(How it might have gone.)
They travelled back to headquarters in one of the transporters; Freeman in the middle seat, squashed between Straker and the driver, James Watson, a burly Londoner. They would have caught the train, but there’d been a derailment on the main line while they’d been in the meeting and the lines had ground to a halt. Straker’s only response to the news had been to call HQ and commandeer a vehicle to take them back to base: a mobile or maybe one of the company coaches, but it could have been worse. At least the transport was brand new, still with that ‘new’ smell to it.
There wasn’t much to talk about, and anyway, it was pretty obvious that Straker was …well, annoyed was probably not the right word. Whatever it was, he kept it to himself. Alec gave the driver a warning shake of the head when he reached out to turn on the radio. They drove on in silence; the only sound that of the engine and the occasional clattering rattle from the trailer behind them. Alec sighed, and glanced at Straker again. The boss had said nothing despite his initial reaction. There was little Alec could do until they got back to Straker’s office, went over the details of the operation and worked out who had made the error. He didn’t envy the culprit.
The trip back took longer; the transporters had to stick to the speed limits if there was no emergency and besides, they had no chance at all of travelling at maximum speed at this time of the morning. The M25 was busy earning its reputation as the world’s most expensive car park. Four lanes of heavy traffic, the matrix already lowering the speed limit to 50, and then 40. Alec could see vehicles slowing in the lanes ahead, the next matrix down to 20. White numerals in a circle of red. Mandatory. He laughed to himself. Mandatory 20 mph? Fat chance. More red lights, but from braking vehicles this time as everything came to a halt. The transporter pulled to a smooth, almost unnoticeable stop, the driver giving Freeman one quick and questioning glance before turning off the engines. Straker said nothing, just continued staring out of the side window at the grassy embankment, with its dense crown of trees and bushes. The silence spread as other drivers killed engines and the haze of engine fumes cleared in the gentle breeze.
Nothing they could do about it. They were stuck here until whatever it was ahead had been cleared. Alec twisted in his seat to undo his seat belt. “Anything from Control?”
“No. They’ll contact us as soon as they know anything. Most likely only just happened.” The driver gestured with a hand at the embankment. “Webcams everywhere along this stretch. They’ll have set off the matrix.” He leaned forward and spoke across Freeman. “Sorry sir, we’re stuck here.”
Straker shrugged his shoulders. Distant wails broke the uncomfortable quiet in the cab, and then, the first police cars sped by in a flurry of flashing lights and two-toned sirens. The minutes passed, the clamour of more emergency services hurrying past on the hard shoulder. The sirens died away. Straker ignored them. Cars shimmered in the heat. Drivers got out to stand on the tarmac, stretching their arms, stripping off jackets, studiously ignoring each other at first, as the English do in these situations until formally introduced.
“Might as well stretch my legs. Nothing’s going to move yet.” Alec shuffled in his seat. “Ed?”
“Let me out will you?” Alec tilted his head. “Do you good to get some fresh air as well.”
The reply was unintelligible, but after a pause, Straker unfastened his belt and opened the door. It was a couple of long steps down to the tarmac and once there Straker stood aside, waiting as Freeman clambered down, before putting his hand on the rail and hauling himself back inside, where he sat, arms folded, his face indecipherable.
“Sir?” The driver’s voice was hesitant, as if afraid to disrupt the other man’s thoughts.
“Watson?” Straker made no other acknowledgement.
“He’s right sir. No point in us both being stuck in here and…” he paused, carrying on in a more determined voice. “This vehicle is my responsibility. If I need a break, I will tell you. Sir.”
The inference was clear and Straker sighed and opened the door again. The heat was intense now. A fresh, summer heat; dry and sparkling and redolent of long-past childhood holidays. It was pointless staying in the cab. Watson nodded as Straker climbed down onto the tarmac and then, once alone, the driver turned on Capital FM, leaned back in his seat and began humming along with the music.
Alec was walking along the hard shoulder, intent on finding out what was happening ahead. Straker let him go; there was no point in both of them wasting energy, and anyway, HQ would let them know soon enough. He stood there, feeling a little foolish, in the shadow of the huge artic, watching. There was nothing else to do, other than walk over to the embankment and sit in the shade of the trees. There were other drivers doing that now. Starting to chat with that unmistakeable English diffidence, stilted conversations. Brief words, pretending to have known each other all their lives. Straker leaned against the cab and waited. Alec would be back soon enough. He could hear the driver singing to himself in the cab, the music not so loud that it was an annoyance, but it filtered onto the carriageway and, with a grunt of annoyance, he pushed himself away from the cab, and strode to the grass verge, out of earshot.
The grass was dry and warm, the shade under the trees not so cool as to be unpleasant, and he stripped off his jacket and dropped it to the ground, kicked dead leaves away and sat, relieved that he was wearing a dark two piece suit today, instead of his usual cream jumpsuit. Grass stains would not be noticed on black trousers. He wrapped his hands round his knees and stared across at the huge articulated lorry, its white letters gleaming in the sunlight.
There was a rustle of leaves close by, a darker shadow across his line of sight. He looked up. Alec.
“Want to talk about it?”
“Not really.” Straker turned his head away, staring down the carriageway at the lines of stationary vehicles. “We both know how important this operation was. We’ve got to expand, otherwise they’ll simply destroy everything we’ve spent the last ten years building. Do you really want that?” He let his voice trail away, his arms tighter round his knees and his expression hard. “We could lose everything.”
“Grow up, Ed. It’s never going to come to that.” Alec sat down beside him, with the soft thump of a heavier body on the earth. “You’ve done a great job, no one could have done better, so stop worrying. We’ve got one of the most advanced training systems there is, the best satellite network, not to mention bases in every corner of the world. We can beat them. We always do.”
“We failed this morning, didn’t we.” Straker shook his head. “And it was all my fault. I should have listened to you instead of relying on computer data.”
“It happens; no one’s perfect. We’ll get the next one.” Freeman pushed himself to his feet. “I’m going to get a cold drink. Do you need anything?”
Straker shook his head. “I’ll stay here.” The sun was hot and it was pleasant to be outside for once, and not working. His desk would be waiting, with the latest reports and data and analysis sheets from the various bases. Too much paperwork, that was the trouble.
“It’s you, isn’t it? Straker. Am I right? I saw your transporter.”
A shadow darkened the ground and he looked up, seeing a businessman standing by his side. “Yep.” There was no point in pretending. It was happening more often now. He’d be out for a walk and he’d be accosted by someone who recognised his face, wanting an autograph, or a handshake. Sometimes even asking about a job.
“Can I have your autograph, please?” An embarrassed laugh. “Not for me – for my boy. He’s a big fan.”
Great. He’d be wanting a selfie next. Straker pulled out a pen and notepad. “What’s his name?”
“Michael. He’s eight.”
The same age as John. He smiled to himself. A neat scrawl of pen on paper, the rasp as he tore off the sheet, stood up and handed it over. “There you are.”
“Thanks. Would you mind…?” A mobile phone appeared.
“A selfie?” Straker shook his head. “No problem.” Security be damned for once. They kept telling him to be cautious, but it was impossible to refuse a genuine request. He pulled out one of his business cards, wrote a brief note and handed it over. “Next time you’re in the area, hand this over and they’ll make sure you get a tour.”
“Cheers, mate.” A quick wave of the hand and Straker was alone once more. He was aware of engines starting, people heading back to their vehicles, the blare of horns, Alec hurrying down the road weaving between lorries and cars and he bent down to scoop up his jacket and slip in on. A quick tug to get it back in place and then he walked across the dry grass to where the transporter waited.
Alec was right as usual. They had lost this morning, but there would be more battles ahead and he would be ready for them next time. He grabbed hold of the handle and climbed up into the cool air-conditioned cab of the newest transporter. He still had to give it a name. Alec clambered in behind him and Straker turned to his second in command. “What do you think about calling this one Nina-Gay?”
Alec shrugged. “Sounds good to me. Anyway, the traffic’s starting to move. We should be back at base in a couple of hours.”
Straker fastened his seat belt. “And when we get back I want go over everything with you. There’s no way I’m going to let Universal Freight Operations steal another contract from us like they did today. Got that?”
Freeman grinned at him. “Got it, Eddie.”
“Grow up, Alec.” Straker turned to the driver. “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses.”