It was pouring like there was no tomorrow when Patrique drove the big Roller out of the Goodwood facility and pointed the Spirit of Ecstasy at the far end of the hood towards the continent. The idea was simple enough, pick up the big car, catch the ferry to Calais, take some pics and return by evening. Piece of cake for the mighty motorcar and decent money too, for a sunrise to sunset effort. Keeping motorway speeds was not an issue with the Rolls-Royce Phantom but what was proving difficult was to ignore the faces made by other road users. Say hello to the politically correct Briton, he told himself as he returned a faint wave to the rather rude gesture from a soccer mom who, herself, was piloting a not-so-small Disco. Sure, the Phantom would have looked rather odd as it occupied a good part of the road with just one passenger – but it certainly was not a middle-finger worthy crime. And a crooked one at that. Maybe he would catch up with her in the ferry and have a word with her.
As usual, as he drove into the parking lot at Dover, he saw a ferry leaving. It gleamed in the sunlight and looked happy sailing away without him. He parked the Rolls at the head of an imaginary queue and headed for a doughnut and some coffee. Sugar and caffeine had its desired effect and he was cheerfully adding nicotine to the equation when a badly rusted vessel docked. There were a bunch of motorcyclists next to the Phantom – why do they have to make these Japanese motorcycles so colourful he thought to himself. ‘Damn, these punks are getting too curious about the car’, he mumbled as he unlocked the car, got in and punched the starter button.The ferry had only the said punks and the big Roller as the last whistle blew. It was suddenly cold in the deck as the rusted Manchester waded into the English channel. Cold enough for him to justify lighting another Marlboro Light. Some day, he promised himself, he would stop making Philip Morris richer, as he took a second drag. Like all smokers, Patrique hated the addiction.
The Phantom looked magnificent on the deck, glistening in the washed-out sunlight with the receding land making a formidable backdrop. Patrique was soon busy with his Nikon D2 – its little motors whirring and shutter clicking away. He was particularly pleased with a front three-quarter image with the punk bikes vaguely identifiable at the side of the frame. Pleased enough to light another cigarette. The big, 20-inch wheels made all the difference, he thought, between the Phantom and the rest of the luxury cars. Passport check at Calais was a breeze as usual – as an ace automotive photographer he had crossed the channel many times and he was now beginning to recognize and even search for familiar faces amongst the French police. A glance at his Tag Heuer – a gift from an advertising agency who was particularly pleased with his work – revealed that it was only five past eight. Two hours of good light before the sun got warm enough to make his pictures look ordinary. ‘Bonjour, have a good day,’ said the pleasant lady in the uniform – new recruit, he decided as he waved at her and floored the Phantom. He expected the motley police crew to secretly appreciate the magnificent piece of British rolling history as he pulled away – sure as hell, they were and he couldn’t hide a smile as he saw them on the rear view mirror.He must have been shooting stills for over two hours at Point de Froid Nez – so called because it was cold right through the year and would freeze your nose. There were some fishing trawlers in the choppy Atlantic and the seasoned seagulls trailed them. Patrique was hungry now. He could always light up again and forget the hunger, but this time he genuinely wanted some food in the system. He headed back into town hoping that his favourite restaurant would be open for business – with the French you never could tell. Patrique knew that the road connecting Froid Nez to town was hardly policed.
The Roller was doing an effortless 120 kph when he let the V12 breath harder – the Phantom did not lurch forward or pin him back to the seats the way the Aston Martin he had borrowed from a magazine the previous month, but it accelerated hard nonetheless. Patrique was certain that this was a sub-six seconds to 100 kph automobile despite the mass. He found the thin-rimmed steering wheel a delight and it was ticklishly easy to hurl it around bends. He was approaching a right hander at an insane 180 kph when he saw her.He wanted to send a congratulatory message to the guy who designed the Phantom’s brakes before inspecting the woman who was lying in the middle of the road. He glanced at the fuming discs of the car as he kneeled. Initially, he was thankful that it was not the hit-and-run situation he had imagined – there was no blood. Maybe the woman was involved in an accident, he scanned the corner ahead looking for a wrecked Peugeot or something.
There was nothing, except for the unfamiliar touch of cold metal on his temple. No one had ever pointed a gun at him – he wasn’t a troubled teen, he’d never robbed a bank and never had to run from the cops. From the corner of his eye, he could make out that it was indeed a gun. In the same moment, he also concluded that the person pointing the damn thing at him was pretty.‘Dans le voiture, prêt!’ she said, and two things registered – she was used to saying curt things, and there may not be life after death after all. This was turning out to be fun, he thought as he walked to the Phantom with his hands raised. Chapter II
With just a week to go for the Grand Prix, the principality was bristling with activity. Kerbs wore fresh paint, barricades were being erected and advertising hoardings were being nailed in.It sure was a blast of a drive – so what if it was not part of his plan. No photographs to be taken, just drive as fast as he could. Always good fun in a car that packs 450-plus horses and 73-odd kgm of torque – it was heavy, still. There were couple of occasions when he passed cop cars – sad-looking Renaults parked behind flyovers.But they didn’t seem to notice the majestic progress that the Roller was making. On some stretches, he would touch 240 kph and think of the hole being forged as the Parthenon grille barged through atmosphere. The worst bit was when he had to use his credit card to fill the enormous tank of the Goodwood creation. Every time he did that, he thought of the number of shoots he would have to go through to replenish his card. Cards, actually.
Throughout the seven hour journey, the women hardly spoke. To him, that is. She was sprawled on the rear seat. It would have made a good picture, he thought to himself, the lady surrounded by the bird’s-eye maple and the leather theatre package that the Rolls featured. She was often on the phone and he had figured out that she was not French. She spoke the Queen’s language but was more comfortable with Russian. Sometimes, she would use both. She tended to trust him at the fuel stops – she never followed him to the toilet, for example. And she accepted a sandwich which he bought with his own money, without a word of thanks.
She was pretty indeed, and wore a black turtleneck which was held together with a zipper – which he noticed, tended to slide down to precarious levels every 100 km on the Rolls’ odo revealing a magnificently toned part of her left breast. Right when things got interesting, though, she would pull the fastener up, all the way to her chin.Ah, the gun. It was carelessly resting on the passenger seat. All the time. The only other time she opened her mouth was
when he was about to light up, ‘NO.’ Needless to say, Patrique longed more for a cigarette than his own life when he entered Monte Carlo.
‘Follow the car’, was her command and then he noticed the taxi – a Peugeot 407 with blacked out windows. The pilot car was being driven hard and the driver seem to have little regard for traffic rules. He swerved his way through lanes and gunned for apexes in a manner that would have done Kimi Raikkonnen proud. Patrique liked the cool and collected style of the Finn much to the consternation of this mates who had found a new hero in Lewis Hamilton.
Now, it was proving to be a bit of an effort to follow the 407 in a Roller that was almost double the length and much wider. And he didn’t want the nice people at Goodwood, who had already called twice, to receive an Armco-ed test car. In the rear view mirror, the lady was still on the phone. The zipper was half way down.The 407 stopped at the parking lot by the bay, the area that would become the most expensive gallery next week – there were more stretched Mercs than at the World Economic Forum summit in there blending in a peculiar way with the spectacular Ferraris and Lamborghinis in bright reds and yellows. He even spotted a purple Zonda and tried to picture the effete who ordered it in that colour.
The tiny cavalcade ended the moment he heard the zipper go up behind him. She jumped out the suicide door and gestured him to follow her. The gun was not in sight. Swaying in the water was a little inflatable with a tiny Suzuki outboard motor. She untied the knot, pulled the starter cord and they were off. The journey was brief – a 42 foot custom Bayliner, complete with its very own amphibian was where the inflatable was headed. Patrique noticed with relief that fluttering on the flag post was the English cross. All right, she might just shoot me now and dump the body for the sharks, he decided. Maybe they will allow me a cigarette before that. They were about a 100 meters from the yatch when it exploded. It was the sort of explosion Hollywood movies were made of – the whole boat engulfed in a ball of fire and there was a mushroom cloud on top. The inflatable rocked and Patrique covered his face as a second explosion sent debris flying towards him. Then there was an eerie silence and he could hear the boat burning. And yes, he was a free man – the lady who had been running his life for the last eight hours was not in the boat. A warm liquid was flowing in to his eyes, blurring his vision and he realized that it could only be blood. But he was in his senses so that meant he was not seriously hurt. He thought of making it to the parking lot where the big Roller was parked. Maybe he could still make it to Goodwood before the PR people started to panic.
Patrique was startled to see her come up for air. The water around her was red, like Jaws red. Save her, or run? She was hurt badly, but the hand that was now pointing the gun back at him seemed rock steady. Then, he thought of that zipper and extended his hand. She was turning pale but pointed at the Suzuki motor. Patrique pulled the chord and turned the tiller around and headed away from the devastation that was sinking behind them.‘Keep going and give me your phone,’ that was the longest sentence she had spoken to him. He handed her his trusted – and cheap – Nokia with a tinge of shame. It was actually the cheapest phone in the shop. More Russian-English followed before she shouted her next order. ‘Jetty number 4, next to Palais de Congress… fast.’ He wanted to tell her that it was not a Lamborghini-powered Victory he was piloting and then thought of the gun. The jetty was tough to spot and he had to navigate between huge boats... ships before he spotted it. A small flight of wooden steps is all they had to climb to reach the road, which would become the track in seven days. But she was gasping for breath and was paler than ever before. He didn’t bother mooring the inflatable and was surprised to note, that his captor was already out of the boat. She was clutching her hip, but she was out all right.
‘Get in and drive… fast.’ She was getting predictable now. Drive what, he thought, as he swiveled around. It was getting dark and he couldn’t make out the silhouette of the car across the road. But he could hear it. A meaty rumble that could come from only a very powerful automobile. It had its parking lights on and he darted across the road with his loaner Rolls-Royce Phantom in the parking lot in his head. Damn, his camera bag was in it too.The realization that he was about to drive the Bentley Continental Flying Spur was accompanied by gunshots. For the first time the lady didn’t have to utter a word as Patrique engaged drive and gave enough motivation to the 552 bhp, 66 kgm W12 to leave a patch of molten rubber on tarmac. They were being chased all right – a pair of headlamps grew larger in his rear view mirror.
But the Bentley was insanely quick and solemnly fast – Patrique saw the speedo climb well beyond 250 kph and he was worried that he would crash. ‘Follow the road and head for Nice airport at the next T-junction.’ This time the voice was hushed but still authoritative. She was now seated next to him and her eyes were closed. Patrique was worried about staining the white leather with blood, but then again, this car was not his responsibility. There were more gunshots and a bullet smashed his left rear view mirror. Enough was enough, thought Patrique and before he knew it, he was at the T-junction where a sign confirmed that he was headed towards the airport. Whoever she was, she was important – there were people out for her blood willing to blow up giant boats, and she could summon a fast Bentley over his cheap cell phone. Patrique was impressed. He was quick behind the wheel and the car was quicker still. He successfully left his pursuers behind and entered the airport. ‘BA to London?’ ‘Gate 3,’ came the reply – he saw the Gate 3 sign which read ‘Private Departures.’ But there was one problem, it was closed and he was coming in too fast. He didn’t have to stamp on the brake though – the 2.5 tonne car stopped well short but the rapid deceleration sent his hapless captor lurching forward, and her gun straight into his lap.
Opportunity number two... this thought didn’t last as he saw a pair of headlamps appear in the rear view mirror. The way the light erupted out of a corner, sent by a BMW 5-series – the corona rings a dead give away - driven very hard and sideways, made him floor the throttle pedal again and then he noticed that the gate ahead had slid open. The blown rear view mirror helped as the Flying Spur entered the apron.Not a busy airport, he thought, as he eyed the lone military aircraft, props turning in a hurry. He didn’t know much about planes but he knew enough to know that this one looked like an Hercules. ‘Into the aircraft.’ said the voice from the crumpled form. His pursuers came through the gate as well and the 5-series was gaining. Then he saw the loading platform of the stealth black aircraft lower – there was always a first time, he thought as he gunned it towards the plane. A few more gunshots – now from close quarters. He ducked as a bullet smashed the rear windshield sending glass all over the car like shrapnel.
The aircraft was moving fast now and he heaved the Spur into a right turn with its tail hanging out and corrected just in time to line it up with the tail gate. The two turbochargers gulped an almighty lungful of air and pumped all the energy they could summon to the wheels. The surge was truly impressive as the front wheels hesitated and then clambered on to the metal flap that was sparking along the tarmac.And then there were in. He could hear clamps bracing the car as the Hercules lifted off into the unsuspecting night. There was a big no-smoking sign on board which Patrique hated the moment he saw it. Chapter III
He didn’t know when he dozed off. He had watched a bunch of Russians assisting Helga – at least that is what they called her. She was talking animatedly and few times even pointed at him. A tall character emerged from the cockpit and offered him a cup of coffee, a chocolate bar and a finger that pointed to the no-smoking sign. As if he could miss it.The Spur looked like a caged animal. He loved it for its speed and poise and he loved it more than the Rolls orphaned in the Monte Carlo parking lot. Then he decided to sleep.Now, Helga was next to him and he was in a comfortable bed. Forget the Rolls, there was no Bentley in sight. Ditto the No Smoking sign. They were not in an aircraft at all. Bastards, they drugged me – the thought made him angry. Very angry. Helga was fast asleep. He saw the butt of the gun under her pillow.
Opportunity number 3, he thought, and he was not going to miss this one.In a flash, he yanked the gun and was out of the bed. In the process, he woke the lady up. She looked at him and burst out laughing. So she can laugh too. Then he noticed his figure on the mirror. Being a photo-journalist meant lots of free lunches and clicking away with a Nikon never moved too many muscles. To add to that, the figure in the mirror was stark naked. He immediately proceeded to cover his essentials with one hand. Which looked even more stupid in the mirror. Now the women was sitting up in the bed and at perfect ease. And still laughing. He couldn’t believe his eyes – the zipper was gone.And the turtleneck had gone with it. ‘You can put that gun down – it has no firepower and even if it had, you wouldn’t shoot me,’ she said, in a very warm voice. ‘And you were good. Really good. I mean your driving.’
Things started clearing up in his head – so it was not a dream after all. In the last 24 hours, he had been abducted, chased, shot at, flown to an unknown destination and er... slept with his abductor.‘Where the hell are we?’ he asked as he threw the gun back on the bed and picked up his shorts. There was silence and as he looked up, she was pointing to the window. He walked towards it and drew the curtains aside – the perfect outline of the Hagia Sophia and the assorted minarettes were a dead giveaway. ‘What the…What am I doing in Istanbul? I’ve really got to return that Phantom. and now!’
‘The car is on its way back to Goodwood in the back of a flatbed – we didn’t want to add more miles to it,’ She said. And she looked even more stunning, now that she’d gotten out of the bed. He’d never seen anyone look good wearing only a tiny bandage. There was always a first time – he thought to himself.
‘Have you driven a Maybach?’ ‘Never did, but I am supposed to photograph one in….holy God, in Istanbul,’ he mumbled, following her finger and looking down past the window. There it was, a Maybach 62 occupying a large spot in the parking lot and it already had a small crowd of Japanese tourists around it. ‘I used your phone, responded to a few messages and realized that you had a shoot planned here.’ He looked for his cigarette packet. ‘How about driving it back to London?’ She was wearing a negligee now. ‘I will buy you new camera equipment and you can do all your photography on the
It was a beautiful day in Istanbul – he and Helga – she never corrected him so he assumed that it was her name – had a nice lunch at the hotel and then packed for the long drive the next morning. Everything seemed perfect – she had even apologized for disturbing his life by holding him hostage and then thanked him for saving her life. But she never said who she was and how she summoned the Bentley or that aircraft. Everytime he prodded her, she would put a delicate finger to her mouth and say, ‘Shhhhh.’He didn’t really mind, as long as he was not arrested and send to prison back home for assisting some Russian spying on NATO, but now she seemed to trust him and he didn’t have a problem playing along. Except for the fact that she wouldn’t let him smoke. Before or after lunch... before and after anything!
The drive back was pleasant. There were no cars chasing them, and there was no one shooting at them. Bulgaria disappeared in a hurry thanks to the 550 bhp V12. They would stop only at fuel stations and now, she was paying for the fuel which added to his comfort. In the night, they slept at not so prominent – she insisted – motels. He didn’t care a wee bit as long as she went back to wearing just the bandage.Helga was stunning at border crossings – she would lower the window, mutter a few words and show an ID card. And bam, the stop signs would rise and the Maybach would roll on. He took pictures when he liked, already counting the money he could collect from publishers – not many would have photographed the Maybach in the Eastern block countries and may be he could even write a story or two. He knew the editors wouldn’t mind breaking their backs making his stories print-worthy.
The car was magnificent on eastern European expressways – he would accelerate fast and show off its ability to do 100 kph in a mere 5.4 seconds. Helga was impressed with his driving and the Maybach was complimenting it by connecting towns the way only a genuine 250 kph car could. And yes, despite all the mystery he was growing fond of Helga. She would make a perfect partner… as long as no one was chasing her in fast cars, he thought, as they entered Bucharest. It was his first time in this part of the world. He received a message from Goodwood that the Phantom had arrived and that they were ‘slightly amused’ by the mileage. But the PR team was, in all probability, relieved. He made a mental note to send a cake once he returned to London. A brief stop at the capital and another stunning day of driving in Romania ensued.
They stopped at Timisoara for the night. The hotel was a relic from the revolution days but he loved the red velvet décor and corridors that smelt of disinfectant. He didn’t care as long as Helga was around. He was well and truly in love. Next to the Marlboro Lights was a piece of paper, weighed down by three bundles of dollar bills. It said, ‘the Maybach belongs to Daimler as you know – you can drop it off in London. You will have to arrange for travel documents before you cross any more borders. Thank you for saving my life.’ Helga was not in sight, and he thought he heard the rotor blades of a chopper outside. He didn’t bother getting up to check. He took a cigarette and lit it. Life was normal again.