Category Archives: highway robbery

THE SET-UP

I came across this story a few weeks ago while having a clear-out in a cupboard. It was some 40 years ago in the 1970s when I wrote this as part of a writing course – a course that I never completed. I got a good feedback from my tutor on this with suggestions as to where to get it published but I don’t think I ever did anything with it. I have transcribed it here verbatim and just wonder how something like this would be accepted now. I suspect it would be lucky to even get onto a desk.

There are a number of places in the piece that made me squirm and cringe but I thought it worth posting as a ‘now’ and ‘then’ or a ‘compare’ and ‘contrast’ piece. Here goes:

It was a cold, wet and windy winter evening; the sort that made driving a bit of a bind. Most of my day had been spent at meetings in the Midlands, the last finishing about 6.30. I had been driving for about an hour since then when I reached the M1 which led south.

Standing on the side of the slip road was a small, bedraggled figure in a parka. After an hour’s driving it was warm in the car and I felt sorry for anyone out in that weather. I stopped and the figure climbed in and settled in the seat. As I pulled into the traffic the figure spoke.

‘Thanks’ it said

It was then that I realised I had picked up a girl.

‘Where are you heading?’ I asked.

‘London. And you?

‘Hertfordshire, so I can take you a fair way.’

‘Good,’ she said, and lapsed into silence.

Conversation spluttered along fitfully for a while. The girl was obviously warming through. She settled back more comfortably in her seat and undid her parka. I could sense her looking around the car. After a while she spoke.

‘Nice car. Is it your own?’

‘Yes’ I replied. ‘I haven’t had it long.’

‘I should think it is a pretty expensive motor’; she mused – almost to herself. When I did not answer she asked a direct question:

‘Is it really yours? I would have thought that a car like this would be a company car.’

‘Well, I suppose it is in one way,’ I laughed. ‘It’s my company so I think of it as my car as well.’

‘Oh, what sort of company is it? Something exciting?’

‘Can be; depends how you look at it. It’s electronics so some would think it’s exciting. I certainly find it interesting.’

She lapsed into silence again for a few minutes.

‘I supposed you’re married.” She came to life with a little laugh.

“ ‘Fraid so,” I replied, returning the laugh. “Married and a couple of kids’.

“Oh well,” she said, “can’t win them all.”

“What about you?” I asked. ‘What do you do with yourself?”

‘I’m a student. Studying at Art College. Like everyone there I’m hard up so I’m going home for the weekend. I finished classes at lunchtime and I’ve been hitching a lift since.’

‘How long had you been waiting on the slip-road then?’ I queried.

‘Oh; about an hour.’

We were passing a sign proclaiming ‘Services one mile’.

‘Fancy a coffee?’

‘Please’. Her voice almost sounded excited at the thought of motorway coffee.

I pulled into the services carpark. We ran across to the cafeteria to get out of the rain as quickly as possible. The cafeteria was nearly empty.

‘Hungry?’ I asked.

‘Mmmm,’ she nodded.

‘I’ll get some sandwiches or something to go with the coffee; you find a seat.’

I went off to collect the food. A couple of minutes later I was back with the coffees, some sandwiches and cakes. The girl had found a table in the corner that had been cleared. She had taken her parka off and thrown it on a chair. Underneath she had a bright red anorak which was undone showing a yellow sweater. Black slacks were stuffed into the tops of worn furry boots. Her hair was a darkish blonde and cut short, framing a fresh, quite attractive face. I put her age at early twenties – perhaps 21 or 22.

She smiled as I arrived and immediately attacked the sandwiches as if she hadn’t eaten all day. Perhaps she hadn’t. In the act of munching her second sandwich she leant forward as if to say something. She never said it as, in leading forward, she managed to knock over one of the coffee cups. With a clatter it fell on to the floor and broke. As she had tried to catch it she knocked the plate with her sandwiches on down as well.

One of the staff was close by clearing a table and came over with a trolley to pick up the pieces. The girl was very apologetic and must have said sorry to me and the cleaner at least half a dozen times before we convinced her that it didn’t matter. Accidents happen.

I went and fetched another coffee and we finished the snack with no more mishaps. We got up to go and the girl took a round-about route to say “Sorry” and “Thank you” to the woman that had cleaned up the wreckage and the Supervisor who had been hovering around.

With her parka thrown over her head we ran back to the car, which was still warm. She threw the parka into the back of the car, took of her anorak and settled into her seat. I checked the fuel guage, plenty left, and set off on the final lap.

We must have been travelling for five minutes or so and the girl had not spoken a word since leaving the services. Then she stretched and asked quietly and confidently: “How much will you pay me not to say you attacked me and tried to rape me?”

For a moment her question stunned me. Finally I found my voice and managed … “What did you say?”

I said ‘How much will you pay me not to say you attacked me and tried to rape me?’” She went on: “I would have thought it must be worth at least £1,000.’

My mind was in turmoil. I finally forced myself to respond. “You’re mad!”

“I’m not. But you will be if you think I am bluffing.”  Her voice had changed. It was harder now, and confident. “You think about it. Who would they believe? You or me? You, the man in the flashy car who picks up a woman on the motorway or me, the small defenceless student trying to save money and get home for a quiet weekend with her parents? Even if they did believe you there would always be doubts in people’s minds. Your family; your friends; your business colleagues. They would all have that thought – did you try it?

“No mister. If you don’t pay you’re finished. Just you think about it.”

I did. I thought hard. I drove on in a daze. She was right. The dice were loaded against me. Whatever I did, I lost. I stood to lose anything from £1,000 to the whole of my life as I knew it. I slowed down. No sense in hurrying along the motorway. The sooner I reached the end, the sooner I had to face the facts. I needed time to think.

“OK” I finally managed. “It seems you have me. Have you done this before?”

“Yeah; and they usually pay up.”

“I expect so. Why do you do it?’

Her voice was flat and factual: “The money. It pays well.”

Having her talk was better than driving along in silence, brooding over the problem I had. In any case, hope springs eternal and I had the vain, forlorn hope that she might be kidding and that it would all come out right in the end. Because of this, and because I was also intrigued, despite my position, I asked: “Do you normally go about it this way?”

She was obviously proud of her cleverness and started to talk. It was quite easy really. It was always on a motorway and in the dark. She always selected a car: vans and trucks were no good. The claim for cash was always pitched at the level she thought was best for the driver. That’s why she always had the conversation that we had before the stop. For some the figure was £50. The most she had ever got was £2,000. It seemed I was in the upper level of the claims.

Apart from the motorway and the darkness, a vital ingredient was the stop for coffee. If the driver did not suggest it, then she did. Having made the stop, she made sure that she drew attention to herself and the man. The bright colours of her anorak and sweater were not an accident. Nor was the coffee.

“Remember the coffee?’ she asked. ‘That woman, and her Supervisor, would remember the mess, and remember us. I made sure of that.’

All she then had to do was wait until they were back in the car and past the next junction. That gave a place where she could claim the driver had pulled off the motorway. He could not stop on the motorway but she could not stop him pulling off down some deserted country lane, could she?’

It all made frighteningly logical sense. She had thought it through carefully and I could not find one flaw through which I could escape.

“What would happen if I refused to pay: if I just stopped the car and threw you out?” I thought I could guess the answer but I had to ask.

“Oh I just mess up my hair a bit. I’ve a blose under this sweater. I’d tear a couple of buttons off – it doesn’t take much for a girl to look as if she has been in a struggle. Some kindly motorist would stop and take me to a police station. With your car number they would soon track you down – by the way I have already made a note of yours. If it did come to a court case a few tears, some demure clothes and a little-girl-lost look would get everyone on my side.”

She really had got every angle well thought out. While she had been talking I had been racking my brain, trying to think of a way out of the trap – I couldn’t. My turn off was coming up soon – what could I do.

I rarely smoked while driving but I had gone through two cigarettes while she had been talking. The packet was now empty. I rummaged through my pockets to find another packet. There wasn’t one, but in my right-hand pocket was a small dictating machine. As my hand closed over it a last ditch idea came to me.

Just for something to say I muttered: “‘It looks as if I’m well and truly set up.”

As I said this I switched the tape in my pocket to re-wind. I took it out and laid it on my lap. I gave it a few seconds to rewind then picked it up with my left hand. As I picked it up I switched it to record, and with a prayer that there was a tape in it, and the volume was turned up loud enough, I laid it on the console between us.

I said, “I’ve no cigarettes left.” It was dark in the car and I hoped she would think it was an empty cigarette packet that I was putting down, if she noticed anything at all in the darkness of the car. Having achieved that with no reaction from her at all, I added: “So it’s all a set-up is it?”

“Yes it is,” she retorted, “and you’re the one that’s set up good and proper.”

“I don’t have £1,000 in cash with me. I assume you will accept a cheque for that amount?”

“Yes; made out to cash please.”

“Aren’t you afraid I would stop the cheque?”

“You wouldn’t dare” she said. “If you did I would say it was hush money. You attacked me and then tried to buy my silence. It won’t work so don’t try it.”

We had reached my turn-off.

“No, I don’t think I will try that,” I said. “I think we’ll just drive into the nearest police station and see what they have to say about it all.”

For a moment she was speechless and my stomach was trying to tie itself in knots. The she found her voice.

“You’re crazy. Haven’t you understood your position? When I tell them you tried to rape me you’ll be finished. My story will ruin you.”

I reached for the tape recorder. This was it. I stopped it and wound it back. While I was doing this I said to her: “I don’t think so. I think it’s rather a case of your story ruining you.”

I switched on the recorder and tuned up the volume. For what seemed an age nothing happened and then we heard my voice asking: “So it’s all a set-up is it?”

“Yes it is and you’re the one that’s set up good and proper,” her voice replied.

It was not hi-fi but both voices were recognisable. I switched the recorder off. “The whole of our conversation is on here,” I told her. “I think the police will find it very interesting listening.”

“Don’t do that, it was only a joke.” Her voice had lost all its’ earlier confidence. She sounded frightened now. “I’ve never done it before. Let me out and we’ll call it quits. Please mister.” She was pleading now like condemned prisoners must plead for their life.

“Please mister, let me out. I won’t say nothing – to anyone.”

We came to an exit and I pulled off the motorway and stopped. She grabbed her anorak and parka and literally tumbled out of the car.

As she fell out I reminded her: “Don’t forget. I have it all on this tape.”

Just in case, I switched my lights off and drove round the exit roundabout. I didn’t want to risk her seeing my number plate – she may have been lying earlier.

My legs were shaking as I drove along, my lights on again. That had been nasty. I switched the tape recorder on again.

“I don’t have £1,000 in cash …..” my voice stopped. That was all there was on the tape – nothing else. The tape had run out. I had played just enough to frighten her and had luckily turned it off before my bluff was exposed.

If the bluff had been exposed I would have had to pay. My wife, Helen, thought I was on my way to Scotland for a meeting, and not the sort of meeting I was planning in the house just along this road.

I hoped Jennifer had some brandy in the House!

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