polish manner. Will stores this information away. His immediate panic has subsided, though he still cannot see any good coming of this episode.

The metal at his neck is withdrawn, and Will immediately feels that some sort of normality has returned.

They drive in silence for a minute or two, a silence that he finds unnerving. He glances sideways at the girl. ‘Heather and Stephan hmmm? Is that like Bonnie and Clyde?’

The girl looks at him admiringly. A cool customer, she decides. She chuckles in a friendly way. They could be discussing a film, or a dinner they shared the night before. ‘Could be. I haven’t decided yet.’

What does that mean? he wonders. ‘Why did you ambush me like that?’ he says, though his voice lacks any hint of a demand. It is simply a patient question.

‘You wouldn’t have stopped for the two of us, would you?

Will doesn’t reply. Of course he wouldn’t have stopped. He was stupid to have stopped at all. He has never, ever, broken his company’s rule about not picking up hitchhikers, and naturally he is regretting his lapse now. Yes, she is beautiful, but what had he hoped to gain by picking her up?

‘So that’s it, is it? All that just to get me to pick the two of you up?’

‘Perhaps,’ Heather answers after a pause. ‘As I said, I haven’t decided yet.’

Over the next hill he knows there is a rest area, toilets and a barbecue. He decides he is going to swerve into the rest area with no warning. In his mind’s eye he plans the course of events, the sudden braking that will be required, the over-arm turn of the wheel needed to leave the motorway, and the second braking. He would immediately open the door and jump out, and run into the thin forest surrounding the rest area. If he finds that there are other cars there, he will run to them... there would be safety in numbers.

As the car approaches the rest area he feels the gun tap the side of his neck again. ‘Turn in here,’ Stephan tells him. He slows the car, disappointed, not at all sure that he will now be able to escape. They will be expecting something, he knows.

He turns into the rest area. The approach road takes them two hundred metres away from the motorway and widens out to an expanse of parking area. Two other cars are parked beside the toilet block. No-one is sitting in the picnic area. ‘Over there,’ Stephan orders, pointing to a spot some distance from the other cars. The gun is still at his neck. He brings the car to a halt and applies the handbrake, then tenses himself for his attempt at freedom. ‘Don’t even think of it.’ The pistol is pressed harder into his neck. His courage fails him. He slumps in his seat.

Heather opens the passenger door and leaves the car, heading for the toilet block. She acknowledges the driver standing by one of the cars, watching her in open admiration. Her hips swing as she walks, exaggerated as though on a catwalk. The admiring driver gets into his car and backs out, then drives away leaving a faint cloud of light dust in the still air. Heather enters the toilet block.

Moments later another woman, grey and elderly, walking slowly with the aid of a stick, leaves the toilet block and heads for the only other car in the rest area. Someone already in the driver’s seat pops the door open for the elderly woman. Slowly, she eases herself into the car which then reverses and pulls away in a very leisurely manner. Heather re-emerges from the toilet block. She has been there less time than it takes to wash her hands. She climbs in beside Will and points to the corner of the rest area farthest from the motorway. ‘Over there.’

Will starts the engine and drives to the corner. He can see a faint track between the trees, and drives slowly into the forest. The forest thickens, and in no time at all they are in the middle of nowhere. They come to the slightest of clearings and Heather indicates that he should stop. He is desperately aware of the danger he is in, and realises that if he were to stop, anything could happen. He stamps on the accelerator and swings the car tightly around. Stephan slumps to one side and Heather grips the door handle for support. He swerves back the other way, realising that his only hope is to keep them unbalanced, dodging around a tree and trying to find a way through the forest. He ignores the smaller undergrowth, driving over it like straw in a hayfield. Will misjudges one swerve around a larger tree and the side of the car, skidding around, hits the tree solidly half way along the passenger side. Heather is thrown towards him, but still holds tightly to the handle. He cannot stop, not now. He straightens the car and heads for a gap leading back to the rest area. He’s going to brake suddenly and make a run for it.



When he recovers consciousness he is lying in the back seat, hands tied behind his back, feet tied together and, it seems, to the door handle. His head is throbbing painfully, and he can see blood on the leather beneath his head. He can hear voices but at first cannot make out what is being said. The driver’s door is open.

‘This a fucking mess,’ he hears Stephan complain.

There is movement outside, rustling and clicking, and a low, female voice that must be Heather. He can’t make out what she is saying. The pain in his head is centred above his right ear, not at all like a headache, and he can smell the blood that is obviously seeping from a wound there. How this has occurred is, for the moment, unclear; but it seems doubtful that he has crashed. He has a very clear memory of everything that happened until the moment when he straightened the car for his dash back to the rest area. From that point on, nothing.

‘We’re going to have to...’ It is Heather’s voice, but it fades to nothing as though she is moving away.

‘Fuck that,’ Stephan says, but his voice, too, fades into the distance. Will can soon hear nothing but birds twittering and the sound of leaves and branches stirring in a light breeze. He struggles against his bonds, but they have trussed him well and he cannot move. What a fool he has been, he thinks. What on Earth persuaded him to stop, after all these years of sticking to company rules, to say nothing of common sense. Despite the pain in his head he is able to think clearly, he discovers, and for once he considers his true feelings and motives, breaking his life-time habit of keeping things under control.

It was the desire to have a beautiful girl beside him, he admits. Deep down he realises that he has been dreaming of a romantic encounter for many years. He loves Heather, his wife, that is; he does not doubt it. But it is a very long time since she chose to thrill him, to seduce him, to make him feel a man. They have slipped into a dreary relationship that provides nothing but comfort to either of them. Gone are the days when he would touch her and feel her immediate arousal, arousal that would drive him mad with rising lust. Yes, long gone are those days. Of course they are gone. They never last for ever.

Until now, though, lying in a pool of blood in a battered car, he has never acknowledged his need, the secret need that has led him to this stupidity. If he survives, he promises himself, he will do something about it, take a lover, have an affair, something. If he survives. At the moment, he recognises phlegmatically, it seems very long odds that he will survive.

He jerks awake, suddenly aware that he has been sleeping despite everything. His hands are swelling under his bonds, and they are stinging with pain. Held in position behind his back for so long his arms are aching badly. His neck is stiff, in fact everything is stiff. It is growing dark. He must have been there for many hours, six or seven hours at least. The front door is still open, so the interior light of the car is on, giving at least some illumination.

He wonders if he can roll over to ease his pains. He twists and raises his knees, but the position of his arms prevents him from completing the manoeuvre. The twisting has relieved the pressure on his right arm, trapped beneath him, and he maintains that position for a while, the blood pounding painfully into his trapped arm. He’s going to die here, he realises. His mouth is dry. He has had nothing to drink for many hours, and his blood loss, however slight, has contributed to his thirst.

He thinks about dying for a while. Sure, he was thinking earlier about bringing more excitement into his life, and this is certainly exciting. Or it will be if he survives. He can’t just lie here and let himself die. He cranes his neck to see how his feet are tied to the door, and though he can see only a little of the door handle, he sees enough to realise that he is tied there with material torn from one of his shirts. It can’t be that strong, can it?

Will relaxes for a few minutes as he tries to visualise what can happen. He can try brute force first, bending his legs away from the door in an attempt to simply break the material. He readies himself, then puts all his strength into raising his knees. At first there is no reaction, but very slowly he feels himself being pulled bodily towards the door. Clearly, that’s not going to work. The leather is too polished, too slick. He pushes himself back to his original position.

He suddenly jerks his knees up in one powerful action, and hears something tearing. Elated, he does it once more, and again there is the sound of something tearing. The bond between his feet and the door is longer as the shirt material is torn and loosened. He has more freedom of movement now, and he works with steady upwards jerks of his knees to loosen his bonds further.

But his earlier success is short lived, and despite continuous jerks, his bonds loosen no more. Dejected, he rests and takes stock. His head is bleeding again, a thin trickle pooling under his cheek. The pains everywhere are worse than before, and his mouth feels, he remembers a childhood saying, as dry as the bottom of a budgie’s cage.

In desperation he gives one more jerk, and this time his knees continue upwards until they nearly hit him in the chin. He can’t believe it, but when he looks he realises that it is not the bonds that have broken but the door handle, a large solid-looking affair but in reality made only of plastic. He has torn it from the door, and it lies now on the seat beside his feet. Well, he thinks, that’s something, at least.

He rests, then swings his feet to the floor of the car, sitting upright. He struggles for a while with the bonds on his wrists, but produces nothing but pain. The blood, however, is now flowing back into both arms, painful in itself but this will, eventually end. He looks at the door beside him, and wonders if he can open it. He twists around, and finds he can do that easily. He pulls the lever behind his back and it clicks ajar. He turns back and, using his feet now, he pushes the door wide open. He swivels all the way and sits on the seat with his feet on the ground. He is getting somewhere, at last.

The only sounds are the muted sounds of the twilight forest. He can see no lights at all in any direction. Wherever he is, it is remote from civilisation. If he is to survive, he’s going to have to do it alone. He sits and thinks.

He has to cut the ropes at his wrists or his ankles. How can he do that? What resources can he muster. There must be sharp things in the car, if only he can reach them. ‘Shit,’ he shouts loudly, and there is a sudden squawking of frighted birds around, a flapping of wings as they take flight in terror. He has not used that word in any context since he was at University. Despite his predicament, it feels good to have said it. He is tempted to shout it loudly again, and every other dubious word he can think of. But that would be childish.

If I get out of this, I’m going to be childish whenever I feel like it, he tells himself. Won’t Heather be amazed?

She will also be deeply ashamed of him, he knows; but he puts that out of his mind.

He needs something sharp to rub against. He looks around him but can find nothing. Every surface is smooth and clean. Outside? In his mind he thinks about everything he knows about his car, but can think of nothing against which he can rub to cut his ties. He must break something, something that will leave a rough edge. Immediately his eye falls upon the wing mirror on the door beside him. Glass, he thinks. How can he break the mirror?

There is nothing that he can reach in the car with which to break the glass. He can see only one way, and that will be difficult and painful. He stands and shuffles around the door, then pushes it closed. It doesn’t close properly, but it’s good enough. He lowers himself to the ground and lies down beside the car, his head pointing the same way as the car. He measures the distance in the little light from the car, then brings his feet up in the closest thing he can get to a kick. He misjudges and his shins collide with the surrounds of the mirror. It is designed to fold under collision, and stays in the forward position. He hadn’t thought of that. It’s going to be harder, now. He will have to wriggle his body until it is partly under the car, then kick blindly.

There isn’t much clearance under the car, but in one way that helps because it will hold his torso more or less still as he swings his legs up. He rest for a few moments, then launches his legs towards the mirror. He hits it quite well, but all that happens is that the plastic cover flies off. He can see it bounce to the ground beside him. He kicks again, and this time, miraculously, the toe of his shoe hits the mirror, not a bull-eye but close enough to break it. A large section of the mirror, with a beautiful razor-sharp edge, lands on his chest.

He wriggles from under the car, then rolls to one side, the glass falling to the ground beside him. He rolls the other way and squirms his body carefully backwards until he thinks his hands are close to the glass, then feels around. He finds it, and takes it carefully between his fingers. Now, how on earth is he going to cut the bonds?

Gingerly he twists the glass in his hands and tries to find the broken edge. When he does, he twists it up in an attempt to rub it against the cloth, but it is far more difficult than he had ever imagined. Three times he feels the sharp pain of glass cutting into flesh, but he has to steel himself to ignore it. When finally he hits the right spot, he feels the fibres of the bonds tearing open. His fingers are becoming slippery with blood, but he persists and bit by bit the bonds loosen until finally, with a great deal of pressure, the last of the material gives way. He is free.

Well almost. Quickly he bends forward and cuts the material binding his ankles. That done he looks at the remains of his wrist bindings: his company tie, cut now into short lengths. Well, perhaps that is symbolic, he tells himself, rubbing his wrists and trying to restore feeling. Tenderly he touches his head, to find a huge damp lump, dried blood sticking to the hairs of his head. He tries to leave it alone, but his hand keeps returning to it, like a tongue at a broken tooth.

When he has rested a little he stands and gets into the driver’s seat once more. He searches the car but cannot find the keys. They could be anywhere, he knows. He releases the boot catch and moves back to lift the lid and peer in. The boot light comes on, and he rummages around until he finds a little door in the side which contains the tool kit. There is nothing there that will help him. He returns to the driver’s seat, and looks in the glove box. Somewhere, he knows, there is a torch, but he can’t remember where he put it. It is at least two years since he saw it, when the car was new. He looks in the door recesses and finds the torch in the passenger’s door, presses the button and is overjoyed to find that it lights brightly.

He has no idea where he is. Through the thin canopy of the forest he can see stars burning brightly above, seemingly closer than he has ever seen them, but he knows nothing about stars except that the Southern Cross can be used as a pointer to the south; however, he hasn’t a clue how that is done. Neither, on reflection, would such knowledge be of the slightest use to him as he doesn’t know where his starting point is. But again, he quickly realises, he might be able to use the stars to help him keep moving in a straight line, if he has to walk out of there.

Of course he has to walk out. Those two might return at any minute, and in any case he needs water, of which there is none in his car. He searches the car quickly to see if he can find anything of use to him, but draws a blank: they have taken everything, his case, his suit jacket, his telephone, laptop, wallet and keys. Everything.

If he can follow the marks the car made getting to that point, he must eventually get back to the road. He closes the car doors and searches around with the torch. There is no track, but broken shrubs, bent grasses and the occasional scraping of bark from trees leads him forward through the forest. He is worried about snakes, and walks with a stamping gait; he believes that this will alert them to his presence, allowing them to slink into the darkness of the forest. From time to time he looses sight of the path the car has taken, and searches in circles until at last he finds the signs, the spoor, again. They have taken his watch and he has no idea of the time. He worries about how long the torch batteries will last.

The path the car had taken leads him slowly downhill, and after a considerable time he hears the sounds of water ahead of him. How is he going to cross a creek, he wonders? But as he draws closer he sees with some relief that there is a well-formed road crossing the creek, that a shallow ford allows cars to cross in safety. He stands on the edge of the road and wonders which way he should go, across the creek or away from it?

He decides that the most likely direction of the motorway is across the creek, the path he has been following trending in that direction. He takes off his shoes and socks and rolls up his trousers to above his knees, and steps cautiously into the creek. He bends and scoops water in his hand, drinking thirstily, the water spilling down his chin. He drinks many handfuls. The surface of the road is thinly covered by sand. He walks carefully forward, the current becoming stronger as he reaches the middle. He has to be careful where he puts his feet now, the current trying to push him downstream. He balances himself carefully before taking each step, and moves very slowly. He should have got himself a stick to help keep himself upright. He hadn’t thought of it.

The noise of the creek is drowning all other noises, so he is surprised when, quite suddenly, he hears the roar of a diesel engine fairly close. He looks up and sees a bright beam of light through the trees on the far bank, a light moving rapidly, causing shadows to dance and weave in the night. He panics. It is them, he tells himself. He is caught in the open. His only escape is to throw himself into the creek and let it carry him downstream. He is about to do so when a four-by-four appears around a corner in the woods and turns immediately to cross the creek, its lights blazing at him, blinding him like a rabbit in a spotlight. Will puts his arm over his eyes, and finds himself sobbing in disappointment. He had thought he had escaped, but now he is once again at their mercy.

The lights are suddenly turned off, and he can see nothing. He stands in the creek with water over his knees, his arm across his face. He hears a door open and a few seconds later slam closed, and a voice calling out to him loudly ‘Want a hand, mate?’ It is a woman’s voice, but an older woman, a deeper voice, not the voice of hateful Heather.

‘I can’t see,’ he calls out.

‘Sorry about the lights, didn’t know you were there. Give it a minute or so and it’ll get better. What the hell are you doing out here anyway. It’s past midnight.’

He stands in the water with his eyes closed, hoping to regain his night-vision. ‘I’ve been kidnapped,’ he says. ‘I need help.’

He hears splashing coming towards him, and a hand takes his arm and leads him slowly across the creek.



At home the following night, Will sits in his armchair and sips a very large whiskey. The bottle is beside him. His head is heavily bandaged and his wrists are covered in sticky plaster. He looks dreadful, Heather thinks.

He tells her of his fear, tells her of the pain, tells her in great detail of the lusts and desires that led him to this dreadful adventure, tells her to call him Bill from now on. He tells her that he wants love and affairs and respect, even when he’s behaving childishly. She looks at him and listens, and knows instinctively that their marriage is over. He is no longer the man he was when last she saw him, the man with whom she had thought she was sharing a life.