TUESDAY 30TH MARCH
The car rounded the twisty corners quickly, driven with the casual confidence of someone who has passed this way many times before. The force of the gusts and rain snatched the last of the crispy leaves from the trees, sending them scurrying across the forest road.
The pool of the headlights penetrated the gloom. From the outer edges appeared a figure. A woman. In a dark coat. Hood up. For a split second the headlights spotlighted her face within the shadow of her hood. Her mouth frozen open in a gash of terror. Her eyes, bulging with horror, stared straight at the car.
The vehicle slammed into her middle and lifted her off her feet. Hurled her onto the bonnet. Her face smashed into the windscreen with a crunch of splintered bone and a ribbon of blood.
Briefly the woman was carried along on the bonnet, her horrified face squashed against the windscreen before she slid off. The car bumped awkwardly as the wheels rolled over her then skidded to a halt.
The driver sat completely still, eyes wide and open, breath short, shallow and sharp. The briefest glance into the rear view mirror revealed nothing. Just blackness and the dim red glow of the brake lights.
Back to the windscreen but it was splattered with splashes of blood and shards of bone. With a muffled gasp the driver fumbled for the wipers which dragged over the bloody mess leaving a greasy smear before the water spurted up and pushed it from the centre of the glass to the edges. For just a moment the driver hesitated. Then slammed the vehicle into drive, stamped on the accelerator and snaked off up the road.
TUESDAY 30TH MARCH
The silence settled snugly round Rachel’s tight shoulders as she closed her eyes and set free a breath.
Stretching and flexing her toes, she reached her arms up as far as they would go, feeling the pull in the shoulder socket. She visualised the tensions of the day gently seeping from her body. Her children were asleep and she could savour an hour or two of quiet time.
A sharp blast of hammering on the front door punctured her peace. She scrambled to her feet. Who was so desperate to get in that they didn’t use the doorbell? In the hallway the caller had their face close up to the small rectangular pane of frosted glass in the wooden door. It was a man and he was peering in, watching for someone to come into view.
“Rachel. It’s me.” Rachel released the breath she didn’t realise she had been holding.
“Bill. Bloody hell,” she said drawing back the safety chain and pulling open the door. She stepped back and her brother marched past her. The rain clutched the shoulders of his coat in tiny beads.
“You frightened the life out of me.” She followed him into the lounge and closed the door behind her to save any sound drifting up the stairs.
“What’s happened?” she said. “Are the kids OK? Is it Suki?”
“I’ve just knocked over a deer or something.” He perched on the arm of the sofa and then stood again unable to be still.
“Oh no. Are you OK?”
“Yes. I’m fine.”
“Did it damage the car?” She went to him, placing a hand on his arm to slow him but he shrugged off her touch and moved away from her avoiding her eye.
“I don’t know. I haven’t looked yet.”
“But you’re OK?” She had written many stories for the newspaper on these bigger forest animals causing plenty of damage when they are hit by cars, even crashing through windscreens to injure the drivers.
“Good. That’s the most important thing. Sit down. I’ll get the kettle on. Shall I phone Suki?”
Bill didn’t seem keen to sit. He was an imposing man, just over six feet, broad shouldered and the beginnings of a middle aged belly. With his anxious pacing he filled the room.
“No. Don’t call her. I’m fine. Just a bit shaken up I think.” He wiped sweat off his face with his fingers but it sprang back in shiny droplets on his forehead and nose.
“I’m not surprised. Those things can be huge. Where were you?”
“Out near Raywood.”
“I was just driving along and it leapt out. Came from the woods and ran across the road.” He pushed his hands through his damp hair which he wore thick and long to his neck and shoved it behind his ears.
“Did you kill it?”
“I’m not sure. I think so.”
“Didn’t you stop?” She was surprised. Bill was often impatient and off hand with people but had a passion for animals and hated to hear about them being treated cruelly.
“No. I should have. It happened so quickly. It was dark. I wasn’t even sure what happened.”
“What did the police say?”
“I didn’t call them. I haven’t called them yet.”
“You have to report it if you hit a forest animal Bill.” Rachel leaned over the arm of the sofa reaching for the phone handset.
“What are you doing?”
“Calling the police. They’ll send the Forestry Commission down there to check that the animal’s dead. We can just say your phone ran out of battery and you came straight here to report it.”
“No. no. Don’t do that,” he said too quickly. Bill looked at her for the first time. She saw the quiver of fear behind his dark eyes.
“We can’t just leave an injured animal lying by the side of the road. And you’ll be in trouble if you don’t report it.”
“I’m sure I killed it. I hit it pretty hard. There was no way it would have survived.” He didn’t sound sure.
“What if you didn’t? It might be in pain. It might stumble back into the road and cause an accident. A worse one.”
“I’ll go back in the morning. It’s my fault. My mistake. I don’t want to drag you in. Sorry. Sorry”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry. Let me call.”
“For Christ’s sake Rachel. Just leave it,” he hissed at her violently, his contrition disappearing in an instant. Rachel noticed for the first time his shaking hands and a tremor in his voice.
“Why? What’s the problem?”
“Nothing. I said I’ll deal with it tomorrow.”
“You can’t leave it until tomorrow Bill. Whatever’s the matter?”
Bill didn’t reply straight away. He paused, took a breath and swallowed hard.
“I’ve had a drink.” He stared down at the carpet and said the words quietly.
“Jesus Christ Bill.”
“I’m fine to drive.”
“You’ve just run a deer over.”
“I’ve only had a couple. I’m not over the limit.” He was short, defensive and she became wary.
“I just need a minute before I head home. It’ll all be fine. I’ll sort it tomorrow.”
“The police will find you and it will be worse then.”
“I’ve already driven away. If I call them now they will also know I’ve been drinking.”
“But it’s wrong.”
“So better that I lose my licence? The business will go under. Who’s going to pay the mortgage and the bills? Where are we all going to live? You want your niece and nephews in bed and breakfast?”
“They won’t be in bed and breakfast. You’re always so dramatic.”
“What do you suggest? Second drink driving offence. They could put me away.”
That reality hung in the air between them for a moment.
“So what are you going to do?” She let out a small sigh. There was a warped reasoning behind his argument.
“I’m not sure. I came straight here.” He sat, quieter now, sensing that her moral defences were weakening.
“What about if I phone anonymously? No. That won’t work. But we can’t leave an animal half dead. That’s horrible. This is a mess.” Her half formed thoughts flowed out.
Bill stood. He took her by the shoulders and gently made her sit.
“This is what is going to happen. I am going to go home. I am not going to say anything to anyone. Not Suki. Not mum or dad. When I get to work tomorrow I will make a call. Report it. Apologise. Take my fine and it will be forgotten.”
“Rachel,” he said firmly. “I am not ruining my whole life because of a bloody deer in the road.”
She wanted more from him. More anxiety. More fretting. Why was it always her who did the worrying?
“We should see if it’s done any damage to the car,” she said, complicit now and practical.
Rachel followed Bill into the hallway. He stood at the front door and gathered her to him, hugging her close.
“Haven’t we always looked out for each other Rach? Helped each other?” He held her and put a kiss into her hair before stepping off the porch. The security lights flooded the driveway illuminating Bill’s Range Rover.
Splashes of blood were spattered over the radiator grill. Smears of blood and gristle clung to the sides of the windscreen and there was a patch of blood in the middle of the bonnet, already turning a rusty brown and gradually draining away in the misty rain.
“Oh my God.”
There was so much more than she had been anticipating. Bill turned to see what had startled her.
“Oh Jesus. That’s disgusting,” Bill held up his hands to his head. Rachel was unable to move. Blood. And bone. And muscle.
“Right. Right,” Bill said, struggling to keep his voice controlled. “Get a bucket of water. Soapy water. Hot, soapy water. Let me wash this, it off. I can’t go home with the car like this.”
Responding to his order and desperate to get away from the gruesome scene, Rachel fled back into the house and into the kitchen. She pulled the bucket from the cupboard under the sink, jammed it under the tap and let the hot water spurt in with a squeeze of washing up liquid. Above the noise of the water slamming into the bucket she could hear the quickening beat of her heart forcing the blood to her head.
She took a long, slow breath and looked around her kitchen, finding comfort in the normality of mess and clutter. One wall next to the kitchen table was covered in cork tiles pinned with an untidy collection of photographs and tickets, rosettes and certificates. It always made her smile when she looked, finding something half-forgotten every time. Scanning it tonight her eyes spotted a faded colour photograph, the hues fuzzy from time. It was a skinny girl with straggly mousy hair wearing a lurid orange dress teamed with what seemed to be black school shoes alongside a pale, chubby boy in brown polyester shorts, a navy blue hand knitted tank top and red wellington boots. Aged eight and ten they were hugging each other fiercely and grinning stupidly for the camera. It was her favourite photograph of her and Bill as children.
She dumped two sponges into the bucket and carefully carried it back to the driveway. Bill was pacing, his back to the bloodied vehicle, not bearing to look.
She put the bucket down, threw Bill a wet sponge and squeezed the other out.
“You do the wheel arches. I’ll do the bonnet,” she stated.
“Thank you,” he said quietly then knelt on the damp stone of the driveway and set to work.
As she scrubbed at a tough piece of gristle stubbornly clinging to the windscreen, bile clawed at Rachel’s throat trying to get out. She swallowed it down. How could anything have survived if it had left so much of itself behind?
On a thin trickle of reddy brown water, pink tinged soap suds floated slowly towards the drain at the side of the drive.
WEDNESDAY 31ST MARCH
“A thirty eight year old woman is fighting for her life after being left for dead following a hit and run accident on the B7822 last night,” the radio newsreader announced in a grave monotone.
“Mummy. Alex is making faces at me,” grizzled Lucy through a mouthful of cornflakes. Each of the newsreader’s words drove sharply into Rachel’s brain which was struggling after a restless night dominated by continual images of blood spattered bodywork and blood soaked sponges.
“No I’m not,” Alex whined back.
“Ssh. Please,” screeched Rachel turning the volume right up.
“The woman, who has not yet been named, was found along Old Beech Croft Road in Raywood by a couple on a motorbike at around 9pm,” the newsreader continued blandly. Old Beech Croft Road. That must have been close to where Bill knocked the deer over.
“Sorry. This is important. It’s for mummy’s work.”
“Police are appealing for anyone who was driving along that road at any time yesterday evening to contact them,” the newsreader concluded. Maybe Bill had seen something? He had turned up last night at about 9.30 so he must have been in the area at the right time. Poor woman. At least that was this week’s front page sorted.
The newsroom was full of life reverberating with the story of the hit and run. The TV was on and some of her colleagues were watching the rolling news channel which filled the screens with a chilly journalist reporting on the hit and run from a grass verge in front of blue and white police tape flapping and snapping in the robust breeze. Others were sat at their desks, keyboards pushed aside swapping scraps of sparse detail and rumour.
As news editor Rachel’s desk was alone facing across the office to see and be seen. She shucked off her coat and picked up her mobile once again recalling Bill’s number but put it down. She was unsure what to say to him.
Caroline came bustling over from her editor’s office surrounded by a brown aura of stale cigarette smoke.
“Have you heard? The hit and run?” She was barely able to contain the thrill in her voice. An ex-national newspaper journalist, reacting to a story was in her flesh, the more gruesome and tragic the better. She wheeled a chair over to Rachel’s desk and eased her ample bottom down.
“Tim’s with the police at the moment. I’m hoping that as we know these guys so well, we’ll get something no one else does,” she said, the juicy prospect of additional circulation colouring her voice.
“The daily will be all over it so we have to find a different angle for our Friday paper,” Rachel said, already thinking about the shape of the story. “Local knowledge I’m guessing. She must live here if she was wandering around on her own at that time of night.”
“True. We need to get down to the hospital too. Do you know anyone there? Doctors, nurses, porters?”
“No. But someone here might have a contact. We should be able to get an in.”
“Excellent. I need a cigarette,” Caroline said and she heaved herself out of the chair. Years of high pressure London life plus more than a couple of glasses of red wine a day had left their mark. She was a dress size or two larger than she should be with a deep chuckle, ripened by years of cigarette smoke. But she carried herself with an unquestioning air of expertise and brought a zip of cosmopolitan glamour to the newsroom of this seaside weekly.
The door swung open and all eyes were on Tim as he hurried into the newsroom aglow with eagerness.
“Did you get anything?” Caroline called to him.
“Yep. Loads,” he replied excitedly, pulling out his notebook. He was tall and skinny, all arms and legs and he bounded about skittishly as if he didn’t quite have full control of his limbs.
“Right. Let’s hear it.” Caroline sauntered back to Rachel’s desk and perched on the edge. With a nod she gave the floor to Tim who was riffling through his notebook. Although none of the other journalists would be working on the story, they all stopped what they were doing to listen to the conversation, unable to resist the meaty detail of a good piece of news.
“So. She’s in intensive care at Memorial Hospital. Head and internal injuries. Looks like the guy ran over her after hitting her,” Tim read from the pages of scribbled shorthand. Rachel let out a small groan. “Yes a bit gruesome. The police asked that we don’t put that bit in. Anyway. Life support machine. No news on whether she’s going to make it. No news on the driver or the make of car. Too early yet apparently.”
“Any ID?” asked Caroline impatiently.
“Yes,” Tim thumbed through the notebook to another page. “Linda Tate. Thirty eight. Lives in Raywood. Mother of two. Boy aged 12, girl aged seven.”
“Oh my God it can’t be.” The words fell out of Rachel in one breath.
“Do you know her?” asked Caroline, that little news spark flaring at the possibility of an angle that their competitors wouldn’t have. Rachel was staring into the middle distance. “Rachel? Who is she?”
Caroline’s sharpness snatched Rachel back into the room.
“Her little girl is in the same year as Lucy. Not the same class. I don’t know her well. But I have seen her. I know her. I know who she is,” Rachel repeated in a voice getting smaller and smaller. A smiling, vivacious woman, a shank of glossy brown hair pulled back in a swinging pony tail. And a little girl who always hugged her mum’s knees furiously before dashing into the playground.
“Excellent. You can get some great inside knowledge. Good local colour from the school, other mums who know her. Stuff the daily can’t get. Do you know the husband?”
“No. Not really. I’ve seen him,” Rachel said, still bewildered. It was Linda Tate. She knew her.
“Gary. Gary Tate,” said Tim, referring once more to his notebook.
“Yes. Gary. That’s it. And her daughter’s called Rosie. I’m sure it’s Rosie. I think it is.”
“Does the other kid go to the school too?” asked Caroline.
“No. He left last year. He was in the end of year production last summer. Year six. He was one of the leads. A very good singer. Very strong.” Rachel was conscious that she was rambling but didn’t seem able to stop herself. Stories like this were never about someone she knew.
“Get down to the hospital. Call up some mum friends on the way and file for the website by lunchtime,” Caroline ordered. Rachel hesitated. “You said yourself you didn’t know her that well. It’s not like she’s a friend. You’re in the perfect position to cover this.”
Rachel knew Caroline was right. But then she remembered that Chris was back today.
“I’ve got a half day’s annual leave. I’m going at one.”
“Jesus,” Caroline sighed. “At least speak to some mums before you go. Tim. You get down to the hospital. See what you can find out. I’m going for a cigarette.” She reached for the cigarette pack and lighter which she had put down on the desk and headed out of the newsroom.
“Email the notes from the station to me for background,” Rachel said to Tim who nodded excitedly. “I’ll send you what I get from speaking to some mums and then you’ll need to pull it together once you get back from the hospital.”
The shock of discovering she knew the victim had already faded in the ruthless light of an excellent front page story.
“You OK?” she asked, her voice muffled in Bill’s shoulder as she gave him a hug.
“Yes. Fine. What are you doing here?” They were in Bill’s office plushly decorated in navies and Royal blues to give an atmosphere of success and prosperity.
“Covering a story. I thought I would swing by and see if you were OK. No bumps or bruises from running the deer over?”
“No. I’m fine thanks.” He guided her from behind the desk and they sat on the grand leather sofa which dominated the room.
“How’s the car? Did you tell Suki?”
“No. No point worrying her. She’ll just go on and on about it.” He was sitting on the edge of the sofa and with his fingertips was making miniscule adjustments to the collection of daily papers which were sitting in a perfect fan shape on the coffee table.
“Have you reported it?”
“No. Net yet. I will though.” Bill stood and moved across the room. A large window overlooked first the car park then beyond it the reed lined tributary which led down to the river flowing to the docks. He leaned his hands on the sill and looked out at the view beyond.
“The longer you leave it the worse it’s going to be.”
“I know. I know,” he snapped back, agitation rising like a snake from a basket. “It’s been a busy morning.”
“Call them now. You need to do it. They will have found the deer by now. I can’t believe it lived from all the muck we hosed off your car last night.”
“Alright. I’ll go down to the station this afternoon. Stop going on about it. I’d rather not think about it.”
“OK. OK. Make sure you do though,” she said. Badgering him would get them nowhere. “Did you hear about the hit and run? It’s Linda Tate. Her daughter is in the same year as Lucy and Henry.”
“Yes. I heard.”
“I didn’t think the police had announced who it was yet,” said Rachel, puzzled.
Bill shrugged and turned back to the window.
“Word soon gets out,” he said.
“Terrible though isn’t it? That poor woman. Just left there by the side of the road. I keep thinking about it.” Bill murmured in agreement. She joined him at the window and put her forehead against the glass. Two children, a boy and a girl, aged around four or five, came dashing down the footpath scattering the resting ducks who slid into the river. Though they were too far away to be heard, they looked like they were giggling and laughing. Their mother sauntered along behind them smiling at their joy.
“I don’t really know her though I have seen her in the playground. Have you ever spoken to her? Or the dad? Gary his name is.”
“No. I don’t know either of them. Never met them,” Bill replied shaking his head and moving away from her towards his desk.
“Did you see anything?”
“Why would I have seen anything?”
“You were driving that way last night. You might have seen a car or something? Someone driving erratically?”
“I wasn’t on that road. I was nowhere near it.”
“You said you were near Raywood.” Rachel was confused. She was sure that was where he said the accident had happened.
“I was coming home from the office. I’d been at The Tavern over the road. Just went in there after work for a couple.” He picked up a pen from his desk, focusing on twirling it expertly through his fingers.
“I see,” Rachel was thoughtful. “Where did you run the deer over then? The roads are all fenced along that road.”
“I don’t know. Jesus. It jumped out of nowhere. I didn’t note down the coordinates.” He tossed the pen onto his desk irritated.
“OK. OK.” She wandered back to the sofa and picked up her handbag. “I’ve got to go. I just popped in. I’ve got to find some school mums who knew her. Grim job.”
“Why? Why are you doing that?”
“Caroline wants every cough and spit. Because I sort of know Linda Tate I should be able to get some good stuff. Better than the daily can get anyway.”
“I know. But it’s a good story. Young mum, left for dead in a ditch by a heartless bastard who drove off and left her,” she said rummaging inside her bag for her car keys. “He must have known he’d hit her. You can’t run someone over and not know about it can you?”
“How should I know? What was she doing there anyway? Wandering around in the dark.”
“Not expecting to be run over.” She found her keys and hefted the bag onto her shoulder. Bill picked up the pen again.
“So what are the police saying then? Do they know who did it?”
“Not yet. Or if they do they’re keeping it quiet. It’s all quite sketchy at the moment.”
“So no leads on the driver?”
“Nope. We’ll really focus on the heart strings in the paper this week. Guilt someone into coming forward. Someone knows something. I can’t believe you could run someone over and saunter on home as if everything was fine.”
Bill turned his attention to some papers on his desk.
“Right. I really need to go. Caroline is champing for some emotional detail and then I have to get home and tidy up ready for Chris.”
“Is it today that he’s back? That went quickly.”
“I can’t wait for him to be home. I just want him to be here.”
“Don’t tell him about the deer Rachel,” said Bill, his tone suddenly serious.
Rachel hesitated. Until that moment telling Chris or not telling him hadn’t entered her mind.
“Please. Let’s keep it quiet. Just us.”
TUESDAY 7TH JANAURY
Bill was easing himself gently into the day and scrolling through the morning emails, when his mobile vibrated and hummed on the desk turning itself round in a little circle like it didn’t quite know what to do with itself. He glanced at it and saw Suki’s photo flashing back at him. After Ben had been born last year, she had done a boudoir shoot as she wanted some sexy photos to remind him she was more than just a mum. She stared back at him in soft focus with seductively half closed eyes in smoky grey stockings and suspenders. He ignored it. He preferred to concentrate on work at work and didn’t appreciate family matters encroaching.
“Black Americano?” called Heidi his enthusiastic PA waving her big yellow purse.
Bill’s offices only comprised his room plus a small area where Heidi sat and which they grandly called the reception. In reality it was a couple of high backed chairs for waiting guests plus Heidi’s desk where she performed every duty which Bill couldn’t or didn’t want to do, secretary, telephonist, receptionist, facilities manager and fetcher of the coffees. Without confessing it out loud, they both preferred to have the door open between them, it was less isolating. They kept it from swinging shut with a big oval stone, painted in lurid colours by Henry, Bill’s son, when he had been at nursery school.
“Great. Thanks,” he called back.
The phone vibrated again. Suki would keep calling until he answered so it was best to get it over and done with.
“Hello,” he said brusquely.
“I can’t pay for the flights to Florida.”
“What?” he said, not understanding why she couldn’t pay it or why she was paying it at all.
“The card was refused. I tried a couple of times.”
“Why are you paying for the flights?”
“Because we’ll lose the flights. They’re going really quickly. We talked about this.”
“We talked about it but I didn’t say to go ahead and book them. It’s eight months away.” He was grateful that Heidi had gone out for coffees.
“But it gets booked up really fast. We just need to pay for the flights and put a deposit down on the hotel. That’s all. Do you want us to go or not?” Suki snapped back. “You can tell the kids we’re not going because all the flights have gone, I’m not.”
“Alright. Leave it with me. I have no idea why the card won’t go through.” Without a goodbye he ended the call.
He logged into his bank account and frowned at the home page for a minute or two. The numbers didn’t make any sense. Instead of a healthy balance his current account was nearly empty. His salary should have gone in by now. He clicked through to the business account.
The substantial first cheque from his major new client Rutherford’s had bounced. It had gone in two days ago and been returned today wiping out the business’s cash flow.
He leant his elbows on the desk and put his chilly fingers to his mouth. If he stared at it long enough maybe the money would pop back in. Once again he was glad Heidi had gone out for coffees. He hoped, desperately hoped, it was an administrative error on Rutherford’s part. There could be any number of reasons why the cheque had been returned. Maybe they had written the cheque from the wrong account, maybe they had forgotten to transfer cash into their current account. He focussed on the reasons why this was a genuine mistake and ignored the small knot in his gut which knew beyond doubt that errors like this over significant amounts of cash never happen in a firm the size of Rutherford’s.
The VAT account was full as it was coming to the end of the quarter and whilst he liked to be generous and enjoyed having a wallet fat with twenties he was always scrupulous about the VAT and the tax man. However, Heidi’s wages were due to be paid tomorrow and his family needed to eat.
Reluctantly with a few clicks he had transferred enough cash from the VAT account to pay Heidi and to cover a few standing orders. It wasn’t enough for a family of five to fly to Florida though.
His phoned vibrated. A text from Suki: Sorted it yet?
She was taunting him. Testing him. Using his wealth as a measure of his manhood. New car, new curtains, holidays, nights out, weekends away. There was always something and he knew there always would be.
“Jesus.” Experience told him that Suki’s dogged persistence meant that calling Rutherford’s to find out what the bloody hell was going on was going to have to wait. He took his credit card out of his wallet and dialled the number on the back. The automated answer system took what felt like at least ten minutes to process his details and finally transfer him to an operator.
“Hi there. I’d like to increase my credit limit please,” he stated confidently.