“Jeannie! How lovely to hear from you. Where are you?”
“I am on the motorway. I'm finally coming down to see you at last! I hope it's alright at such short notice.”
Jeannie Powell had not seen her mother for nearly two years, not since before the Coronavirus pandemic had hit. The last eighteen months had been difficult. Her mum, Harriet, was just over eighty years old, and, whilst of sound mind, she suffered from arthritis. At times, it left her almost paralysed, but she always looked forwards to regular visits from her daughter.
At forty-seven, Jeannie was a successful financier. She was not a millionaire by any means but was comfortably off. Since her divorce, she had been forced to take care of herself and had achieved that. It had been hard work, but she had always made time for her mum.
“That will be lovely, sweetheart! I have missed you so much. It seems like forever since I last saw you. I do so wish you lived nearer. When do you expect to get here?”
“Well, the traffic is heavy, so many lorries, but it is moving steadily. The SatNav reckons about...” Jeannie looked down at the screen in the centre of the console. “About six... Aaagh!”
She screamed as the black Range Rover appeared suddenly from between two lorries. Moving more slowly than her seventy miles per hour, it veered across into her lane and struck the front corner of her Mercedes.
She hit the brakes and swung the wheel, but it was too late. The impact sent her car spinning into the concrete barrier between the two carriageways and flipped it onto its roof.
As the wrecked Mercedes slid across the road, it was struck by another car and then a lorry before coming to rest, upside down, in the centre lane.
It was a scene of utter carnage. The motorway was at a standstill with wreckage strewn across all three lanes. Jeannie's Mercedes was unrecognisable, a crumpled piece of steel wedged between two lorries.
The emergency services arrived within a few minutes. It was a miracle that Jeannie was alive, they said. For two hours, the paramedics struggled to take care of her. All the time whilst the firemen worked tirelessly to free her mangled body from the wreckage.
Whilst they worked, two police officers examined the scene.
“Have you spoken to any witnesses yet?” one asked the other.
“Yes,” came the reply. “It's an odd one. Apparently, an SUV drove from between two lorries and clipped the front of the Mercedes, causing it to lose control.”
The other frowned.
“I wouldn't call that odd,” he replied. “We have seen that happen many times, although not necessarily causing an accident of this magnitude.”
“Yes, I know,” the first one countered, “But that's not the strange bit. There was a woman at the scene who kept repeating that it was all her fault. She had taken her eyes off the ball for a moment and hadn't seen it coming.”
The second traffic officer shook his head.
“Still not unusual,” he said. “Where is this person now?”
“I don't know. That's just it, nobody has seen her since, and there is no sign of the offending vehicle either.”
“Hmm, alright, that is odd. I'll get the Highways Agency to check the camera footage. What did this woman look like.”
The reply he got surprised him.
“Witnesses described her as being tall with long blond hair and wearing a white, knee-length dress. I have already contacted the control room. They say that the accident was caught on several cameras.”
“Okay, so we should be able to identify her, then.”
The first policeman shook his head.
“There was no sign of anyone matching her description anywhere. More to the point, the offending vehicle didn't stop and, it is registered to a man from Bristol.”
The second officer was still not fazed.
“Well, that should be easy enough. Avon and Somerset can deal with him.”
“Not that easy,” replied the first. “It was reported stolen this morning!”
The emergency services finally pulled Jeannie from the twisted ruins of her car and laid her gently onto a trolley. Connected to a plethora of tubes and airlines, strapped into braces and inflated splints, she was totally unaware of the care and attention she was receiving. In her unconscious state, it would be as though none of this had happened to her.
Lights flashing and siren wailing, the ambulance sped off along the now deserted carriageway, taking her to the nearest hospital.
Thirty minutes later, Jeannie Powell was in the operating theatre. Her injuries were so severe that she was taken directly there from the ambulance.
The surgeons worked non-stop. Twice her heart stopped, and twice she was revived.
Unknown to them, however, they were being watched from above. In the viewing gallery were two figures. A man and a woman. He, dressed in a smart black suit, and she, in a white, knee-length dress.
“It wasn't my fault,” she said to him. “I was distracted, just for a moment. I should have known, I should have been aware of what would happen.”
The man laughed.
“Your fault?” he sneered. “Oh no, this mess is down to me. I caused that accident, and if we don't sort it out, and quickly, we are both in big trouble!”
As they talked, the chief surgeon suddenly stopped what he was doing, as though he was listening to something. He looked up at the empty gallery, frowned, shrugged, and continued in his efforts to repair Jeannie's horrific injuries.
It took them almost twelve hours of continuous struggle, but they never faltered. Jeannie was stable but still critical as the orderlies wheeled her to a room in the intensive care unit.
When they arrived, the room was already occupied. As the orderlies pushed her through the door, a frail figure pushed herself painfully from the chair in which she was sitting.
“Jeannie, oh my love. Thank the Lord.”
Harriet Powell wanted to embrace her, but she could see that was not possible. Instead, she looked at the nurse who had accompanied her daughter from theatre.
“Will she be alright?” she asked, brushing the tears from her eyes with gnarled fingers.
The nurse was somewhat non-committal.
“It is too soon to say, I'm afraid. I would put her chances at fifty-fifty at the very best.”
She spoke softly, knowing only too well the pain that this elderly lady was feeling.
“Stay with her, talk to her. If you need anything, just press the call button and someone will come.”
The nurse noted the readings from the monitor. She then placed the file into a box on the end of the bed.
“Is there anyone who can sit with you?” she asked.
Harriet shook her head.
“No," she said sadly.” Jeannie is all I have.”
Hour after hour, Harriet sat beside her daughter, talking to her about anything she could think of. She spoke of the good times, of when her father was alive, and of their holidays together. She spoke of Jeannie's childhood and the friends she used to play with. The birthday parties they all enjoyed, and Christmas. Such a special time for them. Some things would never change.
As she chattered, two people stood by the door, watching her every move.
“I have to make this right,” the woman in the white, knee-length dress remarked. The man in the black suit sneered.
“Listen,” he said to her. “We both messed up. I have to take someone back, and it might as well be her.”
The woman shook her head.
“Oh no, I don't think so. It is my job to protect her. I almost blew it, certainly, but you are not going to make up for your mistake by dropping me in it! Have you any idea how much trouble I will be if I lose one early?”
The man laughed aloud.
“Oh please! Spare me the sob story! What do you think He will do to me if he finds out that I missed one? And not only missed one but one that was taking the down elevator.”
“Well, that's not my problem, is it? You are not sending one of mine down into the depths when she doesn't deserve it. Especially when her time isn't up! I mean, where do you get off on stopping her heart like that anyway. Did you think I wouldn't notice? Not even once, but twice!”
She thought for a moment.
“Where is yours now?” she asked. “Shouldn't you be out looking before another one is taken out before their time?”
The man sighed.
“Yes, I suppose so.” He turned away but then looked back. “I'll tell you this, though. If I can't take him with me, I'm coming back for yours. You should have taken more care!”
Then, the woman in the white, knee-length dress was alone. She looked through the door to the room where Jeannie was laying. The only sound was the constant beeping of the monitor.
Suddenly, she realised that Harriet was looking at her. The elderly woman beckoned her inside.
“You can see me?” she asked as she stepped inside.
Harriet nodded and said, “Yes, and hear you. I know who you are. You had something to do with this.”
The woman sat down on another chair.
“I'm so sorry,” she said. “I was distracted for a minute. I didn't see it coming. My name is ...”
“Gabrielle. Yes, I know. You are her Guardian Angel... or supposed to be.”
Gabrielle stared at Harriet.
“But how do you know this? How is it that you can see me?”
“My final days are near. The closer I get to my departure, the more I can see. I can tell that you are new to this, or you would not have let that happen.” She looked over to her daughter, whose breathing was steady, aided by a machine pumping oxygen into her lungs.
“Who were you talking to just now?”
“You couldn't see him?”
Harriet shook her head.
“I only saw you, but I saw that you were talking to someone. Were you talking about Jeannie? I only heard some of what you said, but I think that you were trying to protect her from whoever it was.”
“Yes. Yes, I was. That was Michael. He's a dispatcher. All this came about because he missed the soul he was intending to collect. The accident was supposed to have killed his target so that he could send him to Hell. If I had been watching Jeannie as well as I should, the SUV would have missed her car and he would have hit the concrete barrier instead. Now, Michael wants to take the easy option and take Jeannie back with him instead.”
The colour drained from Harriet's face.
“He can't do that! Jeannie hasn't done anything wrong! That poor girl has more love in her little finger than most people have in their whole bodies. She wouldn't hurt a fly. She is the kindest, sweetest person you could ever wish to meet!”
Gabrielle took the old lady's hand.
“Yes, I know that. That is why I was assigned to look after your daughter. This is all my fault, not hers. I will do all I can to protect her...”
Her voice trailed off.
“I sense a but.”
Gabrielle looked down at the floor and then at Harriet.
“Michael is stronger and more devious than me. Did the nurse tell you that Jeannie's heart stopped twice during the surgery and that they managed to save her?”
“That was him!” Gabrielle continued. “I saw what he did and stopped him. I can't leave Jeannie's side until he backs off. Whilst Jeannie is weak, he can take her easily.”
For the next hour or so, the room was silent, save for the regular beeping of the monitor. Gabrielle remained silently standing beside the chair upon which Harriet sat. Suddenly, the peace was shattered by the screaming of the alarm. A nurse appeared and quickly pressed the call button for the crash team.
“What's going on?” Harriet asked. Panic was setting in as she moved out of the way.
The nurses ignored her as one called out,
“Blood pressure dropping, heart rate low, pulse weak. BP Sixty-five over Forty, heart-rate thirty-eight.”
Harriet didn't understand any of it. The nurses and a doctor were calling out instructions and numbers. Just as one of them inserted a needle into Jeannie's arm, she saw Gabrielle raise her arm, palm outwards.
The alarms on the monitor stopped, and the almost straight lines on the screen began to jump once more.
“She is stable, again, Mrs Powell.” One of the nurses spoke gently to Harriet. “As I said earlier, the injuries your daughter received we so severe that we can only hope that she pulls through. She is strong, and her will to live is great. She is fighting hard, but only time will give us the answers we need. Is there anything I can get you?”
Harriet shook her head, too tired to say anything. The worry was killing her.
Michael laughed as he stood in the doorway.
“Next time!” he said with a wide grin.
“I take it that you lost yours, then?” Gabrielle asked.
“Nope. I know where he is. The Police arrested him near Portishead. I can't take him yet, but his days are numbered.”
She shook her head in despair.
“So you will miss your quota for the day. Well, forget it, you are not taking her!” she hissed.
Michael shook his head.
“Look, if it makes you feel any better, I'll send her upstairs. She was supposed to be going that way anyway.”
Gabrielle pushed him backwards, the palm of her hand striking square in the chest.
“You are not going to send her anywhere! If I lose her, I will not be given another one to look after, got it?”
“Then you should have been more careful with this one then, shouldn't you?” Michael sneered.
Suddenly, he leaned forward and hissed into Gabrielle's ear.
“Listen to me! You are a trainee. I have worked hard to become a dispatcher. If I don't fulfil my quota, I'm back in Purgatory, listening to all those whiny souls trying to convince me to let them go up! Well, let me tell you, that is not going to happen!”
He straightened up and stretched out his arm. The pinging of the monitor increased.
Gabrielle banged her fist down onto his arm and pushed him again. He stepped backwards. Behind her, the monitor returned to its regular rhythm.
“Go and find another victim!” she hissed in his face. “One whose time is up! Leave Jeannie alone!”
Michael glared at her.
“I shall have my soul before this day is through!” he growled, turned on his heel and disappeared.
Peace returned once more.
The seconds, the minutes, and even the hours ticked away. Harriet looked at the clock on the wall above the door. Eleven-thirty. Another day was almost over, and she was exhausted. She leaned forwards and rested her head upon her daughter's arm.
The sound was almost indiscernible, but she looked up. Jeannie was looking down at her.
“Jeannie!” she whispered, “My Darling, Oh, My Darling.”
Jeannie raised her arm and put her hand into that of her mother.
The tears flowed down Harriet's cheeks.
“I thought I was going to lose you,” she whispered between sobs.
“I'll be okay, Mum,” Jeannie assured her.
Harriet leaned forwards once more, her heart pounding.
Gabrielle sighed and smiled. She had done her job and saved her soul from the dispatcher.
Suddenly, her reverie was shattered by the sound of laughter. She spun around to see the man in the black suit. Harriet was beside him.
“Michael! You son of a...!”
“Oh, don't be such a cry baby! You got your way. I didn't take your soul! This one was due soon anyway, so we are all happy, aren't we?”
He turned to walk away but then stopped and turned back.
“Oh, don't worry, by the way. I'll put her on the up escalator.”
At that moment, an alarm sounded. Gabrielle spun around to see a hive of activity. The crash team were trying their best to revive their patient, and she could do nothing but watch. Harriet had already gone.
When she was strong enough, Jeannie was told that her mother had passed away. She had not been strong enough to cope with the strain of what had happened, They assured her that she had passed peacefully and that she had known that Jeannie had survived.
“Alpha-Tango Five-One, control. In pursuit of a stolen Ford Mondeo, whiskey-kilo, six-five, alpha-tango-charlie. Southbound M5. Traffic light, low risk.”
The two cars sped along the almost empty motorway in the early hours of the morning. Mile after mile, at speeds of up to one hundred and thirty miles per hour.
Suddenly, without warning, the front nearside tyre of the Mondeo exploded, causing the car to lurch to the left. At that speed, the driver was taken utterly by surprise. The car slewed across the carriageway and collided with an overhead gantry support. With an impact speed of some ninety miles per hour, the occupant didn't stand a chance. The car seemed to explode upon impact, and shards of steel, glass and plastic were strewn over the motorway.
Later, after the incident had been cleared away, two police officers sat in their car. From their position beside the carriageway, they could see the workers making the gantry safe.
“I wonder what caused his tyre to blow like that,” one asked.
His partner shrugged.
“Who knows. Could have been anything. Puncture, perhaps, or just the strain of the chase.”
There was a moment of silent thought, and then,
“Who was that man standing by the wreck?”
“Man? What man?”
“Didn't you see him? Tall bloke, smart, black suit. Very business-like. Seemed to be grinning.”
His partner shrugged again.
“Nope, didn't see anyone like that. I only saw the emergency crews.”
The first officer also shrugged.
“Oh well, never mind. Still, that idiot won't be stealing any more cars. Do you remember him?”
“Now you mention it, yes. Wasn't he the one we arrested a couple of years ago? The one who stole a Range Rover and nearly killed that woman. Just about here, in fact, if I remember correctly.”
“That's him. It was only a matter of time.”