Saturday, 20 August 2016

Not for the faint-hearted

The Deadly Pursuit - Book 1 - Running


Simultaneously mobiles rang in every corner of the world, the trapped and dying reaching out for a lifeline, as if a miracle of modern technology could rescue them. Last words of love and desperation soared into the air, with radio masts quivering under a deluge of calls. Within seconds, the besieged towers were screaming no network coverage to the millions who, witnessing the disaster live on television, heedlessly keyed in the numbers of anyone that might be caught up in the quake, even now wiping out the Californian coastline.
A skyscraper, which five minutes before had been central to a vast hotel complex, nosedived into the ground. The resulting tremor catapulted the camera sideways so that, to the people staring at the screen, it was as if they were standing on their heads. Blackness followed then silence, the calm voice of the anchor man trying to reassure viewers they would be back at the scene momentarily.
In London, the cab driver, chatting amiably with his passenger and ignorant of the unfolding drama, had one eye on traffic, which appeared to be fast backing up, and one eye on his mirror, nodding in agreement to the various subjects offered up for discussion.
‘It’s a long time since I was in England,’ the man said, the faintest trace of an American accent marking his voice.
That was when the cab driver began to wonder if his fare could be a film star. Even features, excellent teeth, not an ounce of extra flesh, with a thatch of light brown hair tipped blond by the sun, and steel blue eyes of a shade that only ever belonged to Americans.
The mobile in the American’s jacket pocket rang. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘Sweetheart, where are you calling from? Everything okay?’
Since mobiles were designed only to be heard by the person into whose ear they were pressed, the cab driver couldn’t hear the terrified syllables speeding across the saturated airwaves. He could only watch with astonishment as his passenger’s face turned into a mask of dangerous impotence.
‘They told us we had to work for them to stay alive,’ the whispered words flew across the Atlantic. ‘They tricked us. Can you hear it? The earthquake?’
‘What are you talking about? Who tricked you?’
‘The Styrus Project – they want it. We said no.’
‘Who, goddamn it! Who?’
There was a blur of static then the line cleared. ‘There’s no way out.’
‘Yes, there is,’ the man snapped. ‘There’s always a way out … Find it.’
‘I’m trying, that’s what you can hear – me – running. It’s hopeless. Charlie’s dead, so’s James. It’s impossible. We’re trapped.’
‘Try, goddamn it! If someone’s after you, they won’t let you be killed, you’re too valuable. And if they can get in, you can get out. Stay alive, do you hear!’ The pleasant quality of the man’s voice vanished, his tone vicious as if it could force a reaction thousands of miles away.
The mobile crackled, the words becoming staccato.
‘There’s no way. Can’t make it … Sky … keep him safe. The building … it’s toppling … Sky … safety.’
‘You’re not checking out on me. Crawl if you have to, but don’t you dare check out,’ the passenger yelled into the static.
The cab driver watched in a state of near panic. Whatever had happened? His passenger’s face was now chalk-white under its tan, his expression animal-like in its intensity, his eyes glittering as he swiftly keyed in a number, speaking briefly.
‘Get me back to Grosvenor House – fast,’ he snapped, his eyes fixed on the small screen in his mobile, where newsreaders crowded to report events.
The cabby stuck his arm straight out of the window. Heedless of the vehicle bearing down on them he swung the cab round, saluting the driver’s blast on the horn with two fingers.
Grosvenor House came into view. He headed along the apron in front of the hotel and stopped.
Wait!’ His passenger took the hotel steps in a single bound. ‘Get me on the next flight to New York,’ he snapped to the Bell Captain, scarcely hesitating in his path to the front desk.
Ten minutes later he reappeared, clutching a small valise.
The cabby, who had considered jettisoning his lucrative fare and fleeing the scene, convinced he was carrying a knife-wielding maniac, obligingly pulled back into the traffic.
There’d been no lack of volunteers in the cab rank eager to update him on the disaster taking place in California. He viewed his passenger with careful sympathy; someone belonging to the American was caught up in the earthquake, that much was evident. He fished around for something to say but found nothing. He didn’t know the bloke and sorry was an empty, meaningless word trotted out when you bumped into someone. Instead, he cursed the traffic and urged his cab forward, one eye on the crowd of onlookers who had spilled on to the roadway outside Debenhams. Ignorant of the danger, they had their gaze fixed on the television sets in the shop’s window display, where live footage of the disaster was being transmitted.
Son of a bitch!’ his passenger cursed. ‘The vacuous pleasures of the petty-minded, who derive their kicks from someone else’s misfortune.’
‘That’s not fair, guv,’ the cab driver rebuked. ‘The English don’t celebrate tragedy. Those people watching, they’ll be putting their hands in their pockets tomorrow to help.’
‘I know,’ his passenger said, his tone bleak. ‘Excuse me.’
‘Look, guv. I can’t help much but I can drop you by a tube station. You’ll reach the airport quicker that way. It’s not fair to take your money.’
He pulled in to the side of the road, opposite the entrance to the underground at Oxford Circus. ‘Good luck, sir. Who was it?’ he said, the traditional inner core of reserve, so great a part of being English, battling with his cabby’s nose for entertaining titbits to pass on to his next fare.
‘My wife!’ The man pressed a twenty-pound note into the cabby’s hand. He glanced up briefly, meeting the concern in the driver’s eyes. ‘Only my wife.’

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