Her phone started to ring just as Rachel joined the A249 heading south. She glanced over her shoulder. Damn. Her phone was in her bag, her bag was in the back. Still lying in the same place she had chucked it moments earlier, before settling into the driver's seat for the thirty minute haul to Medway Hospital. Her stomach churned at the thought of the hospital, the hospital in which her son was fighting for his life. One minute she had been at work chatting away to Clare and Emma, the next she was speeding along the dual carriageway, heading towards her comatose son.
Rachel had warned him about the dangers of motorbikes: Death Machines, she had told him. That's all they are. Death Machines.
Don't be silly mum, Harry had said. They're only as dangerous as the people that ride them. I'll be careful.
Where had being careful put him? In the intensive care unit of the local hospital, that was where.
Tears welled up in Rachel's eyes, clouding her vision. She took her foot off the accelerator a fraction. In the back of the car the phone was still ringing. It might be the hospital.
Rachel slowed down some more, gripped the steering wheel in her right hand and stretched her left arm out awkwardly behind her. She groped blindly about, fingers skimming across the empty seat. Nothing.
Risking another quick glance other her shoulder, she saw that the bag was mere millimetres away from her hand. She stretched the teeniest bit further and managed to grasp the strap between the tips of two fingers. She dragged the bag towards her. Seconds later Rachel had the phone to her ear, balanced between her shoulder and her jawline. "Hello?"
"Hello Rachel." It was a man's voice. An unfamiliar man's voice.
Rachel frowned. "Who is this please?"
"Oh," said the voice, "you'll find out soon enough." A chuckle.
Rachel sighed. "Look. I don't mean to be rude, but I've got no time for this. Tell me who you are and want you want. I really am in the most terrible hurry."
"Yes. I know." Said the man. "And it won't make the slightest iota of difference...no matter how terrible your hurry...he'll still be dead before you get there."
"What are you talking about?" Rachel glanced into the rear view mirror. Her own eyes stared back at her. Dark and haunted. The eyes of a stranger.
"Tut. Tut. Rachel. Don't play the ignoramus with me, it doesn't become you. You know exactly what I'm talking about." A pause. "By my calculations he has fifteen minutes and thirty-eight seconds left. Precisely. Believe me, I'm never wrong."
"Who are you?"
"Call the hospital. See if I'm right. Then call me back. You'll know my number. TTFN. Ta ta for now."
The line clicked and went dead.
Rachel leant back against the headrest, phone still to her ear, her Nissan Micra still doing fifty along the dual carriageway. Tyres humming. The words of the stranger echoed in her head. Fifteen minutes and thirty- eight seconds. Precisely. Followed by: Who was that?
A blue reflectorised road sign loomed up on her left. P for Parking. Rachel tossed her phone to one side and clicked down the indicator. She pulled into the lay-by and brought her car to a halt inches from the grass verge. Fot a few moments she just sat there: hands clasped loosely on the steering wheel; eyes wide, staring straight ahead. Unfocused.
Something in her peripheral vision caught her attention and she turned her head, letting her gaze drop to her wing mirror.
A motorbike was approaching from behind. Fast. Headlight blazing. It thundered passed her car with a roar of exhilaration and speed. A dazzle of sunlight reflected from the rider's visor, winked off the bike's chrome. Then it was gone. The smell of burning ozone left hanging in its wake.
An image of Harry gate-crashed into Rachel's thoughts. Harry lying in a crumpled heap. A pool of blood around his head. Motorbike on its side, smashed beyond repair, one wheel lazily turning. Flashing lights staining the scene a cold uncaring blue. Sirens wailing like banshees.
...fifteen minutes and thirty-eight seconds. Precisely...
Less than that now.
Rachel snatched up her phone and stabbed at the buttons. It was answered on the third ring: "Medway Hospital. Which department please?"
Whan Rachel tried to speak all that came out was a small dry croak. She cleared her throat. "Intensive care."
"Hold on please. I'll put you through."
A series of disjointed clicks and squawks floated down the line. Rachel found herself tapping the fingers of her free hand against the steering wheel: Come on...come on...
She jumped as a brisk no nonsense female voice spoke in her ear. "Intensive care."
"Hello. My son. Harry?...Harry Cruickshank? I was just wondering...?"
"Mrs Cruickshank?..." Rachel's heart sank. She knew what was coming; the other woman's voice had softened considerably. "...is that you?"
"Ahh. Mrs Cruickshank. We were about to call you. It's not good news I'm afraid. The devil has given your son a thorough examination and..."
A shiver of ice run down Rachel's spine. "I beg your pardon?"
"I said, Doctor De'ville has given Harry a thorough examination. He thinks you should aim to get here as soon as possible. We don't hold out much hope. I'm sorry."
Rachel slumped back in the driver's seat, the hand holding the phone fell to her lap.
The devil...she had said the devil.
Rachel shook her head. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. There was no such thing as the devil. It was just her mind playing tricks. It was hardly surprising. Her son was in hospital, dying, and some crackpot thought it funny to ring her and make some sick joke about it. Rachel lifted her hand to toss the mobile to one side. She stopped. But how did he know about Harry? How did he know her name? Her number?
Rachel frowned. She massaged her temples. The beginnings of a headache was gathering behind her eyes.
...call me back...you'll know my number..."
Without preamble Rachel scrolled through the phone's menu until she came to the Calls Received listings. She pressed down on the small grey button. The mobile's screen bleeped into life, glowing green. Three numbers appeared: 666.
Rachel dropped the phone as if it were red hot. It bounced against her knee before hitting the floor with a dull thud.
666. The number of the Devil.
She stared down at the phone. It looked so insignificant lying amidst the dust and bits of grit; no bigger than the compact mirror she also carried in her bag, yet at this moment it carried the weight of her entire life within its fragile plastic casing. Her hand shook as she picked it up, without giving herself time to think she pressed the number six. Three times.
It was answered immediately.
"Hello Rachel," said the Devil in his honey smooth voice. "I thought you'd see sense."
"What do you want?"
He chuckled. "All in good time. All in good time. Did you ring the hospital?"
"There's my best girl. I was right, was I not? The life of your dear boy has almost been extinguished. What a pity. He's a good-looking lad, isn't he Rachel? A mother's delight. And so young. How old is he? Twenty-four? Twenty-five? I've lost all count you know." A sigh. "Ah well, we'd better get down to business." He chuckled. "Time and tide wait for no man."
"What business?" Even before the words left her lips, Rachel wished she could snatch them back, leave them unsaid...then maybe all of this would go away: Harry would still be alive and well, she would find herself back in the office chatting to Clare and Emma.
But the Devil interrupted her. Answered her question. "Why, who I take and who I don't of course. You or your son. It's your call."
Rachel opened her mouth to speak. The words: You can't be serious ready to drop from her lips. But she knew he was serious. Very serious. This was no joke.
It was her call. Hers alone.
Her mind turned again to Harry. Harry her beloved son. Her only child. Harry who had been her soul-mate since his father had left them ten years ago. Harry who would be twenty-six on his next birthday. Harry who still had his whole life ahead of him. Harry.
There was no choice.
"Me." Rachel was surprised at just how calm her voice sounded, as if she were making small talk with a friend, not bartering with the devil incarnate...because she know now, without a shadow of a doubt, that's what he was. "Take me." And I'm frightened, she thought. Oh yes, she was frightened...very frightened.
The Devil laughed. "Thank you ta nicely," he said. "TTFN." And he was gone. The line went dead.
Rachel squeezed her eyes shut as the tears came flooding down her face. She opened the car door and stepped out into the afternoon. Despite the sunshine, a bitter March wind stung her wet cheeks. She shivered. She lifted the hand that was still clutching the slim black cell phone high into the air. With as much force as she could muster she hauled the mobile from her. It seemed to spin through the air in slow motion before turning a couple of somersaults and dropping like a stone to the ground, landing slap bang in the middle of the dual carriageway.
It broke in two as it hit the tarmac, then was shattered completely under the wheels of a speeding people-carrier. A small pale face peered out of the vehicle's back window. For a micro-second a pair of dark eyes locked with Rachel's. Then were gone.
Tears still streaming down her cheeks, Rachel got back in her car. Slammed the door, started the engine.
Harry had always taken the mickey out of her bright yellow Nissan Micra. He'd said it reminded him of Noddy's car.
Cheers Big Ears, she'd always replied.
Rachel pulled away from the grass verge. She wiped a hand over her wet face and steered the car back onto the A249.
The driver of the articulated lorry didn't even have a chance to hit his brakes as the yellow car pulled out right in front of him.
From the lorry's rearview mirror a small red devil was dangling. A little wicked smile painted on it's little plastic face,