Caught by Surprise

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Caught by Surprise

by Alex Barton

“Oh bloody, bloody HELL!”

I shouted the last word so loud it hurt my head as the sound reverberated round the inside of my patrol car. Attending a fatal road accident is never easy but it’s infinitely worse when, on rare occasions like this one, I recognized the number plate of the crashed vehicle.

The accident was just over the brow of a hill, on a long, straight stretch of the A19 just outside York. Bits of motorbike, a crash helmet, and the bike itself were strewn across the road behind a tractor that had pulled over onto the grass verge. A body dressed in leathers was lying in the grass to the side of the tractor and I could see a man standing with his back against one of the huge rear wheels. From the way he was bent over I suspected he was the tractor driver losing the contents of his stomach.

I turned off the siren but left on my patrol car’s flashing lights as a warning to other drivers, then reached for my cap and pulled it on as I got out.

“I think he’s dead, Officer,” the tractor driver said when he saw me. His face was pale. “He just slammed into the back of me. One minute I was driving along, the next – “

“You’re all right, sir?” I asked but more concerned with the victim.

“Yes. I’m fine. Is he -?”

I ran across to the unmoving figure in leathers but I needn’t have bothered hurrying. Even at a distance I could see there was no way the biker was alive. His injuries were just too terrible and I had to swallow hard not to lose the contents of my own stomach.

The wail of an approaching siren and the sight of several cars slowing down as they drove past the accident made me aware of the need to warn oncoming drivers and clear the carriageway. As fast as I could, I reversed my patrol car back a short distance and set up warning signs. Then I walked along the road and used a can of spray paint to mark the areas where debris had fallen so passing cars wouldn’t hit anything and make a bad day much worse.

“It’s serious,” I warned the ambulance crew. “But the tractor driver’s fine.”

“Thanks,” the driver said and I nodded and went to radio traffic control.

The next two hours followed a set pattern. The ambulance crew removed the body and the tractor driver’s wife arrived to comfort and collect him. He told me what happened and we arranged that he would call into the police station later in the day to give a statement. Eventually a low-loader arrived and winched the bike on board to take it for detailed examination to see if the cause of the crash was a mechanical malfunction.

I took photographs and measurements, made notes, spray-painted more marks on the road and collected debris in a big plastic evidence bag.

Then I sat behind the wheel of my car and watched a combine harvester moving slowly back and forth cutting wheat in a nearby field, wondering how I was going to tell Christina Ashwood that her only son Terry was dead, killed on a clear, straight highway under a perfect blue summer sky with only a light breeze blowing, when there wasn’t a drop of rain, a patch of oil, or the smallest obstacle in the road that might have caused him to crash.

*

The days of the village bobby who smiles indulgently at poachers and people who grow marijuana ‘for medicinal reasons’ are long gone, replaced by community policing where an officer is responsible for the locale where he lives. Because I specialize in investigating traffic accidents and car crime I could spend a day working from one end of Yorkshire to the other and still be expected to investigate who stole the proceeds of our village’s church bingo when I return home at night.

So I knew Christina and Terry Ashwood. Christina had returned recently from Japan where she’d been teaching English while her husband James worked for a Japanese electronics giant. James Ashwood had died suddenly of unsuspected heart disease leaving Christina a substantial settlement through the company’s death-in-service scheme. Her 20-year-old son Terry had transferred to an engineering college in Leeds and often came home at weekends, driving through the village on his Japanese superbike. I’d been introduced to them both at a village cricket match but hardly had time to register how beautiful Christina was before the captain shouted it was my turn to bat. By the time I was bowled out, she and Terry had gone.

But I remembered Christina’s full lips, high cheekbones, and black hair she kept in a very chic style, short and curled into her neck. I’d found it very difficult not to glance down for a longer look when I noticed the size of her breasts under the white cashmere sweater she was wearing. I’d been equally attracted by the way her blue denim jeans were stretched taut across the cheeks of her curvy behind as she walked over to sit with friends and watch the match.

She was just as beautiful now when she responded to my ringing the front doorbell by appearing from the side of her house, carrying a illegal bahis basket filled with cut roses and a pair of secateurs.

“Hello, Constable Harrison,” she said, putting the basket down. “What can I do for you?”

“Mrs. Ashwood – ” I started to say.

“Oh, call me Christina, please – ” she interrupted me with a pretty smile. And then she noticed the expression on my face and the smile faded. “What’s wrong?” she said quickly.

“I think we’d better go inside,” I said and Christina shot me a deeply worried look, fumbled for her keys, and opened the front door.

She led me into the living room and sat down. I took my cap off and sat opposite her.

“Mrs. Ashwood – Christina – I’m truly sorry to tell you but there’s been an accident – “

“Not Terry!” she said, almost screaming.

“I’m afraid so. He crashed into the back of a tractor on the A19.”

“That bloody bike! I told him it was too powerful!” She jumped to her feet, looking around. I guessed it was for her car keys. “Which hospital is he in? Is he badly hurt?”

I stood up and took her arm. “Please – Christina – sit down,” I said in a soft voice. I paused and then said, “I’m sorry but he’s dead. He was killed in the collision.”

At first I wondered if she had registered my words. She stared at me, her eyes wide. Then they filled with tears and she let out a deep, intense scream, covering her face with her hands. “No – no – no -!” she kept saying, over and over.

I listened but there was nothing I could do until her grief subsided enough for her to tell me the name of a female friend I could call who could come and stay with her. I rang the name she gave me, explained what had happened, and then waited until the woman arrived. When she did I gave her advice on what Christina would need to do the next day to identify the body. And then I left, the sound of Christina’s agonized sobbing still ringing in my ears.

*

I live in a cottage with a garden enclosed by a low wall at the back. I’m not much of a gardener but even I can grow vegetables and they taste better than anything a supermarket sells. About three in the afternoon on the Sunday after the accident I was standing in a light, warm rain, forking over the soil, when I heard a soft call, “Hello?” and looked up to see Christina, on the other side of the wall, an umbrella over her head.

“Hello,” I said, shoving the fork into the ground so it would stay upright unsupported, and walked over to her.

She looked tired, her eyes red. But even without make-up she was still stunningly pretty. I tried, and failed, to stop myself taking in that she was wearing a simple floral print cotton dress that hugged the contours of her shapely body.

“Are you all right?” I asked her.

“I suppose so,” she said. “I’m getting used to the loss at any rate.” She blinked and then added, “Losing a husband and son in one year. It seems a bit careless somehow – “

“Can I make you a cup of tea?” I asked. “I’m ready for one myself.”

“That would be nice,” she said. “But I came to ask you a favor.”

“Of course,” I said without thinking. “What is it?”

“If you’re not busy, and of course I’d understand if you are – “

“Please,” I said gently. “How can I help?”

“Would you drive me out there? To where it happened? I need to see for myself.”

“Of course,” I said, wondering if I was doing the right thing but sure, in a way, I was if it meant I could offer some comfort to this beautiful woman. And, even though I was reluctant to admit it to myself, it gave me a chance to spend some time with her. “I’ll just wash up and change my shoes.”

Ten minutes later I backed my patrol car out of the drive and headed out of the village towards York. I wasn’t on duty so it was okay to leave the radio off. I didn’t want Christina to hear any messages from control relating to traffic accidents.

I drove in silence, waiting for Christina to speak first.

“It was different with James,” she said, looking out of the side window. “The disease was sudden but we’d been discussing divorce before he died. ‘I love you but I’m not in love with you,’ I told him, and he said he felt the same way. It was almost a relief and we agreed that when we returned to England we’d go our separate ways.”

She paused.

“But nothing prepares you for the loss of a child. No parent should have to bury their own child,” she said and reached quickly in her handbag for a handkerchief.

“No,” I said, uncertain whether to say more. I decided not to. The only noise was the occasional vehicle going in the other direction and the swish of the wipers keeping the windscreen clear as it started to rain.

It took about thirty minutes for us to reach the stretch of road where the accident happened. The combine harvester had gone, I presumed under cover because of the rain, and I could see that more than half the crop in the adjoining fields had been cut. I turned on the patrol car’s flashing lights to warn drivers coming up behind me and illegal bahis siteleri then pulled onto the grass verge about twenty yards from the point of impact.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Christina asked.

“We don’t really know, I said. “The impact froze the bike’s speedometer at 53 miles an hour, not too fast for a straight, clear road.” I paused and then asked, “Terry was an experienced biker, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” she said. “He learned to ride in Japan but had taken a British test and travelled at least two thousand miles since we came back. He has – had – a girlfriend he met in Tokyo who’s living in London, and he’d go down to see her almost every weekend. The mileage mounts up.”

“I can show you what happened,” I said, reaching behind my seat for Christina’s umbrella. I got out, put the umbrella up and the held it over her head. We stood on the grass and I said, “He smashed into the back of the tractor that was moving slowly down the road. But it didn’t pull out unexpectedly, it had pulled out further back down the road and he had plenty of time to overtake it. He came off the bike there,” and I pointed to a spot at least 100 yards from where we were standing.

I saw Christina wince and I stopped.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No,” she said in a flat voice. “I want to know.”

“I suppose what I’m saying is – ” I started to say.

Christina finished the sentence. “It wasn’t the tractor driver’s fault – “

“No.”

“I know,” she said. “He came to see me. He wanted me to know how much Terry’s death had upset him but also explain that he’d done nothing wrong. I reassured him I knew he wasn’t to blame.”

“The problem is where Terry hit the tractor. If he’d hit the back or even a wheel he would probably have bounced off with severe injuries, broken bones, maybe even something more serious because his helmet came off, but the impact might not have killed him.”

I stopped talking and Christina sensed I was holding something back.

“So -?”

“He hit the wheel arch head up. The tractor driver didn’t hear the crash or feel the impact and kept going. The moving wheel dragged Terry up into the wheel arch and – “

“His head was crushed.” Christina’s voice was flat, empty of emotion.

“Yes. I’m sorry. It was a hundred-to-one chance. Like I said, any other impact and he would probably have survived.”

“Yes,” she said. She walked over to the patch of grass where Terry’s body had lain. All traces had been cleared away but the grass was flattened and I could see her imagining her son lying dead.

Christina turned toward me and said, “Can I have that cup of tea now?”

“Of course,” I said.

I escorted her back to the car and drove her home.

*

“I like your home,” Christina said. “Masculine without being too minimal.”

She was sitting at the big oak table in my kitchen, a second cup of tea in front of her.

“Thank you,” I said and poured us both a glass of brandy, setting hers down by her cup.

“No girlfriend or wife to share it with?” she asked, a slight smile on her lips. It was nice that she was so forthright. I hate it when people are curious to know something and dress a question up first.

“No,” I said and smiled back. “I haven’t met the right woman.”

“You’re not old,” she said, teasing me. “Plenty of time yet.”

“Yes,” I said, my eyes meeting hers.

Something very feminine in her made her sit back in her chair suddenly. The movement made her breasts jiggle under the fabric of her dress and I realized she wasn’t wearing a bra.

The sight shouldn’t have aroused me but it did. She was beautiful, desirable, and vulnerable: desire flared in my groin like a flame. I wanted to put my arms round her, comfort her, hold her close, kiss her hungrily, slide my hands round her waist to cup the cheeks of her ass and feel those big breasts pressed into my chest. I felt my face redden and took a sip of the fiery brandy to cover my sudden arousal.

Christina pretended not to notice but she moved back to sit with her elbows on the table so her face was close to mine. “Thank you,” she said and leaned over to kiss me gently on the cheek. “It was kind of you to drive me out there. I feel better in a way.”

“Of course,” I said. “Look – I wondered – “

“Yes?”

“If you’d like – could I make you dinner? I have a joint of beef cooked. It would be simple, beef with new potatoes and broad beans. The vegetables are fresh from the garden – “

Christina laughed. “Don’t I look as if I’ve been taking care of myself?”

“No, not really,” I said, taking the risk of offending her.

“Well you’re right, Mr. Policeman,” she said. “I haven’t been. So having dinner made for me sounds nice. I have a bottle of Montrachet at home if you’d like me to go and get it?”

“Please,” I said, standing up, totally forgetting that I had an erection.

“I won’t be long,” she said and, because my stiff cock was suddenly level with her face, she clearly saw the effect canlı bahis siteleri she had on me.

But of course nothing happened that night. I made her dinner which she made as good an attempt to eat as her appetite would allow, we drank the bottle of wine, more to drown her sorrows and take the heat out of my desire than to create a romantic mood, and I walked her home.

“Thank you,” she said, putting her hand out to shake mine. Even if I had hoped for another kiss I knew eyes are always open in a small village and someone was undoubtedly watching us standing talking outside Christina’s front door.

“I’m glad I was able to help,” I said.

She opened the door but seemed reluctant to go in. “The house seems so big,” she said almost to herself. “Every movement I make seems too loud…”

“Do you want me to call Jane?” I asked, referring to the friend who’d sat with Christina when I told her of Terry’s death.

“No, that’s all right,” Christina said. And then she lowered her voice conspiratorially. “She’s a fusser. Always straightening the curtains and tidying my kitchen drawers. Thinks she’s helping, I suppose, but it drives me mad. I’m like you, I like things the way I’ve set them out.”

“Yes,” I said, surprised by her perceptiveness.

Her face was serious for a moment. “You’ll call me if there are any developments?” she asked.

“Of course,” I said, grateful for any opportunity to ring her.

“Thanks again then,” she said. “Good night.”

“Good night,” I said and walked home looking at the stars and wondering how ridiculous it was that I should be so attracted so quickly to a woman I hardly knew. But I was and I could hide it from her but not from my heart.

*

Christina invited me to Terry’s funeral but I was on duty and not able to go. But not attending gave me the opportunity to go round a few days later and see how she was. She reassured me all was well and I left it at that for a fortnight, then I sat down and wrote her a note, asking if she’d like to go out for dinner. I told myself I wrote the note because I didn’t want to pressure her if she wasn’t in the mood for doing something social. In reality it was because I didn’t want to hear her refuse over the phone. To my delight she rang as soon as I delivered the note and said yes, it would do her good to get out.

“You look ravishing,” I said, over a glass of wine, taking pleasure from the way the candlelight enhanced Christina’s beauty and made her dark eyes glow. She was wearing a black cocktail dress with spaghetti straps holding up the lacy bodice. I could have drowned in the depths of the cleavage the dress created and wanted desperately to take her in my arms. But instead, when she drove me home because I didn’t drive my patrol car socially, I said goodnight without attempting to kiss her, aware that curtains would have twitched and gossip would have started the second our lips met, gossip that Christina would have found painful.

*

Christmas is always a busy time for the police. Whatever people think twice about doing during the rest of the year they do without a care during the holiday season. My parents had opted to take a winter cruise so I put myself down for duty to let the married men spend time with their families and spent most of Christmas Day dealing with cases of drink driving and minor accidents. I was tired when I got home around five and quickly dozed off sitting in a comfortable chair in front of the fire. So at first I thought I was dreaming when I heard a knock on the door. The clock over the fire read just after 10.00pm and I wondered who would be calling at that time. It pays to be cautious when you live on your own so I picked up the fireiron and went to see who had knocked.

The delicious perfume Christina wore told me who it was immediately.

“Hello,” I said, aware that my heart was beating very fast.

“Hello,” Christina said, smiling at me. “Can I come in?”

“Of course,” I said, holding the door open for her.

“Was that for me?” Christina said, grinning broadly and looking down at the fireiron in my hand.

“God no. Sorry. Can I get you a drink?”

She held up a bottle of champagne. “Taken care of,” she said. “My way of saying thank you for not letting me become a grieving widow, shut up alone in a dark and gloomy house.”

“It was my pleasure,” I said, and both of us knew how much I meant it.

“I also wanted to thank you – ” she started to say and I cut in.

“- You already have,” I said. “More than enough.”

“No, for making sure no-one could accuse me of being an uncaring bitch. Dating too soon after my husband’s death and then Terry’s.”

I didn’t speak.

“It must have been hard,” she said, looking at me sideways.

I glanced at her, wondering if she was making a sly joke.

“It was,” I said, taking my chances. “From the first moment I saw you. It is now.”

“I can see,” she said, her voice suddenly husky. “I think it’s time I thanked you properly.”

“Well…” I said softly, letting the thought hang in the air.

“Let’s go upstairs,” she said in a firm voice and I smiled.

While Christina went to the bathroom, I undressed quickly, down to my briefs, and had just finished when I heard a tap at the door.

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