James Sherborne MP stared, stupefied, at the girl in the passenger-seat of his parked car. She was slumped like a stringless puppet. Her eyes bulged and her tongue protruded obscenely.
Sherborne himself sat with arms outstretched and hands still bent, claw-like, from his struggle to muffle her screams. The inside of the car was silent now, except for his heaving lungs and the rain which rattled in sullen gusts against the windows.
The stormy, May skies had brought twilight on early and headlights from the main road a few hundred yards away intermittently illuminated the two dishevelled figures.
Sherborne's normally immaculate Thierry Mugler pin-striped suit was rumpled, his silk shirt was missing a button and the knot of his tie was wildly askew.
But the other occupant of the car had fared worse. Her blouse was ripped apart revealing a black, lace-edged bra which, itself, had been pulled downwards to bare two firm breasts. Below her waist, the girl's trouser zip gaped open exposing flimsy knickers now tugged and torn, as if by a brutish hand.
Hesitantly, Her Majesty's Opposition Spokesman for European Affairs reached out and placed the tips of three fingers across the girl's carotid artery. No pulse.
He cried aloud, 'My God, no. No, no. Please God, no.' The animal howl of despair which then filled the car's interior penetrated to the outside world as a thin wail and was whipped away into the night by the wind.
It would not have been heard by the driver of the approaching car, whose headlights lit up the bend ahead.
KINGDOM AND THE GLORY
The Boomer had confirmed it. The reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second would not last more than another seven months. She was dying of cancer of the pancreas, The Boomer had said.
Robert Pelham savoured the words before giving a thin smile of satisfaction. So, his friends in low places had been right. Now, with their help, Charles the Third would not ascend the throne.
And neither would William, who would prefer not to have the job yet anyway. Seize the day.
Even at this time of night the Palace of Westminster would normally still be abuzz with the comings and goings of politicians of all parties smoothing the way of Commons business conducted in the House earlier. But this was a Friday and Right Honourable and Honourable Members had long gone, back to their constituencies for the weekend. Leaving him to enjoy a rare solitude.
Pelham shifted deeper into his leather, swivel chair, and sipped abstractedly at his House of Commons, own-label whisky. The Deputy Prime Minister was not normally one for self-congratulation. But, now was different.
After all, his whole life had been a preparation for this moment. Pity he had to share centre stage with that oaf, the President of the United States.
As the spirit burned its way down his throat he thought back over the years. Not for him the silver spoon. It had been one, long struggle: fighting the Establishment's built-in prejudice against the son of a railway signalman; winning his scholarship to grammar school; the long years of self denial ending in an Honours Degree at Cambridge; hawking himself round the constituencies; fighting impossible seats; winning his first election against the odds.
The same single-mindedness had secured his rise through the ranks of his old party, Labour, until he had reached his present position: Number Two in the now Social Democrat Government and the Iron Fist in Ted Lancaster's threadbare glove. Lancaster, The Boomer. He would have no place in the new world order.
Right now, thought Pelham, what Britain needed was a strong leader. He had that strength. He had been called by destiny. Particularly after the shock of the Brexit vote, the Tory leadership coronation and then the protracted years of negotiation, culminating in a humiliating exit, during which the country’s fortunes had fallen to almost the level of the Third World. And then, to rub vinegar into a still open wound, the EU had ordered its members to turn their backs on trade deals with their traitorous neighbour, just to ensure that no others in the club fancied their chances as a breakaway state.
This remorseless war of attrition was why the Social Democrats had won the 2021 election: the people were weary of the struggle and wanted the new leftist party to restore harmony with Europe and confidence in the future. But the arrogant EU political classes had poured shit over British heads. Now our history was at a crossroads and about to take a direction no-one would ever have dreamed of. Thanks to me, Pelham thought, smiling to himself. For future generations his name would eclipse those of Thatcher, Churchill, Disraeli, Wilberforce. He was about to reshape the destiny of Europe. Only he could do it.
Pelham knew his long, personal journey had gained him few friends. But he did not care. All he demanded was obedience. And because he was feared and respected in equal measure by his colleagues, he would get it.
While laying his plans he would also have the country behind him. He was seen by the electorate as the toughest potential leader since Thatcher. Someone who would stand up for their interests in an increasingly fractured world.
Thus, his stock in the Party remained high, not because he was liked but because they needed him. And they would need him a lot more by the time he had finished.
Pelham closed his eyes. Mentally, he ran through the scene at this morning's meeting in the Cabinet Room. Senior ministers and a selection of the Party's inner circle, had been summoned for a special announcement.
How The Boomer had played to the gallery. He had even managed a catch in the throat and a dab at the eye with his handkerchief as he had related the details of Tuesday's audience with the Queen.
It was the one thing, Pelham reflected, that The Boomer was good at - talking. Come to think of it, it was the only thing he was good at. The Boomer: virtuoso of the basso profundo. A sounding brass, a tinkling cymbal.
Lancaster had been elected to the Social Democrat leadership two-and-a-half years previously – in 2020 - as the compromise candidate after the Labour Party’s disastrous split into a Neo-Marxist rump and a moderate, social democrat majority. Nobody had wanted to rock the boat after that old fool Robbins had taken the Labour Party, and its fanatical, grassroots support base, to unelectability. So the Social Democrats, which rose Phoenix-like from the ashes of Labour, had become the only alternative to the Tories. Ted Lancaster, a Party elder statesman, had assumed the mantle and the kinetic energy that had already been built up in a Brexit-weary electorate had swept them to power a year later.
But almost immediately the cracks had begun to show in their brave new political world. Without a strong commander to keep them in line, recalled Pelham, the hard Left rank and file, egged on by Robbins, had come out of their foxholes and the in-fighting had begun.
Lancaster had found himself under siege from factional interests demanding everything from a return to EU membership to offering Scotland another independence referendum. Deep doctrinal differences had emerged and die-hards ensnared in old ideologies had begun openly to squabble.
But the biggest schism was over Britain's exit from the EU. The Conservative Government's weak compromises had caused bitterness on all sides.
To some extent this had subsided when the Social Democrats had won the election but, gradually, the optimism had begun to fade to be replaced by a disillusionment with all politicians who were perceived as, once again, having failed to turn dreams into reality. But all that was about to change.
Pelham took a long sip from his glass and swirled the amber liquid around his tongue. And, of course, he thought to himself, the defeated Tory ranks had been quick to exploit these divisions. Having lashed their hapless leader Marjorie to the mast, allowing her to go down with the ship, they were now re-grouping around young, progessive thinkers.
Of particular concern to Pelham was James Sherborne, MP for Thamesdown in Wiltshire. He had been one of the few Tories who had increased his majority while others of the same political hue had been wiped out.
Yes, if there was one member of the Opposition who could restore Conservative fortunes, it was Sherborne. And his recent speeches on Europe had hit uncomfortably close to the mark. Garment by garment the man had been stealing the emperor's clothes.
It was because he was dangerous he had to be tamed. And he would be a handy ally to have when the time came, Pelham fancied. He shot his cuff and looked at his watch. Yes, by now the Tories' blue-eyed boy should have other matters than politics on his mind.
Pelham's thoughts turned back to the Prime Minister. As if Lancaster had not got enough to contend with, there was also the vexed question of Ulster. After an uneasy peace following the Good Friday Agreement old tensions between the Nationalists and the Unionists had re-surfaced following the Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum. All The Boomer's attempts at reconciliation had come to nought and mainland Britain had, once again, been under increasing terrorist attack. The IRA were vying with Islamist extremists to see who could break the will of the new political order. There had even been a bomb alert at Westminster that very day.
All MPs had been obliged to use their 'sniffer sticks' minutely to examine the undersides of their vehicles before driving home for the weekend.
So, reflected Pelham contemptuously, while Sherborne and his cohorts revelled in the Government's increasing discomfiture on all sides, Ted Lancaster's answer was to appoint a Cabinet of 'yes men' and take refuge in their sycophantic reassurances. The newspapers were right: The Boomer was a tired old man with failing sight, not up to the job of leading the country as a new, stand-alone democracy with a world of opportunity to stake a claim in.
But, conceded Pelham to himself, at this morning's meeting, the PM's windbaggery had somehow captured the gravitas of the occasion.
Peering myopically over his bottle-end lenses he had told his 30 or so assembled colleagues that, now he'd been able to digest the awful tidings vouchsafed to him three days ago, it was his painful duty to disclose - in absolute and total confidence it must be understood - that, tragically, Her Majesty would not, now, be celebrating her 100th birthday in 2026. She had been diagnosed as suffering from an incurable cancer of the pancreas.
Pelham had known what was coming, of course. But the shock felt by the rest of the gathering had been genuine.
The Boomer's voice had taken on a deep, sepulchural resonance as he had concluded that it was unlikely that Her Majesty would survive more than a few months. It was now up to Her Majesty's ministers to decide on the road ahead.
So, Pelham resolved, I have less than half a year to turn the nation round and set a new course. In some ways it was a shame that Lancaster would not be around to witness his triumph.
Three short raps at his door startled the Deputy PM out of his reverie. That would be Dresner. Dresner his facilitator, his fixer, his conduit, his minder. Dresner, the best in his field. Dresner, his link with the President of the United States.
Harry's return would mean all the building blocks were now, finally, in place. All that was left was a simple sleight of hand with some eye drops. Brilliant!
The figure who entered the handsome, wood-panelled sanctum was in his early thirties, of medium build, broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hips.
He stood silently for a moment before crossing to the hospitality cabinet and reaching in to where he knew a certain bottle would be. He splashed a triple measure of JD into a glass and slowly took a sip.
Finally, looking directly at his English boss for the first time, he shook his head. 'It was a goddamned screw-up.' His American accent contrasted incongruously with his surroundings.
Pelham's smile collapsed and his face darkened as if a light had gone out. But, before he could comment, Dresner held up a placatory hand. 'But if you've done a deal with Old Nick, he sure is keeping his side of the bargain.'
'Meaning. It's going to work out just fine.'
Pelham's frown lifted. 'His claws have been drawn?' Dresner nodded. 'And how.'
Pelham gave a long, satisfied sigh. 'So, no more pre-emptive speeches. The routed Tory rump loses its wunderkind.'
Dresner raised his glass in a mock salute. 'Four down and just the Big One to go.'
Pelham emerged from behind his desk and waved Dresner to one of the arm chairs grouped around a mahogony coffee table. He sat in another opposite. 'So what happened?'
For the next 20 minutes Dresner related every detail of his journey, from the time he and his companion followed their quarry out of the House of Commons car park until his return, alone, four hours later. He left nothing out, just as he had been trained. He even spoke of how the rain squalls had worsened the further he got from the city.
His listener sat in silence, occasionally nodding. But when Dresner came to the nub of his de-briefing, Pelham sat bolt upright. 'My God, the bloody fool.' Then, sinking back thoughtfully he added, 'Well, well. How very obliging of him.'
Dresner replied drily, 'As I said, Bob, the Devil looks after his own.' Pelham stretched out his right thumb and forefinger. 'We're that close, Harry...'
Dresner coughed. 'Thanks to a little help from your friends.'
Pelham blinked away his rising elation and gazed levelly at his companion. 'That goes without saying. I take my hat off to your people. Intelligence gathered at the flick of a switch, a nation's secrets snatched seemingly out of the air, peccadilloes laid bare, incriminating dossiers assembled to order. I sometimes wonder if a man's very soul is safe.'
'Yeah, well. I guess Uncle Sam's got most of the world by the balls.'
Pelham chortled. 'I'd like to know whose trousers the DOI's hands were down for this one. Even her Britannic Majesty's First Minister got his information fourth-hand.'
'So it's been confirmed. How long?'
'The Boomer says she'll be lucky to last six months. Which chimes in perfectly with our timing. Hobart awaits my signal after which all his newspapers, TV and cable stations will speak with one voice.'
Dresner said, 'And 60 million people here and billions across the rest of the globe will get the message, "Pelham for President".'
The corner of Pelham's mouth twitched. 'It does sound...in tune with the times.'
Dresner's face cracked into a rare smile. 'Yeah, goodbye the Windsors - and so long the other Krauts and their pals.'
'No complacency, Harry. As tonight's events prove only too convincingly, nothing in this life is certain.' Pelham bounced from his chair. 'But there are ways of improving the odds in one's favour. Belt and braces and all that.'
Pelham reached for the phone. 'So if you'll excuse me, Harry, I think a call to our very co-operative Home Secretary is in order. And after that I shall beg a small favour from a friend at the Yard.'
'Autocide' was how the physicist from the Metropolitan Police Forensic Science Laboratory had described it. Another import from America, he had said.
Shrugging with awkward sympathy, Det Insp Jack Lockyer's Scotland Yard colleague had explained how autocide was the growing practice in the US of going crazy behind the wheel and taking your own life.
Usually the resulting smash killed the driver. The advantages, apparently, were less distress for the loved-ones, who believed it to be a genuine accident, and a healthy cash bonus for the dependents, courtesy of the insurance company.
So, the would-be suicides closed their eyes, pressed the accelerator to the floor and drove into any poor bastard who happened to be coming in the opposite direction - never mind who else got killed.
For the thousandth time Lockyer wondered which god had decreed his wife should be one of the first British victims of this twisted logic. But, whoever the gods were, they had a warped sense of humour. Because Jennie's killer, a lovesick, 25-year-old, whose girlfriend had kicked him out, survived a combined, head-on impact of 95mph with just a broken leg and three cracked ribs.
The forensic team had found the metal pattern from the crashed car's accelerator imprinted by the impact on the sole of the driver's shoe. Which proved he was urging his vehicle on at the point of impact. Subsequently a court had found the man guilty of manslaughter.
After a year's detention under the Mental Health Act the prisoner had been released and had later married the girl who had thrown him out. That was all six years ago, since when the numbness of Jack's grief had become a habit, imprisoning his feelings behind an impenetrable shell.
He was respectful of his seniors and considerate to his juniors. But he was honest enough with himself to realise that the long, obsessive hours he dedicated to his job was an arid substitute for a swathe of his life now missing. He found it lonely but, ultimately, more comfortable that way. The light had gone out in his life and he just had to accept it.
On the odd occasions when any emotions threatened to mutiny and batter his defences down, he took himself off with a bottle and drank himself into a stupor.
This latter fact, of course, had not gone unnoticed by his superiors at the Yard. Give them their due, they had tried everything suggested by the psychologists. Later, they had given up and had left him to nurse his grief in his own way. With the occasional wagged finger about throwing away almost certain promotion. And only a fool finding solace at the bottom of a glass.
Wearily, Lockyer pushed aside his half-consumed bowl of cornflakes. How was he going to fill two whole days off? Usually, he volunteered for any task, on overtime or otherwise, so long as it filled the space between getting up and going to bed. His bosses knew he was always available. Which made Lockyer especially popular with his younger colleagues, who had learned there was another world outside the detection of crime.
But, this weekend had been one of those rare occasions when there was nothing on offer. Lockyer grimaced. Which meant no excuse for not tidying the flat. But time for that later.
He poured a second cup of instant coffee and added two heaped teaspoons of sugar. Good job Jennie couldn't see him now, he thought. She'd be tutting about his weight and putting him on a diet. No, that wasn't true. How often had she said she loved her grumpy bear as he was, cuddly or otherwise. He smiled at the memory. If only...if only...
He unfolded his copy of The Century and groaned. Wouldn't they ever tire of bashing the royals? The front page headline screamed, HARRY AND MEGHAN TO PART...Bust-up No 4 makes it a Royal Flush.' Alongside a story soberly rehearsing the reasons for the collapse of the marriage, the editor had penned a leader under the words: UNEASY LIES THE HEAD THAT WEARS THE CROWN.
It went on to posit that the Monarchy, an institution which had weathered the end of feudalism, continental invasion, the industrial revolution, two world wars and innumerable Royal scandals, was now hanging by a thread. And the near centenarian Queen (God bless her) could not be expected to steady the ship yet again – not at her age.
In conclusion the leader thundered, 'The only thing now not wrong with the monarchy is the monarch. Serious questions will be posed should - God forbid - anything happened to our Good Queen Bess.'
Lockyer turned inside. Page two carried an item about yet another IRA bomb threat. This time at the heart of government itself. He could not help smiling to himself at the thought of all those pompous windbags crawling around on their hands and knees looking for non-existent bombs.
Because non-existent they had been. It was a typical terrorist tactic: cry wolf enough times until everyone got so fed up they got careless. Then strike a devastating blow. Jack sighed. Fifty years and it was still going on.
He looked for some light relief but found instead another tub-thumping issue. Pages three, four and five were devoted exclusively to The Century's other current obsession - the EU and its threat to British sovereignty, despite the country now no longer being a member of the club. Stories mixed laughable examples of bureaucratic lunacy with strident warnings that Britain was being intimidated into becoming obeisant to a Teutonic superstate.
'As a nation,' another Opinion column trumpeted, 'we are sleepwalking to unconditional surrender. What neither the Armada, nor Napoleon, nor Hitler, nor Stalin, nor any other of our foes could achieve, is now being accomplished by a faceless, soulless army. And they have a secret weapon: that accursed coin The Euro which waits in ambush for our pound.’ The writer claimed the European bloc was manipulating its currency to trash sterling.
It fulminated, 'Wake up, Prime Minister, the Kingdom is under siege. It is time for the British bulldog to bite back, to defend the realm paid for with the blood of our ancestors. Ted, they are saying you are a lame-duck PM. If it is true, we give you fair warning now: IF YOU HAVE NO STOMACH FOR THE FIGHT, WE KNOW A MAN WHO HAS.'
Lockyer tossed the paper aside. Good knockabout stuff, he supposed, but a shade hysterical. Still, if all Ben Hobart's papers espoused the proprietor’s own rabid republican views, Lancaster would never survive the barrage. And who would take the Party over to see the country through the post-Brexit challenges? Probably the Deputy PM, Robert Pelham, he surmised.
As far as he could see the other three possible candidates were totally uninspiring. Howard Ingleby, Chancellor of the Exchequer, had never previously held a government post; Austin Willis, the Home Secretary, was a nonentity despite the high opinion he had of himself, and Roland Sinclair, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, had views on returning the UK to a federal Europe, which were diametrically opposed to the stubborn opinion of the country.
So, his money would be on Pelham. But, who'd be a politician, Eh? He felt sorry for poor old Lancaster. He was being sniped at from all sides. And it wasn't as if he was a fit man. They said he suffered from glaucoma, which meant he had to carry drops around with him all the time. Some reports suggested Lancaster was obliged to absent himself from important meetings and lie down in a darkened room while the medication took effect.
And he hadn't the resilience of a young man, either. By all accounts he was gradually wilting under the combined pressure of his own party's squabbling and the Tories' pack instinct for the smell of blood. Her Majesty’s Opposition had certainly bounced back after being trounced at the polls.
Lancaster did not seem to have an answer to their twin charges that the divisiveness on the political left was seriously harming the country as was their submissiveness to the Euro-federalists.
Shadow minister after shadow minister were scoring palpable hits across the Dispatch Box. They claimed that despite Brexit the government's signing up to the European Social Chapter had cost jobs. And Britain's continued contributions to European institutions had gone up while grants in the other direction had all but disappeared. And all this was in order to help our European partners to bale out the economies of new EU members from the old Eastern Bloc who brought little to the table but begging bowls.
The Conservatives had sensed the nation's mood and, wrapping themselves in the Union Flag, had promised to repatriate all British contributions as soon as they were back in power. And they had the Social Democrats on the run.
And with their new, youthful-faced rising star, James Sherborne, fronting the attack, Lancaster's party had continued to degenerate into factional disarray. The country was baying for blood and, in a miraculous bounce-back from near annihilation, the Tories' fortunes were riding high across the country.
To stand a chance of keeping office, Jack mused, the Democrats would have to come up with a block-busting master stroke. And, as far as he could see, their cupboard was bare.
His thoughts were interrupted by the phone.
'Sorry to disturb you, sir, on your day off - '
'- Claire, always a pleasure to hear from you.'
'Never mind, Sergeant Bishop, lowest form of wit and all that. What can I do for you?'
'A body's been found, sir. In Wiltshire. It's of a young woman - '
'- Wiltshire? But that's out of our patch?'
'I know, sir. But I've been asked to say it's been agreed as a Yard investigation and I'm to pick you up and take you to the locale immediately.'
Jack smoothed the bristles of his greying moustache with his left thumb and forefinger. Now here was an immediate oddity. For a death in another force's jurisdiction to be taken over by New Scotland Yard meant deep offence to the boys and girls whose manor it was on.
Which meant that someone very high up had ordered it so. Which seemed to indicate it was no ordinary homicide.
'It is murder I take it?' Lockyer said eventually.
'According to the Wiltshire Scene Of Crime Officer, sexual assault followed by strangulation. But Dr Jackson, from forensics, is on his way - '
'Jackson? You mean old Hamish's been dragged away from the golf course? To go all the way down to Stonehenge-land. I hope his passport's up to date.' Lockyer grinned down the phone. 'Get here, quick as you like, Claire. I needed an excuse not to do the housework.'
‘As far as I can tell, there's nothing to connect you with this girl. You...we...must bluff it out,' Elizabeth Sherborne said firmly.
Her husband shook his head vehemently. 'I'll never get away with it. Someone's bound to have seen something. And how could I possibly carry on as if nothing's happened?'
The two were standing in - rather pacing - the kitchen of their country home in Hinton Magna, Wiltshire. A kettle was gently simmering on the aga and the dishes from breakfast were yet to be cleared from their French oak, farmhouse table.
They had discussed the events of the previous night for hours during which James Sherborne's demeanour had swung between profound shock, disbelief, anger, fear and self-pity. His wife had taken command of the conversation and was now analysing their chances of covering his tracks.
'Go over it just once more,' Elizabeth pressed.
'No, no, no. Not again, for Christ's sake? I've told you everything. It makes me want to vomit every time I think about it.' James Sherborne's visage crumbled as the horror hit him afresh. Abruptly he flopped down exhausted in a kitchen chair. Cradling his head in his hands he began to sob.
His wife's face softened. She placed her arms on his shoulders and leaned downwards. 'Darling, remember the children. They're only in the sitting room. If they come in and see you like this...'
James reached into his pocket, took out a white, linen handkerchief and scrubbed at his eyes. He looked up at Elizabeth with a weak smile. 'Sorry. Of course you're right. Damned stupid of me.' He took her hand. 'My God, Lizzie, I don't know what I'd do without you.'
'You'll never have to, you know that. I love you, James. I always have and I always will. That's why I'm pushing you so hard right now. I must know if we've overlooked anything.'
Glancing at the door which led to the hall and the other rooms in the house, she sat down opposite her husband and lowered her voice. 'Now tell me if I've got anything wrong...' Painstakingly, she went over, once again, the happenings of the night before.
'...You were driving your usual route at the usual time for a Friday. As you turned off the A338 to take the back roads to Hinton this girl stepped out in front of you, apparently from nowhere. She was bent double as if in pain?'
Her husband nodded. 'The bloody rain was sloshing down. And the sky was so dark I nearly didn't see her.'
'You pulled up and she unbent and walked round to the passenger side. You wound the window down and asked her if she was alright. You then realised she was crying and obviously in distress so you told her to get in out of the rain.'
James interjected bitterly. 'If only I'd just driven away then. But I couldn't just abandon her, could I? She was in the middle of nowhere and seemed to be in a terrible state.'
Elizabeth continued, 'She asked if you could drive her to her parents' home in Hungerford. Because it was only 15 minutes out of your way and, because of her condition, you agreed. As you drove off, intending to take the next turning left, she became hysterical.'
James said, 'I was so shocked. One minute she was this pathetic bundle and the next she was this hell-cat yelling obscenities and tearing at herself.' He looked pleadingly at Elizabeth. 'You do believe me, don't you. Tell me you believe me, Lizzie.'
Elizabeth replied softly, 'Of course I believe you, James.' Then she said, 'So, the girl had become hysterical accusing you of trying to rape her. By this time you'd pulled into the side of the road and were trying to calm her down, yes?'
James's eyes grew large and filled with tears again. 'But nothing I did seemed to work. She was yelling and screaming like a mad woman. She was spitting and ripping at herself and me, as though fending off a real rapist.'
'So you tried to quieten her?'
James sighed heavily, 'There's only so much screaming and hysteria a person can take and I suppose I just snapped. I reached out to put my hand over her mouth and then next thing I remember is her bulging eyes and her tongue sticking out like that…’ James mimicked the face of a hanged man. ‘It was obscene.'
James ran both hands through his unkempt hair. 'When you read about people being frozen in horror, it sounds a cliche. But that's exactly how it was for me. I was petrified. God knows how long I sat there with this...thing next to me, like something from the Chamber of Horrors.'
'And you're absolutely sure the girl was dead? She couldn't have fainted?' James shook his head. 'I tried to find her pulse, but there was nothing there.'
'So, what happened next?'
'I suppose instinct took over. I just wanted this obscenity out of my sight. So, I waited until there were no cars around and opened the passenger door and she just fell out.
'I tossed her handbag and umbrella out after her and drove home as if the hounds of Hell were after me.'
He flicked a look across the table. His wife's face was full of compassion for his ordeal. He shook his head. 'I can't take it in. I keep thinking I'm going to wake up in a minute with my biggest problem being the next dreary constituency surgery.'
His dark brown eyes took on a look of longing. 'Right now, I'd swop a hundred years of that tedium just to put the clock back 24 hours.'
James watched as Elizabeth, a slender and dark-haired woman, paced the same area of the floor he had earlier. As she walked she folded her arms and hunched her shoulders in an attitude of deep thought. Through their 16 years of marriage, he thought, she had always been there for him. His rock. And he had never needed her more than last night when he had arrived home a blubbering, incoherent wreck.
After piecing his ravings together she had given him two of her sleeping tablets and, eventually, he had fallen into a fitful sleep. She had been there this morning, when he had awoken to realise the horrific images in his head were not the product of a nightmare.
One moment of madness and all their lives were changed for ever.
James was brought out of his introspection by the sight of his wife, who had stopped her pacing and was now looking determinedly across the table at him.
'I haven't changed my mind, James. For your own sake, as well as mine, Daniel and Sarah's, you've got to pretend last night never happened. Telling the police won't bring the girl back. And you and I both know it was a terrible accident. No less so than if you'd knocked her over when she jumped out at you.'
James gazed at his wife uncertainly and whispered, 'I'll never get away with it.'
'Why not? Think about it James. A dark night in the rain. A lonely road. No-one would have heard or seen anything. The girl was a stranger with nothing to connect you with her at all. You just happened to be the unlucky victim of time and place. Now that girl is dead, probably because of drugs if the truth were known.'
James shook his head, still unconvinced. 'If I don't go to the police now, and later they find something to connect the girl to me, they're bound to assume the worst. You and I know it was an accident but if I was caught trying to cover it up, I could face a murder charge.'
'But what could they find to connect her to you? First, they've got to have a reason for even questioning you. And even if they did as a matter of routine, there's absolutely nothing to link you to what everyone will assume was the murder of a hitch-hiker whose body was driven to a quiet road in the middle of nowhere before being dumped.'
His wife's analysis had a certain logic. For the first time the fears that clouded James's face began to lift. 'Do you really think I could get away with it?'
His wife nodded. 'I don't think we have any alternative. If you went to the police, like the honest upright public figure you are, it would be headlines in every newspaper in the country within hours.