The tiny, off-white login panel glowed like a new moon against a starless night sky, situated as it was dead centre of Jenny’s vast, blackened monitor. She typed in her credentials, hit return, and watched as the cursor span. A brief wait, then her face was bathed in an erie blue light and her workstation came to life.
Now Jenny tensed. The screen layout before her was totally unfamiliar. A sense of mild panic. Then she recalled the memo about the upgrade to the traffic management system, and breathed again.
“Pull yourself together, girl” Jenny muttered to herself.
The first police report of her shift popped up on her screen, which she quickly evaluated, and then typed the following summary: “M99 northbound closed between J26 and J27. Accident. Leave motorway at J26.”
Satisfied with her edit, she hunted, then found the new-look options screen, selected the electronic motorway signs in the affected area to target, and then noticed the “Message status” option was missing. She shrugged slightly, paused, clicked “Authorise” anyway, and then waited for the familiar, but greyed “Release to highway” button to become active.
Lifting her head, she glanced across a sea of glowing blue workstations in the vast highway command centre, over to where the duty controller sat, whose job it was to check and then clear all traffic warnings prior to public display.
Cartwright gently closed the solid oak door of his neat and tidy thatched cottage, straightened his thin black tie one last time, hesitated momentarily, and then strode across the gravel driveway with a decisive crunch. He got into his dark blue Ford Mondeo and placed the slim, black attaché case on the passenger seat.
15 minutes later, he came off the roundabout and started down the slip road of Junction 25 on the M99, heading north. His rendezvous with Garbo was at the Blue Forrest service station, just after Junction 26. He would be dead on time, traffic permitting.
Cartwright signalled right and eased his car into the flow of motorway traffic. A highway patrol car sped past in the outer-most lane, blue lights flashing. He stiffened, then relaxed. Nothing to do with me, he thought. Still on the inside lane, and with an orange home delivery van up ahead ambling at 60mph, he signalled right to overtake. Just as he was turning into the middle lane, out of nowhere a speeding black Audi appeared in his rear-view mirror, angry headlights flashing him out of the way. He quickly aborted his manoeuvre, tutting “Bloody idiot.”
Recovering, Cartwright finally overtook the van, and accelerated up to 70mph. To his left, he noticed a small fire in a recently harvested corn field, a thin column of grey smoke curling up into the clear blue sky.
Cars in front of him suddenly slowed, rear hazards flashing, and a queue was forming in the left lane. Glancing up to his left, Cartwright read the yellow text of the digital highway sign. “…northbound closed between J26 and J27..”
“Shit” he exclaimed. “Shit, shit, shit”.
Unbelievable. First time ever, and on this of all days. On this of all missions. Given no choice, he joined the growing tailback, and readied himself to exit at Junction 26.
Coming up the slip road, he joined the roundabout and started circling, unsure of what to do next. Momentarily, he was blinded by a intense flash of sunlight in his rear-view mirror.
Then he saw the lane marking: J25 North. Puzzled, he followed it round, then signalled left and rejoined the motorway. He glanced over at the black attaché case. Rendezvous at the Blue Forrest service station, just after Junction 26. He’d be on time, barring incident.
Just in front, a bulky orange delivery van was crawling at 55mph. He moved into the middle lane to overtake. Bang! His side mirror was ripped clean off. A black Audi sped off into the distance. Shaking and cursing, he slunk back into the inside lane. Just then, a highway patrol car sped past in the outer-most lane, blue lights flashing. In the distance, he saw a fire in a crop field, heavy grey smoke billowing. Cartwright took his hand off the wheel and loosened his tie.
Cars in front of him slowed, hazards flashing, and a queue was forming. Glancing up, he read in yellow text “…closed between J26 and J27… Leave motorway at J26.”
“Shit” he exclaimed. “Shit”.
He followed the queue and exited at Junction 26, then onto the roundabout and started circling, slowly. Suddenly, there was an intense flash of white light in his rear-view mirror. The rear windscreen cracked.
Dazed, disoriented, he checked his mirrors, then looking ahead, spotted the blue sign: M99 J25 North. Signalling left, he drove down the slip road and onto the motorway. Rendezvous at the service station, just after Junction 26. Should be on time, this time. He leaned over and pressed the black attaché case into the passenger seat with a sweaty palm.
Looking ahead now, he edged into the middle lane to overtake the heavy delivery lorry that was creeping along at 50 mph. There was a horrendous screeching and banging sound as a black Audi ripped along the side of his car. Swerving back into the inside lane, he narrowly missed a small red Fiat coming up from behind, whose driver blared her horn in shock. The Audi careered off to the right, scraped the barrier of the central reservation and was forced back into the fast lane, then seemed to regain control and sped off.
Behind him, he heard the sirens of a police patrol car, and to his left he saw a raging fire in a cornfield, a fire engine hurtling across the scrub towards it.
Highway alert “…Leave motorway at J26.” Cars slowed, hazards flashed, a tailback formed.
Cartwright gritted his teeth.
He exited at the junction, circling the roundabout. There was a loud bang. The rear windscreen shattered. Front windscreen too. Blood dripped from his left shoulder.
Unperturbed, his satnav calmly ordered: “Take the exit”.
Rendezvous at service station, after Junction 26. “Must make the drop. Lives at stake.” He rejoined the motorway. Junction 25. Northbound.
His head felt like lead, but still he pressed down on the accelerator pedal. “Hold station, Garbo” he mumbled, head lolling. 20 yards in front, an unmarked freight lorry braked hard. Cartwright jerked awake, and swerved into the middle lane to avoid a collision. A black Audi came up from behind and rammed into the back of his car, once, then again. The blood-spattered black attaché case shot forward and thudded into the footwell. He had to keep going. Then, from the outside lane, a lady in a red Fiat cut directly in front of him. In his rear-view, the Audi loomed, speeding and flashing, threatening to ram him again. He pulled left, only to find the freight lorry advancing on the inside lane. Clipping the front of the driver’s cab with his rear bumper, he started to spin, then smacked into the barrier, somersaulted over it and flew into the empty corn field.
Shortly afterwards, a plain white saloon car, capped with temporary blue flashing light, screeched to a halt on the hard shoulder, right next to the badly dented barrier. A calm man in a dark grey suit exited, and with grim satisfaction surveyed the cornfield where agent Dietrich’s battered Ford Mondeo lay upturned, engulfed in thick black smoke and flames.
As sirens started to wail in the distance, he tapped a simple message into his mobile phone: “Rendezvous complete”.
Back at the highway command centre, the duty controller’s private mobile vibrated in her pocket. After reading the text, she briefly nodded, then turned back to her workstation, selected the M99 alert, and changed its status from “Loop indefinitely” to “Expired”.
© Simon Atherley, July 2014